Monthly Archives: April 2015

Interlude 9.b: Alexander Hoffman

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“Interesting,” the woman said, wandering around the room. Brave of her, or stupid. It’s a rare person that wanders around my laboratory. “Did you make all of these?”


“Most,” I said, not looking away from the rune I was cutting into a length of steel. “Some I acquire from other makers.”


“Is their work as good as yours?” she asked.


“Seldom. But occasionally I encounter specialty work or novelty items that I want to examine.”


“Specialty work,” she said, seeming to fixate on that. “That might be what I’m looking for. I have very specific needs.”


I examined the rune. It seemed to be properly inscribed, so I loosened the vice and moved the steel down before tightening it again. Then I picked up the small jeweler’s chisel and started on the next rune. “It’s possible,” I said. “If you have a specific item in mind, I do occasionally work on commission. Prices may vary.”


“Price won’t be an issue,” she said dismissively, continuing her slow circuit of the room. Then she paused, standing before one of the shelves. “Ah,” she said, sounding satisfied. “Maybe I won’t need to commission you after all. This might be exactly what I need.”


“The dagger isn’t for sale,” I said, still not looking away from my work. Her questions had given me an idea of what she was looking for, and I’d anticipated that she would be interested in that particular item.


“I’m prepared to pay a great deal,” she said. “Money, power…you could name your price.”


“The dagger isn’t for sale,” I repeated, looking up for the first time since we entered the laboratory. “And your prices just doubled. I dislike having to repeat myself.”


The smile on her face faltered. “Listen,” she said, trying to sound seductive. “I’m sure we can make a deal. Vishnu himself owes me a favor, you know. I might even be persuaded to trade that debt.”


I met her eyes. They were dark, and made darker by the tattoos around them, which drew in what little light there was in the room. “The dagger isn’t for sale,” I repeated again. “And I will not be selling anything to you, regardless of price. Leave now.”


“I don’t think you understand what I’m offering,” she said.


“No. You don’t understand what you’re dealing with. I’m probably the single greatest craftsman of magical items in the world at this time. I could produce one object per month for the European clans and live a life of wealth and luxury. And you’re trying to bargain with me like a common merchant.” I looked back to my work, tapping the chisel delicately. Each line had to be incised to precisely the correct depth, for this work. “You may consider this a revocation of your invitation to come inside,” I added. “If you are still in this building in one minute, I will kill you.”


She stared at me, then stormed upstairs. A moment later, I felt her cross the threshold, and the front door closed again. A minor effort on my part, almost thoughtless, was enough to lock the door behind her.


I cut the next three runes into the piece of steel, then removed it from the vise with some satisfaction. The geometric structure was established, the mnemonic was done, and I’d started work on the trigger mechanism. Another half-hour’s work would be sufficient to finish the piece.


I set it down and walked over to the shelf, looking at the dagger. As always, I could feel the magic burning in it, a quietly dangerous power barely restrained by the structure it had been forced into. It was not unlike standing beside a sleeping tiger, knowing that at any moment the tiger might wake up.


My fingers hovered over the metal for a moment, barely a centimeter from the blade, then fell back to my side. I returned to my worktable and picked up the piece of steel once again.


I watched from the house as the carriage stopped outside. It was a fine carriage, elegant black wood pulled by two black horses. The man it had brought was a match for the carriage, dressed all in fancy black clothes.


I didn’t trust it. This was a new thing, and I’d learned that new things weren’t to be trusted. Looking like that, the man had to be a nobleman of some sort, and there was no good reason for a nobleman to come to this village.


My father had been outside talking to the nobleman for about five minutes when he came back inside. He looked at me with an odd expression, then said, “Come.” When I hesitated, nervous, he grabbed me by the collar and dragged me outside.


The nobleman glanced at me and nodded. “Yes,” he said. “That’s the one.” He drew a leather pouch out of his clothing and tossed it to the dirt by my father’s feet. It landed with the heavy clink of metal. “That should be enough,” the nobleman said, with what sounded like disgust in his voice.


My father shoved me away and bent to pick up the pouch. I staggered, almost falling. The nobleman put a hand on my shoulder, steadying me. I knew I should be grateful, but I didn’t like being touched. I jerked my arm away, trying to get away from the nobleman, but nothing happened. It looked casual, but his grip on my shoulder was like iron.


“Come on, boy,” he said, walking towards the carriage. “It’s time we were going.”


“I don’t understand,” I said, hating myself for saying it. “What’s going on?”


“Your father sold you,” he said, not unkindly. “You’re going to live with me now.” We reached the carriage and he lifted me up into it with the same casual, unnatural strength. He was slender in build, but he had to be as strong as the village blacksmith to throw me around like that. He climbed up beside me and clucked to the horses, which began to walk away. They didn’t seem to be moving that rapidly, or working that hard, but the road passed us by quickly. In only a couple of minutes the village was receding behind us, and the fields weren’t far from the same.


“Where are we going?” I said at last. I hated asking questions—it felt like admitting defeat, and my father’s response had usually been a fist in any case—but I hated not knowing more.


The nobleman seemed to think about it for a moment. “Don’t worry about that, boy,” he said. “We’ll get there when we get there.”


“My name’s Karl, not boy,” I snapped. I knew it was foolish, but being called that rankled.


“No,” the nobleman said. “Karl lived in that rathole back there. He had nothing to look forward to but a short, squalid life in that village, working a field. Do you understand?”


I stared at the back of the horse’s head. I’d known that was my fate, but that didn’t mean I had to like hearing it.


The nobleman reached out and slapped the back of my head. It wasn’t a hard slap, more humiliating than painful. “I said, do you understand?”


“Yes,” I said, sounding sullen even to myself. “I understand.”


“Good. Now, I want you to pay attention, because I’m only going to say this once. As of right now, Karl is dead. He died the moment you got in this carriage. You’re someone entirely different, and you’re going to become something that fool could never have imagined.”


“So what’s my name now?” I asked. I thought he sounded ridiculous, and I wanted to catch him off guard so that he would see that too.


I didn’t get what I expected. “You haven’t earned a name yet,” he said.


“Well then, what’s your name?” I challenged. I was starting to feel scared, realizing how far over my head I was in, and being scared had always made me confrontational.


“You haven’t earned that, either. But for now you can call me Maker.”


I blinked, becoming aware that I was in my bed. Not a child. Not on my way to live with the man I would later come to regard as an embodiment of the devil himself, and later still realize was just an old, desperate, and terribly bored man.


A dream, then. Just one more reason I so seldom slept. Maker’s training had given me a memory so sharp I could cut myself and not even realize it. I pushed myself up to a seated position, feeling the sweat drying on my skin. I didn’t bother with blankets, even when I did sleep. They weren’t necessary.


Even after so long, I still found it odd that I could feel the effects of the nightmare—sweating, increased heart rate, all the effects of sympathetic nervous stimulation—and yet I felt…nothing. There was no emotional reaction, no fear, no regret. A side effect of long-term practice of logical, analytic modes of thought. The emotion was still there, but so disconnected as to lose all meaning.


Getting up, I turned on the light with a thought and dressed, my thoughts still distracted by the memory of my youth, and then left my bedroom behind. It was a small room, barely more than a closet, and disused. I usually slept for around four hours each week, but it wasn’t uncommon for me to lose track and go months without.


As I walked down to the laboratory, I found myself thinking idly about the other children Maker had taken in. I wondered whether any of them were still alive. It wasn’t impossible. No one had survived the fire I started at the end, but some of those who had left before then might still be around.


I’d never bothered trying to track them down. I’d worked with those people for years, in a couple of cases decades, and yet I’d never tried to find them afterward. I’d thought of them as friends, but in the end I just didn’t care enough to look for them. Maker had been right about that, just like everything else, damn him.


I took a deep breath and sat down at the laboratory workbench. I might not be feeling the emotions that dream stirred up, but that didn’t mean they weren’t affecting me. Clearly I wasn’t yet calm, or I wouldn’t have felt that remote spike of hatred at the thought of my long-dead master.


That was unacceptable. The delicacy of making demanded a very specific mindset, and I wasn’t in it. I pulled a notebook down off the shelf and flipped through it until I found a blank page, dug through the drawer until I found a pen, and started writing out an integral.


Strange, that it would calm the emotions that memory had stirred up, when this very thing had been what I spent so much of my time on back then. Calculus had been young in those days, almost as young as I was, but Maker had seized on the new mathematics almost before they were published. It was hard to design a truly intricate piece of magic without them. Computers that could do the brute work of the calculations had been a godsend in my line of work.


Half an hour later, I was finally feeling dispassionate enough to return to what I had been doing before I went to sleep. I put the last layer down on the piece of steel, stabilizing it for long-term storage, and set it aside. It was a boring spell, one that I’d made probably a hundred times before, but someone would buy it.


After that I finished an interesting force field that an African mage had commissioned, followed by a focus designed to facilitate sympathetic magic. Not my strongest suit, but it wasn’t terribly complex work.


Finally, just when I was starting to wonder whether I’d been wrong, I felt someone start interfering with my wards. It was skilled work; rather than actually try to disable them, which would have been quite resource-intensive, they interfered with just the portions of the magic that worked to identify targets. Without that, the wards treated everyone as though they were invited, allowing them in without difficulty.


I could have triggered them manually easily enough, but I didn’t. Better to let them inside. I would prefer to avoid making this a public issue if I could. For much the same reason, I unlocked the door for them. No sense forcing them to damage it to get in.


I counted five people entering the room. One of them was the same woman from before. Three of the others were armed for war, carrying a wide variety of magical armaments. The last was a man of perhaps twenty years, barely more than a child, who hung back towards the rear of the group and seemed uncomfortable. A glance was enough to confirm that he’d been the one to bypass the wards.


I was guessing he was a specialist, whose only talent was exactly that. Most mages looked down on such people as hopelessly limited in the application of their skills, which was a reasonable criticism. What too many people failed to recognize was that what they lacked in versatility, they made up for in focus. When you only needed to practice one thing, you could get very good at it.


He was smart, too. Smart enough that once they were in, and the others were preoccupied with proceeding inside, he turned and bolted like a scared rabbit.


One of the men reached the trapdoor, and found it unlocked. He paused, saying something in what I presumed was Indian. I’d never been good with languages, although Maker had insisted that I learn to read and write in Latin, Greek, and Arabic.


The man sounded worried, likely suspecting a trap, but the woman who was in charge laughed and brushed by him. She threw the trapdoor open easily and descended the ladder into my laboratory.


“Good evening,” I said. “You are aware that you are trespassing in my home, while I’m present in it?”


“I tried to wait for you to leave,” she said lightly, smiling. “But you didn’t come out.”


Of course not. Except for the occasional Conclave meeting, I hadn’t left this building in half a decade. “I suppose you’re here for the dagger,” I said. “You know, it’s really quite amusing. You threw your life away for a trinket, and it wouldn’t even do what you want it to.”


“Oh?” she said, raising one eyebrow. “And you know what I want?”


“Of course I do,” I snapped. “You couldn’t have made it more obvious that you were trying to live forever. I suppose you saw that it was based on principles of vampirism?”


“Of course,” she said. “I’ve spent some time studying vampires. It wasn’t hard to recognize the patterns.”


“Yes. But it’s flawed. It takes too much. A vampire only draws life from its victims, but that dagger also takes thoughts, and emotions. If you were to use it, it would only be a few years before your core personality was buried in the noise from the people you’d killed. You would, for all practical intents and purposes, be dead.”


“Oh,” she said, sounding surprised. “And…you use this thing?”


I snorted. “I’m not that stupid. There are many ways to escape the ravages of time. Had you treated me with respect, I might have sold you one that actually works.”


“I will have what I want,” she said quietly. “I know you’re a skilled fighter, old man. But I brought friends. I will get what I’m looking for.”


“Hm,” I said. “Allow me to provide my succinct retort. Marchosias.”


They looked at me in confusion. Then one of them happened to glance down and saw that the concrete under him was smoking slightly. He jumped aside, and a moment later a beast clawed its way out through the floor. He looked like a wolf, albeit an exceedingly large one, except that he had wings, and his tail was covered in scales. Also, rather than saliva, his jaws dripped oily violet flames. They ran down his jaw without harming the fur and dripped on the floor, which smoked and hissed. Otherwise, though, he looked like a wolf.


“Maker,” he said, quite intelligibly. “You called?”


“Yes. Kill these fools, and I’ll consider your debt repaid.”


“Gladly,” he said, and immediately he rounded on the nearest mage and lunged for him. The man managed to get a barrier up in time to keep those jaws away from his flesh, but Marchosias promptly started tearing at it, and anyone could see that the mage wouldn’t be able to keep him out for long.


“That’s a demon,” the woman said, staring. “You summoned a demon?”


“Obviously,” I said dryly, reaching into another drawer. “Although I dislike that term for its ambiguity. Obviously Marchosias isn’t one of those disembodied, spiritual entities that most people call demons.”


As I was saying that, said demon ripped through the barrier and rushed upon the mage. His victim lashed out at the demon with fire, which almost made me laugh. When the creature tearing into you literally drools fire, how foolish do you have to be to think you could burn it?


“You’re mad,” the woman said, seeming more interested in me than in the fact that one of her compatriots was being shredded by Marchosias less than ten feet away.


“Not so much that, as that Marchosias and I have an excellent working relationship. And I’m not really in the mood to fight you myself. Speaking of which, catch!” I drew my hand back out of the drawer and tossed a sphere of metal roughly the size of my head at her.


She knew better than to catch it, but she didn’t want to let it touch her, either. So she swatted it out of the air with a burst of force.


Which, naturally, was exactly what I had expected. The sphere reacted to the touch of magic, unfolding long metallic legs. It landed easily and began advancing upon her, looking something like a freakishly large spider made of metal.


The woman looked at the spider, which had extended metal fangs the size of knives and was continuing to approach her. Then she looked at Marchosias, who had finished with the first mage and was currently disemboweling the second.


Then she threw her head back and screamed, “Vishnu!” She invested the word with magic, enough to make sure that he heard her.


Nothing happened.


“Your patron can’t hear you through these wards,” I said mildly as the spider reached her and started biting at her thigh. Its teeth slid aside on the magically-reinforced robe she was wearing, but we both knew there was only so much damage that it could sustain—and Marchosias wouldn’t be slowed by it at all. “Did you think this was the first time I did something I’d rather the gods not know about?”


She stared in shock as I returned my attention to my work. It was difficult to concentrate through the noise, but I was practiced at concentrating through distractions.


And, a short time later, the laboratory was silent again.

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Unclean Hands 9.11

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Several hours later, I was sitting in my throne room back in Colorado Springs. I wasn’t sitting in the actual throne—that thing was agony when I didn’t have seven broken ribs—but a suitably impressive substitute had been found, and ample cushions had been placed in it.


It was still agony to sit in. But anywhere was agony at that point, so it was something of a moot point.


In addition to the ribs, I had a cracked skull, although the doctor didn’t think it was a serious problem. I was covered in bruises, and I had a cast on my left forearm.


On the bright side, I was at least in good enough shape to be darkly amused by the luckiness of my injuries. I mean, it wasn’t like my left hand was good for much anyway.


Aiko was making arrangements to deal with the group of fae undermining Scáthach’s position, and she’d taken Snowflake with her. Brick was reporting to the Watchers. It was Kris’s day off, and the rest of the former-Inquisition mages only came in to work for me when I had a specific task I needed them for. Alexis was safe, having managed to get a portal up in time after all, but she was exhausted and currently passed out in a warded safe house in France.


At this point I was injured and alone with my housecarls, most of whom were brutal and violent, all of whom were at least a little bit psycho. If I were the sort of guy to regard others with distrust, it might almost be the sort of situation to make me a little uncomfortable.


