“We can’t wait any longer.” Steve said. He looked at Fiona. “It’s bedlam.”
Fiona nodded. The café was packed beyond belief as far too many elfen were hanging around, mesmerised as they watched Lady Freydis creating lattes, cappuccinos, mochaccinos and all the rest of the range of the barista’s art. “We’re making a lot of money on this.”
Steve wondered if that was part of Lady Freydis’ plan. Elfen could be strange when it came to obligations and the White Hart had stood with her when she was at her lowest. Profits on the café were significantly up. “The trouble is, Kadogan isn’t here. No-one has seen him or Suzuki for the last three months. We can’t ask him what he thinks.”
“He didn’t have many ideas when we first set this up.” Fiona said. “He left most of the decisions to me. I never thought that having a café area would cause so many issues.” She watched Lady Freydis smile as she created another latte for a bewildered tourist before handing over to Jasmine and wandering over.
“I shall create a domain.” Lady Freydis said. “It will not take long.”
“No.” Steve said. “No magical realms.”
“It would be a small, self contained room, just through a curtain.” Freydis watched Egerton squeezing his way past some worried looking brownies and into space before he could get to the spices. “In fact, it could be quite a large space and we could expand considerably. I believe that there is sometimes barely room for the knit and knatter group.”
“No fairy kingdoms.” Steve said. “Not everyone who comes here has even heard of non normals. Christmas isn’t far off and then York will be crammed. Tourists won’t come in here for the books or the incense. They won’t even come in for the cards and the gift wrap, though they’ll probably pick up a few bits from the ornaments as presents. Instead they will come in here because their feet are hurting and they are desperate for anywhere they can sit down for a coffee. We can’t let them wander into magical areas.”
“Why not?” Lady Freydis asked. “I’ve seen the extra bookings you have taken on the run up to Halloween, the ornaments and gift shop part will do very well over Christmas, as I believe it did last year, we need even more space now that Mrs Tuesday is getting spices sent wholesale from those charming jinn over in Dubai and I saw the catalogue that the book companies sent and we could be stocking double the number of titles. I could just move the café seating into a separate area.”
“How did you see the catalogue?” Fiona asked. “It was in an email. Can you look at computer screens?”
Lady Freydis looked smug. “I came up with a little cantrip. I had to do something because of the van’s satnav. The screen was quite an issue and I became stuck in a lane up on Nidderdale.” She frowned. “I suppose I ought to put the wall back to what it was, but I think there are far too many rigid things around and sometimes a slight change makes all the difference.”
“What did you do to the wall?” Steve asked.
Fiona interrupted. “We can’t run a coffee machine in a fairy world. It wouldn’t work.”
Lady Freydis frowned. “But you can have the machines at the entrance on this side, then the vast seating space would be through a beaded curtain.”
“No.” Steve said.
“How about a lace curtain?” Lady Freydis said.
There were times when Steve hated dealing with his father’s kin. “We can’t risk upsetting the normals. York is confusing enough as it is.”
“Thank you.” Lady Freydis said. “They would not know the difference. I have created such things many times and have been successful in hiding the nature of the rooms.”
Steve narrowed his eyes. “Really? And why did you make these rooms?”
“I can match the décor perfectly.” Lady Freydis said. “And you would have space for, say, three score more seats. That is the usual capacity of a coach, is it not?”
Steve hesitated. This was how the elfen got you. They offered an apparently reasonable idea, danced around with all sorts of distractions, like an altered wall in Nidderdale, then sprang something completely different on you. Steve was sure that Lady Freydis had done something dreadful to one of the dry stone walls up there, but was equally sure that she had mentioned it as a distraction. She was his Prince and she could order the creation of this extra room but was at least being polite about this, which was something. But why was she offering? Steve had learned to be deeply suspicious of elfen gifts. “What’s the price?”
“That’s a blunt question.” Lady Freydis said. “I appreciate it. I will create a domain and you will give free tea or plain coffee to anyone who shows my token.” She smiled up at Steve. “I’ll purchase the tokens from you. I’ll need about 200, and I would like them to be pretty.”
Fiona and Steve exchanged glances. Steve shrugged. “Make it space for 150, I’ll sort out a good deal on some wholesale tokens. And no strange paths leading off to entrap the unwary!”
