The throne room had undergone some major renovations since the last time I saw it. Not surprising, I supposed. This room was the center of Aiko’s power, at this point. It made sense that it was the first place to reflect the new ownership.
The basic structure was the same. It was a vast, open room. Cavernous, really. But cosmetically, it was very different. Rather than total darkness, it was defined by the interplay of light and shadow. Mostly it was kept dark, but there were patches that were brightly lit. The light shifted and danced slowly, unpredictably. As was often the case, it didn’t so much illuminate the darkness as emphasize by contrast just how deep it ran.
The floor had also changed. Instead of flat, featureless black stone, it was black with swirls of crimson running through it. The color was arranged in ways that almost, but never quite, formed repeating patterns. There were patches of ice on the ground, as well, and snowdrifts scattered irregularly around the room. The lights reflected off the snow, adding another layer to the slow, constant dance of light and shadow.
The throne had shifted as well. Scáthach had sat on a chair carved from a single piece of gem-quality amethyst. This was similar, but it was a blood-red stone rather than violet. Ruby, or something like it. And while it still had an assortment of runes and hieroglyphs carved into the stone, pride of place was clearly held by a stylized image of a diving falcon on the back of the chair. After a moment I recognized it as the coat of arms Loki had assigned her, way back when. At the time, I hadn’t understood why she would need a coat of arms.
How long had this been planned, I wondered? Since the day I met her? Since before that? Just how much of what had happened to us had been planned from the start?
The room was crowded with every sort of fae that I could imagine, from Sidhe nobles to hags and trolls. Every last one of them got well out of our way as we walked in, leaving a ten-foot aisle to the throne absolutely empty. We walked up to it in total silence.
Aiko sat—or, more accurately, lounged—in the throne. I stood next to it, with Snowflake by my feet, and tried to look threatening and ominous. It was probably undercut a bit by the fact that I was dressed in casual clothing rather than armor.
Although I wasn’t planning on that staying the case for long. There were reasons I didn’t feel the need to wear armor.
“Okay,” Aiko said. Her voice carried through the room like she was using a high-quality PA system. “I’m taking charge here. Now, I’m sure there’s going to be some urge for a lot of you to cause trouble for me while I’m getting used to the role. I’m telling you right now that that is a bad idea. You annoy me and I’m perfectly fine with killing you. This is the only warning I plan to give you, so I suggest you take it seriously.”
“Do you really intend to kill everyone that goes against your whim?” one of the Sidhe nobles said. All of the Sidhe were beautiful, of course, but his beauty was less attractive than most, and more condescending, a silent statement that he was better than everyone and everything around him. He sounded oily, and he smelled like a snake.
“I figure I’ll have the thug do it,” she said, nudging me in the ribs with her foot. I suddenly noticed that she was barefoot. Of course she was. Cold wasn’t a problem for her anymore. We had that in common. Which was a good thing, really. Otherwise she’d be liable to get frostbite just being near me.
The Sidhe responded in what was, really, a very predictable way. He threw a blast of dark fire at me, something that didn’t so much cast light as eat it, and left an acidic scent in the air behind it.
I didn’t even try to dodge, and the blast hit me in the face. My head exploded into a cloud of steam, and the rest of my body collapsed to the ground.
There was no pain. That was the most interesting thing about it. There was no pain response associated with what happened.
There was just a sudden, wrenching shift in perspective. My view of the world twisted, instantly and dramatically.
The most immediately noticeable thing was a sort of loss of location. I wasn’t associated with a specific point in space. Or, rather, I was, but the relationship was suddenly a great deal looser. A single step could carry me across the room, since I wasn’t really moving in any physical way. Movement was just how I conceptualized a transition, a shift in focus and attention.
The second thing that changed was the pattern of light and darkness. It went from a constantly shifting maze to a pattern that was static, locked in place. It also had nothing to do with illumination. Again, it was just how my mind was interpreting something completely unrelated to visual input.
Instead, it indicated the presence of something in line with my nature. Here, the “light” indicated the presence of ice and snow, of cold. The snowbanks and ice slicks in the room burned with a cold light to my sight, casting a dimmer glow over their immediate surroundings. The stretches of stone between them, meanwhile, were dark and empty.
I took a moment to orient myself and decide what to do next. It didn’t take long. Like a fool, the Sidhe noble who’d blasted me was standing right next to a snowbank, with his back turned towards it.
I took a step towards that snowbank, blurring across the empty stone floor between me and it. I couldn’t have stood there if I wanted to; there was nothing to host me, nothing for my mind to inhabit.
Once there, I stepped into the snow, and then through it. The world twisted again, snapping back into a view more in line with what I had grown accustomed to in life, as a loose body formed itself out of snow. I called Tyrfing as I reached out with one arm, forming a rough pseudopod out of snow.
The cursed sword still came when I called. If I’d had any doubt that I was really me, that would have settled it. I might have changed in ways that I could never have seen coming or comprehended before they happened, but it still recognized me. It was still bonded to me. ‘Til death did we part, if death was even a concept that could be applied to me anymore.
