“Back straight. And for the love of god, stop sweating.”
“I’m sorry, Auntie,” Sandra murmured.
Her aunt stalked around her, fingers prodding, adjusting. Raising the chin a fraction, moving the shoulders back. When Sandra allowed her chin to drop again, the second adjustment was made using fingernails, in the soft flesh just behind the jawline. She barely flinched, but she could sense her familiar bristling.
Sandra had a view of her auntie as the woman took a step back to look Sandra over. They were all dressed elaborately in forest green, their outfit appropriate for a dinner party more than a formal dance or cocktail party. Her auntie’s age had been obfuscated by a touch of glamour, so she might appear to be a woman in her late twenties. Carefully masked. Long term use and overuse with glamour led to complications. As in all things.
Sandra herself didn’t have the benefit of any glamour. She remained stock still as her aunt stepped close and adjusted her neckline. Redistributing flesh at the top of the corset as if she were fluffing a pillow, until she was satisfied with the presentation.
It’s the eighties, and I’m wearing a corset. There’s something wrong with this picture.
Nevermind the fact that her aunt was adjusting her assets as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
Her aunt met her eyes.
“Don’t look so angry, Sandra,” the woman said. She adjusted a strand of Sandra’s hair, tucking it behind Sandra’s ear.
“You look angry. Missy, tell me, what expression does your cousin have on her face? Tell the truth.”
It’s not like we have a choice.
Missy stepped away from the door to take a look. Missy wasn’t nearly as made up as her mother or Sandra were, but that was intentional. A very non-magical effect and tactic at play.
Missy took her time studying Sandra. When Sandra shifted her weight in impatience, the movement prompted another half-dozen small corrections from her auntie.
“You look pissed, baby sister,” Missy said.
“Language. We are guests,” the rebuke was sharp.
Missy looked suitably chastised. Then again, she’d always been the best actress in the family. Everyone found freedom where they could, and Missy had found hers in doing one thing while pretending to do another.
“I’m not angry,” Sandra said, as diplomatically as she could. “This is the expression my face naturally settles into.”
“My sister should have corrected that,” her aunt said. “No reason you can’t teach yourself to hold a different expression. I hope this won’t be a problem.”
Sandra nodded, glancing down to one side before she reached out for Hildr. In the form of a stoat, a short tailed weasel, her familiar hopped up to her hand and climbed up to her shoulders, clawed toes pricking her bare skin there. She could see Auntie raise a hand, ready to adjust her posture and with fingernails, and quickly resumed the ‘perfect’ posture, now with her familiar draped over one shoulder.
Her aunt paused, verified that Sandra had found the appropriate position, and lowered her hand.
“There’s only so much I can do. Give you a proper first impression,” her aunt said.
There was a noise on the other side of the double doors. Three heads turned.
No, he wasn’t coming through. The connections weren’t there.
“Can I ask?” Sandra murmured.
“About?” her auntie responded.
“What about him? We’ve told you who he is.”
“A hermit?” Sandra said.
“Inaccurate. A hermit doesn’t live in the big city, with a coterie close at hand.”
“He doesn’t have any human contact with the outside world.”
“Nonetheless. Try to think of him in a better light.”
“It’s a gamble, Sandra dear. A gamble.”
The three of them turned their heads as the connection strengthened. This time, there was clarity, direction, a thrust to it. Motive.
They were ready as the door opened. Sandra smiled.
He arrived, but he didn’t arrive alone.
The bottle was the first thing to catch her eye. His clothes were the second. Rumpled, a gray flannel shirt over another shirt, jeans with the bottoms of the pant legs in tatters, over brown boots with gray dirt layered over the badly scuffed toe. His dark hair was unwashed and long, his face unshaven, and not unshaven in a calculated way. His neck was hairy.
His contingent followed. Men and women, all appearing roughly ten years younger than him. She might have described them as hippies, but there was nothing peaceful or hopeful about them. Many were tattooed, dressed in blacks, browns and grays, with only a splash of color here and there. Three women to every man, most attractive, but not always in a conventional way.
Not in the Duchamp’s way.
Under the artificial lights, the trickeries and shaping slipped, here and there. A hairpin appeared to be a leaf in the false light, before the woman stepped into the light that beamed in through the uncovered window. A curl of brown hair at the forehead showed itself to be a curved horn. A woman paused, while one of her female companions caught up to her, leaping up to throw an arm around her shoulders, and Sandra could see eyes with red irises, clawed fingers, and a mouth filled with jagged teeth, dark red stains in the flesh around the woman’s mouth.
They collectively smelled like sex. Not that Sandra knew from experience, but she had little doubt, and she could infer from context. There was a thicker, skunky smell that she couldn’t pin down or infer from context. They also smelled like warm hay, wine, fur, grass after a rain, and faintly, lingering in the background, they smelled like blood.
They were here, in so many senses. Assaulting the senses, even. The smells were so thick and varied she could taste them on the back of her tongue. There was the view of them, their languid movements, the occasional flicker of their real forms that she could see in certain lights, if she was using the Sight. There were the sounds they made, whispering and giggling amongst one another.
