wonder_city: (Default)
This week has been weird and surreal -- I live in central Massachusetts, and work in Cambridge -- and today has been particularly strange, with the refreshing the browser and checking Twitter and such. I have successfully distracted written the lion's share of this episode today, however, and I hope you will forgive any little gaffes as being products of my distraction.


Torschlusspanik

"Ah, Mr. Frost," Zoltan said at the door of the enormous luxury board room, his eastern European accent rolling softly over the name. "And Nereid. So pleased you could make it to our little discussion group."

Nereid stared at Zoltan. For a man who never aged, the very fine lines around his eyes and mouth seemed much more pronounced than they'd been last time she'd seen him, at least a year before. He was dressed very finely in a pale grey three-piece suit, a white shirt, and a pale blue tie. She noticed his cufflinks, though, as they shook hands -- tiny gold bats -- and it was all she could do not to giggle.

"I was pleased to be invited," Michael Frost said, staring beyond Zoltan's head at the far side of the room.

"Ah, yes, you see that Baroness Von Drachenberg has arrived before you," Zoltan said, stepping aside gracefully and gesturing them into the room. "We still await Ms. Washington, from your folk. My folk are represented, as are most of the other Mystikai."

Nereid stared around the echoing room and was gratified by the presence of Madame Destiny and X, and also the Equestrian and her steed (in tall, lean, redheaded human form) Maelstrom. She didn't know any of the many others, and noticed that a certain amount of space was left between every knot of beings as they stood around and drank coffee. Sophie would probably snark about it if she were here. Which she wasn't. And Nereid wasn't sure why she wasn't, but the absence made her anxious.

The Baroness was a short, round, cheerful woman who appeared to be middle-aged, accompanied by a couple of stocky, balding men in tweed suits. She gave Mr. Frost a little finger wave that he ignored. Nereid smiled nervously in the woman's direction.

A moment later, a ridiculously tall, willowy woman with long white hair, wearing a strangely familiar long, flowing black leather coat (with large spiky shoulder pads) and pants, strode past Zoltan into the room without a word. Under the coat, she seemed to be largely wearing straps, which accented her... prominent cleavage. She paused to regard Mr. Frost, then the Baroness with a sneer, and made her way to the center-back of the room, throwing herself into the chair at the foot of the ridiculously long table. She put her booted feet up on the table with heavy clunks.

"And with the arrival of Ms. Washington," Zoltan said, nodding to the t-shirted bar bouncer-types in the hall and shutting the door, "our numbers are complete. I am, as most of you know, Zoltan Farkas, and I speak for the Grand Matriarch of the East today, though her granddaughter --" he bowed to an African American woman who was taking a seat near the middle of the table "-- is here to correct me if I step wrongly. Speaking for the Grand Matriarch of the West is Doña Juana Salazar. Between us, we speak for the Family here in North America."

He nodded, and the Equestrian stood, looking very out of place as a young blonde teen dressed for a horse show in a velvet coat of bottle-green, breeches, and tall leather boots. "All of you know who I am," she said in her British accent. "I'm here for the Good Neighbors, specifically the one known as Lady Daphne, my sometimes-patron."

A broad-shouldered, tanned man in a black suit, surrounded by several individuals in similar suits, introduced himself as the elected speaker for the shapechanger Mystikai. Several more people introduced themselves as chosen or appointed speakers for various schools of magic. There was a fascinatingly tiny woman who was the representative of the Appalachian Gnome Queendom. A pair of thin, pale women who were clearly twins said they were there on behalf of the Wonder City vampires. A perfectly normal middle-aged middle-class woman in jeans and a sweatshirt that sported a picture of a kitten, with the glittery legend, "Hang in there!" arcing over it, introduced herself as the Outsider.

