I was shifting around on my throne, ass already numb, and wondering how much tickets to the tropics would cost me. I’d heard that Hawaii was very nice at this time of year, and if we timed it right we could be quite well hidden before they ever thought to look for us. I’d never been to a tropical island before, but it couldn’t take that much adjustment.
“Jarl?” a slightly diffident voice said. “Are you ready?”
I sighed, sat up straight, and cursorily glanced over my appearance. Everything seemed in order, which left me with no excuse for further delay, so I said, “Yes, Sveinn, thank you. Bring him in.”
“Já, minn herra,” Sveinn said, and gestured slightly. I’m not entirely sure why he couldn’t say it in English—”yes, my lord” cannot be that difficult to remember, and it wasn’t like I in any way encouraged him to add the lordly bit in any case. Besides, he spoke English just fine. I suspected he just did it to annoy me. I probably shouldn’t have let it go on—I was technically his lord, after all, regardless of how little I wanted the position. But Sveinn Wartooth was the most sane and reliable of my half-dozen housecarls, and I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that reliability.
Besides. I didn’t want to start thinking of myself as a jarl. I might be in a position of authority now, but nobody said I had to like it.
A moment later, two more of my minions walked into the room, dragging a bound and gagged man visually indistinguishable from a human. He was dressed in clothes which would let him blend into any college crowd in the city without too much difficulty, although the effect was ruined by his expression. His hands were tied tightly behind his back with actual rope, and another length of rope connected his feet. It was long enough for him to walk, but would severely limit his stride length, and the jötnar carrying him were moving too quickly for him to keep up. It wasn’t until they stopped, directly in front of me, that he was able to stand up under his own power.
Vigdis Bloodaxe, perhaps the craziest of my housecarls—although that was, in all fairness, a fiercely disputed title—was standing to his right. She was holding his shoulder in one hand and his elbow in the other, and had a broad, nasty smile on her face. Kjaran, on the man’s other side, was supporting his weight with one hand under his arm. His face was dispassionate, disengaged.
Vigdis is the lunatic of the group. But Kjaran unnerves me more. I do not understand him. I do not know what he wants, or why he continues to work for me. The man is an enigma. Even Aiko finds him strange and a little creepy, and not much gets to her.
“Thank you,” I said calmly. Vigdis nodded sharply, her features suffused with pride—she had been instrumental in his capture. Kjaran didn’t react, but then he wouldn’t. Not for nothing do they call him the Silent.
“So,” I said, speaking to the bound man now. “Good evening, Mr. Miner.” He startled visibly when I spoke his name; clearly, he’d thought himself anonymous—justifiably, considering how tricky it had been for me to learn his real name. “I’m sorry to meet you under such circumstances, but you didn’t seem particularly amenable to speaking with me before.” I’d made a point of sending him a very public, very well-attested message; I didn’t want anyone to claim I hadn’t offered him a choice.
“Now then,” I continued briskly. “I hear that you’ve been saying rather offensive things about me for some time. Insults and such. You will notice, Mr. Miner, that I have allowed you to do so. It is of course your inalienable right to believe and, indeed, to say whatever happens to come into your evidently quite tiny mind!” I shook my head sadly. “Unfortunately, you recently went beyond speech. You acted against a person under my protection. There are things which can be forgiven, Mr. Miner, and there are things which cannot. Your recent actions—which, I might add, are directly in violation of the treaty your people agreed on with me—are distinctly in the latter group.” Val hadn’t been in any real danger, of course—he was very capable of defending himself, as were both of his employees—but it made a good excuse, which was all I really needed.
Besides. You don’t go around trying to set fire to peoples’ stores. That isn’t political protest or whatever he wanted to call it. That’s just being a dick.
“Shall I kill him, jarl?” said Vigdis eagerly. It was, I knew, a serious offer; she knew the plan, but if I told her to just kill him now she would be overjoyed to do so.
“Not just yet, thank you,” I said. “You see, Mr. Miner, this presents me with certain problems. If I simply kill you, Katrin will undoubtedly be aggrieved. She takes the loss of one of her vampires quite seriously, however valueless the vampire in question may be. Now, I would be well within my rights as defined by our treaty to do so, but I would prefer not to antagonize her needlessly.” I sighed. “Quite a conundrum, isn’t it?”
