I stood on that hill for what felt like a long time, watching the sunset and looking at the hole in the ground, watching as emergency vehicles began to cluster around it and a crowd began to gather. I felt oddly disconnected from what I saw; I knew, logically, that I was responsible, but on an emotional level it felt like I was looking in from the outside.
I wasn’t concerned about being found there. I was far enough away that it would take a while for them to look here, and my face was hidden behind my cloak.
And besides, what did it matter if they did connect this to me? It couldn’t make them hate me any more than they already did.
The sunset was fading and I was trying to decide what to do next when I heard a familiar voice behind me. “Good evening, jarl.”
I looked back and saw the leader of the ghouls I’d fought earlier. He was wearing the human guise I’d first seen, but as before, it was…less than perfect. He didn’t seem aggressive, so I nodded politely to him. “Good evening, Jibril.”
He walked up and stood next to me, looking at the hole in the ground. “Your work?” he asked idly.
I shrugged and nodded. “Close enough.”
“I’m guessing the boss was in there?”
“Yeah. Her, a bunch of the vampires working for her, a lot of her soldiers.”
“Any of my people?”
I hesitated, but there wasn’t much point in lying. “Eleven. They’re dead now. Nothing personal, it just seemed…wiser not to take chances.”
He sighed and nodded. “I don’t blame you. It’s just….” He trailed off and shook his head. “Damn shame. People like you and her getting in your wars, but it’s the little guy stuck in between that dies.”
“You aren’t going to cause problems for me, then?”
He snorted. “After this? That’d be stupid. The boss is dead, anyway, so there’s no reason to stick around. I figure we’ll get out of your town. Probably stay away for a while, maybe try to find work back in the old country.”
I considered him for a moment, then sighed. “You don’t have to, if you don’t want.”
He regarded me with what I thought was an expression of curiosity. It was hard to tell on those features, but I was fairly confident that was the gist of what he was trying to convey.
“I could use some employees,” I explained. “I can’t promise it’ll be safe, but I won’t ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. And I can offer you reasonable pay.” I shrugged. “Or you can stay in town without working for me. Just don’t cause trouble.”
He pondered that. “Huh,” he said after a moment. “My people might not want to fight for you after all this. But we’ll see.”
“Just let me know,” I said. “I won’t hold a grudge against you either way.”
He left. Shortly thereafter, so did I.
“How’d it go with Sveinn?” Aiko asked, ladling mashed potatoes and a mushroom-based gravy onto her plate.
“I had Kyi shoot him in the head,” I said, sitting down next to her. Snowflake headbutted me in the thigh and I scratched her ears absently. “Then I traded two of the answers Loki owed me for the destruction of Natalie’s gang and made a job offer to a bunch of cannibalistic ghouls.”
There was a moment of silence after I said that. Eventually, Aiko whistled appreciatively. “Damn. I should let you go out on your own more often.”
“When you say ‘the destruction of Natalie’s gang,'” Alexis said carefully. “What do you mean by that?”
“What it sounds like. Loki blew their hideout up. Nine vampires, eleven ghouls, forty-five humans.”
“Forty-five people,” Alexis repeated.
“And…you’re okay with that?”
I looked at her. “Alexis. I just had my lieutenant killed for lying to me. I made a deal with a devil to destroy my enemies. I voluntarily offered a job to a group of ghouls that I know damn well enjoy killing and eating people. And the next thing on my agenda is killing a bunch of people as a favor for the queen of evil faeries so that she’ll help me cover up the fact that I murdered somebody.” I started scooping food onto my own plate. “I think it’s safe to say, at this point, that I’m not the good guy in this particular story.”
“But are you okay with that?” she pressed.
I shrugged. “Does it matter? This is where we are. Maybe it isn’t where we wanted to be, but that doesn’t count for much.”
“Hey,” Aiko interjected. “I take offense to that. I mean, maybe you’re in too deep to get out, but I’m not. I stick around with you because I want to.”
Not much was said for the rest of the night.
The rest of the week passed without much of note happening. I bought a bunch of mercury, the other chemicals I would need to make my mirror, and half a dozen large sheets of glass. I was only expecting to need two, but this was delicate work; the chances that I would mess something up were very, very high.
I’m pretty sure the people from the chemical supply company thought I was crazy. I mean, it isn’t every day somebody buys almost ten grand worth of mercury and pays cash. I’d had to pay a good bit extra, too, to get them not to ask too many questions about why someone would want ten thousand dollars in mercury. But it was worth it.
Other than that, not a lot happened. Aiko bought a video game from a sketchy dealer online, and then we went and burned down his house when he sent her a disc of particularly exotic pornography instead.
Alexis spent a lot of time away, talking to the Guards about signing up. I tried not to be bothered by that, with mixed results.
