(244) Interlude: The Feline Persuasion

“We need a cat.”

I was reading on my phone.  It was a T. Kingfisher novel (Paladin’s Grace), and I was chuckling (when I wasn’t reading excerpts aloud) when Nen stood in front of me and said this aloud.

I looked up from my phone. He was tall enough to meet my eyes, and wearing an outfit of black leather, with his hair pretty spiky, looking kind of like a really young Billy Idol.  I wondered what I had that was leather that he used as the base of the enchantment, that whole “feast from a kernel of corn” business. I remembered with a minor cringe that I had a black leather tie my sister had given me as a joke.

“A kitten, preferably.”  He brought me back to reality, and my brain kicked back into gear.

“We need a cat?” I was half making sure that I had heard him correctly, and half challenging his logic.

“Yes,” he said, as if required to explain it in simple words.  “Cats and books go together.”  He tilted his head slightly.  His eyes were bright. “Especially in libraries.”

“Oh,” I said.  “So, like a guardian?”  Nen had explained a little bit of what was needed to cement the new Realm.  I still hadn’t given it a good name, although I was vacillating between “Sibrary,” and “Sibliotecha” and working on something with “Archives” that wasn’t too derivative of C. Stross.

Nen and Rayya both had been a little coy on all of the details. Well, I describe it as coy, but it was like their natural fey state. Straight answers were more than unpleasant to them, but I guessed it was part of their Game.  (Not The Game, which, well, you 1990s kids just lost. Again.)

I had jotted down some of the rules. Acknowledgement from Powers was more than a polite part; it was an adjustment to reality.  Then there needed to be different anchors. One of them was a set of guardians, and to be kind to me, they wanted anchors that were of my reality more than the fey one. I wasn’t sure if they had to be living creatures, because frankly, even with the Realm’s extra space, I wasn’t sure about more roommates, and to be of this world, they had to be in this world at least a large part of the time. I wasn’t sure of the magic involved, like if it was a fifty-one percent kind of thing, or if it was like having a jar of dirt.

A cat, though.  Huh.  I wasn’t opposed to them, although if you’d asked, I don’t know if I would have described myself as a cat person. Cat people were odd. Cats are odd. They have brains the size of walnuts, big eyes, small mouths, sounds that mimic those of human babies, and they like to torture and murder other animals.  Yet at the same time, they are absolutely adorable and give positive feedback just made to spark out endorphins.  They stink of ammonia and like to sit on what you’re looking at because they read with their rears.

“We should get a cat,” I agreed.

I’m a sucker, I know.

There wasn’t anything in particular that kept me from getting a cat. No pet rent, or extra deposit, or whatnot.  I’d have to find a place to put a couple cat boxes, keep them in kibble and the occasional gushy treat… I even knew where to get one, since the Denver Dumb Friends League was obvious.  Hmmm. Maybe we could put one of the cat boxes in the Little Realm.

I switched from my e-book reading to doing research. “Does it have to be a kitten? Or what are we looking for?” I asked, trying to get a little more information.

“A kitten… lasts longer?” Nen said.  I’m sure I heard the question mark in his voice.

“I mean, that’s an `it depends’ if I’ve ever heard one.” I frowned. Luckily, if there is anything the internet doesn’t have a scarcity of, it’s cats.  “I am presuming we’ll keep it an indoor cat.  Even though the deadliness of cats on bird species has been found to be deeply skewed statistics, I know there are a lot of dangers out there for cats, and not just the coyotes I occasionally see at night.”

“Fred,” Rayya mentioned from the kitchen.

“Fred?” I repeated, mostly to make sure I heard it right.

“Fred. The coyote’s name is Fred.”

I blinked. Once.  Twice. Then I turned back around towards the kitchen. “Fred?” I managed.

“Naming is a tricky art. Sometimes, that name is Fred.” She brought her bowl of cereal out to where they had moved the couch. “That was so in this case.”

“We have a coyote named Fred,” I shrugged, turning back in the chair to the computer.

“We do not have a coyote named Fred,” Rayya murmured. “Fred is his own.”

“But we’re getting a cat?” I asked.

“A kitten,” Nen reminded me.

“To own another being is a shackle on your own soul. I do not recommend trying to own a cat, however amusing it would be, it only annoys the cat and makes you look ridiculous,” Rayya said, with a little more venom than I was expecting.  Venom.  Vehemence.  No, venom was the right term in this case.

“Got it. We’re getting a cat, but we won’t own a cat. Of course, from what I’ve heard, cats will more likely own us. I hate to tell you this, though, Rayya, human legislation in the area does make someone with a cat an owner, and we’ll have to be listed as such with the vet down the way.” I frowned. “Or we can be listed as mommy and daddy, but that just gets weird.  Even the term ‘furbaby’ sometimes makes me a little squicked.”

“You should change that,” she said, taking another bite of her sugar-coated crunch bombs or whatever they were.  The cereal had a bright red cardboard box, but I couldn’t always tell one from another. They all tasted sweet.

“Which part?” I asked, because with them, you have to ask.

“Naming is a tricky art,” she repeated.

“That doesn’t answer the question,” I complained.

She just smiled.

Nen pointed at a cat on the screen, distracting me.  He put a hand on my shoulder.  “That one.”

It was a white kitten with grey points.  Cute.  “I don’t think you can just order cats like a… um.. catalogue.”  I regretted my choice of words. “Besides, I don’t think we really want a kitten.  Kittens can always find homes because of the cute factor.”

Nen seemed to consider this, taking his hand off my shoulder, and slinging it behind his back as he paced back and forth.  “We will have to interview them.”

“Ask them for their résumé?” I asked. “Their job experience? Education? How many years at purring and making biscuits?”

“Do cats make biscuits?” Rayya asked, interested.

“It’s a phrase I’ve heard. Kneading. It’s a behavior thing.  Can you guys, like, talk to cats?” I asked.

“Can’t you?” Nen asked.

“Okay.  I can talk to them. I can also talk to rocks, the walls, and my reflection. Any of those answering me back would freak me the heck out. I meant, can you have a conversation with them in such a fashion that you are both in understanding?”  I sighed.

