Two things were good, and three things were bad. The good was that Mark had found a new job, one that paid a lot more and took him away from the environment in his apartment building, and that he was allowed to stay in the Ghoul’s gang regardless. The bad was that he wasn’t as important, or invaluable, he didn’t have nearly as much time at home with his family, and his new employer was… strange, to say the least. It wasn’t even quite clear what Mark was being paid to do, beyond following him around and carrying out any orders that were bellowed, which were usually quite simple and could have easily been carried out by the man himself.
What his employer’s title was was also not clear. He had a French accent, though whether or not he had ever lived there or if he was French by birth was unclear. He claimed to be a king quite frequently, and Mark had heard people refer to him with a whole host of titles, some of them not even noble. Mark had settled on addressing him as ‘Lord Edmund Oberon,’ because that was the title least likely to start any fights.
Presently, Oberon was passed out asleep, even though it was past noon, and Mark was trying to read a book called A Collection of Stories of the Unknown, by an author named Richard Golson. He had heard Deirdre talking about him, and wanted to read something he had written. Mark thought it more than odd that the way Richard Golson sounded so much like the way his boss, Ghoul, talked, and he had a strange feeling that they were the same person.
A servant came into the room, casting a ray of light on Mark’s book. He had been reading by the light of a small candle.
“Is King Oberon awake?” the servant asked.
“Not yet,” Mark said. “I can wake him, I suppose. He’s slept long enough.”
“There are three women here to meet him. One of them claims another is his daughter.”
Mark wouldn’t be surprised if half the population of London related to Oberon by now. He seemed to have family everywhere, and more children than anyone Mark had ever met. They were impossible to keep straight. “I’ll wake him.”
The servant nodded and left the room. Mark put his book down and approached Oberon’s bed. His lord was splayed out under one of the blankets, probably naked, since it had been as hot as hellfire the night before. Mark shook Oberon’s shoulder and whispered, “My lord Edmond Oberon.”
Oberon did not stir.
Mark shook him harder and said in a louder voice, “My lord Edmond Oberon.”
Still, he didn’t react.
Mark was afraid to irritate the man, who despite being rather short, was very athletic and had an unpredictable temper. He shook Oberon’s shoulder harder, and continuously, until at last he got a groan.
“My lord,” Mark said.
Oberon rolled over onto his back and groaned again.
“There’s people here to see you.”
“Head,” Oberon said.
“It hurts, my lord?”
Mark ran downstairs to fetch him a glass of water. When he returned, Oberon was sitting up in bed and looking ahead with the vacant gaze of a man who has just been awoken from a needed sleep and currently hates everything on Earth.
“Who is it who wants to see me? Is it my wife? I’ll bet it’s my wife. Tell her she can’t come in and that I’m still angry.”
Mark was utterly confused. “You’re married?”
“Don’t be an idiot, of course I am.” Oberon winced and rubbed at his head. “Did I drink a lot last night, or-”
“No, my lord, you smacked your head on the doorframe.”
“What, last night?”
“You also drank a lot.”
“I thought so. You must remember next time that Drunk Me does not have the sense of Sober Me, and that Drunk Me does not figure out locks as well as Sober Me does.”
How had he gotten across that some of those words were capitalized verbally? Mark couldn’t do that. “I tried locking you in, my lord, just like you told me to.”
“You still managed to get out.”
“Curse it. I hate being me.” Oberon swallowed the glass full of water in one gulp. “Who’s here to see me?”
“Well, apparently, my lord, there’s someone who says she’s your daughter.”
“You’ll have to be more specific than that.”
“A servant left her calling card. Mrs Clarissa Janson? Married to Mr Ernest Janson?”
Oberon threw the blankets off abruptly. He was naked, but didn’t seem to care for this or for Mark’s embarrassment. “I’ll see her.”
“Well, you’ll have to put some clothes on.”
“Right. Get me something to wear, then.”
