Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book 4, 27: Lustration

I went looking for images of Aurora undergoing lustration, but most of them were kind of NSFW. What is it about visual artists that makes them such a lustrated lot?

Book 4, 27: Lustration

Charlotte, Dora, Twelve and Rose sat in the back of the armoured car watching the Understate behind them. A Babylon Roads Department flatbed was following behind, with Mill’s Taurus neatly jacked up on the bed. Then came a police cruiser, and finally a pair of motorcycle cops on bikes with ridiculously bright yellow fairings, lights flashing so that none of the drivers behind could mistake where the convoy ended.

Not that they could. To the limits of what the eye could see, down and around a curve far below, the traffic was crammed, bumper to bumper, in three lanes and the exit and on lanes. The Tattered Man had not made any friends on those Babylonites unlucky enough to be on the roads on a Saturday afternoon. Charlotte had heard about that from her Cousin May, who had a weekend job at the Shop-Rite. People who had to drive to work on a Saturday afternoon did not normally have much patience with shopping traffic. It just reminded them that they were stuck with working the weekends. 

Speaking of stuck, Charlotte looked down at her white glove, examining it again for gunk, even though she’d scrubbed herself with an entire tub of Wet Wipes. Not good enough, she thought. “I will never be clean again.”

Bruce must have been listening, because he stood up from where he was sitting in the front of the truck and edged through the narrow door between front and rear compartments. His shoulders and broad chest filled the space, giving only inches of room to Dora and Rose, Charlotte couldn’t help noticing.

“Don’t look at me,” Bruce said. “I. . .” And then his face turned red and he stammered into silence. 

Bruce could be weird sometimes.

Dora pulled her gum out of her mouth on a long strand, then snapped it back. Silence fell in the cab. “Like, you fought some giant magic snot rags, Char-Char. Stop being so prissy.”

“I don’t care if you all want to call me a CHAP. I repeat. I need a long bath. Also, handkerchief, please.”

“It was a magical snot rag, so the proper word is ‘libation,’” Rose said. “Also, are Chinese American Princesses really a thing?”

“No,” Bruce said, firmly.

Dora rolled her eyes. “You’ve met Jenny, and you can ask that?”

“But her boyfriend. . .” Rose began. Brad Neilsen might have lost a lot of weight, but he was still a hairy gorilla of a man. Though Jenny wasn’t the only person around who thought Chris Pratt was sexy, so there was that.

“Is going to be a doctor,” Dora ended, firmly. Yeah, there was that, too.

Twelve stirred, as though he was uncomfortable about something. “Uhm, fun as all this gossip is, has anyone considered the possibility that this Tattered Man is the mannequin we fought back at Smith House?” 

Bruce squatted, so that he’d loom less. It didn’t really work that well, because the cab was small, and Bruce was big. Though fortunately not Chris Prattish, with his clean shaven face. And, for that matter, the short haircut hidden by the cowl of his Tatammy fatigues. 

Idly, Charlotte imagined how he’d look with a mullet, like Brian’s. Probably pretty good, she decided.

After a second, Bruce spoke. “Yeah, probably. And the creepy vampire dude in the SUVs from our first day at the Library, too. Charlotte’s description of his face is pretty mannequin-like, and, more important, his handkerchiefs fought like that straw elemental or whatever the mannequin summoned. That’d make Mr. Taurling the Tattered Man’s Renfrew. Maybe the mannequin has to be buried in the earth during the day? Could be a vampire thing, at least whatever weird kind of vampire the Tattered Man is. Also, either everything is about us, or, more likely, it’s about Mr. Taurling. He’s a researcher in the Library, and this was an attempt to hijack some incredibly valuable stuff from the Library.”

“So why’d he come after us on that first day?” Twelve asked.

“No idea,” Bruce answered. “Also in question here is his reason for hanging out with the migdalar. We know that they’ve been hitting Piper & Norton shipments for Imperial Intelligence Command, but unless the ICC hiring migdalar agents, they’re mercenaries, so there’s not much of a connection to trace.”

