Book 4, 22: Out of the Dark Rows and Into the Sun Comes the Wild, Daredevil Hunt
Charlotte scanned the front of the church, nestling the Pearl Harmony Sword, searching in vain for greater comfort. Father Asplin had finished the homily, it seemed, an hour ago, and they had all gone to take communion, and most of the congregation had gone straight out of St. Elizabeth’s like normal people right afterwards. Only she and Dora had been chumps enough to go back to their seats and wait for the old priest to be done with the boring people who like to bore people.
“I wonder if he wonders why we’re still here?” Charlotte mused.
“Well, no doubt it’s because I want to show off this awesome new blouse,” her friend answered, a little sarcastically. “Because it’s not like the only time we come to see him is when we need information.”
“That’s unfair!” Charlotte said, although she was feeling guilty about how long it had been since the last time she came to meditate with Father Asplin. “And it really is a cute blouse.” Which was true. It was a brown, tie-neck number that went nicely with Dora’s favourite old, tan slacks. It was a good outfit for going to church without being completely, hopelessly square like Charlotte’s blouse probably was. She was not proud of her style this morning. Not at all.
And on the talk went, talk-bore, talk-bore, death to everyone by talking! Father Asplin’s face winced gently. Bad breath, too, and finally even he had had enough, and turned to Mr. Santos, who was apparently willing to wait as long as the girls to talk to his parish priest.
And evidently it was important stuff, too, because Father Asplin couldn’t get away with a handshake and a smile, either. Charlotte tried to wriggle into her seat, trying to find some comfort at the end of a too-long service, The seats at St. Elizabeth’s stank. Because they were pews. Get it? Charlotte thought to herself. It’s hilarious because it’s stupid.
Charlotte wasn’t sure why she was in her parish church this Sunday morning. Old time medieval knights used to go to do penance. That was somewhere between punishing yourself for your sins and living simply to demolish your ego. Either way, uncomfortable chairs made it work. The question was, should she be punishing herself? She was still mad at herself for not being able to catch Madison on the roofs of the Library yesterday afternoon. Whatever Professor Paradigm’s Pirates were doing at the Library, they were none the wiser.
And that was bad news, because Paradigm had hooked up with Fang before, and Fang might be looking for Auralia.
The other way of looking at it, that she was here on the dharma path, well, that led to better mastery of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu. Charlotte was sure that if she’d just been a little more alert, a little more perceptive, Madison wouldn’t have lost her down in the niches and cornices and pediments of the Lost Library of Alexandria wing, turning a corner at a flash of white only to run into a statue of some lady goddess in a helmet with a freaking grasshopper on her marble shoulder.
The other other way of looking at it was that someone in their gang needed to talk to Father Asplin about the Battle of the Darkspire.
She turned to talk to Dora, only to find her texting. Charlotte pretended to peak over to see who her friend was texting until Dora turned her phone off.
“Texting at church makes Baby Jesus cry,” Charlotte announced.
“Mister Santos is making Baby Jesus cry,” Dora replied, loud enough for Father Asplin to hesitate for a moment in his seemingly interminable conversation with Mr. Santos about the new Philippino Community Centre down the road. Mrs. Santos, a small Asian woman with that indefinably handsome yet solid look of a former nanny made good, followed up with an irritated glance. “Tho’ he’s pretty easy on the eyes, gotta admit.”
“Priest,” Charlotte pointed out.
“Paladin,” Dora answered, nudging her friend, hard.
“Ow!” Charlotte announced. Well, if that’s the way you’re going to play it, Charlotte thought, swiping her phone and thumbing Twitter.
@Charlotte: Dora thinks F. Asplin hot.
@Bruce @Charlotte: #inappropriate #church
@Rose @Charlotte I do not understand why you and Dora even have to be wasting your Sunday morning praying to some nonexistent entity up in the sky with nothing better to do than mind your morals. All progress begins with scientific reasoning, and blind faith is antithetical to the skeptical questioning of authority that is the basis of the scientific method.
@Bruce @Rose. How does she do that? #140 char.
@Charlotte @Bruce @Rose Hacks Twitter. Cheating. Does same txting.
@Rose @Charlotte @Bruce. It is not cheating! I happen to be a fast texter and a cyberpath, so I modify the rules of the mode of communications to suit my particular abilities. With my abilities. So in your face, Chop-Socky Girl!
@Twelve @Rose @Charlotte Tots cheating Rulz is rulz.
@Dora @Charlotte Yes: cheating No: #inappropriate, politics!
@Twelve @Dora @Charlotte Not politics! Rules, following them, importance to balanced development! #inappropriate
@Dora @Twelve @Charlotte Give you inappropriate! #nopolitics
@Charlotte. . .
@Brian @Charlotte . . . FOS Father Over Shoulder LOL?
It would be funnier, Charlotte thought, if Father Asplin had snuck up on them, but that was one kind of joke you couldn’t really do with a mistress of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu. She looked up from her phone, to meet Father Asplin’s calm gaze. The church was empty now, its serenity washing over Charlotte. And hopefully Dora. “FOS,” she tapped, anyway. Because that was kind of funny. Instead of POS, “Parents over shoulder?” She thought, explaining to the part of her that didn’t think things were funny, why it was funny? I hope other people do that, Charlotte thought to herself, and I’m not just crazy.
