I woke up slowly the next day. I do mean day, too; I slept until almost noon.
I was pretty disoriented, which is why it took me a moment to realize how funky things were. I’d gone to sleep in my armor, in the forest, draped in all manner of weaponry. I woke up sitting in a chair, in the same cafe where I’d met with Kyra and Pellegrini, wearing street clothes.
In other words, something was very wrong with the world.
To reinforce this impression, as soon as I was awake I heard a voice. More specifically, Loki’s voice, or at least the voice he used most often in my experience. He said, “You’re about to go visible, so try not to jump.”
Loki himself was sitting across the table from me. “Good morning, Winter. How do you feel?”
“Stiff. Sore. Generally not too great. But alive.”
“Very good,” he said enthusiastically. “Most excellent. Oh, your food should be here shortly. I’m sure you’re hungry, after last night.” He motioned toward the large glass of iced tea in front of me.
I considered asking whether it was poisoned, but dismissed the notion. I mean, really, what would be the point? If it was, Loki probably wouldn’t tell me. And, in any case, if he ever decided to kill me, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. He was a god; I was just a mortal with a little bit extra tacked on; ergo, any fight between us could end in only one way. It wasn’t complicated.
It occurred to me that it was more than possible today was the day he would make that decision. In which case, hell, I might as well enjoy some breakfast first. The tea was quite good.
“So,” Loki said. I noticed he was idly flipping a butter knife around in one hand, and couldn’t help but remember that was the instrument he’d promised to kill me with if I messed up. “I’m assuming that you have some entertainingly complex plan to recover the spear. Or else you’re terribly confused.”
I bowed my head slightly—not that I really thought the gesture of submission would count for anything, but I had to try, you know? “Actually, Loki, I wasn’t planning on retrieving it.”
“Now, see,” he said, “that’s what I would call ‘terribly confused.’ After all, we did have a deal, didn’t we?”
“I have fulfilled the terms of your request,” I said.
He raised one dark blond eyebrow. “Oh, this should be good. Do continue, Winter, I’m dying to hear this explanation.”
“You asked me to identify the person or persons responsible for three deaths in this city,” I said carefully. “I have done so. Shannon Plumber was killed by Pier of the Daylight Court, Steve Potts by criminals hired by Humberto Escobedo, and Humberto himself by Carraig of the Midnight Court. In a more broad sense, Erica Reilly was responsible for all of these deaths and several others by obtaining, and subsequently selling, the Gáe Bolg.”
“Which is all fine and well,” Loki said. “But I rather think you’re forgetting one little part. Namely, that wasn’t all I asked you for. By which I mean that I also asked you to return the stolen goods.”
This was where it got tricky, but if it worked I might get out alive. “You asked me to return anything stolen from the victims,” I corrected. “At no point in time did the Gáe Bolg fall under that category. Plumber sold it to Potts before her death, which was a legal transfer of property. It was then confiscated by the police from Potts’s home, which is their legal right and was properly executed. Neither of these were cases of theft.”
“And for you to take it from the police? Will you tell me that was legal, as well?”
“No,” I said. “That was theft. However, you very clearly stated that only things stolen from the victims of the three murders which had happened when you contacted me were to be returned to you. As I did not steal it from any of those individuals, it does not qualify, and at that point the spear was mine to do with as I would.”
Loki considered that for a moment. Then he did the last thing I’d expected.
He started to laugh. And kept laughing, until he was leaning on the table for support with tears running freely down his face. “Oh,” he said breathlessly—which was pretty funny in itself, given that I don’t think he actually needs to breathe in order to talk. He was a pretty good actor, when he remembered that he wanted to be. “Oh, man. That’s really good. Nice job, Winter. I have to say, I didn’t expect you to be that good at lawyering.”
“So we’re even?” I asked cautiously.
He waved one hand carelessly. “Oh, sure, sure. No problem. I mean, I have to reward that kind of twisty thinking somehow, don’t I?”
“Do you?” I asked, curious.
“Well, I’m reasonably confident I’m supposed to, at any rate. Being god of half-truths and unethical bargaining and all that. Besides, it’s not like I wanted the thing anyway.”
