The grass of Edith’s neighbor’s lawn turned black and hard, rustling, hard edges scraping against hard edges as the transition happened. Each bit of grass became an actual spear or blade, and the grass was just long enough that each blade could point another direction, or be different lengths from its neighbors.
Edith remained where she was, as blades started to grow in length, surrounding her. Her eyes burned orange, darting around, and her chest rose and fell as she breathed hard. The blades stopped growing when they got an inch or so from her feet, ankles, calves, knees. Many of the longest pointed toward her.
“What are you doing?” Avery asked the Sable Prince.
“Facilitating,” he answered. He enunciated carefully but the ‘ing’ at the end of the word had a roughness to it, as if he had a sore throat but it only caught the end of the word. It was quiet enough that she could catch it. His following sentences were similar. “If you would like me to do something else, you can ask.”
She didn’t know, so she didn’t ask.
“Edith,” Matthew said, quiet.
“Do nothing, Matthew,” Edith told him, turning.
“What’s going on?”
“Do nothing. Hold off.”
“Shutting down Kennet like we did, holding the neighborhood still…” Lucy said, looking around.
“At rest,” the Sable Prince said.
“Is it hard?” Lucy asked. “Does it cost something?”
“Some. It was the easiest road forward for what you wanted to do.”
“Can we take this inside?” Lucy asked. “And not pay that cost?”
“It is not only the house of Edith James, but it is the home of Matthew Moss. It is their space. Even if it were her space alone, she would get a chance to respond before everything that is hers is forfeit.”
Edith drew in a deep breath, the orange of her eyes trembling. “Forfeit?”
“You’ve been indicted, your husband indicted by proxy. A few words from your area’s practitioners would indict him as well.”
“Indicted?” Matthew asked. He took in the scene in a new light, then shook his head. “No, that’s too much, this is too much-”
“The situation is pretty serious and the stakes are pretty high, Matthew,” Lucy said. “Are you going to cooperate?”
“Are you going to execute my wife on my neighbor’s lawn? In my house? This can’t be how it- no.”
“We don’t want to execute her,” Avery said. “That’s part of why we’re doing it this way. We went to the Judges to double check that our course of action was right and within our rights and the Sable Prince is supposed to help ensure this all goes smoothly, with as little fighting as possible.”
“We’d like to start with questions,” Verona interjected.
“Are you going to cooperate?” Lucy asked.
Matthew looked over at Edith. “I don’t even know what cooperation entails. But I won’t fight you.”
Edith nodded once.
“It should be a lot easier and more comfortable if we can do this inside,” Avery said.
It seemed like Matthew was so overwhelmed he was having trouble taking it all in. “John?”
“I trust them,” John said.
“I don’t,” Edith added.
“You have your gun out,” Matthew said.
“One of my guns.”
“Can we go inside?” Lucy pressed. “So the Sable isn’t wasting power keeping the coast clear? That’s a cost that has a receipt, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” the Sable Prince answered. “Amortized by the flows of karmic right and responsibility.”
“I don’t know what that word means,” Lucy told him.
“I’ll rephrase. It’s written off because it’s my job. Because you seem to be in the right here. If you’re not then it will fall on your shoulders. If you are, then it will add more weight to what falls across hers.”
“Can we go inside?” Lucy asked, again, looking over in the direction of Matthew and Edith. “I think we need your permission.”
“It’s easier,” the Sable Prince said.
“Meaning we could trespass but it would muck things up?” Verona asked.
The Sable Prince nodded once.
“We should go inside, then,” Edith said. “Matthew?”
“Yeah. Okay, permission given.”
“Basement, please,” Lucy told Edith.
The blades of black stone grass receded. Edith stepped forward hesitantly, and the blades that remained shattered and crumbled. She crossed the lawn, walked through the black wood chips of her own ‘lawn’, and entered her house. John followed immediately behind her, while Matthew stood to the side of the front steps.
Avery glanced at him as they joined the procession.
“You’ve drawn on yourselves,” Matthew commented, as Verona walked by. Verona’s hooded top had a ‘v’ at the neck and dipped low enough that the drawing at her neck and collarbone was visible.
“In case things got violent,” Lucy answered.
“I don’t think I would have thought to do that when I was your age, or known what to draw.”
“I was at this for barely more than a week when I got stranded at the Forest Ribbon Trail,” Avery said, skipping up the steps and pausing at the railing before entering the front door. “With everything that’s been going on we’ve had to learn fast.”
“We offered to let you scale back, do less.”
“Was that you or Edith who pushed that?” Lucy asked, from the front hall.
“I’m going to hold off on answering questions until I know more about what’s at stake here.”
“Alright,” Lucy said.
They entered the basement. Edith turned on the lights, and Avery could see that the lines on the floor from McKay’s binding had been thoroughly cleaned away. There were cleaning supplies piled up in the laundry room, just beside the door.
The room was square, but had a corner blocked off, an appliance humming within. Furnace or water heater, maybe. Dark wooden floorboards, with wine red walls. Edith had planted herself in the far end, beside that humming, blocked off area. A small television was in the corner, dusty and connected to a cable box, and some furniture that had once been arranged to face the screen had been moved and turned around to face the spot where McKay had been bound. A few squat cabinets and shelves held books and a multitude of small candlesticks and jars with candles in them.
Some of the artwork was pretty normal, and might have been stuff Matthew had picked up, but there was also an arrangement of planks that looked like it had been scorched strategically, and a collection of wicker bristles and woven things arranged around branches, that looked like a star giving birth to baby witch’s brooms. Avery found herself studying it in new light.
“Can we take that down?” Avery asked, pointing at the decoration. “And put that aside?”
“Who are you asking?” Matthew asked.
“I’m not about to set fire to my own house,” Edith said. “Or my decor.”
“It gives me a bad feeling. It’s very you,” Avery said.
“Claim,” Verona added. “Could influence spiritual flows.”
“Well, that,” Avery said. “But also I remember when we were protecting the perimeter against Aware, she liked surrounding herself with candles, papers, and things.”
