I’m sorry for the delay on this! I am sick, and also I had to accept there would be another part after this. I’M A MONSTER! But I hope you enjoy.
Since I posted the last part, I’ve had the chance to talk to lots of lovely readers in person about Turn of the Story, and so this part is dedicated to them: all of you are darling petals.
After a long time which seemed burningly short, Adara leaned back but stayed in his lap, stayed kiss-close, and murmured: “I take silphium every day with my breakfast.”
“Um,” said Elliot. “Is that a contraceptive? Oh God, of course they don’t have condoms in magic land!”
It had never been an issue with Serene, as elvish women had to undergo a ritual before they could bear children. Once Elliot had explained how this differed for human women, Serene had felt here at last was the reason human women did not exert their natural female superiority.
Elliot couldn’t say she was entirely wrong.
“What’s a condom?” asked Adara. Elliot began to tell her, and after a moment Adara lifted her hand. “Stop,” she said firmly. “You’re putting me off the whole idea. I assume that isn’t what you’re going for?”
He could not see the fire, only the glow it gave her hair and the sparks that burned in her eyes. He could hear it, though: the mutter it made, as if it was impatient with him, too.
He smiled and leaned in, pressed his smile softly against her mouth, felt her begin to smile too.
“No,” he murmured. “I think it’s a brilliant idea. And I know brilliant. Let’s go.”
“Come up here,” Adara urged him later, in the privacy of her cabin, the lights of candles glowing on wooden walls and rumpled white sheets.
He obeyed her command, sliding up her body to kiss her, then lay back on the pillow and looked at her expectantly. Adara made a noise of exasperation and pulled him back to where he’d been. There was a moment where they were rolling, both with different ideas about where to roll, and almost rolled off the bed.
“Like this?” Elliot asked, looking down at her quizzically. “With a woman? Would that even work? Are you sure?”
It was true he’d seen it in Peter’s scandalous literature, but honestly that literature had taken a lot of liberties with the truth and he’d assumed this was one of them.
“Yes, I’m s– With a woman?” Adara asked, her eyes going wide in her paint-streaked, flushed face. “As opposed to what?”
“As opposed to a man,” said Elliot. “What did you think I meant, a mermaid?” He paused. “Though I definitely would give that a shot, if the mermaid was interested and we liked each others’ personalities.”
“So you like both?” Adara asked, and the way she spoke was very careful indeed, as if each word was a foot placed on a tightrope.
“Why, does that bother you?” Elliot asked, his voice careful in turn.
“No, no,” Adara said hastily. “Any guy I know?”
“No,” said Elliot. “On account of, you might have noticed we are surrounded by uncouth miscreants.”
Adara smiled, her eyes sparkling. He’d kind of thought she would like that: one of the few girls among dozens of boys in warrior training, and smarter than all of them.
“Well,” she said. “I am very sure it works this way. The elves have misled you, though they’ve obviously taught you well in various other matters.”
Elliot looked down at Adara, for the sheer pleasure of looking. She was shining by candlelight, her smooth golden skin smudged and streaked with daubs of cerulean blue and forest green and twists of vermilion, her golden curls spread out on the white pillow. She smiled up at him, her face soft and pleased with him, and scratched her nails along his scalp, combing through his hair. He leaned down and kissed her, her beautiful challenging face, as the moment turned slow and shining.
“We’ll try it your way. This time,” Elliot murmured, and Adara laughed.
Elliot woke with the morning light filtering through the windows, paler than firelight or candlelight but still a bright hopeful gold. He was alone, but he could feel the pillow beside him was warm and could hear the sound of Adara hanging up clothes on the steps outside the cabin: he stretched in the embrace of the bedsheets and thought about Adara. She was smart, she was beautiful and she hated almost everybody.
He might have stumbled into something wonderful here. Perhaps Myra had done him a favor. Perhaps this time, for the first time, he really was in luck.
“Hey, Adara,” came Natalie Lowlands’ voice. “Saw you left a guy’s jacket on the door, so I slept over in the third cabin last night.”
So they had a system for privacy, because they were friends. That was nice. Elliot’s own dormitory mates hated him for random silly reasons like ‘all the ceaseless screaming and drama’ or whatever they kept whining about.
Elliot had never liked Natalie Lowlands much: she was from his side of the Border, but she was one of the trainees who’d instantly adopted a Borderlands surname. She’d become best friends with a Cornripe, learned every weapon, never referred to the world she’d come from and constantly made cutting remarks about elves. Since she was Adara’s best friend, Elliot might have to try to like her. He’d never understood the urge to fit in, but perhaps that was because it had never been a possibility for him. Perhaps if he was more socially adept, if he could have remained anything like his real self and had friends, belonged—he would have. Maybe he could understand the temptation.
“Don’t tell me you actually bagged Luke Sunborn,” Natalie continued.
“I wish,” Adara sighed. The pillows and sheets abruptly felt a lot less warm. “No, I had a moment of weakness and settled for the nerdy best friend.”
“Eeesh, Schafer. Well, his lucky night.”
Elliot got out of bed and found his trousers. He gritted his teeth and committed to the superhuman effort of getting them on by himself.
Adara sounded like she was smiling. “You think so?”
“I know so,” said Natalie. “I also know you’re going to have trouble with that one. Look how he followed Chaos-of-Battle around for years like a pathetic puppy on an even more pathetic leash.”
“You’re right, as usual,” Adara said, sounding resigned. “My own fault for slumming. I’ll have to make it clear to him.”
“I’ll make it clear to him, if you like.”
“Who’s making what clear to me?” asked Elliot, emerging from the cabin. He figured he was rumpled enough to do a fairly convincing impression of having just woken up.
Adara and Natalie spun around. Adara was still in her pajamas, but she clutched at her own damp costume as if she was naked. She’d washed off the paint: Elliot wished he’d had the chance to do so.
“How do I put this? Congratulations, you’ve been dumped by another one,” remarked Natalie. “The word that comes to mind is ‘loser.’”
“Yes, you got me, how embarrassing, I’ve slept with two beautiful women,” said Elliot. “The words that come to my mind are… self high-five.” He raised an eyebrow at Natalie, then turned to Adara.
She hadn’t said anything she’d meant him to hear, and she wasn’t responsible for any hopes he might have had this morning. He thought she might have liked him a little, just enough, last night.
