By Myranda B. Kalis
The carriage Scathan hired came to a halt, and he looked up from the tangle his fingers were making on his lap and smiled slightly. A tall fence stood around the house, its peaked gables and slate-shingled roof the only things visible through the elaborately worked ironwood and skyward reaching plants anchored to it. It was, he conceded, as the footman opened the door for him, a much smaller place than he'd been expecting; the younger Allanyn Seera had had a taste for the decidedly grandiose in nearly everything, and he was moderately surprised to see that, somewhere along the line, he'd managed to lose it. The house beyond the fence was compact and elegant, the outer facade of stone-and-wood work decorated with the fanciful patterns common to sidhe dwelling-places, and ringed in bowers of spring flowers, a well-tended lawn, and trees, not all of which originated in the mortal world. He dimly recalled a hunting lodge in the hills of Westlyn that he'd visited once, that reminded him strongly of this place, the specific memory on the tip of his tongue and strengthened by the sweet woodsmoke pouring from the chimney and the cool caress of the evening breeze. Absently, he paid the coachman and his assistant, and pushed open the unlocked gate, padding down the flagstone walk and onto the wooden porch, forcing back the rush of memory that insisted he had been here before, and rapping lightly on the door. Windchimes, from somewhere out of his immediate range of vision, sounded a sweet, silvery tune, and colored light filtering through the stained glass of the front windows sent another thrill of near-recognition through him.
A hand passed in front of his eyes and a familiar voice asked, "Scathan?"
Scathan half-jumped and blinked rapidly, turning to face Seera and attempting to keep the blush that he could feel building from rushing pell-mell onto his face. Seera grinned at him, anyway, and the blush charged on. "You know, you're very handsome when you're embarrassed."
The blush deepened from pink to rose and Seera's grin widened. Scathan made an attempt to rally his forces, drawing as much dignity as he felt capable of around himself and saying, "This house...reminds me of somewhere else."
"Ah. Yes, it probably does. I modeled it after my father's hunting chalet in the Windermark Hills, between Westlyn and Valgalant." Scathan felt some of the heat receding from his face as Seera's own smile grew somewhat rueful. "Actually, the most memorable thing about the whole of Windermark, the Homicidal Boar Incident notwithstanding." Seera's own ears grew rather pink. "In any case...you honor my house, Lord Valcour. Will you not join me at table?"
Scathan gave him the most elaborate courtesy in his repertoire. "My Lord Seera, it would be my pleasure."
Seera's grin relaxed into a smile and he held the door open; Scathan was glad he hadn't let Evayne talk him into formal dress, since Seera himself looked quite ready for a casual night lounging around the sitting room after supper....the smells of which were emanating with mouth-watering intensity from the rear of the house. "Do I smell....?"
"Herbed chicken, new potatoes, and a rice dish whose name currently escapes me. And a salad, certain select fruits and vegetables, and, hopefully, a pleasant surprise for dessert." Seera ushered him into the sitting room, pleasantly appointed with low ceilings and picture windows,lamps placed at strategic locations, a patterned rug, and tastefully upholstered furniture. A small rack held a selection of glasses and bottles of various vintages; opposite stood a tall clock, its face embossed with a twilight illustration that was a near-perfect match for the sky outside. The corner opposite held a case and a supply of books, and the entire room was dominated by the fieldstone fireplace, and the artifacts scattered across the mantle, the flames leaping gently in every reflective surface. "Make yourself comfortable, dinner will only be a few more moments."
Scathan smiled slightly, wondering, for a moment, if Seera was really cooking out there or just banging a few empty pots and pans together for his benefit, before deciding that both options were equally entertaining. "Having fun out there?"
"Oh, yes--I love--" What he loved was cut off by the sound of cutlery hitting the floor and an enthusiastic digression on the ancestors of the pots.
"Are you sure I can't help?" Scathan hoped that he sounded sweet-and-innocent rather than suppressing-a-laugh.
