I could see the looks on their faces. The adults had damn good poker masks, but even they were showing that my words had had an effect. A woman in the Behaim circle reached for her husband’s hand, without taking her eyes off me, as though she thought she were the only one reaching for a measure of security. Except almost everyone had a little clue like that. The kids most of all.
I’d give three groups safe passage. Somehow, with the how of it to be negotiated when I’d done more research.
It was interesting, to see how they all reacted to that tidbit. I tried to take it in, taking note of who’d reacted the most. Who was most insecure? Who was more secure? The responses they offered and the scale of those responses told me a lot.
The Duchamps were good at hiding their emotions. Even down to the eight or ten year old girls sitting beside their mothers, they showed less of a reaction than many of the Behaim adults did on the other side of the aisle.
Johannes was still smiling, and the girl Maggie was leaning forward now, clearly interested.
The girl Laird had referred to as a terrorist and the guy I wasn’t supposed to interact with under any circumstances.
“Hey, that sort of sounds like a threat,” a girl said.
I turned my head to see the witch hunter. She held a gun.
“No, Eva,” the boy said. “It wasn’t.”
She pointed the gun at me. I was so focused on the forces arrayed on the benches and around the edges of the room that it took me a moment to process what that meant. A slight pull on the trigger, and I was gone.
Fuck, she had her finger on the trigger.
“Someone say the word,” Eva said. “Threatening people, could be out of control. Say the word, tell me he’s too dangerous to leave alive.”
“No,” Laird cut in. “Not with the things Rose might have put in place. If there are special measures at work, we can’t act.”
Eva dropped the gun to point it at the floor. She smiled at me when I looked up at her face.
“Are you assuming he’s telling us the truth,” the Duchamp family’s leader said. The blonde woman I’d seen talking to Laird. She looked like the sort of person who would be the queen bitch at PTA meetings.
“I can’t lie,” I said.
“That doesn’t mean you’re telling us the truth,” she said.
“I’m pretty sure that’s what it means,” I said.
“What you’re saying and what you’re telling us are very different things,” she said. “Why are you focused on your seat? You left something behind.”
Right. Enchantress. She could see the connections between things.
“I have help,” I said. “Help my grandmother left me.”
I could see her eyes studying me. Roving over my body, my clothes, and very pointed locations around me.
“Yes. A companion.”
“A vestige,” Laird said.
“Of Rose?” the North End Sorcerer asked, his eyebrows raised.
“Yes,” Padraic spoke out loud, at the same Laird said, “I don’t think so.”
I could see a few glances being exchanged at that discrepancy.
“There is something else out there,” she said. “Back in the house. It’s not cooperating with him at this point in time.”
“That’s not reassuring,” Johannes said. “Just the opposite. A mad dog running rampant is often scarier than a dog on a leash being set on targets.”
“It depends on who’s holding the leash, doesn’t it?” I asked.
The Sorcerer dipped his head in a single nod, “It does. Which is why I said often. At this point, from the sense I have of you, I would be more concerned about an unleashed dog than an attack dog at your control.”
I was very, very aware of all the eyes on me. Many of which were inhuman. One small disparaging remark, but there were a lot of ears to hear it.
“I’ve said most of what I needed to say…” I told them, trailing off as I tried to collect my thoughts. I thought of what I’d seen in the visions. The way Laird had talked about sitting back, there being no need to act. In the end, it had been someone else that had set those bird-skull things on me.
They were cooperating. Taking turns, negotiating with each other.
I needed to put a stop to that. Or throw a wrench into it. And I had to think of Molly.
“…I’m making one more offer. An altered version of the deal I just gave you. I’m willing to do what I can to protect you against any of my grandmother’s demons that happen to run rampant, and I’d still give you free reign to come after me. I’ll protect an enemy, if my condition is met. Identify the person responsible for my cousin’s death. This deal, obviously, is off the table if you did it.”
Cops in cop shows liked to do the whole thing where they’d put two perps in different rooms and let them sweat over whether the other guy would turn them in.
Maybe I was disarming myself, on a level, but I still didn’t want to use the devils. If I could ratchet up the paranoia or turn them against one another, it was worth it.
I took in the crowd. Now that the alarm was fading, my chance to see any more tells was gone. I could only lose out by standing up there any longer.
I walked down the aisle, and I took my seat on the pew.
Laird took his position at the front. He was still wearing the longer coat, hands in his pocket as he half-sat on the stage or chancel or altar or whatever it was supposed to be called.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s get this out of the way. Who’s interested in taking the deal?”
“Not seeing any raised hands,” Laird said. “It’ll be good if we get this out of the way, before it gets messy.”
Negotiating here? Now? I’d hoped for more backstabbing, a little more chaos.
