I leaned over as Jack and I sat at the red light, and checked the box in her lap. “How are those files going?”
“Fairly well. Nearly finished with marking this box.” She sat with a large sheet of transluscent tabs of various colors, a pen, and two boxes of letters, one between her ankles and one on her lap. Each letter was read, and affixed with one or more colored tabs. Blue for undead, red for humans, green for fae, yellow for demons, white for wizards, pink for women. We’d spent nearly a full day compiling a list of everyone. Jack was good at this kind of work. Tireless, enthusiastic, and not prone to getting bored as she read through them. I’d read through the entire endless series of letters once to get a feeling for them, and come up with the system.
“Good. You’re making great progress on that. Another couple of weeks and we should have the database finished. Then it’s just a matter of tracking everyone down.” I sighed. “Teaches me. Should have known that a lich’s will would be a pain in the ass. Any hints?”
“I’m sorry, it’s all… kind of vague, a lot of the time.” Jack frowned. “I should be more useful-“
“Nah, nah. Don’t worry about it. That’s the kind of thing you have lawyers around for. I’m supposed to be good at collating this information. You’re doing a great job helping me figure out the links.” I sighed, checking the tabs. Blue were the most common, followed closely by pink, with white coming up a distant third. A handful of yellow and green, and red only on the letters that had also been marked with pinks. She scribbled the names of the individuals on the appropriate tabs, in an incredibly skilled hand. Her handwriting was stunning, and that, in itself, felt like a kind of clue.
For my part, in the last week since the Summer Solstice, I’d been redoubling my research. The memory seemed like a solid place to start. The thing is, when it comes to a list of famous swordsmiths in Japan, the list was substantial. There were dozens of famous swordsmiths, each with a laundry list of famous swords, and none of them were notable for having gone missing in the 19th century. I couldn’t just shotgun something like this. I had to figure out the circumstances, really understand them, help her lose herself in it. If I just threw things at her and saw what stuck… It was easy to put false memories into a witness’ head. The consequence here would be screwing with her identity, possibly permanently. Best to be sure, first.
“So. I’m looking for humans, preferably women. Right?”
“Yeah. If he was still working on a phylactery…” I was quiet for a moment. “The theory I’ve got here, is that if he was making a phylactery… It would need to be a lot like a Tsukumogami. An object that can support a soul. The fact that it’s his own soul doesn’t change that basic necessity. It would help a lot if the bastard had written down details about the process, but that was one of the things we’re handling today.” I sighed softly. “Thank you for looking through all of these things. How many women have you marked?”
“Well… Assuming I’m right about these nicknames… Maybe fifty or sixty?”
“Fantastic.” I sighed. “Thank you. This really helps me a lot. You’ve done a world of good for me, here.”
“Of course.” She was quiet for a moment, and then she looked up at me, and smiled. “Hey. I’m okay.”
“Well. I’m glad to hear that?”
“What I mean is, like I am right now, being broken like this… It’s not the worst thing that could happen. You know? I’m cool with just… being me. It’s cool. I’m starting to feel like it’s not all that bad.”
“Yeah?” I smiled. “Well, I appreciate hearing that. Nice to have someone who’s not putting me under huge amounts of pressure.” I looked up as we approached the mansion. This one was a great deal more friendly than Earlen Wen’s old, ominous building. It was a Federalist-style building, one of the oldest in the city, brick walls and green glass windows giving it a homey, earthy sort of feel. It was built over two hundred years ago, and felt like it, but it still managed to be quite inviting. I could see the trucks and cars gathered in the front yard. Today was Lady Ann Willing’s family day.
Every Saturday, she gathered her relatives. Most of them now lived within the city limits, and she had gotten in touch with them, passing herself off as a wealthy aunt, and offering quite generous financial aid in various ways in exchange for bringing their children to see her.
When I’d first met Lady Ann, she had been imposing, imperial, and cold as ice. I’d seen her willing to execute Jenny because of someone else’s misdeed, fueled by prejudice and paranoia. I’d admired her- and I still admired her- but there was no denying that she had been willing to do whatever necessary in order to preserve the city. Including, and this is why I admired her, step down from power for a time to get back in touch with her family, and put her past behind her. The second oldest undead in the city, she had not attended the Night Court until that night, a few months past, when Alfred had been sentenced to the Gauntlet.
