Adlai Corundum didn't like storms. He never had; and although he was not afraid of very much, the flash of lightning still made him jump nearly out of his skin. It wasn't that he had never seen lightning as a child – in fact, thunderstorms at the Corundum Estate were legendary. On the other hand, he supposed that it was possible fear of lightning was hereditary, passed down from father to son, a jealously guarded secret. He had tried going to his strong-as-iron father during a storm, only to be sorely disappointed – his fear was no match for his old man's.
It was, on the other hand, getting there.
But that was another matter.
James offered no argument to his summons, and followed Adlai quickly out of the police station. It wasn't until they had left, walked a block towards the University and Nerissa and whatever was going to happen, and they were safely out of earshot, that James said anything at all, in fact. "She sent you for me?" he asked.
If there was one thing Adlai found more frightening than lightning, it was the eerie way people seemed to know things they had no reason to know, lately. Then again, he supposed James could be excused for his knowledge on account of the fact that he was a human magician and therefore most likely a mentalist. Unlike Lord Naid.
Adlai blinked, remembered James' question, and nodded in response. "But I think I should have stayed with Brenton," he said, warily looking at the sky. No moon. Something terrible must have happened to the poor boy. Adlai had never heard of an Albion heir making the moon go out; it wasn't in any of the stories, not even the stories of assassinations and wars. That was, perhaps, a bad sign.
It couldn't be more than five feet away from him, lightning buzzed and cracked. Adlai jumped to the side, sending a rumble ricocheting off the walls, flinching away from the flash. He hated lightning. He had to find Brenton soon, calm him down, so that this horrible, eerie, storm – this storm without cloud or wind – would pass.
Not to mention the moon would shine again.
"That's not Brenton," James said, a bit tersely for Adlai's taste. "It's Nerissa."
Adlai scoffed. Nerissa could do many things – she could scale walls and read minds and do whatever else human magic allowed her, and she could bring a tornado down on their heads in an instant, but the moon was not a torch she could simply blow out. It didn't work like that. There was a balance. James, preternaturally bright James, should know that. "Don't you know anything?" Adlai asked. "Nerissa can't blow out the moon. She'd have to control light, like Albion. The only one who could control all the elements was Morgaine." Adlai stopped suddenly. Well. That made it all rather obvious, didn't it. That's what this was all about. "I'm rather slow on the uptake, aren't I?" he asked.
"You're passable," James said, voice quavering with the lie. "For a fairy."
Adlai sighed. The human wasn't even trying to make himself believable. "Don't lie to me," Adlai said. "Or if you do, try harder."
"You're dense as a rock," James admitted. "Somewhat fittingly. Why are Nerissa and Lord Naid fighting?"
Adlai frowned. Nerissa and Lord Naid were fighting? Only, he knew that. It was all a haze, a blur, as if he had seen what happened through a fogged glass, and not been present. "She took a book from him," he began, but all of a sudden he wondered if that was true. Had he imagined it? There was a book, certainly. Maybe. Or perhaps not. He frowned. "Or… no. Perhaps she simply doesn't trust him?" Except that made no sense; Nerissa would have a reason. It might not be a compelling reason, in Adlai's mind, but it would be a reason of some sort. He frowned again. It had happened so recently – he had just come from there. Why on earth would he have trouble remembering something so important? But on the other hand, he had somehow forgotten the contents of that letter, which had seemed so important. Perhaps that was what they were arguing about. "There's a letter," he began, but after that it all faded into murk and he couldn't say for certain whether or not there even was a letter to begin with. No. There was a letter, and it was in his breast pocket. "I have it, here," he began, and then stopped again, arm paused, reaching awkwardly inside his jacket. This was wrong. Something was wrong. It wasn't really about the letter at all; who would fight about a letter? Well, who would fight fit to bring lightning from the sky over a letter? Especially when neither side was particularly prone to lightning? They were fighting about something more important to both of them. But the letter had something to do with it, so it must have been the subject of the letter. And the only thing worth writing about of late was Levy and James, and Naid and Nerissa would certainly not fight about Levy – who they both hated – which meant they had to be fighting about James. That was it. "They're fighting over you."
James stopped walking, grabbed Adlai's hand, and stared at him, baffled. "What?"
