The stories that stand out to people tend to be the ones that are full of twists, turns, death, and pain. When you read a novel, it’s easy to start seeing a character’s life as one long, unending ride of pain, horror, and knowledge-steeped monologue. But life is more complicated than that. Life is full of interminable stretches of just getting by. Talking just to talk, boring walks, mindless activities, cases that don’t have any huge significance. Not every case I take ends with me getting threatened with a brutal and sudden death.
That doesn’t mean they’re not important, though. People’s futures can still revolve around them. Everything matters. It’s just hard to tell how much, sometimes.
It was a beautiful summer day. The air conditioning was keeping my office on the right side of livable, which was probably ‘bitterly cold’ by most people’s standards. Certainly, the Earlen Grafsdottir, Earlen of Endicott City, was not having a good time. She was a fairy of spring. She liked moderate temperatures. She’d gone from sunwilted to frostbitten, and it was taking its toll on her immaculate appearance. But she still looked better than me.
“How are you, LeRoux?” the fairy asked, diffident, leaned back in the wooden chair. She’d avoided the iron chair without remark, which was unusual for a Spring fairy. They usually loved any opportunity to complain about crude and tasteless human endeavors. From my experience, her politeness meant she needed something.
“Another year,” I said, shrugging. My birthday was this Friday, only a few days away. I intended to celebrate it at the liquor cabinet. I was turning 28. That was a strange feeling. Another couple of wrinkles, another few silver hairs, another excuse to my mom for why I wasn’t bringing home this boyfriend of mine. Roy was out of town, and had been for a couple of weeks. He liked his independence. I liked my independence, too.
I certainly wasn’t desperately missing him.
Given half an opportunity, my friends would certainly plan a big, flashy party for me. They cared about me. But things had transpired. Alfred and Jenny were off engaged in some exciting and daring adventure down in South America. Polly hadn’t been around. Li Fang Fen was recovering from her trip to the city, and was helping the two strays she’d found to settle in. If I had reminded them, they surely would have made time. But I didn’t want to bother them about it.
“Well, I’m sure it will be a time to remember. The halcyon days of youth,” said the Earlen, apparently come to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be elaborating on my state of mind. “So many opportunities. A chance to make mistakes, a chance to be foolish. And yet, the folly of youth can prove… overeager.”
“Of course,” I said. “Your son has been… misspending his youth?”
The Earlen let out a long, slow sigh. Appearance-wise, she was lovely to the point of obnoxiousness. Long blonde tresses hung over one bare shoulder, her tunic stylish and anachronistic at the same time. Brilliant blue eyes shone. And while some might have responded to the cow tail twitching behind her with accusations of witchcraft and evil, she had tied a bow at the base of the pale tuft at the tip, and it worked for her. I listed every little touch in my head, like a litany of crimes being read aloud by the judge. I wondered if that was a consequence of my Irish heritage responding badly to the presence of a fairy, or if I was just jealous.
“Yes,” she announced finally. I fought the urge to throw an iron paper-weight at the woman. She had the same sense of dramatic timing and pacing as William Shatner.
“That is a shame,” I said. She might be immortal, but I wouldn’t let her outdo me in the field of dancing around the issue. I was in a stubborn mood.
“Do you have children?” asked the Earlen.
“Oh dear.” She paused for a moment, seeming to consider her words. “Barren?”
I tried to decide whether this was a calculated insult, or just the fairy being an idiot. I settled, charitably, on the latter. “Particular.”
“Oh. Well, there is power in virginity, I suppose.”
“Your son, Earlen. He’s in trouble?”
The Earlen let out another heavy sigh, and I felt my fingers tensing and untensing slowly. God, I wanted a drink. But I didn’t drink while I was working.
“The boy is… feckless. He spends all of his time in idle talk with his friends. He does not seek out honest work.” The Earlen was quiet for another few moments, and my eye twitched involuntarily. “And yet, despite all of these noble and honorable traits, he has gone astray. He shows… ambition.” The Earlen went silent, and after a few seconds, I realized that this was the Spring Fairy equivalent of ‘He has leukemia.’
“I’m so sorry.”
