So… why am I starting a new story when I've already gone on that I have yet to finish the second chapter of?
Uhm… because I'm a moron! A total moron!
Well, that, and sometimes I'm just too weak to write what I should write instead of the idea that seems the clearest in my mind. Either way, here's a couple of brand new characters that I hope you'll enjoy… and I will get around to continuing Reign of Law soon. Honestly I will.
It had come as a complete surprise to Jameel Johnson that he was an early riser. When you had spent your entire life in a house in which there had been at all times at least one small child, waking up early in the morning wasn't a natural inclination, it was just a practical inevitability. But look, here he was at college, in a dorm full of sleepy students, and he was up at the crack of dawn, bright-eyed and bushytailed.
Every morning, Jameel walked around to each of the entrances of the house. At every one of the doors, he stopped and sang a song beneath his breath. He varied the songs depending on the day and what he felt like – it didn't do to let your Arts go stale, after all. But all the songs he had to choose from were old and strange, hailing from a time when the horizon had seemed a lot nearer.
And he sang up the wards around the house.
And he sang horrible doom to any evil-doer who sought to enter.
And he sang the safety of everyone who dwelled within the walls, including – hello, ulterior motive! – himself.
Because Jameel Johnson knew that they were out to get him, and while he could only blame himself for that, he had no intentions of letting them take him. He had a life to live and debts to repay and responsibilities to live up to, and anyone who tried to stop him from doing any of that would face the full wrath of his carefully assembled Arts.
When he had finished the warding, he went back to his room, lay down on the bed, and took up his course books. He had gotten halfway through Elementary Business Sense by now. For someone who never had time to attend the lectures, he thought he had a pretty good grasp of the subject. The midterms would be the judge of that, of course.
After an hour or so, his roommate, Roland Matthews, stirred. He fumbled for his glasses on the nightstand, put them on, and glared at Jameel over in the other bed.
"You're humming," he complained.
Jameel caught himself. Yes, he supposed he had been. The melody for this morning's spell-song had gotten stuck in his head.
"Sorry," he said. "Good morning."
"Meh." Roland shook his head. "How can you be in such a good mood in the morning?"
"Clean living," Jameel said sagely.
"Bah." Roland swung his feet over the side of the bed and staggered unsteadily over to the fridge. He rummaged through it for something vaguely edible. "So what clean things are you doing today?"
"With my luck, probably mucking out the Lord Regent's stables," he said. "I don't have much choice except to take whatever crappy job he offers, seeing as if I don't keep the Glamour flowing my way, the Shadow Court is going to nail my ass to the wall."
Roland gave him a scrutinising look.
"Yes," he said at long last. "Yes, that made exactly as much sense as the answers I usually get. Is this some kind of elaborate joke on my expense?"
Jameel gave him his most innocent look.
"Who, me?" he said. "On my mother's grave, Roland. Not a word crosses my lips that isn't entirely one hundred percent honest-to-God truth."
"Well, you know. Sometimes I spruce them up a bit to make them more interesting."
"Uh-huh. And your mother's alive, Jameel. I met her once."
"Yeah, but she has a grave," Jameel said. "Standing ready for her, like. Long story."
"Your family is weird," Roland said flatly. "Especially you."
"Thank you. We aim to mystify."
Lately, it had started to seem to Jenny that there was precious little use to getting up in the morning.
Because frankly, what was there to do? Watch TV? Check on the prisoner for the thousandth time? Practice sword exercises, and never mind the fact that she could do all of them in her sleep? To be honest, the only reason she could find to get out of bed was to silence the demands of her stomach, her bladder, or Mary-Kate, in no particular order. Great stars, but the little girl had a resounding voice. She'd make a fine battle commander one day, assuming she ever took an interest in the deadly arts. And assuming Broch suffered her to live that long.
The idea that she, Jenny, would probably eventually be called upon to execute a nine-year-old girl was enough to make her burrow her face deeper into the pillow and try to go back to sleep.
I was a hero once. Wasn't I? I slew dragons and Thallain and nasty creepy-crawlies from the Dark Dreaming. How the fuck did I get mixed up in politics
"Lady Mennavere…" a small voice said from the other room.
"No…" Jenny mumbled and pulled the cover over her head.
"Lady Mennavere…" Louder this time.
"Five more minutes, damn it…" Jenny whined.
"It's time for breakfast, Lady Mennavere."
That was the annoying thing with Mary-Kate. Well, one of the many, many annoying things with her, at least. She never said she wanted anything. She just pointed out that it was right and proper that she receive it.
Angrily, Jenny threw the cover across the room and got up. The tower room was icy cold; it was in the middle of winter, and Broch hadn't gotten around to having someone get central heating up here yet. Apparently television was easier for the Nockers. The screen had a kind of tacky Glamour about it that they could tap into and use for introducing it to this mostly chimerical building. Heating, on the other hand, was nothing people had ever thought very much about.
Jenny pulled her hands through her silvery-golden hair and yawned. She was sleeping in shorts and a T-shirt, these days. Back a few weeks ago, when she had still shared the tower with the two studly young men Broch had – honour where honour was due – provided for her, she had worn a very sexy satin nightgown for bed. In the end, even sex had gotten boring, though. The guys had been nice and all, but having people around who were so Sovereigned out of their minds that they only wanted to please you wasn't all it was cracked up to be – just a fancy form of masturbation, when you got right down to it.
