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Chapter 2: An Engagement, Interrupted, Part 5

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"No!" Denisius struggled to his knees. Breathing was painful and speaking was worse, but still he managed enough volume to catch his servant's attention. "Vos, don't! Don't hurt her!"

"Milord," Vos answered through gritted teeth, not taking his eyes off the black-furred creature, "this is not your princess anymore. Let me end it quickly. Before she remembers what she is and tries to kill us too."

"This is still a child of the Emperor," Varallo Thray said gently. If not for the dust clinging to his robes and the disarray of his thinning hair, he might have been in a salon complimenting the musicians' skill, never mind the dead werewolf or the headless servant sprawled only a few feet away. "His Imperial Majesty would be most displeased if no effort were made to attempt a cure for her."

Still Vos did not lower his blade. "Death in a wolf's jaws, death at the hands of your fucking Emperor -- you don't make it easy, do you, Chancellor?" The sheen of blood on one side of his face gave his furious green eyes a mad gleam.

"Let Lord Marhollow decide. Aside from the Emperor and of course poor Carala, he is the most injured party here."

"What about him?" Vos roared, taking his eyes off the she-wolf long enough to point his chin toward Quilla's body.

"He gave his life in the service of his lord. Surely that is an honor?"

Vos swore violently under his breath, his dripping blade still pointed firmly in the she-wolf's direction. "Well, milord?" he demanded in tones that would have been quite insolent in other circumstances. "What's your order? Kill this thing or, gods help us, try to take it alive?"

Nursing his side, his sword forgotten on the ground, Denisius shambled toward Vos and the Chancellor. "Just . . . just let me see if I can talk to her. If she recognizes me."

Vos didn't protest, but nor did he lower his blade as Denisius hesitantly approached the trembling wolf. Its amber eyes seemed to implore him, tears streaking down its muzzle. Denisius's mouth felt as dry and rough as the blossoms that grew on the seretto trees outside Coldspring Hall in late summer. The creature that had been Carala crouched and shivered before him, and nothing in his education had prepared him for what he saw. Even though he had studied what few texts on the matter existed in his father's library, for the most part he knew no more about werewolves than what he remembered from childhood fancies and fireside tales in taverns whispered on a winter's night.

He had not expected they might be beautiful.

The she-wolf's body was as Carala's had been from throat to knees -- sleek and smooth and slender, but now sheened with fur as dark as a raven's wing, her breasts as full as they had been (Denisius realized with a start that he was seeing them uncovered for the first time). At the end of slender but sinewy arms curled a pair of hands that had thickened to resemble paws -- but a thumb clenched against each, although those thumbs were tipped with vicious, curving claws even blacker than her pelt. If anything her build was even more pleasing to the eye than it had been before her metamorphosis, for the fur limned her fine muscles and illuminated their every curve and tiny pulsing movement in the flickering candlelight and the pale light of the white moon. Below the knees her feet resembled paws even more than her hands, clawed toes clutching the ancient stones of the grand old room's floor. Denisius supposed if the urge struck her she might move on all fours as swiftly as on two feet -- perhaps even more swiftly. From the base of her spine a tail had sprouted, lush and full and darting from side to side erratically.

Only her face, the face of the wolf framed with what was now a wild fringe of trailing black fur so lush one might properly call it a mane, pointed lupine ears twitching anxiously through its thickness, seemed purely inhuman. Even so, somehow, the shadow of a woman's face could be seen. This was a wolf that could smile, or scowl, or narrow its eyes in rage or clench them in laughter. And, in spite of the amber wolf hues that had consumed the hazel irises of her eyes, that woman's face was one Denisius knew well. That fleeting shadow was what let him find his voice and speak to this creature, which shook and darted its eyes from one man to the next less like the most fearsome predator a human might see and more like a panic-stricken rabbit in a snare.

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