“All entities move and nothing remains still.
The echoes of a gong strike lingered as a black-garbed minion came at Batman, his saber high for an aggressive overhead strike. His footwork was perfect—which made it slow. The blow was easy to sidestep, raising his right knee into the wrist and jostling the blade, then delivering a simple strike to the jaw as the attacker struggled to regain his balance. The next minion was faster, starting the swing in a full sweeping motion that gained power from his weight moving forward—but trapping him in his momentum and leaving him no way to adjust when Batman’s leg rose to intercept him. The kick shattered his wrists and spun him after the blade he’d lost control of. The move exposed his side for a final kick to the ribs, and by the time he hit the deck, Batman had spun to confront a third opponent... Faster still, with the same perfect footwork as the first. This time, Batman’s kick to the wrist was expected. The minion absorbed the hit and the saber sprung upward and back into position for another overhead strike—but this time Batman was in close, positioned for a brutal blow to the arm-pit that required no follow-up.
After the gong, a rhythmic drumbeat had begun, plodding and impassive, a dull tempo that still seemed like a dramatic build as the fight progressed and Batman’s heart pounded harder and faster.
Coming up under the sword arm for a flat palmed strike at the chin… A kick under the wrists to the groin… A hopping kick to the ribs… Stepping into the strike for a punch at the neck… Kick from behind, taking out the knee… Leaping back out of range… A kick to the side—leap back and lunge—poke to the throat—
There was nothing but void in the masked man’s eyes. No conscious thought—No coming home from patrol to find an Atlantis honor guard living in his house, no half hour on YouTube learning to pronounce their names before he headed down the stairs this morning, no seeing that guardsman standing at the doorway off the foyer and flashing back to his father before he said “Good morning, Szczenae Orlan,” for it was his father who taught him those courtesies were an absolute obligation. There wasn’t even a sting remembering how Bruce had been so certain it was a courtesy he’d never need to worry about because it was a situation in which he’d never find himself… There was no At Large list, no Joker released from Arkham, no Hagen back-from-the-dead and menacing Selina, and no Faustian bargain with Blood accepting magic into the house to protect her. There was nothing but instinct guiding his movements and the familiar tang of adrenaline.
A minion tipped, the body yielding the only way it could to keep its arm from breaking and tossing itself in a dull roll towards the edge of the practice mat… A flat palm strike and kick to the crotch, a straight disarm… An elbow to the throat on the disarm… The final gong, almost done now… A jumping kick… a duck and roll, toying with this one to run out the clock… taking a hit to drop to his knee, then jabbing at the minion’s thigh.
The last gong strike diminished, time to finish him. Batman dropped below the strike, seeming for a moment to invite decapitation, then punched up with both hands into the minion’s gut, sending him flying backwards into the articulated post from whence he came.
The lighting changed, the hologram sabers became wooden bokken and the turbaned minions reset to the default Zogger practice dummies.
Alfred stood beside the control console looking extremely unimpressed. The bottle of water Bruce had left there had been replaced by a pitcher of fruit juice.
“I thought you might wish more substantial refreshment,” was all he said, and Bruce downed a glass, breathed and cooled before saying more than ‘Thanks.’ Then he looked at Alfred shrewdly.
“If you’re going to say it, now is the time,” he said.
“Say what, sir?”
“I told you so.”
“In what sense, sir?”
Bruce’s eyes narrowed into the menacing slits that terrified the darkest figures of the underworld, and then relaxed into casual acceptance as he gestured to Zogger, changing the subject.
“I was in the mood to practice mutō dori, fighting unarmed against an attacker with a sword,” he said mildly, then he looked back at Alfred. “You’re really not going to say it? The day I came down to the kitchen right after we went public with the engagement, remember I said ‘Selina and I are living together, she’s already running the house, nothing is going to change.’ Remember that? And you had that skeptical… Like I was sixteen again.
“We started on rooftops—fighting on rooftops, thief and crimefighter—and now we have this partnership. Now she’s…” He could barely speak around the smile that he couldn’t contain. “Beyond the craziest dreams I had then, and here we are. After all this, what change was left?! What could possibly happen that would even register—but you had that smirk, like I was sixteen and it was the Ferrari all over again.
“I passed an Atlantis honor guard when I got back last night. Selina is reading the Gotham Post. There’s a mystical-AI drone-light ball floating around tattling on members of the Justice League.”
“I see, sir.”
“You see sir. Alfred, if this isn’t your moment to ‘I told you so’ because you think there’s an even bigger shoe to drop, I don’t know if we’ll make it to the I dos. This house has seen rips in the fabric of space-time, you know.”
“One is confident, sir, that whatever challenges may occur, Batman and Catwoman will be equal to the task.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Bruce said sourly. “We were half an hour on YouTube learning how to pronounce that guardsman’s name and rank.”
“Szczenae Orlan,” Alfred said without effort.
Bruce stared blankly.
“The guardsman currently on duty is Szczenae Orlan, sir. Szczenae being the Atlantis equivalent of a Private First Class. His colleague is Szczenae Ahalkea.”
“Would you mind telling me how long you had to practice that before—”
“One was privileged in one’s youth to appear in a production of Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance, sir. There is an amusing scene where an aviator lands with a Polish passenger who offers a remarkably succinct tutorial: ‘Say fish. Say church. Say fish-church. Say Szczepanowska.’ The skill, once mastered, is like riding a bicycle.”
“I see,” Bruce said, shaking his head wondering why he didn’t ask Alfred in the first place. Then he remembered his manners. “They’re settled in okay? Water and diet and everything?”
“One has put them in the blue room, sir. You may recall, there is a very large Victorian bathtub of the claw-footed variety, which is sufficient to their needs for, ehm, soaking. One has ascertained that they are able to ingest virtually all surface foods and arrived with a soldier’s resolve to endure whatever gastronomic horrors were foisted on them. I am happy to report they have found land-based cuisine more agreeable than expected, and fried foods have been especially well-received.”
Bruce’s lip twitched, then he shook his head.
“See, that’s exactly the kind of thing I was talking about. Aside from Clark, the Justice League is work—Batman’s work—and has no entry into Bruce Wayne’s life. It’s especially not a part of my life where I bother with pretense. If it was a mission making demands, then of course I’d make whatever accommodations were needed, however inconvenient. When lives are on the line—liberty, property, matters of global or galactic import—then I’ll do whatever’s necessary, but I don’t pretend it’s not a pain in the ass.
“And when it’s not a serious matter, if it’s West and O’Brian being silly or Diana being an ego, then I shut it down as quickly as possible and as rudely as possible. A little rudeness goes a long way getting the message through.”
“I’m not sure I understand, sir.”
Bruce shook his head again. He knew he wasn’t being clear. Arthur had joined Clark in the non-League side of his life. There were obligations: the situation resulted from a gift, someone else’s subordinates were guests in his house because they were doing their job. It was important to respect that, to treat them with courtesy and dignity and this had been drilled into him by his father, it was part of a core that predated Batman and existed apart from Batman—yet here it was. And it left him off-balance, like when parents come to school. It wasn’t a hardship, but it certainly constituted change. A change that had nothing to do with Selina, yet was intertwined with the wedding.