“Maggie, was it? You perked up when he made the offer.”
“I sort of am,” she called out, from beside me. She glanced at me, but she looked a little concerned. “I’ve seen how things go bad, if you let them. And that was only goblins, I think. So how bad are these things?”
“They’re very bad,” Laird said. “There have been cases where small towns disappeared after one got loose. Outsiders were called in, the offending Others were dealt with, and the areas were written off. One big symbol was drawn out in each area, to drive away the surviving locals and any visitors. They made some efforts to erase the areas from the books, and they became the towns you pass by on road trips, but never visit. Presentable when seen from a distance. When this happens in bigger cities, well, you can erase a great deal of evidence with a large enough fire or a natural disaster.”
That was a little more serious than anything I’d read about.
“I’ve seen something like that happen before,” Maggie said. “But it wasn’t… whatever you’re talking about. Small spot, bit of a disaster, everything cleared out. Now there’s an entire area of town people avoid.”
“I believe many of us know what you’re referring to.”
“Well, why is this so much worse? That’s a rhetorical question. I get that it’s a big deal, from the way you’re acting, and because I can sense that much. But I’m curious about the why and how.”
“Let me help you understand. Many of us here have discussed options, with the Thorburn family in mind. We’ve grown up with this danger in mind. I’ve talked about it with my wife,” Laird said. He paused for a second, glancing at his wife. I could see her move, her arm going around her children or relatives. Two boys, two girls.
Laird drew in a deep breath, then told Maggie, “If it came down to it and Blake Thorburn sent something like that after my family, if I didn’t have measures in place, or if I didn’t feel my measures would hold, then I would use gun, knife, bludgeon, or whatever I had at my disposal to kill my family before that thing could reach them. Because I love my family too much to do otherwise.”
There was near-silence, punctuated only by some sniggering from some of the things I took to be goblins.
“It’s a big deal then,” Maggie said. “Why aren’t you taking the offer?”
“Because I do have measures that should be effective. I told Mr. Thorburn as much. Successfully managing this situation and ensuring that things progress smoothly means safeguarding the bit players. I have the means to protect myself, I can give some to the Duchamp family as a pre-wedding gift, if they’re willing. If Crone Mara, you and the woods girl take the deal, most of us are protected. Blake Thorburn is rendered impotent, or he makes a mistake and removes himself as a threat.”
“And destroys us all?” Mrs. Duchamp asked.
“That is something we can work on, but it’s a risk nonetheless.”
Maggie sat back, propping one of her winter boots up against the book-holder on the back of the pew in front, where the bibles and hymn sheets or whatevers were held. “This sounds an awful lot like a trap.”
“It is,” Laird said. “Primarily for Mr. Thorburn, removing all possible leverage he might hold. I feel the risk to you if you take the deal is far smaller than if you don’t.”
“But it’s still a little trap for me. For us,” Maggie said. “And I’m betting that when all’s said and done, you come out ahead.”
“Yes. Alongside the Duchamps, in keeping with our alliance. But we’re all better off, Mr. Thorburn excepted, and he would be largely removed as a threat.”
“No. Drat that,” Maggie said. “Drat you. I’ll do what I want.”
Her way of swearing seemed odd. It had in the vision where I’d first seen her, too. I felt a measure of relief and concern. She wasn’t an ally, per se, but at least she wasn’t playing Laird’s game.
Laird said, “I thought I was being polite, including you. Johannes, Crone Mara, and the girl from the glades, then?”
“I seem to be your last pick among the local practitioners,” Johannes said. When I craned my head to look, he was smirking. “I’m mildly offended.”
“Offended or not, are you interested? We might as well settle this now.”
“I’ll hear what the Briar Girl and Mara have to say, before I make any decision.”
The Briar Girl shifted position. She was plain, her hair a mess, with a twig stuck in the back somewhere. Her winter clothes were layered, a little scuffed at the edges of the sleeves and pant leg. She was wearing pyjamas beneath the jeans.
The spirit walked along the back of the pew with a coyote’s legs, until it stood directly behind her, leaning in to whisper in her ear with a beaked mouth.
“When the house’s occupants are gone, the woods and marshes there are mine,” she said.
“In what sense?” Laird asked.
“In every sense. I want it like Johannes has the north end.”
“You want it uncontested as your demesnes, you mean.”
“A bit too steep of a price, I suspect. You’re not paying attention to the context of this situation. We need to drain the marshes to let the city expand, which is something we require to further all of our interests, yours included.”
