Frost Bitten 7.3

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The next morning I woke up, went through my usual morning routine, and put on the armor (I wasn’t quite paranoid enough to sleep in it, at least not unless things were a lot more imminently threatening than this). Then, having thought things out a bit, I picked up my phone.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Hey, Sveinn,” I said brightly. “It’s me.”

 

You could practically hear the jotun snapping to attention when he realized who was calling. “Good morning, Winter jarl,” he said, drill-sergeant crisp.

 

“Good morning. Listen, I want you to meet me outside Utgard in two hours. Bring Vigdis, Kyi, and…oh, let’s say Kjaran. Can you do that?”

 

Já, minn herra. What should we bring?”

 

“Hmm…let’s say just your usual kit. I don’t expect this to turn into a serious fight, but it’s possible. If so, major combatants will probably be werewolves and some sort of fae, and we’ll most likely be backing the wolves. Mostly I want to make a show of force. Clear?”

 

.”

 

“Excellent. I’ll see you in a few hours. Oh, and bring some food.” I hung up.

 

“Calling in the troops?” Alexis asked quietly. She’d been sleeping—I’m almost always the first one awake, probably because I don’t seem to need much sleep anymore—but Alexis sleeps lightly, much more lightly than Aiko. I’ve never been entirely sure whether that’s natural, or a consequence of her experiences. Alexis isn’t very old, by most any scale, but she’s packed a surprising amount of misfortune into that time.

 

“I decided if I’m going to do this I’d rather have minions on hand.”

 

Yay, minions! Snowflake exclaimed. Maybe this time we can make them fight someone to the death for our amusement.

 

You’d be bored watching someone else fight, I told her. You know you’d want to jump in.

 

Too true, she admitted. But I’m sure you could work something out.


            

Twenty minutes later we were crouched under a tree watching Edward’s house, having once again exited the bed-and-breakfast via the window. Hopefully it would take them some time to realize we were gone and notify him. Between that and the fact that we were about a hundred yards away and I was wearing my cloak while lying in the shadow of the tree, I didn’t think anyone would notice us.

 

“What do you see?” Aiko whispered. Since neither she nor Alexis had thought to bring binoculars, I was currently the only one who could actually see what was going on. Needless to say I was feeling rather smug about that.

 

“Not much,” I said. “Edward’s truck is still in the driveway. Kyra’s car is, too, so she’s most likely there waiting for us.” I frowned as another vehicle moved into sight. “Ooh, this is interesting. Looks like a rental SUV pulling up. And…yep, that’s Dolph getting out.” He didn’t look in our direction, walking straight to the front door, so I was assuming he hadn’t seen us. “All right, they should be calling us soon. Start the timer, would you, Alexis?”

 

Less than a minute later, I got a call from Kyra saying that Dolph was there. I told her we’d be there in a few minutes. For them to call me so soon was a definite good sign. It implied that they didn’t have a whole lot they didn’t want me to hear.

 

“Why wouldn’t Edward call you himself?” Alexis asked.

 

“Edward knows how I feel about him,” I said absently, still looking through the binoculars. Nothing appeared to be happening. “Having Kyra call instead was a diplomatic gesture.” I paused. “Probably he’s also busy talking with Dolph. They’ll want to get their plans lined out before I show up.” I put the binoculars away. “Come on, we’ll want to circle around and come at it from the front. Less suspicious that way.”


 

Dolph met us at the door. He’s my favorite of the Khan’s family, in terms of who I’d rather deal with. He’s still scary and dangerous, don’t get me wrong, but he’s more human than Bryan, he doesn’t give me the weird masklike feeling Conn tends to, and he doesn’t treat death and violence with the utter casualness Erin does. (He’ll still kill you, mind; he just pretends to care about it. It’s some improvement, anyway.)

 

He also invariably manages to give off the impression of being harried and careworn; he looks almost as young as his father, in his early twenties, but the constant stress makes him seem twenty years older.

 

After starting to dabble in politics myself, I have a lot more sympathy for Dolph. His job is nine kinds of awful, and he’s been doing it for a few hundred years.

 

“Winter,” he said. “And…Aiko, right?”

 

“That’s me,” she confirmed. Given that they’d only met briefly several years back, I was fairly impressed he’d remembered her at all.

 

“Good,” he said with a relieved grin that made him look momentarily like a different person entirely. “And you are?”

 

“Alexis. I’m Winter’s cousin.”

 

“Ah,” he said, shaking her hand. “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure. Come on inside, we were just talking about how to make this work.”

 

“What are you doing here, anyway?” I asked, genuinely curious. “I thought this was a local problem.”

 

“It is, and I’m not. I’m only here for a day, then I have a meeting in Stockholm, and there’s a conference in Montreal next week. I’m just setting up the talks and letting the fae know we’re taking this seriously.”

 

And that sort of thing is why Dolph always looks so stressed. If there’s someone more familiar with jet lag and tight deadlines, I’ve yet to meet them.

 

“How much do you know about the situation?” he asked as we walked down the hall. Surprisingly, he didn’t turn towards the study, instead going into the large vaguely lounge-like room used for pack meetings. We were the first ones there, evidently.

 

“Very little,” I said cheerily. “Edward only gave me a really rough outline, and I thought it would be simpler to wait until you got here to ask for details.” I dropped onto one of the large couches, and Snowflake promptly curled herself around my ankles. “Something about a trial of some sort.”

 

“Right,” he sighed. “Well, the story I heard is that a werewolf killed some Sidhe noble. It was self-defense, so our law says it’s fine. They say it’s a matter of hierarchy and he didn’t have the right to do anything.”

 

“I suddenly remember why I quit that shit in the first place,” Aiko commented.

 

Dolph smiled without much humor. “Oh, it gets better. It happened in a nightclub in Munich that’s claimed as territory by the Zhang clan.”

 

“So what you’re saying,” I said slowly, “is that a werewolf got in a fight with a faerie in a German club run by Chinese mages and now you want a half-breed Norse giant to mediate the dispute.”

