Scáthach might have been in a hurry to deal with her misbehaving subjects, but she was still Sidhe. I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t try to rush me as I changed again and then got dressed. I took it slow, minimizing the pain, but it was still a pretty awful experience. That kind of silver exposure hurt, and it hurt on an energetic level, making it harder to change or heal. It might be days before I was operating at my peak again.
“Okay,” I said, pulling the last of the armor into place. “You asked me to either deal with them or give you an excuse to do so. From where I’m standing, I just did the second one.”
“Indeed,” she said, with a satisfied smile. “You did better than I anticipated, jarl. Very well. So much so that I will offer you a choice of reward.”
“Choice,” I said, with a sinking feeling. I’d known that she would find a way to screw me over, but that didn’t make it any more fun. “We had a deal. I took care of your people, and you take care of my problems with the Conclave. That was the deal.”
“Yes, and if you would like I will be quite pleased to keep that deal,” she said, with a nasty smile. “Or, instead of speaking to the mages on your behalf, I will wake the kitsune.”
Oh. Right. In the heat of the moment, fighting that duel, I’d almost forgotten that Aiko was unconscious. I glanced at her and confirmed that was still the case. She was lying on the ground, so still as to seem dead, with Legion standing guard on one side of her and Snowflake on the other. It could almost have been a charming picture, had it not been for Scáthach’s implication.
“What happens if you don’t wake her?” I asked.
Scáthach shrugged carelessly. Once again I was struck by how inhuman the gesture was, closer to a cat or an insect than a hominid. “Possibly you could find another way to rouse her. But I doubt you could do so easily or simply. This is the same potion that gave rise to your legends of the sleeping princess.” I must have looked too excited by that, because Scáthach smiled again. “And no, jarl, you will not be able to wake her with a kiss. That sort of modification to the recipe is more my counterpart’s domain than mine.”
“Right,” I muttered. “Of course.”
“So, then,” the Queen of Faerie purred. She was smiling, her eyes unsettlingly bright with an inhuman excitement. “What will you choose, oh jarl, my dear?”
“Damn you. You know what I’ll choose.”
“Of course,” she said. “But do you?”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Wake her up, then. And Scáthach?” I said, before she could move. “I’m sure you could find a way to screw me over here. Don’t, okay? It would be the one step too far. You said this whole thing was about making me a useful tool. Pushing me on this topic is a great way to ruin that.”
She regarded me coolly. I’d thought I might piss her off by saying that, but if so, the emotion was too remote or too alien to be visible. “Very well,” she said. “You will find her in your home, alive and unharmed.” Then she gestured, very slightly, and both she and Aiko vanished.
I stood there for a minute or so, staring at the spot where she’d been. I was tired, and burnt, and on the whole I was feeling rather sorry for myself.
Then the doppelganger, who was still sitting on the ground next to Snowflake, cleared her throat. “Um,” she said. “What happens now?”
I looked at her for a moment, then shrugged. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re even,” I said. “You tried to screw me over, I caught you before you could really get started. Nothing personal on either side, right?”
She nodded. “It’s just business as far as I’m concerned. I’m fine with dropping it here. No debt or grudge to either side.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “Sorry for the rough treatment back there. I was kind of short on time, and I think you saw how serious the situation was.”
She nodded again, more emphatically. “Yes,” she said. She started to walk away, then paused. “Hey, you’re all right, you know that?” She produced what looked like a normal business card from somewhere and dropped it on the ground. “You ever need some work done, call that number. I’ll give you a discount.”
Damn,” Aiko said. “You really beat a Sidhe duke in a fair fight?”
I shrugged, trying and failing to get comfortable on the broken chair. The vampires hadn’t spent much time in our castle after we got away, but they’d done a number on it while they were there. I wasn’t concerned; nothing really valuable was missing or broken, and it would get fixed eventually. “Fairish. I mean, everything I did was legal, but I don’t know if I’d call it fair.”
She laughed. “That is so awesome. As pissed as Scáthach was at him, it might not even come back to bite you in the ass.”
“I notice that you don’t sound happy,” she said after a moment. “What gives?”
