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I’ve Come to Claim a Heart From Thee

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Valois for grace and perfect poise, it was said, Stuart for unmatched hunting prowess, Wulfenbach for robustness and unity of purpose -- and Heterodyne for the monster under the bed.

The wolf that trotted in at the side of Lady Agatha Heterodyne could have been bred straight out of Valois stock, so prettily put together was she. Such a delicate silver that she shone, moonlike, under the hundreds of candles hanging from the walls and ceiling of the grand ballroom, but for a sooty mask, legs like opera gloves. A delicate build and paws that trotted daintily almost succeeded in making her an asset instead of a shock.

Then again, Mechanicsburg being what it was, they'd all been braced for far worse than one of the gentler sex being soul-bonded to a war beast. This even seemed almost calculated, even though Tarvek knew -- not from first hand, but from many a recounting -- that there was, in the end, no forcing a bond. You could direct it, make sure only the appropriate sort would have access, but in the end the wolf chose. This wolf...

"Anevka?" he inquired. His sister chuckled pleasantly at some princeling's words and turned to him, looking outwardly polite, inwardly sarcastic.

"Yes, dear?"

Tarvek handed her a flute of champagne, eyes cutting toward the new entrance, hardly unremarked, smiled into his own flute so his lips would be obscured. "Is that her very own?"

Anevka, was the thing, had a soul for wolves. Had she been born to some lower house, or one with a passel of sisters to lose herself amongst, she would have not passed sixteen without being bonded. (And then, probably, been relegated to some forgettable country estate.) Things being as they were, their father had noticed the interest their Blitzengaard cousins' companions paid her, and immediately forbidden any unbonded wolf from putting toe onto the castle grounds.

Being bonded would ruin most of her marriage prospects, ruin her reputation. She'd accepted it easily enough. She still had a feel for them, somehow, that Tarvek could not for the life of him learn.

Meanwhile Tarvek himself had never gotten a second look. But that was neither here nor there.

"Quite," Anevka replied, chuckling airily, eyes sharp. "Look how the wolf's ears will turn, and a second later so will the girl. They're sharing senses."

Huh. Definitely bonded, then. That Lady Agatha had a wolf at her side was shocking, true, but her coming without any visible reminder of her savage origins would have seemed just too suspicious, and he wouldn't have put it past the Heterodynes to set up some kind of farce or trap, wild beasts that they all were, wolves and men alike.

He could see already that some of his stupider relatives were relaxing, watching the genteel wolf, her demure poise, as if that could tell them what the girl herself was like, as if the most gentle of wolves wasn't a predator to start with. Even the most overbred could still bring a man to the ground with his throat torn out.

But here she stood alone, with only the wolf and not even a family retainer to pretend that the terrible, damning empty circle around her wasn't a thing.

He understood nerves, he supposed, but slighting the Heterodynes seemed like not the best move, politically speaking. That damned barbarian-blooded family hardly needed more excuses to start another war.

"Time to introduce ourselves," he told his sister under his breath, and offered his arm for her to take.

The problem was that by the time they had navigated their way through the crowd, their delightful cousin Martellus had already reached her. Martellus, and his wolf Tybalt, who was a massively muscled beast, dark brown fur offset by a golden collar so wide and ornamented it was almost gaudy.

Tybalt's tail was wagging a mile a minute as he stood nose to nose with Lady Agatha's bitch-wolf. Martellus was hardly more circumspect -- the grin on his face was trying for genial, but the wall of a man that he was made the lady look almost small, and Tarvek could see nice solid curves on her -- the gown was trying for demure but there was no mistaking that callipygian build for mere padding, to one with a slightly more than passing interest in the art of wearing clothes. When he and Anevka came up to them he could tell the lady was almost as tall as he was, and for a young woman that was not a frail, precious size.

The impression came mostly from Lady Agatha's unsure, back-footed face.

Tarvek and Anevka hardly needed a wolf bond to understand each other. "Cousin Tweedle!" Anevka threw genially as they crossed the last few steps. "Stealing a march on all of us! You simply must introduce us, cousin."

Tarvek smiled, politeness and not the smirk that wanted to come out at the girl's face, the incredulous 'Tweedle?' he could tell she was thinking, at Martellus's brief but telling frown.

"Of course. Dear cousin."

Tarvek bowed over Agatha's hand, brushed a kiss carefully calculated against her knuckles -- not quite touching, but breathing out just enough to make it feel as if he had.

"Lady Agatha Jenkassister Heterodyne, Jenka Agathassister, my good-for-nothing cousin Prince Aaronev Tarvek Sturmvoraus, and his good for slightly more elder sister, Princess Anevka."

Martellus even managed a jocular smile, as if that had been an old in-joke. Tarvek smiled back, eyes crinkling, teeth only slightly unveiled. The girl mostly seemed confused still.

"You must call me Tarvek."

"It's... nice to meet you," she said, as if guessing. Dear lord. Who had educated the girl for court? They should probably be shot.

In the course of the following conversation -- ten or fifteen minutes of light chattering, Anevka looping her arm skillfully in Lady Agatha's arm to lead her around the ballroom, introduce her here and there -- Tarvek learned that nobody really had.

That she'd had a tutor for two weeks and she'd received advice from her guardians and that she had read books about court. That this time last month she was starting her first year of university in Beetleburg, a year early, and oh, she loved higher education so, and she hadn't even had a wolf yet.

Her free hand stayed on the pretty Jenka's head all the time she talked. At no point did she mention her elder brother, the late Lord Lucifer Barry Heterodyne, who'd been bonded, it was said, since he turned a scandalously early twelve, and two months ago was (probably not) devoured by his own wolf.

--

There were to be festivities all week; luncheons in the gardens admiring the first flowers of Spring, and dinners, and fox hunts, and the theater on the fifth day, which Tarvek was quite looking forward to.

By the third day Lady Agatha was starting to go straight to Anevka, still a little nervous, wide-eyed, but pleased too. Anevka was even managing to curb her tongue, so as to not shock her. Tarvek mostly bothered to hang out with the two of them whenever he could see Martellus attempting his own approach. Tarvek and Anevka had their little issues but one thing they always agreed on was thwarting the Blitzengaards whenever they could. Out of all the Houses who may claim a Valois heritage they were the only ones who dared to suggest that the Sturmvorauses may have misread some finer points of their common genealogy.

It wasn't like there was a throne for Tarvek to sit his princely tush on at the moment, the lands of the Valois alliance fallen back into separate, often squabbling countries, but that didn't mean he was going to let Tweedle depose him. Or get away with anything that made him feel he could.

"Himself's been chasing after the she-wolf quite a lot, when she's not around you two," Violetta told him with her lips almost unmoving as she held a platter of finger foods for Tarvek to pick from. The air of disgust on her face might have meant Tarvek himself, but for the side-look she threw, pointed, toward a towering redhead striding onto the paths, looking much too self-satisfied.

"I thought he might," Tarvek muttered back, making sure to pick a second toast extra-slowly so they'd have time to talk. "Get in his way a bit, if you can, hm?"

"You didn't need to ask me." A brief pause a flicker of doubt. "...She seems... nice."

Yes, Tarvek found that fact saddening too. He waved Violetta off with a flicker of his hand; she curtseyed, discreetly glowering at him, and went to tour the rest of the gardens.

It wasn't a half-hour later that Violetta accidentally-on-purpose upended a tray of wine glasses on Martellus' wolf and the man had to take his whining beast away to get washed before the fur stained. Lady Agatha still stood by the fountain with a hand up toward her throat, her wolf's head low and her silvery fur halfway up. Tarvek passed by with a polite nod and went to greet some of his father's old enemies.

