The funny thing, in the aftermath of that distinctly ominous conversation, was how much things hadn’t changed. There was still work to do. There were financial matters to settle out with Tindr, diplomatic messages that I needed to respond to, treaty negotiations with some rakshasa lord in Manhattan who wanted an ally. I wasn’t sure about that last one, but apparently he was politically opposed to the faction of rakshasas I’d fought in the past, and the offer was probably legitimate. The treaty was still a complex issue, though, and the negotiations were not a trivial task.
In short, there were things to do. Even with my best friend dead, my life in pieces and the world falling apart around me, the day-to-day tasks of my normal life still had to be taken care of.
I supposed that was both the greatest kindness and most ironic cruelty life had to offer. It went on.
The next two days, then, passed with relative normalcy. I even had to pass judgment on a few people, since I’d been putting it off for a while now. There were fewer people requesting me to settle their problems as a legal authority than there had been–with the supernatural out in the open it was much easier to take that kind of thing to a regular court. But there were still things that were too hard to explain, and there were people that didn’t want to settle their issues in the courts, and so I still had to keep up on it to some extent.
It wasn’t particularly difficult or dramatic work, though. In a way I wished it was. More challenging work would have demanded my attention, forced me to focus on what I was doing. It would have kept me from dwelling on how badly I’d screwed up, or how very far in over my head I was. It was hard to drive those thoughts out when I had nothing much to replace them with.
It was, as a result, almost a relief when Selene knocked on the office door and walked in with Kimiko beside her. “Someone to see you, jarl,” she said, rather unnecessarily, and then turned and left.
“Kimiko,” I said, setting aside a report Luna had compiled on the budget shortcomings of Keeper facilities in Europe. “What’s up?”
The kitsune looked at me and smiled. “It’s been a while,” she said. “I like the new look, by the way. Very…cool.”
I eyed her for a moment. She was smirking, and cracking bad puns, but it felt somehow…hollow. More like she was trying to keep up her normal facade of the happy-go-lucky kitsune with a cheesy sense of humor than like she was genuinely amused. She had a pretty good mask, but I’d spent a lot of time around Aiko. I was intimately familiar with that particular act.
I supposed that even someone like Kimiko might have gotten worn down recently. Life had a way of doing that to a person, and the past few months had been worse than most for that.
But everyone had their own way of dealing with it. So rather than point it out, I just said, “That was a bad one, even for you. You here for yourself, or for Kikuchi?”
“Kikuchi, I’m afraid,” she said. “And it’s not good news.”
I sighed. “Of course it isn’t,” I said. “Go ahead.”
“It’s a bit of a long story,” she said. “But with what the story is, I think you’ll appreciate brevity, so here’s the short version. The Daylight Court knows you’re in charge of this city, and they’ve decided to make that an issue. They’re coming to take you out, in force.”
The room was silent for around three or four seconds. I was once again reflecting on just how badly I’d screwed up. I wasn’t sure what was occupying her thoughts.
“How do you know about this?” I asked at last.
“They approached us asking for us to pitch in, and we’d get the city after you were out.” After a brief but extremely tense pause, she added, “We said no.”
I started to let out my breath, and then realized that I wasn’t really holding it. “Okay,” I said. “That’s some relief. Though…I’m guessing I already know the answer to this, but I have to ask. Is there any chance you’d help me out on this?”
“We’d like to,” she said frankly. “And that’s straight from the bossman. We like you, we like our arrangement. We’ve worked together to mutual benefit. But this is different from helping you take out a threat, or remove a destabilizing influence. This is a conflict in the war between the Sidhe Courts, and that’s not a fight that we can afford to take sides in.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “That’s about what I was expecting.”
“For what it’s worth, we do hope that you’ll win,” Kimiko said. “We hope that we can continue our current arrangement. But we will not and cannot take a stance in official Court affairs.”
“No, I completely understand,” I said. “Thanks for telling me.”
“Not a problem at all,” she said. “I won’t take any more of your time.” She started to leave, then paused. “Um,” she said, sounding horribly uncomfortable. “While I’m here, though…how’s my cousin?”
