“So let me get this straight,” Aiko said, putting on the armor I’d carried in. It was too big for her, though it had been perfectly tailored before. She’d lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw her. “This faerie pretended to be me for almost four months?”
“Man,” she said. “Fuck her. With great sincerity. Forward, backward and sideways. With her pants on.”
“I think Kuzunoha kinda took care of that one for you,” I said dryly.
There was a momentary stillness. “Yeah,” Aiko said, very delicately. “I guess she did.”
I winced a little. Aiko had been awake for almost fifteen minutes now, and she and her mother hadn’t exchanged a single word, hadn’t even really looked directly at each other. It was incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, but at the same time, there was something oddly comforting about it. This was the kind of dysfunction I expected from Aiko.
“Are you feeling good to stand?”
“Yes,” she snapped. “I’m fine, Winter. Really.” She then stood up, and immediately proved herself a liar when she stumbled sideways and had to lean on me for support.
“Okay,” I said, holding her up. “We ready to keep going?”
Katsunaga grabbed his tarot card off the table and then nodded. He’d been the last one to take his card. Even Kyra and Snowflake had theirs, tucked neatly into their armor in places where they weren’t likely to be damaged or lost.
Aiko didn’t have a card. I tried not to worry about that.
“Where are we going?” Aiko asked.
“Well,” I said, “that kind of depends on you. I mean, my thought was to go and carve Scáthach into itty bitty pieces for this. But if you’d rather just go home and take a nap, I’ll understand.”
“Screw that,” she said cheerfully. “I’m inclined to get creative with her. I mean, at this point, she’s earned it. I don’t care if you’re a Faerie Queen, there are things you just don’t do.”
“That was kind of my thought too,” I agreed. “What about you? Are you coming with us, or do you want out now?”
“I think that you’ve already phrased it better than I could,” Kuzunoha said. She was toying with her card, turning it over in her fingers. Both sides were pure, unblemished black now, no hint of silver light to show the nature of the card. “There are lines one doesn’t cross. There are rules one doesn’t break. When Scáthach took my daughter, she flew in the face of those rules.” Katsunaga nodded vigorously.
“Nice to think that you care about me,” Aiko said, her voice very tight. “Even if it is just as a status symbol.”
Kuzunoha opened her mouth to reply, then just sighed and closed it instead.
Fuck that noise, Snowflake said. Her voice was tense and excited in the back of my head, hungry and thrilling with anticipation. Nobody fucks with us and gets away with it. What more is there to say?
Kyra just looked at me and nodded. I wasn’t sure whether she was agreeing with Snowflake, or whether she’d even heard the husky. But either way, the message was clear. She wasn’t backing out either.
“All right, then,” I said. “You guys go ahead. We’ll catch up in a minute. Meet us at the top of the stairs. I’m pretty sure we’re going to want a different entrance for the next part.”
There were a few doubtful looks at that, but they went without arguing, leaving Aiko and I alone in that room. I helped her out more slowly, just to get away from the silver in that room. The hallway was much more comfortable.
“So what’s this about?” she asked, leaning against the wall to keep her balance. “Inappropriately timed sexual hijinks? ‘Cause if so I’m down with that, it’s about time it was you suggesting that in the middle of a rescue instead of me, but I don’t know about a minute. That doesn’t seem like enough to make up for four months.”
I sighed. “How did I ever think that fae was you?” I asked rhetorically. “I don’t think she said a single thing that disturbed me in that whole time. No, Aiko, that isn’t what I was thinking. Believe it or not, I had a practical purpose behind this delay.” I pulled out the toys I’d bought at the market. I knew she’d recognize their purpose.
She stared. “Okay,” she said at last, in a voice that wasn’t nearly as cheerful as it had been a moment earlier. “Please tell me you aren’t thinking what I think you are. Because if so, I really think we might be better off going back to my idea. At least then we’d die happy.”
“No,” I said. “For once, my plan is actually less suicidal than you think it is.”
I explained what I was planning to do. It didn’t take long; this was actually a very simple plan, so simple the term plan was almost too much to represent it.
By the time I finished, she was grinning. “Okay,” she said. “Do it.”
The hallway felt shorter on the way back. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was just that it was done. There was still facing off with Scáthach to look forward to, which I didn’t, but we’d gotten Aiko out. Even if we all died now, I’d know that I hadn’t completely failed her.
