Sad things are sadder when contrasted with happy things. This is probably a self-evident statement, but it hits me hard, from time to time. I remembered- of all things- a political comic about an exiled African prince, who was forced to stay at a McDonald’s while dealing with the loss of his family’s kingdom. The comic, of a well-dressed young man holding a burger, with an expression of soft despair on his face, stuck with me. The fast food restaurant seemed to add to the deep poignancy. The absurdity of the contrast heightened the tragedy.
A king sat in a hospital waiting room chair across from me. His sparkling white leisure suit was open at the top to reveal his well-groomed chest hair, and an Ophiuchus astrological medallion. His afro seemed slightly deflated, hanging at a slight angle, the golden mane listing like a sinking ship. His platform shoes were crossed at the ankles. He stared down at his hands in his lap.
“The doctors are very positive,” I said. “Alfred brought the sheath of Excalibur. It’s stopped the bleeding, and let them stitch him up. He’ll probably have trouble talking for a while, he might not talk again, but he’s going to live, Your Majesty.”
“It’s Heinrich, Miss LeRoux,” said the King of the Spring Court, his eyes on his feet. The others had left. Alfred, Jenny, and Li Fang Fen to investigate the crime scene. The Queen of Spring had gone to comfort her Knight. We sat in the waiting room together, in the evening. Baynson hadn’t seemed to know what else to do, but to wait. And I needed information. “No reason to stand on ceremony here.”
“Call me Atina, then. The trial-“
“Jenny’s words were deeply persuasive. In perhaps more ways than you could know, Atina.” He looked up. “This attack on my son… It is serious.”
“Things were already serious, Heinrich. People’s lives were at stake. You were going to let a young man die in an attempt to condemn my friend-“
“Atina,” he said, softly, his eyes hurt. The fearsome, arrogant, near-malevolent king of before had melted like wax. “You don’t truly believe that the Spring Court would set up one of their knights to die, do you?”
I stared at him for a moment. Of course I did, it was the most natural thing in the world to expect them to want to preserve their own. To be willing to kill. After all, they were a court of poets, artists, merchants, and effete layabouts. Killing must come so easy to them.
I felt like an idiot.
“It was a show,” I said, softly.
“That’s why we put the boy up. He was too eager for it, of course, but we all know what a fine swordsman Alfred is. None of us had the slightest doubt that he’d disarm the boy. Show what a fine knight he was. Prove to everyone that he deserved the chance to survive. I know you, and Alfred, don’t think much of us. No one does. We’re considered effete, layabouts, artists in the most dismissive sense of the word. And with all that- in the face of your disdain for us, for our refusal to do anything hard, you genuinely believed that we concocted a plan to murder the Queen’s favored new knight, in order to bring about the death of one of the noblest and kindest Iron Knights who has ever graced Binghamton?”
I looked aside. “I don’t know who I can trust.”
“This was supposed to be a show, Atina. A game. Life is long, and diversions are rare. Putting our lives on the line was an exciting game, but no Spring Court fairy would have done it if we thought we truly would die. The Queen and I have faith in you, Atina. We knew you would find the truth. But…” He leaned back in the chair, staring at the ceiling. “My son had his throat cut. Someone doesn’t think this is a game. And I don’t have any idea how to handle that. I can barely lead my Court in times of peace, and I know everyone thinks of me as a joke.” He wiped his eyes.
Hospitals are uniquely awful places. I’m a great fan of the concept of liminal spaces- the place you pass through on the way to somewhere else. Hospitals are probably one of the finest examples. They’re the place you pass through on the way to death.
People die in hospitals. It’s not the hospital’s fault, but the human mind is such that it becomes wary. There’s the smell of antiseptic, the beep of heart monitors, the croak and whirr of breathing apparatuses. And beneath it all, the lingering specter of death.
“I’m sorry. There are a few possibilities. They might have attacked him to try to sabotage our case. They might have attacked him to drive people away from us-“
“My son is the Iron Knave,” said the King.
“Oh,” I said, and stared at the man, trying to decide how to take that. “Seriously?”
“He told you?”
“No. But I was not always a fool. It was the cause of our estrangement. He was always… rebellious. I had never known just how rebellious before that moment.”
