Balancing Act 6.10

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The next thing I was aware of was pain. It felt like a giant with a slingshot had been using my head for target practice. I was additionally more nauseous than I had ever in my life experienced, and my mouth tasted like seven generations of rodents had lived and died in it.

 

I thrashed my way out of the blankets and flopped onto the floor, although it was a heroic effort. Crawling to the bathroom was harder than conquering a small continent. I managed to make it to the toilet and threw up my toenails before curling up on the floor and whimpering. I stayed there and waited for the world to stop spinning. I noticed, in the tiny portion of my mind not currently dedicated to tracking my own suffering, that I was not only at home, I was naked, and had no idea how either of those conditions came about.

 

Serves you right, Snowflake said lightly, not stirring from her place on the bed. How many drinks did you have, anyway? You were both pretty well smashed when you got back.

 

I have no idea, I said after a moment of thought. There was quite a lot of mead involved, though. How did we get back here, anyway?

 

Through a portal, just like usual. You and Aiko staggered in arm-in-arm around dawn carrying a bottle of rum and a rubber chicken. I’m not entirely sure how you managed the stairs, actually; presumably you were swaying in opposite directions, and it balanced out. Then you had sex, which is actually fairly impressive considering how poor your dexterity and muscular coordination were, collapsed into bed, and crashed for almost ten hours.

 

I groaned—well, I was already groaning, but it gained new tones of woe. Oh gods. This is why I don’t drink.

 

I thought that was to avoid the hangover.

 

Well, yes, that too. This was the second I’d ever had—well, I suppose third technically, but the time I got hammered on one swallow of Fenris’s mead the pain had been more because of my recent crucifixion—and I would be ecstatic if it was also the last.

 

Something occurred to me. What time did you say it was?

 

Almost five in the evening. Why?

 

Shit. I stood up, trying to ignore the way it made my head swim. I’m supposed to meet the vampire at dusk.

 

Better get a shower then, don’t you think?

 

No shit, Sherlock, I said sourly, climbing into the shower. I turned it on very, very cold—by my standards, I mean, which means just above freezing. It wasn’t very comfortable, which made it exactly what I needed right then. I threw up again meanwhile, but by the time I was finished showering I felt much better—or, at least, capable of ambulation and vocal communication. Barely.

 

I dressed hastily, somewhere between last night’s costume and everyday wear, including my foci. I also had my Bowie knife and pistol on my belt, quite openly. If Katrin got upset by that when there was quite literally a war on, she could find some other schmuck to do her dirty work.

 

I hastily let Alexis know that we were still alive on my way out—I didn’t have time for anything more. Aiko was still out cold, and I wasn’t taking Snowflake on this trip. It was better, I thought, that she not show up on the vampire’s radar more than absolutely necessary. I could tell she didn’t like vampires any more than I did, because for once she didn’t argue with me.

 

I jogged, unhappily, to Pryce’s, and just barely made it in time to be considered dusk. By some standards, at any rate. I walked in the door and straight over to the bar. “Private room?” I said to Pryce, who nodded and gestured shortly. One of his staff, a sour-dispositioned man who moved with a fluidity entirely at odds with his elderly appearance, led me down a few back hallways to an unmarked oak door.

 

Pryce’s private meeting room was nice. The carpet was thick and spotlessly clean. I knew it was spotlessly clean, because it was also spotlessly black, and black carpet shows everything. The furniture was very high quality, handmade with lots of oak and mahogany and no pine to be seen anywhere. The fireplace, which was big enough to roast a cow whole, held a massive blaze. Like the other time I’d been here, I thought that the pennants hanging from the rafters gave the place an oddly medieval feel.

 

I knew a bit more now than I had then, though. Before, the only one I had recognized was the Pack’s stylized wolf’s-face in black on grey. Now I knew that the nine-pointed white star on a black background was the Conclave’s symbol. The Twilight Court was represented by a sunset (it could just as easily have been rising, but somehow I always thought of it as a sunset), more a matter of lines and suggestion than picture, in scarlet on green. The Vampires’ Council’s flag was azure, charged with a black dagger.

