“Good news,” I said. “I just hired an army of ghouls. They’ll be there around noon to talk about integrating them into our plans.”
There was a moment of shocked silence from the other end of the phone before Selene laughed. “You really never fail to surprise, do you, jarl?”
“I try,” I said lightly. “Now please tell me you’ve got something on those names I gave you.”
“I’ve got something,” she said, any trace of humor suddenly gone. “It looks like there are actually three factions among the independents right now. You’re meeting one of them for breakfast in half an hour.”
She rattled off an address, and I almost groaned. I could get there in half an hour—maybe, if the roads weren’t in too bad of shape—but not with much time to spare.
“Okay,” I said, putting the truck in gear. “Tell me about these factions. Broad strokes, right now.”
“The main thing they disagree upon is how to respond to the unrest. One side feels that it’s dangerous and they should just be trying to survive it. The other two are of the opinion that it’s an opportunity, a chance to change the basic rules of the game while everything is in flux. One of them wants to see mages and magical creatures rise to social and political dominance. The last one is more concerned with internal affairs, trying to shake up the traditional power structure and gives the independent actors a bigger say in how the system works.”
I did groan at that. I so didn’t need to be dealing with that kind of political maneuvering right now. I mean, I’d rather not deal with it at all, but for it to be going on at the same time as all the other crap I had to deal with seemed…more than slightly unfair.
“Which one am I meeting with?”
“The third,” she said, sounding entirely too cheerful. “They want to talk you into supporting their cause, I think.”
“That’s insane,” I said, more-or-less automatically. “I’m about as closely tied to the traditional power structure as a guy can get. They’d have to be crazy to pick me as a recruit.”
“They’re trying to overthrow the current balance of power,” she said dryly. “One that was put in place by deities, and is currently supported by most of the major players in the world. It’s safe to say they aren’t the sharpest tools in the metaphorical shed. Now, I’m still trying to set up meetings with the other two, and a new set of scouting reports just came in that Kyi’s too busy to look at, so unless you mind I’ll leave you to it.”
“No, that’s fine.”
“Great!” the demoness said brightly. “Have fun!”
I hung up and dropped the phone back into the console next to me. “I’m pretty sure she’s crazy,” I said to no one in particular. “Like, really crazy, not just a little bit.”
Snowflake snorted. Of course she is. She works for you. What sane person would take that job?
“Good point. So how do you see this going?”
Probably not violent, she said thoughtfully. They sound like the idealistic type, which means they aren’t likely to throw the first stone. Although I’d wager they’ve got a few more ruthless people in the mix. The sort who’ll do what they think’s necessary, whether or not the rest of the group agrees.
“Probably,” I agreed. “Honestly, I’m inclined to say they’re the biggest threat of the three. Any normal person would be hunkering down right now, and I can at least understand the ones who are making a play to put themselves on top. Idealists are…a little harder to work with.”
I didn’t mention Katie and Mike, or the monster they had summoned in the name of justice. I didn’t have to; I knew we were both thinking of it. They had been idealists, too, and if we got very, very lucky the world might someday recover from the results.
Hopefully this one won’t go that badly, Snowflake said, several long moments later. There can’t be very many people who know how to fuck things up that badly, right?
No, I said thoughtfully. But then again, we never really learned how those two figured it out, either.
The conversation died out after that, leaving me to dwell on that thought as I drove. It wasn’t an especially comforting one.
The restaurant where the meeting was scheduled was a chain, a few steps above fast food, located just inside the rough boundaries of the independents’ territory. I’d never been there before, but it wasn’t hard to find; there weren’t all that many places with a busy parking lot at seven in the morning.
You think they’re going to let me in? Snowflake asked idly as I locked things up.
A week ago, I’d have said not a chance. But now? I shrugged. Who knows?
The host met us at the door, looking distinctly nervous. I couldn’t really blame him for that; we were both still wearing full armor, and that’s the kind of thing that would scare damn near anyone.
“We have a reservation,” I said. “Party name of Ironside.”
He nodded, although the wary look didn’t go away. “Your party is already here,” he said. “Follow me.”
