"Well, that is an interesting sight," Fangbearer said from the front seat of the van. "The border is completely unguarded." The convoy of a dozen vans, trucks, and cars carrying all of the lycanthropes out of the Disputed Territories was now in the second day of the journey to Hillsborough. Getting out of the Disputed Territories was disturbingly easy. It didn’t seem like there were any of the normal guards on the border between Broward and Collier, nor did anyone shadow us. Best guess was everyone was looking north. To keep us off everyone’s radar, we stayed off the main roads and navigated through the back roads. For the final stretch into Hillsborough, Lord Savik ordered something bold. Our full convoy was driving into Hillsborough up I-75 in broad daylight. Lord Savik had been friendly with the Lord of Manatee County for many years prior to the fall of the Disputed Territories. He was convinced Lord Kant would help rally the southern aristocracy to our side in the coming fight. Or at least, Lord Kant could help keep them the hell out of our way.

"Well, that is very interesting," Lord Savik said, walking up to the front of the van. "Paul was always very conscientious about his duty. So why would he pull his guards off the border?"

"Could they be hidden?" Lady Anna asked.

"We’re less than two miles from the border," Lord Savik said, "If they wanted a chance of stopping us without attracting undue attention, I very much doubt they’d be hidden at this point. There aren’t even any unmarked police cars around."

"They were pulled off," Nick said quietly. The others in the van turned back to look at the tall hunter. "The quarantine is not being enforced. Just like the quarantine of your counties wasn’t being enforced when we left. Why else do you think we had such an easy time of leaving?"

"That makes no sense," Lady Anna said, "Why would the Prince tell his lords not to enforce his own quarantines? Especially after pushing it so hard?"

"Because the Prince is not in charge anymore," I said, following Nick’s logic. "He’s surrendered his throne to the war council. That’s always the first step isn’t it? It’s not like any of the counties surrounding ours were ever happy about the quarantines. The moment they wouldn’t have to enforce them, they wouldn’t." The others in the van didn’t answer me, but the cold looks on Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and Fangbearer were all the confirmation I needed.

"Should we go to the Manatee Manor?" Fangbearer asked. "It was your plan to try and get Lord Kant on our side." Lord Savik shook his head.

"That would be useful, but we don’t have the time to waste. How fast can we get to your Guild?" Lord Savik asked me.

"Maybe another forty-five minutes," I answered. "If traffic doesn’t get bitchy around Brandon."

"It’s time to make your call," Lord Savik said. I nodded and moved to the very back of the van. I pulled out the burner phone. It had one purpose. I hit the speed dial. Two rings and I heard the familiar voice.

"Ranger, you’re alive?" Farmer asked. I think he was surprised by the call, but it was hard to tell with Farmer. The only other lycanthrope I knew who used less inflection in his voice was Nick.

"Job’s completed," I said, "Expect delivery of package in forty-five minutes. Better clear out some space. The package is pretty big." Farmer cupped the mike of the phone and talked to someone on his end. Although I couldn’t make out the words, I could hear the unmistakable tones of Elizabeth’s voice. Ache violently ripped through me. I fought to tamp my emotions down. I needed to focus on finishing the job. I could deal with all of those emotions after the job was done.

"Don’t deliver here," Farmer said, "The local hooligans have been acting strangely. There’s concern it might not be safe for delivery, and they’re prepping for some shenanigans."

"We might have answers for that," I replied, "We need to talk about that in person."

"Hold one." Farmer talked with Elizabeth and some other lycanthropes for a few moments. From the volume of voices, the discussion got a little heated. Then Farmer came back on the line.

"Can you get to the university area?" Farmer asked.

"Yeah," I answered.

"Go to Lettuce Lake Park," Farmer said, "We’ll have someone meet you there. Top end to come here first, then we’ll figure out how to distribute the rest of the product." The phone cut off. I closed the phone and looked up to see Lord Savik and Lady Anna looking at me with expectant eyes. I quickly summed up the conversation.

"You think this strange activity by the local leeches is the work of Bradon?" Lord Savik asked.

"Yes, milord," I answered. "He told us he would pull his vampires off to let us deal with Blackhawk. To the Hillsborough packs, that would certainly look like the calm before the storm."

"I wish we had some confirmation," Lord Savik said. The van suddenly swerved as a red convertible cut us off. The passenger in the convertible stood up and motioned for us to follow her car. I groaned as soon as I saw the woman’s face.

"What’s that human saying? ‘Be careful of what you wish for?’" I asked. "Follow that car."

"Why?" multiple voices demanded.

"Because that’s one of Bradon’s ghouls," I answered. "I imagine she’s got a message for us." Lord Savik motioned for the Red Knight driving to follow the car. Fangbearer informed the rest of the convoy what was happening and told them to be ready to disperse. I doubted it was a trap, but in the current situation, paranoia was more likely to keep us alive. The car took the next exit and pulled into a fast food parking lot. Our van and one of the packs’ trucks followed. The rest of the convoy pulled into other businesses. Close enough to help out, but not close enough to draw attention. The female ghoul stepped out of the car and walked into the restaurant.

"I’ll go meet her," I told the others, "We have history. Nick, care to backstop me?" He nodded and moved to the door.

"Wait, why him?" Lady Anna asked.

"Ranger’s worked with me longer than anyone else in this car," Nick answered, "I know how to react if this goes badly." Then he stepped off the van. Lady Anna didn’t looked pleased.

"He’s right," I said, "In the same situation, would you rather have me or Cracker backing you up?" Lady Anna scowled and then turned away from me, which was all the answer I needed.

"If this goes sideways, you know what to do," I said to Nick as we walked up to the restaurant. He nodded. His job would be to take out the driver of the convertible to prevent him from reporting back, and then to get Lord Savik and the Disputed Territories’ wolves out of here. I was back on my home turf. I could find my own way to the Guild. The job always came first.

"What’s the signal?" he asked.

"If I drop the flash-bang in my pocket," I answered.

"Why am I not surprised?" Nick asked, with a resigned tone.

"Because I’m nothing if not predictable?" I retorted.

"Predicatable wasn’t the word I was thinking of," Nick said. He moved to the side of the building and pulled out his cell phone. To the rest of the world, Nick looked like he was taking a phone call. Perfect reason for loitering outside. Taking a deep breath, I went into the restaurant. Briana was sitting at a booth in the corner, sipping at a drink. She looked up at me with the familiar intense eyes of a ghoul. Her face contorted into a grimace as she recognized me. Well, we did have history. Just not good history.

"I’m surprised you’re alive," I said as I slipped into the booth. "It makes me kind of sad you weren’t part of the initial kills." The ghoul gave me a frozen look.

"I’m not here for small talk," Briana said sourly, "Phillip wants to meet with your leadership tomorrow night. Neutral ground. He guarantees safety."

"Why does he want to meet?" I asked. "We’ve already discussed what he wants from my leaders."

"He wants to formalize the arrangement. He wants a proper treaty between the Tampa Council and your leaders," Briana answered. She pulled a small burner phone from her purse. "You can call him on this when your leadership agrees. He was very clear that it needed to be either you, Lord Savik, or the Lady-Apparent of Hillsborough who uses the phone. Anyone else, and he will assume there was a coup and the war between us is still on." As soon as I picked up the phone, Briana stood up and stormed out of the restaurant. I waited a few moments to take the battery out of the phone and put them both in my pocket. It probably was exactly what it seemed, but cell phones were often a double-edged sword. Better to be cautious. I walked out of the restaurant and started back to the van. The convertible was speeding out of the parking lot as Nick walked over to me. I hand-signed that everything was good. He just nodded as we walked up to the van.

"Well?" Lord Savik asked as we climbed in.

"You’ve been invited to a dinner party," I answered. "Bradon wants a meet after you’ve had a chance to talk with the Lady-Apparent. He wants to formalize the agreement between you."

"I didn’t bring my good suit," Lord Savik quipped, but the humor was lost with his tired tone. Lady Anna gave her uncle a worried look. He waved her off.

"Let’s get to this park of yours Ranger," Lord Savik said, "Time is not our ally."

The leadership team who made the first trip to the Guild included Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Fangbearer, the three packleaders, the Guildmaster, the Spiritmaster as well as Nicholas, Hangman, Vanessa, and me. Carl, the lycanthrope Vanessa and I encountered at USF’s library was leading the lycanthropes escorting us to the Guild. Another team was responsible with dispersing the rest of the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes until it was time to bring them in as well. We were met in one of the houses above the Guild by Elizabeth, Farmer, two of the surviving Hillsborough pack leaders, and Eagle, who was leading the State hunters in Hillsborough. Lord Savik was the first out of the cars, followed quickly by Lady Anna. The rest of the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes stayed in the cars.

