Peter and the Pups by Merry Farmer

4

For such an important summit, I was amazed by how informal things were the next day. No one seemed to be in any hurry. Magnus’s men prepared a leisurely breakfast, which we all ate in a mood of holiday laziness around the fire in the center of our camp. Ox was already up and armed to the teeth when Magnus, Neil, and I emerged from our yurt, and she took a seat near me as we were served our morning meal. Ludvig and Anton and some of Ludvig’s men meandered over to join us as the morning sun crawled up into the sky, and a few minutes after that, Tobin joined us as well.

Tobin grinned and blushed when he saw me, waving as though he were a coquette at one of my father’s balls as he and another man with red hair and an easy smile joined us. Tobin made sure to sit next to me at the fire, which sent strange quivers of expectation and inconvenience through me. I had better thing to do that morning than fuck Tobin, but if that’s what Magnus needed me to do….

It turned out that I needn’t have worried.

“This is Teyte,” Tobin whispered to me as I finished up my porridge. I smiled politely and nodded at Teyte, who waved at me, though he seemed more interested in talking to one of Ludvig’s men than me. “I took your advice,” Tobin went on in a quieter whisper. “I found someone who could, you know, to me instead of the other way around.”

I nearly choked on my porridge, but was genuinely happy all the same. “I’m so pleased for you, Tobin,” I said, patting his thigh.

I didn’t know how I was supposed to have a polite conversation with the man after that, after he’d admitted to me that he’d found a man willing to top him. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about it.

“Call to meeting,” a man who was probably five or so years older than me and Neil, but far more grizzled than either of us would ever be, shouted as he walked among the camps. “Call to meeting! Call to meeting!”

In his wake was a flurry of activity as the leaders of packs stood and readied themselves, conferring with their men, choosing who would accompany them, and generally getting ready for the grand negotiations to start. Even though I wouldn’t be going with Magnus, I felt a thrill of excitement and stood when he did.

“Best of luck,” I said, as breathless as if he’d winked and flirted and invited me back into the yurt. “And to you as well,” I said to Tobin and Ludvig across the fire. I knew it was a bit dramatic, but I added, “Our future is in your hands.”

Magnus laughed and stepped over to draw me into his arms. “You do beat all, Peter,” he said before planting a firm and delicious kiss on my lips. He stepped over to kiss Neil as well, then said, “You make certain he stays out of trouble as you lot pull your pranks today.”

He nodded to Anton as well, which caused Anton to sit up as though someone had stuck him in the ass with a poker.

“I trust you’ll behave yourself?” Ludvig glanced to Anton with hope as he, too, stood.

Anton scrambled to his feet, glancing to me and Neil—either to imitate how we were with Magnus or out of dread that we were watching. “I will,” Anton mumbled.

Ludvig glanced longingly at him, as though he wanted to kiss Anton the way Magnus had kissed us. But I could no more imagine Anton being comfortable with kissing his man when anyone was around to watch then I could imagine him flying. In the end, he shuffled a bit, blushed a lot, shrank in on himself for a moment, then gave Ludvig a quick, stiff hug. That seemed to be enough for Ludvig—or rather, it wasn’t nearly enough, but it was more than Ludvig had expected—who smiled sadly at Anton, then joined Magnus as they, along with Tobin, Teyte, and a handful of other men headed toward the large tend in the clearing at the center of the ring of campsites.

“Let’s go find Jace and Conrad,” I said, grabbing Neil’s hand for a moment and gesturing for Anton to follow us.

The three of us started forward, and when we did, Ox leapt up, trailing us like a dog we’d fed too many times.

I laughed as I glanced over my shoulder at her. “You don’t have to walk behind us, Ox. You can join us and talk.”

“I wouldn’t dare,” Ox replied, keeping two paces behind. “Then I’d look like one of you instead of your babysitter. And we all know I’m your babysitter.”

“Suit yourself,” I said with a one-shoulder shrug.

