Chapter V: Vitandi Objections, A Sleeping Dragon & The Beginning of a Race


Ver Sacrum Books - Riker Rouge - Serial Fiction

BOOK I – A PRELUDE TO A RACE
PROLOGUE12345


In the world of Riker Rouge there is reality, the dusk-lands, the secret places, and how each slowly blends into one another. The Vitandi, a secretive group of arcane researchers, want to bring back their beloved and cursed event the Magnus Certatio: A race of such massive proportions that not only is victory and wealth promised to the participants, but the enlightenment and freedom of the soul. One arcane collector, Octavius Obediah the Second, is asked to help plan the perfect race route to help the Vitandi to their ultimate goal… something many souls failed and died for two centuries ago. What comes from that invitation is a spiraling story of eccentric characters, dark events and adventure.


I

“As your legal council I really must object to this offer you’ve had me read.” the first man replied.

“As your friend I’m just going to outright tell you to tell these people to go to hell and to close the door behind them.” said the second man.

Octavius let out a long, pent up sigh as he let his body fall heavily onto the couch. Two hours had passed as he went over the pros and cons of the event planning he’d taken on. This had been done with the only two individuals he completely trusted with such things.

The first individual was his long time lawyer Remy Faith. His father had always advised him to have his own lawyer and for that man to be a good friend and someone he could trust with his life and secrets. Octavius had come to find this was good advice. Remy was faithful to the last and had gotten him out of many jams and not all of them were of the legal variety.

The other individual was his close friend and fellow collector Negal Smitts. He went to school with Neg (as he called him) from the very first grade up until they parted their shared path at college. There were few things the two men hadn’t gotten themselves involved with together, or in trouble for. There was no one he trusted more than Neg. Sometimes he trusted Neg’s insights far better than his own.

Right now though he wasn’t getting the kind of feedback he wanted out of either man. He was finding that more than frustrating. He’d made up his mind and signed all the legal papers the Vitandi had drawn up. The first batch of boxes with files and race information had been delivered to his home. Come the following week he would take his first official meeting with Frangipani and afterwards be granted his first access to the Vitandi libraries. What was set in motion was roaring straight along with little time to hit the brakes. All Octavius had wanted was a little last minute courage from those he trusted.

“Are you giving me that advice as my lawyer or my friend Remy?”

Remy Faith, always a somewhat pinched looking gentleman, shrugged his shoulders and looked away. Octavius always marveled over how much the man’s profile looked like that of a crescent moon with spectacles on.

“Remy?” he nudged.

Remy crossed his arms over his chest. This was his way of showing he was going to be very defensive and less likely to commit to a reason. This meant his reason was that he had a feeling. Octavius was not a fan of his lawyer’s feelings, mostly because they were often right. This is probably why he did his best to be dismissive of them when they suggested he not do the very thing he wanted to do.

“Alright, my lawyer has nothing but goosebumps to offer. How about you Neg? What have you got other than telling them to kiss my ass?”

Neg shrugged his shoulders as well, but it was more of a casual gesture. He was far more carefree than the lawyer and had absolutely no problem speaking frankly to his long time friend.

“Setting aside the heifer beast that is Parka Driad, I’ve had the displeasure of dealing with the twins when I found the Drhite documents. I will admit I kind of liked Oleander. He’s not half the snob he comes across as when he’s away from his sister and has a little gin in his system. Frangipani? If someone told me she was the devil in a woman’s suit I would not doubt it for a moment. With her it’s not even a matter of if you can trust her. You simply can’t. Contract or no contract. She will take every last bit she can get from you and then toss you aside. That is the Vitandi’s way. No one could ever convince your father of that. I’m hearing the same from you.”

Octavius’ shoulders twitched and forced him to make a strange dipping gesture with his head. This was his reflexive action when Neg brought his father’s character into question. Neg had spent a good share of his life around Octavius the First. He always claimed the reason he went into the hunting and collecting business was because of his time with his best friend and his dad. He didn’t have the son’s bias though. He was able to be far more honest and to the point than his friend could.

“Father knew them better than you.” Octavius quietly replied.

Neg laughed, not with humor but annoyance. “Are we going to go to this conversation again my friend?”

Octavius nodded his head slowly. “Yes, if it involves your perceived shortcomings on my father’s part and how I’m not much better.”

“It’s not a shortcoming. Why do you always take that defensive stance?” Neg sighed. “Every man in our business has that one thing that we can only see in one way. It’s like having three children and you see one of them through rose colored glasses at the expense of the other two. For me it’s the sky hunters. For you it has always been your inability to see that for every one invention of Professor Vogel’s that works right, two of them are frightening and unnatural in function. For your father it was the Vitandi. I don’t fault him for that or think less of him. With that said, the dignified glory years of the Vitandi, if ever they truly existed in practice and not simply in reputation, were long gone by the time your father became obsessed with them. They’ve only gotten worse now that they’ve become so closed off to the world.”

“So you’re suggesting I tread carefully?” Octavius offered. This only caused his friend to make an exaggerated gesture of pulling his hair out of his head.

“No!” he barked. “I’m saying don’t tread at all! Back out. Turn the other way. Do not pass go! I’m telling you that I honestly fear for your safety if you work with these people.”

Octavius let out a low and cruel laugh. “Oh really? A hunter warning me about safety? That’s rich.”

Neg offered no reply to this. Whenever Octavius wanted to be dismissive of his friend’s opinion, even if he felt it was right, he called into question Neg’s career as a hunter. Being a hunter meant collecting only it was living beings that were sought and collected for a bounty. It was the only thing the two disagreed greatly on.

The quiet in the room was finally broken by Octavius.

“I’m sorry. That was rude of me. I asked for your opinion and now that I have it I’m unwilling to listen to it.”

This admission prompted Remy to find his way back into the conversation.

“It’s not exactly something we weren’t expecting Octavius. The moment you told us you were contacted by the Vitandi I think I can speak for us both by saying we knew you wouldn’t be swayed. You tend to underestimate just how well Neg and I understand your relationship to your father’s work, his legacy. We wouldn’t be your friends if we didn’t try to talk you out of it though. Neg is quite right. These are dangerous people.”

Remy pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and took his glasses off. He fussed with cleaning the lenses as the other two men quietly looked on. The pinched looking man put his glasses back on his crescent moon of a face. This had always been Remy’s way of signaling he was about to offer his final words on the subject.

“I only advice you to seek out a partner you can trust and who cannot be manipulated by the Vitandi. Someone they may not know very well. In other words, someone who has your back and who will be less likely to be compromised by the collective. You can of course call on me for help, however, I will not directly involve myself with these people. I can only advice and research. You understand of course.”

Octavius nodded his head slowly, a little sad. He would have liked both men to be on board for this adventure. He didn’t like wading into this massive thing and feeling so alone.

“Yes Remy, I understand. And this is good advice. If I can’t have you or Neg with me, I still have a few people in mind.”

“I never said I wouldn’t be with you.” Neg interjected.

Octavius looked at his friend surprised. “What do you mean?”

Neg crossed the room and fell onto the couch next to his old friend. He gave the other man’s leg a good punch like they did playfully as kids.

