I woke up with a start, heart hammering in my chest a nightmare or otherwise ill thought/memory knocking me out of me sleep. I meant meditation of course not sleep that was a slip of the mental tongue. Shaking myself fully into consciousness I angled my head to check the time. I almost shot up into my ceiling with alarm. It was ten to eight, how had I slept, ah meditated for so long? Damn it damn it DAMN IT. I carefully but quickly buttoned on by white undershirt which remained unmolested on the bottom end of my bed and then placed my tuxedo over it. Damn was I glad I had decided to polish my shoes before I slept, I mean meditated, shit.
I placed my shoes over my feet and realised as I did so I was not going to be able to get to the park and teleport over to the Renault home if I wanted to be on time if not early. Cursing my luck and the cruel whims of magic and the universe I scratched my head thoroughly for an idea. If I was not on time that would make me appear aloof or rude. Maybe even piss of the Renaults as a slight, and then I would have no allies in the magi part of the community. I wished Snorri had been at the Grove so he could potentially have warned me about this with those runes of his. I suddenly froze, wait, yes yes that was it! Snorri had runes, he used runes for various kind of things.
And he had given me a few of them in case of emergencies several months ago. When Snorri had provided me with the box of ancient runes he had introduced it with a powerful Old Norse name. However, I could never remember or pronounce it right so I just started referring to it as ‘Pandora’s Box’ I clenched my fists and went over to my table and leaned down beneath it. Feeling the small traces of magic, I had placed underneath. I manipulated the strands until the glamour faded and the black metal of Pandora’s Box was sitting against my back wall. I grabbed it and pulled it out towards my body. I muttered quietly to the box “Opna leyndarmal til min” in poorly accented Icelandic. The language that was directly related if not the same language as used my Nordic peoples in centuries past when they raided across Europe and the Mediterranean in their longships. Back when the Aesir and the Vanir were still worshipped, before the war before the death.
With a slight clack the metal box opened, revealing eight differently coloured, shaped and types of runes. I found the one I would need, a light stone etched with a black glowing symbol of runic power. Taking it out, I then proceeded to close the box and restore the camouflaging glamour over its. Satisfied when it to the naked eye appeared to not be there at all, and leaving only a small trace of magic I got up. Heading out I closed my door and went to grab the Dim sphere (I finally decided to shorten that from Dimetirimancy device) and went to my back door. Unlocking it from the inside, I went out into the relatively cool night air. I locked it with my house keys as the defence wards slipped back into place. Darren and I only needed to unlock or disarm them when we entered the house.
Heading to the centre of our small but well maintained backyard, I was grateful for the high metal sheets of fence we had separating us from our neighbour’s sights. I took the rune back out from the tuxedos front pocket where I stashed it to be able to unlock my back door. Putting my keys away awkwardly until I now had my sphere in one hand and the rune in the other. Knowing I needed to use the rune though I mourned the necessity on using it. But if I wanted to be on time, and get the information and even possible alliances that I needed/wanted. Then well, I had to do this, no matter how much of a waste it feels to me. Apologising to the rune and to Snorri under my breath for what I was about to do, I gathered my will and the magic from within me and I focussed hard. Picturing the rune cracking, shattering in my hand as I used the magic to place immense pressure onto its weaker areas.
I felt it before I heard it begin to give in, cracks forming all along the stone the black power now leaking out. I focussed harder, grunting with the slight effort until finally there was a loud snap and the rune shattered. A dark energy surrounded me and my entire backyard seeming to devour all sources of light outside of it. The fact that it was cutting of all sources of light getting through was actually what I had wanted and on the outside it would look to anyone, even many magical folk that my backyard was empty and nothing interesting was going on. I sighed in relief, and then begin to move the clockwork wheel on the outside of the sphere.
Once more I felt a twisting feeling in my gut and then I was surrounded by a golden light which forced me to close my eyes. I also felt the energy that came with it. A further twisting feeling a build up of energy and then I was gone. And I reappeared just outside of the Renault home entrance just as I had intended. I had reappeared a few feet in front of an elderly couple making their way up as well. The sudden blast of light, magic as well as my appearance of seemingly thin air made them gasp in shock and step back another half a metre. The man was in a grey tuxedo wearing a dark silver tie, (I never could get ties to work for me) while the woman was finely dressed in a flowing dark red dress. She also styled a fine bob haircut and a necklace of aqua green, magically enhanced pearls, well set up indeed it seemed. I wondered if the rest of the guests would be this finely kept.
I looked back at them seeing the surprise on their faces and the greedy curiosity most casters tended to have. I smiled politely at them putting on my formal tone and vocabulary for the evening, “You have my sincerest apologies sir and madam. I was experiencing transportation issues and thus saw it as necessary to use magic to find my way here.” I gave them both a respectful nod before turning fully in order to enter the Renault compound. Striding confidently up their richly tiled driveway, the two guards that the Renault family employed to guard their front entrance and usher in visitors were present. They had real names but I never remembered them, plus they were not overly fond of me so I just called them Bricks and Sticks.