“I am paying attention. I don’t care,” the Briar Girl said. The spirit’s beak was partially open still by her ear, serrated with sawlike teeth. One of its large yellow eyes were fixated on Laird. “The city will expand all the same, but it will expand slower. More expensive for you. It’ll still get where you want it to get. When it does, I’ll have all those woods and marshes. One way or another.”
“I see. Then there’s no use in asking the others,” Laird said.
“I doubt I would have accepted, in any case,” Johannes said. “Just saying.”
I glanced at Mara. She sat alone, eyes fixed in front of her, hands in her lap, very still.
Nobody had really talked to her yet. Did she say or do anything?
Laird was nodding, frowning.
“My rose has done what she aimed to,” Padraic said. “You’ve offended two of us, Aimon Behaim. Johannes and me both.”
“I’m not Aimon, my name is Laird,” Laird said.
Padraic looked a touch annoyed at being corrected. “Aimon, Laird, Lame Airhard, no matter. You’ve wounded me, ignoring me in this critical moment. I have far more to lose than you, don’t I? An immortal lifespan, against, what, thirty more of your years? Twenty of your wife’s? Sixty two of one daughter’s, fifty one of another, one of a son’s life? Add them together for your family as they are now and you have, what?”
One of his companions I hadn’t yet met said something under his breath. The numbers Padraic had given were eerily specific. Laird didn’t even flinch, hearing them, didn’t glance at his children.
“Eight hundred and seven years, for your extended family? Paltry,” Padraic said. He made a face, “In terms of the years I’m expected to live, I’m much more important. Yet you dismiss me.”
“I’d planned to make offers to you and many of the remaining Others, to ensure everyone was on stable footing before proceeding,” Laird said.
“Well,” Padraic said, leaning back, “What would you offer? I’m going to be insulted if you don’t make a good suggestion, now.”
“Despite the fact that we’re no longer negotiating?”
“Exactly so. It’s a question of my pride. How do you value my remaining lifespan, Behaim?”
“I’d thought I might offer to talk to the Queen that exiled you, and see if I could offer to make you a familiar to one of my grandchildren. I could fund him or her, so they could travel, freeing you from your imprisonment here for a time.”
“She wouldn’t accept, and the offer is weak at best,” Padraic said. “Putting the rest of my life at risk for a mere forty or so years of mild adventure? Try again.”
I clenched my hands in my lap. Had I set Laird back, here? A small success?
“Your kind aren’t in my realm of expertise. Sandra? I apologize for asking, but-”
The Duchamp’s leader nodded, all the way in the frontmost pew. The blonde PTA-bitch woman stood as Laird sat down beside his wife. She composed herself, then said, “What would you ask for, Patrick?”
“I’m still asking. I’ll try to make you a counteroffer.”
“One of Laird’s generations. Grandchildren, grand-nieces and nephews, and the children of his cousins.”
“That has the unfortunate consequence of ending his line.”
Padraic smiled. “I could return them, more or less in one piece. Let them age up to twenty or so, educate them. It would be novel, and if we kept some in reserve and staggered out when and how we returned them, we could amuse ourselves for hundreds of years.”
“I see,” Sandra Duchamp said. “Here’s my counteroffer: what if I offered a messenger?”
“The Queen won’t listen,” Padraic said, sighing.
“To other banished Faerie, in other cities and towns. Until our family line ends or the Queen is replaced and the court dynamic changes up once again.”
“Springtime,” Padraic said. “Mm. That would have been a good offer. Paved the way for an insurrection of sorts.”
“Perhaps,” Sandra Duchamp said. “That would be dangerous for my family. I was thinking of maintaining some connection to the courts, in a peripheral manner.”
“Nonetheless, I’m pacified. I no longer feel slighted.”
“Then,” Sandra Duchamp said, “Thorburn’s offer remains open, I will know who accepts it, if anyone does. Let’s set that matter aside so we’re free to move on. The murder of Molly Walker?”
Laird responded without standing, “It’s largely under wraps. The investigation will hit a dead end on its own.”
“Any assistance needed?”
“No. I’ll keep an eye on things.”
“Good,” Sandra said. It seemed like she was leading things, now. Was leadership exchanged so easily? “In terms of more mundane business… Toronto is currently in the dark. Provided there aren’t any further interruptions, my family should be able to divert attention for the time being. I’ve had a short discussion with the Lord of Ottawa, and she is on board, keeping her subservients at bay.”
“The smaller towns in the GTA?” The Briar Girl asked.
“Stable, expressing no interest and exerting no pressure. I see only three or four individuals or groups that might make make an active play, and they are doing no such thing. The remainder would sell us out to Toronto’s Lord or try to sell us out to Ottawa and inform us. For the time being, we’re the only individuals in play, here.”
There were nods all around. I saw some of the Others leaving. Apparently those were the only major points they were interested in hearing.