“Thanks for a funky time,” he said, and smiled. “I mean that mostly sincerely.”
He plucked Luke’s jacket, which was a charred caked object he would examine more closely later, off the door handle and jumped off the steps of the cabin, taking the winding path through the trees towards his own. With luck, he would make his walk of shame without anyone seeing him.
“Wait!” Adara called out.
Obviously Lady Luck, like everyone else, was not all that fond of Elliot. Elliot turned around, shivering in the early morning air, wishing for a shirt and also dignity. Adara had run after him barefoot in her pajamas: Elliot looked at her dusty feet and her tousled hair, at her still being beautiful. He suspected his own hair required a different description: maybe tornadoed.
“What you heard…” said Adara. “It wasn’t just about Luke. I was also—I like someone else, too. It isn’t you,” she added quickly. “I know I don’t have any hope with either of them, and I was trying to make myself feel better. Can you understand that?”
I’m not a bandage for your wounds, Elliot wanted to snap, but he bit his tongue before he spoke. She had come after him. It had been kind of her.
He had kissed her fresh from being rejected by Myra, and before that by Jase, and before that by Serene. Natalie was right: he was a loser, but that was not Adara’s fault.
“I can understand,” said Elliot, who could understand that much.
Adara dropped her gaze toward the forest floor, tangling her hands together as if with his understanding she had lost her confidence.
“Thanks for telling me—what you told me, last night. I won’t tell anybody.”
“I don’t care who you tell,” said Elliot, but Adara had spoken as if the promise meant something to her.
That was kind of her, too. Elliot took a step forward and looked at her in the clear cold morning light.
Then he leaned down and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks again,” he murmured, soft as the breeze ruffling her hair, close enough to feel her warmth and feel her tremble, for the last time.
“Elliot?” said Luke’s voice. “Adara? I don’t believe this.”
“Awesome,” said Elliot, stepping back from Adara. “This is a great day. I cannot wait to see what else happens. I think I might go live in a hole. What do you want?”
Apparently Luke wanted to stand among the trees and gape like an idiot.
Adara glanced at Luke and blushed, looking completely mortified. She was the one with the crush on Luke: Elliot had a moment of pity for her crushing horror.
“Well, it’s seven in the morning, so I gotta go practice the javelin!” she said, and ran.
The moment passed. Adara was the one who got to leave, mortified at being seen with Elliot, and Elliot was the one who had to stay.
“I guess I don’t need to ask where you’ve been,” said Luke.
“Guess not,” said Elliot. “So let’s not talk, shall we? That seems best. We have a manly bond, which means not talking… very much… at all. Ever. And I think that’s beautiful!”
“I knew you liked her.”
“You’re letting me down, loser,” said Elliot. “You’re letting me down about our bond. That’s hurtful.”
This was like some terrible emotional game of Clue, he decided. Who is going to most comprehensively ruin Elliot’s day? Will it be the school’s queen Adara outside the cabin, ashamed to have wasted her time with him? Or will it be everyone’s preferred suitor Luke leaning against a tree, being blond and judgemental? Could there possibly be another contender? Will it be secret option everybody?
Elliot glared. Luke glared back.
“I was looking everywhere for you.”
“Well not everywhere,” Elliot pointed out. “Obviously.”
Elliot did realize his smart mouth was a serious character flaw which would prevent him ever having a mostly-silent manly bond with anyone.
“Last night I thought you might be upset about Myra getting with someone else,” said Luke, a tinge of spite in his voice. “Obviously not.”
Elliot stopped glaring in order to stare incredulously. “Who did Myra get with? You?”
Luke was the one Myra liked, after all. She’d said as much. And Luke had been upset last night.
“Er, no,” said Luke, doing some incredulous staring of his own. “Did you hit your head and suffer some kind of memory loss? Do you understand what liking men romantically even means?”
“No, not at all,” Elliot said blandly. “You’ll have to explain it to me someday. Who did Myra get with?”
Luke looked thoughtful. “Something like Paul. Or maybe John.”
“George,” Elliot suggested. “Ringo.”
“I would obviously have remembered a peculiar name like Ringo,” said Luke. “No, I think it was a name starting with P.”
Luke nodded. “Do you know him?”
Elliot had referenced knowing Peter approximately one thousand times, also introduced them many times, and tried to fix them up that one time. It was clear to him that Luke’s accusation of other people having memory problems was rich.
It was also clear to him that Peter, who Elliot had cheerfully pitied for having no chance with Myra, was much better at romance than Elliot himself. Myra had said she didn’t like Peter that way: how had Peter changed her mind? Could Elliot have got Serene to change her mind, if he’d just done something right?
Elliot looked away from Luke’s smug face, down to the tents and the towers. There was a lot of activity going on for this early in the morning. Elliot would have to investigate it, once he got a change of clothes.
Or maybe he would just go live in that hole.
“Good for Peter,” said Elliot, and took a deep breath and grimly resumed his walk to the cabin.
He was not enormously surprised when Luke followed and continued to harangue him. “Why do you do things like this?”
Elliot rolled his eyes. “Do things like sleep with gorgeous people? I don’t know, I would’ve thought it was fairly self-explanatory.”
He stormed on. He heard the crackle and snap of twigs under Luke’s feet as Luke stormed after him. Thin sharp spears of sunlight came treacherously through the leaves above, and stabbed at Elliot’s eyes.
He could see how this looked to Luke. Adara had been terrible to Luke and then Elliot had immediately slept with her—taken her side, acted as if he didn’t think what she’d done was wrong at all.
Except that Elliot had been rejected and Luke chosen twice in the last eight hours. Elliot was in no mood to soothe Luke’s hurt feelings when Luke was always going to be the one who was loved best.
There was a brief silence before they reached Elliot’s cabin, at which point another question occurred to Luke.
“Is that my jacket?” Luke demanded.
Elliot’s dormitory mates put their heads under their pillows and sighed in one synchronized movement.
“I have an explanation for what happened to it,” said Elliot.
“What is it?”
“I’m coming up with an explanation,” Elliot amended. “I haven’t thought of one yet but I’m going to come up with one and it’s going to be good.”
