Once outside, Dolph got into his rental car and drove off at a moderately unsafe speed. I was guessing he had only the slimmest margin of time to get to his next appointment. I looked around carefully, but if anyone else was present they were beyond my ability to detect.
All right, I said to Snowflake. Let’s have it.
About time, she grumbled, appearing from a small bush near the building. You would not have guessed a husky could fit into that bush, but I wasn’t surprised, having seen Snowflake hide in much less likely places. She has a gift for it, which may or may not be supernatural in nature. You have any idea how freaking hard it was to keep anyone from seeing it without looking suspicious?
You’re the bomb, I said, kneeling down to scratch her ears. I also slid one hand under her broad leather collar, palming the scrap of paper I found there. I didn’t think that anyone noticed. I stood back up and stretched, dropping the paper into my cloak as I did.
I probably still had a few minutes before Kyra and Ryan were ready—Ryan would want his full set of military gear, and unless Kyra had changed more than I could imagine she would know better than to go anywhere with me without being prepared for a fight—so I walked quickly around the building to a location a short distance away that wasn’t visible from any of the windows, which was nicely shaded by a small conifer. Aiko, Alexis, and Snowflake all came with me. The housecarls, prompted by another subtle gesture, did not.
As I’d expected, Kyi appeared out of the shadows less than five seconds after we got there. I don’t really know how I didn’t see her before then, but that’s sort of Kyi’s specialty. “Did you see them?” I asked her.
The jotun nodded vigorously. “Yes. There was one faerie lady with her man, the hunter and his hound, and the Maiden’s knight. Three magic people also and a werewolf.”
She hadn’t commented on Bryan and Ash. Interesting. “How did they leave?”
“One of werewolves, he drives away. Magic people also have car. I saw not how hunter leaves, but knight only step in shadow and gone, and lady goes to Otherside.”
I parsed that, with only moderate difficulty. “Did all three of the mages leave in the same car?”
She shook her head vigorously rather than answer verbally. Wasn’t that intriguing. “Excellent work,” I said. “Did you get a look at the werewolf Alpha here?”
“Yes, I see well. He has big windows.”
I grinned. “Yeah, he does. It’s convenient, isn’t it?” My smile faded. “I want you to stay here for the next few days and watch him. If you see any of the people who were here today, or you notice anything else strange around town, call me. Unless I tell you otherwise, if you think someone is trying to do him physical harm, you should try to stop them, or failing that give him a warning. Can you do that?”
“Should he know, that I here am?”
“No. Try to keep him from seeing you. If he does notice you, get out of town and call me as soon as you can. Don’t let him get near you.” Edward could have a volatile temper, and I didn’t want either of them getting hurt. I also didn’t want Edward to learn that I’d put a spy on him; I couldn’t imagine that going over well, whatever my intentions. “You’ll have to camp out here. Do you have supplies?”
Kyi gave me a deeply offended look. “Is not hard. And much food here, is easy to steal. I will good be.” A brief, predatory smile passed over her face. “Much prey here. They know only werewolves, know not me. I eat well.”
I grinned and nodded. “Excellent. Thank you.” She faded back into the shadows. I’d warned her, but I really wasn’t very concerned that Edward would notice her. Kyi Greyfell was remarkably skilled at hiding—better than Snowflake, even.
“Did I understand that right?” Alexis asked me quietly once the jotun was gone. “Did you just tell her to spy on Edward?”
“I’m more concerned with people who might come to visit him, actually,” I said, pulling the scrap of paper out of my cloak. “There’s something deeply fishy about all this. I don’t think that anyone will try to take him out, but it’s always a possibility.” I unfolded the paper, which turned out to be a folded index card.
“What’s that?” Aiko asked, leaning in to peer over my shoulder.
“Something Moray dropped on his way out,” I said absently. “I’m pretty sure he meant me to see it. Don’t think anyone else noticed, though. I had Snowflake snag it on the way out.” It had actually been much harder to push it under her collar using only magic than that made it sound, of course, but that was beside the point.
The note was not hard to interpret. It read, in simple block letters, ZHANG KNOWS.
