This short story is a prequel to Kate Daniels series.
The problem with leucrocotta blood is that it stinks to high heaven. It’s also impossible to get off your boots, particularly if the leucrocotta condescended to void its anal glands on you right before you chopped its head off.
I sat on the bench in the Mercenary Guild locker room and pondered my noxious footwear. The boots were less than a year old. And I didn’t have money to buy a new pair.
“Tomato juice, Kate,” one of the mercs offered. “Will take it right out.”
Now he’d done it. I braced myself.
A woman in the corner shook her head. “That’s for skunks. Try baking soda.”
“You have to go scientific about it. Two parts hydrogen peroxide to four parts water.”
“A quart of water and a tablespoon of ammonia.”
“What you need to do is piss on it. . . .”
Every person in the locker room knew my boots were shot. Unfortunately, stain removal methods was one of those troublesome subjects somewhere between relationship issues and mysterious car noises. Everybody was an expert, everybody had a cure, and they all fell over themselves to offer their advice.
The electric bulbs blinked and faded. Magic flooded the world in a silent rush, smothering technology. Twisted tubes of feylanterns ignited with pale blue on the walls as the charged air inside them interacted with magic. A nauseating stench, reminiscent of a couple of pounds of shrimp left in the sun for a week, erupted from my boots. There were collective grunts of “Ugh” and “Oh God,” and then everybody decided to give me lots of personal space.
We lived in a post-Shift world. One moment magic dominated, fueling spells and giving power to monsters, and the next it vanished as abruptly as it appeared. Cars started, electricity flowed, and mages became easy prey to a punk with a gun. Nobody could predict when magic waves would come or how long they would last. That’s why I carried a sword. It always worked.
Mark appeared in the doorway. Mark was the Guild’s equivalent of middle management, and he looked the part—his suit was perfectly clean and cost more than I made in three months, his dark hair was professionally trimmed, and his hands showed no calluses. In the crowd of working-class thugs, he stood out like a sore thumb and was proud of it, which earned him the rank and file’s undying hatred.
Mark’s expressionless stare fastened on me. “Daniels, the clerk has a gig ticket for you.”
Usually the words “gig ticket” made my eyes light up. I needed money. I always needed money. The Guild zoned the jobs, meaning that each merc had his own territory. If a job fell in your territory, it was legitimately yours. My territory was near Savannah, basically in the sparsely populated middle of nowhere, and good gigs didn’t come my way too often. The only reason I ended up in Atlanta this time was that my part-time partner in crime, Jim, needed help clearing a pack of grave-digging leucrocottas from Westview Cemetery. He’d cut me in on his gig.
Under normal circumstances I would’ve jumped on the chance to earn extra cash, but I had spent most of the last twenty-four hours awake and chasing hyena-sized creatures armed with badgerlike jaws full of extremely sharp teeth. And Jim bailed on me midway through it. Some sort of Pack business. That’s what I get for pairing with a werejaguar.
I was tired, dirty, and hungry, and my boots stank.
“I just finished a job.”
“It’s a blue gig.”
Blue gig meant double rate.
Mac, a huge hulk of a man, shook his head, presenting me with a view of his mangled left ear. “Hell, if she doesn’t want it, I’ll take it.”
“No, you won’t. She’s licensed for bodyguard detail and you aren’t.”
I bloody hated bodyguard detail. On regular jobs, I had to depend only on myself. But bodyguard detail was a couple’s kind of dance. You had to work with the body you guarded, and in my experience, bodies proved uncooperative.
Mark shrugged. “Because I have no choice. I have Rodriguez and Castor there now, but they just canceled on me. If you don’t take the gig, I’ll have to track down someone who will. My pain, your gain.”
Canceled wasn’t good. Rodriguez was a decent mage, and Castor was tough in a fight. They wouldn’t bail from a well-paying job unless it went sour.
“I need someone there right now. Go there, babysit the client through the night, and in the morning I’ll have a replacement lined up. In or out, Daniels? It’s a high-profile client, and I don’t like to keep him waiting.”
The gig smelled bad. “How much?”
Someone whistled. Three grand for a night of work. I’d be insane to pass on it. “In.”
I started to throw my stink-bomb boots into the locker but stopped myself. I had paid a lot for them, and they should have lasted for another year at least; but if I put them into my locker, it would smell forever. Sadly the boots were ruined. I tossed them into the trash, pulled on my old spare pair, grabbed my sword, and headed out of the locker room to get the gig ticket from the clerk.
When I rode into Atlanta, the magic was down, so I had taken Betsi, my old dented Subaru. With magic wave in full swing, my gasoline-guzzling car was about as mobile as a car-size rock, but since I was technically doing the Guild a favor, the clerk provided me with a spare mount. Her name was Peggy, and judging by the wear on her incisors, she’d started her third decade some years ago. Her muzzle had gone gray, her tail and mane had thinned to stringy tendrils, and she moved with ponderous slowness. I’d ridden her for the first fifteen minutes, listening to her sigh, and then guilt got the better of me and I decided to walk the rest of the way. I didn’t have to go far. According to the directions, Champion Heights was only a couple miles away. An extra ten minutes wouldn’t make that much difference.
Around me a broken city struggled to shrug off winter, fighting the assault of another cold February night. Husks of once mighty skyscrapers stabbed through the melting snowdrifts encrusted with dark ice. Magic loved to feed on anything technologically complex, but tall office towers proved particularly susceptible to magic-induced erosion. Within a couple of years of the first magic wave they shuddered, crumbled, and fell one by one, like giants on sand legs, spilling mountains of broken glass and twisted guts of metal framework onto the streets.
The city grew around the high-tech corpses. Stalls and small shops took the place of swanky coffee joints and boutiques. Wood-and-brick houses, built by hand and no taller than four floors high, replaced the high-rises. Busy streets, once filled with cars and buses, now channeled a flood of horses, mules, and camels. During rush hour the stench alone put hair on your chest. But now, with the last of the sunset dying slowly above the horizon, the city lay empty. Anyone with a crumb of sense hurried home. The night belonged to monsters, and monsters were always hungry.
The wind picked up, driving dark clouds across the sky and turning my bones into icicles. It would storm soon. Here’s hoping Champion Heights, my client’s humble abode, had someplace I could hide Peggy from the sleet.
We picked our way through Buckhead, Peggy’s hooves making loud clopping noises in the twilight silence of the deserted streets. The night worried me little. I looked too poor and too mean to provide easy pickings, and nobody in his right mind would try to steal Peggy. Unless a gang of soap-making bandits lurked about, we were safe enough. I checked the address again. Smack in the middle of Buckhead. The clerk said I couldn’t miss it. Pretty much a guarantee I’d get lost.
