Chapter One

 

 

IT MADE no sense, and they were all tired of hearing me ask the same questions. But until I had an answer I understood, how was I supposed to simply accept it?

“What did your father tell you when you became a semel?” I inquired of every single tribe leader who visited Sobek.

They all regarded me oddly, the last one being Maroz Amadu of the tribe of Serabit from Giza. He was confused.

Yuri translated. “Specifically, he wants to know what would happen to you if you failed as a semel. Where would the people in your territory go for help, if, let’s say, you decided that two panthers of different races couldn’t be married in your territory.”

“But that’s absurd,” he said to Yuri. “It doesn’t matter who you—”

“The sekhem of the semel-aten is hypothesizing,” his yareah, Hesi Amadu, remarked.

Apparently we needed our mates to do the talking for us.

“Oh, I see.” He plastered on a smile. “Well, I was told that if I was not a good ruler, that the panthers in my tribe could contact the semel-aten, and he would hear the case against me and pass judgment.”

“Exactly.” I pointed at him, then whirled around to face Yuri. “You see?”

He crossed his thickly muscled arms across his wide, bulky chest and fixed me with a stare that made me question my sanity. “What do I see?”

“I was a bad semel.”

“‘Was’. Past tense. What does—”

“So does that mean no one ever reported me to Ammon El Masry when he was semel-aten? That seems odd, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know. How would I know?”

“And therein lies my question.”

There was a soft clearing of a throat behind me.

Pivoting, I found Maroz and his mate still there. “May we go to the grand salon now, my lord? We’re both famished.”

“Oh yeah, go ahead,” I said, waving them away. “Sorry.”

Maroz grabbed his mate by the hand and tugged her away from me quickly. They all ended up doing that, concerned about my state of mind, I was certain.

“Okay, so what now?” Yuri asked, stepping in front of me.

“It’s what I was told as a new semel, what Logan was, what we all were.”

“That the semel-aten would come get you if you were bad,” Yuri paraphrased. “Right? Like the bogeyman?”

“Yeah. And if that’s true, if millions of panthers are supposed to be calling me or e-mailing me and complaining—where is it?”

“What? You’re asking if there’s, like, a command center or something for all this correspondence?”

“That’s exactly what I’m asking. I mean, who checks to make sure no panther is ever seen? Who spins an attack? Who basically has kept werepanthers off human radar for centuries?”

His eyes narrowed as he regarded me.

“So maybe whoever it is started small and now covers the entire world.”

“You’re nuts. You know that, right?”

“Yuri, there has to be a bigger body, a level up from semel-aten, like a werepanther CIA or something. There has to be. Someone is handling situations, and we know it’s not me. I’m a figurehead with no power except for any other semel over my tribe right here.”

“You make law for everyone.”

I dismissed that with a wave.

“And it just so happens that the tribe of Rahotep is the largest single tribe in the world.”

“Yes, but if you put it into perspective and say every panther in the world….” The number was just staggering. “Who does that? Who is responsible for everyone?”

“I think, in all seriousness, everyone is responsible for their own and maybe the tribe closest to them. I mean, it was on Logan to make you stop when you were out of control; maybe that’s how it is everywhere.”

I shook my head. “That’s too simple. Think about it. What if Logan and Christophe were just as fucked up as me? If that was true, then the entire corner of Nevada would have crazed werepanthers running around.”

“Yes, but Logan ended your tribe,” he reminded me. “He ended your reign as semel. Who’s to say that something similar doesn’t occur every day?”

“But if single semels are just policing themselves, why doesn’t the whole thing just collapse and we’re on the six o’clock news everywhere?”

He shook his head. “You’re overthinking this.”

I wasn’t, though; he was just missing it. There had to be a big brother—there simply had to be—but who or what that was, that was the question. I didn’t want to be a figurehead. I wanted to make a difference, and on a larger stage than my own tribe. But I had no idea how to do it.

I did have the power to change the law, though, and that was where I was planning to focus all my energy, if I could just figure out what to start with and how. Everything had to be revamped, but I was buried under the weight of what I should have been doing versus what I was doing. I was on my second rant of the night. If the first was the conspiracy of silence, my next familiar tangent was change.

