Balancing Act 6.9

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More than any other, particularly in oral tradition and everyday folklore, it is the scary story we are enamored of. We are obsessed with the eyes in the darkness, the laughter in the night, the shapes half-seen in the shadows beneath the trees. Every culture has its stories, and likewise every culture has its monsters and demons, its ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night. It’s a universal urge—and don’t think it’s limited to normal humans, either.

 

Werewolves and vampires and wicked witches are the stuff of terror. To many people—at least those you could convince to admit such things—we are the most frightening things in the world. But, naturally, we can’t be scared shitless of ourselves. We still hunger for stories, though, and so it is that you find another whole world of scary stories among the weird and preternatural folk than everyday humans.

 

Ours tend to be scarier. If only because, in my world, oftentimes the scary stories weren’t quite as fictional as you might wish. And sometimes it’s the lucky ones that die.

 

Thus, if you know the right places to listen, you can hear stories about the Wild Hunt, which rides like a storm through the sky, with a fury that is awful and beautiful to behold. It hardly matters whether you die, or you’re lucky enough to hide and avoid drawing their attention, or you’re predator enough yourself to ride beside them. You don’t walk away from the experience, not as the person you were before the Hunt came. It changes you.

 

Or there’s the Khan of the Werewolves, a young-looking man with a terrible old soul. He knew everything about everyone, the whispers said, and if you were careless or stupid or just didn’t walk as lightly as you should you just might wake up from a nightmare some evening to find eyes in the darkness.

 

But I have to admit, if I were to pick one, I’d say the scariest of all are the Sidhe Courts. Strangely, though, the most terrifying of their stories aren’t those of blood and death, of war or the hunt. Because, although they are a terrifying force, the Sidhe really aren’t frightening for violent reasons. If you don’t pick a fight with them, they aren’t terribly likely to pick a fight with you.

 

No, it was when they were wheeling and dealing that the Sidhe became truly scary. Like the genie of pop culture (not the actual djinn; they were equally scary for entirely different reasons), they always kept their bargains to the letter and yet what you got never quite seemed to be what you wanted, and what you wanted never quite seemed to be worth what you paid. It was commonly said, and not entirely in jest, that if you ever found yourself under the impression that you had gotten the better of a Sidhe in bargaining, you should immediately count your relatives. Then your legs, then arms, followed by fingers, toes, eyes, teeth, and testicles.

 

Thus, rather than a battlefield, many of the truly terrifying tales of the elves took place at parties and festivals, in crowded ballrooms and ancient castles. See, the thing you have to remember is that Disney took a lot of the grimmer parts out of the legends of the faeries. And, even if you feel some need to stick to that interpretation, remind yourself that the wicked faeries and evil stepmothers got invited to such parties, right alongside the good and the benevolent.

 

So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that at a real faerie ball the carriage didn’t revert to a pumpkin and Cinderella never had to leave, not even when she was so weary of dancing that her slippers had filled with blood. The wine was sweet as poisoned apples, the wolves weren’t half so dangerous as the grandmothers, and every game was played with house rules for infinite stakes. No one cared enough to tell you the name of the game, and there was nothing protecting you from your own decisions. It was quite possible to sell your soul with just a few wrong words to the right being at the right time.

 

They say that only the desperate and the foolish have dealings with the Courts of Day and Night. They are not far wrong.


 

We stepped through one of the official portals, which by some strange coincidence had been located in a domain Aiko was reasonably familiar with. I find that such coincidences abound, when there’s a Twilight Prince smoothing your way.

 

We emerged onto a dusky mountain path about a million degrees colder than we were dressed for. That didn’t bother me too much, because I’m really hard to upset with cold, but Aiko started shivering almost immediately. “Bloody hell,” she muttered grimly, hurrying down the snowpacked path. There was more snow all around us, so deep that it seemed more like we were walking down a trench cut into the snow than along a path. “They couldn’t make it open inside the flipping castle?”

 

Before we’d gone a dozen feet, there was someone walking next to us. I couldn’t have told you where he came from; he was simply walking beside us, where a moment before the trench had been empty. His appearance should have shocked us and had both of us reaching for our weapons, but it somehow didn’t, and I wasn’t at all sure why.

