Caldyr put the last ornament on her little cactus and bit down a smile. Her tiny, old apartment didn’t exactly come alive for the holiday season, but a few decorations helped.
“Looks good,” Reynardine said. “You want me to pick up some tinsel? On my way to the store in just a minute.”
“Tinsel?” Caldyr asked.
“The shiny little strips? Like long glitter.”
She nodded. “Yes, all the long glitter. I’ll give you money for it.”
Reynardine waved her off. “It’s a buck, I’ll just call it an early present.”
“It’s fine,” she insisted. “Just a buck.”
“Consider it my contribution to the decorations. I needed to shop, anyway. We’re down to half-a-dozen string cheeses.”
“It’s just not Christmas without it.” Caldyr pulled out her wallet and handed him the cash. “Get me some of those little canned sausages, too.”
“Got it.” He grabbed his coat as the pocket buzzed. Pulling out the phone, he checked the screen. “Ursie. Must be some Rose Path business.”
Or her ridiculous crush on you. “Must be.”
Reynardine hit talk and smiled at the screen. “How’s my favorite werewolf?”
Whatever Ursie replied killed the smile in a heartspin.
“Oh,” Reynardine said. “Did you tell her to call Caldyr? I’m just the secretary, I don’t do the detective bits.”
“What?” Caldyr asked, edging closer.
Reynardine shook the phone. “Rose Path business. A Myth is missing.”
Caldyr raised a brow. “Is… he like…” She stopped herself. Of course it’s the real King Arthur, he wouldn’t be called a Myth otherwise. “What’s the situation?”
“One second,” Reynardine said, putting the phone on speaker. “Ursie, you mind me bringing Caldyr in?”
Ursie hesitated and Caldyr’s heartorb sank. “This is technically on the divine side of things and Fate doesn’t like us meddling as it is,” Ursie said. “So officially I can’t sanction bringing her in. But I can’t control who you hang out with Reynardine and a good detective might help. I just can’t allow it, or pay her myself.”
“Got it,” Reynardine said. “Sorry, Caldyr. I’ll be right back.” And he walked out the door and into the rainy afternoon.
Caldyr poked at her Christmas cactus for a few minutes and then made a snack. She was on her third string cheese and salami sandwich when someone knocked on the door.
After a moment’s hesitation, Caldyr opened it.
Reynardine, with a sly smile on his long face and rain dripping from his chartreuse three-piece suit. “I’m looking to hire a detective.”
Caldyr squinted at him. “Not sure you can afford me. I’m charging two boxes of long glitter now, plus expenses.”
“And I’ll split the Rose Path pay with you. Sixty-thirty, and ten percent goes to a nice queer friendly holiday charity? Also spring for Christmas dinner this year.”
“Deal.” Caldyr held out a hand.
Reynardine shook, then pulled an orangey-red handkerchief from his pocket to wipe off the mustard.
Caldyr grabbed a soda, and a napkin, before meeting him in the living room for the rundown. “So, King-Excalibur-wielding-Camelot-founding-sword-and-motherfucking-stone-Arthur? He’s missing?”
“Also had a pretty spiffy table,” Reynardine said. “More of an oval, but he tried. King Arthur’s missed a meeting several years in a row and the person he’s meeting with would very much like him to attend.”
“Who’s that? Merlin? The Lady of the Lake? Lancelot?”
Reynardine hesitated, or at least faked a moment, and then smiled. “Uh, Guin. His wife. She does not like me very much at all.”
“Cause you’re a smarmy manho?”
“More or less. After I seduced Arthur, things got pretty rocky between us.”
Caldyr blinked and then went to the kitchen for a cup of tea. She’d like a beer, really, or a double of scotch, but the tea would have to do while she was working on the case.
“I need tea,” she said. “I don’t know why anything you do, or have done, surprises me anymore, but seducing a king—especially in medieval Briton and just… why, okay? What do you get out of all the chaos…” Caldyr paused and counted to fifty. “So, King Arthur is gay?”
“Bi. Maybe pan. He likes to shake things up, no harm in that.”
“Apparently his wife disagreed…”
Reynardine shrugged. “People can be a little strange. I could make a pot of coffee. We’ve got a guest on the way, so it’s probably a good idea, regardless.”
“Knock yourself out. Who’s on the way?”
Reynardine walked into the kitchen. “The real client, of course. Queen Guinevere. Guin, she likes Guin. Or used to. Last time I saw her, she was firing arrows at me while I climbed out her husband’s window. Haven’t exactly kept in touch.”
A knock rattled the door. Four quick taps.
Urgent. Maybe angry. Strong.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Caldyr muttered.
“Want me to get that?” Reynardine asked.
“Please,” Caldyr said, pulling off her glasses to rub her nose-ridge.
The door swung up open with a loud squeak. “Evening, Guin.”
“Hello, I’m…” a voice with a delicate, almost posh, accent started. She sounded like the upstairs people on the British dramas Reynardine liked. “Reinhard?”
“Reynardine, these days.”
“I don’t care.”
Caldyr heard the crack of bone against something harder—wood likely—and a thump.
She was in the hallway with a kitchen knife in a heartspin.
