After that odd and enigmatic little conversation, I wasn’t remotely sure what I would see when I opened the door. Gods and monsters were equally plausible, and I wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see the skinwalker or a horde of vampires or something equally unpleasant.
Instead, I found Moray sitting at a table, looking bemused and drinking tea. Sitting with him was a vaguely familiar woman who smelled like fox and spice. The scent was enough to jog my memory, and I realized she was Aiko’s mother.
On the whole, I might have preferred the monsters.
“Winter jarl,” she said to me, setting her tea on the table. It looked almost untouched. “I trust your meeting went well?”
“Yes,” I said, eyeing her warily.
“Very good,” she said. “I was hoping we might talk for a moment.”
“I would be honored,” I said. I was lying through my teeth, of course, but from what I’d heard of her she was the sort to appreciate formality whether it was honest or not. “Would you care to walk with me?” I wasn’t sure what this conversation was going to be like, but I had a strong suspicion that I didn’t want Moray there for it.
“Yes,” she said, standing. “Let us walk.”
I opened the door for her, which she seemed to appreciate, although the change in her expression was so subtle I’d never have noticed had I not been watching. “So,” she said, as I let the door swing closed behind us. “I understand you’ve been spending a great deal of time with my daughter.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“I haven’t,” she said frankly. “There aren’t many things I regret from my life, jarl. That’s one of them.”
“That you haven’t spent much time with her?”
“No. That I did so poorly as a mother that she won’t spend time with me.” She sighed. “It can be very hard to have children.”
“I wouldn’t know, ma’am.”
Her lips twitched into a smile, although it was so tiny and so brief that I wasn’t sure whether I’d seen it at all. I was getting the impression that was the default for her expressions. “No, I don’t suppose you would. Although that might change in the future.”
“I think that would probably be unnecessarily cruel to the child, ma’am.”
She definitely smiled at that. “More people should have such care. It’s too easy to do your best for your children and realize too late that it would have been kinder to do nothing.”
I cleared my throat. “Aiko makes it sound like you neglected her quite a bit, ma’am.”
“Towards the end. Yes. I’d hoped to give her the life I dreamed of, but by that time I’d realized that she didn’t want it.”
“So you left her alone.” I was trying not to sound accusatory, I really was, but I suspected I was failing.
She nodded. “It was too late by then for us to be reconciled, I think. Leaving her to herself seemed the next best thing.”
I nodded slowly. “I suppose I can understand that, ma’am.”
“Good. So tell me, jarl, do you love Aiko?”
“Yes, ma’am. Very much so.”
“That’s good,” she said. “So when are you planning to marry her?”
I cleared my throat. “I expect you know your daughter better than I do, ma’am.”
“Longer, certainly,” she said dryly. “Better? That isn’t so certain.”
“Maybe,” I agreed. “In any case, you have some idea what kind of person she is. Do you seriously think she’d want that kind of formal commitment?”
“Perhaps not,” she admitted. “I only want what is best for my daughter. I may not have always shown it very well, but I only ever wanted her to be happy.” She sighed, and it sounded like there was a hundred years of sadness pent up in that sigh. “Take care of my daughter, jarl,” she said wearily, turning off down a side street. “I can’t.”
I watched her go, then kept walking. “Well,” I said to myself. “That went better than I’d anticipated.” I hadn’t known quite what to expect from her, but from what Aiko had said I’d thought she would be quite a bit less pleasant than that.
Although, now that I thought about it, that was probably to be expected. I’d only heard Aiko’s side of the story, after all, and it had been pretty clear that there was plenty of bad blood between them to occlude her vision.
Then, because it was clearly a day for conversations I’d rather not have, I said, “Loki, Loki, Loki. You busy?”
“Not at the moment,” he said in my ear. “Although I do have an engagement later today. Why?”
I managed to keep my reaction to a small twitch, and glared at him as he stepped up beside me. “I have another question,” I said.
“My,” he said dryly. “You go more than a year without using any of the answers you paid for, and then you spend three in one week? Shocking. So what is it?”
“First off, I want to make a couple of statements. Statement one: After that mess last year, you left me a note mentioning apotheosis.”
“Yep,” he said cheerfully. “Not just making conversation, by the way. That really was my note. That’s a freebie for you.”
“Statement two,” I said, ignoring him. “A couple minutes ago, Arbiter said something suggesting that I’m a nascent demigod.”
“That sounds like something that old bastard would say,” Loki agreed.
“Question: What the hell are you people getting at?”
The deity paused and looked at me. His eyes were deep blue, as they usually were in public, but for a moment I glimpsed fire inside. His smile, too, was a little off, just twisted enough to remind me of the scars around his mouth.
“I’m glad you took it to heart when I said you could ask less specific questions,” he said. “That one is almost too tempting of an opportunity to pass up. But we did have a deal, so I won’t. Although honestly, I was expecting something like this quite a bit sooner.”
“I figured you were trolling me,” I said. “Trying to get me to waste questions, when your note didn’t actually mean anything. Which might still be the case, but if other people are going to take it seriously, I need to pay attention.”
“A reasonable thought,” he admitted. “But you should have learned by now that isn’t really the way I operate. Now, on to your actual question.”
“At heart,” he said, taking on more of a lecturing tone, “the answer to your question hinges on the answer to another question, which is, what does it mean to be a god? Now, you could ask people that question and get a great many answers, but for the sake of brevity I’m only going to discuss the one which I consider to be important, which is that a god is someone who knows what’s going on.”
