“Are you sure bringing me was a good idea?” Alexis asked, hurrying to keep up with me. It was pretty late, local time, and this part of London didn’t see a whole lot of traffic at this hour; I was able to set a decent pace without drawing attention.
“Not really,” I said. “I just don’t give a damn. There’s something oddly liberating about knowing that your life’s so thoroughly wrecked that nothing you do can make it meaningfully worse.”
“Which is fine,” she said dryly, “but I still had some hope of not making quite that much of a mess with my second chance at things.”
“That’s part of why I’m bringing you,” I said cheerfully. “You’re as good as I am, Alexis. We both know it. Coming to this meeting, you should be able to make some contacts. You might even find a clan you’re interested in joining. Who knows?”
“But doesn’t it hurt your chances? Make you look like you aren’t taking this seriously?”
I shrugged. “That’s fairly low on my list of priorities at the moment. Besides, I think it might have the opposite effect. For me to teach another mage suggests competence and reliability. It might not be bad for my image.” I smelled the magic, and checked the note I’d been given. Sure enough, the large building in front of me matched the address I’d been given. “We’re here,” I said. “You ready?”
Alexis took a deep breath and then nodded. “I guess I’d better be,” she said.
I grinned. “That’s the spirit,” I said. Then I stepped forward and pounded on the front door of the building.
There was a pause of several seconds before the door opened. The guy standing on the other side was pretty normal-looking, only made remarkable by a black three-piece suit and sunglasses. “No entrance without identification,” he said, sounding bored.
I paused, confused, before remembering that my face was still covered in shadows. I willed my cloak into the form of a long coat, exposing my face and the same outfit I’d worn to meet with Scáthach. “Happy now?” I asked.
Moray did not look happy. “Come in,” he said, stepping out of the way. “You’re early.”
“It seemed better than being late,” I said, stepping over the threshold. I felt the mild tingle of the warding spells pass over my skin as I did, though they didn’t try to stop me; I was invited.
“You aren’t allowed in early,” he said, closing the door and locking it. “But I can show the two of you to a waiting room.”
“That’s fine. Are you in charge of security?”
Moray nodded and walked through one of the doors leading out of the lobby, Alexis and I following. “They moved me into the oversight department after the last job we worked on.”
“They gave you a promotion for that?”
Moray snorted. “Yeah, the very special kind of promotion that comes with a pay cut and doesn’t have any more authority than your old job, and where you don’t have a chance in hell of advancing further.” He shrugged, opening the door to a small cafeteria. It was empty except for the three of us. “A lot of people were upset when Zhang died. Someone had to take the fall.”
“That sucks,” I said.
He shrugged again and sat at one of the long tables. “It is what it is. So who’s the girl?”
“I didn’t realize you hadn’t met. This is my cousin, Alexis Hamilton. Alexis, this is Moray. He’s one of the more pleasant Watchers I know.”
“Charmed,” he said. “But why’d you bring her here?”
“Alexis is a pretty decent sorcerer,” I said. “I thought it might be good for her to start meeting people in the field. She could use some backup.”
Moray looked at her, showing more interest than he had up until this point in the conversation. “Sorcerer, eh? What kinds of powers are we talking about, here?”
“I specialize in electricity,” she said, seeming a little discomfited by the attention. “But I’m decent with kinetic force, and a handful of other things. You know.”
“Lightning and force, eh?” he said, eyeing her appraisingly. “That profile lends itself pretty well to a fight. You ever practice combat skills?”
“A bit,” she said modestly. “I kind of want to do some good with my magic, you know? I mean, I’ve…got some stuff to make up for, I guess.”
“I can understand that. You ever consider joining the Watchers? There aren’t many places you could do more good than that.”
Alexis laughed. “I don’t think Winter will appreciate you trying to recruit me out from under him.”
“Hey,” I said. “Leave me out of this. You need to make your own decisions.”
“Just think about it,” Moray said. “Winter knows how to contact us if you decide you want more information.” He glanced at his watch and then stood up. “We probably better start heading that direction. You’re right about not wanting to be late.”