Nen smiled. “No, we cannot communicate any better than one who is a student in their language can. Every cat has its own tongue, and all those they have gotten from others.” His smile turned to smirk. “So to speak.  It is a combination of sound and smell, of body language, how they move, where they move, and training.  It is easier to teach a cat your language. They are fast learners.”

“Huh,” I grunted. “Interesting way to think about it, at any rate.  Now I’m wondering if some cats have accents.”

“Miao, versus meow? Maao, mrrp, nya nya, and miu?” Rayya asked.

“Aren’t those our accents?” I turned back over to look at her.  She had a talent for mimicry such that I could really hear the differences.

“Perhaps.” She shrugged, and put the spoon in the now empty bowl. She went back into the kitchen, either to drop off the dishes or get seconds.

“Are there cats wherever it is you come from?” I asked. “I mean, they’re pretty constant in fantasy novels, their nature being irascible and ineffable both, I suppose.”

“There are cats everywhere,” Nen laughed. I liked the sound of the sib’s laughter, although sometimes it filled me more with dread. “Truly. They are adaptable, and our natures are such that we appreciate them.  Your words reflect this. How much fey in feral, and vice versa?” he asked.

“Hmmm,” I nodded. “We can put in an inquiry.  Here’s an adult tortie female, about 6 years old. She looks nice?” I asked.

He shrugged, tilting his head.  He straightened it out to look at the screen. “We have few specific needs. We can ask if she’s amenable, and see if she likes us.”

“I don’t think there’s a try-before-you-buy option. I’m of the opinion that getting a pet is a until-death-do-you-part responsibility, basically.  Probably why I haven’t got one, except maybe you two.” I was teasing, of course.

Nen frowned. “I ask you not to use that term. It is too close to how the one who had our fealty treated us.”

“Yeah, about that. Was that the Seven King?” I had been curious too many times, but now it actually happened naturally in the course of conversation and I figured I could ask.

“Perhaps,” Nen repeated in the same fashion as Rayya had, and turned away.  I guessed that was the end of that option.

“Yeah,” I repeated, a bit under my breath. “Perhaps.”  I made an appointment. “They have an opening in a couple of days, and they’ll ask us some questions, too.  Are you both going? Are you both going incognito? What’s the plan?”

We got into the details a little, and I set up an order for some pet items to be delivered.  This was either a brilliant idea, or it would be the end of me. Or both. Probably, knowing how things worked out around me, a little of both, yes.



(243) Just Zis Demon, Y’Kna?

“You know,” it occurred to me belatedly, “I’m an idiot.”

Nen valiantly did not snicker.

“Um?” Janet asked.

“What was the name of your ex?” I asked.

“Basil.  Basil Grey.  He made this awful joke about Earl Grey tea, but that’s lavender based, not basil.  Why?”

“Seriously, Alucard?” I shook my head.  Vasil Greyn.

“I…” that was the verbal equivalent of an, “I don’t know shrug,” which I could hear over the phone.

“I’m just railing at the universe that coincidence isn’t really a thing. Every time I think it might be, the universe comes up and gooses me metaphorically with a little tee-hee.” I gave Nen what I hoped was a meaningful Look.  “Tell me about this guy you saw at the mall.”

“At first I thought, `Okay, this is creepy, but it’s just…’ you know.  Like you said.  Coincidence.  A cloud I hadn’t seen in the sky.  A cat that disturbed the birds. Something.  But he focused on me.  I could feel the, I don’t know, it sounds all literary: the weight of his gaze. But that’s really a thing.”

“Yeah, it is,” I confirmed.

“He kept coming towards me. I had the spooks, so I skedaddled. I kind of half-ran down the block and got on the next bus. Then he did, so I got out just as the doors were closing, but he called my name, like he knew me. I didn’t know him.” She took a breath.

“I don’t doubt you,” I said. I know I could have asked something like, “Are you sure it wasn’t someone from, like, high school who grew up?” but that kind of speculation just said I found her an unreliable narrator. I was first learning her truth.

“Oh, good.” She sounded very relieved. Did women really get doubted that often? I didn’t, um, doubt it.  “So I went straight to Rohana’s as soon as I got my car.”

“Probably a smart idea. And you thought to call me?” I asked. I didn’t want it to sound like, “You’re smart, why get me involved?” and I sort of wanted it to sound like, “I’d love to solve your problems,” but I’m kind of vaguely aware that that whole White Knight thing isn’t a turn-on to modern women.

“You helped me before,” she said, kind of quietly.

“I don’t want you to feel weird about this,” I said, “but did it feel kind of like the sigil you drew?”

“Exactly,” she said, and it sounded like she was relieved, like I had found the correct key for a certain lock. Not to say that I got an achievement pop up on my personal scoreboard or anything, but I found myself on better footing for certain.

I nodded, and remembered she couldn’t see it. “Yes, great, um. Okay.” I took a breath. “But this wasn’t Basil?”

“No, but,” she stopped. “You know how in dreams you recognize someone but they’re not who they are in waking? That’s how it felt.”

I hmmm’d quietly. “Evil,” I said.

“Yeah,” she breathed.  “Evil.”  She laughed sharply. “A little melodramatic? Maybe he was just a stalker-y fan.”

“I don’t think so.  If it’s the person I’m thinking of, yes, he’s stalking. You, from what I understand.” I shook my head. I hadn’t realised I’d started pacing, but I was making a circuit back and forth from the computer chair to the now much more open living room.  Nen was perched on the back of the couch, watching me. Rayya was in the kitchen, making some lunch. I could smell curry and vegetables, so she was cooking, but so quietly I knew she was also listening.

“You sound pretty sure, but he knew my name, so I guess that makes a kind of sense.  I mean, right now I feel really stupid, really, because if I try and look at it objectively, I was chased from the mall by a weird guy who just guessed my name. Heck, any Rocky Horror fan could have been making a joke and guessing it.”

I hadn’t made the connection, but I grinned when I got it. “I suppose, and Basil and Brad both sound like terribly boring people.”

“Whereas I am just terribly mysterious,” she said, and I could hear her smile.

