The White Goddess

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Liability


“Fucking hell, it reeked in there.” Boone let out the breath he’d been holding as he followed King out of Macklin’s office. “You’re supposed to kill them before they shit their pants.”

King’s voice was tight. “I promised not to hurt them.”

"I didn’t.”

“I promised for you,” King snapped.

Boone rolled his eyes, shaking his head behind his leader’s back. When King had stormed back out of the Church doors shouting Macklin’s name, Boone had expected—okay, hoped—heads would go literally flying.

Instead King had ordered the terrified old rogue and his human cohort into Macklin’s office for a discussion which much to Boone’s disappointment, had not been a euphemism for killing them privately, but an actual discussion over the course of which King had visibly restrained himself from killing them multiple times.

King’s frustration was a tangible thing as he burst out the side door to the garden, sending a group of young women squawking and fluttering away like a nervous flock of birds. One moved more slowly than the others. Boone stepped in her way.

The woman froze, her pulse hammering wildly in her throat. There was something familiar about her but then, human females all smelled alike.

“Serafina’s Guardian. You know him? Tell him King wants to speak to him,” Boone said when the female nodded jerkily. He pointed to the fire pit beyond the garden. “We’ll be over there.”

“Y-yes sir.” She darted away just as Boone recognized her from their last visit, specifically from when he’d caught her alone in the greenhouse. She’d even enjoyed it, near the end there. Boone didn’t kill every human female he had sex with.

King was already dropping himself onto one of the log benches that circled the fire pit, their usual spot to speak privately when they were visiting the Church. Boone pulled a slightly-squashed cigarette pack out of his pocket and sat down wordlessly beside him.

"Fuuuck.” King groaned the word.

Boone shook out two joints and handed one to King. The healings Macklin had been subjecting Serafina to had infuriated him far beyond the secrecy and disobedience. For King, anything to do with Serafina was personal. But he was next-level obsessed with her art.

Turns out, not only had Macklin been lining Church pockets with the healings, but the Elders had been selling Serafina’s paintings instead of storing them like they led her—and King—to believe.

King grunted his thanks and bent his head to the lighter. The paper crinkled and glowed as he took a long, hard draw. “She’s going to be heartbroken.”

“You’re the one who’s heartbroken,” Boone said.

King didn’t disagree. He had already built a gallery space in the Garnet Range mansion for Serafina’s artwork when he finally brought her home.

He hadn’t even known he liked art until he saw Serafina’s paintings for the first time. King had known she liked to draw, but gave it little notice until one June visit when Serafina was six years old. Her mother had brought her a paint set the week before. King had allowed Serafina to drag him to her bedroom to show him her art, expecting to deliver the same bullshit praise as he did when she made him watch her spar with a comically gentle Ian.

King exhaled a long stream of smoke, remembering how he’d been struck dumb by the rich colours and childish, yet surely magical strokes that somehow managed to perfectly capture her mother, walking away from the Church gates after a visit. Cassandra’s mingled sadness and joy after spending time with her child seemed to pour off the canvas.

Since then, Serafina had produced a dozen more brilliant works of art, eight of which were now hanging in human homes and corporate offices across the western central Empire. Of those eight, three were purchased by an art dealer in Vancouver, British Columbia. Macklin didn’t know who the art dealer had sold them to, or where the buyers lived. But even if the private residence in Nelson was one of them, it didn’t explain hiring a PI to investigate Macklin.

King and Boone smoked in silence for a few minutes, passing the bottle of whiskey Boone had found in Macklin’s office back and forth. Alcohol-free environment, Boone’s ass.

“I’m moving up the date.” King wiped the back of his hand across his lips and handed the bottle back to Boone. “I can’t leave her here until she’s sixteen.”

Boone took a swig and rested the bottle on his thigh. “Moving it up to when?”

“Twelve.” As he often did, King made up his mind as he spoke. “She can be marked as soon as she starts menstruating. Calm down, I said marked,” he snapped at Boone’s skyrocketing brows.