 

There were still plenty I didn’t get, though. I had no idea what the cross-and-dragon was representative of, for example, or the crossed keys, or the three interlocked triangles in red, green, and blue on black. Given the context, though, I was reasonably confident they were important people. I should probably look into that.

 

“Rather petty to avoid looking at me, don’t you think?” Katrin sounded amused.

 

“You’ll have to forgive me,” I said, doing so. She looked no different, of course; vampires, like most preternatural beings, are not troubled by the passage of time, at least not on the outside. She was tall and slender, and somehow hungry-looking despite full cheeks and chest, with ash-blond hair and sky-blue eyes. “It’s been a long few days.”

 

“You do look rather peaked,” she said with mock concern. “Should you sit down?”

 

I growled, but took the seat across from her. “Damned faerie booze,” I muttered. “What do you want?”

 

She sighed. “And here we were doing so well at being polite,” she said, an edge of laughter only thinly veiled in her voice.

 

“I’ve been informed that I look peaked,” I said dryly. “And I know for a fact I’ve got a lot on my plate, so how about for tonight we settle for businesslike instead?”

 

She chuckled. “As you wish. I assume you’re aware of the rakshasa presence in the city?”

 

“Yup. I take it they’re the folks you want me to whack for you?”

 

“Quite so.”

 

I yawned, hugely and genuinely. “Well, it’s kind of you to be so blunt. I don’t suppose you could tell me why I should be inclined to do so? And don’t tell me you’d owe me one,” I said, forestalling her reply. “I’ve never been a hitman, and I can’t say the idea has much appeal. I’ve got favors owed already, and I can get more without resorting to violence.”

 

Her lips tightened, but other than that her pleasant mask remained firmly in place. “I assume you’ve heard about the bombing two nights ago?”

 

“Only very vaguely.”

 

She nodded, as though she’d expected as much. “I expected as much,” she said. “A kitsune had rented an apartment for the duration. They blew it up trying to kill her.”

 

“The apartment?”

 

“The apartment complex.

 

I blinked. “That seems a little like using a grenade to kill a spider.”

 

She smiled a little. “Not exactly. With the grenade you could at least expect to kill the target, whereas the kitsune was not even in the building at the time.” The humor faded from her face. “Unlike more than a hundred and fifty civilians who were killed by the blast.”

 

I suddenly felt less like laughing.

 

Her emotionless mask was firmly in place now, and she spoke with a cold, implacable ferocity. “Such a thing is not merely sloppy, it is inexcusable. It was the action of someone who kills for pleasure, nothing more. Such a clumsy, imprecise attack betrays an intolerable lack of discretion. It is beyond disgusting.” She paused, and visibly reined in her emotion. “Wolf, I know that we’ve not always seen eye-to-eye. You don’t think highly of me, and I know that. But believe me when I say that I would never engage in such a…gaudy display, and I have no taste for killing without reason or precision.”

 

I believed her.

 

“Where are they?” I asked.

 

“If I knew that,” she said sharply, “they would not be.”

 

I nodded. “Right, of course. Sorry. Look, I’m not any more kindly disposed to that sort of action than you are, but there’s not a lot I can do about locating them, and even less I can do without that information.”

 

“So you will help me?” she said, fastening on my lack of actual refusal like a leech.

 

“Maybe,” I hedged. “But I’ll be honest, I’ve got a lot going on right now. I don’t know that I’ll be able to help you. So let’s put it like this, I’m not opposed to the idea. If you find them, call me and we’ll see.”

 

She looked like she was going to argue with me for a moment, then nodded reluctantly. “I suppose that’s all I can ask. In the meantime, go get some rest; you look like you could use it. And Wolf?” she said as I turned to leave.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Watch your back. These people are ruthless, and it won’t much matter to them whether you agree to help exterminate them or not. You’re a threat to their dominance over this area just by existing.”

 

I nodded, and did not thank her for the advice.


 

Less than three steps out the door, my phone rang. I glanced at it, and swore tiredly when I saw that it was Frishberg’s number. “What the hell do you want?” I snapped as I answered it.

