Balancing Act 6.3

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As it turned out, road construction meant that I had to drive faster than was entirely safe on the latter half of the journey to get there on time. Snowflake, of course, loved it, hanging her head out the window and urging me to speed up.


But we made it without incident, and pulled into the parking lot with ninety-one seconds to spare. The restaurant, a fancy Italian place in the vicinity of the Broadmoor, was just opening for lunch, and the lot was almost empty. My car still stood out pretty starkly against the sports cars and luxury vehicles more common in the area. I only saw one automobile older than mine, and it was a beautiful vintage car from the 1950’s.


I’m sure not all the people going to that restaurant drive nice cars—if nothing else, they had to have a dishwasher, and I doubt he made much more money than I used to as a woodworker. But he apparently had to park somewhere else.


I walked through the heavy double doors and was immediately enveloped by the smells of money, class, and olive oil. This wasn’t exactly my normal sort of venue. The lighting was subdued, classical music played quietly in the background, and there were red tablecloths and napkins on all the tables.


Fabric tablecloths. For lunch. Sheesh.


The host, unless maybe I was supposed to call him a maitre d’—since, you know, classy and everything—took one look at my ensemble and looked like he couldn’t decide whether I was allowed inside or not. I looked just suspicious enough that he wanted to throw me out on principle, but I was just ostentatious enough about my relative wealth that he wasn’t sure he was allowed to.


Snowflake was waiting outside with the car. We weren’t even going to try to convince them to let a dog in here.


I relied on my usual tactic for such things. I nodded at the host (because seriously, I couldn’t say maitre d’ without cracking up) politely and walked in like I owned the place. I’ve often been amazed at the places a confident stride can get you, and this was no exception. The man wilted in the face of my evident assurance and didn’t challenge me, although his reservations with that were clearly apparent.


It wasn’t hard to find the person Anna had called me about. It wasn’t like the place was crowded. Plus he waved me over the second I hit the dining room. That helped a lot.


I made my cautious way over. His table was against the wall, and he was sitting alone with his back to the window. He couldn’t see the door, either. That made him an arrogant and careless man.


Unless, of course, he was simply so powerful that he didn’t have to worry about such things. I was afraid that might be the case.


The large empty space around his table might have been coincidence, I suppose. But I didn’t think so. There was something about him, some indefinable quality, that made me want to stay away from him, and I suspected that everyone else felt the same thing. Oh, they wouldn’t acknowledge it—in my experience, people are very good at coming up with excuses to cover the real reason for their behavior, when they don’t want to face it. It would still influence their actions.


But the first rule of dealing with supernatural nasties is that you never, ever let them see you flinch. At best, it tells them that they can walk all over you. At worst, well, there’s a certain amount of truth to what they say about predators smelling fear and attacking weakness. Telling a supernatural predator that you’re weak and scared is tantamount to telling it you’re delicious and nutritious, and that’s a great way to wind up dead.


So I swaggered right over and sat down across from him. He didn’t say anything for several moments, giving me plenty of time to examine him. It did very little to reassure me.


On the surface, there seemed little reason for the reaction he caused in people. He was impeccably dressed in an extremely expensive suit. The fur-lined coat seemed excessive for the weather, but not ridiculously so. Given that he looked so very Native American you would expect dark eyes to match the hair, but his were yellow.


I don’t mean a sort of brown. I don’t even mean amber, like my eyes, or gold, such as Fenris usually sported. His eyes were yellow, vivid yellow like no human eyes are supposed to be, making me think of a reptile. I expect most people thought they were contact lenses. I suspected otherwise.


You’d think that would spook me somewhat, and you would be right. But what really got me going was his scent. He smelled of magic, strong enough to make my nostrils burn and my throat itch, and he smelled wrong. His magic reeked of death and decay, rotting flesh and soured milk, like a charnel house or a landfill on a hot day.


People whose magic smells unpleasant to me tend to be dangerous, nasty, and just generally unpleasant people to be around. Given that this man—if it was a man; I got nothing of the usual, disinfectant-like tone of human magic—smelled worse than any magic I’d ever encountered before, and stronger than most, I didn’t think I wanted anything to do with him.


I had no doubt, at this point, that people were avoiding him for a reason. That aura was so strong that anyone, even an ordinary human being that hadn’t believed in magic for ninety years, would pick up on it, and so unpleasant that I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be around it. The amazing thing wasn’t that the tables around him were conspicuously empty. It was that there were still people in the same frigging building.


