Nix stepped onto the red carpet then tugged at the waistline of the dress, followed by the hem. It had bunched up in the limo and again when he moved. He’d forgotten about how tight and clingy the damn thing was; it had been a while since he’d worn this one.
But Wei had insisted on red tonight, which probably meant he thought there was going to be blood. Regulus had agreed, and well, Nix’s argument about not putting redheads in red had fallen flat.
Ah, well. Reggie and Wei wanted him in red, he’d rock red, even if it clashed with his hair and made his skin seem even pinker than usual. Such were the joys of being a strawberry leopard.
So were the stares he was getting. Leopards at society galas were rare enough, but strawberry leopards were almost unheard of. And strawberry leopards who curled their arms around the proffered arm of Rasalas’s head of state had to be something of an anomaly—a myth.
He smirked as he leaned into Reggie’s shoulder, trying to hide against the alpha lion’s broad shoulder. Let ’em stare, let ’em gawp. Reggie seemed completely impervious to their looks, and Nix had never shunned the spotlight.
His heels clicked, his skirt swished around his ankles as he strode alongside Reggie, watching scandal and rumor break on the sidelines of the red carpet with every step they took toward the arching doors of the Palais d’Or. Shutters clicked; lights flashed; and they were going to be on the front page of every gossip rag in the city tomorrow morning.
That was probably a bad thing, considering that Nix’s entire job relied on stealth, slipping into the shadows. Good spies, good assassins were usually unnoticeable.
Then again, they took precautions with this kind of thing. It wasn’t often Wei felt like they needed to send more than the “usual grunts,” the blue-uniformed secret service members, to detail Rasalas’s newly elected president. And, on the rare occasion he did feel that he needed to send in his elite, prosthetics and wigs and layers of makeup to utterly transform a cat were the order of the day. Nix was almost never the same person twice, and he liked it that way.
Tonight, he was closer to himself than he’d been in a long while, but there had been no time for disguise; the bomb threat had come across Wei’s desk almost too late. Truth be told, they all would have preferred to send Zosma or Wei himself. Either of the lion omegas would have looked just as graceful on Reggie’s arm tonight. In fact, they probably would have stood out less. Wei was an Asiatic lion, which drew some comment, but he blended easily, seamlessly into a crowd despite that. Zosma got everywhere and anywhere with her earth-rich skin and golden eyes, her kinky hair styled any which way; she was a beauty, but she was also an expert at disappearing in a sea of other lions.
Yeah, compared to them, Nix stood out like a sore thumb. But it was easy enough to pass him off as an escort, and when it came down to it, he was really the only one for this kind of job—anything that might involve dancing and fancy costumes usually fell to him.
When he’d broken his ankle, tore all the ligaments in it, he’d known his dance career was toast. He’d figured he’d wasted years of his life, and what a shame to have such skill, such talent, and a joint that wouldn’t let him compete ever again.
Everyone else had figured his career was done then too, and the only thing to do with an omega like that was marry him off—especially in the slums, especially when you were poor like Nenne and Dede were.
The next couple of years were a bit of a jumble; Nix remembered bits and pieces of the time after he’d flown the coop, run away from Nenne and Dede and his entire life and never looked back.
He didn’t like to remember what he’d done. The only thing worth mentioning was that, at some point, he’d met Wei and Bernard and they’d taken him in. Zosma had been reluctant at first, but he was useful—leopards could climb where lions couldn’t; leopards were all stealth and cunning, whereas the lions relied on brute force and group effort. In some ways, he was a perfect complement to their skill set.
And he could dance, which made him the perfect plus-one for Regulus when Wei wanted them to sniff around at political balls and charity galas and society functions. That was almost indispensable now that Regulus was the very first president Rasalas had ever had; they’d had a lot more sniffing to do in recent months.
So there he was, hanging off the arm of the white lion, smiling like an airhead as they greeted some of the other dignitaries, giggling like he had no brain in his skull when one of the unicorns from Thestia cracked a bad joke.
They worked the floor easily. Nix didn’t mind this part, although he knew it was burning time on his ankle—especially in these heels. He didn’t need to do much except pay attention while pretending he wasn’t. And it was a pleasure to watch Reggie work, actually—it was easy to see how he’d won over so many of their people, convinced them to exercise their new rights and cast their very first vote for him.
Reggie was tall and broad, much like every other male lion alpha Nix had ever met. Unlike the others, Reggie was leucitic, a white lion with piercing blue eyes. From afar, he could seem cold, almost icy—he held himself high, like he thought he was better than everyone else.
Yet that perception melted away like ice in the hot summer sun when he spoke. His voice was calming, a deep rumble that spoke of stability and promised hope in its very vibrations. Nix loved listening to him—and that wasn’t because he was some kind of convert, a cult follower worshipping at a shrine. The alpha just had a soothing voice.
And he was much warmer than anyone gave him credit for. His eyes sparkled when he spoke with people; even now, there was a spark of keen interest, some kind of delight playing in those blue orbs as he spoke with the crabs from Harriot about the sightseeing trip they’d taken around the city this afternoon.
