“Me?” I was never a knight, more like an off-the-books employee.
“You were seen as an asset, and then you became a Consort, and the question was asked why that bridge wasn’t mended. Andrea came up. They spent a long time on that one.”
Damn right they did. I was never a knight, but Andrea was a decorated veteran and a master-at-arms, which was nothing to sneeze at, and they tossed her out like garbage when they found out she was a shapeshifter.
“The Order can’t afford to bleed masters-at-arms,” Mauro said. “It never sat right with me the way that was handled. It shouldn’t have ever come to that. There was no need to put her back against the wall the way Ted did. I respect her and her skills.”
Hard not to respect someone who can shoot you in the eye from a mile away. “She knows you had her back.”
“How is she doing?”
“She’s running Clan Bouda with Raphael. She has her hands full.” And Aunt B’s big shoes to fill, which wasn’t a job I’d wish on anybody.
“Good to know.” The big knight shifted in his chair. “After they got through with Andrea, they went straight to Shane Andersen and the Lighthouse Keepers.”
There was no way for Ted to come out smelling like roses on that one. One of his knights had proven to be a terrorist. If Ted knew, he was as guilty as Shane. If he didn’t, he was incompetent. “So what happened?”
“That’s the bad part. Nothing. They conducted their hearings and went back to HQ. Then came the time to rebuild the chapter with new personnel. We got completely new people in. The only ones left of the old crew, besides Ted, are me, Richter, and Maxine.”
Mauro was a good knight and Maxine, the Order’s telepathic secretary, was the backbone of the Atlanta chapter, but Richter was psychotic and a liability.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Mm-hm. The rest are . . . new.”
“Don’t like the new people?”
Mauro grimaced. “We are being staffed with people who are on their second or third chapter. Their command made no effort to keep them, because they didn’t distinguish themselves. Most of them made some mistakes. Some made a lot of mistakes.”
The light dawned. Since Ted was a knight-founder, well connected and probably vigorously defended, the Order’s High Command couldn’t force him out without some glaring evidence of his incompetence, so they staffed him with rejects. Either he would see the writing on the wall and retire or his new people would screw up so badly, it would give them grounds to remove him. Mauro didn’t want to be part of the screwup squad.
“Mauro, you’re a good knight. Any chapter would fight to get you.”
“Yeah. I like the city. It’s home. But yeah. Time to go.” He rose. “Thank you for the tea.”
“Thank you for saving the kids from trouble.”
“Any time.” He grinned. “Any time.”
I walked him out. It was almost five. I would lay into Julie and Ascanio after the Conclave. For now I had to get dressed, get my sword, and go make polite noises at the Masters of the Dead.
THE PACK JEEP rolled through the dusk-soaked streets. The other car, carrying my murder-prone honor guard, followed us. Jim drove. Barabas sat in the backseat.
Post-Shift Atlanta had many neighborhoods, some old, some new, born from the magic age. There was Honeycomb to the southwest, a place where “solid wall” was a relative term. In the southeast was the Warren, a rough dirt-poor neighborhood, policed by roving gangs preying on each other. And then there was Northside, where Atlanta’s wealthy used their money to hold the chaos of the ravaged city at bay.
Magic liked to nibble on the asphalt, but here the pavement felt smooth, the clean streets a far cry from the refuse and garbage-choked pathways of the Warren. Large houses, each sitting on its own acre-sized plot, stared at us with barred windows from behind iron fences topped with coils of barbed wire. Most houses were built post-Shift, no more than three stories tall, with thick walls, reinforced doors, and barred windows. Money bought security, land, and good masons.
The sun had set, and the moon claimed the sky, a huge, deep orange as if dipped in blood. The magic was down, but the city still held its breath, apprehensive and watchful. It was the kind of night when monsters came out to play.
Slayer, my saber, lay on my lap. I stroked the sheath. The saber went where I went, but tonight I would have to leave it behind. Bernard’s had a strict no-weapons policy. Without it, I felt naked.
“Who else is coming?” I asked. The Pack’s protocol called for the representatives of at least three clans to be present at each Conclave meeting. In the beginning, every alpha wanted to be included, but now we had trouble getting three to come. Jim served as the alpha of Clan Cat, so he counted as one. That left two more.
“Robert Lonesco and Jennifer,” Barabas said.
Robert Lonesco was married to Thomas, and together they ran Clan Rat. Jennifer headed Clan Wolf. She and I didn’t see eye to eye. First, I had to kill her sister after she had been driven loup by my aunt’s magic. Then her husband sacrificed himself to prevent a magic catastrophe, about which we had learned through my office. Jennifer blamed me for both. We had struck an uneasy truce, because we had to work together, but not killing each other was as pleasant as it got. Christopher’s warning popped up from my memory. When it came to the wolves I shouldn’t be trusting, she was definitely at the top of the list.
“Any challenges?” I asked. Jennifer had given birth over a month ago and her thirty-day reprieve from being challenged had run out last Wednesday.
“No,” Jim said.
Odd. “I thought Desandra would’ve gone after her by now.”
“So did I,” Jim said.
Like Christopher, Desandra was a rescue from our trip overseas. She was the daughter of the most powerful alpha in the Carpathian Mountains. He was a psychotic, cruel egomaniac, who built his pack out of nothing and ruled the entire region with steel claws, terrorizing his enemies, foreign and domestic. He had eleven children. Desandra was the only one who lived to adulthood and she did this by pretending to be a spoiled, petulant idiot. Her father was obsessed with finding an heir who’d measure up to his standards. He had no idea she was right under his nose, and when she broke through his rib cage and ripped out his heart moments before giving birth to twins, he was terribly surprised.
Desandra ended up coming with us to Atlanta. She was smart, cunning, and ruthless. When we returned, Jennifer was still pregnant and couldn’t be challenged. Desandra also had two weeks of maternity leave left, but she didn’t use it. She made her first kill within forty-eight hours of swearing loyalty to the Pack and began climbing up the food chain. Now she held the beta spot in Clan Wolf and Jennifer was sleeping with her eyes open.