My “body” wasn’t much—just a torso and a pair of arms extending out of the snow, with no clear features. It took time to form a decent replica of the body I’d had.
But for all its crudity, it did have one undeniable perk. It was strong. Something of the unnatural strength I’d had, as a werewolf and a jotun and who knew what else, carried over. There was something else there, too, a trace of darkness that was a new element in my composition, a shadow just a bit deeper than the mere absence of light.
I shaped myself out of the snow, and before anyone could so much as shout a warning, I hit the Sidhe nobleman with Tyrfing and the kind of force that could punch holes in concrete. He hit the ground in two pieces, both flickering with pale fire from the touch of the iron.
A second or two later, my body collapsed back into snow, casting me back into that disembodied state. It had been too hastily constructed, too unfinished to hold me for more than a moment or two. Tyrfing clattered to the floor beside the dying Sidhe, the blade gleaming against the floor. No one moved towards it.
I could see the sudden wave of shock go through the fae as they realized what had just happened. More than a few people cast sidelong glances at the snow and ice and edged away from it, suddenly realizing that it was more than just a choice of decor.
“I can’t change what you are,” Aiko said into the echoing silence. “I can’t alter your natures. I’m not even going to try. But I can impose some limits. I am your Queen, and you will acknowledge that.” The words sounded odd, vague and warped, like I was hearing them underwater. Probably because I wasn’t really hearing them. There was enough here for me to work with that I could understand them to some extent, but it wasn’t the same thing at all.
I found it interesting, in a way, the extent to which her role had already influenced her. Aiko had never been that much of a commanding presence, really. But now there was a regality to her bearing, an almost palpable authority. She’d just told this entire room full of Sidhe to sit down and shut up, and not a single voice was raised against her.
And granted probably part of that was because of the clear possibility that I’d cut them in half if they tried. But then again, this was the Midnight Court. Violence was a part of their nature. That wasn’t really good or evil, as such. It was just…what they were.
“I will meet with many of you in the coming weeks,” Aiko continued. “I expect I will be making some changes around here. In the meantime, you may go and consider what has been said here.”
Every single one of them knelt for a moment, then stood and began filing out. There must have been more fae magic at work, because despite the size of the crowd and the fact that there was only one exit, it only took a few moments for the room to be empty.
No one went near the corpse, or the sword, or even looked at them too closely.
I stepped into another snowbank, then just waited as they left. I couldn’t see anything much in that state. I was too coherent, too closely tied to a specific body, to use the weird sensory model that I’d picked up when I ceased to be a fully living being. But the senses I was more used to, and which I instinctively mimicked while in a body, were largely blocked by the snow.
It wasn’t exactly a moment of vulnerability. I was still, for all practical intents and purposes, invulnerable. Even if someone destroyed everything that could host me—every bit of snow and ice, every predator, everything that I could manifest through to act on the world—even then, I wouldn’t really be hurt. Not in a meaningful way. Inconvenienced, perhaps. But not hurt, not killed. From what Fenris had said, there were very few things that could kill me at this point.
But that in-between state was definitely a moment of weakness. It was a moment when my ability to perceive and influence the world was sharply limited.
I dimly heard footsteps coming closer, then stopping. “Well,” Aiko said, outside my snowbank. I wasn’t sure how she’d known which one I was in, beyond the obvious. “That was fun.”
I waited a moment longer for my body to finish forming, then clawed my way out of the snow. It moved aside at a touch, or a thought. It was mine to command.
This body wasn’t as good as the one that had been destroyed. It was still a little crude, lacking the fine details. Even if I put on an illusory mask of flesh and blood over it, I was guessing it would be noticeably imperfect. It wouldn’t look real. But it was functional, and it was formed enough that I could sustain it more or less indefinitely.
“I would have thought you’d hate it,” I commented, sitting down and leaning back into the snow. The image amused me—snow leaning into snow. Even if I was as much formed of ice and darkness as actual snow. “Too political.”
“The Midnight Court has a fun sort of politics,” she said. “And they mostly have to deal with my whims, instead of the other way around. That makes it easier.”
“You can’t lie, can you?” I asked.
“Not as such,” she said. “No. That was part of the deal I made.”
I nodded. It made sense. Even if she hadn’t been born fae, she’d effectively chosen to become such when she took the job. It fit that she would have taken on some of their weaknesses as well.
“That’s going to be hard,” I commented. “Especially for you.”
She grinned broadly. “Just means I have to get twistier,” she said.
I nodded with a creak of breaking ice. “Yeah,” I said. “What now?”
“I’m going to have to have those meetings,” she said. “There’s a lot to do right now. I’m not doing this job the same way Scáthach did.”
“Do you think you’ll have the choice?” I asked.
“I think so,” she said. “The role is…it isn’t a cookie cutter. It isn’t about forcing people into exactly the right mold. It’s more a matter of…expressing the right concepts. How I go about expressing those concepts is up to me.”
“Two plus two is four,” I said. “But so is three plus one.”
“Or two times two,” she said. “Yeah. That’s a good analogy. I actually have more flexibility than I would have expected.”