Madame stood and bowed. She was dressed elegantly in a long black dress and a black turban, a silvery-grey wrap draped around her shoulders. She was made up extravagantly, with dramatic swooshes of shadow above her eyes. "I am Madame Destiny, the current vessel for the Mystikai known as the Oracle, and I have been asked here by my friend Zoltan in case we need to consult the Oracle's wisdom." She gestured to X, who was conservatively done up in a black suit and garnet-colored cravat. "This is my apprentice, X." And she resumed her seat.

Nereid became aware, as silence fell, that Mr. Frost and the Baroness were staring at each other across the room. After a long, tense moment, Miss Washington drawled, without standing, "I'm Washington. I'm a dragon."

Both Mr. Frost and the Baroness looked at her at the same moment, a fleeting glimpse of disgust crossing both their faces. They looked at each other again, and the Baroness shrugged, and said, "I am the Baroness Von Drachenberg, and I am a Reptilian-American." She glowered in Washington's direction, then gestured grandly to Mr. Frost.

He inclined his head briefly and said, "I am Michael Frost, also Reptilian-American, and I am the patron of the superhero team, the Young Cosmics." He dropped a hand on Nereid's shoulder. "This is my team's Class 10 elemental, Nereid, who kindly agreed to accompany me."

Zoltan seated himself at the head of the table and folded his hands. "Thank you all for coming. I think we can agree that the situation in the United States, and in Wonder City in particular, is growing intolerable and is threatening everything each of us has worked for. Several of us wanted to bring the community together to discuss possible options for information-gathering and action."

One of the myriad magic-using people -- one of the few dressed in what Nereid thought of as normal clothes -- raised her hand. Zoltan nodded, and she said, "I think it would be helpful if we pooled our intelligence as to the nature of the troubles and possible sources."

"Agreed," Zoltan said, nodding cheerfully all around the table. "So let us do so. I confess that the Family has very little information on the nature or source of the troubles, only a fairly close analysis of the results. So who has more information?"

Several of the magic-using people spoke up about scrying and analytical magic and things that immediately and pedantically went over Nereid's head -- another reason to regret Brainchild's absence, she thought, was her inability to ask Sophie later what something had meant. Nereid was also distracted by Washington's openly bored posture with her head tilted back, staring ostentatiously at the ceiling.

"So what you're telling us," Zoltan said, smoothly interrupting one of the interminable lectures, "is that the main threat appears to be in orbit, and radiating something down at us that is affecting human behavior?"

"Uh," said the man in burgundy robes. "Yes. Essentially."

"Thank you," Zoltan said, and he even sounded like he meant it. "Have any other Mystikai ascertained any details?"

Nereid glanced aside at Mr. Frost's pleasantly-smiling face, expecting him to say something. Instead, Madame Destiny said, "Yes, we have."

All heads turned her way. X met Nereid's look with briefly raised eyebrows.

"Our group of... friends," Madame said with a self-deprecating air, "have determined that the ships in orbit are, in fact, of alien origin, and that the nature of the projection is a technological enhancement of a para with empathic abilities."

And then the meeting exploded into discussion, debate, and questions. Nereid watched it all, bewildered, and also watched the three drago--- Reptilian-Americans, she corrected herself. The Baroness beamed delightedly as her two tweedy companions leapt into a debate with a trio of mages and one shapeshifter. Mr. Frost watched the proceedings with a small smile. Washington continued to stare at the ceiling. The only other person who appeared so disconnected was the Equestrian, who slumped in her chair and frowned at the tabletop.

During a brief lull in the conversation, Washington burst out with, "Tell me why I should care."

Everyone froze. Nereid heard Michael Frost inhale, but whatever he was going to say was preempted by the Baroness Von Drachenberg saying, sweetly, "I would explain, but I think that you are too young to understand."

Washington leapt to her feet and glared at the Baroness. Nereid felt obscurely that she ought to have a large magical sword in one hand, then realized that as a drago-- Reptilian-American, she didn't need a weapon of any sort: she was one.

