“The royal guard needs to leave,” Theodore said.
Conrad sat on the cot, fussing at the bandages at his waist. The healer slapped his hand away. After the duel, he was moved inside of one of the buildings commandeered by the watch. It was a restaurant with its tables cleared away to make room for the soon-to-be-wounded. Outside, an army of knights waited for instruction. Theodore needed to make sure they were the right ones.
“The King’s orders still stand,” Conrad said. “It doesn’t matter if you humiliate me. The Circle needs to answer for the attack on North Manor. I’ve sent word to the King about your protest, but without royal decree we cannot withdraw.”
“Then we’ll get a royal decree,” Theodore said. “A battle won’t fix anything, all it will do is make more Red Caps. The only way to truly resolve this is by talking.”
“That will be difficult.” Gardner Feather entered, arms folded in the sleeves of her white mantle. She was followed by Fife and the Tall Man. “I have news.”
Theodore braced himself. The odds of this being anything good were slim. “Tell me,” he said.
“The Titled have barricaded themselves inside the Inner Circle palace with the bulk of the spriggan,” she said.
“They expect the worst,” the Tall Man said. “No doubt Beira is fanning their fears now that the King’s army has arrived in greater force.”
“We stopped their advance!” Theodore said, flailing for something to grasp onto. “We just need to prove there is no threat!”
“The damage may already be done,” Fife said. “You halted the takeover. That’s incredible. But it doesn’t mean anything with the Titled holed up like this. They’re scared, and Beira is going to use that fear to her advantage. If she can’t coerce the council to appoint her Fair lady then she’ll push a Tournament of Titles and take power that way.”
“We can’t risk that happening,” Theodore said. Oboe had told him about the tournament. Even if Beira didn’t win, it would lead to a Fair Lady who valued strength above anything else.
“Then none of this matters,” Conrad said. “We will have to use force.”
A horn sounded in the distance and, within a few moments, Oboe came pushing and shoving through the door. “Theo!” She said. “It’s Percy!”
“What?!” Conrad said.
The group poured out into the market, with Conrad hobbling behind at the rear. The regiments of standing knights were parting to allow an entourage through. Prince Perceval, dressed in ceremonial robes, arrived flanked by royal bodyguards and foppish emissaries. The knights bowed, and the creatures gaped.
“Your grace.” Conrad groaned as he forced himself forward. He was not supposed to be walking. “Why are you here? HOW are you here?!”
“I came to address the situation in person,” he said. “I got special permission from my father.”
“You did?” Theodore was astonished. “How did you manage that?”
The prince looked like he remembered an old joke, and he sighed. “After you left, Theo, I thought about what you said. I tried talking to father afterwards, after we both calmed down. I tried to really listen to him, and all the things he worries about. This time he actually listened back. He let me come here to help.”
“You shouldn’t be here, your grace,” Conrad said. “It’s too dangerous.”
Perceval glanced at the knights that surrounded them. “Would you feel better if we’d brought another army?”
Conrad shut up. The prince gestured towards one of the royal messengers.
“Read the thing, Hubert.”
The messenger stepped forward and unfurled a scroll. “Knight Detective Whitechain, by order of the crowned prince, you will withdraw the King’s forces from the Fairy Circle and the Whirlwood. You are relieved of command of special operations and will return to the capital.”
“After you’ve recovered,” Perceval added.
“My prince, you can’t do this.” Conrad took the scroll, turning pale when he saw all the seals and signatures were in order. “We are in a state of emergency.”
“I know,” he said. “Which is why I need to put someone else in charge.” The prince swept past Conrad and approached Theodore.
“Theo,” he said. “May I borrow your sword?”
Unsure of what to say, Theodore unsheathed his sword from his hip and offered the hilt to his prince.
“Kneel,” he said. So, he did. The prince held the sword out over Theodore’s bowed head, and began to say the words.
“Theodore Grayweather, son of Lance Grayweather, and faithful servant of the land of Laien: I ask of you this oath. In the name of the Mother of Magic, will you stand for law and order within the Whirlwood Valley and all the rest of the kingdom?”
“I will,” Theodore said.
“Will you keep peace between man, ghast, fey, and feral?”
“I will,” Theodore said.
“With honor and care, will you speak for the crown among the trees, and speak for the trees before the crown?”
“I will,” Theodore said.
“Will you give aid to those in dire need, great and small?”
“I will,” Theodore said.
The blade touched one shoulder, and then the other.
“Then rise,” the prince said. So, he did. “I name you Ranger Deputy of the Whirlwood, and entrust you with all power and authority vested in that office.” He offered the hilt of the sword back to Theodore. It was light in his hand. A euphoria washed over him that rinsed away the ache and fatigue he felt before.
Behind the prince, Theodore saw Conrad with a priceless face frozen in indescribable horror. The marketplace stood in reverent silence.
Perceval scratched his nose. “So, uh. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…” He looked out over the crowd of creatures and spoke with a loud voice practiced for speeches. “Denizens of the Whirlwood! My name is Prince Perceval Stonewall of Laien, and today I come to you on the King’s authority! Our peoples, who have enjoyed generations of peace, now have that very peace threatened!” He turned to Theodore. “So I look to your Ranger Deputy, who has lived among you for months! I ask how things have gone wrong!”
Theodore coughed, embarrassed to make a show of this. “The… The creatures suffer because our kingdom has been unfair to them. We have banned them from the city, and we treat them with suspicion and scorn. We have ignored their anger and unhappiness, and now that the Fair Lady is dead, we threatened to take their independence.”
“Very well!” Perceval said. “Then this I promise all of you! I will reverse the ban on creatures across all of the capital! I will withdraw the knights from the Circle! As King, I will do all in my power to restore the peace and friendship we once shared, so that our bond will falter no longer!”
A great whooping cheer roared across the Circle marketplace. Perceval waited, hands raised, with a certain irritation for it to die down.
“I now send the Ranger Deputy to speak with the Titled fairies, granted all authority by me, to restore peace between our people!”
Another wave of cheering flared up, drowning out all other sound. Theodore, so overwhelmed in the moment, did not notice the danger until it was too late.
Conrad shouted something. He pushed past Theodore and the Prince, shoving them both to ground. There was a noise like lightning or the falling of a tree, deafened by the crowd. A javelin of ice dug itself into Conrad’s shoulder and hurled him across the market into the knights. Theodore spun to see where the attack had come from and saw a unicorn standing high on the roof tops. A lance of ice forming in front of her, floating and ready to launch like a ballista.
“Protect the prince!” Someone yelled. Beira fired her frozen spear across the Circle, but the prince’s bodyguards threw up a magic barrier and the icy weapon shattered against it. The knights rushed forward, pulling Perceval behind cover and open firing with a barrage of crossbow bolts. The Whirlwood creatures scattered. Beira Stormbreak bounded across the rooftops, dodging missiles and spells as they pot marked and punctured the houses. She reared, kicking her hooves in the air and laughing at them. Theodore caught her mocking gaze before she vanished from sight.
Theodore stood still amid the chaos, knowing but dreading what needed to be done.