He was backed by his people, a contingent, very much alive and active. Almost defined by activity. They moved from one side of the group to the other, jostled one another, touched, surreptitiously groped. Their every action and reaction amongst one another was an invitation or a response to an invitation.
Her auntie had gone to so much effort to present her body just so, but what did it matter? He clearly didn’t care for appearances. Why would he care for a nice set of breasts, modestly and carefully presented, when he clearly had all he could ask for?
“Dominus Autem Ebrius,” Auntie said, smiling “Forgive me. I’d say it in Greek, but my pronunciation is atrocious.”
“Your Latin pronunciation is atrocious too,” he said. “But I’ll forgive you your failings.”
There wasn’t a smile on his face. Even as his group leered and smirked, offered sly smiles and teasing glances, he was stone-faced, very still.
“Very gracious of you,” Auntie said. Her smile, Sandra noted, managed to stay in place, but the note of warmth was gone from her voice.
“I won’t pretend to be gracious,” he said. “I’m not that guy. But holding grudges and holding things over people isn’t worth my time.”
“I see,” Auntie responded. “A wise way of looking at things.”
“Not many people who’d call me wise,” he said.
Auntie composed herself. “I’m Nicole Duchamp. This is Sandra and Missy Duchamp.”
“Jeremy Meath. My friends call me Jerry, you can call me Jeremy.”
“I… yes. Thank you for agreeing to the meeting.”
“Welcome,” he said, almost automatically. “Only one of them I’m interested in looking at, isn’t there? Waste of time to bring two, unless you’re not that confident in what you’re selling.”
“I’m confident she’ll do.”
“I’m not putting any stock in that confidence. You’ll have to tell me which one am I’m looking at, by the by, unless we’re just going to stand here dicking about.”
Auntie used her hand to point to Sandra. Apparently she’d decided to stop speaking, given how intent he seemed on arguing every point.
Jeremy looked at Sandra. Nothing held back, no reticence. His eye looked over everything from head to toe, taking his time.
A man in the crowd stepped forward a bit, with shaggy dark curls and a broad aquiline nose. “She looks-”
“Shh,” Jeremy’s rebuke was quiet.
The other man stopped. His eyes, however, didn’t leave Sandra.
When Jeremy met her eyes, Sandra smiled, just as she’d been instructed.
“Young,” he said.
“Nineteen,” Auntie said.
“Not really my type,” he said. “Either of them.”
“If it’s about appearance, appearances can change. The Faerie give us donations of glamour as payment for our services as ambassadors. There would be more than enough, if you’d prefer a different body type, hair color, bone structure…”
Sandra felt her heart beat a little faster at that.
It was scary in a way that the red-eyed women with the sharp teeth weren’t.
“That’s not the kind of ‘type’ I meant,” he said.
“Is it a matter of style? She’s adaptable, knows a little something about everything, she’s capable of holding her own in any situation, smart, and well learned.”
Jeremy tilted his head to one side, then the other, as if trying to see her in a different light. “Yet you’re offering her to me?”
“We’re introducing the two of you. The family will discuss it with Sandra later, but if you take a liking to each other, or if you don’t actively dislike each other, we could arrange something.”
“There aren’t many people I dislike,” he said.
“Perfect,” Auntie said.
“Which doesn’t mean I’m accepting. Educated, you said?”
“I’d like to hear from her. Assuming the blonde has enough brains to speak.”
“I can speak,” Sandra said, biting back her temper.
“And?” he asked. He’d asked it in a way that made it feel like he was making a point.
“And I completed a degree.”
“In?” he managed the same tone.
She managed to avoid stuttering or stumbling. It would only play into his hands. He was shaping the conversation to put her off balance and reinforce the ‘brainless blonde’ idea. “I majored in English, minored in theology.”
“Why English and Theology?”
“If you’re destined to grow up to be a scientist, you study sciences. If you’re going to go all-in as a practitioner, you have to focus on the esoteric. Symbolism, myth, ideas, and structure, among other things.”
“You’re not the only girl they’re marrying off, are you?”
She glanced at her aunt, but didn’t get any cues.
She met his eyes, then said, “No. No I’m not.”
He stared into her eyes. No glancing around for connections. His way of looking at things sought out something else altogether. “You didn’t choose those degrees, did you?”
“No. The family set out several options, saying they would pay for my education and work harder to find a good match for me if I followed their plan.”
“Meaning you’re interchangeable. If I wanted it, I could pursue this other one. Which is it, Missy or Sandra?”
“That’s Missy, I’m Sandra.”
“So?” he addressed Auntie. “If I asked, could I have Missy instead?”
“Missy’s my eldest daughter, my first choice for taking over the household. A different case.”
“Ahh… a hierarchy. One girl worth more than another.”
“I wouldn’t put it so crudely.”
He snorted, “I don’t care how you’d put it. That’s the way it is, isn’t it?”
Auntie paused. “Yes. I suppose it is.”
