Don’t read this until you’ve read:
Are you all caught up? Okay, you now have my permission to proceed.
(Not that you need my permission. I’m not your mom or anything. I just don’t want you to be confused.)
“Let’s play a little game,” Acacia said, a sinister smile curling on her lips.
She was in one of Kalathea’s old amphitheaters, looking out over the arena. For the first time in six hundred years, the place was packed with spectators, all looking at Acacia with eyes full of both horror and anticipation. Beside her, stood one of the kingdom’s most respected senators. In all his years of service, no one had witnessed such fear in his eyes. Jace stood just behind his sister, biting his lip to contain his giddiness.
Below, circling the area, snarling, and growling, was a pride of lions. The creatures were the victims of cruelty—scarred and bruised and emaciated. They fought among themselves, their desperation for nourishment turning them against each other.
“Look there,” said Acacia, placing one hand on the senator’s shoulder and pointing with the other to two iron gates that opened onto the arena. “Behind the first door are five villagers. I haven’t seen them myself. They might be elders or children, who knows! Behind the second is a lovely young lady, intelligent, beautiful, looking forward to a bright future. Oh yes, she’s also your daughter.”
Acacia’s grin broadened when she saw the color drain from the man’s face. “Tell me, Senator Clement, which gate should we open?”
“Neither,” was his barely audible reply.
“If you don’t choose we’ll open both,” Acacia sneered. “And you’ll have the blood of all six victims on your hands.”
Jace walked up behind the man and whispered: “Do you know what the best thing is about this, Senator? If you choose your daughter, the people will hate you for killing the villagers. But if you choose the villagers, we’ll tell everyone that you sacrificed your daughter to win their votes!” He smiled gleefully. “There’s no good outcome for you, I’m afraid. Maybe you’ll think twice before opposing us in the future?”
“Where is the Queen?” The Senator demanded. “I want to speak with her immediately.”
Acacia laughed. “Why does everyone keep asking that?”
“It really is an irrelevant question,” Jace added. “Why would you need a queen, when your gods have returned?”
This was only the most recent of the twin’s cruel games. They regularly gathered the people to witness such events. Each one involved a complex moral dilemma illustrated with the lives of random citizens.
If the people had been paying attention, they might have noticed that their new gods never killed anyone themselves. Certainly, they would threaten those who opposed them. Lightning would strike the ground immediately beside the person in question, sometimes the earth would shake, sometimes fire would surround the victim, but each time someone was actually executed, it was a human agent that carried out the order.
Not a soul among the Kalatheans knew that fairies couldn’t kill humans without killing themselves. Few mortals did. One of those mortals was in Kaltehafen, trying desperately to distract himself from the awful feeling that was nipping at his heart.
Alexander sat in the great hall, staring vacantly at his uneaten food.
“Are you thinking about your dream again?” Ilona whispered.
“Hmm?” Was Alexander’s only response.
“I thought so,” she replied. “Do you want to go talk about it?”
“I don’t know,” Alexander shrugged.
What was left to talk about? After he dreamed of his father, he asked everyone if they had any news of Kalathea. He asked Florian, the friars, the merchants he knew from his time as a candlemaker, but no one could tell him anything. How could he act on a feeling he couldn’t confirm? And even if he could confirm it, what was he supposed to do?
The last thing he heard about Kalathea, was what Eda told him the day she brought him to Kaltehafen. Jace and Acacia were still with his sister their game unfinished, their next move unclear. Something awful was happening in Kalathea. He didn’t know how he knew, he just did.
But how was it his concern? The kingdom was no longer his responsibility. As for Fausta, this was all her doing. Anything that happened to her, was her own fault.
He hardly even missed Kalathea. Well, he missed a few things, like the turquoise blue of the ocean, the warmth of the summer breeze, the history, the art, the culture, the mild winters, and access to running water. He really, really, really missed running water.
Alexander kept hoping that Brother Joseph would come to see him. Surely, he would have some news and some advice to go along with it. He hadn’t seen the old monk since his wedding and had no idea how to contact him. In his experience, fairies contacted mortals. Never the other way around.
He rubbed his forehead. He had an awful headache. It was frustrating to have a feeling that he could neither get rid of, nor do anything about. Since he wasn’t sure who to be angry with for this dilemma, he chose God by default.
He grumbled a prayer in his mind.
If there’s something You want me to do, You might be a bit more straightforward. The least You could do is send someone to help me.
In that very moment, Eda crashed through the ceiling.
She landed in a crater in the middle of the floor. The entire hall stood looking dumbstruck at the smoking hole and its crumbled occupant.
