The Watercolors of Elfland
by Marissa Lingen
The Misses Tainfoot, the card informed me, had recently returned from an artistic tour of the outer reaches and would be exhibiting their watercolors, sketches, and tapestry efforts in their home to interested friends, times stated, refreshments implied to be sparse as the soul was to be more refreshed than the body.
I crumpled the invitation and tossed it aside. I care only for horses and botany. The odds that any of the girls could properly execute a drawing of a horse, an orchid, or in fact any related object, approached nil. Therefore, no artistic tours for me, thank you all the same.
"Elias," said my mother reproachfully. "The Misses Tainfoot are perfectly charming girls."
"Mother, if I see another insipid line drawing of the wonders of Twinklebed Falls, I don't know what will happen, but I know it will be disgraceful."
Father made an interested noise from behind his newspaper, and Mother glared at him. But it was my younger sister Francesca who settled the question. "Ellen Tainfoot is a particular friend of mine," she said. "You knew them when we were small. You're going."
"Damme, Chessy!" I said.
"Elias!" said Mother reprovingly, but Francesca just raised an eyebrow and waited.
"I do not choose my particular friends for your inconvenience, Elias," she said, when I chose to wait her out.
"No, I suppose not," I grumbled. And it was settled and I was to see all the Misses Tainfoots' artwork, whether I would or no, and also subsist on thin biscuits and thinner punch for the entirety of an evening, at least until I could get away and go to my club for something more sustaining to eat and a conversation with Errenfield and Bigon about the former's horses or the latter's latest collection of carefully preserved foliage. (Bigon was a specialist in roots, which are often neglected in the works of amateurs, who focus upon leaves and blossoms--also, I hasten to add, important. But one cannot neglect the roots. A good chap like Bigon knows this. Also he has two thousand a year and may travel where he will. He is a useful friend to have.)
I only hoped that Chessy's friends would not add too many fanciful images of dear little fairies frolicking in the mists; my own experience with the Sidhe of both courts was that there was precious little misty frolicking to be had, and that it tended to be more terrifying than otherwise when they indulged in whimsy. Also that is a sign they are going to get the season of the flowers wrong, you may depend on it. Look for a painting of a sweet-faced Sidhe wearing petticoats and buttoned boots, and you will find a March-blooming chrysanthemum, sure as eggs are eggs.
Francesca picked my clothing for me--the little dear has taste in hats and cravats, at least, if not in friends, and she wanted me to look my especial best for her especial friend, though why I should put myself out for a girl who cannot entertain a fellow with whist or riding or at least dancing, I cannot say. "Now, Elias," she said to me, "you are not to leave until you have seen all the pieces, yes, all, and do not pull at your hair in that manner or it will entirely undo the effect dear Fredericks has achieved."
Dear Fredericks, my valet, was in league with Francesca, which was mostly no horrible thing, but it did make it difficult for me to achieve the rakish air that would most suit the inner reaches of my heart, if not the whims of my valet and my sister. As soon as we were out of the carriage, I made as if to steer Chessy directly to one of the paintings.
"Elias," she gritted.
"Simply panting for it, dear girl," I said. "You were the one who said--"
"Lemon ice, Elias," Chessy pronounced, "and then you may deposit me somewhere comfortable and make your examinations without me. Ellen has acquired an interest in botany. You may assist her."
"Oh, I say! This is a bit--"
An elderly couple with an air of shabby respectability--probably a country parson and his bride of forty years or more--drew near enough to dampen my commentary. I meekly obtained for my sister her lemon ice and was, for my pains, shown some painstakingly executed watercolors of the rock cathedrals of Ghermendula, their gravity-defying effect spoiled a little by the watercolorist's muddy use of her pigments.
"Do you enjoy the delicate arts, Lord Elias?" said a mournful girlish voice. I turned to find a mournful girlish face, a mouth formed into a permanent pout and a nose turned up in a permanent point.
"Oh, rather," I said hastily. "Particularly, ah--"
"My sisters and I found the trip most edifying," she continued, and I was finally able to place which one it must be. I would remember Ellen, and Alice was barely old enough put up her hair and let down her skirts, so this must be Jane, the middle sister.
