The wise woman was struck by how little things changed over the years.
Oh there were satellite dishes upon the homes and faster cars upon the road than when she had first come here. There was a cell phone tower looming in the east, pathetically disguised as the sole palm tree in the region. There were a few new buildings and a larger population. Despite the small idiosyncrasies of modern life however the feel of this place was the same.
The basin was as devouring as ever, a wide maw lunging at the foot of the mountains. It caught all that slid down from the high cliffs; rain, rubble, spirit, and filth. Settlers had cornered the native tribe here and perhaps that violate bloodstain had bolstered the psychic scream from Lorna Seele’s sacrifice to forever trap a despairing echo in the land. Where it had once been farmed the land remained in staunch ridges, never forgetting what it had once been. The land, and the spirits tied to it, never forgot.
Hala adjusted her hijab as the wind tried to rip it off her head. She stepped off the train for a brief detour in North Vale. She huffed in annoyance as her joints creaked in the morning air. The jinn in his cobalt bottle rattled in excitement in her bag. After what had happened at home, she would not allow him to sit at her side. She laid a hand upon it as she glanced at the yakshani perched upon the rim of the fountain of the main square. The spirit merely giggled at Hala's greeting and waved off her questions off with a clattering of bangles before leaping into the water to disappear in its swirling embrace.
She looked up at being addressed as "Ma’am" and took the offer of shelter in a doorway as a young man stepped out of the way. She looked at his dark hair, gray eyes, and strong chin. Thank Allah for familial similarities.
"Have you seen a young man with dark eyes, dark hair with water weeds in it, and is a right poof?" she asked him sternly.
"Er, do you mean Dougal Burne?” He asked with a blink. He adjusted the bag on his back, probably full with textbooks. Hala gave a small smirk. She knew his type. 'Burne', what a nice little joke as it meant 'river'. She would expect nothing less from the old nag.
"Yes. And now son, do you know he is a kelpie?" The young man stiffened and hesitated. His reaction was answer enough. She extended a hand. "Help an old woman down to the Via Verde."
The boy swallowed but did as he was asked. He allowed her to lean on him as they followed the main street to the docks.
"Tell me your name." Hala said.
"Stan Ngo." So it had been serendipity after all.
"Wouldn't be a relative of An Ngo?"
"Yeah. He’s my uncle." He glanced at her. "Are you a witch?"
"In a way." Hala inclined her head. "I am a wise woman."
"Oh." He seemed to muse on this for a few seconds. "How do you know my uncle?"
"Because I know my kind of people." Hala explained. Stan looked like he wanted to ask a question but Hala continued on. "That's why I must go and find Dougal. Fae are always so ungracious, imagine, making an old woman tromp about in this wind and weather!"
"Mm." Stan nodded in reply and Hala took that to be an agreement.
She pointed her companion towards a rabbit trail and they followed it until the shoreline gave way to a small cliff. Hala instructed Stan to carry her down on his back, her knees no good for such scaling. The young man was quite the gallant mount. He hobbled at an angle with her bag in one hand and his in another, but he never faltered.
"Such a strong back!" Hala praised from her perch. "No wonder Dougal likes you!"
"How did you know I know him?" He asked with a grunt as he carefully stepped over a stone. "Can you use magic?"
"Anyone can use magic, but it wasn't necessary. I know the sort Dougal takes a fancy to." Hala informed him.
"Even I can use magic?" he asked in surprise and he glanced over his shoulder at her. She met his gaze squarely.
"Correct. It would be very difficult for you to however, it always is for humans, save some. For spirits however it's easy. No human however ever approaches the skill with magic a spirit intrinsically has. You want a magic favor lad? Go ask Dougal. He give you anything you like I imagine." Hala chose to not inform the young man as a human with a small amount of spirit blood it be somewhat easier for him to cultivate magical skill. The Ngos had an unfortunate record with magic; she didn't need to hang another victim on that tree. This boy had apparently never questioned why his father had moved out of Orange County, away from the family stronghold. Dougal's attention was perhaps a thrill for the boy, a flattery, but at least that kelpie knew better than to tempt disaster. The wayward brother had apparently taken care to keep his son in ignorance, and it would seem even An had respected this.
"Dougal has many favorites I imagine," Stan snorted softly as he let the woman off his back as they came to the waterline.
"Only one about every generation," Hala shook her head as she leaned on her cane. "He had quite the fancy for MacGregor when I first met him. Told me that the young man even overcame his dislike of red hair."
It was Dougal that first introduced her to Ulysses, long before he had ever returned to the basin. Lorna had been standing beside her that day, almost afraid to look the kelpie in the face. Somehow Hala continued to live on when so many had died because of their spirit blood. She glanced at the young man besides her.
"If you're bothered, don't worry. He'll let you be once you get a wife or get some fat on your belly." Hala informed him as she stepped forward. Stan didn't answer and Hala feared that perhaps the opposite was true and he wished those attentions would become something more.
Long ago one of her ancestors had mated with one of the jinn. She had been stolen away by a female jinn as a child for a few days, but Hala had never been able to understand how some humans were tempted to be intimate with such creatures. Hala had seen the emerald mountains of the Kaf and she still had preferred the modest earthen home of her childhood.
The magic, the beauty, the eternity, none of it was worth the suffering.
"The good thing about Dougal is he comes when you call," Hala mused as she reached into her shoulder bag to pull out a tin. "But an offering never hurts."
She opened the tin and tossed onto the water the pieces of raw lamb. "Dougal of the Via Verde, it is I, Wise Woman Hala Nejem. I have come for an audience. Will you see me?"
The kelpie answered by parting the water a few seconds later. Stan had been staring rather intently at the rapidly submerging meat in the fluctuating water. He startled however when the fae suddenly appeared before him, revealing not only that he didn't have Sight but that he'd had no prior inkling that spirits were usually invisible to normal man. No wonder he was enchanted; ignorance is bliss.
"Greetings to you honored one." Dougal greeted as he pulled himself atop a boulder to perch upon. With his glamour he appeared as nothing more than a handsome young man. Nevertheless Hala had seen that split second of something made of darkness that had crawled out of the depths of the waters thousands of years ago when he had surfaced. That was her jinn inheritance. A spirit could never fully hide from her as they could every other human.
He beamed down at Stan. "I see you have found a friend of mine."
"A pretty Ngo boy, not many of those," Hala informed him with a stiff nod. Dougal smiled indulgently and Stan blushed.
"But I suppose you are here to ask after what has happened in Orangeblossom over my private life." Dougal continued as he sat back. Hala nodded as Stan took a seat, apparently happy to be a silent audience.
"Yes. What's your impression of it?"
"My brother is an idiot." Dougal said easily. He shrugged. "I am just uncertain if this resulted from his misjudgment or hers."
"And what of MacGregor's?" Hala pressed with a frown.
“I was not there that night,” Dougal gave her a flat expression and she sighed.
“You want to talk to Yusuf.”
“Is there a reason you’re keeping him from me?” The fae kept smiling but his eyes narrowed, an expression of warning that Hala knew well.
“Regan purposely delayed me for a few days. There has to be a reason why.” Hala sighed. There was more reason than Dougal’s affinity that she had found the Ngo heir.
The kelpie blinked and then barked out a laugh.
“You humans who always think you can protect spirits! You are so like that girl!”
She knew it then by the bitterness in his voice.
"Ah, so you do think Regan may have had some part in this."
Dougal inclined his head. "If that lad was so foolish, I must say it matters not, it will come to the same end. Naoise will kill him one day. As we did every one of our captors.”
“Save one,” Hala frowned and Dougal gave a wry chuckle.
“She really fell in love with my brother. Even now she either knows, or hangs onto the delusion of, that Naoise was manipulated into killing MacGregor. So I told her to find a reason why he should be saved.”
He beamed, “you all so wanted her to stay alive, well, now, she has a reason for living!”