I was silent for a long moment before answering that. “Aiko’s alive,” I said at last, choosing my words carefully. “She’s…uninjured, to my knowledge. She’s feeling a bit stressed about the new job, but it’s in line with her talents, and it seems she’ll be successful enough.”
“Ah,” Kimiko said. “So it’s like that, is it?”
I sighed. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, it is.”
“Thanks,” she said, and then walked out the door.
I wasn’t sure what to do about that revelation, how to react or plan. I couldn’t take another minute of sitting in that office struggling with the problem, though, so I ended up taking to the streets, going for a walk and trying to force my thoughts into a coherent order.
It was hard, harder than it should have been. It felt like I was thinking through fog, with everything tumbling down around me. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t stop thinking about my own failures and shortcomings. Snowflake, I thought, could have snapped me out of that…but that wasn’t a possibility, and that was a part of why I was such a mess in the first place.
So I went for a walk, because activity was always what I had used to soothe my thoughts and cope with the frustration of not knowing what to do.
The streets were dark, and cold, and empty. It wasn’t midnight, but around three in the morning, the time that feels more like midnight than midnight does. The night owls and barflies and office workers staying late had drifted to their beds, the early-morning commuters hadn’t yet risen from theirs. It left the streets empty of all but maintenance workers and delivery trucks and outcasts rejected from every other hour of the day. The wind howled a low, lonely drone as it through scrawny trees and between the buildings. A scrawny homeless man shivered and shifted in his sleep, trying to find a warmer place beneath a threadbare wool blanket from the surplus store.
The hour of the wolf, I’d heard it called. The long, lonely hour of the night, when doubt preys on the mind and it seems the dawn will never come.
It seemed appropriate.
I walked away from the mansion and towards the city center, slowly, my only accompaniment a wavering, uncertain shadow and the tap-tap-tap of my footsteps on the asphalt. A delivery truck passed me, carrying goods to the supermarkets for the city to consume.
I wasn’t worried about an attack. Not yet. The Daylight Court had that name for a reason, even if they hadn’t when they first split off from the Midnight Court. They would not attack in the night, not without a very good reason. It gave me a few hours to work out a plan.
Not many. Not enough.
I needed to do something, that much seemed obvious, undeniable. But I had no notion of what to do.
I couldn’t simply stand and fight. Even with all the power I’d gained, that wasn’t a viable option. They knew what I was capable of; they would come with enough force to overwhelm me. In all probability there would be a champion of the Courts with them, either Aodh or my newly appointed counterpart, whoever that might be.
I couldn’t ask Aiko for help. Or, rather, I could, but it would achieve nothing. The Courts existed in balance; an action by one was met with reaction from the other, by necessity. If Aiko sent troops to support me, the Daylight Court would send a comparable force. If she came herself, it seemed very likely that Aoife would come to balance her power. The net effect would be no help to me, and potentially far more collateral damage.
I could gather together my allies. I could call in every debt I was owed, every favor I could beg, borrow, or steal. I could bring in every shady character that owed me a solid, every thug whose weapons could be rented for the day, every friend that would come to help bail me out. Between them, they could tip the balance. But some of them would die. And Hunter was out there, coming my way, an implacable and threatening force that made the Daylight Court’s attack seem like a pleasant diversion by comparison. I couldn’t afford to throw away any resource that I might need against him.
Or I could run.
My feet, without my conscious guidance, had carried me along a familiar route. I didn’t notice at first, but then I became aware of a nagging sense of familiarity, and then I realized where I was.
There wasn’t much to show it. The scars the fire had left on the earth were mostly gone now, and what was left was buried under a thin coat of snow. If you didn’t know better, you might not guess that a structure had ever stood on this spot.
But I knew. I remembered that tired old cabin, built long before I had been born. I remembered long evenings spent reading in front of the fireplace. I remembered cooking for Aiko, and then laughing at her expression and ordering takeout instead. I remembered playing board games with Kyra. I remembered Snowflake, just a puppy then, catching her first mouse. She dropped it on the floor at my feet and flopped down next to it, looking up at me with bright blue eyes and a silly grin.
I wasn’t sure how long I stood there, lost in a reverie. I was jolted out of it when I felt a brush against my mind, familiar without being quite recognizable–not unlike seeing the face of an old friend who used to be close, but whom you haven’t seen for years.
