Morning in Fairyland
by Anta Baku
Part 25 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)
It was completely unreasonable for Beth to feel bad about being confused. She’d been in a pitched battle, ridden a rampaging giant hedgehog, had her first friend from the World of Chaos declare his undying love for her, been captured by a bunch of war pigs, made it through being stuck in prison with that same, now deeply embarrassed friend, and then discovered that someone she thought was her enemy had been on her side all along. It had been a long day.
“We couldn’t tell anyone we were working together,” said Ian. “Our boss could be anywhere.”
“Or anything,” said Booker. “She would have banned us both from Fairyland before we could do anything about Richard.”
So Beth was stuck trying to reshape her understanding of how the alliances worked while also escaping from prison. At least Booker seemed to know where they were going. He was even a little annoyed with her for insisting on looking into all the other cells they passed, but she wasn’t leaving anyone else in this place, even if their situation wasn’t as uncomfortable as the one she had been in with Ian.
That’s how they found the Fairy Godmother. She’d clearly been in her cell for a long time, and they had to help her stand up and walk out of it. But once she knew she was free, she stood up straight and put her best face on things.
“Do you have my wand, love?” she said to Beth, who felt herself flinch a little bit at what in the godmother’s mouth was just a term of friendly affection.
“I lost it,” she said. “Again.”
“You really have to get that back for me,” said the godmother. “I’m afraid I’m useless without it. I can’t imagine all the christenings I’ve missed out on cursing while I was in there.”
“Just the one,” said Ian. “And we took care of it for you. Don’t worry, we’ll have your wand back and get you back to work in no time.” On the surface his embarrassment, his uncertainty, his self-loathing were all gone now that he had something to do. But Beth had learned to see within the surface, and she still saw the signs. He would do what he had to, but he was still hurting.
Why couldn’t she have left him well enough alone? Or, failing that, why couldn’t she like him the way he liked her? These things were strange, and they seemed set up to make each of them despise themselves.
She tried thinking of the plight of the workers and the inevitable rise of the proletariat, but even that didn’t hold her attention. She needed something far more immediately distracting. She needed pigs to fight. Fortunately that seemed to be coming soon.
The four of them broke out of the jail into sunlight and the sound of battle still going on. They were near the hill that served as the Pig Merchants’ Guild command center, and they could see the whole battle in front of them. It wasn’t going well. The pigs’ war canoes were drawn up on the bank, and the fighters from them had moved to the other flank to reinforce the cavalry against the weather-controlling giant. His mud stratagem had worked well for a while, but mud was a pig’s natural element, and once they got the killer birds out of the way, they were slowly overwhelming him.
She spotted the Emperor and the boy Prince of Wales behind the Imperial lines, trying to hold order in their troops, trying to find some way to reinforce that flank. Pol was with them, and even from this distance her body language looked worried. Beth scanned the battlefield but couldn’t see Holly and the Big Bad Wolf at all. Had they been taken? Killed? If she had gotten Holly killed on top of everything else she was responsible for on this day, she didn’t know if she’d be able to stay up under the weight of it. Like Ian, Holly had come here for her. Like Ian, she was suffering for it.
“All right, what’s the plan now?” Ian asked Booker.
“We fight through the Great White Boar’s personal guard, take him prisoner, and end the battle,” said Booker.
“You and me?” said Ian.
“And Beth,” said Booker. “And the Fairy Godmother, I guess.”
“That makes exactly one of us who can fight,” said Ian. “Unless you’ve been holding back on me.”
“Sir Guy of Gisborne would say otherwise,” said Booker.
“I think that’s the least reassuring thing you could have said,” said Ian. “I don’t think I can handle one of those pigs, and there are, what, a dozen?”
“We have to try,” said Beth.
“How many can you fight off?” said Ian.
“Six, maybe?” said Beth. “I don’t know, does it matter? Is there any difference between losing and not trying at all?”
“We could try something else,” said Ian.
“Do you have any ideas?” Beth asked.
He didn’t, of course. There simply wasn’t anything better to do. They could run away, leave the Empire to defeat, and spend the rest of their lives in exile in the World of Chaos. Well, it wasn’t exile for Ian and Booker, they lived there. And Beth had started to attach to some of the opportunities she saw there. Though she might have ruined her friendship with her host and biggest supporter. She couldn’t do much in that world without him, or his sisters. She might have messed things up so much she had nowhere to go at all.
