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

10.

Erszebet slept like the dead during the next day. Apparently, even though she wasn't close to the action of the Circle of the Ancients, the work the Ancients had gone to in order to pull on the magic also pulled something -- her energy? her own magic? -- out of her. Or maybe the tension had exhausted her. She couldn't tell. She just knew that she was so very asleep that she was relatively certain she did not dream at all.

She dragged downstairs to Zoltan's apartment sometime around 4 pm, passing without comment several of his boarders, including a very striking young black man and an enormous brown-skinned woman who were chatting in the hall. She was fairly sure they stared at her, but she couldn't summon the energy to even bid them good day.

"You look terrible," Zoltan said cheerfully upon opening his door. "Come in. You need something to eat, I think."

Erszebet moved inside just enough to fold into her favorite comfortable chair in his living room. She rested her forehead on her knees and said, "I think I need someone to eat."

"You are fortunate, then, that I have a spare," Zoltan said, leaking good-natured amusement at her. He trotted off to his kitchen and returned with a handsome, clean-cut young man with pale skin and well-formed features. "Alexander here doesn't mind the affections of ladies," her host explained with a wink, and took himself back out of the room.

Erszebet rolled her head back against the chair and examined Alexander as carefully as she could in her present condition. He smiled, just a little nervously, and sat on the ottoman next to her chair. "Zoltan says that you're rather, um, depleted."

She raised her eyebrows. "You don't mind being passed to his cousin like... like..."

"A juice bag?" he said with a little laugh. "No, no, I'm, uhm, particularly interested in... in new experiences, and he, ah, knows it. He invited me over today because he thought you might be... needing a little help."

Erszebet didn't even have the energy to roll her eyes at Zoltan's imposition of thoughtfulness, and no energy to wonder about Alexander's definition of "new experiences". "I am sorry, I usually try to make this more, ah, personal, but I'm afraid my cousin is correct about my... depletion."
"Oh, no problem," he said, with an anticipatory gleam in his eye that might have put her off another time. He moved the ottoman close to the side of her chair.

She reached over, arm feeling like lead, and drew him in close. The fangs came more easily than they had since she was a young, immature 20-something. She licked his skin to anesthetize it and then punctured it neatly -- some clans preferred to nearly maul their donors, which always appalled her, but she supposed it to serve some marking service. Then she withdrew the fangs, closed her eyes, and focused on drawing his blood to her, just as the Ancients had been drawing magic (and other things) to themselves.

When the first drops spattered deliciously into her mouth, she immediately felt better, and, within a few moments, was able to slow her draw to a thin trickle that she could savor Alexander's energies seeping into her tissues. This went on for several minutes, until a whimper from him made her recall herself. She slowed the flow and then stopped it so that it could clot itself, and then pulled away from him.

He wavered there, eyes closed, a blissful expression on his face. She studied the expression curiously. She knew that various factors provided a rather enjoyable experience for both vampire and donor, but she wasn't certain she'd ever seen someone quite so... lost in the experience before.

"Are you all right?" she asked after a few more moments.

His eyes opened and he smiled slowly at her. "Oh, yeahhhh."

She leaped to her feet, suddenly very nervous around him. "Well, ah, thank you very much. Take care," she said, and fled incontinently into the kitchen. She pressed her back against the door and gave her cousin a wild look.

Zoltan smiled sympathetically. "It's a little... strange, no?"

"Is he your... your... boyfriend?" she asked, swallowing hard.

"Oh, heavens, no," Zoltan said, strolling over to her. "Just, ah, a person who has an interest in our kind. If you'll excuse me, I'll send him on his way." She stepped aside and he went into the living room.

She found a soda in the refrigerator and drank the whole thing in a few gulps. Zoltan slid back in a few moments later and found her sitting at the kitchen table, holding the cold bottle to her forehead.

"Headache?" he inquired, placing a couple of tablets next to her elbow. "Or should I say hangover?"

"It feels like a hangover," Erszebet grumbled, "but I didn't drink anything last night."

"No," Zoltan said, sitting opposite her, leaning back, and crossing his legs. "But the Ancients were just a tad heedless in their little conflict. So heedless, we could feel it at the far end of the convention center."

Erszebet downed the tablets with the last of her soda and eyed him suspiciously. "You are far too cheerful. Klotild's fears were true, no?"

"Oh, yes," Zoltan said, smiling and humming a tune.

"There will be a great civil war, then?" Erszebet said to the tabletop, feeling obscurely guilty for sharing her historical knowledge with people.

"Oh, no," Zoltan said, his smile growing.

"What?" Erszebet said, forgetting her headache.

"The entire Cotyngham Household and every associated Household decamped first thing this morning," Zoltan said. "Charming Griselda and her many daughters are en route to Chicago as we speak."

Erszebet goggled at him, still not entirely comprehending.

Zoltan took pity on her. "Griselda, I think, took the hint of the challenge. She could stand up to, say, Consuela alone. But with both Consuela AND Geneviève against her, who were proven to be her magical equals, and who are, she knows, much more connected and popular than she is? No. Instead she retires to her stronghold and continues to be a... pain in the ass for whoever the next Grand Matriarch is."

"So Klotild did underestimate her fellow Ancients," Erszebet said, a little dazed.

"Yes, I think so," Zoltan said, and grinned. "I have always thought so."

"And you are cheerful because...?" Erszebet said, though she knew.

"Because I successfully upheld my oath to Klotild," Zoltan said complacently, "and I still don't have to put up with that hateful old bat."

She got up and kissed his cheek. "I am, I think, beginning to see why my mother sent me to you."

"I have always been such a good education for young cousins," Zoltan said, kissing her cheek in return. "Go, dress. We must get to the center to find out who the new Grand Matriarch will be."

---

Author's Note:

I wanted to remind everyone that these ARE vampires we're talking about. :)








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.








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

8.

