March 20, 2014

Goblin Fires, Chapter Three

The Courtyard Terrace is a nice restaurant on a scenic street corner across from Central Park: the perfect place for fae folk like Ceri and the Springtime Court to meet, naturally. Alan, driving the sleek town car, which is our usual conveyance while visiting New York, dropped us in front of the restaurant while he drove on to find parking. He would join us again shortly. Puca also came with us, of course, enjoying the pleasure of accompanying Ceri on her errands, even if they were simple afternoon luncheons with other envoys of the faerie nations. He'd traded his feline shape for a black dog—smaller, though, than he usually wore it, with a figure closer to a friendly Labrador than the normal hunting hound, to mitigate any reactions he might get from mortal onlookers. He had no leash, though. No one ever appeared to find it necessary to scold Ceridwen into leashing her dog.

I stepped out of the car first, offering my hand to help Ceri. She came out into the morning sunlight with a smile and a soft sound of pleasure: it was, as the paper had predicted, lovely and warm. The scent of fine savory dining wafted toward us from the open doors leading into the Terrace. Pretty lavender and pastel green umbrellas spread their shade over the wide outdoor patio and its elegant wrought-iron tables, making it seem every inch a dappling of meadow flowers in a garden brightening the street.
After Ceri came Puca, loping to her side and scanning the street with wide, interested eyes. He'd forgone his pair of goblin wings, of course, as such a thing would hardly go over well in mortal public, but those yellow eyes were the same, glowing like Halloween lamps even in the mid-morning sunlight. After him came Erin, and I held out my hand for her as well, even though she wasn't my princess. A simple courtesy, but with a coy smile she brushed me aside. She still wore her little brown capelet, and the light breeze made it ripple around her shoulders.
She'd changed her appearance, like Puca, though more for reasons of personal vanity than to avoid notice, I expected. She'd glamoured herself with a summer tan, a darker contrast to Ceri's fairness. Her eyes were bright, mischievous blue now, and her hair shone black instead of blonde, though she retained the streaks of color. I'd wager she did it to offset the symmetry, which would have been her and Ceridwen, practically twins, across from Nineva and Nerissa, nearly identical. Erin, like most goblins, has an obsessive-compulsive aversion to symmetry.
"I'll go get the table," she said with a nod of her head to our princess, and she made her way over to the hostess standing at the front of the patio. While she did, I looked up and around.
I saw them, a little down the street, sitting by the side of a water fountain and laughing with conversation. The two changeling daughters of Gloriana: Nineva and Nerissa, princesses of the Springtime Court of Elves. They were slender, of willowy stature, with matching fine, waifish features. Beside them, one foot propped up on the lip of the fountain, stood their Knight, my brother Finn.
Nina and Neri are tall, like all elves. Nina wore her long, straight hair—the color of periwinkle blossoms—pinned back with combs decorated in baby's breath and ivy, and she wore a pretty white sundress. Neri's hair, pale seafoam green, she kept held away from her face in a style twisting lengths of braids into a complicated knot at the back of her head. She wore a simple halter blouse the color of lapis lazuli and pristine white jeans, and a heavy bracelet of round beads in pale, pale jade. Both the Springtime Ladies had eyes like thick green grass in the bright sunlight of May, and each of their noses turned up slightly at the end, a grace of petulant youth, identical down to the pair of fairy saddle freckles on each dainty puckish bridge.
Next to them, Finn proved a goliath: the leaner, subtler features of his elvyn father were made powerful and athletic in a warrior's frame, broad muscle and predatory nimbleness the inheritance of his Unbridled side. He stood leaning in toward his Ladies as they talked, wearing a roguish smile on his handsome, fine-featured face. He had tawny-blond hair, like mine, and he wore it casually trim. It tended a hint more toward red in his beard, which he kept tidy but full. Today he wore dark blue jeans and his leather jacket over a green T-shirt. The dark colors made a bold contrast beside the Easter Sunday hues of Nina and Neri.
Even though he remained clearly engrossed in conversation with the two of them, who were by far the most lovely women in his general vicinity, ever other woman nearby had her eyes shamelessly on him. He's elvish, after all, and the elves of the Aos Sí exude a powerful magnetism, especially among mortals and especially in their element. Still though, even for an elf... Finn is striking.