Yuri said the time for me to simply be had passed. I had to embody the revolution I wanted to see, not simply hope for it. I alone could become a catalyst for action.

“There’s no way,” I railed, pacing in our room, back and forth at the foot of the bed as he lay stretched out on the mattress watching me. It was how it always went, from firebrand to quitter; I swung back and forth daily. “How do I, the infidel, expect to simply upend thousands of years of this-is-how-we-do-things?”

He was waggling his eyebrows.

“What?” I yelled.

“You simply say ‘this is the way we’re going to do it from now on.’ You do what we’ve discussed—proclaim yourself akhen-aten and begin a new reign with your players on the board.”

I found myself staring at him. “It’s not that easy.”

“I think it is.”

“That’s because you’re not the semel-aten!”

“And you’re not either.” He tipped his head to one side. “Well, at least you don’t want to be.”

“Yuri—”

“You hate it here,” he said, cutting me off. “Not because you’re here in Egypt, but because you don’t like how the upper class treats the lower, how the priest keeps his temple, or how you are supposed to treat the servants in your own villa. You hate the classes of people instead of one tribe that stands together, and you hate that a hundred semel-atens before you and a hundred priests have kept this city in the Dark Ages instead of letting it join the modern world.”

“Yes!”

“Then fucking fix it, my lord,” he placated me.

“It’s not that easy.”

“Change is never easy.” He shrugged. “Who lied and said it would be?”

I flopped down on the end of the bed.

After a moment, I felt the mattress lift and dip and realized he was moving behind me. When his strong arms wrapped around my neck, I grunted and leaned back against him.

“You’ll do the right thing.” He sounded so sure.

“How do you know?”

“Because you always do.”

“That’s not true.” I closed my eyes, savoring the feel of his skin, the heat of his chest against my back, and the stubble-covered jaw grazing mine.

Did he know what a simple comfort his touch was? How did everyone in the world not want a mate? Having someone to listen when you unburden your soul and to sleep wrapped around in the night? How was that not a prerequisite for life?

“You are inherently good,” he said, his voice a vibrating purr against the side of my throat. “And once you set your sight on a course of action, you will not be able to push it from your mind.”

He was so right.

I was assaulted by everything that needed to be changed on a daily basis and crushed under the weight of the status quo. The landslide of obligations from the vital to the mundane never stopped. There were expectations and demands, and endless responsibilities.

I hated it.

 

 

SIX months had come and gone, and still I felt like I was drowning. Every morning when I woke up, I wondered if that day would be the day I finally got my bearings. I was still waiting. I wanted to go back to the night Logan Church had twisted in his seat and stared at me with a glint in his gold eyes, and tell him to go to hell.

“You should be a semel again,” he had said with that familiar deep rumble in his voice. He had no idea the effect he had on me, on everyone; it was simply how he was, just Logan. “You’re ready, Domin. You need to step out into the light.”

Two years before, the man had ended my reign. I had been the semel of a tribe of werepanthers, leader of the tribe of Menhit, and he had fought me in the pit and won. He could have cut out my heart with his claws, but instead… instead he offered the path to redemption. He opened his home, welcomed me into his tribe and into his life. I was trusted, my counsel heeded, my strength relied upon. It was a gift, the second coming of the friendship we had when we were young. I had worried that I would be consumed by bitterness and would turn on him, catch him unawares, betray him, and then kill him. But I had forgotten about my own heart.

I loved Logan. Not like a lover, not with carnal intent, but—and it was so cliché—like the brother I never had. I wanted him back in my life more than I wanted to hurt him.

I was a shitty leader: the selfish kind, the vindictive kind, the one everyone wished would just die already so they could get someone better, someone who cared at all. So when he beat me in the pit, absorbed my tribe, and took me in, I simply surrendered. Logan was a force of nature, and I had been so tired of fighting him, fighting his nobility and his ethics and his strength, that I let the bitterness go. No good had come from it. Time, instead, to try something new.

