“Took you long enough,” Aiko said through a mouthful of sausage. “Getting cold.”
“Our half-troll friend found me,” I said, grabbing a plate and loading it with some of everything. Alexis’s cooking is almost always worth eating, unless it involves curry. I can’t stand curry.
Aiko tensed and looked up from her food. “Is he…?” she said, starting to stand.
“He rests in pieces. We dumped the body in the garden, and covered the blood with snow. It should hold up until I can get somebody out to clean it.” I sat down with my food and started eating. “Zhang wants another meeting. I scheduled it for noon today.”
“That does not seem to be a logical request,” Ash said quietly. “You have barely had adequate time to begin your investigation, let alone determine the proper judgment.”
“I get the impression that’s what Zhang’s after,” I said dryly. “The less time I spend investigating, the sooner everyone forgets about this and the less of a hit his reputation takes.”
She frowned, one of the more intense expressions I’d seen from her. “That is an inappropriate attitude,” she said severely. “Excessive preoccupation with personal interests reduces the efficiency of the system, ultimately making things worse for everyone.”
I blinked. “I don’t think the smooth operation of the justice system is high on Zhang’s priority list,” I said after a moment. “Just guessing here, but I’m pretty confident about that one.”
“She does have a point, though,” Aiko said. “If Zhang keeps putting pressure on you like this, it’s going to be pretty hard for you to do your job.”
I grunted. “Yeah. He won’t put up with much more in the way of delays.” I shrugged. “We’ll see how it goes today. Honestly, at this point it’s pretty much Ryan’s word against every single piece of evidence we’ve seen, so I’m not sure it will matter. If he doesn’t come up with some kind of proof, I pretty much have to just agree he’s guilty and try for a light sentence.”
“Kyra might be a little upset by that.”
“Too bad. I told her at the outset, I can’t just let him off without a reason. I’m inclined to believe him, if only because I think he’s smart enough not to get involved in this mess. But that isn’t really good enough.”
“In retrospect,” Aiko said after a moment, “I’m sorry I told you to take this job. That was stupid advice.”
“Thanks a bunch. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get dressed for real before I go call Edward.”
And wasn’t that depressing? I mean, I literally had to get armor and a shotgun to ensure my safety when I stepped outside to make a phone call. That’s sort of a sign that you’ve seriously screwed up somewhere.
“I can’t come.”
“Look,” I said. “I know two hours is a little short notice. But I can pick you up there in forty minutes and get back to Colorado in plenty of time, trust me.”
“You aren’t hearing me,” Edward said. “I can’t come. As in can not.”
“Your meeting’s in Colorado.”
“So I can’t come. I stay out of his state, he stays out of mine. That was the deal.”
That was news to me—although, in retrospect, it explained a lot. “Who?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said dismissively. “Look, it ain’t a problem. Kyra’s there, she can represent me if it needs doing.” He did not, I noticed, mention Ryan, at all. That might be a coincidence, or it might not.
There was a longish pause before he spoke again. “How’s it looking?” he said, something in his voice suggesting that he thought he knew the answer and it wasn’t good.
“Not good. Ryan can’t really prove anything, and I can’t do much without that.” I paused. “I’m afraid he might take the fall for this,” I admitted. “Whether he’s guilty or not.”
Edward grunted. “I was afraid of that. I told the boy not to get in with the fae. Dammit. Well, do what you can for him.”
“I will. Goodbye, Edward.”
As it turned out, Kyra and Ryan were eating a late breakfast at Pryce’s, so we went to meet them there. I saw them standing in the parking lot as we walked up. I also saw something rather more unexpected.
Who’s that? Snowflake asked, clearly referring to the third person standing with them. She was shorter than Kyra, putting her a bit below the norm, and not pretty. Her hair was grey, a few shades lighter (and therefore more noticeable) than mine, and her skin was also greyish, although her face was that of a woman in her early twenties. Her features were a little too blunt, too squashed-looking, and her eyes were spaced too narrowly to be attractive. Her clothing looked anachronistic, but not for any reason I could put my finger on.
