Chapter 14: Hands, a Knife, String, or Nothing.

“This is vile,” I growled, pacing the streets. “It’s late September, and it still feels like July.”

“Yes,” said Jack. “Is it global warming?”

I pondered for a moment. I considered what I’d been told about the Primordials by Li Fang Fen. According to legend, the death of Ymir, the primordial ice giant in Norse mythology, had been followed by a terrible flood. The knowledge that our species apparently had the elements looking out for us was simultaneously deeply encouraging, and mind-numbingly terrifying.

When I was in high school, I’d discovered this website, Exit Mundi. It was a list of all the ways that the world could be destroyed, ranging from ‘short term’ to ‘long term’, from the extinction of human civilization all the way up to the destruction of everything in the universe. It had taught me, at a very early age, how deeply hostile reality was towards life. A couple in particular had stood out to me. First, we’re arguably overdue for both an ice age, a meteoric impact of the scale that wiped out the dinosaurs, and a major supervolcano in Yellowstone.

Did you know that the human race nearly went extinct, once? Everyone who lives can be tracked back to as few as 40 ‘breeding pairs’ of humans who survived a supervolcano eruption back around 70,000 BC. The entire human race nearly died out at that point. It’s the closest we’ve ever gotten as a species, so far as anyone knows, to being just… gone. And maybe the only thing that preserved us was our belief that the world couldn’t be that cruel. And if something happened to one of those Sisters… How long would we last-

“Atina? Are you monologuing?”

“Leave me alone, I’m old and very set in my ways,” I grumbled, as we walked. I’d had trouble finding a parking spot close to Prince Vassago’s office, and I was walking through blowtorch weather in a t-shirt and a denim skirt. I had held onto my decorum for as long as possible, but the weather could frankly go fuck itself.

“Is this going to be safe?”

“Yeah. I mean, more than anywhere else, I’d trust the demons to keep their word. The reason I don’t trust them is because they’re insanely secretive about everything. That doesn’t make them violent, or dangerous, just paranoid. They’re scary, but the more I learn about them, the less they actually scare me.”

The office building was an old one, and somewhat dilapidated from the outside. It was one of those kinds of buildings that doesn’t look necessarily dangerous, but which is clearly not exciting, either. A dusty lobby with a pair of nondescript elevators and a staircase. An insurance adjuster on the second floor, an accountant on the third, and a fortune teller on the fourth. It was amazing how obvious they were when you started to recognize the signs. I walked in, and made my way to the third floor. A chirpy, entirely human secretary sat at the table, a bright smile on her face, bleached blonde hair hanging around her face. “Miss LeRoux? Prince Vassago will see you in just a few minutes. I’m afraid your friend will have to wait here.”

I sighed, and sat down, taking out my phone, and handing it to Jack. She frowned at me. “Are you sure this is safe?”

“Very. Look, he already had an opportunity to kill me where no one would know it years ago, and he’s asked me here, agreed to safe passage. The devil’s in the details, and demons are good at details. So am I.” I held my phone out to Jack. “Feel free to tool around on this while I’m in there.”

“Ugh. That’s just weird, she said, frowning, as she picked up one of the magazines instead. I smiled, and leaned back. After a few minutes, the receptionist smiled.

“Prince Vassago will see you now.”

The Prince’s office was beautiful. Would that someday I could afford his sort of classy elegance. An old-fashioned chandelier hung, candles flickering in their holders, casting a warm light through the uncomfortably hot office. The desk was old mahogany, a single piece carved into intricate frescoes and murals. It definitely looked like the kind of desk you’d sign away your soul on. A large set of shelves filled with books with unfamiliar titles in an unfamiliar script lined the walls, a filing cabinet set in one corner. There was no extraneous mess, no unneeded objects.

The Prince was a handsome man. Honestly, the only demons I’d met who weren’t attractive had clearly chosen to be unattractive. They were shapeshifters, they were hardly going to be subject to the whims of genetics like we poor mortals. He had that weird sort of feminine-masculine thing going on, sharp features and big, soft eyes. Not particularly tall, but well-dressed in a light jacket. Black hair framed his pale face, large green eyes almost luminescent. At the moment, the room was being kept at blast furnace temperatures, thanks to a complete lack of air conditioning, and an open window. “Atina. Good to see you.”