The once and future Queen of Briton wore a long, dark red coat that stretched to her black leather boots. A hood covered short blonde hair and shadowed fiery eyes.
Guin stepped into the apartment; cloth shrunk, the hood faded, and she adjusted a simple cardigan.
She stood tall, but everyone looked tall to Caldyr. Still, the mythical Queen towered over the fairy similar to how Reynardine did and he was six-six.
When he wasn’t drooling into the carpet.
Guin held a sawed off shotgun, but she slipped it into her long coat and raised both hands. “I’m here for the detective. Ursie didn’t say anything about Reinhard and he deserved that.”
Caldyr looked down at him then back to Guin. “I’m not saying he didn’t, but I’m also not pleased that my secretary is napping on my rug. I’m Caldyr Prayers, and I think I’m the detective you’re looking for.”
“Are you Rose Path?” Guin asked.
“No, but he is and I’m being subcontracted by him since the Rose Path can’t hire me for divine business. Technically, I think this should be reported to the Fated Pantheon, but I can understand avoiding official channels.”
“I’m not,” Guin said. “I asked for help from Ares office, but since Arthur and I are no longer…” She looked to the kitchen and then sighed. “Can we do this inside?”
“Are you going to hit Reynardine, again?” Caldyr asked.
“I can’t promise anything,” Guin admitted. “I won’t if he doesn’t… if he doesn’t fox things up.”
Guin closed the door, stepped gingerly over Reynardine, and then looked around the apartment. “Uh, this is a fab place.”
Caldyr shook her head. “Skip the nice lies. Tea?”
“Yes, please. Great cactus, truly. Very festive.”
Caldyr buzzed inside, but just nodded. “I’d offer you coffee, but the machine is new and the only person who knows how to use it is sleeping on the rug.”
“Tea’s my prefered drink, anyway.” Guin looked at Caldyr. “Are you glamoured?”
“I was out shopping earlier.” Caldyr dropped the spell and her human color cracked and fell away, exposing the fairy’s natural blue-green skin and long feathery gill tendrils that mixed with her short, messy black hair.
“Pretty color. Didn’t realize you were a fairy.”
“I know I’m beautiful.” Caldyr walked into the kitchen. “If my being a fairy is a problem, then fuck the fuck off and go choke. If not, have a seat. I’ll get the tea going. String cheese?”
“String cheese. Want some with the tea? I’ve got Fig Halleys, too.”
“Please,” Guin said. “I don’t care what you are, long as you’re willing to help. Are you just going to leave Rein—Reynardine there?”
“Toss the couch blanket on him if you want, but I’m not hurting my back dragging’ his ass to bed.”
Caldyr put the tea together and piled a plate with string cheese and Fig Halleys. She found some peanuts in the cupboard and filled a little bowl with them. Proper tea, since the Queen herself was in attendance.
The blanket barely covered Reynardine to the knees. A throw pillow had been shoved under his head.
Guin was seated on the couch, and staring at the little Christmas Cactus with one lip turned upward into a weak smile.
The smile faded and she looked to Caldyr. “So, where do I begin?”
“It’s your story,” Caldyr said. “Just start with what’s most important.”
“Arthur,” Guin said immediately. “My warrior-fool of a King. Not that I’m free of foolishness, I’ve made mistakes.”
“Lancelot?” Caldyr asked.
Guin shrugged. “I was mad, so I fucked someone else. I’m not proud, but I did catch my husband sliding into Reynardine’s—”
“No, nope, nada. No need for details, I’ve heard.”
“Bed,” Guin finished.
“Still too much information. Just stick to the pertinent stuff and nothing that’s not absolutely vital involving my secretary.”
“Secretary? You two aren’t—”
“Long story, but he’s just a roommate and secretary, and maybe a friend some days. Focus here: Arthur is missing? And Ares doesn’t care?”
“Me and Arthur split a few centuries back,” Guin said. “We hadn’t been close since Camelot and the whole Mordred thing. One day, he just packed up his things and walked out. I didn’t say goodbye, even.”
“Sounds a little like he might not want to be found.”
“We’ve seen each other since,” Guin said, a little quickly and uneven. “And we spend every… we were spending every Christmas together. For the last hundred and forty-two years, we spent every Christmas in a room somewhere. Didn’t even celebrate the holiday, just each other.”
“And then you left?”
She shook her head. “I’d always fall asleep and wake up alone. He… he’s really been hurting—”
“Inside. He was a good king, and good kings always blame themselves before others. When Camelot fell, he took it hard. Nearly killed him.”
“I kinda thought it did,” Caldyr said.
“Myths can’t die, and he had to come back someday. As the true King of Briton, I mean. He knows when, I think, but Merlin didn’t bother sharing with the rest of us. He was always a miser like that.”
“So he just stopped showing up at your little meetings? When?”
“Three years ago,” Guin said. “We’d been meeting in San Francisco at a little motel near the beach. I tried to get in touch, we had each other’s emails, but he never kept a cell phone and I couldn’t find his house number. Email was easiest, anyway.”
“And he never replied?”
Guin shook her head. “I asked Merlin and he said Arthur wanted to be left alone.”