Luke looked slightly amused, but mostly as if he had added ‘destruction of my private property’ to his long list of Elliot’s sins. Elliot rummaged in his bag of illicit goods to fish out one of his T-shirts, since Luke kept looking at all the paint and he’d been scandalized enough for one day. Elliot would plan how to get out of his trousers and into his uniform later, preferably in strict privacy.
“Anyway, why do you do things like this?”
Elliot emerged from his T-shirt to find Luke blinking. “Things like what?” Luke asked.
“Uh, coming and interrupting me at highly personal moments in order to make personal judgements and ruin my day?”
Luke eyed Elliot with the self-satisfied air that Elliot knew from bitter experience indicated Luke was imminently going to be proven right about everything.
“I told you why I was looking for you last night. Didn’t you wonder why I was looking for you this early in the morning? Serene’s back. I thought you’d want to know. Maybe I was wrong about–”
Elliot never heard the rest of Luke’s sentence. He was too busy running.
Behind him he heard one of his dorm mates shrieking something irrelevant about closing the door.
Elliot threw the door of the meeting room open, and scarcely saw the dignitaries around the crowded table, elves and human alike, all solemn and all staring. She was there, at her mother’s side: tall, straight-backed, clad in green dark as the woods at evening.
Then she was no longer at her mother’s side but in Elliot’s arms, his about her shoulders, hers about his waist, his head bowed into the crook of her neck. He held on hard, breathed in hard and every sense told him that she was back, she was whole, and he did not ever have to let go of her again.
“Ah well, when virtuous young men are unkind, there is much comfort to be found in the arms of floozies,” said an elf Elliot didn’t recognize, and Serene broke away from Elliot and looked murderous.
“You know that’s right,” said a guy Elliot didn’t know but who was clearly a Sunborn. He was more of a silver lion than a silver fox, and he was speaking in elvish, which was something of a shock. “Gotta love floozies. So which virtuous maidens have been unkind to your young warrior, Sure-Aim-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle? I’d heard she was rather a devil with the gentlemen.”
Sure looked amused rather than stern: Elliot supposed it was beautiful that she found unholy joy in tormenting her only daughter. “Oh, a great many silly gentlemen go sighing after my bad girl. But she has her eye on a very sweet young boy—much too good for my girl—called Golden-Hair-Scented-Like-Summer. Now before battle we have tourneys, and Serene asked leave to wear her chosen gentleman’s colours tied around her arm. She had asked many times before and always been refused. This time her wish was granted and Golden bestowed the requested mark of favour. What Serene did not know as Golden tied the scarf around her arm was that Golden had apparently rolled the scarf in…”
“I’m no good at botany,” Elliot said, translating for Louise. “I think the… well, from what Sure is saying about the effects, it seems to be a deadlier equivalent of poison ivy. So Serene broke out in a rash and came—last place in the tourney…”
“Elliot,” said Serene, “shut up!”
Elliot shut up, but Louise was already laughing and Sure continued: “Golden said he didn’t believe she was trying to win the tourney for Golden or for anything but her own vainglory, and he thought Serene needs to stop taking men for granted and be—”
“Something like taken down a peg,” Luke whispered in his dad’s ear. “I think?”
“Luke!” Serene exclaimed. Luke looked guilty, but then glanced up at his father for approval.
“The lad knows elvish,” said General Lakelost, in the hushed tones of one commiserating with friends on a misfortune: “Does he read a lot?”
“No!” said Michael Sunborn.
“His sword sister is an elf,” Elliot pointed out coldly.
“She’s not his sword sister because he cannot have one, because he is only a boy,” Sure-Aim-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle hissed.
“And so you consider me unworthy,” said Luke in elvish, with a creditable attempt to be formal. “But what if there was a way to prove my worth?”
“Neither he nor my other comrade have the least need to prove their worth,” announced Serene. “And how dare you cast aspersions on Elliot’s virtue while showing yourself to be overly familiar with a famous trollop, Mother! It would break my gentle father’s heart if he knew.”
“Oh, you’re Gregory Sunborn,” Elliot said, gazing at the silver lion in enlightenment.
“The one, the only, the most expensive,” said Gregory Sunborn, former courtesan to the elves, and winked. “It was years before your mother ever met your father, who I am sure is a sweet virtuous creature.”
“He is,” said Serene, boring holes into her mother’s skull with her glare.
Sure looked mildly discomfited.
The elderly elf—and elderly for an elf meant a few lightened tresses among the red hair, and a certain stone-like pallor and fixity of expression—coughed pointedly. “I am uncertain why we have been called to this meeting comprised of harlots and children—”
“This is actually partially a theatrical costume,” said Elliot.
“Oi, don’t call Gregory names just because he spotted a job opening that seemed suited to him due to the long-standing alliance between elves and Sunborns, plus the, well.” Luke’s mother Rachel buffed her nails against her jerkin and looked proud. “The general Sunborn joie de vivre. Lust for life, if you will. Passion for passion.”
Elliot, who had known Luke literally for years, raised a skeptical eyebrow.
Luke was blushing. None of the other Sunborns were doing anything of the sort. Louise pulled Elliot into the chair next to her and whispered: “Nice shirt. What’s a sex pistol?”
“Er,” said Elliot.
“Elliot,” Serene said, in an awful voice. “Do not tell me that you wore that outfit on a public stage!”
“Oh he wore a lot less than that,” said Louise. “Up top, Little Red.”
Elliot exchanged a quick high five with her.
“I am uncertain,” the older elf said, in a carrying voice, “why we have been forced to attend this absurd meeting, under the threat of your… men entering our territory without permission.”
“Now, we didn’t threaten anyone,” said General Lakelost.
Elliot saw how Sure, Serene and the other elves’ eyes all travelled to Commander Woodsinger, as if to see if she agreed. The commander’s face was impassive. Then the elves looked toward Rachel Sunborn.
He understood why the Sunborns had been called in, now. Not only did public opinion always tend to go their way, the Sunborns being a law unto themselves meant their women were a law unto themselves, and they could talk to the elves with both sides assuming they were equals.
General Lakelost kept talking. “We simply stated that we, who have a paramount duty to protect the Borderlands, plan to go into a certain territory and bring peace.”
“Our territory!” snarled Sure-Aim-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle.
“Currently not your territory,” General Lakelost pointed out. “Since it has been overrun by bandits. You should be pleased to have allies who are eager to stamp out the lawlessness in your land.”
