Book 4, 28: Old Business
Vice-Director Mist stirred, slightly, somehow drawing everyone’s attention, as though he were about to respond to Charlotte. Instead, he put out a white gloved hand, and gently lifted the Esme Choker from the table, putting it, ever so delicately, back on its stand. Only then did he cock his head and speak. “What unfinished business might that be, Redeeming Daughter?”
Charlotte gestured to Bruce. “Well, I could explain, but my colleague here is one of our Earth’s best detectives, and I don’t want to steal his thunder.”
Bruce tipped an imaginary hat to Charlotte. “Oh, it’s so obvious, I don’t want to insult anyone by pretending that it’s some great insight. Rose, you’re used to explaining stuff to us dummies.”
Rose didn’t look at Bruce, because she was still staring up into the masked face of the Dark Ninja. They were standing really close to each other, Charlotte couldn’t help noticing, and her body screamed with jealousy. Slowly, Rose said, “I don’t want to talk about it. Someone wants me to think that he just rescued me. He’s got some explaining to do.”
The Dark Ninja answered, his voice sounding just like Michael Snow’s, only steadier, more self-assured, crisper. “Someone is forgetting that I have rescued her. And that if she doesn’t want to be a damsel in distress, she could be more careful about the trouble she rushes into.”
Rose’s eyes might have flashed, but who would know that, but the Dark Ninja’s, whose gaze she was intensely answering. “Someone might notice that that was then, and this is now, before he pulled this lame ass diversion.”
Mr. Fog gasped. “That was a diversion? Quickly, someone check the Choker, it might have been substituted. . .”
Vice-Director Mist held up one hand, almost idly, in a hushing gesture. With the other, he stroked the Esme Choker.
Charlotte, just to be sure, grabbed the arm of the guard who’d saluted too crisply, earlier. To her relief, he, or she, was not wearing a holographic disguise, and wasn’t a holograph. Obviously the guard was actually Thief Handeln, and had just grabbed the Esme Choker while they were distracted by Dark Ninja grabbing at Rose –Rush, in her superhero alterego, Charlotte reminded herself.
Some kind of weird, physical thing unfolded around the guard, revealing the familiar face and shape of Thief Handeln. Even in a catsuit, her hair tied back in a professional bun, she was impossibly elegant. The silvery clip or band played off on the studs in her ears and a discrete button at the neck of the suit. Her face was flawless, and only a skilled eye could catch the merest trace of eyeshadow and subtle foundation highlights that brought out the unearthly beauty of her perfect cheekbones.
The whole impression made Charlotte feel awfully inadequate. It didn’t help that even for this latest mission, Thief Handeln still managed to pull off understated, one-inch heels.
“This,” Thief Handeln, “Is getting complicated.” And then she disappeared.
Of course, Charlotte thought. She had a teleport escape planned all along.
Rose held an angry finger in front of the Dark Ninja’s face. “Damn it, Mike—Ninja, look what you guys have done!”
“The Professor had not part in this,” Dark Ninja began. “It was all my—“
“Oh, don’t get started. You guys are just trying to protect Mr. Burcato, so he doesn’t lose his job.”
“He’s the best teacher I ever had!” Michael answered, angrily. “He’s the only one who doesn’t treat me like a dummy!”
“I—,” Rose started.
Charlotte’s phone beeped.
[Dora] PDD! [Frowny Face]. Only in Dora’s world was “Public Display of Drama” real LOLtalk.
Charlotte fingered her phone for a second. Text now, or deal with the situation? This wasn’t how she expected things to go down.
Then Thief Handeln materialised. Charlotte tried not to show her relief, tried to stay cool. This was how she expected things to go down.
Rose jumped, turned. Charlotte couldn’t help noticing how her shoulder got even closer to Dark Ninja’s chest as she did so, how the big man’s head stooped towards her, close enough that his nose would be full of the scent of Rose’s hair, even past the cowl. Charlotte glanced at Brian, but his attention was focussed on Thief Handeln.
Not surprisingly, because Thief Handeln had her hand out. Tangerine fire spilled from the jewels of the Esme Choker. “Can the world agree that Thief Handeln has succeeded again, and purloined this most elegant piece under the nose of the Treasury of Babylon?”
Vice-Director Mist gave another of his elegantly restrained bows. “We can, indeed, agree that Thief Handeln is the greatest burglar to have ever lived.”
“Then it will not be taken amiss that I borrow this piece for a time?”
“It will not,” the Vice-Director conceded.
“Wait a minute,” Twelve interrupted, speaking for the first time since his relative had been exposed. “What’s all this crap, then?”
“I am a thief, Cousin. It has been my vocation since before the idea of property was invented amongst the apeling mayfly folk.”