I frowned. “I don’t know a lot about the Iron Knave, Heinrich. I’ve heard of it, obviously. Been warned about pissing off the Winter Court. I know it’s some kind of secret police, meant to counter the Iron Knight…”
“The Iron Knight is about awe. The Iron Knave is about fear. Both are meant to keep the law, through the right to hold iron, and the right to take lives. The Iron Knight is meant to do so in the light, challenging those who are brazen and disrespectful, keeping the peace. They must be the greatest knight, because they duel those who have done wrong. The Iron Knave must be the opposite. They are investigators and executioners. They find evidence of those who have not yet done wrong, and at the moment when a crime is planned… They stop it. And any crime that attracts their attention is capital.”
“Wait. Karl’s a Spring Fairy. How could he be the Iron Knave?”
“Secrecy, Atina. The Iron Knave is not necessarily of the Winter court, you see. They must go unseen.”
“So, he was probably investigating this case too. Whoever was responsible probably wanted him out of the way, and botched it-”
“Atina, do you know how the Iron Knave and Summer Knight are chosen?”
“Alfred was always vague. He suggested it was an appointed position. I figured, the Kings and Queens of the court had chosen him.”
“Appointment?” The King of Spring smiled wanly. “They must be able to serve justice to any who require it. And they must be the best. They cannot simply be a lackey. The Summer King and the Winter Queen do, indeed, have a say in the matter- But only in suggesting. The title itself can only be taken in contest. In the Summer Knight’s case, a duel to surrender. In the Iron Knave’s…” He looked back at the door to where his son fought for his life. “Wounded, but in such a way that he would survive. A demonstration of true artfulness. A new Iron Knave has been chosen.”
“Oh,” I said, leaning back. “What are the chances that whoever this was had a grudge against me specifically?”
“Substantial. The timing is, as you have noted… unfortunate.” He wiped at his eyes. “How do you mortals stand this, Atina?”
“Which part?” I asked, smiling a little, but only because it’s what I did when I wanted to hide how badly I wanted to help.
“Not knowing how this will turn out. In a proper story, it’s a tragedy or a comedy. Either the heroes will die, or they will be married. Either way, things are certain. You know the way it will go.” The King stared down at his hands. “I’m a weak King.”
“There are two solutions to that, your Majesty,” I said.
He looked up, a little hope in his eyes.
“Abdicate, or become stronger.”
“Ah,” he said, softly, looking down at his hands again. “And here I was, hoping for an easy answer.”
“You were a strong king today, Heinrich. One who was clever and cunning and knew exactly how to get the response he wanted.”
“It was an act.”
“I’m not talking about the whole ‘evil mastermind’ thing. I’m talking about how you set things up so that Alfred would win. You knew how to emphasize what was best about him. That’s useful, Your Majesty. You need to embrace that. Your son… I have faith he’ll live.”
It was a lie. A dirty, filthy lie. I didn’t have faith before I went to Law School, and the one thing they’d drilled in properly there was that you never told people that things would turn out alright. They might sue you for that.
But a lie could do more to help someone in a desperate situation than the truth ever could. I didn’t have to believe that he could be stronger, that his son would live through the night. He did. And fairies love a good story to guide them. They’re a lot like humans in that.
“Thank you, Atina,” he said, after a long few seconds. He looked genuinely cheered by what I’d told him, and that made me feel better about myself. Maybe it was okay if I was a manipulative lying bitch if I could at least make people around me feel a little better. “I liked your story. I’m sorry that no one expressed a fondness for it. Among the Wizards of our court, I let it be known that I wished to preserve the drama, bring it down to that final tiebreaker. Offending Eric Grafsson or Karl would have been bad for politics. It probably could have won, otherwise.”
It was nice of him to put that way. But I was better at reading bullshit than he was. I smiled. “It’s fine. It wasn’t my best work. It’s not like any of the humans who read it liked it, either. No idea who left that pebble.”
“I would love to read your best someday.”
“The moment I’ve written it, I’ll be glad to share it.” I stood up. “I think we’ve done all we can do for Karl here. You need some sleep, Your Majesty. Get ready for a brand new day full of trouble.”
“Indeed.” He sighed. “It will be troublesome, having a new Winter Queen.”
I frowned. “What?”