"Don't be ridiculous. You're my guest. Besides, if you were out here just now, it would ruin the surprise." Seera sounded a bit more relaxed as the general sound of a potential culinary debacle faded to standard kitchen noise.
"As you wish." Scathan smiled to himself, trying to picture Allanyn Seera doing something as pedestrian as actually cooking, an image that filled him with a simultaneous desire to spy on the kitchen and, gods help him, giggle uncontrollably. Seera's position as the only child of the excruciatingly powerful and wealthy Duke of Westlyn had been conducive to many things, but most of them were not related to anything resembling common household activities. Seera had been born and raised to rule--a horrible circumstance that Scathan, by virtue of the seven heirs ahead of him in his own family line, had been largely spared, having only been lightly grazed by most attempts to instill rulership qualities in him. Allanyn, the poor bastard, had caught it all with both barrels at point-blank range, and Scathan strongly suspected that every act of pure wildness that ever came out of him was in strenuous reaction to the straightjacket of highborn privilege. Hence the little house away from court, with high walls to block out the demands of sidhe society for a while, and deliberately made to evoke the simplicity and comfort of another place and time, where he'd been young and happy and without cares.
The urge to giggle faded, but not the smile. That impulse he could understand quite completely, and he found himself prepared to like Seera a bit more than he thought he would, despite the relative connection they shared. Westlyn and Valgalant. The windows of the parlor were pure Westlyn in their design and colors--shades of red from scarlet to vermilion, worked in patterns reminiscent of the leaves in the hardwood forests that covered a good portion of both Duchies. Most of the wood and stonework had more than a hint of Valgalant's artisans to it, the work of master craftsmen who practiced their trade in the heights of the Northwall Mountains and built for their creations to be both beautiful and enduring. Westlyn lay in the foothills of the Northwall, the natural barrier between the northeastern kingdoms of the Dreaming and the southernmost demesne of the Realm of Nightmares, where the temperatures were more moderate, and more of the buildings were of wood than stone. Valgalant was high in the Northwall itself, straddling the border between Dream and Nightmare, and the summers were short and the winters savage, and the nights long in either case. The people of Valgalant, including the ruling family, appreciated Westlyn for its many forms of warmth and gentility; the folk of Westlyn appreciated Valgalant for standing rather firmly between themselves and the border raids that harassed other parts of the conjunction between the Dreaming and the Nightmare Realms.
"Five minutes!" Scathan looked up from the bookshelf he was perusing, a wry smile tugging on his lips. He also had a hard time picturing Seera as being fond of depressing Seelie love poetry, but the proof was sitting on the shelves along with the glamour infused knickknacks, the tiny statuettes carved from single pieces of wood or bone, the hand-sized portraits in pewter frames. Seera's father, whom Scathan remembered dimly, a dusty memory from early youth of a tall, bluff, broad-shouldered man with fiery hair and long, droopy, brick-red moustaches that almost totally obscured his mouth. Allanyn had taken his height from his father as well as his build, for the previous Lord of Westlyn had not been the sort of man that fit the wispy-sidhe image at all, and enjoyed wrestling trolls at Midsummer festivities, much to the chagrin of his lady wife. Seera's mother was a visibly different sort than his father, being tall but almost dangerously fine boned and slender, with her son's copper-blonde hair and hazel eyes, huge eyes that dominated a face of haunting, melancholy beauty. The strain of bearing her first and only son had nearly destroyed her health, and Scathan had grown up on the story of how Lord Seera himself, frightened for the first time in the memory of any resident of Valgalant, had pounded up to the gates of the keep in the middle of the night, through an early autumn snowstorm, to fetch Scathan's mother to save his dying wife. Lady Valcour, a formidable sorceress and even more formidable mother, had gone with him in the dark of the early morning and saved Lady Seera and the newborn sidhe infant, born several weeks early and weak from his entrance into the world. She had also, after protracted negotiations between Lord and Lady Seera, laid an enchantment that prevented Lady Seera from conceiving again, for she had been certain that another attempt at childbearing would lay the delicate Fiona lady in her grave. Seera's mother had known that it was so, but her deepest sorrow was her inability to give her husband more children, despite Lord Seera's loud and constant attempts to reassure her that one son was all he needed and desired--and that he loved her more by his side than in his memory. It was the sort of tale guaranteed to make Kithain hearts go gooey and romantic and sigh about true love and devotion, and several very bad and one or two quite good ballads had come out of it.
