I would make a very bad patriot. I am sure that, according to some, I have my priorities inverted. I have always placed friendship and personal loyalty much higher than any I might hold to a company, party or country. That much would be obvious to anybody who knew me; or to any unlikely soul perusing these pages. Part of it, I suppose, stems from my upbringing, that loyalty being one of the things that I inherited from my father as much as my mother; him being a man who would do business on a handshake and who never forgot a favour. Schooldays at ‘The Math’ only served to strengthen that. I had only a few close friends; the few that were brave enough to see past the taunts of ‘carrot-top’ and ‘bookworm’, or those that were similarly ‘afflicted’. My loyalty to them was much stronger than that I felt towards the school itself, for all that I would cheer and wave my cap at inter-school sports events, or the occasional ‘Old Williamsonians’ events that I attended after. My time at university was much the same, though with fewer taunts and less bullying. I owed Haskins Shipping Company some loyalty, as my employer, but even so, that took secondary importance against that to my captain and the crewmates of all the ships I served on. I have never really sought explanation for that, since, to me, it is fundamental to my make-up, but if I were to seek one, it might well be that it was because those friendships were real, tangible, immediate, whereas loyalty to an employer, to a school, even to queen and country were more distant, abstract ideals.
And now, I find myself contemplating where my loyalties lie. My friends still come first, always, but there are, at times, conflicts. I owe loyalty to my friends, especially to dear Valene, who I have known almost ever since I first departed that which I once knew of as ‘reality’, which I think I shall now call my ‘First Life’. Against that, lies what loyalty I should owe others, especially since Cristof’s warnings about loyalty and fealty. While those were mostly directed at Aoibheann, much of what he said applies to me. He bade me to not speak of the business of the courts, or the business of the castle, and now, it seems that Valene has asked me to do just that. I don’t know what to do. True, Cristof has given me place in his castle, and is attempting to teach me of the ways of our kind, but I have no personal connection to him. Perhaps I owe him some loyalty as an elder in my clan, but again, that is abstract, not backed up by personal experience. In kindred matters, I hold more loyalty to Brigitte, wherever she may be, but that has long ceased to be any loyalty to her as prince, and has always been much more of a personal loyalty. Such is my loyalty to Valene, as my friend, but I cannot ignore her close associations with the Unseelie Court, and so I find myself torn.
It started innocently enough. I was sitting outside the hut, for the sensation of being out in the open more than the fresh air; the air in the castle courtyard only being fresh if that word includes the perpetual smell of the middens and the stables. I was deeply absorbed in the writings of Mr Whitman when I felt a presence nearby and a purring sound in my ear. Only one person I know would come that close and make that noise, so I put my book down and turned to find Valene at my side. She looked tired and somehow fragile, and her wings were not in evidence, but her manner at least seemed more like the Valene that I knew, compared to the distractions I had felt in her previously. I welcomed her as I normally would, arranging myself so she could lie in my arms and rests against my torso. She seemed happy with this arrangement and soon made herself comfortable, much as a regular cat might. I asked if she was feeling less distracted and she told me that she was, because Faermorn had helped her to silence the noises. I had heard this name, but knew not who it referred to. She told me that Faermorn was the Unseelie Queen, and that it had been her job, and pleasure to protect said queen, even with her life.
“That figures,” I told her, relating how almost all my contacts with the fae high courts had been with the Unseelie – Catt, Artur & Katarina, Winter… I added that my only contact with the Seelie had been Llwyd, back in Jasper Cove. That name, she apparently knew, and, from the flattening of her ears, it was not a name she liked. She had curled up on me, and I got the distinct impression she did not get much chance to so relax. I found myself scratching her head and playing with her ears, much as I would with a kitten. Going back to her distractions, I asked what was bothering her and what I could do to help.