An immortal creature could never understand the true value of life, but the brothers may have been the closest of all of their kind to having tasted death. Dougal understood that life having meaning was the only reason to continue it. His anger and malice had let him survive his enslavement of centuries, he would see the same sort of rage in Eddie Moreno. It was dangerous for a human to live that way, for if she found she had been in vain, she would surely break. She may shatter even if justified, to feel such passion. Such madness belonged to spirits alone.
Yet, that insanity may save her and her beloved. The woman was already mad to have loved a monster. What remained of her humanity to be so in love with her own death?
“I must protect her.” It was her duty as wise woman. To become a sheath to that madness.
“And what did your fire spirit say to you?” Dougal asked.
“He believes Naoise spoke the truth,” Hala admitted. “But he cannot deny there is the possibility that he lied.”
“Sarah thinks the same way,” Stan suddenly interjected into the conversation. He elaborated at Hala’s questioning look. “Eddie’s best friend. We found her after that night Regan got his hand torn off.”
Hala frowned, perhaps there was a destiny for those with spirit blood. Though his father may have tried to spare him, Stan Ngo had been discovered all the same by the spirits. Those traces were just too powerful to deny.
“Then, you two are among the few who know the truth,” Hala sighed. Stan nodded.
“I know. It’s…amazing I suppose. I mean, I never wanted this sort of thing but now that it’s happened…” He shrugged helplessly, unable to give words to his frustrated desires. He was impressed, but not necessarily in a good way. Dougal grinned at him however and slid down from his rock to walk towards shore.
"Aye. You can have any gift you wish for in our favor, but in our hatred you can know every agony." His smirk grew wider as he approached Stan and leaned down to be eye level with him.
"But you are Eddie's friend are you not? And you'll be going to that funereal?" Stan nodded.
“Regan Seele planned it, so I wouldn’t doubt that there’s going to be more shit going down.” Stan said easily.
"You mean to protect her then. So do I. Will you help me with this?"
Stan again nodded, without hesitation. Dougal cupped his cheek and with no preamble he kissed the young man, deeply. Hala looked away but she was already aware of what was occurring.
"Then go do so." Dougal instructed the young man as he pulled away.
"What, what did you do?" Stan looked like he had a train suddenly speeding towards him.
"I gave you a taste of my blood lad." Dougal's grin became wider. "It is my favor to you, you'll be able use some small part of my magic as your own. Do not waste it however, it usually only lasts for one act."
Hala frowned at the idea of giving an ignorant boy a literal taste of magic. Still spirits always did as they pleased and often a wise human was left to only pick up the pieces afterwards. Stan looked sufficiently mollified and nodded. He stepped back, licking his lips, and Hala gently pulled him back from a looming potential for disaster.
She thanked Dougal and excused herself and the boy. The kelpie let them go with a bow. As Stan carried her back up the bank Hala could tell she was only nursing another headache. She had no real inroad into this community. Lorna was long dead, Regan had become her enemy the second she had tried to expose his prince. These spirits were not her own, and most of them belonged to the wise man of the basin.
It was not her place to exonerate Naoise of Lake Santos. It was her responsibility however to protect that girl. If she had been abused by Regan Seele he had violated his oath and would lose his standing as wise man. Hala sighed as Stan set her back down onto the soft earth of the basin floor. Only such a place would boast something as specious as a half-fae guardian.
She kept her fears and worries to herself as she allowed Stan to escort her to Orangeblossom. The young man was not talkative but Hala could coax an oral biography from a mute. Through careful prompting she had Stan divulge his entire knowledge of the affair between the girl and the kelpie as the bus rumbled along the soggy highway.
"Personally, I always thought it was crazy." Stan opined after he had announced the bare facts that the slavery had metamorphosed into the fulfillment of a death wish. Hala rubbed the mounting pressure in her forehead and looked at Stan from beneath her palm.
"I thought for a while maybe Eddie was a lesbian. Sarah was always tryin' to get her dates but she never wanted it. I thought maybe she should leave her alone. But I don't think it was a case of always being secretly fond of horses." Stan informed the wise woman gravely. Hala raised an eyebrow, uncertain if she cared to hear the end of this.
“I think no one listens to that girl. She tells horse-face she doesn't want him and he threatens to kill her. She said he was very much about roles and not being able to be anything but what he was. I think what happened was…loving her he couldn’t be the guardian or local terror or whatever, so he gave up.”
He paused and mused before he finished, “So what I wonder is…why didn't Eddie realize that?"
Hala blinked, not sure to feel amused or impressed that the young man was actually cleverer than he initially looked or sounded. If one was becoming more like the other, the situation was likely mutual. Nothing could be answered really however until she spoke to the young woman in question. Yet the thread remained.
Stan sat back with a loud sigh. He gave a small smile however. "But even with what happened, I'm a little glad that I got to know about the spirits."
Hala also sat back and looked away. She watched the town of North Vale roll away and disappear into the rain and wind. The open countryside trembled as it was doused in the downpour.
"Are you a Muslim then?" Stan suddenly asked, interrupting her thoughts, apparently unable to contain his curiosity for any longer. Hala gave an affirmative nod. "I could tell by the scarf."
"Most can," Hala allowed. She smiled however and decided to pump this information well some more. She asked about the town gossip regarding the mystery of MacGregor's death. People were locking their children in all night in fear of some beast or deranged human. There were rumors the gang that had mutilated Regan Seele was responsible. Humans who had plenty to fear from what they could not see instead cowered in terror from what didn't exist.
She thanked Stan as the bus groaned and shivered in the rain as they disembarked from the old machine. He asked if she had a ride and she assured him she did. He pointed her at the market that hosted a small collection of chairs within. She took the opportunity to rest her joints and sighed as she sat upon one of the wicker chairs.
She bought a bottle of ibuprofen and she pondered the task before her. An Ngo arrived only about ten minutes later. After the greeting Hala excused her husband's absence by explaining the man was suffering from pneumonia. It was the latest ailment in a lifetime of lung maladies. His infirmity was how she had first met him even. She shook her head at An's sympathetic exclamations.
“I have to ask,” she said as she sat in the front seat of his Mercedes, “why you are also here today.”
“I don’t get involved in the personal affairs of others,” An smiled. “I am here only to watch.”
And swoop in surely if a kill was made. Hala only nodded. The confederation of wise women and men was a motley one. They had no leader, no council, only a code of conduct. Above all else this was to protect the mass populace, yet every wise person would have a different view on what this truly meant.
About half an hour before the start of the funereal the guests were allowed to find their seats. An went to pay his respects to the family. Hala chose the back well aware a lack of attention was always beneficial. People largely didn't notice her among the roses by the statue of the Virgin but Regan Seele's eyes fell upon her as soon as he walked in with his family. He smiled at her and Hala nodded. She thought it was a strange sight to see the Seeles without their selkie slave in tow. It would seem Regan had had to lose much before he had been able to rectify his birth. Perhaps it would only be fitting if his revenge culminated in his death.
Perhaps he had never known however that he could have lived another way.
The mass began and Hala remained sitting through-out, occasionally having the thought that Christians made too much of kneeling and standing. She remained a passive viewer to the mourning. Though not one person shed a tear for the last MacGregor heir. The man who had given up his life for his family was not missed by one of them. It was not cruelty but the ultimate price of abandonment. They came in respect for him at least, though only one knew anything of his true legacy. They thought him the unknown descendant, not the one who had freed them all.
She, and she alone, could cry for the dead man, for she had seen his years of suffering. She had seen death in his eyes long before it ever came for him, the illness of sorrow and the desperation of a life without meaning. Yet she would not. Funerals were for the living, not the dead. She would not try to reach after the dead when she would only grasp nothing at all. She had long since learned to not expend energy on useless things.
It was only fate that perhaps Ulysses had chosen his death, a tragedy few knew.
Instead she passed the time by reminiscing on the man who had been a friend but never a mentor. She disliked the thought the man had deserved his death and decided to reserve true judgment until she had found the young woman whose life may have also been destroyed. Her thoughts became boats to drift down the stream of memory on whose banks rested nostalgia, happiness, acceptance, and regret.
