By the time I made it back home, it was around nine. I’d only had to open one portal this time, as Brick did the first one for me. I left him in his strange underground home, after first promising again to watch each other’s backs. I made a few calls on the way, less satisfactorily than I might have hoped. I told Kris that Brick was all right, and generally what had happened to him. She wasn’t particularly surprised, which made me wonder whether she’d actually pointed me at him as a roundabout way of getting me involved in this mess. I couldn’t help but think that, considering how much difficulty someone of Kris’s relatively minor talents would have getting the job done herself, tangling me up in the middle of a horribly tangled mess in a free-fire zone was a damned good way to assassinate me. Nobody would even suspect her.
I didn’t think that particularly likely. We’d always gotten along pretty well, and in any case she’d always struck me as the sort who dealt with her problems directly—but, then, that was exactly what she would want me to think, if she really was out to get me, wasn’t it?
I never used to think things like that about my friends. I sometimes think that’s the worst part about getting involved in the political scene, even slightly. You have to be paranoid of everyone, and assume that every single person you meet is lying to you in order to set up a hit of some sort, just to survive.
I hate that.
But, of course, that didn’t change a damned thing.
Other than that, I made brief calls to Mike and Katie trying to talk them out of helping Jimmy with his insane behavior. I made no progress whatsoever—they were both too stubborn, too dedicated. No surprise, really; of all the Inquisition, it was those two who had started doing what they did out of a sense of moral obligation, rather than any personal motive. A zealot, I reflected, was always the worst sort of person to try and talk out of something. Once they get the wind in their sails, nothing will sway them.
On the other hand, I did confirm more or less what Brick had told me about the split in the group. Mac and Chuck had both quit going on monster-killing trips several weeks back, although Mac was still healing them after they won the fights. The rest—Brick, Doug, Kris, and Matthew—were still willing to help, but felt that they should sit this round out. Some of the things Katie said made me suspect that she had taken their reluctance to undertake a suicide mission as a personal affront, a suggestion that they weren’t as dedicated to the Great Cause as they should be.
That scared me, a little. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time an extremist group schismatized and then executed a purge on its less extreme members. And Katie, although a nice enough person and truly dedicated to Doing the Right Thing, could be very, very scary in how far she was willing to go to do so. More so than the rest of them, even, and that was saying something.
That could get ugly, fast.
There also wasn’t anything I could do about it, at least not right now. So I put it on the back burner and went home to have a nice chat with my cousin about the nature of life, the universe, and everything, with maybe a side conversation on the topic of magic and the fallible nature of any human’s perception of reality. If I got really lucky, she might even tell me the truth about what she was doing here this time.
“Do you have any idea how awesome this is?” Alexis asked me, gesturing grandiosely. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were bright, and she generally had the look of some excited almost to the point of autourination.
I looked around the kitchen. “Not really, no. How awesome is it?”
“I’ve known professional chefs that would have killed for a setup like this,” she said exuberantly. “How much did this cost?”
“Um. Actually, I really don’t have any idea. I don’t really spend all that much time here. I’m a pretty bad cook, you know.”
I really don’t think that Alexis could have looked more shocked if I’d run naked down the street while loudly proclaiming myself the king of the muskrats. And spitting fire. And maybe even piloting one of those Chinese paper dragon thingies they break out for New Year’s. It looked like she was about to have a fit, although whether it would be outrage at my lack of culinary skill or ecstasy over my kitchen seemed to be still up for debate. Seriously, she looked like she was about to start humping the food processor or something.
I decided to move the conversation to another location, and topic, before I could find out whether that was a more literal statement than I thought it was. I had seen and heard—and, depending of course on your definitions, probably done—stranger and more unsettling things, but still. You shouldn’t get that excited over a kitchen. It’s just not natural.
“How’d things go this morning?” I asked, sitting on one of the couches in the throne room. There were more comfortable places—actually, in that house, the throne room was probably the least comfortable place—but this was closer. Besides, I wasn’t anticipating staying long.
“Not bad,” she said, sounding a little calmer now that she wasn’t surrounded by high-quality cookware. “I only woke up a few hours ago.”
“Is Aiko awake?” That wasn’t at all certain; she tends not to be an early to bed, early to rise type. She usually woke up before noon, but by no means always.
Alexis snorted. “Yeah. She spent most of the past two hours trying to convince me to break all the rules you told me last night.”
