Fiona’s head was banging as she sipped a camomile tea. She couldn’t face anything stronger. She leant back in her chair and let the business meeting wash over her and Kadogan be his own version of business like.
“I have spoken with many people.” Kadogan looked smug. “And we have a pool of people to interview for casual work over the summer and potentially part time afterwards. Adele has a multitudinous family and Mrs Tuesday knows some boggart kits that would like to earn some pocket money at weekends.”
“As long as Mrs Tuesday is supervising them.” Steve was watching Armani try and blow smoke rings with his vape pen.
Kadogan ignored him. “And Kieran Latimer has said some of the werewolf youngsters would benefit from work experience here, as long as Ian and Callum are okay with that.”
Callum checked with Ian, who nodded. “We’ll keep an eye out for them, and we won’t lead them into bad ways.”
“My research into specialised coffees goes well.” Freydis said. “It could be a source of income for specialised coffee evenings. Also, I believe a knitting group are looking for a new meeting place. We could stay open later.”
“It’s a good thing that we’re getting all the new staff.” Louise said, looking at Freydis. “And how do you feel about someone else looking after the coffee machine on your days off?”
“I don’t need days off.” Freydis said loftily. “I am nourished by the Machine.”
Kadogan jumped in quickly. “The devotion of our staff has been a great help. The store rooms seem to be in a constant state of replenishment.”
“It’s because we are running up to the solstice.” Mrs Tuesday said. “Lots of people need their stuff and we’re a good place to go for one order.”
“Speaking of which, we need to wrap this up quickly.” Steve said. “I’ve got a lot of deliveries over the next few days.”
“You should see the latest batch of orders.” Ian said with a grin. “Most of them are post, but you’ve got fourteen kilos of coloured sugar for Exeter plus another six boxes of fripperies and they don’t have a postal address.” Steve groaned.
“I can give a hand.” Dave said unexpectedly. “I’ve got plenty of bookings but I’ve got some gaps in my schedule. I don’t mind helping out.”
“Fiona could really do with some help sorting out the goody bags for the reception.” Mrs Tuesday said. “Lord Ragnar wants to make a good impression.”
Fiona looked up and caught Louise’s expression as she looked at Ian. Fiona looked quickly away. “I’d be glad of the help. Lord Ragnar has asked for 300 bags, and I’m going to be assembling them over the next day or two. I’ve got some sugary sweets, some popping candy, a small vial of lavender water – that sort of thing. He wanted lots of little stuff so we’ve got all sorts.”
“You have popping candy for the goody bags?” Freydis’ face lit up as she exchanged glances with Kadogan.
“I got quite a bit extra.” Fiona had been expecting this reaction. “Perhaps you and Kadogan should check it out, just in case.”
Kadogan wasn’t paying full attention. “Steve Adderson, if you are going to Exeter then it is entirely possible that you could call in at Lord Harold’s court and ask him whether he had seen any big cats in his land? There have been many separate sightings of big cats in that area and it is entirely plausible that he may capture images that could be traded for rose petals.”
Steve was still watching Armani who was now having a coughing fit. “Not this time. I’m going to be delivering almost non-stop for the next week.”
“It’s not just the solstice, but it’s also wedding season.” Mrs Tuesday pretended not to see Fiona flinch. “Lots of normals are ordering supplies for weddings and quirky gifts. To be honest, we’re running short on rose petals.”
Kadogan jumped to his feet. “But we must secure a supply of these petals. I shall speak to Gavin Brown immediately!”
Dave looked at Sir Ewan. “Are you sure about this?”
Sir Ewan grinned. “You’ve got to speak up at some point. Why not now?”
“Why do I have to speak up?” Dave grumbled as they approached Lord Ragnar’s domain. Once again he saw the square of plain stone suddenly disappear and was ushered into Lord Ragnar’s presence. This time he was shown into Lord Ragnar’s private audience chamber.
Dave looked around with interest. There were always clues in a room. This time the clue was that he was dealing with something completely out of his league. The room looked like a Victorian study. There was a roaring fireplace, that gave out no heat, and the mahogany mantelpiece was covered with badly painted china dogs. Dave peered at the leather bound books in the nearest of the bookcases filling the walls. Apparently Lord Ragnar collected copies of Private Eye, National Geographic, GQ and was up to issue 92 in the ‘Build the Lusitania, one overpriced magazine issue at a time’ series. He straightened up as Lord Ragnar came into the room.
