Episode 7 Chapter 1

The rock flew through the air and, with a sharp clank, bounced off the knight’s helmet. The entire platoon turned to look at the faun who threw it. He was young, wild-eyed, with scruffy white fur and a maroon colored mantle.

“This is our home!” The faun shouted, waving an arm at the Fairy Circle village. “You don’t belong here! Get out!!”

The knights trained their crossbows on the faun. Each was loaded with an iron bolt charged with magic and was strong enough to kill the average fairy. The faun scrambled to find another rock.

“Stop!” Theodore dashed into the line of fire, holding his arms out to shield the faun. “Are you insane?! Stand down!”

The soldiers lowered their aim. Theodore turned toward the faun, who glared at him with fierce eyes.

“Please don’t do this,” Theodore said. “The occupation won’t be forever. This doesn’t have to get ugly.”

“Don’t tell me that!” The faun said. He was years younger than Oboe, but he had the same fiery spirit. “All you humans care about is the Fount! You just want to get rid of us!”

“We’re just here to keep order until a new Fair Lady is chosen,” Theodore said. “Please. Go back inside. You need to trust us.”

An older faun leaned out the porch of his home. “Bodhrán!” The parent called. “Listen to him! Come here! Now!”

The kid scoffed and brushed pass Theo. The door closed, and Theodore felt a small measure of relief. He glared at the knights and stormed off.

The marketplace was empty. It looked nothing like the bustling square Theodore remembered from when he first stepped into the Fairy Circle. The merchants were gone, too frightened to set up shop in the open. In their place was constant patrol of knights, armed with iron swords and crossbows.

Theodore sat by the well to polish his glasses, trying to calm down. When he finished, he looked up to see Knight Captain Myra Redriver. Her usual grin was absent, worn away. She was appointed as leader of this operation because of her experience fighting the Red Caps. She sat down beside him with a groan, looking as battered as the old plate mail armor she wore.

“It’s getting worse,” she said. It had been three weeks since the death of Bassoon. Three weeks since martial law was declared in the Fairy Circle. “The fairies get angrier every day we’re here.”

“There’s no excuse for pointing weapons at a civilian,” Theodore said.

“I don’t like it any more than you,” Myra said. “Everyone’s on edge.”

Theodore sighed. The Fairy Circle was a powder keg and the knights were an open flame. “We should withdraw. Let the Fairy Circle sort out its own politics.”

“That’s not an option,” she said. “We found too many spies in the city. Nobody goes home until we know we can trust the new fairy leader.” She forced a smile for him. “That’s why we need you to figure this out, Deputy.”

Theodore grimaced. “I’m not the Ranger Deputy anymore. The Knight Detective stripped me of that rank. I’m not even supposed to be here.”

She leaned close. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.” She almost knocked him out of his seat with a rough, but affectionate, slap on the back. “You’ve a way with these critters. I’d rather it be you at the council than any of us.”

Theodore checked his pocket-watch. In less than an hour, the highest ranking of the Titled fey would converge on the fairy palace and start talks about how to elect a new Fair Lady. Thistle predicted that it would be weeks of bickering, scheming and power plays as each of the Titled would squabble to take power. It was not something Theodore was looking forward to.

Fairies did not have bloodlines of succession the way human kings or dukes did. Bassoon never appointed an heir. She had been in power for a thousand years and must’ve assumed she would continue to rule in perpetuity. It was a shock to the Circle, to the whole country of Laien, that the Fair Lady was dead.

Theodore stood up. “I should get going. I still have to find Oboe and cross the lake before the council starts.”

“Good luck,” Myra said. “I’ll try not to burn down the Circle in the meantime.”

All Theodore could do was nod. It felt like they were on the brink on a riot, or worse. He and Oboe were responsible for killing the Fair Lady. If there was anything he could do to help bring order back to the Circle, he owed it to the Whirlwood to try.


Episode 7 Chapter 2

Oboe sat on a hillside overlooking the Fairy Circle and stared at the burns on her hands. Her blackened fingers itched under the bandages, still raw from the fight with grandmother, but Thistle had told her not the scratch. The fur could only grow back if she left the ointment alone. She tried to put the pain out of her mind. Somewhere below, Theo was waiting for her. She needed to get moving, but whenever she tried to move she felt stuck to the spot with tar.

It was so strange seeing the Circle just sitting there, out in the open. How many cold and lonely days had she looked off in the distance, wishing she could catch just a glimpse of her childhood home again? Well, there it was. Ripped from its hiding place for all to see; the Circle seemed like a great big festering zit on the face of the Whirlwood. Why had she wasted so many years praying for a chance to go back to that vile, wicked place? Because she was stupid, that’s why.

No. Oboe shook her head. She was done blaming herself for the things that were wrong with the Circle. Even if she’d made mistakes, the biggest was believing she was the one at fault. 

“Oboe?” Theo hoisted himself up onto the plateau. He looked different, wearing a green sweater instead of his uniform. “There you are! I was looking for you!”

Her dark mood evaporated. She could not help but smile the moment she saw him. The whole world wasn’t rotten.

“Sorry,” she said as he helped her get back on her hooves. “I lost track of time.”

“The council will start soon.” His fingers lingered in Oboe’s a moment longer. “We should start heading that way.”

“…I don’t know if I should go with you,” she said. “I’m the one that killed Bassoon. They won’t want me there.” She tried to let go, but he held onto her.

“The Knights of the Realm will make sure you’re safe,” Theo said. “I won’t force you, but I’d like you there. You look at things in a way I don’t. It’d be better for everyone if we’re both there to fix this.”

Oboe’s heart melted, just a little. Enough to convince her, against her better judgment, to go back to that awful place. “Okay,” she said, and followed him down the hillside and through the gates of the fairy settlement.

The sights and sounds of the Outer Circle felt unreal. Human soldiers in breastplates and silver cloaks patrolled the dirt roads, hefting their weapons. Homes and storefronts were battened tight, with nervous eyes peeping through beaded curtains. The only other fairies they met on the way were quick to slip out of sight. Furies with sharp beaks and sharp eyes. Gnomes moving in packs, like one prickly mass. Leshy wrung their oaken hands, with branches of their brittle hair uneven and freshly broken. They all noticed Oboe as she came through, watching her with eyes wide. There were murmurs. Oboe wondered, with dread, about what they were saying. She scolded herself: it could be no worse than the things they always said.

