Peter and the Pups by Merry Farmer

2

Ihad never been on a river before in any kind of vessel. As I’d said before, Novoberg was landlocked, which meant neither Neil nor I had ever had occasion to travel by water. Neil had crossed the Wolf River to visit Oscar plenty of times now, but traveling on a barge with all of our wagons, equipment, horses, and men downriver was an entirely new experience for me.

“Let me know if you plan on fainting this time,” Ox said as she took up the position by my side that Magnus had vacated when he’d gone to help direct our watery caravan. “We might not be atop a horse, but I can still stop you from falling in the water and drowning.”

“Oh, God, drowning?” I squeaked out, grasping her arm.

Ox laughed, prying my fingers off of her before I left bruise marks. “You’ll be fine, Peter. The river is as smooth as glass, and Magnus’s barges are remarkably well-crafted.”

“Are you certain about that?” I asked, eyeing the wagon in front of me and wondering if grabbing onto that would help or hurt me, should the barge sink.

“I was anxious the first few times too,” Neil said, trying not to make it too obvious that he was laughing at me. “But honestly, this is a very safe way to travel.”

“Besides, you can swim,” Ox said, poking me in the ribs with her elbow. “I’ve seen you swimming. Swimming naked, for that matter.” She paused, eyed me impishly, then went on with, “Maybe you’d be more comfortable if you stripped all your clothes off.”

“Peter is always more comfortable with all his clothes stripped off,” Neil teased me as well.

“That isn’t funny,” I said, glaring at them. I knew it was, knew I probably deserved to be laughed at for the way I stood with my legs braced, reaching for the wagon, as if the whole thing were about to flip and go under. “Why are we traveling in this mad way instead of going overland, like normal people?”

“Because, my darling Peter,” Magnus said, marching up behind me as though he walked on water, and not just when traveling by barge. He clapped his hands on my shoulders. “Only a very few people in the forest know where Gravlock is located, and I would like to keep it that way. Particularly as things are bound to turn extraordinarily tense after this summit. I don’t want anyone following us, either on the way there or on the way back. So we are going to drift downriver for a few hours so that we can make land on the west side of the meeting grounds between Hedeon and Klovisgard, then approach the entire summit from completely the wrong direction, thus fooling everyone.”

It was a good plan. I assumed Magnus also planned to have a contingent of men cover our tracks entirely, even once we made land in the wrong place. But all the same, I said, “Couldn’t we have gone some way other than by water?”

Magnus laughed, folding his arms around me from behind and glancing out over the rippling river with a broad smile. “One of these days, Peter, I am going to take you and Neil on an excursion with me to Good Port. Then we’ll climb aboard one of the ocean-going ships they have, the likes of which you’ve never dreamed of. The three of us will sail out into the sunset to have every sort of adventure on the high seas.”

I shuddered at the thought, which I was certain Magnus could feel. He tightened his arms around me.

“I would be willing to bet that Peter would be so sick on a seafaring ship that he wouldn’t be of any use to anyone,” Ox laughed at me.

“And what would you know about it?” I asked, already feeling a bit sick.

“I beg your pardon?” Ox said with mock offense. “I grew up in Good Port, remember? I’ve been out to sea before, and I would relish the chance to go back.”

“That explains so much,” Neil said, grinning at Ox. “You were a pirate for a time, weren’t you?”

“I might have been,” Ox said coyly.

I doubt she had been. I figured she was merely toying with Neil. But she certainly had the temperament for it.

“You will be fine, Peter,” Magnus said, letting go of me at last. I regretted that he did. “Besides,” he went on with a shrug. “If you need something to motivate you on this leg of the journey, just remember that Tobin and his enormous cock are impatient to rendezvous with you at the grand summit.” He smacked my ass, then stepped away to have a word with the barge’s driver—if that was what someone who steered a boat was even called.

