Medina looked up from her phone, her eyebrow arched. “You’re late.”
I resisted the urge to grind my teeth. She was right, after all. “Sorry.”
The pale-faced woman shrugged. “Whatever, you’re here now. Let’s get down to business.” She stood up and closed her phone with a snap. “Get that in an evidence bag. And into a cooler, if possible.”
It took me a second to realize what she was talking about.
It was a hand, sliced cleanly off at the wrist, lying on the roof in a small pool of blood.
The complexion didn’t look right to belong to any of the Paladins, but I still had to ask. “Who’s is this, exactly?”
“One of the Blackguard’s,” Medina muttered, looking at a small blast crater closer to where we were, at the stairwell. “I doubt we’ll get anything useful off it, but you can never be too careful.”
“Got it. Sax? We have an ice box in the van, right?”
He nodded as he headed back down the stairs. “Our sandwiches will just have to get warm.”
In truth, it was my fault we were late. It had been about a month since I killed Chamo with his own drugged-up slaves, and I had been able to forget about it pretty easily amidst all the other crap that was going on.
But then yesterday, I had been ambushed by Inanna and her get, and all those memories I had worked so hard to fight down had come rushing back to the surface.
She was dead now too.
They weren’t idiots. They weren’t going to keep sending people after me, especially not armed with slaves controlled with the behavior programming my mother designed. But they wouldn’t give up, either. Belians were known for many things. ‘Mad dogs worrying at a bone’ was one of them.
“Kelly?” George asked. “You awake?”
I blinked and shook my head. “Yeah, sorry, just…caught up in my thoughts.”
The giant nodded once, his eyes scanning the horizon. “There’s not much for us to do here, is there?”
I looked around the rooftop. Clarke and Akiyama were arguing about something as Huntsman bandaged up his swordswoman for some minor injuries. Medina was taking pictures of various spots on the roof. And Anders…
“Medina?” I called. “Where’s Anders?”
“I sent him after Ling,” she explained without looking up. “She ran off after Elizabeth.”
I heard the sound of shifting metal as George adjusted his grip on his minigun. “Which direction?” he asked in a stony voice.
“George,” I whispered. “What’s wrong?”
He met my gaze evenly, but I couldn’t read the look in his eyes. It has a little past twilight, so I had my daygoggles off, but the light still peeking over the horizon was making it difficult for me to see.
“I just want to know where the Composer is,” he replied in a neutral tone. “Isn’t this all over if we catch her again?”
“It’s not that simple,” Alex muttered, leaving against the stairwell. “We had her, but she got away.”
“Yeah…” I turned to Medina with a frown. “How did that happen, anyway?”
“We’re still working that out. But it involved at least one of her Blackguards, we’re sure of that. He rusted a giant hole in that wall.”
“And then they cut a bloody path through their guards,” George added, in the same unreadable tone as before. He turned to the black-haired girl. “How did you survive, exactly?”
“Luck,” she replied in a similar tone. “I was sleeping in a shipping crate, and she was too lazy to crack open every one to see if there was anything interesting inside.”
“Hm.” The giant turned back to scanning the skies. “If she’s stupid, that means she can be tricked again.”
“Maybe.” Medina stood, arching her back a little to stretch it. “But I’d prefer not to try too hard to catch the tiger until we’re sure we can hold her.”
He snapped back to her like lightning. “You’re not trying to even catch her?”
“Right now, we’re just trying to survive her. The rest can wait.”
The giant growled, gripping his gun tighter. “Listen up baseline, if you’re not going to—”
“Specialist,” I snapped in a commanding tone I usually reserved for Belian slaves. Once I was sure I had his attention, I indicated a point on the roof far away from Medina with a jerk of my head. “Walk with me.”
He followed begrudgingly, which was good enough for me. Once we were out of earshot of the others, I wheeled on him.
“What in the bleeding dark was that?” I hissed. “I’ve never had a discipline problem with you. I’ve never heard of anyone having a problem with you. Where’d that come from?”
He didn’t meet my eyes. “Greene needs to die.”
“Yeah, no arguments here.” I bobbed my head until I found his eyes, forcing him to meet my gaze. “But Medina is the strategist. If she says it’s too risky right now, it’s too risky. End of story.”
The giant looked away again. “Whatever.”
“No, not ‘whatever.’ George, tell me what’s wrong.”
He gnashed his teeth. “I told you already.”
I did a double take. “Wait, you did?”
“Yes.” He leaned in a little bit disturbingly close. “I knew Mjolnir.”
“…ah.” I coughed. “I see.”
