The rubber boots weren’t well insulated against the cold. It was fine at first, but the cold gradually seeped in. Or, perhaps, the warmth gradually seeped out. Unjustly snatched up from where they belonged, in the wrong environment, while I tried to figure out the fastest, tidiest way of getting rid of them.
They were a good metaphor for me, really. Or for me and Rose.
It said a lot that I was thinking in crazy, abstract metaphors like this. I was tired, wrung-out, and emotionally drained. Just as the warmth had seeped out of the boots, something had been leeched out of me, leaving me… not cold, but whatever was left behind when personality, identity and one’s position in the world were taken away.
I was a little cold, too. I’d weathered worse temperatures, sleeping outdoors at this time of year, or in the late fall, I knew I was better than some when it came to enduring the cold. But even then, I’d been bundled up. Keep the heat in your hands, feet, and keep a hat on, and a little warmth could be stretched a long way.
As I made my way across the city, my footsteps a little clunky in the inflexible, ill-fitting boots, I had a hood, but no hat, no gloves, and only the boots. The torso was the least important part of the body to keep warm, really, but even there, I had only the sweatshirt.
Parts of me ached, alternately from the cold and the recent transition back to becoming Blake Thorburn. I felt stiff, and I didn’t have much confidence that I’d be able to handle myself in a more serious situation. Couldn’t run that fast, wasn’t sure I could throw a punch, and I’d suffer more than any opponent would if I tried to buy time.
When a short, shadowy figure got in my way, all of that meant I was a little more concerned than I might usually be. Given that it was an Other, the usual added up to ‘pretty damn concerned’.
I tensed as it drew closer.
“Dickswizzle,” I said, as I realized what it was.
It unceremoniously dumped a pile of stuff onto the sidewalk.
“Carefully!” I heard Rose. “Ugh, Too late.”
Dickswizzle stepped back and scratched at its dangling genitals, looking very unconcerned with Rose’s frustration.
I rummaged through the things. A scarf, a hat that passed for unisex, two pairs of gloves, June’s hatchet, Leonard’s bottle, one of the bike mirror pendants, and a pair of socks.
Thanks in large part to being hugged against Dickswizzle’s body, the things had a smell to them, not unlike garbage. But I still pulled my feet out of my boots and donned the second pair of socks.
“Back in the whistle you go,” Rose said.
I dropped the gloves to get the little whistle out in time for the dark-furred goblin to climb back into it.
“How did you lose your boots and jacket? You didn’t leave them behind, did you?”
“No,” I said. I looked at the tatter of glamour that still remained. “I think my glamour soaked into them and I lost them when I changed shape… I tore them up when I shed the glamour.”
“I didn’t even think about it,” I said, “Which, I suppose, was the problem.”
I bundled myself up as best as I could. It helped, but bundling up when you were already cold didn’t do so much.
“Speaking of problems, I’m starting to see how you can fall into a trap, dealing with goblins,” Rose said. “They’re so naturally unpleasant they make you unpleasant by association. You can’t deal with them without sounding like a vicious lunatic. No, Dickswizzle, you can’t wipe your ass with those pages. No, Dickswizzle, no vomiting or depositing any bodily fluids. Stop that, Dickswizzle, don’t shove that hourglass up your rear end. Fuck it, Dickswizzle, no fire. Listen to me, you little motherfucker, you can’t shove that wand up any orifices, understand? It was all I could do to keep from screaming, and that was in the span of five or six minutes.”
Up… orifices? His nose? There weren’t many that you could shove something up.
I didn’t ask. I didn’t want Rose to tell me it wasn’t the nose.
I was too focused on that to think before I asked, “Why was he shoving things up places? He was supposed to destroy the books and implements.”
“He did. He’d get something lodged in, then break it in half. I’m really not keen to replay the scene in my head.”
I let the image appear in my mind’s eye, despite myself. Damn it.
“You got away without being seen?”
“Yeah. She might have heard me, but she came downstairs, and Dickswizzle scampered off. I left.”
“I still don’t feel so happy about it.”
“I know,” I said. “But she did take part in trying to ruin us and kill me.”
“Leanne didn’t do anything, and you betrayed her and invaded her home, where she’s supposed to be safe.”
