Monthly Archives: April 2015

Unclean Hands 9.19

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The next several days passed in a blur. My routine was very simple. I woke up at dawn every morning, more out of habit than anything; with no windows I couldn’t see the sun, and the lights in my cell never went off. I exercised for about an hour, at which point it was time for breakfast. “Breakfast,” it turned out, was a sort of imitation egg that appeared to have been made from a powdered mix, served with white bread. To say that it tasted like shit would be an insult to shit.


After breakfast, I spent some time looking through the eyes of various animals, keeping myself abreast of what was going on in the area. At first I was limited to the streets around the police station, but it didn’t take long for me to fix that. They had the place closed down to keep me in isolation, after all, and while there were always some guards on site, that still left large sections of the building basically empty. With a little bit of guidance from me, those areas were soon occupied by a pair of raccoons, an adolescent fox, and quite a number of rats. They left to get food on a regular basis—apparently prison food was too bad even for their standards—but they came back for the promise of easy shelter.


Checking up on conditions inside and outside the building kept me busy until lunch, which was a sandwich of the driest meat I’d ever seen pressed between more white bread, mushy peas, and powdered milk that had been reconstituted with considerably too much water. Once I’d choked that down, I didn’t have much to do with myself, so I mostly paced until dinnertime.


Dinner, somehow, managed to be even less pleasant than the other meals. Apparently it consisted of whatever happened to be left over from the previous day mashed together, scraped into a pan, and baked until it had the approximate consistency of shoe leather. Vile did not begin to describe the result.


Once that was done with, I laid down on the mattress and tossed and turned until exhaustion was sufficient to overcome the effects of nausea and those goddamn lights which never turned off. I wouldn’t have expected that to bother me nearly as much as it did. Finally I managed to drift off to a restless, fitful sleep.


Around six hours later, the cycle began again.


I kept meticulous track of the days, mostly just to keep myself grounded in the passage of time. Thus, I knew that it had been five days since Alan’s visit when a pair of guards approached the cell again. Aside from the silent man who brought my meals three times a day and then returned later to take the tray, they were the first people I’d seen since that visit.


“Hi,” I said, looking at them closely. I didn’t think I’d seen either of them before, although I recognized both from my routine surveillance of the area. “What’s up?”


“You have a visitor,” one of them said. Her voice was rough, and even by comparison to the other guards she seemed unfriendly. “Let’s go.”


Which was suspicious and weird as hell, but by this point, I was so glad to get out of that damn cell that I didn’t care. I felt almost cheerful as I followed them back to the same interrogation room as before. This time they handcuffed my wrists to the table before leaving. I had enough room to lean back comfortably, but lifting my arms more than a few inches from the table was impossible.


Maybe five minutes later, just when a person might be wondering if they were being left there to rot, the door opened again and a youngish man walked in. Luckily one of my rats had been close enough to overhear most of the conversation between him and the chief of police outside, so I really wasn’t concerned about the wait.


“Good morning, Mr. Wolf,” he said, smiling. It was a charming smile, but there was something almost plastic about it. It very much gave the impression that he was smiling not out of any real feeling, but because he knew it was a charming smile and he wanted me to be charmed.


“Good morning,” I said. “And please, call me Winter.”


“All right, Winter,” he said, sitting down opposite me. “My name’s Mike.”


“So what did you want to talk about?” I asked, smiling. My smile was probably less charming than his. I’m not really very good at charming smiles.


“I thought we could chat, maybe get to know you a little.”


“Ah,” I said. “So…you’re not with my lawyer or you’d have said so off the bat, you’re not hostile enough to be with the cops, you aren’t smooth enough to be a real interrogator. I’d be inclined to guess district attorney or something like that…but no, they would have a more aggressive opening too. The first thing you mention is wanting to know more about me, which suggests your job is to provide information. So…I’m guessing you’re a psychologist?”


He didn’t say anything, but his smile slipped a little. I grinned. “Hey, I got it right,” I said cheerfully.


There were times when it was really nice to hear conversations you aren’t present for. The rat hadn’t been able to hear every word they said, but it had been enough for me to make some educated guesses—which, in turn, let me do a really great Sherlock impression. Which might not be useful, but the expression on his face was priceless.


“Why would you think that I’m a psychologist?” he asked, trying to regain his composure.


I shrugged, the motion made somewhat awkward by the cuffs. “It makes sense if my lawyer’s considering an insanity plea,” I said. “Which might not be a bad idea, really.”


“Why would that be a good idea?”


I snorted. “Have you read my file, doc?”


“Yes,” he admitted. “It looks like you were diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia, and paranoid personality disorder. The psychologist at the time also made a note regarding the possibility of antisocial personality disorder, but since you were underage, it wasn’t diagnosed.”


“See?” I said, shrugging again. “If you’ve got a history like that, and you’ve got a list of charges like mine, ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ starts to sound pretty tempting. Sure, it’s a long shot, but what isn’t?”


“Do you feel that you’re insane, then?”


“I don’t know. Define insanity.”


“To be legally insane, you would have to either not know what you were doing, or not realize that what you were doing was wrong.”


“Ah,” I said. “And…how would I go about proving those?”


“We aren’t talking about proof right now,” he said. “I just want to know what you think.”


“Okay,” I said, grinning. “Starting with the first one, you right away run into problems with definitions again. Do I have to not know what I’m doing, or can I know what I’m doing but be wrong? Like, if I based my decision on information that seemed legit at the time, but turned out to be wildly inaccurate?”


“That would qualify,” he said. “But only if the reason you thought that information was accurate had to do with your mental illness.”


I thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “In that case, I guess I do qualify. There have definitely been times when I thought someone was out to get me, but it turned out to be baseless. That’s pretty typical for paranoids, right?”


“That’s a common symptom,” he agreed. “Would you mind giving me some examples?”


I hesitated. “It depends. This is all confidential, right? Off the record?”


“That’s right,” he confirmed. “Let’s take a look at the first crime you’re charged with, since your lawyer told me you aren’t planning to fight that one. Apparently you murdered your girlfriend?”


“I told him,” I said irritably. “I didn’t kill her, I just knew that it was happening.”


“It’s okay,” he said soothingly. “I’m not asking you to confess to anything. I just want to know whether, in your opinion, that was one of the situations we’re talking about.” I was a little surprised, but his voice actually did calm me down a little bit. Guy was good at his job, I had to give him that.


“Okay,” I said. “Yeah, that’s one of them. I thought she was out to get me—which she was, in a way, but in hindsight I don’t think she could have done anything about it.”


“I see,” he said. “And is that why you killed her?”


“I didn’t kill her,” I repeated. “And if you think repeating the question is going to change my answer, you’re wrong.” I paused and took a deep breath before continuing. “Anyway, yes, that’s part of why I let it happen. She’d also upset a pretty major organization, and I knew that if I tried to protect her they’d just come after me, too. So I don’t really think of it as letting her die, so much as choosing not to die with her.”


“I see,” he repeated. “And this organization, can you tell me a little more about them? Do you think they’re still out to get you?”


“No,” I said. “No, we’re on pretty good terms. I think we are, anyway; they might be a little upset that I got myself arrested. They frown on that.”


He considered me for a moment. “I hate to ask this,” he said at last, and I got the impression that he might actually be telling the truth. “But are you tailoring your answers to fit the diagnosis?”


“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “I mean, I know I’d probably say that either way, but I’m really not. Honestly, I just don’t care enough to bother.”


“Why not?”


I shrugged. “If they find me guilty, they’ll put me in a prison for the rest of my life. If they say I’m insane, they’ll put me in an asylum for the rest of my life. It doesn’t really make much of a difference. Either way, it’s a cage. I don’t like cages.”


“But in an asylum, you could get treatment.”


I snorted. “In my experience, psychiatry is a massive waste of time for everyone involved. No offense.”


“I see,” he said. “Would that also be why you stopped taking your medications several years ago?”


“Oh. Heh. I actually forgot about those. Yeah, I actually stopped quite a while before I dropped the prescription. It must have been almost twenty years now? Yeah.”


“May I ask why?”


“Sure,” I said. “They weren’t doing any good. The antidepressants made me feel worse, and the antipsychotics just made me feel ill.”


“I see,” he said again. “Would you consider trying them again if I wrote a prescription for you? They’ve made great strides in the drug development world since you last tried them. I think you’ll find that your experiences this time are much more positive than before.”


I shrugged. “Sure, if you want. I wouldn’t count on it.”


“Okay,” he said, standing. “I’ll clear it with the police and we’ll see what we can do. Thanks for your time, Winter.”


“No problem,” I said. “Oh, and Dr. Buckley?” He paused and turned back towards me. I grinned. “I just wanted to apologize,” I said. “In case this whole thing reflects poorly on you, afterward.”


I could see it when he realized that he’d never told me his last name. He shivered, just a little, and then turned and left, closing the door behind himself more forcefully than was strictly necessary.


I grinned and leaned back in my chair, waiting for the guards to come back and collect me. It can be very nice to overhear conversations without being present.


With that in mind, I relaxed and let myself drift. The rat I’d been using previously had moved on, but the fox was napping in the room upstairs. It’s ears were plenty sharp enough to catch the conversation going on below it.


“He’s definitely crazy,” the psychologist was saying. “But it’s a really odd sort of crazy. Like, he’s very polite, friendly, pleasant—and still makes it clear he could kill you as easily as look at you.”


“Aren’t you people supposed to have fancy words for that sort of thing?” the police chief replied, sounding amused.


“Would you understand them if I did?” There was a brief pause. “Anyway, I’m going to have some antipsychotics sent in. Try putting them in his food or something, we’ll see if they seem to help.”


“Did he consent to that?”


“Yeah. But I don’t know if he’d actually take them, if you just give him the pills.”


I smiled, and didn’t argue when the guards came in to escort me back to my cell.


Days passed, first at a crawl and then in a blur. I took to spending more and more time outside my body, drifting between other minds at will. Sometimes I spent hours as a passive observer in a single cat’s mind, following the slow stalk of a rodent. Other times I flitted from one animal to the next, barely taking in a single glimpse before moving on, or else diffused myself across multiple animals, parsing the sensations and feelings I got from them into a single gestalt.


I continued to exercise on a regular basis, although I did so more or less on autopilot. I couldn’t do very much, in any case; everything from the elbows down ached by now from the silver. I was strangely fatigued all the time, and my immune system was suppressed to such an extent that I caught a cold for the first time since I became a werewolf. On the whole, leaving my body was a welcome escape.


Sometimes I ate the food they gave me, but more often I didn’t bother. Already terrible, it tasted even worse when compared to the flavors I was getting from other bodies. I tried to remember to eat at least once daily, but I often forgot to. At some point they started giving me better food, but by then it was too little, too late; they could have been serving my favorite meals fresh from a four-star restaurant and I probably wouldn’t have eaten them with any more regularity.


Occasionally I had visitors. The lawyer—Alan, his name was—dropped by every few days to check on me. I managed to carry on a conversation, but I knew that I was coming across as listless and distractible. I managed to pay just enough attention to learn that he had indeed begun an insanity defense, and the first hearing date had been set.


Probably because of that, more psychologists and psychiatrists visited, as well. I wasn’t sure whether the first one returned or not. I paid less attention in those conversations, letting myself drift more completely. Sometimes I replied when they asked me questions. Sometimes I didn’t.


Occasionally, although not as often as I’d have guessed, people tried to interrogate me. On those occasions, I said nothing at all, and left just enough of my awareness in my body that I could tell what was going on. Sometimes they played the good cop. Sometimes they tried screaming in my face, or walking around behind me while someone else talked. None of them got a reaction.


On three occasions a cop hit me, twice in the abdomen and once in the face. Another time someone tried to waterboard me during my weekly shower. I didn’t react to those, either; in comparison to some of what I’d been through, they just didn’t make an impression. I didn’t see any of those cops again, and from overheard conversations I gathered that they’d been harshly disciplined.


The strangest thing was that the hard part, for me, wasn’t the bad food, the isolation, the occasional interrogation. It wasn’t even the confinement.


No, the hard part was knowing that I could make it stop. Knowing that, at any given moment, I could say a word and it would all go away. Hell, I could probably think Loki’s name hard enough and he would come.


But I didn’t. I knew what the consequences would be. I knew what the price would be. If I made that choice, heads would roll.


I could handle it, I told myself. Normal people went through this all the time. I could handle it until my hearing.


Because, somewhere in that blur of time, I’d made a decision. I could wait until the hearing. I could do that. I could see how that went, what happened.


And after that? If they tried to put me back in a cage?


Heads were going to roll.

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Unclean Hands 9.18

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Maybe half an hour later, a pair of guards came in. I was pretty sure one was the same guy who’d searched me; the other was new. Both of them were armed, although they had pistols and Tasers rather than military-grade hardware.


“Hi,” I said. “What’s up?”


“Your lawyer got here,” the one I recognized said. “We’re taking you to meet with him.”


“Cool,” I said, standing and walking over to the door. They let me out and then escorted me down the hallway, up the stairs, and through a heavy steel door. They made it clear that any sudden movements on my part would not be appreciated, and I was very much aware of their presence flanking me. At least they didn’t feel a need to handcuff me for the walk.


Inside, I found myself in a small, sparse room. The only really notable features were a metal table bolted to the floor, a pair of battered wooden chairs at that table, and extremely obvious security cameras in the upper corners of the room. I’d expected there to be a mirror, with more cops watching from the other side, but apparently that had been phased out in favor of the cameras.


I sat in one of the chairs and the guards took up positions by the doors. Maybe a minute later, the door opened again and a guy in a suit walked in. He was maybe in his sixties, with a confident demeanor and steely gaze that suggested it would be wise not to underestimate him.


“Good morning,” he said. “I apologize for not getting here sooner. I didn’t hear about your arrest until this morning.” From his tone, and the way he looked at the two guards while he said it, I gathered he was rather offended by that.


“No worries,” I said easily. “I guess you wanted to talk to me?”


“Yes,” he said, looking at the guards. “Gentlemen, this is a confidential discussion with my client. I would appreciate it if you waited outside.”


The talkative guy frowned. “This man is dangerous,” he said. “He’s supposed to be under armed guard.”


“There’s only one exit from this room. You can wait at the end of the hall.”


“That would put you in danger,” the cop insisted stubbornly.


“I’ll take my chances. Oh, and turn off the cameras, too.”


They complied, albeit reluctantly, and the guy in the suit sat down across from me and set a paper bag on the table. From the smell of it, the bag had some kind of meat in it, which reminded me rather intensely that I hadn’t eaten since last night.


“Good morning, Mr. Wolf,” he said. “I brought you some breakfast, if you’d like.”


“Thanks,” I said, grabbing the bag without waiting to be told twice. “And call me Winter.”


He smiled. “You’re quite welcome. My name is Alan, by the way.”


“You aren’t quite how I pictured a public defender,” I said, my mouth already full of sandwich. It was pretty bad, a cheap steak sandwich from a fast food restaurant, and at that moment it tasted like heaven.


He pulled a clipboard out of his briefcase and set it on the table before replying, “Oh, I’m not a public defender. I work for a criminal defense firm here in the city.”


I paused. “Who hired you?” I found it a little hard to believe that an actual lawyer would have taken this case willingly.


“A pleasant young woman named Selene,” he said. “I was actually planning to retire at the end of the month, but this was simply too interesting to pass up on.” He smiled. “And also she paid cash.”


“Ah,” I said, relaxing a little. That explained it. Money could work wonders when it came to making people cooperative, not to mention that Selene was one of the more persuasive people I’d met. “That’s good, then.”


“That you have a personal lawyer, rather than a public defender?”


“And also that you’re about to retire. I can’t imagine representing me is the sort of thing that would be good for your career.”


He sighed. “I take it you aren’t optimistic about your chances, then.”


I snorted. “With what I’m accused of? No, not really.”


“Well, I suppose that’s our cue to move on to business,” he said dryly. “Did they tell you what you’re charged with?”


I shrugged. “Maybe. I might have been asleep for that part of the conversation.”


“All right,” he said, pulling a sheaf of papers out of his briefcase. “I’m going to just run down their list of charges, then. I want you to comment on whether they’re accurate. Don’t worry about whether they can prove it or not just yet; I just want your gut impression on whether the charges are true or not.”


I glanced at the cameras. “You sure that’s a good idea?” I asked. “They might be listening.”


He smiled. “I doubt it. They’re smart enough not to try and use evidence from a confidential discussion with your attorney.”


“Okay,” I said, shrugging. “You’re the expert.”


“Thank you. First up, premeditated murder of Catherine Lynch. Yes, no, maybe?”


I frowned. That was…something I hadn’t thought about in quite a while, actually. It was almost funny; for a long time I’d felt incredibly guilty about it, but now there was just a sort of quiet regret.


I supposed I had worse things on my conscience, now.


Alan was expecting an answer, though, so I nodded. “Sort of,” I said. “I didn’t kill her, but I knew it was happening.”


“Right,” he said, making a note on the paper. “If we can show that someone else did it, we might be able to talk that one down to a conspiracy charge. The evidence is fairly thorough, so I don’t know that we could get it dismissed entirely. Moving on, it looks like a charge of assault against a Jason Hoover.”


“I don’t know him.”


The lawyer looked at the paper. “He’s an inmate at a correctional facility,” he said. “Looks like he filed a report shortly before his arrest claiming that you threatened to, and I quote, ‘cut off his nose and feed it to a dog,’ end quote.”


“Oh,” I said. “That guy. Yeah, that one’s accurate. Does that count as assault? I thought you had to hit someone for that.”


“You’re thinking of battery,” he said absently, writing another note in his file. “Assault can cover any plausible threat of violence. Okay, I think that one we can probably get dismissed. It’s your word against his, and considering that he was convicted of hate crimes and complicity in numerous murder cases, his word isn’t so strong. Next up, voluntary manslaughter of Preston Balstad.”


“Who’s that?”


“Apparently he tried to rob a restaurant you were eating in. You threw a rock at him and killed him. They’re claiming it was unnecessary force that you knew to be in excess of what was needed to defend yourself.”


“Right, I remember that now. Yeah, that one’s accurate too.”


He nodded. “Again, I think that one can probably be dismissed. There are multiple witnesses agreeing that he stated his intent to kill people based on their membership in a social group, which means we can spin it as a hate crime. Under the circumstances we can probably get them to dismiss that as reasonable force for self-defense purposes. Next, we have the false imprisonment and premeditated murder of Olivia Robbins.”


“Guilty.” There wasn’t much more to say on that topic.


Alan seemed to agree with me, since he just nodded and made another note before flipping the page. “Continuing, we have…twenty-three counts of second degree murder, a few days later.”


I tried to figure out what he was talking about, and realized it must be when I took down Jon. He’d had a lot of human mercenaries with him, and while I’d tried not to kill them, I hadn’t had that much choice.


