My injuries were the most numerous out of everyone who went on the attack. I had seven broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a broken wrist, a concussion, and a mix of second- and third-degree burns over about seventy percent of my skin. The shrapnel wounds in my back were fairly nasty too, although the cauterization kept me from bleeding out. I’d also sprained an ankle and broken three fingers somewhere in there without realizing it, and shattered my left fibula into three pieces, although I honestly have no idea where that happened.
More seriously, that blast of force that clipped me did some fairly serious internal damage. It ruptured my spleen, which is apparently a fairly bad thing, and also a few blood vessels. That’s why I’d passed out; shock is no joke, even for werewolves.
Internal bleeding isn’t a joke either, and I could have died from it quite easily. I should have been able to stop the bleeding, what with being a werewolf and all that, but even my body has limits. The accumulated damage of all those injuries had been too much for me to overcome.
Fortunately for me, Moray and Brick had made it down there only a couple minutes after Zhang’s death. I don’t think the timing was deliberate; they aren’t the type to avoid a fight. Neither of them knew jack shit about treating injuries, of course, but Moray called the Watchers and they sent a witch with a specialty in healing. He must have been on standby already, because he got there within five minutes.
Witches can do incredible things, especially when their patients already have accelerated healing. I lived. I don’t have a spleen anymore, but apparently that just means I’m more susceptible to infection, which really isn’t a problem for a werewolf anyway. My ribs, wrist and leg hadn’t healed yet—bones always take longest—and my skin was tender, but I was inclined to call it a success.
Aiko got lucky, and walked out with hardly a scratch. She had some bruises, of course, and some mild burns, but nothing you couldn’t get on an ordinary day. Kyra’s worst injury was that cut on her front leg, which was messy and painful but didn’t involve anything but skin and muscle. She had it healed by the time I woke up, a little less than a day later. Brick and Moray were both exhausted and somewhat scorched—Zhang clearly liked his fire—but basically okay. Vigdis and Haki between them had six broken bones and needed a hundred and twenty stitches—they’d run into one of those steel golems upstairs, apparently, and there wasn’t a whole lot Brick or Moray could do about it. They eventually managed to batter it into submission, but it took some battering.
Snowflake was not as fortunate. That blast of force she took to the face knocked her out, like I’d thought, but it also knocked out most of her teeth. She’s pissed, but otherwise pretty much unharmed.
Moray also called in a bunch of other Watchers, on top of the healer. They subdued the rest of the guards (most of them had already run, I guess, and I don’t blame them) and confirmed that Zhang was dead. They also carried out most of the loot, of which there was a huge amount, and repossessed the house itself. I gather it’s being sold to another, hopefully more pleasant, mage.
We kept a few things—some gold and jewels, a few furs and handmade rugs, that sort of thing. We’re taking the rest of our share in cash, though, and there’s a shitload of it. I gather that, as it was an unofficial operation, Watcher doesn’t have to report the windfall to the Conclave. That made her feel generous. Aiko, Kyra and I got ten percent of the proceeds to split, which came to almost fifty million each.
I spent most of my share making sure that the kids we rescued from Zhang wouldn’t starve. Most of them turned out to be orphans abducted from cities around the world. I called in some favors (from Conn, mostly) and arranged for them to be adopted. The rest of the money went into various, elaborately constructed trust funds. There was enough there to put them through pretty much any school they wanted.
I’m not a saint. But come on. Some things are just obvious. Besides, it wasn’t like I needed the money.
“Good morning,” I said. It was around eleven, so that was technically accurate.
“Morning,” Carraig said, sauntering casually in the door. He was dressed more casually today, which in his case meant leather.
It fit with the atmosphere, which was much more relaxed than it had been the last couple of times. I was sitting in an ordinary chair next to my throne, because I’d be damned if I was sitting in that when I was already in as much pain as I currently was. Three days of bed rest and plentiful food had bought a lot of healing, but bones are never fast. Aiko had flat out refused to go near her throne if I wasn’t in mine, and had taken another of the wooden chairs. Alexis and Ash (holding the raiju in her lap) were both present, as well, sitting down in the back of the room.
Gwyn ap Nudd’s lupine minion entered less than a minute later. He nodded cordially to Carraig and sat a short distance away. “Good morning, Winter jarl,” he said.
Kyra and Ryan came in a few minutes after that, followed by Moray. Anja Morgenstern was the last to arrive this time, only five minutes before we were scheduled to start at eleven thirty. She didn’t bring Samuel Black this time.
“Welcome,” I said formally. “If there are no objections, I will begin.” Nobody said anything, so I kept talking. “It is my judgment that the werewolf Ryan Peterson was falsely accused of the murder of Stefan Morgenstern. All evidence suggests that he is innocent, and should not be punished.”
“Who, then, is guilty?” Moray asked, following his script.
“It is my belief,” I said slowly and carefully, “that the mage Zhang Qiang was responsible for the death.” The wording was very important; I had to out-fae the fae, and make every word true while implying something else entirely. Zhang was accountable for things that happened on his property, whoever did them.
“What evidence do you have for this claim?” That was Moray, again. As the representative of human mages here, it was his place to challenge me.
