Peter and the Pups by Merry Farmer

6

Iwas unbelievably relieved to leave the kickball field and Sascha—even though it would have been nice to stay and catch up with my old friends—and to make my way back to Magnus’s camp. Magnus was silent as we crossed the meeting grounds, holding tightly to my hand on one side and Neil’s on the other. I was too exhausted myself to interrupt his thoughts, but I could tell he was mulling over the dangerous new situation we found ourselves in.

When we reached our camp, Magnus took Neil and I straight back to our yurt, ordered a bucket of water for Neil and I to wash, asked that food be brought, and barred anyone from disturbing us for the rest of the night.

“You don’t have to worry about Sascha,” I told him, tossing my shirt aside—I’d never put it on after Neil brought it to me—and stripping out of my boots and the rest of my sweaty clothes.

“Oh, but I am worried about Sascha,” Magnus said, pacing the length of the yurt. “Though not for the reasons you might think. You won’t go back to him. I can see it in your eyes.”

I swallowed the guilt that still lived in my gut, ashamed that it was old and faded and had lost its strength. “I love you, Magnus. And Neil. I choose to be with you.”

“I know,” Magnus said without smiling, without breaking the intensity of his pacing. Neil smiled at me and sat on the edge of the bed with me once his clothes were off. “I’m worried about Sascha because of what happened to him. I’m worried about what this means. The cities are actively attacking wolves now, and not just at faires. First Neander, then Hedeon, now Novoberg. And I doubt it’s going to stop there.”

“Will it stop when wolves boycott the faires?” I asked, staring at the bucket of wash water. I wanted to get up and sponge myself clean, but the exhaustion of the kickball game combined with the stress of Sascha and the others showing up at the meeting grounds had me so exhausted and sore that standing up felt beyond me.

“Or will that just make it worse,” Neil said, pushing to his feet. He walked to the bucket and picked up the sponge resting on top of one of the chests to start bathing.

“I don’t know,” Magnus shrugged, watching Neil, though I wasn’t sure he was actually seeing him. “There has to be a connection between the three attacks.”

“But Neander, Hedeon, and Novoberg are so far apart,” I said.

“The connection must be more than geographical,” Magnus said.

“All three cities have had noblemen taken from them and made into pups,” Neil said, squeezing a sponge of water over his back. He was getting it everywhere, so I stood, intending to help him.

I froze halfway to my feet. “Sebald told me during the game that his father sold him to Karpov,” I said, blinking as I remember. Neil stopped washing and Magnus stopped pacing. “He said he overheard the conversation, but that it was made to look like a kidnapping.”

“That seems to prove the theory that we weren’t taken by accident,” Neil said.

Magnus gaped at the two of us. “What is this? Not taken by accident?”

In all of the plotting and planning for the summit in the last few weeks, and after all of the information that Neil and I had gathered about the pups, it hadn’t dawned on me that we’d forgotten to tell Magnus our theory. Magnus glanced from me to Neil and back, a look of incredulity in his eyes.

“It was just a theory until today,” I said, crossing to Neil and taking the sponge from him so I could wash his back. “You were so busy with your own machinations and preparations that we didn’t have a chance to tell you.”

“Didn’t have a chance to tell me that the nobly-born pups weren’t taken by accident?” The way he planted his hands on his hips made him look like a scolding schoolteacher.

“Surely, you must have realized that Neil and Oscar were sent off into the forest to be captured by Karpov deliberately,” I told him, continuing to wash Neil’s arms after his back was clean. “And I’ve had my doubts about whether my brothers threw me out of the city as the gates were closing deliberately so I would be caught by wolves. Anton and Conrad believe they were lured into the forest deliberately as well.”

“I’d wager that all of us who have ended up here in the last year were set up,” Neil said, looking deeply apologetic when he met Magnus’s eyes. “Peter thinks it was a way to convince the city-dwellers to think badly of the wolves so that they would support efforts to attack them.”

Magnus’s eyes widened at me. “And you didn’t think to share this with me?”

I shrugged.

Magnus shook his head. “I don’t know whether to kiss you or slap you.”

“Both?” I suggested with a faltering smile as I handed the sponge back to Neil.

Magnus crossed the yurt in three steps, clasping his hands over my face and kissing me within an inch of my life. When he was finished, he turned me toward Neil and slapped my ass so hard I was certain it would leave a handprint. I laughed in spite of the sting.

“This makes perfect sense,” Magnus said, returning to his pacing. “The kingdom is crumbling, the king has abandoned the frontier, and the cities are on their own. So certain cities have secretly banded together. In order to solidify their alliance and convince others to join them, they’ve staged wolf kidnappings of young noblemen. But only noblemen who the dukes feel are superfluous. Perhaps even those they knew were inclined to love other men so that their new lives wouldn’t be such a hardship.”

“Tell that to Gennadi,” I said through clenched teeth.

“Tell that to you,” Magnus snapped back at me. “And Neil. And Conrad and any number of other newly-minted pups.”

He had a point. I opened my mouth to reply, but gasped when Neil sluiced water down my back with the sponge, taking his turn to wash the sweat, dirt, and grass stains from me.

Magnus went on with his pacing and his thoughts. “What do the cities that have had noblemen made into pups have in common?” he asked.

“Novoberg, Yacovissi, Dunsk, Mayskova,” I began, ticking them off on my fingers as Neil rubbed my back. “Yakutsk, Neander—”

“I’m not certain you can count Neander, since Igor was Boris’s lover,” Neil said, pausing before nudging my arms away from my chest so he could wash that.

“But Karpov still had something to do with that, since he fled in the middle of the night before the attack,” Magnus said. “So it counts. Where else?”

“Klovisgard,” I said. “That’s where Lefric said he was from.”

Magnus’s brow shot up again.

“I only just found that out right before the game started today, so don’t blame me for not saying anything,” I said.

“I should spank you again for that,” Magnus growled. “Radulph pointed Lefric out as his own during the game. I need him as an ally. This is important information. You need to bring Lefric into your group.” Instead of returning to his pacing, he seemed suddenly interested in the way Neil was scrubbing my naked body.

“What about Hedeon?” I asked, knowing from the spark in Magnus’s eyes that there was only so much time left before we all ended up in bed, in spite of the intensity of the day, our exhaustion, and the information we were kicking around like a kickball. “Jace wasn’t kidnapped by Karpov, but his father was recently overthrown and murdered. And one of the attacks was outside of Hedeon.”

