“Right,” Aiko said, as I stepped in behind her and closed the door, setting Snowflake down on the floor. “Family.” She sounded understandably uncomfortable at the thought.
“There are things to be established,” Mab said in a flat, empty voice. “Now that you are assuming the responsibilities of your office.”
“Cool,” Aiko said in a casual voice which fooled nobody. “What do I have to do?”
“The question is not what you do,” Mab said. “The question is what you are.”
“Okay,” Aiko said. “Um, quick question. Since we’re all technically on the same side here, is there any chance you could stop the cryptic bullshit?”
I almost thought I saw Grandmother Midnight’s cowl twitch, as though she were smiling underneath. Beyond that, they might as well have been statues for all the response she got out of them.
“Of course,” Aiko muttered. “Who was I kidding? All right, then. What am I supposed to be?”
“You are the Maiden of Night,” Mab said. “Reflect that fact.”
“Okay. So that means…violent, psychopathic, and scheming, but not quite mature enough about it to be a grown-up?”
This time there was no question that the cowl twitched. I heard the barest whisper of laughter, bone-dry and cold, but recognizably laughter all the same.
“That is one interpretation of the role,” Mab said. “It is not wholly wrong.”
“You realize I do those things anyway, right?”
“That is why the offer was extended,” Mab said. “The less the office is required to mold you, the simpler the process is.”
I was reasonably confident I should have shivered at that. I probably would have, if I still had a physical fear response. It was sure as hell an ominous thing to hear.
“So just be myself,” Aiko said. “Are there things I have to do in particular? I don’t really know how hands-on this gig is. Am I supposed to be here every Tuesday to boss people around or something?”
“You will know when there are specific obligations to be met.”
“Be myself unless otherwise noted, and I’ll know when otherwise noted applies. Got it. So…if it’s this individualistic, why did we even need to have this meeting?”
“There are formalities to be observed,” Mab said in that same voice, empty of all emotion. “Such as the appointment of a champion to act on your behalf when appropriate.”
“Where’s yours?” Aiko asked flippantly.
“I do not bring pets to important meetings,” Mab said. I wasn’t sure whether that was a dig at Aiko or not; it could have been, but it could also just be a statement of fact. Mab was really, really hard to get a read on.
“Fair enough,” Aiko said. “Well, I think I’m going with this guy.” She elbowed me in the ribs, a little harder than necessary. She was more nervous than she was letting on. Or possibly she’d just forgotten that I wasn’t wearing armor. There wasn’t a lot of point in armor for me, these days.
That got a response, the first really notable response I’d seen from the elder Queens in this meeting. There was a pause, one that dragged on for a few seconds. I couldn’t see Grandmother Midnight’s face, and Mab’s was still a blank, beautiful mask. But I got the impression of surprise, all the same.
“You realize that a champion is meant to be a living mortal,” Mab said.
“Are you saying I’m dead?” I asked. More to see how she’d respond than anything, really. I knew better than to expect a straight answer from Mab.
“I say that there comes a point at which life and death cease to be meaningful concepts. You passed that point some time ago. And there are other issues which make this choice problematic, as well.”
It was amazing how much of a response that one word got. It was just one word, spoken in a barely audible rasp. But everyone, even Mab, shut their mouths and turned to look at Grandmother Midnight. All at once.
“Let them do it,” the crone rasped.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” I said. “But if this is a problem, it might be better not to.”
“Such caution,” she replied. “Not at all like last time. Arrangements have been made for this, however.”
I paused, and while I couldn’t really shiver, I did have a definite feeling of unease. That statement had…a lot of implications, none of which I liked. I couldn’t help but be reminded that the last time I was here, Grandmother Midnight had offered me the chance to be her champion.
“This won’t end well, will it?” I asked quietly.
I’d heard it a few times now, but the sound of Grandmother Midnight laughing was still creepy as hell. It rasped and twisted and caught in her throat, working its way out only with difficulty. It sounded like it stained the world darker just by its presence. I could feel, now, that this impression wasn’t entirely wrong.
