“Nice,” Aiko said as she turned the invitation over in her hands. “This is really nice. I mean, you don’t see work like this much anymore, you know?”
I nodded, my mouth full of pepperoni and mushroom pizza. Aiko, knowing that my cooking skills can for the most part be charitably described as godawful, had brought food when she came. I swallowed, took a drink of iced tea, and then said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m out of my depth here.”
She looked at me, amused. “You face down a demonically possessed werewolf without flinching. And you’re afraid of a party?”
“When said party involves the Sidhe,” I said dryly, “it’s likely to be significantly more dangerous than a werewolf.”
She snorted. “True. So why’d you call me? Wouldn’t it make more sense to ask one of them?”
I shrugged. “I’m not on good terms with any of the Sidhe that I know of. Besides, Ryujin is a being out of Japanese myth, right? A sea dragon.”
“That’s one of his names. It’s more like the sea dragon, though. The eldest and most powerful.”
“Wow. How much power we talking?”
“Enough to curb-stomp most of the Twilight Princes.”
I whistled. “Damn. So don’t get on his bad side?”
She shrugged. “I’d worry more about his guests if I were you.”
I nodded. “True. The fae don’t exactly have a reputation for their tolerant and easygoing nature.”
Aiko winced. “Don’t call them fae to their faces,” she warned.
“Why not? Isn’t that what they are?”
She sighed. “Winter, what you know about the fae could fit in a thimble. And I guarantee that if you don’t shut up and pay attention, and you go to that party, they will be able to bury what’s left of you in one.”
I thought about protesting that I was relatively well educated, and while I didn’t know everything about the fae I wasn’t a total ignoramus. Then I did the smart thing and shut up.
“Okay,” she said. “The first thing to understand is that the fae only exist as a group in this world. Once you make it to the Otherside, there’s no such thing.”
“I don’t understand.”
She sighed. “Look, pretend you’re one of the fae. Let’s say a svartálf. Now, as far as I know, that means that you were born to svartálf parents. You grew up surrounded by svartálfar. You probably live in Svartálfheim. If you’re solitary, and powerful, you might have established a domain of your own, but it’s still probably nearby. With me so far?”
I nodded, and she grinned. “Good. So the important part is that you’ve spent most of your life surrounded by others of your own kind. There might be other groups represented nearby—the Unseelie Court has an excellent relationship with the svartálfar, for example. But they’re very definitely not the same as you, and they get treated appropriately.”
“So if I were lumped in with them,” I said slowly, “it would be an insult. A serious one.”
She nodded approvingly. “Exactly.”
I frowned. “So what’s different about the real world?”
“Number one, don’t call it the real world around them. The mortal world is much preferred. Two, even a large city isn’t likely to have more than a dozen or two svartálfar in it. Of those, you get along with maybe half. That’s not enough to make an independent nation.” She shrugged. “But once you make it here, your relations to the other groups are different. You have more in common with each other than with humanity, after all. And these days you’re all bound by the same treaties in this world. Makes things easier.”
Comprehension dawned. “The Twilight Court. That’s what they’re for, isn’t it? Governing how the fae behave in this world.”
“Yeah. On the Otherside, though, it’s all fair game.”
I reached out and tapped the invitation. “So this party. It’s just the Sidhe, right? None of the other fae.”
“Well,” she hedged. “Yes and no. There are plenty of things that are part of the Sidhe Courts without actually being Sidhe. Besides which, this is like a mixer, right? It’s an event where different groups are supposed to mingle.”
“How do you know that?”
Grinning, she tapped the invite. “Did you see where it says the Seelie and Unseelie Courts will be there?”
“Yeah. I thought it was a way of referring to all the Sidhe at once.”
“Sometimes it is. In this case, though…” she shook her head. “The Courts hate each other, for the most part, with a passion. Most events would involve one Court, or the other, but not both.”
“Whereas this explicitly states that it’s a Festival of both Courts.” I read it over again. “At a neutral location, too, so that neither side has the advantage.”
“Exactly. It’s the sort of thing that happens maybe a few times a year. It’s kind of a big deal.” She looked at me curiously. “How did you get an invite, anyway?”
I shrugged. “I bargained away a favor of my choice.”
She winced a little—like most every other supernatural group, kitsune take their bargains seriously—then glanced at the invitation again. “Not a bad bargain, I guess. Who was the buyer?”
