“Is her presence necessary?”
Jack crossed her arms. “Someone tried to murder Atina last night, against his sworn word. I’m here to make sure she’s safe.”
Earlen- Queen Wen, rather- leaned back in the chair. The three of us sat at her breakfast table, in a large glass conservatory. It was positioned at the southern end of her mansion, and the morning sunshine gave it a merry atmosphere. The table was large enough to seat a dozen, but Wen sat at it alone. The room seemed designed for large and elaborate parties, or cheerful breakfast conversations between an entire family, filled to the bursting with platters of food and carafes of juices.
Three small cups of earl grey tea sat on the plate. In deference to basic caloric intake, the maid had brought me a slice of whole wheat toast smeared with a small sliver of butter and a smear of some unfamiliar, but flavorful jam. It was making a substantial impact on the hangover that I had been suffering. Earlen Wen could be many things, but her hospitality was up to snuff.
“Very well.” She sighed heavily, and leaned back in her chair. “You’ve come to my house. You have done something I frankly never expected you’d do. To see you, of all people swallow your pride… What has happened?” she asked, lifting her cup from her saucer, and taking a slow, measured swallow. I waited as she drank, and then set the saucer back down. The teacup looked nice, and I didn’t want it damaged.
“King Sidney Dimmock tried to murder me and Alfred last night, and he didn’t seem to care about the fact that he’d sworn not to.”
Queen Wen pursed her lips. She seemed to consider this idea, chewing it over like a bitter mouthful of something indigestible. She did not look like she would have dropped the cup or spat out the tea, which was somewhat disappointing, but what she said next made up for it. “Motherfucker,” she said, emphasizing every syllable. “Start from the beginning.”
I walked her through the day’s events, and she listened, with increasing bitterness. “And so, I came to you.”
I paused. I hadn’t explained a couple of things. The visions, for example. “Because I talked with the Half-Faced Man. He told me he knew who had really nursed Sidney back to health, who had saved him from the fire.”
“Sidney saved himself from the fire. I merely saved him from the infections. Winter’s cold touch on a brave young boy…” She was quiet for a moment, staring out the window. It was cold in here, and I knew cold. It couldn’t be more than fifty degrees, and keeping it so cold must have been expensive. I shivered slightly, and not at all because of the temperature.
“We’ve got a history,” I said, when I could stand the silence no longer. “You tried to kill me.”
“You were interfering with my plans. With the business of a Fairy Court. For a mere mortal, one without even a patron of their own, that was… unforgivable.”
“You were using a man as a pawn.”
“My plan did not involve his death. You have seen the ways of the Fae. So many of us are… sentimental. I read your blog. I understand your view of us. You see us as ridiculous creatures of stories. And it’s true. A fairy loathes killing off an interesting character. Life is so long, and you need stories to fill all that time. The Fall King would have pardoned him, even without your intervention. Mind you, the Fall King was pleased by your actions. You traded a simple story of intrigue for something more… exciting. He was charmed by it. I was incensed.”
“So you tried to kill me.”
“When I decide something must die, they do. You were merely a moment of pique who proved… resilient.” She shook her head. “Did you think I stopped trying to have you killed because I had run out of resources? Because I’d decided you were simply unkillable?”
“I thought it was because of what happened to Chaac.”
She shook her head. “Well. That did confirm my decision. Seeing what had become of them made me wonder what hidden reserves you’d tapped into. I know that you, yourself were not capable of that. You are simply not the kind of woman who hides her strength like that. You display it for everyone to see.” She leaned back. “No. It was when you had my daughter at your mercy, and you decided to spare her. You upheld sacred hospitality in the most important of ways. You saved my family. From that moment on, you and I were kin.”
I blinked. “It was just- It just made sense-”
“Yes. It did, didn’t it? She had just saved your life, so it only seemed right to save her in turn. It didn’t matter when you found she was there to kill you herself.” She rested her chin on her fist, and smiled coldly. “In that moment, I saw you as you truly are. And I empathized. You were of the Winter Court.”
