After the battle, I had to come up with more people to fill out the ranks of my organization. Well, I didn’t have to, I supposed. I could just quit the whole thing. But all my reasons for not doing that before still applied. I was not going to give up on this city, but I quite simply needed more people to hold it than I had right now.
Some I could get from the same places as usual. Most of the ghouls were leaving after Jibril’s death, but some liked their arrangement with me enough to stay on, and most of them had friends to invite now that there were openings. Similarly, there were plenty of jötnar who were happy to sign up. More than before, even, since at this point I was more than just a jarl where they had a real chance of getting ahead without the competition they’d see in more stablished courts. I was all of that, with a reputation for winning on top.
That wasn’t enough, though. Not really. It would take time for them to get here, and even then they wouldn’t be enough. Ghouls and giants were great thugs, there was no denying that, but they didn’t have the versatility that I needed. Hell, I was pretty sure the only reason I’d done as well as I had to this point was that I had a broad variety of people working for me. Between them, one of them could usually come up with a skill that was relevant to the problem at hand. I’d be a fool to give that up.
So in addition to the usual answers, I was also looking for new minions in less…obvious places.
I started with Pryce’s. Well, not exactly–I wasn’t comfortable going there myself, not when I’d never quite been given permission to come back–but I started by sending some people there. I had more than a couple of minions who went there regularly enough to be familiar faces, and they had some idea of what kind of people to look for. They didn’t pressure people to join up, but they made it clear that I was hiring, and I had a good enough impression that a few of them were interested.
That got me a couple of the more violent or desperate mages, and a few people who were less easily classified. The independent community was, after all, defined largely by not fitting into the neat categories. And so I had one guy that could see perfectly in the dark ever since an incident with a sentient shadow, a girl that was born with a preternatural resistance to heat…that sort of thing. They were niche talents, but useful in the event that we needed them.
Still, that left me needing more bodies, if I was going to have any chance of holding off another attack comparable to the last one. I started out by asking some of the people who’d come to help with the Daylight attack whether they were interested in staying on more permanently. It made sense, given that I knew they were willing to fight on my behalf, and they were already in the area.
The process went both better and worse than I would have guessed.
The kitsune were the first group I talked to, largely because they actually approached me rather than the other way around.
All three of the ones who’d come to the battle showed up to the meeting, as a group. There were two females and one male, and now that I got a closer look and I wasn’t quite so distracted, they were all fairly distinctive in their appearance. One of the females had more tattoos than Kyi, which was a pretty impressive statement, but one I felt fairly confident in making. She had a tattoo on one cheek, both arms from wrist to shoulder, legs from ankle to knee at least, and from her chest up onto her throat. The images were intense, with vibrant colors; mostly they depicted animals, mostly with gory or sexual themes.
The other female, whom I recognized as the one that had smiled up at me while eating someone, was more subtle, but in her own way just as memorable. She was very slender, had very large, dark eyes, and she had a tendency to smile a lot, in a way that drew emphasis to her teeth and tongue. With black hair in a complex bun, blood-red lips and nails, and a loose white gown that faded to black at the hem and sleeves, she presented an image that was simultaneously innocent and just stained enough to be worrisome. Somehow I didn’t think that was an accident.
The male would have had a hard time standing out next to that, and honestly, he kind of didn’t. That combination of colors, though, would stand out pretty much anywhere. Between hot pink hair and scarves in what looked like every bright color he’d been able to find, I wasn’t sure when I’d last seen someone quite so eye-searing.
“You were quite helpful in the fight,” I commented as they came in. I was sitting on my throne, more for image than anything, and for the same reason I had a few thugs with me.
The female without tattoos dipped in a quick curtsey that was smooth enough that I was sure she’d practiced it, probably a great deal. The other two did not. “We were happy to help,” she said, still smiling. “And it was…entertaining. My name is Kyoni, this is Suiko, and the fellow with the scarves is Kiyanna.”
“Winter, though I’m sure you knew that. I didn’t get to see much of you during the attack, but what I did see was fairly impressive. Were you the ones maintaining the illusion of that wall?”
“Ah,” Kyoni said. “Yes, that was us.”
“That’s a pretty large illusion,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve seen a kitsune maintain one on that scale before.”
“We’ve worked together quite a bit,” she said. “It tends to be easier when you’ve practiced.”
