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Better Men


by tamora_pierce62

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The first thing the Darkest Faerie ever did for King Altador was save his life.

     1044 BN, the village of Coria (Outskirts)

     The campfire still spluttered, the breeze still blew, and the putrid, smoking remains of the village's second monster lay still cooking between Altador and the dark faerie, green faerie-fire crawling across its bones. Altador watched it in shock, heart not stopped hammering against his ribs as his unexpected savior watched him, her robes decidedly cleaner of crispy-monster bodily fluids than his. Off in the bushes, a few Whoots were chirping.

     "And now you say thank you."

     Altador's jaw shut with a toothy click. He looked up from the monster, still dripping black goop from his armor and fur, and found the faerie watching him now with a grin. She smiled with lots of teeth and without much kindness, but there was something like respect in her face, like the sword in Altador's hand and the body of the first monster at his feet had soothed her natural tendency to scorn.

     "I—I, what can I say, ma'am," Altador began, stammering, words tumbling together in his rush for proper gratitude, "If you hadn't been here to catch that beast—I owe you my life! If there is any way I can possibly—"

     The faerie waved him off. Her fingers were long, her clothing well-made, her wings, held loose at her back, huge and unblemished. She was, like most faeries, very beautiful. Altador broke off.

     "Lives are messy and hard to measure," she said, casual and still smiling. "Give me your name and some food off your plate—the village will surely throw you a feast after this—and we'll call it even. I'm too hungry for life-debts."

     She raises a pointed eyebrow when Altador laughed, barking and spiked with lingering adrenaline.

     "Forgive me," Altador managed after a moment, though the faerie seemed far from offended, "Never in all my life have I heard someone ask for so little in return for so much. I am Altador the hunter, ma'am, and you can eat off my plate for the rest of my life if it suits you."

     "You think your own name is worth so little?" the faerie laughed, a hand to her mouth in mock astonishment. "I suspect you'll make more of it than you think, Altador the hunter. I am Eliana. It's a pleasure to meet you."

     "A pleasure, indeed, Eliana," Altador beamed, and extended a hand.

      The village of Coria (Great Hall)

      "Your, er, friend—" the Zafara shouted, over the boom and roar of the village's celebrations. Meat roasted on spits over the hall's massive fire pit, children darting between the feet of the dancers as the band struck up another song. "Can we trust her?"

     Altador rounded on the Zafara, some small-time warrior among the village's men, with the kind of scowl only true, heartfelt, righteous indignation could muster. The Zafara froze in his conspiratorial lean, jaw going slack.

     Altador narrowed his eyes. His companion quailed appropriately.

     "I—I only meant—" the Zafara began, having apparently never learned when quite to stop talking, "That she is... dark, sir hunter. Her kind's magic is nasty, it's cruel—"

     "She saved not only the lives of your livestock, but of your neighbors, your family, and myself." Altador said, voice low and cool under the ambient revelry. The Zafara began to go pale under his fur. "I consider her a friend, and you should consider yourself thankful she showed up."

     The Zafara (and in better circumstances Altador might have regretted so completely forgetting the young man's name) stared, eyes still flicking with obvious anxiety between Altador and Eliana, now making colored sparks from the fire for the children on the dance floor. When Altador simply caught his eyes, tall and limned in red by the light of the fire, the Zafara backed off, and by the time Eliana called out "Hunter! Come dance with us!" across the hall, he'd faded into the crowds.

     "You were defending me," Eliana said when Altador placed his hand in hers, and, with another between her wings, twirled them around the fire. It hadn't been a question. The children shrieked when her skirts cut through the flames, throwing up another burst of violet sparks.

     "Of course," Altador replied, regarding her curiously. Eliana didn't look offended, hardly even interested. He wondered how long she'd been listening to people spit on her sisters behind her back. "Would you rather I'd let him insult you?"

     "Ah, well," she said, smiling again with teeth that shone like pearl. Her steps were cleaner than his, lighter and more sure, and he was happy to let her lead the way between the other couples' paths. "Who's to say they were insults at all? Perhaps he was making a true and accurate judgment of my character, hunter. Would you have stopped him then?"

     "Without a second's thought," Altador grinned, and Eliana laughed as the dancers parted for them in waves.

      1041 BN, coast of the Southern Sea (later, city of Altador)

      "I don't trust her."

     Altador twisted to face Jerdana, creases carving his brow.

     "You've just met her."

     "I'm sorry, Altador, but I've just met her and I don't trust her."

     Altador sighed, leaning back where he sat. The sea crashed against the cliffs below, making the air stink of salt and fish as Siyana threw another globe of light into the air to hover over their camp. She and Eliana chattered on the other side of the fire as Siyana worked, heads close together, trading secrets in some language of the faeries Altador had never been given to understand. Altador lounged in the high grass of the steppes, Jerdana kneeling beside him. Her hands were knotted tightly in her lap.

