“Why did you send me that note?” Aiko’s mother demanded, advancing on her daughter at what could only be called a stalk.
Aiko gulped. “I didn’t realize I’d written anything that bad,” she said nervously.
“This is the first time you’ve replied to one of my messages in twenty-nine years,” her mother replied, continuing to advance. “What you wrote seems quite immaterial in comparison.”
Aiko hesitated, then sighed. “I don’t want to be your enemy anymore,” she said. “You were never trying to hurt me. I see that now. It’s just…can we move past all this? Can we be a family again?”
There was a brief pause, during which I could see her mother’s composure crack. It was hard to say just what the emotion on her face, but it was so intense it was painful to see.
Then she rushed forward and swept Aiko up in her arms, holding her so tight that the younger kitsune squeaked. All nine of her tails were held stiff now, as though she were afraid to let them move for fear of what they would betray. The male kitsune kept his distance, but he was watching intently, and his smile was profoundly satisfied.
It felt good to watch it, I couldn’t deny. I didn’t know much about the history there, but I knew her relationship with her family had always caused Aiko a lot of pain. To see it being resolved, to see the wounds being healed like this…it was good. It was very good.
And then I paused as something odd occurred to me.
Since when was Aiko the sort to forget and forgive? I loved her, but I also knew her. There was no question that she was a vindictive bitch. I could count on the fingers of no hands the number of times she’d just forgiven someone who really upset her.
I told myself this was just a side of her I didn’t usually see, but I still just couldn’t make it fit. Even if she were to make up with her mother and move past their history, it was hard to imagine it happening like this. Aiko wasn’t the sort to make heartfelt emotional speeches. She masked the important emotions behind a shell of mockery and apathy so thorough it had taken me more than a year to even realize she was doing it.
She hadn’t made a single crass joke or smartass comment since her mother showed up. She hadn’t done a thing to deflect attention or pretend this didn’t mean anything to her.
The more I thought about it, the more this didn’t feel right. It was natural, and good, and simple, people moving past their history in a way that was healed old wounds. Everything about it was so perfect.
This just wasn’t fucked up enough to really be Aiko making peace with her mother.
And then I had a thought. I had a terrible, horrible thought.
They were still embracing when I spoke. “Aiko?” I said, my voice sounding flat and dead to my ears. It was a bit like the remote, disconnected feeling I got when I was really angry, in the same way that a hydrogen bomb is a bit like a hand grenade. “How did we meet?”
She let go of her mother and took a step back, looking at me oddly. “It involved a demon and a werewolf and people getting killed,” she said. “Don’t tell me you forgot.”
I nodded slowly. She knew the answer. Of course she did. But in a way, it was another crack in the facade. Why had she actually answered me?
“What’s your name?” I asked, watching her fixedly. I felt odd, sick and angry and hungry.
“Pretty sure you said it a minute ago,” she told me. “Aiko, remember? You’re starting to worry me now, Winter.”
I nodded again. Further confirmation. Not actually answering my questions. Trying to change the subject. Why was she worried? Because I was asking questions. I was paying attention.
In a way, it was brilliant. Anyone else I would have caught by now. But I’d decided long ago to exempt Aiko from my usual paranoia. There was no other way I could keep our relationship intact.
On an intellectual level, I could appreciate the cunning nature of the scheme. I could respect them for arranging it and carrying it out. I could respect her for playing the role so skillfully.
On an emotional level?
Don’t think about that, I told myself. Even considering it, even contemplating how I felt right now was enough to scare me.
“Jarl?” Selene said quietly. “You’re shaking. Is something wrong?”
I ignored her completely, keeping my attention firmly on “Aiko.” “Tell me two plus two is five,” I said to her. “Come on. Say it.”
“Okay then,” she said, drawing it out to make it sound sarcastic. “I am now officially creeped out. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Too little, too late,” I said. I reached out for power and twisted my thoughts into a different pattern, a different level of interaction with reality, one that focused less on the material and more on the concepts underlying that matter.
The Second Sight was always unpredictable. There was no telling quite what it would show, no guessing what you might see or how your mind would choose to portray the information you get. It changed from one day to the next, though there were elements that remained constant. It was always an intense experience. It was always hard to describe, hard to even grasp and conceptualize in words. It always took the form of a sort of hallucination, as though what it showed was too real for the brain to process directly.
