I shoved the rakshasa off the knife and then cleaned and sheathed it. The rakshasa looked like he was thinking about doing something stupid, but he thought better of it after a few seconds. It probably helped that nobody looked that interested in helping him out.
We stood there for a few minutes, waiting for Lucius to get back to us. The silence was a bit awkward—or would have been, anyway, if there had been silence. As it was the music had switched to another track, one that was even louder and faster than the last. It was just as well that I didn’t have much to say, because even if I were screaming, I wasn’t sure anyone would be able to understand what I was saying.
After around five minutes, another girl walked up. She was small, and she looked pretty awful. She was visibly underweight, and her pale complexion was almost ashen. Her lips were gashed, like they’d been bitten repeatedly, and the numerous piercings in her face likely weren’t helping. She smelled foul, sick, and she stank of chemicals, of which alcohol was the most innocuous.
But for all that, she seemed confident and assured as she made her way over to us. She was swaying in time to the music, slipping through the crowd so smoothly they probably never even realized that she was moving towards a destination rather than just dancing. She had violet armbands around either arm, confirming my guess that that was used to mark house employees here.
“You’re the ones who are here for a meeting with the boss?” she asked. I didn’t feel like trying to scream loud enough to be heard over the music, so I just nodded, and she gestured for us to follow.
We weren’t half as smooth as she was getting across the dancefloor. Well, I wasn’t, anyway. Aiko was almost as good as our guide, which probably wasn’t a huge surprise. I managed to keep up with them, pretty much by brute force. The nice thing about a party where more than half of the people present were food animals was that I didn’t have to worry too much about starting a fight by pushing the wrong person out of the way.
“You aren’t much like the usual people we get here,” she said, detouring around a young man who’d passed out in the middle of the dancefloor. He was pale from blood loss, and he smelled like the pill Aiko had given me. As we walked past, one of the security guards came to drag him off to the darkened corner of the room.
“No,” I shouted back, watching the scene distastefully. “I don’t imagine we are.”
“Maybe you can help me, then. Will you let me out?” I wasn’t sure how her voice carried so well through the music; it didn’t sound like she was screaming, but I had no trouble understanding her. Practice, I supposed.
“It’s more complicated than that,” I said.
“It doesn’t have to be. Please, I didn’t know. I want to go home. Won’t you take me out of here?”
“You can,” she said, clutching at me. She was standing between a strobe and a black light, leaving her face alternately crimson and violet. The mirrored wall just beside her threw the light back on her from another direction, further confusing it, and the reflected beams of lasers played over her skin strangely. “Please. Just say you’ll help me. I’m begging you.”
“I think I’m insulted,” I said, carefully pulling her hands off without making skin contact. “Did you really expect me to fall for this? Seriously?”
“What do you mean?”
I sighed. “Come on. You might as well drop the act. You’re apparently one of Lucius’s higher-ranking minions, if he sent you to fetch me. You work for the house here. You seriously think I’m going to believe that you’re still this pathetic? Because I’m pretty sure that if you were as innocent as you want to seem, you’d have been eaten up a long time ago.”
“Maybe so,” she said. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t take the time to think it through, though.”
“You really thought the hard sell would get me to agree to something without knowing what it was?”
“No, but I had to try,” she said, grinning. Grinning too wide. Her bloody, tattered lips were stretched across her face, showing sharp teeth that were stained crimson by more than just the lighting. The expression accentuated the gaunt lines of her face, her narrow features and sunken eyes. I hadn’t quite grasped just how thin she was. Or possibly she had a way of masking it when she wanted to seem human. Now that she wasn’t, she looked almost skeletal.
Suddenly I could smell her. Not just the faint scent of sickness that I’d caught earlier, but a stench of decay and corruption, like a cold wind blowing across an open grave. The smell was cold and isolated, and carried a powerful feeling of hunger. There was magic in that scent, a magic of guilt and need.
It was the olfactory equivalent of seeing myself through a glass darkly. That scent had a lot of the same elements as my own—the cold, the hunger. But there was an ugliness to it as well, the corruption and decay, something much darker lurking under the surface.
Under other circumstances, I would have been hard pressed to identify it. But here and now, it was a bit simpler. This party attracted a very specific sort of clientele. It was a place for things that preyed on humans, in every sense. That narrowed things down a lot.
