“Can you see it?”
This question was met with silence.
“Anyone?! Can you see it?!” The blind man raised his voice, he was growing frustrated.
There were many eyes there to bare witness to the unfolding events, but nearly every pair of them was turned downwards observing the strange fluctuations on mechanical devices few of them had any true understanding of. No one was looking at the scene before them. It was too much for the blind man named Max. He needed their eyes and they were looking in all the wrong directions.
“Damn it!” he roared. “Your devices will measure whether you look at them or not! Lift your ridiculous heads up and look at the bloody scene before you!! Now! Can someone see it?!”
The gentle giant seldom raised his voice let alone used a scolding tone with his men. There was a small murmur of shock that riffled through the collective. They whispered to one another about how unlike it was for their teacher to be cross. It had the desired effect though. Gradually each pair of eyes looked away from the machinery they were put in charge of and simply peered across the dry expanse before them.
“My lord God in heaven…” one of the men whispered as he looked on in disbelief.
The teacher locked onto this shocked voice in the group. This was not one of his younger men so there was a deeper, more profound guard around his mind and thoughts. At best Max could only get a shadow of what the man was seeing as he probed his thoughts. It was enough though.
“It exists…” Max exclaimed, though his voice was barely audible. There was a deep fear that was starting to creep over him and he knew time was of the essence. “Gabriel! To me!” he cried out.
A young man in the group quickly moved over to the blind teacher.
“Yes Master Max?”
Max’s hand blindly reached out and motioned in all directions.
“Go! Go collect all the meter tapes and put them in the special bag. Once you do that, get a little ways away and stop long enough to take the special photograph if you can. But if you can’t just be gone! Don’t look back! A witness will do!” His big hand moved wildly about until it caught the young man’s shoulder and gave it a death grip. “Don’t look back Gabriel! Let the camera be your eye but if it can’t just go. Do as I’ve taught you and get the information back to the Vitandi. Do you understand? She’ll be waiting for it.”
Absently the young man Gabriel nodded his head up and down even though he knew his master could not see his movements. The old blind man couldn’t even look through the youth’s eyes as he had been trained to keep a very strict guard on his thoughts and senses.
He snapped from his daze and promised out loud to his teacher he would do as he was taught. He gave the blind man an unseen bow (again out of habit) and quickly headed into the crowd of men telling each it was time to give up their machinery’s records and pass them along to the younger man. Most of the men were so mesmerized by what they were witnessing they barely noticed the youth emptying their devices one by one.
Once all the recording goods were collected Gabriel grabbed his own heavy back pack and headed away from the group of men and the scene beyond them. He ran till he was out of breath and gasping. Only then did he stop long enough to take out a camera set-up from his back pack.
The youth quickly set up the camera equipment and aimed it towards the events unfolding in the distance. He kept his eyes lowered at all times. When he wasn’t directly looking at the camera he simply looked at the ground.
Before the group had reached their destination his teacher impressed upon him the importance that at least one set of eyes never look directly at the events taking place. No one knew what was going to happen, though there was some fear that just viewing the event could be harmful.
The older men were well seasoned and aware of the risks involved; each had volunteered. Gabriel was still young though, barely to his seventeenth birthday. Max didn’t want him taking potential risks and instead tasked him being the one that didn’t play witness.
The camera equipment was strange and despite knowing every little detail of how it was meant to be put together, Gabriel still felt clumsy and slow doing so. It didn’t help that his hands were shaking from the adrenaline coursing through his veins. The camera itself made him slightly nervous. It was created by an infamous man known to most as Professor Vogel.
Vogel had a mixed reputation. Some of his inventions were truly incredible and did as they were meant to do. He was respected world wide for many of his ingenious contraptions that helped individuals with a disability work around that disability. However, for all the professor’s good intentions and incredible inventions, there were other creations of his that didn’t act as they were meant to. These other machines malfunctioned in dark ways and did things that could put fear into a person’s soul.
Gabriel knew the details of every single contraption that Professor Vogel had ever brought into creation. He planned to write a book about them one day. This fact was partly why his teacher Max trusted him with the camera when he’d been able to secure one directly from the professor himself, newly made. This was the first time this particular camera was actually going to be used though. This, the young man knew, left room for errors.
It had been said by many scholarly types “Professor Vogel’s camera does not capture what the photographer wishes to see, thinks they see, or any static ridden middle of the two. The good professor’s camera captures what is there and needs to be seen. That which is begging to be seen.”
Once Max had the camera he’d convinced the Vitandi to use it for this excursion for that express point: To capture what needed to be seen free from the taint of impressible human minds.
Gabriel finished putting the camera equipment together and set it atop a tall enough tree stump to allow it to focus on the scene in the distance without the young man having to look at it himself. He pointed the lens, set the timer, and turned away from the set-up and hit the “live” button. He turned his back to the whole process as his master had taught him. Eighty seconds slowly ticked by and then a strained grinding sound came from the equipment and a flash of light that the young man could feel on his skin; then all went silent.
There had been noise in the distance coming from the group he’d just left. When the camera fell silent so too did the noise from the group. The silence was absolute right down to the last cricket ceasing to play its leg fiddle. It was unnerving.
Gabriel’s every desire was to look back upon where he’d come from. He wanted to know everyone was alright. He could use the excuse of looking back to make sure he’d aimed the camera true. He knew better though. From the very beginning of his instruction he’d been taught the one great rule of separating what the heart wanted with what the intellect was trained to do. As a result he followed his blind teacher’s rules without a second thought even if it caused his heart and curiosity to ache.