Right about then the waiter dropped off my food—and only my food, because apparently Loki wasn’t even pretending to need to eat today. “What do you mean you didn’t want it?” I asked once he’d left.
“Of course not,” Loki said patiently, as though speaking to a child. “Why should I? I mean, I’ve no idea what I’d do with such a thing, and then I’d be always wondering where I’d left it. No, thank you. I probably would have just given it back to Scáthach. No big deal.”
I stared. “I don’t get it,” I said eventually. “I mean, if you didn’t want it in the first place, why’d you cash in your favor?”
“Well, it was funny, wasn’t it?” he asked, as though that explained anything. “Everybody had all these careful plans laid out, I just couldn’t resist interfering. You make a wonderful monkey wrench, by the way.”
“Thanks,” I said sourly. “So this whole thing was just to satisfy your twisted sense of humor for a day?”
“Pretty much, yeah. Thanks, you were a lot more exciting this time around.”
I spent a minute eating and reflected that the universe put way too much effort into hating me.
“No, actually,” Loki said as though I’d spoken aloud. “Very common mistake. People find the claim that God hates them to be very comforting, so I suppose it’s only natural.”
I snorted. “Comforting? Comforting? In what way is knowing that there are forces vastly more powerful than me which hate me comforting?”
“In what way is it anything else?” he countered. “People say they believe in a benevolent and loving God, of course, but that’s a very difficult attitude to maintain in the face of a world which seems determined to disprove any such concept. Often, I find, humans find it much easier and more satisfying to believe in a God which hates them personally.”
“I still don’t get how that’s a comforting attitude.”
“Think about it,” Loki said, leaning forward earnestly. He was wearing deep blue eyes today, presumably because the real thing would have been inappropriate for such a public venue, and if I hadn’t known better I would have thought him perfectly trustworthy. “If God hates you, then nothing bad that happens to you is ever really your fault. It doesn’t matter what you do, because God will always ensure that nothing goes right. Besides which, you can always tell yourself that you’ve beaten this God with whatever scraps of happiness you do achieve, which must be a significant boost to your ego.”
I frowned. “Huh. I guess I never thought about it that way before.”
“Of course not. To think about it from a rational perspective would undermine all the psychological benefits of such a worldview. Besides which, that would force you to examine a much more existentially frightening concept.”
“The idea that God doesn’t care,” he said, sounding even more earnest. “Think about it, Winter. A God who hates you is, fundamentally, a God who knows that you exist, a God who pays attention to you personally and cares about your life. In a negative sense, perhaps, but all attention is good attention, as they say. Malicious, yes, but it nevertheless says that there is something bigger, that it does know and care who you are, that you’re important to no less a being than God himself.”
“Now,” he continued, gesturing grandiosely with his butter knife, “compare that to the alternative—that is, that there is no God, or worse, that God exists but doesn’t care. Now that is a terrifying concept—imagine a God who knows you exist but can’t be bothered to remember, who is so much more than you that you become just a number on the file folder. It’s the difference between a gunshot and cancer, you see?” He shrugged. “I imagine it also places a great deal more moral responsibility on you. If God isn’t responsible for the horrors of the world, after all, there are very few other candidates than yourselves.”
I thought about that for a while as I finished up the food—not as much as I might have wanted, but I wasn’t about to complain to Loki. It was an interesting perspective, one I hadn’t ever really considered before. “So which is true?” I asked after a minute or so.
He laughed, infinitely more disturbing than Fenris’s. When Fenris laughed, the sound was touched with wolves’ howls and a hunger too deep for words. Loki’s laugh, though, had an edge to it of madness that made mere human insanities seem rather blasé. “In a cosmic sense? Who knows?” Grinning a mad grin, he stood up and offered me his hand. “There’s something I want you to see.”
Did I want to see it? No. I didn’t even have to ask to know that I would rather take a silvered grater to my knuckles.
It’s never good when the Trickster smiles. Never. Never ever.
