The royal elven castle lay in ruins. I caught flies, my open mouth gaped in shock. Bricks tumbled over the smoldering building. Phantasos looked at me and then over at Benticle and back again. “It’s not supposed to look like that, obviously,” he said.
I stared straight ahead. “No. This is all wrong.” We walked the grounds and saw no one. There were no bodies or signs of life. I looked at my gnome friend. “What happened here?”
“Hard to say,” he answered, scratching his chin wearily. “They may have gotten out. There are enemies of the elven royal family, but I haven’t heard any rumors of unrest or terrorism. This is strange.” He shrugged.
“You don’t look half as shocked as I feel. Why is that?” I watched as Phantasos investigated some of the ruins, kicking at unidentifiable charred lumps.
“Nothing surprises me anymore. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were burned down intentionally. I have a knowing spell I can use that might be able to show us something.”
I nodded. “Please. Let’s try it.”
Benticle searched his pack for the items needed. When the spell was invoked, he fell over in a faint. Phantasos looked over in question, and I shook my head. This was how the magic worked for gnomes. They learned what they sought while unconscious and then woke. I waited. When he stirred, I helped him sit up and eagerly awaited to hear what the invocation had uncovered.
“Beetle stew with mashed berry roots. My favorite childhood meal. I’d forgotten that. Mmm, that would be tasty right now.” He shook his head and looked at me, rubbing his eyes. “Gray Leaf is dead. Tiamelle is in hiding. Her guard set fire to the house so nothing valuable could be stolen, none of the magical artifacts, that is. I didn’t see who the threat is, or was. As soon as Gray Leaf passed, and it was from natural causes, an old blood feud stirred. Tiamelle left with her guard. Wait. She left the elven lands! She’s not here—at all. That’s all I got.”
Phantasos raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite a spell you’ve got there. Would you be interested in a trade? I’ll make you a good offer.”
I elbowed him. “Not now, brother.” Focusing on Benticle, I helped him stand. “According to elven custom, Tiamelle is not of age. She is what humans would refer to as a teenager. I made a bargain with Gray Leaf to be her regent for the next fifty years or find someone acceptable to stand in my place. I feel responsible for finding her. What do you think I should do?”
The djinn, Komenu, stepped forward. “I do not think Tiamelle would leave her home. There was plenty of protection here for her to stay and defend.” He raised a hand. “Before you ask how I know this, I remind you that I spent a thousand years in the elder elf’s study, in a lamp. The lamp was not soundproof.”
I glanced up in surprise after nearly forgetting he was with us. “What would make her flee?
“The only sworn enemy of the elves I am aware of are the succubi. The demonesses are the only creatures to make the elves nervous.” Komenu stated.
“The succubi? How did I not know this?” I looked at Benticle.
He grunted. “It has been so long since the truce, it never crossed my mind. They are magic thieves, and Gray Leaf had a whole lot of magic.”
“What magic would Gray Leaf have that would be interesting enough to start a new war?” The gnome picked at a nail and then flicked whatever was underneath away.
I frowned. “I really couldn’t say. We need to find Tiamelle.”
“Morpheus, I can’t leave right now. My wife is about to have another child.”
“I thought she couldn’t be trusted to not eat any more children?”
“She promised me she wouldn’t.” He shrugged.
“You know, there are ways to prevent pregnancies, friend.”
“You think I don’t know that!?”
“Just saying. Fifteen and now another on the way…”
He grumbled, “Don’t remind me.”
“All right, friend. We will travel back with you and continue our journey after seeing you home.”
We dropped Benticle off with his pack of young gnomes, chattering and wrestling, happy to see their father. We returned to Cloud Nine, where the remaining three of us sat at a table and drank beer.
“I’d like to volunteer to help, brother.” Phantasos slung an arm around my shoulder and squeezed. “This will be the first time in centuries we’ve spent so much time together!”
I looked at his arm on mine and then into his eyes, suspicious. “Fine. But it’s more so I can keep an eye on you than for the enjoyment of your company.”
His face contorted into a gesture of feigned shock. “You wound me.”
The door to the club opened unexpectedly, and Bear walked in. He found my eyes and then looked at Phantasos and Komenu. “Hi.”
I was nervous, and I had no reason to be. Well, yes, I had every reason to be nervous. His timing couldn’t be worse. “Hi, Bear. This is my brother—and Komenu, who is visiting. How are you?”
“Fine. Just dropping by to make sure the deliveries arrived out back. Hi.” He waved.
Phantasos stood. “Well, I’m bored. I’ll be back later.” He gave me a pointed look (he always could see straight through me), and waved to Bear. As he opened the door and walked out, he looked back and smirked, then made his exit.
Komenu then rose. “I also have, um, things to do. Thank you for your generosity in hosting me, Morpheus.” I wondered where the djinn was headed. We needed to have a long-overdue talk.
Bear went out the backdoor to check in the new stock. I followed him. “How have you been?”
“Fine. And you?”
“Fine.” This was the problem with having humans around. Secrets. Although I knew from visiting him in his dreams that Bear had more knowledge than he should, there was still a hell of a lot he was clueless about when it came to my family and me. If I gave him my brother’s name, connecting the dots would be simple information gleaned from the internet. He would think I came from a weird, Greek god-naming family or suspect the truth. But there was more information that I had to share, regardless of my status as a deity.
I folded my arms and watched him. “Do you need help?” He shook his head. “Uh, I have to tell you something.”
Bear sighed and stood up. “I told you it was no big deal. You don’t have to explain.”
“What do you mean?”
“The kiss. It didn’t mean we were together. It was fun, but nothing serious.” He squatted down again and opened the lid of a box with a cutter to verify its contents.
This young man was smart. I didn’t wish to hurt his feelings or make him feel like an idiot. “That is what I wanted to talk about. I wouldn’t classify it as no big deal, and it was fun. I value you more than I can say, as co-manager—and as a friend. What you think and feel is important to me. I do feel we should put the brakes on a physical relationship, though. I sincerely wish to continue our friendship, and to have you work here. Is that amenable to you?”
He laughed. “I’m not going to say I’m not a little disappointed. But, yes, that’s fine. Your friendship is important to me too. I should get back to unpacking this stuff. I have some errands to run before I need to be back here to open up.”
“I’ll see you tonight. Hey, on a different note, do you think that server from Captain Stack’s, Trish, would want to work here? She could run the bar or the tables?”
“I can ask her. She would be good.” He nodded his head, agreeing.
“That would be fantastic. Thank you. We need serious help around here.”
“She’s good. I’ll bring her tonight. We should get a fenced-in area set up out back so she can hang there while we work. We could get a little house installed so she can have protection and sleep when she wants.”
“That’s a great idea! If I give you the funds, could you find a way to schedule that during the day?”
“Thank you, Bear.”
“No problem.” He turned back to the boxes, and as I turned to leave, he said, “Morpheus. Why don’t I ever see you during the day?”
Did he still think I was a vampire? This was dangerous territory. “I’m nocturnal,” I smiled.
“I don’t think you’re a vampire. But I’m not convinced you aren’t more than you appear to be. See you tonight.” He returned to inventorying the new items.
I decided to turn and walk away without commenting. What was there to say? Was I going to continue my duck-and-dodge handling of the situation? What if I did tell him? I couldn’t. What if I let him believe I was a vampire? Would that be better than the truth? It might pacify him. Did I really consider him a friend when I kept vital parts of myself hidden? Was that lying or just omission of a rather significant detail? I had to find Tiamelle, Bear’s suspicions could wait.