Unclean Hands 9.1

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I heard the door creak as it swung open at the base of the stairs


Small, beady eyes glinted in the darkness, following the motion of the woman through the door. She was slender, almost petite, and looked young. She was not, at least not by the standards of humanity.


The door crashed shut again, closing her off from sight. It was a heavy door, a hundred pounds or more, and the sound was commensurately impressive. At such close proximity it was slightly painful. A few moments later there came another crashing sound as the second door closed, followed by a third.


I looked up at the sky, and felt the sun on my face. The breeze swirled around my head, bringing with it the scents of the forest. The air was crisp, bearing the promise of an early snow. We had already had our first frost of the year, though it was just now September. A consequence of living in the mountains.


The woman’s footsteps made almost no sound on the stairs. I heard them anyway.


A sparrow flew past the tower, ignorant or uncaring of the danger it was courting. I watched it pass, tracked its movement as it flew off into the trees. It passed across the sun, but I had little difficulty following its course.


The woman kept climbing.


When she was thirty feet from the top, I turned to face the trapdoor. That put six hundred feet of empty air at my back, inches away, but I felt no fear at the thought. Heights held no terror for me. Not anymore.


The woman threw the trapdoor open with surprising ease, considering her slim build. She was dressed casually, in grey silk marked with the crest of a diving falcon on the back of the shirt. I could see the blade tucked through her belt at the small of her back, however, and I could smell the magic woven through the orb of crystal in her sleeve. Her hair was cut just above her ears, and dyed a vibrant cherry red. She was holding a large envelope, the wax seal on which was broken.


“Winter?” she said hesitantly. “You’re kind of creeping me out, here.”


“Sorry,” I said, hopping down from the parapet. “You know I’m safe, though.”


“Not what I meant,” she said dryly. She gestured slightly at the hawk perched on the parapet.


“Oh,” I said. “Right.”


I pulled my consciousness back into myself, almost staggering as I lost the rush of sensation from my magic. A moment later I pulled off my blindfold and removed the earplugs. It took a few seconds, one-handed.


I blinked back tears as the sunlight hit my eyes. “Is this better?” I asked.


“Yeah,” she said, looking around the rooftop. “Bloody hell, Winter. Were you running all four of them?”


I looked around. In addition to the hawk, there were two ravens, and a squirrel that was currently stuffing its mouth with seeds from an open bag on the floor. “I don’t run them,” I said. “And I was doing five. There’s a mouse at the base of the stairs.”


Five,” she said. “Damn. That’s a new record.”


“I know,” I said. “I just wish I thought it was me improving. I’m pretty sure most of the difference is whatever Loki did to me. It takes some of the fun out of it.”


“You can get full detail from two animals at once,” she said. “You can experience what it’s like to have sex as any animal you want, from both directions at once. I am so not feeling your pain.”


I snorted. “You know, Aiko,” I said, “I occasionally wonder why people treat us like we’re the most disturbing couple they’ve ever heard of. Then you say things like that.”


“It’s an art,” she agreed happily. “You’ve got mail, by the way. In case you didn’t notice.”


I grunted and dismissed the various animals. The birds took off, carrying their various foodstuffs with them. The squirrel scampered down the side of the tower, clinging to cracks so tiny I doubted most people would even see them. The mouse went back to ransacking our pantries, where its life expectancy was about as long as it took for Snowflake to get bored.


“What’s it say?” I asked, wandering over to the bench. Unlike most of our furniture, it wasn’t a work of art made from exotic hardwood; this particular piece was exposed to the elements, and it would have been ruined if it were made from the wood and fabric so prevalent in this castle.


So, naturally, it was a work of art in granite and obsidian instead.


“It says you’re screwed,” Aiko said, following me. She handed me the envelope.


I dumped the contents out into my lap. One sheet of paper, of a very fine quality, and a sprig of honeysuckle. Both objects reeked of magic, the odor thick and sweet, almost soporific, with a hint of nightshade underneath.


