“What do you mean, I killed her? I haven’t been here since I blew up her house.” That last part probably didn’t go far in proving my innocence.
Kai bangs a heavy fist on the table between us. “You came as you did before with your wild magic and you destroyed most of our homes!” I did notice there are significantly fewer houses in the Merpeople city. I thought they were downsizing. “You made our Queen bow before you, promised her mercy, but you lied. You took her head, damn you!” Kai is looming over us now and I rapidly pull magic. He’s a big guy, even by Merpeople standards. He’s also one hundred percent muscle so I’m going to stay out of his reach.
“Kai, sit down.” Arie’s voice is low and calm as she places a firm hand on her husband’s arm. “We need to get to the bottom of this.”
I wonder if Isla knew she was sending me here to stand trial for murder. I am going to assume she did not. “I was in the Cowan realm when you claim this happened. I was checking on the Witches.” I have said this too many times to count now.
“We have learned of your Angel heritage. You have the ability to move in and out of Angel time. You could have jumped time lines and no one would be the wiser.” Arie gives Kallen a pointed look. She seems to believe he had nothing to do with the crime. Lucky him.
“My wife did not kill your Queen,” Kallen growls.
“Why do you expect us to believe you when more than a hundred Merpeople watched you take her head?” Kai demands.
I get queasy every time someone refers to how the Queen died. “If I killed her, why did I come here today to help you find her killer?”
“You are arrogant and powerful. Perhaps you came to kill more Merpeople.” Arie’s voice is even but I see a little bit of fear in the back of her eyes.
I shake my head. “You know, Kallen killed a rabbit once for us to eat and I was so disgusted by it still having a head when he began preparing it for cooking I could barely eat. Beheading is definitely not how I would kill someone.”
“How, then, would you kill someone?” Arie asks.
My denials keep pushing me into a corner. I need to work on that. “I wouldn’t.”
Kai is ready to swim across the table and throttle me. Only the fact I have enough magic to supposedly kill the Queen is holding him back. Its hold is slipping. Being the head of the Queen’s security, I can understand why he’s upset. Whoever killed her did it right in front of him and he couldn’t do a thing to stop it. I doubt the next Queen will hire him as a body guard. The Merpeople are a matriarchal society, so it will be another Queen who sits the throne.
“There are spells which can change one’s appearance temporarily,” Kallen says. “If you saw Xandra as you claim, you were being duped. We should concentrate on finding the one who wore a magical disguise and murdered your Queen. You will not find that person in this room.”
There are only four people in this room, the two Merpeople, Kallen and myself. And three humongous attack octopi. I doubt the octopi turned on their Queen. Even if they could perform magic, they were her beloved pets. Arie and Kai? My gut is telling me they did not kill their Queen, either. Their grief is too palpable. Kallen certainly didn’t do it. That leaves me. Nope, won’t find the killer in this room.
“Why would I come back here if I killed her?” I ask yet again.
Arie shifts slightly with unease. “We did not expect you to honor our request. We were simply trying to determine where the Fairies stood. We wanted to know if they would harbor you, or declare you an outcast. If the former, it would mean war between our realms. If the latter, we hoped for a joint effort to hunt you down and make you pay for your crime.” Despite the situation, I respect Arie’s candor and courage. If she truly believes me to be guilty, those were very brave words to utter.
“This is not a situation with only two possibilities,” Kallen says. “You neglected to consider the third option. The one where Xandra did not kill your Queen.”
If Kai gets any angrier, his body is going to combust. Pieces of Merman will explode all over us. “Kai, I did not kill your Queen. I am here to help you discover who did. Can you at least try to believe that?”
His gnashing teeth and snarl tell me he’s not trying very hard. “You ask me to doubt my own eyes?” he demands. If we weren’t underwater, there would be spittle flying from his foaming mouth when he speaks. I don’t even want to consider the fact I’m swimming in it.
I only have one answer for him. “Yes.”
I am so glad I have magic. Otherwise, Kallen and I would be octopi delicacies. The wall of magic I throw up prevents this. “I guess you still don’t believe me,” I sigh, watching the octopi bang against my wall.
Arie considers me for a long time. Finally, she says, “Kai, call off the creatures.” Her husband glowers in her direction, but he does as his wife tells him. To me, she says, “When you were here the first time, you were bitten by a textile cone snail and were on the brink of death. Your husband and I had to become quite insistent in encouraging you to use your magic to heal yourself as you did not want to break the rules of the competition.”
“You should have let her die,” Kai grumbles.
Is it just me or does everyone have a horde of people wanting them dead? I think it’s just me. “No magic was supposed to be used. It felt like cheating.”
Arie nods once. “So you said at the time. Because of this, I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. For the moment,” she stresses.
“What does that mean?” Kallen asks at the same time Kai bellows, “What?!”
Ignoring her husband, Arie says, “If we have the full cooperation of the Fairy realm, and you assist in our search for the one who murdered our Queen, we will consider the option your husband put forth as true unless there is evidence to the contrary. If this is the case, we expect the Fairy realm to hand you over to be tried by Merpeople laws for the murder of our Queen.”