The stench of death and decay was pretty standard; that was how my brain interpreted the energy associated with a lot of nasty things. The cold was more unusual, but hardly unique. The yuki-onna was evidence enough of that. But the feeling of hunger and isolation, and especially of guilt, narrowed it down some. Her physical appearance, now that she wasn’t hiding it and I was paying attention, left me with only one real guess for what she might be.
I wasn’t sure, not completely. Not enough to call her on it. But I was confident enough to be very, very glad that I hadn’t agreed to help her get out. If I was right about what she was, I had some ideas what form that help might have taken, and it wouldn’t have ended well. I was guessing that by the time I’d died there would have been a whole lot of bodies on the ground, and people would have told stories about the whole thing for years afterward. There are some things that just shouldn’t go together.
She opened a concealed door in the mirrored wall and waved us inside. I went first, catching another glimpse of her grin in the mirror. Even by my standards it was a ghastly expression. I’d already noticed that her teeth were too large and sharp, and I’d seen that those teeth were red. But she wasn’t a vampire; she took more than just blood when she fed. If I’d had any doubt of that, it vanished when I saw a bit of flesh between her teeth, a scrap of stringy muscle.
As though she’d noticed me noticing, a long wet tongue flicked out. It looked almost prehensile as it wiped that bit of raw meat away. She slurped it down and grinned at me in the mirror.
I repressed a shudder and kept walking.
The hallway behind the mirror was narrow, and it was spooky. It would have been spooky even without the context, I was pretty sure. It was too small, lit only by dim red rope lights that would have been barely enough for a human to keep from tripping over their own feet. I could still hear the music in the main room, loud enough that I could feel it vibrate in my chest.
The hallway didn’t run quite straight, and it split several times. Our guide kept us in the halls that stuck close to the room we’d just left. We went up a cramped set of stairs in which the risers were all slightly different heights, and then stopped outside of a massively heavy vault door. Our guide stepped past us and rapped a complex pattern on the door before unlocking it with a key from around her neck.
The room on the other side was…well, it was one of the stranger offices I’d seen. It was large, and luxuriously furnished—a couple small couches and some chairs, all upholstered in leather, and a couple of hardwood tables. It was very dim, though, considerably darker than the room with the party. I knew that, because the wall across from the door was one huge window, looking out over the dance floor. From the other side it had been a mirror; I hadn’t been able to see any hint of this room from in there.
Lucius was looking out over the party, sitting in an expensive-looking leather chair. He was wearing a purple suit this time, with pinstripes that fluoresced under the ultraviolet lights.
“Your guests are here,” our guide said as she stepped in. She nodded, not quite bowing.
“Thank you,” Lucius said. “You may go.”
She straightened and left, closing the heavy door behind herself. The sound of the music cut off abruptly as she did, leaving the room silent. It was soundproofed. It was very well soundproofed, to keep out that music.
“She kinda creeps me out,” I said, watching her leave.
“Annabel has that effect on many people,” Lucius said. “But she’s very good at what she does.”
“She’s a wendigo?” I asked. More for confirmation than anything. I was feeling pretty confident in my identification by this point.
“Indeed. You’re quite good at that, you know.”
I sighed. “This place just gets better and better. Was this really necessary? The secrecy, the mind games…it just feels like a waste.”
“We could hardly have a civil conversation out there,” he pointed out. “I’m familiar with lycanthropic hearing. I’d be surprised if you could understand a word I said over the music. And while I appreciate that you find Annabel’s nature discomfiting, she’s the one I typically send to escort guests up to my office. It isn’t as though I singled you out.”
“I get that,” I said. “And honestly, that’s not the part that bothers me. No, I’m annoyed by the guy that you sent to cause trouble. Thinking that moron was even a consideration for us is just…insulting.”
Lucius paused. “What are you talking about?”
“Some rakshasa tried to hassle me at the bar on the way in,” Aiko said. “It was pretty much a nonissue.”
The vampire’s expression tightened slightly. It was a tiny change, but considering who it was, that was still pretty damned significant. Vampires didn’t really react to much. They didn’t have much in the way of automatic responses, which meant that any such response they did have was much more important than it would be on a human. When it came to someone like Lucius, any tell was something to take seriously.
