It was a light month for petitions. There were only three people there waiting to hear me pronounce judgment upon them, as though I were in any way competent to do so.
The first was a dark-skinned man who claimed to have been conned by a local small-time practitioner. Something about using mental magic to steal his identity and rack up some serious debts, along with getting him put on several watch lists. He wasn’t involved with the supernatural himself, but the cops hadn’t been able or willing to help him, and he’d heard that I could provide an alternative form of justice. I’m pretty sure he thought I was an extremely eccentric mob boss of some sort.
He made a pretty good case, and the mage in question hadn’t shown up to defend himself, which was rather telling. I handed down a heavy penalty, with some satisfaction.
I wasn’t punishing him for the crime, odd as that may sound. I’d known from the start that I couldn’t enforce mundane law on the people I was in charge of, and I hadn’t even tried. Any kind of law enforcement on my part would be a slippery slope of dangerous and ethically dubious situations, and in the end I couldn’t really hope to do much.
But it was one of the unspoken rules of the community that you didn’t get normal people wrapped up in supernatural issues. If this guy had used magic to do this? If he’d done it so clumsily that even someone who was utterly clueless about this stuff managed to catch on and figure out what he’d done?
Yeah, I could punish him for that.
The second case was a trickier one, involving a property dispute over a stolen inheritance. Both of the individuals in question agreed that it had been stolen from a third party. The question was whether the changeling or the kitsune had been the one who deserved the proceeds of the theft. Both parties claimed responsibility for the deed, and each claimed that the other had attempted to muscle in after it was already done and steal the credit.
It was a complicated situation, with no clear answer. Making it worse, I was pretty sure that the whole thing was a con of some sort, and I had no idea what the hell they thought they were going to get out of it. So, as much out of spite as anything, I split the money between the two, and then gave each the choice of either owing me a favor or forfeiting their share, as payment for making me waste my time. Both of them agreed to the latter, so smoothly that I was sure they hadn’t really wanted the money in the first place. Still had no idea what the point had been, though.
The best part? The inheritance was less than a thousand dollars. I seriously couldn’t make that situation make sense.
The final petition was a much more pleasant and straightforward one. For one thing, it wasn’t actually a variant on a court case. It was just someone wanting help, and thinking that I could provide it. She claimed that a monster of some sort had abducted her nephew off the street the previous week, and she wanted me to rescue him. Failing that, she wanted bloody vengeance, and she wanted it to hurt.
I could respect that.
I ended up sending Selene and Kjaran with her to get the full story, take a look at the area, and maybe canvass the neighborhood. If her story checked out, we’d be going in in force. Snatching kids off the street isn’t something I can tolerate, and doing it that openly violated the unofficial code of conduct, as well. All things considered, I was pretty sure I could offer her that vengeance, if nothing else.
She left with my minions, and I looked around the throne room warily. It was barely dusk, my work for the day was done, and nothing catastrophic had happened. None of the issues of the day had been that pressing, and the resolutions didn’t seem as though they would be that difficult or muddled. As far as I could tell, nothing had come up that was relevant to the situation Scáthach had been telling me about.
I was pretty on edge by this point. I didn’t get this lucky. That just wasn’t a thing that happened.
I was just about to tell my remaining housecarls to disperse and go about their business when someone knocked on the door. It was a polite sort of knock, loud enough that we would definitely hear but not loud enough to be obnoxious. Other than that I didn’t notice anything remarkable about the sound.
Of course, I thought. It couldn’t have been easy, oh no.
Out loud, I said, “Sveinn? Get that, if you please.”
He nodded and went to the door. A few seconds later he returned, trailing behind a big guy in a pale grey suit. He had very dark skin and an unfriendly expression.
The thing I noticed most about the newcomer, though, was his attitude. Most people are afraid when they enter the mansion, at least a little. They’re walking into a literal den of monsters, surrounded by a gang of superhuman thugs with a fondness for violence and little in the way of remorse. It’s even more pronounced if they know who I am, because at this point, I have something of a reputation as an unpredictable, violent person with a tendency to kill everyone who opposes him. Most people are a little nervous in the face of all that, especially if they’re alone.
This guy wasn’t. He walked in like he owned the place, and that confidence was a little unsettling to me.
The second thing I noticed was that he reeked of magic. The primary note was the disinfectant-like odor of human magic, with underlying tones of fire and something astringent, almost like ethanol. I’d smelled stronger human mages, but not often, and it seldom boded well.
The third thing I noticed was the piece of metal pinned to his suit coat, almost like a sheriff’s badge. It was a starburst of some metal I didn’t recognize, a little more reddish than copper, with a pair of crossed spears inset in gold. That was the symbol of the Guards, the branch of the Conclave that dealt with applications of military force. They weren’t soldiers, precisely, but there was a lot of overlap.
After noticing all that, I wouldn’t have wanted to start a fight with this guy. Not even here.
“Hello, jarl,” he said. His voice was a fairly unremarkable baritone, with a definite Southern accent.
“Hello,” I said warily. “You’re with the Guards?”
“I am the head of the organization,” he said, not without some pride.
Wonderful. He wasn’t just a Guard. He was Guard, singular, the big one, the highest-ranked out of the bunch, one of the biggest names in the Conclave. If his power was anything like the other people on that level that I’d met, he could chew me up and spit me out without even trying.
“Is this an official visit?” I asked. “Or are you here under the table?”
He grinned, showing brilliantly white, perfectly even teeth. “Some of both.”
I sighed. Of course he was. I knew there was trouble coming.
