"The Highest Justice"
Holly: Legends of unicorns occur all over the world throughout recorded history. From a unicorn in Persia, described in the fourth century as having a long white horn tipped in crimson, to the German unicorn whose single horn broke into branches like a stag, to the fierce Indian unicorn, black-horned and too dangerous to be taken alive. There's the kirin in Japan, with a deerlike body, a single horn, and a head like a lion or wolf. And there's the medieval European unicorn, with the beard of a goat and cloven hooves.
No matter the origin, the unicorn is usually thought to be a solitary creature whose very body possesses the power to heal. The legends describe it as elusive and beautiful, fierce and strange.
In fact, such is the mysterious draw of the unicorn that originally the story that follows was meant to be a zombie story. Somehow the power of the unicorn caused the story itself to switch sides.
Garth Nix's "The Highest Justice" draws on the association between unicorns and kings. The Chinese qilin presaged the death of Emperors. The heraldic unicorn shows up on coats of arms, including the Royal Arms of Scotland and England. And in "The Highest Justice," a unicorn takes an even more direct interest in a royal family.
Justine: That is so unconvincing. Emperors and kings. Noble families. You're just saying unicorns are stuck-up snobs. Zombies are the proleteriat. Long live the workers!
Also, your global list of genetic experiments gone wrong (deer with the head of a lion? Talk about top heavy!) prove nothing about unicorn variation. Everyone knows unicorns are all-white or rainbow-colored. Ewww. Zombies come in all races. There is nothing more democratic than zombies!
It's an outright lie that the power of the unicorn caused the story to switch sides. Garth Nix has always been a unicorn lover! He was supposed to write a zombie-unicorn story. But he messed it up, didn't he? (Dear Readers, you will notice much messing up from Team Unicorn throughout this anthology.)
Holly: Zombies represent the workers? A seething mass out to get us all, eh? That doesn't seem so egalitarian.
The Highest Justice
By Garth Nix
The girl did not ride the unicorn, because no one ever did. She rode a nervous oat-colored palfrey that had no name, and led the second horse, a blind and almost deaf ancient who long ago had been called Rinaldo and was now simply Rin. The unicorn sometimes paced next to the palfrey, and sometimes not.
Rin bore the dead Queen on his back, barely noticing her twitches and mumbles and the cloying stench of decaying flesh that seeped out through the honey- and spice-soaked bandages. She was tied to the saddle, but could have snapped those bonds if she had thought to do so. She had become monstrously strong since her death three days before, and the intervention by her daughter that had returned her to a semblance of life.
Not that Princess Jess was a witch or necromancer. She knew no more magic than any other young woman. But she was fifteen years old, a virgin, and she believed the old tale of the kingdom's founding: that the unicorn who had aided the legendary Queen Jessibelle the First was still alive and would honor the compact made so long ago, to come in the time of the kingdom's need.
The unicorn's secret name was Elibet. Jess had called this name to the waxing moon at midnight from the tallest tower of the castle, and had seen something ripple in answer across the surface of the earth's companion in the sky.
An hour later Elibet was in the tower. She was somewhat like a horse with a horn, if you looked at her full on, albeit one made of white cloud and moonshine. Looked at sideways she was a fiercer thing, of less familiar shape, made of storm clouds and darkness, the horn more prominent and bloody at the tip, like the setting sun. Jess preferred to see a white horse with a silvery horn, and so that is what she saw.
Jess had called the unicorn as her mother gasped out her final breath. The unicorn had come too late to save the Queen, but by then Jess had another plan. The unicorn listened and then by the power of her horn, brought back some part of the Queen to inhabit a body from which life had all too quickly sped.
They had then set forth, to seek the Queen's poisoner, and mete out justice.
Jess halted her palfrey as they came to a choice of ways. The royal forest was thick and dark in these parts, and the path was no more than a beaten track some dozen paces wide. It forked ahead, into two lesser, narrower paths.
"Which way?" asked Jess, speaking to the unicorn, who had once again mysteriously appeared at her side.
The unicorn pointed her horn at the left-hand path.
"Are you sure--," Jess asked. "No, it's just that--"
"The other way looks more traveled--"
"No, I'm not losing heart--"
"I know you know--"
"Talking to yourself?" interjected a rough male voice, the only other sound in the forest, for if the unicorn had spoken, no one but Jess had heard her.