He cast a glance over the fireplace, half-expecting a larger portrait to be there, but there was nothing. In fact, other than the lamps and furniture, most of the parlor's furnishings were distinctively small and easily portable. One or two he even recognized from his infrequent visits to the Westlyn ducal seat. Lady Seera's hunger for more children had been addressed by Scathan's mother, who, in a period when sidhe births had been few and far between, had produced five sons and three daughters for her husband, all of whom had survived into adulthood (despite their attempts to kill themselves with daring do when barely able to walk). The youngsters of the Valcour and Seera households were virtually a tribe in their nappies, and two of Scathan's elder brothers and one of his sisters had been fostered out to Westlyn at reasonably young ages. To acquire polish, Lady Valcour had said, more than once, a fiction that had been accepted by all for the sake of the gentle Lady Seera. Scathan, born last, remembered her sad eyes and her soft smiles and her gentle, musical voice that everyone answered to promptly.
The fourth portrait, Scathan couldn't but a name to. She was fully as delicate as Seera's mother, with a heart-shaped face accentuated by hair so deeply black it was nearly blue, caught beneath a net of fine golden threads set with tiny red gems like drops of fire. Her eyes, beneath thick lashes, were liquid gold, and her full lips set in a sultry, red-lined smile. There was no name on the frame's plate and, try as he might, his faulty memory refused to produce any knowledge of her identity.
The sound of Seera's throat clearing drew him up from his contemplation of the dark woman, his red-blonde hair catching the light from the dining room lamps as he leaned in the entranceway between the two rooms. "Curious, cat?"
"Call me `Skye'--my family stopped calling me `Cat' when I reached that gawky stage and got all clumsy for a year." Scathan smiled wryly and some of the tension melted from the set of Seera's shoulders, his own lips managing something like a smile. "She's lovely."
"Yes--she was." Something in Seera's tone drew Scathan's eyes to his face, the sorrow etched there making his heart constrict oddly. Then it was gone, covered so quickly that he almost doubted it had been there at all, Seera's lips arranging themselves in a self-deprecating smirk as he gestured toward the dining room. "I flatter myself with the notion that I can feed myself without the necessity of servants every now and then--I'll give you the opportunity to flee now if you don't want to take your life into your own hands at supper tonight."
"My dear Allanyn, my life is always in my own hands," He smelled of spices, still, and pleasant cooking scents as well, sugar and flour and wine, and Scathan's mouth watered in a manner that he knew had little to do with food. "I am, after all, a diplomat."
"Touche," Seera's hand settled between his shoulder blades and guided him into the dining room, lit with colored-glass lamps rather than candles, though the effect achieved was mostly the same, "I'll try not to kill you until after dessert."
Scathan laughed and the last of the tension suddenly dissolved, Seera's customary half-wicked, half-taunting smile coming back to his handsome face as he pulled out a chair. The food tasted as good as it looked, and it looked good enough to be the center spread of a cooking magazine, complete with garnishes that must have taken a few hours to make, and fresh flowers from the garden, and a nicely chilled bottle of Valgalant's infamous mountain berry wine. Seera relaxed completely after the first glass and Scathan let whatever residual concerns he might have had fade away as well, with the pleasant bite of the wine and the warmth of the very good meal filling him. Dessert was a confection of spun sugar and pastry filled with thick cream and bits of candied fruit, and they lingered at the table over seconds and thirds of everything, and a second bottle of the wine, reminding each other of embarrassing stories that they had both sincerely hoped that the Mists had annihilated for all time. Scathan had a few that even Seera didn't remember, and Seera had several that Scathan hadn't been home for, and between them, they achieved blushes that had little to do with the wine.