 

“Get your ass to the morgue,” she growled, equally as brusque as me, and hung up.

 

I muttered under my breath, but I went. Fortunately my Jeep was more or less permanently in Pryce’s parking lot; that made it simpler.

 

Of course, it is indicative of the poor condition my brain was in that I didn’t realize that the last time I’d used the car, I’d left it out where I met Brick. Meaning that someone must have somehow arranged to have it brought back here, and I hadn’t even realized until well past the point at which they could have used that opportunity to cause me lethal harm.

 

I had to get my act together, before it got me killed.

 

There wasn’t a lot of purpose to worrying about it now, though. So I just grumbled some more and kept going. As before, Frishberg met me at the door. The pace of her work, which I somehow doubted had slowed, was beginning to tell. She looked worn, haggard, her eyes sunken. I was guessing she hadn’t slept or eaten in quite a while.

 

“You look like shit,” I said by way of greeting.

 

She snorted. “Yeah, well, you ain’t exactly pretty yourself. Come on.”

 

“What’s the problem?” I asked, following her into the building.

 

“Well, let me put it this way,” she said grimly. “When I said I wanted a change of pace, this was not what I had in mind.”

 

I winced. “Ah. I see.”

 

“I doubt it. You made any progress on those mystery corpses I showed you?”

 

I shrugged. “Minimal. I talked to a fairly reliable source who claimed it was the work of some latter-day witchhunter. She sounds like a real piece of work—ultra-rich, dedicated, and absolutely freaking psycho. He says she’s been pulling similar stunts for the better part of twenty years, worldwide. Why, have you found any more of them?”

 

“Yeah, four. Surrounded by a dozen bastards just cut to pieces, normal-style.” She glanced at me, and frowned. “But you already knew that.”

 

I didn’t bother denying it. “Well, yes.”

 

“You didn’t tell me,” she said coldly.

 

I shrugged. “Wouldn’t have done a lot of good. There was no evidence there you could use, and I knew you’d find it sooner or later.”

 

“That isn’t your call to make.”

 

“Was I wrong?”

 

She glared at me and did not answer. “In any case, that’s not why I called you. Hell, I only thought those were bad. If they were the worst thing I had to deal with I’d be frigging ecstatic. Instead, I’ve got this.” She drew me to a stop next to corpse sitting on an examination table. Even by the standards of corpses, this one smelled pretty awful, fetid and sour. Otherwise, though, it seemed almost bland, with no visible injuries.

 

“Okay,” I said after a moment, “I’ll bite. What happened?”

 

Sergeant Frishberg looked like she’d just smelled something bad. “I’ve got twenty eyewitnesses saying this guy was walking down the street in the middle of the day. He was wearing a hoodie, and a lot of people seemed to think he was a gang member or some shit, but he wasn’t doing anything aggressive, just minding his own business. Then he suddenly draws a knife and starts waving it in the air, screaming. A college student who was out shopping told me it sounded like Indian—from India, I mean, not American—but he didn’t have any idea what he was saying, says it was an archaic form.”

 

“I can’t imagine the tourists liked that,” I said dryly.

 

She snorted. “No, they did not. So anyway, after a second or two, he took off running down the street, still waving his knife around and screaming his head off. Then he just dropped to the ground. We bring him in here, and do you know what the medical examiner tells me?”

 

I shook my head. At this point, I couldn’t even guess.

 

“He drowned,” she spat. “Middle of the street. There wasn’t any water within a block of him. But when we cut him open, his lungs were fucking soaked.”

 

Well, that was nice. It had to be magic—or at least I couldn’t think of any other way for that to happen. If he shouted in Indian under stress, he was most likely a rakshasa, which meant he was most likely involved in the turf war, which meant that I could narrow down the suspects a little. It wasn’t de Sousa; she would have stabbed him, or more likely touched him with her Killing Stone, not offed him with wacky magic rituals. It wasn’t Katrin; even if it hadn’t occurred during the day, this was not her style. If she wanted someone dead, I got the impression that the police would never find the body, let alone have twenty witnesses to a bizarre and overt killing. That left another rakshasa killing him in an internal power struggle, the yokai, and the skinwalker. I wasn’t sure which prospect disturbed me most.