They had earned these names for the very obvious form of their bodies. Sticks was a tall thin, gangly man with combed over dark blond hair, deep pale blue eyes and a short beard the same colour as his hair. Bricks was just as tall but packed with firm well kept muscle. Built like an armoured personnel vehicle he was no one’s fool in a physical contest, at least among the mundane folk. Both men tensed up slightly as I came over, stopping about two or three feet away from them. Keeping their stances firm and eyes on my body language I met their gazes briefly before addressing them both, though looking between them.
“Gentlemen, glad I am that the Renault family continues to employ your services to guard this most sacred of ground. I feel safe and secure from all of the woes of the outside world, with the two of you fine doormen standing guard.” I spoke to them in my most serious of tones but they still took what I said as an insult. Ah well, I simply cannot please these two even when I compliment them. How could they possibly dislike such a fine and well spoken compliment after all? Who am I kidding of course they could not stand me, I loved tormenting these glorified door handles. But it never hurt to at least attempt to be polite.
I mean they started this whole thing by not liking me even before we had talked in a proper manner. Seeing the looks on their faces as Sticks was forced to hide a sneer and Bricks clenched his fists hard before he addressed me. “Mr Michaelson, you are here exactly on time. Mr Renault will be overjoyed to see you as will the rest of the family and I imagine the guests will find you... entertaining. Assuming that is we let you inside”. He seemed to imply with those words as if he had the authority to do that. Sticks seemed to like the idea and stood up straighter, he was a few inches taller than me but I did not find him particularly intimidating or even entertaining at this moment.
I smiled a rather wicked smile at the two men, craning my neck to one side, using a cold, aloof and almost commanding tone I had not used in years. I asked them “I wonder what dear Mr Renault would say if he heard his employees were threatening to bar one of his associates and dinner guests form entry? How unprofessional he would see you both. Unprofessional enough I think to consider acquiring more competent men to serve his families front door security needs”. Both men suddenly did not seem so smug or in control, sticks even backed away both surprised and afraid of the tone of my voice, not knowing I was capable of sounding like that. Bricks craned his head back and made a more defensive stance in response. Taking a moment to process what had just occurred he went back to his usual posture that he still seemed to be as taken back as Sticks was.
Not fully meeting my gaze but still looking at me replied in a distinctly apologetic manner, “Of course, Mr Michaelson it was merely a joke. We as employees of Mr Renault would never prevent one of his associates and invited guests from entering his home. We both hope that you enjoy your visit and have a lovely evening.” Well now that was much better, a certain level of apology even when forced is better than none. I nodded at them in acknowledgement of the apology and my acceptance of it. Looking away from them barely containing the snicker building up at setting those two squares straight. Biting my tongue helped but only just, as the sight of those two most irritating and cocky of men squirm in surprise and some fear brought a warm fuzzy feeling I can barely even describe.
Making my way then successfully keeping my outburst of merriment from escaping. Striding over to the door, almost daring one of them to add anything else to the conversation which would have given me an excuse to only add to the mischief I could cause. But to my sorrow neither did as even if they had wanted to the elderly magi couple had just approached them, pulling out a pair of shining expensive looking invitations. Seeing yet another uncomfortable conversation unfold with my favourite pair of thugs/guard dogs, I went and opened the expensive, thick wooden door. Peering in briefly to the inside of the Renault family home I noticed nothing awry and proceeded to let myself in.
I felt the wards all over the house, powerful ones as I always remember some were added later with the aid of myself and Darren, for a fee of course. Taking the next few steps inside I closed the door gently behind me. Inside was how I remembered it to be from my previous visits here. A bright chandelier hanging from the high ceiling of the three story building. A large decorated staircase leading to the upper two levels painted in whites and gold leaf, in excruciating deal and without a doubt huge expense. It was fairly spacious and modern all things considered more so then my one storey house. Hearing several loud voices and the moving of chairs I walked down a corridor I knew lead to an extension of the house harbouring an impressively large and finely furnished dining room.
As I turned down the hallway and into the dining room as I suddenly barraged with a wave of light, magic, voices and some classical music which had just started playing. Swiftly regaining my composure I entered the room trying to emit the confidence and sense of being aloof I had outside. As I entered, my footsteps giving me away on the marble floor, all eyes turned to see me. I clearly made out Bartholomew Renault, his wife Clementine and his older and younger daughters Ines and Beatrix. Beatrix was 18 or 19 last time I checked and like her sister and mother was garbed in a long, dark coloured and formal dress. Hers was a dark, emerald green likely to match the green of her eyes. She had her hair up in a chignon bun I believe it was pinned at the nape of her neck. Her hair was black like her fathers and sisters were.
