Monthly Archives: October 2015

Building Bridges 12.2

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“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?”


“Essentially, yes.”


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.”

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Interlude 12.a: Hunter

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I met my guest in the foyer, although the room was far too large and grand to deserve such a basic name. The ceiling was high and vaulted, with sparks and glimmers of light dancing in the shadows; the floor was a delicate mosaic of colored tiles and gemstones. An abstract geometric pattern, although there were hints of stars in the pattern.


“Sorry I’m late,” she said, taking off her coat and boots. Invisible hands helped her, pulling the clothing off and whisking it away; more invisible servants took her hat and socks, provided a pair of comfortable slippers instead.


A wasteful extravagance, but I could afford it. This was my world, after all. Or one of them, at least. One of my favorites, even.


“Not to worry,” I said. I’d known when she was coming, of course. Little, if anything, could surprise me here.


“Thanks for inviting me,” she said, walking over and offering me her hand. Her skin was too pale, with strangely greenish veins showing through, and I could feel a hint of scales when I brushed my lips against her hand; her irises were a pale violet more suitable to gemstones than eyes, and faintly luminescent in the darkness of the foyer.


At least she looked human this time, broadly speaking. It always disturbed me a little when she started messing about with the basic structure of her body. People weren’t supposed to have wings and tails, let alone some of the really strange things she’d added in the past.


“How have you been?” I asked.


She shrugged. “Nothing particularly exciting. You?”


“Losing wars,” I said cheerfully. “As usual. Shall we?”


She nodded, and I walked through the foyer, leading her on by the hand. The foyer was vast, but a slight folding of space let us cross it in two steps. One step took us from the bottom of the grand staircase to the top, and another crossed the fifty feet to the other end of a long corridor. The elaborate mosaics and paintings, the gold and jewels passed us in a blur as we walked through the empty halls.


Had I been alone I could have brought myself to where I was going in a single step. But extravagant manipulations of space could have unfortunate effects on other people, and I wasn’t entirely sure how it would interact with whatever alterations she’d made to her physiology most recently. It couldn’t hurt her, of course, but it would have been impolite.


“I would have been here sooner,” she said. “But I’d forgotten that you made it so I could only open a portal here from a specific location on Earth. How did you even do that, anyway? That isn’t normal for the Otherside.”


“We aren’t on the Otherside,” I said, relaxing my hold on the fabric of space so that we could walk up the last set of stairs at a normal pace. “Not exactly. This domain is…think of it as occupying the unused space between their domains. I’m using their framework to maintain the basic structure, and it has a very slight connection to their system, but it isn’t actually a part of it.”


“You can do that?” She laughed. “Of course you can. Never mind.”


I smiled, and opened the door at the top of the stairs, letting her go through first. I followed her out onto the roof, closing the door behind myself. It didn’t make a sound.


The roof wasn’t stone, wasn’t even material in any meaningful sense, but it had been designed to resemble black marble. It extended around us for a mile in every direction, uniform and featureless. I hadn’t put much effort into it. The focus here was on the sky, and the field of stars I had arranged there.


I took her hand again and, with a few steps and a twisting of space, brought us to the edge of the roof. A small table and two chairs stood on nothing fifty feet further on, the sole and solitary feature that could be seen. I stepped off the edge of the roof and she followed me without hesitation, trusting that we wouldn’t fall though there was nothing there to hold us up.


The nothing held us up, exactly as the stone had. My world, my rules; if I said that physical objects didn’t necessarily have to impede light, that they didn’t have to interact with light at all, the world wasn’t going to argue with me.


We walked out to the table, and I pulled her chair out for her. “What a gentleman,” she said with an impish smile, sitting and letting me push the chair in again.


“I try,” I said seriously, sitting across from her. Then I reached out to the world, the fundamental rules that determined how the world functioned, and I gave them a twist.


The manor behind us, the building as big as a city, faded out of sight the same as the bridge leading out here. We were left floating in a field of stars, surrounded on all sides by the void of space. The stars blazed in every color of the rainbow, brighter than they ever could on Earth.


“Oh, my,” my companion murmured. “This is quite nice.” I noticed her eyes adjusting, the color and shape changing slightly to let her more fully appreciate the view. I imagined she would be giving herself a more panoramic vision, and the capacity to experience more of the spectrum.


“It’s the Horsehead Nebula,” I said. “Seen from the vicinity of Rigel. I took a trip out to look at it a few years back. Would you care for some wine?”


“If it isn’t too much trouble,” she said, leaning back until her chair was standing on two legs and her face was directed straight downward. A human neck couldn’t have bent so far, but she’d left that sort of limitation behind a long, long time ago.


I pulled a quick trick involving folded space and suddenly had a small wineglass in either hand. They were filled with a pale golden wine; like my companion’s eyes, the liquid was ever so slightly luminous, though I wouldn’t have known if I weren’t seeing it in the dark.


“Nice one,” she said, taking one of the glasses. “You could make a killing as a bartender.”


“I poured them earlier,” I admitted. “If you want a refill we’ll have to pour it like usual.” I took a sip, just enough to moisten my tongue, and the flavor exploded in my mouth, sweet and tart and utterly magnificent. “My last bottle from Atlantis,” I commented, setting the glass on the table. “I see the years haven’t hurt it.”


She raised an eyebrow. “You’re going all out, I see,” she said, taking a similarly minimal sip of the wine.


“It’s a special event,” I said. “I finished my first universe last week. Not reliant on their framework, not a part of their Otherside network at all. It’s a wholly independent, self-contained system, only accessible through this intermediary.”


She was silent for a moment. “That’s amazing,” she said at last. “It’s self-sustaining, I assume?”


“Absolutely. It won’t last forever without maintenance—entropy is still a concern—but it’s at least as stable as any of their domains.”


“Amazing,” she said again.


“I thought you might want to know,” I commented, taking another tiny sip. “Since in the past you’ve said your reasoning for not joining me was that we didn’t have anything to put in place after we won. With this development, we do.”


“I’ll have to think about it. And I’d want to see this universe of yours before I make any commitments. Not that I don’t trust you, but I’d have to see it with my own eyes.”


“Of course. Honestly, I was going to ask you to take a look at it. I think you might have some very valuable input for me. You are, after all, an expert.”


She smiled and nodded, acknowledging the compliment. “Have you told your mole about this?”


“I advise you not to call him that to his face,” I said mildly. “And no, nor will I. Given that the entire reason he agreed to help me was that he doesn’t think there’s going to be an ‘after,’ telling him I’m experimenting with creating independent universes doesn’t seem like the best move.”


“That’s a fair point,” she said, toying with her glass. After a moment of silence, she said, “Do you ever worry that we’re playing god?”


I blinked. “Now that’s a loaded question,” I said. “What brought this on?”


She shrugged, an extremely fluid gesture. “It seems a natural extension of the topic. And it’s a question I’ve been pondering quite a bit recently.”


I nodded. “I think I see. Tell me, how many times have you died now?”


“For real? Five.”


“Five,” I mused. “You know, most messiahs only claim one. Five seems a little extravagant.”


She shifted in her chair, a little uncomfortably. “It’s not a huge deal,” she said. “Lots of us have died a few times now.”


