Lydiard Park is, in my admittedly biased opinion, the best in Swindon. It has enough trees to provide shade and comfort, but also enough grass to be open and welcoming. The house itself is gorgeous, and the mix of formal gardens and rolling grass makes for a place that changes every time you walk around it. My favourite spot – well, all right, I have two. It's a toss-up between the Walled Garden and sitting down by the lake, and I always visit both.
I'd come with enough time to briefly visit the Walled Garden, and I was sitting down by the lake, watching the ripples from the fish, when someone stopped behind me. I hadn't heard their footsteps, but I was expecting it, and I've had enough practise with Sidhe now that I don't jump out of my skin when one of them walks up behind me.
"The Lady Rowan invites you to meet with her, Envoy." a faintly accented voice says from behind me.
I stand, raise my chin, and then turn, expecting one of the ridiculously beautiful Sidhe – or possibly a centaur. Either's possible.
But it's a man, dressed in leather-and-silver armour, and with a long sword belted at his hip. He's mortal – or at least he doesn't have the abnormally good looks of the Sidhe. He's got high cheekbones, brown hair cut short enough that it just skims his green eyes, and he's standing there with an air of confidence and...I don't know. Something about him that just seems to lift him up.
I pick my jaw up, swallow, and bow. "And you are, sir?"
He bows to me with far more grace than I managed. I'm beginning to feel very inept. "I am Warren, the Sidhe Knight of Summer. You are Elizabeth Richardson, Envoy of Tony Cornetti."
I incline my head. I sold my first name to the Summer and Winter Courts in exchange for information on a case, but that's all they're going to get. I suppose I should start worrying at some point about what else I can exchange for information. Maybe Everyman's names would work. [Everyman's the policeman on the team. He and Dini hate each other.]
Warren half-turns, and holds out his arm for me to take. As I do, I catch his scent; thunderstorms, the smell of rain and fresh air, the moment of change as the lightning flashes down. It's intoxicating – and then it's gone, and he smells of clover and cut grass.
We walk up the meadow, angling slightly away from the house and towards a patch of trees. And between one step and another, the air shimmers, and the sky changes. We're still in the parkland, but it's different – the sky's wider, the grass is lusher, the trees greener. There are Fae scattered around – I spot two centaurs, and a dryad flits across the path in front of us. There are beautiful Sidhe around, too, watching us as we walk slowly across the parkland.
Up ahead, there's a small grassy hillock, surrounded by a mixture of willows and silver birch. There's a scattering of cushions on it and I can see a few of the Sidhe sitting there, with others standing around them. I'm still looking around curiously when Warren stops, turns to me and gently removes my hand from his arm, and then walks forward a few steps to the base of the hillock.
"My Lady." the Knight says, dropping to one knee, and again managing to make the gesture look incredibly graceful. I'm beginning to doubt if he is human, although I know he has to be if he's the Knight. "The Envoy of Tony Cornetti is here to meet with you." [Tony Cornetti's the head of one of the Swindon mafia groups. Ice cream mafia, by the way. Yeah, we had fun with names :-D]
One of the Sidhe sitting on the cushions stands, and comes towards me with both hands outstretched, smiling. She's absolutely beautiful – long blonde hair that seems to have a tint of green, green eyes, and a long aquiline face that matches her slender figure. Her skin is very pale, and accented by the dark green dress she's wearing. "Elizabeth Dini Richardson, we are pleased to welcome you to the Summer Court. I am the Lady Rowan."
I hold out my own hands and she takes them, smiling at me in pleasure as her long fingers wrap around mine. Then she drops one of my hands and turns, tugging me towards the pile of cushions on the raised hillock. "Please, come and sit, and eat. We abide by the Accords, and you may eat or drink anything here."
