Margrit’s heartfelt bellow of pain and outrage was cut short by another blow, this one to her midriff. Grace released her arm and Margrit doubled, choking. It was only toppling to the side that saved her from a knee in the face. She hit the floor with as breath-taking a thud as the fist to her diaphragm had been. For a bleary instant she could only think how lucky she was that Biali hadn’t set a gargoyle on her, and then Grace’s foot caught her in the ribs and lifted her a few inches up and back. Margrit heard a thin wheeze and realized it was from her own throat. She hadn’t realized a kick could actually move someone that way; she’d thought that was a dramatization of movies, if she’d thought about it at all.
Oxygen flooded into her starved cells before Grace landed another kick. Margrit rolled across the floor, trying to escape the long-legged, heavily booted vigilante. Everything tasted of copper, and when she wiped a hand below her aching nose, it came away smeared with blood. It seemed incongruous to the point of impossibility: she had never been in a fistfight, even as a child. To encounter her first one now was absurd.
Grace moved vampire-fast to Margrit’s bewildered senses. Instinct curled her in a ball, protecting her head and torso. The fight was over. Tony had always denigrated on-screen fracases, pointing out to Margrit the moment at which the fight would really have ended, usually only one or two blows into the sequence. She’d always elbowed him in return, telling him it was fiction and to be quiet and enjoy the choreography. Nothing about an extended battle seemed enjoyable now. A kick smashed into her forearm, pain a blinding reminder that that arm had been recently broken.
She felt it like a switch flipping. Determination colder than anger or fear rose up in a ruthless refusal to be as helpless now as she’d been against Ausra. Margrit coiled tighter, rolling onto her knees with her hands still knotted protectively over her head. She was suddenly aware of how that opened her ribs up for attack, and Grace obliged, kicking her again. Margrit twisted away, skittering far enough to the side that the kick had less impact than its predecessors had, and putting Grace’s booted feet almost directly in front of Margrit.
She shot out of her ball headfirst, regretting that she didn’t have time or leverage to get her legs fully under her and use their strength to drive herself upward.
The top of her head crunched into Grace’s groin. For the first time since the fight had begun Margrit heard something outside her own labored breathing: a gasp of horror and surprise and approval rushing around the audience. Grace herself, always peaches and cream, whitened further and staggered back a few steps as Margrit scrambled to her feet.
She knew nothing about fighting. Rather than dwell on that, she let momentum carry her forward, all her energy redirected as she charged Grace and caught the taller woman in the rib cage with her shoulder. The tribunal scattered as Margrit crashed toward them, slamming Grace into the wall that had seconds before been at the tribunal’s back. Grace made a small pathetic sound, then shoved her hands between bodies and forced Margrit away, using the wall to brace herself against.
Some quick instinct warned Margrit of what Grace intended. She ducked her head, and when Grace’s forehead smashed down, it wasn’t against Margrit’s fragile nose, but the solid bone of her cranium. White light exploded through her vision, sparked with red and blue, tiny bits of dancing color.
When she could see again, streams of brightness still shooting through her sight in time with heartbeat-paced throbs of pain, she’d released Grace and had staggered back a few feet. Grace still sagged against the wall, no more functional in the aftermath of a failed head butt than Margrit was. For a moment rationality took over and Margrit wondered what in hell she was doing, but then Grace’s expression cleared, turning feral with primitive delight, and she charged Margrit again.
They hit the floor together, rolling and kicking, elbows and fists flying everywhere. Margrit threw a punch she was sure would land and it skittered by Grace’s cheek, so close it seemed to have gone through the vigilante without touching her. Outrage at her miscalculation shot the fight beyond any clarity of thought and into a mindless search for vengeance: a chance to get back at someone, anyone, for the chaos Margrit’s life had become. Yes, she had welcomed it in many aspects, but Cole’s fear and anger rose up, reminding her of what was unwelcome. The attack on her mother drove her onward, taking what comfort she could in something as useless and ill directed as a physical battle. Russell’s death gave her reasons of her own to hit, and hit, and hit again. There were no answers to be found in bloodying Grace’s nose or taking a fist so hard she felt her jaw slide dangerously out of socket, but it was something, action permitted where she had been useless before.
Until she felt tears that had nothing to do with her own pain sliding down her face. Hot tracks cut through grime and blood, Grace’s features swimming into view for the first time in whole minutes. The beautiful blonde’s face was beginning to swell, bruises and muck ruining its lines. Margrit could see in Grace’s eyes the battle madness that had overtaken Margrit, the need to dominate that had nothing to do with why they were fighting or what ends they sought. It was simpler than that, one animal trying to survive an encounter with another.
But Margrit’s pain was fading, blood no longer flowing from scratches or her bruised nose; her ribs no longer hurting from the blows Grace had landed. Even the headache from smashing skulls together had faded, and a simple clear thought finally broke through.
Grace couldn’t win.