"I spoke my mother this morning," Erszebet said as she sat down to Zoltan's table for a brief supper before dressing for the evening's activities. "She said that as long as you felt that my trip with the Zalazars would be more valuable than her time with the Cotynghams, I could go."

"You could spend an evening with Ebb and Flo, waiting tables in their cafe, and have it be more valuable than Rosza's time with the Cotynghams," Zoltan said, putting two buttermilk biscuits on a plate and ladling gravy over them. He placed the plate before his guest and said, "I have no doubt that a visit with the Zalazars will be extremely educational."

Erszebet studied her supper gravely for a moment before taking up her fork and trying a bite. It was hot, savory, and peppery, and the biscuits beneath were delicately flaky. She turned her pleasantly surprised look on Zoltan.

"American cuisine," he said, settling to his own with a small smile, "is often both filling and comforting, I have found."

"I see," Erszebet said. She took another bite and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. Then, she swallowed and said, "No one seems to like Griselda much at all."

Zoltan pursed his lips but didn't look at her. "There is not much to like in her, I admit."

"Some of the people I have spoken to feel she will be an embarrassment to the Family," she pursued.

"Sometimes," he said, still not looking at her, "embarrassment must be endured."

"They seemed surprised when I told them that the eldest does not always automatically become Grand Matriarch in Europe," Erszebet said, watching his face.

His lips tightened into a flat line and he glanced at her. "I see," he said. His emotions were not nearly as well-controlled as usual, full of conflict and annoyance and disapproval.

"Cousin, your name is virtually synonymous in the Family with rebellion," Erszebet finally said. "Why are you so determined that this old bat become the next Grand Matriarch?"

"Because that is what is done," Zoltan said, voice strained.

She emitted a sound of exasperation. "Just like an American," she muttered.

"What?" he said, offended.

"Just like an American!" she repeated. "Americans voted an incompetent, embarrassing puppet of a man into their supposedly most important political position because of, as far as I can tell, stubbornness and stupidity. As a result, people in my part of the world think of the United States as barbaric and pathetic. A hundred years of reputation, gone in an eyeblink of two terms of office. It will take a hundred more years of intelligent leadership to reestablish that reputation."

Zoltan shifted in his chair uncomfortably. He looked furious.

"Now think, cousin," Erszebet continued, "what Griselda will do to this continent's Family reputation in whatever decades are spared her. And how long it will take to rebuild it. All Klotild's good works, useless, destroyed."

"ENOUGH," Zoltan roared, bolting upright from his chair. Erszebet rocked back from the table under the emotional force behind the word. "I know all this, cousin. Do you think me completely insensible?" He strode angrily into the kitchen.

She followed, knowing she was possibly being foolish. He was at least a hundred years her senior, possibly more, she wasn't sure, and could certainly crush her like a bug if he chose. "Then why don't you use your influence against her?"

He turned on her, hissing, "Because..."

Erszebet found herself on hands and knees, her skull splitting with pain, unable to focus on his subsequent words. Squashed like a bug after all. After an eternity of white-hot fury, the pressure vanished, and she felt his hands take hers.

"Cousin, forgive me," Zoltan said, helping her to her feet. He was under control again, neatly buttoned down as ever. "I should not be angry with you."

Erszebet wavered on her feet for a moment before relinquishing his support. Her vision was clearing and the pain was slowly receding. "Who are you angry with?" she asked, still dazed.

"Myself," he said, watching her. "And Klotild."

"You hate Griselda as much as anyone," Erszebet said, that awareness filtering through from the overload of information with which he'd just pummeled her. "More, even. Because of Klotild?"

Zoltan motioned her back into his dining room. "Klotild thought that... well, most of the great families came here during colonial times. The old girls tend to still think of this place as a pioneering adventure, where there is less politesse and more... drawn guns at high noon, you see? It seemed to her that the only way to avoid a Family civil war was to establish an American Tradition."

Erszebet sat back in her place, though her appetite was quite thoroughly gone. "She did not think highly of her fellow Ancients, did she?"

"Griselda," Zoltan said, in a tone that suggested the old woman was an adequate explanation.

"So Klotild is the source of all this... this rhetoric about what is and is not 'done' here?" Erszebet said.

"Yes," Zoltan said. "And she made me... she asked me to swear that I would do everything in my power to support the 'tradition.'" He shrugged and grimaced. "It seems my name is nearly synonymous with rebellion in the Family."

Erszebet laughed painfully.

He poked his congealing gravy and biscuits with his fork. "I may not be dependable in many ways, but I have a duty to my word." His shoulders slumped and he put the fork down.

She rose and walked to his side of the table. Hesitatingly, she put a hand on his shoulder, then kissed his cheek. "You are a good man, cousin. I am sorry for giving you trouble."

Zoltan looked up at her, surprised. She smiled.

"I am going upstairs to dress for tonight," she said. "It is later than I thought. I will see you in an hour?"

He stood and went into the kitchen for a moment. When he returned, he handed her an ice pack and a dishtowel. "In an hour, then," he said.

It only took about fifteen minutes of lying down in a dark room with the ice on her head to make her feel better, which meant she had a whole three quarters of an hour to dress.

---

Author's Note:

"I talked to Zoltan and all I got was this stupid migraine."








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

7.

"I have heard that Griselda will not allow even a telephone in the great house," murmured Jeanne-Marie St. Michel of Québec, gazing around at her new intimate friends with wide blue eyes. "And the daughters all built subsidiary houses of their own at the turn of the last century so they could have electricity."

"How does she plan to 'run the empire' as she puts it?" asked Alicia Figueroa of San Francisco, a dark-eyed, sarcastic beauty about Erszebet's age. "By Pony Express?"

"She can't last that much longer," said Catherine Rezanov, a statuesque double-centenarian from Alaska. "Can she?"

"I am certain that the South American Grand Matriarch hopes she will not," Jeanne-Marie said, "after Griselda apparently sent back a gift from her family with a note saying that the North American Family did not need any 'castoffs from the Third World.'"

"She did not," Alicia said, her eyes growing large. "Did she?"

