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The afternoon wore on into early evening, the sun dipping down below the canopy of trees while the lit tapers beneath them came to the fore, their flickering lights making the leaves and flowers seem to dance in the gentle breeze that soughed through the glade.

More Supernaturals were arriving, and Gunther recalled what Valois had told him about only the elders being present for the ceremony of the Return, with the younger Supernaturals arriving only once the wine cellars had opened and the 'merry-making', as Elsanine had put it, began.

Valois stood a few feet away from Gunther, chatting with a fae whose vivid yellow wings formed elegant spirals and curls behind her. Looking around him, Gunther noted that the wings of every fae were slightly different in shape and form and colour. Some were huge and faint, like gauzy butterfly wings, some were long and thin and shaped like dragonfly wings with little glints and sparkles twinkling intermittently through them, and some were tiny and pulsing with multiple hues, looking far too small to support the weight of the fae they belonged to. All were utterly beautiful, and he found himself looking around to see how many different colours and types he could spot.

"Well-met," a familiar voice said close to his ear, and he turned to behold Caelwyn smiling at him.

For a moment, Gunther wasn't sure if he should bow or offer that hand-to-heart gesture he'd seen Valois perform when Caelwyn had contacted them via the crystal ball, but the King of the Fae had clearly sensed his unease, and immediately put his concerns to rest by touching his hand lightly to Gunther's elbow and drawing him away from the increasing gathering in the middle of the glade.

"I did not realise that you would feel so ill at ease on the dais during the ceremony," he was saying. "For that I tender my apologies, and I trust that any feelings of discomfort did not impose on your enjoyment of the event?"

The slightly stiff formality of this apology caught Gunther off-guard. He opened his mouth and heard himself say, "Oh god, no, not at all. It was wonderful. Please don't worry about it. Yes, I felt a bit like a goldfish at first, but after a few seconds I forgot all about that."

He caught himself, realising that Caelwyn's lips were curving into a smile that soon became a soft chuckle.

Bloody hell, you sounded just like Mort when he gets excited about something, he told himself, as Caelwyn lifted his glass to him in an amused toast.

"You are enamoured of this place I see," Caelwyn murmured. "It is refreshing for me to see it through another's eyes; the eyes of someone who has rarely seen the beauty that I admit to taking for granted at times. For those fresh eyes, I thank you."

"I've travelled a lot," Gunther said simply. "This is the most beautiful place I've ever seen, in all of my travels. I've never been even remotely religious, but this is what I think Paradise must be like in all of the holy books we have in the mortal realm."

"Ah, Paradise." Caelwyn nodded. "I have read some of these books that mortals deem to be holy. Paradise is many things to each of your people. Throughout my reading, it has seemed that your books fail to describe this wondrous place, save a few details of what might be received there or who might be found there, and leave it to the imaginings of the reader."

"I suppose that's one way to appeal to as many people as possible. Give them the basics, tell them the rules they have to follow in order to get there, and then let them imagine their own perfect rewards," Gunther said.

"Indeed." Once more, Caelwyn raised his glass. "Are there many like you in the mortal realm, who do not subscribe to these rules in order to obtain rewards?"

"Yes, but equally as many who do follow them, based on whichever book - or version of a book - they read."


Oh god, what have I started? Gunther thought. Caelwyn was evidently curious about mortal customs, but religion was one heck of a shaky bit of ground to be starting with!

"That..." he began, "well, it's a long story that takes place over many centuries and many translations. And to be honest, in the mortal realm we try to avoid two specific subjects at parties: religion, and politics." He gave an apologetic grin, which was met with a raised eyebrow by Caelwyn, but the king followed the eyebrow with an understanding nod.

"Forgive me," he said. "It is not often that I have the chance to speak with a mortal, much less one like yourself, who is clearly well-read. Valois tells me that you are a collector of arcane books and have some valuable knowledge on your shelves, including - I understand - a book written by him, several centuries ago?"

"I do. I've collected antique writings for years, although I don't think I have anything written by—"

Fulcanelli?" Gunther frowned. "As in the alchemist?"

"Very distant ancestor," Valois said. "I believe I am the last to carry the name in this world. You are well-read, to know of it."

"I have a copy of Le Mystere des Cathedrales on the bookshelf just behind you." Gunther nodded to the row of his most ancient and precious volumes. "I'm a long-time and passionate collector of antique writings."

"Really?" Valois turned, examining the shelf until he found it. "My goodness. Never thought I would have the chance to hold a copy of this. May I...?" His hand paused just above the book's spine.