“Trust your instincts,” Lucy said. “Matthew? Please. The candles and candlesticks too.”
“Do whatever,” Edith said, sounding disgusted. She stood surrounded by soft chairs and a futon, and she didn’t sit.
Matthew approached, went to put a hand on her shoulder, and she leaned away from the hand. He remained there with hand still for a solid second, before he went to lift the wicker thing off the wall. He got the wooden planks, four vertical, one horizontal, all black and burned, with a bit of a grunt.
Lucy and Avery grabbed candles and candlesticks while he did that, passing some extra to Snowdrop, who helped carry. Everything went upstairs.
John, the Sable Prince, and Tashlit remained in the center of the room, blocking off Edith, who remained at the far end.
“Do you want me to release my hold on things?” the Sable asked. “You implied it earlier.”
“What are the consequences of that?” Lucy asked.
“The residents of this area can go about their evenings again. Whether they are neutral or enemies.”
“Okay,” Lucy said. “John, Tashlit, can you guys do us a favor and keep an eye out? Matthew, don’t let anyone in? And if someone does come in because they don’t use doors, like Cig or Alpeana, don’t let them leave without us addressing it.”
“Windows,” Avery said, pointing. “The goblins come in that way sometimes.”
John crossed the room, going to the window, and locked them.
“Is this a soft binding then?” Edith asked. “Me held at bay by the threat of a gun and a judge?”
“For now,” Verona said. “We’ll probably end up drawing something. We thought you might fight, so we didn’t want to commit to anything. If you cooperate, we were thinking we’d use all the available floor space. Leave you room to move.”
“It depends on how open you are with answers and how dangerous we think you are, at the end of this,” Lucy said. “And if Matthew is willing to agree to swear not to interfere or release you. And other things.”
“And if I’m not?” Matthew asked.
“We discussed separating the Girl by Candlelight from the body, and binding that, somewhere else,” Avery said. It felt uncomfortable to say.
Matthew looked shocked at first. The shock dissipated, replaced with a deep, dark sort of concern.
Edith’s expression didn’t change. It was like she considered that an inevitability.
With everything removed, Snowdrop returned, wiping traces of candle wax off her hands. Tashlit sat on the stairs, one eye out the window that looked out in the direction of the driveway, able to see who came from upstairs and also see through to where they were with Edith. John stood by the door.
“You’ve withheld critical information, you haven’t treated us fairly or as equals, and you put us at risk while shirking your stated duty to stand between us and outside threats,” Lucy announced. She glanced at Avery.
“We think you did all of this because you were a culprit in killing and butchering the Carmine Beast,” Avery said, grateful she wasn’t being left until last this time.
She watched Matthew as she said it. His eyebrows went up.
He met her eyes, and interrupted Verona, who was about to speak. “You have proof?”
“We’ll probably get to that,” Lucy said. “For right now, we’d like answers.”
“Are you familiar with the process of forswearing someone?” the Judge asked.
“We’re not wanting to forswear her,” Avery said. “Especially if that would destroy her.”
“I recognize and agree to that. I’m asking, are you familiar?”
“We know the basics, I think,” Verona answered.
“The process here is to be much the same. It is not necessarily enough to say someone’s word is broken. Local Lords and forces like myself will often decide or put it to tribunal, whether someone is present or not, and the person will have a chance to defend their word. In some cases, if an oath is made but there are no witnesses to its breaking, we will test the forsworn in some fashion. Every one of our methods is different. Some will appear in person and question the forsworn, others will send a sick old woman to cross their paths and see how the forsworn reacts, judging their character. Here, there are witnesses, but it is still a test. Words are open to interpretation. The one who would be called an oathbreaker gets a chance to defend their word.”
“Can I request assistance and guidance?” Edith asked.
“You may not. It is your word in question.”
“I would be open to her having someone to give her guidance on what to say and what not to say,” Lucy said, “if that guidance was an outside party familiar with karma and law and not familiar or involved with this situation, sworn to secrecy and unable to pass any information on to potential co-conspirators.”
“Woah what?” Verona asked. “We’re helping her?”
“This is about justice,” Lucy said, looking back at the Sable. “I’d want the same for us. Someone roughly equal to help us make sure we’re not overlooking something.”
“That would take time, wouldn’t it?” Edith asked, turning her attention to the Sable. “I’d have to stay bound or roughly bound in the meantime?”
“It would, and you would have to come to some form of agreement with the three practitioners of this area on your binding. Someone uninvolved is someone from outside my purview, by definition. I would send a servant of mine out east to seek someone out. I think it would take two days.”
“I don’t want to be bound that long. No.”
“If you want to twist around this call for counsel to bind me for extra days, that reflects who you are and what you’re doing,” Edith interrupted, voice heated. “We shouldn’t have picked you three.”
“What did you think would happen when you appointed us as investigators?” Lucy asked, just as heated. “I think going with the Judge and pushing for fairness is pretty reasonable here. We’re not trying to unravel you by forswearing you. We’re only trying to fulfill our duties and bring the culprits to justice. Are we being unfair?”
She looked at John as she asked that.
“Terribly unfair,” Snowdrop said.
“I have minimal objections,” John said. “Depending on what comes up, I may have none.”
“Thank you,” Lucy said. “Tashlit? Are you listening?”
“Any objections on how we’re approaching this?” Verona asked.
Tashlit shook her head.
“Matthew?” Avery spoke up.
“I don’t know enough to say,” he said, wary.
“Then let us start out by addressing the primary points of concern,” the Sable Prince said. “Please. Edith James. You’re first accused of withholding information. The argument has been presented to me as such. You, at the time of their awakening, indicated your agreement for this when you offered your power and consent. You withheld information about binding. You withheld information about the true nature of Yalda. When questioned about your involvement in the Carmine Beast’s murder, you ended the conversation early.”
Avery glanced at John as Yalda came up. He shifted his footing but gave nothing away.
“Others have withheld details. You haven’t complained about that,” Edith answered.
“None have been more pointed or blatant than you,” Lucy told her.