I got a sinking feeling when I smelled that. I knew that smell, and it boded nothing good.


I unfolded the sheet of paper and read what was written on it. Then I read it again. Then I looked at the sprig of honeysuckle.


“I am so screwed,” I said. “How did they deliver this?”


“Some Sidhe walked up and handed it to me while I was playing video games,” she said. “Told me it was for you.”


I sighed. I really hated how easily the Sidhe had always been able to get past my defenses. They’d at least done so openly this time, I supposed. Not that that made me feel any better.


“You read it?” I asked, more form’s sake than anything. I knew she had. She wouldn’t have been so sure that it was bad news, otherwise. Not that it was hard to guess.


“Yup. Scáthach wants to chat with you, and she’s being nice about it?” Aiko shook her head. “Screwed. You are, like, epically screwed.”


“It might not be that bad,” I said hopefully. “Scáthach isn’t that bad, as Faerie Queens go. And I’m still on her good side, as far as I know. Depending on how you interpret what she said, she might even owe me a favor.”


Aiko snorted. “Yeah, right. And I’ve got a bridge to sell you. You know as well as I do that having someone like her owe you a favor is at least as bad as the other way around.”


I thought about Loki, and nodded. “Yeah. I know. But I guess I’m probably in too deep to back out now, you know?” I gestured vaguely at my face, and my eyes in particular.


She nodded. “Yeah. I know. That’s how it goes, isn’t it?”


I nodded. For several seconds, there was no sound but the gentle rustle of the wind through the trees, a long way below us.


“How’d you get out?” I asked abruptly.


“What do you mean?”


“You used to run with the Courts,” I said. “You got away. They haven’t bothered you about it at all, that I can tell.”


Aiko was silent for a long moment. “I didn’t get away clean,” she said at last. “The Sidhe have a way of making you pay for every step you take. And I was never as deep into the Courts as you are. You’re dealing with one of the Queens. They aren’t the type to let anyone go, once they get their hooks in you.”


I grunted. “Yeah. So. I guess I need to go have a chat with her.”


She nodded. “I think we can both imagine what happens if you turn her down.”


I could. Oh, I couldn’t guess what the details might be, but the broad strokes? Yeah, I knew what that would look like. When a Faerie Queen sends you a personal invitation to come and chat, you don’t say no. That’s the kind of thing that Greek tragedies are made of.


“The invite is for me, specifically,” I said, after a long pause. “Probably best if I don’t bring you guys along.”


Aiko nodded again. “Yep. I’ll see you when you get back, hopefully. Try not to get screwed over too badly.” She turned and descended back into the castle without another word, taking the stairs at a speed that would be dangerously reckless for a human. For Aiko, it was business as usual.


I stood on the roof for a minute or so longer, watching the sunset. It wasn’t that spectacular, but I’ve always loved watching sunsets. If this was my last chance to do so, a distinct possibility when I was going to meet with Scáthach, I wanted to enjoy it.


Then I sighed, and went back inside. I didn’t bother turning the lights on in the staircase. I didn’t need them.


I would have gladly worn armor to this meeting. I’d gotten used to it, over the years, until I hardly even felt the weight anymore. My armor was made out of an iron alloy, though, and that meant wearing it to an event like this a particularly ugly form of suicide. Invited or not, you don’t bring iron into the personal demesne of a Faerie Queen.


I’ve always had a tendency to plan ahead, though, and I’ve gotten a lot better about setting up contingencies. Thus, it should probably not be a great surprise that I’d prepared something to wear in case I couldn’t use the armor, for whatever reason. My social life had been rather sharply curtailed, recently, but there were a handful of places I was still welcome, and wearing a suit of armor on a social visit wasn’t the kind of thing that made you many friends.