“You try to raise them as well as you can, but… His father was of heroic stock, you know. A scion of the bloodline of Erik the Red. If I had known… Well, I still would have married him. One must love one’s children, no matter how deformed they may be.”
“How very sage,” I said. “The problem, Earlen.”
“He has made promises.”
That gave me pause.
Promises are important to the supernatural, for a variety of reasons. For the undead, breaking your word is against tradition. Breaking trust can tar you for a long time among immortals. Beyond that, as I had learned from Li Fang Fen’s experiences of the last year, it could wound your ability to feed. That could prove fatal to either the Undead, or the poor sap who they fed on- which would then prove fatal to the undead when justice caught up with them, as it often did.
Among demons, I know less. I know they keep strictly to their word. I’ve only recently begun spending time around such creatures, and they still make me very nervous, considering the vast body of literature out there involving lawyers and demons. But they keep their promises, which is frankly often much scarier.
For fairies, the consequences are significantly more obvious. A fairy who gives their word can be bound by it, and not just by the person who they’ve made the promise to. I don’t understand the mechanics of it- the fairies are notoriously bad at explaining it, and the mortals who partner with them even more so. But I’m given to understand that the senses of the supernatural can find such contradictions like you or I might recognize an open wound. And they can exploit it viciously.
As for humans? We’re not bound by our promises. Not by anything supernatural. Not unless we make bargains. We only have to worry about the usual consequences. That’s a bigger advantage than one might think.
None of this means you can trust them, however. Binding promises and always speaking the truth mean they need to be clever to survive. But you will notice that there’s a reason that fairies don’t rule the world, and it’s not just because they don’t have the will for it.
Fairies are naturally predatory towards humans. And they’ve seen so many times, throughout history, what humans have done to their predators. They hold themselves at arm’s length. Not because they think they’re better than us, though they often say that’s why. When a fairy is caught out by one of the supernatural, it’s a game. Counting coup. A friendly rivalry. It’s about humiliation, and mockery, and all that good fun. When a fairy is caught out by a human…
Ever seen a shark who’s been finned? It’s horrible. Cutting off their fins, leaving them crippled, barely able to move.
Humans who catch out fairies are much less kind.
You don’t even need to be a wizard to do it, is the scary thing. All you have to do is mean it. Tell the fairy to do something, with all the vehemence of human caprice. Because humans can say something like ‘go die’, and mean it. Without thinking about the consequences, without considering what that means.
A fairy among humans is a finned shark among pirahnas.
“How many promises?”
“I’ll help, in exchange for three favors.”
“Three. You have come to me, Earlen. You need me for a particular reason. I’m going to guess that you’re worried that any other fairy might use your son’s current state against him, or against you. The undead are bad at breaking promises by nature. And a demon- Well, god forbid. Three favors, none of them beyond your abilities.” I smiled. “You came to me because I’m good at what I do.”
She hesitated for a moment, and then nodded. “My son is at Doc Concrescence with his friends. Thank you, Miss LeRoux. He will be able to tell you in greater detail about the promises he has made.” She stood up, bowed her head once, and then walked out. The dress covered her whole back, and seemed just slightly too hollow in the back.
I hurriedly opened the laptop, and tapped in a search. I’d never heard of the damn place, and wasn’t even sure how to spell it.
That proved easier than I’d worried, as there was only one place with a name even close to that in town, a Kava bar. I didn’t know what Kava was. I wasn’t going to be drinking anything, though. Not on the job.
The summer days were, predictably, bright and brutal. The air had that exhausted, defeated sensation it usually got in mid to late August, when a long summer had outstayed its welcome and it never got comfortably cool. I was spending most nights in the basement, where the temperature was regulated by the earth all around. Up here, the air had a baked scent, heavy with the humidity off of the Chenango and the Susquehana. The bright summer sun poured down, scorchingly hot, and I did my best to stay under the shade of trees and buildings. It helped, marginally.
I stopped outside of the Kava Bar, and wiped my forehead with my sleeve. It was a fortunate thing I hadn’t bothered with makeup today. I didn’t, generally, for a number of reasons; not least that I was a standoffish asshole, but also because of days like this.
“Do you need a drink?”
I looked up, and instantly, deeply regretted not wearing makeup, streaks or not.