“There is no way in hell I’m going to let my best friend swim among Vitandi sharks alone. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to be at your side holding your hand the whole way. I’m going to do what I do. I’m going to be out there in the dusk-lands and secret places doing leg work for you. I’m going to discreetly use my trusted collective of eyes and ears to keep a watch on things. You have to promise me you’re going to be smart about this though. Don’t get caught up in it. If things start to go south do not follow these people down like your father would. There is no treasure or prize for the House of Obediah worth your life.”

Octavius nodded but said nothing. He couldn’t bring himself to vocalize a promise he knew he couldn’t keep. There was always something worth that risk. It was up to the individual to decide what that thing was. Neg let it go.

“So how do I start? What do you want me to do?” Neg asked.

That was a very good question and Octavius had to take a few minutes to think on it. A few ideas swished around in his thoughts. One of those ideas he focused on.

“I would like for you to attempt to locate a woman by the name of Ev Zylphia. She’s a cartomancer I’ve worked with over the years. She doesn’t like to be easily accessible though so finding her could prove a bit of a challenge. She tends to keep to the dusk-lands.”

“For what purpose?” Neg asked.

“Remy suggested I get someone to watch my back. I can think of no better person than Ev. If she accepts of course.”

Neg looked put off by the idea. He’d never heard of this woman.

“Some bird who reads mumbo jumbo in cards is going to be your back up? If you’re that close and trusting why don’t you look her up yourself?”

Octavius smiled. “If you knew this woman you would understand the term mumbo jumbo does not apply to her. And I simply don’t have the extra time to invest in the search for her. Even if I did it doesn’t work that way. In the end if she wants to help me she’ll seek me out. Putting you on her trail for my needs will be seen in her cards though. It’s how I extend my invitation. There’s really no easier way to do it. The harder you try to find her the more she will see it in her cards and cling to the shadows. I’d actually challenge you to find her before she comes calling on her own.”

Neg still didn’t look as though he liked the idea, though turning it into a challenge of sorts made him more accepting of it.

A strange look came over Neg’s face as he looked at his lifelong friend. It was a dreamy sort of look that made Octavius feel strange.

“Why on earth are you looking at me that way?”

Neg remained quiet for a bit, simply looking on with that same dreamy stare. Finally he let out a soft laugh as he shook his head.

“Sometimes it’s so surreal to sit here looking at you. I know I’ve gotten older with you, but I never stared at my face in mature form for so many years.”

“What do you mean?” Octavius asked.

“You. You look the spitting image of your father. I know I must have seen it for awhile now, but sitting here trying to talk you out of his old quest it just hit me how very much I feel like I’m sitting with him. I almost expect you to call out for Tavi and a younger you comes running through the door.”

It was meant as a light hearted thing though it hit Octavius very hard. He’d spent a lifetime learning from his father while struggling to define his own identity aside from him.

“I’m not my father.” he replied in a very soft voice.

Neg clapped him on the shoulder. “Given the territory you’re about to tread? I hope for your sake that’s true.”

II

Frangipani sat at an enormously large desk. The desk had always been its own type of entity when she was a little girl. She could remember the first time her mother brought her into the Vitandi founder’s secret library and showed it to her. Her little girl mind could barely comprehend that something so beautiful and otherworldly had been crafted by one man’s hand out of wood.

The desk was, in essence, a sleeping dragon. It was hard to tell this at first because the eye wanted to take in all the different elegantly carved details one at a time. It was only after the mind was allowed to fully swoon over the strange lines and alien scenes that it could take a step back and see these things all came together to represent a sleeping dragon coiled up into a ball.

Her mother Lily had taken the time to show her daughter all of the places where something was hidden within this sleeping dragon. Like, for example, the flat compartment hidden within the middle of the dragon’s tail. If you placed a finger from both hands in just the right spots a pressure spring was triggered and a wide, flat drawer slowly slid out. Inside were various tools used for smoking opium. The little girl didn’t know what that meant then. For her the tools were elegantly crafted living parts within the dragon’s body. It was like her mother was pulling out the creature’s lungs from her talk of inhaling smoke.

In all there were seventeen hidden places within the sleeping dragon desk. Seventeen was a special number for the original Vitandi. One plus seven equaled eight and eight was the number the Vitandi was founded on. Eight was the sign of infinity. Forever. The founding members of the Vitandi had a very special definition of forever. This idea was represented by a spider; a creature also crafted onto the dragon’s body. Frangipani new all the spiders lurking on the back of the sleeping dragon. She knew their symbols and what they represented.

Of these seventeen hiding places the most important one was a narrow drawer hidden within the dragon’s head. The drawer itself was empty. It pulled out so that a hand could reach into the space beyond. It was a dangerous space though. When the drawer pulled out it allowed pressure triggers to push spikes into the open area. One had to accept that their hand was going to get cut and torn in order to get to the hidden place beyond this painful gauntlet. It was worth it though to retrieve the contents hidden within.

Frangipani’s eyes on reflex always looked at her left arm in that room. It was the only place she felt truly comfortable being less covered outside of her private rooms. She wore long sleeves most of the time to obscure the many scars riddling her left arm. Since she was right handed her mother had advised her to use her left hand when attempting to retrieve the item hidden within this drawer. It would ensure the hand most observed would remain unharmed. Using her left hand had proven to be clumsy though and it had taken her a long time to move through the spikes. Most often she would get to the last one and misjudge the distance and deal herself a cut that she would have to attend to or risk losing too much blood. That was the nature of the beast though. One had to bleed for the information hidden within the dragon’s brain. One had to be thoughtful or risk bleeding to death before reaching it.

The wounds on the young woman’s arm were old now. She’d quickly learned how to snake her way through the many sharp objects to the pressure release at the end of the passage. Flipping a small lever there would pull all the spikes back and leave an open space. The very awkward way a person had to get to this lever made sure no one could cheat and simply use a stick to flip it.

The prize inside the dragon’s head was a very old journal. So very old that few actually dared remove the original from its safe spot in recent centuries. Instead there were secondary journals that copied the contents of the first. These would fall to time eventually too, so there was always a journal being written to replace the writing of the last. It was not allowed to make more than one copy though. The rule was: Old one to feed the new one, all the others left to turn to dust inside the head. They were to remain untouched when they fell out of favor. The air tight metal box that held the original one was most likely the only thing that kept it from turning to dust, though Frangipani’s mother Lily had a theory that a little of the old magic helped keep it whole.

Mother Lily had been the last person tasked with copying the newest version of the journal. She had beautiful penmanship and the artistic skill to recreate the journal’s drawings. She would bring her little girl with her when given access to the secret library for that task. Frangipani had wonderful memories of sitting at the edge of the desk as her mother worked. She liked to think she was riding the back of the sleeping dragon. Quite often she fell asleep there herself.

As her mother transcribed from one journal to the next she explained the nature of the writings to her daughter. Few people within the Vitandi actually knew their original history; its true history. Time had greatly altered the nature of the collective. Time and changing attitudes. Somewhere during medieval times newer members felt a need to slowly ween out the darker aspects of the group. The darker aspects they felt made it more of a cult rather than an intellectual collective.

Mother Lily was quite dismissive of these stupid and short sighted men. The Vitandi had been built on eight profound desires and she felt that no one who was not of those original founding bloodlines had any right to try to change the collective and steer them away from those original desires. Sadly the predominant leaders over the years were men, bullied up by cultural bias, leaving the women with little to no voice. This was perhaps why the women of the collective became the secret guardians of its true history.

