I blinked. “Wait a second,” I said. “You already sold our kid?”
She shifted uncomfortably. “Well,” she said. “Not ours. Just, you know. Mine.”
Iblis broke out laughing. It was a full-throated laugh, unrestrained and unselfconscious, while still managing to sound sophisticated. “Oh, my,” he said. His voice sounded completely smooth and normal, even though he was still laughing. “That is choice. Do tell, miss. I must hear the details.”
“The details are none of your business,” she said testily.
“Au contraire,” he said, with the same sharp, snaky smile on his face. “As your arrangement is apparently interfering with my ability to complete a bargain with the jarl, it is quite literally my business. I’m afraid I simply won’t be satisfied until I know the full details of this prior arrangement.”
Aiko took another deep breath and let it out slowly. “Fine,” she said. “Winter, you remember we talked about how I got out of the Courts, right?”
“Sure,” I said. “You made a deal with Ryujin. I believe your exact phrasing was that you gave him ‘ten years of service, and a few other things.'”
“Yeah,” she said. “Well, uh…this is the other thing. I promised I’d let him raise my eldest son. I didn’t tell you before now because, you know, not really relevant? Like you said, we’ve both always been pretty clear about not wanting anything to do with children, so it didn’t seem important.”
I was still trying to figure out how to respond to that when Iblis beat me to it. “What about a daughter?” he asked reasonably. “I mean, there are ways to take care of these things, yes? I’m sure you know people who could provide assistance, or I could make arrangements at a very reasonable rate.”
Aiko cleared her throat. “I, ah. I did also make a deal about that. I promised my eldest daughter to a noble of the Daylight Court. I never got entirely clear on what she wanted to do with said daughter, but the impression I got was that I probably wouldn’t be seeing the kid again.”
Iblis broke down laughing again. I was staring at Aiko. “This is impressive,” I said. “I mean, even by your standards.”
“What?” she said defensively. “It isn’t like you weren’t about to do the same thing! I just beat you to the punch.”
“I cannot believe you two,” Selene commented. She had stopped writing and was now just watching the scene with a sort of amused disgust. “This is…only you, only you, could seriously be having this discussion.”
I tried to maintain a properly indignant air, but lost it and started laughing just as hard as Iblis. The absurdity of the whole situation was just too much for me. Aiko kept her innocent facade for a second or two longer before she broke down as well, and the two of us wound up leaning on each other just to stay upright in our seats.
“Okay,” Iblis said after a minute or so of laughter, in which even some of the jötnar joined. “As delightful as this is, and I assure you that that is quite, business is still waiting. Now, as much as I do enjoy this sort of bargain, I believe the kitsune has a valid objection. You can hardly provide both me and whichever of her creditors ends up with a valid claim to the child with a valid recompense. I am bargaining for the whole of your offspring, not a reduced portion or a partial payment, so a conflict there would be very serious.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Aiko? I’m guessing you don’t want to pay the default clause on your deals?”
She shifted a little. “No,” she said. “Definitely not.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “So there’s a few ways I could see this going. First off, we could make the bargain and count on never having to pay up. If the debt ever comes due, we’d have to pick one side or the other to default on. No offense intended, Iblis.”
“None taken,” he said with a sly smile. “I enjoy this sort of dealing.”
“Bad idea,” Aiko said. “Eventually something would go wrong. You just know it would. Either one is one thing; we fuck up as it is and the worst thing that happens is we have to hand over a baby to the fae. Which, you know, is a horrible thing to do and all that, but we could deal with it. Setting ourselves up to default on one of these bargains is a lot riskier.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That was kind of my thought, too. So that brings us to option two. We go back to square one and try to come up with something else that I could offer Iblis for his help. But we weren’t having a lot of luck with that earlier, and I don’t know whether we’d be able to work out another deal.”
She grimaced. “And the whole time there are demons laying waste to shit. Pass.”
I nodded. “Option three,” I said. “Tell Iblis thanks but no thanks, and try to deal with the demons ourselves.”