Twelve stepped forward, menacingly, angry. Charlotte was reminded that, while amongst the big young men in this room, he was neither the tallest nor the widest of arm and shoulder, he was the most imposing, somehow. “Crap! You could have had it last week. You could have had it hours ago, today. This was never about the Choker.”
“No, you are wrong, Cousin. It was about the Choker. And you.”
“I’m not your cousin, even if I was grown from Archon’s DNA, or meta-DNA, or whatever you call that crap. Family is created by the accumulation of social capital, not created by a farcical ceremony carried out by a cat-suited tart!”
“Really?” Thief Handeln said, her voice sounding endlessly amused. “Repurposed comic dialogue that’s older than some of your friend’s parents? That’s what you’re going to go with, young man?”
As far as Charlotte could follow, Twelve had faked his political speech by quoting someone. Probably a mistake when you were dealing with someone hundreds of thousands of years old. His head fell, communicating his embarrassment, and Charlotte’s heart swelled. No-one deserved to be embarrassed like that when they were just trying to make a point that seemed important to them.
“Ahem,” she said. “Twelve can be a bit of an idiot, but he’s got a point. You said you were done with him last week. This week, you’re all over us. Is there something you need to tell us?”
Vice-Director Mist held up his hand again, and, again, it somehow commanded the attention of the room. “No, there is not. There is nothing that she can tell you. But I will grant permission for Thief Handeln to bear the Esme Choker away with her for this afternoon, beginning now, and for one hour, her subjective experience, on the sole condition that these young people accompany her and secure the property at the end of that hour, so as to return it to the Treasury.”
Thief Handeln executed an elegant curtsey. “Of necessity, I accept your conditions, Vice-Director.”
Charlotte’s phone beeped.
[Bruce]: [Eyeroll emoticon].
Someone was going to explain, at some point, she figured.
And then her stomach lurched in the familiar, anywhere-but-here sensation of teleportation, and she was standing in another room, in front of another table. But this one was very different from the just-too-nice-to-be-real-laboratory of the Treasury. She was standing on polished stone of gray as perfect as a beautiful pair of eyes, and the table was bigger than a table had a right to be, without being colossal. It was made of brushed in pastel green, the corner nearest her a perfect, mathematical curve in three dimensions down to a leg that looked, somehow, airy and yet just big enough to be sturdy.
As for the room, it matched the table, stretching so high that its walls deserved balconies, and so that it ought to have been dizzying to look up at the arched skylights, but with the space made, somehow, familiar in spite of its size by arching buttresses of more pastel metal. Indeed, the room as a whole was in pastel, with the bright sheen of metal, so that it seemed at one and the same time too clean to be real, and warm enough to be home.
The team’s orientation had changed during the teleport, so that they were standing in a semi-circle around Thief Handeln, even Brian, who had been seated before. Dark Ninja was gone, and Charlotte glanced at Rose, trying to read her emotions, to understand if her mind and her body were on the same page. But Rose’s face gave no hint of any turmoil that might be going on inside, and Charlotte’s attention turned to Thief Handeln as she began to speak. But not to them.
For while it was a semi-circle around Thief Handeln, it was also a semi-circle around another man. As tall as Twelve, as handsome, as perfectly formed as either Twelve or Handeln, or for that matter Eve or Mario, this being wore the guise of an older man, complete with a whispy, Confucian beard. He reminded Charlotte of her Uncle Henry, and she could not help feeling an instinctive trust well up in her.
“Children? This is Archivist Secanto. Archivist Secanto, this is the freshman class of Tatammy High. You will have met some of their older students and graduates.”
“Frosh,” Charlotte could hear Twelve whisper. “Sexist.”
“Indeed. For they have passed the Veil. The Façade had been lifted to them. These children are beyond the Facade. Correction: They were. Explain yourself, Thief Handeln!”
“To secure knowledge of the direst import, contained within this ancient jewelry, I had no choice but to bring these children through the Veil, Cousin Secanto.”
Oh, now Charlotte got the eyeroll. Honestly, she thought at herself, you can be so dumb sometimes. This whole, too-confusing mess of a heist had been staged to give Thief Handeln an excuse to bring them to wherever the heck this was. The Silence, the Veil, the Capital Letters.
Thief Handeln had not finished speaking. “Children, I bid you welcome to the City Where Beginning Stood, the City Invisible, the City of Sanctuary, of the Silence at the End of Days. Welcome to Arcadia.”
One whole wall turned transparent, and the kids were looking out at yet another gauzy cityscape, the kind with the towers and the columns and the flying bridges, and so on until you expected some dry ice to puff up. Charlotte’s eyes were more drawn to great cliffs that cut off the direct sunlight, which was coming from so low in the sky that its back scatter lit the heavens above in almost-unearthly tones of blue and umber. Where on Earth were they?
Charlotte’s phone beeped.
[Bruce]: [Eyeroll]. Painting by Poussin. Et in Arcadia ego. Moral: death is everywhere.
