(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.

(235) Nine Tailed Coats

I thought I heard a bit of a whistle as I closed the door behind me.  Not a musical one, but the kind of whistle of wind or a child’s breath upon a kazoo.  I don’t know why that analogy came to me, but it really was a particular kind of sound. Not that I’d heard a baby play a kazoo in a while, but it was exactly that sound.  I didn’t know what it portended, or even if it was my imagination.

I shuffled into the back of my closet, looking for things I had that weren’t black t-shirts or work clothes. I had a dark red velvet blazer that was almost black that still mysteriously fit. I thought about the last time it had been worn, and decided it had been long enough.  A nice black button-up shirt.  Black jeans because I live in Colorado.

Another sound.  “Tinkerbell, are you there?” I asked, because it sounded no less like a shaking of tiny little bells.  Tinkerbell did not deign to answer or light up somewhere.  I felt around my chin to make sure my morning shave hadn’t done more than leave me rugged.  Not that “rugged” really worked on my face.  There was a little plumpness that was disturbingly headed towards my chin. I resolved again to maybe start exercising or eating better, knowing it wasn’t really going to happen.

I washed my face again with this week’s faintly herbal rinse. Smelled faintly like sandalwood with a little tiny touch of bourbon.  I didn’t ask, but I felt it was more Rayya’s suggestion than Nen.  I think they switched off, and Rayya was somehow less floral. As much as her name song talked of ice, I found her warm.  Maybe I was actually fond of them.

Of course, that way lay madness. They were not human, something that smacked me in the face multiple times a day.  Okay, multiple times a week; I wasn’t that dense, but every time I got comfortable with them, they managed to pull that out from under me.  Maybe not so much while shopping today, but then I came home and my place was transformed. Well, at least the bathroom was pretty much my own.

That inspired me to pick up my room a bit. There was only so much I could do, but stacking, and making the bed, and remembering that creatures that needed to excrete would probably be on their way through and would judge me, I spent some time on it.  I found an old silver ring that fit my finger well and put that on. It wasn’t pure silver, but it was lovely and made my hand look more elegant.  I matched it with a hematite one on the other finger, and then spent some time looking up the magical properties on my phone. Emotional stability, anchoring people from daydreaming which meant it was pretty bogus, dissolves negativity, well, it looked nice at least.  Magda told me that it would split if it reflected something negative from you, but hematite was pretty fragile in my experience, or I was the target of a lot of wanton negativity.

I brought out a bunch of cups, to see Rayya speaking with someone out in the living room.  I recognized the Questor and his wife. The Questor’s wife smiled and got up from the couch, offering to help. “Rules,” she said. “If you show up early, you have to help clean or set up.  What can I do to help?”

I noticed she had a cane with a dragon’s head on top that she had grabbed while getting up.  “No, no, I’ve got it. Really, it’s,” I thought for a moment how to name them, and Nen came to the rescue, “My sister Rayya and I are doing the heavy lifting,” he smoothly inserted.  It was a relief, meaning those names were going to be the primary use names for the evening.  Of course, I always referred to the Questor’s wife as if she were some kind of possession of the Questor.  I would have to consider that, but her name was not mine to give.

Nen did as described, taking the cups into the kitchen, where he put them smartly away into the dishwasher.  It showed a lot more confidence than he had originally showed towards the machine. He was wearing a vest with black sequins, a white shirt that billowed out like Rayya’s cowl, and a pair of white slacks that looked almost made of some kind of vellum.  I don’t know why his pants made me think of books, but they did.  His hair looked a little longer than usual, in a kind of style that made me think of anime heroes, and he wore an ear clip that looked a bit like a little blue bat.  I tried to think of what those were originally, but it didn’t come to mind.  Maybe they were Nen originals.

“The children?” I asked, trying to make conversation.

“Old enough to stay home by themselves,” she said, smiling. “I am pretty sure together they’re a match for whatever might try them past my defenses, and past the threat of losing the Questor’s services, even though I do worry about that ‘together,'” she grinned.

“Eh, my sister is still terrible and foul, but I kind of like her occasionally now,” I offered.

She chuckled. “Yeah, I’m the oldest of several, and I like them all now… but each of them was an insult in the beginning. And maybe a few times since, but I’m willing to pretend to be the better person.”

