“Friends,” said Alfred, in the tone that most people reserve for people on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
“Tell me about it,” I sighed, as I lifted the stein, and took a sip. The two of us sat in Irish Kevin’s, at the bar. Some godawful local musician was playing and trying to play over the conversations in the pub, as the conversations at the bar tried to drown him out. The only thing keeping the noise level bearable was Alfred’s manipulation of sound, giving us our own privacy booth.
“Family,” said Alfred, with all the vehemence of a Spanish Inquisitor addressing a heretic as the irons heated up in their brazier.
“You said it, buddy.” I drained the last dregs, set the mug down, and gestured to the bartender. He set down another pair in front of us, and I went to work. Alfred was drinking a thick, foamy stout, while I was having an IPA. I was in a bitter mood, and the IPA helped keep it that way.
“Loved ones,” he said, and drained his stout in a single gulp. That wasn’t a minor task. He slumped forward on his stool, glaring. “Who do they think they are?”
“Bunch of nosy, interfering busybodies,” I agreed, sipping at the Indian Pale Ale.
“My mother. Promising a favor if someone will beat me in a contest, offering up my future to some old fae woman, because she desperately doesn’t want me to die. Willing to do anything just to make sure that I’m not murdered by a kangaroo court.”
“Roy. Telling me to be careful, asking me to be safe. As though he’s saved my life directly more than once. What, he thinks I’m going to get in over my head, just because I always do? Thinks I can’t take care of myself just because he had to save me from a death squad?”
“Li and the Half Faced Man. Trying to interfere, trying to offer us a way out. Did I ask for the Half Faced Man to set up this gauntlet? Did I ask for him to expend every resource he had in the hopes that he could save my life? Did I ask him to put everyone on the line for my sake?”
“And who are they to expect so much of me? Did I ever ask them to trust me to be able to solve things? What did I ever do to justify that kind of faith in my abilities? I’m a fuckup. I can’t even help Jack find out who she was.”
“And Jenny, and Polly!”
“The worst of the bunch,” I said, ordering another set of beers.
“Who do they think they are?” he asked, taking the stout and pounding it back, before belching enormously.
“They think that just because we’ve saved their lives and been their friends, they should be loyal to us in the face of adversity.”
“Worrying about us taking on more than we can handle. What kind of thing is that for someone who loves you to do? Trying to support us and giving us their unconditional love. What if I want to destroy myself!” said Alfred, leaning his head on his hand. “What if…” He was quiet for a moment, and sipped at the dregs of the stout as he looked down into his glass. “And you. I see you running yourself ragged. You nearly overdosed yourself trying to find some clue, any clue. You think that you can just push yourself to the edge, and I won’t notice? I won’t care? You’re my friend.” He nudged me gently in the shoulder. “You can tell me when things are wrong.”
“Oh, yeah? Like you’re any better.” I chuckled softly, looking down at my beer, and downing the remaining half in one pull before I set it down. “Constantly acting like you’re the big bad immortal knight, that you’re ready to face death with a smile and a wink, that you’re not afraid of what could happen.” I looked down at my drink. “Like you’ve got anything to complain about in your life. You’re getting Betty and Veronica’d by two girls who are both crazy for you, and willing to fight to the death to prove it. The whole town loves you, to the point that every Fairy Noble was willing to put their life on the line to buy you a chance at living. What DON’T you have to lose, Alfred?”
“Hah. And you’re drinking yourself to death. You’re probably the most respected human in Broome County among the Courts, you’re doing everything you can to preserve the peace. Probably the only reason there hasn’t been a full-on war going on is because everyone thinks you can do this. Everyone knows you’d do anything to find the truth after last year. You’re surrounded by people who love you, who trust you, and even if you lose this case, they’ll still love you and believe in you. Nobody is going to abandon you just because you fail now and again, Atina.”
I looked down at my drink. “Fucking ass-kisser. Hey, bartender, get a Strawberry Martini for my friend, here, he’s spontaneously turned into a college sorority girl. I’ll have another IPA.”
“No, she’s going to have a frozen Blueberry Margarita. It’s her favorite.” Alfred chuckled. “As though you’re going to fail. I know. You’ll figure it out just in the nick of time. We’ll find out who the real culprit is, we’ll deal out bloody mayhem to the fools, and you’ll be fine. It’s embarrassing to see you milking this case so shamelessly. It’s not like I can pay you.”