"And there I thought I would be in a distinctly different sort of trouble when I came here," Scathan admitted over the rim of his glass. "I was warned--"
Seera produced a none-too-gentlemanly snicker. "My reputation is greatly exaggerated--I couldn't be half was wicked as they say I am, though I let it ride for malicious purposes of my own. You were warned?"
"Warned by my page to carry pepper spray and scream `Fire!' instead of `Rape!'" This unleashed a howl of laughter from Seera, which Scathan was forced to follow, both of them leaning back in their chairs and chuckling weakly.
"Despite all that has been said about me, I've never had to visit my attentions on an unwilling individual." Seera poured a bit more into his glass and then did the same for his guest.
"I don't imagine that you have to," Scathan replied, quite honestly, and was rewarded with another blush.
"Flattery will get you nowhere." Seera smirked faintly.
"That's not what I've heard." Scathan smiled evilly.
The faint smirk and the evil smile dissolved in another round of laughter, Scathan finally gasping, "We have to stop--I'm in physical pain, I haven't laughed this much in ages."
"Ahhhhh...not much laughter in the Kingdom of Sweat and Sunburn?" Seera's eyebrow arched inquisitively.
"Not when you live on the edge of the Desert of Perpetual Night, and spend most of your time trying to keep the Kithain and Gallain populations from killing each other on a daily basis." Scathan slouched even more deeply into his chair. "I spent two years on loan to the court of Duke Topaz and discovered that, when in Mexico, you should not only refrain from drinking anything other than tequila, but you should not try to speak Spanish to the native fae...it offends them. Greatly. I still have the scars."
"You poor thing. You should take up a less stressful job--"
"`Diplomacy is not a real job.'" Scathan smiled wryly.
"That depends on who you ask," Seera's eyes sought the ceiling. "Being not a real diplomat, only a mere politician, I couldn't really say. However, political connections do have their advantages. I put out a description of your sister to some of my more talented friends earlier today, and gave instructions that I would like to know if anyone answering to the name Miranda Valcour or Miranda ap Ailil Sains anywhere in Concordia."
"You work fast," Scathan smiled. "Thank you."
"Don't expect too much for a while--as I'm sure you know, most of your House, for some obscure reason, chose to return in the Old Country. Though I imagine, if you're willing to be the exception that proves the rule, that sister of yours would, too." A pause. "However, I would, if possible, like some more information about how you came to be here...it may help me find her if I fully understand the circumstances of your departure from home."
"That'll be a fun trick--I don't fully understand the circumstances of my departure from home." He set his glass aside, fingers lacing together in a suddenly-nervous tangle. "I can remember things that happened a long time ago...."
"But your most recent memories are totally fractured." Seera grimaced. "Don't feel too bad--so are mine. I don't remember why I left...only that I did, and that I had time to gather some...important things before I did."
"According to the woman that found me, I came over with the clothes on my back and not much else." His fingers pried themselves apart, one hand absently caressing his shoulder as an old, phantom pain lanced through it again.
"Well, that rumor was true then," Seera observed mildly, reaching out and laying his hand over Scathan's own. "I'm serious, Skye...it would help me to know more."
"I know." Scathan lifted his eyes to Seera's. "What do you want to do?"
"I--well, not here." He set aside his glass and rose, Scathan pushing to his feet as well and allowing himself to be guided back into the parlor, and pushed into a seat on one of the dangerously comfortable couches. "I'll need you to relax a bit."
"If I were any more relaxed, I would be a quivering puddle on the floor," Scathan pointed out. Seera pushed his head back against the thick cushions.
