Welcome | What's New? | The Mainframe | The Hall of Archives | The Infirmary | The Lounge | The Office

Romancing Drakestone

By Cassandra

There were a lot of places in duCaine Metro that Duke liked to frequent for heists; but the Snowdrake Museum, with its pitch-black labyrinthine corridors, was not one of them.

'Course, I'm not here fer a heist, he reminded himself sourly. I'm only here 'cause Lei asked me ta check on th' Eye...don't know why she thinks th' damn thing's goin' anywhere, it's too ugly ta steal...

The Eye of Woeful Countenance. He didn't know who in the Brotherhood had come up with the statuette's nickname, but it was appropriate; the thing was hideous, despite its golden sheen--squat, blunt, dour-faced. Its mismatched eyes--one emerald, one amethyst--only added to its homeliness.

Duke knew perfectly well why Leila wanted the Eye protected, but he didn't like to think about what the statuette contained. The Brotherhood's Archivist, Salan Edris, had been the one who'd made the Eye and used his connections in the art world to secure a place for it in the museum--"the most brilliant," he'd declared, "duCaine-era forgery ever concocted."

Most brilliant? Duke doubted that; but he had to admit that Salan, though reclusive in his old age and more than a little irascible, had done his homework well. The Eye had that certain worn look that indicated several centuries of comfortable age; it seemed perfectly at home here among all the other golden trinkets of Drake duCaine's day. Even the mismatched eyes, it had been discovered, were typical of religious idols of the period, symbolic of two gods whose names, in his general disregard for religion, Duke had forgotten.

The grey-feathered drake walked through an archway into a large gallery. Even in the near-perfect darkness he could see the outlines of the huge rough statues of Drake duCaine that lined the walls, and he knew instantly where he was: in the aptly-named duCaine Gallery, home of the Eye.

Let's see... Duke pulled a pen-sized flashlight from his belt, flicked it round the room a moment to be sure of his bearings, and then approached the north wall. Third statue from the left...

The statues had been crowded close together, too heavy to move more than occasionally. But there was a space between the third and fourth statues along this wall; and the space held the glass case that housed the Eye.

Duke walked up to the case, flicked his flashlight on again. Jus' a quick look, so I can tell Lei...

But the case was empty.

The Eye was gone.

*****

Nylessa came into the Mainframe Room still smoothing the fabric of her short brown dress; Duke's summons had sounded so urgent that she'd gotten dressed as quickly as possible. "Duke? What's the problem? And where's Cutter?"

"I told 'im ta get out." Duke was staring at a screen that displayed an extremely grainy black-and-white picture, and his expression suggested that the entire Brotherhood should be more than glad to get out of his way. "Where's Leila?"

"She's on her way--"

"Well, you'll hafta do," Duke interrupted. "C'mere an' look at this."

He seemed distinctly agitated, though it was plain he really wanted to talk only to Leila. Intrigued, Nylessa did as she was told and watched the screen, but all she saw was flickering snowy darkness with vague hints of movement. "What is this?"

"Security tape from th' Snowdrake," Duke told her. "We got a problem..." He scowled at the screen. "Whaddaya see?"

"I assume you're showing me one of the galleries," the redhead answered, concentrating, "though to be honest, I don't see anything. A few shadows, as if someone is moving around--but beyond that, it's just a whole lot of black."

"Yeah." Duke turned away briefly; Leila was walking in. Then he rewound the tape and played it again, and this time he paused it in the middle of the vague movements, stabbing at the screen with his finger.

"Somebody stole th' Eye," he said heavily. "An' if I'm not mistaken...that whole lot o' black is Sirius Drakestone."

*****

"Shit."

That was Leila's second reaction; her first had been, "Don't fuck wit' me, l'Orange, whaddaya mean somebody stole it?" But then the Brotherhood's leader drew a deep breath, dragged a hand through her black hair and said, "All right. We can't change th' fact that th' Eye's gone. We need ta calm down an' decide what we're gonna do about it."

Calm down? Decide what we're going to do about it? Nylessa's insides had turned to water as soon as Duke had announced the Eye's disappearance; but now, in a voice as controlled as she could manage, she said, "Lei--Leila, dear, I should think that would be obvious. We've got to retrieve it--after all, Jedar--"

"I know," Leila answered. "Ya don't hafta tell me, Lessa. And th' last thing we need is fer Jedar ta find out th' thing's been nabbed. He'd panic fer sure." She scowled. "Sirius Drakestone, of all people...damn, damn, damn."

The name rang a faint bell in the back of Nylessa's mind. "But I thought he was one of ours."

Duke and Leila exchanged dark looks at this; then Duke said, " 'E hung around fer a little while once, but that was a long time ago."

"Greedy bastard," Leila added. "Never cared about th' people, never cared about th' community. All he could see was th' money."

Duke nodded. "Sells 'imself like a whore--ya want Sirius ta steal fer ya, yeh'd better have th' big bucks. I hear these days 'e does a lot o' work fer th' Triad."

A knot of fear had gathered in the pit of Nylessa's stomach. "But why would he steal the Eye for the Triad? They're no threat to us, they aren't competing--"

"Yet," was Duke's grim answer. "Word is they're gettin' powerful. If somebody in th' Triad wants th' Eye, then they must know--"

"Nobody knows what's in th' Eye!" Leila snapped irritably. "Only th' Blade--nobody outside!"

"Okay, maybe not." Duke laid a soothing hand on his lover's shoulder. "But Lessa's right, Lei. Regardless o' who's got th' Eye, or why they got it, we gotta get it back."

His gaze turned to Nylessa and became speculative, making the uneasiness inside her double. "'E used ta hang out at th' Golden Anchor--it's a bar in th' Black Harbor district, in the Metro. Ya feel up ta th' game, kid?"

"Me?" Nylessa began; but Leila started shouting.

"No! Absolutely not! We're talkin' about Sirius Drakestone here, we're talkin' about th' Triad! I'm not sendin' my best friend inta that kind o' danger, not even fer--"

"Hey, hey, Lei, take it easy!" Duke said. "Lessa knows what she's doin' jus' as much as we do, an' besides...I know Sirius wasn't around long, but don't ya remember what 'e was like?"

Again he shifted his focus to Nylessa; again her inexplicable sense of foreboding grew.

"Whaddaya say, Lessa?" he coaxed. "C'mon, all ya gotta do is bat yer eyelashes a few times and pull some o' that soft, sweet, vulnerable shit ya do so well." He grinned. "Sirius'll fall all over ya, we'll get th' Eye back, we'll all be happy."

You make it sound so easy, Nylessa thought wryly, and the thought was oddly disquieting. But even as she opened her mouth to protest, she knew what the answer would have to be.

Without the Eye, the Brotherhood was in danger. More importantly to her, Jedar was in danger--Jedar whom she loved so devoutly, who made her heart do flip-flops just by being in the same room with her...

Who bore such a dark, dark secret.

"I'll do it," she said. "Whatever it takes--for Jedar's sake, I'll do it." She turned to Leila. "If it's all right."

"Looks like I don't have much of a choice." Leila glared at Duke. "Yeah, it's all right--but I'm warnin' ya, l'Orange, anything happens ta her an' I'm holdin' you responsible."

Duke smiled. "I thought yeh'd say that."

*****

Through the windows, at least, the Golden Anchor didn't look too crowded, even though a glance at her watch told Nylessa it was three in the morning. Apparently no one's in much of a mood to party here...but then, it is Monday morning now.

She hesitated, her hand on the door, shivering. The wind had picked up considerably and was cold, making her wish that she'd worn a coat--or at least, for once, something more practical than the sleeveless hunter-green ultrasuede tank dress she'd chosen.

Well, it certainly couldn't be helped now, and neither could the feeling of unease that lay heavy on her heart like snow, refusing to be shaken off.

Come on, she urged herself. This Drakestone fellow can't be that dangerous, no matter what Leila says. He's a man, just a man...and a single one at that. It made her smile, her heart lightening a little. And God knows I've plenty of ways to get to them...

Nylessa drew a deep breath and shoved the door open.

She'd prepared to put on her best sexy stride, but it was hardly necessary; the minute she walked in the door, every male eye riveted on her, and stayed riveted.

Their gazes were almost palpable, and it made her feel strangely conspicuous. Any other time or place and it wouldn't have bothered her; but here, under these circumstances, her flesh crawled beneath her feathers, and she had to fight a sudden urge to tug the hem of her skirt into some semblance of modesty.

But she resisted. Now, scanning the room, Nylessa spotted a vacancy at the bar--there were several--and made her way toward it, trying to ignore the heads turning on all sides. The bartender, a black-feathered raptrin, stared at her for a full minute before he realized she was staring back; then he smiled.

"Do something for you, little lady?"

"Maybe." Oh, so coy. Good: she still had her wiles, if not her confidence, about her. "Might you be able to tell me where I can find Sirius Drakestone?"

Her question had the instant effect of silencing everyone--including the bartender, whose smile had abruptly faded into a look of hostile disinterest. Taken aback, she was about to repeat herself when a low, faintly raspy voice said, "Depends, sweetheart. Why do you want him?"

Nylessa quickly located the source of the voice: a dark-feathered drake sitting in the heavily shadowed far corner, his surroundings so dim she couldn't even make out his face.

"I have a business proposition for him," she said, and thought fast. "He can meet me in Gramercy Park in half an hour...if he's interested."

*****

The half-hour was almost up, and she was still alone in the park.