Their boat landed on the shore of the inner circle with little time to spare. Knights escorted them through the gardens up to grandmother’s palace. Furies stood guard and blocked the doorway with crossed halberds.

“Hey!” Oboe said. “What gives? Let us through!”

The spriggan did not budge. Their beaks tightened, and their eyes narrowed.

“Stand down!” The knights said. “This man is here to attend the council!”

The halberds whipped around, now pointed at the humans. The knights, spooked, unsheathed their swords and readied the shards of crystalline magic they wore around their necks.

“Wait!” Theo said. “There’s no need to fight! Just tell us what’s going on!”

“They are following orders,” a voice called from inside the palace. Hooves clopped against the marble floor, and a chill wind blew from inside. A unicorn stepped out from the shadows beyond the archway, snowy white with a long neck, and a horn that stretched like a spear from her brow.  She was draped in a light blue caparison, trimmed with gold to mark her as one of the Titled. “This is fairy business. No human may set foot inside the council.”


Episode 7 Chapter 3

“I am the Ranger Deputy of the Whirlwood,” Theodore said. It was a lie, and he hated it, but it was the plan. “According to the peace treaties, I have the right to speak with the king’s authority in any and all internal politics of this valley.”

The unicorn trotted closer on cloven hooves. She whipped her lion’s tail, and eyed him sideways with an electric blue gaze. Her body was slender, long and wiry, but her regal mane of wavy hair, and her icy confidence, made her seem much larger than she was.

“Correct me if I am mistaken,” she said. “But there is a rumor that you have been relieved of that title.”

Theodore felt a sinking sensation. He had hoped the news of his demotion would not spread so quickly. There was no Ranger Deputy now and it would take months to appoint a new one. Myra bent the rules by sending him here. If the Knights of the Realm forced themselves on the council, it would only escalate conflict.

“You’ve been misinformed,” Theodore said, uneasy. “I’ve come to help resolve this crisis at the request of the crowned prince. I want only to restore peace between our people.”

“Oho?” She studied him. The air grew colder. “I see. How very peculiar.” Snowflakes drifted around the unicorn, dancing. “…Be that as it may, ‘Deputy,’ you are not needed. This is a fairy matter, and we do not need the help of humans meddling in our affairs.”

“What’s your problem??” Oboe pushed to the front to shout at the unicorn. “Theo came here to help and you’re treating him like an enemy! Let him help!!”

“Ah! Queenslayer!” The unicorn lifted a leg. There was an excitement in her voice that shocked Theodore. “I was hoping you would speak up. I was worried the humans had cut out your tongue. Have you come to attend the council? There is a seat saved for you.”

“Huh??” Oboe said.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the unicorn said. “I am High Countess Beira Stormbreak, former advisor to our late Fair Lady. As you have taken the liberty of… dismissing her from her millennium of service, I and the Highest of the Titled are left to appoint a replacement. It would be an honor if you would join us.”

“Wait,” Theodore said, bewildered. “You WANT Oboe to attend?”

Beira nodded. “Of course. She has a claim to the throne, by right of conquest. A fairy cunning enough to slaughter Bassoon has earned the privilege to speak, provided that is the end of her violence.”

Oboe gave Theodore a helpless look. “But I’m nameless.”

“The situation is unprecedented, I admit,” Beira said. “Named or not, you are Queenslayer.”

“I’m not going without Theo,” she said.

“Be at ease, then. Regardless of my opinion, I cannot stop the Ranger Deputy from attending. We will honor our ancient pact.” The spriggan lowered their weapons, but Beira did not move from the doorway. “However, Deputy, you will honor that pact as well. You will come alone, and you will come unarmed. Your thugs will stay behind.

Myra’s men looked at Theodore. “This isn’t safe,” one said. “Shall we gather more men? Force them to let you through with security?”

“An act of war,” the unicorn said, eyes flashing. “The treaties promised the Circle autonomy. If you break that ancient covenant today, you proclaim to all the fey that our truce has come to an end. Are you that bold, Grayweather? Tell me.”

“No,” Theodore said. She was right. If the king’s army forced itself on the council, it would violate the treaties. “This is a diplomatic mission. I agree to your terms.”

“Splendid!” She stepped aside. “I trust the Queenslayer will be joining us?”

Oboe didn’t move. Her face was tense and grave, her mind swimming through some distant thought.

“You don’t have to go,” Theodore told her. He should never have pressured her to return here.

“I’m not letting you go by yourself,” she said.

“Come along then,” Countess Stormbreak said. She led them inside at a canter, and a line of armed spriggan appeared to block the exit behind them. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to hear about your vision for the future of our people, Queenslayer.”


Episode 7 Chapter 4

The door to the throne room opened and they were bathed with the sound of chamber music. A string quartet of sylph stroked their bony forearms against their instruments, milking out an elegant harmony together. A banquet of food was set out on long tables, laden with exotic fruits, wines, and flaky pastries. Fairies in gilded mantles mingled throughout.

“You’re having a party?” Oboe said, wrinkling her nose. “Right now??”

“The Titled are accustomed to being entertained,” Beira Stormbreak said. There was a hint of disgust in her voice. “The world is ending outside, but a bare minimum of pampering must be accomplished before any work can be done.”

“I did not come here to feast,” Theo said as a tray of food was presented to him. “I’m here to mediate on behalf of the crown.”

“Oh, believe me, I am as anxious as you are,” Beira said. “These fickle hens are impossible to motivate. They’ll wait until the gong is rung and not a moment sooner. You might as well partake until then.”

The food was offered to Oboe. The hors d’ouvres trembled when she reached out to take one. Little apple wedges with runny cheese on top were lined on a tray, held up by a frightened serving pooka. She had blue-gray fur, long floppy ears, and eyes she kept pointed at the floor. After Oboe took a morsel, the servant was quick to hurry away from her. It made Oboe sad to see her so scared. Forgetting to taste the food, she wondered what that creature’s life was like.