After the coffin had at last been laid into the ground and everyone had thrown their handful of dirt Hala came forward. She walked up to the wise man and gave him her own measured smile.
"Hello Regan, it's unfortunate to meet again like this." The last time had only been about a year ago when he'd lain to rest his mother's husband. Hala had not been fond of or hateful of the old man but she had however come as an old friend of the Seele family. The new wife once again tolerated her stepson's "strange friends" and once again distanced herself by dragging away her stepdaughter. It was as if she thought she could save any of Lorna's children from something as pernicious as magic. Hala had to congratulate Katharine on her determination over her sensibility.
Nevertheless Hala ignored the snubbing she had received all her life. In her homeland it had been her association with the jinn and La Sorcière, in the States it was her foreign customs, and always her skin color. She had respect from those that mattered, and could care less about those that did not.
"I agree," Regan said good-humoredly but with a certain sly look that showed he was still on guard. He was aware of what Hala had thought about keeping the pregnancy that had carried him. He was always on trial among even his own rank. "Unfortunately however, it may have been the only way a man descended from Warlock Willox could have gone."
And Regan had already accepted that fate for himself as well.
"And you have that kelpie under your control now?" Hala asked lowly as Regan led her outside and towards a secluded corner of the church garden. The blooms of the roses had died long ago and left nothing but twisted thorny branches to shield them from view.
"Yes. That girl handed him over of her own free will." He beamed like a boy that had done good.
“And was it not just such a coincidence that very day that encantado found Rosaria Nogales in Palisade Beach months after her family had moved from Brazil? La! I of course had to use Yusuf to save that girl, giving you a week of peace!” Hala beamed right back at him. Regan only chortled at the merry little tale.
“Well, like fae, the encantados can be quite persistent. Eddie Moreno is lucky to have survived. She refused to go with Naoise when he declared the pact over. I think he would have killed her next.”
Hala’s mouth twitched. She had not met anyone as stubborn as herself in a long time. She had left Yusuf behind to grease the wheels, but she had hoped that ultimately that girl had known what she was doing. She may still, they all made mistakes. Perhaps her difficulties however had made her a little bit more tolerant.
"Yet Eddie still keeps her memories?" Hala asked.
"Mm." Regan glanced through the tangle of thorns and pointed her out to Hala. Her back was turned, but Hala could easily remember those imperious eyes. "I am slowly drawing them away from her of course but she may be moving back to Orange County soon, where her family lives. So whatever way it goes, she won't be in danger anymore."
Hala glanced at him.
"Do you have any objections if I speak to the girl?" Hala asked carefully.
"Of course not." Regan smiled and kept smiling as Hala left him. She shivered, that man had always been so eerie. Even as a child he had been an unknowable depth of concealed emotion. One only ever received what they expected from Regan Seele but one always had a feeling that it was not a true action.
Hala pulled her collar up and tromped across the mud with heavy steps. Stan looked at her from across the way but she shooed away his questioning look. The young man may be knowledgeable about spirits but this was to be a conversation between two women. One needed to know disaster in order to truly understand it.
Hala was not necessarily surprised the girl was currently biting her finger as she muttered "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," again and again as she slowly poured whiskey on the grave stone.
"That’s not how it goes." Hala informed her sternly as she snatched away the bottle. The girl stepped back with a gasp. Hala shook her head she began to pour. "Oh whiskey wise and true, soak down to his bones through and through. Tonight we'll drink high to remember our old friend and never speak ill of his end."
She handed the bottle back to the wide eyed girl who sighed softly. "Thanks."
She placed the bottle in her coat. “Where’s Yusuf?”
“Hiding.” Hala informed her. Eddie sighed and shook her head.
“Does Regan have something to do with that?”
“Yes.” Hala let Eddie fill her own explanation into the void.
“Was he there that night?”
“And that is why he’s hiding, isn’t it?” Eddie’s shoulders slumped. Hala nodded, Eddie was cleverer than she often behaved at least. Eddie made a frustrated noise.
“Did he talk to you about it? Please I have to know-!” She gasped.
“Yusuf does not think Naoise is guilty.” Hala told her. “But given the nature of fae one can never be fully sure if they were tricked.”
"What would you do, if you found out who was really responsible for Mr. MacGregor's death?" Eddie asked with a level look.
"If I found out it was you because you were deceived by that kelpie I would hold to Regan's decision to not punish you as that is his decision to make." Hala informed her.
"And Regan's enslavement of Naoise is punishment enough for him," Eddie finished with a frown and Hala nodded.
"I can't believe I'm getting off this easy!" Eddie gave a small cry. "I know Regan wants to erase my memories of Naoise but even with that, for the death of a man…"
She bit her finger again and looked away. "It's unbelievable. You know Dougal right?"
"He says if I still love Naoise I should find if he is worthy of that love. Yet the way he said it, it makes me think, that, even if I did it, it wouldn't matter. It wouldn't matter to the fae because Naoise had still done something that is like a sin by their standards. All I would find, all I would find…"
Her voice grew to a horrified whisper. "All I would find is that it was I who betrayed him and not he who betrayed me."
"And to live with that knowledge would be a cruel punishment." Hala said heavily and Eddie looked up with a perfect expression of despair. Hala looked away.
"If I found reason to think Naoise should be saved, what could I do?" Eddie asked.
"I think only you could answer that," Hala told her succinctly. It was best she know the truth now. "There is reason to believe there was more to that murder than what may immediately appear. Nevertheless I cannot interfere in the matters of the spirits; only spirit and human. Dougal is the only spirit that cares about Naoise, but even he isn’t in a position to unravel this alone. He reached out to you for help that day."
"I understand." The woman bowed her head.
"Love makes us vulnerable." Hala lifted Eddie's chin to force the other woman to look at her. "This is true for spirits too. If Naoise didn't think your love was a compliment to his vanity, it weakened him. Keep that in mind."
Eddie stepped back with a down turned mouth and tight shoulders. She nodded however and seemed to swallow the bitter pill down.
"I know even if Regan forgives me, that doesn't mean I have not sinned." Hala blinked at this self-deprecation. Eddie was not saying this however to be self-pitying or to play the martyr however. There was fierce determination in her eyes. She was preparing herself to burn. “So I will find why I still love him and don't want to forget him even if it's only because I want to be aware of the depth of this sin I have committed.”
Hala slowly smiled but it was a small and reserved one. This was the passion Dougal had encouraged. This madness was what may consume her.
But perhaps now Hala would be able to know the truth she had been unable to find. She could help save Eddie Moreno by finding this truth. Within the confines of her duty however, there was the personal urge for revenge. She must remember her duty, but Hala was also one to make use of an opportunity. MacGregor’s death must also not be taken lightly, not by her.
And though Hala knew better than to directly plant the idea in the woman's head with Regan's servants listening to every word, Hala could mediate in human affairs and Regan was still a half human man. If Edith Moreno engineered a crusade to expose Regan Seele for the crime of murdering Ulysses MacGregor, Hala could join it and could guide her in what must be done.
"I wish you luck child." Hala bowed her head. Eddie blinked.
“You…are not going to get involved in this?”
“Before I was involved because Ulysses asked me to be, and because Dougal asked us to.”
“Dougal?” Eddie shook her head. “From the start!”
“To finish, but this time it is you he asked for help, not me.” Hala blithely informed her. “Regan is this area’s wise man, I cannot intercede when I am not asked.”
Hala lowered her voice, “though I may be asked.”
“I see,” Eddie murmured.
“I know we disagreed in the past. I would not apologize for it until I see the end of it, nevertheless, it is my duty to protect the vulnerable. And you, Eddie Moreno, are in the worse position.”
“I know,” the girl smiled. “I know.”
Probably to Regan's relief Hala announced she would be taking her leave and was not attending the wake. She after all had an ill husband and no real love of the rain. He asked if she had learned anything interesting from Eddie Moreno. Hala had smiled knowing Regan had already heard every word from the yakshani but answered that only someone with a martyr complex would endure Naoise of Lake Santos’ company for so long.
