“You know, I think this might be a first,” Aiko commented, getting out of the car.
“Oh?” I asked, waving to Kjaran. He drove the Rolls off, probably going to park in a nearby lot. It fit with the chauffeur image, and if I had to ride in a limo I was damn well going to play up the image as far as I could.
“Yeah. I can’t think of anyone getting a ban lifted at Pryce’s before, offhand.”
“Not a lot of reason for it anymore,” I said, shrugging. Selene had spent several hours talking with him, and paid him a quarter of a million, but ultimately I knew he’d agreed because he wanted to. Not even Selene was persuasive enough to talk Pryce around once he’d really made his mind up about something, and he didn’t care enough about money for the bribe to be the deciding factor.
“Still,” Aiko said. “Not bad.”
Inside, I walked straight to the bar, where Pryce was pouring what looked like a pint glass of brandy. The room was fairly crowded, but people were gathered in small groups, with lots of empty space between, making it look emptier than it should have. There was a decent group sitting at the bar, tossing back drinks with the grim enthusiasm you only saw when things were really bad, and the long table in the middle of the room was playing host to three different groups, all firmly ignoring each other.
“I’m here for the private meeting,” I said to Pryce, not saying anything about having been allowed in again. He wouldn’t appreciate it.
He grunted and nodded, not pausing as he handed the brandy to one guy and turned to grab a bottle of absinthe for the woman sitting next to him. A moment later, though, a member of his staff appeared next to me. He led us silently through the crowd to a small hallway, where he left us outside an unmarked oak door.
I licked my lips nervously before I opened the door. I’d hoped that I could take more time to get prepped for this meeting, reading up on people who would be attending. My handful of minutes in Gwynn ap Nud’s realm had translated to a couple of hours in the real world, though, eating up the time I’d been hoping to use. After I’d checked in with Selene and Kyi and made sure that Jibril’s ghouls were ready to go, it was already dusk.
Which meant that I’d not only been unable to do my research for this meeting, I was also already having to think about my coming chat with Katrin. Which was just lovely.
Inside, I found that Pryce’s conference room hadn’t changed much. The long table in the middle of the room was the same, with the same chairs along its length. The same banners hung from the rafters, adorned with the symbols of various major political groups. A fire burned brightly in the massive fireplace, making the room uncomfortably warm—for me, at least. I preferred things chilly, and I was wearing heavy armor and a cloak.
I didn’t have much time to look over that, though, because I hadn’t been able to get here as early as I wanted to be. There were already almost a dozen people sitting at the table. Each of them had a wide space around them, the chairs evenly spaced along the table as though they were trying to consciously ensure that everyone had the absolute maximum possible elbow room. Apparently it still wasn’t enough, though, because they were all looking warily at each other. At best; some were glaring daggers, and a couple looked like they were inches from pulling weapons on each other.
I recognized more than a few of them. Ironsides was about halfway down the table, trying a little too hard to look confident. Shadow had a chair near one end, her mask firmly in place, and Newton was sitting at the other end, smirking behind his own mask. He was trying to pretend that he was fully recovered from the battle earlier that morning, but not doing a very good job of it; his posture was tense, and he was favoring the leg I’d almost chopped off. He hadn’t recovered yet, not even close.
Then there were some other faces, familiar from more than just the past couple of days. Luna was tense in her chair, fingering various pockets as though she were very much prepared to pull weapons out of them and use them. Rachel looked like she was in pain, which she probably was; she could sense emotions as easily as she could see, and the miasma of hate, fear, anger, and generalized stress in this room couldn’t be much fun. Just down the table from her, Alexander looked mildly amused. He was practically the only one in the place that didn’t seem at all concerned, which made sense; if he felt like it, he could probably take everyone else in the building at once. I was guessing Pryce was the only one who could even slow him down, and Alexander was smart enough that he would know Pryce’s weak points.
I was a little surprised to see him there. He was wearing the heavy blue robes that he was entitled to as the Maker of the Conclave. It probably didn’t matter—I was guessing I was the only one in the room who would know what it meant. But it was a reminder that he was on the Conclave, and considering how Brick had made that situation sound, I figured he’d have been in Russia helping to keep it contained.
I mean, he’d said it was an all hands on deck, maximum priority kind of situation. Watcher didn’t strike me as the type to use that kind of description lightly.
“What are you doing here?” one of them said when I walked in. It was a guy I didn’t recognize, wearing an expensive suit, who was otherwise about as bland as it was possible to be. He even had a pocket protector, and I didn’t think anybody used those anymore. There was something about him that suggested it was an intentional blandness, though, an impression that had been carefully cultivated. It was a mask of sorts, I thought, something for him to hide behind.
“I have as much stake in this as any of you,” I said. “Maybe more.”
“I’ll vouch for him,” Alexander said. “He’s not the type to break a truce.”