“Prince.” I sat down in the chair across from him. “Don’t suppose you’re going to confess to being the one behind this entire mess?”

“I would hate to lie to you.” He smiled. “How are you, Miss LeRoux? Care for a drink?” He gestured towards a cabinet. It was well stocked with alcohol of every variety, which made sense for someone who wanted inhibitions lowered and long-term judgment impaired. I smiled.

“I’m trying to cut back. You were the one who made an appointment, Prince. So, you’re saying that you’re not responsible for the death of Dean Morton in any capacity?”

“I’m afraid not. It came as a shock to us.” He tented his fingers. “I did not see the Dean’s death coming.”

“You’re big on fortune-telling. I’ve picked that much up. Demons like to know what the future holds. How’d you miss it?”

He leaned back in his chair, looking out the open window. “Have you heard it said that Destiny is when Fate takes and interest, and Luck is when Chaos takes an interest?”

I frowned. It did sound vaguely familiar. “What about it?”

“Oh, it’s just a very interesting statement, isn’t it? Destiny against Luck. Of the two, would you rather be destined to succeed, or simply lucky?”

I frowned. “I suppose I’ve always respected luck more. You have an advantage, but you still have to work to succeed. Destiny feels… too easy.”

“Ah hah. And you do hate when things are too easy.” He stood up, walking over to the old green steel file cabinet, opening it. He leafed through the contents, and pulled out a folder. He sat once more, flipping it open, reading quietly. I leaned back and waited. This was all part of the pageantry. After perhaps a minute, he looked up, and blinked, as though he hadn’t realized I was still there. “The serpent. Li Xue Zi. The one who told you about us.”

“Yes?” I raised an eyebrow. “Do you intend to do something to them?”

“I am frustrated by their actions. But they have a divine mandate. There is nothing I can do.” He set down the file. He must have caught my expression, because he raised an eyebrow. “Did I say something?”

“I didn’t really think that demons had much of a concept of ‘divine’. Seems… I don’t know. I know you’re not much for most human gods.”

“Very true. We are not human, as you are now aware.” He leaned back in his chair. “It is our duty, as demons, to be aware. We had humanity thrust upon us. We did not choose it. So we must be aware of what is good and what is bad about humanity. Your gods, so many of them, are reflections of you. They hold nothing for us, no comfort, no sense of control. But that does not mean we do not have our own gods.” He sighed. “No. I don’t intend to punish either of you. No contract of mine has been broken. And these things were never meant to remain secrets forever.”

“Cryptic,” I said, an eyebrow lifted. “So. What did you want to talk about?”

“Three things, as it happens. But before I tell you them, I wanted to talk to you about a pact.”

“Oh? I remember the last time, it came with some fairly unpalatable strings attached.”

“Yes. That is life, isn’t it? You find that if you want to accomplish anything, you must make deals with others. You seem to be quite comfortable with the idea of binding others, but anyone who wishes to place a bridle on you will have quite a battle ahead of them, won’t they?” He tilted his head. “All the danger you are in, all the allies you have made, and you’ve never made that bond. You’ve never taken on a pact with anyone. Do we disgust you so, Atina?”

“Call me crazy, the whole relationship always seemed a little one-sided to me. You know? The wizard gets immortality, the supernatural gets a good meal. It always made it seem like the humans could be a bit replaceable.” I shrugged, meeting his eye. I was good at meeting people’s eyes while lying to them.

“You ever heard of an Archmage, Atina?” he asked, once again switching conversational lanes without using his blinkers.

“In a few contexts. I’ve heard about the concept, at least. Semi-mythical, a single human being who has enough native belief to single-handedly create a supernatural being. Turn an animal into a demon, raise a loved one as undead. I’ve even heard myths that they can make someone into a fairy, though the fairies claim it’s bullshit. Notable because it means they’re not beholden to anyone in the search for immortality.”

“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “It is not a common myth.”

“Ever since the Atlantean Mission opened, I’ve been hearing whispers about it. Tracked down some writings on the matter.” I smiled. “It’s said that Archmages were often beset by demons, who sought to trap or ensnare the archmage.”

