I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Give it to me straight, Mary.”
The speakers hissed with static as she sighed. “I think you already know what’s coming. I’ve been fending off a lot more hacks on our servers, specifically the public information sites.”
“The changelings are lashing out over the boy’s death.”
“Yes sir. They blame us; say we should have kept a better watch on him.”
I closed my eyes. “At least it’s still limited to the digital plane at the moment.”
I rubbed my forehead. “I don’t have time to beat around the bush. What is it?”
“Well, you see…”
She usually wasn’t this nervous when she had bad news. She was either pranking me, or it was really bad.
“Mary Christina,” I said firmly. “I need to know what’s going on. What’s the problem?”
“Okay…well, first and foremost, the Sky-Borne Lords aren’t the only ones attacking us. Most of the Black Hats are joining in.”
Changelings liked hacking. It was one of the areas they were level with everyone else, since they didn’t use toys. Most of the clans could be sorted into Black Hats, who attacked enemies, and the White Hats, who defended allies. The Grey Hats switched between them, as one might expect.
This wasn’t the first time we had come under attack. It wouldn’t be the last, either.
“We can weather this,” I insisted. “As long as they aren’t shooting at us, my men have strict orders to return the favor.”
“I’m well aware. The problem is that the White Hats are defending us.”
That gave me pause. The changelings never fought each other. Ever. To break that treaty would be…
“I need a full list of who’s aligned where.”
“The Sky-Borne Lords are against us,” she responded promptly. “Obviously. As are the Ever-Deep Waves and the Forgotten Names. The Blood-Doused Hunters, the Never-Known Thieves, and the Many-Faced Strangers are with us. Everyone else is begging for truce.”
“Good,” I muttered, and meant it. There were thirty changeling clans. If only six of them were involved, we definitely still had a chance to make this end without bloodshed. “Call up…Feless. Of the Firstborn. He’ll have a grip on the situation, I’m sure.”
“Of course, sir, I’ll—oh.” She stopped as something surprised her. “It seems like he’s already downstairs.”
I blinked. “Really? Alone?”
“No…Heresh’ni, Difnaal, and Jereneg are there too, plus their bodyguards. They’re asking to be let up.”
“The Velvet Orchids, the Elder Lights, and the Darkened Signs…that’s all of the Grey Hats, right?”
“Including the Firstborn, yes, it is.”
I nodded. “I’ll go talk to them.” I grabbed my cane and rose from my chair slowly. “Call down to our more important servers. Order them to be on high alert.”
“You’re worried they’re going to try and use the distraction to slip in a commando?”
I snorted. “I know they will. Whether they’re actually against us is irrelevant; having a bug in our system would be invaluable for anyone, even allies.”
“Fair enough. Eyes open, then.”
The four leaders of the changeling clans were waiting for me a short elevator ride downstairs, in the lobby of the first floor. My guards at the door looked nervous, but were well-trained, and knew better than to point their guns at visiting dignitaries. By pure dumb luck, the current shift were all completely baseline. Thank God for that.
Feless of the Firstborn was the one I saw first, standing a little bit away from the others and waiting to receive me, arms crossed and an angry scowl on his face.
Feless was of a medium build, with soft, Asian features—Korean, perhaps—and a Caucasian skin tone. He had sharp black eyes that missed nothing, and a well-trimmed head of golden hair. The hair was almost certainly not his natural color, but that’s what his genes said it was, so that was how he kept it.
The only female of the quartet, Heresh’ni of the Velvet Orchids, had taken a different route. She was likewise dark-skinned (in her case, probably Indian), but with a shaved head to hide her crimson curls.
Despite Feless being closest, Heresh’ni was the one who spoke first. “Butler. Finally. This situation is getting out of hand.”
“My men have yet to perform any acts of aggression,” I reminded her softly, resting heavily with both hands gripping the head of my cane.
“We are not claiming otherwise,” Feless stepped in smoothly. As the leader of the Firstborn, Feless was one of the very first changelings, along with Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves and Meldiniktine of the Forgotten Names. He often acted as a mediator. “Heresh’ni was simply looking forward to resolving this as quickly and painlessly as possible.”
Difnaal of the Elder Lights, a middle-aged man with white skin, matching hair, and bright green eyes, nodded. While he wasn’t an albino like me—he had white hair, not colorless hair—he was often mistaken for one. “This is all a terrible mistake, which must be rectified as soon as possible.”
“Unfortunately, those involved in the fighting are not listening to us,” Jereneg of the Darkened Signs admitted. “So we’ll need something else.”
