“Maria, Victor,” I said in surprise. “I didn’t expect to see you two here. I thought we were meeting up later, at the Forge itself.”
“We come by every now and again,” Maria explained. “To check on him. Make sure Isaac hasn’t done anything too crazy.”
“Hm, yes.” I turned to regard the man in front of us. A tall angel, built like a brick house with flawless, pure white skin and muscles like steel cables.
Zaphkiel, the Watcher, lord of Chronias and founder of the angel culture.
One of Elizabeth’s screamers.
He howled at us like a wild animal, throwing himself against the bars of his cell in a blind rage. Emphasis on ‘blind.’ We kept him liberally dosed with angelweight, the clever drug that disabled an angel’s dayskin. Combined with the minimal light in the impromptu jail—a converted warehouse—he was well contained, without the ability to create the dangerous lasers from which this variety had received its name.
The warlord threw himself at the bars inches from my faces, screaming in wordless hate and spitting up blood—blood which spattered harmlessly on the glass wall that surrounded his cell. The screamers had converted too many of our researchers with a drop or two of blood. We had learned our lessons well.
“At least he was easy to catch,” Victor noted. “Thought it would be a lot harder.”
I smiled. “Never underestimate that woman, old friend. Zaphkiel’s ‘mother’ could probably have captured him by herself, but I couldn’t risk her.”
“How’d you even get her to do it the first place?” Maria put in. “You know she’s not good with violence. She almost had a breakdown after we caught him.”
“It was her idea, actually. She takes her duties as a mother more seriously than you might think.”
Victor sighed. “That poor girl. She carries the weight of an entire city on her shoulders because a vampire needed to trick her.”
“She’s not a girl any more,” I reminded them, as I turned away from the cell and started walking towards the exit, with them at my side. “She’s strong and capable enough to survive on her own, even in this city. And besides, the people love her.”
“It is a city of orphans,” Maria murmured. “I suppose it’s only natural they’d latch onto a mother-figure.”
“I suppose so,” Victor nodded. “But enough about that. How are things going, Artemis? Anything we can help with?”
“Other than our appointment? Your children have lost one of their Paladins,” I noted as I climbed into the backseat of my car. Maria and Victor followed; my driver, holding open the door, looked annoyed, but didn’t say anything. “The Chinese girl, Ling. She appears to have been kidnapped by Soaring Eagle.”
Maria frowned, thinking, as the car began to speed off. “Which one was that, again?”
“The little blonde one, I think,” Victor muttered. “No, wait, am I thinking of Kristie?”
“Kristie died years ago, didn’t she?”
“I don’t know any Kristie,” I cut in. “But Ling is the blonde one, yes.”
“Well. I guess you want us to find her?”
“That would be nice, yes, but Laura has precisely zero leads, and Derek already has the warbloods and a lupe Hunter sniffing the streets trying to find her. I’m honestly not sure what you do to help here.”
“Point,” Victor mused. “Besides, I don’t think the kids would like us interfering.”
Maria scratched her chin. “We could always find Lizzy. I know there are no leads, but we know her pretty well, and I’m sure—”
“No,” I interrupted Maria flatly. “I’m not letting you two within a thousand yards of anywhere I think that woman might be. She is dangerous, and if she sees you, she will kill you—if we’re lucky.” I shook my head. “I have a feeling she would find using you two against Derek and Laura to be absolutely hilarious.”
Victor looked pained. “I know things seem…complicated right now. But I’m sure—”
“It’s not complicated. Victor, I’ve had this conversation before. Greene is dangerous. You always said you knew something was off about her, ever since Derek fell in love with her overnight.”
“No, actually, we thought something was off about Derek,” Maria corrected. “Some sort of obsessive disorder. Seemed to make more sense than…everything.”
“Well, in hindsight, everything fits together rather well.” The car slowed to a stop. “Anyway, we’re here.”
I led them out of the car and up to the large steel door that made up the pedestrian entrance. The guards, despite recognizing all of us on sight, were very careful to check our identification before opening the door for us.
Despite the presence of extra guards at every exit, the Zero Forge was mostly unchanged from its daily function. The workers still directed the vats of chemicals and molten metal, still watched closely as assembly lines beat out glowing metal bars into usable shapes.
We walked through the first room, following the line of guards, without saying a word. It would have been nearly impossible to hear each other over the screech and scream of distant machinery, all clamoring away without a care in the world. The heat pressed on me, forcing me to lean more heavily on my cane, but I was careful to conceal it. Not all these guards were mine.
After what felt like an eternity, we reached another door, this one a normal-sized featureless white one. The guard checked our ID’s again, then let us in and closed the door behind us.
Instantly, all sound disappeared, like a switch had been flipped. This entire office, from walls to ceiling, was carefully constructed with the best sound-proofing techniques the city was capable of. A bomb could go off right outside that door, and no one inside would hear a thing.
The room was a simple cube, with white walls and bare concrete floors, and a door in the corner to further such offices. But while those were actual offices for the managers who worked in this facility, this was more of a meeting room, with little more than a large table in the center and a smaller one with coffee and breakfast rolls in the corner.