Nylessa squirmed on the bench she'd chosen, hugged herself, crossed her legs. No doubt about it now, the weather was turning colder; her breath was beginning to make visible clouds of vapor when she exhaled.

She frowned at her watch. Five minutes. I feel as if I'm starting to freeze already...I'll wait another five minutes, and then if this fellow doesn't show--

"You rang?"

"Oh!" Nylessa yelped, sprang to her feet, just in time to see a man plunk himself down in the spot she'd vacated. "Oh--oh, my, you startled me..."

"Obviously." He grinned up at her. "Sorry about that, sweetheart."

He sounded like the man that had spoken to her in the Golden Anchor, and Nylessa scrutinized him. Obviously tall and long-limbed, but slim and wiry. Black feathers, black clothing; uneven shoulder-length hair that looked silver or white; narrow pale eyes that appeared colorless. She shook her head a little; the moonlight seemed to leach the color out of everything. "Are you Sirius Drakestone?"

He grinned up at her. "Only if you're Nylessa Drakely."

"What!" Great, betrayed by my own surprise... "You know who I am?"

"Yeah." The black drake's tone was scornful. "You Brotherhood freaks think you're the only ones who know how to slip around? Come on."

"Well--" Nylessa began; but he cut her off with a wave of his hand.

"You've got a proposition for me, huh, sister? Fine. That's just dandy. But I promised myself when I left that sorry-assed crew of yours that I'd never work for them, so you'd better have a damn good reason for trying to convince me otherwise." He smiled at her again, malevolently. "So what's the deal?"

Nylessa tried to compose herself, frowning inwardly. "I need you to retrieve something you stole earlier tonight."

He studied her, then began examining his fingernails. "Who says I stole anything?"

"We..." His question brought her up short. Duke had said, "if I'm not mistaken." But what if he was...?

"Let's take a hypothetical situation," she said carefully.

He looked up. "Yeah? I'm listening."

"All right." Nylessa inhaled deeply; time for more fast thinking. "I know you work for hire. Let's say someone hired you to steal a certain...artifact...from a museum."

"Okay," Sirius said. "I'm following you. Go on."

"And let's say that the artifact contained something that was extremely important to a certain individual, and the certain individual wanted to recover it." Nylessa fixed him with a steady, heavy-lidded stare. "How much would that cost?"

Sirius returned her gaze without blinking. "Depends. Are you the certain individual?"

"Yes."

"And what does the, ah, artifact"--he grinned again--"contain?"

The directness of his stare made her color faintly. "I'm not at liberty to say."

"Oh, so it's like that, huh?" He looked thoughtful. "And how much were you going to offer for this little enterprise?"

"How much were you paid to steal it in the first place?" Nylessa demanded.

"Assuming that I stole it?" His grin was mocking. "I'm not at liberty to say."

"Knowing that you stole it," she insisted angrily. "Tell me. Tell me how much you want. We're willing to negotiate." As long as it isn't too much... "How much were you paid, Sirius? Five thousand dollars? Ten?"

Sirius flinched at the sound of his name, but appeared to recover himself quickly; he stretched a little and drawled, "Sweetheart, ten thou's just my operating fee."

Nylessa's heart sank. Dear God. So Duke wasn't kidding about the "big bucks." This isn't going to work, there's no way I can come up with that kind of money, not unless I rob a bank...

"Tell you what," Sirius said abruptly, breaking into her thoughts, "I'll make it easy on you. I'll admit I'm intrigued." He got to his feet, looked at his watch. "So I'll give you, say, twenty-four hours to decide how much you're going to tell me...and how much it's worth to you. Meet me here this time tomorrow, make me an offer. We'll go from there."

He came closer, and Nylessa took an involuntary step back. Before she could say anything else, he reached out and nudged the tip of her beak with a finger.

" 'Night, sweetie," he said, and walked away.

*****

Of course Duke had meant well with his suggestions, but Nylessa had a feeling that simply batting her eyelashes wasn't going to work. Thank God that she'd managed to come in without seeing Leila, or Duke...or Jedar...there was no way she could even begin to explain this.

Now, back in her quarters at the Lair, she lay in bed and glowered at the ceiling. If the man she'd met tonight was Sirius Drakestone... God, he was infuriating, and all the more so because he'd completely nonplused her. The sarcasm, the arrogance...

...the tiny but undeniable thrill that had gone through her when he'd touched her...

In the darkness she sighed, and for a long moment felt the tip of her beak with careful fingers. Then she pushed the bedclothes off and got up, turned on the light, began rummaging through the closet for her scantiest outfits.

Mooning about won't accomplish anything, she reminded herself. It's time to get in there and do what I do best.

*****

She'd practically walked a rut into her bedroom floor this morning, and for the last hour she'd threatened to walk the same rut into the shop-lined sidewalks of Keltor's pricier commercial district. She'd tried window-shopping, but nothing had caught her eye, so she'd taken to a sort of mindless wandering. Anything to keep from dealing with people; anything to think about except what was on her mind.

It wasn't Sirius that Nylessa was worried about. Maybe she didn't have the ten thousand dollars that was his "operating fee," as he'd put it; but she had her wits and her body to bargain with, and he seemed just conceited enough to settle for having his ego stroked...along with a few other choice parts.

No. She could deal with him. It was the thought of the company he kept that disturbed her.

Nylessa knew precious little about the Triad beyond what she'd told Duke, that they were no threat to the Brotherhood. She knew that the organization, with its mob mentality and hordes of thugs, was responsible for most of duCaine Metro's gang violence, as well as gambling and prostitution and bribery--

Bribery. Was that why Duke and Leila were so worried? Were they afraid that someone in the Triad had hired Sirius to steal the Eye with the intention of bribing the Brotherhood? It was a frightening thought, especially when talk on the street seemed to indicate that people who fell afoul of a Triad boss usually wound up dead in the worst possible way. Poisoning and maiming, Nylessa had heard, were two of the preferred methods; you got off quite lightly if they simply shot you.

Yet Leila remained adamant that no one outside the Blade knew the Eye's secret. And I'll have to tell him, Nylessa realized; Sirius had made it plain he wouldn't even consider helping her without more information. I certainly don't see any way round it...

"I know I can't trust him," she said aloud, making a pair of parcel-laden shoppers turn and stare for a few curious seconds. "I can't trust him at all--yet I don't have a choice."

*****

This time, she'd brought her coat, and he was waiting for her.

Sirius got to his feet as she approached, gaze roving appreciatively over the low-cut white blouse and slit-sided violet skort she'd worn. "Aren't you the cute one."

"Usually," Nylessa answered lightly; then she said, "All right, Sirius. We both know why we're here. Which do you want first--the reasons or the offer?"

"Well..." The black drake smiled slowly. "I'm sure you'd make the reasons worthwhile. But let's have the offer first."

"I'm afraid I don't have your ten thousand dollars," she said flatly. "Sums of that type are so hard to acquire on short notice..."

"Cut the crap, babe." He scowled at her in disgust. "No money, no deal."

"But--"

"No." Sirius was already walking away. "In case nobody told you, honey-tits, I only work for the highest bidder--and right now it looks like that ain't you."

Quickly Nylessa eased in front of him. Still one more card to play before the big one. "All right, no deal. Just tell me who hired you to steal the Eye."

"Huh?" Good; she'd caught him off guard. "The what?"

"The Eye of Woeful Countenance," she explained. "It's what we call that little statue that you keep denying you stole."

"Oh," Sirius said slowly, "that godawful thing," and Nylessa knew it was as good a confession as she'd get from him. He seemed to realize that she had him in a corner.

"Lenny Pridehawk," he said after a moment's pause, raking a hand through his silver hair. "Minor Triad boss. Runs the Tallfeather casino--why? You thinking of casing his place?"

"Why not?" Nylessa challenged. "Is there something I should know about? Does this Mr. Pridehawk have guards crawling the house at all hours? Thugs and gangsters lounging by the pool? Shark-infested moat, perhaps?"

"No, nothing like that, but--"

"Then it's the perfect angle, isn't it?" God, she wanted him to feel as speechless as he'd made her feel the night before. "I'll just go and filch the thing back myself. It gets me what I want, it gets you off the hook, and we won't have to annoy each other any longer over some messy little 'deal'. Fair enough?"

He stared at her a moment, eyes flashing angrily; then the anger faded and he smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, that's fair. Nice and tidy, though I'll admit I'm curious..." The smile was bordering on a leer now. "If you didn't have the money, sweetheart, just what were you planning to bargain with?"

She matched his nasty look with one of her own. "Myself."

"Your--" he began, then threw his head back and whooped. "Oh, God!"

It wasn't at all the response she'd expected, and icily Nylessa said, "What's the matter? Isn't that good enough for you? Aren't the stakes high enough?"

"Oh, no, it's not that, it's just..." He chuckled, wiped his eyes. "You surprised me, that's all."

"I surprised you." She drew it out. "I suppose you don't think I fit your bill."

"I think you're ten pounds of sexy in a five-pound bag." Sirius looked her up and down slowly. "I thought so last night, and I was more than a little drunk. But..." He shrugged, and turned away, but not before a shadow of regret flitted across his face. "Looks like that doesn't matter now."

*****

In the hour that had passed since she and Sirius had parted ways, Nylessa had only needed a quick look in the phone book to find Lenny Pridehawk's address, and a discreet bit of detective work--mostly offering glimpses of cleavage and flashes of leg--to discover that he wouldn't be home until after the casino closed at eight. She had a four-hour window; things couldn't have worked out more perfectly.

