Magic Gifts Page 11

Bob plowed on ahead. "All the same, he knew what it's like to be out in the field. He knew how to take care of the guys. The man had a heart, unlike that prick. He'll bleed us dry if we let him."

"By that prick you mean Mark?"

"Who else?"

I nodded. "Just checking."

Bob knocked on my desk with his scarred knuckles, making a point. "That pencil neck wants to run the Guild. Between the four of us, we'll do better. Someone's got to look out for the guys."

I spread my arms. "Full power to you. What do you want from me?"

Bob scooted forward. The chair groaned. "For a while Solomon, you, and Mark are the only people with any sort of official designation other than Guild member, except for the clerk and the payroll ladies. You were the first of us to make it into the Order and you did good work as a liaison. People remember that. And now you're Beast Lord's..." He groped for a word.

"Mate," Ivera told him.

"Yes, that. You have street cred. The mercs will never follow Mark. You know it, I know it, Ivera knows it."

I glanced at Ivera. "What do you think?"

"What he said," she said grimly.

I leaned back. They wouldn't like it, but it had to be said. "Three mercs go on a gig. One bails midway through the fight, the second dies, the third loses a hand. Are they eligible for the Guild disability pay?"

Bob thought about it. "The guy that ran off gets nothing, that's abandonment in progress. The dead guy's next of kin gets thirty percent. The guy without a hand gets disability."

I sighed. "The first question to ask is how long any of them have been in the Guild. You have to hit the five year mark to qualify for disability and seven year to qualify for the death benefit. Until then, you die, your family gets a flat ten grand from your standard life insurance. The next question is, when did the first guy take off? If he did it once the fight started and the danger was evident, the Guild is entitled to garnish his wages, because his abandonment in progress becomes abandonment in imminent danger. How much do we garnish, Bob?"

Muscles played on his jaw. "I don't know."

"Then we move on to disability. How much do we pay? What's a hand worth? Does it matter if he was right or left handed?"

"I don't know," Bob said again. His eyes told me he didn't like where I headed.

"Neither do I. But you know who does? Mark. I can call Mark right now and he'll rattle it off the top of his head. Let's talk contracts. Who provides the ammo for the Guild supply room? How much of a discount we get from them? The Guild has a deal with Avalon Construction to clear the magic hazmat at the prospective construction sites. It's a sweet contract, so you know there were perks. Bribes. Gifts. How much and to whom?"

Bob growled a bit. "All this stuff can be learned."

I nodded. "Sure. But how long will it take you? The Guild has been without a leader for what, six months now, and you still haven't learned any of it. Would it even matter by the time you finished learning?"

Bob crossed his arms. "You could do it."

"No, I can't. First, it's not my job. I've got my hands full with the shapeshifters and my own business. Second, what little I know I've learned only because it came up during my tenure as a liaison. It would take me ages to find it in the Guild's Manual. For better or worse, Solomon made Mark the sole brain behind this operation and Mark has years of experience. You don't have the knack for wheeling and dealing, Bob. You're a good solid tactician. You know what the gig needs and you're good at picking the right people and getting it done. The mercs look up to you. But bargaining isn't your thing."

Bob's eyebrows crept closer together. "You'll be backing Mark then?"

"I will tell you what I told him. I don't know yet."

Bob nodded and handed me a piece of paper. I scanned it. Formal summons with my name on it. Top left corner boasted code X in bold. Priority ten. Either I made this meeting, or the Guild would suspend me.

"Not that it would matter," Bob said. "But we did all manage to agree that you need to pick somebody by Monday."

Ivera got up and put her hand on Bob's shoulder. "We should go."

He started to say something and changed his mind. I watched him get to his feet. He nodded to me. "Later."

*** *** ***

I dragged myself upstairs to the infirmary. Roderick was playing checkers with a shapeshifter boy. The collar on his neck had gone from orange to canary yellow.

I climbed the million stairs to our quarters, asked the guards to order some food from the kitchen, and took a shower. When I came out, Curran sprawled on our giant couch, his eyes closed.

I flopped next to him. "Help."

The blond eyebrows rose a quarter inch. "Mmm?"

"The mercs aren't going to reach a consensus." I lay next to him on my side, propping my head up with my hand. "No matter who I pick tomorrow, they won't like it. Marc can run the Guild, but the mercs despise him. The mercs can do the jobs, but the admin stuff leaves them clueless."

"Make them work together," Curran said.