“And you’re any better?” I asked, as the two neon drinks were set down in front of us. The bartender, a burly Atlantean with a turtle’s shell and a wizened look, and a rather prominent tattoo across one bicep, nodded quietly. I sipped mine. It was obnoxiously fruity and girly, and I was already feeling better. “Like you are any less prone to getting down on yourself. You defeated some crazy shapeshifting fairy who might actually have been a goddess today. You embarrassed Jenny in front of everyone, and she’s definitely a goddess.”
“She’ll get over it. Everything’s embarrassing when you’re her age. Besides, the point is that you don’t need to die and fulfill some prophecy to kick every ounce of ass the world has to offer.”
“I’m a miserable person. You know, I keep saying that Polly and I are doing this for convenience, that it wasn’t a choice, but…” He sipped his drink. “I think she really does love me. I think I really do love her. She and Jenny, they worked together, because it just mattered that much to them. Jenny fought. I know she doesn’t like fighting. I could see the guilt in her face every time she brought it up. She thinks she’s so hard and tough, now, but she’s still just a teenager.” He sipped the martini again. “I’m a miserable bastard, having feelings for both of them. Polly came back for me, after everything that happened, and here I am saying I don’t really love her, hoping like hell that it’ll encourage her to just let me go. But then she smiles.”
“I think Roy actually loves me,” I said, softly.
“Of course he loves you. He saved you.”
I looked up sharply. “Who else knows that?”
“You just told me, but I knew before that. It was just something… obvious to me, I suppose. I confronted him about it last year.”
I looked back down at my drink. “He acts all fearsome, and terrifying, and people tell me that he’s a monster, that I have to be careful about him, he’s so frightening, but… All of that fear, all of that cruelty, all of it gets directed outwards. Away from me. He told me he loves me, that I give him some meaning. And I’m wondering if, maybe, he was telling the truth.”
“Well. Like attracts like, and there’s no one more arrogant and self-righteous than you, Atina.” He smiled. “What the hell did you do to deserve it all, hmmm? Friends who care about you, a town that believes in you, a thriving legal practice? You, the person who nearly flunked out of Law School.”
“And how about you, huh? Three girls desperate to save your life, surrounded by people who believe in you. Some privileged prince who decided he’d show off to everyone by being a hero. Bet you the whole night’s tab that you weren’t a bergentrückung when you were born. Life doesn’t work that way. Bet they just plop that title on anyone who kicks enough ass and saves enough people and happens to have important parents.” I chuckled softly, and took a sip. “You’ll save everyone after I fuck up.”
“Bah, bullshit. You’re probably going to have this solved by the Fall Equinox. Everyone’s going to be all embarrassed when they totally miss whatever the Fall Court had planned. I know you’re doing everything you can to save me.”
I looked down at my drink, and felt a flush of embarrassment. “Not everything. I… I talked with Queen Wen.”
He looked to one side, an eyebrow raised. “That was… a very calculated risk, I hope.”
“I had Jenny with me.”
“She didn’t tell me. When was this?”
“Ah. She definitely did get more determined about her training after that. I’ve worried about her from time to time. She’s been very intense.”
“She wants to pay us back. Or maybe just be able to pay us back. Like it’s some sort of debt she owes us. The girl’s given me the most steady job I’ve ever had, and for the first time in my life I actually have a regular income. She trusts me to handle those things. I’ve been able to pay off my house. She’s a good friend, too.” I chuckled. “She’s actually going into the city next month to see that MST3K Live special.”
“God, that is an act of true devotion,” said Alfred, and I playfully swatted him on the shoulder. He finished his martini and ordered another. I did the same. “So. You talked with Queen Wen.”
“She wanted me to sacrifice my pride. To refer to her as the F-word.”
He blinked. “F… I…”
“Like fairy, but polite.”
“Fae? And what did you say?”
“I told her to fuck herself.”
Alfred slowly nodded, an eyebrow raised. “A little over the top. As far as requests go, it hardly seems… dire.”
“Words matter, Alfred. It’s a matter of pride.” I looked down at my drink. “I think Roy might leave me if I asked for her help. He told me… He told me I had to have my pride. Or I had nothing.”