 

“I don’t think I can help you with this one,” I said after a moment’s thought. I was being honest, for once. I didn’t know anyone who could do this sort of thing; people with an affinity for water tend not to gravitate towards Colorado, after all. I like my city well enough, but it isn’t exactly coastal.

 

“Nothing?”

 

I shrugged. “I can tell you it was probably magic. That’s about it.”

 

She exhaled through her teeth. “Damn. Well, he’s not the only one I’ve got.”

 

I blinked. “He’s not?”

 

“Nope. The Asian guy’s missing a bunch of inch-wide strips of skin—doc said blood loss was probable cause of death, but he didn’t sound real confident. The chick has a broken rib through her lung, but there’s no sign of blunt impact or anything to say how it happened. And the Latino’s hair started growing the wrong direction, went straight through the skull and ripped his brain apart.”

 

“You’re shitting me.”

 

“I wish. Creepiest thing I’ve ever seen. Made the examiner sick, and I didn’t think that was even possible.”

 

Well, that was interesting. That many bizarre, probably magic-caused deaths in a short time definitely suggested things were heating up. More than that, it suggested that someone had wanted to be obvious. Why? Because it would intimidate their opponents? Because they thought the competitors would be reluctant to garner that much publicity, and back off? I couldn’t really say for sure. There were too many players whom it could have been, with too complex and obscure of motivations, and no way to say for sure which of them this had been. I did try to catch a whiff of whose magic it had been, but either they’d covered their tracks or the scent had faded. Probably both.

 

“I can’t help you,” I said to the sergeant. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing here for me to work with.”

 

“Nothing?” she said testily.

 

I paused. “Well, almost nothing. I can tell you that this was meant to be seen. It’s…gang warfare, right? This,” I gestured at the corpse, “this is the equivalent of shooting up a restaurant in broad daylight. It’s big, flashy, obvious. Someone was sending a message to their competitors.”

 

“Gang war, eh?” she said thoughtfully. “I might be able to use that.”

 

“Don’t,” I said seriously. “This isn’t the work of ordinary gangs. They aren’t afraid of the police, you personally can’t do jack to them, and they can kill you easy as breathing.”

 

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you cared.”

 

“Well, then, I guess it’s a good thing you do know better, right?” I grinned. “Look, sergeant, think of this as a professional courtesy. You’re good at what you do. I’d hate to see you die for no reason. Chase these people if you want, but watch your back, and don’t try to take them solo. If you manage to find them, call me. I’d be happy to help you deal with them.”

 

“Deal with them how?”

 

I thought of bombed apartment buildings, and smiled grimly. “You know, sergeant,” I said calmly, “I don’t think the good people of Colorado Springs should need to worry about these folks, when there’s so many other things going on right about now. Do you?” My smile spread, and she flinched a little and looked away. “As stressed as you are, mistakes are bound to happen. If they should get unlucky, why, I imagine they might run into an unfortunate accident while resisting arrest.”

 

She nodded slowly, and escorted me out.


 

I would have liked to go home, climb back into bed, and finish the process of recovering from the Sidhe party. Unfortunately, I had obligations to fulfill. Alexis was owed a talk.

 

My little errand with Frishberg had eaten some time, but not all that much, and I wasn’t surprised to find Alexis still awake. Snowflake, who was still upstairs, informed me that Aiko was awake, but—astonishingly—significantly worse for the wear than I was, and disinclined to move. I told her that was fine and that I would be up shortly to resume sleeping, then sat down in the sitting room with Alexis. “Congratulations!” I said. “You’re a blueblood.”

 

“I’m what?”

 

“A blueblood. Fairly high nobility, I think.”

 

She snorted. “Not hardly.”

 

“Actually, you are,” I said dryly. “Have you ever heard of the jötnar?”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“They’re frost giants,” I explained, “in Norse mythology. The Æsir—that’s the gods, Odin and his kin—were constantly at war with them. If you needed a bad guy, it was almost always a jotun. They usually came out on the losing side, but not always, and if you consider whom they were going up against that isn’t bad.”