“But they’ve withheld details or handled the investigations in ways natural to them, because they’re idiots like Cherrypop or natural manipulators like the Fae, no?” Edith asked.
“How do you respond, Edith James?” the Sable Prince asked.
“That is my response. If they’d condemn me they’d have to condemn others.”
“Cherrypop was actually pretty helpful and great about it,” Verona told Edith. “I had to bribe her with nuggets and pit her against the other goblins, but she provided good info. If we have any issues with the Fae we can address it with them specifically.”
“The Kennet Others agreed to the voting system and agreed to not teach you binding at that time. You went to learn it elsewhere.”
Lucy folded her arms. “What was your role in that discussion on binding? You had a leadership position there, no?”
“I did, but so did Matthew, and it’s not as cut and dry as you paint it. You wanted to bind the Hungry Choir. A prevailing sentiment was that you were all hurling yourselves at a very dangerous force that most practitioners were declining to handle, because they weren’t strong enough. Equipping you with a means of going after the Choir when you weren’t ready is tantamount to sending a man to hunt a werewolf with only a wooden spear. John?”
“I said something about how I thought they were getting in too deep, too fast, back then. It was Matthew who said the Choir was too strong for most practitioners.”
“Providing the information and encouraging you on a very dangerous path would have run against my oath to keep the practice and your duties from getting in the way of a long and full life,” Edith said. “We didn’t stand in the way of you seeking the information elsewhere.”
The Sable Prince nodded. “This is fine.”
“The Choir was too strong for most practitioners because they lacked the critical information. Yalda’s nature. In the car, you guys didn’t correct Charles when he told us it was a Black Dog.”
“She is a Black Dog, or was,” Edith said, glancing quickly at the Sable Prince as she made that last correction. “The non-standard Dogs of War come in varieties that get loose categories. They were originally named after the dogs leashed at the warrior king’s heels, the hounds famine, sword, and fire. Then terms changed. The Black Dogs are a broad category that contains famine, contains sickness, contains plagues of insect or rats. It fits. Yalda affected people in ways that could be called famine or sickness, binding the gut.”
“And the interview you cut short?” the Sable Prince asked.
“I did not lie when I said what I said. The timing was poor. I left a hard meeting with family and then had a meal with you three. We talked about my inability to have children and questions of my future with Matthew. It put me in an uncomfortable state. If things had carried on I might have said something untrue by accident or out of emotion. You broke bread with us.”
“You walked away,” Avery said. “You didn’t let us follow up.”
“I was new to being in charge, adding the coordination of the locals to my responsibilities. We had to adapt to Miss being gone, and I took it on myself to send spirits to the perimeter to protect this territory.”
“But you didn’t let us follow up,” Lucy pressed. “You took on a hostile stance with us after that.”
“Dire times. I held off on providing the information because there were more pressing matters, but holding off is not outright refusal.”
“Putting something off forever is withholding it.”
“Did you have any plans to make a meeting with us and provide the full story?” Verona asked.
“Did you have plans to reach out when things were calmer?” Edith retorted.
“When were things going to be calmer?” Lucy asked. “End of the summer? Too late.”
“By what calendar? The only task we gave you was to investigate. It’s not a violation of an oath to put things off. It doesn’t put you in a spot where you’re in violation of an oath we asked of you.”
“If one of you killed the Carmine Beast with the intention of taking the throne, wouldn’t you potentially be putting yourself in the same role as the Sable? Getting to decide and control the interpretation of the laws and things that determine how you’re interviewed or what punishments there might be?” Lucy asked.
“I have no intention of being Carmine,” Edith said. “I wouldn’t want it, I wouldn’t be good at it unless I gave up the human part of me and gave up every part of me that lets me love and care for Matthew.”
“When you say ‘I’ do you mean Edith James with the composite spirit and echoes inside, Edith, or the Girl by Candlelight?” Verona asked.
“All of the above have no intention of being Carmine. But when I say ‘I’ and I’m not speaking of the body of Edith James as a separate part, I mean the first, body and spirit combined.”
“You just hedged,” Verona accused “When you say body and spirit combined, you’re leaving out-”
“Echo. As the girl by Candlelight I’m primarily spirit, Verona. I am a spirit.”
“This is true,” the Judge intoned, his voice taking that rough quality at the end.
“I want to make an issue of this ‘too late’,” Lucy said, to the Sable Prince. “Am I right? Would she get to be in charge of making and deciding the rules?”
“That is our purview. You called us Judges, and this works as a term. We manage seal and karmic law, we arbitrate the abstract notions of spirit and Other in most of our purview, depending.”
“Depending?” Avery asked. “Can you clarify?”
“On all of it. We were debating… kind of what you guys are all about. Knowing what the Carmine used to do and what you do is important.”
“In seal, we can use our influence to force Others to be bound to the Seal as they manifest naturally. Sometimes this is formalized, other times it is implicit, and imprinted on them at the moment of their creation, as instinct and innate understanding. To secure innocence, not necessarily to keep innocents alive, but in accepting responsibility if innocence is lost. To keep to Truth in rule of discourse, holding to one’s word.”
“It was the case for me,” John said. “I always had a sense of innocence. I couldn’t lie from the moment I lurched to my feet from the midst of a pile of corpses covered in concrete dust.”
Tashlit nodded. Finger waving between herself and John. She gestured more.
“Tashlit too,” Verona interpreted. “Presumably no corpse pile.”
Tashlit pushed fingers and thumb together to make an oval shape.
“She came from an egg.”
“What about me?” Snowdrop asked.
“You as well, in your own peculiar rule of discourse. Most Others who are created naturally and created on Earth after the date of the Seal’s origination are bound. All of the Others of this town are bound. In places without any Judges, where Lords arbitrate instead, more may slip the net, but Lord, Practitioner, and Other are all obligated to enforce the seal at the earliest opportunity.”
“So that’s the seal,” Lucy said.