With his task done, the young man gathered up the camera equipment and all the other gear that was almost too heavy for his poor young body to accommodate. He headed towards the cliff that looked out into the nothingness of the sky. There he knew an airship was waiting for him to take him back to the Vitandi, whether the teacher and his research party were with him or not.
It was a stormy night. This is what they said in novels was it not? It was a stormy night! And the reader’s mind is immediately taken to a place of bruised skies marked by the sudden and dramatic white lines of lightning and the rumble of thunder. A good storm was always the way to set the mood.
In this case it was in fact a very stormy night, though all the moodiness and drama was being eclipsed by the fact that the room this storm was witnessed from happened to have a leak in the ceiling. A leak that was persistent and evenly timed as it went drip! drip! drip! into a very elegant and expensive glass vase. The leak and the receptacle it dripped into was causing more than just a little irritation to the man sitting in the room.
This man sat scowling in his very richly crafted winged back chair with his feet lazily spread across a matching foot stool. In one hand he held a pipe he’d yet to light and in the other a glass of gin and tonic, which he’d paid far more attention to. His eyes went from the leak in the ceiling to the glass vase on the floor. His upper lip twitched just a bit as he noticed the dark colored pattern of an emerging stain on the carpet around the edges of the glass vase.
Drip! Drip! Drip! Miss! As a bit of water found the floor instead of the vase. It was on the note of the “miss” that the man’s unlit pipe fell to the floor sending pipe tobacco scattering.
“Stella!” the man yelled before downing the last of his gin and tonic.
A few moments later a very cheerful and rather hefty older woman scooted through the door with deceptive grace. She’d always reminded the man of a petite toed hippo moving through the world in ballerina slippers. She had with her a fresh glass of gin and tonic (with a cherry in it, which for some reason always annoyed him) and presented it to the man in the chair.
“Need to be freshened up there on your drink Mr Obediah?”
The sitting man, whose name in full was Octavius Orwell Obediah the Second, ignored the question and instead used his empty glass as a pointer. He tipped it towards the leak in the ceiling.
“Stella, I’d like to think one of the many benefits of wealth is the ability to get my faulty roof fixed so that I’m not sitting here amid my own private rain shower. And Stella…” he looked annoyed as he tipped his head towards the glass vase. “My mother’s priceless Lasher vase? Surely we have a bucket somewhere in vast expanse of my very large home?”
Stella frowned as she looked from the gentleman in the chair to the glass vase on the floor. She turned back, all smiles again. Very little rattled the woman’s good cheer.
“I thought the vase kept the ambiance of the room better than a bucket sir.” she replied very earnestly. “Besides, Mr. Olophant has all of the house’s buckets in the basement at the moment.”
Octavius shook his head slowly, knowing he’d probably have preferred he didn’t ask. Curiosity was his weakness though.
“Why does he have the buckets in the basement?”
Stella’s face lit up. “Oh! For his homemade ghost traps! Yes, he says we’re just riddled with them down there. He swears they’re worse than having gophers in the lawn!”
Octavius sighed and offered the woman his empty glass. With the sweetness and motherly gestures found in all things that Stella did, she quickly took the empty glass and handed him a full one and stepped back, all smiles. Not one thing she just said struck her as strange.
“Well… Stella… setting that aside, isn’t there someone we can get out here to fix the leak? It’s been a very long stint of traveling for me. I’d really like the comfort of coming back to my home and not having these minor but annoying details to attend to. This is why I employ you. You’re my hands and eyes around here.”
Stella set the empty gin glass down on the gentleman’s table and clasped her hands together as though she were about to deliver very unsavory news.
“I’m afraid not sir. Handyman Gregory used to handle all of those issues but he’s not wanted to return since he was left alone with the auspicmoriscope that last time. And Mr Kimber got lost behind the walls when he was trying to fix the electrical works in the parlor and refuses to come back now. They were the last handymen from town willing to come work on these things.”
“Well then… what about Mr. Olophant? I employ him to take care of the grounds don’t I? Can’t he get up there and fix a hole?”
His maid’s face took on a sympathetic motherly look as though she were attempting to explain something complicated to a child.
“Mr Olophant doesn’t like heights. And besides, he’s really involved with those ghosts in the basement at the moment. He is one for doing things in order of priority.”
All Octavius could do was smile and nod his head as if all of this were just common knowledge. Just the everyday run of the mill sort of thing. And were he to set his own personal irritations aside he would know this to be true: Octavius Orwell Obediah the Second had chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps and lead a somewhat extraordinary lifestyle. These minor, though bizarre, irritations just went with the territory.
“Fine.” he sighed. “Can you at least ask Mr. Olophant to sacrifice just one of his buckets here? Or find me a pan from the kitchen? Really Stella, that glass vase is quite expensive and my mother really did love it. I think the ambiance of the room can handle it.”
The good maid Stella smiled and nodded. Whether she’d do anything that he asked was up for speculation. As far as Octavius could tell she was good for fixing meals and bringing well mixed drinks when needed. Perhaps she’d been better at her job in those years of old when she’d first been acquired by his parents.
Octavius held up his drink and scowled at the cherry leaking its red juice into his otherwise perfect gin and tonic. He pulled the cherry from the glass and took a deep swig of it before setting the glass down. “Stupid cherry” he whispered before tucking it into his mouth to suck on. He leaned over the side of his chair to pick up his pipe and try to reclaim some of the spilled tobacco.