I understood that a little better, now. I understood what Mab meant when she said the important thing was for Aiko to be. One of the things I’d come to realize was that power was a little like mass. At high enough concentrations, it started to bend the world around it just by existing.
By the time the laughter stopped, Snowflake was shivering a little, and had our surroundings been a little bit less dangerous I was guessing she’d have been growling. For that matter, I might have been growling too.
“It won’t end well,” Grandmother Midnight said at last. “Nothing ever does.”
I tried to smile. The result was probably more creepy than anything. I’d always been better at psycho-killer than comforting, when it came to smiles. I doubted that had changed.
“True enough,” I said. “Well, I’m willing to try it. I doubt it can be much worse of an idea than everything else we’ve done.”
Aiko snorted. “Setting the bar low, there. Was there anything else that needs dealt with first?”
“Not presently,” Mab said. “Go. There will be more to be done when that is complete.”
With no more formality than that, the meeting was over. I knew the meeting was over, because both Mab and Grandmother Midnight were gone. I didn’t see either of them move, didn’t feel a bit of magic.
Then I realized that Aiko had moved, too. She was standing instead of sitting, and on the other side of the room.
“Um,” I said. “What just happened?”
“A conversation,” Aiko said sourly. “Which Mab decided you didn’t need to be a participant in. So she removed you from it.”
I paused. “Removed? What does that mean?”
“She put the two of you into stasis,” she said. “For…an hour or so, I think. They left a few minutes ago.”
I frowned. “Oh,” I said. “That’s…unsettling. What was the conversation about?”
Aiko shrugged. “Can’t really explain. Some of it I don’t really have the words for, and some of it I’m not allowed to talk about.”
That was a bit odd. Aiko wasn’t normally the sort of person to care too much about what she was and was not allowed to do.
I didn’t say anything about it, though. I was guessing she was already chafing under the restrictions of the role she’d chosen to adopt, and for me to remind her of that fact wouldn’t make it any better.
“You want to get this over with?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I know what we need to do.”
“I’m not going to enjoy this, am I?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It could be worse. It’s us, at least. And it won’t be any more fun if we wait, so let’s do this.” She opened the door and started for the stairs. I picked Snowflake up and followed her.
The top of the stairs wasn’t the same as it had been when we went down. The vast, empty hall was replaced with an expansive suite. It was also at the top of one of the castle’s towers, as I found out when I glanced out the window at a five-hundred-foot drop.
It felt familiar, and that wasn’t a coincidence. It took me a couple seconds to realize it, but it was very clearly an expanded replica of our bedroom from the castle in Transylvania.
Aiko didn’t seem surprised by the change, which made sense. Hell, she was probably the reason for it. This was her domain, after all. It stood to reason that she would be able to mold it to her will the way I’d seen really powerful people manipulate the Otherside in the past.
It was going to take a bit of getting used to thinking of Aiko as someone who could use that kind of power, instead of someone who had it used on her.
“Okay,” she said, scratching Snowflake’s ears. “You can’t stay for the next part.”
Can’t? Snowflake asked. Or don’t want to?
“Both,” Aiko said firmly. “You want to take a nap, or get some food, or something?”
Nap, she said. Wake me when you’re done with the freaky faerie rituals. She then walked back out the door and lay down at the top of the stairs.
Afterward, I never really remembered what happened after that. Not in any clear or coherent way.
The process involved sex, and blood, and darkness. The blood was Aiko’s, presumably, since it wasn’t like I had any left. But I took some damage, as well. I remember having to scrape my body together a few times, though, and I was still missing some chunks by the end.
Somewhere along the way, I got a glimpse of just what I was joining myself to, what I was letting inside. I got a tiny glimpse of what the Midnight Court was for.
I couldn’t fathom that purpose. Not really. My mind was not meant for that kind of thing, wasn’t made to process that. It was too alien to anything that I understood the world to be.