Ilona leapt over the table and ran toward the crater. Alexander followed cautiously. By the time he reached the perimeter of the newly formed pit, Ilona was already kneeling beside Eda.
Eda looked like an Amazon warrior with her ancient armor and the sword clutched in her hand. She lay with her eyes closed, battered and bloody. Alexander had never seen her look so… mortal.
“Is she alive?” He mumbled. The idea of a fairy dying shook him to the core.
“I don’t know,” Ilona started. Then Eda’s eyes shot open and she leapt to her feet. She pointed her blade toward the opening in the roof and cried:
“WHY DON’T YOU COME AND FINISH ME! WHAT’S IT TO YOU IF WE CRUSH THESE PUNY MORTALS?”
When she received no reply, she let out a maniacal laugh that put villains everywhere to shame.
“AS A THOUGHT, COWARD!”
She looked around the room at the dumbstruck spectators and declared:
“I am Eda, the Fairy of War and I—”
“Wait a moment,” Alexander interrupted. “I thought you were the Fairy of Prudence.”
“Silence!” Eda snapped. “I will not be reduced to a mere personification! I am the fairy of many things!”
“How dare you speak to—!” Ilona began, but Eda cut her off.
“Alexander, is that you?” She asked, squinting.
“Yes?” Came Alexander’s confused response.
“Ah, good! I have something critically important to tell you about Kalathea!”
“What is it?” He pleaded.
But Eda’s eyes closed and she crumpled back down in the crater and lay still. Alexander had no idea what to do, so he had Eda carried to a bed and then sent for a physician. The physician’s prognosis wasn’t hopeful.
“She’s dead,” he declared.
“Are you sure?” Alexander asked, turning white with horror.
“Well she isn’t breathing and doesn’t have a heartbeat so, yes.”
“But she’s not human, maybe…”
“I am afraid humans are all I really know,” the doctor shrugged. “I suppose you could always leave her out in the sun a couple of days and see if she starts to decay.”
Alexander turned green.
“Leave who, where?” Came Eda’s voice. She was sitting upright on the bed as though completely refreshed and ready to leave.
“Oh look at that,” the doctor marveled. “I suppose you were right.”
“Oh Alexander, you didn’t send for a human physician did you?” Eda sighed. She started dabbing her forehead with her fingers and mumbling. “Oh please tell me he didn’t drill a hole in my head.”
“Don’t be absurd,” The doctor rebuked. “I’d only do that if your blood was stagnating.”
“Of course, I sent for a doctor, you were… dead,” Alexander defended.
“What do you expect a doctor to do for a dead person?” Eda asked.
“That’s what I was wondering,” the doctor added.
Alexander opened his mouth to speak but was too confused to think of a reply. Ilona came to his rescue.
“So what can we do to help you? She asked.
“Nothing,” Eda answered. “Don’t do anything, please. I’ll heal myself.”
“Fine,” Ilona answered. “You’ll have all the time you need. Now are you going to tell me why you blew a hole in my roof?”
“Excuse me, Your Highness,” The doctor interjected. “But may I leave now? This is all completely beyond me.”
“Oh, of course,” Ilona answered. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“Ilona, perhaps we should come back later when Eda’s had a little more time to heal?” Alexander suggested.
“No!” Ilona protested. “No one smashes a hole in my roof without explaining themselves.”
“Come now, Ilona,” Alexander petitioned. “Have a little mercy, she was dead a moment ago.”
“She looks fine to me,” Ilona answered. Then turning to Eda said: “I expect you to answer all of my questions clearly and directly. No riddles. No games. No telling us we have to learn for ourselves.”
“I like you,” Eda smiled. “Of course I will explain everything, but first, there is something critical I must tell Alexander… what was it…” She rubbed her forehead thoughtfully.
“Was it about Kalathea?” Alexander asked hopefully.
“Yes!” Eda replied. “I was going to tell you… Do not to go back there under any circumstances!”
“I have the death sentence there,” Alexander reminded. “I wasn’t planning to go back.”
“Right,” Eda remembered. “But there was another reason…”
Alexander wondered what other reason he needed.
She furrowed her brow thinking. “I apologize. This was all so clear to me before I got ambushed…”
“Ambushed?” Alexander exclaimed.
“Yes,” Eda answered. “Just a moment…”
“Was it the twins?” He interjected.
Eda laughed “The twins? Really, Alexander?”
Alexander couldn’t see what was so amusing about his question.
“Oh that’s right!” Eda remembered. “We were going to help you take back your kingdom.”