“Do you want us to let him go?” Vigdis asked, sounding reluctant. The vampire relaxed, and even started to look a little smug, assuming this had all been an exercise to scare him a little. Had he been able to see that Vigdis was still grinning, he probably would have known better. When Vigdis grins, it usually presages violence, usually being inflicted by her.
“No, no,” I said absently, leaning back in my throne and letting my gaze wander off. “Have you ever read Machiavelli, Mr. Miner? It’s quite fascinating—he was a very insightful man, and remarkably honest, I think.. People tend to consider him devious, even evil, but I must admit I’ve always read it a little differently. Indeed, it seems to me that his attitudes were quite moral; his morality was simply more farsighted and logical than was the fashion at the time. After all, if there’s one thing you can say in support of an iron-fisted ruler, it’s that they rule. Better, it would seem, that the people be governed harshly than that they be crushed by an invader, or ravaged by civil war, or any number of other things that are invited by a weak ruler. Stability, even unpleasant stability, is often better than chaos. Don’t you think?”
The vampire couldn’t answer, of course, but his glare had acquired tones of contempt and derision. Perfect.
“Interestingly,” I continued, hardly even seeming to pay attention to what was going on, “Machiavelli even notes several times the importance of avoiding, above all else, being despised and hated—words which are, unfortunately, often confused in this language, when their meaning is really quite distinct. Now, it seems clear that if I kill you, I will provoke hatred from Katrin, something which I should seek to avoid. But if I simply let you go, it will make me seem powerless. It seems to me that there is nothing quite so likely to provoke disdain in the populace in general as to allow a declared enemy to escape punishment.” I shook my head sadly. “As I said, quite a conundrum.”
He managed to snort. Aiko, sitting on the floor to my right, had her head pillowed on my thigh, and seemed hardly even present, mentally speaking. Snowflake had already fallen asleep, sprawled across my feet.
“Fortunately,” I continued brightly, “I’ve had all day while you were, ah, asleep to think of solutions to this puzzle, and I think I’ve come up with four different ways to deal with it. First off, you can simply leave my domain. Exile isn’t a terribly harsh punishment, but it will allow me to save face, which is really all I’m interested in right now. Second, you can publicly recant your statements regarding me. I think that will be some measure of reparation, and the public humiliation should be a severe enough punishment that it won’t be viewed as excessive lenience on my part. Third, I can give you a highly visible injury, which should keep people from seeing me as weak. I think removing a hand should do it—and, Mr. Miner, while you might not think that a terribly significant punishment, I assure you that if I cut off your hand with this—” I touched Tyrfing, which was leaning against my other thigh—”it will not grow back.”
“Now,” I said, with a warning note in my voice, “I should warn you that this is a one-time only offer. Should you break the rules again—which includes returning to the state of Colorado, if you should choose exile—I will not be so lenient. The choice of which of these punishments you will receive is, of course, yours. Kindly remove his bindings.”
Vigdis and Kjaran hastened to comply. A few moments later, the vampire was standing under his own power, ungagged, a few lengths of rope pooled around his feet. Vigdis still had her hand on his shoulder, but Kjaran was standing a few feet away. It didn’t matter; vampire or not, there was no way he could get away or win a fight. Not with me, Snowflake, Aiko, and half a dozen jötnar standing there ready to go to town on him.
He was still glaring at me fiercely, but he seemed to be at least slightly nervous too. That was good; it suggested he might not be a total moron. “What’s the fourth?” he said finally.
“The fourth option,” the vampire said impatiently. “You said there were four choices. You’ve only listed three.”
“Oh, man!” I exclaimed. “How could I forget that! The fourth option is, I kill you in such an entertaining way that hopefully Katrin is too busy being amused by it to get upset with me. I’m thinking I’ll have Vigdis pull your arm off and beat you about the head with it, then maybe stick it up your ass and stake you through the heart with your other arm bone before having your head chewed off by weasels. But if you can think of something funnier I’m all ears.”
Vampires are typically pale. But this one moved another shade or two towards snowy. “You can’t do that,” he said blankly.