The selkie girlfriend, presumably. I didn’t bother pointing her out to the others; they’d seen her, and they could probably draw the same conclusions I had. Besides, I had no idea how good a selkie’s hearing was.
“Good morning,” I called once we were within conversational range.
“Good morning,” Ryan said. “This is Unna, my fiancée.”
That one stopped me in my tracks—and everyone else, too. “Your fiancée,” I repeated. “That would be the agreement you made with her family, then.”
Ryan had the grace to look ashamed, at least. “Yeah.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Okay, you know what? None of my business. I’m pleased to meet you, Unna. Call me Winter.”
She made no effort at small talk, just stared at me with cool black eyes. “You are helping my Ryan,” she said abruptly.
“I’m certainly trying to,” I said, neatly sidestepping the question. “Trying” wasn’t the same thing as “doing.”
She considered me for a moment, then nodded, once. “Good. Is there assistance which I may provide?”
Right to the point, anyway. That was something. “I’m guessing you didn’t come to the meeting yesterday for a reason,” I said.
“Yes, my presence would have been problematic. As I am a biased source, my contributions would be given little weight in any case.”
I nodded. “I figured so. I don’t think you can contribute anything at the moment, then. We have another meeting with Zhang and maybe the fae in an hour and change.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Kyra said. “One day? That’s all the time he gives you?”
“Zhang doesn’t care whether we catch the right guy,” I said. “And he can’t afford too much scrutiny. He’s running a smuggling ring out of that nightclub.”
I watched their faces closely as I dropped that bombshell. Kyra looked a little disappointed, as though she’d expected something less mundane. Ryan nodded, as though he’d expected something of the sort. Unna didn’t react to the news at all; I’d seen more animated statues.
“Is that it, then?” Kyra asked. “It’s over?”
I shrugged. “Hopefully not. I’m hoping I can talk the fae into backing me when I ask for more time. I want to talk to the Watcher, too.” I was guessing that would be a very interesting chat. It seemed clear that he’d been aware of what Zhang was up to, and I had a hard time imagining the Watchers being okay with that sort of thing. Moray might not—scratch that, definitely didn’t—give a damn for Ryan, but he probably wanted to see Zhang taken down a notch. That didn’t make him an ally, necessarily, but it meant that we had certain interests in common.
“Do you think that’ll do any good?”
“Maybe so. Come on,” I said, walking towards my Jeep. I left it parked outside Pryce’s, because it was free, nearby, and had almost no risk of theft. “We should get going. I don’t want anybody showing up before us.”
“You have got to be shitting me,” Kyra said, staring. “You run your evil empire out of our old house?”
“Yeah, the universe has a weird sense of humor,” I said, walking up to the front door. This building wasn’t warded, because it would have been too inconvenient to be constantly raising and lowering them.
Besides. Anybody dumb enough to break into a house full of psychotic, bloodthirsty jötnar deserves what they get.
Sveinn met us about two steps inside the door. “Jarl,” he said, giving me a nod almost deep enough to qualify as a bow.
“Hey, Sveinn. Did you call everyone I told you to?”
“Já, minn herra. Gwyn ap Nudd sent word that he cannot attend but will send a representative. All of the other parties should be present.”
“Good. Get some chairs set up in the main room, in three sections.” I walked past him into said room.
I’d seen this building in a lot of configurations. It was built to be the pack house back when Roland—crazy old Roland, whom I’d never met and never wanted to—had still been the Alpha. I saw it once then, when we went in to wipe him out, and was not impressed. The main room had been designed around a literal throne, while everyone else sat on wooden benches or stood. There’d been plenty of room in the middle for fights. It was that kind of pack.
Later, when Christopher took over, he’d brought a more pleasant feel to it. With comfortable seating, posters, and televisions, it had seemed more like a well-equipped lounge than anything. After he died Kyra hadn’t changed things much.