"Travel in foreign parts can be very broadening," I said, "particularly those parts. Did you have much of a chance to observe anything of the fair folk beyond their ruins?"
"Father didn't want us to spend too much time, because of the--" She glanced across the room. I followed her gaze to a younger woman who had the same raw-silk-colored hair as herself, but who was regarding the artwork with a wistful rather than pouting air. "He felt there might be unwholesome influences upon young and impressionable minds. He did, however, arrange for us to attend a fête held specially for travelers."
I was familiar with such diversions. Half of the dancers in their "fairy dance" were not even Sidhe, but were changelings pressed into service for the occasion. It was a cheap way for the Sidhe to get human goods from human travelers, but I could not entirely blame them for not wanting their actual lives gawked at by outsiders.
"We learned some basic elements of their quaint and magical culture," Jane continued. "The divisions amongst their people and the like."
"The principal divisions, of course, are the clay-court and the grass-court Sidhe," I said.
Miss Jane frowned. "But I was given to believe--ah. You are making a jest with me."
"Indeed," I said, and resolved not to make another if I could restrain myself. "Do you hope to travel again soon?"
"Perhaps Italy," she said firmly. "My sister Alice is artistic. Alice would enjoy Italy far more than--than this."
My sister saw that I had stalled out and came to rescue me. "My dear Jane, I know that you and my brother are old friends from childhood, but you simply can't keep him in front of your own charming work all evening. Your sisters must get a turn as well."
"I would never--" started Jane dully.
"How droll," said Chessy firmly, as though Jane had made a joke, even though no joke was even remotely forthcoming. And then she forcibly handed me her elbow to escort her around the room. It's a trick Chess has, of thrusting her elbow at a fellow so that he either has to take it or get poked hard in the ribs. Society doesn't appreciate my sister fully.
She handed me off almost right away upon spotting a more favored Tainfoot. "You remember Ellen, Elias."
Miss Ellen Tainfoot was a plump girl with a round, grave face, a determined chin, and solemn blue eyes. Had I seen her promenading in the park, I would have known her at once for a friend of Chessy's even without any introduction; she had that same forthright air that brooked no nonsense. As it was, I remembered her of old. "Miss Tainfoot," I said, giving her a very correct bow. "Francesca tells me that you have lately become interested in botany."
"Francesca pays no more attention to her bosom friends than one might expect of a goat," said Ellen, and immediately I decided that she was my favorite Tainfoot. "I have been doing camera lucida drawings of interesting foliage since we were girls. It is only that Chess cannot stir herself to attend to them."
"It's all the little labels," said Chessy, without the least hint of apology in her voice. "They make me want to go off and actually read something."
"Well, do that, then," said Ellen. "You know where the library is. I'll show your brother Alice's and my things."
"I like reading things, too," I said plaintively, but no one proposed to give me a pleasant evening in the library with whatever field guides Ellen had managed to collect. Chess darted away, and Ellen led me around to look at each painstaking drawing and filmy watercolor.
"I would have thought your work would take a more--naturalistic direction," I said. "With the camera lucida--"
"Oh, mine? None of this is mine. This section is Alice's. Alice, dear child, do come and meet Chessy's brother Lord Elias and tell him all about this lovely miniature of the--er--the dancers of Elfland, I suppose this is."
If she could get that out of the mess of color before me, more power to her. Her youngest sister was huge-eyed and dreamy, barely out of the schoolroom and not accustomed to talking to gentlemen, or so I gathered from her attempts at conversation.
"They danced," she said.
"One might rather hope they would," I said. "The dancers of Elfland on a break would be--actually, I would like to see that picture, if you think someone might--"
"I had hoped to get something more unique, but our view of the spring moon festival was sadly spoilt by the new construction works," said Alice.
Ellen rolled her eyes and murmured something I was not supposed to hear, but I did: "That was not the only thing that was sadly spoilt."
The next picture was, for a wonder, not a muddy mess. It was a dreamy little watercolor of the woods, but there was a point of interest, a face peering out from the trees with keen interest. I leaned in to look closer. Of course Alice Tainfoot had no more notion of leaf shape than did your average four-year-old child--less, perhaps--but she had captured the keenness remarkably well, to the point where I could finally see why her family thought she was artistic.
