May 11th, Year of our Fair Lord 9, Central Jonestown
Jill Erickson woke to the usual knocking on the door frame of the stairwell. Two sharp knocks. It was her mother’s way of waking her up. She sat up, fumbled for her boring old flip phone, and stuffed it into her pajama pocket. She turned out of bed and stood, stretching. The blue, slanted ceilings of the attic bedroom made the large room feel cramped. She curled her feet into the carpet, and turned to her closet before remembering she’d moved half of her things to the other one after her sister moved out.
“I understand that.”
She froze. Any sensible young woman or girl would freeze to hear a strange man’s voice in her room, and see a man sitting on the edge of her sister’s bed, which was rumpled, though her sister had been away at college for a month already.
Had he slept in it?
The man was on a cellphone.
“Well, you could bomb it if you want. You’re a reasonable person. You sound like a reasonable person. All these terms are reasonable, but you can bomb it. I’m telling you that you can, but it won’t do any good. See, I’m not there right now. All that work, all those bombs, it’d be a waste.”
A man in a suit sat on her bed, a big man. He was big in many ways, from the price of his suit, to the breadth of his shoulders, to who she knew he was. There was the paunch of old age, the jaundice in what would have been a pale face…
He glanced at her. She stared at him. He smiled. It was the smile of a grandfather or an uncle, or an indulgent parent. But it wasn’t a smile strangers were allowed to wear.
Jill had a corner of her mind devoted to practical things like eating, sleeping, and remembering birthdays. It was what made getting up in the morning half-awake possible. The routine had been interrupted, so it wanted to know why it wasn’t seeing hands pulling on jeans, or packing a backpack, or the mirror and the hair being done…
This practicality glanced at the clock. Nearly eight. The bus, she’d miss it…
But the Slight Twice King was sitting in her bedroom.
Everyone knew him, even if they didn’t know he was the Slight Twice King. He was on all the posters. He’d been in all the news. He dogged about all the social media—when she could get the computer to log onto Firefox without a freeze. The Slight Twice King was High Fair Lord of the Western Faeries. There were five of them—no, four—Fair Lords, they were called in old books. Her boyfriend had said so.
The false man beckoned her, in the absent way people permanently glued to their cellphones and their suits did. She dared not argue.
“I understand,” he was saying again. “But, you see, I am not there. You should wait. It’s no good if I’m not there, so why should you make the effort? Why waste the bombs? You want a show, my head on a pike, my burned up corpse? Maybe my wife and children too? Any wife, any wife would do, right? So why act now?”
He patted the spot beside him on the bed. Jill had nails in her soul, rules that stabbed deep about sitting on a bed where a strange man was.
She moved toward the closet, half wondering if he’d insist. He let her stand staring at her clothes, the hanging dresses, the skirts, the slacks, the half-disheveled drawer of underthings she wasn’t about to reach for.
She couldn’t get dressed now, not with him there. But she couldn’t look like she wasn’t going about her business. She couldn’t just be there in her pajamas either. So she stood, less than a meter away from this man sitting, casual as the sun shines, on the edge of her sister’s bed, and pretended she didn’t know what to wear.
“Where am I?” He looked at her as she looked back. “What a funny question. Does it matter?”
He patted the bed again, then seemed to not have time for it. Still exuding the ease of a family member he had no right to emulate, he dug at one pocket in his jacket.
“I mean”—the pudgy, beckoning hand—“You gotta be smart about this. I’m smart about my things. You don’t see me not being smart.”
He pulled out a gun.
Jill’s gut screamed. Only that aura, the terrible, calming influence around him and all immortals, kept her from screaming out loud. That was the thing with the Fair Folk. They wore their glamour, and, if you didn’t want to die, you had to give into it, just a little. You had to, or you wouldn’t know how they expected you feel, you wouldn’t know how to act. So you could only act a bit. Part of you had to be sincerely letting that dangerous thrall soak you.
He turned the gun in his hand. The phone parted from his ear for just a moment.
“You know these? Safety’s here, trigger’s here. Go on…” He wagged it at her.
It was unexpected.
Jill took a step. Both his hands were occupied. He wouldn’t grab her now, would he? He was back on the phone, distracted, now and then flashing that fatherly smile that shouldn’t seem fatherly on anyone but a father.
Taking the gun would be like a contract, wouldn’t it? They never came just to visit.
She took the gun. He grabbed her wrist. She stiffened.
“Sorry to scare you,” he added, then back into the phone, not releasing her wrist, “Yes, yes there’s someone with me. Why wouldn’t there be someone with me? I don’t just go places alone. Why would I go alone when someone was with me?”
He steered her to the edge of the bed and sat her down. Then, to her multitudinous waves of relief, he stood up and walked away across the room.
She dressed with one hand. Jeans, shirt, sweater, over her pajama shorts and shirt. Then socks. Sitting on the bed, she dragged them up around her ankles. The window of the attic was a skylight. The sky was gray. From this angle, she could see the top branches of the dead maple in the yard.
“We’ll take the bus.”
She looked down at him. The phone was in both hands. It seemed to be off.
“You’d like that?” he added.
“Of course.” It was best to let the words just come, to not get attached to the idea that your voice belonged to you.
“Good,” he said, with all the easy airs of a man who’d never be defied.
He left the room. The stairs creaked. He heard the back door open and close. Her mother wouldn’t know he’d been there, not if he didn’t want her too. Even if she knew…
Jill didn’t want to think on it.
Downstairs, the clock read 8:18.
“I’m going to be late,” she said, crossing through the kitchen.
