I looked around, but there was no one close enough to have whispered in my ear except Aiko, and I was pretty sure it hadn’t been her. I mean, she has an off-color sense of humor to say the least, but this seemed like a little much.
Well, that couldn’t be good. I could only think of a handful of explanations for it, and none of them were very pleasant to think about.
Certainly Aiko seemed seriously nervous, and that in itself was frightening. “Serval,” she said, looking around a little frantically. She’d drawn her tanto at some point, which said a lot about what I could expect. If she had a knife out, then Serval was going to be trying to get within knife range, and Aiko didn’t think she could prevent it. “Assassin. She’s quick, vicious, almost invisible when she wants to be.”
“So you do remember me,” the same voice whispered. “I’d wondered.” Serval sounded feminine, now that I’d heard a little more, but I wasn’t surprised I hadn’t been able to tell at first. Her voice was odd, almost more of a hiss than normal speech, with odd enough accents that I doubted her vocal cords were equivalent to those of a standard-issue human being.
Aiko winced. “I told you,” she said. “Something came up. I couldn’t exactly put it off, and I didn’t have another chance.”
“I know,” Serval whispered. “I let it go. But now that you’ve come back here? I think that merits a response.”
With no more warning than that, a figure stepped out of thin air and shoved me in the chest.
I’d had a moment of warning—Serval was only almost invisible, and it’s really hard to hide a rapidly-moving person at close range—but only a moment. Long enough to brace myself somewhat, but not nearly long enough to dodge or counter the attack.
I hadn’t expected the shove to be quite that strong. She didn’t knock me over, but I stumbled back a few steps, and then my foot came down and found no floor to meet it.
As simply as that, almost before I’d realized what was happening, I was falling.
Fortunately, I have a pretty quick reaction time. I’d barely started to fall before I started analyzing the situation.
The tangled mess of walkways in this place meant that, in any given place, there might be a highly variable amount of empty air underneath you. I’d been paying attention, and from where I’d fallen there had been about fifty feet before the next solid surface.
I could survive a fall of that height, but there was a significant chance of injury, and it would take an unacceptably long time to get back up here. So the first thing I did was push magic into the air around me, thickening and moving it. The increased viscosity slowed my fall, and the movement pushed me sideways until I hit the side of the walkway.
This section was made of something that looked and felt like stone, and it was smooth enough that I couldn’t really have hung from it on my own. But I managed to get enough of a grip on the underside of the walkway to hold some of my weight, and I could support the rest with the air. It would tire me out pretty quickly, but there wasn’t much I could do about that.
I’m fine, I told Snowflake. What’s the situation?
Rather than answer, she sent me a picture of the scene as it was unfolding. I was too focused on keeping myself in the air to get all the details, but I got a general sense of what was happening.
Aiko was standing in the middle of the walkway, looking all around almost frantically. Snowflake was directly beside her, and doing a better job maintaining her composure. There were plenty of onlookers, but none of them seemed inclined to step in. Aiko might not be killed on sight when she came here, but it didn’t seem she had enough goodwill for people to help her, either.
Serval was nowhere in sight. Snowflake could hear footsteps, but only very faintly, and they were erratic. There was no apparent scent to use at all.
This was bad. Without some kind of information to use for locating her, there wasn’t a lot that either Aiko or Snowflake could do to fight back. And neither of them could catch themselves if they fell.
I was already pushing it, holding myself against the bottom of the walkway and processing Snowflake’s perceptions, but I didn’t see any other way to proceed. So I extended myself further into the air around me, aiming for sense rather than movement.
I lost control of the air, and for one sickening moment I thought I was going to fall. I let go of Snowflake, focusing everything I had on maintaining my grip on the air around me, and just barely managed to cling to the stone. A moment later I managed to get the sensory input I’d been trying for.
For once, I got lucky. The Clearinghouse wasn’t trying to mimic a natural environment, and as such it had no real air currents. There were a few disturbances, caused by the movement or speech of other people, but they were relatively easy to control for.
In the relative stillness, it wasn’t hard to pick out a clear signal. Someone was walking an irregular, looping course around Aiko and Snowflake, moving steadily closer. Their movement would take them over my hiding place in just a few seconds.