“Terribly mysterious.  Even without guacamole.” I grinned. “Can you cut guns in half with your mind?”

“Never tried,” Janet replied. “Maybe I can!”

“Let’s not experiment under pressure,” I mock-cautioned.  Well, I mean, it was a real caution, but we weren’t talking seriously. “Objectively, you said.  I’m pretty sure we’ve past rationality.  We were supposed to take the left turn at Albuquerque if we wanted to go that way.”

“Straight to the Goblin King’s castle?” she asked. She laughed, and I joined her.

“Well, hopefully not.  He moved the stars for no one, but that sounded like maybe he could.”

“Changing your stars?” She tsked.

“Hey, it’s possible. Maybe we’re just taking the scenic route to rationality. Seeing the sights.”

“The biggest ball of twine in Minnesota?”

“Well, it’s my first demon.”

“Demon?” she yelped.

“Yeah, I don’t actually really believe in them myself, but I am starting to be convinced.”

“Demon?” she repeated, this time in a squeak.

“I’m afraid so. Bouncing baby boy demon.” I sighed, but I was listening carefully.

“You mean, like, fallen angel?” she said, so quietly I had to think a few times if that was actually what she said.

“Well, I don’t know if the mythos is correct. As I understand it, vampires and shapeslippers are types of demons, if you go with the dimensional traveler thing and why are you crying?”

“I just…” she sniffed, “I am just really freaked out.  I think I need to get off the phone.”

“You’re safe at Rohana’s?”

“Rivendell, remember?”  Smiling through the tears.

“Okay.  My phone’s on me, so if you need anything, or if you hear anything, or you see him, let me know.”

“Yeah. Uh, thanks.  I mean it.  For just listening to me.”

“It’s not a problem. Well, at least, it’s a problem that I can solve, which means it’s awesome.  Go get some rest. And hydration. And vitamin B complex.”

“Thanks Doc.”  She hung up.

Yes, we have a Discord.

Because all the cool kids are doing it.  Or because it might encourage me to work on this when I have energy and time, two resources in short supply but that actually exist!





(242) Identity Is the Namer of Names

I have to admit that it wasn’t entirely comfortable being on the side of the argument that all sex is inherently a matter of power imbalance, because I didn’t believe that. I felt it could totally be a mutually beneficial and equal event, but I guess there was a part of my mind that gave a certain amount of credence to the idea. Maybe just as long as it didn’t imply that all such imbalances were aggressions or abuses. I thought that had to be a separate issue.

Nen had been thinking, too, something strange passing through his head and across his face, an expression I’d learned meant there was a lot more input he was processing. I usually didn’t know what that input was. “What do you know of bargaining?” he asked me, tilting his head like a cat.

“Um, that I’m awful at it? Why?” I asked.

“Inherently, or specifically awful?” he asked.

“Well, there are probably lots of people who are better at it than I, if that’s what you’re asking. Even in games, I’m like, `Let me just roll for the haggle, because we’re not going to have fun in real time.'” Charisma isn’t a dump stat in any of the games I play.  “I mean, I suppose if I was 100% comfortable with what I was buying or selling, but that’s got to be rare.  I hate buying cars, for example, which is why we’re still oscillating between buses and rentals.”

“Would you say it was part of your identity?” he asked.

“That I’m terrible at it? Um, no. I mean, if we were going to stat me up as a character with traits and all, well, it’d depend on the system, but I don’t think it would necessarily be a defining characteristic. If I had to give it a guess, and it’s been a while, I’d have an aspect of, `All women in my life are witches,’ or ‘Definitely a leg guy.'”

He made that face that was really the “hmmm,” sound. I don’t think I can explain it better than that, other than to say that it’s definitely a human expression, too.  “True, true,” he muttered, whether or not that was just polite noise (something we have discussed frequently) or an actual response I couldn’t tell.

I was interrupted from asking by a phone call.


“Um, hello?” It’s not really a question in this case, but the questioning tone was more my confusion at not being the first person to speak, and also because I didn’t know who it was.

“Hi. We met at the Starbucks? This is Janet.” I experienced that sudden rush of connection that led to comfort for being on more familiar ground. Ahem.

“Oh, hello there,” I said. I had meant to put her number in my phone under “Strangely Sexy Non-Skeevy Sigil Scribbler” or something equally amusing. Well, maybe something more amusing, because that really wasn’t.

“It didn’t work,” she said, suddenly, as if trying to say all three words at the same time.

“What? I mean, I don’t think I provide a guarantee, but what didn’t work?” I asked. “Are you… safe?” I meant, “okay,” but ‘safe’ is what came out.

“I’m okay. I’m… It’s still around. He’s still around. He’s following me.  I’m at Rohana’s, actually. Look, it’s not in my Book,” and she definitely capitalized the word, “but is it something you can take care of? I mean, I could try putting a restraining order on it, but nothing’s happened, exactly.”

“It, or him?” I asked, because I didn’t like the personality on the thought.

“It’s a him. But it isn’t a… look, I’m sorry if I sound crazy.”

“You don’t, but I need more information.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “When I thought of what I could do, I tried to think of who might be able to help me, and I thought of you first. Rohana’s new place is peaceful, like Rivendell, but I don’t want it to go under siege, and I can’t stay here endless years.”

I’d never really seen Rohana’s old place, but that was just dithering because I was trying to put things together. Janet had complimented me about being fast, and thinking six or seven things at a time, and while I was touched by the Tolkien reference I needed out of the Dead Marshes and off to the northeast near Rohan if I was going to ride my white knight steed… to, um, mix a few metaphors or something.

Maybe I just needed fire mares. Fire mares would do the trick.

“If I’m reading between the lines, you’re being followed by a… demon?” I thought the word through carefully knowing the little I was knowing, and naming the name.

“Yes. No. I don’t know. It’s something, and it felt like what I touched with the sigil.  My sister… she’s out of state and I can’t get in touch with her, but it’s here, so she’s probably safe. Whatever it is. Him. He. It just feels masculine, but I feel silly saying that because maybe it’s my own, I don’t know, prejudice?”