“Guilty,” I said. “For some of them. Not sure how many. How do they even know about this?”


He looked at the paper. “It looks like they have testimony from an undercover police officer,” he said. “Someone named Enrico Rossi? Frankly, I doubt they’ll even bother prosecuting this. All they have is testimony from one person who can’t appear as a witness. No actual evidence.”


I didn’t care. This was…well, further evidence that the man I’d been friends with really was just there to take me down. Not very pleasant to hear.


“Next, we have one count of arson on the same day.”


“Yeah,” I said.


“Again, they don’t have much evidence linking you to it. Next, the premeditated murder of the same officer, Enrico Rossi.”


“That was a suicide,” I said, unable to keep some of the anger from entering my voice. “I wouldn’t have killed him.”



“All right. It does look suspicious, however, in light of comments he made to his supervisors. Moving on, there’s an obstruction of justice charge a short time later. Something about falsely reporting a hostage situation?”


“Yeah,” I said. “Did it, didn’t think anything would come of it.” I frowned. “I didn’t make the call, though. How do they know I had anything to do with that?”


He scanned the paper. “It doesn’t specify,” he said. “We can press them on that, if it comes to it. They’ll probably drop the charge. Next, tampering with evidence in a murder trial.”


“Yeah. I took it from storage. It was…yeah.”


He nodded. “All right. Next, premeditated murder with extreme brutality of Erica Reilly.”


“Didn’t do it,” I said.


“That might be difficult to demonstrate,” Alan said mildly. “Considering that there are multiple reports suggesting that you claimed otherwise at the time.”


I winced. In hindsight, getting on Pellegrini’s good side seemed…less than worth it.


“Continuing,” he said briskly. “We have twelve counts of second degree murder. The bodies were found in a house in northern Colorado Springs, dead from a wide variety of causes.”


It took a moment to figure out what he was talking about. The only thing I could think of was the house full of rakshasas and their slaves, which de Sousa had wiped out. For once, I hadn’t had anything to do with it. “I didn’t do that one,” I said.


Alan looked at me doubtfully. “This is the only one where they have DNA evidence to support it,” he said gently. “The chances of you getting out of it are…very slim.”


I shrugged. “That’s fine. I’m just saying, I didn’t do it. I honestly have no idea why my DNA would have been there.”


He nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Moving on, it looks like…thirty-six counts of extortion, over a period ranging from shortly after those murders up until the present.”


“A protection racket,” I explained, feeling almost grateful to hear one that I could clearly place. “Although I should point out that all of them volunteered.”


“Right,” he said, making another note. “And…it looks like that brings us up to the big one. Three counts of domestic terrorism, two around a year and a half ago and one last week.”


I blinked. “That’s all?” I asked. “I was expecting they’d hit me with, like, a thousand murder charges for that or something.”


Alan sighed. “Mr. Wolf—Winter—I don’t think you entirely grasp the magnitude of what you’re dealing with. The minimum sentence for even one conviction of premeditated murder is life in prison. That’s the minimum sentence. Considering the number of charges against you, I think there’s a very real possibility of capital punishment. I would strongly recommend you take this seriously.”


“Oh, I am,” I assured him. “I just think it’s funny. Did they just get tired of writing out murder charges or something? Oh,” I added as an afterthought, “and also I didn’t do that. The terrorism bit, I mean.”


“I believe you. But considering the amount of evidence they have, and the fact that you’ve avoided arrest for so long, it’s questionable whether anyone else will.” He looked over the papers again, then folded them and put them back in his briefcase. “It looks like that’s everything,” he said. “Now, as your attorney, may I offer you some advice?”


I shrugged. “You’re the expert. Why hire an expert you aren’t going to listen to?”


He smiled. “You’d be surprised how many people do. Anyway, Winter, I would advise you to seriously consider plea bargaining. I’m confident that I can get you off of many of these charges, but the ones I might not be able to are among the more serious. If you take the plea bargain, you can probably get your sentence reduced to life imprisonment without parole. If it goes to a jury trial, there’s a very good chance that you’ll get the death penalty.”


“No offense, but that sounds considerably more pleasant than life in prison.”


“If you’re sure,” he said. “It’s your choice. Anyway, I’m going to consult with some of the partners at my firm and see if we can come up with another option. In the meantime, I strongly recommend you think about what I said.”


Maybe half an hour later, I was lying on the mattress in my cell. There was still nobody around, although any illusion of privacy was ruined by the cameras. There was the constant feeling of being watched, as though there were someone looking over my shoulder.


Still, there was something different right then. I still felt like being watched, but all of a sudden there was also the feeling of presence, like I wasn’t alone anymore.


It was a vague feeling, but I hadn’t lived this long by ignoring vague feelings. I immediately froze and looked around the room, trying to find any slight anomalies.


It only took a couple seconds to figure out what it was. There was a presence in the air, something I couldn’t see or hear, but which smelled like magic in the gentle tones of a morning breeze passing through the forest.


“Hello,” I said, looking its general direction. I was tensed now, ready to move. Air spirits were generally harmless, but I’d rather not take chances under the circumstances. “Do you have something to tell me?”


The spirit’s mind brushed gently against mine, conveying meaning and ideas without really shaping it into words. I got an image of Aiko—not a visual image, per se, more a summary description of who she was, her shape, her scent, the way her magic felt as it brushed against the air spirit. I felt frustration, regret, disgust. I got an impression of freedom, and then a sense of offering, of question.


I thought for a moment and then returned the idea of negation, rejection, refusal. I added feelings of caution, patience, and confidence, then topped it off with another sense of question, of request. This last was directed to the air spirit specifically, requesting that it return my reply to Aiko.


It hovered there for a moment longer, then vanished. It was hard to be sure whether it would do what I’d asked—air spirits are flighty, and almost mindless—but I suspected it would. Air spirits tend to do what Aiko asks them to.


If I got lucky, she might not decide to break me out anyway. At the moment, that seemed like a bad idea.


If I got even luckier, I wouldn’t regret asking her not to.

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Interlude 7.b: Axel Schneider

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I was a little nervous as I knocked on the door. Okay, I was more than just a little nervous, and I’d have been lying if I said I wasn’t. An apartment building was a hell of an odd place for an interview, and it wasn’t the only odd thing about this, either. Everything about it stank.


But what could you do? I’d been looking for weeks, and there was no other work to be had as a psychologist. There was no other work to be had, period. I’d gotten by on savings, odd jobs, and little bit of help from friends, but that couldn’t last forever. It was already November, and it was shaping up to be a cold winter. I couldn’t lose my apartment now.


And, whatever my misgivings, they were offering good money. Too good money, that was part of the problem; when a job pays that kind of money, there’s a reason for it. But beggars can’t be choosers, so I’d put aside my doubts and applied.


And now I was knocking on the door, and trying not to feel like I’d made the wrong choice.


“Come in,” a woman said after a moment. I complied, and found myself in a small, dimly lit room. The only person there was a woman sitting on an old stool who stared at me as I walked in the door, and for a moment I thought I must have gotten the wrong apartment.


Then I noticed how she was staring. It wasn’t a look of surprise, or confusion, but rather appraisal, as though I were a horse she was considering purchasing. “So you are Dr. Schneider,” she said in German. “You seem young for a man of your credentials.”


“Yes ma’am,” I replied. “I graduated from university this year.”


“I am aware. I trust you will not argue if this interview is conducted in German, rather than English?”


“No ma’am,” I said, trying to hide my relief. One of the few things I knew about this job was that they wanted someone fluent in English, and I wouldn’t have even applied if I weren’t. But I was just as grateful that I could do the interview in my native language.


From her shrewd smile, I didn’t think my gratitude had gone unnoticed. “Good,” she said. “Looking over your record, it shows that you did your time in the military.”


“I served my nation and the Party, ma’am,” I said, somewhat stiffly. Better to be thought stiff than indifferent, on that particular topic.


“Yes, yes,” she said, in a tone of barely veiled boredom. I was somewhat taken aback by that. I didn’t feel terribly strongly about national loyalty, but it wasn’t wise to do anything that could be construed as unpatriotic. No one smart wanted to be labeled a dissident.


“Continuing,” she said, before I could decide how or even if I should respond. “Were you injured during your service?” The last word had a touch of bite to it, almost of mockery. She was pushing the boundary of what could be said safely, and it made me nervous. You never knew who might be listening.


But I still really needed this job, so I bit back my first reply. “I broke my shoulder, ma’am,” I said instead, struggling to keep my composure. Something about this woman, her confident demeanor, was deeply off-putting.


“Residual injury? Something that would impair you physically?”


“No ma’am. Nothing like that.”


“Good,” she said, making a small note in her file. “And it doesn’t look like you have any dependents?”


“No ma’am.”


“Good,” she said again, making another note. “We would require you to travel frequently. Very frequently, both in and out of the country.”


“I don’t have an exit visa.” Leaving the country, even briefly, wasn’t an easy thing to arrange. They were scared you wouldn’t come back.


She waved one hand dismissively. “That isn’t a concern. Is the travel a problem otherwise?”


“No ma’am,” I said, thinking furiously. There was a very limited list of people who could disregard the absence of a visa that casually. Very limited. And even then, most of them wouldn’t invest that much in someone they hadn’t even hired yet.


She was Stasi, she had to be. Who else would do something like that? And it would explain why she wasn’t concerned about being reported for sedition, too. Why worry about someone listening in on you when you were the one who did the listening?


I tried not to think about what the Stasi would want a psychologist for. It wasn’t easy. Some of those images were…not the sort of thing you could just forget.


“Good,” she said with wintry smile. “Assuming you work out, I can have the visa next week. Now, I’m guessing you want to know a little more about what kind of work you’re going to be doing?”


I hesitated. On the one hand, I couldn’t really do the job without knowing, and that was obvious enough that I couldn’t pretend otherwise without seeming an idiot. On the other, if I did admit it, I was as good as asking for state secrets.


“Yes ma’am,” I said at last. Better to admit it, and she seemed the sort to appreciate bluntness.


“Good,” she said, still smiling. “I recently took over as the head of a certain group. My predecessors have traditionally been reluctant to hire outside help, but I’m something of a progressive. I think my people will keep their heads a little better with advice from an expert. Therapy, consultations, that sort of thing.”


I let my breath out and nodded. Not as bad as I’d thought, if she was telling the truth. “This organization,” I said. “Would it be affiliated with the government?”


The smile faded from her face. “Let’s just say,” she said, slowly and carefully, “that there isn’t an official relationship between us and the government. And let’s leave it at that. Yes?”


I nodded again. “Yes ma’am. I don’t think I have any other questions.”


She smiled again. “Excellent. So what do you say?”


It still stank, but I still needed the money, and there were worse things I could be doing. So I took a deep breath and said, “I’ll take the job.”


“Good. Someone will be by within the week to deliver the documents and introduce you to some people.”


“Thank you, ma’am.”


She smiled at me. “Call me Watcher,” she said, walking out the door.


Watcher was as good as her word. Within a few days I had an exit visa—or, more properly, several, in a variety of names. I had the passports to go with them. And, maybe most importantly, I’d met the people I was working for. There were five of them who I’d been told outranked me. If they gave me orders, I was to obey them unless they contradicted something Watcher had told me.


Much like Watcher herself, they seemed to have an aversion to actual names, preferring to go by odd monikers. Loophole was a tall, wiry man who spoke very good English, and apparently no German at all. Snake was shorter, more aggressive, and spoke both English and German with a thick Russian accent. Beast was muscular and apparently French, although her demeanor was much more pleasant than the name would suggest. Fox assured me that he was native Japanese, although his English was flawless. He was charming, in a gloomy sort of way, and I noticed that everyone seemed to like him.


And then there was Nobody. By far the most enigmatic of the group, he was an average-looking guy who always seemed to be wearing the same ill-fitting suit. I thought I’d heard him speak a total of ten words in the two days I spent with him. When I asked Beast about it later, she laughed and said that was typical of Nobody.


Everyone else was my equal as far as Watcher was concerned. Or rather, they weren’t—Beast and Loophole both made it very clear that I was the newest guy in the organization, and I’d be wise to remember that—but I wasn’t required to obey them. That was somewhat surprising to me. Considering that I wasn’t even a spy, I’d expected to be mocked and ridiculed, but instead everyone seemed to be treating me with a great deal of respect.


Over the next months, I eased into my new job. I soon learned that Watcher’s description of the travel involved was an understatement. I was in a new city almost every week, and not just in Germany, or even in Europe. No, I was expected to be in New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, Cape Town…the list went on, and that was in just a few months. Apparently I was supposed to meet with each person on their home ground, although even at the time I thought it odd that a German intelligence agency would be so very far-flung.


It was a pleasure working for them, though. It seemed that anything and everything I could want was easily obtained. I stayed in hotels when I traveled, and every expense was paid before I even checked in. I tentatively inquired about talking to some prominent psychologists who were developing novel methods of therapy, and a meeting was arranged within days.


All of which was very nice, but couldn’t quite distract me from the work itself. It wasn’t going well, to put it mildly. I’d met with about thirty of Watcher’s people by then, and I hadn’t been able to do a thing for any of them.


I almost wanted to write it off as inexperience, but I could see that the problem ran deeper than that. Almost everything they said was hesitant, and they regularly trailed off without finishing what they were saying. Every single one of them was talking around something, and that was making my job damn near impossible.


Granted, I’d expected that there would be things they wouldn’t want to say. I’d been hired to work as a shrink for a bunch of secret agents; it was a given that there would be secrets. But it’s one thing when there are topics you can’t discuss, and another when almost every sentence has a hole in it. You can’t even carry on a conversation like that, let alone build the kind of relationship a psychologist needed to have with his patients.


I wrestled with it for a week or two after I realized that it wasn’t getting better. It was risky to ask for more information—that was the kind of thing that made you look very much like a spy, and I had a strong suspicion that if they thought I was trying to spy on them I’d wind up in a ditch. But in the end I decided it was even riskier if they thought I was leeching on their generosity without doing my job, so I wrote a short letter asking for a meeting with Watcher. I thought this request might go over better in person.


Not that I knew where to send it. I hadn’t even seen Watcher since that first interview. So the next time Beast came to check up on me, after we’d gone over my instructions for the next week, I gave her the note and asked her to deliver it for me.


She took the letter, but didn’t leave. “You sure you want to do this?” she asked.


I hesitated. “Is it a bad idea?”


She shrugged and sighed. “It’s an idea. Good, bad, in between. We’ll see how it goes.” She reached out and patted me on the shoulder compassionately. “Don’t worry, Axel. I’m sure it will go over fine.”


I was less sanguine, especially after her initial reaction, but I still thought I was right about what was the smarter move. I tried to put it out of my mind. I went out and ate a nice dinner—paying out of pocket, although it had been made clear that this could also be written off as a business expense—before returning to my hotel room.


When I opened the door, I saw Watcher sitting in my room. The left half of her face was covered in claw marks, and her left eye was missing entirely. There was a cane leaning against her chair, as well, which she hadn’t brought to our last meeting.


“Good evening, Dr. Schneider,” she said.


“Good evening,” I replied, somewhat dumbfoundedly. I hadn’t expected a reply so soon, and I definitely hadn’t expected…this. “What happened to your face?”


Almost instantly, I wanted to kick myself. How idiotic did you have to be to ask that?


Watcher didn’t seem to care, though. “A dispute regarding leadership,” she said with a pleasant smile. “Which I won. What did you want to discuss?”


I took a deep breath and said, “Your people aren’t talking to me. I mean, they are, but there’s something they don’t want to talk about.”


“I’m aware,” she said mildly. “I gave very specific instructions on the topic.”


Watcher was clearly telling me to back off, but I’d come this far. “It isn’t working,” I said stubbornly. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I can’t do my job if the patient won’t talk to me.”


She regarded me for a long, long moment. The tension in the room was so thick you could cut it with an axe, never mind a knife.


Then she smiled. “You’re the expert,” she said. “But you should know that once you learn this, there’s no backing out. Not now, not ever. Not even if you quit working for me. Understood?”


I nodded, letting out a sigh of relief. “Understood.”


“Good. So let’s start small, then. Tell me, Dr. Schneider, do you believe in magic?”


The bus came to a stop and I jolted awake, sitting up straight. I joined the crowd filing off the bus, trying not to yawn. For once I wasn’t on business, but I still wanted to be at least somewhat alert.


I’d barely gotten out of the crowd when Beast fell in beside me. “Hey, Axel,” she said. “How’s it going?”


“It’s going,” I said, rubbing my eyes. Too little sleep recently. “How about you?”


Beast was silent for a moment, and I knew it was bad news. “Lost another one,” she said at last. “Shapeshifter, turned into a cat. They realized he was listening in, and….” She shrugged and dragged one finger across her throat.


“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I didn’t have to ask to know that they’d been friends. There weren’t many shapeshifters among the Watchers, and Beast was the best there was. Of course she’d known him.


It still seemed strange that I’d only known about this for half a year. It seemed like it should have taken longer than that to come to grips with the idea of magic. Oddly enough, though, being a scientist had made the transition considerably easier. I’d been trained to believe in induction and empirical evidence, and they’d presented plenty of that. Sure, it had seemed bizarre, but so was gravity when you thought about it. The universe wasn’t obligated to make sense.


“Enough about that,” Beast said with forced cheer. “Today’s supposed to be happy.” She grinned and slapped me on the back. “Happy birthday.”


I smiled and kept walking. The bar was only a block or so away, and we reached it pretty soon. Inside, there was already a fairly sizable group waiting for us. Loophole and Fox had both made time to come, as had maybe a dozen of the other Watchers.


Watcher herself wasn’t there, of course. I hadn’t seen her again, but from what I’d heard she had her hands full and then some trying to keep order. She’d made some unpopular decisions since taking over, being more restrictive and less willing to play politics, and the mage clans hadn’t liked it.


It was a good night, food and laughter and embarrassing stories for years to come. It was in a sense my induction into the Watchers, one of the guys despite not having any magic to call my own, and the festivities were appropriately grand. And later, when the party was breaking up and the bar was closing and Beast suddenly leaned over and kissed me, I was just drunk enough to return it.


It was a good night.


It didn’t take long after that for me to start breaking the Watchers problems down into two basic groups. The first was pretty normal. They were battered, worn down by a life of stress, violence, and paranoia, but they were still fairly normal. I worked on them with cognitive techniques, and in quite a few cases prescribed drugs, mostly antidepressants and sleeping aids. Quite a few of them were addicts, relying on alcohol or narcotics to quiet the memories of what they’d seen and done, and I ended up starting a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous group. It wasn’t perfect, but they were essentially normal psychiatric patients, and I did a passable job of helping them.