“I see,” he said. “That wasn’t my doing. I wouldn’t have insulted you in that way. A moment, please.” He pulled a phone out of his pocket, tapped a few buttons, and then sat and waited.
Vampires didn’t wait like people. They didn’t fidget. They didn’t even blink, or breathe. It was more like they turned themselves off entirely.
I was impressed by the speed of the response. It was probably less than a minute later that the door opened again, and a pair of guards dragged the rakshasa inside. He wasn’t struggling. No surprise there; he could probably have taken out two humans without any trouble, but these guys were Lucius’s personal employees. You’d have to be a special kind of stupid to attack them here.
“These two say that you accosted them as they were trying to reach me,” Lucius said. “Is that true?”
The rakshasa shifted uncomfortably. “Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“You’re lying,” Lucius said instantly. “And badly.”
“All right,” the rakshasa said. “I may have stopped them. And said some things. But it was all in fun. Nobody got hurt.”
Which was pretty much true. From the smell he’d already healed the knife wound I’d given him.
“You accosted one of my guests,” Lucius said, not sounding terribly impressed with this excuse. “We have rules here. That invited guests are not to be bothered is one of them.”
The rakshasa licked his lips, then started to run.
I never saw Lucius move. Not even a little bit. He was just standing on the other side of the room, seemingly without having crossed the space in between.
The rakshasa ran into him at full tilt, and bounced off. It was like he’d run into a wall. The vampire didn’t even rock back on his heels.
“I take it that you’re aware of the consequence of breaking that rule, then,” Lucius said. The rakshasa fell backward and scrabbled away.
In another of those blindingly fast movements, Lucius snatched him up off the floor and shook him. I could hear bones shatter from where I was standing, one after another.
I smelled magic in the air, something very dark and very empty and very, very old. And then the rakshasa crumbled into dust.
I gulped. I’d seen a lot of rakshasas die. I’d killed more than my fair share myself. And admittedly this one had been low on the totem pole. The strongest of their kind were basically demigods, but this guy hadn’t even been comparable to me. But still, seeing him get killed that easily was more than a bit intimidating.
Which had been Lucius’s intent, of course. He said that he hadn’t actually sent that rakshasa to cause trouble, and I believed him. I didn’t have all that much of a grasp on Lucius’s personality, but from what I’d seen he wasn’t the type to lie. Why would he? In a weird way, it was the same as those painfully tasteless suits. Lucius liked to announce that he was so powerful that he didn’t have to care what people thought of him.
So when he said that he hadn’t sent that rakshasa, I believed him. But he’d dealt with it like this for a reason. You didn’t get to be that old and powerful by doing things without a reason. It was yet another statement of power. He wanted to remind me that any fight between us could only end one way.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” Lucius said, brushing a bit of dust off his suit. “Now that we have that bit of unpleasantness out of the way, let’s get down to that chat I mentioned.”
“Yeah,” I said, eyeing what was left of the rakshasa. “Let’s. What did you want to talk about, anyway?”
“You, essentially,” he said, grinning. His teeth were very white, and very even. They didn’t look like fangs at all. “Please, have a seat.”
Aiko and I sat on one of the couches, a little gingerly. I wasn’t comfortable sitting down around Lucius. Not that it would matter if he decided to kill us; that was abundantly clear by this point. The two humans left, closing the heavy door behind themselves. Once again, the music cut off as the door slammed shut, leaving the room in utter silence.
Lucius sat in his chair again, spinning around to face us. This left him framed by the party, the mad, darkly hedonistic revelry going on just on the other side of the glass. Seen like this, it was hard to remember that those were real people. The mirrors and the lights made the scene seem unreal. I could see people dancing and shaking in time to the music, but in here it was dead silent.
“I confess I don’t fully understand you, Wolf,” Lucius said. “What do you want? What drove you to seek me out?”
“We’ve already been through this,” I said. “I don’t want to have to defend my territory against hordes of vampires and rakshasas all the time. Plus I’ve had more than enough legal problems related to killing people that earned it. If I have to kill some of your people because they’re too dumb to know when to quit, I’d rather it not turn into another of those situations.”