“Many things are said. You didn’t like the idea of being bound, of having someone hold your life over you, knowing that they could cut you short. The feeling is mutual. What no one talks about, when they speak of Archmages, is how easily they could take their gift back, if they wished.”

“Interesting. But are you telling me that an Archmage is responsible?”

“No. If it were, I’d have known.”

I leaned back in my chair, brushing my hand over my forehead. The heat was unbearable. And far too on-the-nose as far as metaphors went. “The idea of a human who’s not beholden to the supernatural always makes the supernatural so fearful. If I didn’t know any better, I’d wonder if that made you untrustworthy.”

“The reason I bring it up, Atina, is because what all of this is about is power, and control. And the truth is that power is just a form of control. You don’t need a firm shove when a gentle touch in the right place will do. There’s one thing I ask in exchange.”

“Oh?”

“A favor.”

“Yeah. That’s how I got into this mess in the first place.”

“Really?” asked Vassago, his eyes narrowed. “If all this was happening, but you owed nothing to Dean Morton, would you have simply ignored it? Allowed your friend to die?” I looked away. “That is the thing, Atina. That is why I admire you. You make a very clear statement of the fact that you are bound by nothing but your reputation, and you care little for that. You don’t let anyone see the chains of friendship that truly bind you. You are as constrained as any of us, no matter what you say.” He smiled. “The favor is a formality. Do you think that I could possibly have any use for you that would violate your morals? The right tool for the right job, Atina.”

“It’s funny, but nothing you just said actually means that the favor won’t be hugely distasteful to me. I’m good at spotting that kind of language.”

Vassago sighed. “Pride. You really do have a stunning amount of pride. You know it’s a deadly sin, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I hear that a lot.” I sighed. “Look, if this is about another attempt to humiliate me…”

“You know that demons love to try to see the future. You know about the apocalyptic fears that plague most of those who we make pacts with. Do you ever think about why we do that?”

“I figured it was an animal thing. Animals living in the wild don’t get much chance to think about anything beyond the next meal. Whereas demons, and humans…”

“It is because the future is not set. Chaos always plays a part, and when prophecy is involved, chaos grows restive. That is the sole saving grace of our existence, that the end is not written. There are prophecies, there are fates, there are destinies, but there is chaos, too. We look into the future, and we take comfort in the knowledge that while we see what may be, we do not see what must be.” He leaned over the table, and his fists curled. “If you do not take this deal, what we have seen may not come to pass, but I do not want it to have any chance. If you do not take this deal, the most probable outcome is a three-way war in Binghamton, between the Night Court, the Fairy Courts, and my own Court.”

“What, you’re going to get involved too?”

“We will not have any choice. That is our mandate. When humans are inevitably caught in the crossfire, when innocent people begin to die, we will have to interfere.”

“Really?” I raised an eyebrow. “Am I included in that?”

“Oh, no, Atina.” He smiled. “We would never dare dream of patronizing you by lumping you in with the hapless masses. Knowledge is power.”

“I can’t say I’ve ever heard of that kind of thing. Demons, getting all hot under the collar about humans dying? What do you care?”

“It is our oath. When things threaten humans, we are meant to respond. Our mandate has… slipped, over the course of years. But a war between undead and fairies will, as a matter of course, result in the death of innocents. And that, we must respond to, lest we answer to our gods.”

“You could just tell them. Warn them. It might keep them from going to war, if they know you’ll attack the weaker.”

“Or it might drive them to war anyway out of spite. Or it may drive them to unite to destroy us first. We prefer the element of surprise. I am telling you, now, because I desperately need you to accept this deal.

I pressed my lips together. “Give me the first of your three little secrets. From that, I’ll decide whether your information is good enough to owe you a favor. And nothing that involves killing anyone, or condemning any innocents.”

“As though you’re any good at either of those.”

“You clearly need me to prevent something horrible from happening, here. These are my terms.”

“Very well.” He sighed. “The Wild Hunt.”

I waited for more, for nearly a minute, before frowning. “That’s it?”

“Look it up.”