“Merlin and he are close?”
“Father and son, in their own way. Have been long as I’ve known them.”
Caldyr nodded and approached the next sentence with every bit of delicate she could muster. “Guin, I’m really feeling like Arthur might not want to be found.”
“I’ve thought of that, and I don’t think he does, but I’d really like to be sure he doesn’t need to be found. He’s my husband, or he was, and I still love him.”
“Ursie seems to agree with you,” Caldyr said, then looked to where Reynardine still snored softly. “Fine, I’ll search him down. See what the situation is.”
“Find him for me?”
“I’ll find him,” Caldyr said. “If he doesn’t want to see you, and he seems in his right mind, then I’ll let you know he’s safe and that’s it. But I’m not hunting someone down just to turn them over to an ex they don’t want to see. For whatever reason.”
“He’s not hiding from me,” Guin said. “Or just me. He’s hiding from the world at large.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ll decide that, your Highness.”
“I’m Queen, so your Majesty is the correct honorific.”
Caldyr chuckled and opened her mouth, but the Queen spoke first.
“Just Guin is fine, though. This is, too. He might not want to see me, but knowing he’s safe will be enough.”
“So, tell me more about Arthur,”
“He’s protective. Even if he doesn’t know you, he’ll keep you safe. Rule six of Camelot: no one lives afraid. Everyone is safe.”
Caldyr meant his habits, or what he did for a living these days. But the sparkle in Guin’s eyes and the fidgeting hands—like they couldn’t wait to touch him—the light rose to her pale cheeks; all of them told a subtle tale, and possibly more than the Queen meant to.
“No one is beneath him. Talks to every peasant like they’re another Knight of the Round Table. Handsome. Not like Reynardine, more like… like Bogart. Classic good looks. Bodybuilder big. Tall. He’s just massive, even to me and I’m 6’1. Gentle. Birds follow him in the forest and deer show up at our window for treats in the morning.”
“So, he’s a Disney Princess?”
Guin’s jaw dropped. “No! Well, maybe a bit. Used to annoy me, honestly. I wanted my big strong man and I… I thought his softness made him weak… for some silly reason.”
“Toxic masculinity seeps into every aspect of life.”
Guin nodded. “Back then, we just called it Chivalry and had tourneys to see who was the best at it. Also wars, but they’re just a part of life.”
“Don’t have to be,” Caldyr said, even though she couldn’t imagine it being true. Reynardine said it before and she liked the sound and the hope.
“Of course not, but they are.” Guin sighed. “Camelot fell hard after he died. We talked about holding it together and how once Merlin showed up we’d be fine. Didn’t know Merlin was trapped by Morgaine LeFay. And we didn’t have a chance without Arthur. Even I don’t know how he did it, pulled everyone together like that. The knights fought and ended up dividing the land between them. I moved to France for a while. Went looking for…” She made a slow, meandering gesture with one hand. “Comfort.”
Guin winced and shook her head. “I didn’t know if Arthur was even coming back. Never found Lancelot, anyway. Heard rumors he moved in with his parents, but I couldn’t knock on their door. I went back to Tintagel, to the cave where we left him, and found Arthur alive again. Not quite himself. I thought it was death, that dying put him in a weird state. But he’s been like that since.”
“Like what? Exactly?”
“Depressed. Not always, but it’s there in his eyes when he thinks I’m not watching. Quieter. Doesn’t sing. Smiles for me, not because he’s happy, I think.”
“Losing a kingdom to your nephew-slash-son’s rebellion sounds like a downer, for sure.”
“That’s not really what hurt the most. He thinks he let us down. Not that we lost, together. He lost alone and now it’s all on him.”
Caldyr nodded, but kept her mouth shut about toxic masculinity. One jab was enough, especially with her client looking like she might break down crying on the couch.
“What does he do these days? For work, I mean.”
Guin shook her head. “I tried to talk, but we mostly just chatted about changes. Big events. World news.”
“He never said anything about work, or daily life?”
“He might not be doing much,” Guin said. “When I found him in the 1850s he wasn’t working. Just living in Trafalgar with all manner of vagrants. That’s when our Christmas tradition began. It was Christmas eve and I was walking with a mortal I’d been seeing and there he was—Arthur. Ragged. Tired. Standing between a man and a crying boy. I think the man hit the boy, and Arthur never stood for that sort of thing.” She smiled. “The gentleman I was with wanted to call the constables, but I told him to shove off and dragged my Arthur to the nearest inn. Put him in a bath, fed him. Tried to… fix things. He was himself, after a bit. Almost. We had a good night, and when I woke up alone, I went to Trafalgar. He wasn’t there, but he’d carved a heart with our initials into a fence near where I’d found him.”
Guin grabbed a string cheese from the tray and unwrapped it. She bit into the stick without tearing it apart, but Caldyr didn’t correct her uncouth client.