“Charlotte,” he said, his voice not sounding angry about all of the texting at all. “It’s been a … month, hasn’t it?”
Charlotte nodded, biting her lip. “I’m sorry it’s been so long, Father Asplin.”
His face broke into a broad smile. “Char-Char, you’re a modern teenager. If I saw you more than that, especially without your guardians, I’d probably have you brought in for a psychiatric assessment, because next thing you know, you’d be living in a chicken coop and preaching outside of a subway station. Or a boy. Tell me that this isn’t boy trouble.” He looked worried for a moment.
The image of Scout, pulling down his bandanna to reveal Brian’s dreamy face, flashed through Charlotte’s mind, the thing she’d imagined so often, so hard, flashed across Charlotte’s mind for a moment. Then, she shook her head. “No, sir. Well, no more than usual. It’s about our investigation.”
“Well, then. If you and Dora would like to join me in the vestry, we can see if we can sort this out.”
Charlotte stood, pulling her grey blouse down over her black blouse-slacks combo and followed the priest into the small room at the end of the church.
“Very nice blazer,” Father Asplin said, and relief and pleasure washed over Charlote.
He gestured to seats around a table at one end, then stooped to lock the communion service in a small, ridiculously old-fashioned safe (the things you learned about in classes for superheroes!) at the other end.
The briskly efficient housekeeper, Eileen, stepped in to put a pot of tea and some of those tiny little china cups that made taking tea so stylin’ and so not-at-all-practical. Plus sandwiches. For a moment, Charlotte was worried that they’d turn out to be those ones with cucumbers, but apparently that was being saved for her for Smythe House, because these ones were a nice chicken salad with a bit of thyme.
“Hungry?” Father Asplin asked, sitting down opposite them.
Oops, Charlotte thought. It was rude to start before your host. She put down her sandwich. Reluctantly. It had been hours since breakfast, and that hot bowl of congee wasn’t even a memory any more.
“No, go ahead. A teenage girl, tall as a paladin. You need your nourishment. You girls want proper tea mugs?”
Charlotte and Dora nodded together, and, from somewhere, Father Asplin fetched three matching mugs with the red-and-blue logo of the Institute of Advanced Research on them. Charlotte gave them a cautious peek, in case they had some hideous serum in them, but they were white and dry inside. She poured steaming mugsful for Father Asplin, Dora and herself. The unexpectedly large and heavy teapot took some lifting.
Charlotte –almost—scowled at the ‘paladin,’ but didn’t say anything, because, honestly, she didn’t really have an answer. And the Pearl Harmony Sword, still hanging over her shoulder in his umbrella guise, purred pearl-and-light in resonance with some power that it –they—could feel moving within this holy space.
Father took his seat, then cupped his hands in front of him. “Heshi, Wong Xiao Luo Te. Blessings in Christ, Dora Guzman,” he said, inclining his head slightly to each of them as he spoke. He nailed the tones in her name with an accent straight out of Causeway Bay, and Charlotte was mad jealous for a moment. She couldn’t speak Cantonese half that well. “Now, how can I help you?” Idly, he put a phone down beside him.
“We met some lady named Georgia Water at the Library yesterday,” Dora answered. “She tried to steal a piece of jewelry out of the Atlantean exhibit, and when we caught her, she talked like she was checking out Twelve for his relatives. But the only relatives of Twelve we know about are his clone-brothers from Teleios’ vats.” Charlotte paused, and then looked down like she was almost too shy to say the next bit. “Except there was a rumour going around that he was related to Eve somehow.”
“Hmm. I don’t –Wait. ‘Water music.’ Ha! A leopard doesn’t change her spots. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you anything about that.” As he spoke, Father Asplin tapped his phone.
“She said something about how it was all hidden from Twelve, too. A Veil, a Silence.”
“Well, I don’t know that the Silence is a secret, strictly speaking, but I certainly can’t say anything about it without…”
“Then you grownups are keeping something from us!” Charlotte interrupted, surprised at how angry she was.
“It was a promise made,” Father Asplin answered. “Twelve can either pierce the Veil on his own, or wait to be invited across it. The rest of you can either wait to join the Sentinels or the Justice Squadron or a similar organisation, or… “
“Find out for ourselves. Fun!” Dora interrupted.
Father Asplin smiled. “Exactly. Fun.”
“So it’s a secret, but not a serious secret.” Charlotte said.
Father Asplin didn’t reply.
“Twelve thinks his relatives are a bunch of stuck-up elitists.”
“He thinks everyone who doesn’t keep their heads down and get along to go along is a stuck-up elitist,” Doraw answered.
“In sum, he’s totally activist about not wanting anyone to be an activist.”
Father Asplin shook his head. “Teenagers today. You know, when I was your age…”
Charlotte and Dora stared at him expectantly.