“I don’t—” Magnus froze, blinked, then turned back to me and Neil. “They’re all along the River Kostya,” he said. “All of those cities are located along the Kostya.”

“Novoberg is landlocked,” Neil told him apologetically.

“And Dunsk is on the River Duriev,” I said, remembering the map I’d memorized.

“Novoberg is less than a day’s ride from the Kostya,” Magnus said, marching back toward us. “And the Duriev feeds into the Kostya. Dunsk isn’t that far upriver from the confluence. Either way, all of those cities are easily connected by a single waterway.”

“The same as Gravlock and the wolf settlements belonging to our allies along the Wolf River,” I said, catching on to where I thought Magnus’s thoughts might be headed. The burst of energy the realization gave me might even have been enough to combat the exhaustion of the day, if the spark in Magnus’s eyes as he watched the way Neil finished bathing me kept growing.

“What we’re witnessing is the formation of new kingdoms,” Magnus said, pushing a hand through his greying hair. He had a look of wonder in his eyes that went beyond anything I’ve seen from him before. “And how do kingdoms form?” he asked, then answered himself with, “Through trade agreements and mutual pacts of protection between cities with a common purpose and easy lines of trade and communication.”

“Where are the pack leaders who oppose unity from?” I asked with sudden curiosity. The map I’d studied unfurled in my head and I tried placing the names and faces I’d learned on it, but I felt I was missing the information that would connect things together.

“It’s impossible to say with precision, since smart leaders keep the location of their settlements an absolute secret. Some are close to the Wolf River,” Magnus said, crossing to one of the chests decorating the room. He opened it and took out a towel, then marched over to rub me and Neil dry. “Most are farther north. Some are close enough to the Kostya that any sort of alliance between the cities would be a concern for them.”

“If they might be threatened by an alliance of cities along the Kostya, why are they resisting the idea of unification so strongly?” Neil asked, though part of his question was muffled as Magnus scrubbed his hair dry.

“Pride?” Magnus said, finishing with Neil, then coming over to vigorously dry me off. “Fear that drawing too much attention to themselves might encourage the cities to attack sooner. And there’s always the possibility that they only oppose unification of all of the wolf packs while they secretly pursue an alliance of just a few.”

“Like we are pursuing one with the packs along the Wolf River?” I asked, arching an eyebrow at Magnus as he dried my hips and legs a little more enthusiastically than he should. My cock responded to his rough movements, especially when he bent close to it to rub my legs.

He stood with a mischievous grin, meeting my eyes for a moment, before scrubbing my hair. “Our first priority is the unification of all of the wolf packs,” he said, finished with my hair, threw the towel aside, and pulled me flush against him. “If that fails, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the secondary plan is for an alliance of the packs along the Wolf River, with the inclusion of packs like Savya’s, and Radulph’s, Maldurik’s, and as a long-shot, Bela’s and Avraam’s, if we can get them.” He dropped a hand to grab my ass, and the focus of his energy shifted.

“Can I be honest with you, Magnus?” I asked, looping my arms over his shoulders, figuring the time to discuss politics was almost up.

“Peter, I told you when you first came to me that I would always be honest with you, and that I expected the same from you,” he said with a scolding purr in his voice.

He was right, which made me feel better about throwing caution to the wind. “After what I’ve seen today, walking through the meeting grounds, at the kickball game, and when the refugees arrived, I think the best you’re going to be able to do is unify the packs along the Wolf River.”

He studied me with a thoughtful, almost sad agreement that rested just under the surface of his buzzing, pulsing energy. “I don’t want you to be right,” he said, the corner of his mouth twitching into a wry grin.

Didn’t want me to be, but, perhaps, knew I was anyhow. I could see it in his eyes. And, as Neil had said on more than one occasion, Magnus and I thought alike.

Magnus let out a breath, letting me go, then started on the buttons of his waistcoat. “In bed with the two of you. I have too much energy, and I need to fuck it out.”

“But isn’t Casus going to bring us supper?” Neil asked, sinking to the bed anyhow. “He’ll walk in on us.”

“I’m certain Casus has walked in on worse before,” Magnus said, peeling off his shirt with a grin, then racing through the fastenings of his trousers.

“Think of it this way,” I told Neil as I crawled across the bed to join him, sliding into his arms to get a head start on Magnus. “If Casus sees the three of us preoccupied with each other, he’ll be certain to set and even more vigilant guard on our campsite to stop anyone else from attempting to interrupt us.” And in my mind, the “anyone else” who would be blocked from approaching our yurt would be Sascha—who I didn’t have the strength of mind to think about at the moment. Not with everything else buzzing through my head like a swarm of bees looking for a hive.

“I suppose you’re right,” Neil said, smiling and twining his arms and legs with mine before leaning in to kiss me.

“Did I say the two of you could start without me?” Magnus said with mock offense, climbing onto the bed naked and pushing me and Neil apart so he could settle into the space between us.

“You can’t tell us what to do,” I informed him in an imperious voice. “We’re not pups.”

“You are outside of Gravlock,” Magnus laughed, shifting restlessly, as if he hadn’t yet made up his mind which of us he wanted to fuck first.

“Go ahead then,” I said with a dramatic sigh, rolling to my back and spreading my arms and legs. “Have your way with me. I’m so exhausted after today that I don’t have the energy to protest.”

“Peter Royale doesn’t have the energy to argue with me?” Magnus hooked me around the waist and dragged me under him. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

I laughed, but I wasn’t joking. Magnus had five times as much energy as either me or Neil. He’d spent his day sitting in a tent, arguing politics with a few dozen important men. Neil and I had walked for what felt like hours, then played a vigorous and competitive game. I was happy just to be in bed, and even happier when Magnus decided to please himself by covering me with kisses and licks before settling between my legs to suck me off—which he did with extraordinary robustness. It felt uncommonly good, but also strangely reassuring, what with the deep eddies of uncertainty swirling around us. His mouth on me was a reminder that I belonged to him, if not by law, then by the bonds of friendship and of the heart. And as Magnus constantly told anyone who would listen, he protected what was is.

I came with almost embarrassing speed, turning to jelly as Magnus kissed his way back up my body to my mouth. “Sleep well, my darling,” he murmured against my ear after ravishing my mouth. “You’ll need to be at your absolute best tomorrow. I think it’s all going to come down to what happens then.”

