At a time when the fledgling Trinity Accord seeks to unite a divided world, Silver Mercant plays a crucial role as director of a worldwide emergency response network. Wildness and chaos are the last things she needs in her life. But that’s exactly what Valentin Nikolaev, alpha of the StoneWater bears, brings with him.
Though Silver is ruled by Silence—her mind clear of all emotion—Valentin senses a whisper of fire around her. And after a shadow assassin almost succeeds in poisoning Silver, Valentin will do anything to keep her safe...even take her into the heart of a powerful bear clan.
Her would-be assassin has no idea what their poison has unleashed...
About the Author
Nalini lives and works in beautiful New Zealand. You can contact her directly through her website: nalinisingh.com. While visiting the site, Nalini invites you to join her newsletter for up-to-date news about both the Psy-Changeling and Guild Hunter series, as well as fun exclusive extras, including free short stories set in her worlds.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Nalini Singh
Age of Trinity
October 2082 is a new beginning.
Psy, human, and changeling, all three races have agreed to work together to unite their divided world.
The Trinity Accord is the fragile foundation of all their hopes and dreams of a future without war, without violence, without shattering loss.
It is a noble ambition.
But the past is not an old coat that can be discarded and forgotten.
It is a scent that clings and clings and clings.
That scent is of blood and betrayal and a chilling, emotionless Silence.
The psychically gifted Psy seek to feel emotion for the first time in over a hundred years.
Changelings with their primal hearts fight their natural instinct to trust only pack, only clan.
Humans look to the future with a grim-eyed determination to no longer be the weakest race.
And others . . . they seek to spread chaos and death and division.
Welcome to the Age of Trinity.
To be a Mercant is to be a shadow that moves with will, with intelligence, with pitiless precision.
Ena Mercant (circa 2057)
Silver Mercant believed in control. It was what made her so good at what she did—she was never caught by surprise. She prepared for everything. Unfortunately, it was impossible to prepare for the heavily muscled man standing at her apartment door.
“How did you get in?” she asked in Russian, making sure to stand front and center in the doorway so he wouldn’t forget this was her territory.
Bears had a habit of just pushing everything out of their way.
This bear shrugged his broad shoulders where he leaned up against the side of her doorjamb. “I asked nicely,” he replied in the same language.
“I live in the most secure building in central Moscow.” Silver stared at that square-jawed face with its honey-dark skin. It wasn’t a tan. Valentin Nikolaev retained the shade in winter, got darker in summer. “And,” she added, “building security is made up of former soldiers who don’t understand the word ‘nice.’” One of those soldiers was a Mercant. No one talked his way past a Mercant.
Except for this man. This wasn’t the first time he’d appeared on her doorstep on the thirty-fourth floor of this building.
“I have a special charm,” Valentin responded, his big body blocking out the light and his deep smile settling into familiar grooves in his cheeks, his hair an inky black that was so messy she wondered if he even owned a comb. That hair appeared as if it might have a silken texture, in stark contrast to the harsh angles of his face.
No part of him was tense, his body as lazy-limbed as a cat’s.
She knew he was trying to appear harmless, but she wasn’t an idiot. Despite her offensive and defensive training, the alpha of the StoneWater clan could crush her like a bug, physically speaking. He had too much brawn, too much strength for her to beat him without a weapon. So it was as well that Silver’s mind was a ruthless weapon.
“Why did you need to see me at seven in the morning?” she asked, because it was clear he wasn’t going to tell her how he kept getting past her security.
He extended a hand on which sat a data crystal. “The clan promised EmNet a breakdown of the small incidents we’ve handled over the past three months.”
Those “small incidents” were times when Psy, humans, or non-clan changelings needed assistance in the area controlled by StoneWater—or elsewhere, when members of the bear clan were close enough to help. As the director of the worldwide Emergency Response Network run under the aegis of the Trinity Accord, Silver was the one who coordinated all available resources—and in this part of the world, that included the StoneWater bears.
Of course, she had no ability to order them to do anything—trying that on a predatory changeling was an exercise in abject failure. But she could ask. So far, the bears had always come through. The data crystal would tell her how many clan members and/or other resources had been required to manage each instance; it would help her fine-tune her requests in the future.
She took the crystal, not bothering to ask why the alpha of the clan had turned up to personally deliver the data.
Valentin liked to do things his way.
“Why does Selenka let you get away with breaching her territory?” The BlackEdge wolves had control over this part of Moscow when it came to changeling access. The city was split evenly between the wolf pack and the bear clan, with the rest of their respective territories heading outward from that central dividing line.
This apartment building fell in the wolf half.
Valentin smiled, night-dark eyes alight in a way she couldn’t describe. “StoneWater and BlackEdge are friends now.”