“I’m not sure I do either,” he admitted. “Beyond the fact that you’re entitled to an ‘I told you so.’ Selina is already my wife, I told her that when I proposed. I’m already her husband, we’re already ‘us.’ But things are changing, all around us.”
Kyle Rayner was camping under the Northern Lights, his tent shining like a lantern in a snowy landscape pocked with pine trees, a canopy of stars overhead, more than you ever saw beneath an atmosphere. And through it, a gauzy highway of green mist—the most exquisite gradient from grass green to mint, achingly beautiful, a progression from cumulus thick to near-transparent wisps, and twisting so gracefully—he wanted to paint it, and he wanted to fly through it. It was just bright enough to turn the black around it into a velvety blue-green that sucked you in and made you want to fly up there and roll around in it.
But then the trees began to quiver. It didn’t feel like the ground was moving, except for a weird vibration in his teeth. The quivering became violent, like the trees were bending to a monsoon he couldn’t feel. And then they bowed, the shimmering green light contorted to resemble a shape—to resemble a face.
A face of Judgment:
“You're not worthy of the ring, Rayner. Even Gardner would have managed to get Tamaranean strippers into the hotel. Perhaps you should be wielding the yellow power of Fear!”
Kyle lurched up in bed, his eyes wide, his heart pounding.
Reputations throughout time and space were riding on this. He could not let them down.
The Demon compound was alight with activity, as if deliriously upbeat music was playing in one of those decadent Western movies about fluff. Whimsical strings, a piano, perhaps a flute as the camera moved with rambling excitement through a country house being opened for the season. An exhilarating tempo as dust covers were whisked off the furnishings, an enthusiastic trill as kitchens were opened, fires lighted, and baskets of provisions marched through the doors and heaped onto a laden table or marched before the cook standing like a general, inspecting the offerings with a stern eye and barking orders that belied his joy to be back at work.
That was the spirit at least, even if the activity resembled Caesar’s Legions prepping for Pharsalus more than a country house preparing for guests. Swords were sharpened, guns cleaned, buckles polished. In the communication center, shelves with ancient codebooks were dusted while a few feet away, modern keyboards were vacuumed with USB-driven mini-vacs and screens polished with pre-moistened wipes. The pit stirrers were given new cloth. A square was cut from each of their old garments for the special cleaning rags that would polish the altars and relics around the Lazarus Pit. The rest were burned in a ritual fire, after which they would roast special mallow cakes and sing and dance into the night.
It was a tremendous occasion, for Ra’s al Ghul had made contact with Demon!
True, they didn’t know exactly what he’d said. But the Gang of Six running things since his incarceration would figure it out. To the average minion, there was only joy.
In the throne room however, at a round table in the outer chamber where the Six met so they could look through the doorway and take inspiration from the sight of Ra’s al Ghul’s throne, the joy was blunted with anxiety.
“Survey the olive groves of the world.” What could it mean? “Present me a list of six or eight locations known for unparalleled quality.” The mention of six was a clear directive. “Within each center of superior olive oil production, acquaint me with the four best producers along with a timetable of their respective harvests and pressing.” Third Fang thought four olive groves must be an instruction to Fourth Fang just as the six referenced them all as the Gang of Six. Fourth Fang did not agree. He was fairly certain they were being asked to assemble an actual list of six or eight somethings—Demon bases, operations or… or somethings throughout the world—Six or eight somethings with four smaller somethings related to each. The smaller somethings presumably having significant dates attached, or else some designation that could be disguised as a date.
“We have wasted an hour on this,” said Sixth. “I really think we must pack up our speculation and move on.”
The grumbling was brief, and First Fang read the next paragraph aloud:
“If my food taster Pikhai lives, place him on standby for he has an excellent palate. If not, determine among yourselves who is best equipped to go in his place. On my order, he will fly to the country I select to sample their olives as near to the time of pressing as can be arranged, given our constraints. He shall use that excellent palate to choose, and make a custom blend of that region’s oil at the peak of freshness.”
Ubu was summoned, for he was best acquainted with the Great One’s food tasters, and the Six recessed until he arrived.
Second Fang shuffled casually into the inner throne room and was soon joined by Fifth. They talked together before the empty throne like players in an especially stilted Shakespeare play.
“The Great One may be sitting here soon,” it began.
“He may. If we divine his meaning.”
Through the careful words, a different conversation was taking place. The two men least pleased with the development had found each other and confirmed it. The others might rejoice that Ra’s was coming back and their burden would soon be lifted. But for Second and Fifth, the ‘burden’ was quite… validating. The authority, the self-determination, making the very decisions that governed your fate (to say nothing of the perks at the top of the pyramid), it was very agreeable. Neither was so disloyal that they would wish harm on Ra’s al Ghul (Perish the thought, may He walk always in the shadow of the Dragon with the Breath of Marduk burning warm in His blood), but they might take steps to ensure that when He did return, they would remain where they stood now: apart from other minions, a few short feet from the throne with all the authority and perks that proximity implied. They needed only to find an opportunity.
Selina entered the Zogger cavern, hair pulled into a ponytail, a hand-stitched gi over her catsuit and a frustrated snarl Bruce remembered from vaults when he’d thwarted her one time too many.
“Are you through?” she asked, pointing to the combat floor.
When Bruce nodded, she went silently to the control console and dialed up a Daito-ryu Jujutsu profile.
“Do I want to know?” Bruce asked when she added Shotokan Karate and Enhanced Physics to the settings.
“Oh, nothing dramatic,” she said wearily. “Faust wants me to add salt cellars to the registry and give an interview here at the house to call attention to Arthur’s gift—it’s not like I can walk them past an Atlantis Dress Marine and not say what it’s about. It’s not a big deal, just eating a little crow. When I registered at Scully, I told the girl I’m not the typical bride setting up housekeeping with no idea what she’ll need and is going to be making a lot of changes as she goes. Now it turns out, I can actually use more salt cellars, so I tweaked the registry… It’s nothing; it’s silly. It gives me an anecdote for the interview that doesn’t have to be edited or flat out invented to cover how we really met or what we were actually doing when you asked me to move in…”
“An interview here at the house,” Bruce said like an expert holding each word up to the light to examine its facets.
Selina smiled at the master strategist’s mind at work: trying to figure out what the aim of the interview might be.
“Faust says if I give a single interview, there’s a 41% chance it will prevent GCN or the Daily News trying to sneak onto the grounds, bribe gardeners, stalk the most likely caterers, etc. If I give two interviews it jumps to 63% and three interviews takes it all the way up to 86. There’s also a 21% chance it will counteract the Post’s hatchet job on my family. I swear if I read one more reference to my learning to survive on ‘the streets’, I swear I’m going to invite that directrice from Chateau L'Aigrette and seat her where she has a wide view. Let her sit there and judge them the entire time.”
“There is room on your side of the guest list,” Bruce noted.