Good thing I’m not one of those or anything.


About an hour and a half before dusk, Selene walked up to me, nodding to Sveinn on the way by. He’d taken it upon himself to stay by me while I was injured, somewhere between a servant and a bodyguard. Knowing him, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that he would adopt that role.


“Jarl,” Selene said, nodding to me in a way that wasn’t quite a bow. “Katrin has arranged payment for your services, but requests that it be picked up in person from the drop point.”


“Take care of it,” I said. “Take Tindr with you to make sure the money is right. ”


She nodded. “Understood. Also, we’ve got a confirmation on that thing in the sewers. Sounds like it’s some kind of wyvern variant. Fairly small, and not intelligent. Apparently they tend to avoid people.”


I frowned. “Still possibly dangerous, though. Send in the rest of the housecarls before you go.”


She nodded again and left. I lounged in my not-throne and waited.


Maybe five minutes later, the other four jötnar were standing in front of me, waiting for orders.


“There’s a wyvern in the sewers,” I said without preamble. “I want you to kill it, preferably without attracting any notice. Haki, you know the location?”


He nodded. Haki isn’t like Kjaran, who never spoke at all, but he still didn’t like to waste words.


“Good. Take Kjaran and Vigdis and get the job done. Kyi, I want you with them to do scout work. I think the plan we discussed earlier should work.”


Kyi perked up at that, ever so slightly, and gestured with one hand. It was a small movement, and even if someone had been looking they wouldn’t probably have noticed. Not that anyone was looking. It was Kyi, after all, and people didn’t really look at her.


I couldn’t gesture in response, not without being noticed. But I nodded, very slightly, and saw her nod in acknowledgment. The order had been conveyed.


A few minutes after that, I was alone with Sveinn. “You know,” I said, “you’re really very good at this. The vast majority of people would never have caught you.”


He looked at me in confusion. “Jarl?” he asked.


“See, that’s the problem,” I said. “Your one real mistake. Why would someone like you have come to work for me?” I gestured vaguely, and winced at the pain it caused my ribs. “The others, I get. If you’re desperate and nobody in their right mind would take you, then it makes sense for you to take a risk on a low-value employer. But you’re competent, you’re reliable, you’re sane.”


“I don’t understand.”


I sighed. “Drop the act, please. I’m aware that you’ve been less than honest with me. I know that you’re a traitor. Let’s just accept that you aren’t going to be able to bluff your way out of this and move on, shall we?”


He looked at me for a moment, then nodded. “What gave it away?” he asked curiously.


“Like I said, you’re competent. Why would you take a position with me, when you could work for basically any jarl you want?” I shrugged, wincing again. Why do I never seem to learn how to cope with an injury? “Anyway,” I said to him. “Once I realized that, I started paying a little attention. It didn’t take much to realize that someone had to be giving information about my activities to Katrin, and the only suspects were my housecarls. It wasn’t hard to narrow it down from there.”


He nodded again. “I can’t really complain,” he said. “I mean, you only caught me because I was doing my job too well. That’s not so bad.”


“Nope,” I agree. “Honestly, I really respect you for pulling it off for so long. You’re good, like I said.”


“Thank you,” he said, drawing his sword. “I would have said the same, but then you confronted me about it while we were alone. And you’re injured. That wasn’t smart.”


He took a step toward me, and suddenly an arrow sprouted from his knee, causing him to stagger. A moment later another arrow hit him in the other leg.


“Yeah,” I said, watching calmly as he fell. “About that. I think you guys can come out now.”


Kyi stepped out of the shadows near the entrance, a third arrow already nocked. A moment later Selene walked down the stairs, watching the whole thing with a kind of detached sadness.


Sveinn looked around, saw who I was talking about, and then looked at me incredulously. “You’re mad,” he said, pushing himself up to a seated position. “You trusted a demon above me?”


“Trust?” I said. “Sveinn, you’re missing the point here. Of course I don’t trust her. Selene reports everything I tell her to Coyote, and probably also to Iblis, or whoever runs the little mockup of Hell she comes from.”


“In fairness, that was never a secret,” she said, walking over to stand at my left hand. “I told you up front that was the deal.”


“Yeah, and you have no idea how grateful I am to you for being honest about it.” I saw that Sveinn still looked dumbfounded, and rolled my eyes. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go through this in order, shall we?”


I pointed at Kyi. “You,” I said, “answer to Loki. You’ve been sending monthly reports to one of his agents since you started working for me. You’ve also taken several independent contracts as a hitman.”


She blinked. “You are knowing, that I have these things done?”


“Obviously,” I said dryly. “I just don’t care. Loki’s going to know what I’m doing regardless, and you’re smart enough not to have killed anyone I care about. Oh,” I said after a moment, “and also you can drop the accent. I know you speak perfectly good English, and that shtick got annoying years ago.”


She blinked again, then nodded. “Yes, my jarl.”


“Better. Okay, what next?” I grinned. “Oh, right. Tindr keeps Skrýmir up to date on all my financial dealings. He’s also embezzled almost a million dollars from me. Vigdis is working for Hrym. Haki was sent here by the Volsung family, presumably to make sure I’m not planning to make a bid for the title. He’s also being blackmailed for information by someone else, and a few steps up the chain that information also gets to Skrýmir. At this point the only one I’m not sure about is Kjaran, and I’m not sure about anything when it comes to him.”


Sveinn considered that for a moment, then nodded again. “Why are you telling me this?”


“Because I respect you,” I said. “And I want to make it clear why I’m taking steps to deal with you when I haven’t with anyone else. My other housecarls might not be entirely honest, they might have other deals going on, but they’re still loyal. They do what I need done, and their side projects aren’t actually hurting me. You, on the other hand, were put here specifically to undermine my position and prevent me from maintaining stability in this city. It’s a pretty freaking important distinction.”


“Understood,” he said. “So what now?”


“I cast you out, Sveinn Wartooth. I call you a traitor. You swore loyalty to me as my housecarl, and you have broken that oath.”


“Witnessed,” Kyi called from across the room.


“Witnessed,” Selene repeated.


Sveinn glared at the succubus. “You are not a jotun,” he stated.


I smiled at him. It was the kind of smile that shows more teeth than happiness. “No,” I agreed. “But she is a member of my court, and two witnesses are all I need to expel you.”


He slumped. “Understood,” he repeated. “What happens now?”


I looked at the jotun for a moment. How much had he hurt me, I wondered? How much of my strife with Katrin could be attributed to the fact that he had generally been the go-between? How much of my difficulty keeping people in line had to do with him keeping information from me?


How much of the blame for the Inquisition’s collapse could be attributed to him?


Some. Not all, but some. And while the fault was still rightly mine—a more competent jarl would never have allowed a traitor to have such influence—that didn’t negate the portion of guilt that belonged to him.


Even a little bit of guilt is a hell of a lot when your actions lead to tens of thousands of people dying.


“The traditional punishment for a traitor is death,” I said at last. Jotun law is old-school, and there’s only one crime old Norse culture condemned as harshly as betrayal. “I don’t see much reason to lighten that sentence.”


Sveinn took a deep breath, let it out, and nodded. “Understood,” he said again. “As your housecarl, I have the right to ask that you do the deed yourself.”


“My housecarls have that right,” I agreed. Another interesting facet of jotun law; jarls are expected to do their own dirty work. “But you took that oath in bad faith. You are no housecarl of mine.”


Kyi’s arrow hit him in the nape of the neck, just above his coat of mail, and punched clean through his neck.


Sveinn hit the ground in a pool of his own blood, already dead or dying, and a knife bounced out of his sleeve. It looked and smelled like silver, and I was guessing the oily sheen to the metal was not the kind of poison a werewolf could ignore.


“Predictable,” I sighed. “Competent enough to try and get me into reach at the end, but he couldn’t see how obvious he was being about it.”


“That’s Sveinn for you,” Kyi agreed, moving closer. “Well, that was Sveinn.”


“You’re sure he’s dead?”


She shrugged, knelt down beside him, and drew a knife. A moment later she stood up, holding his head in one hand, and nodded. “I’m sure now,” she said.


“Good. When the others get back, I want you to inform them of what happened, and that you’re now the leader of my housecarls.”


“Really?” she said. “Even after I….” she trailed off and gestured vaguely.


“Sure. You know that I know about it, and you know what happens if you go further than I can overlook. I’d say that makes you a perfect choice.”


She snorted and shook her head. “There’s something broken in your head, jarl. I’m not even a fighter, not really. No one in their right mind would put me in charge of their housecarls.”


“Yes,” I said, meeting her eye. “I know. And I know that means that this is the best chance you’ll ever have of being the right-hand man of someone important. I recommend you think about that, the next time someone makes you an offer.”


She eyed me, and then knelt and bowed her head. “I am your housecarl, jarl. Whatever else may come.”


“I know. Selene, get someone in to clean this up. Thorough is more important than fast.”


She nodded. “On it. Do you have anyone in mind?”


“Not really. Maybe talk to Pellegrini’s people. I’m sure they have a cleaner on retainer. Pay them out of the operational fund.”




“Good. Kyi, I would appreciate if you would clear the room; I have business to take care of that I would rather you weren’t here for.”


She glowered at me. “Jarls do not request,” she chided. “Jarls order.”


“If you think that wasn’t,” I said dryly, “try disobeying it.”


She chuckled and left. Selene followed, off on her task. I looked at Sveinn’s body, and then looked away.


No point putting it off any longer. The situation needed to be resolved. And, as Scáthach had so helpfully reminded me, a good card is no better than a bad one if you’re too scared to play it.


“Loki,” I said aloud.


Nothing happened.


“Loki the crafty in lies, Loki the Sky-Traveler, Loki Laufeyjarson, I call you.”


Nothing continued to happen.


I rolled my eyes. “Oh, hurry up already. I know you can hear me. I want to make a deal, and I’m short on time.”


“A deal, you say?” a voice said in my ear. I startled, almost falling out of my chair, and turned to glower at him.


Then I blinked. Loki was standing at my elbow, grinning at me, and he looked pretty bizarre. His skin was greyish, his eyes were the kind of green that made you think of poison, and he was wearing what looked like an nineteenth-century businessman’s suit.


“What’s with…this?” I asked, gesturing vaguely.


“I was at a party,” he explained. “One I’d rather like to get back to. I believe you mentioned a deal?”


I made a conscious decision not to ask. “Yeah,” I said. “You owe me nine answers. I want to call one of them in.”


“Understood,” he said with a sharky smile. “Ask away.”


“Where is the sanctum of the vampire called Natalie, who was until recently the lieutenant of the vampire called Katrin Fleischer in this city?”


“I thought I told you that you didn’t need to worry that much about the phrasing,” he said dryly. “Well, in any case, I think it’s easiest to show you.”


With that warning, I didn’t stumble when the next blink found me standing, rather than seated. We were on a low hill out near the edge of the plains, looking over a small strip mall.


“There,” he said, pointing at the strip mall. “Mostly underground. The stores are a front.”


I looked at it and nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I’m not using another of my questions. But I would like a bit of clarification, the same way I did more for you than we’d agreed.”


He was still grinning at me. “You’re welcome to ask.”


“Natalie is in there?”


“Yes, at present. This is where she comes to hide from the sun.”


I nodded again. That was almost the definition of a sanctum, but it didn’t hurt to confirm. “Is there anyone else in there?”


Loki closed his eyes momentarily, then opened them and nodded. “Eight other vampires. Forty-five humans. Eleven ghouls. Twelve hounds, which you might say were built on the chassis of a dog, but they’re something much more dangerous. Aside from Natalie, there’s nobody you know.”


Wow. I’d…not really expected that she had that kind of force. I mean, nine vampires is…a lot. If Katrin was to be believed, that was at least twenty percent of the vampires in the city. Add in the human minions, the ghouls, whatever those hounds were, the skinwalker, and you had…a much more credible threat to Katrin’s position than I’d been expecting.


Could I take them?


I thought about it for almost a minute, and I couldn’t think of a way. Forty-five humans could bury me in bodies, even if they weren’t armed. I’d fought that many ghouls before and come out okay, but I’d had a lot of assistance, and I’d still relied heavily on catching them by surprise and taking them out before they realized what kind of threat I posed. And I had no idea what the hounds were capable of.


Not to mention the vampires. If even one of those were up and active, it was likely to be more than I could handle.


Maybe I could manage something. I could get my housecarls, the mages, Katrin and her forces, maybe even some assistance from Kikuchi. We could mount an assault on the place, and maybe we could take them out. But it would take time to arrange, time to assemble them, time to plan and coordinate.


I looked at the sun, hanging low over the mountains. We had, at most, an hour before sunset freed the vampires to go about their business. Once it did, I might never have an opportunity like this again.


Clearly, another avenue of attack was called for.


Luckily, I had something in mind.


“Okay,” I said, turning to Loki. “You remember that deal I mentioned? I want this place gone. I want it destroyed in a way that’s dramatic enough to make a statement, and I want to be sure that nobody escapes to cause trouble later. You do that, and I’ll forgive one of the answers you owe me.”


He made an interested sound. “No one escapes? Not even the humans?”


I frowned. What are the chances that some of the humans are innocent victims? Basically a hundred percent. There were nine vampires in there, and that meant that at least some of the humans were food.


Then again, not every human that a vampire took went against their will. There were plenty that signed up by choice, for power and the chance at eternal life. With forty-five people in there, it was almost certain that both groups were represented, which made letting them go a risk to say the least.


Not to mention the possibility that Natalie would possess one of them, the same way that the skinwalker had possessed one of the vampires. I wasn’t sure she could do something like that, but I wasn’t sure she couldn’t either, and if she could it would make the whole exercise a waste of time.


“No,” I said to Loki. “Nobody gets out. Not the humans. Nobody.”


He nodded. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “As you say,” he murmured, turning towards the strip mall. He raised one hand, and a bead of golden fire the size of a marble formed just above his palm. It flew out, disappearing from sight in a few seconds.


Loki glanced at me, looking for a reaction. I didn’t give him one. He sighed dramatically and then turned back to his work. He gestured slightly.


And then a column of golden flame a hundred feet across fountained up to the sky with a roar like a thousand engines sparking to life all at once.


I managed not to scream. I’m pretty sure I did, anyway; it’s not like I’d have heard it. But I stumbled back, raising one hand to block the light. Too late; I was already dazzled, blinking away tears.


When I could see again, I saw that the strip mall was gone. Just…wiped away, like it was never there. In its place was a circular pit maybe fifty feet deep, lined with glass. Just the same as, although a whole lot smaller than, the one that marked the center of the destruction on the north side of the city.


Not surprising. It had the same cause.


There was no collateral damage this time, at least. No other buildings were on fire. As far as I could tell none of them had been affected at all.


“There we go,” Loki said, turning to me and bowing grandiosely. “I believe that fits your criteria.”


“I can’t complain,” I said, staring at the pit. It was almost hypnotic in how clean it was. No blood. No bodies. No lingering fires. Just…gone.


“Very good,” he said with a smile two shades too sharp. “You have seven answers remaining, Winter Wolf. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a party to be getting back to.” He tipped a black tricorn hat to me and vanished.

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Unclean Hands 9.10

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I was expecting something bad to happen, after that. I mean, it wasn’t all that much of a leap of logic. All was clearly not well with the vampires in my town, and while I had little to do with them, my experience has been that that doesn’t really matter much. When supernatural beings get into shit, there’s plenty to go around. When politics is involved, there’s even more.