 

He was better than six and a half feet tall, and thin without looking skeletal. He was obviously Sidhe, with slit pupils in intensely deep green eyes, predator’s teeth, and sharply pointed ears. Unlike most of his kind, though, he was not pretty, nor did he take any care to hide that fact. His features were rough and coarse even by human standards, and his anthracite-hued hair was cropped shorter and more unevenly than Aiko’s. He was wearing a leather tunic and breeches, the latter held up with a length of rope, and had a fresh wolf pelt thrown around his shoulders as a cloak. It moved slightly in a nonexistent breeze, and left traces of blood on his skin where it passed. He was barefoot, and should clearly have been freezing, and just as clearly was not.

 

“Blaise,” I said, with just a touch of respect—enough not to be insulting, not enough to be fawning. “I thought that the whole point of a masquerade was to come dressed as something that you aren’t, as opposed to looking exactly like what you are.”

 

“Some of us are beyond such things,” he said dryly. “And yourself? What masque do you wear tonight?”

 

“I’m a werewolf,” I said cheerfully.

 

He raised one eyebrow. “Did you not just say criticize me for resembling my own nature too closely?”

 

I smiled. “Precisely why I chose the costume I did.”

 

He nodded slowly. “I see. An interesting message, to be sure. There are many who will spend much of the evening debating what you meant by it.”

 

“That was the point,” I said. “You’re strong enough that you don’t need to worry about what people think of you. Not all of us are that lucky. If people aren’t sure what I mean or what I’m capable of, I think they’re a lot less likely to dismiss me as prey.”

 

“A valid point, although I think you give yourself too little credit.” He shook his head. “In any case, I understand your intention. And what of you, my lady? How have you chosen to present yourself this evening?”

 

“I,” Aiko said grandiosely, “don’t give a fuck.”

 

Blaise blinked a little at that, for which I couldn’t blame him, because so did I. “Are you saying that you didn’t care to costume yourself, or that that is your costume?”

 

Aiko’s smile showed a great many teeth. “Exactly.”

 

The Twilight Prince laughed deeply, shaking his head. “Excellent,” he murmured. “Truly, it is too long since you graced one of our festivals with your presence.” We emerged from the snow-trench onto a staircase a hundred feet wide set into the mountainside, and I got my first glimpse of Utgard. I’d seen a lot of things in my life, but I’d never seen the seat of the king of jötnar, and even my jaded mind was awestruck for a moment at the sight.

 

The mountain we were standing on, for one thing, dwarfed any I’d ever seen. We were in the middle of a mountain range, and looking down on the peaks all around, an ocean of white-capped mountains spreading out as far as the eye could see. Even the least of the mountains was the size of Pikes Peak, and the greatest had to be twice its size. The ground itself, which was almost unimaginably far below, was shrouded in dense white mist, into which the snowy mountains faded imperceptibly. Up here, though, the air was painfully clear, exposing a sky just fading from the brilliant colors of sunset into the deep, piercing blue of a night untainted by any city lights. The stars were just beginning to come out, brilliant sparks of light that made the snow look sallow. I’d never in my life seen them so bright, not even in the forests of Wyoming with the nearest lights a hundred miles off.

 

All of it, though, was easily eclipsed by the fortress-castle of Utgard. It crouched high on the mountain, a castle like none ever dreamed of by mortal architects. I couldn’t really estimate how large it was. The cold grey granite seemed to rise from the mountain itself, making it hard to say where one began and the other ended. It was easily a thousand feet from side to side, though, and the highest tower soared far above the peak of the mountain itself. Instead of a moat, there was a natural chasm between us and it, several hundred feet across and deep enough that the bottom was hidden in the mist. The grand staircase turned into a delicate-looking bridge of ice that arched over the crevasse with all the deceptive strength of a spider’s web, large enough for a commercial plane to use it as a runway. I was betting it could handle the strain of it, too.

 

“I thought you might like to see it from the outside,” Blaise said by way of explanation, as I picked up my jaw and we started up the stairs. “It’s rather impressive the first time, no?”

 

“Sure,” Aiko said, keeping her teeth from chattering by the simple expedient of clenching them and growling through them. “If you’re a freaking snowman.

 

The Twilight Prince glanced at her, as though he’d just now noticed that she was cold. He gestured slightly, there was the faintest brush of wolf-and-tree scented magic, and the cold retreated. I wasn’t sure how he’d done it, exactly; the snow wasn’t melting, the wind hadn’t stopped, and yet the air suddenly felt warm. “My apologies, Lady Miyake,” he said seriously.