“How cryptic,” Aiko said delightedly. “Knows what, I wonder?”
“Hard to say. I mean, obviously he knows a lot more than he’s saying, but I actually don’t think he knows much that’s relevant to this specific situation.” I frowned. “Of course, that is what he would want us to think. If nothing else, it’s hard to believe he didn’t have some way to monitor that club if it caters to supernatural critters on a regular basis. This can’t have been the first incident he’s had.”
“Not everyone is as obsessively prepared for disaster as you are, Winter,” she said patiently.
“No, but the fact that there was a Watcher there to watch him strongly indicates that he’s up to something. Besides, it’s safe to assume that you don’t get to be a high ranking clan mage without being at least as paranoid as I am. I mean, they really are out to get you, and competition for that kind of position must be fierce. It’s a safe bet that he makes me look stable and well-adjusted, and he’s just hiding it trying to get the drop on us.”
“You do realize that argument makes you sound like a textbook case study of paranoid schizophrenia, right?”
“Well, obviously. Come on, we should get back out there before the werewolves come back.”
I pulled a lighter out of my pocket and burned the index card before we left, though, and scattered the ashes to the wind. It wouldn’t do to have someone find it.
As it turned out, my timing was pretty good. Kyra and Ryan were within sight less than a minute after we were all back standing by the front door with the housecarls. As I’d expected, Ryan had switched from his business-casual clothes into BDUs and a tactical vest. He had an ugly, old-school trench knife on his belt and appeared to be carrying a pistol in a shoulder holster, although it wasn’t clearly visible under his trench coat. Kyra was still wearing sweats and a T-shirt, probably because she wasn’t as inclined to combat in her human form as Ryan, but she was carrying a large backpack.
“Don’t you guys think you’re a little overdressed?” I said curiously.
Kyra snorted. “Said the guy wearing a suit of armor?”
“How can you tell?” I asked her. It was true, but the helmet was still in my bag, and everything else was covered by the cloak.
“You move differently when you’re wearing it,” she said. I was going to have to work on that, clearly. “Where are we going?”
“Not sure,” I said, taking off down the street. The entire bizarre horde came along with me. “I need to drop a couple of these guys off at home, then it’s probably to Germany to check out this nightclub.” I frowned as something occurred to me. “Aiko, do you think the scumbag might know anything?”
“You mean the Italian?” she said, catching on immediately that I didn’t want to mention Jacques by name. “Probably. He’s got dirt on pretty much everyone. You want me to go ask him?”
“It’s probably better if we don’t all go,” I said, attempting to banish the vision of this entire crowd packed into Jacques’s filthy apartment. “And he likes you more than me.”
“You’ll have to back me. This kind of info ain’t cheap, and the family cut off my funding.”
I snorted. “Yeah, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Besides, he’ll probably need time to get it. If you have him start on it, I can come with you when it’s time to negotiate pricing.”
“Sounds good. I’ll make the first crossing with you, then split. Meet in the Wood in an hour and a half or so?”
“Works for me. That patch of trees should work.” I nodded to a small, windswept clump of aspens.
“Christ, Winter,” Kyra sighed. “You just love it when nobody knows what you guys are talking about, don’t you?”
“It’s better than catnip,” I agreed. “Oh shit,” I said a moment later.
“What is it?” Alexis, Kyra, and Ryan asked more or less simultaneously.
“Bryan’s standing there waiting for us. Looks like he has the girl with him, too. Oh, this should be good.”
Indeed, the old werewolf was standing at the edge of the trees. He looked like he’d been there for hours without moving, which made it hard to guess whether he’d been tailing us or somehow predicted where we would go. Ash Sanguinaria was standing behind and just to one side of him, holding that creepy stuffed cat in her arms. Both of them, needless to say, were staring directly at me.
Actually, make that all three of them. I’m pretty sure the cat was staring too.
“Good afternoon,” Bryan said in his toneless way as we approached. “It is good that you are doing this.”
“Good afternoon,” I said, keeping my voice pleasant. “I am glad that one of us is confident of that.”
