Everything changed once we were on the other side—ah ha, ha, ha. What? Believe me, you would crack jokes too. I mean, what else can you do to cope with this shit? If the choice is between bad puns and a padded room, I will always choose the jokes.
The room we were in was about ten feet square, and appeared to be made of coral. Like, gem-quality coral. Except I was pretty sure it was still alive. There were no windows, and only one door, on the opposite wall from us. I didn’t look back after we stepped through, partially because I was sure the portal would have already closed and mostly because I didn’t want to show anything that could be interpreted as weakness. I was betting everything that happened in this palace was under close observation.
I hadn’t ever been to the Otherside before, and I found it a strange experience. Everything felt just a little bit too intense. The colors—not just of the room, but even of the clothing I had worn in—were a little bit stronger than I would have expected, vibrant and intense. The air had a sort of charged quality to it that I’d never encountered before. It was a little bit like the atmosphere inside a ritual circle, but without the sense of power I associated with that feeling.
There was one other person in the room, standing near the door. He seemed both deferential and confident, and I immediately placed him as a high-ranking servant of some sort. Almost before we were across he was moving forward to greet us, a coolly professional smile on his face.
“Good evening, sir and madam,” he said, bowing. “Might I see your invitation?”
“Certainly,” I said, carefully extracting it from one of the few pockets in my new clothes.
He took it and glanced at it. It took him only a moment, but somehow I was willing to bet that he had given it a much more thorough examination than was apparent. Fortunately for me, it apparently passed, because he handed it back to me with another bow. “Very good. If you would be so kind as to follow me, I will show you to your room. The festival should begin shortly.”
I exchanged glances with Aiko as we followed him out of the room and down a narrow hallway. My room? A personal servant? Did everybody get this kind of treatment here, or had Traveler somehow hooked me up with a VIP pass on top of getting an invitation to the event?
My room turned out to be only a short distance from the room we’d arrived in. It was bigger, maybe twenty feet square instead of ten. There was a king-size bed with posts, a few chairs, and a table with a few bowls of snacks sitting on it. Aiko went right to the food, sniffed at it a couple of times, and pronounced it safe to eat. I was glad, because I had more than half expected to go hungry throughout the party. I wasn’t sure what the rules were about eating on the Otherside, but I knew they existed and breaking them was an extremely bad idea. You could, for example, wind up like Persephone, bound to spend three months of every year in Hades for eternity.
That’s one of the terrifying things about the Otherside. It’s not just big, or huge, it’s freaking enormous. Like, it’s usually referred to as theoretically finite because, although it must have some sort of limit, nobody has ever found it. They say that, if you know how to look, you can find anything and everything on the Otherside.
The scary part is that any given part of it can have totally different rules than any other part. And none of them are the same as those of the mortal world. I don’t just mean the social norms, either. The laws of reality are more like suggestions on the Otherside. Take Faerie, for example. If what I’d learned about it was accurate at all, both gunpowder and gasoline were noncombustible there.
I was too nervous to eat, so I mostly just sat there and waited. Aiko made up for it, sampling every one of the bowls and pronouncing most of them far too mild for her. She likes her food the same way she likes everything else—bizarre and unpredictable.
It was about twenty or thirty minutes before party time. I wasn’t sure, because—like all my other gadgets—my phone and watch were back at my house. I wasn’t entirely sure how they would react to being on the Otherside, or whether they would function at all over here, so I’d left them behind.
In any case, after a suitably interminable wait, there was a polite knock on the door. I opened it to find the same servant as before, wearing the same inscrutable smile. He bowed politely and then led us through more corridors, all built of the same jewel-bright coral. They started to grow dimmer as we proceeded, until eventually they were pitch black and I was able to follow him only because his white uniform gave off light, so faintly that I hadn’t noticed until everything else was dark.
Eventually, after what felt like quite a bit of walking, we emerged into an enormous chamber. I wasn’t entirely sure how I knew it was huge, because everything was still absolutely dark. I don’t mean dark like a city night; it was dark like the inside of caves, where you’re surrounded by so much darkness that you start seeing things at the edge of your vision.
Our servant positioned us very carefully, then seemed to vanish. Not that it would take much; take away the light and he would be as perfectly invisible as if he were gone.
