Driving away, I had the uncomfortable realization that, from Frishberg’s perspective, I was basically indistinguishable from Loki. I had powers that she didn’t really understand, and which she definitely didn’t know the exact limits of. I had information that she didn’t, and between the things I knew and the things I just didn’t admit to not knowing, I probably seemed pretty well-informed to her.
And, much like Loki, I was about to give her exactly what she’d asked for, and do it in such a way that she came to regret ever even asking.
When she asked me to make sure the city came through the current crisis in one piece, I think she was expecting me to talk to people, and intimidate them into toeing the line. I’d mentioned that the reason other cities weren’t having many problems was the reputation of certain citizens, after all, and she’d made it clear that she thought I was one of them.
And the problem with that was that she was wrong. These people had, in many cases, been repressing their urges for hundreds of years, and they’d just been given free rein to indulge themselves. I didn’t have the kind of reputation it would take to convince them not to do so. Nobody had that kind of influence. Moray might be able to do something comparable, but only because he had a major and terrifying organization backing him up—and even then, I’d have been astonished if he didn’t have to give people an object lesson to get the point across.
No, I didn’t have the authority to just tell people not to cause trouble and make it stick. Normally I would have relied on the authorities to take care of most of the problems and dealt with the special cases myself, but at the moment the authorities were in disarray, moving at cross-purposes. The lack of coordination between the military and the police would have been ample evidence of that, even without the information Frishberg had given me. Supernatural affairs weren’t much better settled; the gods had officially bowed out of things, and the other major organizations were struggling to get their feet under them and respond.
I was confident that they would have their act together relatively quickly—a matter of a couple weeks at the most, and probably more like days. But a lot could happen in a few days. If I wanted to keep things together here, I would have to act now, not several days from now.
All of which had led me to the conclusion that the only way I could keep a mixture of internal conflicts and external threats from tearing the city to pieces was to conquer it myself.
It would fit with Frishberg’s request. Some of the citizens would die—maybe a lot of them. The social structures, the politics and the government, might never be the same. But the city, the streets and buildings, the history, the populace as a whole, would come through okay.
And if it worked, I would have a hell of a lot more power at the end of the process than the beginning. Right now, my claim to the city was one of political expediency, and in the aftermath of such fundamental changes to the political structure of the world, even that might not be there. If I pulled this off, on the other hand, I would own the city in reality as well, at least until there was a civilian government to give it back to.
Not that that was why I was doing it. I didn’t even want the power I already had. But from the outside, it would look an awful lot like I’d taken her request and turned it inside out, using it as an excuse to build my own power. And that was the kind of move that might actually get me the kind of respect that Frishberg thought I already had.
I wanted to cry as we drove back to the mansion, found myself smiling bitterly instead. Aiko had turned the stereo to a funeral doom playlist, which suited my mood rather nicely, and even with the debris on the road she managed to get that armored truck up to a speed that would have been excessive for most highways.
Twenty minutes later I was slouching in the heavy, thronelike chair in my upstairs study. The same three people as before were gathered on the other side of the desk—Selene to represent the social, financial, and political aspects, Kyi because she was in charge of the military and espionage branches of my organization, and Brick as a representative of other things. Aiko was sitting next to me, while Snowflake lay on the floor at my feet.
Downstairs, the bustling activity continued unabated, under the watchful eyes of the other housecarls. At my request, a stray cat had been pleased to come inside and doze on the throne, giving me a decent view of the room. Taken as a whole, and viewed absently in the back of my mind, it was almost hypnotic, the people moving in concert. An action was taken in one corner and the effects rippled out through the room, changing the rhythm slightly, more runners going to some tables, fewer to others. Viewed as a whole, it almost seemed like a single organism, rather than many.
“Okay,” I said, pulling my attention back to what was in front of me, while leaving just enough in the cat that I would notice if something changed dramatically downstairs. “I need some specific numbers on logistics.”
Brick cleared his throat. “Before you start,” he said, “I have to go. The Watchers just called me in.”
I eyed him. “I thought you were assigned as my liaison.”
“This is different. There’s an all hands on deck situation in Russia right now. They’re calling everybody in. I shouldn’t even have waited this long, but I thought it would go over better if I told you in person.”
“All hands on deck,” I repeated. “What the hell is bad enough to merit that?”
“There’s a necromancer running around out there,” he said, fidgeting nervously. “A real necromancer, not one of the poseurs that turn up now and then. He’s outside Volgograd in one of the mass graves from World War Two, or he was the last I heard.”
“Ah,” I said. “And…this is bad?”
He gave me an unamused look. “The Watchers have a scale for how serious a situation is, from zero to twenty. Yesterday this was a seven. This morning it was at a nine. When they called me it was at thirteen and likely to climb.”
“Okay,” I said. “How bad is a thirteen?”
“A minor nuclear exchange only rates a ten.”
I blinked. “You’d better get going, then,” I said. “Do you guys want…I mean, is there anything I can do to help?” I knew that I was supposed to be focusing on my own problems, but if there was seriously a problem bad enough to make nuclear missiles look mild, that kinda outweighed my personal concerns.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably not. If we can’t get things under control soon, they’ll make a general call for anyone to come and help. If that happens, I imagine you’ll be hearing from someone.” He stood up. “Okay, I’ve got to get moving. Good luck.”