The Earlen was a Hulder. A type of Scandinavian nymph, they are described in many ways. Sometimes, they’re reminiscent of the Rusalka, a river siren who drowns those she seduces. Other times, they are described as kind and helpful to woodburners, keeping their furnaces going so they can take naps without worrying about the charcoal going bad. Sometimes they marry human men. Though supernaturally beautiful, they are marked by their cow-like tails, and their hollow backs. It was unusual for both parent and child to be the same kind of fairy, but that was what they were.
And can I just say how unfair it is that one of their monstrous features is ‘Can fit better into dresses because their back is literally hollow’.
Anyway. Male Hulder are supposed to be remarkably ugly, likely as a reason for why their females would be seeking out and making time with human men. Particularly noted is their long noses.
Okay, the kid’s nose was a little long, but he was hot. I don’t use that word much, for good reason. He looked like Brad Pitt had decided to hell with everything and invested in mixing his genes with George Clooney, and had Leonardo DiCaprio act as the surrogate. He wore a white t-shirt like it had offended someone dear to him. His pants had to be cutting off circulation, and forced me to steadfastly avoid looking below his waist for fear of catching an eyeful. He had that perfect V shape of shoulders to waist ratio, and while I was sure he couldn’t be even college-age yet, he had the kind of five o’clock shadow that most men can only dream of.
I want it perfectly clear that all of this meant absolutely nothing to me, as I was both in a relationship, and I would never date a client. But I need it to be understood why exactly it took me so long to respond to him.
“Ah?” I squeaked, and screamed internally. I took a deep breath, and tried again. “Muh.”
“It’s okay,” he chuckled. “It catches most women like that.”
That helped. If there was one thing that focused my mind absolutely perfectly, it was a challenge. I took a deep breath of parched air, straightened myself to my full towering height, and held out a hand. “My name is Atina Leroux. You’re Eric Grafson?”
He seemed slightly taken aback, and with that one blow to his confidence, the spell was broken. He didn’t change physically, but I no longer felt the surge of completely embarrassing infatuation that had reigned a moment before. It wasn’t really magic. Just a matter of perception, and reaction. If it had been magic, I would’ve smacked the kid one. “Yes, ma’am.” And just like that, he was a kid in over his head.
“I’ll take some ice water. Let’s discuss your case.”
The two of us sat together a few minutes later, around one of the simple black tables. He had a cup of the Kava drink which- as far as I could tell- was psychoactive tea. I made do with a glass of water, knocking back a full glass while he watched, a faint expression of amusement on his features. I prayed he wouldn’t remark on how much I drank.
“You certainly drink a lot of water, don’t you?”
“You are what you drink, and I am mostly water,” I said, tartly. Eric looked a bit embarrassed. “Let’s get down to business. You’ve been making promises. You understand why this is dangerous, don’t you?”
“Of course,” the young man said, his expression growing serious. “But I intend to hold to every one of them. I know that they expose me to great danger. And how else but through great danger does one become great?”
“And why do you want to become great?”
He gave me a look that was so pitying I could’ve stepped on his toes. “What else is there in life?”
“Look. I know where you’re coming from, kid. When I was applying to law school, I swore to myself that I’d be on the Supreme Court one day. I was sure I was going to be great.”
“And when did you let that dream die?” he asked, in a soft, heartbroken tone. I rolled my eyes.
“When I realized that it was a position filled mostly by people who had political connections, and that the most likely way I would get in would be by somehow matching up with someone else’s political affiliations and faking being willing to do their bidding continuously for the rest of my life, and that I would never, ever have the grades, the work ethic, or the skill to ever start.” I paused for a moment, and frowned inwardly. God, how many years had it been since I’d considered my own failures? Only a few short years ago, the world had seemed so much more… achievable.
“That’s kind of depressing. You’re not even forty yet.”
“I’m not even thirty,” I said, through clenched teeth. “Now. The promises you made.”
“To face a summer ogre in single combat, to take the heart of a demon for my closest friend, and to love my darling forever.”
I did my very best not to yell, even as my lips drew tightly together. “You certainly enjoy living dangerously. Are you thinking of changing courts?”
“Heavens, no! My heart belongs to Spring! I would never leave it!”