She treated me to the look normally reserved for the cripplingly mentally impaired—which, again, probably justified. “I’ve read Bluebeard, Winter. Of course I didn’t.”
I chuckled. “Good job not being a complete moron, then.”
“Thanks. Anyway, a little while ago she gave up on that. She said she was going to go take out the traps on my bedroom.”
I grinned. “Don’t believe it. She won’t do anything that might seriously hurt you, but there’s no way she won’t take the opportunity to prank you.”
“Thanks,” she said dubiously. “So what are you doing now?”
“I’m starving,” I said. “How do you feel about going out for a bite to eat?”
She frowned. “Are you sure? I mean, there’s a ton of food here. I could cook something. It wouldn’t be a problem.”
I sighed. “I know that, Alexis. What I meant was, how do you feel about going out for a bite to eat, where I can talk to some people, maybe introduce you to some of them worth knowing, maybe run a few errands. All of which, you may notice, are things I can’t do here.”
She flushed. “Oh. Right.” She hesitated for a second. “Isn’t that dangerous, though? I mean, I thought you said I shouldn’t leave the house….”
I shrugged. “It’s possible. You’ll have Snowflake and me with you, so it should be relatively safe. After we wiped out their last strike force they’ll probably be a little more hesitant to hit you directly while you’re with us. But yeah, it’s possible that something bad will happen, and I can’t guarantee your safety.” I shrugged again. “End of the day, it’s up to you. If you want to avoid anything that might be dangerous, you’ll never leave this building—and even that, by the way, isn’t perfect. This house is a hell of a tough nut to crack, so you’re safer here than most places, but nowhere’s totally secure.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “Right. I know that,” she said firmly. “So where are we going?”
“One second,” I said, and went upstairs to say goodbye to Aiko. Well, actually it was mostly to tell her that Brick hadn’t done anything overtly dastardly to me; she has a tendency to overreact rather extremely to people she finds threatening, and she has a hair trigger when it comes to the people she cares about. You’d never guess it from casual interaction, but she’s actually rather protective.
I also helped her prop a bucket of maple syrup (don’t ask me where she got it, because I have no freaking idea) over Alexis’s door. And coat several doorknobs and handles with bear fat (likewise of mysterious origin). Because really, some things are just too funny not to do. And I’d already warned Alexis, anyway. If she really wanted to get into my world, she had to develop a proper sense of paranoia, and there was no time like the present to start building it. Better by far that she start out with harmless pranks. It would be good practice for when people started seriously trying to kill her.
“So,” Alexis said as we walked down the street. She’d offered to drive, but it was a lovely fall morning, and those don’t come along often enough to disregard them. Besides, we weren’t traveling all that far. “I think you owe me a conversation.”
“Yep,” I agreed cheerfully. “It’s a lot of explaining, but we can start with something fairly simple. Do you believe in magic?”
“What do you mean by magic?” she asked guardedly.
“That’s actually a sort of difficult question,” I said. “But, again, we can start simple. Magic itself is, essentially, a force. It doesn’t register to scientific instruments, because it isn’t entirely physical in nature. Someone with the right set of talents can manipulate that force, make it do things which are detectable physically. Sometimes those things don’t make a lot of sense, from a scientific perspective, and as a result most people dismiss them as impossible.” I shrugged. “There’s a lot more, and depending on who you ask you can get all kinds of philosophy and metaphysical bullshit mixed in with it, but that’s the basics.”
“Magic,” she said, sounding a little numb.
“Yep. Do you believe that?”
“I guess so,” she said, although she didn’t sound particularly happy about it.
“Good,” I said. “Because it’s real. It doesn’t work much like you might expect, but it does exist, and it’s responsible for basically all the weirdness you’ve been noticing.”
Alexis was silent for a while, absorbing that. “Why were you surprised by the lightning?” she asked at last.
“Well,” I said, “that brings us to the next point. I mentioned the other day that you’re not entirely human, right?” She nodded. “Well, that’s still true. And most of the things that can do magic aren’t human, not even a little bit. But some magic is human in origin, right? I’ve got some ability for that, and given that it’s human it must have come from my mother—that sort of thing doesn’t have to be inherited, but more often than not there’s some sort of blood connection. Your mom doesn’t have any magic that I’ve noticed, and I have looked, but I’m guessing it runs in the family. Probably just skipped a generation.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “So the ice and stuff…?”