“I know,” I said, again. “But if I can get roped into this because I’m of Thorburn blood, maybe Leanne falls into the same purview. I don’t know. As far as I know, we don’t have a way of measuring that karma in concrete terms. It’s something to read up on.”
“Noted,” Rose said.
“Did Dickswizzle wind up listening to me, or did you-”
“I told him to do what you’d said, except for the part about going back to the whistle. I had him go back to the house, gave him one-time permission to enter, and got him to collect some things for you.”
I nodded. “We need to get you a servant. Something better than a goblin. A homonculus, a bound Other, or something, so you can do more in this world.”
“So I can back you up?” Rose asked.
“That’d be nice,” I said. “But I was thinking more like, well, it’s the only damn thing I can think of that would convey how goddamn thankful I am right this second. For these clothes, for the sentiment, all that. And I don’t like leaving debts unpaid, even before all the rest of this got started.”
“I’m not going to object. You okay? You’re shaking.”
“A bit cold,” I said. “Gloves and socks help.”
“It’s just the cold? Or are you doing that half-truth to dodge telling the whole-truth?”
I started heading towards Hillsglade House.
“I’m worn out,” I admitted. “As bad as I was after spending my blood. Maybe worse.”
“Erosion of self via. glamour,” Rose said. “Imagine pouring water over a rock. It seems into the cracks, the rough bits, and the pores, covering it. It changes states, from water to mist to ice and back to water again. It expands or contracts, shifts and generates friction…”
“And I changed states a few times,” I said.
“Tear away the ice while it’s set deep into the rock, you might take away some rock with it, or see some bits splinter off. And when that rock isn’t very sturdy to begin with…”
“I’d rather say the rock’s integrity has been weakened by recent abuse,” I said.
“We can say that,” Rose agreed.
“Good explanation, by the way,” I said. I picked my way carefully past an icy patch of sidewalk.
“I cheated. Borrowed that explanation from the book on glamour.”
“Ah. Fuck,” I said, “Briar Girl didn’t say anything about this.”
“She might not have known, or she might have been speaking about a more general case.”
“I’m so fucking tired of deception and lies,” I said. “And I am aware of how hypocritical that sounds.”
“Did it work?” Rose asked. “Getting into Laird’s house?”
“I think so. They said the ritual was interrupted. They’re having another gathering in a week… which leaves me the task of figuring out how to fuck with that plan.”
“Leaves us. I’m on your side here, Blake.”
“Right. Yeah. We’ve got to figure this one out. I have a sense of what they were trying to do. Targeting the property the house is on, but not the house itself. Something time based, a vortex of some kind. Powerful, requiring nine or so practitioners to shape. Drawing, I think, from some sort of store of energy that Laird’s zeitgeist familiar was managing.”
“I glanced through a reference book on Chronomancy. It’s pretty standard practice to bank time,” Rose said. “Give up an hour of your day, hold on to it, make use of that time elsewhere.”
“That sounds insanely powerful,” I said.
“The rate of return is pretty abysmal. Give up an hour, gain a minute. But I guess you can get better results if you have more hands on deck, a whole circle handling the working.”
“And a lot of power stored up?” I asked. “I wonder if any of that power was spent… I mean, the circle was glowing and stuff was moving. I could feel power. Did that drain Laird’s reserves? If we stop the ritual again, or a third time, will he or will they run out of stored power?”
“That’d be nice,” Rose said. “But he’s going to be on guard. He’ll be wary.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Meaning we need to get more tricks.”
“Trick number one is figuring out when and how to recuperate, Blake. You keep on tapping this well of personal power when it’s nearly dry.”
“You’re actually listening to me?”
“It’s sage advice. I need a goddamn power source. Not just a bit of hair.”
“You need a demesnes. Or a tool that can make any use of power more efficient,” Rose said. “Or a familiar.”
“It all comes back to that,” I said.
“At least now we know you have a talent,” Rose said. “Glamour. Maybe it would be a good idea to have a Faerie as a familiar.”
“Maybe it would be a terrible idea,” I said. “Because we know how easily glamour can fuck with me, and that would be leverage the familiar could use to take me over. And we know how shoddy my defenses against this magic stuff are. Look at the Briar Girl. Can you not see some familiar getting a hold on me? Fucking me over worse?”