“Some of us haven’t died at all,” I reminded her. “You and Dreamer, Arbiter, Walker. The rest of us haven’t really died even once. Besides which, you’re missing my point. You’ve died five times and none of them has stuck yet. You’ve created new life forms. I control space and, to a lesser extent, time. I built an entirely new universe from scratch. At some point, don’t you think you’re answering your own question?”


“What do you mean?”


“You asked me whether we’re playing god. I don’t think so. At some point along the way, I’d have to say we stopped playing.”

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Building Bridges 12.1

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“Why is it,” I said to no one in particular, “why is it that these things only happen to me when I try to do the right thing? I mean, I can be a violent, self-serving asshole as much as I want and get away with it. But when I stick my neck out to help someone, this sort of nonsense happens.”


“I take it the news from the Conclave is not entirely pleasant,” Selene said dryly.


No shit, Snowflake said in the back of my head. Do they have any other kind?


“It isn’t sounding good,” I said. “Apparently I killed a Conclave member in Russia last year.”


Selene cleared her throat. “Ah. Do you mean a clan mage, or an actual Conclave member?”


“The latter.”


“Oh. That might be a problem. Um. If you don’t mind, how did you even manage that?”


I shrugged. “Beats me. I was kind of tripping on the Wild Hunt at the time. Don’t even remember doing it. Which, you know, you’d think that being out of your mind on that kind of magic while trying to save the world would get you some amnesty, but apparently now that they’ve finally managed to replace her they want to have a long conversation about the whole thing.”


Something tells me this is the sort of conversation that ends with at least one person bleeding.


“I’m hoping this isn’t going to get that ugly,” I said. “Won’t find out until next week. They actually gave me advance notice this time around.”


“You do have the meeting with the mayor in about an hour, though,” Selene reminded me.


“I know. I’m heading that direction now. I just felt a need to comment on this, because it’s so freaking ridiculous.” I shook my head and tossed the letter aside. As usual, it had just randomly appeared on my desk while I was out of the room. That trick had gotten old a long time ago. “You coming, Snowflake?”


A political meeting where even if it does turn into a fight it won’t be exciting at all? Pass. I think I’ll go hunting instead, maybe kill some squirrels.


Suit yourself, I sent back, standing and walking out of my office. She butted her head against my thigh as I walked past, but didn’t reply otherwise.


Downstairs, there was a quiet buzz of activity in the main room. I’d stopped thinking of it as the throne room a while ago; enough other stuff happened in that room to make the throne much less of the focus anymore. At the moment Tindr was sitting at a desk in the corner, on the phone with someone and looking at several notebooks and a laptop. Kyi was standing by the map table, updating the incident markers and territory boundaries to reflect the latest changes in the scene. A werewolf and a kitsune that I barely recognized were standing at the water cooler and discussing a television show.


All of them nodded respectfully as I walked briskly across the room. Outside, Kjaran already had the limo running. The paint had been redone again in the past couple of weeks since I saw it last; it was still black, with my coat of arms on one side and Aiko’s on the other, but now there was a very subtle pattern reminiscent of frost painted across it in blues and violets barely distinguishable from black. I found I liked the effect more than I would have expected to.


The car was heavily armored and had some of the best defenses money could buy, and in addition to Kjaran there was a human thug riding a very literal shotgun. It was purely for show, of course; nobody in this town was likely to be dumb enough to try and attack me now, and if they did I was perfectly able to defend myself. But as statements went, this one wasn’t bad. Particularly when he turned on “Ride of the Valkyries” on the very, very expensive stereo system we’d had installed.


I was reasonably confident that the mayor of the city had intended to put us on an equal footing by setting up the meeting in a hotel conference room. Where a meeting was could do a lot to set the tone of that meeting; putting it in a neutral location was a good sign for it being a neutral meeting. It was equally inconvenient for both of us, and it didn’t force me to either come to his space or tolerate him in mine.


Granted, the effect was a little spoiled by the fact that he’d randomly chosen a hotel that I owned. I was reasonably confident he didn’t know that, though. Tindr had arranged things through a series of shell corporations and money laundering fronts elaborate enough that I couldn’t even begin to follow it. I’d be very, very surprised if he had figured it out.


I showed up half an hour early and walked in alone. Bringing in thugs was nice for some kinds of meeting, but some didn’t do so well with that kind of message. Somehow I didn’t think that it would be the best approach to what was supposed to be a peaceful meeting with a guy I knew for a fact had no violence in his background whatsoever.


Besides, I could take him any time I wanted. John Cohen couldn’t be a threat to me on the best day he ever had and I knew it. In a way, having thugs with me to talk to someone like that would be bad for my image. Having minions made me look influential; needing them for something like this made me look like I was useless on my own.


To my surprise, he was already in the conference room when I showed up. As usual, the mayor looked very much the part of a beleaguered public servant, his ill-fitting suit rumpled and a little stained, reading something out of a file folder.


“Good morning, John,” I said, walking up to him. “You wanted to talk about something?”


“Winter,” he said, looking up from the folder. “Thanks for coming.” He juggled the folder and then shook my hand—a little gingerly, since I wasn’t about to take off my gauntlet for it, and those spikes weren’t just for show. “I was hoping we could talk about your position with the city.”


“I thought I didn’t have one,” I said, casually pulling out one of the chairs and lounging on it. I didn’t quite put my feet up on the conference table. “We settled this months ago. I don’t claim any kind of official capacity, and you don’t get in the way of my people. That setup’s been working pretty well for us so far.”


He sighed and sat down across from me. “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to get away with that kind of unofficial arrangement,” he said. “Politics might be catching up with us.” He sounded vaguely disgusted about it.


“I’d have thought you’d be glad about that. I mean, you are a politician.”


He shrugged. “I won’t deny being grateful that the system is kicking back into gear. As much as I appreciate what you’ve been doing, I would rather see due process and a democratic government take hold in this country again. But in this case, I find the specific things that are being done to be more than a little disturbing. I’m guessing you know about the bill that’s being discussed in the House this week?”


“What, you mean the motion to officially list werewolves as not being human, not being citizens of the United States, and not having any of the rights allowed to either group?” I snorted. “Yeah,” I said dryly. “Somehow that one stuck out in my memory. Can’t imagine why.”


He chuckled a little, although it sounded more tired than amused. “Yes, I suppose it would,” he said. “You sound remarkably nonchalant about the whole thing, all things considered.”


I shrugged. “Hardly seems worth getting worked up over. It isn’t going to pass.”


“You’re confident of that?”


“Absolutely. Enough politicians either are werewolves or are owned by werewolves that it doesn’t have a chance. I’ll be surprised if it makes it out of committee.”


He heaved what seemed to be a genuine sigh of relief. “Good,” he said. “It still sets an ugly precedent, but that’s much better than if it were actually to pass.”


“Why is it so important to you?” I asked curiously. The mayor seemed to be genuinely concerned at the thought of the bill making it into law, and I wasn’t quite sure why he would care.


“Aside from the fact that I’ve spoken with you, what, four times now and I have no reason to think you’re less of a person than I am?” He shrugged. “I guess I’m a little disturbed by anything that hints at making groups of people legally less than human. If we say that werewolves are subhuman, how long before we’re applying the same argument to blacks, or gays, or women? I mean, I know that slippery slope is a weak argument, but I think in this case there’s enough precedent to make it a legitimate concern.”


I considered him for a moment. I didn’t usually think of John as black; from my perspective, when I spent most of my time interacting with things that really weren’t human, dividing people up on the basis of race seemed a little bizarre. But now that I considered it in that light, I supposed that I could understand why he would be personally invested in this bill.