I smiled wide and started toward them. Nina noticed me first and she lifted a dainty hand in greeting; her sister's gaze and Finn's followed, and as I approached they both rose to meet me, Neri with a gracious nod and Finn with a strong, enveloping hug.
"Reagan!" he rumbled warmly. "Looking good, little one..."
"Many thanks, Knight," I muttered dryly. Finn is actually younger than me, by two years, but he towered over me in height, tall enough so my head barely reached his shoulder. He loved to remind me. He and the Puca, the pair of them, they loved to give me trouble.
"Lady Knight," murmured Nerissa, gazing at me with demure politeness. As Finn released me from the hug, I took her hand in mine and gave it a chaste kiss.
"Well met, my Lady," I said, then repeated the gesture with Nineva. "And you, my Lady."
Finn laughed. "Honestly, Reg, why so stiff all the time? We're all friends! Ah, and here's the lovely Ceri! Majesty, how are you?"
My princess and Puca had followed me, and now my brother threw his broad arms around Ceridwen in another great bear-hug. I saw with some gratification Puca appeared to disapprove; only he should be free to meet the princess so informally. Ceri, though, returned Finn's hug with a soft laugh, and when they parted she stood on tiptoe—she's even shorter than I—to give him a kiss on the cheek.
"Och, lass, you're a proper vision, as ever," he drawled. His accent always rumbled a bit thicker when he flirted. I shook my head.
"Nina, Neri," Ceridwen said, embracing each of the twins in turn. "So glad to see you both in good health.
"Our thanks, Ceridwen," Nina murmured. "We are—"
"—delighted to see you also fare well," Neri added. "And well met, as your Knight says—"
"—To see us this day," Nina finished.
They did that, the twins. Their speech became like an interweaving song, their voices a gently echoing cadence. They gave the impression of perpetual languid ease, as if each conversation were being held in the quiet shelter of a little forest glade where they and their company were the only living souls to speak of. It had a uniquely thrilling effect, most especially when those intense green eyes fixed on you, delving into you, gently and subtly searching you.
My brother had been blessed with one hell of an assignment as the Knight of the Court of Spring. Simply being close to Nina and Neri is mildly intoxicating.
"I've ordered us an appetizer, and my handmaiden awaits," Ceri told them both. "I believe our Knights mean to take leave for the hour?"
She addressed the question at Finn and me, and my brother put an arm around my shoulder with a nod.
"As long as the maidens do not object," he said, "I did aim to take my sister out for a pint."
Nina twirled a lock of her hair thoughtfully around her fingers. "The Knights have our approval, Lady Autumn—"
"—if they wish to depart," Neri finished, her green eyes sparkling as she gazed at Finn. "We do not mind—"
"—letting them catch up with one another."
Ceri smiled and nodded. "I have already given Reagan my approval. She is free to do as she likes. I am sure Finn will keep her out of any trouble."
I felt a hot blush rise up, but said nothing. My brother chuckled heartily.
"Right then. You lovely ladies go on and enjoy your lunch. Reagan and I will return at, say, half-past?"
"It is acceptable to us, Sir Knight," Nerissa murmured. "We shall have Sir Goblin—"
"—and the Lady Erin to accompany us, should there be any call—"
"—for attendance."
Sometimes I wondered if they were compelled by their intertwined changeling natures to speak so, or if they did it because they knew the effect it had on people. Sometimes—I couldn't help it—I wondered if they did it in bed.
I bowed to the princesses as they took their leave of us, and when they strolled off back toward the Terrace, Finn elbowed me lightly in the ribs.
"Get ahold of yourself, lass," he muttered. "If you aren't careful you might just crack a smile."
I did smile at him as I straightened, then put my arm around him to give him a friendly squeeze.
"Shut it, you great oaf."
"All I'm saying is you wouldn't want word to get around the Courts that Reagan of The Morrigan is going soft," he teased, turning to guide me up the street in the opposite direction, toward his favorite Irish pub. "Can't let it be said you might once and again be at ease, now, can you? Bloody drudge."
"Wanker," I teased him back.
