The Grey Edge: Chapter Forty-Three

Five Days Ago
For the sixth time in as many minutes, she pressed two fingers to his neck and felt his pulse. No change. Still weak. Still too weak. The worst part of withdrawal was over – he wasn’t shouting and thrashing around any more, wasn’t shaking on the floor, threatening to break open the scars and put him beyond help. The worst of it was over…but he still hadn’t woken, was unresponsive, was…was probably dying.
She pressed another cold compress to his forehead – it was useless, but it felt like she was at least doing something. If the fever didn’t break, if he didn’t wake, he was going to slip away, unconscious and without a fight.

Everyone was already treating him like he was dead – which was somehow better than treating him as though he were dying. Dying, they could still see him as a threat, as a draw out of the Court, as ties to an organisation despised. Dead, it was nothing more than her being weak, being a simpering lovesick fool hedging bets on a miracle.
Mordred, convinced of Taylor’s relative passivity, had stopped blocking medical supplies – such as they were, and was having less and less issue allowing her to visit and play nurse. Whether or not she as actually helping her commander, it was a good reprieve, and gave her more time to think, more time to weigh escape options, more time to think of ways to murder her mother. Planning, planning was always easier when there wasn’t a cock in your ass.
She squeezed the water out of the compress, soaked it again, then took his pulse again.
He was going to die, and it was her fault.
There was a cough behind her as her escort moved into the room. Without argument, she stood and left the room. There was no point in running, no point in snapping her escort’s neck – battles here had to be chosen carefully, else all was lost.
Taylor was going to die, all was lost.
All was-
Her escort turned down a corridor they rarely took. ‘Where does he want me now?’
‘Her majesty requested you.’
‘Of course she did.’
He led her into a large dining hall. The table there was longer than the Agency’s conference table – even when configured for all the outposts. From end to end the table was covered with food, two whole roast salmon taking pride of place on the table. She felt ill looking at them – the butchers and cooks had not even had the respect or decency to remove the heads – strands of blonde hair still hung from the head of the one closest to the foot of the table.
The bodies weren’t large – adult, obviously, but still young, judging by the proportions. College-aged kids. Young Salmon, brave enough to choose a life outside the safety of their Court and its borders, kidnapped and killed just for their blood.
It was going to spark another war.
Despite the length of the table, only four places had been set.
Her escort indicated to one of the chairs and she sat. She surveyed the table, ignoring the murder victims as best as she could, looking for any potential weapons – there were none. No carving knives, no large fork, not even a spoon to be sharpened into a shiv.
There were a few wine glasses, but their relative fragility made them temporary weapons at best, and any escape plan that had a chance of working needed something a lot more permanent.
She relaxed against the chair, and took stock of the rest of the room while servers busied themselves with final touches and adjustments of the platters.
Mordred entered, followed closely by the lawyer – they sat opposite her, then ignored her, going back to their own conversation. Wine was brought, and she drank it down, swallowing her urge to ram the glass down her brother’s throat and watch him bleed. The wine was cheap, definitely not the same vintage that the men across from her were enjoying.
‘Arty tells me,’ Mordred said, suddenly turning his attention on her, ‘that he’s close to a formula that should work. Quicker than expected, not bad for a bloodless faggot.’
‘I don’t mind,’ she said, ‘sooner I’m out of this place, the better.’
‘But we’re having so much fun,’ Mordred said with a grin. He turned to the lawyer. ‘Sure you don’t want a go, Francis? Free gratis and all.’
The lawyer put down his glass. ‘Gratis means free, you uneducated fuck.’
She stared in shock at the lawyer for a moment, expecting Mordred to snap back at him, to rant about being treated with the proper respect, or to impugn him for being just human. Mordred, however, laughed, and slapped the lawyer on the back. ‘And that’s why you’re paid the big bucks.’
With the sound of feathers, her mother appeared behind the throne-like chair at the head of the table.
‘I trust you two are comfortable?’ Magpie asked. ‘And Magnolia, do get those thoughts out of your head, I want this to be a pleasant evening.’
She expelled a long breath through her nose, then emptied her wine glass, tapping it against the table a few times to prompt the circling steward to refill it.
‘That’s better,’ Magpie said with what looked like a genuine smile. ‘We haven’t really had a chance to talk since you’ve been here, and I-’
‘I don’t want to hear anything you have to say. I accept what my freedom’s going to cost me, there was nothing in that agreement about remaining civil.’
‘It has been a while I suppose,’ Magpie said as she raised a glass to the men.
‘Since what, mother?’ she demanded.
‘Since we’ve had agent on the table. He’s dead, yes, Magnolia?’