Although he probably would have been opposed to it regardless. I hadn’t interacted with the mayor that much, but from what I’d seen he was an all right sort. Not a saint, by any means, but I had a hard time picturing him condoning hate crimes against anyone, and it was hard to see this bill as anything other than open license to commit hate crimes against werewolves. But still, I liked being able to connect the intensity of his feelings on this one to a personal motivation. It made the cynical part of me happy.


“Okay,” I said. “And this is relevant to us…why, exactly?”


He raised one eyebrow. “Do you really not see this as being a relevant issue for you? Disregarding your confidence that it won’t be passed into law, don’t you think this would have some serious impacts on your life?”


“You do remember what kicked off the broadcast at the beginning of all this, I hope,” I said dryly. “I wasn’t willing to go to jail for something I didn’t do. I don’t exactly think my reaction would be better if the government were to literally pass a law saying that I’m not a person and any moron with a silver bullet could murder me in broad daylight without getting so much as a slap on the wrist. Realistically, I’d probably just walk away from the whole system at that point.”


“You think it would be that easy?”


I shrugged. “Sure. Why not? I’m really only answerable to your laws because I choose to be, John. You guys need me a lot more than I need you right now. If I were to get really pissed off tomorrow, I could leave and it would be, at worst, a mild inconvenience to me.”


“When you start talking like this,” he said after a moment, “I have the rather terrifying feeling that I’m living in a fairy tale. We’re protected by a powerful and inscrutable force. He operates by rules that we don’t understand, and if we break them or do something to annoy him we’re doomed and there’s not a thing we can do about it.” He shook his head. “The world has become a rather scary place in the last year.”


“Eh, it’s always been like this,” I said. “Only difference is now you know you’re a small fish in a big ocean. Anyway, you’re a busy guy and I’m sure you didn’t ask me here to talk philosophy. Why does this bill mean that we have to change my ‘position’ with the city?”


“Well, it isn’t the bill itself. It’s more that it indicates the bureaucracy has finally gotten its feet under itself again. That means that unofficial arrangements like we have are going to be coming under a great deal more scrutiny, and I don’t think we can really go without some kind of legitimate authority for you indefinitely.”


“Lots of other cities have people filling the same basic role I’ve been playing here,” I said. “I’ve talked to a lot of them. What are they doing about it?”


John shrugged. “Different places are taking different routes right now. Mostly they involve giving the person in question some kind of position within the police force. Or the military, in the places that are still under martial law. Regardless, there’s a clear legal authority in place.”


“So do that.”


He grimaced. “Well, that’s where it becomes a problem. See, the charges against you were never actually dismissed, so you’re still wanted for a laundry list of crimes. At this point you’re basically convicted if they could get you into the courtroom again. I can overlook it, but there’s no way I could actually appoint you to any kind of formal position.”


“Can’t you, I don’t know, pardon me or whatever?”


“For this?” He snorted. “That’s way above my pay grade. You’d have to deal with the federal government to get the charges of terrorism dismissed.” He paused. “You do realize that’s going to be a problem, right? Eventually someone will go over the head of local law enforcement and arrest you.”


I shrugged. “Of all the things in this world that scare me, that’s so far down the list that it doesn’t even register. Like I said, my status within your legal system is just not an important part of my life right now.”


“Right. Sorry, I’m just not used to people being quite so blatant about that attitude. Most of the criminals I talk to at least pretend to care. Although I guess they do have to care more than you do, so that’s probably fair enough.” He shook his head. “I’m rambling. Sorry; it’s been a long morning. Anyway, this isn’t an emergency or anything. Take some time and see if you can come up with a solution. I’ll get in touch if anything else comes up, or if things get more urgent.”

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Interlude 11.z: Wedding

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Some people take a year to plan a wedding. There are logistical issues, details to be worked out, scheduling conflicts to be resolved.


This one was conceived, planned, and carried out in the space of a month.


There were a number of reasons that it could be done so quickly. The first was the nature of the participants. She could have been a patron saint of impulsive whimsy; he never quite got the hang of caring what the world thought of him. Between the two, it was perhaps unsurprising that prolonged planning and preparation were not in the cards.


The second reason was that they stood at the head of a sizable organization, commanding considerable numbers and resources. They did not have to carry out the logistical work, the numerous small tasks required to arrange such an event, on their own, packed in with their work. They didn’t have to scrounge for the cheapest available venue or catering. When a task needed to be done, they could set a dozen minions to it; when funding was needed, it could be procured. This simplified matters considerably.


The third reason was the timing of the wedding. Coming on the heels of a prolonged and intense period of stress, it was perfectly timed to provide a contrast. Much of the world was feeling the need for stress relief in some form or another. As such, those who were invited did not complain about the short notice. The inconvenience was outweighed by the chance to feel as though there was a spot of light in the darkness.


Whatever the reason, what can be said with certainty is this. Barely a month after the notion of marriage was first seriously considered by either of the participants, on a cold January afternoon, it was time to hold a wedding. The following is an abbreviated account of what happened directly leading up to and on that day.


Aiko Miyake

The problems started with location. The obvious answer was to do it in Colorado, since it was nearby and easy. But Edward was basically Winter’s dad, and apparently the deal he’d made to stay out of the state didn’t even allow exceptions for that sort of thing. Not even I was going to suggest that we do it there anyway, so that meant we had to start looking for other locations.


And naturally as soon as that happened my parents wanted it to be in Japan. I provided a succinct reply of “Fuck that,” followed by a less succinct and marginally more polite reminder that it was only after considerable persuasion on Winter’s part I had agreed to invite them at all. And I was quite open to being persuaded otherwise.


They seemed to get the message.


Even once I had that settled, though, there was still a lot of contention. Winter flat refused to have the ceremony on the Otherside, which was nice in that it saved me the trouble of doing it. But that still left an entire planet, and it seemed like anywhere we picked made someone get upset and complain about favoritism.


Finally, after most of a day of this, I said, “South Dakota.”


There was a quiet pause, after which Winter cautiously said, “There’s nothing there.”


“So build something,” I said. “You own a construction company somewhere out there, right? Have them throw some kind of stadium together. It’s inconvenient for everyone, so nobody can really complain about us being too nice to someone else.”


There was a moment where everyone considered, then Winter turned to Tindr. “Can we make it happen?” he asked.


The accountant shrugged. “It’s possible,” he said. “We’d need more than just the company we have there to get any real stadium done, especially in the time frame you’re working on. But we’ve got plenty of cash and some local talent to get the ball rolling.”


“Let’s do it, then.”


I grinned, and sat back in my chair to wait for the next issue.


“There is no way I’m wearing a dress.”


The tailor gave me a long-suffering look. “It’s rather traditional,” he said.


“I don’t care about tradition,” I said. “I don’t do dresses. It isn’t a thing that’s going to happen.”


“Be that as it may,” he said. “You asked me for something appropriate to a wedding. If you want to completely ignore tradition, there’s a limited amount that I can do for that.”


I groaned. “Okay, fine,” I said. “What other traditional clothing is there to choose from?”


“Tuxedo?” he said hopefully.


I shook my head. “I don’t really do suits either. Too formal.”


“Well, formal is sort of the point of the event,” he said dryly.


“Still. Next?”


“Dress uniform, maybe.”


