September 1st, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Central City, Capital Mansion
The ups and downs of each stairway or hall had their own brand of pain, but finally Rose stood in an atrium at the corner of two narrow hallways. The doors opened without anyone behind them. The soldiers snapped to attention and saluted.
Rose was pushed ahead of her escort. The doors instantly closed. She turned and heard them lock, turned back and looked around.
She was alone. The room was empty. It was large enough to serve as an office and a lounge. It had yellow walls. The baseboards and casings were whitewashed. The furniture was dull mustard shades and the curtains behind a great wooden desk were a gaudy shade of bronze. The carpet was pale and thick, and looked stained in some places. A fire snapped in a hearth over which hung a metal mirror.
A curtain billowed, then snapped as it flapped in a wind from the garden outside. Rose carefully turned to look at it. Besides the fire it was the only movement in the room, just wind in the door. Rose turned her coin, then flipped it. The ping rang strangely loud.
Heads. Rose braced herself.
With slow, painful steps, she crossed to the fireplace to inspect the mirror.
Something crunched underfoot.
Looking down, she saw a darker color scattered on the carpet, trampled down amid the thick white fibers. With some care Rose sat down on her heels. She pushed her fingers around a little. Tiny red gemstones scattered this way and that. A few stuck to her fingers. She stood, again with care. The last of the rubies fell away as she turned over her hand.
Uncertain, she rotated the coin a few times and looked at the rest of the room. The walls were hung with framed pastoral scenery. No portraits though. No figures amid the landscapes either.
Rose turned to the great desk in the curve of the windows and garden entrance. All lines in the room aimed towards it. The desk was bare, but for a blotter, a set of pens, and a nameplate.
One coin flip at a time, she explored the room, now and then stopping to breathe carefully, holding her ribs. It looked too easy to escape, she thought, so kept a distance from the open window and whatever it might be hiding.
The curtain fluttered again as Rose looked up at the plastered ceiling.
“So you’re going to kill me?”
Rose turned back around quickly, then cursed at herself for the motion, cringing. Looking up, she saw the desk chair was now occupied. There was the Slight Twice King, smiling at her, looming even sitting down. His aura reached out along the curved wall. Like the heat of the fireplace it spread in silent waves that slowly seeped into everything.
She clutched her coin.
“Sorry, I was out,” he went on. He waved a hand. “It’s a lovely dawn for a walk.”
Rose tried not to move.
The King of the Western Faeries pushed his hands onto the desk and stood, the chair creaking behind him. His eyes darted up at her again. Then he huffed.
“Kill the President,” he said. “You know, that’s not very original. Nothing’s original these days. No one does anything clever or new.” He grimaced. “I had hoped you’d be clever and new. You’re entertaining, I’ll give you that, but you’re not new, just another body standing in line. Boring.”
He stepped out from around the desk. Rose drew back.
“But why?” he went on. “Your life’s been hard, has it? Everyone’s has. Is it the funeral arrangements?”
Rose didn’t answer. There was, she noticed, something wrong with his shirt. His collar buckled oddly. He caught her staring and straightened his jacket over something.
“I’ll bet it’s the arrangements,” he went on. “I hear no one can afford ‘em. Everyone’s cremated, isn’t that creepy? I watched a show about that. It’s creepy, you see, because there’s so many ways a person who’s died still isn’t dead. I suppose once they’re all ashes they’re dead, like your friend back there with the red hair. He must have finished baking by now, ashes and teeth.”
Rose shut her eyes.
“So how are you going to do it?”
She remembered to breathe, flipped the coin quickly. Tails.
His head tilted like that of a curious bird, albeit with the body of an obese lizard. “Not going to tell? Really? You understand, you might live if I think you’re clever enough—though for certain everyone else who knows will die. You’ll entertain me, I know. Just like your witch will Mr. Spade.”
Her stomach turned, but she walked away, blinking at white spots. Be here and nowhere else. Breathe. One thing. Do one thing. Flipping the coin again, she headed towards the fireplace.
“Are you listening to me?”
A breeze once again rustled the curtains. From the gardens it carried a distracting scent. The sun was rising. Roses were blooming.
Here, at the fireplace, she looked down at the rubies again. A more familiar smell here: Woodsmoke? No.