So I was fully expecting there to be trouble. If Natalie was making a move, and Katrin wasn’t in a position to stop her, I was logically going to be one of her targets. I was an authority figure, a symbol, and taking me out would be a powerful statement. Not to mention that, if she didn’t, I would probably be a thorn in her side later on. I might not like Katrin, but I can at least recognize that she’s a force for stability and calm, and Natalie could hardly say the same. As much as I hated to admit it, in a fight between the two, I would support Katrin.


I was expecting an attack of some kind. I don’t think I can reasonably be faulted for not expecting it less than twelve hours after I met with Katrin.


Back in Romania, it was just after sunset, locally, but I’d already been asleep for several hours. When you’re jumping back and forth through time zones on a daily or hourly basis, fixing your schedule to the sun is basically impossible.


I woke groggy, and it took me several seconds to figure out what had actually woken me. I’d rigged wards to detect anyone with magic approaching the castle, but it had basically just been a measure to assuage my paranoia. They’d never actually done anything before.


Now they were going haywire, screaming at me that there was a lot of power climbing the stairs up our little mountain. Fast; the outermost layer of wards was at the base of the stairs, and by the time I was fully conscious they were already tripping wards halfway up the mountain.


That was enough to wake me up, and then some. Coffee has nothing on an imminent threat on your life, believe me. I scrambled out of bed and started belting on armor frantically, simultaneously calling up power and reaching out.


It took only a moment to locate Snowflake, a long ways down from where I was. She was sitting in the dining room on the ground floor, helping herself to a steak in anticipation of a nap. A moment’s communication was enough to confirm that Aiko and Alexis were both in the castle. My cousin was asleep, and the last thing Snowflake had heard from Aiko suggested that she would be in the library.


I told Snowflake that there were probably enemies incoming, and then looked further, outside the walls. There weren’t many birds moving around at this time of day, but I’d made a concerted effort to encourage the presence of predators around our castle. As such, I was hopeful that I could find something.


I got lucky. There was a nesting pair of boreal owls a few miles away, and the female was in the area. A small nudge convinced her to alter her course slightly, giving me a good view of the path leading up to our door. It wasn’t great—it was at a distance, and even an owl can only see so much on a cloudy night—but I could make out general shapes.


At a glance, I counted around fifteen figures ascending the mountain. Most were misshapen, just grotesque enough to make it clear that they weren’t anything natural. Ghouls, most likely, and I was guessing that there were more around that I couldn’t see. They wouldn’t bother to send that few against me, not after what I did earlier.


The other four were much more concerning. They looked human, generally, but they moved with a speed and grace that was entirely at odds with that. It wasn’t the sort of agility that could really be achieved by a human, or even a werewolf. This was more something that would make you complain about the obviously fake special effects if you saw it in a movie. They ignored the stairs entirely, running up the rough ground and leaping boulders, and they still made it up the hill faster than I could have.


Vampires. Well, that wasn’t good. I’d never fought a single vampire before, and from what I knew of them, I wasn’t sure that I could. Four of them at once was…problematic.


Maybe they were staying away from the stairs to avoid any booby traps I’d placed. If so, they’d underestimated how thorough I’d be; as I watched one of them stepped on the wrong stone, and set off a landmine. The blast of flame and shrapnel didn’t kill it, but they did knock it a ways down the mountain, and it wasn’t too quick getting up.


I grinned in satisfaction before releasing my grasp on the owl, returning to my own body. I grabbed my cloak and threw it over myself as I ran for the stairs, leaping down them considerably faster than was safe.


Aiko was already standing when I reached the library, having heard me on the stairs. “Trouble?” she asked, grabbing her carbine off the floor. She was already wearing armor.


“Vampires,” I said. “At least four, and they have a shitload of ghouls with them. Incoming fast.”


She said something rude in Italian and followed me. “What’s the plan?” she asked.


“Wake Alexis and get down to the front hall. Hopefully the wards will slow them down, and there’ll be a choke point as they come in the door.”


She nodded. “I’ll get your cousin. You get down there and get ready.”


Only a few seconds later I was standing in the entrance hall, watching the door nervously. Snowflake was standing at my side, grinning. Her steel teeth were stained red from the steak she’d been eating, which looked rather ominous.


She wasn’t wearing armor. I was more than a little worried about that, but there was not time to go and get it and I knew better than to think that she would leave.


“What’s going on?” Alexis called from behind me, sounding bleary.


“Vampires,” I said, glancing back. She was wearing a heavy leather coat, the best armor she had, and she’d at least remembered to grab her staff. That was some consolation. I glanced through the owl’s eyes, and saw that the vampires were moving more slowly now, taking care to avoid traps. “They’ll be here within a minute.”


“How do we fight them?” she asked, moving further into the room.


“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never done it, and it’s hard to find reliable information.” I shrugged. “Cut off the head or destroy the heart if you get the chance. I want you and Aiko providing ranged support. We’ll try to hold them at the door with wards and grenades.”


“Got it,” she said, moving into the corner of the room opposite the door. I felt her gather her power as she went, the scents of ozone and snow hanging in the air around her. Aiko took the time to hug me before going to the other corner, aiming her carbine at the door.


Bullets wouldn’t kill vampires, not in that light of a caliber. They didn’t inflict the kind of large-scale tissue damage you need to put down a ghoul, either. But they might slow them down, keep them busy while Alexis and I lined up the big guns.


We waited like that for a tense thirty seconds or so while the enemy climbed up to us. Finally I started to smell them, a disturbingly strong odor of magic. The predominant odor was blood, but there was something wrong about it, a touch of too-sweet decay, mixed with unpleasant spices. There was a weaker odor of ghoul, not unlike rotting meat, and I caught a hint of something else as well, something even nastier.


There was a pause of several seconds before a male voice, just familiar enough that I felt like I should recognize it but couldn’t, said, “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down.”


There was a rush of power, strong enough to leave me blinking, that smashed the wards on the door, rendering most of them useless. Then something hit the doors, hard enough to make them buckle.


Those doors were taller than me and wide enough to drive a truck through, made of heavy ash and bound with iron. They must have weighed half a ton, and they were barred with another piece of iron the size of a load-bearing I-beam. A team of men with a battering ram would have needed probably around ten minutes to get through it.


It took three hits from this thing to knock the iron beam off its supports onto the ground. One more and the lock shattered, the doors lolling open.


Well, that wasn’t good. I’d been counting on the wards to do some damage, and those doors should have held at least a little while. This was going to cause some serious problems with my plans.


Almost the instant the doors were open, ghouls started pouring through, hideous, misshapen things with patchy fur and oversized teeth.


I didn’t get a chance to see any more details than that, because the moment they moved in, Alexis hit them with a lightning bolt.


Ghouls are tough, but lightning is a hell of a weapon, and she’d been working out pretty hard. Ghouls hit the ground left and right, screaming and convulsing, and the stench of burning fur filled the air.


But more ghouls came behind the first wave, stepping on their kin without any hesitation. Aiko started shooting, short, well aimed bursts of fire, and I could see and smell the blood, but they didn’t stop. There were already ten or fifteen ghouls in the doorway, and more coming up behind them. In only moments they would be through, and that many ghouls in a confined space would go badly for us.


Fortunately, only most of the magical protections had been destroyed.


I sent a spike of power at the doorway, triggering one of the remaining wards, and the doorway burst into flame, a sudden and unnaturally intense fire. It washed over the ghouls, and now it wasn’t just fur burning, it was flesh. It smelled like roasting meat, because that was exactly what it was.


More ghouls hit the ground. There was some screaming, but not as much as I’d have guessed. Something was telling me that wasn’t because the fire hadn’t hurt them. At a glance, it looked like a lot of them weren’t going to be getting up.


There was still screaming, though, and smoke and smoldering flame and writhing bodies, and in all the chaos I didn’t even see the first vampire jump over the whole mess.


The first thing I knew about it was when he was standing about three feet away from me, grinning. I didn’t have time to register much more than that before Snowflake lunged forward, biting at his legs.


I didn’t even see him move, but he jerked back about three feet, and Snowflake’s teeth snapped shut on empty air. That gave me enough time and space to draw Tyrfing, though, and he didn’t look nearly so eager to move into reach once that happened.


I felt and heard another bolt of lightning from Alexis, but I didn’t have the time or attention to spare. Even one vampire was enough to kill us all if given a chance.


Not that I could do much about it. He backed away as I approached, still grinning, and I didn’t want to push too hard and leave myself exposed. I ended up standing about ten feet away from him, between him and the rest of the room. Behind him I could see that the pile of dead or disabled ghouls had grown again. There were still plenty up and moving, though, and Aiko was still dumping bullets into the mass.


Then her magazine ran empty. She started reloading, her motions quick and smooth, but it would take a second.


In that time, another vampire stepped up, ripped one of the doors off its hinges, and threw it at Alexis.


It wasn’t a particularly hard throw. By the time it hit her, it wasn’t moving under much more than gravity. It wasn’t a particularly good throw, either; it barely clipped her.


But that door weighed several hundred pounds. Even a glancing blow was enough to knock Alexis down, effectively removing her from the fight for a few seconds.


In that brief window of opportunity, while both of our ranged attackers were ineffective, the other three vampires entered the room.


Snowflake and I fell back towards the others, watching the vamps warily, as the rest of the ghouls filed in behind them. Not counting the downed ones, there were only around ten ghouls left. Something to be proud of, perhaps.


Not much, though. Not enough. Not when there were four vampires inside of our defenses.


“I thought you couldn’t enter a home uninvited,” I said, more to buy time than anything. Alexis was still trying to stand, and it would go very badly if the fighting started up again while she was down.


One of the vampires—the last one in, I was pretty sure—smiled at me. It looked like a completely normal smile, no fangs or anything. He looked almost bland, except for vivid yellow eyes. “A house is not a home, Mr. Wolf. You may live here, but you don’t claim this land, you haven’t made it a part of yourself.” His smile broadened slightly. “Obviously.”


As though that had been a cue, the other vampires fell on us. We tried to fight. It didn’t go so well.


“Not bad,” the lead vampire said, wandering around the room looking at things. He seemed completely unaware of the fact that his minions were beating the shit out of us. “A little ostentatious, maybe, but not a bad place. Your patron knows how to make a statement, I have to give him that.”


I tried to push myself back to my feet, but a vampire stepped on my hand and grinned down at me, her teeth just a little bit sharper than a person’s. There was a gash across her face where I’d managed to land a hit with Tyrfing, but it wasn’t bleeding the way it should be. There was red liquid oozing out, true, and it smelled mostly like blood, but there was no pressure behind it.


No heartbeat. Blood loss might actually be a viable way to kill a vampire, based on where they got their power from, but you’d need to open a major blood vessel and hang them out to drain.


“Disarm them,” the leader said, turning towards us. “But don’t kill them.”


Apparently the vampires felt this task was beneath them, because it was the ghouls that moved to comply. They took Tyrfing, Alexis’s staff, and Aiko’s carbine, but they didn’t search us with any thoroughness. Sloppy work. I only hoped we’d get a chance to take advantage of it.


“You know, I’m surprised that you’ve been so quiet,” the lead vampire said. “Based on our previous encounters, I was expecting at least a few snide comments by now.”


Previous encounters? I couldn’t remember having run into this vampire before.


And then I looked at those yellow eyes, and realized why that hint of wrongness lying under the other smells of magic in the room was so familiar. “That’s impossible,” I said, stammering a little. “You aren’t a vampire.”


The skinwalker smiled at me. “No,” he agreed. “Fortunately, the vampirism process is deeply flawed. It’s to be expected when they’re still using what was, frankly, only ever supposed to be a very early prototype. The results are mixed. Sometimes they produce highly refined killing machines of the sort you see with me. Other times, the outcome is more of an empty shell, hardly more than an animal.”


I realized what was going on, and my heart sank even further. “You’re possessing him,” I said. It wasn’t a question. I knew the principle—it wasn’t that far off what I did with animals, after all—but I’d never seen it go quite this far.


He answered me anyway. “Obviously,” he said. “I would hardly take the risk of assaulting your stronghold in person. Fortunately, Natalie was quite willing to loan me one of her puppets. I still owe you, after all.”


“If this is personal,” I said mockingly, “why’d you need to bring so many friends?”


He regarded me curiously. “Are you trying to goad me into a duel of some sort? Because if so, I’m a little offended. Do you really imagine I would have survived as long as I have if I were that stupid?”


I shrugged, prompting a warning hiss from one of the vampires watching us. “It was worth a try,” I said.


“Your effort has been noted,” he said dryly. “Now, I need to think of what to do with you. Something suitably extreme, I think, to make up for the embarrassment you caused me the last time.” He turned away from us and started toward the throne.


I must have been getting better at lying, because none of them noticed my excitement when I saw that. Alexis wasn’t quite as smooth, but it hardly mattered; she was literally shaking with terror already, and hyperventilating. No one was going to notice a minor tell through that.


Not that I could blame her. Not knowing something about what she’d gone through at the skinwalker’s hands in the past.


He reached the throne and sat down, smiling at us.


Then things started to happen very, very quickly.


The instant his weight settled onto the throne, there was a loud click. At the exact same time, I pulled a small glass sphere out of my cloak and threw it at the nearest vampire.


The land mines rigged to the throne went off an instant later. These weren’t cheap land mines, either, or antique models. I’d been able to afford several modern anti-personnel mines, the sort that even military forces aren’t really supposed to be using. They were designed to produce a very intense, very localized blast.


In the field, the expectation is that they enemy will step on one and the blast will damage or destroy their foot and leg. Here, there were four set into the throne, with the intention of turning anyone dumb enough to sit on it into a sack of pulp. The nice thing about that type of mine, as opposed to a shrapnel-based one, was that it was very localized, meaning that I didn’t have to worry about it hitting us.


Even at a distance, the sound of four mines going off was impressive. I couldn’t spare the attention to look, but I was confident the look of surprise on the skinwalker’s face was priceless. Hopefully I’d be able to pick it out on the security footage.


The vampire caught the sphere I’d thrown, of course, moving almost too quickly to see. The speed of that movement was enough to break the glass, though, releasing a burst of heat and force. Trapped by her hand, it acted a little like an explosive, shredding her hand. She staggered back, on fire. One of the other vamps reached out to support her, moving on instinct, and the fire jumped to him as well, clinging, burning cloth and flesh with equal ease. They dropped to the ground, trying to smother it, but this wasn’t normal fire. There was so much magic packed into it that it was almost alive.


And that was my opportunity.


I scrambled to my feet, Aiko and Snowflake right beside me. I reached to give Alexis a hand up, but had to flinch away when she hit the final vampire with another bolt of lightning. Lacking a physiology, he wasn’t affected nearly so badly as the ghouls had been, but he still staggered away.


The vampire being possessed by the skinwalker was almost unrecognizable as a human body, there were so many broken parts, but he managed to make it stand. Not too surprising; vampires aren’t alive, as such, so there isn’t much you can do to really hurt them. Short of destroying the heart or the head, they were functionally indestructible. Between that and the fact that this particular vampire was being puppeteered by a skinwalker, it wasn’t a surprise that it wasn’t down for the count.


It stood there, glaring at us hatefully with those vivid yellow eyes. It opened its mouth, maybe to shout orders to its minions, maybe so the skinwalker could cast some kind of spell or something.


Then an anvil fell out of the rafters and hit it in the head. It was a fairly glancing blow, but it still shattered the thing’s skull. The body dropped at once, apparently damaged beyond even a vampire’s ability to function.


In the brief window of opportunity that afforded, we bolted, sprinting for the door leading deeper into the building. I was expecting at any moment to be snatched from my feet by one of the vampires, or hit with magic from the skinwalker, but we made it out of the room without incident.


