Roguish. Reckless. Unreliable.
Raff Pineda has a certain reputation among the Animari. He’s the one to call if there’s a party starting, not the man to rely on when all hell breaks loose. Though he’s nominally the leader of the Pine Ridge pack, he defers to his second on the tough calls. Raff prefers to live fast and hard and keep his heart hidden, but a certain Eldritch princess won’t fall for his usual tricks, and their contract political marriage may be anything but convenient.
Ambitious. Elegant. Isolated.
Princess Thalia Talfayen may not have been raised by a witch in a tower, but she’s spent the last few decades locked up for a failed insurrection. Plotting and scheming comes naturally to her; personal connections do not. Since she’s come this far in her unstoppable quest to claim the silver throne, she won’t hesitate to do whatever it takes to unite her people, even if that means giving herself to the big bad wolf…
Princess Thalia Talfayen loathed scoundrels, but she might marry one. She stared at the dossier before her and then glanced up at her aide. “Is there truly no hope for an alliance elsewhere?”
Lileth had been with her since birth, sharing her incarceration when Thalia proved resistant to her father’s agenda, and now, sharing her rise to power in the rebellion as well. She was a slight woman with fair hair and green eyes, average appearance matched with superior intellect and near infinite patience. Therefore, she didn’t even sigh over the repetition of the question.
“Prince Alastor has declined your offer and chosen a low-ranking female from the Ash Valley pride. She’s also a doctor so this may be a more politic maneuver than it first seems, as our agents inform me that he has an incurable illness.”
The important part of that report was the firm rejection. She didn’t want to marry into a dynasty of demon-kin, but she was prepared to do whatever she must to consolidate her hold on Eldritch leadership. There hadn’t been a true king or queen in eons, only petty backbiting between the four houses. Her family had the strongest claim to the succession, however, and she meant to bring back the days when each house pledged to a single ruler or die trying.
Accomplishing that goal wouldn’t be easy without the Golgoth playing the enforcer’s role, and in the centuries her people had remained so insular, they’d also lost the technological edge to the Animari. Thalia had no access to heavy weapons such as the rest of the Numina could mount, which meant that if it came to a siege, her people would be slaughtered. I can’t let that happen.
“Understood. Then what about Burnt Amber?” On the surface, the bears were no different than the wolf pack, but the bear clan heir seemed far more serious, a better match for her in terms of temperament.
“Shall I read the official response?” By the twitch of Lileth’s mouth, she found the verbiage amusing.
“Please,” Thalia invited.
“‘Tell the woman that I’m a sodding monk. Then ask if she knows what that means. My cousin is my heir, and he’s married with five cubs. My line is secure, and I don’t have time for this shit.’”
She didn’t laugh, though it was a near thing. “Has he never heard of a marriage of convenience? I don’t remember demanding bedsport in my offer.”
“St. Casimir is a…bachelor order. They forswear all worldly pleasures, all bonds save those of brotherhood.”
“I see. That does, indeed, leave only Raff Pineda.”
“Or his second,” Lileth said.
Thalia considered for a few seconds. From what she knew of Korin, the woman would likely be a better fit in terms of personality. Then, regretfully, she weighed the rest of the factors and shook her head. “If I’m undertaking this endeavor, I will acquire all possible leverage from the alliance.”
“Yes, yes, you’re far too important to waste yourself on a mere lieutenant.”
There was no doubt that Lileth was mocking her, but Thalia ignored the provocation. A lifetime of such gibes had rendered her composure nearly inviolable through mere words. She hadn’t even wept when Noxblades carried word that her father was dead, a mercy killing on the cat king’s sword, and her eyes remained dry when she heard that it was her father’s agents who had set timed charges in Ash Valley to destroy eons of peace in a fiery cataclysm.
That is my legacy.
Unless she could unite the Eldritch, she would be remembered as a traitor’s daughter, and already, the other three houses were moving against her. To secure her hold and take the throne as none had managed to do in centuries, she would need outside help. Unlike other aspirants, she was willing to do whatever was required.
Even barter herself in marriage to a complete reprobate.
Thalia squared her shoulders. “Send a message to the wolf lord. Use the formal stationery and invite him to our holdings.”
“I assume you’d like calligraphy as well,” Lileth said.
“Of course. If the realm wasn’t so dangerous, I’d dispatch a messenger in livery for full impact, but we can’t risk our personnel recklessly. Write the message and then take a picture and send it. He’ll grasp the gravitas.”
“Are you sure?”
Even if Pineda understood the long tradition behind this choice of approach, he’d probably be amused rather than moved to reply in kind. “Perhaps not.”
Skimming the data file, she saw that Raff Pineda was just shy of sixty, young middle age for an Animari. Hardly more than a baby, here. Those under fifty were children among her people, so it was novel to entertain the idea of offering for someone so young, but then, the Golgoth prince was a fetus in comparison.
She had questions, logistical ones, primarily. If he accepts, will I be expected to bear him an heir? If that’s even possible? Ultimately, there was no point in wondering about theoretical issues when she had so many problems already demanding attention.