If Silver had felt emotion, she may have made a face of sheer disbelief. The two most powerful packs in Russia had a working relationship and no longer clashed in violent confrontations, but they were not friends. “I see,” she said, refusing to look away from those onyx eyes.
Predatory changelings sometimes took a lack of eye contact as submissive behavior, even when interacting with non-changelings. Bears definitely took it as submissive behavior. They weren’t exactly subtle about it either. In fact, bears were the least subtle of the changelings she’d met through her work as Kaleb Krychek’s senior aide, and as the head of EmNet.
“What do you see, Starlight?” Valentin asked in his deep rumble of a voice that spoke of the animal that lived under his skin.
Silver refused to react to the name he insisted on calling her. When she’d pointed out he was being discourteous by not using her actual name, he’d told her to call him her medvezhonok, her teddy bear, that he wouldn’t mind. It was difficult to have a rational conversation with a man who seemed impossible to insult or freeze out.
She’d heard Selenka Durev say that through tightly clenched teeth on more than one occasion. While Silver’s conditioning under the Silence Protocol remained pristine, her mind clear of all emotion, in the time she’d known Valentin, she’d come to understand the wolf alpha’s reaction. “Thank you for the data,” she said to him now. “Next time, you might wish to consider an invention we in the civilized world call e-mail.”
His laugh was so big it filled the air, filled the entire space of her apartment.
The thought made no sense, yet it appeared like clockwork when Valentin laughed in her vicinity. She’d told herself multiple times that she worked for the most powerful man in the world; Valentin was only a changeling alpha. Unfortunately, it appeared changeling alphas had their own potent brand of charisma. And this bear alpha had a surfeit of it.
“Have you thought about my offer?” he asked, the laughter still in his eyes.
“The answer remains the same,” Silver said as a burn spread through her chest. “I do not wish to go have ice cream with you.”
“It’s really good ice cream.” Smile disappearing, Valentin suddenly shifted fully upright from his leaning position against the doorjamb, the size and muscle of him dangerously apparent. “You doing okay?”
“Quite fine,” Silver said, even as the burn morphed into a jagged spike. Something was wrong. She had to contact—
Her brain shorted out. She was aware of her body beginning to spasm, her lungs gasping for air as her legs crumpled, but she couldn’t get her telepathic “muscles” to work, couldn’t contact her family or Kaleb for an emergency teleport.
Moving far faster than most people expected bear changelings to move, Valentin caught Silver’s slender body before she’d done much more than sway on those ice-pick heels she liked to wear. He knew it wasn’t the heels that were toppling her; Silver was never in any danger on those heels. The woman walked on them like he walked on his “bigfoot-sized” feet, as described by one of his three older sisters.
“I’ve got you, Starlight,” he said, scooping her up in his arms and walking into her apartment.
He’d been trying to get in for ten long months, ever since he first met Ms. Silver Mercant. But he’d never expected it to be because she was convulsing in his arms. Placing her on the dark gray of the sofa, he turned her onto her side and gripped her jaw to keep her head from jerking too hard. At least she was breathing, though the sound was ragged.
With his other hand, he grabbed his phone, went to call Kaleb Krychek. The viciously powerful telekinetic could get her to help far faster than any ambulance. But Silver’s body was spasming too violently for him to both hold the phone and keep her from hurting herself. Swearing under his breath, he dropped the phone and placed his other hand on her hip, holding her in place.
“Not how I wanted to put my hands on you, moyo solnyshko.” He kept talking so she’d know she wasn’t alone, but his blood was chilling with every second that passed. It was going on too long.
Deciding to risk it, he released her hip and, snatching up his phone, managed to make the call. “Silver’s apartment,” he said to the pitiless son of a bitch who was Silver’s boss. “Medical emergency.”
He dropped the phone as Silver jerked again. “Hold on, Starlight,” he ordered in his most obnoxiously alpha voice, trying to keep her body from wrenching painfully at the same time. If Silver was going to respond to anything, it would be to the idea that he’d dared give her an order. “You’re tougher than this.”
Her eyes, that glorious silver, met his, the pupils huge . . . right before her body went limp.
Kaleb appeared in the room at the same instant, the Psy male dressed in a flawless black-on-black suit. “What happened?” he asked, his voice as cold as midnight on the steppes.
“Get her to a doctor,” Valentin growled, the sound coming from the human male’s vocal cords but carrying the bear’s rage. “Tell them it was poison.”
Kaleb was smart enough not to waste time questioning him. He simply teleported out, taking Silver with him. Teeth gritted at the fact she was out of his sight, Valentin got up and, going into Silver’s kitchen, began to pull out anything that could be food. Psy had strange ideas of food—meal bars and nutrient mixes. The only surprise in Silver’s cupboard was a block of fine dark chocolate.