 

She glared at him, but didn’t complain as we crossed the icy bridge. It should have been nerve-wracking, crossing a bottomless pit on a bridge made of literal ice, but it wasn’t. Perhaps the sheer scale of the bridge made any concern of falling seem ridiculous. Perhaps I simply assumed—correctly—that, ice or not, it wouldn’t be the least bit slippery. In any case, we crossed without difficulty, and passed through granite walls fifty feet tall and at least as thick to enter the castle courtyard. The gates, which were built to the same scale as everything else in this land of giants, were slabs of ice nearly as thick as the walls, with layers and layers of runic inscriptions in them.

 

It was incredible. You couldn’t lay siege to this place. All the defenders would have to do was collapse the bridge and close the gates, and you would never get inside, not unless you could fly—and even then, I was pretty sure the jötnar would knock you out of the sky without much difficulty. It was as near to impregnable as a place could conceivably be.

 

But then, if you’re going to war with the gods, I suppose that’s probably not a bad idea.

 

We passed through the barren snow-filled courtyard, which was otherwise empty, and ascended another sweeping stone staircase to the great doors of Utgard. They were made of some pale wood, perhaps ash, around a hundred feet tall and fifty wide, bound with bronze and iron. The jötnar were not fae, not precisely, and they had no more difficulty with iron than I did.

 

Blaise opened a smaller door inset into the massive ones and ushered us through into an entryway a thousand times as impressive as mine, although rather more sparsely furnished. It was large enough to fit a few soccer pitches without difficulty, and the granite ceiling was easily a hundred and fifty feet overhead. Blaise led the way straight through it to another door in the opposite wall, one a little more humanly-scaled. There was a fellow standing in front of it, wearing servants’ livery of white and blue, who looked like he could wrestle a polar bear and make it cry for its mother. He looked at me and got a seen-it-all-before expression. He looked at Aiko and it only deepened. He took one look at Blaise and his already pale face—what little of it could be seen behind a massive black beard, at any rate—started trying to imitate the snow outside.

 

He essayed a low, surprisingly graceful bow to the Twilight Prince. “Good evening, Your Lordship,” he said.

 

“Good evening, Sveinn,” Blaise said. “Might you escort my companions and I to the festival?”

 

Sveinn looked like he would rather shove his hand in a blender. “Might I see your invitation, sir?” he said diffidently to me.

 

I pulled it out and handed it to him. He read it pretty normally until he got to the signature, at which point he gulped hard, went even paler, and handed it back to me in hands which shook a little. “E-everything seems to be in order,” he said. “If it would please you to follow me, my lords, my lady.” He turned and led us through the door and down a series of stone corridors. It was a really big castle; it probably took five, maybe even ten minutes for us to reach a broad balcony overlooking the party, with a magnificent staircase sweeping to the ground on either side.

 

The festival itself was being held in a room the size and grandeur of which I’d never seen bettered. It was a single massive hall easily a hundred and fifty or two hundred yards square, all of smooth grey granite. The ceiling, which was easily a hundred feet overhead, was a single enormous, flawless sheet of ice, letting in the light of moon and stars as the sunset faded outside. We had arrived early, it seemed, and the floor was sparsely inhabited. I couldn’t see a band, but the air was filled with music, something that sounded like bagpipes skirling along over a heavy, rhythmic drumbeat that made me think of keeping time on a longboat. There were voices, lots of them, singing in a language I couldn’t understand, and doing an excellent job of it.

 

At the balcony, Sveinn turned us over to an even burlier blond servant with unmistakable relief. Blaise proceeded past him and down the stairs, but the servant stopped us with an upraised hand and grim expression. He, too, checked out the invitation, also paling a little at the fact that it was signed, and then turned and walked out to the railing. He slammed his staff three times on the ground, the impacts resounding with the sort of volume more normally associated with medium-caliber gunshots, and the room, not all that noisy or active to begin with, went utterly still.

 

“My Lords and Ladies of the Sidhe,” the herald boomed in a voice louder than most concerts. “Allow me to present to the Court the jarl of Ífingr, baron of Thrymheimr, and peer of Járnvithr; knight-banneret of the Most Noble Order of the Mistletoe; favored vassal of His Excellency Fenrisúlfr; slayer of Grutte Pier, champion of the Daylight Court of the Sidhe; bane of the Six Witches; chosen wielder of the most illustrious blade Tyrfing; the Honorable Lord Winter Wolf; and his consort, kitsune of the Chrysanthemum Court, the Lady Aiko Miyake.” He gestured for us to proceed down the stairs. We did so, Aiko even going so far as to rest her fingers lightly on my arm—purely for show, of course; she was less likely to trip than I was, even wearing a hakama.