Thalia closed the dossier. “Has Gavriel returned from Hallowell yet?”
“Early this morning. His casualties were grievous.”
“How many did we lose?”
“All but three.”
“Gavriel, and who else survived?”
“Tirael and Ferith.”
Her heart sank when Zan wasn’t named. Like Gavriel, he had been a close friend and her strongest supporter, even when she was too young to understand the sort of choices she would be forced to make for greater good. Thalia didn’t show grief; perforce, her features had become a placid lake over long years of training. To show her emotions was to offer a weakness that could be exploited. It didn’t matter that she was alone with Lileth or appeared to be. Nowhere was safe if any of her father’s loyalists remained at large.
“Did they see to the final rites?” she asked quietly.
“In Hallowell, yes. Apparently, the service for our fallen was well-attended.”
Thalia rose and would’ve liked to stretch her shoulders and pop her neck, but revealing physical discomfort qualified as weakness too. The furniture in Daruvar wasn’t modern or comfortable, but she had moved her forces to this fortress for a reason. Bare stone walls couldn’t be camouflaged with a few tapestries here and there, and the floors were just as cold. While it was ancient and dilapidated, it was also the most defensible of her holdings.
When the other houses challenged—and they would—she had sufficient numbers to bide unconquered here, even without factoring in any forces she might acquire from Pine Ridge. With proprietary wolf-tech drones, she might even go on the offensive. It was paramount to unite the Eldritch before Tycho completed his death march through Animari territory.
“Lord Pineda is known to be a man of…particular appetites,” Lileth said. “Are you certain you only wish to send the written invitation and nothing more?”
That was Lil’s way of correcting her when she felt Thalia was about to make a tactical error. “You make a good point. Please summon Madu and her team. I should record a personal message as well and give the wolf lord a sense of what I’m offering.”
It took two hours before the stylist was satisfied with Thalia’s cascade of platinum curls, pinned with fresh flowers and precious gemstones, longer for the artfully applied cosmetics, then, at last, she was laced into the ice and silver gown that befitted her status as a descendant from the lost line of Eldritch queens. Thalia studied herself in the mirror, noting the blush at cheek and lips, the shadow deftly emphasizing the curve of her breasts, before nodding briskly.
“Thank you. This should suffice as enticement.”
Once the equipment was set up, she spoke directly to the camera, as if she was addressing Raff Pineda himself. “I extend my personal invitation to you and your retinue to visit Daruvar to commence talks for a marital alliance. I offer myself as potential consort to Pine Ridge, though I will not accept full title as pack mistress. In return, I extend to you all rights and privileges pursuant to consort of the Eldritch. Though you will not be a king in our lands, none but me will hold higher status. All other terms and conditions may be discussed…at your pleasure.”
Lileth switched off the feed. “Well, that was…something. Should I send this?”
“Without delay,” Thalia replied. “We have no time to waste.”
Raff laughed softly, switching off the screen.
The would-be Eldritch queen was alluring, no doubt, and she knew it, but she possessed the icy and terrible beauty of an avalanche burying a village. He’d seen her relentlessly gunning down the enemy atop the walls in Ash Valley, as comfortable with combat as she was difficult to read. She would not make a congenial partner, and her ambitions might cost his pack more than they could afford. On the other hand, the alliance would boost Pine Ridge to undeniable strength among the Animari. If an opportunity to renegotiate the Pax Protocols came again, the talks would be held at Pine Ridge this time, not Ash Valley.
The cats had their chance. Time for this dog to have his day.
“What do you think?” he asked Korin. She had seen some hard fighting in Hallowell and his second wasn’t the same. It took two tries to capture her attention and he had to repeat the question before she engaged.
“If you can stomach it, we should move forward. Our losses will be incalculable if we have no one we can rely on for reinforcements, if the worst comes to pass.”
No invaders had set foot in Pine Ridge for…well, he didn’t even know how long. He’d have to delve into the archives, but he guessed it would’ve been during the territorial wars after the humans ceded the north. It seemed unlikely that the cats or bears would go on the offensive and use the chaos to gain more ground, but without treaties in place, he couldn’t risk the rest of his pack on accumulated goodwill.
“Must I put on my good pants and record a reply?”
“It would be polite, especially if you want to impress the princess with your attention to detail.”
He grinned. “We both know that’s not my style.”
Now he had Korin’s full attention. “You’re going to make my life worse, aren’t you?”
“That’s not my intention, but it may be the result.”
“Just tell me what you’re planning,” she demanded.
Raff uncoiled from his chair without answering. As he’d known she would, Korin followed him as he strode through the complex toward his personal quarters. Purposely, he quickened his pace so Korin had to chase him, which she hated. This provocation was purposeful, meant to shake her out of the depression that had gripped her since Hallowell. She’d taken the loss of their people hard; Raff did as well, but Korin saw it as a personal failure.
Talking wouldn’t help her. Only time could.