This particular excursion was more formal than most, and I dressed to match. When I left the castle, I was wearing a silk outfit not unlike the one Aiko had been wearing. My shirt was white, and rather than the diving falcon, it was marked with my own coat of arms, a white wolf’s head on a black shield. The shirt contrasted sharply against black silk pants and a black leather belt studded with bronze. I draped a cloak of shadows over my shoulders and put on some understated jewelry, a mix of gold and bronze, with a few pieces of more exotic materials thrown in.


Between the jewelry and the contents of my pockets, I was carrying enough in the way of magical armaments to kill a small army. I had to limit my selections somewhat to avoid any iron derivatives, but it hardly mattered. I’d had years to build my collection. There was plenty to choose from.


Before I left, I found Snowflake in the library. She was reading a copy of Kinder- und Hausmärchen. I knew for a fact that she’d read it cover to cover, a few times, but there was something to be said for repetition. Particularly when a lot of the monsters in that book weren’t nearly as fictional as I might have preferred.


Hey, I said to her. I’ve got a meeting to go to.


The husky didn’t bother turning to look at me, instead flipping the page with a delicate motion of one claw. I know, she said in the back of my head. Aiko told me. Are we still on for the concert tonight?


We’d better be, I muttered grimly. We’ve been planning this for three months. If Scáthach gets in the way, I’m going to be peeved.


Good. Now get going. You’ve only got a few hours before we’re supposed to leave.


I laughed and scratched her ears, then stood and walked out. I thought about stopping to let Alexis know where I was going, but decided against it. My cousin was working on a focus at the moment, and the last thing she needed was a distraction. She didn’t have anything like the practice I’d had making things with magic, and an interruption at the wrong time could easily set her back months in her work.


I couldn’t think of any other way to put it off, so I made my way to the ground floor of the castle and crossed the absurdly large entrance hall to the front door. It was made of ash bound with bronze and steel, and large enough to have a smaller door inset into it.


It also reeked of magic, a dozen or so flavors of power blending together to form a strong, somewhat harsh medley. The whole building was warded, of course, but the door got special attention. You’d probably have better luck taking a battering ram to the walls than trying to get through that door.


I lowered the wards, an exercise of magic so familiar that I hardly even had to think about it anymore, and then raised them again once I’d left. There wasn’t enough room on top of the mountain to fit a courtyard, so the door of the castle opened directly on the staircase that led up the slope.


I jogged down the stairs, barely paying attention to where I placed my feet. I knew this path by heart, and I didn’t even have to think about it to know which steps to skip, and which stones I should take care to avoid. The traps out here weren’t nearly as nasty as the ones on and inside the building proper, but I still wouldn’t like to trigger any of them.


Down at the bottom of the stairs, I turned around and looked up at the castle. It looked just as ominous as the first time I’d seen it, just over a year prior. The huge, bleak granite edifice loomed over the valley, seeming absurdly large. It looked like a fairytale castle, but not in a good way. It was the kind of castle that you normally picture as seen on a dark and stormy night, with ominous music in the background. It was the kind of castle where dark lords sat and schemed and plotted.


I wondered, sometimes, what it said about me, that I kind of liked that aesthetic. That it fit me.


I sighed and shook my head, bringing my thoughts back into the present. They seemed more inclined to wander, since whatever Loki had done to me a year ago. Although I supposed that might have just been an effect of my circumstances. I hadn’t been involved in a real catastrophe for nine months. Maybe my mind was getting rusty after so long without a disaster.


Whatever the reason, this was definitely not the time for it, not when it looked like the next crisis might be just around the corner. Scáthach asking to talk to me was pretty serious, as omens went.


With that in mind, I took a few moments to clear my head, then pulled out the envelope again. I dumped the sprig of honeysuckle in my hand, then crumbled it.


As promised, a moment later a portal opened in the air in front of me. It looked like a hole in the world, a circle of almost incomprehensible darkness. It wasn’t black; it was more like there was nothing there to look at. My eyes slid from one side of the hole to the other, refusing to focus on the interior.