I sighed and nodded to signal that I agreed, then relaxed and let myself float into sleep as Magnus moved on to expend the rest of his energy with Neil.

As useful as it would have been to lay awake for a while longer, mulling over everything I’d seen, heard, and done during what could very well have been the most momentous day of my life—not to mention the possibility of getting off a second time as I watched Neil and Magnus fuck—I simply couldn’t. I was asleep in no time, carried off by the twin forces of a thoroughly used body and post-orgasmic bliss. I didn’t even stay awake long enough to notice whether Magnus merely sucked Neil off or whether he fucked him soundly.

Whatever way they enjoyed themselves, I awoke briefly, late into the night, realizing that I hadn’t even been able to stay awake long enough to eat whatever supper Casus had brought, if he’d brought anything. I could have gotten up and searched for the remnants of a meal, but since Magnus and Neil slumbered away in bed with me, their bodies warm and relaxed, I chose to nestle closer against Magnus and to fall asleep again instead.

By morning, I was ravenously hungry. I rolled out of bed and went straight for the bread and cold stew that had been left out overnight, not even caring that it was room temperature. Only one of the three bowls looked like they had been touched, which hinted to me that Magnus had exhausted Neil the night before as well. Neil woke up while I was finishing off one of the bowls, and when he spotted the food, his eyes went wide and he scrambled for what was left.

“Magnus can say what he wants about being an old man and us wearing him out, but he takes everything out of me half the time,” Neil said as he stirred his cold stew with the heel of the remaining piece of bread.

“Magnus is as energetic and young as we are,” I agreed, moving to sit on one of the chests, Neil joining me. “I sometimes wonder how many lovers he exhausted between Rurik and you and I.”

Neil’s eyes went a bit wider. “None,” he said. He tilted his head to the side. “Well, none that lived with him. He never had any problem finding someone to fuck when he wanted to before I came along.”

“How do you know?” I asked, very slightly jealous that Neil knew something so personal about Magnus that I didn’t, but also deeply pleased that we were as special as Magnus always claimed.

“He told me.” Neil shrugged, speaking with his mouth full. “Shortly after he bought me. He said he liked me, so he wouldn’t give me away to someone else, and that he hadn’t liked anyone that way since Rurik. But I think he likes you more,” he added in a rush.

I made a sound of disagreement. “That’s not true. He adores you. He adores us both equally.” I frowned in thought. “Which is another thing that makes Magnus, and our entire triumvirate, so unique. I genuinely believe him when he says he loves us both the same.”

“Oh, I believe him too,” Neil said, as though I’d called him out for something. “Because I know how it feels. I love you and Magnus with different flames from the same, strong fire.” He paused, then laughed. “I have yet to decide whether what the three of us have is beautiful or embarrassingly strange.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said without hesitation, nudging his arm. “And strange,” I added with a laugh. “Though I doubt we’re the first people in the history of the world to find themselves comfortable and happy in a union of three.”

A blossom of thought stuck me with those words. On the one hand, if Sascha had been so badly hurt by me leaving him for Magnus, how much worse might it make him feel to know I was now comfortably in love with two men—men who were equally content to share me? He was at the summit now, and there was no possibility of being discreet about things. Not with the plans Magnus had. And I still fully expected that Magnus would make use of my seductive skills to win allies to his cause, perhaps as soon as that night. On the other hand, the idea of three uniting as one clicked with everything we’d talked about the night before. What if the cities along the River Kostya formed into a single kingdom? What if Magnus and his allies formed a second kingdom and Yuri and his allies a third? Was there any rule or law that said those three kingdoms had to be at war? There were no laws. We would need to write the law anew, so why not let three kingdoms exist in one land?

Those thoughts stayed with me as I finished my supper from the night before, then dressed in clean clothes for the day. Neil did the same, and soon even Magnus rolled out of bed, just as energetic about the summit as he’d been the night before.

“This is the day,” he told us as we all finished dressing and grooming, then headed out of the yurt and into the campsite. “Today is the day everything important will be decided.”

I was deeply surprised to see Ox leap up from her usual spot guarding our yurt. I’d expected her to return to Katrina, for the night at least. There were so many things I wanted to talk to her about, and I gestured to her to let her know that, but the things I wanted to say to Magnus demanded my attention first.

“What about the refugees?” I asked, blending my two most urgent issues into one question. “What will be done about them today?”

“How do you intend to address the attacks from Novoberg?” Neil asked on Magnus’s other side.

“I’m certain the refugees will be discussed first thing,” Magnus said, stepping ahead of us to accept an offering of coffee from Lev. Lev had mugs ready for me and Neil as well. “And I’ve no doubt this new attack will inform the discussions of the day, no matter what we talk about,” Magnus went on.

“But you don’t know yet what you think should be done about it,” I guessed.

Magnus finished gulping coffee before saying, “Oh, I have ideas. I was thinking about the issue all night.

“You were not,” Neil challenged him with a bashful grin.

“You will find, my darling—” he stepped close enough to kiss Neil, “—that I am extraordinarily good at multitasking.”

Neil sent me a tongue-in-cheek look when Magnus moved back to the fire to accept a sweet bun from Lev. I returned that look, then opened my mouth to press Magnus further, but was stopped by the sight of Sascha marching determinedly toward our camp, Jakob and Mikal hurrying to keep up with him.

“Well then,” Magnus said with false casual cheer in his voice. “We’re starting with this early, I suppose.”

“You can send him away, if that’s what you want,” I said with a sigh, handing my mug of coffee to Neil and preparing to face Sascha.

“Oh, no, Peter,” Magnus said, stepping over to kiss me quickly. “This one is your problem to solve. I trust your judgement in dealing with it.” With that, Magnus walked past me, downing the rest of his coffee and handing the mug back to Lev. “I have a summit meeting to attend. Alexei, are you assisting me today?” he called across the camp.

“If you’d like.” Alexei stood and moved to Magnus’s side.

Sascha seemed surprised when Magnus moved toward him with a smile of greeting, then walked right past him with a brief, “Good morning, Sascha. It’s a lovely day so far, isn’t it?” He strode on, but glanced over his shoulder to me, sending me a wink.

I wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or to make a rude gesture at Magnus’s retreating back. Magnus’s men were all instantly alert, but none of them stopped Sascha from walking right into the camp and up to me.

“We need to talk,” Sascha said without greeting.

Jakob and Mikal stared at Sascha’s back in frustration, then sent me an apologetic look.

I attempted to communicate to them that I understood, then let out a breath and took a half step back so I was at Neil’s side. “Neil, you remember Sascha,” I said. “And these are my friends, Jakob and Mikal.” My mouth twitched into a smile before I could help myself. “You remember, I told you about them.”

“O-oh!” Neil’s face went bright pink as he glanced between Jakob and Mikal. In fact, what I had told Neil was that he would enjoy himself immensely if he spent a night with Jakob and Mikal. The stars I saw forming in Neil’s eyes hinted that Neil suddenly understood and believed what I’d said.

“Sascha, Jakob, Mikal, I can’t remember if I’ve introduced you to Neil.” I hesitated, wondering if I should add Neil’s family name from Novoberg. Considering it was likely that Neil’s older brother had been the one to drive everyone from their homes and burn everything but Sascha’s house, I thought not.

“Nice to meet you,” Jakob answered on behalf of himself and Mikal, and probably Sascha too, since Sascha didn’t look as though he were in a mood for hospitality.

“I need to speak with you,” Sascha repeated, his gaze fierce and filled with emotion. “Alone.”

I shook my head. “I will speak to you, but only if Neil stays with me.” I blinked, then added, “And Ox. And Jakob and Mikal as well.”

“That’s not alone,” Sascha said.

“It’s the best I can do,” I said.

“It’s not as though none of us know the history,” Mikal muttered. “I’d wager Peter’s Neil knows as well.”

It was horribly inconvenient, but hearing Neil referred to as mine filled me with something proud and shivery.

Sascha huffed and scowled deeper. “Could we at least speak somewhere private?”

I thought about it, glancing around. “We can speak where we will not be overheard,” I said, starting forward, toward the open space between the campsites and the meeting tent.

The leaders of all the various packs were already on their way to the central meeting tent. Magnus had stopped to gather up Ludvig, Edik, and the others. He sent me a curious look as Neil and I made our way out into the open with Ox, Sascha, Jakob, and Mikal following. I met Magnus’s eyes with a slight nod, which was apparently enough for him. He and the others continued to the tent.

My group stopped when we were far enough away from anyone else not to be overheard if we spoke quietly. Sascha wasn’t thrilled with the arrangement.

“This is ridiculous,” he spat. “Considering all we’ve shared, we should be able to speak in real privacy, not this showy version of it.”

“Our situation has changed drastically, Sascha,” I told him, fighting against the well of emotion that seeing him again raised in me. We were close enough that I caught of whiff of his scent. My body responded instinctively, responded to the memory of the pleasure we’d shared together. But so much had changed in such a short time that my heart could only twist and ache and feel horribly guilty—for hurting him and because I knew it was all over. “I’m in an important position here at the summit,” I went on.

“How? As that man’s property?” Sascha flung an arm toward the meeting tent.

I sighed, my body rigid with misery and regret. “It’s more than that. I’ve been attempting to seek out all of the nobly-born pups who belong to the major leaders in the forest.” I hesitated, then figured it couldn’t hurt to add, “There is so much more going on in the frontier than you could ever imagine, Sascha. In the forest and in the cities. The attacks that have happened recently are part of it. Everything we have ever known is about to change.”

“Because of a capricious duke vandalizing the homes of men who are no threat to him?” Sascha asked, narrowing his eyes at me, as though my father’s orders were my fault.

“There have been other attacks,” Ox spoke up, taking a step forward until she stood by my side. She had her arms crossed and frowned at Sascha, as though she didn’t quite approve of his behavior. “And Peter is right. There are things going on in the world right now that you probably don’t know about.”

“Like what?” Mikal asked, curious and concerned.

I peeked at Ox, then glanced toward the meeting tent. I couldn’t decide if I should spill all of the details about what Magnus and the others were up to, if it was supposed to be common knowledge in the forest, or if the major pack leaders wanted to keep everything a secret. On the one hand, what happened at the summit would affect everyone in the frontier. On the other, Gravlock, and all of the other major wolf settlements, were deeply hidden, and Magnus seemed invested in keeping things that way.

In the end, I settled on saying, “It is widely believed that the kingdom has fallen. Or, at least, that the king had abandoned the frontier. Which means everything west of the mountains is about to descend into chaos.”

Sascha, Jakob, and Mikal didn’t look surprised, but at least they didn’t scoff at me for telling them something that was common knowledge.

“The leaders of the major wolf packs are here to decide what to do next, whether to unify the forest or whether the packs will stay independent,” I went on.

Jakob snorted a laugh, glancing to Mikal. “I’d like to see anyone convince some of these blockheads, like Sergei, to throw their lot in with anyone.”

“It might become necessary, if what we think is about to happen happens,” I said quietly.

“And what do you think is going to happen?” Sascha asked.

I was oddly reminded of my very first negotiation with Magnus, when I’d sat across a table from him in his yurt at Neander. He’d asked, and I’d told him what I thought, based on the little information I’d had at the time. Then I’d told him what would happen was that I would suck him off and then he would fuck me. That had happened. That and so much more.

“The pack leaders have already decided to cut off trade with the cities and to boycott all faires for the rest of the summer,” I said.

Jakob and Mikal exchanged a look of alarm. “Gregor isn’t going to be happy about that.”

“Does Gregor have anything left to sell after the soldiers from Novoberg took over your house?” I asked.

Mikal winced. “No. None of us do.”

“I have the uncomfortable feeling that we’re all at your mercy now,” Jakob added.

“Then you’d better be grateful that Peter is merciful,” Ox said. “And you’re in for a shock when you learn what’s really out here in the forest.”

All three of them looked surprised and confused by her comment.

“What is out here?” Sascha asked, glancing uncertainly to me.

I opened my mouth, but thought better of it. “I can’t tell you,” I said. “There’s a lot of secrecy involved, and I haven’t asked Magnus if you’re allowed to know.”

That infuriated Sascha, as I knew it would. “Oh, yes, Magnus,” he seethed. “Your owner and master. We cannot forget about him.”

I clenched my jaw. Sascha still believed that I’d voluntarily become Magnus’s pup. After Sascha had granted me my freedom. To him, it appeared as though I’d not only left him after promising love, I’d willingly made myself a slave to another man.