“Those are proximate causes,” he said dismissively. “I’m looking for something deeper. I’ve seen a great many people take power in my life, Wolf, for a great many reasons. And I’m curious what reasons drove you. By all accounts, you were fairly unambitious for most of your life. I want to know what changed that.”
“I didn’t have a choice,” I said.
He snorted. “Bullshit.”
“No, for real. I’ve got Loki breathing down my neck. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t leave a lot of room for disagreement. The only choice I had at that point was to grow or die.”
“To an extent that’s true,” Lucius said. “But only to a point. I’ve looked into you a bit since our last meeting, Wolf. Loki didn’t force you to take over a city. He might have encouraged, he might have been glad to see it, but the choice was yours. So why?”
I frowned. “It’s hard to explain. At the time I needed the fighting over the city to stop, and exerting my own claim was the only way to get the other sides to reach a compromise. Afterwards, I couldn’t get rid of the job. Things have just…sort of spiraled from there.”
“You see it as a means to an end, then,” he said.
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s a fair statement, I think.”
“That’s good. Too many people think power is its own reward. That’s not a healthy attitude for a ruler to have, in my experience.”
I noticed that he didn’t say whether he shared it.
Lucius nodded. “I would like to make you an offer, Wolf.”
“You said this conversation was payment for what we agreed upon,” I said sharply. “Not that we would agree on payment here.”
“Yes, and I’ve already done what I said. It should work out just fine, by the way. It’ll be a few more days before we know for sure, but I haven’t heard anything to suggest that there will be problems.” He smiled. “You did, however, agree to this conversation. Including listening to additional offers I might make.”
I sighed. “Fine.”
“Very good,” he said. “So here’s what I propose. I happen to have a certain problem, a person trying to challenge my hold over the city of Alexandria. Due to the specifics of this person it’s difficult, both politically and practically, for me to deal with him myself. I think it would be quite simple for you to do so, however, and I would be very willing to express my gratitude for such a service.”
“See, here’s the problem,” I said. “You aren’t the only one who’s been doing research recently. And it turns out there aren’t actually that many African emperors named Lucius who would have been in a position to see the Colosseum in its glory days.”
“Aren’t there?” he asked mildly.
“No,” I said. “Not many at all, in fact. Add in the fact that you’re savvy enough to still be around, and there’s really only one I could find that makes any sense. And this offer is starting to sound an awful lot like how you got to be the emperor of Rome in the first place. Which, as I recall, really only ended well for you.”
He smiled. “Most people assume it’s just a false name,” he commented.
“No. But you may be ascribing too much importance to events that happened thousands of years ago. Have I actually given you any reason to think that my offers are untrustworthy?”
“You mean aside from that?” I asked, gesturing at the view through the window.
“Including that,” he said. “Really, Wolf. I would have hoped that you would be more open-minded. I’m not betraying anyone with these parties. I’m not even hurting anyone. These people chose to be here. They want this.”
“Just because you want something doesn’t make it a good idea,” Aiko said. She was watching the party through the window. Her expression was calm and blank, which was never a good sign.
“That’s a rather amusing thing for you, of all people, to say,” Lucius commented.
She shrugged. “Hey, I’m fine with bad ideas. Don’t think that’s ever been in question. I’m just saying, the fact that you’re giving people what they want doesn’t excuse what you do to them.”
“You don’t seem to understand,” he said. “I don’t do anything to them. Those who come here make their own choices. I simply don’t feel a need to restrict their choices because some long-dead puritan said that pleasure is evil. For these people, sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree?”
“Cute,” I said. “But by that logic, you have just as little right to disagree when I say that I want nothing to do with what you do here.”
“Quite so,” he agreed. “I believe you know where the exit is. I would have Annabel escort you, but from how you reacted to her I suspect that you would rather I not.”
I paused. “Wait. Just like that? I can just…leave?”
“Of course,” he said. “I have plenty of people who are happy to work for me,” he said, gesturing at the crowd. “Why would I turn to someone who would rather oppose me? No, Wolf, I’m not going to strong-arm you into making a deal with me. You two are free to go. I will send you the details on that problem I mentioned, in case you change your mind, but if you’d rather not deal with it, I won’t force you to.”
I hesitated, wary, but Aiko was already leaving. I joined her, walking just a touch faster than we usually might have.
Lucius sat and smiled as we left.