A continuation of my weekend scribbling, taking the story of Father Julius and Livia in New York from the end of the last post
Work on Bian’s Tale was slow this week as I came down with a head cold. Should be back on track next week, but I also have the annotations for Angel Stakes to be translated into German, and the checking of the audio for Angels Stakes, which is due.
While suffering like a man from my cold, I did have some great ideas for scenes in Bite Back 6, which *might* be called Inner Game.
I also have had some messages asking what the hell is the ‘Afro-centric steampunk’ I mentioned recently, so I’ll give teasers from that as well.
Julius and Livia seem popular enough for a novella, but I’m not sure there’s enough from just them alone. I have a second thread which I sketched out when I was staying in Brooklyn last year, which might work. Stay tuned.
<< *** >>
Manhattan Island, penthouse.
Skylur Altau leads them to a room that owes more in design to a luxury penthouse than a business meeting room. And when they’ve shed their coats and are seated around a circular, sunken sofa, he fetches a tray with an oddly misshapen bottle, an empty jar and five glasses.
It appears they are alone on this level. No servants. No security.
“I found this when I was packing to come here from Denver,” Altau says, holding up the bottle for their inspection. It is made of strange, coarse glass that is opaque and gritty. “I’d completely forgotten it.”
The bulbous base of the bottle is held in the remains of a sort of leather cover. There are characters branded into the leather, but not even the alphabet is familiar to Julius, let alone the words.
“Oh! Exciting! What is it?” Hinton says, leaning forward with her eyes shining.
“A brandy made from fig wine,” Skylur replies. “I believe I remember the family who used to make it, now I think back. They presented some to me as a gift. They lived near the Alzani River, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.”
The seal on the bottle has been removed, but apparently not entirely successfully, as Altau carefully decants the brandy into the jar through a filter.
The brandy is dark. It appears oily and smooth.
They watch silently as he pours a generous tot from the jar into five glasses.
Altau are not known for using poisons, Julius tells himself and picks up his glass, swirls the brandy, sniffs like a connoisseur.
Livia’s mouth twitches, as if from half a smile.
Keensleigh frowns, his nose held over the glass, his Were sense of smell probably trying to untangle the aromas to test them for poison.
“Of course it may be ruined.” Skylur holds his glass up against the light. “But I have hope.”
“Hope,” says Livia quietly, raising her glass as well.
The others echo the toast, touching glasses, and they sip.
Julius does not die. Not immediately anyway. The impression on his tongue is sweetness, not entirely masking great strength.
“It’s lovely!” Hinton says. “This would be such a good mystery drink for my Wednesday wine society. Do you have more? Could I buy some?”
“Alas, this bottle is the last survivor,” Skylur says.
Hinton gasps and covers her mouth with her hand. “And you got it out just for us!”
“How old is it?” Keensleigh asks, intrigued despite himself.
“I admit, I’m not absolutely sure. I believe it was bottled shortly before it was given to me, about three thousand years ago.”
There is a momentary stunned silence. Then, even more shocking than his words is Livia’s reaction.
She laughs; a bright, sharp sound in the quiet penthouse.
“Your reputation has you as a subtle man, House Altau. That was as subtle as a truck.”
“Call me Skylur, please. May I call you Livia, House Fabia?”
She nods, eyes narrowed.
“Subtlety is a gift to those with time, Livia,” he says, taking another sip and leaning back, resting his arm along the sofa. “We don’t have that luxury.”
“The Athanate have made their own problems with their own damned political preoccupations and conflict,” Keensleigh growls, and indicates Hinton and himself. “Why are we being included in them?”
Julius is tense. There is merit to what the Were says. The great ideological clash of Panethus and Basilikos Athanate has broken out into constant armed attacks, from what he has heard. However careful and secret those attacks are, eventually they will lead to humanity discovering the Athanate.
“May I call you Aaron?” Skylur says mildly. When the Were nods curtly, he continues. “Aaron, it isn’t just our problem, nor is it entirely caused by us. In truth, as far as conflicts go, the largest battle of recent times was when the Were of the Central Mountain Confederation tried to invade Colorado, the territory of my associates, the Denver pack.”
Julius appreciates the clever riposte. It’s not just that one battle; the Were Confederation has been far too open in its sometimes violent takeover of packs down the spine of the States, and everyone here knows it.
Skylur holds up a hand to forestall Keensleigh’s rejoinder, and reaches to a side table to pick up a small, utilitarian box. He places it on the table between them.
“Here’s an example of our problem,” he says. “This was manufactured by the US Army. It detects the presence and concentrations of specific proteins in the blood. Those proteins are present in Were as well as Athanate, and not in humans.”
Keensleigh’s eyes widen.
“And in Adepts, to a much lower, but measurable extent,” Skylur says to Hinton. “We are all discoverable by humanity. And even if we stopped all conflict right now, the possibility of hiding in the regulated, documented, electronic, recorded and paranoid modern world is evaporating. We all will be discovered, whatever we do.”
“So much for our toast,” Livia says. “It’s hopeless, then?”
“Nothing is hopeless.” Skylur leans back again, the relaxed host. “But we need to prepare, and we need to start that now. All of us.”
“This is Emergence, I guess,” Julius says. “The problem with being hidden is that we, I mean the hidden Athanate of New York, have been cut off. We’ve had little more than hints and rumors of the issues. Even at the meeting with your Diakon…”
“Which was, of course, a tense affair,” Livia interrupts him. “Very short of any exchange of real information.”
Tense hardly covers it.
They’d been admitting to living illegally, against the rules of the Agiagraphos and the Assembly, in the domain assigned to the Warders. By the old rules, that was a death sentence. Julius had made the argument that the Warder’s domain was an exception created by the Assembly and only subject to the more lenient Assembly rules. The Altau Diakon had observed that any historical exception might be arguable, but that it no longer applied was not.
