CHAPTER NINETEEN - NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT THAN FAMILY
Stephanus tensed at Semele’s wholly unexpected words towards Cole. He was about to step between her and the young man. He didn’t think of using his normal desire abilities against the agitated Argyris. He thought only of standing in the way of anyone that would go near Cole. The switch between desire and violence was switched. His powers could be used to destroy as much as seduce. Turn a person’s brain to mush? Done. Have them jump off a building with a smile? No problem. Have them slit their own throats with a sigh? Please, so easy one might as well call breathing hard in comparison. He knew later that he would wonder about his visceral reaction to simply destroy everything that could harm Cole. But at that moment he could think of nothing except placing himself between the young and the threat especially when Erebos and Kyrillos strode in the room to back up Semele.
Erebos was a huge man with a mane of blond hair that hung in curls to his massive shoulders. He was broader at the shoulders even than Stephanus. Though beautiful, he reminded Stephanus more of a golem than a man. Kyrillos was more slender, but still heavily muscle and perhaps deadlier. He moved with a quickness and grace that indicated a killer. His hair was a dark honey color and cut so short that it looked to be a military cut. His eyes the Argyris blue-green of the sea. Both men were focused on Cole, unblinking, looming over him on either side of Semele.
Stephanus felt Alric’s protective magic begin to swell, too. The Elven king’s eyes were slits of electric blue. He was prepared to defend Cole as well. Stephanus awaited Cole’s shrinking back, away from these people, in confusion and fear. He awaited sheltering Cole. But the young man shocked them all. He did not shrink back. He did not curl his shoulders inwards. Cole stepped towards the three Argyris.
An angry, bright smile was on his face. When he spoke he did not sound afraid. He did not really sound like Cole either. He sounded like the Bringer of Dust and Ashes. His voice was soft, calm, and utterly frightening, “What am I doing here? I am here to make sure that you listen very carefully to everything King Alric has to say and that you follow each and every one of his rules.. Because if you don’t …” The smile widened and it wasn’t nice. It seemed so sharp that Stephanus was surprised it didn’t cut the Argyris to ribbons where they stood. “I’ll be in another place you won’t expect … like at your front door.”
There was silence after the threat that was made with the utterly solemnity of a promise. Stephanus actually felt an icy chill run through him at Cole’s words though he knew the young man was kind and good and would never do anything to these people except in self-defense. Or was he certain of that?
He destroyed a whole room full of supernatural beings in seconds. He’s the greatest General of the Unnamed One. He is the Unnamed One’s best friend. What do I truly know about him? Of what he’s capable of? Nothing. Less than nothing.
Semele began “I was just … surprised that you were sent here for this clearly internal family matter –”
“Perhaps it’s more than that,” Cole said, again shocking Stephanus. Was he lying or was this the truth? Had Nate told him something about this evening on one of their afternoon coffee runs? Or was Cole just possessed of this special knowledge now? Like a door had been opened in his brain and released his old self? “Or perhaps I live here now and I’m inclined to keep my home nice and quiet.”
Stephanus let out a breath at the last part. Perhaps Cole was just acting the part.
But it doesn’t feel that way. Not really.
“Are you here in an official capacity?” Erebos asked, his voice deep and melodious and respectful.
“Do you mean has the Unnamed One tasked me with anything in particular regarding this evening?” Cole said the name so blithely and everyone in the room swallowed. Him just saying it like that had them fearing him more. “Knowing him – as we all do – you must understand that I cannot answer that. I am here. You are here. The meeting must have been meant on some level, right? If there’s something more to it than that … well, let’s just leave it alone, shall we?”
A ripple of unease went through the Argyris. They traded glances, but said nothing though Stephanus was certain that there was much meaning in those shaded looks.
“I did not know that you had come to be so friendly with the Unnamed One’s great General, Alric.” Erebos’ eyes were narrowed.
“I am Cole’s friend,” Alric said simply. It was and wasn’t the answer to what Erebos had just asked him, but it was all the Elven king was clearly going to say on the matter.
Finally, Semele turned back to Cole and gave him a tight smile that did not reach her stunning eyes and said, “We are, of course, honored to share a meal with the Bringer of Dust and Ashes.”
The Argyris place one arms over their chests and actually bowed to him. Cole regarded them with no expression. Not pleasure. Not pain. Not embarrassment or surprise. Just as if their bows meant absolutely nothing to him, which they wouldn’t to the Bringer of Dust and Ashes. If Cole was pretending, he seemed to have a very good understanding of his past.