“Good afternoon, Paladin.” Lord Ragnar gave a polite nod of the head. “Please, sit down. I won’t offer you any refreshments.”
“Thank you.” Dave felt relieved at dodging that tricky bit of etiquette. “I hope I’m not interrupting you.”
“I should politely say, ‘not at all’ but I am, in fact, extremely busy.” Lord Ragnar managed a smile. “I would be grateful if you could give me a quick summary of the purpose of your visit.”
“I wish to know the purpose of the reception at the White Hart tomorrow night.” Dave said. “And why the White Hart?”
“The White Hart is some distance from the town centre and not overlooked by anyone else’s CCTV. There are few dwellings nearby and it is nowhere near any known lair of either Baxter or his associates. The White Hart is too well protected for an assault. It is also not the Feast of St John. We anticipate that there will be an attack on my domain during my usual feast and I wish to allow my adherents to enjoy at least one uninterrupted evening without trouble.”
“I’m just going to remind you that there are a lot of normals out there who do not deserve to be caught up in any power struggle.” Dave tried to sound calmer than he felt. The last thing York needed was a heaving brawl of vampires, werewolves, elfen and boggarts at the start of the tourist season.
Lord Ragnar smiled again. “I will certainly be attempting to avoid any…” He searched for words. “I shall try to avoid any civilian casualties.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Dave said. “Just in case, I’ll be staying in my old room at the White Hart tomorrow night, but obviously I won’t gate crash your reception. It’s purely to keep an eye out for Adele and Louise.”
“I think you will find that Louise is more elfen these days.” Lord Ragnar opened the door for them in a polite but unmistakable hint. “She seems to have taken her ancestry rather to heart. But if you are in the building, please feel free to join the celebrations.”
Callum walked Adele home after work. Kadogan had insisted. Adele found herself glancing sideways at him. “You will have to come in for a cuppa when we get there. My mum always insists.”
Callum smiled. “It’s okay. I’m sure it will be fine.”
Adele considered her extended family and who was likely to be in. “My family can get a bit loud, but they’re okay really.”
“Honestly, I’m sure I’ll be fine.” Callum said, glancing around.
Adele noticed Callum checking behind them casually as they crossed a road. “Do you think we will actually get attacked.”
Callum looked down at her again and shook his head. “We’re being followed but I don’t think it’s a threat. They almost certainly already know where you live and won’t interfere. If your house is as full as you say then they aren’t going to attempt anything there. Someone will be collecting you tomorrow – probably me again.”
“As long as you’re okay with that.” Adele fought the urge to look round frantically. “How do you know we’re being followed?”
“I recognise the vampire from when I was part of Baxter’s faction.” Callum gently put an arm around Adele’s waist as he steered her back across the road and down an unexpected side street. “His name was Kai and he had only recently been made a vampire. To be honest, I think he regretted it. He isn’t much of a threat. I’m finding it a lot harder being around so many normals. I feel exposed.”
Adele looked up at him. He was clean shaven with short hair and his blue eyes seemed far calmer than anyone had a right to be. “You don’t look like a werewolf,” she said honestly. “You look like a bodybuilder, or a sports coach.”
“Thanks, I think.” Callum smiled again. “It’s just so unusual. Only a few of my old pack had regular dealings with the outside world. We just stayed on our farms and kept our heads down. It’s very different here.”
“I suppose so.” Adele looked around. York could get very crowded. It must be a shock for someone who had stayed out of even the smaller towns. “What do you think about the big cat thing?”
Callum chuckled and guided Adele back to the main route. “I think Kai has given up. I think Kadogan is having a little fun with the idea, but he would certainly go for it. I think it would be harmless, but it would be a lie.” He gestured for Adele to go in front of him on the narrow corner.
“I just hope it takes Steve and Fiona’s mind off things.” Adele felt unexpected relieved as she saw her house at the end of the street. “Both of them look a wreck.”
“It does look bad.” Callum agreed. “I think Mrs Tuesday is leaving it until the business with Baxter is sorted out and then she will take charge. She won’t put up with any nonsense and even I can see that they are pining for each other.” He held the gate open for Adele to go before him up her garden path.
