After talking with the others, I needed to talk with Elizabeth. Before I did that, it would probably be a good idea to get cleaned up first. Our relationship was shaky enough without the chance of her picking up Lady Anna’s scent on me. Elizabeth might get the wrong idea, or worse, the right one. The last thing we all needed was for Elizabeth and Lady Anna to be fighting while we were trying to survive. I let out a tired laugh as I stepped into my room. Any other time, it would’ve been just a sensational scandal for two beautiful aristocrat females fighting over a lowly Badmoon. Now, it could destroy the alliance before we even got to Tallahassee.

As I stepped into the shower, I replayed the whole encounter with Lady Anna. Looking back, I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. I damned sure didn’t scare Lady Anna the way Elizabeth said I scared her. Lady Anna always understood the demands of my life and profession. She accepted the weirdness surrounding Lothos and me. Ancestors. This was not helping me sort out what I needed to do. Still unsure of what I was going to say to Elizabeth, I headed up to her quarters. Maybe something would come to me on the way. As I came out of the stairwell, I heard the elevator ding across from me. My instincts screamed warnings, and I fell back into the stairwell. Lady Anna walked out of the elevator flanked by one of Elizabeth’s Red Knights. The Knight ushered Lady Anna into Elizabeth’s office. From the look on Lady Anna’s face and the guarded walk of the Red Knight, it looked like Elizabeth summoned her. I had a nasty suspicion why. I crept out of the stairwell over to Elizabeth’s suite. Elizabeth took over the Guildmaster’s suite when the Hillsborough lycanthropes moved into the Guild. Just beyond the door was the Guildmaster’s, now Elizabeth’s, office. Another door led to a small apartment the Guildmaster jokingly called his "bachelor pad." It was simply a combination kitchen and living room with a small bedroom and bath. I opened the door to the office, expecting to find at least one Red Knight standing guard. The office was deserted. It didn’t bode well if both of Elizabeth’s Knights were in the apartment. Fortunately for me, I had been the Guildmaser’s personal hitter, and one of the duties of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter is making sure the Guildmaster is fit for carrying out his duties. Because of that, I was given access to the security cameras in the apartment. I sat down at the desk and typed in my access code. The monitor switched over to the feeds from the cameras. I needed to make sure that those two didn’t attack each other. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if they did, but I was sure I needed to monitor them. Elizabeth and Lady Anna were sitting across from each other at the small coffee table in the main room. I clicked on their camera and it filled the screen. A Red Knight stood guard at each female’s shoulder. Glasses of amber liquid were set in front of Lady Anna and Elizabeth. They both sat with rigid formality. My instincts screamed danger.

"Thank you for coming to see me," Elizabeth said with a neutral tone. I’d heard that tone before, and it wasn’t good.

"Let’s skip the bullshit pleasantries, and you can tell me why you sent your Knight to fetch me in the middle of the night," Lady Anna replied, glaring at Elizabeth. If Lady Anna’s blunt words disturbed Elizabeth, she didn’t let it show.

"If that’s the way you want, I’ll be just as blunt," Elizabeth said, "Stay away from Mark." Lady Anna sat back in her chair and let out a bark of harsh laughter.

"No," Lady Anna said flatly. Elizabeth looked like she wanted to come across the table at Lady Anna, but she quickly brought her features back to a polished neutrality.

"Yes, you will," Elizabeth said, "We’re about to head into our enemies’ stronghold, and I’m not about to have you messing around with his head. His job is already dangerous enough without your attempts to seduce him." The two females stared at each other for a long moment. I thought that comment was unfair. Elizabeth hurt the hell out of me, but I still managed to do my jobs.

"Do you think I would do anything that would put Ranger at risk?" Lady Anna asked, "Or more risk than he normally puts himself in?"

"What do you think you did with your little display at the pool?" Elizabeth asked in reply, "Mark isn’t like most males. He doesn’t have the experience with us."

"I know that," Lady Anna shot back, angrily, "I can’t believe you were spying on us! Where the hell do you get off doing that to your allies?"

"After what I saw, I had good reason to spy on you," Elizabeth replied coolly, "He and I are putting our relationship back together, and you go play with him like that?"

"What in the hell makes you think I was playing with him?" Lady Anna demanded, "I didn’t tell him one thing that wasn’t true. If anyone’s playing with Ranger, it’s you."

"Me?" Elizabeth asked in shock.

"Yes, you. Don’t play the innocent with me. You screwed Ranger up so badly, he shut down everything but his hunter side when he came down. Do you know how dangerous that is? Especially for him?" Lady Anna asked. Elizabeth looked taken aback.

"You know how we were raised," Elizabeth said, trying hard to get her feet under her. "We always knew our mates would be political. Did you ever think you would find someone you could actually love? So, yes, I acted badly when I didn’t know how to handle all of him. We’re trying to fix that now."

"So what are you going to do when you learn everything about him?" Lady Anna asked, "Are you going to send him away again without an explanation? Destroy him again? He doesn’t have enough friends to bounce back from that. As for me, Ranger doesn’t scare me. Any part of him. I can handle anything he has to deal with. Can you say the same?"

"I’m going to find out," Elizabeth answered.

"That’s not good enough," Lady Anna, "Not for him. You think you’ve got a hard road ahead of you? You’ve got nothing compared to what Ranger has to deal with. He needs someone in his life he can be sure won’t abandon him again because it scares the hell out of her."

"I am his catshen, and I’m not going to lose him again," Elizabeth said, "I’m damn sure not going to lose him to you."

"I’m not about to lose Ranger to you, either," Lady Anna said, "He’s important to me, and too damned important to all of us to risk him with your crush. Why don’t you ask him about what he needs to do, and make damned sure you can handle it before declaring him your catshen? You’ve got no fucking idea what that’s going to entail. Now, by your leave, I actually need to get some sleep." The last words were delivered with a biting sarcasm. Elizabeth waved her hand with a dismissing motion. The Red Knight escorted Lady Anna out of the room. I waited as she came out of the suite.

"A bit harsh weren’t you?" I asked as Lady Anna stepped out of the door. If I surprised her, it didn’t show. The Red Knight, on the other hand, almost drew his pistol. Lady Anna waved him down and looked over at me like she was fully expecting to see me sitting at the desk.

"What is it with you Hillsborough lycanthropes and spying on private discussions?" Lady Anna asked with a cutting coldness.

"Funny thing, I tend to want to make sure that the lycanthropes who’re important to me don’t kill each other," I replied. "If that means spying on them, then so be it." Lady Anna gave a low, mirthless chuckle that disturbed me.

"In some ways, you’re as bad as her," Lady Anna said, "Did you really think either of us would kill the other? Over you? Ranger, you know a lot about hunting, but you don’t know a thing about females. That was simply a dominance fight. One that ended inconclusively in my mind." She gave me a devious smile. "So, what did you think of what you saw?"