We weren’t safe. I could hear the ghouls chasing us, heavy footfalls and hungry panting, and the vampires wouldn’t be far behind. The fire and lightning wouldn’t do much more than slow them down, and I wasn’t sure that even the explosion and the anvil would be enough to put the other one down permanently. Not when it was being possessed by a fucking skinwalker.


We were on our home ground, though, and we’d had the advantage of knowing that shit was about to go down. We made it to the central tower without being caught, and slammed the heavy steel door behind ourselves. The ghouls hit it moments later, screaming and tearing at the door, but it would take them some time to get through. That door was designed to hold off an army.


Of course, that was no guarantee with vampires around.


“Come on,” I said, stumbling toward the stairs. I hadn’t noticed at the time, but apparently one of the vamps had wrenched my leg while disabling us, because I was limping a little.


“Where are we going?” Alexis asked, glancing back. She threw another blast of electricity back, but I could tell that she was getting tired. This one couldn’t have had half the power of her first attack.


It was still strong enough that the ghouls screamed in pain and jerked away when it hit the door, though. Inexperienced she might be, but my cousin packs a good bit more raw power than I do.


“Upstairs,” I said. “I’m hoping the ghouls will take a while to get through, and the vampires shouldn’t be able to come in. The rest of the castle might not be a home, but this tower is my territory.”


We stopped in the armory long enough to pick up Snowflake’s armor and some spare weapons, then kept climbing up to the roof. I walked over to the edge and spent a moment looking around, both on my own and through the boreal owl outside, but I didn’t see any more enemies in the vicinity.


We’d gotten lucky. They were dumb enough to commit all of their assets to the attack. Not that this was all that much of a surprise, given that the skinwalker was calling the shots here. He was terrifyingly powerful, not to mention flat-out evil, but he’d also struck me as deeply arrogant. I wasn’t surprised that he’d failed to have a fallback plan.


“Um,” Alexis said. “Not to cramp your style, but we’re kind of trapped up here.”


“No we aren’t,” I said. “You’re thinking like a human. There are other ways out.”


She looked at me doubtfully. “Open a portal?” she said doubtfully. “I don’t know if we have that much time.”


As if to punctuate her words, I heard the distant crash of the door being broken down far below. We still had plenty of time, though. There were another six of those doors between them and us. That should take them at least twenty minutes, and Aiko would only need ten to open a portal.


Assuming that had been the first door. Assuming I’d been correct about the vampires not being able to get in. Assuming they hadn’t brought a ram, or explosives.




Alexis was right.


“Okay,” I said. “New plan. How do you feel about flying?”


“Oh, no,” she said. “No way. You’ve got to be kidding me.”


“Up to you,” I said. “You want to take your chances staying here, be my guest.” Next to me, Aiko was already grinning and stripping off her armor, bundling it up neatly.


“Can you even carry that much weight?” my cousin asked. She didn’t sound confident.


“Not for long, and not steady. It’ll be more like a steep glide.” I shrugged. “I don’t have a better idea of how to get out of here. You might be okay waiting here, but I wouldn’t count on them leaving without making it up here. If nothing else, there’s a chance that they might just blow the whole building up.”


“No,” she said reluctantly, as Aiko finished stripping and turned into a fox. She jumped up on my shoulder, clinging tightly to my cloak. I grabbed the bundle of armor and weapons she’d left on the ground and put it on my back, extending the cloak into thin ropes of shadow to hold it and Aiko in place. “I’ll go with flying.”


“Okay,” I said, walking over to stand on the parapet of the tower. I scooped Snowflake up in one arm, took a moment to settle her weight, and then held my other arm out to Alexis.


I wasn’t quite sure what happened then. Maybe my foot slipped on a patch of ice. Maybe Snowflake shifted a little and I wasn’t expecting it. Maybe my injured leg picked exactly the wrong time to spasm. Maybe I got a dose of my signature bad luck, and all of that happened at once.


Whatever the reason, one of my legs went out from under me. I started to fall back, toward the empty air beyond the parapet. Alexis was standing near me and I stretched my hand out to grab her, thinking that I could still pull this off. Sure, it was a little less graceful than I’d hoped, but I’d take it. My cousin reached to grab my hand, looking scared and surprised but hopeful.


And then I remembered which hand I’d used.


My maimed, scarred fingers couldn’t exert enough of a grip to hold her, and the slick surface of my gauntlet didn’t provide enough friction for her to hold on. Her fingers slipped through mine, and then I was watching her face fall at about the same speed I did.


I couldn’t reverse my momentum, not when I was off balance and carrying probably a hundred pounds of husky and armor.


I might have been able to get back up. I could—just barely—support this much weight with air magic, at least for a few seconds. I could have held us in place and scrabbled at the edge, tried to drag us back over the lip. With Alexis helping, it might have worked.


But if it didn’t work, it would go very badly. We would be falling uncontrollably, tumbling straight down, and there was no good landing under us. I would already have spent a lot of power to hold us up trying to climb back up, and I didn’t have that much to spare. It would only take a few seconds of freefall for us to build up enough momentum to turn all three of us into smears on the ground.


I could say that it was necessary. I could say that it was the best choice available at the time. It wouldn’t even be a lie.


But in the end, what it comes down to is this. I had the choice to take a risk, or leave Alexis to her own devices on that tower, knowing that there were enemies rapidly approaching and she might not be able to get out. I had that choice, and I chose the latter.


I turned away from her, pushing out from the tower with my legs. For a long, dizzying moment the night spun around us, cold air rushing by us, and then I caught that air and used it, directing it to my own ends. I thickened it and forced it up against myself, supporting our weight and slowing our fall.


We were still falling fast, and I hadn’t been able to get as much of a leap off as I’d hoped for. I ended up diving for almost a hundred feet, eating up a good twenty percent of our height, then using body positioning and a ramp of thickened air to convert some of the speed that generated into horizontal travel.


It worked, in the sense that we started getting distance. The ground around the castle was trapped pretty heavily, and there was a definite risk of the vampires coming out to hunt us down, so farther away was better. But it also meant that we were coming in fast, and there wasn’t much open ground between the edge of the minefield and the start of the primeval woods that sprawled around our castle.


I overshot it.


We were going to hit the trees, there was nothing I could do about it, and while I diverted some of my attention to braking our forward progress, we were still going at almost highway speeds. In that sense, the trees were actually a good thing. They would slow us gradually, prevent us from hitting the ground with lethal force.


The way they would do that was more problematic, of course. But there wasn’t much I could do about that, either.


I did what I could, turning over and holding Snowflake and Aiko in front of myself. Hopefully the armor would protect me from the worst of it, and if not…well, of the three of us, if I had to choose one to get battered to death by tree branches after jumping off a tower, I’d pick me.


That was all I had time for before we hit the first of the trees, and after that there was no more room for thought.


Branches slapped at me painfully, hitting hard enough to bruise even through the armor. The metal did serve its purpose, though, keeping them away from my skin. I’d have been flayed, without it, but as it was I only had to deal with the blunt force.


Not that that was insignificant. We were pretty high up in the mountains, and most of the trees were fairly stunted, but not all of the branches were small. I saw one thick enough to bear my weight coming straight at my head, and barely managed to tuck my chin against the impact in time to avoid whiplash. It shattered on my helmet, sending us into a terrifying spin.


We hit the ground at an oblique angle, fortunately, and skidded, bouncing off of rocks and tree roots for maybe thirty feet. We would have gone farther, but I slammed into a tree, cutting our momentum short.


I collapsed on the ground, unable to think straight through the pain. Maybe twenty seconds later Aiko leaned into my field of view, dimly silhouetted against the moon. “Winter?” she said cautiously. “Are you okay?”


“Ow,” I whispered, whimpering a little at the pain that even that much vocalization caused. “I’m…alive, I guess.”


She nodded. “I’m fine, and I think Snowflake’s just got a few bruises. How bad is it?”


“Broken ribs,” I whispered. “Several. Head hurts.” I tried to push myself to my feet, tentatively, and had to bite back a scream. “Broken arm.”


She nodded again. “I’ll do the portal. We’ll get you back to Colorado to see a doctor.”


I wanted to protest, to say that we should go back and save Alexis, but what would be the point? Fighting three vampires, even three half-dead vampires, was daunting at the best of times; in my current condition, it wasn’t even a good joke. Besides, by the time we got back, they would have made it to her position if they wanted to.


There wasn’t much I could do, then. Not for her, and not for anyone else, not right now.


It was almost comfortable, being absolved of responsibility like that. I lay my aching head back on the ground, and let the world fade to black.

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Unclean Hands 9.9

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I looked around, but there was no one close enough to have whispered in my ear except Aiko, and I was pretty sure it hadn’t been her. I mean, she has an off-color sense of humor to say the least, but this seemed like a little much.


Well, that couldn’t be good. I could only think of a handful of explanations for it, and none of them were very pleasant to think about.


Certainly Aiko seemed seriously nervous, and that in itself was frightening. “Serval,” she said, looking around a little frantically. She’d drawn her tanto at some point, which said a lot about what I could expect. If she had a knife out, then Serval was going to be trying to get within knife range, and Aiko didn’t think she could prevent it. “Assassin. She’s quick, vicious, almost invisible when she wants to be.”


“So you do remember me,” the same voice whispered. “I’d wondered.” Serval sounded feminine, now that I’d heard a little more, but I wasn’t surprised I hadn’t been able to tell at first. Her voice was odd, almost more of a hiss than normal speech, with odd enough accents that I doubted her vocal cords were equivalent to those of a standard-issue human being.


Aiko winced. “I told you,” she said. “Something came up. I couldn’t exactly put it off, and I didn’t have another chance.”


“I know,” Serval whispered. “I let it go. But now that you’ve come back here? I think that merits a response.”


With no more warning than that, a figure stepped out of thin air and shoved me in the chest.


I’d had a moment of warning—Serval was only almost invisible, and it’s really hard to hide a rapidly-moving person at close range—but only a moment. Long enough to brace myself somewhat, but not nearly long enough to dodge or counter the attack.


I hadn’t expected the shove to be quite that strong. She didn’t knock me over, but I stumbled back a few steps, and then my foot came down and found no floor to meet it.


As simply as that, almost before I’d realized what was happening, I was falling.


Fortunately, I have a pretty quick reaction time. I’d barely started to fall before I started analyzing the situation.


The tangled mess of walkways in this place meant that, in any given place, there might be a highly variable amount of empty air underneath you. I’d been paying attention, and from where I’d fallen there had been about fifty feet before the next solid surface.


I could survive a fall of that height, but there was a significant chance of injury, and it would take an unacceptably long time to get back up here. So the first thing I did was push magic into the air around me, thickening and moving it. The increased viscosity slowed my fall, and the movement pushed me sideways until I hit the side of the walkway.


This section was made of something that looked and felt like stone, and it was smooth enough that I couldn’t really have hung from it on my own. But I managed to get enough of a grip on the underside of the walkway to hold some of my weight, and I could support the rest with the air. It would tire me out pretty quickly, but there wasn’t much I could do about that.


I’m fine, I told Snowflake. What’s the situation?


Rather than answer, she sent me a picture of the scene as it was unfolding. I was too focused on keeping myself in the air to get all the details, but I got a general sense of what was happening.


Aiko was standing in the middle of the walkway, looking all around almost frantically. Snowflake was directly beside her, and doing a better job maintaining her composure. There were plenty of onlookers, but none of them seemed inclined to step in. Aiko might not be killed on sight when she came here, but it didn’t seem she had enough goodwill for people to help her, either.


Serval was nowhere in sight. Snowflake could hear footsteps, but only very faintly, and they were erratic. There was no apparent scent to use at all.


This was bad. Without some kind of information to use for locating her, there wasn’t a lot that either Aiko or Snowflake could do to fight back. And neither of them could catch themselves if they fell.


I was already pushing it, holding myself against the bottom of the walkway and processing Snowflake’s perceptions, but I didn’t see any other way to proceed. So I extended myself further into the air around me, aiming for sense rather than movement.


I lost control of the air, and for one sickening moment I thought I was going to fall. I let go of Snowflake, focusing everything I had on maintaining my grip on the air around me, and just barely managed to cling to the stone. A moment later I managed to get the sensory input I’d been trying for.


For once, I got lucky. The Clearinghouse wasn’t trying to mimic a natural environment, and as such it had no real air currents. There were a few disturbances, caused by the movement or speech of other people, but they were relatively easy to control for.


In the relative stillness, it wasn’t hard to pick out a clear signal. Someone was walking an irregular, looping course around Aiko and Snowflake, moving steadily closer. Their movement would take them over my hiding place in just a few seconds.


There was no time to think about it. I called Tyrfing and flicked the sheath off, letting it fall into the dim chasm below. I checked once more against Snowflake’s perceptions, making sure nobody I cared about was standing above me. I couldn’t be sure—I was trying to compare two vastly different perceptions of the world, after all, and I couldn’t focus on either one without risking a catastrophic failure—but none of us had made it this far by refusing to take chances.


So, when I estimated that Serval was standing directly above me, I slammed Tyrfing up into the base of the walkway.


With most swords, that would have accomplished little but to break the weapon and leave me looking rather silly. With Tyrfing, it’s generally other things that do the breaking.


There was a moment of startled silence. “Impressive,” Serval said a moment later. “It looks like your friend didn’t really fall. Decent aim, too. He almost hit me.”


“Look, Serval,” Aiko said, sounding afraid and exhausted in roughly equal proportions. “I know that you’re upset, but do you really think this is the best way of dealing with that? Don’t you want to at least try to talk this out?”


“I was willing to talk,” Serval said, in a normal speaking voice, for once. “I tried to discuss this like rational beings. As I recall, you’re the one who rejected that particular idea.”


I made it to the edge, and wrapped my fingers around the lip of the walkway. Serval just as promptly stomped on them. I didn’t react, except to bring my right hand up next to my left.


She was still for a moment, apparently wondering why my fingers hadn’t been crushed, and I got my first look at the assassin known as Serval. She was smaller than a human, almost closer to a child’s size. I couldn’t see much detail, between her veil of almost-invisibility and the dark cloak she was wearing, but I got a glimpse of coffee-colored skin and patchy fur.


That was all the time I had before Snowflake hit her from behind, jaws clamping on the ankle of her supporting leg and jerking sideways. At the same time I yanked my hand away, further destabilizing her.


Serval wobbled on the edge for a moment. Then Snowflake let go and lunged forward, slamming one shoulder into the assassin’s hip. She tumbled silently over the edge, quickly vanishing from sight in the shadows below.


Aiko walked over and gave me a hand, and I pulled myself easily up and over. “Never thought I’d be grateful for this,” I said, staring at my left hand. Serval had stepped on my fingertips, which were mostly gone. What was left of that hand was mostly scar tissue, and I didn’t really have enough feeling in it to register pain.


“Let’s get moving,” Aiko said, disregarding my comment. “That fall won’t kill her.”


“Right. You want to get started on the portal, and I’ll watch out for more unwelcome company?”


She nodded, and started spinning magic into the air.


“Okay,” I said, while we waited for Snowflake to wake up and I made sure my hand wasn’t actually broken. Normally I wouldn’t have been willing to expose that kind of weakness in such a dangerous environment, but I didn’t think I had to worry in this neighborhood. They still remembered my first visit. “Do we need to worry about her chasing us?”


“Nah,” Aiko said confidently. “Serval’s scary, but she’s not the type to really hold grudges. If she were going to hunt me down, she’d have done it by now.”


“That’s good. I can’t say I like the idea of having her chasing us.”


“You have no idea,” she said dryly. “I’ve seen her in action. Deeply scary stuff. If she really wanted to hurt me, we wouldn’t have made it out of there in one piece.”


“What’d you do to piss her off?”