This time, the experience manifested as a combination of sights, sounds, and scents, all blending together into a psychedelic cocktail that put me right back on the bed.
The first thing I saw, overwhelming and pulling all attention from what I actually wanted to look at, was Aiko’s mother. The nine-tailed kitsune blazed with silver light in the spiritual spectrum, so bright it would have blinded me if it were really there. It almost did anyway. The nine tails spreading out behind her seemed more beams of light than physical objects, spreading and interlacing in fractal patterns that seared themselves into my brain, leaving me gasping for breath. To look at her was to hear resounding drums and horns singing out over the hills, to smell fox and spice and salt and the endless passage of time.
I fell back onto the bed, and in the falling I brought Selene and Aiko’s father into my view. The kitsune burned with crimson light and resounded with the sound of flutes and laughter, but next to the nine-tailed kitsune, a seven-tail was almost a relief. Selene was another story. Seen with the Second Sight, she did not so much give light as take it, almost like a void in the world. There was a hint of wings, a hint of a humanoid form, but beyond that there was no definite form there. She smelled of blood and brimstone, sounded like quiet contemplative organ music, and felt like distance and unconcern, calculation and patience.
I forced myself to sit up again, the world spinning around me a little as I did, and got a glimpse of myself. My body was made of ice, hard and cold, glittering in the light. Dark shadows moved under the surface, hiding my core.
I didn’t look any closer than that. I didn’t want to look too long in the mirror. Easy to see too much, even when you aren’t transparent.
I looked back at Aiko, forcing myself to disregard the blazing power that was her mother. And this time I saw what I’d been looking for.
On the surface, it looked like Aiko should. The light of her power was red and gold in equal measure, the scent was fox and spice, the sound was laughter and metal music. But once I looked a little deeper, I saw the gaps, the inconsistencies. Behind the light was a void not unlike that I’d seen in Selene, vague and shapeless, with flickers of odd lights and shapes within, a patchwork that was somehow less than the sum of its parts. The scent was a fake, closer to skunk than fox; it might have fooled someone else, but I knew the scent this was mimicking, and this wasn’t it. The laughter was feigned, a mask over a face that wasn’t happy, or sad, or anyting.
I closed my eyes and forced the Second Sight away. It took a few seconds, and when it was gone I slumped back to the bed for a moment, gagging at the instant headache. It lasted only a few seconds, but while it was there, it was hard to even think past the pain.
“Okay,” I said, forcing myself to sit upright again. “Who are you, and what did you do with Aiko?”
The impostor grinned at me. “Um,” she said. “Winter? I was serious when I said that you were scaring me with this. You’re still shaking, by the way.”
I stared at her for a few seconds, then said, “You don’t understand your situation. I can kill you right now. I could freeze your blood inside your veins so that it tears you apart from the inside out, and with the way I feel right now, I might.”
Aiko’s mother turned to face me. “I will not suffer you to threaten my daughter,” she said quietly. “Should you try to harm her, I will see you dead.” Her voice was quite calm and polite, which in a weird way made it even scarier.
“I would never hurt Aiko,” I said. “But that is not your daughter. She is an impostor, attempting to fool us into thinking she is.”
The nine-tailed kitsune went absolutely, utterly still, then turned to look at the impostor in question. “Is this true?” she asked, in that same calm, polite voice.
“I should hope you’d—”
“Answer me!” the kitsune shouted, losing her composure completely. Her tails started to lash violently back and forth, forming a complex and ever-shifting web of fur in the air.
“Aiko” said nothing, which in itself was an answer.
The male kitsune whistled quietly. “Oh, no,” he said quietly. “You might want to back away.”
“What?” I asked, like a fool.
Then I saw what happens when a nine-tailed kitsune absolutely snaps.
I didn’t see her move. Not really. Not even a blur. It was more like I was watching a flipbook animation that had a handful of pages torn out. One instant, a mostly-human kitsune was standing a few feet from an entirely humanoid pseudo-kitsune. The next, both of them had moved seven feet sideways. The nine-tailed kitsune had abandoned any pretense of humanity, her body as much fox as human, her face almost completely animal. She had the impostor pinned against the wall with one hand.
That was about all I could see. The ancient kitsune blazed with light, much like what I’d seen with the Second Sight, except this was real. It hurt, it physically hurt to see that light, to be in it. I smelled smoke, and realized that the walls and floor were smoldering around her, burning from just her presence.