And then, when the pack pulled up stakes entirely and scattered in search of greener pastures, a group of rakshasas had bought the place. I think it was a statement of dominance—if they took over the center of the werewolves’ former territory, then they could take the rest too, or something like that. They’d turned it into a fortress, with boarded-over windows, bricked-up doors, and serious magical protections. It had been a pretty tough nut to crack.
Now, well, it was mine. Not legally—I don’t have legal ownership of any property, anymore. But Skrýmir had assured me that it was mine, and I didn’t think anyone would be stupid enough to argue the point.
During the day, all the windows let in plenty of light, and you can almost convince yourself that it’s a cheerful place. Once night falls, though, it seems pretty creepy. The walls were covered in depictions of wolves, ravens, and snowflakes, the wrought iron throne dominated the room, and the firelight cast plenty of flickering shadows.
“What’s that?” Kyra asked, gesturing at the wall behind the throne. It was mostly window from the ground to a height of ten feet or so, looking out on the trees behind the building. Sitting in the throne, I was framed on all sides by forest. It’s another aspect of the place that seems pretty cool during the day, and freaking scary once the sun goes down.
I was guessing that wasn’t what she was talking about, though. “That’s my coat of arms,” I said. Then I chuckled. “Damn, that always feels so weird to say. People like me aren’t supposed to have coats of arms.”
“What does your motto mean?” Ash asked. She did not seem surprised that a person like me would have a coat of arms.
“Grim and coldhearted. I didn’t pick it,” I said, forestalling what I’m sure would have been a pithy comment from Kyra. I glanced at the time, and saw that it was less than an hour until the meeting was scheduled to start—or, in other words, people could start showing up any time. “Unna, Ash, I would appreciate it if you would head upstairs. It shouldn’t last too long, but there’s food, and a TV if you get bored.” Not that I really expected either of them to use it; Unna didn’t seem human enough, and Ash just wasn’t the type.
Unna went without a word. Ash did not. “Why do you not want me to be present for the proceedings?” she asked me. I couldn’t tell whether she felt left out or not.
“I’m worried that Zhang will make a fuss about you being here,” I told her. “And given that I’m trying to talk him into giving me a few more days, it seems logical to avoid offending him if possible.”
“That is logical,” she said approvingly. I got the impression that that was high praise, coming from her. “I will remain upstairs until such time as it is no longer necessary. Good luck, Winter.”
“Thanks.” I walked up to the throne and sat down. “Damn, I hate this chair,” I grumbled. “Bad enough that I have a throne, but did they have to make it out of iron? This thing’s about as comfortable as sitting on a rock.”
“You think you have it bad?” Aiko said incredulously. “I don’t even want to hear it, Fuzzball.”
I couldn’t argue with that, particularly not when Kjaran walked in a moment later carrying her chair. It was basically a smaller version of my throne, a huge iron monstrosity that was both simple and strangely elegant in design. The thing weighed a ton, but Kjaran carried it with only slight difficulty. Jötnar are quite a bit stronger than werewolves, making them off the charts relative to humanity, and Kjaran makes even most jötnar look like they need to hit the gym.
I always feel awkward when I see Aiko’s mini-throne. I mean, I get that it’s supposed to suggest some degree of equality, which is awesome and everything. And I get that, since Aiko usually avoids court sessions like the plague (she’d only come to watch me chat with the vampire a few days ago because it promised to be mildly entertaining), it wouldn’t work to install it permanently. It would look pretty odd to constantly have an empty throne sitting next to mine. But still. It just seems so…tacky.
Kyra stared. “That,” she said, “is so tacky.”
“Finally someone agrees with me!” Aiko said vehemently. “These goddamn things don’t even have any padding, you know? Your ass goes numb in, like, ninety seconds.” Around us Sveinn and Tindr started carrying in more conventional chairs for everyone else. That is not, mind, to say that they were ordinary. They were all straight-backed chairs made of mahogany and upholstered with velvet, and the wood was covered in subtle geometric carvings. Going by the workmanship, I strongly suspected that Val had made them, although I’d never actually asked him about it.
