Steve Gillespie cocked his head as he looked at me. “I don’t think you look that different.”
I glared at him. “Really? I haven’t seen you since Kevin died and you got put into a coma, and that’s the first thing you say to me?”
He just shrugged. “Well, the first thing you said was ‘I know I look different,’ so yeah, that’s the first thing I say.”
Leon looked me up and down, frowning. “Did you get taller?”
“I also got a tail,” I noted, flicking it lightly towards his face.
“Well, I saw that right away.”
I was glad Leon had managed to survive the fey attack—mostly due to Eric—but I wasn’t sure how to tell him that his aunt was dead. I didn’t want to burden him with that so soon after his mother’s demise. Okay, sure, it wasn’t confirmed that Delphie was dead, but she had been in pretty bad condition, and there hadn’t been any sign of her since.
It had been Eric’s idea that we all meet up today, at one of the many nearly-empty cafes near AU. The Dagonite had called me, not sure what to do with Melanie’s son. I hadn’t really been able to think of anything either—Delphie would come back from the grave and throttle me if I brought Leon to the Mals—so he had suggested gathering everyone together and seeing what we could all come up with.
Steve had gotten out of the hospital yesterday, so this was a good chance to catch up. Simon…Simon was dead, and Yolanda nowhere to be found. With no one else to call, I had done the unthinkable.
I had called Pam.
I had called Eccretia, Paragon of the Never-Known Thieves and co-founder of the changelings. One of the most powerful women in the city.
And she had come.
She didn’t look anything like before. Instead of her bland shirt and pants, she was wearing a light ceramic body armor overlaid with Kevlar. The kind of thing that would ward off animal bites as easily as bullets, but it was probably ungodly heavy.
And that was just the start. In addition to the pistol she had always carried before—a Black Knight ZF740, if I remembered correctly—she also had a Necessarian Saint Jude on her opposite hip, and some kind of Hellion machine gun strapped across her back, with a spare ammo belt slung over her chest.
She looked ready for war, but I suppose I wasn’t one to talk, what with my new found ability to punch through concrete and such. And with the Composer running around slaughtering people, I guess there was no such thing as being over prepared
Only her eyes were the same. Cold, hard, and calculating.
She had brought two young men with her, who I assumed to be more changelings. The one with pale skin and bright golden hair put his coat over the back of a seat and pulled it out; my plain-faced friend sat down without looking at him. He adjusted the rifle slung over his shoulder and took a seat nearby, next to another changeling with similar hair, but a slightly darker complexion.
Eccretia didn’t take her eyes off me.
I coughed. “So, I take it you understand why I called you here?”
“You said it was because of Delphie’s nephew,” she noted. “But I’m guessing that’s not the extent of it.”
I averted my eyes from hers, glad my daygoggles disguised the action. “Let’s focus on Leon right now. The murids are already searching for him.”
The changeling warlord raised an eyebrow. “Why? I assume if they honestly wanted to help him in memory of their Alpha, you’d have handed him over already.”
“You probably know better than I do. But from what I’ve gathered, the culture is on the verge of imploding. Every hunter and wanna-be Alpha is trying to hold it together by consolidating around their chosen leader—themselves, usually.”
Pam—Eccretia nodded. “They want Leon as a figurehead. No one will pretend he’s the leader, but if they can convince everyone else he’s on their side, the memory of his mother will earn them a lot of converts.”
Leon looked like he was going to say something, but Eric silenced him just by placing his hand on his shoulder. Instead, the Dagonite spoke. “How many murids are there, anyway? Ballpark.”
“I dunno…” I thought about it. “A little over ten thousand. But I don’t know how big Plague’s group was—”
“There are eleven thousand, three hundred and eighteen murids as of the last census report,” Eccretia corrected. “Nine hundred and four followed the Lady of the Plague.”
I blinked in surprise. Not at the changeling knowing the numbers—I should have guessed she’d have that data—but at the numbers themselves. “She had almost a thousand people under her? Seriously? I thought it was a couple hundred, tops.”
“What’d you think when you heard ‘biggest murid subculture?’”
“I don’t know, but less than ten percent!”
“That is less than ten percent.”
“You know what I mean. A lot less.”
She shrugged. “Plague was very charismatic and driven. There’s a reason she was assassinated; no one can really take her place.”
I sighed. “Well, I mean, I guess I understood that, it just never quite…clicked.” I waved my hand. “I mean, c’mon, a single mother—”
I stopped breathing as I suddenly remembered something very important.
Steve leaned in with a frown. “Seena? You alright?”
“Leon,” I managed. “What happened to your sister?”
He looked guilty. “Um…I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her since the nest was attacked—”
“Nine Hells,” I hissed, grabbing him by the shirt. “Didn’t you say it’s your job to look out for her? If—”
“Calm down, Nyashk,” Eccretia said soothingly. “Sable is fine. One of Plague’s hunters spirited her away the second things started going wrong. We’re keeping an eye on them, but he seems to have everything in hand.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding. “You could have mentioned that.”
