wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

13.

"So, I will see you when I see you," Zoltan said cheerfully. He was dressed in black trousers, a pale lavender silk shirt, and a black vest with almost-invisible pinstripes in its silk surface.

They stood at a corner all traffic must pass to leave the convention center. Erszebet thought him rather shabbily dressed to meet the Grand Matriarch's caravan, and said so.

He laughed. "I am no longer in employ of or under any obligation to a Grand Matriarch, especially not this one, cousin. I think my own Mater Magna would be upset if I showed too much respect to her sister ruler." He sobered and eyed her more closely. "That is a lesson to take with you, Erszebet: be careful to whom you owe obligations. Make them obliged to you if at all possible, even in small, seemingly insignificant ways. They will not forget, if they are good matriarchs, and these are both good ones."

She shifted her grip on her smallest suitcase and considered. "Did you owe an obligation to Magna Mater Klotild, cousin?"

He sighed and said, "A very great one, cousin. But do not imagine that I will tell you about it."

Erszebet nodded and looked at the pavement for a moment. Then she said, "Cousin, I have a question."

Zoltan emanated amusement. "Speak, cousin."

"I met a fortuneteller," she began.

"Madame Destiny?" he said, and the amusement damped down.

"Yes, I believe that was her name."

"Go on."

Erszebet related as exactly as she could recall the message Madame had given her several days earlier, and finished with, "And I cannot tell if it was a foretelling or a curse. Can you?"

Zoltan frowned into the middle distance. Slowly, he said, "I have only heard the Oracle give a foretelling like this once before."

"You have? Then it is a foretelling?" Erszebet said anxiously. She'd honestly hoped it was a curse. Curses can be removed. Well, most of them.

"Madame does not curse people. But here is your ride," Zoltan said, and Erszebet turned to see the enormous grey and black motorhome glide to a silent halt next to them.

Juana Zalazar opened the door and two strapping young men popped out to collect Erszebet's things. "Good day, cousins!" Juana called over their heads. "I hope it will not be amiss with you, Erszebet, that my mother would like you to ride with her a while."

"Of course not!" Erszebet said promptly. "It is an honor and a pleasure to ride with the Grand Matriarch." She hoped her anxiety was only readable by Zoltan.

"Come along, then," Juana said, disappearing back inside, followed by the strapping young men.

Erszebet turned to Zoltan. He took her hands and kissed her forehead, saying in the Family language, "And here I release you to the care of one greater than I, and charge you to return to me in your own time."

"I take from you greater understanding and hope my company was some small recompense," she replied, squeezing his hands. Then, in English, she said, "Is it a foretelling?"

Zoltan handed her up the step of the recreational vehicle and smiled. "A predecessor of Madame's said it to me." He kissed his fingertips to her and walked away before she could say anything else.

Erszebet settled with the rest of Magna Mater Consuela's abbreviated court in the immensely plush rear of the vehicle. Consuela was occupied speaking with some of the older women, so Erszebet had a chance to look out the back window as they pulled away. The Grand Matriarch's caravan was made up of other similar motorhomes, with limousines and SUVs interspersed and also moving into position as outriders on the four-lane highway they struck almost immediately. At the top of the hill leaving Wonder City, Erszebet could see the long, long line of vehicles spinning out behind them, well into the hundreds. Beyond, she could see the sun striking the top of the Perisphere and Trylon at the center of the city, and someone flying over them.

It might be a while before she returned, but Zoltan had been right: the place grew on you. She would, in fact, be back.

---

Author's Note:

The end. Of this interlude. But Erszebet and the Family seem to be popular, so I'm thinking that I will likely write more about her. She may get her own spinoff bits of story, which pleases me inordinately.

Posting to you from the last day of WisCon, sitting in the con suite, watching people disassemble it. Thank you to everyone I met at WisCon and who said kind things about both Wonder City and my play, "Fandom, Fandom, Do You Read?", which had its premiere reading Sunday morning.








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

12.

The festivities went on well into the daytime hours, and Erszebet was intrigued by the shift in the type of people she saw walking the halls. Of course, the vermin had to leave before sunrise, and they were replaced by vastly more people in colorful costumes than she had seen previously.

Everyone is happy to attend a celebration. Not quite so many are so happy to attend a funeral, even for someone who was, essentially, a kind of head of state.

