“Guess what,” I said as I walked into the building. “I just got us a fairly solid agreement with Lucius, and a bunch of new recruits. I think at least a hundred. We’ll have an exact number pretty soon.”
Selene stared at me. “How did you manage that?”
“Well,” I said, “there were a bunch of people that were volunteering to be fed upon by vampires just to get out of their shitty lives. Teenagers that didn’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps, for the most part. So now they’ll come and work for me instead.”
She closed her eyes with a pained expression. “You recruited a hundred teenagers that have no idea what they’re doing,” she said.
I grinned. “Yep. I’m sure you can guys can train them. They’ll start showing up…probably tomorrow or the next day. Oh, and I’m guessing a lot of them don’t speak English. There’ll be interpreters for you.”
She winced. “You enjoy this, don’t you?”
“Yep,” I said again, still grinning. “It’s strangely satisfying to inflict this kind of suffering on someone else. Kind of gives me a different perspective on all the times I’ve been on the short end of the stick.” I walked past her and lounged in my throne. “Anyway, news from here?”
“We’ve got a message from the Guards,” she said. “They’re doing their full public announcement next week. We’ve also got final version from the Denver pack about that statement they want to make. It looks fine as far as I can tell, but I’ve set it out for you to look over before we confirm it. Alexander confirmed receipt of his payment, so we’re square with him. On that note, Tindr also wants to go over finances with you. Especially if we’re hiring that many new people. Do they want paid?”
“Probably, yeah,” I said. “Tell Tindr to start budgeting for it. I’m also going to angle for regular payments from Lucius, which should do something to cover it. Oh, and also send a message to the Guards. I want to have a meeting with them to settle the details of who’s responsible for what in the city. Make sure the mayor’s invited, too.”
“Aren’t you a part of the Guards now?” she asked.
“Yeah. Sort of.”
“So they’ll be expecting you to be there as part of their delegation.”
“Yep,” I said. “Probably. Should be lots of fun. Anyway, go ahead and write that up. You know how to make it sound nice and respectful.”
She looked at me for a moment, then shrugged in a way that said your funeral. “Will do. Anything else?”
“Make sure Kyi knows that the new people will be coming in,” I said. “You two and Tindr need to figure out how we’ll be integrating them into the organization. Things like housing, civilian life, training, all of it. Assume they have zero support structure here. Some of them will probably have useful skills, but we won’t know what they are until they get here. Also, add Jibril and Kikuchi to the list of people that are invited to that meeting with the Guards.”
“At this rate I’ll have to start taking notes,” she said, in a tone of mixed annoyance and amusement.
“You’ll cope,” I said cheerfully. “What’s next, what’s next…oh, yeah. I have a video I want you to deliver to the Conclave, just in case these nutjobs want to accuse me of attacking them. It’s always good to get your side of the story in first. And…I think that about wraps it up. I think it should be enough to keep you busy.”
“And then some,” Selene said. “And what will you be doing while we’re putting all this together?”
“Talking to the Guards,” I said. “Have to keep my other persona up, and it’s been a while since they saw much of me. I suppose I should also check in on the person Aiko hired. The one that Crimson brought through. Is she settling in all right?”
Selene shrugged. “Hell if I know,” she said.
“She didn’t run off, did she?”
“No. But even by the standards of the people you’ve got working for you, she’s…odd. I spent a while chatting with her while you were gone, and I didn’t really get much. What I do know is that she was a human originally. At some point, someone took her and dumped her in some Otherside domain. It remade her as what she is now.”
“Huh,” I said. “Any idea when all this happened?”
She shook her head. “None. Her understanding of time is pretty shaky. I’d try comparing her story to records, see if we can find out who she was as a human, but she doesn’t seem to remember much of it. Not enough to identify her, for sure.”
“Okay. Thanks for trying. I’m going to go and talk to her at least a little before I leave. She’s too powerful to leave as a total unknown if I can help it.”
“Good luck with that,” Selene said. “I’ll go and get started on this.”
The creature Crimson had summoned up was on the roof. Apparently she’d taken to spending most of her time up there, just sitting and watching. In an odd way, it was actually one of the most convenient places she could have chosen. She didn’t move much, and a casual observer could easily mistake her for a statue. It was like we’d added a particularly odd gargoyle to the decor.
February in Colorado is seldom warm, and at the moment it was particularly nasty, with gusting winds and a light snow falling. She didn’t give the impression of being particularly susceptible to the weather, though, and I wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t come in.
Aiko, Snowflake and I all went out to for this introduction. Aiko was there because it had been her choice to hire this creature, and I wasn’t about to let her off the hook on it. Snowflake was there because if this went wrong, it had a chance to go wrong in a rather amusing way, and we definitely wanted her help in dealing with it.