I saw him a moment later, tan coat fading to grey at the muzzle, ears perked up eagerly. The coyote remembered me too, it would seem. I’d shared his mind, a lifetime ago in a different world. I’d given him food and scratched his ears. We’d been friends, in our way.
Now he was grey around the muzzle, and he walked with a limp, a momentary hitch in his stride that suggested arthritis or something like it. One ear was halfway gone, torn off raggedly in a fight with some competitor.
He remembered me, though, and walked over to me with every suggestion of being glad to see me. He sat down a short distance away and looked at me, head cocked inquisitively to one side.
“Sorry, buddy,” I mumbled, knowing that he couldn’t understand the words. “No food tonight.”
He whined softly, as though to say that was okay, and then leaned a little closer. I scratched gently at his ears, the fur coarse under my frozen fingers.
A few moments passed, and then he stood and trotted off, going to find his dinner elsewhere. He shot me one last glance over his shoulder, and then kept going.
I sent one last mental feeling, an impression of best wishes and valediction. It felt very final, somehow.
Then I turned and walked away.
I knew where I was going now, though my feet were still moving on autopilot. I felt more like I was observing my actions than controlling them, like I was a stranger in my own body. I could feel a thought, a feeling, brewing somewhere in my mind. I couldn’t quite put a word to it yet, though, couldn’t get a grasp on it; it was still too unformed for that.
Time passed without thinking, one footstep following the next without an active decision.
The shop I’d worked at with Val, and then briefly without him. I’d done so much here. I’d made things, learned things. The shop had gotten me through a very dark place in my life, after I’d killed Catherine. Now it was closed down, the windows boarded up; a notice in the window said the building was condemned. There were weeds growing in the parking lot, graffiti on the walls. It seemed like no one had been there for a long time now.
The abandoned garage where I was given Tyrfing, and accepted without knowing what it meant. It was gone, nothing left but the scars of the fire.
I wasn’t sure when Val had left town. We hadn’t spoken for years, I thought. I supposed that I never really forgave him for giving me Tyrfing, for not telling me what I was doing when I took the cursed sword.
A small house in a bad neighborhood, which had once been woven through with magic to keep prying eyes away. It had been my lab for a time, and then it had been the anchor for a mansion housed in another world. It was gone, had been gone for a long time now, since the first time I ever saw a creature summoned forth from the void. The debris had been cleared since then, but no new building had been put in to replace it, and the vacant lot stood out like a gap where a tooth used to be.
It was funny how much I missed Katie, when I looked at that. I knew that she needed to die, by the end. She and Mike had gone too far to save. And yet…she meant well. She had good intentions. I knew that she was trying to do the right thing. But she said “help me” and I said “I’m sorry” and in the end, that was what mattered, wasn’t it?
Mohammed’s house, in a nicer neighborhood near the college. The windows were broken, the door sagging drunkenly from one hinge. It smelled like booze and piss and soot. Looters, it would seem.
Kyra’s house, further west, towards the edge of the city. It had been damaged in the wildfire, in the chaos after Loki’s broadcast. It had never been a nice house, but now it was far worse, parts chewed away by flames before the tengu got it put out. The wind swirled through the building, carrying with it the light rain that had begun to fall. I could smell rot from inside the husk of the house, water damage and mildew and decay.
It seemed we weren’t as close as we’d once been. I wasn’t sure when I’d spoken to Kyra last, either. I hadn’t even told her about Snowflake yet. It wasn’t like things between me and Mohammed–there was no final argument, no unforgivable offense. We’d just…drifted apart, over the years.
Pryce’s, seeming unchanged. The unmarked building still had plenty of cars parked outside, plenty of business.
He’d never really rescinded my ban. I’d been there since then, a time or two, for meetings. But only for business, for important meetings and discussions. I wasn’t a welcome visitor there, and I knew it. I didn’t go in.
Hours had gone by, now. The sky was starting to grow pale in the east, the first suggestions of the coming dawn. If I were still human, still alive, I’d have been getting hungry, sleepy, tired. I wasn’t, and I kept walking, visiting smaller places now, less significant.