Lady Freydis pouted, but nodded. “Agreed. I shall start work tomorrow evening.”
“See, there it is.” Ian shone a torch at the wall behind the sink. “It’s not rats.”
Darren peered over his shoulder, squinting against the glare. “It looks like some sort of glyph or magical mark.” He pulled out his phone and took a picture. “I don’t recognise it. Do you?”
“It’s not a common mark.” Ian said. “I think it looks like some of the seventeenth century stuff. I’d have to check.”
The two men pushed themselves up and looked at each other. Darren dusted himself down. “Why were you called in?”
“Mrs Gittens thought there was a leak. She said she kept hearing a dripping.” Ian switched off his torch. “But she wasn’t sure whether it was rats. It smells like there have been mice, but there aren’t any around.”
“What do you think?” Darren asked. He looked around the well worn kitchen. It was cleaned almost within an inch of its life, but the garden outside was overgrown and a loaf of bread was out on the counter. He reached up to one of the higher cupboards over the counter and opened the door. This cupboard hadn’t been used for some time and the evidence of mice in the moribund cereal packets was depressing. “There have definitely been mice. But you can’t smell anything?”
Ian shook his head. “Obviously I can’t get into fur around here, but I’d say they were gone. I can smell some sort of magic, though. And it’s a dead magic. That glyph doesn’t look life positive.”
“I’m not ‘sensitive’, but there’s something around.” Darren prowled around the kitchen. “It just feels, I don’t know, off.”
Both men spun around. There was a delicate tapping on the window and a snick as the window closed. They rushed over but all they could see was a skeletal hand disappearing into the autumnal undergrowth. Ian looked at Darren. “Follow that hand!”
The men shot out of the back door and into the overgrown garden. It was long, narrow and had once been filled with vegetables. In the pale October sun, the ranks of drooping runner beans and bolted cabbage made a dense undergrowth. “We’ve got to catch it!” Ian started rustling through a stand of slug-bitten kale. “We can’t leave it!”
Darren looked desperately around. “I’ll start at the far end.” He dashed down the long, narrow garden, skidding a little on the grassy path and nearly bouncing off the honeysuckle at the end. “I hate honeysuckle. The elfen always have the place full of it.”
“Look out for bindweed.” Ian was moving with speed, rifling through a row that was now just a mass of weeds. “That’s a sign of the bad stuff.”
Darren pulled his hand quickly back from a nettle. “Not nettles?”
Ian flinched back as a straggly frond of rosemary slapped him in the face. “Don’t worry about the nettles! Ugh, there were strawberries here.” He wiped his hand on a tuft of damp grass. “Over there.”
The blackcurrant bush was shedding leaves but was still hiding something in the grass tufted at its base. Darren picked up a discarded bamboo cane and poked cautiously at the small gap between the stalks. “There’s something in there.”
Ian leant a little closer. “I wish I could go to fur. I can’t smell anything over the garden. It hasn’t been tended for months.”
Darren leaned in closer, pulling the dried stalks apart, then quickly recoiling as two skeletal hands shot out, past his feet and diving into the shock of ivy overhanging the neighbour’s wall, one making a rude gesture just before it slid down into the woody undergrowth.
Darren sighed. “Well, they’ve gone.” He peered at the nest left behind. “Are these mice?”
Ian prodded at the sad heap with a twig. “I think they were once mice. Now they’re remains.” He stood and looked at Darren. “There were mice in the house, then there were those hands, then there were only mice remains. Do they feed on mice?”
Darren ran a hand over his short hair. “They haven’t got teeth. They’re just hands.” He looked closer at the remain. “On the other hand, they seem to have caught a lot of mice.”
“Let’s get back to the house and tell Mrs Gittens the good news – she hasn’t got mice and she hasn’t got a leak.”
Ian drew up outside the vicarage. Darren took a breath. He had been trying to find a good way to talk to Ian for months now. “Ian, could I have a word?”
Ian looked at him suspiciously. “Okay.”
Darren jerked his head at the vicarage. “It may take a few moments, best to come inside. We don’t want to upset the neighbours more than I have to.”
“I don’t know what they expected when they bought a house next to a vicarage.” Ian said, climbing out of the van and glancing at Darren. “I mean, there are bound to be visitors at odd times.”