“I just did.”
“Wait one second,” Eric said, looking at me strangely. “Nyashk? I thought your last name was Lancaster.”
It took an effort of will not to wince. “It…is. I’m just…” I took another deep breath. “There’s a bit of a story behind my new toys.”
The pale-skinned changeling at Eccretia’s side looked confused. “I thought you just decided to get some buffs after your brother died.”
Steve choked, crushing his glass in his hand in the process. He didn’t seem to notice. “Simon is dead? When did that happen?”
“Domothon,” my sour-faced changeling friend admonished her pale bodyguard. “Don’t act like you knew him.” She turned back to Steve. “Yes, Simon is dead. The exact details are unclear, but apparently a sibriex experiment went awry.”
The massive man jumped to his feet, making the whole table shake. “Then we need to do something! Call—” he choked again, searching for an answer. “The ‘sarians! Someone! I—”
“It’s been dealt with,” I said tiredly. “Sit down.”
He blinked at me, slowly. “What do you mean, dealt with?”
“Nhang is dead,” I explained. “Necessarius witnessed the attack. A retribution fee has been issued, and paid. It’s done.”
Except for the treaty with Aramazd, which Zepar had jumped on like a hound on a bone. New toys in exchange for some simple protection? My fellow warlord had literally hugged me at the news.
“How is the new Power?” Eccretia asked curiously. “I don’t have any information on him.”
I shrugged. “He’s a misshapen bundle of flesh tied to a server farm. I’m not really sure what to make of him.”
The bodyguard who had spoken before piped up again. “There are a few weird things going on there. Narek Nhang was the Gatekeeper of the Eighth Hell, Ani Kamakhym, which is named after an Armenian mythological site. But Nhang was Chinese, and his first name—though Armenian—a pseudonym. I don’t understand—”
“You’re right, you don’t understand,” his boss interrupted, causing his mouth to snap shut. “For example, you don’t understand that Ani Kamakhym was the main sanctuary of the father-god of the Armenian pantheon.” She fixed me with a steely glare. “Aramazd.”
That set me back in my chair. “Nhang’s subordinate was named after the highest figure in his chosen pantheon? That seems odd. There’s no way he would have missed that reference.”
“Maybe he just didn’t want to change his name?” Leon said, a little quietly. “I mean, a lot of warlords do like my mom did, but I know Auntie Delphie thought it was stupid, and that crab lady kept her real name.”
Steve laughed. “That’s a point. Maybe it was just the server-monster, and no one cared enough to make a fuss. Did any of the other sibs have Armenian references in their names?”
“How should I know?” I muttered. “Until thirty seconds ago, I didn’t even know Aramazd meant anything important.” I huffed. “Hells, I didn’t even know Ani Kamakhym was Armenian.”
The second changeling, the one with darker skin but the same golden hair, finally spoke. “But you did know the Eighth Gate was Ani Kamakhym, not Arhestanots, right?”
I nodded. That was a mistake people made a lot with the various one-building domains. The sibriex domain was Ani Kamakhym, but since that domain only consisted of a single building (Arhestanots), a lot of people confused the two. The Mals got around that problem simply by not naming our building. Our domain was Maladomini, and that was it. Simon had always had trouble—
I closed my eyes, willing tears to stay back.
Nine Hells, was this going to happen every time I thought of my stupid brother?
I felt a hand on my arm, and turned, blinking, to see Eric looking at me with concern.
“It’s going to be all right,” he insisted. “Eventually.”
Steve and the changeling bodyguards looked a little bit uncomfortable, but Eccretia and Leon just looked confused.
“What are you two talking about?” she asked. “Did Aramazd do something I didn’t hear about?”
The pale changeling, the one I think she had called Domothon, sighed. “Gods of men and darkness, boss, learn to read the mood.”
The boss in question just glared at her subordinate, and he immediately shut up.
I forced a smile on my face and changed the subject. “Actually, I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced.” I held out my hand to shake.
The pale one took it firmly. “Domothon of the Never-Known Thieves,” he confirmed. He indicated his darker companion with a jerk of his thumb; the second man didn’t seem interested in shaking hands. “This is Ferenil, also of the Never-Known Thieves.”
“You two brothers?” Leon asked innocently. “Your hair is the same.”
The changeling pair winced, and I couldn’t help but feel for them. Leon was a bit young to understand the whole…loss of identity that fey-slaves went through.
Thankfully, Domothon recovered quickly, managing a pained smile. “No, it’s nothing like that. We just happen to have the same hair color, that’s all.”
“Oh. That’s boring.” He turned back to me. “I want to hear more about what happened with Seena and Simon.”
Steve’s perpetual smile was briefly replaced by a small scowl. “Don’t be rude, boy. I’m sure she’s still hurting.”
“I’m still hurting?” I asked, a little incredulous. “You got out of a coma yesterday.”