In the interest of getting away from this thing as fast as possible, I decided to speak first. “What do you want?” I said. Well. Growled, really, but the words were intelligible. That’s what matters, right?


He leaned back and laughed. It didn’t sound nearly as evil or cackle-like as it seemed like it ought to. He took a sip of water, which was the only thing on the table, shook his head, and laughed some more.


I waited for a moment. “Okay,” I said finally. “Glad to have that over. Goodbye, don’t call, don’t visit.” I started to stand.


He waved one hand, somehow conveying apology in the gesture. “My apologies,” he said. His voice was surprisingly deep, and although it sounded perfectly normal there was still some quality about it that made me want to shudder. “It’s only that, for a moment, you sounded very much like your mother.”


Now I did shudder. “Oh great,” I said. “Don’t tell me how you knew her, I don’t want to know. Please.”


He chuckled again. “Don’t worry,” he said in what was probably meant to be a reassuring tone. Actually, it probably was a reassuring tone; it was just that my perception of his magic was twisting my opinion of him. Not that I had any intention of discounting that perception. “I’ve no desire to share that particular story with you. No, I simply thought that we should talk.”


I glared at him, being careful not to meet those unwholesome yellow eyes—there are too many things that can do too much to you that way, given the chance. “Then talk. And make it fast; I’ve got things to do.”


He smiled, showing very white and even teeth. “As you will. Have you considered leaving town for a time? Take a vacation, perhaps?”


“No,” I said flatly.


“You should,” he said earnestly.




“The war is heating up,” he told me, sounding calm and sincere. “I expect that this will be a rather violent location for some while. It would be safer for you to relocate for a time.”


“Wait, what war? What are you talking about?”


He made an impatient sound. “It isn’t complicated, Wolf. Until recently the werewolves owned this territory. There were others here, but everyone knew that the wolves were dominant, the strongest force present. But now they’re gone, and given that this is quite a desirable territory it will be no simple matter for another to establish himself in their place.”


“You’re saying there’s a supernatural turf war going on in the city.”


“Crude, but not without accuracy.”


I thought for a moment. I didn’t know a lot about the larger political scene, because mostly I try to keep out of politics. That’s a good way to get killed posthaste. But what he said seemed reasonable, which immediately presented another question. “Why tell me about it?”


He shrugged. “Your mother impressed me somewhat, which is rare. It seemed no great difficulty. And I try to stay on the Khan’s good side, in any case.”


I’m not sure why, but it wasn’t until he mentioned Conn that I realized what this man had to be. “Considering that you’re a skinwalker,” I murmured, “you’ll have to forgive me if I have a certain amount of doubt regarding your goodwill and kindly nature.”


He smiled broadly, and didn’t deny it. “Think on what I’ve said, Mr. Wolf. That’s all I ask.” He stood up and left without another word.


A few moments after he left (I didn’t hear a car start outside, which meant very little if I was right about what he was) Anna came out of the kitchen and sat down. She probably wasn’t supposed to, but given that she was the head chef, or kitchenmeister, or whatever you’re supposed to call it at a fancy restaurant, she could get away with a lot. She used a different chair than he had, but that one might have been coincidence. “Was it a werewolf?” she asked me, quietly enough not to be heard.


“No,” I muttered back. “Something worse.” I glowered vaguely at nothing in particular. “Much worse.”


She nodded, as though unsurprised. “I kind of thought so. Werewolves don’t put my back up like that. Do you want something to eat, since you’re here anyway? My treat.”


I glanced at the time and sighed. “I’d love to, but I can’t. I have another meeting to get to.” Hopefully this one would be more pleasant. Surely Alexis couldn’t be worse than a skinwalker, right? Right? Anybody?


It is, perhaps, a sign of how distracted I was that it didn’t occur to me until Snowflake and I were halfway to the next destination to wonder: since when had Anna spent enough time around enough werewolves to know what they felt like? The way she’d said it sure made it sound like she’d known more than just me and Enrico.


Another thing to look into when I had a moment. Considering how short the list was this time yesterday, it seemed entirely unfair that it was now enormous.


It was a near thing, but I managed to be early to lunch with Alexis. I ambled inside, once again leaving Snowflake at the door, and started looking for the ambush. It was already pretty crowded here, and you’d be insane to try something in such a public location, but people have done crazy things before. The fact that all sorts of people would come down hard on the assassin would be of little comfort to my corpse.