I chewed on that for a few moments, then grinned. “Okay,” I said. “I think I can work with that.”


“It does make this rather a waste of time for me, though,” he pointed out. “Since you wouldn’t be buying anything from me if you go that route.”


“Oh, don’t feel bad,” I said, standing. “I was never going to buy anything from you. I’ve got other sources for that. The last two hours were really more me just…feeling things out, I guess.”


He watched me saunter out of the store with a vaguely disgusted expression.


“So my aunt wants a Catholic ceremony,” Winter said.


I stared. “You told her no, I hope.”


“Oh yeah. I’d be liable to stab someone if I stood through that.”


“Hmm,” I said. “Maybe I was hasty in my initial reaction.”


He snorted. “Too late. I already made my opinion pretty clear to her. Does raise the question, though. As far as gods go, about all I can offer is asking Loki for his blessing.”


I shuddered. “Oh, hell no. I’m sure there’s something stupider than that you could do, but I don’t know what it is.”


“My point exactly.”


“Huh,” I said. “Church of Satan, maybe?”


“I thought the point was to get something less stupid,” he said dryly. “Were the problems we’ve already had with Hell not enough for you?”


“LaVeyan Satanism is an atheistic religion,” I said defensively. “They’ve got less to do with Hell than the Christians do.”


“I’m aware. But I’d lay decent odds that if we had a Satanist priest doing our marriage ceremony, Iblis would show up at some just for kicks.”


“I’m not taking that bet.” I thought for a minute, then asked, “Pastafarian?’


“Still not a good idea,” he said. “Honestly, we’re probably better off sticking to strictly, explicitly nontheistic stuff.”


I sniffed. “Man. This is a lot more work than I was expecting. Why did I agree to this again?”


“Aiko. It was your idea.”


“Man. I have some stupid ideas when I’m drunk.”


He snorted. “I can’t argue that one. But you weren’t drunk. You were, at most, sleepy.”


“Same difference.”


Winter chuckled. “Fair enough.” He was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Do you still want to go through with it?”


“Hell yes,” I said, without hesitating. “It’s worth it.”


Alexis Hamilton

It was surprisingly hard to get the day off. I was solidly in the high-intensity portion of Guard training, when they didn’t even want us leaving to get medical treatment. I tried to impress upon the instructors just how monumental of an event this was, but I got stonewalled at every turn.


I was actually wondering whether I’d have to go AWOL and deal with the consequences when I happened to mention the situation to one of the supervisors. We didn’t see him often; he didn’t have a hands-on role in our training. The supervisors only dropped in now and then to remind the instructors that there were people higher in the food chain than they were. We were all glad for those visits; the instructors always eased up on the psychotic drill sergeant throttle for a while after one.


I knew it was a ploy designed to make us like and trust the system. But damn if it wasn’t sort of working all the same. I still didn’t trust the Guards as a whole an inch, but I was actually getting somewhat fond of the supervisors. All things considered, that was a fairly significant achievement on their part. That wasn’t why I asked him, though, not really. It was more calculated than that. If they wanted to make us think that the distant authority figures were pleasant and reasonable, and it was only the most proximate of our superiors that were assholes, being able to say they’d made an exception for me was not a bad move for that agenda.


At first, though, he was no more responsive than the lower-ranking flunkies. He was nicer about it, all smiles and apologies, but still made it very clear that I wasn’t going to happen.


Then I happened to mention the name of the cousin whose wedding I wanted to go to. He went real quiet then, and then said he’d see what he could do. Less than an hour later, I had a paper giving me leave to go.


I grinned when I saw that. There are times when it’s very nice to have friends in high places.


I showed up almost a day early, having taken a portal in to Wyoming and then hitchhiked the rest of the way. The hitchhiking had been easier than I expected; I’d gotten accustomed to a pretty shredded road system, but apparently it wasn’t nearly as bad once you got outside of the city. There weren’t nearly as many things running around causing trouble in the countryside.


Granted, there weren’t nearly as many defenses on random highways in the countryside, either. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the vanilla human driving cross-country through the backwoods of South Dakota in the middle of the night. But given that I wasn’t a vanilla human, it wasn’t so much of a concern.


I did run into one trucker near the Wyoming border who had some inappropriate ideas of personal space. But there was always some chance of that when you were out hitching. Now that guys like that were zero threat to me, I was almost glad to see it. Dealing with sleazebags like that was a public service, and having a problem that I could solve at no risk was a nice change.


I made it into town at around midnight. It was late, but by some small miracle I was able to find a motel that was not only open but still had a room.


Six hours later, I shambled into the one restaurant in this backwater of a town. I was still fairly tired, but in a way that was a good thing. It meant my appalment at the poor food safety, sloppy cutting technique, and generally shoddy workmanship in the kitchen was more muted. And really, after several weeks of what was effectively boot camp, six hours of sleep felt pretty good. Decent food and all the coffee I wanted were just added luxuries on top.


The stadium was on the outskirts of town. It was smallish, more like a moderately sized amphitheater than a real stadium, and the raw, unfinished look wasn’t exactly concealed, but I thought that was probably deliberate. It gave the place a feeling of newness, a sense of new beginnings and the start of things. It was a good aesthetic for the event, I thought.


I got there with about five hours to go before anything was scheduled to happen. There were already people running around, setting things up and getting ready. I recognized some of them as Winter’s thugs; the rest looked like a mix of construction workers and professional specialists, caterers and the like.


I found someone who looked like she knew what she was doing and walked up. I recognized her vaguely as one of Winter’s lieutenants, a demon of some sort; I hadn’t spent much time with her, since by the time she was starting with him I was starting to drift away. But her appearance was memorable, and I thought I remembered her being competent.


“Hey,” I said, walking up to her. “Is there anything I can do to help?”


Yes,” she said, sounding grateful. “Go check on the sound system? Last I knew they were doing sound checks, but I don’t know how it turned out. It’s right over there.”


I hesitated. “You sure you want me near the electronics?” I asked. “I mean, things like that have a tendency to have…accidents when I’m around.”


“We’ve got measures in place around the things that matter,” she said. “Faraday cages and such. You won’t be frying them unless you really try. And if you take out a few people’s cell phones, that’s more a feature than a bug. We don’t want them taking pictures anyway.”


I grinned. “All right then,” I said. “I’ll go and check on that for you.”


Anna Rossi

I was pretty stunned when I got an invitation to Winter and Aiko’s wedding. Not that I got an invite, necessarily; Winter and I were still pretty close friends, and I’d have been surprised and hurt if I wasn’t invited. But the notion that they were getting married at all was somewhat bizarre. Not that they weren’t great for each other and all, but if you’d asked me an hour before I got the note I’d have sworn up one side and down the other that neither one would ever get married. They just weren’t the type that I’d have seen that coming from.


But then I opened the letter and saw the letter, and I was pretty glad I’d never actually placed a bet on the topic. There was no question that I was going; I’d have run there cross-country if I had to. Given that I’d been splitting time between Colorado and Wyoming for the last month and there were people heading out to the wedding from both locations, I pretty much had my choice of rides.


I ended up riding along with Edward, or running alongside the truck for a fair chunk of the distance. I was feeling too amped up to sit still the whole time, and there was some good terrain to run through. Edward was vaguely amused by the whole thing, but I wasn’t that bothered. I was still new enough to the whole werewolf thing to get off on running through the countryside in fur, or riding with my head out the car window. If he was amused by that, that was fine with me; I wasn’t shy. I’d spent long enough waiting for this that I wasn’t going to waste time holding myself back because proper society wanted me to now.


