As it turned out, buying clothes took a while. Like, hours.
I suspect I’m not alone when I say that I think of clothes as being something you wear. Oh sure, that’s obvious, but what I’m saying is that I think of clothes primarily in terms of what they do for me. Are they warm? Do they fit? Will they keep that dude from filling me up with lead? Stuff like that.
Like I said, I think that’s not an entirely uncommon attitude. In fact, I would lay money that most guys think like that. In this case, though, I was choosing them for what statement they would make instead. It was a really good thing Erin was there, because I would have been clueless trying to do that kind of thing myself.
She also insisted on buying everything, which was just as well. My bank account wasn’t empty, but that was mostly because I’d spent too much time living paycheck to paycheck lately to think about accessing it.
Long story short, by the time it was one o’clock I was sitting back home the proud owner of a loose black shirt that probably wasn’t silk but looked like it was, dark grey slacks, and a really nice pair of black leather boots. I’d also showered and shaved, and even gotten a haircut, which was maybe more work than I’d ever done for a social event before.
That left me with nothing much to do before I left, and I spent the time thinking.
I didn’t even bother trying to figure out what was going on in the broader sense. I simply didn’t have enough information to work with to guess at that. That was the whole point of the evening, after all. Trying to gather facts that I could use.
I was more busy trying to think of how I could obtain that knowledge. The Sidhe are not known for their great generosity and willingness to share information, and my bargain with Traveler had extended only to getting me there. Actually getting something out of them was my problem.
The Sidhe, and really all of the fae, don’t give away knowledge, but sometimes they will sell it. The problem was that I had very little to bargain with. Sometimes you can bribe them with simple cash—or, better yet, gold, silver, and gems—but the information I was looking for was likely to cost a lot. If you don’t see the problem with that, see above regarding “dirt poor.” If I sold everything I owned and went heavily into debt, I most likely still couldn’t afford their price.
The three basic commodities of the supernatural world—and, pretty much, the regular one too—are goods, information, and services. Goods were out, but that still left me with two options. Information was problematic as well, simply because I didn’t know all that much. Oh, I wasn’t an idiot or uneducated, but most of what I knew was essentially common knowledge. That sort of thing wasn’t totally worthless, but again, what I wanted was top-dollar. The only really high-value information is the secret kind, and I didn’t know any secrets worth that much.
That left services, which most commonly took the form of favors owed. And that was…potentially very bad.
See, here’s the thing. Knowledge and goods are limited things. You can’t sell them if you don’t have them, unless you’re in the stock market or something, I suppose. Services aren’t. The only limiting factor on them, excepting your own capabilities, is what you’re willing to do. For a small exchange, you might be stuck with something simple. Providing regular meals for a year, say, or acting as their proxy in a business exchange.
There’s a reason that people who know anything about it are always, always warning you about making deals with the fae, though. Because if you want to sell more, they’re happy to buy. Theft and murder are common favors to ask. And, if the knowledge you need is even more important, the price is likely to be even higher. Like your soul.
Oh, not literally. As far as I’m aware magic has had no more luck than science when it comes to proving or disproving the existence of an immortal soul. I’m talking about your person. Your free will, really.
Make the wrong kind of deal with the wrong kind of person, and they own you. Absolutely. You’ll do whatever they say—clean the bathroom, rat out your friends, jump off a building, whatever. You have about as much choice in the matter as a gun does of who to shoot. Depending on what deal you made, the terms and length vary quite a bit. Sometimes it lasts only for a day. Other times it can be a year, or several.
Or, you know. Forever.
Anyway, the point is that sometimes the prices involved are heavy. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to pay a price like that.
Alexander had outlined three basic factors determining the price you pay for information when you bargain with the fae. I had no way to know which of the Sidhe, or various others, I might have an opportunity to ask tonight, making that factor impossible to guess. That precluded improving my relationship with them, as well.
Which left only what information, exactly, I was asking after within my power. Which, in turn, left me thinking about exactly what I needed to know.
In order to figure that out, I had to look at what I already knew. It was harder than you might think; I’d learned so many things, most of them unpleasant, over the past few days that I was starting to lose track.
What I eventually came up with was this. Someone had hired a mercenary to kill someone in a manner suggestive of werewolf attack. Said someone had wanted a message passed along to Christopher, although I still couldn’t say for sure what that message was. I had recently begun attracting the attention of powerful, dangerous beings, one of whom had been trying to kill me in increasingly bizarre ways. Those two someones might or might not be connected, or even the same person. And…that was about it, really. Okay. What could I say from that?
The first conclusion I drew was that the mercenary I’d met hadn’t been behind the recent attacks. They just weren’t his style. I usually have pretty good instincts about people, and he’d struck me as a logical, brutally practical man. He hadn’t toyed around with Kyra and me; he hadn’t laid an elaborate trap for us. He’d lured us in and had his men hit us from behind. Simple. Quick. Nothing left to chance. In other words, the exact opposite of a tripwire rigged to a dart trap. If he were after me, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t even know it until my house blew up or somebody shot me in the head.
Besides which, I still remembered his parting comment to me. He’d warned me not to be stupid, then said that the only reason I was alive was because he hadn’t been hired to kill me.
Now, that might seem like a small thing. But he was fae, I was entirely certain of that, and the fae don’t lie. They can’t lie. If he said he hadn’t been hired to kill me, then he hadn’t been. Granted, the terms of his contract could have changed since then, or he could have decided to kill me without being hired—but that seemed unlikely.
Actually, now that I thought about it, that whole encounter seemed really fishy to me. It took me a moment to realize what was bothering me, but when I did it seemed so glaringly obvious that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it sooner.