“Where do we stand, little Sandra?” he asked. “How do I rate? How do you rate? I take it you aren’t the smartest, most beautiful, most talented of them?”
“No. But I have my strengths.”
“Don’t we all? Meaningless words. Don’t waste your time on them. More importantly, you shouldn’t waste mine. I’m not one for patience or delayed gratification.”
“Fine,” she said.
“Where do you stand? Your family is whoring it’s daughters out in bids for power-”
Stung by the choice of words, Sandra glanced at her aunt. The woman hadn’t flinched in the slightest.
“-and I’m asking, what am I worth, and what are you worth, do you think?”
Sandra collected herself. “There are a lot of practitioners we could have contacted. Out of all of them, my aunt chose you.”
“Very diplomatic wording,” he said. “Still ambiguous.”
“Do the other practitioners you deal with speak so honestly? I’m surprised,” Sandra said.
“I don’t speak with many, and no, they aren’t entirely honest,” Jeremy said. “But I’m not being asked if I want to marry any of them.”
The word marry hit Sandra harder than she might have expected. She’d grown up with it, had known it was in the cards a decade ago.
Her stride broken in the simplest, most minor way, she found she was further put off by the animal gazes, the smiles and smirks and the pacing movements that framed Jeremy Meath.
She looked to her aunt for reassurance and didn’t find it.
“The honest truth,” Sandra replied, “Is you’re seen as a gamble.”
He smirked. “A gamble. An incarnation of Conquest, with no conquest to be had, our Lord of Toronto is dying.”
“That’s a large part of it.”
“And you want to tie yourself to me, in hopes I’ll take the seat.”
“No,” Sandra said. “My family wants me to tie myself to you, in hopes you’ll take the seat. I don’t play so big a role. This is between you and them.”
He tilted his head, looking between her and her aunt.
“You wanted honesty,” she said.
“Okay,” he said. He turned to her aunt. “Why should I bother?”
“Because you might have reasons to pursue power,” the woman said. “Maybe you want it for yourself. Maybe your god wants you to. It could be your way out of a bad situation, should you be in one or find your way to one. Every powerful man has had a great woman behind him.”
“Platitudes aside,” Sandra cut in, “If our husband proves to be a natural manipulator, a player of that game, we can play to their strengths. We make them stronger. If they aren’t, and you don’t strike me as someone who is, we can account for the weakness. Shore you up where you don’t have the knowledge or experience.”
“Ah. You would help me wage war against my peers, should the opportunity arise?”
“My family would help you win any wars against your peers,” Sandra said.
“Dangerously close to being a promise,” he said, “I didn’t miss the other meaning. You might argue you have no part in the losses, instead of being indebted to help find the victories. Nevermind. What do you get?”
Auntie spoke, “Any daughters are ours. We teach them our way, in addition to anything you teach them as you raise them. We swear them to our manner of doing things. We also get a share of your power. One token offering, every three years.”
“You play a long game.”
“That is the nature of dynasties, Jeremy Meath,” the woman said.
“I didn’t plan to marry, nor did I plan to have children.”
“Plans can change. You would dictate the nature of your marriage with Sandra Duchamp. We know practitioners have different demands, and we can adapt. If you don’t want to raise children, then don’t raise them. You could sire them and involve yourself only as much as you wish.”
“Children and a small offering from time to time?”
“You could say that. If you had no plans for leaving a legacy-”
“I do have plans, a shrine, and establishing a place for the subjects my god in slumber placed into my service and care.”
“But no legacy as far as a bloodline.”
He shook his head.
“Then you lose nothing. You could raise one of your children to look after your shrine and subjects. We have familial ties to Japan and the shrines there, resources you could draw on. Through us, you stand to gain a great deal.”
“Assuming I care so much about what happens after I’m gone. Earlier, I think I said I wasn’t much for patience or delayed gratification?”
“There you have it. What does this cost me in the now? A dreary, carbon-copy Barbie doll tied to me for life?”
He took advantage of the shocked silence to take a drink from the bottle, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“You insult me,” Sandra said.
“Yes. I believe I did.”
“You insult us,” Sandra said. “My family. My sisters and cousins, my mother and aunt, who are doing the same thing I am now.”
He scratched at the back of his neck, and one of the women behind him reached out to scratch the spot with her clawed fingernails. He stretched his neck out to one side to give her more room. “Yeah. Just a little. You’re boring, and I hate boredom.”
“Hildr,” Sandra said, reaching out.
Her familiar darted along the length of her arm, four legged. It sprung from her hand.
While it was still in the air, she brought her chalice from the pile of spring jackets to her hand.
Hildr touched ground, eliciting a rumble, sending Jeremy Meath stumbling back.
Sandra dipped fingertips into her chalice, wetting them, and then drew her fingertips vertically down.
Putting stored power into connections, feeding that power through Hildr for the added strength and connection to the earth.
The impact of Hildr’s landing and the added help of the manipulated connections served to bowl over the entire group of Others. Jeremy Meath’s bottle crashed against the floor, the remaining contents and shards of glass spreading out from the point of impact.