"Well, nothing like it will happen again at least," Regan said after he had laughed in response. "Not on my watch."
"I can only hope," Hala let her words remain cryptic. She may have been referring to the murder, or to the fact of the trouble there may be if the kelpie had managed to catch the girl between the legs before they had been separated. Regan gave her his smile that didn't quite reach his eyes and as she walked away.
Things never changed in the basin, everything was always on the verge of being swallowed up.
Jai Darzi knew wizards were ambiguous figures. In stories they could just as easily give curses as they could favors. Magicians and their ilk operated beyond the simple archetypes of good or evil. They existed just outside the bounds of the story but often were the nail upon which it hung.
When he had first met Regan he had been the fairy godfather. He had been kind and generous. He had been a mentor with a snide sense of humor and a gracious manner. He had dropped into Jai's life at the worst moment and had resurrected him. Regan could not grant every wish but he had given Jai a life. A splendid life, a life he knew he must be grateful for.
Now however Jai was beginning to feel like he had been trapped in a petty fantasy over the fairy tale he'd envisioned. Jai had seen the true face of the god of this world and it had been that of a desperate and frightened man. Just a man and nothing more. How naïve he had been only a year ago when Regan had pulled him away from the monstrous raft of Sita's floating body.
The true prince, the prior Jai Darzi, had leapt into the river to save the drowning girl, only for both to tragically fall victim to the strong current. He had been beautiful and strong, unafraid at all as he had thrown off his coat and shoes and dived off the bridge. He had plunged headfirst down at the sight of one frail body. He had reached to draw Sita into his arms only to have her fingers brush his as he was pulled down into the furious depths.
He however never lost sight of her. When he had been Padma he had always been with Sita. He believed it may have been on the day he had been born that she had found him and gathered him into her delicate and deft hands. He had grown besides her, serenaded every night by her floating voice as she read aloud the old tales. Sita had been a young princess, waiting for her prince. She knew she must work very hard and be kind to all for him to appear.
Padma had become as entranced with her figures of kindly kings and gracious poor girls who performed amazing feats with help from magical mentors whose favor they gained with their muted virtue. Sita was a lonely girl with parents that worked very hard to support her, and she was grateful for her life, but she still longed for that supportive love a prince would provide.
She had often sat him on her windowsill at night so they could look out at the twinkling tapestry of lights that was the great city they lived in. Sita would make up her own stories about the people they saw walking below. The cafe girl who was secretly in love with the son of the thrift store owner, they would one day elope and live in a beautiful place of sunshine and a sparkling ocean. There was the old homeless woman who was secretly an avatar of the goddess Kali and was merely waiting for the right soul to come along to make her blessed champion. To Sita the world had been populated with marvelous dreams waiting to be discovered. How Padma had wished to be the prince, the little bit of magic, which lonely Sita desired to have in her life.
She had been following a dream across a fallen branch that spanned the river, and he had followed her. She had laughed that surely this was the way faeries traveled over the water instead of the ugly bridges that humans made. She had been such a small and delicate girl, but even her light weight had been enough to snap the branch only the ghostly feet of spirits could have crossed. She had fallen in with a cry, and that had been her last gasp against a world not full of dreams but lurking nightmares. Padma could only fall as well and hold onto her writhing and wracked body, unable to do anything else.
The prince had only been drawn to the river by fate. He had never even seen Sita before and only knew her seconds before her death. She may have already been dead by the time the man had dove in after her. Yet he had valiantly tried to save the girl's life even if he had come too late into her story. The magician only noticed his friend had gone missing by the screams of the horrified spectators. By the time Regan had arrived it had already been too late to save the prince or the princess. He could only call to his entourage of spirits and command the bodies be brought to the shore.
It had been at that moment, as Regan had stood on the shores of death, he had noticed poor mourning Padma. The wizard made a quick decision. He ordered the body of Jai Darzi to be cast off, to be made to float many miles downriver, and be mistaken for another man. Next to the cold and pallid corpse of the girl he'd loved, Padma had become Jai Darzi. The corpse that continued to float down the river was no man, forever nameless.
"Please," Jai had gasped when Padma had ceased to exist. "Please, make me into a prince. You're a wizard aren't you? That is what I must be! I cannot let—"
He indicated the body and covered his face as Regan drew him to his new feet.
"My sister needs a prince." Regan informed him gently and Jai looked up at him with hope. The wizard smiled gently. "So you shall be one, for her, for any woman if you like. I will give you that existence."
So he had become the prince in Regan's carefully crafted world. The wizard had allowed his new creation to remain by Sita's side long enough to see the girl cremated and her ashes scattered along the banks where she had played. Her parents had thanked him for his efforts and he had wished them well, they after all had never meant to neglect their daughter. Like her they had been filled with dreams and hadn't stopped to see the delights reality offered. Afterwards he had met his parents and cousins for the very first time.
Regan had given him his life story. What skill he lacked in ignorance Regan made up for with enchantment. Jai could not comprehend the task of compiling numbers, yet the man An Ngo made everyone think he was a skilled member of their enterprise. In time he became sufficient in his own magic that he was able to delude others on his own. His father delighted in his heir, his cousins forecast nothing but fortune.
No one knew there had been two deaths that day. His parents had welcomed him home and had only attributed the discrepancies to mental disquiet after witnessing the death of a young girl. And why shouldn't they? He was a devoted son; he followed after his father in business, and was good to his mother. Why should these kind and good people have to suffer needlessly?
Regan had created a beautiful and shinning world and at the center of it was his sister, its princess. She was a stunning woman, intelligent and strikingly beautiful. She was charming in that despite her education and wealth she still held a certain vulnerability to her that made her approachable. Jai had seen why Regan doted on her like a rare treasure.
While Jai did enjoy Kelly's company and thought highly of her, there had never been quite what for her would have been a rekindling, and for him would have been the first spark. Despite this tepid relationship however Jai had resigned himself to marrying her, as he was meant to. When he had met Matthew he had found himself moved more to pity than jealousy. He had never felt the urge to compete with him as Regan would ensure Kelly's affections.
In fact he had felt no suffering at all until he had met Eddie Moreno.
He would lose everything if he ran away from Regan, his world would shatter, and thus it had been better if Eddie's world had been the one to crumble. It would have crumbled anyway. The nightmares had started again, of drowning, of helplessness, of mud and a great devouring roar. Deep in his heart he had been afraid. He was a hypocrite for asking Eddie to be so brave when at night he had been unable to even sleep. He feared the kelpie would kill Eddie. That one morning she would be nothing more than a twisting of bone and flesh on the earth.
He would protect her. You often had to be cruel to be kind. Regan had taught him this. Eddie was at last separated from the kelpie. She had been saved. The ends justified the means. This was not Sita’s world of shinning morals but Regan’s reality of lies and deceit.
And he would see her in blissful ignorance than fight her.
For his sin, he would also lay his head on the chopping block. Like the kelpie he would never have her. He would take his place as Kelly’s prince. He would treat his bride well and see her every need looked after, while every day he would suffer for what he would never have. It was a fitting punishment for a frog that had tried to be a true prince.
"Who was that?" Jai asked as Regan turned away from the strange old woman who had suddenly walked on and off the stage.
"An old bitch." Regan smiled broadly. Jai blinked and glanced at the scattered funerary party members but none were close enough to hear their conversation. Not that it much mattered, most were here on Regan’s orders anyway. Kelly was glowering at Matthew in some corner as he made pleading gestures at her. Eddie was distantly speaking to the priest by the graveside. They were all involved in hushed and apparently clandestine exchanges. So this malicious exchange would go unheeded. Regan gestured and Jai stiffened but leaned in to listen to his newest order.
"Keep an eye on Eddie would you?" Regan asked lowly. Jai looked up at him in question as to what this exactly meant. Regan beamed. "She's upset and heartbroken. Why don't you help her forget?"