Wondering if he’d discovered a secret about the most fascinating woman he’d ever met, a secret he could use to sneak past her defenses—no, he had no shame whatsoever when it came to Silver Mercant—he turned over the block and found a small card still attached to it. The writing was in English. It said: Thank you for your assistance, Ms. Mercant. I hope you enjoy this small taste of our family business. ~Rico Cavalier
His bear rumbled inside his chest.
This was the kind of gift a man gave a woman he was interested in—but it looked like this Rico had struck out if the chocolate was sitting in the back of what passed for Silver’s pantry.
Good. Otherwise, I’d have had to pound the fool into dust.
The only one courting Starlight was going to be Valentin.
Having collected all possible food items, including some bland-looking “cake” from the cooler that was probably a nutrient-dense protein supplement, he began to go through them. Changelings had the sharpest noses of the three races.
Bears had the sharpest noses among changelings.
Nothing would escape him now that he’d pinpointed the poisonous scent from the millions of others in the air at any one time: the exemplar had come from Silver, her body screaming a warning to his senses as the poison went active.
“Hungry, Alpha Nikolaev?”
He didn’t start at Krychek’s midnight voice, having scented the cardinal telekinetic’s return to the room. Thankfully for his nose, Kaleb didn’t have the astringent metallic scent that some Psy did, the ones who were so deep in the emotionless regime they called Silence that Valentin didn’t think anything would get them out.
It was as if they’d cut out their hearts and souls.
Silver was pure ice, but she didn’t have that metallic scent either. It gave him hope. As did the faint touch of fire he kept picking up around her, a hidden sunshine that flickered against his skin. Valentin was determined to seduce Silver’s hidden wildness out into the light. Who better than an uncivilized bear after all?
“How is she?” he asked, looking Krychek in the eye.
The telekinetic’s gaze was the eerie white stars on black that denoted the strongest among the Psy race, difficult to read even if it hadn’t been Kaleb Krychek—a man Valentin respected for his relentless will but mostly for his unexpected capacity for loyalty.
StoneWater did its research on possible business partners. Valentin, a young second to Zoya at the time Krychek first appeared on StoneWater’s radar, was the one who’d dug into the Psy male. And what he’d discovered about Krychek was that if you didn’t betray him, he wouldn’t betray you.
Valentin could work with a man like that.
Especially since Krychek had had the good sense to employ Silver.
The words the telekinetic spoke were toneless. “The medics are working on stabilizing her.”
Valentin’s gut clenched.
A deep rumbling building in his chest, he held out a barely used jar of nutrient mix. “This has the same toxic scent as what I scented on her—get it tested. I’m going to finish checking the other items.”
Kaleb left at once, no doubt aware that, to treat Silver effectively, the medics needed to know the type of poison she’d ingested. Because while Valentin could tell something was toxic, he couldn’t separate out individual poisonous scents—not when he’d never made it a point to learn those gradations.
He saw the half-full glass on the counter, realized he’d interrupted Silver at breakfast. He didn’t need to lift the glass to his nose to scent the toxins swirling in the coffee-colored liquid. If he’d been here, he would’ve smashed that glass out of her hand before a drop touched her lips.
Jaw grinding, he handed the glass to Krychek when the other man returned. The third time Krychek came back, Valentin had found a second contaminated jar of nutrient mix. “It was the third from the front on the right-hand side,” he said, knowing the location of the poisoned jars might be important. “The nutrient bars were clean.” He’d ruthlessly opened each and every packet, exposing them to the air and to his nose. “Silver’s going to be mad I trashed her kitchen.”
Kaleb took the jar, examined the label, then teleported out with it. When he returned, he said, “That was ordinary nutrient mix available at any Psy grocer.”
“You thinking product tampering?”
“It’s a possibility—those of my race are not universally liked.”
That was a vast understatement. Many of the Psy might be attempting to regain their emotions after more than a hundred years of training themselves to feel nothing, but their previous rulers had done massive damage, killed and tortured and created a deep vein of ill will.
Both humans and changelings had long memories.
“The other option is an assassination attempt.” Krychek’s cardinal eyes took in the mess Valentin had made of the food. “I trust in your sense of smell, but I’ll get everything tested regardless.”
Valentin felt no insult. This wasn’t about pride. It was about Silver’s life. “Do it. Now tell me where she is.”
Kaleb slipped his hands into the pockets of his pants. “Silver hasn’t mentioned a friendship.”
