The meeting room was small, and grey, and it stank of burned coffee and tobacco. I was reasonably confident you weren’t allowed to smoke there, and entirely confident that a great many people had ignored that rule.
On the whole, it seemed a disappointingly mundane location for huge decisions with sweeping consequences to be made. I was guessing it had never played host to a fraction of the personal and political power that was currently present.
In the role of Shrike, I was one of the last people to show up. David had decided that the Guards weren’t going to bother arriving early. I was…less than thrilled with this decision, but it wasn’t worth fighting him on it. I had a sneaking suspicion that a large part of the reason he’d made it was that he knew it would annoy me, and I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of knowing how right he was.
There were three distinct factions at the conference table, although none of them was entirely monolithic. The first, and most straightforward, of the three was the Guards. David was the one representing them—or us, or whatever. But he’d brought all of us along, as a sort of show of force. Coming alone could have sent a lot of messages, ranging from confidence to weakness. As I’d expected, he didn’t want to take the risk of it being interpreted in an unfavorable way.
The second faction was mine. Selene was heading that one up, and she’d brought her own backup. Kyi was there, as was Jibril. Kikuchi was standing just far enough away from them to make it clear that they weren’t entirely together, and just close enough to make it clear that he was still more on that side than anyone else’s. More worryingly, she’d also brought Shadow. The mage was technically my ally, and she was the closest thing the local independent community had to a leader. But that didn’t mean we saw eye-to-eye on much.
The last group was, essentially, the neutral party. The mayor of the city was the focal point of that faction. He’d brought a handful of functionaries that I didn’t recognize. A little more disappointing—if not particularly surprising—was the presence of Nicolas Pellegrini. The crime lord had brought his own retinue in the form of a rather boring-looking man in a suit.
I recognized that man, and I wasn’t for a moment fooled by the appearance. His name was Andrews, and he might have been the most personally dangerous person in the room. I didn’t have a clear enough handle on how he operated to know whether he was a match for Kikuchi, or David, or me. But he was at the very least in the same general vicinity.
I was much more surprised by the other person with Pellegrini. She looked like a human child, maybe ten years old. But she smelled vaguely fae, and I could tell that she wasn’t a young girl. She was too calm, and her eyes were too old.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Selene said, as Tony stepped in the door and closed it. Spark, rather, since were all using the ridiculous masks and fake names. “Thank you for coming. I am here representing the man you call Winter Wolf.”
“Why isn’t he here himself?” David demanded. Playing the role; he was technically my opponent here, and it would have been suspicious if he didn’t act like it.
Although really, this whole act was an enormous waste of effort. My people knew what was going on, and so did David. I was guessing Pellegrini knew who I was, as well; he was only human, but the man was sharp. Not much got past him. I was guessing the mayor also knew, since it seemed like David would probably have cleared my dual identity with him. Which, essentially, meant that the entire farce was being played for the sake of keeping the rest of the Guards in the dark.
It seemed a bit pointless, all things considered.
“He is otherwise engaged,” Selene said smoothly. “My employer is a man with a great many responsibilities. An urgent matter came up unexpectedly.”
All of which were, technically, true statements. It was probably unnecessary to keep it that way, since we were dealing with humans here. But it was good to be careful, and I thought Selene enjoyed the challenge.
“Are you implying that this meeting is not important?” David asked, his chin thrust out confrontationally. Body language had to be more dramatic to get the point across when your face was covered. I’d been acting that way for years, but I’d never quite realized it on a conscious level.
“I imply nothing,” Selene said in a quiet tone which still managed to convey quite clearly that you did not want to push her any further. “I merely state facts. And the fact is that I am here to speak on his behalf. That is sufficient for him, and it should be sufficient for you.”
“Oh, yes,” Pellegrini said, staring right at me. “I’m sure your employer’s interests are quite well represented here.”
I gritted my teeth. He knew, all right. More importantly, he wanted me to know that he knew, and he didn’t care too much whether he told someone else in the process. That had been a pretty subtle giveaway, as such things went. Probably none of the people who I wanted to keep in the dark would notice. But it was still risky, and the fact that he’d taken that risk said a lot.
“All right, then,” David said reluctantly. I didn’t think he was faking it. “Let’s get this over with.”
I stood quietly for the next hour or so as details were hashed out between the various factions. I had a whole set of signals worked out with Selene, but they turned out to be largely unnecessary. She did an excellent job of sticking to the instructions I’d given her beforehand.