So she had sent Brad and Tad – or was it Chad? She couldn't remember – back to Broch, and after that she had given up even the pretence of caring for her appearance. She wasn't sure when she had even brushed her hair last. And she was noticing that she still had jam stains on her fingers after her last donut pig-out.
Of course, she was a Sidhe. Hence, her complete disregard for her own appearance gave her the kind of I'm-so-confident-in-my-sexiness-that-I-don't-even- have-to-bother look that most women would kill for. The fact that her self-abuse wasn't even hurting her just made her existence feel even more pointless.
Gruffly, she made a couple of sandwiches, put them on a trey, opened a hatch in the door to Mary-Kate's cell and held the trey out for the girl's acceptance. A pair of small, petite and very well-manicured hands took the trey off of her.
"Thank you, Lady Mennavere," the girl said formally. Jenny caught a glimpse of her as she went back to her table, a slim, golden-haired little girl that radiated enough saccharine cuteness that she probably should not be allowed near diabetics.
"Spare me, Mary-Kate," Jenny snarled. "And it's Jenny, okay? Or Miss Brissington, if you have to. Don't call me Mennavere."
"It's your name, though," Mary-Kate pointed out. "Just like I'm Malenna, you might recall…"
"You can be Malenna if you like." Jenny slammed the hatch shut. "I'm not Mennavere, though. Know how I know that?"
"No, my Lady," Mary-Kate (okay, okay, Malenna, then) said humbly. "How do you know that?"
"Because Mennavere was a hero." Jenny lay back down in her bed and stared at the ceiling. "Lady Mennavere ap Fiona fought the bad guys. Jenny Brissington works for the bad guys." She closed her eyes. "And how the fuck that happened, I'm still trying to figure out…"
Dougal had been rumoured to be a nice city when Jameel had chosen to go to college there. In all due fairness, it probably had been, at the time. There had been some kind of war over the summer, something big and complicated that the Johnsons' Sidhe relatives hadn't wanted to talk about, and when the dust settled, the Duchy of Howling Winds had been in possession of a whooping thirty Freeholds within the city limits alone. Dougal had turned into the land of milk and honey. Glamour was flowing, the Dreaming was close, Winter had never seemed more distant.
But things had gone wrong right from the start. Changelings were swarming in from all over the country, eager for a piece of the action – and a lot less eager for accepting the law laid down by the Duke at the Freehold of the Singing Sapphire. The duchy had fallen into chaos. There had been a brief time when it seemed that the Duke might get things back into working order, but then he had fallen ill, and anarchy had run rampant.
Then the Duke had died, and things had gotten really out of hand…
Jameel made his way to the Freehold of the Singing Sapphire in good order. The place had been a colonial mansion once. Now, it was a ruin of crumbling wood and shattered glass, surrounded by a snow-covered garden that had turned into a jungle. Just another example of old riches fallen on hard times.
For someone who had the sight, the truth was a bit more complicated. The house was a ruin, yes, but it wasn't crumbling; it practically radiated stubborn health. Strange creatures made the high grass of the garden their home, allowing themselves to be glimpsed briefly as Jameel walked down the frost-covered path to the front door. And from inside the broken windows, a red glow pulsated.
The door had a wrought iron knocker – a rather tasteless way of informing visitors just how welcome they were. Jameel didn't have any trouble with cold iron, though. He lifted it and knocked twice.
Benefit of not having an ancient spirit of magic stuck in my head. I don't get their allergies.
Of course, he had to admit, if he had been a real changeling, he wouldn't even have needed to be here. He could have taken his Glamour from the mind of any Dreamer that crossed his path.
Not that there's that many unspoiled Dreamers left in Dougal.
The man who opened the door was so small and wizened that he hardly looked human. He might have been some kind of chimpanzee in a dirty coat. He blinked near-sightedly at Jameel, like the light of the crisp winter morning was hurting his eyes.
"What?" he said.
"It's me, sir," Jameel said. "Jameel Johnson, sir. I just wanted to see if his Lordship had any work for me today."
"Hr. Hr. Work. Hr." The little man shook his head. "I suppose we can find you something. Don't just stand there, come in!"
Jameel stepped inside. It was shockingly hot in there; after the wintry chill outside, it felt like walking into a furnace.
"Well, come alone. Come along. Hr. Haven't got all day," the little man said and hurried off deeper into the mansion. The inside of the building was in better repair than the outside, or perhaps just more deeply mired in the Glamour reality that restored it to its all splendour. The carpets and paintings and furniture all looked worn and well-used, but hardly anything was broken. The light came from candles and torches, all of which burned with an ominous red glare.
They passed people on the way, guards clad in leather and metal, servants clad in rags, courtiers clad in faded finery from half a dozen different centuries. Some of them greeted Jameel's surly guide, but none of them paid any attention to Jameel himself. He was no changeling, just the descendant of one; Kinain, not Kithain; a distant relative, not a member of the family.