“Deputy Grayweather? Oboe?”

Oboe looked up to see a nymph. Short, with chestnut skin and hair like braided grass. Her plain white hood was drawn, but her soft milky eyes were clear. Oboe recognized her. This was the priestess who had helped the fate-starved dream sowers affected by the Duke Ambergrail’s fairy ban.

“Gardner Feather?” Theo said. “It’s been a while.”

“It is good to see you both again.” She bowed. “I wish it were during a less troubled time.”

“What are you doing here?” Oboe said. “Are you one of the Titled?”

She shook her head. “The Circle is honor bound to grant a seat and a voice to the church at times such as this. Although, they do not often listen to what we have to say, I am here to remind them that the Mother of Magic is watching. We must let Her guide us.”

“Yes, yes, how wonderfully inspirational,” Beira said, impatient. She craned her neck toward Oboe. “Queenslayer, may I trouble you to speak a moment in private?”

Oboe felt uneasy. She didn’t want to stray too far from Theo, but he did not look at all frightened. He arched his eyebrows as if to give permission. “Um. I guess,” she said.

The countess led her away.

“I admire you,” the unicorn said. “You came and, in a few days, accomplished what I had only dreamed of for years. You freed us from a tyrant.”

“I killed my grandmother,” Oboe said.

“All the more incredible. I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you here at the council. It would be a shame if the one who gave us this opportunity was not here to participate. There is so much more work to be done.”

Beira paraded her around the hall. Titled fey throughout the room reacted to the sight of Oboe with fright and surprise. She wished they wouldn’t stare. The Countess seemed to delight in their reactions.

“I don’t want to be here,” Oboe said. “I only came so the Circle can become a better place.”

“Then we are the same,” Beira said. “We need bold voices to shake the Titled from their precious comfort. It is up to us to uproot them from stagnation and finish the work of liberation.”

They approached a hulking bug creature, who was waddling back and forth along the buffet table. She was a sylph, like Thistle, but giant. A proboscis dangled from her face, sucking up the last of the frosted pastries. Her enormous abdomen dragged along the floor behind her and little normal sylph hovered nearby to collect any stray eggs she happened to lay.

“Hive mother!” Beira said, in a sing song voice. “It is so good to see you in the palace again after all this time. You are looking well. Have you had a chance to give any more thought to my proposal?”

Chitinous antennae twitched and swung in the direction of the unicorn. The Hive Mother’s face was like a mask, with great black eyes that shined. She withdrew her proboscis and clattered her mandibles. 

“Countess Stormbreak, I have told you already.” Her voice was loud and rumbly, like a train passing. “We will not help you. The Whirlskepp sylph have made a good life trading with the humans. There is nothing you can say that will make me throw that away.”

“How unfortunate.” Beira sighed. “Then let us talk about other things. Have you had a chance to meet the Queenslayer?”

Attention turned to Oboe. She held up a nervous hand. “Hello.”

“The Queenslayer was just telling me how she thinks the Circle needs to change. Isn’t that right?”

The Hive Mother’s eyes shone brighter, staring. It made Oboe even more uncomfortable.

“Do not think you can threaten me, Stormbreak,” she said. “The matter will be settled at the council, and no sooner.” With that, she heaved herself in another direction and stomped away in the same hurry as the serving pooka.

“…Everyone’s scared of me,” Oboe said.

“Yes, they are,” Beira said. “You’re very lucky.”

“Lucky?!” Oboe was baffled. “How am I lucky??”

“When other creatures are afraid of you, they listen.” Beira dipped her snout in a punch bowl for refreshment. “It opens doors, and keeps enemies in check. Bassoon understood that. It’s why she ruled as long as she did.”

The praise did not sit well with Oboe. “I thought you said she was a tyrant.”

“Yes, she was,” Beira said. “A selfish, vile, overgrown weed that stunted the growth of our people for centuries. For what? So, so she could toy with the humans and extend her life forever?” She trotted around to look Oboe in the eye. “The Circle has so much potential, and she squandered it. You see that, don’t you? That’s why the Fates brought you to this moment. Something needs to change, and I think if we work together we can mold the Circle into what it was meant to become.”

Something was wrong. The things Beira said sounded wonderful, but the words were honeyed. It reminded her too much of how grandmother spoke to her. Flattery and threats all used to point Oboe in a direction, a direction that hurt others. She didn’t know what Beira really wanted, and she wasn’t going to let herself be manipulated again.

“I don’t know that we want the same things,” Oboe said, tugging at her bandages. “You talk phony. You just tried to use me to talk the sylph into changing their mind. I don’t trust you.”

Beira shook her mane. “This is how the game is played, child. If you don’t like it, help me change the rules.”

Oboe didn’t like her. “I’ll decide who I want to help after I’ve heard everyone speak.”

“As you will,” she said, her tone turning sharp. “A word of warning, though. I meant what I said: It is time for the Circle to change. I won’t let us fall into the old pattern, and I won’t let the humans trample us. I WON’T, do you understand me? You and your conspirator are free to throw your lot in with whomever you choose, but if you get in my way, I promise that you will regret it.” She turned and cantered off. “Change is coming. One way or another.”


Episode 7 Chapter 5

“They killed the Fair Lady!” The fury’s head-feathers bristled. Her long beak was curved like a sickle. She moved across the banquet hall, her talons clicking against the floor, pushing past the Titled trying to calm her. Military honors decorated a sleeveless vest, which let her wings move free. “They have no right to sit with us! They have no right to breathe! Let us kill them and get about our business!”

Theodore had expected this from General Warsong. He made a point to do as much research as he could about all the Titled in attendance. What he hadn’t expected was her to call for his and Oboe’s death before the council even started.

“We aren’t going anywhere, General,” Theodore said. As aggressive as Warsong was, he knew by reputation that it would be far more dangerous to back down from her. “Your own laws are clear on the matter. Every creature has a right to defend itself when attacked. Bassoon meant to kill us.”