"Well, there's this letter. We found. From Lord Naid. I think. Or something like that," Adlai began, but it began slipping away from him again. There was something there. It had to be about the letter, didn't it? Otherwise, why would it come up so often? "It's about you. I think. Perhaps." He frowned. He couldn't say why he thought it was about James, and come to think of it, it seemed much more likely that the letter was about a number of other subjects. Why would Naid be writing about James? Adlai had to admit, he was not as quick as Nerissa or as James, but he wasn't usually this flustered. "I'm not normally so confused," he remarked. "But I find I cannot concentrate. It's as though, just as I begin to think of something, my mind skips over it entirely, latching on to something nearby. I can't place it."
James raised an eyebrow, not breaking his stare. Adlai began to feel rather uncomfortable under the minute gaze, and shifted on his feet, anxiously. "Look at me," James said.
Which seemed, to Adlai, to be just the thing he didn't want to do. "I'm not that foolish," he said, and it was out of his mouth before he even knew why he said it or how he would justify it. James was silent, waiting for an explanation, and Adlai stumbled on, saying the first thing that came to his mind. "You are a mentalist, are you not?" Adlai asked, and at least this time he didn't expect an answer. "If I look you in the face, it makes it easier for you to enchant me. Or whatever it is that you do." Adlai frowned. Where had that come from? Was it even true? He had certainly never heard it before, but it seemed logical enough, and perhaps he had been lucky enough to stumble upon something true about mentalism.
"Where did you learn that?" James asked, his voice more curious than accusatory. Adlai took that as a good sign; if James had been angry, he would not sound so puzzled. Perhaps. Or perhaps he was a much better actor than Adlai gave him credit for.
"I can't recall," Adlai answered, and for the first time in quite a while he was absolutely, positively, solid-as-rock certain that he was answering truthfully. He sighed in relief. He didn't know where that had come from. Something strange was going on.
James sighed, shook his head. The poor human really did look distressed. "Adlai," he said, frustration seeping through his voice. "Somebody's already enchanted you. And pretty badly, too. I can try to help, but I can't succeed if you don't let me figure out what's going on."
That, Adlai thought, was perhaps the first selfless request he had heard all evening. But, of course, he had opened his mouth and asked, "How do I know I can trust you?" before he could think one way or another.
James frowned, concentrating, and Adlai wanted to tell him it was fine, he could meddle away, do whatever he thought would help, but his mouth was leaden now as if rusted shut after that last, stubbornly recalcitrant, comment. Finally, James began to speak.
"Adlai, does Nerissa want to marry Naid?" he asked.
This had nothing to do with Adlai's problem, and the fact that James would ask such an irrelevant question at such a crucial time troubled him somewhat. "I fail to see how that's relevant," he said.
"Just answer the question," James snapped, a glimmer of mirth in his eye. He had an idea. He had an idea, a way to get around whatever was wrong with Adlai's head. And so Adlai almost beamed widely as he answered.
"Not as far as I can tell," he said.
"So, correct me if I'm wrong, but that makes Lord Naid the powerful fairy prince forcing her into wedlock?"
Adlai grinned. It wasn't that simple, of course, but one had to deal with simplifications, and with stereotypes, if one was to be a fairy. "Essentially, yes."
"And me?" James asked.
Adlai laughed. So, this was James' game. He would be more than happy to fill in the blank. "The daring lover who has already saved her life, I suppose," he answered.
James flushed slightly, but barreled on nonetheless. "And when is it the case that the powerful prince is good and the daring lover is evil?"
"Very rarely," Adlai proclaimed.
"So, do you trust me?"
"With my life, sir!" Adlai shouted.
James laughed, and shook his head at Adlai. "Trust should do," he muttered, "and perhaps clarity?" He screwed up his face in concentration – Adlai thought he looked rather ridiculous, but couldn't particularly fault him for the theatrics. And then James clapped his hands and practically beamed at Adlai. "That was easier than I thought," he said. "Now, can you tell me why Nerissa and Lord Naid were fighting?"
Adlai blinked. He thought back. And the answer presented itself with such stunning clarity that he was shocked it had ever been an issue before. "Nerissa found out about Naid; we have a letter that as much as proves his guilt. I couldn't keep it a secret; when he found out we knew, it was inevitable."
James nodded. "Thank you, Adlai," he said with a smile Adlai thought was almost proud. "May I see the letter?"
Adlai reached into his breast pocket and handed over the parchment, still folded safely away. James scanned it quickly and handed it back to him, for safekeeping. "This is bad," he said.
Adlai nodded in agreement as they began to make their way back to the University. "Yes," he answered. "But there's something else you should know."
James didn't stop walking, but he glanced quickly at Adlai. "Yes?"
"The daring lover was Morgaine's second husband."
"I don't see how that's relevant," James snapped, but Adlai saw him flush, and that was enough to make Adlai continue.