They didn’t have a private room, apparently, but he led me to a secluded corner of the room that was the next best thing. There were already half a dozen people sitting at the table there, an even mix of men and women, most of whom looked awfully young and not terribly sure of themselves.
Looking at them, I was reminded of the night I’d first met the Inquisition, with an almost violent intensity. They’d started out with the same idealistic naïveté as these kids, although it hadn’t taken long for them to get the same weary, bitter look as most of the mages I knew. Very few people, in my experience, managed to maintain normal relationships once they’d come into their power. You either fought the darkness or embraced it, and either way it was hard not to feel a certain separation from the world after a while.
These people hadn’t made it there yet, I thought. But they would.
“You’re Winter Wolf, then?” the one in the center of the group said. He was a thin, balding guy, who was tan in a way that suggested long hours spent exposed to the weather, rather than time on a beach or in a salon. He didn’t have the broken-down look that Katie had gotten near the end, but there was still a toughness about him that the rest of the group lacked.
“That’s me,” I said. “And you must be Ironside.” He nodded, and I snorted. “Okay,” I said. “So…what is it with you guys and the ridiculous names?”
“You’re one to talk,” he said dryly.
“Granted, but at least I was born with it.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to criticize on that basis. There actually are people named Ironside, you know.”
“Fair,” I admitted. “And honestly, you aren’t even the one I’m complaining about. One of the people I’m supposed to meet later is called Shadow, for crying out loud. I see that and I’m just like, really? This isn’t a freaking comic book.”
He nodded slowly. “You’re part of the old school,” he said. “The line of thinking that says that you want everything you do to be associated with you, so that it all feeds into your reputation as a person.”
“And you don’t think so?”
He considered that for a long moment. “Let’s just say,” he said slowly, “that while comic books are ridiculous, they occasionally stumble across a relevant point. Some of us still have people outside this world. Friends, family, loved ones. And I think we both know you’re not above threatening them if that’s what it takes to get your way. So we’ll be sticking with aliases for the time being.”
“Low blow,” I said. “And a fair point. Now that that’s settled, you mind if I sit down?”
“Not at all,” he said.
“Cool. So would you mind telling me, you know, what the bloody hell you people are getting at with all this?” I grabbed one of the chairs and spun it around before sitting, resting my arms across the back.
Ironside looked at me oddly. I got the impression that I wasn’t playing into his expectations at all, which was exactly why I’d done it the way I had. I thought I had a better chance of getting the information I wanted if I kept them off balance.
“Simple,” he said, recovering his composure more quickly than I’d expected. “For a long time, we’ve been kept down. The magical world is stuck in the feudal era, when the rest of the world left that nonsense behind ages ago. We want to take this opportunity to demand some basic human rights.”
“It’s a nice thought,” I admitted. “But there’s a problem. When the feudal system was overturned in Europe, it happened because the lower classes had the power and the leverage to make it happen. And that’s just not the case here. When it comes to the supernatural world, the people keeping you down actually are bigger and more powerful than you are.”
“That’s what they want us to think,” he said, leaning forward a little. There was genuine passion in his voice. “Think, Mr. Wolf. How much of what you’re saying is true, and how much of it is just the rhetoric you’ve been taught to believe? We have the numbers, we know how the system works, and for maybe the first time in history we have the ability to communicate and organize on a global scale. The old system, the whole ‘feudal lord’ approach, it’s not the only way things can work anymore. We do have the power.”
“I have seen what happens to people that defy the gods,” I said flatly. “If Loki wanted to, he could kill everyone in this city without even trying. And he’s just one god, out of dozens.”
There was a moment of silence after that, and several of the magelings looked at each other. “Granted,” Ironside said, trying to recover his momentum and partially succeeding. “But wasn’t it a god that told us that the rules don’t matter anymore? They aren’t imposing the system on us anymore.”
“True,” I said. “But really, it applies on every level. The people on any given level of the system got there by stepping on the people under them. Now that they’ve got there, they’ve sacrificed, they’ve paid for every inch they took. They aren’t going to just let that go. Now, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re fighting for, here. You want to hear what I think?”