“Doesn’t have any connection to the lightning,” I confirmed. “Totally unrelated traits. I could make a spark of static electricity, but I’d have to work for it. Theoretically I might be able to induce a lightning strike, but it would take several hours of effort, and the end result is as much luck as anything. I sure couldn’t do it reliably.”
Alexis blinked. “Why not?”
“How many languages do you know?”
“Um. Just the one,” she said, clearly confused by the non sequitur.
“Me too,” I said, nodding. “I know a handful of phrases in Spanish, and I can curse in most of the languages of Europe. That’s it. Do you think that makes me an idiot?”
“Of course not.”
“Me neither. But Aiko speaks Japanese, English, Latin, German, Italian, Spanish, and French fluently. She can get by in Greek and Arabic, and God only knows what else that she hasn’t told me about.”
I grinned. “I know, right?” I shook my head, my smile fading. “I’m never going to know that many languages. It doesn’t matter how hard I work. It isn’t something I’m good at.” I shrugged. “But I’m better than her with mathematics. I have a better grounding in history, and most of the sciences. I’ve read most of the major religious and philosophical works, and a lot of the minor ones. And it isn’t bragging to say I’m really, really good at making things. So you tell me, which of us is smarter?”
Comprehension dawned on her face. “You’re good at different things.”
“Exactly. And I’ll bet you fifty to one, right now, that there’s something you know better than either of us. It might be something small, might seem petty or unimportant, but you know it. You’re good at it. Because that’s how people work, right? Nobody’s good or bad at everything. Well, that applies to magic too.”
“So lightning isn’t something you’re good at?”
“Nope,” I confirmed. “Electricity in general, in fact. It’s really not something I’ve practiced with.” I shrugged. “That’s how mages work, pretty much. You can work on it, and with enough work you can learn to do other things, but you need to accept right now that you’ll never have more than a small subset of skills. Odds are good that electricity will be the only thing you can work with at all for a long time.”
“You have to understand, we’re kids playing with fire here. We don’t really understand magic—or, at least, nobody I’ve ever talked to does. We know how it works, sorta, but why? Beats me.” I shrugged again. “Because that’s how mages work. It always goes the same way. When your power starts to develop—usually that happens between ten and fifteen, but it isn’t rare for it to wait until you’re nineteen or twenty, so you aren’t terribly unusual—it always goes in more or less the same way. There’s one thing, one single and specific thing, that you can do. It’s easy, it’s natural, it comes without even having to think about it. The first thing you have to learn is how to control it, how to leash it to your conscious mind. You’ll always do it instinctively, but you can learn to use it deliberately, and how to make it do what you want. Once that’s done, you can start experimenting with other applications, learn what you’re good at.”
“How long does that take?”
“Depends,” I said. “There’s a lot of factors involved. It took me around two, maybe three years from when I started showing a talent until I had solid control over it. But that’s something of a special case. It shouldn’t take you more than a year, I’d guess.”
She absorbed that for a moment. “What’s yours, then?”
“Animals,” I said simply. “Well, predatory animals, really, and mammals by preference. I can do all kinds of mind magic involving predators, inhabit their bodies with my consciousness, that sort of thing. I have a certain amount of power over them, but I don’t use it like that very often, because it’s rude and it’s unnecessary.”
She looked from me to Snowflake and back again, and once again I got to see sudden understanding light up her face.
I grinned. “Nice catch. Not many people get it that fast. Yeah, Snowflake’s more than just a normal dog. She’s a hell of a lot smarter, for one thing—smarter than a lot of people I know. She also knows more languages than me.”
“Could I talk to her?” Alexis sounded almost wistful.
“Not likely,” I said, not without a certain amount of sympathy. “It’s an extremely unusual ability. You might learn to talk with Snowflake specifically, because she isn’t normal herself, but you’ll probably never be able to communicate with other animals.
“Oh. What’s she say about me?” she asked a moment later.
You want me to tell her the truth, or make something up?
Might as well tell it like it is. Unless you can think of something funny to say, which isn’t likely.
“She thinks you’re a bit naive,” I said aloud. “She’s spent her whole life around me, so she sort of has a hard time understanding how little you know about our world.”
Wow, way to soft-pedal what I said. How gutless. You didn’t call her an idiot even once.
Oh, shush. To Alexis, I said, “Okay, we’re almost there. Some of the people you’re about to meet are pretty scary, but you’ll be fine if you follow a few simple rules.”