And besides, there was no proper society anymore. Oh, it wasn’t completely gone; I expected the influence of that much history was never really going to go away. But if I were to run into some asshole tomorrow and get into the usual arguments, I’d have as much claim to belong in the world as any of them.


I’m grinning into the wind as we drive through the night, the retrofitted stereo blasting Ode to Joy at a volume that has the woodland creatures fleeing in terror as we pass.


Conn Ferguson


One of the questions people ask me more often than almost any other is whether my long life has changed my outlook on the world.


Usually I ignore the question entirely, or else deflect it with some platitude. Because, of course, the answer is both obvious and inexpressible. Of course my perspective is different than that of some youth who is, from my perspective, little more than an infant. One does not live long enough to watch civilizations be born, rise to prominence, and crumble without having a different understanding of the world than someone who can count the decades they’ve seen on their fingers.


But how could I, how could anyone, hope to convey that perspective to someone for whom even a hundred years is an almost unimaginable gap of time? There’s no way. It isn’t simply a matter of quantitative difference. It’s an experience, a feeling, a state of mind. I know many, many words, in many languages, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a word that can fully encapsulate that feeling and pin it down, in any language I’ve ever heard.


And thus I don’t bother answering the question, because there’s no answer I could give that would make them really understand. There’s no way to grasp that feeling unless you’ve experienced it, and if you have then you don’t need anyone to explain it to you.


But if I wanted to convey the impression of that state of mind to someone, there were worse places to start than this. Watching one’s child being married—and Winter was for all intents and purposes my child, for all that I was no more closely related to him than to any random person on the street—was as close as a human could really get to that feeling.


So if the person who asked had had that experience, and if I cared enough, I might tell them to start there. Start with the surge of pride and joy at seeing one’s offspring make that step. Add in the sorrow you feel from seeing them take that great step away from being the child you remember them as, and the edge of guilt upon realizing that you’re sorry to see them being happy and independent. Mix in the bittersweet recognition that all things are transient, that nothing is perfect and nothing lasts forever. Then, as the final touch of shade in the pigment, incorporate the quiet, delicate awareness that the world has moved on without you.


“Take that feeling,” I might say, “and apply it to the whole world. That’s what it’s like to be me.”


The few occasions I’ve said that, the people I’m talking to usually get real quiet and then make an excuse to stay far away from me in the future. Honestly, I can’t blame them.


Most of the time, that part of me is kept hidden away, buried nice and deep under layers upon layers of masks. Most of the time I live so much in the present that even I can forget just how far back my life stretches.


Most of the time. The quiet, tragic happiness of this moment made it harder to hide.


I stood at the edge of the celebration, standing in the bright sun and thinking dark thoughts, and the crowd left a twenty-foot space around me without quite realizing why.


Edward Frodsham


After about a hundred years, I’d considered myself jaded. I saw enough in that time that not a lot could get a rise out of me. After around two hundred, there wasn’t a whole lot left to see that I hadn’t seen before. I could keep a reserved distance pretty much whatever came my way. In recent decades I’d made it something of a cornerstone of my public persona. Not showing any reaction, not seeming to really be impacted by anything, it was a key part of how I presented myself. Any Alpha needed to look strong, needed to seem like they could take on the world and walk away laughing. This was how I built that image, and even when something did get through to me I’d learned not to show it, to take it all casually and never admit that anything had made an impression.


When it came time for me to make a toast, I found that I was tearing up, my voice a little choked, and I couldn’t find it in myself to really care.




I sauntered up next to Cupcake and said, “You didn’t invite me. I’m hurt.”


She turned to me, her mouth full of—what else— a chocolate cupcake. “You’re still here,” she said, swallowing and licking a bit of frosting off her finger.


I snorted, causing a werewolf fifteen feet away to grimace without knowing why. “Come on, Cupcake,” I said. “If I only went where I’m invited, I’d never leave my house.”


“Point,” she said. “So what are you doing here?”


“What, because I can’t just want to wish you well on the big day?” I snorted, grabbed a glass of champagne off a passing caterer’s tray and downed. “You wound me.”


“Tell you what,” she said. “I’ll take it back if you tell me that’s really the only reason you’re here.”


“You got me,” I admitted. “Dropping off a delivery. It’s over on the other table with the other gifts. I figured I’d stop and say hi while I was around. You got some more booze here?”


“‘Course,” she said. “So is this delivery, like, a bomb or poison gas or something?”


“Would I do that to you?” I asked. “After all we’ve been through?”


“Of course you would,” she said, without any hesitation.


“Well, no shit. But no, this isn’t a trap. Just a gift as far as I know. Seriously, a bottle?”


She sighed and flagged down one of the servers. “Bring me a jug of absinthe,” she said. He nodded and rushed off, and she turned back to me. “You really crashed this wedding just to deliver a gift? I know what the security was like here. You could have just waited until after the wedding.”


“It’s a wedding gift, not a fucking honeymoon gift. I’m supposed to deliver it during the wedding. This should be easy even for you to grasp, Cupcake.”


“Why are you calling me that?” she asked, sounding vaguely curious. “We all know you know who I am. Why keep up the act?”


“It’s courtesy,” I said. “You told me to call you Cupcake, so that’s what I’ll call you. You tell me you want to be called the Cat in the Hat, I’ll fucking call you that. It’s basic etiquette, you see? Speaking of, give my best to whatsisface.”


She rolled her eyes and pointed over my shoulder. “Your booze is on the way. See you around.”




“I wouldn’t have guessed that you were invited,” the werewolf commented, grabbing a sandwich off the table. Kara, I thought her name was. I wasn’t totally sure, since we’d only met the once and I’d had bigger things on my mind at the time. “Didn’t seem like you and Aiko got along that well.”


“Technically they didn’t invite me,” I said. “They sent an invitation to my boss, and he picked me to come as his representative. Without telling anyone in advance.”


She grinned. “That’s pretty choice.”


“Yeah, he’s actually got a pretty good sense of humor. It just doesn’t show that often.” I glanced at her. “So how’ve you been?”


The werewolf shrugged. “Not bad, not bad. Haven’t been in town much recently. I started school again, now that I don’t need to pretend I’m a human. It’s a lot of work, trying to balance that with the pack, but it won’t be that long before I graduate and start as an engineer. What about you?”


“Oh, I can’t complain. Ever since I helped the boss take care of some upstarts last month, I’ve been practically the second-in-command. Moving up in the world, you know?” I grinned. “Plus the expression on those tengu’s faces when they have to do what I tell them is priceless.


“I can imagine,” she said, smiling back.


The conversation trailed off for a few minutes as we both ate until something caught my eye, and I just had to say something. “Is that a wolf walking around on two legs?” I asked.


She glanced in that direction. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “That guy. He’s some kind of faerie or something. I’ve hunted with him a couple of times.”


“It looks like that werewolf is flirting with him,” I commented.


“Yeah,” she agreed. “Pretty clear there.”


“And…that doesn’t bother you?”


She shrugged. “Not really. Anna can make her own choices.” She pursed her lips. “Although it would have been more tasteful to at least wait until after the ceremony before wandering off behind a building.”