Fortunately for me, I’d chosen this venue with just that in mind. It was the sort of place where you ordered and paid when you walked in, chose a table, and picked up your own food when it was ready. There were always people moving around—going to get food, ordering drinks, hitting the salad bar—and when the lunch rush hit it was crowded enough that one guy could easily blend in.


It took me a few minutes, but I eventually found where she was sitting, a corner booth on the upper level. It had been five years since I’d seen my cousin last, but you don’t necessarily look very much different from sixteen to twenty-one. Alexis didn’t; I was easily able to recognize her long raven’s-wing black hair, dark eyes, and serious expression. She was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, both black. She used to have a fondness for cheap, dangly jewelry, but she wasn’t wearing any now. No visible scars or tattoos, which wasn’t saying much considering how little visible skin there was. She didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons, and I didn’t see any obvious thugs with her. That didn’t mean much, of course; a decent professional killer can blend in better than I can, even without the aid of magic. But it was at least slightly reassuring.


I’m pretty sure she didn’t notice me while I examined her. I was standing in a shadowy corner most of the way across the room, and my cloak is very good at blending into the shadows. It ought to be, considering they’re what I made it out of. It wasn’t invisibility, but it was pretty close.


Even after doing that, and making a fairly thorough sweep of the restaurant checking for obvious threats or strong magical signatures, I was only a minute or two late for lunch. Impolite, perhaps, but not unforgivably so. I slipped back to the entrance, pulled my hood back (I’m pretty sure nobody noticed that it melted back into the coat afterward), and walked back in.


I made a show of looking around even before I was in the right area, just in case Alexis had some way of keeping the restaurant under observation or somebody else was watching. Once I was closer, I waited for her to wave me over before sauntering in that direction. I sat down in the hard-backed chair across from her rather than in the booth, just in case I needed to move quickly, and conveyed to Snowflake where we were. A few moments later I saw a flash of white fur in the parking lot just outside the window I was looking out, and knew she was ready to back me up if necessary. I could bash the window out quite quickly, and once it was out of the way she could be inside in seconds. And yes, that meant she could jump through a second-story window from the ground. She’s good like that.


“Hey, Winter,” Alexis said, her voice surprisingly warm. “You look…good.” By which, I suppose, she meant that I looked younger than her, and she wasn’t sure how.


“Hello, Alexis,” I replied. “What brings you to Colorado?”


She paused, apparently taken aback at how abrupt I was being. It probably would have been more polite to take some time for niceties and meaningless small talk, but I was busy. Besides, I’ve just never been that inclined to small talk. I mean, what’s the point?


“Well,” she said finally, “actually, I came to talk to you.”


Of course she had.


“I sort of have a problem.”


Of course she did. Because clearly I didn’t have enough to do already.


“Why me?” I asked, making an effort not to sound accusatory or complaining. “Oregon to Colorado’s a pretty long drive just to talk.”


There was another long pause, and when Alexis did speak she sounded oddly hesitant, as though now that she were here she wasn’t sure she should have come either. “I remember,” she said slowly, “that mom always told us not to trust you—she said you were crazy, that you might believe what you were saying but it was all just craziness. But you never seemed that crazy to me. And some of the things I’ve seen you do…well, I can’t explain it.”


Realization dawned. “And you think there’s something like that going on in your life? Something you can’t explain?”


She opened her mouth as though to answer, then paused. “Let me go get drinks,” she said instead, standing. “You still like iced tea, right?” I nodded, and she walked off.


A few minutes later she came back, carrying a tray with a sort of casual grace that made me think she might have spent some time doing it professionally. As she got closer I saw that there were actually three glasses on it—one of iced tea, one of soda (probably root beer, unless her tastes had changed dramatically), and one large glass full of crushed ice and nothing else.


“What’s with the ice?” I asked, as she set the tea in front of me and took the other two. I took a sip—only a small one, in case it was poisoned. Werewolves are resistant enough to poison that if she wanted to kill me with that small of a drink she’d have to use enough to alter the taste, so I should be safe. If I didn’t feel any different in a few minutes I could chance drinking some more.


Rather than answer me directly, she took a small drink of root beer (that was what it was, too, I could smell it). Then she shoved her hand into the other glass and withdrew a handful of ice. The cold didn’t seem to bother her.


I don’t mean that she was masking the discomfort. It quite simply didn’t look uncomfortable. After a few moments, she opened her hand to show me the ice.


It wasn’t melting. Not even a little.


Now, that was fairly unusual. If you grab a chunk of ice, the heat of your body is enough to start it melting. It was conceivable, I suppose, that the ice was simply so cold that it wouldn’t—but not very likely, and if it were that cold you couldn’t grab it like that without some discomfort.