Jai nodded stiffly. It was only inevitable. He had chosen to betray her and now could only continue to tear down her reality. It was the promise he had made on the day he had nearly died.
He left Regan and waited until the priest walked away and Eddie was left alone. She turned away from the grave and towards the east side of the basin. Her eyes were narrowed and whatever she saw in the drenched fields beyond the churchyard, only she could see it. Jai gently touched her shoulder and she flinched. She turned around to face him with a small look of apprehension.
"Jai, it's been a while."
"Only a week," he gently reminded her and tried to smile comfortingly at her. She looked away from his earnest expression.
"Only a week." She repeated with a sniff. She looked over his shoulder towards the grave. "It's not long enough to forget is it?"
"Forget what?" Jai asked a little guardedly. Eddie shook her head however. She still trusted him. After all she had no memory of the drink that had plunged her into the darkest depths of her psyche. She rocked back on her heels and fidgeted. Jai's heart sank; did she really feel embarrassed about what had happened between them?
As Eddie hesitated however a sudden yell caught their attention. They both turned in surprise to see Kelly storming away from Matthew, a livid look on her face. Matthew in his turn kicked the ground like a disgruntled and frustrated child. He made eye contact with his stunned sister and stormed off towards the parking lot, obviously intending to wait in the car until his sister was done with her farewells.
Jai sighed, that too was inevitable. After all in Regan's world there was no place for superfluous princes. The wizard had been unable to remove both the kelpie and his sister's fiancé with one fell swoop but the resulting emotional upheaval had brought down walls and weakened barriers. When people were frightened and mourning they were vulnerable. The seeds of discontent grew well in a bed of stress and strain.
"Ah," Eddie gently touched Jai's wrist after she had recovered from her shock. "Could I talk to you for a little while? Alone?"
Jai could only nod. He stepped back as she walked over towards where her brother waited in the parking lot. After informing him of her intentions Matthew frowned, glanced at Jai, but seemed to shrug. He drove away as Eddie walked back over. She motioned for Jai to follow her towards the main road.
As they walked he looked at where her neck flared between the knot of hair on the back of her head and the end of her tartan coat; a livid line of flesh. How often had that monster tasted that delicate skin beneath his tongue and teeth? What right did he even fantasize about running his fingers over that warm incline? As they left behind the rest of the party, and he left vicious reality, she at last spoke.
"I should apologize to you, I think." Jai choked on his words and Eddie looked up at him in consternation. "I honestly…don't remember much about that night. I was very drunk. I remember however basically pouring my heart out to you. And…it's not fair to do that to someone."
"I didn't mind," He could at least say that truthfully. "It was not a bother at all."
"I don't want to lead you on," Eddie countered.
"You didn't, I shouldn't have kissed you." Jai closed his eyes in embarrassment at his own desperate action. "I understand you're not interested and I'm…I'm not in a position to pursue you anyway. I never was."
"Did I get you in trouble with Regan?" she asked concernedly.
"No, not at all," Jai gave a tight smile. If anything Regan had found the entire thing amusing. After all he had used his prince for bait and if Jai had managed to get Eddie to bite his line it was not as if Regan could not take out the hook later.
Eddie looked away for a few minutes to apparently absorb this as they walked on in silence. The rainfall had slowed to a delicate drift of droplets. The landscape had become muted and lovelier in its soft curves and hidden detail. No cloying beauty could conceal outright hideousness however and Jai tensed as after a turn in the road the old church came into view. He had never been to the place personally but he had certainly read the news reports. He paused at the stone wall. The police tape that was laced across the door stood as a vibrant ward. A phantom smell of death floated on the frigid air. The illusion was given life as Jai recalled the wide and gleaming jaws of the kelpie that had nearly crushed his throat as they had Regan’s wrist. Jai's fists curled and he turned towards Eddie in question.
"You were with me that night," she softly reminded him. Her eyes were levelly set at the vivid warning across the door. She raised her chin. "You may know more of the truth than anyone else."
"I was not with you the whole night," He quickly corrected her. She looked up at him and he paused at her woeful expression.
"But only after I had already passed out, right? You put me to bed?" She pressed and Jai shook his head. He stepped back and she caught his wrist. She squeezed it gently in a silent plea. "Please, I have to know what happened! Naoise, I, I…still love him."
Jai stood rigid as Eddie collapsed against him at this miserable confession. Her hand slipped into his as she put her forehead against the top of his arm.
"I have to know whose fault it really was. I am not looking to take the blame off myself." Eddie whispered with her face still hidden in the folds of his coat.
Eddie's world was collapsing, crushed beneath Regan's designs, and she was only grasping at strings that were pulling her even further down.
"Maybe I made the right choice in trusting Regan, but maybe I didn't, and I can't live with that doubt." She continued, not in self-pity, but only disgust. She at last looked up at him with wide eyes and a frowning mouth that became determined and set after she had swallowed.
"Tell me, anything I may have possibly said that may have been twisted around, or could have been an intended order. Please. Don't spare me, don't pity me." She told him. Jai raised his face up and closed his eyes in pain.
No, he would make up no story, not invent a fairy tale. The power within him to create a happy ending had died long ago, may have died before it had even been born, and he would not weave more tragedy for this young woman. He looked down and lightly took her chin. He smiled, loving and gentle, like a prince would. Eddie blinked and rolled onto her tip toes, desperate for the truth.
"You didn't do anything." He reassured her. She tensed at the lie but his hand moved to the back of her head, to cradle that soft valley he had gazed upon as she had walked before him with her head held high. His hands were cold, her neck was warm, and she shivered at his touch, yet her eyes still searched his as if the answer was hidden within.
"We had an innocent conversation. It was just a vague statement." He soothed. He knew better than to go into detail and try to force her to believe a blatant lie. He was merely to lay the foundation and Regan would later provide the bricks to soundly beat the memories away with. Enchantments were meant to be layered and the thicker the veil the longer it lasted. Such a light veil however could be easily torn away and even the thickest ones could have unseen tears that allow the truth to burst forth. It was a slow and arduous process for all involved, but if Jai could not be Eddie's prince, he could still protect her all the same.
"What did I say?" Eddie began to tug.
"Nothing important," Jai insisted. He kept his voice level but he tightened his hold as Eddie began to try to step back.
"It is, it is! If it caused-!" She tried to struggle out of his grasp and he was forced to hold on even tighter. He grunted and saw why Regan had had so much trouble and had decided at last to drug her. She would refuse any answer but what she wanted to hear! Unfortunately the truth was the damnation she sought so ardently.
"It wasn’t your fault!" he cried. If he could say nothing else, he could say this! Eddie at last broke away with a cry but he caught her wrist. He didn't mean to cause her to wince in pain at the tightness of his grip but he couldn't let her get away!
"What are you doing?" she demanded.
I'm saving you from yourself! Was the resounding answer on his tongue. He drew his arm in to jerk her close but the motion suddenly disconnected from reality as a thunderous clap resounded in his skull. He felt his hand loosen as his knees weakened. She escaped him with a muted scream. He fell reaching forever for that one thing he had not been able to hold onto.
I'm sorry Sita.
Eddie gasped at the sight of a fallen prince at her feet. She raised her head and found a gasping Sarah besides her. The young woman was still hunched over the wall over which she had thrown her punch. It had been a perfect right hook at Jai's temple. Sarah swallowed and righted herself.
"Right. Better check his pulse." She said slowly as she began to move around the wall. As reality fell back to earth after being suspended by shock Eddie fell to her knees besides the unconscious man.
"You don't think you killed him?" Eddie asked with a small cry.
"Ah, no. If anything he nearly broke my wrist on his hard head." Sarah sniffed as she rubbed her knuckles. Eddie sighed in relief as her friend's prediction proved true; Jai's pulse was still strong in his neck.
"I'll admit we were spyin' on you," Eddie looked up to see a slightly apologetic Stan standing off to the side. "But only because I was concerned. I saw Darzi was real snug with Regan before he came up to you."