"I say, this one--"
Alice started to chime in, "That was the man who--"
Ellen glanced at it and then swept me along. "Unfortunate day, that. Terribly wet. The rest of the trip was much better. Here, here's where we begin the section of observations I got on a fine day. Botany for you, Lord Elias."
"Ellen was much more satisfied with our trip than I," said Alice. "She got a picture of something that--well, it sounds awful to me, violent and rude, but when you look at it, it's merely a lovely flower. Aren't flower names funny?"
"There is nothing rude about a bloody cranesbill," said Ellen firmly. "Don't be a goose, Alice."
"I should like to see the cranesbill in question," I said. Chess would be proud of me, taking an interest in her friends. But she was in the library and wouldn't notice.
The veins of the flower were traced with infinite care, the pigment applied delicately, and the coriander-shaped leaves portrayed with exactitude. However. There were two additional petals--lobes, to be more precise--on the blossom. They fitted neatly around the center as if put there by nature. I counted twice to be sure.
If there was anything I could believe of Ellen Tainfoot, it was that she was not a girl who would ever spoil the number of lobes in a camera lucida picture, no, not ever.
"Miss Tainfoot," I said, trying not to sound agitated. "Can you tell me where you observed this?"
"Just inside the marcher lands," she replied. "It was on the third day of our travels...I can check my journal for more precise description. Why?"
"The lobes. You see how there are seven?"
"Of course. I drew it precisely from the camera lucida image."
"The bloody cranesbill has five lobes. Always."
"Lord Elias, I assure you," she began.
"What was nearest it?"
Those blue eyes narrowed speculatively. "The black medick," she said.
I already anticipated what I would see, and was not surprised when I did see it: the entirety of the plant was covered with four-leaflet clusters instead of three. If black medick instead of clover was used in luck rituals, Miss Ellen Tainfoot would have carefully sketched and walked away from the most valuable luck plant ever seen before. As it was, I did not imagine the thing could fetch more than a few pounds if it was property collected and preserved, but as a specimen of interest, and next to the bloody cranesbill--
"Miss Tainfoot, I am going to need the address of these sketches as precisely as possible," I said. I had been examining the pictures through my monocle so carefully that I had not noticed the return of my sister. She and Ellen were both regarding me with interest.
"I can do better than that," Ellen started, but there was a commotion at the entrance that interrupted her. She went to converse briefly with the butler, leaving me with Chess.
"Well, that's unexpected," said Chessy cheerfully. "Whoever would have thought you'd find something interesting here? I admit, I didn't care for your interests, I only cared about Ellen having credible gentlemen at her party, but still, you must admit, you should listen to your sister. I take you to the best parties."
"I beg your pardon," said Ellen, returning to Chessy's side and patting a strand of hair back into place. "There was--how extraordinary--some personage unknown to us wishing to gain entrance."
"Extraordinary indeed," murmured Chessy. "And you told Wilson to turf him out, did you?"
"I cannot imagine who would wish to attend one of our little soirees uninvited," said Ellen. "We are not exactly the social draw of the season."
"Not at all," I muttered uncomfortably. "Very charming."
Ellen and Chess both looked at me like I was squiffy, which was really unfair when they had offered me no more than lemon ice. "Never mind, Elias," said Ellen. "It was merely a person making himself unpleasant, and I am entirely capable of taking care of that on my family's behalf. I was about to tell you, I can do better than tell you where I found these plants, I can take you there. And with, ah, personages misbehaving in these parts, it might be well to remove delicate minds to higher contemplation."
"The what now?" I said.
Chessy clapped her hands. "What a splendid notion! Do you think your father--?"
"I can't see any reason to delay finding out," said Ellen.
And before I knew it, I was going on an expedition to the outer reaches with not one, not two, but four gently reared young ladies in tow. Which was really more than one ought to be asked on a moment's notice, and certainly more than one could support with actual work to be done, but there was not much for it, as the Tainfoot girls apparently had no intention of telling me where they had made their finds if they were not included in the party, and their parents, for reasons surpassing my understanding and my mother's, decided that there could be nothing more charming.
I could think of several things more charming.
