Walking up to the building, I was surprised at how much activity there was inside. There were maybe twenty people in the main room, and their voices blended into a low buzz, making it hard to follow the line of any one conversation. People moved from one group to another, carrying papers or tablets, distributing food. Everyone was working at a feverish pace, and from the exhausted postures I guessed that many hadn’t taken a moment to rest for days.
All that stopped when I opened the door and walked in. People stopped what they were doing and turned to face the door, hands going to weapons.
I expected them to relax when they saw who it was, and in a sense they did. But almost half of those present saluted me, in one way or another, and several of the others followed suit a moment later.
Huh. That was new. I’d been the boss for quite a while, but that sort of open display of deference was unusual in the extreme. I wasn’t quite sure what to attribute it to, either. Was it the result of the general climate making people uneasy, eager for leadership? Or was there something more personal going on?
Regardless, it wasn’t even on the first page of my priorities, so I ignored them entirely as we walked across the room to the throne. The buzz of conversation resumed as people went back to their work.
Normally, on the rare occasions she even came, Aiko sat in her own throne next to mine. Today it wasn’t there, a problem she solved by sitting in my lap and smirking at me almost before I’d sat down.
Usually I would have been concerned about my image. Today…well, even if that weren’t way down my list of priorities and everyone else’s, you’d have to be insane to think we looked cute and cuddly. There was way too much weaponry on display for that, especially once Snowflake curled up around my feet.
“Jarl,” Selene said, appearing next to me about two seconds after I sat down. “I trust you’re feeling well?”
“Yeah, sure,” I lied absently, looking at the room. “What’s with all of this?”
“Telephone service has been patchy the last few days, and other means of communication are, well.” She shrugged. “Unreliable, I suppose would be the best way to phrase it. We’ve been coordinating everything through here, but it still involves a lot of people running back and forth.”
“Damn,” I said, watching the people running from one table to the next. The whole thing looked like barely-controlled madness, almost like watching an engine running a little faster than it could safely handle. “How much do we know about what’s going on?”
“Our information is decent. Not great, but decent. I’ve been having people prioritize information gathering and scouting activities.”
I grinned. It was good to know something had gone right recently. “Good. Give me the rundown.”
Selene nodded and then waved to one of the runners, a skinny kid who looked like he couldn’t be more than sixteen. “Get me Kyi, Tindr, and Brick. Then bring a table, a pitcher of tea, and a very large sandwich.” She glanced at me critically and said, “Make that two sandwiches.”
“Hey,” I objected as the kid ran off. “I don’t look that bad.”
“Winter,” Selene said dryly, “I have literally seen people in concentration camps that looked better than you.”
“How…you know what, I don’t think I want to know.” I shook my head. “Okay, moving on. What’s with the kid?”
She shrugged. “You’ve been attracting followers recently. This was the lowest-risk job I could find right now.”
“Fair enough,” I admitted reluctantly. I didn’t like the idea of bringing a relative innocent into things, but I supposed that with how things were right now, working in a building full of violent lunatics was probably one of the safer places to be. At least here if someone attacked there was a full-time staff of people ready to deal with things.
And besides. Nobody was really an innocent anymore. I wasn’t sure how things would shake out, but I was pretty confident that the supernatural wasn’t going back into the closet.
Kyi appeared out of nowhere a moment later. Probably she’d been in the crowd somewhere, but if so I hadn’t seen her. That was Kyi, generally. “Jarl,” she said, nodding deeply to me. “Welcome home.”
“Thanks. What’s the situation?”
“Poor,” she said bluntly. “I’ve been coordinating with our scouts, but information is sketchy. Let me set the maps out and I can bring you up to speed.”
In short order, a large folding table was set up in front of the throne. On it was a topographic map of the city, which had been abused to such an extent that it was hard to imagine it ever being used for its intended purpose again. Large swaths of the city had been shaded in various colors, and the map bristled with pins. Notes had been scrawled in the margins or across sections of the map in at least three alphabets, and even the English parts were hard to read, between rushed handwriting, half-finished thoughts and crossed out words, and the occasional coffee stain.
