The wind made a low rumble as it blew over the Inner Circle. It was a growl, like a cornered animal, angry and threatened. Oboe moved through the empty gardens and with great effort forced herself through the doors of the palace and up the stairs to where the council met.
A thread of conversation was cut short. The Titled, seated around their fancy table dressed in their gold-trimmed mantles, met Oboe with cold stares. A heavy silence hung over her arrival. The unicorn was the first to speak.
“Ah, Queenslayer,” Beira Stormbreak said. “You return. I did not expect to see that. Have your masters decided to let you roam free for today?”
Oboe did not respond. She dragged a chair across the solarium and forced a place for herself at the council table. Her neighbors scooted away, but she did not care. There was only one reason she had come.
“The humans are our friends,” she said, planting a palm on the table. “I don’t care who becomes Fair Lady, but they’ve got to understand that. It doesn’t matter how bad it gets. We can’t fight with our friends.”
High Lady Willow, tall and slender as a young oak tree, rolled her eyes as hard as she could.
“You were right, Countess. We did not lose much when she left.”
“No.” Gardener Feather spoke up. “There is wisdom in what this young one is telling us. If the possibility of harmony exists, it is our responsibility to find it.”
“Oh, here we go again!” General Warsong threw her long neck back. “How long must we tolerate this whining for peace while an army sits on our land!?” She snapped her beak at the priestess. “We are already at war whether you believe it or not!”
“A war we cannot win!” High Lady Willow said. “They outnumber us. Their technology can destroy us. If we fight we die!”
Oboe knew a war was the last thing the humans wanted. “That’s not wh-“
“Coward!” Beira shouted before Oboe could finish. “Do you think so little of our people!? Let their armies come! The fey will show them what we are capable of!”
“They don’t want to fight!” Oboe said, louder this time. “They’re scared! Just like us! If we work together, we can show them we’re not a threat!”
Beira flicked her curled mane. “Is that what they sent you to say?”
“Nobody sent me!” Oboe said. “I speak for myself!”
“Is that so?” Beira glanced around, as if to see if everyone else found a joke as funny as she did. “A nameless, stripped of everything, who was given voice and standing by the humans, and who slaughtered our queen with the aid of the Ranger Deputy.” She narrowed her eyes. “Now you come and tell us to accept tyranny, and we are to believe the humans have hold no sway over you.”
Oboe felt her blood boil. “They don’t!” The council murmured all around, and she stopped herself from listening. “I don’t care what you think about me! If we can stop a war, we should!”
“Of course YOU would say that.” The gnome baroness, with the white quills and big flowery hat, laughed. “How else would you have your revenge? Well. I won’t be tricked!”
The Hive Mother shifted, as if waking, and a deep guttural growl erupted from her throat. “The motivations of the Queenslayer do not matter. It is in our interest to end this without a battle.”
“Whose interest, Hive Mother?” Beira said, like a needle tip. “Yours? Are the profits you earn trading with humans worth more than our future?”
Three other Titled shouted something else at once. Oboe tried to find another chance to speak, to tell the Highest what she felt and how she knew peace could work, but every word was stepped on.
It went on like this. No one listened to anyone else, and if they did it was only to pick apart what someone else had said. The same arguments were made over and over again, round and round, and nothing was done. It made Oboe want to pull her hair out. If the Titled had ever accomplished anything before, it was because grandmother was there to settle their feuds. Now she was gone.
“I’m sick of this!” Oboe said, knocking over the train of argument. “You’re supposed to pick a new Fair Lady, but none of you can agree on anything!”
“I agree with the Queenslayer,” Beira said, which startled Oboe. “It’s plain to see we will never reach a consensus. Thus, I will say it once again. We must hold a Tournament of Titles! That is the only way we will decide who will be queen. There is no other choice.”
“There is always a choice!” Gardner Feather said. “The Tournament is cruel, and it will only give us cruel leaders. Our people need more than that!”
General Warsong scraped her claws along the table. “What our people NEED is STRENGTH! The folds in space that protected us are gone. We need someone who will make us safe.”
Oboe remembered the Tournament from when she was a child. It was a way for an untitled to risk everything for a chance to wield power. Most who fought were killed, but that didn’t matter. Oboe was sick of listening to the Titled squabble. She didn’t know how to talk, but she knew she could fight. She squeezed a fist and hammered it against the table.
“We should have the tournament!” Becoming Fair Lady was the last thing Oboe wanted, but at least then she could do something. “I want to fight! I’ll fight you right now!”
The spriggan stirred, alerted by Oboe’s words. A harsh quiet fell, which made it impossible not to hear the gentle clatter of weapons. The council did not take well to the idea of fighting the Queenslayer.
“Dear child.” Feather broke the silence with a soft voice found nowhere else in the room. “We should not resort to solving our problems with violence. This ordeal is an opportunity for our people to change.”
“It is, Gardner, but not in the way you think.” Beira moved toward the window, her eyes narrowed. “Look outside. Our children lie awake at night while men stalk our streets with iron in their hands. You ask us to tolerate this. You would make us no better than the ghasts.”
“What’re you talking about?” Oboe said, squinting her brow. “What’s wrong with the ghasts?”
“They do all they can to please the humans.” Beira turned. “And their reward for this groveling? They are spat on. Wrongly accused. Made to live underground and out of sight. The humans have tamed them, ripped out their teeth, and the ghasts deserve all of it because they allowed it to happen!”