“Your advice, your big attention-grabbing piece, is look up the Wild Hunt? It’s a piece of European folklore. The dead, or elves, or fairies-“ I paused.

“Look it up in detail.

“You’re telling me that the Winter Court has already chosen their trial.”

“I’m not a gambling man. I know the odds too well. The house always wins. But if I had to place money, I know what I’d place it on.” He leaned back, his eyes on me.

If I were a real asshole, I’d make the first part of the information the juiciest. The most important, the one that most encourages the person to invest. When you’re giving things away free, sometimes it pays to give away the best. After all, by the time someone learns there’s nothing else, you’ve already got their money.

“Why is this favor so important to you?” I asked, eyes narrowing.

“Because it shows that you can play by our rules. It shows that the demon courts can trust you. That you’re not an enemy, just someone who likes to negotiate hardball. That’s something demons can respect. Something that we don’t fear.

I had my sincere doubts that Prince Vassago feared me. But I knew what politicians feared. “Your position is a bit rocky, isn’t it?”

He didn’t try to use a poker face, which would have been its own kind of giveaway. He just shrugged. “It’s not great. The world’s shifting around us. Showing that I can handle you is important. You know how animals are about… territory.”

“Wasn’t aware that Monarch butterflies were particularly territorial, honestly.”

He grinned. “What can I say? I was a quick study of humanity. Having one’s wings torn off will do that to you.”

That brought up some unpleasant images. I wondered, for a moment, about the kind of butterfly that would attract enough attention to become a demon. “You know, you said that in such a way that it doesn’t actually mean you had your wings ripped off. It just really, strongly implies it.”

“Yeah. So.” He placed his hands on the table in front of him. “I respect your pride. I know it’s your stock in trade. But help me out here. Please. I really don’t want to have to murder every fairy and corpse in this city to keep things quiet. But I will.

There really wasn’t much way for me to misinterpret that. I swallowed. “Alright. One favor.”

He nodded. “Thank you. The second tip is, even the biggest bastard has someone they love.”

“You could be a bit more clear about this.”

“No.” He glanced out the window. “I really can’t. Just remember that. Loved ones. It’s the key to this whole thing. Love. And for once in your life, don’t mock that idea to hold back your anxieties.”

I closed my mouth, biting down on the shit before I could give it to him. “Alright.”

“And while you’re here… There’s a rumor. The kind that people wouldn’t want you to hear.”

“This is the ‘Atina wants to unite the city in some sort of weird crazy empire’ thing, isn’t it? I swear, I try to get people not to kill each other and suddenly they think I’m Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon.”

“No.” He looked me in the eye. “People believe there is a dragon in Binghamton.”

“I’ve heard that ru-“ I began, going into automatic bullshitting mode. Then I thought about what he’d just said. “You can’t be serious. People think I’m the dragon?”

“Stranger things… have happened.”

“No, they really haven’t. Jesus, if people think I’m the dragon…” I went quiet, thinking about it. Then I shook my head. “So, those are the three pieces of information.”

“No. That last one was just something interesting. The last secret is that you’ve got a name wrong.”

I frowned. “These aren’t very helpful tips.”

“I know. The gift that chaos gives us is uncertainty. If I were to grasp the future, the whole future, the precise future, every single step that had to be made to bring you to the happy ending that you seek, then imagine what that would mean. To seek a perfect fate, a ready-made happy ending, is to surrender to inevitability.” He leaned back. “The universe has far more unhappy fates than happy ones, Atina. The only way to make the happy endings is to work for them. I have given you three gentle touches, and now, the future may go in a very different direction.”

“How do you deal with that kind of pride?” I asked, amused.

“Well, confidence is just pride with a willingness to face the consequences of your actions,” he said, and smiled. “I sincerely hope you succeed, Atina.”

“… Did a human really pull your wings off?”

“Yes. Slowly. Coldly.” His eyes narrowed. “That bastard liked playing with insects. He found them very… amusing. An Archmage, you know. I always wondered what happened to him. The last I heard, he was down in Mississippi, causing trouble. Then, he vanished.” Prince Vassago shook his head. “I regrew them, but I still remember the joy he took in it.”

“God. I’m sorry.” I looked down at my hands. “How do you still want to preserve humans after they do something like that to you?”