“You were?” Alexander asked blanky.
“You might have told him that,” Ilona grumbled.
Eda rolled her eyes: “I thought it was obvious. Did you really think we’d make you live in Kaltehafen for the rest of your life?”
“Is there something wrong with Kaltehafen?” Ilona asked.
“In any case, none of this matters now,” Eda sighed. “We’ve gone to war, Alexander and…”
“With who?” Ilona interrupted.
“Just some rebels, it isn’t important,” Eda dismissed.
“Fairy rebels?” Alexander asked.
“No, gnome rebels,” Eda replied rolling her eyes. “Of course they are fairies! Who else would we go to war with?”
“That seems important to me,” Alexander commented. The idea of two groups of god-like beings throwing each other through buildings struck him as something humanity should know about.
“It’s no concern of yours, remember we can’t kill humans, even accidentally, without killing ourselves. Why do you think my enemy left me, after I fell through the roof?”
“So you’re using us as a shield?” Ilona scolded.
“Absolutely!” Eda replied. “It’s not hurting you, is it? And Alexander owes me a favor anyway.” She looked at Alexander. “Since this war isn’t likely to end in your lifetime, and you can’t defeat the twins on your own, you won’t be able to reclaim your throne. I’m so sorry, Alexander. You are just going to have to live out your life quietly, beekeeping or painting or whatever it is you do.”
Alexander couldn’t believe what he was hearing. A fairy telling him to forget about Kalathea and move on with his life. It was exactly the validation he was hoping for. He felt a surge of joy, and then immediately felt guilty, remembering that he was only free because the fairies were at war.
“I suppose the twins have gone away to war also?” Alexander asked hopefully.
Eda laughed. “You think those two would pick a fight with an equal? They’re children! They’ll stay in Kalathea until they lose interest in Kalathea.”
“Oh,” Alexander replied. His heart sinking.
“That’s why you must never go back, Alexander,” Eda insisted. “No matter what you hear.”
“What would I hear?” Alexander asked.
“Rumors, news, happenings, anything. Ignore it.” Eda answered.
“You have some news, don’t you?” Ilona accused.
“It doesn’t matter,” Eda replied. “You can’t do anything about it, so why do you want the burden of knowing?”
“We can… pray,” Ilona replied.
Eda narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
“My sister is in Kalathea,” Alexander insisted. “If she is in some kind of danger don’t I have a right to know?”
“Human curiosity is the bane of my existence,” Eda sighed. “Fine.”
The first thing she told them, was that no one had seen Fausta in months. Then she told them of the twin’s sadistic games, and how they had set themselves up as gods over the people.
The news was like a knife in Alexander’s heart. His father’s words were true, the people were in danger. The news of his sister’s disappearance troubled him more than anything. He didn’t know why. He told himself over and over again that it was her own fault. It didn’t make him feel any better.
Alexander’s brush hovered over a blank panel. At the moment, he couldn’t remember who he was supposed to be painting on it. Maybe one of the apostles? God’s mother was always a safe bet.
He set his brush down. It was only a day since Eda’s unexpected arrival, and he couldn’t concentrate. Eda insisted he let the matter drop, but he couldn’t. He picked up his brush and tried again to focus.
“I have an idea!” Ilona proclaimed, bursting into Alexander’s workshop. He jumped, dropping his brush into a an open paint jar, speckling himself and everything around him.
Florian charged in after her. “Yes! We have an idea!” He repeated.
“About what?” Alexander asked, recovering his brush.
“About saving the Kalatheans!” Ilona exclaimed. “I’ve been thinking about it alot and it occured to me that if fairies are unable to kill humans themselves, then they are only as powerful as their human agents—”
“Take a breath, Ilona,” Alexander interrupted. “You’re turning blue.”
Ilona breathed deeply, and then continued speaking at her previous rate.
“So all we have to do is inform the people of this weakness, and then they won’t have to follow the twins anymore, and they will be free!”
“If by the human agents, you mean the entire Kalathean army, that is pretty powerful,” Alexander answered.
“Not as powerful as the Kaltic army!” Florian added gleefully.
“Exactly!” Ilona replied, bouncing up and down with excitement. “Which is why, my brothers are going to conquer Kalathea, give it back to you, and then you are going to inform the twins that the people will no longer serve them. Problem solved!”
Alexander looked at Ilona with one eyebrow raised and his mouth slightly open.
“First off,” Alexander began. “What makes you think the Kaltic army stands a chance against the Kalathean army?”
