Chapter 20: The Council meeting
Copyright © 2018 by Brian Bixby
Monday morning, Charlotte makes my phone call explaining I will not be at work because I am sick, and then escorts me out to a car. We drive out of the city and into the suburbs. I ask Charlotte how she can defend me while she is driving. She tells me she’ll use the car as a weapon, as if it’s the most natural thing to do.
I’m still not sure if I’m up for this. I did talk to Charlotte yesterday over dinner. It helped, in an indirect way. That girl is weird. She is sorry her friend is dead, but not that she killed him. As far as she’s concerned, it was an accident. She feels no guilt. In fact, she feels no guilt about anything.
I do not want to be Charlotte. I’d rather feel guilt. It’s quite an insight: I want to have feelings of guilt when appropriate. Somehow that makes me feel better about my situation. Guilt is something Perfect Daphne Mark II would have. Had better have.
And it’s Perfect Daphne Mark II I have to call on this morning. Perfect Daphne would see this through. Perfect Daphne will not be a pawn, a failure due to inaction. Perfect Daphne would be a proud demigoddess, no matter that the Council refused her any rights. And Perfect Daphne would be hell cat, too, and damn proud of it.
Push that to its limit. I will support this plan of Vesta’s to get Agatha her due with all the means at my disposal. I will do whatever is necessary, period. It frightens me to think it, but this has already become a killing matter, and I was one of the targets. Vesta understated the case. Agatha’s future is on the line. My future is on the line. My life is on the line. I will be hell cat, a legendary killer, by choice as much as by nature, if that is what I need to be on this day. I don’t really know what that means, true. But neither does the Council. For about the first time since I set off for Exile, I feel good again.
The Council is meeting in some Masonic Hall they occasionally rent, one with the capacity to hold all the people attending. I can see Vesta’s Enforcers, in plain clothes, patrolling the grounds. Charlotte escorts me into a side entrance.
And there is Agatha! I rush forward, wrap myself around her, and vice versa, and we chatter a bit. Henry stands off in the background. Descended from gods of war he may be, but he knows better than to get between us. And now I can face what’s coming with joy as well as determination.
My Mum arrives with Vesta. She eyes me warily, and then comes up to me and quietly says, “I’m sorry about what happened in Exile.”
I’ll make allowances. I have to, for my own sake. “Theobald said he could understand why you might have thought it was him. I’m not going to bother holding a grudge, Mum. I’m back.” She’s relieved, and we hug. But my heart’s not in it. In truth, I am holding a grudge against her for sending me to be thrown into chains without any warning. But now is not the time for it.
Vesta calls out, “Enough family affection. Come on out with me. It’s show time!” She looks like she’s hit a jackpot, she’s so happy, even though she’s in uniform. Dress uniform at that, I guess: she’s got spangle-laden shoulder braids.
We’re seated among the spectators at the west end of the hall. The Council lines the two sides, and Vesta wasn’t kidding: there looks to be maybe 75 of them. Considering normal attendance at a New England session is more like 15, this is amazing. All-Father sits in the east, Minerva Land, the vice chairperson, at his right. The two of them make a study in contrasts. All-Father wears a long gray beard and white robe to make him look old and dignified, while Minerva looks like a much younger stylish black businesswoman in her brown and white business suit and skirt. Vesta climbs onto the stage to take her seat to All-Father’s left.
It occurs to me while we’re waiting that I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to do. I nudge Agatha, and ask her if she knows. She says not, that we’re supposed to let Vesta and Mum take the lead. Perfect Daphne Mark II inwardly growls. We’ll see.
Another ten minutes go by, and then All-Father declares the meeting opened. “First item of business: charges against Daphne Vane. Madame Enforcer?”
Vesta stands up, and instead of speaking from the stage, walks down between the rows, all the way to the west end where we sit. She beckons us, “All of you,” she stage-whispers. We come out, Vesta has us form a line about in the middle of the hall, facing the stage. “Please identify yourselves for the Council,” she says, and points to Mum.
“Cynthia Vane, and I have full Council rights.” Meaning she’s a recognized goddess.
Agatha is up next. “Agatha Vane. I have partial Council rights.”
Vesta interjects, “Your relationship to Cynthia?”
“She is my mother.”