I turned the corner and stopped.
A high-rise towered over the ruins. It shouldn’t have existed, but there it was, a brick-and-concrete tower silhouetted against the purple sky. At least fifteen floors, maybe more. Pale tendrils of haze clung to it. It was so tall that the top floor of it still reflected the sunset, while the rest of the city lay steeped in shadow.
“Pinch me, Peggy.”
Peggy sighed, mourning the fact that she was paired with me.
I petted her gray muzzle. “Ten to one that’s Champion Heights. Why isn’t it laying in shambles?”
“You’re right. We need a closer look.”
We wound through the labyrinth of streets, closing in on the tower. My paper said the client’s name was Saiman. No indication if it was his last or first name. Perhaps he was like Batman, one of a kind. Of course, Batman wouldn’t have to hire bodyguards.
“You have to ask yourself, Peggy, who would pay three grand for a night of work and why. I bet living in that tower isn’t cheap, so Saiman has money. Contrary to popular opinion, people who have money refuse to part with it, unless they absolutely have to do it. Three grand means he’s in big trouble and we’re walking into something nasty.”
Finally we landed in a vast parking lot, empty save for a row of cars near the front. Gray Volvo, black Cadillac, even a sleek gunmetal Lamborghini. Most vehicles sported a bloated hood—built to accommodate a charged water engine. The water-engine cars functioned during magic waves by using magic-infused water instead of gasoline. Unfortunately, they took a good fifteen minutes of hard chanting to start, and when they did spring into action, they attained a maximum speed of forty-five miles per hour while growling, snarling, and thundering loud enough to force a deaf man to file a noise complaint.
A large white sign waited past the cars. A black arrow pointed to the right. Above the arrow in black letters was written, “Please stable your mounts.” I looked to the right and saw a large stable and a small guardhouse next to it.
It took me a full five minutes to convince the guards I wasn’t a serial killer in disguise, but finally Peggy relaxed in a comfortable stall, and I climbed the stone stairs to Champion Heights. As I looked, the concrete-and-brick wall of the high-rise swam out of focus, shimmered, and turned into a granite crag.
I squinted at the wall and saw the faint outline of bricks within the granite. Interesting.
The stairs brought me to the glass-and-steel front of the building. The same haze that cloaked the building clouded the glass, but not enough to obscure a thick metal grate barring the vestibule. Beyond the grate, a guard sat behind a round counter, between an Uzi and a crossbow. The Uzi looked well maintained. The crossbow bore the Hawkeye logo on its stock—a round bird-of-prey eye with a golden iris—which meant its prong was steel and not cheap aluminum. Probably upward of two hundred pounds of draw weight. At this distance, it would take out a rhino, let alone me.
The guard gave me an evil eye. I leaned to the narrow metal grille and tried to broadcast “trustworthy.”
“I’m here for one fifty-eight.” I pulled out my merc card and held it to the glass.
Code? What code? “Nobody said anything about a code.”
The guard leveled a crossbow at me.
“Very scary,” I told him. “One small problem—you shoot me and the tenant in one fifty-eight won’t live through the night. I’m not a threat to you. I’m a bodyguard on the job from the Mercenary Guild. If you call to one fifty-eight and check, they’ll tell you they’re expecting me.”
The guard rose and disappeared into a hallway to the right. A long minute passed. Finally he emerged, looking sour, and pushed a button. The metal grate slid aside.
I walked in. The floor and walls were polished red granite. The air smelled of expensive perfume.
“Fifteenth floor,” the guard said, nodding at the elevator in the back of the room.
“The magic is up.” The elevator was likely dead.
Oy. I walked up to the elevator and pushed the Up button. The metal doors slid open. I got in and selected the fifteenth floor, the elevator closed, and a moment later a faint purring announced the cabin rising. It’s good to be rich.
The elevator spat me out into a hallway lined with a luxurious green carpet. I plodded through it past the door marked 158 to the end of the hallway to the door marked with the EXIT sign and opened it. Stairs. Unfortunately in good repair. The door opened from the inside of the hallway, but it didn’t lock. No way to jam it.
The hallway was T-shaped with only one exit, which meant that potential attackers could come either through the elevator shaft or up the stairs.
I went up to 158 and knocked.
The door shot open. Gina Castor’s dark eyes glared at me. An AK-47 hung off her shoulder. She held a black duffel in one hand and her sword in the other. “What took you so long?”
“Hello to you, too.”
She pushed past me, the thin, slightly stooped Rodriguez following her. “He’s all yours.”
I caught the door before it clicked shut. “Where is the client?”
“Chained to the bed.” They headed to the elevator.
Castor flashed her teeth at me. “You’ll figure it out.”
The elevator’s door slid open, they ducked in, and a moment later I was alone in the hallway, holding the door open like an idiot. Peachy.
I stepped inside and shut the door. A faint spark of magic shot through the metal box of the card-reader lock. I touched it. The lock was a sham. The door was protected by a ward. I pushed harder. My magic crashed against the invisible wall of the spell and ground to a halt. An expensive ward, too. Good. Made my job a hair easier.
I slid the dead bolt shut and turned. I stood in a huge living room, big enough to contain most of my house. A marble counter ran along the wall on my left, sheltering a bar with glass shelves offering everything from Bombay Sapphire to French wines. A large steel fridge sat behind the bar. White, criminally plush carpet, black walls, steel-and-glass furniture, and beyond it all an enormous floor-to-ceiling window presenting the vista of the ruined city, a deep darkness lit here and there by the pale blue of feylanterns.
I stayed away from the window and trailed the wall, punctuated by three doors. The first opened into a laboratory: flame-retardant table and counters supporting row upon row of equipment. I recognized a magic scanner, a computer, and a spectrograph, but the rest was beyond me. No client.
I tried the second door and found a large room. Gloom pooled in the corners. A huge platform bed occupied most of the hardwood floor. Something lay on the bed, hidden under black sheets.
The wall to the left of the bed was all glass, and beyond the glass, far below, stretched a very hard parking lot, bathed in the glow of feylanterns.
God, fifteen floors was high.
I pulled my saber from the back sheath and padded across the floor to the bed.
The body under the sheets didn’t move.
In my head, the creature hiding under the sheets lunged at me, knocking me through the window in an explosion of glass shards to plunge far below. . . . Fatigue was messing with my head.
I nudged the sheet with my sword, peeling it back gently.
A man rested on the black pillow. He was bald. His head was lightly tanned, his face neither handsome nor ugly, his features well shaped and pleasant. Perfectly average. His shoulders were nude—he was probably down to his underwear or naked under the sheet.
“Saiman?” I asked softly.