Oh. Charlotte thought. Oh. Fang had dropped clues that referred to paintings by that old French dude. Was this city what he was trying to lead them to? Also, this didn’t look like a place where death was “everywhere.” But. . . .
“And…”Twelve began to say.
Thief Handeln held up her hand, as though to hush Twelve. “Someday, all questions will be answered. But have faith, Cousin, that I can see far enough down the road to answer some of the important ones.”
At that very moment, the doors of green, pastel metal slid open with a deeply satisfying, electric purr, and another of these oversized people swept in. This one was a man, blond, with blue eyes and a square face, and the icy Teutonic fairness that got a guy cast as a Nazi villain. He slid across the floor, his feet, hidden in a spotless white toga that gleamed with the richness of fine wool, as though he were not touching it at all. A power entered the room with him. Or so Charlotte felt, for even her Eight Spirit Dragon senses were acute enough to detect it—yet--. Her bracelet and sword both tingled, and her feet felt rooted to the polished stone beneath her.
She had half a mind to see if the glamour would survive if she drew her sword. Because if this dude was pulling this crap, he was rude.
Thief Handeln stepped through the semicircle of the team. Charlotte couldn’t even react. Her feet wouldn’t stir under this imperceptible influence. Imperceptible, powerful, incredible, indetectible. It was big words city! Charlotte thought.
“Breeder Noatar,” Thief Handeln said. “Greetings, Cousin!”
Noatar. Now the other penny drops. That was the big name geneticist. The one that was, like, number one suspect to be the asshole supreme, Fang. The immortal dude who’d messed up his own daughter, Eve, so that he could infiltrate Tatammy High and find the Apocalypse Plague. Then he’d turned Eve against them again, trying to steal a Mandaarian spaceship on Landing, even at the risk of blowing up half the planet. Crap like that.
Breeder Noatar stopped. Charlotte’s hackles rose, and she gripped the Pearl Harmony Sword, drew it just a crack out of its hilt. Overlying the normal image in her eyes –as normal as anything in this crazy city, anyway-- a shadowy outline of a dinosaur appeared in the air around Noatar, big as a room.
“Cousin Noatar! There is no need to be impolite. Address your queries in the human tongue. However far beneath you the spoken voice is in this latter day, it is still the vehicle for song, and even you have not forgotten that joy, surely? It is like beauty to the eye, and the satisfaction of curiosity to the mind. And to the aid of those joys to sate your boredom, I have brought this most ancient and precious of artefacts, the Esme Choker of this dimension. This is the one. Attuned to our history, given over to inspection to the foremost experts of the Empyrean folk, what mysteries might it solve out of our most ancient past?”
Empyrean, Charlotte heard. That was who these immortal super-powerful dudes were. Empyreans.
She’d never heard of them.
A strange voice began, deep, croaky, like someone who hadn’t had to talk in a long time, and loud enough to ring the room. “The mysteries of the antiquarians are no mysteries to me, but mere matters of misplaced footnotes and inadequate notes. When, inevitably, they are revealed, the only reasonable reaction is disappointment at their shallowness. That is why I deal in the mysteries of science, in the chemical histories of our DNA. Bother me when you make some progress there, if progress you can make, Larcenist Handeln.”
Ooh. This was like one of those Thanksgiving dinners you had, where things would start uncomfortable and slide, Charlotte thought. Please let’s not start talking politics, next, because all she needed now was for someone to bring up Trudeau or Diefenbaker or Lewis, and in a minute the gravy would be thrown on the floor and get under everything in the trailer.
“And what of this young man?” Thief Handeln gestured at Twelve. “Can you not see that he is the clone of our own Prince Archon, a clone bred true Empyrean? Does this not interest Breeder Noatar?”
Thief Handeln, fortunately, didn’t see the need to bring up old Canadian politicians, or any of the other things crazy people cared about, because she was not crazy. She dressed too nice to be crazy. Unfortunately, crazy people caring about crazy things was where you got trouble, and Noatar did dress like a crazy person. Plus, Fang was crazy. So if Fang were Noatar, they were about to be deep in the gravy.
“Interest?” Noatar’s voice rose higher, cracking, as though he had no idea how to talk anymore. Uh oh. “This thing is trivial to me, did I care to achieve it, but at the instruction of my king, I have foresworn such experiments on sentient beings. Nor do I care. There is enough almost, to fill an immmortal’s lifetime in the genetic lineage of the therapods.”
“The day will come when the heritage of the dinosaurs palls, Breeder Noatar.”
“You have no idea.”
“Nevertheless, Cousin,” Thief Handeln continued. “You will seek the Silence eventually. We all will. Look, and see the next generation of our kind.”
“This absurd boy? With his sophomoric politics?”