She retired to what she'd begun to think of as "the Garnet Parlor", a sprawling room done up in lavish Victoriana, full of comfortable chairs, gas fireplaces, cozy conversation nooks, and sound-deadening wall-hangings and rugs. There was also something that flattened out emotional noise, so that it was very peaceful and quiet in all ways. In a dimly-lit corner, in a wingback chair, she closed her eyes and sighed with relief.

"Ah, Ms. Farkas," said a vaguely familiar woman's voice. "How does the last day of the event find you?"

Erszebet opened her eyes and found a cheerful almost-elderly woman smiling at her from another wingback chair; the woman was wearing a black turban with a peacock plume attached to it, and a long black dress, set off by a metallic wine-colored wrap, and a magnificent garnet parure. When the young, beautifully-dressed Asian man appeared in a morning coat and trousers, carrying a tray with a china teapot and cup, she recognized Madame Destiny. "I am extremely tired," Erszebet admitted. "But it has been an... unforgettable experience."

"I expect so," Madame said, taking the teacup offered. "You've had quite a week. And more experiences upcoming soon."

Erszebet looked sharply at the woman. "How do you know these things?"

Madame smiled and sipped her tea. "I've been a fortuneteller for almost fifty years."

Erszebet glanced at the young man, who smiled briefly and nodded. "She's a very good fortuneteller."

"Thank you, X, dear," Madame said. "Oh, would you take this, dear?" She handed the teacup back to the young man and turned a serious look on Erszebet. "I'm sorry, this will probably be somewhat unpleasant, but..."

There was an alarming change in the room -- the light shifted, became sharp and harsh and unforgiving, laying bare not only all the age lines in Madame's face, but the imperfections in the wall hangings, the upholstery, and the hem of Erszebet's dress. Madame, for her part, sat up very straight with her eyes glowing blue.

"ERSZEBET FARKAS," Madame said in an unearthly, sepulchral voice, "YOU ARE A CHILD OF DESTINY."

Erszebet just stared.

Madame went on: "YOUR TRAVELS WILL NOT END, YOUR WORDS FENCES TO MEND, YOUR NAME MANY WILL CALL FRIEND. GO WITH PEACE FOR NOW, THOUGH CONTENTION BE YOUR ETERNAL PARTNER." And with that, Madame slumped back in her chair and the light returned to normal.

Erszebet looked from Madame to X and back, alarmed.

X bent and set a gentle hand on Madame's shoulder. Madame took a startled breath and opened her eyes. She awkwardly nudged the turban on her head and smiled, a little vacantly, at Erszebet. "Well, dear, did that help?"

Erszebet found her voice, and decided to be very polite. "No, I'm afraid it only confused me."

Madame smiled more widely and managed to focus on her at last. "I'm sorry, dear, the Oracle is sometimes like that. It's usually so cryptic that its meaning isn't obvious until much later."

Erszebet was very glad when shortly after, Juana Zalazar came to abduct her. "You look rather pale," Juana said when they were out of the parlor. "Are you well?"

"I... just had a rather remarkable experience with one of the paras, I think," Erszebet said. "I can't quite make out whether it was a prophecy or a curse."

Juana patted her shoulder kindly. "Sometimes, it is impossible to tell the difference. Speaking of that, I'm taking you to see my mother."

Erszebet gave her a wild, alarmed look at this particular segue.

"Not to worry," Juana said, smiling. "My mother has asked to speak to you privately, and Dame Geneviève would like to be introduced to you."

Erszebet's look did not diminish in alarm at all. Both Grand Matriarchs wanted to speak to her? Specially? Had she spoken out of turn? Had Isolde mentioned her embarrassing assumptions earlier in the week? Was she to be sent home now instead of taken on a grand tour of the country?

The two Grand Matriarchs were ensconced, side by side, in comfortable-looking high-backed wooden chairs that looked as much like thrones as they could without actually being thrones. There was no dais, no added jewelry, no ermine or gold, nothing that really indicated that these two ancient women were actually queens who had just peaceably split a kingdom between them. The Zalazar had gone from "plump and cheerful" to "massive and imposing", the tall Spanish comb set with brilliants in her hair only adding more height. The de León's deepset eyes and hooked nose lent a grim and forbidding aspect to her mien.

Zoltan stood quietly to one side, a bland but pleasant smile on his face, his hands clasped behind his back. The smile widened a little at the sight of her, but there was nothing either warning or excessive in the expression.