There was no time to think about it. I called Tyrfing and flicked the sheath off, letting it fall into the dim chasm below. I checked once more against Snowflake’s perceptions, making sure nobody I cared about was standing above me. I couldn’t be sure—I was trying to compare two vastly different perceptions of the world, after all, and I couldn’t focus on either one without risking a catastrophic failure—but none of us had made it this far by refusing to take chances.
So, when I estimated that Serval was standing directly above me, I slammed Tyrfing up into the base of the walkway.
With most swords, that would have accomplished little but to break the weapon and leave me looking rather silly. With Tyrfing, it’s generally other things that do the breaking.
There was a moment of startled silence. “Impressive,” Serval said a moment later. “It looks like your friend didn’t really fall. Decent aim, too. He almost hit me.”
“Look, Serval,” Aiko said, sounding afraid and exhausted in roughly equal proportions. “I know that you’re upset, but do you really think this is the best way of dealing with that? Don’t you want to at least try to talk this out?”
“I was willing to talk,” Serval said, in a normal speaking voice, for once. “I tried to discuss this like rational beings. As I recall, you’re the one who rejected that particular idea.”
I made it to the edge, and wrapped my fingers around the lip of the walkway. Serval just as promptly stomped on them. I didn’t react, except to bring my right hand up next to my left.
She was still for a moment, apparently wondering why my fingers hadn’t been crushed, and I got my first look at the assassin known as Serval. She was smaller than a human, almost closer to a child’s size. I couldn’t see much detail, between her veil of almost-invisibility and the dark cloak she was wearing, but I got a glimpse of coffee-colored skin and patchy fur.
That was all the time I had before Snowflake hit her from behind, jaws clamping on the ankle of her supporting leg and jerking sideways. At the same time I yanked my hand away, further destabilizing her.
Serval wobbled on the edge for a moment. Then Snowflake let go and lunged forward, slamming one shoulder into the assassin’s hip. She tumbled silently over the edge, quickly vanishing from sight in the shadows below.
Aiko walked over and gave me a hand, and I pulled myself easily up and over. “Never thought I’d be grateful for this,” I said, staring at my left hand. Serval had stepped on my fingertips, which were mostly gone. What was left of that hand was mostly scar tissue, and I didn’t really have enough feeling in it to register pain.
“Let’s get moving,” Aiko said, disregarding my comment. “That fall won’t kill her.”
“Right. You want to get started on the portal, and I’ll watch out for more unwelcome company?”
She nodded, and started spinning magic into the air.
“Okay,” I said, while we waited for Snowflake to wake up and I made sure my hand wasn’t actually broken. Normally I wouldn’t have been willing to expose that kind of weakness in such a dangerous environment, but I didn’t think I had to worry in this neighborhood. They still remembered my first visit. “Do we need to worry about her chasing us?”
“Nah,” Aiko said confidently. “Serval’s scary, but she’s not the type to really hold grudges. If she were going to hunt me down, she’d have done it by now.”
“That’s good. I can’t say I like the idea of having her chasing us.”
“You have no idea,” she said dryly. “I’ve seen her in action. Deeply scary stuff. If she really wanted to hurt me, we wouldn’t have made it out of there in one piece.”
“What’d you do to piss her off?”
“I kind of screwed her on a business arrangement. I was supposed to provide transportation and a distraction on a job. But that was at the same time as the other mess, and I’d signed up with Ryujin by the time the job went down.”
“You know,” I said after a moment, “I don’t think you get to make fun of me anymore. I’ve gotten mixed up in some questionable stuff, but you’ve got me beat.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she sniffed. “Serval’s a nasty sort, but she isn’t remotely as scary as a deity. Speaking of, it sounds like the next chance to find the people Scáthach wants dead is next week.”
“Right.” I rubbed my hand; none of the bones were broken that I could tell, but it ached more than usual. Thanks a bunch for that, Serval. “There are a few things I’ll probably need to take care of in Colorado before then. But do you want to go home for a while first? I could use a break.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Cool,” I said, and started working on the next portal.
Eleven hours later the phone rang, waking me from a relatively sound sleep. I grabbed for it, forgot that one of my hands was semi-functional at best, and fumbled it in the dark. By the time I managed to actually answer the thing I was thoroughly awake, tangled in bedding, and not in a particularly pleasant mood.
This was not significantly changed when Sveinn said, “Heill, herra. Katrin’s messenger just arrived with information about the meeting she was requesting a security detail for.”
