The stone was rough, affording plenty of handholds. It was easier than I’d been expecting to get up it. Despite the rather impressive height of the wall, we reached the top in just a couple of minutes.
We didn’t use any rope in case of a fall, of course. I could catch myself, and the notion of Aiko using a safety rope was enough to bring a smile to my lips.
Inside, the open space of the amphitheater was illuminated only by the moonlight. It was bright enough to see—for us, at least; a human might have had some issues—but the relative dimness softened the edges, lending a touch of mystique to cover the harsh realities of time’s passage. Standing there, looking down from high above the ground, I was forcefully struck by the sheer magnitude of the building. Never mind the games that had gone on here, the structure itself was incredible.
Even in ruins, the Colosseum seemed to tower above the rest of the world in some way. It was a constant reminder to the architects and engineers who raised their towers of steel and glass around it that it had stood long before they came to be and would stand long after they died.
What had it been like in its glory days, I wondered? Back when Rome really was the capital of the world, when a passing whim of the emperor could change the course of nations? What an awe-inspiring statement of power, to raise something like this just for entertainment. Just to show that you could.
No wonder people hadn’t wanted to attack this city. Even the faded echoes of that legacy were enough to give you pause.
And they were faded echoes, there was no arguing that. Much of the floor below was gone, exposing the tunnels underneath. Back in the day those had been the equivalent of backstage, a place meant for the workers rather than the public eye. The practical reality that sat behind the glamorous facade. Now it was torn open, exposed to the outside world. It was like looking at a corpse on the dissection table, skin peeled back to show things that were supposed to stay hidden.
The people we were here to meet were standing in a small group on the intact section of the floor. It wasn’t hard to pick them out in the otherwise empty space, but even if it had been thronging with crowds, I would have known who I was looking for. They had a gravity to them, a presence that drew the eye. It was reminiscent of Conn, or Scáthach, or even Loki when he got going.
Powerful people, and a definite sign that they weren’t anyone to cross lightly. Not that I hadn’t known that already, of course, but if I’d had any doubt this was a nice confirmation.
Even more than the Pack, though, vampires and their ilk were predators. More to the point, they were predators that were optimized for the hunting of humans. I wasn’t human—hell, at this point humans probably had more in common with chimps than with me, in some ways. But we had enough of a resemblance to humans to trigger those instincts, which made this a delicate situation for us. If we behaved like humans—like prey—there would be a large part of these people that didn’t care about the fact that we were here to make deals. It would just want to eat us.
Which is why were on top of the wall, instead of walking through the freaking door like normal people.
I gauged the distance between us and them, making sure that the initial plan would work, then offered Aiko my arm. She rested her fingertips on it, purely for style points, and we started walking.
I wasn’t David. I couldn’t actually fly, however much I might want to—because really, who wouldn’t?
But one of the tricks I had figured out was how to support my own weight with air and magic. It was difficult and exhausting, even with the focus I’d built exactly for that purpose, but I could walk on air for short periods when I really wanted to. It didn’t come up nearly as often as I’d expected it to, really, but when it was useful it was really useful. So I’d kept in practice, making sure that I could still do it when I needed to.
I’d created a similar focus for Aiko. It was more challenging for me to support her weight than my own, for several reasons. It was further away, for one thing, and distance was power when it came to magic. With a ruinous rate of exchange, too, to the point that working at a distance of even a couple feet could be noticeably more difficult. I wasn’t nearly as aware of her movement as my own, either. With my own body I knew exactly when and how I was walking, letting me adjust the magic to suit on an instinctive level. With Aiko, even though I knew the ways her body moved, even though we were in physical contact and I could feel that movement, there was the tiniest delay. It wasn’t much, but it added up.
And then there was the weight, plain and simple. Aiko was pretty short, and she was slender. But between her and the armor, it was over another hundred and fifty pounds that I had to lift. That wasn’t easy.
The bottom line was that I could do it, but only barely. It would be a steep descent, somewhere between going down stairs and a controlled fall, and even that was taxing. Under the circumstances, though, that was pretty much exactly what was called for. If we got it right, it should look intentional.
It was a little tight, but I’d gotten the angle right, and we ended up dropping onto the floor about fifteen feet away from them. I landed smoothly; Aiko stumbled the tiniest bit, not having as clear of an awareness of our positioning, but she was quick enough to make it look like she’d just deliberately taken a fancy step upon landing.