“Who sent you?” she screamed at the impostor. Her voice was unpleasant to hear; I couldn’t say what about it was so distressing, but I cringed away at the sound, and I wasn’t alone. It almost made me think of nails against a chalkboard, except that it still sounded beautiful.
The impostor screamed and lashed out at the kitsune, trying to punch her. It had no effect, not little effect, but none. She could have been hitting a brick wall for all the apparent good it did her.
“Tell me,” the kitsune said, tightening her grip. Then she said something in else in Japanese.
The impostor screamed again, louder and more agonized than before, and flailed, bucking against the kitsune’s grip, to no avail. “Scáthach,” she gasped after a few seconds. “Scáthach sent me to replace her!”
“Where is she now?” I asked. It was a risk, stepping into this, but I needed to know.
“At the castle,” the impostor gasped. “The Isle of Skye. Dún Scáith. Please, have mercy. I only served my queen!”
“You served too well,” the kitsune said, her fist closing tightly around the impostor’s throat. That action, just clenching her fist, was enough to shatter the impostor’s spine. A moment later the body burst into brilliant silver flame, reducing it to ashes in an instant. Not even the bones survived intact.
The light faded a few moments later, and we all let out a sigh of relief as it did.
The other kitsune shot me a warning look as he walked by, telling me very clearly to be still and silent, without saying a word. I didn’t argue with that look. I wasn’t that stupid.
The two kitsune stood together, with her leaning heavily on him for support, for several moments before she returned to the mostly-human form she’d had on when she first came in. “I apologize for my hasty and unseemly behavior,” she said, turning to face me. Her tone was very formal now. “It was inappropriate of me, particularly as I am a guest in your home. Please, excuse me. This is unlike me, but to hear this struck me deeply.”
“Yeah, I could tell,” I said, watching her now with the same feeling of intense disconnection that I’d felt while watching the impostor. “You really love your daughter, don’t you?”
“Very much so,” she sighed. “Though I have never been able to express it as I might wish to.” Left unspoken, but not unheard, was the fear that now she might never have the chance.
“I love her as well,” I said.
“You do not seem to care about her abduction,” she said. It didn’t sound like she was disagreeing with me, exactly, more just making an observation.
“I am intimately aware of the limits of my own control,” I said. “This goes well beyond them. If I allow myself to care about it right now, I will begin destroying things, and I don’t know whether I will be able to stop once I start.” I smiled. “Better for that to wait until I am in Scáthach’s home, it seems. Do you know the way, or should I seek another means of transport?”
“Um,” Selene said, sounding like she would rather shove bamboo splinters under her own nails than speak up right now. “We, um. We do have news. Um. If that’s okay?”
“Please continue,” I said. I was still smiling. It wasn’t a good smile.
“Um. While you were in Russia, a few of the mages started a sort of a rebellion? I don’t know what else to call it. They haven’t really done much, but they’re speaking out against you, and they ambushed a couple of our patrols. No deaths yet, but it was close. I don’t know if you want to leave them be while you go do…this.”
“I see,” I said. “Thank you, Selene.” I looked at the two kitsune. “My apologies,” I said. “I have handled this poorly, and caused you unnecessary pain as a result. And now I find that the timing of this affair is also quite unfortunate. As the jarl of this town, I should tend to this uprising myself. However, if you would prefer to leave now, that’s fine too.”
“Go and tend to your business,” Aiko’s mother said. “I will attempt diplomatic channels to resolve this. Once.”
“Thank you for your understanding, ma’am. Shall I meet you here in two hours, that we might go to Scáthach’s home, rescue Aiko, and bring her world tumbling down around her?”
“You’re willing to anger a Faerie Queen to save my daughter?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling. “Yes, I think I am. I warned her that some things were off limits, after all. It’s hardly my fault that she didn’t take me seriously.”
“In that case,” she said, “you may call me Kuzunoha. I will meet you here in two hours.”
“Excellent,” I said, standing and stretching. I still hurt, a lot, but it didn’t seem to matter much. I walked out of the room and went downstairs, calling Tyrfing and spinning it idly in my hand as I walked.
Activity came to a standstill when I walked into the throne room. An absolute standstill. I supposed that made sense. It isn’t every day that your jarl walks into the throne room naked and smeared with blood, grinning like a lunatic and spinning a sword in his hand.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m about to go kill a whole lot of people. Who wants to come with?”