“Okay,” I said to Aiko, as the rest of the crowd dispersed. Crimson was walking back to the Guard headquarters, where she would have a lot of stories to make up. Jack was driving the thing from the Badlands back to the house, since he was one of the few people who could reliably survive if she turned violent. The rest of my minions were going back to whatever they’d been doing before I called them. “So what was that about?”
“What?” she asked innocently.
I sighed. “Come on, Aiko. Why did you feel the need to offer her a place to stay?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s just…look at her. She obviously doesn’t fit in anywhere. It’s like looking at a puppy out in the rain.”
“Since when do you give two shits about puppies locked out in the rain?”
“You oughta know,” she said, elbowing me in the ribs hard enough for me to feel it. “Puppy. So are you going to let her stay?”
I sighed. “Until she causes problems,” I said. “I get the impression that’s more of a when than an if. But I’ll give her a chance if you want.”
“You’re adorable,” she said. “Also, this is seriously messing with my head. How often do I convince you to do the nice thing?”
“Trust me, my mind is equally blown,” I said dryly. “Although knowing you that’s probably the whole reason you did it.”
“Nah,” she said. “I mean, I would, but in this case I actually did feel sorry for her. So how’d your evening go?”
“Couple of the mages who attacked the house set a trap for me,” I said. “I blew it on an easy fight and had to get rescued by a girl that dresses in a silly costume and calls herself Crimson. Then I chased down a monster that used to be human and comes from somewhere called the Badlands that I’ve never heard of, and now I feel terrible because I was going to kill her for something she might do before you stopped me.”
“That’s rough, Shrike,” she said sympathetically.
I growled. “I’m already sick of that name,” I said. “I’m sick of this game, the false identity, the whole thing. This isn’t me, you know?”
I sighed, walking towards the Lamborghini. “Anyway. How was your night?”
“Not half as exciting as yours,” she said. “I’m jealous. There was a guy who was behind on his payments to you, so I went and burned his place down. Other than that nothing much happened.”
“Aiko. You know I’m not actually running a protection racket. I don’t burn people’s shops down when they don’t pay me.”
“Of course not,” she said lightly. “Fire isn’t really your thing. You’ve got minions for that part.” After a few moments, she added, “This guy earned it. I’ve heard some stories; trust me, you don’t need to feel guilty. Sorry you missed it, maybe.”
“If you say so,” I said. “Still, I should go look into it. See if there’s anything I need to do as a follow up measure to make sure this doesn’t get blown out of proportion. I need to talk to Selene anyway, make sure those new wards are finished and operational.”
“No,” she said, not reaching for the ignition. “You need to come home with me and get some sleep.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it’s already one in the morning,” she said. “Meaning we have to leave for Lucius’s party in around six hours.”
I blinked. “Seriously? It’s already that soon?”
“Okay,” I said. “But that means I need to take care of this even more. It needs dealt with, and I might not be able to get to it for a while otherwise.”
“Winter,” she said, in a tone somewhere between the one you use with a person standing on the edge of a bridge and the tone Aiko would use with such a person. “Just because you don’t need sleep anymore doesn’t mean you don’t need rest. You’re trying to do too much. You’d completely forgotten about this party, hadn’t you?”
“Not completely,” I said defensively. “I’d just…sort of forgotten when it was.”
“See? You go there with your head in that state, they’ll eat you alive. Maybe literally.”
“All right,” I said. “You might be right. Let’s go home, then. Take a few hours to get ready before we leave.”
I’d been to quite a few dangerous parties by that point in my life. This one was different than the rest, for a handful of reasons.
The first was that it was in my world, rather than an Otherside domain. That, in itself, was a pretty huge difference. For all that I’d spent a lot of time in the Otherside by now, I was still a stranger there. I was a visitor, not a native. It made everything that happened there feel a little removed, a little bit less than wholly real. Going to a party in Alexandria, there was none of that comforting distance. It didn’t feel like a dream, or a visit to another world.
The second distinction was that this party wasn’t being thrown by the Sidhe Courts. That was terrifying. Oh, the Sidhe were dangerous, and only a complete moron could fail to recognize the threat posed by going to one of their parties. But with them I knew the rules. I had an idea of what I could and couldn’t safely do, and I knew how to navigate the environment. It wasn’t much of a safety net, but it was better than nothing.
