His claws pricked the insides of his skin, his wolf fighting the human’s decision.
“I’ll stay.” Her palm against his cheek, her eyes luminescent with emotion. “It’s the logical choice.”
When he cocked his head, she said, “If I go out there, you’ll be half insane with worry and of no use to the pack.” She pressed her fingers to his lips to stop him from speaking. “I’d be the same if it was you.” A crooked smile. “I’m making this choice not for you, but for both of us—I’ll have other chances to help the pack in that way. This time, I’ll help by being one of the ones who’ll remain behind to guard our territory.”
Taking her hand, he kissed the slightly rough skin of her palm, that of a soldier, a fighter … and of a woman who understood him in ways no one else had ever done, or ever would again.
I AM NEVER letting you go.
Adria held Riaz’s passionate words to her heart during her first watch on anchor detail. But it was hard, so hard, when she knew he had a meeting with Lisette this afternoon. He’d asked Adria if she wanted to accompany him, and the feral wolf in her had swiped at the chance, but Adria wasn’t a jealous, angry woman, wouldn’t allow herself to become one.
So she’d reined in the urge and said no, trusting him to honor her faith.
But she was still a woman who loved. It hurt to imagine him speaking to Lisette, until her every pulse was a razor cutting her from the inside out. Part of her pain was for him, for the agony that had to be tearing him to pieces. To be so close to the one meant to be your mate, only to be denied. It was such a cruel idea, it made her chest ache. Or perhaps the ache was for her, a symptom of her knowledge that this truth would never change—she would never be who Lisette was to Riaz.
At that moment, she could almost envy the Psy their Silence.
The older man she guarded, his hair a dusty gray, his eyes near the same shade, looked up from the papers he was grading. He was a teacher at the university, he’d told her. Anchors didn’t need to work, and often couldn’t because of the mental discipline required of them on the Net, but Bjorn Thorsen was a mathematical genius. “It makes no rational sense,” he’d told her, “to have my knowledge die with me.”
Now, he said, “A wolf in my study. The world has changed indeed.”
Adria liked Thorsen. There was something about him—as if in spite of his mathematical bent, he had the capacity to see the most nonnumerical of subtleties. “Yes,” she said. “This is the last thing I ever expected to be doing.”
“I’m eighty-five years of age.” He brought up his computer screen, showed her an image of himself as a much younger—and stiffer—man. “At the start of my lifetime, changelings weren’t even a blip on the Council’s radar. I’ve watched your people’s power grow ever stronger, and I’ve watched my people make bad choice after bad choice. This latest state of affairs, it’s no surprise.”
Startled, she turned to lean her shoulder against the wall. “You expected someone to begin murdering anchors?”
“It’s only logical, Adria.” Putting down the pen in his hand, he met her eyes, his gaze holding a fierce power. “If you control the anchors, you control the Net.”
“But they’re killing, not controlling.”
Thorsen shook his head, his face holding the wisdom of someone who had lived well more than twice her lifetime. “Do you not see? Once they have shattered a larger, more critical section of the Net, the ones behind this will make it known they’ll break other parts, murder other anchors, unless those anchors swear fealty to them.”
Adria frowned. “What advantage would that give them? As I understand it, you stabilize the Net, nothing more.” The answer came to her as the last word left her lips. “If you stabilize the Net,” she said, realizing the true level of cold intelligence behind the sadistic plan, “you can destabilize it.” That destabilization had the potential to affect thousands, tens of thousands at a time. “What better way to control the masses than to let them know their very lives hang in the balance.” One step out of line and the Net itself could be collapsed around them, their lifeline extinguished. And unlike the Laurens, most ordinary Psy likely didn’t know how to defect into a smaller network, much less have the psychic and psychological strength to pull it off.
“Excellent,” Thorsen said, sounding like the teacher he was. “Of course, such a practice can’t be maintained long term. The reason anchors themselves don’t destabilize the Net and hold everyone hostage, isn’t only because it would be an irrational act, but because we’re so deeply connected to it, any damage we do rebounds back on us. I might survive it once or twice, but beyond that…” He rubbed at his temples.
Her wolf went on alert. “What’s the matter? Telepathic attack?” If so, she had Judd on standby. He could teleport in and hopefully disrupt the process.
Lines of pain radiated out from the professor’s eyes. “No. Dissonance programming—it appears I am not meant to talk of such things.” He dropped his hand, his breathing rough. “It’s excruciating on one level, but I’ve become somewhat numbed to it over the years.”
“Because a man of learning,” she said, pouring him a glass of water from a nearby jug, “doesn’t like having his thoughts truncated.” He wouldn’t call it bravery, wouldn’t even call it an emotional decision, but he’d made a stand in his own quiet way. “What do you think you’ll see in the next decade of your life?”