The man’s eyelids trembled. Dark eyes stared at me, luminescent with harsh predatory intelligence. A warning siren went off in my head. I took a small step back and saw the outline of several chains under the sheet. You’ve got to be kidding me. They didn’t just chain him to the bed, they wrapped him up like a Christmas present. He couldn’t even twitch.
“Good evening,” the man said, his voice quiet and cultured.
“You’re my new bodyguard, I presume.”
I nodded. “Call me Kate.”
“Kate. What a lovely name. Please forgive me. Normally I would rise to greet a beautiful woman, but I’m afraid I’m indisposed at the moment.”
I pulled back a little more of the sheet, revealing an industrial-size steel chain. “I can see that.”
“Perhaps I could impose on you to do me the great favor of removing my bonds?”
“Why did Rodriguez and Castor chain you?” And where the hell did they find a chain of this size?
A slight smile touched his lips. “I’d prefer not to answer that question.”
“Then we’re in trouble. Clients get restrained when they interfere with the bodyguards’ ability to keep them safe. Since you won’t tell me why the previous team decided to chain you, I can’t let you go.”
The smile grew wider. “I see your point.”
“Does this mean you’re ready to enlighten me?”
“I’m afraid not.”
I nodded. “I see. Well then, I’ll clear the rest of the apartment, and then I’ll come back and we’ll talk some more.”
“Do you prefer brunets or blonds?”
The sheet shivered.
“Quickly, Kate. Brunets or blonds? Pick one.”
Odd bulges strained the sheet. I grabbed the covers and jerked them back.
Saiman lay naked, his body pinned to the bed by the chain. His stomach distended between two loops, huge and bloated. Flesh bulged and crawled under his skin, as if his body were full of writhing worms.
“Blond, I’d say,” Saiman said.
He groaned, his back digging into the sheets. The muscles under his skin boiled. Bones stretched. Ligaments twisted, contorting his limbs. Acid squirted into my throat. I gagged, trying not to vomit.
His body stretched, twisted, and snapped into a new shape: lean, with crisp definition. His jaw widened, his eyes grew larger, his nose gained a sharp cut. Cornsilk blond hair sprouted on his head and reaching down to his shoulders. Indigo flooded his irises. A new man looked at me, younger by about five years, taller, leaner, with a face that was heartbreakingly perfect. Above his waist, he was Adonis. Below his ribs, his body degenerated into a bloated stomach. He looked pregnant.
“You wouldn’t tell me what you preferred,” he said mournfully, his pitch low and husky. “I had to improvise.”
“What are you?” I kept my sword between me and him.
“Does it really matter?”
“Yes, it does.” When people said shapeshifter, they meant a person afflicted with Lyc-V, the virus that gave its victim the ability to shift into an animal. I’d never seen one who could freely change its human form.
Saiman made a valiant effort to shrug. Hard to shrug with several pounds of chains on your shoulders, but he managed to look nonchalant doing it.
“I am me.”
Oh boy. “Stay here.”
“Where would I go?”
I left the bedroom and checked the rest of the apartment. The only remaining room contained a large shower stall and a giant bathtub. No kitchen. Perhaps he had food delivered.
Fifteenth floor. At least one guard downstairs, bullet-resistant glass, metal grates. The place was a fortress. Yet he hired bodyguards at exorbitant prices. He expected his castle to be breached.
I headed to the bar, grabbed a glass from under the counter, filled it with water, and took it to Saiman. Changing shape took energy. If he was anything like other shapeshifters, he was dying of thirst and hunger right about now.
Saiman’s gaze fastened on the glass. “Delightful.”
I let him drink. He drained the glass in long, thirsty swallows.
“How many guards are on duty downstairs?”
“Are they employed by the building owners directly?”
Saiman smiled. “Yes. They’re experienced and well paid, and they won’t hesitate to kill.”
So far so good. “When you change shape, do you reproduce internal organs as well?”
“Only if I plan to have intercourse.”
Oh goodie. “Are you pregnant?”
Saiman laughed softly.
“I need to know if you’re going to go into labor.” Because that would just be a cherry on the cake of this job.
“You’re a most peculiar woman. No, I’m most definitely not pregnant. I’m male, and while I may construct a vaginal canal and a uterus on occasion, I’ve never had cause to recreate ovaries. And if I did, I suspect they would be sterile. Unlike the male of the species, women produce all of their gametes during gestation, meaning that when a female infant is born, she will have in her ovaries all of the partially developed eggs she will ever have. The ovaries cannot generate production of new eggs, only the maturation of existing ones. The magic is simply not deep enough for me to overcome this hurdle. Not yet.”
Thank Universe for small favors. “Who am I protecting you from, and why?”
“I’m afraid I have to keep that information to myself as well.”
Why did I take this job again? Ah yes, a pile of money. “Withholding this information diminishes my ability to guard you.”
He tilted his head, looking me over. “I’m willing to take that chance.”
“I’m not. It also puts my life at a greater risk.”
“You’re well compensated for that risk.”
I repressed the urge to brain him with something heavy. Too bad there was no kitchen—a cast-iron frying pan would do the job.
“I see why the first team bailed.”
“Oh, it was the woman,” Saiman said helpfully. “She had difficulty with my metamorphosis. I believe she referred to me as an ‘abomination.’ ”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Let’s try simple questions. Do you expect us to be attacked tonight?”
I figured as much. “With magic or brute force?”
“Is it a hit for hire?”
Saiman shook his head. “No.”
Well, at least something went my way: amateurs were easier to deal with than contract killers.
“It’s personal. I can tell you this much: the attackers are part of a religious sect. They will do everything in their power to kill me, including sacrificing their own lives.”
And we just drove off a cliff in a runaway buggy. “Are they magically adept?”
I leaned back. “So let me summarize. You’re a target of magical kamikaze fanatics, you won’t tell me who they are, why they’re after you, or why you have been restrained?”
“Precisely. Could I trouble you for a sandwich? I’m famished.”
Dear God, I had a crackpot for a client. “A sandwich?”
“Prosciutto and Gouda on sourdough bread, please. A tomato and red onion would be quite lovely as well.”
“Feel free to have one.”
“I tell you what, since you refuse to reveal anything that might make my job even a smidgeon easier, how about I make a delicious prosciutto sandwich and taunt you with it until you tell me what I want to know?”
An eerie sound came from the living room—a light click, as if something with long sharp claws crawled across metal.
I put my finger to my lips, freed my saber, and padded out into the living room.
The room lay empty. No intruders.
I stood very still, trying to fade into the black walls.
Moments dripped by.
A small noise came from the left. It was a hesitant, slow clicking, as if some creature slunk in the distance, slowly putting one foot before the other.
Definitely a claw.
