Category Archives: 4.02

Collateral 4.2

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Conquest’s place was the sort of place that looked like it was or had been a government building, fifty or a hundred years ago.  A courthouse, a government office, or something.  In my day to day, I might think it fit into that general category, but there was no sign, and I’d never have cause to try and figure it out.

White exterior, pillars framing the front door, and broad stone stairs.

I climbed out of the car that the practitioner with no name had brought, bringing the rolled up image.  I couldn’t help but note the two men to either side of the double doors.  Both stood, and they had a vague military bearing, with their clothes not really being a uniform, but still sort of playing into my impression of what a hitman or an ex-veteran might wear, if they couldn’t leave the work entirely behind.  Boots, bulky jackets that hid guns, shaved heads.  One wore a shapeless, dull sweater, the other had his coat open, showing a suit or vest with a row of shiny brass buttons.

They also gave off a hostile impression.  The sense that they would attack me at any second, justified or not.  More like the Others I’d seen prowling around the perimeter of Hillsglade House.

I couldn’t say for sure if they were Others or not.

The nameless practitioner gestured, and I led the way to the door.  The men on either side looked at me, up and down, as I ascended the stairs.

“No weapons,” one said.

“Hm?”

“At your side.  A blade?”

Ah.  June.

“I promised the spirit I would keep her close and keep her warm.  Is there room for compromise?”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” the nameless practitioner said.

“Yes sir.”

To me, he said, “You don’t touch her, unless you give us warning, or you’ll get shot.”

“Noted.  Thank you,” I said.  A part of me was a little surprised that he’d jumped so quickly to calling it a ‘her’, but I supposed that was a part of living in this world.

“Know that whatever you leave behind is lost, past that threshold.”

“That rule ends when I’ve left?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“And if I decide I don’t like the rule?”

“You’ll displease everyone in attendance, the Lord included,” he said.  “And your stay in Toronto will be a very short one.”

“Gotcha,” I said.

“You’ll want to use your Sight to watch your step.”

“My step?”

“Yes.”

I used my Sight as I opened the door, continued using it as I walked down the hallway.  Had I been using my regular vision, I might have found something off with the surroundings.  The furniture was old, everything was nice, but it didn’t really fit together.  It looked nice, when I took any room or area all together, but when I looked at it in more detail, the short table and mirror by the front door had nothing in common with the furniture at the end of the hallway.

Viewed through the Sight, there was another oddity.  Nothing was connected.  No object had a strong tie to anything.  Not to the room, not to any owner, not to events or ideas.  They were isolated, stranded.

Ghosts, if I could even call them ghosts, lingered here and there.  They were so faint I could look straight at them and I wouldn’t necessarily be able to make them out.  Psychic echoes of people who had been slain or defeated, many bearing grievous wounds that stood out, tied to the pieces of furniture, the decorations, and the objects collected on walls.  The tethers binding them were short enough that some were contorted, bent over tables, reaching for but unable to claim swords that rested on stands, clocks and candlesticks.

I got it, now.  This wasn’t a house that had been lovingly, if eccentrically decorated.  It was a large, sprawling trophy case.  Every enemy the Lord had vanquished, he had taken something from them, a piece of their home and a piece of their selves.

“Up the stairs.  Watch your step.”

I made my way up the step, avoiding one section of step that had badly splintered.  I noted the hole in the surface.  Something had penetrated the stair.

As I rounded the corner to continue up the staircase, I realized it was somewhat more involved than that.

The staircase existed in shambles.  A staff had been thrust into someone’s open mouth, continuing into the join between two stairs, punching through tile, concrete and wood.  The skull of the victim, jaw open, was still on the stairs.  The flesh had long since rotted away, the remainder of the body carted off.

A colonial-era sword had bit so deep into the stone railing that it had stuck.

My foot nearly slid on the stairs as I ascended.  I paused, picking it up, and I saw finger bones and shell casings.

I could smell the gun oil, a chalky, burnt smell that might have been the odor of old gunpowder.  Blood.

As I crested the top of the stairs, I saw the walls on either side of me were in ruins.  Open, snow-covered fields spread out to either side of the ruins, the clouds hanging low in the sky, to obscure my view. There were humps in the earth, that could have been shallow graves with the earth still heaped over them.  The alternative was that they were bodies buried by only the shallowest covering of snow.  Weapons of all sorts stood out from the plains like an eerie sort of grass.  There were a surprising number of religious symbols among the weapons.  Crosses planted in the earth.