Now, as she crept through the darkened house, searching every possible nook and cranny for any trace of the Eye, she tried to put the memory of her meetings with Sirius out of her mind.

God. That anyone could be that cold, that callous, and that...abrasive. Some of the things he'd said to her still almost made her blush. At least Duke's attempts at flirty suavity had humor in them; coming from Sirius, they were just annoying.

But admit it, she told herself, you're curious about him. You want to know what's beneath that exterior--and what's beneath those clothes. Angrily she stuffed the thought down, but she knew she couldn't deny it; it was perfectly true.

In the living room she came upon an abstract painting hung low on the wall...a little too low. Quickly Nylessa felt round the edges of the frame, and discovered two simple locking mechanisms at the right-hand corners. With a touch she disengaged them and the painting swung outward on invisible hinges to reveal the outlines of a large wall safe.

Of course. Just the thing to hold an object as large as the Eye. Nylessa smiled as she went to work on the combination lock. Once I get the Eye back in its rightful place, she decided a little dreamily, I just may have to hunt Sirius down again after all. He's handsome enough, he'll do for a bit of fun--

Suddenly a hand seized her beak, clamping it shut. An arm went around her waist and pulled her backward, despite her struggles, till she could feel a man's body behind her.

"Nylessa." Sirius Drakestone's voice in her ear, low and breathless. "Nylessa, it's me."

She wrenched away from him and whirled. "What are you doing here? Why did you follow me?"

"Because it's not here."

Nylessa gaped at him in the imperfect light. "What!"

"It's not here!" Sirius snapped. "That damned statue of yours--I went by the casino before I saw you tonight, and talked to Lenny, and it's already changed hands, maybe more than once. I don't know who's got it yet--I'm trying to find out."

"Why?" Nylessa demanded archly, trying valiantly to ignore the sudden sinking feeling that was threatening to overwhelm her. "I thought we didn't have a deal."

"I decided that if you were this desperate to have the damn thing back, I might as well help you," the drake told her. "Besides, you keep snooping around in Triad houses like this, you're going to get your pretty little head blown off."

Nylessa guessed he was smiling as he said this; but it sounded like a threat, and she glared at him. "I don't need your help, Sirius."

"Yes, you do." In the darkness, she felt him take her arm. "I think you'd better come with me."

*****

He'd led her to a lonely black sedan on an otherwise deserted street, produced keys, motioned for her to get in. Now, as Sirius' driving took them across the river into Metro's heavily industrial Teal River East district, neither of them said much; their one attempt at conversation had started with Nylessa asking, "Why didn't you tell me Lenny Pridehawk didn't have the Eye?" to which Sirius had peevishly answered, "I tried. You wouldn't let me get a word in." He was apparently annoyed, and Nylessa herself, still reeling from how he'd surprised her, couldn't help thinking he'd deliberately made a fool of her.

Sirius stopped at a small, squarish grey building that had an equally small garage as its lowest level, parking beside a black convertible and a motorcycle. "Here we are."

Nylessa hesitated in getting out of the car. "Where's here?"

"Home," Sirius answered. "Used to be an office or something, but for fifteen hundred bucks a month I got the privilege of converting it to an apartment."

She stared at him. "You live here? This is the--the warehouse district!"

"Sure." He flashed another of those easy grins. "It's convenient enough, it's close to most of my work..." He stopped, seeing that she was dubiously taking in the other two vehicles in the garage. "Yeah, they're mine too. I'd be pretty rich if I didn't live so damned well."

He was still grinning as he said this, even as he opened his door and climbed out of the car; but Nylessa, following him, didn't return the smile. She was too busy staring; it was all quite beyond her. How could someone live in a place like this? The walls were concrete, the oily floor was concrete. In the poor lighting provided by six flickering fluorescent bulbs, everything looked greyish-yellow.

He led her up a flight of steep metal stairs to a steel door, which was duly unlocked and opened, and suddenly Nylessa found herself standing in a spacious, attractive living room. The walls, ivory-paneled, were lined with crammed ebony bookshelves and a few black-and-white prints; the carpet beneath her feet was steel grey. Along the near wall a pair of black filing cabinets flanked an enormous ebony-and-steel desk that held a computer, a microscope, and a neat stack of holodisks and software manuals. Doorways led to a kitchen and other rooms; along one wall another flight of stairs, now carpeted and wooden, indicated a second floor.

"My, my." Nylessa found her voice at last. "Looks as though you've done well for yourself."

"Yeah, well"--Sirius helped her out of her coat, hung it up beside his own on a hook behind the door--"add a wall here, take out a window there, you generally get good results."

"Yes, I suppose so." All right, Nylessa told herself, it's time to stop the idle chatter... She folded her arms across her chest and faced him. "Why did you bring me here, Sirius? I know it wasn't to show the place off."

"Smart one, aren't you? I like that...cute and intelligent." He was still grinning at her. "It works like this, sweetheart. You're going up against the Triad, and you really can't risk having some of their thugs follow you back to the Lair, can you? So let me put you up here for a few days--because they won't bother me."

"Oh? Why the privilege?"

"Because you don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs--or the thief that steals them." He'd come closer as he said this, till he was looming over her, close enough to kiss; and for the first time Nylessa saw that his eyes were a pale, pale violet, gleaming wickedly with his amusement. "But let's talk a little shop, sweetheart. Tell me what's so important about this 'Eye' of yours that you've got to have it back so badly."

"It--I--" She forced herself to blink, break their eye contact, look away from him; those lavender depths were threatening to suck her in. Already her knees were weakening.

"For the sake of brevity," Sirius said dryly, "why don't I tell you?"

It brought her back to reality like a dash of cold water. "You know!"

" 'Course I do," he said. "You knock over houses as often as I do, Less, you learn that people hide stuff in the damndest places. Toilet tanks...towel rods...secret compartments in little statues. Didn't take me long to find that piece of microfilm...and I must say it made for some very interesting reading. People in the government would give a lot, I'd say, to learn that your Jedar Stormwing assassinated Canard Thunderbeak...can't get much more concrete than a confession in his own handwriting, either."

"But..." Those first inklings of physical desire were gone, replaced by a sensation as if the floor were falling out from under her. "What did you do with it?" Nylessa gasped.

Sirius shrugged. "Decided it was none of my business and put it back."

"You put it back!" It was nearly a scream. "Sirius, don't you know what could happen if--"

"Why should I care?" he challenged hotly. "So your boy toy whacked Thunderbeak--you think I give a shit? Sure, I'm as glad as anyone that the bastard's dead, but I wouldn't be out a job if he weren't."

"Sirius--Sirius, surely you don't mean--" Her voice cracked and she turned abruptly away, feeling a telltale prickling behind her eyelids. I'm not going to cry. Not in front of him, not in front of him...

She felt Sirius touch her shoulders. It provoked a brief but crystal-clear image of those slim dark fingers slipping round her neck and snapping it, and she jerked away from him violently. "Don't touch me--"

But he insisted, snaked his arms around her, drew her back against him.

"Sorry," he muttered. "I'm sorry. I'm just not very good at being nice to people."

Nylessa swallowed her tears long enough to choke out, "But you don't understand."

"Oh, I understand," he answered quietly, stroking soft fingertips over her closed eyelids. "I understand perfectly well. Your bunch is gonna be up shit creek if certain people get hold of that microfilm. I know exactly what's at stake.

"When I stole that Eye of yours, I didn't know it belonged to the Brotherhood, and I didn't know what was in it. All I knew was that Lenny Pridehawk was offering--well, more than that damned little ugly thing's worth, anyway." He turned her to face him, shook her a little. "I said I'd help you. Let me. We made a deal, remember?"

She still wouldn't look at him. "We didn't."

"We did." He tipped her chin up so that their eyes met. "You made me a very distinct offer, if I'm not mistaken." He gathered her close again. "Look, we can't rush into this thing. We've got to have a target first, and a plan...and something else to do in the meantime."

Something else to do in the meantime. Nylessa shivered. Yes. Something else to do--something to make her forget, if just for a little while... "I'm tired of this, Sirius," she whispered, aching with sudden despair. "I've not even started, and already I'm so tired..."

"I know." He was rubbing her back lightly. "I know."

Then he kissed her, and the jolt of sensation that lanced through her nearly obliterated coherent thought. But physical awareness remained in perfect clarity, making her shudder as his hands roamed her body, making her arch against him when his palms grazed the curves of her breasts, making her wind her fingers in his thick silver hair to pull him closer...

And the telephone rang.

They broke apart at the first sound, but for a moment Sirius only stood there rubbing his beak, his expression blank and dazed; then he muttered, "Damn," and padded toward the kitchen. Reluctantly Nylessa followed, her body loudly protesting the separation, and watched him pluck a slim black phone from its cradle above a countertop.

"Yeah? Oh, hey." He winked at her, mouthing Lenny Pridehawk, and held out his other arm, settling her against him. "What can I do for you? I was kind of--hey, what?"

He stumbled over the word, because Nylessa had busied herself in tugging his T-shirt from his jeans. By the time she'd begun to tentatively feel her way beneath the white fabric, he was quite breathless. "Lenny, what makes you th-think--hell, hang on a minute, okay?"

Sirius cradled the phone against his chest, scowling at Nylessa in mock sternness; then he bent and kissed her forehead. "Lessa, baby, that's great, but I'm really trying to get something here."