I scrutinized the left side of the room. Nothing moved.
Click. Click, click.
Closer this time. Fear skittered down my spine. Fear was good. It would keep me sharp. I kept still. Where are you, you sonovabitch?
Click to the right, and almost immediately a quiet snort to the left. Now we had two invisible intruders. Because one wasn’t hard enough.
An odd scent nipped at my nostrils, a thick, slightly bitter herbal odor. I’d smelled it once before, but I had no clue where or when.
Claws scraped to the right and to the left of me now. More than two. A quiet snort to the right. Another in the corner. Come out to play. Come on, beastie.
Claws raked metal directly in front of me. There was nothing there but that huge window and sloping ceiling above it. I looked up. Glowing green eyes peered at me through the grate of the air duct in the ceiling.
Shivers sparked down my back.
The eyes stared at me, heated with madness.
The screws in the air duct cover turned to the left. Righty tighty, lefty loosey. Smart critter.
The grate fell onto the soft carpet. The creature leaned forward slowly, showing me a long conical head. The herbal scent grew stronger now, as if I’d taken a handful of absinthe wormwood and stuck it up my nose.
Long black claws clutched the edge of the air duct. The beast rocked, revealing its shoulders sheathed in shaggy, hunter green fur.
Bingo. An endar. Six legs, each armed with wicked black claws; preternaturally fast; equipped with an outstanding sense of smell and a big mouth, which hid a tongue lined with hundreds of serrated teeth. One lick and it would scrape the flesh off my bones in a very literal way.
The endars were peaceful creatures. The green fur wasn’t fur at all; it was moss that grew from their skin. They lived underneath old oaks, rooted to the big trees in a state of quiet hibernation, absorbing their nutrients and making rare excursions to the surface to lick the bark and feed on lichens. They stirred from their rest so rarely that pagan Slavs thought they fed on air.
Someone had poured blood under this endar’s oak. The creature had absorbed it, and the blood had driven it crazy. It had burrowed to the surface, where it swarmed with its fellows. Then the same someone, armed with a hell of a lot of magic, had herded this endar and its buddies to this high-rise and released them into the ventilation system so they would find Saiman and rip him apart. They couldn’t be frightened off. They couldn’t be stopped. They would kill anything with a pulse to get to their target, and when the target was dead, they would have to be eliminated. There was no going back from endar madness.
Only a handful of people knew how to control endars.
Saiman had managed to piss off the Russians. It’s never good to piss off the Russians. That was just basic common sense. My father was Russian, but I doubted they would cut me any slack just because I could understand their curses.
The endar gaped at me with its glowing eyes. Yep, mad as a hatter. I’d have to kill every last one of them.
“Well, come on. Bring it.”
The endar’s mouth gaped. It let out a piercing screech, like a circular saw biting into the wood, and charged.
I swung Slayer. The saber’s blade sliced into flesh and the beast crashed to the floor. Thick green blood stained Saiman’s white carpet.
The three other duct covers fell one by one. A stream of green bodies charged toward me. I swung my sword, cleaving the first body in two. It was going to be a long night.
The last of the endars was on the smaller side. Little bigger than a cat. I grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and took it back into the bedroom.
Saiman smiled at my approach. “I take it everything went well?”
He arched his eyebrow again. Definitely mimicking me. “Oh?”
“Your new carpet is a lovely emerald color.”
“I can assure you that carpet is the least of my worries.”
“You’re right.” I brought the endar closer. The creature saw Saiman and jerked spasmodically. Six legs whipped the air, claws out, ready to rend and tear. The beast’s mouth gaped, releasing a wide tongue studded with rows and rows of conical teeth.
“You provoked the volkhvi.” It was that or the Russian witches. I bet on the volkhvi. The witches would’ve cursed us by now.
“The volkhvi are bad news for a number of reasons. They serve pagan Slavic gods, and they have thousands of years of magic tradition to draw on. They’re at least as powerful as Druids, but unlike Druids, who are afraid to sneeze the wrong way or someone might accuse them of bringing back human sacrifices, the volkhvi don’t give a damn. They won’t stop, either. They don’t like using the endars, because the endars nourish the forest with their magic. Whatever you did really pissed them off.”
Saiman pondered me as if I were some curious bug. “I wasn’t aware that the Guild employed anyone with an education.”
“I’ll hear it. All of it.”
“No.” He shook his head. “I do admire your diligence and expertise. I don’t want you to think it’s gone unnoticed.”
I dropped the endar onto Saiman’s stomach. The beast clawed at the sheet. Saiman screamed. I grabbed the creature and jerked it up. The beast dragged the sheet with it, tearing it to shreds. Small red scratches marked Saiman’s blob of a stomach.
“I’ll ask again. What did you do to infuriate the Russians? Consider your answer carefully, because next time I drop this guy, I’ll be slower picking him back up.”
Saiman’s face quivered with rage. “You’re my bodyguard.”
“You can file a complaint, if you survive. You’re putting both of us in danger by withholding information. See, if I walk, I just miss out on some money; you lose your life. I have no problem with leaving you here, and the Guild can stick its thumb up its ass and twirl for all I care. The only thing that keeps me protecting you is professional pride. I hate bodyguard detail, but I’m good at it, and I don’t like to lose a body. It’s in your best interests to help me do my job. Now, I’ll count to three. On three I drop Fluffy here and let it go to town on your gut. He really wants whatever you’re hiding in there.”
Saiman stared at me.
“One. Two. Th—”
I reached into my backpack and pulled out a piece of wire. Normally I used it for trip traps, but it would make a decent leash. Two minutes later, the endar was secured to the dresser and I perched on the corner of Saiman’s bed.
“Are you familiar with the legend of Booyan Island?”
I nodded. “It’s a mythical island far in the Ocean, behind the Hvalynskii Sea. It’s a place of deep magic where a number of legendary creatures and items are located: Alatyr, the father of all stones; the fiery pillar; the Drevo-Doob, the World Oak; the cave where the legendary sword Kladenets is hidden; the Raven prophet; and so on. It’s the discount warehouse of Russian legends. Any time the folkloric heroes needed a magic object, they made a trip to it.”
“Let’s concentrate on the tree,” Saiman said.
I knew Slavic mythology well enough, but I hadn’t had to use it for a while and I was a bit rusty. “It’s a symbol of nature. Creature of the earth at its roots, the serpent, the frog, and so on. There is a raven with a prophet gift in the branches. Some myths say that there are iron chains wrapped around the tree’s trunk. A black cat walks the chain, telling stories and fables. . . .”
Oh crap. “It’s that damn cat, isn’t it?”
