Naturally, when Newton and his crew had been trashing cars, my nice armored truck had been one of the casualties. They hadn’t been able to total it the way they had the other vehicles, but it had still been damaged badly enough that it would need serious repairs before it was drivable again.
I was more than a little peeved at that. That truck had been expensive. Sure, I had money to burn right now, but there was a large part of me that couldn’t help but freak out a little. I was guessing it would cost at least a hundred grand to fix the thing, and for most of my life that had been more money than I saw in a year. A lot more money.
I didn’t want to ask Shadow for a ride—that was not the right message to send—so I called Selene and told her to arrange something. She said it would be there within a few minutes, although there was a smugness to her tone that worried me a little.
After that we were left to sort of stand around awkwardly while we waited. “So,” Shadow said at last. “Why did you set yourself up as the protector of the city, anyway?”
I was pretty sure she was just talking to fill the silence, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t use the opportunity. “Obligation,” I said, shrugging. “I needed the infighting to stop for a little while so I could do something, and the only way I could think of to make that happen was to take charge myself. And then I couldn’t come up with a way out of it afterward.”
She snorted. “Sure you can. Drop everything and move to the Bahamas. You’re rich enough for it, from what I hear.”
I smiled sadly. I’d considered a plan very much like that one, once. I wondered how it might have gone, how things might have been different if I’d actually done it.
“It wouldn’t work,” I said to Shadow. “There are people you can’t hide from. If I tried to back out now, there would be several of them after me.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding sagely. “That’s why I stick to the small scale. I make enough to get by, and don’t piss off anyone who could really be a problem.”
I snorted. “Shadow, you’re preaching that normal people should be subservient to mages.”
“Sure,” she said reasonably. “But that’s the way things are going anyway. Think about it. You talked about how the masses have guns and bombs and stuff, but we have all that too. I knew a guy who had control over metal and an enchanted rifle. Best shot you’ve ever seen. We’ve got the edge on them, same as we always have. The only difference is that we aren’t being held back by the rules anymore.”
I frowned. I wanted to argue with her, but I was having a hard time coming up with how. I disagreed with her conclusions, but it was hard to see how to challenge them without some reference to ethics or tradition, both of which she clearly didn’t respect.
Why does she care? Snowflake asked suddenly. If she’s all that selfish, what’s it matter to her?
It was a good question, and I repeated it.
Shadow just shrugged. “We spend our whole lives playing by the rules,” she said. “Do this, don’t do that, think this, don’t think that, all because there’s a constant threat of retribution if you break the rules. Well, I’m tired of following the rules, and I’m tired of pretending to be something I’m not. We have the power, we have the opportunity, and I for one think it’s about time we take that opportunity.”
The conversation lapsed back into an uncomfortable silence after that. Fortunately, it was only about another minute or two before a black stretch limousine pulled into the lot. For a second or two I hoped that it might be a coincidence. Then I saw Kjaran in the driver’s seat, and sighed. “Come on,” I said to Shadow. “There’s our ride.”
As we approached, someone got out of the backseat and bowed, holding the door open. It took me a second to recognize him as one of my new housecarls, a guy called Nóttolfr. He was on the slender side for a jotun, but in a very different way from, say, Tindr. Tindr was slender because he didn’t work out enough to put on much bulk. Nóttolfr was slender because he worked out a lot, and he favored quickness over raw strength.
I wanted to ask what the hell was going on, but it wouldn’t have sent the right image, and Nóttolfr was too new to know the answer anyway. So I got in the limo like I did it every day. I went with the rear-facing seat because, hey, why not?
There was another new housecarl already waiting in the car, a jotun named Brandulfr. He and Nóttolfr had about as little in common as two jötnar could, superficially. Brandulfr the Pale lived up to his byname, with hair and eyes that looked almost white; Nóttolfr had very dark hair, and dark blue eyes. Nóttolfr was slender and wiry; Brandulfr was broad and heavily muscled, built like the proverbial brick shithouse. He gave the impression that if you ran into him with a small car, the car would come out the loser.
They did have one thing in common, though. Neither one looked remotely friendly. I almost felt sorry for Shadow, sitting between the two of them in the other seat. Brandulfr was openly carrying a semiautomatic pistol, and Nóttolfr started sharpening a knife as we drove. Kjaran didn’t ask where we were going, of course, but presumably Selene had told him what I wanted.