“And… what if he hurts someone, because I wasn’t there to rein him in?”
“Do you think he’d do that?” asked Alfred, conversationally. I looked over at him, and he had that knowing grin on his face. “Or are you just worried he’d leave you because you really love him?”
“Shaddup,” I said, looking down. “I just keep… putting it off. Telling myself that it’s not yet time to go that far. Afraid of what’s going to happen.”
“You know, the most appealing thing for a man, speaking from my own perspective, is a strong woman being… less strong.”
“Gosh, who would have thought you had a princess fetish.”
“What I mean is… I doubt that he is going to stop loving you because you ask for help. People like to be asked for help, as long as that help is infrequent, and heeded.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” I looked down at my margarita, vision swimming. Because of the drink. Not tears. “It’s hard asking for help.”
“Yes. We always wish that those close to us would simply magically know when we need help, and know just what to do. Like pulling our asses out of the fire when we need it most. Knowing just what to do, and when to do it.” He shook his head. “What did we ever do to deserve such good friends, Atina?”
“Heck if I know.” I chuckled. “Must have done something good in a previous life, huh?”
The two of us stumbled our way along the sidewalk, upright only through mutual lateral support. Alfred had an arm around my shoulder, and I had mine around his waist, and against any sane and rational architectural design, we were supporting each other. It was a slow and unsteady process, but it worked.
“Issa, whatchacallit, in-groups,” I said. “Summer Court wantsa protect you from, from the other courts. You’re in with that in-group. Lotta people have grudges against you, but they don’t want you killed by th’other courts. Th’other courts hate you f’r, f’r being a symbol of oppression-“
“I hardly ever oppress,” he said, affecting a tone of aggrieved innocence as he yawned heavily. “At most, I intimidate. Those strawberry margaritas were good.”
“Martinis. Point is, point is, you are considered a dark figger, fingore, figure, and you intimidate, but they still don’t wanna, wanna trade you to the Night Court. See? And that Night Court. Most people, didn’t, didn’t like Dean Morton, he wazza asshole. How many people are complaining about his death? His funeral’z in September, and hardly anyone’s gonna RSVP to it.” I shook my head. “I hadda organize the damn thing. But he was part of the in-group.”
“Oh, damn. Have I RSVPed?”
“You didn’t like him at all, Alfred.”
“Yeah, but he was still a fellow wizard.”
“Tha’s the thing! Tha’s the whole point! In-groups. It’s human nature. You got your in-groups. When there’s a threat from outside, you, you come together! Issa point! You fight with family!”
“Yeah, well, that’s the whole problem, isn’t it? You fight with family,” said Alfred, peering around into the darkness outside of the street lamps. On the southern hills, the radio tower flared, lonely ruby lights glowing in the sunset. The lights flared on and off in a slightly offset pattern, brilliant and terrible, like a Sauron of communication.
“Yeah. Well, then, you gotta figure out where the threat is from outside. You realize what’s the danger, you, you, you come together. Drop all your petty grudges. Lock ranks. Face outwards.”
“Or you fake a danger,” said Alfred, and belched. “Mmm. Famous gambit. Quell dissent and consolidate your power by making it seem like there’s some greater threat out there. Human nature’s… a wonderful thing. Our president’s been saying the same kind of things about the Atlanteans. There’s always… urp. Plenty of room for new threats.”
“Don’t see why we need them internally,” I said, softly, my eyes lifting, meeting the stars. Meeting the darkness between them. “Universe’s… ‘s such a hostile place, as it is. All of that… cold, and dark, and just a few scattered points of light… An’ we can barely stand the warmth.”
“Freedom’s a terrible thing,” said Alfred. “Hard to believe in it, sometimes, isn’t it? When you see what it gets you.”
“Yeah.” I sighed.
“What I’m saying is, I really could use a piss.”
“Oh, hell.” I looked from side to side. “Looks clear.” I stepped behind him, and crossed my arms, leaning unsteadily as I heard him unzip. The sound of trickling water filled the air, and I looked up to distract myself. It was a hell of a hero who had to stop to empty their bladder on the way back from the bar. Maybe they had the wrong person, maybe Alfred wasn’t the Mountain Rapture after all. I chuckled softly, and looked back down from the stars.