The door opened, and Lady Ann Willing smiled. “Ah, Atina. It’s so good to see you. Please, come in, come in.” She waved a hand invitingly, and the two of us entered. Half a dozen children trailed after her. A tall, elegant woman, with pale hair, she walked among them in her undead form, skin blue, great jagged white claws raising from her wrists, barbed and transparent. She was a Wight, undead nobility, all the more stunning for being born to a country without an official nobility. One of the children was hanging from one of her wrists excitably, as she carried them along to the parlor. There, another dozen or so children were gathered in front of a fireplace. It was not on, but it nonetheless made for a cosy environment as they listened with rapt attention to the story being told.
“Teach those who are ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkn-“ Coyote paused mid-line, and looked up. He set the heavy, dog-eared copy of Les Miserables Volume 1 aside, and smiled broadly. “Speaking of which! Well, as I live and breathe, it’s my favorite lawyer! Well, aside from this one young woman who I met, well, I say met.” The children giggled cheerfully at his tone as he mugged furiously at them.
“Lady Ann?” I asked, turning to look at her. She raised an eyebrow. “Uh… Far be it from home to question your choice of guest and reader, but…”
“The children enjoy a good drama. And he does all the voices,” said Lady Ann, and she smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m playing hard to get.”
I considered this briefly. Honestly, my own childhood had always been at its best when I’d been hearing things most adults would’ve thought was inappropriate. I knew very well that what an adult might find objectionable, a child would listen to with completely innocent amusement. Still, that book was going to have a very rough ending. “Well… Do you mind if we chat?”
“Of course. Coyote, please, do entertain the children.”
“Sure. Hey, don’t give me that look, Atina, I’m talented enough that I don’t have to work blue. I just enjoy it!” He winked. “Reminds me. Hey, kids, ever hear the one about the lawyer and the devil?”
We stepped into the next room, Lady Ann’s elegant and inviting sitting room. She sighed softly. “Atina. I’m so sorry we haven’t had a chance to talk. I’m even more sorry that I’ve been cancelling appointments. Things have been…” She dragged her fingers slowly down her face, and let out a sigh. “Stressful.”
“I’ve been picking up on that. I figured it was alright not to press you too hard, but what with Dean Morton’s funeral coming up…”
“Heavens help me.” She smiled weakly. “How bad was my debt with him?”
“Not too bad. He apparently wanted you to include a handful of children in these playdates. I’m guessing, from context, that they were… by-blows.” I paused for a moment, and frowned. “I don’t exactly like to think of how he made them.”
“Yes, Morton’s libido was never particularly affected by the process of becoming a lich. He was an unusual man in that.” Lady Ann Willing’s lip quirked. “Mine, on the other hand, has been quite quiet since my husband died. Don’t worry, I won’t be swayed by that man’s charms.” She chuckled, as she sat back. “And yourself? How have you been?”
I coughed. “My boyfriend’s been gone for the last week, so, a little… lonely. But busy. And on that front… I wanted to talk to you about Dean Morton. But first, how are things?”
“Well, my schedule has cleared up. For the last six months, I’ve been fielding concerns from people. Explaining why they should not fear being murdered in their beds. Why they should not seek reprisal against the fairy courts. And now… I find my schedule clearing up.”
“It couldn’t happen to be because I’ve inspired such confidence in everyone that the issue is no longer preying on people’s minds, is it?” I asked, smiling wearily.
“The reports of King Sidney’s… incapacitation… were not encouraging. I’m sure you’ve heard of the phenomenon of becoming… Unseelie?”
I winced. “Yeah. I’m writing something up about it. Something to try to… calm people, at least a bit. When people understand it, they can deal with it. His case was… very unique.”
“So, we will not be seeing an en masse destruction of treaties and agreements with the fae?”
“I’d like to hope not.”
“Yes. Me too.” Lady Ann sighed. “Hello again, Jack. It is good to see you out and about.”
“Lady Ann,” Jack said, bowing her head.