"My lady, I come asking your aid and comfort for the lycanthropes under my protection," Lord Savik said, invoking the formal request of sanctuary, "I will accept whatever terms you require." Lady Anna mirrored the words.

"I request no terms beyond the laws of the packs," Elizabeth answered with the same formality, "You will sit with me as equals. Please be at ease in my domain." She smiled at the two aristocrats. Ancestors, why did she have to be so damned beautiful? The rest of the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes joined us. She swept our group with her brilliant eyes. As they locked on mine, her smile wavered just a bit.

"My lady, shall we continue this downstairs?" Farmer asked. He hand-signed that he wanted Nick, Hangman, and me to stay up here for a bit. Elizabeth just ignored the intricate hand signs and gave another of her dazzling smiles.

"Of course," Elizabeth answered, "Would you please follow me?" She led the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes and the Hillsborough packleaders down into the Guild proper. Farmer and Eagle stayed behind to talk with us. Farmer walked over to Nicholas.

"Damn it’s good to see you, Nicholas," Farmer said, shaking the tall lycanthrope’s hand, "I thought you were banished from the state." Nick gave me a smug look that clearly asked "if-he-can-say-my-name-properly, why-can’t-you?" I just shrugged and gave him my best mocking smile.

"My leaving was interrupted," Nick answered, "At the moment, that’s all I can tell you." Farmer just nodded, but Eagle didn’t look happy at the statement. He was willing to follow Farmer’s lead for the moment.

"Ranger tells me your the Guildmaster now," Nick continued.

"Not much of a Guild, but yes," Farmer said, "Eagle’s hunters have been very helpful in giving us some room to breathe. He’s also been helping me train some of the warriors. Now, why have all the leeches seem to have disappeared? We haven’t so much as seen a patrol out for the last two nights."

"Lord Savik will explain," I answered. Farmer gave me an annoyed look. "Look, there’s a reason why you should hear it from him." Farmer gave me a hard stare for a few moments. I’m sure it was very intimidating to the pack warriors, but it was nothing compared to the looks my Guildmaster gave me.

"Ranger, would you do me a favor and go outside for a few moments?" Farmer finally said, "I need to speak to Nicholas and Hangman." I nodded and walked outside. Vanessa followed me.

"Doesn’t it bother you that he sent you out here?" Vanessa asked as we stood on the sidewalk.

"A little, but he’s the Guildmaster," I answered, "I’m not his personal hitter, so it’s up to him if I have a need to know what he’s talking to them about."

"But don’t you want to know?" she asked. I had to admit I was curious. I’d grown used to being in on high-level meetings and knowing what was going on in the Guild. It made me slightly anxious there was something going on I didn’t know about. How in the hell had I operated those years before I became the Guildmaster’s hitter?

"Elizabeth looked nice," Vanessa said with a cautious tone. The sudden change of topic caught me off-guard.

"Yeah," I said, trying very hard not to think about her.

"She wasn’t shooting daggers at you with her eyes when she saw you," Vanessa said, the barest hint of hope in her voice. "Much better than when we here last time."

"She was just being polite to Lord Savik and Lady Anna," I said, refusing to give into that slight hope. There was nasty pain down that road. Pain that I really didn’t want to deal with at the moment.

"Maybe," Vanessa said. I whirled on the kin.

"Vanessa, that female hates me," I said, "She’s just willing to pretend otherwise for the guests that I brought back for her. It’s politics, nothing else."

"Maybe," Vanessa repeated. Before she could say anything further, Farmer came outside and motioned for us to return. We were led down to the main conference room on the first level of the Guild. The Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes were around the head of the table with Elizabeth at the head. The four remaining Hillsborough packleaders were just down the table. Farmer sat down next to Elizabeth while the rest of us crammed around the end. Nick was nice enough to sit at the foot of the table so I didn’t have to look directly at Elizabeth. It looked like the initial pleasantries and introductions had been completed.

"I think it is time to get down to business," Lord Savik announced as he stood up, "Although we have asked for your aid and comfort, I did not abandon my counties simply to join your battle here. I am here to ask you if you will ally your county with mine against the war council." The room fell to dead silence.

"Why in the Ancestors’ names would we go against the war council?" one of the Hillsborough packleaders asked, "They’re the only way we will liberate this county."

"Because the lycanthrope they’re about to select as the new Prince of Florida is responsible for the fall of our counties and has been colluding with the Florida Council of Vampire," Lord Savik answered.

"What are you talking about? Our county fell because the TCV swamped the Manor with more vampires than we thought they could have," another of the Hillsborough packleaders said.

"Your war and the defeat at your Manor was orchestrated by the lycanthrope in question with the assistance of his vampire allies in the FCV," Lord Savik answered, "Just as he orchestrated the near elimination of the packs in my counties."

"We went to war because those leeches were behind the murder of our lord," the first packleader said.

"You went to war because you thought the leeches killed your lord," Lady Anna said, "Or at least your lord’s successor did." Elizabeth’s eyebrow rose, but Lady Anna studiously ignored her. Instead, Lady Anna looked at me.

"Tell them," Lady Anna said to me. I looked up at Lord Savik who nodded.

"Tell us what?" Elizabeth asked, her voice cool and controlled. I stood up.

"The Guildmaster suspected the individual who sent your father’s assassin wasn’t a vampire, but another lord," I answered. The table erupted in gasps of shock.

"The hunters were helping the Knights’ investigation into the vampires," Elizabeth said breathlessly, "Everything they found pointed to the TCV."

"Yes, but the Guild was running two investigations at the time," I said, "One with the Knights, while the other was looking for evidence against one of the lords. After what I learned in Dade and Broward from Lord Savik, I don’t think it was a lord behind your father’s death. I believe it was the Society of the Fang and the Claw." Elizabeth didn’t say anything for a long moment. There was nothing I could read on her blank face.

"Aren’t you working for them?" Elizabeth asked. "This Society?"

"I was recruited by the Society after Nick, Hangman, and me reported to the Prince what happened in Hillsborough," I answered, "I believe the leader of the Society recruited me so he could send me down to Dade and Broward to find Lord Savik so his assassins could kill the lord. Or me. Or both."

"We have the evidence," Lord Savik said, "At least of Blackhawk, the lycanthrope in question, ordering my death and the deaths of my packs. As well as his involvement with the FCV. If we present the council with the evidence, we can force them to order his execution. Then, we can make sure whoever is chosen to become the next Prince of Florida will liberate our counties."

"Where did you get this evidence?" Elizabeth asked.

"We seized it in a raid on what we thought was the FCV’s silver ammunition stash," Lord Savik answered. "What we actually found was the reason you lost your Manor. The FCV developed a means of ‘mass-producing’ vampires. These dervishes, as the FCV calls them, are more savage and less intelligent than normal vampires. The perfect foot soldier in a war with the lycanthrope. The Tampa Inner Councilmember, Silanti, acquired enough of them to overwhelm your forces at the Manor. We believe this was a field test of the dervishes." The Hillsborough lycanthropes traded startled looks.

"That certainly sounds like what we fought at the Manor," Farmer said, "Did you manage to destroy the FCV’s manufacturing facilities in your raid?"

"No, we ran into stiffer resistance than expected," the Guildmaster said, "It was either extract or die."

"What’s to stop Silanti from bringing more of these dervishes to Hillsborough?" asked a Hillsborough packleader.

"Well, to start, Ranger killed Silanti," Lady Anna said, giving the Hillsborough lycanthropes a defiant look. The Hillsborough packleaders turned to look at me in stunned amazement. Farmer’s look was more "why didn’t you tell me that earlier?" Elizabeth was still unreadable.

"As glad as I am that Silanti is no longer going to trouble my county, what’s to stop the next leader of the Tampa Council to start importing these things from the FCV?" Elizabeth asked.

"Because I have been given assurances by the new leader of the Tampa Council," Lord Savik answered. "He is willing to reinstate the Peace in Hillsborough and return to status quo ante bellum." The room erupted with the shouts from the Hillsborough packleaders. Elizabeth waved them all down.

"The TCV nearly wiped out all of my packs, and this new leader expects us to just stop? To forget what they did at the Manor?" Elizabeth said coolly.