“Each of the courts has their philosophy. It determines how they approach the world, and those around them. The Spring Court sees the world as a garden. Everything they desire is available to them. Humans exist to amuse and delight them, coming up with fascinating new toys and delightfully unexpected diversions. The Summer Court sees the world as a challenge. Humans exist to fight, fuck, and impress. The Fall Court sees the world as a riddle. Humans exist to confuse, enlighten, or learn from. And the Winter Court…” She met my eyes, and left the words unsaid.
“Life is an ordeal,” I said. “Full of pain, and suffering, challenges and chances to die. And in that icy-cold infinity, there exist a handful of warm, bright spots, and they’re all the brighter for the cold that surrounds them. And they’re the ones you want to protect. They’re the ones you fight for.”
“And so why did you refuse to help me until I abased myself?” I asked, hotly.
“Pride is a terrible thing in the cold. If you would do that, if you would rather keep your pride than solve an issue that faces us all, if the uttering of a single word is enough to hold you back, then how do I know you are not the one responsible?”
I opened my mouth to reply heatedly, and then closed it, considering the question. “Fine. You had to get me to give up something to show I was serious. What can you tell me, then?”
“First and foremost, you haven’t made much progress. What makes you think, in particular, that this is a case that can be solved?”
“There had to be a reason. People stood to gain from Dean Morton’s death.”
“How do you know it was not some random madman with more power than sense? Or some dark figure from his past, someone who you have never seen before, who you will never recognize?”
“Because-“ I gritted my teeth. Because if that was the truth, if there was no answer I could find, then I was screwed. Alfred was screwed. My friend would die. Because-
“It would make a dreadful story.” She smiled softly, her expression faintly amused. “That is the truth of the Fae. That is why humans love and fear us in equal measure. To the Fae, all things happen for a reason. Not the usual dull, staid reasons of human experience. A man dies because he did a great evil, or uncovered a plot. He dies because it is appropriate, even if it is heartbreaking. A man does not simply die because he tripped and broke his neck. He does not die simply because the city is experiencing an economic contraction and he looked like he might have money on him.”
“I’d rather people didn’t die at all,” I said, looking to one side.
“But everyone dies. And everyone has their idea of what dying well means. Some believe that to die fighting for something great is the most beautiful of all. Some believe that to die as a consequence of your past misdeeds is ideal. Some believe that dying for the sake of a single other life is the grandest expression. And some believe that dying surrounded by your loved ones, at the end of a long and fruitful life, is not a thing to be feared, but a proof that you spent those years as best as you could. What everyone seeks, though, is the same. Meaning. Without meaning, we are nothing.”
That gloomy statement hung in the air for a long few seconds, and I considered it quietly.
Finally, she stirred. “We are in this together. You saved my daughter once. You preserved her by fleeing another time. She told me that you fled when she was incapacitated, and it may have saved her life, by my estimation. What I owe you is not a favor, because the winter does not keep score. Those who dwell beneath the snow cannot afford to say ‘I will not help you this time, because what have you done for me lately’, because fortune may change in a moment. So long as you are not a burden on my household, I owe you hospitality. So first, ask yourself. Who stands to gain?”
I leaned back, and sighed, closing my eyes. I’d gone through this so many times in my head. “The major powers in the Undead who could have a reason are… I suppose, Lady Ann Willing, Tadodaho, and Jenny. Dean Morton was a power broker. He was a force for conservatism. His death means that the Night Court is moving, active, for the first time in who-knows-how-long. I don’t think the Notte Nostra could go unseen, this city watches for them too carefully. Edwin Link isn’t a political man. He’s able to keep an eye on what’s happening, but he’s never seized power before. Barring a revelation, I can’t imagine him doing this. Jenny… She’s the obvious suspect, but even beyond that, I’d know if she was the one who did it.”
“Are you so sure you know your friends?”
“Yes. If she’d done this, she’d have told me. For any reason that Jenny could possibly kill Dean Morton, she’d have to have known I’d have her back. She’s too gentle, too smart, and too unmotivated to murder anyone, especially in such an obvious way.” I sighed. “Lady Ann Willing and Tadodaho. I introduced Tadodaho to the city. In sheer power, he outclasses everyone here by an order of magnitude. He was formidable when he was alive, and eight hundred years of death, veneration, and anger put the edge on a personality that could already cut a nation in half. He might want a war in order to consolidate his hold. Lady Ann Willing, on the other hand, she lost a great deal of face, and withdrew. She also seemed… pensive…” I went quiet. “I don’t like suspecting people.”