Vesta points to my brother-in-law and he identifies himself. “Henry Marshall, husband to Agatha, with full Council rights.” Henry’s not bashful. He can easily be heard at either end of the hall, I’m sure.
I expect to speak next. But Vesta has a different agenda. She stands in front of Agatha. “A demigoddess who married a god, I see. You married above your rank.” Vesta makes it sound as if Agatha doesn’t deserve it.
Henry takes offense. “My wife is the equal of anyone in the hall, and I will challenge anyone who claims otherwise.” He glares at Vesta.
“Oh, I agree, Henry Marshall, I agree. I think almost as highly of your wife as you do.” Vesta’s comment causes a small ripple of laughter. And then she steps so she’s standing before me. She points at me.
“Daphne Vane, and I have no Council rights.”
Vesta pretends surprise. “Are you not Cynthia’s daughter as well? And have the same father as your valued sister Agatha? Why have you no Council rights?”
“I was tested at age sixteen and found to lack enough power to qualify for rights. People blamed it on my human father.”
“And so you were put near the bottom of the marriage list. Yet somehow,” Vesta turns around, speaking to the hall, “you are now in the upper half. Why is that?”
There’s a scuffling of feet and some whispers, but no one answers Vesta’s question.
I don’t know if I am to answer the question or not. Vesta may have this all rigged, but I’m running blind. Be bold, I tell myself, be Perfect Daphne. So I decide to answer the question. “I’ve heard there’s a rumor my mother lied about my birth, that it is higher than reported.”
“Ah!” Vesta turns and smiles at me. “Thank you, Daphne.” She turns again to the Council. “Is there anyone who can testify to such a rumor?”
An older man stands up. He’s well enough known that even I recognize him: Fabius Quinn, a god with a sterling reputation. And Vesta must have recruited him for this role. Wow! “I will testify to the rumor. I heard it, not long before the Vane girl’s ranking on the marriage list was changed.”
“And what did you think of the rumor, sir?”
He shakes his head. “Thought it was nonsense. Consider her mother.” He gives my mother a casual look. “We all know Cynthia is, ah, economical with the truth. Who of us has not been flattered by her lips, pretty as they are? I thought she might have started the rumor to get her child a better marriage. I told Donovan that, but the Marriage Committee went ahead anyhow.”
“Did you hear any other rumor about Daphne Vane?” Vesta’s got this worked out.
“These last few days, I heard people say that the first rumor was false, that the Vane girl wasn’t even fully human. I thought that possible, if unlikely, but did not offer my opinion to anyone.”
Vesta spins around. “Did you hear these rumors, Arran Marshall?”
Arran is Henry’s uncle and the power in that family, the one who holds a Council seat. He looks startled as he stands. “What the blazes difference does it make if I did or not?”
“Wouldn’t rumors about Daphne Vane affect your family’s reputation because your nephew is married to her sister Agatha?”
Arran Marshall’s answer is terse. “It might.” He resents being questioned, it is clear.
“You have employed a Brazilian exile named Pedro on several occasions. You even sent him once to entertain Daphne Vane. Did you send him again . . . ?”
Arran interrupts. “Enough. You’ve made your point, Vesta.” This is the man who hired Pedro? Both times? He steps forward into the central space, and looks scornfully at me. To the hall, he proclaims, “What Vesta Fox wants me to admit is that I sent a man to kill the girl. I did. I was certain she was about to bring disgrace on my family. But what if I did? She has no Council rights. She is nothing. And this obnoxious woman here,” and he points to Vesta, “and her jack-booted thugs think to play with us all for her own purposes. We should be rid of them!”
I know the Enforcers are not popular, but I am surprised to see a number of Council members nodding in agreement. Vesta has miscalculated.
She stands there, facing Arran Marshall, and she is steaming at his words. “You are a fool, Arran Marshall! You are a complete and utter fool! Did you check the rumors? Did you consider the source?” She pauses rhetorically. “No, not you. Well, here is news for you: both rumors are true.”
Vesta has everyone’s full attention now. She points to me. “Her father is of higher rank than was believed. And her heritage is inhuman, too. She’s got the blood of an inhuman god on her father’s side.”
