To get more than five combat-grade operatives in one room was rare. Unless we were about to battle an army, which so far had happened only once, one or two soldiers were sufficient. I was looking at twelve of them. Ten combat operatives, two renders, plus Barabas and Jim. Six feet two inches tall, one hundred ninety pounds of steel-hard muscle, Jim wore black accented with the kind of stare that made people run for cover. His skin was dark, his black hair was cut short, and he was built like he could go through solid walls. You knew that if he punched you, something inside you would break. Being a werejaguar on top of all that was just a bonus.
“What, no Rambo?”
Jim scowled at me. Usually when he scowled at people, they made a small squeaky noise and tried to look small and nonthreatening. Fortunately, I managed to scrape together enough valor and not faint.
“You keep doing that, your face will get stuck that way.”
“Will you take this seriously?” he growled.
“Okay.” I surveyed the crew of vicious killers. “Let me guess: an elite unit of commandos from some evil empire invaded Bernard’s Restaurant and fortified it. Now it’s trying to secede from Atlanta and the city asked us to take it back?”
Nobody laughed. I must be getting rusty.
Jim scowled harder. Wow. I didn’t think that was possible. Showed what I knew.
“Don’t you think this is overkill?” I asked.
Ask a stupid question . . . “Jim, there is enough manpower here to destroy a small country.”
“Don’t you think it will communicate that we’re scared of the People?”
“It will communicate that if they even think about starting some shit, we’ll rip them into bite-sized pieces.”
I looked at the red-haired render in the front. His name was Myles Kingsbury and he was built to break bones: broad shoulders, hard chest, lean waist, and a calm look in his eyes. Myles was my age and the few times we spoke, he struck me as competent and sensible.
“Mr. Kingsbury, what do you think?”
The render opened his mouth and said in a deep voice, “I think it communicates that we won’t hesitate to take the initiative to be decisively aggressive.”
I closed my eyes for a second and exhaled. “Jim, if I were Curran, would you saddle me with this many bodyguards?”
Well, at least I could still count on the no-bullshit answer from him. “So you agree that being heavily guarded is making me appear weak?”
“Yes. However, it makes the Pack appear strong. I’m not inclined to gamble with your safety. And”—he held up his hand—“I’d make Curran have a guard as well, if that stubborn bastard wouldn’t overrule me.”
I looked at Barabas. “Do I have the power to overrule him?”
“Yep,” Barabas said.
Jim gave Barabas his hard stare.
Barabas shrugged. “Do you want me to lie?”
Jim turned to me. “If I could have a moment of your time, Consort?”
Oh, it’s “Consort” now, huh. “Sure, Chief of Security. I’d be delighted.”
Normally walking a few feet was sufficient to get out of earshot, but everyone in the Keep enjoyed the awesome benefits of enhanced hearing. Jim and I marched fifty yards down the hallway.
“We’re at less than half of our normal strength,” Jim said. “Curran is away from the Keep. Whether accurate or not, you are viewed as much less of a threat than he is. If I were planning something, I’d hit us now and I’d hit us where it hurt.”
I kept my voice low. “This spy-on-the-Council thing is really getting under your skin.”
He inhaled slowly and looked at me. “Are you trying to say I’ve lost my perspective?”
“Maybe a little.”
He bent closer to me. His voice shook slightly, not with fear but with controlled concentrated anger. “Three months. Sixteen of my best people. Over a thousand hours of surveillance. I have nothing to show for it. Nothing. We have a mole and I have no idea who it is.”
Curran was so much better at this shit than I was. “Do you remember the hydra?”
It happened years ago, in my first year in the Guild. We’d had a hell of a winter, and while I was trying to figure out how to stay warm in my old house, a coven of amateur witches near Franklin was throwing odd things into a giant pot. I didn’t know what the hell they had been hoping to cook up, but what came out of the pot became known as the Franklin Hydra. It wasn’t a classic dragon with many heads. It was something tentacled, with spikes and mouths with shark teeth in places mouths shouldn’t be. It ate the witches and slipped into the frozen depths of Lake Emory. Under the ice, it turned the lake into sludge and ate anything that came close. The town asked for assistance and allocated some funds. Two weeks later twenty mercs and a National Guard unit walked out onto the ice. It broke under us. Four people survived.
I shouldn’t have been one of those four. I fell through the ice into the sludge up to my chest and kept sinking while spiked tentacles slithered around me. I knew I was done, and then some merc I didn’t know slid across the ice to me and tossed a belt my way. It fell out of my reach.
If I thrashed, the tentacles would tighten and pull me under. So I inched forward, one painful centimeter every few seconds.
“Do you remember what you said to me?” I asked.
“You said, ‘Don’t tense up. No sudden movements. Take it nice and slow.’”
He looked at me without any expression. Bull’s-eye. Score one for me.
“Bernard’s is neutral territory where no weapons are permitted, including vampires.” And my sword, about which I wasn’t happy. “The People will come to this meeting unarmed. Our people are always armed, because they can turn at a moment’s notice. Bringing this many combat-trained shapeshifters could be perceived as a threat. With the alphas from the other Clans, we will outnumber the People two to one.”
I nodded at the posse of biological weapons arranged for my inspection. “This is a sudden move. You’re escalating things. The People will feel pressure to retaliate. It will make diplomatic relations a lot harder.”
Jim chewed it over. “Fair enough. However . . .”
I was beginning to really hate that word.
“I have intelligence that indicates that the People bought one of the buildings next to Bernard’s and set up a command center inside. Tonight it will hold several journeymen and at least six vampires. You know what six vampires can do.”