I tapped my connection to the house and used it to find the general direction I needed to go.
“I can see that, yeah,” Rose said. “So? What do we do about it?”
“We make the familiar less of a thing,” I said. “If we’re going to stagger this, use one of the three rituals to get leverage on the next, and use the two established power bases to get leverage for the third ritual, maybe I do the familiar first, after all. An Other that isn’t so strong that she’d be able to mess with me, one that might be able to get us some outside knowledge or power. From there, we start looking at implements, which we’ve already agreed was the easiest call to make.”
“You’re not going to be able to get a Faerie familiar,” I heard a voice behind me.
I turned around, startled.
I didn’t feel a connection. My initial impression was that it was a disembodied voice, a ghost or something in that vein. But he wasn’t. He was very much real. Very alive. Very human.
“Andy, was it?” I asked the witch hunter.
He nodded. “Yes.”
He was unassuming. Bigger than average, but the way he was bundled up in his coat and scarf made me think he wasn’t good at the cold. Hardly a ‘tough guy’. Thick eyebrows, dark brown hair under a hat with earflaps, and a large backpack that seemed stuffed to the brim. He kept shifting his shoulders to adjust the weight distribution of the straps.
No weapon in hand.
I glanced around. I couldn’t feel any connection to anyone nearby, but I still didn’t feel any connection to Andy.
“Eva’s not around,” Andy said. He stared at me, his gaze level. Cold without being harsh or unkind. It was more like he was uncaring.
“Laird sent you?” I asked.
“I’m not trying to reap any extra karma by sharing details with you,” Andy said. “Those other guys are doing the whole ‘play fair’, ‘see the whites of your enemy’s eyes before you doom them forever’, and that ‘announce your intentions before seeing them through’ garbage. If and when I come after you, Thorburn, I’m not doing any of that.”
“What,” I said. “You’ll shoot me in the back?”
He shook his head. “I’m a terrible shot. If there was a magic bullet with your name on it, Eva would be the one to shoot it.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“She’d also be the type to molotov your house, or shiv you from behind while you’re walking down the street. I mean, if I can sneak up on you…”
“She’s a little more talented in that department, huh?” I asked.
“Yeah. Yeah, she is.”
He stayed there, silent, not volunteering any more information.
“How did you even find me?”
“Trinkets and some very, very basic investigation techniques.”
“And how are you going to take me out?” I asked. I was tense, and all too aware that even this guy was liable to give me a run for my money. He didn’t seem like a fighter. “More trinkets?”
“Right now? I’m not aiming to take you out,” Andy said. “Take that for what it’s worth. If I was here to kill you I wouldn’t say so. I can lie, after all.”
Another brief pause, as I waited for him to elaborate.
“What do you want, if you’re not here to kill me?”
“Right now, I’m keeping an eye on you. Don’t worry, nobody else is coming.”
“Keeping an eye on me? You going to report on me to Laird?”
He shrugged. “Does it matter what I tell you? I’m just going to lie.”
“You’re clearly not interested in talking,” I said.
“I can talk, if it helps,” he said. “You were talking about Faerie. Court Faerie deal with prominent families and powers. Around here, you’re not getting a Faerie familiar unless you’re a member of the Duchamp family. You could get a fairy, that’s F-A-I-R-Y, but then you’re talking about the witless, minor denizens of their realm. Foot high things with butterfly wings. Going that route would be dumb.”
“You’re helping me, now?” I asked.
“This is more self serving. You’ve already dealt with a head-on attack. If they called Eva and me in to deal with you, I’d probably take point. And I don’t want to kill someone with a fairy -that’s with an R-Y at the end- for a familiar. I’d feel like I was picking on the vulnerable. In this case, it would be the equivalent of murdering the mentally handicapped.”
“People keep going on about that sort of thing. I’m supposedly Blake the fool, the unsturdy rock, the guy that’s going to die within the next five years, no questions asked. Now there’s some implications that I could fit in the same box as the mentally handicapped.”
“If you pick a fairy for a familiar,” he said. “Just to clarify.”