It was dark, clearly night-time, but the sun hung directly over the long hallway in front of me, blood red and large enough to fill a quarter of the sky.

It was cold, and the sun afforded no more warmth than it did light.  It did, however manage to leech the moisture from my mouth.  It was both hot and cold at the same time, with one not taking away from the other.

“Huh,” I said.

“We’re in the fallow season within the Lord’s domain.”

I looked back at the nameless practitioner.  The moon hung over his head, far smaller than the sun, but still imposing and somehow artificial in how big and imposing it was.

“Fallow?”

“Please watch your step, and do keep moving.  Lingering can expose you to other effects here.  So can a misstep.  Things broken here do not always mend as you hope they would.  You can hastily patch up a wound that may take a lifetime to heal, or you can allow things to become something else altogether, after the breaking.  I doubt you want to do either, if you happen to fall through the floor and break a leg.”

“Point taken,” I said.  I picked my steps carefully, avoiding the increasing number of weapons that littered the area, the parts of the floor where damage, holes, or fire had left the footing unstable.

I elected to pull off my jacket, because I preferred being too cold to being too hot, and it seemed I wasn’t going to get a middle ground between the two.

“To be in Conquest’s domain is to be in a constant state of transition.  Emotions rise and fall, there is fire and rebellion at first, then we make peace with the state of things.  Broken things erode away, and then there is only defeat.  But to be the Conqueror is not a simple thing either.  They either take on a different role, which my lord cannot do, or they find new territory to seize, people to subjugate.  The territory changes as he finds new ground.”

“I didn’t know a demesne could be this… out there.  I mean, I read about apartments covered in flesh, but…”

“This isn’t a demesne, as you understand the term,” he said.  “Some beings are strong enough to influence their surroundings simply by residing there.”

“Ah.”

I continued forward, leaving ruined walls behind me as the hallway continued, unsupported by anything beneath.  A bridge of broken stone and tile, slow going when I had to pick my way around skeletal remains.

It wasn’t a long fall to the ground.  Fifteen feet or so, maybe sixteen if the snow was deeper than it looked.  But somehow, I didn’t get the impression I would be able to get back up if I did tip over.

The bridge reached a hill with more ruins at the perimeter, walling it off from the surrounding region.  The sun, somehow, was now directly above me, pressing down.

The light, however, seemed to come from the snow that dusted everything.

Conquest stood across from me, sitting on a stone.  He had a bit of a mullet, a white colonial-style jacket with a fleece collar and several belts, a rifle with a bayonet resting against one leg, and a badass beard with a waxed mustache.  Two aboriginal men were kneeling beside him, shirtless, with heavy collars shackled to their necks, chains leading up to his hand.  His other arm was outstretched, resting against one knee, hand open, with large green beetles crawling around the palm.

His eyes didn’t look human.  When I let my brain draw the connection, my first thought was ‘painting eyes’.  They were the sort of eyes I might expect to see in a really well done painting… every detail in place, but lifeless and flat.

When I looked him over again, I saw the entire thing fit.  I could have seen something similar on a tarot card, the posture, the very careful arrangement of elements.

A composition, a living symbol.  And somehow, this landscape was an extension of him. It was like he was ink, bleeding out onto the paper around him, and this… diorama was the end result.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

“My lord,” the nameless practitioner said, “he holds a weapon.  I agreed to let him carry it in.”

Conquest nodded slowly, then turned his painted eyes to me.

“I would offer you a seat,” he said, “But the only seat available is the ground, and I have no reason to make you debase yourself.  You may continue to stand.”

“Then I will do so…” I almost said sir, then reconsidered.  “Lord of Toronto.”

That seemed to do okay, as far as acknowledging his position.  I wasn’t dead yet.

Hello, little morsel,” a voice murmured, just to my right.

I broke eye contact with the Lord of Toronto, and I very nearly jumped out of my skin.

She was big.  Maybe, if she’d been human-proportioned, she would have been two or three times my height, going by the size of her head and upper body.  But her body from the waist down was that of a great cat, the rise and fall of the muscles beneath the short fur very distinct.  Great feathered wings were folded against her body, the snow piling on them.

