“You know,” I commented, “I was expecting this to be in another conference center or something like that. Not the back room of a Mexican restaurant. Isn’t this going to be a little crowded?”
Moray glanced at me. “You’re thinking of a full assembly, like the one you were at before. This isn’t like that. It’s just the Conclave members today.”
“Huh,” I said. “You get a promotion I didn’t hear about, then?”
He snorted. “Not likely. There isn’t enough money in the whole world to convince me to take that job. No, I’m just here as security. Making sure that nobody gets in or spies on you guys. I don’t even know what they want to talk to you about, and I don’t want to know. Not my business.”
“Yeah. I don’t blame you.”
The restaurant was fairly busy. It was lunchtime, and there were people here from the nearby businesses. Office workers, for the most part, although there were a handful of others, laborers and tradesmen. I recognized half a dozen or so of those present as my employees, housecarls and human thugs. I hadn’t brought any mages, for obvious reasons. Presumably their side had a comparable number of people seeded in the crowd, but I couldn’t pick them out at a glance.
Moray led me through the restaurant to a door labeled RESERVED. It didn’t look like it was closed often. He stopped outside and gestured for me to go on, so I did. The doorknob sparked a little when I touched it, something just a little more than static.
I recognized almost all of the people in the room, to one degree or another. The only one I didn’t know at all was the man in the green robe. He was thin, with a pinched sort of face that made it look like he was scowling even when he wasn’t.
The other eight I recognized. All the members of the Conclave were here. Any one of them was probably powerful enough to turn this entire city into slag. All nine of them in one room, at close proximity, was enough magic to set my teeth on edge, a heavy stench in the air that was impossible to overlook or forget.
“A moment,” Prophet said. I felt him work a quick, subtle magic, not terribly powerful, but subtle and very smoothly executed. At first I wasn’t sure what he’d done; then I noticed a sort of shimmer around the edges of the room, a barely-visible curtain like a heat haze against the walls and the door.
“Locking me in?” I asked curiously. It wasn’t a threat, really. If these people wanted me dead I was dead. There wasn’t really any question on that front.
“You’re welcome to leave any time you like,” he replied calmly. “But I would prefer that the details of this conversation not leave this room.”
I nodded. “Fair enough.” Then I looked at the guy in the green robe. “I don’t know you.”
“No,” he agreed. “I’m new. Guide.”
“You must have a name. Something other than a job description.”
“Guide is my name now,” he said. “Any other name I might once have had I gave up when I put on this robe.”
I blinked. “Are you seriously saying you gave up your identity when you took that position?”
“Among other things.”
I shook my head. “Man. I so do not want one of these jobs.”
His lips twitched in a feeble smile, one that died almost instantly. “I don’t think we need to worry about that happening.”
“Enough,” Prophet said sharply. “Our time here is limited.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Your message said you wanted a conversation about the Conclave member I accidentally, and I feel I should stress the accidentally here, killed in Russia?”
“Among other things. We are here to extend you a warning, and an offer.”
“Start with the warning,” I said lightly. “Otherwise you’ll probably get shot right before you can tell me and I’ll be stuck sitting here wondering what you were trying to warn me about.”
He almost smiled. “As you wish. We do not intend to take any official action against you regarding Guide’s death. We are not unreasonable, and we can recognize that what happened was an accident. One which occurred only because you were taking risks to assist with our battle, no less.”
I snorted “Well, I’m glad someone isn’t unreasonable. Not seeing how this is a warning, though.”
He pursed his lips. “We are not taking any official action against you,” he repeated. “But she was the Guide of the Conclave. That means it was her task to oversee the less experienced and powerful mages. She matched those who were newly admitted with appropriate mentors, and ensured that their education met certain universal standards. She directed those who didn’t already have connections in a clan to one where they would fit, or recommended them to the Watchers or Guards if they were suited to it. Do you know what that means?”
“In the grand scheme of things, not really. But on a personal level, I think that if she was responsible for introducing that many people to the scene, odds are good that some of those interactions went further than just a nice letter. There will be plenty of people that view her as a personal mentor, or think that they owe her. And they probably aren’t exactly thrilled that she’s dead.”