“It’s so easy if it’s the people you dislike who are responsible,” she said, softly.
“Yes. Like me. If I were responsible for all of this, it would make things terribly easy for you. You wouldn’t have to wonder if someone who you respect, who you admire, has decided to destroy a peace you have fought so hard for, all for their own temporary gain.” She nodded. “Winter is the time of conspiracies, too. It is amazing, isn’t it, how even in the face of horror, we find a way to destroy ourselves, don’t we? That covers the Undead. Who among the Fairy, then?”
“I don’t honestly know them well enough. It’s hard to say any of the Kings and Queens would have been willing to risk their lives like this. Speaking of which, the Gauntlet. Does that bind you?”
“Oh, yes. My life is forfeit if Alfred is not found guilty by the four contests. And it is getting painfully close to that time, isn’t it?” She smiled. “The Fairy Courts in Binghamton are decadent, decrepit. Full of those who have held their positions for a long time. I am the first new Royal in quite a while. That alone is enough to be suspicious of me. I had everything to gain in this. On the other hand, my daughter is in love with the Iron Knight who stands accused. So, which do you think I’d be more likely to sacrifice: My life, or my daughter’s lover?”
“Let’s get back to that one. Among those who aren’t dead if Alfred survives the gauntlet-“ I paused. “He wouldn’t do that.”
“Ah, yes. I wondered when you’d come to him.” She smiled. “The Half-Faced Man is quite the enigma, isn’t he? He’s so knowledgeable about some things, but he never quite shares all of it, does he?”
“I’ve seen him surprised.”
“Oh, yes. Most definitely. And that is the key. I don’t believe the Half-Faced Man is behind this. I know him better than many, and while he knows things no one else does, that does not mean he knows everything. He did this out of his own terrible loyalty. In truth, the Fairy Courts cannot afford a war. We are ascendant in spring. This is a time of trade, and tribute. To the courts, better the Kings and Queens offer their heads than we go to war with the dead. After all, the dead have always outnumbered the living, and everyone joins their ranks eventually…”
“Then I’m not sure who…”
“Tell me. Have you ever met with the Demon Prince of Binghamton?”
“No,” I said, firmly. “I don’t get involved with the demon courts.”
“Really? And do you think you can afford to remain ignorant?”
“I’m not ignorant. I just know what happens when demons and lawyers tussle.”
“Come now. We both know you know more about demons than that. They are not as terrible as you believe.” She smiled. “If you understand them truly, you would be far more frightened by their nature. But you do not even understand the motivations of Prince Vassago. You should meet him. I understand he has been waiting eagerly for when your curiosity drove you to him.”
“I suppose so.” I sighed. “But I’ve got a last question for you before I leave today.”
At this, Queen Wen looked down at her food, looking discomforted. “That. That is going to be trouble. Trouble that we have not seen in… so, so long.” She sighed softly. “It is not something that most would know of. It is an ancient thing, something not seen for a long time. Has it ever occurred to you… Considering the ease with which Fae may be bound by laws, the harmlessness of the courts- All of those gentle, kind souls- why was iron necessary?”
“I always figured that the whole ‘nice and harmless’ fairy thing was because of iron. Nothing like weapons to make the monsters behave.”
“That is a part of it. But there is more.” She rested her fingertips together, frowning over the tented fingers. “You know of the varied Court divisions. Summer and Winter, Dark and Light… Seelie, and Unseelie.”
“Yeah. Scottish designation. The ‘nice’ fairies, and the asshole fairies. The ones who’d warn you when you were pissing them off, and treat with you fairly, and the ones who would screw you over. The fairies who got milk, and the fairies who got iron. The silly fairies.”