Stella stopped by the door and stood and watched, all smiles as if she was rooting him on. She didn’t move to help nor did she move to leave the room.
“Um… something else Stella?” he asked, the cherry at the corner of his mouth warping his voice.
Stella’s face looked confused for a moment and then her memory caught up to her. “Oh yes! The Baron has been waiting to see you. He sent word a few days ago that he would be by when you had returned from your travels. I sent word to him earlier today that you were on route home.”
Octavius bit down on the cherry and spit the stem onto the floor.
“The Baron?!” he cried. “Why am I only hearing about any of this now?! Are you daft woman?! Why on earth would you let that awful man into my home?!”
Stella, still smiling, shrugged her shoulders. “He seems friendly enough. Oopsies!” she said by way of explanation.
Of all the things for the woman to forget or do, this ranked up there with the worst. Octavius was mortified to think such an awful spreader of gossip had been left waiting alone in his home of valuable things while he made insipid small talk about ghosts and leaks with his squirrely maid.
There was nothing for it now. It would be far harder to put a positive spin on kicking a man out of his house after he’d been invited in. It wouldn’t matter who that man was when it came to the politics of polite society; especially the side of it both men dealt with.
Octavius drained the last of his drink and quickly got to his feet. He straightened his attire and ran his hands through his thinning dark hair. He made an attempt to clean up some of the remaining pipe tobacco by kicking it underneath his chair. As prepared as he was going to be with such short notice, he nodded at his housekeeper. “Alright then, show him in.”
Stella smiled and quickly removed herself from the room.
A few minutes later the door opened and the maid Stella stepped back into the room and made grand, almost silly gestures welcoming their guest in as she introduced him. Soon after a very tall and stern looking man with an almost comically thin and curling mustache followed her into the room. He was good enough to give the ceiling leak only a slight acknowledgment before moving towards his host and extending his large hand towards him.
“Mr Obediah! So good to finally get an audience with you sir!”
Octavius extended his hand and mustered up a smile. The other man’s grip was strong and he gave the somewhat smaller man’s hand several very enthusiastic pumps up and down. This caused a ricochet of tired muscles protesting up Octavius’ weary arm.
“Baron Wikanman, it is quite the surprise to have you come by! I’m sorry I haven’t had much of a chance to get my home in order before your arrival. I only just learned of your intended visit.”
“I care little about such domestic niceties.” the Baron said almost dismissively. “Superficial courtesies mean little in situations like this.”
“Wunderbar!” Octavius replied, trying desperately to work up some of his charm despite how irritated he was. “Please, come have a seat. Can I have Stella bring you anything?”
The Baron made a stiff shake of his head. He instead took a cigarette case from his coat pocket and offered his host a very fragrant sepia colored cigarette. Octavius declined.
“Thank you but no thank you my good man. My time in Calcutta has cured me a bit of my smoking tendencies. Even my pipe is for show.” Octavius held up his depleted pipe and gave his guest a good natured shrug.
The Baron leaned in, suddenly looking very serious. “The Secret Calcutta?” he asked.
In this exchange there was no reason to lie. The Baron traveled among the same secret back roads as his host.
Octavius nodded his head wearily. “Oh yes, I’ve been there often. I was just there in fact. I was put on the trail of an artifact that was stolen from my father many, many moons ago and when news of it turned up I meant to find it. No matter where I had to travel. I have to say, despite my calling in life? I’m not a fan of the secret places. The food and culture is often too exotic for me.”
The large man’s eyes grew wide. He didn’t care about food or culture. His curiosities lay elsewhere.
“Did you happen to see one of them? There?” The Baron’s voice was eager, almost lusty.
This question was puzzling for Octavius though, who could think of any number of strange questions or remarks that could be made about the place he spoke of. The question of them was a little too vague and the Baron’s needy tone when asking about them was a bit unsettling.
“I’m sorry Baron, I’m afraid with such a place you really have to be more specific.”
The Baron leaned in closer, bringing his rough voice to a whisper.
“The Saturnines. I’ve been told they linger there, but a particular one…” his face looked most dreadful as he thought about it. “This one stays near the gates and it has with it a black cat… a devil cat they say. It lulls people into a strange state by causing all the blossoms around them to sing this otherworldly lullaby. It is a brutal creature I’ve been told, with a bird’s face and long quills for hair. It’s devil cat has a forked tail! I’ve had nightmares of it and its feline familiar since I was a child.”
This enlightened Octavius somewhat. He was familiar with tales of the Saturnines, but not this one in particular. They were but one of the many strange and exotic bogeymen that existed in the secret places. No matter the tale spoken of them though, it was folly to seek out such creatures. Their legends were born of the forbidden and interactions with them out of need or curiosity almost always ended poorly.
The inquiry did give Octavius a little insight into the quietly hidden character of the man sitting next to him. Such insight was valuable to have when dealing with heathens like the Baron.
“I’m afraid I did not encounter such a creature.” Octavius admitted. “However, I was no where near the gates. As you might imagine the roads I travel tend to be the back ones so I can slip in and slip out with little attention paid to me. It’s why our community values my work.” He smiled, feeling just a little cocky. “Discrete and stealthy. Those are the trademarks of the House of Obediah.”
This bit of boasting seemed to bring the Baron back to his reasons for the meeting. He nodded in agreement.