It was a smell from last year. With it came the bits and pieces that had surrounded it: Empty Gray Goose bottles on the porch step, a target hung up past the woodpile, and…
The wind wafted again, distracting. Why roses?
She’d only smelled roses once. There had been a garden, a stranger’s house, and one part of the hedge had been growing over the wall, just a branch, with a single blossom…
She shook her head, tried to focus. Another flip. Tails. What was Spade doing t—no. No, no, no, gods no….
She looked up at the mirror, glared at it, trembling all over, and clutched one hand at the mantle until it hurt. That monster. That fiend. That golden sack of bloody horseshit. That…
Rose stopped herself. No. No. NO. She couldn’t. She mustn’t. All gods above, even anger was acknowledgement.
Be here. Do one thing.
Rose checked the fireplace. Gunpowder. Was that it? It was faint though, eaten up by the woodsmoke… A shot had been fired. When?
…a single wilting blossom, but obviously a rose, and she’d heard that roses were beautiful. It seemed right to know what they smelled like, if her name was Rose…
“Excuse me? Ms. Thorne? Rosie?”
She glanced up at the mirror again.
…so she’d dared it, and felt like a thief, over a smell.
Guilt. He was looking for her guilt. Why? And why was there gunsmoke?
“That’s real brass,” said the King, leaning back on the desk.
Did he know?
Do not give him your anger. Do not give him your fear.
Rose turned around, then turned back, clutching the coin. Don’t look. That was part of it. Don’t get distracted. But if it was brass—was it brass? How could she do anything now? A new thought: The window. She hurriedly flipped the coin, fumbled.
“Polished too. Looks like gold, doesn’t it? Looks like gold, we even call it a gold mirror, all over this place that’s what we call it, but brass is stronger, you see. I like strong. I like metal, especially stuff that shines. And it doesn’t break. Is that what Flask’s little bastard said to do to kill me?”
That question was startling.
“He put you up to this. I can feel his hands trying to pull at the stray bits of string. He was like me—we were so alike it’s like we were twins—except he didn’t look like me. I was the handsome one, I still am, really. But he loved stories, dreams…”
Rose didn’t move. He couldn’t know…, could he?
“You had a dream, right? Now, what did he like…? Right, the world coming to an end.”
Rose didn’t move. Was that all he knew?
“Malik Flask knew someone would want to save it. Like me, all about delegation, Flask.”
Her fist tightened around the coin reflexively. She was here to do one thing. The thought and the action helped to ground her, remind her that nothing else was left to matter.
“They lie,” the nameless woman had said, on the telephone at the temple. ”They lie even when they tell the truth…”
Rose turned her coin over onto the back of her hand. Tails. Again…
The King tsked and shook his head. “Did you think it was fate?”
“Okay, I’ll make this easier,” he said, rounding his desk. He pulled open a shallow drawer. “You are being used.” He rummaged.
Rose flipped the coin over in her hand. She looked down at it again. Heads. She paced the length of the hearthstone with slow, deliberate steps. What if…? No. But maybe…
“You know how I know?” Footsteps. “I use people.” More footsteps. “I’m the ultimate user.” The curtains clattered on their rails. Some light danced in, gray with morning, mingling with the lamplight. “It’s what I do, what leaders do, we have to use everybody. Every gear, every tool.”
Rose grimaced, flipped the coin again with an air of impatience. Tails. Maybe, maybe…
“Are you listening?”
Tails. But maybe…
“Hello? Ms. Rosie? What’s the question, Ms. Rose?”
He’d crossed the room, was standing behind her now.
“Because the answer is, you’re like your brother, see? He wanted his life to have meaning and when it didn’t, he blew his own brains out.”
So he didn’t know.
Heads. Rose turned.
The Slight Twice King was smiling a broad, slimy smile. Then he stepped out of her way, and let her look past him.
And Rose had to stare. No coin in the world could say otherwise.
The curtains to the garden were open. They still swung in the wind, then fell, only to rise again. They framed a background of roses, hedges in neat pathways, some sporting pale pinks, others deep red or soft orange tones.
And standing in the doorway was Jill.
Pointing a gun at her own throat.
Baton understood that Dorgheda Hound had a routine. It involved, eventually, a kind of writer’s trance, a rigid, fixed staring at a screen while her hands moved as if driven by a higher power. He waited in the press office nevertheless, to be certain, until he saw this fixation take her, and then close to sunrise took up his cane and let himself out, down the hall, and down the darkened stair.