“Any information about Magnus’s pack is his to disclose or keep secret, not mine,” I said. “Just as I would never discuss anything about your pack without asking your permission first.”

And what Sascha didn’t know was how massive and sophisticated Magnus’s pack was. Sascha thought he’d been part of a large pack when, in fact, I now knew that fifty men was still considered small. Tiny, even.

“So, you are involved in all of this?” Sascha crossed his arms and rested his weight on one hip, glancing resentfully around that the meeting grounds.

“I am involved,” I said carefully, not wanting to reveal too much.

“Just like you wanted,” Sascha hissed. “You’re in the middle of danger, throwing yourself around as casually as that ball I saw you kicking yesterday, when you were stripped to the waist and making a spectacle of yourself. Did he put you up to that as well?”

“No,” I shot back at Sascha, increasingly irritated by his sour attitude. “Playing shirtless was my idea and mine alone.”

“But he didn’t try to stop you,” Sascha huffed.

My patience snapped far sooner than I expected it to. “Sascha, what do you want from me?” I asked with a sigh.

Sascha dropped his head and his arms for a moment, as if he realized he was out of order. “I want you to come back,” he said quietly, glancing up at me, hope in his eyes. “You love me. I know you do. Everything has fallen to pieces, but I know we can rebuild it again. We can build a new life together.”

My stomach roiled, and I wished I hadn’t eaten the leftover supper from the night before. Everything about Sascha was pure sentiment, pure heart. I did love him, but that love seemed small and quaint now. He was my first love, my first serious lover, but I’d moved on. So quickly that it left me feeling raw and guilty as I looked at him now. It didn’t hurt to have been separated from Sascha the way I knew it would hurt to be separated from Neil or Magnus.

“I’m not coming back, Sascha,” I said quietly. I reached for Neil’s hand, both to comfort myself and to send the signal that my words couldn’t. Neil squeezed my hand reassuringly and laced our fingers together. “I have a purpose now. My skills and everything I was raised and educated to be are desperately needed now.”

Sascha’s gaze fixed on my hand in Neil’s. He laughed humorlessly. “Your skills,” he said softly, then raised his eyes to meet mine. “I taught you those skills.”

I kept my mouth shut. I wouldn’t argue the point, wouldn’t tell him that Gregor was the one who taught me to suck a man off, or that I’d learned as much about fucking from Dmitri as I had from him. Or even that Jakob had taught me my limits and my weaknesses in the short time that we’d known each other. I’d hurt Sascha badly enough already.

“What can I do to make things better with you?” I asked quietly.

Sascha drew in a long breath, studying me as though I were completely foreign to him. He then let out his breath, shook his head, and said, “Nothing. You can’t make this better. You’ve ruined it.”

Before I could do more than open my mouth, he turned and walked away. Jakob and Mikal hesitated, glancing between Sascha and me.

“He swore he wouldn’t be like this,” Jakob said with a sigh, rubbing a hand over his face. “He swore he just wanted to talk to you.”

“And did you really believe him?” I asked, one eyebrow arched.

“No,” Jakob admitted.

“We were hoping to get a chance to talk to you too,” Mikal said with a friendlier smile. “To hear what you’ve been up to since we parted ways.”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” I said with a wry laugh, then added, “But I would like the chance to catch up with you at some point. I want to hear more about what happened with the soldiers from Novoberg.”

Neil’s hand tightened in mine. I’d already forgotten he was holding it, but I squeezed it back.

Jakob and Mikal grew serious. “It was just what Katrina said last night,” Mikal said. “Soldiers from Novoberg showed up unexpectedly, all on the same day at roughly the same time, at our house, Katrina’s house, Leo’s and Sergei’s settlements, and a few others.”

“They drove everyone out, searched the buildings, then looted and burned them,” Jakob added. “All but our house, which they commandeered for their own use.”

“You say they looted before burning?” That was new information, and it gave me pause.

“Well, if you could call it that,” Mikal said. “Sergei said they loaded everything they could onto carts before burning the rest.”

I drew in a breath, my heart suddenly beating faster. “They must know,” I said softly.

Jakob and Mikal frowned. “Know what?” Jakob asked.

“That the king has abandoned the frontier,” I said. “That there will be no more supplies coming from the Old Realm.”

“Do you think they already know about the boycott?” Neil asked.

“Only if someone leaked the information,” Ox answered with a thoughtful look. “And I wouldn’t put it past someone to have done that.”

“The boycott is actually happening?” Jakob asked. “That was all anyone could talk about in the camp last night.”

“It is happening,” I said.

Mikal blew out a low whistle. “It all makes sense then. They really were after our supplies.”

“No wonder they didn’t burn Sascha’s house,” Jakob said. He shook his head and added, “It’s the end of an era.”

“I’m afraid it is,” I said. “Which is why this summit is happening.”

“Hey, Peter, who are your handsome friends?” Jace’s voice sounded from behind me.

I turned to find him, Conrad, Anton, and Orel striding toward us. What surprised me was that Sebald and Lefric were with them. I could have shouted with excitement over that small coup right then and there.

The mood instantly shifted, and I grinned from ear to ear. “Jace,” I nodded to him with a knowing look. “I’d like you to meet some friends of mine. This is Jakob and Mikal.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Jace said, as if Jakob and Mikal had already greeted him favorably, looking Jakob and Mikal up and down hungrily. He extended a hand. “Jace, Edik’s pup.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Jakob said, taking Jace’s hand with a laugh and finishing the usual greeting, only backwards.

“Jakob, Mikal, these are my friends, other pups,” I made the rest of the introduction, gesturing to each of my friends in turn. “Conrad, Anton, Sebald, Orel, and Lefric. Except for Orel, they are all nobly-born.”

That bit of information had both Jakob and Mikal raising their brow in shock.

“God, Peter, you have been busy,” Mikal laughed, shaking each of the pup’s hands, though Anton seemed a bit reluctant.

“It’s uncanny,” Jakob said with a huge smile, shaking everyone’s hands as well. “Three days of utter chaos and confusion, but the moment we reached the meeting grounds and in every hour since then, everything has begun to make perfect sense.”

“I told you I wanted to be a part of whatever was going on in the frontier,” I told them with a wink.