Prophet regarded me for a moment. “You know,” he said conversationally, “for the longest time I didn’t understand what Watcher could see in you. I underestimated you. More recently I’ve come to see that you aren’t nearly as stupid as I thought. In your own idiosyncratic, probably brain-damaged way you’re really quite clever.”
“Um,” I said. “Thanks, I think?”
“That wasn’t a compliment. In any case, you do seem to have the basic concept I’m getting at. We aren’t planning an official retaliation, and I don’t think anyone in this room is planning an unofficial one. But I can almost guarantee that at least a few people are.”
I groaned. “Can’t you do something about this?” I asked. “Like, I don’t know, issue a public statement that it wasn’t my fault?”
“Certainly,” Prophet said, with a sly smile. “Would you like us to?”
“No, he wouldn’t,” Watcher said in her dry rasp of a voice, before I could reply. “Given that we couldn’t do so without explaining what did happen to her, and acknowledging that you did kill her would necessitate a response from us.”
“Why?” I asked, exasperated. “You just said that you know I’m not at fault.”
Keeper, in her saffron-yellow robe, nodded. “We do,” she said. “However, that does not mean that you are not guilty under our law. One of our core founding tenets is that anyone who kills a Conclave member, regardless of circumstance and reason, must be subject to reprisal. The only exception is lawful execution, which this was not. As such, if we were to acknowledge that you killed Guide, we would be required to seek that reprisal.”
“Whereas now everyone knows, but no one can prove anything.” I sighed and nodded. “Okay. I understand. Vengeful mages incoming and there isn’t anything you can do to stop them; got it. So I guess that’s the warning.”
“Yes,” Prophet said. “Which brings us to the offer. Guard?”
The man in the scarlet robe cleared his throat. “We are going public in the near future,” he said. “And based on the advice of certain people, I would like to extend you an offer to be a part of this publicity movement.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “The Conclave is going public? Are you serious?”
“No. The Conclave is going to remain hidden from mainstream society, as it has throughout history. The Guards are going public.”
I blinked. “Are you serious?” I repeated. “You’re coming out to the public halfway? How in hell is this a good idea?”
“What it comes down to is this,” Prophet said. “We need to have some public presence. That will let us coordinate our response to external threats. We’ll have an official standing with mundane governments and be able to coordinate with them as well, which we obviously need at this point. And, most importantly, a public presence will let us find and train new mages, and sort those who have the talent to join the clans from the minor talents and lesser lights.”
I thought about it for a second. “Okay,” I said. “I honestly hadn’t thought it through to that extent. You’re planning things out that far?”
“Someone has to,” he said dryly. “And as usual, it falls to me. In any case, the need for an organization to govern and regulate magic as it transitions into an everyday part of normal life is clear. You have, I think, seen firsthand the reasons for regulation and training, and the current state of affairs is a clear argument for why a certain degree of enforcement is necessary. But at the same time, many of the tasks we manage would be impossible if they were not a secret. You are familiar with the Watchers’ work, and I assure you that we do have other activities behind the scenes which are just as important.”
“Okay,” I said again. “So…let me get this straight. You’re introducing the Guards to the world as defenders, with training and regulation. I’m guessing you’d be working against outsiders, vampires and things from the Otherside and such, given that my understanding is that’s what the Guards do now and you mentioned external threats. And the whole time, you’d have the Watchers acting as a secret police force and the whole system would be secretly run by a small group of incredibly powerful people that the public never knows about?”
I snorted. “Well, damn. You realize this is basically a conspiracy theory come to life, right? There’s no way in hell you could pull this off without magic.”
“Well,” Prophet said, “it’s a good thing we have magic, then, isn’t it? In any case, this is the plan, and it will happen. It’s going to start with just the rank and file of the Guards and a handful of clan mages, but we expect participation to increase rapidly, likely spreading beyond mages to werewolves and even vampires. We are offering you the chance to be a part of spearheading the initial group.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Really? That simple.”