After the cheese, she leaned back on the couch. “I gave up looking after a while, but the next Christmas eve I waited near the fence. He walked right up to me, and smiled. Said he didn’t know if I’d gotten the message. I slapped him, then kissed him, then nearly slapped him, again. I dragged him to a room, made him promise to be there in the morning. Of course, he wasn’t there when I woke up, but he did leave a proper note. Needed a walk and wasn’t sure he’d make it back. Promised to be at the fence next year, if I wanted him. And it’s been like that since, all over the world, and finally here in California for the last decade. Every Christmas up until twenty-fifteen. He just wasn’t there and I’m tired of waiting. I’m going to find him.”
Caldyr unwrapped some cheese herself and ripped the stick apart before shoving half into her mouth. “So he’th like homeless, probably?” She swallowed and grabbed a handful of cookies. “And here in Cali?”
“Maybe, and yes. We’ve been meeting in San Francisco since the late 70s.”
“So he’s probably there?”
“Most likely. I hope so,” Guin said. “He likes big cities and I know he loves San Francisco. Says it’s close to Camelot as he can find, this century.”
“Give me your contact number. Soon as my secretary wakes up, we’re heading to the Bay Area.”
Years back, during the Monarchy war of the nineties, San Francisco had been marked by the Fate of All Things as a free zone; the only completely neutral area on the West Coast. Peace talks, prisoner exchanges, and anything else that needed to be conflict free, were held here.
The ancient streets were blessed and protected by the Emperors, a line of powerful mages that stretched to this day. Naturally between them and Fate, the area was teeming with supernatural life. Most just looking for safety.
Plenty looking for trouble and excitement. Reynardine’s eye swirled as he drove, and Caldyr knew he was the latter.
Also, the old city was gorgeous at Christmas, of course.
The first streetcar they passed blinked in red and green lights. Buildings were strewn with tinsel and strands of every color light.
Caldyr tried not to fall under the festive spell, but the round topped federal building in red and green drew a tiny smile. People partied in the touristy areas. Or at least, gathered so thick they resembled a party.
Watched over by the star of a giant Christmas tree, dozens of vendors hawked wares along the piers. Candy cane colored cotton candy and other treats. People, and more than a few beings that weren’t normal people at all, weaved along the sidewalks. Some laden with last minute shopping and others just strolling.
The city truly came alive with the season.
Caldyr had been a few times, mostly out of boredom and she usually almost regretted the trip because of the expense.
“You want a meatball sub?” Reynardine asked.
“I don’t even know what that is,” Caldyr told him. “Can we just get burritos. You know a good place?”
“Mission street,” Reynardine said with a serious expression he didn’t use very often.
After an almost absurd wait, Caldyr munched on a chicken-pork burrito and had to agree. The burrito was pretty serious, and delicious, business.
She also kept her eyes peeled for a giant, royal looking dude as they drove down street after street.
There were a few, and Caldyr pointed them out, but Reynardine didn’t recognize anyone.
A couple of fairies passed by holding hands. Both wore bright Christmas sweaters and impressively built glamours.
Caldyr waved. The other fairies laughed and flipped her off.
She returned the gesture and stuck out her tongue.
“Want to say hello?” Reynardine asked.
“Kinda just did, but nah.” Caldyr bit back a wistful sigh. “We got stuff to do.”
More blocks passed and the sun started to sink, but the crowds just swelled.
“It’s the Thursday before Christmas,” she muttered. “Why the hell aren’t people home, hiding from the cold and drinking?”
“You know that’s not how everyone celebrates, right?”
“Sure. Some people watch Die Hard, some people watch Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“Always been into both, myself, but that’s not even remotely what I meant.”
Caldyr nodded, and knew he had a dinner planned for a few friends, but didn’t acknowledge all that, yet. She didn’t want to say no, but inviting a half-dozen gods to her place felt higher risk than Caldyr liked.
“Let’s check Haight and Ashbury,” Foxbutt said after a few minutes. “Guin said he liked Trafalgar square and Haight Ashbury would be kinda the same.”
“No, not really. But both have homeless people and history.”
“Wait. How’d you know Guin said he liked Trafalgar?” Caldyr asked. “You were snoring on my rug.”
“I don’t snore, and I was more on the hardwood.”
“You do and dead center of the rug.”
“Maybe a bit. But I was up a while before I was up. Figured Guin would be more open without me being conscious.”
Caldyr nodded. “Not exactly a fountain of information, anyway. Doesn’t even know what he does the rest of the year? What the shit is that?” Truthtold, she wanted Reynardine’s opinion on the story, so him hearing firsthand and not mucking things up worked out.
“I’d… I’d defer that to a professional, honestly. They sound like they’ve suffered the burden of years and other strife, and they could use the help.”
Reynardine was only allowed to live with Caldyr on the condition that he saw Tyr, the gods’ psychologist, once a week, so he spoke from firsthand experience. “But in your opinion?”
“He’s not used to losing and he lost a lot. Let everyone down, in his view. Fucking around on his wife and then having the kid from the affair kick your ass… Yeah, all bad. The Arthur I knew would never forgive himself for stepping on a spider by mistake. He could fight, sure, but against equals on a field of battle. Even then, he never killed when he could spare.”
“Nice to have that luxury,” Caldyr said.
“Being King ain’t all perks,” Reynardine said. “But yeah, having an army to watch your back is one. I haven’t seen him since, but Guin’s story checks out.”