At any rate it wasn't too hard to guess why Martellus was pressing his suit so ardently. Here was an unmarried lady of equal, if terrifyingly wild breeding, whose dowry came in the form of an independent duchy full of wolves and soldiers, and ever since they were children dear Tweedle had never cared much about elegance or refinement or discretion when he could bring his superior force to bear to smash right through anything that annoyed him. (Such as younger, supposedly snot-nosed cousins. Hmph.)

He took note of which cousins and allies of his had been discreetly surrounding the fountain and keeping their backs pointedly turned to the scene, and went back to small talk and double talk. Hopefully this would be the best Tweedle would manage this week, and whatever happened later on would be on the girl's guardian's head.

--

"Tarvek, this is bad!"

Tarvek flinched, scowled. Someone was pulling on his sleeve just as Euphrosynia was starting the best aria of the whole opera. When he turned to glare he found Violetta crouching on the ground in her dark servant dress so no one would see her from outside the Prince's box.

"Are you seriously interrupting now?" he hissed back, tugging his sleeve free. He knew Violetta hated him -- it was just a serviceable kind of hate where she couldn't help but feel grateful he at least was willing to admit she was family, if one whose grandfather had been born on the wrong side of the sheets. Sometimes, though, she was just so petty--

"The lady Agatha--"

Oh, good lord.

"Tweedle made a play, and she turned him down hard!"

Oh, so she had a spine! Well, she was a Heterodyne, he supposed. "Well, good for her, now may I listen to the damn--"

"--And now uncle Discipulus just came back into town with a vial--"

"--Yes, very mysterious, I don't care--"

"It's heat scent!"

She was holding onto his sleeve with both hands again. Tarvek wondered, briefly, why she seemed to like some random lady she'd never met so much, and then realized it was the wolf, of course.

No one would let the girl child of a bastard line monopolize a soldier's, a knight's beast, even less than they would allow an accidental bonding to a lady of noble lineage to be used as a symbol of her glorious ancestry...

... Agatha had been bonded all of one month. Who knew if she would be able to read the signs of coming heat from her own wolf -- but that didn't even matter, so long as people could believe that she didn't. Hell, so long as they believed that the union had been consummated it didn't even need to actually happen, but he wasn't sure whether Martellus would want to make sure--

If Tweedle managed to maneuver her into a marriage and bring the House of Heterodyne under his banner, Tarvek didn't give it six months before he made a play for the long-vacant throne of the Storm King.

Tarvek realized his jaw was clenched and consciously relaxed his face, smiled urbanely at his father. He made apologies the man barely noticed, too busy staring at the diva.

Curse the idiots who had allowed the girl to rush into Court so utterly defenseless. Curse Duke Faustus Heterodyne and his total disdain for society, for politics. What had he told his grand-niece? "Oh, it's a party, it'll be fun!"?

Outside on the palace grounds people still ambled on the paths. It was dark at this hour even with the brasiers at regular intervals but he doubted he would find them on a well traveled path.

"Do you know where--"

"The old kennels," Violetta said, trotting on his heels with her skirts in hand.

"Oh, of course. The old kennels. What good reason would I have to happen to go there--"

There really wasn't any. Alright then. He would observe the situation from afar and then figure out a plan -- maybe send some grooms to clean up the place, it was such a disgrace. Martellus wouldn't buy it for one minute, but it was a passable excuse for the rest of them... but the grooms would gossip, and it might be hard to control the shape it took...

Tarvek and Violetta saw the watching wolf in the bushes at the same time. A big black one, very handsome.

No doubt his or her human would be waiting nearby, would already know an intruder was coming near.

"Tag," Tarvek whispered, shoving Violetta to the middle of the path. He dodged low under the little flowering trees as she stumbled, his waistcoat digging into his stomach hard enough to cut his breath, then slipped through the low window to the cellars that never locked right. It was less easy a fit than when he'd been ten or even eighteen but he was gratified to notice that none of his muscles really protested the sudden exercise, the twist and the drop. A soft, sheltered princeling, was he?

Guards. Dear lord. Probably not one or two either, but a whole little pack. How Martellus expected to get away with it in someone else's very own castle...

... Probably by shoving the blame at said hosts somehow. It was what Tarvek would do, at any rate. Possibly blaming the Sturmvorauses' odd lack of wolf-bond, oh, a clear mark of disdain, a damning absence of understanding...

He climbed over an oil barrel, hunkered down to pass under a few windows whose rose bushes didn't cover them sufficiently, climbed a servant's staircase to get to the first story of the building adjacent to the courtyard and its empty (if still magnificent) kennels.

Wolves patrolled the edge of the courtyard, nervous and... Ah, yes, all bitch wolves, from what he could see from there, Martellus hadn't been stupid enough to introduce any other dog wolves for the Lady Agatha's honor to be entirely befouled by, even merely in people's imagination. And Martellus and Agatha would therefore be...

A small commotion redirected the wolves' attention toward the gardens -- good, dependable Violetta. Tarvek slipped out of the window and onto the kennel roof, and found a skylight to let himself in through.

Once he was down on the floor he spent a couple of minutes batting dust off himself and rearranging his hair, and regaining his breath. His sleeves were crooked. It was a lot of hard work, mysteriously appearing in random places.

It'd be useless to pretend unsettlingly casual when both wolves could hear the pulse and smell the sweat off him, anyway. This really was quite annoying.

He heard the snarl two corridors away, and suddenly remembered he was made of fairly soft flesh.

"--nhand me this instant!"

Oh, so she could sound mad. Interesting. He walked a bit faster, on his toes so his hard heels wouldn't warn them too early for a good entrance, studiously ignored the daggers hidden in his boots.

"--be stupid, girl, what other choices do you have? What other real choices? As if you'll find anyone else who doesn't want all your wolves neutered, or worse--"

There was an odd choking sound. When Tarvek turned the corridor, he was in time to see his massive wall of a cousin slowly curling in on himself, face as red as his hair.

The shy, innocent Lady Agatha swung the twenty-inches-tall marble statuette back -- the weight of the stone on the rebound pulled her shoulders back -- and swung it right back toward Martellus' jaw.

It was a marble wolf, Tarvek recognized it-- perfectly chiselled, wearing a gilded crown, and also probably something like fifty pounds all told. The way she wielded it showed no hesitation.

Tybalt finally flinched, finally snarled; and Agatha's Jenka snapped her sooty maw closed like a steel trap over his tender jowls; when he tried to tear free, yelping, blood flew.

Agatha whirled on Tarvek, statuette heaved up to her shoulder for ease of smashing. Tarvek hurried to raise his hands in surrender.

"I -- oh."

"Are you with him," Agatha growled, low like a wolf, eyes flashing rage and bloodlust, and Tarvek was suddenly very aware of how easily she might decide to crush his skull in. "I should have known--"

"I assure you the only thing I'm with Tweedle on is in how remarkable I find you," Tarvek shot out, hands still up. "And even there, I fear he did not find you half remarkable enough."

Neither had Tarvek. Huh.

"Damned... wild girl," Martellus groaned from the floor, and Tarvek frowned to find him already trying to get back up. Agatha's eyes narrowed, knifelike. Jenka was still harassing Tybalt into keeping away, drawing blood with each pass; the big lump too confused by the hints of heat scent even Tarvek could smell coming from that puddle by the broken pitcher, the crushed vial -- oh, clever, she'd attempted to drown it out -- Tybalt still thought he was enduring the nervous nips of a female not yet ready to be bred.

Jenka was visibly going for the eyes. Though a tendon would do in a pinch.

Tarvek couldn't feel the pack sense, but he knew when Martellus drew his wolf back, called the rest of his men in, from the way Agatha and Jenka went tense, moved closer, back to back. Agatha still wasn't turning her back on him either, which made him wince.

"Blitzengaard," Tarvek snapped, drawing to him the tone of command he so rarely used. "You were found out. Drop it."

