Bargains and Betrayals
the final door opened.
    Our escorts continued forward, but we paused, noting a difference so subtle many would not have considered it.
    They were down a guard.
    “Mother?” Pietr asked the figure in the seamless glass cubicle.
    She turned, saw him—saw us —and let out a little cry of relief, tears shining on her face. My heart hammered in my chest and I felt my brothers bristle beside me, saw how Catherine’s spine straightened, all of us thinking the same thing at once. Something else had changed—something beyond one less guard. Something deeply disturbing.
    Mother never cried.
    We walked to the transparent door, limbs stiff with stress as we exchanged glances. Pietr and I entered first, the warning call of “Red-Red-Red” coming just as the nearly invisible door slid open.
    Max and Cat watched the guards, though Max’s wolf senses and all of Cat’s sadly muted human ones were trained on us.
    “Mother.” Pietr reached a tentative hand out to stroke her hair.
    She leaned into him, resting her head on his chest and the look he gave me spoke more than words could as he tenderly lifted and dropped a long curl of her hair back to join the rest, sweeping down to obscure her face.
    I nodded. I saw. The hair that had been so recently auburn and copper was shot full of silver. I slid my hand down her slim arm and subtly pinched for a pulse. Too fast.
    Everything was moving way too fast.
    My eyes locked with Pietr’s and he suddenly realized what I knew—what I’d read was inevitable. When the end came, it came suddenly.
    Mother may have been dying since she first started to change—to evolve into an oborot at age thirteen—but now she was sliding down the slope toward sudden death.
    And no matter how powerful in life an oborot was—no matter how fierce in their wolf form—they were helpless as any human when death came hungering to their door.
    We stayed there with her for the allotted time. I tried to absorb her every word, reminding myself this might be the last chance.… But every time I fought harder for focus, her words retreated further into a fog and I lost every thought except the one that made me angriest: We had to find a way to free her—there had to be a bargain that could be struck—and that I had no idea how to do it or what it would take.
    Max and Cat switched places with us, and standing outside mother’s unyielding environment, I glared at Pietr and wished Grandfather had somehow endowed the oboroten with telepathy so we could take advantage of one less guard and, even unarmed as we were, somehow break Mother out.
    In a very few minutes the thought became an obsession of dizzying power.
    So it was only logical, in an extremely illogical way, that when the door to the cubicle next hissed open to release Max and Cat and Mother was so near the opening—
    I took a chance.
    Grabbing Mother so suddenly, I yanked her free of the cubicle, stunned by how light she was in my grasp.
    Max and Pietr only stared at me a moment—a single heartbeat between fascination and horror—before they pulled free of their clothes and shook into their wolfskins.
    Cat tried to look threatening as we began to move to the door as a unit, the wolves snarling and snapping at the guards, lunging so they forced their guns’ muzzles up as the agents tried to gain control without harming the assets they still needed intact—my werewolf siblings.
    Mother stumbled, tucked against me, and I took her negligible weight, my back nearly at the exit when I felt a draft and realized the door had slid open before I was ready.
    Safeties clicked off three guns behind me and their snouts bit into my head. I froze, steeling myself against the possibility that this was the last thing I’d ever do.
    And probably by far the finest.
    If I could throw my body at my killers and let go of Mother at the right moment, they might all still make it out.…
    “Let go,” I urged Mother, her fingers claws in my arms.
    “ Nyet ,” she replied,

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