“I’d never do it to Alfred,” she laughed. “This is the matron of a Swiss boarding school. She’d call him majord’homes, speak nothing but French, pretend not to understand a word of English, and I’m not sure either of us would pass muster. Our names are in the news too often and we’ve got reporters in the wedding party.”
“Ah,” Bruce said. “That reminds me, Clark is a little on edge that he’s going to be occupied with me while Lois is at your bachelorette.”
“Oh he is?” Selina said, glancing at the Zogger controls. “Clark’s bachelor party was an interstellar and interdimensional incident. Accords were signed; the Phantom Zone had to change the locks. Psycho-Pirate got shorter. All I’ve ever done to Lois was introduce her to the best shoes on Via Tornabuoni; where does he get off?”
“In the course of the official Catwoman-as-villain kidnappings, yes, that’s true. But the two of you finishing dessert by yourselves at d’Annunzio’s turned into a séance with Poison Ivy to chat up the goddess of death. You can understand Clark’s concern with Ivy being at this thing.”
“Oh is that all,” Selina laughed. “Tell him to relax. Lois and Ivy are not at the same party.”
“They’re not?” Bruce’s eyebrow shot up.
“I told you, ‘nine lives.’ Faust ob—”
“Faust again,” Bruce rolled his eyes.
“Relax,” she said, placing a nail like a clawtip just below his chin. “Faust and Alfred both made the same observation and took it to the same place: Multiple champagne companies have been courting me to become the official bubbly served at the wedding. Alfred had a stack of their offers in his pantry. I went through them, narrowed them down to the most promising. I let Veuve Clicquot put me up at the Mark for party 1: Harley, Ivy, Doris. The bad girls, so I can be myself. Tattinger does party 2: Lois, Barbara and Cassie, who know the truth about the man I’m marrying. So I can be myself. Party 3 is Perrier Jouët. Whoever makes the cut gets to come with me and Anna to a private island off Antigua for the real fun.”
“Anna your fence.”
“Anna my best friend at school, my first real friend period after… you know. And in Paris. And you’re finally going to meet her, so have Psychobat suck it up.”
“Selina, I want to meet your friend, really. I know how it looked, but I had every intention of meeting the both of you at Piping Roc—”
“Stayed to finish your workout as if you needed to do six more sets of bent over rows—” she said over him.
“You’re right that was a lie, but not because I didn’t want to meet her. I wanted to give you time alone to get all the reminiscing out of the way before I joined you.”
“Which you never did.”
“There really was a Deadshot situation in Brooklyn.”
The tone was light, playful. And Selina tilted her head.
“A very convenient Deadshot situation,” she noted.
“Do you have any idea how often it happened when I dated other women?”
“The dates you didn’t want to be on the in first place and were happy Batman gave you an excuse to ditch? Yes, I know.”
“Impossible woman,” he said, and kissed her. Then he indicated Zogger. “Do you still need this?”
She looked down at the jujitsu-karate profile and then at him.
“I’d rather have a piece of you,” she said with the old rooftop growl.
He glanced at the Zogger combat floor and then at her… There was an Atlantis honor guard living at the manor. Selina was reading the Post. They were getting a wedding gift from Ra’s al Ghul and already had a magic one from Jason Blood.
He’d said nothing was going to change.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Ubu stood in the outer throne room, prepared to give the Gang of Six all the information he could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much: the food taster Pikhai who succeded Omal was very much alive. When Ra’s al Ghul did not return from Atlantis, Pikhai was reassigned to assist the keeper of the wine cellars. He also returned to his former posting with the Galata 4th, where he specialized in throwing the axe for distance and accuracy.
The Six all looked at each other—quizzically, hopefully, and then resignedly.
“So we’re stumped,” First Fang declared. “Ubu, we may as well confide in you. Maybe you’ll figure out what none of us can. You know the Master sent a message. This is the message.” He handed the printed email to Ubu and waited while the bodyguard read. “As you see, the Great One is using the network of the enemy. Their eyes are upon him and he is forced to write in code. This… wedding gift,” he spoke the words like they carried plague. “Send his taster to choose olives, creating a special blend of oil… We have not been able—”
“Not yet,” Third Fang interjected as if First was dictating a letter on behalf of the group where each word might have political or diplomatic implications.
“We have not yet been able to divine its meaning,” First amended. “My own opinion is this bit about Pikhai is directing us to speak with him. We thought it best to talk to you first, the master would expect that. One of you must know something or have some insight. Maybe Pikhai was present when some key event occurred, perhaps he had a conversation with the Great One, a chance remark that will shed light on this olive oil business.”
Ubu tried to look thoughtful. Handing back the letter, he had only looked confused and that’s presumably why First Fang was treating him like a moron.
“Do you understand?” Sixth asked with unbelievable condescension.
“Of course he does, he’s not a dribbling imbecile,” Fifth said, and Ubu dared the slightest of nods at the unexpected ally. Before anyone could respond, he started talking.
“I hope it is understood I mean no disrespect to the Great One,” he began, stalling. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, but he wanted ‘not a dribbling imbecile’ to be the last word on the previous subject.
“That goes without saying, may He walk always in the shadow of the Dragon,” Second said quickly. “You must tell us anything that may help us understand the master’s message; no judgements will be made. For if anything seems odd or foolish in Ra’s al Ghul’s behavior, the fault must lie in us. His ways are beyond our understanding.”
Ubu nodded gratefully and began again.
“In that case, I will say that the food taster is something of a vanity. No one has attempted to poison the Demon’s Head in six hundred years. No minion privileged to serve the Demon’s table is capable of treachery, and if the impossible happened and the kitchens were infiltrated and the master succumbed to poison, there is always the pit. A food taster is therefore… vanity. The Caesars and the Pharaohs had them by necessity. Ra’s al Ghul has one as a statement of his rank.”
There was a lot of nodding and more looking at each other among the Six, and Ubu had his revenge, having belabored the obvious twice as long as First Fang.
“As to Pikhai personally, he knows quite a lot about food. Many days the Great One was preoccupied with his affairs and had no time for trivialities, but very often, with the evening meal especially, he enjoyed Pikhai’s showing off. How he would pucker and swish the wine. ‘I know this one. It’s from Kolios. They had a very bad summer, the grapes didn’t get much sugar.’”
“Do you recall any conversations about olives or olive oil?” First prompted.
Ubu shook his head.
“You’ll have to ask him; I never paid much attention to their talk. I can tell you that Pikhai and the Great One had very similar tastes, apart from the use of garlic and the stuffing of vine leaves.”
“This cannot possibly be the information we’re meant to be pursuing,” Third said through his teeth.
“We can’t know that,” Fifth insisted. “The Master was speaking in code, he pointed us to a food taster. What can we expect but stuffed grape leaves?”
“How did their tastes differ?” Fifth asked, smiling.
“The Great One favored both, Pikhai was less enthused,” Ubu said.
“ARRGH! ow-woof-damnit,” Selina cursed as she hit the mat with a thud. It was their fifth workout since deciding to take out their pre-wedding frustrations on each other.
