((A/N: Please make sure you read the previous chapter! I've posted two updates in three days, and I'm not sure the alert for the last chapter actually went through for everyone.))
"Tell me, Nikolai: how do you find your wife?"
I'd barely stepped foot in the study before being hit with the falsely innocuous question. My gaze flickered from the desk Remington was writing behind to the elegant canapé Gwendolyn rested on, her dispassionate expression and formal posture telling me everything I needed to know about the coming conversation.
This was going to be one of those summons, then.
As I made my way to the Chesterfield best positioned to allow an unobstructed view of both Sovereigns, I managed a slow, unaffected blink. "Human."
Gwendolyn took a sip from her teacup, glancing down at the liquid with a bland expression on her face before carefully setting it and the saucer down on the tray before her. Without a word, she added half a spoonful of sugar to her drink and gave it a single stir. She then took another sip and replaced the cup.
The entire display was meant to give me time to elaborate.
Her expression remained utterly neutral as she finally glanced up at me. "Yes, it's unfortunate that circumstances necessitated you marry a human woman."
The remark cut as deeply as a clawed swipe to the cheek would have. I forced my gaze to the ground, properly chastised.
"I found her to be as we expected," Remington intoned from where he worked, not so much as glancing away from papers before him. "She seems amenable enough, and eager to prevent a war."
Eager to serve the Council, more like, but I kept the thought to myself, allowing my attention to flicker between my two superiors. Politics was their domain, not mine.
"Yes, that biddable nature is likely just as much a boon to the Council as it is to us," Gwendolyn returned, her thoughts for once in line with mine. She considered me for a moment, as if she realized we were in rare agreement, before shifting her posture toward her mate. "We'll need to tip the scales more in our favor, of course."
And there it was! The moment of coordinated thinking was good while it lasted.
From behind the desk, Remington lifted his head, interest sparkling in those hazel eyes of his. "What is it you've learned, My Dear?"
The expression his mate adopted was one of self-satisfaction. "She's intelligent, but not overly logical," the Sovereign began to list. "The heart will rule over the mind in this one, I can tell. Her commitment to promoting peace is genuine, and she won't be easily persuaded to abandon her morals. She has an idealized view of the world, and believes wholeheartedly in doing the right thing. She isn't after power or recognition, but instead seeks meaning and connection." A thin eyebrow arched. "All we need to do is give her what she seeks."
Both Sovereigns turned their gazes to me then, and a feeling of unease settled over me. The space between my shoulder blades tingled. In wolf form, the fur there would have bristled. As a human, it manifested as an annoying itch. It took conscious effort to avoid twitching a shoulder in response, but it was better to focus on that than on the assessing look both leaders wore.
"She's a romantic, you say?" Remington summarized, drawing out a hum of consideration. "That could work."
The tingle became a burn. I dropped my head two inches, looking back up at them from an angle and doing everything I could to keep my lips still and perfectly neutral. Instinct pulled me in two directions. There were only two werewolves on the planet I couldn't get away with flashing my teeth at, and both of them were staring right at me.
It was impossible to misconstrue their meaning. I choked back the growl that threatened to erupt and made sure to annunciate as I made my position clear: "I am not going to seduce the child."
Gwendolyn lifted her chin, and power curled in the air. Her tone was deceptively casual when she spoke. "You're not?"
I fixed my full attention on her, lifting my own head to its normal height. It was incredibly clear I was not misunderstood on this point, so I made sure to over-annunciate as I repeated myself: "I am not going to seduce the child."
The wolf flashed in Gwendolyn's eyes. I held her stare for three… four impossibly long seconds before glancing to the side and back. I needed her to know how strongly I felt about the issue, but even then, there were some lines I'd never cross. Setting my jaw, I hoped there were still lines she wouldn't cross, either.
"Or was that an order, My Liege?"
Tension flared in the air before dissipating. A wide smile filled with false warmth spread across her lips. "Of course not, Nikolai. It was merely a suggestion."
My shoulders sagged in relief. I wasn't foolish enough to think the conversation was actually over, but the decision had been made. No orders would be issued.
"And a good one, at that," Remington continued, picking up right where his mate had left off. He leaned back in that chair of his, tapping the end of his pen on the desk before him as he eyed me. His irritation was less palpable than his mate's, and without the looming threat of a direct order, it felt significantly less predatory. I met his stare with practiced neutrality. "She's not a child, you know."