Being his maahes, the prince of his tribe, had worked for me. I was easily the second in power. He made the decisions; I carried them out. He navigated; I drove. I was able to be his emissary because I was talking for him, not me. It was so easy.

What came as a surprise was that I changed. I shed my anger, my vanity, and all the pain, and I became everything he’d always seen in me. The man’s faith had made me better, his day-to-day belief invested me in the future of the tribe, in the people, in growth and security and the welfare of all. I was different now, and I owed it all to my old friend, my new semel, Logan Church.

So when he had gazed at me with his honey-colored eyes and told me he wanted me to reclaim my birthright, I couldn’t argue, because he believed. I could be, he said, not just a semel, but the semel, the semel-aten, the leader of the entire werepanther world. I would be able to lead those who wanted to follow me because of the changes I had experienced myself. I would be able to get through to those werepanthers who had lost their faith and their way. I would be a catalyst for change and restore prodigals to the fold, Logan was certain of it.

“You’re insane,” I had replied. “It should be you. You’re the strongest.”

He shook his head. “You’re wrong, it’s you.”

But no one was stronger than Logan Church. He was semel-netjer, the only panther in the world whose mate was also a nekhene cat.

Jin Church, his reah, was the most fearsome werepanther I had ever seen, that anyone had ever seen, and only Logan had tamed him, could tame him, because only Logan was his true-mate. It was ridiculous for him to even suggest that I could be stronger.

“But you can go anywhere and do anything,” he assured me. “I need to stay in the place I was born, rule my tribe, and never leave. All I want to do is go to bed every night with my mate in my arms and wake up every morning to his beautiful gray eyes. Do you understand? You’re stronger than me because you can be whatever you want. All I can be is me.”

I shook my head. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“You’re going to be semel-aten.”

I was certain I had not heard him correctly. “You have lost your mind.”

“No.” He lifted one golden eyebrow as he stared into my eyes. “Listen and then tell me what you want to do.”

And as he had spoken to me on the long flight to Beijing, I wondered if he even knew what he was talking about.

“What if something goes wrong? What if you and I aren’t in the pit at the same time? What if it’s just you and Ammon El Masry, the semel-aten, at the end, Logan?”

He shook his head. “It won’t be. It can’t be. He’ll want a guarantee that I’ll die. He’ll want to make sure. The law says that the semel-aten can challenge me alone or have his maahes with him as well. That’s how he’ll do it, I have no doubt.”

“But he’ll find someone else, Logan,” I insisted. “If he really wants you dead, he’ll find a ringer, he’ll get someone from another tribe.”

“That won’t matter,” he guaranteed. “Any cat that’s not a semel, I can subdue. You’re the one who’ll have to kill Ammon. Can you do that?”

Could I?

Had everything led me to a place where leading was again possible? Was I ready to step out of Logan’s shadow and take a stand? Did I have the faith in myself that he had in me?

On the high of his praise and faith and love, I gave my answer. “Yes.”

Logan smiled, so obviously pleased. “You’re going to be amazing.”

My prayer had been that he would be right.

It all happened so fast. I became semel-aten and everything fell into place exactly as Logan had said it would. But now I was in Sobek, the ancient werepanther city, semel of the tribe of Rahotep, the tribe of the semel-aten, and everyone was expecting me to lead. They all thought I would just instinctively know what to do and… and instead I was drowning. I was in way over my head and cursing Logan Church because the man was a selfish son of a bitch.

He made me semel-aten because even though he was the best choice for the role, he didn’t want to do it. There was no doubt in my mind that Logan would have done a better job than me.

I shared my thoughts with Yuri but no one else. Even as everything threatened to crash down around me, he was the only one I trusted with that secret.

 

 

THE problem was that even though they knew me, with my change of status, the people I brought with me suddenly expected me to simply know what to do. It was, I imagined, what happened when one became a parent. All at once you were expected to know things no one would ever suppose you needed to know otherwise. The weight of their scrutiny made me lash out.