I pretended to rub my ass with wounded dignity, blushing as I did. Tobin actually had expressed his interest in spending time with me again at the grand summit, as Magnus was well aware. He hadn’t yet told me whether he intended to throw me back in Tobin’s bed again, though. It all depended on how long the summit lasted and whether I was needed to seduce other, recalcitrant pack leaders. The joke, however, was that I’d been so enamored of the idea of fucking with Tobin and his legendary cock that I’d made a fool of myself. And learned the valuable lesson that just because a man was massively endowed, that didn’t mean being fucked by him was a pleasant experience. It had been humiliating and uncomfortable. But the tables had turned when I’d gently suggested to Tobin that he might enjoy sex more if he were on the receiving end, then demonstrated that theory by fucking him. I didn’t love playing the aggressive role in fucking, but the results of my role reversal with Tobin had secured his loyalty to the coalition Magnus had formed, so if I was called on to do it again, I would.

Much to my relief, we only stayed on the river for about an hour before reaching the spot Magnus had predetermined as our disembarkation point. I was so happy to be on dry land again that I didn’t even care the mud that splashed on my boots as I jumped down from the barge and scrambled up the riverbank into the forest. The spot Magnus had chosen for our landing was in the middle of nowhere, which I assumed was the point, but that meant we made a horrendous mess getting a dozen heavy wagons and nearly three dozen horses and men ashore.

“Why are there so many of us?” I panted once Neil, Ox, and I had made our way a good quarter of a mile into the forest, where the wagons were regrouping and lining up once more.

“Safety, of course,” Ox said, looking at me as though I were a simpleton. “The more men Magnus appears to have guarding him—and the two of you,” she glanced between me and Neil, “the more important he appears to be. And it is of the utmost importance that Magnus looks like the most powerful leader in the entire forest.”

I straightened from brushing off my boots and made a face at her. “And since when have you become such an expert in wolf diplomacy?”

Ox shrugged with one shoulder and led us to where the group of horses that included the dappled grey that she liked so much was being checked to see how they’d fared on the journey. “I listen when I’m standing guard over you,” she said. “And my sisters in Gravlock have their fingers on the pulse of everything going on in the forest.”

“They’re a bunch of gossiping hens, you mean,” I said with a teasing grin.

“You’d be surprised how close those two things are,” Ox fired back. “And you’d be surprised how much information is conveyed across a pillow at night.”

I laughed, then stepped closer to her and murmured, “That’s exactly the reason Magnus plans to loan me out to entertain his friends at this summit.”

“Not his friends,” Ox corrected me. “Nor his enemies. You, my dear one, will be spreading your ass for those men who fall somewhere between those two distinctions.”

“And adoring every moment of it,” I sighed with exaggerated happiness. Mostly so that I could tease Ox. She, Magnus, and I had already predetermined that Ox would stay with me every step of the way—every single step—when I was offered up as a fuck toy for whomever Magnus wanted to draw to his side. The move was for my protection, since Ox had more or less sworn to protect me with her life. And it wouldn’t have been the first time she’d had to sit through a me being loudly and vigorously fucked. I truly did enjoy it, and she despised listening to my sighs and moans and shouts of ecstasy. Which was why we made such good friends. We knew exactly the right way to antagonize and tease each other.

“I will be relying on you to remember everything any of my paramours say in the throes of passion,” I told her with a bit more seriousness as our mounts for the rest of the day were brought to us. “You know I get carried away when I’m fucking.”

In fact, I made the very worst sort of spy when it came to extracting information from anyone while naked and aroused. I was a shameless and hopeless whore once I was in a man’s bed. Something came over me, something wicked and degenerate, that I couldn’t control. Well, I suppose I could have controlled it if I wanted to, but why? Magnus was well aware of how I was in bed, though—very well aware—but he insisted it wouldn’t matter. Though we had yet to fully hash out the plan with our friends, Magnus and I had discussed the fact that I would be much better used as a reward for leaders who had already chosen to join our side and as a means of solidifying the pact, while Jace would be the perfect pup to extract information from resistant leaders. As much as I loathed the idea that Jace was stronger or more competent than me—he was my friend, but he would forever be my rival as well, which suited both of us perfectly—I had to admit that our strengths lay in different tactics.

“Do you need some help mounting, Peter?” Magnus asked as he strode up from overseeing the last of the wagons being brought ashore.

