Grey examined the clearing tentatively. She could smell the uneasiness in the air when the time went by and Shepherd still wasn’t there. It was unheard of for members of the Lycan Council to just not show up. Occasionally, there were betas who tried to skip out, pretend that they weren’t part of this world, but they were always reminded of how very real it all was and how little they had a choice in attending. Young Lycans didn’t attend the Summits until they were 15, when they were considered adults and therefore capable of understanding their roles and the roles of the betas who served them.
But Lycan Council members? If one of them didn’t attend, something serious had happened.
Shepherd himself had always been a bit of a wild card. Charismatic, but with a quick and unpredictable temper. He had a past of defying Council rulings—biting Teddy for one, as it had been forbidden to bite children—and so if Grey had to pick one of the Councilmembers to go off script, it was him. Still, he’d never been absent.
He’d always unsettled Grey, though she could never say what it was about him that made her uncomfortable. Maybe she just resented him for what he had done to Teddy? Or maybe it was the way he always looked at her with those piercing golden eyes, as if he were seeing something in her that she couldn’t.
Grey glanced at her mother, noticing the tight-lipped look on her face. She seemed even more uptight than usual, and she couldn’t tell if it was because of the fight they’d had that morning or because of something else, but she couldn’t ask with so many others around.
The good thing was that her father was here. He smiled at her from across the clearing, where he stood with the rest of the Lycan Council. Grey immediately felt a sense of relief—if he was smiling, it couldn’t be too bad, right?
He exchanged a few more words with the others and then made his way to the center of the clearing, holding up his hand to silence any chatter that may have been going on. He needn’t have bothered; nobody was speaking, far too concerned with what had caused Shepherd’s rather noticeable absence.
“Good evening, brothers and sisters,” he began. “And welcome to the August Moon Summit.”
There was a slight murmuring of greetings from the assembled packs. Some were more bitter than others—mostly the younger betas who found it repulsive that they were being called brothers and sisters when they were treated more like servants by some of their alphas. Grey had never understood the mentality of the older Lycans. What made them so superior? She didn’t think she was any better than anybody else by virtue of her birth and often resented it, in fact. She couldn’t even decide who she ultimately married; how was that fair at all?
Unbidden, she found herself thinking of Malach. What if this last hurrah turned out to be something more? What if she liked him more than whoever it was that her mother picked for her? What would happen if she chose him instead? Werewolves had been known to fall for ordinary people, but it was never long before it got complicated. Leading a double life was difficult under the best of circumstances, and the rules regarding relations outside of the pack were extremely strict. Ordinary people couldn’t know anything about werewolves because there was too much of a chance that they could tell a Hunter—a human that found out about and dedicated their lives to the eradication of the supernatural—or even another supernatural clan.
Savannah itself had been a hotbed of supernatural species tensions, so much so that they had been at war for centuries until sometime in the late 1920s a group of supernatural leaders got together and settled on an agreement: werewolves controlled the north, vampires controlled the south, witches controlled the east, and the fey controlled the west. The system had worked out fairly well since then, leading to a decrease in inter-species violence, but there were still a lot of prejudices and grudges that had yet to die despite the divvying up of the city and everyone had to be careful where they went and the kinds of things they did while there.
The balance was very delicate, Grey knew, and so each species tended to stick within their own for everything from friendships to romances. But Lycans were a dying breed and if Grey didn’t marry a fellow Lycan and produce a suitable heir, she knew it would be no small matter, not least because there was already a big stigma on her family due to the divorce of her parents.
Traditionally speaking, wolves (and werewolves) mated for life. Divorce was almost unheard of and her father had had to use a very obscure rule for it to stick, even with his position of power on the Council. It had been a grave insult to Lupe especially, as she had done nothing wrong to merit the divorce. But Roman Fiero had insisted: if there was no love, there was no point in continuing the farce for tradition’s sake. He’d done his duty, he insisted, and the two of them had had a suitable heir.
He was where Grey had gotten her desire for true love. He’d gone to very huge lengths just to be able to live his own life and she admired him for it—but she was in a very different position. Her family’s reputation had suffered greatly and though she didn’t care too much about how others perceived her, she knew it very much affected her mother and as much as Grey and Lupe fought, she had no desire to hurt her mother further. Lupe had done everything to ensure that Grey had a comfortable and mostly happy life: enrolled her in all the best schools, allowed her to experiment with any club or hobby she cared about, even gave her several years to just be a normal girl. She’d never pushed Grey on the subject of marriage—until that morning, at least—and Grey knew she owed it to her to at least give this guy a try. Whoever he was.
