Sticking Together*

Loyalty seems to be something that comes up a lot lately. As ever, it is my loyalty to my friends that always sustains me, even when other loyalties are called for.  We do not yet know what will happen, if and when Isabella returns, and we do not yet know what she will decide regarding Gwythyr’s offer, or what that will mean to us.  All I know is that my friends come first, whatever else happens.

I wandered into the sithen to find that Gwyn and Paash were making up for their previous argument. I was pleased to see that I had been right about Paash.  I think she had given Gwyn some sort of gift, from what I heard, and from the slight glow, I suspect it was a piece of horn. Mead was being consumed, and all in all, it was quite a touching and convivial scene.

Or at least, it would have been, had it not been for the presence, and smell, of the Captain of the Sluagh. He has been hanging around places a lot of late, and his behaviour is, to say the least, bizarre. He was in an almost amiable mood, as though only there for the drink and company, but just occasionally, the way he spoke to Aoibheann, or looked at her, had me feeling very suspicious. Nevertheless, people were being polite, Gwyn was serving drinks, Aoibheann was wondering if this was a party, which Gwyn echoed with some comment about two being a party, three being a crowd and four a party.  Even the Sluagh toasted the invention of mead. Aoibheann toasted with the Gaelic toast I have heard before – “Slàinte mhath” – and I toasted with “Prost”, while commenting that the presence of such diversity in the cavern almost sounded like one of those “X, Y & Z walk into a bar” jokes. Gwyn joined in the toast with “skaal”, which I had heard on my journeys into Baltic ports.

We learned the Sluagh’s name – Braeden – although I am fairly sure I had heard this already from Valene. This led to a round of introductions; Paasheelu is a Duchess, apparently so appointed by Cristof, and I introduced myself as Nathaniel the Onion-slayer. I think Gwyn may have had a few too many meads, since she supplemented my introduction with “Peeler of onions, teller of stories and all-round good guy.”  Things started getting a little creepy, at least, to my mind.  Braeden asked for more mead and then seemed to be staring at Aoibheann, asking after her health in a way that just seemed a little off. Of course, I’ve never been quite comfortable with him around, but, something was raising my hackles.  Whatever it was, we didn’t get to find out as he left soon after, thanking us for the entertainment.

With the Sluagh gone, Aoibheann turned the conversation to another matter – the matter of planning.  Gwyn asked the question that was in all our minds, which was planning for what?  This turned out to be the matter of what to do if Isabella refused the Unseelie King’s offer.  Gwyn was not sure if the King’s request was for her to swear fealty, or just to stay and look after us.  She wasn’t sure on the whole Seelie/Unseelie situation, but was fairly sure that Isabella, being Seelie, could not swear to the Unseelie King.

Paash was a lot clearer in her views. Since she had been elevated to Duchess by Cristof, her loyalties were with him, although she would stay to try to protect us.  I could not disagree with her there, since she had not been present for the meeting with Gwythyr anyway, so may not even have been included in the offer. I stuck with the line I had stated at that meeting.

“I doubt that Isabella would make any decision without consulting those affected by it, i.e. us,” I said.  “Even so, she does not necessarily decide for us. Each of us is free to make whatever decision we choose. As I recall, Gwythyr said he would make claim on us. That doesn’t mean we have to accept his claim. There is also the Seelie Court, the demons have their own cabal, and there may yet be place for any who wish it in whatever it is they are building up where the castle used to be.” Inside, I felt the conflict, loathing the pressure to take sides, and fearing what would happen if, for whatever reason, we were forced onto different sides.

Despite the mead, or possibly because of it, Aoibheann seemed to be in quite a perceptive mood. “I don’t think he really cares about us, I think Isabella is the whole point of it.  Because, well, she might say yes just because he threatened us. And Llwyd said she was Seelie, and she’s been a guest of the Seelie court, but has anyone actually heard Isabella say she’s Seelie?  It’s possible she is unaligned and Llwyd was just using… positive thinking?” This was a good point; we only had Llwyd’s word for it, although it would be hard to spin his comment any other way without it being a lie.  She then addressed my suggestion that we weren’t tied here. “We are in his home, protected by his guards, Nathaniel.  If we reject his claim, how do we go about getting out of here still in one piece?  Because I feel rather certain he’d take it as an insult and have our hospitality revoked.”  Gwyn pointed out that Gwthyr had said that the Seelie court would not have as the way we were.

I wasn’t so sure things were as cut and dried as Aoibheann thought. “I am fairly sure Her Majesty said we were free to enjoy her hospitality as long as we wished it.” I said. “I don’t recall her making it compulsory.  As to the Seelie…  Well, we only have the King’s word for that.  I know he can’t lie, but he could prevaricate… for all we know, he could have just been referring to our state of dress – the way we are – could mean anything.”  Paash said that she wasn’t really a part of this anyway.

Aoibheann still wasn’t sure.  “I don’t think the specifics matter so much as what the Unseelie King believes, and if he does just want to use us as leverage against my queen, then you would still be useful in that regard.”

Gwyn was not happy. “I wouldn’t want to swear an oath to anybody, or anything, under duress. I don’t think that’s how it should work.” She twined her fingers together. “How are we any kind of leverage to beings like them? I mean, I know both Alec and Isabella knew and loved you, Aoibheann, and you, Nathaniel, but I don’t know that they thought much about me at all. I barely knew them.”  Paash assured her that they had spoken of Gwyn often with affection, but wasn’t sure what use we would be to the courts.

