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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:00:57

She was even paler, as if what little color she had had drained away. If it had been someone else I might have asked if she was going to faint, but she was a guard, she was a lion, and she was a warrior. She wouldn't admit it until she fell down. Since I was almost as stubborn, I let it go.

"Kelly." I said it softly, not angry with her, because somehow I was pretty sure whatever had gone wrong was at least partially my fault. I'd killed the Mother of All Darkness, before she could kill . . . everyone, and by vampire or lycanthrope rules that meant that what was hers was now ours, including her bodyguards, her spies, her assassins, her executioners: the Harlequin. They'd been the closest thing the vampires had to policemen. If a vampire got out of hand and was attracting too much unwanted attention, the Harlequin could be dispatched and the problem would be solved, and it would stay solved, because true death is the ultimate solution.

"How bad are you hurt?" Nicky asked.

"Not bad," she said, and I didn't have to be able to "smell" the change in her body chemistry to know she was lying. She wouldn't look at either of us, and she was fighting not to hunch from the pain, or maybe some muscle, or ligament, was trying to pull her off center. Lycanthropes could heal almost anything, but they could also heal crookedly without medical attention.

"One of you tell me what's going on," I said.

"You gave us two lions from the Harlequin."

"Giacomo and Magda, I remember, what about them?"

"Giacomo and I came to an understanding early."

"You beat the crap out of him," I said.

"Did you know that Giacomo didn't start the fight?" Meng Die said.

I looked at Nicky and raised an eyebrow.

He shrugged as much as he could with all the muscle, and said, "She's right on one thing, Anita. These guys are supposed to be the best fighters on the planet. We're lions, we fight. We cooperate from a position of strength; if the pride is safer with you on our side, then you can stay, but if you're more danger than help, you don't get to stay."

"I know you killed two of the male werelions when you took over the local pride."

"Did you approve their deaths, Anita?" Meng Die asked.

I just looked at Nicky and Kelly, who was trying not to sway in place.

"He asked your forgiveness, but not your permission, didn't he? And Nicky is your Bride, your tame lion; if he could go against your so-careful conscience, then what do you think the rest of the animals have been doing?"

"Don't call them animals," I said.

"Oh, that's right; you're progressive and so very American. You want to make the shapeshifters equal with the vampires."

"You said it, I'm American, and we like this whole equality thing."

"The great experiment," she said, and made it sound like an insult.

"Once I made it clear that if Giacomo ever tried to fight me again, I'd kill him, he settled in fine. But Magda is a lioness; male lions only fight them if attacked, or for some breach of pride law."

"She's the one hurting Kelly," I said.

I looked at Kelly's pale face, and knew here was another dangerous person I'd brought into our happy little family who was cutting up my people. Fuck. "Isn't Magda breaking pride law?" I asked.

"No," Kelly said in a strained voice, "she's within her rights to try to move up the dominance hierarchy. I'm the only lioness still standing in her way."

"She won the fight; I'm sorry, Kelly, but she did, right?"

Kelly shook her head, stopped in midmovement, licked her lips, and said, "Not yet."

"It's only a fight to the death for Rex or Regina of the pride, and Kelly isn't my Regina."

"Technically, I'm your Regina even though I don't shift form?"

He nodded again. "The Regina is usually the mate of the Rex, or vice versa."

"Wait, I thought the lionesses didn't fight for dominance. If there's a fight, then the males take care of the heavy lifting in werelion society, just like they do in most weretiger clans."

"Modern werelions, yes," Nicky said.

"What does that mean, modern werelions?"

"It means that Magda isn't modern anything. She invoked a really old law among us. If Kelly were my lover, then she'd be safe from challenges, but she's a guard just like any of the men. She's earned her place in the pride and in Jean-Claude's guard, which makes her a warrior first and a girl second. I told Magda that if she killed Kelly I'd kill her, but short of keeping it from being a death match, there's nothing I can do."

"Well, I can," I said.

"No," Kelly almost yelled, "Anita, you can't intercede. If you protect me from her, then it means I'm not fighter enough to protect myself. I've fought too hard and too long to be a lioness who gets respect like a lion; I won't lose that. I'd rather die than lose that."

"Rosamond isn't a warrior and she's okay with her place in the pride," I said.

"Rosamond is my friend, and she'll help fight if someone attacks the pride, but they treat her like she's soft, like a girl. I don't want that."

"We are girls, Kelly," I said. I touched the hem of my short skirt. "It's not all bad." I smiled and tried to lighten the mood, but her eyes were anguished. That was the only word I had for it.

"But everyone respects you as if you were a guy, Anita. It's not fair that men get more respect, but in a world where how hard you can hit and how much damage you can do in a fight matters, men rule. I was doing good with being one of the boys and mating with some of them, and then Magda comes and goes all old-school on me."

"The fact that you've fought her to a draw is impressive," Meng Die said, and there was no mockery in the sentence, just truth.

"Three times," Nicky said.

"What?" Meng Die asked.

"They'd fought twice and if these are fresh wounds from Magda, then Kelly fought her to a draw three times."

Meng Die looked at Kelly and then gave a bow, from the waist, not like she was joking. "That is most impressive."

"Thanks, but we all know she's wearing me down. I get more hurt each time; eventually I'm going to lose." One lone tear trailed down her cheek.

"What happens if you lose?"

Nicky answered, "Magda moves up as top lioness."

"What does that gain her?" I asked.

"Since I've already turned her down for sex, nothing," Nicky said.

"You didn't mention that," I said.

He gave me a look. "If I want to sleep with one of the women, then I'll mention it."

"Damn it," Lita said, softly.

We all looked at her. "You have something to share with the rest of the class?" I asked.

She actually blushed; so she could be embarrassed, good to know. "I thought all your men came running to you if another woman propositioned them, but you didn't even know."

I looked at Nicky. "I take it that Lita offered."

"She wanted to fuck, yeah."

My face must have shown what I thought of his wording. "That was pretty much what she said, actually."

I looked at Lita. She almost squirmed and then fought it off. "What, I'm supposed to be all romantic and shit? I like big handsome men, and I like sleeping with the biggest, baddest man I can find."

"I'm bigger than Nicky, and I'm a wererat like you; why you going outside the rodere for lovers?" Dino asked.

"I don't have time for lovers, I just want fuck buddies," she said.

"Okay," Dino said, "question still stands. Why you looking outside the wererats for the biggest, baddest fuck buddies?"

Lita shook her head. "You're bigger, because you started out bigger, but Nicky's got the muscles, and that's what I like."

"So if I hit the weights more, I'd qualify as a fuck buddy?"

She looked at him then, really looked at him. He might not be her cup of tea, but he was another wererat and he had the trust of a lot of important people, including their king, Rafael.

but muscles won't make you as bad as Nicky."

Dino looked behind him at the other man. "I think I'm insulted."

Nicky grinned, and rolled his one eye. When I could see his whole face, the eye that wasn't there would try to roll along with the other eye. It was like muscle memory.

"Not by me," he said.

Dino turned back to Lita. "So you like the really bad boys?"

"If your lovers are the biggest and baddest, then you're safer," Kelly said.

"I can take care of myself," Lita said.

Kelly swallowed hard and said, "No you can't; neither can I. We can kill them, but if it's just fight after fight, size matters, upper body strength matters. I hate it, I fucking hate it, but Magda is teaching me all over again that I'm not that big, not even for a woman. She's got those long arms, and she's just getting in my guard, before I can get inside hers." She was starting to sway, ever so slightly.