The other problems, though…they were a little different. Because they weren’t problems, not really. I wasn’t supposed to cure their paranoia, violent tendencies, and borderline psychopathy. Because too often, those were the only things that kept them alive.


For those, all I could really do was listen. Some of the Watchers were reluctant to discuss topics like that, and I didn’t push them. Most, though, seemed to actually find relief in telling me stories. It became something of a contest to shock me with them. This man had poisoned a teenage girl once; he’d tried to poison her father but she ate the soup that was meant for him. That one had roasted a suspect alive during an interrogation. A woman admitted that she’d allowed a vampire free reign over the slums of New Orleans in exchange for information.


After another several months of this, when I’d done all of the actual therapy that I felt I could, I wrote another letter to Watcher. Loophole passed this one along, since Watcher moved around so much that it might be weeks before she checked in at any of the addresses I had for her.


I hadn’t seen Beast for weeks, although we were still together. Shapeshifters were one of the most versatile tools in Watcher’s arsenal, capable of both spying and holding their own in a fight, and as a result Beast was always busy overseeing operations or taking to the field herself. Between that and how much time I spent traveling, our relationship was very much one of days or hours snatched where we could find them.


It was almost a week, this time, before Watcher found time to talk to me. She approached me in a restaurant while I was getting lunch on the way to my next flight.


“Dr. Schneider,” she said, and I could only admire her ability to remain polite under such intense stress. “What is it?”


“You don’t need a psychologist,” I said bluntly. Neither of us had time to waste on idle chatter. “Not for half these people, anyway. You need a priest. Half these people just want to confess things.”


She sighed. “That was my first idea,” she agreed. “But there’s something you’re overlooking.”




“Yes,” she said, sounding very weary. “In this profession, you do a lot of things you’d rather not share with God. A lot of things. It’s easier to admit to a psychologist.” It didn’t sound like she was speaking in hypotheticals.


I nodded slowly, and fled the restaurant as quickly as I could.


I closed my eyes, grimaced, opened them again. My head hurt. My back hurt. I’d spent hours in this chair, and it wasn’t a comfortable chair, either. Not to mention that I had another job coming up, something that I hadn’t done before.


Hard to believe three years had happened so quickly. But that was the way of time, I supposed.


Hours later I was sitting in my hotel room. It was a familiar room; I’d been to this cheap hotel more times than I wanted to remember. London wasn’t my favorite city, but it was one of the Watchers’, and that meant I visited often.


It was late and I knew I should be sleeping, but I could also tell that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. I spent my time looking over the dossier for the man I was going to meet in the morning instead. If I couldn’t sleep, I could at least use the time productively.


His name was Michael Sheridan, age sixteen, American. He’d fallen in with a bad crowd and gotten involved with vaguely specified criminal activities. Eventually one of his buddies went too far and killed someone, and Sheridan had decided to report it to the Watchers. How he knew to contact the Watchers wasn’t specified. It wasn’t important.


What was important was what happened next. They’d gone in to shut the gang down, only to find that it was being sponsored by someone else. I didn’t know who that someone was, only that they were highly placed within the mage clans. As a result, the gang had far more knowledge and equipment than had been expected.


Snake had been leading the team personally, which was probably the only reason things hadn’t turned into an absolute disaster. As it was there were three Watchers in the hospital, and most of the kids had been killed in the fight. Sheridan claimed that he hadn’t known anything about what they were planning.


I would have been suspicious of that, but apparently Loophole had examined him and it was true. I wasn’t going to argue with that. Loophole was old—older, now—but he was still one of the best telepaths the Watchers had. If he said the kid was telling the truth, the kid was telling the truth.


Which made it problematic that he wanted to join the Watchers. It was suspicious, and even if he hadn’t set us up he might have been damaged by his association with the gang. At the same time, though, the Watchers couldn’t afford to turn anyone down right now.


I knew that as well as anyone. An awful lot of the people I was accustomed to talking with had stopped showing up to their sessions recently. Even Beast had been found in an alley in Shanghai last week, riddled with bullets. It hadn’t been enough to kill a shapeshifter of her caliber, thank God, but it would be a while before she was up and walking again.


And Watcher wanted me to screen Sheridan before they let him join. A potentially valuable, potentially disastrous kid wanted to sign up to help fight the bad guys, and I was the one who was supposed to make the call.


Good God. No wonder I couldn’t sleep.


The next morning I walked into the restaurant five minutes early. He was already there, which surprised me a little. I wasn’t accustomed to young people showing up early. Hell, I certainly hadn’t when I was his age.


“Good morning,” I said, sliding into the booth opposite him. The photo in the dossier had been generally accurate, although he was wearing a dress shirt and slacks rather than jeans and leather. “You’re Michael, correct?”


“Mike,” he said, eyeing me suspiciously. “And you are?”


“My name is Axel Schneider,” I said, smiling. “You can call me Axel or Dr. Schneider, whichever you prefer. Would you like some food?”


He hesitated, then nodded. I waved a waitress over and he ordered a full English breakfast.


I was sticking to coffee. My stomach was still in knots over what had happened to Beast, never mind my own work.


“Okay, Mike,” I said. “I’m guessing you know why I’m here.”


“Yeah. You’re the one who decides if I get in, right?”


“Essentially, although I should stress that I’m just one opinion. Now, could you tell me a little about why you want to join the Watchers?”


He shrugged. “I fucked up,” he said simply. “I mean, big time. I got people killed. This seems like a good way to try and make up for that, you know?”


“Right,” I said. “You feel it’s your fault that people died, then?”


“I don’t know,” he said, sounding uncomfortable. “I mean, I didn’t do it, so I guess not? But it feels like it was. Like I should have been, I don’t know. Better.”


“You regret joining that gang, then.”


“Yeah,” he said, then a moment later, “no. I don’t know. It was the right decision at the time, I guess. But I regret the way it ended.”


“How was it the right decision?”


“Well, I’ve got this power, right? And I figured the only real options are to spend the rest of my life wondering whether I’m crazy, or learn something about it. Figure out what it is, how it works.”


I nodded. “So you joined them because it was a place you could fit in? Come to terms with your power and what it could do?”


“Yeah. You could say that.” He grinned weakly. “They actually made a lot of fun of me about it. They’re throwing fireballs and stopping bullets, and all I can do is move water around. But I guess I learned quite a bit, really.”


“Right,” I said. “So tell me the truth. Do you really want to join the Watchers to help people? Or is it because we’re the best source you have for learning how to control your magic?”


He squirmed under my gaze, looking at the floor. “A little of both,” he admitted.


I’d been planning on recommending against letting him in, but that line changed my mind. I’d seen plenty of Watchers who’d signed up to help people. By and large they had pretty serious problems—depression, guilt, stress disorders. They wanted to do good and it hit them hard when they realized that most of what the Watchers did wasn’t very good at all.


Somebody who wanted power, on the other hand?


That was worth considering.


I was a little surprised when Loophole sent me a message asking me to meet him in New York. I hadn’t seen him in years; Watcher had long since recognized that I didn’t need babysat. I mostly set my own schedule anymore.


I was more surprised when I found the designated meeting place, and Watcher was there too.


“Dr. Schneider,” she said. “It’s nice to see you again.”


I wondered whether that was supposed to be a joke. Her other eye had been destroyed a few months earlier, when she was caught in a sorcerer’s fire spell. My understanding was that she’d come very, very close to being killed.


“Watcher,” I said. “What’s going on?”


She sighed, and gestured me to follow her. Loophole walked beside us, although I wasn’t sure why he was here if Watcher wanted something. “We need you to do something,” she said. “Something a little…unusual.”


“Unusual how?” I asked warily.


“A few days ago one of our teams was attacked by a group of rogue mages,” Loophole explained. “Very dangerous people. They’re wanted for quite a few crimes. They managed to get away, but we caught one.”


“So track them down.”


He grimaced. “We can’t. I was trying to get information out of her for hours yesterday. Got nowhere. She’s got unusually strong mental discipline.”


“And you want me to get her to talk?” I asked, incredulous. “That’s…really not my specialty.”


“You’re the best we have,” Watcher said. “At this point you’re probably the closest thing there is to a psychologist specialized in mages. If you could analyze her, come up with anything useful, it would be more than we have now.”


I took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll try.”


They were keeping her in a disused section of the subway—or, rather, their own addition to that disused section. It had been carved out of bedrock and reinforced with magic, and you’d need a high-yield bomb to get through.


Before I could go inside, the two attendants made me put on a protective suit of some kind. It was fully enclosed, with panels of Kevlar on the chest and back. It was awkward, uncomfortable, and hard to move in. It was also probably a good idea.


I stepped inside the containment area and found myself in a surprisingly large room, maybe ten meters to a side. A chain-link fence divided the small strip I was standing in from the rest of the room, which contained a bed, toilet, and not a whole lot else.


Except, of course, for the prisoner.


Even forewarned by Loophole, I was a little taken aback by her appearance. She was hunched over, her arms too long for her body, her fingers too long for her arms and tipped with claws. The result resembled an ape more than a human.


“Good morning,” I said, loudly enough to be sure she heard me from across the room. “Could I talk to you for a few minutes?”


She crossed the room faster than I would have thought possible, pressing up against the fence. “Talk,” she snarled. “Talk about what?”


“I’m here to see if I can convince you to cooperate with us,” I said mildly.


She stayed where she was for a moment, then frowned and backed away from the fence slightly. “You aren’t scared,” she said. “Most people get scared when I do that.”


“My wife is a shapeshifter,” I said. “And I routinely work with people who’ve undergone extreme body modifications. I promise that you aren’t the strangest-looking person I’ve known.”


She snorted. “Yeah, I’ll bet. So why should I cooperate?”


“Well, obviously there’s the possibility of more pleasant accommodations. I don’t know whether you could be released entirely, but I’m certainly willing to try. Other than that, you’d have to tell me what you want.”


“Do you know why I look like this?” she asked, changing mental gears with a rapidity that suggested those gears might be a little stripped.


“My understanding is that the leader of your group alters new recruits,” I said. “Making them physically stronger as well as changing their appearance.”


“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “You know any way to fix that?”


I sighed. “No. But as I said, there are stranger-looking people out there. I think it’s very possible that you could come to terms with your appearance and find some measure of acceptance.”


She stared at me, then snorted. “You’re trying to shrink me.”


“That’s my job,” I agreed.


She sighed. “Look, even if I wanted to help you I couldn’t. I don’t know where they are or what they’re doing now.”


“Could you tell me anything about why?” I asked. “Even a little might help.”


“Maybe it’s because they’re fucking crazy,” she said dryly. “You’re a shrink, right? You ever wonder why they needed to hire you so much?”


“It’s an extremely stressful profession.”


“Yeah, but there’s something else,” she said, grinning. It was an intimidating grin. “Something everybody knows but nobody ever talks about. See, magic makes you crazy. You know what my power, my gift is?”




“I feel emotions,” she said. “I feel them, I recognize them, and I change them.” She paused. “Most people are afraid when they hear that,” she commented.


“I’ve seen scarier things,” I said. “Honestly, that sounds quite useful. It would make my job much easier.”


“Yeah, I bet. It wouldn’t make your life easier, though. See, I know what everyone’s feeling, all the time. You know how hard that makes it to have a conversation? You know how hard it is to make friends when everyone knows you can make them feel however you want?”


“No,” I said. “Honestly, I can’t begin to imagine. But I can say that if what you want is a place to belong, my organization is probably the best you could do.”


“Fine,” she whispered. “Send your people in. I’ll help if I can.”


Later, lying in bed, I found myself thinking back on that conversation. Beast was long since asleep, snoring loudly beside me, but I couldn’t get it out of my head.


Magic makes you crazy.


It made a certain amount of sense. The power, the sensations, the experiences it allowed you to have…the human mind wasn’t really equipped to cope with that. I could see it doing some damage.


I looked at my wife and wondered whether that applied to her. And, if so, how. The prisoner had been emotional, prone to mood swings and obsessed with the idea of companionship, but I’d also seen mages who were megalomaniacal, emotionally dead, or completely withdrawn from the world. Clearly there were a number of ways it could affect a person.


Even after years of marriage, I still called her Beast. That was probably a bit of a hint that she was, if not insane, certainly not a normal human being.


But hell. Even crazy people need friends.

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Unclean Hands 9.17

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Okay. So things were…not good, on a variety of levels. Assuming they were here for me, specifically, and considering how they’d gone about it so far I thought that was a safe assumption, I had a very limited amount of time to think. They wouldn’t wait long before jumping right to the excessive force stage of handling an uncooperative criminal.


I put my hands in the air, mostly just to keep them happy while I ran through the options in my head. Fighting was a bad idea. Even if I wanted to fight the cops, which I sorta didn’t, it was a bad move. They’d had time to move people into position, and I believed them when they said I was surrounded. I was wearing armor, sure, but not a helmet, and I was guessing they’d brought the big guns. Anti-materiel rifles with armor-piercing rounds would probably do the job. Or, hell, they might have rocket launchers.


Running wasn’t a whole lot better. If I tried to bolt, I was guessing the snipers would start shooting, and I didn’t want to trust my luck against that. Not to mention the whole rocket launcher thing. It wouldn’t matter if I was invisible if they had those.


Which, I supposed, only left…actually playing along and letting them arrest me.


I briefly reconsidered getting exploded instead, then sighed. “Run,” I said to Aiko, keeping my hands in the air.


She opened her mouth, and I could tell she wasn’t about to agree, so I cut her off. “Run,” I said again, more forcefully. “We can’t win this, and it’ll be a lot easier if they only find one of us.”


She obviously wasn’t happy, but she was at least as capable of figuring out what this situation called for as I was. She bolted, veiling herself with magic as she went. It wasn’t quite perfect invisibility, but in the dark, against normal humans, it should be more than enough.


I held my breath for a moment, waiting to see whether that would bring violent retaliation, but nothing happened. Good; I’d been pretty sure they were only really concerned with me, but there are times when pretty sure isn’t nearly as comforting as you’d like it to be.


I stood there, keeping my hands high enough that nobody would be likely to think I was disobeying that instruction, and waited for them to figure out what to do. After maybe a minute of that, a group approached from the direction of the armored personnel carrier. They were wearing bulky body armor with SWAT printed on it, and carrying an awful lot of guns.


Funny. It had never occurred to me that Colorado Springs would have a SWAT team. It made sense—the city was large enough, after all—I’d just…never thought about it.


“What happened to the girl?” one of them asked brusquely. Their body language made it clear that he was in charge of the group, although he seemed ridiculously young to have such a position.


And how crazy was that? Seriously, since when did I start thinking people looked young? Hell, most of the people I interacted with looked young, including the ones who’d seen a few millennia.


He was clearly expecting an answer, though, so I smiled. “What girl?” I asked innocently. “You must have been seeing things, officer. It’s just me here.”


He frowned. One of the others, an older guy with a spectacular mustache, piped up, “Sir, we could send a team after her.”


“Think this one through,” I said. I was pretty freaked out by this point, but I managed to keep my tone fairly casual. “You really want to risk letting me get away so that you can chase some girl you may or may not even have seen, at a distance, at night? Through a residential neighborhood? When you’ve got no real reason to think this hypothetical girl is guilty of anything at all?”


The leader’s frown deepened, and he took a second to think before he responded. “Let her go,” he said. “And somebody get cuffs on this guy.”


Smart choice. He’d get flak for it later from the higher-ups, I was guessing, but it was the right decision. Between that and the obvious respect the others had for him, I was pretty sure he had some real leadership potential. He might not have been an Alpha, if he were a werewolf—he lacked the presence they had, the ability to walk into a room and have everyone turn to look without quite knowing why—but he would definitely be someone the rest of the pack looked up to.


They were surprisingly gentle about cuffing me. I’d been expecting them to rough me up at least a little in the process, but they just handcuffed my hands behind my back and herded me into an armored car. It almost made me wonder whether they were filming the whole thing, and they wanted it to look as good as possible for the news.


I got into the back of the car and then zoned out. Presumably someone was reading me my rights, or else whispering vague threats in my ear or something, but I wasn’t all that interested.


I was much more interested in where we were going, which is why I focused most of my attention on my magic. There were no owls in the area, unfortunately, but plenty of foxes, cats, and raccoons out prowling the nighttime streets. Each one only got a fragmentary glimpse of my little procession, but by jumping from one to the next I was able to put together a pretty good image of what was going on.


The car I was in was just one out of an entire convoy of armored vehicles, moving in a formation that put my car slightly to one side of the center. Presumably that was so that anyone trying to break me out wouldn’t be able to tell where I was without checking every vehicle.


Although you’d have to be insane to try something like that. There were probably thirty armed guards with the convoy, and a lot of them were carrying what looked suspiciously like military weapons. And that wasn’t even counting the snipers. I noticed a few of them through the animals, mostly by scent or sound, but I was sure there were others.


I had to admit, I was almost flattered by the extremes they were going to. I could hardly even imagine the expenses involved with something like this—a dozen armored cars, including at least one that I was sure was military issue, thirty armed guards, snipers along the route…it was mind-boggling. And that wasn’t taking into account the road closures which must have taken place.


After maybe twenty minutes of driving at a snail’s pace through empty streets, the cars stopped outside of a police station. I returned my awareness to my own body just in time for one of the guards to open the door and nudge me.


I opened my eyes, blinked a couple of times, and looked around blearily. Pretending to have been asleep would be a convenient explanation for why I didn’t seem to have been paying attention.


And besides. I just couldn’t resist messing with their heads. They were just guys doing a job, sure, but that job was a hell of an inconvenient one for me. I wasn’t going to kill them for it, but I wasn’t above screwing with them a little. I figured making them think I was so relaxed and confident I could take a nap under those conditions was a decent way to start.


“Are we there?” I asked, yawning.


He frowned at me. “Yes. Get out of the car, please.”


I did so, and we started moving towards the police station. Having my hands cuffed behind my back threw my balance off more than I would have expected; I almost fell on my face a couple of times before the guard grabbed my elbow to steady me.


Inside the station, they led me downstairs to a small, windowless concrete room. Two guys with shotguns stood by the door, and a third walked into the room; the others either waited outside or left. I was guessing the latter. They might think I was scary, but they were looking at it from a human perspective, and even the scariest human is going to have a hard time doing much when they’re handcuffed and have two guys pointing shotguns at them from ten feet away.


The third policeman said, “Hands,” in a tone that was so blandly noncommittal you just knew he was hiding something. I turned around so that he could get at the handcuffs. He unlocked them and pulled them off, then said, “Strip.”


I complied, moving slowly enough that nobody could take it as a threat. I pulled my cloak off, making sure to keep it in the shape of a trench coat, and folded it neatly before setting it on the floor.


“Jesus,” he said, interrupting me. “Is that armor?”


“Yeah. And?”


He shook his head, looking somewhat bemused. “Who the hell wears armor to a restaurant?”