"If you insist upon casting yourself in that role, you might as well know what it entails. The daring lover – The Sorcerer Prince, by the way – was Morgaine's second husband."
"Er. How many did she have?"
Adlai laughed. "Only the two." And with that, he pushed open the door to Lord Naid's chambers.
It would be an exaggeration to say that he immediately wished he had not. On the contrary, he didn't really regret it for another few minutes, at least.
James didn't know, at first, whether it was a good sign or bad that Nerissa and Lord Naid were no longer fighting. On the other hand, he suspected very strongly that Nerissa's calm demeanor was entirely false from the fact that as they entered, lightning flashed outside. Beside him, Adlai jumped, instinctively. If James had been in a mood to remark, he would have remarked on how fitting – and how amusing – it was that Corundum, who shook the ground, flinched just after every lightning strike. "James!" she cried, and the frantic plight in her voice would have been enough to make him rush to her side had her entire affect not been so contrary to it. She sat, stiffly upright and defiantly restrained, feet dangling off the bed without moving, hands folded neatly on her lap. James paused, uncertain. He glanced around; Naid was standing by the window, arms crossed, scowling. Adlai shut the door quietly and stood just behind James.
"I am sorry to have disturbed you needlessly, Mister Brandeis," she said, voice as icy and flat as her outward affect. "As you can see, my fear was entirely unfounded." She hardly looked at him as she said it, as if to do so would make the saying impossible.
There had been moments, James remembered, when Nerissa had attempted to use that expression of cool, vague disdain when speaking to him. There had been times when she had tried very hard to be that detached. But although Nerissa was many things, detached had never been one of them, and the very fact that the moon was still dark was a fairly clear sign that Nerissa's true emotions – hidden however deep under her own or someone else's imposed calm – were anything but detached.
The fact that Naid was smirking triumphantly at him did nothing to quell James' suspicion. So that was how it was to be, then? It would be James' job to distract the fairy Lord while Nerissa found a way to break the enchantment. He held back a laugh, keeping his face carefully neutral. This would be enjoyable; there were myriad things James had wanted to say to Lord Naid for quite some time. Things that would shock the fairy Lord, and distract him, but not endear him to his human interlocutor. It hardly mattered anymore; James knew Naid planned to kill him regardless of any kindness, and if Naid would stoop so low as to use mind control on both Adlai and Nerissa to get away with that murder, James couldn't say he wouldn't fight back with everything he had, and enjoy it.
The easiest thing, he thought, would be to remove the amulet from the window. Then Nerissa could shock Naid herself, with a stiff wind and a blow to the head. But that meant he had to buy enough time to make his way calmly and subtly over to the windowsill. And, of course, he couldn't blow his cover quite yet, or Naid would send him packing faster than he could say "mentalist".
"Are you all right?" he asked, instead, stepping farther into the room. "You sound… off."
"Of course," she responded, voice still that neutral, cold tone that sent shivers up James' spine for its unnaturalness. "I only need a bit more rest to be quite my old self."
There might have been a time, James mused as he took another step towards the window, when Nerissa would have used a phrase such as 'quite my old self'. But that time was likely before she had met James. He shook his head. "You've noticed the sky?" he asked, in as guileless a tone as he could muster. "By the way, where's Brenton?"
Naid fidgeted, tempted to turn to the window and examine it. That was a better chance than James had imagined – he thought Naid would certainly have noticed the moon's disappearance. "He is safe," Nerissa said, a hint of breathless anxiety breaking into her voice. "I sent him away. To find Brenda." She fell silent, mouth still working, as if fighting between two things to say.
"That was good of you," James said, as eager as ever to prevent Naid from noticing any leeway Nerissa made. "But if Brenton is safe, who extinguished the moon?"
Naid gave in to his curiosity, and shock, and turned round to look out the window, and in the moment before he turned James caught a look half of dismayed shock and half of surprised glee. A bit of sparkle appeared in Nerissa's eyes, and although it could hardly be termed joyous the sight of it was a start. "Help!" she whispered, but Naid had turned back around and the sparkle disappeared. "He might need help," she mumbled, the words forcing themselves out of her mouth rather awkwardly. "Perhaps you should find him and bring him here, where we can calm him."
"I'm sure he'll be safe with Brenda," James said, resigned. It had almost worked – that was almost enough. But it had simply been a windfall; by the time he realized his advantage he had been unprepared to use it properly. His original plan could still prevail, at least. He edged towards the window, past the bed, and turned to Naid, only an arm's length away now.
