In retrospect, it should have been obvious that things were about to go to hell. I’d had half a year of peace and prosperity, and that was about half a year more than I could count on. I should have known that when it all fell apart, it would do so with more than the usual enthusiasm.
It all started innocuously enough. I was sitting in my throne room hearing petitions. It wasn’t my favorite activity, at all, but it wasn’t horrible. Almost two years into the jarl gig, I’d finally gotten it somewhat figured out. Most of my nominal subjects had figured out that I wasn’t really that into dealing with their problems and reacted poorly when they attempted to drag me into the middle of a spat, so mostly they didn’t bother me unless they thought a situation had gotten fairly serious. As a result, I only had to actually hold court once or twice a month these days, rather than on a weekly basis.
That should not be taken to mean that it was any less unpleasant. Less frequent, but not less unpleasant.
It was currently just past dusk and I’d been sitting in my hideously uncomfortable throne for the better part of eight hours. Thus far I’d heard a dispute between a pair of vampires over who owned one of their pet humans, an allegation that Jimmy and his little gang had used unacceptable methods while hunting a vampire down in Pueblo, and an accusation that a minor mage had stolen a significant amount of money from, of all things, a coffin maker.
The fact that it had taken eight hours to deal with those three complaints should tell you something about how fun my job was. It made herding cats look pleasant; with cats, you’re at least allowed to use filthy language. I had to remain polite, calm, and levelheaded the whole time I was dealing with this crap, and it left me in a mood that could charitably be described as foul.
Finally, after two full hours of wrangling with the coffin maker and the mage he’d accused, I managed to arrive at a compromise. Like all good compromises, it left no one happy and wouldn’t last five minutes outside my line of sight, but at least I might not have to see that particular complainant again.
I sighed. “Another one down,” I said. “Who’s next, Sveinn?”
My housecarl glanced at a sheet of paper. “It seems to be one Mr. Laufson,” he said.
I froze. “Luke Laufson?”
“That’s correct, jarl.”
“Oh shit oh shit runrunrun.” That’s what I didn’t say, because it would have ruined my image.
Having an image can be such a pain in the ass.
Thus, while my initial reaction was to hit every panic button available and run out of the building screaming, instead I said, “Show him in, please,” as calmly as I could manage. I must have been getting better, because Sveinn didn’t seem to see through me. He just nodded and went to the door. We made everyone wait their turn outside in summer, as another way of ensuring that they had to really want to talk to me.
Luke brushed past the giant casually as he walked in. He was wearing a body I hadn’t seen before, less visually distinctive than was normal for him. It was short, a little overweight, and pale, which combined with short, unkempt black hair to make him look vaguely nerdy. If I’d passed him on the street I wouldn’t have thought a thing of it.
For a second I hoped that this actually wasn’t the single most terrifying entity I’d ever encountered, and the name was just a coincidence, or someone trying to scare me or something. Then he winked at me, and a muddy brown eye vanished into orange-and-green madness for half a second before returning to mundanity. I sighed. It was Loki, all right.
“Everyone leave, please,” I said quietly. “Sveinn, this will be my last appointment for the night. If anyone’s still waiting, get their contact information and let them know that I’ll see them tomorrow.”
I could tell that the housecarls were confused. They didn’t know who this was, and they didn’t know why I didn’t want them present for this conversation. The lot of them filed out without comment or question regardless. They knew my rules. I was fine with—welcoming of, even—questions, recommendations, and complaints. They kept me from getting complacent. In front of outsiders, though, I expected prompt obedience. Anything else made me look bad, and I couldn’t afford that.
“I love what you’ve done with the place,” Loki said, wandering idly around the room. “Very…Spartan. Is that chair as uncomfortable as it looks?”
“Worse,” I growled. “What do you want?”
“Come now,” he said. “Is that all the patience you have? For me, your dear friend?” He sighed and shook his head. “You need to work on your manners, Shrike. Surely Conn trained you better than this.”
“I’ve been in this chair all day,” I said. “I’d rather not be here all night too. I know you want something, or you wouldn’t be here. What is it?”
“As you wish,” he said, stopping and turning to face me. His expression and voice were both unwontedly serious, and I almost shivered. Anything bad enough to make Loki start paying attention was way out of my league. “This is a time for brevity, in any case. I desire a favor.”