“Hello,” I said, my attention now caught by this new figure.  She might well have been the biggest living thing I’d seen in person.

She wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t hideous either.  Her hair was well-tended, falling in dark ringlets over her breasts, where the hair obscured the nipples.  Her fur and wings were pitch black.  Between pale flesh and dark fur, I’d completely failed to see her where she reclined.  Her human arms were folded beneath prodigious breasts, one of her feline front paws were folded over the other, and all of her sparkled with the moisture of snowflakes that had fallen onto her and melted.

I looked away, before I could break some rule, and I saw the others.  A man, bedraggled, in rumpled clothing, with two handsome men and two attractive women attending him.  He sat on the trunk of a tree that had grown horizontally, low to the ground, stump to his left, sparse branches fanning out to his right.  A bottle dangled from his fingers, the contents swishing as he tilted it one way, then the next.  His gaze was hard, penetrating.

The other local was a woman sat on a fallen chunk of masonry, her legs folded beside her.  Her hair was blonde, and she held a golden spindle.  I might have pegged her at thirty.  I almost thought she was a Duchamp, but the facial features didn’t fit the general mold I’d seen before.

“Allow me to introduce Isadora, apocrypha, sixth daughter of Phix,” Conquest spoke.

The sphinx smiled.

“High Drunk Jeremy Meath.”

Jeremy didn’t move an inch, but his underlings did bow their heads, flourishing some.

“And Diana Thompson.  Astrologer.”

“I hope we can get along,” I said.

“Your name?” the Lord asked.

“Blake,” I said.  I wasn’t sure if I had another answer.

“Blake,” the sphinx said.  “From English.  The name means ‘the pale, blond one’, also ‘black’.  A name of contrasts, hinting at duality.”

“Hush,” Diana said.  Her eyes darted from Isadora to the Lord, who was looking a touch irritated.

“Not in attendance is the Sister of Torches, the Shepherd, the Knights of the Basement, the Eye of the Storm, and the Queen’s Man,” Conquest said.

As I looked, I could see the other spots around the perimeter of this space that others might have found ‘seats’.  Stumps and bits of rock that might serve as chairs in a pinch.  Better than sitting on the ground, in any event.  It seemed this place was more like the government, where attendance wasn’t mandatory, and only certain seats were filled at certain times.

Between Conquest and the sphinx, I had the general feeling that I was well out of my depth.

“I’m hoping I don’t violate any protocol,” I said.  “I don’t know the particulars of this sort of meeting.  But I was told to bring a gift, and I would like to present this to you, Lord of Toronto.”

I held out the rolled up piece of art.

The nameless practitioner stepped forward from behind me, snatching the image from my hand.  He carried it to Conquest, handing it over.

Very strange, to see an otherworldly being like Conquest Given Form rolling the elastic down the length of the rolled up paper.  He unfurled it.

The image in the center was a man in a long coat, sketched out and filled in with watercolor and ink, the painting done in high detail.  The edges of the coat, and the edges of his indistinct weapon, which could have been a sword or a gun, were explosions of paint, spattering outward.

“What did this cost you, to bring to me?”

Somehow, saying ‘Five hundred bucks’ sounded inadequate.  “More money than I should have spent.”

“You should know, Lord,” the nameless practitioner said, “he artificially inflated the value, paying two and a half times what was asked.”

Fuck you, Mr. No-name.

“I would ask that you not take that to mean it’s inherently low in value,” I said.  “Art and artists are fickle creatures, and it’s the nature of an artist to undervalue what they create.  Once I saw it, I knew I was right.  Had I been able, I would have paid more.”

“Explain to me why I should value this art as a gift.”

Enough with looking gift horses in mouths.  How the fuck was I supposed to answer that question?  Art was art.

“Art is culture,” I said, speaking very slowly while thinking very fast.  “Taking a piece of culture for yourself seems very fitting for you, given what I know of you.”

“There are two kinds of taking,” Conquest said.  “When one gives love, love is not subtracted from a total.  Love can be taken a thousand or a million times over from the same individual, and that individual will not be bereft of love, if that love is genuine.  I am a taker of the other sort.  The sort to leave things bereft.  I ask you a second time, why should I value this as a gift?

Balls and fuck.  I hadn’t expected to be grilled.  I’d been told that it was a token gift.

“If a man hoards all of the art from a particular era, from a place or person, the world is bereft,” I said.  “That art is gone from the world, given over only to the man.”