Finn and I are an oddity of sorts, at least when it comes to being Children of the Morrigan. There weren't many of us—The Morrigan is a warrior goddess, after all, not a patron saint of hearth or home or fertility—and we do not often coincide closely in age. Finn and I might have been the one set of siblings to share our early childhoods, being raised together for the first five years of his life until I left for the Autumn Court. We shared a unique closeness, even after taking up our roles to our respective houses. Finn is like me: he is of empathic demeanor, affected by and reflecting the nature of his company and, being a servant in the House of Spring, he'd come into a generally pleasant, playful and bright sort of character. Being an elf, he's prone to a strong sense of self-confidence and, being Finn, self-confidence edged into cocksure impertinence as often as not. Luckily for him, he's good at backing it up. He's also bloody gorgeous, as I've said, all lithe muscle and agile grace, and to top it off the beautiful, blazing smile of a man of chivalry and devotion. It is all genuine, unadulterated Finn, too. A natural Knight, through and through.
It's downright disgusting, but merely because he does it so well.
Finn is better than I at managing the velocity of Unbridled nature. He embraces the empathic adaptability of our emotions, where I generally struggle simply to manage them. He is forever nagging me to take the same leap of faith, headlong into my carefree passions.
Today, evidently, would be no different.
"How is Ceri?" he asked pleasantly as we ordered our drinks. Finn is the one soul on Earth with whom I can confide my feelings for Ceridwen. He understands the situation with uncanny sympathy.
Unfortunately, his advice is never very helpful to me.
"She is well," I answered, trying to affect his same breezy manner. "You will love the ballad she is constructing for Queen Gloriana. She has made it a true work of art."
"Excellent," he replied with a nod. "And how about you, then?"
"How about me?" I rebounded, cryptic as I toyed with a thin cardstock coaster.
"A fellow can't help but notice," he rumbled. "You're a bit tousled today. A little extra jaunt in your step, a coy bit of smugness... rather Winter, if you ask me. Alas, when you gaze at the fair Ceridwen, there's yet a wistful, unrequited longing. As usual."
I rolled my eyes at him. Our drinks came and I made it a point to give our waitress a covert but definitely appreciative glance. Channeling Talaith again, or perhaps this time a little bit of Erin. Either way, I let Finn see it, then turned my eyes on him.
"I'm doing just fine, little brother."
"Uh-huh," he replied. He imbibed a quick sip of his drink, pretending for a second he might actually drop the subject. Of course, he didn't.
"So it wasn't your typical gaze of hopeless affection I saw when Ceri and my Ladies parted ways with us, then?" he mused. "Funny... it seemed so much more heartfelt and true than the silly ogling you just gave the serving girl."
I frowned at him, dropping the cool act, and sighed.
"Is this really why you wanted me to come out for a drink with you?" I asked. "So you could play the wise counselor and help me to admit what you already know to be true?"
"Someone's got to," he said. "Might as well be me."
"No, it mightn't," I warned. "Finn, we've had this conversation."
"Aye, so we have," he replied, raising his glass to me in a mock salute. "But a man should say something when he sees his baby sister's hurting, shouldn't he?"
"I'm not," I insisted. "And I'm not your baby sister. I'm older than you. I've been doing this longer."
"Reg," he murmured kindly. "You poor, silly bint. I simply want you to be happy."
"I am happy," I said, and downed a long sip of my drink. It wasn't untrue, either. "I am perfectly content with my role and the status of things as they are in my House."
"Och, right," he muttered. "And so you reek of Winter magic this morning, and last time the kisses of a poor Summer Dryad. I can't stand to see you trying to ease your yearning heart with other lasses, who don't truly make you happy, and all the while pining for the one Sidhe lady you've convinced yourself you cannot have."
"Why won't you just tell Ceri how you feel?" he asked. "How you've felt since the day you met her? You've told me often enough. Do you think she wouldn't love you the same, you, who've been her friend, companion and guardian nearly all your lives?"
"Finn!" I grated. "We've gone over this. I'm her Knight. I can't be anything more to her."
"Sure you can," he said softly. "You may be a Knight, Reg... but you're not a stone."
I tried not to hate him for that. I tried not to be ridiculously jealous, childishly jealous and bitter over the courage he had and I didn't, the joy he'd found which I could not. It wasn't Finn's fault I had never revealed my heart's desire to Ceridwen. Did he have to make my own pain so much sharper, though, so much more poignant, by not once but twice proving he had no fear of what might come?
I didn't answer him, but sat back into the cool, dark leather of the booth, sulking over my drink.