 

The Sidhe applauded, briefly and purely for form’s sake, and went back to what they were doing. Thankfully; it had been quite uncomfortable having all of them focused on me. I didn’t want to be dismissed, but that was a far cry from being the center of attention.

 

“Consort?” Aiko murmured as we went, so softly as to be nigh inaudible to werewolf ears two feet away. “Consort? Shouldn’t they have asked me first?”

 

“If it’s any comfort,” I replied at equally low volume, “they didn’t ask me, either. I don’t even know what most of those titles mean.”

 

Blaise was waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs. “A lovely performance,” he told us, leading us off through the crowd, which parted before him without ever quite making it clear that was what they were doing. “Skrýmir will want to speak with you first, of course. His throne is directly in front of you, you can’t miss it. I’ll leave you to that, and then perhaps we’ll be able to speak more later.” He vanished into the crowd without waiting for us to reply.

 

“You know,” Aiko said in a bare murmur, “I can’t help but recall that the last time we tried to introduce ourselves to the host at one of these shindigs, it went rather badly.”

 

“Me too,” I muttered. “But there’s not a lot of choice for it. C’mon, let’s get it over with.” We edged forward through the crowd, who all seemed to sidle out from in front of us. I suddenly wondered whether they’d been getting out of Blaise’s way, earlier, or mine.

 

Something to think about another time.

 

The hall was pretty freaking big, and it took some time to move across it at a politely snailish pace. For once, though, it turned out to actually be impossible to miss the thing we couldn’t miss. As it turns out, when a frost giant does a throne, he does it big. The dais was elevated several feet above the ground, and the throne itself was carved from a single piece of ice big enough to dwarf a man. The figure currently in it was well matched, being better than eight feet tall, and massively muscled. He looked like he could bench press a truck without any supernatural assistance.

 

He beckoned us closer once we were within sight, and we hesitantly climbed up onto the dais. He seemed content to spend a few moments examining us, and I returned the favor. Skrýmir’s skin looked hard and white as ice itself, and icicles had formed in his mane of ash-blond hair, and in his beard. His eyes were a shade of blue just a touch paler than Snowflake’s, and inscrutable. He was wearing what looked like the entire skin of a polar bear for a cloak. Other than leather breeches and fur-lined boots, that was all. The cold didn’t appear to inconvenience him.

 

He grinned suddenly, showing shiny white teeth that would have looked quite at home in a wolf’s mouth, and leaned forward to thump me on the shoulder. It was a casual, friendly gesture that was still strong enough to make me stagger sideways. If I hadn’t been braced against it, I don’t doubt it would have sent me sprawling. “Hail and well met!” he said. His voice was so deep that even a speaking voice practically qualified as a growl. “Ah, but it’s good to meet you at last, nephew.”

 

I stared blankly for a second. “Nephew?”

 

“Well, I suppose if you want to speak technically, it’s—” he broke off suddenly and turned to look at one of his hangers-on nearby. “How many greats, Ólaf?’

 

“Nine, my lord,” he murmured.

 

“Aye, that’s right. Nine-times-great nephew.” He took in my blank expression and a scowl gathered on his face, swift and dark as a sudden storm. “They hadn’t told you?” He really was growling now.

 

“Your Majesty,” I said dryly, “I usually find it a safe assumption that no one tells me anything.”

 

He chuckled. “Fair enough. You’re one of us, boy, of my brother Hrym’s line. What’s the descent again, Ólaf?”

 

“Winter Wolf-Born, son of Carmine No-Counsel, daughter of Björn One-Hand, son of Herjólf the Sharp, son of Njáll Half-Burned, son of Asolf the Unwashed, son of Hallgerda Manslayer, daughter of Egil the Black, son of Sinfjötli Longtooth, son of Signý the Bloody, daughter of Hljoth the Fair, daughter of Hrym the Mighty.” There was no hesitation in his voice.

 

God, I hoped there wasn’t a test on this later. “I really, really want to stab something right now,” I muttered, too quiet to hear.