"Not going to happen. They hate each other."

"If fourteen alphas can meet in the same room every week without killing each other, so can Mark and the mercs. The Guild has been without leadership for months. The people are tired and they want a strong leader. Not a tyrant, but a leader who inspires confidence. You need to walk in there and roar until they cringe. Demonstrate that you are strong enough to be take away their freedom to choose, make sure it sinks in, and then give some of the choice back to them on your terms."


"Tie it back to Solomon Red, too," Curran said. "It's basic psychology: under Solomon things ran, when he died, they broke. The more time passes, the more rosy times of Solomon look to an average merc. So if you attack them from 'Let's go back to the good old days' angle, they will fold. Make them think that following you is what they want to do."

"You scare me sometimes," I told him.

He yawned. "I'm totally harmless."

Someone knocked on the door. A bit early for food.

"Yes?" Curran called.

Mercedes, one of the guards, entered. "There is a man outside, my lord. He is big, he's wearing a cape, and he's got a giant axe. We're also pretty sure he's drunk."


"What does he want?" Curran asked.

"He says he wants to fight the Beast Lord."

Chapter Seven

Curran and I stood in the arched entrance to the Keep's courtyard. Dagfinn stood in the clearing outside. He was six feet eight inches tall, and he weighed a shade above three hundred pounds. None of it was fat. Dagfinn looked hard. His broad shoulders strained his tunic, his biceps had trouble fitting into the sleeves, and his legs in worn out jeans carried enough muscle to make you wince at the thought of him kicking you. His curly hair fell over his shoulders in dense reddish wave. He'd trimmed his beard, but his red eyebrows overshadowed his eyes.

He stood brandishing a battle axe etched with runes that matched tattoos on his arms. The blade of the axe flared at the toe and heel, its razor-sharp edge spanning full twelve inches. Combined with the four foot haft for extra power, the axe sheared flesh and bone like an oversized meat cleaver.

"Look, I fought this guy before. Maybe you should talk him away from the cliff. He's drunk and isn't in his right mind."

"He challenged me," Curran said. "There will be no talking."

"Suit yourself," I told him. Mr. 'Make fun of my leadership' wanted to have it his way. Well, he'd get it.

Around us the shapeshifters were piling out on to the battlements. Every balcony and parapet facing in Dagfinn's direction was occupied. Great. An audience was just what we needed.

"Anything I should know?" Curran asked me.

"The axe is magic. Don't touch it. Dagfinn is pretty magic too. If you kill him, I'll be really mad at you. We need him to read the damn runes."

Curran stretched his shoulders and walked out into the clearing.

"I heard you were looking for me," Dagfinn growled. His voice matched him, deep and torn about the edges.

"She has some runes she wants you to look at."

Dagfinn leaned to the side to look at me. "Kate? What the hell are you doing here?"

"I live here."


"Because I'm with him now."

Dagfinn looked at Curran. "You and her are...?"

"She's my mate," Curran said.

Dagfinn swung his axe onto his shoulder. The runes sparked with pale green. "Well how about that? You know what, I don't care, I'll still beat your ass, but I like her so I won't kill you."

Curran's eyes turned gold. "Thanks."

Dagfinn waved his arm at him. "Well, go on. Do your transforming thing."

"No need."

"Oh there is a need," Dagfinn assured him.

"Are you going to talk all day? I'm a busy man," Curran told him.

"Fine. I'll get to it." Frost condensed on Dagfinn's hair. His skin turned dark. He grew, gaining half a foot of height, his shoulders spreading wider.

"Have fun, baby," I called.

Pale tendrils of cold spilled from Dagfinn's body. The icy mist danced along his skin, clutched at the runes tattooed on his arms, and drained down in a brilliant cascade onto his axe. The weapon burst with bright green.

I braced myself against the stone wall. Dagfinn swung his axe.

Curran jumped aside. A flash exploded to the left of him, blinding white and searing. Thunder slapped my ears. An air fist slammed into me. Curran flew a bit and rolled up to his feet.

A three foot hole smoked in the grass where Curran had stood. Dagfinn roared like an enraged tornado. A blast of frigid air whipped from him, striking at Curran. The Beast Lord dodged again.

Dagfinn remained firmly planted. The last two times we fought, he moved at me and I took him down. There were dozens of ways to use an opponent's movement against him: trip him, knock him off balance, gain control of a shoulder or a leg, and so on. Dagfinn must've decided not to give Curran that chance.

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