"Be my guest. It was written by your ancestor." Slowly, Gunther made his way around the piano, watching Valois. "Just don't drop it," he added, by way of a joke. "It cost me a pretty penny and no small amount of sweating at the auction. I wanted it so badly and someone very determined was bidding against me on the phone."

"Yes," Valois said softly as he drew the book down from the shelf. "Yes, they were." He looked up, his eyes slightly darker than before, though he was smiling. "They were, I'm sure of it. It's a treasure of a book to own."

Gunther realised he was staring at Caelwyn.

"Oh my god," he whispered, as it finally dawned on him that the book he'd thought was written by a distant ancestor of Valois's was written by Valois himself. And... it had been Valois who was bidding on the phone against him, to try and get his own book back!

His gaze landed on Valois, who was in the middle of a knot of fae, all talking excitedly to him. He looked rather desperate to escape, in that amusing way of someone at a party who has been cornered by a friendly drunk, and Gunther started to laugh softly, amused at both the sight and thought of that, as well as his own realisation of the slightly ridiculous and ironic situation of that infamous book.

It was at that moment that he realised Elsanine had melted away from him and was nowhere to be seen. He guessed that now Caelwyn was with him, Elsanine had taken the chance to sneak off and find Arcturus, and who could blame him? Seven years and seven months away from Valois, and Gunther would be all over him like a bad suit, and he was pretty sure Elsanine felt the same way about Arcturus.

"He has fulfilled his duty for the evening," Caelwyn said, clearly interpreting Gunther's looking around for what it was. "He is not fond of the formalities, young as he is - for our kind, anyway - but he knows and honours the duties that he must undertake."

"Do all the fae have specific duties surrounding the Return?" Gunther asked, nodding his thanks at a tall, pink-hued fae who held out a delicate goblet to him, filled with a pale yellow liquid that he assumed must be some kind of wine.

"Oh Gaia, no." Caelwyn chuckled. "Only Elsanine, and only tonight. There is no other to whom I would entrust the care of our first mortal attendant of the ceremony. And, of course, you and he appear to be good friends also, which aided my decision."

Gunther took a tentative sip from the goblet. The liquid was cool and refreshing, like a zesty diluted cordial, but as the sip slid down his throat it fizzled slightly, and the after-kick of a strong liquor warmed his whole body for a few moments.

"Wow," was all he could say as he stared at the glass.

Caelwyn raised one eyebrow again. "Valois has never given you a taste of that before?"

"No. What is it?"

"Ah, then he is true to his word. It is a special magical blend of wine that he created for the fae and continues to supply us with to this day. We requested that he never sold it or revealed its secrets to a living soul, and evidently he has honoured our request."

"Well... I knew he was a vintner. He goes across to his vineyards in France quite regularly to bring wine home for us, but this is something extra special. It's no wonder you asked him to keep it a secret!"

"Little-known fact about the fae." Caelwyn raised his own glass again, pausing to wink at Gunther and say, "We do love our wine," before he took a sip himself.

They stood in comfortable silence for a moment, Gunther appreciating the wine just as much as his surroundings. Eventually, though, his curiosity got the better of him.

"You said that Elsanine was the only person you would entrust with looking after me for the ceremony," he began.

"Of course. It would not do to have any but the highest-born fae accompanying our guest of honour."

"Highest-born?" Gunther knew he sounded surprised. He'd thought Elsanine was just a healer! "Forgive me; I'm not exactly well versed in the culture of your kind. Is he some kind of noble, then?"

Caelwyn smiled. "Elsanine is my son."

Gunther's eyebrows shot up. "He's a prince?!"

"Correction: he is the prince. There is no other."

"So... one day he'll rule the Veil?"

"No. That will never happen. A healer must remain a healer. A whiteborn fae has never ruled the Veil."

"Then who will? With all due respect, I'm fairly certain that you're not immortal..?"

That raised a chuckle from the king. "That I am not, but my life - like that of all fae - is measured in millennia. I have many thousands of years remaining, as does the queen."

Gunther nodded. "Will you have another child?"

"One day, yes. And that child will rule when I eventually stand down. And Elsanine will, I know, fully support his brother or sister."

Gunther was turning all of this information over in his mind, fascinated by it. "I'm sorry, I know I'm asking a lot of questions—"

"It is quite all right. In truth, I am as curious about mortal customs as you are about those of the fae. Perhaps we should make this a regular meeting, the better for us both to increase our knowledge?"

"I'd be honoured to. Thank you." Gunther bowed his head a little in thanks. "I've always loved to learn, and every day there's something new. I'm especially curious about fae colouring, if that's not too impertinent a thing to ask about?"

"Not at all impertinent, although from my limited knowledge of mortals I understand why the question of colouring may cause hesitance. Ask away, friend."