We stood like that for what felt like a small eternity. First five minutes passed, and I felt all right. By the time ten or fifteen had gone by, though, I could tell that even Aiko was nervous and a little bit twitchy.
And then the lights came on.
There was no gradual lightening. It just went from absolute darkness to lighting which, although not really all that intense, was absolutely brilliant by comparison. I spent several seconds blinking before I could see against the glare, and another several seconds after that blinking in shock trying to process what I was seeing.
We were in a ballroom. A ballroom built to incredible specifications. The vaulted ceiling had to be close to a hundred feet above our heads, and was hung with dozens of crystal chandeliers. They shouldn’t have thrown enough light to illuminate more than a fraction of the room, but somehow everything was equally bright.
Aiko and I were standing near one wall, giving me an excellent opportunity to look over the room. The first thing I noticed was that it was huge and grand beyond the dreams of human architects. Probably about two hundred yards square, I’d guess. The walls and floor and ceiling were made of the same coral as before, but here it was polished to a high shine, and incorporated black coral as well as red. I couldn’t see any seams anywhere, as though the whole palace had been grown in place as a single piece—and maybe it was.
Our host was seated at the far end of the room. At this distance I couldn’t make out details, but it wasn’t hard to guess that the enormous man seated in the throne was the Dragon King. And the space between us—the entire space between us—was filled with Sidhe.
I cannot find the words for what that looked like. Legend tells us that this isn’t an entirely uncommon reaction to the Sidhe, especially gathered in a large group. They are quite simply more than the human brain is meant to handle—and apparently I was not significantly different from human in that regard.
Imagine the most beautiful person, of either gender, you have ever seen. Now imagine that that person was also an incredibly graceful, highly trained athlete, and it might give you some small idea of what the least of the Sidhe looked like as they danced.
Oh, did I not mention the dancing? The dance floor was suitably enormous, easily a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet to a side, and sunk into the floor in the center of the room between me and Ryujin’s throne. The bands were over to my right, seated on beautiful wooden bleachers. And yes, I said bands, plural. I could make out at least a full orchestra, a jazz big-band, and a carillon. At the moment the orchestra was playing some fast-paced piece of classical music I recognized but couldn’t place.
And the Sidhe were dancing. Not all of them, of course, but those that were drew the eye almost irresistibly.
By that point in my life I had seen a lot of things. Some of them were beautiful. Some of them were terrible. And none of them had been as beautiful or terrible as that.
They all looked like humans, from here. Except that every one of them was graceful and skilled beyond the wildest dreams of mortals. They spun and whirled to the music, every step perfect, every motion in perfect time. They were packed together, but somehow they never struck each other, never got in each other’s way. A skilled dance company that had practiced that exact dance for weeks couldn’t have done it a quarter as well.
They didn’t look beautiful, because beautiful is a concept that applies to the mortal world, and they were more lovely than any mortal as they danced. I don’t think that there are any models that look as good as the least of the Sidhe.
Tearing my gaze away from that was quite possibly the most demanding thing I’d ever done, in terms of sheer willpower. It took me several seconds to manage it. But I did, and quickly looked somewhere else so that I wouldn’t be tempted to glance at them again.
Aiko was looking at me with a concerned expression that faded almost instantly when I looked away. “It’s hard the first time,” she murmured, so low that surely only I could hear it over the music. “I was afraid I’d have to slap you.”
“Why didn’t you?” I murmured back.
She smiled, a more polite and restrained smile than I was used to seeing on her. “It would have looked bad.”
I, too, was aware that I was in dangerous company and anything less than courteousness would draw a bad reaction. So rather than snort, I chuckled softly at her comment and then nodded at the left half of the room, where banquet tables had been set up. “You want to grab some food?” I asked.
She nodded, the elegant movement at odds with her bedraggled appearance. She took my arm and we began to make our way over toward the tables. Fortunately, most of the space was less crowded than the dance floor. It took us only a few minutes to cross the gargantuan room.
On the other side of the dance floor we found huge tables, supporting hundreds of dishes. Apparently, and somewhat to my surprise, it was being served buffet style, so we both grabbed a plate and started loading up on food once Aiko had determined that this, too, was safe to eat.
The spread was incredible. There was almost literally any kind of food imaginable, ranging from burgers, pizza, and French fries to sashimi, candied jellyfish, and roasted grasshoppers. I couldn’t possibly have tried everything. Even a single bite of each dish would have been impossible.