It’s strange, how casual you can get about looking at terrifying threats. I mean, I knew that, if we missed this chance, it wasn’t likely that I’d be able to do Scáthach’s favor. The consequences of that would probably be all kinds of ugly. And on some level I was aware that I should feel tense about that, but I just…didn’t. It was like I’d spent so much time under the sword that it was starting to feel comfy.
All of which does a lot to explain why, in the days leading up to the actual event, I didn’t really feel any different than normal. If anything there was a sort of vague anticipation, almost like waiting for Christmas.
It was surprisingly easy to find the secret meeting of secret faeries secretly trying to overthrow Scáthach. We took an Otherside portal to London, then a train to Wales, followed by a bus into the middle of nowhere in Wales.
I’d never really done the public transit thing before. It was…about as unpleasant as I was expecting, really. Crammed into a metal tube with hundreds of people, none of whom had any concept of personal space, was not my preferred way to travel. Never mind the security risk it posed, which was significant. Anybody could be a threat in that mess, and you’d never know it until it was too late. Snowflake enjoyed it even less, although her issues had less to do with security and more to do with it not being very much fun.
Alexis wasn’t coming along. I didn’t want to drag her into Court business, and she had been…less than enthusiastic about dragging herself.
Next time, I resolved, we would just buy a car. We had the money for it, after all.
Finally, the bus stopped in the middle of some town the name of which I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to. It really wasn’t worth paying attention to; there might have been a thousand people in that town, but I doubted it. It was the sort of place where you could step out your front door and walk for an hour or two without seeing another person.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked dubiously as we got off the bus, looking around.
Aiko shrugged. “This is what the guy said.”
“It just seems odd. Why would you have a meeting out here?”
“Tradition?” she guessed. “I don’t know. This part of the world is where the Courts have the strongest ties, I guess. That might count for something.”
I sighed. “I guess. Well, lead on.”
“Cool. It’s a few miles away, so I guess the first step is to steal a car.”
I stopped. “No. No way. You did not make me sit on a bus just to steal a car as soon as we got here.”
“You really want to walk five miles to get to the meeting?”
“We have a few hours to spare,” I said dryly.
She rolled her eyes and started walking.
We’d budgeted plenty of extra time, so I wasn’t too concerned about being late. As it turned out, that wasn’t the best attitude I could have had. We were going at a leisurely pace and Aiko got turned around twice, so by the time we made it to the meeting location there was only an hour left before it was supposed to start.
Not a huge problem. But I’d have liked to have a little more time to spare.
At least it was a pleasant walk. It was surprisingly warm for a September day in Wales, warm enough that the cool breeze was welcome.
After we got there, we killed about half an hour playing dice—Snowflake won, somehow—before moving in. I didn’t want to scare anyone off, after all; my deal with Scáthach called for their total extermination. Getting there too early might mean that I only got some of the conspirators.
We hadn’t approached too closely, for much the same reason. So it wasn’t until we moved in for the kill that I got my first good look at the place.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” I sighed.
Aiko gave me a funny look. “What?”
“A house on a hill,” I said dryly. “Surrounded by a ring of mushrooms. Could you get more stereotypically fae than this?”
She shrugged. “They’re traditionalists.” She took a step across the line of fungi.
“Aiko? What is it?”
She didn’t answer. A moment later, I realized that Snowflake wasn’t saying anything, and looked at her.
Frozen. Not moving at all.
I looked around, starting to panic, and saw that the grass had stopped moving in the wind.
“Okay,” I said, relaxing a little. “You might as well come out now.” Then I turned around.
My timing was good. I turned to face the woman who had appeared directly behind me just before she could start talking.
She closed her mouth and glowered at me. “You’re no fun,” she said.
“I try,” I said, studying her. There was something familiar about her, in a way that I couldn’t quite place. She was Sidhe, obviously, and even by the standards of the Sidhe she had an unearthly beauty about her, but more than that there was some quality about her that I recognized.
Then I got it. She looked like Scáthach. Not in any individual feature—she had white hair instead of black, and her features were more rounded, less hungry looking—but in her overall bearing. She had the same sense of power, the same presence.
I bowed my head slightly. “Queen. Might I have the honor of knowing whom I address?”
She glared at me. It was an odd expression, imperious and angry, but with a sense of amusement still lurking underneath. On another face I might have called it petulant, but the notion of applying that word to a Faerie Queen was…inadvisable.
“I am Aoife,” she snapped. “The Lady of Radiant Beauty, the Maiden of Daylight, the youngest Queen of the Seelie Court of the Sidhe.”
“Try fitting that on a business card,” I said mildly. “Altering the flow of time for the two of us? I’m impressed. I thought that took god-level power.”