“Brace yourself,” Adele told him as she pulled out her key. “You’re about to meet my family. Good luck.”
Fiona dragged herself down to one of the cellars to pick up another box of cheap fidget spinners. She looked around. The fidget spinners were between some premium grade frankincense and a case of organic nettle seeds.
“You are not strong.”
Fiona nearly jumped out of her skin as she turned around to see Freydis. “I didn’t see you there.”
Freydis waved a notebook and pencil. “I was making a list of the coffee supplies. Lord Marius is a connoisseur of coffee and I thought I would gather his opinion.” She sniffed. “He never normally withholds his opinion on anything.”
“He takes his coffee very sweet.” Fiona said, pulling the fidget spinners towards her. Maybe while she was down here she could pick up another pack of the honey flavoured lipbalm.
“You are not strong.” Freydis slid her notebook and pen into her jeans pocket. “I will help you carry some of the things. You should have asked one of the werewolves to help. They would appreciate being asked.”
“I don’t like to bother them. Besides, Ian was signing over a collection to the courier and Callum is walking Adele home.”
“Both Ian and Callum feel that they owe you a great deal.” Freydis easily hefted the fidget spinners. “It makes them feel needed if you ask them to do something. They are quite lost without a pack structure and while they are staying remarkably sane, they benefit from being given duties.”
“I suppose that makes sense.” Fiona picked up a few packs of the lip balm and turned wearily towards the stairs. “I’ll keep that in mind. But they are such good people. I feel really safe with them.”
“You are currently extremely safe with them.” Freydis followed her with the fidget spinners and a box of sugar sachets. “I believe Ian will be walking you home tonight. You should know that they are people that you can trust in a difficult situation.”
“Mmm.” Fiona dragged herself up the stairs and into the meeting room. Everything was laid out logically. A heap of large, glittery tulle bags filled a box at one end of the table. The strange variety of items set up for the goody bags were arranged down the table and at the other end was a large box with filled goody bags neatly tied with sparkling silver ribbon. Fiona dumped the lip balm on one of the chairs. “Can you put the boxes on that side table, please.”
Freydis gazed over the gimcrack treasure and her eyes sparkled. “This will make the party a triumph.” Her eyes clouded a little. “I wish I had thought of these when I was hosting the parties, although there were always gifts.” She pulled herself back to the present. “But are you taking vitamins? Are you eating appropriately? You are under considerable stress and you need to tend to yourself.”
Dave came in with another box of the bags. He looked warily at Fiona. “I’ve done some courses in nutrition.” He said. “Most of them were gimmicks but I can pick up some supplements for you if you like?”
Fiona pulled open the boxes of lip balm and set them in their spot on the table. “That will be kind, thank you.”
“If you ever want to talk,” Dave said hesitantly. “I mean, I don’t want to pry but you seem to be taking things hard. I’m a good listener.”
“It’s okay.” Fiona didn’t meet his eyes as she picked up a handful of empty bags.
“I shall bring you a hot chocolate.” Freydis said firmly. “I believe that can be of comfort. Mrs Tuesday will make sure you have soup for lunch. You must get your strength up.” Fiona just nodded and started filling more bags.
Mrs Tuesday smoothed down her best dress and took a deep breath. Lord Ragnar would be here at any moment. She looked around. The brownies had done an excellent job. The White Hart gleamed with every surface polished and every corner decorated. The buffet was set out in the meeting room and Mrs Tuesday had never seen such a display of gaudy junk food in her life. They had got in cases of spray cream and edible glitter and spray on food colouring had been used with a lavish hand. Louise had looked knowing as she had carefully arranged the dishes of frozen berries (sprayed silver, of course, and dusted with icing sugar) on tubs of crushed ice and straightened the dishes of tiny macaroons and meringues that shimmered with artificial colouring.
There were other options, of course, for the non elfen. The selection of sausage rolls, meat pies and vol au vents for the more traditional of the court was spread over two tables in a corner and the salads, pizza slices and chicken tikka wings had taken over another corner. A third corner had been left bare as Mrs Tuesday had pointed out that there was no point bringing in the three massive cakes and four trifles until at least some of the buffet had been sampled.