“Where did you start feeling it?” I asked, trying to avoid the swampy bits around “all men are evil,” because the Dead Marshes were troublesome enough.

Notice they weren’t fire stallions? Nevermind. Not going there.

“I was on my way out to do some mall art, kind of 30% busking, 30% people-watching, and 40% enjoying the weather because even though it’s fall it’s been beautiful outside.” She paused. “You don’t need to know that, sorry, just thinking aloud. I mean, you live here, too. You already know… sorry, I ramble when I’m … scared, I guess.”  She stopped again, then took a breath. “It’s scary to tell people you’re scared. Vulnerability, but I’m reading Brene Brown and all.  Anyway. I’m setting up when I get that ‘someone is watching you,’ feeling. I look around, and no creeps. Then it just gets worse. And worse. And everything’s quiet. No birds. Nobody’s walking down the block. The mall bus is far away. And remember when the eclipse came around, and we got something like 92 percent coverage and it was that kind of, I don’t know, weird dark-but-not-dark? It was getting darker, just like that.  I got the spooks, and packed everything up, and started seeing patterns in shadows, and then there was… this guy.”

(241) A Talk

“A talk?” Nen asked. “Are we not already making trouble with words and misunderstood gestures?”

Somehow I thought he was teasing, although with his dry recital it was difficult to take measure.

“Is it ‘the’ talk?” Rayya asked, hiding the lower part of her face with a fold of light rose fabric in the way that often seemed to indicate a teasing or embarrassed expression for her.  I wasn’t sure where she found something that colour in my stuff, but I suppose being man enough to wear pink meant I had some in my wardrobe.  I was just proud of being able to identify it as something more than “pink.”  I could also point out a beige or a chartreuse, if only because it was fun to spell.

I kept staring at Rayya. “I don’t think so.  On the subject of how the fey procreate I am comfortable in retaining my ignorance.”

Rayya laughed. “We do many things for pleasure as well,” she said.

Nen sighed and shook his head in a fashion not only human but “brotherly” as well. As in being a brother, who had to deal with an uppity sister, not as in the term of brotherhood. You know. I knew, at least.

“Exactly. But there’s a lot more involved in gift-giving than that. I mean, it’s bad enough navigating the complex waters of human sexuality, and maybe being attracted to the wrong person or having an unexpected consequence despite precautions, and all of the levels of um, quid pro quo your kind seems to have as part of their DNA.  Frankly, saying it aloud like this it’s a wonder I ever got involved with anybody.” I barked out a sharp laugh, mostly involuntarily.

Rayya smiled. “It is not always easy to tell who is the giver and who is the giftee, you say?”

“Well, yeah. And then there’s politics and magic and I think the Seven King of Small Things was actually talking babies and I’m not old-fashioned, but I am, like, I believe I would want to be involved in the life of any child I’m creating.  I mean, more than just contributing genetic or whatever kind of material one does in aforementioned happy ignorance.”  I waved it aside.

“You humans have so many weird rules,” Nen said. “Politics and magic and navigating the complex waters of human sexuality. I saw on the internet–”

“Stop right there,” I interjected quickly.  “Things on the internet are their own … just don’t go there.”

“True,” Nen said, reflectively.  “I was thinking it an odd relationship between a woman and a plastic seal.”

“Oh please. I did not want that image in my head.  And it’s just gotten worse, because now I can’t tell if my image is worse or better than what actually occurred. I’m not looking it up. I’m really going to find a wizard with a mental bleach spell and insist they help me learn a very limited, directed version of it.”

“You should not deal with amnesiacs,” Rayya shook her finger at me.  “There is no amnesty for them.”

“People who have lost their memory?” I asked, confused.

“Amnesiacs, the power of forgetting.  Which is different than the power for being forgiven, although the phrase ‘forgive and forget’ is one I think need be explored.”  She paused. “Although,” she considered, “there is no amnesty in ignorance of the law, either, it is said.  These things…” she made a strange shake of her hand, “they are not so true in all places.”

“What, laws might be context based? I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked!” I wasn’t.

“You are not,” she said, frowning.

“No. I’m not.” I sighed. “Well, stunned because of the internet, but I think we just go through life with mild inflammation caused by GIF-based trauma.” I’m not telling you whether or not I pronounced it with a hard or soft “g” because that’s a holy war where I have no dogs.  That’s the phrase right?

“It’s funny,” Nen drawled, “because she was just about to hold in a lecture about speaking untruths. Now that you live so close to the Other, there will be side effects.”

“Uncontrollable gambling? Leg shakes? Prolonged incredulity that, should it last more than four hours, I should see a local religious figure?” I offered.    I shook my head. “Is there really a prohibition on lying?”

“No,” Nen said, clearly.  “It’s broken promises you should avoid. Always.”

“That was definite.” I was more shocked (in a true and actual way) that I got a straight answer from him.

“You need to see what is, so you are not led astray by what might be,” Rayya said.

“Ah. I see where this conversation started. Honey trapping.”

Rayya glanced at Nen, obviously confused. He made a folding figure with his fingers and shrugged after a moment.

“There is no…” she started.

I quickly came to her rescue.  “It’s basically when someone offers something sweet in order to blackmail you with it later.”

“Oh. Like that story with the bear and the owl and the rabbit?” she asked.

I will say, A. A. Milne threw the Spriggan Sibs for a loop, especially when they reached the posit that the bear wasn’t real. This led us directly into Watterson’s classic boy and stuffed tiger books, which I think became Nen’s favorites.  We had quite the riotous explanation regarding what we could and couldn’t blame on the influence of the fey, let me tell you.  I don’t think the stain is still on the couch, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was, at least in spirit.

“More…” I closed my eyes for a second.  “Sex.  It’s all about sex.  Everything.”

“Ah, the `and porn’ portion of the internet,” Nen nodded sagely.

“But it’s a trap?” Rayya asked.

“Of course it’s a trap.  Admiral Ackbar wasn’t just paranoid,” I said, casually.  “It’s not just an exchange of pleasure in equal amounts. It’s made that someone owes someone else afterwards, either because it’s magically delicious, or someone isn’t who they say they are, or whatever it is.  That’s inherently true with the Beyond.”