She turned to look at me, her face cautious. She was taking me seriously, and she was smart enough to be a little bit afraid. Good.
“Stick close to me,” I said. “I’m known here. If you make it clear that you’re with me, they’ll treat you with a lot more respect. Don’t make any trades. I’m serious about that—not even one as simple as swapping phone numbers. Don’t offer anyone a gift. Don’t accept any gifts, either, unless I tell you it’s okay. If someone looks offended, apologize, even if you think it’s their fault or you don’t understand what they’re upset about.”
She waited a bit, then said, “Is that all?”
“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “No, there’s a whole hell of a lot more to it than that. It can be a lifetime’s worth of work to really understand this crowd. But those are the big ones. Remember those and follow my lead, and you should be just fine.”
Pryce’s bar is an interesting place. He doesn’t advertise, and at this time of day he had relatively few customers, it being between breakfast and lunch. As such, there was little to distinguish his establishment from the abandoned warehouses around it. The restaurant itself was in another warehouse, unmarked by any form of declaration. Either you knew what it was, or you had no business being there.
As with many less mundane parts of the world, it was only if you looked closely that you could begin to see its true nature. There was no graffiti on the building, which was unusual in this area. The door was a heavy slab of oak, not cheap pine or institutional metal. There were never many passersby on this street, but if you watched long enough and closely enough you would still see that those who were there never seemed to go near the building. It didn’t seem to be a matter of deliberate choice. It was more like they simply didn’t go near, left a cautious space around it without conscious thought, the way they might an undertaker’s place of business. It wasn’t that you were afraid of it, or that you stigmatized it, because you of course were a reasonable, intelligent, unprejudiced person and would never think of attaching that sort of superstition to the profession.
You just didn’t see a reason to go near. That’s all. Really. Nothing to see here, move along.
I, of course, walked straight up to the door and opened it. Alexis looked a little uncertain, a bit uneasy, which was in my experience a perfectly normal reaction from an ordinary person approaching Pryce’s for the first time. Part of it’s the spell he has around it to keep plain old humans from coming around, but I think more is that they are subconsciously aware that this isn’t a place which belongs to their ordinary, rational, skeptical world.
She followed along gamely enough, though, and didn’t complain. Points for resilience. She hesitated a little when I opened the door to reveal a short flight of stairs down to the restaurant itself. I didn’t blame her for that, because the room was just dim enough in comparison to the daylight that a human would have a bit of trouble seeing for the first few minutes.
Of course, the bar itself might have been responsible for that. If so, I didn’t blame her for that, either. Pryce’s is a rather overwhelming place at first—especially given that, from what she said, I was pretty sure Alexis was interpreting magic as a visual sensation, rather than an olfactory one the way I did. There was a lot of magic in Pryce’s. Until she learned to distinguish that from actual vision, she might have a hard time seeing in here.
I waited patiently for her to adjust, then led her across the room to my favorite corner table. “Welcome to Pryce’s,” I said grandiosely. “Favorite watering hole of all the magical misfits, supernatural outcasts, and generalized freaks in the city. Possibly even the state.”
“What should I have to eat?” she said, looking around uncomfortably.
I shrugged. “Whatever you want. Just ask; if they can’t do something, they’ll tell you so.” Pryce doesn’t actually have a menu. He doesn’t see the need, and nobody’s willing to argue with him about it.
People don’t argue with Pryce about much of anything, in fact. Partially because he’s nigh-godly powerful on his home ground, which he never leaves. But mostly I think it’s just that if you try, he just responds with noncommittal grunts and monosyllables until you give up and go away. It’s hard to really argue or debate with someone who refuses to cooperate.
There’s probably a lesson there, somewhere.
Alexis asked for a spinach-and-mushroom omelet, with ice water to drink. I, being rather more ambitious, had a hamburger with all manner of toppings on it, including some that people don’t normally think of in that context, including sausage gravy, sliced avocado, and a fried egg, and a very large glass of very strong iced tea.
My cousin looked at me uncomfortably. “You really don’t care about your body at all, do you?”
“Alexis,” I said dryly, “trust me. Compared to a lot of the things I’ve done to it over the years, this is a six-month stay in a luxury hotel. There isn’t even any blood involved.” I frowned. “You aren’t really a vegetarian, are you?”
Great. Just what I needed.