When I’d asked what the message was, he hadn’t told me. Now, there are plenty of ways he could have done that. For example, “I don’t intend to tell you,” “That’s my employer’s business,” or “Shut up and do what you’re told, dumbass.” Not to mention a whole bunch of others.
He hadn’t said any of those things. He’d said, “I have no idea.”
He hadn’t just said that his employer hadn’t told him, or that he didn’t know. He had no idea.
The problem was that it seemed really freaking obvious. A person with any intelligence would have to guess that killing somebody, making it look like a werewolf, and using that as a message to the local werewolf Alpha was a threat. The mercenary had seemed like he had plenty of intelligence to me. How could he not have some idea what was happening?
Take out the bit with the corpse looking like it was mauled by a werewolf, though, and things started to make sense. A stranger to town, and a faerie at that, could be easily forgiven not knowing that the pack’s corporation had its main office only a couple of streets away. Without that detail, and if the death had originally looked about like any other, the mercenary might reasonably have been baffled.
From his perspective, after all, the job seemed nonsensical. Kill a random person. Attract the attention of the pack—actually, scratch that. Attract my attention, specifically—that was what the scent-blocker had been about. Given that I wasn’t even a werewolf, it would make even less sense to him. What kind of message would a plain, simple corpse carry for an Alpha? Why choose me to carry the message?
I started to get a different picture of what had happened. The mercenary, as efficient as ever, had killed the bakery employee quickly and simply. He’d covered his tracks and left, weaving his illusion spell behind him so that I would have something to track. He was meticulous. He took a ridiculous, weaving track and went to a house designed to be nigh-invisible, purely so that I wouldn’t be suspicious. He arrived. He waited for me to follow, playing solitaire to pass the time.
Somebody else had been watching the whole time. They waited for him to leave the bakery and get far enough away that he wouldn’t notice anything. They made sure nobody found the corpse until then—no, wait. The mercenary had probably arranged that himself. He wouldn’t want somebody to catch him in the act, after all.
After he left, the interloper went in and mangled the body. They were careful to ensure that the wounds matched a werewolf attack. In fact, that was probably why the body had been so thoroughly ravaged; no one would notice a bullet or knife wound in that mess. They’d even forged a print, the only truly damning piece of evidence there.
Once that was done, they went and called the police. I wasn’t sure about this part, but they must have done something to make sure that the cops found it before the pack. As far as sending a message goes it wouldn’t matter, but threatening to expose the wolves wouldn’t work unless the police found the body. That was why I had arrived earlier than the mercenary had anticipated; he hadn’t expected anyone to know about the death so soon.
I couldn’t be sure, but I thought that was a much likelier explanation. In which case…
In which case, his employer hadn’t been targeting the pack at all. Or at least not for what we had thought. Which meant…
I grinned suddenly. I knew exactly what information I needed, and it had nothing to do with Twilight Princes. Which was just as well, really; I probably couldn’t have found someone who knew about that stuff even if I could afford it.
Aiko was five minutes early. By the time she got there I was already decked out and waiting outside. I had, reluctantly, left most of my weapons behind. It made me feel intensely vulnerable, but you’d have to be an idiot to carry iron into a party of high-ranking Sidhe, and that disqualified most of my kit. All I had left was a bronze ring set with chips of obsidian, a leather bracelet I’d made about a month ago, and a few silver needles. Not much, especially by my standards, but it was what I had.
Besides. If this went south, I’d need a tank, a squadron of mages, and a full pack of werewolves to make it out. And even then it would probably require direct divine intervention.
I got into the car next to Aiko and glared at her. “What happened to dressing nice?” I asked.
She looked at me and sniffed. “You have to dress nice. I am a kitsune and therefore not expected to fit in with polite society. I’m allowed to look absurd.”
Absurd probably wasn’t the word I would have chosen. She’d apparently gone to just as much work as I had on her appearance for the evening, but in sort of the opposite direction. She was wearing a black leather jacket, an orange T-shirt, black jeans that had been patched with at least half a dozen brightly colored materials, and sneakers with even more holes in them than the shoes I normally wear. Her black hair, which had been about shoulder-length, was raggedly cut off at about half that.
Oh yeah, and it was dyed a shade of green between “pine tree” and “beetle.”
The best part? Her T-shirt bore the caption “Meddle Not in the Affairs of Dragons, for You are Crunchy and Taste Good with Ketchup.” I was guessing it would either make the Dragon King laugh fit to bring the roof down, or cause him to set us on fire and smile as we burned.
Except he was a sea dragon, so maybe he would drown us instead. Or boil us, if he was in the mood for a cooked meal.
Not for the first time I wondered why I liked Aiko. Not for the first time, I decided it was because I seldom find someone crazier than me who is still amusing instead of terrifying.
The portal site wasn’t actually in Colorado Springs proper. It was set up in a disused building about fifteen or twenty miles away, not far off the highway. By the time we got there the shadows were lengthening, and the trees seemed eerie and a little menacing in the twilight.
Aiko led the way to a door, which was securely padlocked shut. She didn’t bother trying to open it; she just rested one hand on the surface of the door for a moment. There was a gentle surge of magic, scented like fox and spice, and the portal opened.
I hadn’t ever seen a portal open to the Otherside, and I had to admit it wasn’t what I had imagined. There wasn’t any flash or dazzle to it; it just appeared. Where there had previously been an old, weather-beaten door, I could now see just a glimpse of a small, boxy room. All of the colors and shapes were ever so slightly indistinct, as though seen through the heat haze over a parking lot at noon on a hot day.
I took a deep breath and stepped through.