“And she would have! But you employed a vorpal blade! There was no honor in how she was slain!”

The general’s shouting drew the attention of the whole room. Oboe found him, rushed to his side. “Is she threatening you??”

He placed a grateful hand on the small of her back. “It’s okay,” he said, and stepped past her to lock eyes with Warsong.

“You’re right,” he told her. “It was not an honorable fight. Bassoon was a powerful fairy, perhaps the strongest this land will ever see. We did what we had to in order to survive, but I take no pride in it. I made certain that sword was dispelled and melted down.”

Feather, the Gardner, spoke up. “Our Fair Lady was not known for her honor. She valued cunning. If power was ever to be taken from her, this is the only way she would’ve respected.”

“I think we all want what’s best for the Fairy Circle,” Theodore said. “We may not agree on what that is, but I think we can all come together and debate in a way that’s fair, a way that’s honorable, we can arrive at one best vision for a future that can benefit everyone.”

Theodore noticed something out of the corner of his eye. A team of serving gnomes scurried across the rafters overhead, dragging a big mallet. They clambered onto each other’s shoulders, teetering, careful not to step on each other’s quills. Together they swung the mallet and rung a big gong. The sound reverberated throughout the hall, washing away the tense mood and signaling that it was time for the council to begin.

“Very well,” Warsong said. “I accept your challenge.” She held out her hand and squeezed her clawed fingers into a fist. “I will OBLITERATE you in fair and civil debate and create a peace so lasting and perfect that you will despair at ever having set foot in our lands!” With that, she marched off to be the first one at the table. The crowd thinned, climbing the stairs after her, toward what promised to be a long and arduous day.

“You got her to calm down,” Oboe said.

“Just barely,” Theodore said. “Thank you for being ready to step in.” He felt safer and bolder with her at his side. “Here’s more good news. Gardner Feather is on our side.”

She bowed. “Some of the Titled are calling for rebellion against the crown. I want to advocate for the alliance to be maintained. Despite the problems between our peoples, I believe the path of cooperation is what the Mother expects from all her children.”

Something was troubling Oboe. “…I think Beira is one that wants to rebel,” she said. “We can’t trust her. She’s sneaky and she’s angry about the humans being here.”

“I think everyone’s upset about that,” Theodore said. The City Watch and the Knights of the Realm certainly were not excited about maintaining martial law. “They’re all scared because their home’s been invaded. That’s okay. We can reason with them.”

“I don’t know.” Oboe’s eyes drifted toward the heraldry hanging throughout the hall. Old banners bearing the Fair Lady’s emblem, the acorn and its keyhole, Oboe’s family’s crest, were left over from her regime. “It’s like grandmother is still here. Like she left a curse, and everyone thinks like she did. I hate it.”

“We must have faith that these things can change,” Feather said. “If we’re patient, and work together, perhaps we can sway their hearts and show them a better way.”

Lips tight and brow stooped, Oboe did not look convinced.


Episode 7 Chapter 6

The arguments started before everyone was seated. The palace solarium, with its tall wide windows peering out over the Circle and the valley beyond, was prepared to host the Council. A massive, round, oaken table had been assembled and matched with plush chairs, benches and cushions to accommodate every type of body. Theodore entered to find they’d dawdled too long, and the first shouting match had started without him.

“Are you BLIND or STUPID?” A pooka rabbit, with silky black fur and a plum colored coat, stomped across the table. “Look outside! The humans are everywhere! Are we supposed to tolerate this? Wait until they cross the lake to depose us? Tell me!” Theodore guessed this was Countess Thornberry. She was using the table to add to her height, which was necessary because she was arguing with High Lady Willow: A leshy who, even sitting, loomed over her.

“Think about this, you little rat,” Willow said. Her long hair hung in a thicket of brambles over her diaphanous robes. “This is not a fight we can win. Even if we drive the knights from our land, more will come. Picking a fight will drag us all into an endless bloody war with the most powerful kingdom on the continent.”

“Then you say we should roll over!” General Warsong snapped her beak. “Let them have their way with us!”

“I have a better idea,” Theodore said. He picked up two chairs and made a place for himself and Oboe at the table. “We work through this. There’s no need for a war, and there’s no need for the Circle to lose its sovereignty.”

“Look, you see?” Thornberry gestured with a padded paw. “There’s even a human in the palace! They’ve even taken our right to speak freely!”

“Let the human hear.” Beira Stormbreak sounded amused. “Let him see that we are not afraid. The fairies of the Whirlwood were here before the humans came, and we will remain long after they are gone.”

The last of the highest of the Titled found a spot at the table. Each was a leader of one form or another, who told other leaders what to do. They seemed the same as the nobles in the capital: they were accustomed to having their way.

“It’s been demonstrated that Bassoon planned to overthrow the king with the help of a Feymire Army,” Theodore said. “It’s impossible for us to know who among you were complicit with this scheme, and it’s understandable that you all would be anxious about what the crown intends to do as a result. Let me assure you that our purpose here is simple. Our peoples have been friends for generations. I want to do everything possible to make sure that continues.”

“‘Friends.'” Beira smacked her lips, as if tasting the word for the first time. “Tell me, Deputy, is it friendship that compelled you humans to place a ban on fairies in your city? Is friendship the reason why our streets are overflowing with soldiers armed with iron weapons? I’m very curious.”

Gardner Feather stood up. “With respect, Countess, it should be clear that we have lost the trust of the humans. Whatever other problems we have, there is no denying that Bassoon acted wickedly.”

“Take that back!” An old gnome Baroness said. “I’m not going to sit here and listen to you insult our Fair Lady!”

Oboe slammed a fist onto the table, drawing everyone’s attention. Her face was clenched as tight as her hand. “My grandmother was wicked. She hurt creatures, she planted spies, and all she cared about was herself! She’s the reason this happened.”

“Shut up, nameless!” The gnome said. “No one gave you permission to speak!”

The Hive Mother let out a low grumble. “Baroness, any creature capable of slaying the Fair Lady is worthy of our respect.”