“Well, Karl had not lost the Queen’s favor. The only explanation for this is that someone else has made a bid for the Winter Queen’s crown- Undercutting her champion, her hidden knife. It will tell me who is responsible.” He sighed softly. “They will no doubt announce themselves within the next couple of days.”
For lack of any idea what else to do, I returned home. I’d made some progress on Dean Morton’s will. Part of the trick was tracking people down, and it was going to be a project that would last some time. I sat by the boxes, and only noticed Jack had entered the room when she sat down, holding a bag from McDonald’s. Fish Belly was, currently, under investigation for its part in war crimes, and I was desperately glad I’d never tried the Long Fish sandwich.
“I took a wild guess and figured you didn’t eat anything,” said Jack, the slim Asian girl leaning forward, one arm folded defensively against her stomach as she took the food out. “How’d things go? I heard one of your guys got his neck cut.”
“He survived, and we won the trial, so better than I had expected.” I smiled to Jack. “Excited about tomorrow?”
She shrugged. “Dunno. I don’t really want to get my hopes up. I mean, I can’t see any reason why these Atlanteans would know more about me than anyone else.”
“Well, I admit it’s a little bit of a shot in the dark. But that’s kind of where we are with things.”
Jack nodded slowly. “Case isn’t going well?”
“It’s too big. There’s too many possibilities. Who profits from Dean Morton dying? Well, anyone who wanted chaos between the Fairy Courts and the Undead, but I don’t really know who that would be. Anyone who hated Dean Morton so badly that they were willing to risk chaos. Who was capable of it? Less people, there, but still way too many for me to narrow it down, especially because some of them are capable of impossible things. And who’ll give it to me straight, tell me what’s happening?” I threw one of the folders back into its box. “No one. Because they all think it’s a game, and they all want to win. So I need to rely on whoever did this acting again, and revealing themselves. There’s nothing I can do to force that.”
“Acting again how?”
“Like trying to murder the current Iron Knave and crown themselves the Winter Queen. So, we may be in a bit of luck, here, because apparently someone just did that.”
“And they killed Dean Morton?”
“Maybe. Maybe they’re just opportunists. But they’ll be the first genuine suspect I have.”
Jack Knife nodded, and helped me organize things as we scanned through the documents, continuing to update the compilation I was keeping on my laptop. If the old bastard had been savvy enough to set something like this up… But then, the older and more powerful undead seemed to have trouble with modern technology, and more than the usual ‘Grandpa trying to get his email working’ issues. I looked aside at Jack, and wondered if there was a connection there, too.
I never was good at focusing on one mystery at a time.
The next morning, we got up bright and early, and made our way to the Atlantean Mission. The appointment had been bright and early, as apparently the Atlanteans were early-to-rise types.
It’s funny. I’d watched the royal wedding. I’d seen the news stories. But it wasn’t until I met them in person that the Atlanteans truly struck me. The young woman working as a receptionist, dressed in absolutely nothing but some very strategically placed jewelry, was reminiscent of a catfish. Her skin was slick and gray, her mouth wide, but nonetheless recognizably humanoid. The long barbel whiskers were curiously fetching, and most oddly of all, she had hair; It was the color and texture of algae, but it still worked for her. She looked different, but it was on the far side of the uncanny valley, turning back into welcome. “Atina LeRoux?” She asked, pleasantly, smiling. “You made an appointment to test an object? Do you have it with…”
Her eyes turned to Jack, and widened. Her mouth opened and closed several times in a way that brought uncharitable comparisons to mind. Finally, she straightened.
“I will be back with the Godwhisperer in just a moment.” She bowed her head quickly and stepped back, almost breaking into a run. I looked over at Jack, an eyebrow raised.
“Did I say something?” She asked, looking faintly amused.
“Well, I’ve heard that they can… see, I guess, when something is supernatural. I suppose that wasn’t bull.” I frowned. “Let’s take a seat.”
It was barely two minutes later when the young woman returned, leading an older Atlantean man. This one was covered in a shell, and walked with a bit of a slump, bent almost in half over a cane. The shell was a curious mottling of white and red, like a snow crab. He maintained his humanoid shape, but he was covered in hard edges and sharp corners, his fingers almost taloned. He peered with milky eyes at Jack, and fell down onto his knees, bowing his head briefly.