“All right, all right.” Boone raised his hand in a calming gesture. “Earlier you get her away from all this goddess bullshit the better, far as I'm concerned. You see how they treat her around here? I’m surprised she’s not a raging brat.”

“Me too.” Every time King came back he searched in vain for some sign that the adulation and worship of Church believers had gone to Serafina’s head. Even non-believers—AKA normal people—were drawn to her, just like when she'd been a baby. King saw it every time he took her into town.

“She hates it though. She’s been questioning what they’re teaching her for a while now. She’ll be happy to leave here,” he said firmly.

Boone didn’t ask if King was trying to convince Boone, or himself. “Good to cut ties with the Church sooner than later. Get your name off their books. Did you promise Serafina not to kill Macklin ever? Or just today?”

“You know, I’m not sure.” King thought back to the conversation. “She wouldn’t tell me why she was sick until I promised not to hurt anyone.”

“So you really only promised not to kill anyone for the healing thing.” Boone mirrored the growing smile across King’s face.

“You asked for me?”

A young, already deepening voice interrupted them. Serafina’s Guardian. He stood tall and straight on the packed dirt surrounding the fire pit, clearly intimidated but squarely facing their assessing gazes. Properly trained, he had all the makings of a great warrior someday.

“Yes.” King took a swig from the whiskey bottle and handed it to Boone. “Tell me about Serafina’s abilities.”

Ian’s eyes darted to Boone, then back to King. “She’s an unbelievable artist.”

“I’m aware of that,” King said impatiently. “That’s not the kind of ability I’m referring to.”

“The Elders are the most qualified to speak on the gifts of the White Goddess. Sir,” Ian added, fixing his eyes somewhere in the region of King’s beard.

King frowned. “The Elders spout Church doctrine. You know her better than they do.”

Ian shrugged, not denying this. “What do you want to know, exactly?”

“I know she has healing powers, which have been shamelessly exploited without my knowledge.” King bit back a growl. “What else can she do?”

“She...” Ian swallowed hard, unable to resist King’s power of command. “She’s really good with like, plants and animals. Anything alive.”

Boone straightened with interest. “What do you mean, like, she can talk to them?”

Ian shook his head. “Not talk, talk. She says they just understand each other. Plants too.” He turned to point at the garden. “See how the flowers are all facing that picnic bench? Serafina sits there every day for hours.”

King’s eyes gleamed. “So that story about the mountain lion she told me...?”

Ian nodded. “Yeah, that was true. She snuck out to paint at like, dawn, and I found her right back there—” He indicated the stand of trees beyond the clearing. “—Petting a mountain lion. A lone male. She got mad because it ran off as soon as it saw me.”

“Interesting,” King murmured, an understatement if there ever was one. His girl was even more complex and facinating than he’d thought. “What else?”

Ian shifted his weight uncomfortably. “Well, she can’t be compelled. You probably already noticed that.”

A brief smile flashed across King’s face. He liked that about her, Ian realized.

“Serafina...affects people,” he went on slowly. “It’s like she pulls them in. People want to be near her, bask in her light.” Ian flushed when the men exchanged a look. He probably sounded like an idiot. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

“She’s hard to explain,” King conceded, extending his hand to Boone in a silent demand for the whiskey bottle. Shifters had a far higher tolerance than humans, but the pot and alcohol combined on an empty stomach were enough to mellow his temper.

“She’s a goddess,” Ian said simply.

Boone scoffed. “You believe that sh—?” A look from King had him snapping his mouth shut.

King took a long drink from the bottle. “So you embrace the Church's teachings? The prophecy, all of that...?”

“Are you asking if I believe wolf shifters are evil?” King’s brows rose and Boone coughed a laugh at Ian’s bluntness. “I know what you are, and I know what I am.”

“And Macklin,” said King.

“And your trainer.” Boone took a drag from his joint and waited a few beats to exhale. “King’s the one who sent him here, you know.”

“I figured,” Ian said. “So yeah, I know we’re not all dangerous to Sera like Macklin says.” He breathed a humourless laugh. “It’s funny, so far he’s been the wolf that’s hurt her the most.”

