The next two weeks passed in a blur.
Aiko was in a funk after running into her mother, but she pulled out of it. Two days later, she seemed totally unaffected, though I knew that much of that was a mask.
I started laying the background for my mirror focus, and made minor improvements to my cloak of shadows. I mixed a potion, something I’d only recently learned to do. I added another layer to the warding spells around the castle, though I doubted it was necessary. At this point, the place was so heavily fortified that any more protections were largely redundant. I went with Aiko on a trip to Thailand, where we set fire to a bar, started a minor riot that turned into a major riot, and killed twenty-three members of a gang that was involved in human trafficking.
The whole time, though, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I felt like there was a sword hanging over me, just out of sight, and at any moment it might fall on me without warning. Everything I knew about Scáthach told me that this wasn’t over, that she wasn’t going to leave me be this easily.
Except that, apparently, she was. And that just scared me even more.
It was with that feeling of slowly building dread that I traveled back to Colorado Springs. I didn’t spend much time there anymore, though on some level it would always be my home. It was just too dangerous. I was an internationally wanted criminal, of course—there’s really no other option, when they think you blew up a decent chunk of an American city and killed twenty thousand people—but most of the time I was safe enough, so long as I kept my face covered. But in Colorado Springs, there were a lot of people who might recognize me, and they were a lot less likely to have forgotten the incident.
But I was still the jarl of the city, and that entailed certain responsibilities. One of them was that I settle disputes among my so-called subjects, which was hard to do without being present. I suppose I could have done it by phone or something, but that would have been seriously detrimental to my image.
It wasn’t that much of a strain, in any case. When I first started the gig, I heard petitions every week. Now, well, I went in once a month. Most of the time there were only a handful of people seeking judgments. Most of my so-called subjects were too scared of me to ask.
I stepped out of the portal literally on the front steps of the mansion, where I only had to take two steps to open the front door and step inside. No one would have had a chance to see me.
Stepping inside, I found my face about six inches away from a broadhead arrowhead.
“Good afternoon, Kyi,” I said. “Is everything good here?”
The jotun lowered her bow, relaxing the tension. “Já,” she said, nodding. “All goes well this day.”
“Good,” I said, stepping past her into the building proper. “I’ll want you in your usual position in an hour. Until then, your time’s your own. I would appreciate it if you could send Selene in to talk with me.”
“Já, minn herra,” she said. “I will send her.”
Kyi shook her head, scowling disapprovingly. With the tattoos around her eyes and along her hairline, she had a pretty impressive scowl. “Jarls do not say thank you,” she said severely.
“Why are you still here?” I asked, continuing into the throne room. “I gave you an order.”
“Better,” she said, sounding somewhat mollified. I didn’t hear any footsteps as she left, but then, I wouldn’t. This was Kyi Greyfell we were talking about, after all. If you heard her, it was because she wanted you to.
In the throne room I walked up and stared at the throne for several moments. It looked dramatic as hell, a massive, solid thing made from black iron. The wall behind it was windowed on the lower ten feet, with my coat of arms above it. The resulting image was more than a little intense, especially at night.
Of course, the throne was also uncomfortable as hell. I didn’t notice as much as I used to, but I still wasn’t looking forward to sitting in it. Not that that mattered. Maintaining my image was more important than being comfy right now.
So I sighed and sat in the throne, slouching slightly. A minor effort of will reshaped my cloak into a sort of puddle around me, exposing gleaming armor. It was white and black, covered in ridges and spikes, with accents in cold colors. There were tiny runes inset into the colored trim, although I doubted anyone would get close enough to see them.
Besides, the helmet was far more attention-grabbing. It covered my face completely, the mask styled after a wolf’s face with startling realism. In the firelight, it could look almost alive.
I’ve always worn armor to these events. It fits with my martial image, in addition to soothing my paranoia. But I used to leave the helmet off. I wanted to put some semblance of a human face on my organization, and I didn’t want to unsettle people too badly.
These days, I didn’t care. I was done with pretending to be a kind, supportive ruler. I was even more done pretending to be human. So what if I scared the people who came to me for help? They were scared anyway. They had to be, or they wouldn’t be asking me to help them.
I wasn’t a person you went to when you wanted good things to happen. At best, I made bad things happen to people that deserved them. At best.
Less than thirty seconds after I sat down, Selene walked into the room. The most recent of my full-time minions, she played a rather different role than the housecarls. She was a demon out of Hell, or a reasonably good facsimile thereof. In her old job she seduced people into evil, figuratively and literally. It showed in her bearing, too; Selene always walked as though she were on a catwalk, and every movement was sensual. It wasn’t even conscious anymore.
I didn’t give her assignments like that. I did occasionally send her when I wanted to not scare someone shitless, as she was far better at it than any of the rest of us. By and large, though, she’d taken on a role as my steward, managing my various minions and making sure that everything was kept in operational status.
Sveinn used to manage that, but I was just as glad to have someone else doing part of it. I hadn’t been happy having all that responsibility solely on one person. It was too easy for something to go wrong, and then where would I be?