 

He paused. “It does sound rather absurd, when you put it that way,” he admitted.

 

I broke down laughing. “Hey,” Aiko said in an offended tone. “Don’t forget me. You could add a whole new continent to the mix.”

 

“I did say they were Chinese mages, didn’t I?”

 

“China doesn’t count,” she sniffed.

 

“Yeah, well, it’s sort of a problem,” Dolph continued, paying no attention to the byplay. “The mages are claiming authority, on the basis that it happened on their turf and both parties were obligated to abide by their rules while there.”

 

“Can they do that?” Alexis wondered aloud.

 

Dolph shrugged. “Their argument has a certain amount of weight,” he admitted. “And the clans are backing it. The Twilight are tentatively indicating they might go along with them, so there’s a definite possibility.”

 

Suddenly I had no desire to laugh. “This is Twilight-level stuff?” I asked. Obviously anything involving the fae in this world was Twilight Court business, but the way he’d said it suggested there was at least one actual Twilight Prince involved, which wasn’t good. Not good at all.

 

“I mentioned he was nobility,” Dolph said dryly. “I don’t know if there’s a Prince involved, but it’s possible.” He sighed and slumped, looking even more haggard than usual. “The Zhang clan hates werewolves, and it’s common knowledge that they’re on excellent terms with both Courts. It won’t go well if they get jurisdiction.”

 

“How bad could it be?” I asked. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’ll be horrible for the guy, but why would Conn worry about it?”

 

“The Twilight Court’s still pissed at us for pulling a fast one with the treaty,” he said. “And renegotiations are in progress now. Then the clans are upset that we even flirted with going public. Between them…well, it’s pretty likely this will turn into a big deal, or else they might try to use it as leverage somehow.”

 

“Which would be bad?” Alexis asked.

 

“Quite.” Dolph didn’t look away from me. “You see now why it’s so important this go right?”

 

“I guess so,” I said reluctantly. “But why in hell would they want to give this to me, even if I were dumb enough to jump into the middle of it? It’s common knowledge that I’m not exactly impartial.”

 

The old werewolf frowned. “You know, I’d have thought the same. But apparently Kyra’s instincts were right this time. The fae were tentatively open to the idea of you as an arbiter. The Zhang were more hostile, but they changed their tune yesterday. I don’t know why.”

 

“Are you saying,” I said slowly, “that you talked them into this without asking me first?”

 

“Etiquette,” Aiko said, impatiently, before Dolph could respond. “You don’t waste a neutral party’s time unless you already have an agreement to consider them. Where’s the preliminary meeting scheduled?” At my surprised look, she snorted. “I have done this sort of thing before, you know,” she said dryly.

 

“The meeting’s here, at noon today. I’ll stay for that, then leave tonight.”

 

“Okay,” I said, very reluctantly. “I guess I’ll at least meet with the people. So that only really leaves one question, which is what part your brother’s playing.”

 

I’m not sure what response I was expecting, but it wasn’t the one I got. Dolph froze, looking almost stunned. “Bryan’s here?” he said, sounding shocked.

 

“He was last night.”

 

“Damn,” Dolph muttered. “Nobody’s heard from him almost since you left.” He shook his head, expression grim. “That isn’t good,” he said. “I have no idea what he wants, or whose side he’s on.”

 

“Me either,” I said, then glanced at the clock behind him. “Oh hell, I’ve got to go. I’ll be back for the meeting.”

 

“We kind of need to talk about this more,” he said.

 

“Sorry. I need to leave right now. Minions to fetch.”

 

“You have minions?”

 

“Absolutely,” I said. “Try not to worry about it too much. They can smell fear.”

 

He paused. “You’re joking, right?”

 

I grinned and walked out. “Probably.”

 

I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who saw Bryan sitting under the clock. I’m not sure how he did it, because normally I would have said I was, like, the single person in the room who was least likely to see through a mask of that sort, with the exception of Alexis. He was clearly aware that I saw him, though, nodding calmly when I looked at him. He didn’t seem to care about his own brother talking that way about him. Nothing much ever seemed to really bother Bryan.

 

I didn’t tell the others about it. It would just have worried them, and provided no useful information. Besides, they might have figured I’d finally snapped, and I was reasonably confident this had no more to do with my dubious sanity than anything else that happened to me.


 

It took the better part of an hour to get to Utgard. It wasn’t particularly difficult, though, or dangerous, beyond the problems you run into whenever the Otherside is involved. Aiko shifted us from the forest near where we’d come in to a section of Faerie, and then I opened the next portal to Jotunheim, not far from the fortress proper. There wasn’t really any need for Aiko or Snowflake to be there—I could get to Faerie, and even if I couldn’t going to Jotunheim directly wasn’t impossible. It wasn’t pleasant, but then Otherside-based travel tends to the distressing anyway.

 

I wasn’t willing to leave them behind, though. This was shaping up to be yet another dangerous situation filled with unknown but threatening variables, and that meant taking certain reasonable precautions. As anyone with a brain and about ten seconds of experience in the field (even vicariously) could tell you, using any variant of the phrase “let’s split up” was pretty much top of the list of things to go. You never split up.

 

Utgard is an enormous fortress, so huge that it’s genuinely difficult to grasp the scale of it. But it isn’t a very welcoming place. Not many people can visit, and even fewer would want to. It was not, therefore, particularly hard to pick out the housecarls waiting for us outside. They were a diverse lot—well, in some senses, at least. Obviously they were all jötnar, which is such a relatively tiny slice of the supernatural population that it’s about the definitional opposite of diverse. But they don’t look alike, for the most part.

 

Kjaran was the biggest of the lot. Haki was as tall, but he wasn’t nearly as muscular. Kjaran stands close to six and a half feet tall and looks like he could lift a small car. He was aggressively hirsute, as most jötnar tend to be, and his hair was a reddish blond. At the moment he was wearing a simple, scarred leather vest, trousers, and boots. He was carrying a large spiked war hammer over his shoulder, and had a large knife stuck through his belt.