“I don’t think anyone ever needs help mounting Peter,” Neil joked, then laughed at his own joke in a way only Neil could.

“Cheeky,” Magnus gasped at Neil in pretend shock, then “helped” Neil mount his horse by wedging his hand so hard into Neil’s ass and lifting that Neil yelped.

Neil’s face was bright red, and he squirmed in his saddle for a moment before saying, “It’s true, though.”

“I will concede that it is, indeed, true,” I said in my most regal and aloof imitation of my father at his most arrogant.

“Don’t I know it,” Magnus growled in my ear as he hoisted me up onto my horse, without asking if I needed help, I might add. Magnus would use any excuse he had in front of him to put his hands on me, particularly my ass. Not that I minded one little bit.

“We should be able to make the meeting grounds about an hour after nightfall, as planned,” he called out to us, and whoever of his men was listening, as he climbed aboard his own horse. “That will give us ample time to wander through the forest, confusing and crossing our path a few times. It’s likely that every other pack of any note will arrive after dark as well.”

“How very smart of them,” Ox said, practically vaulting onto her mare’s back.

“It is smart,” Neil pointed out as we moved forward, taking up the position Magnus had designated for us in the center of the caravan, well-protected and surrounded by his fiercest men. “If everyone arrives after dark, no one will be able to see which direction they came from.”

“Very good, love,” Magnus said, sending Neil a wink as he maneuvered his horse between both of ours.

We spent the rest of the morning and the better part of the afternoon discussing what to expect from the grand summit, and wandering in loops and circles on our way there. The meeting grounds between Hedeon and Klovisgard weren’t terribly far from Gravlock, but that was the problem. The last thing Magnus wanted—the last thing I wanted as well—was for any of the stronger wolf packs with leaders who opposed Magnus’s vision for the forest and his bid for power to know where we lived. With everything so tense in the frontier, there was no telling whether the cities might attack as well, and next time, they might not be content with overturning tents and booths at a faire and killing a few quarrelsome lone wolves. And on top of that, if things in the frontier did degenerate into chaos and hardship, as uncomfortable as it was to say it, we didn’t want hordes of lone wolves and smaller packs flooding into Gravlock and overwhelming our supplies. Though we did want to bring in more settlers eventually.

But most of those things were problems that we were sure to face months or even years from now, not at the summit.

Shortly before nightfall, Magnus had us stop in what felt like the absolute middle of nowhere. The only sounds were the cries of birds and sounds of the wind in the treetops. I was certain there wasn’t another human for miles, but Magnus sent out scouts all the same.

They returned as twilight was blending into darkness to give their reports.

“Nikolai’s pack is about a mile to the east,” Lev reported in a quiet voice. “They didn’t see me, but his men are on the alert.”

“Bela’s caravan is about that distance to the south,” Casus reported next. “They were already setting off for the meeting area when I spotted them, though.”

Magnus nodded at each of the reports. I paid close attention, listening for as many details as I could. I’d met a great many of the other large pack leaders at the meeting held directly after the attack at Neander, but I hadn’t learned the names of most of them. Magnus had drilled Neil and I in every detail about the pack leaders since then, complete with having us memorize sketches of the men. But there was a world of difference between recognizing a name and knowing roughly how many men that leader had behind him and coming face to face with an actual person. Nikolai and Bela were potential allies when it came to a few of the causes Magnus supported, but they would never be trusted friends. Another pack leader named Yuri was likely to be one of Magnus’s staunchest rivals, and he had the support of at least as many leaders as Magnus had.

“If Bela is already moving toward the meeting place, then we should too,” Magnus said with feigned casualness. Magnus always sounded calm and cool on the outside, but I knew him well enough now to see the way his shoulders bunched and the way he held his neck a little too stiffly.

“Should we slide in quietly or make our presence known?” Alexei asked as some of the others went back to the wagons they were in charge of.

“Oh, we should most certainly make ourselves known,” Magnus said with an impish smirk that I could just make out in the light of the torches that were being lit all around us.