While we ate, I sketched out the basics of the supernatural scene for Alexis. I told her who the really big players were, and a little bit about them. (Snowflake made the occasional comment, some of which I passed along to Alexis. But mostly she was more interested in a bowl of meat and bones and another of water that Pryce handed me without being asked. We’re fairly routine about some things, after all.) I explained the dangerous position of people playing the game without one of those groups to back them up, and how a lot of those people tended to congregate here. We—and I made sure she understood she was included in this—were the flotsam and jetsam of the magical world. In some ways it was like being an illegal immigrant, actually; our presence was tolerated by the real citizens, and occasionally they would kick some work our way, but we didn’t have the same rights, or privileges, or legal protection. If you didn’t have an affiliation with a larger group, anyone who did could kick you around more or less at will, and there wasn’t a lot you could do about it.
I wasn’t quite that bad off. I knew the Khan personally, and his was a name to scare even scary people. Between that and the years I’d spent racking up accomplishments and building connections, I was pretty well established. I had a decent number of names to drop and a decent collection of achievements to boast about. I’d earned respect in this crowd. They were, by and large, mean sons of bitches, because you have to be to survive that kind of life—but they would hesitate before causing trouble for me.
Alexis didn’t have that protection. The only name she knew was mine, and I just wasn’t scary enough to shield her with my reputation. I had no intention of broadcasting that she was my cousin, and even if I did, that wouldn’t change a thing. In the supernatural world people usually only respect you for yourself. I could probably get some awed whispers by saying that I was related, however distantly, to the Fenris Wolf, but that would be more because I’d spent time talking to him personally and shared a drink with him. I’d met other people with that kind of heritage at Pryce’s, and aside from people buying them drinks in exchange for stories it didn’t matter a bit who their great-to-the-nth-degree-grandfather was.
Once the food was finished, we set about introducing Alexis to the community, and vice versa. I introduced her to Pryce, and Luna, and Rachel, in all three cases referring to her only as a mage just starting out, rather than making any mention of our family connection. She got along with all of them quite well, or at least as well as anyone gets along with Pryce. He isn’t exactly a wellspring of cheer. It was Saturday, which was Chuck’s day off (he worked as a mechanic, and had done for a number of years now), so I wasn’t especially surprised to see him already there drinking. The shapeshifter takes his booze seriously, and even so early in the morning it wasn’t terribly unusual for him to be at Pryce’s downing beers. Alexis turned down his offer of a drink, but they spent a few minutes chatting. She flirted with him a bit, although clearly both parties knew there was nothing serious to it, and generally both of them seemed to have a good time. It was good progress at introducing her to the local scene, at any rate; Chuck wasn’t aligned with anyone, but nobody really had a grudge against him, either, and those two facts combined to mean that he was drinking buddies with half of the freaks in town.
That was the good news. The bad news was that my primary purpose in coming here, finding out more about what was going on, was a total bust. Pryce wasn’t willing to compromise his notoriously strict neutrality, and I didn’t even ask him about it. Rachel hadn’t heard anything, which wasn’t a surprise. She was in the same position as I’d been most of my life—she had magic, she wasn’t normal, but she only dabbled in the community. She came to Pryce’s for company and food, not politicking. Essentially, Rachel didn’t know about the territory war because it didn’t matter to her who claimed to own the city, so long as they left the small-timers alone—which all of them would, because there was no reason not to.
Luna, of course, was an entirely different story. She’d heard tidbits, because it was her job to hear things, and she was willing to trade for what I knew. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much. She’d heard the rumor that the Daylight Court was making a play, but no hard evidence. The other Council interest in town was a gang of rakshasas, who were more than likely the enemy Katrin wanted me to take out for her. Rumor said they’d tried to hit the vampire (whose name, incidentally, Luna did not know) last night and got their asses handed to them, but the only thing anyone knew for sure was that a building had gone boom.
In return I told her that a skinwalker had taken an interest, and the other serious competitors were yokai. I probably gave more than I got, but I didn’t mind too much. It couldn’t hurt to build up some more goodwill with her, considering that she was still the best source for local info I had.
Chuck, of course, didn’t know a thing. He was happily withdrawn from the (slightly) higher level of involvement that working with the Inquisition had forced him to take, and exulting in the peace and quiet.
I tried a half-dozen other people, too, who I didn’t know as well. A couple of old small-scale mages, a half-breed fae I’d met through Val, some guy whose magic smelled like rain but was otherwise unidentifiable. He’d bought a few things from me in the past, and we got along reasonably well, but I didn’t know his name and hadn’t shared mine—although he probably knew it anyway. People like that.