We took a few steps closer to the group, just enough to get within comfortable range for a conversation, and I said, “Hi.”
Now that we were closer and I didn’t have to concentrate on not falling to an embarrassing and splattery death, I could get a better look at who I was dealing with.
There were three of them, of whom I recognized one. He was a vampire, his dark coloration offset by a flaming pink suit. He called himself Lucius, and while I didn’t know much about him, what I did know was the sort of thing to inspire terror. He’d made references to being an emperor, and ruling an entire continent, the one time I’d seen him before. It sounded like grandiose nonsense, but from Katrin’s reaction I wasn’t entirely sure that he hadn’t been telling the literal truth.
Of the three, though, he was the one I feared least. I had some idea of what he was capable of, what I had to worry about. The other two were total unknowns. They were both female, or at least they looked female, but beyond that there wasn’t a lot in common between them. The one to the left had tan skin and dark hair, and she was painfully beautiful. She didn’t have the physical beauty of, say, Scáthach, and she didn’t have the intensely sexual manner of Selene. But there were elements of both there, along with a barely-veiled hunger that elevated it to a weapon.
The other one was more ethereal, almost ghostly. She was very pale, maybe even albino, and wearing a simple robe as white as her skin. Even her lips were pale, almost blue, leaving pure black hair and eyes the only color about her.
Lucius was the one to answer me. “Good evening,” he said, smiling. “The surroundings are rather more hospitable than the last time we spoke. Less impressive than when it was young, of course, but I think it’s aged quite well, on the whole.”
“Are you telling me that you were around when the Colosseum was new?” I asked.
“Would it be so unbelievable?” he asked.
“Not really, no,” I said. “I’ve talked to people that are older. It just puts it into perspective, I suppose.”
“Oh? How so?”
“From my perspective,” I said, “it’s hard to really conceptualize watching several thousand years pass. It’s hard to see it as anything but an abstract number.” I gestured at the ruins around us. “This gives it context. If I think about it as being long enough to watch this crumble, that gives me some grounding as far as what it actually means.”
He considered me for a moment. “That’s an interesting way to look at it,” he said. “And an insightful one. I’ll have to think about it more. In the meantime, however, I haven’t introduced my associates. How terribly rude of me. This is Lily,” he gestured at the tanned woman, “and Yumi.”
“Charmed,” I said. “You know why we’re here.”
“You want status,” he said. “Recognitions. Or perhaps insurance would be the better word for what you’re asking.”
“It’s got elements of all three,” I agreed. “It raises the question, though. Is this even something you’re equipped to offer?”
“I do think so,” he said. “I am the most influential of my kind in Africa by a rather wide margin. Between that and my connections to others of similar influence, I could easily sway my people to agree with me on such a relatively minor matter. Lily holds a similar role among the succubi, and Yumi has some sway among…other types.”
“It’s a yuki-onna,” Aiko said, watching the pale woman closely. She seemed…not afraid, precisely, but wary. Coming from her, that was practically as good as outright terror from most people.
“Someone knows her stories,” Yumi said. Her voice was flat and androgynous, not seeming particularly human.
Aiko snorted. “With my mother?” she said. “Please. I couldn’t have gotten away with not knowing. I’m surprised you’d be hanging around with these guys, though.”
“We all have mouths to feed,” the yuki-onna said.
“In any case,” Lucius interjected, smoothly taking control of the conversation again. “We’ve established that the bargain can be made. But I have to question whether what you’re asking for even makes sense. I confess I don’t see how you could keep our respective affiliates out of your territory when it has so many people within it, regardless of whether it’s officially allowed or not.”
“The point isn’t to keep them out,” I said. “It’s to establish that it is my territory. They can come, but I want it to be very clear that they’re there on my sufferance, and I expect them to obey certain rules.”
“Again, pointless,” he said. “There will always be rule breakers.”
“Ah,” I said, smiling. “But if there’s a rule that they’ve broken, they can be punished. Rules can be enforced. If there’s no such rule I can’t exactly say that they’ve done anything wrong, can I?”
“And you think that you can enforce these rules? Really?”
“I already have, haven’t I?”
He smiled, thin and sharp. “Ah, yes. Dear Katrin, struck down in her own home. She always was lacking something. A certain ruthlessness, perhaps.”
