“Morrigan was the seventh…” I repeated. “And Ashleen was the first… five and a half centuries ago. I’m going to tell you now, I’m not all that familiar with my family’s ancestry, especially the ones from Ireland.”
Jean-marc nodded. “I remember him saying some years ago that he’d moved to a new land.”
A soft knock came to the door, and he called for the maidservant to enter. She brought in a wide tray laden with not just the tea set, but also a three-tiered dish of cookies, tiny cakes, and little sandwich triangles. She set the tray on the coffee table in the middle of the room and curtsied to me before offering me a cup of chamomile tea.
I looked between Jean-Marc and Evander. “Does something happen to me if I eat the food here– or drink anything?”
Jean-Marc looked slightly perplexed.
“It has to do with Hades and other Terran concepts of the underworld,” Brom told him. Then to me, “The food and drink here are only meant to nourish you, Miss Moss. It will no more bind you to our world than your food binds you to yours.”
“It’s all right, milady,” Evander added. “Lord Morrigan Moss quite enjoyed having tea with us, and he suffered no ill effects from it.”
“Nor from our feasts!” Jean-Marc added, sharing a knowing grin with Brom.
“Okay,” I conceded, and I accepted the cup of tea, along with a small plate of cookies and cakes. Once the others had been served and the maidservant left, we resumed our conversation. “So… Right, back to Great Uncle Morrigan. He lived in Ireland most of his life. I’m not exactly sure why he moved to America, but I guess things would be pretty different if he hadn’t.”
“They would indeed. And I’m sure you realize,” Jean-Marc went on, “that you have much more family that hasn’t visited our realm.”
“Much more,” I said. “I don’t know if you realize this, but Irish families tend to be pretty big. But… tell me this: how did that many generations go by without any of them talking about Tierney Ríocht– even as a family secret?”
“Surely you know the answer to that already,” Aubré said, looking at me the way a librarian would, except that he didn’t have glasses to peer over.
“Aubré,” Jean-Marc chided, “do not speak to her that way.”
I sighed heavily. “He’s right, though. I was more processing that thought for myself. You can’t keep secrets in a family like ours, and nobody wants to be considered crazy.” I took a bite of one of the cookies; it was shortbread with a bit of jam in the center, and it was incredible. I finished it quickly and was soon picking up another.
“I’m afraid that’s the downside of living in a world sustained by science,” Brom said.
“Okay. Next question: what about the fact that my ancestors would have been very religious?”
“Are you religious, Miss Moss?” Jean-Marc asked me.
“Um, no, not so much.” I thought for a moment. “I guess I’d call myself agnostic? I don’t really spend time worrying about it. But I live in an age when that’s acceptable.”
“Even so, have there not always been those who think differently?” Brom pointed out. “Or those who only outwardly go along with the common belief in order to avoid trouble?”
“You’re right about that. And what about all the deities people have believed in on Earth throughout the ages?”
“You are a learned woman, Miss Moss,” Jean-Marc pointed out, though I’m not entirely certain how he knew that. “You have studied social sciences, have you not?”
Social sciences. It wasn’t my major, but I still knew plenty about it. Human history, politics, psychology,– and especially anthropology. It was useful to understand the human condition in order to write more realistically, and to be more relatable. I had also read a lot of literature, which was often entangled with talk of the gods.
In the course of all that, I had seen that deities were humankind’s way of understanding the world and the phenomenon in it, and also a way to feel that we could have an impact on the outcome of things. What made it rain, for example, and how could we make it rain? Lightning, volcanoes, famine– I could list so many things. Mankind gave thanks for what they reaped, and they made sacrifices or offered worship to avoid the bad things.
“I see what you mean,” I told him after I’d swallowed a bit of cake, which was chocolate with smooth buttercream frosting and thin flakes of dark chocolate on top; the baker here was phenomenally talented having made the cake moist and the frosting light and airy. I wished more of the bakers back home took such care with their recipes. “There are scientific explanations for most of what humans have attributed to the gods.”
Brom nodded. “Still, those deities gave you a great deal of your stories.”
“And from those stories,” Jean-Marc added, “the human imagination carried on and made so many more. Even as science developed, new unknowns were discovered, and humankind wrote about them.”
“Oh boy, did they!” I agreed. “That’s how we ended up with the stories of Mary Shelley, H. P. Lovecraft, Jules Verne, H. G. Welles… and a lot more!”
