“Well,” Aiko said, once I’d finished telling her what happened. “That’s not terribly helpful.”
“Not surprising,” I said. “I mean, the Conclave really can’t afford to have anything to do with Hunter at this point. I can see why they wouldn’t want to have any appearance of being involved with that.”
“Assume I’m right,” I said. “Hunter went too far to the edge of reality, and he realized that there was something outside of this world. He realized that the void exists, and he figured out how to pull things from there into here.”
“That all sounds reasonable.”
“It’s the best explanation I’ve got,” I agreed. “So how do you think the gods would react to that? They apparently take that kind of thing really, really seriously. They do not like people opening those doors, at all. And they aren’t shy about showing it, either.” I shook my head. “The Conclave might have chosen to wipe records of the other three,” I said. “I’m not sure. But I’d wager they weren’t the ones that made the call to erase Hunter, and they don’t want to seem like they’re trying to go back on that.”
“Huh,” she said. “That’s…probably not inaccurate. I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms before.”
“Me either, but it makes sense.” I glowered at nothing in particular and took a drink of tea. It was really, incredibly good tea, sharp and strong and bracing. It was, in fact, very probably the best tea I’d ever had. It hadn’t quite occurred to me that the fae would be as improbably good at tea as they were at things like wine, though it probably should have.
There were a lot of things to complain about with this gig, but I had to admit, the creature comforts were pretty nice. Lounging with Aiko on a black silk couch that felt lighter than a cloud, sipping that tea and nibbling on delicate chocolate pastries more perfectly prepared than anything a mortal chef ever made…it was a position I’d have killed to be in, for a lot of my life.
In hindsight, I hadn’t known how good I had it back then. But then, wasn’t that always the case? You didn’t know what you had until it was gone.
“Do you know what he meant when he said I should ask the fae?” I asked, trying to break that bleak pattern of thought.
“Nope,” Aiko said cheerfully, stuffing another pastry into her mouth. “This is the first I’ve heard of a connection between Hunter and the fae.”
“You know, for how powerful you are in their hierarchy, they don’t seem to be telling you much,” I said. I wasn’t sure quite what tone to take with that statement, and ended up going with noncommittal by default.
“It’s not really a power thing,” she said, shrugging. “It’s more of a role thing. Maiden, mother, crone, remember? Old history, Court secrets…that’s not really my job. It’s not what I’m supposed to be dealing with, so I don’t need to know.”
“What is your job, then?” I asked. “I haven’t gotten entirely clear on that.”
Aiko frowned. “It has a lot to do with beginnings,” she said slowly. “It’s…planting seeds, encouraging things to grow. I have more involvement with the mortal world than the other two, I think. It’s hard to put into words, but I think the idea is that I’m supposed to spread the ideas that make the Midnight Court function. It’s not really doing anything with the influence, or capitalizing on it. That’s the others’ job.”
“Just as well,” I said. “Inspiring others to mischief and maliciousness you can do. Planning? Maybe not so much.”
“It works out nicely,” she agreed. “That’s not what you mean, though, is it?”
“I think,” I said slowly, “that it fits a little too well.”
“You think someone planned it,” she corrected me. “That someone arranged it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, come on. Things this huge, this significant, they don’t just happen. And it fits together so well. You winding up with this power, me as your champion, the whole thing working out this way. That’s not coincidence.” I shook my head. “The question isn’t so much whether this was arranged. It’s who arranged it, and why. And for how long, actually.”
“What do you mean?”
“When did you first seriously think we might end up together?” I asked, knowing what the answer was.
“When we were escaping from Ryujin’s palace,” she said instantly, just like I’d expected. “You played along with the plan, and it worked. It was fun.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And hey, guess who was the reason that happened? That’s right, it was Loki. What a coincidence.”
“Oh,” she said. “Good point. But…does it really matter? I love you. That feeling is real, whether it was a part of some plan or not. If the feeling is genuine, is it important whether somebody else wanted it to happen?”
“No,” I said. “I guess not. I’m just curious how much of this was intended from the start.”
The conversation lapsed for a bit after that. I was thinking of how I felt like I was a pawn in some vast game I was just now beginning to see, and nobody could be bothered to tell me the rules or the stakes. Aiko seemed to mostly be busy making a fool of herself with some sort of cream puff.
“So what now?” she asked, after minute or so, with a bit of cream still around her mouth. “You think you’ll keep looking for Hunter?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s…what else can I do?”
“You could just let it go.”
