CERISE awoke. Her bedroom lay dark. It took her a second to place the even, whispery sound next to her, and then she recognized it - Lark, breathing.The explanations didn't go well. She'd tried her best, but the only thing Lark heard was that Mother wasn't coming back. Ever. The poor kid broke and cried. She cried and cried with feverish desperation. At first Cerise tried to calm her, and then something snapped inside her, and she cried, too. You'd think she had no tears left, but no, she bawled just like Lark. They huddled on the bed and sobbed from the pain and unfairness of it. Finally Cerise made herself stop and held Lark, murmuring soothing things to her and stroking her hair, until her sister curled into a ball and fell asleep, whimpering like a sick kitten.Cerise looked at the ceiling. No noises disturbed the silence. She heard nothing, she saw nothing, but something had to have woken her up.She sat up slowly and turned to the tall window opening onto the verandah. A pair of glowing eyes stared through the glass.William.He had no shirt on. The moonlight slid over his back and shoulders, tracing the outline of sculpted biceps, sliding over the shield of muscle on his side to the narrow waist. His hair fell on his shoulders in a dark mane. He stood with easy predatory grace, beautiful and terrifying, and he stared at her with the same impossible longing she'd seen in him in the lake house. The intensity of it took her breath away. She wasn't sure if she should swoon, scream, or just wake up.He moved and tapped the window with his knuckle.Not dreaming. He'd showed up and he wanted in.Cerise shook her head. No. She needed him so badly, it almost hurt, but Lark needed her more.He raised his arms. Why?She leaned over and very gently pulled the blanket down, revealing Lark's tousled hair.His face fell. He rocked forward and bumped his head on the glass."Aaaah!" Lark jerked up. "Ceri! Ceri!"Cerise thrust herself between her sister and the window. "What is it?""A monster, a monster at the window!"Cerise grabbed Lark into a hug and turned, keeping Lark's face away from the glass. William ripped off his pants. A convulsion gripped his body, jerking him, breaking his arms, twisting his shoulders. Cerise gulped. "There's nothing there.""There is a monster! I saw it."William's muscles flowed like melted wax. He crashed to all fours. Dense black fur sheathed him. He shook, and a huge black wolf sat at the window, his eyes glowing like two wild moons.She did not just see that. Surely, she didn't.Every hair on the back of Cerise's neck stood up. She swallowed. "Look, baby, it's not a monster, it's just a dog. See?"Lark pulled from her and glanced at the window. "Where did it come from?""It's William's dog." The damn wolf was the size of a pony.William pawed at the glass gently and licked it."William doesn't have a dog.""Sure he does. His dog stays in the woods so he doesn't bother our dogs. He's very nice. See?" Cerise rose and opened the window. William trotted in, an enormous black shadow, and put his head on the sheets next to Lark. She reached over and petted his sable fur. "He's nice.""Come on." Cerise adjusted the pillows. "Try to get back to sleep."She slid under the covers next to Lark. William hopped on the bed by their legs and lay still. "Behave," she told him.He yawned, showing her white teeth the size of her pinkies, and closed his mouth with a click."Ceri?""Mmmm . . . ?""You won't let them keep Mom that way, right?""No, I won't.""You have to kill her.""I will, Sophie. I will.""Soon, right? I don't want her to hurt.""Very soon. Go to sleep now. It will hurt less in the morning."Cerise closed her eyes, felt William shift to make room for her toes, and relaxed. Tomorrow would be a hellish day, but for now, with the giant wolf guarding her feet, she felt strangely safe.WHEN Cerise awoke, William was nowhere to be seen. He'd stayed through most of the night - she had awakened earlier, just before sunrise, and he had still been there, a big shaggy beast sprawled on her bed. Now he was gone.It was crazy, she reflected, as she got dressed. She knew he would eventually turn into an animal. After all, that was what changelings did. But witnessing it was like staring Raste Adir in the face. This was magic so old, so primitive, that it didn't fit into any of the neat equations her grandfather had taught her. It roared, furious and primal, like an avalanche or a storm.The journal she had seen in Lagar's mind bothered her. It looked just like one of her grandfather's journals in which he used to write out his planting schedule and research. The journal had to be the key, the last piece in this big tangled puzzle.She found Richard in the front yard, supervising as Andre sharpened his machete."I need to go to Sene," she told him. "Will you come with me?"He didn't ask why. He just had two horses brought and they rode out.Half an hour later Cerise stood on the rotten porch of