I didn’t scream at that revelation. I hadn’t been breathing for a while, at that point, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to start just for that. I couldn’t spare the attention to even if I wanted to. I got very little physical feedback from this body, and I was guessing it was just as well, because what did get through was enough to leave me half-stunned.
The next several hours stretched out into a small eternity, floating in utter darkness and bitter cold, filled with power and primeval hunger.
Later—much later, at least from my perspective—I was lying on my back on the stone floor. Mostly on my back, at least; my torso was sort of twisted on its side, and my neck was bent at an angle considerably sharper than it should have been able to get to. I wasn’t really dependent on things like nerves and muscles to control my body, and keeping it to vaguely human limits was more a matter of habit than anything.
Not that it would have looked anything like human, anyway. I’d stopped maintaining a mask of flesh over it somewhere along the way, and I hadn’t yet bothered to put it back on. As a result, my body still looked more like a vaguely humanoid ice sculpture than any kind of person.
The influence of the power I’d just taken into myself was obvious, if you know how to look. The strands of darkness tying the ice and snow together were a little bit darker, a little more real. The shadow I cast, too, was just a little larger and darker than it should have been. There was a depth there, as though when I looked into that shadow I was seeing something more than just a patch of darkened stone.
I could feel a similar depth inside me. I couldn’t really put words to it—I wasn’t entirely sure words existed for this sort of feeling. The closest I could come to really grasping it was to picture a sort of well in my soul, except instead of water, it led down into darkness. The power wasn’t in me, not really, not beyond a minimal amount to establish that connection. But I could tap a hell of a lot of it, through that connection.
That wasn’t something I could do without consequences. I didn’t fully grasp the nature of that well, and I couldn’t begin to fully comprehend the nature of the power it was tapping into. But it didn’t take a genius to guess that it wasn’t something to do casually. Power never came without a consequence, and when the source of that power was the Midnight Court, it wasn’t hard to guess that the consequence wouldn’t be a pretty one.
But if we went down, Aiko and I would go down together. If the whole thing weren’t so spectacularly messed up, it would have almost been romantic and sweet.
“So what now?” I asked, twisting my head further to the side to look at Aiko on the floor next to me. There was a quiet crack of breaking ice as I pushed the “bones” in my neck past the breaking point. It only took a moment’s thought to fuse it back together in the current position. That was definitely a bright side of being associated with ice rather than, say, stone.
“Lie here and contemplate our many and vast mistakes,” Aiko said sleepily. “Wake the dog. Then I have to go introduce myself to my new minions. You should probably be there for that. You’ll have to start making an impression on them at some point.”
“What kind of impression are you thinking?” I asked.
“They aren’t the sort of people to be impressed by nice guys,” she said. “So I figure you can just be yourself.”
I snorted. “Should be fun,” I said. “When is that?”
She shrugged, a fluid, almost boneless gesture. “Whenever I want,” she said. “Basically. Time is pretty flexible here anyway. Like, as far as anyone else is concerned, we’ve only been in here for about fifteen minutes.”
I blinked. A thin film of snow acted to lubricate the eyelid of darkness as it slid over an eyeball carved as a rough sphere of ice. It was funny how much my instinctive understanding of how a body worked carried over to this. If I’d had to actually build a functioning replica of a human body out of frozen water and darkness, I’d have had no chance at all. But if I just gave a sort of general instruction and let my subconscious take care of the details, I got a sort of functional result.
“You can do that?” I asked.
She shrugged again. “Here? Yeah, sorta. It’s not a precise sort of thing, but I can make it faster or slower.”
“That part’s nice,” I said.
Aiko grinned and nodded. “It really is,” she said. “I mean, I get that Faustian bargains are bad and everything, but damn, the perks are nice.”
“Otherwise nobody would take the deal,” I said. “All right. Putting this off any longer isn’t going to make it hurt any less. Let’s just get this over with.”
She sighed and pushed herself to her feet. “Let’s,” she said. “I’m really not looking forward to this. Who’d have guessed we’d end up here, huh? Me actually being in charge of people?”
“I don’t think anybody saw this coming,” I lied.