Kyi, though, seemed perfectly confident as she pointed to a small green area near the southern edge of the map. “This is the zone we have under control,” she said. “I’ve been scouting it regularly, but we haven’t had an incursion in two days.” She moved her finger slightly, indicating the larger area it was contained within. “We’ve been keeping the peace in this zone. But once you get farther from this building, things aren’t as safe. We can’t patrol the whole area, so sometimes we haven’t been able to respond to an incident until several hours later.”
I looked at it with some dismay. Even the larger area was…not that large, in comparison to the rest of the map. Less than ten percent of the city.
“This,” she said, indicating a fairly large semicircle to the west, “is Kikuchi’s territory. He hasn’t actually laid claim to it, but nobody’s eager to upset him, either, so the intruders have mostly been staying well away from his mountain. There are still problems with looting and such, but it’s not as bad as most places.”
“Okay,” I said. “I can work with that. What next?”
A smaller, pinkish area in the middle of town was next, apparently. It was irregularly shaped, closer to an inkblot than a geometric figure. “This is where most of the independents have holed up,” Kyi said. “Nobody too powerful, but there are quite a few of them and they know what’s going on. Generally people have been going for easier targets, so they’ve been left alone. Outside of our immediate vicinity, it’s probably the safest place in the city.”
I stared at it, comparing it to my image of the city. It was hard, since I generally work from memory rather than a map, but I was fairly confident. “This is centered around Pryce’s,” I said. “Almost perfectly.”
She nodded. “They’ve been using it as a home base, apparently. Coordinating their efforts, the same way we’re doing here.”
“I’m guessing Pryce is staying neutral?”
I took a deep breath, let it out, and nodded again. “Okay. That might be a problem.”
Kyi nodded, then pointed to the blue circle covering most of the downtown area. “This,” she said, “is where the police have been concentrating their efforts. They’ve more or less imposed martial law, but they’re keeping the peace. There isn’t much looting or rioting going on in that area.”
“How are they doing at keeping the monsters out?”
She shrugged. “Not so bad. Not so good, either.”
“Fair enough. Next?”
Her finger drifted south and east, coming to rest on a large, vaguely rectangular area at the edge of the map that was shaded dark green. “Military,” she said. “And they have outposts here, here, here.” She indicated more green areas, some large, most not.
“That would be Fort Carson,” I said, pointing to the rectangular area. “Cheyenne Mountain over here, then Peterson Air Force Base, and the Air Force Academy up here. I’m not sure what the others are.”
“Neither are we,” Kyi said, shrugging. “I haven’t made a priority of scouting their turf, and we don’t have any real contacts with them. As far as we’ve been able to figure out, they basically pulled all of their people into their territory, sent the civilians away, and locked everything down as tight as they could.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Honestly, if they can just keep to themselves and make sure their space is safe, I’ll be thrilled.”
“Yes, jarl,” she said. “So those are all the friendly zones—”
“—more or less friendly,” Aiko interrupted. “I don’t know about you, but I’m actually not on great terms with the police.” She paused. “Oh wait, I do know about you.”
“More or less friendly,” Kyi agreed, ignoring everything else. “There’s also a large area on the north side that seems to be controlled by Katrin.”
Said area was shaded a dark red, and took up most of the northern part of the city. “Nobody’s moving in on her during the daytime?” I asked, trailing my fingers over the map. That was a lot of territory.
“A couple people tried. The vampires tracked them down the next night.” She shrugged. “Nobody’s been in a hurry to try again.”
I snorted. “Yeah, I bet. Are the people there safe?”
“As safe as cows,” Kyi said with barely controlled disgust. “And for exactly the same reasons.”
Right. More or less friendly, and Katrin didn’t even count as that.
I couldn’t afford to forget that. Especially not now.
I looked over the map one more time, noting the marked areas and especially the places between them. It sounded impressive when Kyi tallied all the zones that were under the control of one faction or another, but it was still less than half the area of the city. There were large chunks in between that were apparently unclaimed.
I didn’t have to ask what was going on there. It was the same thing that was going on in every no man’s land right now. Chaos.
“Okay,” I said. “I think I’ve got a decent handle on the geography. Brick? What’s your news?”
“I’ve got the best contact with the outside world right now,” he said, stepping up from where he’d been waiting beside the table. “Although I’m guessing you already know most of what I have to say. What’s happening here is about the same as what’s going on around the world. There are a handful of places nobody’s had the balls to attack yet, but by and large everywhere’s seen at least a little action. And it’s going to get worse.”