"I thought," Eddie grimaced at her conceit. "I thought maybe I could get him to tell me the truth. He's helped me before and he…"
She had thought maybe he had been in love with her a little. Well, she had certainly just learned otherwise! Eddie rubbed her temples in frustration.
"I'm an ass." She admitted and Stan nodded. Sarah rolled her eyes up and gave a small sigh.
"Well you at least got the best evidence ever there's a cover-up going on." She softly snorted and Eddie blinked as she realized this was the truth.
“Look for a piece of jewelry.” The voice was disembodied and centered high up. Eddie recognized it however.
The jinn unfurled his human form in a lick of flames. For the first time he exposed his cloven feet as he perched in the cottonwood trees across the way. He gave a sigh but smiled all the same.
“My mistress didn’t like to let me loose, but she believes I would have an easier time speaking to you.”
Eddie returned the smile; it was perilous and fragile.
“Yusuf, please, please,” she passed around the wall and across the way to stand at the foot of his tree. “What did Naoise say that night?”
“That he was trying to save your brother’s life.” Yusuf looked down at her with a woeful expression, his mouth down turned in pity. “There were two men born with a dead twin and that was who he had been sent to kill. It was either Matthew or MacGregor. Ulysses…let Naoise kill him.”
“What?” Eddie felt her heart shudder as a door violently slammed open. She laid a hand on her chest in pain though the bridle had long since been cut out of her.
Naoise did you really--?! She gasped as a fire burned in her chest, one of shame and regret. She wrenched as it moved into her throat, searing her in fright. The possibility remained Naoise had tricked MacGregor. Regan may be trying to hide something, but Jai had also told her it would be better if she lost her memories. Is that what Regan wanted? Was that his way of saving her? Hala had tried to condemn her to Faerie to save her. Naoise by nature was a being of malice and tricks.
It was all too terrifying. It was too much for a person to bear! She leaned against the tree as she covered her face. And why would MacGregor give his life? Had he been so guilt ridden or had he found Naoise sincere? Yusuf leaned down and touched a hand to her head.
“You must be as strong as you can be, to find it within yourself to complete this quest,” he told her gently. “Few humans can withstand this sort of agony, Eddie, and I fear for you. But I know you will have no peace until the truth is known to you.”
Eddie swallowed, “and I need help.”
“Hey! He’s got a necklace on!” Stan’s voice suddenly bounded across the way. Eddie looked up and rejoined Sarah in kneeling next to Jai’s prone body. On a silver chain a bauble floated above Jai’s chest.
“Shatter it.” The jinn floated over to stand atop the wall. “It is where his magic is centered.”
“Will it hurt him?” Eddie asked.
“It will do him no more harm than whatever blow to his pride may occur for being exposed for what he actually is.” Yusuf sat down and leaned towards Eddie. “It’s why you were given that ring, to protect you from him.”
“Dougal, he…” Eddie put a hand to her mouth. It only made sense then Regan’s familiar had stolen it. Why had Rhona kept it then? It surely had not been out of loyalty to her former master. And Dougal, back then, had he also meant for her to be a bride? Was that why he had asked for mercy towards his brother, yet excused her possible actions? That was why Naoise had warned her about him! A dozen hopes and fears had all been attached to the ring of one dead woman.
She took the necklace off Jai’s neck and twisted her wrist to make it spin upon its chain. When it had reached enough momentum she slammed it against the stone wall. The crystal totally shattered on the blow and Jai Darzi ceased to exist.
Eddie gave a small cry when she noticed the vacant space but her eyes still fell on a small frog in the mud. She scooped up the creature. As she held the small frog in her palm its bulbous eyes slowly opened. Eddie had never known a frog could articulate a look of despair.
"And there is your prince!" Yusuf sighed as Eddie looked down in shock.
"What? Are you saying he was a fucking frog all along?" Sarah demanded and Yusuf nodded.
"The frog prince," Stan observed and somehow with no trace of irony in his tone. Eddie merely sat back in surprise as she stared down at the cold and defenseless frog in her hands, unbelieving this was the man who had just stood before her.
"Regan has such power…?" she muttered. If Regan had as much power as to make a frog into a prince, could he not also be powerful to even twist words around like he had accused Naoise of doing?
"Not on his own." Yusuf countered sternly. "The frog must have desired to become what he is. Magic however can make anything possible so long as there is the desire and belief."
Eddie was at a loss for words but Sarah was not.
"Isn't this just a fucking piss? The Wizard of Bullshit can make his own little magical kingdom can he?" She snorted and the jinn only shrugged at her.
"I'm sorry," Eddie at last said to the frog that looked up at her in something that looked like surprise. "This was cruel wasn't it? And I understand now why you were so afraid. I'll keep watch over you though, and I won't forget about what I did to you."
After all this time, his true form was what had been holding Jai back. She could understand how he could be ashamed of being such a small and vulnerable creature when he desired to be a strong man. Now he couldn’t even speak to her, though he seemed very aware. She wondered if perhaps too much time had passed the frog would forget all about his human life, as she may have her time with Naoise. Yet for him to have as powerful a wish as to become something he was not there must have been something he too didn’t want to forget.
They had been alike in their desire all along, but one had chosen lies over the truth.
"He's cute at least," Stan decided as he patted the frog's head with a gentle finger. The amphibian gave what sounded like an irritated croak. He suddenly leapt onto Eddie's breast and disappeared into a pocket, apparently unwilling to be pitied. Eddie sighed and decided to just let Jai the Frog remain there for now as she had even more pressing concerns.
"This isn't what Regan wanted to hide though," Eddie indicated her clandestine coat pocket. "It has to be about Naoise. It's one thing if he didn't want me to keep these memories because he thought they hurt me too much but to not even allow me to ask about that night…"
She raised her hands to her temples as something like a door began to tremble in her heart, threatening to swing open with a painful thud. "Then what did Naoise do, that Regan would try to hide it?"
"The question is probably more, what did Regan do?" Sarah corrected. Eddie hunched over, trying to reach into herself, trying to draw up again the truth from those dark and deep depths.
And she knew only one thing.
“I cannot do this alone.” She stood up and looked into Yusuf’s eyes. “I can’t beat Regan at his own game without any guidance. I need someone who really understands magic.”
“My mistress, and I, are sworn to protect the vulnerable,” Yusuf gently reminded her.
“Yeah, I know,” Eddie sighed. There were just differing opinions on what “protection” meant. Now that she was initiated, so to speak, however, Eddie should be able to stand more equally to the wise woman. She turned towards her friends.
“I’m going with Yusuf. I…don’t know when I’ll be back. Or what’s going to happen.” She winced, she hated how her words carried the echo of “farewell”. She bit her lip. It reminded her to much of the speech she had composed a hundred times in her head, what she would say when she left the earth. It would be a note, the words too painful and inadequate to ever be spoken aloud.
“I’m so grateful for everything you two did. I…would have never gotten this far without you.” Eddie’s smile trembled and Sarah caught her before she fell.
“Oh, you think you’re getting rid of us?” Sarah’s smile replaced Eddie’s as her expression turned to one of surprise. “I’m going to see this through to the end. I love you, and it’s my problem too now. I dream of what happened that night at the party nearly every night. I can’t….just forget about it. I know about the spirits too now.”
She gently ducked Eddie’s chin. “I’m not the same person anymore, either.”
“And…” Sarah glanced over her shoulder at Stan. “I can’t speak for him, but he has his own stake in this as well.”
“Dougal asked me to protect you.” Stan informed her softly. “And I will do it.”
And Eddie would not ask if this was because of a need to see this to the end as well, some sort of duty, or attachment to the kelpie. Perhaps it was all of it, and it would all come to the same end.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she repeated. “Please, it may be very dangerous.”
“We both have our own reasons for going,” Sarah gently reminded her. She grinned, “You’re stuck with us.”
“Okay.” She wiped her eyes and turned towards Yusuf. “Take us to Mrs. Nejem then.”
And they were away as a speeding star across the spring sky.