I could imagine undertaking an expedition of this nature with my sister Chess, as she is a sound girl, much given to thinking of useful things like netting and counter-boggan charms, which one might well want in the back-country. I could even imagine it expanding, with the proper arrangements, to include such a girl as her friend Ellen Tainfoot. But to haul along for the ride Miss Tainfoot's sisters, the dim one and the fluttery one--no, I could not countenance it.
"They'll be most awfully uncomfortable, Chess, you know they will, and so will you, when it comes down to it."
"No more uncomfortable than you'll be."
"But you're girls, and gently bred girls at that." I cast a look at my parents, who were seated one on either side of the fire in the coziest possible manner, observing this conversation but in no way interfering with it. "Don't you see how much worse it is than for a man, who is by his nature used to living rough?"
My mother made a curious noise that in a less elegant person might well have been a snort. I expect that some ash from the fire got in her throat.
"The roughest you've ever lived is the night you didn't come back from Lord Vanigal's party until the servants had the fires laid and the cocoa brought up," said Chess. "In any case, you weren't where they found the bloody cranesbill gone wrong--"
This time it was my father coughing, and he politely. "My dear Francesca," he said. "Do you think you could endeavor to speak more in the ways--"
"No, but Father, that's what the wretched thing's called," I said. "Chessy can't help the naming of the thing. It's also known as a bloody geranium if you like, but you can't do without the bloody."
"Dear me," said Father. "I had no idea that botany could be so forceful a hobby."
"Well, it is, and my friend Ellen's undertaken it, and now there's Elias showing her where she's gone wrong, and what could be more proper than that I accompany them to chaperone?" said Chessy. "You've already agreed to it, Father. Tell Elias he is being--" She stopped and amended her language, possibly to preclude references such as the cranesbill had received. "Tell him he is being unreasonable."
"I see no reason you can't look after the young ladies in reasonable comfort, Elias," said Mother. "After all, they are apparently quite learned, and accustomed to traveling so close to Foreign Parts."
"I cannot say I like it," said Father, "as no members of our family have great experience in Foreign Parts, unless you count my godfather David, and he became quite eccentric in his age. But I see nothing improper to it, and I feel sure that if you are concerned for the ladies' comfort, Elias, that will spur you to see to it all the more."
"I wanted to see to the bloody cranesbill," I muttered, all hope lost.
The Misses Tainfoot, daughters of quite respectable gentry, could not be expected to travel without servants any more than my own sister could, and by the time everyone had their things and the people to see to their things and the people to see to the whole mess of things to be seen to, we were quite a little caravan. My trusted Fredericks had enough spells for the lot of us, although I believe at least one of the maids was also trained in defensive magic. It does not do for gentlemen of my class to inquire too closely into the maids.
By the time we reached the borderlands, we--that is, the gentry in our party--had gone through three coaches and a little cart that would by no means do if we were in the City where someone might see us. Here, anyone who might scoff was in the same very leaky and somewhat rickety boat.
Fredericks negotiated for our entire party to take over an inn. "After all, Master," he said smugly, "it is the only inn with even the most rudimentary cleaning procedures, and I believe your interest is in botany, not entomology."
Ellen had to whisper an explanation to her sister Jane about that, after which much upset ensued, and it took all the maidservants and myself to calm Poor Miss Jane down.
Poor Miss Jane indeed. I had no idea how I was going to face a week or more of scouring actual countryside with her as a millstone round my neck. But there was no way out but through, and for botany, I dare much. Fredericks arranged for a picnic luncheon to be made up for us in convenient hampers, and our driver--a tiny, leering fellow who probably made much of assumptions that he was himself fey, though I saw no signs of it--followed Ellen's directions to the marcher woods where she had been able to make her most detailed observations.
The horses were restless. No, more than that: the horses were displeased. Ellen jumped out of the carriage--I can scarcely call it a carriage--in her sensible shoes, and with a minimum of fuss went to settle the horses.
"Did they do this last time?" I asked.
"Oh yes," she said. "They hate it here."
"Wonder if the grass tastes funny," I said.
"I shouldn't be the least bit surprised, look at this patch here." Ellen indicated with the round toe of her previously mentioned sensible shoe. The ordinary timothy grass had acquired...I could only call them sparkles. It looked like sunlight on dew, but the day was overcast, and there was no dew. I bent and plucked several blades with my handkerchief, rubbing them firmly to see if the sparkles came off. I managed to streak my handkerchief with ordinary grass green--poor Fredericks--but the sparkling seemed to be a property of the grass itself.