 

Sveinn was shorter, but almost as brawny. He was also even more obviously dressed for a fight, wearing a coat of scale armor and a simple steel helmet. A straight, unadorned sword hung at his side, and he had a large wooden targe on his back. Appearance-wise, I had to admit he was pretty much the most unremarkable of the bunch. But then, that, generally, was Sveinn. He was the kind of guy you didn’t notice much until it was too late.

 

Vigdis was carrying a pair of small, one-handed axes. She told me once that she chose those weapons because it made defense of any kind difficult, and that reminded her to focus on killing the enemy faster rather than protecting herself. I don’t know if she was serious. Certainly she didn’t look particularly concerned with her own safety, given that she was wearing only a knee-length brown tunic and sandals. It looked very unsuited to all the weaponry on display, but it was actually a sound tactical decision; Vigdis was a shapechanger, and anyone with that skillset typically prefers something they can change out of quickly. All of them could look human—that was kind of my biggest entry requirement, and it wasn’t much of a stretch for most jötnar anyway—but Vigdis had a few other shapes she could take. It was useful more often than you might think.

 

Kyi was standing a ways away from the rest, and even at a glance you could see that there were some very significant differences between them. She was leaner, for one thing—still a fighter, but less bear and more wolf, or cat. She was built for stealth and speed, not brute strength.

 

Her most distinctive feature was her tattoos, which were quite extensive. A band of intricate, angular black lines wrapped her head like a crown, half-obscured by her short black hair. Dense, thorny designs in black around her deep blue eyes made her look vaguely raccoon-like, and a line of Elder Futhark runes formed a loop along her collarbone and shoulders. A geometric pattern composed mostly of interlocked circles and triangles covered her right forearm, culminating in an ornate multicolored star on the back of her hand. It was overwritten with a shorter runic phrase on her inner forearm in black, severe against the colorful background. A serpent followed a convoluted path down her other arm, its fanged mouth spread across her fingers. Each of her palms was marked with a single rune in vivid blue-green—hagalaz on the right hand, isaz on the left. Depictions of wolves and serpents covered her back and abdomen, mixed with more geometric designs, representations of ice and snow, and more runes. The runes followed a looping pattern across most of her body, and were actually a stanza from a very old poem.

 

Of course, I couldn’t see most of that at the moment. In marked contrast to her fellows’ vaguely medieval garb, Kyi was wearing a hoodie, tight-fitting gloves, jeans, and athletic shoes, all in shades of mottled grey and black. An aggressively modern compound bow was slung over her shoulder, next to a quiver of arrows. She was also carrying a truly impressive number and variety of knives, and had a pair of kama stuck through her belt.

 

Coming in from the side of the great stone staircase that lead up to Utgard itself, we saw them before they saw us. Vigdis and Sveinn were talking quietly, in the manner of people trying to pass the time. Kjaran, of course, was not, and Kyi was standing maybe twenty feet away staring out over the mountains.

 

“Good morning,” I called as we emerged from the path, cut into a trench in the omnipresent snow, onto the steps. “Did you bring that food?”

 

Kyi waved without turning to face me, and Kjaran just nodded. Sveinn, who always seemed to take on the role of speaking for the housecarls, bowed slightly and said, “Good morning, jarl. Where are we going now?” He also held out a plain brown paper bag.

 

“Wyoming, to start,” I said, snatching the bag. It proved to contain several roast beef sandwiches—not the best breakfast in the world, but then I didn’t choose them for their culinary skills. (I didn’t choose them at all, really, but if I had it wouldn’t have been for culinary skills.) It was enough to keep you alive, and that was good enough for the moment, so I passed them around and chowed down while I explained.

 

“It isn’t too far from Colorado. I’m considering mediating a dispute between a werewolf pack, a mage clan, and a fae interest. The preliminary meeting is scheduled at noon. I want you on hand as a show of force and in case violence becomes necessary. If so, unless I tell you otherwise, we’re siding with the werewolves, but don’t do anything that could provoke a diplomatic incident. Any questions?”

 

Sveinn had to translate some of what I’d said for Kyi, but once she understood it was generally agreed that there were not, in fact, any questions. I thought that said something important about their collective psychology. The housecarls quite simply did not care about the whys of the situation. It didn’t matter to them what the dispute was, or why I would want to mediate it, or why we were treating the werewolves preferentially. All they wanted to know was what was necessary for them to do their jobs.

 

I wasn’t sure whether I was happy to have such good minions, or a little freaked out.

 

In any case, this wasn’t the time to do something about it—if, indeed, I wanted to do anything about it at all. So rather than think about that any further, I started working on another gate. We were going straight to Wyoming, this time; I didn’t want to drag the jötnar through any more domains than I had to. Someone might take exception to it; most places are fairly egalitarian on the Otherside, but bringing in what was essentially a small but heavily armed military detachment of an insular and possibly hostile rival group might tip them over.

 

There was no question of them providing their own transportation. My housecarls were the people willing to work for me, which meant they weren’t exactly the high-powered elite of jotun society. I’m not quite sure how it works—some sort of advanced resonance theory, I think, which involves way more math than I’m ever likely to bother with—but a true jotun can pretty much always find a way back to Jotunheim. Opening a gate to anywhere else was another kettle of fish entirely.

 

Of course, at least half of them were probably spies, or lying about their own incompetence, or both. So I suppose at least a few probably could open a portal to the Otherside. But I didn’t know which half, and even if I did I wouldn’t want to give it away, so in functional terms that wasn’t terribly important.


 

“Winter!” Kyra hissed at me. She’d been standing just outside Edward’s front door, but she’d hustled right over when she saw me coming, and was currently standing about a foot away. “Where have you been?”

 

“Fetching minions,” I said brightly—although not too loudly, because if Kyra was whispering there was probably a reason for it. “Minions! Come! Introduce yourselves!”