“First, that Stefan Morgenstern was in possession of information regarding Zhang’s illegal and unethical actions.” I’d had to think about that phrasing for some time. “Second, that the murder occurred on premises owned by Zhang. Third, that Zhang repeatedly attempted to limit investigation by accusing Peterson, even after evidence accrued challenging that claim.”
“That sounds reasonable,” the wolfish fae said, a gleam in his eye suggesting that he knew exactly what I was doing and approved of it. “How, then, shall this blackguard be punished?”
“By death,” I said seriously. “When I approached Zhang, he became violent and did not answer.” Again, technically true; I never said why I was approaching Zhang, and the fact that he didn’t answer in no way suggested that I’d actually asked him anything. “This behavior convinced me of his guilt”—what, specifically, he was guilty of was unclear, but I was convinced there was something—”and I exacted the appropriate penalty.”
“Death, eh?” Carraig said, grinning. He knew what I was up to, as well. “That seems unusually strict.”
“He accepted my arbitration,” I said. “It seems to me that murder, lying before a court such as this one, and falsely accusing another person in order to hide your own guilt are crimes deserving of strict punishment.” That was true; those did seem like serious crimes. I wasn’t certain, not truly certain, whether Zhang had committed any of them, but then I hadn’t said anything about that.
“I agree,” Anja said. “It pleases me to see that justice is served.” Which, I noted, wasn’t the same as saying that it had been served in this case. I got the impression that she was no more fooled than anyone else in the room, which made me wonder why we were all sitting here almost-lying to each other when everyone knew the truth we were dancing around. That sort of thing must drive the fae crazy.
“Are there any outstanding issues to be resolved?” I asked. The room was silent. “In that case,” I said, expecting at any moment to be interrupted, “I declare this arbitration complete.”
“So,” I said, sitting down. “Did you learn much?”
“Indeed,” Ash said. We were currently in the guest room she’d appropriated, back in the mansion. “Watching you work was most educational.”
I nodded. “So what is a raiju, anyway?” I asked idly. It had been bugging me for a while now. I knew the name from somewhere, but I couldn’t quite remember.
“A variety of yokai,” she said calmly. “A thunder spirit, closely related to the kitsune.”
I nodded, unsurprised. “Aiko said that you were half-fae,” I said.
“Yes, and she was correct.”
“So how did a raiju come to be your companion?”
Said raiju, currently sitting on the bed in stuffed-animal form, snorted loudly. “That’s business,” he said. “As in none of yours.”
I decided, in a rare moment of wisdom, to let the topic drop. “Will you be returning to school, then?” I asked her.
“Yes. I expect that Mr. Ferguson will come soon in order to provide me with transportation.”
“Funny thing about that,” I said.
“Yeah. See, in all the excitement, I almost forgot that Bryan traded me a favor to get me to bring you with me—which I don’t regret at all,” I said hastily. “You’ve been a wonderful guest. My concern was only ever for your safety.”
“I do not understand.”
“I’m getting there,” I said. “See, I’ve been having a hard time figuring out why he would do that. Your presence, while appreciated, doesn’t seem to have been particularly critical, and I’m sure that he could have arranged an equally educational experience at less cost than he paid for this one.”
“That is likely true,” she admitted.
“Later,” I continued, “Scáthach told me that Morgenstern was smuggling the cipher for an encoded message, one that contained the identity of a traitor in her court. The closest thing I could find to a cipher was the phrase ‘Favors aren’t free.'”
“That is not particularly informative,” she said, her voice very slightly amused.
“No,” I agreed. “I couldn’t make any kind of sense out of it. Then I realized that I was approaching it from the wrong direction. See, I assumed the message was being sent to Scáthach. But what if she was actually the person sending it?”
“Then the message would have been for you,” Ash said. “Since she provided you, specifically, with the knowledge of what to look for, and where. She would not do so without reason.”
I nodded approvingly. “I had the same thought. That, in turn, provided the context for that message to make sense. Bryan is the only person who has offered me a favor recently, and why is unclear. If, as Scáthach’s message suggests, that favor wasn’t free, then there must be some exchange involved which I was unaware of, something related to this message. That made sense; Bryan has been involved with Scáthach’s affairs in the past.”
“I understand what you are asking,” Ash said. “And your logic seems sound. However, I cannot help you. I do not know what this message is.”
I slumped. I’d been so sure, too. “All right,” I began. “Thank—”
The raiju interrupted me with another loud snort. “Humans,” he said disgustedly. “You’re a bunch of bloody morons, you know that?”
I considered him. “I don’t think anyone in this house could be accurately described as human.”
“Maybe, but you’re still bloody stupid.” He snorted again. “It’s her mother.”
I blinked. “What?”
“That’s the message,” he said, the “fool” unsaid but not unheard. “It’s her mother. Hell if I know what it means.”
I considered it for a moment, and then suddenly it clicked into place. I did know what it meant, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t so much as considered it until now. “Thanks,” I repeated. “Hopefully we’ll see you again sometime.”
Ash smiled shyly. “I would like that. Thank you, Winter.”