“Hey,” I said after a few steps. “Scáthach. Are you listening?”
“Obviously,” a voice said from about six inches behind me. A moment later she stepped up and started walking next to me. She was dressed more casually than the last time I saw her, in a black T-shirt and cutoff jeans, and she looked very nearly human, but it hardly mattered. She was still the kind of beautiful that makes people start wars. People on the streets turned to stare as we passed, clearly wondering what a guy like me was doing walking with a woman like her.
“I thought you might be,” I said, trying to ignore the people watching. I felt uncomfortably exposed, being the focus of so much attention, but it wouldn’t be wise to let Scáthach know that.
She regarded me for a moment, her expression inscrutable. “That’s it?” she asked. “I was hoping for some kind of a reaction.”
I snorted. “Please. I’d have to be an idiot not to have seen this coming.” I took a few steps before saying, “I’m in a bad place.”
She smiled. “Indeed.”
“I’m going to assume you know pretty much everything that was said in there,” I said. “So I won’t bother explaining what I need. You already know.”
“If I help you with your thing, will you make my problems with the Conclave go away?”
“That is hardly within my power,” she murmured, her voice dry and amused. “But I could certainly mitigate the harm caused by your current circumstance.”
“That’s not good enough,” I said. “I want a clearly defined agreement. Exactly what you want, and what you’re going to provide for me in return.”
“Very well,” Scáthach said, still sounding amused. “There is a single, very specific faction within my Court which is advocating a reckless offensive against the Daylight Court. I wish you to silence them, or enable me to do so without the negative consequences which I would currently incur. If you do so, I shall intervene with the members of the Zhang clan who have brought an accusation against you before the Conclave. While I cannot guarantee that my intervention will prevent this accusation from causing you harm, I can say that I have considerable influence with them, and it is my belief that I will be able to convince them to drop the charges.”
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay. I get it. So do you know which of your people are responsible?”
I waited for several seconds before it became apparent that she had no intention of continuing. “Are you going to tell me who they are?”
“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I don’t believe that I will. You’re a resourceful man, after all. I have confidence that you are capable of finding that information yourself.” She smiled, the expression bright and cold and very, very scary. “Unless, of course, you would like to incur further debt in exchange for the knowledge.”
“No,” I said sourly. “That’s fine.” I nodded slowly. “Okay. I think we understand each other.”
“Yes,” she said, still smiling. “And you are working on a deadline, jarl. I recommend you get started.”
“I don’t get it,” I said, before she could disappear. “Why are you screwing me over like this?”
“Did you think we were friends?” she asked, sounding amused.
“Of course not. But I thought I was useful. Why would you take the chance of losing that usefulness?”
“You’re a weapon, child,” she said patiently. “A tool. And any tool is precisely as valuable as its utility. You have served a function in the past, and I expect you to do so in the future. But that is not sufficient reason not to make use of you in the present. An analogy, perhaps, will be more clear. A card has worth in its use, or in the threat of its use. A good card one cannot play is no more valuable than a bad card.”
“So…what? This is all a ploy to make sure that I keep being useful?”
Scáthach considered me. It reminded me uncomfortably of a hawk watching a prairie dog. “I have already explained,” she said. “If you have not listened, that is not my concern. Good day, jarl.”
“Right,” I sighed. “Good day, Queen.”
“You were right,” I said. “Scáthach found a way to screw me over.”
“I’ll try to contain my shock,” Aiko said, not looking away from the retro platformer she was playing. “Welcome home, by the way.”
“Thanks. Apparently the mages are pretty divided about what to do with me. I have two weeks to change their minds before the deciding vote is cast.”
“And Scáthach offered to make the problem go away if you do that favor for her?”
“Pretty much,” I sighed, sitting down next to her and scratching Snowflake’s ears.
“I figured it would go something like that,” Aiko said, turning the game off. “So where’s your cousin?”
“Decided to stay and look into signing up with the Guards. Probably just as well; I’ve been trying to keep her out of the politics, and this is about as political as it gets.”
She blinked. “The Guards? Seriously?”
I shrugged. “That’s what she said. Wouldn’t have been my first pick for her, but I guess I can understand it. Anyway, I was thinking I might go talk to Jacques, see if he has any information about who the people are in Scáthach’s Court that I’m supposed to be silencing. It might go better if you were there.”
“You have two weeks,” she said incredulously. “Don’t you think it can wait a day?”