Matthew looked up at what sounded like a passing whirlwind outside. The air should be too damp for a wind that raked up the ground, but anything was possible. The man rubbed his eyes as he pulled himself off the couch and looked out the front window. Eddie was back earlier than he'd expected, and she'd brought Sarah along, not entirely unexpected, but Matthew could not have predicted she also invite an old woman he'd never seen before. He sighed softly and turned to go hide the beer he had in his hand.
As a rule Eddie and he didn't keep alcohol in the backhouse. Matthew also tried to avoid drinking at home when his sister was there. He had expected to be alone for a few hours however as his sister attended the wake and apparently with Jai Darzi. To ease his stress and anxiety he'd picked up a single bottle on his way back to the home. He had been mentally preparing for how to break the news to Eddie they were to leave the basin. That he was concerned about her and wanted her to go back into therapy. That he was ready to start over.
Oh, he still loved Kelly. He felt he would always love her. She would be a smoldering ember forever upon his heart. Suddenly however the flame had been smothered. He sensed that attempting to burden her with his own set of familial problems when she was struggling against her own was the straw that broke the ubiquitous back of the abused camel. That she had reacted in anger to his news had cast doubt in his mind that she was the one for him. He had been afraid and anxious these past few weeks and to have her suddenly snap at him was a cruel wake up call. He knew she hadn't meant to be so harsh with him, that she would surely apologize later, but the fire had been quelled.
Matthew had hoped Kelly would be a support he could lean on in this time of need but he could see that perhaps he'd judged wrongly. It was unfortunate that so much tragedy had suddenly befallen them both but perhaps this was all for a reason. If they could not stand united now, they would not be able to later.
And Matthew was unwilling to risk his sister's health and happiness for his own.
So he would see in a few weeks, after things had hopefully calmed down, how she felt then. Perhaps this time apart would make them both realize what was truly important to them, and it would all be for the better, whatever the answer turned out to be. It was strange how quickly things could fall apart, and Matthew had guilty thoughts that if perhaps he had paid more attention, had not been so selfish, he may have seen the cracks and been able to fix them. As it was however he could not feasibly direct all his attention to Kelly with Eddie needing him and it would always be this way. Perhaps he could not have someone who was just as dedicated to her family as he was his though this had previously been the basis of their bond.
He put the beer in his room and rinsed with mouthwash before walking back into the parlor to greet his sister and her guests. He was a little glad to be able to delay the news for perhaps a few hours and maybe with Eddie in a good mood. She had improved since she had announced she would be going for a walk yesterday. Perhaps his sister had indeed found more healthy outlets for her depression and anxiety. She would surely need it in these coming months.
"Hey," he said to Sarah and the old woman as they walked in. The old woman gave him a measuring look that made Matthew rock back a little on his heels but Sarah's apprehensive look made him even more nervous. Why did he suddenly feel like he had walked in on a crime? Eddie came in last and flew to embrace him. He stepped back in surprise and had a sinking feeling something else had just happened.
"Matthew, I…" Eddie looked up at him earnestly with wide eyes. She suddenly stepped back however and reached into her breast pocket to pull out a frog. "Wait, do we have something to put him in?"
"Yeah, that fish bowl in the living room." That had been standing empty since the previous owner had died about six months ago one cold winter day. He raised an eyebrow as his sister slipped past. Nevertheless he had a feeling that was not what the excitement was about.
"You are her older brother?" The older woman asked as Sarah shuffled around the kitchen, apparently trying to locate coffee mugs.
"I am," he smiled. He wished she would stop staring at him like she was expecting him to grow a second head.
"And you know about spirits too?" she asked and Sarah stopped to look up in horror. Matthew uneasily shifted, wondering what exactly in the hell was going on.
"I…I guess? Sprites and La Llorona and fairies?" he answered with a small smile.
"I can see you don't know a thing," the woman deadpanned. Matthew bristled at that, well what did you want me to say?
"This is Hala Nejem Matthew," Sarah informed him helpfully as she began filling the coffee maker. Had Eddie invited over a large party for some unconceivable reason?
"Do you really think we'll have time for coffee?" The woman apparently named Hala Nejem asked Sarah.
"Coffee takes three minutes in the maker and Stan won't be here that quick even with Dougal," Sarah answered.
Stan? That kid that works at the café and Naoise's brother? Matthew felt certain he hadn't seen either of the brothers at the funereal, much to his relief. For the one thing Eddie didn't need was that smarmy bastard coming back into her life. He could tolerate Dougal however as he actually had some charm about him. It was unfortunate he was apparently the gay one of the identical pair and thus did Eddie no good. Still he had a refreshingly different personality from his brooding and tactless brother. Perhaps he would even lighten up what had been an emotionally exhausting week.
Eddie walked back in with her inexplicable new frog in a bowl in her arms. She gently set it down on the kitchen table as if the frog needed to be part of the company. Matthew shrugged however and walked over to inspect her new pet. The frog sat upon a large rock in the bowl and seemed to almost be pouting.
"Ah, can we talk privately, please?" Eddie asked softly. Matthew nodded and she excused them to their guests. He knew something must be on her mind after all. Eddie chose her bedroom.
"I don't want to go back to Orange County, or at least not yet," was how she broached the very delicate topic he had been musing over all day with far less finesse than what he would have hoped to.
"You know…" was the first stunned reply he could give.
"I didn't mean to hear, I was going to talk to you about something else, but I overheard you and Aunt Luz." She explained with averted eyes. She looked back up at him however as she continued. "I know everything is fucked-up right now, but there’s a reason for it. And, Matthew, we need to be here for people."
"Eddie," Matthew shook his head and gently laid his hands on her shoulders. "Don't worry about it, all right? Just let me handle everything."
"I've let you handle everything for me Matthew, ever since I was a little girl." It was not bitter but it was a reproach, however not one necessarily aimed at him. "You've protected me, looked out for me, and at your own expense. You're thinking about giving up Kelly for me, aren't you?"
Matthew stepped back at this revelation. It was the first time he had heard it directly but he knew it had been that gnawing thought in the back of his head. He also knew it was true.
"Don't worry about what's between me and…"
"I don't want you to give her up!" Eddie suddenly cried out at him and Matthew tensed in surprise. Eddie shook her head vehemently and wrapped her arms around herself. "Do something for yourself, god damn it! Why should you sacrifice so much for others?"
"That's enough!" Matthew was surprised by the anger in his voice. He quickly tried to reel in his temper, uncertain why he felt so attacked. He exhaled and tried to speak more calmly. "Eddie. I am an adult man and I'm your brother. And I'm worried about you. I think staying at Abuela’s for a while be good for you. You don't need to worry about me."
"But I do worry. I wanted you to be happy so much I gave up my very life." Matthew gave her a confused and apprehensive look, unsure what she exactly meant by this. Eddie didn't elaborate and only continued after a few seconds of a pained expression.
"We're so alike, isn't it obvious that we both need someone else in our lives? It's bad to be this dependent!" she gave a small laugh that threatened to collapse into a sob. Matthew stepped forward and held her shoulders again.
"I'm in love with Naoise." She finally told him and he felt his heart plummet. Is this why you want to stay here so badly? Why hadn't he punched Naoise Burne's face in when he'd had the chance?
"And he needs me, just like Kelly needs you." She looked up at him with a tight smile.
"You're an adult woman and I can't make you come with me," Matthew had to admit through gritted teeth. "But, listen to yourself! Stay here for a man? And not a very good one either! That's not like you!"
"It’s not because I want to stay with him. I need to save him." She stepped out of his embrace with a shake of her head. She narrowed her eyes even as her mouth quivered in distress.
"I cannot make you stay either. I can’t make you fight for Kelly. All I can do is ask if you love her enough to come with me." Before Matthew could ask what she meant by this there was a sudden rush of footfall down the hall.
"Eddie! Eddie! Dougal can't come into the house!" Stan cried through the door. Before Matthew could react his sister was out the door and running down the hall after her co-worker.