Of course, I was still holding my life in my hands, quite seriously. Loki might have been amused enough by my exploitation of a technicality (not to mention all the violent antics of the past days, which seemed like something he’d enjoy) not to kill me. But he was still fucking Loki. He didn’t need a reason to kill me. He didn’t even need an excuse. If he wanted to, he could murder me right there in front of a dozen witnesses and I was willing to bet he’d get off scot free. My continued life was dependent on being amusing to him—and, while my life might not be the best available, I wasn’t ready to give it up quite yet.
Not as heroic an attitude as I’d managed the previous night, perhaps. But, alas, it was a lot harder to hold on to that sort of dedication and sacrificial attitude in the light of day. It’s one thing to die heroically, but I’ve never been all that great at living heroically.
So I shrugged and took Loki’s hand. And, as it had before, the world changed, literally in the blink of an eye.
When my eyes opened again, I was standing in the corner of a cramped, cluttered room. I recognized it, too—I’d only seen Erica’s dorm room once, but the sharp division between the mess on her side and the neatness of her roommate was distinctive.
Of course, it helped that Erica herself was sitting at the desk. I mean, that sort of thing tends to jog my memory, you know?
At around that time, I noticed three things. The first was that Loki wasn’t standing next to me. The second was that Erica hadn’t reacted at all to my sudden appearance. The third, and by far the most disturbing, was that I had no control over my body whatsoever. I couldn’t blink or look away from the tableau. I certainly couldn’t walk. I was still breathing, and my heart was still beating, but other than that I was immobile—and, in spite of the spike of fear that went through me at this realization, my breathing rate and heartbeat remained steady, no change at all.
As I watched, Loki moved into the scene. He wasn’t wearing the “normal person” persona now. His clothing, all dull blacks except for a single gold ring, was tailored to make his tall, thin frame even more noticeable, and while his hair was the same dark blond his eyes had gone to orange-and-green chaos. His voice, when he spoke, was deep and rich and had mad laughter dancing under the surface.
“You asked me for power, Reilly. Do you remember that?” he asked, moving forward into the center of my field of vision. Erica stood up, obviously taken by surprise, and turned to face him. It seemed like she was moving very slowly. “And I gave it to you! I gave you everything you asked for—power, knowledge, wealth, whatever, not that you had the imagination to ask for much. And all I asked for in return was that you obey one simple rule. Do you remember?”
She was afraid. Oh, she tried to hide it, but she wasn’t very good at it. She knew who she was talking to—she’d seen those eyes once before, and I’d told her who they belonged to—and even Erica was smart enough to fear Loki. “What do you want?” she asked, stammering very slightly. Huh. Maybe smarter than I’d thought.
“‘Anything unusual is to be reported immediately,'” Loki said, seeming to take a certain amount of relish in the words. “Is there some complexity to the statement that I don’t understand? Did you somehow think what I really meant was, ‘Unusual things can be sold to anyone I feel like?’ Did I perhaps fail, in spite of numerous repetitions and assurances, to make it clear that I was serious?”
“You disappeared! How was I supposed to tell you?” Erica protested. She sounded aggrieved, and just slightly too strenuous in her denial. She knew that she’d messed up, even if she wasn’t going to admit it to anyone but herself.
“Really,” Loki drawled sarcastically. “I’ve given you a lot of slack, Reilly. I’ve been willing to tolerate your idiotic greed, and it is idiotic, up to this point, because you were of marginal utility to me. As of right now, you are rapidly approaching the point of being a liability instead. Comments?”
“I…how could…what was I supposed to do?” Erica said, stammering more heavily now. She tried to retreat from Loki, only to find herself up against the edge of the desk after a mere two steps. “Look, I can make up for it! Just tell me what I have to do!”
Loki shook his head slowly. “No, I don’t think so. Your second chance has come and gone, and you failed. Furthermore, you demonstrated either abysmal stupidity or astonishing recklessness in ignoring my rule. I have little patience for either of those things—and none for failure. Goodbye, Reilly.” Without seeming to move at all, he was standing mere inches from her. He reached out and flicked her lightly on the forehead with one finger, then disappeared.