“Considering what happened the last time I had a deadline like that,” I said dryly, “I’d rather not waste more time than I have to.”
“Fair enough,” she said reluctantly. “I just want it on record that this is not how I wanted to spend my morning.”
I think we can all agree with that sentiment, Snowflake said, standing up and sauntering off towards the stairs.
Jacques answered his door after only thirty seconds of pounding, which might have been a new record. That seemed a little odd, given that it was somewhere around four in the morning locally, but I supposed that he probably hadn’t gone to bed yet. Certainly he looked like he’d been on a three-day bender; even by his standards, his eyes were impressively bloodshot.
“Cupcake,” he said. “And Shrike. What the hell do you want?”
“Information,” I said. “As usual. Now let us in already, we aren’t talking business out here.”
“Fine,” he grunted, undoing the six chains on the door. “Hurry up, it’s too fucking late for this shit.”
“You’re telling me?” Aiko said, snorting. She strode in with an assurance I could only envy; I walked gingerly in Jacques’s apartment, and Snowflake was seriously reluctant to walk at all.
“Okay,” Jacques said, grabbing a fifth of vodka off the table. “What are you here for?”
“There’s a faction in the Midnight Court that’s pushing for a new offensive against Daylight,” I said. “I need to know who they are and how I can get to them.”
He snorted, spraying vodka out his nose. Snowflake and I both flinched away a little. “Now what the fuck makes you think I’m willing to deal in that kind of shit?” he demanded.
“Money,” Aiko said dryly. “Lots of it.”
“You don’t get it, Cupcake. You want to know about mages, werewolves, that kind of thing? Sure, screw it, whatever. But the fae? Those motherfuckers hold grudges. They don’t make the kind of money that would convince me to stick my nose into their business on the level you’re talking about.”
“This is sanctioned,” I said. “Personal request of Scáthach.”
“That’s even worse!” Jacques shouted. “Jesus, man, you just don’t get this, do you? Look, I’m not doing it, and that’s final.” He took another swig of vodka. “Not that it would matter if I were willing to help. My contacts in the Courts are strictly low-level. Bottom-feeders, thugs, general scum of the earth types, I’ve got you covered. Nobility? Not so much.”
“That’s not so helpful,” Aiko said. “We kinda need this info. Soonest.”
He leered at her. It made me want to take a shower, and it wasn’t even directed at me. “Well, Cupcake,” he drawled. “I guess you need to go home, don’t you?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but Aiko’s reaction was instant. “No,” she said. “Hell no. Fuck that, there’s no way I’m going back there. Not after what happened last time.”
Jacques shrugged. “Suit yourself. Look, Cupcake, you know I love you and all that, but I don’t have what you want and I don’t have the contacts to get it. You go there, I guarantee you’ll find somebody who does. Now, if that’s all, get the hell out.”
I wasn’t going to argue.
“Okay,” I said when we hit the street. “So what was he talking about there at the end?”
“The Clearinghouse,” she said sullenly.
I waited a moment, then rolled my eyes when it became clear that she wasn’t going to say anything else. “And what’s the Clearinghouse?”
“Look,” she said. “You know I used to run with the Courts.”
“Yeah. I’ve been meaning to ask how you got out.”
“I didn’t,” she said grimly. “Not clean. Anyway, this is all tied up with that. I wasn’t in the good part of the Courts; I was hanging out with the scumbags, the shady types.”
“I can picture that.”
“It isn’t hard, is it?” Aiko said, grinning. “So while I was hanging out with them, I spent a lot of time at the Clearinghouse. If you want to buy something you can’t get anywhere else, that’s where you go.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “I thought that, if you wanted to buy something on the Otherside, you went to the Grand Market.”
“Sure. But the Market has rules. No weapons of mass destruction, no obvious contraband. You can’t trade slaves there, and the indentureship contracts are pretty heavily regulated. That sort of thing.”
I was starting to get the picture. “And the Clearinghouse doesn’t have those rules?”
“Exactly. You can make deals there that would get you shot anywhere else. Nothing’s off limits, and there’s nobody looking over your shoulder.”
“Okay,” I said. “So what happened the last time you were there that was so terrible?”
“Yeah,” Aiko said reluctantly. “About that. I’ve told you I used to hang out with a slave trader.”
“The one that bred half-trolls?”
She winced. “Yeah, that’s the one. I knew him for a few years. I guess I thought we were pretty good friends. I managed to convince myself his business wasn’t that bad. There were a lot of things I didn’t know about what went on with it. I didn’t want to know.”