“We can be called to arbitrate matters of Truth, or new forms of discourse. As the Judge most concerned with commerce and civilization, the Aurum Coil manages new rules of discourse, such as music, drama, or technological modes of communication. In some areas, the Judge may be stricter, in others, more lax. Over time, the rule of discourse is decided by many Judges and collected spirits in many places. I understand that your Opossum familiar was momentarily the subject of the Alabaster Doe’s attention when she came into being. I arbitrate many oaths that come to rest when one or both parties die. When someone is forsworn, we can intervene and interject. As I’ve stated, if no person lives to call a broken oath into question, we can step in to do so, directly or with another test. In most contentious debates, one enemy forswearing the other, the Carmine would decide.”
Avery nodded, placing a hand on Snowdrop’s shoulder.
“Again, we do not hold sway everywhere. In some places, the collected spirits would draw on the law as established to do this. In others, or in those same areas, a Lord may hold sway and use their position and power to decide.”
“And abstract notions of spirit and Other?” Verona asked.
“Echoes boil forth and disappear regularly enough. I can open or close the doors that let this happen, to allow more echoes to roam free, to allow them to be closer to the human world, or force a clear distinction. The Carmine could decide what bogeymen could rise from the Abyss, and how long their leashes would be. Our departed Carmine kept a short leash here for the Abyssal things, but allowed many feral beasts of an Other bent to roam in the deeper wilderness, keeping them out of man’s way. Another Judge would see to matters of faith and the forces tied to that faith.”
“Like spirits in the East, before the Oni conflicts,” Verona said.
“And after those conflicts. The leashes there, for lack of a better term, are quite long, and Others may deal with innocent fairly directly, provided they keep their nature ambiguous at the very least. Here we are stricter. When I said ‘depending’ earlier, there are limitations. Realms I do not cover. Some spirit-heavy areas have spirit lords who hold sway and they decide these things.”
“Like Lords in Earth?”
“In a loose interpretation.”
Lucy uncrossed her arms. “The Carmine being dead… you implied that was the way things once were.”
“Before the seal, before we assumed roles as distant arbiters, stepping in only rarely to avert anything that would disrupt the balance of innocent and Other.”
“Like another group of Judges stopping a great primeval attacking the East coast of Canada?” Avery asked, thinking of Ted Havens, the man who’d gone from birth to age thirty a lot of times.
“That is something we do now, that we wouldn’t have done in the more distant past, yes. That was handled by other Judges in another area because it would have caused untold harm and almost certainly made thousands or tens of thousands Aware.”
“And her being gone now, that’s changing who is deciding all of this?” Lucy asked. “The arbitrary stuff on what Other gets to pop up?”
“The default assumption, without the Carmine, is that there are no barriers to the emergence of violent abyssal beasts or bogeymen, wraiths, goblins, or spirits, among many Other things. It is why Kennet in particular is so bloody. Her influence is present enough to supplant anything we remaining three might do, but at the same time, lacks any will or ability to assert influence.”
“Thank you,” Lucy said. “If Edith is one of the responsible Others, then does that mean she or someone working with her would be able to use the Carmine Furs to take the throne, and confound us by letting lots of monsters pop up and keep us from questioning her?”
“That is possible.”
“I’ve already said, it wouldn’t, shouldn’t, and won’t be me,” Edith interjected.
“Do you know who is?” Avery asked.
“I couldn’t say.”
Before Avery could follow up, Lucy held up a finger, thought for a second, and then asked, “Would it be possible, then, for them to oversee Edith’s case, if we then decided she wasn’t providing us everything she said she would, challenged her, and her Judge friend in their new Carmine look could then favor her heavily and tell us to screw off?”
“That is not out of the question,” the Sable Prince said.
“And, if it’s a question of seals and karma… could they then wait until someone challenges us on something, calling one or all three of us forsworn, and have their own person do what you’re doing right now and decide the outcome?”
Avery felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on edge. Snowdrop looked up at her.
“There would have to be some merit to the challenge, but yes. They could even take a very liberal interpretation of what constitutes an Oath and what constitutes breaking it.”
Verona looked at Lucy, frowned a second, then said, “That’s only during their term of service as a Judge?”
“If a matter from before their term started was brought up or if they decided an event left fallow was in their purview, they could arbitrate it as they saw fit, provided it had some merit.”
“And they’d be rid of us,” Avery said, quiet, the hairs that were standing up going all down her spine and arms.
“That seems like a very frigging huge loophole,” Lucy said, her voice rising. “If someone can take the seat and just arbitrarily decide fuck these three practitioners they have a personal stake in messing with, those guys are forsworn!?”
“That’s- um,” Avery said, hesitating, cutting in before Lucy could get too heated. Lucy looked at her. “There’s no way around it?”
“Appeals?” Verona asked. “Or asking other Judges to handle it? You guys each have your areas, right? Does that go for forswearing?”
“If you’ll ask one question at a time I can answer them one at a time.”
“Appeals,” Lucy said. “Please.”
“There are appeals. They would usually go to the same Judge that made the same ruling, or the same role. Carmine to Carmine.”
“But we could go to another?” Avery asked. “We could go to the Alabaster?”
“Yes, though we rarely change the decisions or intervene in the affairs of other Judges. Our process is fluid and natural, we instinctively know what the others are doing.”
“So it’s up to them to bring up the case, they can decide the outcome, and then it’s up to them to handle the appeal, and you don’t see what’s wrong with that!?” Lucy asked.
“What about asking another Judge to handle the initial forswearing?” Verona cut in, because Lucy was getting heated.
“One question at a time, please.”
“Hers,” Lucy said, looking briefly disgusted, indicating Verona.
“You could appeal to the Judge and ask them to stand down to be impartial.”
“And are they obligated, is there another force that could…?” Verona asked.
The Sable Prince shook his head. “Our process is old, simple, and not so convoluted as that. Enforcement happens by the same laws that defined your bronze age. If you do not like them, you can challenge the Judge for their seat, or you can establish a Lordship and let the Lordship arbitrate instead.”
“We can’t do that if we’re-” Lucy started. John touched her shoulder and she reflexively pulled away. Then she looked back at him, the look in his eyes, and she made herself calm down. In a more level voice, she said, “We can’t do that if we’re forsworn.”