“Very true. Which brings me to why I’m here.”
Octavius perked up. He disliked the time wasted on courtesies and small talk most gentlemen engaged in. He was a man of action. He liked things to be to the point and free of the societal niceties imposed upon them. More dealing and less talking was another trademark of the House of Obediah. It especially applied to unexpected (and unwanted) visitors.
“So what does bring you here Baron? Especially at this hour without invitation?”
The Baron smiled his shifty smile. “A proposition my good man… a proposition. And a very fine one indeed.”
Octavius studied the tall man’s face. He was looking for tells
Octavius himself was very trained in the art of being unreadable. Given the nature of his business and his life really, he had to be calm waters that never rippled. Tells were the physical demons that led to so many of his competitors losing artifacts or paying far to much for them. His father taught him both things were in the same class as a mortal sin.
The Baron’s face, in contrast to his own, was open and expressive. Too open one might say. He countered the idea of calm waters with chaotic ripples in the river of his own face.
Having too many ticks appeared to be as good as having none. Octavius couldn’t read him. He knew his reputation all too well though and upon hearing the word “proposition” his own face mutinied and gave him away by offering a slight twitch in his right eye. The Baron, also very good at reading someone, noticed it right away.
“That word bothers you Octavius?” he asked with just a touch of humor to his deep voice.
Octavius tried to play off his slip while still being honest about it.
“No. I can’t say the word in and of itself bothers me in the slightest. However, given the very different worlds you and I inhabit, you having a proposition for me can be…” he tried to find the right word to be assertive but not completely disrespectful. Whether he liked or hated the man it was important not to burn a bridge with someone of such access to the arcane. “Tricky?” he finally replied. “We do seek very different things from the world, do we not?”
The Baron nodded his head thoughtfully and took a deep drag off of his cigarette. He exhaled the flowery smelling smoke and leaned over and most rudely tapped his cigarette ashes into the other man’s empty gin glass since no ash tray was offered to him.
“This is very true.” the smoking man replied. “This doesn’t mean there aren’t moments for our paths to cross and good things to come of it. Such very good things.”
The room fell silent. For several minutes there was no sound except for the drip of the ceiling leak. Octavius was trying to play down his curiosity and the Baron was letting the other man stew a bit in the curiosity he knew he’d just created. In the end Octavius decided to address something else to leave no one a winner of their strange stand-off.
“Setting that idea aside for a moment Baron, I have to ask you why you would come to me with a proposition anyway? I do believe I have always made it clear that I have no desire to deal with you unless you have something of special value to sell me. No offense my good man, but barter or trade is the only reason I would spend any time in your company. You are only in my home now because my maid is very old and neglected to tell me you were coming until you were already here.”
This might have offended another man. The Baron was not moved in the slightest by Octavius’ honesty. The Baron was by no means a charlatan, but neither was he looked upon favorably by many in their circle of business. He was quite aware of that fact. For him there was no fun in simply having a strange artifact or discovering a legend. He was all about putting such things on display. He was about the theatrics of it all. The Baron loved the great and secret show as he loved playing the master of ceremony to it. This left little room for proper respect for the things he was putting on display.
The Baron leaned back in his chair and offered the other man a small laugh. “Oh don’t I know that Octavius. Don’t I know! But you will just have to work with me here a little. I am indeed trying to sell you something even though as of this moment it is just an idea. An idea of such grand proportions others will be envious of you for getting offered it first. There will be tangible treasures, of course. I know the House of Obediah well and without an artifact or fabled thing in the pitch I know you’ll be disinclined to do business with me. So yes, you might be one for keeping me out of your business affairs, but here we are. And since I am here, at least grant me enough of your time to make you believe this idea is worth your consideration. After that I will be gone and you can yell at your maid for letting me in or spank her or whatever it is your house does to your servants.”
Octavius said nothing, mildly put off by the suggesting of spanking his very old maid. That alone gave him the desire to grab the Baron by the scruff of his collar and drag him from his home. Were he not a curious man, that is. The Baron was already in his company and he was right. There was no reason to dismiss him without hearing what he came to say. For curiosity’s sake if nothing else.
“Stella!” he yelled to the door.
The door opened almost immediately (he knew she would be on the other side of it eavesdropping) and the maid moved into the room all smiles. “Yes sir?”
“Another gin and tonic for me. Bring a good bottle of brandy for the Baron.” He looked down at his ash spoiled glass and gritted his teeth a little. “And an ash tray.”
The two men sat quietly until the maid returned with fresh drink, brandy with brandy sifter, and a glass dish for the Baron’s cigarette ashes. They remained quiet until the maid finished with her fussing and left the room. Finally Octavius turned to the other man.
“Alright, tell me. But be to the point and don’t bother wasting breath on flattery or any of that nonsense. We’re going to be very plain here. I frankly don’t like how you handle your business Baron. I think what you do is often times reckless and puts people at risk just so you can make absurd theater for the rich. Be that as it may, I do respect your ability to find artifacts that others cannot. Don’t take that fragile respect as a way to talk me into working with you. My father’s mission in life was to explore and discover the miraculous. His was a museum curator’s way. This house respects the artifact and the legend. We don’t treat it like a carnival show.”
The Baron poured himself a glass of brandy as he nodded his head. He took a deep swig from his brandy glass and exhaled after he swallowed it. This was the part he liked best when it came to the start of negotiations. To him it was as exciting as that first time he was allowed to slip his hand under a young woman’s shirt and touched her breasts. Then, as now, a flushed redness came to his cheeks.