“How? Easy. I look at that expression on your face.” He smiled. “Humans have what animals do not. A choice. This makes their evil all the more hideous, because they can do it even when there is no use to it, for the simple sadistic pleasure it gives them. But that is not strange. The universe is cold, sadistic, and uncaring. What makes humans strange is that they can weep tears for a butterfly whose wings have been torn away.”

“I’m not weeping tears.”

“Metaphorically, Atina. We both know that. You’re just being pedantic because it amuses you.” He smiled. “That’s the kind of sense of humor I appreciate more. Humans aren’t bad, or evil, or cursed. They can simply choose. The fact that few of them choose to do good doesn’t make that choice any less beautiful. You’re an honorable person, though you are not forced to be. That counts for a great deal to me.” He nodded. “You may go. Good luck.”

I stood up, and paused for a moment. “Hey. Thank you for the offer, to make a pact. I’m sorry I couldn’t take you up on it.”

“Oh, that.” He smiled wanly. “I do that for all the girls. Good luck, Miss LeRoux. Please win.”

“No pressure,” I muttered, as I walked out of the building. Jack joined me as I made my way down the stairs, and into the sun.

The heat was excruciating. Fall Equinox, the balancing point, and it just wouldn’t quit. I’d spent the last month or so preparing for the case. Cramming riddles into my brains. The only small consolation was that the Half-Faced Man had recused himself from the trial, citing his connection to both sides and the underlying crime. That was good, because though he’d played softball with me the first time I’d done a case in the Fall Court, the Half-Faced Man knew plenty of things I didn’t, and I didn’t know how many secrets I had to surprise him with.

“So, run me through this trial?” said Jack, smiling innocently as we stepped into the car. The air conditioning started, and I began to think properly again.

“We’ve run through it half a dozen times. You don’t even have to do anything, you’re just there as my protection.” The Fall King had gone very hard on the then-Earlen Wen for attempting an assassination against me. It had led to her expulsion from the Fall Court, returning her to the Winter Court. That had been part of the reason she’d targeted me. Nobody was going to begrudge me my backup, particularly after King Sidney’s… incident. Nobody was talking about that, either, I had noted. Nobody seemed to want to acknowledge it.

“Just want to help you relax. C’mon.”

“Simple trial. A riddle contest. The riddle can be anything, so long as you, yourself, have an answer. First side to be unable to answer three times is the loser. If the defendant loses, they are clapped in irons. If the King’s Man loses, the defendant goes free.” It was the traditional method. The thing is, famous riddles for such a contest were useless. The more people knew the answers, the less useful the question was. The fact that you had to wager the answer added to the danger. If one of your opponents knew the answer, soon everyone would. Everyone within the Fall Court, that was.

There were some limitations. None of that “what is in my pocket” crap; The secret had to be valuable, the question meaningful. ‘What number am I thinking’, that kind of thing wasn’t very useful to anyone. What was useful was information that was obscure and yet important. The secrets you shared were as important as the secrets you held. I’d used it to conduct a cross investigation of the Half-Faced Man, and felt very clever. It turns out it wasn’t an unknown tactic, just one not employed very often. In that case, the Half-Faced Man had been intrigued by the point, and had played along. This time…

I groaned. My head felt too full. The two of us pulled into the parking lot outside the Binghamton Inebriate Asylum. The renovation was continuing apace, but it appears that the Fall Court didn’t have to move out yet. I rubbed my forehead as I joined Alfred where he stood in a cool and shady archway. Today, it was just the three of us. Li Fang Fen, Polly, Jenny, and the Half-Faced Man had volunteered to aid in preparing for Dean Morton’s funeral. It was on the 30th of October, and it was surprising how complicated it was proving.

It may seem a bit odd that I was trying to throw a nice funeral for Dean Morton. Part of it was just… sympathy. The poor bastard had gone through life making all the connections of a tumbleweed. As I’d contacted people, I’d started to realize just how isolated he had become from everyone. Second, it was a chance to bring the community together, to try to get people to talk, to trust a little. Third, well… I needed to get that will taken care of. Maybe with that off my mind, I’d be able to make a breakthrough. If not, well, it’d be good practice.