Mark fetched him a series of different pieces of apparel, had each one rejected for a different reason, until he finally settled on a pale green silk waistcoat embroidered with flowers, a puffy white shirt, tight dark green pants, and black buckled boots. Oberon was a relatively short man, with short, curly black hair that fell down over his forehead, a lazy smile, a sharp face, and tanned skin. Where he got enough sun that his skin was so tan Mark could not say, since Oberon didn’t seem to go out during the day much unless he was forced.
They sat down at a small table, and a servant brought in coffee and a plate of fruit. There were grapes and peaches on the plate for sure, but other than that there was some kind of fruit that looked a little like a peach, but was bright purple and more pointed, a cluster of brilliant yellow berries, and several bright red fruits about twice the size of a peach pit. When Mark tried to take one of the red fruits, if only to examine it, Oberon smacked his hand away.
“Not for you,” he said.
Mark put his hands in his lap, feeling the sting of the rebuke. He hadn’t been told off many times before, especially concerning eating something supposedly so healthy. Oberon also usually invited him to share his breakfast. Why would he have a problem with it this time? Mark twisted his hands. It only mattered that he’d been told off. He wasn’t going to ask.
Oberon must have seen the look on his face, because he handed him a peach. “Try this.”
Mark hadn’t wanted to eat it, but he would take what he could get. The peach was very ripe, and the juice dripped down his chin and onto his coat as he ate. A servant came in and drew back the heavy curtains on the windows, flooding the room with afternoon light. Oberon picked up the book Mark had been reading.
“Oh, this one. I know this author.”
“In a vague sense.”
The servant who had brought news of Clarissa Janson’s arrival came back into the room. “Shall I send in the visitors?”
“What? Oh, no, I’ll receive them in the garden. Come on, Mark.” He stood up and left the room, sending Mark scrambling afterward.
The garden was around the side of the house. There were many trees, most of which Mark could not identify even after bringing Lottie Conray, one of his friends who had a stolen book of plants she could consult, hanging over a series of stone platforms. The flowers, of which there were many, were brightly colored, but strangely shaped, especially the ones on the flowering trees. The fruit was bizarre, similar to the ones that Oberon had taken for breakfast in that they were mostly small, sweetly smelling, and very attractive in general. The entire garden had a sickly sweet aroma hanging over it, which made Mark want to either stay there forever and bask in the scent or throw up, depending on the moment.
They sat down on a carved wooden bench and waited for the visitors.
A few minutes later, three young women were led into the garden. The leader was dark haired, with a round face and large eyes. She wore a green dress, and was probably the oldest. The next had hair so blonde it was nearly white, a round face with small features, and eyes that were a dead ringer for Oberon’s. She wore a white and silver dress, which made her look like some kind of ethereal sprite. The effect was somewhat ruined, however, by the scowl on her face. The last was older than the second but younger than the first, with dark brown hair, darker skin, and the same eyes as the first. Her dress was also green, but a slightly different style than the first’s. If Mark had to guess, he would say that the first woman was married, and the last wasn’t.
Oberon motioned to the bench across from him. He had one leg crossed over another, an arm thrown over the back of the bench, and a smile on his face. Mark suddenly felt horribly out of place.
“Good morning to Mrs Ernest Janson, Mrs Holland, and Ms Janson. What do you think of my home?”
“Of your home I cannot find any fault,” the one with the whire-blonde hair said, “but I think you ought to give your outfit back to whichever gentleman from the French Revolution you stole it from.”
Mark was shocked by the insult, but Oberon guffawed. “You are Clarissa, no? My daughter?”
“By Mrs Clarissa Gray, yes.”
“Who? Oh. My wife. I remember now.”
Was that the marriage he’d referenced earlier? From Clarissa’s body language, Mark doubted it. He knew remarkably little about Oberon’s personal life, now that he thought about it. There was a man who was younger by a year or two who sometimes came to hunt with him, and an older woman who he seemed to greatly look up to. They weren’t related to him – at least, Mark didn’t think they were, and he hoped the younger man wasn’t, considering their general conduct around each other. Other than that, and the fact that Oberon was apparently married, Mark knew next to nothing about him. That bothered him deeply. What could he be hiding? He resolved that later that day, he would discuss it with him.