I gave her my best mysterious smile. “That would be telling,” I said, because it sounded a lot better than admitting that I had no freaking clue.
She snorted. “Yeah, whatever.” She looked down at the card again. “I wonder how he got you that thing,” she said, sounding more intrigued now. “Invitations to an event like that aren’t easy things to get your hands on.”
“Speaking of which,” I said casually. “What would you say to an opportunity to attend an event like that yourself?”
She looked up at me, her dark eyes glittering. “Depends,” she said. “What did you have in mind?”
I shrugged. “Obviously I have no clue what I’m doing,” I said easily. “But it says I can bring an escort of my choice. You’re the only person I know who I trust and who also knows more than I do about an event like that.”
“Interesting,” she commented. “How are you getting there?”
I coughed. “I was, ah, sort of hoping you’d have some suggestions on that point. It’s at Ryujin’s palace, after all, and you’re more like Ryujin than I am, so…”
“That you would say that,” she muttered darkly, “is all the proof we needed that you have no idea what you’re talking about.” She pressed one hand flat to the back of the invitation and frowned briefly. When she removed her hand a moment later, the back was covered in lines of writing. It was also handwritten, but unlike the front it was small and tightly cramped together. Aiko picked it up and studied the new writing.
“Wait a second,” I said. “What is that?”
“Travel instructions,” she said absently, not looking up. “They don’t show up unless you request them. That way it doesn’t distract or insult those who don’t wish to attend, or already know how to get there.”
I frowned. “How do you know this?”
She shrugged. “I attended a few Seelie events when I was younger. They haven’t changed the protocol.” She blinked and lowered the invite. “Wow. They’re arranging a direct portal from Colorado Springs.” She gave me a hard look. “Did you set this up?” she demanded.
I smiled mysteriously and didn’t say anything, but inside I was just as surprised as she was. Creating a portal from Earth to the Otherside is a serious effort. Like, if I were to exert all my magic on that one task I might be able to open one, but the effort would pretty much wipe me out. Holding a portal steady for any length of time is practically impossible. For them to establish one right in my city was either incredibly fortunate coincidence, which seemed unlikely, or…
Or Traveler showing his power again.
How much influence did the man have?
“Okay,” Aiko said a moment later. “Sure. I’ll pick you up here at around three.” Which wasn’t as early as it sounds; dusk comes early in winter, and somehow I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be late for this one.
“That’d be great,” I said, nodding gratefully.
“See you then,” she said, standing. She paused with one hand on the door. “Do try to wear something nice, Winter.”
Then she was gone.
Erin, who can get things done very quickly when she has a mind to, called me at about seven the next morning to say that her plane had arrived. We agreed to meet at Pryce’s in an hour. I didn’t have a car to pick her up in, but I was confident that she could arrange her own transportation.
It never even occurred to me that she might not know who Pryce was or where his bar was. I mean, Erin knew everything, right? And everyone knew where Pryce’s was. No-brainer.
I brought Snowflake with me again. I’d also slipped the invitation very carefully into one of my many pockets, along with a sheet of notes on what had been going on. I remembered it all, but I was afraid I would forget to mention something to Erin without a reminder.
On my way to the restaurant I got to experience not one, but two bizarre and seemingly random assassination attempts. The first, which involved a crumbling old brick building, I honestly can’t say for sure was an attack. I mean, bricks do fall off of old buildings sometimes, and unlucky people are occasionally underneath of them.
The other one was the most intricate yet. Another tripwire, much like the one last night, except that the sidewalk on the other side was rigged. Some kind of pressure plate, I think. When I stepped over the wire, I set off the dart trap hidden in a nearby tree. I heard the click when it activated, and just barely managed to not be where the dart hit.
Needless to say, when I recovered it, I found an ugly-looking black substance on the tip. Poison, no doubt.
I considered the dart in my hand for a moment. Then, very carefully, I went back and broke the tripwire.
It set off another dart trap. One which had evidently been set by a truly vicious person, because it was pointed directly at where I had been sitting to break the wire, and even as careful as I’d been it nearly hit me.
The whole thing seemed sort of bizarre. Not so much that it had happened; it wouldn’t be hard for someone to find out which way I was coming, and the trap itself had been remarkably cunning. No, the bizarre thing was that it should happen now.