The palfrey shied as Jess swung around and reached for her sword. But she was too late, as a dirty bearded ruffian held a rusty pike to her side. He grinned, and raised his eyebrows.
"Here's a tasty morsel, then," he leered. "Step down lightly, and no tricks."
"Elibet!" said Jess indignantly.
The unicorn slid out of the forest behind the outlaw, and lightly pricked him in the back of his torn leather jerkin with her horn. The man's eyebrows went up still farther and his eyes darted to the left and right.
"Ground your pike," said Jess. "My friend can strike faster than any man."
The outlaw grunted, and lowered his pike, resting its butt in the leaf litter at his feet.
"I give up," he wheezed, leaning forward as if he might escape the sharp horn. "Ease off on that spear, and take me to the sheriff. I swear--"
"Hunger," interrupted the Queen. Her voice had changed with her death. It had become gruff and leathery, and significantly less human.
The bandit glanced at the veiled figure under the broad-brimmed pilgrim's hat.
"What?" he asked hesitantly.
"Hunger," groaned the Queen. "Hunger."
She raised her right arm, and the leather cord that bound her to the saddle's high cantle snapped with a sharp crack. A bandage came loose at her wrist and dropped to the ground in a series of spinning turns, revealing the mottled blue-bruised skin beneath.
"Shoot 'em!" shouted the bandit as he dove under Jess's horse and scuttled across the path toward the safety of the trees. As he ran, an arrow flew over his head and struck the Queen in the shoulder. Another, coming behind it, went past Jess's head as she jerked herself forward and down. The third was struck out of the air by a blur of vaguely unicorn-shaped motion. There were no more arrows, but a second later there was a scream from halfway up a broad oak that loomed over the path ahead, followed by the heavy thud of a body hitting the ground.
Jess drew her sword and kicked her palfrey into a lurching charge. She caught the surviving bandit just before he managed to slip between two thorny bushes, and landed a solid blow on his head with the back of the blade. She hadn't meant to be merciful, but the sword had turned in her sweaty grasp. He fell under the horse's feet, and got trampled a little before Jess managed to turn about.
She glanced down to make sure he was at least dazed, but sure of this, spared him no more time. Her mother had broken the bonds on her left arm as well, and was ripping off the veil that hid her face.
"Hunger!" boomed the Queen, loud enough even for poor old deaf Rin to hear. He stopped eating the grass and lifted his head, time-worn nostrils almost smelling something he didn't like.
"Elibet! Please … ," beseeched Jess. "A little longer--we must be almost there."
The unicorn stepped out from behind a tree and looked at her. It was the look of a stern teacher about to allow a pupil some small favor.
"One more touch, please, Elibet."
The unicorn bent her head, paced over to the dead Queen, and touched the woman lightly with her horn, briefly imbuing her with a subtle nimbus of summer sunshine, bright in the shadowed forest. Propelled by that strange light, the arrow in the Queen's shoulder popped out, the blue-black bruises on her arms faded, and her skin shone, pink and new. She stopped fumbling with the veil, slumped down in her saddle, and let out a relatively delicate and human-sounding snore.
"Thank you," said Jess.
She dismounted and went to look at the bandit. He had sat up and was trying to wipe away the blood that slowly dripped across his left eye.
"So you give up, do you?" Jess asked, and snorted.
The bandit didn't answer.
Jess pricked him with her sword, so he was forced to look at her.
"I should finish you off here and now," said Jess fiercely. "Like your friend."
"My brother," muttered the man. "But you won't finish me, will you? You're the rightful type, I can tell. Take me to the sheriff. Let him do what needs to be done."
"You're probably in league with the sheriff," said Jess.
"Makes no odds to you, anyways. Only the sheriff has the right to justice in this wood. King's wood, it is."
"I have the right to the Middle and the Low Justice, under the King," said Jess, but even as she said it, she knew it was the wrong thing to say. Robbery and attempted murder in the King's wood were matters for the High Justice.
"Slip of a girl like you? Don't be daft," the bandit said, laughing. "Besides, it's the High Justice for me. I'll go willingly along to the sheriff."
"I don't have time to take you to the sheriff," said Jess. She could not help glancing back at her mother. Already there were tiny spots of darkness visible on her arm, like the first signs of mold on bread.
"Better leave me, then," said the bandit. He smiled, an expression that was part cunning and part relief beginning to appear upon his weather-beaten face.
"Leave you!" exploded Jess. "I'm not going to--What?"
She tilted her head, to look at a patch of shadow in the nearer trees.