With that said, even more torches were lit, and within minutes, we were moving forward again. It wasn’t just the torches that made it possible for our band of wolves to make a notable entrance, some of Magnus’s men took out instruments and began to play and sing, as if we were some sort of traveling circus.

“Your sense of the dramatic borders on ridiculous, Magnus,” I told him with a laugh as he fell into step between me and Neil again.

“Always make an entrance if you can,” Magnus said, rolling his shoulders and settling in his saddle as if he were a king. “The man who appears not to have a care in the world when walking into the midst of what could be his enemy always shows more strength than those who slink in quietly.”

“Just as the man who parades around his two, nobly-born pups as though they were bangles on his wrists proves that he is the most virile man at the summit?” I asked with a smirk.

Magnus’s face lit with delight in the torchlight. “You are a fast learner, my darling Peter. And I would kiss you right now, if I didn’t think you’d fall off your horse.”

Ox snorted with laughter where she rode directly behind us.

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “I’m never going to live that down,” I said, mostly to myself. “And I didn’t actually fall from the horse.”

“People will forget about that in no time,” Neil reassured me from Magnus’s other side. He let a beat pass before saying, “We’ll be teasing you for how terrified you are of boats instead.”

Both Magnus and Ox laughed as I insisted, “I am not terrified of boats. I’ve simply never been on one before, and I don’t trust them.”

“A likely story,” Magnus said, winking at Neil.

The ribbing continued and the jokes at my expense escalated, but when I noticed a glow in the distance through the trees, it became obvious to me why I was still being teased. A leader who approached a grand summit of some of the most powerful men in the forest illuminated by a dazzling amount of torchlight and accompanied by music was one thing, but that same man could make even more of an impression if he were seen laughing along with his two nobly-born pups.

Indeed, when we finally rode out through the edge of the forest and into a vast clearing that seemed to appear out of nowhere, we turned heads. Lots of heads. It was difficult to tell in the dark, but the meeting grounds were already well-occupied. I estimated about five hundred men were there already, with dozens of tents set up in clusters around the perimeter of the clearing. A pair of small streams meandered near the edges of the wide-open space—which I assumed was where we would get our water and empty our chamber pots for the next few days, hopefully not in the same streams—and several large bonfires had been constructed closer to the center of the clearing. The area in the very center of the space was still unoccupied, but it was my guess that a meeting tent would be pitched there once all the leaders had arrived.

“Ah, I see Ludvig’s standard over that way,” Magnus said, catching Alexei’s eye near the front of our caravan and gesturing casually in that direction. “Why don’t we plant ourselves next to him. It’s been such a long time since the two of us have spoken.”

I knew it was imperative that I hide my instinctive grin at the lie, but it was a challenge. Where Ludvig was, Anton would be too. And even though Anton was my very last choice for which of our group of pups I wanted to see first, I did want to see him. Mostly to gauge whether he was still on board with the plan the rest of us had hatched to spend the first part of the summit searching for the other four pups Karpov the slaver had apparently obtained for influential pack leaders.

But also, where Ludvig was, the other pack leaders who Magnus was in league would be also. That meant my friend Tobin, Feodor, Dushka and Conrad, and Edik and Jace. My heart sped up as Magnus’s caravan pulled around to the area of the clearing where Ludvig was already set up and I caught sight of Edik’s standard as well.

“There’s Dushka’s standard,” Neil said softly, peeking excitedly at me.

“That means they’re all here,” I whispered back, nearly giggling at the end.

“God spare us all,” Magnus said, rolling his eyes with what I could tell, even in the dark, was false indulgence. “The two of you are eager to see your charming little friends from Neander again, I’m sure.”

That was part of our plan as well—to imply that Neil and I had befriended Jace, Conrad, and Anton at the faire at Neander. It would be easy enough to let people believe the five of us had known each other when we were still city-dwellers as well, and that meeting up in Neander had been a different sort of reunion.

“Very well,” Magnus said with an exaggerated sigh. “As soon as we choose our spot and the men start erecting the yurts, you two can dash off and erect other things with your charming little friends.”