"I originally came up here to tell Elizabeth everything," I said, "She needs to know about me. You were right about that. We need to get this finished between you two."

"You know, most males would be ecstatic with having two females fighting over him," Lady Anna commented. "Some might even let it go on so that they could get what they want." Her smile was suggestive. I gave her a hard look in return.

"Most males don’t have to do what I do," I answered. "Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go have a talk with Elizabeth." Lady Anna rolled her eyes.

"Can you trust her not to run away from you again? Especially after she knows?" Lady Anna asked.

"I don’t know, but I won’t find out anything if I don’t tell her," I answered.

"I may be in love with you Ranger, but I’m not willing to be a consolation prize," Lady Anna said. I was about to ask her what the hell that meant, but she traipsed out of the office with the Red Knight in tow. Trepidation filled me as I looked at the door that led to Elizabeth’s quarters. Cursing under my breath, I pulled open the door and walked the short hallway to the suite. The Red Knight materialized in front of me. The look he gave me went past disapproval straight to contempt. We silently stared at each other for a long moment before Elizabeth’s voice broke our contest of wills.

"Who’s there Gregory?" Elizabeth asked, the fatigue clear in her voice as it floated from the bedroom. Then she walked in and I had that momentary feeling of surprise I always felt when I saw her. At least, that’s the best way I could explain it. Joy and fear danced in her eyes as a cautious smile spread across her face.

"I need to speak with you," I said, working hard to keep all my own worry off my face. From the look on her face, it was making my face severe.

"Can it wait until morning?" Elizabeth asked. I shook my head. "Is this about what happened with Lady Anna?"

"Not exactly," I answered. From the questioning look on Elizabeth’s face, that wasn’t a response she expected. She motioned for me to take the same seat that Lady Anna used.

"What does ‘not exactly’ mean?" Elizabeth asked guardedly.

"Lady Anna mentioned to you there were some things that you needed to know about me," I started. "That’s what I came here to do."

"How did she tell you so fast?" Elizabeth asked.

"She didn’t. I saw it on the camera feeds," I answered, motioning to one of the cameras.

"You spied on our conversation?" Elizabeth asked coldly.

"Let’s not go there," I said, firmly. "I happened to see her walk in here. I thought there might be bloodshed, because as I have been reminded, I don’t understand females." Elizabeth snorted a stifled chuckle.

"Yes, that fact occurred to me on more than one occasion," Elizabeth commented, "So, what do I need to know about you that might change our relationship?" Words evaporated from my mouth. Maybe I should have rehearsed what I was going to say before coming up here. There was an uncomfortable silence as I grasped for words.

"Did your father ever talk to you about me?" I asked. She shook her head. "You know the powers that you aristocrats get when you ascend to the throne?"

"Yes, I am familiar with them," she answered, with a slight chill in her words.

"Those don’t work on me. Never have. Your father found out after he tried them on me, so I thought he may have told you about it." Elizabeth looked at me quizzically.

"Not at all?" Elizabeth asked, in shock. "You don’t feel anything?"

"I know when an aristocrat’s using them on me. I can feel them, like tendrils or ropes, but no, I don’t feel what the aristocrat is trying to force on me," I said. I half-expected Elizabeth to move away or do something that told me she was scared of me. Instead, she leaned in and scrutinized me.

"Why?" she asked, with a tone of curiosity. Feeling a bit better, I continued.

"I don’t know, but I think it may have something to do with being a Badmoon," I answered. She cocked her head inquisitively.

"There seems to be a bit more to being a Badmoon than your powers not working on me," I ventured. Her curiosity became more intense. "You’ve heard of the vampire called Lothos?" Everything about Elizabeth went cold at once.

"Yes," Elizabeth said, with a controlled voice, "He is responsible for several of my wolves’ deaths. The few warriors who survived encounters with him has said that he’s incredibly powerful. They said he shrugged off getting shot by silver." From the look in her eyes, Elizabeth wasn’t sure about that last part, but I could tell she wanted Lothos dead. Well, dead again.

"He’s invulnerable to silver," I confirmed, "As well as staking and fire. I know because I’ve done all three to him." Elizabeth’s eyes widened in horror.

"Why didn’t you tell me this sooner? Is he back in Tampa? How is Bradon going to stop a vampire like that?" Elizabeth asked with the rapidity of a machinegun. I came around the table and grabbed up Elizabeth into an embrace. I could feel her slight shakes in my arms. Lothos terrified her.

"He’s not here. Lothos is still in the Disputed Territories, probably gathering the FCV around him. He’ll be dealt with after we finish our business in Tallahassee," I said, trying desperately to comfort Elizabeth.

"How? How are we going to fight something like that?" she shot back, some of her terror slipping through.

"Not we. Me," I said. Elizabeth slipped out of my arms and looked at me with one of those unreadable looks.

"What do you mean, ‘me’?" she asked, in an angry tone.

"I fought Lothos in the Disputed Territories, when we thought we were going after the FCV’s silver cache," I said, "During the fight, something happened. He’d beaten me and was going to kill me, but suddenly I heard this booming voice in my head, and then I was filled with power. Power enough to take down Lothos."

"A voice spoke to you and suddenly you have power?" Elizabeth asked, with a slight skeptical tone to her voice.

"I know how it sounds," I said, "If it hadn’t happened to me, I don’t know if I’d believe it either." Elizabeth didn’t say anything. She just looked at me, like she was hunting something in my eyes, face, and stance.

"I believe you," she said, "You’ve never given me any reason to think you’d lie to me, much less tell me such a wild story. There’s only one thing that’s bothering me. If you had all this power, why didn’t you kill him?"

"Because Lady Anna was badly injured, about to die, and Lothos was threatening to kill every lycanthrope in the warehouse if I didn’t let him escape," I answered. Elizabeth went back to being unreadable. I was pretty sure it was because I mentioned Lady Anna, but I wasn’t about to go down that road.

"So now what?" Elizabeth asked.

"I think I’m fated to fight Lothos again. This time to kill him," I answered, "I’m not sure if I’m supposed to survive that fight or not."

"Oh," was the only sound she made. Then Elizabeth was in my arms and crying. She kissed me gently. "Why does everyone I care about die?"

"Hey, I’m not dead yet," I reminded her. She let out a sorrowful chuckle and hugged me tighter.

"No, you’re not," Elizabeth said, warmly. "Is that everything that Anna was talking about?"

"Yeah," I answered, "Everything you should know before deciding to continue our relationship, or whatever this is." She chuckled at the remark. I kissed the top of her head.

"We have a long day tomorrow," I said, starting to get up, "I should let you sleep on everything." She pushed me back down into the chair.