“And then you went to the Clearinghouse with him,” I guessed.
She nodded. “Yeah. We were on the way to a date, sort of. He had to stop and finalize a deal. I…got a look at some aspects of what he did that I hadn’t let myself see before that.” She shrugged. “So I stabbed him in the back and cut his throat. Then I stabbed two of his business partners and one of the customers, and shot half a dozen other vendors on my way out. Good times all around.”
“Ah. So what does this have to do with you getting away from the Courts?”
Aiko shrugged. “After that I was pretty done with the whole thing. So I went to Ryujin, and I told him I wanted out. He told me what it would cost, and I said yes. He made sure nobody tried to drag me back into it.”
“What’d it cost you?” I asked. “Maybe I could make a similar deal.”
“Ten years of service,” she said. “And a few other things. I’ll tell you the details if it ever comes up. Like I said, nobody gets away clean. You can trade it in for another cage, but that’s about it.”
“Yeah. I figured it was something like that. Well, so much for that option. I guess asking around in the Courts is the next step?”
Aiko gave me a confused look. “Aren’t we going to the Clearinghouse first? There’s almost certainly someone there who can help.”
“I thought you said you weren’t going back. And after what happened, it probably isn’t safe, is it?”
“Screw that,” she said sharply. “I don’t need coddled. If that’s where we need to go, that’s where we’re going.”
I wanted to argue, but I could tell she wouldn’t take it well. So I just shrugged and said, “Fine. You’re driving.”
A short jaunt through one of the sleazier backwaters of the Otherside later, we were standing in the antechamber of the Clearinghouse.
It was a small room, not much bigger than a closet, but the roof was high enough to be lost in shadow. The air was cool, and smelled strongly of industrial-strength room freshener.
“Well, they haven’t changed this place much,” Aiko said, walking over to the door. It looked like little more than a concrete slab set into the concrete wall, but it swung open of its own accord before she reached it. “Let’s see if we can find someone I know.”
The main trading floor of the Clearinghouse was a strange, ominous place. It was cavernous; walls and pillars broke up the lines of sight, but the air currents suggested that it was at least the size of a small stadium. We were standing on a relatively narrow catwalk, with four more layers below us and at least as many above. I could only see them by looking for the dim, widely-spaced lanterns that provided the only illumination.
There were a lot of shadows there, and I was quite sure that we were being watched from some of them. It was only with difficulty that I kept myself from looking over my shoulder as we followed Aiko out onto the walkway.
We passed a number of stalls as we walked, set into alcoves in the walls or crouched in the shadows between lanterns. They were staffed by an astonishing variety of creatures, many of which I didn’t recognize, none of which looked friendly. None of the ones I looked at had any signage, or indication of what goods or services were available. Clearly, if you had to ask, you didn’t need to know.
Okay, Snowflake said, peering over the edge of the catwalk at the next level, nearly thirty feet below. This is more like it. This is what a black market should look like.
“This level mostly deals in smuggling,” Aiko said, looking around as we walked. “I’m hoping there’s someone here that knows me from back then. They might be able to tell us who to ask.”
“But do they want to?” I asked. “I didn’t exactly get the impression that you left on good terms.”
“Not all of them hate me,” she said dryly. “There are two or three that are sort of friends, and a handful that still owe me favors.
For the next several minutes, Aiko led us in a wandering path around the narrow walkways of the Clearinghouse. I didn’t bother trying to keep track of where we were going, or the people we passed; there wasn’t much I could contribute, in any case. I focused on keeping an eye out for trouble instead, in case we ran into someone that didn’t remember Aiko fondly. This was shitty territory for a fight, but there wasn’t much I could do about that. I could try to make sure we weren’t caught by surprise.
We’d been walking for around five minutes when a female voice called, “Aiko? Is that you?”
Aiko looked in the direction of the voice and winced. “Trouble?” I asked immediately, reaching for a weapon.
“Not exactly,” she said, walking towards the stall she’d been called from. “It’s just….well, this ought to be entertaining.” She did not sound entertained.
The stall was one of the smaller ones I’d seen, barely large enough for a person to stand behind it, with an orange silk canopy that served no apparent purpose. The woman standing behind it could blend in anywhere with a sizable Mediterranean population, though her attitude would make her stand out, as would the elaborate domino mask. She came across as the sort of person I could picture an adolescent Aiko hanging around with, and that was a pretty major statement.
