Category Archives: 11.03

Malfeasance 11.3

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“I don’t like that sound,” Evan said.  He was perched on the roof of a car, while I was reflected in the window.

I could hear it too, though it was faint.  Not so much a sound as an echo without a source.  It was as if the town had a heartbeat, a noise that resounded with a slightly uneven rhythm, the tolling of the town’s namesake bell.

I had one of the fat coins placed between my pinky and ring finger, and was trying to ‘walk’ it over the back of my hand.  Problem was, it was a big coin, meaning I could pass it over to the space between my index and middle finger, and then what?  I pressed my hands together, and ‘walked’ the coin from one hand to the other.

“Didn’t hear it in the house,” I noted.  I tucked the Sympathetic Magic text into my waistband, beneath my sweatshirt.  My hands felt less strong than they should.

“Protections,” Evan said.  “We put up stuff so they couldn’t get to us inside.”

I fucked up and dropped the coin, and caught it out of the air before it could fall.

“Lots of stuff around here wants to eat me,” Evan said.  “We should find a safe place before night falls, because that’s when the bad stuff really comes out.  There’s a big spell that everyone joined in on, even Rose, that keeps other people indoors and keeps them from looking outside too much.”

“Big magic,” I said.  “She agreed to that as part of a deal?”

“Yeah.  With Jeremy the priest.”

“All right, something to keep in mind, while I’m filling in the blanks and figuring this out,” I said.  “I don’t want to fuck this up for the other guys, which means doing this carefully.”

“Got it.  Careful.  I guess that means no-”

“No sparrow of blood and death and doom,” I finished for him.

“Aw.  How’d you know I was going to say something like that?”

“Heads up,” I said, “Look.”

There were a group of Others on the approach.  Female figures with a range of body types, with babies strapped to their chests, backs, swaddled in slings, or in strollers.  Six in all.

What caught my interest was the lack of communication between them.  They moved with an urgency, like they had a mission, silent.  None of the babies cried.

“Pack of mombies?” Evan said.  “I think I’d rather deal with real monsters.”

“I think they are monsters.  Shh.”

We weren’t too far from the school, and it was early in the day  It made sense that mothers would be coming back from dropping off some older children.

But the feel of them…

Another mom was coming down the street from a block over.  I saw her pick up her pace, approaching the ‘mombie’ group.

She said two words, cooing and adjusting her own baby, as if ready to present it to them, when the lead mombie bumped her with one shoulder.

Completely ignored.

She said something in response, offended, and left in a bit of a huff.

I stepped across the street, crossing the gap between reflections to get closer to the shop window ahead of the group.

I stood two feet away from them, separated by a pane of glass and a degree of reality, and I watched them.

Dolls.  Their skin was too perfect and even in complexion, their makeup painted on.  Their babies, by contrast, were far from perfect.  A little too hairy, with ears pointed at the tips, a little too intelligent in how their eyes moved.  Eyes like a cat’s or a dog’s, with barely any whites.

Changelings was the first idea to pop into my head.  A myth that I remembered learning about before, from some movie or another.  The child was removed from the crib, often by the faerie, for something resembling a baby, so the faerie could put one of their spawn among humanity and have a human baby to raise themselves.

I watched as the remainder of the group passed.  Each changeling was scanning its surroundings from its mommy-doll perch, each positioned to look in a different direction.

Roaming, on the watch.  Spies, or scouts?  If they were faerie or faerie-associated, did that mean these children were in league to Sandra?

I returned to Evan before one of them could scout me out.

“They’re creepy,” he said.  “I think you’re right about them being monsters.”

“They are,” I said.  “Mom dolls with feral faerie babies or something.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve been at it for a while, roaming and looking for trouble.”

“There’s a lot of stuff like that,” Evan said.  “It’s worse than it was before, and before I didn’t feel safe going out to fly.”

“But you’re with me?”