 

“The fae are here already,” she hissed.

 

“And Edward’s got them on a runaround, correct?” She hesitated, which I took to be as good as a yes. “Then there’s no problem. Besides, the meeting isn’t for almost an hour. They can wait.”

 

The various housecarls appeared from around the corner of the building down the street, in all their strange and eclectic finery. I’d deemed it best if I approach alone to introduce them, considering how tense things were around here at the moment. I hadn’t spoken particularly loudly, but—whether by exceptionally keen senses or some jötnar weirdness regarding the jarl-housecarl relationship—they seemed to have heard, and reacted instantly.

 

Kyi was the exception. She wasn’t here as an enforcer, and I expected she’d already started on her task. She was probably the least visually intimidating of the lot anyway, so it wasn’t a terrible loss.

 

“Holy crap,” Kyra muttered. “These people really work for you?”

 

“Yup,” I confirmed, which was a half-truth at best. The relationship was rather more complicated than that in reality, but it wouldn’t do to say so when they’d just demonstrated that they could hear what I said. I mean, I think it’s pretty much free advice to aspiring overlords of all stripes that, if you should for some reason be forced to deal with minions you have only tacit control over, you don’t acknowledge that fact to them directly. That’s as good as admitting that they don’t actually work for you, and you don’t want to encourage that attitude.

 

“Damn. Makes my old crew look pretty tame.”

 

“Oh, you have no idea,” I sighed. Aiko sniggered and muttered something that sounded like “True dat,” although I couldn’t say for sure.

 

“This,” I said when they were close enough for me to pretend they wouldn’t have heard me farther away, “is Kyra Walker. She is an old friend of mine. You will treat her with all due respect. Clear?”

 

There was a chorus of various affirmatives. Vigdis wasn’t bothering to pretend that she wasn’t bored, but Sveinn sounded fairly pleasant.

 

Kjaran, of course, did not speak. He smiled, showing teeth just a touch too sharp to pass for human at close range. It didn’t look like a particularly friendly smile, but it didn’t look actually rebellious either, and I wasn’t all that concerned about Kjaran disobeying me in any case. I had a lot of worries about Kjaran the Silent, but that wasn’t one of them.

 

“Okay,” I said to Kyra. “How much do you know about the fae who are here, specifically?”

 

She shrugged. “Not much. I saw five of them, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them.” That was actually reassuring; the fae are past masters of deceit and misdirection, and if she’d felt confident of anything I’d have gone into a paranoia-fest about why they wanted her to think that and what they were concealing—more so than I was already, even.

 

“All right, then. Might as well get this over with. We’ll set up in the meeting room, if that’s all right.”

 

She shrugged again. “Whatever you feel like. You should have time to scope things out. They were chatting in Edward’s study when I came out here. It was getting pretty…intense in there.”

 

I found that quite easy to believe, somehow.

 

As it turned out, we did have all the time we could have asked for to arrange things. The room didn’t allow for even a vague approximation of the setup in my throne room back in the Springs, for which I was grateful; I’ve never had any taste for sitting in a goddamn throne handing out judgments as though I had a right to judge anyone. If I had the balls to go against Skrýmir’s implicit commands, I’d have changed it a long time ago. As it was, I wouldn’t regret the lack of it here.

 

The end result of our arrangements was an ordinary chair on one side of the room for me, with a loose semicircle facing it. Aiko had another chair just next to mine, and Snowflake would sit (or sleep, depending on how long the negotiations took) at my feet. The housecarls, who were only present as my muscle, would stand against the wall behind us. Alexis was standing there, too, although in her case it was more because I didn’t want her attracting attention to herself—if there’s one thing I’ve learned the hard way it’s that coming to the attention of major players like Twilight Princes and mage clans never ends well. I don’t even need to qualify that statement, and if I’m going to be entirely honest werewolves are barely any better.

 

I’m not sure how they knew, but the first of the fae didn’t walk in until just after we’d finished setting up the room and gotten into positions. I mean literally just after it, too, somewhere in the vicinity of a second and a half. I took one look at him and sighed. “What are you doing here?” I asked. I should have been astonished at the coincidence, but somehow I wasn’t even surprised. It just fit too well with my luck.

 

The fae walked straight to the leftmost side of the semicircle and took a chair next to the wall, a little behind the handful of other chairs in that little clumping. He didn’t even look at me. “Contract,” he said with no particular emotion, pulling a brand-new deck of casino cards out of some pocket or other. He started shuffling the cards, every motion quick and neat and so perfectly, impossibly precise it was creepy to watch.

 

“Do you know this jotun?” asked the next fae, who walked in precisely three seconds after the first. (I’d arranged the seating so that I could see the clock. I could also see both doors, and although there wasn’t an obvious exit near us we were against the exterior wall. There is a reason I’m not dead yet, after all.) This one looked like a female human, perhaps sixteen years of age, with waist-length blond hair and sky-blue eyes.

 

She (appearance means nothing among the fae, but most of them seem to pretend to human genders, and considering how little difference it made convenience alone dictated I simply think of them all as whatever sex they present themselves as) was more beautiful than any human, but I hardly even noticed that. I mean, let’s be honest here, there’s only so much you can see of a thing before it ceases to impress. I’d seen the uncanny beauty stuff a lot. It’s pretty much the oldest trick in the book. Between that and the fact that her appearance had less to do with what she looked like than with what she wanted to present herself as, it didn’t really influence my opinion of her.

 

Actually, scratch that. It made me assume she was dangerous. I mean, she looked like a teenage girl. She was wearing a plain white dress and had wildflowers braided in her hair, and she was barefoot. Anybody who makes that much of an effort to look innocent and harmless can only be hardcore scary.

 

“Yes,” her apparent escort said. And nothing else. As I watched, he began dealing a solitaire pattern. I’d wondered how he would manage that, but he simply placed the cards against the wall, where they remained, without any visual means of support. A man of many talents and few words, was Samuel Black.