Sene Manor. She used to be so happy in this house, back when the garden was cultivated, the path to the creek swept, and the walls were a bright cheery yellow. Yellow like the sun, her grandfather had said after he'd finished painting. Grandmother had shrugged her delicate shoulders. Congratulations, Vernard. You turned the house into a giant baby chicken.She could still hear the muted echoes of their voices, but they were gone. Long gone, stolen by the plague. She never even saw the bodies, only the two closed coffins. By the time the bodies were found, they'd been decomposing for a few days. Father said they were in bad shape and not fit to be displayed. She had to say her good-byes to the wooden lids.All that remained of her grandparents was the empty shell of their house, abandoned and forgotten. And the garden, once overgrown, was now barren, since Lagar had mowed it down to nothing.A bright spot of red drew her eye. She squinted at it. Moss. Burial shroud, they called it. Short and stubby, it grew deep in the Mire, feeding on carrion. It would sprout over the corpse of a fallen animal, so dense that after a couple of days all you could see was a blanket of red and a bump underneath. Odd that it would be in the garden.Richard nodded at a small patch of redwort growing by the porch. "Lagar's thugs missed a spot.""I hate that plant." Cerise sighed."Yes, I remember. The earache tea." Richard nodded. "Grandfather used to make us drink it every morning. It worked. I don't recall ever getting an earache.""I remember gagging on it. I think I'd take the earache over the tea.""Oh, I don't know." Richard's narrow lips bent in a smile. "It wasn't that bad.""It was awful." Cerise hugged herself.Richard nodded at the door. "The longer you put it off, the harder it will be to go in."He was right. Cerise took a deep breath and crossed the bloodstained porch to the door, hanging crooked on its hinges. No time to waste. She stepped inside.The house greeted her with the gloom and musty, damp smell of mildew. A sitting room lay to her right. She passed it. A brick red rug once covered the hallway, but now it lay torn and filthy, little more than an old rag. Floorboards, warped by moisture, glared through the rents.The house felt cold. Her steps made the floor creak and quiver. Behind her Richard paused, leaning to examine the sitting room."No vermin," he said. "No droppings, no gnaw marks. Perhaps, the plague's still here.""Or maybe it's just a dead house." Its people had died, and the house had withered away, unwilling or unable to support life. "The sooner we get out of here, the better."A pale door loomed before her. The library. Her memory thrust an image before her: a sunny room, a plain table, walls lined with shelves crammed with books, and Grandfather complaining that sunlight would bleach the ink off the pages . . .Cerise pushed the door with her fingertips. It swung open on creaky hinges. The oak table lay in shambles. Pieces of shelves, torn from the walls, lay in a pile of splinters here and there. The books had spilled on the floor in a calico cascade, some closed, some open, like a pile of dead butterflies. The library wasn't just ransacked; it was smashed, as if someone of extraordinary strength had vented his rage on it.Behind her, Richard made a small noise that sounded like one of William's growls. Destroying Grandfather's library was like ripping open his grave and spitting on his body. It felt like a desecration.Cerise crouched by the pile of books and touched one of the leather-bound covers. Slick slime stained her fingers. She picked up the edge of the book and pulled. A page ripped, and the book came away from the floor, leaving some paper stuck to the boards. A long gray and yellow stain of mold crawled across the text to the cover, binding the pages together."This is an old mess," Richard murmured."Yes. Spider didn't do this."Dread stirred inside her. Anybody could've ransacked the library - the house stood empty for years. Still, something didn't quite fit. A burglar looking for things to steal wouldn't have torn the books apart.Cerise circled the book pile. She hopped over the ruin of the table to get a better view of the walls, slid on a slimy patch, and almost fell on her butt. Deep gouges marked the old walls. Long, ragged, parallel strokes. Claw marks. She spread her fingers, matching the wounds in the wall, but her hand wasn't big enough. What the hell?"Come, look at this."Richard leaped over the book with his usual elegant grace and touched the marks. "A very large animal. Heavy - look at the depth of the scars. I'd say upward of six hundred pounds. An animal would have no reason to enter the house. The place has no food, and it sits in the middle of the clearing. And if this was an animal, we would see other evidence: feces, fur, more claw marks. It looks like this creature broke into the library, demolished it, and left.""As if it broke in to