“Next order of business. I’m obligated to call it to a vote. Flagrant use of one’s practice in public, acting against the local powers. Maggie Holt.”
The witch hunter girl at the front perked up at that. So did Maggie.
“Excusable use,” Maggie said. “Nobody even thought it was anything suspicious.”
“To sanction the use of the Jacob’s Bell witch hunters to execute Maggie Holt, please vote,” Sandra Duchamp declared.
The Briar Girl raised her staff. One member of Laird’s family, a teenage boy with brown hair, raised a golden disc, held between crossed index and middle fingers. He looked back at Maggie, and she rolled her eyes.
Nobody else in the room raised their implements. Not even the woman who called the vote. What was the proper course of action if we didn’t have implements to raise? Raising our hands? Or were we not allowed to vote?
“Two yeas, the remainder of the votes are nay. The execution is not passed,” Sandra Duchamp said. “Be careful. You have very few friends here. When we’re not following so soon after one execution, we may prove more willing to vote against you.”
I saw Maggie sit back a little. She was a little relieved, or she’d hidden the tension well.
The discussion continued, along the same lines. Outside players, minor internal disputes over who was doing what, and all of the other details that went into maintaining the balance of power.
“…And with that, the meeting is called to order,” Laird Behaim said. He’d taken over again when Sandra’s voice had started to give out. He opened his pocket watch. “Seven forty-four.”
That seemed to be the end of it. The remaining crowd picked up and got ready to leave, pulling on winter clothes, gathering implements and tools. I was among them, getting my jacket on before pulling on the backpack of weapons and tools.
Many of the Others were gone. Most of the ones who remained were still human in appearance.
Nobody seemed interested in talking to me, so I made my way outside.
“Not exactly the result you wanted,” Rose murmured, as we passed outside. The mirror was still sticking out of the top of my backpack.
“Not a bad result either,” I said. “Do you object? Bad plan?”
“No. I would have liked more time to consider it, but there are worse ideas. What was with that bit at the end? You won’t use devils to attack someone, but they can attack you?”
I nodded. “I needed some incentive. I didn’t have time to stand there thinking about it, so I went with the most obvious thing.”
“Right. Well. Thoughts?”
“Getting home, seeing if anyone expresses interest, get more reading done.”
“Stores close in twelve minutes, and I don’t want to dally. If it comes down to it, I can live off what’s in the house now, at least until next month.”
“Grim,” Rose said.
“Tell me about it,” I said. “Remind me of this idiotic call, a little while from now.”
“Something else we need to talk about,” I said, “Is this vestige thing. It’s the… second or third time I’ve heard it, and I’m pretty sure you referenced it, one of those times.”
“Talking to yourself, Mr. Thorburn?”
I wheeled around. Rather than stop, I kept walking backwards.
Johannes and Maggie. North End Sorcerer and the girl with the checkered scarf.
And, I had to note, a small contingent of goblins. The dog walked alongside Johannes, through slush and snow, the long hair not getting wet or dirty. Johannes wore a white coat, and it was pristine.
Maggie, by contrast, had specks and spots of gray-brown grime on her leggings, with circles of wet spreading around them. Her skirt and hair blew around in the wind, and she hunched over, hands jammed in her pockets, as she trudged on.
Most of the goblins were children, paying very little attention to us as they hopped onto nearby cars or walls. Two were large. Gorilla-like things, ugly as hell, stark naked, their faces bent in permanent scowls. A child-like goblin jumped on the shoulders of one of the larger ones. A moment later, it was seized and smashed against the nearest lightpost.
“I’m talking to my companion,” I said. Might as well admit it.
“Yes. You are,” Johnannes said. “I’m liking how quickly you’re picking this up. The language, turns of phrase used to redirect, to mislead. You’re talking to your companion, yes, but you’re not denying that you’re talking to yourself.”
He knew? Even Laird hadn’t made any obvious connections.
“You’ve been watching?” I asked.
“Yes. Everyone has, to some degree.”
“You up for the deal?” I asked.
“Didn’t you hear?” Johannes asked. “Behaim wants us to take the deal. It leaves everything in the hands of the two more powerful circles in Jacob’s Bell. Chaos is minimized, and they can take whatever action they need to in order to remove you.”
“Why not call an execution against me?” I asked. “Seems easy enough.”
“Laird promised you safety. He’s walking a fine line, trying to keep you in a position to threaten others while ensuring you’re manageable and that the situation stays stable,” Johannes said. “It’s most advantageous to him, because it lets him present traps to Maggie, the Briar Girl, Mara and me like he did tonight. He’s secure enough that any trouble you cause will set others back more than it sets him back. If you fail in that role, he kills you and finds an equilibrium with the next heir.”
