THE SHOWER WAS one of those group ones, like you'd find in a health club. But I was the only one in it. I'd cleaned off, scrubbed myself thoroughly, but I felt like Lady MacBeth screaming "out, out, damned spot!" Like I'd never really be clean again. I sat on the tiles under the hot, beating water, hugging my knees. I hadn't planned on crying, but I was. Slow tears that felt cool compared to the water pounding my body. I wasn't sure why I was crying. My mind was blank. Usually when I try to be blank, I can't, but just then, there was nothing but the water, the heat, the smooth tiles, and the little voice in my head that kept running round and round like a hamster on a wheel. I couldn't hear what the voice was saying--I think I didn't want to. All I knew was that it was screaming.
A noise behind me made me turn. It was Cherry, still naked. None of the leopards ever dressed unless I made them. I turned my head away from her. I didn't want her to see me cry. I was her Nimir-Ra, her rock. Rocks did not cry.
I knew she was standing over me, could feel it, even before the water's rhythm changed. She knelt over me, the water sluicing around her, leaving me shivering in the sudden touch of the cool, waterless air. I kept my face turned away from her. She touched my water-soaked hair. When I didn't protest she hugged me, arms going slowly around me, as if she expected me to complain.
I stayed stiff in her arms, with her body wrapped around me. She just held me, head pressed to the top of mine, her body sheltering me from the water, leaving me colder, even as her body stretched like heat against my wet skin. I leaned into her by painful inches until finally I let her hold me. I cried, and Cherry held me.
The crying never grew, or got loud. It remained slow tears while Cherry held me, and I let her. Finally, there were no more tears, just the sound of the water, the heat, the feel of Cherry's body around mine. There was comfort in the touch of flesh that went beyond sex. I pulled away, and she drew back. I stood and turned the water off. The silence was sudden and complete. I could feel the press of the night outside. Even without a window, I knew it was the wee hours of morning--maybe two, or even three. It would be dawn in a few short hours. I needed to know why Jean-Claude was in jail. Everything else could wait. We had enemies in town, and I needed to know who they were, what they wanted. After that I'd think about what had just happened, but not yet, not yet. Avoidance is one of my best things.
Cherry handed me a towel and kept one for herself. I wound the towel around my hair and retrieved a second towel for my body. We dried off in silence, no eye contact. It wasn't shower protocol; girls aren't as hung up about that as guys. I just didn't want to talk about what had happened. Not yet.
I wrapped the oversized towel securely around my body, and asked, "Why is Jean-Claude in jail?"
"For murdering you," she said.
I stared at her for a few seconds, and when I could talk, I said, "Pass that by me again. Slowly."
"Someone got pictures of Jean-Claude carrying you out of the club. You were covered in blood, Anita. He was covered in your blood." She shrugged, drying off a spot she'd missed on one long leg.
"But I'm alive," I said. It sounded almost silly saying it.
"And how would you explain that in less than a week you were healed of wounds that should have killed you?" She straightened, slinging the towel over one shoulder, not bothering to cover even an inch of her body.
"I don't want him in jail for something he didn't do," I said.
"If you go tonight, the police will want to know how you healed yourself. What are you going to tell them?" Her eyes were very direct. So direct it made me want to squirm.
"You're treating me like a lycanthrope who hasn't come out of the closet yet. I'm not a shapeshifter, Cherry."
She dropped her gaze then, wouldn't meet my eyes. It reminded me of the looks they'd all given each other in the room where I woke up. I touched her chin, having to reach up to do it. "What aren't you guys telling me?"
A man's voice came from outside the showers. "Can I please come in and clean off?" It was Micah. I'd planned on running for the hills the next time I saw him, but there was something in Cherry's eyes that kept me frozen. She was scared. And there was something else, something I couldn't quite read.
I yelled back, "Just a minute!" Then I continued, "Cherry, tell me. Whatever it is, just tell me."
She shook her head. She was afraid, but of what? "Are you afraid of me?" I couldn't keep the surprise out of my voice.
She nodded, looking down again, avoiding my gaze.
"I would never hurt you, any of you."
"For this you might," she whispered.
I grabbed her arm. "Cherry, damn it, talk to me."
She opened her mouth, closed it, and turned towards the door a second before Micah Callahan walked through, as if she'd heard him before I had. He was still naked. I expected to be embarrassed, but I wasn't. I was beginning to have the proverbial bad feeling about whatever it was that Cherry didn't want to tell me.
Micah had combed his hair. It was definitely curls, not waves. The curls were tight, but not small. The color was that shade of dark, dark brown -- almost black -- that comes to people who start out white blond as children, then darken. The curls fell to just below his shoulders, and, following the line of hair, my eyes found his chest. I quickly moved them up so I could concentrate on his face. Eye contact. That was the ticket. I was getting back to the embarrassment.