See, that setup was different from the others. It was baroque. Elegant. Ingenious, in a way. The first dart directed at the logical place to step if you’d noticed the tripwire and didn’t want to set it off. The second, obviously intended to catch me off guard after the pressure plate, designed to take advantage of natural curiosity.
Compared to the things I’d encountered previously, it was ridiculously complex. Cunning. Subtle. I mean, really. There’s a world of difference between putting a scorpion in somebody’s shoe or arranging for a car to come flying at them, and a personalized trap built explicitly to exploit an individual person’s psychology. There are people, after all, who wouldn’t have gone back to test the wire, or who wouldn’t have seen it in the first place.
In other words, the most recent trap was much more intelligent than the previous ones. It had a much higher chance of success.
So, if they were capable of that kind of work, why hadn’t they used it in the first place?
It would be wrong to say that it confused me, because I was already confused when I found it. But it sure as hell didn’t make me any less confused.
Erin already had a table by the time I got there. She was sitting with her back to the mostly-empty bar watching the door. She waved lazily at me as I walked in.
Erin, due to one of the odder quirks of lycanthropy, looks significantly older than the rest of her family, even though she’s the youngest of them. Her father looks like he’s about seventeen, but you might guess at Erin being as old as twenty-five or thirty. Other than that, the resemblance is striking; they both have straight, even dark hair and eyes the green of spring leaves with the sun behind them.
Snowflake, without any prompting from me, curled up near the door to wait. Her icy blue eyes were focused on the door, and I could see that she wasn’t nearly as relaxed as she wanted to look. The muscles of her legs were tense, coiled and ready to move in any direction.
“Hey, Winter,” Erin said as I sat down across from her. “Been a while.”
I shrugged. “Just a few years.” Not too long after I came to Colorado I had, reluctantly, been forced to call her for a favor. It hadn’t been pleasant, but it had been necessary.
“So what do you need?” she asked me.
“One second,” I said, pulling out a piece of paper and pencil from one of my pockets. I wrote a couple things down, then walked over to get a drink. Pryce was open at eight, but he didn’t bother having any staff come in until about ten. And, because he doesn’t leave his bar, you either go to him or you don’t get anything. It was understandable, given that we were the only customers there.
Erin looked up from the paper to me as I sat down. “‘Scorpion?'” she said without preamble. “‘Falling brick?’ What is this?”
I shrugged. “I started keeping track of all the ways somebody’s tried to kill me in the past few days. I was afraid I might forget otherwise.”
She started to laugh, then realized I wasn’t joking and frowned instead. “What have you gotten yourself into?”
I told her about it in fairly precise detail. It was a bit of a struggle for me—I don’t normally tell people important things without a judicious amount of editing—but one of the things I’d learned early on is that sometimes you just have to decide to trust a person without reservation, and Erin was as good a choice as any. It might be different if I were a major player, but I simply didn’t have enough power to go it alone.
The first thing she did was look back at the list and then say, “You don’t have the dude with the rifle on here.” Erin doesn’t miss much.
I shrugged. “I don’t entirely believe Traveler. I mean, the other events all have a few things in common, right? So far we’ve got scorpions, dart traps, and contrived car wrecks. You know what we don’t have?”
“Sanity,” she said dryly. She nodded slowly. “I see what you mean, though. A fifty-caliber rifle pointed at your door is an efficient way to kill somebody.” She tapped the paper. “These aren’t. No sane mercenary would do this.”
“Besides,” I said. “Traveler talked a good game, but you know what he didn’t talk about? Why the guy with the rifle was there. He never, for example, said that he didn’t hire the man himself.”
She sighed. “I hate dealing with the fae. Every time you think you have them figured out, they spring something new on you. So are you going to that party?”
I shrugged again. “Don’t see that I have much choice. Whether he was telling the truth or not, it sounds like an ideal chance to fish for a little information.” I pulled the invitation out and handed it to her. The writing on the back had faded almost immediately after Aiko put it down, but the text of the actual invitation was still there.
She read it quickly, then set it down next to my list. “Damn. Wonder how he got his hands on that?”
“Yeah. Any idea who he was?”
“Sorry. Without more to go on, I can’t even guess.”
I wasn’t surprised. Disappointed, maybe, but not surprised. “Have any advice for the party?” I said without much hope.
