“You’ve heard of the increasing instability of the Net.” Krychek’s movements were almost as silent as a changeling’s.

“Yeah, hard not to.” Hawke leaned down to run his hand through the fur of a wild wolf that had loped over to join them, its paws soundless on the snow. “You’re saying Ming’s death could make the situation worse?”

“The Council might no longer exist,” Krychek said as they began walking again, “but Ming still has the largest personal military force of all the former Councilors. His numbers are even greater than mine, and he’s doing a significant amount to maintain calm in Europe.”

Hawke wanted to tear Ming apart with his bare hands for the hurt he’d caused Sienna, but he knew his mate would be the first to tell him that no vengeance was worth the life of even a single innocent. Fuck. “I’ll discuss it with Sienna.”

• • •

HAWKE ran in human form an hour after Krychek teleported out, the icy wind rippling through his hair and pasting his T-shirt to his chest. Five wild wolves ran with him, the trees sliding past in a blur of dark green and snowy white, the scent of pine thick in his nostrils as he instinctively navigated the forest that was his territory . . . as he followed the scent of autumn fire and a wild, nameless spice.

Sienna was laughing with another SnowDancer soldier when he tracked her to her sentry position on an overlook, but her head turned toward him even before he broke from the trees. It soothed the ragged edges inside him to see her, her love for him a rippling fire along the mating bond.

Exchanging greetings with the other soldier on the outlook, Hawke waited until the young male had continued on in his security sweep before opening his mouth to speak to Sienna. She beat him to it.

“What’s the matter?” The cardinal starlight of her eyes scanned his face as her hands alighted on his chest. “You’re tense enough to snap.”

He undid the neat braid into which she’d tamed her hair.

“Hawke!” The admonition was more affectionate than sharp. “Don’t lose the tie at least.”

Coming into his arms after he’d freed the ruby red silk, she held him while he rubbed the side of his face against the softness, grounding himself in skin privileges with his mate. The wolf rubbed against the inside of his skin at the same time, craving her touch as much as the man. He allowed his claws to slice out of his fingers where he’d curled his hand around her nape, giving in to the animal’s need enough to calm it.

Sienna didn’t flinch. Closing her eyes instead, she leaned back into his hold. “Remember that night we danced in the forest?”

He growled. “You mean the night you decided to cause a riot in that damn club?” She’d been dancing on top of the bar when he arrived, dressed in f**k-you boots and jeans that might as well have been painted on, her shirt faithfully hugging every sweet feminine curve.

Rising up on tiptoe, her warm but lightweight winter jacket pressing against his chest, she nipped his chin. “I was just trying to get a certain stubborn wolf’s attention.” She played her fingers through his hair, petting him to calmness. “Talk to me.”

And he did. Because she was his mate, who knew him to the core and who took no bullshit. “Krychek asked me to delay the strike against Ming.”

Sienna narrowed her eyes as the wild wolves who’d run with him decided to prowl to the edge of the outlook. “Since we know he’d be more than happy to see Ming dead, I’m guessing it has to do with the infection Uncle Judd briefed us on?”

“Indirectly. Turns out Ming has the biggest personal military force in the Net.”

“Really? I always assumed Kaleb had more offensive forces.”

So had Hawke. “I guess it doesn’t matter in terms of holding power when he’s so damn strong himself, and when he has the cooperation of the Arrows.” From what Hawke knew of them via Judd, the deadly operatives were so highly trained, each one was equal to a hundred ordinary soldiers.

“Judd,” he said now, “was able to confirm what Krychek told me, that Ming’s actually using his army to maintain calm in Europe.” Though total panic hadn’t yet set in, tensions were apparently rising at a stratospheric rate. “If we execute him, we risk throwing a large part of the continent into anarchy.”

Sienna slid her arms around his waist, her fingers clenching in the back of his T-shirt. “That’s the thing with Ming, you know. He’s a predator, but he’s not evil all the time.” A twist of her lips. “I don’t know if it’s political self-expediency or if he actually feels responsibility for the population on some level, but he’s stepped in like this before—when I was twelve, there was massive flooding in Ireland. Ming sent his troops in to distribute supplies, get the trapped out to safety.”

Hawke figured Sienna was right with her first guess as to the telepath’s motivations—political self-expediency. “Ming’s probably doing this to strengthen his power base in Europe.”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” Sienna tucked her hands under his T-shirt and against his skin. “We can’t move. No vengeance or preemptive strike is worth sacrificing a single innocent life, much less hundreds of thousands.”

Hawke wanted to bare his teeth, howl his defiance, but he knew his mate was right.

Rising up on her toes after shifting her hands into his hair to tug him down, she said, “It’s all right, Hawke.” A kiss of words, her lips soft against his. “I’m safe and Ming will keep.”

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