“I kind of screwed her on a business arrangement. I was supposed to provide transportation and a distraction on a job. But that was at the same time as the other mess, and I’d signed up with Ryujin by the time the job went down.”


“You know,” I said after a moment, “I don’t think you get to make fun of me anymore. I’ve gotten mixed up in some questionable stuff, but you’ve got me beat.”


“Don’t be ridiculous,” she sniffed. “Serval’s a nasty sort, but she isn’t remotely as scary as a deity. Speaking of, it sounds like the next chance to find the people Scáthach wants dead is next week.”


“Right.” I rubbed my hand; none of the bones were broken that I could tell, but it ached more than usual. Thanks a bunch for that, Serval. “There are a few things I’ll probably need to take care of in Colorado before then. But do you want to go home for a while first? I could use a break.”


“Sounds good to me.”


“Cool,” I said, and started working on the next portal.


Eleven hours later the phone rang, waking me from a relatively sound sleep. I grabbed for it, forgot that one of my hands was semi-functional at best, and fumbled it in the dark. By the time I managed to actually answer the thing I was thoroughly awake, tangled in bedding, and not in a particularly pleasant mood.


This was not significantly changed when Sveinn said, “Heill, herra. Katrin’s messenger just arrived with information about the meeting she was requesting a security detail for.”


Shit. I’d forgotten about that. “Tell me.”


“It’s intended to settle a dispute with another vampire. Something about property or personnel; the messenger wasn’t very clear.”


“Wonderful,” I said sourly. “When and where?”


“At Pryce’s, midnight tonight.”


I tried to work out how many hours that was from now, but wasn’t awake enough to do time zone conversions in my head. It hardly mattered, anyway; my response wouldn’t change because of that, after all. “All right,” I told him, getting out of bed. “Get a team together. I want you, Kjaran, Vigdis, and Brick ready to go an hour before the meeting. Dress to impress. Understood?”


“Understood,” he said.


“Good,” I said, and hung up on him. I glowered at the phone, grumbled to myself, and started throwing on clothing more or less at random. Snowflake laughed at me in the back of my head, at which point I started grumbling at her too.


I ended up having several hours of spare time before I had to leave. I checked that Alexis had made it back safely, which she had, and then left her to sleep. She hadn’t come home when I went to bed, so I knew she still needed more sleep. Then, feeling somewhat at a loss for what to do, I went down to the lab and ran my modified schematics by Legion. He mocked me to what I felt was a slightly excessive degree, but eventually agreed that the adjustments I’d proposed to the power flows should stabilize it considerably.


At that point, the only real problem still getting in the way was the actual mirror, which was more of a challenge than it sounded like. I needed to be present for the manufacturing process to properly enchant the thing, which ruled out just buying one, and the choice of materials was rather important as well. Silver was the traditional choice, but for rather obvious reasons that wasn’t a very good option for me. Steel was better, but not very good for reflection, and from what I’d read aluminum wasn’t that great of a material for taking an enchantment. Mercury took magic pretty well, and you could make a decent mirror with it, but the toxicity issues made that somewhat problematic as well.


Eventually, though, I couldn’t really justify spending more time working on it, and left for Colorado Springs. None of the others came with me, which I couldn’t really blame me for. I mean, I was going to provide security for a meeting between two factions of vampires. I didn’t want to be there, either.


It caused a bit of a stir when I walked into Pryce’s. The patrons there tend to be fairly hard to rattle, but I was fully armored and openly armed, and most of these people had a pretty good idea of who I was. Intentional or not, I’d become a pretty major player on the local scene.


I walked straight to the bar, where Pryce was standing, clearly waiting for me. The housecarls drifted behind me, while Brick maintained some distance from them.


“Meeting,” I said. “I’m here for security.”


Pryce nodded. A moment later, without any clear signal from him, one of his employees stepped up next to me. I followed him through a few narrow hallways to the private room, where he left us.


My group was the first to arrive, which was good. I glanced around the room briefly, making sure that nothing had been moved, and then arranged my minions around the edges of the space. For my part, I stood by the door, where I would be able to greet each person as they entered.


Less than ten minutes later the door opened. Katrin stepped through, followed closely by Hrafn. He nodded at me, the gesture as close to friendly as a vampire could reasonably hope to get, and went to sit at the table.


“I appreciate your providing this service,” Katrin said to me. Her bearing was more pleasant than it often was around me, but I wasn’t fooled. Katrin and I might not be enemies, precisely, but we were never going to be allies.


“I appreciate that you are willing to entrust your security to me,” I said. The implication that she needed me to provide security was clear enough that everyone would probably notice, but not blatant enough that she could really complain.


“You are the jarl of this city,” she said sarcastically.


“Speaking of which, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you, after the meeting.”


“Very well. In the meantime, I expect you to remain impartial throughout these proceedings. The funds will be transferred within a week.” She went to sit beside Hrafn without waiting for a response, which was just as well, given that I didn’t really have one.


As I’d expected, the vampires didn’t talk while we waited for the other side of this negotiation. Or move. Or breathe. On the whole, they were fairly boring people to pass the time with. I wouldn’t have cared so much—it wasn’t like I wanted to pass the time with them—except that it turned out the other side was running late.


Really late. By the time the door opened again, it was almost one in the morning. Compared to the punctuality I was more accustomed to when dealing with supernatural beings, it was hard to see it as anything other than a deliberate insult. The only question was who the insult was directed at.


Finally, just when I was seriously considering telling Katrin to go to hell, another vampire walked in. This one was male, insomuch as sex could be assigned to the walking dead, with dark skin and terrible taste. Seriously, I had seen flamingoes that were less eye-searingly pink than this guy’s suit.


He walked by me without even looking at me, for which I was more than a little grateful, and went straight to Katrin. “Good evening, my dear,” he said to her, taking off his purple top hat and bowing.


Katrin did not look amused, or impressed. “Lucius,” she said. “You’re late.”


“I was delayed,” he said with a grin, vaulting the table and landing in the chair opposite her. “It happens.”


“Be that as it may,” she said. “We had an agreement. If you were going to be delayed by this much, you shouldn’t have agreed to meet at this time in the first place.”


“Oh, get over yourself,” he said lightly. “If you’re in such a rush, why don’t you get to the point?”


I would have expected Katrin to react rather badly to that kind of impudence, but she didn’t say a word. I could see by the tension in her posture that she was exactly as upset as I had imagined, but there was no overt reaction at all.


Well, that was concerning. If Katrin was that hesitant around this vampire, I was pretty sure I should be even more grateful that he’d overlooked me.


“Your people have been in my territory,” she said after several long moments. Her voice was tight. “Repeatedly.”


Lucius yawned, showing teeth that were more than slightly too long. “What’s your point?”


“My point is that this city is mine. The vampires here answer to me. I don’t tolerate intruders or poachers.”


“So kill them,” he said lazily. “They’re just spawn. I can always make more if I want some.”


Katrin took a deep breath and let it out, though I knew that she didn’t need to breathe. “Are you saying that you won’t keep your people under control?”


“Why should I? If they decide to go to another continent and get into trouble, what should I care?”


“Don’t give me that,” she snapped. “Your spawn don’t do anything without your command. So tell me, why have you been sending them to poach in my territory?”


“Because I want to,” he said. His voice was no longer lazy or amused. “Remember your place, my dear. You may have found a city to govern in your exile, but I rule a continent. I am an emperor. If I choose to take this city from you, you will know. Because it will be mine.” He stood and smiled at her. “Now, if that’s all, I should be going. So much to do, you know.”


Katrin said nothing.


“I thought so,” he said. “Good evening, my dear. Jarl, I hope your day goes well, and good luck with the faeries.” He grinned at me as he sauntered past.


“I despise that man,” Katrin said, almost a minute later. “Wolf, what did you want to talk about?”


I blinked. “Huh?”


“Before this farce, you said you had something to say,” she said impatiently. “What is it?”


“Oh,” I said. “Right. Why did you bring ghouls into the city without notifying me?”


“I didn’t. That would be ridiculous.”


“Then explain why, when I went to confront them, they said they had permission to be in my city. And why Natalie then showed up and stopped me from killing them, saying that they were here under your protection.”


Katrin was silent for several seconds. “Natalie and I have our differences,” she said at last. “You know that.”


“Wait a second. Are you seriously telling me that isn’t resolved yet? You’ve had years to deal with her. How have you not fixed this problem?”


“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” she snapped. “I didn’t bring any ghouls into this city, and any that are here are most certainly not under my protection.” She stood and stalked past me out the door, her attitude clearly conveying that anyone getting in her way could look forward to a very bad day. Hrafn followed her out, giving me an apologetic look on the way.


The room was silent for several seconds. “Well,” I said at last. “That was unpleasant. Let’s go.”


Back in the main room, things had quieted considerably. By which I mean that Pryce was the only person left in the bar.


I looked around. This wasn’t right; it was late, but not that late. There should still have been plenty of people here.


“What happened?” I asked.


Pryce grunted. “People were worried. Didn’t want to stay.”


“I don’t get it. I’ve had meetings with Katrin here before, and she didn’t bother people this much.”


“Problem isn’t the vampire.”


I worked that through. If people were concerned, and it wasn’t the vampire….




He nodded. “You scare people.”


“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble.”


“You are trouble, Wolf. Don’t come back.”


I blinked. “You’re banning me?” Of all the things I’d ever expected to have to deal with, that hadn’t been one.


“Yeah. Nothing personal. Business.”


“Business,” I said dully. “Right. I understand.” I took a deep breath and let it out. “Sorry, Pryce. I’m…sorry.”


He grunted and picked up an empty glass, polishing it with a spotless white rag that he produced from somewhere. I turned and left, my minions trailing silently behind me.

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Interlude 6.z: Kikuchi Kazuhiro

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Of all the tengu under my command, Tomiki Hirokazu was my favorite sparring partner. He was not the fastest, or the strongest, or even the most skilled. But when he fought, he fought with everything. He focused on it with such single-mindedness that nothing else existed for him. His world was restricted to himself and his opponent. That it was only a practice bout meant nothing. That he was sparring against his liege meant nothing. There was only the fight itself.


We had been practicing for some time, and I had reached the same state. He cuts at my face and I do not see the sword, do not think about the sword, merely allow myself to move. Step in, turn, redirect his momentum, bring my own blade up to threaten. He steps back and I follow, step in, pivot and execute a floating hip throw. He hits the ground but almost immediately regains his feet. He is too zealous in his counterattack, too impatient. I give way before him, my movements fluid, calm. He cuts, cuts, cuts, and each strike comes closer to me than the last, until I am only inches from the weapon.


Then he overcommits, placing too much weight on his leading foot. I don’t consciously observe or react to the mistake, so much as I sense and recognize the movement. He expects me to retreat, as I have been doing, but instead I step into him, moving inside the arc of his cut. My own blade taps against his ribcage and he nods, conceding defeat.


I stepped back, closing my eyes and breathing deeply, giving myself a chance to return to normal. That mental state—perceiving without consciously recognizing what you observe, responding without consciously choosing to act—is the strongest and most efficient attitude to have in combat. But it can be difficult and bewildering to sustain for very long.


Tomiki could enter that state of mind without even seeming to notice the difference. I could only envy him for that. One day, if he developed his skills to match, he would be my superior in a duel. One day. Perhaps then he would challenge me for my mountain, or go and find another place to call his own.


“Kikuchi,” a voice called after a few moments, reminding me that I was not alone. “The jarl is here to see you.”


I opened my eyes and turned to face them. He was indeed standing there, watching me with an expression of interest. Standing by his side was Matsuda Kimiko, the only kitsune in my service. I had known it was her, simply by her greeting. None of my tengu would have addressed me so casually.


I didn’t bother chastising her for it. She might be subdued by the standards of her people, but Matsuda was still a kitsune. She’d been raised in a very different culture, where formal courtesies were not only unusual, but typically used as insults. Expecting that not to have an effect on her behavior would be absurd.


“Thank you, Matsuda,” I said, sheathing my sword and walking to the side of the field where they were standing. “You may go.”


She nodded to me, not deeply enough to call it a bow but enough that the distinction was minor, and then turned and left. The jarl was left standing by himself as I approached.


“Dai-tengu,” he said, nodding slightly less deeply than Matsuda had. “I apologize if I interrupted.”


“Winter jarl,” I said. “We were sparring. You are welcome to join us.”


“I would be honored, but I’m short on time at the moment.”


Was he being dishonest? I considered the possibility for a moment, but only for a moment. He wasn’t the type to lie without a reason; if he didn’t want to participate, he would have simply said so.


Unfortunate. I’d seen him fight, and it had been interesting to observe. His style was straightforward, almost brutal in its simplicity. I was curious to see how my techniques would fare against such a radically different approach.


“I understand,” I said. “Come, let us sit and you can tell me what you want.”


“What makes you think I want anything?” he asked. His tone was hostile, but touched with amusement, as though this was something he’d often had cause to say. Perhaps it was; I would hardly know.


“As you just said, your time is short,” I said, sitting on a fallen tree in the shade. I drew a dipper of water from the barrel there and drank some of it, then offered it to the jarl. He sipped at it before returning it to the barrel. “Why else would you have come here at such a time, if not because you want something?”


“That’s fair,” he said. “But for once, I actually don’t. This is more of…I guess you’d call it an offer, really.”


“An offer,” I repeated. “What manner of offer?”


“Well, look at it like this,” he said, with what was probably intended to be a disarming smile. “You know that Sojobo has a major hate on for that woman that was in town back when the territory war was going on last month, right? De Sousa, her name was?”


“I am aware of this,” I said cautiously. “I fail to see the relevance.”


“She’s hunting supernatural things,” he said. “So I figured she probably puts most of her effort into hiding from supernatural means of locating her. It only makes sense, right? So then I called in a favor from the Khan, and he talked to some people and got various governments to start looking for her. Nothing official, nothing she’d hear about, just people paying attention to things they otherwise might not have.”


“I still don’t see the relevance.”


He leaned forward, his smile growing wider and more predatory. “I got her,” he said quietly. “She’s in Singapore, and she’s going to be there for at least a day. So here in about an hour, I’m going to get together with some other people and we’re going to go take her down.”


“And you want me to be a part of this group,” I said, understanding what he was getting at.


He shrugged. “I at least wanted to make the offer. I figured, you know, Sojobo is basically your boss, right? Or your shogun, or whatever you want to call him. Considering how personal this is for him, I think coming to help would probably be good for your standing with him.”


“It would also give you a chance to see me fight,” I pointed out. “Possibly allowing you to learn something that you could then use to harm me.”


“Yes,” he said, not seeming to take offense. “And that goes the other way, too.” He sighed and stood up. “Look, dai-tengu,” he said. “I’m not saying we have to like each other. I’m not even saying we have to get along with each other. All I’m saying is that at this point, it’s looking like we’re going to be stuck with each other. And it might be better for everyone involved, or at least more stable, if we can find some way to coexist.” He stood up, placing a scrap of paper on the log. “That’s where we’re meeting up,” he said. “Come if you want to.”


“Do you truly believe that is possible?” I asked, before he could walk away. “That you and I could coexist in peace, without an enemy to unite us?”


He was silent for a long moment. “I don’t know,” he said, sounding tired. “If you’d have asked me a few years ago, I’d have said not a chance. That I was too much of a werewolf to share territory, even if we are keeping ourselves separate. Now, well.” He shrugged. “I have to hope we can do better, or what’s the point?”


I nodded. “You leave in an hour, you said?”




“Very well,” I said, picking up the piece of paper. “I will be there.”


I had expected a fairly large group, but when I approached the rendezvous point, the only people I could see waiting for me were the jarl, and the kitsune and the hound who appeared to be his closest advisors. “Is this all?” I asked, looking around curiously.