“I have no desire to waste time on useless flattery. I’ve been contacted by a very prestigious collective to help organize a very grand event that has not taken place in nearly two centures. You will know this event when I share its name with you. My personal involvement is not only for the spectacle I could make of it, but as a facilitator of the massive planning that will be involved to bring it back to the full grandeur it was once known for. The collective I am representing knows a great deal about you and would like your help in this planning. Does this peak your curiosity?”
Octavius’ face was blank while his mind was quite busy. The Baron was being purposefully vague while still offering just enough to spark the other man’s interest. It was having the desired effect.
“Perhaps. Who is this group and what is the event?”
The Baron’s smile was growing ever more shark-like as he circled his prey. This great reveal, though not allowed the build up a showman like the Baron would prefer, was still a thing he took great pleasure from. Seldom had he the opportunity for this type of reveal to a person who would appreciate how massive it was.
“The Vitandi and the Magnus Certatio.” he replied.
Octavius willed his face to become stone. A blank face wasn’t good enough here. At the same time he had to still his mind. In the House of Obediah those two things were seldom spoke of because of the reaction they might bring. To have them uttered by the Baron, of all men, in the presence of potential Obediah ghosts was almost blaspheme. To have him do it in the name of a proposition was far worse.
“Go on.” he replied softly. Octavius did his best to be unmoved.
This masquerade did not fool the old showman. The Baron knew he’d chosen the right yet simple bait and now he had his hook in the other man’s mouth. He hoped all he needed to do was give a gentle tug to land him. It had to be a delicate catch though.
“The Magnus Certatio, the great race beyond the veil…” the Baron announced with great dramatic flair. “An event of such magnitude! Hosted by the most notoriously well known and respected collective of other worldly scholars… the Vitandi. Once a much anticipated and celebrated event on the eve of each new decade that anyone of note would sacrifice everything they had just to be a player in… a racer! Oh such times. Now a thing of legend.” The Baron’s voice softened as the word legend left his lips. He paused for dramatic effect. When he spoke again his voice had heat and energy. “They want to bring it back. They’re putting out invitations to the very talented in our circle who might help doing just that! Not just bring it back, but bring it back even more sensational than the original race.” Here was where the Baron gave his cast line that tug to land his fish. “My proposition for you is that invitation. That is… if you think yourself capable.”
There was silence in the room. A very serious thing was being dangled in front of Octavius. Even as his mind was a rage there were thankfully some cohesive thoughts moving within the chaos. Thoughts that warned him to be weary. Thoughts that demanded he better question this shark here trying to prey on him.
Octavius’ eyes narrowed as he stared down the Baron. He tried to appear casual as he leaned back into his chair. He quickly realized casual was not the mood he wanted to set though. He instead leaned forward and sought out the more important questions. Things that might help him.
“Why now? What is the possible catalyst that would finally push this group into such an action?” Octavius took a breath and let it out slowly. “What in this world and the unseen one would move these people to reach out to anyone outside of their collective for this type of help? They were closed off as a rule, but after the events of the last race? They completely closed ranks. They ended their grand event…” There was more to say but Octavius didn’t know which questions were actually important. So he went back to his original ones and repeated them. “Why now? Why allow anyone in?”
The Baron expected this line of questioning and he was thankful he could be quite honest about it. He was not a man above spinning a tall tale or twisting an exaggerated truth to get what he wanted. It was far easier when he could just go with the simple truth of a thing though.
“Slow death.” the Baron answered gravely. “You have so many great minds within the Vitandi who are growing old and unwilling to let go of their old ways. And what are their old ways? They used to be set in stone. An ideology that was thought out and refined centuries before we came into the common era. It took one bad event, one bad race as the case is here, to overshadow all of their better beliefs. The race ended. The old world of the Vitandi ended. There a narrow and elitist view was allowed to flourish within a society that was already private, but knew when to bring fresh blood into the fold.
“Now? After so much time? There is no new blood within the Vitandi. They are a completely blue blood styled society these days. There are incredible minds that are born into their collective, but no society can survive as such a closed group forever. There are those among their younger sect who want to end this era. How best to kick start a dying society? Turn to the spectacle. Turn to the one thing that might lure fresh blood in. This is the goal of bringing the race back. This is the goal of turning to trustworthy outside resources to help them with this task.”
Octavius’ head moved slowly up and down to note that he understood what was being said. He didn’t want to offer much more. It was easy to understand what was going on within the closed society. These events begged more questions though than answers. So he decided to keep his inquiries to the offer at hand.
“Alright then. What do they want of me? What is your proposition offered as an invitation?” he asked.
What was the word Octavius had used to describe his apprehension to involve himself in dealings with the Baron? Tricky. Here was the tricky spot for the Baron who knew what he was about to propose was going to be met with much mistrust. This was the hurdle he was fearing he wouldn’t be able to talk the other man over.
The Baron smiled. “More than anything they want your advice. They want your knowledge and the knowledge you have inherited from your father. Along with that they wish to temporarily have access to a few of your artifacts for the event.”
There was total silence in the room. It seemed even the dripping ceiling was having its fears about adding its droplet notes to what was going on. The Baron remained silent because he feared the other man’s response. Octavius remained silent because he was disappointed. He felt as though a great opportunity had been dangled in front of him and just as quickly snatched away.
Octavius ended the silence and stopped the other man there.
