"Good of you to see me before the reception at Great-Grandfather's tomorrow," Adrienne said. "Just family for this, eh?"
The problem with being a Brézé, she thought, looking at the unreadable face so much like a male version of hers, is that we all look so alike. Well, of course incest is an ancient family tradition. There was even a eugenic justification until recently; now it's just fun. For some of the participants, at least.
Her great-grandfather's brother Arnaud Brézé and she were meeting at Carré des Feuillants, a restaurant appropriately enough located in the jewelers' district on the Place Vendôme, since it catered to the appetites of a similar clientele.
She was a little surprised that Arnaud had picked it, because while the exterior was 18th-century—the entire neighborhood had originally been built by Louis XIV as a monument to himself, which gave her some suspicions about his genetics—the inside was a series of smallish pale monochromatic rooms, with modernist art on the walls. Quite good Modernist art, but she'd noted that the really old ones just couldn't grasp modes more than a generation after their transition to postcorporeality—it wasn't simply that they didn't like it: she didn't herself. They had trouble seeing it, for good or ill.
It was white noise rather than a disagreeable message. She'd seen theories by the few scholars among her race that the extreme stability of the Old Stone Age—tens of thousands of years without so much as a change in flint-knapping styles—had been due to the unseen dominance of the planet by postcorporeals who lived millennia or tens of millennia themselves.
The two of them had this roomlet to themselves, of course, which made the layout convenient. Even today simply commandeering a large establishment was discouraged by the Council, though the need for secrecy was not what it had once been.
"Not quite what I would've expected of you, Arnaud," she said, waving her hand at the decor.
"One attempts to do something new occasionally," he said. "Otherwise, well, what is the point of simply continuing so long?"
He shrugged, and she had to remind her subconscious that he wasn't her brother, especially since he was taking extra care with his human form. They both had the same black yellow-flecked eyes as she, the same build like a compact leopard, and the same raven hair and triangular olive-skinned face.
The auras differed too, of course, though that might not be as obvious to someone not of the family. There was a slight but definite overtone of rot to Arnaud's, half sensed out of the corner of the eye, and that curious metallic flavor the post-corporeals had. Something somehow inorganic to their spirits.
And she couldn't imagine Adrian wearing that boulevardier outfit, the latest thing for the man about town a hundred and twenty years ago, right down to the white spats and the carnation.
"This building is even older than I," he said. "My father massacred the communards not a thousand meters from here and one might have looked from the same windows to enjoy the spectacle, even if the interior was a town house then. So it is no new thing for the blood to flow here, eh?"
Or at least I can't imagine Adrian wearing it except as a joke, she thought. Then, disturbingly: Perhaps Arnaud is also joking, in his way?
It was as well to remind yourself occasionally that the post-corporeals hadn't lived... well, survived... this long by accident.
"Though I had thought we would speak alone," he added, glancing at Monica.
"Oh, I have no secrets from her," Adrienne said. "It produces the most charming fits of guilty self-accusation late at night. Though no attempts at suicide for the last few years. Still, the weeping misery has its charm, and then there is the pleading to yield the blood, or suffer well-deserved pain."
Monica smiled and patted her long mane of platinum hair; tonight it was worn up and secured by long golden pins headed by carved malachite buttons, which complemented the warm russet of her silk sheath dress. Adrienne was in an outfit of boots, glove-tight black leather pants, a long full-sleeved white silk shirt-tunic, and a black embroidered velvet vest.
"Well, Doña, you have to admit I do self-abasement well," she said, and took a forkful of her appetizer. "It's my job, after all."
"Granted," Adrienne said. "You have developed a real talent for it."
"You say the nicest things sometimes," Monica replied with a sunny smile.
Adrienne ate as well; the dish deserved its title of lobster with three affectations and the sweet meatiness of the Breton crustacean went charmingly with the mushrooms and okra.
"It is sometimes obvious that you both come from California," Arnaud said dryly.
"Name of a dog, that is the second time in two days I have had the purely geographical locus of my birth thrown at me, and I cannot even torture you to death for the discourtesy, the way I did the first time."