The Diakon was right; this was Altau’s domain now.
They are sitting in his penthouse. His word is their law.
“I’ll ensure that a summary file of information on the global situation will be sent to each of you later,” Skylur says. “All of you. It’ll include an analysis as we see it.”
Keensleigh isn’t interested in the Athanate by-play. Although he has co-operated from time to time, in a minimal way, with Julius and Livia, he doesn’t really care about them or the Athanate rules. If Altau executes them, it’s simply not important to him.
He’s interested in what that file will say of course, but Julius can see he’s suspicious. A sharing of information suggests alliances.
“You’re just assuming that we’re going to go ahead and enter into an association with you?” Keensleigh can’t seem to stop sounding confrontational.
Julius is still unsure why the Were has come. It must be something powerful that has drawn him into Manhattan. Something that’s important to Were.
Skylur shakes his head. “The information is free, Aaron. The same applies to what you fear I will hold over you.”
Keensleigh twitches, his face pale. He knows exactly what Skylur means.
Julius does not, but Hinton evidently does.
“Oh! The ritual,” she says, excited. “Aaron, that’s wonderful. Not that your pack has a problem, of course I don’t mean that, but that other packs with halfies can get help.”
Isolated as they have been, Julius has heard this rumor. He’d dismissed it as fantasy.
“This is about the rumor of a ritual that helps new werewolves change?” he asks.
“Yes,” Skylur says. “But it’s no rumor. It works.”
If the Altau have control of it, Julius can’t believe it would be offered for free. A halfy, a werewolf who cannot change, is facing inescapable, painful death. Packs will give anything to save them.
“It so happens, we do have a problem,” Keensleigh says.
The words come out painfully. Julius thinks he sounds like a man with his testicles in a vise.
“That’s so awful!” Hinton says. “But it’s good news then, isn’t it? Why… Oh… You’re thinking there’s a catch?”
She turns back to Skylur, her face a picture of moral outrage.
Julius is very good at reading people, but Skylur is difficult. There might be a hint that he’s enjoying Hinton’s act, but Julius can’t be sure.
The Altau leader takes a card from his pocket and reaches over the table to offer it. Keensleigh accepts it warily.
“That’s the contact for the Denver pack,” Skylur says. “Call it and arrange with them for your halfies to attend the next ritual. Send a lieutenant along to keep order and observe.”
“And in exchange…” Keensleigh prompts, still suspicious.
Skylur shrugs. “If it works, tell other packs. Pass on the contact information. That’s really between you and the Denver pack.”
“So why am I here? Just so you could hand me this?”
“So we could meet. Although the woman who performs the ritual is an associate of mine, a sub-House in fact, she is also the Assembly syndesmon, and that position must be independent enough to represent both Were and Athanate, each to the other.” He empties his glass. “She insisted that the ritual had to be open for everyone, so it is. She’s even intent on offering it to the Confederation.”
Keensleigh chokes on his drink. “What does the Denver alpha think about that?”
Skylur actually chuckles. “That’s his problem, isn’t it? Ask him. Tell me what he says!”
Keensleigh smiles. It’s an uncertain thing, his smile, but genuine. “Thank you.” He looks down at the card as if the writing on it might fade. “Is there really nothing in exchange?”
Skylur makes an airy gesture. “I would welcome co-operation for mutual benefit. We’d like to see you down in New York more often, Aaron. Liaison meetings, sharing of information, and so on. If that develops into an association, that would please me, but it’s by no means a prerogative.”
He pours another tot for them all.
The Were alpha leaves half an hour later, a spring in his step, eager to be home with good news.
Julius suspects that the Adirondacks pack will be a full associate of Altau within a month.
Manhattan Island, office.
Skylur suggests they find somewhere to eat. Hinton recommends this wonderful restaurant. It’s only a couple of blocks away. Unfortunately, she has to return to Long Island. There’s a gathering of her community and she’s needed.
Julius is impressed. He can sense that there’s something the Adept desperately wants to ask Skylur, but she’s resolutely refusing to raise it at their first meeting. Her goodbyes include ensuring that she can return for a further meeting.
Of course, the Altau leader has unfinished business with them, so Julius and Livia agree to dinner with Skylur.
There’s a brief hiatus while Skylur insists on arranging a car to take Hinton and her purchases back home. Julius is left alone with Livia in the lobby.
Livia has become very focused.
Altau has been a model host so far. What has concerned Livia so much? Not the revelation of ages. She has to have known that Skylur is older than her.
Julius and Livia met the Altau Diakon together. Julius is good at estimating relative ages, and he knows the Diakon is older than Livia. He assumes she knows it too, so it should not have been a shock to hear Skylur is even older.
And Livia is old. She is Roman. Not the modern Rome of the crumbling Coliseum. Not even the old Rome of the Empire. No. House Flavia dates back to the days of the Republic. Like all Athanate, she guards her exact age, even from him, but he’s a good student of ancient history. Over the years, he’s engaged her in discussions about the principle characters in the formation of Rome.
He’s sure the woman standing next to him was an observer as Roman politicians first developed public, traitorous backstabbing into a fine art.
“Are you alright?” he whispers in her ear, aware that there may be microphones in the lobby.
Her eyes swivel and fix him, making his heart forget to beat.
“I taught you about wines and spirits, many years ago, little Ruben,” she murmurs, using her pet name for him, a tease about his hair and his tendency to blush. “Tell me, what did you think of Altau’s brandy?”
“Sweetness in front, underpinned by strength.”
“Exactly. Get past the sweetness. Pay attention to underpinnings. Our lives may depend on it. Mine surely does.”