"I’m going to request that you clear the room," Lord Savik said, "Your Guildmaster may stay, but everyone else who is not aristocrat needs to leave." Elizabeth thought for a moment before nodding. Sometimes aristocrats needed to speak with each other without any of their subordinates. I was surprised Lord Savik said Farmer could stay, but I thought Lord Savik was smart enough to realize Farmer was Elizabeth’s strongest adviser. As the rest of us stood up, Lord Savik hand-signed for me to stay. Farmer’s eyes went wide in surprise. I shrugged and sat back down. Elizabeth’s eyebrow crooked, but she didn’t say anything. As soon as the door was closed, Lord Savik turned to Elizabeth.

"Elizabeth, you must agree to the reinstatement of the Peace," Lord Savik said.

"Not a fucking chance, Erik," Elizabeth replied defiantly.

"I need your packs with mine in Tallahassee. You can’t leave this county if you are still at war with the Tampa Council," Lord Savik said. Elizabeth didn’t say anything for several minutes. I could see the battle being raged in her head.

"I don’t know," Elizabeth finally said. "We’ve lost so much."

"For fuck’s sake, grow up!" Lady Anna said, "Bradon’s giving you an end to the war without demanding anything. A war your brother started. If you think you’re going to have a hard time explaining it to your packs, how hard do you think it’s going to be for him to explain it to the TCV?" The two Ladies-Apparent stared at each other with barely concealed rage. I wondered if this was how humans felt when they were in the crossfire during one of our firefights?

"My lady, as tactless as Lady Anna is being at the moment, she’s also right," Farmer said, giving Lady Anna a cold stare. "We have to focus on the real threat. If this Blackhawk is as dangerous as they claim, then the moment he is given the throne, you and all of your packs are in danger." Elizabeth motioned for her Guildmaster to continue.

"Blackhawk can’t chance you would find out about his role in the death of your father and manipulating your brother into declaring war in the county. The only way to make sure that you’re not a threat to him is to make sure you don’t survive the liberation of the county. He may just make sure none of the Hillsborough lycanthropes survive just to be sure. He can always grant the county as a boon to his supporters."

"How can we trust this new leader of the TCV?" Elizabeth asked, "What’s to stop him from killing us when we try to return to Hillsborough?"

"That was why I asked Ranger to stay behind," Lord Savik answered. "He’s known this vampire for several years and has a strong working relationship with him. Ranger, please inform your lady about Bradon." I stood up and faced Elizabeth. She didn’t look at me like I was a monster. Well, that was a little bit promising, like Vanessa said. I took a deep breath.

"I know Bradon because he was my main contact within the TCV. Bradon was the leader of the Bleeders up to the beginning of the war," I started, "Prior to the war, Bradon was one of the major players in the faction of the Inner Council that supported the Peace." I waited a moment to see if that elicited anything from Elizabeth. She didn’t so much as blink. "Recently, Bradon told us that he had noticed that both the TCV and the Hillsborough packs were being manipulated towards war. He used my assassination attempt against him to go underground and investigate further. He brought us the information about the link between the Society and the FCV."

"Why?" Elizabeth asked. "What’s in it for him?"

"In all the time I’ve known him, Bradon has backed the Peace," I answered, "That has included direct action and political actions of his own as well as intelligence sharing with the Guild. Right now, Bradon believes that the best way to make sure the Peace doesn’t fall statewide is for the Peace to be re-established in Hillsborough and for you and Lord Savik to confront Blackhawk in Tallahassee."

"That’s all fine and good, but can we trust him?" Elizabeth asked.

"In this instance, yes," I answered. Her eyebrow quirked up. "As long as his goals match ours, we can trust him. Beyond that?" I shook my head. "He won’t lie to you, but he knows how to twist the truth. He also is scary good at maneuvering his opponents against each other."

"My lady, if I may," Farmer said, "From what I’ve gathered from my predecessor, Ranger’s impressions of Bradon matches his own." Farmer and I shared a brief pained expression at the memory of our Guildmaster. "If Ranger says that Bradon wants to work with us on this, I think we can trust it."

"He wants to meet with us," Lord Savik said, "On neutral ground to discuss a formal arrangement." Elizabeth let out a harsh laugh.

"What neutral ground?" she asked, "There isn’t any in the county right now."

"Farmer, where can we secure a dinner meeting?" I asked. The Guildmaster sat back in his chair thinking.

"Honestly, with the State hunters here, I can technically secure anywhere," Farmer said. "If we keep the guest list relatively small." Elizabeth shrugged in resignation.

"This is the best chance for my county, isn’t it?" she asked Lord Savik.

"As much as it goes against my grain, yes," Lord Savik answered, giving the Lady-Apparent a sad smile. "Sometimes, we must do what we hate in order to protect our packs. I would do the same in your place, and I would hate it just as much." I was so busy watching Elizabeth, I almost didn’t notice the flurry of hand-signs between Farmer and Lord Savik. Before I could decipher what they were silently discussing, agreement signs flashed and their hands fell silent. Lady Anna must have seen it, because she shot Lord Savik a hard look. Well, that didn’t bode well for what was being discussed. Lord Savik produced Bradon’s phone. Hooking the phone up to the speaker, Lord Savik pressed the redial button. It rang once before being picked up.

"Good day," came the efficient male voice, "The Councilman is currently unavailable, but I am authorized to speak on his behalf." Definitely a ghoul, but not one I knew.

"We will meet with your master tonight," Elizabeth said, her voice a carefully controlled neutral.

"My master informed me to convey his thanks for agreeing to meet with him," the ghoul replied with perfunctory precision, "Did you have a location in mind?" I locked eyes with Farmer and mouthed the location to him. Farmer gave a brief smile.

"Poppa Gus’s," Farmer said, catching the other lycanthropes off-guard.

"That is not neutral territory," the ghoul said, suspiciously.

"As I reminded my Guildmaster, nothing in Hillsborough is neutral territory at the moment," Elizabeth said, coolly. "I am willing to give your master safe passage." The phone was silent for a long moment. Then, the ghoul’s rich laughter filled the conference room.

"You make an excellent point, my lady," the ghoul said, "Shall we say, ten o’clock tonight?" Farmer nodded to Elizabeth.

"We will be there," Elizabeth answered. The phone abruptly disconnected.

"What is this Poppa Gus’s?" Lord Savik asked.

"It was the hunter’s watering hole," Farmer answered. "We also used it for the occasional meet with our contacts in the TCV. Right now, it’s one of the few places in the county we indisputably control. And we have Ranger to thank for that." My head snapped up at the comment.

"What did I do?" I asked.

"That little fight you had there when you came back into town," Farmer answered cryptically, "I don’t know exactly what happened, but ever since that, the TCV’s been avoiding the whole area like the plague. It seems they are under the belief that any vampires that go near Poppa Gus’s uninvited will manage to end up spectacularly dead."

"Oh yeah, that," I said, remembering back to my first fight with Lothos. Where was the magic voice during that fight? Another mystery to deal with at a later time.

"You seem to have things under control at the moment," Lord Savik said, "With your permission, Elizabeth, I’d like to get my packs settled into your facility here. If you will excuse Anna and myself." The aristocrats and Farmer stood up. I started to as well when I caught Farmer’s hand signs.

Remain in the conference room, Farmer hand-signed to me, There’s another matter to deal with. I sat back down in my chair. I wondered exactly what Farmer wanted to discuss without the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes. I suspected it might have to do with whatever Farmer and Lord Savik discussed in hand sign. Or he could want to talk over the security arrangements for the evening’s meet with Bradon.

The four of them walked out of the conference room. I expected Farmer to excuse himself at the door to talk with me. I didn’t expect Farmer to grab Elizabeth, toss her into the room, and swiftly shut the door. Her Red Knights standing right outside the door didn’t even seem surprised. What the hell was going on? I sprinted across the conference room. I grabbed the door and yanked. Locked, damn it. So, I went back to check on Elizabeth. She was sitting on the floor, staring at the door with betrayed shock. She noticed me standing next to her. I was expecting to see the revulsion in her eyes that had been there before I’d left for the Disputed Territories. Instead was Elizabeth wore a guarded look. I offered my hand to help her up. She tentatively took my hand and picked herself up off the floor.

"What in the hell is going on?" Elizabeth asked.

"I was asking myself the same question," I answered.

"Did my Guildmaster ally himself with Lord Savik in some sort of soft coup?" Elizabeth asked, a mix of anger and fear in her voice, "I saw them doing that hunter hand-sign you all do."