After a long moment, Washington said, in tones not nearly as sweet as the Baroness', "Try me, old woman."

Nereid noticed one of the tweed-clad men next to the Baroness discreetly scribbling notes in a battered leather-bound notebook, while the other was sliding an old pocket dictation recorder onto the table and looking around surreptitiously. Some of the mages and a few of the shapeshifters were subtly fading back from the table. Nereid herself was feeling more and more nervous sitting next to Mr. Frost.

The Baroness folded her hands on the table and, still smiling, said, "As someone without much experience in the markets of the world, you perhaps do not know how very destabilizing these sorts of events can be. You may think that such disquiet would make your particular objets du dèsir easier to obtain -- whenever you decide to obtain them -- but it is not so." She paused, reached down without looking, and clicked the tape recorder off. "At least, not in the long run."

Washington was pale with a cold rage that Nereid could feel from across the room. She leaned forward to place her hands flat onto the table, her white hair starting to blow behind her in a breeze that seemed to affect nothing else. Before she could say anything, though, Michael Frost began to laugh.

The look Washington turned on him was very little altered from what she had just been aiming elsewhere, but the gaze the Baroness turned on him was cynical, withering, and underneath it all, so sharp that Nereid had to repress the urge to run out of the room. The mages and shapeshifters took the opportunity to slide entirely back from the table toward the outer walls.

"Do forgive me, Baroness," Michael Frost said, in his suavest voice, "but it seems to me that if we are here, we have already agreed to act. There is no need for this attention-seeking posturing."

The Baroness was no longer, at all, a pleasant-looking little woman. Nereid saw the representative of the Gnome Queendom retreating behind a heavy credenza and felt an urge to join her. As if reading her mind, Michael Frost chose that moment to lay his hand over hers on the table, and action that made Nereid unbearably uncomfortable for too many reasons to list.

Nereid attempted to comfort herself with her ability to dissolve into mist at the first sign of actual violence.

At the head of the table, Zoltan looked as if he might be comforting himself similarly. He was exchanging looks with the other representatives of his Family -- whatever that was, Nereid thought, wondering if it he was a member of some kind of vampire mafia -- and both women were giving him cheerful sorts of "I wouldn't be you for a million dollars" encouraging smiles.

Washington was staring at Michael Frost, and Nereid noticed that she was becoming visibly more irritated when he refused to stare back. Her long, slender fingers gripped the edge of the table, and Nereid had an unpleasant image of her flipping it. But the moment passed, and she sat down in a kind of anticlimax.

The Baroness and Michael Frost, however, continued to match gazes, and Nereid thought that perhaps there was some sort of battle going on that she was too human to perceive except on the most uncomfortably lowest levels of her lizard brain. Like the so-called brown note, she thought.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," the Equestrian exclaimed, slamming her small hands on the table with moment-shattering slaps. "The rest of us don't have time for your--" she paused over word choice for a moment, then continued sourly "--politicking."

The two dragons snapped their heads around to look at her and the Equestrian pursed her lips and tilted her head slightly in the direction of Maelstrom, who appeared to be dozing in his chair. Mr. Frost and the Baroness each glanced back at each other, then exhaled, and the tension oozed out of the room.

Zoltan shuffled some papers. The mages and shapeshifters glided back to the table. The Gnome Queendom representative returned to her chair.

"I think," said Doña Juana Salazar, smiling thinly around the table, "that perhaps we should take advantage of the presence of the Oracle to ascertain what level of action would work best for the Mystikai as a whole."

"Yes," the Baroness said, her good humor apparently restored, though Nereid was unsure if that was true. "It is so very easy to overreact and do more harm than good."

Michael Frost said, "Yes, let's." He yawned elaborately.

Washington just waved a hand irritably.

"Perhaps it would be best to determine what the maximum level of involvement we would be willing to pursue should be," piped the tiny representative of the Gnome Queendom.