“A nameless is less than a creature,” said High Lady Willow. “A nameless is nothing. Yet she is here, a living insult. A murderer and a traitor. She is the real cause of this disaster.”

“Don’t blame a soldier for following orders,” Countess Beira said. “It’s obvious she slew our Fair Lady to help her human masters. That is where you should direct your outrage.”

Theodore felt a flicker of anger he had to stifle. Caution was needed. The wrong choice of words could do more damage than good. He looked at his friend. She glared past the Titled, enduring their words.

“Queenslayer is name enough,” the Hive Mother said. “She is here by rights. As long as her violence has ended, the law says she is welcome.”

“Yes, I agree.” Beira tilted her head toward Theodore. “Might I suggest a shorter leash for your mongrel? She looks ready to bite.”

Oboe muttered something.

“What was that?”

“I said you deserve this!” She said. “You’re awful! I hope the humans take over! I hope they punish all of you!!”

An icy mood descended over the room. Theodore itched with panic. He could not fault Oboe’s anger, but they were standing on the edge of a dangerous cliff. He got up.

“I want to propose a solution.”

“Do you.” Countess Thornberry looked prepared and ready to be unimpressed. “What is it that you have to say that could possibly fix all of this?”

“You want our forces to leave. I respect that. The treaties promised fairies authority over their own affairs, and we are an outside force exerting control. The King wants is to know that the conspiracy to overthrow him died with Bassoon. What’s needed is transparency. If the new Fair Lady can consent to routine inspections, proving you mean no ill will, I can persuade the knights to withdraw and leave you to govern yourselves.”

“Ridiculous!” Warsong said. “You expect us to expose ourselves so fully?”

“Do you mean to say your soldiers cannot protect you if you show them to us?” Theodore said. “Or are you saying you aren’t brave enough to trust us?”

The General’s feathers puffed, furious at both slights. “No! Do not be absurd. Fine. Inspect our forces, and know we aren’t afraid of you!”

“I believe this offer is the best we can hope for,” Feather said. “It will take time and effort to rebuild trust with the humans, but the Deputy is giving us a clear road to that goal.”

A gentle murmur rose up among the Titled. Theodore relaxed. He could feel the tension lift. He could hear argument, but the fairies were considering accepting his plan.

“I have a question,” Beira said. “On what authority do you intend to arrange all of this?”

Theodore paused. Something was wrong. “On my authority as Ranger Deputy.”

“I see.” Beira looked off to the side, and a serving nymph approached holding a piece of parchment. She offered it to Beira’s neighbors. “I ask, because it’s come to my attention that you were fired from that position. I present a copy of the form we intercepted.”

“This is an official dismissal!” Countess Thornberry said, passing it off to the next creature. “Signed and sanctioned! He isn’t the Ranger Deputy anymore!”

“Do you deny these facts?” Beira asked Theodore.

Theodore hesitated. “I–“

“What is this?!” General Warsong said. “A trick? He has no title!”

“So what?!” Oboe shouted. “Why does it matter if Theo has a title?? He’s trying to help everyone!

“If he has no title, then he has no right to be here,” said High Lady Willow. “He has no authority!  He can’t change anything! This is a waste of our time. Call the spriggan! Get rid of him!”

Fairy soldiers approached Theodore from behind and took hold of his shoulders. “Wait,” he said. “I may not be Ranger Deputy, but I can still make this work! I can help you!”

“Let go of him!” Oboe said.

Beira crept around the bend of the table, chuckling to herself. “How did you put it before? Every creature has a right to protect itself. I won’t let you deceive us, and I won’t let humans take advantage of us.” She turned to order the spriggan. “Throw him out.””

“No!” Oboe knocked her chair over, spinning around to fight. “I won’t let you!”

“Oboe, don’t!” Theodore said, holding a hand out to stop her. “She’s right. I don’t have a right to be here.” He presented himself to the spriggan to be escorted out. “I wanted to help, but I refuse to start a war. I’ll go.”


Episode 7 Chapter 7

There was nothing Oboe could do. The palace doors slammed shut. Theo offered the best chance there was for peace and the Titled threw him away. Just like how Oboe was thrown away all those years ago.

Theo turned away. “Come on.” He let out a pained sigh. “We have to tell the Knight Captain the bad news.”

Oboe lingered, staring at the door and hating the Titled. She followed him down the steps to the shore and felt something harden inside her. The Titled were stupid, wicked, and cruel. She climbed into the boat, clenched the oars with tight fists, and rowed. She rowed to get them away from this place. She rowed to use up the anger building inside her. But it didn’t work. There was more hate in her heart than there was water to cross.

Something else was wrong. They landed on the far shore and heard shouting. Theo, alarmed, leapt onto the docks to see what was happening. Fairies in the street rushed to find places to hide. Whispers were cut short. A team of knights set up a blockade and it was all over before Oboe and Theo arrived.

“What’s going on??” Oboe said.

“Militants.” The watchman grimaced. “Got bloody with our lads again. Sent some of us to the healer. Took a squad and a half to get them all in irons.”

He let them pass. They followed the sound of hollering up the hill and found the source of the commotion. A nymph, bound in chains, flailed in the muddy yard of an old apple mill.

“This is our home!” His skin was like mossy river stone. His eyes burned white. “You think you can just waltz in and take over?!” He struggled to free his arms, to keep fighting. “You’re weeds! You hear me?! You’ve got no right!”

“Pipe down already!” The lead knight kicked the nymph onto his backside. The other captives, a mix of fairy creatures, stirred at the sight. “Make us regret letting you live! I dare you!”

Theo frowned at the violence. “Where’s Captain Redriver?”

They were sent to wait for her at an inn the Knights of the Realm had commandeered for its operations. Myra arrived not long after, her right arm in a sling. The bone was broken.

“I was lucky,” she said without sounding grateful. “Serves me right for trying to do things your way. Tell me you’ve got good news.”

They didn’t. It upset Oboe to hear Theo recount their failure. It hurt worse when her brother Fife joined them and she had to listen to the whole story all over again. Fife was anxious for news on what was happening at the council, but hearing it didn’t make him any happier.