“I have reason,” I said dryly. “Or are you going to tell me you didn’t have orders to shoot me if I so much as talked back? Even though I’ve never been convicted or even formally accused of anything?”


A muscle in his jaw twitched, but he kept his composure pretty well. “You didn’t even know we were going to be there.”


I sighed, feeling very tired. “If you think the police are the only people who want to shoot me, you’re wrong.” I started undoing the various straps and buckles on the armor, making sure to keep my movements slow and steady. The guys with guns might not have been interested in participating in the conversation, but I was still very much aware of their presence.


The search that followed was predictable and thorough. I paid just enough attention to follow instructions, and left the rest of my mind in a cat outside. I was afraid that if I paid any more attention than that I’d do lose my patience and do something I would regret later.


The cat’s mind helped with that. It was soothing to use my magic, calming. It reminded me that I wasn’t helpless here. Plus there was a storm rolling in, and I’ve always loved the feeling of the wind in my fur. Even vicariously, it felt good enough to help offset the indignity of being strip searched in a tiny windowless room in the basement of a police station.


After what felt like an inordinate amount of time but was probably just a couple minutes, the guy doing the search finished, threw away the last pair of latex gloves, and left the room. That left me standing in the room with just the two guards, who’d exhibited no reaction the entire time. I almost wanted to make a smart comment just to see if I could get a rise out of them, but I resisted the impulse. It was a stupid one.


After a minute or two the third guy came back in, carrying a T-shirt and a pair of sweats. The shirt was a little too small and the pants comically overlarge, but they beat nothing and I couldn’t deny a certain feeling of gratitude. I’d been imprisoned a few times before, with varying degrees of legitimacy, but this was the first time I’d been given clothing.


“Will I get my belongings back when I’m released?” I asked as I pulled the clothes on.


The talkative officer gave me an almost pitying look, but all he said was, “Yeah. I’ll bag them and they’ll be set aside. Follow me, please.”


Out the door and down a hallway, we reached the cells. There weren’t very many of them, and all of them were empty. I was very aware, as we walked, of the guys with shotguns following behind. They still hadn’t said a word, either of them.


I had to wonder what the third guy had done to get this job. He was walking close enough to me that I could conceivably take him hostage, and he was in the line of fire of the other two. If I decided to start something, there wasn’t a chance that he’d get out unscathed. He probably wouldn’t get out at all.


We walked to the end of the hall, where the talkative guy stopped and unlocked the door of the last cell on the left. “In you go,” he said, and I complied without argument. He closed the door, locked it, and checked to make sure that it wouldn’t open. “Sit tight,” he said. “It’s after business hours right now, but we’ll get you a lawyer in the morning.”


I watched the three of them go. Most of the lights turned off after they left, leaving just the security lights in my cell and the hallway. It was more dim than really dark, but it was also definitely more dim than bright. Looking out through the bars—and it seemed almost charmingly quaint, that they’d put me in a cell with literal bars rather than just a room with a locked door—the hallways was gloomy, full of ominous shadows. This place wasn’t a prison, per se, but it was still a place of confinement, and a place where bad things had happened. That history had seeped into the stones, tainting the energy of the area with a disturbing aura.


I did my best to ignore it, and laid down on the mattress instead. It had been a long day, and an eventful day, and somehow I didn’t think tomorrow was going to be a whole lot better. I’d rather get some sleep before I had to deal with it.


I woke up early, but didn’t move. I’d seen at least two cameras watching this cell, and there were likely more I didn’t know about. Considering how seriously they were taking this, I had to assume they had people watching the feeds around the clock. That meant that as soon as I moved they would know I was conscious, and I’d rather take a few minutes to think before then.


The first thing I did was survey the area using my magic. It was just after dawn, early enough that the city hadn’t really woken up yet, but even by those standards the neighborhood was quiet. Not empty, which meant it hadn’t been evacuated or anything; just quiet, a little subdued. A handful of people walking dogs gave me a good opportunity to look around, familiarizing myself with the locale. Not terribly useful right now, but it might be later.


That done, I turned my thoughts to what I should do. Escape was possible, but difficult. I still had access to Tyrfing, which meant that I could probably just cut myself an exit through the wall given a little time, or I could simply open a portal to the Otherside. Either of those would take time, though, and there were drawbacks. If a sword magically appeared and I started cutting a hole in the wall, I could pretty much count on there being guys with guns on the other side when I finished. If I tried to escape through the Otherside, I’d be taking a risk; prisons hadn’t been high on my list of places to visit, so I didn’t know any destination points that were thematically close to this one. A failed portal wasn’t something I wanted to take a chance on.


Of course, I could also call Loki.


I quashed that thought immediately, lest he notice me thinking about him. It wasn’t a good idea. It was very much a not good idea, in fact. Loki might seem friendly, but I hadn’t let that blind me to the fact that he was Loki. He was the sort of god that other gods were scared of, and there were reasons for that. There would be a price if I got him involved, and I didn’t think it would be as simple as trading in one of the answers I was owed. Not when he knew he had me over a barrel.


No, I decided. Escape wasn’t really a viable option. It was possible, but every way I could see to do it entailed one kind of risk or another. I was better off to stay where I was and see how things unfolded. They’d mentioned a lawyer the other night, after all, and while I didn’t think that would do me much good at this point, it was at least worth taking the time to check. They’d gotten obviously guilty people off in the past, after all.


Having made my decision, I sat up, yawning and trying to make it look like I’d just woken up. I wasn’t sure how well I did at that—I’ve never been a great actor—but I didn’t really care that much. Then I settled in to wait for things to happen.


It was, I had to admit, a singularly boring wait. My cell was small enough that I couldn’t even really pace, and the only furniture was a badly rusted toilet and sink. The bed was just a mattress thrown on the floor, no sheets, no pillow, one threadbare blanket.


I had to wonder whether they’d stripped the room specifically for me. The lighting was crap, but I could see the other cells a little, and it looked like they had actual beds in them. Maybe this was some kind of psychological thing, trying to push me over the edge.


If so, it was more effective than I wanted to admit. I mean, I’m not suited to captivity in the first place. I don’t do well with cages. But this…hell, even when I’d gone nuts and Conn had stuck me in the safe room for a few months, even then I’d at least had a window. This was the sort of thing that could drive a person out of their skull pretty quickly.


I ended up leaving half my attention there, just to make sure I wasn’t caught by surprise if and when something did happen, and letting the rest drift. It was a bit of a risk—it would make me slower to react, and if someone was watching then sitting there staring into space wasn’t exactly making me look saner—but less of one than anything else I could think of.


It felt like much longer, but from the sun I was pretty sure it was only half an hour before I heard the door open and then close. Still early, by business hours standards.


I returned my consciousness fully to my body and sat up straighter, waiting. A moment later a guy walked into view. He was tallish, heavyset but not really overweight. He was wearing a police uniform, and he smelled rather strongly of coffee and onions. His face was almost familiar, but I couldn’t place it.


“Good morning, Mr. Wolf,” he said.


“Morning. Hey, do I know you from somewhere? You seem familiar.”


He seemed a little taken aback by the question, but he nodded. “I suppose you wouldn’t remember,” he said. “Just one more person you screwed over. I’m Albert Jackson, Colorado Springs Chief of Police.”


“Oh,” I said, nodding. I’d spoken with him once before, a few years earlier. Not surprising that I hadn’t recognized him. “I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about, though. When did I screw you over?”


“The last time we talked, I took your deal,” he said. “I took the werewolves seriously, I treated them with respect. Which was fine at the time, but once they told everyone it was a ‘hoax,’ and the public went back to thinking they were a myth?” He smiled. It wasn’t a very pleasant smile. “It’s not so good for your reputation, having everyone know that you fell for a hoax. I damn near lost my position.”


I nodded again. “Fair enough,” I said. “I honestly didn’t have anything to do with that, though. Believe me, I was as surprised as you when they took it back. I wouldn’t even have guessed that was possible.”


“Maybe,” he said. I couldn’t tell whether he’d believed me or not. “Anyway, that isn’t really significant to why you’re here.”


“Right,” I agreed. “Speaking of, why here? I mean, sticking me in solitary in the basement of some random police station…it isn’t quite what I was expecting, I guess.”


“The entire building’s been locked down. As of today, the only business being conducted here is keeping you where you are.”


I blinked. “Seriously? Why?”


“Officially? It’s for your own safety. It was felt that placing you with other prisoners would possibly escalate to violence.”


“And unofficially?”


He smiled, a wry, crooked sort of smile. “Unofficially, a lot of people had to work very hard to catch you, and they very much don’t want to have to do so again. It was felt that a controlled environment like this would make that easier.” He shrugged. “And also the first reason. With what you’re accused of, there’s a very real chance that even other criminals wouldn’t be willing to tolerate you. Nobody wants to go to all this work and then have you die before trial.”


“What I’m accused of,” I said, ignoring the bit about other criminals. “What might that be, exactly?”


“Blowing up a decent chunk of the city,” he said promptly. “We put you in like normal, maybe your cellmate knew somebody that died in the blast. He gets upset, you get killed, we have to answer some awkward questions. This is better for everyone.” He paused a beat, then casually asked, “So, did you do it?”


I hesitated, then sighed. “No,” I said. “I didn’t do it.”


“You hesitated. Why’s that?”


“I didn’t do it,” I repeated. “But I knew some people that I think might have been involved with that whole mess. I guess I feel like I should have seen it coming, turned them in to the police or something.”


“Interesting,” he said, smiling again. This one was a more natural smile, although I was guessing it was still an act. “Where might these people be?”


I shrugged. “I dunno. Haven’t heard from them since then. That’s part of why I think they might have been involved.”


He looked at me for a moment, then sighed. “I want to believe you,” he said, and I almost thought he might be telling the truth. “But I can’t just take your word for it. Put your hands through the bars, please.”


“Going to handcuff me to the bars?” I asked, not moving. “That sounds a bit excessive, Chief. Can’t lie down, can’t go to the bathroom. I think that might even qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.”


As answer, he produced what looked like a pair of bracelets. They were large and heavy, more like manacles than modern handcuffs, except that they weren’t connected by a chain.


I looked at them for a moment, perplexed. Then I caught a familiar scent, and involuntarily snarled a little. The feeling was muted, so I was guessing it wasn’t on the surface, but there was silver in those things. Quite a bit of it, for me to notice it that quickly at a distance.


“These are tracking bracelets,” he said quietly. “They’ll make sure we don’t lose you.”


I regarded him for a moment, and when I replied my voice was equally soft. “I think,” I said, “that we both know that’s not what those are for. Lie to the guards if you want, but I think I deserve to know the truth.”


He sighed. “Rossi told us something about what you’re capable of,” he said, sounding very old and very tired. “”No details, but enough to get the point across. And he designed these as a countermeasure, before you killed him.”




Enrico had designed these things? For me, personally?


I’d known that he hadn’t been entirely honest with me. I’d know that he’d seen me as a threat, that our friendship had largely been an excuse to keep an eye on me. But this…to design something like that, knowing firsthand how painful silver was to werewolves, knowing what long-term exposure could do, that was something else. This went beyond just lying to me. It was a betrayal, in so many ways.


Apparently Loki was telling the truth, way back when. I really couldn’t trust Enrico.


Pity I hadn’t believed that when he was still alive, and it might have done some good.


I slumped against the cell door, and stuck my arms through the bars.

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Unclean Hands 9.16

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After that odd and enigmatic little conversation, I wasn’t remotely sure what I would see when I opened the door. Gods and monsters were equally plausible, and I wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see the skinwalker or a horde of vampires or something equally unpleasant.


Instead, I found Moray sitting at a table, looking bemused and drinking tea. Sitting with him was a vaguely familiar woman who smelled like fox and spice. The scent was enough to jog my memory, and I realized she was Aiko’s mother.


On the whole, I might have preferred the monsters.


“Winter jarl,” she said to me, setting her tea on the table. It looked almost untouched. “I trust your meeting went well?”


“Yes,” I said, eyeing her warily.


“Very good,” she said. “I was hoping we might talk for a moment.”


“I would be honored,” I said. I was lying through my teeth, of course, but from what I’d heard of her she was the sort to appreciate formality whether it was honest or not. “Would you care to walk with me?” I wasn’t sure what this conversation was going to be like, but I had a strong suspicion that I didn’t want Moray there for it.


“Yes,” she said, standing. “Let us walk.”


I opened the door for her, which she seemed to appreciate, although the change in her expression was so subtle I’d never have noticed had I not been watching. “So,” she said, as I let the door swing closed behind us. “I understand you’ve been spending a great deal of time with my daughter.”


“Yes, ma’am,” I said.


“I haven’t,” she said frankly. “There aren’t many things I regret from my life, jarl. That’s one of them.”


“That you haven’t spent much time with her?”


“No. That I did so poorly as a mother that she won’t spend time with me.” She sighed. “It can be very hard to have children.”


“I wouldn’t know, ma’am.”


Her lips twitched into a smile, although it was so tiny and so brief that I wasn’t sure whether I’d seen it at all. I was getting the impression that was the default for her expressions. “No, I don’t suppose you would. Although that might change in the future.”


“I think that would probably be unnecessarily cruel to the child, ma’am.”


She definitely smiled at that. “More people should have such care. It’s too easy to do your best for your children and realize too late that it would have been kinder to do nothing.”


I cleared my throat. “Aiko makes it sound like you neglected her quite a bit, ma’am.”


“Towards the end. Yes. I’d hoped to give her the life I dreamed of, but by that time I’d realized that she didn’t want it.”


“So you left her alone.” I was trying not to sound accusatory, I really was, but I suspected I was failing.


She nodded. “It was too late by then for us to be reconciled, I think. Leaving her to herself seemed the next best thing.”


I nodded slowly. “I suppose I can understand that, ma’am.”


“Good. So tell me, jarl, do you love Aiko?”


“Yes, ma’am. Very much so.”


“That’s good,” she said. “So when are you planning to marry her?”


I cleared my throat. “I expect you know your daughter better than I do, ma’am.”


“Longer, certainly,” she said dryly. “Better? That isn’t so certain.”


“Maybe,” I agreed. “In any case, you have some idea what kind of person she is. Do you seriously think she’d want that kind of formal commitment?”


“Perhaps not,” she admitted. “I only want what is best for my daughter. I may not have always shown it very well, but I only ever wanted her to be happy.” She sighed, and it sounded like there was a hundred years of sadness pent up in that sigh. “Take care of my daughter, jarl,” she said wearily, turning off down a side street. “I can’t.”


I watched her go, then kept walking. “Well,” I said to myself. “That went better than I’d anticipated.” I hadn’t known quite what to expect from her, but from what Aiko had said I’d thought she would be quite a bit less pleasant than that.


Although, now that I thought about it, that was probably to be expected. I’d only heard Aiko’s side of the story, after all, and it had been pretty clear that there was plenty of bad blood between them to occlude her vision.


Then, because it was clearly a day for conversations I’d rather not have, I said, “Loki, Loki, Loki. You busy?”


“Not at the moment,” he said in my ear. “Although I do have an engagement later today. Why?”


I managed to keep my reaction to a small twitch, and glared at him as he stepped up beside me. “I have another question,” I said.


“My,” he said dryly. “You go more than a year without using any of the answers you paid for, and then you spend three in one week? Shocking. So what is it?”


“First off, I want to make a couple of statements. Statement one: After that mess last year, you left me a note mentioning apotheosis.”


“Yep,” he said cheerfully. “Not just making conversation, by the way. That really was my note. That’s a freebie for you.”


“Statement two,” I said, ignoring him. “A couple minutes ago, Arbiter said something suggesting that I’m a nascent demigod.”


“That sounds like something that old bastard would say,” Loki agreed.


“Question: What the hell are you people getting at?”


The deity paused and looked at me. His eyes were deep blue, as they usually were in public, but for a moment I glimpsed fire inside. His smile, too, was a little off, just twisted enough to remind me of the scars around his mouth.


“I’m glad you took it to heart when I said you could ask less specific questions,” he said. “That one is almost too tempting of an opportunity to pass up. But we did have a deal, so I won’t. Although honestly, I was expecting something like this quite a bit sooner.”


“I figured you were trolling me,” I said. “Trying to get me to waste questions, when your note didn’t actually mean anything. Which might still be the case, but if other people are going to take it seriously, I need to pay attention.”


“A reasonable thought,” he admitted. “But you should have learned by now that isn’t really the way I operate. Now, on to your actual question.”


“At heart,” he said, taking on more of a lecturing tone, “the answer to your question hinges on the answer to another question, which is, what does it mean to be a god? Now, you could ask people that question and get a great many answers, but for the sake of brevity I’m only going to discuss the one which I consider to be important, which is that a god is someone who knows what’s going on.”


I blinked. “That’s it?”


“Yes. If you understand how the world works, behind the scenes, then you can claim to be a god. If you understand why it works the way it does, then nobody’s likely to argue with you.” He grinned at me, the expression far too wide and toothy, and somehow even more twisted than his earlier smile. “With that in mind, let’s take a look at what you know.”


Oh, this should be good. I stopped walking and turned to face him. He took it in stride, stopping beside me. I noticed that people were giving us a wide berth without quite seeming to realize that’s what they were doing. Loki’s doing, most likely.


“First,” he said, “and most important, you’ve had a glimpse of the world behind the scenes. You know that the neat, ordered reality you live in is just a mask on the face of chaos. You know that your reality was constructed, you have an idea of who constructed it, and if you’re clever you have enough information that you could start working on how and why.”


I frowned. I hadn’t thought about it in quite that way, but I supposed he had a point. “Fair,” I said.


He rolled his eyes, sending another wave of flame through them before they died back to blue. “Thank you for your approval. Continuing, you also have an idea of what kind of power people like me have. You’ve seen that power being used in earnest, and there aren’t very many people who can say that. You know that time and space are both flexible concepts, subject to being manipulated and played with. And, on a more personal note, you know that life and death are arbitrarily defined states, and you’ve gone far enough into the shadows in between to know what they smell like.”


“But I can’t use any of that,” I protested. “I might know some of the tricks you do, but that doesn’t mean much if I can’t actually do the trick.”


“Ah,” he said, sounding excited. “But you’re thinking of divinity as an absolute—which is ironic, considering that most of the secrets I just mentioned are about recognizing that almost nothing is absolute. Figuring that out, seeing the things you’ve seen, that’s only the first step on the path, which is why you’re only a nascent demigod. Keep going, learn a few more secrets and start learning how to exploit a couple of them, and you’ll be the real deal.”


“And…that could actually happen?” I asked hesitantly. I’d never even contemplated that possibility.


Could it happen?” He shrugged. “Sure. Anything could happen. Will it happen, now, that’s a trickier question. Plenty of people have gotten started on that path, but very few have followed it all the way to the end. You’re looking more promising than most, and definitely more than anyone has in recent years. It’s plausible enough that people are going to be paying attention.”