"Curious. Mary, will you preserve this?"
"Of course, miss," said her maid.
Ellen and I looked around the clearing very carefully. After a moment, I got out a notebook.
"Whatever are you doing, Lord Elias?" said Alice, sidling up to my elbow in a rather familiar manner.
I bent to get away from her attentions. "I am making a rough map of where the anomalies occur. We can then see if there is a pattern to them and whether that pattern repeats outside this glade."
"How very interesting," said Alice. "Do you think it will take long?"
"That depends on how much we find," I said, scuttling along the ground to look at a clump of clover that, upon closer examination.
Alice pouted, which I nearly missed for looking at the flowers. "I was hoping we would have our picnic."
"We will," said Ellen. "Be patient. You may as well sketch something while you're here, if you don't want to get your paints out."
Alice sighed with rather more force than I thought the occasion required. "Jane? Do you have my sketchbox?"
"Yes, of course, darling," said her sister, in tones more suited for a funeral. "Let us find you a place to be comfortable."
And then the sighs and moans of the younger two Tainfoots faded away as though they were not even present, for I was on the trail. Ellen took half the glade and I the other half, and Chess wandered about being our gadfly, asking if we'd missed things. Most of the time we hadn't; most of the time Chessy hadn't any more notion of what flowers were supposed to look like than she did how to play at piquet--no, I revoke that remark, I expect my sister will be an excellent piquet player when she gets away from the dancing long enough to demonstrate it. Well, even less notion than that, then. It was well past noon and Chess was reading something completely unimproving aloud to Jane and Alice when I finally called for a break and asked Fredericks to have the maids set out the picnic luncheon.
"Where is Ellen?" I said. "She was here half a moment ago."
"I'm coming," came a voice from the trees. "No, I won't, don't ask again."
I rushed into the thicket, where Ellen was grasping her notebook before her like a shield. "What's happened?"
"Dreadful man, wanting me to go off with him," she said. "He had those ears and that smell; I expect he was Sidhe. And he--and he--well, never mind, he's gone now."
"How awful," I said. "So glad I was here to--"
"Never mind that, let's make sure he isn't bothering the little ones," she said.
I forebore to mention that Jane and Alice were both out, presented at court, and in no way constituted little ones, while Chessy was her own age precisely. I find that when one is the eldest in the nursery, it is sometimes hard to forget when one has exited that nursery. In any case, we found our sisters entirely undisturbed, eating the best of the cold chicken and huckleberry pie without a thought for our welfare or the proprieties of the situation.
The afternoon saw us into even more of the thicket. Above protests from all concerned, I left Fredericks with the maids and the younger Tainfoot girls and took Ellen--and Chessy for chaperone--and Ellen's maid Mary, whom she found very useful for carrying specimens--deeper into the woods to follow the trail of the altered plants.
"Do you see this?" I said, brandishing a branch of strangely shaped rose thorns at them. "Do you?"
"One could hardly miss it," said Ellen.
"Indeed, with the way he shakes it about, although the significance, I could hardly say," said Chess. "Really, Elias, can't we--"
"Yes, fine, we'll go back to the inn and have a nice supper," I said, "or what passes for one in these parts."
After supper, Chess steered me into my rooms, which I suppose was what passed for the gentlemen leaving to smoke and have their brandy, although I felt no need to offer my sister either a cigar or a snifter. "Now, look," said Chess, closing the door behind her firmly. "You mustn't neglect Alice, no good will come of it."
"Alice!" I said. "I didn't ask for any of you to come, but certainly not that gaping goose of an Alice. She cannot tell a pistil from a stamen--er, begging your pardon? Should I beg your pardon, was that indelicate? I'm never sure, about the personal parts of flowers."
"She's not a goose," said Chess, cutting straight to what she felt was the heart of the matter as she always did, "she's just...artistic."
"I'm sure people have been saying that for all her delicate little life, but I must tell you--"
"I must tell you, Elias," said Chess, "that the Tainfoots have all been concerned for Alice."