Nylessa toyed with the zip of his jeans. "I'd say you are getting something here," she told him in her best husky whisper, which made the black drake roll his eyes and shake his head, smiling bemusedly; so she relented, and Sirius went back to his chat with Lenny Pridehawk.

"Like I said, what--oh, really? Well, I've been here all night--with an extremely lovely lady, and you're spoiling..." There was a long moment of silence, and Nylessa, leaning on Sirius' shoulder, watched his expression change from affability to annoyance. Finally he said, "You kiss your mother with that mouth, Lenny? Be civil. Besides, it's not as though you still have the thing, is it? No, that's what I--" Sirius was smiling now, faintly. "Oh, really. Then you shouldn't have to worry about it, should you?"

There were a few more mindless things exchanged, and then Sirius hung up the phone; and when he turned back to Nylessa he was grinning widely again.

"Well, well, well," he said. "Somebody left Lenny's wall safe open. Wonder who?"

"I--" Nylessa could barely speak. "I didn't!"

"You did. Good news is, though, he thinks it was me." Sirius studied her for a long moment, kissed her lightly, and then added, "The better news is, I know who's got the Eye now. Tony della Spada--a few notches up the pole."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

"Let me put it this way: Mess with Lenny, and he'll tell you to go fuck yourself. Mess with Tony and he'll have someone do it for you." His smile became thin and tight. "I don't think Tony has the shark-infested moat, but I've heard he has the thugs hanging around. His place is gonna be a tough nut to crack, Less. We won't be doing it tonight. We'll have to think long and hard about how we want to do this."

Oh, he'd walked into that one. Nylessa grinned at him impishly and hooked her fingers in his belt. "Long and hard," she said delicately, "is exactly what I'm thinking."

"Good." Sirius leaned over and started nibbling at her neck. "Because that's what you're gonna get."

*****

Nylessa didn't remember, now, how long they'd simply stood there in the kitchen, touching, kissing, clinging; it seemed as though hours had passed before Sirius had finally brought her upstairs to his bedroom.

He'd turned on a lamp and started to undress her in its dimness. She'd first noticed, vaguely, that it was a black lamp with a black shade; then she'd realized, with a mild shock, that the whole room was black--the ceiling and walls and floor, the blind and valance on the window, the bed frame, the sheets; even the dresser was ebony, like the desk downstairs. It was surreal; it was nightmarish.

Nylessa had started to speak, but Sirius had kissed her, plucked her from her feet, laid her down on that black-clad bed; and everything after that had dissolved into a sensory haze.

In her mind's eye she could replay it now with crystalline precision. How he'd touched her--everywhere, it seemed, everywhere. How at the moment of culmination he'd whispered, "Lessa, oh God, Lessa"...and how the sound of her own name had so completely undone her. Parts of her still tingled and hummed; the mere memory was exquisite.

Now the redhead stretched luxuriously, not really wanting to move, and sat up into a shaft of sunlight that fell across the bed; the blind had been opened, the surrounding blackness lightened. Nylessa had realized upon awakening that Sirius' side of the bed was vacant; but she could hear him coming up the stairs, and she'd just pushed the covers off when he opened the door.

Sirius was already dressed, his long black coat slung over his shoulder, and he smiled at the sight of her. "Decided to get up today, sunshine?"

"I thought I'd better." Nylessa moved over obligingly so he could sit beside her. She was starting to like that smile--and the fact that it came so easily. "What time is it--and where are you going?"

"About noon," Sirius answered, and kissed her, his long fingers tangling in her red hair. "I know it's kind of late, but we didn't get to bed till nearly six in the morning...and besides, you're gorgeous when you're asleep."

Nylessa twittered in spite of herself. "Do you think flattering me will keep you from having to tell me where you're going?"

"I think..." Sirius leaned over and kissed her again, more slowly; it left them both a little breathless. "I think flattering you is a good way to ensure that I don't go anywhere."

"That's always an option," she purred.

"Not today, it's not." He slid from her grasp and got to his feet. "I'm going to pay Tony della Spada a little visit, scope his place out."

"Oh." Nylessa shivered faintly, inexplicably. "Is this a legitimate visit or a sneak-around?"

"Oh, it's legit." He grinned. "Gonna taunt him a little, ask him why he didn't hire me to steal that statue in the first place. Ask him why he let Lenny get one up on him. Tony's got a short fuse."

She found herself frowning. "Do you think that's safe?"

Sirius shook his head. "Nah. Never is. But it's a good way to get answers. And in the meantime...if you want, you can take the convertible and go out, there's a spare set of keys in the top dresser drawer. You can't go around all week in the clothes you came in with...and I'd prefer you get something that's a little more, ah, inconspicuous."

Nylessa nodded. "In other words," she replied tartly, "something black."

Sirius pulled his coat on. "It's a start."

*****

Black shirt, black sweater, black jeans, Nylessa said to herself sometime later, that ought to be more than enough for our little enterprise. I think I can spare a little color...

She'd been to three shops already and picked up several things, including a small suitcase to carry it all around in. Now, in her fourth shop of the afternoon, she was debating the merits of an emerald-green silk blouse when a familiar voice said, "Ya gonna buy that, sweetheart, or jus' stand there an' drool over it?"

"Duke!" She whirled, stumbling, and he caught her and hugged her. "What are you doing here?"

"Gettin' somethin' fer Leila," the grey drake replied with a broad, conspiratorial wink. "Man's gotta make sure 'e gets lucky on a reg'lar basis, ya know."

He grinned, but then he leaned in close, his expression becoming more serious. "How 'bout you, kid? How's it comin'?"

"We're making progress," Nylessa said, and then proceeded to tell him the short version of recent events, carefully omitting a few choice things; when she'd brought Duke up to speed, she finished with, "We're going after it tonight, I think."

" 'We'?" Duke repeated dubiously. "I already figgered yer stayin' somewhere, 'cause I ain't seen ya in a day or two, but...wit' 'im? How's th' bastard treatin' ya?"

To Nylessa's surprise, Duke's question provoked a spurt of anger. "Oh, I do wish you and Leila wouldn't say that! Sirius isn't a 'bastard,' he's not bad if you try to get to know him--he just says what he thinks and goes where he pleases! He's just different, Duke. Different circles, different circumstances--that's all. Besides, he knows what he's doing."

It was the wrong thing to say, because Duke's expression grew grim and cold. For a moment he only eyed her critically; then he grunted, "Yer fallin' fer 'im."

"No." Nylessa shook her head adamantly, and her voice was steady even though her fingers clutched nervously at the silk blouse. "I'm not."

Duke scowled sourly and started to say something else, but then sighed and turned away, muttering under his breath.

"Have it yer way, Lessa," he called over his shoulder. "Ain't gonna be long before Jedar 'imself finds out that th' Eye's missin', so ya better hurry up. Right now 'e's still buyin' Lei's story that yer out on an extended heist, but that ain't gonna last. Jus' remember where yer loyalties lie--and when ya need some real help, let us know."

*****

When Nylessa got back to Sirius' apartment, there was a note on the kitchen table.

Nylessa, it read, I found out what I wanted to know. Tony does have the Eye, and I got a good feel for the layout of his place--he's a little pissed at me, but I think that's mostly Lenny's fault. Shouldn't hurt our chances, and tonight's as good a time as any. I've gone out for a walk so I can think out a plan for us. There's some stuff in the fridge if you haven't eaten yet.

She read it over again, and was about to crumple the paper when the signature on the note caught her eye.

Love, Sirius

Love. It troubled her, so much so that she could only pick at the potato salad and cold chicken she found in the refrigerator; it reminded her too much of Duke's ill-spirited comment. No, she didn't care for Sirius--or, at least, not enough to do more than concede that he could be nice when he wanted, and that he was good where it counted.

But that didn't mean he wasn't falling for her.

He came in while she was tidying up the remnants of her late lunch, preventing her from saying anything about the note or even thinking about it much, and Nylessa forced herself to sound bright and cheerful. "How's the plan coming?"

"Fairly well." Sirius hung his coat up. "Let me find some spare paper, I'll sketch everything out for you, and--"

Then his gaze fell on the note he'd left her, still half-crumpled on the table, and his grin faded as though the paper were a concrete wall between them. For a few seconds the black-feathered drake only stared at her; then he shifted uncomfortably, the light going out of his eyes. "Can I ask you something, Less? It's bothering me."

She felt her face flush with heat suddenly, and the old familiar sense of dread flared up again. "I--yes, of course."

"This Jedar guy, how do you feel about him?" Sirius was staring at the floor, but his expression was tense and pensive. "You like him?"

Nylessa managed not to hesitate. "We're friends. Why?"

"But maybe you'd like a little more?"

He said it without looking at her, though the directness of the question made her uneasy and a little annoyed. "Why are you asking, Sirius? It's not as though my personal life is any of your business."

"No...it's not. But ever since you showed up I've been wondering why our boy Stormwing didn't come after his precious evidence on his own. There was no need to send you," Sirius said flatly, and then he finally smiled, tightly. "Besides, you talk in your sleep."

