“Okay,” I said to Guard as the rest of the mages got up and started drifting towards the door. “If this is all about you offering me a deal, why did all of you need to be here?”
“You’re not the only one asking that,” the pale woman in the blue robe grumbled. Thinking back on it I was pretty sure it was the first thing she’d said. It took a moment for me to remember who she actually was, since I didn’t think I’d seen her except for a few minutes while they were trying to decide whether to charge me with murder or not. I was reasonably confident her title—or name, or whatever—was Walker. She’d voted not to kill me, as I recalled.
Come to think of it, Guide had been against me that day. That probably made it a little harder to say that it was a total accident that I’d killed her.
Guard glared at her, then turned back to me with a very badly faked smile. “Some actions can only formally taken by all members of the Conclave together. Technically, offering a complete and total outsider a major position with one of our organizations is one of those actions. I wonder why.”
Prophet looked from me to Guard and backed, then grinned maliciously. “Have fun,” he said, snapping his fingers. His haze of magic faded from around the walls, and he walked out the door.
I eyed Guard as the Conclave members finished leaving, then shrugged and sat down across from him. “Given that we’re already in a restaurant, you actually want to get some food? Because I’m thinking this conversation will be a lot more endurable if I’m stuffing my face during it.”
“Fine with me,” he said. “Watcher!”
Moray opened the door and poked his head inside. “Yes?”
“Send the wait staff in,” Guard said.
The next twenty minutes or so passed in total and uncomfortable silence. Literal silence; I wasn’t in the mood to be making casual conversation, and Guard was apparently content with awkwardly intense stares and a fake smile that got even less believable with each passing moment.
Finally, when I was seriously starting to consider actually talking about important things just to break the silence despite knowing how dumb that was, the waitress showed up. And then another half a dozen people following her.
They started laying out plates, and didn’t stop until most of the conference table was covered. Moray stood and watched the whole time, which seemed to be creeping the restaurant employees out more than a little bit. I could not in all honesty blame them for that. When you’re serving two people an amount of food suitable to a small army while a guy in a three-piece suit watches you work is the kind of thing that probably should leave you feeling a little weird.
They finished and filed out, with Moray following close behind them and closing the door. Guard looked at his one plate of enchiladas, then looked at the rest of the food on the table.
He quirked an eyebrow at me. “Is this really necessary?”
“I’m starving, and the food here is passable. If you don’t want to cover the bill, I can handle it.” I grabbed a platter of nachos and dragged it close. “Okay,” I said. “Details. What kind of work are you expecting me to do?”
“It would entail a mixture of direct action and politics,” he said. “To begin with, you would be expected to enforce minimum standards of law and order within your area of influence, particularly upon the supernatural residents. While you certainly can enforce the law, it isn’t a priority, particularly until the legal system catches up with the recent upheaval. We’re more concerned with maintaining basic standards of order and stability, and minimizing destruction and civilian casualties.”
I swallowed and then gave him a funny look. “You do realize these are things I already do, right?”
He smiled. It was wider and more mobile than the faked smiles earlier, his teeth startlingly white against the dark skin. The expression didn’t last more than a second, but it still conveyed more genuine emotion than I’d seen out of him during this whole meeting. “So now you’ll do it for us,” he said.
I snorted. “Okay. So that must bring us to the politics bit, I guess.”
“Yes,” Guard said in a tone of deep, profound distaste. “The worst part of the arrangement, as usual. The gist of it is that you would be building connections and establishing positive relations with other groups. You would have to represent us, both to other political entities and to the citizenry; we would expect you to represent us well to both. As we begin to integrate ourselves with existing political structures, you would also have to work with them. We expect to also begin drawing a great many new recruits; you would be involved with attracting, vetting, training, and coordinating them.”
I sat and processed that for a few moments as I polished off the nachos. “So let’s start at the beginning,” I said, once I’d thought it through. “You realize that I am the main political group in the area, right? I mean, my organization is probably the strongest one in the region, and most of the rest are either allied with or explicitly subordinate to mine. So you basically want me to establish relations with myself?”
“Well, that should make it easy, shouldn’t it? If you can’t manage that, I don’t know why my colleagues would be as impressed with you as they seem to be.” He sighed. “We wouldn’t be offering you this opportunity if you weren’t useful. Your political capital is one of the main reasons we’re doing so. While your observations on this topic are amusing in their own way, this isn’t either surprising or accidental.”
I nodded. “Fair enough. Okay, point two. You want me to represent you in a positive light? Are you nuts? Because I’m not exactly on the best terms with a lot of people. There are a lot of them that would probably tell you to screw off as soon as they hear that I’m involved.”
Guard considered me for a moment, then sighed again. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Consider whether maybe, just maybe, we aren’t total morons. We might even know more about politics than you do. I mean, I’d like to think that we didn’t get this position without some degree of qualification.”
I chuckled. “Again, fair point. So…what do I actually get out of this deal?”
“What, aside from the chance to completely shape the future of the world in a major way? I thought we already went over this.”
“Yeah, I’m just messing with you.” I grinned at him. “Quick question, though. I was under the impression that I couldn’t hold any kind of official position on account of the whole, you know, internationally wanted for blowing up a decent chunk of a city. Do you have any way around that little problem?”