“I was going flippin’ crazy in that house.  So much worrying, and I beat all the games that Ty brought for the handheld, and I beat all of the good games on Tiff’s phone, and I even beat two games for the console, which is really flippin’ hard when you’re the size of the controller.  The rest of the stuff is boring or I can’t do it without someone to use one side of the controller while I use the other.  They’re so busy they can’t sit down to play a game or play with me.”

He’s still a kid, after all.  Three weeks of doing nothing can get old.

“You’re wanting to do something right?  Stop the Behaims?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m even less willing to be cooped up than you are.”

“The others want to sit back and wait.  Rose is safe because of the dead man’s witch-”

“Switch,” I corrected.

“-But the others aren’t.  I can’t sit there and wait and worry.  Because Ty is really cool, you know?”

“I know,” I said.  “And I don’t want to wait and see what they throw at us before acting.  The priest attacking is clue enough that they aren’t in any shape to just sit back and wait for the other guys to pick themselves off.  The metaphorical guns are too big to let the other guys shoot first.”

“I smell blood in the air,” Evan said.  “I think someone’s already been doing some of that shooting.”

“Can you find the source?”

“Of the smell?  Yeah.  Do I want to?  No.  Too many things want to eat me, and dying once is enough for me, thank you sir.”

I considered for a moment.

“Good point,” I said.  “You know where the Behaims are hanging out?”

“Which ones?” he asked.

Great answer,” I told him, breaking into a smile.  “Nearest one first.  Point the way, and I’ll follow.”

The house was big, but that was all that could be said about it.  The stone exterior around the lower floor had deep cracks in the mortar, and the siding around the upper floors had been discolored slightly by weather and sun, in dire need of an all-out replacement.

I knew my memories were fake, that I wasn’t real, and that it was fantasy to even think about it, but I’d always thought about having a place, about getting it looking nice.  Not too big, or it would be too much upkeep.  Maybe something with a little statue in a small but dense garden, a bird bath and feeders in the back, a bike in the driveway.  In the weeks I remembered adjusting to life off the street, I’d contemplated backsliding because it was easier, yes, but I’d also had a vision of what I really wanted, deep down, and as much as I didn’t love the idea of tying myself down to one place, I imagined that if I did have a place of my own, I’d want it to be comfortably mine, everything in good working order.

It bothered me on a fundamental level, seeing people take poor care of what they had.  There were a lot of things like that that I saw from time to time.  Why build a family if they were going to be lazy about it?  Why get a car if they were going to let it fill up with bags from fast food places and let stuff clutter the floor of the vehicle?

My apartment had been, eclectic, a bit randomly put together, but I’d taken care of what I had.  I’d known where everything was.

Sure, one or two things could slide.  Maybe the car was just needed to get to work.  Maybe the house just wasn’t a priority.

This… where was the focus?

What, if anything, was the occupant’s pride and joy, here?

“Can you get inside?” Evan asked.

“It’s dark.  I can’t even look inside,” I said.

“Wards,” he said, in his sagest tone.

“Wards,” I agreed.

“I can’t lipread, and Rose says lipreading isn’t that useful anyway.  So what do we do?”

“We could sneak you inside, but I’m not sure I want to do that.”

“Good way to get me re-dead.”

“Yeah.”

“Break a window?” he suggested.

“I need to occupy the window,” I said, “And broken windows get attention.”

“Umm.”

I roamed while we thought.  I could occupy the reflection of the windows that faced outside, but the opposite side of the window wasn’t in my reach.

“Who lives here?”

“Dunno exactly.  Behaims.  They’re older.  Rose said they’re heads of the family.”

I thought about what Laird and Duncan had told us, and what I’d observed.

“They’d probably be the ones who arbitrate when it’s okay to tap the family reserve of power,” I said.

“Yeah, that sounds right.”

Which meant if we could spy, then we could find out how they were using power.

As much as I wanted to see what was going on, that wasn’t the important thing, was it?

