Isadora looked much as she had when I’d seen her on the balcony, but she’d taken more measures to make it look more like she was human. More of the winter clothing including scarf and hat, fashionable in a way that suggested she wasn’t paying that much, but still had an uncanny awareness of what would suit her and go well together.
Paige was different from the last time I’d seen her. The clothes weren’t a new style, but I had the uncanny impression that she’d taken one step along the road to being more like Isadora. Same thing with the clothes. Her hair was styled differently. She stood straighter, more poised.
They stopped at the entrance to the living room. Paige’s eyes roved over everything. Ty and Evan were sitting on the floor, Ty unwinding cables he’d neatly bound with twist ties, and Evan perched on the game controller that had been set on the ground, one foot on each thumbstick, wings extended for balance.
The others were on the couch or in the dining room.
“Your T.V. sucks,” Evan said. “My mom and dad have a better T.V. in their kitchen, and it’s as old as I am and it’s smaller than the…”
He trailed off as he saw Isadora and Paige.
The appearance of strangers changed the tone of things right away. Only some of my friends had seen and met Isadora.
“I remember you,” Joel said.
“Yeah,” Paige said. “Thank you for being so patient with me and pointing me in the right direction.”
“Not a problem,” Joel said.
Others, including Alexis, Ty, Tiff and Evan, were looking at me for a cue.
“I suppose introductions are in order,” I said. “But before I launch into those… I have to ask, Isadora, does she know?”
“She knows some,” Isadora said. “Almost enough.”
“That’s pretty vague,” I said. “Dangerous, even.”
“I know,” Isadora said. Then, after a pause, she prompted me, “Introductions?”
“Most of you know Isadora. Joel, Goosh, this is the woman who cut me open the other night, nearly killing me.”
I saw Paige’s eyebrows go up. She glanced at Isadora.
Isadora didn’t offer an explanation.
“Beside Isadora, we have Paige. My cousin. Last in line to be heir to the Thorburn property and all its misfortunes. No, I don’t know why she’s with Isadora. Isadora, Paige, these are my friends and allies. Alexis, Tiffany, Joel, Goosh, Maggie, Ty, and Evan.”
I pointed to each in turn. Evan flew up to my extended finger as I finally reached him. I moved him to my shoulder.
“Isadora told me ‘there are no coincidences’,” Paige said. “Evan? As in the kid you were accused of murdering?”
“Your cousin is sharp,” Ty said.
“That means I’m right? It’s not a coincidence?” Paige said.
“Not helping, Ty,” I said.
I looked between Paige and Isadora, hoping to make the connection. I settled on speaking to Isadora. “What’s this about? Is she a hostage?”
“Why is she here?”
“I chose to come,” Paige said.
Alexis spoke up, “You couldn’t choose to come unless she gave you the choice in the first place. I think he’s asking why Isadora gave you the choice.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Having someone speak up and help clarify this situation and help me feel a little less off-balance made a world of difference.
Isadora spoke up. “We were talking, I said I had something to do, she asked if it had to do with this world. I said yes. She asked if she could observe, as per our prior agreement, made a few days ago. I said she could do more than observe.”
“What are you doing?” I asked. “She knows some, but not enough? She’s a danger to herself, to the innocent, and to the rest of us, if the wrong thing gets said. She’s a walking minefield.”
“You just asked a question and answered it in the next breath,” Isadora said.
That took me a second to wrap my head around. “You want her to act as a walking hazard?”
“The sorority, the astrologer, your friends from the convenience store and the drunk, among others, will be arriving within the next twenty minutes, by my best estimate. Tensions are liable to be high.”
“Yeah,” I said. I’d said something only a few bit ago about possibly being shot through the window. No surprises with that pronouncement.
“This will go more smoothly with her here. Everyone will have to carefully choose their words, and nobody will pull out weapons with a relative innocent in the way. Peace, after a fashion.”
Because cluing her into the world behind the curtain means taking on some responsibility for whatever happens to her. I looked at Paige. She’s here because it means possibly finding answers.