“I didn’t think things could get any worse.” Fife paced the confines of the inn, tugging at his thinning chin beard. “Clearly I wasn’t imaginative enough! What are we supposed to do now?”

Oboe slumped deeper into her chair. She didn’t know. She felt helpless, like that nymph they saw. Chained up, useless, and angry. She could kick and scream and shout but it wouldn’t help. All she could do was listen to her brother and everyone else panic over how bad she and Theo screwed up.

“We’ll use force,” Myra said. Her patience was spent. “If this council doesn’t want to hear Grayweather out, I’ll round up the men and MAKE them listen to him.”

 It was an idea Oboe liked. It would put the Titled in their place, but she already knew what Theo was going to say.

“Absolutely not.” His hands were steepled and tense. He sat at the table with all the fresh drawn maps, thinking and thinking and thinking. “Breaking the treaties is not an option. The Titled are backed into a corner. This can only turn nasty if we push them.”

“We can’t just let them be!” Fife said. “The knights are on the king’s orders to stay until they know the Circle can be trusted. That’s not going to happen if the Titled won’t even talk to us!”

“…There’s another option.” Theo was reluctant to name it. “We could send Oboe.”

She swallowed. She wanted to shrink into a mouse to hide in the chair cushions, but it was too late. Everyone was looking at her. Thrashing to sit up, stiff, she tried to look back at them.

“I can’t.”

“But you can!” Fife said. “Even if they don’t listen to you, they have to at least let you in the door! You’re the Queenslayer!”

“I’m not going back there by myself!” Oboe said, planted firm and heavy in her seat. “I’m not like Theo. I don’t know how to talk careful, and I hate them! I hate all of them!” Sending her would be the same as letting that nymph go free. She would rage and fight and hate and she knew that wasn’t the answer. “I’d just make things worse!”

“You’d be better than nothing,” Myra said.

“You don’t need a brute like me!” Oboe said. “You need Theo!”

Myra clawed at her own face. “But we can’t send him!”

“Then send someone else!” Oboe said. “Fife should go! He’d be good at it!”

Her brother let out a bitter laugh. “Are you joking? Do you think the council would ever listen to what a male fairy has to say? We’re too flighty, too headstrong and temperamental. And let’s not forget that I’m a traitor. I didn’t slay the fairy queen. I’m just an accessory, beneath consideration! The only thing the Titled respect are titles.”

Theo made a noise. A long gravelly sigh that pained him. He looked at Oboe, weighing everything in that head and needing an answer. She met his gaze.

He was asking too much. It was more than she could bear to go back to that wicked den of lies and tricks. Not by herself. Not without him. She wasn’t strong enough. It was more than she could bear.

“Are you going to make me go?” She said, staring.

Theo softened, sympathy welling up in his kind eyes.

“No,” he said. “You’ve been through enough.”

Myra’s groan was half snarl. “Then we’re right back where we started! What are we supposed to do?!”

Theo opened his mouth, hesitating. “There’s one other option.”

Oboe felt she might burst from relief. “There is??”

Theo pushed his chair back and got up to gather his things. “Fife is right. A title is the only way I can solve this. There’s no other choice. I have to become the Ranger Deputy again.”


Episode 7 Chapter 8

The royal guard read the letter a third time, squinting through the eyepiece of an adderstone. Theodore waited while the knight took his time comparing his identification against other lists and forms. It was difficult not to think about how little time it would take for the situation in the Fairy Circle to erupt into chaos.

“I can’t let you into the castle,” the guard said. He folded the documents and handed them back.

“And why not?” Theodore tried to keep his composure but wrinkled the letter by mistake. He held the seal up to the guard’s face, as if he hadn’t already seen it. “This is an official request from Governor Farbend that I be granted an audience with the king!”

The guard folded his arms, and the men on either side of him squared their shoulders. “I don’t care who wrote the letter. Knight Detective Whitechain has you listed as a security risk.”

Theodore silently cursed Conrad for his thorough and admirable dedication to proper procedure. “This is important! Please! Can you at least tell the King I need to speak with him?”

“I’ll give you a choice,” the knight said. “Either get lost, or I’ll have you detained for suspicious activity.”

Smoothing the wrinkles out of his documents, Theodore turned and strode off in a huff. His march back down Crown Hill Road slowed to a trudge. Officials in burgundy pushed past him on business as he made his way back into the city. There, under the shadow of the castle where the street plunged, he found Oboe. She sat where he’d left her, on the patio of an old brick café, waiting for the world to end.

“It didn’t work.” The defeat in her voice was too much to bear. 

“The governor’s best wasn’t good enough,” Theodore said, slouching into the seat beside her. “They won’t let me see the king.”

“What about Percy?” She said. “Percy would help us!”

Theodore rubbed his face, frustrated. “I can’t even get in the door!” He let his glasses fall back onto his nose. The suggestion sent his mind working. He glanced back up at the palace, with its towers rising high over the city. Maybe he didn’t have to use the door.  “I have an idea.”

Oboe gulped down the last of her hot cocoa so they could leave. He brought her into a secluded alleyway, where he explained what he had in mind.

“I don’t like this,” she said while Theodore undid his shirt buttons.

“If Bassoon was able to get one of her whispers inside the castle, it might still be possible.” He hoped the royal guard had the good sense to tighten security, while also hoping they did not. “I don’t think the king will help us unless we go through the proper channels, but Perceval might. We just need to get close enough to at least talk to him.”

“I’m not going to transform you again!” Oboe said. She leaned in, dropping to a hush. “My magic is wrong. It’s against the law.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your magic! The law is there to prevent its abuse, but maybe the law isn’t perfect.” Theodore hesitated with taking off his pants. She’d seen him before, but he still blushed at the intimacy of it. “I trust you. You’d never use your magic to hurt anyone. Right now, it’s one of the only options we have. It’ll just be for a little bit.”

He folded his clothes and tucked them away behind a crate. Oboe stared at him, eyes trembling. Her gazed darted across him. She stepped closer.

“I… Okay.” She placed her hands on the scar on his chest. Her touch sent his heart racing. “Thank you,” she said. “For trusting me.”