“You betray more familiarity than you pretend, Cousin. Admit it. This experiment interests you, and you might listen to the passion of youth.”
“I admit nothing, concede nothing.”
Charlotte stepped forward. Noatar raised an eyebrow. That’s right, supervillain dude, Charlotte tried to think at him, I’ve got an answer to your voodoo. “We are pleased to meet you, Breeder Noatar, Antiquarian Secanto. Twelve will be pleased to explain his politics to your full satisfaction.”
Charlotte grinned. You bet he would. “I think you’ll find his view about peoples’ collective obligation to participate in society to be a very interesting challenge to your whole living-behind-a-façade-y-veil-y thing. Frankly, he thinks you guys are being a bit elitist. That’s even before you get into attempts to exterminate the whole human race with the Apocalypse Plague.”
Breeder Noatar looked at Charlotte, refusing to be drawn.
That’s for you, Twelve, and you, Rose, Charlotte thought. And even Eve. Because we’re all a bunch of orphans, each in our own way, and it’s just amazing how much of that is Fang’s fault. Noatar’s fault, maybe. Probably. “Anyway, we may be just kids, but we’ve had some interesting encounters with a geneticist who most definitely does like to screw around with people, ‘apelings,’ and Empyreans. Does the name “Fang” ring a bell? And what’s even more interesting, we happen to know that Fang’s partnered up with Takofanes in the past. We would love to talk to that dude about the Battle of the Darkspire some time. You know, both Battles of the Darkspire.”
Charlotte looked at Noatar, not really expecting him to answer.
“See,” Charlotte continued, “My buddy, Goblin Boy, is an awesome detective, and, to be fair, we’ve had some quality help from a guy who rode in Venghest’s army. So we’ve got a theory. That theory is that, on that day, seventy thousand years ago, when the Army of the Free Peoples overthrew Takofanes and ended the rule of the Red Gods, there were actually two battles at the Darkspire.”
Charlotte had to pause, as from nowhere the familiar, prickling squeeze of a crow’s talons massaged her shoulder. When Takofanes’ name threatened to shadow the day, Ginger was with her. If the ancient Empyreans were surprised to see a crow materialise out of nowhere, standing on Charlotte’s shoulder, they gave no sign. “You see, hours before Venghest’s army arrived on the field, the Empyreans attacked first, trying to finish off Takofanes without revealing their existence to anyone else. They failed, They lost. Good people were killed, And you want to know why? Because an Empyrean, a guy we call “Fang,” tipped off the King of Ivory. Not because he’s been dominated by the foul magic of the sere lich, mind you, but because the two of ‘em are homeboys. Buddies with Takofanes. Can you believe it?”
Noatar smiled. “Such evil has been known in our family, yes. And if this were anything more than a fairy story inspired by reading too much Tolkien, I would say that you might want to talk to Khusor the Crooked. Although I would never have thought he had the wit to master breeding the old-fashioned way, never mind through science. His master, on the other hand, is the natural fit. Unfortunately for your childish theory, Arvad has reformed and now fights the good fight.”
Charlotte sensed a familiar presence behind her a moment before Bruce reached over to ruffle Ginger’s head feathers. Ginger stretched her head low as though to preen, and squawked, as gently as she could.
“Funny you should mention Professor Tolkien, Breeder Noatar,” Bruce announced. “Because Professor Tolkien was a great elf-friend, and learned a great deal from them about ancient days. And he’s not the only elf-friend there has ever been. Robert E. Howard was an elf-friend, for example. There’s a little more to be learned from him, about that ancient battle. Oh, this traitor is no fairy story.”
Charlotte controlled her face. She knew what Bruce was doing, now. Here was Noatar, right in front of them, and they had nothing! So Bruce was guessing, throwing stuff out, seeing what would happen. It’s the same game that a lazy student would play, to see if the teacher would drop an answer, or go off on a tangent.
“Pardon me if I do not place much credence in supposed facts gleaned from old pulp stories. I hope there is more to this meeting than wild speculation about years past.” Noatar was not to be drawn.
"Sure, why not?" Bruce said, holding his hand in front of him and curling his fingers as though he was checking out his fingernails. Or trying to be like a real, movie detective, whichever. "Incidentally, have we ever sorted out just who is Eve's father?"
"Alas for the poor girl, surely another victim of our Lemurian enemies," Noatar answered, "Not all of our people accept the mortal limits of monogramy, and the answer to that question was lost with her mother, seventy thousand years ago."
In other words, Eve's mom was killed in the Battle of the Darkspire, and Noatar/Fang was a stone cold bastard. But all that Charlotte said was, "So, is there anything else to be learned today?"
“Indeed there is!” Thief Handeln said. “To the bench! It is time to begin to unlock the secrets of the Ur-Elves!”
Was Charlotte imagining things, or did Breeder Noatar give the slightest of starts at that?