Bryan did not, of course, smile, but I nevertheless got the impression that he was amused. “As am I. You are going to Germany.”
“Yes,” I answered, although it hadn’t been a question. “Investigating the club myself seems like a good way to get more information.”
“Correct. I want you to take Ash with you.”
“This is likely to involve some danger.”
If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought Bryan’s lips twitched at that. “She can take care of herself. This will be good for her education.”
“Do you actually want to come?” I said, addressing the girl directly.
She considered the question for a few seconds. “Yes,” she said eventually. “An education is a valuable thing. I do not consider the possibility that this excursion will cause me significant harm to have an appreciable probability of coming to pass.”
“I would take it as a personal favor if you were to do this,” Bryan said. His voice held no more emotion than it ever did, but it still set off warning bells in my head like crazy. Personal favors were hard currency in my world, and extremely serious business. If Bryan was offering a favor in trade for this, odds were excellent that it would turn out to be much bigger and more dangerous than it looked.
On the other hand, being owed a favor by the likes of Bryan Ferguson was the kind of thing small wars have been waged over. It probably wouldn’t actually be worth it (I had no real reason to distrust Bryan, but I’d been burned on deals like this a couple times in the past, and that was the sort of thing that left you skittish in the future), but still.
Besides which, I liked the little of Ash that I’d seen. Which probably just made me a sucker, but there are limits even to my paranoia. If she needed assistance that I was capable of providing, I was more inclined to help than not. And I was already mixed up in this mess deeper than was in any way safe, so it really didn’t matter that much if I got into another level. Right. I believed that.
“Fine,” I said, attempting not to sound reluctant about it. “You can come.”
“Thank you, Winter jarl,” she said seriously. “I will endeavor not to cause unnecessary hindrance to you in your objective.”
“I appreciate that,” I said, looking towards Bryan. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to say to him, but it turned out not to be particularly important, because he had already disappeared. I had no idea how he did it. It really didn’t matter for my purposes; like I said to Aiko, I didn’t worry too much about what Bryan could and couldn’t do. You could drive yourself crazy, doing something like that.
I introduced Ash to everyone present, briefly. She was, as seemed distinctly her norm, serious and formal to an extent that was almost creepy, particularly when combined with her youthful appearance. It was, I had to admit, rather appropriate; with that addition, we represented a nearly complete spectrum of psychological dysfunction. You had to imagine that a psychiatrist would go into fits of ecstasy if they saw us coming.
Once that was done, I started working on the first portal. I was somewhat uncomfortable with so many people watching—my concentration was totally occupied with the magic I was working on, leaving me vulnerable—but, logically, I was actually fairly safe. Sure, I couldn’t trust anyone present with the exceptions of Aiko, Snowflake, and maybe Alexis and Kyra, but the probability that all the rest would betray me at the same moment was pretty small. I was still too valuable to too many of them, and until that changed even the traitors would defend me against treachery.
I was still uncomfortable, though. It ended up taking me four tries to get it right, and Kyra and Ryan were getting noticeably impatient by the time I got it together. Fortunately, I got my act together before they got bored and wandered off.
Kyra’s expression when the gap between two trees faded into absolute darkness was priceless (and holding back laughter doesn’t do you any favors when it comes to perfect concentration, let me tell you). Fortunately, the rest of them knew what to expect, and hustled the werewolves through quickly enough not to strain my capabilities. Ash, interestingly, didn’t appear confused at all, and needed no encouragement. I staggered through last of all.
I came to on the other side in a more-than-usually awkward position. I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten there—as usual, there was a blank spot stretching from the moment I stepped across to a minute or two after I reached the other side—but I was sprawled across Snowflake, Aiko, and Kyra, all of whom were in turn on top of Kjaran. Alexis was tangled with Vigdis and Sveinn at the base of a tree a few feet away, while Ryan was slumped against a fir just past them.
Ash seemed entirely unaffected, and was standing a short distance off, waiting patiently. I would have been seriously unnerved by that, but I didn’t have the attention span at the moment.