"I don’t know," I said, "I couldn’t see what they were saying, so to speak." I expected some sort of personal attack, but Elizabeth just let out a frustrated grunt.

"You have your gun. Can’t you shoot the lock out?" she asked. I shook my head.

"That’s a steel door in a reinforced housing," I said, "Shooting will just break the handle and leave us even more trapped than we are now. We’d need a breaching charge to knock that door down. I generally don’t carry those around. Sorry." Elizabeth collapsed into a chair with a resigned air. The conference room phone rang, breaking the silence. She motioned for me to answer.

"Hello Ranger," Farmer said, "Please put me on speaker. I need to speak with the two of you." I pressed the button and sat down. Elizabeth looked coolly at the phone.

"First, this is not a coup," Farmer said, "It’s more of an intervention."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" I demanded. "An intervention for what?"

"You both know I lost my entire family between the witch-hunters’ and vampires’ assaults on the Manor," Farmer said, the sadness heavy in his voice, "In the time since, one of the few things that has helped me go on has been helping you, my lady. In that short time, I’ve become very fond of you. If not as a daughter, then certainly as a favored niece."

"So why would you trap me in here?" Elizabeth asked, softly. I half-expected her to add "with him," but she didn’t.

"Because I saw how you were before Ranger came back to Hillsborough, when he arrived, and after you chased him off," Farmer said, "You’ve been distant since Ranger went to the Disputed Territories. I noticed it, and so have the pack leaders. It’s hurting your relationship with the packs, which is something you can’t afford right now, most of all. We’ve discussed the reasons, and we were fairly confident we knew why you were withdrawing. When Ranger came into the Guild today, I was sure."

"Sure of what?" Elizabeth asked, in a controlled voice. From the look on her face, she was clearly not happy with Farmer’s frank assessment.

"You’ve been punishing yourself for chasing Ranger away," Farmer answered, "For chasing off your catshen." Tears started to trickle down Elizabeth’s face at Farmer’s soft words.

"Mark, you’re not exactly blameless in this," Vanessa said. Great, this was a real conspiracy. "You’ve done the same thing with Hangman and me. She hurt you deeply, and she was the only one who could have done it. Deal with it, because you screwed up, too. You let her chase you off instead of fighting to stay. Probably because you didn’t know how, but you didn’t ask for help, either."

"So, here’s what’s going to happen," Farmer said, "As far as everyone is concerned, the two of you are unavailable. You will deal with this. I’m hoping the two of you figure out a way to make your relationship work. If not, then both of you will decide how it ends. This county cannot afford for its Lady-Apparent and its strongest hunter to be publicly fighting and privately moping." Elizabeth and I looked at each other, both of us wearing neutral expressions.

"Farmer, she’s supposed to be meeting with the new leader of the TCV in seven hours. Are you sure now is the best time to be doing this?" I asked, hoping for a reprieve.

"Who do you think suggested locking the two of you in?" Nick asked. Ancestors, how many of them were listening to this call? "If we told him the meeting needed to be postponed because you were working out your differences with the Lady-Apparent, he’d agree in a heartbeat."

"That said, it would be best if we didn’t have to explain that to him, so you might want to get this sorted out before then," Farmer said.

"What about Lord Savik and Lady Anna?" Elizabeth asked, "What sort of impression is this going to make with them and their packs?"

"Your Guildmaster adequately explained the situation to me," Lord Savik answered. Elizabeth and I traded surprised looks. Sweet Ancestors, did they have everyone in on this? "From what he explained, everyone would prefer to see this situation resolved before we go to Tallahassee. And on a personal note, I would like to see this resolved. Now, stop stalling with all of these questions. The two of you need to solve this before it can impact our actions to save our state. So get to it." There was an audible click as they hung up. Elizabeth and I stared at each other in shock for a moment before she turned away.

That tiny little box in the back of my mind opened up, and I finally let myself feel all of my conflicting emotions. I wanted to yell at her for the way she treated me. I wanted to beg her forgiveness for what I’d done. I wanted to demand that she love me the way I loved her. I was terrified of hearing her reject me again. Most of all, I just wanted to hear her speak to me the same way she did when I came back to Hillsborough from Tallahassee. My instincts were screaming danger, but they were also telling me I needed to tell Elizabeth about what was going on in me. Why in the Ancestors’ name was it so hard to just talk with this female? Damn it, I never had this problem with any other female. There was so much that I needed to tell her, but as I looked at her, the words just wouldn’t form. I could feel that the moment was slipping, but I wasn’t sure exactly why. So, I did the only thing I could think of.

"I never stopped loving you," I blurted out. She didn’t say anything, not even a grunt in acknowledgment. I felt a rising anxiety. The closest I could compare it to was waiting for a hastily set explosive to detonate.

"I know," Elizabeth finally said. Anxiety turned to anger. What the hell was that supposed to mean? I took some long breaths to calm down. From what Farmer said, I wasn’t sure if Elizabeth knew what she was feeling. So, I waited for her to speak, look at me, do something.

"I’m sorry that I called you a monster," Elizabeth said, "I didn’t know how to react when you murdered Speartooth in front of me." Her use of "murdered" instead of "killed" hit me like a punch. I wasn’t sure how to take her apology. She turned around to look at me. Her eyes were red and I could see the wet paths of tears streaking down her cheeks. My anger melted away. I wanted to take her in my arms and make the hurt go away. Instead, I forced myself to stay in my chair. I had to ask the next question, no matter what answer she would give me.

"Do you still think I’m a monster?" I asked, desperately trying to keep the hesitancy out of my voice.

"No," she whispered and broke down into a new wave of sobs. I felt an enormous wave of relief pass through me. She could reject me, tell me she no longer loved me, or even asked me never to talk to her again. It would hurt, but at least she didn’t think I was a monster. I waited for her to collect herself.

"So, where do we go from here?" I asked, cautiously.

"I don’t know," Elizabeth said, "After the shock of what I’d seen wore off, I didn’t know how to act with you. I saw your face when I called you a monster. I didn’t think you’d ever forgive me. I just couldn’t face you anymore. And then you left to find Lord Savik…" She let the statement trail off.

"I didn’t know how to talk with you either," I said, "Vanessa told me to go back that night, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t hear that from you again."

"Two hours after you’d gone to the Disputed Territories, I knew I’d made a mistake," Elizabeth admitted, "Until just now, I hadn’t realized I’d been taking out my frustration on my wolves. Damn it, I should be better than that."

"I shouldn’t have left without having this talk with you," I said, softly.

"Why did you?" Elizabeth asked. The words were a simple question, not an accusation. "Anytime I’ve seen you, you just didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about you. You just went right after your target."

"Those were jobs. I know how to do jobs. This is something completely different," I answered, "I didn’t know how to approach you, so I figured there was no way to approach you. Vanessa told me to force the issue, but I just told myself she didn’t understand because she was just kin."

"Ancestors, you’re as bad as I am with this," Elizabeth said, with a mix of sob and laughter.

"How in the hell are you as bad as me?" I asked, "I was the abomination forced to the outskirts of the packs. You grew up in the Manor. You were taught how to act."

"For politics and social situations, Mark, not dealing with a lycanthrope like you," Elizabeth shot back with the barest hint of heat in her voice. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

"And what exactly what kind of lycanthrope am I?" I asked, hoping the fear I was feeling didn’t leak out out in my tone. Elizabeth looked up at me, and I was momentarily entranced. Damn it, why did she always have that effect on me?

"A lycanthrope who I love, but I’m also a little terrified of," Elizabeth answered. I closed my eyes and turned away as happiness, pain, fear, and anger threatened to tear me apart. I couldn’t look at her, and I couldn’t say anything. I felt her warm hands on my face as she guided me back to her.

"Mark, look at me," Elizabeth said gently. Working hard at keeping my emotions under control, I complied. Her face was only a few inches from mine. "I had a crush on you for years. Something about the mix of danger and outcast, I guess. But then, you were there when I needed someone to support me, and I fell in love. Something I didn’t really think I’d feel in my life. I knew you were in love with me. I could see it when you looked at me. And we almost threw it away because neither of us could be honest when things got hard. So, I’m being honest with you. I love you, but I’m also scared of you. I let my fear overwhelm my love the last time, but I don’t want to do that again. Now be as honest with me as you can. What do you feel about me?"