“Can you open a window?” I asked.  “Just a crack?”

“I can try.”

He hopped up, fluttering, to the window I was occupying, and with his wings still flapping, extended his tiny feet.  The taloned toes of one foot hooked on the window, the toes of the other hooked on the frame, and then pulled, or pushed, as the case may be.

He probably weighed less than an apple, and he was straining to open a window that was maybe four or five feet by three feet across, no doubt latched shut.

Well, he had weeks of experience in this body.  I’d trust him.

He gave up.  “If it wasn’t so big, I could do it.  Or if it wasn’t latched on the inside.”

“Alright,” I said.  “Good try.  Smaller window?”

“Smaller window,” he said.

“That way first,” I told him, pointing.

I arrived before he did.

The window was small, high, and square.  Occupying the space was difficult, as I stood on the ledge, my shoulder braced against the frame, my foot against the rest.  If I’d needed to move, I might have risked falling.  As it stood, the only risk I faced was slipping to the point I was moved over to the next patch of light.

Had I been properly alive, the book I’d tucked into my pants would have been ten times more uncomfortable.

“Don’t sprain anything,” I told Evan.

“I’m good,” he said.

The method was the same, but this time, legs flexing, wings flapping to help keep him in place, he tried to screw his beak into the gap.

Sure enough, it popped open.

Yes,” Evan hissed.

“Don’t make too much noise,” I murmured.  “They’ll hear.”

I still couldn’t enter or see within, but I could hear the noise that came from inside, through the open window.

I had to ignore the faint echoing knell.

It reminded me a bit of the Drains, and I didn’t like being reminded of the Drains.

There were voices coming from within.  Not in the room the window looked into, given the distance and the vague muffled tone of it.  An adjacent room.

“…ster’s getting results,” a male voice.  Man one.

“As I’ve said a few times, he’s been saying he’s getting results.  With very careful wording.  How big are the results?  At what cost?  In what timeframe?”

“You’re being paranoid, Ben,” man one said.

Ben didn’t rise to the insult, “I’m being pragmatic.  Tell me that, in his shoes, you wouldn’t equivocate some, and mislead the adults as to exactly what you were doing?  Lead them to think that you spent all they gave you, that the threat is dire, while you’re busy pocketing excess.”

“We’re in a unique situation here,” a woman said.  “Most of us are sworn to very particular oaths, swearing we won’t use what we’ve gathered over the generations.  The idea was always that we’d be very careful about what fights we picked, use our future sight and the bloodline’s power to prepare well in advance, and prepare the next generation without using those same oaths if the situation called for it.”

“I’m not arguing that-“

“Stop, Ben.  Let me finish.  Aimon was lax about following the rules, and let several individuals slip through the cracks.  Maybe on purpose, maybe not.  But Laird was one individual who had as much free reign as the family could get him.  Alister is another.  Whether Aimon saw all of this coming or not, he made those two critical pieces in this war.”

“Laird got himself killed attempting to repay a favor he shouldn’t have asked,” Ben said.

A woman spoke.  “One mistake, but Laird did a number of things right.  The tools he gave Duncan are tools that are keeping us relevant now.  Tools we can use without breaking the oaths.”

“You don’t like Alister,” man one said.  “But he’s one of the only assets we have that have come of age.  He’s exceptionally talented, he’s smart.”

“He’s already lying to you in small ways.  If he’s lying to you in this?  We can’t afford to make a bad decision for the head of our family, not for the third time in a row.”

“If he tells the truth, then by the oaths the family keyholders have sworn, we’re obliged to keep him from squandering our resources.  If he misleads us, he can keep using those resources to our collective benefit.”

“You know me,” Ben said.  “I don’t drink, I don’t even like medication that might muddle my thoughts, and believe me, Gloria thought I was the stupidest man in the world, when I refused pills after my hip broke.”

“I did,” a woman said.  Gloria.

