Deep in the forest, in the Fairy Kingdom of Mercia, not far from the Palace at the Waterfall, Princes Sorena was exuding charm as she led the new Elvish Fencing Master on a tour of their practice grounds. It was a task given to her by her father the King. Though King Talan had many dignitaries who could have accompanied the Fencing Master, he had asked the Princess to take care of it personally.
King Talan had a reason for wanting to make a good impression. The Elves were important allies. Unfortunately, relations had been strained recently. When Rainith the Red killed their last fencing master, the Elves had taken it very badly. Furious messages had been exchanged, ambassadors had been withdrawn, and trade had almost ground to a halt.
Rainith had been banished for her actions. The Elves might have wished for a more severe punishment, but had let the matter drop, providing her face was never seen in these parts again. The new fencing master, Alvignar, cousin of the unfortunately departed Alavasti, did not bring the subject up. Nor did the Princess. Rainith's name was never to be mentioned, at least when there was an Elf around.
As they finished the tour, they found King Talan waiting for them at the edge of the glade. Behind him was a troop of fairy archers, drawn up in good order.
'Is everything to your satisfaction, Fencing Master Alvignar?'
'It is.' The Fencing Master seemed in good spirits. The King was relieved. If the Elf settled in contentedly in his new position it would go a long way to repairing relations.
'A new class of young fairies are awaiting your instruction very eagerly. Our blacksmiths have been busy, hammering their swords.'
'I'll be ready to - ' began Fencing Master Alvignar. He got no further, for at that moment, a winged snake appeared out of nowhere. The Elf, taken by surprise, managed to draw his sword, but could not strike a blow before the snake buffeted him with its body then bit his neck, instantly killing him. The snake reared in the the air then started toward Princess Sorena. Its progress was abruptly halted by a volley of small arrows. The King's bodyguard were experienced troops and were quick to react. The snake, though huge in relation to the fairies, reeled under the onslaught as the archers fired volley after volley. It hissed in rage, and as it did so several arrows flew into its open jaws. The snake cried in agony, fell towards the ground, then vanished in a flash.
There was a moment's stunned silence.
'What was that monster?' said the Princess.
No one could answer. Such a creature had never been seen before in the Fairy Kingdom of Mercia.
The King looked down at Alvignar, now dead. He shook his head.
'I can't believe we've lost another fencing master. The Elves are going to be furious.'
'I don't like any odd numbers apart from one. One is OK. Two is fine, in fact two is maybe my favourite number. But I don't like three. There are a lot of threes in the world but I'm suspicious of them. Four is good. Five isn't so bad, though it's an odd number. But as odd numbers go, it's all right. Six is OK but not great because it's two threes. Seven is bad. I'm uncomfortable having anything to do with seven. Eight is good, I feel fine about eight. Nine is bad. Ten is very good. Eleven is dreadful, I don't like it at all. Twelve is OK but then there's thirteen which is one of the worst numbers. I could never do anything which involved the number thirteen. Fourteen is fine although it does equal two sevens which is not ideal. Fifteen is not dreadful though not great. Sixteen is good, one of my favourites. Seventeen is terrible, it's a really bad number. Nakishdan once set the TV volume to 17 and I had to run out the room. Eighteen is all right, being even, but it's two nines, which can make me uneasy, depending on my mood. Nineteen is positively scary, one of the worst numbers. Twenty is good. Twenty-one is fairly bad - it's an odd number, and it's seven times three. But it's not as bad as it might be, for some reason. Maybe because there are some good things associated with twenty-one, like an important birthday. Twenty-two is all right but twenty-three is awful. It's such an ugly, odd number. And it doesn't divide by anything which is weird. Twenty-four is good, twenty-five not so bad. Twenty-six should be OK as it's even, but it's two thirteens so that's not so good. Twenty-seven is really bad. Twenty-eight is all right but twenty-nine is even worse than twenty-seven, it's just a terrible number. Thirty is - '
'Shut up!' yelled Rainith. 'Stupid numbers!'
Everyone in the small cafe turned and stared. Nakishdan looked embarrassed. Glade Looked weary.
Mixt was unabashed. She grinned. 'Sorry. Was I going on?'
'Just a little.' Nakishdan laughed.
Mixt laughed too. 'What was I talking about?'
'You were telling us why you couldn't order scrambled eggs because they're number seven on the menu.'
'Well, you can see it's a problem. Would you order them for me? But pretend they're for you, then sneak them onto my plate.'
Glade suppressed a sigh. After each mission, he met Search Unit Sigma in a small cafe in Vauxhall for debriefing. Originally, it had been planned to hold debriefings with Duluth at headquarters. Unfortunately these had degenerated into farce, started by Mixt's antipathy to climbing the seven stairs to the building. Then there had been the strange scene as she counted her steps walking across the courtyard, going back when she didn't like the final number. Nakishdan had started some endless, rambling tale about his feet feeling odd if his shoes were the wrong colour. Rainith got into an argument with a security guard and ended up drawing her sword and challenging everyone to a fight. On the whole, Sigma didn't seem to react that well to MI6 headquarters.