Shit. I’d forgotten about that. “Tell me.”
“It’s intended to settle a dispute with another vampire. Something about property or personnel; the messenger wasn’t very clear.”
“Wonderful,” I said sourly. “When and where?”
“At Pryce’s, midnight tonight.”
I tried to work out how many hours that was from now, but wasn’t awake enough to do time zone conversions in my head. It hardly mattered, anyway; my response wouldn’t change because of that, after all. “All right,” I told him, getting out of bed. “Get a team together. I want you, Kjaran, Vigdis, and Brick ready to go an hour before the meeting. Dress to impress. Understood?”
“Understood,” he said.
“Good,” I said, and hung up on him. I glowered at the phone, grumbled to myself, and started throwing on clothing more or less at random. Snowflake laughed at me in the back of my head, at which point I started grumbling at her too.
I ended up having several hours of spare time before I had to leave. I checked that Alexis had made it back safely, which she had, and then left her to sleep. She hadn’t come home when I went to bed, so I knew she still needed more sleep. Then, feeling somewhat at a loss for what to do, I went down to the lab and ran my modified schematics by Legion. He mocked me to what I felt was a slightly excessive degree, but eventually agreed that the adjustments I’d proposed to the power flows should stabilize it considerably.
At that point, the only real problem still getting in the way was the actual mirror, which was more of a challenge than it sounded like. I needed to be present for the manufacturing process to properly enchant the thing, which ruled out just buying one, and the choice of materials was rather important as well. Silver was the traditional choice, but for rather obvious reasons that wasn’t a very good option for me. Steel was better, but not very good for reflection, and from what I’d read aluminum wasn’t that great of a material for taking an enchantment. Mercury took magic pretty well, and you could make a decent mirror with it, but the toxicity issues made that somewhat problematic as well.
Eventually, though, I couldn’t really justify spending more time working on it, and left for Colorado Springs. None of the others came with me, which I couldn’t really blame me for. I mean, I was going to provide security for a meeting between two factions of vampires. I didn’t want to be there, either.
It caused a bit of a stir when I walked into Pryce’s. The patrons there tend to be fairly hard to rattle, but I was fully armored and openly armed, and most of these people had a pretty good idea of who I was. Intentional or not, I’d become a pretty major player on the local scene.
I walked straight to the bar, where Pryce was standing, clearly waiting for me. The housecarls drifted behind me, while Brick maintained some distance from them.
“Meeting,” I said. “I’m here for security.”
Pryce nodded. A moment later, without any clear signal from him, one of his employees stepped up next to me. I followed him through a few narrow hallways to the private room, where he left us.
My group was the first to arrive, which was good. I glanced around the room briefly, making sure that nothing had been moved, and then arranged my minions around the edges of the space. For my part, I stood by the door, where I would be able to greet each person as they entered.
Less than ten minutes later the door opened. Katrin stepped through, followed closely by Hrafn. He nodded at me, the gesture as close to friendly as a vampire could reasonably hope to get, and went to sit at the table.
“I appreciate your providing this service,” Katrin said to me. Her bearing was more pleasant than it often was around me, but I wasn’t fooled. Katrin and I might not be enemies, precisely, but we were never going to be allies.
“I appreciate that you are willing to entrust your security to me,” I said. The implication that she needed me to provide security was clear enough that everyone would probably notice, but not blatant enough that she could really complain.
“You are the jarl of this city,” she said sarcastically.
“Speaking of which, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you, after the meeting.”
“Very well. In the meantime, I expect you to remain impartial throughout these proceedings. The funds will be transferred within a week.” She went to sit beside Hrafn without waiting for a response, which was just as well, given that I didn’t really have one.
As I’d expected, the vampires didn’t talk while we waited for the other side of this negotiation. Or move. Or breathe. On the whole, they were fairly boring people to pass the time with. I wouldn’t have cared so much—it wasn’t like I wanted to pass the time with them—except that it turned out the other side was running late.
Really late. By the time the door opened again, it was almost one in the morning. Compared to the punctuality I was more accustomed to when dealing with supernatural beings, it was hard to see it as anything other than a deliberate insult. The only question was who the insult was directed at.