“Then the gift becomes an obligation.  If I am to keep to my nature, I must aspire to collect all of this artist’s work.  If I own one piece, then I must own all to take from society and the world.  For the sake of expedience, I should kill the artist, so they can create no more art.”

I was so shocked I laughed a little.  “No.  No, not at all.”

“Then tell me, and I ask you a third time, a final time, why should I value this gift?”

I stood there, a number of eyes fixed on me, thinking.

Dangerous seconds passed, my mind ticking over everything I could think of.  The money, the deal, the friendship… I was reaching for one connection, one seed of an idea I could use to start making my argument.

I thought of Tiffany.  The strange looking girl who apparently had a girl-boner for me.  A damaged person, like me.  Like Alexis.

“Because the artist will mourn the loss of the piece, even as she takes away a profit from the transaction.  She will want to reference it in the future, to inform her future works or to chronicle her past, and this will forever be a missing link in her history.”

“If she didn’t take a photo or scan it,” the nameless practitioner said.

Fuck you, I thought again, more intensely than before.  I vividly imagined killing him, as he was very nearly setting me up to get killed.

Conquest looked at me, raising his eyebrows a fraction, inviting a response or counterargument.

“Nothing will hold up to the original.  She came from a place of pain and struggle, as many artists do, and that pain and struggle informed the work.  She put… something of herself into it.  You don’t do work that good and not miss it when the piece is gone.  In the future, if or when she finds her way to happiness, she’ll view that painting and the sale as a step on the journey to the happiness, and she’ll feel a pang.  There’s an energy in that, I’m sure.  I’ll feel a pang, because I’ll miss the money I could have spent elsewhere.  For the artist and for me, the loss will shape our futures.  She’ll do work without this piece to reference, and our destinies change.”

“Assuming she values the work,” the nameless practitioner said.  “And that it isn’t something she did on the spur of the moment.”

“I am assuming,” I said.  I managed to keep my tone civil.  “I’m awakened, I speak truth, I saw a variety of pieces, I’ve seen a lot of art in my life, and I can make that assumption with confidence.”

“It is best to be safe,” Conquest said.  “Isadora?  You’ve interacted with the art students at your University.”

The nameless practitioner took the image and held it open, facing Isadora.

She nodded once.  “It’s good work.”

“Jeremy.”

The nameless practitioner held it open for the drunk.

He nodded, but said nothing.

“Diana?”

Diana tilted her head one way, then the other.  “I can’t give you a verdict, I don’t know art.  But it looks nice.”

“Then I am satisfied,” the Lord of Toronto told me.  “The gift is received, and I’ll accept your presence in my domain until you give me reason to do otherwise.”

“I’m glad.  I appreciate the consideration, Lord of Toronto,” I said.  I didn’t want to thank him, so I chose my words carefully.

“I open the floor,” Conquest said.

“Abstaining,” the drunk said.

“For once,” Diana said.

“Ha ha,” he said, with zero humor.  “That hasn’t gotten old in the past twenty years.”

“We need to get it out of the way, whenever somebody new arrives,” Diana said.  “Are you new, Blake?”

“I only started a little while ago.”

“You brought a weapon,” Conquest said.  “You’ve Worked it?”

He made it sound like ‘worked’ had a capital to it.  An emphasis.

“If I may do so without offending anyone or inviting harm, I can show you,” I said.

He nodded.

Slowly, with two fingers, as if I had a cop looming over me, I drew the hatchet from my side.

Isadora smiled.  “Novices are so darling.  It’s a mass-manufactured tool, but you put so much effort into the binding.”

“Not me.  A… short lived mentor figure,” I said.

“Nonetheless,” she said.

“I would see the weapon,” the Lord of Toronto said.  “Will you give it over to me?”

I opened my mouth to agree, then stopped myself.

“With all due respect, Lord of Toronto, I’ll lend it to you,” I said.  “But this is, in many respects, like the painting.  An early achievement for me in what I hope will be a long and uneventful career as a practitioner.”

Even if all signs point to the opposite.

“I rescind the request,” he said.

“Sharp for a newbie,” Diana said.

“Once bitten, twice shy,” I said.

“Ahh,” she said, smiling.  “Poor you.  You came out of it okay?”

“I’m here,” I said.  “Not too badly bitten, metaphorically speaking, but shy.”