Everyone in the room -- with the certain exception of Erszebet -- was locked down, emotionally, tight as a drum.

"Erszebet Farkas," Magna Mater Consuela said with a smile.

Erszebet sank into the deepest curtsy she could manage, trying desperately to remember the little "just in case you're presented to the new Grand Matriarch" tutorial her aunt Csilla had given her while also wondering why everyone was using her full name today. Her reward for the curtsy -- and staying down -- was a tight note of approval from Zoltan.

"Rise," Magna Mater Geneviève intoned. "So you are the girl."

Erszebet tried not to show or leak panic as she drew herself back up to her feet.

"She is," Magna Mater Consuela said complacently. "We wish to thank you, Erszebet."

Erszebet tried not to show or leak confusion. She didn't succeed.

"I had planned to challenge Griselda no matter what," Magna Mater Consuela continued. "As had my counterpart here."

"The historical information you passed on to the St. Michels," Magna Mater Geneviève said, "was promptly spread far and wide throughout the American Family, which inspired all the Ancients to challenge."

"It may be an unprecedented event, even in the old country," Magna Mater Consuela said, "this great challenge. You should check with your aunt and let us know." She smiled, and Erszebet took it as reassurance.

"I am grateful to have been of service, my Mothers," Erszebet said, curtsying again.

"I look forward to your company on our travels to my realm," Magna Mater Consuela said, beaming upon her. "And perhaps more discussions of history."

Erszebet dipped to the floor again.

Magna Mater Geneviève turned a moment of crushing, laserlike focus upon her, and Erszebet narrowly managed to avoid cringing. "I understand you are acquainted with my granddaughter," she said after a moment.

"Yes, Mother," Erszebet said, locking down her embarrassment as hard as she could.

"Well, then," Magna Mater Geneviève said, "when Magna Mater Consuela releases you back into the wild, I will charge my granddaughter Isolde with bringing you to my Household for a time."

Yet another curtsy. "You honor me greatly, Mother."

"Shall I send her back to you, Zoltan?" Magna Mater Consuela inquired. "And you can facilitate her reunion with Isolde."

He bowed so that his long hair brushed the floor. "I should be glad of hosting my cousin again, Mother."

"It is settled, then," Magna Mater Geneviève said, thumping the arm of her chair. "Leave us now. We still have many people to see today."

Erszebet escaped the room gracefully, with Juana's assistance. In the hallway, she carefully mopped her forehead and face with her linen handkerchief as she said to Juana, "As if one Grand Matriarch is not terrifying enough..."

Juana laughed. "Yes, indeed. Well done. Come, we will get you a drink. You deserve one."

---

Author's Note:

Portents! Portents and omens! And terror! Yes, terror!








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

11.

Erszebet and Zoltan arrived earlier than usual, both anxious to know what was happening. As they coolly made their way into the halls of the convention center, Erszebet's gaze was almost immediately assaulted by a middle-aged man in a miniscule leopard-skin loincloth pacing the halls in a manner he clearly thought resembled a stalking big cat.

"What is wrong with his skin?" she asked Zoltan behind her hand. "Is it jaundice? Some alien disease?"

"No, my dear," he said, pat-patting her shoulder, "that is the rather orange result of a chemical suntan. And that is the finest example of an out-of-date para you will ever see: Ran-Zor the Lord of the Jungle."

Erszebet studied him, from the thinning and graying hair that straggled down his back, to the signs of a sedentary occupation in the thinness of his arms and legs, to the bunion on his foot. She glanced at Zoltan, trying to ascertain whether he was having her on. "He does not look like a lord of the jungle," she concluded dubiously.

Zoltan shrugged. "He claims to be an English lord who was left to fare for himself in the jungle by the tragic deaths of his parents, who were notable explorers, though I certainly never heard of them. I think he was raised by pangolins or something." He gestured toward the man for the benefit of one of the werewolf guards, and a half dozen werewolves closed in on the lord of the jungle. "He always claims to be Mystikai, and so crashes our events. I think he likes being manhandled, personally." He swept Erszebet past the impending fracas.

They encountered Harald soon enough. The elderly man was pink in the face with excitement. "I expect you have heard the news!" he exclaimed, shaking Zoltan's hand vigorously.

"Full-bore Cotyngham withdrawal?" Zoltan said, grinning. "Indeed we have!"