“We would lose,” Selene interjected quietly. “I’ve been trying to think of ways that you could beat them, and I don’t have anything. Every way I can imagine any conflict between you and them going ends with your forces being slaughtered or worse. Not taking into account any other demons or allied forces that may be present.”
“That’s kind of how I see it going too,” I said. “Theoretically we could ask someone else for help—Skrýmir, Loki, and Coyote spring to mind—but I doubt they’d be any easier to deal with than Iblis.”
“Most of them wouldn’t help at all, actually,” Iblis said helpfully. “Poaching, again. It was a cooperative affair, but Hell is very much my project. It would be quite rude for my associates to interfere with this situation, particularly given that you’ve already approached me.”
I sighed. “Of course,” I said. Then I looked at Aiko and shrugged helplessly. “That’s all I’ve got,” I said. “You have any other alternatives? Because I’m open to suggestions right now, believe me.”
“Run away?” she suggested hopefully. Then she sighed. “No, I guess not. Your whole actually taking responsibility thing can be so inconvenient.”
“You know you love that about me,” I said dryly. “I believe the term you used in the past was adorable.”
“Well, yeah. But still. Inconvenient.”
Iblis cleared his throat. “If we may,” he said. “There is one alternative I don’t think you’ve mentioned.”
“Please enlighten us,” I said. “Because right now I think we’re getting nowhere.”
“Actually fulfill your end of the bargain,” he said. “Give me a child.”
I stared at him. “I thought we just covered all the ways that’s a terrible idea.”
“Not at all,” he said impatiently. “We’ve established that for your bargain to come into conflict with the kitsune’s is an undesirable outcome. However, those two bargains are not necessarily in conflict. Her deals were both focused on her own eldest children; the one you have outlined is focused on your firstborn. There is nothing whatsoever forcing these entities to one and the same.”
I continued to stare. “Are you suggesting that we try to establish the same kid as two different legal entities?” I asked. “Because I don’t think that’s going to work. I mean, politics get weird, but I don’t think you can sell the same commodity to two different people under different names. Unless you work in finance, I guess, but I thought even you had standards.”
Iblis sighed. “Are you always this slow?” he asked, tapping one foot impatiently. “Let me make myself plain, then. What I propose is the following. You, Winter, conclude the deal we’ve largely outlined here and agree to it. I will remove the demons, as contracted, leaving your city in a state of relative peace. You then procreate with someone other than the kitsune. The resulting child would have no legal or hereditary connection to her; her creditors could make no plausible claim on its life. You would still have to worry about possible consequences from the debts she owes, but nothing any worse than you already have been. Your debt to be would already be paid, removing any possible conflict between your respective contracts.”
“I notice,” I said, “that this plan entails me giving you a kid.”
He smiled. “Naturally.”
I regarded him for a moment, then sighed. “Okay,” I said. “I honestly cannot believe I’m even considering this, but…why the hell do you even want my offspring? I only offered because it seemed like a traditional sort of bargain to make. What would you be doing with this hypothetical child?”
“Suffice to say that it need never trouble you again,” he said. “I would not be sending it after you as an assassin, if that’s what concerns you. You would make a poor Arthur.”
“Actually,” I said, “that doesn’t suffice. What would you be doing with it?”
“Neither you nor any of your associates would be harmed,” he said.
“You aren’t answering my question,” I pointed out. “That makes me think you know that I wouldn’t agree if I knew the answer.”
He looked around. “Everyone not a demon or involved in this discussion, clear the room,” he ordered. There was steel in his voice. The easygoing, deal-making devil was gone, replaced by the General of Hell’s Legions, the fallen angel who stood against the holy host and didn’t flinch, the being whose pride was so great that he had shattered the world rather than bow. The note of command in his voice was so strong that I damn near jumped to obey myself, and it wasn’t even directed at me.
The room was empty within a few seconds. The only people who didn’t head for the exits were me, Aiko, and Selene. Even Snowflake got up and left, though I could feel that she was pissed at doing so.