"Ceridwen—Lady Ceridwen—is my princess, and my charge," I said. It had become, by now, less an argument against Finn and more a mantra held to keep my own feelings in check. "I am her Knight. There is to be nothing more between us."
"Nina and Neri are my princesses," he countered. "And it has never stood in our way."
"Because you are a great big bolloxing idiot," I snapped. "And you realize you cannot ever really be together. One day they will be called to choose between you and the demands of the crown, and they will not be free to fraternize with a half-breed servant when there are Sidhe expectations pressing in on their every side. Would you ask them to be humiliated in the eyes of their Court, for taking an Unbridled barbarian into their bower?"
My words were probably much harsher than necessary. Finn, though, as usual, didn't appear to be bothered. He smiled, a little sadly for my sake, and sipped his beer.
"Reagan," he said, in a tone of surrender. "I just want to see you happy, is all."
"I know, Finn," I said quietly.
It's just not as easy for me as it is for you.
I rubbed at my temple. Sometimes I wanted to ask him how he did it: how he could so easily put aside the constraints of his duty and the expectations of the Courts, let his guard down, let himself be so at ease with Nineva and Nerissa, his wards. How could he let himself love them so freely, and accept their love so easily in return? Being what he was?
The twins don't like tiger lilies...
They like the whole tiger.
Of course, Erin's earlier remark hadn't come close to encompassing the whole truth. There had always been far more to it. At the moment, though, it wasn't a subject I wished to dwell upon any more. Finn meant well in hoping to nudge me in what, to him, must be the obvious course of action. I am not the same as him, though. Ceri is not the same as the Ladies of the Springtime Court. I am not as brave. She is not as blithe.
The whole matter made me very tired.
"Another subject, if you will?" I asked, trying not to sound too terse. He is my brother, after all, and I loved him. "Have you seen our Mother lately?"
He gave a little nod. "She came to the Queen's celebration of the thaw. She was as she ever is."
Which meant The Morrigan had been charming and polite, but conspicuously alien among the Sidhe of the Courts. Our mother remained staunchly proactive in defending her independence, even though it served an effective reminder to all the Sidhe Lords that the warrior goddess maintained no allegiance to any of them. Sometimes I wondered if keeping up such a defensive presence served to help or hinder her standing. Then again, she had maintained the same staunch neutrality for centuries before I'd come along, and likely would continue for centuries to come. Who am I to question it?
"I danced with her," Finn said with a fond smile. "I expect she will be in attendance at the upcoming equinox, as well."
I nodded. One could almost be sure of it. Sometimes, though—maybe when I found myself especially engrossed in mortal company, those raucous, beautiful, complicated creatures—I wished I might have occasion to visit my own mother again, outside the auspices of the court, some afternoon to simply be all hers.
I wondered if Finn ever pondered such things himself. I'd never asked.
Mac Soith, what made me so morose today? I tried to brush it away and let Finn's brighter, more easygoing demeanor wash over mine.
We chatted about things, which had little consequences: mortal dealings, the flight he and his Ladies had taken, his last trip to the fae realms and Gloriana's meadowland pavilions. He asked about Seattle and the recent thunderstorms—probably the work of Oberon's personal harlequin, the Puck, who had been recently in our area causing Winter mischief. Finally, when I expected it might be safe, I asked him about Nina and Neri again, and how they had enjoyed the Caribbean. They recently returned from a brief journey there last week on business of their Court.
Finn smiled at me, his expression full of buoyant cheer. "The islands were absolutely beautiful, Reg. And they suited my Ladies quite nicely. We met with the merfolk of Titania's realms. Nina discovered a new drink to her liking, and Neri found she does not care much for the taste of conch."
I chuckled at the image of quiet Neri screwing up her elfin nose at the stark bland flavor of conch.
Soon enough, our hour passed, and the time came to return to our Ladies. Right as I dropped the cash for our drinks onto the little bill tray, Finn's phone chirped at him and he glanced down at it before sharing the screen with me. The message came from Erin: the Ladies want to take a walk through CP. Meet you there.
"Naturally." I nodded. I slid out of the booth, slipped my tin of peppermints from my pocket, and popped one into my mouth. Finn flashed a final, winning grin at the waitress, who blushed and waved a little goodbye.
"That," my brother told me, putting his arm around my shoulder again, "is how you flirt with a serving girl, Reagan my lass."
I shook my head and sighed.

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