Harald bowed low over Erszebet's hand and gave her a wink. "Perhaps we have not been so boring after all," he said.

"Not at all, sir!" Erszebet said, taking his arm and squeezing it warmly. "This has all been very educational."

"Oh, dear," Harald said to Zoltan. "I am truly old, my friend, when a pretty young lady tells me that I am part of an educational experience."

"We are all educational for my dear cousin, I fear," Zoltan said.

"You are," Erszebet assured them cheerfully. "That does not make you less charming."

"Flatterer," Harald said, but he winked at her again.

"So who is here?" Zoltan asked.

"All the Ancients," Harald said. "They all arrived early and have locked themselves away to debate. I expect we shall have a long evening of waiting."

"There is no convenient smoke to turn white when they make a decision," Erszebet said.

Zoltan and Harald laughed. "No," Harald said, "but I expect we shall know almost instantly."

It was, in fact, a long evening of waiting. Erszebet left the menfolk to their own devices soon after, and went in search of her various acquaintances. After an hour of sliding through the dense crowd of Family, paras, vermin, and others, she heard her name called.

"Erszebet!" Alicia called again, bouncing up and down and waving to her over the heads of several individuals in color-coded armor.

She gratefully made her way toward her friend and found Catherine there as well. "Whatever are you doing in this little hallway?" she asked, accepting the glass of wine that Catherine snagged off a passing waiter's tray in the main hall.

"The meeting room is just down there," Alicia bellowed genteelly over the roar that filled the convention center halls.

"The meeting room!" Catherine shouted, waggling her thick black eyebrows meaningfully.

"And Jeanne-Marie is in there, acting as a messenger-clerk for her grandmother!" Alicia said directly into Erszebet's ear, guiding her away from the majority of the press. "We're hoping to get news the next time she's sent out."

"We are inveterate noseyparkers," Catherine said, fanning herself.

"How exciting!" Erszebet said, drinking her wine. "I had thought my cousin got the news first and we would be here before all else, but it seems not to be."

"Oh, I expect your cousin was the one who sent out the news to our families," Catherine said with a knowing look. "He has resources in this town."

"Were the two of you as exhausted as I was?" Erszebet asked.

"Oh, yeah," Alicia said. "I have a couple of my regular donors with me, though, so that was easy enough."

"Lucky," Catherine said. "I had to drop by one of the approved hunting grounds. Did your cousin provide for you, Erszi?"

"Yes," Erszebet said. "Though it was... um, strange."

"This whole city is a weirdness magnet," Alicia said. "I'll be glad to get home."

"To San Francisco?" Catherine said, grinning. "That haven of normalcy and WASPy Puritanical values?"

"Shh!" Erszebet said, cutting off whatever Alicia was about to say. "Here comes Jeanne-Marie!"

Jeanne-Marie was trying to combine dignity with speed, striding down the hall in a very plain grey pantsuit and practical shoes. Her face was flushed and she was perspiring lightly. She paled a bit when she saw the trio lying in wait. "I cannot say anything!" she said before they could start in on her. "It is a heated discussion, in more ways than one, and my grandmother will brook no delay. Also," she said, pausing to give them a regretful grimace, "much of what's being said is not for my ears." With a wave, she hurried away.

The trio looked at each other, and Catherine relieved the curiosity of the younger women by saying, "Telepathy. By the time you get to their age, all this empathy we wrangle has sort of... transcended."

"I didn't know that," Alicia said, rather awed.

"Neither did I," Erszebet said. She and Alicia exchanged glances, both leaking discomfort that probably reflected thoughts of what their grandmothers and great-aunts -- and possibly mothers and aunts -- were saying about them when they couldn't hear.

The trio drifted away, since they were going to get no scoop from their friend, and over the next couple of hours, they drifted apart into other conversations.

Finally, the tolling of a massive bell shook the halls into wide-eyed silence.

Just as people were beginning to ask where the bell was, a second sounding of the bell rattled everyone's ribcage and teeth and bones.

The loudspeaker system came on and Zoltan's cheerful voice rang out: "Will everyone please convene in the auditoriums? The main auditorium is reserved for Family, but the subsidiary auditoriums all have screens and live broadcasts."

Erszebet found herself jostled up against Isolde in the press to get into the main auditorium. Isolde linked arms with her. "I've gotta have someone to talk to in this mess," she told Erszebet. "The suspense is killing me."

