The hospital room was almost entirely silent. The occupants were both asleep, not producing a sound beyond quiet breathing and the slow, steady thumping of two heartbeats. I could hear hurried footsteps and hushed voices in the halls, but nobody ventured too close to this room. Not while I was visiting. Occasionally a nurse would come in for the regular checks on them, doing it quickly while watching me carefully out of the corners of their eyes. I thought they would have avoided even that, if they weren’t afraid of incurring my anger.
I sat in the corner of the room and stared at nothing. Almost two weeks since I’d been blinded, and still my vision hadn’t recovered properly. I could open my eyes without collapsing now, and I could even make out shape and motion a little, but that was about it.
Recovery was slow. For me and everything else in this city.
The people in front of me were no exceptions. Kyra’s leg was in traction, broken so badly that it would likely be a month or more before she could put weight on it. For the moment it was held in place with an arrangement of straps and pins that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Marquis de Sade’s bedroom. The assortment of fractures and dislocations in her leg was so painful that she was on a sufentanil drip that might have killed a human, and she still hurt every time she woke up.
Snowflake was better off, in some ways, but even worse in others. She wasn’t in serious pain. Physically, she was largely recovered. But she had the kind of brain damage that was effectively crippling. Her memory was spotty; some days she was as clear as ever, and others she couldn’t remember a conversation she’d had five minutes earlier. Her coordination was shot so badly that walking was a serious struggle. Sometimes when we talked she had to struggle for over a minute to figure out what she was trying to say. Given how we communicated, this wasn’t just her forgetting a word, though that would have been frightening enough. No, this was more that she couldn’t organize or sort her thoughts, and she struggled to remember the basic concepts she was trying to convey.
Still, she was recovering. Like Kyra, she was more resilient than any mortal had a right to be. It probably helped that I’d gotten a demigod with a talent for healing to start her off. Before that, she hadn’t been making much progress. Things had improved considerably afterward.
It would just take time. Time for bones to heal. Time for brains to recover. Time for trust to be rebuilt.
Time was a resource in short supply, these days. For every minute I had, there were five minutes’ worth of work to do. There was always a task clamoring for my attention. I hadn’t slept in three days.
It almost bothered me how much that didn’t seem to matter. I was tired, but it wasn’t the sort of bone-deep fatigue I used to feel after going without sleep for that long. It was almost more cerebral than visceral. The constant stress wore on me, making me irritable and snappish. But I didn’t get weak or clumsy. I didn’t fumble. I didn’t have to work to keep my eyes open. Physically, I was almost less tired than when I’d been sleeping regularly.
It was disturbing, another step away from being a mostly normal person into being…whatever it was I was turning into. Another step away from humanity, for sure. But having the extra time was so useful right now that it was hard not to be grateful even though I was scared out of my mind whenever I took the time to think of it.
But still, even with how pressed I was with every minute, I spent an hour in that room with Kyra and Snowflake, listening to them breathe and not even coming close to dozing.
I closed the door quietly behind myself, so as not to wake them, and walked out of the hospital. Times being what they were, there were armed guards watching the exterior doors, standing at many of the key locations within the hospital, and occasionally patrolling the halls. They were hard, grim men and women, the sort of people that could put a bullet in a toddler and walk away whistling.
I ought to know. I was the one that hired them. Pellegrini had turned out to be more willing to contribute to keeping order than I’d expected, and he’d loaned me some of his troubleshooters at cut rates. Add in some freelancers that I knew, and it wasn’t all that difficult to come up with a security force to protect the hospital.
I liked to think that I’d have done it even if I didn’t know people who were staying there.
I’d had to expand my operation somewhat, setting up other locations, just to house my newly expanded army of minions. But the center of my organization was still very much the throne room in the old pack house, and it was there that I went after I left the hospital.
I imagined that the location of the building was something of an open secret at this point. Technically I was still a highly wanted man, and the police were probably supposed to consider apprehending me their highest priority. But they also knew that I was doing more to stabilize the situation right now than anyone else in this city. I was guessing that they were telling anyone that asked that I was just a bloody hard target to find, and politely ignoring the fact that I had a massive organization running right under their noses and they knew exactly where to go to find me.
It was a situation I’d seen a few times before. Usually I’d been the one to violate the unofficial truce and attack the bad guy in spite of all the reasons not to.
The comparison was not exactly a comfortable one.
Inside the building, the throne room was full of activity. There were a dozen or so guards standing around, a roughly even mix of jötnar and ghouls. The rest of the people were mostly humans in my employ, some of whom knew who they were working for, some of whom didn’t. There were accountants in there, lawyers, mages, mercenaries, and all kinds of other useful people. I didn’t even know who all was working for me at this point. A lot of them had been recruited in the past few weeks, while I was way too busy to keep track of them all.
At this point, I was paying more in wages every week than I’d been worth for most of my life. But there was also an incredible amount of money pouring in, from all kinds of sources. It wasn’t just the magical community paying me protection money at this point. Legitimate businesses were paying me out of gratitude for having anyone to call for help, and Frishberg was funneling some cash from the police’s budget into mine, as well. I had the investments that Tindr made and managed on my behalf, including multiple companies.
And then there were the less legitimate sources of income, as well. When I brought Luna into my fold, I also brought her entire black market network. She dealt in arms, drugs, and secrets, and I made a cut on every transaction. Not only was I giving my tacit approval by taking the money, I was lending the support of my influence and talents to make the deals happen. Pellegrini’s local operations now paid me tribute for the privilege of operating in my territory, and even a small portion of the money they made was significant. Then there were payments for assassinations, payments coming from the Watchers, from the Pack, bribes from people hoping to buy my favor…money was coming in from everywhere.
