“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.”