 

“What’s that have to do with anything?”

 

“Well,” I said slowly, “not a whole lot. But you’re one of them! A quarter, at least.”

 

“Winter,” she said patiently, “you’re not making a lot of sense right now.”

 

“Right, sorry. It’s been a long day. Anyway, the story is our maternal grandfather was Björn One-Hand, son of Herjólf the Sharp, son of Njáll Half-Burned, son of Asolf the Unwashed, son of Hallgerda Manslayer, daughter of Egil the Black, son of Sinfjötli Longtooth, son of Signý the Bloody, daughter of Hljoth the Fair, daughter of Hrym the Mighty.” I thought it was fairly impressive I’d managed to remember the whole tally.

 

“I don’t know what that means.”

 

“Well, neither do I. I’m going to have to look into that, clearly, as soon as I have the time. But the important bit is that Hrym is big news—he’s either the king’s brother, or another king in his own right, I’m not entirely sure—which means that we’re both nine generations removed from jotun royalty.”

 

She stared at me. “Are you serious?”

 

“Absolutely. The even gave me an honorary barony—although I wouldn’t recommend presenting yourself to the court tomorrow and asking for one. I get the impression that the jötnar are old-school, which means that they value strength highest of pretty much anything, and you aren’t badass enough to impress them. No offense.”

 

“None taken, but…what does this mean, Winter?”

 

I shrugged. “Like I said, I’m still looking into it. But it explains a few things. It makes sense that even a quarter-jotun wouldn’t feel much cold.” I frowned. “Unless you’re less than that. In the Eddas Sinfjötli was only half, which probably means another jotun bred into the line at some point, or you wouldn’t have enough of it in you to notice.”

 

“What about you?” she said, only half joking.

 

“I’m a special case,” I said dryly, then paused. “Although, now that I think about it, Sinfjötli was also a werewolf—of some variety, at any rate, although in the saga he’s described as being born with the talent, which suggests a different mode of action than a true werewolf. That’s an interesting precedent, especially taking Fenris into account. I wonder whether there’s an interaction between that and—”

 

“I’m sorry, Winter, but you’re losing me.”

 

I shook my head briskly. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m a little fried, in case you didn’t notice that. That’s something I’m going to have to research later. For now, what’s important for you to know is this. You’re descended from jotun nobility, which means you might be able to get something out of them later on—they seemed really big on blood kinship. They’re also strong and cunning enough to seriously challenge the gods, which means really, really old. Given that you got enough of it to do some low-level magic, I’m guessing that sort of power will be enough to retard the aging process, if not stop it entirely.”

 

“Are you saying I’ll live forever?”

 

I snorted. “Forever? No. Nothing lasts forever. But I suspect you won’t age normally, which makes it quite possible that you will survive for a long time. Centuries, at least.” I took in her expression of shock and grinned. “That’s another thing we’ll have to talk about later. For now, I’m going to go get some more sleep. I just thought you should know this much.” I stood up and left.


 

The next day was the sort of thing nightmares are made of.

 

It started out reasonably well. I woke up just before dawn, as usual, and felt entirely recovered. Snowflake was bright-eyed, bushy tailed, and bored after a day of inactivity. Aiko, who drank about as frequently as I did and was significantly more susceptible to alcohol, was grim-faced and had a number of choice words on the subject, but had ceased to feel half-dead.

 

Snowflake and I got dressed, including our weaponry and armor, and left. I breathed a sigh of relief when there were no messages on my phone. The sunrise was lovely. We made it to Pryce’s without incident, and the gossip was hardly aflutter with news of recent developments. It was emptier than usual, and I suspected that many of the lesser flames of the supernatural world were in hiding or gone elsewhere until this storm blew over, but none of the people there had heard of any explosions or attacks or other drama in the past day or two. I was reasonably confident that that was good news.