It was at about that time I noticed something else. My nose, inundated as it was with the smells of Italian cooking, wasn’t working at quite optimum levels—but, however I perceived it, detecting magic wasn’t actually related to my sense of smell at all. As such, I could quite clearly smell the magic of everyone nearby. Everyone in the restaurant had smelled to me of disinfectant, and not terribly strongly, which was what I associated with an entirely normal human being. Alexis was no exception.


Now that I thought to look for it, though, there was something else there. It was a delicate smell, soft and subtle as the sound of snowfall on cedars. It flickered and danced at the very edge of perception like windblown leaves tumbling down the road. It was cold and sharp and delicate, and while I realize that this isn’t a very good description it is, nevertheless, the best I can do.


It’s no wonder I didn’t notice it before. This scent belonged to a magic of smooth snow and glittering ice. It wasn’t meant to be noticeable.


It was also, if you were to squint your metaphorical eyes and look at it through a warped pane of glass upside-down, very familiar. It ought to be. It was the same as my magic smelled—and it was in no way human. Not at all.


Alexis dumped the ice back into the cup and looked at me expectantly. I inhaled sharply, and nodded as I let it out. “Yeah,” I said. “I think I understand.”


“So what now?”


“Now,” I said, feeling rather tired although it was still fairly early in the day, “we get some food. I’m starving.”


Several minutes later, a large bowl of salad and a very large pizza arranged on the table, the conversation resumed. “So do you know what’s going on?” my cousin asked me, sounding eager. I couldn’t really blame her; it tends to be rather upsetting when something you didn’t think existed starts intruding on your life.


“Maybe,” I said, “but I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it.” I took a large bite of pepperoni-and-mushroom goodness and spent a moment chewing. “How long’s this been going on?”


“Almost a year. At first I thought I was just imagining it, but, well.” She shrugged eloquently. “What’s it mean?”


I frowned. “I dunno. I’m pretty sure it means you inherited something weird.”


“Do you know what?” she pressed.


My frown deepened. “I have a few guesses, but they’re all based on my father being whom I got it from. If it actually came from my mother’s side, that changes things.


“Wait, you mean you can do this?”


I snorted and dipped one finger into my tea. I reached for the part of my mind that I associated with that cold, quietly savage magic, and twisted a small amount of power into the appropriate shape as I dragged my finger across the table. It left a trail of frost behind it, where the water in the tea had frozen at my will.




“If you didn’t know that,” I asked, wiping away the frost, “why come here?”


She flushed—only slightly, but her skin was pale enough to show it all the same. “I always just assumed you were a werewolf.” She paused. “Wait, this doesn’t mean that I’m a werewolf, does it?”


I snorted again. “Yes, I am, and no, you’re not.” A werewolf’s magic is very distinctive and very recognizable, and I have a ton of practice at recognizing it. Alexis definitely didn’t have any tones of werewolf in her scent. “I’m not entirely sure what you are. But given that it would have to be at least two generations back for both of our mothers to get it, I’d wager you’re three-quarters human.”


“Oh.” She thought about that for a moment. “What’s it mean?”


I shrugged. “Dunno. I mean, I’m such a mongrel we can’t really use me as a baseline.” I frowned. “If I had to guess, I’d say it mostly means that you’ll have an affinity for cold. It’ll take a lot of it to hurt you. The area around you will probably get cold when you’re stressed.” I shrugged again. “It might also make you stronger, or let you live forever. I really don’t know.”


Realization dawned in her eyes. “That’s why you look so young.”


I cleared my throat. “Actually, that probably has more to do with the werewolf part.”


“Oh. So…why doesn’t my mother have any of this going on?”




“You don’t know much, do you?” she said sharply.


“And you do?”


“Fair point,” she said after a moment.


“So what’ll you do now?” I asked.


Alexis shrugged. “I’m not sure. This seems like something I ought to know more about.”


“Probably,” I agreed. “You might have a hard time finding things out, though. I’ll be looking into it, and I’d be happy to share anything I happen to find with you.”


There was a very long pause. I didn’t object, because it gave me time to stuff my face. “This stuff,” she said after a moment. “It’s dangerous, isn’t it?”


I didn’t see much point in lying. “It could be. Your blood could make you some pretty scary enemies, especially now that you’ve started…I don’t know, waking it up or whatever. Not to mention that there are people who’d be happy to kill you just because you’re my cousin.”


“Wait, what? Why would somebody kill me for being your cousin?”


