David arranged to meet me outside of an ice cream parlor downtown. It was a place I’d been before, along with a sizable proportion of the city’s population. It was a smaller shop, but it had a good reputation, and it was fairly popular. Even in the late evening, in the winter, it was doing a brisk business.
I felt inordinately proud of that. People were still nervous, undeniably; plenty of them still carried weapons, openly or otherwise. But they were out and about, after dark, and they didn’t look like people living in a warzone. It was hard to believe that just a couple months ago you couldn’t walk down the street without fearing for your life. It was hard to believe that there were so many places that you still couldn’t.
Neither of us had brought thugs, this time, by unspoken agreement. This wasn’t a meeting between the Guards and…whatever you called my organization. This was between him and me. I did have Snowflake with me, but that hardly counted.
It felt oddly…peaceful. There was very little tension, on either side. I didn’t really have to worry about him; his magic wasn’t the kind of thing that could present more than a temporary setback to me. At the same time, I was reasonably confident that I couldn’t actually get to him before he could escape. It meant that we both knew the other wasn’t in a position where they could hurt us, like mutually assured destruction in reverse.
“You’ve been busy,” David said, leaning back on the bench and sipping at a milkshake.
“It’s been a busy time,” I agreed. I didn’t have any ice cream myself. I wasn’t hungry. Or, more accurately, I was, but not in a way that food could assuage. “You know what I was doing?”
How could I not?” he asked. “You’ve not been particularly subtle.”
“I think I’ll be bringing the Lighters down shortly,” I said. “For good, I mean.”
“By yourself?” he asked. “That’s ambitious.”
I shook my head. “I’ve already done my part,” I said. “I have more than enough dirt on them to finish the job if I spread it around. Plenty of information on who they are and where to find them, and enough detail on what they’ve done that a lot of people would want to end them. I wouldn’t have to lift a finger.”
“I see,” he said after a moment. “It might be better if you didn’t do that.”
I nodded. I’d been expecting him to say something like that. “Why are you protecting these people?” I asked. “I mean, you all but handed me the details I needed to chase them down.”
There was a long pause. “What you did was one thing,” he said at last. “You had reason, and it needed done. Frankly, someone needed to take them down a notch. But actually wiping them out? That’s not as good. Their viewpoint needs to be preserved.”
“Their viewpoint is a bunch of lunatics murdering anyone that looks slightly different from their idea of what a person ought to,” I said sharply. “I’m not entirely sure what value you see in preserving that.”
David looked at me for a second, then said, “We’re losing.”
I blinked. “Um. Against what?”
“In general,” he said. “You know better than most how large the world is, Winter. And how small we are by comparison. We’re small fish in a very, very big ocean.”
“The Conclave are hardly small fish,” I said dryly.
“You’re not thinking on the right scale,” David said. “This whole planet is small. Practically insignificant. Faerie is bigger than this, and any one of the Queens is a match for any of the Conclave, easily. Then there’s Hell, your giants, the tengu. And that’s just the places with a presence in this city. Nobody even knows how many things there are in Limbo that don’t even have names. There are whole domains we’ve never even seen.”
“And gods,” I said.
He paused, and looked away from me. “Yeah,” he said. “And that. You see what I’m saying, though? Humanity is outnumbered. Add them all up, and it’s probably hundreds or thousands to one.”
“I always feel uncomfortable when people get onto this topic,” I said idly. “The whole ‘us against them’ thing. Because I’m kind of on the other side, aren’t I? I’m at least mildly affiliated with every one of the groups you just named, and I’m not remotely human.”
“And I don’t have a problem with that,” David said. “Give me some credit, Winter. I don’t hate nonhumans. It’s not a matter of us against them. You play the game, you help to keep things working. You’re not running around murdering people for kicks. As far as I’m concerned, you’re fine.”
I stared at him for a moment, then sighed. “Okay,” I said. “Whatever you’re getting at right now, I’m not in a condition to catch it. What are the Lighters good for if not murdering everything that isn’t exactly the right kind of human for their tastes?”
David pursed his lips and thought for a moment. “You’re fine,” he said at last. “But that doesn’t mean everyone is. And we need people who can deal with the ones that aren’t. I can live with being a small fish in a big ocean, but if we don’t have some kind of protection, we’ll be eaten.”
“Frankly, I much prefer the Guards for the protection.”
“It’s nice that you’d say that,” he said, smiling. That smile faded quickly. “But that brings us back to where I started. We’re losing. You know how many Guards died in the first month after Loki’s announcement?”
“Forty-one. Around a sixth of us, gone.”
I whistled. “Damn.”
He nodded. “Then there was the mess in Russia. Another in Korea, didn’t get quite as bad, but we still lost people stopping it. Add in smaller scale crises, and Guards just getting unlucky, and we’re up to sixty-seven dead. More that are out of commission while they recover.”
“But you’re recruiting more,” I said. “That whole shift to the public approach, recruiting people from outside the clans.”
“Yeah,” David said. “But it’ll take time to train them, and in the meantime we’re losing more. And we’ll never be really numerous. There aren’t that many people with enough magic to work, and of those, a lot don’t have things that help much in a fight. Then how many of those have the mindset that would make a person want to join the Guards?” He shrugged. “There’s not many people with the potential, and it takes too long to train them.”
Damn, Snowflake said. That’s…pretty grim.
Yeah, I said. Then, out loud, “You’re sure of all this?”
He nodded. “I’ve seen the models,” he said. “If there’s an error in them, it’s one that I couldn’t find. And even the most optimistic models don’t have us being as prevalent as we’d need to be to keep things under control on our own.”
I took a deep breath and let it out. “Well,” I said. “That’s rough. That’s why you guys want the Lighters around, then? So they can cover the little things and leave you to focus on the problems they can’t handle?”
“That was the argument that got me to put up with them,” he confirmed. “They’re xenophobic lunatics, but they’re numerous, fairly effective, and they aren’t affiliated with any political group in particular, which should keep them mostly out of the infighting. I’m hoping the philosophy can find a more…discriminating expression, but at the moment it’s just too damn useful to let it die.”
I nodded slowly. “All right, then,” I said. “I understand a little better now, I think. I’ll hold off on publishing those files.”
“Thank you,” David said. “Though I wouldn’t mind a copy for our use. At the very least, it would help us know which of them need to be reined in.”
“I’ll have something sent over.” I paused as a group of teenagers walked by, talking and laughing. Most of them had ice cream. “I’m kind of sorry it didn’t work out with me being a part of the Guards,” I said, after they’d gone past us. “It seems like you’re trying to do a good thing there. It would have been interesting to be a part of it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. I misjudged you at first, Winter. I thought you were just a shallow punk who’d gotten lucky. But I was wrong. I think you could have done a lot if you’d been able to stay on with us.”
“That’s how it goes,” I said, shrugging. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter what any of us would like. Things are the way they are.”
He nodded, and pushed himself to his feet. “I should be going,” he said. “There’s work to do.”
“Same here,” I sighed. “As always. Good luck.”
“You too,” he said. “Try not to get killed out there.”
He turned, and walked away. I sat there for a while, and then got some ice cream before I left. Snowflake had a cup of the peanut butter flavor, made a spectacular mess, and enjoyed every moment of it.