"To hell with you, Sturmvoraus," Martellus growled back, eyes on Agatha and not possessively disdainful anymore; he watched her like one watches an opponent on the field of combat, now. "It won't take much of an adjustment to the story -- what kind of an oblivious, wolf-rejected fool wanders into a breeding? Very sad. So worthless. And you, Agatha, if you're counting on that fop--"

Six -- seven men, just as many wolves, massing at the ends of the corridor. Some of them hesitated, noticing Tarvek, recognizing him -- oh, and wasn't that cousin Leopold; Tarvek arched an eyebrow at him sharply, even as his heart kicked up. He'd always vaguely known the other branches of his family wouldn't mind if an assassination attempt succeeded -- had even suspected they had caused some of them. But for Martellus to mention offing him so casually, like a step to walk over and stop thinking about...

"I'm counting on me," Agatha said, chin up, hair fallen out of her chignon in golden-red tangles, a hand twisting her skirts up over her knee with careless practicality.

The wolves took a step closer, heads low. Tarvek moved closer to Jenka's flank and tried to remember which of the stalls had a skylight or a cellar or a servant's tunnel to escape through--

"... And also counting on them," Agatha added, and grinned, wide and a little mean.

Snarling, a Heterodyne pack bowled through the ranks.

"Where the hell are they coming from?!" Martellus yelled, kicking at a dark beast with huge, scything dewclaws as another so lanky it looked like a skeleton in mangy fur jumped for his shoulders.

Yes, the castle grounds were closed, weren't they, and the lookouts Martellus must have left should have -- Tarvek thought he heard laughter, but there was nothing but yelling and wolf snarls and yelps in the corridors.

None of the Heterodyne wolves, he noticed amidst the chaos, had humans with them.

In the melee he saw a gap, remembered a coal chute -- he caught Agatha's elbow, and promptly had to swing back at the waist to avoid the statuette. Two huge males jumped at him -- only to be checked by another, brown one, the one with the ridiculous dewclaws. Tarvek lifted his hands, again, as the brown wolf rebounded off the first two, bumped against his legs, and almost sent him into the wall.

"Sorry -- we have to go -- follow me!"

Agatha stared at him, and oh, her eyes were sharp like the cut of an emerald.

"Milady--"

She looked down at the other wolves surrounding the two of them -- silvery Jenka, and a tall blue-black one with the silkiest fur Tarvek had ever seen, and a shaggy blond male with a single dewclaw that was even bigger than the ones on the brown.

Laughter-that-wasn't, again. A flash of memory -- Tarvek running across disused cellars, squirming through windows with all his fancy, shiny buttons and his floating ponytail, in such a hurry to find-stop-save. Tarvek from the back.

"Let's go," Agatha decided. Mind whirling, Tarvek made sure to keep his mouth closed as he pointed the way.

He tried to go first -- someone ought -- but Agatha elbowed him in the ribs and then the blond wolf herded him against the wall and the brown one lolled his tongue and savaged a man's arm who was reaching for them, and Agatha wasn't going to know where the chute was--

Left, right, left out into the little courtyard, right there on the left, someone answered -- not even in words, but in a series of flashes lifted straight out of his own memories, out of someone else's memories that were closer to waist level -- smells of dry dust and coal, of rats in the corners. He tripped over a paved stone, caught himself on the black wolf, who growled grumpily but declined to take his hand off at the wrist.

There were two last wolfbrothers out there, to keep watch (the roofs were too high and the overhangs too pronounced to climb) but the Heterodyne wolves surrounding Tarvek and Agatha grinned at them all too-long fangs out and the well-bred, strong Valois wolves leaned their ears and bodies back and made not a move to get in their way. And it was only a few steps to the -- oh, no.

"Your skirts," Tarvek hissed.

Agatha's eyes narrowed for all of a half-second and then the blond wolf jumped ahead, wriggled through the coal chute, yipping like an excited dog.

Agatha followed him in head first.

Tarvek was treated to the sight of a blooming nest of petticoats and a shocking amount of shapely, stockinged, kicking legs, before gravity did the trick and she disappeared -- followed by a startled yip. Then the brown one rammed Tarvek in the back of the knees, sending him crashing on hands and knees near the opening. Tarvek hurried to follow her, turning so he'd at least be sliding along legs first.

The chute was narrow and rough; he heard silk and velvet tear. Argh. Well, there wouldn't have been any salvaging his outfit after the coating of black dust he was receiving, anyway -- he landed legs spread wide to avoid stepping onto Agatha, and accidentally stepped onto the blond wolf's rump instead, and they all ended up rolling onto the floor.

Then of course another three wolves landed on Tarvek's back in quick succession.

Jesus Christ. He would never be anything that could be construed as charitable ever again. He pushed himself up on his hands -- they smarted -- and wondered if he'd still catch the last act if he hurried back to his room and changed really fast. Hah, as if.

"Off, you idiot!" he snapped, shoving the brown wolf off him. "Agatha, help me move the -- yes, good." She was already moving on his word to some piece of forgotten equipment, he wasn't sure, with buckets and chains, maybe to redistribute the coal from the pile (they were under the nurseries, where they wanted warmth the most, but it wasn't like Valois-bonded men would tolerate their dog-wolves sleeping rough either.) Together, they managed to shove it under the coal chute, for eventual pursuers to tangle into and hopefully maim themselves a little; he shouldered open the stooped little wooden door at the other end of the room, hearing Martellus snarling outside in the courtyard.

"I'll tell the rest of the pack to harass them a while longer and then disperse," Agatha said tersely as she followed. "Dimo--"

A mangy, low-slung, stocky beast with eyes of the palest gold looked up, snorted. Told and told, boss. Another flash, then -- definitely from a wolf -- of a tide of men and beasts rushing down the narrow corridors -- getting stuck. One wolf facing them, blocking the way.

"Not alone -- Jenka, go with him." Jenka was small, good at fighting in cramped spaces. (It was why Agatha had chosen her to go out into a crowd with.)

As sleek Jenka and stocky Dimo peeled off the group, Tarvek choked, almost tripped again, kept running. It was really dark down here, only a few slices of light from narrow, high windows. "I thought you'd -- what do you even mean, choosing her, she's your--"

Oh god. They said the people of Mechanicsburg were more wolf than man inside, that the wolves were too much man as well. That they saw no difference, in matters of pack, of bonding, between one or the other...

"They all are," Agatha said absently, twisting her hair to try to control the flowing mass. Tarvek, watching her small, rough hands, belatedly offered the velvet strip he used on his own hair. "Oh, thank you. I mean, the four of them especially -- not Jorgi, I don't know what he's doing here."

The brown wolf lolled his tongue again, tail beating almost sarcastically. Tarvek had the very strong feeling the wolf was laughing at him.

Alright. Lady Agatha Heterodyne was bonded to four wolves at once.

This wasn't even the weirdest thing he had ever heard about a Mechanicsburger. (The thing was that he'd assumed most of the rest were lies.)

"I would have assumed you'd chosen Jenka because she's the most, ah, presentable," Tarvek said as urbanely as he could, fighting for his sophisticated, unshakeable polish tooth and nail.

"I chose her for both," Agatha said, as if that was obvious. "I mean, Maxim is very pretty too," she added, patting the black wolf's skull, "but he's a goof and would have gotten into a fight with someone's poodle, probably."

Presumably-Maxim yipped an offended protest and pranced ahead, muzzle up in disdain, ears flat. His eyeteeth were so long they poked out of his closed lips.

With the pursuit falling behind, remembering the rhythm of doorways and corners in the underground grew simpler. It was dark almost to the point of blindness when they got away from the paths where servants had bothered to put lights, but Tarvek felt the walls coming with a mix of strained senses and childhood memories. (Maybe an edge of something else, too. Something he didn't want to think about.) He moved to the front of the pack to lead.

