Snowflake woke up about half an hour later. By that time I was sitting on the couch eating leftover spaghetti, so I had an excellent position to watch her from. It was sort of funny, actually; she stood up, stretched luxuriously, and then shook her head energetically, as though shaking off water. The motion must have brought me into her peripheral vision, because she stopped short and turned to stare at me. A moment later she came trotting over and plopped across my feet, blue eyes looking up at me.
What just happened? she said, the concepts communicating themselves to me only blearily. She must have still been half-asleep.
“I’m not entirely sure,” I said aloud. Snowflake isn’t fond of spoken language, but she can understand it just fine. “What did it feel like to you?”
There was a long pause. When she eventually replied, it “sounded” nothing like her usual self.
Snowflake looks like a dog, and in most ways she is one. More specifically she is a juvenile female Siberian husky. There is another entity inside her, however, which bore about as much resemblance to a dog as my newly acquired sniper rifle did to the average BB gun. He’d been a wolf in Yellowstone once, but he’d come a long way since then. These days he exists as, essentially, a purely mental being which shares Snowflake’s body. He doesn’t come out to play much, preferring to leave the day-to-day business of living mostly up to her.
But now he spoke up.
It felt like it did when I died, he whispered. Mental voices carry a lot more information than actual ones about the person speaking. Snowflake, for example, sounded playful, young. Her mind was fresh and light, like a snowfall in May or the sun sparkling on the surface of a mountain lake. The wolf was more what you might get if you dove beneath the surface of the lake into the still, cold depths beneath.
I frowned. Do you mean pain? I asked.
No pain. Invasion. Then, nothing.
“Huh. Traveler must have put some kind of sleep spell on you. Do you feel any different?”
No. They spoke in near-unison, with bedrock certainty. Nothing else was done, the wolf finished alone. Who is this Traveler?
Huh. That was…emphatic. It was also, for rather obvious reasons, unreliable. After all, when you’re messing around with somebody’s head, probably the most common thing to do is make sure they’re absolutely sure no such thing ever happened. Traveler hadn’t seemed malevolent, but that wasn’t worth much.
There wasn’t really anything I could do about it at the moment, though. So instead of mentioning it, I briefly explained what had happened with Traveler. Snowflake didn’t say anything, although she did jump up onto the couch and contort around so that I could scratch her chin.
Neither of them cared especially about it. Snowflake made Kyra look like a political mastermind, she was so disinterested in such things.
People always seem to equate intelligence with humanity, but the truth is that this just isn’t the case. Snowflake, thanks to the things that made her different from a normal dog, was easily as intelligent as the average human. She just didn’t have the same priorities as a human. Although she was more than capable of conceiving of, for example, past and future events, they didn’t matter to her. Or, as she put it, what’s the point of worrying?
For her, there was none. There’s probably a lesson in there, somewhere.
I got a good night’s sleep after that, which was good. I’d have been grumpy the next day otherwise.
I mean, I hate few things more than coping with assassination attempts when I’m already cranky from inadequate rest.
The next day was…interesting. Primarily in the sense of the curse “May your life be exciting,” but interesting in other ways too.
It started when I went to get dressed and found a scorpion in my shoe. It was a glossy black thing the size of my hand, which I crushed immediately and then burned in my stove.
There are parts of the world where this is an everyday occurrence, and you’d be a fool to ever put on your shoes without checking them. Colorado, or at least my part of Colorado, is not one of them. I’d never seen a wild scorpion in my life. If Snowflake, whose senses were obviously more acute than mine, hadn’t warned me, I would have stuck my foot in and undoubtedly gotten myself stung.
An ordinary scorpion is nothing but a minor inconvenience to someone like me. Werewolf healing applies to drugs and toxins as well as more obvious injury, and it’s not like scorpions are made for killing things the size of humans anyway.
Somehow I was willing to bet this hadn’t been the ordinary kind of scorpion. If it had stung me, it probably would have killed me, or at least made a solid effort in that direction.
You should take me with you, Snowflake murmured as we watched the pseudo-arachnid burn. It gave off an unpleasant stench both physically and magically as it did, confirming my guess that it was no natural thing.
I glanced down at her. You sure? I asked. I’d tried taking Snowflake to work with me a few times, and she’d found it incredibly boring. Since then I mostly left her at home, where she had free run of the cabin and several largely undeveloped acres around it.
Absolutely. You get hurt less when I’m around. Which was hard to refute, given that she had just saved my life and it wasn’t even seven yet. Besides, I might get to kill something.
My lips twitched. “Fine,” I said aloud. It might be dangerous, but so what? Life’s dangerous, and Snowflake was—whatever she looked like—a person intelligent enough to make her own choices. If she wanted to risk her life trying to help me, that was her business.
It took me a while to realize that.
After that I was extra careful on the way to work. Snowflake, following me on the thin leather leash she hardly ever used, was glancing about hyperalertly.