At my insistence, we took the stairs. I was starting to regret that by the time we reached the seventh floor, more because of Moray’s griping than any real discomfort. It was still better than an elevator, though.
They had a security station set up outside the doors to the auditorium. It was relatively small, but more thorough than I would have guessed. They had a metal detector and one of the full body scanners they use in airports. They also had a Watcher in attendance, a tall woman with harsh features. She was wearing a reddish-brown cloak and a sword belt. I could also detect half a dozen stored spells and foci in various pockets, and the sword itself was clearly enchanted, although I wasn’t quite sure what any of them were supposed to do.
I stared for a second. Then I shook my head and walked toward the security station, Alexis in tow. Moray went back downstairs, presumably to go back to watching the door.
“Laurel,” I said, stopping just outside the metal detector. “Did Watcher go out of her way to pick security people I already know?”
“Hi, Winter,” she said, cheerfully enough. I didn’t trust that at all; I knew damned well that Laurel could fake any emotion she pleased, and she’d have no difficulty stabbing me without losing that cheerful attitude for a moment. “And yeah, she did. I think she thought it would make you more agreeable.”
I snorted. “That sounds like her. I’m guessing you want me to go through these?”
“Yep,” she said, holding out a plastic bin. “You can dump your stuff in here. I’m sure you’re carrying.”
I didn’t bother answering her, but I did take the bin. I pulled two knives out of my cloak and dropped them in, along with a folding knife that I’d had up my sleeve. Three metal rings followed them, along with a length of chain, a couple spools of wire, a spork, and my belt. A handful of needles and a sack of ball bearings came out of the cloak, followed by a pouch of dust and a pair of handcuffs. I had a couple of darts in my pants pocket, which I dropped in, along with a couple of stored spells and a small sheet of lead.
“Jesus,” Laurel said, sounding a little disgusted. “Do you always carry that much kit?”
“This is actually a fairly light loadout,” I said, dropping a couple of pitons in the bin. “Okay, I think that’s everything.”
“Right,” she said. “Step through the detector and then face the scanner.”
I did so. The metal detector didn’t go off, suggesting that I’d actually managed to remember everything I was carrying. “Alexis, do you need to drop anything?”
“Hang on,” Laurel said, looking up from the scanner controls. “The girl isn’t authorized for entry.”
“On the contrary,” I said. “She’s my apprentice. From what I understand of Conclave protocol, that means she’s entitled to entry under my invitation.”
“Yeah, but you aren’t part of a recognized clan. That makes it something of a borderline case.” Laurel spent a moment chewing her lip, then shrugged. “Screw it. They want her gone, they can kick her out themselves. Drop your stuff in the bin.”
A minute or so later, following two unremarkable scans, Laurel gave both of us a quick and impersonal patdown before grabbing a crystal prism hanging from a silver chain. I was pretty sure it wasn’t her work; it lacked the odor of bleach and dust that I associated with her magic.
“I’m reading a fairly strong signal off you, Winter,” she said, looking at me through the prism. “Doesn’t seem to be localized.”
“That’s the cloak,” I said. “It’s harmless. So is the clothing; I just have basic reinforcement on it. Strictly defensive.”
“Right,” she said. “I can see that. And it looks like you’re carrying a couple of stored spells?”
“Forcewalls, for the most part,” I said. “I can’t do a kinetic barrier worth noticing, so they’re useful things to carry. I put all the aggressive stuff in the bin; what I’m carrying is all defensive.”
“All right, then,” she said, turning to Alexis. “I’m willing to let that by. You, on the other hand, are carrying a couple of foci that I’m definitely not comfortable with.”
Alexis flushed and pulled off a pair of wooden rings, dropping them into the bin. “Sorry,” she said. “I forgot about those.”
“It’s no big deal. But I’m going to need you to drop the rod, too.”
“It’s nonlethal,” she protested. “No worse than a Taser.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Laurel said, sounding bored. “It goes in the bin, or you stay out here. Your choice.”
Alexis looked like she wanted to argue, but she pulled a small copper rod out of the pocket of her suit coat and handed it over.
