His eyes opened just a tiny bit, and green shone through the slits.
"Born an animal..." I said.
"And now I am man," he continued, turning again so my fingers would scratch a farther point on his jaw. "A man-lynx. I like to read. And human females are often in heat."
"Do you still hunt among the trees when the moon is out, lynx?" I asked softly.
"Come to the Wood at night," he said. "And you'll find out."
I sat back. "Do you have an m-scanner?"
"We have a portable," Curran said.
"That will be fine."
I waited until they brought the portable out. Even the portable scanner weighed over eighty pounds. A single woman carried it in and sat it in the corner, a large construction of metal and wood that resembled a sewing machine which had undergone a Celtic-warrior battle-warp. The woman examined it critically, picked it up with one hand and moved it a few inches farther from the wall. Strength was something the shapechangers had in abundance.
"You know how to work it?" the woman asked me. I nodded, took the glass tray from the scanner's storage compartment, and smiled at Corwin. "About that hair sample?"
He held his sideburn taut and flashed his claws. A clump of reddish hair fell into the tray. I put it onto the examining platform. Green beams flashed and the printer whirred. Finally it stopped and the slip of paper slid from the slot. I pulled it. The lines were there, a series of short, faint slashes of color. But in the wrong place. I twisted the paper, trying to get the right angle of light. Light yellow-green. No match. There goes my only suspect.
"Are you satisfied?" Curran asked.
"Yes. He's clear."
Obeying Curran's nod, Corwin rose and left.
"We agreed to a trade," Curran said.
"I remember. What can I do for you?"
Curran looked to the open door and Derek staggered in, unsteady on his feet. He slumped against the doorframe, his face haggard. He looked like he needed a few more hours of sleep and a good dinner. I felt a pang of guilt. Just a tired kid, caught in a pissing contest between me and his boss.
"You can take him with you," Curran said.
I blinked. "As what?"
"As a bodyguard. As a connection to the Pack. Take your pick."
Curran just looked at me.
"We agreed to an exchange of information," I said. "At no point did I say that I'd take someone with me. Besides, why the hell would I want a wolf who'll report my every breath back to you?"
"I'll bind him with a blood oath. He'll do nothing to harm you, physically or otherwise. He won't spy on you."
Derek tensed against the wall and I tried to be reasonable. "Even assuming that I believe you, I can't take him with me. Look at him. He's a kid. If I get in a fight, I won't know whose neck to save, mine or his."
"I can hold my own," the kid said hoarsely.
"You can't force me to take him," I said. "I don't want his blood on my hands."
"If you won't take him, his blood will be on your hands." Curran crossed his arms over his chest. "You caused this. You took possession of my wolf in front of the entire Pack."
"You left me no choice. Was I supposed to squeal for your help? I came here in good faith and walked into an ambush. The responsibility is yours."
Curran ignored me and plowed on. "You've brought my authority into doubt. I can't just let it go. As of now I have three options. I can teach you a public lesson in humility, and oh, I would very much like to do that." His face left me no doubt as to exactly how much. "But I have to suffer you because you're the Order's point of contact. I can punish him, which I don't want to do. Or I can give him to you and let it be known that he was yours since our last meeting. You looked distressed and the blood oath had driven him berserk. It will let him save face."
I shook my head. "I won't take him."
"Then I'll kill him," Curran said.
All blood drained from the kid's face. He pushed himself from the wall and stood straight.
"He disobeyed me," Curran said. "He touched you, so I'm well within my rights." Fur sheathed Curran's arm. Claws shot from his huge paw and pricked the skin under Derek's chin. The kid winced.
"I like him," Curran's voice was almost a purr. "It won't be an easy kill."
"Bleed him and I'll skewer you like a stuck pig," I said through clenched teeth.
"No, you will try. You'll wave your sword around and talk a lot of shit and then back off at the last minute. And then I'll snap your neck and his."
Sickle claws danced dangerously close to the faint flicker of pulse on Derek's neck. Time to learn how to write checks I can cover.
"You win, Your Majesty. Please bind him now. I have an appointment in three hours."
THREE RED DROPS FELL ON THE COALS BURNING in a metal brazier and hissed, bubbling. The smell of burning human blood permeated the chamber, fueling the tangled cords of magic. I grimaced.
A binding was taking place, a ritual of attaching Derek's oath to the magic of his blood. The trouble was that blood oaths guaranteed very little. Derek would have a strong aversion to breaking promises made under these circumstances, but that's where it ended. When given a choice between breaking a blood oath and a stronger obligation, such as loyalty to the Pack, he would most likely break the oath.
The tall, lean alpha-wolf intoned the words of the pledge. Derek repeated them, and the currents of power licked the round room, spiraling up the impossibly tall walls, to the ceiling lost in darkness. The Council, who had formed a circle around the brazier, uttered a single word in unison. Derek held his hand over the flame. The alpha-wolf slit Derek's forearm, letting his blood run into the fire of the brazier to seal the pledge. There were a lot of pledges. The shapechanger blood clotted quickly and the alpha had to reopen the wound every thirty seconds or so. The binding took nearly fifteen minutes. Halfway through it, Derek started clenching his teeth when the knife touched his skin. That arm had to be sore as hell.
I listened to the vows. Derek pledged to protect me with his life if need be. He pledged to be at my side in danger and in peace, for as long as the Pack required it. He pledged to uphold the honor of the Pack as a whole and of his Wolf Clan in particular. I was not getting a bodyguard. I was getting a second shadow and if someone frowned at me, he was honor-bound to rip them to pieces.
He stood there, wincing over and over, looking lost and pitiful and somehow infinitely younger than me. I turned and quietly walked away, out of the room, into the shadowy hallway outside. The air was cool and smelled faintly of lemon of all things. I leaned against the wall and covered my face with my hands, shutting the world out for a moment. The blood oath took a while to set in and Derek would have to be at my side for the duration, otherwise his pledge would be worthless. He would have to sleep in my apartment, he would have to eat dinner with me and come with me to the Casino... Casino. Ugh.