“The oak produces an acorn once every seven years. Seven months, seven days, and seven hours after the acorn falls from the tree, it will crack and grow into the World Oak. In effect, the tree manifests at the location of the acorn for the period of seven minutes.”
I frowned. “Let me guess. You stole the acorn from the Russians and swallowed it.”
“Why? Are you eager to hear a bedtime story?”
“The cat possesses infinite knowledge. Seven minutes is time enough to ask and hear an answer to one question. Only the owner of the acorn can ask the question.”
I shook my head. “Saiman, nothing is free. You have to pay for everything, knowledge included. What will it cost you to ask a question?”
“The price is irrelevant if I get an answer.” Saiman smiled.
I sighed. “Answer my question: Why do smart people tend to be stupid?”
“Because we think we know better. We think that our intellect affords us special privileges and lets us beat the odds. That’s why talented mathematicians try to defraud casinos and young brilliant mages make bargains with forces beyond their control.”
Well, he answered the question.
“When is the acorn due for its big kaboom?”
“In four hours and forty-seven minutes.”
“The volkhvi will tear this high-rise apart stone by stone to get it back, and I’m your last line of defense?”
“That’s an accurate assessment. I did ask for the best person available.”
I sighed. “Still want that sandwich?”
I headed to the door.
I turned to him. “Why were you chained?”
Saiman grimaced. “The acorn makes it difficult to control my magic. It forces me to continuously change shape. Most of the time I’m able to keep the changes subtle, but once in a while the acorn causes contortions. Gina Castor walked in on me during such a moment. I’m afraid I was convulsing, so my recollection may be somewhat murky, but I do believe I had at least one partially formed breast and three arms. She overreacted. Odd, considering her profile.”
“I studied my bodyguards very carefully,” Saiman said. “I handpicked three teams. The first refused to take the job, the second was out due to injuries. Castor and Rodriguez were my third choice.”
I went back to the bed and ducked under it. They’d chained him with a small padlock. Lock picking wasn’t my strong suit. I looked around and saw the small key on the dresser. It took me a good five minutes to unwrap him.
“Thank you.” He rose, rubbing his chest, marked by red pressure lines. “May I ask why?”
“Nobody should die chained to the bed.”
Saiman stretched. His body swelled, twisted, growing larger, gaining breadth and muscle. I made a valiant effort to not vomit.
Saiman’s body snapped. A large, perfectly sculpted male looked at me. Soft brown hair framed a masculine face. He would make any bodybuilder gym proud. Except for the bloated gut.
“Is he preferable to the previous attempt?” Saiman asked.
“There is more of you to guard now. Other than that, it makes no difference to me.”
I headed into the living room. He followed me, swiping a luxurious robe off a chair.
We stepped into the living room. Saiman stopped.
The corpses of endars had melted into puddles of green. Thin stalks of emerald green moss sprouted from the puddles, next to curly green shoots of ferns and tiny young herbs.
“The endars nourish the forest,” I told him.
He indicated the completely green carpet with his hand. “How many were there?”
“A few. I lost count.”
Saiman’s sharp eyes regarded my face. “You’re lying. You know the exact number.”
I zeroed in on the fridge. No telling when the next attack would come, and I was starving. You can do without sleep or without food, but not without both and sleep wasn’t an option.
Saiman trailed me, taking the seat on the outer side of the counter. “Do you prefer women?”
He frowned, belting the robe. “It’s the stomach, isn’t it?”
I raided the fridge. He had enough deli meat to feed an army. I spread it out on the bar’s counter. “What do you do for a living, Saimain?”
“I collect information and use it to further my interests.”
“It seems to pay well.” I nodded to indicate the apartment.
“It does. I also possess an exhaustive knowledge of various magic phenomena. I consult various parties. My fee varies between thirty-six hundred and thirty-nine hundred dollars, depending on the job and the client.”
“Thirty-six hundred dollars per job?” I bit into my sandwich. Mmm, salami.
I choked on my food. He looked at me with obvious amusement.
“The term ‘highway robbery’ comes to mind,” I managed finally.
“Oh, but I’m exceptionally good at what I do. Besides, the victims of highway robbery have no choice in the matter. I assure you, I don’t coerce my clients, Kate.”
“I’m sure. How did we even get to this point? The stratospheric fee ruined my train of thought.”
“You stated that you prefer men to women.”
I nodded. “Suppose you get a particularly sensitive piece of information. Let’s say a business tip. If you act on the tip, you could make some money. If you sell it, you could make more money. If both you and your buyer act on the tip, you both would make money, but the return for each of you would be significantly diminished. Your move?”
“Either sell the information or act on it. Not both.”
Saiman shrugged. “The value of the information increases with its exclusivity. A client buying such knowledge has an expectation of such exclusivity. It would be unethical to undermine it.”
“It would be unethical for me to respond to your sexual overtures. For the duration of the job, you’re a collection of arms and legs which I have to keep safe. I’m most effective if I’m not emotionally involved with you on any level. To be blunt, I’m doing my best to regard you as a precious piece of porcelain I have to keep out of harm’s way.”
“But you do find this shape sexually attractive?”
“I’m not going to answer this question. If you pester me, I will chain you back to the bed.”
Saiman raised his arm, flexing a spectacular biceps. “This shape has a lot of muscle mass.”
I nodded. “In a bench-pressing contest you would probably win. But we’re not bench pressing. You might be stronger, but I’m well trained. If you do want to try me, you’re welcome to it. Just as long as we agree that once your battered body is chained safely in your bed, I get to say, ‘I told you so.’ ”
Saiman arched his eyebrows. “Try it?”
“And stop that.”
“Stop mimicking my gestures.”
He laughed. “You’re a most peculiar person, Kate. I find myself oddly fascinated. You have obvious skill.” He indicated the budding forest in his living room. “And knowledge to back it up. Why aren’t you among the Guild’s top performers?”
Because being in top anything means greater risk of discovery. I was hiding in plain sight and doing a fairly good job of it. But he didn’t need to know that. “I don’t spend much time in Atlanta. My territory is in the Lowcountry. Nothing much happens there, except for an occasional sea serpent eating shrimp out of the fishing nets.”
Saiman’s sharp eyes narrowed. “So why not move up to the city? Better jobs, better money, more recognition?”
“I like my house where it is.”
Something bumped behind the front door. I swiped Slayer off the counter. “Bedroom. Now.”
“Can I watch?”
I pointed with the sword to the bedroom.
Saiman gave an exaggerated sigh. “Very well.”
He went to the bedroom. I padded to the door and leaned against it, listening.
I waited, sword raised. Something waited out there in the hallway. I couldn’t hear it, but I sensed it. It was there.
A quiet whimper filtered through the steel of the door. A sad, lost, feminine whimper, like an old woman crying quietly in mourning.