“And so you are,” Jakob laughed.

“I was just going to ask Peter if he wanted to lounge around like a bunch of useless whores with us,” Jace told Jakob and Mikal with an unusually fey manner. He darted a look to Anton, which explained a lot. “Would you gentlemen like to join us?”

I hid a laugh behind my hand. Jakob and Mikal laughed out loud, their eyes shining with temptation.

“Would we ever,” Mikal said, then turned to Jakob with, “Can you imagine? Outnumbered by pups, four to one.”

“I’m not certain we’d make it out alive,” Jakob replied with a wink. He glanced back to Jace. “Some other time.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it.” Jace bit his lip.

Anton made a sound of disgust.

I had an even harder time not laughing.

“We’ll leave you to the, uh, entertainment of your friends, Peter,” Jakob said, stepping close to thump my arm. “We’ll talk later.”

Jakob and Mikal turned to go. I recovered my senses enough to stop them before they could go too far with, “Has there been any talk about what the refugees are going to do next?”

They turned back. “We’re meeting later to discuss it,” Jakob continued. “Katrina thinks we should petition some of the larger packs to take us in. Apparently, a little birdie told her that we would all like Gravlock quite a bit.” He made a face at Ox, then he and Mikal walked on.

I pivoted to Ox, my brow flying up.

“What?” Ox shrugged. “They would like it. And don’t try to pretend you wouldn’t be happy to have your friends safe and sound under Magnus’s watch.”

“Do you think Sascha would agree to that?” I asked, trying not to sound angry. Because nothing would have pleased me more than to have Jakob, Mikal, Gregor, Ivan, and Sven safe behind Gravlock’s palisades.

“Ah. Point taken,” Ox said. “But I’m sure something could be worked out. Those refugees can’t just be ignored or left to fend for themselves with no supplies.”

“She has a point,” Conrad said as our group started to make its way back to the area of Magnus’s and the others’ camp. “Dushka was talking about bringing some of them home with us too.”

“Mal said something about that last night as well,” Sebald said.

My pulse raced again as we meandered into the safer confines of the camp and found ourselves a quiet campfire to claim as our own. Lev and some of the men belonging to Ludvig’s and Edik’s packs offered to fetch breakfast for those who hadn’t had it and coffee or snacks for those of us who had. For a moment, as we all settled in for what I hoped was a morning of political negotiations disguised as social interaction, I felt like the son of a duke again, and like I might have been able to play a role in shaping the new world that was about to come.

“If cities keep attacking the smaller wolf settlements and raiding them for supplies, the larger settlements, like all of ours, will have to start taking people in, whether we want to or not,” I said. “Unless we want people to die this winter.”

“I wouldn’t put it past wolves like Yuri to let them die,” Lefric grumbled.

“So you don’t like Yuri either?” Jace asked. I could tell from the glint in his eyes that he wanted to steer the conversation in the same direction I did.

“I despise the man,” Lefric said. He spoke quietly, though, and glanced around as though he was afraid to be overheard. “You’ve seen what he’s done to poor Gennadi, haven’t you?”

The powerless, sick feeling I got every time I so much as thought about Gennadi rushed back to me. “It’s one thing to be a bed slave for a powerful pack leader,” I said in a hoarse voice, “but it’s something entirely different and sordid to be chained and collared like a dog.”

“It’s a disgrace,” Lefric went on in the same lowered voice. “That is to say, I’ve had days where servicing Radulph seems more like a chore than an enjoyment, but even he doesn’t keep me chained to his bed.”

I nearly choked on the bit of bun I was eating. “Radulph?” I asked, my eyes bulging as I coughed to clear my throat.

“Yes, that is who I belong to.” Lefric shrank in on himself even more. “I…I didn’t want to say anything at first because I recognized at once that most of your masters are allies, and, well, Radulph doesn’t share their view of things.”

I was coughing too hard to say anything—and Neil ended up thumping my back with a nervous look—but inside, I shouted in triumph. The only thing better than forming a social connection with the pups of Magnus’s friends, even better than a connection with the pups of leaders who were leaning in his direction, was befriending the pup of one of the leaders who hadn’t yet made up his mind who to support yet.

I glanced to Jace to take over the conversation while I sipped coffee to recover.

“What Yuri has done to Gennadi is inhuman,” Jace said, blessedly catching the signal I sent him. “Edik was furious about it after the game yesterday. He says he’s going to bring it up at the meeting today, if he can.”

Lefric shook his head. “I’m not sure it’ll do any good. Radulph agrees with Yuri on a lot of things, things about trade and treaties, but even though he thinks the way Gennadi is being treated is atrocious, he says there’s not a bloody thing he can do about it. How a man treats his pup is his own business.”

“There should be a law against it,” Sebald growled. “I know Gennadi. I met him a while back at a ball my father held. He was small and shy then. It infuriates me to see what’s become of him now. I can’t—” He clamped his mouth shut, throwing the last bit of his roll into the fire and blinking away tears.

“There has to be something we can do for him,” I said, even though I knew I was on dangerous ground. “Even if we just let him know we’re aware of his plight and trying to advocate for him.”

“What would happen if we all simply walked into Yuri’s camp and tried to speak to him?” Orel asked. We all stared at him. The idea was both obvious and incredibly daring. Orel shrugged. “There are eight of us. Surely, we could get as far as Yuri’s tent. And even if we are chased away, I doubt anyone would raise a hand against us if we were all together.”

“I think we should try it,” Jace said, glancing to me, his face lit up.

It was reckless. It was dangerous. It would land the lot of us in heaps of trouble if it went wrong.

“Let’s go,” I said, leaping to my feet.

Neil stood and grasped my hand before I could charge away. Instead of trying to stop me, though, he turned to Ox and asked, “What do you think, Ox?”

Ox had been her usual, quiet, observant self through the entire discussion, but she stepped forward now as though she’d been dying to get involved. “You are all crazy for wanting to walk straight into the camp of your masters’ enemies with the intent of doing something that will cause an uproar if it goes wrong.”

“So?” Jace said with a wry grin.

“So of course I’m in,” Ox said, her eyes gleaming with mischief.

Neil looked furious, but kept his mouth shut.

We scrambled through the maze of tents making up our combined camps and burst out into the open area, full of more energy than was good for any of us. As we walked across the distance to the other side of the meeting grounds, we discussed what we would do, our eyes round and our color high.