"All right: I love him." Nylessa felt a small harsh pleasure when she saw the drake's silver eyebrows suddenly arch, his pupils dilating. "I love him, if that will satisfy you. And maybe I would like 'a little more,' as you put it, out of the relationship; but Jedar and I agreed to be friends, and I'm going to honor that. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I'm not available." Discomfort still gnawed at her faintly, despite her confidence. "So if you'd like me to go, Sirius--"

"And leave everything unfinished? No, no. Not when we've got a job to do and we're so close to it. It's just that..." Sirius shook his head, pale-violet eyes quite lusterless now. "Maybe I think you're a nice girl, maybe I like you a little myself, that's all. Maybe I think you're a little too good for the company you keep. Forget it, okay? Just forget I said anything. Let's get to work."

*****

He'd found a single bottle of beer in the back of the refrigerator, and now that it was half empty Sirius seemed to be recovering his spirits. He'd taken some paper from his computer's printer, and now sat at the kitchen table, sketching diagrams and making occasional remarks as Nylessa looked silently on.

At least her eyes watched; her mind was a million miles away.

He likes me a little himself? she was thinking. Does that mean he'd like me for himself? He does seem the possessive type, and I suppose now that I've slept with him, he thinks I'm his property.

Nylessa realized that she was frowning, and quickly changed her expression to one of bland interest. He's handsome in a striking way, and very much the lonely sort, and I know some women find that attractive. But I couldn't fall in love with someone like Sirius...maybe the odd bit of slap and tickle, but nothing like a real relationship. And anyway he knows how I feel about Jedar. He knows I'm not available, not that way.

She sighed. So why do I feel so guilty about saying so?

"Lessa?" Sirius' voice disrupted her thoughts, making her realize that her sigh had been audible. "You're spacing out on me, you bored?"

"No, I'm just thinking." Quickly she racked her brain for some fragment of the things he'd been saying, and scanned his rough sketches for clues. "So you said there are...corridors...in the attic?"

"That's right. They span the length of the house. Must have something to do with the heating system, because there's vents in the ceiling of each room, large enough to climb through." Sirius scratched his head. "Either that or Tony had one fucked architect...anyway, the attic space is accessible through another vent, high up on the side of the house, but the exterior surface is stone, and that's easy enough to climb."

Nylessa busied herself with his drawing. "Sounds as though you tried."

"Did. Had myself a nice little look on my way out. Didn't try to get in, though, the goons would have noticed me for sure." He laid his pencil aside, stretched, yawned. "It's not as bad as it seems. Guards at the front and the back, but none on the grounds, and none in the house unless Tony's doing business, and that's usually during daylight hours."

"So it's a matter of timing," Nylessa said.

"Yeah. I'm thinking midnight, little after. Get in, get it, get out...you know the drill."

Nylessa laughed slyly. "Now I see why so many people claim to get sexual thrills from stealing."

"Speaking of sexual thrills..." Sirius grinned in a way that made her stomach churn, and reached across the table. "We do have a few hours to kill."

*****

"You know, you haven't said a word about how I look," Nylessa said.

Not that it matters right now, she reflected wryly. It's pitch black out here, I'm wearing black, and I'm hanging on to the side of some bloke's house at two in the morning... And she didn't really care about his opinion; she just wanted to break the unnerving silence.

But Sirius, unscrewing a large metal grille in the wall, paused, and she felt his palm skim her body lightly. "Edible," he said. "Less, you know I think you're gorgeous. Just hang on to that till this is over, okay?"

He worked a few more seconds, until the grille hung by a single screw; then there was the unmistakable scrape of metal on stone as he pushed it aside.

Nylessa, clambering up a little more, felt him take her hand. "You first, sweetheart."

She pulled herself up through the opening, crawling into what seemed to be a cavernous ventilation system--until she discovered--

"Good God," Nylessa murmured in surprise, "you can actually stand in here."

"Uh-huh." Even Sirius, tall as he was, had plenty of room. "Now that you mention it, Less, I don't think this is part of the air-conditioning after all."

"Nor do I," Nylessa agreed, pulling her flashlight from her belt; casting the beam around revealed openings, like doorways, in what had first appeared to be a solid metal corridor. "It's more like a surveillance system."

"Mmm." Sirius was trying to get his bearings. "How so?"

"Well..." Nylessa walked past him, carefully quiet. "If the floor up here is the ceiling down below, and there are those vents in the ceiling that you talked about--"

"Yeah, I follow you," Sirius interrupted. "Any idiot can walk around up here and see what's going on in the house, as long as he's quiet, and nobody'll suspect a thing." He sounded impressed. "Good thinking, sweetheart. This must be where Tony hides his goons when he's got company."

"Sounds as though he's a bit paranoid."

"Most Triad types are--come on, I think it's this way," Sirius said. "In Tony's case I think it's a machismo thing, though."

Nylessa followed obediently. "Machismo?"

"Yeah, you know, like he's compensating for something." The drake chuckled softly as he led her to the edge of another metal grille laid in a section of floor. He took her flashlight and directed the beam down through the gridlike opening. "That carpet look purple to you?"

Nylessa knelt beside him, peered downward. "Very. Where are we?"

"Over the library. Tony's quite the reader, apparently." Sirius reached for his screwdriver.

"What makes you think the Eye is here?"

"You Brotherhood chicks don't do houses much, do you?" was Sirius' amused reply; and before she could say anything he said, "Books are good places to hide stuff too...makes a library a nice little depository...and besides, I wandered around when I was here earlier. It's got to be here, unless Tony's sleeping with it."

Nylessa stiffened. "He's here? He's home? Sirius--"

"Hey, hey, don't worry about it," the black drake answered soothingly, prying the grid from the floor and laying it carefully aside. "We're good, aren't we? We know how to be quiet. Don't worry."

For a long moment he stared down into the hole he'd just made; then he turned to her and said, "How tall are you, Less?"

It caught her by surprise. "Er...five-seven, I think."

"Good. That should be enough." He moved out of her way. "Back into the opening and hang onto the edges. You should be able to lower yourself onto the desk."

Nylessa did as she was told, the sudden feel of solid wood beneath her feet a comfort. She eased to the floor with Sirius following her; and as soon as the drake's feet hit the floor he crossed the room and opened a window.

"In case we need a quick way out of here," he explained; but he stopped when he saw Nylessa's sudden uncertainty. "What?"

She'd begun scanning the room with her flashlight, and her gaze had fallen on a quartet of books in one shelf; they were quite large, bound in bright blue leather, and looked practically new. "Those," she said, first wincing as Sirius turned on the desk lamp, then moving forward for a closer look. "They look...odd."

Close inspection revealed a slight depression in the spine of the leftmost book. Nylessa touched it lightly and was rewarded with a muffled click as the "books" swung downward.

"What have you got?" Sirius demanded softly.

"Another wall safe. They must be popular with the Triad, I keep finding them. It's got an electronic lock," Nylessa said as she studied the display, "and it's asking for a password."

"Password..." Sirius began searching the desk, opening drawers and examining papers. "Is the keypad alphabetic or numeric?"

"Both."

"Then try 'Lola'."

Nylessa hesitated. "Who's--"

"Lola? Tony's daughter. She's dead. It's just a guess, because he talks about her all the time." Sirius sounded impatient. "Come on, Less, we ain't got all night."

Nylessa keyed in LOLA and pressed ENTER, and her heart thumped painfully when the display flashed PASSWORD ACCEPTED in cheerful blue letters. In a few seconds she'd have the Eye. In a few seconds this would all be over...

...and then the display flashed INSERT CARD TO CONFIRM.

"Oh, damn," she groaned.

Sirius was instantly beside her. "What? What is it?"

She turned away in frustration. "A keycard, it needs a keycard..."

"Okay, okay, hang on." Sirius looked around briefly. "Maybe...no, up there!"

Nylessa followed his gaze to a particularly high shelf. A short ladder paralleled its steepness, and at the top of the shelf was a picture in a small silver frame. "What makes you think--"

"Nobody puts a picture of his only kid up where he's got to have a ladder to reach it!" Sirius snapped. "Shut up and get up there!"

His sharpness stung, and Nylessa climbed the ladder with tears of anger and frustration burning her eyes. I don't know why I ever agreed to do this, she fumed savagely. It isn't going to work, I'll just get that safe open and find out the Eye isn't here either! Sirius doesn't care about helping me, I'm just letting him string me along--

Then she stepped on the topmost rung, and her foot slipped.

The ladder skidded and Nylessa hit the floor with a shriek. Almost immediately Sirius was over her, pulling her upright. "Lessa--Nylessa, are you--"

Then the door was flung open, baring a dark ugly figure; and Nylessa only had time to whisper, "Oh, God," before Sirius flung her to the floor again and the world exploded.

*****

She had no idea of how she'd gotten outside, only knew that she and Sirius were bolting toward where they'd left the black sedan. Her lungs burned, her heart pounded as if it would burst.

They reached the car at last and Sirius sagged against it. "That," he panted, "that was damned close..."

Then he started to turn and open his door, and he staggered, stumbling. "Oh, God--"

There was pain in his voice and the sound made Nylessa, already half in the passenger seat, jump out and race to him. "Sirius?"

"I--Lessa--" He groped for her blindly, his eyes glazing. "Less, I--I think I'm gonna faint--"

He fell against her and she grabbed at him. "Sirius!"

Nylessa took him by the shoulders and he screamed--and she realized that his left shirtsleeve was torn and sodden, the length of his arm drenched with sticky wetness. "Sirius--Sirius, dear God, you've been shot!"

"Really?" he mumbled blearily, his eyelids fluttering. "I didn't feel a thing."