“Not easily, no. It would have to be preemptive,” the Sable Prince said.
“I don’t think-” Avery started. She hesitated, still thrown by this. She glanced down at Snowdrop, back to Tashlit, then up at John. “I don’t think that would go over super well.”
“We’ve discussed it,” John said. “A seat of Lordship invites challenge in the same way the Carmine Throne does. It also sets standards.”
“Like?” Lucy asked.
“Not being able to keep a perimeter and limit the access of practitioners. We’d be subordinate to greater Lords of more powerful areas. Some with subordinates who might take over our Lordship to expand the territory of that superior.”
“Some are practitioners, right?” Verona asked.
“With kids? Keeping it all in the family?”
“There’s no other way to divert this or stop it from coming to pass?” Verona asked. “You guys don’t go, hey, this is jank, we’re going to step in to protect the role of the Judges?”
The Sable Prince answered, “You’re in the midst of the primary other way as we speak. I’m here in part because of the gravity of the situation. If someone has taken the Wrong course to take the throne, it would be good to address that.”
“Uhhhh,” Avery said.
There was a brief pause.
“This really has you concerned,” Matthew spoke up for the first time in a bit.
“Uhhh, yeah,” Lucy said. “Because I overheard someone, and by elimination, I’m fairly sure it’s Edith here, in this house, saying they’d get rid of us. And if it’s not her it’s someone, so yeah, it’s a concern.”
“No,” Matthew said. “I don’t believe it would be Edith.”
“At the meeting we weren’t invited to? That’s part of point number two, by the way, which I do want to get to,” Lucy told the Sable Prince.
“As you wish.”
Lucy turned back to Matthew. “-When we crashed it to let you know about the guys who were at the police station?”
“No,” Matthew said. “I don’t recall that.”
“No?” Lucy asked, pointing an accusing finger at Edith.
“Were you spying? Because I said something, but that wasn’t the exact wording-”
“It’s my implement, bitch!” Lucy said, pulling back the accusing finger to flick her earring. “Eavesdropper’s earring. It’s pretty hard for me to not catch some stuff by mistake. Which you shouldn’t be surprised about if you did your research about who I am prior to inviting me in.”
“We left that to Miss,” Matthew said.
“Your oversight isn’t my responsibility,” Lucy told him. “Now, unless someone was fucking with me, your wife said something to that effect-”
“Not to me, not in my earshot,” Matthew said. “I’m almost certain.”
“Edith, did you or did you not say something to the effect of ‘we can’t keep them from living long lives, but one way or another, we’ll get rid of them?”
“As spirit, echo, body, or some combination of those things?” Verona added. “Did you say it?”
“And if you said it and Matthew wasn’t there, who was there when you said it?” Avery cut in. Left to last again, damn it. “If it wasn’t you, then do you know who it was?”
Edith shook her head, looking away. She didn’t answer.
“Edith?” Lucy asked.
“There was context. The new Others in Kennet especially are nervous about you being here as active practitioners.”
Lucy folded her arms, stepping closer. “By the Awakening Oaths, you pledged to give us a long and full life. I remember you saying something to the effect of you not needing to worry about us in the long term. That conflicts. Confirm, deny, or explain.”
“I can help give you a long and full life without worrying about you.”
“Was that what you were going to do?” Avery asked. “Or what you are going to do?”
“I’m not perfect,” Edith told the Sable Prince. “I have a human body and a human brain that hosts me. It gets tired, and it loses concentration. With this kind of badgering I may start making mistakes, in wording, judgment, or details.”
“I’ll be lenient with that in mind,” he said.
“And if I don’t want to answer?”
“That’s your choice,” the Sable Prince said.
“We can’t compel her?” Avery asked. “With you here?”
“You can, but me being here doesn’t force the answers to come. By the seal of Solomon, Others that are bound can be compelled to give an answer if asked three times.”
We saw that happen with Gashwad. Or Lucy and me did, anyway.
Avery fidgeted. Her neck-hairs hadn’t completely settled. Her fidgeting took the form of fingers touching the seams of Snowdrop’s shirt along her shoulders, and Snowdrop reached out to fidget back, fingers tapping Avery’s fingers, before she took Avery’s hands.
“Do we want to do that, then?” Lucy asked.
“I don’t,” Edith said.
“I would object,” Matthew said.
“Even hearing what you’ve heard?”
“Nothing too incriminating has been confirmed yet. I have to stand by my wife until there’s more to what you’re saying. Binding is barbaric and can easily be taken further than initially meant to.”
“This is the fastest way I can think of to confirmation,” Lucy said.
“Find another way. This is also the easiest route to manipulating the situation to get the answers you want,” Matthew said.
“What if we swore?” Avery asked. “A binding to get answers, then release.”
“You could release her into a prepared binding circle.”
“We could swear not to. We could swear to return her to this situation.”
“Which is a soft binding unto itself, on yet-unjustified pretenses,” Edith said.
“And there are other loopholes, and however many I could name and ask you to come up with answers for…” Matthew raised his hands, then dropped them to his sides. “There are three of you and I am an average man from a far-from-average background and I worry I may not be as smart as any one of you three, let alone all three of you together. I can’t come up with everything you might do once you have Edith firmly in your control. I can say no, not in my house, not unless you indict me directly, as you have Edith.”
“Frankly, we think you might be involved in some capacity, but from the way you’ve talked about us, and been open where Edith hasn’t, we don’t think you’re the ringleader,” Lucy said. “There are others we’d bind before you.”
“I’m talking about what happens here, tonight.”
“Okay,” Lucy said. She turned away, then started pacing the width of the room, wall to the corner of the jutting room that surrounded the furnace or water heater or both. “Let’s go back.”
“To?” Matthew asked. He sounded defensive. Edith, by comparison, was quiet.
“Three primary arguments against Edith. We were discussing the sharing of information. Edith James, from the framing of her response, suggests she had no intention of sharing with us before the end of summer. But the end of summer, with the way things are slated to go, may see John Stiles dead and one of the conspirators in the murder of the Carmine Beast atop the throne, capable of being lawyer and judge over their own crime. And over us, for that matter. Yes?”