I giggled and looked sheepish, exactly the way I knew whatever audience we might have had would have expected me to, then peeked across Magnus to Neil. He was doing an admirable job of blushing up a storm as well, although with Neil, that might have been real. We kept up the act as our caravan reached the spot where Ludvig and the others were set up, and only once Magnus had issued orders to his men while standing in his stirrups, looking as brazen and powerful as a wolf leader should look for the small crowd of curious onlookers watching our every move, did he gesture for us to dismount.

Even then, before Neil and I could rush off—with Ox standing guard over us, of course—Magnus had to make a lewd show of brushing us both off, as if riding had dirtied us, then kissing us soundly and pawing us so that not a single soul watching would have the slightest bit of doubt about who Neil and I belonged to. And that still wasn’t enough. Magnus had to flaunt us to one of his rivals before releasing us to go find Jace, Conrad, and Anton.

“Ah, Bela. It’s good to see you again,” he said, resting a hand each on my waist and Neil’s waist and steering us toward a man with spiky blond hair as he walked past.

I remembered the man from the meeting after Neander, though I hadn’t known his name until Magnus had Neil and I study details of every leader and settlement. Bela had come a long way, from up north, almost as far as the hinterlands, where Jorgen Iceblade had his settlement. Bela’s pack was about half the size of Magnus’s, but every one of them were skilled hunters, and the goods they sold at faires consisted of the finest pelts and leather goods that could be purchased in the frontier. Indeed, the boots I was wearing—a gift from Magnus meant to lure me to his side when I was still with Sascha—had been made from raw leather purchased from Bela.

But just because Magnus and Bela engaged in trade didn’t make them friends.

“Magnus.” Bela nodded to Magnus, changing directions and coming to stop in front of us with crossed arms instead of continuing on his way. He stared incredulously at me and Neil. “I see you still have your two precious pups.”

I put everything I had into pretending to be as vapid and fetching as nobly-born pups were purported to be, even though I thought the ruse was silly. Not only did I detest being referred to as a pup, every other nobly-born pup I’d yet to meet only pretended sweetness and sexuality while actually being some of the sharpest minds I’ve ever met. Although, admittedly, the only other nobly-born pups I’d actually met were Neil, Jace, Conrad, and Anton.

“They are the light of my life,” Magnus said, shifting his hands to our shoulders, likely as a visual and potent sign for Bela not to even think about touching either of us. “And they are the reason I’ve thrown my back out twice in the last month.”

Magnus laughed heartily. Neil and I giggled like fools. Bela chuckled tightly, as if he didn’t have time for that sort of joke.

“I hope they haven’t worn you out to the point where you’re incapable of a sturdy debate,” Bela said. “Because I fully intend to see that the autonomy of wolf packs that I and my friends support is the course of action all of the wolves adopt by the end of this summit.”

“Believe me,” Magnus said, still smiling, but deadly serious, “I am more than ready to state my argument and bring all of you around to the idea of unification.”

“Not if unification means we’re all beholden to you as king you won’t,” Bela said, then saluted Magnus and walked off before Magnus could contradict him.

“That went well,” Magnus said with a grin as we turned and headed toward where our men were swiftly setting up the yurts.

“He got the last word,” Neil said. “And then he just walked away. How is that things going well?”

Magnus winked at Neil. “He is so insecure in his position that he wouldn’t stay to debate it.”

I tilted my head to the side, wondering if that was truly what had happened or if Magnus was simply putting a positive shine on what had been a thoroughly dismissive attitude on Bela’s part.

“If it makes you feel better,” Neil said, almost as if he shared my view of things and not Magnus’s, “Bela couldn’t keep his eyes off Peter.”

“Really?” My brow went up. I hadn’t noticed. Then again, Neil was the one who noticed the slightest nuances from people, not me.

“Good,” Magnus said, his smile widening. “With any luck, that means I have a honey-trap to secure his allegiance.”

I glanced back over my shoulder at what I could see of Bela’s retreating back through the darkness and the meandering people. “I wouldn’t mind at all,” I said with a shrug. “But I’m not sure it would work with him.”

