That evening, almost exactly at sundown, there came a knocking on the door. Whoever it was knocked nine times, heavy and regular as a death knell. I opened it, expecting the worst by both logic and habit.
What I got was Skrýmir sweeping in like a one-man avalanche and enfolding me in a bear hug that would have made a grizzly cry mercy. “Excellent work, my boy,” he boomed, almost loud enough to deafen me all over again. “A king’s blood in your veins! And not shy to show it, either. Most excellent.”
He unwrapped me, and I almost fell over. “Ah…thank you, Your Majesty.”
He laughed. “There’s no need for that between family, lad!” He nodded. “Truly, though, you’ve done a fine job. My brother will complain, of course, but don’t doubt he’s proud of you as well. I’ve put out the notices, and as fast as your star ascends it won’t be long before folk are volunteering, I wager.”
I paused, a tiny voice in my head warning me very, very loudly. “Uh. Volunteering for what, exactly?”
“Why, a place in your court, naturally. I expect there will be some very stiff competition for places among your housecarls, although of course the final decision is yours and yours alone.”
“Um…Skrýmir, I wasn’t actually, ah, planning on having a court.”
“You’re a jarl now,” he said, as though confused. “A jarl has to have a court. It wouldn’t be right, otherwise.”
“Well, okay, but I wasn’t going to stay the jarl. I only claimed the title to serve a purpose, and it’s sort of done now. I figured I’d just give the city to Kikuchi, or maybe the vampires—they seemed reasonable enough. Or I suppose I might invite a werewolf pack in and let them take over the territory.”
“Nonsense!” the jotun king thundered, loud enough to make me literally and physically wince. “This land is yours, rightfully claimed and honorably earned. It’s yours. Besides, you know as well as I that you shall make a fine jarl, and any who say otherwise can say it to my axe.” He winked broadly. “Come now, son. I spoke to your lady, the other day. Don’t you think she’d enjoy a bit of power to abuse?”
Never refuse the command of a god. Never, never, never ever. Even if they like you. Even if they don’t seem to care a great deal. Even if the command is implicit, rather than explicitly stated. It never ends well. Never.
Skrýmir wasn’t a god, but given that he reputedly duped, mocked, and insulted them and got away scot free, I was pretty sure the same applied to him—especially given that, technically, I had declared myself a member of his court, and thus subject to his orders. Thus, rather than protest that I didn’t want to be a jarl, I bowed my head. “As you say, then,” I said, wincing internally. I’d known there would be a price for my little bit of political maneuvering, but I’d been really hoping it might not look like this.
“Glad to hear it,” he said with another infectious grin. “Come on, then, and bring Miss Miyake. I think a celebration’s in order, for the family’s newest jarl!”
As I should probably have guessed, Skrýmir’s idea of a “celebration” was what I would have called a “bar crawl.” I’m not sure how, but he seemed to know where every single drinking establishment in town was, and was determined to patronize every one. As you might imagine in a city the size of Colorado Springs, that took rather a lot of doing. About fourteen hours’ worth, in fact, which is why it wasn’t too surprising that my memory of the event is slightly fuzzed—I can’t, for example, quite recall how we got from one bar to the next.
I managed not to get quite as wasted as the last time I’d seen Skrýmir, largely because I was drinking alcohol meant for human rather than jotun consumption. Aiko, who seemed just as inclined to “celebration” as Skrýmir did (although, I suspect, for different reasons; the kitsune had not taken at all well to her prolonged Otherside house arrest, and given that this was her first chance in a long time to party in her preferred world it probably isn’t surprising that she went to excess), seemed determined to match him drink for drink.
It was inevitably a losing proposition, of course, because this was freaking Skrýmir we were talking about, and he showed so little ill effect from the superhuman quantities of booze he was downing that bartenders and other patrons were looking at him with awe verging on reverence. But it still had the effect of producing a very, very tipsy kitsune. There were, nigh-miraculously, no serious incidents or criminal activities, although a number of amusing events did result. My favorite was when Aiko picked a fight with a two-hundred-and-fifty pound biker. He took offense, and then found himself looking up at Skrýmir. The giant casually picked him up and threw him bodily out of the bar.
Through the wall. Fortunately—ridiculously so, even—no one was injured.
The next clear memory I have is of walking up a familiar street, while the sun came up behind us. I was all but carrying Aiko, who was holding an empty bottle of schnapps and humming the tune to “Schnappi, das kleine Krokodil.” It was most likely not a coincidence.
“What are we doing here?” I mumbled. From the way Aiko giggled, I was guessing it was not the first time I’d asked.
“I have something to show you,” Skrymir said cheerily. He seemed none the worse for wear. “Come along, now.”
The streets started getting more familiar. I sighed; even in my current condition I could figure out where I was, and in any condition I would have found it ridiculous.
A few minutes later, the pack house came into view. I don’t know how, but it had been repaired—completely—since I saw it last. The walls were pristine. The doors were present. The windows were not only unshattered, they weren’t boarded over, although the bars were still there. It was like the rakshasas had never been there.
“Welcome,” Skrýmir said with a grandiose gesture, “to your new hall, jarl.”
I sighed. I wasn’t even surprised. Disgusted, but not surprised.
Inside, the main room had been redecorated again. The comfortable, cozy lounge feel was gone. Instead, the room was dominated by a flare-backed throne on a large dais. It was constructed from black iron, with no decoration whatsoever. The result was a rather grim look.
The walls were covered in artwork, ranging from tapestries to hanging scrolls. They exhibited the same themes of wolves, winter, and death that everything I owned seemed determined to fall in line with, although there was a lot of variation within that theme.
The dominant position, though, was very definitely held by the massive coat of arms on the wall behind the throne—mine, apparently, although I hadn’t heard a word about such a thing before. Loki’s doing, I supposed, although it might also have been Fenris’s, or Skrýmir’s, or even Blaise’s. The shield was black, with a ragged-edged wolf’s head on it in white, and was flanked by a pair of rampant wolves in black. The wolves were standing on what looked like a sheet of ice. The shield was mantled, shockingly enough, in black and white. The appearance as a whole was somber, stark and cold. The scroll underneath bore the motto Grimmir ok Svalbrjóstaðir in ornate lettering. I had no idea what it meant, and only guesses as to what language it was, although finding out was definitely high on my list of things to do. Bad enough to have a formal motto, and much worse not to have chosen it myself; the idea of not even knowing what my motto was was rather upsetting.
Maybe it was fatigue—or, you know, the fact that I was more than a tiny bit drunk—but something about the whole thing struck me as incredibly absurd. I stood there, and looked at the latest twist my life had taken, and I laughed. They looked at me funny, but I didn’t care. I just laughed and laughed and laughed.