Erica sighed in relief, the tension running out of her body visibly. If I could have moved, I would have screamed at her in frustration. It’s never that easy, Loki’s never really finished with a person, she should have known that.
But then, Erica was never the sharpest.
Of course I couldn’t scream at her. My body was still on lockdown. I couldn’t even move my eyes, or close them.
As a result, my view of what happened next was much better than I would have liked. So much.
Take a raw tomato. Dip it in boiling water for a few seconds. Pull it out and drop it in a bowl of ice water. Watch the skin pull away, easy as anything, exposing wet red flesh underneath.
This was a lot like that. Except nastier. So so so much nastier.
I’ve seen some bad things, and I’ve done some bad things, and I generally think I have reason to think of myself as being something of a hard guy. And this made me want to cry, or vomit, or at least avert my eyes—not just because it was awful, but because there was something terribly intrusive about it, like accidentally seeing a stranger naked.
I couldn’t do anything of the sort, of course. My body was still firmly under Loki’s control. Oh, I fought it, of course I did, but it didn’t make a difference. A fly had as much chance of getting free of a sundew as I had of resisting Loki’s will made manifest.
Erica was dead. I knew that. I mean, anybody with any kind of medical knowledge will tell you that one of the most important things you can learn—and one of the hardest—is that there are things you can fix, and there are things you can’t, and no amount of wishing will make the one into the other. I knew just enough about the subject to know that Erica fell very firmly into the second category. I mean, she’d lost her skin. Her entire skin, at least as far as I could tell.
You don’t walk away from that. A healthy young human already in an emergency room wouldn’t live. A werewolf with the full moon and a pack in support wouldn’t survive it. A vampire might survive it, if you could call that survival, but I wasn’t sure even of that. And Erica was none of those things. Short of divine-level magic—which, thanks a lot and all, but I think we’ve got enough of that already—there was nothing I knew of that might save her life at this point.
I clarify this so that you understand what I mean when I say that my first impulse after the puking bit was to kill her. I didn’t have a weapon, but that isn’t really a serious impediment to a werewolf, not when the other guy’s half-dead already. It wasn’t that I bore Erica any particular ill will—she wasn’t my favorite person by a long shot, but I didn’t hate her that much. It was just that I don’t like suffering, mine or anyone else’s. Erica didn’t so much as whimper, and she didn’t so much as twitch, but I knew that having your skin ripped off had to hurt, and I knew that at this point a mercy kill was the only thing I could offer.
I couldn’t do that either. I was quite literally helpless to do anything but stand there and watch. It may have been the closest I’ve ever been to Hell.
My senses were never impaired, though it felt like they should have been. There are times when superhuman senses truly aren’t a gift, and this was one of them—but at least I could tell, a few minutes later, when Erica’s breathing stopped, and didn’t start again. It was the blood loss that did her in, which was a mercy. One-hundred-percent loss of skin was lethal, but if she hadn’t bled out she might well have lingered for days or even weeks before dehydration, infection, or septic shock finished the job.
Not a big mercy. Puny, in fact. Picayune. But still. A mercy.
So died Erica Reilly. She wasn’t a good person, at least not the way I saw things. She was greedy, shortsighted, and not infrequently almost unbelievably stupid. Had circumstances been slightly different I suspect I might have killed her myself. And yet, for all of that, I didn’t want to see her die, and would have helped her if I could.
Almost immediately after Erica’s death, I once again found myself elsewhere. As I had control of my body again, the first thing I did was to puke out the meal I’d just eaten. I took my time about it, and did a fairly thorough job.
“Oh, come on,” Loki said in an amused tone after a minute or so. “Don’t you think that’s a little excessive? It’s not as though you liked her.”
I looked up and saw the god standing a few feet away leaning on a graffiti-strewn brick wall. On some level I knew it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I still glared at him, and when I spoke the venom in my voice surprised me a little. “But I didn’t murder her,” I spat.
He looked at me evenly. “You might have, if I hadn’t. It’s not like you haven’t killed people you liked more.”
