"A wolf," Princess Eugina said nodding into the darkening garden beyond her door. "Standing there moments ago."
The guard frowned. "You say you saw a wolf, inside the palace grounds --"
Eugina leaned forward and looked him in the face. She stood taller than her brothers and almost as tall as her father. The guard gave an involuntary start as he yanked backwards. She didn't stay often in the palace and they weren't used to her.
"When was the last time you went on a hunt?" Eugina asked.
"I was out ten days ago on my way here. We brought in enough venison to feed the royal family and all our wondrous guests for my Presentation Feast. I killed three wolves. I have their skins -- see them there? If you give me that 'she's just a woman, nice little princess' look one more time, you'll be out hunting wolves on foot for the rest of the fall and probably into winter. If I say there was a wolf in my garden, then by the Gods, you had better take me seriously. I want you and two others to come with me. You don't hunt a wolf cagey enough to get in here alone."
"Yes, your highness."
Justis slinked away from the opening near the door, his belly to the ground and his breathing soft. Well, damn. He'd wanted to get a look at the princess before the presentation and without her realizing he was around. He'd thought that as a shapeshifter he had the perfect answer. No one had said the woman was a warrioress and she actually had a mind.
In fact, people said so little about the Agascan princess, he'd thought she must be feeble-minded at the very least, and possibly part troll. The woman was magnificent . . . but she was also very dangerous.
He couldn't change into human form and turn up in her private garden. Aside from it being very bad manners, it might possibly get him killed as an assassin. If he survived, she might put certain things together. Letting people know the Royal Family of Penca had shifter blood would cause problems far beyond getting a prince of the line killed.
He'd have to figure out a way to make the princess think he'd left the garden without drawing attention the windows of the guest rooms at the far end. Climb a tree and leave furrows, leap to the roof and pretend to leave the compound instead of going to his room. He could do this --
Or maybe not because he suddenly scented someone else in the garden; someone who smelled of anxiousness and who moved as quietly as a wolf. Justis paused in the darker shadows of the garden’s ancient oak. This wasn't another suitor come to look over the delectable Eugina.
Damn. An actual assassin.
The courts had been rife with assassins for the last decade. There'd been two successful murders in the last year. Someone wanted power over all the courts and killed to get it. The wise thing would be to go to ground and stay out of sight so no one confused him for the assassin. The problem with such a wise plan was that he might lose any chance at Eugina. His father insisted he marry. He would have to do something to help her survive because he could tell the three guards were going to get her killed.
"No, we are not bringing a lantern out you fool!" she said with obvious derision. "All that would do is blind us. Who the hell is training you people?"
The guard glared. His eyes looked beyond her and his hand gave a subtle little sign. The guard was working with the assassin. Now Justis was well and truly angry. He'd have to move quickly.
Eugina had a special sense for when something was not right and she felt it slapping her across the back of her head. Oddly, she could not smell wolf, but she sensed the creature off to the left. Or the right?
Her eyes flickered one way or the other, the sword remaining steady in her hand. She saw the wolf move first -- the guards yelped in shock -- and she brought up her sword.
The wolf didn't attack her. The creature leapt a row of flowers and tackled a black-cloaked figure to the right.
They rolled, flattening exotic flowers and both howling and grunting in pain. The guards backed away in haste. She shouted and rushed in, but it was hard not to get knocked down. Then the assassin rolled and put his dagger into the squirming wolf beneath him.
She put her sword into the assassin's back.
The silence grew ominous until she began to hear shouts of surprise elsewhere. People had heard the battle.
"Get out there and warn the others to check everywhere! Go!" she ordered.
"The wolf --"
"The wolf is dead. So is the assassin, with no help from any of you. Go!"
They obeyed. She dragged the assassin off the animal and watched the wolf shimmer and reshape. He wore dark clothing, covered in blood, and put a hand to his shoulder.
"Tall guard, annoying one, working with assassin," he said softly.
"Prince Justis of Penca. Came to get a look at you. Thought you might be a troll," he said, his eyes flickering. "Damn mess."
She dragged him into her room, threw a wolf skin over him, and ordered everyone to stay out, including her brothers. Later she showed the bloody skin as the wolf that had gotten into the castle. No one questioned her.
The Presentation was held off for a week while she dealt with the guards. By then, Justis was on his feet and in the throne room with the other five suitors. He came forward last.
"Just one question," she said. "Do you like to hunt?"
"Anything but wolves," he replied.
"I think we can work that one out."