wreck the books on purpose."Richard nodded."William said he saw a monster in the forest. It looked like a large lizard."Richard frowned. "What was he doing in the forest?""Lark was showing him something. The monster attacked Lark and William fought it off. Apparently Grandmother Azan helped.""You like the blueblood," Richard said carefully."Very much.""Does he like you?""Yes, he does.""How much do the two of you like each other?"She couldn't hide a smile. "Enough."Richard tapped the side of his nose with one long finger."Please," she invited with a wave of her hand."We know nothing about him. As a blueblood, he may have certain duties and obligations back in his world. Maybe he's on leave from the military. What if he has a wife? Children? Could he stay with you if he wanted to?""He's no longer in the military and he has no one.""How do you know?""He told me.""He could've lied," Richard said gently."He's a changeling, Richard. He has a hard time with lying."Richard drew back. He opened his mouth, obviously struggling. "A changeling," he finally managed.She nodded."What ...""A wolf."Richard cleared his throat. "Well."She waited for him."It could be worse," he said finally. "Efrenia married an arsonist. Jake's wife is a kleptomaniac. I suppose, a psychopathic spree killer isn't that odd of a choice, considering. We'll just have to work around it. Gods know, we've had practice. He's certainly good in a fight."She smiled. "Thank you.""Of course," Richard said. "We're family. If you love him and he loves you, we'll do whatever we can to let you be happy."Cerise turned to the corner, where a small bookcase used to contain the planting journals. The book case lay overturned. She picked it up and wrestled it upright. Nothing, except a puddle of soggy pulp that may have been a book at some point, but now served as a shelter for a family of muck bugs. The journals were gone.They left the library and headed to the kitchen. Both windows stood wide open, the freshly installed metal grates catching the light of the morning sun. Dead leaves rustled on the floor. Shards of broken pottery crunched under Cerise's foot. A shattered plate. And a knife. She picked it up. A thin paring knife that was missing its tip. A dark brown stain marked the blade. She scratched at it and the dark brown crumbled, tiny flecks floating to the floor."Blood," Richard said. "The entire blade is stained. This knife went into someone.""Grandma could've been cooking something."He shook his head. "Anything she cooked would've been drained of blood. This knife went into a living body."Cerise looked at the knife. Three inches, maybe four. "It's too small to hurt anyone. I could kill someone with it, but Grandma? She would faint first. Besides, they died of plague.""Supposedly." Richard strode to the sink."What do you mean, supposedly?""We never saw the bodies. Look, dishes."The sink held a small stack of dirty dishes. To the right two dusty glasses sat in a tray upside down. Grandfather set the glasses right side up to dry. He thought they ventilated better. Her grandparents used to bicker about it.Cerise came to stand by the sink. "So Grandmother was washing the dishes, when something attacked her. She grabbed the first knife she could find, turned ..." Cerise turned with the paring knife. "The knife broke.""She must've grabbed a plate, probably several, and threw them at her attacker."Cerise put the knife on the counter. "And then?"Richard touched her elbow, steering her from the sink, and pointed to the cabinet. Stains marked the doors, dark patches on dark wood. A thick crust had formed on the cabinet doorknob. Several long silver hairs were stuck to it."Whatever it was knocked her down." Richard spread the leaves off the floor, revealing a long dark smudge. "And dragged her off."They chased the trail of blood through the kitchen, down the hallway, and to the bedroom. Blood spattered the walls. Dried to nearly black, it spanned the boards to the right and left of the headboard as if someone had bathed in blood and then danced around."The bed," Richard murmured.He grasped one side of the torn mattress, she grasped the other. Cerise heaved. The mattress gave, rising off the floor. A large fuzzy blotch of mold marred the underside. It didn't look good. Cerise leaned closer and rubbed at the mold with her sleeve. Dark brown. Blood. Nobody could bleed that much and survive.There was no plague, no fever, no sickness. Her grandparents were murdered.She looked at Richard. His face was controlled fury."The family lied to us," she said."Yes, they did."THE kitchen buzzed with angry voices. Forty-six adults, stressed to the limit, trying to outscream each other. The insult to the family was monumental. Gustave kidnapped, Genevieve fused, the house of cherished grandparents robbed.Cerise let them rage. They had to vent enough to be reasoned with. She wished she had William with her, but he had to stay outside the