When the Argyris straightened, Cole said, “Now that this is settled why don’t we all have a drink and get on with the real business of the evening?”
Cole then stepped aside and gestured for the Argyris to come fully into the room and to the sideboard where the servant stood at strict attention, waiting to serve. There were no worries about her speaking about anything she saw or heard at this meeting. Her mind was completely blank during these meetings. It did her no lasting harm and earned her some cold hard cash. She was a member of a minor witch house without much power so this was her way of being a part of it all.
Alric’s gaze met Stephanus’ before drifting to Cole. He gave Cole a respectful nod as if dealing with the Unnamed One’s General and not just Cole, his friend. The Elven king then joined the Argyris by the drinks while Stephanus and Cole lingered by the doors.
When the others were far enough away that they wouldn’t be overheard, Stephanus whispered into Cole’s ear, “What was that?”
Cole let out a soft, shuddering breath. Hazel eyes looked up into his. Hazel eyes that were utterly familiar and almost fully the Cole’s he knew, but there was something. A darkness? A fleeting shadow? He couldn’t say.
“I pretended I was a bad ass. What would a guy known as the ‘Bringer of Dust and Ashes’ say? That’s what I asked myself. Did it work?” Cole smiled shakily.
“It was more than that, Cole.” Stephanus stared at the young man. “I do not doubt that you are a good actor, but that was …” He let the sentence hang. There wasn’t one good word to describe what Cole had done. Perhaps “lived the role” more than “acted the role”.
Cole let out another shuddering breath. “For a moment it was like I could remember who I had been, who I am.” He passed a shaky hand over his forehead and then downed the champagne in his glass. “It felt right when I was saying those things, but I’m not sure it does now. I don’t like being like that, you know?”
Stephanus gave a small nod. He did know. He didn’t want Cole to have to be that way either.
“The darkness isn’t the Unnamed One, I don’t think,” Cole said suddenly. “It’s got to be something lesser than me, too, because of their reaction to me. And for a minute … well, I got this impression that it and I weren’t on good terms really. But I don’t know if I’m making that up or not.”
Stephanus nodded. The demons he knew that had any rank were always at each other’s throats. Cole was the Unnamed One’s favorite, but that would make him an even larger target of other Greater Demons. They would want to dethrone him. While Stephanus was impressed with Cole’s handling of the situation with the Argyris, he worried, too, that it had made Cole’s profile grow larger. If Erebos was a Greater Demon, Cole had just told its people that he was not going to take any shit from them. Yet the young man couldn’t even seem to access any power unless he was shocked into doing so and maybe not even then. Stephanus thought back to the incident in Cole’s house where the young man had been as helpless as a human. He would have to keep an even greater eye out for dangers. He had never thought for a moment that the Argyris would recognize Cole. Who else would?
Determined not to let that worry him for this moment, Stephanus said simply, “Let’s get you a refill on that champagne. You look like you could use it.”
The Incubus put a possessive, protective hand on the base of Cole’s spine and they went over to Alric and the other guests. He watched as Cole donned a rather bland, impassive mask. He was smiling, but not really approachable, which was good. Cole knew little about Cole’s true self and it wouldn’t be safe for the Argyris to figure that out so the less said the better.
The chatting over the drinks was typical small talk about the weather, the new buildings in Winter Haven, and various festivals that would be occurring. This talk continued through most of the three course meal. It was only when they were eating the chocolate mousse dessert that things got serious.
It was Erebos that sat in the supplicant’s chair with Semele to his right and Kyrillos to his left. Semele kept looking over at Cole and when the young man caught her glance she would smile and look quickly away, clearly still unnerved by the Bringer of Dust and Ashes being in their midst. Stephanus was greatly tempted to seduce her right then and there to get her to stop looking at Cole.
Irritation plucking at him, Stephanus looked at the “tracker” instead of Semele. Kyrillos was interesting. He had aquiline good looks and reminded Stephanus of a sleek wolf who hunted the forests unseen and unheard until it was too late for his prey. He did not appear the type to ever give up the chase.
“So,” Alric began, his dessert plate pushed to the side and a cool smile on his handsome face. “Semele informed me that one of your sons, Talon, I believe, left the family to –”
“He was not leaving forever! He would not have done that!” Semele’s voice rose up quick and clear.
“Semele,” Erebos warned softly even as he put a gentling hand on top of hers. His hand was so large that it blocked hers from view.
She lowered her head. “Forgive me.”
“I did not mean to suggest he was leaving permanently, only that he had left … for a time,” Alric said quietly.