Jereneg was shorter than the others, though not by too much. Among the other three, his most outstanding feature was that he didn’t have any outstanding features. He had a light complexion, brown eyes, and brown hair. No one would ever assume he was anything other than a normal baseline.
I sighed again. “What, exactly, do you all propose? I know changeling law. You must have retribution. But I can’t allow you to tackle the Composer at this point. You will endanger the entire plan.”
“You haven’t bothered to explain this plan of yours,” Heresh’ni noted. “Obviously, it involves not spooking the Composer. But if you give us more detail, perhaps we can adapt to each other.”
“Just…just come upstairs.” I turned back to the elevator. “I would prefer to have this conversation in private.” Besides, I needed to sit down.
No one spoke until we were back in my office and everyone had found chairs. I sank into my personal leather seat carefully, making special effort not to show any weakness before the changelings.
“So,” Feless said slowly. “What exactly is this plan of yours?”
I rubbed my forehead. “I don’t have one.”
Difnaal sputtered. “You have to have a plan. You’re Artemis Butler. Gods of men and darkness, you couldn’t possibly—”
I raised my hand, silencing him. “Perhaps I should have worded that better. At our current intelligence level, we simply don’t know enough to create any detailed plan with real strategies or tactics. Look what happened with the bleeders, and Loga’ha’shanar. Right now, our only option is to wait and see, to react to the Composer’s attacks and try and create an accurate picture of his abilities and goals.”
“You’re flailing around in the dark,” Heresh’ni muttered.
I smiled a little. That wasn’t far off.
“Okay,” Feless said quietly. “Okay. We need to attack the Composer, you need us to not attack the Composer. We need to compromise, or we’re at an impasse.”
“Unless you are willing to send your troops to a false location—”
“Certainly not,” Difnaal huffed.
“Then yes, we have a problem. Anyone who raids the Composer’s lair will be turned, I am quite sure of that. You do not have the numbers to throw away lives like that.” I leaned forward, resting my chin on my hands. “So tell me, what do you propose?”
“The only thing I can think of,” Heresh’ni said slowly, “is to somehow scare off the Composer before we get there.” She shook her head. “But I can’t imagine how we’d do that.”
“And even if that plan did work, he’d leave behind enough traps to annihilate you and any evidence.” The changelings weren’t used to tactics and strategies that didn’t involve the digital plane, so they weren’t offended by the reminder.
“Perhaps a surprise attack with a much smaller force, to startle the enemy, would work better,” Jereneg put in.
“But if there are singers…” Difnaal started, but I cut him off.
“Mary Christina has managed to find a workaround for that. A set of headphones that filter out the singing. It’s not fully tested, but it is far better than nothing.”
Heresh’ni drummed her fingers on the armrest of her leather seat. “When can you get us a hundred sets or so?”
“Immediately; we have them on hand.”
“Then if we strike quickly enough, we might actually be able to do some real damage.”
“Or at least force him to find a new hideout,” Jereneg pointed out. “A minor inconvenience, but a useful one. Someone might be able to track him as he’s looking.”
That was a possibility, though a bit unlikely. Asmodeus had been caught three times after Shendilavri before he finally managed to slip away for good, so the idea wasn’t completely without precedence.
But the whole situation still rubbed me the wrong way. I hated politics, and having to deal with inflexible laws and customs was almost worse. The best thing we could do right now was wait and see. Forcing the Composer’s hand could very likely lead us somewhere we did not want to be. Isaac had said that Laura had mentioned more than once she believed our foe was holding back for some obscure purpose, and I agreed with her assessment. The last thing we needed was to awaken the sleeping dragon.
We had no other choice. The clans would revolt if we tried to hold them back.
“Choose your soldiers,” I told the changeling lords tiredly. “I want this over and done with by tomorrow night at the latest.”
Because it was necessary.
Behind the Scenes (scene 52)
Hacking is extremely serious business in Domina, in more ways than one. It’s used to drain credit from accounts, steal corporate secrets, and more. Often, the first hint that an area is about to come under physical attack is when all the cell phones lose service at once.
Of course, this means that the residents of the city are much more savvy about security. Hacking in remotely is completely impossible, for the simple reason that no one is stupid enough to leave an open line to the internet. Usually, the first part of any attack involves sending in a commando to plant a wireless bug which can then be used to hack into the network remotely. That is not what is happening here; the Sky-Borne Lords and their allies are attacking Necessarius’ public sites, which obviously have to be online by definition. This is also why Butler isn’t quite worried; this is the equivalent of graffiti. Annoying, but nothing more.