“Actually, I woke up on the sixth. I was released yesterday—”
I barreled on as if I hadn’t heard him. “A coma you were in because someone tried to kill you and succeeded in killing your roommate.” I managed to shrug, a nonchalant gesture I didn’t feel. “I got my revenge. I think you need help more than me.”
The not-giant looked pained. “It’s…complicated. It’s not clear who attacked us—”
“Probably the Aesir,” Eccretia noted, taking a sip out of her cup. “Maybe the trolls or the ogres, but I’m betting on the Aesir. It was two days after Mjolnir’s death. I think they were just lashing out.”
Steve glared. “Look, Pam—”
“Eccretia,” she corrected.
He chuckled a little, waving his hand. “Yeah, yeah, I heard. I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but you’re not much older than me. You don’t get to act all high and mighty.”
The warlord raised an eyebrow. “Steve, I escaped from the fey when I was physically somewhere in the neighborhood of four years old. I’ve been leading the Never-Known Thieves ever since. You’ve been a courier for the last three years. So yes, I do get to act ‘all high and mighty.’ Especially when dealing with Jotuun spies.”
The large black baseline frowned briefly, before barking out a bitter laugh, which contrasted strongly with his normal happy chuckle. “For crying out loud—just because I’m big doesn’t mean I’m a freaking Jotuun.” He shifted in his seat a little uncomfortably, as though reminded he didn’t quite fit in it. “I thought you were better than that.”
“So you didn’t know Kevin was a Jotuun spy?” she replied blandly. “Interesting.”
Steve blinked. “He what.”
“Yeah,” I piped up. “Pam told us…” I thought back, then winced. “Right before the fey came out and grabbed Veda.”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me!?”
“You were in a coma.”
“I meant after!”
“We just did,” Eccretia said with that same damnable calm. “What does it matter? He’s gone.”
The baseline rubbed his bald scalp in apprehension. “It matters because apparently the reason behind the attack was because he was a spy!” His eyes were going wild; I didn’t understand why he was freaking out so much. “Good God…if I had known…”
“Steve, you’re scaring me.” I could feel my tail twitching a little—that had been happening recently, and I frowned as I tried to get it under control. “Everybody has spies. Yeah, you got caught in the middle this time, but is it really such a big deal?”
“It…it…” he wet his lips. “Michelle. He had a sister, Michelle Irwin. What happened to her?”
I turned to Eccretia, but she just shrugged. “I stopped paying attention to all that after Kevin died. Don’t look at me.”
I shrugged too. “I don’t know either. Simon might—” I fell silent.
Eric managed to break it quickly enough, though. “Simon had a girlfriend, right? The demon? Maybe she’d know.”
“I haven’t been able to get in touch with her,” I muttered, still sullen. “She hasn’t been back to the dorms that I can tell, and no one has seen her at school.”
The green-haired Dagonite winced. “Yeah, I can see how this would be a hard time for her. She probably ran back to her orphanage for a while.”
“Yolanda has a surviving uncle,” Eccretia noted. “Our own Senator McDowell, actually.”
Eric blinked. “Wait, the guy they called a vote of no-confidence on?”
“Huh.” He scratched his chin. “Well, I guess she’s probably off with him, then. My roommate went on about how awesome this guy was yesterday when we got the call, so she must be fine.”
That got Steve’s attention again. I was also happy to see his normal half-smile was back. “So you didn’t vote to out him?”
“Why would I?” Eric asked with a shrug. “I have nothing against the man. Besides, did you see the guys who would be replacing him? The Granit is the one who has the most support. No thank you.”
My phone beeped; I checked it to find a message from Zepar. Some minor discipline problem had come up back at the domain, and he wanted me to take part.
“I’ve gotta go,” I said to the others apologetically. “Eccretia, can you get Leon to those murid hunters who are looking after his sister?”
“I can, but I’m not sure it would be best.”
“Please,” I begged. “It’s better than leaving him with a defenseless Dagonite.”
“Point of order,” the man in question piped up. “I’m not a Dagonite any more—”
“Shush,” Eccretia interrupted without taking her eyes off me. “The adults are talking.” She bit her lip, thinking, before nodding. “I’ll look into the hunters. If they don’t work out, I can keep the boy at my base for a week or so.”
Such a generous offer surprised me, but I kept it off my face, and just nodded. “Thank you, Dame Eccretia.”
She grinned thinly. “Thank you, Noble Nyashk.”
Steve, Eric, and Leon all blinked owlishly and said in unison “Noble who?”
“Gotta go,” I chirped as I rocketed out of my chair. “Call if you get a hold of Yolanda!”
Behind the Scenes (scene 186)
“Arhestanots” is Armenian for workshop. Which summarizes what the sibriex do pretty well.
And in regards to Eccretia’s age, remember that changelings can only guess on anything except what their DNA explicitly codes for. She might have looked about four or five by the time they had stripped her of all her fey toys, but she definitely didn’t act like it.