room. This was a Mar affair."They came onto our land," Mikita's voice boomed. "Our land! They took our people. We're Mars. Nobody does that to us and lives. We fuck them up and we fuck them up good.""We hit them with everything we have," Kaldar yelled out."Y'all are out of your minds." One of the older women, Joanna, pushed from the wall. She was Aunt Pete's cousin. "We have kids to think about. That's the Hand we're talking about here."Kaldar turned to her. "You have three daughters. How the hell am I going to marry them off? We don't have money and we don't have prospects. Right now, the only reason people want to marry into our family is because they know if something happens, we'll back them up. What do you want me to do when your eldest comes to me crying, because she's in love, but the man won't have her and we can't even pay for her wedding? Love fades, fear stays.""If he really loves her, the name won't matter," Joanna yelled. "Love's what does it.""Really? Speaking from experience, are you? Where the hell is your Bobby, and why isn't he taking care of his kids?""You leave my kids out of it!""We must fight," Murid's voice cut through the noise with raspy precision. "We have no choice.""Aunt Murid." Cerise made an effort to say it just right, sweet but with an edge to it. "You've lied to us."Instantly the room was silent."You, and Aunt Pete, and my parents. You've lied to all of us. We went down to Sene this morning. My grandparents didn't die of the plague."Aunt Pete glanced at Murid."We found the blood," Richard said. "Too much blood. And claw marks on the walls."Murid raised her head. "There was no fever. Your grandfather lost his mind and murdered your grandmother in the bedroom."A wave of cold rolled over Cerise. It couldn't be. "Why?""We don't know," Aunt Pete said. "He had become withdrawn over that spring and summer. He rarely visited the main house. Your mother thought he was depressed. When your father and she came down to visit your grandparents, they found your grandmother's body. He'd ripped her apart like a straw doll. All of you loved him very much. We spared you the pain of knowing what he did.""There were two coffins at the burial." Cerise leveled her gaze at Aunt Murid."Your father must've killed Vernard," Murid said. "That's the most logical explanation. I never saw the bodies, and Gustave would not talk about what happened in Sene, except to say that we could never have an open-casket burial. I don't know if it was self-defense or revenge. I only know that he came back with two coffins, with their lids nailed shut."The memory of the wall with the claw marks rose before her. She just couldn't shake it off. The claws. The monster in the woods. Her grandparents. Somehow it all had to fit.Cerise searched the room for Erian. "Erian?""Yes?" He pushed to the front."Once this meeting is over, I want you to take two boys and dig up Grandfather's grave."A collective gasp rushed through the room.Cerise stared them down. Just try and stop me. "I want to know how he died." She looked from face to face. "The secrets stop now. Tonight we go to fight the Hand, and I will have to kill my mother. I'd like to have everything out in the open beforehand.""I don't think you should go," Erian said, his face calm. "I don't think any of us should go. The Hand is too strong. Attacking them is risky."She stared at him. "Erian, you're the first to run into every fight!"He nodded, his expression oddly rational. "All the more reason to listen to me now. The Sheeriles are dead. The feud is dead. Our enemy is gone and this war is over. You would put all of us in danger and for what? Your mother is gone, and we don't even know if Gustave is alive."The betrayal stung. Of all people, she had expected it from Richard, not Erian. Richard was cautious, while Erian hadn't met a fight he didn't want to win. "What the hell is wrong with you? You have been my brother since you were ten. My parents raised you. Erian!"He crossed his arms on his chest. "Ceri, we must do what is best for the family. Attacking the Hand is plain stupid. You're hurting and it's making you crazy. Think about it. If they weren't your parents, you would agree with me."She was losing the argument; she could see it in their faces. Cerise clenched her teeth and forced her voice to sound steady. If it was a fight he wanted, she would give it to him. "So you think we should tuck our tail in and hide in the Rathole.""Yes." Erian's eyes were crystal clear. "They're freaks, Cerise. We aren't strong enough.""I have a better idea. Why don't the lot of us go down to Sicktree, take our pants off in front of the courthouse, and bend over? That will announce to the entire Mire exactly where we stand." She leaned forward. "Act like you're a Mar, Erian. Or did I miss something, and did the Sheeriles cut off your balls in that fight?"A grimace clamped his face. "Watch yourself!""Think very carefully before you threaten me. I'm