This led to another bewildering half hour of conversations, cross-conversations, and sub-conversations that Nereid could not parse at all. None of the dragons involved themselves in these discussions; they just watched.

Zoltan tapped a glass (where did he get the glass?) with a spoon (likewise?), and the sound rang out over the room, bringing conversation to a faltering halt. He said, "If we are going to make use of the Oracle, then I think we should do it quickly. We are unlikely to come to a consensus on this issue, nor do I think it is necessary. We simply need to remember to ask yes or no questions for optimal accuracy."

"And minimal cryptic ramblings," the Equestrian muttered, getting a short laugh out of Madame and X, at least.

Madame got up and moved her chair well back from the table, then resumed her seat. X moved to stand facing her, a little to the side. Everyone at the table turned to watch Madame with great interest -- even the dragons.

Nereid had seen Madame do this many times before, and all went as usual. Madame composed herself in her chair and closed her eyes for a few moments. X watched her fixedly. Then the light in the room changed to the harsh, focused, bluish tinge it always took.

Madame's face in that light startled Nereid, like she was seeing straight through the makeup. Madame looked old. Really old. And sick, and strained. Tears began leaking from the corners of her eyes. Then her eyes popped open and blue light crackled there, making everyone blink and look away for a moment.

"SPEAK, CHILDREN OF MAGIC," the Oracle said with Madame's mouth.

X turned to Zoltan and nodded.

But then the Oracle said, "STOP."

Nereid could see Madame's head and hands vibrating as if she had a palsy. The tears were coursing down her face and dripping off her chin. Her face looked grey in the blue light.

Madame gasped, in her own voice, "No!"

The light changed again -- instead of seemingly radiating from Madame's whole body, it shifted to solely from her head. And then blue lightning stabbed out from Madame into X, who echoed Madame with a more gutteral, wrenching, "No!"

Nereid ran to Madame as the older woman toppled from her chair, pulling her up from the floor and cradling her head against her shoulder. For a long moment, Nereid gazed down into her exhausted, drawn, tear-streaked face, and irrelevantly remembered the same woman, five years earlier, patiently helping her with her math homework. She remembered that Madame had been studying to be a mathematician, that she was really good at it, until the Oracle took up residence in her body.

X was suspended in mid-air in the middle of the room, blue light and lightning leaking out spasmodically. Most of the people in the room were at least standing, if not moving cautiously toward X.

Madame's eyes opened and she tried to sit up, but couldn't, then relaxed back into Nereid's arms. She croaked urgently, "Don't touch X!" into the tense silence, and everyone moving stopped.

"If you touch X," Madame said more calmly, "it could distract zir from what focus zie could gather. If that happens on the first possession, we might never get X back." She closed her eyes again.

Nereid was chilled to the bone by the idea of the Oracle being permanently "on" in X's body. She looked at the disheveled figure dangling like a marionette in mid-air.

"NOW YOU MAY SPEAK," said the Oracle with X's mouth.

"Oh, god," Madame groaned.

"It's all right," Nereid whispered to her.

"I thought I could hold on," Madame said, tears trickling out of her eyes again. "I thought I could keep going. Anything so X wouldn't have to..."

"X knew this would happen eventually," Nereid said in low tones, vaguely registering that questions were being asked and answered with a staccato precision elsewhere in the room. "X was prepared for it."

"You're never prepared for it," Madame said faintly. "Never. I knew for years, and I never expected what happened."

"Is it so bad?" Nereid said.

"It's like a seizure," Madame said opaquely. "Oh, god, I should get up, I should spot X, keep people from asking too many questions." She began to struggle to sit up, at least.

Nereid helped her sit up when it became clear that she was too agitated to rest. X was still held off the floor, but was no longer quite so high in the air. Madame took one look at X's face, which was lined with strain, and made a throat-cut motion to Zoltan, who nodded and stepped between a ponderous mage and X.