Her smile widened a bit.  “Shy is good.  A new driver needs to crash to learn a healthy respect for the road.  The same is true for one who practices.”

Oh, hey, practitioners who didn’t want to kill me.  I was getting a sense of how someone could get into this life and lifestyle and not be abjectly miserable.  Cool scenery, neat monsters, a thrill of danger…

“Who bit you?”

The question came from the drunk.

“Nobody local,” I said.

“What non-local bit you, then?” he asked.

“A circle and a coven,” I said.  “Who were looking to establish and secure their territory.”

“Oh,” Isadora said.  “Now you’ve got me curious-”

Damn.  Curiosity was bad.

“-and I’m thinking about all the places where there might be a circle and coven in the same place, ill-disposed to a new practitioner.”

Could I turn that around?

“Then, if it pleases you,” I said, “I won’t say, so you can enjoy the riddle.”

“That’s-” the drunk started.

“What?” I asked.

“A very foolish thing, to make statements like that.  A promise, an oath.”

“Oh,” I said.  “I’m new.”

“Clearly so,” he said.  “I had hoped, for the sake of my interests and yours, to hear your answer.”

In my interests?

“In my… good interests?” I asked.

He smiled, but he didn’t answer.

“I dare say, Jeremy” Diana said, “That you’re more lively in this meeting than I’ve seen you in over a year.  I mean, you showing up is a rare treat, but you participating?”

“A degree of attraction, perhaps.” Isadora suggested.

“I would like him to attend one of my parties,” Jeremy said, allowing himself the smallest smile.  His eyes, though, remained fixed on me.

If I’d allowed myself to relax a fraction, that comment and smile ripped it from me.  It wasn’t the gay or bisexual thing.  It was the vibe of it, the vague hostility I sensed from him, contrasted by the attraction, the fact that he was clearly sixty and that I could smell the booze and pot on him from where I stood, twenty feet away…

Bad memories boiled to the surface, unbidden.  I clenched my hands, and dimly realized I still held the hatchet.  I distracted myself by sheathing it.  Which meant jamming the handle into the side of my pants, so it sat against my leg.

Conquest seemed content to preside over this in silence, while the other three engaged in banter, putting the new guy on the spot.

“What’s your sign, Blake?” Diana asked.

“Can I tell that to an astrologer without putting myself at risk?” I asked.

“You can,” she said.

“Okay,” I said, “Let me rephrase.  Will I open myself up to any risk by sharing it?”

“I promise you no harm from me and mine, along this vector,” she said.  “I’m curious about your compatibility, nothing more.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’d need that sort of promise from everyone present, and I don’t want to offend the Lord of Toronto.”

“We only want to get to know you better, but we can ask more innocuous questions.” Isadora said.  “Answer me this, who are you?”

Who was I?

I thought for a few seconds, trying to sum up an inoffensive answer, one that wouldn’t out me as a Thorburn, something that would put me in a good light, while remaining honest.

“I-” I started.

I stopped as I noticed the silence.

They were all very still, watching me.

Had they figured me out, somehow?

No.  It wasn’t hostility.  Not from anyone except the drunk.

I looked at the sphinx, and I saw how she was more still than any of them.  A friendly smile on her face.  But her body…

Rabbits went still when they sensed danger.  Predators, too, went still, when they were on the prowl, preparing to pounce.

What was going on?

A question?

No.

I had to remember what I was dealing with.

A sphinx and… a riddle.

Did that even count as a riddle?

I seemed to recall that the Greek or Roman myth of the Sphinx involved the murder of those who gave the wrong answer.

Who was I?

How close had I come to giving a simple, casual answer?  Had they collectively maneuvered me into this, or was it Isadora doing what her kind naturally did, timing the question so I might slip up and give the wrong answer?

As for answers, I deliberated for a moment.

“I’m the Fool card, drawn with the right hand, the High Priestess drawn with the left,” I said.

Just like that, the tension was gone.  I could see the others, Conquest excepted, shifting position.  The drunk took a swig from his bottle, looking somehow disgruntled, the astrologer changed position, so she sat with her bare legs dangling over the edge of the large stone block that served as her chair.

And Isadora changed the way her forepaws were folded in front of her, so the paw that had been beneath was now on top.

“Someone told you,” she said.

“I honestly figured it out myself,” I said.

