“Open the doors!” Oboe shouted. “He’s the Ranger Deputy!”
The spriggan peered down from atop the battlements of Inner Circle palace. They knew. Word traveled fast in the Circle, and Feather traveled ahead to make sure it was known. Still, they hesitated, staring, not wanting to be the ones to throw open the gates for a human.
“I come alone, and I come unarmed,” Theo said. “I am not a threat.”
“Our orders are that none may pass!” One said.
They had only just arrived and Oboe was already fed up. “The law says you let him through! Stop wasting time!”
Cowed, the spriggan retreated inside. After another moment, the massive doors of the palace creaked open. A troop was waiting on the other side, led by a scowling Commander Épée.
“You may enter,” she said. “The Queenslayer will stay–“
“She’s coming with me,” Theo said. He took Oboe’s hand and brushed past the guards. The spriggan did not stop him. The doors were sealed shut behind them.
At every wall and at every window, fairies stood ready with spears and bows. There were fey of every type, some without armor and some with simple clubs or no weapon at all. Oboe turned her head, and saw children and elders packed into side halls and corridors with misplaced crates and furniture. These were civilians. The palace had become a stronghold against the invading humans, and it seemed everyone in the Circle had taken shelter here. The sight of them softened Oboe’s anger and reminded her why they had come. Together, they hurried up to the solarium where the arguments had started without them.
“You have lost your mind!” Gardner Feather said with an anger that startled Oboe. “The humans promised us peace, in spite of all that has happened, and again you endanger us all by provoking them!”
The Titled froze the moment Theo entered. They were scattered across the room, staring out the window or sitting away from the roundtable. Some stood with Feather, but others gathered behind Beira. If the countess had any reaction to the arrival of Theo, she did not show it beyond a flick of the tail.
“The humans have promised these things before,” she said. “Empty oaths. Words without magic. Are you truly so naive, Gardner? Nothing will change if we fall for this trick, and we will suffer the same injustice. We cannot throw away this opportunity. The time is at hand for us to throw off this oppression and crush the human tyrants.”
The other Titled did not say anything. Maybe they were too nervous now that a human was listening. Theo adjusted his glasses.
“There are other solutions.”
Beira trotted closer, her movement cool and serpentine. “I hear congratulations are in order, Grayweather. Not that it matters. Nothing you can say can change the fact that the humans have come to storm our gates.”
“That isn’t true!” Oboe said. “Percy ordered the knights to stand down. Theo is here to talk things out! It’s not too late.”
“Many of you are angry,” Theo said. “You have a right to be. Things between our people have been broken and unfair for a long time. It’s something that’s been there, but I wasn’t even aware of until I came to work in the Whirlwood. That anger, and our ignorance of it, are the reason there are Red Caps. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m listening, and we can work through this.”
“Yes! You see?” Feather looked flustered. “We don’t have to throw away the treaties! All the creatures Oboe brought to the Circle are proof of that. The Mother’s children can live in harmony!”
“So eager to grovel at the boot heel of the humans,” Beira said. “Some of us are not so resigned to the role of victim. We know those humans came to wrest control of our own lives from us. These platitudes are only a means to make us surrender. To make the work they’ve come to do easy.”
“Beira, what you are suggesting would be the death of all of us,” High Lady Willow said. “We cannot win a war against their iron and industry!”
“Coward!” General Warsong shattered her teacup against the floor. “I will not debase our people like this! Stormbreak is right!”
The Hivemother heaved herself across the room. “This pride will be the death of us. We are the envy of all Fairy Circles because of the prosperity of the Laien economy. Let us fix what is broken before it is too late.”
“Get over it, you bloated grub!” The steely eyed gnome Baroness said. “We have been stagnant for one-thousand years. Countess Stormbreak will be our new Fair Lady, or else nothing will change!”
An argument raged. The Titled threw insults and bickered. Theo tried to raise his voice, but it was drowned out. Oboe yelled even louder for him, but they were all too absorbed in their own voices to hear.
Beira’s horn started to glow and made a shrill ringing sound that silenced everyone for just long enough for her to speak.
“There is no more time,” she said. “We must appoint a Fairy Lady but cannot agree. So, once again, I propose we decide this with the Tournament of Titles.”
“No!” Oboe said. “There’s no need! The humans want to talk!”
“We did not ask your opinion, nameless,” High Lady Willow said. “I see now that the Tournament is the only way. The threat the humans pose is clear. The strongest must lead us.”
Feather shook her head. “We must not define ourselves through violence!”
The Hivemother let out a great shivering groan. “I loathe to admit this, but the countess is right. A tournament is the swiftest way to reveal the new Fair Lady. Let us stop blathering and be done with it. All in favor?”
Before Theo or Oboe could stop the vote, the greater part of the room gave a shout. The motion passed like the blade of a guillotine. Feather let out a cry of grief.
“Do not look so sour, Gardner!” Beira said, taunting. “It is your own fault you took a vow of peace. If you wanted to become the Fair Lady so badly, you should have thought ahead!”
“Wait!” Theo said. “There must be a better way to appoint your leader than fighting one another!”
“Do not mock our customs, human,” the Hivemother said. “A Fairy Queen must be respected and feared by her Titled, or else they are no Queen at all. If she cannot fight or does not command the loyalty so that others would die for her, then she is not worthy of our throne.”
Oboe looked at Feather. The Gardner wanted so bad to make the Circle better. She was the only one of them Oboe trusted. If others could fight in her place, then Oboe knew what she needed to do.
“I want the Gardner to become the new Fair Lady. Let me fight for her!”
“Impossible!” Countess Thornberry scoffed. “Queenslayer, you already forfeited any right you had here when you assaulted the Countess! You are nameless, and we will not have you disgrace the ritual!”
Oboe wanted to scream. Of course the Council would forbid her from violence for being too violent. She cursed herself for her past mistake. If there was going to be a Tournament of Titles, there was a chance Beira would win. She couldn’t let that happen. Needing some other option, any other, she looked at Theo.
“What about the Ranger Deputy?” She said.
The Titled were stunned by this suggestion. “He isn’t a fairy!”
“He has a voice in this council!” Oboe said. “That means he has a right to fight for someone!”
Flabbergasted, the Titled discussed this point amongst themselves. Theo pulled Oboe aside.
“What are you doing?” He said.
She felt a flash of shame at having volunteered him for this, at wanting to gamble him and everything on the future she saw in Feather. “Theo, I need you to answer a big question. I need you to tell me if you can kill Beira.”
He said nothing. Oboe felt even worse.
“I think the Gardner can make the Circle better,” she said. “They aren’t going to let me fight for her. But, maybe you can. I know you can fight. I’ve seen you do it. I just don’t know if you can kill. That’s what happens in the Tournament of Titles. Can you kill Beira?”
He hesitated. “…Yes.” There was a tremor in his eyes.
“Theo, I’m serious. I don’t want you to do this unless you can win. I need you to be my knight. Can you kill her?”
His gaze firmed, resolute. “I can kill her. I have to.”
The Hivemother stomped a leg. “It is decided! Unorthodox though it may be, the Ranger Deputy may fight. However, he may only fight and risk his life as champion on behalf of one of us. Does he agree to do this?”
“I do,” Theo said. “I will fight in your Tournament so that Gardner Feather may become the new Fair Lady.”