I woke up to the sound of a crashing platter. I sat up immediately, and was upstairs in a few seconds. A petite Asian woman with messy red hair stood across from Roy, holding up a frying pan in a threatening manner. Roy had both hands up, expression innocent and nervous. A metal platter had fallen to the ground between the two of them, and was still rolling.
I had to stifle a laugh. This was the most hilarious thing I’d ever seen.
The knife was Jack Knife. A Tsukumogami. She’d been one of the poor wretched souls that Li Fang Fen had brought back with her from New York City. She was a serial killer. She’d killed hundreds of people over the years- both by encouraging men to murder, and by leading them to get murdered themselves. She’d had a revelation in the city which I was still gently trying to encourage her to share, but she’d apparently acquired a self-loathing streak a mile wide. She didn’t want to kill anyone ever again. From what I understood, she had been capable of scaring off a god at one point.
Life had certainly gotten weird.
And then she was pointing a frying pan at Roy. For whatever reason, supernatural things couldn’t see how strong Roy was unless he wanted them to. He’d once faked being shot in the head. He was a very good actor.
That brought up its own delightful patois of anxieties, by the way.
“Atina!” said Jack Knife. She was dressed in an overly large leather jacket that she’d buttoned up tight, her hair hanging over her face. She looked like five miles of bad road, but you could tell that she’d been very pretty once. She had the face of a beautiful young woman who’d spent years abusing hard drugs, and being abused by hard men. “I was coming over to talk with you, like Li Fang Fen said, but I opened the door with her spare key, and there was this strange guy!”
“That’s my boyfriend,” I said.
“Oh.” Jack Knife was quiet for a moment. “Wait, you’re not with Li Fang Fen? I kind of figured, from the way she talked about you… Uh…” She lowered the frying pan. “Sorry, mister-”
“Roy,” he said politely. “It’s perfectly alright, ma’am, not a problem there. I’m makin’ some bacon and pancakes, can I invite you to join us?”
“Ah… thank you, Roy.”
Roy’s accent, I should note, is a strange one. It’s southern, but kind of faster and more sped up. That threw me at first, because who would expect a southern dragon? As I’d read about old accents, I had understood more. From what I’d read, two or three hundred years ago, English accents had been similar to a modern southern accent. Most of the undead, even the very old ones- their accents changed. They weren’t isolated enough that they avoided shifting over time, at least enough to remain recognizable.
Roy didn’t say how old he was.
“I’d be happy to help you, Jack. It’ll take me some time to find anything out. I’ll be honest, I’d never even heard about Tsukumogami before I met you.”
“I understand. I don’t even know what I really want to know, but..” Jack was quiet for a moment. “Sorry about scaring your boyfriend.”
“Trust me, you didn’t scare him. He’s used to this kind of stuff.”
“That sounds… nice. I haven’t had a lot of stable relationships.” Jack let one arm hang at her side, the other arm folded over her stomach, tightly squeezing her elbow. She was oozing vulnerability and anxiety. From what I’d heard from Li Fang Fen in our brief time to chat, that wasn’t unusual; What was unusual was that it was now entirely genuine. Jack Knife looked up suddenly. “Have you ever heard of a knife that wasn’t made to kill?”
“Well…” I paused for a moment, considering the question. “Really, I’d say that there are plenty of knives that aren’t meant to kill. Kitchen knives, cheese knives, rope knives, you can use a knife for a lot of useful things that don’t kill anyone.”
Jack’s hand blurred. Suddenly, a small, deadly flick knife was in her hands. She held it up in the air, the silver blade glittering. “Any like this?”
“Not so much,” I admitted.
I turned before Jack did. The look in Roy’s eyes was intense. His arm was tensed. He was a moment from violence. And I realized that someone might have mistaken Jack Knife’s innocent action for a threat. Jack Knife turned, and the expression vanished from Roy’s face like morning dew under a brutal summer sun. He was all smiles as he held out the plate.
“Pancakes are ready.”
A few moments later, the three of us were sat around the dining room table. It was rare that I had meals in there, usually preferring to hunch over the small table in the kitchen. Roy insisted on it. He always set it up, cleaned it, and took care of everything. He left everything exactly where I liked it. It had been rough at first when he started, but he’d learned with incredible swiftness, and in no time at all, he’d learned my systems. It made life easier.
