I wrinkled my nose as I walked into the bedroom. I like having an enhanced sense of smell, but there are times when it is a definite handicap. Nail polish qualifies.
“Hey,” Aiko said. “How bad is it?” She didn’t look up at me, being more occupied with painting kanji on her thumbnails with crimson polish, vividly colored against the black background. I was guessing the characters were obscene, although I’d never learned to read them well enough to say for sure.
“Eh,” I said, collapsing into one of the overstuffed armchairs. Snowflake butted her head against my thigh and I scratched her ears. “Scáthach wanted a favor. Something about some of her minions telling her to be aggressive against the Daylight Court, and she wants me to shut them up.”
Aiko froze momentarily, then continued on to the next finger. “So pretty bad, then.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I told her no.”
The kitsune blinked. “Seriously?”
“Yup. I don’t want to touch that kind of mess, and she wasn’t going to kill me for turning her down, not when I might still be useful down the road.”
She thought about that for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. She won’t like it, though. Could cause trouble for you.”
I shrugged. “Probably. I guess you’re rubbing off on me, though. I just don’t care. I mean, I’m gonna get fucked over one way or another. As many people as there are trying to screw with me, it’s pretty much inevitable. Why worry about it?”
That’s the attitude! Snowflake said approvingly. Now hurry up and get ready. We need to leave before long.
I frowned. “I thought we weren’t leaving for another few hours.”
“Your cousin wants to get dinner first,” Aiko said. She can’t hear Snowflake with any reliability, but she’s gotten really good at following half of a conversation. “Maybe in Singapore.”
“I don’t know anywhere good in Singapore,” I countered. “How about London?”
She shrugged. “Fair enough. I’ll go tell her. You want to get dressed?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll meet you downstairs.”
I hadn’t really done much, but I took a long, hot shower anyway. It sounded relaxing, and after that chat with Scáthach that was exactly what I needed.
After that, I toweled off and started dressing. I went with an outfit not unlike what I’d worn to meet with Scáthach, although slightly less formal. The shirt was still silk, but it was dark green, and didn’t have any special decoration. Other than that I mostly went with leather, and draped my cloak over the top. Three knives, a length of chain, two coils of string, two grenades, four pieces of white chalk and two pieces of black, pouches of salt, sand, and ash, and a small bag of my anti-nasty dust went into various pockets, along with half a dozen stored spells.
It was a lighter arsenal than I liked to carry, but this was another social event. Nobody would begrudge me a few armaments—the supernatural world is accepting that way—but there were certain limits to be observed. Walking in wearing heavy armor and carrying a shotgun would violate several of them.
Once I was finally satisfied, I went downstairs. I found the others waiting for me, with varying degrees of impatience, in the entrance hall.
Aiko must have finished getting ready while I was in the shower, because she looked…well, it made an impression. She was wearing a low-cut tunic of green silk and black tights. She’d drawn a complex geometric pattern on her face with some sort of vivid green dye, which contrasted sharply with her cherry-red hair. The end result was…surprisingly appealing.
She also had a tanto displayed quite openly on her belt, of course, because this was Aiko. It looked decorative, with a bone handle and jeweled sheath, but I knew quite well that it was a deadly weapon.
Aiko crossed the room and hugged me when I entered. I hugged her back, and blocked her hand when she tried to pick my pocket.
“You two make a surprisingly cute couple,” Alexis said dryly. “But as far as I know, there isn’t a camera crew here, and we’re running later than we should be.”
Aiko snorted and made an elaborate obscene gesture in her vague direction with both hands. But we left.
There are times, when the supernatural makes a mess of my life, that I’m not fond of magic. That being said, however, it can let you do some pretty cool things.
On this occasion, for example, we left the castle in Transylvania at around ten, local time. Two quick Otherside portals later, we were standing in a back alley in Soho, having jumped back two hours in the process. Aiko had no more trouble with the portals than I did, for exactly the same reason. As for Alexis and Snowflake…well, we kept them from throwing up on themselves, at least. That would have been awkward.
After that, we enjoyed a pleasant meal at the sort of seedy backstreet restaurant that had no particular objections to letting the scariest-looking husky ever eat at the table. The food was better than you’d expect, from such an establishment. I ate twice as much as any of the others, and walked away hungry, but that was to be expected. It seemed I was always hungry, anymore. Another side effect of whatever Loki had done to me.