I opened my mouth to say that it was nothing, then paused. “Do you ever feel like what you need is just out of reach?” I asked. “It’s like you can see it, but when you try to grab it someone moves it away. I keep trying and trying to fix the problems, but it’s always one step forward, two steps back.”
“Is this about the problem with the Conclave?” she asked delicately.
I growled, though it was more frustrated than angry. “No,” I said. “No, Scáthach was never going to let me win that. I see that now. At least this way I got something worthwhile out of it. No, this is more fundamental, I guess. It’s like…even if I figured out a way to deal with the Conclave, it wouldn’t get me anywhere. I’d win today, but a month or a year down the road it’d just come back to bite me.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I know that feeling.”
“How do you cope with it?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Mostly I got really drunk and shot people. It’s easier to ignore when you do that.”
“That advice sounds disturbingly tempting,” I said after a moment.
She laughed. “That’s what I’m here for. Now come on, stop thinking about all the depressing stuff for a while. You’ve got three days until the Conclave meets again. You can figure out what to do about it later.”
I took her advice, and for a little while I managed to forget my frustrations with the world.
“Good morning,” Moray said, opening the door. I’d remembered to uncover my face before knocking this time. “You didn’t bring the kid.”
“No need. She already signed up with someone.” It might not be official yet, but it might as well be. Alexis was spending so much time talking to the Guards that I’d hardly seen her for days.
“Ah,” Moray said, somehow conveying a wealth of information in that one syllable. “That’s how it goes.”
“Have you trained any apprentices?” I asked. I’d never thought of Moray in that context, but something in how he’d sounded made me curious.
“Not personally,” he said, shrugging. “But I’ve helped with a few recruits, showing them the ropes.” He paused. “One of them got her face eaten by werewolves. She bled out right in front of me. Never even made it through basic training.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a little inadequate. “I’m sorry.”
He shrugged again. “It’s the business,” he said. “You should get upstairs. You don’t want to be late. Seventh floor, same place as last time.”
“Thanks,” I said, going for the stairs. I made better time, without Moray and Alexis there.
Laurel must have been busy somewhere else, because the security station outside the auditorium was being staffed by a Watcher I didn’t recognize, a tall man wearing a suit and an elaborate, feathery metal mask. I put my weapons in the bin and stepped through the scanner, after which he directed me to sit and wait for an escort. He didn’t say anything else.
Not the most personable greeter. That was fine with me. I didn’t want to chat at the moment anyway.
Maybe twenty minutes later, the auditorium door opened, revealing Ivanov and Neumann. “Sorry for the wait,” Ivanov said. “They were setting up a trade agreement or something, and the guy just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“What happened to him?” I asked idly as we walked in. As before, the room was crowded, and the sheer magnitude and variety of power was staggering. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to know whether the same people were attending or not.
“We ended up having to escort him out,” Ivanov said. “Escorted very firmly, if you get my drift.”
“Yeah,” I said, sitting down. I made sure to sit in a different chair than the last time, partially for security reasons and mostly for my own peace of mind. Anything else would be creepy.
I was still antsy, though, on the very edge of my seat. I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to hear next, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
Which was kind of silly, really. They weren’t actually deciding my guilt today, they were just deciding whether I was suspicious enough that they needed to. Even if they came down against me, it wasn’t like they would imprison me until the actual trial.
At least I hoped they wouldn’t. I’d only come for this because it would look bad if I didn’t, and I didn’t want to take the hit to my rep. I’d feel pretty stupid if I got killed as a result. I mean, there’s walking into the lion’s den, and then there’s just being a moron.
“The Conclave addresses the next issue,” Prophet said, maybe thirty seconds after I was in my chair. He was staring at me, and it was getting a little uncomfortable. I’d been on the receiving end of some pretty hard stares in the past, and even by my standards his grey eyes were intense. “This being the continuation of the initial hearing regarding the accusation of the jarl Winter Wolf-Born of the murder of the mage Zhang Qiang. Jarl, please stand.”
As before, I stood up. “Present,” I said.
“Noted. And do you continue to maintain your innocence of this charge?”
“I do,” I said without hesitation. It wasn’t like there was anything to gain by changing my tune now.