 

We ate an excellent breakfast and left, and I was really thinking that things were looking up, when someone fell in beside us on the walk home. He was of average height, but slightly stocky, with pale skin, brown hair and eyes, and aquiline features. “Good morning,” he said in a pleasant but unremarkable voice.

 

I glared at him. “Do I know you?”

 

He smiled faintly. “We’ve not met, if that’s what you mean. I am Sojobo.”

 

“Ah. I’m Winter.”

 

“I know who you are, of course,” he said mildly. “Pleased to meet you.”

 

“And yourself, of course,” I said, and, belatedly, “good morning.”

 

His smile broadened, very slightly. “It is quite lovely, at that, though the afternoon will bring rain.” I had no reply to that, and we walked in silence for a time.

 

“I suppose you’re here to tell me to piss off and let your kin take over the city,” I said eventually, reluctantly. It seemed too pleasant a morning to ruin in this manner.

 

“Kazuhiro, you mean?” he said. “No. He’s an earnest young man, but I don’t know that he could or should hold this territory. He’s made his choices, and he will succeed or not on his own merits.”

 

“And yet,” I commented, “you must want something, or you would not be here. We are far from your mountain.”

 

He made a vaguely affirmative sound. “We all want something, don’t we? It is a failing, I think, that we seek to so exert our will upon the world. If there is one wisdom I have gained, it is that I am far too foolish to deserve to make such choices.”

 

“I have time for discussion,” I said after a moment. “Maybe even for banter. But I think I’m rather too busy at the moment for games, and almost always for discussions of philosophy.”

 

He laughed again. “Fairly spoken. I will be brief, then. You know, I think, that the one called de Sousa is here.” I nodded. “She will not stay long. It is her way. She comes, and does her bloody work, and then is gone. She is always in places of disturbance, where her victims will arouse no excitement. This city is unsettled, in chaos—her favorite sort of place, and why she has stayed so long, when it is her more normal practice to move on after only days, or even hours. But even so, she will not remain in this area much longer.”

 

“I cannot say I greatly regret that,” I admitted. “I don’t like having her around.”

 

He chuckled. “I cannot argue that point. However, it also means that she will soon be beyond your reach.”

 

I frowned. “That’s true. And I also can’t say that I’m happy just to let her go. I…don’t approve of her actions.”

 

Sojobo grunted quietly. “Good. You should not approve of such things.” He was silent for a few steps, then said, “The Keepers will want you to return the stone to them. Have, perhaps, asked such of you already.”

 

“That is true.”

 

“I would rather that you gave it to me instead.”

 

“Because they can’t keep it safely?”

 

“In part. In part. But no, that is not my true reason.” He frowned, and I got the impression that he was choosing his words carefully. When he did speak, they caught me entirely by surprise.

 

“I loved her, Winter. We had been together a thousand years, and neither of us anticipated that we should not be together a thousand years more. I loved her.” His voice was intense, his expression grim.

 

“What happened?”

 

“That spring, she told me she wanted to spend a year or two at court,” he said. He had lost something of the intensity; now, he just seemed bleak. “It was something she did, now and then. She loved deceiving all the courtiers, running circles around them, making them fight over her and then rejecting the victor. She made an art of it; she always said that humans were more amusing victims than her people or mine.”

 

“Sometimes I went with her, played the attentive and devoted samurai paying court to her. But that year was one of much turmoil among the tengu. There were battles to be fought, traitors to be uncovered—the usual fare. And she was a nine-tailed kitsune. She could take care of herself.”

 

“And she didn’t call you for help? Not even after she’d been unmasked?”

 

He stopped walking, and his fist tightened at his side. “She did. I was occupied, and could not attend to the more ordinary ways of messaging. The emergency couriers she sent were…intercepted. I knew nothing of her plight, and had anticipated that she would be at court for at least a year, perhaps two or more.” He sighed. “Tamamo was never fond of violence. I was not surprised that she had chosen to remain among the human court until it had passed. We had been in love for centuries; a few years of absence would not harm anything.”

 

Sojobo was silent for a long minute, and when he spoke again his voice was thick with emotion. “Five years,” he said. “Five long, bloody years. That’s how long it took me to settle matters and return home. I expected that she would have tired of the humans, and would be waiting for me. Do you know what I found instead?”