It struck me as deeply unfair that, out of everyone in the room, Aiko and I—theoretically the most important and privileged people, in a local sense, who were present—had the least comfortable seating.
Kyra and Ryan both sat in the group of seats to my right, which consisted of exactly two chairs. Alexis would stand once things got started, much like last time, but for now she took another chair, turned it so she could see everyone, and sat as well. Snowflake, obviously, just laid down across my feet and got ready for a high-intensity power nap. Pointless and irritating politics always encourage you to seek oblivion, if only so you don’t have to listen to the people involved talk anymore.
“So,” I said. “How have you been getting along with Edward?”
Kyra looked at me in disbelief. “Is this really the best time to talk about it?” she asked.
“You got anything better to do while we wait?”
“Good point.” She shrugged. “Things have been going well. I’ve been working on the ranch, but I’m thinking about going back to school. You know, finally finish up my degree.”
“Everyone treating you all right?”
She snorted. “I’m your best friend, and you’re the next best thing to Edward’s son. Half of town bends over backwards to keep me happy, and the other half’s old enough to have known you and can’t get enough of telling me embarrassing stories.”
I grinned. “Have you heard the one about the beavers yet?”
She thought for a moment. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh, you’d remember that one.” Aiko, who’d heard that story, sounded amused. “What about you, Ryan, what are you doing? Aside from a selkie, I mean.”
“You just aren’t going to let that rest, are you?”
She grinned wickedly. “Oh, you haven’t heard anything yet. I haven’t even gotten started on silkie jokes.”
Ryan made what was clearly a conscious decision not to ask what she meant. “I’m all right,” he said. “Been doing construction work with Shoemaker’s company.”
“Larry’s still doing that, huh?” Larry Shoemaker was one of Edward’s werewolves, a crotchety bastard who had to be pushing a century old by now. For as long as anyone could remember he’d run a fairly large construction company. They didn’t take any really huge jobs—too much publicity—but he did brisk business building everything from houses to hospitals throughout most of the western part of the country. Most of the adolescents in town worked for him at one point or another, and there was a longstanding tradition that new werewolves spent some time there while they figured out where to go next.
I worked for him for all of four hours when I was a teenager. Then he made a crack about my mother, a topic on which I was somewhat sensitive. Almost without meaning to, I decked him. The whole jobsite went dead silent. He stood up, slowly, and stared at me for a solid thirty seconds before he told me I was fired. Then he grinned, complimented me on my left hook, and invited me over to his house for a beer after he was done working.
I liked Larry.
“Yeah, he’s got us out renovating an office building in Arizona. A couple weeks ago some moron broke in thinking we were the bank across the street. He was pissed.”
I laughed. I could just imagine how Larry would react to that one. Then, before I could lose my nerve, I said, “How’s Anna doing?”
Kyra didn’t seem surprised at the non sequitur. “She’s doing well. Really well, actually. She’s handling the Change a lot better than I did.”
She’d pretty much have to, considering that Kyra had been Changed against her will and then practically enslaved by a psychotic Alpha and a pack that was far, far out of control. I didn’t mention that, though, because I knew that wasn’t what Kyra meant.
“Have you talked to her at all?” she asked me.
I looked away. “I thought I’d wait for her to finish adjusting.” That was actually a perfectly valid line of reasoning. Becoming a werewolf tends to have some fairly serious psychological consequences, and a lot of new werewolves are uncomfortable with their less human instincts and urges. Being around people who’d known them when they were human sometimes made them feel ashamed of what they had become. Although, given that Anna had apparently had something of an urge in that direction all along, whether that was a valid concern in her case was debatable to say the least.