“Isn’t that how all of us are?” I asked. “Willing to pretend.  Speaking of which,” I referred to the cane.

“This?” She sat herself down, holding it. “It was my father’s. There’s many stories about it, not any kind of Excalibur, but definitely an oddity.”

“I don’t know how to ask,” I said.

“Oh, was I injured? No, at least only by my own foolishness.  You know that little voice that says you can start exercising tomorrow? Tell it no, today.  And tomorrow.  I see the writing – I’ve got maybe a decade.”  She shrugged. “I can change the world, but it’s up to me to change myself.”

“Oh.”  I didn’t know what else to say.

(234) What Was My Living Room

One thing I will say for the Spriggan sibs is that there’s only ever one trip back from the car. They may be small, at least, most of the time, but they’re super-strong and they’ll carry everything. Somehow, and I figure it’s some kind of use of a talent, we never meet anyone in the parking lot. I don’t know how they manage to veil themselves from nosy people looking past the blinds, but who knows, maybe it’s a complete package.

I was able to unlock the door using one hand, propping up my boxes of stuff against the wall while I did it. I didn’t know what their etiquette rules were regarding opening doors, because sometimes it seemed okay, and sometimes it seemed verboten. I’m sure if I paid attention I’d figure out the pattern, but I just went with the flow. It could be a bodyguard thing, and not just some freaky fey formality. Not everything was about magic, right?

I was looking forward to seeing the new layout again.  It had made my whole place feel a little different, fresh and new. I’m glad my bedroom was off-limits, so I still had a familiar area, like a pillow fort I could return to if I needed. I didn’t feel I really had a lot of anxiety, but everyone has their lair, right?  Just because mine was lined in comics and paperbacks was just like laying on piles of gold.  Or fish.  Whatever floats your horde.  That doesn’t sound like the right metaphor. Whatever gathers your horde?

I rushed to the kitchen with the groceries, not really looking. Once I got things settled on the counter, I leaned against the stove and glanced at the living room.

…and kept on looking.

“What did you do?” I asked.  I don’t know how it came out. I was shocked and appalled and in awe at the same time.

First was the lighting. I have (I had to count) three lights for the living room.  One hanging one over the table, one on my desk next to the computer, and the kitchen LED (the management company replaced the fluorescents a few years ago) that was usually left on unless we were leaving.  The kitchen was still on, and it still looked white with that slight blue tint, but I could see little blue lights glowing and shifting in…the distance?

Something about the use of light and shadow made my living room look like a grotto.  The couch was there, but it looked sunken, somehow more a part of the book cases, which loomed like those huge trees in the swamp.  There was a fountain somewhere in the other corner, water barely running, just sliding and leaving a bit of chill to the atmosphere. It was quiet, not that rush of water that every apartment dweller feared.  It was pleasant.  I recalled the fountain as something I’d picked up from a garage sale and never had put together. I wondered what else Nen had found in my storage.

Everything smelled so nice, I just spent time breathing it in.  I could hear Rayya and Nen setting things up in the kitchen.  There was the moving of plates, quiet sounds.  I sat down on the couch, stretching out my legs.  I closed my eyes, and leaned back for a few minutes.

I hadn’t meant to fall asleep.  I woke up with a growling in my stomach, and my nostrils full of the spices and all the Maillard Reaction goodness of baking something that smelled amazing.

“You looked peaceful,” Rayya said.  She was wearing something different.  I tried to put it together, and I remembered. The babies breath.  She had used it to make a kind of lace overlay, and she smelled like the faint scent of the flower.  There were different silver rings on each of her fingers, all shiny.  She’d done something faintly to her eyes, make-up I would guess.  Some kind of faint line to them that changed their shape.  I was quick to notice only because I’d gotten in trouble so many times for not knowing.  It bugged me that she wore the headscarf so I couldn’t compliment her for something she might have done with her hair.

“Not a bad dream or even,” I stretched it out, “a crick in my neck. You look nice. Is that why you wanted the flowers?”

She smiled, and maybe I even detected a bit of pleasure in her expression.  “In part,” she said. “I am glad you appreciate.”  That was better than my approval, I decided.  Even this old dog could learn some new tricks.

I glanced in to the kitchen.  Nen looked as he did this morning. “Should I dress up?” I asked. I had meant to do a little, but if she was looking nice I needed a bit more time.  I glanced at my watch.  Plenty of time.  For a guy; for Maggie I would need to travel four or five hours in the past, or cheat.

