The Arbiter

This is a thing… it wants to be a whole thing, and my brain is mushing up backstory and such, but it hasn’t quite figured out what all if going on, and why.

I pushed the stroller through the aisles of the Barnes & Noble; the baby was dozing, so I was glad that for once I didn’t have to pay attention to small hands trying to grab at any paperback in reach- if I missed an acquisition, it meant paying for a gummed on, tattered volume of dubious authorship. At 9 months old “taste in books” involves a lot more saliva, and less literary discernment.

Pausing in the SF/F section, I started browsing the newest Urban Fantasy selections. The fact that there were so many to choose from amused me; I was old enough to remember when there was only one, maybe two of the genre, and wannabe-mages on Usenet complaining that those working in secret to protect humanity were being ‘outed’. How little they knew.

As I was bending to eye a lower shelf (Hey, look, there’s a new Toby Daye book…), I felt a slight wash of cold air up my back, like standing close to a marble wall, and the faint scent of myrrh hung in the air.  I stood and turned, wary. I was past sunset, so the presence of a vampire wasn’t entirely unexpected; the location was.

Julian stood there, his hands clasped behind his back, his dark eyes gazing down at Sophia in her stroller. She gazed back at him with eyes as dark as his own. Somehow, she always woke when he was near, and it unnerved me. He nodded his head respectfully at her, then turned that unnerving gaze at me, his eyes flicking to the book I held in my hand.

“Sizing up your competition, my dear?” His smooth voice made a grey-haired woman the next aisle over give him an appraising look. He glanced sideways at her and quirked an eyebrow, she blushed like a schoolgirl and hurried off. I let out a snorting laugh at that, and again at his comment.

“According to these, I should be tall, athletic, and have an in with the local authorities. Competence with auto mechanics a plus, but not required, however a kick ass trench coat is almost de rigueur.

“Athleticism and height are not requirements for the power you wield, and why would you need an auto mechanic when we have Hugo available, hmm? However…” He gave my five-foot-three-inch, 215 pound frame the sort of visual inspection one expects from the high-end fashion designer he once was. “I think a trench coat would be most appropriate and attractive.”

“Julian, I don’t need…” I trailed off knowing it was futile. Once Julian got a design in his head there was no arguing. By next week I would have at least one trench coat that could make the court of Louis XV weep. It was his revenge for my usual mom jeans and tshirts.

I sobered. “You didn’t come to talk about my taste in reading material, or my need for long coats.”

He sighed, a soft, cold sound that raised the hairs on my arms, and probably the arms of anyone within 15 feet. He clicked his heels formally together, and held his hands out, palms down, in a formal gesture. “Your presence is requested, Arbiter.”

I placed my hands, palm up, under his. “Your request is heard and answered, Child of Shame.” I hated saying that, but proper forms must be followed. A sensation like water rushing between our palms, and then he nodded and withdrew his hands.

“Let me finish here, and get Sophi home and settled.” I grabbed another couple books off the shelf, making token protest as Julian pushed the stroller towards the checkout.

“I will bring the car at 8 then.” he informed me. I was going to argue that I could drive, but the Arbiter bond had finally clued me into something I hadn’t noticed- Julian was…scared.

“Julian, what’s so important that you found me here, instead of waiting until I was at home?”

“There has been…an incident. A murder.”