“If the Vitandi simply wants to exploit my catalog of artifacts we can stop talking right here. The House of Obediah will not give up any of our artifacts for use elsewhere. More than half of what is under my care is considered dangerous. I might be persuaded to share my knowledge, but I will stand firm on the artifacts.”
Octavius moved to get up. The Baron’s hand reached for his arm and he quickly pleaded for the man to remain seated and hear him out. He knew this would be the place where his pitch would become a hard sell. He’d already prepared for it.
“Of course. Of course! No one is asking you to give up anything. We are only asking to borrow a few things with extreme care guaranteed to be given to them. The reward for doing so will be well worth such trust. Please, hear me out.”
There was a small voice in the back of Octavius’ thoughts telling him to go with his first reaction to send the Baron away before he could continue his seduction. It was a seduction after all. The moment the Baron admitted what he needed of the other man his tone had changed. To ask for something so big meant he had to have something of equal value to barter with. He couldn’t begin to imagine what the Vitandi had to offer.
The Baron allowed the other man time to fight with his misgivings. He leaned back in his seat and let his eyes scan the vast library that surrounded them. The Baron couldn’t put a price on many of the books housed there. In a different time the Baron might have tried to run a con on the collector. His obsession was apparent and obsessed men were easy to get the better of. Still, the ability to build such a library (not to mention just the few displayed artifacts the Baron had viewed while waiting for his audience) meant he might have met his first obsessed man he couldn’t get the better of.
The large man’s eyes came back to the face of the man sitting next to him. There was no trust in the collector’s hard stare, no room for error. All the Baron had was his precariously placed hook in the collector’s mouth and the hope he could get him into the boat. It was time to tug the line for real.
“Such trust is too high.” Octavius quietly replied after a long silence.
“Perhaps, but what if I told you that the Vitandi means to allow you unrestricted access to all of their libraries for your participation in the planning of this race? This is only one of the things they’re prepared to offer you. And this trade doesn’t come at the end of the race. You’ll have access to their libraries from the moment you sign on to be apart of this event. There will also be room for you to make requests, within reason of course. You don’t find that even a little bit enticing?”
Enticing was not a strong enough word.
Octavius Orwell Obediah the First had been granted three hours of access to the Vitandi’s precious library once. He’d gone immediately to the restricted section so that he could make the most of his limited time there. A young Octavius the Second could remember the state of his father after that. “Even if I had a lifetime in that library it would not be enough.” he’d whispered to his wife upon his return home. Then he’d wept for hours over the things he’d read. It was perhaps one of the most clear and unchanged memories Octavius had of his father. His father’s obsession with the Vitandi was something that would trickle down to the son.
“It is.” he finally replied, somewhat off hand.
The Baron could almost hear the conflicting voices in the collector’s head. He chanced giving the other man one last push.
“There’s more to it than that of course. You’ll have access to things that might be found only through the race.” the Baron offered. “Wasn’t it your father who spent a lifetime looking for the Keachie Obelisk? The Vitandi has books, maps, all first hand accounts. I’m sure the Vitandi will wish for the race to go through the Keachie occupied sky-lands. Wouldn’t it be a nice addition to the race? Perhaps you could find what your father could not?”
Octavius scowled. This bit of the hard sell was too much to overlook. “You go a little too far and dig a little too deep Baron.” It was a great offense for the son to hear anyone point out what his father saw as failures. His father’s failures had had a way of turning into the son’s quest to one up his father. It was a very touchy subject.
The Baron apologized, realizing his error, but he knew his words had the appropriate effect. Few people of good taste would bring up the rumored competition Obediah the Second felt towards the First. The Baron was not a man of good taste though. The offer of library access was his trump card and the small tidbit about his father was just to ruffle his feathers a little bit and see if it was a direction he could pursue later on should the other man start to change his mind.
“I get blunt sometimes.” the Baron confessed. “I apologize for that, but this is something that I want very badly and I am very grateful that the opportunity is mine. Part of my task is to get you on board though, so I must work with what I think will best show you the same great opportunity beckoning you. You know as well as I do that for men such as ourselves this is an opportunity that cannot so easily be passed up. Am I wrong?”
Octavius shook his head slowly. There was a small voice of self hatred for giving into the truth of it.
“You are not wrong.” he confessed. “At the same time how can I possibility take you and this offer seriously? Baron Wikanman the great showman sweeps into my home uninvited and proposes something that is too good to be true from a collective that most surely would never work with him. I have a reputation to consider Baron. If I were to seriously court your offer what do you think that would do to the reputation of the House of Obediah? Simply allowing you to stay and try and tempt me will sour some of my clientele to working with me should it make its way through the circle of societal gossip. I’m the one person in our field who is supposed to know better than this.”
The Baron scoffed. “That is horseshit! There is very little that could truly tarnish the reputation of the House of Obediah. Who would fault you for giving me enough of your time to see if my offer is true? Any one worth their salt would do most anything for access to that library for ten minutes! Imagine what those same people would do to be apart of the reinvention of one of the greatest intellectual and adventurous races to have ever existed?”
The Baron shook his head growing slightly annoyed. Some of his trademark excitability was starting to show itself. He took a few deep breaths to get it in check. The collector remained silent while the other man flustered.
