Hidden Within Excerpt:

Dom watched the woman cross River Mountain's main plaza from an upper balcony. Despite being five stories away, he saw her clearly, with a hawk's sight. Tall, with wide shoulders and solid hips, she was neither trim nor curvy. Dark haired and eyed with golden skin, there was nothing remarkable about her, yet she exuded a presence that made the few passersby look at her again. He supposed it was the total self-confidence she wore, a combination of a well-loved woman and a Royal princess.

There would be no passersby on the hallway where he stood, because he didn't want to distract or distress the petite woman he stood beside. His neck was locked in the forward position, forbidden to turn and look at Rowan. He'd lured her out of her room with the lame excuse of wanting a prophecy regarding the princess' presence.

He inhaled. This was cheating, letting himself take her scent deep into his awareness. His inner marten chattered in distress. All eleven of his beastspirits thrashed. In a moment, the surge settled, and wolf's nose filtered out Rowan, the food tents, the river, and found that of their newest guest.

She was curious but calm. No anger tinted her scent. Apparently, Moriko truly had volunteered to join the women's offensive. Luna, the domina of the Snowcats, approached her. The women embraced and walked together, the sandcat guard trailing behind with the assigned snowcat.

The woman standing next to him shifted. "That's her in the purple dress?" She'd never admit it, but she was anxious outside her room. Being captive for so long had left her with a deep unease of open spaces like this immense hollowed mountain. She'd spent half her life locked in one room after another.

Owl flapped inside him just from the stimulation of her voice. His beasts shifted, ever restless near her. The power in this woman intoxicated him. "Yes, that is Princess Moriko."

"Kind of strange she's allowed here but her mate isn't." Rowan wore a thin cream robe over a lavender night shift so tight he truly wondered how she'd poured herself into it.

Dom kept his hands on the banister and his neck straight ahead, refusing to turn and verify his memory of bountiful round breasts.

"I mean, she won't ever get to live in here. That's so sad. Do you think she'll ever come to your Autumnal party? Oh, look! They're flying inside today."

Her thin, pale hand entered his vision, pointing gracefully at the soaring hawks gliding around the upper reaches of the plaza's massive cavern. Her open delight in such commonplace things both awed and crushed him. She was innocence, but it had been forced on her.

It was impossible not to follow the line of her delicate wrist, her smooth arm, and to turn and see her profile. That horrific collar sat wide against her neck, with just enough of a gap for her to tip her head as she watched the gliding forms of the hawks sweep past. But then there was her stubborn chin and little snub nose. Her flying black brows and the wild tumble of her long sleek spirals of black hair. He licked his lips and sandcat slashed at his insides.

"I want her to visit me. They say no lock can stand before a Royal, and she'd be better than most as the Chatelaine." Rowan's fingers curled over the upper edge of the collar, her hands pulling at it like she'd rip it off herself. "I bet she can take this away."

Mountaincat paced inside Dom, weaving step-by-step with groundbear. That foul collar. He'd rip it off her himself if he could. He'd tried. The best council alphas had tried. Humans had put it on her as a child, and the scars from wearing it all her life had worn shiny tracks along the tops of her shoulders. "We have found several of the people present at the ritual that first bound you."

"Yes, the lovely woman with red hair, Vivienne, is one of you now. Is she willing to meet with me yet?"

So far, Vivienne hadn't been able to stomach meeting Rowan. She'd shared what little she knew of how the collar had been sealed, and given the names of everyone involved, but the collar Rowan now wore was different from the one she'd had when the Mage Guild at Second City had sought to suppress the child's prophecies. "Not yet. Now that the escaped bear has confirmed the lizard birds are all dead, she can come off duty and complete the adopted women's courses. I will remind her you want to see her."

"I remember her. She was never cruel." Rowan turned her back to the tents in the plaza below and looked off down the hall toward her room.

He could tell she wanted to go back, but he continued the conversation, just to prolong being near her. "She held you down for them when they sealed you into that. It's amazing you can think kindly of her."

"I was different then. Everything was confused, even for them, I think. And there were some who were cruel, but she wasn't one."

Dom's snowcat and bear both snarled in agreement, disgusted with human behavior, as usual. "Vivienne is ashamed, rightfully, but your wishes as the victim come first. I'll see to it she comes to you soon."

"Devron has told me the stories of the Battle of Fourth and the Battle on the Plains so many times I feel like I've lived it myself. She's an amazing woman. Do you think she'll juggle fire for me? Laing has juggled for me. He's not that good."

The mention of her two guards made lizzeed snarl and lunge through the forest of his mind. "She will." He'd see to it.

"And Laing told me of the darkmages' pet bear, returned to you after so long in their fortress. He's covered in scars, and barely has a human spirit anymore."

"Don't tell me you want to meet him, too, because it isn't going to happen." Just the thought of Rowan being exposed to that—

"Oh, I already met him. He came by my room a few times, just to look. Not here. Back in the fortress, of course. He'd never speak to me but sometimes he brought me food."

Dom shuddered as every one of his eleven beastspirits howled. He tried very hard not to remember she'd been held by the darkmages, tortured and tormented by them.

"I'm so glad he's out. That means he was able to give you even more information than the hawk and the human slaves." She sighed, toying with the edge of her robe. "Since I wasn't any help. Chained in my room the whole time, I knew next to nothing."

The luxury of touching her was allowed when her touch-oriented nature needed soothing. With exact control, he took one hand off the banister and put it on her. At the press of her warm shoulder beneath the robe, he lost control of his erection for a moment, but he clamped it off before it grew noticeable. "You shared the knowledge you gained and every bit of information helps us."

Her breath hitched, and she turned her huge, round black eyes up to his. Her face was slack, and he froze, knowing her gift for truth-telling rode her.

"Stand behind the bones of your ancestors."

And as usual, her gift made about as much sense as a happy toddler with a biscuit. She blinked, frowned.

"I hear your words, Rowan." The look in her eyes grew sad, and it broke him. "Someday we'll find a way to understand your prophecies, and your guidance will matter." How it must frustrate her that her life had been torn apart by people who wanted to control a gift that, in the end, didn't matter because it was so opaque.

Her face wiped into a haughty mask. Her gaze glittered. "I'd like to go back to my room. Water has nothing to say about the princess today."

Someday the might council leader of the truxet would end up falling to his knees and crying like a child to please let him stay with her just a little longer. "Yes, Lady." He gestured and she walked toward her room. It wasn't quite a scurry, but close.

When she saw her guard, Laing, she broke into a run and threw herself into his arms. Laing looked questioningly at Dom over her tousled black curls.

He shrugged, ignoring how mountaincats's claws shredded down his ribs. "Nothing on our new royal guest, but there was one prophecy I'll record."

"Take me back to the room and hold me, Laing. I want to be reminded that some people like being with me instead of my gift."

Laing was still looking at him, so Dom kept his expression bland, but it was hard fought. Laing dipped his cheek down to lay it on Rowan's head. "Yes, dove." Curling one sleekly muscled arm around her, the groundbear led her into the stone arch.

Dom forced himself to stand and watch her go. His claws ached behind his human-form's nails, ready to erupt and skewer the guard. But in the end the years of rigorous training won out over the heat of unrequited lust, and he walked away with his honor unblemished and his menagerie in chaos.