She was obviously in bad shape, but once we were up and moving she wasn’t quite as badly off as I’d thought she was. We weren’t setting any speed records, and she had to lean on me occasionally, but she was up and moving under her own power, even wearing armor.
The stairs were harder up than down, reminding me that I wasn’t in the best condition myself. I was tired, and injured, and I was starting to come up against my own physical limits.
Again, though, it seemed shorter than the staircase we descended to reach that level. It only took a few minutes for us to make it to the top, and we weren’t exactly sprinting up the stairs.
And that was when I got the next unpleasant surprise of the evening. The room we were in wasn’t where we’d been before. Instead of a tangled warren of narrow, lightless halls, we emerged into a massive open hall. From the way the air moved I could tell that the ceiling was only about fifty feet up, but there was some kind of magical illusion there, making it look like the night sky overhead, complete with a field of stars and a full moon. The light from the false moon illuminated the room reasonably well, although there were still deep shadows in the corners.
The people we’d sent up ahead were there, at least. That was a major plus, and one that I’d been seriously concerned about.
“What is this?” I asked. “Where are we?”
“The Queen’s entrance hall, unless I’m mistaken,” Kuzunoha said calmly.
“And we’re here instead of where we went down because…why?”
“Space is a relative concept,” she said. “This castle is the Maiden’s sanctum, one of the great strongholds of the Midnight Court. In this place, their power is more than sufficient to influence space and time.”
My heart sank. “She can keep us away from her, then.”
“Oddly enough,” Kuzunoha said, “that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening. She will be in her throne room, the seat of her power. We’re closer than we were.”
I processed that, then sighed. “You know what? I hate politics. Come on, I’m really in the mood to be cutting things into pieces.”
Walking towards the door, I glanced back once. The staircase leading down into the bowels of the fortress was gone, just an open expanse of stone where it used to be. I wasn’t surprised in the least. I had a strong suspicion that that staircase, up and down both, hadn’t really been there. We had traveled by the will of a Faerie Queen, all right, but not Scáthach.
No, I was pretty sure our path had been smoothed by an older queen than that. We were doing the bidding of the Crone of Midnight, the Grandmother of the Unseelie Court. That old hag wanted us to make it to Scáthach, for whatever reason, and even in the younger queen’s sanctum, Grandmother Midnight was the stronger of the two by several orders of magnitude. If they opposed, no one smart was betting on Scáthach’s will to win out.
I hate politics.
The door out of the entry hall was surprisingly small. Still impressive by mortal standards, ten feet tall and covered in inscriptions in the same odd script we’d seen down in the prison room, but compared to the scale of the room, it felt underwhelming.
I opened it and then waited. It was dark on the other side, but I had tendrils extended through the air down the hallway, feeling for any disturbance.
As I’d predicted, only seconds later I felt something approaching. It was small and fast, tipped with silver, and if I’d been an idiot it might well have killed me. I had a pretty solid idea of what to expect here, though, so I reached out and swatted the arrow out of the air with one hand before it even came close to us.
“Oh, you’re no fun,” Carraig said, somewhere in the darkness in front of us.
“I’m surprised at you,” I said. “That you would play along with something like this. I know we aren’t friends, but I would have said you were an honorable man in your way.”
“See, here’s the thing,” he said. “One of the hardest things for me to explain to someone from outside the Courts is the distinction between the role and the person. Now, Carraig might think this whole situation is fucking shameful. He might quite reasonably be disgusted at numerous aspects of what’s happened. Scáthach’s champion, on the other hand, has no such opinions.”
“I understand,” I said. “I really do.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I thought you might. Look, turn around now and you can walk. I’ve got nothing against you, and no order saying I have to kill you.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “She crossed lines that I can’t ignore. Back down, and you can walk. I’ve got nothing against you, and no reason to include you in my grievances against your queen.”
“I can’t do that,” he said.
“Why not? You know that what she did was wrong. You know she’s messed up.”
“It isn’t in me,” he said. “I’m an old man, Winter. I’ve watched this world move on without me. I don’t belong in it. I don’t have a place in it anymore. It doesn’t matter if she’s wrong. She’s my Queen.”
“You really think you belong in the Court?” Aiko sounded incredulous.
“The Court is all I have,” he said simply.
I sighed. “So it’s like that, then.”
“Looks like it,” he agreed.
And then Carraig, the personal champion of the Maiden of the Unseelie Court and one of the most personally dangerous human beings in the world, started trying to kill me.