"I told you we'd be out in a minute." My voice sounded grumpy, and I was glad. The fact that I was sort of clutching the towel to my body was purely coincidental.
"I heard you," he said. His face, voice, were neutral. Not as neutral as a vampire's can become. They are the champs of blank expression. But Micah was trying.
"Then wait outside until we're finished," I said.
"Cherry is afraid of you," he said.
I frowned at him, then at her. "Why, for God's sake?"
Cherry looked at him, and he gave a small nod. She moved away from me towards the door. She didn't leave the room, but she got as far away from me as she could.
"What in hell is going on?" I asked.
Micah was standing about four feet away, close, but not too close. I could see his eyes better now, and they were so not human. I knew at a glance that they didn't belong in his face. "She's afraid you'll kill the messenger," he said, voice soft.
"Look, all this tap dancing is getting old. Just tell me."
He nodded, winced as if it hurt. "The doctors seem to think that you've been infected with lycanthropy."
I shook my head. "Serpentine lycanthropy isn't really lycanthropy. It's not a disease that I can catch. You either are cursed by a witch into snake form, or it's inherited like a swanmane." That made me think of the three women I'd last seen chained to a wall in the room of swords. "By the way, what happened to the swanmanes in the club?"
Micah frowned. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Without warning, Nathaniel entered the shower. I was beginning to feel positively overdressed in my towel. "We rescued them."
"The snake leader changed his mind after I got hurt?"
"He changed it after Sylvie and Jamil nearly killed him."
Ah. "So they're okay," I said.
He nodded, but his face stayed serious, his eyes gentle, like someone who's about to tell you really bad news.
"Don't you start, too. I cannot catch serpentine shit. It doesn't work that way."
"Gregory isn't into serpentine shit," he said, the voice as gentle as his eyes.
I blinked at him. "What are you talking about?"
Nathaniel started to come farther into the room, but Cherry caught his arm, kept him near the door for a quick getaway--I think. Zane appeared in the doorway behind them. He was still the six-feet, pale, overly thin, but muscular guy I'd met when he was trashing a hospital emergency room. But he'd dyed his hair to an iridescent pale green, cut short, spiked. The fact that he was fully dressed actually looked odd to me. Of course, it was Zane's version of street clothes that ran to leather, no shirt, and vests.
I looked at the three of them in the doorway. They were so solemn. I remembered Gregory falling into me during the fight. His claws piercing me. "I've been cut up a lot worse by a wereleopard, and I didn't catch it," I said.
"Dr. Lillian thinks it may be because the wound was a deep piercing wound, instead of a surface cut," Cherry said, in a voice that was almost shaky. She was scared, scared of how I'd take the news, or scared of something else, but what?
"I am not going to be Nimir-Ra for real, guys. I can't catch lycanthropy. If I could ... I've already been cut up enough ... I'd have turned furry already."
The three of them just looked at me with wide eyes. I turned from them to Micah. His face was still neutral, careful, but there was a shadow in his eyes of ... pity. Pity? I did not do pity, not as the object of it, anyway.
"You're serious," I said.
"You're exhibiting all the secondary symptoms," he said. "Rapid healing to the point that your muscles cramp. A temperature hot enough to boil the brain of a human. Yet when they lowered your temperature you nearly died. You needed to bake in the warmth, the heat of your pard to heal. That's how we healed you. It wouldn't have worked if you weren't one of us."
I shook my head. "I don't believe you."
"That's okay," he said, "you've got two weeks until the full moon. You won't change for the first time until then. You've got time."
"Time for what?" I asked.
"Time to mourn," he said.
I turned away from the compassion in his eyes, the pity. Shit. I still didn't believe it. "How about a blood test? That should prove it one way or the other."
Cherry answered, "Wolf lycanthropy shows up in the bloodstream anywhere from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, sometimes seventy-two. Leopard lycanthropy, most of the big cat lycanthropies, take anywhere from seventy-two hours to over eight days to show up in the bloodstream. A blood test won't prove anything yet."
I stared at them, trying to wrap my mind around it, and it just wouldn't wrap. I shook my head. "I can't deal with this right now."
"You're going to have to deal with it," Micah said.
I shook my head. "Tonight, I have to get Jean-Claude out of jail. I have to show the police he didn't murder me."
"Your pard told me that you wouldn't want to be outted. That you wouldn't want your police friends to know."
"I am not a wereleopard," I said. It sounded stubborn even to me.
Micah smiled, gently, and that pissed me off. "Don't look at me like that."
"Like what?" he asked.
"Like a poor little deluded girl. There are things you don't understand about me, about where my power comes from."
"You mean the vampire marks," he said.
I looked past him to the three wereleopards in the doorway. Something on my face made them all flinch. "So nice to know that we're just one big happy family with no secrets."
"I was in on the discussions with the doctors on whether your rapid healing could be merely a side effect of the vampire marks," he said.
