The door of the coffee shop swung inward just as Fianynlas reached for the handle. A broad shoulder bumped his chest, knocking him back a pace. The man’s hand lashed out, gripping Fianynlas’ shoulder to steady him.
“Sorry about that. I didna see you there.”
The pleasant burr of the man’s deep voice said Scotland. Fianynlas turned a narrow-eyed look on him, rubbing at the single droplet of hot coffee that had splashed from the cup in the man’s hand onto his cheek.
The Scotsman was handsome enough for a human. His features were strong and well-shaped, the small smile of apology on his lips a pleasant one. A head of thick black hair hung long enough to be tied neatly into a little tail at his nape. Other than his good looks, the only thing halfway remarkable about the man was in his gaze. Fianynlas had never seen mortal eyes quite as sad as the blue grey ones that met his now.
“Never mind.” Fianynlas said, stepping back out of the loosening hold on his shoulder. The feel of the man’s hand lingered on him after, as though the skin held some unnatural sort of heat that seared all the way through his clothing.
The man gave Fianynlas another little nod of apology. “Alright then. Dinna let any more oafs run over you comin’ through doors.” A brief smile tugged at the corner of his lips and he turned to vanish back into the crowd.
Fianynlas laid a hand on his shoulder, frowning at the warmth he found there. He scrubbed with his palm at the tingling sensation left on his skin. The feeling was familiar. Magic. Light Court magic. The mortal had been touched by fae, and not just touched. Imbued with enough magic that Fianynlas could feel it in his skin. Stepping to the side of the doors, he stared into the crowd where he’d last seen the man.
Fianynlas had no doubts the Scotsman was human. Unlike lesser fae, no glamour could fool his eyes. The man had that solid feel humans had; rooted to this world, as real as the sidewalk he stood on. Yet Fianynlas recognized the Light King’s magic. He knew well the pain of his Fire.
The door of the coffee shop thumped closed beside him. Fianynlas turned and frowned at the pair of laughing women walking away. He no longer had any desire for either a hot drink or words with the fae who served behind the counter.
Fianynlas looked once more after the Scotsman but found not so much as a glimpse of dark hair or well set shoulders. He chose the opposite direction for his own departure, suddenly aware of the curious looks his gleaming cobalt hair drew outside his usual haunts. Usually Fianynlas liked the attention. Human eyes caught easily on the bright color and the sort he needed were drawn to approach. Now he wondered if there was a hidden sort of attention in some of those gazes.
The Scotsman hadn’t seemed unduly interested in him. He hadn’t lingered for questions or even looked back. Fianynlas could still feel the remnant tingle of the magic against his skin. He wasn’t exactly certain what the purpose of the magic was. He had not looked closely enough.
An irritable huff of breath escaped Fianynlas. A scowl warned off the interested look of the man at the street corner. Fian turned back toward The Angel pub. He was not in the mood to lure anyone in. The Forest had fed already today, in the wee hours of the morning. He wasn’t willing to risk the attention another disappearance so soon might bring.
Fianynlas settled himself in the small park in the Dark Angel district, beneath the spreading branches of the old oak tree. Caelelibran had sent word earlier he had something to tell him. When Fianynlas didn’t come panting to the shop for information, he knew his Lord of Rivers would find him here.
Some hours later, the soft warning hoot of the owl above him drew Fianynlas’ gaze upwards. He eyed the approaching person. Long, dark hair trailed in waves down the back of a short but well-built man. Caelelibran huffed a stray tuft of hair out of his dark eyes as he strode closer, offering Fianynlas a small smirk of greeting.
“Well?” Fianynlas asked, with a little lift of his brows as Caelelibran drew into earshot.
Caelelibran’s marshwater eyes briefly scanned over the park around them before he sketched an insolent little half bow. “Your Majesty.”
“I’d thought you might come to see me.”
Fianynlas thought of the Scotsman again and wondered if there was some trick behind Caelelibran’s words. “I thought of it.” He said, tipping his head back to rest comfortably against the bark of the oak. “But you know to meet me here if you have anything truly important for me to hear.”