"This is very exciting!" Erszebet said. "Do you think your grandmother...?"

"I try not to think anything about my grandmother," Isolde said. "She always surprises me, no matter what."

They settled into seats in the balcony, giving way to their elders. Erszebet spotted Alicia across the auditorium, but could not locate Catherine or Jeanne-Marie.

It took at least half an hour to settle everyone in the main auditorium. Erszebet was vibrating with the excitement that everyone was radiating.

At last, Zoltan appeared on stage, immaculate in his perfectly tailored black tuxedo and starched white shirt. There was a scattered round of applause that he waved into silence.

"My friends and Family," he said into the microphone he was holding, "it is my distinct honor to be able to present you with our Circle of Ancients."

Silently, the oldest women in North America filed onto the stage, all wearing the most beautiful black gowns Erszebet had ever seen, some remarkably anachronistic yet still gorgeous. They arrayed themselves in a semicircle around Zoltan.

After a dramatic pause, Zoltan said, "And now, the moment we have all been waiting for: the name of the new Grand Matriarch of North America." He drew an envelope from his pocket, tore open the end, and drew a folded sheet of paper from it. He looked at the paper, and Erszebet, even from her balcony seat, could see his eyes widen, though he was too polished and well-controlled to show any other response.

There was an impatient rustle through the audience. The Circle of Ancients, however, might have been carved from stone.

"I will read you what is on this paper," Zoltan said, his voice wavering just a little. He cleared his throat. "'It is the consensus of the Ancients that in light of the remarkable changes the past two centuries has brought to this land, the original territorial lines of the Dominion of North America may be over-ambitious, if we extrapolate for even simply the century to come. As a result, we have redrawn the territorial lines.'"

An explosion of noise throughout the auditorium caused Zoltan to lower the paper and wait. He glanced once over his shoulder, though Erszebet could not make out who he was looking at.

"This never happens," Erszebet muttered to Isolde. "My aunt has never said that there has been redrawing of the lines in anything like recent memory -- only wars to take existing Family territories."

"It's still a new land," Isolde said, eyes locked on the stage. "Evolving traditions and all."

A wave of impatient severity rippled over the room, silencing it almost immediately.

"Oh, Grandmother," Isolde said with a grim little smile.

Zoltan looked to the paper again. "'Be assured, beloved Family, that we have carefully negotiated these lines, agreed to the required alliance conditions, and signed the necessary contracts.'" He folded the paper and tucked it into his pocket. "It is my honor and pleasure to present to you the Grand Matriarchs of the East and the West, respectively: Dame Geneviève de León and Doña Consuela Maria Mercedes del Santiago Zalazar!"

The two women stepped forward to either side of Zoltan. Dame Geneviève gravely bowed to the applause while Doña Consuela waved and smiled enthusiastically.

Erszebet applauded till her hands hurt, and only when the applause began to die away did she notice that Isolde's applause was somewhat more restrained. "Are you all right?" she asked.

Isolde gave her a pained smile. "Well, you know what 'required alliance conditions' usually are, right?"

Erszebet frowned. "I expect those would be marriages."

Isolde nodded and gripped the seat back in front of her. "First marriages, of course, because secondary or tertiary spouses would not have nearly enough clout. And I'm the oldest unmarried woman in my family."

"Oh," Erszebet said. "Oh, Isolde." She laid her hand on Isolde's.

Isolde laced her fingers with Erszebet's and squeezed. They both looked back at the stage and over the jubilant auditorium in silence.

---

Author's Note:

No one expects the Spanish Disposition!








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

9.

No one who wasn't Family was permitted in the auditorium, and none of the men were permitted either. In fact, the men had all been sent to the far end of the convention center for their own reception, and the werewolf guards were clearing the hallways close to this room. Erszebet could only imagine this was a relief to Zoltan, who had been master of ceremonies for days now.

Erszebet had an admirable view of the entire gathering from her generation's position in what Zoltan called the "nosebleed" seats. She could look down on Klotild's coffin on the central dais, and what she knew would probably be the largest crowd of Ancients she would ever see, milling around the coffin. She judged there to be at least fifty women in the Circle of the Ancients -- women who had seen their seventh century or beyond. She picked out Griselda, seated in a chair near the coffin, her white hair arranged in a coronet around her head, the sequins on her black dress flashing in the stage lights.