“To clarify,” the Sable Prince intoned, “you asked if it was possible. It is. But it’s not likely. The role is a passive, observing one.”
“But it could.”
“It could, but it isn’t likely.”
“Is there any rule or procedure that stops it from happening? Or stops it when it’s underway?”
“This, here, as I already stated. Those who would lie or break oaths to arrange the position can be challenged and dealt with before they take that position.”
“Does it always stop them?”
“No. But it’s rare for it to happen in the first place.”
“So it happens sometimes?” Verona asked.
“Yes. But rarely, if ever, with the Carmine role or roles like it. Almost always, it’s the Alabaster.”
“The Alabaster?” Avery asked. “I went to her domain. Why her?”
“Because she is the prey animal, the victim, and is vulnerable, by her very nature, just as I am chthonic death, gatekeeper, guide and guide of the other guides and psychopomps of our reality, and the Carmine is bloody violence.”
“To put it in simpler terms,” John said, “the Carmine Beast and those who sit in its throne fight back. The Alabaster doesn’t.”
“From what the witness Louise told us, the Carmine didn’t really fight back,” Lucy said.
“It seems not,” John said.
“So the only thing that keeps this from happening is convention?” Verona asked.
“The practice is defined in large part by convention. I wouldn’t say only when it occupies the space it does,” the Sable Prince said.
“Convention, then,” Lucy said. “That doesn’t feel like enough.”
“What we’re doing here tonight is also a convention,” the Sable Prince told her.
Avery saw the argument getting circular and Edith seemed to be getting ground, so she spoke up, saying, “So we made argument one based on how Edith should have told us things and didn’t. Binding? She made an excuse. The Choir? She claimed it was a question of labels. But when it came to her own deeds-”
“After asking us to investigate,” Lucy interjected.
“-She didn’t tell us the full story and seems to have no plans to share it until after she could be punished for it.”
“That’s a big seems,” Edith said. “As the Sable Prince said, it doesn’t happen often.”
“It sure seems to be happening here,” Lucy told her.
“Moving on to point two?” Verona asked.
“Equality and fairness among the locals,” Avery said. “I mentioned this one last night. We were offered a vote but you haven’t held any formal votes where we got a fair say. You’ve held meetings without us-”
“Did say we’d bring that up,” Lucy told the Sable Prince.
“-And you’ve stated you wanted to get rid of us. You’ve provided no context for that, yet,” Avery finished.
Edith shook her head. “I can’t without violating confidence and risking that you’d be irate with one or more of the locals. That would defeat the purpose of reassuring them.”
“Do you have any points in your defense?”
“Do you have any clearer points to make in the first place? You’ve been practicing for a matter of months and weeks. We’ve held six or seven meetings with the full town and several with partial groups. The span where you were away for several weeks had a good share of those meetings.”
“How many votes did you hold?” Avery asked.
“I don’t know. For some Kennet Others there were several.”
“We weren’t invited to those.”
“You weren’t here for those. We voted on whether to bring them in. You were away. If you want inclusion you have to be here,” Edith retorted.
“Did you email? Reach out?” Verona asked.
“You described Matthew erroneously as a boomer. As a spirit I am technology averse.”
“A letter? A phone call?” Verona asked.
“We gave your offerings and considerations for potential Kennet Others their due weight. One of them is sitting on the stairs, watching out the window in case anyone approaches the house.”
“We didn’t get a say in the rest, though, did we? By a compared number of votes…?” Avery pressed, worried her argument would be the weakest of them.
John cleared his throat.
They all looked at him. “It was a lot of votes in total, and if the votes in favor of nominating Peckersnot and Tashlit-”
“Ahem,” Snowdrop cleared her throat. “I don’t want to be included in this rabble. I’m better than you guys.”
“-And Snowdrop’s natural inclusion, if those were votes on behalf of the Kennet practitioners, that’s only a small few, compared to all of the goblins, Lis, Nibble, Chloe, Rook, Jabber, Montague, and Ken.”
“Ken was brought on with the three practitioners in mind,” Matthew said. He looked at Edith, “Right?”
“He explicitly was, to connect to the human element of Kennet.”
“Yeah, uhhhh, no?” Lucy raised her voice, rising up a little taller. “Because you didn’t ask. You assumed, and that, Matthew, Edith, is one of the big ways in which you didn’t treat us as equal or involve us in a fair way. You assumed and you jumped to it and I can tell you right now that I was way less than impressed the moment I read the email summarizing the Ken situation.”
“What? Why?” Matthew asked.
“Because the spirit of Kennet as a whole is as much a problem as anything. Now I’ve tried to be open minded and cool but dude, Kennet is kinda a bit racist. It has, like you admitted, a drinking and drug problem. Kennet is really awful at looking after itself and standing up for its rights. I could have and would have told you all of that, but I didn’t get a vote so it doesn’t count. No.”
“We did talk about all that in the car, driving back,” Avery said.
“And John brought up Rook,” Lucy pressed. “What was it you said? Sorry girls, this might be a difficult one but we need her.”
“No vote,” Verona jumped in.
Lucy continued, saying, “With no vote on the matter. What the hell, dude? What the hell, Edith? You use us for some specific stuff that you need a practitioner for, but you don’t include us in this? We deserved better than that. We deserve better than being given the short shrift or being told we shouldn’t ask for gifts. We’ve bled for you. We went toe to toe with monsters for you. Come on!”
“These accusations could be leveled against all of the original Kennet Others.”
“You led this group. Miss was fine but this got worse when you guys took over the leadership,” Lucy said.
“Can you tell us, sincerely and without fiddling around, that you meant to include us?” Avery asked. “Wholly and fairly? That you weren’t trying to diminish us or leave us out just in case?”
“Yes,” Matthew said.
The silence followed.
He looked back at Edith.
“Silence says a lot,” Verona told the Sable Prince.
“It also doesn’t confirm matters. But we’ll keep it in mind.”
“Point three,” Lucy said. “Harm. Goes back to what you said at the party.”