(240) Say Friend and Enter

I fell asleep before the party was over, which meant I felt pretty darn safe.  When I woke up, I had a question in my head. I teased it out for a bit, trying to remember it in more exact terms.  It wasn’t something that was translating well, because it was kind of simple or somewhat sycophantic or both, and I didn’t like that. It was important, and not just to me, I thought.

I took a shower, brushed my teeth, and sighed a lot.

“Nen,” I addressed the room once I put myself together.  There were some snacks of low perishability (if that was the right term – things that didn’t have to be refrigerated) still on the table, but the place was clean, and some things had been moved “back” although I was beginning to suspect a little L-space near the bookshelves.  I felt a smile come up on my face as I mentally renamed the Spriggan sibs to “the bookelves,” for a moment.  They’d appreciate it and then complain, I figured.

Nen moved from where he had been sitting next to the television.  He looked up at me, making the expression of curiosity on his face akin to the question rather than asking it in words.

“What happened to, at times you might call me friend, but ‘it is a marriage of convenience’ and only guarding me as given?”

His expression left his face, as quickly as if it were dropped. “I am what I am,” he said.

“And that’s it? I let someone build a polyp kingdom in my home who was just an employee of the Seven King? Yes, I figured out a long time ago it was the King who made the request.”

“You would be wrong thrice.”  He shrugged, a deliberately human gesture.

“Nen,” Rayya chided.  She came out of the kitchen with a plate of sliced cheeses and crackers, which she handed to me. At least, the tone of voice was the kind of chiding that was two steps removed from a parent using your whole name, from what I could tell.  I took the plate of crackers, but waited a moment before eating it. As I said, this was important and it definitely made a difference whether or not I took breakfast as a gift, or ate something from fey hands in the first and second place.

She looked up at me. “He counts them three times. The first that it is a polyp kingdom; it is integrated and part of this world for now. As we gain in power and people make it their home, it will grow, but not in a cancerous method. We…” she glanced at him and began again.  “We respect some of your boundaries. We have entwined, which means its development is necessarily slow. It is a place of our power and still of this world, and it is something new that we hope meets your favor.  In second, that we were employees of the Seven King in our work for you.  We were paid for by another.  In third that he meant those words.”

I started to say something, but she raised a hand up to stop me.

Her hands moved in front of her, and she wrung at them, twisting them together awkwardly. “You have influenced us in our changes. We spent our year and a day learning you even as we warded off nuisances and threats.  We mean to make treaty with you.  The Seven King recognized us, and we hoped in our invitations you would see that you are meant to be treated as a power.  We made that statement without making it, we hoped.”

“I’m just dense?  That’s totally and always an option. Like, you know, failure.  Okay, I need to think more about this.” I frowned.  “So it’s safe to eat?” I asked, raising the plate.

She gave me a fleeting smile. “Maybe.”  The smile grew. “Yes.  It is safe to eat, as is all food I prepare for you, with few caveats.”

“Any here?”

“Cholesterol and carbohydrates,” Nen said.  He was still looking at me without any real expression to his face, something I always found disturbing.

“Well, I guess I’ll take those on,” I said, grinning.  “Consider me warned.”  I moved to sit on the couch.

Rayya tilted her head to the side. One thing I had noticed was that the fey and cats had a lot of signals in similar. I acknowledged it, while chomping on a piece of swiss.

“Why do you hold that sexual intimacy with a fey is somehow more disturbing that that with a witch?” she asked, as if commenting on traffic or the weather or something entirely mundane.

I coughed, and bits of cracker sprayed over my shirt. (A black tee with, “Trust Me: I Know Things” in white lettering.)

“Do I want to know where that question c– originated from?” I asked.

“There would be great advantages in coupling with the Seven King. At least one of the aspects encouraged it, and it would be consensual and only as binding as you determined.  You have not had congress of that nature since your abortive relationship prior to our full-time employ, if our information is correct. We can be discreet if you are shy.”

“You’re not making this any better.” I brushed the cracker off, sighing.  “I just have rules about getting involved with things that aren’t human?”

“Can you be friends with them?” she asked, lightly.


I cleared my throat. “I’m a bit of a jerk,” I said, explaining, if not quite apologizing.

“Is it safe to eat food you’ve prepared? After all, you’re human,” Nen said. I didn’t know if I was projecting any bitterness or if it was really there.

“Uh.” I sighed and put the plate down on the table where it was now to the side of the couch.  “As much as it pains me to say it, I think we might need to have a talk.”

(239) Another Name

I tried to listen to the many conversations, and ended up instead focusing on those few people who remained silent.  Nen.  Rayya.  The Seven King.  Even the musicians seemed annoyed or concerned; it was hard to tell. They weren’t even as … human as my roommates.

I thought about that.  Roommates.  Roommates who had decided to invade my space, kind of literally, and create some kind of pocket kingdom in my house.  I was displeased about this.  Maybe I was getting soft in my old age about closing all the open doors, but just because my place was now slightly bigger on the inside, I wasn’t… it didn’t feel like a violation.  I don’t know what the difference was.  It didn’t feel that weird. It felt a lot like home.

If you thought about it, and I had on and off, maybe part of it was because I’d been partially raised by these books. I spent years visiting my friends and recalling their adventures. I had instincts I’d developed and moral quandaries I had navigated from maps of ridiculous situations into which only someone like myself could stumble.  I could find my way around the Kathseide in the dark, bargain with Puppeteers, survive the Badlands of Hark (maybe), but finishing college seemed ridiculous at this point, and buying a car was a burden I was still delaying.

I made a note to myself to write a fabulously funny fantasy novel about buying a car so I could feel better about it.  Then I made a note to myself about the hazards of thinking I could become a writer.  The notes to myself were beginning to pile up when someone asked me a question and I was pushed out of my introspection.

“Um, no,” I said.  “My current kind of quest is to find a demon and send it back to where it belongs.  Get behind me and all that.”

“Drama much?” the Questor’s wife teased. “Seriously, though, you should ask the Questor. That’s what he does.”