"Do you know what route the wolves took to get onto the castle ground?" he asked Agatha over his shoulder. He believed -- he knew for no reason he wanted to acknowledge -- that they had followed him from the gardens, but first they'd have needed to get there. "It might be easier to get you back out the same way--"

"I think they just stormed the little gate," Agatha replied -- there was a pause, and then she said, "Yes, they stormed the little gate. Also spooked some horses? Um. Sorry about that."

And here was the awkward country girl once again. It was a bit strange to see a flash of her, after how terrifyingly determined she had been tonight. Not bad, just jarring. She was... both of these. Both the innocent, confused teenage student, ignoring of many things but excited to learn more, and the...

The Lady Heterodyne.

"You've never had any intention of letting your husband reign," Tarvek mused, under his breath. She had two wolves' ears to use, though, and she snorted.

"Well, of course not. How would I know he'd care enough? Or even understand enough? I was in Beetleburg for three years, you know. Mechanicsburg is different."

That was... certainly a point.

"I also have no intention of running away from Tweedle," she added acidly, and slowed down to a jog, and then a walk. Startled out of his rhythm, Tarvek almost misjudged a turn; his shoulder clipped the doorway. Ow. He stopped, turned to squint at her in the dark, barely saw the shape of her golden-red hair, the edge of her nose.

"What else do you think may be done? We cannot be having an open battle in my father's castle--"

"He was planning to kill you to cover it up!" Agatha shot back, incensed.

"I know he was!" Tarvek snapped without thought, and had to pause to force his breathing back under control. "I know and you know and he knows, and most of the men he brought at the very least suspect, and there is no proof for any of it. Meanwhile the Heterodynes have long been thorns in our side -- we have been at war more often than at peace in the last two centuries alone, we were at war ten years ago -- and your wolves are out of control and terrify the populace." His shoulders slumped a little. "And much as it pains me, Tweedle is family. My father can't be seen siding against him without much more flagrant evidence."

Agatha planted her fists on her ample hips, socketed feet set well apart. "Such as?"

Tarvek gave her the dryest look he could. "If he'd tried it in the marketplace at high noon then we might have a chance to make the accusation stick."

"...Oh."

"Quite."

The brown wolf nosed at his hip. Tarvek sighed, pushed his big head away. Agatha was bracketed by the black and blond ones, both staring up at him.

"...Even then my father would be tempted to make the whole issue disappear," he admitted quietly, he wasn't too sure why. "Too much chaos. Not worth losing the political support."

"... He doesn't love you much, does he."

Tarvek flinched, turned away. "It's what high-stake continental politics are."

A few seconds of silence, and then she was trotting behind him once again, footsteps oddly muffled. He wondered if her feet hurt, when exactly she had ditched her shoes. Pretty heels would not have been great for escape, and besides she was tall enough that she hardly needed the lift...

God it hurt, despite how long he had known, had lived and acted in full, dispassionate knowledge of it, to be reminded how abnormal it was for a father to treat you like a chess piece.

"I suppose I can't talk much," she said quietly. "My mother tried to become regent for us, but no wolf has ever wanted her, so when they dragged grand-uncle Faustus out of retirement until my brother was ready she flounced off to Paris."

"Oh."

"She didn't even come back for Kolya's funeral," Agatha added, a bit too dry and dismissive to hide the hurt, though she didn't... didn't really sound like she'd been surprised.

He vaguely wondered where she'd gotten the nickname Kolya from, though -- wasn't her brother's name Lucifer Barry?

The smell of acrid smoke over a battlefield filled his nose, briefly, and was gone, like a ghost of a scent, like a wolf's name. Tarvek shook his head, stared down at the brown wolf.

"Oh, that was -- that was a funny mix-up, see--" Grandfather and father snarling at each other, Wulfenbach is enemy/no he isn't -- my son anyway/my heir anyway!

"Oh, so that's how your father was disinherited," Tarvek choked out, trying to sound casual, and then sneaked her a look and they were both laughing, for no reason he could fully grasp. It was just too awkward, too horrible to do much else but acknowledge, and mock.

Agatha grinned at him, a brief flash of white teeth in distant lamplight. "Yes, so anyway, he was Klaus Barry in the town register but Grandfather got to the heralds before Father could, so the rest of Europe has no idea." A brief pause, sobering up. "Had no idea. At least it's written right on his vault."

Faceless humans flashed before his eyes, mouths moving at each other but the sounds were just random moaning. An impression of unimportant silliness came wrapped up in it, puppies fighting for the top spot of a dung heap. Tarvek gritted his teeth, pointedly ignored the brown wolf, still walking easy, brushing carelessly against his thigh whenever they passed a doorway.

"How's pursuit?" he thought to ask, though if her other wolves had been getting mauled Tarvek would be surprised that she could be so uncaring.

"Hasn't been any," Agatha confirmed. "They must have thought better of it, or they're ambushing us elsewhere. I'm telling Dimo and Jenka to catch up."

"Mm."

"Where are you leading us, exactly?" She frowned. "My inn, right?"

"It's pretty vital that we get there ahead of him," Tarvek said tiredly, "or else you're not going to be able to leave... But he's traveling aboveground and there's no better place for an ambush. Argh!"

"Yes, that's the thing," she said, remarkably calmly all things considered. "I really don't have any intention of running away from him. In fact," she added, now tightly dangerous, "I think he should be running from me."

Tarvek took his pince-nez out of his front pocket and wiped it, even though it wasn't like it was going to see any use in near total darkness. "That... would certainly be useful -- not to mention immensely satisfying --"

So why don't you make him fear you, echoed between them, Agatha disapproving, pricklishly disappointed, her wolves intrigued and eager.

"--but even if you have more wolves than he does, I'm not sure how you'd bring them to bear without angering my father. When he invited you to bring attendants I'm sadly certain he didn't mean to give you leave to unleash a pack of unattached wildings on the town. Even outside of politics -- should anyone see them, there will be a panic."

Agatha crossed her arms, mulish and frustrated, unladylike. She was so easy to read -- not easy to aim, though, which was ... frustrating and admirable both and. God damn it. Of course he wanted to get rid of his rivals before they got rid of him. Of course he wanted to live, to win. But his allies were not brutes looking to restart a war, he couldn't afford to move on that terrain yet--

So no one will see us, the brown wolf said, muzzle pointed up straight at him. Sneak, sneak, wait, snap. His wolf has muscle in his head. Bad bonding, he opined, angry-bull wants leading so much, he flattens his brother.

(... Oh god, Martellus' scent name was that of an angry, pawing bull. Tarvek swallowed inappropriate, slightly hysterical laughter, fought not to wonder at (whether he had one too) anyone else's.)

The brown wolf even had a plan for killing Tybalt -- encourage him to overextend, grab him by that ridiculous wide gold collar that prevented one from simply tearing out his throat, sit on his back, and pull back until he choked. It wouldn't even be the first time he'd done it to a gilded Valois idiot. All that shiny hard stuff that smelled of nothing was no better than a noose. Or a leash.

He was not a dog, this Jorgi. He was a wolf. Agatha was a wolf. Tweedle and Tybalt were hunting hounds at the very best, the rest of their pack nothing but show dogs, lap pets. What was Tarvek?

"Your wolves really are fairly chatty, aren't they," Tarvek told Agatha through clenched teeth. He could feel the wolf's attention on him, his amusement. A cat? Persian, all fat and showy fur? No, not with the way he ran through obstacles and sneaked around and watched everything, all the time. A weasel? But he played tamed when a weasel would turn and bite right through your nose.

"I think he just likes you," Agatha replied, casually merciless. "See? Oggie and Maxim don't care about you at all."

Hmm. One of those pretty, snow-white weasels that were grown in cages for their fur, Jorgi decided, as if that would kill their instincts dead, but really it only twisted them. So either they forgot they could fight entirely or they got fear-crazy...

"I know you're trying to manipulate me," Tarvek growled down at the wolf. "I will kindly ask you to stop it."

The wolf tilted his head, tongue lolling, considering.

"Well?"