Maria and Victor looked around in surprise before turning to me. “This is what you brought us here for?” the full-bodied Italian woman asked. “Couldn’t you have told us beforehand?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Couldn’t you have asked beforehand?”
Despite my sarcasm, I understood their shock.
Because the six Ladies of the fey were seated around the table.
On the left side was the Seelie Court—Maiden Aurora, Matron Titania, and Crone Ériu.
Aurora, the Princess of Soil and Flame, was easily identifiable by her boyishly short golden hair. It was so closely associated with the fey Maidens that it was usually called a Maiden cut. She wore a gorgeous and airy sundress in a mix of white and fire colors; red and orange and yellow. Her green eyes sparkled, and she smiled at us from her seat.
Titania, the Queen of Earth and Light, was sitting between her junior and senior, and the one with the aptly-named Matron cut. Her golden hair was cut to just past shoulder length, and tied in a simple braid. Her dress, however, was…odd. On the one hand, it was just a white spaghetti-strap piece that emphasized her shoulders. On the other hand, she had pinned all sorts of flowers—live flowers—to the garment. It looked pretty, but also quite strange.
Ériu, sharp-eyed Ériu, was easy to spot even at a distance. The Queen-Mother of Summer sported waist-length golden hair, without any decorations or fancy braids, and a simple white dress that covered her shoulders and bust. She also wore a pair of pure white gloves that reached all the way to her elbows, which somehow didn’t seem out of place on that outfit.
On the other side of the table, of course, was the Unseelie Court. Maiden Maeve, Matron Mab, and Crone Cailleach.
Maeve, the Princess of Wind and Frost, wore her black hair in a Maiden cut identical to her Seelie counterpart. Her tight Chinese dress was also a mirror of Aurora’s in many ways, sporting cool blue, purple, and black colors. She glared at me with eyes the color of crushed ice, but I had been on the receiving end of far worse.
The Queen of Air and Darkness actually took a moment to properly identify. Not only was Mab up from her seat, studying the snack table as if it was some monster on a lab table, but she had her hair—presumably shoulder length, like Titania’s—up in a bun. Her dress was an elegant midnight black ballgown, studded with diamonds like stars in the night sky.
And last, of course, was the Queen-Mother of Winter, Cailleach herself. She was a perfect mirror of her Seelie counterpart. Her black, waist-length hair was also plain and unadorned, while her black and conservative dress also came with a matching pair of black opera gloves.
When it came to actual skin color, facial features, and so on, all six women were completely identical. Other than the hair and eye color differences between the two Courts, any two or three of them could easily have passed themselves off as twins or triplets without anyone batting an eye.
“Ladies,” I said by way of greeting. “I hope you don’t mind I brought two witnesses.”
Maeve eyed them carefully. “The parents of Derek and Laura.” She nodded. “They’ll do.”
Maria and Victor looked surprised, but Victor was the one who spoke. “You know our kids?”
“I kidnapped them about a week and half ago,” she said nonchalantly. “And we had some meetings before that, as well.”
“Oh, good,” Maria said dryly. “I was worried it was something serious, like collaborating on a bake sale.”
“Do not misunderstand me, Maria Huntsman,” the Maiden said in a warning tone. “My methods were somewhat extreme, but my purpose was benign. And I trust those two far more than I do the pair of thieves in front of me now.”
I rubbed my forehead. “Stop. Maria, I brought you two here as witnesses, not prosecutors. And Lady Maeve—please don’t antagonize her.”
The princess nodded in quiet acknowledgment, while Maria made a huffing sound I chose to interpret as agreement.
“If we have finished the part where we circle each other warily, I would like to get started,” Cailleach growled. She indicated a seat at the middle of the table. “Honored Paragon, please.”
With a sigh, I sat down, and pulled the paperwork from the center of the table. And it was actual paperwork, not data files. I wanted to be sure to have hard copies of everything involved in this affair. I still didn’t trust the fey as far as I could throw them.
But for all my paranoia, the task was a simple one. I signed the papers while Maria and Victor watched carefully over my shoulder, and that was that. The fey had already signed their own names—in what appeared to be Gaelic script, if I was any judge—so it was quick and easy. The whole process took less than ten minutes.
“Thank you, Honored Paragon,” Ériu said warmly, as we all rose from our seats at the same time. “We expected more resistance from you on this.”
“You followed the proper procedures,” I replied thinly. “I am not going to ignore my own laws simply because I am wary of the ones taking advantage of them.”
The Queen-Mother of Summer nodded. “I did not say we were disappointed. Merely surprised. You will not regret this, I promise.”
“I will hold you to that.”
Without another word, all six women filed out of the room. The raucous sounds of the Zero Forge could be heard briefly while the door was open, and then it was closed, and they were gone again.
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding, and sunk back into the chair.
Maria and Victor didn’t say anything. Maria just put her hand on my shoulder, lending me silent support.
What was there to say?
I had just given the fey the full rights of a culture. That meant right to claim domains, right to make business deals and receive payments from their members. None of those were particularly important to anything whatsoever; they already did most of it anyway.
But they also had the right to legal retribution.
This was not going to end well.
Behind the Scenes (scene 200)
Been wanting to write this one for a while. Came out well enough, I think.