"Of course it is," I said. But the first thread of doubt was worming its way through my stomach.
"If it will make you feel better," he said.
I stared into that compassionate face and felt anger wash over me in a line of heat, and with the anger came that trembling energy. Richard's beast ... or mine? I let myself think the thought all the way through for the first time. Was it my beast that I'd felt with Micah? Was that why I hadn't gotten a sense of where Richard was, and what he was doing? I'd thought of him several times during all the hoopla, but had never felt the mark between us open completely. I'd assumed it was Richard's energy, because it was lycanthrope energy. But what if it hadn't been? What if it had been mine?
Someone touched my arm, and I jumped. It was Micah, his fingers barely touching my arm. "You look pale. Do you need to sit down?"
I took a step back and nearly stumbled. He had to grab my arm to keep me from falling on the slick, wet tile. I wanted to jerk away from him, but I was dizzy as if the world wasn't quite solid. He eased me to the floor.
"Put your head between your knees."
I sat Indian fashion on the floor, the wall to my back, my head bent over my folded legs while I waited for the light-headedness to pass. I never fainted. Not just from shock--occasionally from blood loss--but never from shock.
When I could think again, I raised up slowly. Micah was kneeling beside me, all attentive and compassionate, and I hated him. I laid my towel-wrapped head back against the wall, closed my eyes.
"Where are Elizabeth and Gregory?"
"Elizabeth wouldn't come to help," Micah said.
I opened my eyes at that, turning just my head to meet his eyes. "She give a reason for that?"
"She hates you," he said, simply.
"Yeah, she loved Gabriel, their old alpha, and I killed him. Hard to be friends after that."
"That's not why she hates you," he said.
I searched his face. "What do you mean?"
"She hates that you're a better alpha as a human than she is as a wereleopard. You make her feel weak."
"She is weak," I said.
He smiled, and it had humor in it this time. "Yes, she is."
"Are you going to punish him for contaminating you?" Micah asked.
I glanced back at the other three waiting in the door, silent. I realized suddenly what the group dynamics meant. They were treating Micah as their Nimir-Raj, letting him deal with me, like calling in the husband when the wife had one too many drinks. I didn't like that much. But if I concentrated just on the moment, the question at hand, no speculation, no looking for the future, maybe I'd survive.
"If Gregory hadn't interfered I'd be dead right now. They would have clawed out my heart. It was an accident that he fell into me during the fight." I was watching Micah's face, but I felt the relief sweep through the others, felt it from yards away. I glanced up at them, and it showed in the lines of their bodies.
"So where is he? Where's Gregory?"
The three of them did that hot-potato eye-flick game again. "Did he refuse to come help save me like Elizabeth?"
"No, of course not," Cherry said. But she didn't explain, didn't add to it.
I looked at Nathaniel. He met my gaze, no flinching, but I didn't like what I saw in his eyes. There was more bad news to come, you could smell it in the air.
I turned to Micah. "Fine, you tell me."
"When your Ulfric found out that Gregory had made you their Nimir-Ra in truth, he ..." Micah spread his hands.
"He freaked." Zane said it.
I glanced at all of them. "What do you mean, he freaked?"
"He took Gregory," Cherry said.
"What do you mean, he took Gregory?"
"He treated Gregory as an enemy of the pack," Micah said.
I looked at him. "Go on."
"If you had been their lupa in truth, if someone injured you it is within the Ulfric's rights to declare them an enemy of the pack, a criminal."
I kept staring into those yellow green eyes. "What exactly does that mean?"
"It means that the wolves have your leopard, and they will pass judgment on him for injuring you."
'No way, I mean, even if I am turning into a wereleopard, which I'm not. It doesn't hurt me. I mean, I'm just going to be a shapeshifter like them now."
"Not like them," Micah said, "like us."
I tried to read his face, but I just didn't know him well enough yet. "You have a point, make it."
"You can't be the wolves' lupa and the leopard's Nimir-Ra."
"I've been both for a long time."
We shook his head, and again he winced as if his neck hurt. "No, you were a human dating the Ulfric, who declared you lupa. You were a human that was taking care of the wereleopards until you could find a true alpha leopard to take over the job. Now, you're truly Nimir-Ra, and the pack won't accept you as one of them."
"Are you saying Richard dumped me because I'm going to be a wereleopard?"
"No, I'm saying that the pack won't accept you as his lupa." Micah glanced down, then up. I could see him trying to put his thoughts into words. "My understanding of what's been happening with your local wolves is that Ulfric has taken them from a monarchy where his word was law, to a democracy where the majority rules. He gets a decisive vote, but not the last word."
I nodded. It sounded like what Richard had wanted for the pack. "It sounds like something he'd do. I've sort of been out of touch for the last few months."
"He has succeeded too well. The vote went against him, against you. The pack will not accept you as lupa when you're wereleopard and not werewolf."
I looked past him at the others. "Is that true?"
