“She could pass the torch and finally let go. There is no shame in being killed by one of your own bloodline. The night before you fought, she called me.” His eyes clouded. “She wanted to talk about the Water Gardens. In the palace where we grew up, there had been water gardens, acres and acres of shallow water, crossed by narrow pathways. It was a beautiful place, of sand and warm water, where flowers bloomed and small fishes darted back and forth. We used to splash through it for hours. My fondest memories had been born there. I knew when she spoke of it, I wouldn’t see her again. I felt the moment she surrendered her life and then I understood that you were still alive. She was the City Eater. You must’ve realized her death came too easily.”
I nearly choked.
Roland sighed. “I suppose we should return to the business at hand. You can’t fight me. I can sear the walls of this Keep until they melt with everyone inside it. In a day, everything you’ve built and everyone you serve will be gone. The city will do nothing about it, for such is the nature of human prejudice.”
“He won’t do it,” I told Curran. “When he decides to do away with us, he’ll do something elaborate, like send us magic seeds, which will sprout beautiful flowers with poisonous pollen. The pollen will root through our veins, we’ll die in agony, but our corpses will be covered in gorgeous blooms. If he’s feeling like making a statement, the flowers will drip blood just for fun.”
Roland smiled. “Death should have a terrible beauty to it, don’t you think?”
“What is it you want from us?” I asked.
“I want to know you. You are precious to me, as your mother was before you. But I can’t let you lead the Pack.” He looked at Curran. “You alone are enough of a threat. The two of you together at the helm of that many shapeshifters is too clear a statement for me to ignore. You’ll be seen as actively opposing me.”
“And?” Curran asked.
Roland looked at me. “I want you to leave the Pack.”
My heartbeat sped up. Curran would never walk away from the Pack. He was the Beast Lord. He’d hammered it together; he gave it laws and structure, he lived and breathed it. The shapeshifters were his people. If I stayed with him, I would be Consort, even if I refused to have anything to do with the Pack. It would never work and my father knew it. The only way I could step down would be to leave Curran.
“In return, I’ll let you keep your claimed territory,” Roland said. “And your city.”
“Not good enough,” Curran said.
He was actually thinking about it. It made sense. We would avoid a bloody war. We could keep so many lives safe . . .
“Very well, let’s put a number on it. I promise to take no direct action personally, nor instruct my people to take any action against anyone within the territory my daughter has claimed, for the next hundred years. Should any of my people challenge you, they would do so without my permission and incur my wrath. I will, however, keep the installation of the People in Atlanta and their business will proceed as usual.”
My mind started working. “I want more. I want you to promise that neither you nor your people acting on your orders will ever harm Curran or Julie, in my territory or outside of it.”
“I’m being rather generous. It’s already a good trade,” Roland said to me. “You wish to protect your people. I’m the biggest threat you face. Eliminate me as a danger. If you refuse, blossom of my heart, I will come to Atlanta and I will bring fire and ruin to it. I will purge the Keep the way I purged Omaha.”
The earthquakes of Omaha had killed thousands. But they had always been viewed as a freak cataclysm brought on by a flare, a massive magic wave.
“You . . . ?”
“There was a Native power that chose to oppose me,” Roland said. “I didn’t strike the first blow. I merely retaliated. Is that disturbing to you?”
“You will understand eventually. No challenge, no matter how insignificant, can be left unanswered. Even a cry in the wilderness must be acknowledged, because someone might have heard it.” Roland smiled. “I’m fortunate you survived. It will be so interesting to watch you grow. We have nothing but time on our hands.”
“You’re telling me to give up the man I love,” I said.
“I can’t say I approve of your choice. He’s powerful, but also paranoid and xenophobic. He will be difficult to bend.”
“Oh that’s rich,” Curran said.
I unclenched my teeth. “I can go years without worrying if you approve of me. And I have no interest in bending him. I like him the way he is. You have no right to comment on my relationships.”
“I’m your father. That’s the great privilege of parenthood; we can comment on whatever we want.”
“I don’t want you to be my father.”
“Of course you do,” Roland said. “You want to be loved, just like all of us want to be loved by our parents. Don’t you want to know about your mother? What she was like? About our family?”
“Our family consists of monsters.”
“Yes. But we are great and powerful monsters. Love demands sacrifices. When you love something, the way you love your people, Blossom, you must pay for it. Besides, I’m not forcing you to leave him, only the position of power that comes with him.”
“How exactly does this get around me challenging you?”
“You claimed a territory. I made you step down in retaliation. This demonstrates to those who are watching that I have power over you and our relationship is much more complex than the simple rebellion of you against me.”
“You are incredibly powerful,” I told him. “But I’m your daughter. If you hurt Curran or Julie, I will hunt you. I will dedicate every waking moment of my life to killing you, and I will succeed. Maybe not now. Maybe in another century or two. But I will never give up. Your powers work half of the time, when the magic is up. My sword works always. Promise me, Father. Promise it.”
Roland looked at Curran. “So be it. But this is the last concession I’m willing to make.”
“We have a deal,” Curran said. My heart broke into small jagged pieces.
Roland smiled again. “I always gave my children what I thought they wanted. Usually they wanted power. I am giving you what you need instead. Consider it an early wedding gift.”