“Only women are allowed into this room Frangi. Even though your brother is half of your being his half is still male and he can never be allowed in here. You will have to educate him word of mouth as we’ve done for centuries. It will be important for him to know, to understand as you do. This will be your task. There will come a day that his masculinity clouds his judgment and they will try to steer him away from our truths. Don’t let it happen Frangi. We are counting on you.”

These were her mothers words, repeated often. Frangipani took them very seriously. It caused her brother’s leash to grow shorter and shorter as they grew older and she grew more powerful.

A smile came to the young woman’s lips as she thought of her mother. Lily Driad had been a powerful and most feared woman. She was a strong member of the internal revolution that had begun shortly before her birth. The decedents of the original founding members were done with the foreign blue blood style of academics that had flourished in the Vitandi at the end of the last century. They wanted their old ways back.

For Lily she didn’t just want the old ways back. She wanted to put into place her ancestor’s original desires. This was an end game. It would see the end of the Vitandi and the start of something far larger and more grand. She accepted she would not see it in her lifetime, but she knew there would be ways to shelter her soul to still be apart of it.

“One day Frangi you will see the completion of your ancestor’s great plan. I never would have believed it would be my daughter who was born to see that task fulfilled. I have to admit I fear for you as I’m envious of you being chosen for such a great thing. I only wish that I could see you on that great day. Sadly, my body grows weak. One day the glowing ember inside me that is my soul and my ego will be confined to the heart of this sleeping dragon with the others. I had never thought I would be able to have a child so late in life that I would grow too old to see her grown. I am sorry for that Frangi. You are my heart, my everything, and before I die I will make sure you know how to be the dragon you were born to be.”

The young woman’s hand moved over the surface of the sleeping dragon desk. She almost thought she imagined a warm spot that gave clue to where the sleeping dragon protected its hidden souls.

Frangipani often thought of her mother’s words. A person who didn’t know Lily Driad might think she was a soft and loving mother the way she spoke so tenderly to her daughter. She was not. When one is a dragon raising what should become a greater dragon there is no room for softness. Moments where her mother allowed herself to soften were few and far between. She was strict with her children and placed a great weight of responsibility especially on her girl. The type of discipline expected of her children at times was greater than anything expected from well trained adults. It had to be that way.

Frangipani was grateful for the strict guidance of her mother Lily. There were few women who would have had the ability to be so wicked and loving in equal measure. It left the appropriate marks on her.
When her mother was coming close to her last days she finally shared with her daughter a secret she kept close to her heart. A secret about a father and son and their influence so long ago. The tale of the two was fragmented over the years and had become more of a reason to explain why the Driads were the chosen ones among the collective. Why their remnants of the original Vitandi eight made them special.

Her mind came away from thoughts of her mother and back to the present moment. On the desk in front of the young woman were four folders.

Earlier in the week she’d had all the necessary information collected together to be sent to the collector. His job would be to study these papers and decide who were good candidates for racers and what places and organizations should be considered for the course of the race. He would know what would work best to recreate the last race. It was so important that old steps were followed as best they could with their current resources.

The race itself was partly a scavenger hunt paired up with an obstacle course. Each racer would have a series of places they needed to reach. Each destination would provide them with the materials and information to go onto the next place. How they got there would be up to them. There would also be an artifacts list. Some items on this list each racer would be required to find. Other items would be awarded to whoever got to them first.

These few folders she kept belonged to the racers and places that she would see to herself. Knowledge of them might cause the collector to second guess his decision to take part in the event. While she had contingency plans should he become less helpful, she hoped to have him as an asset for as long as possible. His involvement in the race planning, and eventually the race itself, was far more important than she wanted to admit.

After the chaotic ending to the very last Magnus Certatio race Edward Longview, the leader of the Vitandi at that time, had done his very best to scatter all information about the race. The smart thing would have been total destruction of that information. There was no greater crime to a scholar than to destroy information though. Ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to do this. So instead he scattered it to the four corners of the world. For reasons she’d only just been made privilege to, Octavius Obediah the First had been obsessed with finding and putting all those pieces back together. It had long been rumored that if anyone knew the exact course of that lost race it was him.

Frangipani rose and moved around to the front of the massive desk. She stopped at the tail and triggered the tail drawer to open. She withdrew a pipe, an opium lamp, and a small box. She placed these on the desk and took a few moments to move through the ritual of steps that allowed her to smoke away her anxiety.

“Dear mother I hate to admit this aloud, but sometimes I fear this task is too big for me.” she whispered to the memory of her mother.

The young woman liked to tell people she rooted for the villains in the fairy tales. For her these were the characters who had true strength. They had purpose and desire. Only a villain understood how hot a fire could burn within their chest and how badly it singed the soul. Only they knew how strong one had to be to not be consumed by that internal blaze. For those Frangipani burned with her heated dragon’s breath it was a momentary pain. For her it was a burning inside she felt every moment of every day.

“Whimpering cow.” she hissed at herself. “Save your self pity.”

Frangipani blew a heavy stream of smoke out as she opened the top folder and looked at the information neatly presented.

The swamp rats had finally come out of hiding after all but destroying the last lingering remnants of the Reevers collective. They made no apologies for taking back relics that were stolen from their places of worship. The Reevers who had died were considered just punishment for their collective’s thievery. They were willing to offer up their recollected relics and with them the ones they still possessed. It was clear from other things mentioned that the swamp rats, whose history was all word of mouth, had knowledge of the events of the last Magnus Certatio race and how their cult had played a part. They stopped short of confessing their motivations for being in the race. She had to assume they were scheming.

Frangipani took one last drag from her opium pipe and set it down. She leaned back into the over sized chair and let her eyes close.

There was some point in her life where she had to have been a simple human. A time when she was allowed to look at the world plainly and without some deeper purpose pushing her forward. It couldn’t have been a very long time. Most likely it was a short moment when she was a child with an empty head. The gods only knew what she began to turn into the moment her mother started filling her head’s empty space. That was the last time that the young woman could remember knowing a simple peace.

She leaned back over the table and took up her pen to scribble notes onto the back of the swamp rat’s papers.

Frangipani had been expecting the swamp rats, among others, to eventually show their faces in some way. The news of the race planning had made its way into the world and anyone that information might affect was starting to turn up. She had plans for all of them and their schemes.

The young woman closed the folder and pushed the whole stack aside. It was growing too late for her to think clearly and the opium was sending her thoughts to a kinder and more abstract place.

She reached down and slipped her heels off before climbing onto the desktop. She re-positioned her opium lamp near the edge of the table over the dragon’s sleeping head. Near her was a very large leather bound book. She wrapped her arms around this book as though it was her favorite doll. There she laid down and curled up into a fetal position much like she did as a child with her mother.

The leather bound book was in fact the latest version of the journal that her mother had been tasked with transcribing. Frangipani felt she knew the journal better than she knew her own mother. She’d had the opportunity to spend more unrestricted time with it. She knew every single word in it, every illustration.

“Mama? Do you think anyone has ever changed bits of the book when rewriting it?” she had once asked her mother.

“What do you mean? None of us has the right to use our own words in place of our founding father’s original words.” is how her mother had originally answered. This had been a test for her mother.

This old journal had many things written in it. One of those things was the date the final generation of the Vitandi’s original bloodline would be born. A very important date. A date that her mother changed to reflect the day her twins were born.

Frangipani put her pipe over the opium lamp and deeply took in the dream laced smoke. Her mind relaxed further and she willed her body to continue to transform into something greater than it was actually born to be.