Beyond that, as I turned forward and searched among the tents that were already set up for any sign of my friends, I noticed that the prospect of fucking someone as powerful as Bela didn’t excite me the way it used to. Not that I didn’t want to end up spread and panting for the spiky-haired man. In that moment, though, I was far more interested in finding my friends and discussing our own plans for the summit.

It didn’t take long to stumble across Jace and Conrad, already lounging around a fire outside of a yurt that must have belonged to Dushka, based on the sigil out front. Both of them sat up straighter when they spotted me, Neil, and Magnus approaching from the darkness between various camps.

“There you are at last, whore,” Jace greeted me with a fond smile.

“Did you miss me, asshole?” I replied, stepping forward to accept a manly hug from Jace.

“You two and your pet names,” Magnus laughed, shaking his head. Indeed, Jace and I had taken to calling each other offensive names as a sign of friendship during the meeting at Gravlock. “I’ll just deposit you and Neil here with these miscreants while I greet my own friends,” Magnus said. He kissed both me and Neil soundly—to put on a show for Jace and Conrad, and whoever else was watching, as likely as not—then nodded to Ox with a far more serious look before walking on to find the other leaders.

“It feels like forever since we were in Gravlock,” Conrad said, moving forward to hug Neil, then me.

A sharp flash of frustration—one that was entirely for Conrad’s careless slip of the tongue and not because of the way he and Neil got along so well—hit me. “When were you in Gravlock?” I asked with what I hoped anyone listening in would interpret as complete confusion.

“Oh.” Conrad instantly turned so red it was obvious, even by firelight. “Years ago,” he said, then rushed on with. “I’ve never been to a summit like this before. It’s like the campsites surrounding a faire, except no one is selling anything.”

“Are there any revelers?” I asked with a bright smile, glancing around for signs of an orgy.

Faires weren’t only a place for city-dwellers and forest-dwellers to purchase goods from each other and see all sorts of entertainments, they were one of the few occasions where wolves could come together for two nights of wild sexual abandon. For those of us involved in committed relationships, or for members of larger packs, the revels were simply a way to have fun. But for lone wolves and those from small packs, they were a much-needed outlet for weeks or months of imposed abstinence.

Jace laughed at me. “Leave it to this whore to be eager for revels.”

“I’ve never actually been a part of them,” I confessed. “I’ve only been to two faires, and I was otherwise engaged both times,” I added coyly.

“Well, I have participated,” Jace said with a wicked glint in his eyes. “And I can assure you that they are every bit as debauched and exhausting as you’ve heard.”

My eyes widened in wonder—and a bit of jealousy, if I were honest—but any comment I could have made was cut off as Anton shuffled forward to join us, muttering, “You’re just as salacious a whore as Peter is.”

Anton hadn’t changed at all. He was sullen, held his shoulders as though he were about to receive a blow, and sneered at everything around him, but I still found myself happy to see him. I decided to torture him by rushing to him and throwing my arms around him in a huge hug, then kissing him square on the mouth.

“Anton, I’ve missed you,” I said with exaggerated passion as soon as I let him go.

“Come here, you delightful prick.” Jace stepped in behind me and slammed his mouth over Anton’s and closed his hand over Anton’s crotch. I snorted with laughter, especially when Jace rocked back and said, “My, my, you are happy to see us,” keeping his hand on Anton’s cock.

“Stop it.” Anton struggled away from Jace, squirming and tugging at the hem of his waistcoat. “You two are shameless whores.”

“Hello, Anton.” Neil approached Anton much more docilely, but still hugged him. He flinched back quickly, though, and said, “Jace wasn’t joking. You’re as hard as a stone.”

That set Jace and I off. The two of us laughed uproariously, leaning into each other. I couldn’t have stopped myself from laughing or acting like a total child if I’d tried. For better or worse, Jace, Anton, and Conrad were my friends. The first friends my own age that I’d had in my life. Even though our friendship was relatively new, I would have given my life for them already, even Anton, in spite of his fondness for the word “whore”.