I held very still. The apartment felt stifling and crowded in. I would’ve given anything for a gulp of fresh air right about now.
Something scratched at the door. A low mutter floated through, whispered words unintelligible.
God, what was it with the air in this place? The place was stale and musty, like a tomb.
A feeling of dread flooded me. Something bad was in the apartment. It hid in the shadows under the furniture, in the cabinets, in the fridge. Fear squirmed through me. I pressed my back against the door, holding Slayer in front of me.
The creature behind the door scratched again, claws against the steel.
The walls closed in. I had to get away from this air. Somewhere out in the open. Someplace where the wind blew under an open sky. Somewhere with nothing to crowd me in.
I had to get out.
If I left, I risked Saiman’s life. Outside, the volkhvi were waiting. I’d be walking right into their arms.
The shadows under the furniture grew longer, stretching toward me.
Get out. Get out now!
I bit my lip. A quick drop of blood burned on my tongue, the magic in it nipping at me. Clarity returned for a second, and light dawned in my head. Badzula. Of course. The endars failed to rip us apart, so the volkhvi went for plan B. If Muhammad won’t go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Muhammad.
Saiman walked out of the bedroom. His eyes were glazed over.
“I must go,” he said. “Must get out.”
“No, you really must not.” I sprinted to him.
He headed to the giant window.
I kicked the back of his right knee. He folded. I caught him on the way down and spun him so he landed on his stomach. He sprawled among the ankle-tall ferns. I locked his left wrist and leaned on him, grinding all of my weight into his left shoulder.
“Badzula,” I told him. “Belorussian creature. Looks like a middle-aged woman with droopy breasts, swaddled in a filthy blanket.”
“I must get out.” He tried to roll over, but I had him pinned.
“Focus, Saiman. Badzula—what’s her power?”
“She incites people to vagrancy.”
“That’s right. And we can’t be vagrants, because if we walk out of this building, both of us will be killed. We have to stay put.”
“I don’t think I can do it.”
“Yes, you can. I’m not planning on getting up.”
“I believe you’re right.” A small measure of rational thought crept into his voice. “I suppose the furniture isn’t really trying to devour us.”
“If it is, I’ll chop it with my sword when it gets close.”
“You can let me up now,” he said.
“I don’t think so.”
We sat still. The air grew viscous like glue. I had to bite it to get any into my lungs.
Muscles crawled under me. Saiman couldn’t get out of my hold, so he decided to shift himself out.
“Do you stock herbs?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you have water lily?”
“Laboratory, third cabinet.”
“Good.” I rolled off of him. I’d have only a second to do this, and I had to do it precisely.
Saiman got up to his knees. As he rose, I threw a fast right hook. He never saw it coming and didn’t brace himself. My fist landed on his jaw. His head snapped back. His eyes rolled over and he sagged down.
Lucky. I ran to the lab.
It took a hell of a lot of practice to knock someone out. You needed both speed and power to jolt the head enough to rattle the brain inside the skull but not cause permanent damage. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t even try it, but these weren’t normal circumstances. Walls were curving in to eat me.
If I did cause too much damage, he would fix it. Considering what he had done to his body so far, his regeneration would make normal shapeshifters jealous.
Third cabinet. I threw it open and scanned the glass jars. Dread mugged me like a sodden blanket. Ligularia dentata, Ligularia przewalski . . . Latin names, why me? Lilium pardalinum, Lobelia siphilitica. Come on, come on . . . Nymphaea odorata, pond lily. Also known to Russians as odolen-trava, the mermaid flower, an all-purpose pesticide against all things unclean. That would do.
I dashed to the door, twisting the lid off the jar. A gray powder filled it—ground lily petals, the most potent part of the flower. I slid open the lock. The ward drained down, and I jerked the door ajar.
Empty hallway greeted me. I hurled the jar and the powder into the hall. A woman wailed, smoke rose from thin air, and Badzula materialized in the middle of the carpet. Skinny, flabby, filthy, with breasts dangling to her waist like two empty bags, she tossed back grimy, tangled hair and hissed at me, baring stumps of rotten teeth.
“That’s nice. Fuck you, too.”
I swung. It was textbook saber slash, diagonal, from left to right. I drew the entirety of the blade through the wound. Badzula’s body toppled one way, her head rolled the other.
The weight dropped off my shoulders. Suddenly I could breathe, and the building no longer seemed in imminent danger of collapsing and burying me alive.
I grabbed the head, tossed it into the elevator, dragged the body in there, sent the whole thing to the ground floor, sprinted back inside, and locked the door, reactivating the ward. The whole thing took five seconds.
On the floor, Saiman lay unmoving. I checked his pulse. Breathing. Good. I went back to the island. I deserved some coffee after this, and I bet Saiman stocked the good stuff.
I was sitting by the counter, sipping the best coffee I’d ever tasted, when the big-screen TV on the wall lit up with fuzzy glow. Which was more than a smidgeon odd, considering that the magic was still up and the TV shouldn’t have worked.
I took my coffee and my saber and went to sit on the couch, facing the TV. Saiman still sprawled unconscious on the floor.
The glow flared brighter, faded, flared brighter . . . In ancient times people used mirrors, but really any somewhat reflective surface would do. The dark TV screen was glossy enough.
The glow blazed and materialized into a blurry male. In his early twenties, dark hair, dark eyes.
The man looked at me. “You’re the bodyguard.” His voice carried a trace of Russian accent.
I nodded and slipped into Russian. “Yes.”
“I don’t know you. What you do makes no difference to me. We have this place surrounded. We go in in an hour.” He made a short chopping motion with his hand. “You’re done.”
“I’m shaking with fear. In fact, I may have to take a minute to get my shivers under control.” I drank my coffee.
The man shook his head. “You tell that paskuda, if he let Yulya go, I’ll make sure you both walk out alive. You hear that? I don’t know what he’s got over my wife, but you tell him that. If he wants to live, he has to let her go. I’ll be back in thirty minutes. You tell him.”
The screen faded.
And the plot thickens. I sighed and nudged Saiman with my boot. It took a couple of nudges, but finally he groaned and sat up.
“Really? What did I fall into?”
“That explains the headache.” Saiman looked at me. “This will never happen again. I want to be absolutely clear. Attempt this again and you’re fired.”
I wondered what would happen if I knocked him out again right there, just for kicks.
“Is that my arabica coffee?” he asked.
I nodded. “I will even let you have a cup if you answer my question.”
Saiman arched an eyebrow. “Let? It’s my coffee.”
I saluted him with the mug. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
He stared at me incredulously. “Ask.”
“Are you holding a woman called Yulya hostage?”