"No," Elizabeth said, "I’m not going to let you go again."

"Are you sure about that? The packs could get the wrong idea," I said.

"Are you saying you don’t want to stay with me tonight?" she asked.

"Of course I do," I answered, "I just don’t want you to do something you’ll regret in the morning, or something that will hurt you with the packs." She kissed me fiercely.

"Mark, what’s the chances of us surviving the next few days?" Elizabeth asked softly, "What’s the chance of you surviving your fight with Lothos, even if we win? I’ve made my decision, and I’m not going to spend what might be our last few days together apart for the sake of propriety." I was confused about Elizabeth’s sudden shift, but I didn’t resist when she led me back to the bedroom.

"My lady?" a voice asked from the darkness, startling me awake. My hand shot for a gun, but it was caught under something. Elizabeth growled at my sudden movements, and snuggled up closer. Where the hell was my pistol?

"Relax," she whispered, before looking up at the Red Knight hovering at the door of the bedroom. The Knight was studiously studying the back wall without looking directly at us. Elizabeth fixed the sheet around her.

"Yes, what is it, Gregory?" she asked. I could see the glint in her eyes of amusement at her Knight’s discomfort.

"Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and the Guildmaster are here demanding to see you," the Red Knight reported, "Apparently, Badmoon has not been seen since last night, and there was some concern among the leadership."

"Fuck," I murmured. Elizabeth just stifled a giggle.

"Why didn’t you just tell them he was in here, Gregory?" Elizabeth asked. The Red Knight blushed brilliantly.

"It’s not my place, my lady," he answered, with perfect neutrality.

"I see," Elizabeth answered, "Please let them know I will be out in a few minutes." The Red Knight did a sharp about-face and strode back out of the room. Elizabeth rose out of bed and walked to a closet. My mental recriminations stopped as all I could do was watch.

"Mark, get dressed," she chided me when she turned to find me staring. "We’ve got a long day ahead of us."

"Oh, yeah," I said, remembering we were supposed to be getting ready to leave for Tallahassee. I looked around the room and started picking up my clothes. It took me longer to get dressed than it should have. I thought it was mesmerizing to watch Elizabeth undress. Why was it just as sexy to watch her get dressed? Elizabeth seemed amused by my antics, although she feigned annoyance. Ten minutes later, Elizabeth walked into her sitting room while I stayed a few steps behind her.

The reactions were diverse. Farmer just smirked as Elizabeth walked in and sat down. Lord Savik looked almost as if he expected it, and more annoyed he wasn’t told. Lady Anna’s face was expressionless, but I could see the flashes of anger in her eyes. Elizabeth gave the other female a look I couldn’t see, but from Lady Anna’s glare, I was half-worried that Lady Anna was going to put a blade in Elizabeth’s chest. Then came a rising wave of shame. Damn it, why did I suddenly feel the need to explain what happened to Lady Anna? Why did I feel like I betrayed her, somehow? Her words echoed in my head. Not knowing what to do, I shut the fuck up and stood off to Elizabeth’s side.

"I’m sorry to worry you," Elizabeth said, "Badmoon needed to talk to me last night."

"Well, now that we’ve dealt with that, I think it’s time we went down and joined our packs," Lord Savik said, "Elizabeth, would you please walk with me?" Lord Savik’s voice had that same tone of disappointment I’d heard from my Guildmaster when I screwed up spectacularly. Elizabeth must have heard something similar because she shot a nervous look back at me. She stood and took Lord Savik’s arm with a look of unconcern. Farmer quickly excused himself to walk with them. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room as Lady Anna and I looked at each other.

"Lady Anna, I think–" I started.

"No, I’m not having this talk with you now. Not the morning after you fucked her," Lady Anna said with a dangerous tone, "Let’s go and get to work."

"No," I said, my own anger rising, "What the hell did you think would happen? I told her everything, and she decided not to walk away from me. What the hell should I have done?"

"Realized that I’m still better for you than her," Lady Anna shot back, "But you’re not going to see that this morning because you’re still riding the afterglow. I’m pissed with her seducing you, and I’m pissed with you being that fucking stupid!" Then she was in my face, tears streaming down her face. My head rocked as she slapped me.

"If you were any other male, I would forget about you right now," she said, "You better realize that she is not going to be around for you when the shit hits the fan before I get some of my pride back." Then she stormed out of the room. I let out a stream of curses as I followed her. Damn it, why couldn’t these things be simple? More importantly, why was there a small part of me that thought Lady Anna was right?

I was still fuming about Lady Anna when I met up with Hangman and Vanessa on the way down to receive our assignments. Getting everyone out of Hillsborough was going to be an all-hands evolution. The only ones that wouldn’t be doing hard labor would be Elizabeth, Lady Anna, and Lord Savik. They would be busy making sure that all the necessary tasks were done and shifting lycanthropes as needed to get them done. That was part of being aristocrats.

"Where the hell have you been?" Hangman asked, "We went to your quarters this morning to get you for breakfast, and you weren’t there. I had to tell the Guildmaster."

"Yeah, I know," I said, not sure what I could tell them. Granted, they knew everything else, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell them all of the night’s events. I needed to tell them something, not just to stave off further questions, but because they deserved to know. They were two of my few friends, and both of them had stuck their neck out for me at one time or another.

"Oh God, you slept with her," Vanessa breathed. Hangman and I both shot her looks of surprise, but for completely different reasons. "That’s why you weren’t home this morning. You spent all night with Elizabeth."

"Would you keep your voice down?" I asked, nearly shouting at her. Vanessa let out one of her girly squeals and hugged me. I think she wanted to jump up and down, but was restrained by the serious looks on our faces.

"Ranger, is Vanessa right?" Hangman asked. His normally happy face was completely devoid of emotion. I nodded, and the fury that came across his face reignited the shame I’d managed to tamp down from my fight with Lady Anna. Damn it, he was right.

"Ancestors, Ranger, how could you have done that? Were you out of your fucking mind?" he asked, sounding like the Guildmaster he was destined to become.

"Sam!" Vanessa interjected, looking at her fiancee with a scandalized look, "Those two are supposed to be together. How can you be so cruel? This is a happy time for them."

"No, it’s not," Hangman said, "They should have waited. Ranger should have made sure of that." Vanessa looked confused.

"I know, I screwed up," I said, "I told her everything. About me, about Lothos, and then things got a bit emotional, and then went too far. I made a mistake. Can you forgive me?" The two of stared silently at each other.

"What the hell is wrong with you two?" Vanessa demanded, "Sam, you’re acting like Mark betrayed you."

"Because I did," I answered. "I let something happen that could sully the reputation of our Lady-Apparent and put her in a bad position with the other lords. Males are supposed to stop these sort of things before they happen, and I didn’t."

