“Holy shit,” Aiko said. “Did you seriously buy a limousine?”
“I’m not sure yet,” I said, stepping inside. I left the door hanging; it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to hold it for my housecarls. “How was your morning?”
She shrugged. “I’ve had worse. Yours?”
“There are three factions of independents in the city,” I said, grinning. “One of them’s probably going to stay out of my way, and the other is tentatively backing me up. I also recruited a bunch of ghouls.”
“My,” she said dryly. “Sounds like you’ve been busy. And you even got things done without me around to help.” She shook her head. “What’s the world coming to?”
I snorted and kept walking. It was late enough now that people were waking up and moving around. There were maybe half a dozen people in the throne room, moving tables around and setting out reams of files, and I could smell food cooking upstairs. Noises from both the bedrooms upstairs and the safe room below suggested that more people were waking up and getting ready to start the day.
It felt rather bizarre to be walking through my own headquarters and realize that it felt like a home. People were talking, laughing quietly, drinking coffee as they discussed the work ahead and got ready to get to it. Even more bizarre was that I was oddly separate from the whole thing. This was my place, and yet very much not, like I was an outsider in my own home base. I walked through the crowd, such as it was, and people nodded respectfully or said good morning, but then they went right back to what they were doing. Nobody tried to draw me into a conversation, or make casual small talk the way they did with each other.
Which, I supposed, made sense. From where these people were standing, having me around was a lot like having a Special Forces soldier who’d killed enough people to fill a stadium on your flag football team. Sure, you appreciated what he brought to the table. You were glad he was on your team. You were sure as hell glad he wasn’t on the other one.
But you weren’t going to invite him home for dinner.
I told myself it didn’t matter, with limited success. Better was to just keep moving, keep focusing on the task at hand, so that’s what I did. I found Selene upstairs in the office, predictably enough. I took one chair, Aiko took the other, and Snowflake curled up around my feet.
“Things go all right, Boss?” Selene said absently, not looking up from the paper she was reading.
“Eh,” I said. “Might have gotten some more people. Decent skills, it sounds like, and fairly good numbers. But I definitely pissed some other people off, and they got away.”
“How unlike you. Should I be expecting these people to try something?”
I frowned. “Doubtful. I don’t think they even know where to go. But I suppose it isn’t impossible.” My frown deepened. “I should probably look at getting some better wards around this place. Something further out, so you’d have a little more warning.” Crap. How was I going to work that into my schedule? Wards took time to design, time and effort to set up, and more time to repair after they’d been damaged.
Stop fidgeting, Snowflake said irritably. You’re making it hard to sleep.
It wasn’t until she pointed it out that I realized that I was tapping my foot. Once she did, I found that I’d been doing it long and enthusiastically enough that my leg was getting tired.
Double crap. Of all the times for my head to be out of whack, this was one of the worse ones.
“Business,” I said, forcing myself to be still. “Starting with, why the hell do I apparently have a limo now?”
Selene grinned at me. “I’ve been thinking for a while that you need something with a bit more style,” she said. “Something that was a little more appropriate for someone of your wealth and station. So I bought you a Rolls-Royce. Later today someone’s going to come by and spruce it up a bit. You know, put your arms on the door and such.”
I stared. Aiko chortled, probably at my expression. “You bought me a Rolls-Royce,” I repeated.
“Well, technically you bought it,” she said. “But I handled all the work, so I figure I get some of the credit. Apparently you have to jump through some hoops to get the armored version, or it would have been ready sooner.”
“Did you clear this with Tindr first?” I asked. I didn’t actually ask how expensive it had been. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know.
“Yep,” she said cheerfully. “It was well within the budget. And the payment went through before all this started, so it didn’t come out of the budget he gave you the other day.”
“Okay,” I said. It seemed fairly insane to me, but apparently that was just how things worked in my world these days. “Moving on. Any more replies come in?”
“Several,” she said, losing any hint of humor. “Scáthach says that she won’t give you formal support, but she will prohibit her people from causing any trouble within your territory for the next week. Apparently you have carte blanche to kill anyone from her Court you find here.”
“Good enough,” I said, with some satisfaction. Snowflake agreed enthusiastically, although she didn’t bother putting it into words. Aiko looked a little less happy, which probably made sense. She had issues with the Sidhe.
“Gwynn ap Nud also sent a messenger,” she continued. “He didn’t promise support, but he did request that you pay him a personal audience. Watcher didn’t reply directly, but she forwarded an internal memo recognizing you as the local authority and instructing her people to contact you before they take any action in your territory. Edward Frodsham called to say that his town isn’t having any difficulties, and your friends are ready for pickup whenever.”
Well, that wasn’t great. It wasn’t terrible, but I’d been hoping for more. Thus far all I’d gotten was unofficial backing, and while that was valuable in its own right, it didn’t have the oomph that a formal statement would. It was hard to point to conditional statements and internal memos as grounds for your authority and respect.
“You also got a few unsolicited messages,” she said. “Do you want to hear them now?”
I sighed. “Yeah, I’d better.”
“Okay. First off, Katrin requests a meeting on neutral ground at midnight tonight. She included an address.”
“Skip it for now,” I groaned. I’d known it was coming, but still, I really didn’t want to deal with that.
“You got it, Boss. Next, a man who identified himself as Jack called to offer his services. He claimed to be a mage, but didn’t offer any details.”
“Could be worth following up on,” I said, glowering at the desk. “Could be a waste. Anything else?”
“One more,” she said. “This one is from a Blind Keith. He says he wants to meet with you to discuss future prospects.”