“All right,” Iblis said once the rest were gone and the doors were firmly closed, settling back into the former persona again. “I’ll be frank with you, Winter. Truth is, I don’t entirely know what I’ll do with your child yet. It’s going to depend on how the kid turns out. If you breed true, then yeah, I might get some use out of it. I’m guessing it’ll turn out to be a bruiser, but you’ve got some other skills and influences going on as well, so it might end up filling a different role. Even if it turns out useless, though, it’ll still be a status symbol and some new blood. Your bloodline could be pretty useful, actually; we’d have to see how it goes, but I think there are some pretty promising hybrids that could come out of that.”
I closed my eyes briefly, fighting back an inexplicable wave of nausea. Even by my standards, this conversation was just…unreal.
“This is freaking bizarre,” Aiko said, echoing my thoughts. “Are you seriously talking about breeding his kid?”
“Sure,” Iblis said. “Why not?” He sounded genuinely curious.
“Why would you even want to?” I burst out. “What in Hell, literally, would you want with my bloodline? It’s not like I’m freaking pedigreed!”
“Are you seriously asking me that?” he asked incredulously. “You’re Fenris’s grandchild. All else aside, that alone would make this a valuable opportunity. Add in the jotun heritage, the werewolf in you, and the unique blend of influences you’ve been subjected to since birth, and this is easily one of the best chances I’ve had to add some new blood to Hell in this century. And that’s not even taking into account the performance of your child itself, which I fully expect to be respectable. If it takes after you at all, it might be very useful.”
I closed my eyes again. “Okay,” I said after a few seconds. “So…well, that answers that, I guess. Now that I know far more about why you want this than I’m really comfortable with, how would this prospective child be treated? Because, no offense or anything, but Hell doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being pleasant to live in. Kind of the opposite.”
“It would be treated as the child of one of my allies,” Iblis said. “You can ask your employee whether that is suitable.”
I looked at Selene, who shrugged. “It isn’t a bad life,” she said. “There are better, but there are also a lot worse. They wouldn’t lack for much of anything, and people would be trying to get on their good side. There’s a hierarchy and you’re expected to pull your weight, but it isn’t terrible. The rules aren’t ridiculous, and mostly they only give people jobs they’re all right with doing. Starting off with the respect and prestige they’d have for being related to you and being under Iblis’s protection, they’d be about as safe as you could ask for, and they’d have plenty of opportunity to climb the ladder if they want to.”
I stared at her. “I thought you got kicked out for saying bless you,” I said incredulously. “That doesn’t exactly sound like rules not being ridiculous.”
She snorted. “Oh, come on,” she said. “Don’t tell me you believe that. I was tired of the job, and I wanted to move on to working somewhere else for a while. Getting kicked out was a convenient fiction; it made it so that I could leave in a way that left the door open for me to come back if I wanted to. Making it ridiculous and insane was my grandfather’s sense of humor at work.”
“Oh,” I said. “So…you might go back?”
She shrugged. “Maybe eventually. Not any time soon; I like working for you.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s good. So…you’re painting a pretty idyllic picture here.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “It’s still, you know, Hell. It isn’t a nice place. But the point is more making things miserable for the people we bring in than for the actual demons. For the people working there, it isn’t half bad.”
“So the opposite of a theme park, then,” Aiko chipped in.
Iblis cackled delightedly, and even Selene grinned. “Yeah, I guess you could say that,” the succubus said. “It’s up to you, boss. But Iblis is good to his word, and from what he’s described this isn’t a terrible fate.”
“And the kid could leave any time,” I said.
Iblis shrugged. “Sure. It would be the same sort of arrangement Selene has. If it decides to leave, an excuse would be fabricated to let it happen; if it comes back, an excuse would be fabricated for that as well.”
“In which case it would be in your best interest to treat them well,” I noted. “That way they wouldn’t want to leave.”
Iblis’s smile was sly and knowing. “Hell can be a very pleasant place,” he commented. “You can get things there that are only available in a handful of places in the world. And we don’t even charge the employees for most of them.”