Ben continued, “I live my life simply.  Up until I retired, I worked hard.  I was responsible to my family.  I’ve always been faithful.  If that means anything, if it has any currency at all, then let me say this.  I believe in balance.  I believe in living in accordance to God, the spirits, the elements, and the natural order of the universe.  Living that way makes us strong.  You know this.”

“Ben-“

“Let me finish.  I think we’re getting away from that.  Not just us here, not us as a family, but everyone.  We deceive our enemies with misdirection and omission, while paying only lip service to truth.  We lie to ourselves, damn it, because if we believe the wrong thing, then the spirits cut us an awful lot of slack.  We’re all just being… fundamentally dishonest.  I think the universe makes us pay for it more than we think, and I don’t want that to be the foundation for our Lordship of Jacob’s Bell.  Not for us, and the tone it sets, and not for the way I think it’s going to be seen by other eyes, from above or around us.”

A long pause.

“Ben, I realize you’re passionate about this, but you’re not a family elder.  It’s ultimately up to us.”

“You’re representatives, you speak for us.  For me.  And I’m saying we should back Timothy.”

“I’m seconding the motion,” Gloria said.

There was a low murmur of multiple voices, some agreeing, more sounding negative.

“We’ve heard you, Ben.  Your arguments will be taken into account.”  Man one.

“Pass the wine.”

“Red?”

“Yeah.”

“Does anyone else have anything to add before we move forward?”

“We’re outclassed, and we’re hurting badly with Laird gone.  We’re not going to win this without pulling out all the stops and being damn clever.”

“The Duchamps and Johannes are pulling out the stops and being clever too,” someone said.  “They’ve got more they can do, and I’d even say they’re cleverer.  Why play their game?  Maybe Ben is right.  We play this right, not devious.”

The distant voices mingled together.

I heard tap water turn on and then off.

“Cold,” I heard a voice below.  A little younger, if I had to trust my ear.

Ah, given the placement of the window, it would make sense if it was a bathroom.  Or maybe a kitchen with an awkward setup.

“Window’s open,” a voice said.  Not old, not young.  It had a rasp to it.  Other.  “Raise me up.”

A pause.

“Um,” Evan whispered.

“Up, up,” the voice said, “High as you can go.”

“Hello little bird,” the voice said.  “Enjoying the warmth of a toasty house?”

Evan was silent.

Inside, I heard someone calling for order.

“Problem, Cranaus?” the woman called out from below.

“No.  Not at all.  I’m having a conversation.  I’ll return to you when I’m done.”

“Can you get down?”

“My dear, I’m disappointed you have to ask.”

“Alright, alright!” the woman said.

As she left the room, I heard her mutter, “Had to be a damn cat.”

Cranaus sniffed a bit in irritation.

“An ordinary bird would have flown away by now,” he said.  “Facing down a predator like myself.  An ordinary bird would have the sense to know I could catch and kill you just like that.  An ordinary bird shouldn’t as haggard you do.”

“I’m no ordinary bird,” Evan said.

A laugh, with a bit of an edge to it.  “No you aren’t.  Are you a more-than-ordinary bird who’s attempting to break into a house owned by one of my master’s blood?”

“No.  I definitely didn’t want to go inside.”

“Were you plotting harm against my master or her blood?”

“Um,” Evan said.

“We were leaning toward disruption, buying time,” I cut in, before he could get us into trouble.  “I’ve more or less decided against any sort of disruption or mischief.”

“Do tell.”

“I liked Ben’s argument in there.”

“It makes you think, doesn’t it?  How things have changed?  But you’re not so old that you’d know.”

“Not so old, no,” I told him.

“Definitely not that old,” Evan said.

“The slant of things changed around the time the new world was discovered.  Things progressed so quickly after that.  I suppose you’re one of the devious ones?”

“If I’m being honest, I’ve been devious before, even as recently as twenty minutes ago,” I said.  “But I try.  My bird friend here, I think, is pretty straightforward.”