That was far from my primary concern. I twitched a shoulder. "Close enough."
The pen tapped two more times. "She's graduated college and everything." When I only blinked in acknowledgement, he huffed out a sigh. "Are you forgetting that you took over as the sole Enforcer at the age of 16?"
"When she was – what? – six years old, you mean?"
His lips twitched, his hand twisting up in a gesture of acquiescence. Another tap. "What's your principal opposition, Nikolai?"
Was I limited to just one? I arranged my features into an expression of boredom and offered him a bland response: "It won't work."
Gwendolyn took issue with my argument, the teacup and saucer clinking in dissent. "Are you questioning my judgment, Enforcer?"
Even a pup would've recognized how dangerous that question was, could've felt the power swirling in the air. But she wasn't going to order me seduce this wife of mine, so I met her gaze with a smile. "Only the long-term application of your plan, Your Excellency."
The wolf flashed in her eyes once again, but this time, I had far less at stake. I glanced away and back without hesitation. The quick act of deference seemed to pacify her, as the storm brewing in the air calmed a bit.
I would have looked back to Remington when he spoke, but a wolf keeps his focus on the larger threat. "She's human," I reminded them both. "Do you want your Enforcer bound to your will, or to the will of a human woman who has Councilmen constantly whispering in her ear?"
The wolf across from me huffed a tch! of derision as she finally called back the storm and reached again for her tea. "I said romance the girl, not mate her."
There was a flicker of amusement on Remington's lips as he glanced at his mate, undoubtedly seeing the split hairs for what they were. "I acknowledge your concerns, Nikolai," he conceded after a moment, "though I imagine compartmentalizing wouldn't be an issue for you. Still, if you don't wish to… romance the girl, then you won't have to. We can entice her with something else."
"She longs for meaning and connection," Gwendolyn recited, nodding once to her mate. She turned an assessing look on me, then. "Can you manage to refrain from harassing her into the Council's waiting arms, at least?"
Choking back the urge to growl, I offered a wide, humorless smile. It was the closest I could get to flashing my teeth in her direction without losing my head. "No promises."
"Nikolai." There was a clear warning in the growl of my name. I met Remington's gaze for just a moment before dropping it as etiquette demanded. "This situation is not ideal. It also is not our fault."
The blow landed exactly as it was intended to. My jaw clenched.
"Go." There was no mistaking it for anything less than an order. I got to my feet without any delay. "We meet with Legal in an hour."
"You look like you're accomplishing a lot."
Snapping out of my thoughts, and in the process, snapping my head away from the window I'd been staring out of, I glanced toward the library's entrance, no longer surprised to see that the werewolf had once again snuck up on me. I refused to dignify his commentary with an answer, knowing he was only trying to get under my skin.
Rainer – an eighteen-year-old German-speaking werewolf with a bit of an overinflated ego. I'd met him two days ago, when he'd just waltzed right into the library and pulled up a chair across from me, at first forgetting to introduce himself and instead launching right into a game of twenty-questions. He reminded me of Kyle, one of Bridget's best friends who practically lived at the ranch with us, so I secretly enjoyed his constant attempts to irritate me. It was all in good fun, and it was something familiar.
He was also pretty much the only werewolf in this entire place that was actually willing to talk to me, not just stare and whisper amongst each other from across the hall. He probably could've been the most annoying guy on the planet, and I'd still probably appreciate the opportunity to actually have a real conversation.
"So what are we not reading, today?" he asked as he strolled closer to me, snatching the law book from out of my hands before I even had time to register his intent. He took one look at it before clicking his tongue and tossing it aside, making himself comfortable on the opposite side of the window seat from me. "That looked particularly boring."
"You don't even know what it is," I chided, slipping comfortably into German and rolling my eyes at the teenager across from me. We'd established on the first day we'd met that Rainer didn't know a lick of English, so his attempt at judging an English book was pretty comical.
"I'm more interesting than any book," was all he offered in response, preening a bit where he sat before tapping his shoe against mine. "Do you actually like reading? Every time I see you, you've got your face in a book, but you never actually seem to be enjoying it."
"You've seen me all of three times," I pointed out, but nevertheless shrugged my shoulders and decided to actually answer his question. He hadn't been wrong; talking to him was more interesting than reading centuries-old werewolf law books. "Depends on the book. I don't mind reading, but I also don't particularly enjoy it when I'm not just reading for pleasure. And after so much of it lately, I'm getting a little bit…" I trailed off, trying to come up with an appropriate translation of stir-crazy, only to realize I didn't have the vocabulary to convey that thought. I amended mid-sentence: "…bored."