Funny that I didn’t consider the sibs using their glamour as cheating. It was what they were, less who they were, which it was with Maggie.  I thought of magic as being special, and she thought it was a tool to be used for whatever nail she could hammer. I guess that’s being a little judgmental; she had other tools in her toolbox, of course.  I was just being the bitter ex- for a moment.

“It is up to you,” Rayya responded.

“I know what that means.  It means yes or you’ll be secretly disappointed and judge me all evening.”  That wasn’t quite fair, either; I knew them to be true to their word, and if she said it was up to me, it probably was. I was reacting to her as if she was a woman.

That was weird.  I didn’t think of Rayya as a, I mean, yeah, I was aware she was female.  She was just on the ‘no’ list so I didn’t really count on it.

I couldn’t read the expression, but she followed it up with a shrug.  “It is up to you,” she repeated.  She moved back to the kitchen, dismissing me and my neuroses.

I guess I could at least put on a shirt that buttoned up… I got up to look at my wardrobe.

(233) Generic Buys

The fiercesome beast of the grocery was a multi-segmented creature.  Its head and tail is a thing called ‘parking,’ and that was a nightmare of small children and multiple large machines with little patience.  While we were taking the bus, the fangs and breath of parking still meant we had to run the gauntlet of impatient monster trucks (okay, just the ubiquitous black SUVs) and aforementioned small children who seemed to have no survival instinct whatsoever, or at least not one evolved for asphalt roving engines.

Rayya and I made it long enough for me to flash my membership card (I always do it just like Old Ben in his ‘droids’ line, even if it’s totally legit) as we went into the big warehouse.  “Do we need a cart or a flat?” I asked. I realized I was making it kind of challenging in tone. I don’t know why I was so aggressive, but maybe I was still off-kilter from my home being rearranged.  I don’t know.  I liked it, but at the same time, there was a violation of the norm and my brain needed a little adjustment time.

On the other hand, Rayya took it in stride, as if either was entirely acceptable. “We do not have the facilities to sate the appetite of all invited guests,” she said. She also said it simply, which made me dream up otherwise unimaginable horrors, like pickled human toes (apparently a garnish in some small city in the Yukon, according to an article or two I read once while researching Wendigo) and the occasional nutria.  Hey, your unimaginable horrors are probably far less tame than mine. I have plenty of imaginable horrors that’ll pickle your toes.  Or something like that. “However, we should do well to provide options and alternatives.  Hospitality requires some effort,” she said as if chiding me.

I pulled out the flat, and did a quick check on my bank allowance. I don’t recommend shopping without a list and a budget, but this was the party mood and I had a number it couldn’t go over and no expectations.  This was a luxury, indeed, and I thanked the guilt of the sorcerers once more. After all, being nearly eaten by a Dragon had to be worth something besides bad press and other Dragon grudges. I was going to have to find a job eventually, but I was constantly surprised at the modest lifestyle I was living, despite being seemingly eaten out of house and home if by house and home you meant sugary breakfast cereals.

“Where first?” I asked.  Left to my own devices, I meandered. I was the worst of the frugal sorts; I bought on impulse if I could justify it with it being, “On sale,” or “useful to have around even in this bulk capacity,” but then, most of my meals were still of the frozen variety except when the sibs insisted on something with less salt.  It sounded healthier to me, and they were fairly good cooks, not that I’ve been to an actual doctor in years.  I mean, I did date Rohana, and that should have counted for at least an office visit, right?

The long neck of the grocery beast are the aisles of treats. According to Rayya, dried fruit was a different beast than fresh fruit, but still had much of the same properties, only with added concentration.  At the airport was a kiosk that included dried hibiscus, goji and golden berries, mulberries, green and yellow pomelo, and yes, every time I start listing fruit, there’s this urge to shout, “Come buy! Come buy!”  I can’t be the only one, right?

The belly of the grocery beast is in the frozen sections, beckoning quiescent confections and delicious things you never even knew you wanted.  Okay, as treyf as it gets, I really like scallops wrapped with prosciutto, and then barbecued with a sweet bourbon sauce.  I guess I could drink a jug of wine and eat it with a bacon cheeseburger and really fail many of the world’s major religions, but I’m not the kind of person who snubs their nose at such rules. It was odd, though, because when I went grocery shopping with Maggie, she’d talk money, and value per ounce, and Rayya, when she spoke or indicated an item mostly talked about its potency on a magical level.