King Sidney stood in front of me. He looked somehow taller, and I realized I was craning my neck slightly. His eyes glowed faintly in the darkness, his red hair hanging around his burnt, scarred face. “Hello, Atina.”
“Uh, King Sidney. Sorry about today.”
“It was just a passing fancy,” he said, and chuckled. “Hello, Alfred.”
“Oh, bugger,” said Alfred, wiping his hand and zipping up. “Sorry, Your Majesty, nature called.”
“And when she calls, she is not willing to turn aside at the first refusal.” Sidney smiled. “I’m sorry for springing that whole thing on you. It really did seem like the best possible solution. Keep you alive, keep you in the court, satisfy the ghouls. You couldn’t have just taken a dive?”
“I’m afraid not, Your Highness. A man’s pride is a troublesome thing.”
“Well said.” King Sidney shook his head. “I’m sorry, my boy. I’d really hoped I could save you.”
The king was fast. Alfred was already reaching for his rapier as the knife flashed out, and buried itself in his chest. The blow was hard enough to crack the concrete under Alfred’s feet, iron blade cutting through the mail. Alfred fell choking to the ground, and went still, as King Sidney turned towards me. He towered over me, fists curled into brutal, jagged masses, his eyes flashing red, his face barely recognizable as human, as he approached.
“King Sidney?” I said, feeling very afraid and terribly alone.
“This is your fault,” he rumbled. “Your fault the woman I love is at risk. Your fault my kingdom teeters. You brought this violence upon our world.”
“You- You swore to abide by the rulings of the contest, you can’t-“
“Don’t ever dare presume to tell me what I can’t, human.”
That fist came down like a sledgehammer, and struck me on the cheek
a burned man lying in the ashes, a skeleton lying across his chest the charred tatters of a dress surrounding its figure he doesn’t even remember her name all she is now is bones bones bones they’re all bonesbonesbones he didn’t save enough never enough
I struck the ground, and my skull bounced off the grass. I gasped for air. It took several seconds for the pain to hit, radiating out across my cheeks, and it was only luck that I hadn’t been killed. I scrabbled at the ground, pulling myself a couple of feet, only to feel the fingers wrapping tight around one of my feet. I looked over my shoulder. Sidney crouched over me, his expression vicious, furious. “You’re the fucking Summer King!” I screamed, indignant rage driving me. “You swore an oath!”
“Oaths. Oaths. You always rely on them so much, human. Think the laws will protect you, that they will guard you from consequence. You pushed me. You pushed me so damn hard. You refused to let me save the ones I care about. It was not bad enough that my life be put at risk, I have always been prepared for that. But now you threatened her.” His teeth glowed in the night, blackened and cracked and flaring from within with unnatural flames. “I’m going to kill you slowly, for forcing me to kill one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.”
“Yeah?” I gritted my teeth, psychotic anger filling me. I’d never been the kind to be happy with fleeing. Every nerve in my body sang with ferocious tension, with the desire to kill. This fairy bastard thought he could do what he pleased? That power, that influence, they came with a price. The oaths he’d sworn had weight. I’d never done this before, because I knew what it was, to command a fairy with a broken vow. But with Alfred lying there across the ground, arms spread, that heavy-hilted knife sticking out of his chest, I found it in me to mean it. “Go fucking kill yourself!”
The words echoed from the trees, as the giant stared down at me. Then he grinned, and twisted. I felt my ankle wrench, and could barely bite back the scream as he twisted, and twisted, the pain growing unbearable.
The King moved suddenly, releasing my leg, as a sound like silk tearing filled the air. He reached up to his cheek, touching the cut that had appeared there, the edges tinged with red, burning his skin, making his face flush angrily as he looked up. Alfred appeared, holding that knife. The hole was visible in his armor, ragged. And there, on his hip, was the scabbard of Excalibur.
“You’re not an idiot, my old friend” said Sidney. “You do plan things out.” He squeezed his fists. “But illusions and regeneration are no use against fire.”