“So,” I said, trying not to laugh at the whole thing. I felt a parody of the classic movie gangster, right down to having Snowflake sitting next to me rather than a fluffy white cat. “It seems to me I did you a considerable favor back there.”
Shadow shrugged, a little uncomfortably. “I could have gotten away.”
“Maybe so,” I said. “But not without losing face. And I couldn’t help but notice that your friends back there were doing big, flashy magic—flipping things over, blowing things up. The sort of attack that can hit someone whether you know they’re there or not.” This last was an attempt to warn my housecarls of what to expect if things went sour. I wasn’t sure whether any of them would notice, given that two were brand new and the third was Kjaran, but I had to try.
Then again, I wasn’t entirely sure whether they even had to worry about it. Shadow’s disappearing trick worked by affecting the mind of the observer, making them incapable of noticing or remembering her even though she was standing in plain sight. It was notoriously difficult to use that kind of mental magic on nonhumans; you have to have a connection with someone to do that, and their minds tend to be alien enough that making that connection is tricky.
“That’s true,” she said reluctantly. “What do you think is a fair payment?”
“Let’s get breakfast first,” I said. “After that, I’d like some information.”
Shadow wasn’t very happy with that answer, and I couldn’t blame her. When someone doesn’t give you a clear answer to a question like that, it’s never a good thing. But sitting in my limo, flanked by my minions, she wasn’t exactly in a position to argue with me.
We completed the ride in silence.
I wasn’t sure how Kjaran knew where to go, but he made his way unerringly to my old favorite breakfast place. It was a smallish restaurant, close enough to the western edge of the city to fall within Kikuchi’s area of the map. Normally it would have been crazy busy there at eight-thirty in the morning, but today there was no difficulty finding a place for a limousine in the lot. There were a handful of bikes, some pickups, a couple of vans and sedans, but nothing like the kind of business they usually had.
I hadn’t been there for a couple of years, but I still recognized most of the staff. They recognized me, too; if I hadn’t guessed that already, I certainly would have known by the way the waitress hesitated before approaching our table. I’d taken my helmet off in the car, and even if I hadn’t they’d have recognized Snowflake.
I’d been well liked here before the whole trial thing, though, and with the way that whole fiasco ended I didn’t think anyone was quite sure how to take it. Between the two, I figured I should probably be fine so long as I didn’t cause trouble or overstay my welcome.
“Okay,” I said, once food had been ordered. I ordered for Kjaran; he had fairly straightforward tastes, and it was much simpler than trying to explain why he didn’t talk. My other housecarls were at a separate table; I didn’t necessarily want them to hear this conversation. “So how many people are there in this gang of yours?”
“About fifty who are solidly on our side,” Shadow said, shrugging. “Maybe a hundred others who are considering it.”
I stared. “That many?”
She smiled a little. “We aren’t just talking about the big players here. I know a girl whose only power is that she can tell whether something’s magnetic. That’s seriously the only thing she can do with magic. She still believes in what we’re doing, absolutely.”
I shook my head. “I just don’t get it. Even if you get what you want, that girl’s still going to be at the bottom of the pecking order. It’ll just be different people pushing her around. How can she seriously think she’s going to be better off under the society you’re trying to establish?”
“It isn’t about that,” Shadow said quietly. “We’ve spent our whole lives on the outside. We live in a culture that says we don’t exist. Even for the people without much power, this is a huge part of their lives, and they’ve been told that it isn’t real, it doesn’t matter. If you talk about it, if people even think you talk about it, you get put on pills, or thrown in the psych ward or something. Well, this is our chance to prove we exist, and make sure they remember.” She shook her head. “It isn’t about setting themselves on top, for these people. It’s about making sure people can’t just sweep us under the rug anymore.”
I sat back, stunned. She sounded so impassioned about it that, for a second, I almost started nodding along. The ideas didn’t sound crazy when she phrased them like that. She didn’t sound crazy. She sounded rational, reasonable, intelligent. She started talking and she made her beliefs sound like they made sense.
When she talked, it was hard to remember what she was saying.
I wanted to write it off as some sort of magical manipulation, but I couldn’t. I didn’t think she was powerful enough to affect me that way, or smooth enough to do so without being noticed. This was…just the result of someone who really believed what she was saying. This was the kind of speech that started riots, not because people weren’t in control of themselves or their emotions, but because they were.