I crawled off the pile and rolled off onto the ground, not feeling up to standing currently. It hadn’t been too awful a transfer—nobody had vomited, for one thing, and my headache was only unpleasant rather than crippling—but that’s a hell of a relative statement. Snowflake curled up next to me a few seconds later, and not long after that Aiko moved off of Kjaran as well.
Much like anything else, Otherside travel gets easier the more times you do it. It wasn’t, therefore, surprising that the jötnar were the next to recover, followed by Ryan and then Alexis, with Kyra last of all. (Kjaran came to early on, but didn’t move. Kyra’s weight didn’t seem to bother him, which wasn’t that remarkable considering their respective sizes.)
“Good Lord,” Kyra moaned, without opening her eyes or moving. “What the fuck just happened?”
“And now you know why I don’t visit more often. It’s over quicker than flying, at least.”
The werewolf opened her eyes, blinked a couple times, and then clearly realized where she was. She immediately scrambled off of Kjaran, obviously trying not to harm him (she might as well not have bothered, considering it was Kjaran we were talking about). She was then immediately and violently ill, to no one’s real surprise. You soon learn not to move that quickly that soon after you regain consciousness from a portal.
I glanced at Ryan, who didn’t appear to be reacting nearly as badly as Kyra. That was very interesting. I debated keeping it a secret that I’d noticed, but after a few seconds decided the possibility of gaining information outweighed any possible value I might gain from hiding it. “Have you done this before, Ryan?” I asked, keeping my voice free of any trace of accusation or hostility. You don’t want to make a stressed werewolf feel defensive. It isn’t a good idea.
“Yes, sir, on several occasions.” He hadn’t moved from his slump against the tree, and yet he still sounded drill-sergeant crisp. That was just weird.
“Thought so. How’d that happen?” A moment later I remembered, and felt a strong desire to smack myself in the head. “Oh, shit. Ryan, please tell me what Edward said about you having a contract with the fae was wrong.”
“I think the term ‘contract’ might be somewhat excessive, sir,” he said instead.
I groaned. “Please tell me you didn’t agree to any unspecified favors.”
“I’m not stupid,” he said, accidentally showing a trace of personality. “It was just an agreement with my girlfriend. We only even told them about it so that her family would have to recognize it.”
I closed my eyes. “Ryan, please tell me you aren’t implying that you’re dating one of the fae.”
“Actually, sir, I’m not. I’m outright stating it.”
“I suddenly regret this decision even more, which is a remarkable feat on your part. Congratulations. Do I want to know how this situation came about?” That was actually a serious question; I never seem to learn not to ask questions I don’t want to know the answers to, but at least I’ve made some progress.
“Actually,” Kyra said before Ryan could respond, “you already do. You remember that thing I made Ryan help you with, just before we left town?”
“You mean the one that ended with him waking up naked in a field in Kansas?” I said.
“Don’t remind me,” I interrupted. “My psyche is still healing from the first time.”
God, no. That was ein ätzend verflucht Scheibenkleister. You aren’t paying me enough to think about that story again. Snowflake sounded like she was only with difficulty restraining a shudder.
“So,” I said, ignoring that comment with the ease of long practice. “You actually called that number, eh?”
“What else was I supposed to do?” Ryan asked.
“Pretty much anything, actually. I don’t suppose you know what specific fae variant she is?”
“Of course,” he said promptly. “She’s a selkie.”
A selkie, Snowflake said. Aren’t those the ones that turn into seals?
Yes, and I am so not asking him about that. I don’t even want to know what’s going on there. Out loud, I said, “Wonderful. Ah, well, I guess I can’t really point fingers. At least a selkie might wait until you’re dead to eat your liver.”
“I’ll have you know that was an isolated case,” Aiko said hotly. “It was hardly her fault that the human liver happens to be highly nutritious, including several important vitamins, and also delicious. Strictly coincidental. Any stories claiming otherwise are pure malicious slander.”
Ryan waited for a moment. When it became apparent that an explanation was not forthcoming, he cleared his throat diffidently. “Um, sir? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Kyra advised him. “Those two love their ridiculous in-jokes. Especially when no one else gets them.”
