Arseni snarled back at the big man. It was a gesture that was simultaneously brave and pathetic, given their absolute difference in size, age and vigor.
“You come here. You sit at my table. We welcome you, Anthony, in spite of what you are, in spite of the creature within you. And in return—”
“Shut it, old man,” Anthony snarled.
“In return,” Arseni continued, “you corrupt this pack. You bring others among us. We offered you a way to live, to find peace with your infestation. Because we saw you as a cousin. But you…”
Rafe leaned over to Stian, whispering quickly as he palmed a pair of long daggers. “What is going on here?”
But before Stian could answer, Anthony threw his head back and roared, a sound that started as human rage and frustration and then transformed into something far more animalistic. Arseni was pulled back by his son as Anthony began to change.
Rafe had never seen a transformation occur. It made him glad he had skipped his dinner. Bone and sinew snapped and stretched, and Anthony’s head thrashed back and forth. Rafe stood transfixed by horror, and it wasn’t until Casmin shoved him down to his knees, yelling, “Get down!” that he realized the fight was underway.
Casmin let off a blast of fire over Rafe’s head, giving one of Anthony’s men a face full of superheated air and flame. The lackey dropped to the floor screaming, but his companion was immediately behind and to his left. Rafe had landed hard on his knees, but he had kept his balance, and he quickly flipped the dagger he’d readied earlier before hurling it into the gut of the new attacker.
Meanwhile, once Arseni had been pulled back out of range, Stian had moved in on Anthony. Anthony had not had time to change fully, but he had gained the advantage of claws and elongated canines. The lycanthrope was overconfident; used to relying on his strength, he simply charged and launched himself at his opponent. It was no great feat for Stian to parry the assault, rolling Anthony across the cement floor. It was a scene they repeated twice more before a well-placed thrust of Stian’s broadsword brought the skirmish to an end.
Catching his breath, Rafe said, “As I was saying before we were interrupted: what in the bloody hell is going on here?”
“Vanya was an old friend of my grandfather’s,” Stian said. He knelt down and examined Anthony’s body, checking for a pulse before closing the sightless eyes. He stood back up and continued.
“One day, a man, a beggar he thought, appeared as his doorstep seeking aid and asylum. Vanya took him in, because that’s the kind of man he was.” He cut off a piece of Anthony’s shirt and began slowly wiping the gore off his blade.
“What Vanya didn’t know,” Casmin said when Stian did not go on, “was that the man was seeking asylum from the Mogens. Vanya couldn’t turn him over without violating the law of hospitality, and Vanya took that law as a religious obligation. And he couldn’t allow him to stay without bringing Beorn down his head.” After a brief pause he added, “Beorn was not known for either his diplomacy or patience.”
“So what did he do?” Rafe asked.
Stian smiled, but it was a rueful look, “Vanya was a clever man. He convinced his guest that his household was coming down with smallpox. Faced with certain death within the keep or possible escape without, he fled.”
Casmin finished, “Vanya then sent a messenger to Beorn, telling him what had occurred and where he could find his quarry. “
“I would have driven him out once I realized what he was trying to do,” Arseni spoke up. “But I was injured last year, and my son is not old enough to take my place as Alpha. He began recruiting new men, making more creatures like himself, and before we knew what had happened my people were outnumbered.”
“And the deaths?” Rafe asked.
“An initiation, he called it. He wanted to make sure those he infected would kill.”
Luka said, “Most of the men he chose were like him, already willing to kill those they saw as rightful prey. But some… some were merely afraid, or outcast, and would not hunt men.”
Stian looked around the floor. Finally he said, “Why did he do this? Who was he working for?”
Arseni shook his head. “I do not know who he was working for. But he was supposed to meet others in a few days’ time.” The old man’s face took on a sad and bitter mien. “He did not bother concealing his plans from me. I could neither stop nor restrain him.”
And then they were all silent. It was a short piece of work to clean the weapons, parcel out eliminating the bodies, and do their best to conceal all signs of the violence that had taken place.
Having pet demons is quite useful when cleaning a blood soaked floor.
At last, Rafe asked, “If that’s all you need me for tonight?”
Yes,” Stian said, “And thank you.”
Rafe nodded and made for the door. “If anyone needs me, I’ll be at the King’s Head. Try not to need me.”
“Tell Dora I said hello,” Stian called after him.
“I very much doubt your name will come up, your Grace.”