“Raff!” she called, as he closed the door in her face.
Magda was lounging in his favorite chair when he stepped into the sitting room. Few people saw his inner sanctum, and many would be surprised at how shabby it was: worn sofa and chairs, the brown fabric pilled and unraveling at the seams. The paintings on the wall were terrible, all originals by his grandfather, who had styled himself as an artist, usually to lure potential lovers to his bedchamber.
Raff came from a long line of rogues.
“You’re leaving,” Magda said.
She was the chief of security at Ash Valley, and she’d chosen to come with him to Pine Ridge—he’d hoped it meant the start of a wondrously entertaining liaison—but the woman was formidable and intrinsically gifted at shutting him down. Instead, she spent most of her time digging through his video files, searching his drone records for a clue related to their second’s disappearance. Mags had been friends with Slay for a long time, so she wouldn’t give up on him easily, though Raff privately thought the bastard had absconded the minute his backdoor deal with Talfayen went south. He wasn’t dumb enough to say it out loud. His stomach still remembered the impact of Magda’s fist from the last time he pissed her off.
“You can tell that from the way I’m putting clothes in a bag? Marvelous. I see why they put you in charge of security.”
“You’re such an ass,” she said without rancor.
“Guilty. I suspect you already have your own sources inside Pine Ridge, however, and are merely testing whether I’ll be honest. I will be that, my dear Magda, even if other promises are unwise.”
Magda merely growled.
“Right. Well, I’m taking an honor guard to Daruvar to discuss the possibility of a marital alliance with Princess Thalia.”
“Why is she a princess when her father’s title was ‘Lord’?” Magda asked.
That was unexpected curiosity, but Raff answered anyway. “She means to be queen, to resurrect the defunct royal line.”
“Then it’s a self-assigned title,” Magda said, curling her lip.
“I suspect that’s the case with any monarch. They start calling themselves king or queen, and then they defend against all opposition. If they’re strong enough to defeat all challengers, the claim becomes the truth.”
She shot him an unreadable look. “I’m glad the Animari did away with such antiquated bullshit. It’s asinine to believe that competent leadership is a quality that runs through bloodlines.”
“But…once a family takes power, it’s still rare for it to shift, even in our culture,” Raff said gently. “A Pineda has led Pine Ridge since my great grandfather’s day, and I believe it’s much the same for the Ashers who lead—”
“I got it, shut up already,” Mags muttered.
His point made, it seemed wise to change the subject. “You haven’t told me what you’ve found, if anything, but it’s time to make a choice. You can stay here with my blessing, accompany me to Daruvar, or return to Ash Valley.”
“That’s convenient. The trail points toward the Eldritch, and I’d like to dig around in their ranks, if they’ll let me.”
“Then I’ll appoint you as my personal bodyguard, an attaché sent courtesy of Ash Valley. There should be no problem.”
“Does this mean you won’t be pursuing me any longer?” It was impossible to tell how she felt about that, but Raff suspected her chief emotion was relief.
Magda had proven to be a mountain he couldn’t climb, not with wit, barbs, or charm. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t responded to anyone’s overtures in Pine Ridge, which rendered her an intriguing question mark.
What would the person be like who could get through her iron walls? Raff reckoned they’d need to be either a barbarian or a thief, capable of knocking down defenses or scaling them swiftly.
“Are you disappointed?” he teased.
She almost smiled; he glimpsed the spark of it in her dark eyes, but her mouth didn’t move. “Tough shit, you’ll never know.”
He laughed as he fastened his travel bag. “In all seriousness, I doubt the good princess and I will have the sort of relationship that requires fidelity.”
With a grim sort of resignation, he could picture the formality and the endless talking, culminating in agreements and provisions, rights and responsibilities, ending in a tepid night of consummation, whereupon they would largely live their own lives apart from occasions of state. Most probably, this marriage was a good fit for him, as he’d always been easily…distracted, prone to chasing one person while another slept peacefully in his bed. Not that he ever promised anything more.
Ruefully, he touched the scar that skated over his cheekbone down into his beard. The woman had used a specially treated blade, or the wound would have healed too fast to leave a mark, a perk of Animari accelerated metabolism. As it was, it took doctors two weeks to figure out why the wound was infected and why it wouldn’t close. By the time they solved the mystery, Raff had a permanent souvenir that resulted from his reputation. Ironic, since he hadn’t even been guilty that time.
“That seems…sad,” Mags said finally.
“That you’ll never know what it’s like to have a true mate. Won’t you be lonely?’
He already was. It was why he was always searching for the next warm body, because nobody ever touched his heart. Raff was starting to doubt he even had one.
He forced a smile. “Going soft on me, Mags? I’ll meet you out front. We’re moving in an hour.”
“Thalia & Raff! I love them! This is one of my favorite series—I’m delighted to see Thalia and Raff working together. He’s the sweetest wolf lord ever!” –Margo Collins @ Goodreads
“So damn good. I need to know what happens next!” KindleJo Jo @ Goodreads