They all nodded. "I'm so sorry, Anita," Cherry said.
I shook my head, trying to concentrate and not succeeding. "Alright, fine, fine. Richard can't make me lupa. I never wanted to be lupa, just his girlfriend. Fuck the wolves. But what have they done with Gregory?"
"Richard went ape-shit when he found out what Gregory had done," Zane said. "He thought Gregory had done it on purpose, because we were all afraid to lose you as our Nimir-Ra."
"He accused Gregory of doing it on purpose?" I asked.
Zane nodded. "Oh, yeah, then they took him."
"Tamil, Sylvie, others." He wouldn't meet my eyes.
"Didn't anyone try and argue with him about this?"
"Sylvie tried to tell him it wasn't right, that you wouldn't like it. He hit her, told her never to argue with him again, that he was Ulfric, not her."
"Do not blame your leopards for not fighting the wolves," Micah said. "They are sorely outnumbered."
"They'd get their asses kicked, I know that. Besides, it's my job to deal with Richard, not theirs."
"Because you are their Nimir-Ra," he said.
"Because I am his girlfriend, sort of."
"Of course," he said.
I waved a hand at him. "Look, I can't deal with all of this right now, so I'm just going to concentrate on the important stuff, I mean the immediately important stuff. Where is Gregory, and how do I get him back?"
Micah smiled. "Very practical."
I looked at him and felt my eyes go cold. "You have no idea how practical I can be."
His eyes did change, but it wasn't fear in them, it was more interest, like my reaction intrigued him. "The situation is complex because you are the lupa that was injured. In effect, you must persuade yourself that Gregory meant no harm."
"That's too easy," I said. "I know he meant no harm. So why do I get the feeling that I can't just call Richard up and say, 'Hey, I'm coming to get Gregory'?"
"Because you must convince not just Richard, but the entire pack, that you have the right to Gregory."
"What do you mean 'right to Gregory'? He's my leopard. He's mine, not theirs."
Micah smiled, lowering long lashes over his eyes, as if he didn't want me to read his expression at that moment. "The Ulfric declared Gregory rogue for, in effect, killing their lupa."
"I'm alive, what ... ?"
Micah held up a finger, and I let him finish. "You are dead to the pack -- as their lupa. In effect, being a leopard makes you dead to them. You may share Richard's bed again, but you will never be their lupa again. They voted on it, and Richard has destroyed his own power structure to the point where he can't force a vote on them."
"You're saying that he is Ulfric but he doesn't really rule them," I said.
Micah seemed to think about that for a second, or two, then started to nod, stopped in mid-motion. "Yes, in fact, very well put."
"Thanks." A thought came to me, and I gripped his arm. "They aren't going to kill Gregory, are they?" Something passed over his face that tightened my grip on his arm. "They haven't killed him?"
"No," Micah said.
I let go of his arm and leaned back against the wall. "What are they doing to him, or what are they planning to do to him?"
"The penalty for killing the lupa is death in any pack. But the circumstances are strange enough that I think you will be allowed a chance to win him back."
"Win him back, how?" I asked.
"For that, you'll need to ask the Ulfric."
"I'll do that." I looked past him. "Someone get my cell phone out of my Jeep." Nathaniel went for the door without another word.
"What are you going to do?" Micah asked.
"I'm going to make sure that Gregory isn't being hurt. If he's okay for tonight, I'll go get Jean-Claude out of jail. If Gregory is in danger, then I get him out first."
"Priorities," he said, softly.
He smiled again. "I am very impressed. You've had several shocks in a very short space of time, yet you are clearheaded, and moving forward to solve the problems one at a time."
"I can only solve one problem at a time," I said.
"Most people let themselves be distracted."
"I'm not most people."
He gave that small smile again, shielding his eyes with his long lashes. "I've noticed."
Something about the way he said it made me suddenly aware that he was nude and I was wearing nothing but a towel. It was time to get on my feet and get dressed. I stood, pushing away his offer of help. "I'm fine, Micah, thanks anyway." I looked past him at Cherry and Zane still standing in the doorway "Do I have any clothes here?"
Cherry nodded. "Nathaniel brought your stuff from home. I'll go get it." She moved through the door.
"Weapons, too," I called after her.
She poked her head back around the doorway. "I know." That left just Zane standing in the doorway. "Do you have a job for me?"
"Not right now."
He flashed me a smile wide enough to show that he had dainty fangs upper and lower--kitty-cat fangs. Zane had spent a little too much time in animal form to come all the way back. "I'll go help Cherry then." He paused at the doorway. "I'm really glad you didn't die."
He grinned and left.
That left me alone with Micah. I looked into his yellow-green eyes and knew that they were also a sign that he'd spent too much time in animal form. We hadn't kissed, so I didn't know if he had dainty fangs like Zane. I hoped not, and wasn't sure why I cared.
"Do you mind if I start cleaning up?" he asked.