“Yeah!”

“There’s a difference between being genuine and being guileless,” Cranaus said.  “The genuine fight with one hand tied behind their backs, but the guileless are already doomed.  They don’t know it yet, but they’re doomed all the same.”

“Guileless?” Evan asked.

“If the universe decides to turn around and hurt that bird,” I said, “I’m not sure this is a world I want to fight for.”

There was a pause.

Evan hopped back on the windowsill, occupying the same relative space I was.  A black paw snapped out, stopping on top of Evan’s head, pressing it down just slightly, holding him in place.

I was ready to break the window and strangle the cat if I had to.  I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to do it, with the strength I’d given up.

“He passes, then,” the cat said.  “But I’m forced to hold him hostage until I decide what to do with you.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Who are you with?” Cranaus asked.

“I’m with myself,” I said.

“What’s your stake in this?”

“The welfare of those I care about.”

“Who?”

I almost didn’t answer, but there was an intensity in his rough-edged, very un-catlike voice.

“Three people within the Thorburn household, and this little guy.  To a lesser extent, innocent bystanders.  To an even lesser extent, myself.”

“Why rank yourself so low?”

“Because when my nature was read with tarot cards, they drew the Fool.  I’m worried I’m one of those doomed guileless.  Every time I act on my own behalf, I have to watch how others suffer as a result.”

“That suggests you’re not supposed to be here, in the grand scheme of it all,” Cranaus told me.

“That suggestion sounds painfully accurate,” I said.

“Then-“

“Then why do I continue to exist?” I interrupted.

“I like your question better than the one I planned to ask.  Do tell.”

“Because I want to change that.  I fell through the cracks, where things that don’t belong go.  I don’t know if what I became down there is all about entropy, destruction, or if it’s about change, but I’ve got to use that, and hopefully I can use that to make my existence a net positive.”

Another cat appeared, colored the sort of gray that looked blue in the right light.

“Brave bird,” the cat said, with a voice that sounded more like it belonged to a snake, if snakes could talk.  All whispers and sounds that slid.

“Damn straight,” Evan said.

“Good morning, Hylas,” the black cat spoke.

Three familiars and me, now, gathered by the window.  The cats found a position where they sat side by side, shoulders touching, about a half-foot in front of Evan.

Why did I feel like something more was going on?

“You’re familiars, right?” I said.

“We are.”

“Why does it feel like you’re testing me?” I asked.

“Because I am,” Cranaus said.  “We keep the company of men and women.  But as much as I liked the company of my master when she was a child, she changed.  I love her and I will do what I can for her sake, but I do not always agree with her.”

“What do you do when you disagree with her?”

“I imagine I see spies lurking nearby and I accost them.  I do what I can to keep them from overhearing anything more, and I inadvertently let slip that the Behaims have a weapon, and they’re deciding who they should give it to.  I’d accidentally share that they stand on the brink of deciding.”

“Timothy or Alister.”

“Just so.”

The gray cat, Hylas, commented, “They’re leaning towards Alister.”

“You asked me what my stake was in this,” I said.  “What’s yours, telling me this?”

“We win, whatever happens.  We can’t act directly against our masters, but we like to have a say in events.”

“We draw strength from it,” Hylas the gray said.

“If you perish, on the other hand, we’ve indirectly disposed of an intruder.”

“We draw some strength from that as well,” Hylas said.

“Geez,” Evan said.  “I want to grow strong too.  I’ve been trying to push this fire bird thing, but nooo.”

“Fire?  Pah,” Hylas said.  “Imagine a bird of the storms, of cascading torrents.”

“Or of the earth,” Cranaus said, “Not conventional, to be sure, but impressive, impossible to ignore.  Aspire for greater things than mere flame, my little acquaintance.”

I hesitated.

“Are you gods?  Were you gods?” I asked.