"We're going through the throne hall," the little man said sternly. "Hr. Don't you bother the Lord Regent!"
Jameel accepted that completely unwarranted rebuke with silence. He had been taken to his first court function when he was five. But Mercher always insisted on treating him like he was some kind of unruly halfwit. The man didn't even cause a blip on the radar screen in the Freehold, he was just one of a number of faceless servants, but he was a changeling and Jameel was not.
I could whistle, and his boots would sprout roots and bind him to the floor. I could kiss his cheek, and he would forget his own name. I could reach into my sleeves and pull out fire and lightning to smite him with…
And the moment he did, Jameel knew, Broch would at the very least make it impossible for him to find work in the Duchy of Howling Winds, and at worst… well, Jameel didn't kid himself. He might have delved deeper into the arts arcane than most full changelings ever bothered to do, but he wasn't a real sorcerer, not yet. Broch, on the other hand, was – not to mention the fact that he owned the fealty of a number of other ones, as well as dozens of men-at-arms.
So swallow your pride, matey. These people hold all the cards. But oh, for the days of good old Drackus. They were at least polite to me when he was in charge…
The throne hall was lit mainly by the roaring firing in its centre. Around it was gathered a motley crew of men and women, standing in groups and whispering among themselves or standing alone and watching the others. And high above it all, on a great dais, on a tarnished gold chair, sat Broch, Lord Regent of Howling Winds, and dispensed his brand of justice.
His naked – but seemingly genderless – body filled the chair. In fact, the outlying areas of Broch bulged over the sides and hung down towards the floor, like he was half-liquid. His face was a grey dough, almost void of distinguishing marks. It seemed impossible that he might ever be able to rise, or even be moved from his seat of power. It seemed impossible that he could even live, that his heart could survive being buried in all that lard. But live he did, and rule the duchy with an iron fist. No more the days of gentle diplomacy under Drackus; anyone who opposed Broch suffered the wrath of his spells and his blades.
"On you go. On. Hr. In here." Mercher pulled Jameel into another corridor and into a small room. "We were hoping you would come, hr. We have use for you. Yes. You have a slight gift for magic. And you're expendable. Hr."
"Pardon me for saying this, sir," Jameel said, "but I don't think I'm expandable. And I've got parents who're expecting me to finish college and starting bringing in the big bucks so they can afford to send my siblings to college, too!"
Mercher gave him a blank look.
"You know?" Jameel said. "Them being people, and all? In the sense of having feelings and needs and stuff? Despite not being changelings?"
"Hr. Stop talking nonsense," Mercher said.
"It's Josey," Mercher said. "We want him dead. Hr. Yes. Soon."
"Old Josey?" Jameel blinked. "You want me to duel Old Josey? Isn't he supposed to be, you know, all-powerful? The endless thorn in Broch's side who defies all attempts of disposing of him?"
Mercher gave him a contemptuous look.
"Well, we don't expect you to do it alone."
"Oh." Jameel laughed. "You made me nervous there for a moment."
"You'll be accompanied by a knight."
"A knight." Jameel struggled for words. "One knight? Me and one knight. Against Old Josey. And all his merry men, I'm guessing. Those kids who calls themselves the Wildlings? And whatever else he's got up his sleeve. Me and a knight. Against that."
"So this knight… he's expandable too, right?" Jameel said.
"The Lady Mennavere's attitude lately has been found wanting," Mercher said.
"Uhm… how shall I put this?" Jameel said. "Ahem. 'No.' No, I shall not venture out and boldly get myself killed by a crazy rebel sorcerer. No, verily, I shall not have my frail body torn to pieces by a bunch of homicidal faun brats. Nay, I say to thee, no fucking way am I going to lay down my life for the greater glory of Broch. No. Nope. Uh-uh. Forget it. Ain't gonna happen. Absolutely out of the question. Don't even think about it. No."
"Hrrrrr. Then I'll tell his Lordship that you attempted to rob and kill me," Mercher said. "Who do you think he'd believe, me or some, hr, half-breed?"
"You little shit," he said tonelessly. "Broch has nothing to do with this. This is you trying to score points. If I succeed, you win. If I don't, big deal." He caught himself. "No, that doesn't add up. You couldn't command a ducal knight on your own…"
"Hr. I'm sure you'll reason it out eventually," Mercher said condescendingly. "Meanwhile, I suggest you hurry on down to the Solitary Tower so you and Mennavere can get to work. She's already been notified."
Jameel was not one to waste his time fuming. Mercher had screwed him. That was the situation, and protesting it wouldn't get him anywhere. Already, his mind was hard at work trying to figure out a way to get through this alive.
"How much time do we have?" he said. "Finding Josey might not be quick work."
"All the time you need," Mercher said with a shrug. "You just won't get paid until you bring us his head."
That took Jameel aback.
"I'm running on a half-empty tank already!" he protested. "How am I supposed to be any good if I run out of Glamour?"
"Succeed fast, then. Before you run out of Glamour. Hr." Mercher smirked. "Of course, if you lay Josey's horned head before Lord Broch's feet, I wouldn't be surprised if he grants you a Freehold of your own."