Vigdis grinned and tightened her fingers on his shoulder. Now, Vigdis doesn’t look terribly impressive—she’s about average height and only slightly heavier in build than a normal woman, in her human guise. But she’s a frost giant, and I knew she was more than strong enough to pop his shoulder out of its socket with her fingers. I also knew that the vampire was realizing more or less the same thing right now. She leaned closer to him, just inches from his ear, and whispered, “Want to bet?”
The vampire had the peculiarly shocked expression of someone realizing too late that he’s in over his head. A moment later his features firmed into a credible mask of calm. He stuck his free arm out in front of him and looked at Tyrfing significantly.
A short time later, we were all seated comfortably in what used to be the Alpha’s bedroom, back when this house was owned by the pack. It was a little cramped, but now that the main room of the house had been converted into a throne room, it was the de facto gathering place. Given that the second floor had been given over into living quarters for my housecarls, and the third-floor study was basically my office now, there wasn’t a lot of choice. The only room larger was the safe room in the basement, and I wasn’t willing to spend time there. I don’t have a lot of psychological problems from my stint as a prisoner in a werewolf safe room, but I won’t ever be comfortable in one.
I probably shouldn’t have been there in any case. I mean, chumming with the minions after completing a mildly difficult and seriously unpleasant task doesn’t exactly fit with a proper jarl’s dignity and decorum, I suspect. But I have no interest in being a proper jarl, and in any case I wanted to keep my housecarls friendly. They were in an excellent position to stab me in the back, literally or otherwise.
“That was awesome,” Kyi Greyfell said, laughing. “You were so funny, and then he not laughed. I expected not, that would he that choice choose.” Kyi, the other female out of six housecarls, was also the youngest of them, maybe no older than me. English isn’t her first language. Not that any of the other jötnar’s first language is English, but Kyi’s relative youth meant that she sounded like it, particularly when she’s had a bit to drink. Being a jotun, that’s most of the time.
“I didn’t see it coming myself,” I admitted. “I’d have thought he was smart enough to pick exile.”
“Aren’t you worried he’ll try to get revenge?” Sveinn asked.
“Not really. Katrin won’t want him embarrassing her, and at this point any time someone sees him it will be an embarrassment to her. I expect she’ll have him killed or shipped off soon.” I was guessing the former; Katrin wasn’t the sort to worry overmuch about little things like justice or loyalty. If killing a minion was the most expedient solution, that was what she’d do.
“Clever,” Tindr the Exile said, sounding impressed. He was smaller than any of the others save Kyi, in both human and giant forms, and the worst fighter of the lot. That made him bottom of the totem pole in the hyper-violent jotun society. I was always careful to treat him with respect, though; Tindr is smart. After Sveinn, he was responsible for organizing this mess, and he was the most bureaucratically-talented of the group. He also did all my accounting, now that I was dealing with enough money to need an accountant. I was clever enough to see how vulnerable that left me to him, should he decide he would be better off not to serve me loyally.
“You should have him watched anyway. Just in case.” That was from Haki Who-Fights-Alone. As his name suggests, he’s not the most enthusiastic team player. He wasn’t antisocial, exactly; just not accustomed to working with others, and not particularly inclined to change that. Not entirely unlike me, really, except that I didn’t get the option. When Skrýmir informs you you’re going to hold court and command housecarls, you don’t argue. It isn’t wise.
“Excellent idea,” I said. “Thanks for volunteering.” Everyone in the room laughed, with the exception of Kjaran. Kjaran doesn’t laugh. Ever.
I can’t say it’s the gang I always wanted to be the boss of. But it could be worse.
About an hour later, I got a call from a familiar number and excused myself to answer it, somewhat gratefully. The housecarls had broken out the mead some time earlier (I have no idea where they get the stuff, but it’s seemingly an endless supply), and several of them also had more exotic forms of alcohol. As a result, Kyi was lapsing incoherently in and out of whatever bastardized version of Old Norse the jötnar used, Vigdis was reminiscing about some battle or other, and Sveinn had started singing in what sounded like Swedish.
Given that I don’t drink and at the moment wanted nothing more than to go home and go to sleep, I was rather glad to have an excuse to leave.
“Hey,” I said, closing the door to my office firmly. Snowflake was already there, waiting to go home; she doesn’t like the jötnar much. “What’s up?”
“Exciting times,” Kyra said. Her voice was very light and casual, but I knew her well enough to recognize the tension underneath. “Could you do me a favor?”