The second occurred only a few hours after the first, when she returned from Scully & Scully. At Faust’s suggestion, she’d gone into the city to change the registry in person rather than calling. She’d run into Richard Flay, who was indecently pleased when he heard why she was there. He’d made himself part of the excursion in much the same way Clayface appointed himself her bodyguard at Vault, and Selina played along in case this “chance meeting” was exactly what Faust intended. Un-wowed by the offerings at Scully, Richard suggested they try A La Vielle Russie (again Selina went along with what was presumably Faust’s plan) where they ran into Doris, who had a passion for all things Russian and valuable.
Selina had returned to the manor with the wet cat expression Bruce knew from countless thwarted burglaries. “Let’s go again,” she said, twiddling her manicure like claws, and as they fought, he got the details:
At A La Vielle Russie there was a cobalt and white master cellar from the Imperial Porcelain Factory, a modern piece after Dmitry Vinogradov’s design for Empress Elizabeth’s dinner service in 1750. Hauntingly similar to a piece from a Paris townhouse where she’d cut her teeth as a burglar. There was also an amber one that was undoubtedly some 18th Century aristocrat mimicking the Amber Room at the Winter Palace—if not an actual piece from the Amber Room lost when the Nazis looted it, aka another link to Catherine the Great’s court necklace, aka another piece straight out of her loot sack, a feature that Doris and Richard both seemed to sense and delight in. She registered for both pieces at their insistence—they practically high fived each other behind her back as she did it—and Selina was sure they each planned to give her one, Doris probably planning to steal hers (and possibly Richard’s too) at this very moment.
“This is what they mean when they say the wedding is really for the guests more than us,” she concluded as their fight wound down to a pin she didn’t bother countering.
“I hope not,” Bruce grunted, releasing her, and they bowed.
Ubu raced to the Galata barracks to reach Pikhai before the Gang of Six messenger. He explained what was going on so Pikhai wouldn’t panic when the summons came. His interview with the six went considerably longer than Ubu’s. First there was the classical bouquet garni which Pikhai had discussed with Ra’s al Ghul more than once as an alternative to garlic, and which First Fang and Second went off to investigate. Then there was Macau. Ra’s al Ghul himself had declared Macau to have the best Chinese cuisine—they had discussed it more than once—because it had been a Portuguese colony for so long and in addition to the soy sauce used on the mainland they often cooked with olive oil. Third Fang and Fourth went off excitedly to research Macau, leaving Fifth and Sixth alone with Pikhai.
Since they were one fang short of a quorum, Sixth thought it would do no harm to acquaint Pikhai with the rest of the master’s orders:
He shall then obtain a photograph of the most picturesque of the chosen olive groves, this of a size fit for framing and presentation. Also a letter on the grove’s letterhead and signed by its lord and proprietor, attesting to the oil’s provenance and any details of interest. This document may present as flamboyant a signature as pleases the signer and be affixed with as many stamps and seals as are customary, for such always impress the fair sex. Pikhai, or his successor, should affix his signature also with the title Oleologist.
This is the command of Ra’s al Ghul, delivered this 10th day of the Minotaur Moon by the hand of atlantisnet.justiceleague.zirch
“Argh.” This time it was Bruce hitting the mat. The third round of sparring came after Selina’s first interview. She’d chosen Martin Stanwick who wrote Hermione’s Society Chit Chat for the Times. He’d been an ally since Dick and Barbara’s wedding, though his manner had cooled in recent months. He was downright frosty when he’d first arrived. Selina explained why there was an Atlantis guardsman in the foyer, explained the gift he was attached to, and Martin was downright acidic about the Wayne Foundation’s ties to Atlantis through Sub Diego: how it became a flashpoint for Gregorian Falstaff after they made ‘such a display of it’ at the Water Ball.
For someone like Martin, it was rude. To remind her of Falstaff? Selina couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, and she was envisioning worse coverage than the Post now that she’d invited an unexpectedly hostile columnist inside to tell her story. She thought through her options for damage control as they sat down in the morning room: There was Lois, sympathetic of course, but an out of town paper and she was hard news. Even if Selina asked and even if Lois agreed, the job was so obviously beneath her—a puff piece on a Gotham society bride—it wouldn’t have any credibility. It was a favor for a friend and would be dismissed as such… There was Ford Dormont of course. He’d have to be handled; she couldn’t simply tell him what she wanted like she could with Lois. And Bruce wouldn’t like it, though he admitted Ford was going to write something, with their blessing or without it, so it made sense to be proactive. In his favor, Ford had the right attitude about money and social position. He knew Selina never ‘got her dinner from a garbage can’ as the song went, and he knew that was a good thing. He also had his foot in the door; he’d been to the engagement party. In his way, he was the best qualified, more than almost anyone at the Post and certainly more than those who claimed…
Then suddenly the point was moot. They had settled in the morning room. Alfred brought tea and a plate of cookies (presumably at Faust’s suggestion) on a dish Selina knew he didn’t care for. It was a bold red and white design, and Martin commented on it (which wasn’t surprising it was so out of place with the rest of the tea things). He said he recognized it from the MoMA Design Store, and Selina said it was a gift from Kyray. She got no farther when Martin had his breakdown:
Despite an active presence in the top tier of Gotham’s social whirl that placed him at a dozen event crashed by rogues, Martin had never experienced fear gas before the Man’s Reach exhibit. The horrors—the horrors—that had played out before his eyes, he’d relived it fifty-eight times—the last was a week ago Thursday—it was awful—awful. He could never—his father—and Elena—and the banshees—the rotting flesh—poor little Buster—and the razors—the razors—
Selina sat there for an hour patting his shoulder, holding his hand and listening to his story. Giving him a napkin to dry his tears… Giving him a second napkin… And then listening to a complete chronicle of his encounters with Gotham crime prior to the Man’s Reach horror. As she listened, she glared malevolently at the dish Kyle Rayner had given as a thank you for bringing him in as the artist Kyray and sponsoring his entry into the world of art…
It ended. After he got himself together and accepted a whiskey instead of tea, Martin went through the motions of the interview. His hostility was exorcised, he had nothing but apologies and thanks for her patience and understanding—but there was no telling what he actually heard or what might make it to the page. Selina saw him off and went to find Bruce for the most vehement sparring up to that point.
Second Fang knocked excitedly on Fifth’s door. The research on bouquets garnis had proven quite revealing. They started in the kitchen naturally, and the chef al ghul, the Great One’s personal chef M’tolk, confirmed Ubu: Pikhai always complained about the garlic. He then said bouquet garni is nothing but a bundle of herbs tied with string. It’s added to soups, stocks, casseroles, marinades and courts-bouillons for cooking and removed before the dish is served.
“First Fang thought that would make an excellent way to introduce poison to a dish, and he’s probably right but there was no point in saying it right in front of the chefs. M’tolk was insulted, all his assistants were insulted, the whole kitchen became hysterical and I was ten minutes calming them down.”
Fifth laughed. First Fang’s idiocy was a recurring chorus of his days now. He asked what happened then.