I didn’t learn anything from them, either. In all, after close to an hour of work, I had pretty much nothing to show for it at all. I hadn’t learned anything new about the territory war, aside from the fact that it was starting to seriously pick up momentum. I hadn’t learned what would create the bizarre corpses Frishberg had shown me. I had not, in fact, learned anything.
“Okay,” Alexis said as we sat back down. Snowflake had kept the table clear for us while we circulated throughout the room. “So what do we do now?”
I grinned. “Now,” I said, “we wait.”
“Uh-huh,” she said skeptically. “For what?”
“Well,” I said, “now everyone knows what we want. We’ll give it a few minutes to see if any of them want to come talk.”
Said minutes dragged by, slower than molasses in February. It seemed nobody was interested in helping me out at the moment. I was just considering leaving, and trying to figure out what my next move should be, when someone sat down across from us.
She was around five feet tall and slender, maybe a hundred pounds. She was fine-boned and had sharp, Asian features and close-cropped black hair, and was wearing jeans, boots, and a biker’s leather jacket. The leather smelled, obviously, like leather, but through that I could pick out a familiar aroma. Her magic smelled like fox, and under that a tone reminding me of the desert, all hot winds and broad expanses of sand.
Aiko smelled less like desert, and more like spice—nutmeg and cinnamon, mostly. But other than that, it was very similar. A kitsune, she had to be, the second one I’d met.
“You mind if I sit here?” she asked, having already sat. Her voice was much more heavily accented than Aiko’s—presumably, this kitsune had less lingual facility. Or perhaps she was just more accustomed to speaking Japanese; Aiko was fluent, and I was reasonably confident it was her first language, but I’d never heard her speak it, not even a word. She has issues.
“Not at all,” I said, smiling without any particular warmth and being sure to show teeth. I met her eye as I did, just to make sure the message got through.
“Thanks,” she said. If she noticed my coldness, she didn’t show it. “I hear you’re interested in current events.”
I nodded my head, very slightly. “I expect you know something of such things yourself.”
She smiled enigmatically. “Perhaps so.”
I paused, and then sighed. “Okay, look. I’ve had a long day, okay? So how about we stop beating around the bush. What do you want?”
“I thought I’d share information.”
“No, but really, what do you want?”
She laughed. “I spoke truth, Master Wolf. I wish only to inform you.”
“Uh, not to look a gift horse in the mouth here, but why?”
She shrugged. It was irritating, because her body language was almost the same as what I was used to seeing from Aiko, but just a little different. This particular gesture was somehow both stiffer and more rolling than hers. “It isn’t a great burden to me. Besides, you’re with my cousin.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding. “That explains a bit, then. So who’s leading your people’s bid to take over the city?”
“What makes you think I’m involved in that?”
I smiled again, thinly and coldly. “I really think this conversation would go better for all of us if you would kindly stop trying to trick me into giving things away and just tell me openly what you want from me, madam.”
She looked me over again, her gaze more considering this time. “You aren’t as dull as they say you are, are you?”
I sighed. “I have little time or patience at the moment, kitsune. Thrice I ask and done, what do you want? Answer me this time, or this conversation is over.”
She frowned, and nodded sharply, once. “As you might imagine, even in a relatively minor conflict the fog of war is considerable. We are all pressing our intelligence capabilities to the limits, the more so because we are not familiar with the area. As you have spent a great deal more time here, I think it likely that you have knowledge we are not privy to. Are you willing to trade?”
I spread my hands out to my sides. “There, you see? Was that so difficult?” I frowned, turning serious again. “I’m quite willing to trade information with you, yes, although I must warn you that my information is not nearly as complete as I might hope.”
She nodded again. “Not surprising, considering that you’re still asking around about it. What do you wish in return?”
I shrugged. “Ideally, I would like to know who leads the yokai here. I would like to know what your goals are, in a general sense.” She opened her mouth to protest, and I hurried to cut her off. “I am not asking for information regarding your strategies, or indeed anything which I could use against you. I only want to find out what you want in this city, and why you’re moving here and now.”
I sighed. “I live here. It’s my home. Granted I could move, but I can’t say I want to—I like it here. Given that, and given that you apparently want to claim the area, is it really so surprising that I want to know who you are, and what I can expect if you should be successful?”
“I suppose not,” she allowed. “That sounds fair to me.”