Edik and Dushka—and Feodor too, though he didn’t have a pup—had made their camps so close to Magnus’s, Ludvig’s, and Tobin’s that we might as well have just called it one camp. In fact, in daylight, with the perspective of viewing the adjacent camps from a distance, I could see that, in a way, they had. Each of the leaders’ yurts were placed toward the middle with the tents of the men who had come as advisors and guards ringed protectively around them. As I glanced out across the meeting grounds to the other campsites, I could see that other packs had arranged their tents similarly, though our group seemed to be the largest in our part of the site. It made perfect sense, but at the same time, I wondered how difficult that would make it for us to discover what other pups were there.

Jace and Conrad weren’t hard to find. Dushka and his men had joined Edik and his, which meant Conrad and Jace as well, at Dushka’s fire. They saw us coming and stood as though they’d been waiting for us to wander by since the sun had come up.

“You two looked like you were thoroughly fucked last night,” Jace greeted us with a wide grin. He stole a glance at Anton to see if he’d sufficiently riled the young man up.

“As if you weren’t?” I asked, one eyebrow raised.

“You forget who does the actual fucking in our tent,” Jace said with a wink. It just so happened that that wink was for Neil. And after the revelation Neil had made last night, it was all I could do not to burst into laughter. Especially when Neil turned bright red.

“I’ve already seen Orel walking about with Savya,” Conrad said, looking eager to get on with things. “Should we go talk to him first to see if he’s open to joining us?”

I opened my mouth to make a decision about that, but realized I didn’t have the first clue as to how one actually went about making friends. I hadn’t had any friends at all until just over three weeks ago—although it could be argued that the members of Sascha’s pack were all my friends, even though they were older than me—and I had no idea how one made them. I found myself naturally looking to Jace.

Jace shrugged. “I don’t see why not,” he said. “At the very least, we can get a look at the man.”

“Why not?” I imitated Jace’s casual stance. It rankled that I was imitating Jace, that I had to defer to him in the first place, but I wanted to get on with searching out the other nobly-born pups. I considered introducing myself to Orel to be practice for when we found the others.

The five of us set out in a cluster, making our way into the clearing on the other side of the camps. Ox followed, of course, but I noted that two other, burly men from Dushka’s camp trailed after us as well.

Conrad saw me looking at them—Neil too—and said, “Oh, those are Artem and Dima. Dushka didn’t like the idea of me wandering the meeting grounds alone.”

“You aren’t alone,” Jace said, puffing his chest up, then saying, “You have Anton here to protect you.”

That set the four of us off laughing. Anton bristled, but he stood a bit straighter, as if he might just be able to fight off unwanted attention after all. I was glad he fit into our group to at least some extent. The man was a pill, but I considered him a friend. One day, maybe he’d trust the rest of us enough to feel the same way.

We turned heads as soon as we walked away from our own cluster of camps and began to walk in a circle around the vast spread of campsites ringing the clearing. From an eagle’s-eye view, I imagined the arrangement of the meeting grounds would look like a giant target. The large tent in the middle, where the leaders were meeting, was the bull’s eye. The next ring was a vast swath of empty space. Guards were placed evenly throughout that space. I assumed their purpose was to keep everyone but the leaders away from the tent, and the gap between the tent and the campsites was to prevent anything being discussed inside from being overheard. Even by the guards.

The largest and outermost ring of the target was the campsites. There were three times as many tents and men in the space now than there had been the night before, when we’d arrived. Aside from the two faires I’d been to, at which I’d had limited freedom, this was the largest gathering of wolves I’d ever seen. Growing up in Novoberg, in my father’s palace, I’d always been given to believe that forest-dwellers were few in number, that they lived far apart and had little contact with each other, and that they were dirty, unsophisticated, and ignorant. The truth that I saw all around me was that hundreds of men had come to the meeting, and since only the most powerful pack leaders and a handful of their men had been invited, that meant the forest was likely populated by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of wolves. Everyone I saw was dressed finely, although some not particularly lavishly, and the quality of the tents was as good as anything any of the cities could produce. The level of organization was superior as well. If everyone in the cities had been raised with the same sort of education about the frontier around them as I had, then none of them had the first clue how sophisticated forest-dwellers truly were.

