Waking up was not a lot of fun. I was lying on the floor of the throne room, Snowflake sprawled out beside me. Even beside the stress you always feel waking up somewhere strange, I was also stiff.
Sleeping in armor sucks. It really sucks. But I hadn’t been sure what to expect during the night. Katrin was smart, which meant she’d probably figured out the same things I had about how the next few days would impact the rest of how this situation unfolded. She was also ruthless, which meant that it would be very much in line with her character to launch a preemptive assault.
She hadn’t, of course, which left me feeling rather silly, but if she had I would have been grateful for the little bit of extra warning that sleeping right inside the door might offer. I would have stayed up all night if I could, but I knew it was impractical. I couldn’t function without sleep indefinitely, and when it caught up to me it would be worse than if I hadn’t put it off. Smarter to get what rest I could now, since it didn’t seem likely that things would get less crazy going forward.
Still. I was glad that Katrin had left me alone another night.
Once I’d gotten up, and worked some of the stiffness out of my muscles, I went upstairs, moving quietly so as not to wake anyone. The sky was just barely getting light, and I doubted that anyone else would be up.
The second floor of the house was the domain of my housecarls. There were bedrooms, bathrooms, a small kitchen—not the most extravagant of living quarters, but enough to get by. With the sudden influx of new faces—I’d tripled my ranks, last night—they’d been scrambling to sort everything out. Some of the rooms were sleeping three or four, and Thraslaug had taken one look at the accommodations before opting to sleep on the kitchen floor instead.
Which was probably still better than the humans got. Kris shared one of the second-floor rooms with Brick, and Matthew had simply shifted to his wolf form and curled up on the floor not too far from Snowflake and I, but the newbies weren’t so lucky. They were sleeping on cots down in the safe room.
I shuddered a little just thinking of that. I supposed it was the most defended place available, and they weren’t likely to be bothered by it, but still. I’d spent more than enough time in a safe room. Even my recent stint in police custody hadn’t been as bad as that, not even with the silver I’d been forced to wear.
Upstairs, I made my way to Kyi’s room, where I picked my way past the three new housecarls on the floor to stand next to the bed. “Get up,” I said quietly, jostling her shoulder a little.
“It’s too early to be awake,” she said instantly, not opening her eyes. Probably she’d been awake since I opened the door; Kyi was not the type to sleep deeply.
“Too bad,” I said pitilessly. “There’s work to do. Wake Selene, get your files and meet me upstairs.”
Maybe ten minutes later, I was sitting in my study trying to plot out my work for the day. It was harder than I’d expected; there were too many balls in the air, too many sides to this conflict for me to keep track of them all, and at the end of the day I just wasn’t that good at coordinating other people’s efforts.
Which kinda made my current career plan a spectacularly bad choice, but whatever.
“Okay,” I said. “Kyi, I’m assuming you’re going to want to check out the new talent, see what we’ve got?”
“Yep,” she said, sounding rather more cheerful now that she’d downed half a cup of what smelled like hellishly strong coffee. I was a little surprised at that; most nonhuman metabolisms are too other for stimulants to have the same effects they did on humans. Hell, even werewolves don’t get a rush from caffeine. Apparently jotnar didn’t have that problem, though, because all of my housecarls were practically addicted to the stuff.
“Good,” I said. “Selene, I have some information I want you to follow up on, soonest.” I handed her a scrap of paper with the three names Pryce had given me written on it.
She glanced at it and then tucked it into her pocket. “Do you have a starting place?”
“They’ll be local. Definitely active within the local community, probably focusing on the independents and the periphery. I’d recommend talking to Luna, maybe Frishberg or Pellegrini’s people.”
“Got it,” she said, nodding. “I also have a report on the people you asked me to contact for you. I would have given it to you last night, but you got rather involved in the housecarl topic.”
“Right,” I said, nodding. So many balls in the air right now. I was already getting a headache and I’d been up, what, fifteen minutes. “Tell me what we know.”