I try not to think about that too much. It isn’t too hard, most of the time. The vast majority of the alterations were exaggerations of traits I already had. So long as I don’t look in mirrors, I’m only really reminded of all the things I’d lost at mealtimes.
It could be worse. It could always be worse.
An hour or two later, the four of us were stepping out of another portal. This one was a great deal smoother than the previous ones; even Alexis hardly seemed to notice it, and nobody passed out. This portal had been made by someone considerably more skilled than any of us.
We’d hardly hit the ground when an androgynous Japanese man stepped up to us. I didn’t recognize him, but the fox-and-spice smell of his magic made it clear that this was a kitsune.
Before he could say anything, Aiko dug a crumpled sheet of paper out of her tunic. It looked like it had been torn out of a notebook, complete with coffee stains, a doodle of a crocodile being run over by a tractor, and a half-worked integral. The actual text of the invitation was written in what looked like dried blood in a cramped corner of the page.
Aiko claimed that sort of thing was more or less par for the course for this individual, and certainly the other kitsune took it in stride. He glanced at the page, skimmed the writing, then handed it back to her and nodded. We swept past him without a word being said.
“You said you’ve seen this guy perform before, right?” Alexis asked as we walked down the narrow corridor leading out of the entrance room.
Aiko nodded. “Yeah, once. All of his cousins were invited to that show. It wasn’t nearly as exclusive as tonight’s.” She shrugged. “That was quite a while ago, though. This is the first show he’s done in fifty years.”
“That isn’t that long,” I pointed out. “Not for a kitsune.”
“Yeah, but this guy’s a special case. He’s a bit wacked in the head, even by our standards. Hell if I know what he’s planning for his big comeback.”
As Aiko was saying that, we emerged into a larger room. It wasn’t built on anything like the scale that some Otherside buildings are, though. It wasn’t even that large by the standards of concert halls. The walls were paneled in cherry wood, and there were hanging scrolls and vases of flowers scattered around the walls.
People milled throughout the room, talking quietly in an enormous variety of languages. Most of them were kitsune, judging by the smell, but I saw a handful of tengu in their natural, birdlike forms. Here and there one of the Sidhe moved through the crowd, and there were a handful of less recognizable things mixed into the crowd.
“The show is supposed to start in about fifteen minutes,” Aiko said. “We’d better find somewhere to sit.”
We eventually found a couple of open seats in the third row, directly behind a thin Asian man who smelled strongly of fish and rice paddies. A kappa, I was guessing, though I didn’t have enough experience with them to say for sure. It explained why the seats were empty, at any rate. Aiko had to sit on my lap for all of us to fit, but neither of us particularly objected, and the next available option was eight rows back.
After around thirty minutes, the heavy velvet curtains finally pulled open to reveal an extremely tall kitsune. He looked generally human, but had four enormous fox tails, an intermediate shape which I was pretty sure Aiko couldn’t take. Not that that was terribly surprising; power was measured by tail number among the kitsune, and she only had one. There was an order of magnitude between her capabilities and those of a four-tail.
He was surrounded by musical instruments, most of which I didn’t recognize. There was a wide variety of taiko drums in a rather absurd range of sizes, a handful of string instruments that I couldn’t name, and several varieties of flute. In addition to these classically Japanese instruments, I also saw a grand piano, two cellos, and what looked like a tuba that had been through a pasta extruder, along with several sets of chimes. Here and there black-clad figures moved among the instruments, checking and rechecking them.
The concert itself was…eh. I wasn’t able to really appreciate it, not having that much taste in music and having almost no background in this genre. I didn’t speak the language, either, which limited my appreciation for the recited sections. Aiko seemed to find them deeply amusing, at any rate, which suggested that this particular kitsune’s reputation for eccentricity probably wasn’t overstated. For my part, I was mostly just impressed that he had enough grip strength with his tails to use them to play a taiko.