I was just playing it safe, though. It certainly didn’t have anything to do with my feeling guilty because I’d gotten her into some fairly serious trouble. I also wasn’t avoiding her because I wasn’t sure how to deal with the fact that she’d only struck up a friendship with me in the first place because she’d guessed I was a werewolf, and she was obsessed with all things lycanthropic. I don’t know why you would even think such a thing.
Also, I have a bridge to sell you, Santa Claus actually does exist, and someone’s sneaking up behind you right now.
Fortunately, Sveinn walked in before the conversation could devolve any further. “Jarl,” he said. “The first fae party just arrived.”
I sat up straighter. “About time. Sveinn, you’re the greeter. Everyone else, get ready.”
Sveinn nodded sharply and then went to get the door. Alexis stood up, yawned, and then went to stand against the back wall, where she was quickly joined by Vigdis. A couple seconds later Kjaran walked in, arranged the last few chairs, and stood next to them. Haki stood at the opposite end of the line, where the two massive jötnar would act as bookends.
Tindr wasn’t attending. I respected the guy, but an anemic kitten wouldn’t be impressed by how visually threatening he was, and his actual combat skills didn’t do much to change that.
To my surprise, the first person to show up was not Samuel Black, or Anja Morgenstern, or even Carraig. It was the same person who had been shadowing Gwyn ap Nudd yesterday, the one who had looked like his human disguise wasn’t quite up to par. It still wasn’t, and I still couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong with it, and that was still really annoying.
This time, though, there was no one else around to confuse things, giving me a chance to get a good sniff of his magic. It was fairly strong, although not anything like his master’s, and clearly fae in nature. There was a strong hint of wolf, though, and more than a touch of forest, blood, and night.
I stared. “I know you.”
He smiled, showing teeth very slightly too sharp to be human. A casual observer wouldn’t notice, but once you did it was surprisingly distracting. The smell of magic shifted slightly, and his glamour melted away.
The body thus revealed would have drawn stares from any gathering of normal people in the world—although, depending on the setting, not necessarily in a bad way. He was around six feet tall and resembled some sort of hybrid of wolf and human. His knees were oddly jointed, but clearly capable of bipedal locomotion, and his hands resembled paws, complete with clawed fingers. His whole body was covered in a thick coat of grey-brown fur, his eyes were a vivid yellow-green, and his teeth had gone from mildly inhuman to blatantly carnivorous.
In other words, if you saw him you would think that he was either a monster or wearing the best costume ever made.
About three seconds later—long enough that no one could have missed it, not long enough to form a coherent response—there was a gentle surge of power and the human mask was back in place. I didn’t have to wonder why it was less than perfect anymore. Such a profoundly inhuman body would logically have to move in ways that weren’t quite the same as human movement, and my subconscious had picked up on that. No paint job in the world is going to make a Ferrari handle like a Volkswagen.
“You do, Winter jarl,” he said, making no explanation for his behavior. He didn’t need to; everyone who needed to know (which in this case meant him, me, and Aiko) did.
I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about this revelation. On the one hand, I’d gotten along with this…creature, I suppose, although that seems too derogatory…pretty well. After he was the only member of the Wild Hunt to actively show support for me, I’d run into him again at Skrýmir’s party. We’d spent a while talking without anything catastrophic or disturbing happening, which is pretty good for a Sidhe party. So there was at least one person who, if not a friend, at least wasn’t an enemy.
On the other hand, with the exception of Morgenstern and the mages, there wasn’t a single person present I hadn’t encountered previously. That I would keep encountering the same few people over and over again was odd, and probably evidence for some bizarre conspiracy or something.
“Gwyn ap Nudd is the king of the Tylwyth Teg,” I noted. “A group which does not include you.” I hadn’t encountered any of the Tylwyth Teg before, excepting Gwyn ap Nudd himself, but the stories usually depict them as vaguely humanoid in appearance, much like the Sidhe. I wasn’t sure what, precisely, the wolfish fae (whose name, incidentally, I’d never heard) was, but humanoid definitely wasn’t on the list.
He smiled. “Gwyn ap Nudd will take almost anyone, if they can hunt. I can.”