"Thank you for your generous assistance, oh, Oracle," Zoltan said with a graceful bow. "Your vessel needs rest, and we have our answers."

"VERY WELL, TRAVELLER," the Oracle said in its booming voice. "CARE FOR THE EMPTIED VESSEL AS WELL AS THE NEW VESSEL."

With that, X was released into Zoltan's waiting arms. Maelstrom took X from Zoltan and the Equestrian peremptorily gestured Zoltan back into the scrum of loudly-discussing Mystikai.

Madame reached out as Maelstrom knelt to set X next to her. She stroked X's sweat-beaded forehead maternally and whispered, over and over, "I'm so sorry."

Nereid stayed on the ground with the two of them, an arm around each, content to be a literal support. X was moving slowly, blinking dazed eyes up at the ceiling. Madame was still murmuring what sounded like apologies. As an afterthought, Nereid dried their clothes and faces and hair -- sweat and tears and whatever else would leave a bit of a crust, but at least they wouldn't feel damp.

"You have my promise," Michael Frost was saying, coming to stand near Nereid and Madame and X, "that I will match the Baroness' contributions financially, and that I will permit limited involvement of my Cosmics in a decisive para action."

Washington strode almost up to him, then past, saying, "And you have my promise that I will participate in the para action myself... if it seems fun." She kicked the door open and walked out of the board room.

"I am going to take Madame and X home," Michael Frost said, reaching down to effortlessly lift Madame in his arms. Nereid helped X to stand, and stayed under the strong arm that she remembered so vividly holding her up at one time. "The rest of you may go on discussing whatever you like. Zoltan, if anything significant comes up, I trust you will notify us via the usual channels."

"Of course," Zoltan said, catching Nereid's eye with a questioning raise of his eyebrows. Nereid smiled, she hoped, reassuringly, and turned to help X follow Mr. Frost out of the room.











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

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?









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---

Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law

Megan waved to her mother as the rented van pulled out of Marigold Lane and up into the streetlights of the neighborhood beyond. Once the taillights vanished over the rise, she let out a long breath she hadn't been aware that she'd been holding.

"Your mom's pretty decent," G said from the front door of the house.

Megan felt her shoulders tense up immediately and couldn't quite bring herself to turn around. "Yeah," she said. "She is. But I'm glad she took off. I wanted to spend Christmas with her, not all the holidays."

"She gave you New Year's Eve," G said, sounding amused.

"A few hours of it," Megan said, and forced herself to turn around.

G hadn't changed. G was just the same. G was the same short, wiry, narrow-eyed, wind-carved butch bundle of sex she'd been two and a half weeks ago, when they'd gone out to a late lunch and were on their way home for several hours of practicing the horizontal hokey-pokey.

The only difference was in Megan's head, and that whole green leotard thing.

G cocked her head to one side and said, "You've been avoiding me."

"Sorry," Megan said, and had started out meaning it to be sarcastic and angry, but it came out heartfelt and guilty. "I... just didn't feel up to processing while also dealing with Mom. Knowing her, she'd've figured out what was going on and offered to mediate, and you don't want to know what I think of her relationship skills."

The sky began to spit ice at Wonder City again, and Megan stood in it, feeling penitential and a little like a small child waiting for her doom to be pronounced.

G stood back from the door. "What is it with you and standing out in precipitation? Get your ass in here."

Megan fought down her reflexive nervous smile at that, and heavily tramped up the steps into the house. G shut the door on the dank, frigid blast outside and turned to regard the younger woman, pursing her lips.

"Come upstairs," G said. "The cats miss you."

"I..." Megan started to say something, and forgot what it was.

"I've got hot mulled cider on the stove," G said, squeezing past her in the narrow hallway and thumping up the steps. "Come on."

The apartment did smell of the cider and spices, and baking bread, and maybe even cake. Megan hovered in the doorway and sniffed.