"I saw a scan of the note," Jeanne-Marie said. "One of the granddaughters in the Brazilian great house posted it on one of the Family forums I'm on."

"I heard," Catherine said, shielding her mouth with her fan, "from someone in a Cotyngham Household, that the President called all the major houses to offer condolences on the death of Klotild, and Griselda wouldn't talk to him, and beyond that, would not allow any of her family to speak to him. Something about not wanting to bother with politicians who have no power."

Jeanne-Marie rolled her eyes. "There will be little respect for the Family once Griselda is in charge," she said.

"If there is so much concern," Erszebet said, "why not choose a different Grand Matriarch?"

The other three stared at her as if she had sprouted multiple heads.

"That is not done," said Jeanne-Marie, but then she added, "Is it?"

"My aunt Csilla is a Family historian," Erszebet said. "I have read her books. The last Grand Matriarchs of Russia, eastern Europe, and Turkey were all chosen from the pool of ancients. And so was the last Grand Matriarch of the British Empire. They stopped choosing one for the Empire after World War Two, I think."

"Klotild became Grand Matriarch because she was the eldest," Catherine said. "And I think her predecessor did too."

"Marie, yes, she was of the St. Michels," Jeanne-Marie said. "She ascended in 1857."

"And Klotild took the title in 1917," Alicia said. "What about before Marie?"

"I think she was one of the Bostonians," Catherine said. "And before that, a Virginian. And then we have no history before that."

"So the tradition," Erszebet said slowly, "is born of four Grand Matriarchs in all?"

"Um," Alicia said, "yes, I guess so."

Catherine tapped her chin with her fan. "This whole thing is very expensive, you know. A convention center. All the travel and food and decoration. All the families have to contribute to the ceremonies."

"And what if Griselda passes away in the next decade or two?" Jeanne-Marie said. "I am my grandmother's secretary, and I know how large the check was for our contribution. It will take us fifty years to make that up."

Erszebet glanced over at the enormous buffet spread. "Though I expect a funeral for Griselda would not include so many who were not of the Family," she observed, watching a half dozen people in bright spandex uniforms exploring the food options.

"She hates paras," Alicia said. "I overheard her commenting on them when my mothers went to greet her."

"Just as well she's in Chicago and not Wonder City," Catherine said.

"Chicago is hardly without paras," Jeanne-Marie said.

"But she can stay away from them there," Alicia said. "Paras and Family have very separate lives. Here in Wonder City... I'm just not surprised that Klotild was so involved."

"Even with the vermin," Jeanne-Marie said in a low voice. "There is quite a large group of them here, you know."

Just at that moment, a coltish young blonde woman in a green tailcoat, breeches, and riding boots walked past holding what was clearly a large glass of beer. "Mikhail," she called across the room, and a similarly-aged, dark-haired boy turned to look her way. He tossed his head and gave her the cut direct. She exploded into raucous laughter and winked at the four staring women. "Maybe I didn't dump him quite as nicely as I could've back in the 90s," she said, her British accent a little slurred. She headed off into the crowd of spandex-wearers.

"Is she one?" Erszebet asked.

"Her? Oh, no," Catherine said. "She's Faerie."

"Oohhhhhh," Erszebet said, and they all nodded, knowing exactly how much trouble that sort could be. Worse than vermin, really.

---

Author's Note:

Vampires spray for faeries regularly, you know.

Still sick as a dog. Yesterday was Urgent Care and antibiotics. Maybe now I'll stop coughing.









wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

6.

The Ceremony of Leavetaking was, as Zoltan predicted, tedious. At first, Erszebet had been excited by the striking visuals of the ceremony: the Lakatos women stood on the central dais in force, dressed in almost-identical black floor-length dresses that varied only in small details that tailored the dresses to best flatter their owners' figures. They formed a protective curve around the coffin, which was closed at this point. The Lakatos men and Klotild's companions sat to one side of the stage, all dressed in white. In an elevated box seating visible on the other side of the stage sat Madame Griselda and her other Cotyngham women, dressed in deep red, like most of the rest of the audience. Zoltan acted as the master of ceremonies, dressed in tailcoat, trousers, tie, and waistcoat of dove grey with just a spot of red handkerchief visible in his left breast pocket. Erszebet knew from seeing him up close earlier that there was an elegant diamond pattern worked into the waistcoat fabric.

"To those here," Zoltan said, the sound system projecting his voice over the vast spaces of the largest auditorium in the convention center, "Lady Klotild was sister, wife, mother, lover, and companion." He swept his arms to encompass the Lakatos family, dressed in their severe black and white. "To others," he said, turning to the audience with a slight bow to the Cotyngham box, "she was colleague, enemy, respected elder, thorn in the side, advisor, philanthropist, voice of wisdom, voice of stupidity, creature of habit, creature of daring, saint, sinner, angel, devil, goddess... in short, Klotild was an unforgettable portion of each of our lives. We are here this evening to say farewell to the woman I was proud and privileged to call my dearest friend." There was a ripple through the audience at that, quickly quelled by the severe glances of the Lakatos women. "According to custom, anyone whose life was touched by Klotild may come forward to speak about her -- memories, thoughts, feelings, anything at all. But, recall, there are so many of us, and so much grief and loss to be expressed, I beg of you to keep your remarks brief so that others may have their turn before the sun rises."

Erszebet dutifully managed to last through the speeches of all the Lakatos women, Klotild's three primary companions, and dear old Harald before she joined the silent stream of people past the grim werewolf guards and out the rear exit doors.

She found an enthusiastic, talkative reception going on in the main hall outside.

"You look surprised," said a nearby black woman with her hair done in short dredlocks. She was wearing a red silk coat of Chinese styling that reached her knees over matching trousers and a dark blue shell. "There's always a party during the Leavetaking." She had a slight accent that Erszebet thought might be West Indian.

"I have not attended many funerals," Erszebet said, still dazzled by the many shades of red that were milling around lengthy buffet tables and cash bars. "Yet," she added.