This was a disaster waiting to happen.
“Did you find her, or did-”
Paige cut me off. “I found her.”
“She investigated on her own,” Isadora said. “Word was getting around about the altercation at the University, you and the drunkard’s friends. She heard, discovered it was you, and asked around. I was one of the people that she asked.”
“That seems like an awfully contrived series of events for someone who was just saying there are no coincidences,” I said.
Isadora smiled. “It illustrates my point, as a matter of fact. Paige? Remember what we talked about earlier? Rephrase it in your own terms, show me you understood the idea.”
Paige blinked a few times. Then she took the challenge. “Imagine a stone, the stone is tied to other stones, all arranged around the edge of a pond, or on the side of a bridge. Throw it in, and what happens?”
Maggie answered, “That’s a stupid hypothetical. It depends on the strength of the rope. The size of the stones, the number of stones…”
“And the strength of the throw,” Paige said. “Exactly. The stone could dangle, safely suspended above the depths, all other things being standard. If the stone is particularly heavy, however-”
She paused a half-second to glance at me.
“-Then the ropes could break, if the ties are weak enough, or, conversely, it could drag the other stones down with it,” Paige finished. “Our hypothetical stone had momentum, a stone was already gently rolling in that general direction, and-”
“-That stone, named Paige, followed the path of least resistance,” Isadora finished. “Good. Eerily accurate, as a matter of fact.”
Paige smiled, and that response bothered me more than I cared to admit.
I bit my lip. “I told you not to press, Paige. To let this be.”
“I did. For two days. I wrapped up all but one of my exams, but I hate leaving things unfinished. Our cousin died, and you had something to do with it, you were related to at least two murders, and I’m supposed to drop it on your say-so?”
“Yeah,” I said, and I sounded angrier than I should have. “Now you’re all wrapped up in this, and the S- Isadora is trying to convince you it’s ultimately my fault.”
“A great deal of this is,” Isadora said.
“Fuck that,” I said.
“A lot of what comes next will depend on your ability to accept that fact and pay attention to what’s happening and why. Tell me, Mr. Thorburn, why are the connections between you and the people close to you so strong?”
I glanced at Alexis and Tiff.
“I don’t know if they are.”
“If the connections were weaker, then they would break, and you’d spiral headlong into the murk, almost entirely alone,” Isadora said.
I thought of Joseph, who’d left rather than stay.
A weaker connection?
“Wow,” Ty said. “That’s fucked.”
“As I’ve been repeatedly trying to inform Mr. Thorburn, as ‘fucked’ as that might be, the alternative is uglier,” Isadora said. “In terms of how it involves those he’s tied to, and how it involves everything and everyone else.”
“I don’t want to plunge into any ponds,” I said.
“Yes,” Isadora said. Her gaze was level and intimidating. “You wanted to avoid the plunge, to avoid being stripped of everyone you hold dear, Evan excepted. Which, I presume, is why you murdered a man earlier?”
I didn’t flinch, but I could feel the attention of everyone else on me.
Murder. Not fancy, not explainable by saying he was an Other. It was just a splinter of wood to the throat, an awful lot of bleeding, and a slow death of blood in the lungs or blood loss.
I wasn’t proud, and I couldn’t explain without getting into stuff I was even less proud of.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”
“Holy fuck,” Paige said. “Really?”
The oven beeped. Joel looked startled.
He still made his way over. My oven’s door, the racks and the warped baking sheet made for a fair bit of noise as he got the frozen pizza out.
I approached him, then stopped halfway.
“Can I offer you anything to eat, Isadora, Paige?” I asked.
“It’ll be a minute before it’s cool enough,” Joel said.
“You’re talking about pizza not two breaths after we were talking about murder?” Paige asked.
“In this instance, Pizza could well be more important than one man’s life,” Maggie commented.
Paige spun on her, giving the girl an incredulous look.
“To answer your question, I’m rather particular about my diet,” Isadora answered. “And I ate recently enough. Just alcohol, if you have any?”