“A favor,” I repeated.
“Do you think I’m a moron?” I asked. “I remember the last favor I did you.”
“That was jest,” he said. “This is serious. I will provide you with all the assistance I can. You will be well rewarded, I assure you.”
“I also remember the last favor you did me,” I said dryly. “It isn’t a terribly good motivator.”
“Knowledge, then,” he offered. “I will answer nine questions for you, truthfully and to the best of my knowledge and your capacity for understanding.”
I paused. “Any nine questions?”
“Yes.” Loki sounded impatient.
“And they only count if I explicitly state that they do?”
“Naturally. Petty word games are for lesser beings, and unworthy of such as us.”
Wow. That was…an extremely good offer. Almost good enough to be tempting. I mean, Loki was a god. A god. Not even a weak, unimportant deity, like the god of kitchen drawers or something. He was probably in the top ten most powerful and influential entities in the world. He was old, too, older than I could probably hope to understand.
You don’t get to that kind of position without knowing all kinds of things, things better left forgotten. If you knew to ask the right questions, even a single truthful answer from Loki was the sort of thing that could change the world. Nine of them was a priceless treasure, worth far more than any dragon’s hoard.
Loki was many things, few of them good. But he wasn’t an oathbreaker. If he was offering me this deal, he meant it. I was utterly confident of that. He wasn’t trying to bilk me, or trick me into accepting a fool’s bargain. He was being sincere.
Which, in turn, meant that him saying this was serious was the understatement of the year. Even for a god, the sort of thing he was offering me was a rare deal. It was the kind of thing you don’t give away without a damned good reason. If he was taking anything that seriously, it was a safe bet that the smartest thing for me to do was run as far and fast as I could. Like, maybe into another world. And then hunker into the toughest bomb shelter I could come up with, and pray I could weather the storm.
I took a solid five minutes trying to decide what answer I should give him. Loki seemed content to wait in silence, not even breathing or blinking. Impatient he might be, but he was still Loki. Five minutes just doesn’t mean a lot to someone who’s seen the birth and death of millennia.
What eventually decided me was, oddly enough, not the promise of reward. It was curiosity. It’s a serious problem for me. When I’m presented with a fascinating question, I want to know the answer, even if I know that the information will cost more than it’s worth. If I turned him down, I’d never know what it was that had him so upset.
And I wanted to know.
And, on a more practical note, it was hard to figure out which way to run if I didn’t know where the threat was coming from.
Ah, well. It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. I’d dealt with Loki a few times in the past, and if there was one thing I’d learned it was that I was going to get screwed no matter what I did. Might as well go into it with open eyes.
“I’m not agreeing to anything,” I told him, “until I know what favor you want.”
“It’s fairly simple,” he said, resuming his pacing. “Someone in this town summoned something, something which should have been left well alone. I want you to find them.”
“What, exactly, did they summon?”
He made a frustrated sound. “There isn’t a word for it. It’s a bad thing, Winter, a very bad thing. It doesn’t belong here.”
“Dangerous, I presume?”
“Extremely,” he said dryly. “I would recommend you avoid it. You aren’t ready to handle something on this level.”
Wonderful. If Loki thought this nameless thing was extremely dangerous, it probably meant I was playing with something closer to thermonuclear weaponry than fire. “Do you know who summoned it?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be asking you. They’re somewhere in or immediately around this city, I know that much.”
“Not very helpful,” I commented.
“That’s why you get the big bucks. Now come on, Winter, I’m in something of a rush. Will you do it or not?”
“Is there a time limit?”
“Seven days,” he said after a moment’s thought. “You have until dawn on Wednesday to come up with the information.”
I took a deep breath and then, before I could think better of it, said, “All right then. I find the person or persons you’re looking for within a week, and you answer nine questions for me. Deal.”
Loki treated me to a smile which, even by werewolf standards, was rather predatory, and tipped a black bowler hat which hadn’t existed until he reached for it. “Bargain struck, Winter Wolf,” he said, bowing grandiosely. “Good luck.” He straightened, turned around, and vanished in an instant.
I was muttering curses as I left the building. None of the housecarls asked me what had happened.