La Doña Consuela was easy to pick out as well -- she took up a lot of space, both physically and energetically, and she moved like lightning, speaking to first one woman, then another, working her way through the crowd until she alighted at Griselda's side. Griselda looked up at her, then looked away, despite the fact that Consuela was talking to her rather urgently. After a few moments, Consuela gave a rather theatrical shrug and turned away from the Cotyngham to speak to Klotild's eldest daughter, Terez, who was herself in her mid-700s and had traveled all the way from Kiev to be here.

Erszebet felt someone arrive at her side radiating friendly-acquaintance feelings, so she looked up. Isolde was there, smiling down at her. Erszebet scrambled to her feet. "Madame Isolde," she began.

"No titles," Isolde said, hiking her black velvet shrug higher on her shoulders, her strapless black dress sheathing her like paint. "We're in the same generation, after all." She gestured around at their fellow youth.

Erszebet frowned, confused by the evidence of Isolde's lack of centuries and the further evidence of her mastery of her emotional facade. "Surely you're a good deal older than I," she said slowly.

Isolde shrugged. "I'm a few decades shy of graduation down to the floor."

Which meant she had lived less than two hundred years. Erszebet stared at her with new respect. "I... wanted to apologize for being so rude the other day," she said.

Isolde waved a hand. "Don't worry about it. I'm used to it. And you learned something, hey?"

Erszebet winced internally at the thought of what came with "I'm used to it". She turned her embarrassed attention back to the floor. "Is... is there someone from your family in the center circle?"

"Oh, ya," Isolde said. "Over there, at, oh, eight o' clock from the coffin. My grandmother, Dame Geneviève de León."

Erszebet peered at the indicated knot of old women, and identified a woman with medium-brown skin and iron gray hair pulled into myriad tight braids that were gathered together by a silver band somewhere near her shoulderblades. Dame Geneviève had a broad, hooked nose, sharp dark eyes, and an altogether formidable mien. Erszebet suspected that she would find all the women of Isolde's family to be uncommonly accomplished in battening their emotional hatches.

Isolde emitted amusement at Erszebet's reaction. "Many people feel that way about Grandmère. But really, she's in her element down there. Don't you think all of them are pretty terrifying?"

Erszebet studied the faces she could see, and nodded slowly. She shifted her attention to the next ring out, which was much more numerous. "Is your mother in the second circle?"

Isolde laughed a little. "Actually, my mother is in the third circle. She's Grandmère's youngest daughter, and I'm her eldest."

Erszebet was prevented from answering by the arrival of Jeanne-Marie. "Ah, Erszebet, I was wondering where you were hiding!" the Quebecoise said.

Politely, Erszebet said, "Jeanne-Marie St. Michel, Isolde de León."

"Charmed," Jeanne-Marie said, extending a hand.

"Likewise," Isolde said, shaking the proffered hand.

"Have either of you seen Alicia?" Jeanne-Marie said.

"Figueroa?" Isolde said, and when both Jeanne-Marie and Erszebet nodded, she said, "She's on the other side of the auditorium with her sisters."

"Ah, that girl," Jeanne-Marie said. "Well, I have found the two of you, and I will linger if you don't mind."

Isolde shrugged and Erszebet smiled at Jeanne-Marie. All were forestalled from further conversation by a wave of silencing emotion spreading out from the Circle of the Ancients. They obediently turned their faces toward the dais.

Terez Lakatos, who had apparently inherited her mother's tendency toward excellent preservation, stood tall and severe beside the coffin, her perfectly black hair sleeked back into a severe bun at the base of her skull, her long-sleeved, high-necked black dress highlighted only by the most remarkable collar of diamonds and emeralds that Erszebet had ever seen. She said, in Hungarian, "We begin!"

The other Ancients all repeated this in their respective languages, and four old women, including Consuela Zalazar, walked to the border between the inner and second circles, where younger Lakatos women, including Magdolna, handed over a large golden sarcophagus. The old women handled it like it was made of feathers, but Erszebet could see the massive weight of the thing in the way it moved.

Terez leaned down and kissed her mother's still-serene face, then closed the coffin lid. Geneviève de León and the bird-like, white-haired woman Jeanne-Marie had pointed out as her own grandmother lifted the coffin so the sarcophagus could be slid under it, then lowered it into the waiting gold container. They shut the outer lid -- shaped in the likeness of Klotild -- and snapped the fastenings shut with clicks that echoed throughout the auditorium.