“Beer,” I said. I still had some in my fridge from a week ago.
“Now you’re putting me in an awkward position,” Isadora said. “If I act picky, I’m being rude, but if I accept blindly, I run the risk of being offered the swill that the students at my University call ‘beer’.”
“It’s decent enough,” I said. “Not swill.”
“Then I’ll gladly accept, thank you.”
“Can we get back to the topic of murder?” Paige asked. “Is this hypothetical murder, or-”
“Paige,” Isadora said. “Everything in its proper order. You were asked a question. Do you want anything to eat or drink? Be honest.”
Paige frowned, as if this were some kind of moral quandary.
“A little bit of pizza and some water?” she finally asked.
These unexpected, uninvited guests were going to eat the pizza Joel had brought. I put the water on the stove for oatmeal, resigning myself to a less than exciting meal, to be sure I had enough to offer.
I could hear them in the living room. Alexis was talking.
“…Hurts, I can’t really stand up or bend over without help, but it didn’t hit anything vital.”
“I’m not surprised. A shame that Malcolm Fell wasn’t rescued as well.”
I looked over my shoulder at Maggie.
Was the Sphinx sowing doubt, or was that a subtle reminder?
Joel leaned close, “Should I go? I’m not much different from Paige. I know some, but not nearly enough.”
“You know to not ask questions,” I murmured, as I opened the silverware drawer and found a serrated knife to cut the pizza with. “She’s more dangerous, because she’s unprepared and she’s still walking headlong into this. Because that thing is leading her headlong into this.”
“Nevermind. Go if you need to, but I don’t know if anything’s going to get mentioned in front of Paige that would be a problem for you too.”
He nodded. “I’ll stay then, for moral support.”
Doubling down on Isadora’s gambit. Our meeting would take place with innocents in the room. Say the wrong thing, or use powers in an obvious, aggressive way, and we risked becoming responsible for those same innocents.
I brought Paige’s pizza and water over. Isadora was sitting in the armchair that Ty had been planning to sit on while gaming, and Paige leaned against the wall to Isadora’s right, arms folded, expression troubled.
“Isadora, glass for the beer?” I asked.
I removed the cap from the beer and handed it over. She took a drink and smiled.
“Laird Behaim is dead,” Isadora said. “The Behaims will claim and cremate him, I expect. I wouldn’t anticipate legal problems.”
“Casualties are to be expected. It’s not part of my makeup to mourn the dead, even the deaths of children or the deaths of thousands. So long as it happens at the right place and time, cleanly.”
She looked directly at me as she said that last word.
“I can guess what your concern is,” I said.
“Yes. The weather cleared up, and virtually everyone knows you’re all here. All of you, including him. You can imagine our collective curiosity and concern.”
Including him. She meant ‘including Conquest’.
Conquest, who was in an ignoble location, in the bottom half of my double-decker toolbox, not five feet from me. Anyone who tried to get him out would have to undo the clasps, discovering the lock I’d worked into the clasp at the back, unlocking and removing it, and then lift off the upper section with all the attendant tools, bits, and pieces.
Virtually every step would be a noisy one, somewhat time consuming.
One clasp had a piece of paper with a rune on it hidden just beneath. The inside of the box, too, had a rune set in place. The runes, too, would delay anyone from trying to steal the mirror with the incarnation bound within.
“Explanations will have to wait until everyone’s arrived,” I said.
“Of course. I already suspect I know what unfolded.”
“Can I trust our other guests to not blow up the building or kick the door down and attack on sight?”
“They can’t kick the door down if you leave it open,” Isadora said.
I started to head for the door, but Joel was already going.
Weird, that there was more security in an open, unlocked door.
Isadora leaned back, relaxing, beer held in both hands. On a level, it made sense, the reclining cat, on another, it didn’t fit the noble sphinx’s image. “The little bird is doing well, I see.”
“I’m doing pretty awesome,” Evan said.
“He’s been a huge help,” I said. My hands were jammed in my pockets.
