Aiko met me at the castle in Transylvania this time. She’d had more than her fill of Faerie lately, and things weren’t so urgent there that she had to be present all the time. Her job was really fairly hands-off most of the time, as I understood it; it was just in the transitional period as she settled in that she had to ride herd on her new minions so much.
She was there before me this time. I knew that, because when I walked in the front door I was greeted by a bucket full of some pale pink slime slick enough to make an icy floor look like dry asphalt by comparison. I wasn’t sure quite what it was, though some kind of faerie gunk seemed like a solid guess.
I hit the ground, but it was more of a comfort than anything, really. Aiko pulling harmless pranks was a way of saying that things were okay, that everything was normal and life would go on in spite of how badly wrong things had gone recently. Knowing that she’d probably done it specifically to create that impression didn’t do much to change that. I was smiling as I fell.
The smile faded quickly as I stood and carefully stepped out of the puddle of slime. Things were still too grim for it to last long. But still, I appreciated the break, however brief it was.
I found her in the kitchen, with an enormous spread of food. It wasn’t hard to guess that she hadn’t made it; Aiko was arguably a better cook than me, but that wasn’t saying much, and she was still pretty bad. Besides, this was a fae banquet; I’d seen enough of them at this point to recognize one when I saw it.
“The job might suck,” Aiko said as I walked into the kitchen, throwing a pastry at my head. “But the perks are nice.”
I caught the pastry and popped it in my mouth. It was, unsurprisingly, excellent; chocolate and something that tasted vaguely like raspberries, but probably wasn’t. “It’s good to be the queen,” I said, wondering vaguely what happened to the food I ate at this point. It wasn’t like I had a functioning digestive system, after all.
“Damn straight. How’d the fight go?”
“We won,” I said. “People died. Jibril, Vigdis, Haki, maybe Kyi. Ryan. I think those are the only ones you know.”
She winced. “Oof. That’s…damn. Sorry I couldn’t be there.”
“People die in fights,” I said, sitting down and picking up a piece of meat. It was cut into paper-thin slices, and it smelled vaguely peppery. I toyed with one of the slices as I spoke. “It’s amazing they lasted as long as they did, really.”
“Still,” she said. “That’s rough.”
I shrugged. “It is what it is. How did your side of things go?”
“I kept them busy, at least until Aoife showed up. She made me look pretty bad by comparison.”
“She’s had probably a few thousand years to get the hang of the job,” I said dryly. “It’s probably not a huge surprise that she’s better at it than you are.”
“True,” Aiko said. She shrugged. “I at least kept her busy, though. Might have made your fight a bit easier, I don’t know.”
A few minutes passed in silence after that as we ate. Well, as she ate and I picked at the food. It was excellent food, of course, but I just…wasn’t interested. I was ravenous, as always, but I knew it wouldn’t do anything to help that. Eating for the sake of eating, when it would leave me as hungry as before, felt somehow empty. It was pointless.
“So what will you do next?” Aiko said, as she finished another pastry and leaned back in her chair with a satisfied expression. “About Colorado Springs, I mean. Sounds like you lost a lot of people. You think you’ll be able to hold things together?”
“I’ve been doing some recruitment,” I said. “Including some cousins of yours, actually. Maybe you know them? Three kitsune that work as a group, introduced themselves as Kyoni, Kiyanna, and Suiko.”
Aiko paused for a moment. “Ah,” she said, in a slightly displeased tone. “Those three.”
“Should I be concerned?”
She paused again before speaking, and I got the impression that she was trying to come up with the right words to use. “Let me put it this way,” she said. “They’re the kind of kitsune that give the rest of us a bad name.”
I considered some of the things I’d seen Aiko do.
I winced. “Oh,” I said. “They’re that bad?”
“You know how there are stories of kitsune possessing people and making them do crazy things?” she said. “Kyoni does that. A lot. Not to mention all the normal crazy things they do. Even when I was in my rebellious phase, I thought that crew went too far.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty impressive.” I paused. “They’re talented, though,” I said. “I mean, I saw them working in the fight. They know what they’re doing. And possession is serious magic, so if Kyoni can do that, she’s probably got some skills.”
“Yeah,” Aiko said.
“Okay,” I said. “You know these people, and you know about what my situation is. Do you think I should keep them as employees?”
She frowned, and spent several moments thinking about it. “I’d have to say yes,” she said at last. “They’re not pleasant people, at least not by my standards. But they like being in a position of power, and they know that they’ve got a better chance of getting away with things if they have somebody important backing them up. So I don’t think they’d turn on you, and they really are good at what they do.”
I sighed. “Good enough, then. Can’t say I’m thrilled by it, but beggars can’t be choosers and all that.” I snorted. “Besides, they should fit in fine with that crowd.”
“Who else did you hire?”
“Some more ghouls and giants,” I said. “Some odd people from the local scene. A few demons Selene knows. Oh, and a bunch of your minions that are working for me now.”
Aiko whistled. “Damn. That’s a pretty solid gang. At least in the sense of nobody smart wanting to mess with it.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I’m feeling pretty confident about their chances if there’s another attack. Which probably just means the next one will be much worse than I’m planning for, but that’s how it goes.” I shrugged. “Anyway, do you need to be getting back?”
“Nah, I don’t have any Court business that I need to take care of right now. Think I looked badass enough earlier that my minions won’t make trouble for a while, anyway. Besides, I’m in the mood for a bit of celebration.”
I started to ask what Aiko meant by that. Before I could, she grabbed me by the hand and tugged me away from the table, smiling slyly.
I didn’t argue. I’d already been thinking that I needed a break, from my own head as much as my circumstances. This was…as good a way as any to get away from that cycle of negativity.
Later, lying in bed, Aiko said, “I think I know what you need to do.”
It took me a few seconds to respond. I’d assumed that she was asleep. I was…not sleeping, exactly, sleep wasn’t a thing that I was even really capable of now, but close to it. “What do you mean?” I managed eventually, turning to face her.
“I think I know what you need to do,” she said again.
I eyed her suspiciously. “This is going to be one of your plans, isn’t it?”
“When have my plans ever gotten you into trouble?”
“Do you want an itemized list?” I asked. “Or should I just say ‘all of them’ and leave it at that?”
She sniffed. “Okay, fine. But they do usually work, and it’s not like you’ve been having great luck coming up with a plan for dealing with Hunter.”
“Good point,” I admitted. “What’s the plan, then?”
She told me the plan. Afterwards, I spent several seconds just staring at her. It was pitch black in the bedroom, but that really didn’t matter; we could both see just fine in the dark.
“Wow,” I said at last. “That’s…impressive. You know, I’m not sure the new title is good for you. Your plans have always tended towards the insane, but this is an entirely different level of risky. There are so many ways this could go wrong, I can’t even count them all.”
“But you’re going to do it anyway,” she said. “Aren’t you?”
I sighed. “I guess I’ll try,” I said. “It’s not like I have any better ideas. And your plans are…well. They might be insane, and risky, and insane, and prone to backfire, and insane, but they do have a tendency to work. Even if I’d rather they not.”
Aiko grinned like a lunatic. “Awesome!” she said. “Guess I’d better get going, then. Need to make sure things can do without me back there for a while.”
“Because it’ll take you a while to get things set up for this,” she said. “And I don’t want to miss it when you’re ready to spring the trap.” She got out of bed and sauntered off, whistling. After a few moments, I felt a portal open, and she was gone.
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