Petals of the Rose
Ivory Teeth and Sickly Cloud
Rajah’s gaze was drawn away from Snow Princess and Crayola by their sudden turn to look behind him. He saw that woman back with another guest. This one was a short man with gray, rubbery-looking skin, multiple rows of triangular skin, and large, purely black eyes. Rajah noticed that his hands were webbed, he wore no shoes, and he had only two long toes on each foot with webbing stretched between, making it look like he had flippers for feet. He was dressed in board shorts and a tank top, in defiance of the weather. A fellow beast. Things might be getting even more interesting.
A cursory glance back at the girls showed that Sister Scorn had fled to the recesses of the garden.
Polly sauntered past him on her way to go greet this new guest. “Pull yourself together, furball.”
For his part, Rajah couldn’t contain his mirth, clapping his hands. “That was great. That chick’s alright.”
The new arrival was looking around the garden mistrustfully. He walked over to the other changelings, rather than approach the bear and the hob. Ice Queen—their hostess—walked up with him. “I’m about to go greet our next guest. This is Mako. I trust you can all introduce yourselves?” She backed away and then went inside again.
Pollock quickly went through their names yet again.
Mako was taller than Sister Scorn, and muscular. Something in his still vaguely human features told Rajah that he had been Asian once. Or was he still Asian? He contemplated checking Mako’s mask but didn’t want to miss out on the conversation. Mako nodded to each of them. “S’up?”
“So, you’re… Spring Court?”, Pollock asked hopefully.
“Yes. And her,” she indicated Porsche.
“I’m not sure I like this. I don’t know who this woman is, sending me invitations to drink tea.”
“She’s a former queen of Winter.”
“Regent, actually,” Shade offered.
“Right, former regent. Not that there’s really any difference.”
“Ah. See, I only moved up here from the LA freeholds about nine months ago.”
Polly nodded. “As I understand it, there’s been a big gap in her social schedule.” She went on to explain the history of the dark days in brief, how the city had suffered so much upheaval, and the differences in “management style” between then and now.
“Did you notice the bear over there?” Porsche asked.
“Yeah, I saw that.” As they collectively looked over, Sherman looked up from yet another cup of tea with a smile and waved his paw at them. Rajah couldn’t get over the mixed setting; he’d been in the hedge and before that Arcadia for so long that he could grasp a faerie world with faerie rules. But he’d hoped when he got back to put it all behind him and have some sort of normal life to go to. And now he was having to balance the two, and places like this that mixed and matched were unsettling.
He needed to change the subject. “You mentioned you moved up from LA?”
“I got sick of shit down there. It was all fucked up. There were like eight freeholds across the valley and the hills, and things got really complicated. It was like a kelp forest of rules and favors and obligations and oaths. Pretty much all just bullshit. So I packed my shit and moved as far away as I could stand to without leaving the ocean behind.
“So we’re all here to have tea?” He nodded his chin toward the garden. “Who’s that?”
Polly shared a look with Porsche. They were trying not to laugh about the exchange they’d just had with Sister Scorn, and Rajah wouldn’t be any better at recounting it. Of them, Shade was the only one composed enough to answer, “That’s Sister Scorn, an Autumn Court member. She has a peculiar mode of speech. Very nice, underneath it.”
Porsche tried to explain. “You remember high school? How people treated each other and the terrible names people got called? It’s like that but she can’t help it.”
Mako pondered that for a moment. “I think whenever anyone got in my face I just freestyled at them until they went away.” Rajah had to raise an eyebrow at that. Did he mean freestyle rap?
“Do you mean freestyle… rap?”
“Oh, shit. Cool.”
Polly turned to Rajah. “Weren’t you from Detroit?”
“So you know all about that… stuff?”
“Yeah, rap music stuff.”
“You mean the musical revolution?” He looked at Mako, trying to make up for her ignorance. “She don’t know anything about rap music. Probably never heard of Biggie or Tupac.”
“It ain’t a thing.”
“It is what it is.”