She looked at Monica. "I am going to punish you for that."
"Goodie!" she said brightly, a flash of fear and longing running through her aura. "The whip?"
"Among other things. One must be flexible. Or at least you must be."
"I'm sure you'll come up with something original, Doña. It keeps me on my toes."
"I thought that was the chains and cuffs?"
"Well, metaphorically. More wine, anyone?"
Arnaud had chosen it, a Domaine Dublere Les Preuses 2010, very pale gold now and absolutely at its peak with hints of citrus and mango. Only the very best Chablis benefited from that much aging, or any time in oak. Arnaud seemed to catch the thought, though not through her hard-held shields, and nodded. He held the glass up to view the straw-colored liquid through the candle.
"A few more years and even such a wine as this would decline and eventually become undrinkable. Just so one must maintain steerage way down the stream of time. Those who seek to build an enclave in which they may be insulated from it are merely embracing their own Final Death. Building a coffin and getting inside, one might say."
"You are a progressive at heart, uncle," she said. "I am gratified that you rallied to my cause at last. It has been very helpful in securing backing for Trimback Two."
"Perhaps I am more progressive than you," he said with a thin smile. "For what is this scheme of yours, this Trimback Two, but another plan to halt the flow of time?"
"I am not a reactionary!" she said, stung to indignation.
He laughed. "Oh, not in the sense of those fossils who wish to create a world of peasants and oxcarts once again; I experienced the last of that, and the ennui would be paralyzing. They yearn for a past they themselves never experienced. You are more forethoughtful; you seek to hold the wave of change in place here, the wave I have seen erode away all I knew... and ma cherie, I speak as one who has worn the pith helmet in his time and saw the Hovas fall before the Lebels. You see to hold this modern world in place before it leaves you, too, stranded in time. I grant that you are being... preemptive... rather than reactionary."
"But from the viewpoint of that future you would abort before it was born, perhaps the difference between your stasis and that of the ox-cart nostalgics might not be so great. A thousand years from now, you would be playing with the same toys."
The Pyrenees lamb slow roasted in clay arrived, with its accompanying simple artichokes, vegetables and watercress, its measured tang of garlic blending smoothly with the herb-scented meat. They argued amiably for a moment about the wine and settled on a Chateau Belgrave from early in the century.
"You have some reason," she said. To herself: Which affects my resentment not at all.
She continued aloud: "But my motivations are not merely psychological. Or at least not completely so. If the humans continue their project of science much longer, it will be impossible for us to control the world in secret."
He made a graceful gesture of agreement and the waiters cleared the plates. "Ironic, is it not? For it was science that let us reconstitute our race."
That was true enough; their own family had discovered Gregor Mendel's work long before the world in general was conscious of it. The Power was subtle enough to act as a tool of genetic engineering, if you knew where to point it... or just knew that you had genes.
Then he lit a cigarette. One of the attendants made a horrified sound, and Arnaud gestured again, his eyes going a little blank with concentration for an instant. The man clutched his head and staggered out of the room, weeping softly; there was a soft heavy thump from the next room. The faces of the others might have been carved out of seasoned beechwood, save for the sheen of sweat. Adrienne lit a cigarillo of her own, a private blend of Turkish tobacco and Moroccan hashish, a slim brown cylinder in an ivory holder. The smoke was mildly soothing, and complemented the selection of cheeses, coffee and brandy that ended the simple meal.
"One might argue that we have done very badly at directing the world, secretly or otherwise," he said. "I speak purely from our own viewpoint, of course. A wise parasite keeps its host healthy and does not draw attention to itself. And if we had done that, we would not be confronted by these... unpalatable and risky choices now. We seek to cure a disease of which we were the agents, or at least responsible for."
"Are we parasite or predator?"
"That depends on one's self-image. My brother identifies with the wolf or tiger."
"Natural enough, surely?"
"Both are endangered species which survive on human sufferance. Mosquitoes, on the other hand... "
Adrienne laughed, though the comparison was far too supine for her taste. "And there is no element of resentment towards my great-grandfather your brother there, eh?" she said, giving him a very slight wink. "Since he is the secret ruler of whom you speak."