“So. Your questions.”
“Yes. First of all, did you kill Dean Morton?”
Lady Ann blinked, and then laughed. “Well. Fair enough. No. I often found the man odious, but he was an excellent organizer. He helped my plans far more often than he hindered them, and he was a known quantity. And, despite it all, I had a certain… admiration for him. So many of us have this life, this existence, thrust upon us. He actually seized hold of it. He always seemed to have such a zest for undeath.”
“I’m curious. Did he ever talk with you about phylacteries?”
“Oh, those.” She clucked her tongue. “He was… taciturn, on the subject, with me. The only time I ever remember him discussing the subject was after his wife died. Did you ever know her?”
“I’m afraid she was before my time.”
“Ah, yes. She would’ve died back not long before he became a lich, wouldn’t she? Well, at the time, he’d begun discussing the capturing of a soul. I understand that he researched it quite a bit.”
“I… remember he mentioned it in one of the letters of his will. I took it for a joke, but…” I frowned. “I suppose that, really, when you get right down to it, trapping someone’s soul in an object is the basis behind a phylactery.”
“That was the way he put it. He occasionally referred to experiments.” Her expression darkened. “If he had been experimenting on humans, that would’ve been a terribly deep breach of law and etiquette.”
“Guess that would explain why there would be few records of him experimenting on it. Did he mention anything else?”
“One thing. He theorized that a phylactery would need to be… nurtured. The way he put it was that the usual strategy, of locking it in a vault or leaving it buried in a jar somewhere far away, would be worthless. Like any other living thing, the phylactery would need to be fed to survive, to keep it strong enough. It didn’t make much sense to me, I will confess. But at the very least, if it exists, it would not be in some anonymous lockbox. It would have to be something someone cared about, deeply.”
“But then, that’s the nature of magic. It’s about themes.” I nodded slowly. “That’s the way a wizard’s mind would work, when figuring out how to transfer the soul. Thank you, Lady Ann. That helps a bit.”
“Are you any closer to finding out who was responsible?” the Wight asked, her head tilted.
“I really don’t know. I’ve got… theories, I suppose, ideas, but nothing that I can act on. We’ll see what I can find out. I’m… really banking it all on this phylactery thing.” I looked down. “I really would like him not to be dead.”
“Sometimes we lose people, Atina,” said Lady Ann, not unkindly. “The phylactery was always an obsession of Morton’s. Don’t let it become an obsession of yours, as well.” She smiled. “Would you and Jack like to join us for a little bit of lunch?”
“That’s a very kind offer,” I said, and smiled. “But I’ve got miles to go before I sleep.”
“Hah,” said Coyote, leaning against the doorway, a smile creasing his features. “Don’t follow that path, Atina. Come on. Join us! I made flatbread!”
Jack looked up at me, and smiled. “You haven’t been eating well lately.”
“I haven’t been eating lately.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean.” She grabbed my hand with both of hers, and tugged me along. “Come on.”
It was a good idea. The next meeting was preying on my nerves already, and the mixture of buffalo stew- Well, what Coyote claimed was buffalo- and thick flatbread made a satisfying combination. Sitting at the table as Coyote read one of the great classics of western literature made quite an experience, too. He really was very good at the voices.
My next stop for the day was Tadodaho. He did not have a fixed abode. As a ghost, this was unusual, but his territory had once stretched across most of the state, so he was probably entitled.
The Iroquois Confederacy was one of the major powers in North America when the colonists arrived. According to legend, they were founded by Hiawatha, and the Great Peacemaker. The last of the great tribes to agree to join the confederacy was led by an evil chieftain, Tadodaho, who caused the death of Hiawatha’s daughters through his magic. He was healed by the Great Peacemaker and Hiawatha, and wound up becoming their leader. Eventually, he died, and remained as a ghost, to guide the people. I didn’t know if that was all true, but it was far from the most unlikely thing I’d seen be true.
Strength and age go hand in hand for the undead. I’d convinced him to come out of a self-imposed exile to win a case. He’d proved as able a political leader as ever. While there was probably a fair amount of racism among the older members of the Night Court, it was nothing compared to their conservatism, and they respected age in a big way. There were few older undead active in the world than Tadodaho.