Caelelibran’s gaze flared in the dim light. He shifted slightly on his feet. “I do. And here I am…”
“I waited.” Fianynlas deliberately refrained from inviting him to sit after a moment’s observation. “So what is it you wanted to tell me?”
Caelelibran blew out an irritable breath and shifted his feet again. “Someone’s seen the Wolf—Maerenath—in one of the parks at the edge of the city.”
Fianynlas narrowly mastered the urge to suck in a breath, curving his lips into a bored half smile instead. “What made you think I didn’t know that?” He asked, with a calm he did not feel. Maerenath, so close by? He had seen scarce more than glimpses of his cousin since the fire and Gwyllynir’s death.
“Human someone.” Caelelibran elaborated, with a cruel little upward twist of his lips. “It was in one of their little story papers that sometimes gets things right. Then I found out one of ours had seen him too.”
Fianynlas could not conceal his frown. “What was he doing?”
“Do you mind if I sit?” Caelelibran barely waited for the inclination of Fianynlas’ head before settling cross-legged in front of him. “Wolf things, I suppose. Sniffing around. Eating squirrels. Peeing on trees.” He shrugged. “Humans are bound to notice. Aren’t supposed to be wolves here anymore. Especially not crimson-eared ones that take the air in London parks.”
Fianynlas’ jaw tightened. “I’ll see to it.” He offered Caelelibran a smile he didn’t truly feel. Fianynlas knew his court too well to assume Caelelibran was acting out of loyalty and didn’t have an ulterior reason behind offering up this information. He weighed his next words carefully. “I saw a human coming out of your shop today,” Fianynlas paused. “You’re still working at that coffee place, I assume?”
Caelelibran smirked. He had not missed the admission. “Yes, I am. And humans come in and out all day, so you’ll have to be a little more specific. If you can.”
“I can, but I am very sure you know the one I mean. He had magic on him.”
“Oh yes, that one. Tall, well-built, Scottish? He’s been in once or twice.”
“What’s the magic?” Fianynlas asked.
“I’m not sure exactly. Not ours. Light Court.” Caelelibran’s eyes lifted to the leaves above them as he considered. “Wasn’t there some little rumor years ago about the Light King enchanting himself some sort of human knight for something? Maybe it’s him?”
“Maybe.” Some of Fianynlas’ tension eased. Caelelibran’s puzzlement seemed genuine, the edge of gloating had faded briefly from his smile. Whatever secrets and plots Caelelibran was brewing, the human, at least, was not part of them.
“And now, I have a question for you, Majesty.” There was a hint of an edge to the title when Caelelibran spoke it. “How does the Forest grow? And when can me and mine come home?”
Fianynlas forced a smile. “It grows well, Caelelibran. Strong and fruitful. But there are no rivers yet, so you must wait a little longer.” Perhaps, the curiosity was innocent. Perhaps, he only ached with the same longing for what had been that Fianynlas did. The Forest had burned through the betrayal of the one he trusted most. Fianynlas was all too conscious of how fragile the new growth was now, only just coming into the strength that had allowed him to begin Gwyllynir’s restoration. He had so very many seeds left to plant. “When it is large enough for rivers, I will bring you home.”
“You will not even give me a glimpse?”
“Not yet. I think you can see all you need know of its strength in me. Can you not?” Fianynlas did not wait for an answer. “And I have another question for you. I heard a human had gone missing. Their effects and signs of a struggle were found beside one of the pools in the park. Was that you?”
“Not that one.” Caelelibran offered him a grin full of very sharp teeth. “I usually take mine in the Thames and leave nothing but bones at the bottom. No one ever notices. What is it the Americans say on the telly? This isn’t my first rodeo.”
Fianynlas nodded. “Good. I would so hate to think you had grown careless, Caelelibran.” He pushed himself to his feet. “Check into it. Remind whoever it was about the rules. Preferably before the Light Court has time to get self-righteous.”
Caelelibran rose to his feet and dipped another little half bow. “As you wish, Your Majesty. I look forward to coming home soon.”