I didn’t have a lot of grounds to argue that one. “At least I would have done it quickly. And painlessly, if I could.”
“And?” he said. He sounded honestly confused.
I wanted to keep arguing with him—but, on some level, I recognized that it was pointless. Things like mercy and gentleness were quite simply not a part of his nature. He was ancient and inhuman, and to judge him by human standards was a waste of time and effort. Heck, I doubted he could even understand human values. “Never mind. Why did I have to see that?”
He grinned. “Well, now you know I don’t dislike you.” The implication was pretty clear; if he did dislike me, that was what I could expect.
It was a sobering reminder of what I was dealing with. Even talking with Loki was the equivalent of jumping up and down on an unexploded land mine.
He started walking down the alley. I followed him, because what else was I supposed to do? After a few seconds, I recognized it as being directly across from my lab. I could see the building, the familiar door replaced by one without a hole punched through it. “So,” Loki said, halting just before the mouth of the alley. “For entertaining me, you get a reward. Three more of those mage-children have made similar deals with me. I look forward to watching you figure out which ones.” He winked one forest-fire eye at me and disappeared, leaving me behind.
I had a lot to think about as I crossed the street.
I didn’t have time to think about it, of course. That’s how life goes.
Fenris was standing next to my door. He had his civilized human face more firmly in place today, and only my ability to smell magic (and the fact that I recognized his form, which—unlike his father—he never seemed to change) allowed me to recognize him for what he was.
He also looked rather smug. I wasn’t as worried about that as I was when Loki did it—Fenris had helped me out several times now, and he actually meant it—but it was still a little unsettling. Especially after seeing the way Pryce reacted to his presence. Forget old legends, that was spooky.
“Winter!” he called to me, not moving from his spot next to the door. “You made it!”
“Barely,” I agreed with a sigh. “What are you doing here?”
His grin spread wider. “Thought I’d give you the tour.”
Tour? What tour? I thought for a moment…and then froze as I realized that my lab building smelled of magic.
Now, that wasn’t too surprising, in itself. After all, the outside was covered in fae wards, and the inside was covered with my wards. I’d have been seriously worried if it didn’t smell of magic. But this was different, a new tone added to the mix. I wasn’t sure quite what it was—it was woven in very subtly, very smoothly, and I couldn’t pick out enough of a distinct marker to say for sure what it was supposed to do or who had cast it. All I knew was that the delicate blend of energies making up the aroma of “standing outside my laboratory door” was different, and not simply because Fenris was standing there.
Fenris, seeing my expression, smiled even more broadly, reached over, and opened the brand-new front door, revealing an impossibility.
The building was a small, worn down old house. It was one story tall, with nothing fancy about it whatsoever. The first room inside the door was a foyer, carefully set up to give off the “abandoned” air. I just about literally knew every inch of that room. When I looked through the door, that foyer was what I saw, perfect in every detail.
But when I stepped through, I found myself somewhere very different. I froze dead still and looked around in wonder as Fenris followed behind me and shut the door behind himself.
I’d never really done the mansion thing. So I don’t know what a typical entrance room—a room dedicated solely to being an entrance, I mean—really looks like. But I know that this one was pretty damned impressive.
It was around three stories tall, for one thing, with a great big vaulted ceiling overhead, and long enough that you could have built a small house in it without cramping. To either side of the door was a spiral staircase, elegant and seemingly unsupported, made from finest white marble, leading both up and down. The rest of the furniture was, if not quite as dramatic, equally nice. There were a number of chairs and couches, artfully arranged throughout the hall. I wasn’t sure whether to sigh or laugh when I saw that at the far end of the room was a marble dais with a small but genuine throne on it. There were several doors down both sides of the room.
The furniture was nothing short of lovely, all dark woods and bronze fittings. The upholstery was a mix of silk and velvet, all in shades of deep forest green, with a bit of leather (not green, thankfully) thrown in for variety. There were a handful of accents in blue, violet, and white, but for the most part green was clearly the order of the day.
It is not often that I am struck speechless. This did it.
Fenris laughed at my expression. “You like it?” he asked.