“I was just comparing myself to a rubber boot in my head. But the moment it comes time to decide how dangerous I am, oh, I’m the biggest threat that Jacob’s Bell has ever seen.”
“You can be an idiot and a threat at the same time,” Andy said. “When you’re dealing with these kinds of forces, an idiot is the bigger threat.”
“Unless they’re exceptionally smart,” Rose cut in.
“Oh, it’s the vestige. Hello vestige.”
“The geniuses are an even bigger threat, yes,” Andy conceded. “And the geniuses are so few and far between they don’t really warrant mentioning. Your grandmother was good. Scary good, but she wasn’t a genius.”
“Is there a middle ground, here?” I asked. “Can I at least build up enough respect for people to start saying, ‘hey, that guy isn’t so dumb and reckless after all’? ‘Maybe he isn’t the bombastic idiot that’s going to retaliate and accidentally plunge Jacob’s Bell into sulfur and hellfire?'”
“If you stand by and let them kill you, you’re clearly crazy,” Andy said. “Maybe dangerously so.”
“If I fight it, I’m reckless,” I retorted. “That’s a catch-22.”
“It sounds like you’ve answered your own question,” Andy said. “About finding the middle ground.”
Not a hint of condescension in his tone.
“Who do you serve?” I asked him.
“Laird and Sandra, primarily, then?”
“Essentially. But if Johannes had a job for me and there weren’t any conflicting orders from the real powers, then I’d obey those orders.”
“Would you obey me?” I asked.
“You’re not on the council, not technically. When Molly turned up, or when she moved into the house, sometime around then, the council held a meeting, and they agreed to remove the Thorburns from the list of affiliated powers.”
“Johannes is feared and despised, isn’t he?”
“Johannes is strong enough to have some sway despite the fear and hatred,” Andy replied. “You aren’t. Maggie isn’t. The rules apply to you, but you don’t get to decide what those rules are.”
“Theoretically,” I told him, “I could be in charge of you one day, couldn’t I?”
“No, you’re not going to make it that far,” Andy responded. “Sorry.”
“I’m getting really sick of people telling me I’m going to die,” I said. “That decision’s up to me.”
“I’d put more of the choice in your would-be murderer’s hands,” he said.
“It’s very possible.”
“Your sister is the one with the killer instinct,” I said. “The itchy trigger finger, almost eager to shoot someone. She’s the killer, and you’re the bookish guy who keeps her on track and on target, researching the target, right?”
He nodded. Not even an iota of surprise that I might know this.
“And you’re the one who’s afraid, who doesn’t want to hurt a human being. Well fuck that. I have a mother, a father, a little sister. And we’re not close, I admit, but that’s because I’m too fucking human to tolerate the monstrous shit my family was doing to each other. I did okay in school, and had the craziest crush on a girl in grade seven. I dated girls and fumbled my way through it all, and some of it was so fucking poorly handled that I cringe when I think about it, even five years after.”
“You’re trying to humanize yourself.”
“Damn straight!” I said. “I lived on the street for a while, because all of the fighting and conflict over fucking Hillsglade House and the money we’d get from selling it. I didn’t want it then. I don’t want it now. The stress from it ate me up inside.”
“I hear you. We could probably compare histories on that front. Though there weren’t millions of dollars at stake for me.”
He was deflecting, or something. It was eerie, that he was going out of his way to compare us. Was he distracting me after all?
I glanced over my shoulders, checking the darker streets around us.
“Eva’s at home, I promise,” he said. “There’s a chance she followed me, but I’m honestly not trying to set you up to have your throat slit or to get you shot, and neither of us are about to murder someone without the council to cover it up after the fact. I don’t have any other help, no big plots at work. You would probably be able to tell if anyone but me or Eva came.”
“Assuming I believe you.”
“Assuming you believe me, yes.”
I sighed, “Listen, I’m a regular, average guy who loves art but can’t draw, who’s still figuring out how to be a friendly, decent human being, because his parents never bothered to teach him that stuff. That thing you were saying to your sister, not wanting to hurt someone? She told you it was fine because we’re practitioners, we’re not really people, right? Something like that? Well, at this stage, I think I’m still more person than practitioner.”
“I hear you,” Andy said. “Yeah, I even believe you.”