Scáthach showing off, no doubt. For anyone else, designing an Otherside portal as a stored spell was a whole lot of work for a moderately dangerous result, meaning that you really only used them as last-ditch escape routes. For someone like her, it was a casual display of power.


I wasn’t getting any happier about this idea, but there didn’t seem to be any way around it, so I sighed and stepped through the portal.


For most people, a portal to the Otherside is not a pleasant experience. The instant of transfer feels drawn out, as though time stretches out and becomes meaningless. It feels nauseating, horrible and distressing in a way that you pretty much can’t describe in English. Once you’re done, you pass out for a couple of minutes, and wake up feeling like you’ve got the worst hangover imaginable.


It used to affect me in much the same way. Then Coyote had dragged me into the Void, the primordial chaos that reality had been sculpted from. It turns out that the way I had reacted to portals was just the natural reaction to being exposed, however momentarily, to a glimpse of that Void. It turned out further that, once you’ve seen the real thing, the watered-down version you get when you step between worlds doesn’t really affect you all that strongly anymore.


These days, I got an entirely different experience. When I crossed the threshold of the portal, there was a momentary feeling of weightlessness, not unlike the feeling you get when you hit terminal velocity skydiving. My vision went black, the same sort of blackness that I had seen inside the portal, although now the darkness was crossed by streaks of vivid color, in every shade on earth and a few that weren’t.


Then I stepped out the other side, blinking. I felt energized, refreshed, as though I’d had a pleasant nap. My left hand itched, which was a step up from its usual dull ache.


Before I could really register my new surroundings, someone stepped up and grabbed my left arm. I immediately stepped to the side, calling power and drawing a knife from within my cloak. It was a short, stiletto-style blade made from crystal, oddly beautiful and fragile-looking.


A tall, slender figure backed away from me. “Just trying to steady you,” it said. Its voice was high, feminine, and so perfect in tone that it hardly sounded real. It was hard to tell under the wooden armor, but presumably this was a female Sidhe. I didn’t see any weapons, not that that meant much.


“Ah,” I said, relaxing slightly. I returned the stiletto to its place. “The sentiment is appreciated, but not necessary.”


“So I see,” she said. “May I ask why not?”


“You may ask. I highly doubt that you can afford the answer.”


She nodded. “Reasonable. The Lady is currently occupied.”


“That’s fine,” I said. I looked around for somewhere to sit, but there wasn’t anything appropriate that I could tell. I was standing in a thick forest, rich with the same aromas I had noticed on the letter, with no landmarks in sight. The sky was perfectly clear, a blue as deep and pure as the finest lapis lazuli, filled with ten thousand stars blazing with cold silver light, diamonds scattered across the sky.


It was night, of course. It was always night here.


“Is there somewhere I might wait for her to be free?” I asked. I didn’t like to admit ignorance that way—admissions of weakness are a terrible idea around the Sidhe—but it was better than blundering around on my own.


“Yes,” she said, sounding relieved that I wasn’t going to cause a fuss about it. “Follow me.”


The receptionist led me down a narrow path that I would have sworn wasn’t there a moment earlier. The grass twined about my ankles, an unnervingly sinuous movement that did nothing for my peace of mind, but didn’t try to trip me.


Maybe thirty feet along the path we reached a clearing. Fallen trees had been arranged around the edges of the space, forming improvised benches. I sat on one and found, as I expected, that it was far more comfortable than its appearance would suggest.


To my surprise, the Sidhe sat on another bench, directly across from me. “May I ask what you are called?” she asked.


“You may,” I said again. “I am called Winter.”


She nodded slightly. “Well met. I am known as Quercus.”


“A pleasure,” I said.


“May I ask what your purpose is here?”


“I think,” I said slowly, “that that is a question which you would have to ask the Lady.” That was true, in that I had no idea what the answer was, but hopefully it would be taken to mean that I knew but didn’t want to share. That kind of word game is important, when you’re dealing with the fae. Telling a direct lie to one of the Sidhe is a bad idea at the best of times, and something told me that doing so now would be considerably worse than that.