Clarissa Janson rolled her eyes. “We were close when I was younger, remember? You called me Clary.”
“Well, I hate you.”
“You’re not the only one uncomfortable with this exchange, believe me.”
Mark was horrified by the callousness of the exchange. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and this was all they had to say to each other? An awkward silence lapsed. The three women sat down on the bench across from them. Mark tried to disappear, to no avail.
“So, Mr… Oberon?” the older dark haired girl said.
“Yes, that is my name,” said Oberon.
“Who is this young man sitting next to you?”
“Why don’t you ask him who he is?”
The woman turned to Mark, who was having a miniature panic at the idea of having to take part in this conversation. “Who are you?”
“M- my name is-” He suddenly remembered Scarecrow’s advice. Never give your real name or age. Well, he’d have to give his real name, because Oberon knew it. “My name is Mark Murphy.”
“Ah, and are you his servant, Mr Murphy?”
It felt good to be addressed as Mr. “Well, sort of. Yes. I work for him.”
“That’s very good. My name is Mrs Holland.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs Holland.”
“How did you come to work for Lord Oberon?”
“I worked as a gravedigger before this. It wasn’t much money, so I began asking around for a different job. Someone pointed me in his direction, and he hired me as soon as I applied.” Well, he has also quit his old job because the undertaker had noticed the missing papers and very nearly reported him to the police. It had been too close for him to keep working there, and when he told Ghoul he’d been pointed towards Oberon.
“Have you any siblings, Mr Murphy?”
“I have-” he might as well not lie to these people. They were so far above him that they might take offense if he lied. “I have six siblings.”
“And what are their names?”
“Mildred is the eldest. She has a daughter, Madeline.”
Mrs Holland smiled. “I detect a theme of names.”
Mark chuckled nervously. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“Where do you live?”
“I live on Temptation. In an apartment building.”
Clarissa perked up. “That’s where Dr Faust lives.”
“Dr- oh, you mean Johann. He lives above me.” Mark remembered how hot it had been the night before, and how he’d not been able to sleep one bit. There had been a commotion sometime around midnight, which had involved Jean Gévaudan and his big, scary dog running out of the building after a man who had looked remarkably like Dominic Sapping, but couldn’t have been him because Dominic Sapping was long dead. After Jean Gévaudan and the man had disappeared, Johann had come down and gone off with Deirdre, presumably for drinks. Mark had passed both them and Jean Gévaudan on his way down the stairs at dawn, when he was going to his job at Oberon’s house. Johann’s arm had been injured, and dripped blood that had looked gray in the early morning light. Deirdre had looked bedraggled, exhausted, and hungover, but otherwise alright. Jean Gévaudan, however, had been in a considerably worse state, with an entire side of his handsome face covered with sticky blood and one eye bandaged.
“I haven’t met Dr Faust yet,” Oberon said. “What’s he like?”
Clarissa was silent for several seconds, before saying, “He’s very ambitious. That was the main thing I took away, is that he has the ambition and the talent to achieve anything he wishes… though he is perhaps lacking in good sense.”
“How so?” The third young woman, who Mark assumed to be Ms Janson, asked. “I thought he was a fine young man. Handsome, too.”
Clarissa rolled her eyes again. “Did you not catch Duke Mephisto’s reference to his unholy powers of death?”
“Duke Mephisto is an idiot,” Oberon said. “He tends to joke like that.”
“I’m afraid I can say with certainty that this was not a joke.”
“Truly? Duke Mephisto, speaking the truth for once? I am agog!”
Clarissa shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Do you sit in the House of Lords, Lord Oberon?” Mrs Holland asked.
“Isn’t he French?” asked Ms Janson.
“No, he isn’t French,” Clarissa said.