Besides, my organization had grown considerably since then. When I’d started as jarl, it had just been me and the six jötnar, not counting Aiko and Snowflake. Now I had all of them, Selene, half a dozen mages, a handful of werewolves on retainer, and a gang of half-breed fae and changelings that was somewhere between taking jobs from me and actually being in my employ. That wasn’t even counting a sizable network of informants, or the dozen or so normal humans who did odd jobs for me without ever realizing who they were working for. Managing all that was more than one person could do.
“Winter,” Selene said, approaching. She treated me a little more casually than the housecarls. That was largely because we were a lot closer to being social equals. As Coyote’s granddaughter, Selene was accorded a fair amount of respect. Not as much as I was, just because I had a lot more in the way of personal reputation than she did, but it was still a far cry from my relationship with the jötnar.
“Good afternoon, Selene,” I said. “How are things in the city?”
“Not bad this week,” she said. “Protesters have been quiet, though that can’t last.”
I sighed. “We aren’t going to kill them for speaking up against me, Selene. Not when they’re right, at least a little bit.”
“You’re the boss,” she said, though her tone was skeptical. “Anyway, there isn’t any real news for the week. There’s a report of ghouls hiding out on the edge of town. One of our informants claims to have seen some sort of monster being herded into the sewers downtown. Neither report is corroborated.”
“Still worth checking out,” I said. “Send Kris, Kyi, and Vigdis to look into the ghouls. Recon only, get out if they think they’re in danger. I want confirmation of the ghouls’ presence and a location, numbers if they can manage it. For the sewers, I want Matthew, Haki, and…see if Jackal will go, or send one of her people. Standard rates. Same instructions for that group. Identify the thing if they can.”
“You got it,” Selene said. She didn’t write any of it down, but I was confident that she would remember every word. “You want them on this tonight?”
“Yeah,” I said. “As soon as possible after the hearings. Is there anything else?” I would have sent them sooner, but I liked to have my housecarls around while I heard petitions. They made for a nice display of force.
“Yes,” she said. “Kikuchi sent a messenger this morning. You and Aiko are invited to a dinner he’s hosting next month. Katrin also left a message requesting that you provide a security detail for a meeting this Thursday. She’s offering payment.”
I grunted. “For the dinner, check my schedule. If there’s anything conflicting let me know. Otherwise thank him and tell him we’ll be there unless something urgent comes up. For the other….” I frowned, thinking. I didn’t like that. Katrin knew that I wasn’t fond of her. “How much is she offering?”
“Fifty thousand,” Selene said promptly. “Half up front. One night, less than eight hours.”
I nodded slowly. A considerable payment, but not absurdly so. That said something. She thought I would want to be there without her needing to provide an exorbitant reward. Considering how little I wanted to be there, that meant there was some other reason I should go. Information I would want to have, perhaps.
Either that, or she was conning me. Could go either way with Katrin.
“Tell her I’ll provide a detail for that price,” I said. “But I can’t guarantee her security without more information on the nature of the meeting. Not on three days’ notice.”
She nodded. “Will do. Those were the only messages.”
“Good,” I said. “Could you send Tindr in? I want to go over the finances.”
Selene nodded again. “Of course. Do you want some food? There should be enough time for a quick bite before people start showing up.”
“Tea, if it’s not too much trouble,” I said. “Something strong.”
“We have a decent Darjeeling,” she offered.
“That sounds great.”
Selene nodded and left. A couple minutes later, Tindr came in.
Tindr the Exile was something of an anomaly among my housecarls. He seldom carried weapons, and he normally wore a suit. He wasn’t useless in a fight, although I sometimes referred to him as though he were. Like all jötnar he was stronger and, in his natural form, considerably larger than a human. Like all my housecarls, he’d had basic military training. He was more than a match for your average person. It was just that, in my circles, that didn’t mean much. I didn’t need help for fighting average people.
More importantly, though, I would have to be insane to use Tindr in a fight. He was far more valuable here, helping to manage and coordinate my growing empire. The thing that set him apart from my other housecarls was his brain. Tindr was clever, quick-witted, and had a knack for mathematics that I could only envy. It hadn’t taken him long to learn the ins and outs of mortal finance.
“Jarl,” he said, entering the throne room. He was carrying a folding table in one hand and a heavy binder in the other.
“Tindr,” I said. “Give me numbers.”
He nodded and walked over to my throne. He handed me the binder and set the table up. I set the binder on it once he was finished.
“We got an anomalous payment on Friday,” he said as I flipped the binder open to the current balance sheet. “Some group in Thailand paying for your services?”
“We wiped out a group of human traffickers there not long ago,” I said absently, scanning the numbers. Everything seemed to look all right. Not that I would know if it didn’t; this was Tindr’s realm. It was my money, but I was a stranger here. “Really wasn’t expecting them to pay me for it. Hell, I’m surprised anyone knew it was me.”
“Really?” he said, frowning. “If you don’t mind my asking, my lord, why would you do it, then?”
“Not at all,” I said, most of my attention on the binder. “Aiko needed to blow off some steam.”
He hesitated, as though he expected me to say more, then shook his head. “You exterminated a gang of slavers just because your girlfriend needed an outlet?” he asked, sounding incredulous.