*****

Nylessa had wanted to take Sirius to the nearest hospital, because he was bleeding heavily, but he'd insisted that she take him to one further downtown. There the medic--an older woman Sirius seemed to know; he called her Althea--deemed his injury a flesh wound, a "nick," and stitched and bandaged the ugly red gash in his arm without much comment, though the glances she gave Nylessa were shrewd and suspicious. After that it was only a matter of two injections--one of penicillin, the other of morphine--and a pair of prescriptions for more of the same, despite Sirius' protests; and by the time Nylessa got him home he'd acquired a certain narcotic quietness.

Duke was right, Nylessa decided. I need to go back to the Lair. I need help now...real help.

But she watched Sirius get out of the car unsteadily, with an almost drunken carefulness, his eyes dark and glazed; and she frowned inwardly. But I can't very well leave him like this, either...

"Sirius?" She came to his side reluctantly. "Sirius, are you all right? Do you need me to help you in?"

"Yeah," he answered thickly, leaning readily on her offered arm. "Wouldn't hurt."

It was a little tedious, getting him inside and up the stairs to that black bedroom; he was nearly asleep on his feet. But Nylessa managed it at last, got him undressed and in bed, turned out the lights.

"That's it," she murmured, "sleep it off," and she was about to turn and leave the room when Sirius abruptly caught at her hand.

"Lessa," he muttered, "stay...?"

"Sirius, I really--" Nylessa began; but for some reason she couldn't bring herself to finish.

"All right," she sighed. "I'll stay."

*****

Narcotics apparently did strange things to people.

Sirius' sleep had been deep but restless; his shiftings and mutterings had kept Nylessa herself from doing more than dozing. At one point she'd been on the verge of true sleep--then Sirius had bolted upright with a scream and lunged into the bathroom, retching violently. Alarmed, she'd gotten out of bed just in time to hear the toilet flush and the tap running; Sirius had come out and leaned on the doorframe for a moment and then fallen jarringly into bed again, clammy with sweat and shivering. Her questions had only gotten the unexpectedly lucid reply of, "Nothing. It's nothing. Nightmare, that's all"; he'd fallen asleep again almost immediately.

Her own short-lived attempts at slumber had been pretty well shattered for the moment. Carefully she'd slid out of bed and gone downstairs. The drawings that Sirius had done of Tony della Spada's house were still on the kitchen table where he'd left them; after a few minutes of rummaging and waiting, Nylessa procured for herself a cup of tea, and sat down to study the sketches.

She'd helped Sirius get into the place once already; she knew she could do it again, perfectly well and by herself. Maybe the Eye wasn't there, but she'd find it. By God, she'd find it.

But not tonight, she conceded reluctantly. Getting shot at once in a night is quite enough for me, and I'd have been the one hit if Sirius hadn't got me out of the way.

Nylessa wanted to go back to the Lair--at least for moral support if not for backup, though she knew Duke's expertise would be invaluable. Besides, if she waited much longer the entire Triad would know Jedar's dirty little secret...

Her heart lurched. She knew time was running out--so why was she hanging back? Why was she still here?

Pity. It had to be pity; after all, Sirius had gotten himself injured for her sake. And even if he hadn't, the sheer wretchedness of his tranquilized state was more than enough to make her feel guilty about leaving him alone.

But then a treacherous little voice in the back of her mind whispered, Isn't every day a man nearly takes a bullet for you. He must be warming up to you--and maybe you're warming up to him?

Nylessa pushed the thought aside in irritation. "Instinct," she muttered darkly. "It was only instinct made him do it. Not gallantry, and certainly not care--"

"Lessa?"

"Sirius!" Nylessa yelped; she hadn't heard him come down the stairs but here he was, lurching toward her, still as nearly naked as she'd left him...and still terribly unsteady, so much so that as he approached the table, only a quick grab at the back of a chair kept him from falling.

"What's wrong?" Nylessa demanded, unable to keep an edge of worry out of her voice. "You're in no shape to be out of bed yet!"

"I woke up and you weren't there." The black drake sat down abruptly, his face in his hands, and was still for a long moment; then he looked up at her, pale-violet eyes slitted against the light. His pupils were very small. "What're you doing?"

"Studying," she sighed, satisfied now that he was all right, though somewhat surprised at his lucidity. "Looking at what I did wrong tonight so I won't do it again."

"You fell. I wouldn't say you did anything wrong." A faintly quizzical expression crossed Sirius' face and he said slowly, "You're saying you want to go it alone next time?"

"I don't think I have much of a choice," Nylessa told him, managing a smile. "With that arm of yours, you aren't exactly going mountain-climbing any time soon."

"You've got me there." He felt the bandage carefully, wincing. "You're assuming, of course"--he yawned hugely--"that Tony'll still have the thing by then."

"I certainly can't assume any differently. Tomorrow night, Sirius," she said with finality. "Tomorrow night, with or without you--I can't waste any more time."

"No, you can't." Sirius lapsed into quiet again, closing his eyes. After a few minutes Nylessa was beginning to think he'd fallen asleep; but just as she moved to touch him, rouse him, he said, "Tell me something, Less."

She groaned inwardly. Surely to God he doesn't want to talk about Jedar again. I don't think I can put things any more plainly. "Yes, Sirius?"

"If worst comes to worst--and it usually does, in this part of town--do you have to get the Eye back?" he asked. "I mean, the statuette--is it something you just can't live without, or would you be willing to just settle for the microfilm? They're probably not together anymore anyway...and that statue's damned heavy, Lessa. You won't get it out of Tony's place easily, especially if you're pressed for time."

She'd already thought about it, and didn't have to think any further. "The microfilm is what I'm after, obviously. It's the proof, the evidence; the Eye itself is just a cover. Oh, I'm sure the Blade would like to have it back, but..." Nylessa shook her head as a more troubling thought came to her. "If this della Spada fellow has any real power--Sirius, he already knows that someone's after the Eye. There's nothing to stop him from stashing the film somewhere and passing the statue along, just to throw us off."

"Or vice versa. Spoken like a true criminal." Sirius smiled tiredly. "We'll have to make provisions for that, Less. The possibility's certainly there...dammit..."

He was rubbing at his eyes. "What?" Nylessa asked.

"Nothing. I just wish I knew what's behind all this. What they're after. It would help us out a hell of a lot." Sirius yawned again and got up, swaying a little. "I think I'm going back to bed now. Why don't you join me?"

*****

When Nylessa awoke, the bedside clock announced 06:24 in large pleasant green numerals, but she felt vaguely unnerved, disquieted. Then she became aware of an insistent pounding at the door downstairs and realized that Sirius was already up and dressing hurriedly. "Sirius, what's going on?"

"Sounds like I've got company." She had started to sit up, but the black drake pushed her back down firmly. "No, stay put, Less. Might be Tony or one of his goons, and I don't want them knowing you're here."

Then he was gone, shutting the door behind him. Immediately Nylessa sat up in the black-shrouded bed, elbows on knees and chin in hands, listening intently, trying to ignore her suddenly pounding heart. If Tony had come after Sirius, it could only mean trouble--she had to hear what was said!

But in this room, sound from below was extremely muffled. She thought she heard two voices--one belonging to Sirius, the other higher-pitched, possibly female, somehow familiar--but she couldn't be sure. Words and accents were indecipherable; no matter how much Nylessa strained her ears, she caught only indistinct murmurs.

The sound of a door slammed in anger was unmistakable, echoing like a gunshot. It brought Nylessa's heart to her throat and the rest of her to her feet, as she flung the door open and pelted down the stairs. "Sirius--"

He was standing at the door, a piece of paper clenched in one hand. With the other hand he was rubbing his cheek as if he'd been slapped; when Nylessa called his name he turned to her with a rueful smile.

"I've always wondered," he said thoughtfully, "why the littlest dog in the pack thinks it's got to be the biggest badass."

Amusement was all over his face, but Nylessa was mystified. "What are you talking about? Who was that?"

"Your Leila. Apparently Tony's higher on the ladder than I thought--"

"Leila?" Nylessa shouted. "Leila was here, and you didn't--"

"Yeah." Sirius cut her off. "Taught me a few new swear words, accused me of kidnapping you, knocked me around." He felt his beak with exaggerated care, his smile widening a fraction. "Pretty much her typical reaction to my presence. But"--the smile abruptly faded as he pressed the crumpled paper into her hand--"this is what I owe the pleasure of her visit to."

Nylessa smoothed out the paper and read:

We know what you're hiding, and you know what we want. You've got twenty-four hours to cooperate or things get nasty--and that's if we don't involve the authorities.

There was no more, and it was unsigned. Before she could speak, Sirius said, "Gotta give Tony credit for moxie, using his own handwriting. I thought for sure he'd be the type to cut letters out of the newspaper."

He sighed. "According to Leila, some guy showed up with that--talk about your balls--about two hours ago, in case you're wondering how long your twenty-four hours is. She and Duke put their heads together and decided to consult an expert."

He smiled again, but it was a grim tight smile that made Nylessa, re-reading the note, swallow hard. "I don't understand, Sirius. They've found the microfilm, obviously, and they're prepared to blackmail the Brotherhood for the sake of the information--but for what? What do they want?"

"Turf, I guess." The gesture Sirius made was not quite a shrug. "Seique's their particular homefront in this part of the world, besides this part of Metro, but if they could get their forks in the Blade's slice of the pie, in Keltor, so much the better. And if you don't give it, they'll come take it--that's how they work."