“It looked like a dead end,” Second continued. “But I stuck around after First left, mostly because I didn’t want to deal with him right away. M’tolk wanted to go on complaining, so I let him. He said Pikhai is a fool, that bouquets garnis is no substitute for garlic, it is its own thing—except when the Great One is at the compound and the chefs do not have a proper kitchen. For those occasions, he uses special bouquets garnis in these little paper sachets like tea bags. Well, I couldn’t care less about the tea bags, but this is something that’s used only when the Great One is at the compound, the compound nearly always means the name that must not be spoken, his great Gotham foe, I figured this must be it! An important clue.”
Fifth Fang agreed and nodded excitedly, and Second chuckled watching Fifth repeat his mistake.
“So I made him show me the dishes he would prepare this way. The dishes Ra’s al Ghul is only served in his tent at the compound.”
“Yes,” Fifth said eagerly.
“This, I was sure, is our message.”
“I watched them being prepared.”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
“I saw the recipes, I saw the chef reading from the book.”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes.”
“Classical bouquet garni is thyme, bay leaves, parsley, onions, majoram and pepper; the assortment selected and recommended by Le Cordon Bleu since 1895.”
“And it’s right there on the plate as it’s presented to Ra’s al Ghul: the little teabag of spice is not removed. It lays there in the bowl, its little paper tag reading LCB 1895. Do you see? Our clue isn’t a conversation Pikhai had with the master. It’s this 1895 visible on his plate whenever he ate in his tent.”
“I suppose it could be,” Fifth Fang said. “Have you told First Fang?”
“Not yet. I wanted to look up this date in the private archive. It was an exceptionally active year for the Demon. See here are my notes: The Dreyfus Affair in France, London rocked by the Oscar Wilde scandal, U.S. gold reserve was saved when J. P. Morgan and the Rothschilds lent $65 million in gold to the Treasury, the Treaty of Shimonoseki signed between China and Japan, Rudolf Diesel patents the Diesel engine; also the first U.S. patent for an automobile. Workers killed by soldiers of the Russian Empire during the Yaroslavl Great Manufacture strike. Wilhelm Röntgen discovers a type of radiation later known as the X-ray, and the Duck Reach Power Station opened in Tasmania, that first publicly owned hydroelectric plant in the Southern Hemisphere.”
“The Treaty of Shimonoseki,” Fifth said warming to the subject. “The Treaty of Shimonoseki. Let’s just scratch this one,” he said, taking a pencil from his pocket and running a thin line through the words. “Take it out before you show the others. I doubt First will notice the omission. If he does, tell him the year was wrong.”
“The archive wrong?” Second exclaimed.
“Pieces of paper get misfiled all the time,” Fifth said smoothly. “Besides which, First Fang will not notice, and by the time we all meet to discuss this, Wikipedia will certainly confirm this treaty was not signed until 1896.”
“As you wish,” Second Fang said with an obsequious nod, and then shrewd eyes snapped up as if to say ‘But it doesn’t come free.’ “Why?” he asked. “What is so important about this treaty?”
“It involves China. Beyond that, I don’t know.” He smiled hungrily. “Yet.”
Selina’s back slammed into the floor, punctuated by a soft cry that ended in a grunt that stood in for a curse.
“Fall for that every time,” she muttered as Bruce’s proffered hand helped her up.
“Can’t help it. If you’re not fully committed to the attack, I’ve got double the torso strength to block. If you’re committed, momentum’s going to land you right back on the ground.”
“Yes, I get that,” biting off the words as she left the mat and went to the short stalagmite where a shelf was rigged to hold their water bottles. “What I don’t get is how you get out of it a third of the time.”
“That took a lot of practice,” he said, watching the muscles of her throat as she gulped. “And even so, I can only pull it off about thirty-percent of the time.”
“It’s more than practice, you have to know what to do. Between old rooftops and now, I have to assume I’ve felt the technique more than anybody in Gotham, and I have no idea what’s going on.”
She had started to screw the lid back on the water bottle, but now noticing his smug little pre-lip-twitch, she stopped… slowly removed the lid… and poured the water down her chest.
“Ahh, that’s better,” she cooed, letting her head tilt back as she savored the cool shock of the water on her overheated body.
“I know what you’re doing,”
came the dry gravel. “That
only works thirty percent of the time,”
“That move also only works thirty percent of the time,”
“Sixty,” she said, licking her lips very subtly.
“Sixty,” she said, licking her lips very subtly.
“Thirty-two or thirty-three percent,
he said, eyes lingering on the
“Thirty-two or thirty-three percent, maybe,” he said, eyes lingering on the glistening water.
“It’s one of your
insane voodoo moves from Foshan, isn’t it?” she said, taking a step closer.
He grunted, locked onto a droplet of water that held its form on the slick of sweat on her skin.
“…Until you did something at the kwoon in Hong Kong that convinced them. Yes?”
His lip twitched.
“Tell me, Dark Knight, how’d you learn it?”
“I felt the technique.”
She was close enough to press against him, the sopping shirt and rock-hard nipples pushing insistently into his bare chest.
“Feel this technique.”
Thirty minutes later, as they sifted through a pile of discarded gis, street clothes and costumes putting themselves back together, Selina helped herself to Bruce’s shirt.
“I’m taking this as punishment,” she announced. “You’re holding out on me.”
Bruce didn’t exactly gesture to his crotch as he stared in affronted disbelief, but the message was clear.
“Not that way,” she said with a satisfied purr, then she explained. “When I’m the one blowing off steam, I tell you what it’s about. This round was for you, and I still don’t know a thing.”
“I was going to tell you,” said Bruce. “After. It’s not a mid-fight conversation. But you do have to know so you won’t worry.”
“That sounds ominous,” she said, making a face.
“It would be if I did nothing,” Bruce said. “Faust reminded me of a disturbing phenomenon going back to the First World War: a pilot flying his last combat mission before being rotated out was significantly more likely to crash. The statistics before going on leave to get married weren’t great either. I was aware of this, but there was nothing to be done about it, so I’d just resigned myself to being careful.”
“’Was nothing to be done,’ past tense,” Selina noted. “Faust came up with something you can do.”
“What the Air Corps did was simply not tell a man when he was flying his last mission. He’d land and they’d say ‘That was it.’ I can’t do that. Selina, if I said ‘Last night was my last patrol until after the wedding,’ and something awful happened that Batman could have prevented, it would haunt us both. It would hang over our marriage that the arbitrary choice of date cost lives. It’s no better if I leave it to the Batcomputer to randomly choose a date of the last patrol and tell me only when I get home from it. There’s the same guilt if something avoidable happens when I’m not out there, compounded with the exponential risk if the randomly chosen date is a late one. As it gets close to the wedding day and I’ll know the probability is increasing every night and the danger of subconsciously dropping my guard is magnified.”
“So what does Faust want you to do?” Selina asked.
“It’s basically time travel, patrolling out of sequence. I change places with myself from a few months down the timeline. These nights leading up to the wedding are covered. Nothing terrible happens that haunts us because I was playing it safe. Because Batman will be there, but it’s a me who’s already made it to the wedding so that psychological time bomb doesn’t apply.”