Paige was observing everything, watching, silent, trying to put two and two together. She spoke, “How?”
“You could say I’ve been kicking ass and taking names,” Evan said.
Paige didn’t react. Evan’s voice went in one ear and out the other.
“Moral support,” I said. “Backup.”
“We egged super-zombies,” Evan said.
“A bird,” I said. “I thought you said you had been filled in.”
“In abstracts,” Paige said. “Metaphors about masks and icebergs, and the progression of man from being heavily confined by their own limitations and driven by base needs to being driven primarily by ideas, and how everything casts a shadow. Even man and what man is doing at the time he casts a shadow.”
“Ah,” I said. “So you haven’t been filled in. Just the opposite.”
Her gaze was intense. “I have almost no details. I want any you can give me.”
“I don’t think you would, if you had a better sense of things,” I said. I looked to Isadora. “Please forgive me for saying so, but I have a hard time believing this isn’t you trying to extort me, or hurt me in some backhanded way.”
“I don’t blame you for feeling that way,” Isadora said. “It’s neither. Think back to Paige’s metaphor of the rock, lashed to other rocks by the pond.”
“I’m thinking,” I said.
She raised a hand, and in the moment she turned it over, the light in the hallway formed a backlight against her hand, and I saw a flicker of what might have been claws in her long fingernails and the position of her hand. “Imagine that I’m holding firmly to a rock named Paige. When your stone tumbles into the water, dragging all the rest with it, Paige remains firmly in my hand. Maybe the other rocks dangle. Maybe the rope breaks, and they all fall. In both cases, there’s less of a splash, less upheaval, one less stone in the water.”
“You’re laying claim to her,” I said.
Paige shifted position, clearly uncomfortable, even though she was getting what she wanted. She wanted information, but the moment I dropped a hint, she couldn’t make eye contact?
“Close enough,” Isadora said. “A strong connection that won’t be easily broken.”
“What, then? This becomes some partnership? Master and apprentice? Something like I have with Rose?”
“Rose?” Paige asked.
“Or Evan?” I asked.
“That’s twice now you’ve-”
“Shush,” Isadora said. “I can’t stand interruptions.”
“Right,” Paige said. “I’m sorry.”
“I believe you,” Isadora said. “Mr. Thorburn, the closest parallel would be to you and Evan, yes.”
I could see it. Paige as a practitioner, with a freaking powerful familiar.
But wasn’t there a danger there?
“So she’s going to be-”
“Before you go further and inadvertently insult me,” Isadora told me, “Paige would be the ‘Evan’ in the partnership.”
“Huh?” Paige asked, forgetting her promise not to interrupt.
“A pet?” Tiff asked.
“Kinky,” Alexis said.
I could see Paige going stiff, clearly uncomfortable, entirely off guard for the first time I’d seen her in… since she’d fled Grandmother’s room after their private interview, now that I thought about it.
“I’m not a freaking pet!” Evan piped up. “I’m a kick-ass, eye-biting, giant-tripping, life-saving familiar.”
“Not entirely inaccurate,” Isadora said. She seemed too happy, smiling, relaxed.
“I don’t get a vote here?” Paige asked.
“You do,” Isadora said. “But I think you’ll accept the offer.”
Paige was flushed red.
As things went, it was affecting her too much. She was too bewildered, too upset, given her usual composure.
“This is why grandmother refused you the inheritance,” I said. “Put you dead last?”
Paige’s head snapped around, and she stared at me in shock.
“I’m not following,” Evan said.
“You’re gay, Paige?” I asked.
“Ohhh,” Evan said. “Wait, nope, still not following.”
“You can’t or won’t have kids, so you can’t or won’t continue the family line?” I asked. “Peter found out and told her? Or did he find out part of it, and grandmother figured out the rest with questions and an eerily accurate ability to tell if you were lying?”
I could see the pain on Paige’s face as she averted her eyes. “You’re an asshole, just bringing it up like that. Show some damn class, Blake.”