“Great,” Laurel said, putting a lid on the bin and taping it shut. “Winter, you’re technically a visiting dignitary, so you get a Guard escort and you sit in the VIP section, right in front of the stage. The Guards will get you to your seat. Alexis—did I get the name right?—you’re in the apprentice section. Turn right just inside the door and find a seat. Go ahead inside. Winter, your escort should be here in just a minute.”
Alexis didn’t seem to be in a hurry to enter the auditorium, but Laurel herded her inside. I stood around and felt increasingly tense for about thirty seconds before a pair of men emerged from the staircase. They looked almost identical, generic thugs with a fashion sense less sophisticated than but otherwise similar to Moray’s, and had small reddish starbursts prominently displayed on their coats. The only way I could distinguish them was that one was blond and the other had muddy brown hair.
“Ivanov,” I said, relatively warmly. “Neumann. They really pulled out all the stops to surround me with familiar faces, didn’t they?”
“Looks like,” Ivanov agreed. His voice was a lot more cautious than mine; I don’t think he was ever quite convinced that I wasn’t the one summoning monsters, when I met the pair. “Although that’s standard practice. Someone who knows your style is more likely to be able to work with you and make sure you’re safe if something happens.”
“Right,” I said skeptically. Somehow I didn’t think it was my safety they were concerned with, primarily. “Well, we might as well go in.”
“Right,” he said as Neumann stepped past and opened the door of the auditorium.
The room wasn’t terribly large, as such things went, but it wasn’t small. There were probably two hundred people sitting in there, and they weren’t all that crowded. We’d entered at the very top of the room, and everyone got a chance to watch as I was escorted down the stairs.
The variety of humanity in the room was staggering. Male and female, old and young, there seemed to be nothing in common among them. Every ethnicity was represented, and the variety of languages in the quiet conversations I overheard was dizzying. Many of them were dressed in fine robes, cloaks, and similarly antiquated garb, but a significant minority wore modern suits. None of them were dressed informally, and I was very glad that I’d worn decent clothing.
The vast majority of them had metal badges or cloth patches prominently displayed, indicators of rank and accomplishments. I knew enough of the code to recognize some of them—the Seal of Solomon indicated a master of summoning and binding creatures from the Otherside, for example, while a braid of numerous metals indicated a master enchanter. The vast majority, though, were obscure to me.
Far more noticeable was the smell of their magic. None of them seemed to be actively working any magic, but a couple hundred mages had enough power to be pretty overwhelming even resting. There was enough power in that room to make my nostrils burn, and the disinfectant odor of human magic was incredibly strong. Every step brought new undertones to the scent, as I picked up on the auras of different mages. It was hard to ignore, and impossible to process.
The two Guards escorted me down to the lowest row of seating. They didn’t seem inclined to converse and there was no one else in that section, so I had plenty of opportunity to look at the people on the stage.
There were nine of them, each standing at a podium. They were dressed in simple robes, one in each of the colors of the rainbow, flanked by a white robe at one end and black at the other. There was a roughly even mix of men and women, and a wide variety of ethnicities as well.
I knew almost half of them, at least vaguely. The old woman in the violet robe carrying a black cane was Watcher, who’d been more or less on my side in the past. At any rate, she had a fair amount invested in me, and she knew that I could be useful in the future. I was pretty sure I didn’t have to worry about Watcher.
On the other side of the stage, Guard looked unsettlingly cheerful, his crimson robe startling against his dark skin. He watched me all the way down, in a manner more than slightly reminiscent of a bored cat watching a small bird. It was uncomfortable, to say the least.
A slender Hispanic man was standing directly next to him, wearing orange robes. He smiled encouragingly at me as I took my seat. He was Caller, and while I’d only met him once, I knew something about how he operated. Caller had an interest in the balance of power on the Otherside, and he wasn’t afraid of interfering to nudge that balance in the direction he wanted. I didn’t know him well enough to say whether he would see me as a dangerously unpredictable factor to get rid of, or a potentially valuable tool to keep handy.