"Well, that's nice." Jameel poked Mercher in the chest. "But if I ever find myself in a position to screw you over good and proper…"
"I'll take my chances. Get to work, half-breed."
"A guy?" Jenny's voice went up a notch. "Coming here? Now?" She paused and grasped for straws. "Is he cute?" she said. "Please tell me he's not cute."
Gretta gave her the somewhat haunted look of a little girl finding herself face to face with a frantic knight. She was a very ugly little girl, her skin pasty-white like a corpse's, her hair black and listless and hanging around her face like seaweed.
"Idon'tknowmylady!" she said, very fast and very quietly.
"What?" Jenny sighed. It was, perhaps, understandable that Broch favoured his own Kith. The good Dreaming knew he had precious few loyal friends in the world. But why did he have to make a shy twelve-year-old girl his emissary? Wasn't it generally a good thing for emissaries to be heard?
"I don't know if he's cute, my Lady. I've never seen him," Gretta said, a bit slower and more clearly, if not any louder.
"Well, with my luck, he probably is." Jenny looked around the room. There was underwear in plain sight. There were empty beer cans in even plainer sight. And it smelled. She smelled. When had she bothered to shower last? "Get out there! Stall him!"
"Yes, my Lady." Gretta fled down the stairs. Jenny fled into shower for an attempt to quickly turn herself into something a bit closer to her usual, well-groomed self. She emerged three minutes later, trailing shampoo bubbles, managed to find some clean underwear and put it on together with her cleanest pair of dirty jeans and a T-shirt. Then she turned to her armour.
That calmed her a bit. She might be a mess right now, but she maintained her armour with a habit that had been pounded into her for the five years she had squired under Sir Thorgrim. A knight was only as good as her armour, and even if Jenny was a fuckup who couldn't be bothered to do laundry, Mennavere was a very good knight.
She should technically have a squire for this kind of stuff, but she had made do on her own on numerous occasions. She quickly attached the most important pieces of armour and secured them with leather straps. Breastplate, backplate, armguards, legguards, helmet. It felt good to garb herself in steel again. The armour didn't look one bit like it came out of a fairytale; it was a simple and businesslike suit of armour, the metal rough and scratched, the leather dark with old sweat and blood. Nor did it turn Mennavere into an invincible woman of steel; the suit had been designed to provide protection where protection was vital, and leave room for flexibility where flexibility was desired. The combination was one she was utterly comfortable with, one that fit perfectly her style of fighting. In this armour, she had beheaded the Ogre of Mousepool, and fought a three-day battle with the dragon Galnisuur until she and the ancient wyrm were forced to agree to a mutual withdrawal, each having been convinced of the impossibility of victory.
Her black sword, Sauraq, completed the getup. She slammed it into its sheathe before she strode down the stairs, feeling better than she had for weeks. Let the world do its best. She feared neither foul fiends nor cute guys now.
The guy, as it turned out, wasn't even all that cute, though he definitely had poise – Jenny had spent a lot of time learning poise, and she could recognise that this was a head from which books would not have fallen. He was standing on the street outside of the Solitary Tower, talking patiently to Gretta. He was black, of medium height and a little on the broad side, with long, glossy hair that looked like he was sort of vain about it. He had swept a green-patterned cloak around himself against the cold, and it was fluttering pretty dramatically around him.
"Hi," she said, extending a leather-gloved hand. "I'm Jenny. You're the sorcerous talent they've gotten for the quest, right?"
Around them on the street, people kept passing by, not sparing a glance for the corpse-like child, the teenage girl in plate armour or the young man in the flowing cloak. Just like the silver needle of the Solitary Tower, the magical elements of the scene just didn't exist for ordinary people. If Jenny concentrated, she could make out things the way they saw them – herself in jeans and a fluffy overcoat, Gretta with a skin that was merely pale and hair that was merely lacklustre, the young man in a patched and faded canvas jacket, the apartment building she had come out of. Mostly, though, she preferred to see the true world instead of the factually correct one.
"That's right," he said, giving her a firm handshake. "I'm Jameel." She noticed with some satisfaction that he was watching her face with an overwhelmed look that he wasn't quite able to hide. Not a bad effect, given that she wore a hauberk that flattened her figure and a helmet that covered her hair.
Oh yeah. Still got it.
"His Lordship suggests you start by asking questions over at the Noisy Tomb," Gretta said.
"The Noisy Tomb." Jenny nodded. "I guess that's as good a place as any." She caught Jameel's questioning glance. "It's a café slash Freehold downtown. A lot of insurgent elements hang out there."
"I'm surprised Broch hasn't stomped down on it," Jameel said.
"Why should he?" Jenny grinned. "This way he knows where to find insurgents when he needs them. Someone there might know where Josey is. Might know. He moves around a lot."
"And the chances of someone beating us to a bloody pulp for asking questions there would be…?" Jameel said.
Jenny beamed at him.
"Hey, that's why they call it an adventure!"
"Right," Jameel said. He sounded faintly ill. "Silly me."
Jenny chuckled. She liked this guy already. Straight men didn't grow on trees. In fact, she was feeling pretty positive altogether. Oh, her life still sucked and everything, but at least for a little while it was going to suck in an interesting way. Even if she was going on a quest for a crazed tyrant, she was going on a quest, and Mennavere thrived on quests.