Fianynlas lingered under the oak to watch Caelelibran out of sight, one hand lifting absently to caress the branch above his head. He didn’t trust the other fae not to follow him.
Since the Fire there was no one Fianynlas could trust. The betrayal had come from the very heart of his Court and had cost him both of his cousins, though only Gwyllynir had burned. Fianynlas’ fingers curled tighter against the oak’s bark. Once again, he reached out to the Forest. He could feel it, like always, the power singing beneath his skin.
That power came unmuted, unlike in previous times where the Veil between worlds had kept the Forest tucked away from the mortal realm. Moss cushioned his feet when he stepped through the gate earlier in the day, scarce more than a rim of velvet green at the verge of the fading light of the portal. Barely visible, the moss was there, growing in that miserable room on the mortal side of the Veil. Fianynlas had waited hours for that new growth to fade, as the gate had, yet the moss remained still.
The Forest should not grow outside Faerie, not in the way that moss was. Perhaps the growth would not last, or spread further than that place at the edge of the gate. Fianynlas frowned, glancing around him for some sign of watching eyes. He shifted the glamour that covered him. Cobalt hair faded to gleaming black, and a sort of dullness fell over him, encouraging eyes to turn away.
For the moment, Fianynlas wanted to see without being noticed. He needed to think. The Forest’s strength and his own grew by the day but they were still vulnerable. That frail growth on this side of the gate might give him unfathomable power in the mortal realm if he could only nurture it enough. He was all too aware of how long that might take by the ticking of mortal clocks.
Fianynlas sighed, fingers caressing at the bark of the oak once more before he started toward the edge of the park. He was short on people to rely on. His nearest Lords were scattered, or burned and waiting on his power to regrow them. Caelelibran had a game of his own.
Fianynlas’ hand lifted thoughtfully to his shoulder as he recalled his encounter with the Scotsman. There was a rumor once, long ago, that Jayadeva had changed a human for himself, wasn’t there? Perhaps it was only a story, but the more Fianynlas thought on the tale, the more he didn’t care if there was truth to it. Fianynlas could make one for himself.
Humans were stubborn, yet oddly malleable if one found just the right string to tug. More importantly, a human would have no power that he had not given them himself. They could not hurt him the way Melanthian had. Fianynlas’ jaw clenched as he deliberately pushed the memory away. His steps quickened as he left the park and wound his way further into the streets.
Fianynlas eyed the mortals he passed thoughtfully; too weak, too desperate. So many of them would suit as prey, but not for what he needed. He chose another direction, winding closer to the heart of the district than the alleys at the outskirts of it.
Mortal eyes slid past him, but Fianynlas’ shoulders tightened uneasily. There were usually a few of the Light Court here in the busy streets, secure under the watchful eyes of Jayadeva’s gleaming tower. They would not be fooled so easily.
Fianynlas crossed a street, slipped into the foot traffic, and out again to duck into the shadow at the corner of a building. Afternoon was sliding toward evening, the shadows between the close buildings thickening along with the crowd.
Something glinted on the pavement near his feet. Fianynlas bent to pick it up, thumb rubbing the dirt from a metal surface. Didn’t humans say it was luck to find a coin? He lifted it to catch the lingering sunlight, studying the design on the face.
A movement beyond the coin caught his eye. Fianynlas glanced up, curious. A man had stepped from a door across the way. The human paused in the doorway for a moment, eyes briefly narrowed against the light. A small smile of admiration slowly curved Fianynlas’ lips. The man stood straight as a new sapling, but there was something in him as strong and rooted as oak. His skin shone brown as heartwood. In a strange and human sort of way, he was almost beautiful.
The man’s gaze roved over the roadway around him. Even from across the street, Fianynlas could read the keen perception in the look. The man’s eyes found him. Fianynlas stiffened momentarily, almost expecting them to linger. There was a brief flicker of notice before the glamour tugged the man’s gaze on again.
The human stepped onto the sidewalk and started away. Fianynlas frowned after him for a moment, considering. He dropped the coin into the pouch of seeds at his belt and moved to follow.
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