“You’ve litigated this,” Edith said.
“Fancy word but we didn’t really finish it did we?” Verona asked.
Avery added, “Can you tell us you didn’t mean to hurt us?”
“I swore not to. I intended to keep that oath.”
Avery pressed, “Harm in other ways, scaring us away? Uprooting us from home and family?”
“Many small things crossed my mind and I meant some and only flirted a bit with the rest,” Edith said. “I couldn’t say for certain everything I considered and didn’t and give you a good answer.”
“Did you intend to follow through on what you said at the meeting and get rid of us?” Avery asked.
Edith didn’t answer.
The hairs on Avery’s neck stood up again.
Lucy addressed Edith, deadly serious. “Edith James, we intend to bind you by your Word-”
“No,” Matthew interrupted. “No, Lucy.”
Lucy stopped, but her expression remained serious.
“Matthew,” John said. “I consider you a friend.”
“It’s not certain.”
“We can use this to establish that certainty,” Verona said.
“No. I spent so long helping her to become a whole person, I can’t risk that this causes her harm or sets her back. She’d risk losing things if it was rough enough.”
“We’ll be gentle,” Avery said. “Have we ever indicated we wouldn’t?”
“Some. In little, careless things.”
“But mostly. The little things aside?”
“No. I can’t agree to it.”
“Thank you, Matthew,” Edith said.
He looked back at her then looked away.
Whatever had come up already tonight, he looked uncomfortable with it. But he stood by her even with that.
Matthew walked over to a short bookshelf that had been emptied of books and candles and leaned against it, butt against the upper edge, eyes downcast.
“Should we take a break?” John asked.
“Can we?” Lucy asked the Sable Prince. “Does it weaken anything?”
“Edith should remain here. You shouldn’t go far. A short break is fine. This matter has my full attention tonight, barring extraordinary event.”
“Like a primeval appearing off the shores of the great lake?” Verona asked.
“That would count, yes,” the Sable Prince told her.
They broke away, walking over toward Tashlit. John followed, but he stopped at the doorway, blocking it, watching them and watching Edith both.
Avery looked for a place to sit, and in the process, thoughts crossed her mind. She didn’t sit. Snowdrop plunked herself down, sitting against the wall by the base of the stairs, and then gave her lap a pat, inviting Avery to sit, even though Avery would probably squish her a bit. Avery moved like she was going to sit down, then turned, passing by John. “Sable Prince?”
“Yes, Avery Kelly?”
“You said there were other options. For how we could avoid the consequences of a malign Carmine Beast abusing its position to target us.”
“Yes. Too many to name, but most are unlikely, down to chance, or difficult to assemble.”
“Is one of those options to just… leave?”
“You’ve sworn an oath to look after Kennet. You would need to return at some point.”
“But… yes? We could leave Kennet?”
“You could spend much of your time away from Kennet. It’s my understanding that this was outlined to you before you had your Awakening ritual.”
“It was. Okay. Thank you.”
“You’d need to leave the territory the Carmine Beast holds sway, or you’d need to settle in a place with a Lord. You’d be vulnerable when you returned and you’d be forsworn if a sound argument could be made that you’d abandoned Kennet entirely.”
Avery nodded. “Figured.”
She shook her head. Then she returned to the others. She eased herself down and sat in the hollow between Snowdrop’s knees, as she pressed the heels of shoes with opossum-paw treads together and pulled knees apart until they were nearly touching the ground. Snowdrop hugged her from behind as she leaned forward a bit.
“What was that about?” Lucy asked.
“Stuff,” Avery said.
“Relevant stuff?” Verona asked.
“Only that we could escape. At least for a while,” Avery said.
“I heard,” Lucy said, “but what are you thinking? Leaving?”
“If they want to get rid of us then maybe having us go live elsewhere would get us out of their hair and we could abandon the persecution of the Carmine murderers-”
Lucy was already shaking her head.
“-if we absolutely had to,” Avery told them. “It’s better than being forsworn.”
“The Hungry Choir was made,” Lucy said, quiet. “And the people who made it effectively killed hundreds or thousands of vulnerable people. That’s messed up.”
“So is us getting forsworn if we can avoid it,” Verona said. “We can do something for those people if we stay free and healthy for the rest of our lives. Even if we’re not actually going after the culprits.”
“You really want to run?” Lucy asked.
“No,” Avery said. “I fully intend to stick around.”
“Are you going to tell them?” Snowdrop asked, cheek resting against Avery’s back.
“Tell us what?” Verona asked.
“You little rat,” Avery said. “No, no, you don’t get to hug me if you’re pulling stunts like that. I didn’t want them to worry.”
“That’s fair, I’m definitely a rat,” Snowdrop said. “Not an opossum. Can’t you see?”
“Tell us what?” Lucy asked, serious.
“Aw fuck, frig,” Avery said. “Look, I pretty much already gave my answer. But my mom’s moving out.”
“Your parents are separating?” Verona asked.
“Seriously? They seemed to like each other.”
“They do, but-”
“They don’t love each other?” Verona asked.
“They love each other. Stop interrupting!” Avery said. “Stop.”
Verona shut up.
“Remember back when we had the awakening ritual?” Avery asked. “And I asked, um, what would happen if I had to bail?”
“You were thinking about it back then?” Lucy asked. She looked hurt.
“I was thinking… my mom has this job she’s been doing in Thunder Bay for the last year, and someone quit and she got the head position there. She goes on weekends and she’s been setting up the new office, and it was always this thing where, like, we might have to move if my mom got set up and my dad didn’t have anything. But I left homeschool and my siblings did too, and my dad took the opportunity to resume working full time instead of working part time and… he’s good at it. Earning good money, respected, and he wants to keep doing it.”
“So your mom’s leaving and your dad’s staying?”
“And they’ll be long distance. They asked earlier, if we kids were to split up… who would want to go?”
“And?” Lucy asked.
“And Grumble would stay by default because he has to, and Dad would stay and Declan and Kerry would stay. Sheridan and Rowan would go with my mom. Rowan could follow after Laurie if she gets into school in Thunder Bay and Sheridan wants out of the small town.”