Grace couldn’t win, not with Daisani’s blood flowing through Margrit’s veins. Margrit would heal too quickly, and Grace would never stop fighting. That thought seemed suddenly, briefly, to define the blond vigilante, and Margrit liked her for it. Admired her for it, even though the mindless rage in Grace’s eyes was currently for her. They could kill each other on the match floor, but Grace would never yield shy of that, and she could not, in the end, defeat Margrit.
Margrit took a deep breath, and when the next hit came, let it spin her away into oblivion.
Darkness didn’t last nearly as long as she pretended it did.
At first it was for Grace’s sake. If Margrit’s eyes popped open again a few seconds after she’d gone down, the fight wouldn’t be over. Then it was for her own as she lay in a boneless heap, listening to voices both worried and angry rising around her as her body knit itself back together. That felt distinctly horrible: bones that were slightly out of place, though not broken, seemed to jerk back to where they belonged, making twisted pops. Nausea rose in Margrit’s belly and she worked not to swallow against it, afraid that would look too awake. A spurt of coughing took her so hard she had nothing left but to collapse again when it was over, and that was as much a relief to her as it concerned those around her. Exhaustion sat on her like a living creature, weighing her down and slowing her thoughts.
She’d been exposed to more violence in the months since she’d met the Old Races than in her entire previous life, at least on a personal level. What she’d encountered before them had been violence done to or by others, and she had abhorred it without entirely understanding it. Human nature took ugly turns; that she could comprehend. She recognized the impulse in herself often enough, reaching for the least palatable, most extreme solution in moments of exasperation or frustration. It was recognizing them and choosing not to act on them that made the difference between a man and a thug. Very few people managed to stay on the side of the angels all the time. Margrit could pick out too-clear moments in the past months when she’d failed to, some of them sending squirms of embarrassment and apology through her. She’d never imagined her veneer of civility could break down as far as it had in the last few minutes. If she could convince herself she’d fought for Alban’s freedom, she might believe she’d at least had the moral high ground, but that comforting lie was beyond her. She’d fought and hit and beaten Grace mostly out of fear and anger and a desperate wish to come out on top just this once.
Margrit opened her eyes, looking up at the cut-stone ceiling above. Biali’s scarred face intruded on her vision almost immediately. “You threw that fight, lawyer.”
“Yeah.” Margrit croaked the word, then wet her lips and nodded before she tried again. “Yeah, I did.” She flexed muscle, testing for pain or discomfort and finding none. Daisani’s gift was fine-tuning her healing abilities further every chance it got. She still wouldn’t want to face a gargoyle, but neither would she want to pit herself against anyone without her advantage. Not, at least, if she learned to fight.
“Why?” Biali sounded justifiably bewildered. Margrit pushed up on her elbows, looking for Grace. The blonde was on the other side of the room, recounting her victory with great sweeps of her arms as one of the selkies tried, without success, to treat Grace’s injuries. Margrit chuckled, low dry sound, then looked for Alban, who still stood apart. He watched her with knowledgeable sorrow, and Margrit’s mirth faded.
“Because she couldn’t win, and I didn’t deserve to.” She got up, stiffness announcing itself after all. Biali backed off, scowling at her more deeply than she thought warranted, given that he’d just taken the first of the trials as his own.
With her awakening, the room came to more attention, even Grace falling silent and submitting to the selkie’s treatment. Margrit put her hands in the small of her back and forced herself straight, wincing as she did so. Daisani arched an eyebrow and she caught herself before making a face, though there was apparently enough play in her expression to give her away, because amusement darted after his raised eyebrow. No one spoke, though the tribunal arranged itself before her, Chelsea Huo the odd man out amongst the gargoyles. Margrit stared at her a moment, trying again to determine her place in the Old Races, then passed a hand over her eyes. “Okay. What’s next, brains or benevolence?”
Janx’s staccato applause broke the air, his laughter following it on a swirl of blue smoke. “Strength, sense and sentiment, now brains and benevolence. Whatever would strength be in your alliterative little world?”
“Brawn, obviously. Just don’t ask me to come up with another trifecta. I don’t think I’m that smart right now.”
“A shame,” Eldred murmured, “as ‘brains’ is the next challenge.”
“Of course it is.” Margrit folded her hands behind her back rather than let them wander any further; she had already given a court case’s worth of tells to the tribunal and its audience, and seemed unable to stop herself from offering more. “What’s the format?”
It shouldn’t, she thought a moment later, have surprised her that they brought forth a chess set.
It wasn’t one of the selkie-and-djinn sets that she’d become familiar with. Margrit crouched at the table they set up, studying the figures. Not tiny figures: the tallest were the height of her palm, and the smaller ones more of a size she was accustomed to seeing king pieces in chess sets carved as. There was an enormous array of fanciful creatures, the entire line of pawns individualized on each side. Coiled sea serpents, delicate mermaids, thickset hairy men, clawed and scowling bare-breasted women, all done in varying shades of marble, so the pawns made a near rainbow of color across the board.
Behind them stood the denizens of the surviving Old Races, stolid gargoyles holding the rooks’ positions, slithery dragons in the diagonal-moving bishops’ places. Unfettered djinn stood as queens, able to move any direction they chose, and the most populous of all, the selkies, were given the king slots.
