“You have got to be kidding me,” I said.
David glanced at me. “Was I not clear earlier?”
I stared at the sign, reading it again. It still said PUBLIC RELATIONS. “I assumed you were kidding,” I said. “You seriously have a PR guy?”
“We have a whole team dedicated to it,” he said dryly. “This is just the guy that calls the shots.” His smile was rather chilly as he pushed the door open. “This is the last thing I have scheduled for you today,” he said. “You can stay here, go home, whatever. Tomorrow is the first practice session with the full group. Have fun.”
He turned and walked away, whistling a jaunty tune. I watched him go, and then sighed and stepped into the office.
The first impression I got was that it was a very constructed sort of place. Everything was arranged just so, everything precisely in its place. It was set up to look more chaotic, like it was the office of a busy man who couldn’t quite find the time to straighten it up, but the little details gave it away. The open books were a little too neatly spaced out, the disheveled stacks of paper were disheveled in precisely the same ways.
The office’s owner, currently sitting at the desk, was much the same. His coat was hung over the back of his chair, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his tie pulled loose. It was a very good act, a very good presentation of the harried office worker who was too busy with his work to pay attention to the little things. But I still got the feeling that it was artificial, that it was all very deliberately arranged. It was almost like talking to one of the Sidhe, except he wasn’t quite good enough to cover up the hints of artifice.
“Hi,” I said, walking up to him.
“You must be Jonathan Keyes,” he said. “I’m Frank Gosnell, head of the public relations department here. Pleased to meet you.”
“You do know that isn’t my real name, right?”
He regarded me for a moment. “In this office,” he said at last, “it is. You’re Jonathan Keyes, or failing that, Shrike. Whatever you might call yourself elsewhere, here those very much are your real names. Are we clear?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Good. Please, take a seat.”
I grabbed one of the chairs and spun it around, resting my arms on the back as I sat down. It was meant to annoy him, deliberately upsetting the carefully ordered layout of his office, and from the way his shoulders tensed I thought it was working.
His voice, though, was easy and relaxed. “You know,” he said, “I really have to hand it to you. I think your file is the most heavily redacted, classified one I’ve ever seen. There are whole pages blacked out in that thing.”
“Did you read them anyway?”
He held his hand in front of him and rocked it side to side. “Eh,” he said. “My clearance is high enough to read some of it, and I pieced together some of the rest from what I already knew.” He lowered his hand to the table again, looking at me seriously. “I won’t pretend to understand you,” he said. “We both know I don’t. But I’ve got enough of an idea who you are to know that we’ve got an uphill battle in front of us.”
“I think it’s fair to say that you’re used to getting your own way,” he said. “You think you know best, and you’re accustomed to acting on that knowledge, without necessarily getting another opinion first.”
I frowned. “Pretty fair,” I admitted.
He nodded. “Yes, well, as of now that’s not how you do things. You’re a part of a team now, understand? And while I’m sure you’re good at what you do, this is a very different world you’re entering now. You’ve got to learn to play by different rules than you’re used to.”
“First off,” he said, “no killing. Just don’t. You use nonlethal measures unless you’ve got an explicit order to kill the enemy, and even then you check with me first if you can.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I protested. “That’ll just give us a reputation for being soft. Nobody will respect us if we aren’t willing to finish the job.”
He sighed. “Look, Jonathan,” he said. “From your file, I’m sure that you’ve had to worry about what impression you’re making in the past. But I’m guessing you’ve mostly been concerned about what people like you think, correct?”
I hesitated. “Broadly speaking, yeah,” I said. “I mean, not exactly like me, but people that move in somewhat similar circles.”
“I thought so. Well, your approach might work with them, but now we need to think about another demographic. We need to think about what regular people think. The general public, your average human being that knows nothing about how things work behind the scenes, that is the most important opinion for us right now.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think they might still prefer the lethal option.”
He regarded me for a moment, his hands folded on the desk in front of him. “Let’s make a deal, Jonathan,” he said. “I won’t tell you how to do what you do. When it comes to fighting you’ve got experience and skill, and I don’t. So if you tell me something about what the best way to fight someone is, I’ll just assume you know what you’re talking about rather than try to play armchair general. In return, you do me the same favor and trust that I know my job. Does that sound good?”