And that really said all I needed to know about Lucius. If he thought that Katrin wasn’t ruthless enough, if he was seriously going to criticize her for not being willing to go far enough in pursuit of her goals, that was a pretty damn meaningful statement. That was the equivalent of someone telling me that I was too trusting for my own good.
“So what rules would you impose upon us, then?” he continued. “Please, regale us with your legal brilliance.”
“First off, your people would have to contact me when they come into the city of Colorado Springs,” I said. “I’d give them a grace period, say three days, but after that if I find them in my city and they haven’t talked to me, I’ll assume they’re working against me and treat them appropriately.”
“That’s basic courtesy,” Lucius said. “Get to the meat.”
Aiko started to make a smart remark, but I nudged her in the ribs, hard enough that she’d feel it through the armor. I didn’t know what she was about to say, but considering who we were talking to, I was about ninety percent sure it would have been a bad idea. She turned it into a cough, and while I was confident she was glaring at me, she didn’t say anything.
“The primary issues have to do with degrees of activity within the city,” I said. “Nothing so overt that it attracts attention. I expect that living people won’t make a fuss, and dead people won’t be unusual enough that they draw notice. They don’t interfere with my employees or personal associates. If they have a problem with one of my people, they bring it to me. If there’s a major threat or problem within the city, they’re expected to help out or get out.”
“I’m surprised,” Lucius said. “Not going to try and ban us from hunting in your city?”
“He is a hunter himself,” Yumi said softly. “He knows the nature of the hunt. Enough, I think, to know better than to do as you suggest.”
“Pretty much,” I said. “It’s basic ecology, really. Where there’s a niche, something’s going to fill it, right? There are a lot of people in the city, and there are a lot of things that want to eat people. I don’t really think I can keep the one away from the other. But if I acknowledge that it’s going to happen, I can keep it under control and make sure that it stays within certain limits.”
“Interesting,” he said. “You know, Wolf, coming here I really wasn’t expecting to take this seriously. But what you’re outlining is actually fairly reasonable. I think we could make this happen.” He smiled thinly. “But why would we? So far I’m hearing a great deal of benefit to you, and nothing much for us.”
“What do you want?” I asked. “That’s a serious question, by the way, not me being snide. I don’t really know what you guys would want, so it’s hard for me to offer you much.”
“I will speak to my associates without personal reward,” Yumi said. “The jarl and I have certain things in common.”
“How charming,” Lily said sarcastically. “I’m afraid I’m going to require a little more in exchange for my assistance, though. You’ll owe me one.”
“Details,” I said instantly.
“You’ll owe me a favor, to be redeemed at a time of my choosing,” she said. “One service, which you can perform without extraordinary risk or expense.”
“Fair, but I want the option to veto your requests if I think that they’re excessive or they’d require me to do something I’m not willing to do.”
“And what’s to stop you from rejecting everything I ask, so that you never have to pay at all?” the succubus asked skeptically.
“That’s how you get a reputation for not keeping your deals,” I said. “And that isn’t a good kind of reputation to have.”
“And you expect me to rely on your desire for a good reputation to that extent?”
“Pretty much,” I said. “I’m guessing you’ll take that as collateral.”
“Good guess,” she said after a moment. “All right, then. That’s good enough for me.”
Which just left Lucius to convince. I turned to him, tense and a little worried. I was guessing that he was going to ask for something that I really didn’t want to offer, and I was fully prepared to agonize over whether this was worth the price.
What I got instead was a casual smile. “I want you two to come to a party I’m hosting,” he said. “Day after tomorrow, Alexandria, dusk.”
I hesitated. “Is this an effort to lure me into a trap or something?”
“No,” he said. “It’s a good-faith invitation. I’ll even offer you my personal guarantee of safety while you’re there. If anyone starts a fight with you, I’ll ensure that they regret it.”
“I’d like to have a personal conversation with the pair of you,” he said, shrugging. “And while I do appreciate these environs, this is neither the time nor the place for that conversation.”
I glanced at Aiko, who nodded slightly. “All right,” I said. “It’s a deal.”
He was smiling thinly as we shook hands. I was sure he could crush my fingers into jelly if he wanted to, but his grip was only moderately firm.
As we left, I tried not to think about how much easier of a time I’d had working with the monsters than with the Guards.