“You caught me on a bad day. I’d be more gentle, otherwise,” I said. “Isadora, I’m pretty sure, wants you as a kind of slave. You’ve wandered into this mess, and you still have room to back out now. Get the fuck away from the pond, so I can’t drag you in, no matter how deep I sink. Leave all this behind. Fucking run. Be glad you can’t get the house and all the enemies it comes with.”
Paige stared at me.
“Paige,” Alexis said.
“What?” Paige asked.
“Do what he says. Blake’s been sliced, cut open, beaten, frozen, and nearly killed. All of us pulling together have had to fight and make huge sacrifices to keep him going-”
Don’t put it like that, I thought.
“-and I know he cares about you. He’s told me about his childhood. Time spent with his cousins. When he tells you this, I’m convinced he’s getting the words from a good, well-meaning place, okay?”
Those words seemed to reach Paige where mine hadn’t.
She looked at Isadora, and I could see a hint of doubt in her expression. “Slavery?”
“No,” Isadora said. “No, not really. But it’s a kind of relationship that’s just as old, dating back to the earliest days of mankind.”
“Prostitution?” Paige asked.
“Again, the same era. You have the pieces necessary to figure it out, if you really want to.”
“You’ve… you’ve hinted you’re older than you look. Blake’s reaction before, the way he thought you’d be like Evan… you’re more special than you look, too. You’re not human.”
“You’re thinking along the right track,” Isadora said. “Assuming you’re right, what sort of relationship would harken back to humanity’s earliest days? Think about how you’re feeling.”
Isadora took a drink of her beer.
“I’m… the first place my mind is going is to a very confused neanderthal man making an appeal to the gods, in an effort to make sense of it all.”
“Very, very close to the conclusion I was hoping you’d reach,” Isadora said. “You’ve got a keen mind for logic and details. This calls for you to tap into something else entirely.”
“Faith,” Paige said.
“Close enough. You can make that leap, or can you summon the courage to leave. But you should decide one way or the other soon. I’d remind you of the proverb of the ass, who died hungry and thirsty because it couldn’t choose between the water and the grain. If you don’t decide in, oh, the next three minutes, the decision will be made for you.”
“I either stay with you and worship you? Serve you as a pet?”
“Both right and not right. People like you once bowed and scraped for favors from sorts like me. Something between the master-slave relationship, the master-apprentice relationship, and the stricter rules of hospitality. A form of sheltering, if you will. I’ll point you to the right reading material when the opportunity arises, if you choose to accept.”
“Oh gee whiz,” Paige said. “Because it sounds so tempting.”
Sarcasm was so refreshing, I had to admit. Lowest form of wit or no.
“Chances are good that you’d be happy, in the long term, I’ve done this with a great many of my students, and every single one of them that you might track down and ask would tell you they’re happier as a result. I could feed your natural curiosity with more knowledge than you could get by conventional means, raise you up to be someone stellar, and even break the ties to your family, so you can leave them and the problems they pose well behind you. You might find yourself at odds with Blake, Rose, and their allies, but I don’t sense a great deal of connection between you and them.”
“You keep mentioning Rose.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Stop focusing on the details. Go back to normal life. Isadora isn’t mentioning that she kills the people who don’t work out. That’s why all her past subordinates are all happy. The unhappy ones get swallowed, they’re dead, they don’t exist anymore.”
Paige was frozen.
I could sense the other connections converging on our position, and I realized what it meant.
I saw Rose in the window.
She stepped into the TV, appearing on the unlit, concave screen.
She looked at me, and I nodded.
The TV broke. Not an explosive shattering, but a crack, loud, with the sound of glass falling.
Rose and I had both hoped for the same thing. That Paige would run. That she needed only a push to go.
We’d misjudged where she stood.
She spun around, instead, reaching for Isadora’s hand, half protecting her, half seeking reassurance.
I could feel it, as we passed the point of no return. The other connections were drawing nearer.
“I’m sorry, Paige,” I said.