God damn it, I wanted him to argue. At least then I’d feel more right than if he agreed with me. The guy who could potentially come after me with his sister and some plan to execute me shouldn’t be on the same page as me.
It was fully possible that my annoyance and frustration was part of his game plan, but he didn’t seem to have that guile to him.
“I just want to be left alone,” I said. “I want to deal with this, kick Laird in the metaphorical ass until he stops coming after me, get Rose into a position where she’s free, happy and healthy so I can fulfill my oath to her, and handle the crap I’ve got to handle, like a stupid pair of promises I made to a little girl, and a deal I made with someone else. I want it all to stop, because the only thing that’s keeping life from going back to normal is them.”
“I understand,” Andy said. “But it doesn’t work that way. You’re the threat, and you’re an obstacle to this town evolving to a different state and reaching a new kind of stability. I’m the guy who takes care of threats. When and if the order comes down, I’m going to remove you from the picture.”
He said it so easily. Remove me from the picture.
“Without guns or fire or any of that?” I asked. “Because that’s Eva’s job, apparently.”
“I find a little distance helps.”
“Right. When removing me,” I said. “Come on. At least have the balls to say what you mean. You’re talking in this quiet, calm, monotone because you’re trying to detach yourself from this shit.”
“Killing you. Executing you. Putting you down,” he said. His eyes dropped at that last bit, then raised up to meet mine again. “Yeah. I don’t use the guns or knives or any of that, because even when it is a monster? One of the bad ones I shouldn’t be able to sympathize with at all? I can’t help but feel like shit after, and looking in your eyes as I do it makes it ten times worse. The detachment does help me deal with it. Sorry if it’s frustrating.”
“I’d accept your apology, but it’s kind of hard to when we’re talking about me being murdered at your hands.”
“You? If we get that far? If it helps, I’ll feel horrible. I’ll remember all that stuff about you having a crush on some girl and I’ll lose sleep. I’ll remember the look in your eye, I’ll think about how much this all sucks. But I’m still going to do what I need to do.”
“Why? If this is all some big, fucked up situation, why not change it? You aren’t sworn into anything, and the rules don’t bind you.”
“Because I made promises, and even if I’m not in a position to be forsworn, I still can’t break them.”
“Despite the sleepless nights? The fear that eats at you? The fact that you’re killing innocent people?” I asked. My voice was low, and anger was seeping in even when I wasn’t raising my voice. “I have a hard time buying that.”
“Despite all of that.”
“Family, is it?” I asked.
“A little bit of family. Obviously, or I wouldn’t be working with Eva.”
“Because family isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” I said. “It isn’t fucking half of what it’s supposed to be. See, there’s a big, big fucking difference between someone being your relative and someone being family.”
“Then I guess I’d say Eva is my relative,” Andy said. “And ‘family’ plays a very small part in this.”
“What’s the rest?” I asked.
“The rest is private. It wouldn’t matter, would it? There’s nothing I could say that would reach you and your specific perspective. Because we come from very different places. Having people you owe everything to, who you could never ever pay back.”
“It sounds a hell of a lot like we come from similar places,” I said.
“These people you owe? Are they dead?” he asked.
“No. Very much alive.”
He nodded. “You’re lucky.”
I frowned. “Am I? Because it’s a quiet sort of hell, knowing you owe someone everything, and once in a while you have to look them in the eye.”
He nodded. His expression didn’t change.
I shivered. “Well, this was fun. Another death threat onto the pile, and I can’t even bring myself to hate you.”
“I appreciate that,” he said.
“Don’t,” I responded.
He didn’t flinch.
I wanted him to retaliate, to fight back. I didn’t want to fight, but I needed goddamn cues to find my way through the conversation.
In a way, he seemed just as inhuman as some of the Fae I’d encountered. The swordswoman had been more animated, had at least had an iota of passion.
Andy wasn’t even pretending.
“I’m cold,” I said. “I’m leaving.”
I turned to go. I heard his footstep behind me.
“Yeah, I don’t think you’re hearing me,” I said. “I’m going this way. I’m not keen on having you tag along.”
“I’ve been asked to keep an eye on you.”
“Because Laird Behaim and Sandra Duchamp are interested.”
“Is he trying something?” I asked.