"If she was unwell, she shouldn't have--"
"Be quiet. She is not unwell. She is being pursued by an unsuitable connection."
"Oh, I say! Pretty poor form, foisting her off on me without so much as a by-your-leave or a word in the ear!"
"No one knows who the unsuitable connection is, but they fear the worst."
Chessy was ready to slap me. A brother can tell these things--years of bitter experience. So I bit my tongue like a lamb and waited for the alternate explanation, which came--bless my dear sister's virtues--promptly. "A Sidhe. They started having intimations of something of this sort when they visited here before."
"Damned foolish to take her back out into the lion's den, then. I didn't ask for her."
"The uninvited guest at the soirée, back in the City. They fear it was him. They fear that there is nowhere she will be safe from him unless she is very carefully watched. Hence both her elder sisters. Hence myself. And hence you, Elias."
"Oh, none of it!" I protested. "I don't want the girl feeling I've formed some kind of attachment!"
"Be entirely brotherly, but be present," said Chess. "Alice is frightened. It's why she's being such a goose."
I doubted that very much. I suspected that her entire gosling childhood was what made her such a goose. But I was not made of stone. If they were all worried for the child, I would try to be a little solicitous.
As long as it didn't interfere with the hunt for the changes in the floral species.
A thought occurred to me. "Look here, Chessy, it wasn't Alice that shady feller in the woods was after today, it was Ellen."
She nodded soberly. "She recognized him from Alice's painting. It was just the same man. They believe that he was trying to lure her protectors away one by one, leaving her alone."
"But he didn't come back for the others, he just asked Ellen to come away."
"Ellen thwarted him."
"I expect she's good at that."
"Elias!" she snapped. "If you can't be kind to even one of the--oh, great and merciful heavens, you've gone and done it."
"What have I done?" I said, mystified. The only thing I'd tried to do was the form a map of the anomalies, and the answer was on the tip of my tongue, but Chessy kept yammering at me so I couldn't quite say what it was.
"You've gone and fallen in love with my especial friend, oh, Elias, you dear, you idiot."
"Idiot? In love? Now wait just a minute." This was an alarming turn. Really, just because a girl knows not to wear thin shoes for a picnic and can tell a hawk from a harebell when the wind is from any direction, does not mean that I have to fall in love with her. Nor indeed that it would be idiotic to do so!
"In love with Ellen Tainfoot," I said aloud, turning it over in my mouth and my mind.
"Elias, I despair of you."
I waved a hand at her. "Go to bed, Chess, go off to bed, and we will speak of it in the morning. At length."
"I can hardly wait," she said. My sister has never followed the maxim that sarcasm ill becomes a fresh-faced young girl. I am not entirely sure she has allowed herself to even think on it.
I spread the pages before me, my own crabbed writing and Ellen's neater script. When I pieced them together, they made an arrow further into Elfland--that much I had seen, and I know Ellen had too, for she commented upon it. There was a ley line there, and the magic of it had warped some of the plants.
But the specific plants.
The cranesbill had led me astray, and the timothy grass. The cranesbill was envy, but he had modified the envy to be something more. I found I was already thinking of he, of him: of my rival. The clover was there, beseeching him to be his. The coreopsis: love at first sight. Mistletoe: surmounting difficulties.
Every single plant he had modified had one meaning, clearer still when they were added together, and that was love.
But not for Alice. Why would they ever think it was for Alice? Because the family had decided that Alice was the beauty, Alice was the artistic one, Alice was the one men yearned for, sometimes beyond the bounds of propriety? Oh no. None of this could possibly be for Alice.
I laid it out for them in the morning, blossom by blossom. Thought by thought.
"But who?" said Ellen.
"The man who asked you to come away with him, I should think," I said. "Possibly his liege lord, if his estate was low, but the Sidhe are not notable for considering these things when they have selected a human bride."
"But I--but I did nothing to--"
"They rarely account maiden modesty for anything, the Sidhe," I said. "No one could fault you for it. You have clearly not returned these advances. But you, you are the botanist. Your sister would never have seen these variations. They could only have been meant for you."
I expected a petulant outcry from Alice, but instead she was nodding thoughtfully. "No, it's true, Ellie dear," she said. "It makes more sense if it's you. And--oh, I cannot help but be glad, because then I can go home and not be troubled, and you are so much stronger than I and will deal with these things so much better."