 

Ólaf cleared his throat in the background. “There will be contests of arms later in the evening, if you would like to participate.”

 

“There, you see?” Skrýmir said with a laugh. “You’ve noble blood, nephew, and strong. Aren’t afraid to show it, either, are you? Good! That’s as it should be! A jotun is meant to be strong, aye, and fierce as well.” He reached out and thumped me on the back again.

 

I swallowed dryly. “So…when your herald said I was a baron earlier…he was being serious?”

 

“Ah, that. You must speak with my brother for that, I fear; ’tis a courtesy title only, my boy, without lands or privilege. The lordship proper is held by—” He paused and glanced significantly sideways.

 

“Atli Nine-Graves holds the Völsung title following Gimli the Tall’s death, my lord,” Ólaf provided smoothly.

 

“Ah, yes, Atli. Fine young man, if a bit grim. I don’t deal with him much,” Skrýmir said to me by way of explanation. “He’s a forest lord, you see, and those folk keep mostly to themselves. As I was saying, you’re a baron in name only until you tell Hrym to grant you lands to go with it, or you challenge Atli for it. Of course, my brother did make a point of calling you a peer, so you’ve a voice all the same in his Court.”

 

I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. “That’s fine,” I said numbly.

 

The jotun king grinned again. “Aye, you’ve no great need for legitimacy in any case, have you? As it should be, I say; we could use more fire in the younger blood. Although, it must be said, you’re jarl in your own right. Fenrisúlfr made it so, and there’s not a one as will challenge his word, is there?” That was apparently a humorous comment, because the half-dozen or so people on the dais laughed heartily.

 

“But that’s enough of that,” the giant said, chuckling a little. “You’ve a hunger, I’m sure, and if you’re anything like any wolf I’ve ever met you’d rather feed it than listen to an old man talk. Go, eat, enjoy yourselves. And don’t those pansy elves push you around, either; you’re of my blood, and any as raises hand against you or yours in my hall shall answer for it, I tell you truly.”

 

He waved us off and we backed down from the dais. Aiko’s hand was still on my arm, but it was more to steady me now than her; after so many years of trying to figure out my ancestry, to have such an overload of answers simply handed to me was almost more than I could wrap my head around. “Are you all right?” she whispered to me once we were safely on level ground, and out of earshot of Skrýmir and his kin.

 

“Fine,” I murmured back. “Just a little overwhelmed, that’s all.” I glanced around and saw an enormous white-clothed table along the wall under the balcony where we’d entered, covered with an almost unimaginable array of dishes, bowls, and covered platters. “What say we follow Skrýmir’s advice? I haven’t eaten since lunch.”

 

“Hell yeah,” she muttered. “I’m telling you, Winter, the food is worth coming all by itself.”

 

I grinned, and we turned to enter the fray.


 

The only other time I’d attended a Sidhe party, I’d spent less than half an hour actually partying—and I’d been entirely focused, during that time, on obtaining certain information. I had been utterly overwhelmed, flooded with so many sensory experiences which someone from my world was quite simply not meant to experience that my mind went into safe mode and flat-out refused to process much of it.

 

Or, at least, that was what I thought at the time. In retrospect, it was really rather tame. I know this, because as it turned out the All Hallows’ Eve masquerade of the Sidhe Courts was a whole lot more…intense. It was an experience beyond understanding, and far beyond the ability of words to convey. The room was mostly darkened, with only a few lanterns and the moonlight coming through the ice of the roof to illuminate the hall, with flashes of lightning casting everything into sharp relief. The music, which continued to drift sourcelessly throughout the hall, shifted and danced unpredictably, slipping from one style to another without warning, with a preponderance to the weird and spooky. Through this twilit hall strode and slunk and danced the Sidhe, though I would never have realized it had I not known whose party this was.

 

There were Sidhe guising as clouds of multicolored lights, or rail-thin shadows that spoke in a voice to chill the soul. Another being was nothing more than lips followed by a pair of arms, which picked them up and positioned them into the appropriate expressions. A gentleman in a dark suit who looked quite normal except for the smooth, blank skin where his face should be chatted amiably with a gowned lady who had a golden apple for a head. Their voices seemed to emanate vaguely from the chest region. And those were just a handful of the most tame out of hundreds of Sidhe there.