Nah. Stupid to stop an attack when it's working, was the impression Tarvek got, pulled out of images of a wolf herding prey -- deer running terrified right at the waiting pack -- only to slow down and go sniffing flowers.

Agatha snorted, cracked a small smile that Tarvek felt-heard more than he saw. "Anyway. I'm not going back to my hotel. I had the wolves tell Van to get out already, he'll be safely elsewhere by the time they reach the place, and the rest is just clothes and books."

"That would be Vanamonde Von Mekkhan, the son of your seneschal?" Tarvek confirmed, frowning. At least she hadn't come completely alone into town -- only to be abandoned at the most dangerous hour?

"He broke his leg," Agatha said dryly.

"Oh. But then--"

"He can still get around. Let's not worry about that."

Tarvek frowned, not sure if her reaction was trust or a lack of regard -- a man with a broken leg was not going to get very far on foot, and only a bit farther on a horse, especially with the town gates closed for the night --

Our pack is strong, Jorgi said, muzzle turning to look back at the corridor they had come out of. Then a mental poke, inquiring. And yours? wrapped around a brief image of Violetta -- skirts bunched up in her hands as she leaped over a rose bush, and then, a beat later, paws and growls thundering after her.

Oh god.

"They've found Violetta," he half-said, half-asked. Agatha frowned, glanced back -- the silver she-wolf padded out from the darkness, looked up at Agatha's face, glanced at Tarvek.

"Not caught her yet," Agatha said, sifting through two sets of impressions -- how much of a lead, how exhausted-terrified the scent of her sweat, how curled up their jowls, how biting-ready... "But it won't be long."

She was just a servant. No one would care.

"Change of plan," Tarvek said, voice tight, blood beating in his temples with either fear or rage. Agatha turned to look at him, eyebrows up, surprised.

"I'm listening."

Jorgi's tongue was lolling out, his too-long fangs glistening wetly in the dark.

"We are going to destroy him."

--

The Heterodyne pack inside the castle walls numbered only, Tarvek was surprised to learn, a baker's dozen, Agatha's four included. They had seemed a lot more numerous earlier.

Now that he didn't need to keep the dog wolves away from Jenka, Tweedle's numbered three times that.

Alone, Tarvek and Agatha ghosted quietly atop the slick tiles of the roof, three stories up from the path that went around behind the still-lit, still-busy kitchens, as on the path Martellus led the way, one of his men carrying Violetta like a potato sack across his shoulders.

Tarvek lobbed the first vial at a long, whistling angle. Downstairs, at the back of the procession, a wolf yelped, was hurriedly shushed by his brother, whimpered. The light illuminated half of everyone, everything; Violetta ceased kicking entirely for a whole second.

She's ready, he thought at -- he thought.

Martellus wasn't a bad commander -- there was a reason he had chosen to go by the kitchens; neither one of them wanted an open fight right by so many witnesses, even though Tarvek was also sure he thought -- used to think -- Tarvek too cowardly to even make the attempt.

It hurt to say, but the big brute was actually smart enough to reassess a threat, and Tarvek had not been discreet, appearing out of nowhere like he actually had a weapon good enough to throw down with up his sleeve.

It was galling to know exactly how much he'd been bluffing.

Throw ahead, I'll throw left flickered to him, in Agatha's quicksilver images, in thoughts too much like a too-smart wolf's -- not sentences but images, intent. Visions of the enemy pack underneath starting to splinter, to turn every other way to search for the threat, knowledge of how exactly to push them to splinter worse.

She was exactly right. He threw.

Forward! Martellus threw through his pack bond, so loud and insistent even Tarvek knew. His pack bounded blindly ahead, whining and choking on the foul-smelling, peppery smoke billowing all around them. Now -- to the left!

He's figured out where we are, thought Tarvek. Trying to get away from the building.

No matter, thought Agatha, hopping over a bird nest to follow along the tiles.

It really didn't matter. Three of Agatha's wolves ghosted right in the middle of the blinded, choking pack, hit the man carrying Violetta in the back of the knees. Their teeth were useless, wearing the makeshift masks Tarvek had fashioned and stuffed full of strong-smelling herbs, and so were their closed eyes, but they didn't need their own eyes to know exactly where they were and what they were aiming for with Agatha watching from above.

Violetta struggled back to her feet. Martellus whirled around, a hand on his face to block his nose, his other hand reaching for her --

Maxim ducked under her skirts from behind and took off running, the girl astride his back. Tarvek could hear her startled yell from three stories above. She was falling to the side when Dimo leapt to bump her back into place, matched Maxim's longer pace to let her press a hand to his back for balance.

Wolves were not made to be ridden, he couldn't help but think, too much slippery fur and spines too sharp, bones not strong enough to hold up an adult.

She's not big. She'll be fine.

Tarvek and Agatha scrambled up the tiled slope, slid in a mostly-controlled manner down the other side, coming to a stop atop a protruding window. I really dislike how right you were about bare feet, Tarvek thought idly, his own boots hanging from his neck by the laces; Agatha snorted, flicked him a grin, toes splayed across the mossy shingles and skirts knotted heavy at her left thigh.

Her stockings had gone into making the wolf masks and bare skin was on display from feet to shapely thigh, smooth and fine but for a few old, pink childhood scars on her knees.

Tarvek tried to think about where he was putting his cold, cold feet as he grabbed the top edge of the window and swung to face the glass, barely half a meter from the void. His knee hit the panel hard, and then hit the biggest shards again; he wriggled an arm inside to unlock the window, and made note of the room they dropped into, to send someone to clean it up before the weather and the birds ruined the whole room.

It was a servant's room, unused at the moment, and he didn't need to tell Agatha anything about where in the castle they were, how to find the panel that pushed open to reveal a tightly spiralling staircase. He followed on her heels as she galloped downwards in the dark, blind but trusting in his knowledge of the shape of the stairs, the distance between them.

A landing went by and then a second. Outside the wolves were slowed down by Violetta's weight, and she let herself slide off Maxim's back -- Oggie caught her sleeve with his teeth and pulled her along and she ran in the middle of Agatha's pack-within-a-pack, stinking of fear-sweat and rage. Behind them Martellus was gaining, with Cousin Leopold and one of their allies, fiancé to some Blitzengaard vassal or other--

Agatha snorted. Who cares how they're pack.

Candlelight danced under the last landing. (Outside the wolves were fast reaching the corner of the building, the high walls of the Princess' inner garden.) Tarvek snaked between her and the wall, pulled a rope to get the hidden door to open, then strode out first. (Should he stop to put his boots back on? The prince being seen barefooted would cause talk--)

So will she/I passed between them so fast Tarvek wasn't even sure who had had the thought first.

Outside Tweedle's big dog-wolf had caught up and was harrying them -- Jorgi was hunkering down, was pretending to be unnerved by the silk mask blocking (barely) his muzzle, encouraging Tybalt to overconfidence. Violetta and Maxim rushed through the small, half-open side-gate and immediately dove for the overgrown lilac bushes and the dark of the buildings surrounding the secret garden that hadn't seen use since Tarvek's mother passed.

He saw a flash of Martellus through Jorgi's eyes -- glancing at the man, then back at the wolf he was about to gut, low on his haunches to spring --

"Run!" Tarvek snapped into thin air, knowing the knifelike eyes meant Martellus had figured it out, knowing their only chance now was --

Got it, boss! The brown wolf turned on his back feet like a show horse and raced for the side-gate, tail tucked so hard Tybalt couldn't help but give chase, right through the gate and into the walled garden.

He heard Martellus swear through Jorgi's ears, too indistinct to make it words. Then Agatha was there, thinking Yes, Oggie, now! and he knew the blond wolf had rammed the door with his shoulder to slam it closed.

Martellus hit the gate with all his considerable weight and his unreasonable strength, shoving the wolf backwards. The nearest of his followers were only a few meters away, right on his heels--

Oggie gave way -- Martellus bulled through, dagger in hand -- and Dimo rammed the gate closed again.