I took a deep breath and then nodded. “I’m guessing you have a way of arranging for the child to, you know, happen,” I said.
“Naturally,” he said. “I have people who would be grateful for the prestige they would be accorded them as a result. They can ensure that it only takes one, ah, session to achieve the desired goal. Although their methods are rather…traditional, so you’re aware.”
“Okay,” I said. “I think that’s all my questions.” I looked at Aiko. “What do you think?”
She looked surprised, although I could tell it was an act. “Me?”
“Yes, you,” I said dryly. “Come on. I’m not about to make this decision without asking you first. It feels all kinds of wrong, but I really think this might be the best option. If you aren’t willing to go there, though, it’s off the table, no questions asked.”
“Oh, sure,” she said. “Put this on me.” She sighed. “Honestly, this sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. You’re the responsible one here, so it probably isn’t a huge surprise that I would go for an offer like this one. This is actually a lot better than either of the bargains I made, for everyone involved. I’d probably go for it. One condition, though.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I want in on it.”
I must have been staring, because she snorted. “Not the kid thing,” she said. “Hell, no. I am still solidly opposed to having children of any sort, in any way. But if you’re having debauched sex with a bunch of demons, you are not leaving me behind.”
“The family that plays together stays together, eh?” Iblis said, sounding amused.
“Something like that,” Aiko agreed. “And also it sounds like fun. I’ve never done it, and I might not get another chance.”
“It can easily be arranged,” he assured us. “It’s a slightly unusual provision, but I doubt it will give my people any trouble.”
“Also, Selene doesn’t have any involvement in it,” I mentioned. “I made a prior agreement not to have any interaction of that sort with her.”
Iblis shrugged. “She doesn’t work for me at the moment anyway,” he said. “But we can add a clause to that effect, sure.”
“Good,” I said. “Also, if this session doesn’t work out for any reason, our deal is still over and done. You don’t keep hounding me, you don’t show up in the event of any other children and exert a claim.”
He smiled. “I wondered if you’d catch that one,” he murmured. “Yes, that can be arranged.”
I took a deep breath, and then nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Let me see the contract.”
“Allow me to consolidate it for smoother reading,” Iblis said, snapping his fingers. A large scroll appeared in front of me, along with a knife and a pen.
I took my time reading over the contract. It looked legitimate. As far as I could tell, all of the provisions and clauses I’d asked for were there. There were even some protections I hadn’t thought to ask for, like an agreement to ensure that the blood connection between me and the child couldn’t be used to target harmful magic in either direction.
I didn’t like that one bit. Being given freebies like that made me nervous and suspicious. But the deal still looked legitimate, and unless I was overlooking something big I wasn’t actually getting screwed. As far as I could tell everything checked out.
It took me almost an hour to work through the full length of the contract and read it over for loopholes and vulnerabilities. Iblis just stood and watched the whole thing, silently, with a slight smile.
Finally, I took a deep breath and picked up the knife. It wasn’t hard to draw enough blood to sign on the dotted line.
Iblis was next to me almost before I was finished, scrawling something on the line under mine. It was a complicated, twisty sigil that seemed too intricate for the number of strokes he’d made to draw it. The edges were strangely blurry, and it was hard to really look at the symbol; my eyes didn’t want to focus on it, and trying gave me a headache.
“This is my copy,” he said, taking the scroll and rolling it up. The scroll also stayed on the table, identical right down to the signatures. “That one’s yours to keep, and I’ll also leave a copy with a neutral party. Loki work for you?”
“One with Loki,” I said. “One with the eldest Queen of the Midnight Court. I don’t like only having one backup copy.”
He smiled sharply. “Someone’s been taking lessons,” he purred. “Well, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you, jarl.”
“You’ll remove the demons, then?”
He waved one hand carelessly. “Oh, I did that as soon as we started negotiations. I was confident we’d reach a deal, and I felt good faith required that I didn’t leave them to continue their depredation through the negotiation process. My people will be along shortly to finalize the process. Have a good day, children. You’re both quite welcome to visit Hell.”
He sauntered off, whistling “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” as he did.