“Her husband is very upset and is offering to let us both go if we can produce Yulya for him. Unfortunately, he’s lying and most likely we both would be killed once said Yulya is found. But if you’re holding a woman hostage, you must tell me now.”
“And if I was?” Saiman rubbed his jaw and sat in the chair opposite me.
“Then you’d have to release her immediately or I would walk. I don’t protect kidnappers, and I take a very dim view of violence toward civilians, men or women.”
“You’re a bewildering woman.”
“Saiman, focus. Yulya?”
Saiman leaned back. “I can’t produce Yulya. I am Yulya.”
I suppose I should’ve seen that coming. “The man was under the impression he’s married to her. What happened to the real Yulya?”
“There was never a real Yulya. I will tell you the whole story, but I must have coffee. And nutrients.”
I poured him a cup of coffee. Saiman reached into the fridge and came up with a gallon of milk, a solid block of chocolate, and several bananas.
Chocolate was expensive as hell. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had some. If I survived this job, I’d buy a couple of truffles.
I watched Saiman load bananas and milk into a manual blender and crank the handle, cutting the whole thing into a coarse mess. Not the chocolate, not the chocolate . . . Yep, threw it in there, too. What a waste.
He poured the concoction into a two-quart jug and began chugging it. Shapeshifters did burn a ton of calories. I sighed, mourning the loss of the chocolate, and sipped my coffee. “Give.”
“The man in question is the son of Pavel Semyonov. He’s the premiervolkhv in the Russian community here. The boy’s name is Grisha, and he’s completely right, I did marry him, as Yulya, of course. The acorn was very well guarded and I needed a way in.”
Saiman smiled. Apparently he thought I’d paid him a compliment. “Are you familiar with the ritual of firing the arrow?”
“It’s an archaic folkloric ritual. The shooter is blindfolded and spun around, so he blindly fires. The flight of the arrow foretells the correct direction of the object the person seeks. If a woman picks up the arrow, she and the shooter are fated to be together.”
Saiman wiped his mouth. “I picked up the arrow. It took me five months from the arrow to the acorn.”
“How long did it take you to con that poor guy into marriage?”
“Three months. The combination of open lust but withholding of actual sex really works wonders.”
I shook my head. “Grisha is in love with you. He thinks his wife is in danger. He’s trying to rescue her.”
Saiman shrugged. “I had to obtain the acorn. I could say that he’s young and resilient, but really his state of mind is the least of my concerns.”
“You’re a terrible human being.”
“I beg to differ. All people are driven by their primary selfishness. I’m simply more honest than most. Furthermore, he had the use of a beautiful woman, created to his precise specifications, for two months. I did my research into his sexual practices quite thoroughly, to the point of sleeping with him twice as a prostitute to make sure I knew his preferences.”
“If we get out of this, I need to remember never to work for you again.”
Saiman smiled. “But you will. If the price is right.”
“Anyone will work for anyone and anyone will sleep with anyone, if the price is right and the partnership is attractive enough. Suppose I invited you to spend a week here with me. Luxurious clothes. Beautiful shoes.” He looked at my old boots, which were in danger of falling apart. “Magnificent meals. All the chocolate you could ever want.”
So he’d caught me.
“All that for the price of having sex with me. I would even sweeten the deal by assuming a shape preferable to you. Anyone you want. Any shape, any size, any color, any gender. All in total confidentiality. Nobody ever has to know you were here. The offer is on the table.” He placed his hand on the counter, palm down. “Right now. I promise you a week of total bliss—assuming we survive. You’ll never get another chance to be this pampered. All I need from you is one word.”
He blinked. “Don’t you want to think about it?”
He clamped his mouth shut. Muscles played along his jaw. “Why?”
The TV screen ignited. Grisha appeared in the glow. Saiman strode to the screen with a scowl on his face. “I’ll make it short.” His body boiled, twisted, stretched. I shut my eyes. It was that or lose my precious coffee. When I opened them, a petite red-haired woman stood in Saiman’s place.
“Does this explain things enough?” Saiman asked. “Or do I need to spell it out, Grisha?”
“I don’t believe it.”
Saiman sighed. “Would you like me to list your preferred positions, in the order you typically enjoy them? Shall we speak of intimate things? I could recite most of our conversations word for word, I do have a very precise memory.”
They stared at each other.
“It was all a lie,” Grisha said finally.
“I call it subterfuge, but yes, in essence, the marriage was a sham. You were set up from the beginning. I was Yulya. I was also Siren and Alyssa, so if you decide to visit that particular house of ill repute again, don’t look for either.”
The glow vanished. Saiman turned to me. “Back to our question. Why?”
“That man loved you enough to risk his own neck to negotiate your release. You just destroyed him, in passing, because you were in a hurry. And you want to know why. If you did that to him, there’s no telling what you’d do to me. Sex is about physical attraction, yes, but it’s also about trust. I don’t trust you. You’re completely self-absorbed and egoistic. You offer nothing I want.”
“Sex is driven by physical attraction. Given the right stimulus, you will sleep with me. I simply have to present you with a shape you can’t resist.”
Saiman jerked, as if struck by a whip, and crashed to the floor. His feet drummed the carpet, breaking the herbs and fledgling ferns. Wild convulsions tore at his body. A blink and he was a mess of arms and legs and bodies. My stomach gave up, and I vomited into the sink.
Ordinarily I’d be on top of him, jamming something in his mouth to keep him from biting himself, but given that he changed shapes as if there were no tomorrow, finding his mouth was a bit problematic.
“Saiman? Talk to me.”
“The acorn . . . It’s coming. Must . . . Get . . . Roof.”
Roof? No roof. We were in the apartment, shielded by a ward. On the roof we’d be sitting ducks. “We can’t do that.”
“Oak . . . Large . . . Cave-in.”
Oh hell. Would it have killed him to mention that earlier? “I need you to walk. You’re too heavy and I can’t carry you while you convulse.”
Little by little, the shudders died. Saiman staggered to his feet. He was back to the unremarkable man I’d first found in the bedroom. His stomach had grown to ridiculous proportions. If he were pregnant, he’d be twelve months along.
“We’ll make a run for it,” I told him.
A faint scratch made me spin. An old man hung outside the window, suspended on a rope. Gaunt, his white beard flapping in the wind, he peered through the glass straight at me. In the split second we looked at each other, twelve narrow stalks unfurled from his neck, spreading into a corona around his head, like a nimbus around the face of a Russian icon. A bulb tipped each stock. A hovala. Shit.
I grabbed Saiman and threw him at the door.
The bulbs opened.
Blinding light flooded the apartment, hiding the world in a white haze. The window behind me exploded. I could barely see. “Stay behind me.”