"You're Zoltan's cousin, aren't you?" the woman asked, gesturing at her with her plate of hors d'oeuvres. "I only ask because you kind of look like him."

Erszebet eyed her for a moment before nodding. Who was this woman and why did she seem to know so much? She could feel the woman's intense curiosity, and could perceive no sign of conscious restraint around her emotions. This was baffling, given the amount of lockdown and paranoia Erszebet could still feel all around her at this event.

"I'm Isolde, a friend of his." The other woman smiled, toasting her with her wine glass.

"I am Erszebet Farkas," she said, and she decided that Isolde must be a human, because the alternative -- that she was vermin -- was too appalling to consider.

"You're just as gorgeous as rumor had it," Isolde said, studying her carefully.

"Thank you," Erszebet said, thoroughly off-balance and not liking it a bit. She glanced around for someone, anyone, she knew.

"Is it true the Zalazars are courting you?" Isolde said, and just a little malicious glee leaked into the curiosity as Erszebet's attention was jerked back to her.

"I do not think they are courting me," Erszebet said icily after a moment's recovery. She smoothed the satin fabric of her red, red dress down in a gesture that might have been nervous but she fervently denied such nervousness to herself. "I think they are being friendly." It occurred to her to wonder why this human (or vermin, the back of her mind filled in) would be interested in Family politics.

"Maybe they're hoping you and your sisters will come start a Manaige in their territory," Isolde said. "Maybe take some of their boys off their hands."

It took Erszebet a few seconds to realize that Isolde had used the Old French term for Household that was common to western European Families. She blinked at Isolde and blurted, "You're Family!"

Isolde's mouth curled into a wry little smile. "Didn't expect that, did you, ma douce?" She turned away, still smiling over her shoulder. "The saw about books and covers may apply here."

There was a little shiver in everything that Erszebet had been sensing from Isolde, and suddenly, for just an instant, the previously invisible barriers that had made her seem so human were gone, and Erszebet could feel all the tense emotional complexity, in all the accustomed flavors and scents, that she associated with her own kind. Her eyes were still at war with her other senses -- she had never seen such a dark-skinned person of her own kind. Leave it to her cousin Zoltan to find the oddity!

Then, as she watched, Isolde slid across the room and linked arms with two other women who looked a great deal like her, and one of them turned an interested glance towards Erszebet. They were surrounded by admirers, including a number of men, almost all of whom were as dark as they. She could pick out some French in the language they were speaking, including at least one scorching comment she took to be about her and her youth.

Erszebet turned into the crowd, battling the crimson heat in her cheeks. Perhaps not such an oddity after all. Perhaps Erszebet herself was the oddity here for being quite so ignorant.

---

Author's Note:

Oh, Erszebet, why are you so young?









wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

5.

"I was introduced to Doña Consuela yesterday," Erszebet said. She was folded leggily into one of the vast overstuffed chairs in Zoltan's living room, wearing black yoga pants and a tight black ballet top. She leaned her chin on her arms, which were crossed atop her knees.

Zoltan turned from dusting his bookshelves immediately and focused on her. "Were you? What did you think of her?" He had a habit of paying attention to one with such intensity one might believe oneself to be the only important being in the world. She could see it being flattering to some, but she found it mostly annoying and a little intimidating.

Erszebet tried for casual, but knew she was leaking awe around the edges. "She was a very pleasant woman," she said. "She offered to take me home with her and show me more of America."

"Did she? That is extremely kind of her," Zoltan said, leaning negligently against a table and setting down his feather duster. His hair was drawn back into a queue and concealed under a kerchief covered in tiny skulls. "Did she also offer to call your mother to obtain permission?"

"Yes, she did," Erszebet said, perplexed. "How did you know?"

"It is a logical deduction," Zoltan said. "I have made a study of logic with one of my renters, you see."

She wished urgently that he wasn't so skilled at concealing all his emotions as well as his facial expressions and body language, but she gave in almost ungrudgingly. "What do you think of the offer? Really? I want to know how to react when my mother calls."

Zoltan's eyebrows rose, and he allowed a little surprise to slip through. But he kindly forebore comment. "I think," he said after a moment, "that the Zalazars are a powerful family with connections to many families, including the Lakatos. And it is no surprise that they might attempt to form a casual alliance with the Farkas."

"Because of you?" she pursued.

"Possibly," he said vaguely, letting his attention slide away and picking up his feather duster again. "More possibly because your mother and her sisters are forces to be reckoned with in eastern Europe now."

Erszebet was silent as he moved to dust another set of bookshelves. An apron with frills around the edges protected his black turtleneck and jeans from stray puffs of dust. She watched him for another few minutes before saying, "If the Zalazars are so powerful, why is Doña Consuela not in consideration to become the next Grand Matriarch? She seems much more... connected and enthusiastic and likeable than Madame Griselda."

"Because custom dictates that the next oldest woman of the families will be the Grand Matriarch of North America," Zoltan said without looking her way.

Erszebet stewed on that for a few moments. "But custom is different from law," she said finally.

"It is custom," Zoltan said, and there was something in his tone that suggested the topic was done. He finished the next shelf and consulted his wristwatch. "I think that perhaps we should dress. Tonight is the Ceremony of Leavetaking, and we should be there early, I'm afraid, because I am part of it."

Erszebet rose immediately. "Of course, cousin. Do you need me this evening or should I find company for myself?"

Zoltan flashed a smile over his shoulder at her. "You need not be joined to me in tedium. You should meet new people and make connections, my dear. That is why you are here, after all."

---








wonder_city: (Default)
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.









wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

3.

"Madame Griselda," Zoltan said with a graceful bow, "I am Zoltan Farkas. Will you allow me to present to you my cousin, Erszebet Farkas?"

Erszebet dropped a perfect curtsy, which had taken a great deal of practice (and drilling from her aunts) to learn, and rose from it almost as gracefully as Zoltan had bowed.