Maggie said, “It’s like he lives his life by the ticking of that clock of his, orderly, tidy, neat, but he thrives on controlled chaos.”
“If-” a voice started behind me. It cut off when I turned. Rose. “If the execution was only stayed today because of the promise he made, what’s stopping him from doing it next month?”
“A very good question, miss…?” Johannes let the question hang.
“I don’t know if I should answer that.”
“Miss Mirror. A good question,” Johannes said. “The obvious answer is that he won’t call for an execution if you’re useful to him. He can use the threat you pose as a distraction or a tool, apparently. He’s not worried, because he seems to think he has an answer to whatever you might send his way. How is that? How would he know what you have at your disposal and how to respond?”
“Aimon,” Rose said. “She was close to Aimon, once?”
“Well, that’s one idea,” Johannes said. “You can then give some thought to a way around it. If you were to get your hands on a dark Other of horrendous power, is it possible that Laird might not have an answer to it?”
“Depends on what the answer is,” I said. “Could be some contract she made with every Other in her books. Could be a tool, or some excerpts from the books.”
“Very true,” Johannes said. “So?”
“So,” Rose said. “I’m wondering why you’re ‘helping’ us.”
“Are you wondering?” Johannes replied. “Mr. Blake Thorburn, why do you think I’m helping?”
“Maybe because it’s a danger to Laird, and you lose nothing if I fail.”
“If you fail badly enough, I could lose everything. In order of severity, there’s failure where you’re ineffectual, failure where you get yourself killed, and greater failure still where you might get everyone here killed. But yes. I lose nothing of substance by helping, and I could see Laird Behaim unseated, removed or disconcerted. I like that,” Johannes said.
“Which brings us back to what we were talking about before,” Maggie said. “How do you mess with Laird? I’m thinking, if he’s got his protections, he either has them on his person, which is unlikely since he’s protecting his whole family. They could be more abstract sorts of protections, or he’s set them up somewhere.”
I nodded slowly. “Abstract meaning something like my grandmother made a promise to Aimon that the Behaims would all be safe, then signed deals to put it into motion.”
No. It didn’t make sense that she’d leave me something like that if there was no way to use it against Laird. I didn’t say that out loud.
“And?” Johannes asked, cutting into the silence that had followed my statement.
“The prepared protections,” Rose said, “Are protections that are arranged already. Safe ground?”
Johannes nodded. “It could be barriers, weapons, wards, or other safeguards. He prepares them in advance, then pulls his family back to safety if he expects you’re going to attack. It’s likely it would be somewhere accessible.”
I said, “That means I’d have to find his place. If I disposed of the safeguards and prevented him from erecting any more, he loses his bargaining chip.”
“That would be the natural conclusion,” Johannes said. “Getting into his place to do anything would be the real difficulty. His home is his demesnes, and any protections he has against demons, devils and infernal things might be supplemented with protection against the practitioner that might command them.”
Over and over again, there were these dead ends. Couldn’t get a familiar, implement, or demesnes without other assets. Couldn’t attack Laird.
“You’re not really thinking about doing this, are you?” Rose asked. Asked me.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think it’s doable.”
“I don’t either,” Johannes said. “Returning us to the question of how you protect yourself. From a vote of execution or otherwise. You most likely can’t scare him into submission, you won’t be able to maintain the balance he wants indefinitely. Which would only be delaying the inevitable, by the by. That leaves you two options, as I see it.”
He had a tone to his voice. As though he was waiting for me to ask what those options were.
I’d ask and he would…
“You want payment, in exchange for you sharing what those options are?” I asked.
“Or you can name them yourself. I’m not picky,” he said.
We walked on in silence, boots squeaking and crunching in the snow.
“When we first saw you, you offered help. For a price,” Rose said.
“That’s one of the two options,” Johannes said. “I’m suspicious that any price I ask would be minor at best, compared to what you’d have to pay one of Rose Thorburn’s Other acquaintances. If you know what I mean.”
There was a moment of silence as we considered. Johannes seemed content to enjoy the silence. Maggie was quiet in general.
I asked, “They’re both allied against me? The Behaim Circle and Duchamp coven?”
“Most likely. They’re united by the marriage that is coming to pass. It makes them powerful. Not as powerful as me, but powerful.”
I nodded. “And I can’t stop the marriage? Split them apart?”
“I don’t imagine you could. The idea I had was a simpler one. Think. What’s the issue you face?”
The issue? Me being in Maggie’s shoes, seeing those hands go up, and the witch hunter with awful trigger etiquette.
“If the danger is a vote of execution,” I said, “We could theoretically win over enough people that they couldn’t get the majority.”