“Excellent,” he said. “Then believe me when I say that killing people actually doesn’t endear you to society. I don’t care if it’s justified; if the first thing people learn about us is that we have a habit of killing suspects while trying to apprehend them, we’ll lose any chance we might have had to earn their trust. So for now, you’re using strictly nonlethal methods, are we clear?”
I frowned. “I suppose,” I said reluctantly. “But I’m really not much good at pulling my punches.”
“That’s what training is for,” he said pitilessly. “Most of the others will be working to build themselves up. You, on the other hand, need to learn to hold back. As a part of that, I don’t want to hear that you’ve won any sparring matches with your new teammates for at least a week.”
“What? Why?” I demanded.
“Several reasons,” he said. “First, it will show me that you’re capable of holding yourself back. Second, most of these people need a confidence boost; for you to walk in and thrash them all would be the worst thing you could do for team cohesion. Third, you need to get used to not being in the spotlight.”
I considered that for a moment, then sighed. “Okay,” I said reluctantly. “Fine. But I think we need to go back real quick. This isn’t a matter of me holding back. The things I do are inherently likely to kill people.”
I thought about it, then decided that words weren’t likely to get me anywhere with Gosnell.
I summoned Tyrfing instead, the sword appearing in my hand with a sudden, familiar weight. I flicked the clasp open and dropped the sheath, then thrust the sword straight down into the floor. As expected, it easily punched through the flooring and stood there, sticking straight up into the air.
“Explain how that’s supposed to not kill people,” I said, not looking away from him.
He pursed his lips. “Interesting. That’s the weapon you use?”
He nodded. “You’ll have to use something else with us, of course,” he said. “That’s far too distinctive; you’d be recognized easily. We can get another sword for you. Derek can probably do something with it.”
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” I said, pulling Tyrfing back out of the floor and grabbing the sheath. “Me using another sword, I mean.”
It took me a couple of seconds to sheathe Tyrfing. I’d almost forgotten how hard it was to put the cursed sword away without using it first. It wasn’t something I’d needed to do all that much.
“That’s fine,” Gosnell said. “But that sword stays out of sight, on these premises and when you’re in the field. We can come up with some other weapons for you to use.”
I gritted my teeth. I wanted to argue, but he had some valid points. “Fine,” I said. “Any other restrictions you want to put me under?”
He smiled a little. “Not yet, but I’m sure we’ll come up with some later,” he said. “That does bring up the next point, though. What’s your look going to be? There are a couple of things I’ve been specifically instructed to avoid—wolves and snowflakes, mostly—but otherwise it’s fairly open. Going by Shrike, I’m assuming you want some kind of a bird theme, right?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“Excellent,” he said. “Now, your features are fairly distinctive, so we’ll want your face fully covered. Probably a fully enclosed helmet, just in case. Do you have a preference for the rest, whether you want to show some skin or be mostly covered?”
“Covered,” I said decisively. “I’d rather not have any exposed skin, actually.”
He nodded and wrote a couple lines on the corner of one of the papers on his desk. “Okay,” he said. “Colors? Any preference?”
“Something fairly bright,” I said. “No black or white.” I paused. “Not dayglo bright or anything, though.”
“Bright without being ridiculous,” he said. “We can do that. I’ll get back to you with some choices for what colors you like after we settle out how we want to handle color selection for the team. We want to have some similarity between you, as far as appearance goes, but it looks like that’ll shape up all right without making you all wear the same color, so there’s more flexibility there.”
“How are we looking similar without color?”
He paused. “Let’s just say you aren’t the only one who’s going to have some feathers,” he said. “Now, this should be enough to get the design people started. We’ll want your measurements before we actually finalize the design, but that can wait.”
“I can handle this,” I said.
He eyed me. “Jonathan. We agreed that you wouldn’t argue with me about my side of things.”
“And that you wouldn’t interfere with mine,” I reminded him. “This isn’t just an aesthetic issue. I wear armor, and I rely on it to keep me from getting killed. And I know a guy who I trust to make a decent set more than your designers. You get the look however you want it, and I’ll take it to my supplier to get the actual armor made.”
“That’s reasonable,” he said. “You’ll have to cover the cost yourself if you get your equipment out of house, though.”
I snorted. “Not a problem.”
“That’s good.” He glanced at the paper he’d written on earlier, then nodded. “All right. You won’t start actually interacting with the public for probably at least a week, so you don’t need to have your public persona down yet. But you should start thinking about how you want to present yourself as Shrike. My understanding is that you’re supposed to be fairly reserved, rather than being in the spotlight, but beyond that you’ve got a lot of latitude in what you want the persona to be.”