“He’s preoccupied,” Andy responded.
I reached for my hatchet, touching the handle.
“Bound spirit?” he asked. “Wraith? Ghost? Elemental? I’m actually pretty good at dealing with those. I’m kind of shit when it comes to fighting, but if you try using that, then you’re going to be down one trinket, and that looks like pretty intricate work.”
“Blake,” Rose said. “No fighting. It’s not the time, and we can’t lose June when we haven’t even used her.”
“Assuming he’s not just lying to our faces,” I said. I can’t fight even if I have to, I thought. I wasn’t entirely sure, but I felt almost like I’d retained some of the negative qualities of the six year old. I didn’t feel strong.
“I’m not a threat,” Andy said. “Take this for what it’s worth. Laird sent me to keep an eye on you. I only do so many favors for him a month… and doing this harmless favor means I’m not taking a job to kill you.”
“But you’re still reporting back to Laird,” I said, as I turned and started walking. I tried to keep my stride going, despite the fatigue I felt. He was shorter than me, burdened with that backpack, and I didn’t remember him being particularly fit.
If I could leave him behind, all the better.
“Keep an eye on him,” I told Rose. I flipped the mirror pendant around so it hung between my shoulders.
“How log have you been doing this?” Rose asked. It took me a second to realize she wasn’t talking to me.
“Two years,” I heard Andy behind me.
“Feels like a while,” he replied.
“Can we not talk to the assassin in the funny hat?” I asked.
Rose ignored me. “What gets someone like you working for someone like Laird?”
There was no answer.
“Responsibility, I already said.”
“Is there a finite amount of responsibility, Andy? Is there a point where you’ve paid your dues and you’re free of all this?”
“That’s the second question you’ve asked that I already answered. No. I could go my entire life and not pay them back.”
“That’s a hell of a burden,” Rose said.
“Yeah. I’m not dumb, you know. I’ve faced down worse manipulators than you.”
“I’m not trying to manipulate you. I’m trying to figure you out. Do you think your departed acquaintances would want you to do this? To spend your life indentured to them?”
“I know they wanted it. They said so. That they needed me to handle it, for their sakes.”
“Uh huh,” Rose said.
I trudged along, doing my best to leave him behind. My leg was already raw where the boot was rubbing my jeans against my leg.
“If the tables were turned, knowing what you know, would you ask them to don the mantle? Kill people and feel horrible about it? Have nightmares?” Rose asked.
“No,” Andy said. “But that’s me, my personality.”
“If they’re asking you to commit your life to something you couldn’t imagine yourself asking someone to do… it doesn’t sound like they were really your friends. It sounds like they were using you.”
“Hey, Thorburn,” Andy called out. “Your pet is starting to irritate me.”
“Good,” I said.
“What I’m thinking,” Rose said, “And I don’t know enough about Blake’s situation to say for his case, but if you’re that indebted to someone, and you devote your life to staking vampires and burning witches-”
“You’re oversimplifying,” Andy said.
“Simple is good. That stuff isn’t the point. You’re devoting your life to this stuff… what if you die? I mean, it’s inevitable, right? What if you die, and you find yourself in the afterlife. You meet these people again. You obviously didn’t pay them back for whatever they did for you. Do they look at you with disappointment?”
“Probably,” Andy said.
“That’s sad,” Rose said. “Do you have Eva’s support?”
I thought of the vision.
“No,” I said, automatically.
“No,” he agreed.
“Is anyone backing you up?” Rose asked. “Do you have a listening ear? A confidant?”
“No,” Andy said.
I glanced back. His eyes were downcast, his expression serious. Was he bothered, or was he more focused on not stepping on ice and losing his footing?
“That’s awfully hard,” Rose said.
“Spare me the false sympathy,” Andy said. “I’ve said it before, I’ve gone up against better manipulators.”
“And none of them have tried to see what’s going on in your head?”
“Some have. Some have looked. Doesn’t matter in the end.”
“Did any offer to be that listening ear? The confidant?”
“Hey, Rose,” I said. “Don’t you think befriending the dorky witch-hunting kid should be a collaborative decision?”