“Wonderful,” I said sourly.


He laughed. “Relax,” he said. “It’s no worse than what you’ve already been dealing with. The only difference is that now you know why they’re breathing down your neck. For now, I suggest you take some time to celebrate. You genuinely did win this time around, and I didn’t even have to nudge things in your favor to make it happen. Enjoy it.” He grinned at me, and bowed. “Congratulations, Winter.”


I ended up taking Loki’s advice, as insane as that was. I wanted to keep worrying, trying to wrap up loose ends, but there wasn’t really much to be done. The skinwalker was still out running around, but I wasn’t sure how I could track him down, let alone deal with him. I also didn’t really think he was going to be causing problems for me; he was powerful, undeniably, but also an opportunist, more scavenger than predator. He wouldn’t attack until I was vulnerable, and at the moment my position looked strong. The housecarls would adapt to their new situation more readily if I wasn’t looming over them, and I was happy to let Katrin finish cleaning house among the vampires of the city on her own. Even Alexis needed more than anything else to be left alone, so she could choose where she was going from here without feeling like I was pressuring her.


So I ended up going to dinner with Aiko, partially to celebrate and mostly to unwind and get used to the idea that things had actually gone right. Pryce’s wasn’t an option, for obvious reasons, so we ended up going to the Italian restaurant where Anna had been the head chef for quite a few years. She was long gone, but the food was still very good.


It was getting fairly late by the time we left, and there was no one else around. I was full—or as close to it as I got these days, anyway—and happier than I’d been in weeks. I was feeling peaceful, and relaxed, and not terribly inclined to think about anything in particular. Thus, it was a bit of a surprise when Aiko casually said, “Oh, hey. I got something for you a while back.”


I turned around, expecting to see something characteristically bizarre. A particularly exotic weapon, a knockoff toy with an amusingly bad design flaw, a piece of junk from an antique shop in the back streets of a bad neighborhood, something like that. Any of those would be an understandable gift from Aiko, and I wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see something along those lines.


What I saw instead was Aiko holding a ring.


More to the point, she was holding a ring in a manner that made it clear it was more than just a bit of jewelry that she’d found and thought I might like. There was significance in the gesture. She was smiling, a broad, I can’t believe I’m doing this sort of shit-eating grin, and her posture was both excited and nervous.


I stared. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I said. I felt a little proud of how even and calm my voice was, all things considered.


She opened her mouth. I leaned forward a little, feeling such a strange and intense emotional cocktail that I couldn’t even begin to sort it out.


And then a spotlight went on, pinning us in a circle of light bright enough that I winced and had to blink back tears. At first I thought it was all part of the plan, but a quick glance at Aiko’s expression confirmed she was as surprised as I was.


“You have got to be freaking kidding me!” I shouted, turning towards the light. It was hard to see past the glare, but I was pretty sure I could make out the spotlight, mounted on what looked like an armored personnel carrier.


“This is the police. Put your hands in the air,” a voice shouted, probably through a megaphone. “We have you surrounded. Put your hands in the air.”


Goddammit. How do these things always happen at the worst possible time?

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Unclean Hands 9.15

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Scáthach might have been in a hurry to deal with her misbehaving subjects, but she was still Sidhe. I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t try to rush me as I changed again and then got dressed. I took it slow, minimizing the pain, but it was still a pretty awful experience. That kind of silver exposure hurt, and it hurt on an energetic level, making it harder to change or heal. It might be days before I was operating at my peak again.


“Okay,” I said, pulling the last of the armor into place. “You asked me to either deal with them or give you an excuse to do so. From where I’m standing, I just did the second one.”


“Indeed,” she said, with a satisfied smile. “You did better than I anticipated, jarl. Very well. So much so that I will offer you a choice of reward.”


“Choice,” I said, with a sinking feeling. I’d known that she would find a way to screw me over, but that didn’t make it any more fun. “We had a deal. I took care of your people, and you take care of my problems with the Conclave. That was the deal.”


“Yes, and if you would like I will be quite pleased to keep that deal,” she said, with a nasty smile. “Or, instead of speaking to the mages on your behalf, I will wake the kitsune.”


Oh. Right. In the heat of the moment, fighting that duel, I’d almost forgotten that Aiko was unconscious. I glanced at her and confirmed that was still the case. She was lying on the ground, so still as to seem dead, with Legion standing guard on one side of her and Snowflake on the other. It could almost have been a charming picture, had it not been for Scáthach’s implication.


“What happens if you don’t wake her?” I asked.


Scáthach shrugged carelessly. Once again I was struck by how inhuman the gesture was, closer to a cat or an insect than a hominid. “Possibly you could find another way to rouse her. But I doubt you could do so easily or simply. This is the same potion that gave rise to your legends of the sleeping princess.” I must have looked too excited by that, because Scáthach smiled again. “And no, jarl, you will not be able to wake her with a kiss. That sort of modification to the recipe is more my counterpart’s domain than mine.”


“Right,” I muttered. “Of course.”


“So, then,” the Queen of Faerie purred. She was smiling, her eyes unsettlingly bright with an inhuman excitement. “What will you choose, oh jarl, my dear?”


“Damn you. You know what I’ll choose.”


“Of course,” she said. “But do you?”


“Yeah,” I sighed. “Wake her up, then. And Scáthach?” I said, before she could move. “I’m sure you could find a way to screw me over here. Don’t, okay? It would be the one step too far. You said this whole thing was about making me a useful tool. Pushing me on this topic is a great way to ruin that.”


She regarded me coolly. I’d thought I might piss her off by saying that, but if so, the emotion was too remote or too alien to be visible. “Very well,” she said. “You will find her in your home, alive and unharmed.” Then she gestured, very slightly, and both she and Aiko vanished.


I stood there for a minute or so, staring at the spot where she’d been. I was tired, and burnt, and on the whole I was feeling rather sorry for myself.


Then the doppelganger, who was still sitting on the ground next to Snowflake, cleared her throat. “Um,” she said. “What happens now?”


I looked at her for a moment, then shrugged. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re even,” I said. “You tried to screw me over, I caught you before you could really get started. Nothing personal on either side, right?”


She nodded. “It’s just business as far as I’m concerned. I’m fine with dropping it here. No debt or grudge to either side.”


“Sounds good,” I said. “Sorry for the rough treatment back there. I was kind of short on time, and I think you saw how serious the situation was.”


She nodded again, more emphatically. “Yes,” she said. She started to walk away, then paused. “Hey, you’re all right, you know that?” She produced what looked like a normal business card from somewhere and dropped it on the ground. “You ever need some work done, call that number. I’ll give you a discount.”


Damn,” Aiko said. “You really beat a Sidhe duke in a fair fight?”


I shrugged, trying and failing to get comfortable on the broken chair. The vampires hadn’t spent much time in our castle after we got away, but they’d done a number on it while they were there. I wasn’t concerned; nothing really valuable was missing or broken, and it would get fixed eventually. “Fairish. I mean, everything I did was legal, but I don’t know if I’d call it fair.”


She laughed. “That is so awesome. As pissed as Scáthach was at him, it might not even come back to bite you in the ass.”




“I notice that you don’t sound happy,” she said after a moment. “What gives?”


I opened my mouth to say that it was nothing, then paused. “Do you ever feel like what you need is just out of reach?” I asked. “It’s like you can see it, but when you try to grab it someone moves it away. I keep trying and trying to fix the problems, but it’s always one step forward, two steps back.”


“Is this about the problem with the Conclave?” she asked delicately.


I growled, though it was more frustrated than angry. “No,” I said. “No, Scáthach was never going to let me win that. I see that now. At least this way I got something worthwhile out of it. No, this is more fundamental, I guess. It’s like…even if I figured out a way to deal with the Conclave, it wouldn’t get me anywhere. I’d win today, but a month or a year down the road it’d just come back to bite me.”


“Yeah,” she said. “I know that feeling.”


“How do you cope with it?” I asked.


She shrugged. “Mostly I got really drunk and shot people. It’s easier to ignore when you do that.”


“That advice sounds disturbingly tempting,” I said after a moment.


She laughed. “That’s what I’m here for. Now come on, stop thinking about all the depressing stuff for a while. You’ve got three days until the Conclave meets again. You can figure out what to do about it later.”


I took her advice, and for a little while I managed to forget my frustrations with the world.


“Good morning,” Moray said, opening the door. I’d remembered to uncover my face before knocking this time. “You didn’t bring the kid.”


“No need. She already signed up with someone.” It might not be official yet, but it might as well be. Alexis was spending so much time talking to the Guards that I’d hardly seen her for days.


“Ah,” Moray said, somehow conveying a wealth of information in that one syllable. “That’s how it goes.”


“Have you trained any apprentices?” I asked. I’d never thought of Moray in that context, but something in how he’d sounded made me curious.


“Not personally,” he said, shrugging. “But I’ve helped with a few recruits, showing them the ropes.” He paused. “One of them got her face eaten by werewolves. She bled out right in front of me. Never even made it through basic training.”


“Oh,” I said, feeling a little inadequate. “I’m sorry.”


He shrugged again. “It’s the business,” he said. “You should get upstairs. You don’t want to be late. Seventh floor, same place as last time.”


“Thanks,” I said, going for the stairs. I made better time, without Moray and Alexis there.


Laurel must have been busy somewhere else, because the security station outside the auditorium was being staffed by a Watcher I didn’t recognize, a tall man wearing a suit and an elaborate, feathery metal mask. I put my weapons in the bin and stepped through the scanner, after which he directed me to sit and wait for an escort. He didn’t say anything else.


Not the most personable greeter. That was fine with me. I didn’t want to chat at the moment anyway.


Maybe twenty minutes later, the auditorium door opened, revealing Ivanov and Neumann. “Sorry for the wait,” Ivanov said. “They were setting up a trade agreement or something, and the guy just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”


“What happened to him?” I asked idly as we walked in. As before, the room was crowded, and the sheer magnitude and variety of power was staggering. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to know whether the same people were attending or not.


“We ended up having to escort him out,” Ivanov said. “Escorted very firmly, if you get my drift.”


“Yeah,” I said, sitting down. I made sure to sit in a different chair than the last time, partially for security reasons and mostly for my own peace of mind. Anything else would be creepy.


I was still antsy, though, on the very edge of my seat. I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to hear next, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.


Which was kind of silly, really. They weren’t actually deciding my guilt today, they were just deciding whether I was suspicious enough that they needed to. Even if they came down against me, it wasn’t like they would imprison me until the actual trial.


At least I hoped they wouldn’t. I’d only come for this because it would look bad if I didn’t, and I didn’t want to take the hit to my rep. I’d feel pretty stupid if I got killed as a result. I mean, there’s walking into the lion’s den, and then there’s just being a moron.


“The Conclave addresses the next issue,” Prophet said, maybe thirty seconds after I was in my chair. He was staring at me, and it was getting a little uncomfortable. I’d been on the receiving end of some pretty hard stares in the past, and even by my standards his grey eyes were intense. “This being the continuation of the initial hearing regarding the accusation of the jarl Winter Wolf-Born of the murder of the mage Zhang Qiang. Jarl, please stand.”


As before, I stood up. “Present,” I said.


“Noted. And do you continue to maintain your innocence of this charge?”


“I do,” I said without hesitation. It wasn’t like there was anything to gain by changing my tune now.


“Very well,” Prophet said. He was smiling a little, although it didn’t touch his eyes. “Arbiter, you requested a period for investigation and reflection before you made your statement. Have you satisfied your curiosity?”


“Regarding this topic, yes,” Arbiter said. He was also staring at me, but it was a more pleasant expression than Prophet’s. More neutral than friendly, but that was still a step up.


“And what have you found?” Prophet asked. I thought he sounded impatient with the way Arbiter was dragging this out, but I might have been imagining it.


“The arguments of his accusers have some merit,” Arbiter said. “And the accusation itself is most serious. But upon reflection, I do not think that this Conclave would be served by further investigation.”


“Then you vote to accept the jarl’s plea of innocence?”


“Yes. That makes a majority, Prophet.”


“Yes,” he said sourly. “It does. Jarl Winter, this Conclave finds your plea of innocence convincing. You will not be investigated further in regards to the crime you have been accused of, unless and until compelling evidence comes to light which brings your claim into question.”


I sort of stood there for a second, trying to process what I’d heard. I’d been ready for a lot of things today. I’d been prepared to recant my position and take the penalty. I’d been prepared to go home and make arrangements for living as a fugitive. If things went badly enough, I’d even been prepared to fight back and get my ass handed to me by a couple hundred mages.


Winning was…somewhat less anticipated.


“That concludes this trial,” Prophet said after a moment, apparently taking my silence as an indication that I understood. “This Conclave will reconvene in a quarter-hour to consider the final item on the agenda.”


I was still standing there, trying to adapt to a world in which I won without having to pay for it, when Arbiter approached me. As before, he seemed to glide across the stage, any movement hidden in the folds of his robe. “Guards,” he said. “Your services are no longer required. I will escort the jarl out.”


They wasted no time clearing out, although Ivanov did pause to shoot me a sympathetic look before he disappeared into the crowd. I followed Arbiter up the stairs, still feeling a little dazed. Once again, we were immediately enclosed inside a kinetic barrier powerful enough to stop sound waves from crossing it.


I had to admit, that impressed me. I mean, it’s one thing to do a barrier that strong. I can’t, but it isn’t all that impressive. But to do that, and move it as a single unit, while also walking and carrying on a conversation? That was something else. I could hardly imagine the mental discipline you would need to do something like that.


“So,” Arbiter said, very casually. “I imagine you’re wondering why that went the way it did.”


“Yeah. After what you said last time, I wasn’t expecting to get off easy.”


He nodded. “I expected as much, and I felt that you deserved an explanation. Thus this conversation. There are several reasons why I voted as I did, jarl, as there were various reasons why the other members of the Conclave said what they did.”


“What are they?” I asked, since he seemed to want prompting.


“The first is that, as I told you, my primary concern is stability and balancing the concerns of multiple parties. Your actions since the last time we spoke did a great deal to encourage stability within and between the Courts, which makes my job easier. That’s the first reason, and if anyone asks I expect you to present it as the only one.” Arbiter sounded calm and pleasant. I didn’t let that fool me into thinking he wasn’t serious. When somebody on that level tells you to do something, they don’t need to be overtly threatening to make sure that you’re listening.


“Okay,” I said. “But what are the others?”


“The next is political,” he said calmly, pushing the door of the auditorium open. The same Watcher as before handed me my bin of contraband and waved us through without question. “And,” Arbiter continued, “it is why I expect that the rest of the Conclave will not cause me significant problems as a consequence. You see, jarl, Scáthach tried to use us as a tool to intimidate you into submission.”


“Ah,” I said, understanding what he was getting at. “And you don’t like being used.”


“Precisely,” he said, nodding. “Part of my motivation today was to remind her that we aren’t under her control. If she wants something from us, she can approach us on an equal footing to negotiate for it. She can’t simply assume that she’ll get it for the asking.”


“Okay,” I said. “That makes sense. So what’s the third reason? You wouldn’t have bothered telling me if it was just those two, not when I could have figured them out on my own.”


He was silent for a long moment. “Correct,” he said at last, as we started down the stairs. “Although I want to make it clear that the rest of what I have to say is a secret, of the sort where those who share it are liable to be not just killed, but erased. Damnatio memoriae, or as close as we can arrange in this era.”


“Fun,” I said dryly. “I’ve heard a few similar secrets in the past, I think.”


“I wouldn’t doubt it, but this one is different. This one is ours.”


“The Conclave’s?” I asked.


“Yes. And also humanity’s. Tell me, jarl, how many rules do the Watchers enforce?”


I opened my mouth, then paused. “I don’t know,” I said. I’d always meant to look into that, but I’d never quite gotten around to it.


“Four,” Arbiter said, sounding very, very serious. “Four very specific laws. You may not raise the dead, or experiment with the transition between life and death, or any intermediate states. You may not attempt to find the outer boundary of the Otherside. You may not experiment with the border between reality and the spirit world, or attempt to shift an object from one state to the other. You may not change the fundamental nature of a thing.”


“Okay,” I said after a moment. It didn’t seem too important, since none of those were things I was capable of, but I supposed it was worth knowing. “What about not telling the world at large about magic?”


“That’s not so much a rule as a guideline,” Arbiter said dismissively. “And a relatively recent one, at that. No, what I want you to think about is why the Watchers would have such a specific set of rules.”


I thought about it for a few seconds. “Presumably,” I said slowly, “because something happened to make them think that those areas of study were dangerous.”


Which, when I thought about it, was terrifying. I mean, the things a mage could do without breaking any of those rules could be horrifying and awful. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what was so bad that it made that look harmless.


“Exactly,” Arbiter said, sounding pleased that I’d gotten it. “Four very specific events occurred. Now, and this is the part which we’ve gone to great lengths to keep from becoming public knowledge, the first Conclave had more than nine members. There were four others, whose roles haven’t been preserved. Hunter, Healer, Namer, and Dreamer.”


Four people. Four rules. It wasn’t hard to figure out what Arbiter was getting at.


“Okay,” I said. “Healer is obviously the one who tried to raise the dead. Dreams are related to the spiritual, so it would make sense that Dreamer was doing work related to that. The other two….” I shook my head. “I’ve got nothing.”


“Hunter had a gift for space magic, an intimate connection to the idea of location, and a passion for exploring. Namer….” Arbiter frowned, and there was something very uncomfortable about his pause. “Namer,” he said at last, speaking delicately, “was working in a field so esoteric and specific that even knowing it exists is a violation of the law. No one’s entirely sure just what he was doing, but it involved the idea that if you were to change the basic nature of a thing, its apparent properties would change to match.”


“So what went wrong?” He hesitated, and I snorted. “Come on, man. You can’t tell me all these secrets and then shut up when it finally gets to the good part.”


“Healer was experimenting on boundary states between life and death,” he said. “Her experiments produced the first vampire. Dreamer was doing something similar in a very different field, trying to find the relationship between the idea of a thing and the thing itself. His work resulted in the disappearance of a great many people. The city of Tikal never recovered. Hunter was exploring the far reaches of the Otherside, trying to find its limits. We don’t know what he found there, but the Sidhe Courts have been at war ever since.”


“Wow,” I said after a moment. “That’s…wow. What about Namer?”


There was another long, delicate pause. “As I said, we aren’t sure what he was doing,” Arbiter said at last. “But at the end of it, three gods were dead, and two others had been born.”


“Okay. This is…kind of more than I can process. You know that, right?”