“Hello, Leroux,” said Tadodaho, as I stepped into the smoky bar. He and Megan sat on either side of a table, a large pitcher of coffee between the two. Tadodaho sat with one leg crossed over the other, looking- for all the world- like a perfectly ordinary man, though perhaps one with more affinity for dreadlocks than was tasteful, dressed in a loose shirt and a pair of jeans. “We were catching up on old memories. I understand that you wanted to talk with me.”
“Yes. Did you kill Dean Morton?”
“No. But, I confess, I am glad he’s dead.” Tadodaho leaned back in his chair, pouring a cup of coffee for me. I sat across from Jack, Tadodaho to my left, Megan Smith on my right. “He was an influence broker, Leroux. A trader.”
If you would like to know why Tadodaho said my name with venom, why he disliked me, and why a trader would receive quite that level of venom, I invite you to look up the Beaver Wars.
“I know you’re not fond of him. But he kept things peaceful.”
“Peace is a tempting thing, when everyone wants peace. But when you want peace worse than the other guy, it tends to turn on you.” He shook his head. “Sometimes, there’s nothing like a war to bring people together.”
“Or tear them apart. You can’t really expect me to think that you want a war?”
“I am not afraid of the consequences of a war. Sometimes, it’s what’s necessary to bring together a disparate group. Forged in fire, and all that.”
“And that discussion we once had, about the threat you don’t expect?”
“So we come to the crux of it.” He tented his fingers. “Is there an outside threat, LeRoux?”
I looked to one side. “I don’t honestly know. If I did, I’d be shouting it to everyone. You know that.”
“Yeah. I do. So do most of the Undead in town. If you could avoid blaming someone in this city, you probably would.”
“Do you not trust me?”
“I don’t trust anyone, LeRoux. But…” He leaned back. “I got egg on my face once because I didn’t learn. So, if you have something persuasive…”
“Actually, I have a question for you. What do you know about preserving the soul?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Dean Morton, I think, was trying to make a phylactery. A container for his soul, a safe place to keep it. I wondered if you knew anything about that.”
“Hah.” Tadodaho grinned as he lifted the cup of coffee, sipping at it slowly. “You know, part of the reason I hated Dean Morton is how much he reminded me of myself. We both understood magic. Both of us were, as you’d put it, wizards. Of course, I was a far more powerful one. Only ever met one who was stronger. Of course, the other never had any loyalty to anything. He just liked to stir the shit.” Tadodaho sipped his coffee again. “But I tell you, a man can have too much fear of death. Dean Morton was already immortal, and that wasn’t enough. Had to worry about death still. What’s the point of living forever if you spend the whole time terrified of dying?”
“Well, one might suggest that, from the ashes smearing his office, he had a point.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “Shit happens. People do horrible things when they fear they will lose their power, and nothing robs you of your power like death. The worst, most psychotic shaman were those who tried to live forever. Myself included. You have to accept that you may be wrong, and part of that is accepting that someday you may need to die. Anyway, there were plenty of myths about it. Souls being hidden within pinecones on top of great trees. That sort of thing never worked out, though. Never met one that did.” He looked aside, at Jack.
“I’ve been building a theory. I’m curious if you’d listen to it, and tell me if something about it sounds… appropriate, Tadodaho,” I said, leaning back in my chair.
“Sure. I suppose you’ve earned that much.”
“I’ve got a notion in mind, here. A sort of an idea. This idea says that if you wanted to store a soul in an object, that object would need to have room for it, first. You would need something that is on its way to being a tsukumogami, or at least able to become one.”
“Hrm.” Tadodaho tented his fingers. “I am… vaguely, aware of a man who claimed to have such abilities. Dean Morton spoke about him. Some industrialist, who had made a pact that allowed him to transfer souls into objects. I never met the man, but it follows that if the same mechanism were used for a tsukumogami as for storing someone, they would need input from a caring human in order to recover. An object cannot become a person without a vast store of belief. Even when my people would pass a favored tool on, generation after generation, it was rare that they would ever become something as articulate as…” He waved at Jack. “And there is a suction to the supernatural. To be around us is draining.”