 

I was silent.

 

“Nothing!” he roared, the volume making a few pedestrians look askance in his direction. “I found nothing!” He visibly forced himself to calm down. “I found, years too late, the messages she had left for me—though it would take me years more to learn of the couriers she sent, who were waylaid. I loved her for a thousand years, but when it mattered most I failed her.”

 

I winced.

 

It was a long moment before he continued, and when he did his voice had gained a new tone, a deceptive and dangerous calm. I recognized it. There were a number of old werewolves I’d dealt with who, when they were really pissed, got that same calm, almost serene tone. People who didn’t know them were sometimes fooled into thinking that meant things were safe. People who did know them had a tendency to make themselves scarce at that point, or sometimes just scurry for cover.

 

“Her murderers had hidden their tracks well, but they did not anticipate that I would be alive, nor that I would dedicate myself to their destruction with such a wrath as to shake the earth. I hunted them down, over a period of decades, and found a cabal of yokai and humans, led by another dai-tengu. They thought that her death would break me, and leave room for them to take power.”

 

“I showed them wrong.”

 

“It has been nigh on a millennium since that day,” he said, still in that frighteningly calm voice. “My pain has not lessened with the passing of centuries. Since then, there has been no joy in my life. All lands are bleak and wasted to my eyes. All my thoughts are grim and drenched in blood; my heart lies fallow, and brings forth a crop of weeds and poison. I hear her laughter on the wind, and see her smile in my dreams, but these bring no surcease from the pain. Such things only serve to keep the agony fresh in my soul.”

 

Wow. That was impressively lyrical. Also, seriously hardcore.

 

“As you might imagine,” he said after a long, brooding pause, “the story was not so clear in the years after her death, nor was it so widespread as it is today. I had not heard of her death until years after it happened, and when I did my first priority was slaying her killers. It took more than sixscore years for me to learn of the Killing Stone she had left behind, by which time it was in the Conclave’s possession. They told me it was merely the subject of her death curse, meant to bring sorrow and death to the world which had hurt her so, and I did not question. It was not, I thought, so surprising that she would wish vengeance, and in the moment of her death not care whom that vengeance was inflicted upon. I did not ask for the stone. I wanted no reminders of my failure, nor did I care to interfere with my beloved’s revenge. I dedicated myself instead to enforcing order over my kin. There is no dissension among the tengu any longer. There is no warring. I do not permit it.”

 

Okay, Sojobo was really starting to scare me now.

 

“And then,” he continued, “twenty years ago, I learn something else. Reynard, with whom I have had some acquaintance and who is kin to her people, came to tell me that the Killing Stone had been taken. That it had been turned to evil ends by a madwoman. And, as none before had the courage to do, he told me that this Stone was no mere cursed bit of rock, but the body and soul of my love.” His fist once more clenched by his side, and he resumed walking, heels striking the ground with unnecessary force. “Now, when it is too late, I know how very deeply I have wronged her, how I have failed her once again. I cannot find this woman, de Sousa. She is protected against divinations, and knowledgeable in the arts of concealment. For twenty years have I sought her blood, and for twenty years have I failed.”

 

We walked most of a minute in silence. Sojobo was breathing hard from the force of his emotion, and I couldn’t blame him. A thousand years of self-loathing and perceived failure was a hell of a burden to carry, and I doubted he had let it out in this way for a long, long time.

 

“I will help you,” I said finally, reluctantly. “You have my word. If what you say is true. Should I obtain the Killing Stone, it will be yours, and no other’s. Should you find this woman, if it be at all possible, I will help you to kill her.”

 

“Why?”

 

I thought for a moment. “I suppose,” I said slowly, “it’s because I know how it feels to fail someone. I can’t make up for my mistakes. It’s too late for the people I failed. But you can, and you’re trying to. I respect that.” I glanced at the eldest tengu. “Find her. And I will help you bring her down.”

 

He nodded, his expression thoughtful. He turned down the next alley, and I did not follow.

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