“And are we meant to believe,” Sure said icily, “that you will simply give the land back? It’s rich ground. You humans have been wanting to settle there for years.”
“We’re men of honour,” said Lakelost. “We may of course need to establish a garrison there of some selected military men and citizens to grow them food. Obviously the place is too wild and abandoned.”
“Did anyone else notice that was not an answer?” Elliot asked.
Humans and elves alike glared at him.
“I agree with General Lakelost,” Commander Woodsinger said calmly. “Our mandate is peace in the Borderlands, and our judgement as to what will bring about that peace overrules the wishes of motley groups of citizens.”
You can’t agree with him, Elliot wanted to yell at her. We supported you, Serene and me. You should agree with us.
“We have already stated that we will treat the Border guard’s incursion into our territory as trespass and an act of war,” said the older elf. “We have stated that we will fight the guard if they come.”
“You have said that,” General Lakelost agreed, even though the elf has clearly been addressing the commander. “But will you really commit yourself to fighting a war on two fronts, with the bandits and the Border guard? You elves can say whatever you like. Somehow I doubt you will do it.”
“The Border guard could help us, Mother,” Serene broke in, to Elliot’s astonishment. Elliot made a gesture for her to be quiet that she didn’t see, as she was reaching past her mother for Luke’s hand. “The bandit threat does have to be extinguished. And my sword sister and I fight much better as a pair.”
She and Luke clasped hands and looked defiant.
“Everyone can see what’s most important is defeating the bandits,” said Commander Woodsinger.
“What’s important isn’t what everyone sees,” Elliot argued.
Rachel Sunborn chipped in with: “We have proven to you that humans can be useful, haven’t we? We’re the ones who captured Bat Masterson, one of the bandit leaders, out on a raiding party.”
“You did?” Elliot demanded. “Well then someone has to talk to him! If you can make an agreement with the bandits nobody has to fight anymore!”
Now the elves and the humans were not yelling at each other: everybody was yelling at him.
“A dishonorable bandit—”
“No talks with terror—”
“This is pointless,” said Luke.
“I would rather die in my blood—”
“We have nothing to say to him,” stated the commander.
“There’s a pit where we keep captives at this center of learning for children?” Elliot threw up his hands. “Oh yes, that’s great. That’s normal!”
He took a deep breath, and the elves looked scandalized while Luke made a small horrified gesture: Elliot glanced down at the collar of his T-shirt and adjusted it so the scarlet handprint on his collarbone was hidden again, and tried to speak with unimpaired dignity.
“I’ll go down to see him. I’ll talk to him.”
“I will go with you, if you care to have my company,” said Serene.
“I’m coming too,” said Luke.
“Is it going to be a children’s tea party down there?” General Lakelost barked. “This meeting is a mockery—”
Elliot looked around at all of them, at the furious elves and raging humans, at strangers and people he loved all bent on war which could destroy every one of them.
“I’m not mocking anyone,” said Elliot. “I want to talk to him. I’ll go in on my own.”
Commander Woodsinger was the one who showed him the way to the pit, which was under her tower but accessible through a door outside.
“I should tell you that you do not have to do this,” she said, as they walked through the corridors away from the meeting room. “I fail to see how it could be of any use.”
“It might be,” said Elliot. “Bat Masterson’s not a real name. So this bandit is from the otherlands, and-”
He was about to say: maybe I could talk to him, maybe we might have something in common, but the commander interrupted him.
“So are many people in this camp. Natalie Lowlands, your classmate. Elka Pathwind, the medic. We take Border names and obey Border customs. We do not become bandits.”
“Elka?” Elliot repeated, frowning. “Wait—we?”
“You could choose a Border name yourself, you know. Are you very attached to your father’s name?”
“I’m attached to my name,” said Elliot. “Because it’s mine. And I don’t know—I don’t even know if I want to stay.”
“It is rare that anyone with council training is allowed to attend meetings like these,” said Commander Woodsinger thoughtfully. “Usually they are summoned to draw up documents afterward. But you have allied yourself with the Sunborns and the House of Chaos, two very influential families, and you see the result. You could have an effect here, if you stayed and were clever about it.”
Elliot stared at her, revolted. “I haven’t allied myself with anyone. I never wanted—I only wanted to be with Serene.”
“Or you could go back to the otherlands,” the commander continued. “It’s no concern of mine what you do. Though I admit I am curious to see what you do next.”
She gestured him around the back of the tower.
The pit under the commander’s tower was dark and deep, a hollow scooped out in the shadows. Elliot came in through a narrow flight of steps carved in mud and stone, through a large wooden door opened with a set of jangling keys. When Elliot stepped into the pit he could see the faces of the others high above him, and he felt like a gladiator in the Roman games, being watched by the faraway indifferent eyes of citizens.
Or maybe he felt like a Christian about to be eaten by a lion. He knew why the general had let him come: Elliot was expendable. If he was killed he would be no further trouble, and they could say they’d tried everything.
He could see the dull glint of a crossbow in Serene’s hands. He wasn’t expendable to everybody.
They let the bandit Masterson in through a different door, more of a gate that led to the pit from a small dark tunnel. He was tall and thickset, dark stubble on his face and his hands shoved in his pockets.
Elliot knew Serene and Luke. He knew how people stood when they had concealed weapons. He took a step toward Masterson, hands up, showing he was no threat.
“Bat Masterson,” said Elliot. “The name of Wyatt Earp’s deputy? What was your real name, back in the otherlands?”
Bat Masterson shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I carved it on the wall and left it behind. Can’t live there. Don’t want to serve the Border guard. So this was my choice, and this is my name.”
“Fine, go through life using the name of a winged mouse, I don’t care,” said Elliot. “But have you considered that the combined might of the Border guard and the elves may crush you? Which leads me to my next question—have you ever thought about a treaty in which the elves concede some territory in return for the surrender of certain lands and valuable items such as jewels?”
There had been some attempts at kidnapping people, but the cultural barrier had led to the bandits trying to take the women and being killed in the face, while occasionally a puzzled bandit had been forced to deal with an elvish gentleman screaming he wished for death before dishonor.