"You have the High Justice? Really?"
"Who are you talking to?" asked the bandit nervously. The cunning look remained, but the relief was rapidly disappearing.
"Very well. I beseech you, in the King's name, to judge this man fairly. As you saw, he sought to rob me, and perhaps worse, and told his companion to shoot."
"Who are you talking to?" screamed the bandit. He staggered to his feet as Jess backed off, keeping her sword out and steady, aimed now at his guts.
"Your judge," said Jess. "Who I believe is about to announce--"
Jess stopped talking as the unicorn appeared behind the bandit, her horn already through the man's chest. The bandit walked another step, unknowing, then his mouth fell open and he looked down at the sharp whorled spike that had seemingly grown out of his heart. He lifted his hand to grasp it, but halfway there nerves and muscles failed, and his life was ended.
The unicorn tossed her head, and the bandit's corpse slid off, into the forest mulch.
Jess choked a little, and coughed. She hadn't realized she had stopped breathing. She had seen men killed before, but not by a unicorn. Elibet snorted, and wiped her horn against the trunk of a tree, like a bird sharpening its beak.
"Yes. Yes, you're right," said Jess. "I know we must hurry."
Jess quickly fastened her mother's bandages and bonds and rearranged the veil before mounting her palfrey. It shivered under her as she took up the reins, and looked back with one wild eye.
"Hup!" said Jess, and dug in her heels. She took the left-hand path, ducking under a branch.
They came to the King's hunting lodge at nightfall. It had been a simple fort once, a rectangle of earth ramparts, but the King had built a large wooden hall at its center, complete with an upper solar that had glass windows, the whole of it topped with a sharply sloped roof of dark red tiles.
Lodge and fort lay in the middle of a broad forest clearing, which was currently lit by several score of lanterns, hung from hop poles. Jess grimaced as she saw the lanterns, though it was much as she'd expected. The lodge was, after all, her father's favorite trysting place. The lanterns would be a "romantic" gesture from the King to his latest and most significant mistress.
The guards saw her coming, and possibly recognized the palfrey. Two came out cautiously to the forest's edge, swords drawn, while several others watched from the ramparts, their bows held ready. The King was not well-loved by his subjects, with good cause. But his guards were well-paid and, so long as they had not spent their last pay, loyal.
"Princess Jess?" asked the closer guard. "What brings you here?"
He was a new guard, who had not yet experienced enough of the King's court to be hardened by it, or so sickened that he sought leave to return to his family's estate. His name was Piers, and he was only a year or two older than Jess. She knew him as well as a Princess might know a servant, for her mother had long ago advised her to remember the names of all the guards, and make friends of them as soon as she could.
"Oh, I'm glad to see you, Piers," sighed Jess. She gestured to the cloaked and veiled figure behind. It was dark enough that the guards would not immediately see the Queen's bonds. "It is my mother. She wishes to see the King."
"Your Highness!" exclaimed Piers, and he bent his head, as did his companion, a man the other guards called Old Briars, though his name was Brian and he was not that old. "But where are your attendants? Your guards?"
"They follow," said Jess. She let her horse amble forward, so the guards had to scramble to keep alongside. "We came on ahead. My mother must see the King immediately. It is an urgent matter. She is not well."
"His Majesty the King ordered that he not be disturbed--," rumbled Old Briars.
"My mother must see His Majesty," said Jess. "Perhaps, Piers, you could run ahead and warn … let the King know we will soon be with him?"
"Better not, boy. You know what--," Old Briars started to say. He was interrupted by the Queen, who suddenly sat straighter and rasped out a single world.
Either the King's name, spoken so strangely by the Queen, or the desperate look on Jess's small, thin face made Old Briars stop talking and stand aside.
"I'll go at once," said Piers, with sudden decision. "Brian, show Their Highnesses into the hall."
He laid a particular stress on the last word, which Jess knew meant "Keep them out of the solar," the upper chamber that the King had undoubtedly already retired to with his latest mistress, the Lady Lieka--who, unlike Jess, actually was a witch.
They left the horses at the tumbledown stable near the gate. The king had not bothered to rebuild that. As Jess untied the Queen and helped her down, she saw Brian working hard to keep his expression stolid, to maintain the professional unseeing look all the guardsmen had long perfected. The King being what he was, the outer guards usually did not want to see anything. If they did want to watch, or even participate, they joined his inner retinue.