Griselda looked more ancient than the body of the Grand Matriarch had appeared, her thick coil of hair gone pure white and her little dark eyes peering out of a mass of pallid wrinkles. She was seated in a wingback chair in a parlor that had been conjured in one of the rooms in the convention center. Some corner of Erszebet, possibly the one that had listened to her mother and aunts talk about other families for decades, was strangely satisfied by this. It seemed good and appropriate that the deceased (Hungarian) Grand Matriarch had lived longer and looked finer than the (British) Grand Matriarch presumptive.

"Who are you, boy?" she demanded in a harsh voice not at all softened by her accent.

A very neatly buttoned-down woman in a dark skirt-suit bent her pale blonde head toward the old woman. "Grandmother, he is the favorite of the late Grand Matriarch."

The obsidian gaze narrowed. "Oh, you're Klotild's pet nelly, are you?"

The blonde woman winced visibly and offered Zoltan and Erszebet an apologetic look over her grandmother's head. Zoltan beamed at the ancient and said, "Yes, that would be me. I did earn my keep, as you may have heard."

"Yes," Madame Griselda said, looking him over. Then her gaze flicked to Erszebet. "You're too young to have a Household. Just larking about here in the New World then?"

"I am my family's representative to the funeral," Erszebet said, bowing -- trying desperately to look willowy as she did so. "My elders send their deepest regrets, but Budapest is somewhat... difficult at the moment."

The elderly woman waved a dismissive hand. "Budapest has been difficult since it was founded, my dear. No surprise they couldn't leave. Get out while you can." She looked back at Zoltan. "The daughters won't sell us the manor, you know."

He bowed. Erszebet suspected his bow was better than her own. "Klotild and her sisters built the manor, you understand; it holds great sentimental value for Magdolna and her sisters."

"Sentiment doesn't enter into it, you little pouf," Griselda snapped. "It's the center of the empire, and you know it."

Zoltan's smile didn't falter. The granddaughter looked ready to faint. "Ah, Madame Griselda," he said, "you have grown ever more charming as you have aged." He put a slight, barely-detectable emphasis on the last word. "Pardon me, but I see that Klotild's chief husband would like to speak to me."

Erszebet curtsied as Zoltan bowed, and then she followed her cousin. Griselda flushed brick-red, but held her tongue, glaring at Zoltan's back.

"Was that wise?" Erszebet said in an undertone. He was reckless, suicidal, and a pervert. What was her mother thinking, sending her here?

Zoltan shrugged. "Either they will use my services or they will not. Here, let me introduce you to Harald."

They caught up with the craggy, aquiline man who had caught Zoltan's eye. His hair was short, shaped carefully, and blindingly white. His bushy eyebrows rose upon Erszebet's introduction. "Delighted, my dear, absolutely delighted," he said, bowing over her hand. His homey accent was comforting after the encounter with Griselda.

"Getting used to being courted, my friend?" Zoltan said, shaking the man's hand warmly.

"No," Harald said mournfully. "Nor is anyone else, truly. So many enticing offers -- do you know, that egregiously arrogant woman, Juana Zalazar..."

"From New Mexico?" Zoltan said.

"The very one. Well, she has been most astonishingly kind about everything." Harald smiled sadly. "She even managed to head off that bi... harridan Griselda the second time she came around to 'sympathize with' the lot of us."

"Juana Zalazar must want as many of you as she can get very badly," Zoltan said, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "How old is her mother again?"

"Certainly old enough to be in the running after Griselda," Harald said. The old man smiled at Erszebet. "Oh, my dear, it must all seem so very dull to you."

"Not dull at all, sir," Erszebet said. "Only, why are you being courted?"

The two men exchanged a glance and smiled. She flushed and said, "You must understand, I have been to so few funerals in my short life, and they are not spoken of at home."

Harald nodded and said, "Well, the tradition is that the Household established by Klotild and her sisters is to be broken up now they are all dead. That means that the men of her generation and her companions are free to do as they will, go where they want."

"It is considered rude in the extreme to offer to take on the companions as donors, of course," Zoltan said. "But companions of the Grand Matriarch are in great demand among politically powerful households in an advisory capacity."

"Often, the companions will have far more information than the men," Harald said, smiling thoughtfully. "Though I think that is not so true in our Household."

"Other Households will therefore offer the companions a place to come to die of old age," Zoltan said, "and the men someplace new to live where they will not be inconveniencing the daughters and their Household men."

"So they court us, mostly," Harald said. "Though Griselda seems to think that she inherits us by default."

"Griselda thinks she owns many things by default," Zoltan said. "She had the cheek to complain to me that Magdolna and her sisters were not going to sell the manor."

"Will Madame Griselda come to Wonder City then?" Erszebet said. She could not imagine that shriveled shape surviving through the hardships of moving. Then again, she could barely conceive of the woman traveling, but she must have.

Zoltan put his head to one side and glanced at Harald, one eyebrow raised. Harald shrugged. "No, I think she will not," Zoltan said after a moment. "Moving is so much worse than traveling. No, I think she will make some of her daughters move here, and try to run her 'empire' from Chicago."

"Her daughters will not love her for that, I think," Erszebet said slowly.

Zoltan smiled. "No one loves Griselda, my dear. Excuse me, both of you, Julianna is trying to catch my eye." He nodded to them and strode off into the crowd.

Erszebet turned back to Harald with a smile. "Shall I squire you in your cousin's stead, my dear?" he said, offering his arm.

She took it, murmuring polite thanks. She felt oddly secure and insecure at the same time. Without Zoltan, she felt the tension in the air more keenly, and despite Harald's age and obvious influence, she felt undefended.

"Was the trip across very difficult?" Harald asked as they began to slowly move through the crowded, noisy hallway outside the parlor.

"Oh, no," she said, astonished by the array of formalwear they met with, from staid gowns and tuxedoes to costumes more suited to Carnival. "It was quite pleasant."