     "We're among friends, Jera," Altador said, as he always did, "You can call me Al."

     "Fine, yes, Al," Jerdana said, waving off their usual script for this exchange. She was bleeding nerves, not that Altador could tell why. "You must know, she's not what she seems. I can smell the darkness in her."

     Altador huffed and turned properly from the fire, eying Jerdana with slightly less patience than he'd exhibited a moment ago. "She's a dark faerie. I've been given to believe they're all a bit wary of direct sunlight."

     "Don't be dense," Jerdana snapped, matching his glare with her own. Her hands curled into her skirts now, nerves sharpening into something closer to anger. "She hides her magic, did you know that? Siyana and Psellia think she's just some hedge witch, no stronger than your average faerie living out here in the wastes, but I felt the shape of it when we shook hands. She's got more power in her than anyone I've ever met."

     "And I'd like to think that's her own business," Altador replied, more bite to his words than he'd expected. He knew Eliana, had known her for years now, and she was not forthcoming with her secrets, no, but she was clever, and she was bold, and she was practical in her decision-making when Altador could not be. And he'd thought Jerdana better than this.

     "She's my oldest friend in the world," Altador said, when Jerdana opened her mouth again to speak, eyes glinting in the faerie-light. "She has saved my life more times than I can count, and we will not build this city without her, excess magical power or no. Whatever your fears are, drop them. She is a friend."

     Jerdana glared for a moment more, then, with obvious reluctance, relented. She sighed and sat back in the grass, skirts spread wide in the green as the wind off the sea picked up, tugging at their hair and blowing cool streaks through Altador's fur. Altador hesitated a moment, shifting his weight in the dirt, but when Jerdana didn't suddenly storm off, or turn away, or do anything but stare deeper into the fire, he rested a hand on her arm. She turned. When he smiled, small and apologetic, she mustered something up to match.

     "Look, I understand that she lacks the most savory of personalities," Altador said, as the fire threw sparks into the night and Siyana's globe flickered and hummed. "But whatever Eliana's faults are, I know you can trust me. Trust me and my judgment of her and I'll vouch for her until our city falls to ruin. Will that soothe your worries?"

     "Hardly at all," Jerdana replied, but she smiled as she said it, and Altador felt a knot he hadn't been aware of go slack in his chest. "But thank you, anyways. You're a better man than I."

     "Ha, I wouldn't go so far as that," Altador grinned, and when he put his hand to Jerdana's shoulder she leaned against his side with little complaint. "I'm only trying to ensure that my two oldest friends don't throw each other off a cliff while I sleep."

     "Well, you should be alright there," Jerdana said. "I much prefer locking my enemies in very deep pits."

     Altador snorted, and squeezed her shoulder. She patted a hand against his chest in reply. They sat for a moment, watching the fire, the stars, the wind in the grass, before Altador heard her say, too quiet and pondering to be a fully-formed notion, "...Until our city falls to ruin."

     "May it be many lifetimes in coming," he replied, as quiet as her, and Jerdana threw a bit of magic into the fire. A log burst, crackling, and the smoke rose in deep blue coils to the stars.

     1003 BN, city of Altador (Council Chambers)

     Fyora's representative wasn't thirty seconds out the door before Eliana said, "Oh, you've got to take her up on it."

     "Longevity does have its perks," Psellia added, which was more of a contribution than she usually made at council meetings.

     "And it would mean we could keep the city safe for generations to come," Gordos said.

     "No," Kelland cut in, leaning forward with a glare, "It means we've got that much more time to eventually turn corrupt. No one can resist temptation indefinitely, not even us."

     "Such strong words, and just after we've met with an agent of the Endless Queen!" Eliana laughed, not entirely without disdain. Kelland bristled in his seat. "If Fyora can rule her city for untold centuries, we can certainly do the same."

     Altador rubbed one thumb over the pommel of his sword, feeling every nick and bite in the painted steel. He watched in silence as his council debated Fyora's extremely generous offer: in recognition of their wisdom and honor, the gift of prolonged life, that the city might thrive forever under their fair hand. He might live to see the turning of the next millennium, he realized in a dull shock, and the future of his city with it.

     But:

     "Kelland has a point," Altador said, over Eliana's cajoling. She regarded him in surprise from her seat on his right. Jerdana, who sat to his left, remained silent.

     "We've all seen the dangers of kings who grew too comfortable in their own power," he continued. Kelland nodded tightly from across the room, Sasha thoughtful beside him. "Our rule may benefit the city now, but who's to say we'll be the same men in a hundred years' time?"