"Dougal! Come in! You are invited in!" Eddie cried out. Matthew stepped into the hall and Dougal suddenly fell through the front door at the other end. The man collapsed on the ground and gasped for breath. Eddie hovered over him as Stan, who looked like he had just been dunked in a river, tried to help him to stand.
"That was no small skittle." Dougal groaned as he slowly stood up. He lifted a hand from his side, revealing a vibrant red slash across it. "Eh…damned sprites."
"Sit down," Eddie ordered as Matthew walked up.
"Regan is going to wake up with his head between my teeth if he thinks he can have me attacked." Dougal spat out as he fell into a chair. He smiled however when he spied Matthew. "Och, and I think Matty-lad has about as much idea as I do about what's going on."
"Regan is covering up whatever happened the night MacGregor was killed," Eddie suddenly explained but for Matthew it threw light on nothing. "I'm certain of it. He tried to have Jai Darzi erase my memories from that night."
"Oh?" Dougal looked at the frog. "And there he is! Well at least you finally get to see him as he actually is."
He laughed as Eddie blushed. Dougal stopped however with a grimace at the apparent pain in his side. Eddie grabbed a dish towel to press into his side and asked Sarah to fetch a bandage. Dougal shook his head however.
"Don't fret lass. It'll heal the next time I slip into some water. It has to be something much more serious to slow me down." He looked up at Eddie with an almost wry smirk. “The reason why Naoise didn’t heal was because of that bridle.”
"What happened to you?" Matthew asked as Eddie fell back, not bothering with whatever they were going on about the frog before. Dougal glanced at Eddie in question. She nodded as she replaced Dougal's hand with the towel.
"Attacked. Our Regan MacGregor is angry his prince was exposed. We have a hostage now, see? So he would warn me away from helping. That presumptive brat!”
"You mean Regan Seele attacked you?”
“Not he himself, his spirits.”
“Spirits.” Matthew glanced at Hala. “Like fairies and goblins?”
"Exactly," Dougal nodded and Matthew scoffed.
"And why would he? How could he?"
"Because I imagine your Eddie has found cause to save my brother, am I right?" he looked at her expectantly.
"MacGregor died because the order could have had one of two victims, him or," Eddie looked at Matthew. He raised his eyebrows at her agonized expression. She finally gave the other name however. "Matthew, my brother."
She looked back at Dougal. "Naoise killed Mr. MacGregor so he could save Matthew. And Regan is responsible for it I think."
"What?" was all Matthew could say to such an extraordinarily ridiculous statement. Naoise Burne save his life? By killing Kelly and Regan’s cousin? And Regan would have cause to hide this? He looked on in wretched confusion as Dougal smiled and gently took Eddie's hand.
"And that is just cause to free my brother."
"This is some sort of sick joke!' Matthew snapped. And he was furious his sister had somehow been swept up into it! "If Naoise Burne has killed someone he should be turned over to the police right this instant!"
"La, he's rotting away in the cavern at Los Olivos at this very moment I'm sure," Nejem suddenly opined from her end of the table. "Who you know as Naoise Burne is already in custody. What we're debating is if he's the one who was truly responsible for the death."
"And you're saying Regan Seele is?" Matthew demanded in outrage.
"He's been very suspicious," Stan suddenly chimed in from where he stood by the counter with Sarah as he used a bathroom towel to dry his hair at least.
"He has a whole host of spirits outside for one thing," Nejem added. Matthew moved to a window and scowled at the view of the flock of Mindy's geese cutting a waddling line across the mud.
"I don't see anything."
"Well of course not." Nejem sighed and Matthew glowered at her. "Spirits cannot be seen by normal humans unless they want to be."
As Matthew choked on his anger Nejem turned to Dougal. “Take off your glamour for a few seconds, would you?"
Matthew leapt back when the chair suddenly emptied. Dougal's ghostly laugh hung upon the air until he suddenly reappeared next to Stan.
"Such a face he makes!" he exclaimed in glee as Matthew fell back against the counter in his shock.
"This has to be some sort of trick," Matthew muttered as he struggled against what he had just seen. Or a dream. Matthew covered his face with his hands as his world turned upside down.
"Whatever you like to think lad as we don't really have time to explain. Eddie insisted we come here for you because she doesn’t want your memories altered any more than they already are.”
Matthew glanced at his sister who slowly nodded. She held up one finger. “I promise I’ll explain it all Matt, but right now we need two things. One, to protect our memories so we can fight at all. It’s why I asked for Dougal to be with us. He cannot be enchanted as such by Regan, and plus, he’s already indicated to me before he wants to protect his brother.”
Eddie held up another finger, “and two, Rhona.”
“Regan’s ex-girlfriend?” Matthew asked. It was almost sardonic that in the mist of whatever prank was occurring, his sister had apparently found all her strength. She was coolly cunning, it was a kind of viciousness he had never seen in her before. And he was not certain if to take pride in it or shake it out of her.
"Yes. I want to find her. She would know Regan best of all and know how to get a confession out of him." Eddie answered. She narrowed her eyes, "If he loved her as I do Naoise, it won't matter to him whatever harm she caused him.”
Matthew felt his heart jump into his throat in apprehension.
"We can try the beach by my home. Selkies are all sons and daughters of the ocean," Nejem informed them. She turned towards Dougal. "If he goes by the pipes not even a water spirit will be able to easily follow us."
"Och, though it will not be dangerous for me it may be for you lot. Sure I may be caught for a while but it is you who will be in danger of suffocation or starvation if I pick the wrong pipe and end up without water-flow for however long." Dougal explained with such perfect insouciance Matthew was impressed and on the verge of believing him just because of how cavalier he was on the subject of traveling along underground water pipes.
"I'll risk it," Eddie said readily and looked up. "But I won't ask anyone else to if they don’t want to."
"So will we," Sarah grasped Stan about the neck. Stan pushed away and looked at Dougal.
“If we can’t trust you in this, what can we?” he frowned at the other man who just grinned at him.
"The more help, the better." Nejem mused as she stood up. "I'll send Yusuf through the window then as a distraction. Stan, go turn on the water in a bath tub."
The young man went to do this and Nejem moved towards the window with a cobalt bottle drawn. Sarah trotted off to loot the bedrooms for some changes of clothes and shoes. Matthew cornered his sister.
"Eddie," he gave an exasperated moan. Murder, pipes, distractions, what--? Were they having some sort of fucking magic war he couldn't comprehend at all? Eddie smiled at him in an attempt to soothe him. Nevertheless he only felt dread at the look of determination in her eyes.
"Matthew if you come with me, I promise I will explain everything to you later, and even if you don't. If you go back to Orange County however I can’t show you what sort of world Kelly truly belongs to, that I belong to too now. You are free to run away and never have to see what you're about to. You can forget all about Kelly. I'll join you eventually if you do, but I am not going to run away now."
She offered her hand to him. He wanted to argue against the insanity of it all. He wanted to rail against the madness of diving in without looking. To warn of the absurdity of leaping into an abyss that had no visible end. Was he just to lay back and let irrationality trample all over sense? Why should he not simply drag her back to reason kicking and screaming?
He took her hand however and let her lead him down.
She drew him towards the bath tub where a black horse stood. He was told this was Dougal and he accepted it. He accepted the frog in the fish bowl Eddie was insisting on bringing along despite Sarah's protests was Jai Darzi. He didn't question why four people could fit upon the back of a horse that could stand comfortably in a bath tub. He ignored Hala Nejem announcing she had just released a jinn through their front window. He gave himself overly entirely to the throbbing madness around him.
For this was the insanity of love.
Despite his hurt and disappointment, he knew he still loved Kelly, and would always love her. If Eddie could tell him how to mend this tear, perhaps how to take away her unhappiness, then he would follow along this maddening path. His sister had given him the challenge to not put her first but his own desires. It was obvious she intended to do the same. For the first time they would look beyond one another for the entirety of their world.
The old world was wrenched away by the twisting of pipes and the roar of surging water. They floated bodiless in the great divide between reality and dream. The new world waited unseen, shinning with terror and possibilities.