He regarded me as if I was an interesting new snack. "I'm the Lord of the Free Beasts," he said.
"I figured." Perhaps he expected me to curtsy.
He leaned forward a little, puzzling over me as if I were an odd-looking insect. "Why would a knight-protector hire a no-name merc to investigate the death of his piner?"
I gave him my best cryptic smile.
He grimaced. "What have you found out?" he asked.
"I'm not at liberty to tell you that." Not with the Pack suspect.
He leaned forward more, letting the moonlight fall on his face. His gaze was direct and difficult to hold. Our stares locked and I gritted my teeth. Five seconds into the conversation and he was already giving me the alpha-stare. If he started clicking his teeth, I'd have to make a run for it. Or introduce him to my sword.
"You will tell me what you know now," he said.
He said nothing, so I elaborated. "See, this kind of threat usually has an 'or' attached to it. Or an 'and.' 'Tell me and I'll allow you to live' or something like that."
His eyes ignited with gold. His gaze was unbearable now.
"I can make you beg to tell me everything you know," he said and his voice was a low growl. It sent icy fingers of terror down my spine.
I gripped Slayer's hilt until it hurt. The golden eyes were burning into my soul. "I don't know," I heard my own voice say, "you look kinda out of shape to me. How long has it been since you took care of your own dirty work?"
His right hand twitched. Muscles boiled under the taut skin and fur burst, sheathing the arm. Claws slid from thickened fingers. The hand snapped inhumanly fast. I weaved back and it fanned my face, leaving no scars. A strand of hair fell onto my left cheek, severed from my braid. The claws retracted.
"I think I still remember how," he said.
A spark of magic ran from my fingers into Slayer's hilt and burst into the blade, coating the smooth metal in a milky-white glow. Not that the glow actually did anything useful, but it looked bloody impressive. "Any time you want to dance," I said.
He smiled, slow and lazy. "Not laughing anymore, little girl?"
He was impressive, I'd give him that. I turned the blade, warming up my wrist. The saber drew a tight glowing ellipse in the air, flinging tiny drops of luminescence on the dirty floor. One of them fell close to the Beast Lord's foot and he moved away. "I wonder if all this changing has made you sluggish."
"Bring your pig-sticker and we'll find out."
We circled each other, our feet raising light clouds of dust from the dirty floor. I wanted to fight him, if only to see if I could hold my own.
His lips parted, releasing a snarl. I swung my blade, judging the distance between us.
If we fought, and if I survived, I'd never find out who killed Greg. The Pack would tear me to shreds. This was getting me nowhere. I had no choice but to lose face. I stopped and lowered my blade. The words didn't want to leave my mouth, but I forced them out anyway. "I'm sorry. I'd love to play but I'm not my own person at the moment."
I did my best to ignore the condescension I saw in his face. "My name is Kate Daniels. Greg Feldman was my legal guardian and the closest thing to a family I've had for many years. I want to find the scum who killed him. I can't afford to fight you and I won't show off my magic. I just want to know if the Pack had something to do with Greg's death. Once I find the killer, I would be more than happy to indulge you."
I offered him my hand. He halted, studying me, and then the fur melted away, absorbed through the follicles that produced it. The Beast Lord took my hand in his human palm and shook.
"Fair enough. Right now I'm not my own person either," he said. Being a Beast Lord, he probably never was.
The gold in his irises shrank to mere flecks. His control was unbelievable. The most adept of shapechangers could choose between three forms: human, animal, and beast-man. To change a part of your body into one form while keeping the rest of it in another, as he had, was incredible. Before this night, I would have said it couldn't be done.
The Beast Lord sat down on the dirty floor. I had no choice but to follow, feeling like an idiot for dusting my jeans off earlier.
"If I prove to you that the Pack had no interest in removing the piner, will you share?"
He reached into his sweatshirt, produced a black leather folder zipped shut, and offered it to me. I held my hand out, but he retracted it before my fingers touched the supple leather. I wondered if he was quicker than me. It would be interesting to find out.
"Between us," he said.
I took the folder and unzipped it. Inside were photos. Shots of corpses, some human, some partially animal, mangled and bloody. The bright, awful crimson dominated the images, making it difficult to analyze them. I looked over the photographs anyway. Corpse after corpse after corpse, torn, disemboweled, drenched in their blood. It made me ill.
"Seven," I murmured, holding the pictures by their edges as if the blood on them would stain my fingers. "Yours?"
"Every one." He reached over to tap one of the shots. "This one. Zachary Stone. The alpha-rat. Tough, vicious sonovabitch."
I tried to see beyond the blood, focusing on the injuries. "Something chewed on him."
"Something chewed on five of them. And would have chewed on the other two as well if it wasn't scared away."
A little light went off in my head. "Greg was working on this."
"Yes. And keeping it quiet. The People want power. They lust after it the same way their vampires lust after blood. They see us as rivals and they'll attack any weakness. To admit that we can't take care of our own is a weakness. Nataraja would cream his jeans if he knew."
"You think they are responsible?"
"I don't know," he said, his face grim. "But I'm going to find out."
It made sense. The Order had little love for the Pack, which was too organized and dangerous for their liking, but faced with a choice between the People and the shapeshifters, the Order would side with the Pack. Greg could have been tailing a vampire when something killed him, preventing him from revealing what he saw or was about to see. The vampire could have been caught in a struggle. Or the vamp could have been following Greg when something killed him because he was getting too close. Or...
"I would like to speak to Corwin," I said.
His face showed no reaction. "Is he a suspect?"
There was no point in lying. "Yes."