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The Tiger Queen (Shifter's Mates 1)
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2018 Raisa Greywood
Sendra closed her book and peered down at me, her brown eyes sharp. She adjusted the fussy lace collar buttoned to her chin and brushed a stray hair from her blue dress. "Did you enjoy the story?"
"Yes, but I still prefer Shakespeare."
Chuckling, she patted my head. Her patronizing touch made me feel like a cub, as did my uncomfortable position on the floor at her feet.
"It's important to explore literature, Miss Andreyev. You might find something else you enjoy just as much." Her smile faded as she took the book and put it on the table next to her chair. "We have to talk."
I stood and stretched, my back cracking. "What about?"
"I want you to go to the Exodus Authority."
"I don't need or want a mate." I returned her teacup to the kitchen. It hadn't held tea, of course. It was just filtered and boiled water, but she liked the tiny reminder of life before the storms.
"Have you considered cubs?"
"Why bother?" I left the cup in the sink and went to her bookshelf. "Do you want me to read? I can almost do Gulliver's Travels."
I refused to talk about cubs. That wasn't an option for either of us. Sendra was too old, and I'd never found a male worth a mating bite. Though the few Ximerans I'd seen hadn't been cruel or unappealing, I had no idea if one of them would make a good mate. Living on Earth wasn't easy, but I had no idea what Ximera was like. The Ximerans promised a bountiful, healthy environment, but what if they lied? If things didn't work out with my mate, would they let me stay?
I couldn't come back to Earth. Even if I found someone to take me home, I was slowly starving here.
"Pussy. There will be prey there."
I ignored my tiger's caustic comment as Sendra sighed and shook her head. "I'm going to ground. I want you to give a sample and --"
"No." The book I'd chosen tumbled to the floor, my fingers unable to hold its weight. "I keep you safe here."
Chuckling, she said, "I'm afraid not even the mighty tiger can protect someone from old age, Renata. My jackal and I have seen too much, and she's very tired."
"I said no." I picked up the book and slammed it into place, making the bookcase shudder. "It's a stupid idea. I won't let you do that."
"You can't stop death." She was silent for a moment, then added, "It comes for everyone, sooner or later."
I shivered at her hollow whisper and replied, "Try me."
She growled, the low rumble vibrating her thin frame. Without warning, she sprang at me and opened a gash on my face with her claws, leaving me bleeding. I covered the wound with my hand and stared at her in shock.
"Why are you doing this?"
"You are no longer welcome here, Miss Andreyev, and you're too stubborn to do as you're told. Leave now, and do as I've asked." Blood dripped from her claws as she crouched and leapt for me again.
I dodged out of the way, upsetting her table and chair. She hissed, her teeth bared.
Tears welled in my eyes, and I backed away from her, shaking my head in denial. "I can't leave like this."
Fangs glistened between her thin lips. "I'm over a hundred years old, cub. I'm going to die, and I prefer to do it on my own. You're going to leave this place and find a mate and have cubs. That is all I want from you."
"But..." She snarled, and I ducked when she threw a book at my head. I held out both hands as I backed away. "Okay. I just..." I sniffed against the tears thickening behind my eyes. "I'll miss you, Sendra."
She didn't answer and I left her den, my tears falling to mix with the blood on my face. I'd abandoned my best friend, and I couldn't imagine my life without her. Without Sendra, there was nothing for me on Earth.
I sobbed, the breath tearing in my throat as I ran. A human darted across the street to avoid me, engaging my tiger's prey drive, but he was too old and sick to provide any sport. I left him alone and kept running, not knowing or caring where I was going.
The cut on my cheek itched as it closed, but I didn't bother to wipe the blood away. I wondered if Sendra had attacked me in the hope I'd ease her passing. One swipe of a claw across her throat would have done it. I just couldn't. She would sneer and call me weak and too emotional, but she'd been my only friend for my entire adult life.
Everyone knew the story of Earth's fall from grace. Seven years of solar storms knocked out our ecosystem almost a hundred years ago. Humans might have handled the resulting ice age, but the collapse of humanity was ultimately caused by such a simple thing. Bees. The honeybee that pollinated most food crops became extinct before the third year. It was humanity's swan song.
Sendra told me tigers had been considered royalty back then and jackals weren't considered at all. Before the storms, we wouldn't have been friends. I'd never felt like royalty, though. The throne of the Andreyev tigers had long been crushed under the weight of poisoned destruction.
I tugged my jacket closer against the frigid breeze. Atlanta used to have hot summer weather, but the few people left in the city were lucky if daytime temperatures reached fifty in August. October would bring several feet of snow. The reek of poison and dying things filled the air and never cleared, even after the spring rains.
I slowed when I reached the carcass of my tree; one of the few bits of organic material left in old Atlanta. I always came to visit her when I was upset about something. I had no idea why I'd always thought of the tree as her. My bench was still there, a piece of stained marble with a chunk of concrete under one broken leg next to a broken statue of a man in a long robe. He had such a peaceful expression on his face, even though half his head was cracked away. The ruins of an old hospital surrounded the tree, its doors and windows long since scavenged, leaving gaping holes in the red brick.
I sat down and patted her lifeless trunk, leaning back to stare into skeletal branches. I tried to imagine what she must have looked like. I wanted to picture her with leaves, but I'd never seen a living plant except in Sendra's books. She would stand forever, dead, but a lasting testament to life on Earth. The empty hulks of concrete that had housed businesses and homes were the humans' mark on the planet, but my tree was true evidence of life that existed beyond the machinations of humans. I closed my eyes, soaking in the peace of this sacred place and tried to remember how to pray.
"Pretty girl. We'll have some fun and take that nice jacket she's wearing."
I heaved out a sigh and rolled my eyes. Though I couldn't see the four men behind the south wall of the abandoned hospital, the fools thought they were far enough away that I wouldn't hear them. I patted my tree one last time and left the dead garden, unwilling to foul my private space with a fight.
I had too much on my mind to make much sport of them, so I led them toward a quiet alley away from the clusters of occupied houses. They were either idiots or were new in town. Everyone in this neighborhood knew the only predator allowed in the city was me.
Their evil laughter followed me and I quickened my pace, wanting only to get the task over with and take care of the one thing Sendra had asked of me. The alley widened into a small courtyard, ending at a rusted chain-link fence blocked by abandoned cars on the other side. There was enough room to get behind them and cut off their escape. I could smell their excitement as they hurried toward me.
"Wait up, pretty!" The largest of the four shouted after me as I reached the fence. He was the only one who didn't look on the brink of starvation, and it marked him as our first kill.
They spread out, thinking they had me trapped. The men wore heavy packs on their backs, bedrolls tied to them. Though I didn't see a gun, I could smell the acrid scent of oil and metal. Knitted hoods covered their faces. My nose twitched at the stench of violence and hate emanating from them.
"Hey, little girl! Give us that jacket and maybe we won't hurt you too badly! I'll even give you a cut on the other side of your face so you're sym... Sym something." He grinned, showing blackened teeth as he pulled a worn knife from his pocket. The stupid thing wasn't even four inches long. My claws were longer. Emboldened by the fence at my back, he moved closer, brandishing his poor weapon.
"I believe symmetrical is the word you're too stupid to find."
His face wrinkled into a vicious grimace of hate. "I'm gonna cut you good for that, bitch!"
I ignored him. I held my tiger back as I waited for them to get closer. We would end this threat to our home and distribute their belongings to the needy. There was an elderly couple a few blocks from our den who could use their warm clothes and whatever they carried.
The large one rushed me, his knife held high. I shook my head and allowed the tiger her freedom. We heard the humans' curses as mist covered us. In the scant second during our shift, I could stare into her fathomless blue eyes, as she could into mine. It was the single moment we had no physical shape and knew each other as separate beings sharing a single body. Then fur popped and flowed, the sensation like ants on my skin. Bones ground against joint as they changed shape and moved, the sharp pain gone within seconds. The leader dropped his knife and took a single step backward. We wrinkled our muzzle into a snarl as we waited, enjoying the moment of shocked silence before the screams.
When our task was done, I pushed the tiger aside and returned to my human form, pulling on the clothes I'd left in a heap when I shifted. I didn't bother rummaging through their packs as I stripped the bodies and rolled their clothes into a blanket I'd retrieved from one of the bedrolls. They had nothing I wanted, but my elderly neighbors might find something of value once the items were cleaned.
An old woman stood at the alley entrance, her threadbare coat pulled close around her frail body, the hood concealing her hair. I didn't know her, but recognized her scent. She nodded once and turned to walk away.
"Wait!" I caught up to her and handed her the warm coat the gang leader had been wearing. My neighbors didn't need so much. Tears filled her eyes, and she gave me a hard hug before hurrying away. I shivered at the sensation of being touched by a stranger as I continued toward my destination.
It wasn't unpleasant, but it was... odd. Humans never touched me willingly.
Sendra had wanted me to submit a blood sample to the Exodus Authority. Those had been her last words as she'd chased me from her den. Earth wasn't much of a tourist destination these days, but men from a system called Ximera had been collecting human women for almost two years, using genetic tests to match potential mates.
I wasn't interested in a mate. They left you alone when they died. Just like my father had done to my mother. Sendra had been right, though. I couldn't survive here forever. Though humans managed to grow some food, hoarding heirloom seeds that were worth more than gold had once been, there was no prey, and no chance for a cub.
Would it be so bad to leave a dying planet? Sendra had been after me for months to go. I'd always refused, telling her she was more important than a mate, refusing to admit to myself that sheer age would take her long before I was ready to let her go. Without Sendra, there wasn't anything stopping me.
"All right, you skinny old bitch. I'm going!" It had to have been my imagination, but I thought I heard her rusty laugh behind me as I made my way to the Exodus Authority.