One gargoyle amongst the jury was on his feet, an elegant creature whose stony gray hair and craggy features made him seem older, to Margrit’s eyes, than his brethren. He watched Margrit with quiet patience, waiting for the room to fall silent again. She nodded to him and his eyes creased just slightly, as if he was amused or pleased by her acknowledgment.
None of the other gargoyles paid her particular heed, though she was obviously the center of their discussion. There were five of them, ranging in size from two women with Valkyrie-broad shoulders to a lanky blond whose form was so different from the gargoyles Margrit knew he might have been of another race. The one on his feet was heavyset, not Biali’s aging prizefighter in form, but bulky in a way that suggested muscle and strength rather than fat running out of hand.
None of them were as pure a pale as Alban, though none of them had Hajnal’s loamy tint, either. Margrit fought the urge to look toward Alban, bringing up his alabaster skin tone in her mind instead, and comparing it to the varied shades of light stone the tribunal shared. Of the gargoyles she’d seen and met, only Biali’s stark, unmarred white came close to Alban’s alabaster, and now that Margrit had others to liken them to, she could tell that Alban’s color was delicate, almost translucent, where Biali’s was hard and relentless.
One of the gargoyles leaned toward Chelsea Huo to speak to her, and even in outrage, moved with the fluidity that marked members of the Old Races. The tiny bookseller looked at ease amongst the gargoyles, easily as comfortable as she’d been standing with selkies and djinn that morning. Only that morning, Margrit realized with astonishment. The day, even with a nap, had gone on forever.
Daisani was scowling at Janx, who had kicked back and folded his hands behind his head, eminently pleased with himself. Even the handful of selkies and djinn talked animatedly, accusing gestures thrown Margrit’s way. She felt unexpectedly at home: she’d spent years as an advocate of lost causes. Law school hadn’t prepared her to stand a medieval trial as the defendant, but this was a courtroom like any other.
“Margrit, you cannot do this.” Alban’s voice, low with strain, came from a few feet behind her. Margrit glanced at the gathering, and, confident they’d continue their arguments for a few minutes longer, turned to face Alban with a rueful smile.
“Actually, I can. Your traditions allow for a second. Very human of you.” Her smile grew, cockiness transcending concern. “Or maybe very gargoyle of us. I wonder. Either way, Janx told me about the loophole, so here I am.” Margrit bit her lip, wanting to step closer but afraid moving farther would attract the tribunal’s attention. Uncomfortably aware there might not be a chance afterward, she was reluctant to break up their brief chance to speak before the trial.
“Had I known you would take this sort of rash action—”
“You would’ve tried talking me out of it, but you wouldn’t have changed your stance, because you believe you’re right just as much as I believe I am. I’ve got to give you credit for consistency, anyway.” Margrit moved closer after all, offering Alban her hand. He took it as though she were fragile, rubbing his thumb against her palm. She shivered at the spill of warmth and relaxation, a core of heat lighting at the touch. Folding her hand around his, she lifted it and kissed his knuckles, leaving her mouth against his skin as she spoke again. “You drive me crazy, you know that? Sticking with your traditions, upholding your laws, believing in them regardless of personal cost, or, yeah, maybe because of personal cost. I’m going to have to learn to live with that, aren’t I?”
Alban lowered his head toward hers, making a private space between them. His scent wasn’t as clean as she was accustomed to, with a hint of aged dust and stone, but its familiarity, like the courtroom setting, was comforting. “I’m afraid so.”
Margrit nodded, then tipped her chin up to smile at her serious-gazed gargoyle. “I can do that. But I can’t stop fighting for what I think is right just because we disagree.” She kissed his knuckles again and stepped back, eyebrows arched in mild challenge. “So I’m going to do my damnedest to clear your name, whether you like it or not. You can figure out your retribution later.”
“Margrit, my retribution isn’t what you should be concerned about. You cannot fight Biali. He’ll kill you.”
“I don’t think so.” Margrit spoke with more assurance than she felt, hoping Alban couldn’t read the tremor that ran through her. “He said once he preferred fair fights, not ambushing women in the dark.”