The flames erupted. A circle of them, roaring and flickering, savage heat pushing in on us from all sides. The crackling flares leapt and danced, and Sidney advanced on Alfred, murder in his eyes. The first swing, Alfred dodged easily. The third took a bit more effort. The fifth, Alfred had to parry with his broadsword. Even with the sheath keeping him from suffering bloodloss, the pain of being stabbed in the heart had to be immense. I tried to push myself to my feet, and the moment that the weight came down on my ankle
a pale figure walking through the darkness among the ashes a hand brushing through the remains here and there until she stood over him and leaned forward her salt and pepper hair framing her face and in a world that was all radiating heat and the smell of cooking meat her breath was like the ice of the north wind and it took away his pain
I came to, sprawled across the ground, breathing hard. Pain radiated through my ankle as I tried to figure out what was happening.
Alfred is a master of the blade. He had also spent an entire day fighting to the utmost of his abilities, had drunk heavily, and had been stabbed. His defeat was slow, but it was inevitable. The broadsword was swatted from his hand, and Sidney raised him by the throat in a single terrible, inhuman, gnarled hand.
“Even in these depths, even in the blackness of despair, I am sorry I had to do this to you, Alfred,” he said, his voice low, resonant, his eyes dark. “But it is between you, and her.”
“You won’t get away with this,” I growled. “Even if you kill both of us, you’ll be found. You won’t get away with this.”
“I never intended to,” said Sidney, as he lay his second hand on Alfred’s throat beside the first, and began to squeeze.
“For gods sakes! I can solve this, don’t fucking kill him! You’re giving up fucking hope now?!”
“You had enough time,” said Sidney, and I saw Alfred’s legs kick, his face turning red. I tried to force myself to my feet, but my ankle wouldn’t carry my weight.
I closed my eyes, hearing Alfred choking. Begging, praying, that Roy would be here. That he’d arrive, like he promised. There was a leathery sound, and I opened my eyes, hoping against hope.
The fire swept aside, and Jenny entered the ring, holding the wooden sword. Her clothes smoldered slightly as she stepped forwards, the blade blackened and charred. She herself was unharmed. “Unhand him.”
King Sidney looked aside, and chuckled. “Or what? I am not afraid of the sun, girl.”
“Everyone should fear the sun. You do not burn nearly so bright.”
Sidney growled, and his fingers tightened, and then loosened. This was not voluntary on his part. It’s very hard to strangle someone when your arms have been nearly cut off. He stared as Alfred tumbled from his limp, useless hands, a thin band of muscle all that kept his arms from falling off. Jenny lowered the bloody wooden sword, stepping between him and Alfred. “Useless little corpppp-“
Jenny lifted him higher, one slender hand wrapped around his throat, her eyes flaring. “You tried to hurt them. To hurt my friends. To kill them, when I wasn’t there.” Her fingers visibly tightened, nails digging into the King’s craggy throat, tearing open red and burning holes, molten blood dripping down her arms, smoking and blackening where it touched. “You son of a bitch, I should kill you-“
“Jenny,” rasped Alfred. “Let him down. He’s been disarmed.”
Jenny stared for a moment, and then released the King. He slumped onto the ground, folding up on his knees, blood dribbling down his forearms, though not as much as one would think from the grievousness of the wound. His eyes closed, and he collapsed. She turned to look at me, and Alfred. “I know he’s okay. He wouldn’t be… be making such a stupid joke if he wasn’t. You okay, Atina?”
“Fine,” I grunted, biting my lip, eyes watering. “Just wrenched my ankle. Didn’t break it. Might be sprained.” I breathed hard, hands on my ankle as the flames died. Polly appeared out of the darkness, followed by Li Fang Fen, The Half-Faced Man, and Jack. Jack ran up to me, and put her arms around my shoulders, tears running down her cheeks as she clung to me. “Whoa, there. Unvarnished affection. I never would have expected that from you.”
“I shouldn’t have let you go alone,” she said, tears running down her cheeks. “You could’ve been hurt.”
“Could have been?” I asked, and when I saw the expression on her face, I felt guilty as all hell. “It’s okay. Alfred kept him busy, Jenny did fine. Li-“
“Yeah,” she said, growling. She drew her gun. “Is there one good reason I shouldn’t put a bullet in the back of his head?”
“Yeah, lots, Jesus, give me a second here, Dirty Harriet. Cool it down there.” I rubbed my cheek. My head was still spinning, and my jaw was tender to the touch. “He’s still the Summer King. And something strange was going on there. I didn’t think Fae COULD break their oaths like that. He just… shit, he went berserk. And he was talking about someone.” I rubbed my ankle, trying to make the thoughts line up through the pain.