Erszebet noticed that throughout, Griselda did not rise or move. She just appeared to stare at the coffin.

The Ancients circled the sarcophagus, carefully not touching each other, but standing as close as they could to the device. Erszebet saw the second circle surge forward eagerly, and even the third circle shifted closer. Her own generation mostly craned their necks for the best view.

A hum began in the inner circle, spread to the second and third circles, and eventually, Erszebet found herself joining her voice to the mass.

The hum grew to a roar, with notes reaching into registers that no human could hear. Erszebet could feel the metal rail of the balcony reverberating with the sound. The air was thick with energy, so much so that Erszebet could barely see the inner circle.

Just as the sound became unbearable, Terez pressed her hands to the sarcophagus lid and all the energy in the room converged on the metal, draining out of the air in a visible rush of heat. Terez snatched her hands back from the surface and fell back into her place in the circle.

Isolde leaned over and whispered in Erszebet's ear, "Do you think they'll do it?"

Erszebet breathed, "Let Griselda have it? I don't know."

As Klotild's millennial physical form incinerated within the sarcophagus, Erszebet squinted to see the first of the magical particles her sister Ilona had told her about emerging. Anyone as old as Klotild must have accumulated and refined a vast quantity of magic into the cells of her body. The burning of the body released these particles (which were also energy waves, Ilona had said, and Erszebet did not pretend to understand). Tradition, Aunt Csilla had told her, was that the expected successor would be allowed to absorb the majority of the magic released.

Erszebet saw the colorless wave of nothing emerge from the reddened metal, and she saw Griselda raise a hand toward it.

Then Consuela Zalazar raised her hand.

And Geneviève de León.

And Margot St. Michel.

A gasp ran around the balcony.

In a matter of seconds, the only woman in the Circle of Ancients who was visibly relinquishing a claim on the magic from Klotild's incineration was Terez Lakatos. She even took a step back from the circle.

Shreds of magical plasma spilled over into the second circle, where women pounced on it without moving a muscle. The third circle stood ready, but unhopefully, watching the Ancients.

Griselda rose from her chair.

The duel was silent, with almost no spillover of magic beyond the second circle. Magic moved back and forth with an emotional force that rocked every woman present physically with the pushes and pulls. The air heated as if they were all incinerating with Klotild. Erszebet found herself holding onto Isolde and Jeanne-Marie tightly. The whole room felt like it was going to explode at any second.

Ancients dropped out of the duel one by one. One old woman staggered back, hand to her head, and Terez hurried to steady her. Others simply dropped their hands when the cloud slipped from their grasp.

Finally, Griselda was facing only Geneviève de León and Consuela Zalazar.

There was a long, tense glaring match, during which time the temperature in the huge room rose at least ten degrees. Geneviève turned her outstretched hand toward herself and clenched it into a fist. Griselda and Consuela matched this motion.

Erszebet felt sweat trickling down her spine.

The magic tore apart audibly into three portions that were roughly equal, with a fountain of spillage bouncing out over the center circle into the Second Circle, and even spraying into the Third. The last of the cloud of magic blew apart in a flare of something beyond visible light. Griselda sat down in her chair hard. Geneviève swayed a little. Consuela delicately dabbed her upper lip with a lace handkerchief.

"What did that mean?" Erszebet whispered.

Isolde mopped her damp brow with a corner of her shrug. "That," she said grimly, "was a vote of no-confidence."

---

Author's Note:

Ancients shouldn't mess with other Ancients. It cooks everyone around them.








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His Faded Idol

4.

Both Harald and Zoltan had long since abandoned her, so Erszebet had determined to wander the extent of the enormous wake. She did, however, back out of some of the parlors without speaking to anyone. The one done up in extravagant Gothic draperies and lace and candles, for instance, and the one where someone was intoning that he did not drink wine.

A cheerful room, brightly lit with many people moving in and out of it and a live band playing, drew her in. A small woman with light brown skin immediately swooped upon her. "I saw you earlier with Zoltan, but couldn't break away to meet you," she said, energetically shaking Erszebet's hand. It was hard for Erszebet to guess her age -- she could have been anywhere from 200 to 800, really. "I am Juana Zalazar."

Recognition lit in the depths of Erszebet's psychic overload. "Of New Mexico?" she said, her smile warming.

"You've heard of me then?" Juana said.