I assured Gwyn that she was just as valued. “I am sure they regard you with the same regard they held us all in.  I do not know what Gwythyr wants.  What I suspect is that he might view Isabella, and our loyalty to her as a threat. A powerbase he does not control. If she accepts his offer, then she is no longer a threat, if she refuses, and he claims us, then the threat is reduced. Personally, I don’t think we are that much of a powerbase, but maybe he sees things differently.”

Gwyn held on to my hand. “I shudder at the thought, to be honest,” she said. “I don’t… I mean, what would we do, as claimed subjects of him, the King? They have servants to do all the things we used to do in Jasper. What value could we possibly have? If she refuses, and he claims us, wouldn’t we be a liability? He doesn’t know us– he can’t have any love for us– so why wouldn’t he just kill us? I don’t really like the thought of being left as a snack for Major FuckBeak.” Paash wondered if her nature, presumably her magical ability was a threat.

Aoibheann disagreed, wondering if she was the threat. I am not sure how, unless her attachment to the Seelie King was an issue.  “I, I could perhaps be considered threatening, but I do not think, I coughed the first time I introduced myself, and he called me Keaven, so my reputation does not proceed me, I doubt that your… nature is the issue either, Paasheeluu.  I wish I could get in contact with her majesty… Maybe she would know more, but if we cannot guess at Gwythyr’s motives, we should at least decide where we stand ourselves…”  She paused and then asked the question that had clearly been on her mind. “So, all willing to be claimed by the Unseelie King?”

I disagreed, returning, as ever, to my original response to Gwythyr.  “Nobody here is a snack for Major Fuckbeak or anybody else. We are not pawns to be sacrificed, or commodities to be traded. We are free individuals. At the moment, we do not know what Gwythyr will want of us, whichever way Isabella goes.  We don’t know what Isabella wants to do. As and when she returns, we should seek her advice. That is what I told His Majesty I would do. Until then, any plans we make are just speculation.  For now, let us stick together, stick up for each other, and deal with each problem as it comes and be strong together.”

Gwyn seemed to take some comfort in that, but was still unsure if we could do anything, wondering if we were even able to resist the power of the King. She was still worried about having revealed her name.  She wanted to know what our next move should be, for tonight.

Aoibheann sighed and brushed her hair away from her face. Something was on her mind. “I cannot swear fealty to him,” she stated bluntly.  “Regardless of what happens, I can’t.”  She cringed and shut her eyes, voice barely above a whisper. “I can’t betray Llwyd like that.”  She returned to her normal voice, “But, you, you should not place yourselves into any more danger just because I…  He offered his protection. You would be safe here, likely.  I never will be.  I suppose, what I mean is, our paths may split.”

Paash was equally adamant that she wasn’t going to swear fealty, and was definitely against splitting.

I could not disagree with that, saying “Let us hope it does not come to that.”  I wanted to do something to reassure Aoibheann.  Wary of her aversion to physical contact, I reached out and touched her hand, but only briefly. “Aoibheann, if you want to go to Llwyd, then go. I am sure he would protect you, and nobody will think badly of you for that. I’ll still love you. I’ll still be your friend.  I know you don’t understand how that can be, but it is.”

Gwyn was likewise determined that there would be no splitting. “Sorry, no. That can’t happen. I’m willing to do just about anything but lose you guys. I’m also terrified I could never resist the King. I’m also a little drunk.”  She looked down at her hands to see that they were glowing faintly and wondered if this was as a result of Paash’ gift.

Aoibheann’s voice dropped to a whisper again, taking us into her confidence. “It is not so simple,” she said, her expression almost pained by how honest she was being. “Llwyd is the Huntsman’s host. And while I could maybe, possibly, make the Huntsman lose his control over him, if I’m lucky, really, really lucky, I wouldn’t know how to find the Huntsman, and he is very, very, angry with me.” She looked down at Gwyn’s glowing hands and frowned, “Maybe you should put Paasheeluu’s gift somewhere else, I don’t think you want to… change here.”

I felt a warm wash of sympathy for Aoibheann.  I had known she had some feelings for Llwyd, but hadn’t realised the connection with the Huntsman. No wonder the poor girl felt conflicted.  I patted her shoulder. “I’m sorry, that must be awfully difficult for you. Perhaps, some day, another host can be found.”  A great weariness came over me at that point, even if I had not been greatly active that day. Perhaps it was the mead.  I kissed Gwyn goodnight and told her I would go get the bed ready.  As I left them, I heard Aoibheann trying to get onto lighter subjects, asking Gwyn to help braid her hair.

It took me a while to sleep. The idea of choosing sides, politically, worries me, for fear of getting involved in too much conflict. Such oaths as I have taken, for my sake, are personal ones – to Brigitte, to Valene… Even the one I took to the Unseelie Queen was a personal one, to be her investigator for the purpose of discovering the source of the fire.  Since that now seems to be common knowledge, I don’t even know if that task is valid any more, so I don’t know if I am still bound. I cannot claim to know the Unseelie Court, but I know the Seelie even less. I do not want to be forced to take sides if I can help it. Perhaps there is another way. Perhaps I can offer to be a friend, or to be a diplomat. Somehow, retain my independence, without making myself an enemy of either side. Yes, maybe that is the way.

 

Let’s Stick Together

 

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