There were demons who worked that way. Doing everything a human needed, taking care of them, waiting on them hand and foot, ensuring that the human was utterly dependent on them. Demons of Sloth, usually. They could encourage some very dependent behavior on the part of humans.
And Roy was, so far as my best guess went, a demon. I’d seen a lot of theories on dragons over the years, and the one that had always jived with me best was ‘demon’. Some animal- I thought- that by happenstance and strange accident became a person, and started accumulating power. He didn’t talk much about that side of himself. And frankly, I was just as happy that way. Roy wasn’t a problem I could solve. I wasn’t sure he was a problem; I was sure he was beyond being solved.
“Like ’em, Atina?”
“Mmm? Oh, yeah.” I sliced off another chunk of pancake, and chewed. The sweet and juicy flavor of summer strawberries filled my mouth. I savored it for a moment. The pancakes were smooth and slightly malty, adding a richness to the flavor. There was no syrup on them, and they certainly didn’t need it. I thought I might even have detected a hint of brown sugar to the flavor. “They’re amazing.”
Jack Knife picked at her food, legs kicking lightly under the table, a nervous little action as she take a couple of bites. “I don’t usually eat, but these are pretty tasty.” She chewed a mouthful, and her expression grew melancholy. “I remember… Back in the 60s. I… knew a guy.” She stared down at her food. “He got caught. It was my fault. And I remember, reading in the newspaper, he’d asked for strawberry pancakes for his last meal.” She stared down at them.
“I’m sorry,” said Roy, softly, with a surprising amount of sympathy in his voice.
“It’s not like you did something wrong. Just… kill as many people as I have, and everything can start to give you bad memories. I’m sorry, that’s probably not something I should share.”
“I don’t judge, and Atina has accepted far worse into her life.” Roy’s eyes flicked to mine for a moment. There was a depth in his expression there. It reminded me of standing on the edge of a boat, and looking down into water turned black from sheer depth, a reminder that whatever lay within was too far for light to reach it. I took a deep breath, and chewed the strawberries for a moment, considering my words. Then I set the fork down.
“Well. If you want to change, those memories are a good thing. They remind you why you want to change. It hurts, I’m guessing?” Jack nodded. “Well, that hurt’s just a way for your regrets to stay fresh. Good people are usually good not because they’ve never done anything bad, but because they regret the bad things they’ve done. I know that hurts, but-”
“No. I get it. That’s good advice.” She looked down at her food, legs still kicking. She was almost like a kid, really. Like some insane adopted family. The mom, the workaholic manic-depressive lawyer who was going to buy herself a shallow grave, the dad who’s an ancient force of evil and conquest who works at fast food places, and their little Jack Knife, repentant serial murderer with a better kill streak record than any human.
“Alright. Well, Jack, I’m willing to help you out. We can meet once a week. I’ll try to figure out some questions I can ask you. We can do a bit of therapy if you want- I confess I’m no therapist, but I can at least be a sympathetic ear.” I smiled. “In the meantime, I’ll see what research I can do to find out more about what you are, and what you were.”
“Thanks.” She cut her pancakes with the little flip knife, taking another bite, and she didn’t seem as morose about it this time. “Today’s not a good day, I’m guessing?”
I winced. “Not the best. I’ve got this fairy kid I need to help out. Some Spring earlson who’s made a bunch of stupid promises for his friends. One of them is fighting this ogre, Balthasar, of the Summer Court in a duel. Tomorrow.” I sighed softly, and took a sip from a glass of milk, pausing for a moment to continue. “I’m not sure how I’m going to deal with it. I don’t know how well the kid fights, but seeing as how he’s a spring fairy, I’m going to guess the answer is ‘awfully’. He’s going to get slaughtered, I need to make sure it’s only figuratively, and not literally.”
“You will find a way,” said Roy. There was a certain calm certainty to his voice that made my anxiety lessen.
“That doesn’t seem very helpful,” said Jack, frowning softly.
“It’s support,” I said. “Support helps a lot. He’s right. I have something in mind. The kid won’t like it, but then, his mom isn’t paying me to make him happy. Just alive.” I stood up, plate in hand, making my way towards the sink, but Roy intercepted me. He took the plate gently from my hands, and gave me a soft kiss on the cheek.
“I know you’ll knock him dead. I’ll be making some pan-fried rainbow salmon tonight. The kind you like.”