She surprised me this time. “Don’t make any deals. You’ll get screwed, trust me. Don’t ask what Court they’re from, they hate that. You can’t hope to look as good as they do, so don’t try. You’re better off picking a distinctive look and going with that instead. Make sure you know where the exit is.”
I blinked. “How do you know this?” I asked curiously. “I thought you left the political stuff to Dolph and your father.”
She shrugged. “The politics, sure, but you have to know a certain amount if you want to stay in business. The Sidhe are always expecting me to go to social events when I’m working for them. Not usually this major, but I’m guessing the rules are pretty much the same.” She saw my expression and laughed. “Come on, Winter. You didn’t think my father was the only one I did jobs for, did you?”
I hadn’t ever thought about it. “You’re a freelance assassin?” I asked, incredulous.
“Sometimes,” she said. Her voice wasn’t especially defensive, the way you would normally expect a person to sound if you asked them something like that. “Mostly I do bodyguard work, though. It pays better. Less work most of the time, too.”
I so wasn’t going to touch that subject. “Do you have any idea which of the Twilight might be involved?” I asked instead.
She licked her lips nervously. Then, looking over toward the bar, she called out, “Hey, Pryce. You mind if we make a circle? I’ll clean the floor after, promise.” He grunted an affirmative, and she stood up and grabbed a couple of salt shakers.
“What are you doing?” I asked as she unscrewed the lids of the shakers and began to pour a line of salt maybe an inch across on the floor around us.
“Circle,” she said shortly. “You’re looking for names. I don’t feel like attracting their attention.”
I blinked. “I thought the whole True Names shtick was bullshit.”
“Yep, that’s what I think too.” She finished the circle, enclosing the entire table, and set the empty shakers down outside of it. “I’d rather be too paranoid than not enough, though. Mind giving me a hand powering this up?”
“Not at all,” I said absently, walking over to touch one finger to the line of salt. Beside me, I could smell Erin calling her power in a rush of musk and lavender, and I directed my own magic at the circle as well.
Here’s the thing about werewolves. When you think of them, it’s easy to see the “turning-into-a-wolf” bit and think that’s all there is to it. Even once you know about the other things they can do—healing, superstrength—it’s still very easy to overlook something. See, becoming a werewolf isn’t a biological change. It’s an energetic one, a magical one. It bestows a measure of power on you, and changes what you already have from a purely human variety to a sort of hybrid. There’s still some human left—not for nothing are they called werewolves—but there’s also the new stuff.
All of their abilities come from directing that power to a certain task. Shifting, healing, strengthening their body, whatever. Mostly, especially at first, it’s an instinctive process. Your body notices an injury and realizes that some sort of counteraction is necessary. Your magic reacts to that instinctive, subconscious desire and makes it happen. Higher thinking processes never get involved at all.
With a bit of knowledge—and a lot of practice—it doesn’t have to be that way. I, for example, have a certain amount of werewolf residue in my magic from when I was one. I know quite a bit about directing energy, too, as a result of my magical practice. So when I want to badly enough, I can sort of send more power to that part of myself, and make it heal me faster than it otherwise would.
Most young werewolves, if they even realize that, don’t have the patience or interest to invest the hundreds of hours it takes to learn how to really use the power they’ve obtained.
Erin is not a young wolf. She is, in fact, about two hundred years old, give or take. She’s picked up a few tricks in that time. It doesn’t give her the kind of fine control a skilled mage has—werewolf magic isn’t particularly suited to manipulating external things anyway—but she still has some pretty impressive skills.
The circle snapped into place around us with a sudden burst of power. Underneath Erin’s magic I could just detect the colder, subtler scents of my own—wolf and blood, grass and snow.
Circles are one of the simplest magical structures there are. At heart they just represent the concept of a fence (and sometimes an actual fence, but that’s not important right now). They’re a way of telling the world that the inside of the circle is different from the outside, and using your will and power to make the world listen. Complex circles can involve dozens of layers, physical reagents and symbols, and enough power to level a building. Simple circles, though, are about as stripped-down of a spell as you can find. Even a normal person, without any magical talents at all, can create one if they have a power source of some kind. It doesn’t have to be a literal circle, either; any shape will do. Circles are just convenient and easy to visualize.
You can use them do a lot of different things, and in fact a circle is the starting point for almost all complex spells. At the moment, the feature we were concerned with was that it takes a lot of work to make magic carry over from the outside of a circle to the inside. That includes, for example, magic meant to eavesdrop.
