Nineteen hours later, I staggered back into the building and collapsed into the throne.
Selene was there almost before I sat down, handing me a cup of tea and a cheese Danish. The room was otherwise empty. “Where’s Aiko?” she asked.
“Sleeping,” I groaned. “Which is where I want to be, by the way.”
She smirked. “I could have warned you about that one. Leaving the client too tired to walk is considered a point of pride.”
I sighed. “Yes, well, they should be very proud.” I downed the tea, ate the pastry in three seconds flat, and then rubbed my forehead. “Did I do the right thing?” I asked quietly.
She was silent for a couple of seconds. Then she said, “Well, keep in mind that I used to do that job. So to some extent this is the party line talking. But honestly, this kind of deal makes a lot of sense to me. From where I’m standing, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
“That’s kind of what worries me,” I said. “I’m agreeing with the party line of Hell right now. That seems like it should be grounds to take a serious look at your morals, you know? And on the surface, this feels like it was horribly unethical. But when I try to figure out how it was unethical, I keep coming up blank.”
“Well,” she said slowly, “I’m just throwing this out here, so feel free to tell me if I’m out of line, but has it occurred to you that the problem might be that you’re talking the party line?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Look,” she said. “You said that it feels unethical even though you can’t figure out why it would be. What if that’s because you’ve been taught by society that what you did was wrong, but it actually isn’t? That’s just years of conditioning talking.”
“I think,” I said after a few seconds, “that that’s a very tempting line of thought. Under that reasoning I could justify anything by saying that the argument against it is just the product of an irrational society.”
“No,” she said. “Because you still asked yourself whether it was right. As long as you ask the question, you aren’t going to dismiss those arguments without thinking.”
“And you’d trust my opinion to that extent?”
“Yes,” she said. That simple. No hesitation, no doubt.
“That makes one of us,” I muttered, rubbing my forehead. “Okay. You know him better than I do. How likely is Iblis to screw me over on this?”
“Not very,” Selene said with a shrug. “He’s not a bad sort as long as you deal with him on his level. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’ll make your life hell if you cross him, no pun intended. If you had decided to never have kids to get around the contract you signed, he’d have found a way to get you on it anyway. Guaranteed. But if you’re dealing with him in good faith, and you keep your side of the deal, you don’t have a whole lot to worry about.”
“That’s some comfort, anyway,” I said. “So how bad is it? You should have had time to get solid intel by now.”
She hesitated. “Are you sure you don’t want to get some rest first?” she suggested hopefully. “You know, before you hear the damage report?”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “You know,” I said, opening them, “there’s not a chance that I’ll be getting any sleep before I hear it after you said that. Tell me the damage, please.”
“If you’re sure,” she said dubiously. “You want me to take it one by one?”
“Yeah,” I said. “One demon at a time should be fine.”
“All right. The first one, the flesh-twister, it got fourteen people before we managed to isolate it. Five of them are dead now. The other nine…if the surgeons are skilled enough, the victims might be able to move on some day. They’ll never be what they were, but they might recover to some extent.”
“Might,” I said. “To some extent. That doesn’t sound very hopeful.”
She looked me in the eye and then looked away again. “It isn’t, jarl. But that’s still the best news I have for you today.”
I nodded. Not surprising, really. We were talking about demons, after all. Creatures made explicitly to be evil, to be destructive. Small wonder the news wasn’t good. “What about Nóttolfr?” I asked. “He was exposed to that demon, correct?”
She didn’t meet my eye. “He is…alive,” she said. “Functional, broadly speaking. In some ways more so than before his encounter. The primary effects on him were aesthetic. It is…unlikely that he will be able to interact normally with others again. His social life is effectively dead.”
I nodded. “Okay. Next demon?”
“The one in the school,” she said. “It got most of the students, the faculty and staff, two squads of police officers, and quite a few people that just wandered too close. The total count is at two hundred and fourteen.”
I winced. “More than two hundred?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yes, jarl. That situation was not quarantined swiftly or effectively. It would have been less harmful if we had been handling it, probably, but as it was the damage was very considerable.”
“Apparently,” I said. “Do you have any better idea of what it was doing to them? The last I heard, it was still pretty vague.”
“We know,” she said. “Broadly speaking. Individual details are harder to find out, since only the victims could tell us the full nature of what happened, and most of them are not reliable witnesses at this point.”
I winced. “How many are still alive?”
“One hundred and sixty-four.”
“Any chance of them recovering?”
“No.” Again, it was very simply stated, without any hesitation or the slightest hint of doubt.
“You’re confident of that?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “That demon was a creature of madness, jarl. Its purpose, its nature, is to break down minds and reshape them to suit its will. Those who were subject to its influence are mad. They are mad, entirely and dangerously insane. It might be subtle, they might seem healthy for the moment, but they are still broken.”
I was silent for a long moment. “Is there any way to help them?” I asked at last.
Selene shook her head. “No,” she said. “There is a degree of damage from which recovery is not possible. All of those victims which are still alive spent enough time in its presence to cross that threshold and then some.”
“Okay,” I said. “You’re the expert. Where are they now?”