“And I did most of the work,” Suiko cut in. Her voice was a bit deeper and huskier than Kyoni’s. “That kind of thing is more my style than theirs.”
“Suiko did most of the heavy lifting,” Kyoni admitted. “Kiyanna and I added details to improve verisimilitude. Like I said, practice makes it easier to coordinate.”
“However you accomplished it, it was impressive,” I said. “That’s a useful talent. The sort of talent that I could appreciate having access to on a regular basis.”
“Well, you’re direct,” Kyoni said, chuckling a little.
“I’m in a bit of a rush,” I said.
“Understood,” she said. “Well, I’d say that we’re tentatively interested, depending on the details.”
“Let’s start with your conditions,” I said. “What do you want out of this deal?”
“Sex, drugs, and rock and roll, baby,” Kiyanna said. “What else?”
Kyoni rolled her eyes, but didn’t disagree. “Our interests are primarily hedonistic,” she said. “We’d need room and board, freedom to pursue our own interests, a moderate stipend.”
“Okay,” I said. “That seems reasonable, but I do have a few requirements. First off, if you’re doing something illegal, don’t get caught, and definitely don’t get us mixed up in it. No killing people in my territory unless you have my permission or you have good reason to think that I’d agree and you can’t ask for some reason. I don’t have a whole lot of rules for what you can do on your own time, but there are a handful of things I won’t tolerate, and if you cross any of those lines we’ll have problems.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Kyoni said with a smile. “From what I’ve heard of you, I don’t think you’ll have a problem with anything we’re doing.”
“Why do you want to sign up for me, anyway?” I asked. “If you’re primarily hedonistic in your goals, I’m not sure why you’d need to. I don’t buy that you really need the stipend, not with your skills. It seems like you’re pretty much giving up a certain amount of freedom and committing to help out with some dangerous situations, and not getting much in return.”
“That fight was awesome, though,” Kiyanna said. “I mean, damn. Easily the best brawl I’ve had in weeks.”
“And you do seem to find some very interesting people,” Suiko said, winking. She looked at one of the giants playing thug and smiled in a way that was…seductive was an understatement. He swallowed visibly, and she smiled wider.
Kyoni sighed, sounding just a touch exasperated. “What my friends are trying to say,” she said, “is that we think the opportunities we’d have by working with you are more than enough to compensate for any opportunity cost we’d be paying.”
“One day,” I groaned, “one day I will learn not to ask questions that I don’t want to know the answer to. All right, fine. You’re in.”
“Sounds good,” Kiyanna said. “Oh, you want a scarf?” Without waiting for me to answer, he tossed me a length of grey silk, with my coat of arms embroidered on it. “Made that one special for you,” he said, then sauntered out the door.
After the kitsune, I had another group that had come to the battle as a unit. I was a bit more nervous about this one, though, even though they’d been specifically invited rather than just showing up. I understood kitsune pretty well, on the whole. I had an idea of their culture, and a decent understanding of their abilities. With how much time I’d spent around Aiko, I figured I had a fairly solid handle on kitsune, at least as much as anyone could.
The same could not be said of the next group.
The were less uniform in appearance than the kitsune had been, on numerous levels. The first one in the door looked like a human man, very pale and pretty enough to make a model envious. After that came something that looked vaguely like a cross between a wolf and a lizard, built on a generally canine frame but with a lizard’s muscular tail and covered in emerald scales. The third was smaller, closer to a child’s size and shape, with long claws and black wings stretching out from its back. The last one in was back to looking more or less human, but very different from the first; it was built more like a bodybuilder than a model, with blunt features and teeth that made me think of a shark.
What I found more meaningful, though, was the difference in their scents. With the kitsune, their magic had all smelled more or less the same, the fox and spice sent that I associated with kitsune; there were small variations, but they were all fairly similar. The same could not be said of this group. The first humanoid one smelled like incense and lavender, the wolf-thing more like musk and cold blood. The winged creature had a more traditional scent, something vaguely sulfurous, and then the last one smelled like smoke, cut with something earthy.
On the surface, the four of them seemed to have nothing much in common. But I knew that they shared at least one feature, and it was an important one. They all came from the same place.
“Glad you guys could make it,” Selene said. “This is Winter, he’s the guy I told you about. Winter, this is Rafael. He works in the same department I did, pretty much.”