They shared a laugh. Arnaud contemplated the end of his cigarette: "Though of course your plan to... How shall I put this... trim the dead wood from our species as well... is somewhat drastic. And I hope you were not thinking of including me in that category once we are all in Tbilisi."
"Ah," she said noncommittally, hiding her fury behind a slight smile. "No, of course not, my old, that goes without saying. Your assistance aside, you are notably unambitious politically, a rare and precious quality. We are overequipped with would-be leaders and deplorably short of followers, we lords of Shadow."
"Nevertheless, on reflection I heartily approve of the basic idea. Not least because Étienne-Maurice would meet a suitably fiery end in your little scenario of Hell brought to Earth." He chuckled. "My brother takes you a little less seriously than he might, because you are female. An error, and hopefully a fatal error."
She laid her own cigarette down, took a sip of her black coffee and another of brandy. There was no point in pretending ignorance. He knew about the bomb. There really wasn't any point in asking him how he'd found out, either; it was enough that he had. Though she certainly intended to find out how he'd penetrated that secret.
"Indeed, I think that was why I tried to kill your brother last year, he being so set on preventing your charming little joke."
"You think, rather than know?"
He shrugged expressively. "Often prescience produces no concrete reason for action, especially when other adepts are muddying the waters."
Adrienne nodded. That was true; it was also a splendid excuse for simply acting on whim, something for which Arnaud was notorious. The way he phrased it implied that he hadn't learned about the bomb until well after that. Which in itself proved nothing, since he might be lying, but might well be indicative. It was as naïve to imagine someone always lied as to think they never did, one of those facts you had to fight your natural instincts to keep in mind.
"I'm sure your talents will be extremely useful in Tbilisi," Adrienne said graciously.
"Perhaps. Although I have already done most of what I can. Still, let us contemplate a few contingencies."
Outside the restaurant a half hour later Adrienne pushed her hands into the ermine-lined pockets of her Astrakhan wool coat. The Place Vendôme was thronged, the crowds thick beneath the triple lights in their cast-iron stands, around the Austerlitz pillar with its bronze bass-reliefs cast from the metal of captured cannon. It was a close replica of the Column of Trajan in Rome, down to the enemies shown suffering defeat being mostly Germans and other Central Europeans. Unable to improve on his Classical model, Napoleon had simply made his bigger and more expensive and put a statue of himself on the top.
"I think dear Arnaud was right; he has done most of what he can. And, to quote a classic line, he knows too much," she said thoughtfully.
"Whatever you say, Doña," Monica said. She smiled as she looked around. "I do love Paris at night. There's always a certain magic in the air, even at this time of year."
"Have you forgotten what I said about punishment?" Adrienne asked archly.
The night air had that particularly Parisian damp winter chill that made you wish for a crackling fire in the hearth and some sort of hot drink involving cocoa and rum. Not to mention... She looked around herself. A classically chic woman of indeterminate age was walking a very large poodle whose coat shone like a silvered confection carved from whipped cream, its collar sparkling turquoise. Adrienne stepped over.
"Give me that," she said, and twitched it out of her hand. "I need it for my bitch."
The Frenchwoman started to protest, looked into the yellow-flecked black eyes and backed up, her mouth quivering. The dog half snarled and half whined, crouching and urinating on the pavement as Adrienne unbuckled.
"Bend, my Golden Retriever Barbie," she said, and cinched it around Monica's neck.
The blue eyes were wide. "Uh, that's sort of... tight," she said hoarsely.
She stumbled on her high-heeled shoes as Adrienne turned and tugged sharply with the lead over her shoulder; the Shadowspawn could feel the flush of humiliation and fear and dreadful excitement.
"Be glad you're not doing this naked," she said sharply.
Then she smiled and turned. "In fact, that's a brilliant idea. Who knows what might happen? To you, that is. To the skin, chérie, right now. Just the shoes and the garter-belt."
Heads were turning in their direction, and Adrienne laughed merrily.
Copyright © 2012-2013 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>