The rest of the motley slowly lost interest and wandered off while he and Mako talked about rap. Mako suggested some more recent artists that Rajah should look into. He was surprised and a little conflicted to learn that one of the biggest rappers in the last decade was from Detroit, and white. They exhausted the conversation, and Mako came back to the point about
“So, dude, what’s up with the population density up here? There are probably this many of the lost in the entirety of SoCal.”
“This shit’s, like, anomalous.”
Rajah hadn’t considered the idea of how many changelings there could or should be in an area. Come to think of it, the court at the bowl had been awfully full. Which meant that so many people had been taken by the Gentry, the lords and ladies of the True Fae, and returned. That was either really great because it meant that they escaped, or really depressing because it meant that so many were taken in the first place.
Mako went on, saying, “I heard things about Portland down there. People said it was a place where you could be yourself and people didn’t notice so much when you were just a little off from human.”
“That’s true. This is a messed up town, but it does seem to treat us as right at home.”
“I also heard that the courts here were basically at war with each other. I almost moved on to Seattle but some buddies let me crash here long enough to figure out that part wasn’t true.”
“I don’t know anything about that, man. I’m fresh out of the thorns.”
“Oh, well, welcome back.”
They shook hands, webbed flipper to clawed paw.
Polly meandered back over. “So, what drew you to the Spring Court?”
“Can’t ever go back, can’t change it, might as well enjoy it.” He shrugged, then went on, more vehemently. “I got fucking gills. As far as I can tell, I can swim forever. That’s awesome.”
Polly and Rajah both nodded and murmured in assent.
“It is a lot colder up here. Been thinking about buying a jacket or something.” He rubbed his bare upper chest with a finger.
The conversation ground to a halt, and they all started looking at the table, trying to determine where they’d like to sit. While they were still sorting themselves out, Her Icyness returned with the final guest. Rajah had seen this girl on the night he introduced himself at court, but didn’t try to talk to her. She was in terribly stained and unpleasant clothing, and a cloud of filth hung around her. Her skin was stained green and brown all over from the toxic miasma that clung to her. As she breathed, little puffs of the same cloud rolled out with each breath, replenishing it constantly as it dissipated. Her hair hung lank around her face, the color of dirty dishwater.
Rajah was trying to remember her name when Desedemenona announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Fluster is our final guest and a member of the Summer Court.”
The new arrival tried to introduce herself, or at least speak, but she simply issued a series of wheezes and a larger billowing cloud of filth.
Out of concern for his court-mate, Rajah asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she croaked. She sucked in a breath and coughed one more wet rattling cloud. “That’s better. I can’t seem to shake this. Got something in my lungs.”
Mako smiled at her, and she paled slightly. His triangular shark teeth were not the most reassuring.
Fluster cleared her throat one more time. “I’ve heard that these tea ceremonies are more than just a formal occasion. Something about insight and magic?”
The Icy Queen nodded. “Something like that. We’ll begin in just a moment, if you can all excuse me just one more time.” She left yet again. Rajah was a little concerned about the number of times she entered and left the garden. He’d also noticed that the chill seemed to lessen when she left, and the sparkle on each white branch and the glitter on every gemstone flower was diminished in her absence. Maybe that was just in his head. She did have a commanding presence.
Suddenly Fluster indignantly said, “Excuse me!”
Everyone turned to look at her. The hob, Jedry Underbridge, was standing next to her, going through what appeared to be her wallet.
He was startled by the exclamation, harrumphing and blinking while he looked back and forth. “Yes? What?”
“That’s my wallet. Give it back!”
“Why I do believe it is.” He returned to looking at it, not even offering a modicum of courtesy to her about its theft. She snatched it back and pocketed it, keeping her hand on her back pocket until she sat directly on it.
Rajah felt his claws digging into the pocked surface of the table, and had to remind himself that he needed to be on his best behavior and couldn’t go after the hob. A moment later, he noticed that Mako was oriented on Jedry with a predatory gleam in his black eyes. “Easy, killer.” Mako’s lips peeled back, and Raj could tell he was just a moment away from attacking his prey.
Rajah stood up and put himself completely in the way. “Remember, we’re here for tea, not to start fights. He locked eyes with his fellow beast and managed to exert his will, ending the instinctual reaction. Mako leaned back and nodded. They’d just have to see what Desedemenona had in store for them next.