Guard closed his eyes for a moment and I got the distinct impression he was counting to ten to keep from murdering me. “All of our people will be using aliases,” he said, opening his eyes and plastering on an even more obviously fake smile. “The general public should never become aware of who you are. The government will have your identity on file, of course, but we can provide falsified identification for you if you can’t manage it on your own.”
I blinked. “Really? Just use a false name? It’s that easy?”
He shrugged and took a sip of water. “Why shouldn’t it be? You already keep your face covered while you’re working, and I imagine most of the others will be as well. Many of those who will be involved in this project were raised on superheroes and the like; they’re likely to jump on the excuse to wear a costume and use a dramatic name, aside from the practical benefits.”
I winced. He laughed.
“Okay,” I said. “I think that’s the last question I had. Was there anything else you had to tell me?”
“Just one thing,” he said with a smile. “You won’t be in charge of operations within Colorado Springs. You’ll be starting at the bottom and working up, in fact. So to begin with you’ll be at the very bottom slot on the totem pole.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “Why? I’m not exactly a newbie at this stuff.”
“Several reasons,” he said, smiling. Clearly, Guard was enjoying this part of the interview. “First off, as you pointed out, you have an organization of your own to be running. Expecting you to manage ours on top of that would be unreasonable. Second, you’re far too high-profile. If you were the head of the local team, it would be extremely likely that someone would figure out who you are. It’s also likely that you’ll be required to meet with the Guards in your capacity as jarl, which would be one hell of a trick if you’re the head of both groups. And finally, in this sense you are a total newbie. You have no experience with how we operate, no familiarity with the system. There’s no way that you could act as a viable leader without even having worked with us in the past.”
I glowered at him for a second or two, then nodded. “Fine,” I said grudgingly. “But you realize what it would do to my reputation if I’m taking orders?”
“Just one more reason not to let anyone connect the two personas,” he said smiling. “So I think that’s everything we needed to cover. What do you think?”
“I’ll need to consider it,” I said, grabbing another plate. “I’m not sure whether I even have time to add this to what I’m already doing. But I’m not going to rule it out entirely.”
“Honestly that’s more than I was expecting,” Guard said, rolling up the sleeves of his robe and grabbing his fork. “You’ve got a few days to decide. I’ll get back to you.”
I grunted and stuffed another taco in my mouth. I’d already polished off enough food for a dozen people, but I was still profoundly hungry. I knew that there was no way just eating would make that hunger go away; it was deeper than that, a simplified experience of a more metaphysical need. But there was still a sort of satisfaction in eating.
Guard also started eating. His one plate looked a little ridiculous in comparison to the dozen or so others on the table, but he was fairly enthusiastic at first, stuffing his face with apparent satisfaction.
Then he started slowing down.
Then his face hit the table.
I sat in the hospital waiting room and, shockingly, waited. I’d taken the time to tell Snowflake, Aiko, and my thugs what was going on and not to expect me back soon, but other than that I’d just been sitting here for the past half-hour or so. It already looked bad enough; for me to then disappear from the scene would be a little bit suspicious.
Finally, Moray walked into the waiting room and sat next to me. “I hate hospitals,” he commented.
“Me too. They creep me out.” I glowered at the aquarium on the opposite wall. “And they smell bad. Like, I mean just awful.”
He snorted. “You would fixate on that.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, well. Is there any word?”
He nodded. “Definitely poison, but I don’t know enough to understand half of what they’re saying. It sounds like he’s probably out of it for a while, but the doctors don’t think he’s going to die.”
“Good,” I said.
I nodded. “I don’t know if I like him and I don’t get the impression he likes me at all, but I don’t want him dead. Not to mention that I really don’t think it’d have gone well for me if he died.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It does look pretty fishy. Especially right after another of the Conclave members that voted against you died.”
“That would be why it’s a good thing that he isn’t dying,” I said dryly. “You have any idea who poisoned him? Or how?”
“Not yet. There was nothing in any of the other dishes, so it was pretty clearly targeted at Guard. He’s got more enemies than just about anyone alive, though, so that doesn’t narrow it down much.”
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me,” I said. “Have you looked into the restaurant staff at all? Maybe it was one of the waiters that put the poison in, or a cook?”
“There are people investigating them, but I haven’t heard what they’ve found,” he said. “Of course, there is another possibility.”
“What is that?”
“He did it himself.”
“That makes sense,” I said. “Oh wait, no it doesn’t. What the hell?”
“Think about it,” Moray said. “Pretty convenient that he got just enough of the poison in him to make him sick, but not enough to kill him. That’s a lucky coincidence, and I’m not a fan of coincidence.”
“Okay,” I said after a moment. “Even by my standards that’s impressively paranoid. Why would he be almost killing himself, again?”
“To make you do what he wants,” Moray said. “Think about it. He was making you an offer, right? I didn’t hear what you said, but I know how things were shaping up. Well, I think this is a bit of a high-pressure sales tactic, don’t you?”
I frowned. “Well, I can see how this would influence my decision, yeah. But I have a hard time seeing me being that important to him. This is a pretty huge risk for him to be taking for the sake of…what? Making it a little awkward for me to say no?”
“It’s the kind of tactic I could see him using,” he said seriously. “I’ve known Guard for a long time now. He isn’t the sort to shy away from a risk. If he wanted you to take the deal he was offering, I could see him pulling this kind of stunt.” He glanced at me over his sunglasses, his expression carefully blank. “Like I said, I’m not sure. But you should at least think about it.”
He looked at me for a moment longer in silence, then walked back into the hospital.