“Sure. Why? Is that surprising?”
“Coming from you, not really,” Selene said, handing me a cup the size of a thermos. She gave a similar but smaller cup to Tindr and then dropped a large roast beef sandwich on the table next to the binder.
“I didn’t say I was hungry,” I told her.
She rolled her eyes. “You’re always hungry,” she pointed out. Which, for the time I’d known her, was more accurate than she realized. “Forty minutes to showtime.”
“We’ll be ready,” I promised. I took a sip of tea, and winced; it was painfully hot in my mouth. Not that that took all that much. Since Loki changed me, my body temperature was typically measurably lower than the ambient temperature. “Okay, Tindr. Give me the update.”
He turned the binder to face him and flipped through the pages until he found the one he wanted. “Payments from the businesses in town came in as usual,” he said. I hadn’t intended to start running a protection racket, but a handful of people in the local supernatural community had started paying me for keeping the peace, and it sort of snowballed from there. “Katrin made an unusually large contribution. Your investments are also doing well, although we did offload some of the gold reserves.”
“Skip the routine stuff for now,” I said. “I want to focus on covering any new developments before I hear petitions.”
“Of course,” Tindr said, flipping past a couple of pages. “Let’s see. We finalized the purchase of that construction company in North Dakota. It’s been fairly profitable in recent years, and we should also be able to use it as another laundering front. I’ve also been in talks with a potential factor in South Africa. He’s willing to pay ten percent over what we typically charge for stored spells provided we get them there within a week.”
I thought for a second, chewing on sandwich. It wasn’t great, but I wasn’t picky. “There should still be a decent selection in the storage unit on thirty-first street. Send him some of those and if he likes the quality we can enter negotiations for custom work. I assume you can arrange transportation for the shipment?”
“Right,” he said, making a note in the binder. “And yes, of course I can handle the shipping. He’s also expressed an interest in the armaments Kjaran’s producing. He isn’t as enthused about those, but I think I can talk him around if you want.”
Kjaran was another of my housecarls, the creepiest in my opinion. I’d had no idea he was a competent blacksmith until about a month earlier, when he asked to set up a forge in the basement. If everything was going according to plan, he should start churning out swords, knives, and axes pretty soon. Oddly enough, knowing that he was an artisan just made Kjaran seem even eerier to me.
“Yeah,” I said. “But don’t promise anything and definitely don’t ship anything until I’ve had a chance to do quality control on what he’s making. I’ve got a reputation for providing quality goods, and I don’t want to take any chances with it.”
“Understood,” he said, making another note. “I think those are the only actions that needed your approval. Regarding expenses, we’ve got…doesn’t look like anything remarkable this week. Standard expenses.”
I frowned and thought about the numbers I’d just read. “It isn’t enough, is it.”
Tindr did not pretend not to understand me. “No,” he said. “It isn’t. You’re paying several thousand in wages every week. Add in upkeep, rent, bribes, material expenses, contract payments, and…no. You’re barely breaking even as it stands. When you consider the occasional large payment for a special service or unanticipated expense, we’ve been seeing a slow but steady drain for the past year.”
I sighed. “Give me the balance as it stands.”
He flipped to another page. “In the operational account, three and a half million, pending a one and a half million expenditure to purchase that construction company. In your personal account, eleven million. An additional seventy million in real estate, stocks, and other assets.”
It was still baffling to me that I could have so much money and still need to evaluate the situation every week or risk insolvency. On some level I was still a broke carpenter living hand to mouth, and eleven million dollars was an almost nonsensically large amount.
But I didn’t live in that world anymore. With my current lifestyle and activity patterns, I could easily burn through five million in a high-expenditure month. Having less than twenty million in cash between all my accounts was a somewhat risky position to be in.
“Transfer another three million from my personal accounts to the operational fund,” I said. “And step back the monthly donation fund by ten percent.”
He made a few more notes. “Are there any organizations in particular you want to cut from the donations?”
I sighed. “No, not right now. I’ll look at the list later. For now just cut all the donations equally. And I want you to start making inquiries into mercenary work.”
“Are you considering hiring yourself out?”
“Not really, no. I was more thinking that I have a shortage of funds, and I have a bunch of bored minions who need something to do. Maybe the one problem can solve the other.”
Tindr smiled. “Right. I can start looking into the going rates.”
“Do that. But don’t make any promises. And keep this to yourself for now.”
“Good,” I said. “Also, contact the Watchers. Ask if they’re interested in buying back Brick’s debt. Again, no promises, and don’t spread it around. I’m just checking whether they’re interested, and if so how much they’re willing to pay. Don’t limit the negotiations to cash, either; I’m willing to take payment from the Watchers in kind.”
“Understood,” he said, jotting down several more notes. “I’ll open communications tomorrow. Do you want a report when I’ve got numbers?”
“Save it for our meeting next week,” I said. “The situation isn’t urgent.” I stuffed the last of the sandwich into my mouth and washed it down with the last drink of tea. “Get going,” I said. “You’ve got work to do, and we need to get ready for this.”
“Of course,” he said, collecting the binder and table. “Good luck, jarl.”
I grunted. “Yeah, well, I’m gonna need it.”