And, last but most definitely not least, was the man in the indigo robe, standing next to Watcher in the lineup. I knew him very well indeed, although seeing him on that stage was such a shock that I’d very nearly tripped on the stairs when I realized who it was.
The room went silent as the man in the white robe cleared his throat. “It is time to introduce the next item,” he said in English. His voice wasn’t particularly loud, but it carried through the room with perfect clarity, likely due to some kind of magical assistance. Behind me I heard a number of hushed voices, as his words were translated into a dozen languages. “Namely, the accusation of the jarl Winter Wolf-Born as the murderer of esteemed mage Zhang Qiang. Jarl, please stand.”
I did so, feeling the eyes on me as an almost literal weight. “I am present,” I said.
The man in white regarded me. “How do you plead in response to this accusation?”
I opened my mouth, intending to follow Guard’s advice and admit my guilt. I could eat a little crow and pay the blood price.
Then I paused. Guard looked too cheerful, too happy. It wasn’t a good kind of happy, either. It was more the kind of happy that came along with a decisive victory.
On impulse, I instead said, “The accusation is inaccurate. I played no part in the crime you described.” Which was true, really. As far as I was concerned, killing somebody that messed up wasn’t murder, it was an entirely rational response to someone too monstrous to live.
Guard’s expression became very, very ugly when I said that. It only lasted a second or two before he reinstated his calm mask, but I saw it. It made me feel better about my decision. He wouldn’t have looked like that unless he’d lost something when I didn’t admit my guilt, and I didn’t think he had enough invested in my wellbeing to get that upset over me screwing myself.
“Your plea is noted,” said the man in the white robe, with an inscrutable smile. “Let a vote be taken by those present to determine whether it is convincing, or further investigation is needed.”
“I move to restrict the vote to the Conclave,” said the woman in the yellow robe. She was elderly, and looked vaguely Middle Eastern to me. “Conveying all the evidence associated with this accusation to all of those assembled would be impractical.”
“Seconded,” said Watcher, in her hoarse, raspy voice.
“Motion passed,” the man in white said, still smiling. “The vote shall be taken by the Conclave, rather than all members present. Are there any objections?”
The room went silent. I heard someone cough in the apprentices’ section at the back of the room.
“Very well,” he said. “I am Prophet. I vote that the jarl be held guilty. The accusation was placed by a member in good standing, and the jarl’s claims of innocence ring hollow in the face of his reputation for violence. Guard, how do you vote?”
“Guilty,” he said. “The jarl is known to be a man of war, and has shown little regard for the law in the past. This murder is well within his capabilities. Caller, how do you vote?”
Caller grinned at me. “Innocent,” he said, his voice marked with the same Spanish accent as the last time I’d heard him. “Winter has acted to support the balance of power in the past. I believe him when he says that he did not behave in such a disruptive way as he has been accused of on this occasion. Keeper, how do you vote?”
“Innocent,” the woman in the yellow robe said. “The accused has acted to assist the Conclave in the past. His actions were instrumental in returning several artifacts to my keeping. Guide, how do you vote?”
“Guilty,” said the heavyset Asian woman in green. “He has killed those under my care in the past, and while those killings were lawful, they speak poorly for his character. Walker, how do you vote?”
The slender, young-looking woman in the blue robe smiled at me. Her teeth were very white, but still looked dingy next to the snowy tone of her skin. “Innocent,” she said, with what sounded like a Russian accent. “My contacts speak well of the accused, and I have no reason not to believe his claim. Maker, how do you vote?”
The man I’d known as Alexander Hoffman glowered at me. “Innocent,” he said, sounding more than a little grudging. “I’ve worked with this man. Taught him most of what he knows. Kid’s a bit dim, but he isn’t stupid enough to do something like this. Watcher, how do you vote?”
I relaxed a little. I had four votes in my favor, now, and my strongest supporter was still coming up. I was pretty sure they were going on a simple majority, which meant that I should be okay. For the first time since I saw Scáthach’s letter, I was feeling like everything might turn out all right.
It was only natural, then, that the first word out of Watcher’s mouth was, “Guilty.”