“How are you finding the food, dear girl?”
“Quite unusual, I’ve never seen or eaten anything like this in my entire life, but good.” She made direct eye contact with the Duchess. “It’s quite an amazing dish, your Grace. What is it called?”
“I am so glad you like it,” said the Duchess. “As strange as any new place might be, if one enjoys the food, it will do much to ease the shock of a change. These are traditional dishes of the Isles. Lobsters and urchins vintner’s style — the sauce is made with wine from our own Mount Uafoa on the Dreaming Isle of Legui. And the stuffed squid is one of the simplest dishes. Every household with an herb pot and a berry bush by the window makes it. Of course, if you stay in the city, you’ll be able to sample tastes from all over Aeldreth in our markets.”
“All roads lead to Plesz,” agreed Ruili. “You could hardly have chosen a better gateway into our lands if — well, if you’d chosen it.”
“Aye, she’ll have plenty of time to orient herself, no doubt,” said Duke Yirie, wiping his mouth with a square of linen. “See you, Mistress Sparti, if I may briefly explain something rather tediously complex, a refugee is a person forced to leave their own homelands but with nowhere else to go, yes? In our world, no persons have been so displaced, except by natural disasters, for well over ten thousand years. This is because the lands belong to the gods. They watch over all the citizens of their realms, and if one rejects a person, that person is given into the safekeeping of another. No one is left homeless, as it were. It was not always so, but it has been since the beginning of the Second Age.”
The grizzled elf who, despite his age and scars, resembled his son very closely, paused to drain a glass of wine before continuing.
“Eventually, you will be adopted by a god, just as other travelers through the funnels have been. Normally, we would issue a temporary passport claiming you in the name of the state until the blessing of a god claimed you permanently and determined your citizenship. Unfortunately, you said a magic word, Mistress, one which requires the gods to pay attention to you as a special case. Now we must make a case for you, and the gods of the realms and the law must be invoked. But do not fear. It should take less time than the normal procedure would.”
“It’s just that, until it is done,” the Duchess added, “you cannot belong to any realm. You cannot be from anywhere, so you must remain in custody rather than be set at liberty, until the gods’ judgment is made. But that won’t be so bad, dear. Ruili is quite good company when he wants to be — aren’t you, my dear boy?”
“I’ve been told I have my moments,” said Ruili. But his tone reflected something of the burden of one told off to squire someone else’s country cousin around the town.
And so it was decided. Y’lanna Sparti would be the ward of Lord Ruili Windwolf, under his protection and governance as well as oversight, until further notice.
The pleasant meal continued a little while longer, with the selkies happy to answer Y’lanna’s questions though they were reluctant to ask many of their own. After the closing course of sweet mallows and herbal tea, and after the gracious farewells that signaled dismissal from the rulers’ presence, Ruili walked Y’lanna out into the heat and brilliant sun of the island afternoon.
“Now it begins,” he said, as they strolled in the shade of a covered walk along the side of the garden. “I hope you’re prepared for it, milady traveler. The poking and prodding, the questions we’re all too polite to ask outright, all to learn every detail possible about you, these will hound you fairly well from now on. But you’ll get used to it, without a doubt.”
He cast a sideways look at the beguiling creature beside him and remembered the Amulet of Suitor Deflection Dr. Middlepine had seen fit to give her on board the Wolf. That was of the first actions anyone took with regard to her. Ruili tried to recall what the healer’s report had said about it — something about a heightened aura of sexuality. Very interesting indeed.
“Yes, I’m sure you’ll find your course quite well in this world,” he said, gazing ahead. “But in the meantime, I suppose I must find some place for you to live and some way to occupy your time. Ah, well, come along.”