“The others will meet us there,” the jarl said. “Are you ready to head out?”


“Yes. How are we traveling?”


“Otherside portal,” he said, not sounding pleased. “Anything else is too slow.”


I had expected the jarl to be the one to actually make that portal, but it was actually the kitsune that began working on it. She was skilled with that style of magic, forming the structure of the portal in only a few minutes.


I watched with interest as she did. I knew the basic concept underlying the technique, but it wasn’t one that my people commonly used. It seemed disrespectful to the gods, to abuse the world they had built by exploiting a loophole in such a way.


But it was efficient, and I understood that sometimes it was necessary to put efficiency above aesthetics. So when the kitsune finished her working, I followed the jarl through the portal.


I knew from experience that it wouldn’t be pleasant, so I wasn’t surprised to lose consciousness. Glancing into the void can be stressful, even when you’ve spent much of your life trying to embrace it on a philosophical level.


The kitsune and the jarl evidently used this means of travel more often than I, as both of them were already standing before I woke up. The hound wasn’t standing, and she appeared more uncomfortable than the other two, but she was also conscious before I was. “The next portal should be open soon,” the jarl said as I stood, although I wasn’t sure how he knew I was awake. “Reynard’s opening it from the other side.”


About two minutes later, he nodded with some satisfaction. “There we go,” he said, walking towards what seemed like any other patch of air between two massive trees. He disappeared as he passed between them.


I must have been staring, because the kitsune smirked at me as she walked into the same gap. I was watching closely enough this time to see the exact point at which she ceased to be in the same place I was. There was something in the air there, a sort of haziness, but nothing like the void I was more accustomed to seeing within portals.


The hound still didn’t look happy, but she stood and growled at me until I did the same. Then she began herding me towards what was apparently the next portal, her attitude impatient.


This one was less harsh than the last; I didn’t even lose consciousness, so much as briefly drift through a sort of grey in-between state before returning to full awareness.


“Is this the place?” the jarl was asking, somewhere near me. I blinked and the visual came into focus. He was looking at a small building, apparently a garage of some kind, and his stance suggested that he was expecting to be attacked.


“This is it,” the person he was talking to agreed. This person looked like a bipedal fox, although he was taller than me. I had seen kitsune take a similar form, but there was something odd about one with only a single tail. I blinked again, shaking my head, but the image refused to resolve into something that made sense.


It took me a moment to recognize that this must be Reynard. The fox was showing his true colors this evening, more openly than before.


The only other person present was Sojobo. My liege was standing at a slight distance, drumming his fingers on the hilt of his sword.


“Is she alone in there?” the jarl asked, looking around.


“Yep,” the fox agreed. “Shockingly, the psycho killer doesn’t have many friends. I’m about ninety percent sure there’s nobody else in there.”


“Good,” the jarl said, with more satisfaction than I had expected. Had he been harmed by this woman, or did he have some other personal stake in the matter? I didn’t remember having heard about something like that, but then, he wasn’t the type to have said anything. I hadn’t spent much time with the jarl, but I had gotten that impression very clearly.


He started for the door, and was almost immediately stopped by the fox’s grip on his shoulder. It looked casual, but from the way the jarl jerked to a stop, that grip must have had less give in it than iron.


“She does have plenty of traps,” the fox said dryly. “Including some that even I thought were unnecessarily vicious.”


“Right,” the jarl said, glancing in my direction. He seemed flustered, perhaps chagrined at having been chastised by the fox. “Let’s do this smart. I don’t want her getting away, which means we want people watching the exits. Dai-tengu Kikuchi, if you would be so kind?”


I regarded him for a moment, then shrugged. It wasn’t a bad tactical decision, and of everyone here, I had the least to lose if this went wrong. “I would be honored,” I said, drawing my blade. I had only a vague understanding of the threat we were dealing with, but my understanding suggested that I didn’t want to take it lightly. If de Sousa tried to escape, I would want to be prepared.


“Good,” the jarl said, gesturing slightly for the fox to proceed. The fox did so, entering through the same door that the jarl had attempted to use a moment ago. I wasn’t sure if he did something about the traps, or they were further in, but nothing untoward happened when he entered. Sojobo followed a moment later, sword in hand, followed by the jarl and the hound.


I looked again to confirm, but it was as I’d thought: the kitsune was not with them. A quick glance didn’t find her outside, either. When I focused on it I could feel the telltale glimmer of kitsune magic, suggesting that she was also watching the door, but didn’t want to be seen.


They were using me as the bait, the sentry that our quarry was supposed to see. She would not necessarily think to look for the second guard, which meant that she wouldn’t necessarily think to hide from more than one. It was a simple tactic, but not a thoughtless one.


I did what I could to help, not looking for the kitsune any further. I might not have any stake in this matter myself, but my liege did, and I wasn’t going to have it said that I had done something to interfere with him claiming it.


The next two minutes were quiet. Apparently the fox was able to deal with whatever traps the quarry had set up; as I understood it, she wasn’t the type to use a quiet trap, so if they had triggered one, I would have known about it.


Then there was a hint of movement within the garage. I looked closer, and a moment later I saw a human female approaching. She was carrying or wearing a variety of trinkets, all of which felt like magic of one sort or another, but I hardly noticed them. I was more struck by her bearing, her aura, than anything.


In my youth, I’d heard stories about a great many monsters. Most of them are fictional, and most of the rest have always been uncommon, so that I never bothered to learn a great deal about them. I couldn’t even recall the name of the one I was thinking of at that moment. They were known for possessing people, wearing them like garments. You’d look at one of those people and they would look normal, look like someone you knew, until you saw them from behind and realized that they’d been hollowed out, that they were just a husk.


This was like that, on an entirely different level. Physically, this woman seemed fine. Not only intact, but healthy; as far as I could tell she was entirely fit.




But on another level? She was a husk, animated without being meaningfully alive. She’d gone so far beyond obsession that it hollowed her, burned out every trace of life or passion or beauty and replaced it all with hate. Even a glance was enough for me to see that.


And then she took another step, moving closer to me, and I realized that she was my friend. It was the strangest sensation; on a mental level I knew that she was a stranger, and I recognized that she was almost certainly the quarry I was here to watch for.


But when I looked at her, or thought of her, I knew that she was my friend. No, more than that; she was my friend on such a profound level and to such an overwhelming extent that all other friendships might as well not exist, in comparison with it.


She took another step forward, moving within reach of me. I saw a delicate silver chain dangling from her fingers, with a large black stone at the end of it. Some part of me recognized it as a deadly weapon, and told me that I should move or do something to counter it. Most of me, however, was incapable of perceiving it as a threat. My friend would not do anything to threaten me.


She flicked her wrist, drawing the stone up into her gloved hand, and then tossed it at me. I watched it come, feeling oddly numb despite knowing that it was about to kill me.


At the last moment, I managed to convince myself that it was a prank. My new friend was pulling a prank on me.


She would be disappointed if I didn’t duck. I would be a boring friend if I could be pranked so easily.


I could make my new friend happy by getting out of the way.


In that context, I was able to move. The stone passed by my head, so close that it displaced my feathers with its passing. Then it swung down to dangle, spinning, at the end of its chain.


My friend paused. “Interesting,” she said, and I felt an odd warmth in my chest. I had done right. My friend had been pleased; my actions had interested her.


“Don’t move,” she said, drawing the stone up into her hand again. I watched, and knew on an intellectual level that I was doomed this time. I wouldn’t be able to play that kind of mental game again, not when she’d given me an explicit directive.


Except that a moment later, before she could kill me, we both clearly heard the sound of gunfire. Neither of us was hit, but she startled slightly, and a moment later I heard movement within the garage.


“Damn,” my friend said, looking over her shoulder. A moment later she began to run away, moving faster than a human could.


It took about ten seconds before that irrational feeling of friendship began to fade. I shook my head, clearing it, and then shouted, “She’s out here, getting away,” as my mind continued clearing.


The kitsune must have been affected similarly, I thought, or she’d have shot our quarry. As it was, she must have been able to frame what she did as helping the quarry in some way. Warning her that there was someone watching, perhaps.


In any case, this was something that the others needed to know about. So I waited for them rather than running off after the quarry, although it chafed at me to know that she was getting away. Hopefully the kitsune was following her, preventing her from making a clean getaway.


Almost a minute later, the others exited the garage in the same order they had gone in. “She ran that way,” I said, indicating. All four of them instantly began moving in the direction I had indicated, and I had to run to keep up. “She’s got something that makes you think of her as a friend,” I said. “You can’t do anything to harm her.”


“That won’t be a problem,” the jarl said. He sounded amused, if bitter.


The hound lead the way as we chased after the quarry. Apparently the incredible speed she’d shown was short-lived, because we caught her up soon, in a dirty alley less than a mile from the garage.


The jarl and the hound stepped into the alley first. The jarl was holding his sword, a weapon which I’d been given to understand was considerably more dangerous than it seemed. Something about having been made with the intention of killing and destroying things. It seemed to me that was essentially true of all weapons, but I wasn’t a swordsmith.


“Hey,” he shouted. “De Sousa, right?”


She paused and looked over her shoulder long enough to say, “Stop following me!” I drifted to a stop, unable to disobey, but the jarl and the hound both kept moving. For my part, I made sure that my blade was drawn and waited. I thought I knew what she would try, and I also thought I might know how to respond.


“That’s an interesting toy,” the jarl said. “Makes people regard you as a friend, right?”


“Yes,” the quarry said, slowing. She sounded cautious, and she was watching the jarl carefully. “Why didn’t it work on you?”


“Oh, it did,” the jarl said cheerfully. “It’s just that I’ve had to kill friends before. It’s kind of a given, for a werewolf. You have to learn how to keep that part of your mind separate.”


The quarry nodded and then swung the stone at his head, apparently hoping to take him by surprise. If so it failed; his sword was ready, slicing neatly through the chain, and he dodged aside from the stone as it flew away. I didn’t see where it went, but my liege did; he was on it almost before it fell, holding it close. My understanding was that it was supposed to kill anyone who touched it, but I wasn’t surprised when it did nothing of the sort. My liege was not an easy man to kill.


The jarl cut at the quarry without slowing, and I almost moved to protect her, still trapped by whatever magic was interfering with my perceptions. I managed to restrain the impulse, watching as she leaned away from him. A moment later the fox stepped in the other end of the alley, holding a knife in one hand. His other hand was raised as well, his attitude suggesting that it was armed although I couldn’t see anything.


The quarry, disarmed and outnumbered, stepped away and turned to flee. Seeing the fox blocking her path, she paused and then threw something at the ground. I felt no hint of magic to suggest what it was, but a moment later there was a loud noise not unlike an explosion, and a very bright flash of light. The jarl and the hound both reeled away, clearly incapacitated, and the quarry bolted in my direction in the window of opportunity this afforded.


She clearly didn’t perceive me as a threat, knowing that I’d been incapable of attacking her before. The jarl and the hound were still staggering, the fox seemed hardly better off, and my liege was occupied with the stone. I hadn’t seen the kitsune again, and in any case she’d also been unable to threaten the quarry.


Not so strange, then, that she didn’t produce another weapon as she ran, focusing instead on speed. I watched her approach, clearing my mind as she did, so that I felt only a blank detachment. There was still the same feeling that she was my best and only friend, but I made my mind empty so that it was more an afterthought than an important focus of my thoughts.


As the quarry neared me, she inexplicably lost her footing. There didn’t seem to be anything obstructing her, but she stumbled over her steps, almost losing her feet entirely. She recovered quickly, but for a single moment she was stumbling, too busy catching her balance to adjust or dodge.


I couldn’t choose to attack that moment of weakness. The mental paralysis she induced was too strong. But I could keep my mind empty, allowing my body to act instinctively without consciously deciding to do so.


Honed by endless hours of practice and training, my instinct was as polished and practiced as a dancer’s. My blade reached out and licked at her throat, blood blossoming crimson in its wake like the opening of a flower in the spring. I followed the weapon, slipping my hip under hers and sending her to the ground before she could recover her balance.


I felt a surge of shame and grief as I did so. I didn’t recognize what I was doing, consciously, until it had already happened, but when I did the shame at having betrayed my friend in such a manner was intense. I stood still, almost paralyzed by the intensity of the feeling.


Then, a moment or two later, it began to fade. Not even magic, it would seem, could make me regard a corpse as my dearest friend.


The jarl reached me a moment later. He regarded the quarry for a moment, then nodded in my direction. “Excellent work, dai-tengu,” he said. Then he knelt and carefully removed the quarry’s head. I didn’t object to this. It was slightly shameful, perhaps, to treat the body of a fallen enemy in such a way, but on this occasion I thought it could be tolerated in the name of expedience. It was best not to take chances with an enemy like that.


About a minute later all of us were standing there, looking at the body of the quarry. “Thank you,” my liege said. “To have finally recovered my love is…thank you.”


“I am glad to have helped,” the jarl said. “I think the rest of what she stole should be returned to the Keepers for safekeeping. Unless anyone objects?”


“Nope,” the fox said, sliding one arm under the body. He lifted it easily, as though it weighed no more than a child. “I’ll see that they get them.”


The jarl was looking at him with a wary expression. “Promptly? And without removing anything?”


“Yes,” the fox said, rolling his eyes. “I’ll take care of it without doing anything you wouldn’t approve of. You have my word.”


A few moments later, the jarl, the hound, the kitsune and I were alone in the alley. “Thank you, dai-tengu,” the jarl said. “I think we can provide transportation back to Colorado, if you would like.”


“Yes,” I said. “And thank you, jarl, for inviting me here. I think we have achieved something worthwhile today.”


“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so.”

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Unclean Hands 9.8

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“Hey,” I said after a few steps. “Scáthach. Are you listening?”


“Obviously,” a voice said from about six inches behind me. A moment later she stepped up and started walking next to me. She was dressed more casually than the last time I saw her, in a black T-shirt and cutoff jeans, and she looked very nearly human, but it hardly mattered. She was still the kind of beautiful that makes people start wars. People on the streets turned to stare as we passed, clearly wondering what a guy like me was doing walking with a woman like her.


“I thought you might be,” I said, trying to ignore the people watching. I felt uncomfortably exposed, being the focus of so much attention, but it wouldn’t be wise to let Scáthach know that.


She regarded me for a moment, her expression inscrutable. “That’s it?” she asked. “I was hoping for some kind of a reaction.”


I snorted. “Please. I’d have to be an idiot not to have seen this coming.” I took a few steps before saying, “I’m in a bad place.”


She smiled. “Indeed.”


“I’m going to assume you know pretty much everything that was said in there,” I said. “So I won’t bother explaining what I need. You already know.”




“If I help you with your thing, will you make my problems with the Conclave go away?”


“That is hardly within my power,” she murmured, her voice dry and amused. “But I could certainly mitigate the harm caused by your current circumstance.”


“That’s not good enough,” I said. “I want a clearly defined agreement. Exactly what you want, and what you’re going to provide for me in return.”


“Very well,” Scáthach said, still sounding amused. “There is a single, very specific faction within my Court which is advocating a reckless offensive against the Daylight Court. I wish you to silence them, or enable me to do so without the negative consequences which I would currently incur. If you do so, I shall intervene with the members of the Zhang clan who have brought an accusation against you before the Conclave. While I cannot guarantee that my intervention will prevent this accusation from causing you harm, I can say that I have considerable influence with them, and it is my belief that I will be able to convince them to drop the charges.”


I took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay. I get it. So do you know which of your people are responsible?”


“Of course.”


I waited for several seconds before it became apparent that she had no intention of continuing. “Are you going to tell me who they are?”