"I wish I could travel more," Harald said, bowing and nodding to people as they passed. "The airplane feels so strange, and leaves me so enervated these days. I thought I could get used to it, like automobiles, but it just never happened."

"My mother Rozsa thinks it has something to do with not having your feet on the ground," Erszebet said.

"How is Rozsa?" Harald said. "I haven't seen her since she traveled here in... oh, 1935 or so. The War trapped the families over there for so long after, and we heard little news for many years."

"My mother came here?" Erszebet said. Her mother had, in fact, never mentioned it.

"Oh, yes," Harald said. "She was the family representative when Kathalin died. A much smaller affair than this, of course; just the Magyar families and some other friends."

Erszebet chewed on that for a while, as she and Harald circulated through the hall. He dutifully introduced her to the people who stopped to speak to him, and Erszebet could only concentrate on polite greetings, though she occasionally wondered, when she clasped a particularly cold hand, if the individual was vermin. She could never tell.

They ended up back in the room with the coffin. People were milling around on the floor, drinking and speaking in subdued tones. The werewolf security guards were relatively unobtrusive, but Erszebet could sense their barely-bridled tension and the general disquiet they caused among the majority of her folk in the room.

A human, on the edge of elderly, a black turban concealing most of her greying hair and her matronly form adorned in a somewhat-too-young black gown, drifted near on the arm of a young Asian man so well-dressed as to be foppish. Harald paused to bow to her. "Madame Destiny, so glad you could attend."

Madame bowed in return and extended a gloved hand. "Harald, of course, I couldn't miss a chance to pay my respects. Klotild was very encouraging when I was young; I only regret I could not repay her adequately."

He took her hand and kissed it in an extremely courtly fashion, and Erszebet was struck by how outdated the manners of her people seemed to her after spending time in college.

"This is our friend Zoltan's young cousin Erszebet," Harald said, and Madame took Erszebet's hand.

"Well," Madame said, blinking, "you certainly have a time ahead of you this week, Ms. Farkas."

"Um," Erszebet said, caught by surprise by the human. "Thank you?"

"You'll be fine," Madame said, squeezing her hand and releasing her. "Just think it all through logically."

Madame's young escort steered her away and gave Erszebet a sympathetic smile. "It won't make sense till later," he said in a surprisingly light voice.

Harald and Erszebet watched them disappear into the crowd. Erszebet said, "Huh."

---

Author's Note:

I apologize for being slow with the last two readings. I'm working on them!









wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

2.

"Klotild was trying to outlive the old bat," Zoltan said, steering the Divine Sarah skillfully -- and less harrowingly than before -- through rush hour traffic the next day. "I think she very nearly managed. But Griselda hung on like grim death, and she will be the Grand Matriarch if she can live out the week's speeches, parties, and rituals."

"Is she very old then?" Erzsebet said, staring out the window at the bright afternoon through her very dark glasses. She felt a little queasy; whether it was from the drive or the daylight or the city, she couldn't say.

"Klotild was very nearly a thousand," Zoltan said, making a turn onto a broad parkway. "Griselda is a tottery 800-and-some-change."

"Who is next in line after her, then?" Erzsebet said. "After all, if she is as weak as all that, she isn't likely to live much longer."

"We do go down quickly once age sets in, do we not?" Zoltan said. "We should be so lucky. Griselda is a vicious woman, and no matter how feeble she may appear, I believe in the endurance of meanness. She may see you and I in our graves, and will, I'm sure, find a way to put some relative of hers in as her successor."

Erzsebet was distracted by the plethora of signage for the Wonder City Convention Center. "Are we... going to the convention center?"

"Indeed," Zoltan said, sounding amused. "We do not have any useful castles here. Most of the best are either in New England or California."

"It seems... undignified," she said, swallowing the words "crass" and "vulgar" as words that would make him laugh at her.

"There are about 500 families in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean," Zoltan said. "Each must send at least one representative; most are sending three to five. Each representative is accompanied by three to five companions. So our local representatives alone will add up to something close to 10,000 people. Add in worldwide representatives such as yourself, and we are brushing 15,000. Add in the substantial population of undead of Wonder City past and present..."

"I cannot believe that..."

"We admit vermin to the sacred funeral of the Grand Matriarch?" Zoltan said in a bored tone of voice. "Yes, yes, I am certain it will outrage many people in much the way it does you. But Klotild was more than just our Grand Matriarch; she was a major voice of wisdom among the Mystikai, and a popular one. More than just the undead will come. There will be sorcerers and witches, ghosts and prophets, elves and aliens and werewolves."

The Wonder City Convention Center was a large, round edifice with Art Deco towers at intervals around it. The towers were draped in black. Flagpoles flew black strips of fabric. The guards at the gate wore black armbands.

The Divine Sarah was waved through the gate to a reserved parking spot in the front row. Erzsebet gave Zoltan a sideways glance at this, but his face was perfectly serene.

He handed her out of the van, impeccable in his dark blue greatcoat, his sleek black tailcoat and trousers, and his white tie, waistcoat, and gloves. His top hat was, however, set at a rakish angle. She thought she looked very well herself in the floor-length strapless black sheath dress her mother had given her for her college graduation. Zoltan politely helped her arrange her dark purple raw silk wrap and offered his arm.

As soon as they passed into the building, she could tell that practically everyone attending was emotionally and psionically locked down, as if waiting for attack at any moment.

Zoltan glided through the black-uniformed security guards with smiles and nods. The men and women stood casually, thumbs hooked in their thick leather belts, dark glasses obscuring the view of their eyes. Erszebet could see no weapons on their belts, and murmured as much to Zoltan when she thought they might be out of earshot.

His smile brightened. "Yes, indeed. I believe I mentioned werewolves earlier."

Her eyes grew wide before she could get control of her expression. He patted her hand kindly. "Not to be confused, I note, with the wolf-human hybrids that also live here, who are not mystical at all."

"Such a strange place," she said under her breath.