“What happened to a kernel of corn making a feast?” I asked. After all, I thought they clothed themselves based on that premise.

“There’s a price to pay that you’d be better off withholding,” she replied. “Although,” she looked for the third or fourth time at the flowers.  I rarely went to the refrigerated plant areas, seeing as I thought dead things generally not a pleasant gift, but maybe if I had two dead teckla…

I moved the cart over there. “There’s something you keep looking at,” I said. “What do you want?”

I expected some kind of mystic bouquet, a combination of the simple wealth of daisies, maybe a rose or two for abundance, but she went to the baby’s breath.  At least, I thought that’s what it was, those funny little filler flowers of white.  “Pure heart,” she said. She laughed.  “I like the common name: baby’s breath.  Stolen by a cat, no doubt.”

“Did you want them?” I asked.

She was caught by her nature, I supposed.  I couldn’t read her expression.  I picked them from her hands and laid them in the cart.  “There. Solved.  Now, they don’t sell the ambrosia of the gods, but I do believe they have cola.”  I turned the flat towards the soda aisle.

“They sell Balm of Gilead-scented car sachets in bundles,” she said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Or at least fir and cotton scents,” she demurred, but she had a smile on her face.  I liked that.

We came in well under budget, but I hoped people (and this time I used the term “people” broadly again) were hungry.  At least we never got anything one of us wasn’t willing to eat, so I’d call it a win.

 

 

 

 

(232) Are Sylphs Part Sulfur?

I had terrible dreams, of people stalking me, and I used “people” in the most generous terminology possible, because people generally didn’t turn into screaming pits of voids and follow you around threatening to devour all you hold dear.  I didn’t suspect any portents, just nightmares.  One gets them sometimes; they’re not always full of meaning and destiny.  Heck, it could just have been my stomach complaining about the sugar in the cake pops.

I brushed my teeth, thinking, but I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking about at all.  I just knew that I was wondering how sylphs and sulphur connected, if they did at all.  Fart fairies? I suppressed a giggle. That wasn’t a question I was asking, if only to avoid (for once!) the disgusted look or, worse, finding out they were serious.

Sometimes you get what you ask for and you realize you asked for the wrong thing entirely.  Not just that whole monkey’s paw thing (and don’t monkeys have hands? I was unclear as to when the primate differences ended) but also in that there are things you can’t unsee. I lived in a world of magic; maybe you could find someone to manipulate your memory, but it’s always just a patch, never a change.  Or maybe it’s because I dealt with witches, not wizards. Nomenclature, you know?

Time heals all wounds, right? Even those you rip the bandaid off of… and even scars fade, unless, I suppose, you pick at them.  I pick at thoughts like I’m trying to dig in at my brain, sometimes.

Breath fresh, clean clothes, face washed, maybe not in that order, I opened my bedroom door with a big flourish and put myself in the frame like I was a superhero observing my conquests.  I immediately dropped the chest-pop pose as I stared at what I had thought was my apartment.

Have you ever come home and found a couch moved in such a design that you keep bumping into it not because it is in the way but because you are used to zigging left instead of zagging right?  That’s kind of what it was.  My computer desk and chair were in the same place.  My bookshelves by the door were in the same place, along with my ceramic octopus cup for my keys, the spare change slash dice rolling bin, and the laminated card stuck to the doorframe that reminded me to grab my keys, wallet, and phone that I got from a past job.   Everything else was moved around, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it.  There was still access to all of the various shelves (housing books, toys, movies, whatnot) and of course, the kitchen.

No, I kind of liked the difference, but I was still reeling from the impact of change. I wasn’t sure I’d leave everything here, but I’d think about it.  There were places for standing, places for sitting, places to be together, and places to be alone.  I hadn’t known the fey to be interior designers, but then, it’s not like you can tell from looking, right?  Besides, sidh were often considered to be very malleable, so maybe there was something to it.

Nen and Rayya watched me.  Nen was in sharp black that I couldn’t quite guess the origin of… could have been one of my washclothes, pants, shirts, or even the cover of a book. His hair was shock-white and spiky.  Rayya was in white, of course, but there was lace as well as linen.  They stood a little taller than the counter in the kitchen, and said nothing.