Shapes dashed through the haze.
I slashed. Slayer connected, encountering resistance. Sharp ice stabbed my left side. I reversed the strike and slashed again. The shape before me crumpled. The second attacker struck. I dodged left on instinct and stabbed my blade at his side. Bone and muscle. Got him between the lower ribs. A hoarse scream lashed my ears. I twisted the blade, ripping the organs, and withdrew.
The hovala hissed at the window. I was still blind.
Behind me the lock clicked. “No!”
I groped for Saiman and hit my forearm on the open door. He ran. Into the hallway, where he was an easy target. I lost my body. Goddamn it.
I sprinted into the hallway, trying to blink the haze from eyes. The stairs were to the left. I ran, half-blind, grabbed the door, and dashed up the stairs.
The blinding flare finally cleared. I hit the door, burst onto the roof, and took a kick to the ribs. Bones crunched. I fell left and rolled to my feet. A woman stood by the door, arms held in a trademark tae kwon do cat stance.
To the right, an older man grappled with Saiman. Six others watched.
The woman sprang into a kick. It was a lovely kick, strong with good liftoff. I sidestepped and struck. By the time she landed, I’d cut her twice. She fell in a crumpled heap.
I flicked the blood off my saber and headed for Saiman.
“You’re Voron’s kid,” one of the men said. “We have no problem with you. Pavel’s entitled. His son just threw himself off the roof.”
Ten to a million the son’s name was Grisha.
I kept coming. The two men ripped at each other, grappling and snarling like two wild animals. I was five feet away when Pavel head-butted Saiman, jerking his right arm free. A knife flashed; I lunged and saw Pavel slice across Saiman’s distended gut. A bloody clump fell, and I caught it with my left hand purely on instinct.
Magic punched my arm. Pale glow erupted from my fist.
Saiman twisted and stabbed something at Pavel’s right eye. The volkhv stumbled back, a bloody pencil protruding from his eye socket. For a long moment he stood, huge mouth gaping, and then he toppled like a log. Saiman spun about. The muscles of his stomach collapsed, folding, knitting together, turning into a flat washboard wall.
The whole thing took less than three seconds.
I opened my fist. A small gold acorn lay on my palm.
The golden shell cracked. A sliver of green thrust its way up. The acorn rolled off my hand. The green shoot thickened, twisted, surging higher and higher. The air roared like a tornado. Saiman howled, a sound of pure rage. I grabbed him and dragged him with me to the stairs. On the other side, volkhvi ran for the edge of the roof.
The shoot grew, turning dark, sprouting branches, leaves, and bark. Magic roiled.
“It was supposed to be mine,” Saiman snarled. “Mine!”
Light flashed. The roaring ceased.
A colossal oak stood in the middle of the roof, as tall as the building itself, its roots spilling on both sides of the high-rise. Tiny lights fluttered between its branches, each wavy leaf as big as my head. Birds sang in the foliage. A huge metal chain bound the enormous trunk, its links so thick, I could’ve lain down on it. A feeling of complete peace came over me. All my troubles melted into the distance. My pain dissolved. The air tasted sweet, and I drank it in.
At the other side of the roof, the volkhvi knelt.
Metal clinked. A black creature came walking down the bottom loop. As big as a horse, its fur long and black, it walked softly, gripping the links with razor-sharp claws. Its head was that of a lynx. Tall tufts of black fur decorated its ears, and a long black beard stretched from its chin. Its eyes glowed, lit from within.
The cat paused and looked at me. The big maw opened, showing me a forest of white teeth, long and sharp like knives.
“You were the last to hold the acorn,” Saiman whispered. “You must ask the question or it will kill all of us.”
The cat showed me its teeth again.
For anything I asked, there would be a price.
“Ask,” the cat said, its voice laced with an unearthly snarl.
“Ask, Kate,” Saiman prompted.
“Ask!” one of the volkhvi called out.
I took a deep breath.
The cat leaned forward in anticipation.
“Would you like some milk?”
The cat smiled wider. “Yes.”
“I’ll be right back.”
I dashed down the stairs. Three minutes later, the cat lapped milk from Saiman’s crystal punch bowl.
“You could’ve asked anything,” the creature said between laps.
“But you would’ve taken everything,” I told it. “This way all it cost me is a little bit of milk.”
In the morning Peters came to relieve me. Not that he had a particularly difficult job. After the oak disappeared, the volkhvi decided that since both Pavel and Grisha were dead, all accounts were settled and it was time to call it quits. As soon as we returned to the apartment, Saiman locked himself in the bedroom and refused to come out. The loss of the acorn hit him pretty hard. Just as well. I handed my fussy client off to Peters, retrieved Peggy, and headed back to the Guild.
All in all I’d done spectacularly well, I decided. I lost the client for at least two minutes, let him get his stomach ripped open, watched him stab his attacker in the eye, which was definitely something he shouldn’t have had to do, and cost him his special acorn and roughly five months of work. The fact that my client turned out to be a scumbag and a sexual deviant really had no bearing on the matter.
Some bodyguard I made. Yay. Whoopee. I got to the Guild, surrendered Peggy, and filled out my paperwork. You win some, you lose some. At least Saiman survived. I wouldn’t get paid, but I didn’t end the job with a dead client on my hands.
I grabbed my crap and headed for the doors.
“Kate,” the clerk called from the counter.
I turned. Nobody remembered the clerk’s name. He was just “the clerk.”
He waved an envelope at me. “Money.”
I turned on my foot. “Money?”
“For the job. Client called. He says he’d like to work exclusively with you from now on. What did the two of you do all night?”
“We argued philosophy.” I swiped the envelope and counted the bills. Three grand. What do you know?
I stepped out the doors into an overcast morning. I had been awake for over thirty-six hours. I just wanted to find a quiet spot, curl up, and shut out the world.
A tall, lean man strode to me, tossing waist-long black hair out of the way. He walked like a dancer, and his face would stop traffic. I looked into his blue eyes and saw a familiar smugness in their depths. “Hello, Saiman.”
“How did you know?”
I shrugged and headed on my way.
“Perhaps we can work out a deal,” he said, matching my steps. “I have no intentions of losing that bet. I will find a form you can’t resist.”
“I’m guessing you’ll try to avoid me, which would make my victory a bit difficult.”
“That’s why I decided to give you an incentive you can’t refuse. I’m giving you a sixty percent discount on my services. It’s an unbelievable deal.”
I laughed. If he thought I’d pay him twenty-six dollars a minute for his time, he was out of luck.
“Laugh now.” Saiman smiled. “But sooner or later you’ll require my expertise.”
He stopped. I kept on walking, into the dreary sunrise. I had three thousand dollars and some chocolate to buy.