I groaned. Triple crap. Judging by our last chat, a discussion with Blind Keith was like playing with fire, if fire was intelligent and enjoyed scaring the shit out of people.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m guessing you got contact information for all of them?”
Selene looked somewhat offended. “Of course.”
“Right. Call Jack, tell him I want to meet with him before I commit to anything. Don’t give him this address, though. Set it up at…shit, I guess Pryce’s.”
“Aren’t you banned?” Aiko asked. “Just, you know, in case you forgot or something.”
“I’m really hoping that won’t be an issue,” I said. I tried to think of what else I needed to do. Dealing with Katrin wasn’t optional, but I also didn’t really need to call her back. She wouldn’t even be conscious for hours. I could pick up Kyra and Ryan later; I mostly wanted them in case I needed a werewolf for something, rather than as actual fighters. I liked them too much to want them fighting in this mess.
That was why I’d brought in new housecarls, and hired Jibril’s ghouls. They were…disposable. And I hated thinking like that, but that didn’t make it any less valid of a point.
That just left Gwynn ap Nud and Blind Keith, neither of which could be ignored. Of the two, I thought Gwynn was the higher priority. He liked me, at least a little, and he was a Twilight Prince, which meant that his opinion counted for a lot. Blind Keith was also powerful—I was sure of that, if nothing else about him—but I hadn’t forgotten his parting words in our last meeting. He’d said he wouldn’t come to my territory again without talking to me first, and given that he was fae of one stripe or another, there was no questioning that commitment.
In fact, that was very likely why he wanted this meeting. Which, in turn, meant that putting it off until I had other things settled down couldn’t be a bad idea.
“Okay,” I said to Selene. “Tell Gwynn ap Nud that I’ll be there as soon as I can arrange it, and tell Blind Keith that I’m willing to meet with him. Ask him to pick a neutral location in…shit, I guess London.” It wasn’t my favorite place, but I knew a portal terminus there. It also had more supernatural protectors than the vast majority of cities, between the Conclave’s strong presence in the city and various local powers. London was old, and that meant it had had the opportunity to pick up all kinds of protections.
“You got it,” she said. “Anything else?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Is Kyi outside?”
“Yep. Putting the new recruits through their paces, I think.”
“Great,” I said. “I’ll go talk to her, then.”
Out back of the house, I didn’t immediately see anyone. Not surprising, and just as well; there was another thing I needed to take care of.
Aiko amused herself painting graffiti on the trees while I struggled to get the phone to work. As Selene had warned me, reception was intermittent; I’d had fairly good luck earlier in the morning, but this time it took a few minutes to find somewhere I could make a call.
For much the same reason, I was expecting to have to leave a message. To my surprise, though, Erin answered on the second ring. She didn’t say anything, though; I couldn’t even hear her breathing.
I smiled a little. She’d gotten more paranoid, it seemed; the last time I called she’d at least had a greeting. “It’s Winter,” I said.
Instantly, the sense of quiet, latent hostility vanished. “Winter!” she said brightly. “Hey, how’s it going? Nothing too bad after the whole prison thing, right? I wanted to come break you out, but Father wouldn’t hear of it.”
“I’m fine,” I said, although she almost certainly knew I was lying. All of Conn’s family were almost impossible to lie to. “Do you have a minute?”
“Sure,” she said. “I’m on a stakeout right now. Trust me, any distraction is welcome.”
“Great. Listen, I had a question. I ran into a guy called Blind Keith the other day. I remember you mentioning the name, and I was hoping you could maybe tell me a little about what I’m dealing with.”
There was a long, ominous pause. “Blind Keith?” she said. “Are you sure?”
“Well, that’s not good.” Erin’s voice was somber, and I shivered a little. She only had a couple of emotional states, and somber wasn’t typically one of them. “Blind Keith is…well, I told you there’s only so many people at the top of the business, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. Said business consisted primarily of killing people and secondarily of killing people while preventing other people from being killed, but I didn’t bother pointing that out. Erin was a little sociopathic, even by my standards. It wasn’t so much that she enjoyed violence—that was standard for werewolves, really. She just didn’t care about it at all. It had no real emotional value for her, and I wasn’t entirely sure she grasped the basic concept of ethics.
“Well, he’s one of them. Except he isn’t really in the business, you know? Like, he doesn’t take pay or anything. He takes strictly the jobs he wants, and he’s in it for thrills.”
Great. Just what I needed. “When you say he’s one of the best,” I said. “What does that mean?”
There was another ominous pause. “He’s good,” she said at last. “One of the more powerful people I’ve seen. The rumor is he could have been a Twilight Prince, but he didn’t care enough. I know for a fact that he can call the Wild Hunt.”
I shivered again. I’d seen the Wild Hunt, once. More than that, I’d Seen them, using the Second Sight. That experience had played a major role in convincing me that the Second Sight was not remotely worth the dangers of using it, in fact.
I knew the magic, the spirit of the Hunt. I knew exactly what it would take to call that power up and control it.
“Shit,” I said. “This is not sounding good.”
“No,” she agreed. “Let me put it like this. As a bodyguard, I’ve lost five bodies. Four of them were killed by Blind Keith. I’ve only beaten him once, and that was on one of the luckiest days of my life.”
“Shit,” I repeated. “Do you have any advice for me?”
“Maybe,” she said, then paused. “My mark just came out of his house,” she said. “Hang on a second.”
Before I could say anything, I clearly heard her set the phone down.
Then, loud and sharp and unmistakable, the sound of a gunshot.