The Initiate – Snippet 23
Moreno parked his Citroen at a loading dock behind a pharmacy on St. Nicholas Avenue, just north of Central Park, and led Sam to a very narrow alleyway between two big brick apartment buildings. With his eyes Sam saw the two buildings meet without a gap. Only with his Inner Eye was the alley visible. Unlike every other alley in New York, this one was tidy. There was no scent of urine, no trash, not so much as a cigarette butt. There weren’t even weeds growing between the old flagstones underfoot. At the end the alley opened into a little garden in the center of the block. A tiny Colonial-era cottage, painted bright yellow, was tucked into one corner.
Sam noticed that all the windows overlooking the garden and the house were either bricked up or painted over. He followed Moreno up the well-maintained stone path to the door. As they approached, an older woman in a very stylish designer suit opened the door and beamed at them. Sam recognized her from the banquet after his initiation. “My little sheepdog! And you’ve brought along a pup!” Her voice sounded like decades of cigarettes and strong cocktails. She looked at Sam as if seeing his soul — not impossible, he thought. “Old for a pup, though. Training a stray?”
“Miss Elizabeth, this is Ace. Ace, this is Miss Elizabeth,” said Moreno. “She was the Mistress of the Circle here in New York before Mr. Feng took over.”
“I thought it was a lifetime job,” said Sam.
Miss Elizabeth just chuckled at that and led them inside. Sam almost froze when he saw who was sitting in the little parlor.
“I think you know Miss MoonCat. She’s staying with me for a little while.” MoonCat got awkwardly to her feet when Miss Elizabeth came in. She was still holding an old floral-patterned teacup.
“And then she’s leaving, right?” asked Moreno, with a bit more of an edge to his voice than Sam had expected.
“Absolutely. I can teach her things her mother and Sylvia don’t know, and she’ll be entirely safe. We’ll have fun together, won’t we, my dear?”
Miss Elizabeth seated herself in a spindly Victorian chair, her torso perfectly straight and not touching the chair back. Moreno and Sam took seats, both of them feeling cramped in the little room. The cottage was an odd mix of styles from Colonial furniture to ultramodern appliances. Almost as if someone had been living there continuously for a couple of centuries.
“Lunch will be ready soon,” said Miss Elizabeth, handing each of them a cup of tea. Sam tasted his tea only after he saw Moreno take a sip. “I think I know why you’re here, and I think MoonCat deserves to hear what you are doing.”
Moreno nodded. “I’ve got no problem with that.”
Sam fidgeted in his seat. He was preoccupied with the growing ache from his rib — and with the growling sound coming from the bracelet on MoonCat’s wrist.
“How do you get to be Master?” he asked Miss Elizabeth, as much to distract her as anything else.
“Moreno, you haven’t been instructing this gentleman very well. Traditionally a Master of the Circle serves for life — and assassination was the traditional way for members of a Circle to express their discontent.”
“We don’t do that anymore,” said Moreno.
Miss Elizabeth gave him a tolerant smile and continued.
“Members of a Circle do not choose their own Master. That is done by the next Circle within — the former Master’s peers.
After all, a Master is both teacher and judge, and we do not let schoolchildren and criminals decide who gets those jobs. Any of the Seven Sages can forbid an appointment — although if, say, the Sage of the River was to intervene in the Sage of the West’s territory, it would be quite a scandal.”
“Last time it happened was the Taiping Rebellion,” said Moreno.
“There was more to it than that, of course. But — getting back to your question — in recent decades it has become more acceptable for Masters to resign without any fear of vendettas to follow.”
“You resigned?” asked Sam. The growling was getting louder and he didn’t want any silence in the room.
Miss Elizabeth laughed, without a hint of amusement in it. “I was permitted to resign. My peers in the Circle of the West informed me that MoonCat’s father was to be my replacement as Master of Norumbega, and dear Roger told me he would support them against me.”
“How come?” Sam was legitimately curious, and the growling was louder still. Moreno made no sign of objecting.
“I know! She wanted to come out in the open. My baba always said that was a bad idea,” said MoonCat.
“I still believe it is inevitable,” said Miss Elizabeth. “We’ve finally beaten the priests. You see the results all around you — people are desperate for something to believe in, to worship. Instead of vulgar ‘celebrities’ or tiresome political movements, why not us? Return to our ancient role as divine rulers. Everyone will be happier for it — the subur will have a proper outlet for their adoration, and we won’t have to hide like a lot of criminals. Of course, poor Mr. Moreno would be out of a job, so naturally he disapproves.”
“People have gotten used to the idea of governing themselves,” Moreno began, but Miss Elizabeth cut him off.
