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

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!








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His Faded Idol

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

Author's Note:

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









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