The outfit was a hell of a lot more badass than I’d been expecting. The base was a dull crimson bodysuit, something that was meant to fit close to the skin, made of some slick, smooth fabric. Layered over that were layers of fabric and metal, cut in ways that suggested feathers without outright being feathers, in every shade of red. The gloves were made of the same material as the bodysuit, and tapered at the fingers, hinting at claws without actually being sharpened. The helmet was similarly suggestive, something about its shape reminding me of a bird. I couldn’t have said quite what it was; it wasn’t like it had a beak or anything. There was just something about it that said bird.
Wearing that, my identity would be at least as well concealed as with my usual helmet. Everything was covered but my mouth, and even that was masked by several strips of metal. The eyes were concealed behind yellow lenses.
“This is a bit more aggressive than I was expecting,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, I like it, but I thought you guys were going for the ‘friendly’ look.”
“We’re marketing you as edgy,” Gosnell said. “Not that we have much choice as far as that goes. You’re not exactly kiddie-friendly. But we should be able to sell you to the teenage crowd, play up the rebel angle and give you an aesthetic as the outsider. We’ll want you to play to type, by the way. Argue with David in public, that kind of thing. We’re expecting you to push some limits regardless of what we tell you, so you shouldn’t have much of a problem with that.”
“This feels so weird,” I said. “The way you’re talking about setting up this persona. It’s bizarre.”
“It’s no different than what you’ve done in the past.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “But that was working to my own ends. Now I’m supposed to be taking instruction from someone else. It’s a hell of a lot harder to match my image to someone else’s idea of what it should be.”
“Speaking of which,” Gosnell said, unsympathetically. “You’ve been having a hard time following instructions, apparently.”
“I clearly told you not to win during your sparring sessions with the team,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, you haven’t done much else.”
“David wanted me to win,” I said.
Gosnell raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And he told you this, did he? Walked up and said, ‘You know what, Jonathan, I want you to ignore all the things Mr. Gosnell told you to do?'”
I gritted my teeth. “No, but I’m not an idiot. I know what’s going on.”
“You don’t know best,” he said. “That is what I am trying to communicate to you, Jonathan. You are not dealing with the world you’re accustomed to. You are not playing by the rules you know. The sooner you figure out that you need to change your ways of thinking, the better off we’ll all be.”
“Okay,” I said, in a tone of badly forced cheer. “Well, as much as I would love to stay and talk about what rules you think I’m supposed to be playing by, I really only stopped to pick up the model of this suit. I’ll drop it off with my guy and probably have a finished version in a couple of days. Right now, though, I’ve kind of got a meeting to be going to.”
“I don’t know of any meetings on your schedule,” he said.
“Yeah,” I drawled. “This meeting isn’t so much for me as it is for me. I’ve got a lot of things that aren’t on your schedule.”
“I see,” he said. “Well, in the future, you should at least notify us. Otherwise there will be issues with scheduling conflicts. Tonight, for example, you’re supposed to be starting your patrols.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I told him. “No guarantees, though. I’ve got a lot of obligations, and I don’t always get a lot of notice when something’s coming up.”
“All right,” Gosnell said. “But you have to meet us halfway here, Jonathan. We really are trying to accommodate your needs, but if we’re going to make this work you’re going to have to make an effort as well. I hope you have a pleasant meeting.”
“I sincerely doubt it,” I said, folding the prototype up and stuffing it into my bag. “This meeting is sort of the opposite of pleasant. But thanks anyway.”
The stairs were closed down at the moment, due to the renovations. I didn’t know what they were doing, but it was supposed to take several days, during which we were stuck with the elevator.
I seriously considered jumping out the window, but in the end I decided I wasn’t quite that irresponsible. I was pretty sure we were still supposed to be keeping a low profile, and jumping out of the window on the third floor was kind of the opposite of that. Even if it would have been much quicker, and considerably less painful.
I regretted that decision when I got into the elevator and saw Tawny already there. She had her hair up in the violently red mohawk I’d seen her with the first time, and she was dressed to match, with a black tank top, black jeans with a few carefully placed rips, and heavy black combat boots.
“Hey, Jonny,” she said as I got in. “Where are you going?”
“Meeting some friends,” I said, which was technically true. I hadn’t said what we were doing afterwards. “What about you?”
“Just going out to look around a bit before we go patrolling tonight,” she said. “I haven’t been in town all that long, so I figured I’d probably better know my way around.”
I nodded. “Where were you before, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“No, that’s fine,” she said. “We lived in St. Louis up until about a month ago.”
“St. Louis,” I said, thinking. “They aren’t doing well right now, from what I’ve heard.”
She looked away. “No,” she said. “No, they aren’t doing well at all. That was part of my signing bonus. They relocated me and my family out here.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well, if you need a hand settling in, just ask. I’ve been around a while.”
“Are you from here, then?”
I shrugged. “I’ve been all over the place,” I said. “Oregon, Wyoming, North Dakota…I actually even lived in Europe for a while. But I’ve been here for a few years now.”
She looked at me oddly. “You don’t look that old.”
I smiled. “Appearances,” I said, “can be deceptive. What the hell is with this elevator, anyway? It’s ridiculously slow.”