“Yes. Very silly. Faking dramatic fights for a laugh. Challenging their champion to a contest where his failure would mean his marriage to an old lady. Gentle, laughing, silly fairies. And the other kind. The kind that are like fire and fury in the night. The kind that loom and who are too powerful and who are there to kill you stone dead, for what you have done. The kind that you met last night.” She sighed. “The kind that aren’t silly at all.”
“And you. Are you one of those unseelie fae?”
“The Unseelie do not understand hospitality,” hissed Wen, furious, her eyes narrowed. “They are the starving ones, the ones who cannot think past the next meal of flesh and fear. And I have never been Unseelie!” There was unusual heat in her voice, then, and fury, and something else, too.
“I’m sorry,” I said, softly, and I meant it. “I didn’t mean to hurt you with what I said.”
The fire fled her in an instant, and her shoulders slumped. “This is why I insist on respect. Why I demand such things, from my daughter, from my underlings, from you. It is hard to strive to be good, to follow the Seelie side of my nature, to focus on what is good and necessary. It can seem cold, and callous, and terrible, but it is a struggle to fight the urge to be a hungry beast in the midst of winter. And all I ask is that you show me respect.”
“Yeah. That’s all I ask, too.” I was quiet for a moment. “So. He went Unseelie. How?”
“It is not a choice. It is not even a life-or-death consequence. To become Unseelie was never easy. For the last four hundred years, it simply did not happen. One of the countless consequences of- But, you wouldn’t know about that.”
This did provoke a reaction. Her eyes widened slightly, then narrowed. “These are things that are meant to be secrets.”
“Well, what can I say. I love secrets. So it all comes back to these Cities, does it?”
“Yes. In the last year, I have noticed the uptick. There have always been a handful of Unseelie fae. Those who hide in the dark corners of the world. The reason for men like Alfred to go into the night. But now, more are appearing.” She sighed. “Becoming Unseelie is not a simple thing. It is a stress response akin to going amok. It cannot be summoned by a mere threat of death or pain. It must be something that you cannot accept, something contrary to your very heart. Only those Fae with convictions can become Unseelie, because only they can be pushed past the point of endurance by the conflict between their convictions and their oaths. And when they are…”
“They become unbound by their word.”
“Not precisely. They are… essentially, a different person. The same faerie, but seen in a mirror. Oaths sworn by one cannot affect the other. But for a faerie who has never been Unseelie, who has never had their oaths come undone… Yes. And whatever was sincere enough to drive them to those lengths becomes perverted. If you hadn’t stopped Sidney, he’d probably have come to visit me next, and while I don’t know precisely what he would have wanted, it wouldn’t have pleasant for me.” She sighed. “It isn’t something we speak of. Because it hasn’t been a concern for dozens of generations. Because being able to live among humans relies on our word. How do you look at us now?”
“Honestly… it makes you seem a lot more human. Anyone can snap and do something they regret in a heated moment.”
Queen Wen stared at me for a moment. “You really do mean that, don’t you?” she asked, somewhat amused. “Goodness. I thought humans liked predictability. Knowing that we can’t break our word.”
“I don’t like anyone who can’t change their mind. Predictability is good sometimes, but only when it leads to a happy conclusion. When everyone can see that things are going to end awfully, but nobody’s willing to challenge the things that are causing it… That’s too stupid for me to admire.”
“Yes,” said Queen Wen, softly. “I’m afraid I know exactly what you mean.” She stood up.
“Oh, I hate to bring it up, but you’re the Winter Queen. The Iron Knave is yours, yes? So should I be watching out for a sudden stab in the back?”
“Hah. I understand where you’re coming from.” Queen Wen smiled. “I don’t want the Iron Knave to kill you, Atina. I swear, I would rather you, and I, both live through this. Whatever happens, the city will need people who know how to bury grudges.”
“Thanks.” I stood, and held out my hand. “Thank you. When I need to talk with you again, I’ll be sure to use the magic word.”
Queen Wen took my hand, once, and shook it. Her maid appeared, and led the two of us out of the building. I sighed as I emerged into the sunlight.
“Do you believe her?” said Jack, frowning as the two of us made our way down to the car, speaking for the first time and giving me a minor shock.