“I’m working on it.” Had been doing so since the day he’d walked scowling into a meeting and come face-to-face with a woman who made him think of hidden fire and cold, distant, searingly brilliant starlight. And, let’s be honest: skin privileges. Naked skin privileges. Wild-monkey skin privileges. He couldn’t be around Silver and not have his body react. Her own body, it was slender, but with all the right curves. And she was tough, tough as a female bear out for blood.
Never once had she backed down against his deliberate provocation.
His bear liked that. A lot.
Enough to throw her over his shoulder and carry her off to his lair if only she wouldn’t fry his brains for daring. He was tempted to chance it anyway. He had a hard head, could probably take it so long as she wasn’t trying to kill him.
That mind of hers . . . He’d never met its like. Silver Mercant forgot nothing, and she had a steely presence that made even rowdy bears sit up and take notice. Woman like that, she’d make one hell of a mate. Too bad she refused to even consider the idea: Silver wasn’t budging on the whole emotionless Silence thing.
“My people chose Silence for a reason,” she’d said to him three visits earlier. “While parts of that reasoning have proven false enough to topple Silence for many, other parts still apply. I am and always will be Silent. That means I will never be ready to ‘run off’ and experience ‘shenanigans’ with you.”
No matter. Valentin had a plan.
Because she damn well was going to survive. “Don’t even try to stop me from seeing her, Krychek,” he said to the cardinal, who still hadn’t spilled Silver’s location. “I’m bigger and meaner than you.”
Krychek raised an eyebrow. “Bigger, yes. Meaner? Let’s leave that an open question. However, since she’s alive because of you, I think you can be trusted with her whereabouts.” He told Valentin the name of the hospital.
It happened to be a short ten-minute run from here. Normally, Valentin would’ve covered that distance without hesitation—his bear would’ve barely stretched out by the time he reached the hospital. He could do vehicles, but he didn’t really like them. They were all too damn small as far as he was concerned. But this wasn’t a normal day. “Can I hitch a ride?”
The other man didn’t say anything, but less than a second later, Valentin found himself standing in an antiseptic white corridor, the floor beneath his feet a chilly gray-blue. The chairs on one side were attached to the wall, the seat cushions darkest navy. On the right of the chairs was a door inset with a small square of glass.
Beyond that glass lay an operating theatre where white-garbed doctors and nurses worked with frantic efficiency to stabilize Silver. He couldn’t see her, but regardless of the powerful hospital smells in the air, sharp and biting, he could scent the ice-cold starlight and secret fire of her.
“I thought you’d take her to a private clinic.” This public hospital was an excellent one, but Silver was critical to the fragile balance of their fractured world—and Krychek could teleport anywhere in the blink of an eye.
“The lead doctor working on her is one of the world’s foremost specialists in toxins and poisons and their impact on the Psy body.”
“You download that information from the psychic network you’re all part of?”
“Useful.” Valentin couldn’t imagine a life in which his mind was connected to a limitless vastness that included millions of strangers, but as a bear whose clan was his heartbeat, he could understand it. “You didn’t leave her here alone.” Krychek had been delayed returning to him the first time around. Long enough to bring in someone to watch over Silver.
“No, he didn’t.” The woman who’d spoken had just walked over from where she’d been getting a glass of water not far down the corridor. Her language of choice was English, and she had a scent that was almost no scent. But to a bear, everyone had a scent, and she hadn’t quite managed to erase every thread of hers. The subtle memory of soap, the natural body scent that was uniquely hers, a touch of roses.
He didn’t have to ask her identity; this woman was Silver in fifty years. Her hair pure white and her eyes the same as his Starlight’s, her facial bones fine, she was clearly a Mercant. And, if the rumors Valentin’s third-eldest sister had heard were true, then she was probably the Mercant.
He took a chance. “Grandmother Mercant,” he said in the same language she’d used, inclining his head slightly in acknowledgment of another alpha.
Silver’s grandmother didn’t display any surprise at his greeting, so regal, she clearly took it as her due that she’d be recognized—this despite the fact the head of the Mercant family preferred to stay firmly out of the limelight. Yes, the Mercant women were as tough as steel.
More than tough enough to handle bears.
“You have me at a disadvantage,” was her polite but in no way warm response.
“Valentin Nikolaev,” he said. “Alpha of the StoneWater clan.”
“He was with Silver when she collapsed.”
Grandmother Mercant’s eyes bored into Valentin’s on the heels of Krychek’s words. “If my granddaughter survives, it’ll be because of your quick actions.” She shifted her attention to the cardinal who was the third point in their triangle. “Any response from the lab?”
“No,” Krychek said, then paused. “I have the report. I’m sending it through.”
Beyond the square of glass, Valentin saw a doctor lift up her head. She nodded once toward the window to acknowledge the telepathic message before beginning to issue orders to her staff.
Minutes turned to an hour, more.