“Yes, but I’m hoping that you grasp enough of it to understand what I’m saying. For example, I hope that at this point you understand why the Watchers work to prevent anyone else from experimenting with those fields of magic. The risks of a similar catastrophe happening again are simply too high. And hopefully you also see why anyone who courts such a disaster, even unintentionally, must be dealt with.”


“Yeah,” I said. “And Zhang was helping people get around the rules.”


“Precisely,” Arbiter said. “And that, jarl, is the true reason I didn’t speak against you. People who enable that kind of risk-taking must be eliminated. That he was permitted to do so for so long is shameful. As far as I am concerned, your actions should be rewarded, not punished.” He shrugged. “And besides, it’s seldom a bad idea to be on good terms with a nascent demigod.” We reached the bottom of the stairs, and he nodded to me. “Now that I’ve explained that, I have a meeting to get back to, and I believe there’s someone waiting to speak with you. Good day, jarl.”

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Interlude 2.z: Dvalin Kovac

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I was working when Loki came to visit. This wasn’t unusual; I didn’t sleep, and eating was a rare necessity. I could, and often did, work for days at a time.


Life was simpler that way.


I felt it when he manifested himself in my workshop, although I didn’t turn away from my work. It was a simple lump of metal at the moment, not even fully refined yet. Closer to ore than bullion, really. When I was finished with it, it would be a fine golden bauble, such as any rich woman would be pleased to wear.


I felt a momentary frustration at the thought. In comparison to the works I’d once crafted, it felt so…petty.


I pushed the feeling away. I’d made this choice for a reason. It might be petty, spending my time on baubles, but it was still better than what I’d once done. Baubles do no harm.


I’d almost finished refining the metal when Loki sighed. “You’re an ass,” he said. “You know that, right, Dvalin?”


I grunted and turned the metal over in my hands. It flowed under my fingers, the last of the waste running out and leaving gold behind. I ignored the dross for the moment; I would extract any valuable materials from it later.


“Of course,” Loki said. “More time for me to talk, then. And I want to talk about the kid.”


I looked at the god for the first time since he manifested. He was wearing a slender Nordic body, something that would have looked quite at home on a longship back in the day. His shadow gave the lie to the mask, though, at least to my eye. It was the shadow of something far larger, a hulking beast that couldn’t have walked through the garage door of the shop. He breathed and the shadow moved in unison, and just the movement of the shadow was enough to rattle tools on the workbenches.


I wondered whether he was putting on a show for my benefit. Surely he could have concealed this sign of his power, if he wanted to. I was old, but clairvoyance and divination had never been my specialties; I knew better than to imagine I could see beneath his mask if he didn’t want me to.


“The boy is none of your business,” I said at last, turning my attention back to the metal in my hands.


“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong. I’ve made an investment in him. That makes him my business, quite literally.”


I grunted. “Out with it, then.”


“As you know, the child is attracting the attention of more people than just myself.” Loki’s voice was a purr now, smooth as silk. “If he wants to survive that attention, he’s going to need a weapon.”


“I don’t make weapons.” Not anymore, I didn’t. I’d had enough of weapons.


“Fortunately,” Loki said, and now there was something in his voice that was sharp enough to make me look at him again, “I wasn’t thinking of a new weapon. I had something old in mind. Something very old, even.”


I knew what he meant, and it was serious enough that I set the lump of gold down and turned to face him. “You know what that sword is for,” I said. “You know what it does to people. And you want me to give it to someone I give half a damn about?”


“He’s going up against a Twilight Prince this time,” Loki said with a twisted smile. In the background, his smile grinned as well, showing teeth the size and shape of swords. “He’s going to need a weapon that poses a threat to them, if he wants them to take him seriously.”


I grunted again, thinking. “That sword is poison,” I said. “We made it to be poison.” It had been an intelligent, if somewhat brutal, decision. If you were going to put a weapon like that in someone’s hands, you didn’t want them to live long enough to turn it against you.


“Yes,” Loki agreed. “But if you don’t give it to him, he’s going to die. Not a threat, by the way, just a statement of fact. He dug too deep, too fast, and there aren’t many other weapons that could get him out of the hole he’s in.”


“If I do give it to him,” I countered dryly, “he won’t survive. Not as who he is now.” In all its long history, nobody had ever carried Tyrfing for more than a handful of days without changing. And Winter was already a werewolf, already a blood mage, already carrying the weight of far more temptation than most people could bear up under.


“Surely that’s better than death,” Loki murmured. He was still smiling, but there was something wrong with it now, even beyond his typical scarred features. It wasn’t a good smile.


I pictured what Winter might turn into, under the influence of that sword, and shook my head. “I’m not so sure,” I said. “Sometimes dead is better.”


“That’s funny,” Loki said, and now there was an edge to his voice, something sharp and bitter. “I remember you saying something much different, all those years ago. Something about how binding my son was the kindest thing you could do for him?”


I looked at Loki, but I wasn’t seeing him. I was seeing a long-ago forge, with six impossibilities lying on the workbench. I was seeing the ribbon running through my fingers after it had been finished, soft and smooth but far too strong to be broken.


And I was seeing the pitiful, hopeless look on the wolf’s face when they put the fetter on him.


Many would say that the fetter was a metaphor, a concrete representation of the abstract limits which had been put on Fenrir’s power. They would be right, and also wrong. There’s reality, and there’s metaphor, and when you’re dealing with gods there’s also a certain grey area where the two concepts overlap.


“I was wrong,” I said, pulling my attention back to the moment. “I was wrong to say it, I was wrong to make it, and I was wrong to stand by and let them use it. Are you happy now, Loki? I was wrong.”


“No,” he said. “No, happy definitely isn’t the word for it.”


“Then why,” I asked sharply, “do you want me to do the same thing again?”


He seemed to consider it for a moment. “Would you believe me,” he said at last, “if I told you that he’ll be happier for it in the long run? It’ll change him, yes, but not for the worse. Or at least not entirely.”


“And why would you know better than I what will make him happy?”


Loki smiled again. “Because he’s his father’s son.”


I stared at him for a moment, then slumped. “Yes,” I said listlessly. “I suppose he is.”


“Then you’ll do it?”


I grunted and nodded, picking up the piece of gold again. Soon, I knew, I would have to go and fetch the blade from its resting place back in Svartalfheim—and that was a conversation I certainly wasn’t looking forward to. In the meantime, though, I could finish this pointless little bauble. I could remind myself that I had made more than just evil swords and chains for gods.


Loki ceased to manifest himself after a few minutes of watching me work. The shadow stayed for several long moments. A reminder, that Loki could be watching at any time, and I might not have any way to tell.


As threats went, it was a good one. Subtle, yes, but…ominous.


I arranged to meet Winter at an old, largely abandoned garage. It was one of my secondary workshops, where I had done work that I didn’t want associated with my business. Or rather, it had been one of my secondary workshops; I wasn’t going to be coming back after this. I was planning to burn it down within a day or two, in fact.


I regretted that a little. I still had some of my kin’s characteristic hoarding instinct, although I’d largely transferred it away from physical goods. Recognizing that skills and secrets were more valuable was one of the few real pieces of wisdom I’d won with age.


Winter showed up late and seemed suspicious about the whole thing, which was good. I’d have been worried if he trusted this arrangement. I hardly paid any attention to the conversation as I told him that I knew he was in a dangerous situation, and I had a weapon that might help. I avoided the topic of how I knew that, and I never said that I wanted him to take it. An oath to speak no lies can be bothersome, but once you’ve learned to choose your words with care it proves less so than one might expect.


And then he took the sword. I watched as it began to sink its teeth into him, already making the connections that would hold it to him. They were still incomplete, more tasting than biting; Tyrfing wouldn’t truly establish a connection until it had been used to kill, and it wouldn’t recognize ownership unless the death were an act of betrayal. A safety measure we had built into it, all those centuries before.


I wondered what it said about us, that we considered limiting its use to the ruthless and desperate a safety measure. At the time, it had made sense. We would prevent it from being used casually, ensure that its wielder truly needed the power. We would keep it from falling into the hands of the weak-willed, where it could cause serious harm.


In hindsight, there were probably better ways to approach the problem.


I stood outside, draped in a simple grey cloak, as Winter experimented with the sword and then walked out. He didn’t notice me, as I’d expected. That cloak was woven through with magic, not so much invisibility as insignificance; he could see me, but his eyes slid from one side to the other without recognizing me as more than a background object. It was an old Sidhe approach that I’d learned to duplicate with the runic magic that I favored, and it was as effective now as it had always been.


I watched him go, carrying the sword with a gingerly manner that suggested he had some conception of how dangerous it was. That was good; for him to have recognized it so soon, and to be treating it with respect and a little fear rather than desire, those were good signs. They suggested that Loki was right, and the sword wouldn’t dominate his personality.


I wondered, as he left, what it meant. What the consequences of my choice would be. Had I in some measure atoned for my sins, as Loki had claimed? Or had I compounded them?


I sighed and turned away. I supposed that I would find out eventually. In the meantime, there was work to be done.

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Unclean Hands 9.14

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“What manner of trial?” I asked, with a sort of morbid curiosity. I was sure it wasn’t going to be the boring kind, with a judge and a courtroom. It was never that easy.


“Precisely the question I was just considering,” Scáthach said, with a smile that looked uncomfortably similar to that of a cat watching a canary. “Trial by ordeal would be amusing, but there aren’t many ordeals that would be fair. Most of those I could think of would be crueler to one of you than the other.”


Most, I noted. Not all. She was playing with me, and I suspected she was playing with him just as much. Not just a cat watching a canary, a cat holding a canary. She knew what choice she was going to make. Probably she’d known since before I’d even called her.


“Trial by combat,” she said, as though she’d stumbled onto some great revelation. “That would be fair. Let you prove the rightness of your respective positions.”


“You really like your duels, don’t you?” I said. “First Pier, then this.”


“I am a traditionalist,” she said, smiling even wider. “Speaking of which, let us consider the rules under which this duel shall be fought. I think it would be appropriate to follow the traditions of my people, as this accusation is entirely within the framework of my Court.”


The traditions of her people? What was that supposed to mean? And why was she smiling?


I realized it a moment before she continued. “Iron, naturally, will be banned,” she said. “The duel shall be fought within the confines of the circle; any exit shall be considered a forfeit. The duel shall be fought to surrender, or to the point of death if neither party concedes.”


Shit. At one stroke, she’d effectively crippled me. Forbidding iron and steel meant that I wouldn’t have my armor, or Tyrfing, which were my only real advantages in a fight with one of the fae. If I fought as a human, I would be reduced to a handful of knives and some stored spells. As a wolf, my greatest strength was mobility, which was almost useless if we couldn’t step outside the circle.


I eyed the Sidhe noble I was supposed to be dueling, sizing him up. He was wearing armor, some material that looked like silver, and carrying a sheathed sword. He was smiling, a confident, smug sort of smile.


“What if I do not like these rules?” I said, thinking furiously. I was trying to come up with options, and so far I wasn’t having much luck.


“I would consider it an admission that your accusation is false,” Scáthach said. “In which case you would owe a debt to my Court, as recompense for unfairly having insulted the honor of one of my subjects.”


Wonderful. Behind one door was a fight which was stacked against me so hard that it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the person I was supposed to fight had been coached on my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Behind the second was owing a favor to Scáthach, being found guilty by the Conclave, and having whatever reputation I’d managed to accrue ripped to shreds.


Did I even want to know what was behind door number three? I suspected not. I could probably talk her into changing the rules, or dismissing the whole concept of a trial by combat, but there would be a cost. It was almost guaranteed that I wouldn’t be making my situation any better. Dealing with the fae was not unlike quicksand; they were experts at ensuring that every move you made just drew you in deeper.


The one bright side, in this situation, was that same patience I had been bemoaning earlier. They were immortal; a few minutes was essentially immaterial to them. Neither of them seemed to have any problem with standing there in total silence while I thought through my situation.


Okay. Things were bad. But the reason things were bad was that I’d gotten myself into this position. If you wanted to beat the fae, you had to think in twisty ways, you had to move so far away from what you wanted that it had to come to you instead. Above all else, you had to do something they weren’t expecting, because if you gave them what they were expecting they’d play you like a fiddle. I’d been moving in straight lines this whole time, thinking that the situation was straightforward, and I’d gotten screwed as a result.


So. In this situation, she was expecting me to back down. That was the smart, rational, predictable thing to do. I would back down, eat crow, and she’d own me. Slightly less rational was that I’d try to talk to my way out of it, attack one of the positions she’d used to justify these rules, or worm my way out of it somehow. I was confident that she had something planned if I tried that. It’s pretty much impossible to beat the fae at rules lawyering. They invented it.


So I couldn’t back down. I couldn’t talk my way out of the fight. Could I actually win?


I looked at the duke again, more critically. He was armed and armored in what I was willing to bet was a silver alloy, which was a problem, but the fact that he’d felt the need for that equipment was telling. He was a noble, a politician. He’d probably fought to get there—it would be hard to achieve a high position in the Midnight Court without being a hardened killer—but since then he’d had minions to do his dirty work for him.


I had minions, too, but I’d kept myself hands-on. Jötnar, much like werewolves, expected their leaders to lead from the front and handle threats personally. The Sidhe were basically the opposite, considering it an admission of weakness to fight for yourself. There was a good chance that I’d done more fighting recently than he had.


It would be risky. But hell, that was inevitable. If I kept playing the odds, the house would inevitably win in the long run.


“The terms are accepted,” I said.


Scáthach didn’t blink, but I thought there might be the tiniest hesitation before she continued. “Very well,” she said. “I shall draw the circle.”


“Draw?” I said. “Why? We are standing in a circle, at present, one which has been used by your people for hundreds of years. We would be following an ancient tradition, in using it as our dueling ground.”


I was sure she hesitated, this time, but there wasn’t a lot she could do. She couldn’t argue with what I’d said without admitting that her reasons for restricting my choice of weapons had been a front. She could have overruled me, of course, but this was a Faerie Queen; she’d rather die than admit she’d been outmaneuvered, even for a moment.


“Very well,” she said at last.


“Good,” I said with a smile. I’d managed to retain some advantage, at least. “Allow me to remove my associates from the field and prepare myself, and we can begin.”


They didn’t argue, and I walked down the hill to the edge of the faerie ring. I carried Aiko, and Snowflake herded the doppelganger along. Legion walked at a distance from us, silent as usual. He gave no indication of his thoughts or feelings about the duel, if he even had any.


The same could not be said of Snowflake. This is stupid, she said. You’re going to get yourself killed. Remember the last time you tried to fight a duel against someone from the Courts?


That was Carraig, I pointed out. He’s a much better fighter than this guy. He had to be, in order to maintain order as Scáthach’s champion. He had to be. I was relying on that, because Carraig had kicked my ass so hard there was no question of fighting back, and while my skills had improved since then, I knew for a fact that he could still take me down any time he felt like it.


If I was wrong in my estimation of their relative competence, this trial by combat was going to be short and embarrassing.


It’s still a stupid idea, Snowflake said. You just set yourself up for a fair fight against someone who came here expecting to fight you. Since when is that your specialty?


True, I admitted. I’m hoping I can make it less of a fair fight than it’s supposed to be. If not, well…you have a better idea? Because I spent a while thinking about it, and I’ve got nothing.


No. Just don’t be stupid. The way she phrased it, you can always just back down.


I might be better off dying, I said, not entirely joking.


I wouldn’t.


Great. No pressure.


At the base of the hill, I stepped over the line of mushrooms and set Aiko on the ground. She didn’t respond at all, not even a reflexive twitch. If she hadn’t been breathing I’d have wondered whether she was even alive.


Then I started stripping off my armor, stacking it neatly on the ground. I kept my cloak, although I had to take quite a few of my toys out of it. The rest of my clothing I folded and set on top of the armor. My leather bracelet I took off and wrapped loosely around my neck.


The pain of the change was distracting, but I was used to thinking through distractions. As my body started to warp and shift, I focused on the coming fight, planning my attack. It was hard, just because there were so many unknowns, but I could establish some broad strategic goals. My priorities were disarming my enemy, maintaining my own mobility, and keeping him from landing a decisive blow. He was likely to go for a quick win, simply because he knew what I was capable of and I had no idea what he could do. That gave him an advantage, but it was one that would fade quickly as I observed his behavior.


So. Keep moving, aim for the long game, and assume every attack was possibly lethal. Try for hit-and-run tactics, using the larger space I’d managed to arrange. Debilitate him if I got the chance. It was a vague plan, but that was the best I could really hope for under the circumstances. Good enough.


I pushed myself to my feet, wincing a little. My left foreleg was mostly numb, which made me a little slower on my feet than I’d once been, but I was still quicker than a human. With luck, it would be quick enough.


I stepped across the line of mushrooms again, leaving the others outside. My cloak dragged against the ground as I did, and I reshaped it to hug my body more closely. The result looked a little like those sweaters some people put on dogs, which wasn’t exactly the fashion statement I’d have liked to make, but screw it. It would work.


The center of the circle was in the house at the top of the hill, so that was where I went. As expected, I found Scáthach and the other Sidhe standing in the same room I’d left them in. I’d been gone for almost twenty minutes, arranging things to my liking and changing, but they didn’t even seem to have moved.


“Jarl,” she said as I walked into the room. “Are you prepared?”


I nodded, my eyes on the person I was supposed to be fighting. He was smiling, a little, but I could tell that he was more nervous than he wanted me to think. It was easy to see in the way he was standing, the way one hand rested on his sword. He hadn’t been expecting me to fight, I was guessing.


“Excellent,” Scáthach said, holding one hand out in front of her. She was holding what looked like a black silk handkerchief, which twisted in a nonexistent wind. “Let no weapon be drawn until this cloth touches the ground.”


I tensed, ready to move. The Sidhe duke was gripping his sword openly now. The room was dead silent, not even the sound of breathing to disturb the stillness. My heart was pounding, rapid and strong, ready for the coming exertion.


Scáthach disappeared, leaving the handkerchief to fall. I paid her no mind, all my attention focused on the scrap of cloth drifting through the air. It caught a crossbreeze and fluttered sideways, teasing, before it fell again. I heard the whisper of silk against wood as it brushed against the floor.


He heard it, too. At the exact moment it touched down, he lunged forward, drawing his sword as he did. It crackled with some kind of energy, and I no longer had any doubt that it was silver. Out of its scabbard, it ached, even at a distance.


But he’d reacted too fast to think. He’d been expecting me to hesitate, or back away, and I did neither. I charged straight at him instead, throwing myself forward with all four feet. I hit his left knee with my right shoulder, knocking him off balance, and then I was past. I was inside the arc of his swing, and he barely clipped my tail on the way by.


It hurt, a little. More from the proximity of the silver than anything; I was fairly confident he hadn’t even touched skin. I leapt for the window while he was off balance. I’d been expecting to shatter it, and relying on fur to stop most of the glass, but I got lucky. It popped out in one piece and I was through, leaving the glass to break on the ground behind me.