"I hope you will forgive my earlier rudeness," he said to the fairy Lord, ignoring the distant look on Naid's face or the fact that he was staring at Nerissa instead of making polite eye-contact. "I should of course have thanked you for your attentive care. She is wondrously improved, Leander. I can call you Leander, can't I? I'm on first-name terms with the rest of the fairy delegation, after all." Naid didn't so much as bat an eyelash here, but James hadn't expected him to. He continued on, stepping forward to put a hand on Naid's shoulder. "In any case, it's almost like she's a different person."
Naid glanced quickly at James, and James had hope that he would lose his concentration, but the slip was momentary. "What are you implying?" he asked curtly.
"Imply?" James laughed. He wasn't implying anything. He was outright accusing Naid of using mind control. But then again, that was not the best approach. It was a miracle Naid was so distracted he didn't notice James' recourse to flowery formality to hide his disdain and deceit. "Nothing, unless it is that you have done a miraculously good job. I suppose it takes a fairy to understand a fairy, of course." He was standing right next to Naid now, arm slung around the fairy's shoulders. "She couldn't have a better, more caring fiancé."
That, James thought with a victorious crow, did it. Naid turned and stared openly at him, baffled. "James! I'm drowning!" coughed Nerissa.
Eager to cover that up, James clapped his other arm against Naid's chest. "Still slightly delirious, I see," he laughed, swiveling Naid to face him while positioning himself directly in front of the window. Perfect. "But given the circumstances and her calm demeanor, it is still a miraculous recovery." He slipped one hand off of Naid's shoulder and picked up the amulet. "I think it would even be safe to remove this, don't you, Leander?" James held up the amulet.
It worked, in as much as Naid didn't turn back to Nerissa, his face a mask of anger, fear, and panic. "Don't – stop – put that down!" he sputtered. "You'll kill us all!"
"Really?" James laughed, tossing the amulet into the air. It was heavier than it looked, clear crystal, glinting in the lamplight. Naid's eyes followed its arc through the air, horrified. "She's not throwing a fit, is she?" James asked with a smile. "I'm rather slow on the uptake with such things, after all. You wouldn't think it, what with the mentalism, but it's true. Can't quite sort out what will upset a fairy or not, in any case. Only, she said everything was just fine, and Brenton must have been the one to put out the moon. If you're worried about him, then a Zephyr amulet on your windowsill won't do much good, will it?" Naid twitched, his hand reaching out for the amulet as James tossed it back and forth between his hands, but apparently too afraid that he might accidentally knock it to the floor and break it to make any action. "Unless you know something you aren't letting on," Jame continued. Toss. "Like, for instance, the fact that Brenton isn't the one putting out the moon. Or the idea that the one who's so terrified, and hopeless, and – what was the word? – drowning, that she can extinguish a full moon, is little Miss not-quite-just-Zephyr-anymore."
Naid lunged for the amulet, just as James smashed it against the wall. It shattered in his hand, glass embedding itself into his palm with a searing crunch. James winced and fell to the floor with a shout; that wasn't supposed to hurt so much. But just as he did, the window blew open with a hurricane force, and caught Naid square across the face. Naid fell to the floor, insensate. The wind died down. James stood, shaking, grabbing the windowsill with his one good hand and stopping the still-swinging window with his shoulder. He turned and leaned out, looking for the pale moon, full and bright in the night sky. It shone hopefully back at him. And then, a moment later, he felt the air escape his lungs as a rather small, but certainly effusive, fairy leapt to his side. His good arm found its way around her shoulders almost of its own accord.
"You beat him, James!" she crowed, the bright glittering of the stars shining in her eyes and the warmth of the sun moving her voice. "You saved me."
"I just distracted him," James answered softly, "You did most of the work." He stared at his wounded hand. The glass shards were embedded in his hand, jagged teeth dripping with blood. Nerissa reached out to touch it, but then flinched back.
"It burns," she hissed.
And, before she could recommend, perhaps, that Adlai take a look at James' hand, or lead him away from the window, or in fact say or do anything else, Naid pushed himself to a sitting position, slight smile on his face. "That would have been very clever, Mr. Brandeis," he said, his sneer growing, "if it had a chance of succeeding."
James' stomach sank. And then Nerissa began to giggle, and it fell to his ankles. His hand throbbed in pain.
"Did I do well?" She asked Naid, carefully extracting herself from under James' arm as though it was covered in something rather vile.
"Perfectly," he responded, "although you used perhaps a bit more force than necessary with that window."