 

The female, evidently realizing that further questioning on the topic would never produce useful results (and it wouldn’t; I might not have spent that much time around Black, but one of the few things I knew about him was that he was less interested in small talk than I was) made a sort of genteel harrumphing sound and stalked across the room. She sat in the chair directly in front of and next to Black’s, supporting my guess that he was her bodyguard.

 

Not that she probably needed one. That was the paradox of the fae. Anyone who actually needed someone like Black to protect them couldn’t pay his price, while anyone who could afford him didn’t need protection. Odds were good he was here more as a statement of power than anything.

 

They sat there for around twenty minutes, the only motion Black’s continuous solitaire. He played in an almost disturbingly regular, consistent fashion, with never a false move or pause for thought. They didn’t say a word, and neither did I. I didn’t know a whole lot about dealing with the fae, having mostly been clever enough not to interact with them much, but I didn’t think I could go wrong waiting for the meeting to formally start.

 

About twenty minutes later—which was still fifteen minutes before noon—more people started wandering in. Dolph came first, sitting on the right side of the room, with Edward close behind. Kyra followed Edward—I presumed because I was involved, since I was confident she wasn’t dominant enough to be his chief lieutenant. Behind her came a werewolf named Ryan I didn’t know as well. He used to be Kyra’s go-to guy for violence, when she was still the Alpha in Colorado Springs, and he’d followed when she migrated to Wyoming. I wasn’t sure why he was here, given that he was much less dominant even than she was. They all sat in the same section of seating as Dolph.

 

Directly behind them came another clump of fae representatives. I didn’t recognize the first one. He was a little above average height, which was pretty much just a style decision for the high fae, and less visually distinctive than most of them that I’d seen. Looking at him, I got the impression that I would find him both likable and terrifying, and I had no idea why. I could smell his magic, a strong base of the indefinable odor I associated with faerie critters overlaid with aromas of sweat, blood, and death. He was followed closely by another fae, whose features and gait were slightly wrong, as though he were trying to pretend to humanity but didn’t quite know how. I couldn’t smell his magic over the first one’s, which was strong enough to mostly drown other scents out.

 

Not the most auspicious of omens. But the next person to walk through the door was much worse.

 

He didn’t look all that impressive. He was a little shorter than me, five-three or -four, with medium-brown hair and eyes and a slightly swarthy complexion. He was garbed in expensive silk garments and looking profoundly uncomfortable in them, like he would much rather be wearing leathers, or failing that armor.

 

Aiko felt my sudden tension when I saw him. “Who’s that?” she murmured without moving her lips noticeably, quiet enough that werewolf hearing would barely pick it out from two feet away. That might not be quiet enough to avoid detection—some of the higher-level players are scary good, and it’s hard to predict what they can and can’t do—but it was enough to maintain propriety.

 

“Carraig,” I said back just as softly. “Midnight Court.” Aiko didn’t quite stiffen—she was too smart for that—but I knew her well enough to see her pause, and I saw the wave of tension go over her. I’d told her about Scáthach’s champion, and I knew she would remember how close he came to killing me. A few times.

 

Oh yeah, and he was the one who shot her in the gut with a poisoned arrow. It almost killed her, and the aftereffects had only recently finished fading. If they were gone at all; she wouldn’t talk about it, but I had my suspicions that it was still affecting her, and likely always would, and she’d simply learned to compensate. That probably had something to do with her wariness.

 

He winked at me, and sat a short distance from Samuel Black, who took no apparent notice of his presence. The other two took a position a little closer to the werewolves, with his odd-looking companion close nearby.

 

I was somehow not surprised that the mages were the last to arrive. I mean, I hadn’t ever dealt with a mage clan before, but somehow it just didn’t shock me. There were three of them, two male and one female. The female and the older-looking male were wearing plain black robes, and looked vaguely Asian. The younger man, evidently more of a modernist, had opted for a serious, somber suit. All three of them carried the distinctive disinfectant-like odor of human magic, but I couldn’t get any more precise of a read than that through the interference of the various energies already present in the room.

 

The three of them sat in the central section of seats, not so much as glancing to either side. The man in the robe, clearly the leader of the group, positioned himself directly in front of me, arranging the skirts of his robes with the sort of fussiness that bespoke borderline OCD. “It would seem that we are all here,” he said. His voice was a little high-pitched, and while he spoke understandable English he had enough of an accent to make me pretty sure it wasn’t his usual language.

 

“We are not scheduled to begin yet,” I told him.

 

He narrowed his eyes slightly, turning an already impressive set of wrinkles into a truly prodigious one. “There is, perhaps, someone with need to be here of whom I do not know?” His voice was belligerent.

 

“That is irrelevant,” I said calmly. “We will be conducting this meeting in accordance with proper procedure.” I didn’t want to give the fae, who were notoriously finicky about procedure and also notoriously liable to break any bargain that was no longer advantageous to them for any excuse, anything more to work with than necessary.

 

The odd-looking fae smiled and bowed his head slightly. I was pretty sure he knew exactly what I was thinking.

 

Of course, that was only part of the reason for what I was doing. More of it was because I wanted to make the right sort of impression. First impressions are very important for this sort of thing, after all. It was clear that this mage was accustomed to getting his way. I’ve learned from experience that if you let a person like that tell you what to do, even on a relatively small thing, you’re sending them the message that they can push you around. I didn’t want that.

 

As it turned out, though, someone actually did show up. More than one someone, actually, although I wasn’t entirely sure how to count them under the circumstances.

 

Bryan was either wearing the same clothes as he had been last night (and also this morning, assuming that hadn’t been a hallucination) or their twin. He drifted soundlessly to the back wall of the room and stood there. Following in his wake like an unusually strange shadow was the being I knew as Ash Sanguinaria. She looked pretty much the same as the other time I’d seen her—a humanoid girl, albino-pale with longish raven’s-wing hair and big dark eyes. I might have guessed she was about fifteen now, rather than thirteen, but given that that was more or less consistent with the passage of time it probably didn’t mean anything. Once again she was carrying a small, vaguely cougar-shaped doll patched together from scraps of various white fabrics.