“Looks like you made your choice.”
“I suppose I’ll be taking responsibility for you,” Isadora said. She squeezed Paige’s hand, then let go. “If we aren’t lucky enough for some dumb soul to do so before the night is over.”
The Shepherd entered the apartment, and my focus shifted away from Paige.
He looked older than the last time I’d seen him, but that might have been the dark clothing and the better lighting. He didn’t have his crook-staff, and wore only a navy-blue sweater and black jeans beneath a black coat. His face was a little red from the cold, his eyes narrowed. He smelled like horses.
“There are innocents present,” Isadora said. “Talk only.”
The Shepherd, who didn’t talk at all, as far as I knew, nodded and entered.
I held out pizza and a glass of water. He shook his head, refusing both.
I moved one of my dining room chairs to the living room. The Shepherd sat with his arms folded across his stomach, back straight, hair tousled by the weather. He looked intense, and somehow a little mad, in the less-than-sane sense.
“With that TV cracking all of a sudden like that, I’m thinking I should go,” Joel said.
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you for the pizza.”
Joel smiled, but the expression was tight.
Goosh followed him out, wordless.
Diana the Astrologer was the next to enter, pausing momentarily as she saw me standing at the end of the entryway. Silent, she removed her shoes and entered.
“Hungry?” I asked, “Thirsty?”
“Something hot,” she said.
I prepped the coffee at the same time I put my oatmeal together. By the time I’d scraped the bowl clean, the tea was steeped.
She lingered in the doorway of the kitchen even after I handed it to her.
“I’m sorry I shot at your side,” she said.
“I believe you,” I said.
“My arm was twisted, so to speak. But… I told my Perseus to avoid killing if he could help it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks, I guess, for trying. I’m trying not to hold onto grudges, so I consider you absolved, as far as I can do that. There’s a girl in the other room, on the couch. It would be more appropriate to apologize to her.”
“I’ll find her.”
“There’s also Fell…”
“He told me to kill someone, or else, and I did. I made a call, and Fell was the one I knew best. The most disposable.”
She didn’t seem to have anything else to say. Silent, awkward, she backed out of the kitchen and made her way around to the living room.
I wondered if she’d just needed to justify what she’d done to someone. If I remembered right, she didn’t have a coven or a circle. She had only her master, and he’d died for her sake.
Three of the Sisters arrived at the same time the Astrologer disappeared from view, their Elder Sister first among them. All dressed up, looking like they were ready for a day at the office. They refused both food and drink.
They were followed by the Drunk, and I felt a measure of trepidation.
All enemies, so far.
He’d brought four people with him, with very much the same vibe as I’d seen in my run-in at the University.
Food, drink, a warning about the innocents.
The sidelong glance he offered me gave me chills. The creatures he had with him doubly so, now that I had an idea of what they were.
The drunk’s underlings, I noticed, went straight for the shittier beer in the fridge. Maybe they had good manners as party guests, maybe they didn’t care.
Almost immediately behind them were the Knights. Nick reached out to clap one hand on my shoulder, but I ducked out of the way.
“Um, sorry. Just a little gunshy, after the last twenty four hours. Beer in the fridge,” I said. “Beer from a party at the front, good beer for friends, and people I don’t want to offend at the back. Don’t have much else to drink except questionable milk and tap water. Pizza is on the counter.”
“First thing you say is about beer and pizza?” Nick asked, giving me a hard look. “You don’t think we have other, more serious concerns?”
“My gut told me beer and pizza first,” I said.
“No kidding?” He asked. He gave me a funny look. “Fuck, if only you were born a woman, I’d trade in my wife for you. I’m still trying to get her to think like that.”
His wife elbowed him, but she didn’t look too annoyed.
I neglected to mention my real female alter ego, and focused on staying out of their way as they moved through the kitchen.
The Behaims were among the last to arrive.
Duncan led the pack, looking grim, fresh bandages visible underneath his sleeves as the older teenager helped him take his coat off.