Evason happened to be passing by the front door on urgent cat business, merely twitched her maimed ear at Megan's intrusion. Madame Blavatsky, however, hopped down from the kitchen counter and trotted over to Megan's giant boots, loudly chastising her. Megan bent to offer a fingertip to Madame B to sniff. Madame B did so gravely, gave out an imperious, "MWAH!" and strode toward Megan's preferred chair. She hopped onto the arm and looked back at Megan expectantly.

"You thought I was kidding," G said, gesturing at Ursula and Olamina, who had both also materialized from somewhere. "You'd better sit down."

Megan did so, and was immediately colonized. She suspected that the cats liked her because she emitted a lot of heat and had a lot of cat furniture surface area.

G gave her a very large mug of hot cider and reclined onto the loveseat with her own, rather smaller, mug, leaning against one arm with feet up on the other. When Megan looked at her next, Jazz had curled into a large black and white ball on G's lap.

Megan felt the silence stretching and twisting like an irritated copperhead (what had become of him? she wondered irrelevantly), but she kept staring into her mug, trying to think of the Right Thing to say.

"Do you feel betrayed?" G asked.

Megan looked up at her, then back down into the darkness of her cider. Ursula rolled onto her back on Megan's knees, waving her paws in the air and exposing her calico belly. Megan petted the exposed belly, and Ursula contracted around her hand pointily. "I guess so."

Megan could see G nodding out of the corner of her eye. Ursula chewed on her fingers.

"I could say several different things right now," G said, scritching one of Jazz's ears. "I could point out the whole secret identity thing. I could say, 'You're not the boss of me!' I could even be a really righteous asshole and explain that I'm not the one in spandex, the ghost possessing me is. But it all comes down to the fact that I didn't tell you, even though I knew you had issues with spandex relationships, and you have to be the one to choose to deal or not deal."

Megan stared at her for a long moment, opened her mouth, shut her mouth, then shook her head. "Okay, I'll come back to the ghost in a moment. Why didn't you tell me, even though you knew, et cetera, et cetera?"

G's mouth quirked a half-smile. "Should I spin you the pathetic story about how when I was a kid, I had the hots for a straight girl and I just kept hoping that if I made her like me enough, it wouldn't matter that I was a girl in the end?"

Megan raised an eyebrow. "Is it true?"

G shrugged. "Yes, but does that really matter?"

Megan scowled into her mug for several moments, and finally took a long drink of the cider. "Maybe," she said.

Uhura arrived, later than the others -- as usual -- and appeared on Megan's knee. She stomped across Ursula and stuck her head into Megan's mug.

"So what's this about a ghost?" Megan said.

G looked down at Jazz and pretended to be examining his ear. "Back in the summer, I was working on recording some points of architectural interest in a building that was being demolished. Near the end, I was in the basement, looking over the foundation, and I, well, found her body."

"In the basement?" Megan said, leaning her head forward so Uhura could drape herself along the back of the chair.

"Yeah. Just part of a skeleton, you know, and the bits of costume." G drained her mug and set it aside. "She was from the war."

"The costume did seem kinda... vintage," Megan said. "'Part' of a skeleton?"

G nodded. "She got killed her first time out. She says a guy called the Grey Phantom dematerialized her and shoved her into a wall. She died pretty much instantly. I don't know how or why she was never found. I couldn't even find a reference to any villains using 'Phantom' in their names who were on record as having the power to demat someone."

Megan frowned. "So she's all angsty and unfulfilled now? So she asked you to help her fulfill her destiny or some junk?"

"Asked, hell," G said angrily. "She grabbed hold of the back of my lizard brain and won't fucking let go."

"She's really possessing you?" Megan said, appalled.

"Yes," G said, still avoiding her gaze. "But I guess we've come to an understanding."

"You haven't tried to get her removed?" Megan said. "In a city full of Mystikai, there's gotta be someone who can do it."