“It’s a wedding,” I said, also shrugging. “A certain amount of indiscretion is to be expected, I think. I’d be more concerned that she’s getting involved with one of the fae.”


“He seemed like an all right sort. And like I said, she can make her own decisions. I’m not responsible for the pack anymore.” She grinned. “That was the best choice I ever made, I can tell you that.”


“It’s not for everyone,” I agreed. Personally I didn’t think I could have given that position up once I’d gotten it, but I could see that she wasn’t the type to enjoy being in charge. Kyrie struck me as the sort that would much prefer a middle-management position of the sort I currently had—enough authority to set some rules, but with someone higher on the chain to kick problems up to when she didn’t want to deal with it.


The conversation trailed off into silence again. This silence was somehow even more awkward than earlier, and it wasn’t hard to see why. We’d just watched her friend drag some guy off for a quick roll in the metaphorical hay, and the last time we’d interacted had been to stage a scene involving the two of us making out in front of an audience. Her posture and expression made it fairly clear that these thoughts were at the forefront of her mind. Which, in turn, was awkward for me, for other reasons.


After a minute or so the tension got to the point that I felt a need to do something about it. From what I’d heard and my minimal personal experience, werewolves generally preferred straightforward means of resolving things, so I didn’t beat around the bush.


“You’re thinking about the last time we talked,” I said.


“Yeah.” Kari’s voice was matter-of-fact, without any hesitation or hint of shame.


“So I don’t know how to say this nicely,” I said, not looking directly at her. “But I really only staged that for shock value. I’m not actually interested in going anywhere with it. Sorry.”


“No problem,” she said easily. She seemed totally casual, not reacting at all. I wondered how much of that was an act. “You mind if I ask why?”


“I’m not actually into girls,” I said. “And I’m not into werewolves.”


“Valid points,” she said. She grabbed another sandwich off the table—her fifth, I was pretty sure, which was impressive even for a werewolf—and started to walk away. “I think the actual ceremony is starting soon,” she said. “I should get going.”


I watched her leave, and went off to make some more acquaintances on behalf of Kikuchi.


Kyra Walker


I still found it strange that Winter had asked me to be the best man. Or best person. Or whatever. Ryan had done the same thing, but I still didn’t have a way to phrase it that wasn’t clunky as hell.


“Are you serious?” I’d asked him, when he first proposed the idea. “Don’t you know somebody who’d be a better pick for this? I mean, having a god backing you up would look a hell of a lot better than me.”


“Screw that,” he’d said cheerfully. “Politics has taken over the rest of my life. I’m not going to let it have this too. You’re my best friend; ergo, you’re the one who should be there. I mean, if you don’t want it that’s one thing, but I’m not picking someone else for the sake of politics or appearances.”


And of course, after he’d said that I basically had to agree. Even though, if I was being entirely honest, I didn’t want it. The idea of being a central part of this whole thing was terrifying. Being on display in front of these people, with all of the scariest people I’d ever seen staring at me? That was a frightening thought. The idea of being supposed to keep those people in line through the utter clusterfuck that any wedding between these two would inevitably become? That was worse.


It helped a little when one of his minions took me aside afterward and let me know that most of the peacekeeping duties would be taken care of by the numerous thugs that either had permanent positions in his organization or had been hired specially for this. Between the intense security, the political suicide involved in messing up this event, and the cosmic horror entailed in crossing some of the things who were attending, it was unlikely there would be any serious disturbances for me to resolve.


No, I was just supposed to manage the groom. And also the bride, since it wasn’t like Aiko had someone to play my role on her side. Which was hideously uncomfortable on all sorts of levels, but I wasn’t going to say so. As far as I knew Winter still hadn’t caught on to all that, and at this point I’d rather spend several hours being cut with a silver knife before skinny dipping in a swimming pool full of lemonade than be the one to explain it to him.


Thus started a solid month of ridiculous bullshit. There were seven brawls, two assassination attempts, and three major fires, two of which were started by the pending couple. Their courtship had always involved plenty of pranks, and having observed it from the start I wasn’t exactly surprised when that continued to be the case.


Both of them were trying to top themselves for the special event, so naturally it fell to me to keep things from getting a little too real. I was the one who had to step in and tell Aiko that she should probably stick to augmenting Winter’s soup with chilies rather than monkshood, since even if he could shrug off the effects it was not a great idea to have poison out in a restaurant where normal people ate. When he went to get her back, I was the one who had to point out that slashing her tires was probably a more appropriate prank than cutting the brake lines.


I was the one who had to plan both the bachelor party and the bachelorette party. Then, when both sides independently decided to crash the other’s party, and asked me to make it happen, I was the one who at the last minute had to arrange a third party for them to simultaneously interrupt so that they could each think that they’d been the one to pull the clever scheme off. I had to arrange food and drink for a group that could eat an entire restaurant out of stock. I knew that, because I’d bought an entire restaurant’s stock, and I still had to make an emergency snack run halfway through the night.


I’d never seen Aiko drunk before; predictably, though, she was an unholy terror in that state. I’d set up the party at the most open-minded club I’d ever been to in the city, and provided both warnings and generous payment in advance. But when she really got going, I still had to rush to management with reassurances and another several thousand dollars to keep from getting thrown out. Even the stripper got fed up with it and walked out, thus removing the only pleasant aspect of the evening for me. She was good at her job and I was confident she’d seen some intense shit before, but not even an experienced stripper was able to handle Aiko when the kitsune really got on a roll.


Predictably enough, the next morning was not an easy one. Aiko was too hungover to stand unaided, and while Winter wasn’t hungover, that wasn’t exactly a good thing. It had never really occurred to me that there might be a reason the groom was customarily too wasted to see straight on the night before the wedding. Now that I had one who was effectively incapable of getting drunk, I found out the hard way that a sober groom was a groom who could express his last-minute cold feet, uncertainty, and fear of commitment. And the whole time I was listening to him and nodding sympathetically, I was mostly thinking that I hadn’t gotten any sleep and I’d been on my feet for the last twelve hours and I’d have gladly shanked someone for the chance to take a nap.


The club owner came in around dawn to herd us out so they could clean the place up. I’d never seen a woman that short and wearing that little look quite that pissed before. I couldn’t really blame her, either. Considering what the place looked like, I couldn’t blame her. I’d seen some wild parties going on here, but I’d never seen the club look quite this demolished. I’d slipped her another two grand of Winter’s money and started the process. With a mixture of shouting, shaking, and cold water, I managed to get the revelers up and moving, even if they had to lean on each other and half-carry each other out the door.


The portals were hellish, as usual, and it took me a solid fifteen minutes to recover once we got to South Dakota. I managed to get a solid two hours of sleep before the festivities started, and then went out to get some breakfast. It took half a gallon of coffee to even begin to clear my head—of all the consequences of becoming a werewolf, I hated the resistance to caffeine more than almost anything.


I was immensely grateful, as the massive celebration surrounding the wedding started, that I wasn’t responsible for keeping order. In the first few hours, before Winter and Aiko even got involved in things, I saw no less than seven major fights break out. Three of them escalated far enough that people got killed or worse than killed before someone managed to break things up. I got mixed up in two of them at least, although luckily I managed to get out of them without anything really serious happening.