“We can’t do anything to make any of Yuri’s men think we’re there to rescue Gennadi,” Jace said.

“I would give anything if we could rescue him,” I sighed.

“And how do you think that would go?” Ox asked, playing the voice of reason. “Where are you going to put him? It’s not as though you could whisk him away to safety. It would take half an hour at most to search everyone’s tent.”

She was right, and it rankled.

“We just need to give Gennadi hope,” Sebald argued. “Let him know that he has friends, that we haven’t forgotten about him.”

“Like the cities have forgotten about us?” Lefric said with a bitter huff.

I exchanged a look with Neil. Apparently, Magnus wasn’t the only one not to have figured out that the cities had gotten rid of us on purpose.

“Do you really not like fucking Radulph?” I asked Lefric, both to distract him and to lighten our mood so that anyone watching us march so deliberately around the ring of campsites wouldn’t be suspicious.

“I don’t hate it,” Lefric said, rolling his shoulders and looking sheepish. “Especially not when Barclay is involved.”

Conrad nearly missed a step. Anton rolled his eyes as though he had yet another whore to deal with. I glanced to Neil, exchanging a secret grin. So we weren’t the only ones involved in a triumvirate after all.

“I take it he’s a friend of Radulph’s?” Jace asked with a teasing grin.

Lefric went bright red. “They said it was ordinary among the wolves, that wolves…share.” He gulped at the end of his sentence.

“They do when they want to,” Orel said with a shrug. “And they don’t when they don’t want to.”

My lips twitched into a grin that Neil shared. “That’s one way to put it.”

“I just like fucking,” Sebald said with a shrug. “And I never would have gotten to do it if I’d stayed in Yakutsk.”

“That’s a familiar story,” I said with a laugh.

“Yes, well, we all know that you would fuck an army, if their cocks were big enough,” Anton groused from the tail end of the group.

“And you wouldn’t?” Sebald asked, surprised but grinning.

“Is everyone a whore but me?” Anton complained.

“Does it make you a whore if you have no choice in the matter, but you enjoy yourself anyhow?” Orel asked in return.

The question was batted around as though it were a ball and we were on our way to a game. I stayed out of the discussion, for the most part, looking ahead and assessing how likely we were to be able to break through the outer cluster of tents near Yuri’s camp to get to Gennadi. Like Magnus and his friends, Yuri had his allies camped around him as well. It struck me as an advantage that we had Lefric with us, seeing as Radulph’s men were set up relatively close to Yuri’s camp, though not as part of the inner circle. I took it as another stroke of luck that some of the packs whose leaders were still outwardly neutral—though they seemed to be leaning Yuri’s way, like Bela’s pack—were close by. That included Avraam’s pack, and to my delight, Nikita and a few of the pups who had been on his team the day before saw us approaching and stopped what they were doing to come meet us.

“I knew it,” Nikita said with a teasing grin, crossing his arms as some of his teammates fell in behind him. “You acknowledge that you would have lost yesterday, so you’ve come to suck us all off, as agreed.”

Jace laughed, stepping ahead of the rest of us and meeting Nikita. “Actually, we’ve come to claim our prize, because it’s clear that we would have been the winners. So on your knees, pup.”

Nikita’s brow shot up in playful shock, and he laughed. “Not on your life. But if you want to keep playing the game or choose another game, we’d be up for it.”

“We can’t,” I said, pulse racing as I grasped for another facet of potential camaraderie among pups. “We’re on our way to attempt to speak to Gennadi.”

Nikita lost his smile. “You can’t be serious.”

“We are,” Sebald said, stepping up to stand shoulder to shoulder with me and Jace. “It’s abominable the way he’s been treated.”

“But you can’t do anything about it,” Nikita said with an uneasy roll of his shoulders. “He belongs to Yuri.”

“We just want to talk to him, to tell him he hasn’t been forgotten,” I said.

“Like the cities have forgotten the rest of us,” Lefric added. This time, I wasn’t so sure it was a wise thing to say aloud.

“The cities haven’t forgotten us,” Nikita said, frowning. “They got rid of us.”

“All the more reason for us not to forget each other,” I said.

I knew as soon as Nikita shifted to look at me that I’d said exactly the right thing. It was classic diplomacy, precisely what the cities were probably aiming for by using young noblemen to rally the people against the wolves. The best way to unite people was by giving them a common enemy, and the cities were an easy enemy to unify us pups.

“What are we waiting for, then?” Nikita asked.

He and his friends fell into step with us as we continued on, swelling our numbers to twelve. All pretense of joking and merriment was dropped as we neared Yuri’s camp. We’d been noticed long before we reached the edge of Yuri’s tents, and a handful of his men were waiting for us with crossed arms and smirks that said they didn’t think much of us.

“What are you lot doing here?” one of the men—tall with long, brown hair—asked us.

“We’ve come to visit Gennadi,” I said in my least threatening voice, making it sound as though we had an invitation to tea.

The long-haired man shared a laugh with his friends. “Run along and play elsewhere, boys. Gennadi can’t play with you.”

“We don’t want to play, we want to talk,” Jace said, stepping forward, shoulders squared. He was only nineteen, but built like a man.

Nikita was also young, but had a powerful physique, and Yuri’s men seemed to take him slightly more seriously than me. “All we want to do is say hello and introduce ourselves.”

Yuri’s men glanced anxiously amongst themselves, rubbing the back of their necks and shrugging, as though they didn’t know what to do.

Sebald didn’t have the patience to wait for them to figure it out. “Gennadi!” he shouted into the tents. “Gennadi of Mayskova! Come out!”

Yuri’s men were instantly on the alert. Not just the ones who had come forward to greet us. Wolves from the nearby camps dropped what they were doing to see what the trouble was as well. My back prickled with danger. I glanced to Jace, hoping that he had some ideas for how to keep the situation from getting out of hand.

“Gennadi!” Sebald shouted again. “We remember you! Your fellow pups remember you!”

There was something thrilling about Sebald’s declaration, as if he’d thrown down a gauntlet. “We remember you!” I shouted as well.

“We remember you!” Jace echoed, and soon the rest of the pups. “We remember you!”

Yuri’s men looked more anxious than ever. More wolves were dropping what they were doing to see what the commotion was all about. A wave of tension spread through the surrounding campsites until more and more wolves stopped their work and their play to see what was the matter.