My mouth worked. Nothing came out. I eventually managed a “Wow.”
He laughed some more. “Come on,” he urged, sounding as excited as a kid with a new toy. He tugged gently at my sleeve, and proceeded to lead on one of the more impressive whirlwind tours of my life.
It quickly became apparent that my initial impression of “mansion” wasn’t far off. The entrance hall was the largest room, but there were a lot of them, and none was less than incredible. To the left of the throne room, as I immediately came to think of it, was a literal game room, by which I mean that I couldn’t see any purpose to it but games. The chess set—set into its own table, of course—was more white-and-black marble, flawless, with just enough variation between the pieces to be handmade, but not enough to have been made by anyone short of a master. There were also a number of card tables, billiards, tall glass-fronted cabinets holding more games, the works.
Behind the wall where the throne sat was a large indoor garden. The flooring here was dirt, with flagstones forming winding paths throughout. Here and there, marble planters provided a place for anything a person wanted to give special emphasis. Everything was empty—excepting a single long planter that wrapped around the outside wall of the garden, which was filled with a mix of goji and lingonberry, mingled together.
I’m sure Fenris had a reason for that. It just hasn’t occurred to me yet. Subtle symbolism is a fine thing, but I occasionally have to wonder whether these people are overdoing it a little bit.
I suspect you can guess a lot of the rest. The other side of the empty garden led into a kitchen, more marble, complete with top-quality everything. Even the knives had handmade hardwood handles. The dining room next to that, rounding out the ground floor, could have seated a banquet at the long oak table.
“This is incredible,” I said, following Fenris in a daze. He seemed content to just escort me through the place with that same silly grin rather than saying anything. “How’d you do this?”
“We’re actually on the Otherside,” he said with—entirely reasonable—pride. “This domain is permanently linked to your old lab, so you don’t have to worry about the time dilation. Don’t worry, though—it’ll only work for you and anyone with you, or people you specifically designate. And they won’t be able to bring anyone else in with them.”
Holy cow. I mean, wow. I couldn’t even imagine the complexity involved in that kind of magic. It’s one thing to know that you’re barely more than a child when it comes to magic, and that you’re talking to a literal god—but wow. It is entirely different to have it driven home.
Fenris seemed, again, content to give me all the time I wanted to absorb that while he showed me around the place. The basement had a laboratory, larger than the entire building I’d been using up until that point. I recognized most of the supplies there, including Legion’s skeleton, though the room itself was much nicer than my old lab. I mean, seriously, when even the labs get marble counters and hardwood worktables, you know you’re in a classy place.
More surprising was the armory right next to it. It was equally huge, and equally impressive. Strangely enough, it was softer and more welcoming than the rest of the mansion—more wood and cloth, less stone, gentler lighting (all of which, by the way, all through the house, was given off by simple stone panels enchanted to glow). One mannequin held my armor, another Aiko’s.
In between were scattered all sorts of weapons. There was a sizable gun rack, an equally impressive if rather more scarcely inhabited sword rack, and a long display case lined in green velvet with individual, tailored depressions where shorter blades rested. I also saw, as we walked through, a table covered in magical foci and stored spells, and another with various other small weapons and toys, and a large cabinet filled with ammunition of all types.
Granted it was all either my stuff or Aiko’s, but sheesh. I’d never seen it all in one place before. Now that I did, I had to admit it might be a wee bit excessive. I mean, at some point you have to acknowledge that your knife fetish is approaching pathological levels.
There was a lot more, but at some point the rooms started blending together in my head. Suffice to say that the second floor—no more marble, thankfully, although the hardwood and velvet were there to stay—was less impersonal than the ground floor. There were guest bedrooms, bathrooms, a library, and more than a few rooms whose purpose I couldn’t even guess. I suppose at some point you can’t think of any more, so you just start throwing in empty areas and hoping the tenant can think of something to do with it. Possibly the most remarkable—and, I must admit, slightly unsettling—section of the second floor was the trophy room.