“Would he hide from her?” Caldyr asked. “Would he have reason? Beyond being a selfish dickhead who doesn’t understand that his actions hurt people and that even if he’s suffering hiding himself away isn’t the—”
“Let me do the talking when we find him, okay?” Reynardine interrupted. “Also, no, Guin isn’t the abusive type.”
Caldyr sighed—letting off the steam from her building rant, then shook her head. “Your chin is still bruised from where she hit you with the shotgun. And why does she carry a shotgun?”
“Morgaine? Most likely, anyway. She’s their Isengrim,” Reynardine said.
Isengrim was Reynardine’s archenemy, and had been a problem for Caldyr recently as well.
“So, he’s looking to take out Arthur maybe, too.”
“Nuh-uh,” Reynardine said. “He’s the chief myth. Be easier to kill Guin, I think. I’d go after Lancelot, first. He’s been… critical of Arthur, and Arthur never forgave him—”
“For fucking Guin? Didn’t you and he do stuff first?”
“Yes, but it’s not the same—”
“Because he’s a man?”
“Because Arthur called him brother. And because it wasn’t just a fling for Lancelot, he wanted all of her. Guin ignores it, but Lancelot was more hurt that she didn’t walk away with him than anything.”
“Jesus’ jelly beans, does any Myth have a normal relationship?”
“Not the heroes,” Reynardine said. “I’m just a slut, we all know that.”
“Amen,” Caldyr muttered.
“And it’s been a touch rough for me—”
“Mostly because of you from what I’ve seen,” Caldyr added.
“But the actual heroes need to struggle.”
“Counterbalances the good they do,” Reynardine said. “And the world is just cruel, that’s a big factor, too.”
“Awesome. Back to our missing King? Please?”
“Christmas is the time for reflections.”
“Drive. Talk about Arthur? Where would he be—”
“Haight and Ashbury. Or a homeless shelter. Lots of places serving meals this time of year.”
Caldyr looked out the window, weighing choices as the car rolled down the street.
She wouldn’t have recognized Guin if the Queen had changed her coat. The bright red and short blond hair mirrored the fire inside, but also stuck out like a beacon.
So did the pale young man standing next to her. He wore all black besides a Firstlight hoodie, and Caldyr would bet her last dollar, both of ’em actually, that he was Mordred.
“That’s Mordred,” Reynardine said.
Caldyr looked back, he stared into the brightly decorated store.
“Fucking knew it,” Caldyr muttered.
“Not many ladies that dress like a lit match.”
“Or strike like one. How do we play this?”
“I’m going to confront them.”
“She’s got a shotgun…”
“Hard same,” Caldyr said. “Pop the trunk.”
Caldyr had never walked into a 24/7 carrying a magical shotgun, but Christmas felt like a good time for firsts.
The clerk already had her hands up as the door dinged.
Looks like she’s been there a minute.
Caldyr looked to Guin. She hadn’t turned around.
Mordred was pressed into the slurpee machine with both eyes on Guin’s hips, or crotch—
Or sawed-off shotgun.
“Guin?” Caldyr asked.
“Caldyr?” Guin stepped to the side, to look at Caldyr, but kept her shotgun aimed at Mordred’s waist.
“Oh shit, just what I needed,” Mordred said. “Another gun toting bitch.”
“Well, I can see why you want to shoot him now,” Caldyr said. “But I’d really advise against it.”
“Leave my shop, please,” the clerk said.
“Yeah,” Reynardine said. “We’re getting to that. You want to maybe stand outside with me, and not call the police while we come to a peaceful solution?”
“I really should call the cops,” she told him, patting her hair and smiling. “But like not if I’m going to get shot…”
“Oh, no,” Guin said. “Honey, it’s fine. Just wait with the smarmy whore.”
“Yeah,” Caldyr said. “No one’s getting shot.”
“Really?” Mordred relaxed.
“Maybe Mordred,” Guin said.
“No,” Caldyr snapped. “No shooting, no death… or people not dying on cameras, Guin. We’re just going to interview him.”
“The snake killed Arthur once before.”
“This is getting even weirder,” the clerk said.
“Reynardine! Get her the fuck out of here!” Caldyr shouted.
“Right this way, Miss.” Reynardine grinned; brutally effective charm and shining confidence blended with his standard hundred watt smile.
“Sure, anything you say.”
Caldyr shook her head. “Right, Mordred, do you know anything about King Arthur?”
“Tons. He is my dad.”
“No, I mean him not being—”
“Where is he?” Guin said. “Did you kill him?”
“Haven’t seen him in decades I was just getting a slushie, I didn’t even know you were in town,” Mordred said, turning to fill an already lidded cup. “I live here.”
“In San Francisco?” Guin asked.
“Reminds me of Camelot,” he said.
She nodded. “If I find out you’re lying—”
“I didn’t even know he was missing,” Mordred interrupted. “The Firstlight update dropped and I’ve been grinding all week. Check my Shiver stream, I’m level fifty-eight already.”
Caldyr sighed. “ID?”
“Give me your ID and go home,” Caldyr said. “I’ll have it mailed back, if we find King Arthur.”