The other Sidhe have left at some point during the introductions, and so I settle myself as gracefully as possibly on the cushion that she indicates. Warren has fallen in behind us, and now sits down on the cushion next to me. Rowan collapses gracefully opposite, and a kneeling Sidhe hands me a glass. I glance down at the spread of food on the low table between the cushions, and feel glad I've already eaten. I know that Faeries do abide by the Accords but I still have a healthy distrust of eating anything in their realm, and carefully place the glass I have been given back on the table.
Rowan waves away the offered glass and the Sidhe retreats, leaving us with the gentle wind through the trees above – although I don't doubt that someone is listening nearby. Maybe I'm just paranoid, although I doubt it. I personally think I'm a realist.
Then the Summer Lady leans forward. "So, you have come to discuss Tony Cornetti's desire to become a Signatory of the Accords. What is he offering for our support?"
"Two things. Information," and I feel a smile begin to tug at my lips, "and ice cream."
She blinks. "Ice cream?"
I let the smile spread. "Ever since Mr Cornetti became aware of Faerie and of your love of human food, he has instructed his vendors at Lydiard to leave their unused stock behind at the end of the day. Your Court flock to it."
She smiles, then, and the warmth of it washes over me. "Ah, that is why my little ones are telling me about the treasure they keep finding, but that melts in the sun."
"You do have to eat it fast." I agree. I'd seen the Little People attack the leftovers, and the memory of a tiny winged Faerie speeding through a chocolate Magnum still made me giggle at completely inappropriate times. "Mr Cornetti would be willing to provide a van to you twice a year, although I do not think it would be nearly enough to feed your Court."
She taps a long finger against perfect lips. "Three of his vans, twice a year."
"Accepted, but they only contain a certain amount of stock." I warn. "It's not limitless."
"Understood. I will control the distribution amongst my Court." She leans back. "And the information?"
"Mr Cornetti is offering you access to his information network, in exchange for access to yours. We can offer answers to your questions, in exchange for answers to ours."
"A question for a question." she says thoughtfully.
"If you wish. We would agree to a running debt, on the understanding that neither partner would ever go more than two questions in debt."
"And you would have to answer any question with truth?" Rowan leans forward again. "We are bound to truth, but you, mortal, are not."
"We could choose to not answer," I say carefully, "and your question would not go on the tally sheet. But we would agree to answer any question truthfully, as far as we were able. If we do not know something, or cannot answer, we will tell you."
She considers it. "And we may do the same?"
"Yes. But you must also agree to answer as truthfully as you can, or admit ignorance."
"You must agree not to force us, then, for this bargain. You know that we must answer a question asked thrice."
"If the question is asked as part of the bargain, it will not be asked thrice. You may choose not to answer."
That seems to satisfy her, and she leans back with a nod. "An answer for an answer." She taps her long fingers against her leg – they never seem to be still, even when the rest of her is. "And if one was two questions in debt, and asked a third?"
"They would have to answer one before an answer would be given, or trade information they valued."
She smiles. "Like a name, Elizabeth Dini Richardson."
I incline my head. "Like a name, Lady Rowan of the Summer Court."
"Well, your bargain is acceptable to us. We will support Mr Cornetti in his bid for the Accords, and become his ally for information. When will you send ice cream?"
I shrug. "When do you want it?"
"At a time of celebration, I think. One just after the Winter Solstice, when we have won the Table back. And the other just before the Summer Solstice, when we are at the height of our strength."
I nod. "Agreed."
She smiles at me. "Then we are agreed. You will tell Tony Cornetti?" I nod. "Then our Knight will escort you back to Lydiard." She stands gracefully, and holds out both hands to me as I scramble up. "Thank you for visiting us."
I take her hands and smile back. I like Rowan, despite knowing that she is as devious as all Faeries, and governed by the demands of Summer and her position. "Thank you for your hospitality."
She almost glows. "You are very welcome, Envoy."