At the office just through the creaking door, Baton gave the two soldiers on guard duty some instructions, in a particular way of his that made people forget their previous ones. Leaving them to carry these out, he walked down the stark corridor, stopping where a pair of loafers had been left outside one cell. He looked down into the cell, and then stopped that too, very quickly.
“You were not supposed to touch this one,” he said reproachfully.
Spade crouched like an ape, in close inspection of his current work, his back to the door. There was a great deal of something on the floor that wasn’t rubies. He’d shed his shirt and folded it on the bunk, so Baton stared at this instead, for its contrasting brightness.
There was a clink on the floor as Spade set down his knife.
“They’re such messy creatures, aren’t they, Regus?” he said.
Spade glanced back over his shoulder. In the dark, his eyes shone the gold of certain predators.
Baton still considered the shirt. “Witch blood is dangerous.”
“Omelets and eggs.” There was an unpleasant sound that made Spade smile, then he frowned. He was never too composed when he was at work. He sighed huskily, stirring the stuff on the floor with his fingertips in fascination. “I do miss the old days.”
He’d been talking to the King then. Baton said, “Mr. Wheeler has need of you.”
Spade suddenly, sharply, caught a flailing hand, and with no trouble wrested the knife from the bloodied fingers. He added, belatedly, “I’m busy.”
“It’s a time sensitive manner, something about the mad girl.”
New interest lit Spade’s eyes. He dropped the hand and stood. He cleaned the knife on a stolen coat.
He said, “If you’re not being so useful, keep this body warm for me then. We’re not through talking.”
“I’m sure he won’t keep you long,” said Baton, and watched him button his shirt. “Just remember, the President needs her to survive ‘til the morning.”
“I do like a challenge.”
“And don’t mark where it might show.”
Spade scoffed as he passed him. “I never tell you how to do your job.”
Baton heard the door whine shut. A moment later, he heard the men in the office move as they’d been instructed. He dared a look down again, at the stuff that wasn’t rubies, then made himself enter the cell, shuddering as his foot slid. He desperately reminded himself that his shoes were not his skin.
He crouched down, hanging on his cane. He lay a hand on Pastor Wellington’s forehead, and shut his eyes.
A moment later, only terrible exhaustion held the prisoner still, until—
“Don’t move,” Baton warned at a twitch and a weak cry. “I’ve only hidden your wounds from your mind.”
Faintly, read half on the lips, he heard, “How?”
“I’m using my aura to keep you from shock. I understand balance, shaman.”
Some voice for the breath this time.
“What… did you call me?”
“No one ever told you what you are?”
Baton waited for a painful moment of failed replies. At last, a hand reached up and gripped his sleeve. Baton fought his disgust and fear, and let it.
Steeling himself, the Fair Lord explained with due gravity, “My people should honor you for believing in us. Long ago, to fight those of us who… involved ourselves, the lost gods would send one like you to be born—different, a paradox, holy.”
The godsend could only mouth the last word in disbelief. Then, all over, she shook and gasped, breathing and keening around choking tears. At a sudden twinge of compassion, Baton pushed the long dark hair back from her face, then stiffened at the smears this action left on his hand. He shut his eyes, and swallowed hard, as he felt them burn.
“Lie still,” he insisted, “You and I are somewhat alike.” He shook his head, certain the motion was seen. “The truth is, this mask I chose was never to mock mortals. How I wanted to be one of you.” He sighed and forced his eyes open. The bloodied hand shook. “But the Fair Folk’s true power lies in what we are, not in what we pretend to be—and so it is, with you as well, shaman.”
A sound clattered down the hallway, the rattling squeak of wheels. Baton composed himself and wiped his hand inside his coat, then he looked at it. It had been hardly a smear, but the skin beneath it had scarred to the color of dust. He curled a fist to hide it.
“So for the sake of all that is holy, do not die.”
The other didn’t answer, and Baton stepped back, and made way for a gurney and those who manned it, all while turning the head of his cane nervously beneath his palm.
For an instant, no one in the room moved. The curtains billowed gently. Jill stared at Rose, and Rose at Jill, and between them both, the King just smiled.
Rose forgot about the mirror. The coin. The maybe… She took a step forward.