The Queen was mumbling and twitching again. Jess had to breathe through her mouth to avoid the stench that was overcoming spices and scent.
"Ed-mund … ," rasped the Queen as Jess led her to the hall. "Ed-mund …"
"Yes, Mother," soothed Jess. "You will see him in a moment."
She caught a glimpse of Elibet as Brian stood aside to let them pass through the great oaken door of the hall. Piers was waiting inside, and he bowed deeply as they went in. He didn't notice the unicorn streaming in ahead, the smoke from the fire and candles eddying as she passed.
The King was seated at the high table as if he had been there all the time, though Jess could tell he had just thrown a richly furred robe of red and gold over his nightshirt. Lady Lieka, clad in a similar robe, sat on a low stool at his side, and poured a stream of dark wine into the King's jeweled goblet, as if she were some ordinary handmaiden.
None of the King's usual henchmen were with him, which suggested a very rapid descent from the solar. Jess could still hear laughter and talking above. The absence of courtiers and the inner guards could be a bad sign. The King liked an audience for his more ordinary deeds of foulness but preferred privacy when it came to mistreating his own family.
"Milady Queen and my … thoughtful … daughter," boomed out the King. "What brings you to this poor seat?"
He was very angry, Jess could tell, though his voice did not betray that anger. It was in the tightness in his eyes and the way he sat, leaning forward, ready to roar and hurl abuse.
"Ed-mund … ," said the Queen, the word half a growl and half a sigh. She staggered forward. Jess ran after her, and took off her hat, the veil coming away with it.
"What is this!" exclaimed the King, rising to his feet.
"Edmund … ," rasped the Queen. Her face was gray and blotched, and flies clustered in the corners of her desiccated eyes, all the signs of a death three days gone returning as the unicorn's blessing faded.
"Lieka!" screamed the King.
The Queen shambled forward, her arms outstretched, the bandages unwinding behind her. Flesh peeled off her fingers as she flexed them, white bone reflecting the fire- and candlelight.
"She was poisoned!" shouted Jess angrily. She pointed accusingly at Lieka. "Poisoned by your leman! Yet even dead she loves you still!"
"No!" shrieked the King. He stood on his chair and looked wildly about. "Get her away. Lieka!"
"One kiss," mumbled the Queen. She pursed her lips, and gray-green spittle fell from her wizened mouth. "Love … love …"
"Be calm, my dove," said Lieka. She rested one almond-white hand on the King's shoulder. Under her touch he sank back down into his high-backed chair. "You--strike off her head."
She spoke to Piers. He had unsheathed his sword, but remained near the door.
"Don't, Piers!" said Jess. "Kiss her, Father, and she will be gone. That's all she wants."
"Kill it!" shrieked the King.
Piers strode across the hall, but Jess held out one beseeching hand. He stopped by her side, and went no farther. The Queen slowly shambled on, rasping and muttering as she progressed toward the raised dais, the King and Lady Lieka.
"Traitors," whined the King. "I am surrounded by traitors."
"One kiss!" shouted Jess. "You owe her that."
"Not all are traitors, Majesty," purred Lieka. She spoke in the King's ear, careless of the Queen's pathetic faltering step up onto the dais. "Shall I rid you of this relict?"
"Yes!" answered the King. "Yes!"
He turned to look the other way, shielding his face in his hands. Lieka took up a six-branched silver candelabra and whispered to it, the candle flames blazing high in answer to her call.
"Father!" screamed Jess. "One kiss! That's all she wants!"
Lieka thrust out the candelabra as the Queen finally made it onto the dais and staggered forward. The flames licked at dress and bandages, but only slowly, until Lieka made a claw with her other hand and dragged it up through the air, the flames leaping in response as if she had hauled upon their secret strings.
The Queen screeched, and ran forward with surprising speed. Lieka jumped away, but the King tripped and fell as he tried to leave his chair. Before he could get up, the Queen knelt at his side and, now completely ablaze, embraced him. The King screamed and writhed but could not break free as she bent her flame-wreathed blackened head down for a final kiss.
"Aaaahhhh!" the Queen's grateful sigh filled the hall, drowning out the final muffled choking scream of the King. She slumped over him, pushed him down into the smoldering rushes on the dais, and both were still.
Lieka gestured. The burning bodies, the smoking rushes, and the great fire in the corner pit went out. The candles and the tapers flickered, then resumed their steady light.
