"You could just admit that I make you ill."

"There is that."

"How do you like her?" the blonde asked.

I glanced up and saw her standing nude on the floor. "Not bad for an ice queen. The breasts are too large."

The blonde grimaced. "Yes, I know."

"Why a woman?" I wondered.

"Because I deal in information, Kate, and men tend to blab their secrets to beautiful women." She smiled. "As you well know."

"I usually have to threaten men with bodily harm before they tell me secrets."

"Then I feel sorry for those men. They obviously have poor taste. Do you know who makes the converters that go into our feylamps?"

"I have no idea."

"There are four companies, actually. By the end of the week the city council will decide which one of them gets a municipal contract for the next three years. Right now there are three people in this city who know how they will vote."

"Let me guess, you're one of them?"

The blonde didn't answer, but her smile widened just a little, permitting a brief glimpse of white teeth. Even a financial moron like me knew the price of that kind of information had to be astronomic.

Her muscles moved, stretching, twisting, as if a tangle of worms suddenly came to life under her skin. My stomach lurched. I clenched my teeth and tried to keep my dinner where it belonged. The blonde's pelvis shifted, her shoulders grew broad, her legs thickened, while her breasts dissolved, forming a massive male chest. Ropes of muscles coiled, shaping powerful legs and huge arms. The bones of her face crawled, the nose thickening, the jaw becoming strong and square. The eye color darkened to piercing intense blue. The hair dissolved and grew again, this time turning dark brown. I blinked and a man stood before me. Muscular with the crisp exactness of a professional body builder, he was towering and quite well endowed. Blue eyes glared at me from the flat face of a born fighter - no sharp edges, no jutting bone to shatter under a punch. A bit of armor and he would earn the loyalty of any barbarian horde.

"What do you think?" he asked, his voice deep and commanding.

I eyed him. "Impressive, but too much."

He leaned toward me, the blue eyes smoky with a promise I was sure he could fulfill. I tried not to think of the bedroom.

"Too much?"

"Yes. I like the menace. It's very masculine, but he looks like he would screw everything in sight and call me 'wench'."

The barbarian king before me rubbed the bridge of his nose. "What exactly leads you to that conclusion?"

"I'm not sure. Something in the eyes, I think."

"So it's a no?"

"It's a no."

"I'll have to work on him."

The barbarian deflated, his awesome musculature slimming into a leaner build. The hair vanished, leaving the head bald, and the face grew longer, with intelligent dark eyes and a large nose. The man I knew as Saiman strode to the bar and drew a glass of water from the sink faucet.

"Business?" he said, glancing at the m-scan.

"Yes."

He nodded, drained his glass and refilled it.

"I can't feel a trace of magic," I said. "Yet you seem to have no problem metamorphosing. Why is that?"

He arched an eyebrow at me - a gesture so much like my own that I could've sworn he copied it from me. It was likely. Saiman often mimicked the mannerisms of his clients. He did it consciously, knowing it unnerved them.

"The key word is 'seem'. Metamorphosis now requires concentration, while during the magic tide it flows naturally. But to answer the essence of your question, I believe my body stores magic. Like a battery. Perhaps it even produces its own."

He downed the second glass and approached the couch. "How long have I kept you waiting?"

"Not too long."

For a moment I thought he would make a comment about the view, and then I wouldn't be able to help myself and have to ask him to shield his own 'view' with some clothes. Fortunately he withdrew to the bedroom.

Saiman was driven by the desire to create his own Uberman, a super-male that would be irresistible to women. The sexual aspect of his quest interested him much less than the scientific motivation to craft an image of a perfect human being. He engaged in this pursuit of an ultimate shape for purposes unknown, for I truly had no idea what he would do with his Uberman if he ever succeeded. He approached the challenge with the same methodical logic he applied to everything, attempting to gather feedback from a wide pool of subjects, most of whom had no idea what he truly looked like.

Long ago I argued that his Uberman simply could not exist. Even if he did succeed in creating an image of the essential male, it would fail his expectations. Too much depended on the interaction between two human beings, and ultimately it was that interaction that led to intimacy. He debated me with great passion and I had learned not to argue anymore.

We met during a merc gig a year ago, bodyguard detail. All mercs did one sooner or later, and it was just my luck I drew Saiman. He was injured at the time, confined to his bed by a postoperative complication from a stomach surgery. His body kept changing while it fought the infection and he proved very difficult to guard. I managed to kill two of the assassins sent to dispatch him. He killed the third with a pencil through the eye. I thought I had botched the job but he had seemed grateful ever since. I didn't complain. His services didn't come cheap.

Saiman returned wearing loose clothes of dark blue that were cut like common sweats but looked too expensive to be soiled by that moniker. He looked at the Almanac still opened in my lap, the article Bono had given me a few days back laying on the page.

"Cut from the Volshebstva e Kolduni. What a pretentious title. As if writing 'Spells and Warlocks' in Russian would somehow lend them more credibility. I didn't know you read that trash."

"I don't. The article was given to me by an acquaintance."

"The problem with those rags is that the people who publish them don't realize that magic is fluid. They print erroneous information."

It was an old argument and a valid one. People affected magic just as magic affected them. If enough people believed something to be true, sometimes the magic obliged and made it true.

Saiman scanned the article. "It's incomplete and full of garbage as always. They classify the upir as a corpse-eating undead. Look, they correctly state the upir has an enormous sexual appetite, but are unaware of the contradiction: an undead has no urge to mate, therefore an upir cannot be undead. They also mention that it will try to mate with anything mammal it can secure long enough to achieve a climax but fail to note that the product of such union usually survives to serve the upir." He dropped the article in disgust. "If you ever need to know more about this creature, let me know."


Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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