 

I swiftly discovered that everyone not of the Sidhe Courts was introduced by the herald before they entered the room. I wasn’t entirely sure why; certainly nothing of the sort had happened at the last festival. Perhaps it was in reaction to my party-crashing and subsequent escape from custody, but I rather doubted it. I wasn’t that important. More likely it was a difference of protocol from Ryujin’s court to Skrýmir’s.

 

Some of those introductions were fairly interesting—although I quickly noticed that almost none of them were as long or aggrandizing as mine had been. The strangest might have been a skinny man in a grubby overcoat who looked even more uncomfortable here than I felt and was introduced simply as, “The fire in the wire.” A woman pale as paper with eerie white eyes and waist-length hair blacker than a raven’s wing was apparently, “The freezer of hearts and bane of men.” She wore a floor-length white robe and moved as gracefully as a snow flurry. There were more, too, many, many more. After a while I mostly gave up trying to keep track of them, and only occasionally glanced up to look at the newcomers.

 

Time itself seemed strange, warped. This wasn’t like the dislocated sense of time that intensive magic produced; I was quite familiar with that altering of perception. This seemed more like time itself had become something fluid, instable. I grew hungry and ate a dozen times, yet never grew tired or sleepy, nor did the logical consequences of all that food follow. Perhaps because time had become so strangely distorted, my memories of the parties are snapshots, instants and scenes unconnected by any form of narrative.

 

The food itself was, naturally, quite excellent. The cutlery was all of ice, yet it didn’t melt, and it wasn’t just me not finding it chilly. There was a staggering array of food, everything from the entirely mundane to the outlandishly exotic, every bit of it superb beyond anything my world had ever produced. I ate fruits I’d never heard of before, dined on the flesh of everything from snake to lemur, from raccoon to stoat. The roasted butterflies were pleasantly crunchy, although they had very little substance, and the raw squirrel with lingonberry-and-lemon sauce was incredible.

 

In one corner of the room, a group of satyrs and goblins and less identifiable things were holding up the bar, where a jovial jotun laughed and poured drinks from a jug which never emptied. I stayed far away from it—if it was anything like dwarven mead, which was the only other Otherside liquor I’d ever experienced, I couldn’t handle a mouthful, let alone a glass. Aiko was more bold, and brought back a pair of icy goblets filled with amber wine. It tasted sweet and sour and cold and spicy all at once, and had a kick more like brandy than any normal wine.

 

A grove of dryads performed a mad, incredible dance, which had them flickering from naked, inhumanly beautiful young women into trees in an eyeblink. The trees themselves spun and lashed like willows in a gale, though the air was perfectly still, as other dryads in human form danced through the boughs. Afterward, one of the dryads propositioned me so blatantly that I thought Aiko was going to stab her—although, to be fair, the dryad had made it clear the kitsune was quite welcome to come along, if she wished. Aiko touched her knife meaningfully, and I growled a refusal. The dryad shrugged and sauntered off, completely unconcerned.

 

Skrýmir, as it turned out, really had entered me into the contests of arms—without, I might add, telling me so. I performed with sword, and also in the wrestling competition. I was defeated handily by the second Sidhe I faced with the sword, but did rather better at the wrestling. I’d learned a decent amount of judo in my youth, and between that and my werewolf’s (and, as it turned out, maybe jotun’s, but that wasn’t something I was prepared to think about right now) strength and speed I acquitted myself reasonably well. I beat a pair of the Sidhe, a jotun, and a small troll before losing to a jotun who went on to be the champion. I did well enough that Skrýmir congratulated me personally, and pressed a tankard of mead on me. It wasn’t quite as good as the dwarven stuff Fenris had given me a taste of, but it was better than anything I’d had other than that and the wine earlier.

 

A slender, startlingly beardless jotun stood and declaimed skaldic poetry in a resonant baritone. I didn’t know a word of the language, but the alliteration fell from his tongue with a power and significance that I could feel even so, and the poem had a beauty and a sorrow that transcended language barriers. The whole hall erupted into applause when he finished, and I was not the least enthusiastic among them.