“I don’t believe everyone without reservation. Nothing she said contradicted what I know about the world, so for the time being I’m going to tend towards believing she’s honest when she says she doesn’t want Alfred to die. The rest… She’s right, I need to examine everything I can about the town. Track down everything. I’m going to have start making bargains.” I grimaced. “Thanks for being along with me. What did you notice?”
“Well… She was very evasive with direct questions. Lots of hypotheticals. It was suspicious.”
“Yeah. Thing is, that’s par for the course for fairies. They’re big on evasiveness at the best of times. At least, some of them. It’s one of the things you learn about language. I’ve heard it’s a consequence of the proliferation of English- It’s such a vague and ambiguous language that faeries become naturally more prone to vagueness using it. What else?”
“Well… She swore she wanted you to survive. But that’s not really the same thing as saying you’re safe from the Iron Knave. So I need to keep watching your back.”
“Just so. Anything else?”
“She never did say what kind of fairy she is, did she? Is she a Jotunn? Sidney’s a Jotunn, and Polly’s a Redcap…”
“Yes. Sometimes it spreads in bloodlines. Sometimes it doesn’t. Subversion’s a bitch like that, but no telling what, exactly, she is. You’ve got some good insights. Thanks for coming with me, Jack.” I smiled softly as I took out my phone, and dialed. “Going to make an appointment. Hello, is this the number for Prince Vassago?”
“I’m sorry, this is the Lucky Kitchen dry-cleaning, do you have a ticket?”
I sighed, and took out the card. “Uh… The Wild Gray Gentleman gives his regards.” I rolled my eyes. Fairies learned everything they knew about overdramatic bullshit from humans, and the receptionist would be human.
“Ah, Miss LeRoux. Michael gives you his apologies for not having gotten in touch. Prince Vassago has a meeting with you, in September. The 21st.”
“How long has that appointment been made?” I asked, frowning.
“Hmmm. It was entered December 24th, 2016, ma’am.”
“Christ. And nobody told me before now?”
“He said you’d call eventually.”
“Great. Thanks. Tell him go fuck himself for me.”
“Of course, ma’am.” I hung up the phone, and glared at it. Jack stared. “Don’t be so impressed. The Demons tend to have one thing in common, which is a talent for foretelling. Probably set it up just in case. If I hadn’t called, I’d never have even known about the meeting. The key to seeming like you can tell the future is hedging your bets, and knowing people’s nature.” I shook my head. “Seems like he’s not giving me answers any time soon. Right before the next trial… What a pain.” I sighed, and slid my phone into my pocket, right as it began to ring. I frowned, and opened it up. The number was unfamiliar. I opened the phone.
“Ah… Miss LeRoux?” I blinked. It took me a couple of seconds to recognize the voice.
“Oh. You’re that Atlantean from the Mission, right?”
“Yes. We have a visitor here. She’s only in town for a few hours, but when we told her about your case, she insisted she wanted to see you. Ah, I understand if you’re busy, but this is quite important.”
“Sure. I’ll be right down there.” The line cut off, and I frowned, looking over at Jack. “Well, uh. You ready to go meet whoever this mysterious Atlantean is?”
“I suppose. Should we dress nice?”
“Ah, we should be fine in this.”
I cursed internally as we stood before Her Imperial Majesty, the Goddess of the Atlantean Diaspora, Ku-kaili-moku-polemo. We were dressed… not poorly, but everyday wear. I was not wearing my good formal wear, which would have been appropriate.
I knew the general attitude most news sources and governments had. ‘Goddess’ was a title. The idea that Ku-kaili-moku-polemo was, in fact, a dead child who had been used as the focus for the hopes and dreams of the Atlantean people for a perfect, eternal leader was simply propaganda, the same kind which had been used by human leaders who were oh-so-human for all of human existence.
On the other hand, Kim Jong Il and Joseph Kony had never had footage of clutching a grenade to their chest and surviving it unscathed. I’d seen explanations of it, which inevitably started leaning heavily on the Atlanteans’ purported inhuman physiology and supposed psionic capacity. At that point, it really felt like people were splitting hairs.