 

“What is this?” the mage leader said as soon as they walked in. “What is this? Are these intruders here for a reason?”

 

“We are observing,” Bryan said in his peculiarly lifeless way. “That is all.”

 

“This is not an open forum, so you have to leave,” the mage said, glaring at me as though this was both my fault and a personal offence to him.

 

“Let ‘im stay, and the lass wit’ ‘im,” Carraig said. He might well have been Irish, but the accent was an affectation; in my experience, you could tell when Carraig was stressed or excited, because he forgot to keep it up. At the moment, he mostly just sounded cheerful. Knowing what I did about him, I found that distinctly unsettling.

 

“Seconded,” Dolph said, although he didn’t seem happy about it.

 

“Agreed,” I said. “Unless you have a specific objection, they can stay.” The mage glowered at me. He had a pretty good glower (unsurprisingly; he seemed to get plenty of practice), but given that he didn’t actually state an objection I was calling it a win.

 

“All right then,” I said briskly. “This meeting is now officially begun. I am Winter Wolf-Born, jarl of Colorado Springs, favored vassal of Fenrisúlfr, knight-banneret of the Order of the Mistletoe, and wielder of the blade Tyrfing.” I did not introduce any of the others with me. The reason for this was pretty straightforward.

 

I didn’t know much about the customs and traditions that united the Twilight Court—I’m usually smart enough to avoid Court business. But one of the few common-knowledge level tidbits of information I did have was that they weren’t exactly big on notions such as inalienable rights and equality. Under Court law, there was absolutely nothing wrong with slavery.

 

Okay, slavery isn’t quite the right term for the relationship I’m talking about. It has more in common with vassaldom. The idea is that you can owe loyalty to someone, and if so then what you do while carrying out their instructions is their responsibility, not yours. The fae have no issues with the “I was only following orders” defense. Which, in this case, meant that as far as they were concerned, the people with me quite simply did not matter. They were present only as extensions of my will, which meant that in a legal sense they didn’t qualify as people for this meeting at all.

 

Likewise, only the significant individuals from the other parties introduced themselves. I found it interesting to note how much I could tell about them just from the introductions.

 

“Rudolph Ferguson,” Dolph said in the mild, slightly absentminded tone of someone already planning their next task. “I’m here representing my father, the Khan.”

 

“My name is Edward Frodsham. I am the Alpha of this town.” The werewolves, presumably, got to go first because they were hosting the event. After that, the pecking order got slightly more interesting.

 

“I am called Gwyn ap Nudd. The one called Stefan Morgenstern was in my service.” That came from the male I hadn’t recognized. Interestingly, I wasn’t the only one who had to work to keep my poker face at that. Aiko blinked, Dolph got the blank look he uses when he’s trying not to show a reaction, and both of the younger mages reacted visibly. Even Samuel Black almost looked interested for a moment.

 

This was a justified reaction. Gwyn ap Nudd was a big name. I hadn’t had dealings with him personally, of course, and my knowledge of him was entirely apocryphal, but if a fraction of what they said about the guy were true he was probably Twilight Prince level. Not the nice kind of Prince, either, if there is such a thing. Even to a werewolf, most of the stories they told about Gwyn were of the scary variety. He’s typically portrayed as leading the hounds of death in their hunts.

 

“I am Anja Morgenstern,” the female fae said crisply. “Stefan was my brother.” She didn’t say anything more, nor did she particularly have to; a blood connection was pretty much a self-evident statement of interest, particularly for more old-fashioned groups such as, oh, everyone in the room.

 

“Call me Carraig,” Carraig said with a yawn. “I’m ‘ere on behalf of Scáthach, to whose Court Morgenstern owed allegiance.”

 

“My name is Zhang Qiang,” the leader of the mages said. “The incident occurred on my property.”

 

To my surprise, the younger man also spoke up. “I’m Moray, here on behalf of the Watchers.” His voice was calm and dispassionate, the voice of someone doing a job. He wasn’t used to hiding things from werewolves, though. There was too much tension in his posture for it to be that simple. He had a stake in this, somehow.

 

Well, wasn’t that interesting. The Watchers were primarily an internal affairs department, policing other mages—and he hadn’t expressed a connection of any kind with the Zhang clan, which couldn’t be an oversight. For the Conclave to have sent a Watcher to this meeting strongly implied that they weren’t entirely happy with Zhang, although whether that concern was specific to this event or not was unclear.

 

Bryan and Ash did not introduce themselves. I found that noteworthy. Neither of them should have had to do so, given that they had disavowed any stake in the proceedings, but I would have expected Zhang to complain, if nothing else. I wondered why he hadn’t.

 

“Is that everyone?” I asked, purely for form’s sake—once again, I wanted to provide nobody any opportunity to screw me on a technicality. It made me look a little dumb, but that was a price worth paying. Maybe even a benefit; lots of people have noted that it’s often valuable for people to think you’re stupider than you are. Although that would be quite difficult in my case. “Excellent. Now, if you all would be so kind, I think we should begin by discussing what happened.”

 

“There is nothing to be discussing,” Zhang said, gesturing sharply with one hand. “The wolf is guilty. He admits it himself. That is all there is. Punish him appropriately.”

 

I smiled at him. It wasn’t a friendly sort of smile. “Indulge me,” I said.

 

He huffed. “Very well,” he said with a glare. “Four days ago the werewolf came to my place of business. My staff, they say he drank much alcohol. Morgenstern approached the werewolf and was speaking to him. Then he was stabbed, and the werewolf escaped in the confusion. There are many witnesses who will say the same.”

 

“Pardon me, Master Zhang, but may I infer that you were not present for this yourself?”