I got shut down by Kimiko before that even got off the ground, and then spent a solid half hour freaking out trying to find the bride, since she’d went out for donuts on a whim. It was like ten minutes before she was supposed to be appearing in public and we were on the verge of sending out a search party when she came back, with frosting on her lips. I damn near strangled her on the spot, and I seriously doubt I was alone, and from the expression on Aiko’s face she damn well knew it.


I managed to throw on the tuxedo and scramble out in time to stand on the dais next to Winter when I was supposed to. My smile when the orchestra struck up O Fortuna and Aiko started down the aisle was sincere. If it owed as much to the prospect of getting back to my regular life as it did to joy at the happiness of my friends, I didn’t think I could be blamed for that.


All I had to do now was get through the ceremony itself, and the reception, and probably a couple of afterparties, and the trip back, and I’d be home free. With luck I’d be able to get through at least a semester before their unique brand of psycho took over my life again.


Miyake Kuzunoha


Of all the things I’d never dreamed to see, my daughter’s wedding was one of those I had wanted most. But it had become clear fairly early on that it was a scene that was unlikely to happen, and I had resigned myself to that knowledge. It was not what I would have preferred, but I could recognize that different people had different needs. I had spent long enough trying to force her into a different mold to drive her away. Now that there was finally some chance of her returning, at least in part, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. I hadn’t even mentioned the topic to her.


Then I got her message. It was possibly the greatest surprise I’d had since I received the message from her impostor. She’d been in contact with me to some extent since returning, but this news came as a complete surprise.


At first I had reacted somewhat impulsively, insisting that the wedding be held in Japan. Her reaction had been understandably poor. I managed to settle that unfortunate first response and approach the discussion more reasonably, and ended the conversation on a positive note.


Until the ceremony actually started, I wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t a prank. I loved Aiko, but she had always taken after her father in that way. Neither of them had always been able to restrict their jokes to within reasonable boundaries. Even if that had been the case, I’d have been glad. Since we started talking again, our relationship had been delicate and fragile. For her to start her practical jokes again would be a good sign.


But then the ceremony did start, and I felt even more pleased. True, it was not all that I might have asked. It was held in a stadium with a thousand guests in attendance, most of whom I didn’t approve of in the least. The vows were said in pig Latin, and most of them made practically no sense at all. Not that long ago I’d even have said that her choice of husband was inappropriate, but having met him and seen that he was truly dedicated to her, I was more ambivalent.


For all of that, though, it was still something I’d hoped to see and never expected. I was smiling widely as it happened.




Winter and Aiko finished the ceremony, which was conducted by a nontheistic priest who did an admirable job of not making any kind of reference to a deity or religion of any kind, and then they walked into the back room of the stadium.


I stood and watched, paying more attention to the crowd than to the couple. I was mostly concerned that somebody would do something stupid, like plan an assassination during the ceremony. That turned out to be a pretty reasonable concern, since some moron did. I spotted him pulling out a rifle and assembling it, and sent a handful of people to deal with it. A pair of hired thugs grabbed him and politely escorted him out of the stadium. Once outside, out of sight, they would keep him to be interrogated. It was conceivably possible that it had been just an honest mistake, or that he was worried someone else would try to start a fight and he wanted to be ready for it.


Possible. Unlikely, but possible. If that was the case, he’d be kept in custody until the celebration was over and then let go.


If not, he was going to have a very bad day that would probably end with him dying. Winter and Aiko had limited patience and itchy trigger fingers at the best of times, and if there was anything that would provoke a violent response from them it was this.


That was the only disturbance. By some miracle, they actually did get through the vows and the ceremony. Finally, when I was almost twitchy with the tension, they wrapped it up and went off the stage. Dais. Thing. Whatever it was that that part of the area was supposed to be called.


The plan called for them to be in back for a few minutes before coming back out for the reception. Now that the wedding was over the party would start and probably go for a solid twelve to fifteen hours. The entertainment would start with the orchestra playing “Ride of the Valkyries” as Winter and Aiko left. After that there were comedians, more music from the orchestra and a handful of other bands, a couple of dance troupes, fireworks—we’d really pulled out all the stops. It was, essentially, a display of power. It was the same reason the rich and powerful had always thrown massive, over-the-top parties. We did it because we could, as a way of announcing that we could afford it, that we had the wealth and power to pull it off. It was conspicuous consumption on a grand scale, the same as any other large wedding.


Or, at least, that was the plan. As usual, the plan didn’t survive long.


As the first song wrapped up, a figure appeared on the stage thing. She was tall and beautiful, and one glance was all it took for me to know what she was. It wasn’t just her looks, although those were undeniably useful to confirm what I would have known without them. Her posture, her expression, her clothing, all of them pointed to the same conclusion. We were in similar lines of work.


“You didn’t invite the wicked godmother,” she said, turning and looking at the crowd. “How foolish of you. Perhaps I should curse this union.”


Winter and Aiko still weren’t back, and nobody seemed to be in a great hurry to deal with the situation. So after a few seconds, I reluctantly stepped up out of my little office area. “If you feel that you should have been invited and weren’t, we can discuss reparations,” I called.


“I am a lady of the Midnight Court,” she said. “I do not discuss.”


“Oh, you’re with the Court,” I said, grinning. “We invited a bunch of you from the Midnight Court,” I continued, raising my voice so that they would be sure to hear me. “I saw that some of you arrived, but I’m sure not all of you that came signed in. So I’m going to just put this out there. Which of you is ranked highly enough to take care of this?”


After a second or two, my attention was drawn to a woman about halfway up the northern side of the seating. I wasn’t sure why, exactly. She wasn’t that remarkable in appearance, a small woman so completely shrouded in black cloth that I wasn’t sure how I even knew she was female. She hadn’t done anything either, not even stood up. There was just a sudden feeling of presence to her, her magic pressing heavy on the world. Judging by the way that about ninety-five percent of the people in the stadium turned to face her at the exact same time, I didn’t think I was alone.


The woman who’d appeared and started throwing around meaningless threats saw who everyone was looking at, and froze. Instants later she vanished as quickly as she’d appeared, and the strange gravity that had drawn every eye in the place was gone.


I grinned, briefly, and then went back to managing the party.




“I’m sorry,” I whispered, gentle as a dead leaf falling to the ground. I rolled the words across my tongue, tasting them. I seldom said them, or anything like them. Their feel was alien on my lips, the sentiment even more so behind them.


I stepped past the guard when his back was turned, slid under a table, wove a quick magic to fog another man’s mind at a critical moment, and slid past the camera on the door. The lock opened with a quick twist of magic and I stepped inside, closing the door behind myself before the guard turned back to look. Another quick bit of magic locked the door again as I left. It wasn’t necessary, but I prided myself on being neat.


I could hear them. I could hear their beating hearts, quick and excited. I could hear their breathing, the floor creaking beneath their feet. It made it easy to find my quarry, even though I’d never been here before.


I heard them laugh, and a smile danced across my face before it died. Good. It was good they were laughing. It was good they were happy. That eased the sting.


I followed the noise, my own steps silent in a way that very few people had ever managed. I found the room they were in without much trouble, and stood against the wall for a moment to watch them. They were laughing, joking, talking. Eating what smelled like a chocolate cake. They were touching each other to a degree that seemed unnecessary.


I realized that I was flipping a knife around in my hand, rolling it across my knuckles, and forced myself to stop. It was a nervous habit. It was unnecessary. I would not require a knife. I returned it to its sheath, where I could get at it quickly if my opinion of its necessity changed.