Here, the hotel room where I’d told Olivia I’d set her free, and then I’d stabbed her and watched her bleed her life out onto the floor. I walked past the receptionist like I belonged there and went straight to the room–I still remembered which one it had been. They’d cleaned, or probably remodeled. There wasn’t so much as a stain on the carpet.
Here, the restaurant Aiko and I had gone to on our first real date, a Mexican place. We’d both played pranks on each other, me with habaneros and her with hallucinogens. Now the building was dark and empty, a sign announcing that it was available for lease.
Here, the park where I’d talked with Erin before we’d agreed that Catherine needed to die, way back when. I made the call and she did the deed with a sedative and a knife. We killed her to keep a secret which, now, everyone knew anyway.
The funny thing was that I never really meant to be here. In Colorado Springs. I’d only come to this city because Conn suggested it as a place I could go to school, and I had no idea what I should do with my life. I’d stayed afterwards because I had the shop, and some friends, and I still didn’t know what to do. Living here had just become a matter of habit.
Life was funny that way. Sometimes the most important choices were things that you didn’t realize were choices at all. Sometimes things just…happened.
And then, inevitably, I wound up where I’d known I would.
The wreckage had mostly been cleared long before the world as we knew it fell apart. But the crater wasn’t so easy to deal with, and in the end they’d left it more or less alone, with a plaque at the edge commemorating the people who’d been killed in the blast.
It was a large plaque. Something like twenty thousand names, even written in a small font, took up a lot of space. There was a blank space at the end, too, for anyone else who might be identified. There had been thousands more who couldn’t be identified, or who nobody had known.
Past that plaque was nothing but the crater. A gash in the world, a hundred yards across and just as deep, carved out of the earth and burned to black glass. The result of a god’s power being unleashed, for just a moment, on a world which hadn’t been built to withstand such an assault.
My fault. This had happened because of my mistakes. Close to thirty thousand deaths on my hands.
I stood and looked out over the crater for a long while.
I never really meant to be the jarl of the city. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. It had been something I agreed to out of necessity, and then kept doing because there was never a good time to quit. If someone had asked, the day I took the job, whether I wanted to leave it, I wouldn’t have hesitated on my way out the door.
Since then, things had gotten complicated.
What would happen if I did just cut and run, I wondered? What would the fallout of that choice be?
The Daylight Court would almost certainly lose interest in the place. It was important to them only because my presence made it a playing piece in the eternal war between the Courts; lacking that, it was just another mortal city.
My organization, though, would fall apart. I’d cobbled them together from jötnar and ghouls, demons and werewolves and mages and plain old human beings. They got along, but I knew damned well that they were all my minions, personally. Without me to hold them together, the arrangement would fall apart. Some of them would follow me to wherever I went next, most likely; others would continue about their lives, go their own way. There wasn’t anyone else who could hold them together and keep them here to protect the city’s fragile peace.
None of the other groups in the city could handle it, either. The Guards were spread too thin as it was. Kikuchi’s interests were elsewhere, in the mountain and the Otherside; he couldn’t maintain a strong presence in the city proper as well. None of the factions of independents was strong enough, and the werewolves lacked any kind of organization beyond mine. With Katrin’s death I’d ripped the heart out of the vampires, and the ones that were left had neither the power nor the organization to rule the city.
If I left, this city would be as badly off as any other right now. Worse, maybe. With a large population, a relatively intact infrastructure, and no major groups claiming it, it would be too tempting of a target to pass on. The last time that had happened, before I took power, it had almost torn the city to pieces, and that was when things were much better to start with.
And then there was another consideration, too.
This city had some ugly memories. There was no denying that. Bad things had happened here. I’d made mistakes, I’d lost friends. And even the good things, in a lot of cases, were gone now.
But it was still home. I’d lived here for the entirety of my adult life. Even when I’d been staying in other countries, or other dimensions, Colorado Springs had been the center of my activity. I had too many memories, too much history, here to walk away now.
This was my city.
I took a deep breath and let it out, slow and quiet. And then, as the sun was just beginning to crest the horizon, I turned and started walking back to the mansion.
I had work to do.