Edmund woke up early the next morning after a fitful night’s sleep. For that matter, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a good night’s rest. Certainly not since… well. It did no good to dwell, did it. He washed, dressed, and went downstairs to what was, at best, an indifferent breakfast. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing that the cook was leaving in… Lord, they still needed to find a new one.
At some point he realized Rebecca had been speaking to him, and it hadn’t broken through. “I’m sorry, Mother?”
She smiled at him gently, and put her hand over his. “I was just saying that the Hughes have invited us to Bath for the week. They have a large house just outside of town and Veronica was hoping for Willamina’s company.” She gave him a conspiratorial look. “Actually, between the two of us I think Lady Hughes was hoping to induce the duke to come and is casting a wide net in order to disguise her fishing expedition.” Edmund snorted. “But nonetheless, it might do us all good to get away for a few days.”
“Aiming a bit high, isn’t she?” Edmund asked.
“All mothers are ambitious for their children,” said Rebecca with a smile. “We can’t help it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with ambition,” Edmund said. “I just prefer to keep mine within the realm of the possible. And I think I can say with a fair degree of certainty Mogen’s not here looking for a wife.”
“This is ridiculous,” Stian said, sorting through a six-inch stack of invitations. He and Casmin had come had come to the house at eleven to share what they had gleaned from the correspondence Arseni had given them. They were still waiting for Rafe to arrive, and were sprawled across Edmund’s study. “What does one have to do to be a social pariah in this city?”
“It’s easy if you’re poor,” said Stephen.
“Or untitled,” Casmin added.
“Married would also help,” Edmund finished. “But as things stand you’ve been declared the most eligible bachelor in town.”
“If you think those wolves were scary, every mama in town has your scent now,” Stephen said, “And they’ll hound you ‘til one of them takes you down.” He grinned. “Metaphorically speaking, of course.”
“I should tell Josef,” Casmin said. “It would save him a considerable amount on postage.”
“Oh don’t you dare,” Stian said, throwing a cushion at Andre’s head. “He’d have the entire court moved here within the week.”
“You have a court?” Stephen asked, clearly impressed.
“You have no idea,” Stian said.
Rafe arrived then. Or rather, he staggered in, kicking his younger brother off the couch before collapsing on it and pulling a pillow over his face.
“Late night, brother?” Edmund asked.
“Ungh,” Rafe replied.
“Now that the class are all here, Professor?” Edmund said.
“Right,” said Casmin. “We managed to eliminate the most dangerous elements of the pack here in London, but the letters Anthony left behind suggest they were one of many.”
“Do we know what they were up to?” Edmund asked.
“No,” Casmin answered. “But he had been ordered to report to Bath this coming weekend. It looks like the orders were sent out to all the pack alphas in this area.”
“Bath?” Edmund asked incredulously.
“Stian, you have an invitation in there from the Lady Hughes.”
The duke frowned and shuffled through the stack until he found it. Opening it, he frowned. “How did you know?”
“Veronica Hughes is a friend of Willamina’s. We received one this morning as well.”
“That’s either an amazing coincidence…,” Stian began.
“Or they’re having a fire sale on really obvious traps this week.” Casmin finished.
“Yes,” Stephen said, “I did see that table at Harrod’s.”
“I don’t know,” Rafe said, his voice muffled by the pillow and gravelly with too much whiskey and nicotine. “The world is a mysterious place, and it may be that we are the agents of some cosmic force, the recipients of destiny’s favor. Perhaps we do, in fact, do God’s work, and this convenient confluence of events is the mark of his approval on our ventures.”
“Do you really think so?” Stephen asked.
“No, I think it’s a fucking trap,” Rafe said, sitting up, “And a sloppy one at that. But what else are we going to do?”
“So we leave this afternoon?” Edmund said, standing.
Stian shot Rafe an anxious look. “Well,” Rafe said lightly, “It will take Mother and Willamina at least the day to pack, so we should plan on tomorrow morning.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Edmund. “We’re not bringing them with us.”
“In that case, I’ll need at least until Saturday.”
Edmund frowned. “For what?”
Rafe answered as if he were speaking to a truculent child. “To hire guards, Edmund. I was going to do it after Christmas but if we’re going to leave the ladies here alone, it’ll have to be done immediately. And frankly I’m not over-confident in anyone I could get that fast.”
Edmund scowled. “You know I really hate it when you’re right.”
“I know,” said Rafe. “That’s why I usually keep it to myself.”
Stian nodded. “And I’ll bring Andre as my guest.” Suddenly his face lit up with hope. “Maybe it will start rumors?”
Rafe just shook his head sadly. “I doubt you’ll get off that easily.”