A trophy room. Seriously. A trophy room. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much, except that there were actually trophies in there. Nothing grisly—certainly no animal heads, thank Fenris—but still. I’m not the kind of guy who has trophies. Come on.
Anyway, I guess I was getting kind of numb by that point. It was just too much stimulation in too short a time, especially right after waking up. Besides, going from a cot under the lab table to this was a little too much to really accept right away. I’d never in my adult life lived anywhere more extravagant than a cabin. The idea of living in this massive, well-appointed mansion was too much to take in.
Which is why I wasn’t expecting much different from the third floor. Well…I was wrong.
I’d more than slightly expected the massive bedroom, and I wasn’t far off on the details, either. Thick green carpet, bronze-and-wood furniture, wooden paneling, check, check, check. Granted, the paneling was rosewood instead of more ebony or walnut, which was nice—comfy, rather than impressive. And the bed was a massive four-poster complete with curtains—curtains! on a bed!—which, I have to admit, was more than slightly surprising given that I didn’t think beds like that actually existed. All of which paled when I saw a heap of silver fur at the foot of said bed.
I started to walk over and say hello to Snowflake—somehow I was unsurprised she’d adjusted to the new digs faster than I would—but was stopped by Fenris’s outstretched arm. “She needs her rest,” he murmured to me.
For a second I was confused. Then I saw another, smaller canine curled up in the exact center of the ridiculously large bed. This one was red, and looked to be so solidly asleep that a decent-sized explosion wouldn’t do much. My heart lurched a little at the sight, to indulge in an overused yet strangely appropriate expression—not an unwelcome surprise, but a very unexpected one.
It says a lot about how stunned and overwhelmed I was, that it didn’t occur to me until that point what the ramifications were of living on the Otherside. Aiko was allowed to be here.
I allowed Fenris to usher me back downstairs without complaint. “The tomte moves in tomorrow,” he said to me. “Don’t try and spy on him while he works and you shouldn’t have any issues with cleaning or maintenance. And I’ve arranged for grocery deliveries—it might not be the most variety, but I can promise everything will be fresh.”
What do you say to something like that? I have no idea. Anything I could come up with seemed inadequate. So I settled on “Thank you,” and hoped that it could convey all the rest.
Fenris seemed to understand. He looked at me, and smiled slightly. “Good job, Winter,” he said, opening the front door. It looked out on the same street in the same bad neighborhood as my lab’s door always did. “I’m proud of you.”
After that, pretty much all that was left was wrapping up. I didn’t hear from Bryan again. I did get a card from, of all people, Ash Sanguinaria, which I sure as heck didn’t see coming. It was meticulously handwritten in plain black ink, and very serious. The contents weren’t anything too remarkable—she had enjoyed meeting me, she was glad I wasn’t as dead as expected, she hoped to talk to me again, etc.
I’m reasonably confident that she didn’t know that someone, presumably a less serious fellow student, included another piece of paper in the envelope. It was written in a much more spontaneous way (by which I mean the handwriting wasn’t that good, and there were a lot of misspellings and crossed out words), and told me not to take Ash’s demeanor too seriously, because it was mostly an act.
I don’t know whether that’s true. But it made me smile, and I actually do hope I see her again. That’s unusual—most of the time, after I meet someone new, I wish I believed in God, just so I could pray to never encounter them again. It doesn’t work, of course but it might make me feel better.
Just look at Carraig. I mean, sheesh, I’m sure I never want to see him again, and equally sure he’ll stick his nose in again at an inopportune time. He’ll probably have moved on to keelhauling or something by then.
But hey! It could be worse. I mean, I’m alive, Snowflake’s alive, Aiko’s alive, everything else you can live with, right? We’ve got a kickass mansion all to ourselves (needless to say I’ve been taking certain measures to ensure that. In fact, I feel rather sorry for anybody unlucky enough to try breaking in, given that Aiko and Snowflake pitched in on the defenses. Those two scare me when they get going, and I frankly think the bit with the dental floss was a bit over the top).
As for the rest, well, I’m currently pretending it doesn’t exist. Oh, I know I can’t pull that off forever, but for right now? I think we all deserve a bit of a rest.