     "I do," Eliana replied, so quick she must have know what he would say. It would not have been the first time. "I am as I was two centuries ago, same as Siyana, same as Psellia. Every one of us here is already too old to suddenly discover some new, terrible facet to ourselves, and more time in this world won't change that. What we are now we will always be. And wouldn't you know it, I've been told we're very good people."

     Altador hmmmm'ed as Tarlok stamped a restless foot against the tile. "I agree with Eliana. For all the safeguards we could put in place, we will never be absolutely sure that our successors will do as well by the city as we have. Why not keep a good thing going?"

     "Because it won't be good forever," Kellan snapped, though he could feel as well as Altador the shifting in the air. More and more of the council looked to Eliana, who merely smiled as she always did, with just a hint more pride than kindness.

     "We aren't some power-crazed little tyrants attempting to rule the land by ours and our hands alone," Eliana replied, smile turned placating and, admittedly, a touch condescending. Altador frowned as she adopted a stronger tone, voice echoing off the naked beams supporting the chamber roof. "We're colleagues here, co-regents, and, most importantly, friends. If one of us falters, we have always picked them back up and we always will. Maybe if there were only one king, on one throne, there might be a danger of corruption as the years passed. But with the twelve of us, together, I know we can rule as fairly as we have for the past thirty years into the next hundreds."

     Florin offered an appreciative whistle as the little speech concluded. The council fell into discussion, heads coming together in hushed conversation, and Eliana settled back into her seat. "This means a lot to you," Altador remarked, voice low under the chatter.

     "It will save the city," she replied. Neither she nor Altador looked to each other as they spoke, instead gazing out together over the council chamber and the windows beyond, open onto the city. Sounds of autumn and the harvest floated up from the market.

     "Frankly, Elly, you think less of the city than you do of this council, and I know you think less of Tarlok than you do most rocks, so would you like to tell me your actual motivation here?"

     "Oh, shush," Eliana said, slapping a light hand against his arm. "The city is mine, and I love it like all things mine. This is the right decision."

     "But?" Altador said, prompting. Eliana had never been so easily sated.

     "But, well—" Eliana said, and the hesitation in her voice was unexpected. In anyone else it could have been taken as dishonesty, but in her it may have even been... sincerity? "You're getting a bit on in the years, Hunter. Not quite so much pigment to your fur as the day we met. And our city will certainly prosper under your extended rule, but it also might be nice, in a more personal sense, to have friends with lifespans more... similar to my own."

     She finished with an airy wave of her hand, still gazing out to the shingles and slopes of their city from above. She didn't look at him but he looked at her, and finally she turned and said, like she'd never just admitted to real compassion or caring, "Oh, don't stare at me like that, Hunter, I'll break out in a rash."

     She laughed lightly as she stood, wings sweeping clear of her chair, and Altador watched her join a conversation across the room in lingering astonishment. He didn't watch Jerdana beside him, see her ears flattened to the sides of her head as Eliana passed, see her face crease with old suspicion.

     City of Altador (King's Residence)

     Jerdana didn't pause in her shouting when, that evening, Altador threw open his bedroom door to find her standing there.

     "I felt her in my mind!" she shrieked, voice thick, near sobbing, and Altador stumbled back as she pushed her way past him.

     "She was in my memories, Al, I could, I could feel her in my head, making me forget," Jerdana babbled, tears streaking her fur as Altador struggled for understanding. Cold white moonlight washed over the room, picking out every wayward hair on Jerdana's head, bleaching her face of color. Her breath came short and panicked, audible between words, and Altador laid a careful hand to her shoulder, voice placating.

     "Jera, what are you talking about, who's—"

     "Eliana!" Jerdana snapped, between clenched teeth, shaking Altador's hand off with a shudder. "It was Eliana, I could well near taste her! She was, she was—Faerie's breath, she was testing a spell on me, Al! She was making me forget!"

     "Now, this is a—this is a serious accusation, Jera," Altador began, still scrabbling to keep up. He sat at the edge of his bed, gesturing for Jerdana to join him, but she paid him no mind, just paced a faster circle around the room. "Did this happen just now?"

     "Yes, yes, while I slept," Jerdana replied, now rubbing her hands together, as she always did when she thought too quickly for Altador to follow. "I think she's going to use Fyora's spell against us, Al. It's like when Tarlok wanted to enchant the armory against rust, and we denied him, because a thing once enchanted is always easy to tamper with again, and we couldn't have the swords falling to dust should another sorcerer usurp my spell. It's why she pushed so hard to accept Fyora's offer when she's never had a good word to say about Fyora in her life, I think she's going to—"

     Jerdana broke off, seemingly stunned with her own revelation, and rounded on Altador in a twist of sleep-wrinkled skirts.