So she was really, really ready to kick some pigs.
She kicked the first one so hard from behind that she was sure he wouldn’t be getting back into the battle. Booker used the element of surprise to choke one out, so that was two down. Unfortunately, even when the pigs couldn’t see them coming, Ian and the Fairy Godmother weren’t able to incapacitate their targets. They did keep them busy, at least.
Which left Beth and Booker facing a united front of eight muscular pigs with fighting knives. Booker taunted one of them, and he made the mistake of advancing by himself. Beth and Booker clobbered him together, and that was three pigs down. But the other seven were more careful, and one of them was their boss, who made sure they stayed organized. They were mostly interested in watching the fights with Ian and the godmother, but Beth knew they would get around to attacking eventually, and the two of them wouldn’t have much chance against a coordinated attack. Booker had taken the knife from the most-recently defeated pig, but that wasn’t going to help very much.
“What are they waiting for?” said Beth.
Booker looked around. “There’s another pig coming from behind us.”
Beth tried to watch both sides at once, and got a headache. Eventually she got a look at the pig approaching from behind. At first she was dismayed to see that he was wearing one of the secret police letter jackets, but then she recognized him.
“That’s Gjolli,” she said. “He’s on our side. I think.”
“Do they know that?” said Booker.
Gjolli wasn’t only joining them, he was armed, with a weapon that Beth was especially glad to see.
“I thought you might like this back,” he said, offering her the Fairy Godmother’s wand.
But it wasn’t Beth’s to take back. “It belongs to her,” she said, pointing to the godmother, who was being wrestled to the ground by her porcine opponent.
That pig was surprised to get a hoof right in his face from Gjolli. Booker followed and made sure he stayed down, and they helped the godmother off of the ground. Beth took the opportunity to pry the other pig off of Ian, and between them they put him out of action as well. When the five of them reformed they were bruised but not seriously hurt, and there were seven pigs left to get through.
Five against seven was better odds, but still not very good. At least until Beth reminded the godmother that she could use her wand against them. She waved it, and it sparkled, and the pigs began to transform. It was clear right away that they weren’t becoming hedgehogs, because the wand was now in the hands of someone who knew how to use it.
The pigs shimmered, and where there had been seven pigs bearing knives, now there were seven dwarves wielding pickaxes.
“I’m not sure that’s better,” said Ian. “They have bigger weapons now.”
“Weapons?” said one of the dwarves.
“These are mining pickaxes,” said another.
“We’re not fighters,” said a third.
“And we have to get back to work,” said a fourth. “A good day to you.” And the dwarves marched off in single file, leaving the way to the Great White Boar entirely free.
Unfortunately, Richard wasn’t distracted. The larger battle was going well for him, and he had time to watch his personal guard take out a few intruders. Or not take them out, as the case may be. By the time they got to him, he was ready, with his sword drawn and his back against a wagon. The godmother waved her wand again, but it had no effect.
“I went to see a witch and get a charm,” he said. “No godmother can harm me any way. To beat me you must overcome my sword.”
The five of them spread out, but their only weapons were Booker’s confiscated knife, and a wand that was totally ineffective.
But then Beth looked up at the top of the wagon behind Richard, and knew those weren’t their only weapons.
“I don’t care about your sword!” she cried as loudly as she could. “You’re going to feel my boots!” And she advanced.
Richard stepped out to meet her, but before he could make it into sword range, he was hit from behind and above by Holly and the Big Bad Wolf, who had jumped off the wagon in perfect coordination. They weren’t armed either, but neither of them needed to be. Richard’s sword flew away and he went down beneath the two of them.
“We thought you might need some help,” said Holly when she had disentangled herself enough to speak. The wolf just growled and sat on the former king.
“I’m just glad you’re alive,” said Beth. The wolf seemed to have Richard under control, so she gave Holly a big hug.
“What do we do with him now?” said Ian.
“We display him in front of his army,” said Booker.
So Ian and Booker got on hands and knees to make a platform, and the wolf climbed on top of them, holding the Great White Boar above his head and howling. That was a great way to get the attention of every pig on the battlefield, but just in case, Beth found a horn and blew it as loud as she could.