The terms that were eventually reached were an excellent compromise, which naturally meant that nobody was really happy. I ceded—well, by proxy, but Selene had the right to speak on my behalf, so it ended up being a moot point—a great deal of authority over the human citizens of the city. The Guards took on most of the protective role that I’d been playing, and the mayor reclaimed his official authority. In return, they agreed to run any action involving the nonhumans of the city by me first. Effectively, we were splitting the governance of the city into two completely separate jobs, with only a cursory connection between them. Technically, while the representatives of one side would obviously be able to get an audience with the other, they had no more formal authority outside of their sphere of influence than any private citizen.
In practice, of course, the distinction was little more than a hypocritical act. I was the head of one side and a highly ranked member of the other. Pellegrini and I were still working together where our interests were in agreement. On the whole, there just wasn’t half the distinction between the two factions as these terms made it seem. But it sounded good if you didn’t know the real story.
There were a handful of more meaningful agreements. Jibril and his ghouls were officially recognized as an independent group, although one that was subservient to mine. It had taken a while, but I’d actually gotten him a seat at the table to settle out the rules of the new order, just like I’d promised. I got them to agree to a couple of smaller concessions, as well. Things like giving the relationship between a werewolf and the Alpha of a recognized pack the same privileged status attorneys had, and recognizing my people as having inalienable human rights despite not being anywhere near human.
And, naturally, I had to give some things up as well. It was a compromise, after all. So I was forced to agree to make my minions follow the law within the city, and my protection racket was getting a lot more oversight. I was still going to be collecting about the same amount of money, but now it was being treated as a part of the taxation system, with all the associated bureaucracy. So it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t untenable, either.
Of course, all of these terms had already been agreed on in advance. By the time any of us sat down here, the agreement had already been ready. I kept an ear on it to ensure nothing was changed at the last moment, but by and large it didn’t take a lot of my attention.
That left me free to split my focus between two other things, instead. First off was Snowflake, who was pacing regular patrols around the building. She didn’t notice anything particularly suspicious, and she was too bored by the negotiation process to even make fun of it, so mostly those contacts were just quick check-ins to make sure that things weren’t absolutely disastrous outside.
The second, and more interesting, was watching the people in the room with me. Pellegrini had his mask of professional detachment on, and his was very, very good. But Andrews looked just slightly too bored to conceal it. The fae thing with him as almost the opposite, unable to fully conceal the excitement it obviously felt.
Jibril was almost beside himself with joy at actually getting what I’d promised him way back when. He kept shooting grateful glances in my direction, and it would probably have been a dead giveaway if anybody had been looking closely at the ghoul. Selene looked just about the same as pellegrini, although she went for professional interest rather than professional detachment.
Most interesting, I thought, were the Guards. David gave the impression of being as fed up with this nonsense as I was feeling. He was obviously bored, and just didn’t want to be wasting his time on this farce. Razor was watching everything at once—that was, after all, her particular trick. She seemed interested, almost fascinated, although it wasn’t particularly focused on the direction of the conversation. If anything she seemed more interested in some of the people who had come, including a lot that she probably shouldn’t have known enough about to be interested in at all.
I didn’t try too hard to discourage her. That was an ability that might be very useful. The fact that it was annoying to be on the wrong end of it was just more evidence of that.
Meanwhile, Chainmail was obviously out of his depth and knew it. He looked like a scared kid listening to the grown-ups talking about something he wasn’t remotely prepared to grasp, probably because he was. Spark was more cocky, arrogant. He wasn’t even paying as much attention to what was going on here as I was.
And then there was Crimson, who watched in studious, silent fascination. It wasn’t just interest, or ambition. It was like there was something in there that needed this instruction, any instruction, and when she got it the rest of the world turned off.
I watched them, and listened to the discussion, and occasionally shared a grin with Aiko or Snowflake, and the hour passed more rapidly than I was expecting.
Then, at last, we were done. The deal was still bare-bones, but everybody wanted the chance to think about it a bit before continuing. “Is there anything else?” Selene asked, tapping her stack of notes on the table to straighten it up.
And, naturally, the door slammed open. Jason walked in, in the same suit as usual, with a broad, self-satisfied grin. “Yes,” he said, staring right at me, as the woman who covered herself in fire and Reese stepped in to flank him. “Yes, I think there is.”