“Thanks,” I said, flushing for lack of something better to say, and kisses him back. He gave me a warm smile, and I waved to Jack Knife. “Want to come with me?”
She nodded, and popped onto her feet, following me out of the house. She frowned. “You don’t own a car?”
“Wow.” She left it at that, which almost helped.
The two of us walked through the streets. The sun was high again, and it was cooking out. I kept in the shadows, letting the sunlight fall around us. The rich aroma of August in Binghamton filled the air, fresh cut grass mixing with the heat to make a strangely pleasant mix. I had been in New York City only a few short years ago, and my sinuses were still recovering from the experience. I’d always promised myself I would never go through that particular hell again. If the summer got hot here, it was absolutely nothing compared to New York City. To say nothing of the smell. The stories I heard out of that place from the supernatural community didn’t help matters any.
“So, how did you two meet?”
“He worked at a fast food place I visited a lot, and I decided to give him a chance.” I didn’t mention the rest.
“If that’s your whole reason, how did you not already have a boyfriend?”
“Because I went against my own better instincts. I decided to change.” I was trying to work out whether I regretted that decision or not. I still hadn’t quite figured that out. His nature hung over everything that happened between us. It felt like we were playing some demented game. “Anyway. You were a serial killer. What the hell makes someone like that turn pacifist?”
She was quiet for a moment, and we walked in silence. I was just beginning to think she was going to ignore me when she opened her mouth to sigh. “There was a woman. Dane Larson.”
“I know that name.” I frowned. “Police officer, isn’t she? I saw her on the news a few days back. Part of that whole Summer of Terror thing.”
“Yeah. She helped me. And… There was this guy.” She was quiet for a moment. “I thought, for a long time, that I was made for a purpose. That I was supposed to kill people. That it’s what I was meant to do. I thought it wasn’t my fault, that I didn’t have any responsibility. And I was wrong, because I wasn’t made to kill people. So I realized that I was in control of my destiny, and I’d used that to do horrific things.” She looked up at me. “You still want to help me?”
“People do terrible things, sometimes. I’ve done terrible things. Things I’ll never forgive myself for doing. And I’m kind of broken, too.” I smiled. “But the point here, the really important point, is that people can change. The ones who say they can’t are just making excuses. It’s not easy, and you can’t do it alone, but with help, and friends, you can become a better person. And I will help you. Humans fix what is broken.”
“Why? I can’t pay you. I can’t fight for you. Why would you help me?”
I was quiet for a moment. “I… shit, Jack, I’m going to be straight with you, I’m helping you in the hopes that you’ll help me someday.”
She stared at me for a moment, an eyebrow raised. “That’s… horseshit.”
“It’s the truth. It’s a bit mercenary, but-”
“No, come on. I’ve seen how you deal with people. How people treat you. I’ve known people who were stone cold manipulators, who only did a favor to hold it over someone’s head. I was one, for decades. You’re a frigging softy. You act all big and bad like you’re this amoral, heartless lawyer who’s only helping people out, and it’s all horseshit. You’re just too much of a wimp to let someone suffer when you can help them.”
“Yeah, well. If the plan I’ve got in mind for Eric goes forward, you might see I’m exactly as much of an asshole as I try to claim.”
“You know. I met a lot of humans, over the years. Learned a lot about them. I met a few people like you, but only from a distance. They never wanted anything to do with me. Never wanted to kill anyone. They acted like they were bad, they talked like they were bad, but deep down inside, they were angry at themselves all the time. They thought they were bad, so they tried as hard as they could to be good. Dane was kind of like that, too. Miss Fang Fen, even.”
“I thought I was the therapist, here.”
“Yeah.” Jack slid her hands into her pockets, and stared up. We’d reached the Memorial Bridge across the Chenango river. “But I’ve done this kind of psychoanalysis a lot. Mostly to hurt people. Seems like, if I want to start being a good person, the way to start is to emulate the good people around me. What’s on your mind?”
“Chenango means Bull Thistle.”
She stared blankly at me for a moment.
“This river, passing beneath us. It’s the Chenango. Named by the natives. It’s named for Bull Thistle. Beautiful plant when it blossoms, with these glorious purple petals. The national flower of Scotland, which is all you really need to know about the Scots.” I stopped, and turned towards the river running parallel with the bridge, visible nearby. “And that’s the Susquehanna. Oyster River. The source of Chesapeake Bay.”
“Yeah?” she asked, an eyebrow raised.
“We’re surrounded by these reminders of those who have gone before us. There was this whole civilization of people here in the old days. They were wiped out. They’ve got only a few enclaves left, and so much of what they know is forgotten. And I used to think… ‘Oh, you know, they were savages’.” I winced at my own words. “What the hell did they know? They got conquered, and it was because they didn’t have the right society. They deserved it. I was a dumbass kid.” I stared down at the waters. The summer had been warm so far. Dry. The flowing waters were relatively low. “That was before I learned about the stories. The monsters and the gods and the demons and the fairies. And the Tsukumogami. The world’s full of so many things that we never paid attention to, and I wonder, sometimes, whether we’ve set ourselves up for a horrible fall because we forgot about things. Because we were stupid, and thoughtless, and hurt others without thinking about it.”
“That’s… a hell of a perspective.”
“We’re all built on bones. Parents, ancestors, those we didn’t know, those that came before.” I leaned heavily on my elbows, and felt the concrete grind into my forearms. “How can you stand something like that? I always wanted to be immortal, you know? To live forever. I was certain that I was going to live forever. And now…” I stared out at the water. “I’m surrounded by people who could fulfill that wish. I could live forever. But what the fuck is the point of a life lived forever when you watch the world decay around you? When you watch good people hurting, and…” I gritted my teeth.
“Why do you humans hurt so much? I saw Dane destroy her career for me. If she hadn’t gotten lucky, she might have wound up in jail. What makes you do such… stupid, self-destructive things?” She looked aside. “I survived for a century. I never put myself at risk. And you live for such a short time. Why would you make it even shorter?”
“Because it’s how we’re built. We’re social apes. We evolved to do things that were self-destructive but which would benefit our kind in general. It’s the whole reason we can do stuff like…” I waved my hand at the bridge, the massive assemblage of concrete slabs, the asphalt, the cars driving across it. “This. Cities. Gods. Civilization. We are compelled to build, to sacrifice. Not all of us, maybe not even many of us, but enough.”
“Yeah.” I smiled. “Let’s get moving.”
Eric was waiting for me, along with the young Asian man, Wallace. He gave Jack Knife a smile which was returned with only the most begrudging of expressions. Eric smiled at me with that devil-may-care expression, a duffel bag beside him.”So. What have you come up with?”
“I’ve got a plan. But I want to make sure it’ll work.” I waved towards Wallace. “You mind joining us? We need a sparring partner for Eric to make sure he can handle this.”
Wallace’s eyes widened a bit. “I’m, uh- I’m not really very good at this-”
“That’s fine,” I said, and smiled. “Come on.”
There are a lot of bridges across the Chenango. Binghamton is one of those towns crisscrossed by bridges, partitioned by rivers. A lot of cities are like that, I’ve noticed. There’s something about easy access to trade and a supply of fresh water that mysteriously calls to humans. This particular bridge was still under construction, and it had been a good walk through the summer heat. We stood beneath the shadow, the air cooled by the river nearby, and the shade made it downright pleasant. I turned to Eric.
The boy had dressed up in his dueling outfit today. A brilliant teal vest set off with a brilliant scarlet cravat gave him a look rather like a spectacular tropical bird. The sheath at his side was woven of silvery fabric, which might have been actual silver. And he wore a pair of leggings that were far too skintight. I was avoiding looking below the waist, while Jack Knife was having trouble looking away. I cleared my throat, and crossed my arms. “What do you know about Summer duels?”
“Violent. Often ferociously so. Berserkers, that kind of thing.” He smiled. “Of course, I am capable of ferocity as well, to protect my friends.”
“Yeah, that’s part of it, but not the whole of it.” I rubbed my chin. “Winter and Summer are the violent courts, the extremes. The ones most likely to resort to conflict. Traditionally, the courts of war. Spring and Fall are the courts of peace; The constructive side, in Spring, the destructive intrigue side in Fall.” I nodded my head. “You’ll be allowed your choice of weapon. Let’s see what you can do with that.”
He drew the blade smoothly, elegantly, flourishing it.
It was a glorious weapon. The handle was wrought of a silver material, although the occasional nick and cut marked it as a weapon that had seen actual combat. It was springy, the hand guarded by a vine-like arrangement of metal filigree, which was dotted with dozens of tiny, terrifyingly sharp rose thorns. It was close to four feet long, but it seemed light as a feather in his hand.
He twirled it through the air, the blade blurring brilliantly, cutting through a sunbeam falling between the girders of the bridge, lighting up spectacularly. It made it look as though he was dicing the sunlight itself into a dozen glittering pieces. After the display, he smoothly slid the blade into the sheath. He gave me a dazzling smile, one hand on his hip, one leg cocked.
“Good,” I said. “First, then, some light stretches. I want you to do a light jog to that point,” I pointed towards a tree, perhaps 200 yards away, “and back. Wallace, I want you to run with him.”
“Because you’re going to be Eric’s sparring partner. We need to keep you good and flexible.”
The boy nodded, and the two set off at a light jog. Jack turned towards me, staring. “Atina?”
“That was ridiculous. He was just swinging it around. It looked flashy, but if he tried something like that in a fight, an ogre’s going to slap the thing aside, and break his neck. It’d be a slaughter.”
“Oh definitely. Balthasar’s ranked among the finest Summer fairies with a sword in North America. The guy fought in World War 2 with a sword. He’s the second best swordman in the city, and the best isn’t in town right now.” I frowned. “Otherwise, I’d have gotten him to act as a champion in Eric’s place. Not that I’d expect the kid to agree to it.”
“So why are you encouraging this? Acting like the boy has a chance? Best case scenario is, he gets crippled.”
“I can’t train the kid to become a master swordsman in a day. So his training doesn’t matter. What we can change are our tactics. Balthasar’s got… a sort of honor. He’s a violent bastard, but he’s not going to draw out a fight under normal circumstances. He’d make it quick, and probably leave the kid alive. But it would still break Eric’s oath.”
“How is he supposed to win, then?”
“Just have to be clever. That’s a part of this. Build up his ego.”
The two young men returned, Eric smiling confidently, Wallace panting a bit, lagging a few steps behind Eric. The young fairy gave his friend a bracing slap on the shoulder, and turned to the duffel bag, drawing out a pair of wooden swords. He tossed one to Wallace, who fumbled it and picked it up out of the gravel. Eric frowned at me. “Won’t this gravel make sparring rather difficult?”
“You ever been to the Summer Court’s duelist circle? They fight on a pit of the ground-up bones of those who have died in the ring. It’s considered a reminder that even the greatest duelist becomes anonymous and forgotten when they die.”
“Grim,” said Eric, a frown on his face.
“Destructive. And it’s more recognition than you’d get in the Winter Court. You’ve challenged Balthasar, which means that you have the right of challenge, and he the right of refusal; If you challenged him to a poetry contest, he’d probably turn it down, but we should be able to give him a tempting challenge. He likes being given an interesting struggle. Something that will keep him excited. So, we pique his interest. Get him excited about something novel. And from there, I try to make sure that the duel goes smoothly.”
“You think I can beat him?” asked Eric, the frown shifting into an easy smile without a moment’s hesitation.
“I’m confident that you can fulfill your oath,” I said, and nodded. “Now, you two spar a bit. Go easy on each other, no need to break any bones.” I nodded my head, and stepped back as the two fought.
Eric wasn’t exactly a bad fighter. He knew how to use the sword. He just clearly wasn’t anywhere near the class that he would need to be to stand a chance. He knew the basics, which was more than many people would, but against an ogre, flashy movements and showmanship would be little use. I crossed my arms, watching the two. Jack frowned as she leaned next to me. “So what’s your plan?”
“Ever heard of Black Claw style?”
“What, just because I’m Asian, you assume I know martial arts?”
“Don’t start with me. I know I’m an awful bigot. Anyway, it’s a fake martial art, but based on a real concept. People hate watching a one-sided fight, right?”
“Okay, sometimes they enjoy it.” I grinned. “But not when they like the person getting beat on. And stories matter more to the fairies than reality.”
“Huh. Sounds pretty human.”
I watched the two of them fighting, trying not to stare too much at Eric. It was predictable. Wallace wasn’t even as experienced as Eric. He was defeated, time and again, sometimes humiliatingly. And yet, every time the other boy was knocked to the ground or disarmed, Eric clasped his hand, encouraged him, gave him advice. It was a good friendship. I could see Wallace renew his certainty with each fight.
It was strange. The boy was earnest, and absurd at the same time. He tried hard, he was even admirable, but he was going to be embarrassed. What justice was there in that?
But my job was about the law, not justice. Technicalities, not honor and nobility. I just had to help him complete his promises, and keep him from being brutalized.
By the end of it, both young men glistened with a fine sheen of sweat. The heat had grown enough that even the shade was getting warm. “Good job. The duel is tomorrow at solar noon; that’ll be about 11 in the morning. Don’t be late. Jack, you can stay at my place tonight if you want. Eric, I want to talk with you a little before you head home.”
Wallace looked over at Eric, who nodded. The boy picked up the duffle bag with the swords within, and began walking with Jack, briefly- very briefly- trying to start up a conversation.
I turned to Eric. He stood with arms akimbo, in a pose that seemed tailor made to draw attention to his groin. I really didn’t know whether it was deliberate or just something Spring fairies did by instinct. “You don’t think much of me, do you, Miss LeRoux?”
“I think you’re a kid. You’re inexperienced, but you’ve seen how heroes act in shows and movies, and you’re trying to emulate them. I think that’s admirable, but it’s a lot harder than it looks. And I think that you’re going to get hurt doing it, and ultimately, I really don’t want you getting hurt. Because…” I was quiet for a moment. “The spring fairies are kind of assholes.”
“You’re referring to the obsession with beauty.”
“Yeah. Most of the spring fairies I’ve met are shallow, effete assholes. They don’t tend to finish projects, and they’re big on passing things over. You’re just a kid, aren’t you?”
“Eighteen,” he said, defensively.
“God. I can barely remember being 18. But you’re making all of these incredibly life-changing decisions at that age, without any idea of what they’ll do. Your mother’s, what, three hundred years old?”
“That’s what she’d like people to believe,” he said, a wry smile spreading over his face, and I couldn’t help but return it.
“So, you’re committing yourself. How long have you known Tammy?”
“We met in Freshman year.”
“So about four years, in round terms. You two are barely even people yet. You haven’t got a bit of experience in what it’s like to actually be with someone for years. Decades.” I was quiet for a moment. “Centuries. And if she were to die…”
“It would be a tragedy, certainly. It would break my heart, and I would sooner keep my vow forever than to give my heart, second-hand, to another.”
“I’ve met a lot of folks in the supernatural community. People who have gone a long time alone. You might wind up regretting these decisions. You are, barring accident or an unwise promise, going to live forever. You need to think about the consequences.”
He shook his head sadly. “You don’t understand it, do you? It’s not an uncommon view, that things must be preserved. But the beauty of Spring is in its impermanence. You may weep for the flower that is cut, but it is beautiful because it dies. What is the worth of a life full of nothing but safe and staid experiences?”
“Don’t have to risk your life to appreciate a warm summer day and a slice of watermelon,” I said, frowning. “Your friends. They’re… not… quite what I would expect-”
“You are referring to their physical appearance,” Eric said, stiffly.
“Not to put too fine a point on it. I mean…” I was quiet for a moment. “Why?”
“Tammy has one of the most wonderful voices I have ever heard. She might be a world class opera singer someday. Wallace is a talented writer. He’s got a book deal, in fact, thanks to some aid from my mother. Harriet, despite her silliness and her beliefs shaped by pop culture, has great potential to be a magus of rare strength. They are special to me. They are talented. They are beautiful.” He set a hand on his hip, turning to face me, challenging me. “They believe in me. They deserve my oaths.”
“Yeah, see, that’s noble, but really damn dangerous.” I sighed, and shook my head. “I used to make a lot of promises. And it didn’t really make things better. I prefer to commit in my own head.”
He smiled. “Well, I promise you, Atina, I shall win-”
I slapped him on the shoulder. “None of that. I’m not accepting any promises from you. Now, get some sleep, have a good meal tomorrow morning, something that gives you some energy. Good luck.”
I returned home, and took two steps into the living room when Roy appeared from nowhere, his hand pressing me gently up against the wall by my shoulder. My eyes widened, my heart racing for a moment as he stood there, his eyes running slowly up and down.
You may not have caught this, but I hate the way I look. I’ve gotten better about my appearance, I even can admit that I have my moments, but I still feel, fundamentally, deeply, unattractive. If I was critical of others, it was hypocritical. I certainly thought Tammy was better looking than me.
Under Roy’s gaze, however, that lack of confidence melted away. There was something about being desired that made me feel good.
He lifted my hand, sniffed it, and tilted his head. “Hmmm. You smell like a man.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said, rolling my eyes, mood broken.
“Not in that way. Like another person.” He sniffed my hand again. He frowned, but didn’t say anything further. Then he bit my neck, and we spent the rest of the evening sitting together in front of the TV, his arms around my shoulders, squeezing me comfortingly. Perhaps it was my imagination, but he seemed a little bit tense. We ate salmon together, and he didn’t say anything, but the tension remained.
When I arrived at the Summer Court the next day, there was a scent in the air like ozone all around me. The preparation for a fight. The entrance to the Summer Court of Binghamton was in the Cutler Botanical Garden, a small and quite beautiful garden right by the highway. Entering it was simple, if you knew the trick; just the proper state of mind, and one step through a garden. I arrived in the Summer Court.
Brilliant sunshine filled the air, the trees full of life. Commoner and noble fairies intermingled. Visible, somewhat intimidated, standing just beside the entrance to the court, were Eric and his three friends. I beckoned them, and stepped forward towards the crowd, and saw as it divided around me.
A year ago, I was attacked by Chaac, a vampire goddess, and several other powerful undead. They’d been brutally beaten, and captured. Perhaps eight other people knew exactly what had happened that night, Chaac and her compatriots included, and none of them wanted to talk about it. I’d kept the details a secret, even from those close to me. Ever since then, there’d been a wariness around me. The truth of the matter was that they’d had me dead to rights. I’d run into a store, and watched Roy get shot in the head by one of them. Then he’d stood up, and destroyed them with his bare hands. A woman who could create a hurricane, he’d knocked out with one punch. Three old vampires and a ghoul with the power of Chaac’s progenitor, he’d devastated in a matter of seconds.
I didn’t have any of that power. But people thought I did, and it had bought me leniency from the world. A measure of protection from physical retribution. For the time being. But I’d promised Roy to never ask him for help, and I was damned determined to keep to that oath because of what it would cost him.
Balthasar stood by the dueling grounds. A broad, open circle surrounded by bricks, the inside consisted of what looked almost like a white gravel. It was only the larger, newer pieces which showed the nature of the gravel. A skull, cracked and missing its teeth, sat on one brick, a silent observer. Here and there, femurs and humeri stuck out like ragged desert plants.
Balthasar himself was a strange mix of brutish and stylish. Huge, tall, broad-shouldered, he leaned back against a tree. His hair was greased into a tremendous pompadour, and he was dressed in a fine dress shirt and pants, suspenders keeping them up. His massive zweihander hung from his belt, the weapon looking like something from the deepest and most fevered dreams of a Japanese game designer. It would have been impractical for any human, based on length alone; but it would allow him to lunge like a panther. “Still determined to fight me, are you?” He leered down at Wallace. “It was just a friendly little tap. I’d been drinking, you got in my way. You should have known better.”
Wallace cringed, and Eric stepped forward. “This can all end without violence if you apologize.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” He paused for a moment, and narrowed his eyes at me. “So. You hired the… human.”
There had been days- many days- where that word had come out like a slur. Fairies did not often respect humans, especially humans who had not made pacts. Now, it came out as more of a question. “Are you to be the boy’s second? I have been curious how you fight, after all. Those rumors swirling about that goddess you defeated… It inflames the passions. I have been waiting to see you fight.”
“Keep waiting. We’ve come to decide the challenge.”
“Ah, yes. To the death, if he is suicidal? To the first blood, if he wishes this to be over quickly?”
“To the shame,” I said. “The first of you to shame yourself in front of this crowd is the loser.”
“Well, sounds simple. I imagine that you’ll be eager to surrender the moment you feel an actual blade part your flesh, earlson,” said the ogre, a sadistic smile spread across his face. He brought his heavy hamhock hands up. “Zweihander, or my bare fists? Doesn’t make much difference to me.”
“I will face you with your sword. To do less would lose me the contest before it is started,” said Eric.
“True enough,” murmured the Ogre, chuckling. “Very well, then. I shall strive not to kill you. You are much too amusing.”