G shrugged. "She claims that any attempt to remove her will hurt me. And I'm not sure she's telling the truth, but I'm not really willing to find out that she is the hard way."

Megan watched Evason stride across the room and jump onto the back of the loveseat. "A very smart lady recently said, 'Ghosts are notoriously crazy.' And I think she's right."

"I... can't really think about getting her removed," G said slowly. "And, I admit, I'm kind of enjoying the whole saving-the-day thing most of the time."

"Really," Megan said in a flat tone.

G plucked at the edge of the cushion. "Yeah. I guess so."

"And when did you start feeling this way?" Megan said.

G shook her head. "Don't."

"Why not?"

"I can't talk about it."

"Because she won't let you."

"Yeah."

Megan caught herself before she dashed the mug against the wall, not least because it would have discomfited one, if not two, of the cats on her. She settled for growling. Ursula twitched a paw at her. Madame B, curled into a round ball, gazed at her from one mad eye.

"You realize," Megan said after counting to ten and back, "that you're crazy too."

"Probably." G stroked Evason's nose. "The cats keep me sane-ish. And it's kind of nice being really superstrong and able to do cool shit, as opposed to being sort of strong and sort of tough and not really enough of either to be worth much."

"You could've been a helluva firefighter," Megan said.

G laughed. "I suppose I could've." She leaned back over the arm of the loveseat, her spine making little crackling noises. "But I'm not. I'm a lump of mobile meat with someone else in the driver's seat. A post-existential Oldsmobile."

"You're an unbelievably hot butch architect," Megan said. "And she's not. How long before she convinces you that you'd look good in long hair, maybe in a dress?" Ursula, taking issue with Megan's violent gesticulation, hopped down to the floor and stalked off, tail switching in irritation.

"That won't happen," G said, finally meeting Megan's gaze.

"How about dating a man?" Megan said, getting louder and more sarcastic than she meant to. "Did she ever get laid? Does she have a long-lost love? I bet Ira Feldstein was contemporary..."

Olamina punched Megan in the arm with a particularly mighty pawslap and disappeared under the chair.

"Jesus, Megan," G said. "The only thing she's concerned with is heroing. That's it."

"For now," Megan said, gently removing Uhura from her full-body drape, stroking her, and setting her on the floor. "Look, you can see where this is going as well as I can." Madame B uncurled on the arm of the chair, gave Megan an offended look, and stalked off.

"Yeah," G said, sitting very still and looking at Evason. "I think I knew this was where it would end up."

Megan stood up. "Thanks for the cider, G. I..." She groped for words. "It was really fun. I like you an awful lot, G. It's spandex-girl I don't like."

"Well," G said, stroking Evason's nose with one finger, "I'll let you know if I lose the roommate."

"Yeah," Megan said. "G'night."

Megan let herself out of the apartment gently, and went down to the back garden for a stroll in the sleet. She found Watson sitting on the back steps, under the overhang, smoking a clove cigarette.

"Hey," Watson said.

"Hey," Megan said.

"Almost time for the fireworks," Watson said.

"Yeah," Megan said gloomily. She finally admitted to herself that she'd really been hoping that the talk would result in her and G making some all-night fireworks of their own.

Watson looked at her quizzically over the rim of her glasses. "Not much for celebrations?"

Megan rubbed her hand over her face. "Bad mood, sorry."

Watson watched her for a moment, took a drag on the cigarette, and said, "You know, she can't think about having the ghost removed."

Megan looked at Watson sharply. "You know way too much. You sure you're not a telepath?"

"Absolutely," Watson said.

"So you think she was hinting at me to help?"

Watson shrugged. "Well, what mystical whosit is going to take time to talk to an architect? Or a consulting detective?"

Megan sighed. "But the daughter of the Amazon is another matter. Why does it always come down to my mother?"

Watson raised her eyebrows. "Why would they listen to the daughter of a retired superhero?" she asked. "Especially when they could be talking to one of the women who just saved the city?"