“Yeah, and you want to know why?” I stabbed one finger at him accusingly. “It’s been months since Loki’s broadcast. Months of chaos, and pointless destruction. Where was your organization through that, huh? Where were you when all of that was going on?”
“It takes time to arrange this sort of thing,” Prophet said.
“Bullshit. You could have had people on the ground two hours after he made his announcement, and we all know it. And we know why you didn’t, too. You said it yourself. The current state of affairs is a hell of a convincing argument for why normal humans need help with things. It’s a convincing argument for why the current governments need some kind of help to deal with the supernatural. And something tell me that they’ll be a lot more likely to accept you as that help, and accept the terms under which you offer your help. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Now, I’ve done some bad things, but letting all those people die, allowing the chaos and the destruction, for the sake of political expediency? I don’t think I can tolerate that.”
He regarded me for a moment, then said, “You immature, sniveling child. I have never had the highest opinion of you, but I thought you at least had the spine to do what was necessary. If you don’t enjoy it, that’s your prerogative; you can feel however you please. But if you’re going to claim power, you owe it to the people you claim to rule to acknowledge the responsibilities of your position. So stop coddling yourself, accept that you will have to do things you don’t like to get the job done, and grow the fuck up.”
I just stared at him. I opened my mouth, then closed it again without saying anything.
He made a noise of disgust and gestured at Watcher. “You know him,” Prophet said. “Get this through his skull.”
She sighed. “I understand your complaint, Winter,” she said, coughing. “And I won’t deny that line of thinking played a part in our decision. But you have to recognize that this is the best option we had available. A brief demonstration of why our assistance is necessary is far less damaging in the long run than a prolonged period of unrest as we made the transition.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I can go there. I can see your point. And, you know, I can see why you would use that line of reasoning. Your whole job is to do bad things for the greater good. And that’s why the answer is still no. You go too far, Watcher. You cross lines. As far as I’m concerned, you’re barely any better than the people you fight. And I can’t say I haven’t followed that road myself, but I at least acknowledge that what I’ve done is wrong. I won’t sit here and try to defend my choices as having been justified by some greater good.”
She coughed again, leaning on her cane a little. “You’d condemn humanity to the predation of monsters to satisfy your ego?”
“I’m one of the monsters, remember?” I smiled, and it was not a very pleasant smile. “I’ve stopped pretending that I’m human. There’s no point in it. So you’re not going to get very far with that appeal, I’m afraid. And to answer your question, nope. I’m not condemning anyone to anything. You want to help people, you want to maintain order, I won’t get in your way. I’ll even help you. But when it comes to actually joining you, my response is the same as every other time you’ve asked me to sign up for your team. You people are a kind of messed up that I don’t want to be.”
“So fix it,” Arbiter said abruptly, the first he’d spoken since I walked in.
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“You’ll forgive me if I’m too blunt, I hope,” he said. “But this is something I’ve noticed from you several times. You’re very quick to blame the establishment, Winter, but you seldom seem to do much to fix that establishment. If things are ever going to get better, it will only be because people make them better. Well, this is your chance. You’ve got the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a major organization. If you feel that Watcher’s tactics cross too many boundaries, if you’re concerned that the new incarnation of the Guards will be similarly problematic, don’t you think you should at least attempt to influence it for the better?”
I frowned. I wanted to keep saying no, but…Arbiter had some valid points there. For most of my life I’d been complaining about the way things were, but I’d always sort of assumed that was just how it was. It was like the weather; sure, you griped about it when it rained on your parade, but you didn’t seriously think about changing the weather. It was something you just lived with.
Except now I really did have the chance to maybe make some changes. I could maybe fix some of the shit I’d been upset by all these years. And if that was the case, maybe I did owe it to myself to at least try.
What if I could make the new order better than the old one, at least a little bit?
I considered it for a moment, then sighed. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll hear you out, at least for now.”
“Excellent,” Guard said. “I’ll be happy to go over the details with you.”