“Sandra!” Auntie rebuked her.
“It’s fine, so long as she doesn’t attack,” Jeremy said. He took his time finding his feet. He had to half-walk, half-crawl to get back from Hildr, who loomed above him, breath visibly steaming. “Point taken. That was a three hundred dollar bottle, but I suppose good lessons should be expensive.”
Dark skinned, white furred, Hildr was more wart and scar than clean flesh where flesh was visible, her hair and fur were long and tied into braids as thick around as Sandra’s arm, the longest braids locked into place with iron shackles that could be used to dash a man’s skull to pieces. Her arms were disproportionately long, with lines and cords of muscle visible even beneath the long, brushed fur. All in all, she was of a size and bulk that suggested she could catch a charging rhino and wrestle it to the ground.
He looked the thing over. “An ogre? No. Not an ogre of any type I’ve read about.”
“No,” Sandra said. “A troll. Scandinavian. My family offered to pay for a trip, to reward me for completing my degree early. I took the time to go looking.”
It took eight months, two more to successfully bind her.”
“There aren’t many trolls nowadays,” he said. “They don’t hide themselves well.”
“Most have been hunted or bound already. The ones who have remained are either exceptionally strong, or they are very strong and very cunning. Hildr is more the latter.”
“I see. And it takes an exceptionally strong and cunning individual to bind one that has survived alone these last few centuries. I didn’t expect that of you.”
“There’s more to me, more to us, than you might see on the surface.”
“And a… stoat?”
“More fitting a form for a troll than you might think. Foul smelling, tied to the earth due to their inclination to live underground, large for their species, predatory, with a voracious appetite. Surprisingly vicious in a fight. Not well liked.”
“I see. Well, count me corrected.”
Sandra gestured, and even though her back was turned, Hildr obeyed, sensing the connection and moving aside. She came to stand beside Sandra, who rubbed at the fur on her arm.
He dusted himself off, gesturing for his coterie to relax and back away.
Sandra stood facing him, cup in one hand, other hand on Hildr’s arm.
“With your main cause for complaint already covered, I assume you would be open to further negotiations?” Auntie asked.
“Send her to my place in a week.”
Sandra felt her heart skip a beat. In her fit of pique, her pride and anger, she’d nearly forgotten what she was negotiating for, what she was proving.
Jeremy Meath would be her husband.
The three watched Jeremy Meath and his coterie retreat from the room, leaving them to show themselves out.
They gathered their coats, folding them over arms rather than donning them, and left the apartment.
“It’s your choice,” Auntie said, quiet.
Sandra looked at the woman in surprise. “I didn’t think it was. I swore oaths.”
“You did. When you were twelve, when we’d built up your excitement for power enough that you weren’t looking to the future. It was the same for Missy, for me, your mother.”
Sandra exchanged a glance with Missy. This was out of character, and it sounded like a dangerous admission.
Her aunt continued, “We deceive, and we tell ourselves it’s so our daughters can learn a lesson that will weigh on them all their lives, make them more cunning by necessity. But what we’re really doing is manipulating them to get them into our power, and hoping they’ll come to learn the same thing we did.”
“Which is?” Missy asked.
“This is the only way we’ll survive as a family.”
“As a dynasty,” Sandra said.
“You get a choice, Sandra. Do you want to marry him?”
No, not at all.
“You’ll marry me to someone worse as punishment if I don’t.”
“We reserve that for the girls who turn down good matches. Jeremy Meath is… what he is. It worries me that he wasn’t more willing to pick apart the deal or define terms. Seeing you in there, I think we can find you better, if you want it.”
“But the family wants him?” Sandra asked. “They want to take the gamble?”
“Yes,” her aunt said, and it was said in a way that suggested she already knew the answer she’d get.
Twelve years doing this, and she still felt out of sorts. It was worse, if anything. Which was the point, she supposed.
The landscape had been sculpted. More a painting come to life than a real place. Every tree and stone had been strategically placed, with the whole in mind. The placement of every branch… it was art. Sandra could stand virtually anywhere and see how the elements complemented each other, find hidden images and decorations in the layout of things. She had taken art classes as her electives, she knew what to look for.
But it was hollow. The beauty was forced.
Sandra sat patiently as her goblet was overfilled. Wine spilled out, flowing along the outside of the goblet, down the stem and onto the gold-inlaid table, where it found grooves and drew a brief image before filtering out through holes in the surface. The candlelight, even, seemed to play off the image. A nude woman with her back arched. Suggestive, heavy with implication and accusation. No doubt entirely intentional, directed purely at her.
The Faerie at the table shifted position, their expressions placid and slightly interested. She couldn’t help but feel as though they were silently mocking her for the spill. Which they were.
But it was a fairly important rule, that one didn’t eat or drink here. Even if it meant being mocked, pressured from every direction.
The entire place was a kind of pressure. She knew the techniques at play. Get someone hungry, get them tired, get them stimulated. Create a need and then fulfill it, to build a kind of dependence. Cults did it. The Faerie did it better.