"Sullied her? Because you slept with her?" Vanessa asked incredulously, "That makes no sense. Am I sullied because Sam slept with me?" I held up my hand before Hangman could answer. It would be better if she heard it from me.

"You’re not the Lady-Apparent. Plus, you’re kin. The rules are different," I answered. I held up my hand before Vanessa exploded. "You didn’t go through tysach, so you won’t understand what the traditions and customs. It’s not something we talk about a lot outside of tysach." Vanessa was furious, but she just steamed silently.

"Who else knows?" Hangman asked.

"Farmer, Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and the Red Knights," I answered.

"You’ll have to tell Nicholas, but hopefully, no one else will find out," Hangman said, "At least, not until after you’re married."

"Marriage cover all sins?" Vanessa asked, bitterly.

"Something like that," I answered, "At least, it will be mitigated in the eyes of the lords. Or I could get killed fighting Lothos. That’ll probably do it also."

"I think you’re both being stupid, but I’ll keep my mouth shut," Vanessa said, "I’m still happy for you, Mark. Whatever your traditions say, I’m glad the two of you got together last night." We continued the training room on the second floor. Dozens of lycanthropes were listening to instructions from the pack leaders. Nick spotted us as we walked in and motioned us over.

"Vanessa, they’ve got you on data transfer and securing. That Fangbearer wolf and one of the State hunters are waiting for you upstairs," Nick said, "Hangman, they want you in the armory to help distribute what guns we have to the packs. One of the State hunters is in charge. Ranger, you and I get to be ammo carriers. We need to move what ammo there is down to the trucks and make sure everyone has enough." Vanessa gave Hangman a perfunctory kiss on the cheek before dashing off to her assignment. Hangman gave Nick and me a quick wave before also running off.

We need to talk, I hand-signed to Nick as we walked to pick up the ammo from the armory. He just nodded. We barely walked into the armory when one of the state hunters handed over a cart of ammo cans. I looked down at the fifteen green metal boxes. If this was just the first load, we were moving everything with us up to Tallahassee. I hoped they’d detailed a few lycanthropes just to loading magazines if they were thinking we’d need this much ammo. I grabbed the handle and wheeled the cart out. The convoy was being loaded at the Guild garage. It wasn’t part of the Guild the hunters used much because we were in and out enough that we could use the spare garage space in the houses above us. The Guild garage consisted of a dozen vehicle bays where the Guild’s special vehicles were maintained and prepared for missions. Those were gone and the garage was crammed with a collection of about twenty large vehicles – a mix of SUV’s and vans.

"Where are the heavies?" I asked Farmer as he walked up to Nick and me.

"Upstairs in the garages," he answered, "You’ll load those first because they’re going to be lead and trail vehicles in the convoy."

"Joy," I said, and turned the cart around to the elevator. Nick followed me as I moved to the cargo elevator.

"Did you want to talk about your indiscretion last night?" Nick asked, his tone so even I couldn’t tell if it was an inquiry or an accusation.

"I wanted to let you know what happened," I answered.

"I figured it out on my own when I couldn’t find you last night," Nick said. He looked at my face and shrugged, "I guess you already know you screwed up."

"Yes, thank you," I replied, trying to keep the heat out of my voice, "Hangman was more than clear on exactly how bad I screwed up."

"I doubt it," Nick said, "Though, that’s more because Hangman doesn’t fully understand the depth of the situation. Have you told Lady Anna, yet?" That surprised me.

"She found out when the leadership came looking for me," I answered.

"Ranger, that is where you really screwed up," Nick said. I gave Nick a puzzled look, to which he gave one of his few expressions – exasperation. "Ancestors, I hope you didn’t burn that bridge."

"What the fuck, Nick?" I asked, my own frustration coloring my tone, "I thought you wanted Elizabeth and me together. Why are you all of the sudden pushing Lady Anna on me?"

"I was fine with you and Lady Elizabeth when she was just a county lord," he answered, "I was expecting her to stay here while Lord Savik went to deal with Blackhawk. Once, she steps onto the state stage, your relationship is no longer a good fit for either of you."

"I have no fucking clue what that’s supposed to mean," I replied, "What the hell does her being in Tallahassee have to do with our relationship?"

"Ranger, you are not the only lycanthrope who will see Lady Elizabeth as desirable, especially if she shows her strength at the state level," Nick said, "When she gets to that level, do you think a marriage to a Badmoom will be acceptable?"

"Why not?" I asked, "Everyone seems to think it would be a good idea, except for Lady Anna and you. At least I understand her reasoning." Nick’s hand slammed the emergency stop on the elevator. Nick’s normally impassive face was contorted in rage.

"You don’t fucking understand Ranger, I’ve seen this happen before!" Nick yelled, "For Ancestor’s sake, would you quit thinking like a lycanthrope who just got laid and start thinking strategically! I know that’s not something you do normally, but I’d hoped you learned something while you were down in the Disputed Territories."

"Okay Nick, tell me what I should do," I said. I’ll admit, Nick furious scared me a bit. I’d never seen him expressing that much emotion.

"Be prepared to give up Elizabeth, for both your sakes and for the good of Florida," Nick said. "Take a good, hard look at your feelings for Lady Anna." I nodded, and Nick flipped the emergency switch off. The elevator resumed. The rest of the short trip passed in silent. The good part of simple labor is it gave me time to think. I didn’t understand what politics would force me to give up Elizabeth, but I trusted Nick. If he said that it was a possibility, I had to take it as an article of faith. I was in love with Elizabeth, but since my talk – talks– with Lady Anna, I admitted to myself I saw her in a new light. I had never considered Lady Anna as anything but a friend, but could there be more? Ancestors, how did normal lycanthropes deal with things like this? Of course, they didn’t have to deal with things like this. Only someone like me could manage to make his personal life so difficult that the idea of conducting what was, in essence, a coup was actually relaxing.


My phone buzzed as I was loading one of the Suburbans with a case of Silver Shok. I plucked the phone off of my and read the text. Call this number. Scott Franklin. I didn’t know why the State Guildmaster was contacting me, but my instincts told me that it wasn’t some kind of trick by the Society. I redialed the number and motioned for Nick. He walked over looking at the phone with a curious expression.

"Get the aristocrats over here right the fuck now," I said as the phone rang. Nick just nodded and darted over to where the leadership was talking. Nice thing about Nick – once he yelled at me, he let the matter drop.

"Marcus?" the State Guildmaster asked with an uncertain tone.

"Yes sir," I said.

"Excellent," the State Guildmaster said, with palpable relief in his voice, "I would’ve called my own people, but the Society is blocking all those numbers. They don’t know about this phone or yours."

"How is the Society–" I started to ask, but the State Guildmaster cut me off.