“As well as your girlfriend, of course. What if your girlfriend asked you to leave Spring?”
“She wouldn’t do that,” he said, frowning.
“The legendary Irish warrior, Cu Chulainn, had two great geasa upon him. First, he was sworn not to eat the flesh of dogs. Second, he was sworn not to refuse the hospitality of others. On the eve of a battle, a hag offered him a meal of dogmeat.” Eric’s nose wrinkled in disgust. “He was trapped by that, and he died in battle the next day.”
“Why would my girlfriend ever do that, though?”
“It doesn’t matter. Maybe she’s threatened, maybe she hates your mother, maybe she thinks it would be better for you. The point is that two promises can be bent against each other like that, in a way that could leave you at risk.” I leaned forward. “I am a lawyer. My whole job is thinking of the worst consequences of your actions, and how likely those consequences are, so you are always prepared for the worst.”
“What a terrible, tragic, lonely life,” he said.
“Yeah, there’s a reason why our unifying organization is called the Bar. We like our booze.” I leaned back, and sighed. “So. Your girlfriend tells you that you have to not fight the ogre, that she’ll stop loving you if you do. What do you do in response?”
“I promised to love her, that doesn’t mean vice versa. I may no longer be loved by her after I fight the ogre, but my own heart would still burn for her.”
I paused. That had increased my estimation of Eric by a point or two. “Good. That’s the first lesson. What you promise is important. The exact words you use are important. Of course, you’re still left sworn to love someone who doesn’t love you back. Forever. Even after she dies. Imagine how that would feel?”
“Miserable indeed. But is it not more miserable to live a life without vows, without commitments?”
“Don’t use that tone with me, kid,” I said, but smiled. “I can respect what you’re going for. I can even admire it, the way I’d admire a blind man who decides to run with the bulls. Doomed, but noble because of it. My job is to make it less doomed.” I swirled the ice cubes in the empty glass while I considered the issue. “The three tasks. What were your exact words?”
“Mmm. The first was with the Summer Ogre Balthasar. I swore I would meet him and shame him on the Duelist’s Field of the Summer Court.”
“Those were your exact words?”
“Of course. How could I forget a promise I have sworn to?”
That was interesting. I filed that one away for further study. The fairies tended to be mum about their promises. For him to remember it so well suggested that it wasn’t simply a good memory. Maybe it was another of those things that the supernatural could do. It would explain how they remembered their promises so effectively. Or maybe it was the other way around; Their memories for promises were so strong that breaking them had a terribly adverse reaction. Perhaps I would be able to interrogate Eric about it.
“And the second?”
“To my dearest friend Harriet, I swore to bring the heart of a demon on a silver platter. She is given to certain gothic inclinations, and believes that the heart of a demon would bring her great power.”
“She realizes that’s bullshit, right? Like, it doesn’t work that way?”
“She is mortal, and uninitiated. Still, I respect her desires, and shall present her with the heart as she desires.”
“Do you even know any demons? You’re just going to kill some random stranger?”
“They are demons, surely it is acceptable.”
I rubbed my face. “We’ll discuss that one in greater detail later. And the promise to your girlfriend?”
“That I would love her and no other, until the end of time.”
I leaned forward slowly, and rested my face on my hand, trying to push back the incipient headache.
“I do not regret my vow.”
“Not yet. Look, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the more serious a promise is, the more it hooks you. Swearing to love someone forever- especially when someone’s as serious as you are- that could be the kind of promise that kills you, one day.”
“What worth is immortality in comparison to a great story? Who would wish to live their life in quiet, meaningless anonymity for all of eternity?”
I considered my undead friends. “A surprising number of people. There’s a quiet dignity in living forever carefully.”
“Never dancing on a cliffside? Never taking a pill handed to you in a dark rave, uncertain of what it will do?”
“I didn’t go to a single party throughout high school, Eric. My job isn’t to make sure you have a fulfilling life well-lived. It’s to make sure you have a life, period. When is this duel?”
“Wednesday, at noon.”
If I pressed my palm against my face any harder, I was going to break my nose. I decided instead to breathe deep, and settle my thoughts. It was Monday. I had approximately a day and a half for this. “Alright. Tomorrow morning we meet to discuss your strategy for the duel. Then we can figure out the demon, and… however you’re going to deal with your love life.”