I spotted a cluster of tents about a quarter of the way around the target that were decorated with white furs and other symbols from the north and immediately assumed they belonged to Jorgen and Hati. Those two men had likely already gone into the meeting tent, since I didn’t see them, but just thinking of them sent an erotic thrill through me. I had to remind myself that I probably wouldn’t have the pleasure of being fucked by Jorgen Iceblade, since he saw through Magnus’s ploy where I was concerned, but that didn’t stop me from hoping and my prick filling a bit with hope.

I was about to tell the others the story of what had happened last night when Conrad said, “There’s Savya’s campsite.” He pointed across to a modest site on the inside edge of the thick ring of tents and yurts.

Indeed, the sigil that I’d memorized as belonging to Savya—a red fish on a field of white—stood in front of a cluster of only six tents. None of them were as big as Magnus’s yurt. We made our way there all the same. Conrad put on a smile and stepped ahead of us, approaching a young man our age with tousled, red hair. He was lanky and pale, but he had the look of a hard worker about him. What he didn’t have was the healthy build and easy manner of moving that noblemen had, but he wasn’t bad to look at. I could see his appeal to a leader.

When Conrad greeted him with, “Hello. Are you Orel?”, the young man glanced up at our group in surprise.

I could see immediately in his green eyes that he was intelligent, no matter how low his birth had been. “That’s me,” he said. “Can I help you?”

“Conrad, Dushka’s pup,” Conrad said, thrusting out his hand with a smile.

I winced internally. I supposed it was no more “Peter Royale” for me. “Peter, Magnus’s pup,” I said, offering a hand after Conrad and trying not to sound resentful as I did. “And this is Neil, also Magnus’s pup.”

Orel’s brow flew up as he glanced between me and Neil, letting go of my hand to shake Neil’s. “I heard there was a leader with two pups, but I thought it was a joke.” Orel had a loping, round accent, like common people who lived closer to the sea had.

“It’s true,” Neil said with a charmingly bashful smile. “We’re both with Magnus.”

“I’m not,” Jace said, edging his way in. “Jace, Edik’s pup. And this delightful creature is Anton, Ludvig’s pup.”

Orel smiled and shook everyone’s hands, but as he let go of Anton’s hand, a sort of realization dawned in his eyes. “Hang on. You’re all nobly-born, aren’t you?” He whispered his question, then glanced around as though something dire were about to happen.

“We are,” Conrad said. He was, apparently, our self-appointed leader in this particular introduction. “I wanted to meet you, because I’ve heard wonderful things about the way you taught members of Savya’s pack to read and write.”

Orel looked flattered, but startled at the same time. “How did you hear about that?”

Conrad shrugged, managing to look like a polite schoolboy, with his rosy cheeks and sweet smile. “Word of these things gets around in the forest. We’re about to take a turn through the campsites,” he went on to say, as though he were a debutante about to take a turn around a ballroom. “Do you want to come with us?”

Orel looked even more startled as he glanced between us all. “You want me to walk around with you?” He blinked. “You?” He blinked again. “Me?”

“Unless you have other friends you’d rather spend your time with,” I said, imitating Conrad’s ballroom politeness. In fact, if Orel had friends, that might spare us the trouble of seeking out the sort of pups we wanted to add to our alliance.

But Orel merely looked self-conscious and said, “No, I don’t. Not really. This is…this is the first time I’ve been to anything larger than a small faire since….” He didn’t seem to know how to end his statement.

Fortunately for him, he didn’t have to. We’d all been there, so we all understood.

“Can you come?” I asked hopefully.

Orel glanced to one of the men in the camp. “Savya will be in the meeting all day,” the man said. “We’ve got everything else taken care of. I’m sure Savya wouldn’t mind if you made some friends.”

I had the impression from the way the man spoke that Savya wouldn’t mind if Orel made us as friends in particular.

“Alright,” Orel said, rubbing one of his long arms with the opposite hand, perhaps as if he didn’t think he was dressed well enough.