“Once you’re captured, you’re no longer the leader. I’m not in a position to make treaties. And I’m not interested in listening to the chatter of a stupid brat,” said Masterson, and hit Elliot.
Elliot had never been hit by a grownup before, the meaty fist crashing down with all the weight of muscle and bone and discipline behind it. He staggered and felt the inside of his mouth crash and break against his teeth, the warm gush of blood from his lip to his chin. Elliot choked slightly on the blood in his mouth, coughed and grabbed Masterson’s arm, moving in between him and the steely glint of Serene’s crossbow.
“That may have been the arrangement in your camp, but I bet they would still listen, if you came with terms,” Elliot said, speaking rapidly, trying not to let his cut lip blur the words.
He only had an instant: he saw Masterson going for the slight bulge in the shoulder of his jacket. He only had an instant, and he wasted it. Elliot felt a flicker of fear for his life. Elliot looked toward the torch burning in the wall. Elliot thought about a weapon, rather than using his words.
It was only an instant, and then it was too late. There was a knife in Masterson’s hand. And there was a bright blur over Masterson’s shoulder. Luke had somersaulted from the watchers’ balcony above. Luke struck a blow with his sword before his feet ever hit the ground.
Luke’s face over Masterson’s shoulder was blazingly furious and intent. The blade went clear through Masterson’s chest. Elliot caught the man’s heavy weight in his arms by reflex, sagged and sank under it so he was kneeling in the dirt with him, trying to staunch the flow of blood with his hands.
“You’ll be all right,” he murmured as blood leaked out of Masterson’s mouth and the light bled out of his eyes. “It’s not too late, we can still talk–”
Lies did not stop the man from dying. Elliot looked away from his dead face because he could not keep looking any longer. He looked at Luke, instead.
“You can’t just do things like this!” Elliot raged.
Luke’s face was not blazing anymore, but shut down as if someone had slammed an iron door on a furnace.
“I can,” said Luke. “I did. He hit you. I killed him. That simple.”
Elliot bit his lip and was furious with himself for looking to that torch, for not having enough faith in himself to keep talking. He felt guilty because he knew Luke had seen him look to the torch, and was sure Luke had known what that look meant. And he felt unexpectedly and wrenchingly sad: for the sunny boy he’d met his first day in a magic land, the boy who’d been sick the first time he’d killed someone. Now Luke wasn’t even looking at the dead man, had not even flinched. Elliot wondered what this magic land would make them all into, in the end.
He felt furious and guilty and miserable, and impatient with it all: it was no good to feel that way now the man was dead.
The others came down afterwards: there was no longer a captive in the pit, or any reason to stay out.
“He was from my world,” said Elliot, still sitting in the dirt with the bandit’s head in his lap.
“That makes sense,” said General Lakelost. “They’re a treacherous people there, and strange: metalworkers without morals, not our kind and not to be trusted.”
Elliot looked around to see several people, including Luke, nodding. “Hey!”
Luke did not look up from cleaning his sword. “I just meant it’s obviously not safe there. You shouldn’t go back.”
“Do you know how many times I saw people murdered with swords before I came here?” Elliot raged. “Murdered in any way at all? Zero! Zero times! I was not supposed to live like this and I don’t want to.”
“It is of no interest to me what you want,” said the elder elf. “You wanted peace, and there is no way to get that now, is there? Much good you humans capturing Masterson did us. We decline your help—”
“You are in no position to decline,” said General Lakelost. “We are coming into this territory whether you like that or not.”
They were arguing far above his head, like adults with a small child. Elliot felt helpless as if he was one.
“Either way,” said Luke. “I’m going back with Serene. I read up on it—” Elliot suddenly and forcibly recalled Luke with his book on elvish customs while Elliot was practicing for the play—“Swordsisters are bound to accompany each other anywhere, their loyalty to each other pre-eminent.”
“You are not her swordsister!” Sure barked.
“Okay,” said Luke. “I also read that if a swordsister’s worth is doubted, said swordsister can volunteer to face any challengers, until her—er, or his—worth is proven or she—uh, or he—dies. So. I volunteer. Send challengers. She doesn’t ride out without me, unless I’m in the ground.”
“That lad reads constantly,” General Lakelost muttered.
“He does not!” Michael Sunborn snapped.
“Fine,” Sure snarled. Serene grabbed her arm, far too late. “Challenge accepted.”
Great, Elliot thought, and shut his eyes, the dead weight of what had been a man cooling in his arms. More killing.
Luke had to go to a disciplinary hearing because of killing a guy. Elliot suspected it was just going to be high fives about being a badass warrior all around, but since Serene had been firmly taken away by her mother Elliot figured he should wait outside the commander’s tower.
He’d forgotten that Luke’s family was here, and that for other people, when you were in trouble, family came to help.
He was sitting on the step outside when the sun was blocked out by the massive majesty of Luke’s dad’s shoulders.
Elliot squinted up at him resentfully. “I hope Luke stops working out,” he said. “If he turns into a mountain range like you I really don’t think I’ll be able to cope.”
“What?” said Michael Sunborn.
“Nothing. Sorry, Luke’s dad.”
Mr Sunborn sat down on the step beside Elliot. He was way too big for the step. Elliot was shunted off to one corner. Sunborns took up all the room at all times.
“Michael,” suggested Luke’s dad. “Or Mike.”
Elliot considered this. “Nope. Sorry, Luke’s dad. I don’t think I can do it.”
“Alllllll right,” said Mr Sunborn, drawing out the words as if he was nobly being patient with Elliot.
“You are just like Luke,” Elliot observed. “Must be genetics.”
“Well, might be, might not be,” said Mr Sunborn. “I don’t really know. Rachel’s business. But I did have the raising of him, and I think he is like me.”
Elliot frowned. “Wait. Explain what you said before.”
Mr Sunborn went on because Sunborns took up all the room, were contrary and never listened. “I taught him to play Trigon: first time he caught the ball in his little fat hands I was there to stop him dropping it on his feet.”
Elliot had read about fathers playing catch with their kids. “Great,” he said. “Congratulations. It’s a stupid game, by the way, and he could be spending his time in a far more useful and intelligent manner, but who cares about a tiny thing like that?”