stronger and better than you."Erian leaned forward."Stop."Cerise turned. Clara was looking at her. She sat between her husband and her oldest son, the stump of her leg making a short bulge under her dress. She'd aged, and when their stares crossed, Cerise thought her brown eyes looked gray, as if dusted with ash."Clara?"The entire room focused on Clara's face. Urow bared his teeth, reacting to the pressure. Clara put a hand on his arm."Yesterday I sent Mart back to our house," Clara said. "The Hand burned it. There is nothing left. As long as the freaks live, we'll never be safe. Not us, not our children, not even in our own homes. They won't rest until they wipe us out. We will give you our sons, so you can kill the Hand's freaks. Kill them all. To the last one."WILLIAM leaned against the balcony rail. They'd asked him to wait outside. He didn't see any need to push the issue - they were loud enough that he caught most of what was said.They battered Cerise. They screamed and argued and carried on. He wanted to walk in there and snarl them silent.She didn't budge. They voted and gave in. The Mars would attack the Hand at dawn.A part of him was happy - she won. She got the fight she wanted. The rest of him was pissed off - she got the fight she wanted, and now she would run right into that fight. She was his mate, and he could end up watching her die.She was his mate.The wild in him scratched and howled, demanding her, demanding to taste her, to touch her, to take her away somewhere safe, where there would be only him and her. He stared at the Mire pines. It was not a sure thing. She hadn't promised him anything. Her mood might have changed, and he might have missed his chance.And tomorrow they would be in a fight for their lives.Cerise was coming up the stairs. He listened to the sound of her steps, light and fluid. She came to stand next to him, looking at the woods."I've heard," William told her to save her the trouble."How good is your hearing?""Good enough.""It would mean a lot to me if you would brief my family on the kind of enemies they could expect."She made no move to touch him. He was right. She had changed her mind. "Sure.""Tonight will be very busy for me," she said. "The afternoon will be very busy, too."Fine. He got the message. She didn't want him to bother her."There is an old storehouse on the edge of our lands, past the wards. We use it to dry out herbs. Because it's past the ward line, the family rarely goes there. In about a minute I'll walk down these steps and head to that storehouse. If someone were to wait about ten minutes, so nobody would get suspicious, he could meet me there."It took him a minute. She was inviting him. "Where's the barn?"Her eyes sparked with a wicked gleam. "I'm not going to tell you."What the hell?Cerise arched her dark eyebrows. "It's too bad that you don't have any dogs, Lord Bill. If you had one, you could track my scent and chase me down, like a hunter. Through the woods. Imagine that."She turned and headed down the stairs.Bloody hell. He loved that woman.Ten minutes later, two hundred yards separated William from the main house. Far enough. He shrugged off his shirt. His boots and pants followed. For a moment William stood, savoring the feel of cold air on his skin, and then he let the wild out.His body buckled and twisted. His spine bent. Fur sheathed his legs.William inhaled deep, letting the breath of the forest permeate him. Excitement flooded him, turning him stronger, faster, sharper. The sounds of the swamps amplified in his ears. The colors turned vivid, and he knew his eyes had gained their own glow, the pale yellow fire fed by magic.William tossed back his head and sang a long lingering note, a hymn to the thrill of the hunt, the pulse of prey between his teeth, and the taste of hot blood, spilled after a long chase. The little furry things shrank back into their hiding places, between the roots and into the hollows, sensing a predator in their midst.Cerise's scent tasted sweet. William laughed in the quiet wolf way and broke into a run, falling into a longgaited, smooth rhythm. He had an appointment to keep with a beautiful girl who had agreed to meet a changeling in the deep woods.A wolf howled. Vur stirred on the branch. It had been nearly a week since Spider sent him and Embelys to spy on the Mar land. He was sick of the outdoors and doubly sick of spending his time in a tree.Movement. His round yellow eyes fixed on a small figure running at full speed out of the woods. She dashed across the clear ground and ran into a rickety old barn.Vur reached over and pulled the tangle of dried moss and shredded cloth that served as Embelys's robe. She uncurled, the swirls on her arms and face fluctuating, as she unconsciously mimicked the cypress bark that had grown damp overnight.Her body bent to an unnatural angle, until her head was level with his. "It's her."Vur nodded. A single spotted feather fluttered