How long had that anger been building up, under the surface? Hundreds of years, probably. Ever since the wise women and cunning men started to be ridiculed instead of respected. Whole lifetimes of being persecuted and condemned by human society, when they bothered to acknowledge your existence at all, and all the while the people who knew better and had real power pushed them to the fringes, used them, and never recognized them as equals.
And now, after all this time, they had carte blanche to act out however they wanted. For the first time in their lives, there was no one waiting to step in and smack them down if they got out of hand.
Bloody hell. No wonder Shadow had a hundred and fifty people following her.
Luckily our food came before I had to respond to that. I forced myself to eat slowly, cutting my steak into bite-sized pieces, but I still scraped the last bit of egg off my plate before anyone else had eaten a quarter of their food.
I sat and waited quietly for them to finish, trying to figure out what to do. I had to change my approach if I wanted to get anywhere. I’d been assuming that Shadow was in it for herself, just using the other independents to increase her own power, and that clearly wasn’t the case. If she didn’t genuinely believe what she’d just said, she was the best actor I’d ever seen, and I’d seen some good ones.
“Okay,” I said, once she was done. “You don’t like the old way of doing things, and you don’t like the rules. I get that. A few years ago, I’d probably have been first in line to sign up.”
“But?” she asked. “I’m hearing a ‘but’ here.”
I nodded. “But sometimes rules are there for a reason. They keep things sane, they make sure everyone is approaching things on the same level. It’s like the Cold War, right? If I have nukes, and you have nukes, we need some kind of rules or things are going to go to shit.”
“And you think magic is the equivalent of nuclear weapons?” she asked skeptically.
“I’ve seen Loki,” I said quietly. “I’ve seen what he can do when he gets upset. Nukes are small change by comparison.”
“That’s a deity. It’s…not quite the same, you know?”
“Sure,” I said. “But even on a smaller scale, we’re capable of some pretty scary things. Look at what happened this morning. Those guys did probably a few million in damages in less than ten minutes, between the cars they totaled, the parking lot, the buildings. And that was from a pair of small-scale, half-trained mages, no offense.”
“Okay,” she said. “Granted. I’m still not seeing a lot of reason to care.”
I sighed. “Fair enough,” I said. “I was really hoping to avoid this, but if that’s how it is, let me put this in terms I’m sure you can understand. I’m going to be keeping the peace in this town until things have steadied out again. After that, I’ll gladly help you with your cause, because I think you’re right. People really do need to incorporate mages into society and start making use of their talents. That’s the only way they’re going to survive now that nonhumans basically have an open season on them.”
“You’re making a lot of promises,” she said. “But it’s easy to promise something when you won’t have to keep that promise for a long time.”
“I keep my word,” I said, momentarily thankful that it was Kjaran sitting with us. One of my other housecarls might have stabbed her for that. “That’s one of the rules I was talking about. We keep our word, because that way everyone knows they’re on the level and they can make deals without getting screwed. If you aren’t willing to play by that rule, you might as well walk out right now.”
She didn’t look happy, but she nodded.
“Good,” I said. “Like I was saying, I’m keeping the peace. The way I see it, you basically have three options. One, you help me out. We do our best to help each other, we both come out in one piece, and we’re in good shape to work on your goals afterward. Two, you stay out of my way. I’ll do my job, you don’t cause trouble, and when it’s over I’ll still help you, because I really do think you have the right general idea. Three, you try to fight me, or you try to make radical changes while the world burns down around you. If you do that, you’re a problem I need to solve, and that won’t go well for you.”
“Or four,” she said. “We fight you, and we win.”
I smiled sadly. “Shadow, that isn’t going to happen. You’ve got a lot of people, but most of them aren’t fighters. I’m guessing two-thirds of the people backing you haven’t ever been in a fight to the death. And even if you kill me, what then? There are a lot of people with power invested in me, and I guarantee you that you can’t take them in a fight. You aren’t even a speedbump to them. Not to mention that you aren’t strong enough to hold the city against everyone who’d be interested in taking it over.”
She hesitated, then nodded. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s say I believe you.”
“That sounds good. So what’s it going to be, Shadow? You going to help me, or am I on my own here?”
“Let me talk to my people,” she said, sounding quite tired for so early in the day. “After what happened earlier, I don’t know how it’ll go. Hell, they might try to kill me on sight. But if they’re okay with it, I’m willing to help you.”