Finally, just when I was seriously considering telling Katrin to go to hell, another vampire walked in. This one was male, insomuch as sex could be assigned to the walking dead, with dark skin and terrible taste. Seriously, I had seen flamingoes that were less eye-searingly pink than this guy’s suit.
He walked by me without even looking at me, for which I was more than a little grateful, and went straight to Katrin. “Good evening, my dear,” he said to her, taking off his purple top hat and bowing.
Katrin did not look amused, or impressed. “Lucius,” she said. “You’re late.”
“I was delayed,” he said with a grin, vaulting the table and landing in the chair opposite her. “It happens.”
“Be that as it may,” she said. “We had an agreement. If you were going to be delayed by this much, you shouldn’t have agreed to meet at this time in the first place.”
“Oh, get over yourself,” he said lightly. “If you’re in such a rush, why don’t you get to the point?”
I would have expected Katrin to react rather badly to that kind of impudence, but she didn’t say a word. I could see by the tension in her posture that she was exactly as upset as I had imagined, but there was no overt reaction at all.
Well, that was concerning. If Katrin was that hesitant around this vampire, I was pretty sure I should be even more grateful that he’d overlooked me.
“Your people have been in my territory,” she said after several long moments. Her voice was tight. “Repeatedly.”
Lucius yawned, showing teeth that were more than slightly too long. “What’s your point?”
“My point is that this city is mine. The vampires here answer to me. I don’t tolerate intruders or poachers.”
“So kill them,” he said lazily. “They’re just spawn. I can always make more if I want some.”
Katrin took a deep breath and let it out, though I knew that she didn’t need to breathe. “Are you saying that you won’t keep your people under control?”
“Why should I? If they decide to go to another continent and get into trouble, what should I care?”
“Don’t give me that,” she snapped. “Your spawn don’t do anything without your command. So tell me, why have you been sending them to poach in my territory?”
“Because I want to,” he said. His voice was no longer lazy or amused. “Remember your place, my dear. You may have found a city to govern in your exile, but I rule a continent. I am an emperor. If I choose to take this city from you, you will know. Because it will be mine.” He stood and smiled at her. “Now, if that’s all, I should be going. So much to do, you know.”
Katrin said nothing.
“I thought so,” he said. “Good evening, my dear. Jarl, I hope your day goes well, and good luck with the faeries.” He grinned at me as he sauntered past.
“I despise that man,” Katrin said, almost a minute later. “Wolf, what did you want to talk about?”
I blinked. “Huh?”
“Before this farce, you said you had something to say,” she said impatiently. “What is it?”
“Oh,” I said. “Right. Why did you bring ghouls into the city without notifying me?”
“I didn’t. That would be ridiculous.”
“Then explain why, when I went to confront them, they said they had permission to be in my city. And why Natalie then showed up and stopped me from killing them, saying that they were here under your protection.”
Katrin was silent for several seconds. “Natalie and I have our differences,” she said at last. “You know that.”
“Wait a second. Are you seriously telling me that isn’t resolved yet? You’ve had years to deal with her. How have you not fixed this problem?”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” she snapped. “I didn’t bring any ghouls into this city, and any that are here are most certainly not under my protection.” She stood and stalked past me out the door, her attitude clearly conveying that anyone getting in her way could look forward to a very bad day. Hrafn followed her out, giving me an apologetic look on the way.
The room was silent for several seconds. “Well,” I said at last. “That was unpleasant. Let’s go.”
Back in the main room, things had quieted considerably. By which I mean that Pryce was the only person left in the bar.
I looked around. This wasn’t right; it was late, but not that late. There should still have been plenty of people here.
“What happened?” I asked.
Pryce grunted. “People were worried. Didn’t want to stay.”
“I don’t get it. I’ve had meetings with Katrin here before, and she didn’t bother people this much.”
“Problem isn’t the vampire.”
I worked that through. If people were concerned, and it wasn’t the vampire….
He nodded. “You scare people.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble.”
“You are trouble, Wolf. Don’t come back.”
I blinked. “You’re banning me?” Of all the things I’d ever expected to have to deal with, that hadn’t been one.
“Yeah. Nothing personal. Business.”
“Business,” I said dully. “Right. I understand.” I took a deep breath and let it out. “Sorry, Pryce. I’m…sorry.”
He grunted and picked up an empty glass, polishing it with a spotless white rag that he produced from somewhere. I turned and left, my minions trailing silently behind me.