from his shoulder. Spring was in full swing and he was molting again.They watched the barn door swing closed."Should we take her now?" Vur asked."It's foolish of her to leave the house alone," Embelys said. "She's meeting someone."Embelys's hand snapped, and she dragged a squirming bug into her mouth, crunching him with obvious pleasure. "Besides, she's skilled. And unlike Lavern, I find being sliced with a flash painful.""Lavern is dead." Vur shrugged, sending two more feathers floating to the tangled roots of the cypress."My point exactly." She pulled back, settling on the branch, her legs hugging the trunk, and rested her head against the bark."So we wait?""We wait."A giant black wolf sprinted to the barn from under the trees.Embelys hissed.The wolf leaped. His body twisted, his bone and muscle wrung like a length of dark fabric. Fur shed, melting into the air as it fell. Arms stretched, legs elongated, rocked by convulsions, and a nude man rose from the dirt. He shook himself, and for a moment Vur saw his face and his eyes, hazel, still glowing.William the Wolf.The man slipped into the barn.Vur sat petrified, afraid to move.William the Wolf. William the murderer. The changeling beast who hunted the Hand's agents. The only man who stood against Spider and lived.Slowly the fear melted. The Wolf was only one man. Just a man."We have to warn Spider," Embelys whispered. "He must know.""You go. I'll stay.""Are you mad?""I can glide. He can't. I'll watch over him. Go.""Suit yourself."She twisted, disengaging from the trunk, and slithered down, speeding along the forest floor.Vur gathered himself, calculating. William was just a man, a man who was meeting a girl, for sex. He would be satiated and sloppy afterward, and the poison on Vur's claws was very potent. If he timed it just right . . . The head of William the Wolf would assure he was set for life.WILLIAM glanced through a small window. The storehouse was freshly swept. Bundles of herbs hung drying from the rafters, spicing the air with bitter fragrance. He caught a glimpse of Cerise's dark hair as she headed up the ladder to the second story.He backed up, took a running start, and leapt, scrambling up the wall to the roof. The small attic window was open. Inside Cerise unfolded a quilt over a pile of hay. He dove through the window and rolled to his feet.Cerise froze with a quilt in her hands. Her pale shirt hugged her breasts. Her long dark hair spilled over it in a glossy wave. Her dark eyes, framed by a fringe of long eyelashes, widened. "You're naked!"So pretty. Must have the woman.He pulled the wild back. No. Not yet. He had one shot at this.William circled her, stalking, tasting her scent, watching her watching him. "Do you like what you see?"She tilted her head, spilling her long hair over one breast. Her gaze traveled slowly from his face down to his toes. She took a deep breath. "Yes."William stopped and crossed his arms on his chest. "We need to talk."Cerise hesitated for a second and sat on the hay. "Okay."He leaned against the wall. "I was born in Adrianglia. I was born as a pup. It's a sign of a strong changeling."She winced.He had to keep going. "My mother gave me up to the Adrianglian government the next day. I was sent to the special orphanage for children like me. For the first two weeks of my life, I was blind and helpless, and they didn't think I would survive. I did, and when I turned three years old, I was transferred to Hawk's Academy."She sat there, quilt draped over her knees, big eyes looking at him. He half expected her to run away screaming."From the time I was three until I turned sixteen, I lived in the same room. It was a bare cell with a metal bunk bed welded to the floor and bars on the windows. I shared it with another kid. I was allowed three changes of clothes, a comb, a toothbrush, and a towel. We had no toys, and reading aside from schoolwork was forbidden. My life consisted of exercise, martial training, and study. That was it."He stopped and looked at her to make sure she understood, afraid he would see pity. He saw none. He couldn't read her, couldn't tell what she was thinking. She just sat very still and looked at him."You don't have to stand over there," Cerise said, her voice soothing. "You can come sit here by me."William shook his head. If he sat by her, it would be all over. "I used to dream that my parents would show up and break me out of that place. When I twelve, I broke into the office, found my file, and realized where I stood. Nobody wanted me. Nobody was coming to save me. I was on my own. So I did the best I could. When I failed, I was whipped and punished by isolation. When I succeeded, they let me outside for a few minutes of freedom."When I was thirteen, I killed my first opponent. When I turned sixteen, I graduated from Hawk's and the signature on my graduation papers served as enrollment into the Red Legion. I was not given a choice about joining, but