"You get used to it," he said. "Come, we will look in on the old girl, shall we?"

They slid in a side door to the room that contained the Grand Matriarch's body. The perfume of thousands of flowers nearly choked Erszebet as they entered.

A statuesque woman in what Erszebet guessed to be her 500s, judging from the faint tracery of age lines in her face, approached them. She was dressed in a silver gown covered in black lace and she embraced Zoltan warmly. "Oh, my brother, I am glad you have come," she said earnestly.

"What has happened to make you take on so, Magdolna my dear?" he said, kissing her on both cheeks. "Wait, before you tell me, this is my cousin, Erszebet Farkas. She represents our family."

The name was Erszebet's cue -- Magdolna was the eldest daughter of the Grand Matriarch's Household. Not the eldest of all her daughters, of course -- those had long since established their own Household -- but now the head of the Wonder City Household. Erszebet bowed deeply.

"Ah, my dear," Magdolna said, taking her hand and smiling kindly upon her, "a cousin of my brother Zoltan is as my own cousin here. Welcome to Wonder City."

"Thank you, my lady," Erszebet said, flustered by this great woman welcoming her so warmly.

"Now, my dear, you will tell me your trouble?" Zoltan said, offering them each an arm and steering them toward the dais at the front of the great room.

"Mother is, of course, stubborn in death as she was in life," Magdolna said. "She scowled all through the preparation of the body, and she scowls yet. You could always make her smile in life, brother..."

Zoltan saluted her jauntily. "I will see what my silvered words can do today."

Erszebet and Magdolna followed him a little way toward the dais, just far enough for Erszebet to see the terrible, forbidding frown that twisted the Grand Matriarch's face as she lay in her casket. She couldn't stop herself from asking, "Was she in great pain?"

Magdolna glanced at her with some surprise. "Oh, no. She went as silently and easily as anyone could ask for." She looked at Zoltan's well-tailored back as he bent over the coffin. "She was just... opinionated. I do not think she cares for all this ceremony."

They watched Zoltan for a few more moments, and then he turned to them with a sunny smile. "I think she will cooperate now," he said, and Erszebet saw him give the Grand Matriarch's wizened hand a gentle, but lingering, squeeze.

The Grand Matriarch's face was composed in serene splendor, benificent as a saint. Magdolna exclaimed delightedly and hugged Zoltan before hurrying off to find her sisters.

Erszebet stared at him. "Are you a wizard, then?"

Zoltan looked very tired, and gave her a crooked smile. "No. The preservation spells were cast on her body immediately after her death. It means, for us, that the brain is still able to do a few things if suitably stimulated. I played her vanity here, whispered of her hatred of Griselda there, and voila, we have a Grand Matriarch who looks like a goddess."

The door opened behind her and his shoulders went back, his smile back to full wattage. As Zoltan moved off to greet the person coming in, Erszebet realized she'd just been reaching for his hand, or his shoulder, or something. He had looked so very sad, for just a moment.

---

Author's Note:

Are folks liking Erszebet?









wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

1.

She had to attend the Grand Matriarch's funeral, that was clear. Traveling halfway around the world was not something her elders could do without great inconvenience, and she was the oldest and best educated of the members of the family who could travel. But when she had asked to whom her mother and aunts were sending her, she had not expected a man's name. She had, in fact, laughed, suspecting a joke from her Aunt Csilla.

Yet here she was, disembarking from her train in this strange city overlooked by a shining ball and spike on a hilltop, and looking around for a man who could be her cousin Zoltan.

"You must be Erzsebet Farkas," a sleek, well-dressed man about her mother's age said, in English, having appeared beside her in a manner she had not noticed in her distraction.

"I am," she said in the same language. She looked down her long patrician nose at him, despite both being much of a height. "Are you then Zoltan Farkas?"

He bowed. "I have that privilege." He wore a charcoal grey suit with nearly invisible pinstripes and a burgundy tie that had a regular dark pattern on it, but too small for her to see in the inconsistent light of the train platform. Fleur-de-lis or some such, she was sure.

She returned the bow. "I present my mother Rozsa's compliments," Erzsebet said in the family's particular dialect of Hungarian, "and the message that she commends me unto your care and guidance until such time as I depart this home of yours."

Zoltan's easy smile never failed, but it did freeze, just a bit, as she began the little ritual greeting. His eyebrows flicked upwards once and he said, in the same tongue, "I accept Rozsa's charge, and you shall be as a daughter to me until such time as you depart this home of mine."

Erzsebet bowed again. Sometimes she tired of bowing so much to her elders. "And I shall obey and respect you as if you were my mother," she said.

"That will be difficult for you," he said, in English again, "will it not? That is all right, we are casual folk here." He bent and took up her suitcases easily. "Ah, you have packed to dress properly for the old girl's funeral, haven't you? I look forward to seeing what you've brought."

She retained her carryon and followed him down the train platform. "You speak very well," she said politely, meaning, of course, their native language. "How long have you been away from home?"

"Oh, a hundred years, more or less," he said, descending the stairs with vigor. "Not always here, you know. I came here first during the Great War, but have gone and come and gone and come and gone and come again since then."

"Mother said that you had abandoned the family several times," Erzsebet said, following at the more decorous pace demanded by her Parisian high heels. "But that you had always come back. You are nearly a family proverb."

He laughed with a blast of cynicism so intense his emotional vibrations nearly rocked her back onto the steps. "I am not much given to family feeling, no," he said, still chuckling. "Oh, my dear, you are the soul of tactlessness."

She pressed her lips together and was silent for a while, unwilling to be a source of further unpleasant hilarity. Still, she couldn't quite stop an exclamation of dismay when she saw the contrivance that was to be her chariot in Wonder City.

"I introduce you to the Divine Sarah," Zoltan said, opening the back door to lift her bags inside. The exterior of the ancient Volkswagen bus was adorned with brilliant Mucha-themed psychedelic murals. "She has been with me for nigh upon forty years now. I shall only give her up when I can no longer beg, borrow, bribe, or steal parts for her."