“Sometimes predictions are wrong Frangi and they need to be corrected. The Fates chose you, no matter what the founding fathers wrote.”

This was the very last thing her mother ever said to her before she slipped into her last sleep. Upon being challenged with the truth, her mother had confessed. The daughter, then starting to feel the full weight of what her life was meant to be, had hoped it would ease her of her burden. Instead, it had changed her entire perspective and the small ten year old had realized she would have to do more, go further, and totally recreate herself to be this entity she had not truly been born to be. That was perhaps the last time the young woman had felt any true sense of humanity.

Frangipani let the pipe fall to the table as her eyes grew too heavy to ignore. She let sleep come over her. Like times past, she lay there atop the sleeping dragon, cuddling her book of old words and one very big lie.

III

Octavius stood in the middle of his father’s private library. In one hand he held the library’s door key and in the other hand the last remnants of what had been a fresh bottle of whiskey. Whiskey seemed to be the only elixir that could work up his nerve.

The collector’s thoughts were no longer chaotic. The spirits had calmed his body and relaxed his mind. This was only a temporary state, though it would last long enough for him to do what he needed to do. It was something he should have done a week ago. He needed to force himself to cross the threshold of his father’s private place.

It was late; well past midnight. Every so often there was the sound of a loud ding that rang up from the basement. Mr. Olophant was back from his vacation and hard at work battling his basement ghosts.

Down the hallway deep snores were coming from Stella’s room. Octavius could remember his father once saying the maid’s snoring was the most calming ambient noise he’d ever heard. He preferred to do much of his personal research in the late hours so that Stella’s snoring kept him company. Octavius had to admit it also made him feel more at ease. He was happy to have her home despite the eccentric air she brought to it.

Octavius put the whiskey bottle to his lips and drained the last of its contents. Gently he set it down on his father’s desk as his eyes moved to the massive portrait of the man himself hanging over the fireplace.

“Why do you have a painting of yourself papa?”

This was a question he’d asked his father when he was six.

There had been a two week period where he’d seen little of his father. During the day he worked for his associates, during the night he was locked away in his private library chasing his obsession. Normally there were a few hours set away after dinner time where he spent dedicated time with his son. For those two weeks Octavius the Second was cheated out of that time while his father sat like a statue in front of a famous painter.

When the painting was finished, framed, and finally delivered back to their home, there was much ceremony and fuss over it being installed over the fireplace in his father’s private library. Young Octavius hadn’t liked it from the moment he saw it. It represented time with his father that was stolen for stupid reasons. Why did a man need a painting of himself in the one room only he spent time in?

“Sometimes a good man can feel very small Tavi. When he feels small there is risk of him living below his potential. So he creates something of himself that is larger than life so he can turn to that and see that he is not small, he is not simply good, but that there is every potential for him to be something great. That painting is me as a great man and I have placed it where I need to remember that potential the most.”

This is how his father had responded. As a child he hadn’t really understood his father’s explanation. Now, as not only an adult but a maturing man, he finally understood.

Octavius moved over to the fireplace. The portrait of his father hadn’t been painted so he was looking down into the room. His head was held high and looking off into the distance. There was an intensity in the man’s stare. What was the painted Octavius the First looking at with such desire? “A destiny that I will never see achieved in my lifetime.” was his answer.

Rarely was Octavius allowed in this room so he rarely ever had the opportunity to give the portrait a good viewing. Even after his father passed he seldom visited his father’s library. Now he was there and his eyes were allowed to roam over all the minute details and take it all in.

This was his father while not his father. Some of the differences in the facade were minor and most likely a thing of vanity. Some things were more along the lines of how his father actually wanted to be seen. Perhaps it was a portrait of his psyche.

The portrait of Octavius the First had a beautiful head of hair the real man had seen for only the first twenty years of his life. Gone was the severely expanding widow’s peak. There was no thinning of his hair or the slight view of the small bald patch at the back of his head.

This portrait of a man also had steely blue eyes that radiated out from his face with great intensity. The real man had large blue eyes that were often most kind and easily carried a sense of joy and humor. This was something Octavius the Second liked best about his father, those big happy eyes of his. At the same time those eyes could express such sadness.

The portrait of his father was strong, unwavering, and at no time showed any sense of doubt or worry. This was not a man who had a family to worry about. This was not a man who couldn’t destroy a goal. He was as his father wanted to be without the hiccups of life and responsibility to bring him back down to reality.

“You but not you.” he whispered to the portrait.

Ten years had passed since he’d lost his father. Time had not softened the loss nor helped ease him of the painful duality he felt towards the man. He loved his father and was proud to be his son. There had never been any ill will between them. And yet? The son felt such utter need to outdo the father; to reach all those great pinnacles his father hadn’t reached in his lifetime. It was hard to determine if this was the desire to be better than him or to simply see his father’s work completed.

Octavius stared long and hard at the painting as his drunken thoughts came to answers his sober mind would not allow. This was the moment that Octavius the First and Octavius the Second were simply Octavius. For some reason his mind told him this meant setting aside who either of them had been and simply become who they should be.

“Me but not me…” he whispered. “Not the me that is so much like you.”

He staggered backwards away from the portrait. “Pardon me a moment papa. I have to do something before I can get to our great work.”

Octavius left his father’s library, closing and locking the door behind him. Stella’s snoring kept him company as he moved down the hallway to his private rooms.

In his bedroom on his dresser was an old photograph of Octavius and his father. The son was seventeen and the father forty-two. They were standing together, arms over one another’s shoulders with a view of the great lost pyramid of Taltose behind them. It was lost to the dusk-lands nearly a hundred years previously and no one had been successful in locating it until the House of Obediah set to that task. It was the first expedition that both father and son had equal investment in. When they stepped into the clearing and found that pyramid together it was one of the happiest moments of young Octavius’ life. He liked to think it was a stand out moment in his father’s life as well.

Octavius took the framed photo in hand and felt a momentary thrill of that experience again. He did look so very much like his father, even then. Neither one of them had much success with keeping a clean chin. Octavius the Second was already fighting five o’clock shadow by the time he was sixteen. His father always assured him that no matter what polite society had to say about it, the ladies liked a little grit on a man.

“You were so right about that one papa.” he whispered. He set the photograph down and moved to the bathroom.

In the bathroom he prepared his shaving kit after looking around for a pair of scissors. As he ran the water in his sink he gave his reflection a long hard look in the mirror.

As with his father, his features were large and well defined. It was an expressive face. Theirs was an approachable handsomeness. With a handshake, a clap on the back and a wide smile father and son could put most men at ease. With a kiss to the back of the hand and a well placed wink, father and son could charm nearly any woman. They worked with what they had.

He looked hard into his own eyes. For everything he knew himself to be, he understood he would have to be far more than that.

Octavius took the scissors in hand and took a deep breath. There was a strange clarity to his drunken state and he wanted to act upon it before the sensation wore off and he was just his everyday self again. That everyday self was not enough for the approaching events.

The first lock of dark brown hair fell into the sink. Then the next and so on. He made quick work of the hair that was thinning like his father’s. He then took a razor to the remains and shaved his head down to the skin. He knew come morning, much like his lower face, there would be a shadow. That was alright. It was symbolic after all.