“If I told you I was incredibly stupid and deserved to be shot,” I said, “what would you say?”
Aiko didn’t look away from her dinner. “Loki or Scáthach?” she asked, the question only slightly muffled by a mouthful of steak.
“Loki. How’d you guess?”
“Most of the time it takes you a while to figure out you did something stupid,” she said, taking a bite of mashed potato. “But even you catch on pretty quick when those two are involved.”
“Wait a second,” Alexis said. “When you say Loki, you don’t mean, like…Loki, right?” My cousin, not being as accustomed to my particular brand of dumbassery as Aiko, seemed somewhat disbelieving.
“Yes, unfortunately,” I sighed, grabbing a plate. Alexis had made dinner, which always meant good things. Tonight it meant steaks, mashed potatoes, three loaves of bread, potato salad, pasta salad, actual salad, and cheesecake. Alexis really likes to cook, which kind of weirds me out. I can’t complain, though, because I like food.
“Jesus Christ, Winter, isn’t there anyone you don’t know?”
“We’ve been through this,” I said. “And I thought you guys weren’t supposed to do that. Isn’t there a rule about the whole ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’ bit?” Alexis was some variety or other of Christian—she goes to church and everything. I’ve never paid too much attention to the details, because it seems to me that the best way to avoid religious arguments is to avoid the whole subject.
I was also raised Christian, to one extent or another. I never really got into it, though, and it’s been years since I even paid it lip service. It’s hard to act like there’s a benevolent supreme power watching over you when you’ve seen as much bad shit as I have. It gets even harder once you’ve actually met some gods. They tend to be rather frightening.
“In this case, I think it’s justified,” Alexis said dryly.
Aiko snorted. “Never mind that. What dipshit move did you pull this time? You didn’t make a deal with him, did you?”
“Sort of,” I admitted.
She froze, then sighed. “You really are a bit thick, aren’t you? Haven’t you gotten burned enough times already?”
“Yeah. But his offer was really good.”
“What could possibly be worth that?” Aiko asked skeptically.
“Nine true, complete answers. To any question I want.”
There was a shocked silence. “Okay,” she said finally. “I can see where that might be worth something. But you don’t get something for nothing. If freaking Loki’s offering a deal like that, it’s gotta be bad.”
“That occurred to me, too,” I agreed. “But there’s something I’d like to point out. If this is that valuable, Loki’s taking it seriously.”
“You are not helping your case any, Winter. Anything Loki takes seriously is too big for the likes of us.”
“Ah,” I said, sitting down. “But let me ask you something. If Loki’s taking this that seriously, he isn’t likely to drop it if I say no. So if a god gets tired of subtlety and just starts swinging, what’s the minimum safe distance?”
She grunted. “Good point. What did you sign on for?”
“Someone summoned something. He wants me to find them.”
“Could you be any more vague?” Aiko wondered.
“Hey, that’s all I know.” I took a bite of rare steak, delicious as usual—Alexis is vegetarian, but there isn’t much she doesn’t know how to cook—before continuing. “I figure I’ll start asking around tomorrow. This is local, and that means that someone must know something.”
“Somebody’s feeling optimistic,” she snorted.
I wasn’t, of course. This wasn’t going to be as easy as that. If it were that simple, Loki would have done it himself. But I’d already signed on for the job, and it wouldn’t do me much good to start complaining before I’d even started. Just because it was going to be a disaster and we all knew it was no reason to have a negative attitude.
I somehow got the idea, getting dressed the next morning, that things might be dangerous. I’m not sure quite how I came by this idea. It probably had something to do with the fact that, oh yeah, I was working for Loki. That might have done it.
Anyway, I wanted to be ready for when things inevitably went to hell. I also wanted to present the right kind of image. Image is everything, especially when you have a reputation to uphold. I’d spent a lot of effort developing my rep, and I couldn’t afford to blow it now.
Fortunately, armor never really goes out of style. I put mine on, draped my newly-redesigned cloak of shadow over it, and grabbed the weapons, foci, and random crap that I thought might help when something bad happened. The final result was more than a little scary looking, especially with the cloak hanging open.