Contrary to what you might expect, though, I didn’t stick to the more mundane stuff. I’ve never been timid when it comes to food.
So I tried the grasshoppers, and the jellyfish, and a dozen exotic fruits. I sampled steaks that claimed to be made from elephant, tiger, and crocodile. I felt a little bit guilty about that, but I was confident that the animals they were made from would never have to worry about being endangered—if they had come from animals at all, which on the Otherside was probably optional.
We sat at a smaller table, again near the walls, to eat. Needless to say everything was absolutely perfect; the fruits were ripe, without any concern for season, and tasted like they’d just come off the tree minutes before. The meat was all top-quality cuts, tender and juicy. I had never in my life tasted anything even close to as good.
While we ate I watched the crowd. I didn’t make the mistake of looking at the dancers again, but there was still plenty to see.
To my surprise, Aiko’s garb wasn’t the most bizarre. Not by a long shot. I saw a number of the Sidhe wearing T-shirts and jeans, although on them they somehow looked like a fashion statement. Others, more fanciful or more flamboyant, were dressed in some of the most ridiculous and incredible things I’d ever seen. One woman wore a dress seemingly made out of mist, while a male Sidhe wore what looked like a suit woven of pure flame. One of the incredibly beautiful women was clothed only in patches of magically produced shadow, which did little except make her nudity suggestive rather than matter-of-fact.
I didn’t see anyone I knew, thankfully. That would have been awkward, especially because just about anybody who knew me would know that I shouldn’t have been able to get in the door to a party like this. I did see a few things I recognized, though. One of the partygoers was a slender, androgynous form with huge dragonfly wings. It could almost have been the Twilight Prince I had—sort of—assisted during the fight with Garrett, except that its skin was dusky gold rather than silver, and its enormous, luminous eyes were crimson instead of green. It was naked except for what looked like dozens of ribbons in every color of the rainbow hung on its body and draped on its wings. Fortunately it wasn’t human enough in appearance to make me feel awkward looking at it.
Aiko nudged me, and I turned to see that her plate—coral, like the silverware—was empty. She nodded toward the throne on its massive dais. “Before we do anything else,” she murmured, “I should go introduce myself to our host.”
I frowned slightly. “I was under the impression that you didn’t much care for him,” I said in a bare whisper. Insulting the host, even as obliquely as that, is extremely bad form in supernatural circles.
She smiled. “I don’t, particularly,” she said, equally softly. “But he’s a distant uncle. There’d be hell to pay if he found out I was at one of his parties and didn’t say hello.” She shuddered slightly. “To say nothing of my mother.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “I’ll be near the food when you’re done.” She walked away, somehow slipping effortlessly through the crowd without ever seeming to actually displace anyone. I realized that, somehow, she was moving almost as gracefully as one of the Sidhe. I hadn’t ever noticed that before, probably because she couldn’t have moved like that in my world without attracting attention.
I finished eating slowly, then pushed my chair back and went back to studying the crowd. This time, surprisingly, I did recognize someone. Traveler stood on the opposite side of the dance floor from me. I shouldn’t have known him at such a distance, but he was staring directly at me and waved slightly when I looked. I doubt anybody but me saw it. He, too, had dressed up, wearing a cloak made out of what looked like nothing but feathers, in more hues than they would ever come naturally.
Something about that tickled at my memory. The cloak of feathers…I remembered that from somewhere. I felt like I ought to be at least a little worried, and maybe a whole lot, but I couldn’t think of why.
Before I could tease it out of my memory, a female voice asked, “May I sit here?”
I stood and turned to face her. It was one of the Sidhe, of course. She was as beautiful as the rest, with long dark hair and emerald eyes with slit pupils. There was something about her appearance, though, or possibly her attitude, that I didn’t much care for. I didn’t let that show, bowing and murmuring a polite, “Of course.”
She ignored me completely, instead staring at me with those uncannily green eyes. “Both of the Courts opposed you, you know,” she said abruptly. “You will find cold welcome here.”
“You’re either stupid, ignorant, or arrogant to come here looking like that. I forgive none of those things.” Her voice, although still soft and lovely, was also bitterly cold. She smiled, the expression showing a great many teeth, very white and very even and very sharp. “But then, it is said that the stupidity of humans is infinite. Perhaps I should be more forgiving.” Her voice practically dripped scorn now.