Still, they waited.
The Human Patriot
He didn’t consider himself a bad man. He wasn’t in any way like the other self-centered bastards in the Consortium. They wanted to sow division and foster chaos because it would be better for their bottom line. He was disgusted by their greed, had accepted the Consortium’s overture only because he intended to use the group to achieve his aims, aims formed of conscience and hope and love for his people.
To him, the Consortium was a tool to help him mount a righteous revolution. Yes, he made ruthless decisions when called for, but that was in business. In life, in politics, he acted on the conviction of his heart, and that heart was telling him the Trinity Accord would lead to the destruction of all that he held dear.
His beloved children, his accomplished and beautiful wife, they’d all be destroyed by this “proto-Federation” agreement being touted as a force for unity. Psy, humans, changelings, people of all three races would be equal, all have a say in the direction of the world.
He closed his hand into a tight fist on the aged cherrywood of his desk, the top inlaid with fine gold and semiprecious stones. It was a status symbol, this desk. Worth hundreds of times the yearly income of the common man on the street, it reminded him every day of what he’d achieved through determined intelligence . . . and the genetic luck of the draw.
Without the natural shield that protected his mind, he would long ago have become another casualty of Psy arrogance, another human psychically raped and violated by the emotionless, soulless bastards, his ideas and his freedom stolen.
His eyes went to the photo of his wife on his desk. So much light in her eyes. That had been before. She still laughed, she still loved, but she hadn’t been the same since that horrific day when she’d come up with an invention a Psy coveted. The monster had stripped her clean before the man who loved her to the core of his being could find a way to protect her.
She no longer created, knowing it could be taken from her at any instant.
But they were supposed to believe the Psy were turning over a new leaf, that they’d suddenly begun to respect the sanctity of the human mind?
Throwing down the pen he’d picked up to sign a contract, he rose to his feet and, stepping out onto the balcony attached to his home study, looked down at the cool paradise of their white-tiled courtyard with its fountain in the center. His children’s laughter drifted up from below, their small bodies hidden by the black plum trees that hung heavy with fruit.
“Papa! Papa!” His boy ran out from under the trees, held up a toy truck. “Come play!”
He smiled, his heart so full he could hardly bear it. “In a moment,” he called down. “Let Papa finish his work first. We’ll play afterward.”
Happy with the promise, the boy returned to his play while a little girl jumped into the fountain in laughing delight. Wild, his daughter was, and the apple of his eye. How could it be otherwise when she was so like her mother? And his son, oh, he loved his son, too.
Enough to fight for a future where they wouldn’t be used and discarded. Because if his informant was right, the Psy race desperately needed to harness human minds for some reason the informant hadn’t yet been able to unearth. And whenever the Psy needed something from humans, the powerful psychic race just took it.
If that meant he had to become a monster himself, had to circumvent loyalties and buy betrayal, even order the death of a brilliant woman who—on the surface—appeared to have no bias in sending aid to various humanitarian crises around the world, so be it.
Silver Mercant and EmNet were one of the foundation stones on which Trinity was built. But that foundation stone was set to break, alongside several others.
Betrayal is a rusted sword that wounds long before the first cut is made.
Lord Deryn Mercant (circa 1502)
The doctor—an M-Psy—emerged two hours after Krychek had sent through the telepathic message about the details of the poison; Valentin was pacing the hallway, his bear shoving at the inside of his skin, its fur thick and heavy.
“She’ll make a full recovery. No complications foreseen.”
Valentin’s lungs filled with air again, his chest expanding.
“Did you have to remove any of her organs?” The question came from Grandmother Mercant.
“No.” The short dark-haired doctor took a whisper-thin organizer from a nurse who’d just come through the doors at the other end of the corridor. “We pumped out her stomach, gave her the antidote, but because of the complexity of the poison, we had to monitor her responses and calibrate the antidote drop by drop.”
A glance up from the medical file on the organizer. “She was lucky. The nutrients weren’t close to digested, and she didn’t get the full dose.”
Valentin thought again of that half-full glass and of how long it had taken him to climb up to an open window on a lower floor of Silver’s building. From there, it had been relatively easy to avoid the security cameras and get to Silver’s floor. If he’d been just a minute too late . . . “When can we see her?”
The doctor didn’t question his right to be there—apparently, being with the head of the Mercant family and Kaleb Krychek gave him instant credibility, even if he was dressed in ripped jeans and an old white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. That shirt had a drip of blue paint on one shoulder. He’d thought—once—about dressing up for Silver, but he figured if he was going to coax her to the bear side, he should go full bear mode.
No point in false advertising.