I shook my head. "Help yourself. I'm going to go look for my clothes." But Nathaniel came around the door with my cell phone.
I looked at the slim black phone. I'd only had it a few months. I'd tried not to buy one. If you had a cell phone and a beeper you were never truly free of the office. Of course, I was on vacation. Though, so far, it hadn't been all that relaxing.
I popped the phone open and dialed Richard's number from memory. There was no answer, just his machine. I left a message, then knew what I was going to do. I had to know what was happening with Gregory. I thought about Richard, the feel of his arms, the scent of his neck, the brush of his hair, and that prickling rush of energy rolled over my skin. I reached down the mark that bound me to Richard and found him standing on a podium. He was arguing with someone, but I couldn't see who. I never got as clear a visual through Richard as I did through Jean-Claude. Richard turned as if he could see me standing behind him, then he thrust me out, throwing up a shield so solid I couldn't feel him on the other side.
Nathaniel was holding my arm, steadying me. "Are you alright?"
I nodded. Being thrust out like that was always disorienting. Richard knew that. Fuck. "I'm okay." I pulled away from Nathaniel and had to call information for the number for The Lunatic Cafe. Richard was in the meeting room in the back of the restaurant. Raina had owned the restaurant, and according to pack law, it could have belonged to me, if I hadn't used a gun to kill her. It had to be mano-a-mano, hand-to-hand, or claws, or at least a knife before all that was hers would be mine. Possessions anyway. You can't get anyone's power by killing them. It just doesn't work that way. And anyway, who would want it to? Guns were considered cheating, so I didn't inherit all of Raina's stuff.
Richard picked up on the second ring, as if he'd been expecting the call. "Richard, it's Anita."
"I know." His voice was angry, closed, and tight.
"We need to talk."
"I'm in the middle of something here, Anita."
Fine, if he wanted to play it brusque and hostile, I'd play. "Where's Gregory?"
"I can't tell you that."
"Because, you might try and rescue him, and you're not lupa anymore. The pack would defend itself, and I don't want you shooting holes in my wolves."
"You leave my leopards alone, and I'll leave your wolves alone."
"Anita, it's not that simple."
"I got the explanation, Richard. You freaked when you found out Gregory may have infected me with leopard juice. You had your enforcers grab him, and you've charged him with killing your lupa. Which is just stupid, I'm not dead."
"Do you know what the pack is voting on right now, right this minute?"
"Not a clue."
"Whether I will be picking another lupa from the pack before the next full moon."
"I guess you'll need one," I said, and even hearing myself acknowledge it made my stomach clench.
"A lover, Anita, they're wanting to force me to pick a lover from the pack."
"You mean we can't date now?"
"That's the vote."
"Stephen, one of your wolves, and Vivian, one of my leopards, are living together. No one seems to care about that."
"Stephen is one of the least of us. They wouldn't tolerate cross-species dating for a dominant. And they certainly won't tolerate it for their Ulfric."
"Human is good enough to fuck, but not leopard," I said.
"We are human, Anita. But we aren't cats, we're wolves."
"So you won't be dating me, or anything, now?"
"Not if I want to stay Ulfric."
"What happens to the triumvirate?"
"I don't know."
"You're going to give me up just like that." I was suddenly cold, my stomach like a hard frozen knot.
"You've been out of my life for over half a year. How do I know that something else won't scare you off again?"
"I planned on dating you both, Richard, on being with you both." I realized as soon as I said it that I meant it. I'd made a decision and hadn't realized it.
"What about a week from now, or a month, or even a year? What will scare you off next time?"
"I don't plan on running anymore, Richard."
"Nice to know." I could feel his anger like something hot and touchable over the phone. Either his shield was leaking, or he'd lowered it.
"You don't want to be with me anymore?" My voice was soft, hurt, and I hated it. Hated it.
"I want to be with you, you know that. You drive me crazy, but I still want you."
"But you'll still give me up," I said. My voice was a little stronger, but not much. Richard was dumping me. Fine, it was his prerogative. I was a pain in the ass, I knew that. But my chest ached with it, damn it.
"I don't want to, Anita, but I'll do what I have to do. You taught me that."
My eyes were hot. I'd taught him that. Great. If we were really going to break up for good, then I would not cry or beg. I would not be weak. My voice came out more solid, more sure of itself. My stomach was still in cold knots, but it didn't show in my voice. The effort that it took to just sound normal over the phone made my chest tight. "You're Ulfric, wolf king. Your word is law in the pack."
"I've worked hard to make sure that everyone has an equal voice, Anita. I can't pull rank now. It would undo everything I've tried to change."
"Ideals are great in theory, Richard, but they don't work too well in real life."
"I disagree," he said. His anger was already leaking away. He just sounded tired.