"Only your name, I'm afraid," Erszebet said. "I am Erszebet Farkas, Zoltan's cousin." Part of her was still irked at the fact she was identifying herself this way to people, but most people had become friendlier upon hearing it, and so she was going to milk it for every ounce of political worth.

"I guessed you were from his family. You look like him," Juana said, linking arms with her and starting to slowly perambulate around the edges of the room.

Erszebet had no choice but to follow. "Your family is much more... energetic than most of the other families here," she said, nodding in the direction of the band.

"We believe in celebrating the life," Juana said. "And Klotild had such a life. It would be a shame to weep and wail over it."

Recalling her own family's tendency toward somberness, Erszebet could only nod and smile.

"My cousin Lucia has married one of Klotild's grandsons, you know," Juana said in a confidential tone. "And, of course, in exchange, one of her brothers -- Diego, I think -- has gone to the Lakatos family. One of Kathalin's granddaughters has taken him in."

Erszebet warmed immediately, as, no doubt, Juana expected she would. The Farkas family was related to Klotild's Lakatos family by extensive intermarriage, and the alliance between the Zalazars and Lakatos meant that she and Juana were related. Erszebet had never heard of the Spanish clans marrying beyond the German and Italian clans before, and was intrigued. "Well, I am glad to know you, cousin," she said. "But such an alliance seems so unusual."

"In these days, cousin, the world is very small," Juana said, smiling. "The Zalazars have always sought to broaden ourselves. My mother is quite firm about it."

"A laudable goal," Erszebet said, thinking of her family and its many, many traditions of marriage and bizarre algorithms for calculating relatedness.

"Your clan is still primarily in Hungary, I understand," Juana said, a very slight upturn of tone indicating an interrogative.

"Oh, yes," Erszebet said, accidentally letting some of her gloom color her emanations.

Juana patted her hand and smiled again. "Here we are at the front of the room. Do let me present you to my esteemed mother?"

Erszebet could hardly refuse, since Juana was already moving them toward the knot of people that presumably hid the ancient Doña.

The round, effervescent woman with silvered hair who was revealed as the crowd parted was nothing like what Erszebet expected. She had the loveliest dark eyes Erszebet had ever beheld, and Erszebet thought she must have shattered hearts across the world during her lifetime. She smiled and very nearly shattered Erszebet's.

"Mother," Juana said, bowing to her mother, "be pleased, if you will, to meet our cousin, Erszebet Farkas. She is Zoltan's cousin, here for the family. Erszebet, this is my mother, la Doña Consuela Zalazar."

Erszebet sank into her best curtsy and rose to be offered la Doña's extended hand. "Cousin! These events are so dreary, and so necessary," she said, her Spanish accent discernable but not distracting, "and yet, they bring us such joy in new friends." Her grip was firm, like a businesswoman's, and she patted Erszebet's arm with her free hand. "How long do you stay with us on this side of the ocean?"

Erszebet said, "My mother and aunts asked me to stay only for the funeral."

"Oh, but that is no good!" Doña Consuela said. "Will you let me call your mother Rozsa and ask her if we may abscond with you afterward for a few weeks? There is so much more of this country you should see while you are here. It is so important to see the world while you can."

"O-of course, Doña, I would be pleased to accept your hospitality if my mother allows it," Erszebet said, taken utterly aback and glancing aside at Juana for guidance. Juana smiled and nodded, giving a little shrug.

Doña Consuela leaned close and said, conspiratorially, "She probably gave you those orders because on her trip over, she was whisked away by Griselda's sister Melicent, and she had a miserable time, pobrecita. But we shall... what is the saying, Juana?"

"'Show you a good time'?" Juana offered.

"Sí, sí, we shall show you a good time," la Doña said. "I will call her in the morning, I promise."

"Thank you, Doña, thank you very much!" Erszebet said, grateful for both the attention and the promise of seeing more of the country. "I was so disappointed when my mother asked me to return so quickly."

Doña Consuela patted her cheek fondly. "Have no fear, mi corazón," she said, and turned away to greet someone new who was urgently trying to get her attention.

Juana guided a dazed Erszebet away from the great lady. "Don't worry," Juana said, "she has that effect on everyone."

---

Author's Note:

Gah! Life! It keeps happening! Well, I can't argue too much about that, because much of it is good and exciting. But still, I will bust ass to get at least one of the full readings up this week.









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