That morning, as I took my usual walk with those closest to me—my maahes, my sylvan, and my sheseru—I was again venting my frustration. There was no way to stop it. I’d tried, but even with all good intentions, the minute they turned to me for guidance, I got pissed and lashed out. I was a horror to be around and I knew it. I was the biggest of asshats to Crane Adams, my maahes, prince of my tribe. Normally, he gave it back with both barrels. He could speak up for himself. Why he hadn’t, why he was just taking whatever I dished out, had been bothering me for the past month. I was ready to have it out with him once and for all.

“So, this Elham,” I said softly as I walked the villa with Crane and Taj Chalthoum, my sheseru, and Mikhail Gorgerin, my sylvan. “He has a lot to say about me.”

“Yes, he does,” Crane agreed. “And I’ll handle it.”

“Which means what?”

“Which means,” he said as he sighed, “that I’m talking to him, and it will either escalate and I’ll meet him in the pit or it won’t and we won’t.”

Mikhail cleared his throat.

As I glanced at Mikhail over my right shoulder, he gave me a slight shake of his head. But how could I drop it?

“Crane.” I took a breath. “You realize that this man, this Elham, is the brother of Ammon El Masry, the last—”

“I know exactly who he is.” Crane gave me a slight smirk so unlike him I almost lost my train of thought.

Crane Adams never did anything just a little. He laughed big and loud, he had adamant thoughts on subjects that were none of his business, and he poked and prodded until you just confessed your heart to him to get him to shut up. He was strong and kind and fair, and so much more than annoying. But I had never, ever, seen him subdued and quiet. The fact that all his passion and vitality had simply drained out of him was driving me out of my mind. He wasn’t himself anymore. He was simply present.

“What the fuck is the matter with you?” I stopped in place.

He kept walking. Everyone else stayed with me, the procession halted.

“Crane!” I barked.

He let out a deep sigh and rounded on me.

I waited expectantly.

He tipped his head sideways because, apparently, he was waiting on me.

“Crane—”

“My semel.”

I closed on him fast, pointing at his chest. “Don’t fuckin’ semel me. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“In what way?”

“In every way!” I snarled.

He crossed his arms. “Am I not the maahes of this tribe?”

“You know goddamn good and well that you’re the maahes! What the fuck does that—”

“Then allow me to perform the duties of my station and conduct affairs as I see fit. If I need help, I’ll ask for it. If I mess up, you’ll definitely hear about it. But until then, don’t worry.”

“I have to worry! Elham El Masry announced his intention to meet my maahes in the pit!”

“I’m well aware.”

“Crane! He was in line to be semel-aten! Since I killed Ammon, he’s out, and now he wants to be maahes because he can mess with me and my plans if he’s in your spot.”

“Again.” He sounded annoyed. “I know.”

“By law, anyone can challenge your position and—”

“My semel—”

“Crane,” I said, my voice rising in anger and frustration. “I don’t want Ammon El Masry’s little brother in my private circle! As maahes, he would hold considerable power and eventually could sway people to his cause and—”

“Domin—”

“Everyone expected him to be made maahes. Asdiel Kovo, the new priest, never stops asking me when it will happen. He, much like everyone else, never considered that Ammon’s brother would not be made maahes. He said that choosing you was—”

“I don’t give a shit,” Crane cut me off. “The new priest is a dick.”

Taj, who’d been listening the whole time, snorted from behind me, and when I looked back at him, he opened his eyes wide and shrugged.

“What? Crane’s right, he is a dick.”

“He’s a man in love with the sound of his own voice,” Mikhail chimed in.

“Whatever he believes, or doesn’t, is of no interest to us. Crane’s right—do not concern yourself with these petty annoyances. Allow your maahes to handle the affairs of his station.”

“Thank you,” Crane grumbled and stalked away, first down the hall, and then I saw him veer off down the stairs leading to the back entrance and beyond to the gardens.

I faced Mikhail. “Have you lost your mind?”

The expression on his face was pure annoyance. “Here’s what’s probably going to happen,” he said. “Elham will insist on a challenge, and it will be him and one other in the pit with Crane and whoever he chooses.”