 

Aiko, perhaps inspired by my example, took part in a gymnastics competition. It was a lot like a normal gymnastics meet, except that it was being held by the Sidhe. Thus, the parallel bars were a dozen feet apart and twenty high, the balance beam was no thicker than Aiko’s belt, and so on. I doubt there are more than a handful of human athletes in the world that could have even performed a routine under such extreme circumstances. Aiko, who was by no means human and showing it more openly tonight than was usual, managed it handily, and still put on such a good performance that I don’t think most professional gymnasts could have matched it under ordinary conditions—although she was still far from operating at her best. Her left side hadn’t entirely recovered from its near-lethal dosing of deathstalker venom, and might never. She usually hid it well, but it’s nigh impossible to do so while performing freaking gymnastics, and I could see that her limbs weren’t reacting quite as perfectly as they should be—though, in all fairness, I was something of a special case. I doubt anyone who didn’t know her fairly intimately would have noticed it.

 

She didn’t win, of course. That went without saying. She was a kitsune, and thus far superior to most humans, physically—but she wasn’t competing against humans. The Sidhe were as far beyond her as she was beyond a human. Even from my biased viewpoint, I couldn’t deny that she had been blown out of the water. But she did better than some of the competitors, and what she lacked in technical perfection she made up for in spirit. She, too, got congratulations and mead from Skrýmir.

 

A pair of Sidhe nobles played a game of tennis like nothing I’d ever seen. The ball looked like pure starlight, and they batted it back and forth with silvery swords. When one of them finally missed his parry, the starlight burned a hole straight through his chest. It must have cauterized it as it passed, because there was no blood when he slumped to the ground. The party didn’t even slow. I saw a woman so beautiful it hurt to look at her dance by, wearing a black domino mask and nothing else. She never even flinched as she pirouetted across the body, her black stiletto heels leaving small bleeding holes.

 

There was a riddling contest. Neither of us tried our hand at that; we knew when we were overmatched. But it was quite popular, attracting several dozen of the Sidhe, a comparable number of jötnar, a pair of leprechauns, and a number of less easily identifiable races, attached to one or the other of the Sidhe Courts. I could hardly even understand half the riddles, but apparently it was very well done, and the eventual winner was unanimously decided to be a Sidhe lord of the Midnight Court.

 

I spent several minutes talking with an anthropomorphic wolf who was drinking what smelled like an exceptionally literal Bloody Mary. He congratulated me on having not been killed by the Wild Hunt that spring, at which point I recognized him as the only member of said Hunt who had seemed to be on my side against Pier’s, and invited me to come hunting with him soon. I politely demurred, saying I was extremely busy and not sure when I would have the time, but we spent a while chatting, and I arranged a way to contact him before I left. Because, let’s face it, I am a werewolf. We hunt in packs naturally, and I hadn’t had anyone along but Snowflake in quite some time. I liked him, and it might be nice to go hunting with someone else.

 

At another table, a gryphon, a sphinx, a manticore, and a pair of jötnar were drinking (or lapping, as the case may be) copious amounts of alcohol and trading hero, damsel, and sidekick recipes. I’d never have guessed you had to cook them differently. They invited me to join them, saying a werewolf’s perspective would be refreshing, but I politely declined, because I was a terrible cook and as far as I was aware I’d never eaten any of the three. Besides, most of the time a werewolf’s perspective boiled down to, “Have you tried eating it raw and bloody?”, which I didn’t think was likely to be particularly useful.

 

Aiko, possibly in competition with the dryads (unless maybe it was the other way round; afterward, I could never quite say what order my flashbulb memories occurred in, and Aiko wasn’t much help) was talked into performing a dance by a Daylight Sidhe who apparently knew her in her younger, even wilder days. It involved a lot of jumping and athleticism, and flickering back and forth between human and fox, sometimes in midair. I couldn’t even conceive of the coordination and practice it would require to manage it. She made it look easy and utterly graceful, although I’m reasonably confident she’d had at least one drink by then. It earned her a round of applause, complete with hooting and hollering—not from the Sidhe, of course, but some of the lesser fae and most of the jötnar were intoxicated enough that inhibitions were loosened. More mead was pressed on both of us.

 

A leprechaun (I recognized him as such only because Aiko, who had been friends with a leprechaun until he died, pointed it out to me) juggled a hundred gold coins, with more appearing and disappearing from thin air every second. I’d never seen anyone’s hands move so fast.

 

There was a watermelon spitting contest, which turned out to be a lot like a watermelon seed spitting contest, except that it required a much larger mouth.

 

Something that looked like a cross between a wolf and ball lightning put on a light show like no storm my world had ever played host to. It must not have been attached to the Courts, because the herald had introduced it, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember as what.