A low growl reverberated through King’s chest. “I could not agree more.”

“I just don’t get...” Ian trailed off uncertainly. King and Boone were as unthreatening as he’d ever seen them, but that could change at any time. Still, there was no one else he could ask. “How does Elder Macklin not know Conrad is a wolf? Can’t he scent him?”

Boone laughed. “That weak excuse for a rogue can’t even scent us.” He gestured between himself and King.

King took a long last drag of the roach and flicked it into the fire pit. “He’s been living as a human for so long, his wolf is completely suppressed.”

“But he knows I’m a wolf.” Ian’s brows came together in confusion. “He says it takes a wolf to protect Serafina from wolves. That’s why he chose me to be her Guardian.”

“He never told you.” King barked a disbelieving laugh. “I don’t know why I’m surprised.” He shook his head at Ian. “Macklin’s your grandfather.”

“What?” Ian’s frown deepened. “No, my parents—”

“Your mother is Macklin’s daughter, a self-loather just like he is. Her husband isn’t your biological father. Their other children are mongr—hybrids,” King corrected himself with rare diplomacy. “They were born without wolves.”

Ian dropped onto an empty bench, his head spinning. He was Elder Macklin’s grandson? His father wasn’t his father? Ian didn’t have many memories of the first five years of his life, but the ones he had were good. Did his father know? Had his mother been married before? Or had she cheated? Or even worse, had she been forced? Was he the product of rape? Is that why they were so willing to send him away? Cut all ties like he’d never existed?

Boone finished the whiskey with a long burp. “What about Serafina’s mother?” he asked, tossing the empty bottle into the metal bowl in the centre of the fire pit with a noisy clang.

Ian flinched at the sound. “Cassandra? What about her?”

“How often does she come?” King asked.

“Couple times a month.” Ian shrugged. “They usually go to the beach.”

“They?” Boone sent a sharp look at King. “I thought visits with her mother are supervised?”

“They’re supposed to be.” Ian rolls his eyes, not realizing this was a rule of King’s not the Elders’. “But sometimes Cassandra comes really early when the Elders are still at morning meditation.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Boone sent another look at King. King was not looking back.

After four years at Garnet Range, the Spirit Sister’s younger daughter had showed no sign of abilities or even awareness of her bloodline, and her spirit was sufficiently broken that King allowed Cassandra to return home when Serafina started asking about her mother. With a few conditions.

One, that Cassandra assign legal guardianship of Serafina to Macklin. Two, that she never speak of Serafina to anyone, including her sister. Three, that Cassandra never speak to Serafina of wolf shifters, her time spent in captivity, or the existence of any family besides herself.

Boone had argued hard against the move, but when it came to Serafina, King operated on a whole different standard of logic.

Ian cleared his throat. “Can I ask you another question?” King raised a brow and he rushed on: “The healings—?”

King shook his head. “She won’t be curing rich humans of their diseases anymore.”

The boy flashed a smile before wiping it from his face. “Thank you, sir.”

Boone was careful not to look at King when the boy walked away, leaving them alone again. Boone had been resisting the overwhelming urge to shout ‘I told you so’ ever since King had mentioned Serafina’s artless comments about her aunt and cousins.

“All right, let’s hear it,” King said after a few moments.

Boone played dumb. “Hear what?”

“Don’t fuck with me,” King said in irritated tones. “I’m sure you’re dying to point out that if she’s talking to Serafina about them, how do we know she hasn’t told them about Serafina?”

“You mean during one of their regular conversations, or on one of her yearly visits to Vancouver?” Boone couldn’t resist saying innocently. Allowing Cassandra contact with her family was something else he’d argued against.

“It’s better than the sister coming down to Willow Beach to check on her,” King snapped.

“It would be better if she’d stayed in Garnet Range,” Boone muttered.

King shot him a warning look. “Surely if the sister knew, she would have taken action by now.”

“Unless Cassandra only told her recently,” Boone said. “Maybe she’s the one investigating Macklin.”