“And you?” Verona asked.
“I said I’d stay. But it’s hard and complicated, y’know? And it means, um…”
Lucy gave Avery’s arm a light swat.
“…Verona’s got a maybe escape route and so do I and…”
“I don’t, really,” Lucy said. “My mom just got a job she wanted.”
“Yeah,” Avery said. “It’s just a thing that’s happening and if things get bad or scary… it’s an option, right? You could ask your mom to quit?”
Lucy made a face, pained.
“That’s worst case. We’re not necessarily there,” Verona said.
“Ugh,” Lucy said. “It’s a worst case scenario for a situation that’s supposed to be weeks away. A situation where John would be dead and we don’t want that happening. Right John?”
“We don’t want you to sacrifice yourself.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Frig!” Lucy hopped down from the stair and up to her feet. She stopped when she stood where she could look past John to where Matthew and Edith were talking.
“Sorry,” Avery said. “It’s not even really a big deal right this moment. It’s got me thinking in certain ways about certain things, that’s all.”
“Don’t abandon me,” Lucy said. “Don’t make me be the one who stays.”
“Not going to,” Verona replied. “Really.”
“What are we doing? What do we ask her? If we lose this element of surprise, if Maricica comes and interferes, all of this gets harder,” Lucy said. “Or goblins, or Alpeana, or Lis or Cig. If word gets out and it becomes an inquisition on us, with no culprit confirmed…”
“Yeah,” Avery replied, her voice almost a whisper.
“I don’t want to waste time. Frig,” Lucy said.
“Me either,” Avery said.
“It’s an arena, right? This is our field, we know the tools and rules we have at our disposal, the ref is… reasonably fair?” Verona suggested, shrugging one shoulder.
“He’s fair enough,” Lucy said. “It’s the system that’s got big gaping holes in it, isn’t it?”
“Usually is,” Verona said.
“Give me some water?” Lucy asked.
Avery got her bag and got water, passing it over. Lucy drank. Avery took it back, wiped the mouth, and drank herself.
“Let’s hit her hard and fast,” Lucy said.
“Okay,” Avery said.
“Watch our backs, Verona? Same as if we were in a fight?”
“Hey, Edith,” Lucy said. She strode past John to the main room of the basement. “Let’s talk about a few other points, you said you’d be open about information in the future, how are you to answer some questions now?”
“Maybe,” Edith said.
John motioned to Tashlit, indicating they’d take places, and leaped the railing while Tashlit ducked down the stairs, following Verona. John took up residence as guard and gatekeeper to the basement.
Avery followed Lucy in, one hand guiding Snowdrop, while Tashlit and Verona followed.
“Three missing teenagers. Do you know anything pertinent that the average person doesn’t?”
“I suspect I do but I can’t say for certain if-”
“Tell me you had no responsibility as conspirator or co-conspirator in going after them and retrieving the furs from them,” Lucy said.
Edith was silent.
“Were you the woman in a mask who made Yalda into the Hungry Choir?” Avery asked.
“What’s this?” John asked.
“Two people, Yalda said, before we got the message from her to you. Wearing masks, they were involved when she became the Choir. One was a woman.”
“Tell us that wasn’t you,” Lucy said. “Come on, Edith.”
Edith was silent.
Matthew gave his wife a long, hard look.
“What happened to the three teenagers, do you know anything pertinent?” Lucy asked.
Edith was silent, almost fuming now. She looked like she had before she’d blown up and ended the interrogation about her role in the Carmine murder.
Verona touched Avery’s shoulder. She opened her bag and held it out for Avery.
Avery reached inside and found the hard pencilcase she’d given Verona. There wasn’t the clatter of a dozen pens and pencils, now.
She opened it, and she got the syringe.
“Matthew, I don’t think you were involved,” Lucy said, looking at Avery. “I’m asking you, John, Tashlit, and the Sable Prince to please keep our confidence as I ask these next few questions.”
“It depends,” Matthew said.
“Edith James, you were guarding the cabin where the Carmine Furs were held.”
Edith didn’t respond, but her eyes burned now. Accusatory.
Avery could almost read her mind. It was you.
Matthew looked back at Edith.
“And this syringe was held there,” Lucy said.
Avery opened the case and showed Edith. The syringe almost fell. She had to catch it with a swoop of the case, using her hand to hold it steady.
She laid her hand flat and the dark fluid in the syringe lunged, making it point straight at Matthew.
The relief on Matthew’s face was almost palpable. Avery’s heart sank.
“That looks like faerie manufacture,” Matthew said. “With a bit of Doom inside, for some reason. The Edith you saw-”
“We fucking blew her up, Matthew,” Lucy said. “Verona did, turned her rune against her. Knocked spirit clean of body. I don’t think many glamours are that good. It was Edith, almost certainly.”
Matthew approached, careful, and reached for it.
Avery hesitated, but she saw the dark look in his eyes, hurt, confused, and judged it right and fair to hand him the syringe.
“Be careful,” the Sable Prince said. “That kind of work is fragile.”
“Were you extracting it from me to deal with it yourself?” Matthew asked Edith. “You shouldn’t, couldn’t-”
“I’m sorry,” Edith said, with more emotion in her voice than she’d shown all night.
It looked like the look her parents had worn earlier in the night. With her parents, it hadn’t been guilt because they were doing something for someone else’s benefit, but guilt because they were throwing other lives into chaos for their own.
“Did you extract it?” Avery asked Edith.
Edith didn’t answer.
“Edith?” Matthew asked.
She was silent.
“I’ve had dreams, when I was sleeping. I’ve woken and found the Doom stronger. I thought it was because I slept next to you and I considered it the price I had to pay…” Matthew said.
Edith looked away.
Matthew stared at her for a long minute, and then he passed the syringe to Avery.
He walked up to John, who didn’t let him pass.
“The oath,” Verona said.
“I won’t tell anyone. Bind her and get answers and tell me if you think I can bear them. I’ll be upstairs.”