Ines sitting to the left of her on the table end the same side of the room I was on, had cleaned her even further it seemed and appeared to be held straight through small amounts of magic. She now wore a midnight blue dress, sparkling dress reaching down just above her ankles. Their mother Clementine had her hair done into a crown braid, her usually long bright blond hair kept shining reflectively in the light. Along with her dress she wore a necklace of rather engaging amethyst gems made into a necklace. Each gem was filled with magical energy, and likely cost more than I made in half a year or had been a bastard to be made by themselves. This was complimented by a rich imperial purple dress reaching down to her ankles above her similarly rich purple heels.
Bartholomew was wearing an imperial purple undershirt to match his wife’s along with a dark silver tuxedo vest and pants and a tie complete the picture. In his late 40s his black hair marked heavily with silver strands was in an ivy league style a recently shaven face and reddish blotches on his cheeks. His green eyes widened in delight as he saw he enter and he swiftly stood and went over to me as I took in him and his family. The guests I could admire and analyse later, I wanted to see how seriously the Renaults were taking this dinner. Apparently very seriously indeed. Even for them this is well dressed, and I had only them in similar attire twice in the nearly three years in which I had known them.
Bartholomew strode right up to me and embraced me warmly even by his standards, he seemed positively thrilled to see me. Feeling my ribs slightly crushed in his embrace I returned the gesture even if it was stiff and with far less warmth in comparison. If he was this pleased to see me here tonight with all of these guests he and Clementine had to be up to something. And I was now a part of it, whether I liked it or not. Did I ever mention that I hated their scheming? That and magi community politics. Well if so I will say it again anyway. Damn magi politics and Renault schemes and plots.
Finally releasing me from his unwanted embrace, Bartholomew beamed at me “Lysander it is most excellent that you could accept our invitation be our honoured guest here tonight. As the host and owner of this place I grant you safe passage and the rights of an invited guest. Though I reserve the right to be able to remove you should such rights be squandered as well as the right to call for a duel”. Saying the old words to keep magical folk at ease in one another’s homes was binding as if he went back on his word his reputation in the community would be effectively over. The last part about a duel was typical, he had done that before when he was trying to prove what I was.
I greeted him in return, “Bartholomew, I accept these terms and will abide by them and be a respectful guest in your hearth and home less my word be made false and worthless”. If it was possible he smiled even more profoundly once hearing those words and was soon hurrying me over, practically dragging me by the arm over to Clementine. She rose as we closed in to her she stood up and took a few steps towards me. Clementine unlike her husband who was my height was closer to 170 cm in height or so. She beamed at me as well not looking like the late 40s women she in reality was, more like late 30s early 40s. Cupping my face and kissing both of my cheeks, I returned the gesture, used to that from her by now. Once I had done my round of cheek kissing she kept her hands on my face as she informed me, “We are so pleased you could make it Aleksander. This is a treat soon all of our honoured guests will be here and we can start. Great things will happen tonight my dear, I can feel it.”
Okay I was definitely suspicious now. Also I was only a few years younger than her she did not need to call me ‘dear’. Well I have been called far worse things by far less polite individuals over the last few years. Clementine soon removed her smooth pale hands from my face and Bartholomew ushered me to a seat to the left of Ines. “Sneaky bastard” I thought to myself, he was still trying to arrange things so that I wound up with his daughter. I was more than a tad miffed when I sat down and highly suspicious of what I could potentially encounter during my stay. As I sat down Bartholomew looked to the doorway and produced another friendly and welcoming smile this time directed at the elderly couple I had proceeded and went over to welcome them.
I would have to keep an eye on the various guests tonight and hoped my means of transportation did not sour them to a potential alliance of sorts with me. Or at least with sharing information with me. Scanning the rest of the dining table which was catered to fit some twenty-five people or so I thought. It was made of oak I believed fine carved with lion heads on the table legs, with the sides having hunting designs and scenes from a time long since past of wolf and boar hunts using bow and arrow. Fine craftsmanship to be certain and I always enjoyed watching the scenes play out with a wolf or boar being run down by a group of blood hounds before being torn apart or blindsided by a noble man’s arrow.
The main course had not yet been served of course as there was a proper procedure for dinners such as these. And besides, not even all of the guests had arrived, but the entrees as was customary were even now being presented to us on expensive china plates and bowls. As my own small bowl and plate were placed in front of me I looked over the mass of cutlery at my disposal. The list of cutlery went as follows: a sherry glass was to my right as well as the typical bread knife, an entree knife and fork, a dessert spoon, a soup spoon, a meat knife and fork, an ice cream spoon, a crab and lobster pick and shell cracker, a dessert fork and spoon, a salad knife and fork, a cheese knife, a finely embroidered purple and gold napkin and two fancy salt and pepper shakers.