“Come on,” Jace said, sweeping up and linking arms with Orel. “We’ll tell you all about us and everything we know if you do the same.”

I grinned and fell into step on Orel’s other side. Conrad was the diplomat of our group, that much was apparent, and Jace was the battering ram.

“I don’t know much of anything, really,” Orel stammered.

“Where are you from?” I asked with a casual shrug. “That’s always a good start.”

“From near Mayskova,” Orel said. “Nearer to the coast. I’m the son of a farmer, though, not….” He glanced anxiously at us.

“It hardly matters who was the son of what now,” Jace laughed. “We’re all of us the same now—just a bunch of pups who spread our asses for the most powerful men in the forest.”

Orel nearly missed a step. I snorted with laughter and ended up coughing when I tried not to let it come out, at the risk of offending Orel. Anton muttered behind us in disgust.

“Don’t listen to those two,” Conrad said with a laugh. “As Anton will rush to tell you, they’re both whores.”

“But aren’t we all?” Orel said cautiously.

I couldn’t tell if he was attempting to joke or not, but I laughed anyhow. “We are what we are, and the whole world knows it. So why not enjoy it?”

“We…we don’t speak so openly about such things where I come from,” Orel said slowly, his face nearly as red as his hair.

“Thank you!” Anton burst, stepping closer to Orel’s side. “Finally, someone who doesn’t feel as though the private interactions between pup and master is suitable for polite conversation.” He made an irritated sound, wedging between me and Orel. “These two make me sick with their flaunting and their innuendo.”

It was obvious that Orel absolutely didn’t know what to make of the situation, but any worry I might have had about putting the young man off was canceled out by the fact that Anton seemed to be jumping in and making friends with him.

“Mayskova is relatively near to Yacovissi, where I’m from,” Conrad said, moving up to take Jace’s place by Orel’s side. That forced Jace to step back, as I’d been forced to, and to walk by my side. Neil fell into step on my other side. “How are things in Mayskova?” Conrad asked. “When was the last time you were there?”

“Two years ago,” Orel answered, seemingly more comfortable speaking with Conrad and Anton. “And things were fine, I suppose. Mayskova is a quite city. Our faire isn’t even that big. That’s where I met Savya.”

“Were you snatched or did you go willingly?” Jace asked with a wry grin.

Orel glanced nervously over his shoulder. “Maybe a little of each? I was sixteen. I’d gone to the faire with friends, but we were late heading back to the city. The revels started and I….” He turned even redder, if that were possible, and gulped. “I got caught up in them. I woke up in Savya’s bed the next morning and, well, I never really left it.”

“Sounds like your initiation story is as colorful as Peter’s,” Jace laughed.

I shook my head subtly, warning Jace not to push the young man too far. Anton was right. Not everyone wanted to make light of fucking the way we did.

“Yours?” Orel asked me, looking as though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.

I shook my head and waved a hand as though it weren’t important. “My brothers locked me out of Novoberg one night and I was found by a pack of five wolves. It’s not important.” I paused, sensing an opportunity, even though I knew it wasn’t a perfect one. “You haven’t heard of any other stories of nobles being snatched up that way, have you?” If Orel had the first clue where the three other nobly-born pups we had yet to discover were, I wanted to know right away.

But Orel shook his head. “Savya says we should keep ourselves to ourselves, for the most part. We don’t go to a lot of faires or speak to a lot of other packs.”

That inadvertently answered the other question I wanted to ask eventually. “I don’t suppose your Savya is in favor of unifying the packs, then?” I tried to make the question sound as casual a possible.

“Oh, he doesn’t mind the idea of unification,” Orel said, either not knowing how delicate of an issue we were suddenly discussing or not caring. “He just doesn’t want outsiders interfering in our personal business.”

“So is he going to vote in favor of unification, then?” Conrad asked. It was surprisingly blunt for Conrad.

“I don’t know.” Orel shrugged. “He doesn’t really talk to me about those sorts of things.”