"I love you, but it scares me how much you can hurt me," I answered, saying the first words that popped into my head. "I’ve never done this before, and that’s also scary. I don’t know what to do, but I don’t want to lose you again." Elizabeth leaned in and kissed me. It was soft, tender, and understanding. We just stayed there holding each other, long after we heard the audible click of the conference room door being opened. Only the upcoming meeting managed to break us apart.

"Ancestors," I breathed as Elizabeth stepped out of the truck. She was wearing her auburn hair up in a refined style. A dark jade green dress accentuated her feminine form while still maintaining a formal air. She was the perfect form of a female aristocrat. She gave me a dazzling smile as I walked over.

"You look amazing," I whispered in her ear.

"You clean up pretty decently as well," Elizabeth replied, giving me a hard inspection. "So, now I know what was in the box." I could only nod. Shortly after the initial negotiations were concluded as to time and place of our meeting with Bradon, a package was delivered to one of the houses above the Guild. It was disturbing to see my name as the recipient, but much worse to see who sent it.

"Bradon always said I needed to dress up more," I said, letting her see the charcoal suit. "I’m somehow not surprised that he had my measurements on file. It’s even cut for wearing my sidearm." Elizabeth gave me an indulgent smile.

"I’m sure that last part is very interesting for someone in your profession, but for future reference, it isn’t something you need to share with me," she informed me, her smile softening the slight bite of her words. At that point, we were joined by Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Farmer, and Hangman. Lord Savik, Farmer, and Hangman were all dressed in formal dark suits. Lady Anna wore a black dress which had much the same effect as Elizabeth’s. She also gave me the once-over before her own smile spread across her face.

"Bradon sent you that suit?" Lady Anna asked. I nodded. "Seriously Ranger, when all of this is done, have him pick out your wardrobe. That vampire is an artist. You cut quite the dashing figure of a hunter."

"Thank you. You cut quite the exquisite figure yourself," I said. Lady Anna gave me another of those unreadable smiles. Elizabeth’s grip on my arm tightened, but her countenance didn’t change a whit. Something to ask about later. I turned to Farmer.

"There’s a complication," I said, "Bradon and his party didn’t arrive alone." I was part of the advance team sent to secure Poppa Gus’ before the vampires arrived. Four of the state hunters and myself cleared the restaurant, set up the meeting table, and make sure our shooters had the best vantage points if it became necessary to hose the vampires with silver. Plus a few other surprises if things got rowdy.

"What do you mean they didn’t arrive alone?" Farmer asked. If it had been something that compromised the aristocrats’ security, he knew I would’ve waived them off.

"Bradon brought a Turaki to moderate the negotiations," I answered, deciding the direct path was the best. They all stared at me.

"You couldn’t have told us this over the radio?" Lord Savik asked through clenched teeth. I looked over to him with a neutral expression.

"What would you have done if I told you that a Turaki was here?" I asked.

"I would have told the driver to take us back to your Guild," Lord Savik answered.

"Yeah, I kinda had the feeling you would, which is why I’m telling you now," I said. Lord Savik gave me a hard stare that I’m sure would have wilted one of his own wolves. He had nothing on my old Guildmaster.

"Uncle, please," Lady Anna said, taking Lord Savik’s arm, "Ranger’s right. Having the Turaki here doesn’t change anything. It’s probably a smart move to have one here." Lord Savik didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t make any further protestations as I led them to the restaurant. Farmer strode up next to me.

"Change in plan," he said, "You’re going to sit at the table instead of me."

"What?" I asked, barely keeping my voice under control. The plan was for me to coordinate the hunters and the four Red Knights doing security while Farmer joined the aristocrats at the table as Elizabeth’s senior adviser.

"I hate making last minute switches more than you hate dealing with them," Farmer said, "That said, you still need to be at the table instead of me."

"Why?" I asked.

"Do you think Lord Savik would’ve backed down from me if I told him the same thing you just did?" Farmer asked, "Plus, I saw how Lady Elizabeth looked at you when she stepped out of the car. You need to be by her side. For her sake as much as what it will tell the vampires."

"You’ll be on the radio?" I asked, letting my hesitation show. Farmer gave me a confident smile.

"I’ve got your back Ranger. Just like Nicholas and Hangman," Farmer said. He stepped back just as we came to the door and told the aristocrats about the change. For some reason, all three looked inordinately pleased. I just shook my head and stepped into Poppa Gus’s. The main dining area was cleared except for a long table. Four vampires sat along the right side with untouched glasses of water in front of them. The Turaki sat at the head of the table, sipping a glass of dark red wine. That meant he was a half-breed and not fully alien. The full-bloods had a hard time with most Earth foods.

The Turaki were an alien race who showed up on Earth shortly after the end of the Great Fatherland War. Something about the humans’ use of nuclear weapons drawing their attention. They claimed Earth was part of their empire, but that the planet was not quite ready for integration. Too primitive was what they said. The more believable theory was that when the Turaki realized there were things on the planet more terrible than the humans, the Turaki quickly changed their plans. As of now, they maintained that they were "Peacekeepers" against invasion from another alien race, although they’ve never bothered to name that other race. For the unseen world, the Turaki insinuated themselves as neutral mediators and arbiters between the pathwalkers and the rest of us. A Turaki, even a half-breed low-level one, would guarantee that any treaty between the Hillsborough lycanthropes and the Tampa Council would meet the pathwalkers requirements to stay the fuck out of our county.

"Good evening, Lady Vollen," Bradon said, standing up from the table. Bradon was a known, or at least a sort-of known, quantity, so I didn’t spend much time examining him other than a cursory check. The other three I wasn’t so sure about. I didn’t know any of them on sight, but the one to Bradon’s right had her fingernails painted black. From the way she walked and scrutinized her surroundings, I was fairly sure she was the new leader of the Tampa Council’s Bleeders.

"It’s Lady Elizabeth, Councilman Bradon," Elizabeth corrected, "I’m still technically the Lady-Apparent to Hillsborough."

"A mere formality," Bradon replied, giving a chivalrous wave of his hand. Damn, I spent too much time around vampires and senior lycanthropes. I could see what actually happened on the faces of the participants. Bradon had forced Elizabeth to admit to a lower station, and then he graciously ignored it. In the murky depths of politics, Bradon just scored a point and taken the initiative. I barely managed to keep my polite smile on my face as the realization of what happened crossed my mind.

"Let me introduce the new Inner Council of the Tampa Council of Vampire," Bradon said and motioned to the female Bleeder. "This is Mercedes Alonso." The Bleeder gave a respectful nod to our group. Mercedes looked like she could easily fit into either the Italian or Spanish groups with long dark hair and pale skin with bare hints of once being a darker shade.

"Collin Cleary," Bradon introduced the vampire to his left. Collin looked like he’d been turned in turn of the twentieth century Ireland and barely remembered to dress in modern clothing. He glowered at us with his ice blue eyes. My instincts were screaming warnings about that one.

"And Dominic Smith." Bradon motioned to a tall black vampire with a shaved head. Everything from his immaculate dark suit to the fashionable gold rimmed glasses screamed "business." I was willing to bet his nails had once been black. He had the same air of refined savagery about him as Bradon.

"This is Silas Green," Bradon said, motioning to the Turaki, "Considering the bitterness of our conflict and the level of violence, I thought it was prudent for us to have a neutral party mediate."

"An admirable suggestion," Elizabeth said, "Welcome Mr. Green." The bored-looking Turaki only nodded before taking another sip of wine. Even their half-breeds were aloof bastards.

"Councilmembers, please allow me to introduce Lord Savik of Dade County and Lady Anna of Broward County," Elizabeth said, "They recently joined in an alliance with Hillsborough. I consider them both not only allies, but close friends." Bradon and the other vampires made their own welcomes as we sat down across from them. I noticed she didn’t introduce me. So did the vampires from their expressions. I’m not sure if the Turaki noticed or even cared. I wasn’t sure what Elizabeth was playing at, so I just took my seat. Bradon and Elizabeth were at the center of our respective parties. I sat to Elizabeth’s left, which was the normal place of her Guildmaster. Across from me was Mercedes, the head of the Bleeders. She gave me a seductive smile. I ignored it with a bored expression I copied from the Turaki. An uncomfortable silence filled the restaurant. The lycanthrope aristocrats and the Inner Council were silently jousting with each other while waiting for the Turaki to open the negotiations. Actually, it was kind of amusing to watch. After a few minutes, Bradon cleared his throat. The Turaki finally looked up from his wine. He did a quick survey of the table and sat straight up. The bored look vanished to be replaced by a neutral look. Oh, this was going to be fun.