"You mean they just expect us to--to pack up and leave?" Nylessa scoffed. "But we can--"

"Take them? I don't think so. Triad'll chew you up and spit you out--they play with guns, sweetheart, and big ones." Sirius took her by the shoulders gently. "Believe me, the last thing you want is a turf war. I know you Bladers all think you're hot shit on a stick, but..." He shook his head. "They're like spiders, babe. Just when you think you've stomped them all out, they crop up again somewhere else...and they've got webs all over Puckworld."

Nylessa's thoughts were a maelstrom. "And you work for them."

"I work for me--and trust me, sugar, in this part of town it's better to be a spider than a fly. I'm not asking you to love me for it--"

Their gazes met when he said this, and Sirius let go of her abruptly, half-turning, the sudden silence heavy and awkward.

"I suppose," Nylessa sighed at last, "I should say that's beside the point."

"It would help."

Gods, why was he still so irritating? "All right, Sirius. You're the expert." She allowed a little sarcasm to leak out around the word, watched him stiffen in response. "Tell me how you're going to get me out of this mess--since you got me into it."

"I got you into it!" His silver eyebrows arched incredulously. "Sister, I ain't the one hanging all over some asshole who's got to put his guilt up on a shelf and look at it--"

"Don't you dare talk about Jedar that way!"

"Why not?" he snarled. "It's nicer than most of the things your lot says about me!"

"You deserve it!" She moved to slap him and he twisted, her hand colliding with his bandaged arm.

"Ow! Nylessa, dammit--"

She knew she was going to cry, knew she didn't care anymore. "A man's life is at stake, Sirius--a man I happen to love! Doesn't that register with you?" Shouting, now. "Can't you give a little? Can't you at least act like you care?"

"I do care. More than you know." He was thick-voiced. To her utter amazement, she had remained dry-eyed--but he had not. "Just not about him."

"What, then?" she demanded.

"You." He'd curled his injured arm against his chest; bright blood was oozing through the gauze where she'd struck him. "I could love you, if you'd let me."

"You could what?" Nylessa stared at him, momentarily speechless; then she shook her head vehemently. "No, don't tell me. We've discussed this once already and I don't want to hear it again."

"No, I didn't think you did." He yanked his coat from its hook and flung it about his shoulders. "I'm gonna go see what I can do about getting you out of your mess. Whether or not you're here when I get back is up to you."

*****

She'd stayed, going upstairs and curling up on a corner of the bed. She'd stayed, mostly because she was too troubled to feel like going anywhere.

I could love you, if you'd let me. What could Sirius Drakestone know about loving anyone? It had to be the morphine talking; probably he was still a little drugged. She found his earlier remark--that he wasn't very good at being nice to people--much more telling. Besides, she'd known him less than a week...

Nylessa spied her reflection in the mirror above the ebony dresser, and scowled at it wearily. Now I'm the one bloody rationalizing...

It was, for a long while, her last thought.

*****

She awoke to the lightest of touches on her hair. "Nylessa?"

"Oh..." Gods, how long had she been lying here? Her head had a wet-cotton fullness, and only after she'd sat up a few seconds did it begin to dissipate. "Oh, it's you, Sirius."

The words came out with more of an edge than Nylessa had intended. Sirius withdrew his hand from her hair and moved away from her, his demeanor suddenly that of a whipped puppy. "Yeah. It's me."

"How long have I been asleep?"

"I don't know." The black drake's expression softened a little. "I wasn't gone that long, and you were up here when I got back, but"--he yawned--"I've spent most of the day down on the couch myself, so--"

"Most of the day!" Nylessa yelped and bolted from the bed. "Sirius! The heist!"

"Hey, hey, hey." Gently but firmly, he took her by the waist and pulled her back down into a sitting position. "Relax, okay? It's only four in the afternoon, we've got plenty of time...and besides, Less, I think we need to talk."

"Oh." She sat obediently, relieved that she hadn't slept the night away after all; but Sirius' declaration that they needed to "talk" made her wary. "About what?"

Sirius grimaced, and there was a long difficult pause before he finally said, "Mostly about the fact that I'm an unmitigated asshole, and I'd like to apologize for it."

She gave him a smile of icy disbelief. "You? Being sorry?"

"Goddammit, Lessa, don't cavil." It was said without heat. He licked the edges of his beak nervously, swallowed. "Look, I know I shouldn't have said what I did, about, about Jedar--I mean, I know you love the guy, even though I'll admit I don't see why, and..." He trailed off into a brief embarrassing silence, looking utterly wretched. "I am sorry, Less."

"I know." Nylessa spoke cautiously, not entirely sure she could trust herself to speak. "So am I."

"You?" Sirius scowled at her. "What do you have to be sorry for? You were right--I deserved it."

"I suppose I'm sorry because...because I can't be what you want me to be." She found herself twisting her fingers together in agitation. "Because I can't love you, at least not like that. Because--"

"Because you're in love with a man who might not feel the same way?" Sirius finished softly.

Nylessa winced and crimsoned. "Sometimes. Yes."

"It happens." Sirius eased his arm around her shoulders and for a little while the two were merely still and silent. Then he got to his feet and reached to help her up.

"Come downstairs and let me show you something," he said. "If this job doesn't make your Jedar think twice about you, I don't know what will."

*****

Nylessa turned the thin black semicircle in her hands. "What is this?"

"Remote headset," Sirius said. "The absolute latest in hands-free communication. Like a switchboard operator's getup, but flexible, collapsible and capable of being programmed to receive a unique signal, which I've already taken care of."

He showed her how to put the thing on and adjust the fit. "Anyway, you wear that, and I'll be waiting in the car with this"--he held up one of the smallest cell phones she'd ever seen--"and we can talk while you're crashing Tony's party."

"I--" Nylessa began, and stopped. "Party? What party?"

"Don't you know?" Sirius matched her blank look with one of his own. "Ah, shit, you mean I didn't tell you? He's having some kind of shindig tonight, starts about six, lots of people gonna be there." He looked thoughtful. "Decent cover, actually."

She pulled the headset off and folded it experimentally. "How do you know all this?"

"I've got connections--no, tootsie, don't look at me that way, they're decent guys. Ought to introduce you to some of them...maybe later..." Sirius eyed her spectulatively. "I guess it's a little late to ask if you can pull a heist in a little black dress."

"I do it all the time," Nylessa assured him with a smile. "But tonight I'm afraid it's going to be a little violet dress."

The black drake cast his gaze heavenward. "I should have known."

*****

"Are you in?"

It was a little unsettling, having Sirius' disembodied voice in her ears; it made Nylessa tighten her grip on the ladder in Tony della Spada's library, the one leading to the out-of-the-way silver picture frame. This time she wouldn't fall. "Yes. Yes, I'm in."

"Any trouble?"

"No." Carefully she lifted the frame and turned it over; there, tucked into an edge, was a credit-card-sized piece of transparent green plastic with a magnetic strip on one side. A gentle tug extracted it. "I've just found the keycard for the wall safe...no, Sirius, I think everyone's attention is elsewhere."

The library door was quite securely locked, but the sounds from beyond it seemed to indicate that Tony della Spada's guests were having a very good time. "Good," Sirius said, "make sure it stays elsewhere." She climbed down gingerly, crossed the room, and opened the safe's outer door. "Don't tell me how to do my job, Sirius."

"Wouldn't dream of it." He chuckled. "You remember the password, right?"

"'Lola'." She typed it in, and once again got the INSERT CARD TO CONFIRM message; but this time Nylessa had the thin green card in hand. As she slid it into its slot and watched the display's blue letters change to CONFIRMING, she held her breath; and when at last there was a chirrup as the inner door swung open, she nearly sobbed. "Oh, thank God."

"Never a bad idea." Even Sirius sounded a little breathless. "Got it open?"

"Yes--"

"Good," Sirius interrupted. "You find anything else in there, any jewelry, any cash, you just stash it between those sweet tits of yours and walk out with it, because you've sure as hell earned it."

Nylessa had to stuff her fist in her mouth to keep from cackling when he said this; but as it was, she extracted two pearl necklaces, a diamond tennis bracelet and a white envelope containing six hundred-dollar bills--all of which went into the pouch on her belt, despite Sirius' suggestion--before she encountered a cool metallic bulk at the very back of the safe.

"I've found it!" she said with relief, but tugging on the statuette didn't budge it. Only after nearly fifteen minutes of straining, rocking the cumbersome thing, was Nylessa able to shift the Eye enough to get easy access to its base; the squat statue had been crammed into the safe horizontally. "And you were right, Sirius...God, it's heavy." Her arms ached.

"Twenty bucks says it's empty too."

It took Nylessa a moment to locate the catch at the Eye's rear that would open the compartment in its base, but finally her tired fingers found a small irregularity, her heart climbing into her throat as she pushed the tiny switch and a section of the base slid seamlessly out and...

"Empty," she whispered. No, it was more than empty; the compartment was a gaping abyss. Her eyes began to sting. "Sirius..."

"Looks like I win," he said tonelessly. "No. Come on, Less, don't panic on me now! Take a good deep breath and put everything back like you found it. Then try the desk. Plenty of places you haven't looked yet."

But even Sirius sounded as though his confidence was wearing away. Grimly Nylessa blinked a few times, inhaled deeply, blew her breath out hard.

Plenty of places to look, she told herself. Dear God, let him be right...

At least shoving the Eye back into the safe proved to be easier than getting it out. Nylessa had closed the safe, climbed the ladder again, and was returning the green keycard to its hiding place--and then she heard the voices.