“The stories of your world ran the gamut of emotions, themes, and topics,” Aubré noted, actually sounding positive for once. “Your authors can speak to the heart, or evoke fear and wonder, or even elicit laughter.”
“Have you not read any of her own work?” Jean-Marc asked him, genuinely curious.
Aubré eyed him with a sort of disinterest.
“Let him be,” Brom said, lowering his voice a bit. He spoke even more quietly to me when he added, “He’s hardly left the forest since Owen’s passing; it wounded him deeply.”
“I’m not going to pretend that I cannot hear you,” Aubré said in a sort of grumble. Then he sat up straighter. “And I shall not pretend that any other Terran can live a lifespan like ours.”
I turned to Jean-Marc, hoping for an explanation.
“You’re aware that Brom has lived a long time, despite appearing human,” he said.
I nodded. “He hardly looks over fifty.”
“Yet I have resided in Tierney Ríocht somewhere close to twenty times that long,” Brom replied.
“And our dear Aubré…” Jean-Marc paused, seeing the glare aimed at him. “Well, I should not speak of his age.”
“I understand,” I said, and went back to sipping my tea.
“Owen Moss was a little younger than you are now when he first came to our realm; he was the sixth Terran to come to us,” Jean-Marc went on. “You like the sound of that term, don’t you? We’ve seen ‘Terran’ used in some of your world’s stories. More to the point, Lord Owen’s manor is in the elvan forest.”
“Oh, so they were close?” I asked.
“Do not insinuate that I had a relationship with him!” Aubré snapped.
“And why would that be so bad?” I snapped back.
“Because we are not meant to form romantic bonds with the Terrans,” he grumbled.
I decided not to ask him if he’d done so anyway, even though I had my suspicions.
“Lord Owen visited us for many decades,” Brom said. “For the era in which he lived, his life was long and prosperous, but he seemed happiest when he was in Clurichaun Forest.”
“I can’t offer any criticism of that,” I replied. “I like the woodlands quite a lot myself. Still… as much as I’d love to visit your forests, I have to ask: Why me? Why was I able to enter Tierney Ríocht? It can’t be simply because I inherited Morrigan’s old house.”
“Could it not?” Jean-Marc retorted. “Although I might change the order of your words in this case. The house is a matter of import only because of two things within it. As for you, it’s not that you happened to inherit the house, but that you inherited it because of who you are.”
My mind raced as I tried to figure out what about me could have made such a difference. “Jean-Marc, I don’t know why Morrigan willed the house to me,” I admitted. “I’m thankful for it, and the family is happy for me, but I’m still not so sure that I deserve it.”
“How could you not, my dear?” Jean-Marc asked.
“I hardly knew him, for one. I think I visited him a couple times when I was little, but…” I shook my head. “But also, what am I meant to do for your realm? If my ancestors all taught you music, I’m afraid I can’t do the same.”
“You do play an instrument, though,” Jean-Marc pointed out.
“Yeah, I played oboe in high school… and a little in college, but I’m only an amateur at best. You were at the symphony, Jean-Marc. You’re at least acquainted with my cousin, Killian. He could teach–”
“Killian is a Riordan,” Jean-Marc stated.
“His mother was a Moss! Look, I’m not nearly good enough to play at Symphony Hall.”
“Was,” he repeated.
“And besides that,” Brom added, “Lord Caelan Moss taught bassoon to Sir Maël ages ago.”
“Wait, isn’t he one of your missing musicians?”
“Might I suggest,” Evander said, his voice gentle and calming, “that it is time to tell our dear Lady Moss precisely what she is needed for?”
“I like that idea,” I told him with a thankful smile. I turned and gave the other gentlemen an expectant look. “Please, do tell.”
“As you wish, madame,” Jean-Marc sighed. “We implore you, one so adept and knowledgeable in the ways of adventures and all that one might encounter during them, to assist us in finding our cellist, Brielle DeChanson, and our bassoon player, Sir Maël. From there, you are to seek out the key to the eighth palace– your palace– and also the one who shall forever more be its caretaker, just as I look after this manor house. He or she will learn the oboe from you, and–”
“I told you, I can hardly play oboe, let alone teach it!”
“Then you will not like the next part either,” Aubré noted, sounding disheartened and hopeless.
“There’s more?!” I looked between Brom and Jean-Marc.
Brom sighed. “There is,” he admitted. “The most important of all that we need– though all of it is truly dire– is for you to write us a song.”