“You put too much faith in our honor. First Janx, now Biali. It’s—” Alban broke off, exasperated rue flattening his mouth before he sighed. “It’s a very bad idea.”
“You keep telling me that.” Margrit lit a smile, bright for the moment before it turned to uncertainty. “It’s a bad idea, but it’s the best one I’ve got, and if I put too much faith in the Old Races’ honor, it’s because I met the most honorable of you first. You’re a hard act to follow, Alban Korund.”
The noise around them settled, leaving Margrit’s last words hanging in the air much too loudly. She pressed her eyes closed as blood rushed to her cheeks, then turned to face the assembly with a grimace. Janx, still kicked back, grinned openly, and her embarrassment faded beneath the desire to give in to a giggle. Reminding herself she stood in a court of law, she dragged her expression back under control and lifted her chin to meet the tribunal’s gazes.
“The gargoyle trials have been explained to me,” she said before anyone else spoke. “A three-part test of what I understand to be essentially strength, sense and sentiment, to be undertaken to prove innocence in the face of evidence. I’m aware of the risks and willing to undergo the trial on Alban of the clan Korund’s behalf. I also gather,” she added a bit more dryly as Alban caught his breath to protest, “that having forfeited his willingness to participate himself, the defendant isn’t permitted to object to someone else partaking for him.”
“I can.” Biali’s voice dropped to a dangerous rumble, like the distant precursor to a rock slide. “My fight’s not with the lawyer. I want Korund.”
“You’ll have me. Margrit, this—”
“You have refused the trial.” Eldred overrode Alban’s protest implacably. “The decision is no longer yours.”
“It is the wrong decision!” Echoes thundered around the concrete and stone room. Margrit flinched, hands knotting at her sides. She was unaccustomed to hearing Alban lift his voice in anger, and it was easy to forget that breadth of chest could lend his words so much power.
“That,” Eldred said, “is something you might have considered earlier. You have forfeited your place, and you will remain silent or be removed from the grounds until the trial is over.”
Alban growled low in his throat, lifting hairs on Margrit’s arms, but he said nothing else. Biali smirked, clearly pleased enough to see Alban put in his place that he clearly forgot for a moment that he, too, had been thwarted. That realization wiped pleasure from his face a few seconds later, and his gaze went hard and calculating as he turned it to Margrit.
Trying to regulate her heartbeat was useless. It leapt out of her control, making a ball of sickness in her throat and flushing her body with heat. Challenging Biali was a gamble. Not a bluff, but a tactic counting on honor that, despite her arguments to Alban, Margrit wasn’t certain Biali possessed. He had lost two women he loved to Alban. Margrit’s life might seem a fair exchange, a way for him to make Alban suffer the way he had.
His nostrils flared and his mouth thinned with dislike. “You’re afraid, lawyer. I can smell it.”
“Of course I’m afraid. I’m reckless, not stupid.” Admitting it aloud lent Margrit some strength. She pulled her shoulders back, heart rate calming as she drew a deep breath. Then humor and honesty swept her, and she added, “Maybe a little stupid.”
A rush of quiet laughter ran around the room, bypassing the gargoyles but touching the others. Frustration contorted Biali’s scarred face and he made a throwaway gesture. “Fighting her proves nothing. A human stands no chance against me.”
Margrit, hands still knotted at her sides, said, “Not that I’m especially looking forward to being pulverized, but isn’t the point of this to see who dominates in the trial? The one who wins two out of three is forgiven in the eyes of God, right? Wouldn’t clobbering me put you one step ahead of the game?”
Disgust so profound it bordered on pity wrinkled Biali’s face. “It would prove nothing.” He turned to the tribunal, a note of slyness coming into his voice. “If a second can stand in Korund’s place, then I can request a second for mine.”
Eldred and Chelsea exchanged glances, the latter’s feather-fine eyebrows rising as she indicated the decision was Eldred’s. He nodded, attention coming back to Biali, and the scarred gargoyle curled his lip in pleasure. “Then for the trial of strength I choose a second. I choose her.”
He pointed a taloned finger at Grace O’Malley.
Grace actually looked over her shoulder before her incredulous laughter broke over an outcry of surprise from the tribunal and audience. “Me, love? Is it your mind you’ve lost?”