“Fine,” the bland man said, glowering. “But the female leaves. He gets one representative, same as the rest of us.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Aiko elbowed me in the ribs. It didn’t hurt—I was wearing armor, after all, and it had been designed with nastier things in mind than that—but I got the message. I shut my mouth.
“That’s fine,” Aiko said. “I’ll wait outside.”
She left and I claimed one of the few remaining chairs, between Rachel and Alexander. That was good positioning, in that it put me between two of the people I was least anticipating an attack from. It was a little unfortunate, though, in that I was next to Alexander. If anyone did try something, he would be their main target, and if they knew enough to be here they would probably be smart enough not to hold back when they went for him. I didn’t exactly want to be in the blast radius if that happened.
“We waiting for anyone else?” the bland guy asked. “I have obligations coming up.”
“There’s a couple guys said they’d be here,” another person said, one that I recognized but didn’t really know. “Don’t know if they’ll show or not. They’re coming from a rough neighborhood.”
Several others made similar comments, and the table returned to sullen, anticipatory silence. Over the next twenty minutes or so, more people trickled in. Some of them took seats at the table. Others were turned away, sent to wait in the main room of the bar. There was no single voice that determined whether a given person was going to stay or go. It was more of a general consensus. There was very little argument back and forth; one person might raise a complaint, another might retort, but it didn’t turn into a general discussion. Most people agreed as to whether a given person was welcome or not.
Eventually it became clear that everyone who was going to be here was. I looked around warily, taking stock of who was there, and who wasn’t. There were about twenty people, all told. I recognized almost all of them, and I could put names to maybe half the faces.
This wasn’t a gathering of the strongest, most powerful people in the city. Oh, Alexander had backing on a global level, and I was a local power with decently large-scale recognition, but by and large these weren’t the heavyweights of the city. They didn’t have all that much power, on a relative scale.
What they did have was respect. These were the people who were respected in the community. People might not like them, but even their enemies admitted that they were worth paying attention to. They knew people, and when they said things people listened.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated to include myself in that group. I hadn’t been all that active in the supernatural community, but I’d known people. I’d been on good terms with most of them, not friends, but I could have asked for a favor and felt confident that people would trust me to pay them back. That sort of thing.
Now? The situation was…a little more complex than that.
“I think this is about all we’re going to get,” somebody said, about the same time I reached that conclusion. “Should we get started?”
“Yeah,” the bland guy said. “I think we all know what we’re here to talk about.”
Rachel snorted. “Shit hitting fans, past, present, and future tense. Not complicated.”
“I think we all have the same interests, here,” I put in. “Things are bad, they’re getting worse, and there are only going to be more people trying to take advantage of it going forward. We all want to minimize the harm done, locally.”
“Well said,” Alexander murmured. I felt an involuntary rush of pleasure at the compliment. It had been years since he was really my teacher in any meaningful way, but the habit was still there.
“You’re missing the point,” Newton said, glaring daggers at me. “Some of us have things to do. And the time is ripe. This is the best opportunity we’re ever going to have.”
Yeah, I didn’t think he was going to forgive me for almost chopping his leg off anytime soon.
“You’re thinking in a strictly short-term sense, fool,” the bland man said, almost absently. “Overreach your position right now and you’ll be crushed when the greater powers move in turn.”
I couldn’t see Newton’s face, but I was confident that it went homicidally insane when he heard that. The telekinetic stood, gesturing furiously, and the glass of wine that had been sitting on the table by his elbow was suddenly flying at the bland man’s head.
I was expecting there to be blood on the table at that. That glass was traveling at a speed more commonly associated with bullets than anything else, and when it hit it was going to shatter, sending razor-sharp fragments of glass into the man’s head.
Except that it didn’t. The bland man didn’t even seem concerned. He pushed his chair back from the table, in no evident rush, and the glass flew past about an inch and a half from his nose. He then stood and turned towards Newton.
I blinked. You couldn’t dodge an attack like that at close range. Human reflexes weren’t that fast, especially not when the actual dodge was practically in slow motion.
Except that, apparently, you could.
Newton growled something inarticulate and grabbed a handful of ball bearings from his pocket, throwing them into the air in front of him. An instant later they took off like they’d been shot from a gun, a loose cloud of metal maybe five feet in diameter.
The bland man walked right through it. I wasn’t sure how, and I was watching. He didn’t actually do anything to stop the bits of metal. It was just that he wasn’t where they were. They passed over him, beside him, between his legs, between his fingers. He didn’t speed up, and he didn’t break stride.
I was staring at this point. I was just now coming to my feet, as were many of the others, and the bland man had almost reached Newton. The telekinetic started to do something else, something big enough that I could smell it even through the cloud of magic in that room. My guess was that he was planning to flip the table over, crushing the bland man and many other people under its weight.