“Jackal and her team are in, although she wanted me to emphasize that they’re in a strictly scouting role. The Khan doesn’t have the resources available to help directly, but he said he’ll be providing quiet political support. The Wyoming pack isn’t officially backing you, but some of their people who know the area will be ready to come in later today.”
“The others haven’t replied?”
“Not yet,” she said, shrugging “But considering who some of them are, that might not be terribly surprising. It might even be a good thing.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know. Kyi, did you get a location on the ghouls I asked about?”
She started a little, not yet awake enough to really follow the conversation when she had nothing to add, and then nodded. “Found something,” she said. “Some oddities not far east of here. Can’t be sure whether it’s ghouls or something else, if it’s anything.”
“Okay. I’ll check that out, see if I can find them. Selene, focus on those names. Try and get a meeting set up if you can. Kyi, check out the new housecarls and increase the patrols you’ve been running.”
They both nodded and left, moving briskly. I followed a few moments later, although my movements were anything but brisk. I was tired, and I was unsure of what to do, and I was a hell of a lot more scared than I wanted to admit. But I was moving.
I would have liked to have Aiko along for the next bit, but she was still in Transylvania. I knew better than to think she’d be awake this early. Or late. Whatever. It was a pain in the ass trying to think about where we were in the day across multiple time zones.
Anyway, she probably wouldn’t be back in Colorado for at least a couple hours, and I wanted to get this taken care of as soon as possible. So Snowflake and I went out and got in the armored truck, and we started driving east.
I was a little startled, and more than a little unnerved, by how much easier it was than the last time I’d gone looking for ghouls. Then, I’d had to slowly walk around, triangulating in on their location by subtle cues I picked up from various animals’ senses.
Now I just drove, and went wherever felt right, without necessarily thinking about why. If I thought about it I might know that the dog a block to the left was sleeping peacefully, and that to my right an early-morning hawk had banked in a circle around a quarter-mile area for no apparent reason. But by and large I didn’t think about it, just let it accumulate in the back of my mind as a gut-level impression of what was going on and followed that.
I had to wonder, and not for the first time, whether my time in police custody had broken me, on a level. Whether so much time spent dissociated through my own body and drifting had changed me, done something to the tether that held me together. It felt like there was a part of me that was always drifting now, constantly sifting the sensory data available from my magic and drawing a gestalt view of the world around me.
Which was useful, undeniably. But at the same time a little worrying, or more than a little.
I didn’t have the time to worry about it, though. In less than ten minutes I pulled over to the side of the road, confident that I’d reached my destination. It had the same characteristics as the last place I’d found ghouls, the same general feeling to it. There weren’t many animals around, and the ones that were present were scared. They could smell decaying meat, and so could I, although I was smelling it in a slightly different way. The energy here, the magic, stank of rotting flesh. I couldn’t pin down a single source; it was more like the ghouls had been here so long that their aura had seeped into the walls and the streets, coloring everything that happened here. This was a place where every cut would get infected, where people would hurry home at night while looking over their shoulders and not knowing why.
I didn’t blame the ghouls for it. This was nothing they chose, just…a consequence of what they were.
I got out of the truck, Snowflake right beside me, and locked it. Then I just leaned against the door, waiting. I didn’t need to go looking beyond what I’d already done. They’d find me soon enough, now that I was in their territory.
Sure enough, it probably wasn’t ten minutes before someone walked up to me, moving with a rolling gait that hinted at the inhuman limbs underneath the mask. “You aren’t wanted here,” he said to me, with just enough of a growl to his voice to raise Snowflake’s hackles. “Leave.”
I regarded him evenly. “I’m here to talk to Jibril,” I said.
The ghoul didn’t exactly lose the hostile attitude, but as I’d hoped, dropping their leader’s name had been enough to make him back down a little. “What if Jibril doesn’t want to talk to you?” he asked after considering what I’d said for a few seconds.