“We were men,” Cranaus said.  “The sorts who were brief-lived legends, to the point that godhood was a possibility.  Nothing more.  We subsist now by a long existence of being familiars for one master after another.  Chronomancers like to draw the greater legends from history for such a thing.”

“Well, great men,” I said.  “Thanks for…”

“Playing fair?” Evan asked.

“It’s not fair though,” I said.  “They win either way, either they get to make a move without facing consequences, or they dispose of us.  We face a risk either way.”

“Yes,” Hylas said.

“…Which is fair, considering you caught us spying,” I admitted.

“Anyone can spy, where there is an opportunity.  But the prerogative of the one who catches the spy to decide the outcome.  You liked Benjamin’s words?  You act like you would follow them.”

“I’d like to,” I said, “But I’m not sure I can do this with one hand tied behind my back, so to speak.  I want to try, if it’s possible.”

“Then try.”

“How bad can this get, me picking a fight with Alister?”

“Not quite so bad as it might get if Alister is given the weapon his family elders want to give him, if he has any reason to fear you.”

“Right,” I said.

“He’s meeting the junior council outside the school,” the cat told me.  “Making use of the time between classes to touch base.  They’re often late for their first class of the day, after homeroom.”

I hesitated.

“I would go,” he said.

“First,” I said, “Can I ask who’s mounting the attacks on Hillsglade House?”

“That would be Alister,” he said.

Ah.

“Can I ask what the weapon is?”

“You can, but I won’t give you a satisfactory answer.  Go now.  It’s difficult for something like you to look anything but dangerous, but you’re doing an admirable job, crouched within a windowsill.”

He removed his paw from Evan’s head.

I let go of the window, and with no ground to land on, I instead arrived at the closest patch of light.

This was the Behaim’s play.

I wished I knew more about the weapon.

But Alister was the focus here.  How had the revenant phrased it?  Sandra wanted to hold to tradition, Johannes wanted to restructure how Others and humans functioned as a society, and the Behaims sought to be on top and then make everything work out.

If they picked Timothy as their champion… I wasn’t sure how it would play out.  He hadn’t been talked about much at all.  A safe bet.  If he was picked, I imagined they wouldn’t strive to be on top in the same way.  They’d… I wasn’t sure, maybe they’d be an adjunct to whoever was on top.  Being a relative bit player compared to Sandra and Johannes, it was hard to imagine them playing a big role, much less being on top.  They’d just be biding their time until someone looked like they were positioned to win, and offer the help needed to finalize it, in exchange for a small share of local power.

Alister, though, had been described in terms of talent, strength, having the ability to make things happen.

Could they catch others off guard?  Could the Behaims win, with Alister backing them?  I wasn’t sure I liked the idea, given all I’d heard.

“Blake?” Evan called out.

“Here!”  I raised my voice.

He perched on a snow-dusted shrub in front of the window I occupied.

“We going to stop him?”

Here was a challenge.

If I sent Evan ahead, or back to Hillsglade House, I was putting him at risk.  He could get intercepted along the way.

If we went back together, we risked missing our window of opportunity.  The span of time between classes wouldn’t be that big.

If we went ahead together, without notifying Rose… I was risking doing exactly what she was worried about, throwing everything into disarray.

Fuck.

“Yeah,” I said.  “We’re going to stop him.”

We moved, Evan flying, me running.  We operated on two entirely different planes, two modes of functioning, but there was a measure of synchronicity.  Neither one of us fell too far behind.  When I looked through the windows or mirrors and up, I could see him half the time.

The decision gnawed at me.  There were no cell phones in this universe.

I hated the idea of leaving Rose in the dark.

We reached the school in a relatively short span of time.  It remained protected.

The junior members, however, were gathered outside the school grounds, away from their peers.

Mags was among them.  Molly was not.

I stopped where I was.

Evan set down on the side-view mirror nearest the car window I occupied.

The sky was a startling blue as I viewed it through the window and mirror.  The city dark and worn, beneath the sparkling dust of snow.

