Three days later, I was sitting in my throne room again.
I was wearing my new armor, and Tyrfing rested against my throne. Aiko sat just to my left in her matching, slightly smaller throne, also wearing armor, with her wakizashi by her side. Snowflake sat at my feet, in the white-and-blue armor we’d found tucked away in a corner of the armory, which was clearly of the same design as mine and Aiko’s. She had her collar on, and her eyepatch was unrelieved black.
I often wear armor when I’m passing judgment. It presents a threatening, martial air that fits well with my image. But I seldom wear the helmet, because it removes any visual trace of humanity, and that makes it hard for people to relate to me. I’m not exactly a personable jarl, but I try to make some effort.
Today I didn’t care. My face was hidden behind the wolf’s mask, blank and without pretense of being human.
A minute or so later, the door opened. I looked at it, my speech already on the tip of my tongue, and then froze.
I’d never seen the person in the doorway. I, um, I’m pretty sure I would have remembered that.
I have high standards for physical beauty. I’d spent most of my life around werewolves, who universally look young and fit, and as a result tend to be very attractive. Then I’d started hanging around with things like jötnar and the Sidhe, who were typically possessed of literally inhuman beauty. Scáthach herself was so lovely that it was actively uncomfortable being in her presence, and almost painful to look at her or hear her voice. So I guess it’s fair to say that I was somewhat jaded to physical attractiveness.
Today I was reminded that what you look like doesn’t matter nearly as much as your attitude.
The woman who walked in the door was not, in the classical sense, beautiful. Her skin was a little too pale, as though she never saw the sun, her cheekbones too pronounced, her nose a little long, her muscles just a touch too defined. Taken individually, her features were, while not repellent, hardly exceptional; as a whole they were more distinctive than attractive.
But when you looked at her, that didn’t matter. She sauntered in the door like she owned the place, her posture casually arrogant. Her movements were smooth, flowing, as though she’d practiced that walk a thousand times. Something about the set of her face made her dark eyes seem to smolder, and her smirk emphasized her lips.
Bottom line was this. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t all that pretty; when you looked at her, you thought of sex. And I was sure, somehow, that she knew the effect she had, that that awareness was what made the effect so very strong.
It was a good thing I was wearing my helmet, because I was pretty sure my expression was less than dignified. Next to me, Aiko whistled softly.
“Winter jarl?” the newcomer said, in a voice as soft as a cat’s fur after a hundred brushstrokes. “My grandfather said this was a good time to come.”
Of course. This must be Coyote’s granddaughter, the succubus. “He told you the terms of your employment here?” I asked, mostly to give myself time to get my thoughts in order again.
“Of course, my lord.”
“Good. And call me Winter.”
She inclined her head to me slightly. “Selene.”
“Is that your name?” I asked, more out of curiosity than anything.
“I have a great many names,” she said, with just a hint of sharpness. “But that one is my favorite.”
I considered that. Something told me that what she’d just said was a lot more significant than the words she’d used. “Thank you, Selene,” I said after a moment. “I’m expecting visitors shortly, and it would be difficult to explain the situation before they arrive. For now, why don’t you go upstairs, and we can discuss the specifics of your employment after this business is concluded.”
“As you wish, Winter jarl,” she said, and immediately went to the stairs. Interesting, that she knew where to go. I wondered if Coyote had given her a floor plan of the building before he sent her.
“Damn,” Aiko said after she’d left. “You should totally do favors for gods more often.”
I started to retort, then froze when the door opened again. This time it was the group I’d been expecting.
Sveinn led the parade, wearing scale armor and a steel helmet. He had a simple, straight sword at his side, and a wooden targe on his back. Behind him came Jimmy, Brick, Matthew, Doug, Kris, Chuck, and finally Mac, in single file. The rest of the housecarls followed behind them, herding them in. A moment later, Kjaran emerged from the safe room in the basement, literally dragging Aubrey.
All the living members of the Inquisition, in one room for the first time in quite a while. For a moment I considered killing them all, and ending the problem right now. All I’d have to do was speak a single word. The housecarls would rip them to shreds without difficulty, without question. It would solve a lot of problems.
But I was still trying to be a good person. So I stuck to the plan instead.