Jane nodded and put her arms around Alice, as though Alice was the one needing comfort. I fear I let my disgust be known with a loud sniff, for Chessy stood and said, "There, dears, why don't you have a nice cup of tea to brace yourself for the day's, ah, expeditions? I know they are not to your liking, and you are such dears for enduring them now that you know it's not about you." Chess, being Chess, did not point out that she, too, was enduring a great deal of rampaging through the countryside that was not at all to her taste. She merely removed herself to the doorway and gave myself and Ellen what passed for privacy with propriety observed.
"Me all along!" said Ellen. "I wonder at it."
She twisted her mouth in a way I could get quite used to. "Oh, don't you, Lord Elias? You saw it all along?"
"No, just this last moment. But he was a fool," I said.
Ellen raised an eyebrow. "Oh was he," she said, no question in her voice, only irony.
"To think that he could woo you with a bespelled plant. It boggles the mind."
"Does it." She was trying not to sound curious. I could tell.
"When clearly that's the very opposite of what you'd want."
"And what would I want, Lord Elias?"
"I thought I was just going to be Elias," I protested. "Given that you and my sister have been such chums since we were all in the schoolroom."
She did not banter back at me. She waited.
"Naturally an unaltered plant would be the way to win your heart," I said. "It would have to be a very special plant, a rare species to catch your interest. But being made rare by magic--no, that would never do."
"Do you know so much of my heart, then?"
"I know you and plants," I said. "I know that charms and spells are all very well for winning those who don't want to give those blossoms a second look, but for you--" I found that I had caught her hand.
"For me, the search for something rare and real is the best of life," she said, looking steadily into my eyes.
"Marry me, Ellen," I said. "I've got a fanged delphinium around here somewhere, and I mean to give it to you anyway, regardless of your answer, but--marry me. Let's go into Elflands and find more of the warped plants. Let's figure out what else they're doing in there, and how it's affecting the plants. Let's--"
"Yes," she said.
"Yes. Of course. Under one condition."
I waited, barely breathing lest she give me a condition I could not meet.
"We must elope," she said firmly. "I cannot bear to go back to Town and have all the back and forth with my father and your mother and all of the teas and--no, I cannot and will not. We will find someone to marry us here, and Chess will witness it, and then we will send her back with the younger girls."
I took her in my arms. "My darling girl."
"You'll fend off the Sidhe fellow while we figure out whether there are other anomalies without him?"
"A dozen Sidhe fellows, if I must." I thought about it and decided to begin as I meant to go on: in honesty. "My rhetoric and erudition will astonish them. Also I am very good at choosing fast horses and clever servants. That will have to make up for my lack of martial prowess."
"We'll have Fredericks and my maid Mary," she said, "who will just love being Foster instead, once she is a proper married ladies' maid. And that will keep her happy enough that she will preserve any number of specimens, in wax or whatever else you like. She's very knacky, is Mary. Er, Foster."
"Damn Foster," I said. "I'll take you with one Foster or none or a dozen. I care about you."
"And you care about what other effects the ley lines might be having on the plants," she said. "Don't try to fool me, you know you do."
"I know you wouldn't care for me so much if I didn't."
She smiled up at me. "I'm so glad we've reached an understanding."
"Charming," he says. "And a plausible love story for once." He passes a cup of lemon ice to Maya, who takes it and sips.
"Granita! Not bad. And it was a lovely story. What a great world." Maya smiles. "Thanks, library." She pats the table.
He looks at her with a strange expression, then slurps at the last of his lemon ice. "Do you think we should clean up our containers again?" he asks.
Maya nods as she finishes hers, and they bustle about tidying up the hamburger wrappers and lemon ice glasses and brushing up crumbs. The cat is asleep on the librarian's desk again, in what seems to be one of his favourite spots, on top of the bookmarks. When they're done, they wash their hands, and then sit down again. Maya looks at him expectantly. "What shall we read now?"
He picks up the next book. "A brand new freshly written story from Molly Tanzer, author of the Diabolist Library series, called Just Another Night Shift at Pandaemonium."
Maya laughs. "That sounds fun. Or ominous!" She reaches for the book, and they read.