“Why?” I asked. I’d already reached that conclusion, but I wanted to hear his reasoning for it.
“Because people will start taking it seriously,” he said, shrugging. “What we’re seeing now, it’s the equivalent of joyriders. They see an opportunity to screw people over for kicks, so they’re jumping on it. But here in a few days, a couple of weeks at the most, the big organizations are going to get in on the deal. And when they do, they’ll be playing for keeps, not for laughs.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That was my thought, too. What are the Watchers doing about it?”
“Scrambling trying to keep up,” he said dryly. “We knew something like this was in the pipeline—and by we I mean the higher-ups, not me personally—but we didn’t expect it to be this soon, or this fast. Right now it’s all about keeping things from going absolutely crazy and being ready for the next shoe to drop.” He smiled thinly. “Which is why, as of yesterday, I’ve been officially assigned to you as a liaison.”
“A liaison,” I repeated. “Um…why do I need a liaison?”
Brick shrugged. “Ask the boss. If I had to guess, they know that you’re a big name in this city, and they know a lot of people are going to see you as the cause for the insanity right now. So they want somebody on site to make sure you make things better instead of worse.”
“Or take me out, if I don’t.” It wasn’t a question. After intelligence gathering, that sort of covert removal was the main task of the Watchers.
“Or that,” Brick agreed. “But I doubt it will come to that.”
“Okay,” I said, sighing. “Let me know if there are any new developments. In the meantime…Tindr? What’s the financial status?”
“Not good,” the jotun said, stepping forward and setting a binder on top of the map. He flipped it open to reveal line after line of meticulous, densely packed handwriting. He leafed through it until he found the page he wanted, then spun it to face me. “The financial system is as uncertain as everything else right now.”
“Uncertain? Or in collapse?”
“Uncertain,” he repeated firmly. “Nothing’s really moving right now, good or bad. Now, after you were arrested, I liquidated some of your assets and transferred others into more stable investments. As a result, most of your wealth should survive the transition. Some of the companies you were invested in will probably go bankrupt, as will some of the shell corporations and laundering fronts. On the whole, though, I think it will be fine.”
“But?” I asked. “I’m sensing a ‘but,’ here.”
He sighed and nodded. “But,” he said, “many of the accounts are currently inaccessible. Trying to get a major international payment through the system right now is impossible. Between that and the fact that so much of your wealth is tied up in long-term assets and investments that would be difficult to offload right now, there’s relatively little actual money available.”
“At a guess?” He shrugged. “Less than a million immediately accessible. Given two or three days, between two and five million, probably closer to five.”
Okay. So I had a city on the verge of implosion, my information was shoddy as hell, and I was supposed to somehow make it all better. And I had barely more than normal operating expenses to do so with.
Oh yeah, and if I didn’t get it done in a couple of days, I probably wouldn’t get it done at all. And if that happened, a whole lot of people would die, I would most definitely be on even more hit lists than I already was, and my allies would probably be a lot less interested in covering my ass than they were right now.
I might not have objected so much, if it hadn’t felt so normal.
Maybe five minutes later, I was writing out a list while the frenetic work around me continued nonstop. Selene had gone back to coordinating their efforts and compiling the information that flowed in, while Tindr was working on liquidating assets and Kyi had taken a team out to do some reconnaissance.
“Whatcha writing?” Aiko asked. She was currently curled up against me, and seemed fairly happy. It struck me as slightly unfair that, apparently, even a person wearing armor was more comfortable to sit on than my throne.
“List of people I could ask for favors,” I said. “I’m hoping I can think of someone who might be helpful without being too risky to deal with.”
She snorted and shoved the last of her sandwich into her mouth. “Too risky?” she said, her voice slightly muffled. “For you?” I’d long since finished my own sandwich, and downed most of the pitcher of iced tea. It hadn’t done much to dull my hunger.
I looked at my list for a minute, then circled one of the names. “There,” I said. “What do you think of her?”
Aiko looked at it, then nodded. “Not bad. She’s on the ground and she’s not totally dumb, so she’ll know something. And she isn’t too bad to deal with.”
“You want to come with me, then?”
She shrugged. “Sure. Driving through town today might be interesting.”
“With my luck?” I said gloomily. “No might about it.”
She laughed and stood, and then we went to have a chat with Sergeant Frishberg.