Reth stepped forward until he stood over the wolf-man, who submitted as he should, dropping his head and not making eye contact. But his hands were fists, and he didn’t step back when Reth moved into his space.
“You have been heard, wolf,” Reth snarled, his voice guttering in a growl. “Now hear me: I welcome a challenge from any man in this city. If you believe yourself stronger than me, smarter, better able to lead, you just say the word and I’ll happily meet you in the circle. We will decide dominance the way the Anima always have. But do not think to undermine me through lies and plots. Take great care in seeding doubt through whispers, or you may find the ground underneath you crumbling.”
Lerrin didn’t respond, just stood, tense. His nostrils flared at the scent wafting off of Reth—the sheer dominance, the aggression. All the men in the room shifted at the stink of their King’s displeasure and certainty in himself.
When Reth didn’t continue, Lerrin bowed and finally took a step back. “You are heard and understood,” he said stiffly. He wouldn’t challenge the King like this. He knew who the stronger man was.
The question was whether he believed himself—and the other wolves—able to take the throne in the secretive ways Reth described.
Reth wouldn’t let him walk out of here feeling sure of his footing. He stepped forward again, his chin over the man’s head and snapped, “Do not allow Lucine’s failure to bring down the entire pack, Lerrin. You’re smarter than that—and I’m not dumb enough to miss how she’ll try to seek revenge.
“If one hair on my Queen’s head is harmed by a wolf, the entire pack will pay in my discipline. Do you understand?”
Reth snorted air out of his nose—an insult among the Anima that implied the person’s scent was offensive. “Leave this council and pass my message on to your people. Now.”
Lerrin bowed again and turned on his heel, leading the other two wolf-males out of the room.
None of them looked back.
But Behryn sighed. “I’m not saying it wasn’t necessary, but… I fear where this may take us, Reth,” he said softly.
Reth nodded, still staring at the door. “You and me, both. Does any other male wish to question my choice of queen? Do we need further discussion on this?” He turned to look at each man in the room individually—the other Tribes had watched quietly, not intruded. But their scents said some were afraid, and others thoughtful.
“Well?” Reth pushed at them.
“Not a challenge,” Behryn said carefully.
Reth raised his eyebrows. “But?”
“But… the people aren’t certain. They didn’t miss the lack of… union between you today. Do you think it will be long? How would you have us explain it to them, to stop the rumors?”
“Rumors of what?” he snapped, knowing he should be grateful—his friend raised the question so that the others would hear the answer instead of whispering about it behind their hands, but hating it anyway.
“Some of the women say she must be barren and wish to hide it. Others say she’s too weak—she won’t be able to carry your child. Others think there is something wrong with her head.”
“Because of one night?”
“Because none of them can imagine ever turning the King away,” Behryn said with a grin.
Reth snorted—in amusement this time. “Remind them that she hasn’t grown up knowing me as King. She is… less impressed with my position than they might be. Give her time. That’s all that’s needed.”
As the men nodded and shrugged, and relaxed enough to move onto their normal business, Reth took a deep breath and prayed the words were true.