“How long have you lot been here?” I asked as we settled down, walking back to the fire where Jace and Conrad had been lounging earlier. Several small benches had been set out around the fire for us to sit in.

“Dushka and our group got here this morning,” Conrad said. “We were one of the first groups here.”

“I’m surprised you came in daylight,” Neil said.

“I’m certain he comes at all times of day, the way he and Dushka carry on,” Jace said with a wink for me.

I grinned right back at him as Anton took a seat on the other side of the fire with a disgusted snort. Ox hovered near the edges of our conversation, looking as tense as the five of us were relaxed. I noticed that she had both of her knives out, in spite of there being no immediate threat. I knew Ox well enough to sense that she thought the entire summit was an immediate threat.

“Dushka takes the opposite view,” Conrad says. “His strategy is to get to summits as early as possible so few people see him arrive.”

“I can see the wisdom of that,” Neil said.

“Edik and I and our pack arrived less than an hour before you did,” Jace told me, nodding to Neil as well. “And even though he didn’t come out to play until just now, Ludvig and Anton and their bunch were already here when we got here.”

“We arrived just before dusk,” Anton said, looking uncertain. In truth, he looked like half of him wanted to be a part of our conversation and the other half wanted to at least pretend not to have anything to do with us.

“How many more packs do you think will arrive in the night?” I asked, looking over my shoulder at the vast expanse of empty space around us. It was filling up fast as more people arrived and more fires were lit.

“Probably several,” Jace said, looking as well. “I’ve never been to as summit like this,” he went on.

“Neither have I,” Conrad added quickly.

“Nor I,” Anton seconded.

“—but if it’s anything like the faires,” Jace continued, “from what I can see, I think only about two-thirds of the leaders who are important enough to attend are here.”

“And have you seen any sign at all of the other four?” I asked in a quiet voice. I’d planned to save discussion about the other nobly-born pups for the morning, after the five of us had been reacquainted, but impatience was one of my many faults.

“Not yet.” Jace shook his head.

“I haven’t seen any of them,” Conrad said, leaning toward the fire. We all leaned in with him. “But I’ve discovered who one of the others is.”

My pulse sped up, especially since Conrad looked more haunted then excited about his information. “Who?” I asked.

“Lord Gennadi of Mayskoya,” Conrad said. “I met him once a long time ago.”

“I know him too,” Jace said, sadness in his voice. “He’s sweet, kind. He certainly isn’t suited to this kind of life. He’s timid, and he can’t be more than sixteen now.”

I swallowed uneasily, glancing to Neil. A look wasn’t enough, so I reached for his hand. Neil wasn’t really suited for the life we found ourselves in either.

Neil must have known what I was thinking. He squeezed my hand, then adjusted his grip to thread our fingers together. That, of course, had Jace smirking at me. Jace was the one who had pointed out I was in love with Neil—and who had proceeded to tease me mercilessly about him when I denied it—back before I realized that I actually was in love with him.

“Do you know which pack leader he belongs to?” I asked.

“Yuri,” Conrad said, shrinking in on himself.

“Fucking hell,” Jace spat, throwing a piece of a stick he had been playing with into the fire. “That’s like giving a newborn kitten to a rabid wolf to play with.”

I had the horrible feeling Jace was right. Yuri was the pack leader who had most vocally opposed Magnus at the meeting after Neander. I had the impression that he was Magnus’s main rival in a lot of things, and perhaps the leader of the entire faction that opposed Magnus’s ideas about wolf unity. I had disliked him instantly and found him to be harsh and mean. I didn’t know Lord Gennadi, but if he was anything like Neil, the poor young man’s live must have been hell right now.

“Perhaps there’s something we can do for him,” I said into the uncomfortable silence that had fallen between us. “Perhaps there’s a way we can rescue him, if he’s in danger of any kind.”

Jace huffed a laugh and shook his head at me. Anton scowled derisively. Even Conrad and Neil looked warily at me.

“You can’t take a pup away from his master,” Jace said. “No matter how he’s being treated.”

“But before, when I was still with Sascha’s pack, Gregor said that there had been several attempts to kidnap him, and he was once a pup,” I argued.