“Yeah, and I don’t want to just be another person using him,” I said. “I guess I feel pretty strongly about taking advantage of something he really can’t control.  It’s like… I don’t know… kissing a succubus. It’s not their motive: it’s their being, and they deserve consent, too.”

“True enough, but if I asked you to close this little door I knew about, how would you feel?” she asked.

“Like I should go do it as a favor to a friend,” I said, automatically.  “It’s different when it’s you asking the favor, though. How would you feel?”

She chuckled, and there was still an aspect of teasing to it.  “Maybe like I was keeping you out of trouble.  Why aren’t there any witches here?” she asked.

That was not a question I was expecting. “I’m sure there’s some kind of adage about spoiling the brew, or too many broomsticks a la that apprentice’s folly, but I really don’t know.  Maybe they didn’t want to invite any of my ex-girlfriends?” I frowned.  “You know, they can’t all be witches.”

“Why not?” she tee-hee’d.  I mean, I’d read the phrase in text, but I had never expected to hear it in real life.

I found myself grinning despite the plaintiveness of the situation.   “Tee hee indeed,” I said, loftily.  “I don’t want to seem racist.  Or bigoted on any spectrum. I definitely am, of course; I know how I like ’em.  The phrasing of which makes me totally sexist, too.  But I’m not sure what the equivalent is for witches. It’s not like I seek them out.  I just keep finding that all the women I know for more than a couple minutes are, shall we say, ‘magically-inclined’?  It’s got to be a curse.”

“Or a blessing, thank you very much,” she said, mock-affronted.

“Or a blessing,” I gave in quickly.

She grinned again.

Ed and Zach were looking this way, so I waved them over.  “You know Ed?” I asked while they made their way past the table where all sorts of chocolates and fruits were being displayed.

“I know Zach,” she said. “Ed you’ve mentioned a few times.”

I nodded, as Zach bowed his head and grabbed her hands.  “Misko! I was just talking to Ed about the Questor.  Misko, this is Ed, Ed, Misko,” he said, letting go.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Ed said, and they shook.

“Hmmm,” I heard myself say.

“Hmmm?” the Questor’s wife asked.

“Sorry, thinking. Is Misko a good use-name?”  I had actually been thinking about clasping hands, and the role it played versus shaking them.

“Is your name really Erysichthon?” she asked me, teasingly.

“That doesn’t roll off the tongue,” I noted, impressed. “`Eegaiarasan’ was the best off-the-cuff guess I think I’ve heard. Wrong country of origin, but what a name, eh?  I also liked ‘Eiel’ for the meaning.”

“I’m not familiar with it?” she said, curious.

“`Born to inspire fright,’ I believe,” I reported.

Ed snorted. “You’re more a ‘Born to be Mild,’ type, E.”

Zach shrugged. “The calmest person may just be expressing the eye of a storm somewhere else.  Except he and I,” he glanced at me with a grin, “would probably argue that that suggests a doorway needed to be closed.”

I nodded, having to agree. “Of course, if they could channel a storm, I’d be totally curious as to what kind of creature they were, and what rules applied.  Know of any?” After all, if I could ask anyone, the people I’d ask were kind of in the room.

“Is talking shop verboten at one of these?” Ed asked.

“Your kind,” I said with a firm tone. “You start talking shop and I have sympathetic itches.”

“Sympathetic?” he asked. “Itches for me? How nice.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Nah, he means First Law sympathetic. You talk about bugs and someone conjures them,” Zach teased, catching Misko’s glance.

“Nuh-uh,” she said. “The only bugs I like are the ones that get rid of ickier ones, and we don’t need a herd of tarantulas.”

“Herd?” I asked.

“Clutter.  Or cluster, but I like the first more,” said Ed, and well, he was the one who should know.

(238) The Library is Open

“I speak as one who weaves the tapestry of words,” the Questor’s wife said, standing and leaning on her cane. “I recognise their right to their own domain.”

“I speak as a singer of the symphony, and I recognise their right to their own domain,” Andrei said, stepping forth from the corner where the musicians had been silent.  “Two of the makers speak.  Is there another?”

Peredur roused himself from the pillows upon which he had been lounging near the library.  He stood.  “I speak as an ambassador to bones, a carrier of the breath of wood and fire, and I recognise their right to their own domain. I shall challenge any who speak otherwise.  Is there one?”

I looked around carefully, seeing this as that lovely moment wherein someone could jump in and say something really dramatic.  Everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing.

The Seven King shifted. “Is there any here who would speak otherwise?” she asked. “Or was the guest list slanted to those who had your interests in mind?”

“We know the rules,” Nen said.  “We informed those who had reason and madness both,” he said.

Rayya nodded. “And yourself, our King. You could speak against it.”

“We suggest you jest. This is quite a company you have assembled, and we have no reason to make anything but alliance.  We think there is purpose here.  Do you seek a realm to hide your charge from the forces that array against him?” she somehow pointed the conversation to me.

I could have used a moment to hide from the weight of everyone’s gaze, but I just kind of froze and tried not to catch anyone’s attention in particular.  Ed gave me a look of sympathy.

“Let’s talk about that, shall we?” the Questor’s Wife spoke up.

“No,” the Seven King said, simply.  “There is a question pending.”

“No, your Majesty,” Nen said.  “Our charge is weft to our warp, if the weave is so aligned.”

The words had heft to them, as if drawing some kind of thread together and strengthening the library.  That’s what it made me think of; a collection of books.  Archive? Catalogue? I’d have to see if the Spriggan sibs had a name for it.

“Indeed,” the King said.  “And does he know of all your plans?”

“We are what we are, your Majesty,” Rayya said.

“Clever beings, incapable of untruth, and incapable of directness all at once,” Andrei said.  “They could speak simply and still not say that which is at hand.  As yourself, your Majesty.”

“We grant the point.  We grant the boon.  We grant the audience should the wife of the Questor so request it.”  She sighed.  “Is this all we are required?”

I had a temptation to ask for a pony, but I was afraid I might get it.

She let it hang there.

There was a knock at the door. Of course there was.

Everyone looked at me.  Oh yeah, it was my place.

I opened the door.

