It felt like a very long time I spent waiting for Aiko to come back.
Some of that was because I was alone in a cage in a darkened prison. I mean, that’s enough to creep anybody out. It didn’t help that I knew that if I didn’t get out, the results were likely to be very bad. Even the sentence Aiko had predicted was relatively lenient. If Ryujin decided to be really angry at me, I was looking at worse than that.
More was because, after I finished recovering from my magicking, I had nothing to do. There was nothing I could think of that I could do to affect things from inside the barrier. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t get out; trying to hold open a gap took too much concentration to walk, let alone dart out through a tiny gap in the bars.
Without something to distract me, my imagination kept presenting me with images of all the things that could go wrong. Aiko might get caught, in which case she would likely get far worse than a lecture. Whoever was powering this barrier might have detected what I’d done—unlikely, but possible—in which case they were alert to our escape attempt. They might decide to close the portal we’d used earlier. There was nothing I could do about any of these things—but that didn’t keep me from worrying about them.
And, of course, there was always the possibility that Aiko had just left me here to rot. She’d always seemed friendly, but she also seemed completely cuckoo. It wasn’t impossible that she’d just decided I was more trouble than I was worth.
Suffice to say that, although it was only about twenty-five minutes, it seemed like it took her a lot longer.
When Aiko finally returned, she didn’t waste any time padding over to where the lockpicks were lying on the floor. There was another rush of magic, which apparently the barrier didn’t stop me from sensing, and then she was back to her human form. She must have figured out that it would prevent me from hearing her, because she didn’t try to say anything, instead going straight to work on the door. I smelled more magic, subtler and drawn out this time, and realized she was doing something to the lock with magic at the same time as she worked to pick it. That was an impressive piece of multitasking.
Oh, and if you’ve forgotten, she’d had to leave her clothes in the cage. Which meant that she was standing there picking the lock in the nude, taking exactly no notice of me.
What? I’m used to these things, sure, and they don’t distract me, but I still notice them. I’m male, I’m relatively human, and I hadn’t gotten laid in years. Of course I noticed. I mean, I didn’t stare or anything, that would be just rude, but I was aware of it.
I was betting that the locks in Ryujin’s palace were top-notch. Aiko took almost a minute to open this one. Once she did I was outside the cage almost before she had the door open. I had really, really gotten sick of that space.
“I found something I recognize,” she said briskly as she got dressed behind me. “But we’re several levels down and on the opposite side of the palace from where we came in. We’ll have to detour around the ballroom, too. Comes to about a mile of walking, total.”
A mile? How huge was this palace, anyway?
Aiko set a brisk pace, which I judged to be a very good thing. We might have as little as two and a half hours until the party ended at midnight, which gave us only two hours to get to our escape route and get away from here with a safe margin. A mile might not sound like much ground to cover in two hours, but believe me, when you’re creeping along desperately trying to avoid notice, it’s more than enough.
Aiko produced a weak, reddish gold light of some sort to guide us through the darkened dungeon, although it didn’t illuminate anything outside of our immediate area. I had the feeling that I was very grateful for that. The kitsune clearly had an almost uncanny sense of direction; she picked her way across the dark, cavernous room to a staircase without any hesitation, and didn’t make a single misstep. The staircase, too, was dark for the first five levels. We went up a total of seven, and I got the impression that there might be a whole bunch more in both directions.
The rest of our escape was boring. Absolutely nerve-wracking and terrifying, of course, but basically boring. Aiko’s knowledge of the palace, which was much more extensive than I had realized, was our salvation. She led us unerringly through back hallways and service corridors, all of which were narrow and dimly lit, although still made of the same marvelous red coral. I followed along behind her and tried not to feel too clumsy compared to her inhuman grace.
As it turned out there was no need for stealth. We didn’t encounter so much as a single servant. Probably they were all busy with the Sidhe festival. We did encounter windows, the first I had seen here, and the view from them was almost as incredible as my first sight of the Sidhe dancers.
It was more or less what you’d expect from an immense, vaguely Oriental palace, except that the whole thing appeared to be built at the bottom of the ocean. There were lots of enclosed courtyards, and gardens filled with kelp, coral, and anemones, with tiny, brightly colored fish flitting around in them. I got the impression that, if I could breathe water, it was the kind of place I would like to hang out in. As it is it was like visiting an aquarium, except the other way around.
I had guessed that aquatic beings would probably like easy access to the water, and I was right. Not far past the windows we encountered a doorway. Or archway, rather; there was no door involved. The water just stopped at the edge of the arch, which was maybe the coolest thing I’d seen all night. At the sight Aiko, who hadn’t slowed or spoken since we started moving, stopped to look out. Then she looked at me appraisingly. Somehow, I was sure that look didn’t bode well.
“How good of a swimmer are you?”
See? I was right.
“Um,” I said, walking over to the door. It was incredible; you could stick your hand straight out into the ocean, but no water came in, and when I pulled my hand back in it was perfectly dry. “Not that good, I think. I mean, I can swim, but….”
“Do you remember taking any stairs between the entry room and the ballroom?” I shook my head. “Me neither. That means they’re on the same floor, quite a ways above us. The lower levels, where the dungeons are, are separated from the upper, and there’s only one staircase between them.”
I got a sinking feeling. “Let me guess. Taking the stairs would mean a lot of backtracking.”
“An entire wing’s worth. Plus the possibility of detection; those stairs see a lot of traffic.”
I sighed. “All right. What’s your idea?”
She gestured grandiosely at the door. “We go out, swim up about nine levels, and go back in, having cut off all that travel.”