"I'm not going to argue things we've been arguing since we met. I'm going to concentrate on the things I can change. And no matter how much we want to, we can't change each other, Richard. We are what we are." My voice was uncertain again, full of some of the emotion I was feeling. "So, is Gregory okay?"
"I want him back, you know that."
"I know that." His anger was making a comeback.
"Now that I'm not lupa, not pack, how do I get him back?"
"You have to come to the lupanar tomorrow night and petition for him."
"What do you mean, 'petition for him?' "
"You have to prove yourself worthy. There'll be some kind of test."
"Like multiple choice, essay, what?"
"I don't know yet. We're ... voting on it."
"Fuck, Richard, there's a reason why we have a representative democracy in this country, not a pure one. Pure one person, one vote, just doesn't work well. You can't decide anything that way."
"They're deciding, Anita. You're just not liking the way it's going."
"How could you take Gregory? How could you do that?"
"As soon as I realized what had happened, I knew that the pack would vote you out. Most of them weren't happy with you even before. You weren't pack, and they didn't like that. The fact that you've avoided them--all of them--for six months didn't help."
"I had to get my shit together before I could come back, Richard."
"And while you were getting your shit together, mine was falling apart."
"I'm sorry, Richard, I am. But I didn't know."
"Tomorrow night at the lupanar, about an hour after dark. You can bring all your wereleopards and any other shapeshifters that are your allies. If it were me, as Ulfric, I'd bring the wererats."
"I'm not lupa anymore, so they aren't my allies, are they?"
"No," he said, and the anger was gone again. Richard never could hold a grudge for long.
"What happens if I don't win Gregory back?"
He didn't answer me, just the sound of his breathing on the phone. "Richard, what happens to Gregory?"
"He'll be judged by the pack."
"If he's convicted of killing our lupa, it's a death sentence."
"But I'm right here, Richard. I'm not dead. You can't kill Gregory for killing me, when he didn't do it."
"I delayed the judgment until you were well enough to attend. It was the best I could do."
"You know, Richard, sometimes it's good to be king. A king gets to pardon whomever he wants, a king gets to fuck whomever he wants."
"I know that."
"Then be king, Richard, really be king. Be their Ulfric, not their president."
"I'm doing what I think best for them all."
"Richard, you can't do this."
"It's already done."
"Richard, if I fail your little test, I will not let you execute Gregory. Do you understand me?"
"You won't be allowed to bring guns into the lupanar, just knives." His voice had gone very careful.
"I remember the rule. But Richard, are you listening to me? Are you understanding me?"
"If we try to execute Gregory tomorrow night, you'll fight us, I understand. But understand this, Anita, your leopards are no match for us, not even with Micah and his pard. We outnumber you five to one, maybe more."
"It doesn't matter, Richard. I can't stand by and watch Gregory die, not for something stupid like this."
"Will you try to save one of your cats and risk losing them all? Do you really want to see what would happen if they tried to fight their way out of the lupanar, through the pack? I wouldn't want to see it."
"This is ... damn it, Richard, don't put me in a corner, you won't like it."
"Is that a threat?"
"Richard ..." I had to stop in mid-sentence and count slowly under my breath. But counting to ten wasn't going to do it, maybe a bijillion. "Richard," my voice came out calmer, "I will save Gregory, whatever it takes. I will not let the wolves slaughter my leopards, whatever that takes. You lost your temper and took one of my leopards. You made your pack a freaking democracy, where you don't even have presidential veto. Are you really going to compound the mistakes by starting a war between your pack and my pard?"
"I still think that everyone having a voice is a good idea."
"It's a great idea, but it's not working, is it?" He was quiet again. "Richard, don't do this."
"It's out of my hands. I'm sorry, Anita, you don't know how sorry."
"Richard, you won't really let them execute Gregory. I mean, not really."
"Richard, talk to me."
"I'll do what I can, but I've lost the vote on it. I can't change that."
"Can you really stand by and watch him die for something he didn't do?"
"How do you know he didn't infect you on purpose?"
"I was there. He fell on top of me with two of the snake things riding him. It was an accident. He kept them from cutting out my heart. He saved my life, Richard, and this is damn poor payment."
"He couldn't have turned his claws aside at the last minute?" Richard asked.
"No, it all happened too fast."
He laughed, but it was bitter. "You've been around us so long, and you still don't understand what we are. I could turn aside in less than a blink of an eye. Gregory isn't slower than I am. As a leopard he's quicker, more agile."
"Are you saying he did this on purpose?"
"I'm saying that he had a fraction of a second to decide what he'd do, and he decided to keep you as their Nimir-Ra. He made the choice to take you from me."
"And you're going to make him pay for that. Is that it?"
"Yeah, that's it."
"With his life?"
He sighed. "I don't want him dead, Anita. But when I first found out what he'd done, I wanted to kill him myself. I wanted it so badly I didn't trust myself around him, so I had him taken somewhere safe until I could cool down. But Jacob got wind of it, and forced a vote."