"Cooperate with me, you little reprobate, and we'll find out what happened to the rest of your family yet." Scathan let his head lay back and his body sink into the (very) soft and (extremely) comfortable cushions, refusing to be concerned about the possibility of having to get out of his seat quickly and the unlikeliness of that given his current state. Seera's fingers stroked slowly through his hair, unwinding it from the ties holding it in place and letting it fall loose around his face and shoulders.
"Are you sure you aren't just trying to seduce me?" He asked as the touch slid down to his neck, the warm--no, rather hot--fingers caressed the muscles, loosening a tension that he hadn't been fully conscious of, Seera sliding closer, his lips brushing the earrings as he breathed softly, "Not yet, anyway."
Seera's voice continued, low and soft, but somehow, despite the fact that he could feel the warm breath against his ear and cheek, Scathan couldn't quite make out the words; his hands continued moving, caressing slowly and gently, but somehow the touch seemed impossibly distant, like the memory of a caress. A living warmth welled around him, winding around him, enveloping him, as his eyes drifted closed and his mind surrendered to the gentle pull of the hands and voice of his companion....
Scathan slammed the door and planted his back firmly against it, strenuously repressing the urge to pick up something delicate and throw it at one of the tapestried, white-washed walls. His hands reflexively balled into fists at his sides, he bit his tongue, and mentally counted to ten. Then he did it again because today, as with so many days in the recent past, ten alone was not enough to keep him from completely losing his temper.
"My life is a plague of fools!" He finally settled for shouting, normally storm-blue eyes flashing black with rage.
"So you keep saying," Another voice drifted from the next room, the door of which was standing open, allowing a pleasant breeze to pass through the suite.
Scathan managed to not-quite storm into the bedroom, where the manservant who had turned up on his last birthday was rearranging his wardrobe for perhaps the sixth time that week. "That's because whenever I say it, it's usually true. Don't you have anything better to do?"
The younger sidhe, graced with the unlikely name of Umberto, gazed over his shoulder with thinly disguised amusement, ice blue eyes glinting and short-cropped blonde hair ruffling in the breeze from the opened window. "No. There are few opportunities for amusement in a court run by a feather headed Fiona Count."
"And now you're being sarcastic." Scathan snorted and flopped with a complete lack of decorum into the bedside chair.
"I live to serve. What's the problem this time?" Last season's summer formal wear landed on the bed; Scathan grimaced and sincerely hoped that lace wouldn't be as popular this year.
"Her Excellency is irritated with me. Again. As usual." Scathan rolled his eyes to the whitened ceiling, wondering, briefly, if it was too late in his career to turn into a human-sympathic insurgent.
"Well, what did you do?" Umberto briefly considered a bit of clothing, "Are you ever going to wear this...contrivance...again?"
"Only if someone were holding a sword to my back while I was getting dressed," The aforementioned contrivance joined the rest of the old summer clothing on the bed. "I refused to kill the Baron of Stonesway Bridge for her."
"Ahhhh. I'm told the good Baron made quite a scene at the garden party last week. You really don't like hats, do you?"
"Hate `em. And, yes, I know all about the scene--I was there for it, after all." Scathan groaned. "I was so tempted to tell her that she should just keep her skirts down, her garters buckled and her legs crossed...."
"At which point she would have sent for the headsman...."
"That's why I didn't say it. But I was so close...I could taste the words forming on my tongue with just the right proportions of sarcasm and piquant reproval....Instead, I told her I didn't kill for anyone's pleasure, even hers." He slumped lower in his seat, looking, to the casual observer, as though half the bones in his spine were missing. "I'm afraid the more picturesque parts of my shadowy reputation are starting to catch up with me."
"Perhaps now is a good time to make a discreet departure from court, at least until the furor dies down," a traveling bag plopped on the floor at Scathan's feet.
Scathan pushed at the empty bag idly. "You sound like you have a plan."