Charlotte took a look at Bruce. It was pretty hard to imagine Bruce cutting anyone slack in one of his Investigations, never mind the ICC. The V’hanian Empire’s Imperial Intelligence Command was supposed to be like a crazy person’s idea of what the CIA was like. Dirty tricks, secret prisons, torture, assassinations, the whole nine yards. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why do you think that the ICC won’t hire migdalar, Bruce?”

“Because they’re mind-readers. And serious ones, too. They’ll sit you down, take off whatever screening gadgets you have, and eat your brain, if they can. Let them get away with that once or twice within the ICC, and secrets that V’han really doesn’t want the rest of us to know are going to come out, and the migdalar will sell those secrets for fifty cents and an autographed picture of Scott Baio, because they do not give a damn.” 

“Who?” Dora asked.

“I was going for the obscure heartthrob of yesteryear vibe. Trying too hard?”

“No, I got it, Bruce,” Rose said.

Bruce shook his head. “Trying too hard.”

“Okay, so that answers the question,” Charlotte said. “Presumably, the Tattered Man wanted something in the convoy, and Thief Handeln wanted something from the convoy, and we got in the middle. So. Could it be the same thing? The Esme Choker?”

“Well,” Bruce answered. “The Tattered Man probably isn’t working for V’han, but he’s definitely working for Takofanes, and Takofanes is looking for Auralia, and we’re looking for Auralia, and we think there’s a link to the Esme Choke, since Auralia seems to have been made from metal melted down from another Ur-Elven artefact. So there’s that.”

Charlotte leaned her head back and blew an imaginary strand of hair out of her face. “Ur-Elves. Just what we need. Another mystery.” Around her wrist, Charlotte could feel her bracelet –the other Ur-Elven artefact she knew about. And the one that Scout had so gently wrapped around her arm, that night back on Landing. She felt, again, like waving it in the air. ‘Oh, hey guys, see the shiny I’ve got?’ And, once again, she squelched it firmly. It was private, and somehow, she didn’t want to talk about Scout right now. Dora and Rose teased her about him enough already.

A pale light washed into the back cab, silhouetting Bruce’s head like Taylor Swift in the backlights. Charlotte felt the armoured car swerve underneath of her. The driver, Charlotte figured, had to adjust to the light coming into the driver’s compartment ahead. “Uhm, Bruce?” Dora waved her hand to one side. “Not made of glass.”

That round flush of embarrassment appeared below Bruce’s mask again. Honestly, he was Charlotte’s only friend who could blush so hard that it spread below his cowl. “Sorry.” He ducked his head. 

Now that they could see ahead through the windshield, they could take in the glowing half-circle of light where Understate Route 86 came up above ground. A moment later, the armoured car broke the surface, and they were driving through the Forbidden City. 

The traffic had thinned, miraculously, and the pavement beneath them had turned to gold. Of course. To their right, above a smooth curving, concrete rise, the esplanade stretched out to the river under a layer of smooth and creamy concrete. Here and there on its broad pavement, people strolled, and there were bicyclists, and even one or two skateboarders who gave off that indefinable air of being just a little too lucky in life to be real boarders –the April Lavigne Effect. Not that Charlotte was going to point the finger too hard when her cousins liked to sneak out of the house and ‘board, pretending that Auntie Ma didn’t know exactly what was going on.

To their left, the Chrysophase stretched, almost as rambly as the Library, but with the difference that it was all the same kind of architecture, of soaring towers and flying bridges and elegant arches, all of a purple material that gleamed like amethyst with its own, internal light. 

It seemed like five minutes that they drove past the Chrysophase, the Imperial Palace being so large. Then, at last, the road ran between big but less identifiable buildings, with Roman pillars or that weird, fake-scary style they used on Canadian parliament buildings, all somehow blending in, even with the occasional modern building of glass and metal. Then they turned off the road and down a channel that led below the level of the ground and then through broad walls before finally ending at a gate with men in camouflage and body armour with ported assault rifles who waved the convoy through into a huge paved area lined with tanks and trucks and artillery far in the distance, and near at hand a huge building with a door that, while it looked small to them, was still big enough to swallow a four-lane road. 

The convoy didn’t even slow down as it entered the building, just wove its way down and up and around great columns and on concrete bridges levered out over echoing bays, until, finally, they went through another door, and, somehow, the ambience changed from “military” to “that bank that the heroes/bad guys are about to heist.