They were male, and one of them was right outside the door: "...be right back, wanna look at somethin'..."

"Sirius!" She slid down the ladder, dry-mouthed. "Someone's coming!"

"What! Lessa, you've got to get out of there--"

"No!" she snapped. "I won't leave without that microfilm, Jedar's life could depend on it--"

"Then find someplace to hide, and ditch the headset!"

There was nowhere to hide. "Sirius, what am I supposed--"

"Dammit, woman, you can shove it up your snatch for all I care, just--"

Nylessa yanked the headset off and flung it into the wastebasket beside the desk, her heart hammering. She breathed a quick prayer for some equally quick inspiration and perched on the desk's edge, seizing an apple-shaped brass paperweight just as a key turned in the door's single lock.

The man who walked through it was a mahogany-feathered raptrin in a greyed-green suit; he had a fedora in one hand, but when he saw Nylessa he stopped dead and the hat hit the floor. "What the hell!"

She smiled. Blast it, where's that inspiration? "Hi."

He advanced, scowling faintly. "What're you doing in here? There's not supposed to be--"

Illumination came at last. "I'm the entertainment for the evening," Nylessa murmured, "for the gentlemen. I was told to, ah, wait in here." And I hope to Drake duCaine that this fellow isn't Tony della Spada...

"Entertainment? Oho." The raptrin grinned, relaxing visibly, and bent to pick up his hat. "I was wonderin' why Tony had the damn door locked. Just what sort of 'entertainment' are you providin', sugar baby?"

He'd come closer, and he reeked of Thrainnian whiskey and too much cologne. Nylessa wanted to gag, but instead she simpered.

"Well, I'm really supposed to be a surprise, but since I've already surprised you once..." She cast her gaze downward, shyly, and shifted a little, the hem of her skirt inching up, and the movement captured the raptrin's gaze like a magnet. "Lock the door."

He almost fell in his eagerness to comply, and his clumsiness gave Nylessa a few precious seconds to scan the desktop and think. The polished wood surface was mostly clear, except for a telephone and a stack of legal-sized papers. They'd have to be gone through, but first she had to deal with her current problem. He was drunk, but not drunk enough; certainly not drunk enough to keep from revealing her presence to everyone in the house. And there was the headset in the wastebasket; had she damaged it, or could Sirius still hear what was going on...?

The snick of a bolt sliding home broke into her thoughts. The raptrin had locked the door and tossed his hat aside; now, as he approached her, he was tugging off his jacket and tie. "You was sayin' about surprisin' me, baby?"

"Come closer," Nylessa cooed.

He loomed over her, smiling with inebriated slackness, eyes grey and unfocused. He reached for her roughly but Nylessa held him back, her own smile becoming stiffly fixed as she playfully riffled his short black hair, then curled her fingers round the back of his neck and drew him down as if for a kiss...

...and planted the brass paperweight squarely in the center of his forehead.

The raptrin went down with a grunt and a heavy thud, blood streaming down his face. Outside, in the corridor, there was sudden silence, and then a barrage of questions.

"What was that?"

"What was what? I didn't..."

"Wait a minute, where's Gary?"

The doorknob rattled and Nylessa jerked upright. She dropped the paperweight, ignoring the sound it made, and grabbed the headset from the wastebasket, jamming it into place. "Sirius!"

"Nylessa, what the hell did you do?"

"Never mind that--" The doorknob rattled again and she heard a man's muffled curse. "I've got to find that film!"

But nothing was hidden in the papers on the desk, or in the top drawer, or even in the wastebasket. The two side drawers yielded only a box of Kleenex, a handful of change and a phone book for Seique Province. "Sirius, I don't think it's here!"

"Come on, then! You're gonna get caught if you don't!"

He sounded genuinely worried. But there was still one drawer she hadn't tried: the locked one.

Caught or not, Nylessa knew she had to try. Carefully and easily she picked the simple lock and began to ease the drawer open; then the doorknob rattled a third time and there was the undeniable scrape of a key being inserted in the lock. This time she didn't hesitate, but flung herself under the desk.

But if they find me here, she started to tell herself, reaching up to steady herself, then...wait a minute, what's this?

She couldn't turn to see in such a small space, so she had to feel her way instead. Something taped to the underside of the desk, above her head, something papery, the size of a large index card...she slipped a finger beneath it and worked it loose.

An envelope. She tore it open, and out slipped a sheet with celluloid slickness.

She snatched it up. "Found it," she breathed, "I think I've found it..."

The doorknob was turning. But she had to be sure. Nylessa eased upright and held the film up to the light. The print was tiny, tiny, almost indecipherable.

The door was opening.

But suddenly the first sentence crystallized, and the words leaped at her.

My name is Jedar Paris Stormwing.

Two seconds later Tony della Spada walked into the room, but Nylessa was no longer there.

*****

She was trembling so badly she could barely walk. "It's adrenaline," Sirius had said, "it'll wear off in a while"; but when they got back to his apartment he had to help her inside.

Now Nylessa sat on the kitchen counter, and Sirius stood with the microfilm in his hands, staring at it curiously.

"This is what I got myself shot for," he mused. "You think Jedar's worth it?"

"I know he is."

"Well..." He smiled at her. "I guess you're right. Still"--he looked speculative--"we need to put an end to things, Less. We need to destroy it."

"The microfilm?" It almost brought Nylessa to her feet. "Sirius, no! Not after--"

"--We've worked so hard to get it back? Come on, Lessa, think like a criminal!" Sirius said. "Destroy the evidence and you destroy the proof--I mean, I know Jedar feels guilty about it, but he's just gonna have to learn to deal with it!"

His tone softened. "It's the only real way to keep him safe, Less."

"I thought you didn't care about Jedar."

"I can spare him one favor...for your sake." The black drake sighed. "You know I think I love you."

"I know." Nylessa, finding her feet at last, gently pried the film from his fingers and laid it aside. "I know, Sirius. And--and I'm grateful for your help, all you've done, I couldn't have done it without you--oh, I suppose I could have, but you've at least made the effort more entertaining..."

She stopped, because she realized that she was babbling, and that he was silent. All this time she hadn't looked at him; but she met his gaze now, and saw that his pale eyes had taken on an unnatural glitter.

"Sirius--" Nylessa began, and he touched her face tentatively, still silent; then he slid his arms around her and hugged her to him, hard, and it was a long time before he let her go.

They regarded each other for several seconds, neither of them speaking, but at last Nylessa said, "What are you going to do with the microfilm?"

"Watch." Sirius opened a drawer and extracted a cigarette lighter, flicked a flame into existence and picked up the film by one corner, then touched one to the other. The flame licked greedily at the microfilm, filling the kitchen with the acrid stench of burning plastic, until nothing was left of Jedar Stormwing's confession but a crisp black curl.

Sirius dropped the curl in the sink and it crumbled. "That's that, then."

Nylessa stared into the sink. "Yes, I suppose it is."

"Let me give you something..." Sirius eased past her to where the telephone resided, and after a brief hunt for a pen he scribbled something on a square of notepaper and pressed it into her hand. "Here."

"What is this?"

"My number, I'm not in the book, you know, and..." He trailed off as if embarrassed. "I just thought, if you ever needed anything, or ever wanted to get together and do something..."

It was on the tip of Nylessa's tongue to refuse him, but the pain in his eyes was almost palpable. "Oh, Sirius."

"Hang onto it, okay? Just hang onto it. Might come in handy someday...like me." He brushed her red hair back from her forehead and kissed her, and there was a strange finality to it. "But right now we've got to get you back to Keltor. Come on, let's get your stuff packed."

*****

When Nylessa walked into Leila's office, she was still trembling, though for a slightly different reason. "I'm back."

"I noticed," Leila answered dryly, though she was smiling broadly. "So where's th' Eye?"

"I didn't get it; I imagine it's still in Tony della Spada's safe," the redhead replied, feeling a curious bone-deep weariness come over her. "I just got the microfilm, Lei."

"Ya mean ya didn't--" Leila started to come out of her chair; then she realized what Nylessa had said, and sat back down. "Oh. Oh, well, long as ya got th' part that matters, that's all Jedar'll care about, an' now that it's over I think he deserves ta know." She grinned. "Let's have it."

Nylessa shook her head, smiling slowly. "I don't have the microfilm anymore either, dear. Sirius and I decided to destroy it."

"Destroy it!" That did it; Leila was on her feet, glaring. "Whaddaya mean, ya decided--"

"It's for the best, really," Nylessa said, and Sirius' words came back to her. "Destroy the evidence and you destroy the proof." She swallowed. "It's the only real way to keep Jedar safe, isn't it?"

Leila's immediate response to this was stunned silence; then she sank back into her chair with a sound that was somewhere between a sigh and a laugh. "Yer right, Lessa, o' course yer right. It's fer th' best--destroy th' evidence an' nobody else is gonna steal it." The Brotherhood's leader did laugh, at last. "I dunno what surprises me more--th' fact that ya pulled it off, or th' fact that ya got Sirius Drakestone ta help ya...an' by th' way, Lessa, whatcha got there?"

She was looking at the square of paper that Nylessa was still clutching tightly in one hand, the paper with Sirius' telephone number on it.

"This?" Nylessa unfolded the paper and stared at it for a long moment, committing the number to memory; then she balled it up and tossed it in Leila's wastebasket. "Oh, it's nothing. Just something I won't be needing anymore."

 

Return to the Library...