“You can make friends and decide who you do and don’t want to forgive,” Rose said. “But I’m still a free being, more or less, and I can decide who I do and don’t want to interact with.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” I said. My legs were burning now. I wondered if he was getting tired.
“I’m not looking to make friends,” Andy said.
“I’m not looking to be your friend either,” Rose responded. “I am offering to hear you out, if you need it. There have to be points where you’re feeling lower than low, Andy. Where you want to cry or go crazy or something. Now, instead of getting to that point and having nowhere to turn, you can turn to me.”
“And I have one more reason to feel bad when and if I have to kill your master, removing you from the picture as well?”
“Ahem,” Rose said. “I’m a free being. Present stuck-in-a-mirror circumstances excepted. And if you feel horrible, then good. You deserve to. I said I’d hear you out, I didn’t say I’d lie to you or go easy on you.”
Andy shrugged. “I can’t and won’t take the deal.”
“Okay,” Rose said. “But the offer’s out there.”
Andy didn’t respond.
The remaining fifteen minutes of our slow and not-so-steady walk over snow and ice were undertaken in blissful silence.
We made our way to the neighborhood, the dark structure of Hillsglade House looming against the pale evening sky. The light from the moon and city lights was reflected off of white snow, cast onto the overcast sky above, making it seem almost as bright as it was during the day.
I heard a jostling, and turned to see Andy hurrying to catch up. My hand flew to my weapon.
“I’m not a threat,” he said. He wasn’t really out of breath. Was he more fit than he looked? Simply uncoordinated?
“You keep saying that, as if saying it over and over makes it true.”
“It is. And it doesn’t matter. You’re home.”
We’d nearly reached the block the house was on. My eyes flew over the premises, then went back to Andy.
“This feels like a trap,” I said.
“It is and it isn’t,” he said. “It wasn’t really explained to me, so I don’t really know. My focus is supposed to be on you.”
“Why?” I asked, glancing away to look back at the house.
“To pass on word to Laird,” he responded.
There was an eerie conviction in his gaze. An intensity that I hadn’t sensed moments ago.
“Blake,” Rose said, “This is going nowhere. Let’s get you back in the house and resting. We still need to plan and do some reading.”
“Doesn’t it feel wrong?” I asked. “Why not send Fargo here to kill us? He’s only here to gather info and take it back to Laird. Why?”
“It’s trivial,” Rose said. “Our priority is getting you in fighting shape, and I wouldn’t mind that servant. There’s a thousand things we could dwell on, outside of the head games the witch hunter is playing with us. No offense, Andy.”
“Come on, Rose,” I said, my eyes fixed on Andy. “You and I aren’t so different. Reach deep, dig for those instincts, and tell me you don’t feel this is something serious.”
There was a pause. “I can’t tell if it’s because you’ve psyched me out or if you’re right.”
“I’m right,” I said. “Laird’s pulled something.”
There was a pause.
“The something?” Rose asked, quiet. Her question was partly a statement.
My head snapped around, looking over the house.
A kind of horror settled in me.
No, no, no.
Where was it? The symbols I’d seen drawn on the floor… they would have covered a certain area, here in the real world.
My leg stung where the boot was rubbing it as I strode around, moving closer to the gate.
A circle, like the one I’d seen as part of the diagram, barely perceptible. The spirits on and above it were brighter.
I could hear the tick and tock sounds I’d heard in the room, now. I wasn’t sure if it was real or imagination.
“We stopped the ritual,” I said.
“You did,” Andy responded. “You called the police, and both Laird and Sandra were carted off, I hear. But sending Sandra with Laird was a mistake. I doubt they even made it to the police station before she was able to get the leverage she needed.”
“Just like that,” I said, absently.
“When dealing with people without defenses, enchantment is incredibly potent, and Sandra is very good at what she does. People are like playing pieces on the board for her, to be moved as she pulls the right strings, puts power in the right connections. The two of them would have stopped at the station only to get the incriminating evidence and start to piece together what happened and the approach you used.”
“But… they finished already?”
“I expect he started right away, as soon as he got back,” Andy said, “And you’ve been walking for a while. You might have earned yourself a reduced effect, but I’m not sure what that amounts to.”
Now that I knew what to look for, I could see signs of the circle stretching around the house.
No, not a circle. A ring.