Vesta faces Arran Marshall. “And do you know what she did to the demigod you sent to kill her? She slaughtered him. Easily. Used him as her plaything in every way and then slaughtered him. Demigods are no challenge for her. And now that she knows who hired that killer, well, she may come for you next. Can you handle an alien god, Arran Marshall? I doubt it. And don’t look to me or my jack-booted thugs to help you. I resign.” And with that she rips off her uniform jacket and tosses it aside. “I’ll not protect the likes of you!”
A general uproar grips the hall, with Council members expostulating on Vesta’s action and glancing uneasily at me. I’m as surprised as anyone. By all the gods, Vesta did it! She used my killing of Pedro! She named me as a killer in front of the entire Council!
I don’t know what is supposed to happen next. But I know the Council has been taken by surprise and is frightened of me, right now, right this moment. Deep in my bones, I know it is my time to act. I am going to take advantage of this fear and do something with it.
I start walking, east. Arran Marshall steps back out of my way. I afford him not a glance. I have bigger game afoot now. Step after step, until I reach the stage. The hall is dead quiet now. They are watching me They are frightened by what they are seeing. I don’t have to look down to feel my hands change. The fingers are getting longer and more powerful, the nails transforming into lethal claws, just as they did in the Exile prison, just as they did when Pedro threatened me.
I mount the steps to the stage and head directly toward All-Father. Both he and Minerva Land stand up in a bit of a panic. They can see me. They can see how I’ve changed.
I stand before All-Father. Now that I see him up close, psychologically off-balance and on the defensive, he looks much less impressive than the figure I’ve made him out to be in my head, the ruler of the Council and our people for maybe centuries now.
I can easily smell the fear now, coming from all of them. Must be my hell cat heritage. The Council’s afraid of me. All-Father is afraid of me. They all wait to see what I will do.
I know what will work here. In a voice loud enough to be heard by the Council members, I say, “I want justice and I will have it now. Or I will have blood.” And I raise my hand as if to strike at All-Father. There is blood dripping from my fingernails onto the floor, my blood from the transformation to my hands. But it could be their blood. I look closely at All-Father and realize he’s thinking the very same thing. Any other time this would not work. Me confronting All-Father? But right now, none of them know what I can do. They’ve seen me change. They see blood dripping from my hands. And they know I’ve killed the likes of them already. The whole point of the Council is to prevent killing among the gods. And I have brought it back in. They are not just afraid. They are horrified.
All-Father hasn’t led the gods for so long without knowing a trick or two. He tries to regain his dignity, and the initiative. “You will have justice, all in good time. The Council will hear your case, Daphne Vane, and I pledge they will judge it fairly.”
I shake my head. “Haven’t you heard? I have no Council rights, so there is nothing they can do for me. And they can’t stop me, either. I’m not bound by their rules. So I want justice by my rules. Justice for a wrong you committed,” and I pause to emphasize what I am about to say, “32 years ago. Or I will take justice into my own hands, here and now. 32 years, All-Father. Justice or blood. I can’t wait any longer.”
He must know what I want. And, even if they didn’t already know, so should quite a few other people on the Council. They can see Agatha. They can guess how old she is, if they don’t remember. A flicker of suspicion crosses All-Father’s face, and then surprise. He knows it all, now. He’s realized what is being done to him, here and now, something he will never be able to undo. No matter how he answers me, any chance he had of engineering a marriage between Agatha and himself is gone. Forget the problems divorcing his wife would cause. Under no circumstances can he ally himself to a family that includes someone who has gone so far outside the laws and customs as myself, my inhuman self, and in front of the Council at that!
All-Father may be arrogant, but he’s not stupid. He decides to save face. So he concedes. But he does so in a way to draw attention back to himself. He steps past me, down the stairs, off the stage, and along the center of the hall until he comes to Agatha. He turns theatrically to the Council and proclaims, “Thirty-two years ago, a child of mine was born, whom I did not acknowledge to the Council. I have long regretted that misdeed. So I will correct it now. I declare Agatha Vane is my daughter, begotten by me on Cynthia Vane 32 years ago.”
The Council is touched. The Council is impressed. They don’t even think about how All-Father has just admitted to incest with his sister. All-Father has staged a remarkable recovery. He has them on his side now. And he decides to revenge himself on me. He turns to the east, to face me, and shouts defiance. “Does that satisfy you, you child of monsters, you and your talk of blood?” He has taken my challenge, and turned it into an accusation against me. I am the person who has violated everything the Council stands for. I am now the enemy.