I figured there was more, and when I realized that was it, I glared. “For fuck’s sake, Mikhail, I know that! But it can’t be you, and it can’t be Taj or any of my khatyu or the Shu, so who the fuck from around here is going into the pit who gives a shit about Crane or me? That’s what I’m trying to get him to think about. Whoever he takes in there with him is just gonna fold and let him get beat up, or worse, and if anything happens to Crane on my watch, Jin will—”

“Then you shouldn’t have brought him,” Mikhail said sharply. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting of the sylvans to lead.”

He took off before I gave him my permission to go, and Taj gave me a quick nod before he was gone, walking away in the opposite direction.

“Thanks,” I yelled out. “I really enjoy these morning get-togethers of ours!”

No one was listening to me.

 

 

THE villa was supposed to be mine. It didn’t feel like it. The residence of the semel-aten, while a home, was more like a vast resort and college campus all rolled up together. I had no idea who half the people in the sprawling mansion were at any given time. The place was simply too big, too filled with marble columns and staircases and statues of gods and goddesses and balconies and alcoves and just space. So much yawning space. It was supposed to be my haven, but my sanctuary wouldn’t be filled with floor mosaics and frescoes that ran through rooms and down halls. Living in the villa of the semel-aten was like living in a museum. The only time I felt any sort of peace at all was when I was in my own quarters.

The area I occupied with Yuri was small—by villa standards—and was located behind the patch of papyrus near the back of the roof gardens. To get to our bedroom, you came up a winding staircase and there encountered a wrought-iron gate that remained locked at all times. Once that was opened, you stepped out onto an enormous stamped concrete terrace that had a view of the main courtyard and, beyond that, miles of desert and hills. Walking the length of the patio brought you to a set of pivoting glass doors, and through them was our area.

Inside the suite, to the left was a wall of floor to ceiling pivoting windows that resembled the doors but half the size. When everything was open, a warm breeze blew through the space and it felt open and airy. The room itself was a thousand square feet, with a bathroom and a smaller balcony on the opposite side that ate into the space. On the main terrace section you had to cross to get to our private quarters, one portion of the area was the garden with acacia trees, papyrus, blue lotus that grew near the reflecting pools, and bougainvillea. The other part of the enclosure had a table, chairs, and many lavish chaise lounges. There was also an enormous canopy covering it and drains built in so rainwater couldn’t flood the space, though, being Egypt, rain was rarely a problem. It was quiet and serene, and I had moved my bedroom there the second week I was in Sobek. It was supposed to be a place the semel retired to for reflection, but I claimed it for Yuri and me.

The servants had been scandalized by me taking such quaint accommodations, and they were further stunned when I converted the lavish quarters of the former semel-aten into several smaller guest rooms. No one understood why I was so insistent about my privacy. I didn’t need people to clean my room or dust it, and I didn’t want anyone but Yuri going through my personal things, poking around or snooping. Laundry could go down the chute, and that was it. No one came in; trays of food were left at the gate and picked up there. I knew it was strange for them—I was strange, and the word kadish was used a lot.

“What is that?” I had asked Taj.

He spoke softly, kindly. “Domin, they say you are kadish, impure, because you do not know the truth of your station. You have to let them serve you.”

“I do! All my meals are prepared, the villa is cleaned, and other people who visit are cared for… I don’t get it.”

“You need to be seen in your home; you can’t hide up there in the gardens.”

“I don’t hide!” I insisted.

The lift of one dark brow said differently.

Alone now, leaning against an enormous stone pillar, I had time to think about the situation I found myself in.

It seemed like an endless problem. The people in my home didn’t feel like they belonged to me unless I ordered them around. I wanted to treat them better than that, to ask instead of order and say please and thank you. But apparently, that was very poor manners on my part. It was exhausting. I was supposed to be the kind of semel I could no longer be; going back to being a selfish prick did not seem like a step in the right direction although, after my behavior of the past two weeks, no one would call me anything but a tyrant.

I realized that I would be better—mood, attitude, everything—if my mate was not gone. As it was, the past fourteen days without Yuri were wearing on me. I hadn’t even been able to talk to him because he’d taken the wrong phone, and… I missed him and I wanted to see him and touch him. The whole thing was a mess. I shouldn’t have let him leave at all. I was an idiot.