“And Stefan Morgenstern? A Sidhe, and a young one at that. It seems hard to believe that he was a hunter on that level.”
“Your lord has a reputation for honor,” I said. “A reputation which seems at odds with Morgenstern’s more…illicit activities.”
His smile sharpened slightly. “A spy for one can often be a spy for another,” he said. “And being honorable does not mean that one must be a fool.”
I nodded slowly. Gwyn ap Nudd had been playing the same game as Scáthach, using Morgenstern as a way to get at his cohorts—or possibly as bait. I couldn’t say I was surprised; fair and honorable or not, you don’t take and hold power among the fae by being straightforward and naive. “And what of those things which are more offensive than simply spying? The smuggling, the violence…did your lord know about these things as well?”
“There is not knowing,” he answered, “and there is not caring. It is important not to confuse the two. I find, when dealing with such folk as he, that it is safer to assume the latter.”
Which was not, I noticed, actually an answer to my question. “Surely one so reputable as Gwyn ap Nudd would not allow his subjects to profit by dishonorable means.”
“And tell me, then, what profit has Stefan Morgenstern’s reaped? He is quite dead, jarl.” He shook his head. “No, you know as well as I do—and Gwyn ap Nudd knows better than either of us, to be sure—that the course which brings pleasure today often exacts a heavy price tomorrow. My lord has no need to punish wrongdoers when their own actions will bring misfortune down upon them.”
Which, reading between the lines, strongly implied that Gwyn ap Nudd had known quite a bit about what was going on. He’d known what Morgenstern was getting up to, he’d known that his actions had pissed someone off enough to incite them to murder—and he hadn’t told him.
I got the sinking feeling that I had seriously underestimated how much trouble I’d gotten myself into agreeing to this. Doing a friend of a friend a favor was one thing. Tug-of-rope between a mage clan, the Watchers, a Faerie Queen, the king of the Tylwyth Teg, and some unknown smuggling ring was another thing entirely. Any one of those was enough to obliterate me, and if I kept sticking my nose where it didn’t belong it was entirely too likely that one of them would do so.
Of course, at this point I couldn’t really let go of the wolf’s ears either. It was too late to back out of it. That left me with no real options but to keep going and hope that I could resolve things in a way that wouldn’t get us all killed.
“You’ve been very helpful,” I said, skirting the edges of outright gratitude. When you were dealing with the fae, it paid to watch what you said; thanking someone could be taken as an admission of debt, and you don’t want to be in debt to a fae. They take that sort of thing seriously.
“It is my pleasure,” he said, showing teeth in what was only in the most technical sense a smile. It was the sort of expression that reminded you there was a wolf’s face hiding behind that illusion, and most of the time if a wolf shows you his teeth it’s because those teeth are about to be in you. “I have no fondness for Morgenstern, or those like him.”
Nothing more was said for several minutes. Sveinn escorted in Anja Morgenstern and Samuel Black, and then a few minutes later Moray. The Watcher was dressed even more formally this time, in a three-piece suit all in black. It looked both expensive and uncomfortable as hell, but he seemed used to it. Zhang came separately, several minutes later, and sat down with a sour expression. He hadn’t brought his minion with him this time, but he was still wearing the robe.
Carraig was the last to arrive. Of course, since he still showed up fifteen minutes before the meeting was actually scheduled to begin, it was hard to blame him too much. “Can we get this show on the road?” he asked, dropping into one chair and putting his feet up on another. “I’ve got an appointment in Cairo in an hour. Some idiot welshed on a deal, and he’s worth more as an example than a client.”
“I have no objection,” I said, “since everyone is here already. Master Zhang, since you requested this meeting, would you like to begin?” That was a subtle dig at him, reminding everyone that he was the reason they had to take time to come talk about this again. Since I expected him to be my main opposition, I didn’t figure I could go wrong turning everyone else against him.
I hate having to think like that.