“What she said,” I agreed. “So. You’re dating a selkie. Do you know what her affiliation is?”
“She’s unaffiliated. But her family’s in pretty big with Midnight.”
I grunted. “Well, that’s something.” Most selkies weren’t affiliated with the Courts (according to what I’d heard, anyway; I hadn’t met one before), but it isn’t unheard of. The Midnight Court was already involved, of course, but anything that decreased the amount I had to deal with those lunatics could only be a good thing.
“I should get going,” Aiko said abruptly. “Meet you in the Wood in an hour and a half, right?”
“Right. You want anything from home?”
“You might grab a bit of cash; I’m not carrying any euros.”
“No problem,” I said, standing up and stretching in preparation for another round of work. We’d spent enough time sitting around, and everyone looked recovered enough for the next stage.
Twenty minutes later, I was standing around back in Colorado. The trees weren’t as impressive as the ones in Faerie, and it was a hell of a lot colder, but other than that the two locations were actually fairly similar.
“Ugh,” Kyra said, opening her eyes. She promptly squinted against the light—it wasn’t actually that bright, but migraine-like sensitivity to light was a fairly common symptom of crossing over. “How can you stand that?”
“You get used to it,” I said absently, watching Ash. She had once again failed to show any reaction to the portal, which was even creepier now that I’d had time to think about it. At first she’d appeared cold, which wasn’t surprising considering that it was maybe fifteen degrees in this shady little meadow, there was a breeze, and she was standing in three inches of snow. It probably didn’t help that she was wearing a thin brown jacket over her long-sleeved white shirt, a black wool skirt, and plain black shoes barely adequate to keep the snow out where she was standing. Not beach-going dress, granted, but not really adequate for the conditions either.
Less than a minute after I became cognizant of my surroundings, though, she took two steps sideways to stand next to an aspen tree and rested a hand on its bark. Less than ten seconds later she was no longer shivering or showing any other signs of discomfort, and the light, forest-like smell of her magic had intensified slightly. I would say that the stuffed cat dangled from her other hand, but I’m pretty sure “dangled” isn’t the right word; it wasn’t hanging in quite the same way that gravity should have placed it.
Fascinating. Ash was an increasingly interesting enigma.
“I don’t see why you’d want to,” Kyra groaned.
I shrugged. “It’s a quick way to get from place to place. And there are some places you can’t get any other way.” I paused. “Well, I can’t. There are ways, but they tend to be difficult, dangerous, or very expensive.”
“It actually isn’t that bad once you’ve done it a few times,” Ryan interjected. He glanced at me. “This was worse than I remember it being with Unna, granted.”
“So I’m not very good at this trick,” I muttered. “Bite me. Still beats the shit out of flying.”
Kyra managed to sit up and look around, although she looked like she regretted the decision immediately afterward. “Wait a second,” she said. “Do I recognize this place?”
“You ought to. You must have seen it a few hundred times at least.”
“Why did you bring us here?”
“You need to know a place pretty well to use it as a destination for that spell,” I said. “I only know a few in the city. This seemed like the most convenient one.”
“You only know a few,” she said slowly. “And you picked here?”
Kyra was quiet for a few seconds, taking that in. “Why on earth,” she said at last, “did you pick a random spot in the trees out back of my shitty old apartment?” Said location being a truly awful studio apartment at the edge of Manitou Springs. She hadn’t lived there for quite a long time now.
“It’s convenient to Manitou,” I said cheerfully. “And relatively easy to blend into, since nobody really watches it closely. Plus, if I ever need to hide out, it’s also easy to get into the forest.” I didn’t see any reason to mention what everyone already knew, which was that once I got into the forest I was gone. Pretty much nobody (with obvious exceptions, such as gods and Twilight Princes) could take me in my forest.
“Goddamn. You really have gotten paranoid.”
I grinned without much humor. “Believe it. Ready to move on?”
“Depends,” Kyra said cautiously. “Does it involve another of those things?”