“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I don’t believe that I will. You’re a resourceful man, after all. I have confidence that you are capable of finding that information yourself.” She smiled, the expression bright and cold and very, very scary. “Unless, of course, you would like to incur further debt in exchange for the knowledge.”


“No,” I said sourly. “That’s fine.” I nodded slowly. “Okay. I think we understand each other.”


“Yes,” she said, still smiling. “And you are working on a deadline, jarl. I recommend you get started.”


“I don’t get it,” I said, before she could disappear. “Why are you screwing me over like this?”


“Did you think we were friends?” she asked, sounding amused.


“Of course not. But I thought I was useful. Why would you take the chance of losing that usefulness?”


“You’re a weapon, child,” she said patiently. “A tool. And any tool is precisely as valuable as its utility. You have served a function in the past, and I expect you to do so in the future. But that is not sufficient reason not to make use of you in the present. An analogy, perhaps, will be more clear. A card has worth in its use, or in the threat of its use. A good card one cannot play is no more valuable than a bad card.”


“So…what? This is all a ploy to make sure that I keep being useful?”


Scáthach considered me. It reminded me uncomfortably of a hawk watching a prairie dog. “I have already explained,” she said. “If you have not listened, that is not my concern. Good day, jarl.”


“Right,” I sighed. “Good day, Queen.”


“You were right,” I said. “Scáthach found a way to screw me over.”


“I’ll try to contain my shock,” Aiko said, not looking away from the retro platformer she was playing. “Welcome home, by the way.”


“Thanks. Apparently the mages are pretty divided about what to do with me. I have two weeks to change their minds before the deciding vote is cast.”


“And Scáthach offered to make the problem go away if you do that favor for her?”


“Pretty much,” I sighed, sitting down next to her and scratching Snowflake’s ears.


“I figured it would go something like that,” Aiko said, turning the game off. “So where’s your cousin?”


“Decided to stay and look into signing up with the Guards. Probably just as well; I’ve been trying to keep her out of the politics, and this is about as political as it gets.”


She blinked. “The Guards? Seriously?”


I shrugged. “That’s what she said. Wouldn’t have been my first pick for her, but I guess I can understand it. Anyway, I was thinking I might go talk to Jacques, see if he has any information about who the people are in Scáthach’s Court that I’m supposed to be silencing. It might go better if you were there.”


“You have two weeks,” she said incredulously. “Don’t you think it can wait a day?”


“Considering what happened the last time I had a deadline like that,” I said dryly, “I’d rather not waste more time than I have to.”


“Fair enough,” she said reluctantly. “I just want it on record that this is not how I wanted to spend my morning.”


I think we can all agree with that sentiment, Snowflake said, standing up and sauntering off towards the stairs.


Jacques answered his door after only thirty seconds of pounding, which might have been a new record. That seemed a little odd, given that it was somewhere around four in the morning locally, but I supposed that he probably hadn’t gone to bed yet. Certainly he looked like he’d been on a three-day bender; even by his standards, his eyes were impressively bloodshot.


“Cupcake,” he said. “And Shrike. What the hell do you want?”


“Information,” I said. “As usual. Now let us in already, we aren’t talking business out here.”


“Fine,” he grunted, undoing the six chains on the door. “Hurry up, it’s too fucking late for this shit.”


“You’re telling me?” Aiko said, snorting. She strode in with an assurance I could only envy; I walked gingerly in Jacques’s apartment, and Snowflake was seriously reluctant to walk at all.


“Okay,” Jacques said, grabbing a fifth of vodka off the table. “What are you here for?”


“There’s a faction in the Midnight Court that’s pushing for a new offensive against Daylight,” I said. “I need to know who they are and how I can get to them.”


He snorted, spraying vodka out his nose. Snowflake and I both flinched away a little. “Now what the fuck makes you think I’m willing to deal in that kind of shit?” he demanded.


“Money,” Aiko said dryly. “Lots of it.”


“You don’t get it, Cupcake. You want to know about mages, werewolves, that kind of thing? Sure, screw it, whatever. But the fae? Those motherfuckers hold grudges. They don’t make the kind of money that would convince me to stick my nose into their business on the level you’re talking about.”


“This is sanctioned,” I said. “Personal request of Scáthach.”


“That’s even worse!” Jacques shouted. “Jesus, man, you just don’t get this, do you? Look, I’m not doing it, and that’s final.” He took another swig of vodka. “Not that it would matter if I were willing to help. My contacts in the Courts are strictly low-level. Bottom-feeders, thugs, general scum of the earth types, I’ve got you covered. Nobility? Not so much.”


“That’s not so helpful,” Aiko said. “We kinda need this info. Soonest.”


He leered at her. It made me want to take a shower, and it wasn’t even directed at me. “Well, Cupcake,” he drawled. “I guess you need to go home, don’t you?”


I had no idea what he was talking about, but Aiko’s reaction was instant. “No,” she said. “Hell no. Fuck that, there’s no way I’m going back there. Not after what happened last time.”


Jacques shrugged. “Suit yourself. Look, Cupcake, you know I love you and all that, but I don’t have what you want and I don’t have the contacts to get it. You go there, I guarantee you’ll find somebody who does. Now, if that’s all, get the hell out.”


I wasn’t going to argue.


“Okay,” I said when we hit the street. “So what was he talking about there at the end?”


“The Clearinghouse,” she said sullenly.


I waited a moment, then rolled my eyes when it became clear that she wasn’t going to say anything else. “And what’s the Clearinghouse?”


“Look,” she said. “You know I used to run with the Courts.”


“Yeah. I’ve been meaning to ask how you got out.”


“I didn’t,” she said grimly. “Not clean. Anyway, this is all tied up with that. I wasn’t in the good part of the Courts; I was hanging out with the scumbags, the shady types.”


“I can picture that.”


“It isn’t hard, is it?” Aiko said, grinning. “So while I was hanging out with them, I spent a lot of time at the Clearinghouse. If you want to buy something you can’t get anywhere else, that’s where you go.”


“Wait a second,” I said. “I thought that, if you wanted to buy something on the Otherside, you went to the Grand Market.”


“Sure. But the Market has rules. No weapons of mass destruction, no obvious contraband. You can’t trade slaves there, and the indentureship contracts are pretty heavily regulated. That sort of thing.”


I was starting to get the picture. “And the Clearinghouse doesn’t have those rules?”


“Exactly. You can make deals there that would get you shot anywhere else. Nothing’s off limits, and there’s nobody looking over your shoulder.”


“Okay,” I said. “So what happened the last time you were there that was so terrible?”


“Yeah,” Aiko said reluctantly. “About that. I’ve told you I used to hang out with a slave trader.”


“The one that bred half-trolls?”


She winced. “Yeah, that’s the one. I knew him for a few years. I guess I thought we were pretty good friends. I managed to convince myself his business wasn’t that bad. There were a lot of things I didn’t know about what went on with it. I didn’t want to know.”


“And then you went to the Clearinghouse with him,” I guessed.


She nodded. “Yeah. We were on the way to a date, sort of. He had to stop and finalize a deal. I…got a look at some aspects of what he did that I hadn’t let myself see before that.” She shrugged. “So I stabbed him in the back and cut his throat. Then I stabbed two of his business partners and one of the customers, and shot half a dozen other vendors on my way out. Good times all around.”


“Ah. So what does this have to do with you getting away from the Courts?”


Aiko shrugged. “After that I was pretty done with the whole thing. So I went to Ryujin, and I told him I wanted out. He told me what it would cost, and I said yes. He made sure nobody tried to drag me back into it.”


“What’d it cost you?” I asked. “Maybe I could make a similar deal.”


“Ten years of service,” she said. “And a few other things. I’ll tell you the details if it ever comes up. Like I said, nobody gets away clean. You can trade it in for another cage, but that’s about it.”


“Yeah. I figured it was something like that. Well, so much for that option. I guess asking around in the Courts is the next step?”


Aiko gave me a confused look. “Aren’t we going to the Clearinghouse first? There’s almost certainly someone there who can help.”


“I thought you said you weren’t going back. And after what happened, it probably isn’t safe, is it?”


“Screw that,” she said sharply. “I don’t need coddled. If that’s where we need to go, that’s where we’re going.”


I wanted to argue, but I could tell she wouldn’t take it well. So I just shrugged and said, “Fine. You’re driving.”


A short jaunt through one of the sleazier backwaters of the Otherside later, we were standing in the antechamber of the Clearinghouse.


It was a small room, not much bigger than a closet, but the roof was high enough to be lost in shadow. The air was cool, and smelled strongly of industrial-strength room freshener.


“Well, they haven’t changed this place much,” Aiko said, walking over to the door. It looked like little more than a concrete slab set into the concrete wall, but it swung open of its own accord before she reached it. “Let’s see if we can find someone I know.”


The main trading floor of the Clearinghouse was a strange, ominous place. It was cavernous; walls and pillars broke up the lines of sight, but the air currents suggested that it was at least the size of a small stadium. We were standing on a relatively narrow catwalk, with four more layers below us and at least as many above. I could only see them by looking for the dim, widely-spaced lanterns that provided the only illumination.


There were a lot of shadows there, and I was quite sure that we were being watched from some of them. It was only with difficulty that I kept myself from looking over my shoulder as we followed Aiko out onto the walkway.


We passed a number of stalls as we walked, set into alcoves in the walls or crouched in the shadows between lanterns. They were staffed by an astonishing variety of creatures, many of which I didn’t recognize, none of which looked friendly. None of the ones I looked at had any signage, or indication of what goods or services were available. Clearly, if you had to ask, you didn’t need to know.


Okay, Snowflake said, peering over the edge of the catwalk at the next level, nearly thirty feet below. This is more like it. This is what a black market should look like.


“This level mostly deals in smuggling,” Aiko said, looking around as we walked. “I’m hoping there’s someone here that knows me from back then. They might be able to tell us who to ask.”


“But do they want to?” I asked. “I didn’t exactly get the impression that you left on good terms.”


“Not all of them hate me,” she said dryly. “There are two or three that are sort of friends, and a handful that still owe me favors.


For the next several minutes, Aiko led us in a wandering path around the narrow walkways of the Clearinghouse. I didn’t bother trying to keep track of where we were going, or the people we passed; there wasn’t much I could contribute, in any case. I focused on keeping an eye out for trouble instead, in case we ran into someone that didn’t remember Aiko fondly. This was shitty territory for a fight, but there wasn’t much I could do about that. I could try to make sure we weren’t caught by surprise.


We’d been walking for around five minutes when a female voice called, “Aiko? Is that you?”


Aiko looked in the direction of the voice and winced. “Trouble?” I asked immediately, reaching for a weapon.


“Not exactly,” she said, walking towards the stall she’d been called from. “It’s just….well, this ought to be entertaining.” She did not sound entertained.


The stall was one of the smaller ones I’d seen, barely large enough for a person to stand behind it, with an orange silk canopy that served no apparent purpose. The woman standing behind it could blend in anywhere with a sizable Mediterranean population, though her attitude would make her stand out, as would the elaborate domino mask. She came across as the sort of person I could picture an adolescent Aiko hanging around with, and that was a pretty major statement.


“Hi, Fiona,” Aiko said as we walked up. “How’s business?”


Fiona shrugged, the motion just loose enough to make me wonder if her shoulders were articulated like a human’s. “It’s business. Long time, no see. Who’s this, your latest boy toy?”


“Something like that. Listen, do you think you could do me a favor?”


“For you?” Fiona said, grinning. Her teeth sparkled a little too brightly in the dim light, and I realized they were inlaid with silver. “Of course. But come on, you just got here. Don’t you want to tell me what kinds of trouble you’ve gotten into in the last decade or two?”


“Yeah, but this is kind of time-sensitive. Look, I promise I’ll get in touch, but right now we need to keep moving.”


“That’s fair. What do you need?”


“We’re in the market for information,” Aiko said. “Something fairly high up in Scáthach’s Court. Do you know where we might find something like that?”


Fiona frowned. “I don’t really deal in secrets, Aiko. You know that.”


“Yeah, but I thought you might know someone who does.”


Fiona sighed. “Two levels up, three walkways south. Look for the guy with the eyepatch. But I’m not endorsing him, you hear me? He’s not a friend, just someone I do business with occasionally.”


“That’s fine. Thanks, Fiona. I owe you one.”


“Don’t mention it. And don’t be a stranger, you hear me?”


“That wasn’t so bad,” I said, as Aiko led us on another meandering route through the maze of the Clearinghouse. Fiona’s directions had seemed fairly clear to me, but apparently actually getting there was a good deal more complicated. “She seemed pleasant.”


“Yeah. A little too much so, sometimes. She’s…bubbly. I don’t really do bubbly.”


“I could see that. I guess she’s one of the ones you said was a friend?”


Aiko nodded. “I used to work for her as a courier. She specializes in moving small, high-value items. Here’s our way up,” she said, gesturing at a nearby ladder.


I carried Snowflake up the ladder and we started meandering back across the catwalks. I had to wonder about whoever had built this place; this setup was inconvenient on all sorts of levels. Several of the bridges were rickety, and few of them had any kind of railings, even disregarding the impossibility of taking a direct route anywhere.


It was surprisingly easy to find the person Fiona had pointed us towards. He was a slender Sidhe standing behind a battered oak table, visually unremarkable except for brilliant red hair and a greenish eyepatch covering half his face.


I would have hesitated, trying to make sure we were in the right place, but Aiko walked straight up to his table, ignoring the people standing around. Looking at them, I was pretty sure that around three or four were a little too casual to just be loitering. Bodyguards or something similar, most likely.


“I hear you might be able to do us a favor,” Aiko said, leaning on the table.


The man on the other side smiled. It looked more like a gash carved across his face than an expression of pleasure. “I do many favors,” he said. “What sort of favor might you require?”


“My associates and I have heard rumors of a certain group among the Sidhe,” Aiko said. “Members of Scáthach’s Court, as we’ve heard it. This group has recently been making rather provocative statements about escalating hostilities with the Seelie Court.”


“I’ve heard similar rumors,” he said, sounding blandly disinterested. “What of it?”


Aiko’s smile was no friendlier than his, but for rather different reasons. His expression looked like it had been cut into his face; hers looked like one you’d wear while you did the cutting. “We would quite like to have a conversation with these Sidhe. We think it would be quite productive for everyone concerned.”


He nodded once. “This is a favor I can provide. What might you provide in return?”


Aiko leaned closer and whispered something in his ear. I couldn’t hear it, but I saw his eyes widen. She leaned back, looking self-satisfied, and he nodded again. “That will be quite sufficient,” he said, producing a scrap of paper and a quill from somewhere. He scratched a short, almost illegible note on the paper and handed it to her.


She glanced at it and then folded it and put it in her pocket. “Excellent. A pleasure doing business.” She turned and walked away without waiting for a reply.


“Is that it?” I asked, falling in beside her before she’d taken more than a couple steps. Snowflake was sticking close to my heels. She felt vaguely discomfited, but she hadn’t said anything, so I didn’t think it was too much of a problem.


“Yep,” Aiko said. “They’re having a meeting next week.”


“Great. Let’s get out of here, then.”


“Sooner the better,” she agreed. “Didn’t expect this to go so smoothly, to be honest.”


Naturally, it was at exactly that moment that a voice whispered, “Hello, kitsune. It’s been a while.”


Aiko went very pale, and I didn’t have to ask what that voice meant.


This time, it was trouble.

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Unclean Hands 9.7

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“My investigations have not uncovered the responsible party,” Watcher continued, smiling at me the whole time. “It is plausible that the accused was responsible. As has been stated, the act was not inconsistent with his character. Arbiter, how do you vote?”