She giggled again, and the cheery lilt in her voice as she said, "Oh, but that was my favorite part!" expressed a lack of empathy James had never thought Nerissa possessed.
"What have you done to her?" James asked, voice shaking through the sting in his hand and the utter shock of the situation. He had been too late. Now what? His mind raced.
"I have done nothing but restore her to her senses," Naid sneered. "That was a powerful enchantment you wrought; it took all of my skill to dismantle it. But Nerissa is returned to us at last."
"There was no enchantment!" James shouted, fear at his plan-gone-wrong turned to rage and bubbling over. Was Naid so proud as to feed him an outright lie when he knew that James had enough discernment to see right through it anyway? When he knew it would just infuriate James? His answer had to be for the benefit of Adlai and Nerissa; Adlai who was naïve enough to believe it and Nerissa who was apparently so far gone as to have little enough choice. "There was…" James stopped suddenly, the querulous, confused, and altogether alien look on Nerissa's face enough to stop the words in his throat. There was nothing, he thought, but couldn't bring himself to say that either; this time more likely out of his own vain hope that he could somehow find a way to fix this, all on his own, without really knowing what Naid had done to her. It came back to the book. The answer would be in the book that was stolen, James knew.
But, somehow, James didn't feel like studying at the moment. He gritted his teeth. There was, of course, one thing he had wanted to do for quite some time, something he wanted to do more than ever now, and from doing which only Nerissa had stopped him. He glanced at Adlai, confused and frightened by the door. And then he turned back to Naid, remembered the one and only class on aggressive magic Professor Johnson had taught him, mustered all of his strength and anger into his arm, and punched his adversary square in the jaw.
He should perhaps have considered using his uninjured hand, he thought, as pain once again exploded up his arm and the shards of glass buried themselves deeper into his skin. The only upside he could see was that Naid had a jagged cut along his jawline now, in addition to what James hoped would blossom into a beautiful bruise. Naid coughed and sputtered, but the smirk returned to his face, as expected, and he said with a overconfident drawl so thick it came through the slight slur the blow had given him, "You do know that's a challenge, Mr. Brandeis."
"Of course," James said stiffly. He had known for a long time that he would end up fighting Naid. This changed nothing. In fact, it only served to reinforce his confidence – he would succeed. That snowy vision had to be the last one.
"Well, then. Perhaps you should find a weapon," Naid sneered.
James nodded curtly, and stepped around Naid and Nerissa, towards the door. "Magop," he hissed. "Malcolm." He waited a moment for the connection to go through and then whispered, "Malcolm, this is James. There's been an incident. I need your pocketknife."
"James! I just finished speaking to all the newspapers; they want to interview you as what they're calling the 'hero of the fairy war.' It's a little overboard, I know, but I suppose they wouldn't be editors if they didn't have a bit of a flair for the dramatic. I was surprised t—wait. Incident? What's happened, James?"
James coughed, awkwardly. He had reached the door and Adlai grabbed his wrist. "You do know what a duel with Naid will entail, right?"
James shrugged. "At the moment, I'm prepared for low visibility, a chance of hail, and a poisoned knife in my chest. And if all goes well for him, perhaps it will be topped off by a firestorm." Adlai's eyes went a bit wide, but then he nodded.
"Do you need a second?"
James paused. That would be symbolism, of something – Adlai Corundum, fairy ambassador, standing by his side in the fight. To prove that this was internal to the fairies as much as anything, and that they were not presenting a unified front. On the other hand, the fact that Adlai would likely be terrified when the firestorm came down, and possibly shake a few buildings to the ground out of fear as much as anything else, meant that he would be safer – everyone would be safer – with him on the sidelines. "James?" Malcolm's voice came. "What's this about a firestorm?"
"No, Adlai. I believe it would be best for you to avoid the scene, if you can. Find Brenton. The last thing we need is the entire fairy delegation being implicated in this, and I have a feeling Nerissa will be there whether I would or no."
Adlai sighed, and clapped a hand on James' shoulder. "You are braver than you seem at first, Mr. Brandeis," he said. "Good luck." And then he opened the door and bowed as James left.
"Sorry, Malcolm," James hissed. "That was… well… things have rather exploded. Hero of the fairy war may be a bit premature. I need to fight a duel."
"A duel? James, are you insane?"
"Perhaps, a bit. I'll explain later. Do you have your pocketknife on you?"
"Yes, but James, why are you fighting a duel? What's going on?"
"I'll explain later. Meet me in front of Tate's office, as soon as you can." And with that, James began, once more, to run.