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Authors: Tatiana Caldwell

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Cassandra sighed at Sofia and hugged herself. “It’s chilly
out here, and dinner is being served as we speak. Let’s go inside. We can
explain it to you while we eat.”

“What about Dawson?” Justin asked, his eyes still lit with
anger. “How are we punishing him?”

Wanting to punch Justin dead in the mouth, Nathan balled his
hands into fists. But he bit his tongue and held back, waiting to see how
Cassandra would respond.

“This is an unusual circumstance, Justin. The entire council
will need to decide, not just you and I alone,” Cassandra said. “After Sofia
has been introduced, you and I can bring the council up to speed and determine
how we handle this. In the meantime, I think it’ll be punishment enough to not
allow Nathan to be the one to present her for introduction.”

“Fine,” Justin grunted. He looked smugly at Nathan before
turning and heading into the cave.

Cassandra turned as well but Nathan ran up to her, grabbed
her by the arm and whispered sharply in her ear, “You’re making a bigger deal
out of this than necessary. She’s not even here for the Pride, she’s flying out
in the morning.”

“It
is
a big deal, Nathan. We can smell her all over
you.” Cassandra glared coldly at him as she shrugged his hand off her arm and
continued to head inside. “We’ll finish discussing this at dinner.”

Nathan exhaled heavily with frustration. He met Sofia’s
confused look and tried to give her a reassuring smile. He placed his hand on
Sofia’s back and gently guided her through the cave.

The dining room was a large area in the cavern with a single
opening in the center of the ceiling that acted as a natural skylight. The glow
from the setting sun streaming through the narrow hole brightened the middle of
the otherwise dark room. The candles that were placed around the perimeter of
the room and on the center of each table were being lit.

The room was noisy with the chattering voices, clattering
dishes, chairs scraping across the stone floor and glasses being clanged
together in toasts. Just about every adult Werecat in the Pride was there, as
it was tradition for them all to eat the last meal of each day of the retreat
together…and then to fornicate with each other in the celebration hall a short
while afterward. Dinner was just getting started as they walked in, but as soon
as the four of them stepped into the room, everyone and everything stopped.

All eyes were on Sofia.

Nathan grunted with disapproval. This was the part he was
going to hate.

Chapter Nine

 

The sudden silence in the dining room was almost deafening.
Sofia checked behind and around herself before confirming that the entire crowd
was staring at her. Justin took her by the elbow and gently led her toward the
front of the room. She glanced back at Nathan. He began to follow behind her,
but two burly men grabbed him by the arms and held him back. He scowled at them
but gave her a reassuring nod. However, considering that he was being
restrained and that Sofia hardly understood what was going on, she was far from
reassured.

“Good evening, folks,” Justin said, his voice loud enough
for the entire room to hear. “Before we all begin our meal, I’d like to
introduce a particularly special newcomer tonight. Not only is she a queen, but
she’s an Ahfa queen.” At this, the crowd began to murmur at each other.

Ahfa queen?
Sofia looked again at Nathan. She had no
idea what an Ahfa queen was, but judging by the way the color seemed to drain
from Nathan’s face at this announcement she gathered that he did.

“Because she is an Ahfa, we will all get to be personally
introduced to her during tonight’s Mating Ritual,” Justin continued. “Please
everyone, welcome Sofia Saldana from New York, New York.”

There was an enthusiastic applause and Sofia leaned toward
Justin so he would hear her over the noise. “I understand that a queen is just
a term for a female Werecat who hasn’t reached menopause yet or something,
right? But what’s the Ahfa part mean?”

Justin laughed. “It means your friend Dawson here is gonna
be in deep shit.”

Sofia furrowed her brows. “I don’t understand.”

“You will soon. I’ll escort you to your table,” Justin said,
reaching for her arm.

Sofia flinched away, flashing a fake smile. “I’m fine,
thanks.”

Justin shrugged then beckoned her to follow him. “I didn’t
mean to hurt you that day. It’s against the rules to harm another Were unless
it’s in defense, and I would never intentionally hurt a queen.”

It seemed more like a declaration than an apology. She kept
her face forward, not making eye contact with him as she responded. “Nathan
wasn’t meaning any harm either when he fulfilled my request to be alone with
him. And yet you’re furious with him.”

“That’s different though,” Justin scoffed. “He wanted you to
himself.”

“I don’t see how it’s different, from what I understand of
why you attacked me…”

There were a few seconds of thoughtful silence before Justin
came up with a retort. “You know Dawson’s taking advantage of you, right?”

“Is he?” she asked in a bored voice as she trudged behind
him. “How so?”

“You’re a newly awakened Were
and
you’re in heat.
He’s taken advantage of your delicate and naïve state to get what he wanted.”

Sofia laughed. “I’m sorry but no, I don’t believe that.”

