“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.