I trotted over to the open ground in front of the door, waiting. It took a minute or so for the duke to come out, but he wasn’t favoring the leg I’d hit. Pity. He had his sword in one hand, and the other upraised. He pointed at me with his empty hand as soon as he came through the door, and I jumped aside. There was nothing visible there, but I wasn’t taking chances.


Which was just as well, because an instant later the grass I’d been standing on started to wither and die. I still couldn’t see anything, but I could smell some kind of magic, distinctively Sidhe with notes of death and decay. Not something I wanted to get hit by, I was pretty confident.


He rushed at me without waiting to see whether his magic would connect. I was still off balance, and I couldn’t dodge away as easily as I would have preferred. The sword barely clipped my shoulder, and it hurt. Not just the pain of silver, although that was considerable; there was also something almost like being hit with an electrical current, sharp pain and twitching muscles.


I bit at his sword hand, though, and drew blood. I backed away before he could strike again, testing the injured limb, and found that it could support my weight easily enough.


We were both looking at each other with a sort of respect, now. I was slowed and made even more clumsy by the damage to my shoulder, but his grip was weakened. It was hard to say which of us had come out on top in that first clash.


I was right that he would try to win fast, though. I’d barely had a chance to determine that my leg was still working before he moved toward me. I turned tail and ran for the small cluster of trees that was the only real cover on the hill, wrapping myself in shadows as I went. Even injured and clumsy, four feet were better than two, and I outdistanced him easily enough.


Most of my mind was on analyzing that exchange of blows. I was pretty sure, from how it had gone, that I was right about this duke. He was fast, undeniably, faster than anyone had a right to be, but there was something lacking. It was hard to say quite what it was. Certainty, maybe, a confidence that what he did would work. He was missing the killer instinct that would have taken him from a skilled fighter to a terrifying one.


I made it to the trees, where my cloak of shadows would let me blend into the darkness, and turned to look back. I’d hoped that he would keep chasing me into the trees and I could ambush him, but there was no such luck. He seemed content to wait out in the open, and considering what he was, I had no confidence that I could outwait him. I could be patient when I had to, but eventually I would need to eat, or drink, or sleep. There was no guarantee that he would.


Then I noticed that he was still bleeding. I could smell it. That was a welcome surprise. I’d gotten so used to fighting things that could recover from almost any injury that I’d almost forgotten that you could hurt something and have it stay hurt.


That made my mind up for me. I moved out the other side of the trees, keeping my shadows tightly wrapped around myself, and started to circle around the hill. I knew better than to think my concealment would hold up against the direct scrutiny of any of the Sidhe, let alone one of their dukes, but with luck he would think that I was still in the trees. If he didn’t actually look at me, I might have a chance.


Even with a bad leg, I could move pretty quickly as a wolf. I circled around, out of sight, and then started up over the hill. In less than a minute, I was lurking in the shadow of the house, looking down at him.


I’d gotten lucky again. His attention was still focused on the grove of trees, and he appeared quite willing to wait there ’til the end of days. He had his sword out, but it wasn’t in a ready position, more just hanging by his side.


Now I focused on stealth, rather than speed. I wasn’t great at it, but I’d learned to move pretty quietly over the years, and a little bit of magic woven through the air and shadows around my paws muffled the noise even more. Between that, my cloak, and the fact that his attention was focused elsewhere, I thought that I might be able to get within fifty feet of him before he realized that I had moved.


I’d overestimated my skill, or underestimated his alertness. I’d barely covered half the distance between us when he perked up and started to glance in my direction, alerted by some small noise or scent. Or hell, maybe he’d felt the magic I was working; that kind of thing was natural for the Sidhe, after all.


I gave up on stealth entirely and just sprinted at him. He turned to face me and then visibly startled, flinching away. I couldn’t really blame him for it; from his perspective, a vaguely wolf-shaped patch of darkness had just started running at him at the next best thing to fifty miles per hour.


He recovered almost immediately, but I was already pretty close to him by that point. He started to raise his sword, and I could smell some kind of magic, but I was already leaping for him. I hit his upraised arm and clung, dragging him off balance, biting at his hand. The silver stung my paws and mouth, but I accepted it as the cost of doing business and kept biting, tearing at his fingers with my teeth.


He was wearing armored gauntlets, but they were never intended to stand up to this kind of focused assault. It was only a few seconds before I’d done enough damage to his hand that he couldn’t maintain his grip, and the sword fell to the ground.


I let go a moment later, picking up the sword in my mouth. Apparently even the hilt was made of some silver alloy, because that hurt too, burning my lips and tongue. I forced myself to ignore the pain and start running down the hill.


I’d barely taken three steps before the magic he’d been preparing hit me, wracking me with waves of pain. My muscles clenched and I tripped, bouncing head over heels down the hill. The muscle convulsions did serve one purpose, in that my jaws clamped down on the sword, preventing it from bouncing out or twisting on the way down. I even got lucky and didn’t disembowel myself with the thing.


When I came to rest, I was at the bottom of the hill, at the very edge of the dueling ground. Literally; some of the mushrooms of the faerie ring were pressed outward where I was lying on them.


Not quite out of the circle, though. Not quite disqualified.


It took me a few seconds to stand, and when I did my movements were still jerky and uncoordinated. I quickly moved back from the edge, lest I accidentally fall and land outside the circle.


Then, while the Sidhe was still halfway up the hill, I jerked my head and let go of the sword. It wasn’t a great toss, this not being something I’d practiced much, but the sword still flew a decent distance. It spun once in the air and then hit the ground, sinking in easily, so that it ended up sticking out of the dirt about fifteen feet outside the circle.


I shook my head, trying to clear the burning and numbness from my mouth, and then trotted up the hill a ways, grinning at the Sidhe. He was hesitating, and it wasn’t hard to see why. That sword had clearly been his main weapon, and it was going to be hard for him to get it back. He could conceivably go to the edge of the circle and throw a rope or something for it without breaking the rules, but he’d need at least a minute to do it.


That left us at something of an impasse. He was missing his sword, and I was guessing he’d used most of the magic he was going to. He’d thrown some fairly big punches already, after all, and he couldn’t be that much of a specialist in combat magic or he wouldn’t have needed a sword. He was still wearing that silver armor, though, which would slow me down considerably.


Neither of us was in a good position to hurt the other, then, and both of us were already injured. My mouth still hurt from carrying that sword, and I could smell the blood from his hand. All things considered, it was hard to say which of us was in the worse position.


Which, compared to where we’d started this fight, was a considerable step up for me. I was pretty sure he felt similarly, which was nice. Not so much because of the satisfaction I got from seeing his frustration, although it was considerable; no, I was more glad because it suggested that I was right.


He seemed less inclined to rush in now that he was disarmed, and I had no objection to keeping my distance for a minute. It would give the silver-inflicted burns on my mouth and paws some time to heal.


We circled each other for a minute or so, looking for weaknesses. I didn’t see any beyond what I’d already noted, which was troubling. I might have improved my situation, but he was still basically dressed in a suit of silver. It was going to be hard for me to do any real damage to him while he was wearing that. He knew it, too, which meant I couldn’t just scare him and hope the he’d surrender. It would have to be a credible threat to get a reaction out of him.


Fortunately, there was more than one way to win this fight.


I kept circling until I was on the uphill side, then charged. I feinted low and he crouched, trying to slash at me before remembering that I’d taken his weapon. Then I jumped at his face.


He caught me, trying to force me to grapple. It was a good move for him; every second in contact with him would be burning me, while my own attacks would likely skid aside on his armor. Fortunately for me, his grip was weak where I’d bit his hand, and I was able to squirm out of it after just a couple seconds.


Then I set my hind feet against his chest, and jumped.


There are certain rules that even supernatural beings can’t lightly ignore. Newton’s third law of motion is one of them. I’d put a bunch of force into him by jumping off of him like that, and not even magic could just make that force go away.


The force on me was sufficient to let me clear almost ten feet before I hit the ground. A proportional force, when he was already off balance from trying to catch almost two hundred pounds of wolf, was more than the duke could withstand. He fell.


And then, as people wearing armor who get pushed down on a hill without expecting it tend to do, he rolled.


Given a little time, he probably would have been able to self-arrest. But it wasn’t a very tall hill, and it was a fairly steep one. He rolled, and kept rolling until he reached the bottom.


I watched for a moment, but there was no indication that he had forfeited. I would have expected Scáthach to show up and declare it if he did, and she made no such appearance. Evidently he was in the same position I’d been in, brushing against the mushrooms of the faerie ring without quite crossing them.


I growled a little at that. I hate it when a fight goes fairly.


It was tricky fetching something from my cloak without hands, but I’d designed it well. I was able to dig out a small crystal sphere with my teeth and lob it at him before he’d finished standing up again.


It was a terrible throw, wildly off-target. I reached out and put a tailwind behind it, adjusting the density of the air around it so that it would go where I wanted it to.


It still wasn’t a great throw. It wouldn’t hit him. But it would get close enough that he would be in the blast radius when it hit the ground.


He saw it coming, and I was sure he could feel the magic in it. He reacted on instinct, moving the only way he could to get away from it. He stepped across the line.


A moment later, the sphere hit the ground and burst with a flash of light and a high-pitched howl. Harmless, although he’d had no way to know that. And, in fairness, I was carrying lethal spells and I’d have used one of them without hesitating if I could have. The flashbang had just been the first thing I grabbed.


And a moment after that, Scáthach stepped up next to him. I wasn’t sure where she stepped up from; she was just there, without any warning. Par for the course when it came to the fae, really.


“Duke,” she said, loudly enough that I could hear her halfway up the hill. “By exiting the circle, you have shown your lack of commitment to your position. I find in the jarl’s favor in your dispute. Return to your demesnes and await my displeasure.”


He bowed to her and turned away. A portal appeared in front of him after around thirty seconds and he stepped through it—without, I noticed, having said a single word since he showed up. Scáthach wasn’t shy about ruling her Court with an iron fist, it would seem.


And then she turned to face me. I sighed and trotted down the hill to learn how she’d turned my apparent victory into a win for her.

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Unclean Hands 9.13

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About forty minutes later, I walked back up to the house. A vaguely canid skeleton walked next to me, its movements utterly silent. You’d have to look closely to see the thin coating of black fog around the bones, or the tiny sparks of blue light burning in the eye sockets.


Miraculously, nothing appeared to have gone disastrously wrong in my absence. Snowflake met me at the base of the hill. Oh, she said, sounding less than thrilled. You brought that thing.


“That’s right,” Legion said. “Now shut up, mutt. Adults are talking.”


“This is where the ward was anchored,” I said hastily, before Snowflake could say anything. “Can you see it?”


“Oh, yeah,” Legion said, barely even glancing at the faerie ring. “Definitely recent Sidhe work on top.”


“On top? What’s that mean?”


“Oh, this is old work. Looks like the bottom layer is maybe five hundred years old? Something like that. Tylwyth Teg, I’m thinking, although that far back the distinctions start to get a little fuzzier.”


“That’s ridiculous,” I said automatically. “Five hundred years? You can’t make a ward last that long. It would degrade.”


“Sure, but you’ve got faeries dancing in this thing almost every night, I’m guessing. That kind of ritual keeps it fresh, builds on it. Say what you want about them, but they build to last.”


“Right,” I said. “Okay. Explains why they were doing this here, anyway, if they’ve been using the location that long. Let’s keep going.”


We hiked up to the house without seeing anyone else. “Look around,” I told Legion. “I want to know what’s going on here, what kind of residues you can find.”


“You gots it, Boss,” he said, trotting off around the building.


I walked inside and looked around. I didn’t see anything out of place, but that didn’t necessarily mean much. “Any trouble?” I called.


There was a brief pause before Aiko appeared from under a veil, on the other side of the room. “What’s the password?” she called, pointing her carbine at me.


I stared at her. “We didn’t set up a password before I left. Besides, do you really think an impostor could fool Snowflake? Seriously?”


“Good,” she said, lowering the gun. Her expression was relieved as she dropped the weapon to hang from its strap. “And no, I haven’t seen anything.”


“Okay, this level of paranoia is not normal for you. What gives?”


“This is Court business,” she said, pacing around the room. “You can’t be too careful with that sort of thing. Besides, I was expecting someone to show up by now. They know we’re here, and they have to know there’s a chance that we’ll find something they’d rather we didn’t. Sending some people to scare us off and destroy any evidence would make sense.”


“Maybe they aren’t willing to do anything that overt,” I suggested. “It sounds like this is still fairly subtle.”


“Maybe,” she said doubtfully. “But you’re talking about Sidhe politics. It’s a sucker’s bet that there’s some scheme going.”


I sighed. “Thanks for reminding me. Hopefully Legion will finish up soon, and we can get out of here. This place makes me itch.”


Less than ten minutes later, the demon walked up to me. “I’ve got it, Boss,” he said. “But you aren’t going to like it.”


“Of course not,” I said sourly. “First off, what can you tell me about the people that were here?”


“There are some definite Sidhe signatures,” he said cheerily. “I’m reading at least half a dozen, maybe more. A bit of troll residue, a bit of goblin. You walk in on a party or something?”


“Something. What Court are we talking about, here?”


“Solidly on the Midnight side of things, it looks like. A few of them might be unaffiliated. Honestly, it’s hard to get details on a magical residue.”


“Okay. And now for the big question. Can you get anything about a Faerie Queen in the area?”


“Yes, and let me just say that you are incredibly stupid to be getting into that. I mean, you’ve done some dumb things, I think we all know that, but this really raises the bar.”


“Less backtalk,” I growled. “More answers.”


“I’m getting there. Yes, there was a Queen around here. Definitely from the Daylight Court, I’m guessing Aoife. She did one of the wards on that faerie ring, and a few more around the building. Solid work, a little on the passive side, but solid.”


“Yes!” I said. “Can you show that she was in communication with the Sidhe that were meeting here? Telling them we were coming, or something like that.”


“Give me a minute,” he said. The shadows around his bones seemed to draw back a little, and the sparks of light dimmed; he was focusing most of his attention on what I’d asked him to do, and he’d shifted some of his essence back to the spiritual side of things to do so. I’d seldom seen him do it, because I generally used Legion more as a lab assistant than a field researcher. He was simultaneously too valuable and much too dangerous to take out often.


“Doesn’t look like it, Boss,” he said after a few minutes. “I’m not actually seeing anything from her in the same time frame as they were here. Honestly, there’s no reason she would have; she could have just sent a messenger, or tripped one of the wards they had set up. Just as good and a lot less noticeable.”


“Damn,” I said. “Damn. Okay, let me think for a minute.”


I couldn’t see where to go from here. If we couldn’t track them, and there was nothing here incriminating enough that I could use it against them, then there wasn’t much I could take to Scáthach. I could always wait for the group to meet again, but I must have spooked them pretty badly just now. And the fae are, generally, patient; they’re immortal, after all. It might be years before they felt comfortable enough to gather again. That was time I didn’t have.


I was confused, though, because everything I’d said to Scáthach was still true. I was a tool, and maybe even a valuable one. She could easily have predicted that I would find out where they were, and once I did, it wasn’t hard to see the cause-and-effect chain leading to this moment. Which, in turn, meant that there must be some way to proceed, because otherwise she’d put a fair amount of effort into a pointless investment.


Except…now that I thought about it, I wasn’t so sure she wanted me to succeed. Yes, I’d be in trouble with the Conclave if I didn’t, but Alexander had flat out said that it wouldn’t kill me. It would just cause problems, force me to take steps to protect myself. It would make me desperate.


In other words, it would make me even more useful to her. A desperate man, hunted and on the run, is an easy one to manipulate. She might even be able to talk me into signing on with her Court, just because it was one of the few forces around that could protect me from the Conclave if they got upset with me.


“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get out of here. We can come up with something else to try once we’re somewhere safe.”


“Sounds good,” Aiko said. Her expression was relieved.


I started to walk to the exit, and then paused.


Why wasn’t Aiko wearing her armor? Under the circumstances, I would have expected her to want as much iron between her and the world as possible. There was no reason for her to take her helmet off.


“Legion,” I said, thinking through what was going on as I spoke. “Identify everyone present, please.”


“Sure, Boss,” he said, conveying the impression of a shrug without moving. “I’m here, obviously, and so are you. The mutt’s over there, and her shadow is too.” Snowflake growled at him, and he laughed. “Anyway, then there’s the doppelganger. Nice try, but you really don’t know what a kitsune smells like, do you? Come on, even Winter caught you.”


“Right,” I said, looking at Aiko. Or, rather, at the person imitating Aiko, and doing a pretty subpar job of it, if I’d caught her this quickly. “I believe this is your cue to explain yourself, doppelganger.”


She paused, and then darted one hand at her pocket.


Before she could grab whatever she’d been going for, Snowflake bit her leg and jerked it out from under her. The doppelganger hit the ground, screaming, even though Snowflake hadn’t done any real damage. I was pretty sure that bite hadn’t even broken skin.


“Iron teeth,” I said, squatting next to her. “Burns, doesn’t it? I mean, iron doesn’t hurt me, so I wouldn’t know, but I imagine it’s similar to silver.”


She snarled at me, doing a surprisingly good job of mimicking Aiko’s expressions, and started to go for that pocket again. Snowflake growled, just behind her head, and she flinched and stopped.


“I’m not in a very good mood,” I said. “I don’t have a lot of time, and I don’t think you comprehend just how much you just pissed me off. So I’m going to explain things in simple terms. I’m going to ask you some questions. You’re going to answer them, honestly and without keeping anything back. If at any point I think you’re trying to fool me, I’m going to start putting iron filings under your skin. I doubt it will kill you, but I expect you know better than I do how much it will hurt. Are we clear?”


She glared at me some more. I reached into my cloak and pulled out a small leather bag and a knife. She blinked and said, “You wouldn’t dare.”


I smiled at her. She flinched a little. “As I said, you really pissed me off with this. I don’t enjoy causing pain, and I don’t generally condone torture. But you took Aiko, and I don’t know how long I have to find her before something bad happens. So yes, I absolutely dare. If you don’t start talking, you’re going to find out just how much I dare. Again, are we clear?”


I must have been pretty convincing, because the doppelganger looked away and then nodded. “Crystal.”


“Good. Where is the kitsune?”


“In the bedroom, in the closet. There are illusions around her, but she’s there.”


“Snowflake,” I said. “Confirm that, please.”


And leave you alone with this thing? she said. That doesn’t sound like a good idea.


I’ve got plenty of iron, and Legion is here. We’ll be fine.


She snorted, but she went. As predicted, the doppelganger made another try for whatever weapon or escape route she had in her pocket, but she stopped when I grabbed her wrist. Steel gauntlets are lots of fun when it comes to grappling with a faerie.