I sat down on the couch, and checked to make sure the television was still connected.  I still had the place to put my feet, but the lighting was different.  I noticed a faint color on the blinds I hadn’t noticed before, a more blue tint to the white, and it occurred to me it might just be that they were clean.  Everything was clean.  Seriously clean.  I put my nose to the cushions on the couch, ignoring their staring, and noticed it smelled slightly like fall.  I couldn’t tell you what particular part of the scent made it autumnesque, but something about it reminded me of the crunch of leaves and the spray of colour and the chill just touching the air.  Despite it being basically a desert, we had seasons in Colorado, if only in comparison to more western states.

It was different than how the sibs smelled. I didn’t go around sniffing people, but they had their own scents, for certain. They smelled a little like the sea, and not the dead fish smell of beaches or marinas, but the salt spray you got a few miles out, where the storms begin to build strength.  And other things; sugar, mostly.

“Interesting,” I said.  It was kind of a compromise between thanks and praise.  Words were important to them, and I knew they would see both of those things in there, unlike the usual use of ‘interesting’ which was more an enthusiasm-quasher.  The, “I want to say something about it, but I’m not really moved to say anything in particular,” ‘interesting’ was a pet peeve of mine.  In this case, I made sure I said it with warmth and a sense of awe.

The books were all on the shelves, but I couldn’t immediately determine the methodology, other than they refused to do anything alphabetically.  At least the series were basically in the same region, so I wouldn’t be frustrated trying to find the second book of anything.  Especially important when I got things from the library – at least the two of them understood ‘borrowing’ as much as it wasn’t like the information or entertainment you derived from a book left with the physical object.  It did feel a little bit more like stealing when they put it that way, but I also understand people have been known to return books to bookstores, and that was heinous to me.

“Who’s ready for a shopping trip?” I asked.  So far this party hadn’t hurt too much, so I might as well gird my loins (except I liked my jeans) and meet the fiercesome beast of the grocery.

(231) Questions I Had Later

“Well, you cannot lie to me, but you can shade the truth until water is purple, the sky is green, and the moon is indeed a tasty spanakopita,” I said, finally, trying to turn the mood.

“Have you eaten moon?” Nen asked.  “Held pieces of it? Visited?”

“No,” I admitted.  There was an exhibit once of moon rock nearby, but my mother forbade me because of the radioactivity.  At least, that’s the reason she gave me.  It wasn’t like I was generally absorbing radioactivity that I knew of, but can you really see yourself glow in the dark?

“Then you cannot with definite personal experience exclude the spanakopita qualities of the moon.  It is telling, however, that you can provide impersonal experience that allows you to determine that your moon, at least, is less likely to be made of spanakopita.  Spanakopita is a spinach pie, is it not?”

“According to the menus of the Greek places I’ve eaten at, yeah.”  I shrugged. I was only guessing on how to pronounce it, too.

“I shall include it,” Rayya said, as if answering a question Nen had asked.  If he had, it hadn’t been allowed.

“Oh no. We’re going shopping?” I asked, making it sound like a groan.

“Unless you prefer I pilfer and acquire things by other means,” Rayya left it hanging.

“What, you think I’m suddenly growing a conscience? Oh wait, I did tell you no murdering.” I sighed.  “Okay.  Unless there’s anything else, I’m going to bed.” I yawned, as if to punctuate it.

“There are other things,” Rayya said.

“But,” Nen glanced at her, “none which require your sleep-deprived presence.”

Rayya appeared to accede, with a hint of a grin disguised by a flash of the white fabric of her shoulder. She would use the excess fabric as a veil, I noticed. A tell, in a poker sense, maybe? I knew better than to play cards with the two of them. No doubt there’d be some magical fallout, and I’d lose my dignity.

I believe I have some of my dignity.  They may have gotten my goat enough that it recognized them as surrogate parents, but it was my goat, darnit.

I mean, in a metaphorical sense.  I didn’t even have a cat.

“Do you think we should get a cat?” I asked aloud.

“Most people say, ‘Goodnight,'” Nen said, half-chidingly.

“I am not sure it would be entirely irresponsible,” Rayya said.

“I’d have to pay a pet deposit,” I noted. “You two don’t eat cats?” I asked, quickly.

“They are relatively unobjectionable,” Rayya said.