"No time. Listen to me. The war council officially removed the Prince from the throne about an hour ago. They’ve also disbanded the State Guild and instated the Society as our replacement. My hunters who were there were rounded up and jailed in the Manor by Society operatives. The Society is invading the Guild right now to get me and the remaining hunters. You need to get here–" He was cut off by a crashing sound. That had to be his office doors being breached. The expected gunshots didn’t sound. The State Guildmaster gave three short presses on one of the keys. That was a hunter signal for Can’t talk. Keep line going. Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and Lady Elizabeth joined me. Their Red Knights formed a protective bubble around us. I hit the mute on the phone and punched up the speaker.

"State Guildmaster called me. The State Guild’s being raided by the Society," I explained. "Someone’s just busted into his office."

"Is there something I can do for you Blackhawk?" the State Guildmaster asked.

"You were supposed to surrender yourself and your hunters to the war council a half-hour ago," Blackhawk answered, "As the leader of the Society of the Claw and the Fang, I’m here to arrest you."

"We both know the council doesn’t have the authority to disband the State Guild," the State Guildmaster said.

"Yet, here I am," Blackhawk retorted.

"And what happens when the county chapters rebel against council for your actions against the State Guild?" the State Guildmaster asked.

"They’ll be too busy fighting a war against the leeches," Blackhawk answered. "Even your few remaining hunters not in custody will be too busy helping the counties stay alive to come and rescue you. Like those you sent down to Hillsborough against the Prince’s orders." Metal slid against leather as guns were drawn. For a tense moment, no one spoke.

"I could kill you and neither of your thugs could stop me," the State Guildmaster said.

"Scott, I’ve always thought of you as a pragmatic lycanthrope," Blackhawk said. "Or at least, a relatively pragmatic lycanthrope. Yes, you could kill me, and then my two ‘thugs’ would kill you. What would really be the end result of that? Florida wouldn’t have its two most valuable lycanthropes in the middle of a crisis we haven’t seen since the Great Fatherland War."

"One of my hunters that you haven’t illegally captured will take over the State Guild. As for you, there’s always another courtier willing to be the power behind the throne," the State Guildmaster countered, "Maybe the next one won’t have to bring the state to war just to get power."

"Is that what you think all of this was?" Blackhawk said, "For me to be puppet-master to the next Prince?" Blackhawk let out an evil laugh. "Here I was, thinking that you were just a step behind me. Thinking you were just about to destroy my plans. All that worry, and you have no fucking clue what I am doing. Well, now I’m annoyed. I wasted time, energy, and resources collecting you and your hunters up because I overestimated you." I traded looks with Lord Savik and the two ladies.

Can you tell him? Lord Savik asked with hand-talk. I shook my head. There was no way to tell the State Guildmaster about Blackhawk seizing the throne without betraying that we were listening.

"It’s those kinds of things that cause plots to fall through," the State Guildmaster said, smugly.

"Yes, because I do these things without planning for contingencies like some third-rate villain," Blackhawk snapped, sarcastically. The State Guildmaster snickered.

"Considering the string of failures of your primary operations, the description would be apt," the State Guildmaster said, "Actually, I’m surprised you’ve made it this far without someone killing you."

"Failures?" Blackhawk said, "I’ve turned every setback into an even greater success."

"Including trying to kill Lord Savik?" the State Guildmaster asked, "I think that turned out poorly for you."

"Why am I not surprised that you’ve found out about that?" Blackhawk mused, "Badmoon found the emissary’s report and handed it over to you, I presume?"

"Something like that," the State Guildmaster said.

"I’m regretting not killing that lycanthrope while he was here," Blackhawk said. "I’ll actually admit that was a failure on my part."

"Why didn’t you? He’s a Badmoon. It’s not like anyone in the Manor would or could have stopped you," the State Guildmaster said. "Unless the problem was that you didn’t want to draw attention to yourself with that bit of murder. The entire court would know it had to have been you or your Society if Ranger ended up dead here in the capital. So, that meant you didn’t want any attention drawn to some plot of yours in Hillsborough." There was a brief pause before the State Guildmaster let out a dark chuckle. "You had one of your Society thugs assassinate Lord Vollen, didn’t you?" Elizabeth gasped. Lord Savik reached out and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. Even Lady Anna gave Elizabeth a sorrowful look.

"I really wanted to keep you around, Scott," Blackhawk said, regret filling his voice. For some reason, I suspected it was genuine. "You would have been a great asset in the war. If only you weren’t so damned perceptive."

"Do you really think even your pet war council will believe that I died resisting you?" the State Guildmaster asked. "Do you really think that the rest of the state will believe it?"

"My war council? Of course they will," Blackhawk answered, "Did you think I would have let them convene without ensure that the majority of members owe me their personal loyalty? As to the rest of the state? Well, there are so many ways for opposition lords to be killed during a war."

"The Prince was always such a good judge of character, how did he miss you?" the State Guildmaster asked.

"Miss me? He helped me engineer everything," Blackhawk answered. "Why else would a veteran of the Great Fatherland War let parts of his state fall under leech domination? Who else could have hid the details of what happened in the Disputed Territories from you for so long? Every time I think you’re this omniscient spymaster, you ask something like that."

"Why? Why would the Prince allow himself to be deposed?" the State Guildmaster asked.

"To allow his only son to rise to the throne," Blackhawk answered. There were sharp intakes of breath from the aristocrats.

That explains it, Lord Savik hand-signed. He sees himself as the true heir.

"The Prince had no children," the State Guildmaster said flatly, "He didn’t even take a mate."

"No legitimate children, true," Blackhawk said, "He did have two illegitimate sons."

"You are one of them," the State Guildmaster said, flatly. There was momentary silence on the line, and I guessed Blackhawk must have nodded in answer.

"This still makes no sense," the State Guildmaster said, "The lords would have accepted even an illegitimate son as heir-apparent once the Prince was past sixty."

"Would they have accepted me if they knew I was a taboo son?" Blackhawk asked. The aristocrats traded shocked looks. What the fuck was a taboo son? Did the Prince have a child with another Badmoon? No, that couldn’t be it. From the horror on the aristocrats’ faces, a taboo son was something so frightening that if that were the case, there was no way that Elizabeth or Lady Anna would even have contemplated a relationship with me. This was something else.

"I would have known if a taboo son had been born," the State Guildmaster said, flatly. "If not me, then certainly my predecessor."

"You know what I find amusing? You actually believe that," Blackhawk said. "For your information, I am not the only one running around the state. There’s another. Well, there were two, but one of them was killed recently. Such a waste. To be honest, neither of them knew their true nature, so it’s not surprising you didn’t know about them. I just wanted you to know exactly how badly you’ve failed in your duties before you die." The crack of a pistol shot was followed by the stutter of a suppressed burst from a submachine gun.

