Saturday, November 19, 2005

Chapter 18 - Life of the Party

The party was already well under way when Jeremy and Liliana walked in. There had been no one to greet them in the entryway, and Liliana had led him away from the front desk to the door to the common room, from which the sounds of merriment were coming.

The room was filled with the most outlandish collection of folk Jeremy had ever seen, sitting, standing, dancing, talking, laughing, eating, drinking, the whole place was a symphony of movement.

Not all of them were human. Well, actually, Jeremy realized, none of them was human -- not even Liliana. But some of the people -- and Jeremy thought of them as "people" despite this -- did not resemble human beings in the least. There was a creature that was quite simply a bull -- except that it was sitting at a table, and extending from its shoulders were more-or-less human arms (though they were covered with the same short black hair the rest of the body had). It may also have had human legs -- Jeremy couldn't see them very well below the table.

Another "person" seemed made of crystal, and yet another was a giant spider with a human-looking head rising out of the top front of its body, which was beyond disconcerting all the way into creepy. Jeremy hoped she -- or he, it was hard to tell with spiders -- wasn't a close relative of Lilian's he'd be expected to converse with. It was hard to even look in that direction.

There was something odd or strange about the appearance of nearly everyone in the room, but most were fairly close to human form. There was a centaur, and a faun, and a lady with bark-like skin and hair that was either decorated with or sprouting twigs and leaves. There were three men who looked quite ordinary except for their pointed caps and long beards, and the fact that they were only three feet tall. Jeremy was overwhelmed by the variety as much as by the strangeness -- with very few exceptions, such as the three dwarves, each person in the room was totally unique, not just as one human being is different from another but more like the difference between a cat and a dog, or even between a lion and a tree. Everywhere he looked, his senses reeled with some new revelation, some new juxtaposition of form and function.

Jeremy couldn't decide whether the fact that this bizarre assemblage had come together in the most homey place imaginable made it seem less jarring or even more so. The inn's great room was warm and cheerful, with a blazing fire in the huge fireplace at one end and filled with the smells of roast pig and fowl and mutton and cider and spices and probably a dozen other less recognizable but still mouth-watering aromas. The music was coming from a small trio consisting of fiddle, a concertina and a flute, over in the far corner by the fire. The fiddle was being played by a cat wearing an outfit that reminded Jeremy of Robin Hood. The concertina was wielded by a tall, birdlike gentleman who was one of the more human-looking of the room's denizens.

The flute, on the other hand, was in the hands of a young lady who could have been Liliana's twin sister in reverse -- blonde where Liliana was dark, wearing a white dress that mirrored Liliana's black one. Jeremy looked back and forth between the flautist and the woman at his side until the latter laughed, took his arm, and drew him from the doorway deeper into the room, at which point suddenly the music and the babbling voices stopped and everyone turned and looked at them.

"Good eve, everyone. This is Jeremy. Some of you have heard about him. Jeremy, these are some of my people. That man with the red side-whiskers behind the bar is my father, the owner of this establishment. My mother is probably in the kitchen, but I'll have someone fetch her presently so you can meet her. My uncle Silas is playing the concertina, and my sister, Cory, is playing the flute. Or was. My brother Jonathan is the taciturn horseman," (by which she meant the centaur, Jeremy noted), "and my other brother, Ferdinand, is sitting over there."

Of course she meant the bull. Jeremy shivered slightly. Brother Ferdinand looked fully capable of breaking him in two as casually as he might break a pencil.

"Everyone, say hello to Jeremy!"

"Hello, Jeremy!" thundered the crowd.

"Jeremy, say hello to everyone."

"Hello, everyone," he managed to squawk. The players immediately turned back to their music, and the conversations picked up where they'd left off, and the room became a babble of merriment again. Liliana drew him over to the bar for the moment he'd been dreading since she said the word "family" outside.

"So, you're Jeremy, eh?" said Liliana's father. He raised his head and looked down his nose skeptically at Jeremy, then turned to his daughter. "Scrawny little feller, isn't he?"

"Fa-ther," Liliana intoned in the exasperated tone in which daughters have been remonstrating with their fathers for millennia.

"Sorry, sorry. I'm just sayin'. I know you don't want him for protection from dragons and such, so he needn't be built for fightin'. More a lover than a fighter, are ye, Jeremy?"

Jeremy blushed deeply and Liliana's father roared with laughter. He poured two flagons of ale and held one out for Jeremy, who started to reach for it, then remembered.

"No, thank you. I'm grateful for the offer, but I'm not thirsty just now."
Liliana's fathered grinned, then shrugged at Liliana. "Had to try, girl. Part o' my job, you know."

"I know." She took Jeremy's arm and led him gratefully away from her father over to a group of tiny girls who were dancing in front of the musicians -- even smaller than the dwarves, thin as reeds as well as short, they looked like the six of them couldn't have weighed 50 pounds altogether.