“Reasonable,” she said again. “It should, I think, only be a short time until she is available to converse with you.”


Slippery language, that. What she thought was a short time might be radically different from a human’s interpretation of the phrase. I didn’t think Scáthach was going to screw me like that, though.


Quercus said nothing after that, and I didn’t feel any need to fill the silence. I spent the time working magical models in my head instead. I’d been thinking about designing a mirror that could display the visual information I got from an animal, letting other people have some idea what I was looking at. There were a few kinks in the design, and I was still working out how to balance the energy flows properly.


About fifteen minutes later, I thought I might have figured out how to rearrange the structures of my mechanism, preventing a potentially disastrous buildup of energy. I’d produced a pencil and a small notebook from my cloak, and I was writing out formulae describing the proposed alterations so that I could figure out whether there was something obviously wrong with it before I got Legion’s interpretation of the changes. The demon was insufferable when I made an amateurish mistake.


At that point, Quercus suddenly stood. “She is ready now,” the Sidhe said.


I nodded, returned the writing implements to my pockets, and stood. I would rather have had another two minutes to finish what I was doing, but I didn’t bother asking. When the Queen was ready, you didn’t argue.


She led me further down the path, and within a minute we reached the base of a large, fairly steep hill. Quercus gestured for me to continue, and I climbed the hill alone.


It was taller than it looked. It took me probably ten minutes to climb that hill, and I was breathing hard by the time I reached the top. Hopefully Scáthach wouldn’t be upset by the delay.


At the top, the hill leveled out for a few hundred feet. In the center of that expanse was a massive throne carved from a single piece of amethyst. The back flared out like a cobra’s hood, covered in spidery, vaguely runelike designs that glowed with the same pale light as the stars overhead.


Scáthach should have looked ridiculous in that throne, dwarfed by the scale of the thing, but she didn’t. On the contrary, she looked quite at home, lounging in the seat. Her posture was strange, subtly off in a way that I couldn’t quite define, making her look more feline than human.


She was, of course, beautiful, the kind of intense, overwhelming beauty that drew the eye irresistibly. Her long black hair seemed to move in a gentle breeze that wasn’t there, and her brilliantly green eyes gleamed in the darkness.


“Jarl,” she murmured as I approached. “Be welcome in my lands.”


I bowed deeply. “Queen,” I said. “I shall endeavor to behave as a guest ought.”


She nodded, and smiled. It was…a surprisingly friendly smile, all things considering. “The years have treated you well, it seems.”


“I would say the same of you,” I said. “But I can’t envision a world in which it wouldn’t be true.”


Scáthach laughed, a high, piercing sound, not unlike wind chimes. “I see your charm has not faded.” The goddess stood abruptly, a motion more akin to a mantis rising to its feet than anything human. “Come, walk with me.”


I hesitated, but what was I supposed to do? Say no? Yeah, that would go over real well.


So I moved closer and walked around to the other side of the throne with her. I was careful to stay out of reach. It wouldn’t do me any good if she got upset with me, but I thought she might appreciate the gesture.


The view was incredible. The hill dropped off sharply just behind the throne, falling a thousand feet before it began to level off. The blanket of trees stretched maybe a mile past that before running into the sea. Starlight glittered off the water, highlighting the peaks of the waves. Other lights gleamed off near the horizon, the only hint that there might be land beyond the edges of this island.


“Tell me, jarl,” she said, staring out across the trees. “What did you think of Quercus?”


“She doesn’t make much of an impression,” I said. “What’s her position in your personal guard?”


“She is the head of it,” Scáthach said, smiling. “How did you know?”