Gunther lost himself for a moment in the wine glass, considering how to phrase his question. Honesty had always served him well, even when he'd tried for sensitivity, so he decided to simply ask outright.

"You mentioned that a whiteborn fae has never ruled the Veil," he said. "Why is that?"

In response, Caelwyn gestured around the glade with his wine glass. "Look around you. How many white fae do you see?"

Gunther looked, finally spotting Elsanine walking toward the more secluded area of the glade where he stood with the king. But Elsanine was the only fae that he could see who was wearing white.

"Only one. Elsanine."

"That is because he is the only one. Whiteborn fae are as rare as... well, I believe the mortal saying is hen's teeth? Usually, only one exists at any time. We expected our son to be a forest fae - greenborn, like ourselves - but when he emerged we had no choice but to give him up to the healing craft."

"Why so? Can't all fae heal?"

Caelwyn shrugged one shoulder, in a gesture that was so familiar to Gunther as one that Valois often did, that he wondered if Caelwyn had picked it up from him.

"To a point, of course. But a whiteborn fae has a sublime gift for it. And that, my friend, must not be withheld. It is his calling."

"I see. But how did you know he's a whiteborn fae? I mean, he's wearing white but..."

Caelwyn laughed softly as Elsanine slipped between the trees behind Gunther.

"Consider his overall colouring, my friend. White hair, white wings, skin so pale that it may as well be called 'white', even his eyes are pale silver. A fae's colouring determines their vocation. Most of us have an affinity with some part of nature or another. For instance, green fae like myself are close to the trees and all plants."

He gestured again with the wine glass, this time toward the fae with the curly yellow wings that had transfixed Gunther earlier.

"Yellow fae, like Felaran over there, concern themselves with sunlight, pollen, and the yellow flowers of the world. And see Sarawin, the blue fae standing behind Valois? She has a natural affinity with water, from the morning dew to the streams that feed the plants and crops of the mortal world. But a white fae has only one vocation: that of healing. And they are a very powerful healer indeed."

Gunther smiled. "You must be so proud of him."

"Of course." Caelwyn glanced slightly past Gunther for a moment before his gaze landed back on him. His tone cooled a little. "I believe you have a son, also?"

Instantly, Gunther brightened. "Yes. His name is Mortimer, but we call him Mort. Just a sec..."

He slipped a hand inside his suit jacket and pulled out his slim wallet. Flipping it open, he held it out to show Caelwyn his favourite recent photo of Mort and Esther - taken in France - in the window on one side, and a photo of Mort when he was a young teenager, lost in creating a painting and unaware that his dad was snapping a photo, in the window on the other side.

Caelwyn examined the photos. "He is a fine young man," he murmured. "A talented artist, too, I see."

"Yes," Gunther said softly, turning the wallet so he could look at the photos himself. "I'd move mountains with my bare hands for him. Any happiness he wanted, I'd do whatever I could to give it to him."

"Is the woman his... partner? Intended? Beloved? Forgive me; I know not the terms that mortals use."

"Yes, that's Esther, his fiancée."

"I sense..." Caelwyn peered closer at the photos. "Hm. We may soon see her in the Veil, if I am not mistaken."

Gunther grinned. "Yes, she's a witch. Valois has begun to train her."

He watched as Caelwyn's gaze slid across to the recent photo of Mort. For a moment the king's brow furrowed, then smoothed as he looked back up at Gunther.

"You are content with your son's choice of... fiancée?"

"Oh god yes. Esther's a wonderful young woman. Mort loves her to bits, and they just feel so right together, if that makes sense."

"Hm." Caelwyn's eyes once more locked on something behind Gunther, who finally turned to see what he was looking at.


Gunther watched in silence, very aware of the disapproval emanating from Caelwyn, as - on the other side of the glade - Elsanine hovered close to Arcturus, who was gazing up at him. For a long moment they simply stared at each other, and then Arcturus smiled and held out one hand. Immediately, Elsanine's beautiful white wings shuddered and he flew into Arcturus's arms, all but wrapping himself around him and clinging to him.

Gunther smiled faintly. Oh, how he understood that longing, and he felt privileged to have witnessed the reunion of two souls made for each other, after what must have felt like an eternity apart.

"My friend," Caelwyn murmured. "Tell me. What would you do if your son had chosen one of whom you did not approve?"

Gunther's blood froze. Oh god, this was a terribly delicate moment. Caelwyn was clearly referring to the anger that Valois had told him about: the choice of a vampire to be a fae's Aeternus.

Honesty. Honesty had always got him through moments like this.