“Hi, Fiona,” Aiko said as we walked up. “How’s business?”
Fiona shrugged, the motion just loose enough to make me wonder if her shoulders were articulated like a human’s. “It’s business. Long time, no see. Who’s this, your latest boy toy?”
“Something like that. Listen, do you think you could do me a favor?”
“For you?” Fiona said, grinning. Her teeth sparkled a little too brightly in the dim light, and I realized they were inlaid with silver. “Of course. But come on, you just got here. Don’t you want to tell me what kinds of trouble you’ve gotten into in the last decade or two?”
“Yeah, but this is kind of time-sensitive. Look, I promise I’ll get in touch, but right now we need to keep moving.”
“That’s fair. What do you need?”
“We’re in the market for information,” Aiko said. “Something fairly high up in Scáthach’s Court. Do you know where we might find something like that?”
Fiona frowned. “I don’t really deal in secrets, Aiko. You know that.”
“Yeah, but I thought you might know someone who does.”
Fiona sighed. “Two levels up, three walkways south. Look for the guy with the eyepatch. But I’m not endorsing him, you hear me? He’s not a friend, just someone I do business with occasionally.”
“That’s fine. Thanks, Fiona. I owe you one.”
“Don’t mention it. And don’t be a stranger, you hear me?”
“That wasn’t so bad,” I said, as Aiko led us on another meandering route through the maze of the Clearinghouse. Fiona’s directions had seemed fairly clear to me, but apparently actually getting there was a good deal more complicated. “She seemed pleasant.”
“Yeah. A little too much so, sometimes. She’s…bubbly. I don’t really do bubbly.”
“I could see that. I guess she’s one of the ones you said was a friend?”
Aiko nodded. “I used to work for her as a courier. She specializes in moving small, high-value items. Here’s our way up,” she said, gesturing at a nearby ladder.
I carried Snowflake up the ladder and we started meandering back across the catwalks. I had to wonder about whoever had built this place; this setup was inconvenient on all sorts of levels. Several of the bridges were rickety, and few of them had any kind of railings, even disregarding the impossibility of taking a direct route anywhere.
It was surprisingly easy to find the person Fiona had pointed us towards. He was a slender Sidhe standing behind a battered oak table, visually unremarkable except for brilliant red hair and a greenish eyepatch covering half his face.
I would have hesitated, trying to make sure we were in the right place, but Aiko walked straight up to his table, ignoring the people standing around. Looking at them, I was pretty sure that around three or four were a little too casual to just be loitering. Bodyguards or something similar, most likely.
“I hear you might be able to do us a favor,” Aiko said, leaning on the table.
The man on the other side smiled. It looked more like a gash carved across his face than an expression of pleasure. “I do many favors,” he said. “What sort of favor might you require?”
“My associates and I have heard rumors of a certain group among the Sidhe,” Aiko said. “Members of Scáthach’s Court, as we’ve heard it. This group has recently been making rather provocative statements about escalating hostilities with the Seelie Court.”
“I’ve heard similar rumors,” he said, sounding blandly disinterested. “What of it?”
Aiko’s smile was no friendlier than his, but for rather different reasons. His expression looked like it had been cut into his face; hers looked like one you’d wear while you did the cutting. “We would quite like to have a conversation with these Sidhe. We think it would be quite productive for everyone concerned.”
He nodded once. “This is a favor I can provide. What might you provide in return?”
Aiko leaned closer and whispered something in his ear. I couldn’t hear it, but I saw his eyes widen. She leaned back, looking self-satisfied, and he nodded again. “That will be quite sufficient,” he said, producing a scrap of paper and a quill from somewhere. He scratched a short, almost illegible note on the paper and handed it to her.
She glanced at it and then folded it and put it in her pocket. “Excellent. A pleasure doing business.” She turned and walked away without waiting for a reply.
“Is that it?” I asked, falling in beside her before she’d taken more than a couple steps. Snowflake was sticking close to my heels. She felt vaguely discomfited, but she hadn’t said anything, so I didn’t think it was too much of a problem.
“Yep,” Aiko said. “They’re having a meeting next week.”
“Great. Let’s get out of here, then.”
“Sooner the better,” she agreed. “Didn’t expect this to go so smoothly, to be honest.”
Naturally, it was at exactly that moment that a voice whispered, “Hello, kitsune. It’s been a while.”
Aiko went very pale, and I didn’t have to ask what that voice meant.
This time, it was trouble.