“I hate this,” I muttered to no one.

“What’s wrong with you?”

Turning, I found Mikhail, having reappeared, staring at me like I was stupid.

“I thought you had a meeting,” I groused.

“It was moved to four,” Mikhail ground out.

“By who?”

“By one of your akers, a manu, Alhaji Yacouba, who was running late getting back from a day trip to Cairo.”

“Why do you care?”

“I don’t, but apparently Ammon’s sylvan, Traore Uago, did and decided to wait for the man.”

I studied him, wondering why he let that happen. It wasn’t like Mikhail to allow other people to change his schedule. “What are you going to do?”

Mikhail drew in a slow breath. “I’m going to remind Traore that he is no longer the sylvan, that his rank is now shefdew—”

“I think you just called the man a papyrus scroll,” I pointed out.

“I did?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Then how do you say scribe?”

“I’ll look it up,” I quipped. “Or, more likely, I’ll ask someone.”

He grunted softly. “Well, anyway, Traore thinks that he still has power. He doesn’t and he needs a reminder. Alhaji needs to understand who he should be listening to. He too will be educated.”

“How?”

“I’m going to have your sheseru discipline them both.”

As if on cue, Taj was there, an enormous bullwhip rolled up in his right hand.

“I’m sorry,” Mikhail said quickly. “I know you prefer not to punish, but there is no recourse.”

“They’re the ones who should be sorry,” he replied. “They cannot be allowed to insult you. It’s not maat.”

It was not like Mikhail at all. “You—”

“They continue to test me. I’ve cited them, I’ve fined them, and no one responds. I’m done.”

I had no idea Mikhail went in for physical punishment. “This doesn’t seem like you.”

“Respect is earned, and I understand, but barring that, fear will work in the interim. I’m done being talked about behind my back and having them talk about me in Arabic and Egyptian and Farsi. They think I don’t know what they’re saying, but I do. They think I’m not trained in the law, but I am. I’m the sylvan of my tribe, and anyone who wants to, can debate the law with me, but I will win. If they don’t like how I conduct the affairs of my station, they’re free to challenge me in the pit. But I will no longer stand for insolence.”

“I don’t remember ever hearing about you having anyone flogged in Logan’s tribe.”

“Begging your pardon, but until you believe that you are semel-aten, the people will not. No one ever questioned that Logan Church was meant to lead and be followed. His respect flowed to me.”

“And what, no one respects me?”

His eyes, deep cobalt blue, locked on mine as he waited. He had a good face, chiseled and strong, striking and sharply angled. You remembered him, but he wasn’t beautiful, not like Yuri. Normally, Mikhail wasn’t the kind of man you noticed, but now, in the middle of a town in Egypt, he stood out. With his fair complexion, his height of six two, and lean muscular build, you noticed him moving through a crowd here. In Nevada, where we had come from, he inspired no second glance, but in our new home, he drew attention.

Sobek lay between Cairo and Giza on land that was almost like another country, with borders patrolled by armed guards and a no-fly zone above it. The land gift dated back to the time of pharaohs.

“Domin?”

I shook my head. “Just, do you really need to—”

“Yes.” His voice, normally smooth and silky, was hard and cold. “I do. No one but me changes my schedule. No one.”

He left then, Taj walking beside him.

I didn’t like the harsh changes I was seeing in any of them, the men who made up my household, who helped me lead my tribe, at all.

After walking down one of the many long staircases, I took a right into the vast library, an endless room filled from floor to vaulted ceiling with shelves of books, ancient texts people from all over the world came to use.

As I crossed the floor, people lifted their heads and greeted me as was custom.

Sah’eed nahharkoo,” they called out.

It meant “good day” in Arabic, and though I was learning the language, the task was daunting. So I waved and walked on. As I passed one of the many small alcoves riddling the library, I saw the place where I had last touched my mate before he had left for Ipis two weeks before. I nearly stumbled over my feet getting to the window where he had stood. He had been there, standing still, staring down into the courtyard…

 

I moved up behind him and put my hands on hi