There was no one there.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” I heard the Questor’s wife sing softly.  I felt the magic pull in different directions like the tugging of a small child on one’s jacket, and the soft whistle one makes to grab attention without grabbing everyone’s attention.

“None of this,” the Seven King said.

“Wait,” said the Questor.

There was a murmur, that strange noise that is a bunch of words half-said.  “Why?” asked the King, whirling on him.

“There is a Question here.”  The Questor moved closer to the door, and I moved away to let him hold it open.  One of those graceless shuffles that most places skipped over, but we kind of bumped around and made it happen.

He closed his eyes.  “I hear you.  You will not find your answer here.  You are drawn by the power, not by the purpose.  The way you seek is closed, but only until the one who called you opens it for you.  They cannot hear you until you speak in the way you once did, whispers in the dark, breath upon cheek, and you sing your shared story.”

I had heard of the Questor’s power before, spoken in brief on message boards for weird conspiracy theorists.  I always wondered how the Oracles sounded, and now I knew.  He never raised his voice.  He spoke simply.  He spoke something that wasn’t Truth, but something I knew I would remember if it was spoken to me.  It was personal, like I was overhearing someone else’s secrets, and yet nothing was said that really pertained to me. I felt more like I’d been eavesdropping accidentally on a conversation that wasn’t meant to be overheard.

He spoke again after a moment. “Drink in the sunlight for it will strengthen you for the journey.  The makers meant no harm; they only sought to find what had stumbled in to our gathering.  Yes, there are forces here,” he looked at me, “who would use you as an excuse to enter.  We are being watched, but I grant you egress.”

He lifted his arm and waved in a motion that was not magical, but at the same time, I felt the ease of some kind of pressure.  He was quiet again for a moment, and then I felt his gaze go somewhere else.

“And you who watch us, know we see you too,” he said to the air outside.  “Do not seek to cast your shadow here.  We do not need the light to challenge you.  Lurk at your own peril.”

He turned and shut the door.

“Muak-Lal watches.”  There was a number of voices suddenly as everyone spoke at once, some aggravated, some scared, some confused.

“The Shadow King,” I named him to Ed and Zach, who had moved closer. “I didn’t know he had any other actual name until the sibs told me.”

“Wonder if he was invited,” Zach made it more of a statement than a question.

“Well, I wouldn’t have, but they said they needed naysayers.  I didn’t think his world collided with the sibs, though. Learn something new every day.”

“Yes,” Zach said, and I wondered what he’d meant by it.

The first thing I noticed is that there were no ex-girlfriends in the crowd. I mean, there were people I was attracted to (the Seven King often caught my eye, and then I shivered and it was weird) but no one I had actually dated.  There were some people who flit in that I didn’t know, or at least I didn’t know in that form.  You kind of have to make that caveat because the circles I’ve been running in have been a bit unusual.  No Shadow King. No -Cubi Queen. My improvisational cease-fire seemed to either be proper or unnecessary (an, “oft-coupled combination,” I proclaimed in a moment of wit.) The food was good, and we had some interesting bottles of things I didn’t recognize.

Word of caution, “interesting bottles of things I didn’t recognize,” is a world of hurt if you can’t trust the people around you.  I wanted to say that everyone there was trustworthy, but there were strangers, and while there were people I would trust with simple things like my life, if you started putting words in there like, “soul,” or “virtue,” I was maybe a bit less sanguine.  There’s a particular feel to strangers in your house for a celebration, but I also knew I didn’t have any silver to watch, and only true friends steal your books.

Besides, we were all cordial, which was pointed out by sharing some of the unusual wines. When you pop a cork out and what starts to be poured out that you’re expected to drink is more gaseous, blue, and somewhat below freezing, you’re getting either into mad scientist territory, or friends that very much have exotic tastes.

I have friends with exotic tastes, and I don’t think they ever took any of that stuff to be tested for alcohol content. I don’t think there was any, but it doesn’t take fermentation to intoxicate. Not that I was, exactly, but I might have found my tongue a little looser with my thoughts than normally.  I don’t feel that I made a fool of myself, but then again, there was still plenty of opportunities.

Some of the guests took out instruments and began a gentle sort of jam in the corner near where my computer was neatly made part of the art. I don’t know a lot about music, but it was good ambient with just enough variation to not be annoying, and not enough of a beat to demand your attention, nor was it very much the kind to which you would dance. It was its own kind of art, and I couldn’t really describe it except that it was a lot like the wines; unique to this combination.  I even saw Andrei join in with a tambourine for a bit, chortling and flirting a bit with the Seven King.

The lifecycle of a party is a curious thing, but it was nearing its maturity when Rayya and Nen found themselves the center of attention.  Apparently this was the time someone would call for a speech, and I very much had an “eleventy-first birthday” kind of feel for a moment.

“Thank you for accepting our invitation,” Nen said, solemnly.  He was silently toasted by a few, and some merely nodded.  Rayya made an almost curtsey-like movement, and continued the thread.

“This kind of gathering is traditional when coupled with the news we wish to impart. It is both a celebration for beginnings and endings.”  She paused and glanced at me for a moment.  I didn’t know what to say, so I just kind of smiled.

She nodded once, and Nen picked it up. “We have been engaged in services for our patron for the year and a day of ceremony.  We wish to continue in this service, but as free champions, and creators of our own realm.”

While I had sudden flashbacks to “Dobby is a free elf!” they really didn’t seem appropriate.  There was some kind of hush on the crowd, as if this was not expected. I re-read the sentence in my head, and frowned.  Their own realm? I sure hoped they hadn’t put it somewhere here in the apartment. That would be awkward to stumble over in the morning.  Or worse, that I’d been sucked into some alternate pocket dimension; I didn’t know how to pay that kind of rent.

Sometimes drink makes me facetious.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it like superglue on flesh.  I reserved the right to make a better metaphor when less inebriated.

“How now, our subjects?” the Seven King spoke up.  “We recognize the righteousness of your debate, but we must need have you prove your claim before we can release you from your vows.”