“He likes Trigon,” said Luke’s dad. Elliot made a small helpless gesture: as if Elliot was not aware that Luke liked Trigon, after spending years in the stupid stands watching the idiot sport. “He likes Trigon, and he likes anything to do with blade or bow, he likes horses and hounds and the hunt. He always liked all the things I liked, and he always trained until he could do them best of all, and he liked that I was proud.”
At the foot of the tower, in the clearing circled by cabins, Dale and a few other boys from the warrior training class were playing ball: not Trigon, not using a glass ball, but something more like catch. Maybe Luke would be playing with them, if Elliot had not failed with Masterson.
Luke’s dad did not have to rub it in. Elliot knew it was all his fault.
“He wanted a friend his own age, and I understood that, and I sent him off to the Border camp with my blessing. I understood he’d be set apart from the others a little, because being the best means being on your own sometimes. I understood the elf, because she was set apart in the Border camp too, and she’s a lovely girl: can shoot out an eye at five hundred paces. But then the letters started arriving, the books and the elvish and the plays, and I couldn’t put it all together.” Michael Sunborn rubbed the back of his neck. “The only thing I don’t understand about my son is you.”
This was not helping Elliot with the guilt. “I don’t really have much to do with anything.”
“So what about you?” Luke’s dad went on relentlessly. “Do you like him at all?”
“No,” said Elliot. “I constantly spend hours at the idiot games of, weeks at the home of, and literally years in the company of people I dislike. Because I am just totally off my head.”
Luke’s dad shrugged. “You’re the one who said it, lad, not me.”
“Look, I know you think I’m a weirdo, but why the third degree?”
“The third degree of what? You do talk the most awful nonsense,” said Michael Sunborn, in that moment supremely Luke’s dad. “I’m just concerned about Luke.”
“Yes, but why are you concerned about Luke and… Wait, I’ve worked it out,” said Elliot. “You are concerned about me and Luke in a romantic context. Ahahaha. No. You are incorrect. I hardly have words to explain to you how incorrect you are. He looks out for me because I’m Serene’s friend and he loves Serene. He doesn’t even like me in a non-romantic context.”
Luke’s dad frowned. “Doesn’t he?”
“Oh wow, oh my God, no, no! Obviously not!” said Elliot. “He likes someone else romantically, by the way. He likes Dale Wavechaser! How could you think that? No. Oh my God.”
Elliot could have spent the next several hours alternately saying ‘No’ and ‘Oh my God’ but fortunately Luke’s dad cut him off.
“Who’s Dale Wavechaser?”
“I can’t tell you that! Forget I said anything!” Elliot hissed. “I wasn’t meant to tell you about him liking anyone!”
“So I guess you’d be in trouble if I told Luke,” Luke’s dad said, mildly. “Best just to tell me who Dale Wavechaser is, son.” He paused. “This is blackmail. It means you should—”
“I know what blackmail is!” Elliot exclaimed. “I’m highly intelligent! I was just taking a small personal moment to feel betrayed by a trusted authority figure!”
“Dreadful,” Luke’s dad agreed. “So which one is he?”
Elliot looked across the dusty ground and pointed to where Dale was playing, running backlit against the sun, leaping and smiling. It was a flattering angle for Dale.
“Oh,” said Luke’s dad. “Oh I see. Oh well, I can understand that.”
He watched approvingly as Dale horsed around.
“If I preferred men that’s definitely the kind of man I’d prefer,” he went on, horrifyingly. “I don’t prefer men, mind you.”
“I understand,” said Elliot.
“I mean, well, once in the fort before I was married,” Luke’s dad went on.
“Stop!” Elliot said. “I beg you.”
There was a silence. “Nice-looking lad,” said Luke’s father.
“Yes,” said Elliot, despairing.
“Read much, does he?”
“Nope,” said Elliot, even more despairing.
“Plays Trigon, does he?”
“Yes,” said Elliot, too weary to despair.
Luke’s dad rubbed his hands together. “That’ll do very nicely.”
“I’m pleased that you’re pleased,” Elliot informed him. “I’m glad to have cleared up your horrible misapprehension. I hope you will all be very happy together. Now you’re here, I assume Luke does not need moral support, and I wish very much to change my trousers.”
He got up. The sun was dazzling in his eyes, the carefree sound of Dale and the others playing made his head hurt, and there was still blood on his hands.
“That’d probably be best, lad,” said Luke’s dad. “The elves were talking.”
Elliot walked in through the door of his dormitory, then jumped a foot in the air.
“I couldn’t go back to my room,” said Serene, lurking behind his bunk bed. “My mother would know to look for me there.”
“You might’ve been safer hiding in Luke’s room,” said Elliot. “I don’t think any of the elves would be remotely surprised to find out that I was scandalously entertaining ladies in my boudoir.”
“Ah,” said Serene. “But I wanted to talk to you.” She did not smile, not even her secret smile most people did not notice was a smile: she did not look anywhere close to smiling. She gazed up at Elliot and though the rest of her was in shadow, her uptilted face and her grey eyes seemed picked out by a spotlight, pearl-pale and almost imploring.
Elliot came and sat at her feet, taking one of her hands in his: it was strange, because the last time he had touched her like this they’d been going out. It was also the only possible comfort for him. There was nobody else in this or any world who he knew would welcome his touch, would touch him back in reassurance or affection.
Serene linked her fingers with his. “How are you? You look sad, but… I have received the distinct impression you have not exactly been pining away for me.”
“Who says?” Elliot asked. “But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing other things as well.”
“So have I,” said Serene. “As you heard.”
She looked stony with shame even referring to the incident with Golden. Her pain made Elliot want to be vulnerable.
“I, uh,” said Elliot, and bit his lip. “Over the summer, I had a relationship with a man.”
Serene’s eyes went so wide Elliot was worried they were going to meet over her nose and form one giant elven mono-eye that would stare at him for all time.
“Well,” she said, at last. “That makes no difference to my enduring affection for you! I thank you for sharing this confidence with me and I will support you in all your relationships and varied endeavors.” She paused triumphantly after reciting that, and added: “I see how that might work better for you.”
“Sorry, what?” asked Elliot.
“Well, because you talk so much about the societal prejudices and differing expectations involved in relationships between the sexes. This way both parties can be equal!”
Elliot thought of Jase’s face, as he’d talked about his uncle: he thought of the way Jase had gone for someone young and then been upset to find that being young did not mean being malleable. He thought of how Jase had been diffident about people seeing them on the street, and about how stricken he had felt when his father had seen them.