“Do you know what the penalty for kidnapping a pup is?” Jace asked me. “It makes the penalty for rape at a faire look like a holiday celebration.”

I gulped. The penalty for rape at a faire was having one testicle smashed to a pulp in a public display. I could only imagine what the penalty for kidnapping a pup would be.

“At least that will deter anyone from walking off with any of us,” I said in a hoarse voice.

“Don’t count on that,” Ox grumbled from the side, proving that she was listening in on our conversation.

“That’s what we have you for, isn’t it, Ox?” Jace called to her, his mood improving a little. “You’re going to singlehandedly fight off any big, bad pack leader who tries to carry off Peter or Neil.”

“Or you too,” Ox said, pointing one of her knives at him. “Although why anyone would want to walk off with an arrogant prick like you is anyone’s guess.”

Jace laughed loudly. “I missed you too, Ox.”

It was exactly the sort of shift in mood that we needed. We let our heavier conversation drop in favor of talking about unimportant things—gossip we’d heard about the other packs and what they were planning for the summit, funny things our men had done in the time since we’d all been together, and Conrad even had a story about another pup—one who wasn’t nobly-born, but who was handsome enough to have caught the attention of the leader of a mid-sized pack in the west—who had set up a school to teach the wolves in his pack who couldn’t how to read.

“We should make friends with him as well,” I suggested. “And the other pups who show initiative and intelligence.”

“I’m certain Orel would be more than happy to join us,” Conrad said, sitting up straighter and glancing around. “I think I saw his pack earlier. Savya’s pack is much smaller than any of ours, but Savya is well-respected by everyone.”

“That’s a rare thing to be,” Jace said with a wry grin. “I’d rather just be respected by the right people.”

“It sounds to me as though this Orel will be easy to contact,” I said. “Perhaps we can search him out tomorrow, then concentrate our efforts on finding the other three while our men start negotiations.”

“If the other three are even here,” Anton grumbled.

“How long are the negotiations supposed to be?” Neil asked. He’d let go of my hand toward the beginning of the conversation, but had moved his stool closer to the one I sat on, and had periodically rested his shoulder against mine. I wasn’t too proud to admit I found the contact comforting.

“Three days at least,” Jace said with a shrug. “I’ve found that, for whatever reason, wolves like to give themselves three days to do things.”

“Three days for faires,” I said. “Three days for other sorts of meetings,” I added, careful not to slip up, like Conrad, and admit we’d all been together in Gravlock. “This will probably be three days too.”

“Three days is plenty of time for us to locate the other pups,” Jace smiled, bending to pick up another stick to play with. “And for Peter and I to fuck our way through all of the important pack leaders.”

I laughed. Anton made retching noises. Neil and Conrad exchanged a look that had me writhing. I refused to be jealous of a little friendship when I routinely spoke in a way that gave Neil far more reason to be jealous on account of me. Hypocrisy was hard to avoid in matters of the heart, though.

We’d moved on to lighter conversation once more when Lev strode up to our little campsite and said, “Magnus needs the two of you,” to me and Neil.

Neil and I exchanged a look, then stood to follow Lev to wherever our camp had been set up.

“I just bet Magnus needs the two of you,” Jace called after us.

I laughed, knowing Jace just might be right.

“Since you’ve got Lev and that lot to keep an eye on you,” Ox called after us, “I’m going to stay here to make certain no one carries this naughty little pup off to give him the spanking he deserves.” She nodded to Jace.

“I resent that,” Jace told her good-humoredly.

I shook my head at the two of them, following Lev into what had instantly been transformed into an impressive campsite, with Magnus’s large yurt taking up the center. It was already mostly decorated with the thick carpets, lush pillows, and soft mattress Magnus used as a bed during faires. Our things were carefully stowed in carved chests around the room, and a small fire with a kettle over it was already lit and snapping away in the center of the space, underneath a smoke hole in the ceiling.

“Neil, Peter, good,” Magnus said with a snap in his voice like the fire. “Hurry up, boys, and take off your clothes. We’re about to start the first act in our little drama, and I need you both to play your parts.”