The Octavius that now looked back at him was not so soft around the edges. It wasn’t just the slight change in his look, it was the change in his personality that it represented. He had swam with sharks and made deals with men who weren’t truly men as the regular world understood them. He’d outsmarted and out-shined others to see the House of Obediah expand by great leaps. His reputation was priceless to him and he guarded over it with great pride and protection. He did not want to start into this next chapter of his life caught off guard as he was when he came into the room to see Parka Driad sitting there.

Octavius stumbled into his bedroom and fell heavily onto the bed. The whiskey was finally overloading his senses and all he wanted to do was sleep. As his mind swam in that place between consciousness and dreaming he saw dragons. Long sleek dragons that were coming for him. Quickly he pushed himself forward to a place well beyond dragons and dreams. The reborn Octavius slept.

VI

Frangipani stood at the window in her favorite parlor. She tried very hard to keep a minimal attachment to material things, but she loved this room. Everything in it was an extension of her.

The windows of the parlor were styled in stained glass. At the center was a circle of clear glass offering a pleasant view of the sprawling garden outside. Around this circle a maze of beautifully rendered art nouveau style flowers. The coloring of the stained glass gave a warm colorful tint to the sun shining into the room.

All around her were well tended tropical plants and their blooms. Frangipani was most taken by anything that seemed exotic and perhaps dangerous. This is why there were several of the prettier breeds of carnivorous plants hiding among the harmless ones.

Here and there small shrines had been worked into the natural flow of the plants. You might look towards the orchids and spy the scene of the goddess Olean. This included a small golden statue of androgynous design set atop an ornate and narrow table. In front of this statue were three small golden bowls ready for the offering of incense, flower petals, and honey. Not far away from her was a similar shrine to the goddess Brine. The difference in her shrine was the use of stone instead of gold and the offering of blood instead of honey.

Everything in this parlor was deceptively attractive and yet still represented power and death. Even the two wing backed chairs and table at its heart were beautiful, but so severely designed that they looked like they would be most uncomfortable to sit in for very long. This was Frangipani: Deceptively beautiful and yet a human representation of power and death. Someone who was very uncomfortable to be around for any given time.

Today in the parlor Frangipani was taking tea with the Baron. The large man was precariously seated at the very edge of his chair. The chair was not large enough to accommodate his hefty frame. He looked much like an uncomfortable grown man trying to squeeze himself into a child’s seat.

Despite his discomfort the Baron was, as always, delighted to have an audience with his mistress. Since achieving the task of getting the collector to take part in event planning, he’d had few in-person meetings with the young woman. As a result he’d taken a few juvenile approaches to getting her attention back. He had no doubt this was why he was now there with her.

A somewhat frightened looking servant bustled into the room with a tea tray in hand. He quickly set it down on the table between the two severe chairs and waited for the woman in the room to approve of the serving tray. Slowly Frangipani moved to the tea tray and scrutinized its contents. Then she gave the nervous servant a quick nod of the head and he practically ran from the room.

“You seem to inspire a desire to please in your servants Frangi.” the Baron observed.

The young woman lazily shrugged. She was quite indifferent to the servants. They held little value to her except for their service and the minor moments of amusement she got out of them.

“He’s new to our house. He opted to pay for his severe gambling debts by becoming an indentured servant. He thought it a soft way to atone for his weaknesses. Yesterday he found out that lashings are the preferred method here for correcting a lackadaisical attitude towards his work ethic. He also realized the next seven years of his life are going to be quite unhappy.” she replied.

The Baron said nothing in way of reply. He never quite knew what type of reply would be appropriate when the young woman shared things that would make most people uncomfortable. He wasn’t personally bothered by such things. He felt the woman wanted to be shocking though, so he used his silence to suggest any manner of things she might make of it.

“So Frangi, what calls me here today?” he said, now trying to change the subject.

Frangipani had moved back to her window. She was trying to keep her temper in check as she decided how best to approach the subject that had her reach out to the Baron. Every time she thought of those reasons it caused her to get irritated anew.

“You’ve been a naughty baron.” she began, keeping her tone light and playful. She turned from her window, crossing her arms in front of her chest as though she were about to scold a child. “You’ve been acting out like a spoiled brat who isn’t getting enough of his mother’s attention. You’ve had… temper tantrums.”

The Baron shrugged his shoulders dismissively, a wry smile on his lips. “Perhaps that’s how I feel? I came into this plan of yours thinking I was going to have a much larger part in it. Now that you have your precious collector I’m hardly being called upon for anything. I’m not apart of any of your decision making. I’m nearly the last to know anything! I feel like I’m the victim of bait and switch here. Does that not deserve a tantrum?”

This caused the young woman to laugh. The idea that the Baron was a victim to anything was rich.

“Oh there… there’s that Baron sense of humor I find so adorable.”

“I wasn’t trying to be humorous my lovely, I do feel wounded.” The tone of the man’s voice suggested that this was him being quite honest. “If my actions have come across as childish it is because I do seek more attention from you. Those actions finally got me an audience with you after so long. Perhaps we should agree to a more face to face communication in the future?”

The Baron pulled his large frame from the uncomfortable chair and straightened himself out. If this were any other woman he would have walked over to her and taken her hands. He would have attempted to ply her with his over the top charms. If that failed he would have turned to more forceful means. This was not a woman whom charm worked on though. He wasn’t sure if force would work any better. So he instead opened his arms to her as a way to express his sincerity.

“I am an asset to you. What I bring to the table has value. So it should be beneath me to have to turn to such juvenile tactics to get the appropriate attention from you. It is about respecting one another.”

Frangipani let the Baron plead his case for more of her time. She barely heard anything being said though. Inside of her head a small voice was repeating a chant over and over to help keep her anger in check. A thing to keep her in control. It was only when the Baron finally shut up that she let her attention come back to the room around her.

“That’s all well and good Baron, but I didn’t ask you hear today because of your little outbursts.”

The Baron perked up. “Oh? Then why am I here?”

“As you might know I have little birds everywhere. Humming birds to be precise. They flutter about so tiny and mostly unseen… quiet. My little birds are so quiet. Their silence is so they can eavesdrop. They are an extension of my ears. And when they hear something good, they come home and sing to me… hum to me. Would you like to know what tune my little birds have been humming?”

The Baron said nothing. All humor and charm left his face. He was a man who was always scheming. He was always looking for a way to get ahead wherever he could. There were a few dangerous schemes he had brewing this woman might not like.

Frangipani slinked across the floor in the seductive manner she reserved especially for the Baron. He was a lusty and gluttonous man who was weak to the things he desired. She would always have that very easy way to control him. The mere act of coming closer to him erased some of the concern from his face.

She gently glided a nail down his pudgy cheek. “My little birds have told me you’re upset with our collector friend Mr Obediah. That you find him responsible for the downsizing of your role with the Vitandi.”

The Baron’s eyes closed as he felt the woman’s touch. Just having her so close made all the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. She smelled like white tea mingling with ginger. It was a strange and alluring scent.

“I…” he stumbled to find his words. “I might have a grievance against Obediah. I assure you I have more reasons than you to have issues with him. I might have acted out a little.” he whispered.

Frangipani let her fingers move down the man’s fleshy neck and brought them to a rest on his shoulder. She gave him a sly smile that suggested they were both in on a great secret.

“I’m not sure your acting out is an appropriate summation.” she cooed. “My men intercepted your package to Mr Obediah. You know the one? The package that was meant to give him an overview of your plans for the race’s social functions so he could work with you to make them compatible with the stations of the race?”