“We remember you!”

At last, the flap of Yuri’s tent fluttered, and Gennadi stuck his head out into the open. He seemed so desperately small and young that my throat closed up, rendering me unable to continue shouting with the others. It was clear even across the distance that Gennadi had been crying, that he was still crying. I rocked forward on impulse, wanting to run to him to do…I didn’t know what. More and more, I could see that there was nothing I could do. It broke my heart even more when Gennadi raised a hand and waved at us to signal that he’d received the message, then hid his face in his hand and ducked back into the tent.

I blew out a breath, shaking as I turned to drop my head to Neil’s shoulder.

“It’s all right,” Neil murmured, resting a hand on my head. “Someone will do something.”

For a moment, I thought his words were a premonition. As we stopped our shouts of support and turned to head back to our own camps, we saw that the leaders were pouring out of the meeting tent and marching across the buffer space to see what was going on. Yuri was at the front of the group, but Magnus wasn’t that far behind.

“What is the meaning of this?” Yuri demanded as the leaders grew closer.

I stepped to the fore, ready to defend my friends. Jace move forward as well, as did Sebald and Nikita. In fact, all twelve of us clumped together, as if we would defend ourselves, should we need to.

“We’ve done nothing wrong,” I insisted, fighting for the courage to stand up to Yuri, even as he glared furiously at me. “We were simply telling Gennadi we remember him.”

“And what do you think gives you the right to speak to my pup?” Yuri demanded.

“We are all pups,” Nikita said. “And words are just words.”

Yuri seemed to pause in the face of Nikita confronting him. I was a clear enemy. Nikita was supposed to be his friend.

“Nikki, who put you up to this?” Avraam asked in a guarded voice as he strode up to stand by Yuri’s side.

“No one,” Nikita answered. “It was an overture of friendship.”

“Isn’t that what we’re all here for?” I asked. My heart thumped against my ribs so hard that it was difficult to breathe. I sought out Magnus in the growing group of leaders, praying he approved of my actions, and that he would be able to pull me out of trouble, if it came down to it.

Blessedly, Magnus read the concern in my eyes. “They’re just boys trying to make friends with other boys,” he said with an almost amused grin. He was pretending nonchalance, I could tell. “Let them all have their games.”

“You should let that pup of yours play with the other boys, Yuri,” Bela said, shocking the hell out of me. “It’s not right how you keep him.”

Bela’s support was so unexpected and encouraging that it made me dizzy. I’d had a sense all along that we pups could be the deciding factor in so many things that were or could be going on, but I’d had no idea one mistreated pup might be the one to tip the scales.

Yuri frowned at Bela. “What’s it to you?” he snapped. “You don’t even have a pup.”

Bela’s back went up, as though Yuri had called him less of a man. “I don’t have a dog either, but if I did, I wouldn’t keep him chained.”

Yuri huffed, then turned to our group of pups. “I don’t want you disturbing my pup. He isn’t well. He needs his rest. Now go. Go along and play your silly games somewhere else.”

My blood ran hot and cold. I wasn’t sure if Yuri was telling the truth about Gennadi being sick. On the one hand, that would explain his pale, wan appearance at the kickball game the day before. But if he were sick, why was Yuri keeping him in chains? It could easily have been a lie designed to put us all off. Or perhaps the way Yuri was treating the lad was the reason his health was failing.

I had only begun to consider the consequences when I noticed Bela watching me with narrowed eyes. When I turned toward him, he nodded and said, “You’re a brave little pup.”

“He is my pride and joy,” Magnus said, stepping up to my side so fast I flinched. “Both of my boys are.” He put an arm protectively around my and Neil’s waists.

Magnus was as tense as the sky before a storm, which made me bristle with restless energy. I inched closer to him, but, keeping to the plan we’d formed long before arriving at the summit, I sent Bela a coy look, gazing at him through lowered lashes. “Thank you for your kind words,” I said.

Magnus moved his hand to squeeze my shoulder. “Well, this was an interesting interruption,” he said cheerfully. “Why don’t we all return to the meeting tent to continue our negotiations?”

The rest of the leaders seemed more than ready to do that. They peeled away from Yuri’s camp in groups of two or three, including Yuri and Avraam. Thankfully, Avraam looked as though he were scolding Yuri.

Magnus leaned close to my ear. “Well done, Peter,” he whispered. “I think negotiations for the rest of the day might just include the introduction of a few laws about the treatment of pups.” He kissed my cheek, then backed away. “I’ll see if I can’t arrange a reward for you tonight.” His gaze shifted covertly to Bela before he moved to quickly kiss Neil as well, then to head back to the meeting tent, falling into step with Bela. “You see what sort of bravery I am privileged to witness, and to share with my friends?” he asked Bela as they moved away.

A wealth of excited, shivery feelings passed through me. There was no doubt in my mind that I would end up spending the night in Bela’s bed. That was where my skills would truly be put to the test. I had the feeling that Bela was right on the verge of tipping to Magnus’s side, and it was my job to push him the rest of the way.

“Oh, Peter, be careful,” Neil said as he let out a breath to my side. “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.” He grasped my hand so hard I didn’t think he’d ever let it go.

“It’ll be fine,” I told Neil in return, sweeping in to kiss him. “Magnus would never put me in any real danger.”

Neil glanced at me with huge eyes, filled with doubt.

That wasn’t the only thing that gave me pause, though. When I moved to continue our walk around the meeting grounds with the other pups, I saw that Sascha was standing nearby, and that he’d witnessed the entire scene. His arms were crossed and he wore a hard look of disapproval. But there was something else in his eyes too, something I’d never seen from him that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

“Come on,” I said, pulling Neil along until we were back in the center of the pack of pups. “I feel restless after all that. We don’t have enough to continue yesterday’s kickball game, but we do have plenty for practice.”

“Let’s find a ball and practice, then,” Jace said, sending me a proud wink. He hung back to walk by my side as we continued around the grounds. “I think we might have actually done some good today,” he told me in a low voice, just as we passed the spot where Sascha stood, staring at me so hard I thought I might ignite.

“Isn’t that what we’re here for?” I asked Jace in return. I glanced over my shoulder at Sascha, wishing there were a way I could explain the importance of everything we were doing and everything we had planned, including me fucking with Bela. “Isn’t that the whole point?”