“I think that’s total rubbish and a bit insulting, actually,” he said. “There isn’t any kind of relationship that’s all problem-free delightful unicorns. You can’t have a relationship without problems and prejudices. The way to be equals is if both people agree to be equals, and treat themselves and each other as equals, despite all that.”
Serene frowned thoughtfully. “I’m sorry to have insulted you and I will think on what you say. But I don’t see how unicorns come into it.”
“They were a metaphor,” said Elliot. “Which was a mistake, as they are bloodthirsty censorious beasts.”
“Have you told Luke?” asked Serene, and when Elliot was silent: “Are you going to?”
Elliot remembered exactly how eager Luke had been to share with him.
“Certainly I am.” Elliot smirked without really meaning it. “He’ll know just as soon as I feel the need to announce it to our whole class.”
“I have not… only been making a fool of myself over Golden,” said Serene. “My cousin saw that I was somewhat downcast after my—misreading and mistreatment of you, and she took me to a place where she assured me that my suffering would be eased.”
Elliot stared. “Serene,” he began. “Are you talking about what I think you’re talking about? Did you go to an elf brothel?”
“I should not talk so in front of a gentleman!” Serene burst out. “It—it may well have been somewhere that there were, ah, men of a persuadable nature—no, that is to say, men of the evening—”
“ELF BROTHEL,” said Elliot.
“Elliot, do not laugh,” Serene urged, and Elliot was just about to laugh at her for being a prude when he realized there was a genuine note of pain in her voice. “It was not… I did not realize how different the same act could be. I knew that it would be different with true love, but I had never thought that—affection and laughter can transform an act, as well. It came to me once I had left that dark place, and once Golden had scorned me, that I had been a child to devalue your honest affection and constant care for me. That I had been a fool.”
He thought he understood now, how Peter might have got Myra: waiting around until someone was at a weak point, low and humbled and hurt, worn down enough by the world to be amenable. And maybe it would turn out to be a good idea.
But Elliot didn’t want love to be like that. He loved Serene and he did not want to catch her in his arms if she stumbled: he wanted to help her to her feet.
And he did not want to be loved as a second choice, as a surrender. He had spent his whole life not being loved at all, and he had thought being loved enough would satisfy him. It would not. He did not want to be loved enough. He wanted to be loved overwhelmingly. He did not wish it had been him who caught Myra, instead of Peter. He did not want to be Serene’s fallback, even though it was Serene. He had never been chosen, so he had never had a chance to know this about himself before now: he wanted to be chosen first.
Serene was looking down at him, as if she was thinking about kissing him. Elliot looked back at her, longing and amazed there was something stronger than that longing.
“Serene,” he whispered, and she leaned in a little closer at the sound of his name. “It wouldn’t be fair to either of us.”
Serene looked surprised, but she only had a brief instant to be surprised: the door opened and Luke walked in. He stopped a step within the threshold, taking in their tableau, and Elliot decided that the entire universe was set up to play cosmic jokes on him.
“Are you guys…” Luke hesitated and cleared his throat. “Are you getting back together?”
Serene and Elliot looked at each other, and the look meant more to Elliot, felt weightier, than the kiss goodbye he’d given Adara, or how he’d held Myra. This had so much more love in it, and was so much more final.
“No,” said Elliot. “No, we’re not.”
“Well, good,” said Luke. “I know how Elliot is, but from what you were saying earlier, you really like Golden, and I still think you have a chance.”
Of course Luke and Serene had caught up before Luke had thought to come find him. Elliot didn’t even know why he was surprised.
“You think so?” Serene asked shyly. She was smiling. “How goes your courtship?”
“Well,” said Luke. “We sat at Dale’s table one day while you were gone. I was planning to go over and sit near him, but then Elliot managed to hurt himself with a butter knife. But I think Dale was glad we were there. He was really welcoming. He’s so nice.”
“He is terribly handsome,” Serene said encouragingly.
“Oh, he is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But Dale is very pretty and very agreeable as well,” Serene said, consolingly. “Indeed, I am sure more agreeable, because there is no pleasing Golden-Hair-Scented-Like-Summer. Every word he speaks is like being slyly stabbed with a dagger, but everyone thinks he is so virtuous and that it is only right that he should speak harshly to such a rogue as I.”
Serene had been with the elves a longer time than usual, Elliot thought, her speech more formal than it had been when she’d left. She’d spent more time with elvish men, because women were less casual in the presence of gentlemen.
“That’s so unfair,” Luke said sympathetically. “You’re not a rogue.”
And Serene’s speech patterns were completely beside the point, because Elliot was outraged.
“Are you people seriously invading my cabin to drone endlessly at each other about the boys you fancy?” Elliot demanded. “Get out of here, both of you! I cannot believe your tedious faces.”
They turned the Trigon pitch into a field of combat, smoothing the field as best they could. Elliot joined Rachel on the bleachers rather than going to Serene and Sure: he loved Serene but he’d had enough of being called a hussy.
“Sit,” said Rachel, smiling at him beautifully, and Elliot smiled helplessly back. “Tell me who Dale Wavechaser is.”
Elliot’s smile froze. He could feel it trying to sidle off his face and hide behind his ear. “What?”
“My husband told me that little Luke has a crush on someone called Dale Wavechaser,” said Rachel, nodding to the front of the crowd where Louise and Michael were standing up to cheer. “But he said he wouldn’t point him out because he didn’t want Luke to think he was betraying confidences. So. You point out Dale, or I will tell Luke that you told his dad!”
She kept beaming. Elliot gazed upon her sadly.
“That one,” he said, sighing and subsiding onto the bench beside her.
Rachel leaned forward in her seat and peered at the crowded benches across the pitch. Dale’s bright enthusiastic face was clear, in the very forefront of the audience.
“Whoo, LUKE!” Dale shouted.
“Aw,” said Rachel, and her smile spread. “He seems nice. Do you like him?”
“I do,” said Elliot, deliberately not referencing any boredom-related stabbings, and Rachel patted his hand. It was nice that she cared what Elliot thought.
Rachel looked pleased. “Then I think that will work out very well.”
