“I solved your problem,” I said.
Lucius smiled. “Is that so?” he said. “Do tell.”
“I found the people who were disrupting your operations,” I said. “And I convinced them to cut it out. You shouldn’t have any more problems with them.”
“Interesting,” Lucius said. “You know, I was really expecting you to kill them.”
“You said you wanted them dealt with,” I said. “They are. If they cause any more trouble, I’ll come back and kill them then. And they know it, too.”
“You really are an interesting man, Wolf,” Lucius said. “So violent, and yet at the same time, so reluctant to fight. And you found a way to expand your ranks considerably, all under the guise of doing me a favor.”
I shrugged. “That’s more a public service than self-interest,” I said. “I mean, look at who I’m gaining here.” I gestured at the wall of windows behind him, and the room beyond that. The party was over by now, the predators and their willing captives gone home. But there were still some unattached food items passed out in various places, sleeping off the drugs and blood loss and who knew what else that they’d subjected their bodies to.
I didn’t bother asking how he knew that I’d been recruiting. He owned this city. It was a reasonable assumption that nothing happened here without Lucius knowing about it.
He smiled. “That’s a fair point,” he said. “Well. As I trust that you’ll carry out that threat if they aren’t smart enough to take the mercy you’ve offered them, I believe that our arrangement is complete. More quickly than I expected, even. Well, then, it seems I owe you one.”
“Actually,” I said, “I’ve got a more concrete way you could pay me for this.”
“Oh? And what’s that?”
“You could tell me why the hell you wanted me to do it.”
“It needed done,” he said simply. “They were becoming an annoyance. It was getting in the way of my business.”
I snorted. “What, and you didn’t want to deal with it yourself?”
“They were expecting attack by a vampire,” he said. “They were ready for it. They were not ready for you.”
“You really expect me to think that you couldn’t have taken them on? You’re freaking ancient.”
“And I haven’t lived so long by attacking enemies who were prepared for me,” he said sharply. “Tactics, boy. Learn some.”
I shook my head. “I don’t buy it,” I said. “I mean, I saw these guys. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what they’re capable of. A weak vampire, somebody who was new to the game, I could accept that they were a threat to. But I’ve seen the way people treat you, and you don’t get that kind of respect without being able to take on that crowd without any concern. Not to mention that you could have just hired mercenaries to deal with them if you were really feeling nervous. Money obviously doesn’t matter that much to you—it’s certainly worth less than owing someone a favor. No, you wanted me to do it, specifically.”
He smiled thinly. “Well, well. Aren’t you clever.”
“Not particularly,” I said. “But I’ll figure things out given enough time. Now come on, spill. Why did you want me, specifically, to deal with this?”
“Curiosity, largely,” he said. “You’re…something new, I suppose, is how I would phrase it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“Our world is largely static,” he said. “You know that. It’s such a constant that it even governs how we use the language. Not five minutes ago, for example, you wanted to say that I was powerful enough to win against people who had trained and prepared specifically to fight me. But the word you used was ancient.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Because it’s accurate. The older you are, the more time you’ve had to practice, accumulate power, make contacts…do basically everything, really.”
“Yes,” he said. “Broadly speaking it is an accurate assumption to conflate age and power. But think about what that implies. If the only way to grow in power is with age, then logically the only way to become more powerful than your predecessors is to wait and grow older. But as you grow older, so do they, maintaining the existing power gap. Do you understand?”
“I’m not clear on when this turned into a political science lecture,” I said dryly. “Or how this is relevant. But other than that, yes.”
“It’s relevant because it produces a highly static, stratified social system,” he said. “One in which very little changes. It’s been…almost a thousand years ago, now, that I took over as the most politically influential vampire in the world. And there are still people that see me as an upstart, because social change is that rare in our circles.”
So boring, Snowflake said in the back of my head.
Privately, I was inclined to agree with her. Out loud, I said, “What does any of this have to do with you and me?”
“Well,” he said, “every now and then something comes along to shake up that static structure. Something such as yourself. Think about it, Wolf. You’re…what, half a century old? Less? And yet you’ve already grown into an appreciable force. More to the point, you’re not quite like anything that’s come before you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it,” he said again. “You aren’t a werewolf, not precisely. You aren’t a human, or even built on a human chassis; you resemble one only very superficially. You aren’t a jotun. At this point you clearly don’t fit into any of the categories we typically sort people into, and so the question becomes…what are you? And more importantly, what could you be?”
“When you say ‘what could I be,'” I said slowly, “what do you mean by that?”
He smiled. It was the sort of smile that I could only describe as ominous. “Everyone starts somewhere,” he said. “Even deities.”
Aiko, silent in the conversation to this point, suddenly broke out laughing. “Are you saying you think Winter’s a god?” she asked. “‘Cause that would be crazy.”
Lucius shrugged. “God is a poorly defined term,” he said. “We had a much better appreciation of the concept when I was young…but I digress. The truth is that I don’t really know what you are or what you’re becoming. But any time you mix so many different influences, the results are…unpredictable. In this case, clearly, the result is something greater than any of the individual components. But how much greater is a question I’m not equipped to answer.”
“Okay,” I said, after thinking that over for a couple of seconds. “In that case…why aren’t you trying to kill me? If I have the potential to change your static system that much, then shouldn’t you want me gone?”
“Two reasons,” he said. “First off, I’ve always been something of a gambling man. Life would be terribly boring if we always knew what was going to happen next. Second, the truth is that I was fully expecting someone to do just what you’re describing years ago, which is why I never bothered with you before. But you keep surviving, despite all evidence suggesting that you shouldn’t. And those who try to end you frequently don’t. So why would I ever set myself up to be the next entry in that pattern?”
“Let’s say I believe you,” I said. “That would mean that everyone who keeps messing with me is…what? Curious?”
He shrugged. “I can really only speak for myself,” he said. “And since you did such an excellent job, I’ll even tell you exactly what my plan is. Would you like that?”
“Oh, I can’t wait,” I said dryly.
He smiled a little. “I’m going to be friendly,” he said. “I’m going to be pleasant and helpful, and not ask a whole lot in return. I will help you with your problems. And if you do become something greater, a power unto yourself, then I’ll have made a powerful ally at very little expense.”
“And if I die next week?”
“Then I’m only out a few hours,” he said calmly. “Which, in comparison to how long I’ve lived and how long I might live, isn’t much at all. But I don’t think that will happen. There are…oh, it must be half a dozen gods interested and invested in you, that I know of. And they’re far too interested in what happens to you to let it end now. No, Wolf, I don’t think my investment is going to be wasted. Not at all.” He smiled a little bit wider. It looked like a very pleasant, friendly sort of smile.
“Now,” he said. “I think that answers your question. Don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe a bit more than I wanted.”
“That’s the nature of knowledge,” he said. “Well, it’s time for me to be closing up. I’ll keep you appraised of how your proposal is faring. Between you and me, I’d wager that they’ll acknowledge your territory and agree to your rules within…oh, about three days. Have a pleasant morning.”
I was not feeling very happy as I left. Given that Aiko was moving like she couldn’t get out of that building fast enough, and Snowflake was dead silent in the back of my head, I didn’t think I was alone.