“I have not yet,” Nen said. “They give you furballs.”

“I’m not sure that’s how that works,” I said. “But Kermit used it to keep someone off of him, and I respect that.”

“Kermit is indeed wise, except for his interest in the pig,” Rayya said, seriously.

“I think it was suppose to represent that love is weird and confusing and not always predictable or logical.  Or kosher.”  I might have felt a little bad about adding that last.

Nen made a directly human response, rolling his eyes, but Rayya only tilted her head. “The dietary laws?”

“Forbid eating pork, yes,” I said. “Um, there’s a lot more to it, though. Compassion in the ways of killing a beast, I think.  No pain upon its death.  Not eating anything that slithers upon its belly.  No mixing of milk and meat, like mother and child.  I think chicken omelettes are okay, but I’m just kind of guessing at that.  There are some birds you can’t eat, though.  Owls.  Swans.”

“They are wise laws for a people in a desert, and also for those unsure of the world upon which they’ve put their feet,” Rayya said.  “Also, counsel against inebriation in heat, and requiring time for a tree to mature before its fruits can be harvested.”  She made one of those rolling shrugs.

“I have to admit, other than a lot of humour from Jewish comedians, I’m not up on the religion. Nothing against them, of course. I mean, from the little I do know, it does seem rather… reasonable?  There’s a few not wearing satin on Sundays kinds of things, which isn’t a thing, I know, but I don’t remember the actual one, but most of it seems like you said, good rules of thumb for where and when they were.”

“Don’t they all?” Nen asked.

“It’s a generous premise,” I allowed, “but I think there are methods and nuances for change that might put different rules in different light.  Like languages trying to remain pure, and still needing to talk about cyberware or something, something those people who had never seen a turtle could necessarily experience in their native tongue.”

“A patois for the tortoise challenged?” Nen teased.

“If it hides in a shell and has the propensity to be dropped on its back by an eagle, does it quack like a duck?” I asked.

He gave me the point with a wry smile and a nod.  I felt like I had won something grand, but kept it to myself: crowing about the points kind of diffused their impact.  That was a human thing, by the way; the fey liked to crow occasionally.  Which was a weird term for something more like a rooster, but crows could be quite the gossips.

Or so I’d surmised.

“I am not entirely sure how we got into a religious discussion after I suddenly decided I might want a cat, if you could call that a decision. I am guessing you are correct and going to sleep is probably a good choice at this point.”  I caught myself yawning again. “Will I be waking up to a house decorated in sheep guts and glitter?” I asked.

“Would you like to?” Nen asked, teasingly.

“Are those traditional decorations for you?” Rayya asked, looking suspicious.   “I was thinking…” she trailed off.  “Paper,” she decided.

“Well, that is the traditional first anniversary gift, were we married,” I said.  “I find myself more of a modern guy.  You know, clocks.  Because right now mine seems to be warning me that if I don’t go to bed, I’m likely to turn into a pumpkin.”

I paused.  “No,” I just said.  They’d understand.

 

(230) Unfamiliar Things

I considered the term for a while.  The problem is, the only familiars I was really, um, familiar with were generally cats. Oh, I knew a couple of dogs, but as a rule of thumb dogs were suspicious of magic. One turtle. A very odd turtle to be sure, I actually thought the turtle might have been a wizard who had done something, well, bad, with reality. I was sure there were others, but no one kept a human as one.  Maybe a cat girl from anime? Nah.  Plus, she’d have to have those cute pointed ears on the top of her head, and her ears appeared (app-EAR-ed?) to be normal.

I shook my head. What was a familiar, then?  I had a handful of definitions to choose from, magic being that lovely place of overlapping terminology based on a combination of sources in common.  The lowest denominator of magic, some of it being based on terms in science fiction or casual deterioration of religious vocabulary, I supposed.  I occasionally toyed with the idea of writing a book about a time in the future where magic was a standardized form of study and the terms were set, but if I was writing it while it wouldn’t have terrible Latin-based constructions I’d probably still be terrible and lose some culture’s contribution.

Which was an amusing side-note to being “woke,” as an opposition to the living dream of the maya.  I had struggled with the term ‘awake’ already, personally caught between Shirley Jackson’s, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream,” and Peter S. Beagle’s, ” Most people are wide awake only now and then—on special occasions, as you might say. But a magician is wide awake all the time, on call for everything, which is why most people call him a magician.”  I kind of put myself (in both cases) as someone too prone to hitting the snooze button.