The girl approaching flounced. That’s the only way to describe it. She was not, as far as I saw it, attractive. She was rather plain, and her expression was vaguely rodent-like, eyes narrowed at me in suspicion. I was maybe being a little unfair- she had good skin, brown hair that was clearly well kept, and she dressed well. But, for example, I was surprised that she was with a guy who looked like he could land a leading role in any movie he cared to audition for.
“My darling honey blossom,” said Eric, standing. He embraced her, and in one smooth movement, dipped her low and planted his lips on hers. The outrage and suspicion vanished like a snowman in an iron foundry, and when she was set on her feet again, she was all smiles and warmth. “Tammy, please, meet Atina LeRoux. She’s going to be helping me with the challenges.”
“Oh! It’s good to meet you, Mrs. LeRoux.” She smiled brightly, and I decided not to point out that I was not married. I’d had about enough of that kind of thing for the day. Two others approached. One was a young woman whose clothes, hair, skin, and eyes were all midnight black, though she wore extremely striking white eyeliner. I was also pretty sure that the eyes were due to contact lenses, because most supernatural creatures I’ve met with enough power to stand out that way also have the good taste and class not to wear spiked heels, dog collars, or whale-boned corsets in the middle of summer. She was a bit overweight but I didn’t feel in any position to judge her for that.
The third newcomer was another boy. Asian, wearing large, thick glasses, his hair was cut short into a high-top, and he looked perpetually on the verge of cringing, until he got a bit closer to Eric, at which point his spine straightened. His nose had been broken, and from the redness, it hadn’t been long ago. “Eric, you know you don’t have to fight-”
“I know,” said Eric. “And yet I shall fight nonetheless.”
I paused, and frowned. “Wait. Your promise was to him?” I nodded my head towards the other boy. “You could just have him absolve you of the promise. Hell, he’s asking to do that.”
“Of course. But I intend to hold to my promise. I shall not abdicate my responsibilities.”
“You know, most of the time, when the protagonist gets three impossible tasks, it’s not because they explicitly asked for them,” I said.
“Eric’s a good person!” said the goth girl, suddenly, vehemently. I was almost as surprised by her outburst as she was, and she crossed her arms, looking away. “You wouldn’t understand.”
I was quiet for a moment, and sighed. “Maybe not. But my job is to help him with this. So, I’ll do my best to make sure that Eric is safe while he fulfills those promises. Alright?”
The lack of trust in their expressions was striking. How long had it been since I’d been like them? Railing against authority, not trusting adults. Somehow, I had become one. Or at least I could pass for one among the careless, now.
That was the state of mind that filled me as I walked back from the Kava bar. I decided to walk slow, taking my time. Time was I would’ve bicycled, but my bicycle had been wrecked the previous winter, on the very bridge I was now crossing. The sun sat on the edge of Binghamton’s surrounding mountains. It was getting late. I considered my physical state.
I know I’m prone to depressive phases. They’re not as bad as they used to be. They’re not as severe, not as loaded with self-loathing and sadness. But have you ever considered to yourself, whether you deserve to eat? There’s the question of whether you’ve worked hard enough to deserve to have something nice, whether you should have something cheap and shitty, or if you should just… not eat. It’s a depressed kind of thought. It’s often a depressing kind of thought. But there are days when I get home and I wonder whether I should eat. And there are a few nights when I just go to sleep, hunger unable to make a dent in the drained state of mind.
So I didn’t stop for any fast food, or any restaurant, or anything at all. I walked through the silent Binghamton night, the occasional car passing. The crickets chirping away in the late August, the distant sound of peepers- the small frogs of the Chenango- accompanying them in a merry harmony. My thoughts meandered through less-than-happy paths. It had been seeing those students. Their rather unlikely friendship, the model-attractive young man with his odd group of outcast friends. It didn’t seem like it could end happily, but who knew? Maybe he could love her forever. I wasn’t being paid to take a chance on that, though. And the idea made me strangely melancholy.
I realized something, very suddenly. It was August.
I had missed the fireflies.