“Because,” Florian replied smuggly. “We crushed you in 368, and in 513, and in 782, and just ten years ago, Filbert and I sent your brother Justin home to his father in tears.”
“You fought my brother?” Alexander asked.
“Who didn’t?” Florian answered.
“Fair,” Alexander shrugged. “But even if the Kalts could conquer Kalathea, the only thing that could possibly make my people hate me more than they do already, is if I lead a barbarian horde against them. No, I think Eda is right.”
“Of course I am,” Eda answered, materializing right behind Alexander. He jumped, overturning a jar of green paint. This was the first time Eda had left her room since she crashed in. She didn’t look improved. She was battered and pail and judging by her expression, irritable. Alexander worried that she would drop over dead again. Even if she wasn’t actually dead, he didn’t want it to happen. It was alarming.
“You cannot fight them,” Eda insisted. “They’re your superiors in power and intelligence. They may not be able to kill you directly, but oppose them and they will have their vengeance.”
“There you have it,” Alexander answered, looking for a rag to wipe up the puddle of green.
“We cannot abandon your people, Alexander,” Ilona insisted. “If there is even a small chance that we could be successful, we have to take it!”
“Exactly!” Florian agreed. “We will storm Kalathea and free the people or die trying!”
“How noble of you,” Eda commented dryly. “Noble and stupid.”
“Is that any way to speak to a king?” Florian snapped.
“Not your prefered way, I’m sure,” Eda answered. “But I’ve said worse to greater kings.”
“Why you insolent little—” Florian started and continued with a string of threats and insults that only fed the amusement in Eda’s eyes.
As Alexander mopped up the puddle of green, he listened for Ilona to join the argument. This was usually what happened whenever Florian started ranting. Ilona would intervene, and the situation would escalate, and once they had a good fight, they would calm down and Alexander could lead them in a respectable discussion.
But Ilona didn’t say a word. Alexander stood, holding the sopping green rag in his hand and looked at her curiously.
She was lost in thought.
“…In all my thousand years, I’ve never heard that word used that way,” Eda was saying to Florian. “I admire your creativity.”
Before Florian could produce a fresh wave of insults, Ilona spoke.
“I have another idea,” she interjected suddenly, and the attention of all turned to her.
Even Eda couldn’t deny that Ilona’s idea had a chance of being successful. A very small one, she noted, before telling them again that they were mad for even trying.
Alexander believed it could work.
Ilona discussed her idea with him late into the evening. He listened mostly, weighing their chances of success in his mind. He told her he needed time to think, and when she went to bed, he lingered behind, wandering the castle corridors as he struggled with something he hadn’t said.
He didn’t want to do it.
If he proceeded with the plan, he risked losing everything. And even if they were successful, then he would have to be king again which was almost like losing everything.
But the suffering of the people weighed on his heart. He was the last heir of Kalathea, how could he abandon them? Then his mind wandered back to the night of Justin’s murder. He remembered how the people swarmed around him and beat him and tore at him and called for his head.
He remembered standing before the Senate, searching the crowd for one kind face and finding none. He remembered how Fausta avoided his every attempt to catch her eye. He never felt so loathed and so alone.
He didn’t care if Kalathea burned.
He started back toward his room. In the morning, he would tell Ilona he was going to take Eda’s advice, and forget the whole thing. He felt a knot in his stomach. She wouldn’t like it. He didn’t completely like it himself. He tried to ignore his dissatisfaction but the tugging on his heart grew stronger the closer he came to his room.
It was inescapable, relentless. He became angry.
What do you want me to do? He thought. None of this is my concern!
He stormed into his room. He saw a lump of blankets that had once been Ilona. He didn’t worry about waking her. Nothing could wake her once she was asleep.
He took the knife off his belt and started looking for the little chest where he usually kept it. The chest was always in the same place, and Alexander would have spotted it in an instant if he hadn’t been tangled in his thoughts.
What kind of a fool would I have to be to risk my own happiness for the people who tried to kill me?
He found the chest, and tossed his knife in. The sound of it knocking against something pulled Alexander back to reality. He withdrew the second item.
It was Brother Joseph’s gift, the worn wooden crucifix. It was then he realized exactly what sort of fool would do something like that.
He clutched it in his hand, and sinking to the floor, buried his face in his knees. He stopped rationalizing with himself. He knew what he had to do. He’d always known.
In his heart, he accepted his mission. All at once the tugging ceased and at last he was at peace with himself. No less angry about what happened in his past, no less afraid of what was going to happen in the future, but now he had a clear path he was determined to follow no matter what.