Then as Dimo whirled around to snap at Martellus's heels, Oggie went on his back legs and pressed his paw to the lock.

His gigantic dewclaw wasn't a very efficient thumb, but that didn't seem to stop him.

"He's had practice," Agatha said, smiling in the dark, as outside the gate's old sliding lock snicked closed.

Could have done it, Jorgi threw almost absently at Tarvek as he joined Dimo in the dance, like he didn't feel the need to brag, but.

Tarvek and Agatha found an unlocked door. Tarvek paused, eyeing the gravel, and unslung his boots from his neck; Agatha strode out.

"Wait -- your feet! Wear my boots," he offered out of pure trained gallantry.

Agatha flashed him the sole of her left foot as she crossed to the overgrown grass. Better mine than (tender-cossetted) yours.

It had been years since she last went barefooted with the wolves -- gone off to school, learning nonstop shoes and the proper length of a young lady's skirt -- but Tarvek could feel an echo of their bodies' sensations, clashing there at the feet (how fine your skin is, your highness!)

When he was done wrestling with his boots she was gone from sight.

Not from his awareness -- but she was going fast; he started running after her--

Bright flash of pain. His hand flew to his side as he curled; he expected wet, expected more pain, didn't find either one. Looking around him there was no one...

Oh. Jorgi.

God damn it.

Agatha was running alone toward Martellus -- Dimo's shoulder throbbed distantly, the man was trying to back up against the gates, Tybalt--

He knew when she ran out into sight. He knew when Martellus lunged for her -- heard his roar -- a mess of hair's breath dodging and fangs snapping, Dimo on three legs and Oggie trading harrying Tybalt and Martellus.

She wanted to drag them away from Jorgi, curled around his pain, away from the gates and his imminent reinforcements, but bloody Tweedle had to be smart--

Jenka burst out of the bushes at a full run, hit Tybalt in the rump and sent him sprawling at Oggie's feet. Collar! Tarvek and Jorgi snarled together.

Oggie's clawed paw shot forward, hooked underneath the huge, gold collar, pulled. It was too close to the fur for teeth at this angle but he managed to drag the other wolf several feet before Tybalt could react, and then Jenka was back to take a mouthful of his back fur and heave. Yipping, the massive wolf was dragged into the bushes.

"Tell them to let him go," Martellus growled, looming, to Agatha.

Tarvek felt Agatha's brief mental poke -- don't want to, but what do you think -- and what he thought was no, was the single redeemable quality my cousin has ever shown is that he is somewhat loyal to his underlings.

That's what I thought, Agatha threw back. "I don't think so," Tarvek heard her say, close enough now to hear her normal speaking voice -- close enough also to hear the men throwing imprecations and shaking, kicking the old gate.

It won't hold, he thought.

"I think I'll have them skin him," Agatha said with a remarkably believable casual shrug, and turned on her heels and ran.

Tarvek saw Martellus lunge after her -- check himself, glance back, and oh, damn, now that Dimo had left with Agatha there was only Jorgi left to guard it from his comrades, and they had put their shoulders to it with renewed intensity.

If Tarvek ran after Martellus, he could ambush him when he thought he had Agatha cornered.

... And then the wolves pouring through the gate would finish that stupid, stupid wolf off.

Not stupid! One of us needed to take the blow. A pause. ... Doesn't hurt.

Apart from how he couldn't even stand up -- no, don't move! Teeth gritted, Tarvek ran out into the open, ignoring the men and wolves behind the fence, somehow found the strength to pull across his shoulders, like a shepherd would a lamb, a wolf as tall and solid as two rams. Miracle of miracles, Jorgi didn't bite from the pain, didn't make a sound even as Tarvek started running and every step made a little more hot blood seep through his vest, down the back of his neck.

God. Now what? Where was Agatha, where was Violetta --

With (horse-lather) Maxim. (Pack leader said guard.)

"--Good, but where is that! -- and I can't take you into the fight hurt --" Oh god, what he would have given for a healthy wolf. (What he would have given, years ago, for any wolf at all. Tarvek did not enjoy the world joking at his expense very much.)

He wished the fastest he could run wasn't a heavy, plodding trot, he wished he had better than a boot knife on him, something that would give him the advantage of reach on Martellus (but that would pretty much have to be a sword, wouldn't it, and a duel between princes couldn't happen in the dark, and Martellus being found dead of a sword wound with only a knife in hand would be such a scandal it would shake the entire region--)

Throw a rock at his head, Jorgi suggested, vaguely wistful at his lack of ability to throw things. Mock-thumbs or not, throwing was still something humans did better. We're almost there.

"Almost where?" Tarvek almost asked, and then he felt it more than he heard it -- Agatha's whispering run, her intent. Tybalt was whimpering and yelping like an injured puppy, all three hundred pounds of him -- Martellus beating the bushes after her, snarling imprecations, trying to get to his wolf and being attacked from the darkness, bitten from behind bunches of dead flowers that didn't seem like they could have hidden a rabbit, shoulder-checked at the knees --

Tarvek found a hollow under the weeping willow, dropped Jorgi there like a sack of potatoes, flinched with the wolf's pain (--sorry, didn't mean--) and then ran.

He was just in time to see Agatha jump from the statue of Andronicus and Euphrosynia embracing, skirts flaring behind her, to hit Martellus in the side of the head with both knees.

He went down like a felled tree -- tripped over the edge of the long-dry fountain, went overboard to sprawl in the dead leaves and dirt-streaked white marble. Agatha landed on him, callipygian posterior impacting him in the breastbone; Tarvek didn't know what exactly he had just heard crack, but there had been something -- and then the wolves converged.

Limping Dimo, yellow fangs on lazy display, lithe Jenka, fast like a snake, grinning Oggie with his eager bloodlust, and then even vampire-fanged Maxim, with Tarvek's little cousin sidling up to the edge of the bushes behind him, a forgotten rake brandished like a weapon.

Martellus' own wolf didn't show.

One big, meaty hand went to his head, and then to trying to push Agatha off, but Dimo was there, clamping his fangs on his wrist and dragging the whole limb over his head -- all the wolves gathering, Jenka perched on the rim of the fountain to better dive from above -- and he finally froze.

Agatha stared down at him, a rock in hand.

"If you wanted me dead, you'd be trying to kill me already," Martellus rasped, and damn, but Tarvek sometimes wished he was a little slower on the uptake. Tarvek ambled closer, stepped over the edge of the fountain himself, leaned his shoulder against Andronicus' flared coat. (Too bad he'd had to chuck his own coat. The resemblance would have been very nice.)

(You should have been an actor instead of a prince, Agatha thought at him; it felt like she was trying not to smile.)

"You're right," Agatha told Martellus, and raised her rock. "I might want you a little brained, though--"

He tried to buck her off, roaring in outrage, but then he had two wolves on his legs, biting at his knees, pulling in different directions, and he howled instead. Agatha stayed astride him.

(Bare thighs and strong calves, a valkyrie's curves, bearing a man to the ground -- why was it Tweedle under her, oh Lord.)

"--Your pet Sturmvoraus can't afford to have me turn out brained!"

Tarvek made a show of looking over the wolves, over the lady. "What, exactly, makes you think I can stop her?"

A pause, a colder, more remote look.

"Or that I might want to?"

"The peace treaty--"

"She's a Heterodyne," Tarvek pointed out, lightly, amused. "They're all wild beasts underneath. War would happen anyway, and oh, so sad, I tried my best and still couldn't stop her. I could rally a lot of your men under my banner," he added, "showing enough grief at your passing. Cousin."

Martellus turned wild eyes to Agatha. "Hah! See what you allied yourself with--"

Agatha snorted. "I know exactly what I allied myself with. And my arm's getting tired."