“Our apologies, God,” he said, his voice soft and accented curiously- Something like German with a little Hawaiian mixed in. “We did not realize the magnitude of the claims. Had we known that one of your status lived within this city, we would have come to you the moment we learned of it.” He raised himself somewhat laboriously to his feet, and stared. “Oh. Oh, what has happened to you?” He shot me a furious look. “Are you responsible for this?”
I gave him a very good glare. He blinked blearily at me. I realized, quite to my surprise, that the old Atlantean was blind, or close to it. “No, I didn’t. I’m trying to fix her.”
“Fix her? It’s a miracle she is still alive, and sane. Something like this… Do you mind, God?” He asked, stepping closer. Jack shrugged, but I could see the tension in her stance as he reached out, carefully lifting one of her hands. “Mmmm… Blade, that much is certain. To cut is clearly in your nature. Your arrangement was… haphazard, done by one who did not understand the underlying principles, but the artistry… To think humans had mastered this level of craft while we were away. It’s like entering a finger-painting class, to find one of the children has created a piece to rival The Starry Night.” He looked up at her. “Who did this to you, God? What madman would be so savage as to allow you to be tarnished, let alone to damage you like this?”
“His name was John,” said Jack, her voice very tense as she stiffened a bit. “What do you mean?”
“You were shattered. Your physical form… broken. Please, Miss LeRoux, will you run me through the story again? I fear that, to my shame, I had only skimmed the description you wrote us.”
I related it to him. That she’d been a knife in the possession of a London serial killer a hundred and forty years ago, returned from a trip somewhere in Asia. That he’d performed a series of murders with her, and that it was unclear whether he had been corrupted by her, or vice versa. That she’d had contact with an extremely powerful deity at some point. That she’d spent the past century and a half drifting. Jack looked away during the story. I knew how badly the memories hurt her. For a time, she’d simply believed she was a tool, something without her own will. Something that had been said to her in the city- something she wouldn’t share with me- had made her think otherwise.
Moral crisis in a serial killer knife. How was that for fun?
“To repair this is… far, far beyond me,” said the man, his brow furrowed.
“It is beyond any Atlantean. All Atlanteans. This young woman is a God, crafted as elegantly as any that my people have made. But to remake a thing is a whole other kettle of fish.” He tented his clawed fingers, frowning at Jack. “The first, and greatest problem, is what we are trying to remake.”
“I’m a knife,” said Jack, frowning. “How hard can it be?”
“You are a knife now. But is that what you always were? You were broken, after all. A part of you lost, forever. Without knowing what that is, you cannot be made whole.” The man held up his hand, palm up. “The difference between an object and a living creature is in this secret. All living creatures, at their most intimate level, know what they are. If they are harmed, they may be scarred- that self image may be corrupted- but it remains. This is the secret of healing. An object cannot do this, because an object does not have this self-knowledge. It does not know what it should be. When broken, entropy devours its self image quickly.”
“DNA,” I said, a little bit surprised. The old Atlantean shrugged.
“So I can’t be fixed,” said Jack, softly, a little dreamily.
“Not without understanding you. Not without knowing what you are. I would not even know where to begin.” He was quiet for a moment. “If I may, though. I wish to communicate with someone. Someone who may have some answers for you. They may take some time to respond; They are in great demand. But with your permission-”
“Sure,” said Jack, tersely, her expression stiff. “Whatever.”
“I am sorry, God,” said the Atlantean, bowing his head once more. “We can… lessen your pain. Your breaks are long scarred over. We can give you the belief you need. It will help. If you would be willing.”
“I guess,” said Jack. The crab-like Atlantean looked at me curiously, as though inviting me. I nodded, because honestly, I was curious.
The four of us walked into a back room. A humidifier was going, here, creating an almost swampy environment. A delicate arrangement of geometric shapes- triangle, square, pentagon, circle, and hexagon- had been placed on the floor. I noticed they seemed to be movable, and had been stacked in a deliberate looking order. Half a dozen more Atlanteans were in the back room, and all murmured and admired Jack, offering soft words of encouragement and support. They led her carefully to the center of the geometric shapes, and she stood there, somewhat nervously, as they knelt around her. A space was left for me.
