CHAPTER 28: A MEAL IN PARIS
“Ah, the great warrior rises.” said Mabus as Virgil and Jeda came downstairs.
The house which he had been brought to was a pleasant, unassuming semi-detached in a leafy Berlin suburb circa 1970. It was this innocuous dwelling that Mabus had selected as the base for a war spanning all of space and time.
“How are you feeling, my boy?” the old man asked kindly.
“Well.” said Virgil “Very well. I owe you my life.”
“I will not be slow to collect the debt, you can be sure of that.” said Mabus, and although he wore a half smile, it was clear he was quite serious.
The kitchen was bright and attractive, and around the varnished wooden table sat Aodh and a tall Ugandan who was introduced to Virgil as Baako.
“Hello” said Baako “You look like you have been hit many times in the face with a hammer.”
“He looks fine.” Jeda retorted .
“Whatever you say.” Baako replied.
“Who were they?” Virgil asked “Those people in the garden ?”
“Not “who”.” Aodh growled “We don’t call them “who”. “What” does them quite nicely. They’re not people.”
“But they spoke…”
“So do parrots, echoes and ghosts. They’re not people. Don’t call them that.”
“Why not?” Virgil asked.
“Makes them all the harder to kill.” said Aodh “And they’re plenty hard as it is.”
“How much has Jeda told you?” Mabus asked.
“She told me that I can control time. See angels and demons, and that you all can too.”
“Correct. We are what are known as Temporal Adepts. We are members of a very select group. Only one in every three billion human beings in all of space and time can do what we do. A very long time ago I and eight others were tasked with making sure that none of our fellow Temporals use this ability to change history for their own ends. We call ourselves the Nine Unknown Men.”
“Because.” said Mabus “It’s because of me that there are Temporals to begin with. We work in secrecy, even our fellow Temporals do not know of our existence.”
“But you’re telling to me about it now?”
“Yes.” said Mabus “Because as it happens we’re recruiting.”
Virgil blinked “You want me to join you?”
Mabus nodded “I do.”
Virgil briefly glanced over at Jeda and then kicked himself. No Virgil, that is not a good reason for joining.
“I…this thing I can do. I barely know how to use it.”
“We can train you. And with your skills as a swordsman I have no doubt we will make a forimidable opponent out of you.”
“I have a life back in France.”
“Is it a life you’d miss?”
“Then why are we arguing? Besides. You can return whenever you want and it’ll be as if you were never gone.”
“But what about those peo…those things in the garden?”
“What is your name?”
“What are you afraid of?”
“What is everyone afraid of?”
“No, that is what they should be afraid of. But what do people actually fear?”
“Death. They’re afraid of death.”
“Are you, Virgil?”
For a second, he saw Lula in his minds eye, her hands clamped on his throat, hissing that she would eat him alive.
“Yes.” he whispered.
“Would you do anything to stay alive , Virgil?” Mabus asked.
“No.” Virgil whispered.
“Did you say something?”
“No.” he said, louder “There are things I would not do to stay alive.”
“Well you see.” said Mabus “Those things in the garden have no such qualms.”
He crossed over to the teapot which sat snugly on the stove and poured himself a cup of tea. Without his hat he looked even older. He looked frail and weak, and not the mighty warrior that Virgil had seen only hours ago.
“We call them Lepers, Virgil.” said Mabus “Adepts who have discovered a way to draw time itself out of living things, to age them and so prolong their own lives. It’s called the Leper’s kiss.”
Virgil touched his neck lightly with his good hand. There was a spot of skin that felt dry and leathery, like the skin of an old man. It was very tender to the touch. He remembered Lula kissing him there, and feeling like his very life was being drawn out of him.
“If I had not pulled her off you, you would be dead. They would have found the shrivelled body of an old man on the forest come morning.”
He felt sick. Mabus continued.
“They travel throughout time, looking for victims, but they seem to have a special taste for Temporals. They can sense us, they track us down and they kill us without mercy to prolong their own wretched existence. They hunt us, Virgil. And there is nowhere you can hide from them.”
Virgil swallowed. His mouth felt as dry as a dirt road.
“So what can we do?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t know about you.” said Aodh “But we’ve found tracking them down and cutting off their heads tends to work quite well.”