Megan stared at her for a moment, then said, "Oh."

Watson crushed her cigarette out on the cement of the stairs and dropped it into one of the cigarette poles Zoltan had put around the place.

Megan said, "But why didn't she talk to Simon? He's got better connections than I do."

Watson turned to walk up the stairs. "Maybe because she wasn't sleeping with Simon."

Megan thought about that a moment, and just as Watson was going through the back door, she said, "But then how did you --"

Watson grinned over her shoulder and went inside.

Megan stood in the sleet for a while, digesting that conversation, and thinking back over the talk with G.

In the distance, she started to hear small pops and explosions, and could see multicolored lights flickering against the cloud cover.

Zoltan landed in the yard, his dark trenchcoat folding down around him like wings. "It is very pretty from up high," he said, "but not so much in this weather. Why are you standing out getting a nice frosting like this?"

"Trying to clear my head," Megan said. She ran her fingers through her hair, flicking water and ice away.

"Pah! New Year's is not for clear heads. You must become muddled and befuddled."

"I'm already that," she assured him.

Another figure dropped neatly into the yard. She was a round-hipped black woman with short dreds and an easy smile, also wearing a trenchcoat. "Hey, are you one of his tenants?" she asked, a slight Jamaican accent flavoring the sentence.

Megan smiled back at her. "Yep. I'm Megan."

"Isolde," the woman said, drawing the word out, her smile widening. They shook hands; the handshake lingered. Isolde's hand was surprisingly warm.

Zoltan gave Isolde a jaded look over his shoulder. "I'll have you know that she's not edible. You would break your teeth on her skin."

"My dear," Isolde said witheringly, "I do have more interests in this long life than just eating."

He shrugged. "Could have fooled me."

"Hah!" she said, throwing her hands in the air. "Look at who's talking here. How often does he have pretty boys in?"

"Wouldn't know," Megan said, quirking a smile. "I think he's got a separate entrance."

"Of course I do," Zoltan said. "Now can we go inside where there is no ice falling on my head? I would like something to drink, myself, that is non-nutritional."

"A lush, too," Isolde said to Megan, shaking her head. "It's so sad to see one of our elders devolve so."

Megan was having trouble not giggling. The world felt more than a little surreal to her right then -- a consequence of being para among paras, she concluded. Too much para-ness.

"Now?" Zoltan asked, raising his eyebrows dramatically. "You too, young lady. You require some sustenance after trying to freeze yourself like Lady Justice in Antarctica."

"I..." Megan started to say.

Isolde seized her hand. "Oh, yes, do come in. I want to know more about you, and I need diversion from Old Stuff here."

"If I am so old and boring, why did you come with me?" Zoltan said, opening the back door and bowing to the women.

"I was hoping to meet some of your young and beautiful tenants," Isolde said, tugging Megan after her. "Clearly, I am precognitive."

Megan allowed herself to be towed, glancing once toward the grand finale fireworks that exploded in a technicolor spray reaching up into the clouds. She turned to follow Isolde through the door and smiled vaguely at Zoltan.

"You see?" Zoltan said. "It is not so bad. Change is the only thing you can count on. Trust me, I'm old, I know these things." He patted her on the back. "Happy New Year, dear."

"Yeah," Megan said, looking after Isolde and letting her smile grow. "Happy New Year!"

---

From the author:

And so we close volume #1 of Wonder City Stories. I hope very much that you've enjoyed this first story arc at least as much as I've enjoyed writing it!

I'm going to take a week or so off now, as I pull the plot of volume #2 together and write the first several episodes. Want to influence the plot, or at least who appears in it? If you send me a tip OR write a review of WCS on your blog or on a site like Web Fiction Guide or Muse's Success, you can also give me the name of a minor character you'd like to see more of, and I'll do my best to include her/him in volume 2!

Thank you all for your continued support!

Jude



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