“Do all members of the family count?” Rose asked. “There’s no way, if they do.”
“The senior member of each family unit gets one vote,” Johannes said. “All put together, that is three from the Duchamps, and four from the Behaims.”
“Seven,” I said.
“Myself, Maggie, The Briar Girl, Mara, Padraic, two Others, at a minimum,” Johannes said. “You might want more, in case any Others decide to vote against you. A slim chance, but you have one month.”
“Except I can’t step outside for that one month,” I said. “I do, I have to face down whatever spells or traps they’ve laid for me.”
“I’m hated,” Johannes said. “Why am I free to roam?”
“You’re powerful,” I said. I glanced back at the goblins. “And you’ve got help.”
Another catch-twenty-two. Get powerful so I could go outside, but I needed to go outside so I could get more powerful.
It all came down to power.
“If it’s not a vote of execution you face, having any or all of the named individuals helping you would still protect you against the family. Win each of us over, use us.”
“Be used in turn,” Rose said.
“Naturally,” Johannes said.
“Speaking of. You have the one measure that was put in place,” Rose said.
Measure? I turned my head.
Oh. She was talking about what I’d brought up at the meeting. I’d been talking about Rose, but I’d let them think I was talking about something else. Something that could release the barber if I was hurt or killed.
Would fear work?
“I do,” I said. “I’m not really a fan of any option that works only after I get brutally murdered.”
Leading Johannes and Maggie to believe that there was a safeguard in place. But the truth was, I wasn’t a fan of that sort of option. Generally speaking.
“Food for thought,” Johannes said. He pointed at a busier road, though ‘busy’ was a misleading term, when one referred to sleepy Jacob’s Bell. A car every minute or two. “I’m going this way.”
“You’re not taking the deal?” I asked, again.
“We’ll see. There’s no rush,” he said. “We really should talk again. You know where to find me. Ask politely before you come, and there should be no issue. Miss Mirror?”
“Yes?” Rose asked.
“You would find yourself in good company, should you visit.”
With that, he walked off, his familiar beside him, goblins following, darting into shadows as cars passed down the road.
Leaving me with Maggie and the two largest goblins.
“Good company?” Rose asked.
“You’re an Other,” Maggie said. “That place is like an Other’s amusement park. There, it’s like the old days, before the Seal of Solomon. Before humans were really able to fend for themselves.”
“This is sanctioned?” I asked. Hard to imagine there hadn’t been a vote against Johannes.
“No,” Maggie said. “What does it matter? The area is his. Purely his. The only person who gets a say is him.”
“That doesn’t sound like my kind of company,” Rose said. “Killing people, picking them off…”
“Maybe he meant something else?” Maggie asked. She shrugged in answer to her own question.
“We’re walking this way,” I pointed. “You?”
“Same. Straight all the way down to the lake.”
“Same direction for a bit, then turning off to one side,” I said.
Maggie looked back at her giant goblins, said, “Come on.”
We walked together.
“You’re friends with Johannes?” I asked.
“Not really. I mean, some common ground. Acquaintances, but not friends. Neither of us are big fans of the old guard. But, you know, you can’t really interact fairly with someone when there’s this big an imbalance in power.”
“No,” Rose said.
I didn’t have anything to say to that.
“Blake is a member of the old guard,” Rose said. “Just so it’s clear. Old family, old knowledge.”
“But you two are clueless,” Maggie said. “You don’t know jack. You just got awakened, you just got introduced to this whole shebang.”
“Give us time,” I said. “We’re working on it.”
“The rest of those guys out there? They don’t want you to have time. They’re going to use you, get you killed, then do the same for all the rest of them.”
“And you?” I asked.
“And me. I might be happier if you stay alive. That way there are more chances to use you. I don’t get much from offing you. Bit of a boost in raw power, but that only puts the grand kibosh on all of this. The guys in charge stay in charge, and us runts stay on the bottom. What’s the point of moving everyone up five rungs on the ladder, if you’re still going to be three rungs below the next pleb?”
“I think that depends on your motivations,” I said. “If you’re trying to achieve something, then it’s good. If you want power for power’s sake, then no, it doesn’t help.”
We had reached the street I turned off at. I stopped, and Maggie stopped too.
“What do you want?” she asked.
I thought back to the oath I’d made while awakening. “Freedom, safety, I want to help my family, past, present and future. I want to help my… companion here.”
“Yeah?” Maggie asked. “Huh.”
“What do you want?” Rose asked.
“I can’t put it to words. I feel dumb if I say it out loud. But power helps everything. Knowledge is power. I want knowledge and power.”
“Where’d you get knowledge in the first place?” I asked.