“Not right away, no. Although that is how we’re going to Germany.”
“I guess so, then,” she said dubiously.
“Wonderful! Sveinn, Kjaran, I want you to head back to the house. Sveinn, you’re in charge of things until I get back. I expect there not to have been any disasters in the interim.”
The jotun snapped to attention. “ Já, minn herra,” he said crisply.
“What about me?” Vigdis asked.
“You’re coming with us. I want to have a thug along, just in case.”
Her face split into a wide grin. “I love it when I get to be the thug.”
“What, am I not scary enough for you anymore?” Kyra said, mock-indignantly.
I glanced back and forth between the werewolf and the giant. Neither of them really looked like the sort to inspire fear; Kyra was around average in size, with nondescript blue eyes and dark brown hair. Vigdis mostly looked like she was extremely ill-prepared for the weather; if it weren’t for the axes, you could easily fail to notice her walking by on the street.
Having seen them both in action, I knew that those appearances were extremely deceptive; I wouldn’t care to fight either of them, and I’m pretty decent in a fight. But I also knew that Kyra wasn’t nearly as scary as Vigdis. Kyra was mostly sane, and Vigdis…wasn’t.
Rather than explain any of that, I just grinned. “Tell you what. If it comes to that, you can both terrify the poor sucker.” I looked at Vigdis. “I don’t want you drawing attention to us, though. Go switch into your blending kit and meet us at Pryce’s in forty minutes.”
“I hate blending in,” she sulked.
“Not optional this time. Go.”
Vigdis pouted, but she went. One of the things I’d made very clear to all of my minions was that there were things I was willing to compromise on, and things I wasn’t. It’s important to set clear boundaries for your minions; as any good boss knows, clear and consistent expectations are integral to maintaining an efficient working environment.
Granted, I don’t expect most bosses do it in quite as violent and authoritarian a way as I did. But their minions probably also don’t perform kidnappings, search-and-destroy attacks, or military assaults, so I suppose it evens out. Alas, jötnar seldom offer respect to anyone not capable of violence, and they see laxness of discipline as a sign of weakness.
Not unlike werewolves in that regard, actually. Ryan and I once had a very interesting conversation about how Kyra’s lack of dictatorial behavior and general niceness had impaired her ability to lead the pack, simply because it gave them the subconscious message that she was weak and unfit to govern. He’s ex-military and studied sociology in college, which gives him an interesting perspective on it and fancy vocabulary to describe it with, but it was nothing I hadn’t known my whole life.
“You know,” Kyra said once Vigdis was gone, “watching that makes me realize how much worse my job could have been. What the hell are those guys?”
“Jötnar. Norse frost giants. I’ve got half a dozen of them following me around now that I’m technically one of their jarls. They’re supposed to be my enforcers.” I started walking, in a direction at roughly right angles to the one Vigdis had taken. My bizarre entourage trailed along after me.
“Half a dozen?” Ryan asked. “That doesn’t seem adequate.”
“Yeah, well, you haven’t seen ’em in action. They’re quite a bit scarier than the average werewolf.”
“Enough scarier that six of them is enough to maintain dominance over an entire city?” Ryan sounded skeptical.
“Yes. But my power is more political than military anyway. If someone seriously tries to oust me, I’ve already screwed up on an epic scale.”
Kyra shook her head. “I honestly never would have seen you being a politician.”
“Me neither. But somebody’s got to do it, and what else was I supposed to do when you dropped it in my lap?”
“What, so now that’s my fault too?”
“Everything else is,” I said, grinning. “Why not this?”
“You,” she said, “are such an ass.” But she was smiling when she said it.
It was a bit of a walk to my house. Werewolves tend to be physically fit, though, and I insisted that Alexis maintain decent conditioning. Ash concerned me slightly more, but seemed to have no difficulty keeping up.
“So let me get this straight,” Kyra said when we stopped outside of the building. “You’re, like, the boss. You’ve got minions. You’ve got money. And you still live in this piece of shit?”
I grinned. “Trust me,” I said, walking up to the battered front door. “It’s nicer than it looks.”