The Renaults as ever liked to go all out when they hosted guests, myself included. I was getting used to all the silverware again thanks to dining with the Renaults, after years of going without. It amazes me the things I had outgrown since coming here as I was fine with using a long fork and my hands for most meals now. My stomach growled at me most displeased as I realised I had not eaten for well over six hours now well before the hellhound attack. Peering down at my plate I discovered it to be generously decorated with slices of freshly baked multi - grain bread with butter and cheeses. My bowl was filled a few inches from the brim with what I thought to be a beef consommé soup with ground up celery leaves coating the top.
I had to really work at stopping my mouth from watering, and this was only the first course of what I assumed to be the start of at least a five or six course feast for the honoured guests of the Renaults. One of the waiters employed by the Renaults spoke to those of us sitting on this end of the table on matters of food, “Ladies, gentlemen tonight you will be served with an entree to start off with of bread and soup. To be followed by a palate cleanser of Meyer lemon sorbet between each course”. I felt my eyebrows rise; this was certainly taking out the red carpet, to have palate cleansers between each meal marked this dinner as fancy as any I can remember.
So focussed as I was on those thoughts of palate cleansers and food I nearly jumped out of my seat when I felt a hand move to my shoulder. Looking up hopefully not to quickly from my food I found Ines smiling sweetly at me her lips coated in a sort of cherry pink lipstick and her eyes were shining dark and green pools. Indicating with her right hand at the rest of the table she spoke up to me, “Did I not tell you that this was going to be an interesting and important dinner. Mother and father are thrilled to have you here tonight as you well saw.”
She seemed as giddy as some hyper active high school girls I seen racing around over the years. She indicated to a woman on the opposite side of the table roughly in the centre of the table. She appeared to be in her early to mid forties, with a stray strand of grey hairs lining her long flowing red hair. Her eyes were underlined with a few wrinkles likely from years of work, stress and study. She fit snugly into a long maroon coloured dress which accompanied her penetrating, dark reddish brown eyes.
“That madam over there is Mrs Gabriella El Sanguine, she emigrated to the Gold Coast with her wife and their son. She is one of the moderate speakers of the magi community here and a large player of the Assembly in this country.” Ines took a flustered breath before continuing “Her wealth is in the hundreds of millions it is said and she has been trying to negotiate to provide more financial opportunities to the magi families here”.
Her being a member of the Assembly was no surprise to me apart from Ines and her sister I would bet almost anything that everyone attending this dinner was going to be a member of the Assembly. I knew with relative certainty that I was still one. This Mrs El Sanguine being a player among the magi within Australia was however intriguing. And by the sounds of her acquired personal wealth she could likely pull a few strings and had fingers in many proverbial pies.
Ines becoming more and more excited as she went on, now indicating to three men ranging from early to late thirties sitting further down the table. All three were garbed in matching dark blue tuxedos and white undershirts with dark blue ties to match. All three men also wore at least one ring adorned with a bright blue sapphire as a foci.
“Those gentlemen are the Pavlovich cousins who have lived most of their lives in Sydney when they moved here as children. Their work in the magi community has been truly exceptional through their combined efforts bringing greater ties to the mundane systems and departments across the eastern half of the country.” Meaning that they were among the magi who directly interacted with the Australian state and federal government officials and politicians. I could hazard a guess that there was likely a fair amount of bribery, glamours, hypnosis, backstabbing and other nefarious works that they were behind. More people who could prove useful and helpful to me but like El Sanguine I would try to keep a close eye on them.
Clearly on a roll Ines went on the give me the details of all of the assembled guests without seeming to break a sweat. The elderly couple I had beaten in were now seated nearer the end of the table and talking to the guests either side of them. They had been identified as Mr and Mrs Forber, the matriarch and patriarch of an incredibly extensive family. Through marriage they were related to a large portion of the most dominant and influential magi families across Queensland and New South Wales. Ines eventually stopped to catch her breath before addressing one particular guest who sat directly across from me.
A gentleman in his late forties he was well kept, unlike myself and the other male guests he was not garbed in a tuxedo but a formal dark grey jacket. Underneath was a high collared long sleeved white and silver chequered shirt which was fully buttoned up. A curved intricate wand was poking out of his deep chest pocket. His eyes were a dull grey and he had a short well kept beard and curled moustache which put my wispy mockery to shame. Ines was particular man pleased to identify this particular individual.
“And the man just opposite you.” Ines paused for an effect of emphasis and suspense, “Is Mr Llywelyn app Owain. A professor and private tutor of the arcane to the magi families across Australia. He has in the last several years garnered respect so we hear even from the higher echelons of the Assembly as well as advocating for more direct ties and control by the Assembly.”
I felt my eyebrows rise at that, ‘he wanted more Assembly control out here’ I thought internally. I could not see that being a particularly useful or pleasant experience for the magi community long term. Clearly oblivious to my reaction to his description thus far Ines went on, “Mr Owain has also been encouraging. for more of the higher ranking members to come and see the progress of the community here. He has been outspoken in his belief that it would surely be beneficial if the magi community and the higher echelons of the Assembly could both work together to maximise the benefits and resources of this country”. Ah, so he was one of those kind of magi. Trying to sucker up and intermingle with the higher ups of the Assembly. Wanting to bridge the historical gaps made between them and the magi. I shook my head slightly when I was sure he was not looking over at us.