She reached for her bag, rifled inside, and retrieved a small binder.
“All here,” she said. She hugged it against her stomach with both hands.
The way pages stuck out, how some of them seemed like newspaper, some like printer paper, and some clearly lined, it seemed more like a scrapbook than what it really was. A tome, a spellbook.
“Where’d you get that?” I asked. “Or… how did you make it?”
“Started off with a bit. Long story. Gathered the rest myself, piece by piece. Dealing, trading, competing for it.”
“Want more?” I asked.
She raised an eyebrow.
“I’ve got a whole library of books,” I said. “But I need help.”
“You want to deal?” she asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “If my companion doesn’t object and-”
“I don’t object,” Rose said.
“-and if you can clarify what Laird was talking about, when he referred to you as a terrorist.”
“I hate that word,” Maggie said. “It’s so overused.”
“Is it inaccurate?” I asked.
“No, but that’s because it’s vague. Using fear to achieve political aims? Define ‘using fear’. Define ‘political’. That Behaim guy is a terrorist. So is Sandra Duchamp. So is Johannes. So are you.”
“I’m using fear so I can survive,” I said.
“You’re raising your status in people’s estimation. That’s political.”
“That’s pushing the definition,” I said.
“So is Laird! You want my answer, on why he’d call me that? There you go.”
“What?” Maggie asked. “It’s the only real answer I can think of.”
“I need more information before I can make a call,” I said. “But I’m going to get back.”
“There are still hours of safety,” Maggie said.
“There are. But my bag is getting pretty heavy, and I’m not sure I trust the general definition of hours, with Laird around, or the definition of safety, with, well, just about anyone I’ve met here.”
“You’re leaving me hanging?” Maggie asked. “If I could say anything crude, I’d say it now. I… can’t even allude to it. Blue. You’re leaving me blue.”
“Sad?” Rose asked.
Maggie groaned in frustration.
“We’re going to meet again,” I said. “For now, though, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m overly cautious. I seem to recall you saying something about the noobs being easy marks.”
“You heard that,” Maggie said.
“We can meet sometime this week, maybe negotiate a deal. After… my partner and I have slept on it. My info for your backup,” I said. “If I can find a way to safely leave Hillsglade House, and if I can feel a bit more confident about working alongside you.”
“How bad could I be?” Maggie asked.
I looked at her, framed by the two monstrous brutes that were following her.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s not find out. I’ll talk to you later?”
She shrugged. “Maybe.”
I turned to go.
From the main road, it was only a little ways to get to the Hillsglade property. The only hassle was the uphill nature of the walk.
“Watch my back?” I asked.
“Sure,” Rose said.
I trudged along until the house came into view.
“We okay?” I asked.
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” she said. “Generally? No. I don’t think we’re okay at all. We’re probably going to die.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Are you okay? No. Am I okay? No.”
“Now you’re intentionally misunderstanding me,” I said. I added a quick, “I think.”
“I am. Are we okay as a pair? No. We aren’t.”
“Okay,” I said. “I get that.”
“The mirrors are nice. I appreciate the mirrors.”
“Good,” I said.
“But we’re still not in a good place. Could a black slave be friends with his master, back in the day? Sure. I imagine there were some slaveowners who were pretty cool, didn’t beat or punish their slaves, were generous and kind…”
“That analogy is pretty damn unfair,” I said. “I didn’t choose for you to be like this.”
“Child of the slaveowner, then?”
I would have reminded her that she was supposedly playing ball. At the same time, I was glad she was arguing with me. It beat the utter defeat she’d showed me earlier.
“I want to do what I can to free you from your prison, my metaphorical slave,” I said. “I swore it when I did the ritual, just like I told Maggie, back there.”
Rose was quiet, now. I didn’t hear a response from the mirror.
“What was that bit, before, about vestiges?” I asked.
“We were interrupted,” she said, quiet.
“What was it?” I asked her, again. I didn’t want to get distracted from the topic.
“Vestiges. They’re… like shadows. A simulacrum is an effective double of another individual, a near-perfect simulation. You’ve got dopplegangers, Others that copy a person’s appearance, hiding inside a simulacrum. A reflection of a person, but with something different and frequently malevolent at the core. Erasing a person so they can take over their lives. Usually ending in disaster and murder.”
“Sure,” I said.
“There are glamours and illusions. Images, but little more than that. Living, alive, pretendings. Ghosts, which are usually emotional or mental impressions made on the world. Trauma, powerful ideas, they leave something behind, that you see out of the corner of your eye. Tied to some glimmer of the person that was, at the time of death, twisted by time and a degrading memory of their self.”
“And vestiges?” I asked.