if I had been, I would have chosen the military anyway. I am a killer."He was tired of talking, but he had to get all of it out. The memories pressed on him like a crushing weight he couldn't drop."I told you I was court-martialed. I have nothing, Cerise. No land, no money, no status, no honor. I'm not normal. Being a changeling is not a disease. I will never get better. I will always be fucked-up and my children will likely be puppies. You need to tell me if you really want this. You and me. I must know. No games, no hints, no flirting. Because if you are doing this so I will fight for your family tomorrow, don't worry. I will anyway. If you don't really want me, I'll fight and then I'll leave, and you won't hear from me again."William stopped. He'd fought in hundreds of skirmishes, he had done things that no sane man would, but he never remembered feeling that hollow at the end of it.Cerise opened her mouth.If she told him to leave, he would have to leave. He said he would and he had to do it."I love you," she told him.The words hung in the air between them.She said yes. She loved him.The chain he put on himself shattered. He lunged and caught her in a hug, brushing her hair off her neck, and kissed her, sweeping her off the floor. Her hands caressed his face."You should've said no," he snarled. "Now it's too late.""I don't care, you stupid man," she breathed. "I love you and I want you to love me back."She was his. His woman, his mate. He kissed her, eager for her taste, and she kissed him back, quickly, feverishly, like she couldn't get enough.Mine.He buried his face in her neck, smelling her silky hair, licking her smooth skin. She tasted like honeyed wine, sweet and intoxicating under his tongue, and she made him drunk."I want you to stay with me," she told him. "I want you to stay with me forever."Some part of him refused to believe it. He would never be this lucky. Fate didn't reward him; it kicked him and knocked him down, grinding him under its heel. A terrible fear gripped him that somehow she would vanish, dissolve into thin air or die in his arms, and then he would be back in his house, awake, alone, and broken, because she was only a wishful dream."Will you, William? Will you stay with me?"He gripped her to him, to keep her from disappearing. "Yes."She stroked his back, her slender fingers tracing the contours of his muscles, soothing, inviting him. She kissed his mouth, her soft lips pressing against his. Her pink tongue darted out, and she licked him, stroking him, again and again. He kissed her hard, trying to shut down the annoying warnings in his head, and dropped them down onto the hay. She squirmed under him, warm, flexible, and pliant.Excitement flooded him. He pulled her shirt off and kissed her breast, sucking on her pink nipple, stroking her soft stomach and down, lower, to the sweet spot between her legs. She purred. He would kill to hear her make that sound again.She was his mate. It finally sank in. She said yes, she was his, she wanted him to stay, and if she vanished, he would spent the rest of his life looking for her and he would find her again.She wrapped her hand around his shaft and slid it up and down, spiking the need in him into an overwhelming hunger. She was wet for him, he could smell it, and the scent was driving him out of his skin."I love you," he told her."I love you, too," she whispered, her velvet eyes bottomless and black.He thrust into her and she screamed."ON the hay," Cerise murmured. "We did it on the itchy, smelly hay. I can't believe it. Why did I even bring a quilt?"He leaned over, grabbed the quilt, and pulled it over them, clenching her to him. "There."She pulled a blade of dried grass out of her hair. "This time in the hay. The last time we almost did it on a dirty floor. You've made me into some sort of hillbilly slut. "Yeah, that's right."Next time, we have to do it in bed," she said."With wine and roses?" he asked."Maybe. I'll settle for clean sheets." She snuggled closer to him. William closed his eyes. He couldn't remember ever being this happy."You will stay with me, right?" she asked."Yes.""Even though it would mean Kaldar would be your in-law?""I could just kill him ...""No, you can't. He's my favorite cousin."He read a real concern in her eyes and couldn't resist. "He's unmarried. No kids. Nobody to miss him."Her eyes widened. "William, you can't kill my cousin."He laughed under his breath and she smacked him.William gathered her closer. "I'm a wolf. You can't chain me. But now you're mine, my mate, my woman. Your family are my people now. Nothing they could do would drive me away. There are things I have to do, back in the Weird. I may have to leave for a time, but I will always be back."She caressed his face. "Things that have to do with Spider?"He told her about the dead children and the blood on the dandelions and the note.Cerise looked back at him, horrified. "Why? Why would he do that? They