He shook his head, feeling distracted. “I need to be something small. Something that can go unnoticed.”

She nodded, and the magic flowed out of her. He felt himself shrink down to the cobblestone. Six legs and antennae. There was even a little copper band around the foreleg that had been his ring hand. He was an ant again.

After unwrapping her bandages, Oboe shifted into a blue bird. She hopped close and he climbed onto her back. Theodore gripped her feathers tight as she rose into the sky to circle the tower.

“Get us closer!” Theodore said, having to shout over the wind. “So we can see in the windows!”

“Hold on!” She swooped to get near, but something happened. There was a spark of light and a translucent barrier of magic could be seen for half a moment. Oboe bounced off, tumbling through the air. Theodore clung to keep from falling until she righted herself.

“Too close!” She said.

Theodore saw now the glyphs and wards along the walls, set up to prevent intrusion. Oboe tried to keep them near enough to scout, and only got knocked back one more time.

“There he is!” Theodore said, spotting Perceval through a window.

She lighted on a buttress near that window, and he scuttled off her back. The wards would not be perfect. If Theodore kept his distance, he could creep between the range of each and hopefully make it. If he misjudged this, the spell would activate and fling him to his death.

“If I fall,” he said, wanting very badly for that not to happen, “I need you to catch me.”

“I won’t let you get hurt,” she said.

Theodore crept onto the wall, his tiny claws sticking to the stone. He set his eyes on the prince’s room high up in the tower, and tried not to look down.


Episode 7 Chapter 9

“Let’s say that Korveil offers to open its border to us in trade. What factors should you consider before responding?”

Theodore hauled himself onto the windowsill, grateful beyond words to have survived the climb. On the other side was a simple bedroom. It reminded him of the one he saw inside Duke Ambergrail’s dream. There was a bed, a wardrobe, and textbooks scattered everywhere but not much else. Protective runes lit up the interior stone walls. A bored and bearded guard kept watch at the only door, while a tutor in bright red robes and hooped earrings lectured. Prince Perceval sat at a desk in the center, taking notes and fighting off a wandering gaze.

“Korveil is a mineral rich country,” Perceval said. “Our industrial productivity would greatly increase if we had access to their raw materials, but I’d be very leery of agreeing without a major commitment from them to keep the trade roads safe. Historically, they’ve disavowed responsibility for dealing with highway bandits within their borders.”

“Wrong!” The tutor said. Apparently, she was looking for a much more specific answer. “If you’d read the chapter instead of daydreaming, you’d know you need to engage in circumspection. Korveil knows what we want and would only offer this to squeeze concessions from us. No doubt they’d want reparations for their failed military campaigns against us!”

Under normal circumstances, Theodore would’ve been interested in hearing more of this lecture. However, he was pressed for time. He scaled the desk leg, trying not to be seen. There had to be a way to talk to the prince without drawing attention from the teacher or guard. He skittered between cover, from behind trenches of textbooks and stationary, and dipped is foreleg into an ink well. From there he rushed onto the prince’s notepaper, trying not to drip, and scrawled out the words ‘THIS ANT IS THEO’ as legibly as he could.

When Perceval looked down, he did a double take. His eyes darted. The tutor was occupied with a condescending review of the fundamentals of foreign policy. The prince lowered his sleeve to the desk and gestured for Theodore to enter with his finger.

“Professor,” He said. “I need to use the water closet.”

“What?” She said. “You just went!”

“I suppose I wasn’t done.”

She grumbled. “Then make sure you are this time. I’m not paid by the hour.”

The royal guard undid locks and chains on the door and escorted the prince out, joined by another keeping watch on the other side of the door. Theodore dangled inside the sleeve until Perceval shut the bathroom door. He ran the faucet to mask their voices.

“Theo?” He said. “Is that really you?”

Theodore crawled up to his shoulder. “Yes. This is Oboe’s magic. It’s the only way I could contrive to speak to you.”

“I’m not surprised.” He slouched onto the toilet. “Did you get my letters?”

“No. What letters?” Theodore thought. “I was forced to leave the cottage.”

“That’s what I was worried about.” Perceval groaned. “Conrad told father you’re not to be trusted. I stood up to them, and now they both think I’m an idiot! Father put me back on heavy watch, and now I have no idea what’s going on.”

“Things are bad in the Circle. We’re a breath from things turning violent, but the fairy council won’t talk to anyone who’s not the Ranger Deputy. I need the King to give me my title back.”

The prince glowered. “Father’s not going to help us. I could help you meet with him, but I think he’ll only listen to Conrad now.” He leaned forward. “If I could leave the castle, I could pull some strings, but I can’t. I’m stuck here.”

“Is there anything you can do from here?” Theodore said.

The gears were turning. “I can sign a new royal appointment. But I won’t be there to handwave procedure. You’ll have to follow all the rules to become a knight proper.”

Theodore felt fresh hope spring up. Protocol was something he could deal with. “Conrad had me fired because I was appointed without the qualifications. If I can earn an Advanced Knight Training certificate, I can get my title back.”

“Yes!” Perceval stood up. He froze, realizing he had said that too loud. He pulled the flush chain to maintain the illusion. “I can authorize you to take that test. Where can I send the forms?”

“I have a room at the Red Orchard inn on the trade road.”

The prince shuffled around the bathroom, wagging his arms with anxiety. “This might only buy you time. Conrad said he has a plan to get rid of you.”

“I don’t care,” Theodore said. “I need to fix this whether he likes it or not.”

The guards knocked on the door. “Are you done in there?! Hurry up!”

The prince ignored them. He straightened his tunic and took a deep breath. “If you need to reach me, sign your letters as Prince Horace. He’s very boring, and they won’t bother reading my mail from him.”

“That’s a good plan,” Theodore said.

The prince hovered at the door. Something was stopping him.

“Is Oboe okay?”

“She’s fine,” Theodore said, but realized that wasn’t really true. “This has all been very hard on her.”