“Pray to her,” said the old Atlantean. “Ask a boon, make an offer. Think of her. It is how you properly feed a god. To desire something of them.”
I closed my eyes. What was an appropriate thing to want from Jack? Maybe for whoever had killed Dean Morton to get stabbed. Or maybe just for her to be alright. I listened as the other’s voices blended, beginning to synchronize, until it felt almost like a hymn, a chorus, their voices soft but finding an intense strength from the resonance together, like a power chord of worship.
“Hmmm,” said the young Atlantean woman. I opened my eyes to find her studying me, a frown on her face.
“Is something wrong?”
“Your belief,” she said, frowning, peering at me. “It is very weak. Even for a human.” She took out a small pamphlet. “Here. Please, for showing us this- A gift. We would welcome you coming by. Teaching you how to hone your belief, to help your friend.”
“Ah,” I said. “Thanks.” I took the pamphlet, and stuffed it into my jacket pocket. The idea rankled me, for some reason. Possibly because having my quality of worship critiqued by a girl who was showing off her tits every time she leaned too far to one side was about as close to one of my nightmares as I’d ever achieved in real life without the aid of ancient Mayan gods.
For all that, as we left the back room, Jack looked cheerier. “They were nice,” she said.
“Well, everyone who treats you like a god seems nice.”
“Well, sure. But it was… It was like when I used to get the…” Her voice softened. “The urges.”
“The urge to murder people,” I said, not able to entirely disguise the concern in my voice.
“Yes. But without the part where I wanted to murder anyone. It was… They wanted something from me, and I could give it to them. It felt good.” She looked down at her feet as we left the building, into the bright sunlight. “It feels pretty good to be treated like a god.”
“Well, don’t get too used to it, I’m not even good at treating gods like a god.” I pushed open the door with a smile, but it faded as I saw who was outside. “Is that Alfred?”
Alfred, Jenny, Polly, and Li Fang Fen were approaching at a rapid clip. Alfred’s expression was determined. Jenny and Li Fang Fen looked concerned. And Polly looked apoplectic. Alfred was at the lead, and broke into a jog, approaching us. “Atina! The Winter Queen has been usurped. Replaced. Heinrich was the Iron Knave-”
“I heard about that from King Baynson. Who’s the new Winter Queen?”
“My fucking mum,” said Polly, her expression murderous. “The fucking bitch. She just declared herself the Winter Queen, and no one’s arguing with her.”
Wen, Earlen of Johnson City, was a Winter Court noble, briefly of the Fall Court. In one of my earliest cases for the Fairy Courts, I had run afoul of a plot on her part to steal a Bauble being sold, and pass the blame on to the owner. There had not been enough evidence to convict her, merely enough to acquit the accused and to leave her on the Fall King’s shit-list, rendering her position in the Fall Court unfriendly.
In turn, she had tried to have me murdered several times, most recently by Polly, who had wound up taking a bullet for me instead and becoming an incredibly close friend.
Fairies never do things the simple way. She could have just had someone shoot me, and it would be a lot more reliable. After the incident with Chaac, and Roy, and in light of my apparent ability to defeat a powerful vampiric goddess while totally alone, the assassination attempts had come to a halt.
All of this ran through my head as I stood in front of the gates. The house was an old one, one of the oldest in Binghamton. Up in the hills, where no one would ever find me. I had approached the door alone, not least because of a lingering fear that if I’d come with all my friends, I would have kicked down the door, set them upon the woman’s household, and burned it and her to the ground.
I’ve forgiven people who tried to kill me before. But only after they were given cause to never try it again. She’d only quit because she didn’t think it would work. She’d never paid the price for trying.
The door opened. A young maidservant smiled from the doorway. I didn’t know her. “Miss LeRoux!”
Apparently she knew me. “I’m here-”
“Of course! Of course! Earlen- Oh!” She flushed. “Queen Wen was expecting you! Please, come in, come in.” She opened the door wider, and stepped out of the way. “Tea? A scone? Anything I can get you?”
“Some green tea would be excellent,” I said, as I walked into the wide, cavernous entrance hall, trying so very hard to trust.