“But you’re going to be covering future you’s patrol,” Selina said. “Isn’t that rolling the same dice?”
“Say that again slowly and think about it,” he said in the patronizing tone used to tell a villain the flaw in their epic scheme.
“Jackass,” Selina said, and he laughed. She didn’t join in. “Look, from your point of view, you’re still getting married ‘tomorrow’. Why aren’t we worried you actually can die in the future and set up one of those paradoxes that leads to cosmic sparks burning—not to mention the you-dying part that makes me not care so much if the fabric of space time wants to unravel us all into unexistence.”
He held her arms and kissed her cheek.
“If there was any risk of a time paradox, Faust wouldn’t have suggested it,” he said like a mathematician working through a proof.
“Okay then,” Selina said. “Why aren’t we worried that we’re suddenly making a lot of compromises because of something called Faust. Magic, now time travel. It’s not like you, Bruce.”
“I’m not doing it for Faust, I’m doing it for you. For us. You said the prospect of my dying made you not care so much about the cosmic spark, what makes you think I feel any differently? If it’s a compromise, this is the time to make it. Jason said the thing’s not magic. Clayface said he’s coming for you next. I’m choosing to believe Jason, there’s nothing to think about.”
“Bruce, I love you,” Selina said, closing her eyes. “But doesn’t it creep you out just a little? Its name is Faust, and it offers what we want most—we get married without a hitch—we just have to bend this one little principle.”
“Its name is Faust because that’s Jason’s idea of a joke and a fifteen hundred-year-old wizard’s sense of humor doesn’t age well. A fifteen hundred-year-old wizard’s idea of a gift, on the other hand, is pretty spectacular. Selina, I spend my life trying to anticipate the possibilities. I do it because my life and the lives of everyone I care about could depend on it. I try to anticipate and then make a plan. And this… what we’re about to do… this wedding is something I never considered possible. For so many years, I never began to think through the contingencies and develop protocols… And since I proposed and you said yes, I have to admit it’s not comfortable being that far behind. Once I started to think about it, the number of things that could go wrong is staggering. The scale of the disasters. The permutations just on Clark as best man. On you as the bride. Bruce Wayne as the groom and Batman as the groom are two distinct sets of variables with virtually no overlap… Knowing if I work on nothing but this every second between now and the ceremony, I can’t possibly anticipate everything that might happen… And then suddenly it’s gone. With that one gift, the weight of that is gone. 51,600 trillion calculations per second that thing is capable of. Every news blurb that might get past me that would be a heads up on how Hagen will come at us, it won’t get past him. I don’t care if its name is Lucifer Satan von Joker III.”
Selina could not contain the snorting laugh.
“Lucifer, Satan, von…”
“I don’t say I would call it that,” Bruce backpedaled. “I’d call it LSJ or something.”
“LSJ the Third,” she nodded, now containing her laughter but just barely.
“Three. LSJ3,” Bruce said.
“Okay, fine,” Selina breathed. “You’re giddy,” she then noted approvingly. “How long are you going to be like this?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce said, looking into her eyes. “I’m marrying the woman I love. I didn’t think I would ever feel this.” He kissed her, and then turned serious. “There is one thing though. About the time travel, this is just to cover patrols. We cannot risk messing with the timeline, so I do not want you seeking out ‘future me’ and trying to find out what’s going to happen. None of your teasing, no games, no indulging your kink for messing with me when you know I can’t touch you.”
“You love it when I tempt you,” she said.
“Selina, this is important. This is using the ability to move through time for our own convenience. We have to be responsible, good citizens.”
“You’re telling me to be a good girl,” she laughed. “You really are committed to this ‘life is change’ thing if you’re standing there telling me to be a good girl and expecting it to take.”
“I’m teasing. I won’t throw a soda can out the window while we’re driving in the time lane. I won’t track down future you and find out if you wanted La Perla, Lise Charmel or Wanda’s House of Leather on the honeymoon. Your loss.”
From the musings of Ra’s al Ghul, year of the Green Wood Ram, Fifth Moon
How I have waited.
The fixed element of Fire rules the Year of the Wood Ram. The house ruled by the Ram is that of the high sun, the hours between one and three, and his principle season is summer. And summer approaches at last.
There have been eddies in the two great empires, but as the high season comes, I fear I must abandon the West, for now. Oscar Wilde’s arrest and trial consumed London, yet its aristocracy remains gallingly impervious to the currents that took down the nobility in other countries. We did what we could. That Victoria is a durable one. A maddening woman. It savages my bowels to say it, but her reign cannot be destabilized. May the Prince of Wales bring us better prospects.
For now I look East to that damnable Qing Dynasty in China. Early this year, Japanese troops captured Liaoyang and Taiwan and now the defeated Qing Empire has signed this Treaty of Shimonoseki. It renounces their claims on Korea, Taiwan, Fengtien province, and the Pescadores Islands. They paid a huge indemnity besides, and the Japanese have used it to establish iron and steel works. Foolishly in my opinion, mimicking the West and their mad obsession with industry. Nothing will come of it, this modern mania for progress.
The future is in the treaty itself, not the payout. Our petition, the Gongche Shangshu as it is known in China, 10,000 words strong expressing opposition to the treaty, though we have allowed the native operators to insert a few bits about reforms that they want. That too will come to nothing, but it is a political movement in modern China and we shall direct it. That Zaitian chap would have made an excellent husband for Talia, but there was no point pursuing it while he let his aunt do the ruling for him. If this auspicious summer proceeds as I hope, the Dowager Empress Cixi will be put down, and then we shall see…
Fifth Fang read it through again, committing the names to memory though he suspected the key name was not listed. The Dowager Empress Cixi was long gone; so was her nephew Zaitan aka Guangxu, the Eleventh Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. The Hundred Days of Reform certainly hadn’t played out the way the Demon’s Head intended, and the entire Qing Empire was no more. Even the Japanese Empire on the other side of the treaty hadn’t made it through the 20th Century. The only entity connected to the Demon Head’s musings of 1895 related to China that endured was the one Ra’s al Ghul dismissed (may the lapse of the Demon Head’s wisdom be unseen by his unworthy minion save at those times the noticing will serve His Great Purpose):
Yawata Iron and Steel Works, founded with the indemnity exacted from the Qing Empire at the Treaty of Shimonoseki, became Nippon Steel and then the Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation, second largest steel producer in the world, headquartered in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo.
‘WAYNE TECH A Wayne Enterprises Corporation’ and ‘DO IT RIGHT’, the bundled boxes read, and then the words vanished into a blur of ice blue as Eddie was pushed back by the recoil of Victor’s freeze ray and the blast of cold from a rapidly growing glacier that resulted from the test. Hm.
Nearly as much of the blast ricocheted off the boxes as went into them. He repeated the experiment on the brick wall and a pair of caution signs illustrating how to lift correctly and warning intruders the warehouse was guarded by zombies. In each case, the stick figures vanished into the glacier as a sound out of Star Trek emanated from the gun, and again Eddie was forced back by recoil and cold. Hm.
