"I'm not sure what you mean, sir."
"I think it's time we discussed this, Sascha." He was everywhere. Cold and focused like the finest of lasers.
"I'm in a meeting."
"Cancel it." The walls around her began to constrict.
"Mother has given me instructions to close this deal." This was bad, very bad. What she couldn't understand was why Enrique was coming after her.
There was nothing overtly "wrong" about the patterns she was leaking. The traces were both very faint and came from a deep part of the changeling consciousness that Psy couldn't usually access, not without ripping open minds. Only a Psy who'd done that would understand what it was that he was seeing.
"I'm tired of waiting for you to make time. Unless you want to find yourself pulled up before the Council, I want to see you. Now."
"On what basis would you call me before the Council?" She filled her mental tone with the confidence of someone who'd been born a cardinal, someone whose mother was a Councilor.
"You're not pure, Sascha. You think like them." It was an accusation that held supreme confidence. "Like the animals you work so well with."
Caught utterly off guard, she almost gave herself away. She'd never known Enrique to have any contact with changelings. How did he recognize the taint in her mental signature? "I'm sure you're mistaken."
"I've been in their minds. I know exactly what they look like." His mental trap was almost solid. There was no way she would've been able to break out if she'd planned on doing so. Enrique was stronger than she'd ever guessed, possibly the strongest cardinal in the Net.
"How?" Confusion and desperation were taking their toll. Murder sprang from rage, fury, jealousy. Enrique didn't feel anything, so how could he be the violence that had stolen so many lives?
"The Council likes to know the enemy. We've been using volunteers to study their mental patterns." He pushed at the flaw in her mind as one would poke at a wound.
It hurt. "Sir, what are you doing?"
"I don't like waiting, Sascha."
But he liked talking, she thought. "I'm tying up the meeting. If I leave suddenly, it'll negate everything we've achieved to date. I didn't realize the Council was running such research."
"Call it a private interest. Their women make the best subjects - there's something perfect about them."
I never guessed you were so perfect.
"They're weak," she said, prodding him on. "They feel. It's the Psy who are perfect."
Enrique's energy whirled cold and menacing around her as she started to inch back toward the hidden doorway into her mind. She had to get inside before she dropped out of the PsyNet. If Enrique succeeded in infiltrating her defenses, he'd destroy Lucas along with her. No, she thought, furious. Her mate would not die.
A whisper of the forest in her mind. The panther hidden deep within her was pleased by her thoughts but its attention was fixed on Enrique, on the threat to its mate. Claws slid out and she felt her fingertips tingle.
"Psy have to suppress emotion in order to survive, but changelings thrive without breaking under the pressure. I'd say that makes them the stronger species." He paused and she froze her creeping progress. "Are you almost done?"
"Yes, sir." She made her voice hold the faintest thread of fear, let him pick up the emotion.
The walls of his mind went blue like the deepest oceanic ice. It was frighteningly beautiful. "Sascha, Sascha," he whispered. "You're truly extraordinary."
She didn't respond, every ounce of concentration focused on getting back into her mind. His comments had her convinced he was the killer one second and confused the next. How could he be the serial? How? Those women had been torn part, annihilated from the mind out. Enrique was a man who didn't feel any negative emotion. Not rage. Not anger. Not hatred.
Was he simply out for her because she was flawed? Had he driven away the real murderer, the one who'd infected the Net with traces of violence? Disappointment tightened her gut. She couldn't fail, couldn't let the need for revenge plunge DarkRiver and the SnowDancers into war. They were her people now.
"You're even more perfect than the changeling women."
"Who were these women?" she asked, nearly to the doorway. "I'd like to speak to them as well. The leopards tell me nothing."
"I'm afraid the experiments were a little taxing. They don't like to let Psy into their minds. I had to damage them in order to gain an in-depth understanding."
Horror stopped her in midstep. "You killed them?"
Lucas lunged at the walls of her mind, wanting to go for Enrique's throat.
"Lab animals often die."
If she'd been in her physical body, she would've thrown up then and there. It was crystal clear that Enrique was happy to tell her everything - his only audience - because he thought he had her trapped. He was closing around her like a giant pincer.
"There's pressure on my mind." She could start to feel it but it wasn't dangerous, not yet.
"I'm at the end of my patience. Either you speak to me or I execute you. I assure you, the Council would back me fully for dealing with a defective Psy."
It was the word "defective" that got her moving again. She wasn't defective and the changelings weren't lab animals. They were the most beautiful, most alive, most passionate beings she'd ever met. But before she broke away, she had to make sure she had the right evil, the right killer. "Why seventy-nine?" she asked softly.
"Nineteen seventy-nine, Sascha, 1979. It's my little way of celebrating what I see as the true birth of our race." He paused. "How did you know about that?" The crushing walls of his mind came to a standstill.