"That just leaves one question," she said. "Who's going to watch over my Freehold and the prisoner while I'm gone? I don't even have any enchanted boytoys at the moment."
"Big Brian," Gretta said.
Jenny's positive feelings evaporated.
"No," she said. "No."
"I tried that one." Jameel sighed. "It doesn't work."
"Not Big Brian!" Jenny howled. "You can't do this to me!"
"His Lordship's orders," Gretta whimpered.
"Well, tell his Lordship…" Jenny began. Then she broke off. Judging from the faint tremors of the ground, something very large had just moved up behind her. She turned, and had to force herself not to go for her sword.
"Hiya, Jenny," Big Brian boomed. He was eight feet tall and covered with greasy hair. Somewhere inside the hair, you could glimpse an equally greasy suit of leather armour.
"That's Lady Mennavere for you, Brian!" she growled. "I slay the likes of you."
"Not me. His Lordship's favourite, I am." Brian sneered. "Maybe if I handle it real nice, he'll give me your Freehold for good, huh?"
"An ogre?" Jameel raised his eyebrows. "You're really a Thallain, sir? I don't think I've ever met one."
Big Brian gave Jameel a glance.
"Yeah, well, I've met a thousand little Kinain shits. Most of them tasted nice and crunchy, too."
For a moment, Jenny thought that the young spellslinger would turn Big Brian into a frog on the spot. Hardly a muscle moved on Jameel's face, but for just a moment, his eyes blazed with so much sheer hatred that she was faintly grateful it wasn't directed at her. Then, just as suddenly, he composed himself.
"I'm sure they did," he said.
"You two run along," Brian said. "I'm going to make myself comfortable. See ya."
He stepped into the Solitary Tower. He had to bend over to get in through the door.
Jenny turned around to give Gretta a piece of her mind, but the child had wisely disappeared. Jenny was left standing on the street with Jameel, with her Freehold barred against her and a quest before her that she suddenly wasn't as enthusiastic about anymore.
"Did he really?" he said.
"Eat people?" Jenny scowled. "Probably. He's evil. That's why Broch likes him so much." She shrugged. "Come on. We'll take the bus."
They started walking down the street.
"So you're really Kinain, then?" Jenny said.
"Yeah." Jameel nodded soberly. "Best as we can figure, there was this Sidhe landowner back in colonial times. Fell in love with one of his slaves, freed her, married her, got her pregnant, got killed by all the other landowners for doing all of the above."
Jenny smiled despite herself.
"Aw, that's so romantic."
Jameel gave her a dubious glance, which she evenly returned. All right, she could see how the death and misery might turn a lot of people off. She was of the house of Fiona, though. She had the right, nay, the duty to be weird about these things.
"It must have been tough for you to make it to full sorcerer," she said. "If you have to rely on others for your Glamour, I mean."
"I'm not a full sorcerer," Jameel said. "Not even close, actually."
Jenny raised her eyebrows.
"They're sending me up against Old Josey, and they're not even having a full sorcerer back me up?"
They reached a bus stop and sat down on the bench. There wasn't anyone else there at the moment, but Jenny had learned that that kind of thing didn't matter. People just assumed that you were involved in some kind of elaborate (and, after one look at her, probably kinky) roleplaying game.
"I think we're supposed to get killed," Jameel said matter-of-factly.
Jenny shook her head.
"If Lord Broch is not happy with my services, he can just behead me."
"This isn't Broch," Jameel said. "It's some kind of conspiracy. Not necessarily against us, mind. Sending us off to get killed is probably some kind of distraction or something."
"Has anyone ever told you you're really paranoid?" Jenny said.
"You're only paranoid if they really aren't out to get you," he said evenly.
"For someone who thinks everyone's out to get you, you're being awfully calm about it," Jenny pointed out.
"Not everyone," Jameel said peacefully. "Just a surprisingly large amount of people. And either way, you sort of get used to it. Not like there's anything I can do about it." He glanced at her. "Mind you, you could go to Broch and double-check your orders. Just to make sure they do come from him."
Jenny considered that.
"If I said something really, really offensive," she said, "and I promised that it wasn't meant to insult you, and I was really sorry but I couldn't think of a polite way of putting it, would you still get mad?"
"Doubtful," Jameel said.
"In that case," Jenny said, "if Lord Broch really did send me these orders – and seeing as his personal emissary and his personal champion seems to be in on it, it's fairly likely he did – and I bother him by asking for a confirmation because a, well, because a Kinain – I'm really sorry – because a Kinain told me to, then I think he really would behead me."
She waited for an explosion, or at least – more likely, if Jameel was as composed as he seemed – a nasty look. It didn't come. Instead, he looked thoughtful for a moment and then nodded.
"You're probably right," he said. "The Noisy Tomb it is, then, I guess."
The café turned out to be a fairly gothic-looking one, with lots of black drapes, morbid decorations and people glaring at you from shady corners. The woman behind the counter looked at first glance like a grownup version of Gretta, but on closer inspection her pastiness came from makeup. The hellish-red colour of her eyes was phoney, too. The horns might or might not be.