Nix couldn’t have done it; he would have wrung the fuckers’ necks. Harriot was the ringleader of the Coalition forces. They’d been the ones to aggress, as far as Nix was concerned, against Scorpius; they’d started the whole damn war. Rasalas had been against them, sided with Scorpius. But the leonid casualties had been heavy, and the people had lost too much. They revolted; they overthrew the royal house that had sent them to war, that had thrown their lot in with the Scorpion Emperor, that had cost them their parents and their siblings, their spouses and their children.
With a new government in place and no appetite for war, they’d gone to Harriot to make peace. And now those fucking crabs were ramming a lopsided peace treaty down their throats. Reggie and his cabinet were doing their best to negotiate, but it didn’t change the fact the terms were bad, ruthless even.
They’d be slaves to Harriot, and here the crabs were, breathlessly talking about how delightful Rasalas was, and Reggie was smiling and laughing with them, as though he were genuinely interested in what the little colonialist pricks had done today.
Nix couldn’t have kept his cool. Glad it was Reggie and not him who had to play host, he went back to admiring the white lion’s braids, the colorful beads and feathers twisted in those kinky locks, denoting his rank and position.
“Ah, well,” Reggie said at last, pointing toward a doorway, which presumably led to the banquet hall, where the hotel staff would have been busy laying out a feast. “Duty calls.”
“Of course, of course,” said one of the crabs, nodding, and with that, they parted, Nix wrapping his arms around Reggie’s bicep.
“So?” the white lion drawled as they stepped through the portal of the dining room. Probably fifteen tables had been laid end to end, all of them draped with the flags of various Intergalactic Alliance members, denoting who would sit where. Several staff members hurried to and fro, still setting out silverware and china plates.
“Wouldn’t trust the one in the blue crown as far as I could throw him,” Nix reported, and Reggie smirked, humor dancing in his eyes. Nix appreciated the white lion’s smooth talking, but he knew Reggie delighted in his bluntness—something the alpha’s position denied him.
“You wouldn’t, would you?”
“Mm.” Nix glanced around the room. “Anyone tripping your radar?”
Reggie shook his head, his braids swinging to and fro. “I’m sure the miscreants will make themselves known over the course of the evening,” he sighed. For just a split second, the mask slipped; he looked and sounded tired.
“Maybe,” Nix replied, eyeing the alpha warily. “Maybe not.” It wasn’t like Reggie to let his guard down. But the months since his inauguration had been more exhausting than the months before the election, if that were possible. Bomb threats were nothing new these days. It seemed like the war and subsequent revolution had broken Rasalan society into a hundred thousand splinters. There were the royalists, who wanted the monarchy back; the warmongers, who figured they needed to fight Harriot; and others, who accused Reggie of being nothing more than a puppet of foreign planets.
Lately, whenever some big political thing like this happened, all those groups crawled out of the woodwork, like termites incensed out of their mound. Some of them were peaceful, marching and shouting with signs. Others got … well. Extreme. Violent. Dangerous.
And that was where Nix and the rest of the pride came in. From the shadows, they worked to keep Rasalas safe—or as safe as it could be, really, from political unrest and anarchy. Protest was well and fine, but not when it threatened the safety of ordinary citizens. Blowing up a hotel—full of patrons, folks on their holiday vacations, cleaning staff who barely eked out a living—to get at the political elite was unconscionable in Nix’s opinion. Especially when a sniper rifle or a good dose of poison would accomplish the same thing with fewer casualties.
He hardly blamed the extremists—even if he disagreed with them. He’d lived in the slums, come face to face with the wrong end of some overzealous royal guardsman’s gun too many times to count, even for walking down the street, for being out after dark. He’d watched them tear gas and shoot at anything that even looked like complaint. Keep ’em down, keep ’em down.
Sometimes, it seemed like the only way to dismantle it was to burn it to the ground and try again.
Wei had been part of the royalist faction itself. He’d joined Reggie, started as a spy for him, running information about the royalists. He’d left his entire family for the dream of a new world.
He still didn’t understand, not like Nix did; he’d never lived it. But he saw it and didn’t like it. Zo and Bern agreed. And sure, they could have been called naive—idealists, zealots, anything.
But Nix did feel like Reggie could remake the world. Except for Harriot and their cronies, twisting their arms, making them give concessions at every turn …
Well, that was politics; eventually, they’d become hollow shells of what they once were, forcibly clinging to power because they still believed they were the only ones who got it, the only ones who could make a difference.
He glanced at Reggie, sighing softly. The lion quirked a brow at him, question in his eyes. Nix rarely got introspective; it was usually Reggie or Wei’s job to overthink and overanalyze shit. Nix just did.
Shoes on the marble floor drew their attention. A small crowd of dignitaries stepped through the portal. One of them—a human, Nix thought they were called—smiled, said, “We heard it was time for dinner.”
Just like that, Reggie’s mask was back in place; the lion underneath was buried. He grinned back broadly, clapped the ape-like creature on the shoulder. “Of course,” he rumbled, gesturing to the tables. “What kind of host would I be if I didn’t invite friends to share in Rasalas’s wealth?”