“What are you doing, Jill?”
Jill’s voice shook. “I don’t know how to use one of these,” she admitted, “but it’s hard to miss this close, right?” She raised her other hand, trembling, up to join the first.
The King said, “I don’t really want your friend to die. She and I have gotten to know each other very well for over a year now.”
“A year?” Rose could only shape her mouth around the words.
“Third time’s the charm,” the Slight Twice King added.
“Jill, what is he talking about?” Rose took another step.
“He’s been after you,” said Jill, “but I don’t think you knew I was the important one? I’m the faithful one, the one who cares about everyone. They might be horrible people, but at least there’s a chance I’ll get what I need if I do what they say. You just depend on blind chance.”
Rose took a step forward. “Jill,” she said, slowly, “you’re upset. We should talk about why. It’ll be easier if you put the gun down.”
“Why don’t you flip your coin about it?” Jill countered nastily. “Go ahead. Play with my life some more.”
Rose looked down at the coin in her hand. “This isn’t a game.” She dared another step forward. “This was never a game.”
“The gods will forgive me,” Jill went on. “This isn’t a suicide. This is justice.”
“You don’t know how to use that, Jill,” Rose said. “Just put it down for a minute, or give it to me.”
Jill’s voice was strangled shout. “You can’t kill him with it!” she said: “I’ve tried. He showed me. Was this your plan? Did Fred die for this?”
“Then flip your coin, or I’ll…” She clenched her teeth and didn’t finish.
“Okay,” said Rose quickly. “Okay…”
Her fingernail hit the coin with a clear ping. The coin spun. Each silver face flashed. She caught it deftly, then didn’t move.
“Well?” Jill asked. “Come here, so I can see.”
Still, Rose hesitated.
Slowly, Rose took the last three steps between them, then stopped.
“First,” she said, “would you—?”
Jill turned the barrel of the gun away from her throat, and pointed it at Rose. Rose put her hands up quickly.
“Jill, what are you doing?”
“I needed you closer. I don’t know how to use one of these.” Jill was grinning now, a terrible grin, all bared, clenched teeth. “I told you, it’s justice.”
Rose held very, very still.
“You see?” said the King. “So useful.”
“The gods will forgive me,” Jill went on. “The gods are merciful. They’ll forgive anything. They forgave blind Hod. Balder always has to die, but it’s the one aiming the gun that kills him, you see? I’m innocent, innocent.”
“What are you talking about, Jill?”
“There could be a way. At the last minute, maybe, something happens. There are miracles. The Scriptures say so, but if not, justice…”
Rose tried to think. This was nothing like what she’d been planning for. She clutched the coin in her hand and tried to breathe. She hadn’t expected this—not the metal mirror, not the dawn brightening the windows, not roses and gunpowder or Jill pointing a gun at her.
“You don’t want to kill me, Jill.” It was almost a question.
“I have to… they’ll understand, Rose, and you should too. Fred’s dead, because of you, or did you bring us all along as a shield? Better us than you, Rose?”
“That is true,” said the King. “Poor Fred, just being the hero. People die because of you, Rosalinda Thorne.”
Gunpowder and its memory. Stern instructions what to say on the phone. Relief turned to horror. Last words…
“Better me than you, Rosie.”
“Isn’t that right, Rosie?”
“They lie even when they tell the truth.”
Just do one thing.
…save a world.
“What did he say to you, Jill?” Rose asked hoarsely. “What did he do to you?”
“Nothing,” Jill said, and shook her head. “He wouldn’t have done anything to any of us. You’re just crazy, Rose, just like they said. I can’t believe you dragged me into this, and Pastor, and Fred. But the King can give us what we wish for, and I want justice.”
“Me too,” Rose whispered.
“We can’t both have it—I need it more!” Jill’s voice broke. “I have nothing left…”
“Well, Ms. Thorne,” said the Slight Twice King, “are you ready to admit you’re a tool?”
Rose didn’t answer.
There was still a maybe.
“Heads or tails, Jill,” said Rose quietly.
“What?” Jill demanded.
Rose sighed. She opened her hand to show the coin against her palm.