“Very well,” Prophet said. He was smiling a little, although it didn’t touch his eyes. “Arbiter, you requested a period for investigation and reflection before you made your statement. Have you satisfied your curiosity?”
“Regarding this topic, yes,” Arbiter said. He was also staring at me, but it was a more pleasant expression than Prophet’s. More neutral than friendly, but that was still a step up.
“And what have you found?” Prophet asked. I thought he sounded impatient with the way Arbiter was dragging this out, but I might have been imagining it.
“The arguments of his accusers have some merit,” Arbiter said. “And the accusation itself is most serious. But upon reflection, I do not think that this Conclave would be served by further investigation.”
“Then you vote to accept the jarl’s plea of innocence?”
“Yes. That makes a majority, Prophet.”
“Yes,” he said sourly. “It does. Jarl Winter, this Conclave finds your plea of innocence convincing. You will not be investigated further in regards to the crime you have been accused of, unless and until compelling evidence comes to light which brings your claim into question.”
I sort of stood there for a second, trying to process what I’d heard. I’d been ready for a lot of things today. I’d been prepared to recant my position and take the penalty. I’d been prepared to go home and make arrangements for living as a fugitive. If things went badly enough, I’d even been prepared to fight back and get my ass handed to me by a couple hundred mages.
Winning was…somewhat less anticipated.
“That concludes this trial,” Prophet said after a moment, apparently taking my silence as an indication that I understood. “This Conclave will reconvene in a quarter-hour to consider the final item on the agenda.”
I was still standing there, trying to adapt to a world in which I won without having to pay for it, when Arbiter approached me. As before, he seemed to glide across the stage, any movement hidden in the folds of his robe. “Guards,” he said. “Your services are no longer required. I will escort the jarl out.”
They wasted no time clearing out, although Ivanov did pause to shoot me a sympathetic look before he disappeared into the crowd. I followed Arbiter up the stairs, still feeling a little dazed. Once again, we were immediately enclosed inside a kinetic barrier powerful enough to stop sound waves from crossing it.
I had to admit, that impressed me. I mean, it’s one thing to do a barrier that strong. I can’t, but it isn’t all that impressive. But to do that, and move it as a single unit, while also walking and carrying on a conversation? That was something else. I could hardly imagine the mental discipline you would need to do something like that.
“So,” Arbiter said, very casually. “I imagine you’re wondering why that went the way it did.”
“Yeah. After what you said last time, I wasn’t expecting to get off easy.”
He nodded. “I expected as much, and I felt that you deserved an explanation. Thus this conversation. There are several reasons why I voted as I did, jarl, as there were various reasons why the other members of the Conclave said what they did.”
“What are they?” I asked, since he seemed to want prompting.
“The first is that, as I told you, my primary concern is stability and balancing the concerns of multiple parties. Your actions since the last time we spoke did a great deal to encourage stability within and between the Courts, which makes my job easier. That’s the first reason, and if anyone asks I expect you to present it as the only one.” Arbiter sounded calm and pleasant. I didn’t let that fool me into thinking he wasn’t serious. When somebody on that level tells you to do something, they don’t need to be overtly threatening to make sure that you’re listening.
“Okay,” I said. “But what are the others?”
“The next is political,” he said calmly, pushing the door of the auditorium open. The same Watcher as before handed me my bin of contraband and waved us through without question. “And,” Arbiter continued, “it is why I expect that the rest of the Conclave will not cause me significant problems as a consequence. You see, jarl, Scáthach tried to use us as a tool to intimidate you into submission.”
“Ah,” I said, understanding what he was getting at. “And you don’t like being used.”
“Precisely,” he said, nodding. “Part of my motivation today was to remind her that we aren’t under her control. If she wants something from us, she can approach us on an equal footing to negotiate for it. She can’t simply assume that she’ll get it for the asking.”
“Okay,” I said. “That makes sense. So what’s the third reason? You wouldn’t have bothered telling me if it was just those two, not when I could have figured them out on my own.”
He was silent for a long moment. “Correct,” he said at last, as we started down the stairs. “Although I want to make it clear that the rest of what I have to say is a secret, of the sort where those who share it are liable to be not just killed, but erased. Damnatio memoriae, or as close as we can arrange in this era.”
