Oh boy, oh boy.
Two djigits brought out a rectangular frame covered with indigo fabric.
"We are standing within the boundaries of ancient Colchis," Hugh continued. "This is the cradle of Georgia itself. Long before the Common Era, a kingdom of warriors and poets flourished here. While inhabitants of Europe still struggled with crude implements of bronze, the sorcerer-smiths of Colchis mastered iron and gold. Today we pay tribute to their past glory."
Hibla stepped to the fabric and pulled it off with a flick of her hand.
Gold shone, glowing in the bright sunlight. People around me sucked in a breath. The pelt of a ram was stretched on the frame. Each individual six-inch-long hair of its dense wool shimmered with radiant yellow gold. Wow.
"I give you the Golden Fleece!" Hugh proclaimed.
Applause rippled through the clearing. Someone howled, excited.
"Like Jason's Argonauts, who came here seeking Colchis riches, all of you traveled here. But the riches you sought are of a different kind, the riches of wisdom and friendship. This is our gift to you. It is twelve o'clock now. You have three hours. Prove that you are the superior hunters. Prove your bravery and your skill. Hunt now and the pack that brings the best game for our feast tonight will earn bragging rights and the Golden Fleece."
The clearing shook as a hundred people cheered in unison. Excitement charged the air. They were a hair away from going furry. The prospect of a hunt after being cooped up in the castle pushed the shapeshifters into overdrive.
"And there is a second, more humble, but perhaps more useful prize."
Hibla raised a glass container. It held a plastic bag with a quart of the brownish paste in it. Panacea.
"It will be awarded to the shapeshifter who brings in the best kill."
Andrea's eyes lit up. She elbowed Raphael.
"Before I forget!" Hugh boomed. "Look to your left. You see that narrow pass between two mountains. Stay away from the pass. The creatures who live there do not welcome intruders. My people will go with yours as observers to ensure that you obey the rules of the hunt. Good luck to all!"
"The Golden Fleece will belong to Obluda!" Jarek Kral roared.
Desandra yanked her dress over her head.
"No!" I barked.
"I'm hunting," Desandra said.
"What will happen to the children when you change shape?"
"They will change shape as well," Lorelei told me with a small smile. "It's very common for shapeshifter women to change shape while pregnant. It relieves the stress on the spine. I'm surprised you don't know this."
I turned, looking for Doolittle. "Is this true?"
Doolittle nodded. "As long as she doesn't stay in the animal shape longer than a few hours and doesn't attempt a half-form, she shouldn't have an issue."
There was no way in hell I could keep up with a wolf. I turned to Curran.
"It will be fine," he said. "We'll take care of her."
What? "I thought you'd have my back on this."
"The human is too scared to stay behind alone." Renok, Jarek Kral's second-in-command, grinned at me. "Do you want some company?"
Curran turned and looked at him. I had to give Renok credit. He didn't flinch. Either very brave or very stupid. Possibly both.
"Surely the Beast Lord won't stay behind," Hugh said. "The alphas of all other packs are participating."
And now if he stayed behind, it would be a giant insult. The pieces clicked together in my head. Hugh was eager to chat, and he really wanted to have me all to himself. He couldn't segregate me in the castle, so he'd taken everyone out of it.
Curran looked back at me. "I know you're concerned for Desandra. That's why we'll all go and make sure nothing will happen to her." He paused, making sure our stares connected. His gray eyes were clear and calm. "We'll be back before you know it."
I was still looking at Curran's eyes when the face around them grew and changed. Gray fur sheathed him. An enormous gray lion stood in his place.
People froze. Some stared, slack-jawed. Some blinked. Curran in lion form was shocking.
"Consort?" he said, human words coming out perfectly from a lion's maw.
I had to say something. "Good luck."
He raised his head and roared, the sound of his voice scattering through the mountain. Shapeshifters cringed.
Hugh shook his head, stuck his finger in his ear, and wiggled it.
Lorelei shed her dress and stepped forward, completely nude, shoulders back, head held high. The nakedness lasted only a moment before her body boiled and a lean gray wolf dropped on all fours, but a moment was enough. Curran had seen her.
She was going to hunt with him, while I was stuck here. Damn it all to hell.
Our group surrounded Desandra. Her body swirled, stretching, the transformation so fast it was almost instant, and she became a huge black wolf.
All around me people shifted. Mahon, a hulking dark mountain of a Kodiak, snarled next to George, who wasn't much smaller. Keira roared, a lithe dark jaguar. Wolves, lynxes, and jackals filled the clearing. Was I the only nonshapeshifter here?
Curran charged down the slope. Our people and Desandra followed. Barabas halted, still human.
"Go," I told him. Having him with me wouldn't make that much difference, and Hugh would find some pretext to send him off.
Barabas's body jerked. A Rottweiler-sized weremongoose dashed down the slope after them.
Curran was off hunting with Lorelei. The thought stung me, refusing to go away. It shouldn't have bothered me, but it did. I didn't want him to go.
A pack of gray wolves ran left-Belve Ravennati leaving. Jarek's crew-wolves, bears, and a couple of rats-headed southeast, while the Volkodavi, sand-colored lynxes, shot to the right. In a breath the clearing was empty. Discarded clothes littered the ancient stones. Horses snorted in their enclosure. Everyone was gone.
"So," Hugh said. "You never told me. Did you like the flowers I sent?"
I turned and looked at Hugh. He sat on his throne, left arm bent, the elbow propped on the armrest, leaning his head on the curled fingers of his hand. Comfortable, are we?
I'd been anticipating this moment for most of my life. Now it was here and I had no clue what to do with it. Anxiety rushed through me in an icy flood. In my head I'd always imagined this meeting would involve bloody swords and stabbing. The lack of stabbing was deeply perplexing.
"Tell me, what do you do if there is no throne handy? Do you carry a portable model with you, or do you just commandeer whatever is handy, like lawn chairs and bar stools?"