The Baron’s eyes snapped open and looked nervous. “Oh?” was all he said for a reply.

The woman nodded her head slowly, giving the man her best sleepy eyes. She squeezed his shoulder and he almost purred.

“Yes. I had the opportunity to read much of what you wrote before we forwarded it on to the collector. I was taken aback by how there were more insults to the man’s character than there was information on your plans.”

The Baron shrugged. “I might have sent a few professional barbs his way. He’s been in the business a long time. I’m sure he’s heard worse.”

Frangipani gave the large man a scolding tsk tsk.

“Now Baron, where is all this hostility coming from? We’re all friends here. We’re all looking for the same thing. So let me suggest you improve that attitude of yours and try to at least pretend we’re playing nice.”

She gave the man’s chin a playful squeeze before turning away from him. Her hips swayed back and forth as she moved towards the untouched tea tray. In the past she found this coddling approach to be most effective on the Baron when he was having his spoiled child moments.

The opposite effect was starting to happen though. The Baron enjoyed when the young woman used her seductiveness to influence his actions or even to change his opinions. He didn’t like it when it went too far and he felt more like an actual child that she was talking down to. More than that, he was simply becoming angry because of all the secret schemes he had so that he could take utmost advantage of this event and the woman’s collective, she had focused on a few jabs at the collector.

“I apologize for my slip.” he said through clenched teeth. “I assure you any grievance I have with the man will be kept in check until the conclusion of the race.”

“I think this is a grievance you should simply drop Baron.” she replied.

The Baron’s face was growing red. He was starting to think less with his libido and more with his ego. He was a man who was not told what to do. Especially not by a little girl no matter how attractive she was or who her people were. He’d weathered far worse than them in his day.

“I don’t mean to be difficult my lovely, but this really is none of your business. As far as I’m concerned the planning and execution of my services for the race is the only area of my interests that you have an influence upon.”

“I would disagree.” Frangipani countered.

“Well then we can at least agree to disagree then. I am in your employ, which means something very different than how you would treat a servant. You can scold me and use your considerable charms to sway me, however, I’m the Baron. No one tells me what to do.”

Frangipani was silent for many moments. She was looking down at the tea tray and despite how calm she appeared, there was a rage taking place in her head. When she finally spoke it took all her effort to keep her voice calm.

“Ah Baron.” she cooed. “See, there illustrates something my mother first pointed out to me as a little girl. She explained that with great men often come great egos. You can influence the man, you can even seduce the man, but when you prick his ego just so, all that influence and seduction is lost. You’re left with nothing but that ego and egos are a hard thing to work with.”

With great grace and pose she leaned over and poured a glass of tea. She added a dash of honey to the rose colored brew. A strong scent of hibiscus filled the room and mingled well with the woman’s own white tea and ginger scent.

“I have no time for egos Baron, especially one as large as yours. So I will tell you this as gently as possible so as to try and avoid pricking that ego further. One way or another you will do as you’re told. It’s as simple as that.” She held the teacup out to him. “Some tea? It’s snapdragon tea, your favorite.”

All of this was the last straw for the Baron. He swept across the parlor and knocked the tea cup out of the woman’s hands. It went flying across the room and smashed into the goddess Olean’s small shrine. Pieces of fine china rained down on the plants below, mingling with flower petals and honey.

“I don’t want any damn tea you wicked woman!” the Baron roared. If it were possible for his face to go a deeper shade of red it did. “Someone should have put you over their knee a long time ago and taught you to show respect where respect is due! You have no idea of who you’re dealing with little girl!”

Never before had the Baron lost his temper and shouted at the raven haired woman let alone insulted her. He’d had a go at her brother, he’d called her aunt every name for beast he knew, but his lust for Frangipani had always kept his ego and temper in check. As he watched the thunderstorm erupting over the young woman’s face, he realized it was more than lust that should have helped him keep his manners.

Frangipani moved over to the shrine that had been disrupted by the flying tea cup. She leaned down and picked up the fallen idol and set it right. She looked up from the mess she could not so easily straighten and the Baron wanted to run away. Her face was barely human.

With stealth the young woman crossed the parlor and grabbed the large man by the face. Her fingernails bit into his lips, his cheeks, and dug in precariously close to his eyes. Blood began to pool around the edges of her sharp nails.

“Idiot!” the woman hissed.

With strength betraying her size, Frangipani roughly pulled the large man forward before violently pushing him backwards with such force the Baron lost his balance. He toppled over onto the floor taking a narrow table supporting a shrine with him. The table smashed and sent black lacquered wood splinters everywhere. A jade cat fell to the floor with the bowl of cream sitting before it.

“Let me be very clear Baron.” Frangipani hissed at the large man on the floor. “Your ego, your desires, all that you want means absolutely nothing to me. You mean absolutely nothing to me. You are but a means to an end. You are here to help me provide the Court of the Witness and nothing more. This is a task I could do myself and probably do it far better than you. However, this race must be planned to perfection down to the littlest of details. My attention needs to be on that and I at least trust your skills and your greed enough to provide me with what I need so I can do that.

“I have been very good to you thus far Baron. I’m gracious enough to pay for your time and services. I have spoiled you with my good nature and been kind to you by hiding my revulsion every time I’ve found you lurking behind me, sniffing after my ass and acting as though there was any possibility that a woman like myself would have anything of an intimate nature to do with a man like you! You’ve run my well of grace dry!”

The Baron stupidly stared up at the woman who now towered over his fallen body. Everything about the dark haired woman he found so intoxicating before were the very things that were putting fear into his heart now. Her beautiful face was a mask of cruelty and hate. Her slight body was a beautiful deception containing a strength he knew could outmatch his own. This wasn’t a woman. This was a beast masquerading as a young woman.

Frangipani wasn’t done with the Baron yet. She wanted to make sure he absolutely knew where his place was. She kicked the large man’s legs to either side and stepped in-between them. She brought her very narrow metal tipped heel to just above the Baron’s manhood and held it there threateningly with great control.

“I want to hear you say we’re all going to be friends.” she said softly, almost in her seductive voice. “That any plans you have for pathetic and ill placed vengeance against the collector will be kept in check until well, well after the race is over and I have what I want. Then, you’re going to get your fat ass off of my floor and go home and plan the grandest Court of the Witness to ever be experienced. Because if you don’t do any of what I’ve asked of you, I’m going to neuter you in one very painful step.” she smiled, almost girlishly. “And know that this will not be the first time I’ve had to do so. The only distress it will cause me is having to throw away a perfectly good pair of heels because they will be stained by your blood and panic piss.”

The Baron’s mouth flapped up and down like a fish out of water but no words were coming out. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the position he was in.

“I’m not hearing anything.” the young woman warned as she brought her sharp heel down to press into the front of the man’s pants.

Quickly the Baron repeated the words Frangipani wanted to hear and as he said them he meant them. He no longer had any illusions as to the nature of the woman he was dealing with. Not only had it completely robbed him of any desire for her, it had replaced all his lust with terror.

“Good boy.” she whispered.

The woman took her heel away and leaned down to offer the large man her hand. The Baron didn’t want her to touch him but he was more afraid to refuse her helpful gesture. He offered her a shaking hand and she took it, pulling him to his feet with little effort.