“Stalled, actually,” she said brightly. “Apparently it stops for a minute or so between the second and first floor. Something about them doing work in the elevator shaft, and they have to clear things out before we can go through.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “I should have taken the window,” I muttered.
She chuckled. “Yeah, maybe.” After a momentary pause, she said, “About that offer. Do you mind if I come with you? I feel like I should try and meet some people around here. I like you guys and all, but I want to have some kind of life outside of this stuff.”
I sighed. “I really can’t,” I said.
“I get it,” she said, nodding. “You don’t want me along while you meet with your friends. That’s fine.”
“It’s not that,” I protested. “It’s…well, that. But it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s more that these people aren’t so much friends as acquaintances, and not very nice ones. Trust me, you don’t want to have anything to do with them.”
“So why are you meeting with them?”
“Because sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to do,” I said, sighing. “Look, I’ll show you around later. I know some people that I think you’d like. But for tonight, I really can’t.”
About that time, the elevator doors finally slid open with a soft ding. I stepped out and found Aiko waiting for me, already in her full regalia of armor and weaponry. She was leaning against the wall, and tapping her foot impatiently.
“Cupcake,” I said, eyeing her. “I thought I told you to wait for me outside.”
“What, and you thought I’d listen? What are you, new?”
“Is this on of your friends?” Tawny asked.
“Nah, Cupcake actually is a friend. Something tells me you two will get along pretty well. But for now, we’re running late, so I really need to get going.”
“That’s cool,” she said, looking from me to Aiko curiously. “I’m going to hold you to that promise, though, Jonny.” She tossed a mocking salute in my direction and sauntered out the door.
“Cupcake?” Aiko asked, watching her go.
“You stuck me with Shrike,” I said. “It seemed like the least I could do to pay you back.”
She snorted. “Let’s get going,” she said. “Oh, and here’s your stuff.” She picked a black duffel bag off the floor next to her and threw it at me. It clanked when I caught it.
Outside, we walked around the corner while Aiko looked for a good doorway to craft her portal in. Once she was satisfied, she started working while I pulled my armor and cloak out of the duffel bag and got dressed. I stuffed the outfit I’d picked up from Gosnell into the empty bag.
We left it there as we stepped into another world. One of my housecarls would be along to pick it up and deliver it to my supplier.
Rome was an interesting city. It had been around forever, pretty much, and every era to pass had left its mark on the city. Driving south from Milan, it felt like we were traveling through time as much as space. Most of the city was firmly in the modern era, but every now and then I glimpsed a building that looked like it had been standing since before the fall of the Roman Empire.
Rome was probably in the top ten cities in the world, as far as simply not being affected by the chaos. Not surprising, really. It had thousands of years of history behind it. In addition to giving the residents lots of time to build up defenses, it also gave the city a sort of presence, a sense of tradition. Even for the fae, Rome was an old city. Having been around so long gave it a sort of momentum, an expectation that it would continue to be around into the future. Nobody was going to lightly go against that weight of history, and if anyone tried it would probably go very, very poorly for them.
And that wasn’t even mentioning the church. The Catholic Church didn’t have the power it once had—it wasn’t the single most powerful organization in Europe, the way it was for a lot of the medieval and Renaissance period. But they still had quite a bit of clout. Probably more now than before, now that I thought about it. With how bad things were right now, I was guessing a lot of people would have turned to religion to try and make sense of a world that seemed to have gone mad.
For a moment, I wondered what would happen if we were to walk up to the Vatican and start doing obviously magical things. Would they take us more or less seriously there than elsewhere? Hell, maybe they’d try to exorcise us. There was something bizarrely amusing about the thought of a priest doing a full vade retro satana on Aiko.
It probably wouldn’t work, of course. They had armed guards there. They probably had some competent mages, too; magic and religion had always gone hand-in-hand, in one way or another. But it was an amusing mental image.
Not that it mattered, because we weren’t going to the Vatican right now. That was entirely the wrong sort of venue for a meeting like this.
No, we were going to the Colosseum. The history and the atmosphere there were much more to a vampire’s liking than one of the strongest religious centers in the world, I was guessing. I wasn’t entirely certain whether vampires were actually repelled by religious faith, but it seemed likely enough. I’d seen the effect it could have on demonic spirits, and my understanding was that vampires were similarly vulnerable to ideas which were inimical to their nature.
The Colosseum was closed, of course. It was almost midnight, and visiting hours had ended with dusk. There was basically a citywide curfew when the sun went down, the same as in most cities, and for good reason. Less affected by the chaos wasn’t the same thing as unaffected, after all, and scary things came out to play under cover of night. Things like vampires, and demons, and us.
Visiting hours had never been much of a deterrent to Aiko or me, though. She parked the rented car in the middle of the huge, empty lot, and we walked over to the ancient building. We probably could have gotten in through the public entrance—I’d never met the lock that could keep Aiko out indefinitely, and if all else failed I could just cut my way in—but that might have attracted the wrong kind of attention. And in any case, it wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic as what we were intending.
We’d had a week get ready for this meeting. The entrance we had planned was appropriately grandiose.
We walked over to the exterior wall, still standing tall despite the almost two millennia weighing down on it, and started climbing.