That being said, I didn’t have a thing on Snowflake, who was patiently waiting next to me. She’d gone with a plain black silk eyepatch today, which looked rather severe. She was wearing her collar, as usual, a heavy leather braid set with bits of bone, as well as various semiprecious stones and metal charms, most of which had some sort of magic in them. She’d lost most of her teeth when she took a blast of force in the face seven months earlier, and we’d eventually decided to have the rest yanked. The lot of them were strung on gold wire, and she wore the result as a necklace.
This should not be taken to mean that she was toothless. That would have been a stupid decision, considering how often and gladly she bites various bad guys. We’d had a full set of dental implants installed instead, and a permanent set of stainless steel dentures put in. It was more difficult than you might think. First we had to find a veterinarian willing to do that who was still the sort of person I would have trusted to even brush her teeth, and that combination turned out to be quite rare. Once that was done it was a fairly involved medical procedure, and incredibly expensive. The dentures themselves were pricey, since we’d had to have them custom made—when was the last time you saw steel dentures?—and once they were installed I’d taken advantage of my contacts to have both the steel and the connection to the bone reinforced extensively with magic. Taken all together, her new teeth had cost somewhere around three million dollars, a price which would have been quite prohibitive even a few years earlier.
Fortunately, these days money wasn’t really much of a concern for me. I make the better part of a million a year in the form of payments from various supernatural groups who feel like paying me for jarling, and a good chunk more from selling things I make. Between that, our minimal expenses, and the fifty million the Watchers had paid us to get rid of Zhang Qiang for them, finances were way down the list of my problems.
These days, Snowflake looked actively frightening. She’s a beautiful husky, but a one-eyed husky with metal teeth and a bunch of grim adornments made out of bones is terrifying under any circumstances. It’s even worse when she wears her armor—which she wasn’t, currently, because that would have been a little bit too aggressive. Even without it, people don’t like to get close to us. Random strangers have been known to cross themselves and walk the other way when they see us coming.
On the other hand, those steel teeth plus her preternatural strength give her a bite that can crush a brick in one go. Given a little time, she can chew through concrete, rebar and trees with equal ease. Little things like bones and meat don’t even register on that scale. That’s worth a few aesthetic flaws.
I patted her on the head and then went upstairs to collect the others.
Alexis has so far managed to avoid looking like a movie monster. My cousin was about as tall as me, putting her a little above average for a woman, with long black hair and dark, serious eyes. She was wearing a copper ring and a plain wooden bracelet, but no other adornment. Alexis’s strongest suit is electricity, and someone with that kind of specialty would have to be remarkably stupid to wear anything conductive if they didn’t absolutely have to. She was getting better at precision, and her control over electric currents was good enough that it would probably take a direct lightning strike to pose a serious threat to her, but still. It wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to take chances with.
That, obviously, ruled out a lot of armament choices. Knives were right out, as were guns, and steel armor was something she wouldn’t even consider. She had a set of Kevlar-lined leathers that were almost as good, though, and she was carrying a traditional wooden jo stick. That wasn’t just an affectation; in addition to being a magical focus, she’d spent enough time practicing aikido to make the short staff a practical weapon for her. She wasn’t a match for a skilled swordsman, or even a really decent knife fighter, but she wasn’t incompetent either.
It was also a much subtler weapon than mine. Swords and knives and guns are all lovely weapons, but they’re hard to mistake for anything other than weapons, while a jo is pretty much indistinguishable from a walking stick. Alexis has gotten pretty good at faking a limp, too, and it’s a rare person who will take a walking stick away from an attractive woman with a limp.
Aiko rounded out the ensemble nicely. In her human form she was a little on the small side, and clearly of Asian descent, but otherwise visually unremarkable. Of course, that impression couldn’t last long; Aiko just isn’t cut out for blending into any crowd. Her short, unevenly cropped hair was currently dyed a vibrant cherry-red, which contrasted sharply with viridian nail polish. She had a few rings on, as well as a number of bangles and a gold pendant set with a large ruby.
The “rich” look was, of course, somewhat offset by the stained T-shirt and holey jeans. Aiko enjoys messing with people’s heads.
I looked from Snowflake to Aiko. Then I looked from Aiko back to Snowflake. Then I broke down laughing at the contrast between them.
The laughter died quickly, of course. Things were too serious for it to last. But it made me feel better.