"Now that we are all here, let’s begin these negotiations between the Hillsborough County Lordship and the Tampa Council of Vampire," Green said with a pompous baritone. I remembered once again how much I hated dealing with the Turaki, even when it was necessary. "Will one of the sides declare as being the aggrieved party under the Peace?"

"The Tampa Council claims aggrieved status due to the fact that the Lord of Hillsborough County opened a war with us without a formal renouncement of the Peace," Bradon opened, looking hard at Elizabeth, "Do you have an objection to my claim?"

"No, we will concede the point for these negotiations," Elizabeth answered with regal neutrality. Bradon turned to Lord Savik and Lady Anna.

"The Tampa Council has no quarrel with the counties of Dade and Broward, but since you are allied with Hillsborough, the Tampa Council will also treat with you as the aggrieved party. Do you have any objections?" Green asked.

"No," Lord Savik answered.

"None," Lady Anna said.

"As the aggrieved party, the Tampa Council may begin with its requirements for the reinstatement of the Treaty of Peace Between the Lycanthrope and the Nosferatu as Agreed Upon in Malta in the year of Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen of the Human Common Era," Green said, "For the purposes of these negotiations, will all parties agree to refer to the aforementioned treaty by its colloquial name of ‘the Peace?’" Bradon and Elizabeth nodded.

"For the reinstatement of the Peace, the Tampa Council requires the reigning lord of Hillsborough publicly admit that Hillsborough was at fault for discarding the Peace, an apology from the reigning lord of Hillsborough, the acceptance of an ambassador to the court of the Hillsborough County Lordship from the Tampa Council of our choosing, and the relinquishing of all Ybor City territory to sole Tampa Council control, with all other territory in Hillsborough County being returned to status quo ante bellum," Bradon said without inflection.

"For the reinstatement of the Peace, the Lordship of Hillsborough County requires the acceptance to the Inner Council of the Tampa Council of Vampire of an ambassador of our choosing, all territory within Hillsborough County to be returned to status quo ante bellum, and the destruction of the Tampa Council’s stockpile of the manufactured vampires known as dervishes," Elizabeth replied.

The silence returned as the two sides "contemplated" the offers. Each side knew which of the opening stances were actually required and which were negotiable. The real negotiation would be over the side issues raised during the exchange of the main offers. For not the first time in my life, I wondered how something so important could be so fucking boring. I would have much preferred being part of the security team than sitting at the table. Okay, knowing Elizabeth needed me there made it a bit more bearable. I just needed to treat my role at the table (whatever that was) like I would any job. I listened as the opening stances were repeated. According to Elizabeth, there were good reasons diplomatic negotiations went through this circuitous round about to get to final agreement. Something about it controlling the flow so side issues could be dealt with before they could sidetrack the whole negotiation. It was also why only Bradon and Elizabeth would be speaking. All of it was to make sure all participants fully agreed upon the final deal.

"The Tampa Council cannot absorb the loss of its dervishes without compensation from the Lord of Hillsborough County," Bradon said. From the tightening around Lord Savik’s mouth, this wasn’t one of the iterations discussed prior to the meeting. From the glee dancing in Collin’s eyes, my guess was he was behind that requirement.

"Under the terms of the Peace, the dervishes qualify as weapons of mass destruction in their totality," Elizabeth countered, "As such, the Tampa Council would be bound to dismantle its arsenal through its own resources." Bradon’s face was neutral, but I could see the ghost of amusement dance in his eyes. Collin, by contrast, visibly fumed. For an Inner Councilmember, Collin didn’t seem to have much of a poker face. Maybe that was why Bradon allowed him to join the Inner Council.

"An interesting argument, Lady Elizabeth, but I disagree. The dervishes are simply highly effective ‘smart’ weapons. They in no way meet the definition of a weapon of mass destruction under the letter or spirit of the Peace," Bradon said.

"Before this point can prevent negotiations from continuing, I will review the Peace and make an objective finding if these dervishes meet the criteria of a weapon of mass destruction," Green announced. "We will be in recess during my review." The Turaki stood up and walked over to a wall. I knew he was communing with the Turaki’s artificial intelligence supercomputer, but he still looked like a child being disciplined. Elizabeth was talking with Lord Savik and Lady Anna, so I decided to check in with Farmer. Before I managed two steps, Bradon was in front of me.

"What do you think of the suit?" Bradon asked.

"It’s very impressive. Thank you," I answered. "Although I admit, I was surprised by its appearance." Bradon smiled at the verbal jab.

"Well, since you were going to be sitting with your lady at the negotiation, I knew you needed something appropriate," Bradon replied.

"Why did you assume I would be sitting at the table? I’m not a packleader or even Hillsborough’s Guildmaster," I said. Bradon chuckled lowly.

"No, you’re becoming something more," Bradon answered, "Nicholas informed me that the intervention for your lady and you was staged before you came here. I had confidence that you would win her heart back. In all seriousness, you have my congratulations."

"Thank you, but what does that have to do with me sitting at the table?" I asked.

"Where else would the Lady-Apparent’s mate sit?" Bradon asked.

"I’m not her mate," I protested.

"You may not be her mate officially, but I can see it between the two of you," Bradon said. His countenance grew serious. "Mark, please remember this. No matter what happens in the coming days, that young lady loves you just as much as you love her. Hold nothing back with her." Bradon’s intensity on my relationship disturbed me.

"Is it in your interests that I marry her?" I asked, half-joking.

"I’d make it a condition of these negotiations if I thought I could get away with it," Bradon answered seriously. "There are few things I could be sure would maintain the Peace in this county more than her on your county’s throne with you as her mate."

"Thank you, I think," I replied. Bradon’s smile returned.

"Go back and join their conversation," Bradon advised, "I’m sure between your Guildmaster, Savik’s Guildmaster, and the state hunters, everything is quite secure. I’m fairly certain that was your pretext for not joining them. Other than the fact you’re uncomfortable being party to such important events."

"Ancestors damn you Bradon," was the best reply I could come up with. He let out a laugh of genuine mirth before returning to talk with the other Inner Councilmembers. Annoyed, I walked back to the aristocracy. Each gave me questioning looks of varying severity as I joined them. To my surprise, Lord Savik’s was the most severe, while Lady Anna’s was the least.

"What did he want?" Elizabeth asked for all of them.

"First to tell me that he bought me my suit because he knew I would be sitting at the table," I answered, "And second, to congratulate us on working out our differences." Elizabeth’s face tinted a little red before going neutral. Lord Savik gave a low chuckle.

"So, your Nicholas read that situation well," Lord Savik observed. "Do you know any of those Councilmembers?" I told Lord Savik no and then related my observations of the three vampires.

"If Collin isn’t a disciple of Silanti, he’s certainly Bradon’s sap to that faction of the TCV," Elizabeth said. "Assuming he has the control of the Inner Council he appears to."

"I’m sure he does," Lord Savik commented. "He doesn’t strike me as a vampire that would promise more than he could deliver." Elizabeth looked unconvinced, but she didn’t say anything further. The Turaki walked back to the table, signaling that the break was over. We returned to our seats and the game faces returned on both sides.

"After reviewing the original documents as well as the information on the dervishes provided by the Tampa Council of Vampire, I have concluded that they do not meet the criteria for a weapon of mass destruction," the Turaki said. Green paused for a moment before continuing. "That said, I can understand how the Hillsborough County lordship would consider that dervishes in mass would constitute such a weapon. As an observer, I would recommend that a limit on the inventory of dervishes for the basic security of both parties." Bradon looked pleased, although Collin looked pissed. Elizabeth squeezed my hand under the table. I don’t know why, but I felt that she was happy with the ruling. Ancestors damn it, I didn’t want to understand these politics. I just wanted to be a hunter.

Elizabeth proposed no more than fifty dervishes with destruction costs borne by the TCV. Bradon countered with five hundred with destruction costs borne by the lordship. It went back and forth for a few iterations. I sat up straight as an idea came to me. The question was how was to suggest it to Elizabeth. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Bradon could read any of my slightest movements.

"Ranger, do you have a compromise?" Bradon asked. Everyone looked over at me. I gave Elizabeth a questioning look. She gave me the barest nod. I looked back at Bradon.

"How many dervishes do you really need to have as a reserve against the lycanthropes in Hillsborough County?" I asked, "Two hundred, maybe, but honestly, you could probably get away with a hundred. Especially for as long as it’s going to take the lordship to recover from the war."