I was walking into the mansion of the Queen of the Winter Court, someone who’d had her predecessor’s most trusted servant throat cut in order to seize her position. A woman who had tried to have me killed and, on one occasion, eaten. A woman who was, so far as I could tell, obsessed with power. Who hungered for it desperately.
It wasn’t nearly as suicidal as it sounded. She was of the Winter Court. She had invited me in. There’s no oath that the Winter Court holds as strongly as that of hospitality. That’s why I hadn’t brought any backup with me into the house, why I’d come without iron. If she broke hospitality, her queendom would be shattered. Every Winter Fairy would regard her as an oathbreaker, and every gathering she attended would have a thousand knives in it. She’d spend decades, at least, trying to heal the damage, and her recently gained title would be useless.
I sincerely hoped that Queen Wen was as cold and calculating as I thought she was. If I was wrong, there was the comforting weight in my front pocket.
Finally, the tea arrived, and the maidservant led me deeper into the building. We walked for quite some time. Finally, we stopped, in a room that was notably chilly, my breath condensing in front of me as I entered the room.
“Atina. I’m so grateful you came.” Queen Wen smiled at me. “Please, have a seat.”
“Queen Wen. You have climbed higher than I’d ever hoped.”
She laughed softly, and her laughter was like the shattering of icicles, cold and broken. I’d never known exactly what kind of fairy Wen was. This was, in fact, the first time I’d ever met her in person anywhere but a Fall Court function. She was skinny, her skin pale and slightly unhealthy looking. Her hair was a very dignified salt and pepper, showing just the beginnings of age. She was dressed in an elaborate blue dress, something impractical and fascinating. “You didn’t bring your friends. I must confess, I expected you to arrive flanked by them. After all, alone… You are very lacking in power.”
“Well, that would be impolite of me. Marching to your door flanked by an Iron Knight and a goddess?” I smiled. “That might be taken as a threat.”
“We’re fae, Atina. Not undead. We aren’t afraid of a little sunlight.” She smiled indulgently. “I didn’t think you’d get violent, at any rate. You’re far too even-tempered for that. No, I thought you’d strut in and start throwing threats around.”
“Did you murder, or have murdered, Dean Morton?”
She smirked. “Why would I?”
“Swear you did not.”
She eyed me slowly, quietly. “Why?”
“Because it will eliminate you as a suspect. I don’t need more people to worry about. This isn’t a game.”
She watched me for a long few seconds. “And if I don’t?”
“Then I come back, after we’ve concluded our hostly and guestly duties, with the goddess and the Iron Knight. And I bet that the other Kings and Queens will be so delighted to learn they’re not going to die, that the culprit has been found, to the point that they’d probably be perfectly happy not to pry into things too much.”
“You know, I could take this as a threat. A violation of hospitality.”
“I looked into it. It works a lot like assault. There has to be an imminent apprehension- In other words, you have to have reason to believe I’m about to do violence while we’re still being hospitable. If we weren’t allowed to make threats, hospitality wouldn’t be nearly so popular.”
“I really thought you’d spend more time strutting before beginning the threats.”
“You’ve profited off of this chaos. There’s a lot-”
“I swear,” she said, softly, “that I was not responsible for the death of the lich Dean Morton, nor was anyone who I control.”
That was a very careful answer. A suspicious answer. But fairies are a lot like lawyers. Their answers are always suspicious, because they think very carefully about them. I sighed softly. “Fine.”
“If there’s anything else…”
“Do you know who did it?”
She chuckled softly, but there was no mirth in her voice, no smile on her face. “Oh, come now, Atina. If I gave it away, what fun would there be to all of this?”
“Your life is on the line, too.”
“I, as it happens, have perfect faith in you, Atina. I don’t doubt for a moment that you’ll find the truth.”
The trust. The certainty. Everyone was sure I could do this. Everyone was depending on me. It was choking me to death, the responsibility, the knowledge that everyone thought I was smarter, more capable, wiser, than I actually was, and I felt it grab me hard by the throat and begin to throttle me, the heat-
I paused for a long few seconds, thinking hard about this. I took a deep breath. “I’ll help you.”
