About forty minutes later, I walked back up to the house. A vaguely canid skeleton walked next to me, its movements utterly silent. You’d have to look closely to see the thin coating of black fog around the bones, or the tiny sparks of blue light burning in the eye sockets.
Miraculously, nothing appeared to have gone disastrously wrong in my absence. Snowflake met me at the base of the hill. Oh, she said, sounding less than thrilled. You brought that thing.
“That’s right,” Legion said. “Now shut up, mutt. Adults are talking.”
“This is where the ward was anchored,” I said hastily, before Snowflake could say anything. “Can you see it?”
“Oh, yeah,” Legion said, barely even glancing at the faerie ring. “Definitely recent Sidhe work on top.”
“On top? What’s that mean?”
“Oh, this is old work. Looks like the bottom layer is maybe five hundred years old? Something like that. Tylwyth Teg, I’m thinking, although that far back the distinctions start to get a little fuzzier.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said automatically. “Five hundred years? You can’t make a ward last that long. It would degrade.”
“Sure, but you’ve got faeries dancing in this thing almost every night, I’m guessing. That kind of ritual keeps it fresh, builds on it. Say what you want about them, but they build to last.”
“Right,” I said. “Okay. Explains why they were doing this here, anyway, if they’ve been using the location that long. Let’s keep going.”
We hiked up to the house without seeing anyone else. “Look around,” I told Legion. “I want to know what’s going on here, what kind of residues you can find.”
“You gots it, Boss,” he said, trotting off around the building.
I walked inside and looked around. I didn’t see anything out of place, but that didn’t necessarily mean much. “Any trouble?” I called.
There was a brief pause before Aiko appeared from under a veil, on the other side of the room. “What’s the password?” she called, pointing her carbine at me.
I stared at her. “We didn’t set up a password before I left. Besides, do you really think an impostor could fool Snowflake? Seriously?”
“Good,” she said, lowering the gun. Her expression was relieved as she dropped the weapon to hang from its strap. “And no, I haven’t seen anything.”
“Okay, this level of paranoia is not normal for you. What gives?”
“This is Court business,” she said, pacing around the room. “You can’t be too careful with that sort of thing. Besides, I was expecting someone to show up by now. They know we’re here, and they have to know there’s a chance that we’ll find something they’d rather we didn’t. Sending some people to scare us off and destroy any evidence would make sense.”
“Maybe they aren’t willing to do anything that overt,” I suggested. “It sounds like this is still fairly subtle.”
“Maybe,” she said doubtfully. “But you’re talking about Sidhe politics. It’s a sucker’s bet that there’s some scheme going.”
I sighed. “Thanks for reminding me. Hopefully Legion will finish up soon, and we can get out of here. This place makes me itch.”
Less than ten minutes later, the demon walked up to me. “I’ve got it, Boss,” he said. “But you aren’t going to like it.”
“Of course not,” I said sourly. “First off, what can you tell me about the people that were here?”
“There are some definite Sidhe signatures,” he said cheerily. “I’m reading at least half a dozen, maybe more. A bit of troll residue, a bit of goblin. You walk in on a party or something?”
“Something. What Court are we talking about, here?”
“Solidly on the Midnight side of things, it looks like. A few of them might be unaffiliated. Honestly, it’s hard to get details on a magical residue.”
“Okay. And now for the big question. Can you get anything about a Faerie Queen in the area?”
“Yes, and let me just say that you are incredibly stupid to be getting into that. I mean, you’ve done some dumb things, I think we all know that, but this really raises the bar.”
“Less backtalk,” I growled. “More answers.”
“I’m getting there. Yes, there was a Queen around here. Definitely from the Daylight Court, I’m guessing Aoife. She did one of the wards on that faerie ring, and a few more around the building. Solid work, a little on the passive side, but solid.”
“Yes!” I said. “Can you show that she was in communication with the Sidhe that were meeting here? Telling them we were coming, or something like that.”
“Give me a minute,” he said. The shadows around his bones seemed to draw back a little, and the sparks of light dimmed; he was focusing most of his attention on what I’d asked him to do, and he’d shifted some of his essence back to the spiritual side of things to do so. I’d seldom seen him do it, because I generally used Legion more as a lab assistant than a field researcher. He was simultaneously too valuable and much too dangerous to take out often.
“Doesn’t look like it, Boss,” he said after a few minutes. “I’m not actually seeing anything from her in the same time frame as they were here. Honestly, there’s no reason she would have; she could have just sent a messenger, or tripped one of the wards they had set up. Just as good and a lot less noticeable.”
“Damn,” I said. “Damn. Okay, let me think for a minute.”