The divides in class, wealth and power between the higher echelons of the Assembly and the magi members and representatives had existed for over a millennium since the governing bodies founding. Mr Owain appeared to be a magi member who wanted to ingratiate himself with the higher ups and change that slowly over time as many before him no doubt had tried. None as far as I was aware had been successful. The higher echelons of the Assembly were ruled over by men and women who had held immense wealth, stature and magical power for a great many years. These individuals worked together to maintain the vast governing body over the casters of the world to keep themselves in power and they protect their own kind and interests. The Assembly was not designed to cater to the many tens of thousands of magi who were had likely become members and who wished to improve their own part of the community’s rights.
I knew well enough that whatever Owain wanted to achieve by doing all of this, he was going to be sadly disappointed. Shrugging off any more such thoughts I peered across the table to Bartholomew who as seated in the large and impressive hosts seat at the front face of the table. This allowed him to view all of his guests on both sides and to be able to speak to them as he saw fit. Before I could ask if we could start dinner despite the last two guests having yet to arrive, his face split into another smile, although his one appeared to be more forced and not genuine like the one how had provided to other guests. Bartholomew stood again and made his way over to the door way and most of those still seated, Ines and myself included, turned to look in that direction.
Not expecting anything truly special, I nearly choked on my own spit and bile once I registered who the final two guests were. The man walking over embrace Bartholomew was the magi I had seen being fawned over by the vampires. He was still wearing the same get up he had worn at the Grove, accept his thirty odd year old face seemed more flushed and energised. ‘Maybe instead of drinking their blood he had drunk theirs’, I thought in passing. It was however, the woman who next embraced Bartholomew who garnered my shock and full attention. Kissing Bart on the cheeks garbed now in a zebra, jungle styled dress which cut of a number of inches below her knees was the familiar dark red skinned form of Andrea. I felt my eyes practically bulge out of my sockets, in both surprise and alarm.
I had absolutely no idea why she was, here and I also felt severely angered and somewhat foolish at having had bought her story about simply being here on ‘vacation’. As I sat staring at her intently Andrea removed herself from Bartholomew and began to make her way with only slight exaggerated sway of her rather shapely hips. Yes, they were shapely I will not pretend that I did not notice that. Her seat as it so happened, was the vacant one to the right (on their side) of Owain and dropped her eyes to meet mine as she sat down. A pleased, coy smiled spread across her face as we held one another’s gaze. She likely registered the shock and horror at finding her here of all places.
Speaking more to myself than anyone else I said out loud, “Well, this way. Certainly not expected”. It sounded a tad lame when it came out but no one seemed to mind. Andrea continued to smile at me and I felt Ines tense up next to me. When I turned to look at her, she seemed to be barely containing her rage and disgust at Andrea. I barely heard it when she whispered through clenched teeth, “What is that she daemon doing here. This – this was supposed to be a caster’s dinner. What was father thinking.” I thought maybe old Bart might have wanted to gain some influence outside of the magi part of the magical community. I was not fully certain on that one. What I was certain of was that this dinner was going to get more complicated before it got better.
To keep myself not occupied with staring at Andre and to try and keep Ines calm, I asked her, “Who were these last two to um, show up?”. I was not certain she heard me as it took over a minute for her to respond to my query. When she did it sounded strained more so, as she was still wrestling with her mixed emotions about Andrea’s appearance. “The magi, is one Mr Raphael Dominic, nephew of Alejandro Dominic the multi – millionaire oil tycoon and mining magnate who was moved his theatre of operations to central and South Australia”.
“As for the woman”, she continued through gritted teeth. “She is Ms Andrea Redwood. A prominent figure and representative among the daemonkin of the eastern United States to the rest of the community.” Well, well Andrea was certainly a fine little player in the game then. I took her for being rich and somewhat powerful but it seemed I was quite of the mark. She was likely one of the few daemonkin who regularly interacted with the high society members and leaders of the magical community on behalf of her folk. Meaning, that she was likely to be a formidable politician and backstabber in her own right, and could likely throw her weight around for maximum effect. Damn, what had I gotten myself into by talking to her. And her cheap bloody compatriots had the gall to ask me for wergild. Although, maybe it was because of Andrea’s status not in spite of it that they had asked that.
With all of the guests now accounted for and seated Bartholomew addressed us all as he asked for quiet. Rising from his chair once more his spread out his arms wide before orating, “Welcome all, to this most fine of evening. Tonight, we shall eat, drink and discuss matters of import to this community. With the will of magic on our side I certainly hope that all of us can leave her satisfied, having enjoyed themselves and that we can all forge new stronger alliances and friendships amongst ourselves.” Picking up his own finely made sherry glass which was already filled with champagne he raised it out in salute and finished with, “To hospitality, the community and a hope for new friendships.”