She was starting to swing it when a great metallic fracas rang behind them and a torrent of Valois wolves poured through.

Agatha's wolves flipped around, hopped on the edge of the fountain; Martellus tried to shove her off again and she swung down -- hit his wrist as he batted back -- Tarvek jumped into the melee, pressing his weight and his forearm across his cousin's throat, trying to help Agatha keep him pinned, but it was like keeping a bear pinned. Martellus managed to push them off enough to sit up--

Something whistled through the air. Martellus swayed -- Tarvek pushed him down again, then realized Violetta was standing there with the rake in hand, that she had just clouted him one over the head. She'd hit with the wooden length and not the spike -- what a pity -- but dazed him enough that when Agatha snatched the knife out of Tarvek's own boot and pressed it against his throat he froze.

The circle of his men froze with him, ringing the fountain with snarling, offended faces.

Tarvek made sure Agatha had Tweedle well in hand, and then stood up, tugging discreetly on his clothes to straighten them. (Where was the rest of the Mechanicsburg wolves? -- where was Jorgi, was he safe, how long until they found him --)

"I suggest," he said, cold and ringing-loud, "that you gentlemen retire to your quarters, effective immediately. Tomorrow you will make your excuses and leave town, on whatever pretext you may invent."

There. Allow them to save face, to save their leader--

Only cousin Leopold was stepping forward, his wannabe-queen wolf at his side -- a mere beta bitch, and didn't it rankle him -- oh, damn.

"And I suggest," Leopold said back, smirking, "that you will never let him go alive now, so we may as well attempt to save him, hadn't we?"

'And too bad if both of you die in the process' was written all over his eager, toothy face.

He wasn't pack leader, though, hadn't been any kind of leader, a passable second at best, following Martellus' boots and wagging his tail servilely, and the rest of his men hesitated to attack on his word; a couple of them threw Leopold horrified looks, like they could hear -- feel -- exactly the subtext he was bringing into his words.

Your family is really, really bad at being a family, Agatha thought at Tarvek, oddly unconcerned.

Tarvek fought not to throw her a baffled, irritated look over his shoulder, to keep staring Leopold down -- the man was approaching his forties, and he made a play for the Valois crown now? What a cowardly, useless contender. Tweedle was worth ten of him, and he wasn't worth much, in Tarvek's opinion.

Leopold had the wolves, though, and Tarvek didn't. At least with the assassins it was over fast, he didn't have to throw on a front...

And then one of the Valois wolves glanced back behind him, shifted his weight, hesitated.

And a second. And a third.

"We're at least twice their numbers, in beasts alone," Leopold shouted. "And they have no men's brains to direct their fighting--"

"To slow it down, you mean," Agatha said, and...

Stood up, abandoning Martellus, unknotted skirts tumbling down to her ankle and the knife still in her hand. For a second Tarvek thought she had killed him already, while no one was looking, but there was no new blood on the blade and Martellus was moving, trying to roll onto his side, to shift away from her.

Growls rose from the garden, one and two and two dozen, more than that, like the whole shadowed space between the buildings was packed wall to wall with beasts.

At first he could see nothing but flickering shadows that might have been the wind. All the wolves obviously saw -- smelled -- something different.

"Holy--" Violetta whispered, drawing close to Tarvek's side, the rake still in hand. "That's a big one."

These were big ones.

Heterodyne wolves through and through -- the dewclaws and the odd proportions -- too-long limbs, too-short, awkward conformation and ridiculous dewclaws, ears torn to shreds on a great many of those who ghosted out of the dark...

If Jorgi was a respectable size, tall and heavy like a big ram, the two that padded out onto the overgrown path were pretty much mountain ponies. One of them looked ancient, thin fur gone yellow-gray and fallen in patches, legs trembling; the other one, a gloriously calico-patterned queen, lolled her tongue like this was all a lark. (There was a young man with his leg in a plaster cast astride the bitch, looking quite ready to dismount, if he dared to remind her he was there.) They hadn't been at the earlier assault, Tarvek was pretty sure.

And how did those pass the gate? he threw at Agatha, somehow offended. Had Vanamonde Von Mekkhan suborned a guard, perhaps?

Oh, not the gate, no, she replied vaguely, distracted. Tunnels under town? That ... come out in the sewers?

Oh Lord. Those were supposed to be secret. Are they still?

Well, the ones without your scent in them, yes.

"Your reinforcements, my lady," Von Mekkhan said from atop the giant bitch wolf, managing to fake unruffled remarkably well.

"Good job, Van. Pack alpha Gkika, pack alpha Zog," Agatha greeted the two wolves calmly, ignoring Tarvek's internal sputtering -- and then, like she was looking farther than Zog's eyes, "Uncle Faustus."

Tarvek didn't get it, and then in a rush like a whirlwind through leaves he did, his thoughts bulled through, scattered by a suffocating presence that wasn't Agatha and wasn't Jorgi and wasn't any of the wolves he'd met -- that prodded and measured and then discarded him.

He couldn't tell if the presence was a wolf or a man until it reacted to the name.

Faustus. Oh.

"Lord Heterodyne," Tarvek said very politely, bowing to the ancient wolf, to the wolf's brother watching the debacle through glittering, inhuman eyes.

He didn't need a wolf's eyes to know Leopold had paled.

One thing to make sport of a ditzy, unprotected heiress. Quite another to provoke a Duke to his face.

He says, one of the huge wolves said, loud enough that everyone seemed to hear it, the stupid one is right, it's a fine time for killing all the witnesses!

Cousin Leopold froze; his wolf flinched. The Valois pack shrank in on itself, eyes showing whites, as the Heterodyne pack slowly started closing in. There was a cheerful kind of bloodlust in the air that made Tarvek shudder.

"Uncle Faustus," Agatha said with a disapproving sigh.

Von Mekkhan cleared his throat diffidently. "Lord Faustus is ready to compromise on your two new pets," he translated out loud -- snobby weasel-pup and feisty little girl were the impressions that flitted through the pack. Oh, thanks ever so much, Tarvek thought back, and thought that he needed very urgently to learn how to keep his own thoughts for himself.

"Uncle, no."

... One out of two? Can we at least get all the redheads? The color offends me.

Tarvek straightened up, frowning. Excuse him, the ancestral auburn-red hair was perfectly nice-looking, and even quite regal --

The queen wolf turned to look at him, lolled her tongue some more in a canine laugh.

"Lord Faustus does insist on at least, ah, Dumb and Dumber," Von Mekkhan said, more somber, less stuffily playing along. More like there was something else looking through his eyes, now, too. Something that was wolf enough to growl. "So they don't go away thinking they may lay hands on my heir without losing them at the wrist."

People slowly sidestepped away from Leopold. Martellus had managed to get back on his feet, but Jenka wasn't going to let anyone approach and help him up before he swayed himself back onto his posterior.

"I'm considering it," Agatha said, hands on her hips, bare feet planted in dead leaves and old grit, eyes narrowed in thought. "Anyone have a counter-proposal?"

--

Tarvek met Agatha on the battlements the next day. She was wearing green, once again, a corseted day gown in emerald and a paler shawl, and sensible half-boots underneath. The color set off her eyes, the red-gold of her hair. Maxim was at her side this time around, the shine of his fur not blueish as Tarvek had thought but near purple in daylight, and he clashed somewhat -- Agatha was an Autumn, and he was definitely a Winter. (Well, so was Jenka, but at least her silvery coat had no hint of discordant color to throw off Agatha's ensemble...)

Tarvek patted the hunter-green cravat he had chosen as a discreet homage and carefully ignored the amused wolf snicker at the back of his head. Then he went to stand near her, hands politely joined behind his back.

"Were you truly only bonded a month?" he couldn't help but ask. Agatha blinked at him.

"Oh. Yes. It was my father's condition for... Well. For letting Grandfather have Kolya, pretty much, not that he could have stopped him." A short shrug. "My father and uncle didn't much like Mechanicsburg's sense of humor. Or its wolves, to be honest."