“Oh? Why does he sound like that, then? And why did you tell me that he had a castle and a wife there if he isn’t French?”
Mark leaned in to listen. Anything he could glean about his employer was important.
“My wife is not French,” Oberon said. “And neither am I, though the closest approximation of where I am from is France. Similarly, the closest approximation of Duke Mephisto and Duke Janson’s home is England.”
“You’re married?” Both Mrs Holland and Ms Janson exclaimed this at the same time.
Clarissa sighed in an exaggerated fashion. “Of course he is. Not to my mother, though, I presume.”
Oberon shrugged. “What did you say her name was, again?”
“You can’t even remember her name? Bastard.”
“Actually, I am a perfectly legitimate child.”
“That’s news to me. Who are your parents, then?”
“Julius Caesar and Morgan Le Fay.”
It was a strange sort of joke, but Mrs Holland, Mark, and Ms Janson still laughed. Clarissa only rolled her eyes.
“A serious answer, now,” Mrs Holland said. “Who are your parents?”
Oberon smiled. “They were in fact named Julius and Morgan, though I’m afraid that any other details would meet the same wall of my ‘joke.’” He turned his attention to Clarissa. “And how have you been, my prodigal daughter?”
“I should think you were the prodigal one, being the one who left.”
“Perhaps so, perhaps so. Still, how are you? You’re married, I heard. I’m happy for you, truly. Ernest Janson is a good young man.”
“How would you know that? You’ve never truly met him.”
“I have. In fact, his father invited me to go hunting earlier today. I declined, being asleep.”
“They’re members of the same political party, Clara,” Ms Janson said. “Sometimes Lord Oberon comes over for supper.”
“Oh,” said Clara. “Well, I didn’t know that. Forgive me my ignorance.”
“Have you never seen him?”
“Lots of people come over to Duke Janson’s house for supper.”
“You do have a point there.”
Again, a silence lapsed. Oberon was fiddling with the buttons on his waistcoat, clearly bored but doing a good job disguising it. He reached up into a nearby tree and plucked a strange purple fruit out of the branches. “Can I interest you in a snack, Clara?”
Clarissa hesitated, but reached forward and took the fruit. She didn’t eat it, though, only held it in her hand.
A servant arrived with a tray of drinks, which he placed on the table between the two benches. Oberon poured a thick, purple substance into each cup, and waited until each person had taken one to hold his cup aloft and say, “A toast to the dwindling summer.”
He drank deeply, and so did Mrs Holland and Ms Janson. Clarissa waited for a moment before lifting her cup to her mouth and drinking only the barest bit of it. Mark, assuming it was some kind of exotic wine, drank as much as he could.
That was a mistake. The substance turned into a gel as soon as it hit his mouth, and it tasted sickly sweet, like something that had been rotting for a long time. There was smoke in that cup, too, and it almost made him gag. Oberon watched him expectantly, so Mark swallowed it as best he could and tried to smile.
“Very good, sir,” he said. He was then forced to disguise a gag as a cough.
Oberon’s smile was tinted dark purple, like the drink. He quaffed it like wine, drinking several cup-fulls throughout the next area of conversation, which was the idea of marriage and child rearing. The others drank more, too, enough that their words started to slur, and they started to sway. The liquid tasted less foul with each cup, until it was the sweetest thing in the world. Mark tried to concentrate, but his vision blurred, and he couldn’t even understand what they were talking about. After a long time of trying to focus, he realized that they were discussing Oberon’s land, and their names.
“Your name?” Oberon asked.
Ridiculous. Oberon already knew his name. Mark opened his mouth to speak, and some instinct kicked in to change what he meant to say. “My name is Ghost, sir, a lowly urchin.”
Oberon’s face twisted in anger.
Mark was surprised that he had given that answer. He saw Mrs Holland bite into one of the fruits from the trees, and realized that a platter of similar fruits had been placed before them. Hypnotic whispering wind filled the trees, driving his hands towards the platter, driving him to pick up a fruit which looked like an orange but was distinctly not one, driving him to bring it to his mouth. He was about to bite into it, when a thought entered his addled brain.