“So, if Dean Morton DID have a phylactery… He would want it to be something that someone cared about. Someone he could trust. Someone who would keep it safe, and watch over it. And someone who didn’t have a connection to the supernatural, beyond him.”
“That makes sense. I don’t know if it is the truth. But it doesn’t sound wrong.” Tadodaho sat back, his arms crossed. “And if you bring him back? If it turns out he was alive all along? Do you think all of this will go away, if there was no crime?”
“Maybe all of that anger will be directed at the right person.” I looked across at Megan. “I don’t suppose you have any clues about all of this?”
“I’m sorry.” She sighed. “I’m finally taking the advice I’ve been given so many times. I’m letting go. This, too, shall pass, Atina, and perhaps it would be best if you stepped away, and left this city.”
I stared. “Really?”
“We are not fighters, you and I. We are not warriors. We are bearers of laws. We are there when society is peaceful, when people are civil. And always, we know, in the back of our heads. This is a temporary thing. If the powerful decide that they do not wish to abide by the law, then who can stop them?” Megan smiled, and sipped her coffee. “All we can do is wait for a time when the law can return. Who knows. Perhaps when the world dies, it will finally be time. A good disaster can be purifying for the world.”
I leaned back. “So I’m guessing Tadodaho knows.” The ghost grunted.
“Bah. Fate. Maybe the world will end. It certainly deserves it. But I won’t let it go without a fight,” he said. “I can’t. I’m connected to this land. There is no retreat for me. Just enduring. Perhaps I will be destroyed. Perhaps it will even see me reunited with everyone I lost. When you reach a certain age, eath holds more friends than terrors.”
“You know… I still remember what I learned in Jenny’s case. With Jenny. There was that theory. That when you die, there is an afterlife. But that if nobody remains who connects you to the world, if your bloodlines disappear, if everyone who remembers you dies as well, if there’s no one to preserve them… It all disappears.” I looked down, and poured myself a cup of coffee, sipping at it. I wasn’t much of a coffee drinker, but sometimes, it could be tempting. I poured a generous measure of cream into the cup.
“Perhaps that means you should retreat, as well,” said Megan, gently, sympathetically. “Perhaps just surviving is enough, if you remember.”
“You know the story of Noah’s Ark, yeah? I always wondered to myself, about that story… Boy, what a fragile state of affairs. Everyone that was left in the world, trapped in a single boat. Talk about pressure.” I rubbed my face. “You know, it’s supposed to be the best and brightest getting invited, right?”
“So Athena claims.”
“I wonder, if the world’s best and brightest were determined, whether they could figure out a solution that didn’t mean the death of countless billions.”
Megan’s shoulders stiffened. “You think I’m running?”
“I think you’ve been running for a very long time, Doctor Smith,” I said, softly. “It was nice having you stop in town for a while. You sure you don’t want to stay any longer?”
“It’s a tempting offer,” she said, and smiled. “But I don’t think that it’s for me. I’ll probably just keep on running. After I’ve finished my coffee. I do hope you find out who did this. While it does not sound like Dean Morton was a good person, precisely, what good is our world if people can commit murder with impunity?” She smiled. “Godspeed.”
“Thank you. And Tadodaho…”
“The dogs of war bay. But you’ve got a little bit longer. The Night Court is nothing if not patient. Have you decided who you might bring with you if you accept Atina’s offer? I understand Megan is bringing Coyote.”
“Unless he decides to take his chances with the apocalypse,” said Megan, smiling. “He does so love his wide open plains.”
“Only him?” I asked, a little bit surprised.
“Well, yes. One other person. Those were Athena’s terms. Why, did she offer you the chance to bring more?”
“Well… Yes. Five people, in fact.”
“Five?” said Megan, rather surprised. “My. She must really want you to come to Avalon.”
“I suppose so,” I said, and frowned, standing up. “Thank you, Megan. I’m sorry if I seemed a little harsh. I’m glad to know that if all of this goes to hell, someone’ll be around to remember.”