The kids, I noted, were all armed.  Ready for war.

“I smell blood, here,” Evan commented.

“Something tells me that anyone who tries to hurt those guys is going to be the one bleeding,” I said.

I pulled the book out of my waistband.

While infusing the text with one more spirit I couldn’t afford to give, I recited a few words.  Three points of similarity.  Repeating the same ones tended to be a problem.

Age.  The practitioner’s coat of arms.  The scuff mark on the back cover.

I tore off the back cover, and laid it across the hood of the car.

No pen, I’d have to make do.

Drawing the Hyena, I began to carve letters out, as slowly and carefully as I could.  Rounded edges were harder. The paper cut, then turned black and brown where the blade had touched it.

Rose,

Behaims plan to back Alister.  They have weapon for him.  Must discredit or stop or attacks can become more serious, worse.

Give permission?

I didn’t sign my name.  No time.

I threw the cover as far as I could get it, and I hoped the cover of the real book did something similar, within that library.

Mags was looking over her shoulder at Evan.

Evan extended one wing in a wave.

Mags waved.

“Go first?” I asked.

Evan flew.

A moment later, Mags beckoned me.

I crossed the distance.

“Hello, Mags,” I said.

More than a few people startled at my voice.  A couple startled twice, reacting to my appearance when they saw me in the car window.

“I’d like you to meet the junior council,” Mags said.

“Blake shouldn’t be here,” Joanna said.  Letita’s master, I recognized.  I’d met her while with Ms. Lewis.

“I’m ambassador, I say he can be here,” Mags said.

“I don’t think it works that way,” a female Behaim said.

“Tough luck,” Mags said.  “What’s up?”

“I’m not sure yet,” I said.  My eye roved over the group.

My eye fell on one young man.  Eighteen, apparently.  He had the Behaim look, dark haired, with very strong features, a little taller than average.  His features, though, weren’t so blocky as the other Behaims.  Strong cheekbones and a prominent chin and an odd face shape.  He wore a leather jacket with a heavy wool scarf tucked inside it.  The way his hair was styled, the narrow jeans, the shiny black boots… something told me he was a Toronto resident, not a kid who’d lived in a small town all his life.  His eyes were a bottle-glass green as he peered at me.

“Molly’s awol,” Mags said.  “So are the independent Others.  We think there’s a reason for that.  In the past hour alone, a good four practitioners and ten innocents have been hurt.”

“When you say independent others, you mean Others like the faceless woman?” I asked, more to keep my thoughts in order and slow down the conversation than out of genuine need to know.  My head was swimming a bit.  “The revenant?”

“They’re among them, yeah.  Essylt and the torturer Faerie might be too.”

“Hm,” I said.

“More a force of nature than an organization.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“We should go in soon,” the Behaim girl said.

My eye found Alister again, on the far side of the group.

“You’re here for me,” he said.

“Alister?”

“Yes.  You’re here to make a formal declaration of war.”

It made sense, doing it that way.  If I was going to do this seriously, with a minimum of casualties to Rose’s game plan, doing it tidy was one way.

“I-”

He cut me off.  “That wasn’t a question.  It was a statement.”

I was starting to see where Ben had been leery of him.  He did take risks.

“Statements like that are dangerous,” I said.

“They are if you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

He drew a deck of cards from his hand, holding it up.

The Fool was the card that faced me.

“Your friend Rose is going to give you her signal.  You’ll make your declaration of war, because you have to.  But this won’t go the way you want it to,” he said.

“It might!” Evan chimed in.

Alister looked at the other members of the junior council.  “You should go to class.  I’ll be a bit late.”

“Go,” Mags said.

“You’ll have to stay out of this, Ambassador.”

“Yeah,” Mags said.  “Hang with me, Evan?”

“I’m totally helping Blake.”

I nodded.

The echo of the bell continued in the background, an angry noise.

“I like doing things this way,” Alister said.  “A proper contest of skill.  Game on.

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