“Of course you didn’t. Semele knows this,” Erebos’ deep voice continued, “This is a … sore subject, as you can see. Talon was Semele’s favorite --”
“And your least,” Semele said under her breath.
Erebos patted her hand. “It was not so. I loved Talon as much as all the others.”
She shot him a spiteful look. “You did not show him that! Maybe he would have stayed if you had shown him the least bit of attention!”
“How could I have ever gotten a moment of his time as you monopolized all of it?” Erebos’ tone was tinted with old anger though it was cloaked with a gentle smile.
The easier to cut her with ...
“And when did you ever try, Erebos, to get close to him? Before he was born?” Hers had the same tint. The same cutting smile was on her face.
The two of them squared off against one another. Eyes locked. Erebos was the one to back down after several tense minutes. He said, “Talon did not relish our family’s politics as our other children have. He married without our consent and, I believe, left to avoid censure.”
This intimate exchange in front of them reminded Stephanus of just how little the Argyris cared about what others thought of them or of wasting others’ time. It would never truly occur to them not to have such a private argument in public. But he did find it interesting against his better judgment. He saw that Cole did, too, as those green eyes watched the back and forth between husband and wife.
It is clear that Semele loved Talon best either because of Erebos’ disinclination towards him or because she and Talon were more aligned in views. But an Argyris not interested in the family politics and in his position? One who left all of that behind without a backwards glance? He might have actually been someone worth knowing.
“He left Winter Haven or the whole family?” Alric asked.
“The family,” Erebos answered.
“But he would have come back to us if he had not died! He would have wanted us to meet the children! He would have known that to have two – two boys – would have restored his position and quelled any passing anger Erebos and I had with him.” One of her delicate hands rose to her throat and it fussed there at the silver necklace with a large emerald pendant. Stephanus knew it was of good workmanship as it resisted her evidently very hard tugs on it without breaking.
Other than the patriarch and matriarch who had six children over the course of their very long lives, it was normal for there to be only one child or two children maximum from the later generations spread over decades at best, but more like centuries. So for Talon to have had two boys in quick succession like this from one woman was unheard of. It likely would not have only restored Talon’s position but made him first among his siblings, which may be why he was killed in the first place.
“I am so deeply sorry to hear of Talon’s death,” Alric answered with evident truth. His heart softening to hear of the death of a child. “I did not know.”
“We felt his passing when it occurred.” Erebos’ tanned skin seemed to pale for an instant as he remembered his son’s death. His hand over Semele’s became an actual point of needful contact rather than to restrain her emotion.
“How did he die?” Stephanus asked. He wanted to know if there was any inclination that this had been done by one of the Argyris themselves or if there was an outside source of danger.
“You would ask us that?” Semele raised damp eyes to his, full of outrage.
“Few things can kill an Argyris and none of them natural,” Stephanus replied dryly. “I am just wondering if whatever that lethal agent was could come back here.”
“We do not know what happened,” Erebos said quietly. “But you are correct in believing that it was not a natural death. We know nothing more than that. Discovering how Talon died will be part of Kyrillos’ task.”
“And the other part of that task is for Kyrillos to find Talon’s children?” Alric asked.
“The mother was a woman who worked and lived here in Winter Haven. We believe they met at her place of employment,” Kyrillos spoke for the first time. His voice was deep and smoky like a banked fire.
Like all Argyris, Kyrillos was beautiful in a classically masculine way. From the oblique glances that he was giving Alric, Cole and himself, Stephanus was certain that his tastes ran to men. If his eyes had lingered on Alric alone that would have been explained by the Elven king’s singular allure, but all three? No, that indicated a preference. Stephanus wondered if Kyrillos hoped that by returning the two boys to the matriarch and patriarch that he might be given first pick of marrying one of them when they were of age. To marry the grandson of the patriarch and matriarch would, undoubtedly, raise his position within the family.
“So you intend to investigate any family she has here and then go on from there?” Alric asked, his gaze zeroed in on Kyrillos. The thought that he would be speaking to Winter Haven’s inhabitants was clearly worrying the Elven king. The Argyris were not known for their restraint when it came to finding their own.
“She has no family,” Kyrillos said and Alric tensed.
“You investigated this before speaking to me?” Alric’s tone was soft and dangerous, rather like Cole’s had been when he was pretending to be the Bringer of Dust and Ashes.
“Only online,” Erebos assured him after giving Kyrillos a sharp look.