I felt just the tiniest whisper of power from the bland man, exactly as Newton’s magic began to take solid form. It was a masterful bit of work, just enough energy at just the right time to shake the telekinetic’s concentration. The spell fizzled out, accomplishing nothing.
He tried again, slopping even more power into it this time, and the exact same thing happened. Before he could try a third time the bland man reached out and pressed one finger against Newton’s throat. Just one finger, but it was perfectly placed against his carotid artery, and this guy knew how to use that. Newton dropped in less than a second, out cold. He’d only be out for a minute or two from that, but somehow I didn’t think he’d be in a hurry to start more trouble. Not after he got his ass handed to him that badly.
“I agree with the jarl,” the bland man said, making his way back to his chair. He wasn’t even breathing hard. “My employer has seen five different incursions across the state. Making gains right now is secondary to preparing yourselves to defend against similar attacks.”
“Thank you, Mr. Andrews,” Alexander said. “As usual, your analysis is sound. And thank you for dealing with that fool. He was becoming annoying.”
The bland man—Andrews—smiled. “Agreed,” he said, sitting back down.
“On that note,” Alexander said, “I would strongly recommend you consider taking the jarl’s advice, and fortifying yourselves. There is already an ongoing situation in Russia that is literally world-threatening in scale, and the possibility exists that others will arise. If a threat of similar scope arises here, you would be extremely well-advised to devote all your resources to combating it. That also means that anything you expend on infighting is a waste.”
“Wait,” I said sharply. “That thing in Russia. That’s public knowledge now?”
He smiled. It wasn’t a happy expression. “At the rate things are going, we aren’t going to be able to keep it a secret much longer.”
Andrews sighed. He sounded disappointed, but not surprised. “I would offer to assist,” he said. “But I suspect my involvement at this stage would present more risks than it would solve.”
Alexander shuddered. “God, yes. I said that things were world-threatening, not that I wanted to make them world-ending. No, we’ll all be happier if you stay the hell away from Russia until this is resolved.”
Andrews nodded. “I understand,” he said. “And I will do what I can to provide assistance from a distance, of course, although my capabilities are limited. With that in mind, jarl, did you have a specific plan in mind before that interruption?”
“Not really,” I said, looking around the table, meeting each person’s gaze in turn. Alexander and Andrews were the only ones that didn’t look down. “I know a lot of the people sitting here,” I said. “A lot of you have grudges against each other, a lot of you hate each other. I don’t expect you to set that aside. What I do expect is that you will refrain from acting on it until things have settled down.”
“And what are you doing?” someone asked. I wasn’t sure who; no one I knew, I thought.
“I’m going to be consolidating my power base and taking over the city,” I said. There wasn’t much point lying, and being blunt like that would be good for my rep. “I know many of you would rather I didn’t, but at this point it’s the only practical option. We need to have a strong organization to hold against these threats. What I am proposing is that I will provide that organization, providing the legitimacy and much of the manpower to prevent this city from being attacked.”
“And then you take power after?” another person said. “Pass.”
I shrugged. “Someone has to do it,” I said. “I’m not after power. It’s a means to an end, for me. It’s a tool. And right now it’s a tool I need in order to do things I actually care about, like protecting my city. I know you aren’t likely to believe me, but I truly believe that we need a strong authority figure to deter aggressors, and I don’t see anyone else that I’d trust to do it.”
“Alexander?” Rachel said. “You have the reputation to hold a position like that.”
The wizard shook his head. “I can’t take that much time away from the situation in Russia right now,” he said flatly. “There are three different people covering for my absence as it is. And even if that weren’t the case, I likely wouldn’t be a very good candidate for the position. I’ve not gone out of my way to make friends in life.”
“Pryce?” someone else tossed out.
Another person scoffed. “Not a chance,” she said. “He’s neutral. And he only gets respect inside the city, which negates the whole purpose.
“That might work, but then you’ve set yourself up with a vampire overlord. Personally, I’d take my chances with a war first.”
I cleared my throat, and was a little surprised when people actually stopped talking. “Excuse me,” I said. “But I have another engagement that I can’t afford to miss. And I’m going to do this regardless of your opinion of me. So feel free to continue discussing this, but I’m afraid I have to go.”
I stood and walked to the door. To my surprise, Andrews fell in beside me on the other side. “Good work,” he said. “Playing them off each other like that.”
I eyed him warily. I hadn’t forgotten Alexander’s comment about Andrews being world-ending, and anything that could get that kind of reaction out of the old wizard was something best treated with extreme respect. “You helped me out in there,” I said. “Why?”
He smiled. “I meant what I said,” he said, which really didn’t explain anything. “In the meantime, however, do you have a bit of time before your next engagement? My employer would quite like a meeting with you.”
“And who is your employer?” I asked.
His smile got a little wider. “That would be Nicolas Pellegrini, at the moment,” he said. “I believe you’re already acquainted.”