"Are you alright, my lord?" an unfamiliar voice asked.

"Yes, thank you," Blackhawk said. He grunted in pain with the sound of movement. "That was very quick work John. If you’d been an instant slower in knocking me out of the way, he might have actually killed me. I’ll take a wound to death any day."

"Sorry, sir, about the mess," another voice said.

"No, you did exactly what you should have Michael," Blackhawk said, "It may make things more difficult, but that was my fault, not yours. I let that bastard trick me into talking instead of just acting. What have we learned today?"

"Never let the need to gloat supersede the job at hand?" John asked.

"How about ‘never gloat’?" Michael countered.

"I think Michael’s closer," Blackhawk said, "Gloating, though very pleasurable, takes up valuable time and can solidify the enmity of your opponent." There was a rustle as the phone was picked up. "It also provides intelligence to whoever might be listening in to the conversation."

"We shut down all of the hunters’ phones," protested John. "He couldn’t call any of his hunters or even any of the lords."

"I know John," Blackhawk said, "So who else could he have called? Any guesses?" There was a pause as Blackhawk waited for answers from his thugs. "Well, I do. Ranger are you there?" I mouthed for the others to stay quiet as I unmuted the phone.

"I’m still here Blackhawk," I said, working hard to keep the fury out of my voice.

"Let me guess. After hearing my conversation, you’re even more determined to come after me and kill me," Blackhawk said, sounding almost bored.

"You ordered Lord Vollen’s murder," I replied. "Not only was he someone I respected, but you set in motion events that ended with my home falling to the vampire."

"For the record, I didn’t order Lord Vollen killed," Blackhawk said, "I did that myself. And you almost killed me, which should have been my first clue that you were too dangerous to let run around unsupervised. I’ll admit you were a nasty surprise that night." Lady Anna clamped her hand firmly over Elizabeth’s mouth. Pain and fury raged in Elizabeth’s green eyes. She fought hard against Lady Anna before letting herself be wrapped up in the other female’s embrace.

"That isn’t making me want to kill you less," I said.

"It wasn’t supposed to," Blackhawk replied, "It was to give you an idea of exactly how dangerous of a target I am. Whether you want to believe me or not, I am just as good a hunter as you are."

"You’re no hunter," I said, malevolence in my voice.

"I didn’t go to the camp, no," Blackhawk agreed, "I was trained by some of the best hunters in the state until I was just as good as them. How else did you think I was able to lead a bunch of former hunters in the Society?"

"By having your daddy tell them they had to play with you?" I taunted.

"For the first to join the Society, but they stayed once I proved to them I was just as capable as they were," Blackhawk answered without a hint of emotion, "At any rate, you should be thanking me for that particular murder. Without that happening, you would never have been able to have a relationship with his daughter. Which is what I’m offering in return for you to give up this crusade of yours."

"What?" I asked, "The last time we talked, you told me that you were going to marry off Elizabeth to another lord and you wouldn’t have her killed if I played nicely."

"That was before you heard something that could actually turn her into a real threat," Blackhawk said, "So, in return for your silence on this, I will allow her to marry you. As long as you stay in Hillsborough, with the occasional help during the war, and as long as Elizabeth doesn’t leave the county, I will let you both live. If, on the other hand, you tell her, or come after me, I will make sure that both of you die. Think about Hillsborough’s lycanthropes. Do you really want to rob them of their last member of the Vollen family?"

"Fine," I snarled into the phone, "Our lives for your secret. Any attempt by you to kill either of us, or any attempt that I even suspect you’re behind, and the deal is off. I will make sure you die."

"See, we can be reasonable," Blackhawk said, "After my coronation as the new Prince of Florida, a proclamation will be sent out declaring Elizabeth Vollen as the new Lady of Hillsborough County, with the caveat that she is to marry you. I’m sure that you will take measures on your end to make sure that I fulfill my end of the bargain, so there’s no need for you to threaten me further. I have enough to do than listen to your very competent threats." With that, he ended the call.

"Why did you agree?" Elizabeth nearly shouted at me. Lady Anna pulled Elizabeth into a comforting hug. It surprised me, but then again, Blackhawk had been responsible for both of their fathers’ deaths.

"Because Blackhawk still thinks these two are dead and the Broward and Dade wolves are still in their counties," I answered, pointing at Lord Savik and Lady Anna. I was trying to keep my mind in job-mode, but seeing Elizabeth in pain was making that difficult.

"Do you think he believed you?" Lord Savik asked.

"I doubt it," I answered, "I think he believes that he bought himself some time for his Society assassins to come after me. Maybe Elizabeth as well. At any rate, we have at least four hours before any of his minions can do anything."

"Four? I would have thought at least six," Lord Savik said.

"Unless he’s flying them in," I said.

"Damn, I didn’t think about that," Lord Savik said. "Will we be ready to move in less than four hours?"

"Probably," Nick said, "We may have to leave some stuff, but we can be ready to move in four hours."

"Can I ask you a question?" I asked. Lord Savik gave me a knowing look.

"You want to know what a taboo son is?" Lord Savik asked. I nodded. "Do you remember when we talked about how aristocrats generally don’t marry or mate with non-aristocrats?"

"It was the reason for the strong extra-marital sex taboo," I said, shame from what happened last night coloring my face. "So Raven was a taboo son because the Prince had a child with a non-aristocrat?"

"No," Lord Savik said, hesitantly, "You’ll have to excuse me, but this isn’t something we talk about outside the aristocracy. We marry outside the aristocracy, particularly when a powerful pack leader is being brought into the fold. There’s also the small fact that aristocrats can’t help falling in love anymore than any other lycanthrope." He looked meaningfully at the two ladies-apparent.

"There is one mating that can never happen. A taboo son is what happens when an aristocrat and a shaman have a child," Elizabeth said. "They’re always male, always powerful, and always unstable. The Guildmasters are supposed to kill any taboo son once their identity is revealed." She turned to Lord Savik. "He needs to know what we’re facing."

"Did you even suspect we were dealing with a taboo son when I told you about Raven?" I asked Lord Savik.

"Yes, but since he was dead, I didn’t think you needed to know," Lord Savik said, "It never occurred to me that there might be another, much less two."

"So who is the last one?" Elizabeth asked. "Blackhawk said that there were two others, but one was killed. I’m assuming that was this Raven individual you’re talking about."

"Maybe that’s why Blackhawk doesn’t want Ranger anywhere near him," Lady Anna said. "He’s already killed one of the taboo sons."

"I think it has more to do with the fact that Ranger is too unpredictable and dangerous to be let wandering around loose in the state when Blackhawk is trying to pull off a very complex plot," Lord Savik said. There was a dark chuckle from the two females. I’ll admit I got a bit of an ego boost from that.