“. . . We didn’t have to worry about going out to find a cause to join up in the fight against injustice. Injustice was in charge, sending vampires to suck our blood and orcs and liches to sacrifice us to the Old Red Gods.”
“But you fought him! You won!”
“Only because the King of Ivory was ready to launch his last blood magic, and destroy all life on Earth. A mad, dead thing, more demon than human. Yet the magic cost him so much, pulled him away from the sources of his power. Without that distraction, Venghest’s strategy would never have worked. He must have seen that coming, you know. Was it really worth it?”
“About that?” Charlotte asked.
“You told my brother once that at the Battle of the Darkspire, you only won because Tako—because the King of Ivory’s forces had been distracted by an attack by someone else, by a powerful faction that had kept itself secret from ---“
“You can say, ‘Takofanes’ in this place without fear of giving the enemy strength, Charlotte.” Father Asplin’s phone chimed. He looked at it for a moment, then back at Charlotte.
“A faction that had kept itself secret from Takofanes. We think that faction is the one that Archon and Georgia Water and Eve and Fang belong to, the one that Mario and Twelve get their metagenes from. And we think that that faction was betrayed to Takofanes from within. By Fang.”
Father Asplin looked back, stone faced. “That’s quite an inference. Though I can see how you might come to that conclusion. I can neither confirm or deny anything that Thief Handeln might or might not have told you, but there was an attack on the Darkspire, which ended just before our cavalry arrived on the field, and Telcontar Far-Friended said that it had been betrayed. Unfortunately, he was killed on the field, and I have little or nothing to add.”
“You gave up a name, though,” Charlotte pointed out. “Thief Handeln.”
“You had the clues, you would have figured it out. She meant you to do so.”
“Is there a geneticist amongst the kindred? Can you give up that name?”
“Noatar,” Father Asplin answered. “I cannot see how that helps you break the Veil and the Façade.”
“Fang!” Dora’s eyes flashed. “Why don’t they just arrest him? No, don’t answer. They can’t believe that their dear Noatar would do anything like that.”
Again, Father Asplin said nothing, just put his hand out to touch Charlotte’s bracelet. “What did you say that Thief Handeln was looking for?”
“Bling.” Dora said it through pursed lips, making the word clang. “The Esharra Choker, they called it. Not my colours, but I wouldn’t pass it by if I saw it in the street, either.”
“Indeed. I should imagine that it would suit Charlotte well, though.”
Charlotte looked at Father Asplin, questioningly. “You know it?”
“It’s a legendary piece. It is associated with the legend of Vondarrion’s Labours, but it is far older than that. Ur-Elven, and I sense its resonance in Charlotte’s enigmatic bracelet.”
Charlotte held her bracelet up so that the warm, old-fashioned light-bulb light of the vestry could play on its golden tracings. “My bracelet is Ur-Elven? What’s Ur-Elven?”
“At the dawning of the Old Red Aeon, when elves and Drakine shared the Earth with primitive men, the Elves were already old. But, unlike men, their history was folded in mystery. The mystery of the Ur-Elven, wrought in curious pieces such as that bracelet, and written in texts already lost to memory. And if the secret of those inscriptions are in the Library of Babylon, which they probably are, not even the oldest and the wisest know the catalogues or indexes that will lead us to them in the stacks. Not that people do not try. And now Thief Handeln, who has never tried to steal it before.”
“Before?” Charlotte peaked over at Father Asplin’s phone, to see if there was a message on it to that effect, but from her angle, she could not quite see it.
“Yes? Thief Handeln steals for the thrill of it, and sometimes to examine an object. She often takes responsibility for the fate of the things that she steals, and even returns them once she is done with them. But in all of her years, she has never before taken an interest in Ur-Elven objects. Fair enough, in a world so old and full of mysteries. But she is interested now, which leaves rather a mystery. Why did she let you catch her?”
“Let her?” Dora sounded outraged. No, wait, on more careful reconsideration, she sounded like she was pretending to be outraged. Dora got it. Thief Handeln had staged the robbery so she could check Twelve out. But that didn’t mean. . . Charlotte’s fingers played across her phone.
A moment later, a text came back from Bruce. She looked up to meet Father Asplin’s curious gaze. “The Atlantean Exhibit comes down next Saturday. The artefacts will be moved back to the Treasury of Babylon in the Forbidden City by an armoured car convoy that afternoon.”
“Now that sounds as though it could be entertaining. The orichalchum out of which the Swords were forged came from an Ur-Elven tripod cauldron, you know.” Father Asplin steepled his fingers.
“Entertaining?” Charlotte asked.
“Before I was a priest, I was a horse soldier, Charlotte. Much like you girls, and my blood still sings when I hear the bugle play ‘Boots and Saddles.’ If I were fifty years younger, I would be off to borrow the Azure Tranquility Sword back from your brother and be off to fight the hijackers myself. “’Was glänzt dort im Walde im Sonnenschein?’”
Charlotte cocked her head.
“The Wild Hunt,” Father Asplin finished. “The wild and daring hunt that rides out of the dark forest into the first light of dawn.”
Yeah, Charlotte thought. In a week. I can’t wait that long!