“To be fair, the drunken banshee trying to start a fight on the front lawn at 3am was probably not what they were expecting.” Darren said.
Ian laughed. “Didn’t she apologise with flowers the next day?”
Darren nodded. “It was a massive bouquet as well. She didn’t mean any harm, it’s just that she got ditched by her new normal boyfriend and was going through some issues.”
Darren let them in and switched on the kettle, trying to ignore Ian’s hard stare. None of his prepared speeches seemed to work. “Ian, you should marry Jeanette.”
Ian opened and shut his mouth for a few moments and then nodded. “I should.”
“So why haven’t you?” Darren didn’t look at Ian. Instead he pulled two mugs out of the well-ordered cupboard.
“What if she says ‘no’?” Ian stared at the floor. “What if she thinks I’m only asking her because of the werewolf thing? What if she thinks I’m only asking her because she owns the house the pack live in? What if she thinks I’m only after keeping her as pack mother? What if…” Ian trailed off and took a breath. “What if she thinks I’m still in love with Ann and that she’s second best? I mean, I loved Ann, and she will always have a place in my heart, but it’s different with Jeanette. Besides,” Ian shrugged, “It’s too soon. Anyway, I can’t get married in a church. I can’t give her a white wedding.”
Darren dropped the teabags into the mugs, carefully not looking at Ian. “What if she thinks that you don’t love her enough to marry her?”
Ian watched Darren pour the boiling water, struggling to find words. “Do you think that she doesn’t know? I’d do anything for her.”
Darren shrugged and got the milk out of the fridge. “What does she say?”
“We haven’t talked about it.” Ian said quietly. “I never thought about it like that.”
Darren thought back to all the lectures and courses on personal counselling that he had sat through at theology college. “Perhaps you should speak to her.”
“What could I say?” Ian looked blankly at the mug of tea Darren was holding out to him. He shook his head. “I think I need to get home. I’ll see you tomorrow evening, for Bible study.” He closed the door quietly as he left.
Lady Freydis scowled at the wall, then sighed and turned around. “Egerton, I do not need any help.”
“I assure you, Lady Freydis, I am merely here to assist you.” Egerton smiled and lounged against the counter. “I wish to see how a master creates a domain.”
“I deliberately did not tell Steve Adderson that I would be working tonight. I wish it to be a lovely surprise and also I wished to work without interruption.” Lady Freydis gently placed her hands together and then spread them, feminine and graceful. Part of the wall changed and a green, swirling light reflected around the dark shop.
“I believe that the brownies who come to clean will be here soon.” Egerton wasn’t paying attention to the gap in the world but instead hungrily gazing at Lady Freydis.
“It will not take long.” Lady Freydis was stroking the air between her hands. “Fiona Adderson told me that I could not have too many steps as many will be carrying trays and heavy bags.” Lady Freydis sighed. “I love putting in stairs, especially if they twist.”
“When are you taking a consort?” Egerton asked.
A purple crackle of energy arced across the gap in the wall and Lady Freydis frowned. “I still mourn Lord Ragnar.”
“But it is in our nature to change.” Egerton said. “And the realms need a balance, male and female.”
“Things change.” Lady Freydis said, her hands still moving. “I do not need a consort.”
“Lord Ragnar failed to listen to counsel.” Egerton said, moving closer.
“Touch me and I will rip your heart out and keep it beating on a string for a toy.” Lady Freydis said calmly. “It has not been a full turn of seasons since we lost Lord Ragnar. I will consider my position later.”
“The realms need the poles. They need male and female, hot and cold, light and dark, black and white – you have to take a consort.”
“Do not try and force me to make choices.” Lady Freydis pushed against the air and then nodded. “There is much of interest to be found in palettes of grey.”
“But not in fae.” Egerton insisted.
“Are you determined to prove that there is only room for opposites within the realm or are you merely trying to make an argument for me choosing you as a consort.” Lady Freydis stepped back. The green glow faded and now there was an arch next to the coffee machine with warm, dark shadows stretching away.
“I would make an excellent consort.” Egerton said.
“And I will take a consort when I am willing.” Lady Freydis said. She dusted her hands on her skirt. “It is the time for the drunken students to be thrown out of the clubs. I am going to play there. Do you wish to accompany me?”
Egerton bowed low. “It will be my pleasure.”