"Assuming your estimates are correct, how do you propose to handle the destruction of the rest of the inventory?" Bradon asked.

"Turn them over to the Florida Princedom, on the condition that the lycanthrope candidate backed by Lord Savik and Lady Elizabeth is selected by the war council. The army’s going to need some targets for live fire practice before going into Broward and Dade, plus whatever other councils obtain dervishes for their own use."

"There’s no way we’re going to provide materials for you dogs to create an anti-dervish force," Collin snapped, almost coming out of his chair. He sat back down under the cold gaze of Bradon.

"That’s going to happen with or without you," I answered, "The question is whether the training happens before or during the fighting."

"I suggest we take another break to let each side consider the proposal," the Turaki suggested, annoyed about the breach of diplomatic etiquette.

"Where did you get that idea? It was brilliant," Lady Anna said as our party moved away from the table.

"What? It just made sense," I answered, "The whole point of this is to free us up to take on Blackhawk, and if we’re successful, the FCV. It didn’t seem smart to waste a resource."

"It was a smart suggestion, but we are going to need to teach you how to conduct yourself at these kinds of negotiations. Such a breach of protocol could have derailed talks like these," Elizabeth said. "There are proper means of providing those kinds of suggestions."

"I’m supposed to be guarding these kinds of talks, not participating in them," I protested. The three aristocrats gave me sorrowful expressions.

"Once, maybe, but I think that time is over for you," Lord Savik said. He turned to Elizabeth. "I think we should agree to Ranger’s terms, the trade of ambassadors, and returning of territories to their ante bellum borders. Maybe a caveat that the territory and apology issues can be revisited after the FCV is dealt with." Elizabeth mulled that over for a moment and then nodded.

"I think that will get us what we want in the short term," Elizabeth agreed.

"Do you think they will hold out because they know we are on short time?" Lady Anna asked.

"Collin will want to, I don’t know about the other two, but I think Bradon will want to get this little negotiation concluded. From what he was saying back in our counties, he has his own issues to deal with if he doesn’t want the entire state to plunge into a nasty war," Lord Savik said. "We are not the only faction he needs to talk with." We all nodded as the Turaki cleared his throat.

"Let’s reconvene," Green said. As we walked back to the table, Lady Anna brushed my shoulder. For all outward appearances, it just looked like Lady Anna was in a hurry to get to the table. It was a smooth bit of work. If I had been anyone other than a hunter, I doubted I would have felt her slide the small note into my pocket. She didn’t even look back at me to see if I felt the note. Not for the first time, I wished that Lady Anna wasn’t an aristocrat. She’d have made a great hunter.

"If you don’t mind, milady, I would like to start this round," Bradon said after we were all situated at the table.

"Of course, Councilman," Elizabeth replied. Green motioned for Bradon to speak.

"I propose that we agree to Ranger’s compromise on the issue of the dervishes, that we exchange ambassadors with acceptance by the receiving party, and the return of our territories to their ante bellum borders, with the exception of Ybor City. We would like to reserve the right to renegotiate the borders at the conclusion of your business in Tallahassee, assuming, of course, you are all still alive." There was silence on our side of the table. The three aristocrats were shocked that Bradon’s terms were almost identical to the terms Elizabeth was about to propose. I, on the other hand, was wondering how the fuck Bradon snuck a bug onto my suit. It wasn’t like we didn’t check it thoroughly when it showed up.

"We will agree to those terms," Elizabeth said. "I would add the proviso that ambassadors should be exchanged after our business in Tallahassee is concluded." Bradon nodded as if that was what he meant all along. Then he turned to Lord Savik and Lady Anna.

"I know that you were just providing support to your ally in this negotiation, but I would propose that the TCV have a similar treaty with the lordships of Broward and Miami-Dade counties," Bradon said. Lord Savik and Lady Anna quietly talked for a few moments before turning back to Bradon.

"We can agree to that as well," Lord Savik said.

"With all parties in agreement, I will produce the treaties," Green said, pulling out a tablet. Green tapped in a few commands, and golden displays appeared in front of each participant. I refrained from the urge to touch the hovering, translucent displays. The Turaki always like to show off how much more advanced their technology is than what we use. The full legalese of the treaties appeared on each display. As the treaties scrolled through, Green made sure all sides agreed to the verbiage. How the hell could basic English be so mangled? I could barely follow the read through. Once everything was read through, the displays vanished. Green placed a small box on the table about the size of a hockey puck.

"If each signatory will please state their full name and then place their right thumb on the recorder to bind the contracts?" Green said, "Who will go first?" The vampires volunteered. Each of the Inner Councilmembers announced their full name and firmly placed their thumbs on the block. Each time, the block glowed for a brief moment before extracting the crucial drop of black blood. Blood, or the vampire equivalent, was needed to "sign" any treaty if we didn’t want the pathwalkers to get involved. That blood could be used by the pathwalkers to punish any party that broke the treaty, assuming they just didn’t wipe out the entire side. You never knew with pathwalkers which approach they would use until folks started dying. Lady Anna went first on our side, followed by Lord Savik, and finally Elizabeth. Then all eyes fell on me.

"What?" I asked, "I’m just here to support my lady. I’m not a signatory to the treaty."

"I’m going to request that you be a signatory to the treaty," Bradon said. I was about to demand why when I caught Elizabeth’s slight shake of her head. She looked at the block and gave me a slight nod. Well, if she wanted me to sign, then I wasn’t about to argue with her.

"Marcus Phoenix Badmoon," I said, as I placed my thumb on the box. The box warmed as it glowed. I didn’t even feel a prick, but when I lifted my thumb, I could see the small red dot of blood welling up.

"The master treaties will remain at Senior Judicial Officer Klig’s office, but certified copies will be transmitted to the specified email addresses. The Imperial Security Service reiterates its desire that this treaty be upheld by the signatories." With that, Green stood up swiftly and strode out of the room. Well, that was one of the shortest "be good" speeches I’d ever heard from those damned aliens. Maybe because it was a half-breed.

"My lord, my ladies, I wish you all the best luck in your endeavors in Tallahassee," Bradon announced, "For the Tampa Council, the Peace is now back in effect, and we will keep this county safe for you while you are dealing with the War Council." The vampires walked out of Poppa Gus’s with a dignified air. Well, except for Collin. From the look on his face, that one was definitely going to be trouble. I wondered if Bradon would get upset if I assassinated Collin before we left for Tallahassee.

"My lady, we should get back to the Guild," Farmer said, walking up to the four of us. "We are going to be very busy if we want to leave for Tallahassee in the next thirty-six hours. You, at the very least, need to get some sleep." Elizabeth looked at her Guildmaster and nodded. They started to walk to the waiting vehicles when Elizabeth noticed I wasn’t with them. She shot me a questioning look.

"I’ll catch up later," I told her, "There’s some items here that need to be finished before I head back." She nodded and walked out the door with Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Farmer, and a couple of the state hunters. Hangman walked up beside me.

"You could’ve gone with her," Hangman said, "I’ve got keys to your truck." I pulled out the note that Lady Anna slipped into my pocket. We need to discuss something privately. Three hours. Blue house. As if this night wasn’t confusing enough. What in the hell would Lady Anna need to discuss with me that she couldn’t talk about in front of the other aristocrats? Maybe it was something about Lord Savik or Fangbearer.

"Oh shit," Hangman breathed as he read the note over my shoulder. "Come by our room after that meeting. You’ll need to talk with Vanessa."

"Do you know why she wants to talk to me?" I asked.

"I have a suspicion, but I’m not going to say anything unless I’m wrong," Hangman said. "So, just do me a favor and swing by our room after you’re done talking with Lady Anna." Hangman thought about it for a moment. "And don’t tell her I saw the note."

The blue house was one of the houses above the Guild vacated by the kin family when Hillsborough fell. Currently, it was being used Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and Fangbearer while they stayed in Hillsborough. I walked up the stairs to the house’s garage and knocked on the door at exactly one minute before the three hours were up. Lady Anna opened the door. She traded her dress for jeans and a black shirt. Her Glock was holstered at her waist. The light makeup she’d worn at the meeting was scrubbed off and her black hair was tied back. She hand-signed for me to follow her, but to be quiet. We walked through the house out to the pool in the back of the house. She sat down and motioned for me to sit next to her. My instincts were screaming danger, but I sat down. Lady Anna was quiet for several moments. Her face was drawn and pensive. I could tell there was something she wanted to talk about, but it was like she couldn’t figure out how to put it. I matched her silence as she worked out what she wanted to say. It must have been important for her to ask me to come out here when we both should’ve been getting some sleep.