Richard squirmed, Ian complained about the weight on his back, and the Guild Army began to break.
“They’ve seen it, now!” said Beth.
“All right, then, can you get off me?” said Ian.
The wolf got down, but he kept holding onto Richard while they watched the battle come to an end. In spite of the loss of their high command, the pigs managed to retreat in relatively good order, a credit to their officers. The Imperial Army helped them out by not being too diligent in pushing the advantage. The pigs naturally retreated through the mud wallow that had been their landward flank, and the Imperial troops were reluctant to follow them and soil their fancy new uniforms. The Guild army faded into the distance, but they were marching in companies, and it was only a matter of time before they found a good defensive position. The battle was a victory for the Empire, but not a decisive one.
Except for the loss of the Guild leadership. Would they be able to manage without Richard? He had to be got out of the way permanently, lest he take control again. But none of them seemed interested in killing him, no matter how much they knew he wouldn’t have hesitated a moment if their situations were reversed.
“What do we do with him now?” said Ian. They’d won, at least more or less, but he didn’t seem to have given any thought to what to do after a victory. Fortunately Beth had an idea.
“Can I borrow your wand again?” said Beth to the godmother.
“Will you give it back faster this time?” said the godmother.
“In just a minute,” said Beth.
The godmother handed over the wand, and Beth took a moment to enjoy this moment. Because it might be a fairy godmother’s wand, and she might have pretended once to be one, but at heart she knew she was no fairy godmother.
So she pointed the wand straight at Richard and turned him into a hedgehog. He scuttled off under the wagon.
“Get him!” she said. Hedgehogs might seem innocent, but they’d seen how dangerous this particular man could be. Gjolli dashed off to the other side of the wagon, and came back carrying a hedgehog. They improvised a cage for it, and finally relaxed a little bit.
A few minutes later the Emperor arrived, with the Prince of Wales and Pol. The two royals were energized by their victory, while Ian’s sister was just a little dazed.
“I didn’t think we were going to win that,” she said. “Good job, everyone here. Harp says so too.”
“Did anyone have a plan for what to do when we won?” said Ian. “I forgot to think about that part.”
“Dismantle the Guild,” said Booker. “Send the pigs back to their original jobs.”
“Do we have to dismantle them?” said Beth. “I know Richard was a bad leader, but they had things I liked in their government. Or at least their theory of government.” Gjolli nodded along.
“Can we even dismantle them?” said the Emperor. “Their army retired in good order. I didn’t come here for a war of conquest, and neither did my people. We want to go home. It’s almost spats season.”
“All those kingdoms don’t really belong to the pigs,” said Booker. “We have to free them somehow.”
“They don’t belong to the nobles, either,” said Beth. “We can’t just put them back in power.”
“And the pigs are there now,” said Ian. “They’ve taken over the administration. They still have an army. I don’t think we could just get rid of them even if we all wanted to.”
“What do you suggest, then?” said the Emperor.
“Richard has a natural heir,” said Ian. “Our friend here, the Prince of Wales.”
“You have it backwards, Ian of the Phones,” said Wales. “It was my uncle who usurped me.”
“Either way,” said Ian, brushing off his new knight name with just a bit of bemusement. “With Richard gone, you stand to inherit his kingdom. How do you like King Edward the Fifth of Fairyland?”
“Edward the First, surely,” said Pol. “This isn’t England.”
“Will the pigs agree to that?” said the Emperor.
“Forget the pigs, will I agree to that?” said Beth. “I fought this war to get rid of kings, not to set up new ones. I can still turn you all into hedgehogs.”
“You gave the wand back,” said Ian.
“Don’t worry,” said the Fairy Godmother. “I’d let her borrow it again.”
“Wait,” said Gjolli. “I think we can work with a king, if he’s a friendly king. Building up people’s institutions all at once doesn’t work. Nobody knows what to do. But they’re used to kings. Maybe if we had a king who was willing to let us build up communist structures gradually, it would work better. People could get used to them.”
“This communism was unknown in my time,” said Wales. “But if you wish to build this thing you want, I would not stand opposed to you. Or Beth. I’ve seen what happens to the foes of Beth.” She was a little embarrassed by that, but only a little.