He realized that he had never eaten a meal at Oberon’s house before. Sure, he had taken bread or an apple off his lord’s plate, but he had never eaten a proper meal, or consented to eat anything offered to him freely, without cause. He had always asked, or given a reason that he should have something. Never had he accepted a gift.
Mark lowered the fruit. Mrs Holland and Ms Janson had gotten up, and were dancing under the trees with Oberon and Clarissa. He was the only one sitting down, staring at the fruit in his hands, trying to puzzle something through his drunken or perhaps drugged mind.
He saw Oberon leading Mrs Holland off. Mark placed the fruit on the table, and sat back. He had never, not once, accepted one of Oberon’s gifts, even though he had had many offers. He had never accepted a gift, and he had still been able to leave each night, and come back as he pleased.
Mark stood up. Oberon and Mrs Holland had vanished, but Clarissa and Ms Janson still danced. He wanted badly to join them, so badly it was nearly painful, but he resisted. Instead, he sat down on the grass and watched.
The dance was intricate and unlike anything Mark had ever seen before, but the two women seemed to know every movement. They whirled back and forth to a strange sort of music that drifted in on the wind, putting him in a sort of trance, always staying together until Oberon reappeared, alone, and they parted for him. He took Ms Janson’s hand, and waltzed off with her into the trees – had there been so many of them before? Mark couldn’t recall. His eyes drifted shut, and when he awoke the sun had gone down, and he was alone in the garden.
Mark stood up, and saw that he had been wrong about being alone. Oberon sitting in the grass under one of the trees, playing a lute. Mark lurched over to him, his head pounding.
“You’re awake,” Oberon said.
“What did you do to me?” Mark shouted. “What was that? Did you drug me? Where are the women? What kind of monster are you?”
Oberon shook his head. “The others are safe at their respective homes, and no, I did not drug you. You simply drank too much of the wine.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Believe, don’t believe…” Oberon started to play a quiet lullaby tune on his lute. “You should go home, Mark. It’s rather late.”
“I want to know who and what you are first, and what you just did to me.”
“Alright, sit down, and I’ll tell you. Do you believe in faeries, Mark?”
Mark laughed. “No, of course not.”
“No?” Oberon stopped playing to tune the lute, then resumed. “Well, then I suppose my explanation won’t be worth much of anything, then.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you’re a faerie?”
Oberon only smiled.
Mark sighed. “Listen, I know you like being cryptic, or whatever, but I really need a straight answer.”
“That’s a yes on me being a faerie, then. Faerie king of the seelie court, in fact. I served wine from my home earlier, and these trees are native to it. Ever wondered why you can’t eat the fruit, Mark? That’s why.”
Mark’s head hurt too bad to argue with him. “So you’re telling me that you’re the immortal faerie king that Shakespeare referenced?”
Oberon shrugged. “I suppose I am.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Do you have any better explanations?”
“Well-” Mark sighed again. “Fine. So, what did you do with the others?”
“Sarah was a changeling. She’s gone home for the first time in her life.”
“So she’s trapped in Faerie?”
“She could leave at any time she wanted to, but I doubt she will. It’s her home.”
“Alright, and Emma and your daughter?”
“At their home. Go and check on them if you don’t believe me.” Oberon finished the song he’d been playing and started a new one. “It was just normal wine that we drank, Mark, I swear, just with more alcohol than usual. I didn’t drug you.”
Mark was silent for a moment. Then he said, “I believe you. I don’t think you would be bad enough to do anything to your own daughter.” Suddenly he doubted himself. “Would you?”
“Never. Loyalty to family is important. Speaking of,” Oberon said, “you should get home to your family.”
Mark looked at the ground. He was harrowed from his experience, and had a lot to think over. “Yeah. Goodbye, I guess?”