About halfway to Val’s shop it paid off. I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye and, almost before I’d realized what it was, dove forward to get out of the way. Snowflake followed me unquestioningly, spinning to face it as she did.
The sports car hit the sidewalk almost exactly where I’d been standing, skidded forward a few feet, and then flipped into the ditch on the other side when its nose was less than a foot away from me. Thanks to exceptionally quick reflexes, Snowflake and I were completely unharmed aside from a massive adrenaline rush.
Two other people weren’t quite as lucky. One of them had been clipped by the rear end of the car as it came onto the sidewalk, suffering several broken ribs and God only knows what internal damage. The other probably got her leg tangled up when it rolled or something; it was broken in at least three places that I could see, and bent around like a freaking bonsai tree.
In all the chaos I checked, very briefly, on the car. I saw more or less what I’d expected.
The driver—if there had even been a driver—had already vanished.
Things were pretty hectic for a while after that. I provided what medical attention I could for the two injured—I was almost certain the runaway car had been another murder attempt, and I felt responsible for them. Besides, it’s the sort of thing anybody should do.
I’d had a bit of medical training, most of which was just enough to teach me that there was very little I could do for them. I stopped what little external bleeding there was, helped them into slightly more comfortable positions, and made sure somebody had called an ambulance. It didn’t take long to get there, and I watched with a sinking feeling as they loaded the two people into it on stretchers.
I’d been involved in violent dealings before, on a somewhat regular basis even—but nothing like this. It was terrifyingly random. There was no pattern to the attacks I could see, no order or reason. I couldn’t predict them, and it would only take one slip for them to be successful. That’s a disturbing thing to realize.
After that I spent a while answering questions for the police. I probably could have avoided that with only a little effort, but I had to admit a certain amount of fellow-feeling for the officers. They were just doing their jobs, after all; I had no desire to make that any harder.
Besides which, it wasn’t like I even had to lie. What were you doing? Just taking my dog for a walk, Officer. Did you get a look at the driver? No sir, by the time I realized what was going on the car was already rolling. Have you had medical training? Yes, sir, I did an EMT course a few years ago. Are you licensed? Not in Colorado, but they needed help.
It took a while, though. By the time I made it to work Val was already there.
The door was unlocked when I arrived, and there was a car I didn’t recognize in the lot. I walked in and saw Val standing at the counter. He was arguing with a customer and gesturing emphatically at the same damn radio I’d been working on when this whole mess started. I looked at the customer, recognized his sly, satisfied posture, and smiled maliciously.
I’d had a bad few days, and the car wreck had been just enough to really tip me over. Which is to say that I was frustrated, angry, and generally in a mood bad enough that I was glad to see an opportunity to take it out on someone else without feeling guilty.
“Excuse me,” I called out from the door. “Is that your radio?”
He spun to glare at me. He was trying to look angry, he really was, but the satisfied smirk gave him away. As I’d suspected, he hadn’t ever intended for that radio to be repaired. “Yes,” he said, “it is. Are you the incompetent bungler who should have had it finished by now?”
I smiled wider. “That’s me,” I said, continuing into the room. “And that’s my boss you’re talking to, and I really need to have a chat with him, so kindly take that piece of shit with you and get out.”
He looked shocked. “Who do you—” he began, furious.
I kept moving until I was about six inches from him, interrupting him effortlessly. “Listen, mate, I’m in a bad mood, understand? I have had a worse day than you can imagine and it’s not even noon yet. This day is only one in a series of bad days I have had, which in turn has been a part of a truly awful year.”
He had a confused look on his face; this was quite obviously not how he had expected this conversation to go. “Now,” I continued smoothly, interrupting whatever he was trying to say again, “please understand, I’m not telling you this out of some misguided desire for sympathy. In fact, if you were to try and offer it right now, I would most likely laugh in your face. Rather, I say this entirely so that there is some small chance that what I am saying will penetrate your thick skull when I tell you that I am neither joking nor indulging in hyperbole when I say that if you continue to irritate me, I will cut off your nose and feed it to my dog.” I smiled at him. It wasn’t a friendly sort of smile.
“Now wait a second, Winter,” Val said, and for a moment hope appeared in the man’s face. “Are you sure that’s good for a dog?”
The expression on that punk’s face when Val said that was priceless.
I shrugged. “Noses are mostly cartilage, right? And I think cartilage is mostly the same as bone. She likes bones.”
He looked at me dubiously. “I’m not entirely sure it works like that.”
“Whatever.” I looked back to the man I was intimidating. “Get. Out. Now.” I almost growled the words at him, backed up by Snowflake’s literal growling at him.
He stammered something incoherent, then snatched the radio and stalked out. I sighed with relief and sat down on one of the chairs.
Val sat down next to me and gave me a concerned look. “Not smart,” he said. “What if he goes to the police?”