Warren steps forward and offers me his arm again with formal politeness. I take it, and we walk in silence back through the ranks of Sidhe. Parkland begins to open up in front of us, and then we have stepped through the shimmer and back into the real world. The lake's spread out below, and I can hear the traffic noise coming from the motorway. Reality's back.
Ice cream and gossip...I suppose there are worse things to build an alliance on.
Warren stops, but lays a hand on mine as I go to remove it from his arm. "May we walk down by the Lake, Miss Richardson?" he says to me seriously. "I would ask for some of your time to speak with you."
"You're very formal." I say, raising a cynical eyebrow. But I do turn to walk with him, and we begin to stroll down to the lake. I can hear the ducks quacking ahead of us, and the faint noise of traffic coming across with the wind. Back in the real world...
"It comes from my upbringing, Miss Richardson."
"I admit I can't place your accent."
He smiles faintly. "I will offer information on myself for an equal exchange, Miss Richardson."
I stop abruptly, which jerks my hand off Warren's arm. "For you, or for the Court?"
He has the grace to look slightly shamed. "My Court is interested in you, Miss Richardson. But the conversation is for me."
I eye him. He may be charming, but I'm cynical. "What do you want to know that your Court doesn't?"
He has to think about it, and then he throws back his head and laughs. It almost cracks him - he suddenly looks younger, and more alive. He's still smiling as he stops laughing, and it lights up his face. "I accept the point, Miss Richardson! May I at least know what you prefer to be called?"
"A shortening of Elizabeth? I am still unfamiliar with English."
"No, it's a nickname. You'll have to exchange something for that story. What's your first language?"
"Shall we sit?" he says easily, and gestures to the lake.
I walk down to my favourite bench, and sit down on it. The Summer Knight sits down next to me, and leans his elbows on the back of the bench, looking out over the lake. I simply wait in silence, enjoying the view and the brief moment of peace. I'll have to go and tell Tony that his offer has been accepted, and then it's back to work while he sorts the details out...
"Germany was my place of birth." Warren says after a while. "So my first language is German. I gained quite a few tongues with my position, but I admit that the informality of English still confuses me."
"Well, I'm from Swindon, so it's my first language."
"Is Cornetti also from Swindon?"
I don't turn my head. "No comment."
"What are you, then, when you are not being an Envoy?" I can hear the smile in his voice. Maybe he's been warned that I won't talk about Cornetti.
"I'm a journalist."
"An investigator." I correct. "I do a lot of the legwork and then have to write everything up as well."
"Do you write for one of the local papers?"
"The Swindon Advertiser. Big business." I add sardonically, and see his mouth twitch in a smile. At least he has a sense of humour.
"Is it something you enjoy?"
I lean back and look out over the lake, thinking. "Yeah. I love finding stuff out...the writing up, not so much, but recently I've been doing more of the investigation. I like being able to use my brain."
"What was your last case?"
"Read the papers." I'm not telling a member of the Summer Court anything about a murder involving the Winter Court, although he probably knows that we came sniffing round the Lady Marshall Nemain to ask questions. And that I sold my name for information. "So what did you want to know?" I add, suddenly wanting to get to the point.
"Your associate, Zenobia. She...removed an item when she went to visit the Svartalves." the Summer Knight says slowly. "A circle. She refuses to speak to us. Will you be able to tell us what has happened to it?"
I consider it. "And the payment for this?"
"A debt, Miss Richardson. An information debt, in your favour."
I shrug. "I'll ask. It might be that I can't find out either. How do you want me to contact you?"
"A message in Neutral Territory will suffice." I nod and glance at my watch, and the Summer Knight smiles at me. "You should report back to Mr Cornetti?"
"I should." I stand and stretch. "It was nice to meet you."
"It was a pleasure, Miss Richardson." He stands in turn, hesitates, and then says, "I would like to meet you again."
"I am sure that you will in the course of your duties, Sir Knight."
His green eyes meet mine, and then he bows formally to me. "Of course. I shall look forward to it, Envoy."