He adjusted the distance and tried on a storage container, which was satisfactory. Then climbing on top of the storage container he shot down at some wooden crates. The higher angle did not help, and again he was nearly caught in the rapidly growing ice ball.
So, distance. Distance was the only way to go without the shielding of a cold suit and the built-in protection of Victor’s metabolism. The warehouse would be tricky, a lot of narrow aisles and short range obstacles. Very tricky shooting, though those same features made it the best location he’d seen to trap his prey. He took out his list and stared at the words…
There was nothing special about the warehouse where Bane had brought Kittlemeier, other than it was a corner of the war unknown to non-participants. The address would mean nothing to Batman, which gave his riddle a fighting chance.
The riddle that he had yet to write. His greatest riddle. It had to be. It had to be so subtle it wouldn’t be recognized as a Riddler-clue at all.
If only he could not send it. It would be so easy if just this one time he could not send a riddle announcing his crime beforehand. Just this ONE TIME. He closed his eyes as if squeezing his brain trying to force the plan into being—
His eyes popped open, his right eyebrow mysteriously arched on its own as if the ‘birthing’ process locked his facial muscles into this new contortion. He stared in unfocused shock until the pain of his eyeballs drying snapped him out of it. He… actually had… there actually was… a way to do this. A part of his plan that had nothing to do with Batman directly, that Batman would see but think nothing of, would never recognize as a clue because it wasn’t one. And yet it was. It could be—it certainly could be. All he had to do was pretend it was, pretend he’d done it on purpose. YES!
He checked his list. There was only one location still to check: the catacombs under the cathedral. Now that it didn’t matter for the clue, it wasn’t so important. Still, he may as well be thorough.
Second Fang was furious. He couldn’t wait for the meeting to end. When it did, when Fifth Fang did his usual ambling towards the inner throne room, Second marched up to him with all the indignation of a minion who had wasted his time in the private archives for nothing.
He stood before Fifth Fang aggressively—to the extent that one can ‘stand’ aggressively—and then looked guiltily towards the throne.
“Come,” he said. “What I have to say to you is not worthy of these hallowed surroundings.”
Fifth looked put out by the drama more than anything, and he followed reluctantly to the outer chamber, to the receiving room beyond that, and then to the hallway.
Where Second slapped him.
“Why didn’t you tell me about Macau?!” he demanded in a peevish whisper. “After we left to research the herbs, Pikhai told you about a conversation he had with Ra’s al Ghul where the Great One referenced a city directly because it used olive oil. Clearly we are to strike Macau! Clearly we’re meant to do something in Macau! Why didn’t you just tell me I’d wasted my time! Why didn’t you tell me instead of letting me go through my whole pointless story about outraged chefs and sachets of spice, useless research on 1895. Why didn’t you tell me before I walked into a meeting about our mandate to strike Macau?!”
“Are you finished?” Fifth asked. “I didn’t tell you because the rest of them will chase Macau. Only you and I know there is any alternative target.”
“There isn’t an alternative target. The answer is Mac—”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Fifth said, taking a small notebook from his pocket. “Look at this. Only 1.4 kilometers from the headquarters of Nippon Steel. 1.4 kilometers—you can get there in three minutes if the traffic is with you. Three minutes!” he hissed. “In the vastness of the globe, from far away Atlantis, the master’s clues point to a target only 1.4 kilometers from THAT! I say that cannot be coincidence.”
Second stared at the words in the notebook, wanting to be skeptical but unable to do so.
“Even if it isn’t what the master intended, we will distinguish ourselves,” he said finally.
“We will,” said Fifth. “We surely will.”
“ARRGH! ow-woof-damnit,” Selina cursed, then rolled over onto her back.
“C’mon, Kitten, you can do better than that,” Bruce said, dropping his hand to help her up.
“I seriously doubt that,” she said, shaking it off and twiddling her claws like a tennis player bouncing between sets. “Have you noticed I’m doing worse with each round.”
“I have,” he said, bowing and then taking a ferocious swing. “You’re letting the emotions drive. You know it’s less effective.”
“It’s not a choice at this point,” she hissed.
Things might be changing at the Gotham Post, but Selina was not about to sit down with one of their reporters for that second interview. After Martin Stanwick, the most qualified writer was Ford Dormont. His books were so-so beach reading when she was laying low after a heist, and he was as apt to make up shit as his rivals. But judging by the first date he invented for them at the engagement party, he knew the type of shit to make up. Whatever he fabricated in Mayfair would contrast whatever the new girl spun at the Post, and any interview would accomplish the primary objective: taking the heat off Alfred, Mr. Harriman, the gardeners, caterers, florists, and whoever else the paparazzi decided to stalk. So she floated the name past Faust, and receiving no warnings that there was a 45% probability Ford would turn into Clayface and smother her, she told it to set up the interview.
Then she forgot about it. That night was to be the last Date Night with Batman for quite some time. He would be replaced by his 6-months-from-now doppleganger until the wedding, and after, Catwoman couldn’t be seen in Gotham until Selina returned from her honeymoon.
Nothing special was planned. Like any date night, it was to be an ordinary patrol she tagged along on, but there was word of three factions competing for the drug business in a particular nightclub—and they had delicious synchronicity in nightclubs. Typically Catwoman went in first, deliberately voluptuous, deliberately visible, picked her target, asked questions, occasionally started some trouble. Once people started moving, Batman watched. Depending on who ran, who texted, who tried for a discreet exit or pulled a weapon, he picked his targets and intercepted, detained, pummeled or followed. Tonight looked like a pummel-pummel-intercept/detain/question and Catwoman did her bit taking out wildcards, removing outliers from the perimeter and watching his back… It was 49 seconds of prime date night action, another 28 until she could join him outside in the alley—where he was finishing off the goon that she assumed he’d pulled outside to question.
The guy fell unconscious as she approached, but before she could ask why Batman had knocked him out, he turned with a look that was—quite pissed.
“It’s for you,” he growled, and Selina saw the muted brownish-orange glow appear from behind his cape.
“Faust, what the hell?” she said.
“You are having breakfast with Mr. Dormont tomorrow morning at Café Boulud,” it said.
“That could wait. Go away,” Selina ordered.
“It is advisable that you retire now and have an ample night’s sleep to appear fully rested as I have made a lunch reservation for yourself and Patrick McKael, the society photographer at Sant Ambroeus. This will allow you to cut off the meeting with Mr. Dormont. There is a 71% chance he will follow you, a 64% chance he will visit Mr. McKael’s website where you appear in almost 2,000 photographs. It is advised that when you leave Mr. Dormont, you arrange to meet him for drinks to complete your interview. He is likely to suggest Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle. It is recommended you propose Belvue Wine Bar as an alternative.”
“You think you’re feeding me enough, Faust? I thought we’d just do it at the house like with Martin.”
“Do I have to be here for this?” Batman growled, rubbing the knuckles of his glove.
“I have analyzed the works of Mr. Dormont and selected the Gotham eateries most likely to appeal as a setting in future novels and cross-referenced with those unknown to him because they did not exist or were not prominent when he was actively living and writing in Gotham. This is the recommended course of action. Mr. Dormont will not be intrigued by the presence of the Atlantis honor guard… Batman’s continued presence is immaterial to the success of the interview.”