She seemed perfectly serene on a lovely morning, about to watch her son fight to the death. Elliot leaned into her steady, comforting warmth as they watched: it was Luke up against the elder elf.
“She’s called Cold-Steel-to-Vanquish-the-Foe,” Rachel said. “Very experienced warrior. This’ll be quite a fight.”
Rachel sounded approving. Elliot looked at Cold’s hair, fluttering like a blood-colored banner in the breeze, and Luke’s hair gleaming like a knight’s helm, and both of their weapons shining like big pointy metal objects of death. He slid off the bench onto the floor and sat there with his arms around his knees, looking up at Rachel.
“I don’t want to watch,” he said. “I’m not going to do it.”
Rachel glanced down at him. “Is something the matter?”
Elliot gave her a look of disbelief, and put his head down on his knees. He’d already seen someone die yesterday. He’d seen people killed before, and he could bear it. But he did not want to be made the audience to something like this, as if it was a game. He did not approve of anything that was happening, and he would not accept that it was necessary.
He could hear the clash and clang of weapons, a remorseless din in his ears, and Rachel’s running commentary on the fight. He wished he could not hear either one.
“Scythed her legs right out from under her, that’s my boy! Oooh, nasty. Oh, that’s going to sting later. Nice, duck and roll! Funny face, you’re missing out.”
Elliot resisted the urge to put his hands over his ears like a child. “I don’t think so.”
Clang, clang, crunch, went the noises, like a giant eating breakfast cereal. Elliot knew the last sound was bone breaking.
“And Cold’s down!” Rachel shouted, as the crowd roared. “Luke’s got his sword to her throat! That’s Mommy’s little man!”
“Is he going to kill her,” Elliot asked in a small voice, muffled in his own arms.
“No,” said Rachel, after a terrible pause. “No, he’s letting her up. She’s surrendered. You go, champ!”
There was another cheer. Elliot wondered if it was his own terrible personality that made him interpret this cheer as slightly disappointed, as though the crowd had wanted blood.
He did not have long to wonder, because then Luke vaulted over the rail of the pitch—like he had jumped easily down into the deep drop of the pit, and all Elliot had to say was why, gravity, why—and bounded up to his mother.
“Aw, that little feint that broke her arm made me so proud,” said Rachel, jumping to her feet and giving Luke a kiss on the side of his face. His cheek and his blond hair were streaked with blood, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“Is that your blood?” Elliot demanded, scrambling up.
“No,” said Luke. “Don’t worr-”
He was cut off by the descent of the elf contingent, either bestowing congratulations and caresses—Serene—or obviously consigning their souls to the uncaring trees—literally everyone else. Serene was alight with her prise and her vindicated faith, shining like a blade in the sun.
“Now,” Serene said breathlessly. “My turn.”
“What?” Sure snapped.
“What?” Elliot echoed, but nobody paid any attention to him.
“Oh, my son can risk his life because it’s worth less?” Rachel inquired coldly, folding her arms. “Do go on. Someone hand me an axe.”
Luke, dusty and tired and smeared with blood, looked over at Serene and smiled. “How about you send whoever you like, as many people as you like, out into the field against both of us? We’ll take on anyone you choose. We always do things better together.”
Serene looked at him for a long moment and then she smiled, a radiant wash of dawn over a dark land. She reached out and took his hand when he offered it.
They did not fight on the field again that day, but they walked out onto it, hands clasped, bright and dark heads bowed together, exactly in step. They lifted their linked hands high over their heads and the whole crowd cheered, elves and humans alike, louder than they had for the fight.
And Elliot knew that there was one human in the world who Serene loved enough to defy her clan, to break all her sacred traditions, to forge an unbreakable bond with against all reason and all law, and force everyone to respect that bond. He knew who Serene loved best.
The world proved to him over and over again, what he already knew: that it was always going to be Luke, and never going to be Elliot.
Luke’s little display over Serene only added fuel to the fire: now Sure-Aim-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle had admitted Luke Sunborn was going to the wars, of course the rest of the humans from the Border guard were going too.
It was simply a case of arranging matters to best suit everyone. Elliot brought up the fact they could draw up a few unofficial agreements.
Elliot tried not to forget what Commander Woodsinger had told him—that it was a privilege to be in here, that he could change something, maybe, even if he could not change enough.
Even though he could see what was going to happen, with a terrible inevitability he did not know how to stop: that the Border guard were going to creep into the elves’ land, and then in five years… maybe ten… the elves would try to take it back. War coming out of war, over and over, and all Elliot could do was put it off, as if he was bailing out a sinking boat with a leaky bucket. Surely there was a better way to do things, out in his world, in the civilized world.
Every time he wanted to snap someone’s head off and storm out of the council room Elliot excused himself, found a cool stone wall to lean against and told himself: Go back in there and be sweet, be nice, nod and smile, get those clauses in there. He smiled until his face hurt, until his teeth hurt, smiled so much that Cold-Steel-to-Vanquish-the-Foe unbent enough to escort him to the lunchroom after another session with Elliot trying to argue very politely for codicils that everyone else very calmly didn’t care about. He left Cold at the door with a smile.
“You’re in a good mood,” Luke remarked, offering a smile in return.
“No I’m not. I hate you guys,” snapped Elliot. He collapsed on the bench with his head in Serene’s lap, and then peered under his lashes at them.
Luke rolled his eyes and continued to eat peas. Serene patted Elliot’s head and continued to read. Neither of them showed any signs of leaving.
Elliot was walking back to the commander’s tower and the meeting room and the piles of paper he was trying to use to make peace, as if peace was a house of cards everyone else was intent on upsetting but him, when he saw the cranky medic making for the tent.
“Hey,” said Elliot.
The late afternoon was warm and glowing. It lent her face something that was almost like softness, but not quite. Her long copper-red braid glowed in the bright light. There were plenty of redheads in the Borderlands: half the elves were redheads. Elliot had never thought twice about her hair. Not before.
“I don’t have time to talk to you,” said the medic, walking faster. “Or rather I suppose I do, but I don’t want to.”
It was the kind of thing she said which usually made Elliot smile, but he did not smile this time.
“I think you probably have time for me to ask a quick question,” said Elliot. He felt ill, sweat under his collar and his knees trembling, but he could not be a coward this time. “I know who you are,” he continued. “Do you know who I am?”