“What does it do?” Rose asked.
“It makes accessing and using your resources in Hillsglade House so inconvenient it’s pointless,” Andy answered. “The unawakened might notice something when they walk down this sidewalk, but nobody does, do they? Surely you’ve noticed how the locals avoid the property. Mail doesn’t come here, restaurants won’t deliver food to this address. You’re isolated. They can’t target the house, as it was once a demesne, so they target the space around it.”
“To do what?” I asked.
“Waste your time,” he answered. “Something you already have in short supply.”
I reached into my pocket and found a quarter. I flicked it over the circle.
It slowed as it flipped over the line, growing slower with every passing second.
It looked like it would take minutes to hit the ground.
I looked at Andy, trying to read his expression. It was as placid as ever.
“I’m not sure what you’re seeing, Blake,” Rose said.
I looked, and I saw the quarter in the air, spinning in slow motion. When I looked without the benefit of the sight, I saw it on the ground. Different views for the awakened versus the unawakened. Different effects.
The Duchamps had been a part of the ritual. Had it been more than targeting it at this particular neighborhood?
“Slowing time,” I said. “The quarter is still in the air, to my eyes.”
“The long driveway,” Rose said. “How long do you think that walk would take?”
“Weeks?” I asked, quiet. “A month?”
“Meaning we’d miss council meetings,” Rose said.
“Yeah. The wedding would go ahead, and so would the plans for establishing a Lord for the city, while we make the excruciatingly slow walk up to the house. Tying us up until some time when Laird’s ready to deal with us,” I said.
“And that,” Andy said, “Mostly wraps up my end of things.”
I snapped my head around. “Your end of things?”
“This is what he wanted a report on,” Andy said. “A description of your face and actions as you realized, making sure you got the full message. He hired me to observe, to make sure he wouldn’t have to wait months for you to come after him. Assuming you might only realize when the season changes. He’d like you to know that for now, he’s hands off, until you give him an excuse.”
“And the rest?” Rose asked.
“Remains to be seen. I know there’s a bounty on your head, a prize of three favors to any Other that catches you. That might take a few days to revoke, if they decide to go that route. If an Other kills you, though, and the new heir heads for the house, they’ll lose a great deal of time, and they’ll find a trap waiting for them when they next leave the property. It’s done.”
“He won,” I said.
“Oh, you did win,” Andy told me. “You embarrassed him, you counted coup, you probably cost the Behaims more than you know, when you damaged those books, and it would have cost Sandra to tidy up that mess. But…”
“He won more?” I asked.
“He won more decisively,” Rose murmured. “A more targeted, devastating strike. But then again, he’s the guy with the big guns, the power, the soldiers…”
I shook my head a little. What the hell were we supposed to do now?
“It’s not a kid’s television show,” Andy told me, “Where the antagonist makes the Machiavellian plan and then abandons that plan completely the first time it fails. People fail, they revise, they adjust parameters, they you achieve victory through persistence and hard work.”
I turned to stare at the house.
“It was nice meeting you,” Andy said. “I hope I don’t have to kill you.”
Our sanctuary is sealed off, I thought. We might not be around long enough to give you the chance.
“Hey,” I said. “Do me a favor, Andy?”
I pulled off the rain boots, then stood on the sidewalk with two socks on each foot. “Take those boots back to their owner?”
I could hear him walking away.
“Rose?” I asked.
“What is it?”
“Do me a favor, and call the lawyers? Like you did before?”
“I’d say that’s only for emergencies, but I think this counts.”
I barely even heard her reciting the names.
I didn’t turn my head as a man came to stand behind my left shoulder.
“What can we do for you, Mr. Thorburn?”
“Can you undo this?”
“I think you know the answer,” he said. He wasn’t one of the ones I’d met before.
“Is it a price I’m willing to pay?” I asked.
“Most likely not, given Ms. Lewis’ notes.”
“Okay,” I said.
“What about safe passage to Toronto?” I asked. “There’s no reason to stay here.”
“That can be arranged for a very small cost,” he said.
“Putting me in contact with the local Lord, so I don’t step on toes? I’ll need some things, as well.”
“Clothes and supplies. Yes. Shall we negotiate?”
“I think we have to,” I said.