The Queen was visually striking. An easy nine feet tall in her true Atlantean form. Her features were mostly humanoid, though her nose was petite, her teeth sharp triangles of jagged calcium, and her skin fishbelly white. A cape of great green hair surrounded her, hanging around her shoulders, kelp-like and slick. She was flanked by a young human man, one of her arms resting on his shoulder. The reason for this support was rather obvious from the round bulge of her stomach. She was quite pregnant. In deference to human custom, she was dressed. In deference to Atlantean preference, it was in a bikini.
“Hah. Apologies for not bowing, my most honored guests,” she said, and smiled. “Pregnancy is taxing on the divine. It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss LeRoux, and you, my fellow.” She waved a hand graciously at the chairs set across from her in the back room of the mission. “I am sorry to have such a brief time to speak with you. In truth, you deserve more of my time. But there are so many missions, now, and I have only a brief amount of time to visit each one. Will you be coming to the ceremony later?”
“Ceremony?” I asked, head tilted.
“Yes. The Summer Solstice. Daryl and I will be saying a prayer for the return to sanity and a turn away from war.” She smiled, and leaned over, giving the human man a kiss on the cheek. He looked young, quite a bit younger than me, but with a weary smile, he nodded. I’d heard a bit about him, too. Seen the royal wedding and everything. It had attracted a lot of attention. He seemed to have taken well to the role of unofficial liaison- both political and romantic- between the two extant branches of humanity. Not to mention the very tangible proof that Atlanteans were human.
“Ah. Sounds a bit… political.”
“Yes. I would like to suggest I am surprised by it, but, well, it is in the nature of humans- Terrestrial or Atlantean- to embrace madness with the ardor of an ex lover, isn’t it?” She sighed. “But we cannot refuse to call for reason and empathy simply because it will have us branded as dangerous anarchists. Now, come here, Honored Goddess.” She smiled, and gestured to Jack, taking a seat. Jack, standing, was just about on eye level with the seated goddess. “My… You are hard done by, aren’t you? Goodness… I read about the dossier, but to see it…” She pondered for a moment. “This will not be easy to fix. Not necessarily impossible, but…” She clucked her tongue.
“I mean… How would you fix it, exactly?”
“The final step is to give her the energy she needs. Jack, you are a tsukumogami of great age and power, even I can tell that. You have fallen from a great height, and that is unfortunate, because it means that you will need a vast amount of energy in order to renew yourself, even if your wounds are fixed. And without healing the psychological and physical wounds which have put you in this state, you will never be able to become whole again. Any power that is poured into you will be drained away. Frankly, that you are even alive is a sign of… intervention. Do you know who intervened?”
Jack shrugged. “It’s all in that report. First thing I remember was the man who held me, and being taken from a burning home.”
“Without memories of what you are, without a thorough idea of who and what you are, you have no idea what you should be. Any attempt to heal yourself will be… thwarted. Cancerous. It would be dangerous to introduce you to who I have in mind.”
“Is there any way to find out who I am?” asked Jack, and I was interested to note she seemed less glum, and more… annoyed. I didn’t blame her. Hyper-advanced race my butt.
“Yes. A god is much like a memory. When you can find a starting point, the thing you have lost, then you can find the rest. Your name was written in you, somewhere. Your true name. True names are desperately important. Find that… And the rest shall come. Hear it, know it…”
I considered the suggestion. And I remembered what I had seen when I had chanted by Jack’s side. For a moment, I opened my mouth…
And I remembered the vision I had seen when I had pressed too deep. My stomach clenched slightly. Leaning more heavily on the psychometry might be dangerous. Better to research. I had something to look up now, at least. “I think I have some ideas on that front. I’ll see what I can manage. And if we do…”
“Here. I’ll give you their contact information.” She scribbled down on the card. “Give him my best if you do see him, won’t you? I haven’t been able to see him in a while, but…” She smiled, and squeezed Daryl’s shoulder. “Of course, that’s all in the past. Time keeps moving. Would you care to join us for the ceremony?”
“That’d be lovely.”
And it was. Even with the protestors complaining about ‘something fishy in Washington’.