“Of course.” She smiled. “My plane leaves in a week. It will be interesting to see the City. I have heard that each one is very different, and I never had a chance to see Paradise…”
At the end of the day, I met Jenny and the Half-Faced Man at my home. I sat in the living room, the Half Faced Man reclined bonelessly across the couch, Jenny sitting on the other lounger, Jack seated on the floor, still reading through documents, as she had been for much of the day. I had my laptop open on my lap, peering through the other document.
Protectiveness, and almond eyes. That was Jenny Nishi. I had always thought of her eyes that way, though I frankly wasn’t sure I could have properly identified what they meant. Admiration, and fearsome spectral talons. Definitely Lady Ann Willing. Respect and glittering translucent skin. The only ghost I really definitely respected had to be Edwin Link. Apprehension and anglerfish teeth was, to my embarrassment, a good descriptor of the Half-Faced Man. Loathing and salt-and-pepper hair, while harsher than I would have described, was a fair descriptor of Queen Wen. And fear and crooked hair- Well, his hair was hardly so crooked anymore, but that had to be Tadodaho.
Jenny Nishi, Lady Ann Willing, Edwin Link, Wen, The Half-Faced Man, and Tadodaho. Their names had come to me. There had to be a hint to that. Something vital. So I’d been writing down the information I could from each of them, about Dean Morton. And here, we’d hit a snag.
“Honestly, I never interacted with the man. Nothing he did was terribly worth paying attention to, Atina,” said the Half-Faced Man, shrugging haplessly.
“And the only time I ever knew him was from when he was extorting you,” said Jenny, and frowned. “What do you expect us to find out?”
“I don’t know.” I rested my hand on my face, and sighed. “I’m just spinning my wheels on every front I can. There’s a key here, somewhere. It’s staring me in the face.”
“Are you sure that this is helpful?” Jenny asked, softly. “This whole thing… How do you know it wasn’t just one big hallucination?”
How did I know, for example, that I wasn’t going crazy. I swallowed. “I… don’t have anything better to pursue. That’s pretty much it. I’m acting out of desperation. What else am I supposed to do?”
“I am afraid I don’t know much about tsukumogami, or phylacteries,” said the Half-Faced Man, quite frankly. The doorbell rang, and Jack popped to her feet, accepting the pizza, and carrying it into the kitchen. “Atina… I cannot help but notice that Roy has been absent.”
“Uh. Yeah. He had to go on some… work thing.”
“Doesn’t Roy work fast food?” asked Jenny, frowning.
“It’s what he told me,” I said, shrugging, focusing down on the pizza.
“Well. I have arranged… an alternative. I made a new acquaintance, and they mentioned keeping an eye out for you.” The Half-Faced Man looked unaccountably discomforted, even as he bit into the pizza.
“What’s their name?”
“I should… probably not give that information away. I’m sorry, but this is a very delicate arrangement. But if you see a woman with red hair, green eyes, and dark skin… She’s a friend.” He bit into the pizza, chewing it pensively. “I think,” he mumbled, through a mouthful of pizza.
“Dark skin, and red hair?” said Jack, frowning at me.
“Someone you know?” I asked, and Jack slowly shook her head.
“Not sure. Just sounds weird, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so.” I sighed, and leaned back in the chair, staring at the screen. “Any idea what the Fall contest is going to be?” I asked the Half-Faced Man.
“A riddle contest. Naturally.” He smiled. “They’re going to be pulling out all the stops.”
I rubbed my face. “I don’t have time to look up a lot of riddles and figure this out. Ugh. I’m going to need to play hard. Need to figure out…”
“Atina. You’ve had a long day,” said Jack, squeezing my shoulder. “You’ve got the thoughts brewing. It’ll come to you. And I’ve nearly finished this box. Would you, uh…” She looked aside, at the Half-Faced Man.
The big blue bastard sighed. “Yes. Heavens help me, I’ll watch an episode. Though they’re really quite disrespectful towards the stories. Even a bad story deserves to be respected. And those robots seem very poorly made.”
“God. I really must be in some sort of mess that you’re suggesting this, hmmm?” I said, and smiled. “Fine. A little time to unwind.”
And I’d never say it, but I was definitely glad.