Being face-to-face with him was similar to looking into an opaque, slightly reflective surface: he enjoyed mimicking the mannerisms of his conversation partners, knowing it unnerved them.

His eyes, on the other hand, were as remarkable as his expression was bland: dark and backlit with an agile intellect. Right now the eyes sparkled with amusement. Enjoy it while it lasts, Saiman. I brought my sword.

"Kate, what a pleasure to see you."

Can't say likewise. "Derek?"

"Please, come in."

I entered the apartment, a carefully designed, monochromatic environment of ultramodern lines, curves, and plush white cushions. Even the loup cage, which contained Derek at the far wall, matched the gleaming steel and glass of the coffee table and lamp fixtures.

Derek saw me. He didn't stir, didn't say anything, but his gaze fastened on to me and wouldn't let go.

I walked over to the cage and looked at him. In one piece. "Are you hurt?"

"No. You shouldn't have come. I can handle this."

Obviously I was missing the whole picture. Any minute now he would leap up, wrench the two-inch silver alloy bars apart despite the fact that silver was toxic to shapeshifters, and heroically kick Saiman's ass. Any minute now. Any minute.

I sighed. Fate, deliver me from the bravery of adolescent idiots.

"Kate, please sit. Would you like something to drink?" Saiman migrated to the bar.

"Water, please."

I slid Slayer out of its sheath on my back. The saber caught the light of the electric lamps, its pale opaque blade long and slender. Saiman glanced at me from the bar. Have you met my sword, Saiman? It's to die for.

I laid Slayer on the coffee table, took a spot on the couch, and studied Derek. At nineteen, the boy wonder was still slightly awkward, with long legs and a lean body that promised to fill out in a few years. His brown hair grew dark, with a rich touch of chrome, and he kept it very short. His face, grim at the moment, possessed the type of fresh, dreamy beauty that made adolescent girls - and probably some moms - melt in his presence. When we first met, he had been pretty. Now he was slowly edging on handsome and promising to develop into a champion heartbreaker. His eyes especially posed danger to anything female: huge, dark, and defined by eyelashes so long they cast shadows onto his cheeks.

It was a wonder he could go out into the daylight at all. I could never understand why the cops didn't arrest him for causing an epidemic of swooning among females eighteen and under.

Saiman would screw anything that moved. With Derek's looks, I'd been afraid I'd find him chained to a bed or worse.

"After our conversation, I recalled where I had seen our young friend." Saiman brought over two crystal glasses, a pale gold wine for himself and water with ice for me. I checked the water. No white powder, no fizzing pill, no other blatantly obvious signs of being spiked. To drink or not to drink? That was the question.

I sipped it. If he'd spiked it, I could still kill him before I passed out.

Saiman sampled his wine and handed a folded newspaper to me. The newspapers had been a dying breed before the Shift, but the magic waves played havoc with the Internet, and the news sheets had returned in all their former glory. This one showed a photograph of a foreboding redbrick building behind a ruined wall. A dragon corpse, little more than a skeleton with shreds of rotting meat clinging to its bones, decomposed in the background among bodies of dead women. The headline proclaimed RED STALKER KILLER

DISPATCHED BY BEAST LORD. No mention of me. Just the way I liked it.

A second picture punctuated the article below the first: Derek, carried off by Doolittle, the Pack's physician. The Stalker had broken Derek's legs and kept him chained to prevent the bones from healing.

"He was the boy targeted by the Stalker because of his association with you," Saiman said. "I believe he was blood sworn to protect you."

Saiman had excellent sources and paid well for the information, but Pack members didn't talk to outsiders, period. How the hell did he get hold of that juicy tidbit?

"The oath is no longer in effect." Curran, the Beast Lord of Atlanta, the Leader of the Pack, and Asshole Supreme, who quite literally held Derek's life in his claws, had released Derek from his blood pledge once the Stalker affair was over.

"Magic has an interesting quality, Kate. Once a bond is formed, it affects both people."

I knew Newman's theory of reciprocal magic as well as anyone. Saiman was fishing for information. I was happy to disappoint him. "If you think that I came here out of some residual magical compulsion generated by an old blood oath, you're wrong. He isn't my lover, my secret relative, or a shapeshifter of great importance to the Pack. I'm here because he's a friend. If our roles were reversed, you would be dead by now and he would be using your coffee table as a pry bar to wrench me out of that cage."

I fixed Saiman with my best version of a hard stare. "I don't have many friends, Saiman. If any harm befalls him, I'll take it very personally."

"Are you threatening me?" Saiman's voice held only a mild curiosity.

"I'm simply defining the playing field. If you hurt him, I'll hurt you back, and I won't give a second thought to the consequences."

Saiman nodded gravely. "Please be assured, I'll take your emotional attachment under consideration."

I had no doubt he would. Saiman took everything under consideration. He dealt in information, selling it to the highest bidder. He gathered his commodity bit by bit, piecing together a larger picture from fractured mosaics of individual conversations, and he forgot nothing.

Saiman set his wine down and braided the long fingers of his hands into a single fist.

"However, your friend broke into my apartment and attempted to steal my property. I do feel compelled to point out that while I respect your capacity for violence, I'm confident you won't kill me without a reason. I don't intend to give you one, and therefore, I hold the upper hand in our negotiations."

That was true. If this mess got out, Derek would have to deal with Curran. The Beast Lord was an arrogant, powerful sonovabitch who ruled the Pack with a steel hand and three-inch claws. Curran and I mixed about as well as glycerin and nitric acid: put us together, shake a bit, and hit the deck as we exploded. However, despite his many faults, and I would have to borrow Saiman's fingers and toes in addition to my own to count them all, Curran didn't play favorites . Derek would be punished, and his punishment would be severe.

I sipped my water. "Noted. Out of curiosity, what did he try to steal?"

Saiman produced two small rectangles of paper out of thin air with the buttery grace of a skilled magician. The magic was down, so it had to be sleight of hand. I filed that fact away for future reference: never play cards with Saiman.

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires