“Well, Atina. How’s the writing coming along?”
I looked up sharply. The man standing by my table was tall, and handsome, though he had a kind of Tom Hiddleston ‘lean, hungry Loki’ look to him. His skin was deeply tanned, but surprisingly smooth, his hair black as pitch. He wore a pair of almost terminally tight denim pants and an inside-out shirt. He took a chair from my table, and flopped lazily down in it, sprawling and spreading his legs. He was apparently quite excited.
“Do I know you?”
“Well, by association. You’re Megan’s buddy, yeah?” He grinned cheerfully. “I’m Coyote.”
I stared blankly. “Coyote? Not… Coy O. Tea, or Mister Coydog, or some clever pseudonym? I thought you were supposed to be a trickster god. What kind of trickster god lets everyone know he’s a trickster?”
“The best kind. You’ve taken negotiations, right? You’re what passes for a lawyer in your society.” He grinned. “Being honest and straightforward with someone is one of the best ways to fool them. You can’t con an honest man, because they are suspicious of any gifts, and reluctant to take advantage of others. So I tell everyone I’m Coyote. And they think to themselves, ‘hey, this Coyote fellow isn’t as smart as I thought if he’s telling everyone who he is, I bet I can see the scam coming.’ Then I screw their wife!”
“Charming,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “Can I help you?”
“Well, I do have this raging-“
“Let me stop you there. Do I have any reason to want to help you?”
“Oh, no.” He smiled. “Not yet. But you know, that’s the thing about us tricksters- We don’t like seeing people getting taken advantage of when they don’t deserve it.” He leaned forwards, and winked conspiratorially. “And despite all the jokes about lawyers that leap to mind, I don’t think you deserve it.”
“it’s not your fault you lost,” he said, his eyes warm and merry. “The deck was stacked against you from the beginning. And you just had the wrong audience.”
“What?” I said, slightly choked.
I was sitting in Irish Kevin’s. At the bar. I wasn’t drinking; I was having a nice bite of their Shepherd’s Pie, a reward to myself for the work I’d been doing. The last three or so months had been spent in a combination of struggling to coordinate everyone’s efforts, writing, and scanning through the will. Compiling a list. All the people who might have reason to be angry at Dean Morton, and all the people who might have reason to kill him.
The first list was almost as long as the people who knew Dean Morton. The second consisted of nobody. I couldn’t see who in Binghamton would gain from Dean Morton and Alfred dying, and who could pull that off, who would bother with such an elaborate setup.
“Sometimes, no matter how righteous and just you are, no matter how good you are, you don’t have all the information, and thus, you cannot win. That’s not your fault. It’s just a screwjob.” He frowned. “I can’t really interfere any further. I’d get in a lot of trouble. But I can do one thing to help you.”
“Really?” I said, an eyebrow raised.
“Yeah. You look stressed. I could always throw you a bone.” He winked.
“You’re a dog.”
“Well, once you go dog, you’ll not go back.”
I narrowed my eyes. I was pretty sure he hadn’t spelled ‘not’ properly. “Look. I have a boyfriend.”
“What’s that got to do with it?” he asked, flashing a bright white smile. “It’s not as though he owns you. You are free to do what you want.”
“And I have no interest in doing you.”
“Come on. Every woman wants to play around occasionally. Sure, it’s good to have a stable provider, but there’s always that excitement of someone a little different.” He winked. “Our kid would get some great scholarships, you know.”
“You’re in my seat,” said Roy.
“Hey, buddy, go fuck yours-“ Coyote began, turning in his chair, bringing that devil may care smile to bear on Roy. The moment he saw him, his expression drained of color. His eyes widened, the words dying in his mouth.
“What was that?” asked Roy. Unintimidating, five-foot-ten, scrawny, gawky Roy, with his messy hair and thin facial hair. Soft-voiced Roy out in public, with his weird quick-paced Southern accent. “I didn’t catch that.”
“Yes sir!” said Coyote, hopping out of the booth as though someone had poured battery acid down the back of the chair, standing quickly. “Sorry, sir. Didn’t realize it was you. Uh, can I get you a drink, sir? Appetizers? Anything I can do?”
“A drink would be good,” said Roy. “Apple juice.” He sat down across from me, and smiled warmly, seeming to have already lost interest in Coyote.
“Yes sir. Right away sir!” With that, Coyote disappeared out the door of the bar. I sighed.
Megan had come to visit me, just a week or two after this case began. I had first met Doctor Megan Smith while researching ancient Native American vampires in Atlantic City. She’d revealed her nature as a goddess, more or less, of the Lakota of the Great Plains.
That sentence reminded me that my life had taken a very strange turn somewhere.
At any rate, she had shown up again, explaining that she was bored, and interested to spend some time in Binghamton. She had been visiting Tadodaho repeatedly, and I could only imagine what the two were talking about. Perhaps how amusing it was to watch me chase my own tail.
“How’s the writing gone?” asked Roy, his voice soft, gentle, as he held out his hand. I took it, and he squeezed gently. The stress and fear did not disappear, but they did seem to quiet down.
“I submitted the piece last night. Tomorrow is the gallery. Eric finished his painting, Karl submitted the composition.” I let out a slow sigh. “Just Alfred’s performance, and Karl’s. I’ve done everything I can, at this point.”
“You’re not drinking.”
“I’m glad. I know you don’t like drinking in front of me, but you have been stressed by this.” He squeezed my hand again, watching me quietly.
He could make all this go away. If he wanted to, if I wanted him to, if I asked him. If it came down to it, I might even ask him to do so. If it was a choice between Alfred dying…
“So. What did you think of the story?”
He shrugged. “I’ve read its like before.” I deflated a little bit. “I understand your desire to make something novel, but fiction is not something I find interesting. Maybes, should haves, could haves… These are things that are antithetical to who I am. Life is as it is, and there is no choice but to face it.” He smiled lazily. “But it was well written, and I am sure that it will be well received. I wouldn’t say otherwise.”
“Thanks,” I said, letting the sarcasm drip into my words, rolling my eyes. “Did you just come here to tease me, or was there something else?”
“I had a question for you.” He tilted his head. “Why did you approach me in the first place?”
“What? You mean when you were working at the Fish Belly?”
“It was-“ I looked down, feeling a little ashamed. “Do you really want to know this?”
“It was pity, basically. You were… sweet. Not ambitious, or intelligent, or successful, or even rich. Just… sweet. I thought you were beneath me, and I thought about it, and I hated that I thought that way. I thought… Give him a chance, say yes to him, make an informed decision about it, at least.” I shrugged. “It was a whim.”
“It was a choice.” He smiled. “Did you ever wonder why I did it? Why I was so obviously, painfully, foolishly interested in you?”
“It was to prove you wouldn’t. That’s why I affected that behavior, why I pretended to be a fool.” He smiled softly. “To see whether you would dig deeper. You know why I don’t just burn this all down, why I give humanity another day each morning I wake up, why I don’t just end the farce?”
I swallowed, feeling a chilly little sensation in the pit of my stomach as he leaned closer, smiling nonchalantly, as though he hadn’t just casually mentioned destroying the human race.
“Because it’s not surprising that people can be stupid and thoughtless and cruel and greedy. It’s surprising that they can be otherwise. You have the privilege of choice, Atina. Sometimes the choices are miserable, but you never give up that power. You never let go of your choices.” He sat back, and smiled. “I find that arousing.”
“God, that’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard that made me want to rethink all of my life decisions.”
He chuckled, and looked up. “Ah, good.” He took the bottle of apple juice from Coyote, who was standing at attention with all the aplomb of a butler who had been raised in the traditional beatings-based British manner.
“I hope it’s to your satisfaction, sir?” he asked, fawning. I’d never seen a person fawn before. It made me a bit angry. I didn’t like seeing someone insult Roy like this, and not just because of what he might do.
“Don’t mock him,” I said, glaring at Coyote.
Coyote fixed me with a completely terrified glare. “I am most certainly not mocking him, and I will thank you to not put any such ideas in his head.”
“It’s something about tricksters,” said Roy, pleasantly, leaning back in his booth. “They always recognize me. You can’t shit a shitter.” He stood up, and looked up at Coyote. The Native American man was tall, almost as tall as me, giving him a fair few inches on Roy. He refused to make eye contact, looking up and to the right with an expression of stiff-backed terror. “Now, I’m not one to take things personally. I know you’re just a flirt, Coyote. Because I know you’d never try to fuck around with anything that’s mine. Right?”
“And while we’ve got some hard feelings, we’re not hashing them out, are we?”
“You’ve still got so much life to live, it’d be a shame to waste it on an old hurt, wouldn’t it?”
“Ever so right, sir!”
“I’m going to be off now. Don’t cheat anyone in my town.” He rested a hand companionably on Coyote’s shoulder, and Coyote looked ready to gnaw it off to escape. “Or I will know.” He turned towards me. “You’ll do fine.”
Then he walked out, sipping the apple juice.
“You’re really scared of him?” I asked, frowning at Coyote, who was still standing stock-still. He turned his rictus grin towards me.
“Lady. You know what that thing is, right?”
“I do. Do you?”
“I wish I didn’t. Bartender! One firewater.”
The bartender frowned at him. I sighed, and said “Whiskey for my acquaintance.”
Coyote grunted, sitting down in the booth across from me. “You know, there’s an old Native American tale. About Coyote, and Lizard, my brother. The tale is about when we made humans. We argued and haggled over every little thing. There was one thing in particular that was a real sticking point- The hands. I finally managed to persuade him, in exchange for-“
“Humans being mortal.”
“Oh! You know the story.”
“It’s from a bad movie, Track of the Moon Beast,” I said, frowning at Coyote. “I tried looking it up, but as far as I could tell, the producers just made it up from whole cloth. I’m pretty sure it’s not real.”
“Hrm.” He frowned. “Well, it illustrates a common point. You sure it was from that movie?”
“Pretty sure. I mean, I didn’t expect to be the one who’d have to know, but-“
“Well, whatever. The point stands. Reptiles steal immortality. Nidhoggr gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasil, the serpents desiring the amrita of immortality, the serpent in the garden of Eden, right back to Gilgamesh and the herb of immortality. What does that tell you, Atina?”
“My god. There’s some kind of common foundation to civilization in the Indo-European area, like some kind of… Indo-European-“
“Don’t be shitty.” He glared out the door. “There is a reason reptiles are abhorrent.”
“I like snakes.”
“Yes. They’re often very seductive.” He continued to glare out the window.
“Yes, with their sexy scales and the way they- Look, this isn’t about me.” He met my eyes. “You are mortal. You are an underdog. I respect that. Everyone respects that. Everyone loves an underdog when they win. Everyone laughs at a champion when they fail. But people hate, despise, loathe an underdog who loses, Atina.” He crossed his arms, leaning back. “I get the feeling you rely a lot on him.”
“You think he’d abandon me if I lose a case or something?” I asked, feeling a little choked sensation in the pit of my stomach. It wasn’t as though I expected that Roy would leave me for something like that. Not exactly.
I just expected everyone would leave me if I fucked up. It wasn’t anything personal to Roy.
“Let’s just say you don’t know him like I do,” said Coyote, eyes narrowed.
“You know, Twilight’s an extremely popular story,” I said, frowning down at the bowl.
Alfred stood next to me, an expression of consternation on his face. We stood in the art gallery. There were more than a few of them in Binghamton, but I’d never been to this one before. I didn’t spend much time around the Spring Fae.
“Some people take that as a personal insult. Like, oh, the public’s taste is so awful. But I feel like that’s the wrong way to take it. It’s arrogant to say that only a literary critic or professional writer’s opinion on good literature matters. Sure, the plot’s awful, and convoluted, and the characters are ridiculous, but it still speaks to people. Stories are about emotions. Right?”
Alfred and I both had a small pouch of marble-sized pebbles. It was apparently a gimmick of the gallery. Every human visitor was given a pouch, all the pebbles of the same color. I’d gotten hematite, which was a very stylish touch, I had to admit. You placed a pebble into the bowl in front of an exhibit if you’d found it moving, or appreciated it. To my right, the romance written by some fairy bimbo had an overflowing selection of pebbles. Several had fallen out of the bowl, and onto the ground around the pedestal where the story sat. A young woman was reading it as we spoke, her eyes glistening with tears.
“So, even though I may not get anything out of it- Well, that just speaks to how out-of-touch I am. Right? It’s a failing on my part.”
“Atina,” said Alfred, apologetically. I held up my hand. The bowl in front of the story I’d written had one pebble in it. Neither Alfred nor I had put a pebble into the bowl, out of some sense of misplaced honor.
“It’s not just the failure that hurts. I’m pretty used to failure, I’ll confess, and you have to throw a lot of things at the wall to see what sticks. It’s letting you down that really sucks.” I sighed. “Let’s see how the others are doing.”
We walked along, into the music hall. Someone very clever had set up the acoustics here, the walls set up in such a way that it was almost silent in the center of the room, with small alcoves set up around the corner of the room. As we approached one of them, music became audible. A low strumming sound, frenetic and intense. I closed my eyes, and listened. There was someone speaking in a low, thrumming, yet lyrical language. I didn’t recognize it.
“Gaelic,” said Alfred.
“It’s good. It… I was kind of expecting it to be like heavy metal, considering the way the guy dresses, but it sounds like bluegrass.”
“A musical tradition which found its roots in Irish reels, and English ballads.” He stared into the distance. “It’s about…” He choked up a little, and I saw a tear glitter in the corner of his eye for just a moment before he brushed it away. “It’s about a mother, and her loss. A child who she outlived, and the bitterness of being barren. It came out very well.”
I didn’t get much out of it. It was pretty, but I didn’t understand the words. It was hard to get the same narrative out of it. Alfred’s description made me think, for a moment, of Roy. And about Alfred.
How would his mother respond? I knew a bit about Alfred’s mother. She was a spectacularly powerful fairy- Someone on the level of Megan Smith, strong enough that nobody would mock her if she called herself a goddess, though one of the ones that straddled the lines between ‘immensely powerful fairy’ and ‘true divinity’. I wasn’t clear on what the difference was, but I’d gathered that at a certain point, one faded into the other. It wasn’t like anyone had done a scientific examination.
“We seem to be doing fairly well on that front. Close, though.” Alfred frowned at the bowl in another alcove, stepping in. “Very close. Might as well be a toss-up.” He smiled at me.
“I’m really sorry, Alfred.”
“You put your heart and soul into your work, Atina. You did everything I could ask for. Sometimes, our work simply does not have a chance to find its audience.”
“Would have been nice if I could fail at a time that didn’t have your life on the line.” I frowned. “Let’s see how our artist has done. See if he can pull out a win.”
Eric Grafson was standing in the artist gallery, leaning back against a wall. There were several exhibits here. I could see one of the rival exhibits had garnered a fair few pebbles.
Eric’s painting had stones piling up around the base of its pedestal, the bowl entirely overflowing. I stared at it for a few seconds, and frowned. “I’m… not sure I get it.”
“Chiaroscuro is very in with the Spring Court and the local art scene at the moment. Long and harsh March leaves both in a melancholy mood, and the use of color is designed to evoke certain discontents with the current rule. It’s something of a hit piece, if I’m honest with myself, but also meant to remind the people of the inherent unfairness of the current gauntlet. Alfred’s life was volunteered by another. The King and Queen chose their fates. While both deserve life…” He shrugged. “It also suggests that the current King and Queen have allowed the court to become stagnant, antithetical to the very nature of the Spring Court.”
Alfred and I exchanged a look. I’d never seen someone approach art with that kind of… Well, Machiavellian brutality. “That’s… a hell of a thing.”
“It works.” He frowned. “I saw the result your work garnered, Atina.”
“Yeah,” I said, shortly. “Well, we can’t all know the Spring Court like you do.”
“It was a good story. Certainly enough that a few of the people here should have found themselves moved by it.” He turned his head towards me. “Isn’t it slightly odd to you that it was met so poorly? Do you really have that little faith in your work that you think it must have been your fault?”
“I mean… generally?” I frowned. “But who’d sabotage me, personally? Obviously they didn’t work to sabotage the others, you’re doing great, and Karl Baynson’s done well.” I sighed. “It’s a lot more likely that I was just bad at this.”
Eric shrugged, and turned his head back towards the painting. Then he frowned. “Jeanne?”
Karl’s wife came up to us, her expression frantic. In contrast with her usual calm, she looked on the verge of tears. “I can’t get in touch with Karl!”
“Oh, damn it,” said Eric, glaring. “You swore to me that he wasn’t using heroin.”
“He isn’t! He swore he’d stay clean this week! I need to check on him.”
“The performance is in half an hour, Jeanne!” Eric sighed, resting a hand on his face, kneading his brow. I was rather stunned by the way he’d developed since I’d first met him. When I’d first met him, he’d seemed like an air-headed young idiot. He’d organized much of this defense, and done an expert job at it. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll find a stand-in. We’ll get something done.”
“The physical performance will be first. We’ve got time to figure something out.” Alfred frowned. “The Queen chose her Knight to represent her. An odd choice, the boy’s… energetic, certainly, but he’s been a part of the court for a year. He’s hardly a skilled combatant. The real challenge will be making his flailing look artistic in the context of the fight.”
“Sorry. Sorry, excuse me- Oh!” Polly broke through the crowd, and smiled as she approached. “Sorry. Got caught up in something. How are we doing so far?”
“One definite success. One toss-up. One failure.” I frowned at the painting again. I was wondering where the hell Eric had gotten all of that from what seemed to be an example of pointillism. “We need someone to do the performance, since Karl… might be high on heroine?” I looked over at Jeanne. The fairy blushed as she nodded.
“Oh. Goddamn spring fairies. Never honoring their commitments,” said Polly, nearly an hour late to the gallery, without the slightest trace of irony. She sighed. “Who’s going to do the performance? Jeanne?”
I looked over at the spring fairy, who was dialing the phone again. The business-like demeanor seemed to have thoroughly vanished. “She’s not looking in the best state.”
“We’ll figure something out-“ I began, when there was a soft ring over the P.A. system. I frowned. “Wait. Is that the start for the physical performance? It wasn’t supposed to be for another twenty minutes.”
“Who would have thought,” said Alfred, smiling lightly as he rested a hand on his sword, “that our finely laid plans would find themselves stymied by the machinations of others? It’ll be fine.”
I nodded to Jeanne and Polly. “See if you can find Karl. I’m going to go make sure that the demonstration doesn’t get rigged somehow.”
“Any chance you’d be willing to do the performance?” asked Alfred, smiling at me. “You do love a good speech.”
“If Eric’s right, it’d be worse than useless. Even if he isn’t…” I grimaced.
I didn’t like to admit how much it hurt to fail. It always did. It reminded me of when I’d lost my scholarship at law school. When I’d been rejected for jobs. Really, all those lovely moments that had reminded me what an awful fucking lawyer I actually was. How, strictly speaking, I wasn’t actually good at anything I turned my hand to.
“We’ll figure something out. Let’s get to that exhibition hall.”
The two of us walked through the art gallery, into a back room. It was, curiously enough, a greenhouse, the wan winter sun warm and inviting through the thick glass. Flowers grew in planters and hanging from pots, and spring was in the air, despite the thick snow hanging across the ground outside. In the center was a large lawn, rich green grass growing thick and wild, wildflowers scattered throughout it. All except for a circular area, perhaps ten feet across, ringed by delicate white mushrooms. I frowned down at them. Many of the people in the room were fairies in human form or wizards, but I knew at least a few of them were humans, unconnected to the Court. I wonder what they made of this, or if it was just another inexplicable art thing to them. King Baynson stood at one end of the room, leaning against a wall, arms up in a relaxed posture, his leisure suit open to the waist, showing off a truly spectacular amount of chest hair.
The Queen’s Knight- I didn’t remember his name offhand- stood in the center of the ring. He was not in the best of shape, I could see, somewhat portly and wearing a pair of glasses. He held a large two-handed sword in a somewhat awkward grip. He didn’t look like he knew what he was doing. He wasn’t wearing anything in the way of armor, just a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. He was a big guy, but Alfred was taller, broader shouldered. It didn’t look like a remotely even fight.
I looked aside, and noticed Queen Lifsdottir standing in a corner of the room, her gaze on the sky outside. The dark-skinned woman was short- no more than five feet tall, at most- and broad-shouldered, her arms well-muscled. She was nevertheless quite pretty, and her red hair was more than a bit striking. I stood next to her. “You going to start the fight?”
“I don’t want anything to do with it,” she murmured softly. I looked over my shoulder. Alfred had squared up with the Queen’s Knight, and King Baynson took out a silk handkerchief. He tossed it to the air, and the two fighters watched each other as it fluttered towards the ground. I noticed Jenny approaching the two of us, slowly, her eyes on the ring.
The handkerchief hit the ground. The Queen’s Knight moved suddenly, with a massive, overhand blow. He was faster than I would have expected from looking at him, but the blow was clumsy, artless, wild. Alfred stepped out from beneath it, letting the blow pass within a hairsbreadth of him.
“The blades look almost real, don’t they?” said one of the watchers standing at the edge of the ring nearest us. Alfred wasn’t using his illusions, I realized. Not in view of this many bystanders. That still wasn’t enough to disadvantage him, though.
“That was a killing blow,” said Jenny, her eyes narrowed. “Would you care to explain what is happening, Lifsdottir?”
I watched, frowning. The match was supposed to be point-based, ten minutes long, the winner at the end based on who got the most touches. Alfred had already landed one swift strike on the young man, a small bead of scarlet glittering on his hand, but the boy kept swinging relentlessly. More like he was swinging a bat than fighting with a sword, the blows clumsy and wild, but relentless.
“I didn’t plan any of this. I didn’t agree with any of it.”
“What are you trying to pull?” I asked, calmly, to hide the fact that I wanted to grab her bright red hair and shove her face through the heavy plate glass.
“It was King Baynson who suggested it. Poor boy, he thought it was a good idea, thought he could win-“
“It is a set-up,” said Jenny, frowning, still watching the fight. “He’s not fighting to win the contest. He’s fighting to kill Alfred.”
“That’s murder,” I hissed.
“Yes,” agreed the Queen. “If he succeeds, he will be judged. And harshly. He agreed to that. For my sake.” She sighed. “Foolish, overexcited boy. King Baynson’s plan was more direct. He hopes that Alfred will simply kill the boy, and show his bloodthirsty nature. Turn the tide of public opinion against himself, driving them to vote for his death.”
“So he’s been set up. Did King Baynson also have the idea of bribing or threatening people to avoid my story?” I asked, cheerily.
“No,” said the Queen. She didn’t elaborate. I frowned.
“You admit to trying to cheat this competition? To set my friend up to be murdered?” asked Jenny, an eyebrow raised.
“Of course she doesn’t,” I said, frowning at the competition. “We could make a fuss, try to contest this, but the boy’s awful at swordfighting. It’d be hard to prove that this is deliberate, rather than just his inexperience.” The boy let out a scream, slashing once, twice, three times- wide, hacking blows that could have taken off a limb if they struck home. The sword was solidly made. I would have guessed it was Queen Lifsdottir’s work. It was too heavy to parry without putting Alfred’s swords under strain, and his armor, good as it was, wouldn’t stop that heavy blade. He was moving back with each step, forced to constantly give ground.
Fighting is exhausting stuff. It drains you, fast. A fight like this, desperate, furious, it could exhaust even someone in the best shape of their life. Alfred was well trained, but I didn’t know if he could fend someone off for ten minutes in a life or death fight without risking killing them.
“We are simply supposed to watch?” asked Jenny, her right hand clenching. I could see the way her shoulders were tensing. I’d heard about her practice sessions, and while she’d never seemed particularly violent before, this whole trial had been winding her up, making her tense. She wasn’t herself. That’s probably why she didn’t see it. I chuckled, and Jenny turned towards me, frowning, as I began to laugh.
“Atina. This doesn’t make you enraged? I know how you feel when people violate the law.”
“It’s not that. It’s just- They’re really not good at this. The whole cheating thing. I mean, if Alfred WAS a murderer, he’s more than good enough to kill that kid and make it look like an accident. And counting on him to not be an overly noble showoff-“
There was a clash of blades, in the center of the ring. Alfred had waited for another wild overhand swing, and brought his own broadsword down atop the blade, swinging it down, and into the ground, trapping the blade’s tip in the rich loam. Alfred’s knee came up suddenly, extending into a snap kick to the sternum that sent the boy stumbling back, across the line of the mushrooms. As Alfred’s foot came down, it snapped the sword’s blade in half with contemptuous ease, leaving the hilt with barely half an inch of metal. He stepped forward, smartly, and offered his hand to the boy. The Queen’s Knight raised his hand as though to slap it, and then his eyes went to the Queen. His face red, his expression dark, his eyes on the ground, he took the hand and was helped to his feet. The two exchanged a couple of words, and then separated. The young man stormed out of the greenhouse, and I thought I saw tears running down his cheeks. As the announcer declared the forfeit, Alfred approached us.
“You know, I would never strike an unarmed woman,” said Alfred, smiling cheerily. “But it’s not often I’m forced to humiliate a lovestruck boy in front of an audience to save both of our lives. You really allowed that boy to step into the ring with me?”
Queen Lifsdottir didn’t answer him. There was a soft sound of clattering as pebbles were placed at the edge of the ring of mushrooms. There were quite a lot of them.
“Where’s Karl?” asked Jenny, frowning.
“He didn’t show up. We’re going to have to wing it.” I looked over at Jenny. “How’s your poetry feeling?”
“Barely adequate,” she said, and frowned. “But I have something prepared.”
“Jenny, look- I’m sorry I didn’t have you do this at the beginning, but-“
“You didn’t want me under that pressure.” She smiled. “I appreciate it, Atina. It was thoughtful. I would have felt very nervous these last few months had I known that the deciding factor of this would come down to me. It’s hard to get public speaking jitters with such short notice. Have we tallied the scores?”
“Eric’s painting and the performance were in your favor,” said Queen Lifsdottir, softly. “The story and the song were not. I apologize. Sometimes, it is the wrong audience.” She smiled at me. “I liked the story. It was very… tender. I would have had my Knight place a vote for it, but…”
“I understand. Survival and all. Hey, at least someone did.” I looked over at Jenny, and squeezed her shoulder. “I like your poetry, Jenny. And worst comes to worst…” I looked over at Alfred, and tugged gently on my gloves, feeling the familiar weight of the iron sand settling across my knuckles. The sap gloves were technically legal, and I could really hurt someone badly with one of them, especially if that person was an arrogant, unarmed fairy. “Well, worst will come to worst.”
“We’re not going to fight our way out of here, Atina,” said Alfred, softly. “They’re poets. Layabouts.”
“That kid just tried to gut you with a bastard sword, Alfred.”
“He was hardly very good at it.”
“You’re going to let them kill you? When they’ve practically admitted to cheating?”
“Well,” Alfred smiled. “I doubt I would. But I’m sure it won’t come to that.” He squeezed Jenny’s shoulder. She turned away from the window. The other mortals had been gently ushered out of the room. King Baynson stood in the center of the fairy ring, his expression smug. True to what I’d been told, he was dressed in a white leisure suit, a golden medallion around his neck, his blonde hair done up in an afro that had to be seen to be believed. Jenny approached him, looking calmer than she could possibly be feeling. If nothing else, she must have been blinded by the tastelessness of it all.
King Baynson opened his mouth, only for a cellphone to ring out suddenly. He glared down at the crowd, where Eric stepped back. “Apologies, Your Majesty,” he said, taking out the cellphone, checking it.
“In your own time, Grafsson, I’m sure the court would not wish to impose on your tweets,” said the King, smirking. “What news? Perhaps Lady Spears has had another embarrassing peccadillo?”
“Was that a Brittany Spears dig?” asked Alfred, softly.
“The man’s deeply out of touch,” I murmured. I was watching Eric. His expression was growing white. The young man looked up.
“Your majesty. Karl Baynson was found with his throat cut. He’s in intensive care. If I may- A brief recess in the trial-“
The King’s face had turned suddenly waxy. His amused, haughty expression had dripped off his face. An old man in a silly outfit stood silently in the circle, unsure what to do. Jenny stepped forward, and rested a hand on his shoulder.
“This is awful news. Let’s put aside this trial. Go be with your son.”