He couldn’t wait for those cool eyes of hers to give him their usual critical once-over. Last visit, she’d offered to supply him with the name of a good seamstress who could patch up the holes in his jeans. The visit before that, she’d pointed out that most people stopped wearing their T-shirts long before the color faded to a “shade that can be best described as rag-gray.”
“According to these updated readings,” the doctor said, her eyes on the organizer, “she should be conscious in ninety minutes to two hours. We’ll be moving her into a recovery room shortly.”
The three of them waited in silence while Silver was ensconced in a private room. Valentin watched her grandmother go inside to sit with her, made himself stay outside, though bear and man both wanted to thunder inside. He didn’t even look through the partially open blinds on the window beside the door, as he hadn’t looked when she was moved from the operating theatre to the recovery room.
Silver would not thank him for seeing her when she was so vulnerable.
Except he already had.
He groaned, the bass sound coming from deep within. “She is never going to forgive me for having witnessed her collapse.”
Beside him, Krychek glanced at his watch, the cardinal Psy’s dark hair gleaming in the overhead light. “Given the current time and the fact Silver keeps to a firm schedule unless she needs to adapt to fit a developing situation, you interrupted her at breakfast, thus saving her life.”
“You think she’ll see it that way?” Valentin asked on an excited burst of hope.
The other man didn’t even pause to consider it. “No. You’re out of luck.”
Valentin narrowed his eyes, wondering if Krychek was laughing at him.
The cardinal was the coldest man he knew—but unlike Valentin, Kaleb Krychek had a woman who adored him. Sahara Kyriakus made no effort to hide her love for her mate. Valentin had seen her kissing Krychek right in the center of Red Square, her joy a bright light. Krychek hadn’t so much as cracked a faint smile the entire time—but a man had to have a heart to win that of a woman who wore hers on her sleeve.
So, yes, his bear decided, it was quite possible Kaleb Krychek was laughing at him under that frigid exterior. “Thank you for nothing,” he grumbled to the other man, before propping himself up against the nearest wall.
“Do you want a return teleport?”
“No, I’ll wait.” Just until Starlight was awake. He needed to see her chest rise and fall, hear the frosty control of her voice, feel the laser focus of her intelligence.
“Don’t let Silver spot you, or any hope you have of her choosing to forget this incident will go up in smoke.”
Now Valentin was certain Krychek was laughing at him. “Go count your fleas, you mangy wolf,” he said on a deep rumble of sound emanating from his bearish side, the latter words the worst possible insult among StoneWater bears.
Krychek teleported out so fast, Valentin wasn’t sure he’d heard. It probably hadn’t been the most diplomatic thing to say to a cardinal of such brutal power, but Valentin wasn’t the least sorry about it—which was why he tended to leave the Krychek contacts to Anastasia. His eldest sister and second-in-command was much, much better at this type of thing.
Valentin was a “big, deranged grizzly,” while Stasya was an “intelligent and thoughtful panda.”
That description had come from his second-eldest sister, Nova. Forget that he, Stasya, Nova, and Nika—his third-eldest sister, were all Kamchatka brown bears, and pandas were so “thoughtful” they often took an hour to reply to a question. Apparently it was a metaphor. At least Nova hadn’t called him an actual snearzhnyi chelovek. An alpha had to have some standards—his included not being called a yeti.
Or a wolf.
His impolitic nature was the reason why it had taken him so long to meet Silver. He’d just never gone to any Moscow meetings. Now, he went to every one where he knew she would be present. Stasya had thrown up her hands when he dug in his feet on the matter—then she’d given him duct tape. To put over his mouth whenever he felt like being his “lumbering beary self.” End quote.
Valentin didn’t lumber. Not unless he’d downed a few beers.
And none of those thoughts were keeping his mind off the woman in the room beyond the closed door.
When that door opened at long last, he found himself the focus of a steely gaze. “My name,” Silver’s grandmother said, “is Ena. But you may call me Grandmother.”
Valentin was well aware he’d been granted a privilege. When he’d first greeted her that way, it had been because it was the most respectful address that came to mind. This, however, was permission to take a familial intimacy. While he didn’t know anything of Ena beyond the fact she was the head of a powerful family, he knew enough of Silver to know this was serious business.
Women like Ena and Silver did not offer such things lightly.
“How’s our girl doing, Grandmother?”
Ena Mercant stared at him for long minutes. “You’re extremely brash. Nothing like the leopard alpha who’s representing so many changeling groups in the Trinity Accord.”
“There’s a reason Lucas is our public face.” It hadn’t been a hard decision to trust Lucas Hunter to look after StoneWater’s interests in the fledgling accord that sought to unite their divided world.