 

He glowered, but he couldn’t really avoid the question. “I was not. This establishment, it is not my only occupation. I cannot be there at all times.”

 

I raised my hand. “Peace, Master Zhang. No one is accusing you of anything. I only wanted to make certain I understood. Mr. Frodsham, would you like to add to this?”

 

Edward nodded stiffly. To my surprise, though, it was Ryan who stood up and cleared his throat. Even at a glance, you could tell he was ex-military; his parade rest was distressingly precise. “As Master Zhang said, I was in the nightclub four days ago. However, I had only had a few drinks, and my capacities were not impaired.”

 

Wait a second, he was the werewolf they kept talking about? Why didn’t Kyra tell us this? Snowflake sounded quite confused.

 

Beats me, I said, not letting any sign that I was communicating with her show. But I think it’s a safe bet that the things we aren’t being told here could fill a book. I paused. Well, a pamphlet, anyway.

 

“Mr. Morgenstern showed up shortly before midnight and started making advances toward my girlfriend while I was in the restroom. She informed him that these advances were not appreciated; however, he did not appear to be listening. The bartender intervened in the situation before it could escalate, asking Mr. Morgenstern to leave. He refused. He appeared to be heavily intoxicated. He purchased a round for everyone present, saying something about having gotten lucky. He then resumed speaking to my girlfriend, offering her an unspecified reward if she would associate with him.”

 

Wow, Snowflake said. I like this guy. He can actually summarize a situation without getting all emotional.

 

“As I had returned by this point, I told Mr. Morgenstern that he was unwelcome and should leave. He attempted to shove me, but his coordination appeared to be severely impaired. I then hit him in the face.”

 

Now that I hadn’t expected. “You hit him?”

 

“Correct.”

 

“With what?”

 

“My fist,” he said dryly.

 

“I see. What prompted you to respond with violence?”

 

“Although it was clumsy, Mr. Morgenstern’s shove was stronger than I would expect from a human of his build. As such, I felt that it was wisest to end the confrontation before it could escalate further.”

 

“And you didn’t know before that that he wasn’t human?”

 

“I did not.”

 

“Thank you. Please continue.”

 

“Certainly, W—jarl, but I don’t know much else. We left at that point.”

 

“Why did you leave?”

 

“It seemed the prudent thing to do. Mr. Morgenstern had been rendered unconscious, but it was possible that he would wake up, or that he had friends in the crowd.” He shrugged. “The mood was gone, anyway.”

 

“So you claim you didn’t stab him at all.”

 

“That is correct. I didn’t know anything about it until the next morning.”

 

“This is ridiculous,” Zhang interjected. “This werewolf, he clearly is lying. His story is patently absurd.”

 

“Your pardon, Master Zhang,” I said coldly, “but by your own account you cannot confirm or deny his claims. Your staff would not have been able to identify him as a werewolf, and therefore would not have known that the drinks he had consumed would not have an appreciable effect on him. Is that the case?”

 

The mage looked like he was about to have a fit. Then, quite suddenly, the anger ran out of him, too quickly to have been genuine. He looked down at the floor for a moment, and when he looked back up his expression was cold and calm. “That is correct,” he admitted.

 

“And furthermore,” I said, “you have already said that there was significant confusion during and directly after this incident. If he left directly afterward, it is possible that no one would have realized he was gone until after Mr. Morgenstern’s death had already had been discovered, at which point his absence would have seemed quite suspicious.”

 

“True enough,” Zhang said. “But you must admit, whether I was there or not, the evidence is damning. Mr. Peterson was seen to have means, motive, and opportunity, and has admitted to the use of violence. Surely you see that the simplest, most likely answer is that he is guilty of this murder. To ignore the evidence is insanity.” Peterson, huh? I’d never heard Ryan’s last name before, but it fit pretty well.

 

“A fair point,” I agreed. “But it is equally foolish to allow preconceptions to blind you. The art is to maintain a position between extremes. Ms. Morgenstern,” I said, turning my attention to the other side of the room.

 

She cleared her throat politely. “It’s Dame, actually,” she said. Her tone wasn’t friendly, exactly, but it wasn’t openly hostile either, and at this point that was about all I could hope for.

 

“My apologies, Dame Morgenstern, please excuse me. Would you say that the behavior Mr. Peterson described was typical of your brother?”

 

She actually paused to think about it. “No,” she said after a long moment. “I wouldn’t. Stefan was always a gentleman.”

 

“And yet every account I’ve heard agrees that he initiated the conflict with Mr. Peterson,” I noted. “In fact, that’s nearly the only thing they all agree on.”

 

“What are you suggesting, jarl Winter?” Zhang said. He didn’t sound openly confrontational, which I took to be a good sign.

 

“Simply put? I think everyone here has a stake in learning the reality of what happened. If Mr. Peterson is, in fact, responsible for Mr. Morgenstern’s death, then he dishonors all of us with his lies. If not, then the guilty party has offered a grievous insult, which must be redressed.”

 

“Are you offering to adjudicate this dispute?” Dolph asked, smooth as butter.

 

“I am,” I said, not having to feign reluctance in the extreme. “If all of you are willing to agree to such?”

 

“No objection,” Anja Morgenstern said. Strangely, of all the people in the room, she seemed least upset by her brother’s death.

 

“Scáthach makes no argument,” Carraig drawled. He hardly seemed to be paying attention. “You’ve always been a friend to her Court.” Which was, in true Sidhe tradition, a remarkably polite ultimatum.

 

“Aye,” Gwyn ap Nudd said. It was the first he’d spoken since introducing himself, and a couple of people jumped as though they had forgotten he was there entirely. (For once, I wasn’t one of them). “You come well recommended.”

 

“I have, regarding your impartiality, some concerns,” Zhang murmured. “But I am willing to trust you will come to the correct conclusion.”

 

“The Watchers have no doubt in jarl Winter’s ability to investigate this matter,” Moray said, still sounding pretty bored. I found that phrasing interesting. There were all kinds of meanings in that, and I wasn’t at all certain whom most of them were targeted at.