“Clear the room, please,” I said. I didn’t want my housecarls here for the next part. There was a good chance that what Guard had to say wasn’t something he wanted spread around, and an even better chance that this interaction wasn’t something I wanted them to witness. With minions like them, maintaining a constant image of strength and confidence is critically important. The second they started to think I was weak, I would be in a bad place.
They went without protest, although there was some hesitation and backward glances. Once they were gone, I leaned back in my throne and looked at Guard. “What’s this about?” I asked.
“An accusation has been brought against you,” he said, still smiling. “An allegation that you caused the unlawful death of the mage Zhang Qiang.”
I managed to keep my reaction to that statement off my face, though it wasn’t easy. “Who am I accused by?” I asked. As far as I knew only Watcher could prove my involvement in that, and she wasn’t about to speak up on the topic. Not when she’d been deeper in it than me, and a hell of a lot more exposed to political blowback.
“That’s confidential,” he said. “It’s the policy of the Conclave not to expose any of its members’ identities to outsiders.”
I grunted. It was bullshit, but that was to be expected. One of the lessons that had been drilled into me repeatedly was that the major players would walk all over you if you didn’t have a comparable force backing you up. It wasn’t that surprising that the mage clans would cover for one of their own and refuse to let me confront my accuser. Contrary to any principle of justice, but not surprising.
“The Conclave is holding an assembly tomorrow,” Guard continued, not giving me a chance to complain. Not that I would have had anything to say in any case. “The accusation against you is one of the topics being addressed. It would reflect poorly on you if you weren’t there to defend yourself.”
“Tomorrow?” I said incredulously. “That’s ridiculous. You can’t expect me to show up and defend myself against this accusation on one day’s notice. That’s absurd.”
“You’re legally required to be notified in advance of the hearing,” he said. “It doesn’t specify how much warning you have to have in the codes.” He sighed and shook his head, his posture becoming slightly less formal. “Look, Wolf. You’ve upset a lot of people. You’re an unknown factor, and people don’t like that. You’ve gathered a lot of power in a short time, and nobody really knows why. Then you killed one of the most respected, well-connected mages in the world, and…well, it makes people wonder.”
“Allegedly killed,” I said. I wouldn’t put it past him for that whole spiel to be a way of slipping that little one by so that he could say that I hadn’t denied it.
“Of course,” he said. “My mistake. It hardly matters, though, because to these people? You’re scary. You’re the new kid in school, with an ugly reputation and links to some scary groups. There are a lot of people who don’t care whether you killed him or not, they just want an excuse to get rid of you.”
I frowned, but I couldn’t argue too much. I mean, I did have that kind of a reputation. I did have links to some people that I wouldn’t be comfortable confronting. It kind of made sense that people would treat me this way.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t justified. I wasn’t powerful enough to ruffle the feathers of most clan mages, let alone threaten the entire Conclave. But I looked pretty badass on paper, with the things I’d done. They had no way of knowing that it had been mostly luck and assistance that let me pull it off, or that I’d been manipulated every step of the way by people vastly stronger than myself.
The funny thing was that I’d cultivated that rep deliberately, to scare away challengers and make people hesitate before they threatened me. It hadn’t quite occurred to me that it would also make me a target.
“Where’s the meeting?” I asked, trying to cover for the long pause.
“London, twenty-four hours from now,” he said, pulling a small envelope out of his pocket. He handed it to me and I gingerly tucked it into my cloak. “That contains the details and your entrance pass. It will get you through the security cordon.”
“Thank you for the notification,” I said.
“Just doing my job,” Guard said, shrugging. “And, now that I’ve done that job, you mind if I give you some advice? Off the books.”
“I’m willing to hear you,” I said. “Can’t guarantee I’ll listen.”
“Fair,” he said, nodding. “You want my advice? Plead guilty. Admit responsibility, say you’re sorry, and odds are good they’ll let you off with a blood price. It’ll look a lot better than if you deny it and then someone comes up with proof.”
“If the concern is that someone would prove me guilty,” I said dryly, “then isn’t beating them to the punch somewhat counterproductive?”
He shook his head. “The people who are against you won’t care,” he said. “Like I said, this is more of an excuse than anything. But for the people who are on your side, or on the fence about it, it looks a lot worse if you try to cover it up. Trust me.”
I nodded slowly. “I’ll think about it,” I said. “Is that all?”
He nodded. “That’s it. Thanks for hearing me out. I’ll see you tomorrow, Wolf.”
I sat in my empty throne room for several minutes after he left, debating various options with myself. None of them looked good, and thinking about it wasn’t helping.
“Screw it,” I said, pulling out my phone. I dialed a number from memory.
“Hey, Winter,” Selene said a few moments later. “What’s up?”
“The two reports you got earlier,” I said. “Ghouls on the edge of town, monster in the sewer. Which one would you say is more plausible?”
“Neither one is, really,” she said. “But the ghouls were reported by a more reliable source.”
“Right,” I said. “You gave Kyi the details on location?”
“And Vigdis,” she confirmed. “They were planning to leave right after you finished hearing petitions.”
“Right,” I said. “I’ll be taking point on that operation myself.”
“That isn’t wise,” she said disapprovingly.
“Probably not, but I’m feeling the need for a problem that I can solve.”
“You’re the boss,” she said, her tone making it clear that she still thought this was an extremely stupid thing to do. “Just tell me you aren’t going to do something reckless.”
“Of course not,” I said lightly. “Aiko would feel left out.”