The other guests quickly picked up their own glasses as did the rest of the Renault family, all of which were filled with liquid I found including mine. “To new friendships” I intoned in reply along with the rest of those in attendance. Taking a sip of from my glass, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it had been filled with a sweet and rich white wine. Huh, glad Bart remembered my preference in drinks. From the kind of wine being served and the seafood cutlery I could safely assume we would be dining at some later course on fish or crustacean.
I wondered though when and how it had been filled in between when I had last seen it. Placing my sherry glass back down, I felt the gazes of both Andrea and Bartholomew on me as I began to eat. Using my bread knife I spread butter over the thick slices of multi – grain bread, before adding a few slices of blue cheese on top.
With my currently built up appetite I too the slice of bread in my left hand before voraciously inhaling it. Warm buttered bread along with a coating of rich, creamy cheese enveloped my taste buds emitting a small groan of pleasure from me. I took my time chewing in no real rush to end the tastes and sensations dancing in my mouth. “And this was just to entree” I thought internally in a rather pleased tone. Eventually swallowing the first slice, I was soon buttering up two more slices of the multi – grain bread and applying more of the delectable blue cheese on top. Wolfing down these slices with as much gusto as I had the first, I felt mournful as I finished savouring the final slice. With my china plate now tragically empty of bread and cheese I then moved onto the consommé soup.
Utilising my soup spoon in my right hand I soon discovered that as I had theorised it was made up of beef stock once the flavour of it hit my tongue and taste buds. It was thicker then I had anticipated and the flavour of beef was still strong within it and helped to warm my throat and insides. I noticed that conversations had yet to begin and predicted based on experience that it would likely start up among groups and individuals once the entree had been cleared away. I avoided eye contact with either Andrea or Bartholomew as I finished gulping down my soup as if it were water and I was dying of thirst.
Once I gulped down the last spoonful of soup I carefully placed my soup spoon within it so as not to damage the utensil or the bowl. Only then did I look up and around the table at the other occupants. Most were close to finishing their own food, giving me the impression that I had needed sustenance for more urgently than anyone else present. Looking to the other side of the table I noticed Owain was dipping his last bits of bread and cheese into his soup while holding his soup spoon in the other hand.
Damn, wished I had thought of that. It would have added to the flavour of the bread and provided a new experience in flavour for me. Moving my eyes ever so carefully I once again met the gaze of Andrea who had left neither crumbs or cheese on her plate, nor soup in her bowl. Apparently she was as ravenous as I was feeling, if not more so. I had seen her only hours ago drinking pints of whiskey casually. That sort of inhuman metabolism must take a large amount of calories and nutrients to maintain.
Her golden eyes practically shone at me as she took a sip of her own champagne and somehow managed to make that appear erotic. The way her lips parted and her more serpentine tongue encircled the glass and the champagne was all carried out in such a way as I knew it to be deliberate. Now that was not playing fair now was it? I mean I have skills and knowledge do not get me wrong. However like any man, and especially a man still in the prime of his youth who has not had intimacy in years. Remaining aloof and detached from deliberate teasing and flirting attempts made my women was not among them.
To keep from saying a word or my jaw from dropping, I looked to my own sherry glass filled with the sweet wine. I clenched and unclenched my right hand twice under the table before bringing it back out to take hold of my glass. I lifted it up to my lips and sipped on it as if I had all the patience of the will of magic. Andrea had now emptied her glass of its liquid contents and held it out for an employee (I no longer like to use the word servant) of the Renault household to fill it up again with champagne. Once her glass was refilled she dipped her head slightly at me, still smiling as she went to repeat her habit of ‘appreciating’ her alcohol in a rapid time frame.
I looked away while she did so not wanting to be ensnared in the process once more and was rewarded with the sight of the entree dishes at last being removed from play. As if responding to a signal as the dishes were being removed conversations between the occupants of the table began to spring up as I had predicted. Not overwhelming in volume but still echoing somewhat due to the spherical design of the room topics of discussion ranged from financial affairs, rumours coming from the Assembly to solutions on the growing number of magical immigrants to Australia. I tried to focus my hearing more on the Assembly rumours in hope of acquiring insight into the current state of things.
Little information of any real note emerged from this however. With the most useful piece of rumour being about the desire of younger higher ups among the Assembly to spread out their sphere of influence across the pacific. Perhaps this explained the presence of the visiting VIP? Mulling this over in my head I barely caught the words as Bartholomew asked Andrea, “So Madam Redwood are you enjoying your stay thus far in our pleasant island country?”. I nearly snorted at that, I knew a few Indigenous people and native spirits who would have a few things to say about a French magi referring to Australia as ‘our country’.