"Then why sit around and continue reading at all hours?"
I blew out a breath, turning away from his questioning stare and looking out the window again. It was an excellent question, one I had been asking myself for the past day or so. "I need to be doing something, and seeing as I haven't been able to find Nikolai anywhere, that doesn't really—"
"He's in Albanien."
Albania? "What? Since when? Why?" I paused my rapid-firing of questions long enough to narrow my eyes at the teen across from me. "Why do you know this when no one bothered to tell me?"
"Because everyone tells me everything," he answered with that cocky little grin of his, before rolling a shoulder dismissively. "Nothing happened, if that's what you're worried about. He's just doing a follow-up on something from a few weeks ago. Left yesterday and should be back by tomorrow, I'd guess. I figured you knew. …He didn't tell you?"
My frown deepened into a glower. "I can't get that man to tell me anything."
Two dark eyebrows shot upwards. "Don't you know you're supposed to be his equal?"
I scoffed. "Why don't you tell him that?"
At that, the teenaged werewolf was reduced to laughter, apparently finding my whole situation absolutely hilarious despite the fact that it wasn't even the least bit funny.
I waited, sitting there and scowling at him until he got the message. It took a few minutes.
"Sorry, sorry," he assured after he managed to regain control of himself, "it's just… you really don't know what you're doing, do you? I mean, didn't they tell you anything when they sent you here?"
He was laughing again, and all I could do was fix a dark glare in his direction.
He sobered quickly this time, clearing his throat with an awkward little cough. "Sorry. Here, your reading clearly hasn't been able to fill you in on werewolf basics, so let's play a game: a question for a question, and I'll even let you go first."
I arched a brow, unable to think of anything he could possibly want to know that he wouldn't feel comfortable just asking anyway – the kid had greeted me with three immediate questions the first time we'd met – but I figured it wouldn't do to look a gift horse in the mouth. I did have questions, after all, and I'd much rather ask Rainer than, say, Remington. "Alright. How'd you find out about Nikolai being in Albania? Did he tell you?"
"That's two questions, Schatzi," – I rolled my eyes at the term of endearment, once again ignoring the younger teen's mock flirtatiousness – "but no, he didn't; my brother mentioned it. Now, why did you agree to come here, to be an Enforcer?"
And he'd mocked my choice of question? "Because it was the only way to prevent a war." I debated my options for my next question, curious to learn more about this brother of his he'd never mentioned before, but unwilling to waste a question. "Since this is apparently so obvious that you think it's okay to laugh at me for not knowing… how do I get Nikolai to view me as his equal?"
"You make him, obviously. You stand your ground and you don't let him call your bluff. That's the Big Picture why, but I want the Small Picture why. Why were you willing to be an Enforcer?"
I had to blink at the way he was able to so suddenly shift gears from one topic to another. "Because it was necessary," I insisted, before lifting a hand to cut off his predictable objection. "And, I suppose, because I wanted a chance to be involved. I grew up hearing stories about the Council and the supernatural. I didn't want to just bury my head in the sand." I pursed my lips, then, trying to consolidate my next inquiry into just one question. "I've tried to stand my ground, Rainer. I'm not sure that means the same thing to a werewolf as it does to a human. How exactly do I do that?"
The little chuckle he gave made it clear he still found my confusion amusing. "You can't back down after taking your stand. You can't flinch, you can't avoid eye contact, and you can't submit. You have to make sure you're sending the same message with your words as you are with your body. Posture and nonverbal communication is just as important to a werewolf as verbal." He gave me a quick once-over, before cocking his head to the side in a gesture of consideration that still struck me as awfully canine. "Why don't you hate me?"
I couldn't help but do a double take. "Why would I—?" I started to ask, only to realize Rainer was undoubtedly the type to take that as my question for the next round. I frowned at the teen as I tried to find away to phrase my response as only a statement. "…You haven't given me a reason to," I hedged. "Do—oh, damn it! Fine: Why were you expecting I would hate you?"
For once, the smile that spread across the teen's lips wasn't cocky; it was sincere. "You're a nice human, Katie," he informed me, in much the same way one would tell a cherished pet he was a good boy. I tried not to openly cringe, because I could tell he meant it as an actual compliment. "But, you've got to know that most humans aren't like you. When I popped in the other day to meet this new Enforcer of ours… well, I don't really know what I was expecting, but it wasn't you. Maybe it's because you're my age, I don't know—"
"I'm three years older than you!" I objected, only to be completely ignored as he plowed right on ahead.