She was squatting on the edge of the roof, looking out over the driveway. She obviously hadn’t been moving much; there were probably two or three inches of snow on her shoulders and head. The bright little lizard I’d seen her with earlier was perched on her hand, seeming about as unfazed by the weather as she was.
I walked up and sat next to her, dangling my feet over the edge. It was a calculated move on my part. It made me seem more like her, which would hopefully help me establish some kind of rapport with her. It also meant that if things got violent it would be easy for her to shove me off the roof, which would be to my benefit. I could handle that fall easily, and it would put me out of her reach long enough to draw Tyrfing.
“Hello,” I said, as Snowflake padded over and lay down next to me. As a husky, she was about as comfortable in this weather as the rest of us. Aiko wasn’t, of course, but she was wearing a couple of heavy coats. She’d still complain about it later, I was confident, but she wasn’t in any danger of freezing.
“Hello,” the creature said, barely glancing at me. I didn’t recoil, but it took a bit of an effort. I’d forgotten about her mismatched eyes. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. I didn’t pretend not to know what she meant. “Do you have a name?”
She shook her head, the motion very slow. “Not anymore. I did. But I lost it. I’m not sure when.”
“Okay,” I said. “Well, is there something people call you?”
“No,” she said. “I never needed something. I don’t usually have someone to talk to. Except my pet, and it doesn’t talk back.”
“You mean the lizard?” Aiko asked.
“It’s not really a lizard. It just looks a little like one.”
The lizard hissed, as though agreeing with her. For all I knew it was. If it had come from the Otherside, that “lizard” might be smarter than anyone else here. Not that that was all that high of a bar.
“Well, think about it,” I said. “Maybe you’ll think of something you’d like to be called. If not, we can come up with something for you.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll think.”
This is surreal, Snowflake said. This whole scene, I mean.
Said the talking dog, I pointed out. Then, out loud, I said, “Is there anything I can do to help you settle in here?”
“No,” she said. “You’re very friendly. And we have lots of food. It’s quiet here too. I like the quiet. Is there something I can do to pay you back? I don’t like owing people.”
“For the moment what you’re doing is fine,” I said. “Just sit up here and watch, and let us know if someone who looks like they aren’t friendly is coming.”
“Okay,” she said. “I can do that. Tell me if you want me to do something else instead.”
“Actually, maybe there is something you can do,” Aiko said suddenly. “Can you tell us anything about the place you came from?”
“You mean the Badlands?” The creature frowned. “It’s cold. Colder than this. It’s dark. And it’s always windy. You can’t hear yourself think over the wind. But mostly it’s the bad place. I heard there are parts that aren’t cold and dark, but they’re all bad.”
“What do you mean by that?” Aiko asked.
The response was slow in coming. “It’s like…things don’t work,” the creature said at last. “You do something and it seems like it should work but it doesn’t. It’s because it wants to make you work for everything you do.”
“Why does it want that?”
“So you get better at things.” This time the response was faster, and more confident. “It wants to make people into things that are better at things than people. It made me into this. It makes other people into other things. But people would rather be people than be good, so it makes it so that you don’t get to choose.”
“Okay,” Aiko said, in an unusually gentle tone. “Thank you. That was all we needed. We’ll talk to you again later.”
“Okay,” the creature repeated. “We’ll stay here and watch.”
“What was that about?” I asked quietly, once we were inside the building and out of earshot. She might be able to hear us, of course—I had no idea how good her hearing was. But Tawny had said that she didn’t have a concept of self-consciousness, and Tawny would know.
“Checking whether I knew the domain she was in,” Aiko replied.
She frowned. “Maybe. There are always…rumors. People talk about a domain that exists to create monsters. If you annoy the wrong person, or just get unlucky enough, you can get trapped there and turned into something horrible. Most of the time people don’t talk about it much, in case talking about it gets them sent there.”
“Huh,” I said. “Do you know anyone who’s actually seen this place?”
“No,” she said. “But then, I wouldn’t, would I? Not if the people there are trapped.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Okay. Next thing on the list is going back to the Guards. I’ll see you guys in a while.”
“I’m coming with you,” Aiko said.
I paused. “You are?”
“Yep,” she said firmly. “You need some help integrating with what they’re doing, making them see you the right way. So I’m going to come and help you.”
“And…do they know this?”
“Nope,” she said cheerfully. “But I figure that if I show up with you, and you talk about how I’m a new recruit and David knew I was coming, he won’t want to argue with you.”
“That…might work,” I said. “You realize I’m going to make them call you Cupcake, though. Since you stuck me with Shrike and all.”
“No you won’t,” she said. “You’re going to make them call me Peaches.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because then we’ll have Peaches and Crim,” she said. “It’ll be hilarious.”
Snowflake started laughing. After a few seconds, so did I. “Yeah,” I admitted. “That actually is pretty funny. A little funnier than hearing them call you Cupcake in the middle of a fight, even.”
“So you’ll do it?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
Aiko grinned. “All right, then. Let’s go.”