 

“The Khan also has great confidence in the jarl, and is willing to overlook his past associations with the defendant. I trust that they will not contaminate his opinion against Mr. Peterson,” Dolph said smoothly, like the expert diplomat he was. If you weren’t listening carefully, you wouldn’t have noticed that nothing he said in any way actually indicated that I felt any antagonism toward Ryan. Quite the opposite, actually. I found it sort of amusing for someone to be using the “true in a technical sense” gambit against the fae, considering that was pretty much their signature move.

 

“I am willing to accept his adjudication as well,” Edward said. He wasn’t nearly as smooth about it—Edward is a lot of things, but good at deception’s never really been one of them. His voice was relieved, but hopefully nobody else would notice—and if they did, they’d already agreed. I didn’t doubt that was why Edward (probably at Dolph’s request) had waited until everyone else had already spoken.

 

“Wonderful,” I lied. Everyone there would know I was lying, of course, but I didn’t expect any of them to call me on it. It wouldn’t be polite. “I will begin looking into this matter immediately. I will, of course, keep you all informed regarding anything I find.” With that polite cue, everyone stood up and began filing out in order of seniority. Gwyn ap Nudd went first, followed by Dolph and Zhang. Once the chief representatives of each faction were gone, the pecking order got more interesting. I didn’t pay very much attention, something else having caught my eye.

 

“That wasn’t a very smart thing to agree to,” Aiko whispered.

 

“Probably not,” I agreed, similarly quiet. I murmured to Snowflake, who stood up and yawned, then ambled towards the door. I’m pretty sure nobody noticed the slight breeze as she did; I’ve been getting better at subtlety. Precise manipulation of air at a distance was tricky, but I wasn’t moving very much weight, and I’d been practicing.

 

A few minutes later, almost everyone was gone. The werewolves, though, hadn’t left, and once the room was otherwise empty they came over to talk to me. (Not Bryan, though. He and Ash had left at some point, though I was not entirely sure when.)

 

“That went well,” Edward said. I couldn’t quite tell if he meant it sarcastically or not.

 

“Could have been worse,” I agreed, presuming he had been being sincere. “You might have told me ahead of time who they were upset about, though.” I looked pointedly at Kyra.

 

She shrugged. “You didn’t give me much of a chance,” she said. “And I wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it.”

 

“How are you planning on going about it?” Edward asked before I could reply.

 

“Ideal would be to find the person who actually did kill the guy,” I said. “So I guess I start with figuring out why someone would have offed him. I should probably check out this nightclub, too; it definitely sounds like there’s something funny there.” I glanced at Ryan. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to come help?”

 

“I’m pretty invested in this, too,” he said dryly. “But I’m not sure what you think I can do to help.”

 

I shrugged. “Can’t hurt to have you along. Could be you saw something and didn’t realize it was important.”

 

“I’ll come too,” Kyra announced. “I haven’t had any of your patented kind of fun for ages.”

 

I considered arguing with her for a moment, then decided it was unlikely to be a productive course of action. Dominant werewolves tend to be protective, and Ryan was one of her people before he belonged to Edward. “All right, then,” I said. “Go pack your stuff.” The two of them skedaddled without any further prompting. Edward paused just long enough to give me a rib-straining hug before following them.

 

I waited until Snowflake told me that both Ryan and Kyra had exited the building before looking at Dolph, who had snuck back inside at some point. “Okay,” I said. “Give.”

 

“What do you mean?” he asked innocently.

 

I rolled my eyes. “Come on, you haven’t got all day. You couldn’t have made it any more obvious there was something you wanted to talk about without them around.”

 

He glanced significantly at the housecarls lining the wall behind me. “Do you want to talk here?” he asked me.

 

“Of course not,” I said cheerfully. “But I’m not following you into a secluded back alley, either, and you don’t have time to waste arguing about it.” I gave him a bright, cheerful, and entirely false smile.

 

Dolph was not amused. “Your paranoia has gotten somewhat excessive,” he said. “And when I’m saying that, you know you have a problem.” He sighed and rubbed his neck in a manner which suggested he had a headache. “I’m somewhat…concerned by how much attention this is attracting.”

 

I frowned. “I thought you were expecting this to turn into a big deal. That’s the whole reason you’re here.”

 

“Well, yes,” he said. “But I definitely was not expecting for a Twilight Prince to show up in person. And for someone to owe loyalty to Gwyn and Scáthach at the same time is…highly unusual.”

 

“Scáthach’s not big on sharing,” I agreed thoughtfully. “Honestly, though, I have a difficult time understanding fae loyalties, and I’m not even going to try to predict a Twilight Prince’s activities. If you ask me, that’s only the third most concerning thing going on here.”

 

“Oh? And what are the others?”

 

“First off,” I said, “why did the Conclave send a Watcher here? I keep trying to think of something the Watchers might want with this, and I’m coming up blank. There has to be something, though; they don’t have enough manpower to have sent him without a reason. Second, what the hell is Bryan doing here?”

 

Dolph frowned, and I got the impression he wasn’t really seeing me anymore. “I can’t say I’ve ever understood why Bryan does the things he does,” he said distantly.

 

“Likewise. But somehow, I think it’s going to be important this time.”

 

“I hope you’re wrong about that. Because if you have to understand my brother to work this out, I’m afraid we’re doomed before we’ve started.” Dolph glanced at his watch, then muttered a curse in what I was pretty sure was Greek. “I have to get moving. Good luck, and let me know if there’s anything we can do to help you.”

 

“Thanks,” I said, gesturing slightly. My housecarls, who were pretty good at figuring out what I wanted by now, started drifting towards the exit, bringing Alexis with them. I was pretty sure nobody had noticed her presence, which had been another of my goals with bringing the minions; it’s a lot easier to fade into the background when there’s a background to fade into. Events like this were good for her education, but it was probably better if said education didn’t proceed that fast.

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