The knights, on both sides of the board, were slim, beautifully carved representations of Margrit herself.
“There are no vampires.” Margrit’s voice came out hoarse as she tried not to look too hard at the chess pieces of herself. The last time she’d seen such a thing it had nearly spelled her death, and a childish voodoo fear caught her by the throat and held on. Worse than a soul being stolen by a photograph, this was the whole of her captured in tiny relief.
“No one sees a vampire’s natural form and lives to tell of it,” Daisani said very softly. “There is no one to carve my people, and we would not stand amongst our brother chessmen forced into a human form.”
“But the windows…” Margrit looked toward Daisani, glad to be able to take her eyes off the chess set. Daisani smiled, such a gentle expression Margrit jerked her gaze back to the safety of the game pieces.
“A conundrum, is it not? Perhaps an artist’s fancy.”
“Or maybe a vampire’s creation,” Margrit ventured. Daisani smiled again, and beside him, Janx chuckled.
“You might be better off considering your strategy rather than the mysteries we keep from you, Margrit Knight.”
“My strategy. Should it be something beyond ‘win the game’?”
Discontent rippled through the room. Margrit followed it, watching frowns of uncertainty. “What am I missing?”
“For a—usual challenge, one with our people and our people alone, the game pieces would be…symbolic. They would guide us through our memories—you know of the gargoyle memories?” Eldred’s rich voice sharpened and Margrit wondered whether an affirmative or a negative would be the preferred answer. She nodded regardless and Eldred echoed the action, expression inscrutable.
“They would guide us through memories to some moment of wisdom or insight amongst our peoples. The gargoyle who delved deepest, found an unremembered time that most clearly helped to guide us forward as a people or whose recollection most obviously bore reflection on the matter at hand, would be considered the victor in the battle of intellect. But we have never before faced a second who did not belong to our people. The game itself must be the deciding factor,” he said reluctantly. “I see no other choice.”
Margrit swung around to face Alban, feeling as though her body had taken on the shape of a question mark. He kept his gaze downcast for long moments, only lifting it grudgingly, and then to give Margrit an almost imperceptible nod. She clenched a fist in triumph and turned back to the tribunal.
“I take it you’re uncomfortable with pushing the boundaries of your traditions that far.” At Eldred’s nod, she tightened her fist again, using the action to keep herself from crowing in delight. “I might have a solution.”
This time the whispers that ran through the room were full of curiosity. Margrit waited on Eldred’s acknowledgment to continue, trying to keep her voice steady in face of rising excitement. “Alban and I discovered I’m susceptible to your telepathy, or whatever it is you call it that allows you to share memories so clearly. I don’t know if all humans are, but I’ve ridden memory with him more than once. I—”
Babble erupted all around, drowning out Margrit’s voice and her arguments. She fell silent, knowing better than to try to outshout a boisterous courtroom. Eldred brought it back under control after a full minute of outrage and exclamation. Margrit bobbed her head in thanks as he gestured for her to continue, and went on, feeling bold and weightless.
“I know it works with other gargoyles. I’ve caught an unguarded thought or two from Biali.” And for that, she sent an apologetic glance his way. Too much surprise creased his features for anger to have taken hold yet, but Margrit had little doubt it would, in time. “And I rode memory with Hajnal’s daughter, Ausra, the night she attacked me,” she said more quietly.
This time the explosion of sound was concussive. Margrit held her ground only through years of training, and even that didn’t quell the urge to step back and make herself smaller amidst the uproar. She lowered her head and bit her lower lip, watching Eldred through her eyelashes. He was her litmus, out of the tribunal members. Biali was too angry in general, and Alban too determined to let old laws have their way, for either of their reactions to tell Margrit how to gauge the gargoyles as a whole. When tumultuous noise began to die down, Margrit lifted her voice, this time taking center stage without Eldred’s leave.
“I’m willing to allow the gargoyles access to my memories of that night, after the trials are complete.” Margrit waited for the third time for order to restore itself, half wishing she was in an actual courtroom. This was trial-of-the-century stuff, law as theatrics on a massively satisfying scale. The fact that the judge, jury and audience was made up almost entirely of inhuman beings, made no difference at all: building arguments, taking risks, presenting theories and new ideas, were the lifeblood of her career. Margrit would have dearly loved to see a few of the moments she’d just passed shown on the six-o’clock news as the entertainment it rightfully was.
“In the meantime.” Her voice cut through the falling chatter and quieted the room. “In the meantime, it’s possible that if one of you allowed me access to the memories through your mind, I might be able to participate in the trial the way you’ve always done it.”
“How would we know that it was your wits and not your passageway’s that guided you to wisdom?” One of the female gargoyles spoke, her voice lighter than Margrit expected as she voiced the question Margrit imagined Biali badly wanted asked.
Margrit shook her head. “You’d have to choose somebody you trusted, or…” Dismay wrinkled her face as she considered the other possibility. “Or grant me access through somebody who has no reason to want me to succeed. Someone like Biali.”