I smiled behind the helmet. “Then I’ll leave, no harm done. But I think he’ll want to talk. Tell him Winter Wolf is here about a job offer.”
He frowned, the expression emphasizing the too-long lines of his face, then nodded and walked away.
I stood and scratched Snowflake’s ears for the next few minutes. This wasn’t the time to push my luck. So we waited peacefully for our answer.
Finally, maybe fifteen minutes later, another ghoul approached. I recognized this one as Jibril; his disguise was better than the flunky’s, letting less of the beast inside show through. It wasn’t quite as good as usual, though; I could see that his features were a little bit off, and there was a touch of crimson around his mouth. I’d caught him during breakfast, then. Good; the interruption would put him on the defensive, giving me the advantage in this conversation.
Of course, it might have worked a little better if seeing a little bit of blood on his face hadn’t been enough to remind me that I hadn’t eaten yet, with a rather uncomfortable intensity. Logically I knew I probably wouldn’t care for his meal—ghouls are known for preferring their meat well-aged, to the point that most species wouldn’t eat it for money—but that didn’t matter to the more instinctive part of me.
“Jarl,” he said, eyeing me warily and keeping a safe distance. “What do you want?”
“A while ago, I made you an offer,” I said. “Something about giving you work if you wanted it.”
He nodded. “I remember.”
“Well, I’m asking if you want it,” I said. “Because I really need a hand at the moment.”
He snorted. “You’re doing all right from where I’m standing.”
“Sure, but you’re not looking at it in the long term. I can deal with problems as they come up, but that’s not a long-term solution. I need to be able to prevent the problems from coming up, and that means I need people to tell me when there’s something brewing, and to keep other problems in check while I deal with them.”
“Okay,” he said. “I can see that. But then again, why should I care? I like you all right, Wolf, but business is business, and I’ve got to look out for my own people first, yes? So tell me. We’re doing all right here. Things are good right now, everyone has bigger fish to fry than us. Why should I risk all that to help you?”
“Loki’s broadcast changed everything,” I said, not answering his question right away. “It changed the way the world works, you know? And we’re still trying to settle things, we’re still trying to decide what the new world is going to look like going forward. That’s why your people are doing so well. You’re scavengers at heart, and right now you’re essentially feeding on the corpse of the old world. You follow me?”
“Yes,” he said cautiously, clearly unsure where I was going with this. “I follow.”
“Good. Now, there are two problems with this. First off, any kind of opportunity attracts people ready to take advantage. You aren’t the only scavengers to see an opportunity here, we both know that. You were just the first ones on the ground. Second, this is an opportunity with a short lifespan. It won’t be long before things are settled, one way or another, and when they are the first thing the people on top will do is go after the little guy.”
He shrugged. “That’s the way of things. We’re ghouls; we’re used to it.”
“No,” I said, leaning forward a little. “That was the way of things. But like I said, we’re in a brand new world. We, right now, get to decide what that world is going to look like. I’m offering you a chance to be a part of that. A chance to be a part of the system, instead of the outsider that scavenges for scraps, and gets chased off when the major players take an interest.”
He tried to look casual, but the gleam in his eyes gave him away. I had him hooked now.
“I can’t offer you anything outside this city,” I continued, lowering my voice. “I can’t promise that you’ll get what you want, or that you’ll be on the inside forever. I don’t have the power. But what I can do is tell you that this is a genuine offer. You help put me on top in this town, and I’ll do what I can to make sure that your interests aren’t ignored when it comes time to establish the new system.”
I fell silent, letting him work through what I’d said. It was a long, tense silence.
Finally he let out a sigh, and the tension drained from the air. “Damn you anyway, Wolf,” he said, sounding as tired as I felt. “You’re going to get us killed chasing a dream, and you haven’t even promised us anything. But you know this is the one offer we can’t ignore.”
“You’ll help, then?”
“Yes. We’ll help.”