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BLOOD CHALLENGE
by Eileen Wilks

Genre: Urban Fantasy, Paranormal/Urban Fantasy

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Two months ago . . . 

 “Kneel.”
 
The two young men did as they were bid. One was fair and lean, with hair the color of wheat and eyes the sunny blue of the sky that ripens it. The other was ruddy, with dark hair and a mouth that seemed permanently bent up, as if he smiled so often his face was trained to it. Both wore cutoffs, nothing else.
 
Isen sat in his favorite armchair and studied them. It was an interesting moment. David Auckley and Jeffrey Lane were the first Leidolf to set foot inside his home since it was built.
 
Unless, of course, he counted his son.
 
Isen glanced at Rule standing several feet behind the two youngsters. Somehow, at the gens compleo that brought these two into their clan—into Leidolf—as full adults, Rule had also brought them into Nokolai. Isen had felt it when it happened, naturally. The imprint new clan members made on the mantle was subtle but unmistakeable.
 
This shouldn’t have been possible. But then, Isen’s second-born son was the first lupus in roughly three thousand years to hold more than one mantle. The impossible was becoming commonplace these days.
 
The next wrinkle was more implausible than outright impossible. After accidentally bringing David and Jeff into two clans instead of one, Rule had been unable to remove them from Nokolai. Now, Rule held only the heir’s portion of that mantle, but it should have been enough. Neither he nor Isen understood why it hadn’t worked.
 
Today they amended that. Isen held the full Nokolai mantle. In a sense he held even that portion Rule carried, for the full mantle was his to command, regardless of where it lay. It would do his will. He no more doubted that than he doubted his ability to guide his foot or his hand.
 
They would do this without ceremony. No one was calling seco, though the action necessary to remove them from the mantle was the same as when a lupus was made clanless. But there was no shame to these young men in what must be done, and they wouldn’t be left clanless.
 
“David,” Isen said, keeping his voice low and matter-of-fact. “Jeffrey.” He placed a hand on each man’s shoulder. His mantle stirred, recognizing them. He held that recognition in his awareness . . . and denied it, with words and with intent, calling back the tiny portions of mantle swimming in each of them. “You are not Nokolai.”
 
Nothing happened. For a very long moment, nothing at all happened.
 
Isen leaned back in his chair, his hands dropping from the two bare shoulders, and laughed loud and long.
 
“Iesn,” Rule said. Just that, and his tone gave away as little as his words. No doubt he meant to conceal his worry from the two pups who were staring at Isen now, the blond one alarmed, the darker one sufficiently astonished to have lost that small, perpetual smile.

That, too, amused Isen. “Ah,” he said, wiping his eyes, which had watered from mirth. “The joke’s on me, isn’t it?”
 
“I’m not finding the humor,” Rule said dryly.
 
Isen looked at his son with great love and almost as much patience. He had two living sons, and both were a trifle too serious. Still, he understood Rule’s anxiety. They had thus far managed to conceal the condition of these young Leidolf-Nokolai hybrids by bringing them here to train as guards for their Rho. Supposedly this was to honor Rule’s first gens compleo as Leidolf Rho, and to signal the newly friendly ties between Nokolai and Leidolf. It did those things, but the real reason was to provide a reason for them to smell faintly of Nokolai as well as Leidolf. They trained with Nokolai, lived with Nokolai. So far it had worked. No one expected them to be anything other than Leidolf, after all.
 
It wouldn’t work forever. And then, as the saying went, the shit would hit the fan.
 
Isen met his son’s eys as one last chuckle escaped. “Ah, well. You and I don’t always laugh at the same things. The mantle didn’t answer me.”
 
“I noticed that.”
 
“Rule.” Fond but slightly exasperated, Isen shook his head. “A Rho commands his mantle entirely . . . with one exception.”
 
Rule’s eyes widened. His gaze slid to the men still obediently kneeling. He said nothing, then looked at his father again, a question suspended in his dark eyes.
 
Isen nodded slightly. Yes, you understand correctly.
 
Ah, hubris. Isen smiled wryly at himself. He’d forgotten that exception, hadn’t he? Though there was some justification. The Lady hadn’t acted directly on the mantles in over three thousand years. Not since the Great War, in fact. But they, like the lupi she’d created, remained hers to command.
 
Why did she want these two to remain in two clans? Who knew? Clearly, though, she did. Just as clearly, many in other clans would not believe this.
 
Interesting times, Isen thought. That was the Chinese curse, wasn’t it? May you live in interesting times.