The man in the black robe regarded me for a long moment. “I would like to speak with the accused prior to casting my vote,” he said at last.


“Granted,” Prophet said. “A recess for discussion and refreshment is in order, I think. This Conclave will reconvene in a quarter-hour.”


Almost instantly, the room erupted into whispers. None of the conversations was that loud, but there were a lot of them, and the noise was considerable. I caught snatches of English, but they were fragmentary to say the least, and I couldn’t get any useful information out of them.


Arbiter glided across the stage toward me, moving so smoothly that I wasn’t entirely sure that he was actually walking. Whatever means of locomotion he was using, it was surprisingly quick; it only took him five seconds or so to reach my section of seating.


“Guards,” he said. “Your services are not presently needed. Kindly vacate the area, so that I may have a private discussion with the jarl.”

My escort wasted no time clearing out, leaving me alone with the mage. Up close, his appearance was a little bit unsettling, almost unnatural. He was tall enough to stand out in a crowd, but I doubted that he weighed any more than I did. His features were long and narrow, with dark hair and eyes; the result reminded me more than a little of Aiko.


A couple of seconds later, I felt a kinetic barrier snap into place around us. Arbiter didn’t make a big deal of it, or show any effort, but I was confident that it was still one of the strongest barriers I’d ever encountered. “There,” he said. “That should prevent us from being overheard.”


“Good,” I said, eyeing him warily. I was acutely aware of the fact that I was isolated with one of the strongest mages in the world, and he was ideally positioned to kill me without anyone realizing what had happened. It wouldn’t be hard for him to claim that I’d been threatening him, if no one could hear a thing we said.


“So,” he said, sitting down and facing me. “Did you murder Zhang Qiang? I will not take this as a confession or admission of guilt; I ask out of simple curiosity.”


“I have your word on that?”


“You do.”


“Then no,” I said. “I killed the bastard, but it wasn’t murder. Murder implies wrongdoing, and he deserved what he got.”


Arbiter considered me for a moment. “Interesting,” he said. “I wondered whether you might say something along those lines.”


“Did you really not know whether I was responsible?”


“Of course I knew,” he said dismissively. “We all know. I wanted to see whether you would try to deny it. It speaks well of you that you told the truth. This does place me in a rather interesting position, however.”


“How so?”


“As the name implies, my role is to resolve disputes,” he said. “Balancing the needs and desires of multiple parties is a large part of my duties. This time, however, there are a great many more interests at play than is usually the case. There a great many possible resolutions to this situation, most of which end poorly for you. For reasons of my own, I would prefer to find an alternative which does not end in your death.”


“Thanks, I guess,” I said. “So you’ll vote in my favor?”


“The situation is not that simple,” he said, shrugging. “Tell me, jarl, why have you been accused of this crime?”


I shrugged. “Zhang had a lot of friends in the clans, as I hear it, and I don’t. It isn’t that surprising.”


“Perhaps, but why now?” he pressed.


I sighed. “Scáthach has ties to most of the clans,” I said, feeling very tired. “I imagine that she arranged for them to make this happen right now. Pressure me into helping her with her problem.”


“In part,” Arbiter agreed. “But things are more complicated than that. Arranging for this to happen was as much a favor to you as anything. Giving you an opportunity. Do you understand?”


“Not really,” I admitted. “You’re speaking in riddles. I hate that.”


His lips twitched. “There is a reason for that, I promise you. One day you may understand it. Or not. It hardly matters, really. What is of immediate significance is this. You are in a precarious position at the moment, Winter Wolf-Born. You have made some foolish choices, and they will have consequences. To this point, those consequences have been mitigated by a great many factors. But now, you are tangled up in so many different plots that even a small movement on your part can have vast repercussions. I strongly recommend that you take the time, in the coming days, to think about what you are and are not willing to sacrifice. A storm is coming, and none of us will be able to weather it without change.”


“I don’t get it,” I said. “You and Scáthach both have talked about a storm on the horizon. But she’s a Faerie Queen, and you’re the Arbiter of the Conclave. What the hell is going on that neither of you could do anything to stop it?”


“I suspect you already know the answer to that question,” he said, standing. “I cannot save you from the consequences of your actions, Winter. What I can do is give you the chance to avoid them yourself. This conversation has convinced me that you’re worth that opportunity. If you take it, I think you can make it through. If not, you will most likely still survive, but the price will be considerable.”


He glided off before I could say anything else, the barrier collapsing just before he reached it. Ivanov and Neumann were in their chairs on either side of me almost before the barrier had fallen, although neither one seemed inclined to ask what Arbiter had to say. I got the impression that they might not want to know.


It was an agonizing ten minutes or so, waiting for the Conclave to reconvene. None of them had moved from their podiums, but I didn’t expect that they would say a word before the scheduled time, and I wasn’t disappointed. The whole time, I was agonizing over what would happen next. From what Arbiter said, I thought he might be about to say that he thought my plea of innocence had been rejected, in which case I would be in for a world of hurt. If the investigation went any further, I would almost certainly be convicted, in which case the best I could hope for was a quick death.


Finally, exactly fifteen minutes later, Prophet cleared his throat again. “Arbiter,” he said. “How do you vote?”


The man in the black robe folded his hands under his chin and regarded me levelly for thirty seconds in total silence. “I find,” he said at last, pausing between each word, “that I am not as informed about this topic as I would like to be. I hesitate to question the honor of such a distinguished citizen as the jarl without greater evidence than I have. However, I also would prefer to avoid dismissing the accusation at such an early stage without a more convincing rebuttal than has thus far been presented.”


“Your words show wisdom,” Prophet said. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who noticed him roll his eyes as he did. “But a decision must be made, and the deciding vote falls to you.”


“I am aware,” Arbiter said placidly. “But I will not speak hastily. As I said, I lack information. I choose to defer the decision for a fortnight so that I may gather this information, as is my right.”


Prophet stared at Arbiter for several long seconds. When he finally spoke, it was so quiet that I must have been the only one not on the stage to hear him. Even my hearing, which was noticeably better than human, could barely make out the words. “This is unnecessary,” he said. “And cruel, to drag things out.”


“A great deal can change in two weeks,” the other man said calmly, looking at me. “As you know.”


“Yes, and you know that this outcome was decided long before today,” Prophet countered. “There is no reason to extend the proceedings like this.”


“Be that as it may, it is still my right.”


Prophet sighed, but nodded. “Arbiter, your request is granted. This Conclave will reconvene a fortnight from today to determine whether the plea of innocence entered by jarl Winter Wolf-Born is to be accepted, or further investigation is merited. In the meantime, let the next matter of consideration be brought before us.”


Ivanov, sitting next to me, nudged me with his elbow. “That’s our signal,” he murmured in my ear. “You aren’t cleared for the rest of the meeting. Let’s go.”


I didn’t bother arguing with him—honestly, I seriously doubt that I wanted to be there for the rest of the topics, anyway. The internal politics of the mage clans weren’t that interesting to me.


So I let the two Guards escort me, politely but rather quickly, up the stairs and out of the door, at which point they promptly vanished back into the auditorium. To my surprise, Alexis was already outside, talking with Laurel. The two of them went silent when I came out of the auditorium.


“How’d it go?” Laurel asked a moment later. She didn’t make much of an effort to sound interested.


“I’m not dead yet,” I said gloomily, grabbing the bin with my stuff from the shelf. “Apparently I get two weeks to ‘avoid the consequences of my actions,’ whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. What about you? Seems like the two of you were having a nice chat.”


Alexis cleared her throat and looked at the floor. “We were talking about the Guards,” she said, not meeting my eye. “I think I want to join.”


“Don’t you have to be in the clans to do that?”


“No, actually,” Laurel said. “You just have to pass the aptitude tests. Do that and they’ll support your bid to be recognized by the Conclave. Based on what she’s described of her training, Alexis could probably make the tests and be recognized as a journeyman. There’s still a lot of oversight at that level, but she’d have a fair amount of responsibility.”


I nodded slowly. “You’re an adult,” I said. “You can make your own decisions. But I have one recommendation, if you’re willing to hear me out.”


“What’s that?”


“Don’t do it yet,” I said. “I have it on good authority that a storm is coming, and it sounds like a big one. You might want to give that some time to settle before you make any big moves. Especially ones you can’t take back.”


“I’ll consider it,” Alexis said after a moment. “But I’m not going to wait forever. I want to make a difference, and working with you…well, it hasn’t been all that I might have hoped for.”


“That’s fine,” I said. “Like I said, it’s up to you. Just something to keep in mind.”


“Hang on,” Laurel said. “A storm is coming? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”


I shrugged. “Beats me. But I’ve heard it referenced by a Faerie Queen and a member of the Conclave now, and neither of them seemed to think there was anything they could do about it, so I’m guessing it has to be pretty epic in scope.”


The Watcher winced. “Which member?”




Laurel shuddered at that. “Damn. I was afraid you’d say that. That guy is…I don’t know. There’s something messed up there, you know what I mean?”


“Yeah,” I said. “But my life’s riding on his decision, at the moment. I kind of have to hope for the best out of him.”


“Good luck with that,” she said. “I really did enjoy working with you, Winter. It’d be a shame if you died for something like this.”


“Thanks for the sentiment,” I said dryly, starting for the door. “But I don’t have any intention of dying. Not yet.”


Alexis decided to stay and talk more about the possibility of joining the Guards with Laurel. As a result, I made my way back downstairs alone, feeling more than a little dismal. I hate it when I actually decide not do something stupid, for once, and then circumstances force me to do it anyway.


I was met at the door by a man in an indigo robe.


“Hello, Winter,” he said, falling into step beside me.


I eyed him warily, and not particularly happily. “Alexander. Or should I call you Maker?”


He shrugged dismissively. “It hardly matters. Both names were assumed.”


“Right,” I said. “Aren’t you supposed to be on stage right now?”


“This isn’t the first time I’ve annoyed the rest of the Conclave,” he said dryly. “I doubt it will be the last, either. And I owed you an explanation.”


“I’m surprised you’d care,” I said tightly. “Given that you never bothered to tell me about the Conclave in the first place.”


He considered me for a moment. “Ah. I’d wondered what that was about.”




“You’ve been avoiding me for some time,” he said. “I was wondering why.”


“Well, you kind of did screw me over with that,” I pointed out. “I mean, all of a sudden I’ve got Watchers chasing me for something I didn’t do, and I don’t even know who the hell they are. Don’t you think that’s the sort of thing you should mention to someone, when you agree to show them the ropes?”


Alexander was silent for several steps. “It wasn’t intended that way,” he said at last. “I didn’t expect it to cause you trouble. But it’s been my experience that the less involvement one has with clan politics, the happier they are.”


I snorted. “How’d you get on that stage with an attitude like that?”


“It’s somewhat traditional. Some of the other positions are assigned based on politics, but Maker has always been passed down more on the basis of skill. I’m quite possibly the best maker in the world, and I have connections to everyone else who might lay claim to the title. My predecessor evidently thought that was sufficient.”


“The title of Maker is an inherited one, then?”


“Yes,” he said. “All of them are. Nine mages, titled after the nine mages of the original Conclave. Though the resemblance is thin. They were giants among men, fit to stand among the gods. Next to them, we’re just pretenders to the throne, and inadequate ones at that.”


“Having seen your work,” I said dryly, “I find that difficult to believe.”


Alexander paused again before speaking. “The original Maker was Solomon. His ring could compel any spirit to do his will. He could trap a demon or a djinn in a bottle for a thousand years without difficulty. His bindings could hold a lesser god. The weapons he made are strong enough, even two thousand years later, that one of Keeper’s most important duties is making sure that no one ever uses one. Next to his works, the things I do are parlor tricks.”


“Oh,” I said. “Those stories were accurate?”


“Many of them.” Alexander shook his head. “I’ve strayed off topic. I imagine you’re curious as to why that vote went the way it did.”


“Not really. I figured it was Scáthach’s doing. She wants a favor, and this is some pretty fine leverage.”


He nodded slowly. “Not inaccurate, but not entirely correct. While she likely did play a role in the timing, it was as much doing you a favor as applying pressure. She reminded people that you’re connected.”


“I don’t get it.”


“Look,” he said. “Most people in the supernatural community choose a side and stick with it. They sign up for the Pack, or join a mage clan, or whatever, and they spend their life working their way up the ranks there. That means they have the chance to gain a great deal of influence, but it also makes their position in the world a simple one. You, on the other hand, have done the opposite, intentionally or otherwise. You have very important friends in the Pack, you’ve worked for two of the Conclave, you have connections to three separate pantheons of deities and both Courts of the Sidhe, not to mention Skrýmir’s support.”


“Yeah,” I said. “But I’ve made a lot of enemies, too. Some of them are even still alive.”


“Exactly,” he said, gesturing animatedly. “See, that’s exactly what I’m saying. You’ve made yourself complicated. You’re linked to so many different groups, in so many different ways, that any action involving you has the potential to have serious consequences that weren’t intended. Pull one string and you can’t predict what tangles might develop, you see? And each of those groups has relationships with others, to the point that the second-order interactions are far too complex to model with any confidence. By declaring her continued support, Scáthach reminded the Conclave of how delicate this issue is.”


“I don’t get it. How is getting people to accuse me of killing Zhang a declaration of support?”


“The accusation was going to be made eventually,” Alexander said flatly. “If only for the sake of appearances, the Conclave would have been obligated to consider the topic at some point. By pressuring the parties in question to make the accusation now, she ensured that they wouldn’t have time to arrange things to their liking. She also reminds you that her support can be withdrawn at any time, which is why I said you weren’t incorrect about this being a threat of sorts. If she becomes hostile to you, then killing you is a much more advantageous action, politically. There’s a very real danger there.”


We walked in silence for around thirty seconds after that, while I processed what he’d said. I might be involved in politics now, however reluctantly, but there was a far cry from being a politician. I wasn’t at all accustomed to thinking in circles that twisty.


“Arbiter said I had a chance,” I said at last. “That I could avoid the consequences of my actions. What does that mean?”


Alexander was quiet for a long moment. “The balance isn’t favorable,” he said at last. “You have enough advocates to delay things. But in the end, what you did was too blatant. Allowing you to get by without any punishment would invite consequences. And there are enough people in the Conclave who think you’re dangerous that pushing it through anyway isn’t likely to happen. At this point, the only chance you have is to either change the relative value of your life, or mollify the people accusing you.”


“What happens if I’m found guilty?”


“You’re already a fugitive in the real world,” he said dryly. “I doubt you want to be on the run from the mages, as well.” He shook his head. “You could survive. You might take refuge with Skrýmir, for example, or in Scáthach’s Court. I’m sure you’re aware of other options.”


“But there would be a price.” I didn’t have to ask about that. There was always a price.




I was silent for several more steps. “The Zhang clan has close ties to the Courts,” I said at last. “A word from Scáthach could go a long way towards evening that scale.”


“Precisely,” Alexander said approvingly. “She did you a favor by rushing them into accusing you, but gifts from the fae have a tendency to only draw you in deeper.”


“Man,” I sighed. “Fuck faeries.”


“A sentiment which has been expressed by a great many people, throughout history,” he said dryly. “Now, I really should be getting back. Did you have any other questions?”


“Not really. I mean, at this point there’s only really one way to go forward, isn’t there? As much as I hate the idea of getting mixed up in Court politics, keeping Scáthach happy is kind of important right now.”


“That’s how it goes,” Alexander said, shrugging. “Once you get involved with the Courts, there’s no backing out. I tried to warn you.”


“Yeah,” I agreed. “You did. Thanks, Alexander. I’m sorry I’ve been distant.”


“It’s not important,” he said, turning back towards the meeting. “Try not to die.”



I watched him go, and then I kept walking.

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