“Why not,” Ironside said.
“I think,” I said, slowly and carefully, “that what you’re trying to do is admirable. I might even want to help you. But I also think that, by and large, people aren’t as nice as you. And generally speaking, the only language those people really understand is power. So if you want respect, if you want people to listen, you have to make them listen. You have to be an asshole, have to be maybe even a little bit evil, because if you aren’t they’ll walk all over you.”
“That sounds like an ugly world to live in,” he said quietly. The rest of them had gone still, and some of them were looking at me with barely-disguised fear. “We’re trying to make a better one.”
“I respect that,” I said honestly. “But there are half a million people in this city. And right now, there are no rules protecting them. The only thing standing between them and all the horrible things that want to happen to them is me. I don’t want this job. Never did. But I’ve got it, and…and there’s no one to do it if I fail, you know? There’s no second line of defense, nobody willing to take over if I walk away. Everything I do right now, every single goddamn thing, there’s half a million lives maybe riding on it.”
“That sounds like an awful responsibility.”
“It is,” I agreed. “It really, really is. But I’m telling you this for a reason. I like what you guys are trying to do. I respect you for it. But at the end of the day, I have to balance that against everything else that’s at stake. If you want to help me, if you want to help keep the peace until things are stable and we can work towards your democratic system, I’d be thrilled. If you want to stay out of the way, that’s fine too. But if you try to undermine me, if you do anything to prevent me from keeping all those nasty things away, I won’t hesitate to shut you down.”
He regarded me for a moment. “I find it hard to believe that you’d try to hurt people you know are trying to do the right thing.”
I smiled a little behind the mask, very much a predatory smile rather than a friendly one. “Remember what I said about being a little evil? Not a hypothetical. I’d hate to kill you, but I’ve killed people I liked more. I’d appreciate it if you could keep things from going that far this time around.” I stood up, producing a business card from my cloak and dropping it on the table. “In case you need to get in touch,” I explained.
Then I walked away, Snowflake pacing at my side. Behind me the table burst into whispers.
Stop driving and get some food, Snowflake told me.
“Nah,” I said. “I don’t actually need to eat anymore, remember? It can wait until I’ve dealt with the next faction.”
Bullshit, she said firmly. You’re starving. I can feel it.
I’m always hungry, I replied. Going a little longer won’t kill me.
You’re losing your focus, she countered. Or are you going to tell me you didn’t just spend fifteen seconds staring at that woman because she’s barely awake and you know she’d be easy prey?
I had, but I didn’t want to admit that to her. That was made easier a moment later when she stepped from the passenger’s seat over onto my lap, blocking my view and forcing me to coast to a stop. Fortunately there was no one behind me, although we were driving on a fairly major road and it was late enough in the morning that there should have been at least some traffic.
“Fine,” I said, laughing a little. “We’ll stop and get some food. Just get out of the way long enough for me to get there.”
We ended up going to the drive-through of a fast food restaurant, probably scaring the wits out of the person at the window. I devoured half a dozen burgers, which didn’t really satisfy my hunger, but at least dulled the edge a little, and washed them down with a ridiculously large cup of soda. Caffeine didn’t have much of an effect on me, but I could still get a sugar rush, and at the moment I wanted whatever I could get.
Snowflake got a couple of burgers as well, but barely touched them, watching me instead. She was still picking at them when I drove away from the restaurant.
I could feel that she was worried, and I knew why she was worried, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. She was right, after all. For me to put off eating like that, for me to treat it as a chore rather than something to look forward to, was beyond unusual.
But what could I say? I was, on a fundamental level, not the same person I’d been before. Loki had changed me, and my time in prison had exacerbated it. I didn’t need to eat, not really, and no matter how much I did eat, the hunger was barely reduced at all. Even the meal I’d just eaten was less a fix, and more a reminder of how overwhelmingly insufficient food seemed these days.
I got more satisfaction, physically as well as mentally, from Snowflake’s meal than my own. And that was worrying, on a variety of levels.
I tried to put that worry out of mind, with moderate success. It helped that it wasn’t long before we reached the home base of the next name on my list.