It wasn’t the first year it had happened. Getting too distracted, by work, by depression, by one thing or another. I hadn’t noticed the brief, weeks-long dance of the fireflies, and now they were gone for another year.
I’d missed the cherries blossoming in April, too. Time had slipped past me. It took me a moment to try to arrange, in my head, what I had done in that time. Everything seemed to pass so quickly.
I smiled sardonically to myself. Yeah, turning 28 and I felt like time was passing quickly. Look at the beings that I worked with every day. They were immortal. They’d seen decades, even centuries passing by in the flash of an eye. And here I was complaining about feeling old because of the scorn of a handful of people a decade younger than even me.
I stepped up to the front door, and opened it. It took me a moment to realize why I was uneasy. I hadn’t needed to unlock the door. I know I’d locked it when I left that morning. I set a hand on the doorknob, and carefully eased it open. As I did, I slipped my free hand into my purse, and into one of the sap gloves I carried on me, the iron-powder knuckle protectors sifting softly together as I stretched my fingers into the glove.
I was assaulted, suddenly and violently, by the warm scent of food. My stomach let out a loud and sympathetic growl, and my knees shook slightly from the impact. I stepped into the kitchen, and saw the dining table had been set. A pair of candles lit, and a warm meal. Chicken, sliced into thin strips, cooked on both sides, dripping with juices, small chunks of onion and garlic visible atop, perfectly caramelized. A set of interlocking mozarella chunks and slices of tomato, a caprese salad of the classic style. Sliced chunks of potato, steaming and lightly drizzled with warm butter.
And there, standing behind the table, was Roy.
Roy was not particularly handsome. Plain features, the kind of face that could easily go unnoticed. Not handsome, not even strikingly ugly, just plain- homely was probably the word that would be used.
But he was the most beautiful person in the world to me, right at that moment.
Three long steps took him around the table, and his fingers sank into my hips. My toes left the ground suddenly. I had a couple of inches on Roy, but he lifted me into the air without obvious effort, arms tightening around me. It was the rare guy who could make me feel dainty, but then, Roy was rare. Very possibly unique.
I’d watched him, a little over eight months before, get shot in the forehead, and shrug it off. I’d watch him wipe the floor with some of the strongest undead I’d ever met. I’d watched him punch out a storm. He’d threatened to conquer the earth, and he’d been serious. And then he’d told me he loved me.
And since then, he would show up. He would make me a meal. He would take care of me. When I called him, he would be there within a few hours. I tried not to call him, because of what he was. What I’d seen of him.
“Atina,” he said, and his voice was full of the kind of heat that made me feel like I was melting, and in a much more fun way than the kind outside. “I missed you.”
He leaned in, and planted a kiss on my throat which sent a rush of excitement up and down my spine. I bit back a response, because it would’ve come out as a supremely embarrassing moan. For all of Roy’s plainness, for all of his lack of impressive stature, he had an absolute confidence and skill that was dangerous. I suspected, faintly, that he was some kind of demon. It would explain a lot of things. But I hadn’t been able to find any confirmation of it. A demon would want to insert itself into my life, would want to make a tight connection with me. A way to consume my soul through those little interactions, to make me more dependent on it.
He set me down on the chair, with an embarrassingly easy display of inhuman strength. The plates were presented before me, and a tall glass of what proved to be cubes of watermelon, frozen and blended. It made me feel lovely and cool right down to my toes, and he watched with obvious interest. “Thank you,” I said, and I tried not to make it too obvious that there was a tear running down my cheek. “Sorry. It’s been, uh. A day.” I took a bite, and another tear forced itself down my cheek. “Thank you so much, Roy.”
He leaned forward, and planted a kiss on my ear. It was all the answer he needed to give. When you have had a long and tiring day, when you are depressed, when you don’t feel the energy to do anything, and you find that someone cares about you, cares so much that they’ll make you food… It’s one of the most fundamental displays of love.
Maybe that’s not very romantic. But I forgot about that night in the storm for just a few moments.
I ate gratefully, and the two of us went downstairs into the cool silence of the basement. I could feel his desire for me, intimate, and predatory, but he kept it banked low, like the embers, waiting for the right moment. For now, he kept me warm, squeezing me tight, and I slept better than I had in weeks.