She hesitated at first, as if trying to work out what to say. Or, possibly, given what she was about to say, she was nervous about saying it. She explained that as a changeling neko, back in London, her mind was well-suited and sized to that nature, the things she needed to know and understand in that form. The transformation to her current state, she told me, was too much. An excess of information and knowledge that she just simply didn’t know how to deal with came flooding in and it broke her mind, literally. She told me that she had been wandering her Roads for a long time, to all intents and purposes, insane, until Faermorn had found her and helped her to mend the cracks. She told me it wasn’t a perfect fix, and bits and pieces still come unravelled at times, but for the most part, she can hold it together. Now I understood her hesitancy in telling me. I hugged her close and told her what she needed to hear.
“So, you’re a slightly crazy kitty,” I told her with a shrug. “That’s not exactly news,” I said with a smile. “I love you anyway.” I felt I should explain why I understood, so related a little of my situation. “Eight or years ago now, I was just an ordinary working guy, with a taste for rum and a predilection to go a bit wild in dockside whorehouses. Then, by chance and circumstance, I became a creature I thought to be a myth. I came to London where I met other creatures I thought to be myths. And then, on my way from my last abode to here, I met an old friend who I had thought lost, and who turned out to be even older than I could imagine. I’m surprised my brain isn’t broken. Or maybe it is, and I just think it isn’t.” I scratched her ears again. “What a pair we make, eh?” I felt a slight tremor and then she settled, even more relaxed. Perhaps she had been expecting some other response, but that wasn’t who I was. I am not the judgemental sort, and certainly would not judge her for things that were beyond her control. She started to tell me about her adopted cŵn and how the Hunstman was trying to regain control. He was resisting and that is why his howls of pain were in her head. There was not a lot I could offer to help with that, I told her, being unused to magic. I did tell her of the mind-block techniques I had learned, but I was sure she didn’t want to block her hound out, just be able to find him. She nodded and then said she wished she could be free, like the birds and butterflies.
“We all wish that, I think,” I told her, and related how I felt so much more alive and free when I was outside the castle, despite the efforts of the sluagh. She agreed that I seemed more alive outside and related her experience with the sluagh – mostly being petted and told she was adorable. In that, I could agree with him, and told her so. It was then that she started to get more serious.
“I need someone to keep an eye on stuff for me around the castle,” she asked. “I have no guards, no Ravens or anything of that manner. You are the only non-fae that I fully trust around here.” I thanked her for the trust, adding that there wasn’t a lot going on, relaying a few brief, and, bearing in mind Cristof’s warning, non-controversial things. I did mention the comments that Nadya and Bunny had made about ‘their’ Padishar. Valene was not impressed, nay; she was somewhat contemptuous of their opinion, and their so-called claims on Padishar. “Their Padishar? Hmm,” she said. “I’ve know him for eons upon eons. I have a blood bond with him and fought wars at his side against the winter. Their ties are paltry and their words have no meaning in this land. They are dust upon the wind, tiny granules that make up nothing at all, yet they think they are important,” she continued. “Let them hate me, for they are simply Outsiders and I do not much care.” She shrugged and looked up at me, saying, “You’ve never been Outsider to me though. You belong.” She told me that although what I had told her might seem dull, it was important to the fae. I thanked her again, for her acceptance of me, but said that it would perhaps be better if we spoke elsewhere on the matters she had asked me about. That much she definitely agreed with. Then, with that sudden change of mood she is always so good at, she was up on her feet again, claiming she needed to go feed before going to court, adding that Royce would be back to guard me soon. I hadn’t even noticed he was gone, but then, he does so like to lurk in the shadows. She leaned down and kissed me and whispered, “Thank you Nathaniel, for loving me for who I am and not fearing me.” And then she was gone.
So, I find myself asking, what do I do now? Can I be what Valene asks of me without putting myself at risk within the castle? Can I continue to maintain a balance, or will I have to declare for one side or the other? I have friends in all camps, Seelie, Unseelie and, what was it Valene called the rest? Outsiders? I honestly do not know which way to turn, much less who I might ask for advice. All I know is that I shall have to tread carefully from now on.