Kenji tapped a laser pen against his cheek. “Honestly, I love the idea of being allied with BlackSea. Their information network alone is invaluable. The question is, can SnowDancer adapt enough to work with a group that functions so differently?”
It was an astute question.
Shoving the pen behind his ear, Kenji continued. “We can’t treat them as we do our Psy business contacts, because as Riaz says, they are changelings and it would piss them off. But, it doesn’t look like we can have the kind of relationship with BlackSea that we do with DarkRiver and are building with WindHaven.”
Hawke nodded. He trusted the alphas of the leopard and falcon packs on a gut level. Neither Lucas nor Adam would ever knife him in the back, of that both parts of him were dead certain. “According to the official line,” he said, “they don’t have an alpha, but a ‘Conclave’ that represents all the major and minor species groups in BlackSea.”
Riaz shook his head. “That’s a load of PR bull. Her name is Miane Levèque and she knows everything that happens in BlackSea.”
“That’s what I thought.” Miane was someone Hawke had kept a quiet eye on, as he did the alphas of most major packs. “Whatever else happens, a face-to-face meeting is nonnegotiable.” His wolf would accept nothing less.
Riaz tapped the rolled-up papers against his knee. “My advice: we treat this request seriously, go over the contract, and ask for changes as needed. I think they’re feeling us out, seeing if we are able—or at least willing to try—to adapt to their unique way of doing things.”
“Could be a power play,” Kenji pointed out. “The minnow trying to get the whale to do as it wishes.”
Hawke grinned. “Excellent marine analogy, rock star.”
Kenji played some excellent air guitar. “I’ve been saving it up.”
“It’s definitely a little of that, too,” Riaz said, clearly in no doubt about BlackSea’s predatory instincts. “So we make sure they realize that while we’ll work with them, we won’t budge on the critical meet between Miane and Hawke.”
“And,” Hawke added, “guaranteed transport in and out of their cities.” Movement had to go both ways for an alliance to work. “If they plan to stonewall us there, the deal is off the table. And warn them if it happens after we agree to an alliance, we’ll consider it a fatal violation and a declaration of aggression.” SnowDancer had plenty of teeth, and he didn’t want BlackSea in any doubt that they would use those teeth the instant the other group tried to manipulate the situation.
Riaz’s eyes glinted in agreement, his wolf prowling close to the surface. “We also need to stipulate a permanent comm link. No dodging our calls and blaming it on nautical interference—before or after. Make sure they know SnowDancer doesn’t give second chances.”
“That’s a very good point,” Kenji said, swallowing a bite of what looked like cherry pie. “I hear BlackSea’s great at delaying things until it’s too late.”
“I’ll follow your lead—between you, you have more experience with BlackSea than anyone else in the pack.” Hawke was very aware that he either respected the strength and skills of his men and women, or he lost them to boredom and frustration. “The two of you have full authority to negotiate. Just keep me in the loop.”
“There’s one other thing.” Riaz’s expression was thoughtful. “Aren’t you guys wondering why they’re sticking their necks out now?”
It was the question Hawke had earlier shelved. “Yeah, when they’ve seen the consequences of allying with us in stark detail.” As an ally, BlackSea would be expected to provide support in any future conflicts.
“Last few times I met a changeling from BlackSea,” Riaz said, “I had the feeling something was up. Like this subtle tension under the surface.”
“I’m getting the same feeling.” Kenji took another bite of pie, chasing it down with more soda. “They’re in some kind of trouble, and whatever it is, it’s making us look attractive.”
Both his lieutenants glanced at Hawke, an unasked question in their eyes.
“We continue the process.” The advantages of having BlackSea as an ally were vast. “No point bringing it up now.” The aquatic changelings didn’t trust SnowDancer enough to tell them the truth. “Once the other pieces are in place, that’s when we pin them down—if they refuse to cooperate, it ends there.” He wouldn’t ally his people with a group that might lead them into unknown harm.
“You know, everything else aside, they’re bloody fascinating.” Riaz’s tone held intense interest. “A changeling group even other changelings don’t get.”
“Creepy as hell at times, too,” Kenji muttered. “Those black eyes some of them have—it’s like looking into the face of a mako shark.”
“You might be,” Riaz replied with a grin. “And damn, Kenji, do you live on a diet of junk food?”
“My sushi’s in my other bento box.” Unrepentant, he bit into a piece of cake.
Hawke listened to the two men discuss a couple of preliminary matters before Kenji signed off and Riaz stood. He remained concerned about the lieutenant, but as he’d told Riaz, he knew lone wolves. He’d give the other man a little more time. The one positive in the situation was that Riaz had come home, and he’d stayed.
“I’ll have a look at the contract tonight,” the other male now said, glancing at his watch. “I’m due to call Pierce in a few minutes—he said he’d be up late.”