“All right,” I said. “Is there anything else?”
“I don’t believe so, no,” he said. He smiled again, just as false and artificial as his other smiles. “Thank you for your time, Jonathan. Have a good day.”
Aiko listened to me gripe without saying anything, then burst out laughing once I was finished. “Goddamn,” she said. “They’ve really got you whipped, don’t they?”
I glowered. “They don’t own me,” I said.
“Nope,” she said happily. “They just sat you down with a PR guy and had him spend half an hour telling you what to do. And you listened.” She grinned. “Totally whipped.”
I sighed. “I’m still not thrilled at the idea of doing this at all,” I said. “But they had some valid points about why I should consider it, and it hasn’t been terrible so far. I just wish it wasn’t taking so much of my time. I didn’t have a lot of free time before signing up for this.”
“Not having much time just means you have to play harder when you can,” she said. Her sly smile as she glanced at me made it pretty obvious what she had in mind.
“I wish I could,” I said. “But I told Tindr I’d be by to go over the financial information tonight, and I’ve got new reports from Selene and Luna to look at.”
“How long’s it been since you slept?”
I shrugged. “A few days, I think. Why?”
“I know you’re a freak of nature and all, and that’s terrible. But that part, specifically, isn’t bad.” She sighed. “Okay, fine. You’ve got more work to do. I’m going home, and I expect you to come back there before this training tomorrow. I know you don’t need rest as much as you used to, but not even you can just keep working indefinitely.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll be home as soon as I can manage it.” I hugged her. “Love you.”
“Love you too, you oaf,” she said, hugging me back. Then she walked away, gathering the magic for the portal around her.
The mansion was quiet as I walked up. It was only a little past sunset, though it felt much later. Between not sleeping much and traveling all the time, my sense of time was pretty disconnected from the clock anymore.
Inside, Snowflake was curled up next to the throne, her paws and muzzle stained a dull crimson with dry blood. She’d gone hunting again while I went to meet my new coworkers, apparently successfully. She twitched a little as I scratched her ears, sitting down next to her, and I could feel a sort of dim happiness from her, but she didn’t move or really wake up.
As usual, it was only a moment before Selene appeared next to me. “Good evening, boss,” she said, handing me a cup of tea and a sandwich. “How’d it go with the Guards?”
“Well,” I said, “the good news is that I still have a job. And the bad news is that I still have a job.”
She chuckled. “I understand. Well, for once I’ve got mostly good news. We’re finally making progress on talks with the vampires. They still haven’t formally acknowledged your claim on the city, but they’re willing to talk. I’m setting up a meeting for next week, around midnight in Rome. Do you think that will work with your schedule?”
“If necessary I can make it work. We’ve been trying to set this up for a couple of months now.” I frowned, tapping one finger on the arm of the throne. “Do you think they acknowledged us because Hrafn backed us up?”
She shrugged. “No clue. We still haven’t heard back from him. They did change their tune surprisingly quickly after we contacted him, though. He’s apparently doing all right, by the way. After Katrin died he went straight to northern Europe, and he’s apparently been there since, moving around frequently enough not to draw much attention. That’s why it took us so long to find him.”
I grunted. “Good. He was an all-right sort, for a vampire. I’m glad he’s doing all right.”
She nodded. “Other than that, news from the Pack is mixed. We just finished making a formal alliance with the Wolf Creek pack, which means we’re now officially on good terms with all of the publicly recognized werewolf packs in the state. But the Pack as a whole wants to have a long conversation with you about the skinwalker you killed. Apparently he was pretty highly placed in their ranks, and they aren’t thrilled to lose him right now.”
I groaned and stuffed the last of the sandwich into my mouth. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said, swallowing. “Somebody’s actually sorry to see that bastard go?”
“Apparently. Anyway, we’re working to set that up as well, but I don’t have a confident date set yet.”
“All right,” I sighed. “Is there anything else?”
“Nothing major,” she said. “Tentative overtures with some smaller groups, but nothing confident yet. We’ve had a few people contact us considering joining up, but none of them are that serious about it yet. Nothing that needs your attention.”
“All right,” I said. “Send in Tindr with the financial information, please. And another sandwich.”
She nodded. “You’ve got it, jarl.”
I watched her go, and tried to pretend that I didn’t feel like things were spiraling out of control.