“Nonsense. Lip service, nothing more. Every election shows it: They aren’t selecting some man with experience and good judgement to administer the country, they’re choosing a sacred king. That’s why they get so emotional about it.” She paused and collected herself. “But I fear we’re venturing into unsuitable topics for lunchtime conversation. Come, let us be seated.” She led the way into the only other room on the ground floor of the cottage, a big kitchen with a table laid for four. The silverware was heavy and spotlessly polished, the napkins were square yards of linen, the plates were translucent porcelain, and the glasses of champagne were ice cold.
“We have watercress sandwiches, cucumber soup, smoked salmon, hogshead cheese, and a salade imperia,” said Miss Elizabeth as they took their places.
Sam was finding it harder and harder to focus. The throbbing of his rib and the phantom growling coming from MoonCat’s bracelet were both increasing. The room was cool but he was perspiring. He kept glancing around to see if anyone had noticed.
“Dear, I think your guardian is upsetting Mr. Ace,” said Miss Elizabeth, looking straight at Sam as she spoke.
He fought a surge of panic. She knew! They all knew! Wait — he collected his thoughts — of course they knew. He had killed the dog as part of his initiation. They’d all probably been watching him as he did it. As long as MoonCat didn’t connect it with the night her father had died he’d be safe.
Sam exhaled, trying to calm himself, though the pain in his side didn’t diminish. “Yes,” he said, and was surprised at how shaky he sounded. He looked at MoonCat. “I’m sorry about — your dog. I had to do it.”
She made no reply, but got up from the table and went upstairs. When she came down again the bracelet was gone and Sam couldn’t hear the growling any more.
Moreno filled the resulting silence. “I wanted to ask who might want Feng’s place as Master of Norumbega.”
“Did you think I was planning a restoration? No, my dear, I’m done with all that. Nowadays I scarcely see anyone. I’ve been spending most of my time in the Otherworld. It’s so much more pleasant.”
“I didn’t ask if you did it,” said Moreno quietly.
“That is true. I merely assumed that was what you were trying to find out. For the record, I did not assassinate Mr. Feng, nor do I know who did.”
“Zadith mentioned White and the Count.” Sam noticed that Moreno didn’t bring up MoonCat’s mother.
“I do not associate with that impostor who calls himself a Count,” said Miss Elizabeth. “He certainly would not confide his plans to me. Mr. White is ambitious, but I think he aims higher than just a local Circle. He might want to supplant Roger as Sage of the West, but not poor Mr. Feng in New York. And I think Mr. Zadith would be satisfied with nothing short of being a god.”
“Getting people who support you into lower positions could be a first step. I know the higher Circles claim they don’t pay attention to what the lower levels want, but in practice it does matter.”
“Then we shall have to see who becomes Master of New York. It will not be myself, I promise you. Will you take tea or coffee with dessert?”
They sipped black coffee from demitasse cups as thin as eggshells and ate strawberry trifle spiked with Madeira. Moreno kept an eye on everyone else’s plates, and as soon as MoonCat finished her second helping of trifle, he cleared his throat. “I’m afraid Ace and I need to be going.”
“I suspected as much. You look tired. If you were sensible, you would join MoonCat and myself for tea and a few hands of Trionfi. That would give your luncheon time to settle. But if you prefer to rush off and spoil your digestion, it is you who will suffer the consequences.”
Moreno volunteered to drop Sam off at his crummy apartment, and since he took surface streets the whole way, they had nearly an hour to talk during the drive.
“So: learn anything?” Moreno asked.
“I’m still trying to process it all. There’s a lot I don’t understand.”
“Ask away. I’ll tell you anything except stuff you’re not allowed to know.”
“Okay.” Sam collected his thoughts. “First question: You’re a second Circle initiate, right? The House. So are Zadith and Miss Elizabeth. But they seemed to defer to you. Why?”
“I’m an agaus. It means soldier, or guardian. In the old days they were kind of the enforcers for the Seven Sages. Now we’re more like police.”
“But if you’re at the same level of initiation, what do you do if they don’t cooperate? They’re pretty powerful.”
Moreno smiled. “I’ve got something they don’t. It’s called the Mitum. There’s only half a dozen of them in the world, and the art of making them was lost some time around when the Persians conquered Egypt.”
“What is it? Some kind of magic weapon?”
“Nope. In fact it’s the opposite. It’s an anti magic weapon. No spirit or spell can survive near it.”
Sam suddenly understood why Zadith hadn’t wanted Moreno in his house. “How’d you get it?”
“It was entrusted to me. Roger and the other Sages picked me back when I was initiated into the Circle of the Lodge.”
“Can I ask why?”
“Oh, no big secret. I believe in the mission. I don’t have any family, so I’m kind of outside all the politics. And I don’t have a name.”