“Yeah.” He got a distant look in his eyes. “Did you know he was dating a Jotuun? One of the most important Aesir, and he was dating a Jotuun. Only for a couple weeks, but still. If that had continued…”
“That particular war has been over for a while,” I noted.
He nodded. “Sure. But this might have been enough to keep it from starting up again. Not to mention that his sister was a troll…”
I glanced around the rooftop. Medina didn’t seem to need any more help. “Why don’t you take the night off? Go back to the barracks, get a little bit of rest.”
“I don’t sleep,” he reminded me.
I nodded. “Of course not.” None of us did; we all had the Insomniac buff. “But just give yourself a chance to wind down a bit. We’ll collect you in the morning.”
The ogre looked like he was going to argue, then his shoulders sagged in defeat.
“Yeah, sure, whatever.”
Okay, I thought as my friend lumbered back down the stairwell. That was one problem gone. What was next?
Ah, right. Alex.
I sidled up to the angel, still leaning up against the stairwell with a distant look in his eyes, and took a spot beside him without saying a word.
“What do you want, Kelly?” he muttered. If not for my enhanced ears, I wouldn’t have been able to hear him.
I raised an eyebrow. “How’d you know it was me?” It wasn’t too dark, but it was too dark for an angel, and his nightvision goggles were sitting in his lap.
He wasn’t smiling, but he should have been. “I know you too well. What do you want?”
He could get like this at times. Not quite rude just…blunt. It usually only happened when someone close to him died, though. When I first picked him up from the orphanage, he had been like this because of the vampire assault. My presence hadn’t helped.
“Did you know any of her victims?”
He smiled thinly. “No, nothing like that. It’s just…” He sighed. “What are we even doing, Kel?”
That caught me off guard. “I’m…not sure what you mean.”
“I mean us, you and me…” He paused. “The retinue.” He waved his hand, blindly indicating the rooftop. “What good are we doing here?”
“We’re helping the Paladins,” I replied promptly. “These kids are strong, but they can’t do it alone. They need support.” I punched him lightly in the shoulder. “C’mon, angel, you know how this kind of thing works.”
“They need Sax,” he corrected. “They need a driver, that’s it.”
“Oh, and everything that happened with the skins was worthless?” I snapped back. “Or the bleeders?”
“Maybe not. But were WE needed for that?”
Ah. There it was.
I nodded. “Okay, I understand.”
He looked at me—well, in my general direction, anyway. “You do?”
“Yeah. You’re feeling useless.” Before he could retort, I placed my hand on his shoulder. “You specifically, I mean.” I smiled, even though I knew he couldn’t see it. “Not much use for a tracker when the Paladins can all sense a screamer from anywhere on the island.”
“…yeah,” he admitted slowly. “I guess that’s all it is.”
I patted Alex on the head. “Don’t worry yourself, dear heart.”
He scowled and brushed me off. “Stop it. We’re not kids anymore. You can’t do stuff like that.”
“Sorry,” I said, unable to keep the smile off my lips. Teasing him was too much fun. “I know where you’re coming from, but I don’t want you to worry about it.” I pushed off from the wall. “They can’t hear the Blackguards, you know. We got here too late, but we’ll need your skills soon enough.”
He didn’t say anything, but I just had to trust he would feel better soon. Besides, it was the truth. It wouldn’t be long before he was the most valuable member of the team. And even if he wasn’t, I wanted him close. He was one of the few people I trusted, truly trusted.
“I’m gonna go see what’s taking Sax so long,” I told Medina. “Don’t want that hand getting too warm.”
She nodded. “Good idea. I was wondering.”
I went down the stairs, but once I was actually inside the building, I called the elevator. I didn’t want to walk down a couple dozen flights of stairs, and that hand had been rotting on the roof for long enough.
The elevator stopped at a couple floors to let people on, but the second they saw the red and black ‘sarian emblem on my sleeve—or perhaps the fixer on my arm—they decided they could wait for another one, which suited me just fine.
I passed through the lobby without incident, the guard girl or whatever she was supposed to be still reading her magazine without a care in the world. The only problem was I didn’t see Jarasax outside.
With no other choice, I turned back around and walked back into the dorm and up to the little office. “Excuse me.”
The girl looked up at me slowly, a look of apathetic confusion in her eye, as if a nearby potted plant had tried to get her attention. “What?”
“Did you see a Middle-Eastern man walk out a few minutes ago?”
She gave me a good, long look.
“What do Middle-Easterners look like?” she drawled slowly. “Are those the yellow ones?”