"My new Geri, third in charge behind Sylvie."
"I've never heard of him before."
"Damn, third in line, and he's new. He's either a very good fighter, or a very vicious one, to win that many fights in less than half a year."
"He's good, and he's vicious."
"Is he ambitious?" I asked.
"If Jacob hadn't forced a vote, would you have given Gregory back to me?
He remained quiet so long, that I finally asked, "You still there?"
"I'm here. Yes, I would have given him back to you. I can't kill him for what he's done."
"So Jacob set in motion something that's stripped you of a powerful ally-- me---and forced you to declare war on another group--the wereleopards. He's been a busy boy."
"He's just doing what he thinks is right."
"Jesus, Richard, how can you still be this naive?"
"You think he wants my job?"
"You know he wants your job. I can hear it in your voice."
"If I'm not strong enough to hold the pack, then it's Jacob's prerogative to challenge me. But he's got to defeat Sylvie first, and she's as good as he is-- and as vicious."
"How big is Jacob?"
"My size, not as muscled."
"Sylvie is good, but she's five six, and slender, and a woman. And as much as I hate to say it, that makes a difference. Pound for pound you guys have the upper body strength on us. If the skill is equal, a larger person will beat a smaller one."
"Don't underestimate Sylvie," he said.
"Don't overestimate her, either. She's my friend, too, and I don't want her dead just because you're not willing to take care of business."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means until he defeats Sylvie and becomes Freki, your second in command, you can kill him outside of a challenge. You can have him executed."
"And if Marcus had thought that about me, I'd be dead now."
"And Marcus would be alive, Richard. You're not helping your case."
"We aren't animals, Anita, we're people. And I can't just kill him because I think he's after my job."
"You don't just stand down as Ulfric, Richard, you fight to the death for it. I know theoretically if you both agree, it doesn't have to be death. But I've been asking around, and no werewolf I've talked to can remember a fight for Ulfric that wasn't to the death. He's not after your job, Richard, he's after your life."
"I can't control what Jacob does, only what I do."
I was beginning to remember why Richard and I didn't make a go of it as a couple. Oh, there had been a lot of reasons. I'd seen him eat Marcus, and that had made me run away. Then we got back together, and the marks were overwhelming. But there were other reasons. Reasons that made me feel tired and older than Richard, even though he was actually two years older than me. "You're being stupid, Richard."
"It's not really any of your business, Anita. You're not my lupa anymore."
"If you die, the marks may drag Jean-Claude and me down to die with you, so that sort of makes it my business."
"And you don't risk your life every time you go hunting vampires or preternatural creatures with the police? You almost died in New Mexico less than a month ago. You risked all of us."
"I was trying to save people's lives, Richard. You're trying to remake a political system. Ideology is great in a classroom or a debate, but it's flesh and blood that counts, Richard. It's life and death we're talking about here, not some outdated ideal you have in your head about what a better world you can make for the pack."
"If ideals mean nothing, Anita, then we are just animals."
"Richard, if Gregory dies for this, then I will kill Jacob, and anyone else who gets in my way. I'll destroy your lupanar and salt the ground, so help me. You explain to Jacob, and anyone else that needs convincing, that if they fuck with me, they will die."
"You can't fight the entire pack, Anita. Not and win."
"If you think the only thing I care about is winning, then you don't know me at all. I will save Gregory because I said I would."
"If you fail the tests, you can't save him."
"What sort of tests are we talking about?"
"Ones that only a shapeshifter could pass."
"Richard, Richard ..." I wanted to scream and rant at him, but I was suddenly more tired than angry, more discouraged than enraged. "Mark me on this, Richard, if I fail to save Gregory, then I will remake heaven into hell to avenge him. You explain that to Jacob, make sure he understands."
"Tell him yourself." There was silence and the sound of movement. Then a man's voice came on, a voice that I'd never heard before. The voice was pleasant, young, but not too young.
"Hello, I'm Jacob, I've heard a lot about you." His voice made it plain that he hadn't liked what he'd heard.
"Look, Jacob, we don't know each other, but I cannot allow you to kill Gregory for something he didn't do."
"The only way you can stop us is by winning him back."
"Richard explained that I'd have to pass a test to get Gregory back. He also said if I failed that you'd execute Gregory."
"It's pack law."
"Jacob, you don't want to make me your enemy."
"You are Nimir-Ra of a small leopard pard. We are the Thronnos Rokke Clan. We are the lukoi, and you are nothing to us."
"Yeah, I'm coming tomorrow night as Nimir-Ra of the Blooddrinker's Pard. But I'm Anita Blake. Ask the vampires and other shapeshifters around town about me. See what they say. You don't want to fuck with me, Jacob, you really don't."
"I've already asked around. I know your reputation."
"Then why are you pushing this?"
"That's my business," he said.
"Fine, you want to do this, we can do this. If you cause Gregory's death through voting or werewolf politics, I will bury you."