“Help me figure out who did it. Tell me about the fairies. Educate me about their ways. Save your life. And more, solidify your position. You seized power- legally, but that’s going to cause grudges. If you help me, I’ll give you the credit for saving everyone’s lives. Legitimacy. Favors. Everything that you want.” I lowered my head. “I need this help. I am not smart enough to do this on my own.”
She was quiet for a long few seconds. “Call us the Fae.”
I looked up, perplexed. “What?”
“You do not respect us. You go further, you mock us. Referring to us as fairies. We all know, Atina. Most think of it as one of your charming eccentricities. I see the truth, though. You do not respect us.” She tilted her head to one side in a motion that reminded me of predatory birds, focusing an attention that burned on me. “You do not fear us in the slightest.” She smiled. “Show me your humility. Swear to refer to us as the Fae. Not Fairies. Not the Wee Folk. No jokes.” The smile froze, turned hard as ice. “Swear it.”
It was the wrong thing to do. It was the stupid thing to do. It was raw unchecked emotion and it might cost my friend his life and I did it anyway and I would do it again. The queen stared at me for a long second, and her frozen smile seemed to warm slightly. “You have quite some pride, there. Best of luck, Atina. I certainly hope you don’t disappoint.”
I cursed myself out the entire way back to the car, tea and scone left untouched. What was wrong with me? She’d been there. She’d been so close. All I had to do was swallow my pride.
And kowtow to that woman, who used murder so casually. Treat her with respect. Pretend that I didn’t want to see her throttled to death. All without any certainty that she knew anything at all. I walked back to my car, and opened it.
“How did it go?” asked Jenny, looking up from her cellphone. I reached into my pocket, and took out my own cellphone.
“She was willing to take the offer. But she wanted me to sacrifice my pride. I told her to fuck herself.”
“Hmmm,” said Jenny, in a distinctly judgmental way.
“I know, it was stupid. I should have just swallowed my pride, let it go-”
“Odd, isn’t it? That she was willing to let bygones be bygones if she thought you respected her. She must be nervous.”
“Or she might just have known I’d never agree.”
“Maybe,” said Jenny, and reached out, patting my shoulder gently. “It is okay, Atina. We will find a solution. If need be, we will swallow our pride once we are a little closer to the deadline.”
I smiled a bit at that, and drove back into town. I needed a drink. But not a strong one.
I wound up at Citrea. It had been rather a while since I had stopped by the place. It was late afternoon, and they were serving mimosas. I had dropped Jenny off at her apartment, and was now sitting at a table outside, enjoying the modest temperature that the day had settled on. The sky was mostly clear, only a few high cirrus clouds marring the perfect blue, and spring was beginning to settle in here at the tail end of March. I leaned back with a mimosa, and sipped lightly at it as I perused the menu. I was one of a half dozen people sitting outside, and the others were all engaged in soft conversation.
I didn’t notice the silence, at first. It felt like a natural lull in the conversations. After a few seconds, however, it became unnerving. I looked up.
The other diners still sat there. Their skin and clothes matched colors with the clouds in the sky, their posture frozen mid-conversation, mouths open, hands raised in cheerful conversation. Off to my right, frozen in a position of mid-pace, a man and a dog stood, appropriately enough, still as statues. I looked into the front window of Citrea, my heart beginning to race, and saw everyone inside was stone.
A number of possibilities ran through my head. An attack. Basilisk? Cockatrice? Was I simply losing my mind? Had Earlen Wen decided to attack me? I stood up, breathing hard, ready for a fight.
“Don’t be afraid,” said a soft, clear voice. I turned back towards the table.
Silver-Eyed Pallas sat at the table. Her hair was dark, her skin tanned. She was dressed in a simple business suit, but she was unmistakable, not least for the owl that stood upon her shoulder with far more decorum and dignity than the bird should ever actually be able to manifest. She looked up from the menu, met my eyes, and smiled.
“Have a seat.”
I slowly sank into the seat.
“I have been watching you, Atina. Ever since you took that case for Li Fang Fen. Your career has been one of great interest to me.” She set aside the menu and leaned forward, tenting her fingers. “Megan Smith has talked extensively of you. She spoke well of your thoughtfulness, your strategy, your pragmatism. You saved Jenny Nishi in a most impressive way. You have been intriguing.”
“Thank you,” I said, my voice slightly choked.
“You were so confident when speaking with the fairy queen. What has changed?” She smiled.