“You’re human,” Biali growled.
“Sure and I am, but that doesn’t mean—”
“Nobody else represents a fair fight.” Margrit spoke so quietly she doubted she’d be heard. Her own laughter fluttered at the back of her throat, a thing of disbelief and relief. “You’re the only one I’m anything like equal to in a battle of strength. If you don’t accept—”
“What if I don’t?” Grace spun on a booted heel, facing the tribunal. “What if I say no? Does Scarface there win by default, or do you go through the ranks until you find someone willing to fight?”
“It’s unprecedented,” Eldred said after a moment. “We would have to debate.”
“There’s no one else, Grace.” Margrit’s own voice sounded far away to her. “Any of the rest of them would pulverize me. I’d kind of like to come out of this alive.”
Grace turned around, mouth drawn down. “And what makes you think I wouldn’t clean the floor with you myself?”
Margrit’s eyebrows rose and the fluting laughter at the back of her throat escaped, as if lifting her eyebrows released a valve. “Grace, I can probably outrun you. I seriously doubt I can outfight you. You’re bigger than me, you’ve got better reach and you probably know more about self-defense than I do. But even your best shot’s not going to take my head off, which his would.” She nodded toward Biali, who gave back an ugly smile. “Do me a favor here and say yes, okay?”
“And what does Grace get out of it, love?”
“Some bruises and a sense of righteousness?” Margrit asked hopefully, then winced at the flat look Grace gave her. “Not having to explain to my ex-boyfriend the police detective why my dead body’s in your tunnels? No,” she said before Grace could object, “I don’t really think you’re dumb enough to leave me here if I got killed. Look, I’m trying, okay? I’d owe you one,” she finished more quietly. “I’d owe you a lot.”
Grace’s gaze slid toward Janx, then back to Margrit. “You’re piling up the debts fast, Knight.”
Margrit held her breath a long moment, then let it go explosively. “Keeps life exciting. Was that a yes?”
Grace pressed her lips into a thin line, turning her attention to the tribunal. “Just what kind of fight is this? Can’t be to the death, not with the way your laws work. You just put us in the ring and we go until the bell?”
“To defeat,” Eldred agreed. “It is…” He looked between the women, explanation lingering on the air as he seemed to search for words. “It is unusual,” he finally said. “Unusual to have two combatants whose hearts may not be in the matter.”
Margrit muttered, “Mine is,” and glanced toward Alban, who rolled his jaw but kept silent. Grace shot both of them a sharp look before eyeing the tribunal again.
“The lawyer’s got something to fight for, which means I do, for I don’t like to take a beating when I can avoid it. But you,” she said to Margrit, “you need to think about reforming these laws, if you’re going to be taking on fights that aren’t your own.”
“I’ll pencil it in.” Margrit wet her lips and squared her shoulders again, then folded her hands behind her back to keep them from wandering through the air. “How do we, uh, start?” She’d envisioned battling a gargoyle, somehow; someone, at least, who had sufficient physical strength as to genuinely frighten her, and had counted on adrenaline pushing her past thought into a struggle for survival. Instead she felt a blooming sense of the absurd, as if she was about to take part in an extravagant pantomime.
Eldred gestured toward Grace with such solemnity Margrit suspected he was trying not to laugh at them. “Meet in good faith, clasp hands, and then begin as you will. We will determine the victor and end the match when it is appropriate.”
Grace stalked over to her, tall and leggy and alarming as she offered a hand. Margrit hesitated, still feeling foolish. “What about that gun you used to carry?”
“Do you really think I’ll be shooting you?” Grace reached for the small of her back, though, and tossed the weapon away. It clattered against the floor, spinning to a stop at the tribunal’s feet. Margrit watched it go, then swallowed hard and reached for Grace’s hand, surprised when the other woman caught her in a hard warrior’s grip, forearm to forearm. “Well met,” she said, more formality in her tone than Margrit had ever heard before. She didn’t reply, and Grace’s eyebrows shot up in expectation, making Margrit jolt with realization.
“Oh. Right. Right. Um, well met. Uh—”
Grace hit her in the face.