“In police custody,” she said. “I tried to convince the police that a merciful death was the best those unfortunates could hope for, but they didn’t seem amenable to the idea. For the moment, they’re under quarantine for the foreseeable future.”
I grunted. “Well, at least they can’t do too much harm for the moment,” I said. “What’s next?”
“The body-riding demon,” she said. “We managed to keep that one isolated much more effectively. It only claimed seven victims total, all of whom are dead.”
“Well, at least that’s something. Is that demon finished, then?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Which only leaves the last demon.”
“The one that was erasing people,” I said.
Selene nodded. “That one is…very hard to gather information about,” she said. “For obvious reasons. We’re trying to coordinate an effort to identify all the victims, but it’s been very slow going. The only way we can find information about them is that people don’t remember them, and it can be harder than you’d think to realize that there’s a hole in your memory. We’re sure that at least fifty people have been taken, but there might be two hundred or more. We might never know about all of those that were taken.”
I sighed. “Fair enough. Do you have any idea what that thing was? Or what it did to those people?”
She shook her head. “You have to realize, I was very low in the hierarchy back there. I only really dealt with my own, ah, department.”
I nodded. “So what you’re telling me is that I probably made the right choice. If we lost close to five hundred people in that little time, it was worth it.”
“I don’t see any other way we could have dealt with them,” she admitted. “I know you weren’t happy about that contract, but yeah, I think it was the right choice.”
I sighed. “What about the rest?” I said, changing the subject. “The fire?”
“Contained and extinguished,” she said, with a hint of pride. “Minimal damage and very few deaths. Kikuchi’s people did most of the work, but we did provide some assistance. He’s having some issues maintaining his rule, apparently; he’s been withdrawing from some of the areas within town that he had been managing. We’ve been moving in behind him and adding those areas to the territory that we personally maintain. So far the transition’s been as smooth as you could ask.”
“Offer to back Kikuchi,” I said immediately.
Selene raised one eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to get involved in their internal politics like that?”
“Yeah. We’re all in on Kikuchi; there’s no point trying to hedge our bets now. Do it politely, though. You know how to handle him.”
She nodded. “I’ll see to it. I don’t think there’s anything else pressing, jarl.”
“Good,” I said. “I’ll smooth things over with the police when I’m feeling more conscious. For now, I’m going to go crash. Hold down the fort while I’m gone. Hopefully things should start settling down soon. When I get back, I’ll want a full report on what’s going on, what possible threats we’ll still need to deal with, and how our allies are coping. Coordinate with Luna and Kyi’s scouts on that and get it ready.”
Selene smiled. “It will be done, jarl,” she said. “And boss? Well done. After this, no one will doubt that this city is yours.”
“Thanks,” I said, and stumbled back out of the building.
Back in Romania, the bedroom was dark and pungent. It smelled of sex, sweat and musk, incense and perfume, with just a hint of stranger things, blood and camphor and candlewax.
We hadn’t brought the demons back here, of course. There was no way I was going to tell them where we lived, let alone invite them in. That was what we had safe houses for, and after what happened in that one I expected it was going to have an unfortunate accident involving fire and large amounts of bleach. But when we got back here we’d both reeked, and Aiko hadn’t had the energy or ambition to take a shower before she passed out.
At the moment, Aiko was sprawled in bed, halfway under the covers, snoring loudly. She didn’t so much as twitch as I walked in. Snowflake, curled up at the foot of the bed, seemed almost as exhausted. She hadn’t had any direct involvement in what happened, of course, but apparently it had been impossible to sleep through it. Considering the source, that was a pretty significant statement.
I undressed and slipped into bed next to Aiko. The kitsune woke up just enough to snuggle up to me and mumble something incoherently before going back to snoring.
It didn’t take me more than a minute or two to drowse off myself. I wasn’t sleepy, exactly, but I was physically and mentally exhausted, and now that I knew there were no emergencies clamoring for my attention right at the moment, I was quite glad for the opportunity to just turn my brain off for a little while.
The next thing I was really aware of was waking up when Aiko stirred against me. Snowflake was gone. I could feel her in my mind, though, so she couldn’t be too far; probably just downstairs getting some food.
“Hey,” Aiko murmured. She still sounded pretty out of it, but she was conscious. “So my doppelganger proposed marriage to you, right?”
“Oh, right,” I said. “I’d almost forgotten. She started to, I think, but she didn’t manage to actually get the question out. We were interrupted. The cops picked that exact moment to arrest me.”
She snorted. “Man, that is so typical,” she said. “You have the most ridiculous timing.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I know. At the moment I thought it was the worst timing I’d ever seen, but in hindsight they were probably doing me a favor. I don’t think I’d have liked what happened if I said yes to her.”
“What, to marry a fae impostor who was probably sent specifically to trap you somehow? What makes you think that?” We both laughed a little, and then Aiko asked, “Do you want to?”
“Do I want to what?”
She gestured vaguely, the motion more felt than seen in the dark. “You know. Get married.”
I paused, then said, “I guess so. I hadn’t really thought about it. Why? Do you?”
She shrugged. “Sure. It might be fun.”
I smiled and held her close. “Well, then,” I murmured, as I drifted back to sleep, “let’s get married.”