“For you? Anything. Especially if it involves leaving this freaking city.”
“Now you know how I felt. So how soon can you get to Wyoming?”
I frowned, estimating timing. It was made trickier by the fact that time’s passage could be slightly more fluid than people usually conceive of time as being in some of the places I traveled through. “An hour,” I said eventually. “Maybe an hour and a half. Why?”
“Wait, what? An hour? How are you going to manage that?”
“Being a freak of nature has its perks,” I said smugly.
“Be that way,” she said. “Well, I don’t think Dolph will be here before morning, so I guess I’ll see you then.”
I considered going back into that room and pretending to celebrate a small, ugly victory in the small, ugly war between me and Katrin, and pretending to take pride in the maiming and probable death of someone who, while no saint, probably never even understood the game he was a pawn in. “Actually,” I said to Kyra, “do you mind if I come tonight? It sounds like this is one of your complicated favors, and I’d like to hear what I’m getting myself into before Dolph gets there.”
“Fine with me,” she said, probably shrugging. I mean, I wouldn’t know, obviously, but I could imagine her shrugging while she said that, and the other person not being able to see you never seems to stop people gesturing.
“Great. I’ll see you in a few hours.”
Almost an hour later, Aiko, Snowflake and I walked in the front door of our mansion. All of the housecarls had offered to come along, of course, because that’s the sort of thing a housecarl is supposed to do, but I’d turned them down. I was looking forward to a little time without having minions around, and if necessary I could always come back and get them.
A few steps inside the door, we were met by Alexis. My cousin and I were never particularly close, but I was currently sort of teaching her magic, and it was simpler for her to live with us than be constantly traveling back and forth. There was plenty of room for it; there are castles smaller than the mansion. It was also cheaper, and significantly safer for her—there are very, very few people capable of attacking a pocket dimension built by a god with the explicit purpose of being very private and very defensible.
“This is ridiculous!” she said, glaring at me.
“The jackass you keep insisting I take classes from!”
“Shihan Johnson has very good credentials,” I reminded her. “And he knows what he’s talking about, which isn’t at all the same.”
“Maybe,” she allowed, not much mollified, “but he’s an asshole.”
“Oh, no,” I assured her. “John’s a very nice man. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to convince him to be an asshole to you. He didn’t like the idea very much, let me tell you.”
The belligerence drained out of her face, replaced by confusion. “Wait a second. You asked him to be a jerk?”
“Absolutely,” I confirmed.
“Because you need to start learning self-defense, aikido is a good place to start, and he’s an excellent aikido instructor. And you also need to learn how to deal with assholes in positions of authority, because believe me, you will never stop encountering them. This was just killing two birds with one stone.”
She stared at me. “That…almost makes sense. Which kind of scares me.”
I grinned. “Don’t worry about it. You’ve got the basics down, so I don’t think it matters much if you stop going at this point. Most of the higher-level stuff is window dressing and niche applications you don’t really need. For now, pack your bags for a couple of days.”
“Trip to Wyoming,” I said cheerfully. “You get to meet some interesting people.”
“Most of whom will probably try to kill me,” she muttered as she walked away.
“Well, duh. You’re traveling with me and Aiko, what do you expect?”
Trying to use magic to travel is a difficult prospect. People get all the wrong ideas about it. See, teleportation is possible, in the most technical sense of the word, but it isn’t practical for anyone short of a deity. Space is a fundamental part of the universe, and trying to warp it that much takes astronomical power, literally; trying to do so with the precision required for safely transporting a living thing takes the kind of skill and expertise no human has. Flying is easier, but still very difficult. Trying to manipulate enough energy to move a human’s weight is pretty hard, to begin with. Then you have to do so powerfully enough that it’s faster than walking. That means some pretty terrific forces are involved, which means that a single mistake is likely to be lethal, which means that it’s damned hard to practice. So basically, it can be done, but only by people who have a pretty strong gift in that direction.
The method most people use to travel, assuming they travel with magic at all, is a little more complicated. It takes advantage of numerous extremely esoteric principles of spatial and metaphysical relationships; the theory behind it is so far beyond me I’ve never even tried to grasp it. Basically, though, it takes advantage of a loophole in the idea of place and takes a side trip through another level of reality, going from A to B without actually interacting with the space between at all.