I couldn’t see where to go from here. If we couldn’t track them, and there was nothing here incriminating enough that I could use it against them, then there wasn’t much I could take to Scáthach. I could always wait for the group to meet again, but I must have spooked them pretty badly just now. And the fae are, generally, patient; they’re immortal, after all. It might be years before they felt comfortable enough to gather again. That was time I didn’t have.
I was confused, though, because everything I’d said to Scáthach was still true. I was a tool, and maybe even a valuable one. She could easily have predicted that I would find out where they were, and once I did, it wasn’t hard to see the cause-and-effect chain leading to this moment. Which, in turn, meant that there must be some way to proceed, because otherwise she’d put a fair amount of effort into a pointless investment.
Except…now that I thought about it, I wasn’t so sure she wanted me to succeed. Yes, I’d be in trouble with the Conclave if I didn’t, but Alexander had flat out said that it wouldn’t kill me. It would just cause problems, force me to take steps to protect myself. It would make me desperate.
In other words, it would make me even more useful to her. A desperate man, hunted and on the run, is an easy one to manipulate. She might even be able to talk me into signing on with her Court, just because it was one of the few forces around that could protect me from the Conclave if they got upset with me.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get out of here. We can come up with something else to try once we’re somewhere safe.”
“Sounds good,” Aiko said. Her expression was relieved.
I started to walk to the exit, and then paused.
Why wasn’t Aiko wearing her armor? Under the circumstances, I would have expected her to want as much iron between her and the world as possible. There was no reason for her to take her helmet off.
“Legion,” I said, thinking through what was going on as I spoke. “Identify everyone present, please.”
“Sure, Boss,” he said, conveying the impression of a shrug without moving. “I’m here, obviously, and so are you. The mutt’s over there, and her shadow is too.” Snowflake growled at him, and he laughed. “Anyway, then there’s the doppelganger. Nice try, but you really don’t know what a kitsune smells like, do you? Come on, even Winter caught you.”
“Right,” I said, looking at Aiko. Or, rather, at the person imitating Aiko, and doing a pretty subpar job of it, if I’d caught her this quickly. “I believe this is your cue to explain yourself, doppelganger.”
She paused, and then darted one hand at her pocket.
Before she could grab whatever she’d been going for, Snowflake bit her leg and jerked it out from under her. The doppelganger hit the ground, screaming, even though Snowflake hadn’t done any real damage. I was pretty sure that bite hadn’t even broken skin.
“Iron teeth,” I said, squatting next to her. “Burns, doesn’t it? I mean, iron doesn’t hurt me, so I wouldn’t know, but I imagine it’s similar to silver.”
She snarled at me, doing a surprisingly good job of mimicking Aiko’s expressions, and started to go for that pocket again. Snowflake growled, just behind her head, and she flinched and stopped.
“I’m not in a very good mood,” I said. “I don’t have a lot of time, and I don’t think you comprehend just how much you just pissed me off. So I’m going to explain things in simple terms. I’m going to ask you some questions. You’re going to answer them, honestly and without keeping anything back. If at any point I think you’re trying to fool me, I’m going to start putting iron filings under your skin. I doubt it will kill you, but I expect you know better than I do how much it will hurt. Are we clear?”
She glared at me some more. I reached into my cloak and pulled out a small leather bag and a knife. She blinked and said, “You wouldn’t dare.”
I smiled at her. She flinched a little. “As I said, you really pissed me off with this. I don’t enjoy causing pain, and I don’t generally condone torture. But you took Aiko, and I don’t know how long I have to find her before something bad happens. So yes, I absolutely dare. If you don’t start talking, you’re going to find out just how much I dare. Again, are we clear?”
I must have been pretty convincing, because the doppelganger looked away and then nodded. “Crystal.”
“Good. Where is the kitsune?”
“In the bedroom, in the closet. There are illusions around her, but she’s there.”
“Snowflake,” I said. “Confirm that, please.”
And leave you alone with this thing? she said. That doesn’t sound like a good idea.
I’ve got plenty of iron, and Legion is here. We’ll be fine.
She snorted, but she went. As predicted, the doppelganger made another try for whatever weapon or escape route she had in her pocket, but she stopped when I grabbed her wrist. Steel gauntlets are lots of fun when it comes to grappling with a faerie.
She’s here, Snowflake reported a moment later. Out cold. Hang on, I’m bringing her out there.
“Good,” I said, once they were back in the room with us. Aiko had been stripped to the skin, probably so that the doppelganger could use her clothing, but she didn’t look injured. Snowflake resumed position behind our prisoner, and I let her go. “What did you do to her?”