"—or maybe it's because you're not sitting around plotting to exterminate our entire species. I guess I just didn't expect you to even be willing to listen to me speak for more than a few minutes, that's all. Especially considering most of us here aren't really willing to be open-minded about you." He waved a hand at the thought, clearly done with the introspection. "Alright! Speaking of first impressions: what was yours, of Nikolai?"
I snorted, not needing even a second to think about my answer. "That he was significantly more intimidating than Sebastian." The memory flashed before my eyes once more, bringing with it the question that had been nagging me since Gwendolyn first hinted at it: "What's with his eyes?"
The werewolf across from me huffed out a breath in disapproval, giving his head a quick shake before stopping and allowing his own eyes to shift to a glowing amber. They were back to their usual blue before I could do more than stiffen in response. "Our eyes change depending on which side of us is more in control, obviously. What was the—"
"No!" I interrupted with an adamant shake of my head. "That wasn't my question. That part I understand. I meant Nikolai's eyes specifically; how are they both amber and grey?"
"You should be more specific with your questions," he mocked, but nevertheless went ahead and answered. "Some werewolves have a stronger bond with their wolf half than others; those who do are sometimes able to simultaneously have both halves in control, because both halves are so connected already. Both of the Sovereigns can do it, too, and so can a handful of lower alphas, but I'm told it's… draining for most. Nikolai's the only one who keeps it up all the time, and I can't tell you exactly how that's possible." He paused for a moment, as if checking to see if I was satisfied with that answer. "Now then, what was the biggest fear that you had about Nikolai before you met him?"
"That I wouldn't be able to communicate with him. Exactly how many languages does that man speak?"
Rainer shrugged. "I can't know. I haven't heard of one that he doesn't speak, though. Wait! Those really tiny ones, where practically no one speaks the language anyways – he doesn't know any of those, I don't think. Why were you worried you wouldn't be able to communicate with him?"
Was that even possible? Rainer was essentially saying that Nikolai was fluent in every major spoken language on the planet. That couldn't be accurate. Shaking my head to clear the thought, I tried to recall his question. "The Council was under the impression that the only language he spoke was Rumänisch." What had we been talking about before we switched to languages? Oh! "What does that mean, that he has a strong relationship with his wolf half?"
Again, Rainer appeared almost disappointed by my chosen question. "That he might be more instinctual at times, that he's strong, that he responds more to wolf body language than to human body language – I don't know. How exactly did you expect the Enforcer of all werewolves to do his job without knowing at least most of the major languages?"
"I… don't know." He had a good point. "I didn't really think it through. What's the most important thing about werewolves that you think I don't know?"
He perked up. "Oh, good question! Hmm," he drew out, inclining his head as he considered it for a moment. "No one can be turned into a werewolf. I mean, obviously that's illegal under the Treaty and all, but it's not even possible in the first place. We're not entirely sure when your kind came up with that myth."
It took me a moment to actually process that information, both of my eyebrows skyrocketing and my lips parting a little bit. It wasn't until the blonde was chuckling to himself that I actually managed to react. "Wait, really?"
"Yes, really," he responded patiently, cocking his head to the side in consideration. "Are you afraid of Nikolai, even a little bit?"
I wasn't exactly a fan of his chosen question, but I figured I owed him an honest answer, given all he'd revealed already. "Afraid? No. Nervous? Perhaps. I'm well aware of the fact that he could kill me at any second; I'm not an idiot. But—" Once more, Reiner burst out into laughter, leaning forward and covering his face with a hand as he struggled for a breath. Once more, I fixed a pointed frown in his direction. "And why, exactly, is that funny to you?"
"Because you really don't get it, do you? He's the Enforcer, Schatzi," he told me. "That means it's his job to prevent everyone from breaking the law, to punish anyone who so much as lays a violent finger on a human. And you think there's even the slightest chance that he's going to be the one to slip up and even punch you? Come on! Out of all of the werewolves in the world, he's the one you're safest with!"
My brow furrowed. "He kills his kind for a living, Rainer. He—"
"You're untouchable, Katie. Nikolai can't do anything to hurt you, and on top of that, he can't let anyone else harm you, either. Don't do anything stupid like purposely antagonizing someone into attacking you, and you've really got absolutely nothing to worry about – nothing to fear."