“That’s not fair!” Oboe said, growing angrier. “You make it sound like they should turn wicked!”
“You are right.” Beira trotted around the table. “I am being unfair. Let me offer some praise for the ghasts. There are some who still fight for, and remember, their pride: The Red Caps.”
The Titled murmured, scandalized, but did nothing. Oboe stared, wondering how it was that none of them felt the need to argue when the countess praised murderous outlaws.
“Countess.” Feather stood up. Her hood fell back to reveal her long and woven hair. “The creatures of the Whirlwood have long had difficulties with the humans, but so have they with us. The violence of the Red Caps has only spread fear and mistrust. It is not an answer. If there is to be a brighter future, we cannot resort to the Tournament of Titles. We must rise above our own wrath, and instead come together as one kingdom again.”
Oboe wished it were that simple. She thought of the witch Flip, of the Duke Ambergrail, and the angry eyes of the guards at the city gates. Even Theo, kind and wonderful Theo, needed to learn about creatures before he came to care about them. Oboe wanted more than anything for everyone to be friends, but she knew better than anyone that making friends was hard. She looked at the stony faces of the council members and knew they would never do the work. The flicker of hatred in her heart grew bright and hot.
“Enough!” High Lady Willow said. “We will settle the matter with a vote. Those in favor of a Tournament of Titles call out!”
Oboe wanted the tournament. She knew it was dangerous. It didn’t matter if the fairy that won was smart, or kind, or wise. The worst at the table had the best chance at winning, and that would all but guarantee a war. But wasn’t it the same the other way around? Wasn’t a little blood better than a lot? It would be so much easier to fight Beira, to pound her face in, and get rid of her and the others that way.
Voices rang out around her. Oboe almost joined them, but her eyes fell on Feather and her throat seized up. She felt ashamed for wanting to fight. Stifling her anger, pushing it down, she held her peace. Nearly half the room shouted in favor, but that wasn’t enough to pass. Like every vote that came before, this one came to nothing.
Beira surveyed the failure and turned a glare toward Oboe. “Another disappointment.” She let out an angry snort. “I thought for a moment something might happen, but no. Instead we are again made weak by a simpering call for peace. Why?”
“Because it is the only way forward.” Feather held herself with dignity. “A thousand years ago, the Devil King tore this country apart seeking revenge against the humans. He cursed the Farbend, slaughtered countless creatures, and the blood flowed and flowed until the ghasts in his service allied with us and the humans to bring an end to the violence. This realm was built upon that alliance, and we must do everything we can to uphold its spirit.”
“And where has that alliance led us?!” Beira said. “If the Devil King had succeeded, those humans outside would be chattel, and fairies and ghasts would live free! We were fools to trust the humans. The time has come for a new Devil King to rise!”
The room was speechless. It was hard to process what had been said. The Countess called for a repeat of Laien’s greatest tragedy, and everyone was too dumbstruck to do anything.
Feather braced herself against the table. It took her a moment to speak, but when she did the kindness had left her voice. “There is only blood and tears if the fey go down this road with you.”
“Yes,” Beira said. “But they will not belong to the fairies.”
It was too much. Oboe ran, stomping, the anger inside her bubbling over. The spriggan woke and readied their weapons as she marched straight up to the Countess, wanting to kill her.
“What is WRONG with you?!” Oboe said. “Humans are creatures too! Same as us!”
Beira studied Oboe’s face with insufferable satisfaction. Oboe clenched her bandaged hands into fists.
“Whatever is the matter, Queenslayer?” She was laughing. “Have I touched a nerve? Are you scared of what will happen to your masters if I have my way? You should be.”
Oboe spun to look at the council. “Are you listening to this?! She’s a Red Cap! Aren’t you all going to do something?!”
The council spent a moment shuffling, glancing at one another without saying a word. Finally, Countess Thornberry cleared her throat.
“We are all familiar with Stormbreak’s… sympathies,” she said. “Even if this talk of the Devil King is shocking.”
“It would be improper of us to dismiss a member of the Highest because of an opinion,” said High Lady Willow. “She may remain so long as she keeps her peace.”
“If we are to survive this,” The Hive Mother rumbled, “we must consider even the ugliest of solutions.”
Oboe trembled. She needed to calm down but couldn’t. The council was useless. They couldn’t even agree to pull up a dangerous weed like Beira. It didn’t matter if some were good like Feather. The Circle was rotten.
“You’re getting so worked up!” Beira said, mocking. “We are civilized here, nameless. I’d ask you to understand, but I think there isn’t much room in your head now that the Deputy has trained you so well. What a good pet. I wonder what you will do when he’s killed? Will you remember how to think for yourself? No, I think not. Without him, you are just a nameless.”
Oboe jumped at the countess. Before she could stop herself, she was pounding at her face and neck with balled fists, pouring out the anger and hate and brokenness she felt inside until she was pulled off of the unicorn by the spriggan. They piled onto Oboe, and when she came to her senses there were spears and daggers prodding her from every direction. The Titled retreated, frightened by what she had done.
“The Queenslayer has broken her peace.” Beira face was bruised, and yet she sounded so smug. “She is unfit to speak. I motion that she be thrown out.”
Voices rang out. The motion passed.
“No!” Oboe shouted. She shifted between several different forms, bursting her bandages, wrestling to get free. It was no use. She was pulled her from the solarium, and the doors slammed shut.