"Not a plan--a notion."
"Ah. And would this notion involve me going home for the lengthy visit I've been promising for the last five years?"
A resounding silence fell.
"I thought so." Scathan let his head fall forward into his hands.
"Valgalant is lovely at this time of year," Umberto pointed out helpfully.
"Yes. It is lovely. And all the young women who've been cloistered all winter will be on the prowl, many of them newly grown into something approaching adult femininity, and no man for thirty miles will be safe from their predatory advances." The hands muffled his voice, but not the despair. "My mother will practically drag me off my horse and to her bosom, smother me in kisses and embraces and tearful reproaches that I should come home more often--and then she'll start dragging me to an endless succession of spring coming-out parties, introduce me to an unsettling number of unmarried daughters of local lords, and strategically bemoan the fact that she still doesn't have any grandchildren, despite the fact that several of my siblings have been attempting to gratify her on that score for at least the last fifty years."
"Your mother simply misses the sound of little feet in the castle. It's been rather lonely for her there since the eight of you all set out on lives of your own." Umberto informed him primly.
"Yes, I know. That's why I got her a cat for Solstice two years ago." Scathan raised his head. "And it's not only her. My father will casually sidle up to me one night and, after pouring a few glasses of mountain berry wine in me, will discreetly broach the topic of when I plan to settle down and get married. Then he'll give me that nervous look he gets whenever I can't give him a straight answer--which is all of the time--and then start poking around every rumor that actually makes it intact as far as Valgalant about `my Sith friend' and I--" He cut off as his hand began winding into a fist again. "I think," he said carefully, "I have enough stress without actually going to visit my family."
"You're probably right."
"Thank you." A sigh. "Anything else?"
"A letter arrived for you today from Sir Gwyrith and Lady Barangaria--a rather thick letter."
"Really? I haven't heard from them in...oh, at least a few months." Scathan smiled slightly and rose to fetch the letter; Barangaria was the sort of correspondent that produced volumes in her letters and had still more to add once you met her face to face. The letter was, as promised, quite thick, written on Barangaria's cream-colored hand-made paper for which she was justly proud, and in her quick, delicate hand. It began with the words, "Well met," as most her letters did, and ended with, "So when are you coming to see us next? It's almost summer and you still haven't been here to see your nieces. Reesa is growing like a weed and you'll hardly recognize Dovira. Don't you love us anymore?"
"Umberto, pack me a bag." Scathan rose and refolded the letter, brushing down the stiff-with-embroidery front of his tunic and deciding it would do for an informal audience.
The manservant's frost-colored brows rose slightly. "You've changed your mind."
"No, I'm going to go visit Lord and Lady Foxlane." He smiled sweetly at his servant's crestfallen look. "I'll spend the autumn in Valgalant--most of the eligible ones will be married off by then."
Umberto looked mournfully at the bag. "Your mother will be heartbroken."
"My mother has survived several hundred years of my whimsical failures to come home at regular intervals, and she'll eventually resign herself to my perpetual bachelorhood as well," Scathan replied tartly. "Her will of steel is, after all, powerless against my prevailing whims."
"UNCLE SCATHAN!!!" The honey-haired moppet hurled herself out of the saddle of her still-moving pony and directly into Scathan's arms with the heedless energy of a childling lacking any concept of mortality, or even serious injury. Scathan managed to absorb most of the force of her projectile arrival, and they still went over in a flying mass of honey-colored curls, black braids, embroidered skirts and petticoats, and a long cloak that threatened to strangle its hapless wearer. "Uncle Scathan!!! You came!!! Mommy's been so worried about you!"
"Now, what reason would your mother have to worry about me?" Scathan wheezed from around the obstruction of his cloak clasp and several pounds of squirmingly heavy childling.
"I don't know, she just was." Reesa planted baby-kisses all over his face, roseate eyes wide with glee. "Just wait till she finds out you're here, she'll be so--"