I sighed. “Because I have a talent for stumbling into hornet nests and my sense of self-preservation is less functional than my appendix. I’ve pissed off a number of unpleasantly powerful people, and some of them would love to take a hit at someone because they know me. We’ve never been that close, Alexis, so it hasn’t been worth their while, but if they think that’s changing it could be pretty bad for you.”


She laughed. “Oh, come on, Winter. You sound like the private eye in a bad gangster movie.”


I frowned. “Actually, I’m on good terms with the only gangster I know. But other than that you’re not all that far off, honestly. These things are cliché for a reason. And we’re talking about, like, the original bad guys, here.”


She was silent for a moment, studying my face. Apparently whatever she saw there convinced her that I was serious, because she went pale and looked away. “You mean people like us, don’t you? People who are….” She trailed off, clearly not sure how to finish the thought.


“Supernatural?” I suggested. “Unnatural? Preternatural? Otherworldly? Spooky?”


“Let’s stick with spooky,” she said dryly.


I chuckled, as did Snowflake (absent doesn’t have to mean ignorant, when you share a mental connection). “Fair enough. And yes, I am.” I thought of Frishberg, who most definitely wasn’t my friend however chummy she could act, and frowned. “Although, in all fairness, that sort of thing isn’t below your standard-issue human either. There are all sorts of bad people out there.”


There was another moment of quiet. “It seems to me,” Alexis said, slowly and quietly, “that I don’t have a lot of choice about belonging to that world.”


I shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. Like I said, I don’t really know what you—we—inherited along those lines. But yeah, if it’s much like any of the other supernatural influences I’ve encountered it’ll make it pretty hard for you to blend in with ordinary society. Most people with a weird ability like that wind up migrating to the community over time, if only so they have someone to talk to that doesn’t think they’re insane.”


“What do you mean ‘the community?'”


I shrugged. “It’s…I don’t know, the community. You get some loner werewolves, some mages. A handful of changelings, a few people like you with weird blood in their family tree. I once met a guy who’s descended from Zeus, around fifty generations back. Then there are a couple people who’re totally normal but happen to be involved for some reason.” I shrugged again. “We aren’t friends, generally speaking, but…well, we have to look out for each other, don’t we? Nobody else will.”


“Huh,” she said thoughtfully. A moment later, “If I’m going to be involved in this stuff regardless, seems like I oughta know something about this. Like, know who I’m dealing with and stuff, right?”


“That’s your choice,” I said calmly. “But sure, sounds pretty reasonable. I can show you around some right now if you want, introduce you to a few people.”


She opened her mouth, then paused and glanced around. When she did speak, her tone was almost embarrassed, and she was holding her shoulders stiffly, almost as though she were anticipating a blow. “I’m sorry, I can’t. Maybe tomorrow?”


Nothing unusual in that request, particularly—but her posture made it suspicious. “What’s so pressing?” I asked, voice carefully light and casual, as though I couldn’t care less what the answer was. “You meeting your boyfriend for coffee or something?”


She flushed again, and refused to meet my eyes. “No, it’s not that, it’s just that I’ve…got something I have to do.” She looked at her phone. “Oh, shit, I’m late. I shouldn’t have stayed here so long. I’m sorry, Winter, I have to go.” She stood up and all but bolted for the door.


Well, that was fun.

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2 Responses to Balancing Act 6.3

  1. Terra

    This chapter as the previous editions, showed me the art of description as well as deception this author is capable of weaving. Each segment has made the characters become more real in my mind. Winter Wolf never disappoints me. I await more. As weird as Winter is, I believe he is someone I would like to call friend. I definitely would not want him as my enemy!

  2. Emrys

    This is an author’s commentary written after the completion of the series. Spoilers are in a rot13 cipher; if you aren’t familiar with that there are a number of very easy deciphering websites to use. These spoilers may cover the full series, not just this book, and they may make reference to major plot points and character development. You have been warned.

    A much better chapter than the last one. The skinwalker is a very fun character to write, and overall, I think, one of the strongest characters in the series. I think this would probably have been a better starting point to this book than the actual first chapter, really. It’s got a significantly stronger hook, and a clearer explanation of what the situation is and why Winter should care.

    The Alexis portion of the chapter isn’t quite so compelling. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not terrible. It introduces the character, it lays out some aspects of the situation and Winter’s history in a fairly competent way. But it doesn’t have the same degree of interest, it isn’t so intense. It does what it’s supposed to do, but I don’t think the scene works as well as the earlier part.

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