I nodded. “I give you my word I will share all information I have pertinent to this territory dispute, at this time, with the exception of a minor incident of a personal nature which I have excellent reason to believe is relevant only to me, and has no bearing on your request or the conflict which you are interested in.”
I could tell she wasn’t happy about that addendum, but I was hardly going to tell her about the attack on Alexis. Besides, if I really wanted to deceive her, I wouldn’t have mentioned it at all, would I? “And I,” she said, “give you my word that I will tell you the name used by the leader of our force in this city, and why he has come here. You first or me?”
“Me,” I said. It was polite, and it would tell her that I trusted her word. I’d been pressing pretty hard, especially considering that she was of a species noted more for trickery and misdirection than straight dealing, and I figured if I wanted to not make an enemy right here I’d better start laying it on thick.
“Since the local werewolf pack left for greener pastures this spring,” I began, “I understand that this area has been considered vacant territory, although I only found out about this myself a short time ago. It seems that this ignorance is general locally, which makes me believe that this conflict has only recently begun in earnest. However, I have substantial evidence that it has properly begun now, and will be escalating shortly.”
“What evidence is that?” she asked.
“First, I was informed by one of the parties involved that things are heating up, and he requested that I remove myself from town for a time to avoid the violence—don’t worry, I’ll discuss him further in a moment. Second, the local law enforcement found several corpses which appear to have been killed using a form of magic I have yet to identify. Circumstances surrounding the victims suggest that they may have been in some way involved with the supernatural, and as a result I suspect that they were killed as an opening salvo in this war. Third, I have an unreliable report claiming that a skirmish occurred last night between a group of rakshasas and a local vampire, involving a sizable explosion. For something that large and public to occur implies an escalation of hostilities.”
“It wasn’t a vampire,” she said grimly. “I can tell you that for free.”
Well, wasn’t that interesting. “Moving on to the parties involved, then,” I said, pretending I hadn’t heard her. “A knowledge broker I occasionally deal with said his info reported a group of yokai involved, which I believe you have confirmed, and also that there was a party from the Vampires’ Council with an interest. A local source confirmed that, and specifically identified a group of rakshasas as the party in question, although I have yet to investigate that further. I’ve also heard that the Daylight Court is involved, but at this point I’m reasonably confident that rumor’s unfounded.”
“It is,” she assured me. “We’d know, otherwise.”
“Yes, well. Other than that there’s a local group of mages interested in claiming the territory, but considering that they have no formal training and there’s only four of them actively participating in the effort, I doubt they represent a threat to you. The only other participant I know of is the one who warned me away. I’m reasonably confident he was a skinwalker, but given that nobody else seems to know anything about it he’s probably just now starting his bid for power in the area.”
The kitsune’s eyes got wider—just a little bit, but enough. “A skinwalker? That…explains a few things.”
I wanted to ask what. But I hadn’t bargained for that information, and I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of telling me so. So I just smiled cryptically. “Well, then, I believe that’s everything.”
She nodded. “Yes, and generously. My turn, then. The person leading the yokai in this matter is a tengu named Kikuchi Kazuhiro. He’s around three hundred years old, and thinks it’s time he was dai-tengu. Except he lived on Mount Kurama.”
I didn’t know much about the tengu, because let’s face it, there were just so many supernatural critters that nobody could know much about more than the tiniest fraction of them. But they were one of the more prominent yokai, and I knew the important things. Thus, rather than look confused, I was able to nod knowingly. “And Sojobo will never give up his mountain,” I said. Sojobo, who was the chief tengu on Mount Kurama, was quite possibly the biggest badass of any Japanese myth, excluding bona fide gods and certain dragons. He sure as hell wasn’t going to yield to some kid of a mere three centuries, not when he himself was at least a thousand years old, and probably twice that.
“Exactly,” the kitsune said. “And there aren’t many unclaimed mountains in Japan. There are a handful of hills he could have moved into, but that isn’t a good way to build your reputation. He could have challenged one of the other dai-tengu, but that isn’t a good way to keep breathing. Then he found out that there’s a great big mountain this side of the ocean, a famous mountain, that nobody had claimed. If he was the first dai-tengu in North America, everyone would know his name.”
“That doesn’t sound particularly profitable for you,” I noted.
She shrugged. “I had nothing better to do,” she said easily. “And besides, this is good for my reputation too. And it’s never bad for a dai-tengu to owe you one.”