"Oh fuck," she said when she saw Jenny in the door.
"Now, now, Baroness Nightshade." Jenny grinned. "I won't cause any trouble if I don't have to."
"Oh, I'm not worrying about you causing trouble," Nightshade said. "I'm worried about you bleeding all over my carpet. And I just know someone's going to smash a chair over your head! I'm not made of money, you know."
"Friend of yours?" Jameel mumbled.
"Oh, you know how it is," Jenny mumbled back. "Some people have a real problem with authority." She put her hand on the hilt of her sword and stepped forward. "All right, people, the question of the day is Old Josey! Who wants to tell me where he is?"
The silence was deafening.
"We don't like your kind here, pig," a deep voice rumbled from the shadows.
"I appreciate you being forthright about that," Jenny said. "I think it's important that people are honest with each other. Now, keep up the good work and tell me honestly where Josey is."
"Jenny?" Jameel said. "A quick word?"
Jenny looked over her shoulder at him.
"Are you suicidal?" Jameel said. "I mean, do you have a genuine death wish? If we're going to be working together, I think it's best if I found out right away."
"Oh, be a bigger wuss…" A spoon bounced off of the back of Jenny's helmet. She immediately turned back around. "Okay, who threw that? Own up, whoever it was! Don't make me Dictum the lot of you!"
"You threatening us with that filthy Sovereignty of yours?" a shrill voice demanded. "Here?"
"Well, seeing as this Freehold is part of the Duchy of Howling Winds, and I'm on a mission from the Lord Regent, yeah, here," Jenny said.
"A Lord Regent who taxes us incessantly, tortures people who act against him to death, treats even his loyal subjects shabbily and generally insults the throne he sits on," Nightshade said.
"Well… yeah." Jenny shrugged, a bit uncomfortably. "He's kind of evil incarnate. You got me there."
"She admits it!" the shrill voice cried. "She's a servant of the Dark! She's evil!"
"I'm not fucking evil!" Jenny growled, her discomfort turning to anger. "I took an oath to serve the rightful ruler of the duchy, and right now that's Broch. And like it or not, Nightshade, you took the same damn oath, so I'd like a bit less attitude from your people!"
"Save it," Nightshade said. "You don't have any power here."
"See, that's where you're wrong." Jenny grinned widely. "Watch me. Hey, loud-mouthed girl in the corner? I am Lady Mennavere ap Fiona, mistress of the Solitary Tower; daughter of Sir Reignald ap Fiona, the First Sword of Everdusk; son of Baron Dreis ap Fiona…"
"You wouldn't dare!" the shrill voice shrieked. "You wouldn't dare!"
Jameel took a few steps over to the counter and turned to Nightshade.
"So what happens if she does?" he said conversationally.
"… son of Sir Daymond ap Fiona, called Daymond the Dense…"
"I'll kill you! I'll cut you!"
"A Dictum, in here?" Nightshade shook her head. "People will riot."
"… son of Contessa Temeeril Taravelli Fiona…"
"That's what I thought," Jameel said. His left hand shot out and grabbed Nightshade by the collar, pulling her head down to the counter. His right hand slipped a knife out of his cloak and pressed it against her exposed throat.
"… and I command you, step forward and face me!"
A scrawny woman in extremely elaborate clothes and the makeup of a highly artistic clown came stumbling forward like she was a puppet on strings. Her face was a mask of outraged disbelief.
"Get her!" the rumbling voice from before growled. "Get the Sidhe bitch!" The speaker got up and lumbered forward, a massive figure of a man with fists large enough to encompass Jameel's entire face. From shadows all through the Noisy Tomb, other guests stepped out, many of them brandishing weapons and all of them brandishing righteous fury.
"Stop or I'll kill her!" Jameel snapped.
"Stop or he'll kill me!" Nightshade wailed.
The avalanche of furious café patrons ground to a sudden halt.
"Well, isn't this interesting?" Jenny had drawn her sword, but she wasn't holding it in any kind of alert position; she had the point against the floor and was leaning on it like a cane. "Now, who wants to start talking?"
"I should point out that this isn't chimerical steel," Jameel said. "This is an actual knife. If I cut through her throat with it, her faerie soul doesn't just go into remission for a couple of months. She'll be really, really dead."
"You wouldn't dare!" the woman with the shrill voice said.
"Remember what happened last time you said that?" Jameel asked.
"Ice… spire…" Nightshade gasped.
"Icespire?" Jenny raised an eyebrow. "Is that where he is?"
"Where he was…" Nightshade tried to squirm away from the knife, but she would have had to push her way through the solid wood of the counter to do so. "Redcaps might… know…"
"Thank you. You've all been very helpful." She took a graceful bow.
The shrill-voiced woman screamed and leap for her, knives appearing in her hands.
Jameel didn't think anyone saw Jenny moved. One moment she was bowing. The next, her left fist was crashing into the woman's face, ending the assault in a wail of broken-toothed misery.
Like that had been a signal, everyone in the café suddenly charged Jenny all at once.
Jameel released Nightshade, pulled a vial filled with the carefully distilled essences of certain herbs out of his cloak and threw it on the floor. It shattered and released a cloud of thick, yellowish smoke.