“Fun,” I said dryly. “I’ve heard a few similar secrets in the past, I think.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, but this one is different. This one is ours.”
“The Conclave’s?” I asked.
“Yes. And also humanity’s. Tell me, jarl, how many rules do the Watchers enforce?”
I opened my mouth, then paused. “I don’t know,” I said. I’d always meant to look into that, but I’d never quite gotten around to it.
“Four,” Arbiter said, sounding very, very serious. “Four very specific laws. You may not raise the dead, or experiment with the transition between life and death, or any intermediate states. You may not attempt to find the outer boundary of the Otherside. You may not experiment with the border between reality and the spirit world, or attempt to shift an object from one state to the other. You may not change the fundamental nature of a thing.”
“Okay,” I said after a moment. It didn’t seem too important, since none of those were things I was capable of, but I supposed it was worth knowing. “What about not telling the world at large about magic?”
“That’s not so much a rule as a guideline,” Arbiter said dismissively. “And a relatively recent one, at that. No, what I want you to think about is why the Watchers would have such a specific set of rules.”
I thought about it for a few seconds. “Presumably,” I said slowly, “because something happened to make them think that those areas of study were dangerous.”
Which, when I thought about it, was terrifying. I mean, the things a mage could do without breaking any of those rules could be horrifying and awful. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what was so bad that it made that look harmless.
“Exactly,” Arbiter said, sounding pleased that I’d gotten it. “Four very specific events occurred. Now, and this is the part which we’ve gone to great lengths to keep from becoming public knowledge, the first Conclave had more than nine members. There were four others, whose roles haven’t been preserved. Hunter, Healer, Namer, and Dreamer.”
Four people. Four rules. It wasn’t hard to figure out what Arbiter was getting at.
“Okay,” I said. “Healer is obviously the one who tried to raise the dead. Dreams are related to the spiritual, so it would make sense that Dreamer was doing work related to that. The other two….” I shook my head. “I’ve got nothing.”
“Hunter had a gift for space magic, an intimate connection to the idea of location, and a passion for exploring. Namer….” Arbiter frowned, and there was something very uncomfortable about his pause. “Namer,” he said at last, speaking delicately, “was working in a field so esoteric and specific that even knowing it exists is a violation of the law. No one’s entirely sure just what he was doing, but it involved the idea that if you were to change the basic nature of a thing, its apparent properties would change to match.”
“So what went wrong?” He hesitated, and I snorted. “Come on, man. You can’t tell me all these secrets and then shut up when it finally gets to the good part.”
“Healer was experimenting on boundary states between life and death,” he said. “Her experiments produced the first vampire. Dreamer was doing something similar in a very different field, trying to find the relationship between the idea of a thing and the thing itself. His work resulted in the disappearance of a great many people. The city of Tikal never recovered. Hunter was exploring the far reaches of the Otherside, trying to find its limits. We don’t know what he found there, but the Sidhe Courts have been at war ever since.”
“Wow,” I said after a moment. “That’s…wow. What about Namer?”
There was another long, delicate pause. “As I said, we aren’t sure what he was doing,” Arbiter said at last. “But at the end of it, three gods were dead, and two others had been born.”
“Okay. This is…kind of more than I can process. You know that, right?”
“Yes, but I’m hoping that you grasp enough of it to understand what I’m saying. For example, I hope that at this point you understand why the Watchers work to prevent anyone else from experimenting with those fields of magic. The risks of a similar catastrophe happening again are simply too high. And hopefully you also see why anyone who courts such a disaster, even unintentionally, must be dealt with.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And Zhang was helping people get around the rules.”
“Precisely,” Arbiter said. “And that, jarl, is the true reason I didn’t speak against you. People who enable that kind of risk-taking must be eliminated. That he was permitted to do so for so long is shameful. As far as I am concerned, your actions should be rewarded, not punished.” He shrugged. “And besides, it’s seldom a bad idea to be on good terms with a nascent demigod.” We reached the bottom of the stairs, and he nodded to me. “Now that I’ve explained that, I have a meeting to get back to, and I believe there’s someone waiting to speak with you. Good day, jarl.”