Nix bit his tongue. That was the issue; Rasalas had wealth to share, but it was theirs to decide when and how to share. Harriot and their cronies were inviting themselves to the table, ready to pick it clean and ask for more.
He flicked an ear at footsteps behind him. He turned slightly, glancing at the female alpha who approached. She was dressed in an elegant navy suit with gold trim, and Nix ran his gaze over her hurriedly.
She seemed familiar somehow. Had he seen her before?
She stopped beside him, glanced him over as well, her sharp gray eyes appreciative.
Well, that was new. He glanced back at the crowd, Reggie on the other side of the room. As much as he was here sniffing for information, he was also responsible for the alpha’s person. Sure, there were plenty of blue-suits around and Bern wasn’t far off, but Nix was the most senior-ranked member of the security branch on site. Not that anyone else in the room knew that; most of the blue-suits probably didn’t recognize him either.
“You’re with the president, are you?”
He glanced at the lion alpha again. She was watching Reggie as well, where he was greeting ambassadors and presidents and monarchs and emperors as they streamed into the room.
“What’s it to you?” Nix asked, clutching his purse a little tighter.
“Oh,” she said like he’d hit her, “I was just wondering. The president is very private and rarely brings anyone with him, so we’re all wondering …”
Nix lifted a brow. Was she a journalist? One of the gossip columnists? “We’re friends,” he offered at last.
“Friends.” She rolled the word around like a weapon. Nix shifted, glanced at her again. Their eyes met; she smirked and looked away, tipping her head.
“Yeah,” he agreed.
She hummed. Then she reached into her jacket and pulled out a small leather pouch. She pulled out a handful of shells, offering her palm to him.
Oh. She thought he was some kind of escort, a hired date. He gritted his teeth, and then Zo, who had been silent this entire time, hissed over the wire, “Get her upstairs, kitty.”
He shifted again. He looked the alpha up and down, let his lids fall to half-mast, fluttered his lashes a little. “Find me after dinner,” he purred as he brushed by her. “Then we‘ll talk.”
He headed to the bathroom after that, glared at his reflection in the murky mirror. His eyes blazed back, a feverish green, even brighter against the dark marks that circled them, then ran down the outside of his cheeks, marking him as a leopard. He gritted his teeth, embarrassed.
He’d thought maybe she was some kind of threat, but it seemed like she just wanted to get laid, thought he was a whore.
Spirits, he hated lions sometimes.
“Get it together,” Zo told him over the wire. He dragged his hands down his face.
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, slapped either cheek in turn. “She just … alphas like that piss me off. Who does she think she is?”
“I don’t like it.” That was Wei’s tranquil tone. “She zeroed in on you.”
“She came outta nowhere,” Zo agreed.
He sighed. “She seemed familiar,” he muttered. “Ugh. Should’ve figured someone would suggest that …”
Not that he was maybe Reggie’s partner, a bondmate. No, a leopard could never be with the president like that. He’d have to be a whore, hired on or something. The president would never want to date him.
Joke was on them, the pricks. He’d been part of Reggie’s pride for more than five years at this point. The only thing they hadn’t done was bond, and that was because Nix refused it. He didn’t want to be pinned down, controlled like that.
“I know, I know.” He gripped the edge of the sink, stared down into it. Then he heaved a huge breath.
“Something’s off about her,” Wei assured him.
He turned on the water, rinsed his hands. “What about Blue Crown? From Harriot?”
“We’re keeping an eye on him.”
“And didja get the extra sweep done? Our sweep?”
“Bern’s finishing up.”
He nodded. “All right. All right.” He cut the water, dried his hands on a piece of paper.
He headed back down the dingy corridor from the omega powder room. He passed by the kitchen, which was a mess of staff members, flashing silver—knives, pans, pots.
He made his way back to the dinner table, perched beside Reggie with a smile to the dignitary to his left—a Piscean, with bright red eyes.
He hated fish. He fanned himself with a hand, brushed his hair back as he surveyed the scene. People were chattering away, drinking, eating seemingly without a care in the world. He picked out Blue Crown easily.
“Phoenix,” Reggie chided, and he snapped to attention. He hadn’t realized he’d been staring—or maybe glaring, if the Piscean’s wary look was anything to go by.
Reggie’s gaze lingered on him. When he turned to the white lion, the president had one elegant brow arched in question. Nix huffed. “Everything’s fine,” he muttered, glanced down at his lap, his claws.
Someone chortled, and he looked to see one of the unicorns on Reggie’s right. He grinned at them. “Omegas, ah?”
Reggie turned a smile on the guy. “Something that seems to be true no matter what planet you’re from,” he said, and they both laughed.
Nix huffed then waved his hand in front of his face again. It was just warm in here. He scanned the crowd for the female alpha again, frowning when he couldn’t find her.
Uneasiness settled into the pit of his stomach. Maybe she’d just gone to the bathroom, stepped outside for some air. It was fine, he reasoned, but he didn’t like it, didn’t like it one bit.
“Relax,” Reggie purred in his ear, his pitch and tone calculated for maximum tranquility, and well, Nix wished he could, but that wasn’t in his job description, so he’d be damned if he did.