As they approached, the girls saw them. "Hello, Liliana!" they called and gathered around the two of them, reaching up and dancing around like excited children, although apart from their size Jeremy would have said they were more-or-less adults, probably late teens or early twenties.

"Hello, children," Liliana cooed to them, and Jeremy thought perhaps he'd been mistaken, but then one of him gave him an unmistakable wink as she caressed his inner thigh. She was certainly no child! He stepped back away from the improper advance, and bumped into a lordly, regal man with antlers who was getting up from a chair.

"Oh, I'm sorry," said Jeremy, abashed. The man finished standing, and looked down at Jeremy from a height of at least six and a half feet. His antlers nearly scraped the rafters of the high ceiling.

"Perhaps you should watch where your going, mortal."

"Yes, I should," stammered Jeremy. "I'm sorry. Very, very sorry, sir. I beg your pardon."

"Do you? And what would you give me in exchange?"

Jeremy's mind raced. What could he give? What did he have? Wait -- he had begged.
"Alas, I have no coin to offer, nor would such a one as yourself have need of it, I'm sure. I am a craven begger, only. If your pardon is not granted freely, than I must do without." He bowed low, fairly proud of himself for the spur-of-the-moment improvisation, but feeling his heart pounding and having no idea if it worked.

He heard a chuckle from far above him. "Very well, mortal. I grant you my pardon for free. But beggars are not generally welcome in this realm, and you'll find that faerie folk love bargaining, and tend to drive hard ones."

Jeremy stood up, short of breath and feeling faint. The tall man stopped at the door and turned. "Good eve to you, innkeeper. Mind that daughter of yours. Her interest in mortal lands might prove dangerous one day. And now I must away, for there are other celebrations this night, and all of them expect to see a glimpse of their king 'ere the night comes to a close."

Jeremy didn't actually see him turn back and go out the door, but there was no question at all that he was gone.

"King?" said Jeremy to Liliana. "Did he say king? I mean, was that . . ."

"Aye, that was Oberon, King of Faerie. That was a bold and dangerous risk you took, but a blessing came of it."

"I didn't have much choice. I mean, I didn't mean to bump him in the first place, and after that I was just trying to keep myself from being blasted on the spot."

She laughed. "Oh, I doubt if he'd have done that. Fierce-seeming he is, and haughty and cold he can be when the mood takes him, but he's not an ogre. He's thoughtful and wise and not nearly as arbitrary as --" she suddenly stopped herself, as if realizing what she was saying.

"As what, dearie?" asked an old woman who'd been standing behind them, suddenly thrusting herself forward and making herself part of their little group. She was exactly what Jeremy would have thought a perfect Halloween witch would look like. Well, except that she was short and fat instead of tall and thin, and wasn't wearing a tall pointed hat -- or any other hat, and instead had on a bright yellow dress covered with blue and red and purple flowers. But her face, complete with an unbelievably long nose with a wart on the end of it, was about as witchy as one could ask.

"Not nearly as arbitrary as his queen, Titania, hmmm? Is that what you were going to say?"

"Not at all," insisted Liliana. "I was going to say that he's not nearly as arbitrary as many of the kings of Jeremy's world have been."

The old woman regarded her skeptically, then cackled. "Aye, I grant ye may have been meaning to say that -- although if you were there's no reason to have stopped the thought. You're off the hook for now, though." Suddenly the old woman was gone, replaced by a beautiful woman with a wreath on her head and lips as blue as her eyes. "And I, too, must be off. Good eve to you both." She dissolved into a sparkling display of stars that twinkled for a few seconds after her.

"Let me guess. Queen Titania?"

Liliana nodded. "We've had a near escape from ruin. I need to catch my breath. Come."
She led him out of the great room, up a staircase, down a hall and into a bedroom. "No bedding me tonight, I'm afraid, but we can rest here for a moment." She sat down on the bed and drew him down beside her. They sat a while in silence, holding each other.

"Well, what do you think of my father?" Liliana said at last.

"He's rather intimidating," Jeremy admitted. "Although not nearly so much as your brother."

"Jonathan? You didn't even meet him yet. He's a darling."

"I meant the other one. I didn't meet him either, but I don't need to. I mean, I don't mind meeting him," he hastened to add. "I have nothing against him. I'm just afraid of him. He looks like he could kill me by accident."

She nodded. "Ferdinand has that affect on people. It's unfortunate. He is actually the most gentle creature you would ever want to know, believe it or not. I can't think of a single person he has ever hurt in any way. It breaks his heart to know how folks react to him. His life is full of sadness because of it."

Now Jeremy felt guilty. He of all people should know better than to make snap judgments about someone based on looks. People had done it to him enough in his life.