“Fit somewhere in the middle. A flawed simulacrum, or a ghost that left a deep enough impression in reality that you can use that impression as a mold. Memories, complex thought, they’re flexible. There’s a book on vestiges in the library. They’re interesting to work with because they can be altered. Strong enough that you can mold them, without them being too rigid.”
“Molded?” I asked. “As in… changing a gender? Memories?”
“Exactly,” Rose said.
“You know what you are, then.”
“Not even a copy. You want to know the reason for my big turnaround? Why I’m accepting my fate as a tool? That’s it. I know what I am now. I know the built-in limitations.”
“Read the book,” she said, from the mirror, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
I had an ugly idea of what she was referring to.
“Rose,” I said.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Later, Blake.”
“I wanted to ask about-” I said.
But something told me she wasn’t there. Except for the crunching of my boots, there was only silence. She was gone.
I made my way up the driveway. Once safely inside, I locked the door, checked the windows, and then headed for the library. I didn’t see Rose in any of the mirrors.
I searched the shelves until I found the book she’d been talking about.
Vestige: Glimmers and Gasps
The title only reaffirmed the ugly feeling I had in my gut.
I scanned the table of contents. The title of one chapter pretty much gave it away.
I read the entire chapter, first leaning against the railing, book in hand. Then I read some sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Vestiges were flexible, like Rose had said. They could be molded.
But Vestiges were impermanent. Sand castles. Given time, given external pressures, they started to degrade. Over time, the degradation got worse, to the point that it took more and more effort and energy to keep them intact.
What was the power source that was driving her?
How much time did she have?
I finished the chapter, then closed the book. The cover had a silver image of half a mask, pressed into the leather. The other half of the mask was black, without any eye, nose or mouth. Half real, half shadow.
When I looked up, my eyes roving over the room, I saw Rose in the mirror, sitting in the chair at the desk.
I joined her on the lower floor, book still in hand. Next on my reading list.
“Before we left for the meeting, I thought you said there wasn’t a book to explain you,” I said.
“I said there wasn’t a book to explain why Grandmother summoned me.”
“Ah. Why didn’t you say any of this before?”
“Because you were focused on the meeting? Because there were two ways this could really go? You’d either get upset or distracted, and that would throw you off your game, or you wouldn’t, and that would throw me off mine?”
“If it helps,” I said, “I’m feeling pretty off my game. I feel pretty horrible.”
“Yeah? Well now we’re more on the same page,” she said. “Question is, what do we do about it?”
“Can I just spend a minute or ten feeling like a shitheel?” I asked.
“You can, but we’ll need to figure something out after that.”
“We will,” I said. “Fuck.”
I stood there for a minute, in the middle of the room, so I could see where Rose sat at the desk. I felt the weight of the book in my hand.
“I’m here for a purpose, Blake,” Rose said. “And I’m only here for a little while. We need to figure out what that purpose is.”
“Fuck that,” I said. “I made a promise I’d help you. That doesn’t mean using you and throwing you away to fall apart.”
Again, looking at her, I could see her withdrawing, a trace of anger in her expression. As if me speaking out on her behalf was somehow worse than me being a jerk.
I didn’t get it.
“What, then?” she asked. She was managing to hide the expression, now. “What do you do, if you’re so bent on helping me?”
“Like Maggie said, knowledge and power. They’re one and the same, and they go a long way. Let’s figure something out.”
“I don’t need rescue, Blake.”
You do, I thought. But I said, entirely honest, “I need help. I meant it, and I need your help above all else. I’m going to do what I can to keep you around.”
“That’s just selfish enough I can believe it,” she said.
“Good,” I said. “So, let’s talk strategies.”
“Tell me how this sounds. If you like the idea, we’re going to hit the books, and we’re going to make sure it won’t come back to bite us in the ass. Dear Mr. RCMP Officer, you should know that Laird Behaim was at a function at the church last night. He has admitted in earshot of several people that he knows something about who murdered Molly Walker and how.”
“There are a hundred ways that could bite us in the ass.”
“We’ll double check each one,” I said. “What are they going to do? Try to kill us more? He wants to use us as leverage? We throw something other than horrifying hell-beasts his way. Question is, what do you think?”
“I think it’s something. Provided we double check the rules, make sure we’re not getting ourselves executed. You want to attack his position?”
“Throw him for a bit of a loop,” I said. “We can build on it. Get some people pulled in for questioning. Put them on the spot, see how they do when they’re interrogated and can’t lie.”
“Kids,” Rose said. “Get the kids in that interrogation room somehow. They won’t be as savvy. They’ll let something slip.”
I thought of how the Behaim kids had done a poor job of concealing their fear and surprise.
“It’s dirty,” I said. I smiled some. “Dirty is good.”