“My point being…” the Baron settled down and found his thread. “Very soon there will be quiet rumblings about the Vitandi’s plans and everyone will be falling over themselves to first find out if it’s true and second find some way to be apart of it. You’re free of those hoops. You are being invited to take part in an event that will become a major chapter in the history of our world. It is not only your precious things that are being inquired after, it is also you and your great knowledge. You will be a bold name in that chapter and the reputation of the House of Obediah will become nontarnishable. You will become a celebrity and there will no longer be one single door that is locked to you. You would be foolish if you didn’t at least humor this offer long enough to see just how incredible it is.”
There was silence between the two men. Octavius imagined he could hear the thumping of his own heart, only it beat too quickly. Perhaps it was the Baron’s heart he was hearing.
“I have only one question… a curiosity actually.” Octavius replied.
“Ask me anything.” the Baron countered.
“Why, of all people, would the Vitandi send you to solicit me? Why didn’t they send one of their people who I would have gladly let into my home?”
At this the Baron smiled and leaned back in his chair. He was worried for a moment that events were going to have to play out in a very different way. This one inquiry told him things were going to go exactly as he planned.
“A collective of other worldly scholars who have spent a century behind closed doors might be very aware that they are lacking in the social skills the present world demands of them. As a result they looked for an opposite to themselves and found me. They found there are two things every single person who has ever heard my names knows.” He held up one finger. “One, that I have taken the time to research every single individual who might have value to me no matter how big or small that value might be. I am an encyclopedia of our secret world.” He held up a second finger. “Two, that when I resolve to get something I get it. By persuasion or brute force, I get it. My determination is my true reputation Mr Obediah. My Vitandi mistress knows this and this is why she has unleashed such a scoundrel on their behalf. You can detest my personality and what I stand for, but I do get people to listen to me through one means or another. The fact that I’m sitting here with you now is evidence of that. The Vitandi very much want you Mr Obediah. More than even your precious artifacts. Think about that. Could even your father say that?”
With this said the Baron stood and straightened his jacket. He had done what he promised his mistress he would do. If it was not enough there was plan B, but he was confident they wouldn’t have to go there. Time would tell.
“I will be taking my leave now. Please think long and hard on what has been said here tonight and at your earliest convenience contact me with your final decision. I do advise you don’t keep me waiting long. There is much to do and a somewhat limited time frame to do it in. Thank you for granting me your time Mr Obediah.”
Octavius got to his feet and offered the Baron his hand, this time noting the other man’s grip was not so tight or enthusiastic.
“Of course.” he nodded. “I’ll sleep on it a few nights and get back to you shortly. Stella will see you out.”
On cue the door opened and the daffy maid was offering to lead the Baron to the front door. The two men finished with their parting formalities and Octavius was once again left alone with his leaking ceiling.
The collector’s mind was all over the place and he couldn’t find one point within it to focus on and settle it down. There was so much to think over. Octavius wanted to pretend he would be thoughtful when considering what the Baron had just told him. The truth was his mind was made up the moment there was even the slightest hope of getting anywhere near the very closed off Vitandi. The frenzy his thoughts were in was simply all the devils and angels warring back in forth over that fact.
After a few minutes Stella came back to the room. She set a fresh gin and tonic on the table before going over to the leak. She placed a kitchen pan under the leak and then took the vase and put it back on the shelf where Octavius’ mother always kept it, rain water still inside. She was quiet as she did this. There was no characteristic smile on her face or lilt to her step. This did not go unnoticed.
“Stella? Is something wrong?” Octavius asked.
His maid said nothing at first. Octavius might get flustered with the old woman or think she was as daffy as the day was long, but the truth was she’d been apart of his household, and therefore his family, since he was a young boy. He liked her eccentricities. He didn’t like her lucid moments.
“Well sir it’s just…” Stella fell silent. She looked terribly conflicted.
“It’s alright Stella… you can always be honest with me.”
“It’s not right sir.”
This caught him off guard. “What? I mean… what do you mean?”
Her face fell into an uncharacteristic scowl. “That man is bad down to his bone marrow sir. I can feel it. He only tells you half of the story and picks and chooses what of that should be the truth. Mr Obediah senior would have never trusted him and…”
At the mention of his father Octavius immediately became defensive. It was almost a reflexive thing at this point in his life. He held up his hand to stop Stella from going on.
His father had been a very good, supportive parent, there was no question of that. He was also a man driven by his own obsessions. So much so that sometimes he was driven right out of the lives of his wife and child. This led to a son feeling the only way to be apart of the father’s life was to adopt the same obsessions has him. They were never so close as when they were researching Obediah senior’s personal projects.
If anyone was to know how Obediah the First would react to the Baron’s offer it would be Obediah the Second.
“My father was cautious to the point of missing out on several great opportunities Stella.” he finally replied, trying to keep his voice neutral. “Of course he would never have trusted the Baron. He would have thought him a charlatan. But for all of his great caution and wisdom do you think he would have declined that offer for even a moment?”
Octavius turned away from his maid and went to the window. The storm had been calm while the two men talked; now it was starting to kick up again. The thunderclaps made him feel as though the sky was barking at him.
“Don’t think my father was so high and mighty that he wouldn’t have been tempted.” he whispered more to himself then to his maid. “My father would have been tempted by the potential to find the Keachie Obelisk alone. It’s the Vitandi Stella. It’s all my father ever thought about.”
Stella didn’t answer him. She stood by the door giving him a stern and disapproving frown. She had more to say but Octavius knew the moment he’d shushed her she would stay quiet. The longer she watched him in silence the more agitated the man became.