Kai has so many veins bulging on his forehead and arms, it’s hard to say which is going to rupture first. If they all go at once, we may drown in his blood. I doubt my underwater breathing spell takes into consideration any liquid other than sea water. “You do not have the right to make that decision,” he growls to Arie.
Arie eyes him coolly. “I am acting sovereign until a new Queen is elected, so I have every right.”
She didn’t tell us this when we arrived. “The Queen didn’t have children?” I ask.
“She had six children,” Arie says. “Two of her daughters are considered possibilities, but there are several others qualified for the position. It is up to the people to decide who will rule.”
A democratically elected Queen, I like the idea of that. “Are you one of the candidates?” I ask her.
Her cheeks flush slightly. “I am.” I bet she wins. Unless the Merpeople decide she is crazy for giving me a chance to prove I’m innocent. It hits me how great of a risk she is taking. This one decision may be enough for her to be disqualified.
“Can we see where the incident occurred?” Kallen asks. “I would like to determine if there is any magical residue left. We may be able to identify the type of being whom committed the crime.”
“Of course,” Arie says. After a brief glance at her husband, she says, “I will escort you.”
Good thing because I don’t believe Kai is in an escorting kind of mood. He seems to be in more of a kill the Fairies kind of mood. Regardless, he does not attempt to discourage Arie anymore. He even sends the octopi off so I can drop my wall of magic.
“It’s about time the wankers believe you,” a voice near my feet says. “I was ready to tear off all their faces, octopi and Merpeople.”
“That would have been difficult to do while you were sleeping,” I mumble to Taz.
“Pardon?” Arie says.
Though I got strange looks for bringing a Tasmanian devil with me, I haven’t explained that Taz is my Familiar. Or that I can understand his growls. Confessing to being the owner of something created from black magic doesn’t seem wise at the moment. “Sorry, I was just mumbling to myself,” I say.
Not entirely convinced, Arie stares at me for another long moment before giving a barely perceptible shrug. She begins to swim away. Wordlessly, we all follow after her. Kallen makes certain Kai goes first, not wanting him at our back.
I remember the Queen’s home all too well. The shell of a house Arie leads us into barely resembles the house in my memory. We were in an adjacent building so we do not pass many Merpeople on our way. Thank goodness, I’ve already faced one angry mob here, I really don’t want history to repeat itself.
Where we enter is not the same open space at the top of the Queen’s home we were in before. The primary reason for this is because that room no longer exists. The house is about half the size it once was. Arie brings us to a smaller room at the bottom. The walls and roof look as if they will crumble if the slightest wave pushes against them. I am not convinced it’s safe to go in. From the expression on Kallen’s face, he isn’t either.
Arie stops and turns to us. “It is here you, or the other you, killed our Queen.” Good to know there’s still a healthy amount of her that believes I’m guilty.
Merpeople houses do not have glass in their windows. They prefer to be able to swim freely through them. Theft must not be an issue here. But this room doesn’t have windows. This room is dark with kelp covering its walls, making it seem as if the walls are moving when the kelp shifts with the current we are sending through the water. Creepy.
“How could this room hold a hundred Merpeople?” Kallen asks. “It is barely large enough to fit us.” He has a point. Is that unease I see on Arie’s face?
“Only the Queen and her killer were in this room,” Arie says. Her eyes meet mine. “A hundred Merpeople watched the Queen be dragged into this room and only one came out. The Queen did not.”
“So, no one saw the Xandra lookalike actually kill the Queen?” Kallen asks, steel lacing his words.
“No,” Kai growls. “Perhaps it was not the Xandra lookalike as you call her. Perhaps it was the little beast. The one who now accompanies your wife.”
Taz? “The killer had a Tasmanian devil with her?”
“Pretty sure I’d remember gnawing off a Mermaid’s head,” Taz says defensively. “If I was going to gnaw off any part of her, I would go for her tail. It would be tastier.”
I would respond, but I have no intention of telling the Merpeople what he just said. They would be even more horrified than I am at the moment. Instead, I attempt to inconspicuously kick him. Even in the water, he is too fast for me. Kallen gives me a questioning look which I ignore.
“When is the last time this room was used?” Kallen asks, turning to take in the meager stores of food. Various edible plants and a few fish in a cage are the only objects occupying this space.
“Three months, maybe longer,” Arie says.
I can’t decipher the expression on Kallen’s face. “Can you feel magic?” I ask him.
“The only magic performed in this room was yours,” Taz says.
I stare down at the devil in shock. “What?”
“Has the saltwater made you deaf? I will say it louder and slower. Only. Your. Magic…” I attempt to kick him again but he scoots to the other side of Kallen.
I have the impression Kallen knows what Taz told me. With the slightest movement of his head, he discourages me from saying it out loud. Yes, because I’m going to help the Merpeople build a case against me. I hate it when he acts like I’m an idiot.