"If you can," he said. "You're a brand-new shapeshifter. You won't even change form until the full moon, and that's weeks away. You are no match for me."
"You say that like I'm going to offer to fight you one-on-one. I'm not. If Gregory dies, you die. Simple as that."
"If you shoot me, it won't reinstate you into the pack. If you could possibly win one-on-one against me, then maybe they'd vote you back to lupa. But if you just shoot me, you'll never be lupa again."
"I'm going to say this nice and slow, Jacob, so we understand each other. I don't give a shit about being lupa. I care about my friends, and the people I've promised to protect. Gregory is one of those people. If he dies, you die."
"I'm not going to kill him, Anita. I just made sure there was a vote about it."
"Do you like John Wayne movies, Jacob?"
He was quiet for a heartbeat. "I guess, I mean, what does that have to do with anything?"
"Your fault, my fault, nobody's fault, if Gregory dies, you die."
"Am I supposed to get the movie reference?" he asked. He sounded angry now.
"I guess not, but the point is this. I will blame you personally if anything happens to Gregory, for any reason. If he comes to harm, so will you. If he bleeds, so do you. If he dies ..."
"I get the idea. But I don't have a deciding vote on this issue. I'm just one vote."
"Then you better think of something, Jacob. Because I give you my word that I mean everything I say."
"I heard that about you." He was quiet, and we stood on either end of the phone in silence, until he said, "What about Richard?"
"What about him?"
"If something happens to him what will you do?"
"If I tell you that I'll kill you if you kill him, that undercuts his authority as Ulfric. But I'll say this much, if you defeat him, then it better be a fair fight in a challenge circle. If you cheat in any way, no matter how small, I'll kill you." I wanted so badly to just give Richard blanket protection, but I couldn't. It would weaken his position, and his position was weak enough already.
"But if it's fair, you'll stay out of it?"
I leaned against the wall and tried to think. "I'll be honest, Jacob, I love Richard. I don't always understand him, or even agree with him, but I love him. I'm ready to kill you over someone who has never been my lover or even a good friend. So, yeah, you kill Richard, and I'm really, really going to want to kill you."
"But you won't," he said.
I didn't like how persistent he was about the issue. It made me nervous. "I'll make you a deal, you don't challenge Richard for Ulfric until after the next full moon, then whatever happens, as long as it's fair, I'll stay out of it."
"What if it's sooner?" he asked.
"Then I am going to rain all over your parade."
"You're undercutting Richard's authority," he said.
"No, Jacob, no I'm not. I wouldn't be killing you because I was lupa or any werewolf stuff. I'd be killing you because I am just that vindictive. Give me a few weeks until after the full moon, and you're in the clear on this one, if you've got the cajones to finish the job."
"You think Richard will kill me, instead?"
"He killed the last Ulfric, Jacob. That's how he got the job."
"If I don't agree to this, you'll just shoot me?"
"From a nice, safe distance, oh, yeah."
"I can promise that I won't challenge Richard until after the full moon, but I can't promise that the vote won't go against Gregory. He was one that Raina, the old lupa, used to help punish some members of the pack. There's more than one woman here that he helped rape."
"Then how can you defend him?"
"He did what his old alpha told him to do, and what Raina, the wicked bitch of the west, told him to do. Gregory isn't a dominant, he's lesser, and he does what he's told, like a good submissive shapeshifter. Ever since I took over as his alpha, he's refused to rape and torture. As soon as he had a choice, he stopped doing it. Ask Sylvie. Gregory let himself be tortured instead of helping to rape her."
"She told the story to the pack."
"You don't sound impressed."
"It's not me you have to impress, Anita, it's the others."
"Help me figure out a way to impress them, Jacob."
"Are you serious? You want me to help you save the leopard?"
"That's ridiculous. I'm Geri of Thronnos Rokke clan. I don't have to help a wereleopard that even you admit isn't a dominant."
"Don't go all class conscious on me, Jacob. Remember the early part of our conversation, the part about you dying? I blame you for the mess. And you will help me clean it up, or I will splatter your brains all over the walls."
"You can't bring guns into the lupanar."
I laughed, and even to me it was an unsettling sound, creepy even. "You going to spend the rest of your life inside the lupanar?"
"Jesus," he said, voice soft, "you're talking about assassinating me."
I laughed again. A small voice in my head was screaming at me, telling me I was being a very good sociopath. But Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm wasn't going to cut it with Jacob. Maybe later I could afford to be soft. "I think we finally understand each other, Jacob. Here's my cell phone number. You call me before tomorrow night with a plan."
"What if I can't come up with one?"
"Not my problem."
"You'll kill me even if I try and save him--really try and save your leopard, but fail. You'll still kill me."
"You cold bitch."
"Sticks and stones will break your bones, but failure will get you killed. Call me Jacob, make it soon." I hung up the phone.