“Yes, forgive me, I have not taken any physical steps on my quest yet,” Kyrillos amended, dropping his gaze from the patriarch’s. “I would not do so in Winter Haven without your consent, King Alric.”
“I see. Continue.” Alric leaned back in his seat though Stephanus had not seen him move forward.
“She did have an employer here, friends and an apartment. I hope to find out information from these people and places as to where she might have gone to ground after Talon’s death,” Kyrillos explained.
“And what will you do when you find her and the boys?” Cole spoke for the first time. His hazel eyes were troubled.
“We will bring the children home.” Semele gave him one of those uncertain smiles as if anyone would know that yet she suspected Cole of making some kind of cruel joke about it.
“But what if they don’t want to come?” Cole stared back at her, not smiling.
“Of course, they will want to come! They are Argyris! They belong to us!” she answered.
“They belong to themselves actually,” Cole responded, a touch of frost entering his voice. “They have lives already. They likely will want to add you into them, but –”
“Of course, they will! We’re their grandparents!” She clutched her jeweled necklace again. “We will be the most important people in their lives now that their father is dead!”
“And what of their mother? If she still lives --”
“They are Argyris. She is human from what we know of her. She will not matter,” Semele scoffed.
Cole just stared at her.
“I think what Cole is trying to say is have you considered that their mother and these young men may not want to – to participate in the family politics like their father didn’t?” Alric asked.
“But they will want to come home with us!” Semele stared at each of them in term with the most bewildered expression. She simply could not contemplate anything other than her son’s children leaping into her arms and, potentially, leaving their own mother for her.
“Why do you care about this?” Erebos asked Alric.
“For the simple reason that I will not allow children to be brought and kept in Winter Haven against their will,” Alric answered him steadily. “These boys and their mother must be allowed to choose to come here.”
“You do not understand what they mean to us!” Semele began.
“I can assure you that I have every understanding of the desire to have and keep safe my own offspring.” Alric’s blue eyes glinted and she moved away from him. All knew that he had no children of his own through no choice of his own. He took a breath. “I understand how overwhelming that need can be and how one can come to believe that nothing trumps that. While I am sure that these children will come to know and love you, I will not allow Winter Haven to become a prison. For anyone. No matter what the reasoning.”
Erebos nodded. “We agree. You need not have any worries. These grandchildren are already precious to us. We would do nothing to harm them.”
Ah, weasel words! Anything they do they won’t consider it “harming” the children, but would Alric see it the same way?
Alric turned his steely gaze upon Kyrillos. “You have permission to perform your investigation, including interviewing witnesses, but there will be no violence. You will not harm the people here. Is that understood?”
Kyrillos nodded. Stephanus didn’t think that anyone would disagree with Alric when he looked at them that way. It was easy to think of the Elven king as all kindness and smiles, but Alric had a spine of steel and was not to be trifled with.
“I believe our business in concluded. Please feel free to stay and enjoy after dinner drinks,” Stephanus said after a motion from Alric to end this night.
He knew the Argyris would not stay. Already he saw the hunt in Kyrillos’ eyes. The man was eager to start his search and, in fact, excused himself immediately. Semele and Erebos did the same, stating that they needed to inform the family of the results of the night’s meeting. So that left just Alric, Cole and himself in the East Room. Far better.
Cole stretched out his arms and legs, letting out a soft sigh of pleasure as all the tension seemed to leave him and his spine made soft pops as he extended it. Stephanus watched with great interest as the sweater pulled up revealing a slice of creamy skin. Immediately, desire pulsed through him and he quickly dragged his gaze away. Fantasies about Cole with the Elven king present were not wise. Alric would never let him live it down. The Elven king poured more champagne into all of their glasses. Stephanus sipped his, enjoying the yeasty, flowery taste of Moet & Chandon’s White Star Imperial.
“That was …” Cole started and paused. “That really was …”
“I told you the Argyris are very … insular,” Stephanus said.
“Yeah, you did. I just feel bad for those kids.” Cole straightened up, that troubled look entering his eyes again. He bit his lower lip. “I’m sorry that I spoke out of turn, Alric.”
The Elven king waved the apology away. “You made a very good point. I had not considered that they would take the mother and children by force, but they could.”
“Forget the mother, it’s those kids they want.” Stephanus took another large swallow of champagne.
“How much do you suppose Talon told her about his family? I mean what if she’s not a supernatural creature, but just a normal person like they said? Could you imagine her reaction to all of this?” Cole shuddered.