There was no reprieve, in the short term or the long term. Everywhere she looked, everything she smelled or touched was art. Everything she heard was music to distract the attention, or were exceedingly dangerous words that demanded it. The simple scene of a patio with wine, crackers and cheese served in the center, a short ruined wall and numerous statues was a complicated piece of machinery, where every single thing around her was working against her or working for the ambassador.
One mistake was all it took. Being here was a horror and an honor, because of it. She was trusted to handle matters.
She pushed the goblet to one side, and Hildr grasped it and tossed it back with one singular motion. The goblet crunched between teeth.
One of the Faerie in attendance managed to look horrified.
Another cleared its throat, saying, “Then, if we shall sum up the first part of our bargain, Aifric, Lachtna, and Gearalt will accompany you and guarantee safe passage to you and your Hildr, guiding you out of the Faerie and into your city and your world. There, you’ll be able to pair them up with the young ladies you described, and they’ll enjoy an adventure in mortal form.”
“So we hope,” she said. The wind was making its way through the grove of trees, and the rustling formed almost-words, as if a slight change in direction might make sense of it all.
Had one of the Faerie given a subtle signal to the trained wind spirits to cue the distraction? Was it meant to distract her from something?
“We’ll need confirmation,” the Faerie ambassador spoke. “Do you agree?”
“Let us talk about that in a moment,” she said, deflecting the promise. “There is another subject I must raise, and it’s hard to do so in a polite way.”
“Rest assured,” the Faerie to her left told her, “Mavourneen and I are some of the least polite Faerie you’ll ever meet.”
She was all too aware. Riordan and Mavourneen were mercenaries in the court, known for their uncharacteristically brutal natures. If the Faerie were all playing a complicated, multilayered and interconnected game of chess, then Riordan and Mavourneen made themselves out to be knights that any side could use to make plays. Which wasn’t to say they weren’t making plays of their own, when nobody was looking.
They’d befriended her, offering her their services, which she had taken, because the wildernesses that stood between any Faerie-inhabited space tended to be dangerous, and she wanted Hildr in tip-top shape in case something happened. She had already uncovered one planned betrayal, and she was already betting that this wasn’t only a cover-up for a deeper, more subtle betrayal that she wouldn’t uncover, but that the whole interplay with Riordan and Mavourneen and the ambassador was part of a greater scheme. Each of the three could have practiced this play in various forms until it became second nature, and she was the latest fly to step into the web.
“My husband. Four of his satyrs seem to have gone missing.”
“You’d like our help in locating them?”
“I’ve located them already. I’ve been led to believe they’re in your employ, ambassador.”
“Are they? My staff will have to answer for this.”
“I’ve heard tales that you were the one that expressed interest in it. To have a different kind of danger lurking in the labyrinthine corridors around your tower, and a decoration at your evening parties.”
“Mad,” he said.
She sat back. Hildr leaned forward, planting one meaty hand on either side of the surface, leaning over Sandra.
Sandra reached out to toy with one of the dangling braids and metal shackles. “Mad indeed.”
“You asked me if you could come here, expressing good faith. If you do violence-“
“I asked you to visit Toronto in good faith. My husband and I didn’t expect to find ourselves missing four satyrs.”
She could see the weave of connections at play, she could pluck, pull and break connections if the situation demanded it, but some connections were false ones. Others were bait, strands that were sticky enough she wouldn’t be able to free herself if she tampered with them.
“You act above your station,” he said.
She couldn’t help but feel she was following a script. No doubt the Faerie ambassador had stolen people before, had played out dozens of permutations of the same scene, learning to account for all the possible variables.
She gestured, and saw the Faerie’s eyes go wide.
Hildr lifted the metal patio table, tearing it from the ground, where it had been worked into brick and tile, alternating patches of grass and flower, in a very strategic and stylized ‘ruin’ layout.
The female troll pushed the table’s edge against the ambassador’s throat, toppling him backward in his chair. The table was held down, pinning him. It was large enough and heavy enough that if the troll saw fit to let go, it would pass through the Faerie’s neck and likely sink a short distance into the ground.
‘Her’ mercenaries were standing, now, a distance away, hands on their weapons. One with a sword, one with a handgun. They seemed a little out of sorts.
“They were not yours to take,” she said.
“He had no claim to them,” the ambassador said, voice strangled.
“His god did. Dionysus gave a contingent of his servants to my husband for looking after. If those satyr are not returned, the god will be very upset.”
“We can bargain. I’ll pay you generously for the creatures. My generosity is worth more than a dead god’s wrath.”
“Not dead. Some still worship him. My husband included. Dionysus remains a god who can make his displeasure known. You crossed us. Me, my husband, my husband’s god.”
And here was the conundrum. The tangled weave. Killing the ambassador was easy, relatively speaking. But even a low-ranked Faerie like this ambassador was embroiled in a thousand different schemes. The Faerie were very invested in their houses of cards, and they felt a genuine kind of upset when they couldn’t see things through to the epic moments that had been decades in the planning.