In practice, what this means is that magical travel is a difficult, exhausting, and dangerous process. It also has the very important limitation that you can’t use it to travel anywhere you don’t already know intimately.
I explained all this to Alexis as we walked to the first waypoint. She’d heard most of it before, and even traveled this way, but it was the kind of thing she could stand to hear twice.
“Why do you do it at all, then?” she asked when I was finished.
“Because we’re about to go about a thousand miles in an hour,” I said.
“Well, I suppose it beats flying.”
“That’s the spirit!” Aiko said brightly. “Now shut up, please. I’m trying to concentrate.” We were currently standing just out front of a small movie theater. Given that it was only around ten, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that it was a fairly busy place, and we didn’t have much trouble blending in. There weren’t a lot of people standing around outside, given that it was mid-December, and our appearance was such that we always attract a bit of attention, but I imagine they see enough weirdos at theaters that they hardly even notice them anymore.
“Watch what she’s doing,” I said to Alexis quietly. “You see the energy structures?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “Wow. That’s some really intricate patterning.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “it is, which is why you shouldn’t mess around with it yet. Screw up with this stuff, and you disappear.”
“What, like, die?”
I frowned. “Nobody’s quite sure. As far as we know, nobody’s ever managed to make contact with anything that’s gone through a failed portal. But nobody’s ever come back either.” She started to look very, very concerned. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Aiko’s good at this.”
“Yes,” Aiko growled, “but I’m better when people shut up.”
I smirked. But I shut up.
A few minutes later, an elongated oval of absolute darkness snapped into place against the wall in front of her. I stepped through first, then Snowflake, then Alexis, and Aiko brought up the rear.
The other reason people avoid using this sort of travel is that it sucks. A lot. The moment between entering one end and stepping out the other was only a fraction of an instant, but it packed a whole lot of unpleasant into that period. It felt like being stretched and crushed and burned and frozen and blinded and exsanguinated all at once. Not really, of course, because it wasn’t a physical sensation at all, but I have difficulty describing it in terms that make any sense at all, and an extended metaphor comparing it to more ordinary sensations is the best I can do.
I blacked out for a minute or two on the other end. I always do. I don’t know why. I don’t really understand much about this stuff. I can do it, although not all that well, and beyond that I absolutely do not want to know. When I came to, I was on my knees, Snowflake was on the ground next to me making a sort of whimpering noise, Aiko was leaning on me for support (which didn’t make it any easier not to fall over, trust me), and Alexis was flat on her back in the unbelievably perfect grass a few feet away.
I stood up, slowly enough not to upset Aiko’s balance. “I bloody hate coming straight here,” she muttered, glaring at me . “Why couldn’t we use an intermediary again?”
“Because I don’t want to go through the sleazy neighborhood world ever again, and there wasn’t a convenient place to get to Faerie around.” I glanced around. We were standing in the middle of a rough oval of grass, brilliant green and lush in ways no grass in my world ever was. The space, around the size of a football field, was delineated by towering obelisks of some silvery material I’d never seen anywhere else. A gibbous moon hung in the sky, casting more than adequate light.
Predictably, the most distinctive part of the world we were now in to me was the scent. The air here smelled wonderful, all the time. At the moment it smelled like a mountain breeze, and the air after a thunderstorm, freshly cut grass and night-blooming flowers. It was balmy here, a sharp contrast from the chilly air of Colorado. It was always balmy here.
It took a few minutes to recover from the crossing. Oh, I suppose they weren’t strictly necessary; I’d done much nastier ones, and in comparison this was downright pleasant. I mean, none of us was violently ill afterwards. We could have gotten up and kept going, if necessary carrying Alexis, who wasn’t accustomed to such things. But, well, why?
“Ugh,” my cousin said a few minutes later. “Where are we?”
“A backwater world the Sidhe use to host minor events,” I said. “That’s how it started, anyway. It got some publicity for a breakout show of some sort, and a few different groups have started using it, although not on a regular basis.”
Aiko sighed. “Come on, Winter. You could have told her anything, and you go with the boring truth? I’m disappointed in you.”
“We call it El Dorado,” I concluded. “Although that isn’t the proper name. It sure as hell isn’t the original.”
“Good,” Alexis said with a note of relief. “I don’t know if I could handle that.”