In all fairness, Kyra had reason for complaint. The building my mansion connected to was a ramshackle old house in ill-repair, in the middle of the closest thing Colorado Springs has to a slum. It looks like it’s been abandoned for twenty years, and twenty generations of rodents had been squatting in it in that time. Looking at the place, you really had to wonder why it hadn’t been condemned as a public health hazard.
Granted, that would require that you see it in the first place, which almost nobody did. The building had come with some very nice wards that guaranteed that pretty much everybody’s gaze skipped from one side to the other without really registering the building itself. I didn’t have to worry much about door-to-door salesmen.
Of course, I didn’t trust that to protect me. So I also had another layer of wards on it which were, shall we say, a little less passive. Try to break in, and you could expect a serious retaliation. Continue after that first reprisal, and it goes to lethal force. I take my privacy seriously.
It took me only a minute or two to temporarily lower the wards and unlock the half-dozen or so locks I had on the door. I opened it, revealing a small and unlit antechamber. It looked like it hadn’t been used for years, with a thick layer of dust on every available surface.
“Yeah,” Kyra said, “still not feeling it.”
I grinned. “Trust me,” I repeated.
It was a little tricky getting Kyra, Ryan, and Ash inside. The magic connecting this doorway to the mansion on the Otherside was incredibly high-powered and complicated, and I didn’t have the first idea how Fenris had done it, but I knew how it worked fairly well. Anyone I specifically keyed to the magic could use it just fine. That included both Snowflake and Alexis. If you weren’t on the approved list, you could walk back and forth across the threshold all day and not go anywhere. Fenris wasn’t stupid, though, and he’d programmed in a way for me to bring in guests without extending them the trust involved in putting them on the list of people to let in automatically. If someone was in skin contact with me when I crossed, the magic would bring them with me.
So yeah, slightly awkward trying to maintain skin contact with all three of them at once. But that was forgotten once we were across.
The front door of the mansion opens into an enormous entryway, consisting mostly of polished white marble, three tall stories and larger than a lot of buildings. The furniture, which was adequate for a small stadium, was all fine dark woods, upholstered with velvet, silk, and leather in cold colors. A large marble throne dominated the room from its dais on the opposite side of the room. Hanging on the wall over it, in what was probably a deliberate echo of the throne room across town where I (infrequently, and with great reluctance) held court, was my coat of arms, a rough-edged white wolf’s head on a black background.
The motto underneath read Grimmir ok Svalbrjóstaðir, in ornate Gothic script. It was a phrase in Old Icelandic, which meant Grim and Coldhearted—and no, I didn’t pick it. I’m not entirely sure who did, or why that was what they chose. It seems like a bit of a strange thing to aspire towards.
“…The hell?” Ryan said. “What is this?”
“Home,” I said grandiosely. “Try not to touch anything. We keep the place pretty well booby-trapped.”
“You booby-trap your own house?” Kyra sounded like she couldn’t decide between amusement and disgust.
I snorted. “Yeah, well, wait until you see the rest of it. You could fit a small town in here. There are whole wings we don’t use at all.”
“Excuse me, sir, but you haven’t answered my question,” Ryan interjected. “What the hell is this place?”
“That’s sort of complicated. The short answer is that it’s a pocket of space that isn’t actually a part of our world, but it’s permanently connected to that house. You don’t get in without really specific credentials, which is why we had to come in the way we did.”
“It is not an uncommon practice,” Ash said, sounding totally calm. “Although such grandiosity is atypical in my experience. Who designed it, if I might ask?”
“Of course you can,” I said. “And it was designed by Fenris.” I paused. “Well, he was the one who gave the place to me. I don’t really know whether he built it or not.”
“Ah,” she said. “I suppose I might have expected such, considering your association with Fenrisúlfr.”
“Probably so. But I think it can be forgiven, considering how many people I have an association with.” I glanced at the time and muttered something impolite when I saw how late it was already. “Okay, we need to get moving. Remember, don’t touch anything unless I tell you. You don’t want to learn what Aiko’s idea of a good booby-trap is, trust me.”