That upset had a way of finding the individual who upset the house of cards. Worse, it fed into what the Faerie really wanted. A break from the pattern.
When that happened, they tended to get creative.
“Arms and legs only,” she said. “He lives.”
“Wait!” the ambassador cried out. “I can-“
The table came down like a chef might use a knife to dice a vegetable. Wrist, elbow, shoulder, ankle, knee, hip. The impacts were heavy enough to toss the Ambassador into the air like a rag doll, but the table still struck unerringly at the key points.
The Faerie screamed.
Touching her implement, she found and extinguished the torches and candles around the patio.
“We’re here to protect you,” Mavourneen said. “There’s no need to extinguish any fire.”
They were so good at lying. It took her a few seconds to figure out how they might be misleading her.
“The satyr,” she said.
The ambassador, huffing for breath between screams, turned his head. She saw the connection he’d previously masked.
“I suppose that concludes our second piece of business,” she said. “Returning to the first subject… the three Faerie I was going to introduce to the Duchamp children. I assume I have permission to invite them?”
“I…” he huffed, he paused to grimace and grunt. “Hereby grant you and your troll safe passage… along with Gearalt, Aifric… and Lachtna, to exit my realm uncontested. Those who sat at this table and those named, will face no trial, tribulation or trickery by my hands. I promise”
“Include the satyrs,” Riordan said, growling the words.
“…I name the satyrs… unf… to be included… in the deal,” the ambassador reluctantly added. He was red-faced now, and sweating bullets from pain alone.
“Let’s go,” Riordan said.
Sandra didn’t budge.
“A problem?” Mavourneen asked.
What was the trick?
“No,” Sandra said. “Not good enough.”
“Your way is clear,” Riordan said.
“Yes,” Sandra said. “So is Hildr’s. So are the Satyrs, and the Faerie who are going to see the children…”
The Faerie had been very clear about who was free to leave.
Why? Why be so specific?
Was there anyone who was ready to leave, who hadn’t been named?
Someone here, who mattered on some level, who, by the wording, hadn’t been sitting at the table? Had her husband sent someone or something to keep an eye on her?
It took a few long moments of heavy consideration before the answer dawned on her.
It wasn’t a good answer, the sort that made things make sense. Just the opposite.
When she spoke, however, it was with the practiced ease that the Duchamp family had instilled in her. “No… let’s be more general. Promise me that, until sunrise, everyone is free to depart unmolested.”
The ambassador stared up at her.
Hildr hefted the table. It didn’t seem to be enough, so she stepped on the Faerie’s sternum. The added pressure made his arms shift, which renewed the pain of the shattered joints.
He had to huff for breath before he could speak. “I so promise.”
“Promise you won’t artificially manipulate the sun’s rise or fall,” she said. “It’s your little kingdom here, I don’t know what rules you can make or break. We get at least twelve regular Earth hours, without tricks.”
“I would have to disable too many-” he was cut off as she shifted her weight, jostling him. He screamed again.
She turned to leave. The mercenaries fell into step on either side of her.
Of course, they were a problem unto themselves.
“I’d appreciate it if my words could find their way to certain ears,” she said, to one of them, or both of them. She wasn’t entirely sure. “The Duchamps bring a lot of benefit to certain groups in the Faerie. We have longstanding relationships, and it would be a shame to end it because the ambassador was careless. If another Faerie of rank were to reach out to fill the void the ambassador has left, it would be very much appreciated.”
“We can get word out,” Riordan said.
“Thank you,” she said.
She spread her arms, then swept them together.
Hildr did the same, reaching out to either side, then drawing her hands together. Except she seized the two mercenaries’ heads along the way and cracked them together.
Sandra paused to examine the fallen mercenaries. “They’re alive?”
Hildr nodded. She could speak, but it was often easier and clearer to gesture.
“Then let’s go.”
She found the connections to the Faerie and tugged. Easy enough; they were waiting for her.
She manipulated the connections between herself and the lost satyrs. A standard connection formed a straight line. She loosed it, giving it slack, and let the currents the spirits and other forces of the world were traveling carry it out.
Once she found the right elements, she gave it more structure. The line formed a path. A guiding line between her and the Satyrs in the labyrinth. A traditional maze was little problem, but this was a maze meant to confound intruders who might surreptitiously explore the ambassador’s realm for a few hours every week for centuries. There were twists, turns, down stairs, up stairs, Escher devices and portals that could lead to entirely different areas. There were also denizens.
Some would kill you. Others would be like the satyrs. Creatures of sexuality, fertility, and animal instincts. Satyrs could take in these traits to be lighthearted and simple, warm sources of raw affection.
That hadn’t, Sandra knew well enough, been what the ambassador had wanted them for, as creatures lurking in the maze.
All things had their darker sides.
The three Faerie and the satyrs found her at roughly the same time that she found the exit. They had been twisted by glamour, the uglier aspects of their nature exaggerated. They smelled bad, now, had hunched backs, twisted, furtive faces. Their horns were far larger, wicked. Natural weapons.