“We’re assuming that the mother is even alive,” Stephanus murmured, which had surprised looks coming from both men. He explained, “If an Argyris can be killed how would a mere human fair against such an enemy? The mother could even be dead from a totally different misadventure. The Argyris attract trouble like a magnet.”
“Perhaps she got away? I mean she’s hidden from the Argyris so far,” Cole suggested.
“Maybe not all of them,” Stephanus said.
“You think one of the other children of Semele and Erebos killed Talon?” Alric’s eyebrows rose into his hair.
“He had two kids. He would have been the golden boy if he had returned. That would have caused waves within the power structure.” Stephanus dragged his spoon over the remnants of the mousse.
“Good point.” Alric looked meditative. “If those children are found, maybe it would be better for them to be brought back to Winter Haven. We could keep an eye on them.”
“Those children will attract attention no matter where they end up going. They will be beautiful, alluring … like supernatural catnip,” Stephanus replied morosely.
“Supernatural catnip?” Cole snorted.
“It’s an apt description.” Stephanus frowned at him, sending laughter was not far from Cole’s lips.
And Cole’s snort did turn into laughter. “I’m sorry! Really, it wasn’t that funny, it’s just the tension! God! When they came in and she pointed that finger at me? It was insane. I didn’t know what to do.”
“You handled yourself very well,” Alric told him stoutly.
“Yeah? You weren’t … freaked out about it?”Cole curled forward, resting his forehead on the table and lacing his fingers behind his neck. He then peeked at Alric over his forearm.
“No, why would you think I would be?”
“I’m the Unnamed One’s best friend. Acting like that – like I really am that person …” Cole broke off as if at a loss of words. “I don’t want to turn into someone that you don’t like, Alric.”
The Elven king stared at Cole steadily. He then reached over and ran his hands through the young man’s hair. His voice was low and smooth, “Regardless of what you remember of your long life from before, you are still you, Cole. And I do like you.”
“But you don’t like Nate and he’s like me. He’s nice,” Cole pointed out.
Alric let out a breath and Stephanus said, “He’s got you there, Alric. You didn’t quite give Nate a warm reception.”
Cole’s head lifted. “You are so not one to talk, Stephanus! You get all hinky whenever I mention Nate’s name!”
Alric laughed now. “He’s got us both or so it seems.”
“I do not … I do not dislike Nathaniel Whitney. I feel I do not have the right to have an opinion on him at such a base level,” Stephanus got out. His emotions swirled whenever he thought of the Unnamed One. Cole did not understand what it was like for him to be so near his creator and savior.
“That’s because you don’t know him yet, but you will.” Cole suddenly looked incredibly impish. “You know, you said that I would want a raise after this dinner and considering how it went I do deserve one.”
“Quite.” Stephanus finished his champagne.
“But instead of money I would like to choose our next date,” Cole said innocently.
“It will not be some five minute –”
“No, no, no! Alric, did he tell you about this eighteen dates plan?” Cole asked, turning his head towards the Elven king who looked quite amused.
“No, he did not,” Alric said.
Stephanus glared at Cole as he explained their deal. The romantic Elven king would absolutely love the eighteen dates idea. He also guessed that Alric would also want to help him with them, which might mean – good grief, no – poetry reading or something equally horrific. After Cole had explained, Alric clapped Stephanus’ shoulder. His blue eyes were just shining with approval. Stephanus slumped in his seat. He was doomed.
“I am so surprised by this, Stephanus! But I should not be. After your first wonderful evening together I was certain that you would want to have many dates,” Alric enthused. “If you need any assistance in planning any of them … I would be happy to help.”
Stephanus rubbed the bridge of his nose. “No, that’s not necessary. I have some ideas already planned out.”
“Do they all involve fancy dinners at places like the Nomad?” Cole asked.
“Did you not like it there?” Stephanus’ voice rose in alarm. Cole had seemed to enjoy it.
“I loved it there!” Cole assured him. “But maybe we should mix it up a little? Some lowbrow with some highbrow dates? Not so expensive?”
“But … well, I suppose.” Stephanus gave him a curious look. Was he going somewhere with this.
“Money is not needed to make magical dates. There are walks in the forest when it snows!”Alric rhapsodized. “Or picnics! Or perhaps poetry reading by –”
At the mention of the dreaded poetry, Stephanus cut in quickly, “What would you like to do, Cole, for our next date?”
Cole grinned at him – and did he see a slightly maniacal gleam, surely not! – and said, “A double date with Nate and Emrys!”
Stephanus suddenly wished he had gone with Alric’s suggestion of a poetry reading.