She’s here, Snowflake reported a moment later. Out cold. Hang on, I’m bringing her out there.


“Good,” I said, once they were back in the room with us. Aiko had been stripped to the skin, probably so that the doppelganger could use her clothing, but she didn’t look injured. Snowflake resumed position behind our prisoner, and I let her go. “What did you do to her?”


“Sleeping potion,” the doppelganger said. “I don’t know how it works.”


“How long until it wears off?”


The doppelganger started to shrug, then stopped when Snowflake growled at her again. “I don’t know.”


“Okay,” I said. “Why did you drug her? Why did you try to impersonate her?”


“Those were the instructions I was given,” she said. “Wait for someone to be vulnerable, take them out and replace them.”


“Given by whom?”


“The person who hired me. I don’t know who he is, not reliably.”


I nodded. That wasn’t surprising; they wouldn’t have told her anything more than they absolutely had to, not if she was hired help. “What can you tell me about him?”


She licked her lips and looked from me to Legion, then glanced back at Snowflake. The husky growled at her, and she flinched. “He’s Sidhe, fairly powerful,” she said. “Part of the Midnight Court, but not that highly ranked, I think. He and the other people here have a shared interest, something political.”


“What part of the Midnight Court is he in?”


“I think he answers to Scáthach,” she said. “But I don’t know for sure. He doesn’t like it where he is, I know that.”


“This is a lot of information, for someone who doesn’t know much about the guy,” I noted.


“I’m a mercenary,” she said bluntly. “I have to know something about the people I’m working for, just as an insurance policy.”


“Right,” I said, nodding slowly. “Stay where you are. I need a minute to think about this.” I stood up and walked away, pacing.


And then, very suddenly, I saw how to deal with this, and I almost wanted to laugh. Apparently I’d been wrong, and Scáthach actually did want me to pull this off. Or, more likely, it was a test of some sort, and she was happy with either outcome. Or, hell, maybe she actually hadn’t anticipated this.


“Scáthach,” I said, loudly and clearly. “I know you’re listening. This is too important for you to not be paying attention. I have something to say.”


“And what would that be, my dear jarl?” She chose to appear behind me, much like Aoife had done, but unlike her sister she was slightly to the side, so that she was whispering in my ear. Her breath felt cold on my skin and smelled sweet, with just a touch of something uglier underneath. I wanted to shiver.


I took a step away and nodded to her instead. “Queen,” I said. “I have reason to believe that a group of your subjects was here very recently. They have done harm to me unlawfully, and I demand satisfaction.”


“What evidence do you have for your charges?” she asked, with a vulpine smile. She knew, and I wasn’t sure why she was going through with this charade.


But I could play along. “Logic and common sense,” I said. “The fact that one of my people is currently unconscious. The word of someone who isn’t in a position to lie.” I gestured at the doppelganger, who was cringing away from Scáthach. That put her uncomfortably close to Snowflake, almost touching the steel armor she was wearing, but apparently the Queen was frightening enough to outweigh the pain.


“Your evidence is convincing,” the goddess said, not even glancing at the doppelganger. “But not compelling. Allow me to bring the leader of the group in question here, so that we may hear his side of the story.”


I opened my mouth, though I wasn’t sure what I was going to say. It didn’t matter, in any case; Scáthach wasn’t interested in my input. She gestured slightly, and I felt a gentle surge of magic. Maybe ten seconds later, a portal opened and a male Sidhe stepped into the room.


That fast of a reaction seemed a little suspicious in itself to me. Then again, maybe Scáthach really did expect that degree of responsiveness from her people.


“You are accused of doing harm to a foreign power in a time of peace without due cause,” she said without preamble. “What say you?”


“I am innocent, my Queen,” he purred in a voice like chilled silk. “I have done no such thing to this man.”


“Doppelganger,” I said. “Is this the person who hired you?”


She cringed even more as everyone in the room turned to look at her. “No,” she said weakly. “But he was giving my employer orders.”


I turned to Scáthach. “There you have it,” I said. “Under your law, he must answer for the actions of his subordinates, when those actions were taken in the context of that role. Or am I wrong?”


“On the contrary, your grasp of the legal principle involved is quite accurate,” she said. Alone of everyone in that room, she seemed to be enjoying herself. “It would seem I am faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, your accusations have some evidence to support them, and your word’s value is well known. On the other hand, you are accusing my Duke of a crime, and his word, as well, is known to be good.”


A Duke? That couldn’t be good. I wasn’t sure what the hierarchy of the Courts looked like, but from what I remembered of human nobility, a duke was near the top. I hadn’t been expecting the ringleader of this group to have that much authority.


“Decisions, decisions,” she murmured. “How shall I resolve this, then?”


Nobody offered any suggestions. Hell, I wasn’t even breathing, and I doubted I was alone in that. Nobody wanted to be the center of attention in that room.


“I know,” Scáthach said, sounding so self-satisfied that I just knew I wasn’t going to like what she said next. “Let us have a trial.”


I hate being right.

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Unclean Hands 9.12

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I stood on that hill for what felt like a long time, watching the sunset and looking at the hole in the ground, watching as emergency vehicles began to cluster around it and a crowd began to gather. I felt oddly disconnected from what I saw; I knew, logically, that I was responsible, but on an emotional level it felt like I was looking in from the outside.


I wasn’t concerned about being found there. I was far enough away that it would take a while for them to look here, and my face was hidden behind my cloak.


And besides, what did it matter if they did connect this to me? It couldn’t make them hate me any more than they already did.


The sunset was fading and I was trying to decide what to do next when I heard a familiar voice behind me. “Good evening, jarl.”


I looked back and saw the leader of the ghouls I’d fought earlier. He was wearing the human guise I’d first seen, but as before, it was…less than perfect. He didn’t seem aggressive, so I nodded politely to him. “Good evening, Jibril.”


He walked up and stood next to me, looking at the hole in the ground. “Your work?” he asked idly.


I shrugged and nodded. “Close enough.”


“I’m guessing the boss was in there?”


“Yeah. Her, a bunch of the vampires working for her, a lot of her soldiers.”


“Any of my people?”


I hesitated, but there wasn’t much point in lying. “Eleven. They’re dead now. Nothing personal, it just seemed…wiser not to take chances.”


He sighed and nodded. “I don’t blame you. It’s just….” He trailed off and shook his head. “Damn shame. People like you and her getting in your wars, but it’s the little guy stuck in between that dies.”


“You aren’t going to cause problems for me, then?”


He snorted. “After this? That’d be stupid. The boss is dead, anyway, so there’s no reason to stick around. I figure we’ll get out of your town. Probably stay away for a while, maybe try to find work back in the old country.”


I considered him for a moment, then sighed. “You don’t have to, if you don’t want.”


He regarded me with what I thought was an expression of curiosity. It was hard to tell on those features, but I was fairly confident that was the gist of what he was trying to convey.


“I could use some employees,” I explained. “I can’t promise it’ll be safe, but I won’t ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. And I can offer you reasonable pay.” I shrugged. “Or you can stay in town without working for me. Just don’t cause trouble.”


He pondered that. “Huh,” he said after a moment. “My people might not want to fight for you after all this. But we’ll see.”


“Just let me know,” I said. “I won’t hold a grudge against you either way.”


He left. Shortly thereafter, so did I.


“How’d it go with Sveinn?” Aiko asked, ladling mashed potatoes and a mushroom-based gravy onto her plate.


“I had Kyi shoot him in the head,” I said, sitting down next to her. Snowflake headbutted me in the thigh and I scratched her ears absently. “Then I traded two of the answers Loki owed me for the destruction of Natalie’s gang and made a job offer to a bunch of cannibalistic ghouls.”


There was a moment of silence after I said that. Eventually, Aiko whistled appreciatively. “Damn. I should let you go out on your own more often.”


“When you say ‘the destruction of Natalie’s gang,'” Alexis said carefully. “What do you mean by that?”


“What it sounds like. Loki blew their hideout up. Nine vampires, eleven ghouls, forty-five humans.”


“Forty-five people,” Alexis repeated.




“And…you’re okay with that?”


I looked at her. “Alexis. I just had my lieutenant killed for lying to me. I made a deal with a devil to destroy my enemies. I voluntarily offered a job to a group of ghouls that I know damn well enjoy killing and eating people. And the next thing on my agenda is killing a bunch of people as a favor for the queen of evil faeries so that she’ll help me cover up the fact that I murdered somebody.” I started scooping food onto my own plate. “I think it’s safe to say, at this point, that I’m not the good guy in this particular story.”


“But are you okay with that?” she pressed.


I shrugged. “Does it matter? This is where we are. Maybe it isn’t where we wanted to be, but that doesn’t count for much.”


“Hey,” Aiko interjected. “I take offense to that. I mean, maybe you’re in too deep to get out, but I’m not. I stick around with you because I want to.”


Not much was said for the rest of the night.


The rest of the week passed without much of note happening. I bought a bunch of mercury, the other chemicals I would need to make my mirror, and half a dozen large sheets of glass. I was only expecting to need two, but this was delicate work; the chances that I would mess something up were very, very high.


I’m pretty sure the people from the chemical supply company thought I was crazy. I mean, it isn’t every day somebody buys almost ten grand worth of mercury and pays cash. I’d had to pay a good bit extra, too, to get them not to ask too many questions about why someone would want ten thousand dollars in mercury. But it was worth it.


Other than that, not a lot happened. Aiko bought a video game from a sketchy dealer online, and then we went and burned down his house when he sent her a disc of particularly exotic pornography instead.


Alexis spent a lot of time away, talking to the Guards about signing up. I tried not to be bothered by that, with mixed results.


It’s strange, how casual you can get about looking at terrifying threats. I mean, I knew that, if we missed this chance, it wasn’t likely that I’d be able to do Scáthach’s favor. The consequences of that would probably be all kinds of ugly. And on some level I was aware that I should feel tense about that, but I just…didn’t. It was like I’d spent so much time under the sword that it was starting to feel comfy.


All of which does a lot to explain why, in the days leading up to the actual event, I didn’t really feel any different than normal. If anything there was a sort of vague anticipation, almost like waiting for Christmas.


It was surprisingly easy to find the secret meeting of secret faeries secretly trying to overthrow Scáthach. We took an Otherside portal to London, then a train to Wales, followed by a bus into the middle of nowhere in Wales.


I’d never really done the public transit thing before. It was…about as unpleasant as I was expecting, really. Crammed into a metal tube with hundreds of people, none of whom had any concept of personal space, was not my preferred way to travel. Never mind the security risk it posed, which was significant. Anybody could be a threat in that mess, and you’d never know it until it was too late. Snowflake enjoyed it even less, although her issues had less to do with security and more to do with it not being very much fun.


Alexis wasn’t coming along. I didn’t want to drag her into Court business, and she had been…less than enthusiastic about dragging herself.


Next time, I resolved, we would just buy a car. We had the money for it, after all.


Finally, the bus stopped in the middle of some town the name of which I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to. It really wasn’t worth paying attention to; there might have been a thousand people in that town, but I doubted it. It was the sort of place where you could step out your front door and walk for an hour or two without seeing another person.


“Are you sure about this?” I asked dubiously as we got off the bus, looking around.


Aiko shrugged. “This is what the guy said.”


“It just seems odd. Why would you have a meeting out here?”


“Tradition?” she guessed. “I don’t know. This part of the world is where the Courts have the strongest ties, I guess. That might count for something.”


I sighed. “I guess. Well, lead on.”


“Cool. It’s a few miles away, so I guess the first step is to steal a car.”


I stopped. “No. No way. You did not make me sit on a bus just to steal a car as soon as we got here.”


“You really want to walk five miles to get to the meeting?”


“We have a few hours to spare,” I said dryly.


She rolled her eyes and started walking.


We’d budgeted plenty of extra time, so I wasn’t too concerned about being late. As it turned out, that wasn’t the best attitude I could have had. We were going at a leisurely pace and Aiko got turned around twice, so by the time we made it to the meeting location there was only an hour left before it was supposed to start.


Not a huge problem. But I’d have liked to have a little more time to spare.


At least it was a pleasant walk. It was surprisingly warm for a September day in Wales, warm enough that the cool breeze was welcome.


After we got there, we killed about half an hour playing dice—Snowflake won, somehow—before moving in. I didn’t want to scare anyone off, after all; my deal with Scáthach called for their total extermination. Getting there too early might mean that I only got some of the conspirators.


We hadn’t approached too closely, for much the same reason. So it wasn’t until we moved in for the kill that I got my first good look at the place.


“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” I sighed.


Aiko gave me a funny look. “What?”


“A house on a hill,” I said dryly. “Surrounded by a ring of mushrooms. Could you get more stereotypically fae than this?”


She shrugged. “They’re traditionalists.” She took a step across the line of fungi.


And froze.


“Aiko? What is it?”


She didn’t answer. A moment later, I realized that Snowflake wasn’t saying anything, and looked at her.


Frozen. Not moving at all.


I looked around, starting to panic, and saw that the grass had stopped moving in the wind.


“Okay,” I said, relaxing a little. “You might as well come out now.” Then I turned around.


My timing was good. I turned to face the woman who had appeared directly behind me just before she could start talking.


She closed her mouth and glowered at me. “You’re no fun,” she said.


“I try,” I said, studying her. There was something familiar about her, in a way that I couldn’t quite place. She was Sidhe, obviously, and even by the standards of the Sidhe she had an unearthly beauty about her, but more than that there was some quality about her that I recognized.


Then I got it. She looked like Scáthach. Not in any individual feature—she had white hair instead of black, and her features were more rounded, less hungry looking—but in her overall bearing. She had the same sense of power, the same presence.


I bowed my head slightly. “Queen. Might I have the honor of knowing whom I address?”


She glared at me. It was an odd expression, imperious and angry, but with a sense of amusement still lurking underneath. On another face I might have called it petulant, but the notion of applying that word to a Faerie Queen was…inadvisable.


“I am Aoife,” she snapped. “The Lady of Radiant Beauty, the Maiden of Daylight, the youngest Queen of the Seelie Court of the Sidhe.”


“Try fitting that on a business card,” I said mildly. “Altering the flow of time for the two of us? I’m impressed. I thought that took god-level power.”


“I am a deity,” she pointed out.


I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, and so am I, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. There are gods, and then there are gods. I wouldn’t have guessed you were this high on the list, is all I’m saying.”


She regarded me for a moment, and the anger seemed to fade from her expression. “Are you not frightened?” she asked. “Knowing that I hold you within my power?”


I shrugged. “Not really. If you wanted to kill me you’d have done it already. I’m guessing that means you want something. You showed up right when Aiko stepped over those mushrooms, so I’m guessing you were using them as the basis for a ward. That means you want something about this, specifically. Am I getting close?”


“Yes,” she said reluctantly. “I know that you were sent here by my sister to kill these people. I would rather you didn’t.”


“Okay,” I said. “These people are from the Midnight Court, right? So why are you trying to save your enemies?”


“That is none of your concern.”


“No,” I said dryly. “See, I’m here because I need Scáthach to do something pretty important for me. So yes, actually, this literally is my concern.” I frowned. “They’re speaking out for war, right? So that would suggest you want the war to heat up. I doubt you want to lose, so you must think that an increase in the war effort right now will be to your gain later on.”


Stop,” she hissed at me. “Stop thinking. You’re only buying trouble. I tell you truly that you don’t want to help my sister achieve her aims. Do as I ask now, and I will reward you.”


I eyed her. “Reward me how? Specifically, please.”


“You killed my previous champion,” she murmured. “That would seem to qualify you for the position.”


I laughed. “Wow. That’s a new best, I gotta admit. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten an offer that assumed I was quite that dumb before. Congratulations.”


“You do not wish for the power I could offer you?”


“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “I mean, really. You don’t think I have enough people telling me what to do already?” I shook my head. “Nah. The power you’re offering has a price tag attached, and I don’t think I like what it says.”


She nodded slowly. “I didn’t really expect you to,” she said. “But I had to offer the position to you before I could give it to anyone else. Tradition, you know. So what do you want?”


“A lot of things, most of which I doubt you can offer me. But your sister offered to smooth things over with the Conclave. I’m accused of killing a clan mage, and it would be awkward if they decide I’m guilty.”


“Ah,” she said. “I’m sure you know that I could do something similar.”


“Yeah,” I sighed. “But would it be worth it?” I shrugged. “Look, Aoife. I’m not going to pretend that I know what’s going on here, or what the deeper meaning is. I’m a pawn, and I know I’m a pawn. And, you know, I’ve got nothing against you, I’ve got nothing against working for you. But I don’t think it would be a very good idea for me to get drawn into your conflicts any more deeply than I already am. Not when I’m already under contract by the other side.”


“You won’t do it, then.”


“I’ll think about it,” I said carefully. “If leaving these people be seems like the better idea, I’ll do it.”


“I could make you,” she said. “But I won’t. I get the impression that you’re working for my sister out of ignorance, rather than malice, and I try not to hurt people for making honest mistakes.”


“And also Loki would skin you alive if he thought you were poaching me from him,” I said dryly.


She laughed. It was an odd, sweet sound, somewhere between wind chimes and birdsong. “And that,” she said brightly. “Good day, jarl.” She vanished.


“Ugh,” Aiko said a moment later. “I hate being paralyzed like that. Nice job telling her to screw off, though.”


“Hah,” I said. “I knew she couldn’t actually mess with time.”


“Or she just didn’t need to.”


“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, although I was pretty sure I knew. The same thing had occurred to me, and it wasn’t a pleasant thought.


“Let’s find out,” she said. “You guys should be fine to cross the faerie ring. I think the ward was just to alert her.”


Nothing obviously bad happened to us as we did, and we started up the hill. I knew before we got halfway up that I’d been right; the door of the dilapidated house was hanging open, and it hadn’t been before.


Sure enough, when we got up to the house, there was no one there. I was sure this was the right place, though; there were plates sitting out, and it smelled like recent occupancy. I could smell magic, too, not quite the same as an Otherside portal but close enough that I was confident it served about the same purpose.


I almost wanted to laugh. That whole conversation, Aoife offering me deals, it had all been a cover, buying time for them to get out. And I, like a sucker, had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.


I was getting pretty sick of dealing with the fae.


“Damn,” I said. “Damn. Do you think we could track them?”


“I doubt it,” Aiko said. “I mean, I could maybe follow one of them. But they took at least three or four different Ways out of here. And even if I could, we’d still be chasing a bunch of high-ranking Court types onto their home ground.”


“Right,” I said, thinking. “Could you two keep an eye on things here for a while?”


She shrugged. “Probably. Why?”


“Scáthach said I should kill these people, or give her an excuse to,” I said. “It seems to me that demonstrating that they were getting support from her archenemy would be a decent excuse.” I grinned. “So I think I should get an expert in to look at it.”

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