It had gotten to such a scope that not even Tindr could manage it all on his own. For the time being he’d hired an entire accounting firm to help manage it.
Walking through the throne room, I was only seeing a small fraction of the people working for me. Mostly, there were representatives here. The heavyset man in the nice suit, for example, was just one of the accountants, here to drop off numbers with Tindr. The woman with a tattoo of a snake on her cheek was a gangster, dropping off the weekly payment for her business.
I passed through the bustle, and where I walked, the activity stopped. People turned to watch me pass. Many of those who were actually in my employ saluted me, in one way or another. The others mostly just watched.
I sat in the throne, and was almost immediately surrounded by my inner circle. Aiko was there, of course, and then there was Anna, who had flat-out refused to go back to Wyoming with Ryan and Daniell. I couldn’t be too upset by that, since she was basically the oldest friend I had at this point. Plus her presence was the only thing that let me see the room clearly.
Other than those two, most of the people were there for a reason. Kyi was my field commander, in charge of the jötnar, and also in charge of information gathering and scouting. Selene was the more general second-in-command, who coordinated all of my enterprises and kept me up to date on them. Tindr handled the financial aspects. Of the more recent additions, Luna was more up to date on local gossip and attitudes than maybe anyone else in the city. Jibril was there to represent the ghouls, and Shadow was there to represent the mages.
There was enough sheer firepower in that group to eradicate a small city, and it was only a fraction of the total forces available to me. It was a little scary, actually.
“Okay,” I said, sitting down in the throne and looking out over the room, through my own eyes and Anna’s. The activity continued, money and files changing hands. “Situation?”
“Financially, we’re sitting well,” Tindr said. “I’ve got access to about all of the accounts again, and your investments are doing well. I actually made a fair profit short selling stocks right before a company went under.”
“Spare me the details,” I said dryly. “I won’t understand them anyway. What’s the bottom line?”
He cleared his throat and said, “At the moment, we’re actually in the black. Net profit for this week is two thousand. I can’t predict where things will be soon, though. Things are too unstable.”
“Okay,” I said. “How much is in the accounts?”
“In your personal accounts, slightly over ten million,” he said. “In the operational account, three million. In investments, stocks, and real estates, an additional nineteen million.”
“Sounds good. Next?”
“No attacks today,” Selene said. “We’re getting reports of a group of vampires moving into the area, though. Apparently they’re looking to take over the territory now that Katrin is done. Kikuchi said that there’s a group of oni that might want a piece of the pie, but he thought he could handle them. We got a message from the pack in Denver congratulating you and asking for a public show of solidarity. There’s a message from a group of apsaras asking permission to visit the city.”
“Send a group to talk to the vampires,” I said. “No promises yet, just feeling them out. Send Kikuchi a message offering my formal support if he wants it; make sure it doesn’t suggest that he can’t handle it on his own. Tentatively agree to the pack’s request, depending on what they have in mind for the display. Tell the apsaras I need to know what they want, and they would have to agree to some ground rules. Next?”
Selene cleared her throat. “You have a visitor, jarl.”
“Who and when?” I snapped. “And why didn’t you already mention it?”
“She’s talking about me,” Brick said dryly.
I blinked and looked around. I hadn’t noticed him, even though he’d walked straight up to the throne I was sitting in.
Or, more accurately, I hadn’t recognized him. It was always a little tricky trying to translate from another body’s senses, and Brick looked different enough that I might not have known it was him if I were using my own eyes.
More specifically, he looked like shit. His face was burned, badly, almost half of it covered in blisters and blackened skin. His grey robes were also burned and torn, though I knew they were as strong as most armor. His left arm was in a sling made out of what looked like burlap, and he walked with a limp, leaning heavily on his staff.
“Brick,” I said. “What the hell happened to you?”
He grinned weakly. “You remember the situation in Russia I told you about, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “The all-hands-on-deck thing, right? Did that lighten up enough that you could come back?”
“Not exactly. You remember I told you we might need to call everyone that might help if things got much worse?”
“Yes,” I said slowly. I thought I knew where this was going, and I was not liking it.
“Well, it’s worse.” He started to rub his eyes, leaning the staff against his chest, then remembered the burns and lowered his hand again. “We need help. We need all the help we can get.”
“Oh,” I said. “You want me to come, then?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You and anyone you can bring. I mean anyone. We’re taking all comers at this point.” He then paused. “What time is it, local?”
“Just before noon,” I said. “Why?”
“Shit,” he muttered, dropping the staff again and reaching into his cloak. He pulled out four unlabeled pill bottles. “You got something to drink?”
“Somebody get me some water!” I shouted, not watching to see who ran for it. Someone would. I was more interested in what Brick was doing. “What are those?” I asked him quietly.
“Broad-spectrum antibiotic,” he said, pulling one pill out of the first bottle. “Painkiller. Modafinil. Amphetamine.”
I blinked. “They’re handing out amphetamine?”
He smiled grimly. “They’re handing out anything that might keep people in the fight a little longer,” he said. “And I mean anything.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “You remember that one-to-twenty scale I told you about? We’re sitting at a fifteen right now. If it goes one step higher, we start dropping strategic nukes on this thing.”
I took a second to process that. “Okay,” I said. “Let me get some people together.”