“Sleeping potion,” the doppelganger said. “I don’t know how it works.”
“How long until it wears off?”
The doppelganger started to shrug, then stopped when Snowflake growled at her again. “I don’t know.”
“Okay,” I said. “Why did you drug her? Why did you try to impersonate her?”
“Those were the instructions I was given,” she said. “Wait for someone to be vulnerable, take them out and replace them.”
“Given by whom?”
“The person who hired me. I don’t know who he is, not reliably.”
I nodded. That wasn’t surprising; they wouldn’t have told her anything more than they absolutely had to, not if she was hired help. “What can you tell me about him?”
She licked her lips and looked from me to Legion, then glanced back at Snowflake. The husky growled at her, and she flinched. “He’s Sidhe, fairly powerful,” she said. “Part of the Midnight Court, but not that highly ranked, I think. He and the other people here have a shared interest, something political.”
“What part of the Midnight Court is he in?”
“I think he answers to Scáthach,” she said. “But I don’t know for sure. He doesn’t like it where he is, I know that.”
“This is a lot of information, for someone who doesn’t know much about the guy,” I noted.
“I’m a mercenary,” she said bluntly. “I have to know something about the people I’m working for, just as an insurance policy.”
“Right,” I said, nodding slowly. “Stay where you are. I need a minute to think about this.” I stood up and walked away, pacing.
And then, very suddenly, I saw how to deal with this, and I almost wanted to laugh. Apparently I’d been wrong, and Scáthach actually did want me to pull this off. Or, more likely, it was a test of some sort, and she was happy with either outcome. Or, hell, maybe she actually hadn’t anticipated this.
“Scáthach,” I said, loudly and clearly. “I know you’re listening. This is too important for you to not be paying attention. I have something to say.”
“And what would that be, my dear jarl?” She chose to appear behind me, much like Aoife had done, but unlike her sister she was slightly to the side, so that she was whispering in my ear. Her breath felt cold on my skin and smelled sweet, with just a touch of something uglier underneath. I wanted to shiver.
I took a step away and nodded to her instead. “Queen,” I said. “I have reason to believe that a group of your subjects was here very recently. They have done harm to me unlawfully, and I demand satisfaction.”
“What evidence do you have for your charges?” she asked, with a vulpine smile. She knew, and I wasn’t sure why she was going through with this charade.
But I could play along. “Logic and common sense,” I said. “The fact that one of my people is currently unconscious. The word of someone who isn’t in a position to lie.” I gestured at the doppelganger, who was cringing away from Scáthach. That put her uncomfortably close to Snowflake, almost touching the steel armor she was wearing, but apparently the Queen was frightening enough to outweigh the pain.
“Your evidence is convincing,” the goddess said, not even glancing at the doppelganger. “But not compelling. Allow me to bring the leader of the group in question here, so that we may hear his side of the story.”
I opened my mouth, though I wasn’t sure what I was going to say. It didn’t matter, in any case; Scáthach wasn’t interested in my input. She gestured slightly, and I felt a gentle surge of magic. Maybe ten seconds later, a portal opened and a male Sidhe stepped into the room.
That fast of a reaction seemed a little suspicious in itself to me. Then again, maybe Scáthach really did expect that degree of responsiveness from her people.
“You are accused of doing harm to a foreign power in a time of peace without due cause,” she said without preamble. “What say you?”
“I am innocent, my Queen,” he purred in a voice like chilled silk. “I have done no such thing to this man.”
“Doppelganger,” I said. “Is this the person who hired you?”
She cringed even more as everyone in the room turned to look at her. “No,” she said weakly. “But he was giving my employer orders.”
I turned to Scáthach. “There you have it,” I said. “Under your law, he must answer for the actions of his subordinates, when those actions were taken in the context of that role. Or am I wrong?”
“On the contrary, your grasp of the legal principle involved is quite accurate,” she said. Alone of everyone in that room, she seemed to be enjoying herself. “It would seem I am faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, your accusations have some evidence to support them, and your word’s value is well known. On the other hand, you are accusing my Duke of a crime, and his word, as well, is known to be good.”
A Duke? That couldn’t be good. I wasn’t sure what the hierarchy of the Courts looked like, but from what I remembered of human nobility, a duke was near the top. I hadn’t been expecting the ringleader of this group to have that much authority.
“Decisions, decisions,” she murmured. “How shall I resolve this, then?”
Nobody offered any suggestions. Hell, I wasn’t even breathing, and I doubted I was alone in that. Nobody wanted to be the center of attention in that room.
“I know,” Scáthach said, sounding so self-satisfied that I just knew I wasn’t going to like what she said next. “Let us have a trial.”
I hate being right.