"A remarkable display of foolishness," the witch said to Jess, who stood staring, her face whiter than even Lieka's lead-painted visage. "What did you think to achieve?"
"Mother loved him, despite everything," whispered Jess. "And I hoped to bring the murder home to you."
"But instead you have made me Queen," said Lieka. She sat down in the King's chair. "Edmund and I were married yesterday. A full day after your mother's death."
"Then he knew … ," said Jess stoically. It was not a surprise, not after all this time and the King's other actions, but she had retained some small hope, now extinguished. "He knew you had poisoned her."
"He ordered it!" Lieka laughed. "But I must confess I did not dare hope that it would lead to his death in turn. I must thank you for that, girl. I am also curious how you brought the old slattern back. Or rather, who you got to do it for you. I had not thought there was another practitioner of the art who would dare to cross me."
"An old friend of the kingdom helped me," said Jess. "Someone I hope will help me again, to bring you to justice."
"Justice!" spat Lieka. "Edmund ordered me to poison your mother. I merely did as the King commanded. His own death was at the Queen's hands, or perhaps more charitably by misadventure. Besides, who can judge me now that I am the highest in the land?"
Jess looked to the darkest corner of the hall, behind the dais.
"Please," she said quietly. "Surely this is a matter for the Highest Justice of all?"
"Who are you talking to?" said Lieka. She turned in her seat and looked around, her beautiful eyes narrowed in concentration. Seeing nothing, she smiled and turned back. "You are more a fool than your mother. Guard, take her away."
Piers did not answer. He was staring at the dais. Jess watched too, as the unicorn stepped lightly to Lieka's side, and gently dipped her horn into the King's goblet.
"Take her away!" ordered Lieka again. "Lock her up somewhere dark. And summon the others from the solar. There is much to celebrate."
She raised the goblet, and took a drink. The wine stained her lips dark, and she licked them before she took another draft.
"The royal wine is swee--"
The word never quite quit Lieka's mouth. The skin on her forehead wrinkled in puzzlement, her perfectly painted face crazing over with tiny cracks. She began to turn her head toward the unicorn, and pitched forward onto the table, knocking the goblet over. The spilled wine pooled to the edge, and began to slowly drip upon the blackened feet of the Queen, who lay beneath, conjoined with her King.
"Thank you," said Jess. She slumped to the floor, raising her knees so she could make herself small and rest her head. She had never felt so tired, so totally spent, as if everything had poured out of her, all energy, emotion, and thought.
Then she felt the unicorn's horn, the side of it, not the point. Jess raised her head, and was forced to stand up as Elibet continued to chide her, almost levering her up.
"What?" asked Jess miserably. "I said ‘thank you.' It's done, now, isn't it? Justice has been served, foul murderers served their due portion. My mother even … even … got her kiss …"
The unicorn looked at her. Jess wiped the tears out of her eyes and listened.
"But there's my brother. He'll be old enough in a few years--well, six years--"
"I know father was a bad king, but that doesn't mean--"
"It's not fair! It's too hard! I was going to go to Aunt Maria's convent school--"
Elibet stamped her foot down, through the rushes, hard enough to make the stone flagstones beneath ring like a beaten gong. Jess swallowed her latest protest and bent her head.
"Is that a unicorn?" whispered Piers.
"You can see her?" exclaimed Jess.
Piers blushed. Jess stared at him. Evidently her father's outer guards did not take their lead from the King in all respects, or Piers was simply too new to have been forced to take part in the King's frequent bacchanalia.
"I … I … There is someone in particular … ," muttered Piers. He met her gaze as he spoke, not looking down as a good servant should. She noticed that his eyes were a very warm brown, and there was something about his face that made her want to look at him more closely… .
Then she was distracted by the unicorn, who stepped back up onto the dais and delicately plucked the simple traveling crown from the King's head with her horn. Balancing it there, she headed back to Jess.
"What's she doing?" whispered Piers.
"Dispensing justice," said Elibet. She dropped the crown onto Jess's head and tapped it in place with her horn. "I trust you will be a better judge than your father. In all respects."
"I will try," said Jess. She reached up and touched the thin gold circlet. It didn't feel real, but then nothing did. Perhaps it might in daylight, after a very long sleep.
"Do so," said Elibet. She paced around them and walked toward the door.
"Wait!" cried Jess. "Will I see you again?"
The unicorn looked back at the princess and the young guardsman at her side.
"Perhaps," said Elibet, and was gone.
© 2010 Holly Black