He opened the passenger door for Erzsebet, and she saw the inside was not much better than the outside: seats upholstered in crimson and gold, with garnet shag carpeting on floor, walls, and ceiling. Reluctantly, she stepped in and settled herself in the surprisingly comfortable captain's chair. Another moment of fumbling and she was strapped in securely -- she was not sure what sort of driver her cousin might be.

Zoltan sprang into the driver's seat and threw the Divine Sarah onto the road with an energy that made her glad of her precautions. "Have you ever been to America before?" he asked, flashing her a smile.

"No, never," she said, watching the bright shopfronts flicker past as he guided his ancient beast of a vehicle down one street, then another. She was certain that she could not find her way back to the train station afoot. Or even from the air, since she had not got a good impression of the layout of the station.

"Where were you educated?" he said, stopping short at a traffic light.

"I spent two years at Cambridge," she said, and carefully relaxed the grip of both her hands on the armrests. "Then finished my degree in Budapest."

"In what?" He accelerated sharply when the light turned green.

"Business management, of course," she said, finding it more and more difficult to concentrate as they moved through the city. "What is wrong with this place?" She put her hand to her forehead, as if that could decrease the strange emotional white noise that was clogging her mind.

"Ah, sorry," he said, glancing at her and frowning. "There is a great deal of psychic activity here, being the center of the paranormal culture in this country. Additionally, there are many devices set around the city that enhance or inhibit the activity. I forget that it can be quite overwhelming to newcomers of our kind."

"I will persevere," she said, trying to even out her tone. "But how do you live here?"

"It will be better at my house," Zoltan said, turning past high walls emblazoned with a glowing corporate logo that Erzsebet recognized as belonging to the Gold Stars. "We are in town, but not near the districts where there are so many superheroes and supervillains."

"Wonder City is a very strange place," she said, looking out at humans who seemed to be perfectly normal, and yet bore the lurking menace of possibly being paranormals who could bend the laws of physics. "Do you know why the Grand Matriarch took up her residence here?"

A smile flickered over his handsome, fine-boned face. "Her younger sister Kathalin took a fancy to it, I believe," he said. "Kathalin argued long and hard with her sisters. They say she had the Sight, you know, and that she foresaw all this." He waved all around them with both hands, which made her clutch the armrests again. "In the end, they brought the Household here not long before President Wilson established his Gold Star Battalion. And the rest, as they say, is history."

"Mother said you knew the Grand Matriarch well," Erzsebet said. "Were you part of their Household?" She, like he, used the family term rather than the English word, for the English word did not convey nearly as much depth of meaning.

"Moi?" he said, startled into a laugh. "Oh, no, never. Klotild knew I was not the type for that. She was amused by my 'funny little ways'. I was not husband or lover or even adoptive son; I was the court jester."

"Oh," she said, and again, "Oh!" as she suddenly understood some of her aunts' hints about him and his odd power in this city.

"Yes," he said, reading her with an accuracy that made her skin crawl, "I was one of the few people she listened to because I mix with the paranormals. I lived with superheroes, loved supervillains, and danced with the undead. I was an outsider and an insider at the same time. She gave me great leeway, and I could speak for her in certain situations." The light of the dashboard made his features stark for a moment as they passed out of the streetlights for a time. "It will be strange without her."

Erzsebet considered his words in silence, her fingers fidgeting with the seam of the armrest.

He turned the Divine Sarah down a residential street, and she saw the sign, "Marigold Lane," in the headlights. They then turned into a driveway, and she saw the sprawling Victorian mansion and carriage house with many windows ablaze with light.

"Do you have your own Household, then?" she said, trying not to let out too much of her own horror at this possibility.

"I am but a man," Zoltan said, smiling at her beatifically. "How could I try to set up a Household without a family of women? No, I live alone, and I rent rooms to humans. If I sometimes have more regular donors than others, I prefer to call them 'boyfriends'."

"You are..." Erzsebet paused, groping for the right word.

"Gay as a window treatment," Zoltan said amiably. "So now you know. I will tell you some other things as well." He slotted the Divine Sarah into her garage expertly, put her into park, and turned her off, leaving them sitting in darkness together. "No one who lives in my house is to be a donor. On some of them, your teeth would break. On others, I would break you. They are all paranormal and off limits."

"All right," she said slowly. She had expected that she would have to pursue other avenues for feeding; she never expected her donors to be delivered to her doorstep.

"This one will be less expected," he said, and she heard his smile. "You will treat any and all comers with as much respect as you are capable of offering me, at least. This includes undead."

Her eyes went wide. "You bring vermin into your home?" she exclaimed.

His teeth snapped together and all the amiability she'd been reading from him shut off like a lamp. "Those 'vermin' are my friends. In some cases, they have been more steadfast allies than the family ever has been for me. And they are useful camouflage, since the humans assume I am one of them, and I have failed to disabuse them of this notion."

"You pretend to be vermin as well?" she said, imagining that she could not ever be more outraged in her life.

"Very few humans know much about our kind," he said, and she felt his gaze, honed by many more decades than her own, piercing the darkness to watch her. "True, our existence is registered with the government, but we are only vampires to them. There is no distinction between kinds. We feed on human blood, we fly, we have psychic abilities -- the government does not care if our hearts beat or not."

"Why did my mother send me to you?" Erzsebet said, clutching her head.

"Because she knows I can and will protect you," he said gently. "She knows that this place is dangerous as well as strange, and that you can learn things, if you will. Come, let me show you to your rooms."

She was even more offended when she saw, in better light, that the close pattern on his tie consisted of tiny bats.

---

Author's Note:

This Interlude rather got away from me, and thus became a miniseries. I will post one episode per week, and I'll post one full Madame Destiny reading per week for the next 3 weeks. After that, it may just be one Interlude ep per week until complete (looking like May now), but we'll see!

I hope you enjoy our little side story with Zoltan and his family. :)









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