I sighed. Of course. One of the side effects of ethnic barriers disappearing was that the younger generation often had no awareness of ethnicity at all. “Dark tanned skin.”
“Oh, you mean the guy with the gun?” She pointed lazily back the way I had come, towards the elevators. “He was in the bathroom.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said, and started in that direction.
“But then he went outside,” the girl added, in that same lazy tone as before. “I think I heard him messing with his keys.”
I sighed. Why couldn’t she have led with that? Well, better late than never. “Thank you. Anything else I should know?”
“Probably,” she noted. “But nothing that I know.”
Blood-soaked night, this girl was annoying. Whatever, not my job to worry about her. I managed a fake smile and bid her good night.
Once I was outside again, I headed around the corner past the cordoned-off corpse of the fallen giant, to where the van was last parked. It wasn’t there any more, of course, or I would have seen it when I first came out, but it was a place to start.
To my surprise, I found the van, not a hundred feet from where it had been parked before.
“Sax?” I called when I got close enough. “What’s going on? Why’d you move?”
He looked out the open window, blinking. “Had to. You can’t stay parked in front of the entrance to a building.”
“You’re not going to get a ticket in a Necessarian van,” I reminded him. “And if you did, you wouldn’t have to pay it.”
He blinked again. “Uh…yeah. I guess.”
I scratched at my fixer, frowning. “What’s up with you? You’ve been kinda out of it lately.”
The brown-skinned man shrugged…before stopping halfway through the motion. “I guess you deserve an answer.”
Now it was my turn to blink in confusion. “Uh, yeah, I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure what you mean.”
“C’mon, Kel, we’ve known each other long enough.” He smiled grimly. “In the current climate, what could possibly have a changeling distracted?”
The…climate? What, was he upset that he didn’t have a couple cold-weather buffs?
Oh. Wait. The political climate.
I sighed. “This is about the fey.”
His smile thinned, and didn’t reach his eyes. “Yeah. That’s it.”
“And Eccretia’s reappearance, I’m guessing.”
“Well, that certainly is on my mind, but I only met her like, twice. I’m not really concerned about her.”
I leaned my back against the van, looking up at the darkening sky.
Everything looks so…different with nighteyes. The exact process is beyond me, but I do know it doesn’t actually change our eyes on a fundamental level. I don’t have infra-vision or the ability to see heat or whatever that green stuff is that Alex uses. I just have the ability to see using even the absolute smallest amount of light as if it were as bright as day.
This had the side effect that I hadn’t seen the stars in almost fifteen years.
They were just too drowned out by their own light. It was like someone with baseline eyes trying to look at the sun. Sure, individually each star wasn’t that bright, but all together and combined with the dim light’s of the city’s nightlife…it all added up to no stars at all.
I turned my gaze back earthwards, but I still didn’t look at my old friend. “I’m sure I can’t say anything to you that you haven’t heard a thousand times, or already thought up on your own.”
“Probably not,” he admitted slowly, a little wary about the direction the conversation seemed to be headed.
“I’m not going to lecture you one way or another. Leave them alone, go take the fight to them…whatever. You’ve already weighed your options, and you’re still here.”
He stayed silent.
“But you’re distracted. And that interferes with our mission. So I’m going to say this once, and then we’re going to go back upstairs, and you’re going to spare no more thought to those naked bitches.”
I heard him chuckle, but he didn’t say anything else.
It took me a minute to marshal my thoughts.
“I had a good life as a Belian. A great life, even. Free food, free room, all the sex and drugs I could ever want…” I closed my eyes, trying not to sink into the memories. “My life was absolutely perfect.
“But after Shendilavri, things…changed. My dad was dead, my mom missing, probably dead too, and a lot of the rest of the senior members of the culture were about the same. We had no Nobles left, and only a scant handful of nightstalkers.
“I could have taken over the culture. Right then and there. Wouldn’t even have been hard. My mom had…” I nearly choked, my tongue suddenly far too thick in my mouth. “…she had laid the foundation since the start.”
There was a long pause.
“You could have taken over,” Jarasax prompted. “But you didn’t.”
I nodded. “I left. I’d like to pretend it was for something honorable, but I just didn’t want the responsibility. So I crawled my way to the Big Boss, begged for him to let me join up. You know what he said to me?”
“’All are welcome,’” Sax quoted quietly. “’Anyone and everyone. Just remember that you are not what you were. You are necessary, and nothing more.’”
“Yeah,” I whispered, smiling. “That’s what he said.” I sniffed and wiped my face. “Grab that cooler. There’s a hand on the roof waiting for it.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 170)
I always like Kelly’s scenes. I think she comes out pretty well.