He pulled out his wallet. “If you don’t?”
“Then I’ll drop it off myself.”
“He could just run,” Guin said.
“Not far enough,” Caldyr said, staring into his eyes. “Understand?”
Mordred nodded. “I’m innocent. I’ll expect my ID back before the end of the week. Maybe your numb—”
“Out,” Caldyr said, pointing to the door.
Soon as it shut, Guin holstered her shotgun and looked down at Caldyr. “Why’d you let him walk?”
“He’s not our man,” she said. “He didn’t know Arthur even lived here, and he gave an alibi for a week. Mordred doesn’t seem all that bright, I doubt he’d double down on the act like that.”
Guin sighed. “If Morgaine helped—”
“Let’s just stick with simple,” Caldyr said. “Arthur has a history of hiding anyway, and I can hunt Mordred down easy enough.”
“I’m aware,” Caldyr said. “But he’s not a priority. If we get an inkling he’s involved in this, then I’ll go after him. What are you doing here, anyway?”
Guin popped an eyebrow. “Looking for my husband and I got thirsty. Walked in and Mordred was hitting on the clerk.”
Caldyr squinted at her. “I didn’t expect you to be on the streets, too.”
“I hired you to help.” Guin shrugged. “But Rule five of Camelot, you don’t put your work off on others. Even underlings.”
“I’m your fucking detective, not an underling, got it?” Caldyr snapped. “Go to your hotel, or whatever. I’ll call you if I find him.”
“I’m going to keep looking,” Guin said, eyes shaking with tears. She covered them with a hand and then sighed at the ceiling. “I’ve got nothing else to do.”
“The Grinch is on all day,” Caldyr told her. “The classic one.”
“I don’t even think I’ve seen it before.” Guin let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t want to watch it alone.”
Caldyr echoed her sigh. “I don’t want you out here waving a shotgun at any Myth you pass.”
“We’re at an impasse, then.” Guin walked to a fridge and grabbed a water. “Rule eleven of Camelot, compromise rather than waste time, or energy. How about I hand over my gun? Then I can stick with you, and you don’t have to worry about me shooting anyone.”
“Just keep it in your coat,” Caldyr said. “I’ve killed clients before. Don’t make me do it again, Guin.”
“Thank you, Caldyr. Sorry I called you an underling.”
She grunted, filled up a slushie cup for herself and Reynardine, and left a five on the counter.
Reynardine gave the clerk his number, while Caldyr cleaned off the backseat of the car so Guin would have a place to sit.
“Red or blue?” Caldyr asked Reynardine as he climbed into the car.
“Whichever you don’t want.”
Caldyr passed him the blue slushie and they rolled off toward Haight and Ashbury.
Guin stayed quiet in back, eyes scanning the sidewalks. Traffic was pretty heavy on most streets, so they had plenty of time to watch the mobs pass.
A naked man with a Santa hat, a beer in each hand, and his dick painted like a candy cane walked right in front of the car.
“Want to get out and say hello?” Guin asked Reynardine.
“Hey now,” Caldyr said. “No shaming anything.”
“It’s fine,” Reynardine said. “But I’m saving myself for Arthur, actually.”
Guin turned red as her coat, but didn’t reach into it.
“Christ’s sweet rolls, shut your mouth,” Caldyr snapped. “Let’s keep the conversation clean, okay?”
The naked Santa passed by again, shaking his candy cane in slow circles and singing Oh Come All Ye Faithful.
“Well,” Reynardine said. “Maybe I could go for a bit of Christmas cheer.”
Caldyr stopped herself from slamming his face into the steering wheel—an early gift for the Foxass—and rolled down her window to yell for the streaker to move his Jingle bits or lose them.
“Like Camelot?” Caldyr asked Guin when they were cruising through the dusky streets again.
“Fairly equal social rights, at least. No one was ever judged for their preferences.”
Reynardine smirked. “I did streak at that one party, though.”
Guin smiled and rolled her eyes. “Arthur was impressed with that.” She flinched. “And a bit enamored, I think. But all that confidence just shook him up.”
“Not the confidence,” Reynardine said. “Or not just. Arthur was repressed. He liked men, too, and the culture he was raised in shamed that. Even though he could accept others, he couldn’t accept it in himself. I was so free with my flirtations, it was everything he admired.”
Guin looked at Reynardine with something kinder in her fiery eyes. “You offered Arthur something I couldn’t.”
“A penis,” Caldyr said. “We know, but I’d rather I didn’t. Can we get off the horribly awkward romance talk and focus on quiet?”
“Freedom means everything to someone in chains. Especially if they’re the only ones who know about the binding. I was an escape, Guin. An awfully insistent one. Doesn’t mean he loves you less.”
“I’m turning on the radio,” Caldyr said, spinning the knob. The lights clicked on and then faded. Her phone was at forty-two percent.
So like one song without the charger.
Guin nodded. “I should’ve worked harder—”
Reynardine shook his head. “Don’t blame yourself. We can’t know what someone else needs if they don’t tell us. Arthur isn’t the type to lay his troubles on anyone. Told him he’s gonna collapse under that cross one day.”
“Fool never listens,” Guin said. “Sorry I hit you with the shotgun.”