“That’s actually why I did it the way I did. If you go to the police and tell them that someone threatened to kill you, they take it seriously. If you go to the same cop and say that an employee wanted to talk to their boss so much that they threatened to cut off your nose and feed it to a dog, they’ll laugh in your face.” I shrugged. “That’s what I’m hoping, anyway. If not I’ll deal with it later.”
“Why?” Val asked. Val was not inclined to waste words.
“Because I am in entirely the wrong state of mind to deal with assholes like that. Besides, I do need to talk with you.”
“Where you’ve been the past few days.”
He sighed. “I did try to call you.”
“No problem. I was just wondering where you’ve been. I mean, you don’t miss work often. I’m curious what you were doing.”
His face, normally at least as communicative as his voice, froze up. “Not your business.”
I nodded easily. “Sure, sure. None of my business.”
He grunted an affirmative.
“Say,” I said conversationally. “I wonder if it’s the pack’s business? ”
He glared at me. “No.”
“Uh-huh. Had absolutely nothing to do with any recent events in town which might potentially affect the Khan’s agreement with the Twilight Court, then?”
“I said, it’s not your business.”
I grinned. The fae are notoriously tricky and fond of deception, but there’s one trait they all have in common. They cannot, literally and physically cannot, speak a false word. If you get specific, and you pay as much attention to what they don’t say as to what they do, then that can be a serious opening.
“You didn’t actually say no, though. So let’s say it does have something to do with the agreement.” I leaned back in my chair. “Let’s see. Does it involve something which could potentially lead to the agreement being invalidated because circumstances make the original terms impractical for one or both parties?” Like I said. You have to get specific.
He glowered at me. He didn’t answer. In fact, he stood up and left without another word. I heard his truck, a vehicle at least as old as I am but in excellent condition, start up and drive away.
Well, that was just great. I’d pissed off my boss, maybe seriously—and yet, in spite of that, I was the happiest I’d been all day.
I was right. It was all connected.
I just sat there for a moment, going through what I’d learned and how it fit together with what I already knew.
Val is not a political creature. He does not willingly involve himself in other people’s business, certainly not that of strangers. Which, in turn, meant that he was involved, but not by choice.
He was fae, so logically only the fae could have made him involve himself. For them to get involved suggested that it was, in fact, fae business, which would mean that the mercenary had been hired by one of the fae. They wouldn’t bother otherwise.
So Christopher had probably been telling me the truth. That was good to know.
After that, I made a few phone calls. The first one was to Erin, to say that as it turned out I would appreciate her help after all. She agreed without even asking what I needed, and said she could be there within a day.
I don’t deserve friends that good. Which didn’t keep me from being grateful, mind you.
Then I called Christopher. He didn’t answer, but I left a detailed message describing what I’d learned so far. Whether I trusted him or not, this was something he needed to know.
After that was done I went into the shop and spent several hours working on Kyra’s order while Snowflake, bored nearly out of her mind, alternately paced and slept. No customers came in, which in my current frame of mind was a good thing. Neither did the police, which was even better.
I didn’t leave to get lunch. I was afraid of what might happen if I did.
On the walk home I encountered another trap, a tripwire strung neatly over a little-used section of sidewalk. We stepped over it carefully and continued on our way. I have no idea whether it actually would have triggered a lethal trap. I didn’t actually see anything except the wire itself, but when you’re dealing with magic (or people powerful enough to arrange three ridiculously complicated assassination attempts in one day), that isn’t a guarantee.
Other than that, there was nothing. I made it home and didn’t get a .50-caliber round through my skull. The door didn’t explode when I opened it. I swept the house as soon as I was back, and there was nobody waiting there. Neither my senses nor Snowflake’s detected anything funny.
In other words, everything looked to be okay. I’d just started to take my shoes off when I saw something new. It was sitting on my desk right in front of my computer, where I’d have to be blind to miss it.
It was a card, about as big as a sheet of paper, and it was absolutely beautiful. The paper was significantly nicer than anything I’d ever actually touched before, thick and creamy and expensive-looking. If you can imagine an adornment that might be found on a letter, at any point in time from the Renaissance to today, it was there. The paper was embossed, gilded, and bore several wax seals. There was a full-color watermark of a rampant coiled dragon, incredibly detailed. It was handwritten, but the penmanship was so flawless and even as to be difficult to believe. This is what it said.
You are invited
To a Gathering and
Festival of the
Seelie and Unseelie Courts
of the Sidhe
To be held Tomorrow, from
Dusk until Midnight,
In the Palace of
His Imperial Majesty, Ryujin
And to bring with you one Escort
of your Choice.
It wasn’t signed or dated, but then it didn’t really need to be. Traveler had come through, and more quickly than I had anticipated.
I studied the invitation for a while. Read it enough times that I could practically have recited it from memory. I inspected it thoroughly, and found nothing to suggest that it was less than authentic.
Eventually I reached for my phone and dialed another number.