Tammy was watching with obvious nerves, while Wallace fretted, his fingers fiddling together. Even Harriet was showing some signs of disquiet. Only Eric seemed confident as the two of them stepped into the dueling ring. The summer fairies already began to gather around the circle, watching with obvious eagerness, murmuring softly to one another as they surrounded the circle. I stood on the very edge of the brickwork, watching.
“This is my blade,” said Eric. “Forged of moon’s silver by my mother beneath the winter moon, it has taken the lives of those both great and small in years gone past. Fargold, the Finder of Ways, the Duelist’s Lament, the stories told of it are legendary.”
The ogre chuckled. He drew the claymore. “This is my sword. No name, no legends. It’s just a piece of metal that does what it needs to do, taken from the body of a comrade who it slew. Come on, earlson.”
Eric stepped forward, the blade blurring and flashing through the air, twirling in the sunlight. He darted forward.
The ogre’s blade flashed, and Fargold twirled through the air. It landed, point-down, just beyond the edge of the brickwork. Several fairies stepped back from it, chuckles filling the air. Eric was left without weapon, and Tammy let out a low gasp, hands going over her mouth.
Eric smirked, and lifted his hands into a boxer’s stance. The ogre laughed loudly, and lifted the blade high into the air. He brought it down.
The ogre paused, blade humming in the air a hairsbreadth from Eric, and frowned at me. “What? Are you surrendering?”
“No. You’ve lost.”
A soft murmur filled the crowd, and the ogre chuckled. “Have I, now?”
“You’re fighting a far inferior foe. You’ve just disarmed him, taken away his weapon, and now you plan to cut him down with your sword? What kind of man are you? What harm could the boy do to you?”
“You must be joking,” said Balthasar.
“You yourself said it. Fighting a weaponless foe with a blade? What honor is there in that.”
There was a moment of extremely deadly silence from the ogre, his eyes narrowing as murmurs and mutters filled the air, the summer fairies exchanging glances. “You don’t expect me to simply take your word for that, do you?”
“You don’t have to,” I said, and smiled. “But Alfred, Iron Knight, is returning here tomorrow. And if you cut the boy down, right now, you will be in violation of the duel. I wonder how he’d react?”
“You would dare to threaten me?”
“Not a threat. However… This is just a contest of wits. A little game of words. What shame is there for you in losing this way? The only reason you have lost is because you are so skilled with the blade. Surely that’s a worthy consolation prize. If you were any less skilled, any less dominant, you would win for certain. And the Summer Court cares more for skill than word games, don’t they?”
The ogre tapped his fingers on the hilt, but I knew I had him. Bastard, violent, cruel, even sadistic, but fairies have respect for a trap well-set. I’d offered him stick and carrot at the same time. Finally, he nodded. “I suppose so.” He grinned down at Eric. “Your pitiful lack of skill makes for a formidable weapon. I have been beaten.”
A few minutes later, we stood in the botanical garden. I had a bottle of water, sipping it as we stood in the oppressive heat. There was no rain on the horizon, the oppressive heat slated to continue for at least another week, maybe more. The Wednesday was bright and shining. By contrast, the four teenagers all seemed surly and unhappy.
“I know that probably wasn’t what you were hoping for,” I said.
“You made me a laughingstock,” said Eric, his voice stiff, his back straight. “It was an embarrassment.”
“But you won,” I said.
“Honor is for those who can afford it. Losing with dignity is for those who don’t have much riding on the match. Like Balthasar. I persuaded him that he was giving up nothing by your victory. He would’ve killed you, and if he didn’t, the promise you made would’ve.” I waved my hand towards the others. “If you die, for the sake of your friends, how do you think they’re going to feel?”
“Don’t use us as a weapon to win an argument!” said Tammy, her eyes blazing, but Eric shook his head, frowning.
“No. She’s right. I was rather careless. I thought…” He was quiet for a moment. “My cause was righteous.”
“If being righteous was enough, we wouldn’t need lawyers,” I said. “I’m sorry if that was embarrassing. But trust me when I tell you I’ve done more embarrassing things in order to save people.” I grinned. “Black Claw Style. Making your opponent look like the bad guy, hiding your strength, exposing theirs as a weakness. Acting innocent even as you take the first strike.”
“A vile art,” said Eric.
“Oh yeah. But effective. Now, come on. We’ve got a meeting with a guy.”
“A guy?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.
“Yeah. Someone who knows how to win the heart of a demon.”