“You think his affection is genuine?”

“I know it is. He’s completely honest with me.”

Justin side-eyed her leeringly. “Ha, is he now? So did he
tell you about him and Cassandra?”

Sofia cut away her eyes.

Justin snorted. “I didn’t think so.”

Sofia grumbled to herself, but she wasn’t going to readily
let anything Justin said solely sway her one way or the other. There was still
a lot she didn’t understand about the Pride, the relationships between its
members or the current situation. Until she received more information, she
didn’t know what to think about anything.

They stopped at a small, round table decorated with a white
tablecloth and four chairs, two of which were occupied by Cassandra and Nathan.
Cassandra’s mouth was an angry slit and Nathan sat rigid in his seat. Justin
pulled out a chair between them and beckoned for Sofia to take it.

“Cassandra here can take it from the top for you. I’m going
to join the council. It was nice to finally get to meet you, Sofia.” Justin
turned to eyeball Nathan with a wicked grin. “You get to sit here and enjoy the
rest of your meal with her for now, Dawson, but I’ve got a pretty good feeling
you’ll be eating your shit for dessert.”

Nathan didn’t even look at Justin. He just continued to
stare off to the side in silence.

“Go on, Justin, that’s enough.” Cassandra shooed him off.
“I’ll join you at the council’s table after I’m done here.”

Justin nodded and walked off, leaving just the three of them
alone at the table. Sofia turned to Cassandra and Nathan and exploded. “Could
someone please explain to me what the hell is going on? Why is everyone on
edge? What was so bad about Nathan taking me out of here? What is this Ahfa
queen stuff?”

Servers came by and ignored the tension at the table as they
deposited silver platters of food and pitchers of drink, and went on their way.

Cassandra leaned back in her chair and folded her hands upon
the table. “First of all, Sofia, you need to understand that we Werecats are
practically an endangered species.”

“Why? Are we being hunted?” Sofia glanced at Nathan but he
seemed distracted and remained aloof.

“No, we’re not specifically being hunted. But as far as we
can tell, Weres of all kinds are simply rare,” Cassandra explained. “Especially
Werecats. There’s still a lot about ourselves we don’t yet fully understand,
like how exactly we’ve come to be, why we tend to have our first shift during
puberty, why some are Late Bloomers and don’t shift until exposed to other
shifters. Our numbers are thinning—there are more Weres dying of old age than
there are ones being born.”

“Really? All the sexing going on every night during the
Mating Ritual doesn’t help?”

“We haven’t quite figured out how to intentionally reproduce
more Weres. Most Cats are born between the twenty-third of July and the
twenty-second of August, to a mother who is also a shifter. But this
combination doesn’t result in a Werecat child all of the time—only less than
five percent.”

Sofia twisted her head. “Only five percent?”

“Five percent.” Cassandra nodded. “Almost all of us are the
only ones amongst our siblings. And though the birth rates of Werecats are
significantly higher when both parents are shifters, fertility rates among
shifters are low, and even then the success rate of the offspring also being a
Were is only one in ten.”

“Damn.”

“You’re a newcomer. Not only to the Pride, but to the life.
Each and every one of us is valued, but our women are especially revered, which
is why we call all female Werecats queens. So a new Ahfa female is a special
commodity, indeed.”

“And an Ahfa is?”

“It’s an acronym. A.H.F.A. Available, highly fertile and of
age.”

“What makes you think I am highly fertile?”

“I tested the sample of your blood I extracted while you
were unconscious.”

Sofia recoiled as she recalled the unexplained bandage on
her arm when she first woke up in the cave. “You did what?”

Cassandra waved it off as trivial. “It’s standard practice
to test all newcomers for blood type, STDs and hormone levels. We got pretty
excited seeing your results. There have been so few new Ahfa queens identified
lately.”

Sofia reflected on that for a moment, attempting to digest
exactly what it must mean for a struggling species to have one of their male
members run off with one of the few potential breeders.

“You should have shared those results with me.” Nathan spoke
for the first time since they’d entered the cave and his voice was sharp and
harsh.

The brunette scoffed. “I would have, had you stuck around
long enough.”

“We were there the whole damn day. Surely you knew the
results before we left.”

“And so what if I did? I’m not required to hand deliver news
to you, Nathie.”

“I asked you not to fucking call me that.”

Smirking, Cassandra pushed back her chair and stood up.
“I’ve got to go now. We’ll inform you of the council’s decision as soon as it’s
been made, Nathan. It was nice to meet you, Sofia,” she said before walking
off.

It was simultaneously a relief and a stress to be left alone
with Nathan at this point. Sofia grabbed the serving spoon and dished out some
food on both of their plates to fill the awkward silence. “It’s been hours
since we’ve eaten. You should try to put something in your stomach.”