     "Al, you have to cast her out. This is it—this is what she's been waiting for. You can't let her use the spell to get into our heads."

     The tears had dried on Jerdana's face, fear driven out by hurried calculation, and Altador felt his own worries cool into something less charitable as he recognized this outburst for what it was.

     "Well, this is a lot to take in," he said, resting his hands on his knees. Jerdana watched him closely, hands curling into fists, and he met her gaze as calmly as he could. "And, really, Jera, I can't help but wonder here if you've maybe been a bit taken in yourself—"

     Jerdana bristled.

     "Excuse me?!"

     "We've all been working long days recently," Altador continued, trying to speak over Jerdana's indignation as evenly as he could. "I can imagine how, cold night such as this, you might have a nightmare, or—or some kind of fright that would last into wakefulness—"

     "You think this was a dream?" she spat. "You think I dreamt forgetting your name and the years I spent building this city? You think I'm making this up?"

     "No, no, I didn't say that," he said, iron calm in his voice beginning to creak. He thought they'd laid this issue to rest decades ago, and any number of times since, and its resurgence wore at his patience. "But you must hear how you sound, Jera, I mean it's a bit outlandish, isn't it? To think our Eliana could overcome Fyora's own spell, it's ridiculous—"

     "She has always hidden her magic!" Jerdana roared, her own remnants of calm finally dissolving as she took a furious step forward. "I have told you this from the start, Altador!"

     Altador stood from the bed. His fingers bit into the meat of his palm.

     "You know, you've told me many things from the start," he growled, and Jerdana never quailed like so many others had quailed, merely tensed to match him. "And I've yet to see a hint of them with my own two eyes. I think you've hated Eliana all these for no better reason than that she's a dark faerie, and Fyora's bones, I won't stand for this anymore!"

     "How dare you!" Jerdana shouted back. "I don't trust her because she isn't trustworthy, and because she's hated you and this council from the day we gave the city your name! She is conniving and manipulative and you have always been too blind to see it!"

     "That's—that's preposterous," Altador said, anger choking this tongue, "She is my oldest friend, she has been like a sister to me—"

     Jerdana gripped her hands against her sides, raised her chin against Altador's glare. The moonlight came from behind him, painting her fury in cool light.

     "You will bring ruin upon this city," she told him, calm as dark water, and Altador snarled.

     "Get out!" he roared, throwing an arm wide, tail lashing against the floor. "Get out of my sight! I won't listen to another word of this!"

     Jerdana stared him down a moment longer, face void of any passion, then turned on her heel. The door slammed shut behind her, and when Altador picked a glass from his table, it shattered against the wood in a satisfying burst.

      1000 BN, city of Altador (Hall of Heroes)

     Fire fell from the sky.

     "I'm sorry," Altador wheezed into the folds of Jerdana's skirts, "I'm sorry, Jera, I'm so sorry." Another wave of pain washed through his bones and he shuddered, curling even tighter into a ball as his head twitched in Jerdana's lap.

     "It's okay, Al," she whispered back, voice as soothing as she could make it. Her fingers shook as they carded through his hair. Her other hand she held high above her head, magic rising from it in pulsing streams. The city was awash in her protection, and the fires of the Darkest Faerie's last gambit rolled off it into the sea.

     " 'M so sorry," Altador said again, near delirious as the pain swelled in his mind. Eliana had not been kind when he'd confronted her in the Hall of Heroes, not been so good as he'd always thought her, had perhaps demonstrated a cruelty he should have recognized in her, and black fires had poured from her hands like oil from the deep blue sea. She'd laughed, and the sky had gone red, and when he'd drawn his sword she wasn't laughing anymore, just taking aim. Jerdana found him crumpled against his own fine statue.

     "Shouldn't've doubted you," he muttered, some grim conviction forcing him to speak even as he burned and burned under Eliana's last curse. "Shouldn't've trusted her."

     "I know, it's okay," Jerdana replied, struggling for breath now as another comet struck the city shields, flaring like a sun. Her magic stuttered, a half-second of dim among the incandescence. Her fingers dug just behind his ear. "I forgive you, Al, just hold on."

     "Better man than me, Jera," he said, voice fading, vision fading, and the sky seared white with another burst of fire.

     "Just stay with me," she said, heedless, "Just stay with me, Al, Fyora will come. She'll be here soon, Al, just stay awake, alright, just a little bit longer, just a—just a little bit longer..."

     The air smelled of fire, of brine, of the ozone stench of sorcery and coming thunder, and Altador shuddered where he lay.

The End

 
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