“You did not answer her question,” Arie says.
Kallen does another slow turn around the room. Is he stalling for time? Finally, he says, “The magic used was very strong. It is like no other I’ve felt. Magic this powerful could easily work a convincing disguise spell.”
I notice Kallen’s intentionally vague description of the magic in this room could describe my magic. I personally can’t sense any magic here. Is it because I can’t sense my own magic? But why would my magic be here if I wasn’t.
“Can you be more specific?” Kai growls.
Kallen shakes his head. “Too much time has passed, the water has washed away too much.” The lies are rolling of his tongue now. The fact he has to lie at all is frightening.
“Is the wanker’s magic sensor on the fritz?” Taz asks. I ignore him. My familiar is obviously not as loyal as my husband. “Hey, this smells like my pee!” he shouts from the corner near the fish cage. I think he was looking for a snack.
“What?” I say again.
“Get the stupidity out of your ears and pay attention,” he snipes. I thought familiars were supposed to serve their masters, not insult them. Apparently, I was wrong. “This is my pee!” he exclaims.
“What is the beast doing?” Kai asks.
I glance at him and then back at Taz who is now burying his face in the sand of the ocean floor near the fish cage. “Um, looking for food,” I say, distracted by Taz’s words and actions.
“Are the passages of your realm guarded?” Kallen asks, shifting the conversation.
“Aye,” Kai says. “Most have been sealed. We do not believe the killer,” he looks at me in disgust, “came through a known passage. She appeared many leagues from the closest one.”
“She could have swam here,” I say, stating what I believe to be the obvious.
“Those who witnessed her coming say the sea opened for her,” Kai says.
“What do you mean?” Kallen asks.
Arie’s face twists in irritation. “You cannot believe every fanciful tale,” Arie says to her husband. In response to Kallen’s question, she says, “The witnesses claim it was as if a passage was made from sea to sea, a window opened and she swam through it. It closed after her.”
She peeled back the edges of the realms and crossed from one to the other. Just like I do. Since our Mermaid escort did not stay to see how we left this realm last time, they don’t know this. The Mermaid in question saw us arrive by falling from the sky because of a stone from an Angel. When we arrived today, I chose a location an hour’s swim from the Merpeople city to avoid them seeing my ability to peel the edges of realms. I’m really glad I did. This is getting eerier by the minute. Who else can travel between realms like I can?
The same question is in Kallen’s eyes. “Where did the killer go after leaving here?”
Kai’s face turns red. “We do not know.”
“How did she get past you?” Kallen pushes.
“Her magic, it was…” Kai hesitates, trying to hide the shame on his face. “It was too powerful to penetrate with our weapons.”
Too strong to penetrate? Dammit, the killer created a wall of magic like I do when I am trying to protect myself. Did I say eerie? It is downright terrifying now. Everything they say points to my guilt.
“What efforts, besides contacting the Fae, have been made to find the guilty party?” Kallen asks. He directs his question to Arie, the one less likely to erupt in anger at his questions.
Her eyes downcast, she says, “We do not know what else to do. We thought we knew the identity of the killer. Now that this may not be the case, what is there to do? The killer is no longer in this realm, therefore, we do not know where to look for her.”
So, they haven’t done anything except blame me. With ample reason it seems. My eyes drift to Taz again. He’s still digging in the sand, mumbling something about fecal matter. At least, deciphering his colorful language, it’s what he means. All the evidence points to Taz being here when the Queen was murdered, as well. I unconsciously bite my lower lip. I probably look guilty as hell at the moment.
Seeing this, Kallen comes to my side and takes my hand in his. He gives it a small squeeze. A warning that I need to school my face. “What would you like us to do?” he asks.
Arie sighs. “I fear there is nothing which can be done. You are no more able to track the killer than we are.” She really, really wanted me to be the killer. It gave her hope that she would be able to avenge her Queen’s death. Personally, I’m still working under the assumption that it wasn’t me.
“We may be able to do more. We will discuss the matter with our King and determine a course of action. The Fae will do everything possible to help you.”
A distinct snort comes from Kai. His wife gives him a stern look before saying to us, “We appreciate any assistance you can lend us.” Her head bows slightly. “Thank you.”
“Taz,” I call to the mumbling devil. “Time to go.” I try not to sound too eager. I fail. But if I stay here any longer, I may start to believe Taz and I were here. Beheading a Queen.
“Are you willing to let us leave without incident?” Kallen asks. The tone of his voice implies we are ready to fight our way out of this realm if necessary.
Kai’s answer is written all over his body from his pinched, scowling face down to his twitching tail fin. He wants to put up a fight. Arie, on the other hand, has a defeated air about her. She knows she can’t hold us here against our will. If I am the killer, it has been proven the Merpeople are powerless to stop me from doing anything. If I am not the killer and she attempts to hold us here, it is tantamount to declaring war against the Fae realm. “You will meet no resistance in your departure,” she says, hating every word as they fall from her mouth.