“But of course I do it far better,” the one that looked like a model said.
Selene rolled her eyes. “Samuel is more of a hunter,” she said. “He’s the sort that runs people down.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” the lizard-wolf thing said. His voice was a bit rough, the words mangled by oversized teeth that resembled a snake’s fangs more than anything, but understandable.
“Abigail tends to more of the sneaking,” Selene continued. “She likes to dive on people from above, or drop things on them.”
“Well, it’s rather easy,” the one with wings said matter-of-factly. “Not as entertaining as Samuel’s approach, maybe, but it makes up for it in efficiency.”
“And then there’s Lusin,” she finished. “He works as a guard, keeps people out of restricted areas.”
“Usually not hard,” the other humanoid entity said. “Somehow people don’t want to bother me.” He smiled at his own joke, though none of the others did.
“Delightful,” I said, eyeing the four demons cautiously. Theoretically these were all weaker demons, beings that weren’t a huge threat to me. Even with that and Selene’s assurance that these guys weren’t bad to deal with, though, I figured I’d err on the side of caution. Demons were, from what I’d seen, not something to take lightly. “I notice you used the present tense there.”
“It’d be a bit dumb of us to quit when we don’t know whether you’ll give us a job, wouldn’t it?” Samuel said.
I chuckled. “Fair point. I’m assuming Selene has told you what I’d be expecting, generally?”
“Kill the things you tell us to, don’t kill the other things,” Rafael said lightly. “Seems easy enough.”
Abigail swatted him on the head with one wing. “Don’t play dumb, you cad,” she said sharply. “Yeah, Selene went over how things work here pretty thoroughly. Think we’d be fine with the same basic deal you’re working with her, with a couple of specific allowances.”
“What allowances, exactly?”
“Well, I need special furniture, for example,” Abigail said.
Rafael snorted. “Yeah, I’ll bet you do,” he said, somehow making the phrase obscene.
She swatted him again. “I mean because of the wings, you ass,” she said. “These things make normal chairs suck so much. And I know Samuel needs a specific diet.”
“Very specific,” he added. “Live prey is best, but red meat with certain supplements can do.”
“Okay,” I said. “That kind of thing I can do. If you’re willing to work with my rules, I think I can use you.”
“Sounds good,” Lusin said. “Think we can probably all make arrangements to move here within a couple days, yeah?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem for me,” Abigail confirmed.
“Of course not,” Rafael said with a snicker. “You’re always ready to go.”
“Would you stop that?” she asked, shoving him lightly as they walked out. She was smiling, though, and I don’t think anyone present thought she was really upset.
“I’m not entirely sure whether I just hired a gang of psychopathic monsters or a comedy group,” I said after they were gone.
“Both,” Selene said. “And yes, they’re like that all the time.”
I sighed. “Naturally.”
After that things got a bit more hectic, since I was dealing with people that weren’t in coordinated groups. More specifically, I was dealing with the fae.
It was also different in that they weren’t working for me as the jarl of the city. No, these were members of Aiko’s Court who were joining my entourage in my role as her champion. Apparently all the people in that role got a gang, I just hadn’t had the chance to build mine up yet.
This being the Midnight Court, I didn’t get the nice faeries. Oh, no. I got some redcaps and some trolls, a few rusalki and a kobold, even a banshee. The most innocuous were a handful of faerie hounds, and even they looked like the kind of hound that would take great pleasure in ripping your face off.
It was, I supposed, just as well. It wasn’t like I was in the market for sweetness and light.
It did take time, though. I had to vet each of them individually, and then they had to swear their oaths of service. Those were awfully complicated oaths, too, with lots of elaborate wording and escape clauses for both parties; the written contract the hounds used rather than a spoken oath were close to twenty pages long.
All told, by the time it was all done, it had been several hours. I wanted very much to rest; I might not need sleep, might not get fatigued physically, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t need to rest. I was exhausted on numerous levels, by the time I finally left the mansion.
But I had a genuine army now, instead of just a handful of thugs. I might not like them all, might not be entirely happy with the nature of the people I’d just hired, but I could say that much about them. With this crew on my side, I figured I had a solid chance at fighting off pretty much anyone that tried to attack this city.
Still. It would be good to have a chance to rest.