“That’s good,” I said. “Do you want me here to put the fear of me into them?”
She hesitated, then shook her head. “No,” she said. “Thanks, but no. I have to show them that I can stand up for myself.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ve got my own things to take care of. Meeting with my minions and reestablishing control in Colorado Springs. I’ll meet you back here?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Do that. You can get back on your own?”
“I haven’t forgotten how to open portals,” I said dryly. “I can get back around on my own.” I stood with another creak of breaking ice and shifting snow. “Come on, Snowflake,” I said. “Let’s let her do Court things. I think you’re going to enjoy this trip.”
Will we get to kill things? she asked, standing up from where she’d been lazing next to the throne. She hadn’t even gotten up at any point, or involved herself in the proceedings in any way. Smart dog.
“If past experience of what happens when I leave that city to its own devices is any guide?” I said. “Yeah. Probably we will.”
Cool, she said. I can’t wait.
We’d debated, at first, telling my minions what had happened. Or something of it. Most of them weren’t remotely equipped to understand the full reality of it, but the gist could have been explained.
In the end, though, we’d decided it was a bad idea. I had enough henchpersons that I couldn’t remotely guarantee that all of them were loyal. Even of the ones that were loyal, there was no guarantee that they were smart. Hell, given that they were working for me, there was practically the opposite. So any information shared with them was potentially information leaked to an enemy.
In the end, we’d decided to just carry on like nothing had happened. Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated, and such. Some of them, of course, would know better. And my inner circle would have to be informed, at least partially. But for most of them, this was need-to-know information, and they didn’t need to know.
Most of them didn’t even know I wasn’t dead and gone. I’d sent messages to Kyi and Selene, including statements that they shouldn’t inform anyone else. I thought the reactions to my reappearance would be telling.
I’d told some other people, as well. Friends, mostly. I’d made sure that Kyra, Anna, and Edward all knew. I’d sent a message to Alexis. There were a couple of other werewolves I’d known when I was younger who were still around, and some people from Pryce’s.
I’d seriously thought about letting them continue thinking I was dead. It would probably have been kinder to them, all things considered. But in the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to do so. I’d already lost…so much of my old life. Things I’d given up, and things that had been taken from me. I couldn’t bring myself to cut those ties as well.
By the time I got back to the city, it was dusk. The sunset was beautiful, and I stopped to watch it before going in. It seemed like it had been ages since I’d just stood and watched the sunset.
It was interesting how much comfort the little things could provide, when the big things were ugly.
Once it was dark, I walked up to the door and opened it without knocking. The wards let me through without complaint. I’d been keyed into them when they were built, and I was still me enough for them to recognize. Snowflake came in, as well, walking just to my right.
I’d taken the time to finish sculpting my body into a passable imitation of the original, and I was maintaining the mask over it. Clothing hadn’t been an issue; my suite at the Isle of Shadows had a full closet, including duplicates of everything from the castle in Romania. Those duplicates were absolutely perfect, right down to the magic I’d woven into the fabric.
I walked into the throne room, and by prior arrangement, everyone of real importance in my organization was there waiting for me. I wasn’t sure how Selene had managed to get everyone there at once, at just the right time, without any of them noticing anything odd about it. She was really very good at what she did.
The response when I walked in was instant and pronounced.
Jibril looked momentarily, intensely annoyed. Then the ghoul smiled wryly and nodded to me. The gesture reminded me of a fencer’s acknowledgment of a touch, not so much a greeting as recognition of a point scored.
Vigdis whooped and threw her arms up, grinning like a madwoman. It was nice that someone was glad to see me again, at least. Even if it was just because she was a psychopath and I let her kill people on a fairly regular basis.
Between those two extremes, the responses were mostly defined by their surprise, or lack thereof. Most of them seemed shocked. A few—Kjaran and Luna, in particular—very much didn’t.
But by and large, they seemed glad to see me. They seemed glad to have me back.
I wasn’t sure why that was as much of a surprise as it was.
“Hi,” I said, walking up to my throne of black iron. I thought, with a sort of wry amusement, that our days of complaining about the thing were probably gone. I didn’t have the physical responses to make it really uncomfortable, and if Aiko was really fae now, odds were good she couldn’t stand the iron. “Did you miss me?”
There was a momentary pause, then the room filled with laughter. It was a relieved sort of laughter, the sound you make when it turns out that everything’s going to be okay after all. I found myself grinning as I settled down into the throne. As much as I hated the thing, as much as I’d never wanted this job, there was something…comforting about coming back to it. There was a feeling of continuity about it, a feeling that as much as everything had changed, some things were still the same.
Selene was standing next to me with a sandwich and a cup of tea—cold tea, of course; I could imagine the effect of drinking hot tea, and it wasn’t likely to be a fun one. Kyi was going over scouting reports and talking with the housecarls about patrol schedules and countermeasures. Tindr was walking up with a notebook full of numbers.
It felt like coming home. I’d never have expected it, but somewhere along the way, this had turned into home.
My city. In spite of everything, this was still my city.