"Let’s get back to work if we’re going to leave in time," Nick said. The aristocrats nodded and went back to supervising the work. I grabbed Elizabeth as she walked past and pulled her into an embrace.

"I am so sorry," I whispered to her.

"Don’t," she said, putting her finger across my lips. "There will be time to deal with all of this after we kill Blackhawk." All I could do was nod.

"Nick, there’s one other thing," I said as I shoved another metal box of ammunition into the truck. He quirked up an eyebrow. "Whatever happens, make sure Blackhawk is dead before the week ends."

"Is that all? I thought that was already a forgone conclusion," Nick answered simply. This is why Nick was probably my best friend.


Three hours and forty-five minutes later, I climbed into the shotgun seat of one of the Suburbans. Behind me sat Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Elizabeth, Farmer, and the Disputed Territories Guildmaster, as well as the four Red Knights. Fangbearer was driving. All of the packleaders, as well as the Disputed Territories Spiritmaster and Eagle, protested putting all of our leadership in a single vehicle. Especially with only a single hunter – and a disreputable one at that – to provide additional security. The barb annoyed me, but this time I agreed with the packleaders. Not about the disreputable part, but I kept having visions of a single attack wiping out the aristocrats. None of the packleaders had the ability or gravitas to pull this assault together without at least one of the aristocrats. Unfortunately, all three of them got that muley look on their faces when we brought up our concerns, so I just shrugged and made sure the aristocrats were as close to the center of the vehicle as possible. I racked my Commando into the clip under the dash and placed the MP5K PDW on my lap. Fangbearer looked at the two weapons and my vest stuffed with spare magazines. His look silently asked if I thought I brought enough toys. I restrained the urge to give him the finger, which I thought of as a personal growth victory. The aristocrats were busy giving last minute instructions and reassurances to the group of lycanthropes we were leaving behind. Twenty Hillsborough lycanthropes and a State hunter were left to guard the Guild in case Society operatives came around looking for Lady Elizabeth. Actually, the hunter and about five of the others were the guards. The others were too wounded too bring with us. Still, proprieties needed to be maintained. The wounded were also charged with protecting the Guild, and from the looks on their faces, I didn’t doubt they would do their best to kill any Society fucker that showed his face. Now we were ready to go. The first wave of four vehicles left shortly after the call from the State Guildmaster. We would meet up with them in Brooksville. A third wave of six vehicles would leave a couple hours after us and join us in Brooksville. The idea was to form up before crossing into a county and then disperse as we moved through.

Ours was the largest of the waves. Ten vehicles loaded with fifty of our hundred lycanthropes. Although we were staggered as we drove up Dale Mabry Highway two SUVs stuck to the aristocrats’ Suburban. There was only a pair of lycanthropes in each of them, but they were there to provide a screen for our truck in case the Society decided to deploy anti-armor weapons. Not likely, but I wouldn’t put anything past the Society at this point. I really didn’t want to dwell on that idea. Nick was driving one of the vehicles. Hangman was driving the other.

"Ranger, we’ve got an issue," said one of the state hunters from our scout vehicle a couple of miles ahead. "You’re going to need to pull into the Wal-Mart at the apex of Dale Mabry and 41." I looked back at the aristocrats. The hunter said issue, not problem, which meant it was something that had to be dealt with, but not necessarily with firepower.

"Best guess, it’s the Pasco County lycanthropes," I concluded.

"They haven’t been guarding the border for the last two days, and now they suddenly show up?" Fangbearer asked, "I don’t like it. It’s a trap."

"Or an opportunity," Lord Savik said, "We’re going to have to take that chance. Alert the rest of the convoy." The tension ratcheted up as the convoy merged. If it was a trap, we needed to bring the mass. I grabbed my Commando and slung the small MP5K. If this was going to get violent, I wanted the heavier-hitting 5.56mm. Ours was the next to last vehicle in the line as our group pulled into the parking lot. The scout car was surrounded by six Pasco County deputy cars as well as five large pickup trucks. I was willing to bet a mix of kin and lycanthropes. This was going to be fun. Six of our vehicles pulled into a line abreast, giving us an impromptu firing line. The rest of us pulled behind them. There was an eerie quiet as all the motors were turned off. A single lycanthrope walked out in front of our two groups. As he came into view, I swallowed hard. It wasn’t everyday you saw a county lord step into the middle of two armed groups. Especially without being surrounded by Red Knights.

"Lady Elizabeth, would you please come out?" Lord Hauser asked, "We need to talk. I promise, we do not want to harm any of you."

"Stay here, Anna," Lord Savik said, "Elizabeth, if you will come with me. It’s been a while, but it would be good to talk to an old friend." The two aristocrats stepped out of the truck. Lord Savik waved back the Red Knights. If Lord Hauser was willing to meet without them, we were going to reciprocate, much to the Knights’ dismay. I didn’t care. I stepped out of the truck and stood by the engine block with my Commando at the low ready. Elizabeth gave me an indulgent smile as she passed by me.

"Tell me you miked them," I said back to the Red Knights.

"Damn straight," Lord Savik’s senior Red Knight said.

"Can you feed it to me?" I asked.

"Channel six," the Red Knight said. Flipping the dial on my radio to the frequency, I heard Lord Savik telling Elizabeth he hadn’t seen Lord Hauser for several years.

"Ancestors, Erik, I couldn’t believe my eyes when you stepped out of that truck," Lord Hauser said, warmly "I thought you were dead." The two lords hugged briefly. "Lady Elizabeth, you’re looking more and more like your mother."

"Thank you sir," Elizabeth said, her head dipping down with pleasant embarrassment.

"That being said, what the hell are you doing breaking the quarantine through my county?" Lord Hauser asked, his voice suddenly becoming formal.

"We’re going to confront the war council before it selects the bastard dog who sold out my county to the vampires as the new Prince of Florida," Lord Savik answered flatly. Lord Hauser stepped back in shock "Believe it John. The bastard has already killed the State Guildmaster and admitted the majority of the war council is in his pocket."

"How do you know this?" Lord Hauser asked.

"You know the Badmoon?" Lord Savik asked.

"Of course I do," Lord Hauser answered, sounding slightly disgusted, "What does he have to do with this?"

"Blackhawk, the bastard dog, sent him to Disputed Territories to bring me out. Or at least, that’s what Blackhawk told Badmoon. Actually, it was so Badmoon could lead an assassin to my door," Lord Savik said, "So, between being used to betray me and learning Blackhawk was behind my counties’ fall as well as the death of Lord Vollen, Blackhawk’s managed to piss Badmoon off quite nicely. I imagine you know his reputation from your Guildmaster? Blackhawk tried to buy him off. Blackhawk doesn’t know I’m still alive and coming for him." There was a long silence as Lord Hauser looked between Lord Savik and Lady Elizabeth.