“What if there isn’t a way back in?”
She shrugged. “We drown. But I think there will be.”
I thought about it for a minute. The ceilings seemed, for the most part, to be about twenty feet high. If there were nine levels that made a hundred and eighty feet. Assuming I could hold my breath for about two minutes, I would have to swim at a foot and a half per second to make it that far before I drowned. I wasn’t great, but I’d practiced a bit when I was younger, and I thought that was within my range. Of course, if anything went wrong, I didn’t have much margin for error.
Then I laughed. Who was I kidding? This whole endeavor was so insane that drowning was the least of my worries. “Fine,” I said. “After you.”
As it turned out those courtyards I had seen earlier were more like enclosed shafts. The walls towered around us on all sides, higher than I could accurately estimate, and were lined with windows the whole way up. Aiko was a stronger swimmer than me, and I lagged behind a bit. Ultimately, though, we both made it to the next archway, although I won’t pretend that our entry was dignified. We swam out of the arch at about head height and tumbled awkwardly to the floor. On the bright side, thanks to whatever magic Ryujin had going on the arches, we weren’t dripping wet. Even our clothes hadn’t brought any water across the threshold.
“Was that really nine levels?” I asked. It hadn’t been nearly as hard as I’d expected.
“Seven,” she said. “Close enough, and why take chances?” A sentiment with which I could agree; after all, we hadn’t seen any other arches.
After that brief but exciting interlude, it was back to the same old. More narrow corridors, more flights of stairs. We still didn’t see anyone, and I was beginning to wonder how long our luck could hold. And also how Aiko could navigate this place; one narrow, coral hallway looks a lot like another to me.
Eventually, after a long enough time that my nerves had moved past twitchy into a salsa dance with castanets, she pronounced that we had arrived. She opened the door, revealing a small cubical room of coral, and—
And nothing. In spite of what all my instincts said should happen, nothing happened. The door didn’t explode when we opened it. There wasn’t a mocking sign on the opposite wall. There wasn’t even a sinister laugh, which I was pretty sure even the weakest Bond villain could have provided.
We proceeded inside, amidst bunches of more nothing, and shut the door behind us. It didn’t lock itself. Aiko promptly walked over to the opposite wall and rested her hands against it for a long moment. “Still active,” she pronounced eventually.
“We outta here?” I asked rhetorically.
She started to answer, then paused and grinned maliciously. “One thing first,” she said, walking to one of the side walls and tearing another patch off her jeans.
In any decent story that would have been when alarm bells started to ring and the exits all sealed themselves to punish us for our arrogance. I mean, seriously. Any decent story could take advantage of an opportunity like that. I was almost offended when nothing continued to happen. Didn’t we at least merit an ominous send-off from our enemies?
Aiko dropped whatever she’d grabbed to the floor and went back to the portal. It took only seconds for her to get it up and running again, but I had time to see what had been so urgent before we left.
On the wall behind us she had used a piece of black chalk to write, in jaunty, mocking script, KITSUNE WAS HERE.
It was half past midnight when we got out of the portal. I’m not sure why; maybe our estimation of the time was seriously wrong, or there was some sort of time-dilation effect while we were on the Otherside. Or, hell, maybe the portal was just designed to make sure that everyone left after midnight, because that was when the party was supposed to end.
“So what was so important about making fun of them on our way out?” I asked as we made our way back to her car.
She shrugged. “This way it looks like I set the whole thing up as a prank. Might keep some of the backlash off of you.” She paused. “Although actually, that was a freakin’ awesome prank. Maybe we should do it again sometime.”
I thought about asking whether she was insane, but really, why bother?
“I’m sorry if I offended you back there,” she said about ten minutes later while we were on the road, waking me from a light doze.
“You saved my ass back there,” I said, confused. “Why would I be offended?”
She glanced at me obliquely. “Winter. If a man doesn’t want to look at a naked woman, it’s usually for one of three reasons. She’s ugly. He’s gay. Or she did something to turn him off.” She shrugged. “I know I’m not ugly, and I’d hope you would have mentioned it by now if you were gay.”
I blinked. “What? It would have been rude to stare. That’s all.”
Aiko flushed slightly. “Oh. Ah. Um…sorry.”
“Seriously, though. Why should I be offended? I’d probably be dead if it weren’t for you.”
She shrugged. “You’ve never seen my other form before.”
“Oh. I take it that’s caused problems before?”
“A few times. A Sidhe I dated when I was younger, in particular. They tend to look on the animalistic entities with a certain amount of disdain.” She shrugged again. “He was all right with knowing what I was, but when he actually saw it he bolted.”
“That shows only that he has extremely poor taste,” I said firmly. I saw that she didn’t quite believe me, and sighed. “Look, my magic is good with animals, okay? I’ve spent probably around five hundred hours psychically connected to various predators. A significant portion of that time has involved foxes. So believe me when I say that you are not unattractive in either form.” I paused. “Okay, that came out wrong.”
“Extremely,” she agreed, although she didn’t sound entirely displeased. “We are changing the subject now. Why were you at that party in the first place?”
I explained, in general terms, what had happened in the past few days, focusing particularly on the attention I had apparently begun to attract from people in high places, and the assassination attempts it had garnered me.
That took until we were back in the city. Aiko dropped me back at my house and left, promising to contact me tomorrow. Erin had apparently found somewhere else to stay, because my place was empty and dark, and the fire had long since died. That bothered me not at all, since I went straight to my bed, which Snowflake had been keeping comfortably warm, and went to sleep.