After that it was decided that their debriefings should be held in the less formal surroundings of the cafe, with Glade to oversee them. Sometimes it went well enough. Other times it could be a nightmare, particularly if, as was the case today, Glade had a hangover, and a bad case of depression.
Glade listened to their report from the gig, carefully taking note of every detail. The first appearance of a winged snake in the past was troubling, though Glade didn't have much to say about it. He'd pass the report on to the department and let them sort it out. Glade had no desire to resume the role of leader, though he'd once been in command of his own squadron. He did tell the group about his experience in the car park, where he'd been attacked.
'It's like we're attracting these creatures now. That wasn't all. Afterwards I got a very strange message. It said Save Geeda Lala. They're sending 102 Woo to kill her.'
'Who's Geeda Lala?'
'I have no idea.'
'Was that a hundred and two, or one-oh-two?'
'102 Woo. It sounds like a secret society.'
'I want to go home,' said Nakishdan abruptly.
Glade shrugged. At any meeting with Nakishdan, Mixt and Rainith, it was always quite likely that one of them would announce a sudden desire to leave. Nakishdan paid for his food and Mixt followed him out of the cafe. Rainith hung back, though usually she was the first to disappear. Glade, finding himself alone with her, felt awkward. Rainith herself seemed uncomfortable.
'I liked the band.' Rainith looked more uncomfortable. She didn't like asking anyone for anything. 'X-Ray Spex. Does their music still exist?'
Glade nodded, relieved that Rainith's query was relatively normal.
'It'll still be around. Why?'
'Can I buy it?'
'I'm sure you can.'
Rainith looked blank.
'Do you play any music in your own flat?'
Despite living in the human world for more than a year, Rainith had no idea how people listened to music. Glade gave her a brief explanation of the various alternatives. He used his iPad to show her some online sites where she could buy the band's music.
'Can I use gold?'
'No, you'd need money.'
'I don't have money.'
'The department offered to set you up with a credit card. You refused.'
'Oh.' Rainith looked despondent.
'I'll ask them to set it up for you if you like. It'll only take them a day or two. When it's done I'll show you how to use it.'
Rainith appeared to be satisfied. For a moment it seemed like she was going to say 'thank you' to Glade, but that proved to be beyond her. She nodded, then quickly left the cafe.
'I'm outraged. How can you possibly not believe me?'
'Because the fairy said Ha. And Rainith, despite her very many faults, is perceptive. Besides, every time you tell the story it changes.'
'Last time the firing squad was in France. The time before it was Belgium.'
'Well you know, borders in those days - '
Mixt smiled, her brightest smile, which, with her short blonde hair, was very bright. She put her face close to Nakishdan's. 'Out with it. What really happened? Were you a spy?'
'Aha! Were you even in the army?'
'Yes. Well, I was a cadet. But I never made it to Waterloo. I didn't get further than the training camp at Aldershot.'
'There's no need to be mean about it.' Nakishdan sounded hurt.
'Sorry. But I always thought you were an unlikely war hero. So how did you really die?'
'Our general shot me. It was barbaric. He didn't wait for a proper military trial or anything. Just took out his pistol and shot me. A disgrace to the army, I'd say.'
'Why did he shoot you?'
'He caught me in bed with his wife.'
Mixt roared with laughter. 'That's much more what I was expecting. Was she attractive?'
'Quite. But I hadn't meant to sleep with the general's wife. I was already secretly sleeping with his daughter. I went to visit her but I got the times wrong. She was out playing croquet. His wife invited me in. And you know, one thing led to another.'
Mixt was now laughing so heartily she was obliged to sit down. 'No wonder he shot you. Was it right there in the bedroom?'
'No, I made it out the window and down the drainpipe. I might have escaped if I hadn't tripped over the shrubbery. Next think I knew he was standing over me pointing his gun. I think he was still debating what to do till the silver plates fell out my bag.'
'I'd stolen a few from the kitchen. I didn't have much money as a cadet.'
Mixt wiped tears from her eyes. 'So you slept with his wife and daughter and stole his silver? Really Nakishdan, I'd no idea you were such a scoundrel.'
Nakishdan looked abashed. 'I was young at the time. I didn't mean for any of it to happen.'
'So what was it like, being shot to death?'
'Strange. There was a big explosion. I don't know if that was the gun, or something else. I sort of felt like I was being dragged along somewhere. Next thing I knew I woke up in the 1920s.'
'I loved the 20s! I was a fabulous flapper!'
'I liked them too, once I adjusted. So that's what really happened.' Nakishdan looked at his feet, a little sadly. 'It was mean, just shooting me like that. I still say he should have followed correct military procedure.'
Mixt put her arm round him. 'Cad and a scoundrel. I'm not surprised you've been lying about it all these years.'