“I am a deity,” she pointed out.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, and so am I, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. There are gods, and then there are gods. I wouldn’t have guessed you were this high on the list, is all I’m saying.”
She regarded me for a moment, and the anger seemed to fade from her expression. “Are you not frightened?” she asked. “Knowing that I hold you within my power?”
I shrugged. “Not really. If you wanted to kill me you’d have done it already. I’m guessing that means you want something. You showed up right when Aiko stepped over those mushrooms, so I’m guessing you were using them as the basis for a ward. That means you want something about this, specifically. Am I getting close?”
“Yes,” she said reluctantly. “I know that you were sent here by my sister to kill these people. I would rather you didn’t.”
“Okay,” I said. “These people are from the Midnight Court, right? So why are you trying to save your enemies?”
“That is none of your concern.”
“No,” I said dryly. “See, I’m here because I need Scáthach to do something pretty important for me. So yes, actually, this literally is my concern.” I frowned. “They’re speaking out for war, right? So that would suggest you want the war to heat up. I doubt you want to lose, so you must think that an increase in the war effort right now will be to your gain later on.”
“Stop,” she hissed at me. “Stop thinking. You’re only buying trouble. I tell you truly that you don’t want to help my sister achieve her aims. Do as I ask now, and I will reward you.”
I eyed her. “Reward me how? Specifically, please.”
“You killed my previous champion,” she murmured. “That would seem to qualify you for the position.”
I laughed. “Wow. That’s a new best, I gotta admit. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten an offer that assumed I was quite that dumb before. Congratulations.”
“You do not wish for the power I could offer you?”
“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “I mean, really. You don’t think I have enough people telling me what to do already?” I shook my head. “Nah. The power you’re offering has a price tag attached, and I don’t think I like what it says.”
She nodded slowly. “I didn’t really expect you to,” she said. “But I had to offer the position to you before I could give it to anyone else. Tradition, you know. So what do you want?”
“A lot of things, most of which I doubt you can offer me. But your sister offered to smooth things over with the Conclave. I’m accused of killing a clan mage, and it would be awkward if they decide I’m guilty.”
“Ah,” she said. “I’m sure you know that I could do something similar.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “But would it be worth it?” I shrugged. “Look, Aoife. I’m not going to pretend that I know what’s going on here, or what the deeper meaning is. I’m a pawn, and I know I’m a pawn. And, you know, I’ve got nothing against you, I’ve got nothing against working for you. But I don’t think it would be a very good idea for me to get drawn into your conflicts any more deeply than I already am. Not when I’m already under contract by the other side.”
“You won’t do it, then.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said carefully. “If leaving these people be seems like the better idea, I’ll do it.”
“I could make you,” she said. “But I won’t. I get the impression that you’re working for my sister out of ignorance, rather than malice, and I try not to hurt people for making honest mistakes.”
“And also Loki would skin you alive if he thought you were poaching me from him,” I said dryly.
She laughed. It was an odd, sweet sound, somewhere between wind chimes and birdsong. “And that,” she said brightly. “Good day, jarl.” She vanished.
“Ugh,” Aiko said a moment later. “I hate being paralyzed like that. Nice job telling her to screw off, though.”
“Hah,” I said. “I knew she couldn’t actually mess with time.”
“Or she just didn’t need to.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, although I was pretty sure I knew. The same thing had occurred to me, and it wasn’t a pleasant thought.
“Let’s find out,” she said. “You guys should be fine to cross the faerie ring. I think the ward was just to alert her.”
Nothing obviously bad happened to us as we did, and we started up the hill. I knew before we got halfway up that I’d been right; the door of the dilapidated house was hanging open, and it hadn’t been before.
Sure enough, when we got up to the house, there was no one there. I was sure this was the right place, though; there were plates sitting out, and it smelled like recent occupancy. I could smell magic, too, not quite the same as an Otherside portal but close enough that I was confident it served about the same purpose.
I almost wanted to laugh. That whole conversation, Aoife offering me deals, it had all been a cover, buying time for them to get out. And I, like a sucker, had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.
I was getting pretty sick of dealing with the fae.
“Damn,” I said. “Damn. Do you think we could track them?”
“I doubt it,” Aiko said. “I mean, I could maybe follow one of them. But they took at least three or four different Ways out of here. And even if I could, we’d still be chasing a bunch of high-ranking Court types onto their home ground.”
“Right,” I said, thinking. “Could you two keep an eye on things here for a while?”
She shrugged. “Probably. Why?”
“Scáthach said I should kill these people, or give her an excuse to,” I said. “It seems to me that demonstrating that they were getting support from her archenemy would be a decent excuse.” I grinned. “So I think I should get an expert in to look at it.”