As reassuring as I'm sure he was trying to be, I couldn't help but eye him doubtfully. Yes, his point was logical, but what we were talking about wasn't logical; a werewolf's violent rage was animalistic and maybe even emotional – certainly not logical. Hell, a human's rage wasn't logical, either. Still, I didn't bother to share my suspicions, because it was clear the topic wouldn't get very far with Rainer. Instead, I offered a simple nod of acknowledgement.
He seemed to know I didn't agree, however. "I assure you," he insisted, "I'm being truthful."
Offering a kind smile, I nodded again. "I'm sure you are."
Blue eyes narrowed at me in response. "Really though, Katie, I—" Seeming to think better of his planned statement, the German cut himself off, giving his head a little shake before allowing a wry smile to dance over his lips. "Are you afraid of me?"
"You know, you've asked an awful lot of questions since my last one," I told him quite smugly, before laughing at his sour expression and brushing the objection aside. "No, Rainer, I'm not. Again, I'm well aware of the fact that you could kill me if you wanted to, but I've got a knife in my pocket that I'm fairly certain I could do some serious damage with, myself."
His sour expression didn't evaporate as expected. "And that's on your mind all the time, is it, Katie?"
"I…" I didn't know what to say. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that my statement made me look awfully distrusting, awfully racist, really. And – shit! – but I really didn't know how to take that back.
All I could do was fix an apologetic expression on my face as I met Rainer's unwavering stare, but after a moment, the mask on his face broke and he burst out into laughter, lips once again pulling back into another wide grin. "Oh, you'll make a good Enforcer yet, Schatzi, just you wait." Taking a moment to just shake his head, the younger wolf couldn't help but continue laughing. "Really," he assured when he regained control of himself, "with a wary attitude like that, you'll learn quickly. As much as I'd love to tell you that you don't need to worry about me like that, that you don't need to always be aware of such things… being an Enforcer means you have to be."
Again, I didn't know what to say. I didn't even know where to begin. The best I could manage was a coy little smile as I cocked an eyebrow at the teen. "Are you telling me not to trust you, Rainer?"
"I'm telling you not to stop questioning my motives. Everyone's got a endgame."
He was right; the claim was one I'd known to be true for a while. Still, the way that he'd so candidly admitted it to me made me latch onto the topic rather than brush it aside. "And what's your endgame, Rainer?"
"Oh, my endgame isn't anything interesting, my dear. I'm just looking to score some points with the future Enforcer, get some friends in high places… you understand." Laughing a bit, he sent a wink my way, before sobering a bit. "No, my endgame isn't very interesting at all. But yours… yours must be fascinating. Tell me, Katie, where are you hoping the pieces will fall?"
For a moment, I did nothing more than purse my lips, my gaze staying steady on him as I thought over my answer. "Maybe I'm just hoping there'll be pieces left on the board at the end of the game."
The teen's reaction was a soft, genuine smile. "Admirable," he commented, "but perhaps naïve. What would you say, Nikolai?"
At the mention of the Enforcer, I couldn't help but jump, my head snapping to the side as I glanced toward the library's entrance, somehow both surprised and unsurprised to find the tall figure of my husband-to-be looming at the edge of the room. He was leaning against the doorframe, his arms crossed over his chest and one of his knees slightly bent. He was dressed in smooth slacks, the white button-up appearing recently ironed – all a stark contrast to the unkempt look of his hair. And all an even starker contrast to those wild eyes of his – eyes which were staring directly into mine as he considered me.
"Diplomatic," came his cool voice, his answer so curt that it took me a moment to figure out what he was even saying.
"Ah," the younger wolf beside me drew out in understanding, and though I wanted to glance in his direction, I found myself unable to look away from the grey-and-amber eyes of the Enforcer. "Well," Rainer started again, "I don't think there's any dishonesty there. But it's not my call, of course. Anyways, I suppose I should take my leave, then, consider—"
"That won't be necessary, Rainer. Miss Hughes and I have been summoned."
See, and y'all thought I was talking madness when I said this update wouldn't take very long. But no, I obviously don't blame you at all if you doubted me. I know my updates lately have been anything but regular, but I'm working on it, I promise. Bear with me, and I hope to make it worth the wait.
Let me know what you think of Nikolai's perspective? This is obviously the first we've seen of it, and I'm still getting used to writing the whole alternating-point-of-view thing.