“And you chose the answer that served to sum up who you were, while not giving any points that could be argued.”

“Honestly,” I said, “I chose the most bullshit answer that sprung to mind, because even if I was wrong, I thought it would buy me time to think or to argue the point.”

She broke into laughter.  Loud, and eerily human.  I could see Diana smiling, too.

But the Lord was grim and ‘painted’ as ever, and the drunk didn’t seem any less creepy.

“Most people simply don’t answer when she asks any question,” Diana said.

“Don’t tell him,” Isadora said.  Her paws uncrossed, and one hit the ground with a surprising amount of force as she shifted position to look at Diana, stirring clouds of dry powder.  “I was going to throw some more questions at him, see how easily that bullshit flows.”

“I appreciate the tip, Diana,” I said.

“You owe me one,” she said.

“A little one, maybe?” I suggested.  “I would have figured out that was allowed, sooner or later.”

“Whatever you wish,” Diana said, with a shrug.

“What other answers were you going to give?” Isadora asked.

I opened my mouth, then shut it.

Isadora pouted visibly, “No fun.  Okay, then I’ll rephrase.  I would like to know what other answers crossed your mind.”

I glanced at Diana, who gave me a dismissive wave.

“You’re safe, like that,” she said.

“I was going to tell you an abridged version of who I was and where I came from,” I told the sphinx.

“Ah, but that doesn’t answer the question, does it?” the astrologer asked.

“No,” I said.  “I guess not.”

“Nobody truly understands themselves, and figuring out who we are is an ever-transforming journey,” Isadora said.  “A riddle is merely a question that demands a thoughtful or clever answer.  Do you understand?”

I smiled a bit.

“No fun at all,” she pouted, again.

“Sphinxes are creations and natural Others with a heavy tie to the karmic balance,” Diana said.  “They’re often used as divine guardians for temples or sites of power.  Different sphinxes follow different rules, gaining certain rights and powers from karma and destiny, provided the other party deviates from a code, offers a mistruth, breaks from tradition, or something in that vein.”

“Ah, that makes sense,” I said.  So even here, in Conquests domain, she might have the ability to murder me with impunity?  Or she would gain another kind of power?  One tied to destiny, fating me to die at her hands and paws if I ever gave the wrong answer?

“You seem quick enough,” Isadora said.  “Tell me your other thoughts.  I would like to know how your mind operates.”

I glanced at Diana, who nodded.  Safe?

“The other answer I was going to give,” I said, “Would have been ‘a man’.  But I figured bullshit was better than being a smartass.”

“Yes,” Isadora said, and I could hear something dangerous in her tone, growing in strength as she continued speaking.  “When dealing with creatures such as I, virtually anything is better than being a smartass.”

Somewhere along the way, as she’d said that, her claws had emerged from their sheaths.  Her wings were spread, now, and I hadn’t even noticed, as I focused on her face and her words.

Wait, what?  I’d upset her?

My confusion must have registered on my face, because Diana felt compelled to give me an answer.  “Her mother was Phix, the original Greek sphinx.  ‘Man’ wasn’t the real answer, but it does serve as a reminder that the myth traditionally ends with Phix dying.”

Ah, balls.

“If I hadn’t asked for your thoughts, I would have torn you apart, hearing that come out of your mouth,” she said.  “I remain tempted.”

Double balls.

“I’m genuinely sorry,” I said, as soon as I thought I could talk without interrupting her.  “No offense or disrespect was intended.  Considering that you just tried to manipulate me into a situation where you could kill me, I think you’re pretty damn cool, as Others go.”

I watched her expression, watched the tension in her lower body, the individual claws on her paws flexing, as if her body was telling the story of how much she wanted to tear me apart.

“Flattery is cheap, morsel,” she said.

“But it’s affected you nonetheless?” Diana asked, sounding entirely too cavalier, given the situation.

Slowly, with a note of deliberateness and attention to drama, Isadora folded her wings and sheathed her claws.  I saw her tap one paw against the snow, as if thinking.  “Yes, I suppose it has.  I like him, this Blake.  Sharp enough to be interesting.  Reckless enough to be potential food.  I would not object to having him around.”

“I wouldn’t either,” Diana said.

Conquest glanced at Jeremy, the drunk.

“I abstained,” he said.

“An informal response, then,” Diana said.

“I abstained for a reason,” he said.