"I’ve been debating telling you this for awhile now," Lady Anna said, breaking the silence, "I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to when I passed you the note."

"Tell me what?" I asked, "Is there something I should be guarding against?" Lady Anna gave me one of her unreadable looks.

"Ancestors, you really are that dense," Lady Anna said, "I thought you were just avoiding the issue. No, Ranger, I didn’t bring you out here to talk about some secret danger. Not exactly."

"Then why did you?" I asked, confused.

"This was the only time I knew I could get you alone," Lady Anna said, "Now, stop talking for just a moment. This is difficult enough." She gave me an intent look. "I know this isn’t the best time, but I had to tell you before we left for Tallahassee. I needed to tell you that I love you and that I want you to be my mate." Okay, that definitely wasn’t what I expected her to tell me. Although that sort of explained what Nicky and Bradon meant when they were making fun of me back in the Disputed Territories. Then I realized that Lady Anna was expecting me to say something.

"Why me?" was the only thing I could think to see. From the look on her face, it wasn’t what she’d hoped, but it wasn’t what she was scared I was going to say.

"Because you’re the only male I know that not only can keep up with me, but doesn’t think it’s strange that I do a hunter’s work. If anything, you respect my talents," Lady Anna said, "Plus, there was that whole willing to sacrifice yourself for me when we first met. That tends to make a female notice you."

"Oh," I said, my normal bantering ability escaping me completely. Lady Anna gave me a warm smile. She was actually amused that I was reduced to silence. Then before I could react, she was kissing me. How could something so similar be so different than when I kissed Elizabeth? Then my mind caught up, and I pushed Lady Anna back.

"Stop. I’m not going to do this to Elizabeth," I said.

"The same Elizabeth who chased you out when things got tough?" Lady Anna asked, a fiery heat in her voice, "What’s to stop her from doing it again? Think about it Ranger. I’ve seen or done everything that scares your Lady-Apparent. I understand you better than she does. Have you even told her about you and Lothos?"

"No," I answered.

"Why?" she demanded.

"Because I haven’t exactly had time to have that conversation with her," I shot back.

"Are you sure that’s the reason, or could it be because you know she wouldn’t be able to deal with it and give you the support you’re going to need when you go up against him again?" Lady Anna asked. Then she held up her hand before I could answer. "I’m sorry. You’re probably confused as hell right now."

"A bit, yeah," I admitted. "Why in the hell would you do this now?" Her question about why I hadn’t talked to Elizabeth hit a little too close.

"Because there’s a damned good chance that none of us will survive the next few days," Lady Anna answered. The uncertain look on her face made my angry retort die in my throat. "I couldn’t chance going to the Ancestors without telling you. And there was the hope that if I told you, you’d realize I am the female you need by your side."

"I need to go," I said, standing up. "I’ll see you in the morning." Lady Anna nodded, but didn’t say anything as I left. Hangman must have figured out what Lady Anna was going to say to me. Now I was glad that he told me to stop at his and Vanessa’s room. I needed some help figuring out all of the sudden emotions that were pinging around my head like ricocheting bullets.

Nick opened the door when I knocked on Hangman’s door. Oh good, more surprises. At least this was a surprise that I wanted. Nick was someone I could trust with this kind of problem. Plus, I was sure he’d known about this back in the Disputed Territories.

"Ancestors, you look like shit," Nick said as he ushered me into the room. Vanessa sat cross-legged on the bed with Hangman next to her. Nick sat me down in one of the chairs as he took the other. All three had sympathetic looks on their faces. I didn’t know whether to be angry with the three of them or glad that I had friends.

"So, she finally told you, and you never suspected a thing," Vanessa said, "Sweet Jesus, Mark, I love you, but I don’t understand how you never saw this coming. I honestly thought you were just leading that woman on back in the Disputed Territories."

"Wait, is that why you were always so angry with me?" I asked.

"Well, yeah," she answered, sheepishly, "Until these two explained it a little better. I thought you were just taking your anger with Elizabeth out by getting with the next woman who showed some interest in you."

"Well, that’s not what was happening," I said.

"So what exactly did she tell you?" Nick asked. I looked at the three of them. If there was anyone I could talk about this, they were all in this room. More importantly, they all wanted to help me.

"That she loves me and wants me to take her as my mate," I said.

"And what did you tell her?" Vanessa asked.

"I asked her why, and she said it was because I don’t treat her different because she can hunt, and I saved her life, and then she kissed me." Vanessa gasped as Nick and Hangman traded chagrined smiles.

"You let her kiss you?" Vanessa asked. She looked like she couldn’t decide whether to hug me or slap me.

"She caught me off-guard. I wasn’t expecting it," I protested, "And I stopped her. Then she went off on how she was better for me than Elizabeth and why haven’t I told Elizabeth about Lothos. Then she said she had to tell me now because we might all get killed in Tallahassee. At that point, it got very confusing in my head, so I left and came here."

"Why is it so confusing Ranger?" Nick asked.

"Because some of what Lady Anna said makes sense. Sort of. At least from a strictly logical point of view," I said. "She knows pretty much everything about me, and none of it scares her like it does Elizabeth. I’m also no longer sure about why I haven’t told Elizabeth about what happened at the warehouse with Lothos. I thought it was because there hasn’t been time, but now I’m thinking it’s because I know it’ll scare her even more." Vanessa decided I needed comforting more than being hit, so she came over and enveloped me in a hug.

"What do you want, Mark?" Vanessa asked.

"I want to kill Lothos and Blackhawk. I want my home to be back to normal. I want to be just a fucking hunter without having to deal with this state bullshit," I yelled. I took a few deep breaths.

"Yeah, but that’s not what we’re talking about," Vanessa gently chided.

"I want to be with Elizabeth," I said.

"Are you sure?" Nick asked, "Lady Anna made some very strong points. To be honest, she probably would be a better mate for you." Vanessa and Hangman both shot Nick betrayed looks. He shrugged. He held up a hand. "You’ve been infatuated with Lady Elizabeth for a very long time. Probably longer than you realize. It’s hard to overcome that kind of attachment, and look at things rationally. Are you willing to chance that you’re making a mistake and trying to build a relationship with the wrong female?"

"Damn it Nick, you’re supposed to be helping me, not messing me up more," I said.

"I am. Believe me, any relationship between you and Lady Elizabeth is going to be harder than you can imagine right now. Not just because you’re a Badmoon, but you’re a Badmoon hunter. There’s all sorts of traditions the two of you would be breaking if you two go through with this." Nick gave me a sympathetic look. "Are you willing to go through even more hell with a strong chance that you won’t be allowed to be together?" There was something in Nick’s eyes that stopped me from making a snap decision. I don’t know why, but I was sure that Nick had to make a similar choice, and he chose wrong. Maybe that was why he’d come to Florida.

I needed to be honest with myself. I knew I loved Elizabeth, but I wasn’t sure if I could trust her with everything about myself. I could trust Lady Anna with damn near anything, but although I found her attractive as hell, I wasn’t in love with her. Could I be though? I liked her well enough, and I damn sure respected her abilities. Would it be worth finding out if those feelings could turn into something more? The more I contemplated it, the more I realized one thing. At that moment, I wanted to be with Elizabeth. I wanted to be her mate, even if meant I was forced to stop being a hunter. I didn’t know how long I was quietly thinking through all of this, but when I looked up, all three were waiting patiently for my decision.

"I could live with Lady Anna, but I can’t live without Elizabeth," I said. Nick simply nodded, but Vanessa was beaming.

"Then you need to tell her everything about Lothos and what you’ve got to do," Nick said. "You’ve got to give her the chance to make the same decision as Lady Anna."

"Just don’t tell her about Lady Anna right now," Vanessa cautioned. "Let that wait until after we’ve all survived dealing with Blackhawk."

"Now that we’ve got Ranger’s love life sort of straightened out, I need to ask the two of you for a favor," Hangman said.

"What?" Nick and I asked at the same time.

"Vanessa’s agreed to marry me, and I want to know if the two of you will stand with me," Hangman said.

"Of course," I said.

"It would be an honor," Nick said.

We spent the next couple of hours celebrating the happy news. Buoyed by the joy of seeing Hangman and Vanessa taking the next step, I left their room to go have possibly a long talk with Elizabeth. It was time for her to find out if she could live with what I had to do.

Chapter 23 – Where’s This Calm Before The Storm They Keep Telling Me About?