"For the love of the Ancestors, if you aren’t sure if you can believe it, why don’t you just Look?" Elizabeth asked. I didn’t know what Look was supposed to mean, but the capitalization was clearly stressed in her voice. Whatever it was, both Lord Savik and Lord Hauser froze in shock at her words. I looked back and saw that Lady Anna, Fangbearer, and the Knights were similarly shocked.

"Would you let me Look, Erik?" Lord Hauser asked with trepidation.

"Yes, but it won’t be easy for you," Lord Savik answered gravely, "The last few years have been tumultuous, to say the very least. Don’t let yourself get pulled into the storm." Lord Hauser nodded. The two lords stood across from each other and stared into each other’s eyes.

"I can’t believe Lord Savik let him do that," Fangbearer breathed.

"It makes a certain amount of reckless sense," Lady Anna said, "Maybe she is learning from Ranger."

"Would either of you explain before I get twitchy and shoot something?" I asked, with an overly polite voice. Lady Anna stepped out of the truck, walked over to me, and then got very close. I struggled to keep watching the Pasco lycanthropes in case something needed killing. I could feel her warm breath against the side of my face.

"Looking isn’t something we talk about," Lady Anna whispered into my ear, "It’s telepathy, but so much more. Lord Hauser is looking into Uncle Erik’s mind. He can see everything. Anything that Uncle Erik knows or feels. The stronger the emotions, the thoughts, the mind, the easier it becomes for someone to get lost." Something in the way she said the last word made me shudder. "It’s why we don’t use Looking except on rare occasions. Everyone has something they don’t want others to know, and no one wants to chance that they’ll never come out of it. Then, there’s times like these." She paused for a long moment. "I wonder what would happen if you Looked with that female."

"From the way you’re talking, it takes two aristocrats to do Looking," I said.

"True, but I’m starting to wonder exactly what your limits are," Lady Anna said, with a mischievous lilt in her voice. "If she won’t, I will. There’s nothing in you that could scare me. And there’s nothing in my mind that I’d hide from you."

"You don’t know that," I said, "Hell, I don’t know that. Why would you even consider it?"

"Why do you think?" she asked. Before I could say anything, Lady Anna was back in the Suburban. What the hell was that all about? First, Lady Anna is screaming at me for sleeping with Elizabeth, and then offering to let me read her mind? I pushed it to the back of my mind and focused harder on the Pasco lycanthropes. Then Lord Hauser collapsed. The Pasco lycanthropes tensed and a few weapons came out. Our wolves responded with more guns. Most of the weapons were simply being brandished. Except for one – a Pasco hunter trained an M4 at Lord Savik. I placed the holographic reticle on the hunter’s head. If I saw him tighten on the trigger, I was going to put a silver 5.56mm round through his fucking head. Lord Savik went down to help Lord Hauser. The Pasco hunter tracked Lord Savik before realizing that I was zeroed on him.

Back off, the Pasco hunter hand-signed. I flipped him the bird and kept my Commando trained on him.

I can kill him faster than you can kill me, the hunter hand-signed.

And you and your lord will both be dead, before anyone can stop me, I hand-signed back, I win.

Are you fucking nuts? he hand-signed furiously.

No, I’m a Badmoon, I replied. The Pasco hunter froze. After a heartbeat, his weapon rose until it was pointed safely skyward. Sometimes playing into my reputation was useful.

"Ancestors, Erik, how have you managed to remain sane?" Lord Hauser croaked as Lord Savik helped the Pasco lord to his feet.

"Not easily," Lord Savik said, grimly. "I’m still not sure if I am." Lord Hauser let out a bitter laugh.

"I’ll admit I have my own reservations," Lord Hauser said, seriously, "I’ve seen how hard it’s been for you Erik, but trusting a Badmoon, much less a vampire. I’ve heard of Bradon. He’s one of the most dangerous vampires this area’s seen in a generation, and now he has the entire TCV at his beck and call."

"Badmoon made it very clear that we can trust Bradon only so far as our goals are the same, and after meeting the vampire, I’m of the same mind," Lord Savik said. "In this case, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, if just a temporary one."

"The same Badmoon who was sent to kill you and miraculously comes up with all the evidence you need to come out of hiding," Lord Hauser retorted, "The same Badmoon that managed to seduce the young lady." He shot Elizabeth a withering look.

"John, stop. Could Badmoon be a false flag from the Society?" Lord Savik asked, "It’s possible, but it has to be the most elaborate false flag in the fucking history of our race. That hunter has done more for my counties and Hillsborough than almost any other lycanthrope. He made some mistakes." Lord Savik shot a similar withering look at Elizabeth, who quickly looked down as her face reddened. "But, I think his contributions easily outweigh whatever reservations you have about him." Lord Hauser gave Lord Savik a long look that clearly said he was unconvinced about me.

"I can’t go with you Erik, but I will help," Lord Hauser said, "I will send word to the other lords on the way up to Leon County as well as my endorsement. I’ll also send a contingent from Pasco. Can you give me an hour?"

"Yes, but your wolves and mine have to be at your northern border within the hour," Lord Savik answered, "Time is not our friend."

"Understood," Lord Hauser said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small metal case. Flipping it open, Lord Hauser handed Lord Savik a business card. "My contingent will meet you here. Give the kin this. They will take care of your lycanthropes."

"Thank you John," Lord Savik said, his voice husky.

"It’s the least I could do. I should’ve come to your aid when the Prince sealed your borders. I knew it was wrong, but…" Lord Hauser’s voice trailed off.

"We all make mistakes. Even young ladies-apparent," Lord Savik said pointedly, "I don’t harbor any ill will John. Not towards you. I just want you to keep in mind how you feel right now about what happened when you’re dealing with Lady Elizabeth in the future, or what you tell the other lords."

"I’ll keep it in mind," Lord Hauser said, pointedly not looking at Elizabeth. "Just give me time to think about it." The two lords embraced again, then both parties walked back to their sides.

"Thank you," Elizabeth said quietly as they walked back to the Suburban.

"You are my ally, and I take those seriously," Lord Savik, "That was a risky gambit. It helped our cause, but may have hurt you. Actions have consequences, including to who you give your heart."

"You’re right, of course. So what do I do now?" she asked.

"I’ll answer that when we’re not being monitored by everyone," Lord Savik said with a warmness that brought a smile to Elizabeth’s face. Nothing else was said as they finished crossing to the Suburban and climbing in. From the look on Lady Anna’s face, I was damned sure it was going to be an interesting trip up to Tallahassee.

Chapter 24 – Time For The Last Dance