“What reason?” Isadora asked.

I saw him roll his eyes.

“Why should your fat fuck of a god care?” she asked.

God?

I care, as a matter of fact,” Jeremy said.  “This Blake hasn’t given us any straight answers.  He’s clever, but we don’t know where he got his power, do we?  He’s the lowest value power and the highest, in Dexter’s hemisphere.  You don’t find that curious?”

“Tarot was never my thing,” Diana said.

“I think our boy here has a story, and I think madam professor isn’t paying it any mind because she likes his mind.  And you, astrologer, are into him because you’re a cougar and you like his body.”

“Cougars are generally older women,” Diana said.

“Your point being?” Jeremy asked.  Two of his attendants giggled at the jab.

“Can we return to the days when you ignored us and we could ignore you?” Diana asked.

“Soon enough.  But I’d like to have some answers, first.  I have reason to suspect he is not what he appears to be.”

Conquest shifted in his seat, leaning forward.  His slaves, chained up at his feet, looked up at me with eyes that were just as painted.  An extension of him.

“He has wounds on his hands,” Conquest said.  “As a man, he is diminished, hollow.  A woman stands behind the throne, in his architecture of the self.”

“Duality,” Isadora said.

Okay, now I was in the middle of very unfriendly territory with two, maybe three powers I really didn’t want to be on the wrong side of.

“Yes, I am inclined to agree with you, Dionysian,” the Lord of Toronto said.

Dionysian?  Dionysus… right.  God.  Greek or Roman, I was horrible at telling the difference between the two, and I was a little too freaked out to take the time to figure it out.

“We could interrogate him,” Jeremy said.  “Or, if you wanted to be especially pointed about it, we could have Isadora interrogate him.”

I watched Isadora’s claws come out.  “I do not exist at your bidding, drunkard, and I do not, especially, exist to be the pawn in your god’s schemes.”

“But,” the Lord of Toronto said, “If I requested it, you would be the pawn in mine.”

I saw Isadora smile, but it was a very dangerous sort of smile.  The sort of smile that would be on a person’s face while they pulled a man’s guts out from a hole in his stomach, if they were the type of person who really enjoyed pulling guts out of stomachs.  “We were getting along so well these past few years, my Lord.  It would be a shame to spoil that.”

Okay, fuck.  Now I was in the middle of something.

Could I use that?

Probably.

My instinct was to set them against one another, as I’d tried to do in Jacob’s Bell.  But, thinking two or three steps ahead, I couldn’t envision many situations where that worked out to my benefit.  Looking one step ahead, I could envision a few scenarios where it didn’t work out at all.

So, the question in the end was whether I should use that.

No, probably not.

But what were my other options?

“Let’s not fight,” I said.  “I’ve already come to like a couple of you, and I respect… I suppose I respect all of you.”

Their eyes fell on me.

I swallowed.  Have to keep control of the situation, because chaos and infighting is not to my advantage when so many of the combatants are this powerful.

“I’ll try to answer your questions,” I said.  “Can’t promise I’ll give an answer to all of them, but you can try to figure me out before you come to blows.”

“The newest member of the family is upset because mommy and daddy are fighting,” Diana said.  “It’s darling.”

“We have little spats all the time,” Isadora said.  “But most of us on this hilltop predate the invention of paper.  We’re not about to jeopardize that, much less over you, no offense.”

I was a little offended, but okay.  I looked at Conquest, but he was stone still.  Unreadable.

“Okay,” I said.

“Now, earlier, you posed a riddle for me.  A place with circles and covens, where could you possibly be from, hm?”

I would have answered, to distract and divert, but she’d phrased it as a question.

“Jacob’s Bell,” the sphinx said.

“I see a connection,” Diana said, sing-song.  In a more normal voice, she said, “Hidden by glamour, even.  I do think you’re right.”

“Which opens the way for another riddle,” the sphinx said.  “Where did you pick up the practice?  A place like that, the circles hold tight to their power.  Are you a refugee from the goblin’s festival of blood?  Easy to imagine a practitioner who wandered that way might have lost their belongings.”

“No connections,” Diana observed.

I looked over the group.  Saw the drunk leaning back, murmuring something to one of his attractive companions.  When he looked at me, he looked just a little bit pleased.

This shit was all intentional.  He knew who I was, or he had some idea.  He was throwing me to the wolves without getting directly involved.