“Because you thought she was sufficient as a greeting party,” I said. “Because she wouldn’t get this close to you if she were as naive as she wants to seem. Because she wasn’t carrying a weapon, and the only reason a person guarding the path to their Queen wouldn’t be armed is if they don’t think that they need to be.” I shrugged. “A lot of little details.”


“Clever,” she murmured. “I’ve always appreciated that about you.” Scáthach started to pace, the motions uncannily graceful in an odd, almost stilted way. She stared out across the water, her manner almost meditative.


“You intrigue me, Wolf,” she said at last. “So clever, so foolish. You consider the consequences of your actions with care, yet the results are never what you anticipated or desired.”


I was starting to get a nasty feeling about this. Nastier, I mean. “What do you mean?”


“Do you remember the night we met?” she asked, ignoring me. “Do you remember the Hunt, and the duel, and the blood?”


I shuddered. “Yeah,” I said. I remembered. I wasn’t lucky enough to forget that. I still had nightmares about that night, on occasion, though it had plenty of competition.


“You struck off my counterpart’s right hand, that night,” she said. “You killed her champion. It was fairly done, but that does not change the consequences.”


“I would have expected you to be glad about that,” I said. “You wanted me to kill him, as I recall.”


“Perhaps,” she said, still pacing. “Perhaps not. Tell me, Wolf, what do you imagine the results of your action have been?”


I paused. I’d never really thought about it before. “Removing Pier from the equation changes the balance between the Courts,” I said. “His power wasn’t that serious in comparison to the Daylight Court as a whole, but he filled the role of the Maiden’s champion. He was a symbol.”


“Precisely so,” Scáthach said. She had stopped moving, and was regarding me with a thin, predatory smile. Her eyes were fixed on mine. “What result would that bring, then? What are the consequences?”


I continued that train of thought, and the sinking feeling in my gut got worse. “Imbalance,” I said. “One Court having an advantage over the other. Doubly so, given that you recovered your spear the same night.” Not that she needed it, but that wasn’t really the point. It was a symbol of her power, much like Pier had been a symbol of her sister’s.


When it comes to the fae, a symbol can be more important than the reality.


“Yes,” she said. She still hadn’t moved or broken eye contact, and it was starting to get uncomfortable. I wanted to look away from the power I saw there, but I resisted the urge. I couldn’t afford to seem submissive in front of her.


“But surely that’s rectified by now,” I protested. “She can replace her champion easily enough. Getting your spear back was a coup, of course, but hasn’t it been balanced by a comparable victory on the part of the Day?”


“They have won their battles,” she acknowledged. “But nothing as dramatic as the battles they have lost. In the final balance, the advantage remains with my people.”


I gulped. I so did not want to hear that the Midnight Court was winning their eternal war with the Daylight Court. Not that I’d ever noticed that Daylight was much more benevolent, but at least right now they were busy killing each other. I didn’t want to think about what they might get up to without that distraction.


“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. It was getting harder and harder not to look away from Scáthach.


As I might have expected, she ignored the question. “There are many in my Court who say that I should capitalize on this advantage,” she said. “They say that we should attack now, and crush the enemy without mercy.”


I gave up and looked down. The moment I did, Scáthach turned and gazed out over the water again. Not a subtle message, but it hardly needed to be. “What do you say?” I asked.


“A more challenging question than it appears,” she murmured. “As the Lady of the Isle of Shadow, I would perforce say that the Daylight Court are our sworn enemies. I would say that we have the chance to gain an advantage that our foes could not recover from, and this opportunity is not something that can be ignored.”


I thought about that for a moment. Her phrasing was a clue, I knew, a very important indicator. The Sidhe, and especially the high Sidhe, never come at a thing directly. I don’t know why; it’s in their nature. If you want to know what one of the fae is getting at, you have to think about it in a twisty way.


I suddenly realized what was going on, and I almost laughed. Man, had Aiko and I gotten the implications of that invitation wrong. “It’s a good thing, then,” I said, “that this is a personal visit. You aren’t speaking in an official capacity, right now.”