“Are you?” Her mother had been up for hours, Jill could tell, by the immaculate state of the kitchen. Now she’d left her psalter by her coffee and was leafing through a magazine instead, turning pages idly.
“Can I have a ride?” Jill asked. She could do it, she reasoned. Just go out the front door and not the back. Just head to school and not wherever he wanted to take the bus to, claim she’d forgotten…
“That man said he would go with you.”
“By the next bus.”
“That bus won’t make it on time.”
“You can take it as far as the station, then take the underground. Take your brothers.”
You didn’t argue when people were under thrall. If they were convinced that a stranger—or, worse, the Slight Twice King—could look after the children they’d raised for nineteen years, they could not be reasoned with. The anxiety of being late weighed on Jill’s blindly practical side. Her mother hadn’t even asked about the gun. Not knowing what else to do with it, Jill was just holding the heavy thing at her side.
Jill’s mother had had strange ideas about the King when she’d first seen his posters. The strangeness of it had been the indifference, even after the reelection. You voted for the party, after all, not the people in it, she’d said. Everyone had a chance to participate in politics. That was the good thing about democracy. Like many people, Jill’s mother didn’t seem to remember that “President Kennick” wasn’t human, but you couldn’t argue with someone once they were charmed, her boyfriend always insisted.
Jill took up her backpack and headed down to the bus stop. It seemed pointless to pack anything new. She would tell her teachers she forgot, said the incorrigible practicality. There was no use trying if you didn’t even know you’d arrive.
The bus was packed. The big man in his big suit with his big shoulders sat only just comfortable in the aisle seat, pinning her to the window. Jill had thrown a windbreaker over her clothes, the kind of light, rustling jacket that had no commitment to its tailor’s intended shape. The gun was under it. She eyed the sign at the front of the bus: “No Firearms. No Phones.” She looked at the tired, thoughtful, angry, daydreaming faces of her fellow passengers. She glanced down.
At the right bump or angle, she could see the gun. She feared its shape was all too obvious, stuffed as it was into her belt under the coat. Every bump was a small terror. She saw it had switches on the side, but she couldn’t remember which one was the safety, much less if it was still on.
And so the Slight Twice King sat beside her, pleased as punch. When he looked at her, he smiled. She borrowed the ease he offered and carefully wore it, so that he’d think she wasn’t unsure. If you were unsure, the charm wasn’t working and your mind was, and so you were a danger, or at least an inconvenience. That’s how the Fair Folk had made their reelection so certain.
“I’m glad we met,” he said, like he hadn’t walked into her bedroom and sat down on (or slept in) her sister’s bed. “I’m really glad you’re here with me, you, and these boys, they’re great.”
Her brothers were in the seat ahead of her, indifferent. He must not want them to see him, so they didn’t. It was just the two of them really, Jill and the King, and the watching eyes of everyone willing to kill for him.
“It makes me feel safer,” he went on. They were out of the residence area now, the gray, broken landscape of the last air raid rushing by. “You’re going to school, that’s nice. Going to school’s important. I think the schools have been great since I started. What do you think?”
It was funny really. Being polite, that had been the way of things before. Manners and politics replaced violence and tyranny. But now violence and tyranny knew the language and could say, “I’ll kill you,” with words like “What do you think?”
“I still can’t believe you need me for anything,” said Jill. It was important, whenever possible, to just be honest. “You must be so busy.”
“Oh, I always am, always am. But I knew I needed something today, and that you had it.”
She forced herself not to think of the growing number of wives at the capital of Central City. Her friend Rose’s niece was among them. Only fourteen at the time. You never heard from them again. They weren’t allowed to write. You only saw them, at the yearly presentations, at the speeches, standing in rows based on their rank, all dolled up like beauty queens, eyes tight and staring at nothing, bodies rigid with the need to seem appealing, perhaps so fears wouldn’t be realized. Jill somehow knew her mother wouldn’t remember if Jill were suddenly gone.
“I’m going to be an hour late for school,” she worried aloud.
He chuckled. He could chuckle at whatever he wanted. Tell him to stop and you’d wake up with your house burning around you.
“Ah, here’s the train station. Now…” He stood up and took her arm. She was pulled along the aisle between the seats. He waved his hand at the driver. They passed without being asked for the fare, and disembarked.
Her brothers waited a step ahead.
He held out a hand. “I’ll be taking that back.”
He hadn’t released her arm. The bus pulled away. Jill made a show of looking about, to delay drawing out the gun. He might kill them then, shoot the three of them right there on the corner. He could do that, had done it, in public. It made the news. The anchors had smiled at his “no-nonsense” manner.
Decisively, Jill offered her hand, as if on a thought, squaring her shoulders like a child trying to impress in grade school.
“I know I’m not good at it,” she said. “But, if you need help again…”
He stared at her hand. Then he stared at her. All the while, the smile did not quite fade. It was part of the facade, after all. The funny thing (though not really) about it was he knew it was a facade. He might even know she knew it was. He might know about the boyfriend with the grandmother who hunted pixies. But he wore the smile because she acknowledged it. The Fair Folk liked when their masks were effective, however that was.
He took her hand. His was warm and gentle and anything a kind man’s might be. He’d had practice, after all, shaken a lot of hands of a lot of kind men, though he’d killed most of them by now.
“I’ll be sure to contact you.”
She let herself smile, let the charm help her because, gods, she needed it, but she was careful not to think of gods, or the public execution of the protester last March two blocks away.
She handed him the gun. He put it away in his jacket. He turned and left. There was a line of black cars on the corner, long and decked with golden flags. A driver opened a back door for him at the center vehicle.
She was allowed to live because she’d promised to be useful.
Now she would have nightmares for the next year, praying she’d never know what for.