Their truck stopped in the middle of a polished floor. A moment later, the back doors of the armoured car were swung open by the driver and his co-driver. Charlotte jumped out. Three men in one of those suits with the long tails behind, and a shirt with a popped collar, and a tie that looked like it was so oversized that you couldn’t do it up tight, and, if that weren’t enough, a top hat, were waiting.

The man in front of the other two tipped his hat and put out his hand in an old-timey way and bowed deeply, while the two behind him bowed and swept their hats right off their head and under them in the old-timey way. The two guards snapped to attention. Charlotte noticed that the driver saluted a lot more crisply than his co-driver. 

Charlotte took the hand of the lead top-hat guy and curtsied as well as she could, holding the Pearl Harmony behind her and sort of bending her left leg around it, because there wasn’t exactly a lot of etiquette guidance for people who curtsied with swords, and just because you had a sword was no excuse not to be polite when guys were bowing and stuff.

“Redeeming Daughter? I am the Treasury Department’s Vice-Director for Prehistoric Antiquities, Mr. Antodotus Mist, and these are my Assistant Vice-Directors Night and Fog. The Emperor has personally requested that we give you every assistance in this matter.”

The Emperor of Babylon. They’d obviously made some waves, Charlotte thought. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Mist, Mr. Night, Mr. Fog. These are my friends, Goblin Boy, Rush, The Maid of Gold and Warrior Twelve. I understand that Fargone Boy has teleported ahead.” Charlotte could feel her friends’ embarrassment as though her back had antennas. It was one thing to come up with codenames. It was another to actually use them socially.

“Indeed he has. I understand that you had a bit of a situation down on the Understate, and that he was responsible for rescuing the Esme Choker. We really are quite grateful, as it is one of the prizes of our collection. I can’t think of more than a dozen or so items in it that are more valuable. At least to you.”

Charlotte cocked her head. Mr. Mist continued. “We’ve been informed of your quest. It really is too bad that your needs are so specific, as I gather that we currently have one hundred and thirty four versions of the Sword Auralia from dimensions other than your own in our collection. Alas, they are not attuned to defeat your particular Takofanes.”

“Could we have a look at them? Or one, anyway?” Rose asked from behind.

“Oh, of course,” Mr. Mist answered. “The King of Ivory has never given the City of Babylon a satisfactory explanation for his activities, and the Emperor has approved his sanctioning by friendly agencies. But I am sure that you would like to see the Choker, as well.” 

Mr. Mist turned and beckoned. While they had been talking, the crew of the armoured car convoy had formed up behind the driver and co-driver of their car into a closed squad, with their co-driver in front, like he was in charge or something. “Sergeant?” Mr. Mist said.

Their co-driver turned to face his squad and began doing that sergeant-yelly thing. They saluted, like it was not something they practiced every five minutes, but well enough, and a moment later, the five teen superheroes were following behind the Vice-Directors, with their own security squad marching along behind, in step so that their steps echoed when the group’s route took them down polished, mirror-like marbled floors and up granite staircases, and was muffled by deep, pile rugs. 

Soon, they were led into a big, scientific-looking room under bright, cold, fluorescent lights. On a table, a sword of gleaming oricalchum lay in a green velvet carrying case, and, beside it, on a stand, the familiar Esme Choker. Two women and a man in white lab coats, wearing white gloves and hair nets, sat at the table on tall lab stools. Beside the choker was a silver salver of water. The male scientist was just dipping a white cotton swab in it when they came in, before beginning, or continuing, whichever, to rub the Choker with it.

Sitting at the end of the table was Brian, with his cowl off. His long, luxurious, backswept hair was so cute that Charlotte had a hard time remembering to be mad about the breach of secret identity.

Mr. Mist stepped up to the table, then gestured. Charlotte held back. It seemed hard to believe that she was in the presence of Auralia, the First Light of Dawn, itself. Even if it did come from some parallel dimension where Liechtenstein had conquered the world and Jerry and Devo was the greatest band in history. 

