The faerie queen began to kneel before us. Our minstrel’s song was crushing her, binding her in, and her physical form sagged under its metaphysical weight. Through constricted lungs she choked out a final question: “Why are you doing this?”
Achlys answered her. “The strong do as they will. The weak do as they must.”, she said. It fit what she was doing, and it broke what passed for will in the faerie queen. Our minstrel faltered for a second but she rallied, and tucked the queen away. She’d sleep until kissed by a nun released from her vows, born after the dawning of the next century. That last bit was just a cruel twist, to make sure that even if our pagan foes could find a released nun, she’d be useless before the War was over.
I was guarding the minstrel. That was my role. On this mission I was pretending to be the muscle. I’m an illusionist, so I pretended to be a lot of things during the War. Faeries like that sort of thing. We’d pretended our way into her court, and past her guards, and now we were sealing her in a story so tight that she’d never escape until we wanted her to.
The Queen’s guardsmen also fell asleep, in sympathy, but that was just stupid of them. Achlys and I systematically harvested each one. I had little throwing knives specifically for the purpose, which I was thankful for. Before the end both sides would be consuming the vis from their own dead and these faeries thought we’d let them be picturesque. We couldn’t have left them for the Diende to find. Sometimes I wondered if they gained some sort of benefit from being harvested. If their vis was used to heal your wounds, were they with you forever?
Afterward we retired to camp. I wanted to sleep for a week, but there was no time, so I hit the wolfberry juice hard, set up the wards, and Achlys sent messages to Heartfoam. We tore into our rations, because we couldn’t eat in that Faerie court, and our bard kicked off our first big argument of the War. It had new clothes, but it was one we’d had every few months for my entire life.
“Why did you do it? Your answer didn’t make sense.” the minstrel asked. Her name was Claudette, by the way. She and I lived together for a few years after the war, but she wanted children, so…anyway. “Why did you ask me to do this?”
“There’s a war on. This is a chevauchee.”
“We are destroying all of the faerie courts near the enemy, so they can’t harvest them for materiel they can use in the war. We are like nobles burning crops and killing peasants, but we’re destroying the things magicans need.”
“And the song?”
“Specifically crafted for the war. There are several teams, and we are creating a particularly inaccessible faerie messiah. One that the enemy can’t make. One we can put together when we win, so that the faerie courts pop back like…”
“Mushrooms after rain?”
“I know nothing about mushrooms. If it makes it make sense to you, then, sure, go with mushrooms.”
Then she asked the question which really dropped the flag on it.
“What caused the war?”
Achyls nodded at me, and said “His people want to control what we do. Their people want his people to leave them alone. My people love challenges, so I’m here to perfect myself through strife.”
We’d had this argument before, but I was tired and starving and I’d been awake on wolfberries for days. Being a bit deranged like that isn’t a bad thing in some faerie courts. I couldn’t just let it go. I knew that arguing with me was her way of working out her battle stress. She could be pretty sure she’d win, and she assumed I’d not take low blows at so useful an asset. I was the professional soldier: she was the mercenary gadfly.
“That’s just your usual crap, Achlys” I said, and because I never swear, she should have picked up on the clue that now wasn’t the time. Instead, she saw weakness, and that’s like honey to her people.
“You do want to control them.” she baited.
“We want them to not offer up themselves to the Black Goat at midnight, mostly because the first thing he’ll ask them to do is turn the world into a pastiche of Hell.” I sighed. “You know this.” And then I really let it go: “Of all magi, your people know this best.”
I saw her stiffen and I knew I’d gone over the line, but the Tytalus have been carrying on with their teasing and prodding since the Founders themselves argued over who got the last piece of cake, so I thought “Why not? She wants to be purified by struggle? I’m doing her a favour by her lights. Let’s see how bad we get this time.”
She answered “You Mycentians always bring diabolism up, but it’s just your excuse for everything. You want to know all their secrets, so they need to show them to you, or you’ll call them Satanists.”
“They are Satanists! Stop apologising for diabolism!” I knew shouting at her was a bad idea. I knew she saw that, too, as weakness. She saw it as a little victory, and she couldn’t help but push.
“I fight them better than you do, but I don’t pretend they deserve it.”
“Of course they deserve it. They’re calling up demons to tear the rest of us apart.”
“You have no proof of that.” she smiled.
“How would we get proof? Even if we could, the time it would take would be decisive. Calling up a demon’s easy compared to training a magus. You know all of this…” and I slipped in the boot again “Tsagilla tried it all a while ago.” I knew she hated that. I knew and I said it anyway.
“Guilty then, until they prove themselves innocent! The same could be said for you. After all…”
“Every one of our rituals has been examined top to toe by the Quaesitores.” I cut in, forestalling her easy smack at my House’s history.
“Only because you lost. If you’d dominated the Order…”
“We lost! You can’t have it both ways! We are utterly transparent!”
“Yeah, sucks to lose like your Founder did. Bet you wish you’d kept some of that private like the Diedne.”
She was mocking me, but to me it felt like a win. She’d changed tack, and gone back to one of her standard gambits. She must have been as tired as I was. This felt too easy. I could have stopped there. I could have marked that up as a rare win, in the ledger of my mind, but I wanted her to acknowledge I’d argued her to a standstill for once, and I was just exhausted and not thinking straight, so I put the boot in again. “Stop admiring the enemy. Just because the chaos they are causing using dermons is bigger than the chaos your people caused…”
She snapped. “Shut up about the Corruption! My family fought and died in the Purge!” I’d never seen her this angry before. It made me so happy to finally, for once, win one of these things that I couldn’t help myself.
“Yes. On both sides.”
She threw her watter bottle at my head and stormed off into the woods. The bottle hit me fair in the face and bloodied my nose, but I burst out laughing. I sat down and gripped my nose and blacked out. For that moment I was the happiest I’d been since the War started.
When I woke up, she was back. We pretended to be professionals. We pretended it hadn’t happened. The minstrel told my master, but Toxophilus didn’t care. I only know she told him because I read some of his reports after the War, and he suggested I be pulled off the line for assessment. I think they just had an informal rummage in my mind and decided that I needed sleep.
Achlys changed after that. She wanted something from me that I could never really give her. It took me forever to realise she wanted me to be her Beloved Enemy. It’s this idea they have of a perfect rival who knocks that chips off you, and you knock the chips off them, and you make each other marvellous by your constant abbrasion. I just thought she’d upped her bullying, because I’d finally beaten her in an argument.
I only realised it when she made sure I survived The Tempest. Achlys didn’t give her life for mine, not exactly, but she took on extra risks to get me clear. If she’d left me to die, she would have made it home.