I blinked. “That’s it?”
“Yes. If you understand how the world works, behind the scenes, then you can claim to be a god. If you understand why it works the way it does, then nobody’s likely to argue with you.” He grinned at me, the expression far too wide and toothy, and somehow even more twisted than his earlier smile. “With that in mind, let’s take a look at what you know.”
Oh, this should be good. I stopped walking and turned to face him. He took it in stride, stopping beside me. I noticed that people were giving us a wide berth without quite seeming to realize that’s what they were doing. Loki’s doing, most likely.
“First,” he said, “and most important, you’ve had a glimpse of the world behind the scenes. You know that the neat, ordered reality you live in is just a mask on the face of chaos. You know that your reality was constructed, you have an idea of who constructed it, and if you’re clever you have enough information that you could start working on how and why.”
I frowned. I hadn’t thought about it in quite that way, but I supposed he had a point. “Fair,” I said.
He rolled his eyes, sending another wave of flame through them before they died back to blue. “Thank you for your approval. Continuing, you also have an idea of what kind of power people like me have. You’ve seen that power being used in earnest, and there aren’t very many people who can say that. You know that time and space are both flexible concepts, subject to being manipulated and played with. And, on a more personal note, you know that life and death are arbitrarily defined states, and you’ve gone far enough into the shadows in between to know what they smell like.”
“But I can’t use any of that,” I protested. “I might know some of the tricks you do, but that doesn’t mean much if I can’t actually do the trick.”
“Ah,” he said, sounding excited. “But you’re thinking of divinity as an absolute—which is ironic, considering that most of the secrets I just mentioned are about recognizing that almost nothing is absolute. Figuring that out, seeing the things you’ve seen, that’s only the first step on the path, which is why you’re only a nascent demigod. Keep going, learn a few more secrets and start learning how to exploit a couple of them, and you’ll be the real deal.”
“And…that could actually happen?” I asked hesitantly. I’d never even contemplated that possibility.
“Could it happen?” He shrugged. “Sure. Anything could happen. Will it happen, now, that’s a trickier question. Plenty of people have gotten started on that path, but very few have followed it all the way to the end. You’re looking more promising than most, and definitely more than anyone has in recent years. It’s plausible enough that people are going to be paying attention.”
“Wonderful,” I said sourly.
He laughed. “Relax,” he said. “It’s no worse than what you’ve already been dealing with. The only difference is that now you know why they’re breathing down your neck. For now, I suggest you take some time to celebrate. You genuinely did win this time around, and I didn’t even have to nudge things in your favor to make it happen. Enjoy it.” He grinned at me, and bowed. “Congratulations, Winter.”
I ended up taking Loki’s advice, as insane as that was. I wanted to keep worrying, trying to wrap up loose ends, but there wasn’t really much to be done. The skinwalker was still out running around, but I wasn’t sure how I could track him down, let alone deal with him. I also didn’t really think he was going to be causing problems for me; he was powerful, undeniably, but also an opportunist, more scavenger than predator. He wouldn’t attack until I was vulnerable, and at the moment my position looked strong. The housecarls would adapt to their new situation more readily if I wasn’t looming over them, and I was happy to let Katrin finish cleaning house among the vampires of the city on her own. Even Alexis needed more than anything else to be left alone, so she could choose where she was going from here without feeling like I was pressuring her.
So I ended up going to dinner with Aiko, partially to celebrate and mostly to unwind and get used to the idea that things had actually gone right. Pryce’s wasn’t an option, for obvious reasons, so we ended up going to the Italian restaurant where Anna had been the head chef for quite a few years. She was long gone, but the food was still very good.
It was getting fairly late by the time we left, and there was no one else around. I was full—or as close to it as I got these days, anyway—and happier than I’d been in weeks. I was feeling peaceful, and relaxed, and not terribly inclined to think about anything in particular. Thus, it was a bit of a surprise when Aiko casually said, “Oh, hey. I got something for you a while back.”
I turned around, expecting to see something characteristically bizarre. A particularly exotic weapon, a knockoff toy with an amusingly bad design flaw, a piece of junk from an antique shop in the back streets of a bad neighborhood, something like that. Any of those would be an understandable gift from Aiko, and I wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see something along those lines.
What I saw instead was Aiko holding a ring.
More to the point, she was holding a ring in a manner that made it clear it was more than just a bit of jewelry that she’d found and thought I might like. There was significance in the gesture. She was smiling, a broad, I can’t believe I’m doing this sort of shit-eating grin, and her posture was both excited and nervous.
I stared. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I said. I felt a little proud of how even and calm my voice was, all things considered.
She opened her mouth. I leaned forward a little, feeling such a strange and intense emotional cocktail that I couldn’t even begin to sort it out.
And then a spotlight went on, pinning us in a circle of light bright enough that I winced and had to blink back tears. At first I thought it was all part of the plan, but a quick glance at Aiko’s expression confirmed she was as surprised as I was.
“You have got to be freaking kidding me!” I shouted, turning towards the light. It was hard to see past the glare, but I was pretty sure I could make out the spotlight, mounted on what looked like an armored personnel carrier.
“This is the police. Put your hands in the air,” a voice shouted, probably through a megaphone. “We have you surrounded. Put your hands in the air.”
Goddammit. How do these things always happen at the worst possible time?