That was the end of that. At least for the time being. But even though Orel wasn’t an advisor to Savya the way Neil and I were for Magnus, or Jace was for Edik, I still thought he would be a good friend to have.

“Do you suppose they have anyone selling refreshments at this summit?” Jace asked, standing taller and looking around. “I would kill for a honeycake from somewhere like Klovisgard.”

“I think there are a few booths set up somewhere,” Orel said. “I saw some last night, when we arrived.”

The mood in our newly-expanded group lightened, and we continued around the perimeter of the open space, looking at everything there was to see. I made mental notes about each of the sigils of the camps we passed and searched as deeply into them as I could for signs of other pups. I saw a few men who might be young enough to be pups, but it was impossible to tell for certain, and even more impossible to know if they were the remaining three pups we were searching for.

There were a smattering of booths selling things. Most of them were providing refreshments, just as Jace had hoped. Jace was the only one of us who had thought to bring money with him on the walk, but he was more than happy to treat us. Before midmorning, we had made it to the other side of the meeting grounds, and we all had sweets of one kind or another. I’d chosen something drenched in honey, of course—honey was still far and away my favorite sweet—and as usual, I ended up licking my sticky fingers once the cake was gone. And as I did, I was reminded of a memory from my first faire at Berlova. I’d ended up with a crowd of randy wolves around me, watching me lick my fingers and fondling themselves as though I were doing it for show. I glanced around now, curious to see if any of the wolves attending the meeting were watching me—or any of us—with the same lascivious intent.

Sure enough, though they were doing a much better job of hiding their lust, a few of the men who appeared to be standing guard over their camp’s things or busying themselves with daily tasks stopped what they were doing to watch. I slowed down the way I licked my fingers, making a show of it by taking my entire middle finger into my mouth or letting my pink tongue flicker across the webbing between my fingers. And I ended up getting exactly the reaction I was hoping for.

I nudged Jace, nodding toward one wolf guard in particular who had moved a hand to his crotch, as though he were trying not to come.

“You’re unforgivable, whore,” Jace chuckled to me.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Look at them. They’re gagging for it, but none of them are going to lift a finger against us.”

“So?” Jace shrugged. “It’s because we’re being guarded by Ox and the bludgeon twins.”

I snorted, glancing over my shoulder. Ox met my eyes and rolled her own, as if she knew precisely what I was doing.

“They like looking at us,” I went on, whispering to Jace. “All of them, not just the leaders. And how often do they get to look at something like us? I’m sure we can use that to our advantage.”

Jace sent me a flat look. “Of course a bunch of healthy, red-blooded men at a tense and important meeting would want to look at a bunch of comely, sexually potent younger men.” He grinned, clearly pleased with the way he’d described himself. “How does that help us find the other three nobly-born pups or help our men convince reticent pack leaders to vote for unification?”

“I don’t know yet,” I said. “But it has to be good for something.”

We continued around the meeting site, and my frustration grew. It was one thing to know what I wanted to accomplish during the summit, but I still didn’t know how. My mind started conjuring images of finding a needle in a haystack. That was what finding three nobly-born pups at a summit was like. And that was just finding them. I had no idea how to sit down and compare information about the frontier with them once we had them.

I focused on observing the other clusters of campsites instead. I could definitely see there were alliances and factions. Just like our grouping at the opposite side of the meeting grounds, we walked past another cluster. I counted seven sigils planted on poles throughout the group. Seven was more than our six. More unnerving still was whose standards I recognized—Yuri, Nikolai, and Bela appeared to have thrown their lot in together, along with four mid-sized packs. They were Magnus’s main opposition, and as excited as Magnus had been the night before, I could see he had his work cut out for him. At least Jorgen and Hati didn’t have their camps thrown in with Yuri’s lot. At least, not yet.

That was bad enough, but my knees nearly buckled under me when I spotted a young man with light blond hair and a slight build stepping out from one of the tents near the center of the cluster, just barely visible around the sea of tents in front of us. The lad cast an anxious look around him. When he spotted us, his face contorted in a strange combination of fear, shame, and longing. He had dark circles under his eyes and stood slightly hunched over. When he took a step outside of the tent, standing taller to get a better look at our group, his arm didn’t seem to want to come with him. I blinked and realized why. He had a shackle around his wrist that was attached to something inside of the tent.