“Don’t have much of an appetite,” he grumbled.

Sofia huffed. “Please, Nathan. I still don’t really get what
you and everyone else is so upset about, but I don’t want to end the week like
this.”

Nathan’s face seemed to soften as their eyes met. He sighed
and licked his lips then picked up his fork. “Sorry. Guess the announcement
Justin made about you just caught me off guard.”

“So please help me fully understand what the big deal is. Is
there some special expectation of me? Being an Ahfa or whatever?”

“They expect you to personally meet each adult male here and
participate in the Mating Ritual. They expect you to make it your priority to
try to reproduce with a Were.”

“Reproduce? With whom, you?”

“With whomever it takes.” He hesitated for a moment before
adding, “Preferably with more than one at a time.”

Sofia choked on a slice of turkey. “More than one at a time?
Why?”

“To increase your odds.”

“Oh.” She chewed on the meat in her mouth and the
information. So that went a long way to explaining his agitation. “If you don’t
like their practices, why not just leave the Pride? They’re just like some club
or cult, right?”

He leaned forward. “You’re not grasping the full picture
yet. We’re Weres. We’re not fully human. You were lucky you didn’t have any
issues before this week, but now that you’ve shifted, things will be different.
Your medical needs will be different. You’re going to need doctors who fully
understand your condition.”

“What medical needs?”

“Shit happens sometimes while you’re the cat,” Nathan
chuckled. “Hard to explain stuff, like the half-digested raw rabbit in your
gut, or the thorns embedded in your foot. Or the injury incurred while you were
in Cat that’s so severe you can’t shift back to human again until you are
healed.”

Sofia gaped. “Oh.”

“Your employment needs will change,” Nathan continued.
“Working a nine to five, five days a week fifty weeks a year won’t cut it for a
Werecat. You’ll ache for time off to relax and play, and so you’ll either want
to become an entrepreneur or freelancer or find an employer that allows for
some flexibility. Your social life will change to some degree, too. You won’t
be able to tell most of the people you know the truth of who you really are.
Having this big and complex of an aspect of yourself that you can’t share with
anyone, can really take a toll on you. You need others to talk to whom you can
relate to. Shrinks who won’t classify you as schizo and try to drug you up or
commit you.”

“And the Pride can help with all of that?”

“The Pride is a network. We have doctors, lawyers, schools
and businesses all over the country, with resources around the world. DodgeTech
is a Pride company.”

Sofia swallowed a forkful of salad as the realization hit
her—if the council decided to boot Nathan, he’d have to seek out new medical
care, a new job, a new support group and new friends. His entire life would be
impacted.

All because of her.

“Had I known your test results, I wouldn’t have even brought
you back here or begged for you to stay,” Nathan kept going. “I would have let
you go home in peace, take some time to let all of this soak in and then
introduce you to the others later when you were ready.”

Sofia hunched her shoulders up together. “What difference
would it have made? Either way, I’d have absolutely no intention of joining an
orgy or some animal gang bang.”

“Yes. I know. Nor do I necessarily want you to,” he said,
twirling his fork around his plate. “But the council just met you and they’re
upset with me. They won’t like it if you reject Pride tradition.”

Sofia crossed her arms. “What, you guys don’t believe in
monogamy and marriage?”

Nathan raised a brow. “Of course we do. But even committed
couples still participate in the ritual, just only with each other.” He pointed
off to the left. “You see that couple over there, wearing the black necklaces?”

Sofia followed his finger and eyed the pair he was pointing
to. A woman with platinum-blonde hair and a brown man with dark, silky curls
sat next to each other, wearing thin ropes with silver charms around their
necks. She recognized them as the couple she’d seen her first night there, with
those matching lion-head pendants. They were the only couple making love on the
pedestal in the center of the Mating Ritual.

“They claimed each other on Wednesday night during the
Mating Ritual.”

“Does that mean they’re married?”

“Not an official, federally recognized marriage. They may or
may not go and do that. But by claiming each other, they’ve made it clear that
they are a couple to the rest of the Pride.”

“And how exactly did they claim each other?”

“By putting their lovemaking on center display during a
Mating Ritual and collaring each other during the act. It’s called the Claiming
Rite.”

Sofia glanced over at the collared couple again, who were
smiling and laughing with what seemed to be genuine happiness. Looking around
the room, she noted for the first time that there were several claimed couples.
One by one she tried to imagine them on that pedestal, putting on an erotic
show for the crowd while marking each other as their property, and mentally
laughed at the primitiveness of it.

None of this was real life, was it?

“Sofia.” Nathan said her name so softly, she almost didn’t
hear him over the chewing of her food. The expression on his face surprised
her, even unnerved her a bit. His brows were furrowed and his eyes full of
uncertainty. “Where do you see us going with this?”

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