were just children. They weren't a threat to him."At the time he hadn't known why either, but now he had the benefit of the Mirror's intelligence. "Spider's real name and title is Sebastian Olivier Lafayette, Chevalier, Comte de Belidor. Very old Gaulish blueblood family. The bloodline started going weak around his great-grandmother's time. They're bleeders. Their blood doesn't clot as it should, and with each generation it was getting worse. Spider's father was bedridden for most of his life, and the family was desperate for a cure."Spider's father found a woman from a blueblood family with a dirty secret - they had a changeling a couple of generations back. We're a very healthy lot. Spider's grandfather, Alain de Belidor, violently objected. Didn't want his precious blood polluted. But Spider's father married his bride anyway. The changeling blood fixed all their problems right up - Spider was born healthy as a horse."About that time Alain developed dementia. Since his son had one foot in the grave most of the time, Alain ruled the family. He terrorized Spider's mother and the boy. Somehow he became convinced that Spider was a changeling.""How does that work?" Cerise asked."If the changeling is strong, like me, he has a ninety percent chance to pass the magic to the next generation." He kissed her. "If our kid is born human, the chances of his kids going furry drop off. Twenty percent in the first generation and basically nothing in the second. Spider has the changeling blood, but he isn't a changeling. His grandfather couldn't wrap his mind around it. He stalked him, convinced that Spider was hiding an animal inside. Once when Spider was seven, Alain dumped boiling water on him to 'draw the beast out.' When Spider turned eighteen, he got his grandfather declared incompetent and took control over the estate. Nobody knows what exactly happened to Alain, but nobody has seen him for years."She grimaced. "That's just horrible all around."William shrugged. "It's a hard world out there. Spider hates my kind, because we're the cause of his misery. I have to kill him. It's more than revenge at this point - he's a threat to any changeling. Hell, he's a threat to the entire damn country. He understands it. He doesn't take it personally."Cerise frowned next to him. "How do you know?""We talked about it before we got into it the last time. It's just the reality of life for him," William explained. "He's a cold bastard. He understands my reasons, and in my place he would do the same thing. He doesn't see himself as evil. In his own eyes he's doing exactly what I used to do - serving his country the best he can. He isn't crazy, Cerise. He's very rational. That makes him more dangerous. What the hell is in that journal? Why does he want it so much?"Cerise grimaced and rubbed her face. "I've been trying to puzzle it out and I have no idea. The journal is the key to the whole thing. I wish Sene had burned in a fire. I wish my parents would've razed it down to the ground - "William put his hand over her lips."What is it?" she whispered."The birds stopped singing."VUR shifted from foot to foot. How long did it take to fuck? Was the wolf freak romancing her in there with wine and poetry? Vur focused on the flutter of oak branches by the barn and launched himself into the sky. His skin wings snapped open, and Vur flew, gliding on the currents to perch on the oak.WILLIAM slid to the side, rising silently. Cerise rolled to her feet, thrust her hand into the hay, and pulled her sword out.William bared his teeth. That's my girl.She moved to the wall. "Oh, baby! Yes! Yes! Give it to me! Yes!"The roof creaked under the weight of someone's body. William padded along the floor, tracking the creaking."Harder, baby! Harder!"The roof burst. A feathered body fell through the hole, talons spread for the kill. William lunged at the attacker's back, locking his forearm on the slick throat. The creature choked, gurgling. Cerise thrust, impossibly fast, and stepped back.The creature fell to his knees. William scanned his memory for Hand agents with feathers. Vur. "The claws are poisonous."Cerise's face gained a harsh edge. She looked like a wolf threatened in her own den. "Let him go, please."William released the lock. Vur crashed to the floor, gasping. Blood spread through his feathers."Hurts, doesn't it?" Cerise took a step closer."Yesss," the Hand's agent gurgled."It will take you a long time to die, and it will hurt more and more as you slip away. The Hand took my father. Tell me where he is and I will end it now."Vur's blue eyes blinked."Take your time," William told him.He circled the body and sat in the hay. Cerise sat next to him. Moments dripped by, slow like cold molasses. Vur's moans turned into sharp cries. They waited.A minute leaked away.Another."Kasis!" he cried out. "He's in Kasis."Cerise rose, her face grim. Flash sparked, sword sliced, and Vur's trembling body finally became still.