But that’s far from knowing what Nen meant as ‘a familiar.’ Was Janet someone like the Sources of Fionavar, there to be tapped for power? A companion to offer occasional guidance, like Rosetta of Joan Carris’ Witch-Cat? Or what he seemed to be suggesting, a convenient host for demons to pop in and out of?  And where did the sigils fall into it, if anywhere?

“What do you mean by ‘familiar’?” I finally asked.

“Touched,” Rayya said, but there was the hint of her hiding her smile.  Nen turned to share some kind of expression with her, but I didn’t catch what it was.

“Touched,” I repeated. “And what does that mean?” I was afraid to keep speculating as it would drag me down rabbit holes I had no intention of touching with the hares of my chinny-chin-chin.

Nevermind. It didn’t sound good even to the weird depths of my head.

“Just as you are,” she said.

“Oh, I’m touched, all right. Touched by your compassion and easy-to-comprehend descriptions,” I said, making sure the sarcasm was laid out nice and evenly. “What do you mean?”

“Do you know what day it is?” Nen asked, and I don’t know why I detected a bit of anxiety to it.

“Um,” I glanced at my watch to tell him.

“Tomorrow will be a year and a day,” Nen said.

“Since… a year and a day ago?” I glanced at my calendar.

I hadn’t planned on any kind of celebration, any kind of anniversary marking my return to the world.  I still had many of the same problems, the same questions, but I had fit right back in, culture shock retreating like a wave on the shore of my personal beach-being… which meant it probably hadn’t been all that much of a tidal wave.  “Oh,” I said, feeling like I had to respond to him.

He and his sister had been unwanted guests at first. Not like the kind on Ed’s pens, but an evil I only found necessary the time I watched Nen fight a Beyonder I originally called a demon.  Since learning more about demons, I wasn’t sure I would keep the epithet.  Over the … year, I guess, they’d turned more like friends.  Even after our spat where Nen had said he wasn’t there to be one… we bought books together, and I remembered to get them cake pops, and I knew their favourite cereals, and even if we didn’t understand each other a lot of the time, we were… friends.  Right?

I felt very cold and alone in the dark for a moment.

“What does that mean?” I finally asked.  He hadn’t said anything, just stared at me with his strange eyes and his wild hair, and his weird clothes and everything I had actually learned to find kind of adorable, to be honest.  I put up with the weird organic and herbal soaps and their occasional silences and pointed looks.

He glanced at Rayya, and I believe my heart jumped a beat.

She inclined her head to him, and he turned back to me.  “Nothing.  Except perhaps we should have a…” he took a deep breath, and said, conversationally, “party.”

“A party?” I asked? My emotions were strained.

“A party,” he said, and I didn’t understand his look.

“Who would we invite?” I asked, ignoring everything we’d been talking about up to that point.

“I will write the guest list,” Rayya said.  She was leaning on the door, now.

“It’s kind of short notice,” I pointed out.

“The people who need to come will find time in their schedule,” she said, and I got a creepy vibe from it.

“Don’t go killing loved ones or anything,” I warned, as if I could stop her. “That’s never a great way to have a celebration.  And it is a celebration, right?” if my voice cracked a little on that last, I ignored it.

“Yes,” but there was a pause I was getting ready to over-analyze.  Nen shook his head.  “I cannot lie to you. We have made a decision.”

If I had learned nothing over the year, I might have asked more questions, but I could tell now.  It wasn’t body language, exactly, what they shared, but it was a sense I had grown.

I would ask more questions.  Later.

“So,” I said, realizing that was preamble enough, “what’s up?” I asked, as I put on my seat belt.

Nen climbed up next to me and frowned at the door.  He just gestured.  “Drive,” he said.

I arched an eyebrow at him.  “Yes, sir, okay sir, whatever you say, sir,” I muttered.  “Jeeves does as sir says, sir,” I continued the ridiculous monologue for about twenty more seconds, or as long as it took me to take a safe left turn from the parking lot on to the busy street.  (I always drive safely, previous car issues aside.)

