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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:03

I admit that it was a quick shower for more than one reason, just in case Rafael did come out and want to talk. The second round of conditioner that Jean-Claude had started making me let set in was irritating, but I admitted that my hair looked and felt better since I'd been doing it. I hate when the prissy stuff works so well. It makes me suspect that there's more practical use to all the pampering than I ever wanted to admit.

I was finally clean and dry and had put in the five, yes five, leave-in products that Jean-Claude had given me to use. I still wasn't as good as he was at working it through, but it was a start.

In the silence Rafael made a sharp sound, as if moving had hurt.

I couldn't stand it. "Rafael, it's Anita."

"I know your scent," he said, in a voice that was almost normal, and didn't match the sound he'd just made.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"You can't fight my battles for me, Anita."

I was outside the stall he was in, watching the water splash underneath the curtain. "I know that; the rats don't allow their king to substitute the way some of the other animal groups allow."

"We all appreciate that you study each of our cultures," he said.

I leaned my shoulder against the cool tile. "Is there anything I can do to help you right now? Just say it, tell me, and I'll leave you to it."

He was quiet for so long that I started to move away. He called out, "Pull back the curtain if you want to see the wound, but there is nothing you can do to save me from my own weakness."

I didn't know what he meant by that, but I set down the conditioners and shampoo and pushed the curtain open. He was kneeling on the floor of the shower, his hands spread on the wall as if to hold himself upright. His shoulders still looked strong, but they were bowed, the top of his short, black hair resting against the tile. The back of his body was the dark, smooth, muscled line that I remembered, except for the wound on his back. I stepped into the stall and knelt behind him.

"It's a puncture wound, but it's not like any blade I've ever seen."

"Nor I," he said in a voice that held the same edge of pain I'd heard in the small noises he'd been making.

"I thought you weren't allowed weapons when you were fighting for kingship of the wererats."

"So he cheated," I said.

"He's dead, then," I said.

He ran one hand through his short hair, slicking it back, as he turned to look at me. His face was dark with high, square cheekbones. He was a handsome man. His Mexican heritage was printed on his face the same way some Irish bloodlines are, though Rafael was as many generations away from Mexico as most Irish Americans were from Ireland. Sometimes DNA just survives to remind us who we are.

"Cheating means his execution was a given, yes."

"What did he hope to gain?" I asked.

I looked into solid brown eyes, so dark they were almost as black as his eyes in rat form. I touched his wet hair. "He can't be king if he's dead," I said.

"I suspect he was a sacrifice for someone else who would have stepped forward if I had died there."

"I thought you couldn't be king unless you killed the old one first?"

"Normally, no, but there are provisions in our laws for kings who die in battles that are outside leadership challenges." His shoulders convulsed, his head pressing against the tile again.

"Why haven't you changed form and tried to heal?"

I reached out to the wound in his midback but didn't touch it. "It's as big as the palm of my hand still."

"I do not believe the wound size has changed."

"It should have, even if it was silver. You're too powerful to still be this hurt."

"I was too powerful, but even kings age and grow weak eventually, Anita. It is usually age, not lack of fighting skill, that slows us enough to lose the crown. The king I defeated was white of hair in human and rat form."

"You aren't old, Rafael." There was something wrong with the wound. It didn't look right.

"Older than I look," he said.

"What made this wound?"

"It was a four-sided blade, very wide as it went toward the hilt."

"Sounds more like a spearhead of some kind than a knife," I said.

I got up and pushed the curtain back further so I could get more light directly on the wound. "He shoved it in and twisted it, or something."

"He broke off part of it into the wound. Their healer had to fish it out after I left the challenge circle."

I thought of having something that big shoved into my back, and then the wrenching strength used to twist and break off the blade inside the wound. The flesh inside the wound looked . . . burned. "You should be in that nice hospital area the wererats staff for the local lycanthropes."

"I cannot afford to let the others know I am weakening, Anita. I killed the one who did this, but if people realize I can no longer heal better than this, then there will be another challenger next week, or next month, but they will come like vultures to a wounded animal."

"So you came here so none of your people would figure it out."

"You and your kings are my allies. My being weak is a bad thing for all of us, so you will keep my secret until we can find a new king who would not be a disaster in my place."

"If you mean set you up to be killed by someone you want to be the next rat king, you can just forget that. I'm not a big believer in suicide."

He grabbed my wrist. "Anita, don't you understand? I am the king not of just the local rodere, but all the rats across the country. The group here, alone, is large enough to challenge almost every other shapeshifter group."

I looked into his almost desperate eyes and said the only thing I could. "I understand that, but I won't let you sacrifice yourse

lf until we've exhausted all the other options, Rafael."

He knelt straighter, rotating his back so he could look at me more straight on, and the movement made him double up in pain, almost taking us both to the floor with his grip on my wrist.

"I need more light. There's something wrong with this wound."

"Do what you must," he said. He'd let go of my wrist and was just on all fours, letting his head hang down like an exhausted horse. I got his arm across my shoulders, my other arm around his body, being careful not to touch the wound, and helped him to his feet. He usually stood so straight, so strong, but now he stumbled and I held most of his weight for a second; then he fought his feet back under him and helped me get him out into the better lighting of the main shower area.

I debated on whether to make him walk to the benches in the locker room or just let him slide to the floor here, because standing wasn't happening unaided, and he wanted as few people as possible to see how badly he was hurt. I finally put him near a wall so he could lean on it, but he was back on his knees where he started. He was kneeling in a bright pool of light, though, and that was what I needed.

I could see the initial thrust of the weapon in the outer part of the wound. The edges had started to heal, but it was silver and there was only so much even Rafael's body could do. That wasn't the part of the wound that looked odd to me. It was deeper into the meat of his body.

"As deep as this is, it should still be bleeding, but it's not."

"Have I healed it, then?"

"The outer edges of the wound, yes, I think so, or your body is trying to, but deeper in the wound track it's like the flesh is burned. I'm not even sure that's exactly the right word, but burned is the best I have to describe what I'm seeing. We need a doctor."

"No." His voice was very final as he said it. I'd been in enough meetings with the leaders of the lycanthrope community to know that when Rafael said no like that, it was a decision, not a suggestion.

"Fine, but can I bring Micah down here to give a second opinion?"

He leaned his forehead against the tile as if just staying on his knees was effort. "Yes, I trust him as I trust you."

I had to go to the locker room to get my phone and call Micah.

His greeting was, "Nathaniel says dinner is getting cold."