Reynardine shrugged. “Not a thing, your Majesty. Caldyr knocks me out once a month, don’t worry about it.”
“Music? Silence. Anything but this” Caldyr grunted, rummaging through the car for her charge cord.
All her focus was on the hunt, but even Caldyr didn’t miss the subtle whisper of change on the night’s cold breath.
“Arthur,” Guin said, right before she opened the door and bolted down a side street.
“Park the car and catch up,” Caldyr told Reynardine.
“Got it, go!”
She didn’t need to be told twice. Caldyr darted out the door and chased the flaming red coat into the darkness.
Guin turned at the corner, onto a main street packed with people and every type of hippie shop. Haight and Ashbury.
“Damn clever fox.” Caldyr dodged a couple carrying shopping bags, then jumped over a shirtless young man smoking weed on the sidewalk.
Guin passed a lit restaurant and ran into the park at the end of the road. Caldyr hurried to catch up, but she ended up walking into the lamp lit park with no clue where Guin went.
Right up until something howled.
The sound brought shivers and memories of yellowed teeth.
Caldyr forced away thoughts of Isengrim, and pushed on. She put on a burst of speed, regretting leaving her shotgun in the trunk.
Another fifty feet ahead, just past a row of small trees, Ghostly pale dogs with bare skulls for heads circled around Guin.
Cŵn Annwn. Welsh monsters that hunted wrongdoers.
“Caldyr, stay back,” Guin said. “They can’t kill me.”
But being torn apart won’t be pleasant. Not to mention the people they might hurt afterward.
Water ran through a sprinkler system under Caldyr’s feet. She could feel its pulse.
One of the cŵn annwn turned to her, stalking away from the group.
“Hey, I’ve done nothing wrong,” Caldyr said. “Down boy!”
The thing’s bare skull clacked open, showing even more of the shining teeth and an abyss within. A low growl echoed from that darkness, but the noise faded as it stalked closer.
Caldyr spotted a sprinkler head between her and the devil dog.
If she could break it, the water would be hers to shape.
Sword would be nice about now.
Another step from the cŵn annwn, Caldyr dove for the sprinkler.
The soft growl echoed clean through her entire body for a cold second before the cŵn annwn collided with her. They rolled and Caldyr ended up on her back, hands pressed against the dog’s musty fur while it snapped at her face.
She tried to scream, but the weight pushed all the air from her chest.
A fist the size of a personal pizza smashed into the cŵn annwn and the beast disappeared into the night with a yelp that got louder the farther it flew.
Caldyr stared up at a giant of a King in dirty, torn clothing. Even as a bum, there was no way to mistake Arthur. He exhaled royalty like smoke from a cigarette.
“Are you okay?” Arthur rumbled, voice as rough as the mountains he resembled.
“Just peachy,” Caldyr grunted.
Arthur nodded at her, strutting past to where the cŵn annwn circled Guin. She didn’t even seem to notice the dogs.
Her eyes were on him, lost and tear stained and hopeful. In the midst of danger, Arthur was all she saw.
The King had that handled, anyway. With grace, and strength—and his bare hands—Arthur made short work of the pack. Every kick or swing sent another cŵn annwn back to their dark master, or sailing into the night. One got a bite in, on his ankle, but the King barely slowed until the job was done.
After, Arthur stood silently; head down, eyes anywhere but his Queen.
Her armor shrunk back to the long coat.
“Sorry—” Arthur began, but that was all he got out before Guin wrapped her arms around him.
“I need to clean up,” Arthur said. “I smell and I’m gonna stain your pretty coat.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Just hug me already.”
Arthur muttered something, but tears broke his already cracked voice and the words were lost in the flood.
A shadow twitched near a tree.
Caldyr took a step closer and her wings tingled in alarm. “Guys?”
Guin reached up to lift Arthur’s chin, as Mordred and a tall woman in black armor stepped from the shaking shadow.
Caldyr kicked the head off the sprinkled and magicked the water into a sword and shield. “Guys!”
Arthur spun around, putting Guin behind him as Mordred fired a bolt from a crossbow. Blood splashed from Arthur’s chest.
Guin’s coat length and shifted, covering her whole body and forming into smooth, red armor, much like the other woman’s darker suit.
“Morgaine,” Arthur grunted, pushing himself to stand.
The armored woman shifted. “Happy holidays, brother.”
Arthur calmly ripped the crossbow bolt from his chest and snapped it.
Guin lifted her shotgun toward Morgaine.
Morgaine drew her sword, an intricate rapier with a moonlight colored blade. “Better run, little fairy,” she told Caldyr. “I’m not about to let you get in the way.”
“Fuck you and your creepy ass kid. Firstlight sucks.”
“Fuck you,” Mordred snapped, aiming the crossbow at Caldyr.
She raised her shield.
“Sword,” Arthur whispered. “Please.”
Mordred fired. Caldyr caught the bolt with her shield and tossed her water blade to Arthur. She felt his strong hand close around her magic, and did her best to tie the spell to him so he’d be able to use the sword with as little effort from Caldyr as possible.