When the smoke cleared, Jameel and Jenny were gone.
"Well, that was fun," Jenny said five minutes later. She was standing on the street, watching Jameel lean against a house wall and gasp for breath. Apparently, sudden sprints to avoid pursuit didn't agree with him as well as they did with her. Still, she couldn't deny that he had pulled his weight back there.
Jameel gave her a mute look of complete disgust.
"Oh, don't tell me that wasn't fun!" Jenny said. "Can't you just feel the adrenalin pumping?"
"Painful… excruciating… horrible… death…" Jameel panted.
"Nah, they were just going to rough us up a bit."
"No, I meant that's what I'm going to do to you!"
Jenny shook her head and clucked her tongue.
"You big baby."
"Hey, I saved you back there!" Jameel pulled himself up with obvious effort. "If it wasn't for me, they'd have rushed you! You wouldn't have had a chance!"
"Well, yeah, you did great," Jenny said. "Not denying it. Kudos. Owe you one."
That seemed to mollify him somewhat.
"Thanks," he said. "So I didn't mess up some kind of go-out-with-a-bang plan of yours, then?"
"I may hate my life these days, but I'm not eager to die." She grinned. "Eager to risk my life, sure, but that's nothing new, and I've been around for this long."
"Fair enough." He wrinkled his brow. "What would you have done, though? If I hadn't grabbed Nightshade?"
"Well, see, I don't think like that," Jenny said. "I've been on a lot of adventures, and planning never gets you anywhere. I do what seems to be the thing to do at the moment, and then I assume that something will come up to make it all work out." She held out her hands. "You got to admit it worked this time."
"I guess." He sighed. "So what's this Icespire?"
"Redcap Freehold," Jenny said. "They're loyal to Broch, mostly. Maybe they've changed their minds. Let's go. It's not too far away."
They started walking.
"And… I'm sorry," Jameel said, a bit stiffly. "About you hating your life."
"Meh." Jenny shrugged. "Everyone's lives suck sometimes, don't they?"
They walked in silence for a while.
"Jenny…" Jameel then said. "Those immense towers of greyish ice a few blocks ahead of us…"
"What about them?" Jenny said.
"… the ones with black birds of prey circling them…"
"… and I think some kind of standard made out of human skulls on top of the closest one…"
"You have good eye sight."
"… the towers that, all in all, sort of scream 'don't come here!'…"
"… they're Icespire, right?"
"Give the boy a cigar."
"I don't suppose we could make a plan that's marginally less suicidal than 'let's run over there and give those Redcaps a good talking to'?" he said in a suffering tone of voice.
Jenny glanced at him and laughed. She had forgotten how squishy sorcerers were. A knight could take a hit and come back for more; it was just part of the job, after all, and once you accepted that and learned that a bit of pain didn't destroy you, most of the fear went away. Sorcerers tended to fancy themselves creatures of civilisation – if you punched one of them in the face, you didn't just hurt him, you sort of violated him.
Bunch of pussies, really. But in the name of diplomacy…
"What did you have in mind?" she said.
"Well…" Jameel considered. "I could make us look like Redcaps. Or at least as someone the Redcaps won't immediately massacre."
"Hmm." Jenny shrugged. "Okay, sure. Can't see why not."
"I can see why not now!" Jenny whispered furiously. "I can see very clearly why not!"
Jameel sighed. It wasn't his fault, he told himself. Redcaps looked in a certain way, and that was involved a certain amount of grime. It was true that he had, perhaps, gone a little overboard with it; Jenny's hair looked three shades darker than it really was because he had glamoured so much grease and dirt into it. But other than that, he felt he had done a great job on the illusion. And those huge sharp teeth looked very becoming, in a mean-ugly-spirit-of-hunger sort of way.
"It's not real dirt," he offered. "It'll go away as soon as I break the spell."
"So? If there are any cute Redcap guys in there and they see me like this, your ass is toast, pal," Jenny said.
"There are cute Redcap guys?" Jameel said. The concept had not previously existed for him.
"Well," Jenny said, with a slight smile of pleasant memories, "some of them have that bad-boy vibe that just makes you…"
"Thank you!" Jameel said quickly. "I can fill in the blanks from there, I think."
He glanced around the corner. The gate of Icespire was ahead, a pair of huge jaws of dirty ice, completely ignored by the passer-bys.
"And my chest hasn't been this flat since I was eleven!" Jenny complained, looking down at the admittedly almost entirely vertical line of her illusionary leather jacket.
"How should I know what your chest looks like?" Jameel said. "You've been wearing a stainless steel corset all day."
"Well, you could have erred on the side of caution," Jenny said prudently. "Honestly, the least you could have given me was a C-cup."
Jameel forced himself to be patient. Sidhe, he reminded himself. Teenage girl, he reminded himself. Jenny was the innocent victim of a double doze of the vanity gene…
They walked in through the macabre gates. Inside was an ice corridor, dimly lit with a dirty light that seemed to emanate from the walls themselves. There was also a short, heavyset young man holding a halberd. He had other features aside from the halberd, but it took Jameel a moment to notice them. There was something about a halberd that concentrated your attention wonderfully. It was, perhaps, that it was such an exaggerated weapon; half spear, half giant axe, all instrument of gruesome murder. There was no part of a halberd that didn't look like it wanted to kill you and the sooner the better. It kept giving you mental images of yourself as a barbeque stick.