King grunted. It made sense. A lot more sense than an art buyer. But King wasn’t happy about it. He wasn’t happy with that answer at all. “We don’t know for sure Cassandra told her sister anything.”

"Yet." Boone paused. “She’s a liability, King.”

King knew what Boone was thinking: that Cassandra was weak and it was just a matter of time before she said the wrong thing to somebody. If not her sister, then a co-worker or friend. It was the kind of story human social and network media loved and it wouldn’t take much digging to connect the Church with notorious billionaire investor Lucifer King.

King was already on the radar of multiple human law enforcement agencies and any renewed interest in his business concerns would only cause problems. Problems that could get in the way of much bigger, much more important plans.

It was the the sister who worried King the most. She was the eldest daughter of a Spirit Sister: Who knew what her powers were? Even if she had none, once she got wind of a secret niece being raised by religious crazies on a gated compound outside of town, she’d almost certainly take some kind of action. At the least she’d get local human authorities involved. Challenge Macklin’s guardianship. Remove Serafina from the Church’s care. And by extension, out of King’s reach.

A strange, unfamiliar tightness gripped King’s chest. Sure, worst case scenario he could wait it out, keep an eye on Serafina until she came of age and out from under her aunt’s wing. In eight years.

That would mean eight years without Serafina, deprived of the addictive pleasure of her smile and sass and affection. Eight years of her growing, painting, learning about the world without him. Outside of his influence and protection. Maybe even being poisoned against him. King rubbed his chest unconsciously at the thought of those golden eyes regarding him with fear or worse, hatred. Fear, he could overcome.

King thought of the picture Serafina had drawn of him and Boone in the truck on the way to Phoenix yesterday, Griff ribbing Boone over the phone. Not only was she dreaming of shifters, Serafina was apparently having visions of him as well.

King brushed aside the thought that if she’d envisioned him an hour earlier, when Boone was questioning the private investigator—or really, in ninety-five percent of situations King was in when Serafina wasn’t around—she might have welcomed him very differently today.

The important thing was their connection was deepening. Humans could forgive anything of someone they loved and Serafina loved him, of that King was sure. By the time she was twelve their bond would be strong enough for her to accept his revelations and her new position in life.

King would tell her everything. Well, not really. But he would tell her about shifters, reveal himself and Boone and Ian, if necessary to gain her trust. King imagined their wedding night, sitting in front of the fireplace in her bedroom at Garnet Range, the flickering light of the fire reflected in her wide golden eyes as King told her stories of the world of wolves and the power imbalance in the Empire. Serafina would be scared, but willing when he marked her, but he’d get her tipsy and make her laugh to distract her from the pain.

Over time King would grow stronger, more powerful and so would Serafina. An Alpha wolf’s mark on a human extended their lives, heightened their senses, and inured them to most human diseases. Once Serafina turned sixteen she’d become his mate in every sense. Stand by his side as he conquered the western Empire and give him strong, powerful pups with the blood of the goddess Astria running through them.

That was the future King was working towards. A future he could not—would not—place at risk. King didn’t want to just mark her and park her like he’d planned with Cassandra. He wanted it all. And he was going to have it.

From the corner of his eye King could see Boone watching him, knowing better than to rush him for a reply. King let out a long breath. “Fine.” He slapped his hands on his knees and rose to his feet abruptly.

Boone remained seated, his eyes still fixed on King’s face. Waiting for something firmer than a ‘fine’ before killing Serafina’s mother. This was big. As infrequently as Serafina saw Cassandra, she was attached to her.

Her mother’s death would hurt her, but King didn’t see he had a choice. A weight seemed to roll off his shoulders as he made his decision, a decision he privately acknowledged should have been made long ago. Boone was right, not that King had any intention of admitting it. When it came to making decisions involving Serafina, he’d been far too self-indulgent.

King’s tone was firm, unapologetic as he addressed Boone, carrying the full weight of command. “Take care of it. Nothing too gory though,” he added, despite his best efforts. “There’ll be a funeral and Serafina will want to see her face.”


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