“I.” I considered my words very carefully. “May I speak frankly, without meaning any offense?”
“What a wonderful request. Feel free.”
“I know what you do to those who disrespect you,” I said, feeling my guts clench up.
Where was Roy? Could Roy even do anything, here? He’d beaten Chaac. Beaten her badly. But this… Athena was a big name. Even then, who knew the kind of chaos that would be caused if they got into a conflict.
Pallas Athena laughed softly, her bright silver eyes twinkling with amusement. “I know what you’re referring to. Yes. There are a few of those in my history, too.” She shook her head softly. “All of the Olympian Gods were prone to such things- But they stand as particularly bleak acts on my part, don’t they? When you strive to be noble, and even-tempered, every loss of control hurts, doesn’t it? You know, Atina. How it feels when you lose control of your emotions. And you don’t have the power that I do.” She sighed. “I try not to do that kind of thing anymore.”
“Why are you here?” I asked, my voice croaking a little. “These people- Did you-”
“Kill them?” I asked, very softly.
“Kill them? Atina, you believe I’d murder a street full of innocent people to have a quiet talk with you?” She waved a hand around. “This is the Gorgoneion. These people will be stone for as long as I desire. When they are released- which I intend to do the moment our conversation is done- they will remember only a brief dizzy spell, and find it slightly later than they expected. I am not a monster, Atina.”
“Why are you here?”
“A second city has fallen,” said Athena, with great solemnity. “Destroyed by the same man. The end of the world is nigh. I am seeking out those who are worthy, those who are great, in order to rescue them. To preserve them in the Third City, when this world is crushed under the tides of darkness that come for it.”
I stared, blankly. “Just me?”
“That’s not enough?”
“I- I need more. There are so many people, my parents, Alfred, Li, Jenny, Polly, the Half-Faced Man-”
Athena held up a hand, fingers spread. “Five. You may bring five with you.”
“Five?” I asked. The black pit of terror yawned open beneath me. “I can’t- That’s not enough-”
“Don’t you think I know that?” said Athena, softly, sympathetically. “Don’t you think I wish there was more that I could do? That I had more power to save the world? All I can save is what is best of it, Atina. Those who are like you. Those who can weather what is to come, and make a new world. With me.” She smiled.
“I can’t go. Not yet. Can I- have some time? To think about it? There’s this case-”
“The case doesn’t matter, Atina,” said the goddess, softly, her expression compassionate, but implacable. “Everyone you seek to save in this place, all the peace you seek to preserve. It will burn. There’s nothing you can do that will change that.”
“I have to try,” I said, feeling dizzy.
“You have until the Winter Solstice. Cutting it close, but…” She clicked her tongue. “I suppose that I would not have chosen you if this weren’t in your nature. I will give you until the Winter Solstice to make your decision. There will be no time left after that.” She stood up, and paused for a moment. “Atina… The most important part of being a hero is knowing to preserve yourself, so that you can save someone another day. The lives of heroes are worth more than that of ordinary humans, even though they are defined by how little they value them.” She smiled softly. “Please. The world to come will need wisdom desperately.”
Then she was gone. The conversation started up with barely a skipped beat, sound filling the air again. I slouched back in the chair, staring at the menu.
“Ma’am? Have you decided what you want?”
“Sorry,” I said. “‘ts, uh. Just the check.”
“Oh. Alright.” The waitress was a bit annoyed, but my appetite had evaporated.
I stopped at the liquor store on the way home. The bottle of tequila glowed golden in the sunlight as I slipped it out of its brown paper bag. As I was walking up the stairs to the front door, my phone rang. It had been in my pocket the whole time. I carefully pulled it out, and saw Alfred was calling. I lifted it to my ear. “What’s up, Alfred?” No point in saying what I’d learned. How would it help anyone? What good could it possibly do to tell anyone that the world was going to end, and I had five tickets off the Titanic?
“Atina. The Dreamwalk is ready.”
“Alright,” I said, and took a deep breath in, then out. “Tomor- Uh. Day after tomorrow.”
“Do you have something happening tomorrow?”
I squeezed the brown-bagged bottle a little tighter to my side. “Yeah. Day after tomorrow. I’ll see you then.”