“With all due respect, madam,” I said stiffly, “I am hardly human.”
She tapped one long, elegant fingernail against her chin as though contemplating my words. “Very true,” she said. “And you remind me of an important truth. For, infinite though the stupidity of mortals may be, nevertheless the arrogance of your kind exceeds it at every turn.” She turned and left without another word, vanishing into the crowd.
Once I was sure she was out of earshot, I shook my head. “What was that about?” I muttered to myself, baffled.
I was entirely surprised when another voice answered me. “She saw a part of what you are,” it said in a strangely resonant baritone. “And thought that it was the whole.”
I turned to face the speaker. I hadn’t noticed him until then, but he was standing right next to Aiko’s vacated chair—in perfect position to have witnessed the whole thing.
Several of the other Sidhe had seemed strange, or bizarre, or even somewhat disturbing. This, though, was the first to look actually frightening. He was taller than me by a wide margin, and although I am barely average in height that still made him at least six foot seven. He was the first of the Sidhe I had seen who wasn’t entirely lovely. His features were rough, his dark hair cropped short and unevenly. If it weren’t for the tapered ears and slit pupils I wouldn’t have thought he was Sidhe at all.
He was wearing what looked like a fresh wolf pelt as a cloak. Its fangs dimpled the skin above his eyes, which were a shade of green a good bit darker than the woman’s had been, and its tail hung down between his legs. I noticed that the whole thing, but especially the paws, moved subtly but constantly in a way that had nothing to do with either the wind or the motion of the man wearing it. I had to fight back a shiver when I saw that.
Underneath that he had on a plain leather vest and a pair of leather breeches, held up with a simple length of rope. Nothing else, including footwear. I saw smears on his skin and at first thought they were some kind of paint, as several other Sidhe were wearing. Then I realized that the wolf pelt was leaving trails of blood on him as it brushed against his skin. That was creepy as hell. Although I was also observant enough to note that the trails lasted only a few moments, and disappeared entirely rather than drying up and rubbing off. A fashion statement, then, like the cloak itself.
He seemed content to wait while I examined all of this, so I went ahead and replied to him. “What about you?” I asked.
He smiled, and though his teeth were even more obviously those of a predator I was happier to see it than I had been that of the woman. His at least seemed genuine. “I see the whole, and think it only a part. May I sit?”
I had barely begun to nod when he sprawled in the other chair. The cloak’s front paws rested on the table in front of him, and had stopped moving.
I wasn’t exactly looking forward to fishing for information here, but I had to do it. Might as well start here. The sooner I started the sooner I’d be finished, after all, and he at least seemed friendly.
“Are your answers to questions always so cryptic?” I asked casually. That was as directly as I could approach my real reason for coming to this without possibly giving offense.
He leaned back and stretched. “That depends,” he said. “On who’s asking, and why. Should I take it you have a question that you would like a less cryptic answer to?”
I frowned slightly. “Is it customary to conduct business in such a straightforward manner at events like this?” I made sure my tone was honestly curious rather than accusatory; I certainly didn’t want to offend him.
He shrugged, the pelt moving strangely with the motion. “A great many of these people,” he gestured expansively at the room, “won’t see each other again for quite some time. Such events are an excellent place to make alliances and bargains.”
I nodded. I hadn’t thought about it quite like that, but now that I did it was obvious. If the Seelie and Unseelie Courts really didn’t have much contact with each other, it made sense that it would be a big deal. And if I knew anything about the Sidhe, then regardless of how opposed the Courts officially were there would be plenty of people on both sides with connections in the other camp.
“In that case,” I said slowly, “there may indeed be a question I would like answered. If the price were right.”
He smiled. “But wouldn’t I have to know the question first?”
“A fae mercenary was recently hired for a task in the mortal world,” I said. “This task involved sending a messenger to a certain person. He used me as a tool for this end. Are you familiar with what I’m speaking of?”
He nodded. “Indeed, I am.”
I leaned forward slightly. “I would greatly like a meeting with this mercenary,” I said quietly. “To express my feelings regarding how he treated me. To that end I wish to know where I might find him within the next few days. Preferably in the mortal world.”