“Is it worth your life? Because that’s what it might end up costing, given whom he’s fighting here.”
She snorted. “No, it isn’t. That’s why I’m only here as a scout. Kazuhiro can fight his own damned battles; I never offered to fight for him.”
“You know that,” I said gently. “He knows that, and is of course too honorable to ask you to do so.” I managed to say that with a straight face. “But that doesn’t mean the bad guys do. Just be careful, that’s all I’m saying.” It was a narrow line between patronizing and threatening on that last bit, so I just delivered it without any particular inflection or tone at all.
She narrowed her eyes belligerently, which made me feel pretty good about that choice. She struck me as the sort who wouldn’t react well to being patronized, and threats at that point would have been tacky to say the very least. “What do you care?” she asked, her chin thrust forward as though daring me to pick a fight.
I smirked. “It isn’t a great burden to me,” I said, mimicking her vapid tone from earlier. “Besides, I’m with your cousin.”
She considered holding on to the attitude for a second, then decided on a bark of laughter instead. “I guess you are, at that. Tell her Kimiko says hello.” Apparently that was goodbye, because she stood up and walked out without another word.
I was all set to leave, after that. I’d gotten whatever information was to be had here, and I figured that if I left now I’d have time to catch up on sleep and maybe spend some more time talking with Alexis about just what she was getting herself into. I’d even stood up, Alexis and Snowflake following my lead, when we were interrupted by the sudden appearance of another visitor.
I don’t mean that he didn’t stop and chat on his way there. I don’t mean that he was moving quickly, either. If he moved at all, it was either too fast or too concealed to be visible. From my perspective, he just appeared, standing behind the chair just vacated by Kimiko.
Alexis gasped in surprise. I managed to remain silent, but couldn’t help twitching a little. Even Snowflake said, Not bad, with the mental equivalent of a raised eyebrow.
The man facing us was slender, taller than average, and dressed all in dusty black. The clothing contrasted sharply with his hair, which was a brilliant shade of red I would have assumed to be the product of dye anywhere else, and grass-green eyes. He smelled of grass and trees and hours spent in the sun, and more strongly of a predator’s musk.
As I watched, he nodded to me, deeply enough to just about qualify as a bow, and sat down. “Bonjour, Monsieur Wolf,” he said, his voice mellifluous and surprisingly deep.
I sat too, glaring at him and being careful not to make eye contact. “Yeah, hello to you too. What do you want?”
“Pardon?” he said, sounding about as French as it was possible to sound.
I sighed. “You said Wolf without any accent whatsoever,” I said, not making an effort to mask my irritation. “That, and the fact that you’re here at all, strongly suggests that you speak English. If you do not, you might as well leave, because it’s the only language I’m fluent in. In either case, I don’t have enough time to fool around.”
He laughed. “You got me,” he admitted, in slightly accented but perfectly understandable English. “A bit wordy, though, don’t you think?”
I narrowed my eyes. “I mentioned the need for brevity, did I not?”
He laughed again, throwing his hands up in surrender. I noticed that he had a ring on one of his fingers, a very unusual ring. It was a simple band of gold, but set with three stones, all of which looked just a little bit odd. The first, a red stone I presumed was ruby, seemed to sparkle a bit. I would have passed it off as a trick of the light, except that it was easier to see in the shadows. The second stone was normal enough, except that I couldn’t figure out why you would set a piece of quartz in gold. The third seemed to flicker between amethyst and emerald as it moved. Looking at the iridescent gemstone was oddly dizzying, and I quickly focused my eyes on his face again instead.
“Very well,” he said, seeming to take no notice of my momentary distraction. “I say truly, though, that you should relax somewhat. I came only to share with you something that you should know.”
I managed not to roll my eyes, but it was a challenge. Why was it that everybody picked today to act like I was born yesterday? “And why should you do such a good deed as that?” I asked, perhaps a bit sarcastically.
He chuckled. “And why should I not? You are a man not so far from mine own heart, Wolf. You feed my kin, and there have never been so many who look kindly upon them that such a one can be lightly dismissed. And you are kith and kin of my favorite bridge partner. That’s three ways I’m tied to you. A little knowledge isn’t such a great gift that I would hesitate to make it under such circumstances.”
I put a few things together, and then inclined my head slightly more than he had at the beginning of the conversation. “Ah,” I said. “That explains it, then. Good morning, Reynard.”