“Hospitality has to be observed,” I said. “Food and drink in the kitchen, help yourselves. Make yourselves comfortable. I have no grudge against the kids, and no reason to act against you, Duncan. Everyone’s meeting in the living room, past the kitchen.”
There were no answers as they walked past me.
I was ready to shut the door and return to the others when I saw a woman walking down the hall. Older, with a kid in tow, like a grandmother and child. I assumed they were neighbors.
But she met my eyes, and something convinced me they weren’t.
“Can I ask who you are?”
“This is Emily, and she’ll be standing in for Malcolm Fell,” the old woman said. “I’m her bodyguard, and that’s all you need to know right now.”
I looked at the little girl. “I’m sorry about Fell.”
Her expression was stark, without warmth or softness, as she stared up at me.
“Maybe you should be,” the old woman said. “We’ll see how this situation is handled before I hand down any verdict.”
I glanced in the kitchen to verify that I wouldn’t be lying. “There’s pizza and tap water. I’m afraid I don’t have much else.”
“We’ve eaten,” the old woman said.
She stalked off to the living room.
By the time I rejoined everyone, the tension in the air was palpable. Sisters and Diana, and the Corvidae-inspired issues there. The Shepherd and the old woman stared me down.
In fact, it was easier to point out those who weren’t on edge.
Alexis and Tiff still occupied the couch, most likely because Alexis couldn’t move so easily. Had they been able, I could imagine we would have set up at my dining room table, which wasn’t big enough for everyone. As it was, we were lined up against the wall, Maggie by the toolbox at the dining room table, with one eye on the kitchen, Alexis and Tiff at the couch, and me between them. Ty had taken a seat at the end of the table, perched there like he was ready to spring off and leap to my defense, or the defense of Alexis. That was sort of how he always was. Restless, eager.
“For those who don’t know,” I said, “The Lord of the City is bound and securely in my possession, but not beaten or broken.”
There was virtually no reaction. Most already knew, it seemed. For others, it was only clarification.
The Knights, though, seemed a little surprised at the declaration. Paige’s attention was on the rest of the room, trying to decipher what was going on with the locals, their attitudes.
My friends weren’t so different.
“What we have now is a stalemate,” I said. “One I aimed for, almost from the beginning of this contest. I didn’t want to win, not explicitly, I didn’t want to lose either, obviously. Both involve ugly consequences.”
“This won’t?” the Elder Sister said.
“It might,” I said, “But it seemed safest.”
Isadora spoke, “Do you know why he holds the position he does?”
Is this a softball question? Is this Isadora ‘helping’ me again?
“He’s a figurehead,” I said. “He’s disposable, but tough enough he doesn’t get disposed of. He’s easy to manipulate, and that means you can generally get what you want without having to stick your neck out and draw attention.”
“Let me take your question from earlier and turn it around on you. Are you extorting something from us, Mr. Thorburn?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I’d get out of that alive.”
“Do you want to depose him?”
I glanced at the old woman with Fell’s relative in tow.
“I wouldn’t mind,” I said. “I think he’s pretty toxic, pretty damn ugly, in terms of how he operates.”
“As opposed to working with what are very nearly the worst sorts of ally? Leveraging them as tools?”
“You know what I mean,” I said.
“I think I do, but perspectives will vary,” Isadora said. “Do you want to rule, then?”
I almost laughed. “No. Definitely not.”
If looks could kill, I might die ten times over from the various glares that were directed my way. It jarred with the ridiculousness of the question. What kind of lunatic would I have to be to want to be in charge?
“What do you want?” Isadora asked.
“I want to be left alone,” I said. “This needs to end, but I’m not the person to end it. People have made that clear. I’m too… too questionable. So I’m leaving it up to you. I would hope that you decide on a new leader, someone who wants to be in charge badly enough to stick their neck out and risk getting hurt, but whatever you decide, I’ll hear you out.”
“Will you do what we ask without hesitation or objection?” the Elder Sister asked.