"Hold it!" the short, heavyset you man with the halberd – yes, dear God, the halberd; what would it feel like to have it rammed through your chest, aaarrghh, aaaarggghh, don't think about it – said. "Who're you?"
"Big Brian sent us," Jenny said. "He said to help you out."
The guard frowned. It was an impressive frown. His mouth stretched from one cheekbone to another, and it was filled with pointy, yellow teeth.
I need to relax, Jameel told himself. This is far from the worst situation I've been in. In fact, seeing as no one is actively trying to skewer me with, just for example, a halberd – aaaaarrrgghh, aaaarrggghh, no, I take it back, not a halberd – it's actually a step in the right direction compared to some situations I've been in.
"Help us out with what?" the guard said.
"Oh, you know." Jenny took a step forward, apparently to give the guard a friendly nudge, but seven feet of medieval tool of massacre appeared in her way and made her back off. "That plan."
"What plan?" the guard said.
"That plan where we overthrow all remnants of constitutional monarchy in this duchy and institute a reign of eternal terror and a final return of finbulavinter," Jenny said.
Of course, Jameel thought with the small part of his mind that hadn't shut down from pure terrified disbelief, in those other situations, I didn't have It-Seemed-Like-A-Good-Idea-At-The-Time Jenny with me. I forgot to weigh that fact in. Having Jenny along automatically raises the 'oh crap' factor of a situation to the power of ten, I need to remember that until next time…
"Oh," the guard said. "That plan."
"There are other plans?" Jenny said.
"Well, no," the guard said. "It's just that it's not so much a plan, you know? It's more like a, what you call, mission statement."
"Well, either way…" Jenny said.
"Yeah." The guard nodded. "Come on, I'll take you to the big boss."
He trooped off, Jenny and Jameel in tow.
It really offends me that I'm not skewered, Jameel thought. It's crazy, but there you have it. In any sort of sensible universe, I would be skewered right now. It would be selfish of me to approve of the world having gone insane just because it happened to work in my favour…
The corridor ended in a big, round hall with a bonfire blazing in the centre. Scruffy-looking young men and women were hanging lazily around the hall, none of them doing anything as uncool as paying attention to the newcomers.
An especially big and impressively built Redcap was sitting by the fire, his back to the door. He was dressed in some kind of ludicrous cape of leather and feathers.
"I brought them like you said, boss," the guard said.
That was enough to make warning bells start ringing in Jameel's head, and Jenny's hand flew to the hilt of her sword, but it was too late, too late, too late.
The Redcap chieftain turned around, grinning with his broad, flat face. Red and brown streaks had been painted across his brow and over the ridge of his nose. His eyes were deep and dark and gleeful.
"Hello, Jameel," the Redcap said. The cultured accent was in wild discord with his tribal appearance. "Long time."
No no no can't be can't be can't be Jax not here not here not here…
"Friend of yours?" Jenny drew her sword. The motion was almost lazy. She was grinning again. Just another day in the life of Lady Mennavere, monster slayer. How was she supposed to know that what she was looking at was worse than any monster that had ever walked the earth?
Jameel's mind was panicking. No no not Jax can't be Jax he's in Boston he's in Boston he can't be here not here not here not here NOT HERE… But while Jameel's mind panicked, Jameel's hand, far more practical, slipped into his cloak. Carefully… gently…
"Oh, me and Jameel, we go way back." Jax smirked. "I'm sad to say we haven't always been friends, though. In fact, Jameel has treated me very badly… very badly… but I'm sure he's very sorry for that, yes? I'm sure he's ready to make full recompense."
Jameel's hand came out of his cloak, bringing with it a handful of powder that he threw at Jax. It ignited in the air, so that the Redcap was showered with a cloud of burning dust.
Before Jax had even begun shouting and sputtering, Jameel had already turned and ran. This was bad, hoo boy this was bad, but he'd get out of it, he always got out of it, he…
He collided with something big and brown and hot, hot, something that burned his hands when he tried to fend it off. It was screeching in a voice too high to be human, and a sharp beak cut his skin there, and there, and there, three times in rapid succession. Jameel slipped and fell, with the monstrous bird on top of him.
Screams of rage and pain, as well as cries of "Fiona! Fiona! The Lion!" hinted that Jenny was doing what she did best. Jameel was in no position to help her, though. Jax's nightmare bird – Weekwaweel, he recalled, Weekwaweel the Sky Death, that's what Jax called it, because that's what the scared kid that Dreamed it into being called it – was standing with its great, sharp talons on Jameel's stomach, and that beak was inches, inches away from his soft throat.
Jax's face loomed over him. It looked pink and raw, like Jax had gotten an instant sunburn. It also looked very angry.
"So at least you haven't forgotten what we taught you," he growled. "Well, that's nice, because now it's time for you to repay us for our generous tutelage. The Shadow Court is not in the business of charity, Jameel. I thought you knew that."