In the weeks that followed, Alexander worked closely with Ilona and Florian to set their plan in motion. He couldn’t remember ever seeing the siblings so excited. Their every interaction was filled with lively chatter as if Christmas was coming and they weren’t all about to die.
Eda on the other hand, was not happy and made communicating this her life’s mission. She would appear at random during their preparations and try to talk them out of it, saying things like: “Why don’t you just fling yourselves off the outer wall? It would be a more efficient and less painful.”
She was recovering, as far as Alexander could see. He wasn’t sure if her visible wounds were real, or if she was just manifesting her injuries in a way that humans could comprehend. Fairies were a such a puzzle.
The more she recovered, the more short tempered and out of sorts she became. Alexander wondered if the war was weighing on her mind. He wished he could do something for her, but helping his own kind was challenge enough. He wouldn’t have any idea how to start with a fairy.
Late one afternoon, he returned to his room in search of a book. He was hoping to finish it before he marched off to certain death. If things went according to plan, that would be in about a month’s time. He found Ilona lying on the bed, sound asleep. He thought it odd that she was asleep so early, and fully clothed, and on top of the covers.
When he approached to check on her, he was alarmed to find her breathing faint and her heartbeat so soft and slow, he could barely find it at all. He tried desperately to wake her and was about to call for help, when someone spoke.
“She’s alright, Alexander. I’ve just put her in an enchanted sleep.”
He looked up to see Eda standing between himself and the door.
“I am about to do the same to you.”
“What? Why?” Alexander cried.
“Since you are intent on going to Kalathea with or without my help, I am going to put you to sleep until the war is over. Now I recommend you lie down, I don’t want you to collapse and hit your head on something.”
“But what about her brothers? If this war is going to last as long as you think, they’ll be dead when we wake. She’ll be heart broken.”
“So I’ll put them to sleep also,” Eda shrugged. “I’ll put this whole damn kingdom to sleep if it will make you happy, you’re not going back to Kalathea without me.”
She took a step forward and Alexander took a step back. He didn’t know why, once she decided to knock him out, it wouldn’t matter where in the room he was.
“Wait, please!” Alexander protested. “Isn’t this my choice to make?”
“Certainly,” Eda replied. “And knocking you out is my choice to make. It’s called free will, kid.”
“Did the High Council approve this?” Alexander questioned.
Eda laughed. “If I asked them to approve everything I did, I’d never get anything done.”
“Would they approve it, if they knew?”
Eda’s lips tightened.
“What, what about Alika and Brother Joseph, would they agree to this?”
“They aren’t here to offer their opinion,” Eda replied.
“So now you’re rebeling,” Alexander accused. “Just like Jace and Acacia and… whoever it is you’re fighting.”
“I don’t need a mortal lecturing me about the error of my ways,” Eda responded flatly. “It’s demeaning.”
“What makes me so important!” Alexander snapped. “Is my life worth more than all the Kalathean’s who will die while I am trapped here?”
Eda paused. Her eyes became glassy.
“No, Alexander. Your life isn’t worth more than theirs. It’s just… of all the people I’ve been assigned…” She blinked until her eyes cleared and sighed. “I like you, Alexander and I want you to live.”
Alexander softened. “Is your purpose to keep me alive or to help me do what’s right?”
Eda glared at him, but gave no answer. He noticed a tear on her cheek, before she turned her face away.
“To be completely honest,” Alexander continued. “I don’t want to do this either. I’m terrified. Terrified of dying and even more terrified of living as a king. Everything in me wants to abandon this mission. Please, Eda. I need someone to help me do what’s right.”
Eda wiped her eye with her wrist and grumbled: “I hate my job.”
“If it’s any consolation,” Alexander answered. “I hate mine too.”
The corner of Eda’s lip turned up very slightly.
“Go kiss your wife,” she ordered. When she saw Alexander’s confused expression, she added: “It will wake her up.”
“Oh…” Alexander answered. He wanted to question this, but didn’t think it was the appropriate time. Instead he shrugged and said: “Of course it will.”
He started back for Ilona.
“Oh, Alexander,” Eda said. “Don’t lose hope. No matter what happens, remember we will be coming for you as soon as we can.”
“Thank you,” he replied.
Alexander knelt down beside the bed, but as he leaned in to kiss Ilona, he paused and looked up at Eda with a horrified expression.
“How were you planning on waking me up?” He asked.
Eda snickered. “I like you, kid. But not that much. Same way I do any magic, by willing it.”
Alexander breathed a sigh of relief.
To be completed June 7th.