And these bastards were big wolves.

“Something else,” the sphinx said.  “Too refined to be self taught.  Crone Mara wouldn’t teach him, as amusing as he is…”

“Thorburn,” Conquest said.  “It would have to be Thorburn.  She was getting on in years.  It’s due time.”

“Connection,” Diana said, her voice barely above a whisper, carrying across the clearing.

“Female heirs only,” Isadora said.

“A thief?  A very good disguise?” Diana said.

“Ah,” the sphinx said.  “And I actually liked you, morsel.  What a pity.”

“Wait a second,” I said.  I tried to look each of them in the eye, but I couldn’t do it without looking frantic.  I appealed to the Lord, even as he seemed the least inclined to back me up.  “I haven’t made any…”

I stopped myself.  I couldn’t actually say that I hadn’t dealt with demons in good conscience.  If the lawyers were representatives of the demons and devils and darker things, then I had.  I’d agreed to read the fucking book.  I’d… fuck.

“I’m doing my damndest to avoid going down that road,” I said.  “The universe is conspiring to push me that way, because I inherited bad karma and it’s probably the easiest route to fuck me over wholesale, but… I don’t want to, I’m fighting it, and I’ll gladly take any help that makes the fight easier…”

I saw the sphinx’s claws come out.

“…provided that help doesn’t involve killing or maiming me on any level.”

Conquest rose from his seat.  Which made for one hell of an understatement.

The landscape changed, as if conquest were attached to each and every thing by drawstrings.  The sun descended, in one smooth motion, as he rose, burning hotter, whiter, as it drew down, while the crimson bled out into the sky around it.  The walls around the hill washed away, like waves that had crashed against a cliffside and were now returning to the sea below.

His flesh pulled back, straining into something macabre as he swelled in size, as if simply standing involved an exaggerated change in size.  The sun, burning white now against a blood red sky, seemed more an extension of him, an accessory.

“If,” he said, and there was a tremor to his voice that resonated through all of the metaphysical strings that tied him to this world, “you would gladly take any help that will keep you from that road, you will have to unhappily take a push down that road.  The beings that diabolists traffic with bring defeat and pain wherever they tread.”

Each other attendee of the meeting was tense.  Even Jeremy, who had set this in motion.

“I could do with a calculated measure of defeat and pain,” the Lord of Toronto told me.  “You can stay here, safe from your enemies, and I will use your knowledge.  I can conquer you, subjugate you, own you, and you will find a peace in surrender.  All do, given time.”

I felt a kind of despair, and I knew he could tell.

I’d walked right into a trap.  Fuck no.

“I don’t know much at all,” I said, “I barely touched the books.  I’m… I’m not a female heir.  I didn’t inherit the respect or the power over Others that comes with the family name.  I can’t get to the books.”

“Then look at me, practitioner, meet my eyes and swear you do not know one dark power’s name.  That you do not know a single one you could summon.

Had the lawyers set this up?

Had this been a factor, ever since Ms. Lewis told me how to summon Ornias?

I looked down at the ground.

“Then we will start with that one.  Then we will find a way to access the rest of your family’s knowledge.”

“Lord,” the sphinx said, “You must realize this puts us at odds with you and your new pet.”

“I act in accordance with my nature,” Conquest said.  “And I realize it makes you a very small problem, compared to how much I stand to gain.”

I saw the sphinx scowl.  “We’ll oppose you.”

“No,” Jeremy said.  “You’ll oppose him.  Lord, promise me you won’t touch the city, me, mine, or the Duchamps of Jacob’s Bell, and I’ll sit on the sidelines for this one.”

“Grant me one token favor,” Conquest said.  “To aid me along the way.”

“Granted,” Jeremy said.

“Traitor,” Diana muttered.

“We’ll be taking our leave,” Isadora said.

I watched her take flight.  Diana held up her spindle, and light from the sky swept over her.  She was gone a moment later.

“I’d like to take my leave,” I added, my voice sounding small, even as I tried to sound courageous.

“You stay,” Conquest said.  He reached, and I saw him touch connections with his broad fingers and hands.  “You-”

He pulled.

“And yours.”

Rose was hauled into plain view by the tug on the connection.

She dangled for a second from Conquest’s grasp.  He dropped her into the powder beside me.

“Let us begin,” Conquest said.

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