“Peter, what’s wrong?” Neil asked, resting a hand on my arm. “You’ve gone white.”

I gulped and nodded toward the young man, who could only be Lord Gennadi. My breath started to come in shallow pants, and tears stung at my eyes.

“Is he chained to something?” Anton asked, horrified.

“Probably the bed inside the tent,” Jace said in a grim voice.

That was the last thing I wanted to hear. And the last thing I wanted to notice was that Gennadi wore nothing but a robe. One that seemed to hang off of his pale frame at that.

“We have to do something,” I said, starting toward the camp.

Jace caught me with both hands before I could take more than a few steps and dragged me up against him. “You can’t do anything for him, Peter,” he said firmly in my ear.

“But he’s a prisoner. He’s suffering,” I argued, struggling against him.

“Jace is right,” Ox said, moving in to take over holding me back. She forced my face away from Gennadi and made me look her in the eye. “He’s Yuri’s pup. Yuri is as powerful as Magnus. Maybe even more so. Yuri can do what he pleases with his property.”

“But he’s hurting him,” I said, my voice coming out in a painful croak. “Can’t you see that? Yuri can’t be allowed to hurt him.”

“Peter, listen to me,” Ox said, raising her voice and using both hands to hold my head facing her when I tried to look at Gennadi again. “You. Cannot. Do. Anything. You don’t have the authority to take a pup away from his master. No one does.”

“There needs to be a law,” I said, resorting to tears of fury and struggling to pull away from her. “There needs to be a law that punishes people for mistreating pups.”

I turned back to the camp, but Gennadi was gone. A tough-looking guard stood in his place at the tent flap, glaring at us all.

“We need to move on,” Neil said, taking my hand and leading me forward.

Jace walked by my side, using his body to block my view of Yuri’s camp. We were all silent after that. The best thing I could say for the interlude was that Orel looked at me differently after seeing my reaction to Gennadi. I wasn’t the arrogant, oversexed nobleman that I had made myself out to be at first anymore. He looked just as disturbed by the whole thing as I did, which seemed to bring us together.

I forced myself to breathe as we walked on, then to focus on the sigils of the camps we passed. From there, I was able to roll my shoulders and attempt to let the moment pass.

“Magnus always says I can’t handle the harsher side of life,” I said eventually into the quiet that had descended over our group. “One of these days, perhaps I’ll start listening to him.”

“You? Listening to what Magnus tells you?” Neil said in an overly cheerful voice beside me. “That’ll be the day.”

The others chuckled nervously. I realized that Neil was still holding my hand. Worse still, even though it made me look uncomfortably weak, I didn’t want him to let go.

I forced myself to let go and stand on my own as soon as I felt ready, though. I had an image to project, the image of a leader. “We need to speak to more people,” I said, then cleared my throat to get the burr out of it. “We’re not going to find the other pups if we don’t speak to people.”

“Other pups?” Orel asked, glancing over his shoulder at me.

I wanted to wince over being so obvious, but perhaps my slip would do us some good. “We want to befriend as many pups as possible,” I said, giving away our plan in the most general way possible.

“Pups like you lot or any pup?” Orel asked.

The question was oddly insightful, so I took a chance and answered. “Either, but we are looking for three nobly-born pups in particular.”

“Which ones?” Orel asked, a light of knowing in his eyes.

I exchanged a look with Neil, then Jace.

“We don’t actually know their names,” Neil said. “Only that they are nobly-born and that they were taken from cities recently, within the last year.”

“How about Sebald? Have you met him?” Orel asked.

The name sounded familiar to me, which sent a jolt of energy through me, renewing my spirits.

“Wait, you don’t mean Sebald Nizhny from Yakutsk, do you?” Neil asked what I was thinking.