“As you can tell,” her father continued, “We are missing one of our esteemed councilmembers, Shepherd Collins. Will the Shepherd Pack please come forward?”
Grey watched as Teddy and his pack stepped up to the central clearing in front of her father. They held their backs straight and their eyes forward, not daring to speak. She hated the submissiveness of their gazes, the way they held themselves like mindless soldiers rather than human beings (and yes, werewolves were still human beings even if they occasionally turned into animals). She much preferred seeing Teddy in his element, laughing and gesturing wildly with his hands, allowing Julian to shape his otherwise perfect coif of golden hair into a mohawk on top of his head because they were bored and had nothing better to do, Grey’s legs draped across his lap comfortably. That was the pack that Grey wanted to belong to; not this stiff group of old dogs that had yet to realize they weren’t at war anymore. Hadn’t they realized that they had entire lives they could be living instead of worrying about what this witch or that fairy was doing in their respective parts of town? Of course, the pack she wanted to be a part of was as much of a moot point as who she married; female Lycans joined their husbands’ packs automatically and in fact weren’t part of any pack at all officially until the mating ritual was complete.
“If any of you has some idea of where your alpha is, inform us immediately,” her father commanded—a command she knew none of them could possibly disobey. In addition to having stronger senses, Lycans also had impeccable control over the minds and bodies of the betas. This control was stronger in those betas which had been bitten by the alpha, but with practice any Lycan could forcefully command any beta to do his (or her) bidding.
The three exchanged glances, comparing mental notes. Packs had strong bonds; the longer they were together, the more connected they became. Although this bond didn’t necessarily allow them to speak in each other’s mind, it did allow them to exchange things—understandings, impressions, images—nonverbally. Stronger packs were also able to tell when any one of their members were in grave danger and they couldn’t outright lie to one another, being able to always tell when a packmate was lying. Most packs were formed by a common alpha having bitten all of them, but it wasn’t exactly unheard of for a pack to form from three or more unrelated werewolves coming together and making a blood pact of their own. Those were often the strongest ones, too, because it was a pact that was chosen rather than forced and there was a lot to be said of the power of choice. It had been ages since Grey had seen a pack like that, though. For good reason, the Lycan Council feared them and went to great pains to try and stop them before they happened.
In any case, the Shepherd Pack was perfectly average, if a bit small, and their nonverbal communication didn’t last too long.
Once they’d finished the brief exchange, Teddy—by virtue of being the one who had been turned first despite Ulfric being slightly older—stepped forward. “We don’t know anything, Alpha Prime. If this is a planned absence, it’s one none of us has been apprised of.”
“Very well. Dismissed,” her father said and Teddy’s pack stepped back into their previous place. “We have no choice but to treat this as an involuntary absence until evidence to the contrary has been received. Investigations into Shepherd’s whereabouts will begin immediately following this summit, to be carried out by his own pack. As his betas, you are most likely to find him and I cannot stress how important it is that you do. Failure will not be tolerated. Theodore, you will be acting alpha until Shepherd is found.”
Roman waited for any objections to the ruling, then folded his hands benevolently in front of him. “This brings us around to our other piece of news. Grey, darling, step forward.”
Grey felt her heart plummet into her shoes. This is it, she thought. I’m about to meet my future husband. Still, she had to move. She allowed her feet to carry her to her father’s side.
“This announcement would have gone over much better had certain other events not happened,” he said, glancing at the Shepherd Pack as if this were some plan of theirs to make his announcement fall flat. “But as you are now nineteen years of age, we have chosen a mate for you.”
Grey sucked in a breath.
“We wish to guarantee the strongest match for you, and as such, we chose someone who is strong, charismatic, and loyal. Unfortunately, this person is the very man we are missing tonight: Shepherd Collins.”
The sound of a waterfall seemed to fill Grey’s head. Him? Why him? she thought. After all this time, she’d never imagined that she would have to mate and spend the rest of her life with the werewolf who had stolen Teddy’s life from him, who had made her feel uncomfortable her whole life. Was that what his look had always been? Had he already known?
The questions and fears about what this could mean for her future crowded her thoughts and she worried that her legs would turn to rubber beneath her, but her father pulled her into a hug as polite applause filled the clearing. She allowed him to take her weight.
“Be strong,” her father whispered. “But remember one thing: your heart is your weapon, and it is you who must ultimately decide how to wield it.”
Grey didn’t really know what that meant; why had he and her mother chosen this for her if she could say no? Why hadn’t he fought for her if he didn’t agree with it?
But she couldn’t ask all that now; couldn’t ask anything now. She just had to be strong—strong for herself, strong for her mother—and pretend that this wasn’t the worst thing to happen to her in her young life.