Ian and Callum were running the drinks at the café, along with Freydis who was in charge of the coffee machine. Mrs Tuesday had left them to sort out the crates of wine and mead and had left Adele with the recipe for non-alcoholic punch and a suggestion to get plenty ready in reserve. “It’s going to be spiked,” she had told Adele, “So it’s best to keep switching it out.”
Adele was at the till next to a selection of small trinkets. “I’ve borrowed some of my Uncle Keith’s wine making kit and there’s about four gallons of punch in the back. I’ve put them in bags of ice so it should be fine.” She looked around. “I hardly recognise the shop. Are you sure we’ll be able to get it straight by tomorrow.”
Mrs Tuesday looked around the store. The White Hart was a big space and the werewolves had moved a lot of the fixtures around. All the magical basics like athames and pentagrams had been moved out and groups of chairs had been arranged around the room next to small tables. The room was full of flowers. “The brownies will get it set by tomorrow,” Mrs Tuesday said, looking at the huge swags of roses over the bookcases. “I just hope Steve is alright. He has hayfever and I’m not sure how much antihistamine he’s taken.”
“Far too much.” Steve said, coming up behind them. “I am going to have to stick to coffee tonight. Here they are.”
Kadogan was enjoying every second. He swept a low bow to Lord Ragnar. “Enter, my most gracious liege lord, and be welcome. The food and drink is freely given without fear or favour or any debt.”
“Thank you, my most loyal and trusted liegeman.” Lord Ragnar returned the bow with a lordly nod of his head and swept in. “Behold, my trusted courtiers who are in my train.”
Kadogan formally bowed to the mass of people following Lord Ragnar. “All friends of Lord Ragnar enter and be welcome. The food and drink is freely given without fear or favour or any debt.”
There was a collective sigh as the group swept in. Steve cast an experienced eye over the visitors. Lord Ragnar may have asked for 300 goody bags but there were nowhere near that many. Steve suspected that many of the surplus goody bags would be handed out over the coming weeks and that there would be a demand for similar, or more ostentatious, bags from princes all over the UK. While he kept a smiling face, inwardly he sighed. All of them would want personal delivery and as much fuss as possible.
He looked around the room. Dave and Sir Ewan were chatting easily with Kieran. The werewolf seemed as stunned by the glitter as the normals, but he was politely ignoring it and sticking to the more substantial stuff, taking neat bites from the pizza slice on his plate. Louise was ladling out punch while Mrs Tuesday looked like she was trading dirty jokes with Miss Patience as she handed over a glass of wine. Freydis was producing mainly hot chocolate for the elfen, topped with towering whirls of spray cream with added sparkles and glitter. The werewolves were busy. Ian was expertly opening half a dozen bottles of red wine while Callum circulated smoothly carrying trays of glasses. Adele was wrapping up the first purchase of the night. The werewolf that was buying a very pretty copper necklace was chatting happily away. “It’s for the wife, you know. It didn’t seem the night for her to tag along, but she’s been meaning to come in since you opened. Do you have a catalogue?”
Steve cursed the antihistamines. Trying to shake off the fogginess, he looked around, this time looking properly. Lord Ragnar was there talking with Lord Lothar from the Village. There were a couple of other princes around as well, along with some of the more lethal of the elfen. Steve had run into several of them and while they were more or less housetrained, they were not normally invited to cocktail evenings. Kieran Latimer had not brought any women from the pack. Steve knew from experience that the female werewolves were just as deadly as the male, but they traditionally stayed back and guarded the cubs and their homes. The werewolves that were with Kieran were all tough looking veterans.
There were plenty of boggarts around, all of whom were being very nice to Mrs Tuesday, and there were even a couple of goblins in a corner seeing how many sausage rolls they could cram into their mouths. They were all fighters, though. Miss Patience was here, as the most lethal vampire in York, and the vampires accompanying her were staying close and looking twitchy.
Steve felt he was missing something important. He was in a room full of lethal non normals, and then there was the White Hart staff. Mrs Tuesday was too old to be mixing it, no matter what her reputation said, and while Ian and Callum could look after themselves and Freydis was legendary in a brawl, he didn’t think that Louise and Adele were safe if something happened.
There was one of those strange lulls that happen at parties, a brief pause where by some coincidence everyone drew breath. Steve’s voice sounded unnaturally loud as he broke the quiet. “Where’s Fiona?”