Instead I continued sipping on my cider somewhat mechanically whilst waiting for her reply. Andrea did not disappoint and having finished her second glass replied cheerily with, “Oh but of course Mr Renault. I am finding my time in this new land to be both educational and”. She paused for a few heartbeats her eyes lingering on my person as she finished, “most entertaining compared to many of my previous travel destinations. The people are certainly of a different breed altogether.”
Now I wonder what she meant by that, hopefully as a compliment but I had my sincere doubts over such a thing. Bart for his part (get it Bart, part, it rhymes), either saw her remark as a compliment or chose to walk with it if it indeed was an insult. Forming another slightly forced smile on his face he remarked, “Indeed I am sure that to be quite truthful from your perspective Madam.” Turning to me now and with a proper smile forming on his face again Bartholomew raised his voice enough so that most of the table would be able to discern his words. “Lysander I thank you again for accepting my humble invitation and now we all have the chance to mingle and learn from one another. I trust that thus far all is meeting your expectations?”. He asked this query in a tone that suggested he was genuinely curious but also sincere in his wish that I all was meeting my expectations.
In a slow controlled fashion, I placed my sherry glass over its wooden mat decorated with symbols of magic. Clasping my hands together on the edge of the table I bowed my head politely and said, “Indeed Bartholomew, you have proven to be a most generous host. I most enjoyed the entree and find my drink to be meeting my desires and pleasing my taste buds.” I did not think it possible but Bartholomew’s already broad smile became even broader almost seeming to split his face in half. Nodding his head three times in emphasis he soon continued to address me as he spoke. “Of this I am glad. Are things progressing well on your side of events? I would assume a man of your skill and … nature. Would be in a position of comfort and security.”
Indeed, one could assume that, an interesting choice in words, and I did note the pause there before he said nature. If anyone here was under the impression that I was like them, then that particular use of the word would certainly make them reconsider. Snorting out a breath in a volume I hoped was not overly obvious, I replied to Bart with, “Things are going as well as one could expect on my side of events Bartholomew. And one could make many assumptions about one of my skill do you not think?”. If Bart was going to bring up now during this meal what I thought he was going to do, or already had to these people. Then I was going to be difficult to him, as he may have made this evening even more treacherous for me then I had already assumed due to Andrea’s presence.
The second course arrived as Bartholomew took time to take in my words, I hoped he got the message that I was in no mood to talk about my nature. I moved my attention to the new plates that had been set before me. One carried a garnished pairs of crabs claws and lobsters claws which I could crack open using the utensils at my side. The second plate carried on it a pair of steamed lobster tails and two chilli crab cakes coated in in some sort of chilli. Accompanying the food were two lemon slices and a dollop of tartar sauce on the side of the main plate.
Saliva soon filled my mouth, my hunger demanding that I devour this food and savour its taste. I obeyed enthusiastically ignoring the ongoing conversations as I used my lobster cracker to break open the claws and get at the sweet meat inside. With my seafood fork I removed the treasure from its prison and let go as I chewed on the tender flesh.
Using my free hand to squeeze the lemon slices over the steamed lobster and crab cakes. I caught Andrea using her apparently potent jaw to crunch down on the crab claws seeming unaffected by the effort required to do so. I was impressed if not more than a wee bit scared that she could do that. Daemonkin were known to be able to eat and digest all manners of food but I did not know their jaws could be so strong. Soon finished with one claw Andrea grabbed the other and clamped her jaws down hard on it watching my reaction from the corner of one of her golden eyes. Deciding it would be safest to go back to my meal I proceeded to cut up and begin engulfing my crab cakes which mixed with lemon juice and chilli bombarded my mouth with several flavours at once. It was not unpleasant though a degree sour due to the lemon juice and chilli mixing together in acidic bliss.
Having soon removed my crab cakes from existence I proceeded to finish cracking open my crab and lobster claws when Andrea addressed me personally. “Lysander is it? You seem to be on close terms with Mr Renault if you are both on a first name basis with one another. “She was right there and I half did not want to respond out of giving too much away and half as I was not certain how I would sound like talking to her again. As it happened Andrea was not the only guest here interested in that point as the Mrs El Sanguine turned to address me as well. “Indeed Mr Michaelson, it would appear that you have a close relationship with the Renault family. When to the rest of us gathered here you are a stranger an unknown variable.”
Oh I liked that, ‘unknown variable’. It seemed to fit my person quite well I thought and she was right. I had never even heard of these people before let alone met them. I could see how they may be both cautious and intrigued with my apparently close relationship with the Renaults. Although by my standards we were quite close. Now you may be wondering why everyone around here keeps on referring to me as ‘Mr Michaelson’. It is quite simple really Aleksander Michaelson is the name everyone with the exceptions of Darren and Camilla know me as. My driver’s license and medicare card all identify me as Aleksander Michaelson in the governments files as it would have been a grave error to give them my true last name. That was just a dangerous bit of knowledge just waiting to pop out.