Here, I didn’t even have that. I didn’t know the rules here. I didn’t know what mistakes were just unfortunate, and what mistakes would get me horribly killed. Hell, I didn’t even know who was going to be at this party. All I’d gotten was an address and a time to show up. I had no idea what the scale of the party was going to be, whether it was just a few other people or there would be enough attendees to fill a stadium.
That made it hard for me to plan ahead. It’s hard to know tools to bring when you don’t know what situations you might need to deal with. I wasn’t even really sure what weapons were best against vampires. I’d mostly tried to just limit my interaction with them in general, and while I had an idea of what tactics were and weren’t effective, I was far from an expert on the topic.
And that wasn’t even considering the other things that might be here. I wasn’t too concerned about succubi—their only real tactic under the circumstances was seduction, from what I’d heard of them, and I was pretty thoroughly vaccinated against the honey trap. Similarly, once I’d refreshed myself on yuki-onna I wasn’t too worried about them. When you’re a heat vampire, and your main tactic was freezing people to death, I was just about the last guy you wanted to attack.
But I had no way of guessing who else might be at this. There were enough factions that were politically aligned with the Vampires’ Council that it was essentially impossible to guess what I might see, and that wasn’t even counting other things that Lucius might have invited. I hadn’t been able to get much, if any, reliable information on him. Apparently the guy was obsessed with security. I’d hired Jacques to put together a dossier on him, and I was confident I’d get something, but it was going to take more than a couple of days.
So in the end, after much agonizing, I went with a very generic loadout. I had some knives, an assortment of stored spells, and some generally useful things—powdered silver and iron, chalk, permanent marker, lengths of string and chain, and such. I had a flask of holy water and a handful of holy symbols that I’d arranged to have blessed by various priests. I also had my amulet around my neck, the wolf’s head gleaming on my chest. I’d never had a whole lot in the way of faith, but if I had to pick a symbol for what I did have, that was the best I could do.
Aiko was a lot less dependent on toys than I was, and I was more than slightly jealous of how little equipment she was bringing. She did have her own flask, though, and she had a gold pendant in the form of a apple prominently displayed.
I felt a momentary gratitude that neither of us was particularly religious, at least not in any way that most people would recognize. A crucifix, or a Star of David, was easy to recognize as a symbol of faith, and faith was a legitimate weapon against vampires, for reasons I’d never fully understood. But a wolf’s head and a golden apple? Not so common.
Neither of us had ever been to Alexandria, which made going straight there with a portal sadly impossible. But I knew a guy who could open a portal to Cairo for us, and after that it was fairly easy to drive. The man we bought the car off of didn’t speak English, but Aiko managed to work out enough pieces of various languages in common to make the deal.
“We definitely overpaid him,” she said, as we were driving through Alexandria looking for the address. “This thing doesn’t handle worth shit. And the stereo? Useless.”
“You only paid him a couple hundred bucks,” I pointed out.
“And stole half of it back while he was trying to cop a feel,” she agreed. “And it still isn’t worth it. Can we set it on fire after we’re done with it?”
“Let’s wait on that one,” I said. “I’m thinking we might need a getaway car if this party goes wrong. Or failing that, a pick-me-up afterwards.”
“Cool,” she said. “Just so long as you don’t forget. So how wrong do you think this is going to go?”
“It might not go wrong,” I said defensively.
She eyed me. “Winter. You remember what I said before we went to that meeting with the Pack?”
“I think it was something about how I was looking forward to seeing you turn a diplomatic meeting into a total disaster?”
“I said I remember.”
She grinned. “Was I wrong?”
“Well, it wasn’t a total disaster,” I said. “It turned out all right in the end. For me, anyway. Mostly.”
“Point stands,” she said. “When you’re around, it’s going to go wrong. We might as well be honest here. So how wrong?”
I looked at the building. It was dark and quiet, with some security guards outside showing people inside. The building looked ominous, and it reeked of vampire.
“If I had to guess? I’d say about as wrong as it can get.”
“Sounds like fun,” she said, getting out of the car. “Let’s do this.”