They would go back to normal, given time.
“Any others I should know about?” she asked. “Stolen property?”
“No,” one replied.
“That’s no ma’am.”
“No, ma’am,” he said. He didn’t look happy about it. He looked angry. Slighted.
As creations went, they were simple. Two dimensional. It was so easy to change them.
She led them through. From a holly-encrusted gate to the big city. No heads turned at her sudden appearance.
In downtown Toronto, the satyrs took different shapes. Even there, they were different from their usual. Where they might be handsome, flirty young men in their teens and twenties, unabashed in their attraction to any woman they saw on the street, they now looked like the sorts one might cross the street to avoid. Not because they were large, but because of the menace they radiated.
It wasn’t a long walk to the condo. She let herself in.
The statue was easily two stories tall, sitting in the center of a pond of deep red wine. Food, fresh, sat at its feet.
Littered around that pond were the various servants of Dionysus, gathered in heaps and piles, using each other for pillows, where there weren’t enough blankets and cushions strewn on the floor.
“Stay,” she ordered the satyrs. Without checking to see if they’d obeyed, she picked her way carefully through the assorted servants.
Satyrs, boys and men, smiled up at her, some reaching out, as if she’d fall into their arms. The fur on their legs was soft, the curls of chest hair and chin-scruff inviting.
Fifteen years, and they still tried. Fifteen years, and she still imagined herself giving in.
The nymphs were what the satyrs were, in a way, holding to an ancient ideal of womanhood and female sexuality as the satyrs held to manhood and male sexuality. There were differences, but the simple description served.
She’d discovered a maternal affection towards the nymphs over the last decade, but there were more uncomfortable implications in their makeup that still rubbed her the wrong way. The fact that they ‘played’ with her husband wasn’t one of them. Such was a partnership with a cultist of Dionysus. No, it was the fact that the ideal beauty as of 200 BC was… younger than was appropriate. Or legal. Not distressingly so, but still true.
But appearances were only that. She knew as much. Technically, most of them predated the bible.
The bacchae, on the other hand, were living allegory, the dangers of drink given form. Alluring on the surface, they had adapted better to modern convention and ideas of attractiveness, and they had changed in terms of the dangers they posed as well. She wasn’t fond of them the same way she harbored a reluctant fondness for the other beasts, but she understood their place in things.
Her husband sat at the top of the stairs leading up to the burgundy pond, a bottle sitting on a step between his knees.
“You’re back,” Jerry said. He slurred his words slightly. “Any trouble?”
She sat down beside him. “Some violence, was nearly killed three times over just before I left, that I could tell. I cut right through any other murder attempts by dealing with all Faerie I could get Hildr’s hands on. That, and all of the trouble that comes with stepping into the Faerie’s realm.”
“Did they have the satyrs?”
“They did,” she said. “I’ve brought them back. They’ll take time to recuperate and return to normal. Right now, they’re hazards more than anything else. They’ll need to be kept separate from the rest.”
Jerry nodded. “Thank you. It’s appreciated.”
“How was the council meeting?”
“I’m very nearly drunk and physically spent,” he said. He gestured at the servants. “They’re drunk and spent, and you know how much effort that takes. Make of that what you will.”
“Yes,” she said, her voice soft. She felt her heart sinking. A slow drop, as she took in the magnitude of the statement.
Jerry Meath walked a fine line as a cultist of Dionysus. To be inebriated was a part of his worship, but to be drunk senseless, it was the sort of vulnerability that the bacchae preyed on.
For him to be ‘very nearly drunk’ was the equivalent of another man being in the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Treading a dangerous line. He usually played things safer, smoking and eating things he couldn’t overdose on, things that wouldn’t rob him of too much in the way of faculties.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Ah, right. You haven’t heard.”
“Some men in service to a far less entertaining god have done something very ugly,” he said. “Just a year and nine months into the new millenium, our Lord of Conquest gets his second wind. Our city and our nation has already committed forces.”
“No,” she gasped. “Every time. We were close.”
“I don’t know what will come of it, but for the time being, he’s keeping his throne. I’m sorry. I don’t think your gamble paid off.”
“We’re fifteen years into our marriage,” she said, “And you still haven’t learned to distinguish between my family’s interests and my own.”
“You’re not interested?”
“I am, but not so much as you like to imagine,” she said. She reached out and put a hand on his knee.
Odd, that a man who worshipped a god like he did could never allow himself to be drunk, and the only physical contact between them would be perfunctory and strangely disappointing on both ends.
But then, that was the trap, wasn’t it? The price? She’d known right from the start that she would never be able to live up to what he enjoyed daily. She was only human.
They played different roles in each other’s lives.
His hand settled on hers, gripped it. It was the smallest contact, but she could see how his body language changed. Easing.
That was what she offered, such as it was. To be a man was a lonely existence. Friends, family, they couldn’t reach out to share feelings or find refuge. Even with the chilled and complicated relationship between her and her family, she had always been able to seek out a measure of support from them.
Not so with men, with Jerry. It was only with a girlfriend, with a wife, that they could invest themselves.