“Certainly,” he said precisely. “I wish to know whether you have yet found that Mr. Peterson is guilty and should be punished.”
“Mr. Peterson, are you still claiming innocence?”
“Yes.” Ryan sounded a little nervous, which I really couldn’t blame him for.
“I see. Well, the evidence does suggest that Mr. Peterson is the most likely culprit. However—”
“This is obvious,” Zhang interrupted. “I told you that additional investigation was unnecessary with such clear facts.”
“Excuse me, Master Zhang,” I said coldly, “but I was not finished. As I was saying, I was not able to find a reasonable motive for him to kill Stefan Morgenstern, nor has any been proposed here.”
The mage shook his head emphatically. “Mr. Peterson is a werewolf, and they are well known for their aggression. And he has admitted that Morgenstern made advances on his fiancée. Surely this could drive any man to violence.”
“Be that as it may, there are other factors to consider. Aspects of the timing make it highly likely that this act was premeditated. Your suggestion, which is dependent upon it being a crime of passion, does not match this evidence.”
“And?” he demanded. “Mr. Peterson is, as you said, still the most likely culprit.”
“Ah,” I said. “But this implies that he was hired or ordered to do so by another person, one who did have a clear motive ahead of time. Surely justice is not served until both the hired hand and his employer are found and treated suitably.”
“In fact,” the lupine fae said before Zhang could respond, “under our law only the one who gives the order is responsible. A killer in the service of another is no more at fault than the knife is responsible for the acts in which it is wielded.”
“That is preposterous,” Zhang snapped.
“No,” Anja said, “it is the law. Jarl Wolf is correct in this, Master Zhang. If another party was responsible for my brother’s death, then that party is the one at fault.”
“You wanted this dealt with by fae law,” Kyra said unsympathetically. “You don’t get to change your mind just because that isn’t convenient anymore.”
Zhang, clearly seeing that support was not forthcoming, relented. “Fine,” he spat.
I smiled serenely at him. “I’m glad that we all agree,” I said. “I will be glad to investigate this further and let you know what I find.”
Zhang’s left eyelid twitched once, giving me a pleasant feeling of satisfaction. It’s always nice when you can piss off a self-centered, obstructive jerk. Then he stood up and walked out of the building without another word.
“I believe that is all that needs to be said,” I told the rest of them. “I appreciate your taking time to meet with me. Oh, and Moray?” I said, as people started standing up. “Would you mind staying for a few minutes? There are a couple things I’d like to discuss with you.”
“It would be my pleasure,” he said, his voice unreadable.
A few minutes later, the room had emptied out considerably. I stood up, sighing with relief. “Freaking hate that chair,” I muttered, grabbing one of the recently vacated wooden ones instead. Aiko and Alexis joined me about two seconds later, while the jötnar went back to whatever they’d been doing. “Sveinn, would you please go tell Ash and Unna they can come down now?”
He nodded and left. I leaned back in my chair and scratched Snowflake’s ears absently. “So,” I said. “I got your message.”
He smiled, the expression surprisingly carefree. “Why, I don’t know what you mean, jarl Wolf-Born.”
I snorted. “Yeah, I’m sure. So I take it the Watchers are not happy with our friend Zhang.”
The smile faded. “No, we aren’t.”
“Mind if I ask why? I mean,” I said hastily, “I know that he’s involved in smuggling, I know Morgenstern was one of his business associates, I know that’s why he was killed, I know that Zhang is aware of that fact. I just don’t see where you get involved.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Isn’t that enough of a reason for us to pay attention?”
“Well, sure. I mean, you are the Watchers, it’s your job to police mages and this definitely falls under that.” I smiled without much humor. “But you’re also chronically underfunded and short on manpower. Considering the number of people you’re supposed to be keeping in line, and the amount of power they wield, I know you have to pick and choose what to deal with.”
He considered me for a moment, then sighed. “There’s a bit of a story to that.”
“I have a bit of time.”
He nodded as though he’d expected me to say that. Then he launched into his story.