Guin took her shot, missing Morgaine completely, but causing enough distraction for them to close the gap. Arthur and Caldyr rushed together, her at Mordred and Arthur at Morgaine.
Mordred reached for his sword, Caldyr swung her shield and caught him on the wrist. The bone snapped; she kicked Mordred in the crotch with everything she had.
He lifted a foot off the ground, landing in a heap of tears and quiet whining.
“Upperguard is better,” Caldyr snapped. “Call me a gun toting bitch again, motherfucker…”
Morgaine seemed better matched with Arthur. She lacked his brute strength, but moved with a predatory grace and kept her distance.
Wearing him down, Caldyr realized.
Arthur didn’t seem to care about conserving energy, or anything else besides the bloodying of his blade. Every swing was a two-handed hammerblow, powerful enough to shake trees from their roots. Certainly enough to fell Morgaine.
If he could land a hit.
Caldyr let her shield go and sent the water toward Arthur’s weapon, adding another foot to the sword and plenty of heft.
Morgaine attempted a block, but the weapon smashed through her defenses.
She let the sword drop and followed it to her knees. “Well fought, brother.”
Arthur put the water sword to her face. “Brother?”
“Your Majesty,” she corrected, cold venom overtaking her tone.
“How’d you find me?” he asked.
“Mordred had a run in with your wife and the fairy. We followed them.”
“And the dogs?”
“Borrowed the pack from Arawn.”
Arthur nodded and dropped the water sword. “Go. Now. Consider the reprieve a Christmas present.”
“You’re too kind,” Morgaine said. Her hand flicked and a dagger coalesced from the shadows.
Guin fired her second barrel, knocking Morgaine flat on back. “I’m not. Don’t forget that, Morgaine.”
“Let’s go,” Guin said to Arthur. “Please.”
Caldyr followed them to the main road, before Guin turned around and looked at Arthur.
The Queen shook her head. “Trouble is never more than a step away from you. I should just start following it.” She smiled at Caldyr. “Thank you, Caldyr Prayers. You’re a good detective. If I still had a kingdom, I’d offer a knighthood or something.”
She waved it off. “Didn’t do much. And I shoulda let you shoot Mordred, I guess.”
“He’d have walked it off,” Guin said. “You did plenty. Helped me find my love in time for Christmas. Earned a nice bonus, I should think.”
Arthur shuffled in place. “You hired someone to look for me?”
“You didn’t show up,” Guin said, anger stealing her smile. “Again. And again.” She laughed and shook her head. “I’m going to have to put a tracker on you.”
“Or get him a cell phone,” Caldyr suggested.
“I hate those things,” Arthur muttered.
“Grow up and keep it anyway,” Caldyr told him. “And—”
“Maybe see a therapist, too?” Reynardine suggested, from a few feet away.
Arthur turned to stare at him. “Reinhard?”
“Why can’t people let that one go? It’s Reynardine now,” he said with a smile. “Can we talk a bit, ladies? Me and Arthur.”
Guin didn’t seem so sure, but she backed off to a McDougal’s across the way. Her and Caldyr split an order of fries while Reynardine started a video chat on his phone.
“Who’s he calling?” Guin asked.
“Who do you think? Tyr, the Norse one. He does counseling for all the gods and myths and other folk. Arthur needs help. We’re good at finding help, if we can’t offer it ourselves.”
Ten minutes later, Arthur and Reynardine walked into the restaurant.
Tears puddled in the corners of Arthur’s giant brown eyes and Caldyr remembered those giant St. Booze dogs from the old cartoons.
“That go well?” she asked.
Reynardine gave her a thumbs up.
“Sorry,” Arthur said, eyes on Guin’s shoes. “I shouldn’t hide from you.”
“Forget it,” Guin said. “We don’t need to talk—”
Reynardine cleared his throat. “You both have an appointment in the middle of next week to talk all about it, actually. Together. Tyr’s good at this. Helped me, anyway.”
“He must be good, then,” Guin said. “Thank you both for everything.”
“Sorry to trouble you,” Arthur said.
Caldyr shrugged. “Just a normal Thursday for us.”
“We skipped the board games,” Reynardine said. “But this is good quality family time. Too bad, though, I’ve got Space Wizards Oligopoly and—”
“I’m never playing Oligopoly with you again, you treacherous dickhead,” Caldyr snapped. “Sorry,” she told Guin and Arthur. “Old wounds, but it still stings.”
Arthur cracked a very tiny smile for such a giant man, but Guin’s eyes lit up soon as it broke through all the same.
They parted ways in the parking lot, the Queen and her King heading off to shack-up in a cheap motel.
Caldyr told Reynardine to find coffee and Christmas lights to look at.
“Not in the mood for home?” he asked.
“You like them, right?” Caldyr asked. “The lights and the Christmas songs and the driving together?”
Reynardine smiled. “Sure, it’s kind of nice.”
She nodded. “That was good of you. Stepping in and saying whatever to Arthur to get him to look for help. I’m…”
“Proud?” he asked.
“I don’t know if I should be,” she muttered.
Reynardine ruffled Caldyr’s messy hair. “Can’t help who you’re proud of. Let’s go find something shiny to stare at.”