Tarvek could see why.

"I was sent out of town before I was thirteen, for schooling, and only came back for vacations, so I didn't really get to interact much. And Mother -- I've told you this, no wolf wanted her, so she took pleasure in wearing the worst perfumes ever, and -- well. When I was around her, that was a pretty efficient deterrent," she added with a short sigh, her hand digging into the fur at Maxim's neck. Maxim arched into the touch for a second, and then pretended, aloof and noble, that he was not enjoying the petting. He had placed his body between Tarvek and Agatha, Tarvek couldn't help but notice.

"But then you came back home, and..." He gentled his voice, put a smile in it; he was digging at painful memories, it seemed. "Four at once, truly?"

"It's not even that weird!" Agatha complained, but from the embarrassment flitting over her face he could tell she had heard how weird, to the rest of the world, it very much was. "Grandfather had either two or five, depending on how you count them. Your people's insistence on putting your unbonded wolves in kennels or, or preserves is a lot weirder!"

"... Do they really live in town?" Tarvek asked, a little fascinated. "The unbonded ones, too?"

"Well, where else?"

"Huh."

He leaned against the wall, looked down at the road snaking out of the castle gates into town. Horses, carriages...

"How... did you handle it, when it happened?" When you bonded -- being told you would never and then suddenly -- I never thought I would have this, not right for wolves, what do I do --

Agatha blinked at him again, and her eyes softened, though her smile was teasing at the edges. "Pretty much do what he tells you, and you'll be fine."

Tarvek let out a short sigh. "But he's so..."

"Annoying? Irreverent?" She arched a pointed eyebrow. "Disobedient?"

Tarvek could make a case for all of the above. That and too smart for his own good... "... Brown," he went with. It was a relatively nice brown, light and nutty, but still. "And what is with those dewclaws, and he's so lanky, we're going to look so very odd together. How am I meant to show up at court with such a Heterodyne wolf?"

He had meant it visually, to make her laugh, but they both sobered up knowing he meant it deeper, too.

I can play nice and not bite, Jorgi sent him from his improvised den in Tarvek's mother's secret gardens, sent him an image of him posing à la Maxim, chin high, gaze nobly trailing over the horizon. Tarvek snorted. Just won't like it. Or we can not tell them. A fun trick, he assured Tarvek, thoughts full of roaming the countryside in wide circuits that brought him back to boring court and the boring castle with its odd lack of other wolves, its absence of pack that wouldn't be Tarvek or maybe Anevka. He could be around for thwarting assassins and not tell anyone how they had happened to fall down dead. Or even bury them himself! The garden was big, nicely empty. And the rest of the time he would be visiting pack.

Jorgi's pack was Agatha's pack. That was another thing, about Heterodyne wolves. Even taken miles, countries away, they were always Heterodyne first. Tarvek didn't know what that made him, who should have belonged to Valois.

Should have seen (tagged/marked/named) you first, Jorgi said philosophically, and turned around cautiously for a nap.

(Weasels in a hollow oak trunk? he'd suggested yesterday -- four in the morning, as Tarvek bandaged him up.

Will you drop it with the weasel joke already.

Ermine in the snow. (white on white, sneaky hunter--)

That's still a weasel!

... Angry ermine in the snow?

You know what, I give up.)

Sighing, Tarvek consoled himself with the thought that as long as they didn't tell his father, he was unlikely to notice that Tarvek had gotten stuck with a wolf on his own. And he wasn't going to have a single Heterodyne wolf shot for roaming too close with the peace so fresh.

Probably. Who knew, with Aaronev Wilhelm Sturmvoraus. But so long as he didn't hear of Jorgi coming too close to Anevka it was more likely he would shrug and forget all about it.

"So, how did it go with Anevka?" Agatha asked, leaning her elbows onto the battlements. Grinning, Tarvek made sure to face the town, so that none of the guards would notice his expression.

"Oh, she was delighted by the idea, and wishes me to convey her sincere appreciation. She thinks you might become much better friends now."

Agatha snorted, slanted him a quizzical frown.

"You did come across as rather overawed and, ah, sheltered, when you first came," Tarvek said, apologetic. Agatha huffed, crossing her arms over the stone. "My sister is rather sharper than she made herself look for you."

"Sturmvorauses and other Valoises," Agatha said, sighing regretfully. "Actors and liars, all of you."

"Tweedle is mostly sincere, most of the time!" Tarvek said with teasing cheer. "You might want to see if you'll get along with him after all..."

"Hah! No." At her feet, Maxim growled quietly, flashed his fangs. "He's just so -- ah. Wait. It's starting. Shh."

Oooh. Smile widening, Tarvek let his eyes roam sightlessly as Agatha threw him the view from Jenka's eyes -- Jenka who was sitting with all her paws gathered neatly at a coffee table with Tarvek's sister and another two female cousins and wives-of.

Jenka had a teacup of her own, and she inclined her head and lapped at it very delicately as Tweedle came to an abrupt stop to find them all in his parlor.

"Oh, cousin, so glad to see you... coming back home... so late!"

Yes, spending all the night holed up in the kennels getting bandaged up enough to be seen in public would do that. All the doubt layered into her words, though, that was a work of art.

"You won't believe the dreadful thing we just heard. Why, I'm sure it was planted, it cannot have been otherwise, but a servant found a heat scent vial in your luggage!"

Martellus' thunderous, thwarted face was everything Tarvek could have ever asked for.

"She says," Agatha muttered sotto voce, rolling her eyes, "having planted it herself a bare moment ago."

"Oh, I'm sure she had a servant do it for her," Tarvek countered urbanely, and couldn't help but laugh at Agatha's mock-glare. Actually he'd be surprised if Violetta hadn't dueled the other maids for the honor.

With the other ladies in the room the rumor would probably reach Blitzengaard lands before Martellus himself did. Not to mention all their other family holdings, and Berlin, and Beetleburg, and Paris...

Delightful.

"You're probably going to have to kill him at some point," Agatha said philosophically.

"Probably," Tarvek said, sobering up. "At least I'm sure he'll take care of Cousin Leopold for me. I'd be surprised if the poor fool gets home alive."

Which would be, frankly speaking, a bit of a shame. Not because Tarvek felt any fondness -- the man was fifteen years his senior and had always been disdainful behind all the currying for Tarvek's father's favor he did -- but the infighting would have caused such a nice distraction.

"I can make sure he gets home alive, if you want," Agatha offered.

"Hm?"

"I was going to have the roaming packs escort Martellus already. You know, from afar. Well, from out of musket shot, at any rate..."

Tarvek laughed again, despite himself. She was a wild boar amongst deer, a statuesque, pagan war goddess to the court's gracile, double-tongued beauties. A hammer, an anvil. A wolf. (A Queen.)

"And you say you have no mind for manipulation."

Agatha huffed, tossed her head to throw a lock of hair back into place. "Oh, I was going to be quite blatant about it. They're under orders to be as unnerving as possible."

God. How was she so perfect?

Here he had imagined the Euphrosynia Heterodyne of legend to have been tortured and entrancing, a beauty lost amongst beasts, and Andronicus Valois to have offered her salvation.

If she had been anything at all like her many times descendent, it was more likely she had been a beautiful beast, and Andronicus had been struck under the ribs at full ramming speed.

I'm going, the thought came, unbidden, to marry this woman.

Well, probably not. There were dynastic considerations, for one. But.

But oh, what if.

Agatha arched her eyebrows at him and Maxim whuffed in question and Tarvek smiled, close-mouthed, and then grinned a little bit and tried not to duck his head like an untutored adolescent. Agatha huffed out a laugh.

They made light conversation on the battlements until Tweedle limped out of the castle grounds, Tybalt whining from his carriage beside him, and they could wave goodbye in cheerful unison.