So Gjolli became King Edward’s Minister of the People, subject to actually being able to convince the pigs to accept his rule in the first place. Edward offered the position to Beth, but she declined. It would be better for Gjolli, and he would get more respect from the pigs. Besides, for all the territory the Guild had taken, they still didn’t have anything like the University. They agreed that she would help when she could, but without taking an official position in the government. At least for the time being.
“I’ll be more useful here if I learn everything they know about government in the World of Chaos,” said Beth. “That is, if I’m still welcome in the World of Chaos.”
“Of course you’re still welcome,” said Ian. “You can stay with me as long as you want. Even on the couch.”
“Anna says I can move into student housing in the fall,” said Beth. “So it would only be a few more months.”
Ian tried to hold a smile through that, but Beth saw that it was hard for him. Could she really impose on his hospitality for that long? But she wasn’t the only one asking that question. Pol seemed to know more about what was going on in Ian’s mind just by looking at him than Beth thought she ever would.
“You can spend some of the summer with me,” said Pol. “It’s the best time to be in Grand Marais. And you should get to see more of our world than just the Cities. You think this lake is big, you should come see mine!”
Holly seemed like she was about to talk, too, but she just smiled at Pol’s offer.
“If Gjolli is going to be in the government, you’ll need a new head of the secret police,” said Ian.
“Are you angling for the job?” Pol asked.
“Oh, no, but I think I’ve got a friend who would be good at security.”
“Not Dave,” she said.
“Of course not Dave,” said Ian. “Why would you think Dave? I said good at security, didn’t I? No, I was talking about our friend the Big Bad Wolf, here. If he’s up for it.”
“I certainly know how to put fear into pigs,” said the wolf.
“You can’t eat anyone, though,” said Gjolli.
“I haven’t tried to eat you, have I?” said the Wolf. “Look, eating people is more trouble than it’s worth. Whatever kind of people they are. It just gets me kicked, and tied up, and roasted, and other unpleasant things. I’m sick of it. I’d be glad for a new career.”
“I’m glad to have you on the team, for sure,” said Wales. “But do we really need a secret corps?”
“I’m not sure,” said the wolf. “Probably you will while you’re still trying to get all the pigs on your side. There will be those who liked the idea of conquest.”
“And just to be sure,” said the Emperor, “you’re agreeing to no more conquest. Right? I won’t have to bring my army out against you?”
“Your army won’t be necessary, sir,” said Wales. “Should I need chastising, send only Beth.” Everyone laughed at that, and she was a little embarrassed again. But still only a little.
“My first job as head of the secret police,” said the wolf, “is going to be getting rid of those ridiculous jackets.”
“I know some tailors who can help you out,” said the Emperor.
“And for the man who organized it all,” said King Edward. “The Guild awards its cell phone contract now, to Ian of the Phones, our perfect knight.”
Beth wouldn’t exactly have described Ian as a perfect knight. Though his sense of honor seemed to be fine, she supposed. He just wasn’t very good at using it yet. He wasn’t all that much older than she was, after all. Maybe he deserved to be given a break just as much as she needed one. Even if his reward meant that he was going to be management and thus her natural enemy.
He went and whispered in Edward’s ear. The new king looked surprised, but shrugged and seemed to agree with whatever it was Ian had asked for.
“The Guild awards its cell phone contract now,” he said again. “But not to where we thought it would have gone. To Booker, knightly name to be revealed!”
Booker had been there for them at the perfect moment, but Beth thought the entire Guild contract was a lot to give up for that. It meant that Booker was going to win their competition at the last minute. That he was now going to be Ian’s boss.
“I think that’s a good time to let me out of this stupid cage,” said the hedgehog. Somehow it wasn’t Richard’s voice, but a woman’s.
“Oh, hell,” said Booker. But he went and opened the cage, and the hedgehog turned back into a human of her own accord. It definitely wasn’t the Great White Boar.
“This is our boss,” said Ian. “Miss Change. Proteus taught her to be a shapeshifter.”
“But what happened to Richard?” said Beth.
“There was another hedgehog who ran by me under the wagon right before I was captured,” said Miss Change. “Your pig friend got the wrong one.”
“I never was cut out to be head of the secret police,” said Gjolli.