 

Aiko, who was pretty plastered by now, apparently said the wrong thing to a troll only a little bigger than Andre the Giant. It took a clumsy swing at her, which she dodged easily. All that booze must have gone to her head, though, because she had little of her usual agility, and actually tripped and fell getting out of the way. I stepped up and decked the troll before it could take advantage of the situation. Skrýmir, who had apparently already been on his way to defuse the situation, slapped me on the back some more, and insisted I join him in quaffing another horn of mead. I was starting to feel a bit woozy, but couldn’t see a polite way out of it.

 

A dozen Cu Sith crowded beneath the banquet table, squabbling over bones and snatching up tidbits dropped to the floor. Two of them began mating, as uncaring of their surroundings as if they’d been ordinary dogs although I was fairly confident they were as smart as people, or smarter. No one paid any mind, except to nudge them out of the way to get to the food. I stepped around them, and pretended I didn’t see Aiko looking toward me significantly. My sensibilities don’t align perfectly with society’s most of the time, but there are some things even I won’t do.

 

I know, it shocked me too.

 

There was a competition for the most obscene limerick. Aiko tried hard, and (perhaps inevitably) did much better at it than either of us had at the other contests. Eventually, though, she had to admit defeat at the hands of no less a personage than Skrýmir himself.

 

I got her back in the stuff-a-ferret-down-your-pants contest, though. I was eventually disqualified by reason of having used magic to calm the ferret, but I still outlasted everyone else, and walked away without a scratch. Plus, because the rules hadn’t technically forbidden that (probably because there weren’t very many people who could pull it off; like I told Alexis, communicating with animals isn’t a common talent), I still got the consolation prize, which was another drink with Skrýmir.

 

A pair of female Sidhe flyted, surrounded by a jeering crowd. Only around a quarter or so of the insults they tossed back and forth were in English, the rest being a mixture of more languages than I could count (although Aiko, inevitably, understood quite a few of them). I thought it rather telling that “You couldn’t sell beef to the starving” was considered by the onlookers to be one of the most extreme. Only the Sidhe.

 

Aiko sang a filthy German ditty with a jotun and a satyr, and followed it up with a French sailors’ song describing a large number of anatomically improbable sexual activities, and which had more than a few people rolling on the ground laughing. Literally.

 

A group of sylphs put on a synchronized flying display. One of them, apparently more blitzed than the rest, flew into the wall and dropped to the ground. It got up and flew away without evident impairment, though, and between that and the laughter and applause it garnered I suspect the accident was rather more intentional than it wanted it to appear.

 

One male Sidhe’s costume was particularly good. He stood ten feet tall with limbs no thicker than pool cues, and his black clothing hung off him in tatters to expose a gaping void beneath. His head was a bare skull with vivid emerald flames in the eye sockets and a mouth much too wide, filled with teeth much too sharp. He pulled it off and did tricks with it, to the delight of the crowd. His skeletal companion, not to be outdone, removed a femur and played fetch with one of the faerie hounds.

 

Some sort of fae being I didn’t recognize put on an elaborate puppet show. The puppets flew about without any sort of suspension, and spoke independently. I was pretty sure they were acting out some play or other by Shakespeare.

 

Aiko was approached by a Sidhe noble who’d seen her dance. Because she didn’t carry her clothing with her when she shifted forms, she’d had to dance in the nude. He apparently thought her casual attitude towards that meant more than it did. I must have been getting fairly schnockered myself, because rather than politely disabuse him of that notion, I just stepped up and punched his lights out. I gathered he wasn’t very popular, because even most of the Sidhe applauded that action. I knew I’d just made an enemy, but couldn’t seem to regret it.

 

And on, and on, and on. More mead, more wine. The table never emptied, the music never ceased. Existence began to seem fluid, malleable. Reality stretched, twisted, melted, warped. I could no longer recall where I was, or why. The world outside these walls seemed no more than a fever dream half-remembered, ephemeral, like morning fog come sunrise. Had I ever not been here? The answer seemed elusive as a trout in the stream, inconsequential as a breath in the hurricane.

 

I ate and drank and danced and fought in a twilight hall beneath a roof of ice, while outside the stars wheeled and spun through a sky dark and cold as a midwinter night’s dream and the snow fell ever more thickly. For a time I had no yesterday or tomorrow; I simply was, and that was enough.

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