“It was a rhetorical question, Faust; he was being sarcastic,” Catwoman said as Batman fired a line behind her and ascended rapidly to the rooftops. “Or maybe he wasn’t,” she said softly.
Officially, any minion is thrilled at any order, for it is a chance to serve the Demon. Officially, no minion feels joy, frustration or disappointment beyond that, for an order is a chance to serve the Demon. That said, Pikhai was excited, overjoyed and downright giddy at the orders read to him. Traveling to Spain, Italy or Chile to sample the freshly picked olives and dictate a pressing… an Oleologist. It was a dream!
Having no belongings beyond the clothes on his back, “packing” was not something he could do in any meaningful way. He tried. He’d gone to the drawer that constituted the communal arsenal of the Fourth Galata Division: Tokatlıyan War Dogs. There were shuriken of varying shapes, caltrops, tekken, a throwing knife, a sai, various picks, a grappling hook, a spiked ring, a poison ring, climbing claws, tekko-kagi claws, kusari-fundo, nunchucks, a blow pipe, a rope dart, kyoketsu shoge, kusarigama… none of it would do. None of it suited the task before him. But the mission before him was so exciting, he had to prepare in some way.
Technically, he should care nothing about the recipients beyond Ra’s al Ghul’s desire to honor their union with a gift. But he felt an energy that simply had to find an outlet, and there was that phrase in the Demon’s order calling for stamps and seals on the presented letter: ‘for such always impress the fair sex.’ The bride’s sensibilities were therefore of special interest to the Demon’s Head. It was his particular wish that she look on his gift with favor. A study of her tastes would not be amiss to prepare for his trip. How could he weigh the viscosity, bitterness or fruitiness of the olives to create a crisp, vibrant and structured oil without knowing the kind of palate he was dealing with?
So he crept from his bed, unearthed the two packs of cigarettes he kept for barter (no food taster would dull his palate by smoking them) and bought his way into the south communication center where the night crew was more lenient. Four cigarettes bought him a little over three hours internet access, enough to watch a typical Bollywood film which was the usual reason for these transactions. The first night, his research into Selina Kyle was sidetracked almost before it began.
There was a monsoon of data on the name alone, and cross-referencing with Bruce Wayne didn’t help. Combining both names into a search and cross-referencing with food did the trick: there was mention of the restaurant D’Annunzio’s where the couple was first seen dining together. Reasoning there could be no better introduction to the cuisine of Gotham City and the tastes of his subjects, he looked for more on the restaurant and found himself down a rabbit hole of culinary wonders that left him shaking.
He knew Gotham was a great city with many rivers, which always meant diversity in the population and cuisine, but he had no idea, no glimmer of an idea. How was it even possible for one place to hold so many eateries? How was there even room? Did they build them on top of one another? How could so many be staffed? How could enough fish be caught? Enough pigs slaughtered? Enough rice—to say nothing of the variety. D’Annunzio’s wasn’t merely Italian or Northern Italian but Tuscan-Venetian Fusion. There were simple ‘French’ restaurants but also bistros specializing in the regional specialties of Provence, Gascony, Burgundy, Roussillion... even French Guiana, French Creole, and French Moroccan! There was a bakery offering nothing but the breads of Northern India! There was a place for West Indian curries. There was a ‘pop up’ restaurant specializing in dishes brought to India by Persian invaders! When his time ran out, Pikhai realized he hadn’t read a word about Selina Kyle. Rather than buy another three hours, he went to bed to dream about Gotham, no longer the city of Him Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken but a place where you could eat your way from Osaka to Tabriz to Jamaica in only a few steps.
The next night he returned to research Selina Kyle and this time he actually got to her as a subject. Once again he searched Selina Kyle Bruce Wayne xref food, ignored the siren song of D’Annunzio’s the palace of Tuscan-Venetian Fusion, and delved into the only other hit: Le Grand Festival d'Oenologie et Gastronomie Françaises.
He blinked. He read the words again. He clicked through and read… He translated the blurb into his native Farsi just to double-check his English… These people, this Selina Kyle knew a great deal about wine. This Bruce Wayne—this Wayne Manor—had hosted a great festival of food and wine. No wonder the Great One had commissioned such a gift. Pikhai’s hand had risen to his chest, his chest puffed out with pride. The honor that was to be his! He would devise such an olive oil for this happy couple that would bring honor to the name Ra’s al Ghul!
Bruce blocked the sparring claws that would have threshed the scars of his first cat scratch.
“Maybe it’s not letting the emotions drive,” he taunted. “Maybe Faust bouncing you through every bar and restaurant on Museum Row’s slowed you down.”
Selina hissed, but she didn’t take the bait. Rather than swing, she tumbled sideways and when his weight shifted to turn, she vaulted past him and snatched a smoke pellet from his belt, landed, and held it up triumphantly.
“Score! Now I toss this at your feet and get away.”
“Woof,” Bruce said, conceding the point. “So, we’re back to deuce?”
“We’re back to deuce. Call it a draw?”
“I have time for one more round before patrol. And I want to hear more about this Torrick.”
The first half of the Ford Dormont interview went as expected. Selina broke it off citing errands she had to run before a lunch engagement. She offered drinks later to finish up, and that’s when Ford threw her a curve—he brought another writer with him. Ash Torrick was a younger man in his late forties, not bad looking if you went for the Lex Luthor thing. He’d been a rather serious novelist for a few books and then abruptly cashed out. He lent his name to a lurid magazine of the ‘Finding Big Foot’ variety, followed almost immediately by a TV show Ash Torrick’s Ancient Mysteries, rebranded after a season to cover a broader spectrum of pseudo-science and conspiracy theories.
In short, he seemed an unlikely friend for Ford Dormont and an even less likely colleague. But there they were, and Selina made it through the second half of the Dormont interview with an extra audience member. When she got home, she asked Faust if he planned it and got only silent glowing in reply.
“And now you’re popping off into the future,” she told Bruce, blocking his kick more efficiently than his Zogger playmates and leading him by his own momentum down to the mat… “Swapping patrols with future-you on the principle that Faust knows what he’s doing.”
The move cost her, for the same momentum she used against him made it impossible to get away quick enough. He pulled her down on top of him, spun them into a roll and pinned her hard.
“It will be fine,” he said, his lip grazing her cheek in a pseudo-kiss before adjusting to prevent her counter. “The AI may be keeping things from us, that’s not a bad sign. Sixty percent of my protocols rely on not giving participants all the information. I can’t expect people to react naturally and plausibly if they know too much.”
His struggle to control the pin ground his hip against hers, while her squirming to get out from under his superior torso strength brought her arm under his to grab his shoulder from behind, using the strength of his pin to pull herself up and pressing her chest fiercely into his.
“Ahem, excuse me, sir, miss,” Alfred said as if he’d walked in on them reading the newspaper. “There is a visitor upstairs. One was told to announce ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Kyray’ is here for Miss Selina.”
To be continued…