The other man had more reason than anyone to fight for the tenets of Trinity. His daughter was both Psy and changeling, the first such child born in a century; and, he, like Valentin, had a number of humans in his pack. “Can you imagine me negotiating with the kretiny Lucas deals with on a daily basis?” Making a gun of his thumb and forefingers, he pressed it to his temple, set it off with a “bhoof” of sound.
Not responding to that, Ena Mercant sat down in one of the visitor chairs against the wall. Next to her, he stayed upright, alert. “No other windows into Silver’s room?”
“No. I’m running a telepathic scan so I’ll know the instant anyone teleports in.”
So would Valentin, his sense of smell hyper-focused. No one was going to hurt his Starlight. “So, Grandmother, you think it was product tampering?”
Ena’s response was indirect. “Silver always has six jars in the cupboard. She starts on the left, pulls the second jar on the left forward once she’s finished the first and so on. It’s interesting you found a second tainted jar in the position you did.”
Valentin’s claws, long, curved, and deadly, threatened to erupt from his skin. “‘Interesting’ is not the word I’d use.” If the poisoner was uncertain of Silver’s system, that person would have doctored a jar on each side. Not the first one, so it’d be harder to pin down exactly when the jars had been tampered with, but the second in each row. “She was targeted.”
Ena stayed silent for long enough that he managed to talk his bear out of surging to the surface. Now was not the time to rampage in fury. Because “deranged grizzly” tendencies or not, Valentin was also an alpha to the core of his soul; he had the capacity to control his primal urges.
Medical calls came and went over the intercom, and a nurse rushed by in response to an alert, but inside Silver’s room, it stayed quiet.
“What do you know of my family?” Ena asked at last.
He noted the possessive. Yes, this woman was an alpha, too. A matriarch like the bear Valentin had succeeded in StoneWater eight months earlier. Zoya was as tough—though far less reserved in her responses. That just made his former alpha a bear and Ena a Psy. It said nothing about either woman’s power.
“Not much,” he admitted in response to her question about the Mercants. “My sister Janika knows a lot of people”—half of Russia it sometimes felt like—“so we’ve picked up things here and there, but we’ve made no effort to dig into Psy politics.” They had no Psy in their clan and thus no reason or ability to have a direct line of information. Of course, that would change once he convinced Silver to throw in her lot with him. He’d need the information to make sure she was safe.
As she hadn’t been in her own apartment.
Inside him, his bear rose up on its back paws, a massive creature enraged that Silver’s home had been violated. Home was safety, was where they raised their cubs and nurtured the bonds of family. Home was warmth and love and play. It was never an acceptable target, no matter what the war.
“I don’t need anyone to tell me that you personally are a power,” he said, his voice dropping into a deeper register as his bear continued to pace inside him. “You wear it like a second skin. It’s so obvious even a snow-blind polar bear couldn’t miss it. Added to that, Krychek respects you.”
While StoneWater and Krychek had had a rocky road to a wary trust that was still a work in progress, Valentin had never doubted the other man’s smarts. “He knew you’d be able to protect Silver.”
A glance up, Ena’s expression impossible to read. “Brash and astute. An unexpected combination.”
Valentin shrugged. “Element of surprise.” Many people took the bearish approach to life as evidence that bears were dense and unintelligent. Bears made no effort whatsoever to dissuade the idiots.
As Stasya had put it: “Why should we school the stupid out of them when it means we have a huge advantage in almost any negotiation?”
Too bad Selenka’s wolves had long ago figured out the truth.
“My family is powerful,” Grandmother Mercant said, her eyes on the wall in front of her. “We are the primary shadow players in the Net, the family everyone wants to court to gain intelligence, have our machinery at their back while they climb to power.”
Surprised at her candor, Valentin listened in alert silence. One of the things Nika had picked up through her ability to make all kinds of friends—it was as if she’d been adopted from a pony herd or something—was that the Mercants kept their mouths sealed shut when it came to the family.
“Killing Silver would cripple us for at least a decade,” Ena added, the reminder of the attempt to end Silver’s starlight making Valentin see red all over again, his shoulder muscles bunching tight as he crossed his arms.
Ena continued to speak. “We would withdraw, regroup, become strong again. But we would’ve lost the person I trust to lead the Mercants into the future.”
Her voice never altered, her tone flat, but Valentin knew without a single doubt that Ena Mercant would kill to protect her granddaughter, her love a fierce thing. Ena wouldn’t call it love. Neither would Silver. Didn’t change the fact that the loyalty tying them together was a bond of the heart any bear would recognize.
“She’s also the only one who knows EmNet inside and out,” he said, drawing in fine traces of Silver’s scent through all the antiseptics and medicines that hung so heavy in the air.