“Okay,” I said, sitting back down. “What do you have for me?”
She grimaced. “I don’t know who most of the Twilight Princes are, but my father says there’s still a lot of division about the agreement. Like, a whole lot.”
I frowned. “I thought it passed unanimously.”
She shrugged. “That’s what they told us, sure. And maybe it did, and maybe it didn’t. Hardly matters, though. I mean, didn’t take a genius to see which way the wind was blowing, you know?”
“So if they knew the measure would pass, they might have voted in favor even if they were against it?” I nodded slowly. “Makes sense, I guess. Do you know who was the most dead-set against it?”
“The Morrigan,” she replied immediately.
“The Morrigan,” I repeated blankly. Then I blinked. “Wait. You mean the Morrigan? The deities?”
She frowned, and I got the idea that she was struggling to phrase something that didn’t lend itself well to the English language. Or any other, probably. “Yes,” she said eventually, “and no. She’s been called a lot of names, but that’s the one the Twilight used in the dissenting opinion.”
“I’m confused. Do you mean she, or they? ‘Cause I thought there were three of them.”
She shrugged. “It’s referred to both ways. Other than that, I know a couple of them. But for the most part they’re referred to only by title.” She paused. “That is safest, you know. Names can be dangerous things.”
I didn’t feel like pursuing that line at the moment. “Who are they? And what about the Morrigan?”
“The Morrigan is also a title. The three of them have individual names too, and even inside a circle I’m not going into them. Other than that, I know that the Mermaid, the Banshee, the Gentle Lady, and Boann’s Son were all opposed.”
I thought about that for a moment. I wasn’t sure who any of those people were, but I knew that the Morrigan, at least, was seriously bad news. In the old stories she was a tripartite goddess of war, who delighted in slaughter and chaos. She was also extremely influential. Like, other deities begged favors from her.
“Two questions,” I said eventually. “One, if there were that many people opposed, how did the treaty pass in the first place?”
She shrugged. “There were plenty of people for it too. The Shepherd, the Hunter, and the Wolves’ Son were the most outspoken, I think.”
“Okay. And what’s with all this mumbo-jumbo about names, when everything I’ve learned says that’s a waste of time?”
She frowned. “Everything I know,” she said slowly, “agrees with you. As far as I’m aware there isn’t any special power or magic associated with names.” She paused and looked at me, her green eyes disturbingly intense. “But people have been stepping carefully around these beings for thousands of years. I figure they must have known something, and I’d be a fool to ignore that example.” She stood up without another word and broke the circle with her foot. The air inside seemed to relax when she did, somehow, although I wouldn’t have said it was humming with energy before.
She returned with a dustpan a moment later, and we silently swept up the salt and dumped it in the trash. She paid Pryce a few dollars for the salt we’d used and we left.
I had walked, and Erin took a taxi from the airport, so we didn’t have a car between us. That was fine with me, though; the winter morning was clear and brisk, the sort of day I love, and I didn’t have anywhere to be until that afternoon.
Someone else might have thought it was cold, especially as I wasn’t wearing a coat. Or a sweatshirt, for that matter. Thankfully (sort of), one of the things I had inherited was a remarkable resistance to cold. Oh, I can feel it; it just doesn’t bother me unless it’s really freaking cold. Like, subzero cold. Up until then I don’t get numb, I don’t get frostbitten, I don’t even really shiver.
Erin did not have a similar nifty ability. She was a werewolf, though, and a strong one; they’re hardier beasts than humans.
I tried to point out the tripwire I’d encountered earlier to her, but all sign of it had already vanished by the time we got there. Not just the wire itself, but the traps, the darts, and the pressure plate built into the sidewalk. It was frustrating, to say the least, but nothing I hadn’t expected.
Not long after that, Erin idly asked me, “What are you wearing to this party?”
I shrugged. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”
She stopped. I kept walking, and she had to take a couple quick steps to catch up. “You hadn’t thought about it,” she said with a tone of deep disgust. “And you’re supposed to leave at three.” She shook her head and sighed. “That is so typical of you. Come on. I know where we can get you some reasonable clothes.”
I thought about protesting that I didn’t want nice clothes, and they would be a waste of time on me anyway. Then I thought about how serious this party apparently was, and I kept my mouth shut.
Who says I never learn?