It didn’t take long for the housecarls to split the herd the way I’d instructed. Jimmy, Brick, and Matthew were dragged over to stand next to Aubrey. Kjaran stood over them, a massive warhammer at the ready, and Kyi was standing at the end of the hallway with her bow trained on them. Not even Brick could start something right now and expect to live. Vigdis and Tindr, meanwhile, kept the other mages in a separate group, several feet away. Haki was standing next to the door, watching.
Sveinn knelt in front of me. “We have brought them, minn herra,” he said redundantly. “As you asked.”
“Very good,” I said, gesturing for him to rise. How many of them, I wondered, would be impressed by this bit of theatre? What was even the point of an act, when no one was fooled?
“What do you think you’re doing?” Jimmy demanded. His voice was loud and angry, as though to cover the fear underneath. Another man playing a role when everyone there knew the truth.
I ignored him, addressing the other group. “All of you,” I said, “ceased to participate in vigilante activities some time ago, of your own free will. What I am about to say does not directly concern you. You are here only to hear what I say to your fellows; I think that it will be of some interest. Clear?”
You could have heard a pin drop.
“Good,” I said, turning my attention to the other group. “Two of your number,” I said, my voice growing cold and hard, “are not among you. Katie and Mike became involved in activities which were, to say the least, ill-advised. As a direct result, a large section of the city has been destroyed, several thousand people are dead, and I am an internationally wanted criminal. This makes me upset.”
“That’s nothing to do with us,” Brick said. Alone of all the people in front of me, he sounded perfectly calm. “You just said it was the two of them responsible.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “And all of you interacted with them on a regular basis. You were aware of their increasing extremism. You were aware of their desire for increased power. At least one of you knew that they had taken steps to fulfill their ambitions which were likely to cause serious harm. None of you acted to prevent this. None of you informed me of this situation.”
I paused, and smiled behind my mask. They couldn’t see it, but I was confident they would hear the ice in my voice. “This,” I purred, “is not something that makes me happy. There are a great many people who are very upset by what has happened recently. As Katie and Mike are already deceased, they are looking for people to blame. They have chosen you.”
The room went silent again.
“I have chosen to protect you,” I said after a moment. “I have accepted responsibility for your future actions. In brief, you work for me now. The vigilantism will cease. You will do as I tell you, when I tell you. No exceptions.”
Brick cleared his throat. “You can’t do that,” he said. “I already answer to someone. You know that.” The other mages looked, to varying degrees, startled. A couple of them—Kris and Aubrey were the ones that stood out to me—didn’t seem surprised; I was pretty sure they’d already guessed this. The others just as clearly hadn’t.
“So now you answer to two,” I told him. “You have failed in your duties, Brick. You treated the people you were assigned to monitor as harmless, despite knowing that they were violent, shortsighted extremists. You failed to report the escalation of the situation. When confronted, you failed to recognize the danger they posed, allowing them to overcome you. I suspect your boss will see things the same way I do.”
“You have no place in that decision,” he said, the brittle pride in his voice failing to cover the fear underneath. He knew he’d failed, and I didn’t think Watcher had much patience with failure.
I smiled even wider. “You operated in my land,” I reminded him. “My territory. As a result of your failures, my territory has been harmed. My subjects have been killed. My reputation has been tarnished. Under the standard treaties, there’s no question that you have caused me personal harm. This is a mild response compared to what I could, legally, do to you.” I was grinning now. “Unless you think the Conclave will start a political incident with Skrýmir over you, of course, in which case you’re welcome to leave, and let the dice fall as they may.”
He was silent. He did not move.
“As I was saying,” I continued, addressing the rest of them. “You are now my employees. Serve me to the best of your abilities, and I will provide you with protection and resources. Screw up again, and I will kill you.” I considered them, a ragtag bunch of fools far more dangerous than they looked. “I’m sticking my neck out for you, here,” I said, more gently. “Don’t blow it. This is the last chance any of you are going to get.”
Herded by the housecarls, they started drifting out of the building, with varying degrees of resentment and, in a couple of cases, excitement visible on their faces. I took my helmet off and got off my throne, stretching. I would never understand why, with all of the resources available to him, Skrýmir couldn’t make a throne more comfortable than the floor.
“Good job,” Aiko said, standing up as well.
“You think?” I asked, staring after the departing mages.
“Yeah,” she said firmly.