It hardly mattered, anyway. We weren’t here for me. From what I’d gathered, this sort of show was one of the few things Aiko could remember from her youth without some degree of bitterness. We were here primarily for her sake, and secondarily for Alexis’s. I haven’t been the best mentor to my cousin, but I’ve tried to make sure that she gets a chance to have a wide variety of experiences.
Aiko was enjoying herself, and Alexis was being exposed to a social event that she sure as hell hadn’t experienced before. As far as I was concerned, that made tonight’s excursion a success. Snowflake and I were pretty much just along to provide tolerably good company.
The good mood lasted until the first intermission, at which point the guests were permitted to mingle and converse while the musicians prepared for the next set.
I was just debating whether I should go and fetch drinks when another kitsune stepped out of the crowd and stopped in front of us. She was taller than me by a decent margin, wearing a grey kimono with a floral pattern below the waist.
I paused and glanced at her again. I was sure that I hadn’t met this kitsune before, but there was something familiar about her features. Between that and the relative formality of her dress and hairstyle, I thought I might know who she was. I was really, really hoping I was wrong, though.
“Aiko,” the newcomer said. Her voice was melodious, while somehow still coming across as rather stern.
Aiko stood and stared at her. I was scared for a moment that she was about to go for her knife, but instead she took a deep breath and let it out, flexing her fingers at her sides. “Mother,” she said after a long pause.
I wasn’t wrong.
Oh shit, Snowflake said. Should I hide under a chair, do you think?
No, I replied, watching the situation warily. And hush. Not many people could understand her, but it wasn’t unheard of, and the last thing I wanted to do was have her destabilize an already volatile situation.
Aiko’s mother looked us over, somehow conveying intense displeasure with numerous aspects of our bearing, manners, and dress without altering her expression in the least, and then turned back to Aiko. She said something in a liquid language that I didn’t know, but which was presumably whatever variant of Japanese the kitsune spoke. Based on what I’d heard of her, I was guessing she wouldn’t be speaking any dialect that had been current for the last several centuries.
“I don’t care,” Aiko replied. “My friends speak English. If you want to talk now, you can do the same.”
The other kitsune sighed. “Why must you be difficult, child?”
“That is not a conversation you want to have,” Aiko said tightly. “Not unless you want me to cause a huge fucking scene, right here, right now.”
Apparently her mother wasn’t willing to call that bluff, which was a wise choice. She sighed and made a small, graceful gesture of surrender. “As you wish, my daughter.”
Aiko stared at her for a long moment, then sighed. “What do you want?” she asked, sounding suddenly very tired.
“It has been years since we spoke.”
“Not a coincidence,” Aiko said through gritted teeth. “You made it clear that you didn’t want me for your daughter. I was only giving you what you wanted, mother.”
She sighed. “You know that isn’t true, Aiko. You know that I love you.”
“No,” Aiko interjected. “You don’t. You love the person you want me to be. You love the daughter you wanted to have. But we both know that person isn’t me.” Her voice was still tight, but her expression had gone blank, almost masklike.
Holy shit. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen anything break Aiko’s composure this badly. I knew her tells pretty well by now, and everything I was seeing suggested that she was about six inches from losing it and lashing out physically.
Apparently her mother recognized that, at least to some extent, because she sighed and nodded. “As you wish. You know how to contact me, if you ever want to talk.” She turned and vanished back into the crowd.
Aiko spent maybe ten seconds with her eyes closed, taking deep breaths. When she opened them again, her expression had returned to its normal, mobile self. Her voice, though, was still tense as she said, “You guys want to stay here?”
“Not particularly,” I said, looking at Alexis. She shook her head. “That kinda killed the mood.”
“Just a little,” Aiko said dryly. “Okay. Let’s go, then. I need out of this room.”
Nothing more was said as we left the concert hall, passed through the same portal we’d entered by, and walked a short distance along a Faerie trail to a pond by the edge of the woods. Once there, I paused. “If you want to talk about it, I’m here,” I said awkwardly. I wasn’t really very good at the whole offering comfort thing.
“No,” Aiko said. She mostly just sounded tired, now. “Thanks, but there are some things that talking just makes worse.”
I glanced into the pond and saw a monster looking back, frozen amber eyes and teeth a little too sharp to pass for human, hollow cheeks hidden behind grey stubble, one hand little more than a mass of scars.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”