He nodded again, as though unsurprised. “Revenge,” he said inaccurately. “I suspect that I can find the information for you, and tell you a good bit about the mercenary in question as well.”
Wow. Got lucky first try. “And in return?” I asked.
He smiled. “You will answer three questions for me,” he said. “Your answers must be honest, but need not be complete. Although naturally I will feel no obligation to be any more complete in answering your question than you are with mine.”
I didn’t want to actually tell him that his price was low—that’s generally a really bad idea when bargaining. He must have seen it in my face, though, because he laughed. “You’ve started to interest a lot of people,” he said, amused. “Including myself.” He shrugged. “Besides, I’m fond of werewolves, and I think your actions will be of help to them. So,” he said. “Have we a bargain, Winter?”
I gave him a hard look. He knew who I was—no surprise after his comment about my being of interest. That, in turn, meant that this was no chance meeting. He’d sought me out specifically, probably intending to make just this bargain.
It probably says something about my psychology that I was relieved to learn that. I mean, I’d be worried if I got that lucky.
“We do,” I said. “And how should I refer to you?”
“Call me Blaze,” he said casually. “First question. Why are you at this party?”
I considered my words very carefully. “It seemed like a good place to acquire information. Information that I need to protect the lives of myself and my friends. I didn’t know where else to find it, so I thought that I should try here.”
Blaze nodded as though he had expected as much. “Second question. Are you happy?”
“Not especially. I’m not comfortable surrounded by so many of your people.”
“Clarification,” he interrupted. “Are you happy with life?”
“Oh.” I thought about it for a minute. It…wasn’t a question I’d ever really asked myself before. Oh, I asked myself whether I was happy at any given moment, sure, but happy with my life? Never even occurred to me. I suppose that it’s the werewolf in me, that isn’t inclined to consider much beyond the present.
“I don’t know,” I said eventually. “People have a lot of ideas about what makes a person happy. Things like money, or love, or morality.” I shrugged. “I don’t have any of those things. But I like my life. I’m doing better than I probably ever have before. And most of the things that I don’t like aren’t within my power to change. Nothing good will come of thinking about things like that. So essentially? I’m not as happy as I could be, but I’m probably happier than I deserve to be.”
“Hm,” he said thoughtfully. “Last question. Do you desire power?”
“No,” I said firmly. “The power I already have is more responsibility than I would prefer. I don’t need any more.”
He looked at me for a moment, as though he thought I might be lying but didn’t want to say so to my face. Then he nodded slowly. “Interesting. I look forward to seeing how your opinions change in the future.”
“You’ve answered my questions,” he said in a brisk tone completely different from a moment before. “I will have the information you requested to you within twenty-four hours. If I am unable to obtain said information you may ask me any question, and I will answer to the best of my knowledge.”
Well, he was confident. An open ended offer like that wasn’t something you make lightly.
“Excuse me,” said another voice, a familiar one. “Mind if I borrow your dining companion for a moment?”
Blaze stood immediately. “Of course not. Our business was just concluded.” He looked at me and somehow I sensed that there was a warning of some kind in his forest-green eyes. “Twenty-four hours, remember.”
And then he was gone, and Traveler was in the chair opposite me instead. If I hadn’t heard him speak, though, I might not have recognized him. His reddish blond hair was the same, but his eyes were no longer blue. They weren’t mortal eyes at all. Instead, the pupil and white and iris were replaced with a whirl of strange colors, orange and emerald predominating. They were in constant motion, the colors swirling madly. It was incredibly distracting.
And then, very suddenly, I realized what it was that my subconscious had been trying to warn me about. I realized who—and what—I was looking at.
I’m not sure what tipped me off. The eyes, maybe, or that magnificent cloak of feathers, or maybe the scars. God, how had I missed the scars? They seemed even more pronounced tonight, a score of thin white lines all around his mouth. When he grinned, as he was now, they pulled at his mouth and made the expression seem almost deformed, so wide that it seemed unnatural.
“Traveler,” I said quietly. “It’s short for Sky-Traveler. Isn’t it.”
He grinned at me. The mad dance of his eyes accelerated. “I wondered how long it would take,” he said cheerily.
I bowed my head. “Longer than it should have,” I said, sudden terror making my voice sound weak and thin. “Loki.”