“Hey, Atina. Ready?” asked Alfred, a smile on his face.

“As I’ll ever be. How you feeling?”

“Oh, well. I know you’re going to succeed, I’m just interested to see how you do it.”

I snorted, as I patted the large binder held under one arm. “Let’s just get in there.”

The Fall Court is… in many ways, the most unnerving. We entered it through one of the archways, Alfred opening the passage with a soft word. The great oaks grew in thick, close quarters. Here, too, it was uncomfortably hot. It was as though the summer had stretched out, and out. It even seemed to be taking hold here. That thought was… disquieting. Again, I wondered if there was a connection. If it was a sign that the times were changing, if the Summer Court was ascendant. I couldn’t see how the fairy courts cruising for a war could help anyone. But I had a case to win.

I noted that the oaks leaves were broad and green. That was not usual. It was always autumn in here. I felt a shiver run down my spine as I walked forward.

The Fall Court was arrayed. They stood like statues among the statue garden, watching me silently, metaphorically gray-faced. I approached the pedestal. The King sat at his throne, his expression hollow.

“Are you prepared?” he asked, his voice soft and weary.

“No pleasantries, your majesty?” I asked, feeling a bit off balance. This didn’t feel right.

“It is not a pleasant time. We should get this formality over with.” He sighed, heavily. “I shall be your judge.”

“Formality?” I said, gritting my teeth. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“The gauntlet will fail. We will go to war. We will be killed, because the Fall Court is not strong, and because our knowledge fails us,” he said, softly. “We don’t know enough, but we know this much. Our faith is… gone.”

“Are you kidding me? There’s another three months,” I said, feeling my confidence cracking. It was too goddamn hot.

“And you will solve this case in that time?” he asked, wearily, and chuckled. “I would be amazed. When will the water stop running down the hill?”

“When it reaches the bottom. Have you even looked for answers? Have you tried your own path to find out who was responsible?”

The king was silent. He just shook his head, and sighed. “Who always enjoys poor health?”

“A doctor. Damn it, answer me! You know there’s been talk of a Wild Hunt. What is it? What are you planning?”

He simply smiled ruefully. “Atina, why do you bother?”

“Because this isn’t a joke. This isn’t a game.” I gritted my teeth, and a manic, mad impulse flashed in my head. It wasn’t the smart thing to do. I doubt it was even the right thing to do. But they were just so… passive.

What right did they have to simply follow along and decide that they should do something so stupid, so self-destructive, so destructive of my friends, because they couldn’t see how else the story would go? What gave them the right to put all of this pressure on me? I knew I was going to say the wrong thing. I didn’t care. I smiled.

“You want to leave this all up to me? See what I do when you let things get this bad? You want to know what little secret I’ll draw out of my pocket next to fix your entire fucking mess, Your Majesty? What’s the Dragon’s name?”

Up until that moment, I thought the court was deathly silent. It was quiet, but there had been noises. Soft clearings of throats, shuffling feet, the rustle of wind through the trees. Now, all of that died away, as a yawning silence filled the air. My stomach was tight, but I had already done so much. I’d already sacrificed my pride. What did it matter if Roy never showed me his face again? That was probably for the best, anyway.

“There is no such thing as dragons,” croaked the King.

“Would you like to bet?”

Silence reigned.

“I didn’t think so. How’s that for your damned secrets? If any of you decide you want to be helpful, for once in your miserable lives, you know where I am, and my door is always open.”

I stormed out of the court, Alfred and Jack following close behind. “Atina?” said Alfred, softly, concerned.

“I don’t have time for them to play games. I take this shit seriously, I care, and they’re just playing games.”

“They’re scared, Atina. They feel helpless.”

“Yeah. I’ll bet.” I stalked out of the Fall Court, and they followed. I’d always sworn to myself that I wouldn’t tell anyone about Roy, that I wouldn’t use his nature to my advantage. I’d probably just broken my word. When he found out- Hell, he probably already knew- I’d never see him again. If I were lucky. If I weren’t…

That was fine, too. It would’ve ended up that way eventually. I didn’t have time to worry about it. I had a case to solve.

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