Frangipani smiled, the mask of cruelty gone. Her face was all attractive angles and beauty again. She used exaggerated gestures to pretend to dust off the Baron’s expensive suit, finishing it off by pulling a small splinter of the shrine table from his lapel.

“Now, you’re going to go home and?” she asked.

“Start planning the very best Court of the Witness within my ability.” he answered quickly.

“Good.”

Frangipani moved away from the Baron and for the first time he was glad to have her take her white tea and ginger smell with her. She moved to the tea tray and fixed herself a cup of tea.

“And while we’re discussing your planning…” she began as she sipped her tea. “I think it would be beneficial to you to find your own resources for it. Work those circles of yours. Given what is at stake here and what you desire, you should show your support a little more by putting into the pot, don’t you think? I’ll still compensate you… afterwards. If I’m satisfied with your effort.” This was the woman’s punishment for having to address the pompous man’s ego so directly.

The Baron’s first impulse was to balk at being told he would have to help finance the very thing she had contracted him for. He quickly stifled that impulse. The time for acting impulsively with this wicked creature had long passed.

“Of course. I’ll put my feelers out immediately.” he replied meekly.

Frangipani moved back over to the Baron. She reached towards him and he recoiled before he could catch himself. This caused the young woman to laugh. She put her hands on his shoulders and gave the air to either side of the large man’s face a parting phantom kiss.

“That’s my good Baron. Now see yourself out and if you happen to pass the collector in the front hall please give him directions to my parlor. And remember to be nice.” She put great emphasis on the word nice.

The Baron nodded his head and quickly exited the room. He wanted nothing more than to put some distance between him and the raven haired woman. He nearly tripped over his own feet as he moved his large form through the hallway at speeds his leisurely pace normally never exceeded.

In the mansion’s massive front hallway he almost missed the collector tucked away to the side. He was sitting at a small table with his legs crossed and a folder of papers in his lap and some papers in hand. He looked up as the larger man heavy footed over to him.

“Octavius!” the Baron panted. “My good man! Sorry about the state of my first notes. I was having a tantrum in regards to some unrelated thing and it bleed into my writings that night. I will have more thoughtful notes drafted and sent to you straight away.”

The collector shrugged his shoulders dismissively. “It didn’t effect me in the least.” Octavius smirked. “Have you been jogging Baron? You look and sound absolutely ragged.”

The Baron straightened himself up and took a deep breath to bite back the wicked remark he wanted to counter with. Instead he pointed towards the far doorway.

“Miss Driad is waiting for you in her parlor. The main hallway past that doorway will lead you directly there.”

The Baron turned away from the smaller man and moved for the front doors. He needed air and he wanted to feel the warm sunlight on his face. More than that, he wanted to be in the spoiled comfort of the backseat of his automobile as he drained the flask of spirits he kept in his inner coat pocket. He opened the door but couldn’t help but turn back to the collector for a moment.

“I don’t envy you having to work with that woman one bit. She’s your demon now, so try hard not to piss her off. And what may come, let God have mercy on you.” he offered before passing through the door, slamming it shut behind him.

Octavius’ head cocked to the side in confusion as he watched the large man hustle from the building. Apparently his ragged state had something to do with his mistress. It didn’t appear the Baron got the better end of that interaction.

He pulled his papers together and tucked them back into his leather portfolio. He stood and moved towards the hallway where he was directed.

The Baron’s words struck him directly as he found his pace slowing the closer he got to the parlor doors in the distance. If he were completely honest with himself, he was dreading his second meeting with the woman. The duality of his feelings around her caused his stomach to go sour.

Before Octavius reached the parlor doors they were opening. An anxious looking servant stepped to the side and offered a free hand to welcome the collector into the room. The servant’s other arm was cradling a small bundle of broken table pieces.

“My mistress had to take a temporary leave of the parlor but she will return shortly. Would you like water, tea or perhaps something stronger?” the servant asked.

Octavius thought about it a moment before answering. “Tea.” he said finally. “With a shot of something sweet but stronger in it.” he added as he tried to stop staring at the broken table pieces clutched so precariously in the other man’s arm.

The servant nodded his head and was away.

The parlor was a beautiful room that was a combination of traditional art nouveau mingling with more modern accents from the far east. As he studied the various plants that flourished in the room he took note that many of them were meat eating plants. “Almost cliche.” he whispered to himself.

“Mr Obediah!” Frangipani’s voice carried through the room. The collector jumped, fearing for a moment she might have heard him. He put on an insincere smile and turned to greet the young woman as she walked towards him with her arms wide open. He was thankful that she appeared to have dressed down a little for this meeting.

Frangipani put her arms on the collector’s shoulders and gave him a bird peck of a kiss on each cheek.

“I’m so glad to finally welcome you to the Vitandi’s inner sanctum and my home!”

She turned away from him and moved to a table that now replaced her severe chairs and tea table. It was covered in very neatly organized folders.

“The Baron, as you must have seen, was here earlier and we talked a little about his part of the event, but I am very eager to get to work on the true heart of things.”

Octavius followed behind. “Yes, I saw the Baron on the way out. Is he why the butler was leaving here with broken things?” he said off hand, offering a small chuckle at what he thought to be a joke.

Frangipani looked back over her shoulder, solemnly nodding her head. “Yes.” she replied. “He’s a bit of a brute sometimes and he needed to be put in his place. I’m glad to say he should be all sunshine and proper manners from here on out even if he has to fake it.”

His mind went to a variety of scenes where the big and brash showman was cut down to size by the much smaller woman. For a moment it gave him an intense pleasure to picture such a thing, then his thoughts turned back to the Baron’s parting comments and the humor left him.

“Well there’s that.” he said when nothing else came to him.

Frangipani pulled a chair away from the table and motioned for the collector to take a seat. For the Baron she had her most favorite severe chairs in the parlor to make him uncomfortable. For Octavius she wanted something formal but comfortable for them to begin their planning.

The young woman scrutinized the man as he stepped to his chair but did not sit down. She knew he was a gentleman and would not sit before her so she drew the moment out.

There was something different about the collector. Something that made the man more alluring than the first time she met him.

“You’ve changed something.” she said softly, thoughtfully.

Slowly she approached Octavius and the man remained still. He didn’t show any fear or desire for the woman; this was something she wasn’t used to. She did note one obvious change.

Frangipani reached out and gently ran her fingers over the side of the man’s shaven head. He watched her with a slight smirk, but he still didn’t move or shy away from her. Honestly he looked bemused. The young woman pulled her hand away and walked to her side of the table.

“I like the change in style.” she offered as she stepped to her chair.

Octavius casually walked around the table and pulled the chair out for the young woman. She took a seat. He returned to his side and finally sat down.

“I felt it was time for a change, even one so minor.” he offered.

The room fell into a silence as the two sat quietly summing the other one up. Somewhere in the middle of this the anxious servant returned with the collector’s tea.

Octavius thought of his friend Neg’s words as he sipped his spiked tea and accepted that he was sitting across from a shark. The goal was to tread lightly and keep his blood out of the water.

Frangipani, on the other hand, was trying to figure out how she’d missed the quiet bravado of this man the first time around. She’d heard rumors of the legendary charm of the collector and had been disappointed to find him quite ordinary. He’d been assertive enough to pass the aunt Parka test, but his confidence had wavered back and forth during that first meeting. He didn’t seem to catch his stride until he started speaking of his father and by then the young woman had already summed him up as potentially easy to manipulate. Now there was a strong confidence radiating from him. She liked it, though now she’d have to figure out how best to use it to her advantage.