They all looked around them, but the other hedgehog was long gone. Beth didn’t like the prospect of Richard being on the loose, even as a hedgehog, but Ian and Booker were more worried about their boss.
“I knew you two would be secretly working together,” said Miss Change. “Against my direct orders.”
“Does that mean we’re fired?” said Ian. “Even though we ended up with all the contracts?”
“No, no,” said Miss Change. “I don’t have time to hire new people. Besides, you two have proved that you’re good at being sneaky. I like that. Just make sure you always direct it at other people than me from now on.”
“And the promotion?” said Booker.
“Ian seems to want you to have it,” said Miss Change. “I’m tempted to give it to him as punishment. But no, it’s too much trouble. You’ll be the boss when I go back to headquarters. Which can’t be soon enough. I have some plans for using this new power there. Some executives are going to end up pretty surprised.”
She went ahead and left, then, and soon afterward the rest of the meeting broke up. Most of them had jobs to do, and the others were relieved to no longer have jobs to do.
“I meant it about coming up to stay with me,” said Pol. “Things are more, um, fluid, in my social circle, but I’m sure we can find a place for you to sleep.”
“I have some friends in Grand Marais, too,” said Holly. “Maybe we can arrange to be there at the same time.”
“I’d like that,” said Beth. “I don’t think Ian can handle me staying with him all summer.”
“No, he probably can’t,” said Pol. “He made an ass of himself, didn’t he.”
“That’s what he said,” said Beth. “I kind of think both of us did? This is all very confusing. I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“You’re hardly the first woman to say that,” said Pol. “He’ll be all right.”
That was a relief, somehow. She wasn’t sure what she could have done any differently, except never gone into the World of Chaos with him at all. And then she wouldn’t have found out about the University, or made friends like Pol and Anna and Holly. She would never have had bubble tea, either, but she supposed it couldn’t all be good things.
“I think I’ll be all right, too,” she said.
“Good,” said Pol. “And we’re always here if you need anything. Well, I’m six hours away, but you can ask Anna if you’re in a hurry.”
“Or me,” said Holly. “Heck, just text me a couple of times and I’ll beat up a king for you.”
“And a good thing you did, too,” said Beth.
“Anytime,” said Holly, and blushed a little.
They were just coming out of the portal at that point in the conversation, and Ian and Booker had caught up to them.
“You didn’t get any reward for your part in things,” he said to Holly.
“Oh, I’m just happy to help,” she said, and blushed a little more.
“Huh,” said Ian, but he didn’t seem to be grumpy about it this time. Beth wasn’t totally sure why she thought he would have been, but the feeling was strong.
Booker had a text from Miss Change telling him his promotion paperwork was ready, and to get there in a hurry because she had booked a flight out that afternoon. Pol volunteered to drive Holly home, and she agreed after what Beth recognized as a little bit of subtle pressure from Ian’s sister. Pol was good at that sort of thing, somehow.
So she ended up alone in the car with Ian, but they didn’t talk. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as not talking in the prison cell had been, at least. And it didn’t last very long. They were only a few minutes from his apartment, after all.
“Are you sure you’re all right staying here?” he said after they got back into the apartment. After they had Harp as a chaperone, she realized.
“Edward called you the perfect knight,” said Beth. “And you’re not.”
“The perfect dork, maybe,” said Ian.
“I don’t quite understand what that means,” said Beth. “But I know you wouldn’t hurt me. I know you think about what you’re doing, even when it isn’t what you want to be doing.”
“Can you trust me to be in control?” he said.
“Even when you were the most out of control,” said Beth. “Even when you couldn’t stop yourself from telling me everything you felt, you looked at me, you saw what I was feeling, and you knew it was a bad idea. You’re not the perfect knight, Ian, but you’re a pretty good knight. And I don’t love you like you wish I would, but I’m your friend, and I truly believe that you’re my friend.”
“Besides,” said Harp, “if you do anything out of line you’ll have me to answer to.”
“You’re not much of a threat,” said Ian. “All you can do is sit on the table.”
“Remember the lizard people robots you saw at Northrup King?” said Harp.
“I do,” said Beth. “What about them?”
“I was busy stealing one while you people were fighting a war,” said Harp. “But you’re going to have to cope with having a little less closet space.”
This is the final part of Season 1 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland. Season 2 may return in 2022.
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