He had all of the nubile, willing women he could ask for. An abundance, even, but he had no validation, and for a long time, he had been in freefall. He had allowed himself to believe he didn’t need anyone.
That was where their marriage had begun. In the end, she’d found that all he really needed was a touchstone. Once she’d centered him and given him an outlet, he’d come into his own. From there, they’d worked their strategies, divided tasks between them.
Now he believed it was all for nothing.
“I’m here,” she said.
“I’m not sure what that means,” he said. “We were going to make a play.”
“We still can, sometime, somewhere. But I’m okay with things as they are.”
He looked out at the landscape of white tile strewn with burgundy blankets, pale flesh and body hair. “Really?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I won’t ask if you love me,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a point.”
“We work well together. Balance each other out,” she said. They’d never had infatuation, but again, how could he? How could she offer intoxication of emotion and spirit that his god couldn’t? “We’re better together than we are apart.”
“This… it’s not what a marriage is supposed to be.”
“Let it be fragile, then,” she said. “Weren’t you always the one who lived more for the present than the future?”
“Fifteen years spent plotting demands a kind of vision for the future,” he said, glowering a little.
“Even so,” she said.”
He seemed to deliberate for a few long moments before he asked, “What’s the point?”
She didn’t have a ready answer for that. She had an answer, but it was a hard one to bring up.
She sat with him, instead. A distance separating them, but the simple holding of hands more meaningful than all of the joys that his servants could bring him.
Sandra was almost certain.
Still, that one note of uncertainty was enough to make her nervous.
“Something came up, while I was tracking down your Satyrs,” she said.
“A good something or a bad something?” he asked.
“That’s the question,” she said. “But you asked what the point of us was, didn’t you?”
“That sort of something?” he asked.
“The Faerie figured it out before any of us did, I think,” she said. “They wanted to let a select few individuals leave their domain.”
“I think there was one more member of the group I wasn’t aware of at first, they wanted me to leave her behind.”
She touched her stomach.
He looked, then his eyes widened.
“Those bastards,” she said. “I might have a bit of mother bear instinct in me after all. I was more vicious than I should have been.”
He smiled a little.
“I’ll handle the child as I have everything else,” she said. “But there’s meaning in bringing life to the world. I have no idea how they might react.”
“The nymphs and satyrs should be kind to innocents,” he said. “The bacchae won’t be, but I can make arrangements.”
“I can’t imagine bringing a little girl up in this environment.
“If it is a little girl,” he said.
She went quiet.
“I do know the trick your family employs,” he said.
She frowned. “Sorry.”
“It’s fairly common knowledge now. Even as disconnected from things as I am, I know that much. Ask for custodianship of the girls, ignoring the fact that you intend to bear nothing but.”
“I might have mentioned it, but-”
“No,” he said. “There was no need. That’s not what we have.”
“Openness and honesty?”
“Having to ask for forgiveness,” he said. “I trust you do what you have to, and I think you trust me the same way.”
Sandra nodded. She fidgeted. “Gods, the idea of childbirth scares me.”
“I can imagine,” he said. “If it helps, a blessing from my god can allow you to enjoy drink throughout, with no harm to the child.”
“Through the labor too?” she asked, smiling.
“Of course,” he said.
“We’ll need to make space,” she said. “As nice as your… personal temple is, we’ll need a more suitable location for a baby.”
“That can be arranged,” he said. He stood.
He took her hand, and led her down the shallow steps. Together, they stepped over and around the piles of naked bodies.
“What about names?” Sandra asked.
A whisper. “A boy’s name.”
Sandra stopped cold. She turned and saw a nymph reclining, a lazy, sleepy smile on her face.
“A baby boy,” the nymph said. “Swimming in warm darkness.”
“Not possible,” Sandra said.
But when she looked, Jerry wouldn’t meet her eyes. He stared down at the floor. Not guilty, but lost in deep thought.
She let go of his hand.
“How?” she asked.
“My god is a god of drink, of madness, of hedonism and sex,” he said. “And he is a god of fertility, in his way.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I suppose that wins out over the working your family has crafted,” he said.
“No,” she said. She reached out, clutching him. “Undo it.”
“It’s done,” he said. “And it will no doubt be done over and over again, should we make the attempt. My god’s will, it seems.”
“You know they won’t let me keep it. One boy, and the line is broken, the working unravels.”
He nodded. When he stepped away, she could feel the gulf between them widening.
“I don’t-” she said.
“My god and his brethren are fond of their tragedies,” he said.
“I wasn’t sure if your cell phone would still be in service.”
“Always. It’s been a long time, Sandra. Five years?”
“Seven years. You only call when you need something, these days.”
“I wish it were different, but-“
“But it’s what it is,” he said. “No asking for forgiveness. We do what we must. It was a fragile connection, and it broke.”
There was a long pause, as the two of them wrestled with the irony of their reality.
“Someone’s coming your way. You’ll know him when you see him.”
“What do you want done?”
“I need him to not come back.”
“I’ll see to it.”