Mr. Mist turned around and gestured. “Come on, come on, don’t be shy.” Behind them, the security detail spread out around the edge of the room, just in case they needed even more security, here in the heart of the Treasury of Babylon.

Charlotte stepped forward, lifting the Pearl Harmony Sword and drawing it. Behind her, she could hear the police-dudes stirring, but the Vice-Director and his Assistants didn’t even flinch. Charlotte laid her sword on the table parallel to Auralia.

Nothing. Obviously, different history meant that the two swords weren’t attuned at all. She put her hand out, as though to touch the mighty blade. “May I?”

“Yes, yes,” Vice-Director Mist said, impatiently. “You are already chosen to bear one of the Seven and Two and One.”

Charlotte gently took the hilt of the alien Auralia in hand, and lifted it out of the box. She could feel nothing of the connection she had with the Pearl Harmony, not even the shock of recognition that she got when handling her brother’s sword, the Azure Tranquility. The white metal was inanimate in her hands, and the inscriptions on the blade were an indistinct tangle, hardly more visible than scratches.

“May I?” Rose asked behind her.

Wordlessly, Charlotte passed the alternate Auralia to her friend so that she could do the Indiana Jones thing.

“Yeah, I, wow,” Rose said. “What do the inscriptions mean?”

The female scientist in the middle of the table looked at Rose and shrugged. “’Kal-Turak is a Big Fat Loser?’ Unfortunately, we haven’t made much progress with that, although we have a team in the Library looking into it.”

“Oh!” Rose answered. “Well, I’m just going to take some high-def pictures here, and if we ever make some headway. . .” 

“Yes, I’m sure that will happen,” the scientist answered.

“Wait, no,” Rose said. “This, I’m. . . the knotwork here. I’m sure I’ve seen it before. I’ve-- ” Rose’s voice died away.

From behind her, one of the guards jumped forward, his guise rippling and changing, like a holodisguise breaking down, lashing out, violently, at Rose as he did. 

It was funny, Charlotte thought to herself, what kind of analogies made sense to you after a year in the life. While she was thinking that, she was spinning to restrain the guard with one hand, reaching out to grab Auralia as it flew through the air, spinning dangerously. 

Behind them, Charlotte heard clattering of jewelry hitting the table, and furniture legs scraping while other stools hit the floor. Ahead of her, she could see the other members of the security detail scattering as they tried to make sense of what had so explosively happened.

Well, first things first. Charlotte spun in to restrain the lunging guard with one hand, reaching out to grab Auralia in the other, snagging it as it spun by, in time to prevent the whirling blade from injuring anyone.

Shoulder to shoulder with Bruce, who was holding the guard’s other arm, and with Twelve’s arm snaked around between them to hold the guy in a chokehold. Charlotte carefully put Auralia on the table, being sure not to look at whatever it was that might have caught Rose’s attention so fatally.

Freed of the glamour of the sword, Rose slumped into Dora’s waiting arms. 

In their grip, the holodisguise that had cloaked the man who had disguised himself as one of the convoy drivers/guards gave up the ghost. 

“Dark Ninja.” Bruce said. “Why am I not surprised?”

Charlotte almost pointed out that it was romantic that Dark Ninja had broken his disguise when Rose was endangered, then bit her tongue. Rose would just figure it was piling on. If she had regained consciousness. 

“Do something!” Dark Ninja snapped. Somehow, he just sounded smarter when things were important to him.

But Rose did not stir, not until the lone male scientist, who had stood up and lifted the salver while Charlotte wasn’t looking, came around the table, dipped a cloth in it, and held it to Rose’s forehead.

Rose’s eyes snapped open. “—Studied it in school. Oh. Hey, Mike.”

“Hey, Rush.”

“You’re in trouble now, Mike.”

“At least you’re okay.” The Dark Ninja did not look particularly worried. He looked . . . lustrated.

Charlotte glanced at the table, at the Esme Choker, knocked off its stand and now lying in the middle of the table, askew, its strand bunched up against the side of the sword case. And then tracked the eyes she felt on it back to Bruce.

Well, okay then. If Bruce agreed, at least she knew she wasn’t being crazy.

“Ahem,” Charlotte said. “One small matter of business left here.”

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