“Tails,” Jill scoffed. “You still believe that? I am going to kill you. A stupid coin won’t change that.” Her voice turned nasty. “You know, now I think maybe I never knew you. Maybe I just lied to myself. You mock the gods, Rose, if you ever believed in them. The Western Fair Lords and the King might be horrible people, but they tell the truth.”
“I guess I just believe in the gods more than you do.”
“The hell you do!”
“You dream of gods, Jill,” said Rose. “But I’m awake.”
“How can you say that? You never pray.”
“Of course I do,” said Rose, and stepped back.
Jill leveled the gun.
Rose set the coin over her thumb.
“I always pray,” she said. “They always answer.”
“Rose, flip that coin and I will shoot you.”
“Would you kill someone while she’s praying?”
She flipped the coin.
Jill shut her eyes and squeezed the trigger.
Jill opened her eyes.
Rose looked at the coin on the back of her hand. “I wasn’t flipping for dying,” she said calmly. “I was flipping for telling you the safety’s still on.” She held up the coin.
Jill stared at her.
“Do you trust me now?”
The King looked between the both of them, narrowing his eyes, then standing straighter.
“Shoot her,” he said.
Jill stared at the coin. “What did you do that for…?” she asked.
“Jill, I understand,” said Rose, shivering because it could still happen. But Jill was really talking now. She sounded like herself. If Rose could get through… “I know it’s so much easier dreaming. It hurts so much, having to stay awake.”
“Your brother killed someone.”
Rose tried to breathe.
“And he killed himself.”
“He did. He’d wanted to for a long time. He said he couldn’t stand living in a nightmare.”
“I’ve been living in a nightmare for a year…”
“And I am so sorry, Jill. I wish I’d known.”
“Ms. Thorne,” said the King.
Rose went on, letting sorrow steal all spare attention from him, “I couldn’t save him, Jill, but his death woke me up.”
Jill looked down at the gun in her hands.
“So now I can do something. I can save the country he was fighting for, what Westfall was, before it became this.”
The Slight Twice King was digging into his pocket. Inside his jacket there was a hole through his shirt, a wound where the skin had healed, to prove something, after leaving rubies on the floor.
“Did he promise,” Rose said slowly, “to give you what you wished for?”
“I have to settle for justice.” But Jill had started to lower the gun. “It won’t do any good wishing for anything else. What I want… I can’t have that, he’s dead.” She raised the gun again.
Rose held still as they stared at each other again.
“Jill, will you give me the gun, please?”
“You can’t kill him,” Jill cried. “I told you, I tried! You can’t free me, Rose.”
“I can. I promise.”
Jill stared, her eyes fixed, wide and wondering. Rose waited.
The King caught his phone as he nearly dropped it. From his hands came the snap of a fake latch as he unlocked it and hurriedly dialed.
From the next room a sudden smash clashed against the silence.
Somewhere hinges creaked. The three of them turned to see a part of the western wall swing away like an opening door.
Through its frame, Rose saw the last shards of a mirror spilling out of its frame over another mantelpiece.
And something screaming as it withered into ashes on the floor.
The Slight Twice King stared in alarm, forgetting, just a moment, the phone in his hand.
Rose snatched it up and turned it around, hit a button. Something chimed.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall…,” she said quickly.
Rigid, teeth-clenched, and dreadfully slow, the King turned back around and looked—
There, in a little frame of glass, there he was—how tiny! That wasn’t right! And he was hanging by the fingers of some small, plain girl, who wasn’t looking at him, just ogling her shuddering, whimpering friend.
The King stared at the glass to confirm himself. It really was him, wasn’t it? Yes, it was. He was not so average as Farthing, not so beastly as Spade—Oh, and certainly never as old and frugal as Baton let himself be. He was, after all, a king, and a soon-to-be hero at that!
But then the glass went dark. The tiny face was gone. There was another face instead, thrown back in black glass, and there was something wrong with it! The eyes were missing. The skin was slimy, greenish, rotting. The hair… strings and dust. Unnamed, skittering things chewed at a collar that was hardly more than the moldering shroud of an ancient tyrant.
Behind the Slight Twice King, like a halo on a corpse, the golden mirror over the fireplace hung intact as he stared into the glass screen of his phone, and as Rosalinda Thorne completed the invocation:
“…who’s the fairest one of all?”
Then she snatched the gun from Jill and slammed the weapon down hard on the screen—
Shattering it and him into a hundred insignificant bits.