“I come from under the hill, and over the freezing waters,” Rayya said. “He crashes against the rocks. We are not the children of the Small Things, though the Seven King has been wise in adopting us.  We offer no demonstration. We have been strengthened by the whimsy and mystery of the ages, as taken from the words of story.”  She referred all around us, and I took a look again at my apartment.

My books.

My books, the ones we shared, and they were respectful of the spines and rarely creased any pages.  My library was a realm they had started to weave from our first mutual trip to the bookstore.  They had not only enjoyed them, but they had built their own place in our word games, our puns and rhymes and wicked abuse of English.  There were hints here of series I’d read, and barriers against enemies of series I had disliked (but had found interesting discomfort.)  I could see hints of Oz, though none of Narnia, dark corners of Ravenloft, of the strange beings that pace the cages of fire, a hint here or two of fey described in other stories.  We were surrounded by possibility and potential. Books were portals, after all, a part of my brain reminded me.  They had just taken it a bit more literally.

(236) Greeting the Guests

The Questor’s wife chuckled. “Don’t look so down. I’ve been preparing my lamisetha since I was, what, maybe thirteen? Death is just the next great adventure.  Besides, I have done tons of learning, and tons of mistakes. It will be refreshing to come back anew.”

“Reincarnation? Is that the secret?” I managed to ask.  I recognized the word she had used from Beagle’s “The Innkeeper’s Song.”

“Oh, it’s no secret. I’m just guessing like everyone else, but I’ve got reasons why.  Everyone has reasons why they believe what they do.  Fear, love, the poison of hope,” she smiled a wry smile. “What do you believe?” she asks, as if it were conversational.

“I don’t know,” I said, honestly.

“Have you asked them?” she referred with a gesture of her head to Nen and Rayya.

“Kind of? It’s complicated, is all I know.” I said.

“But it isn’t,” she said, leaning forward, as if telling me a secret.  “Death is just as easy and inevitable as birth.  It’s only the things that are never born that don’t need to experience it, and they miss it.”  She looked sad.  “We make love complicated, too, and no one loves the way someone who doesn’t know they’re not supposed to does.” She smiled a little.  “Go on.  You’ve got more guests coming.  I shouldn’t take up all your time.”

The Questor was on his way to sit next to her, so I nodded. She was a lot more intense about something.  I didn’t know what to say.

Ed and Zach came in just a few seconds later.  “Glad you could make it. I won’t ask how you got the invite, but I’m glad anyway.” I took their coats and put them on my bed, opening the door so people could do the same for themselves.  Good thing I took the time to clean is all I’m saying.  (I also took a moment to make sure there wasn’t anything, you know, peeking out.)

Zach was looking good, wearing a blue so pale it was almost white.  His hair picked up hints of the colored lights, and I could see the smoothness of his shave.  I rolled my eyes; it was better, but like really called to like.

Ed had lost some weight, but there was no way I was going to tell him that.  I probably gained it from him. That’s how it works, right?  Anyway, if I said it like he looked good, it meant I thought he looked bad or fat (take your pick – either’s a field of landmines) before, so I just gave him a manly nod. At least I hoped it was manly.

“Hey. What’s the occasion? The message was…” Ed looked at Zach.

“Vague,” Zach filled in.

“Yeah. That’s the word all right,” Ed made a look.

“Um, unbirthday party? Lord of Catnip’s ascension? Furniture fairy discount season?” I shrugged. “With my roomies, it’s hard to tell.”

Zach shrugged. “Party’s a party.  Collaboration of coincidences brought us here, so it must be more important than a couch festival.”

“I wouldn’t put too much faith in the conservation of magic,” I said. “I swear they do a ritual to put pizza on sale every time we hit the big warehouse place, and let’s not talk the curses they imply when someone steals a parking space.”

“That sound so… petty,” Ed said.  “I thought magic was subtle and mysterious.”

“Wizards.  Wizards are subtle. And quick to anger, if you believe ol’ Olórin,” I shrugged.  “Fey are just that.  Wait, I memorized this.  ‘Giving an impression of vague unworldliness,’ according to the search engine of choice.”

“Vague,” Zach elbowed Ed, grinning.

Ed caught Zach’s hand and kissed it briefly.  “Hey, mini-quiches,” he said, looking at the spread on the table.  He went off that way, and pulled at Zach’s to follow.  Zach gave me an apologetic shrug.

I smelled a whiff of… oh, great.  Peredur.  I turned back to the door that had opened again.  Standing next to him was Andrei, looking curious.

Peredur raised an eyebrow at me.

“You might as well come in,” I said.  “Um, let me improvise.  Come in yon King of Nuisances, swearing only to have a good time at the party and do no harm.”

“I can agree with that,” he said, simply, walking into the room as if he owned it.  He was also interested in mini-quiches, I guess.

Andrei followed.  “It is good to see you again, young one.  You have done good with your boon, though grossly materialistic in nature?” he asked.

“No complaints.  Money spends nice.”

“Oh.  Yes, that,” he said.  He seemed confused for a second, then shrugged.  “I bring word from Viktor.  He says he has a hound that might aid you, but it is worth a favor.”

“I don’t even know what he might want,” I said, “or how to find him.”

Andrei chuckled.  He put his hand in his jacket, a nice black suede, and then gave me a card.  I took it without looking at it and put it in my pocket. He nodded. “We are getting with the times. The manipulation of words and numbers is nothing new,” he shrugged.  “But I see an old, old friend.  I knew her father,” he referred to the Questor’s wife, and nodded.  “Yes, it was right to come.”

“Sir Darius!” I exclaimed, catching the door again.  “And… uh… Your Majesty.”

The Seven King regarded me and I was uncomfortable under her gaze.  She was the embodiment of lust again, and I felt more vulnerable than aroused.

“Of course,” she said.  “But we will not stand on ceremony here, for you are King of your domicile.  And I am not the only King in attendance.”  Her eyes glanced at Peredur, and they narrowed.

“No fighting.  Uh, come in swearing only to have a good time and do no harm.  I think that’s the rule I’m requiring.”

“Ah, what a pity.  Some good time does end up in harm.”  She nodded, and she and the troll knight pushed past me.  Darius bent his neck and knees to get in, but he made it look natural.

This was becoming a very odd party indeed.