Orel blinked. “I think he was from Yakutsk. I don’t know his family name. Savya has a friend, Mal, who mentioned his new pup, Sebald, when he came to visit with us last night, when we arrived. Says Sebald was noble and cost him a pretty penny.”

“That’s him then,” Jace said, brightening. “Do you know where this Mal’s campsite is?”

“Back closer to ours,” Orel said, glancing over his shoulder.

He started back the way we’d come, Conrad and Anton following him, but I stopped him with, “No, I…I can’t walk past Yuri’s camp again, I can’t.”

They moved closer to us again, awkward looks of understanding on their faces.

“Let’s keep going all the way around, then,” Neil said. “It’s nearly lunchtime anyhow. We can stop in our camp for a bite to eat, and maybe we’ll run into one of the other two on the way there.”

It was extraordinarily wishful thinking, but it bolstered my spirits all the same. And I was glad to complete our circuit of the meeting grounds, and to get a look at the rest of the camps we had yet to pass.

As it turned out, doing so gave me an idea that brightened me even more. A group of bored young wolves had organized a game of kickball in a space where no one had set up tents. They were having a good time and enjoying each other’s company.

“Do you play kickball?” I asked Jace as we walked past them.

“Of course. Do you?” he asked in return.

“I know the rules, and I’ve tried it a time or two, but I’m rubbish at it,” I answered.

Jace laughed. “Then I don’t want you on my team.”

“You’re going to be on my team anyhow,” I said, smiling at the players over my shoulder as we moved on. “Because we’re going to form a team and challenge a team of other pups to play us.”

“Which would be an easy way to draw all of the other pups, including the nobly-born ones, out into the open,” Jace said, then clapped a hand on my back. “You’re a smart one, Peter. Even if you are a whore.”

I was grateful that he saw things my way and more than grateful for the joke. “But how do we convince the other pups to form a team to play against us?” I asked.

“By practicing,” Jace said as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

I assumed that he meant by practicing talking to the other pups, practicing our negotiations skills. What Jace had in mind was very different and nearly had me regretting the entire idea. Since it wasn’t quite lunchtime yet, as soon as we made it back to the part of the grounds where our camps were located, Jace put out the call for a kickball. And as it happened, the one group of wolves we saw weren’t the only ones who had thought to bring a ball with them for entertainment. Which meant that within short order, the five of us and Orel were spread out in the empty space in front of our camp, subjected to the torture of Jace running us through drills to assess our sporting skill.

The short answer was that I had none. My life in the palace had been one of quiet and isolation. I’d learned to sew and embroider, and I’d read books. I was in the best shape of my life now, but that didn’t involve being able to run sprints across the area Jace marked out without wanting to flay him alive. Neil was far better than me, even though his coordination left something to be desired. I expected Jace and Orel to be good players, and they were, but I did not expect to see so much skill from Anton. At least Conrad was as poor a player as I was. The problem was that Jace immediately took the game as seriously as any general, which meant he was focused on getting his two weakest players up to scratch.

“No more, no more,” I panted about an hour after we’d started, dripping sweat and ready to drop. “I need a rest, water, lunch, everything.” I leaned over, bracing my hands on my knees.

“You need conditioning,” Jace told me, kicking the ball to Orel, who kicked it back expertly.

“I think he needs more than that.” Magnus’s voice had me jerking up straight and looking around for him. The game was immediately forgotten, replaced by my eagerness to know how the morning’s negotiations had gone.

“Magnus,” I breathed in relief when I spotted him. “Thank God.”

Magnus raked me with a look that said there were other physical activities he would have liked to see me involved in right then. “You look incredibly fetching when you’re all sweaty and winded like that, Peter.” He winked at me.

“Jace is trying to kill me,” I panted, making a show of stumbling wearily toward him.

“If that’s what has you all dewy and pink like this, he’s welcome to try to kill you anytime,” Magnus said.

I groaned, and since I was close enough, I sagged against him, hoping I dripped sweat all over his fine clothes. Magnus laughed, then breathed in through his nose. That was followed by an amorous growl.

“You’d better stay away from me, darling,” he said. “You smell amazing, but we’re only taking a very short time for lunch.”