Instead of immediately replying I continued to chew on my crab and lobster flesh thoughtfully, absorbing them into my system before I formed a reply. “Yes, that is true madam. I have only ever had the honourable Renault family as a major contact and partner of mine from the magi community. My time in this country has not encouraged me to grow and expand upon my connections within the community as a whole until the last year or more. And even then I place trust in the Renault family to enable such a transition.” More than a few mutters arose from that, but it was true I had never really thought to expand to any real degree my connections to the community as a whole here. Partially as so not to attract too much attention to myself. Partially as well to keep track of those I do know and build up trust between us. However, with the recent attack and invasion of my home, I may have to start approaching the community in a different form.
The topic of popular discussion was leaning more towards myself and my connection to the Renaults. I had wanted to slip into or overhear mention of the VIP and the magi movements. Perhaps even try to start up or become involved in talks of alliances and friendships but thus far those plans were going awry. A mild mannered yet powerful voice spoke up then also addressing me. I turned around time to witness Owain address me with his grey eyes lit up in a way they had not been when I had first lain eyes on him. A genuine desire for understanding and knowledge as any I had heard and a tone of passion entered his voice when he asked, “Are we to understand Mr Michaelson that you are of a different variety of magical folk then the rest of us. Barring Ms Andrea of course.” Andrea simply turned her new found smile on him and then went to facing me again.
Owain’s opinion seemed to matter to this group as all forms of conversation had stopped with only the dull background noises of eating to be heard. Letting my voice carry across the room I returned with, “And what, sir may I ask gave you that opinion. As I see no evidence to point to me being anything but what I look to be.” Owain’s eyebrows lifted and the ghost of a smile crept up on his face. His curled moustache twisted as he spoke next, “Indeed but that is a good question. Well in answer I would supply you with the fact that you have no noticeable form of foci on you. While you carry the bearing and magical presence of a caster and this is a dinner filled with magi where duels are not an uncommon event to prepare for.”
He waited for a moment to let that sink into his audience and I stared at him, impressed with his reasoning and irritated that he had noticed that. Why did the smart guy have to open his mouth and spoil things for me? If Bartholomew planned all of this, I was going to skin him alive later for the trouble. Going on with his little analysis and lecture Owain noted, “And sir your eyes. They are knowledgeable and filled with more experience and age then one who would be in their early twenties as you so appear to be.” His eyes met mine as he said this letting me see the strength, resolve and power within a man who was in fact only a few years older than myself though looked almost twice my age.
“And then of course there is the why you have been invited at all. Surely a young caster with no connections could not under any normal circumstances garner such interest from the distinguished Renault family. Mr Renaults reaction to your arrival and addressing you personally, seeming to want you more than anyone else here to be satisfied with the dinner.” He spread his hands out for emphasis in a questioning gesture eyes still locked on mine. His voice never increased in volume but he seemed to be able to weave more power and passion into it which made him able to carry his voice so easily to those listening in.
“Perhaps he and I simply have a very profitable relationship? What if I simply have certain resources and skills that are rarer than those held by other magi? Could that not be a fair reason to explain my presence here tonight”. I offered, keeping my voice as pleasant but neutral as I could. I see what you are doing and I can talk as well there Mr Owain.
“That is indeed a possibility.” he admitted. “A likely one? No. No Mr Renault and his family are no one’s fool if you did posses some resource or skill that other magi did not have in abundance then it would be fairly simple for them to acquire your services as an employee.” These words he addressed at Bartholomew and his family more than me. He even gazed at each of them in turn before glancing back at me. “And yet you, an outsider with no connections in the community of note speak on equal footing to a powerful magi family and dine with some of the most prominent individuals in our entire community in this country.”
Now he actually leaned forward more, providing me with the most intense and uncomfortable look into someone’s eyes I had experienced in quite awhile now. His mouth twitched into a slow, victorious smile but had the same feeling and warmth as one coming from a starving hyena. Closing my hands together in order to mirror how my own hands were held he remarked. “This makes one wonder what such a man could be. A man whose power requires not a foci to wield, whose eyes are older than his appearance and whose power is such that he dines with magi elite as equals.” If nothing else said tonight caught the other guest’s breaths then those choice remarks did.
He knew, whether he had indeed worked it out for himself as he seemed to be claiming or if he had been informed by Bartholomew I had no way of telling. But he knew and all of a sudden this dinner had become as dangerous to my way of life as the hellhound had been. In some ways even more so. Finally, Owain leaned ever so slightly forward his smile now wide and almost wicked, “Could you Mr Michaelson in fact be one of the vaunted few? One of the folk who make up the higher echelons of the Assembly itself. A caster of such nature that no foci be needed then they command the strands of magic. Could you in fact be, a Changeling?” That was the moment when all gossip ceased so much so that a moth could be heard fling across the room, things were now deadly serious.