“What are we going to do?” said Alfred, sitting up slowly, staring around. Polly had her arms around him, hugging him to her chest, tears running down her cheeks as she squeezed him. The fire had burned itself out, but the large black circle was more than a little bit distinctive.
“I don’t know. I think I need to figure out more about this. I’ve got an idea, but first…” I took a deep breath. No time like the present. “I need to tell you all about something. I’ve had… an offer.”
I told them the whole thing. Athena’s offer. The threat about the end of the world. It was a relief, and also a pain. Seeing the fear and anxiety on Li and Jack’s faces. The soft, sad acceptance on the faces of Jenny and Alfred. The distant pokerface of the Half-Faced Man. Polly had her face buried in Alfred’s shoulder, and I wasn’t sure she’d even heard me.
“Five people,” said Li, softly. “Fairly generous, all things considered. And she said you could bring Alfred?”
“Yeah. I could just… run away from all of this. Leave it to burn. From the sound of things, it sounds like it might be the right decision.” I looked at the unconscious form of King Sidney. A man who had fought for decades to preserve peace and prosperity in Binghamton. A man whose reputation was of absolute fairness and justice, and a strong commitment to law and order. Who’d just tried to murder his own champion in front of witnesses. “It feels, sometimes, like I’ve done more harm than good.”
“I would be forced to disagree,” said Jenny, softly, her hands in her lap as she sat on the sidewalk. She was shaking like a leaf now, in the aftermath of the fight. Alfred was right. She was tough in a fight, but afterwards, she was a wreck, all nervousness and fragility, as she came to terms with what she had just done. Her hands trembled slightly as she stood up. “I wouldn’t dream of telling either of you what to do, but…”
“Not ready to surrender yet,” said Alfred, softly. “I don’t want to give up, Atina.” He looked up. “I have too much to live for. I am not ready to give it all up out of fear. I want to see this through, to the bitter end. Perhaps I will die, perhaps I will lose myself to some prophecy, it doesn’t matter. Because there’s still some fight left in me, and I want to know the truth of this matter.”
“The seasons change,” said The Half-Faced Man. “The hottest days of Summer remain ahead of us, but we are entering Autumn. The time of secrets, both that which has been hidden, and that which shall be revealed.” He rubbed his chin. “I suspect that the time has come to look for the answers you do not want.”
I thought of the vision. Salt and pepper hair, and loathing. “Alright. After I get a good night’s sleep.” I was quiet for a moment, and then coughed. “Uh… Anyone who’d like to stay over tonight- I’d appreciate the company.”
“I need to handle this… entire mess. I’d appreciate you being along with me on this, Half-Faced Man,” said Li Fang Fen.
“I’ve got nowhere to be,” said Jenny, smiling wanly. Jack still hugged me tight.
“Can’t believe I was saying we should leave you alone,” murmured Polly, shaking her head. “From now on, neither of you two are going anywhere without at least one of us with you at all times. Alright? This isn’t safe anymore.”
“Tell me about it,” groaned Alfred. “I wouldn’t have expected it of Sidney. I hope he’s alright.”
“I should have done worse,” said Jenny, a bit miserably. “Should have made sure he couldn’t do anything like that again.”
“He’ll probably be a bit stiff for a while until he’s finished healing. A wound like that is going to give him a lot to think about,” said Jack. “They can do good work reattaching limbs as long as it’s quick, but it definitely makes an impression.” She peered suspiciously at the wooden sword. “That was a hell of a swing.”
I didn’t participate in the conversation. I was still thinking about this.
The next day, Jack by my side- she refused to leave me alone, and I wasn’t all that inclined to force her to- I made my way up into the hills in my car. I stopped in front of Earlen Wen’s mansion. I considered telling Jack to wait outside, but it had been that attitude which had gotten my ankle twisted, and her support as I made my way up to the front door was welcome. I rang the bell.
The door opened. The cheerful maid smiled. “Oh, Miss LeRoux! I’m sorry, Queen Wen isn’t taking any visitors.”
“Tell her it’s me. And tell her…”I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and steeled myself. “Tell her these exact words. Understand?”
“Tell her I need help from the Fae.”