‘If you want me cooperative-’
‘I think your cooperation,’ the lawyer said as he rose to fill his plate, ‘is only required so long as Mordred wants you conscious.’
‘Then why keep him here at all? Toss him back into a system area. Won’t matter one way or the other, right?’
‘It hurts you,’ Mordred said as he accepted a carving knife from one of the circling staff, ‘to have him here, and if you don’t want me, then I want to hurt you.’ He sliced neat sections of the roasted body, slapped a few pieces of meat onto his plate, then sat again. ‘It was never supposed to be you, Mags,’ he said. He lifted a chunk of meat with his hands and bit into it, the juices dribbling down his chin. ‘We didn’t expect the others to become unusable as quickly as they did.’
She looked to her mother. ‘Did you make him go through the same? Or did you choose him outright?’
‘Of course not, daughter, I had to make sure he was worthy. One of you has to be at least. Six male children, as soon as they were old enough, I made them fight for it. Mordred was, obviously, the victor.’
‘And your favoured prince ever since.’
‘You sound jealous, daughter.’
‘I’m trying to fathom your depravity.’
‘You’re one to talk of depravity, Recruit.’
She scowled. ‘I’m not the only one of your children who aligns themselves with the Agency. I really wish you would remember that, mother.’
‘I am aware,’ Magpie said, ‘but you are the only one to raise to such prominence, to show such loyalty, to-’
‘I’m sure that Bennefree would come close.’
This seemed to confuse her mother. ‘Who?’
‘He’s one of your children, mother, half-fairy. He’s a recruit. He’s an Aide. He’s the adopted son of an agent. You in your-’
‘He’s unimportant,’ she said with a dismissive wave.
‘Why not torture him like you do me?’
‘Because he’s no part of the golden age. Magnolia, I’ve spent three decades putting pieces into place so that we can rightfully be known as a court to be reckoned with. I wish to-’
‘The families,’ she argued, ‘are always the lowest order of courts. You yourself are…realistically nothing more than an agent, you are a function to keep order.’
The change wasn’t subtle, nor was it painless.
A beak shot from her face, growing faster than her mouth could adjust, and she felt teeth knocked out of place. The flesh on her arms dissolved in chunks as her bones withered, decayed, falling apart in front of her eyes.
Ribs shot out of her back as wings pushed out of her body, forcing her from the chair to the floor. Her vision changed as she felt clawed feet on her shrinking legs grasping for purchase on the smooth, tiled floor.
Her heart stopped for an instant, then began to flutter as it shrank, getting smaller and smaller within her changing chest. Feathers rippled out of her as more and more of her mass and height disappeared. She struggled and finally pulled herself free of the entangling fabric of her dress – it would do no good to be trapped beneath it.
Thoughts simplified, purified, complicated thoughts became harder to grasp. Escape. Flee. Fly. Food. Taylor.
She stumbled as she tried to take a step. A strong hand wrapped around her and lifted her up onto the table. She flopped, trying to steady herself with hands that no longer existed, kick with feet that were no longer human, scream with vocal cords incapable of speech. Her mother pulled on her wings, freshly-formed muscles screaming in pain as they were bent back, nearly to breaking point.
With a hiss, her mother dropped her to the table.
‘I can kill you any time I wish, Magnolia,’ Magpie said. ‘And if I so choose, I can simply allow Mordred to inherit my throne. I would prefer an heir with no outside contamination, but he will do if he must.’ Magpie stared down at her and wrapped a hand around her feathered neck. ‘Do you finally understand your place?’
She nodded her head as best as she could, her beak tapping against her mother’s hand.
Her mother lifted her, then threw her against the wall.
The change back was even more painful. The urge to lie on the cold floor was overwhelming, to lie, to lick her wounds, to let unconsciousness take her to escape the pain. Waking up would be bad – blackouts generally resulted in chains, a measure of insurance in case she was somehow faking it.
She concentrated for a moment, making sure that all of her limbs where in the right place, and of the right size, began to internally recite the recruit handbook, then stood. She took a couple of uneasy steps, retrieved her dress from the floor, then looked over at Mordred. ‘Dressed or undressed?’
‘Dressed,’ he said, ‘you can pretend that-’
She tuned him out, and gave a nod as she slipped the dress over her head.
‘As I was trying to say, Magnolia,’ he mother said, ‘we are coming into our most powerful hour. It, however, is not my want to lead. I wish to take a step back, to be able to appreciate the fruits of my hard work.’
‘And if your heir was to turn around and kill you?’
‘I would be proud.’ A saccharine smile spread across her mother’s face. ‘That’s enough conversation for now, we should eat.’