“Alright, now down to business.” Frangipani said as she broke the silence. “You have received all of our research correct?”

Octavius nodded. “Yes. And I must thank you for how thorough and well organized it is. I don’t always have the benefit of working with someone who is as detail oriented as I am.”

“Some would call it anal retentive.” Frangipani laughed and for the very first time it sounded sincere and light hearted. “But thank you. I’m very thorough and my aunt, despite her someone irritable disposition, is very thoughtful and organized. So… how do we begin?”

Octavius had been wondering that very thing from the moment this entire event was placed in his lap. The man who had first spoken with this strangely dangerous beauty had ideas that were cautious. That man wanted to play it safe and tread lightly. He would choose his words and actions wisely. Octavius felt almost no connection to that man now even though he’d been there not long ago. His new approach was very simple.

“We will begin with complete honesty and transparency.”

The young woman nodded her head. “Of course. I thought that would be a given?”

This caused Octavius to chuckle. “No Miss Driad. I mean true honesty and transparency. Not the versions of those things offered by the Vitandi and scheming though charming imps like yourself.”

He stopped there for a moment. He was waiting to see if his words were offensive to the young woman or caused her to react poorly. It appeared they brought about the exact opposite. There was a slight change to the young woman’s face that was good, open. Perhaps even the devil didn’t always enjoy having to keep up appearances.

“As you wish Mr Obediah.”

“Octavius, please.”

She smiled. “Oh yes, I remember. Alright, Octavius.” she nodded her head. “Frangipani.”

“Frangipani.” it almost came out as a whisper. “I spoke of my father and his knowledge of the last Magnus Certatio. I know you sought me out to have access to his research, his notes. You don’t want a race like that last race, you want that race itself and as exact as possible.”

“Yes.”

“So at the heart of it you simply want access to my father’s things through me. You even insinuated you would take those things if necessary.”

“I did.”

“And your ultimate goal is not the success of the race or what it brings to the Vitandi. You want to find out if the legends are true. You want to find the fabled Riker Rouge.”

“Absolutely.” her voice almost sounded hungry.

“Then I think it important that we get a few facts straight right from the start.”

“Alright. They are?”

Octavius smiled. He’d thought long and hard on how he would have approached his father’s research differently. What questions he would have asked that his father would not have. He also considered all the things this group and this woman in particular wanted. That’s how he began to scheme, to plan. It was there he came to his revelation.

“The first and number one fact is that no one but that original group of race planners knows every detail about that race. My father pulled together most of the pieces and put them together like a puzzle. What pieces he could not find he used common sense to work out. And some of those common sense missing pieces I have since found out had little to do with common or sense. My father and I always worked best together because where one of us was weak the other was strong and vice versa. So you might find a time where you think taking my father’s research would benefit you, but that would be like taking the coded message without the cipher. I’m the cipher of my father’s work. I’m there to find his mistakes and correct them.”

Frangipani’s head fell to the side a little as a smile spread over her lips. She liked this direct approach. It was plain and to the point even if the point was a sour subject.

“I will acknowledge that.” she replied thoughtfully.

“I think one of the biggest facts to be addressed is almost somewhat like an elephant in the room.”

“And what is this elephant?”

“For all the planning that was originally done, for an outcome you have confessed to me? It didn’t work. Many of the racers died and the ones who didn’t never spoke of what happened to anyone. The leader of the Vitandi immediately put an end to the race and hid away all information about it.”

Octavius leaned across the small table and put his hands over top of the young woman’s hands. He looked her in the eye.

“If you follow the exact same course they took what guarantee do you have that your race won’t end up exactly the same? Your racers dead. Your survivors mentally ruined. The Vitandi finally pushed to a very precarious place where it might finally fold under time and pressure… you see don’t you?”

The young woman’s head nodded slowly. “I think I do.”

“This can’t be a replica of the last Magnus Certatio. It can’t even be the puzzle piece version my father laid out in his research. We have to take elements of both and combine them with the newer things we know now. It will be our race. Similar though different. It is my aim to see you succeed where they failed.” Octavius paused a moment letting that sink in. He gave the young woman’s hands a gentle squeeze. “It is my desire to see you to the gates of Riker Rogue.” he said very softly, almost like a seduction.

The room fell silent again except for the sounds of Frangipani’s deep breathing. Her eyes were wide and for the first time in a very long time she desired the hands touching her own hands to touch her further. It was a strange sensation and had nothing to do with lust or attraction. It had simply been so long since someone not only dared correct her ideas, but expressed a sincere desire to make them happen for her. All those around her were yes people who just wanted to feed off the crumbs she might provide. They were afraid of her. Few of them had true conviction. She felt the collector’s convictions.

“I had never thought of it like that.” she whispered. She turned her hands upwards to hold his. “I would like that very much Octavius.”

“So ask me now how do we really start.”

She smiled. “Mr Obediah, Octavius… how do we begin?”

“From scratch. We’ll take what we know and pair it with what we learn and create a new map. We’ll take the fairy tale and study it for the facts that are hidden within it. We will dissect why these steps were required to find this place of legend and why we must follow the rituals set forth to enter it.”

He tightened his grip on the young woman’s hands to the point of almost intending to cause pain. He wanted her undivided attention.

“No secrets. You and I will have to be thick as thieves to get this just right. And please believe I know how huge a thing that is to ask. It does not escape me that this lovely creature before me is nothing but a mask to hide something far greater. I can see through that Frangipani. I can see the dragon at your heart and I desperately don’t want to get burned by it. And if you see anything in me I hope it is my absolute need and desire to be something far greater than just Octavius the Second of the House of Obediah.”

When Octavius woke up that morning he didn’t know what he was going to say to this woman. In finally going into his father’s private library with a sober mind he’d gone through much of his research. He’d compared them with the papers that the Vitandi had given him. It became very clear that the last Magnus Certatio had been a disguise for a very large ritual. A ritual that had gone terribly wrong. To treat this new race in the same manner was folly. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to convince this young woman of such a thing.

At first his mind tried to figure out how to play it safe. How could he protect the new racers? After all, the ones from the failed race had been nothing more than pawns for the Vitandi. Then he realized there was no playing it safe. Every racer who came into the event would be warned of the potential for harm; mental and physical. He had to give up this side of him that adhered to some sort of innocence. He’d lived a life of extremes and was only starting to admit his boredom with that world. This was something altogether different. This was life changing.

As he sat across from the young woman with his change in perspective, the answer came very clear to him. If there was such a thing as Riker Rogue he wanted to be the one to find it. It was apparent in his father’s writings that he was too afraid to admit to wanting the same. He wasn’t sure how far his father would have actually went if he were given this type of audience and was staring down this type of person.

The look on Frangipani’s face was not quite content feline, nor was it that of a lioness about to take down her large prey. Somehow the collector had managed to gain the creature’s favor and it was a thrilling and terrifying sensation. Octavius had to admit he liked it.

Frangipani dipped her head as she pulled his crushing hands to her mouth. She kissed the back of his hand with lips so incredibly soft that finally the hairs on the back of his neck stood up for a pleasurable reason. She looked up from this kiss, a face full of mischievous evil.

“Alright then.” she whispered. “To Riker Rouge.”

“To Riker Rouge.” Octavius whispered back.