He looked at the floor. “A lot of what happened to you is my fault,” he said. “You deserve better. If things get bad, if things really go to pieces, I want you to take care of her. I want you to promise you’ll go somewhere safe where you can be happy no matter what happens here.”

“It’s not going to come to that,” Theodore said.

The prince opened the door, and Theodore hid in the folds of his clothes. He left Perceval to write and mail the authorizations that would be key to his success. Crawling out along the castle walls, Theodore looked to find Oboe again.


Episode 7 Chapter 10

The prince’s letter came that evening, delivered to the inn by courier bird. Theodore wasted no time. He buried himself in books on knighthood, combing through guidelines and protocol, burrowing deep into their appendices and scratching reminders and notes into memory. He wanted a week to study, but there wasn’t time for that. He presented himself the next day to the central barracks, royal appointment in hand.

The exam room emptied as each knight hopeful turned in their test before Theodore. He went over every question three times, squeezing the allotted hour for every minute. The questions were all about things he thought he knew, but the cost of failure twisted doubt into every line. Theodore never prayed, but found himself muttering ‘please’ over and over as he set down his pencil and surrendered his exam.

The applicants stood in a line in the hall while they waited to be graded. After an eternity, the test proctor swung out with a stack of papers in hand. A knight veteran, with a sword at his belt and a snow-white mustache.

“There is more to being a knight than swinging a sword,” he said, handing out results that crushed spirits. “To join an advanced knight order, you must know the law and how to uphold it. If you have fallen short, know that Laien accepts only the best of the best. Study, train, and return when you are worthy.”

The cadets filed out with hung heads one after the other, leaving only three. Theodore took his results with shaking hands.

“As for you few that made it this far…” The proctor indulged in a smirk. “Report to the training yard at your assigned time for the combat portion of the exam. Swinging a sword isn’t all there is, but you’d better be damned good at it.”

The afternoon sun fought against the autumn chill. Theodore held the practice sword out, standing at the center of the barracks training yard four. Leading with his left leg, he raised his arms and took the ox stance. It was good for thrusting attacks or diagonal swipes but offered minimal protection. Shifting his posture to the plow stance, then the fool, the roof, and then back again to the ox. The motion was stiff, but his muscles remembered the endless drills his father had forced him through.

Lance said the fool stance was vital to baiting your opponent. You looked more vulnerable than you were, and were poised to answer their next attack. Ox, plow, fool, roof. No. There was supposed to be five pillars. He was forgetting the tail. Theodore held the sword behind, letting it point to the ground.

He stepped across the training courtyard, swinging the blade and shifting from one stance to another. He almost tripped. Was this how he positioned his grip? Why was it so hard to remember when he had spent so much time on this? There was so much more to remember: variations, permutations, special stances, and exceptions for every circumstance. Theodore had suffered through so many lectures and had tried to forget all of it. It was all still there, just buried. Remembering was like pulling up brittle tree roots. He would grasp at a memory, only for it to snap in his hand and leave him with only a part of the whole.

“I’m an idiot,” he said. “I spent all my time reading books when this is where I’m weakest.” The test duel would start soon, and now there was no time.

Oboe pulled a dull sword off the rack and marched up to him.

“I’ll help you practice,” she said. “Pretend I’m the test guy.”

Theodore stared at the weapon. “That’s iron. It’s not safe for you to hold that.”

“Don’t worry about me! Come on!”

She swung, and Theodore stepped back. She charged, waving her weapon in every direction. The action woke something in him, let him stop thinking and just move. He dodged to let her run past him. She spun to face him without stance or form, and he knocked the blade from her unguarded grip. A kick sent her into the dirt, and one thrust of the ox meant victory.

His arm locked up. The sword shook in his hand, pointed at Oboe. Ella’s dying eyes flashed in his mind. Silas screamed. The nymph’s severed head sailed through the air.

Oboe kicked Theo, knocking his legs out from under him and toppling him.

“What’s your problem??” She hopped back up. “Why’d you stop?”

“I… didn’t want to hurt you,” he said.

She conked him on the head with her sword. “They’re not real, dummy! My nails are sharper than this! You’re here to show you can fight. You know how, you just need to stop being nice!”

“I know that,” Theodore said, sitting up. He looked at Oboe’s big brown eyes, so determined to help him, so certain and good and dear to him, and he couldn’t imagine even pretending to hurt her. “I know I have to do this. It’s just hard.”

“Then let’s keep practicing until you can do it.” She reached out her hand to help him stand.

The gate of the courtyard opened, shrieking on its rusted hinge. A man in a hunter’s cloak and a cavalier hat swept through, followed by a band of other knights. Conrad Whitechain lifted the brim of his hat to glare at Theodore.

“Grayweather,” he said.

Theodore grabbed Oboe’s hand, and was on his feet again. “Detective. To what do I owe seeing you here?”

“The knights on prince duty told me about your little scheme.” He walked in a slow circle around Theodore. “They confiscated a royal appointment letter from Perceval but failed to stop him from sending another. I’m disgusted by how well you’ve manipulated the boy, but fortunately for us you were sloppy. Did you believe I’d allow you to worm your way back into power?”

“Theo got permission!” Oboe said. “You can’t stop him from taking the test!”

“I know.” Conrad removed his hat. An attending knight took it and placed a sword from the rack in his hand. “Which is why I’ve arranged to administer your practical combat exam.”

 “What?” Theodore said. “How?”

The Knight Detective unbuckled his cloak and tossed it aside to reveal a light fencing uniform. “I train cadets here, just like your father did. I merely had to ask to be the one to test you. But do not worry, I’ve no intention of cheating.” He gestured towards a tall grim, woman in plate mail. “Spy Hunter Fullhound will officiate. This will be a duel until she calls its end. Make no mistake, I will not allow a wretch like you to hold sway over Laien again.”

“Conrad, you’re making a mistake!” Theodore said. “I’m not actually a Feymire spy! I’m trying to help the Fairy Circle! Let’s talk about this!”

“Keep your excuses.” Conrad snapped his sword into the ox stance. “Your actions speak loud enough.”

Spy Hunter Fullhound chopped her hand through the air. “The combat test starts now! Begin!”