His bear clawed at him, wanting out, wanting to nuzzle her, cuddle her close. Valentin had some trouble getting it under control since he wanted the same thing. “Even if we take her link to Krychek out of the equation,” he said, “Silver is a target on multiple fronts. The Consortium”—a greedy, dishonorable group that Lucas Hunter had warned him about—“is anti-peace and EmNet is the flag bearer for Trinity.” For the hope of a permanent worldwide peace.
“Yes.” Again, Ena said nothing else for so long that he thought the conversation was over. But then she stirred. “Someone got into the most secure apartment building in Moscow. Then they got into her apartment. All without tripping security.”
“It’s not that hard to get into her building,” Valentin told her, furious at the security people. “I climbed in through an open window on the third floor.” He couldn’t climb for shit in his animal form, his bear too big, but in his human form with his claws out? He hadn’t found a wall he couldn’t scale.
Not that the alpha of StoneWater made a habit of climbing up apartment buildings. He only did that for his icy Starlight.
“Most people,” Ena responded, “including most changelings, don’t have the kind of claws sported by bears. You’re also heavily muscled and, I’m guessing, extremely strong.”
“Teleporters don’t need claws or physical strength.”
“No, but Silver has worked with a cardinal telekinetic for years. She had scent filters put in, motion sensors. Kaleb tested the precautions to make sure they’d work against someone with his ability. She should’ve known the instant an intruder entered, but it’s clear she registered no such intrusion.”
Valentin’s bear froze. “You think the poison was added by someone she let in.” Easy if the guest was a person Silver trusted, a person she would’ve left alone in the living area while she went to fetch something from another room or maybe excused herself to take a private call. The kitchen was only steps away.
Ena inclined her head. “If this individual was smart, he or she wouldn’t have dosed the jar Silver was using at the time.”
“That’s what I figured.” His bear head-butting him in a stubborn refusal to sit down and behave until it had seen Silver, Valentin thought back to her kitchen cupboards and to the second tainted jar. “How long does a jar last?”
“One month if used nonstop, which Silver doesn’t do. Two to three months if interspersed with other sources of nutrients like the bars and protein supplements.”
“We need to go through all the visitors she’s had in the time since she began using the jar before this one.” Even though Silver had just opened this jar, they’d have to go back at least four months to be on the safe side.
“No, Valentin,” Ena said, interrupting him midthought. “That is not your responsibility.”
Valentin’s bear roared in outrage.
He clenched his jaw, frustratingly conscious that he had no rights here. Silver wasn’t his, hadn’t even let him through her front door yet. Today didn’t count, and even his bear wouldn’t argue that it set a precedent. Starlight had to invite him in for it to count.
“Your job,” Ena said, “is to give her safe harbor.”
The bear stopped midroar, stunned into silence.
“I’d like nothing better,” Valentin said through his surprise, “but Silver won’t accept a bodyguard.” And he was alpha, his time bound to the clan, a truth Ena had to understand. What she couldn’t know was just how badly his clan needed him right now. His short visits to annoy and court Starlight had been the only breaks he’d taken since becoming alpha eight months earlier.
“I know,” Ena replied. “I also know she won’t go far from her center of work. But she can’t continue to live in a place where anyone can walk in and poison her.”
Valentin’s fur ruffled inside him, his bear’s attention caught. “The poison is important.” His next question was pure instinct. “Is it a Mercant weapon?” Shadow players would strike with stealth rather than in open aggression.
Ena’s response was telling. “I can’t offer her any of our safe houses. They’re keyed to all Mercants.”
Biting back a harsh word in his native tongue, quite certain both Babushka Caroline and Babushka Anzhela would clip him on the ear if they heard he’d uttered that particular word in the presence of an elder, he ran a hand through his hair. “You think one of your own went after Silver.”
“Our entire family is built on trust.”
“Like a bear clan.” Betrayal was a dagger to the heart, and it hurt. Valentin knew. He’d felt it stab him to the core, was still bleeding and bruised because of it, his bear dejected by the unexpected blow.
“Why not ask Krychek for a place?” Valentin forced himself to ask; he wanted to haul Silver deep into his territory where no one could hurt her, but these were the same questions she’d ask—better he and Ena have her boxed in before she woke.
The bear inside him snorted at the idea of playing fair when it was Starlight’s life at stake.
“Since Silver won’t abandon her work by moving to a totally different region, the only possibilities Kaleb can offer her will be in central Moscow. She’d remain accessible to her enemies.”
Valentin unfolded his arms, a smile starting to tug at his lips. “Are you asking me to kidnap your granddaughter?”
“Let’s call it an enforced move out of the field of danger.”
He was fluent in English, thanks to his Canadian polar bear maternal grandmother, but it still took him a second to work out that yes, Ena was in favor of Valentin kidnapping Silver.