"I love him," he said, simply. "I could never deny my son the love he has chosen, however much I may dislike them. I would try to make my peace with it, for his sake, and wish him nothing but love and happiness."

Caelwyn was silent as he watched Elsanine holding on tightly to Arcturus, kissing him almost desperately, like a man starved of sustenance for too long. Elsanine's feet were still off the ground, although now he was held up more by Arcturus's arms than he was by his own wings. It was simultanously the sweetest and most heartbreaking thing Gunther had ever seen.

"Valois told me," Gunther said quietly, "that the Veil has a plan for everyone, and it's the Veil that chooses each Supernatural's Aeternus. It chose a simple mortal to be the Aeternus for the most powerful and ancient witch in existence."

"This cannot be the Aeternus," Caelwyn muttered.

Gunther closed his eyes briefly, knowing he shouldn't press the issue, but feeling such empathy with Elsanine after witnessing his reunion with Arcturus that he had to keep going.

"In the mortal realm... that would be the equivalent of a priest - a man of religion and faith - saying that God made a mistake. To the priest, God is perfection; all-knowing and all-seeing. It is not possible for God to make a mistake."

Caelwyn glanced sidelong at him, green eyes fixed on him. Gunther met that look as steadily as he could, calling upon the poker face he'd had to fall back on during many a tense boardroom meeting.

"You defend his choice?"

"It is not his choice, Your Majesty. What I see there..." Gunther gestured toward Elsanine and Arcturus, "...is what I feel here." He pressed his palm to his heart.

Caelwyn nodded, and Gunther hoped against hope that he hadn't caused offence, and that some of his words might at least make Caelwyn reconsider.

"There you are, mon cœur," a voice of inexpressible comfort broke into the silence between the two men, as Valois stepped into the corner of the glade where they stood, slipped an arm around Gunther's waist, and kissed his cheek.

"The musicians have arrived," Valois said with a smile. "I believe that it is about to become quite lively around here. Perhaps I should have delivered more wine this morning!"

Gunther was surprised at his husband's cheerful demeanour. Had Valois not sensed the tension in the area at all? Usually he would have picked up on something like that in an instant, and Gunther wondered if this was a front to try and diffuse any tension. But a quick glance at Caelwyn made him wonder something else: had the king woven some kind of magic of his own, to hide the simmering emotions swirling around?

"Indeed." Caelwyn's face finally broke into a smile as he greeted Valois. "Let us sit and keep ourselves safely away from the dancing and carousing. When the fae party, Gunther, we can get a little... boisterous."

Seated on a comfortable padded bench, leaning against Valois and held there with an arm around his shoulder, Gunther let the conversation drift over him. Distant music played, punctuated with bright laughter and singing, and the main open area of the glade was a shimmer of fae wings and celebratory magic.

Here in a more peaceful corner, sheltered by tall bushes and lit by the tapers that never seemed to burn down, two or three conversations were taking place, although Gunther paid them no heed. Caelwyn was discussing something about history with a tall silver-haired Italian vampire named Agostino. Felaran, the yellow curly-winged fae was listening intently to them, while Sarawin the blue fae whose beautiful sparkling wings were shaped like those of a dragonfly chatted animatedly to the Queen of the Fae.

Beside Gunther, Valois had Arcturus's gift balanced on his knee, and with his free hand he was gently leafing through the handwritten pages. The action must have caught Caelwyn's eye, because after a few minutes the king spoke to him.

"What have you there, my friend? Is it the gift you were given by the Returnee?"

"Yes." Valois looked up, and the movement roused Gunther enough that he began to listen to the conversation. "It is a precious thing, and I still cannot believe that he entrusted me with it."

"What is within those pages?" Caelwyn's curiosity was evident in his voice.

"His life's work," Valois replied. "A history of the Veil, throughout all the times that he is able to access. Written in his own hand over hundreds of years, in the general dialect so that it can be read by anyone. There is rare vampire magic within these pages, as there is far more information contained herein than the pages would seem able to hold."

Opening his eyes, Gunther looked across the glade to a much quieter corner that held only two people. Arcturus was seated on a bench with Elsanine curled up across his lap, his face buried in his lover's neck and his arms wrapped tightly around him. Arcturus's eyes were closed and a contented smile curved his lips, as Elsanine's wings shivered and flicked repeatedly. Gunther had no idea how to read a fae's wing movements, but that sure as hell looked like happiness to him.

"Hm," was all that Caelwyn said, but it made Gunther smile. In the short time he'd spent talking to Caelwyn, he'd learned that 'hm' meant he was thinking, even considering.

It was a start. It was definitely a start.

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to be continued