Octavius stomped over to the table and took his gin and tonic, drinking it down in two gulps. He took the cherry from the glass and threw it into the Baron’s ash tray.
“Please make me another gin and tonic Stella. And for the love of god please stop putting those damn cherries in them.”
Stella slowly turned to the door but stopped before leaving. She looked back over her shoulder. Her voice was low and calm, all the more threatening for it.
“You’re a fool Octavius. A fool just like your father. I was hoping the apple had fallen farther from the tree.” Her eyes looked him up and down with disdain. “And you drink too much!”
The maid stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind her.
The minutes passed and the maid didn’t return. Octavius decided this was for the best and retrieved the scotch he kept hidden in his library shelves.
She was right that he didn’t need to drink any more. His thoughts were chaotic though and he wanted to still them under the cover of haze. Tonight he’d give himself the freedom to be drunk and oblivious to what was right or wrong. Come morning there would be plenty of time to decide what he Obediah the Second should do for Obediah the Second and not for the memory of the First.
“Baron Wikanman? A telegram arrived for you sir.”
The Baron smiled down at the young girl running towards him. She had the most beautiful bronze skin and her hair was a very rich lilac color. She was one of the Keachie sky people, taken captive by his host years ago when he sent his Dread Captain there to wage war in the aether. The girl had been just a toddler at the time and so she had acclimated to life on the true ground quite well.
The young girl handed a folded sheet of paper to the tall man.
“Why thank-you miss.” the Baron said politely. He reached over to a spread of flowers on the entry way table and pulled a white orchid from the collection. He leaned over and gently slipped the flower behind the girl’s ear. “Run along now sweetie.”
The girl grinned as she felt the flower in her hair. She turned and quickly moved back into the heart of the house. The Baron briefly thought about how attractive a woman she would become and felt a brief bit of pity that there was no way to truly take the savage out of the Keachie, or at least this is what the people of the grounded world thought. She was a happy little house servant now and she’d grow up beautiful and become a house servant in a very different capacity.
The thought was there and gone. The Baron didn’t like to dwell on things that tried to provoke a reaction from his conscious. He opened the telegram and smiled.
“To the Baron Wikanman, I accept your offer. Please advice me on how to proceed at your earliest convenience. Yours, Octavius Orwell Obediah the Second.” he read aloud. “Well this is good news.”
The Baron moved out into a beautiful spring night. There were night birds singing and the air smelled pleasantly of all the many varieties of flowers his host kept in his Victorian style garden. The Baron took all of this in and offered the world a content sigh.
His auto slowly pulled around the large looping driveway. The Baron reached for a cigarette and casually smoked as his driver stepped from the auto and opened the back door for him. He made the young man wait patiently as he slowly worked at the cigarette, every so often casually (and without concern) tapping the ashes onto the neat marble path beneath his feet. When he was done he stamped out the spent cigarette beneath his heal and walked away from the small mess he left on the otherwise unmarked white surface.
As he sat in the back of his automobile being gently rocked side to side, he reached for the zephyranode and requested a direct line to his Vitandi mistress. Minutes passed as the connection was established, clarified and returned. Chills ran over his skin when he heard the woman’s voice addressing him.
“My mistress. I have good news. Mr. Obediah has agreed to my proposition. He is awaiting further instructions. I will set up a mee….”
The woman on the other end of the zephyranode cut the Baron off.
“No. I will do this myself. Thank you for making the initial contact for us. I think it best from this point on that we work directly with Mr Obediah, especially given his general opinion of you.”
The Baron felt both disappointed and offended. The planning stage of the big event was where he would have the best opportunity to not only push his influence onto things, but also where he might spend the most time around his mistress. He was aware the Vitandi’s plans called for a great deal of insight from Obediah junior, yet he’d still assumed he would be there to help steer the boat, so to speak. If he was not needed there he would be relegated to just his showman duties planning the society events.
“It really is no trouble. I was looking forward to the opportunity to work directly with you after all of our negotiations. And to be very frank, Mr Obediah is lacking in imagination. I fear your charms might be lost on him for what you need. I know how to work him. I brought him to you after all.” The Baron countered.
He knew the moment the woman spoke there would be no changing her mind. She was shrewd in her decision making and seldom swayed no matter how good the argument. In helping her bring Obediah and his private collection into the event planning, the Baron had effectively and unknowingly removed himself from it.
“No Baron, I need you where your skills will be best put to use.” the woman replied. “You are my social butterfly, my wizard of charm. I need these socials to be the biggest and most grand spectacles that they can be and I know you’ll do this well for me. I have complete confidence in you. Now I leave you to it. Goodnight Baron and thank you.”
The zephyranode went silent when the woman stepped away from hers. It fell to static as she cut off their direct contact.
The Baron threw the dusk-land communication device to the floor and watched as it smashed. Though Octavius was ignorant to what had just happened the Baron would still hold him personally responsible for it.
As a showman touched with no small amount of narcissism, the Baron was like a grown child with reckless ambitions and a disregard for the rules placed upon the rest of society. So grand could his neediness become and so touchy his bitter disposition that it took little to set him to rage. A type of rage he would go to great and petty lengths to quell. His neediness had hit a fever pitch over his desire for his Vitandi mistress and this event they were going to create together. It was his show, no matter who helped draw out the maps and lines for it.
As his automobile drove him through the sleepy hills to his private mansion well outside of the city, the Baron was planning. He was planning his events and planning his revenge.