She inclined her head slightly, still staring out across the waves. “Indeed,” she murmured. “And I, well, my opinion is more complex. This war has raged for millennia, Wolf. Most of my subjects no longer recall why it began. We have found stability.”


“And…what? You don’t want to threaten that stability? You’d rather have a war that you know than a victory that you don’t?” I guessed.


Scáthach smiled. It was a beautiful expression—I suspected that Scáthach wasn’t capable of any other kind—but an entirely different kind of beauty than she had presented thus far in this meeting. This was the sort of expression that reminded you of all the stories they tell about what Faerie Queens do to their enemies. Some of those stories involved fates so gruesome that even hardened werewolves, who were quite accustomed to eating their enemies without necessarily bothering to kill them first, huddled close to the fire when they told them, and had difficulty sleeping afterwards.


I gulped.


“On the contrary,” she murmured, in a voice as lovely as a nightshade’s blossom. “One day we will win this war. The Daylight Court shall be ground to dust before us. I shall tear out my sister’s throat, and feast on her heart. Or else she shall do the same to me. There can be no other end to this struggle, but the annihilation of one Court or the other.” She shrugged, the motion fluid and graceful and utterly inhuman. “But there is no hurry.”


“But if you have the advantage, why not press it?” I asked. “Granted that timing is the key of any engagement, but hesitation can be as damning as rushing. If this is the time, shouldn’t you move now?”


I was taking a risk, pressing her like this, but it was a calculated one. That was the best I could hope for, with Scáthach. Even breathing was a risk around her. She liked boldness, and she wasn’t going to be impressed by timid servility.


She glanced at me and nodded slightly, an acknowledgment of a well-made play. “Your words have some wisdom,” she said. “But this is not the time. We have just weathered a storm, Wolf. The uncertainty of recent years has been great, and it is not settled yet. And there is a greater storm on the horizon, an upheaval such as has not been seen in a thousand years. To act now is to risk everything.” She shook her head. “Our victory has waited three thousand years. It can wait a few more.”


I nodded slowly. That reference to a coming upheaval was unsettling, to say the least, but it wasn’t like there was much I could do about it. If a Faerie Queen speaks of a storm on the horizon with that kind of fatalism, it goes without saying that people like me can’t hope to do much more than take shelter and hope to still be around when it blows over.


“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. It was the telling question, of course. People like Scáthach don’t do anything without a reason, and they don’t give anything away for free. That goes double for information.


“As I said,” she murmured. “There are elements in my Court which have been outspoken in favor of a more aggressive stance. I would like for you to dissuade them from this position.”




She turned to regard me again, her head cocked just a little further sideways than a human neck could comfortably bend. Between that and the way her green eyes caught the starlight, it emphasized the feline cast to her features. “Oh? Are you certain?”




“I would reward you well,” she assured me.


“I’m sure you would,” I said. “The answer is still no. This is out of my league. Whatever you’re offering, it wouldn’t be worth it in the long run.”


“Are you not afraid of risking my displeasure?” she asked. Her voice was light, almost carefree.


“Not really,” I said. “I’ve done favors for you in the past, and you aren’t going to respond by screwing me over. That would be imbalanced, and balance is in your nature.” I shrugged. “Besides which, I’ve done favors for you in the past. There’s every chance that I’ll do favors for you in the future, for something less cataclysmic than this particular request. You aren’t the type to throw away a tool that might still be useful.”


She nodded slowly. “Well, jarl, I appreciate your forthrightness. Quercus can conduct you back to your home.”


I blinked. “Just like that?”


“Indeed,” she said, with an eerie smile. “Your assessment of me was, in its own way, accurate. I would hardly press you on a topic you clearly feel strongly about, when I may be able to make use of you in the future in any case.” She went back to looking out over the water, dismissing me utterly.


I was scared, and I couldn’t help but think that this was too easy. But I also wasn’t about to argue.


I left.

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