The car was another rental, because I still hadn’t chosen a good replacement. I meant to get around to it, but I hated shopping for cars. Maybe it’s unmanly, but I just want something that gets me there.  I’d picked it up just before my trip to lunch with Eve, but it was due to be back at the end of the week.  I didn’t like the way my right knee kept hitting the console, so I wouldn’t be getting one of these, whatever it was.

A flash in the mirror showed Rayya sitting in the back seat.  I don’t know how they do it, but I know their little disappearances have to be related to the other’s presence.  And not just as my bodyguards, or whatever, but I think it was something to do with them, specifically.

“So?” I asked again into the silence.

“You are not being followed,” Rayya said.

“Good?” I mean, I was sure it was, but I gave the inflection the question that suggested maybe I was expecting something more than this particular answer.

“Is it possible that your job was actually related closer to the one regarding the demon?” Nen asked, in one of those casual ways attorneys ready to put the smack down on a court case on television had.

“If I say it sounds like outrageous coincidence, you’ll quote rule number 39, right?” It was an NCIS reference; we’d spent a little time binge-watching it because I had been making some point about magic being an accepted part of modern television.  Crime drama had a lot of it, and not just in getting DNA results.

“Perhaps,” he said.  Because like all of his kind, he liked a little wiggle room.  It meant ‘Yes,’ and I knew it.  I probably shouldn’t just relegate it to their ‘kind’ like they were some homogeneous group, but I did mean the “word abusers” of myth or something.  Not that calling them “word abusers” was any less a violation of the language.  Of course, English was a notorious criminal at that, anyway.

“What did I miss?” I asked. “This sounded like it was very recent, and our suspect, if you will, has been at large for a while.” I decided to treat it more like a role playing game.

“What do vampires want?” Rayya asked from the back seat.

“Food? No, that’s too easy.  Power.  That’s a classic.”  I tried to think it through.  Aurora has all these blinking left turn yellow arrows that I find a lot easier than their traffic circles.  I just don’t understand how you get out of them without going over some lines.  It doesn’t feel right.  “If I want to be basic, all life wants a chance to make more life, right? Which is a terrible biological constraint and we thinking beings should be above it.  Sometimes life just wants to have fun,” I muttered.

“How do vampires make baby vampires?” Nen asked.

“Ugh. Do they really? I thought vampires just make more of themselves by convincing others to take on the deal.  I mean, there’s the classic bite and suck, but that’s the disease metaphor.  Those are like vampire polyps, mystically connected to the original vampire, right? Unless they can prepare the host for another… you know this gets really gross the more I think of it, right?”

“`Skeevy,’ I believe, was the term you used previously.”  Nen made it a statement.

“So… Janet’s a demon?” I asked. “I don’t follow.  Wouldn’t I know?  Or was she becoming a host for the demon parasite or something?”

“What if we suggested that the real difference between vampires and demons were that demons were less likely to take root, and instead spread their taint between multiple souls?”  Rayya asked.

“I’d say that there were too many religious overtones in that sentence for it to make real sense to me,” I quipped. “But is that a real thing?”

“Too many religious overtones or our suggestion?” Nen asked.

“The latter, thanks.” I rolled my eyes. We pulled into the parking lot, and I could see Rayya slip out first, probably to give an ‘all clear’ to Nen.  Such was the life of a celebrity.

Okay, I’m totally not a celebrity, but it was easier to think that than to think I was in any kind of trouble.

“Janet is not a demon,” Nen said.  He walked with me to the door, and waited for me patiently to find my keys. (Why do I always tell myself right hand pocket and end up with them on the left? Human perversity, no doubt.)

“Good to know. She was cute. Maybe a little young for me,” I considered.  “I mean, not terribly so, but she had a feeling of youth, which is supposed to be invigorating, but I don’t want to be on the skeevy side of things.  You don’t even understand what I’m talking about, do you?”

“I know you talk a lot,” Rayya said, briskly, coming in through the door after us.

“The concept of consent is a magical one, yes,” Nen said, “but not as definite as you’d like to believe.  You would likely find many of our interpretations skeevy.”

“You like the word?” I grinned, turning on the lights from my chair.  Rayya locked the door behind us.

“There’s a satisfaction to it, given that it seems a little less puissant than ‘squicky,’ and it seems to fill a part of that particular spectrum with better finesse.” Nen said.

“The internet is a wonderful thing.  So what about Janet? If she’s not a demon, what is she?”

“She is a … familiar,” Nen decided.