I shook my head slowly. “No,” I said. “I couldn’t. I won’t have a moment’s peace until this is done, one way or the other. And besides, I just…I can’t not follow up on it.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I guess I can understand that. So what next? Are you going to ask the other Queens?”
“No,” I said. “If your side wanted me to know, they’d have told you. And I somehow doubt the Daylight side of things would be too thrilled with me asking them for answers, all things considered. No, I think I’m going to have to look elsewhere. There are other fae that might know.”
She was quiet for a long moment. “Those are dangerous people to ask,” she said at last.
“Gosh, me taking risks,” I said dryly. “What a surprise.”
She laughed, and grabbed at me, and for a time such matters were forgotten. And if even that left me feeling cold and hollow, it was still better than dwelling on things further.
Meeting with Prophet had been a dangerous proposition. He was, in all probability, the most powerful human being in the world. The only people I could think of offhand who might compete weren’t really human in any meaningful sense; Conn, Lucius, these were people that had left humanity behind a long time ago.
In any case, Prophet was on an entirely different level than I was, in several senses. He was personally powerful enough that any fight between us would probably end with me as a stain on the floor. Odds were good that he had a way to get around my ability to make new bodies for myself, too. On top of that, he was the most influential member of a magical conspiracy that had an enormous amount of control over the world, and if he really wanted to, he could assemble an army that could turn a city to glass.
In short, he was the kind of guy you did not lightly cross. I didn’t think he had anything in particular against me, but even so, being in the same room with him was an unsettling prospect. It was like being in a room with someone who had a loaded gun. Sure, they probably weren’t going to shoot you, but it was hard not to be acutely aware that they could.
That said, the next meeting I managed to set up was worse. Much, much worse.
I met him on the Otherside, in a backwater domain loosely associated with Faerie. It was a place I’d used as a staging area for portals in the past, but not much beyond that.
He showed up exactly on time, half an hour after I did. He looked about the same as I’d always seen him, a male Sidhe with blunt, almost ugly features. He was wearing the same clothing, too, plain breeches held up with a rope belt, and the skin of a wolf for a cloak.
I noticed that the wolf’s skin wasn’t as fresh as I remembered. It didn’t move of its own accord, didn’t leave streaks of blood on his skin where it passed. I wasn’t sure what that meant.
“Blaise,” I said, nodding to him respectfully and just a bit warily. I didn’t know much about him, but what I did know was enough to make me take him very seriously. He was a Twilight Prince, influential enough that he had input on decisions that affected all of the fae. He was Sidhe, but he disdained Court politics, which very few people could get away with. He was scary powerful, and ancient. They called him the Son of Wolves, and I didn’t know why.
And he’d taken an interest in me, way back when, at the same party where Loki had first openly messed with my life. Somehow I didn’t think the timing there was a coincidence.
“Winter,” he said, in a pleasant, even voice.
“I’m glad you could take the time to meet with me on such short notice,” I said.
“I’ve been expecting this call for some time,” he said. His voice was dry.
“Of course you have,” I muttered. “Okay then, I won’t waste time. I’m guessing you know why I asked to talk to you.”
“You want answers,” he said. “To some very important and very fundamental questions, some of which you don’t yet know you have.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a fair way to summarize it, I guess. So do you have information I need? And if so, what will it cost me?”
“Do you remember the first time we spoke?” he asked. “I asked you three questions, then. Do you remember what they were?”
“I do,” I said. “You asked why I was there. Whether I was happy. And whether I wanted power.”
“Correct,” Blaise said. “I said, at the time, that I looked forward to seeing how your answers changed in the future. I think that time has come. So tell me, Winter. Why are you here?”
“Because it’s where I was meant to be,” I said dully. “Because there’s a plan for me, isn’t there? There was always a plan for me. And this is the next thing that needs to happen for that plan.”
“Are you happy?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not. The game is rigged, isn’t it? I try and I try, but I can’t get anywhere. I do my best, but it’s never good enough. I know I did something wrong, but when I look back at it, I don’t know what I should have done differently.” I swallowed hard, more out of habit than anything. I didn’t need to breathe, and I couldn’t cry if I wanted to. “I never meant it to be like this,” I said. “I…I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, but somehow I’m so far down this road that I can’t go back.”
He nodded. “And tell me, do you desire power?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “Damn me, I do.”
“Things have changed, it would seem,” Blaise said. His voice was calm and dispassionate, an observer with no particular care for what he saw.
“Everything has changed,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Come. I have answers for you. You will not like them, I think, but I have them.” He started walking off through the sparse trees, not looking back.
I followed. I wasn’t sure what else to do.