“Just wait until you see Atlantis,” Aiko said, taking off across the grass.
She’s kidding, right? Snowflake said, standing up and shaking herself thoroughly.
Almost certainly. Operative word being almost.
The next stop was in a park. The grass, just as lush and unbelievable as all the rest, came up above my waist, and rustled with a soothing, almost musical sound in the breeze. Trees, mostly ash and oak with a scattering of conifers, towered overhead. It was tricky to estimate exactly how high they were—El Dorado was tangentially connected with Faerie, and the second Faerie becomes involved concepts of distance and spatial arrangement are so unreliable as to be worthless—but it had to be at least a few hundred feet.
Aiko opened the next gate as well, spinning it within an arch formed by massive tree branches near the small stream that passed through the park. We stepped through it, and found ourselves in a place almost diametrically opposed to that which we’d left.
At first glance, it seemed fairly similar. The trees were more varied—beyond what I would ordinarily think possible, even—but equally enormous. The bright, sparkling brook had been replaced by a dark, slow river that seemed as though it might be hiding nearly anything beneath its surface. The sky was obstructed by a rainforest-like canopy of branches, casting the forest floor into a perpetual state of twilight, not too different from the moonlit streets of El Dorado.
Every specific feature was, although not the same, quite similar to the place we’d left. And yet no one would ever confuse the two, not even momentarily. I’m not sure I can really explain why. It simply…felt different. This forest had a hushed quality to it, almost a sense of awareness. It wasn’t that it felt like the trees were watching me; it was more that it felt like they could watch me, but weren’t currently bothering. This was a place that had little knowledge of me or anything like me, and less desire to learn. It was friendly enough, though. There was no real sense of malice. It was just a lot bigger than me.
None of us had nearly the symptoms of last time. Snowflake trotted over to the water and took a long drink, then settled down to wait. Alexis looked a little ill, but she was hardly on the brink of passing out. I felt dizzy and my headache had gotten noticeably worse, but I was in fairly good shape, on a relative scale.
Aiko didn’t look like she was having any problems at all. Her eyes were half-closed, and her expression was one I didn’t often see on her face, one of contentment. She wandered over towards the river, moving in an almost dreamlike manner, her fingers brushing against the bark of the trees. She looked like she was coming home.
But then, that’s probably because she was. From what little she’s willing to say, the Wood was more her home than her mother’s domain ever was.
A few moments later Alexis once again asked, “Where are we?” Her voice was nothing less than awestruck, a perfectly appropriate and rational response to Inari’s Wood.
“Inari’s Wood,” I said. “You remember who Inari is?”
“Japanese deity,” she recited dutifully. “Very important Shinto kami. Associated with agriculture, particularly in the form of rice.”
“Right, and his servants are…?”
“Foxes, particularly high-ranking kitsune,” she said, glancing at Aiko. For her part, our resident kitsune didn’t abandon her usual dignity and decorum to grace that with a response. Which is another way of saying she was twenty feet up a spruce; a second or two later she bounced a cone off my head.
“Good job,” I said. “He created this domain as a sort of homeland or refuge for the kitsune. It should be the last stop before we get to our destination, if Aiko would get down here.”
“Hey,” she said unrepentantly, tossing a cone at Snowflake, who bit it out of the air. “You’re driving.”
“True,” I sighed, turning to where a pine branch bent to the ground, forming a sort of elongated triangle.
“Wait a second,” Alexis said. “You’re driving? Should I be worried by this?”
“Try not to sound so happy,” I said dryly. “You’ll make Aiko feel bad.” I started gathering power together and shaping it into the pattern I wanted.
I’m nowhere near as good as Aiko at this particular area of magic. She’s a native of the Otherside, however easy that is to forget, and that makes her naturally more suited to this sort of thing. She’s also had close to fifty years to practice, while I’m twenty years younger than she is and I’ve only been able to do this trick at all for maybe three or four.
But I’ve had a lot of opportunity to use it, recently. I was getting better. I only made two false starts before getting it right, and the whole process took me less than fifteen minutes. Still not good enough for a quick escape, maybe, but there are ways to compensate for that. The experience of transfer was even less fun when you were the one making the portal, and this domain was far enough removed from my destination point to make it noticeably worse, but I could cope.
I could always cope.