“You too,” I said, watching him go and trying not to worry. The Watchers were huge, well-informed, and dealing with this kind of thing was literally their job. Surely they would be able to take care of things. Surely.
“That was fun,” Kyi said a moment later. “Where were we, again?”
“Right,” I said. “In your opinion, how well would we be able to manage a major action right now?”
Kyi and Selene looked at each other, then Kyi looked at me. “What kind of scale are we talking about?” she asked. She didn’t sound confident.
“Citywide. I’m aiming for control, more than for actually beating the other participants, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the one without the other.”
She sighed, and I got the impression that she’d been afraid I was going to say something like that. “Not well,” she admitted. “I mean, we could try, but I don’t see it going well. At this point the only combat personnel we’ve got are the five housecarls, eight mages from the Inquisition, and you three. No matter how you slice it, that’s just not enough bodies to maintain control over that much territory. We’re having a hard enough time keeping a perimeter around this building.”
“I see,” I said. “So your main concern is that we don’t have enough people?”
“At the moment? Yes.”
“So if, hypothetically speaking, I was able to get more people on our side? What then?”
“If you’re thinking of your usual freelancers, then no. Don’t get me wrong, they’re good, but what we need right now is numbers.”
“Understood,” I said, nodding. “Assume we’re talking about more people than the usual. Enough to get decent coverage throughout the city.”
She shrugged. “I’d have to know more about their combat capabilities to say what kind of results we’d get putting them up against the other players. For the logistics, that’s more Selene’s realm.”
“Things are a little tight,” the demoness said promptly. “Cell reception is spotty right now, as is Internet access. Landlines are inconsistent with outside numbers, but the infrastructure within the city is still in decent shape, so that’s a fairly reliable way to communicate with dispersed forces. Our funding should be enough to pay any independent contractors for at least a short time, unless they charge extremely high rates. Supplies are not as good, but grocery stores are still open, so we should be able to stay on top of that.”
“So what you two are telling me,” I said quietly, “is that if I want to have any chance of pulling this off, I need to convince people to help out.”
Kyi shrugged. “I’d like at least a hundred. We wouldn’t be using them all at once, but you need people on the ground throughout the area, and you need enough people that you can manage a sizable force to deal with special situations without leaving the rest of your territory unguarded.” She sighed. “Not that I’ve ever managed an operation like this. I kinda wish Sveinn were here.”
“I do too,” I said. “But you’re the best we’ve got, so we’re going to use your number.”
I sat and thought about that for a while. I had to come up with a hundred people willing to do what I told them, and I had to do it fast. More than a hundred, probably; that was the goal for a final number, but odds were extremely good that I would lose some in the process. It was better to aim too high than too low, right now.
There were only a few ways I could think of to get that kind of force. I couldn’t think of anyone who would give me that much help, not unless I were to pay more than I was remotely comfortable with. That meant that I would have to find my minions piecemeal, taking them where I could find them. And even then, it was likely to involve both risks and payments that I’d rather it didn’t.
There was nothing to be done but to get it over with, though, so I took a minute to sort through the people I could ask, deciding which avenues were worth pursuing and which were just too dangerous, time-consuming, or unlikely to work to be worth bothering with. The others were patient while I did so, although Aiko had started playing a game on her phone while she waited.
“Okay,” I said at last. “Kyi, you can get in touch with Skrýmir, correct?”
She shrugged. “Sure.”
“Good. Tell him that, as my court is currently in the process of expanding rapidly, I find myself in need of skilled help. As such, I’m willing to consider any jötnar who want to sign up as my housecarls. I’ll trust you to get the wording right.”
She regarded me for a moment, her features blank behind the tattoos. “You send out an open call like that,” she said, “on short notice, you’re going to get a lot of respondents you’d rather not.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I know. I’m hoping that Skrýmir will filter out some of the worst ones, and we can deal with the rest.”
She shrugged. “If you say so.”
“I do,” I said firmly. “Also, I want you to go through whatever reports you’re getting in, looking for signs of ghouls. If there are any in town, I want to know where they are. Don’t take any action yet, just inform me. Clear?”
“Yes, my jarl. Is there anything else?”
“Not for you. Get to work.” She left, and I turned my attention to Selene. “I need some paper and a pen.”
Implements were found, and I started writing. “This is a list of people who might be willing to help,” I said. “Along with the messages I want you to give them. If communications are that bad, it might be hard to get in touch with them. Get someone on it right away, and have them keep trying until something gets through.”
“And the others?”
I smiled grimly. “The others aren’t the sort of people you call on the phone,” I said. I finished writing in silence, and then handed the list to her. It was a few pages long.
She scanned it. “Interesting list,” she commented. “Quite a variety here.”
“That’s the point. If you hear from any of them before we get back, make sure you write down exactly what they say.”
“And where will you be?”
I grinned. “We’re going to go have a chat with Kikuchi.”
Aiko groaned. “Seriously? Do you have to drag him into this?”
“He’s already in this,” I pointed out. “And he’s a lot more likely to help me than any other local player.”
“Fine,” she grumbled. “But you can leave me here. I hate dealing with those birdbrains.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “It’ll be fun. We’re going to make them give me military support. And that’s after we drive through contested territory to get there.”
“Ah,” she said, grinning. “That kind of fun. Well, with an offer like that, how could I refuse?”
Snowflake was laughing as we walked out the door.