“No,” I said. “Because that takes me back to square one. I’m sitting this one out. I’ve earned a break. I’m going to use that break to do some reading I’ve fallen behind on, I’m going to look after my circle, and when that’s done, when I feel ready, I’m going back to the factory.”
There were a few exchanged glances, murmurs.
Paige looked a little bewildered.
“That could be construed as a threat,” the old woman said.
“It could be,” I said. “But it’s not intended as such. If I have to capture, I will. I’d rather eliminate the problem altogether. Scour the buillding. I’d appreciate help, but I’m not going to expect it.”
“We’ll do what we can,” Nick spoke up. “From a distance.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“That’s it?” Duncan asked. “You throw everything into disarray, lure us all here, and then announce that you’re shirking the responsibilities that come with victory?”
“I take it you don’t have any conception of what’s in that factory,” Nick said. “He’s not shirking responsibilities at all. He’s picking his battles.”
“If it was so easy to put in someone disposable as Lord,” Isadora said, “We would have done it already. People have tried, and I was among the people who helped shut them down. Wasn’t I, Jeremy?”
Eyes moved to the Drunk.
He didn’t answer.
“Rhetorical question,” she said.
“Yes, then,” the drunk said.
“Nothing more to say? I thought you would be making a bid for power here.”
“No. Not like this. I know how things function, I am interested. In my own way, in my own time,” Jeremy said.
“One contender,” Isadora said.
“If you can call it that,” Jeremy said. He had a beer bottle in hand, and stared down the neck at the liquid within, rather than at the room. “And no, I’m not implying I’m weak. Only that I’m not joining the fight just yet.”
He took a drink.
“We can’t have someone who’s just going to die five minutes after he takes power,” Isadora said. “Or we would have let Jeremy take the position when he last tried for it. We need people who will secure the city, maintain an equilibrium. Even one that’s latently unpleasant. Because chaos and upheaval are worse. Anything new demands that it be tested by outsiders, and we can’t weather that sort of test.”
“Allow me to disagree,” the old woman said. “You’re the most comfortable person in this room, lounging. Drinking without a care in the world, because you know you’re just about untouchable. You haven’t been on the unpleasant end of the lord’s attentions.”
Isadora smiled, “No, I suppose not.”
“Emily will be assisting anyone who looks like they can securely take the position,” the old woman said.
“We’ll be making a bid,” the Elder sister said.
There was no surprise on her subordinate’s faces.
“I’d say it’s been nice knowing you,” Nick commented, “But… well, no.”
“Behaims?” Isadora asked.
“No bid,” Duncan said. “I’m not insane. But we could provide assistance, for a favor in turn.”
His eye moved, then he shut them, stopping short, as if he’d only started to look at me, then cut himself off.
“The Shepherd, I presume, will be backing the Lord himself,” Isadora said. “Opposing Thorburn and attempting to wrangle the Lord’s release or kill Thorburn?”
The Shepherd nodded.
He’s a champion of Conquest, and the contest isn’t technically over.
“I may do the same, we’ll see,” Isadora said.
I remained still. It helped that I was tired.
The questions went around the room.
Nobody else was willing to say whether they were making a play for the Lordship or not.
“Outsiders will turn up,” Isadora said. “It’s the way of things. But I suppose that doesn’t concern you, does it, Thorburn?”
I shook my head a little.
“Then I suppose that’s enough for now. We’ll cease intruding.”
Just like that, they did.
They were gone in a fraction of the time they’d taken to arrive. Only the Knights didn’t leave right off the bat.
“Sorry to leave you out of it,” I told Rose.
“It’s fine,” she said.
“See anything interesting from the glass?”
“Not so much. I was mostly watching for trouble.”
“The factory demon is next?”
“Maybe,” I said. “There’s stuff to wrangle.”
“Like working around the no-magic limitation, for one thing, in case this stalemate lingers,” I said.
I turned my attention to the Hyena’s broken sword.
The Hyena was dead, the face on the hilt a skull now.
“And,” I added, “If I can manage it, I could really do with an implement.”