“I’m sorry,” I said, just loud enough for the two of them to hear, as I let myself fade back in to visibility.


Tindr the Exile


“How much did we spend on this again?” I asked, watching the festivities.


“Nineteen million,” the accountant replied. “Although much of that was covered by other parties. Add in the expected financial value of gifts, and the net loss was only around five million.”


I winced. She chuckled dryly.


“How long has it been since the ceremony finished?” I asked absently after a few minutes.


“Twenty-one minutes,” she replied instantly.


I frowned. “They should have been back by now,” I said absently.


“Should we contact Selene?”


I shook my head. “No. She’ll already know. In any case, there isn’t much to do. If something managed to get past all the security and beat the two of them, I don’t think there’s anything the likes of us can do about it.”




Aiko hit the accelerator, and the Lamborghini went from ninety to one-fifty in a few seconds.


“Watch it,” I said absently. “I almost spilled my tea.”


She took one hand off the wheel to punch me in the ribs without looking. “Deal with it,” she said. “I’ve got a wide-open highway and a Lamborghini. If you think I’m sticking to double digits, you’re deluding yourself.”


“That’s a fair point,” I acknowledged, leaning towards the window and squinting against the wind. I caught her hand and held it for a moment before letting go; I was reckless, not suicidal, and distracting the driver at this kind of speed was a great way to end up very, very dead. “I still can’t quite believe Serval came to apologize for overreacting back when you left.”


“It’s pretty in character for her,” Aiko said. “She was always…eh. She’s got even less of an idea how normal people work than I do. To Serval, that probably seemed like a reasonable way of delivering the message. The fact that she just about gave me a heart attack would just be a nice bonus.”


“You going to follow up on it?”


She shrugged, fiddling with the stereo. She didn’t answer until a Viking metal song was on, blasting loud enough to have royally pissed off any other drivers on the road, if there were any. “Maybe,” she said at last. “I’ll think about it. We were pretty good friends back then, and she was a better person than most of my friends from that time in my life. It’s worth considering, but I don’t really know if I want the reminder of who I was back then.”


“Fair enough. So when do you think they’ll figure out that we aren’t coming back for the party?”


“If they haven’t already figured it out, they’re probably too dim to understand if you told them to their faces,” Aiko said dryly. “But I figure they’ll deal. We already paid for the party. If they were expecting us to actually stay for it, that’s on them.”

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Breaking Point Epilogue 11

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“Here’s the final request from the Denver pack,” Selene said, handing me a folder. “Looks like it’s just a statement of alliance. ‘We stand together against the chaos,’ and all that. It’s a political move, but it looks like it’s about as advantageous for us as it is for them. People who are against werewolves already hate you, so making a formal alliance with the Pack is probably a net gain for us.”


“Thanks,” I said, taking the folder. “I’ll look it over, but for the moment tentatively assume it’s a go. You can probably go ahead and start planning our statement.”


“Will do,” she said, nodding. “We’ve also heard from those apsaras again. Sounds like this would be a strictly tourism visit. They’re willing to agree to some basic rules, including an armed escort and paying tribute for the privilege. I asked around a bit, and it sounds like they’re probably on the level. Apparently this particular group are known thrill-seekers. They’ll travel anywhere for a bit of excitement, the more dangerous the better. No political affiliations that I could find.”


“All right. Give them the go ahead, then. Any word back from the vampires that wanted to move in?”


“Yeah.” Selene grinned. “Apparently they aren’t so eager to live in your territory now. Something about not thinking it’s a particularly hospitable area for them.”


I snorted. “Yeah, I’ll bet. Can’t say I’m sorry not to have to deal with them. I do worry that there’ll be some problems without them, though. I don’t have much in the way of nice things to say about Katrin, but she did keep the vamp population under control.” I frowned, tapping one finger on the arm of my throne. “See if Hrafn’s still around,” I said after a moment. “I don’t remember for sure whether he got killed there at the end with Katrin, but if not I’d rather deal with him than any other vamp I know. Also, look into whether I could get some kind of official standing with their political organization. It’s probably too much to ask for there not to be any vampires in the city, but I might get them to agree to ask permission from me and pay tribute.”


“It will be done,” she said, nodding and making a note on a legal pad. Other business. Luna wants permission to officially relocate her business from Pryce’s to here. She’ll keep doing her business there, especially the shadier deals, but she’d be keeping some of the stock and meeting with contacts here.”


“Tell her that’s fine,” I said. “I’ll be just as glad to have her working where we can keep an eye on her.”


“Think that’s most of why she asked, honestly. Next up. Jibril wants to know when you’re going to deliver on your promise to give the ghouls a voice in establishing the new order.”


“I’ve got that preliminary meeting with the mayor in the works for next week. He’s invited, same as all the other faction leaders; I just hadn’t told him because I didn’t want to get his hopes up in case the meeting fell through. Guess I’d better at least let him know there’s a plan.”


She nodded. “I’ll make sure he hears about it. Through unofficial channels, so that none of the others will be able to complain of unfair treatment.”




“No problem,” she said. “Moving on. Tindr says he’s too busy with that acquisition on the West Coast to do a full overview of the financials right now, but he should be able to meet with you tomorrow. In the meantime, we’re still solidly in the black, although the mercenaries are getting to be a serious drain.”


“We can probably let some of them go or shift them to standby,” I said. “Now that the crisis is mostly past, you know.”


“I’ll let him know to start looking into how many he wants to cut,” Selene said. “And I’ll check in with Kyi too, since I’m sure their numbers won’t be agreeing on much. On that note, Pellegrini wants to know when we’ll give his thugs back.”


“Tell him he can have them back any time. I only even took those guys because they were easy muscle and we were in a pinch.”


“Will do. And…looks like that’s everything for the moment. You scheduled judgments for Wednesday, so you don’t forget. They’ve been backing up a while and with the courts struggling we’ve been getting more requests than usual, so expect a full day.”


“Thanks, Selene,” I said. “This…it feels weird, you know? Going back to running things like it’s business as usual after so long running around putting out fires.”


She smiled. “That’s how you know you won, jarl. Things go back to normal.”


“Do you think we won?”


“City’s in one piece,” she said. “And nobody’s arguing that you’re the one in charge of it now. Casualties were lower than I would have believed possible—ours and civilian both. There people lining up out the door to sign up with your organization and make deals with you.” She nodded. “Yeah, I think I’d call that a win, jarl. Might not have been easy or painless, might not have been the win you wanted, but you came out on top in the end.” She grinned, the expression there and gone in a heartbeat. “Good job, boss. I’m going to go and draft these letters for you to read and sign.”


I watched her go, holding the file for the deal with the Denver pack in my right hand. With my left I scratched Snowflake’s ears where she was curled up around my feet. It seemed like I had a little more mobility in that hand since the Wild Hunt and subsequent insanity. I hadn’t really noticed during the chaos, but now that I had the attention to spare it was a welcome change. I still didn’t have much sensation in my fingers, and there was an odd translucency to it that wasn’t appropriate at all for human flesh, but I could move it reasonably well. It wasn’t everything I might have wished for, but it was far from nothing.


“Can’t really go back now,” I said quietly to no one in particular. I could feel that Snowflake was really asleep rather than faking it right now, so I wasn’t even talking to her. “Guess we just have to go forward and hope for the best.”


I sat in the empty throne room and scratched Snowflake’s ears as the sun set behind me.

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