“I smell like a pig sty,” I said, sniffing my shirt and grimacing.

“One I’d like to fuck in about twenty-six ways,” Magnus said in a rough voice, moving to the fire, where Lev was already holding out a bowl of stew and a piece of bread for him. “Did you two have an enjoyable morning?” He glanced past me to Neil, who had jogged up to join us.

All of the pups wandered to the fire for lunch, even Orel, though he looked a bit awkward doing so. “I should go back and let Savya know where I am,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder, but also taking a flagon of water when one of Magnus’s men handed it to him.

“You’re Savya’s pup?” Magnus asked, talking through a hastily-shoveled mouthful of stew.

“I am.” Orel nodded bashfully.

Magnus stood taller and did his best to look important, in spite of practically inhaling his lunch. “I admire your man immensely. His integrity is legendary. I hope he would call me a friend.”

Orel smiled proudly. “I’ll tell him you said so.”

I grinned at Magnus, then attempted to hide that grin with the water I’d been handed.

“We were hoping to challenge another group of pups to a game of kickball,” Jace told Edik as Edik, too, ate his lunch quickly. “But we’re not certain how to go about getting an opposing team to form.”

“And we need two more for a regulation side for us,” Anton added with a surprising amount of enthusiasm.

I could see at once that Ludvig approved of that enthusiasm. “We could ask the other leaders once we’re back in the meeting,” he said. “It might even give them incentive to end things before dark tonight.”

“We’ll be done long before dark today,” Feodor said. “Considering the way the debate has gone this morning, I’m sure we’ll be voting in favor of boycotting faires for the rest of the year before midafternoon.”

“Boycotting faires?” Orel blinked in surprise. I figured he was the only one who didn’t know that part of the summit was more or less predetermined.

“Tomorrow is when the stickiest debated begin,” Magnus said, glancing to me again. “But Peter knows all about how sticky things can get.”

I was glad I’d finished swallowing the last of my water, because I would have spit it out at the comment if I hadn’t. “You would know, since you’re generally the one who gets me that way,” I told him with a wink.

Orel wasn’t as lucky where the water was concerned. He choked at my banter with Magnus, flushing with embarrassment.

“Sorry,” I told him with a laugh. “I’m sorry. I should have warned you that Magnus is as shameless as I am.”

“Peter,” Magnus said with mock horror. “You aren’t telling your new friends things you shouldn’t about me, are you?”

“I didn’t think there was anything about you that you kept hidden,” I said with a careless shrug, then winked at Magnus over the top of my mug.

Magnus laughed, finished his stew and handed the bowl off to Lev, then marched up to me for a smacking kiss to my lips. “There’s nothing I keep hidden from you,” he said. “And even if there were, you’d find it out in no time.” He turned back to the others. “Gentlemen, we’ve got an argument to win,” he said, gesturing for them to follow him back toward the tent.

Once they’d all gone, I and the other pups, even Orel, and Ox and her two new guard friends took our turn to be served lunch.

“You were remarkably forward with your master,” Orel said in an awed whisper.

“Magnus and Peter are like that all the time,” Neil said, rolling his eyes a bit. “They drive everyone around them to madness.”

Orel tilted his head to the side as he ate a piece of breath. “It’s rather nice, actually. Savya is like that with me when we’re alone, but I always feel like I have to observe some sort of protocol when we’re around others.”

A flash went off in my head at Orel’s words. “But you’re friends when you’re alone?” I asked as casually as I could. “As in, you share things with each other and discuss the things that are bothering you?” I couldn’t think of a more subtle way to ask if Orel was Savya’s counselor without giving away my reason for asking.

“Yes, I suppose so,” Orel said with a grin. “This is excellent stew, by the way,” he said, dipping the last of his bread into the bowl.

“You’re welcome to come eat with us anytime,” I said, even though I wasn’t entirely certain it was my place to issue the invitation. “And bring that man of yours with you,” I added with a wink.

Orel laughed. I was glad he was at ease. More than that, I was glad we’d made another ally for our cabal of pups.