“What we do is not pleasant.” said Mabus “But it is vital. It is your choice. If you wish I can leave you back home right now and you will never see any of us again.”
Virgil looked again at Jeda. Really, really, not the right reason to join, Virgil.
“And kindly stop staring at my daughter.” said Mabus politely.
The look on Virgil’s face was so priceless that Jeda wouldn’t stop laughing for a whole five minutes.
The floor was coming towards him, slowly, softly, like a rising flood. It hit him lovingly across the face, the pain spreading over his nose and forehead like a balm. He lay there. He was still.
He didn’t move.
“Get up.” said Mabus irritably, kicking his leg “I didn’t hit you that hard.”
“I…beg to differ.” mumbled Virgil, his mouth still full of floor.
“Come on now, get up.”
“No. I like it here.”
Mabus snorted in irritation and muttered something under his breath about worthless, pampered aristos.
“Virgil, if you find yourself in this position when next you face the Lepers, I guarantee you they will not allow you a brief recess on the floor to recover yourself.”
“All the more reason to do it now.”
“Don’t you understand the importance of this? We will be moving against their main nest soon, and if you have not learnt to use your abilities in some kind of vaguely impressive way they will suck the life out of you and eat your heart. ”
“Yes. But they will also let me lie on the floor.”
“Oh for God’s sake…get up!” and he kicked him again.
“Dad. Can I have a word?”
Mabus raised his wizened head to see Jeda standing in the doorway of the sparring room. She had the look. You know the one.
“Yes?” he asked her as they stood in the doorway. Virgil was still splayed out in the middle of the floor like a dead starfish.
“You’re working him too hard.”
Mabus gave a look of mild affront. “I am not. I am training him.”
“To death. You’ve been beating him sideways for the last hour and a half. Factoring in all the time you’ve been slowing down it’s probably closer to five.”
“I’ve been going very easy on him.”
“Very easy for you is still enough to kill most normal people.”
“Hardly. And if the Lepers get their claws into him…”
“I know. But you’re forgetting that we’ll be there too. The way you were going you’d think he had to take them all on himself.”
“He may have to. We don’t even know how many there are.”
“Have you found the nest?”
“Yes.” said Mabus quietly “Stalingrad, four months into the siege.”
“Wonderful. We’ll have to look out for snipers and mortars as well as Lepers.” she sighed “I’ve been having some very nasty dreams about this one, Dad.”
“You know they don’t always come true. You’re not your mother. We’ll be fine.” he said, and laid a hand on her shoulder.
He had done this before, and then as now, she had noticed that it didn’t feel like the hand of an old man. If she closed her eyes, it felt warm and strong, full of life, a healthy pulse beating through it. It was only when she opened her eyes that she saw the bulging purple veins and the weathered brown skin.
“I know.” she whispered “We’ll be fine. All eight of us.”
“Nine.” he corrected her.
“I’m assuming you’ll have killed Virgil by then.”
Mabus snorted. “Alright, I shall relent.”
“Let me take him for the rest of the day.” she offered “He’ll make the extra effort for me.”
“Oh.” said Mabus wryly “So it’s that way, is it?”
Jeda slowly walked into the centre of the room and regarded the human jellyfish.
“Floor nice?” she asked. The result was ecstatic.
Within a second he was on his feet, dusting himself off.
“Yes.” he coughed abashedly “Very nice.”
“He’s pretty spry for an old man, isn’t he?”
Virgil slumped back onto the floor, sitting on his knees. Jeda went down on her hunkers, a sympathetic smile on her face.
“It’s like fighting a hurricane!” he exclaimed.
“That’s nothing.” she told him “You should see him when he gets going.”
“How am I supposed to fight someone like that?”
“You’re not. But you do need to get faster.”
“I know, I know, the Lepers.” he buried his face in his hands “Jeda, I don’t even know what I’m doing here. I keep expecting to wake up in the forest.”
“C’mon.” she said, trying to rouse him “Show me what Mabus taught you.”
She stood and adopted a basic fighting stance.
“On you?” he asked.
“On me.” she said.
“I can’t, you’re a woman.”
“Very astute of you. C’mon.”
“I can’t hit you.”
“What makes you think I’m going to let you? Besides it’s not about hitting me, it’s about getting to the right speed.”
“I’ll make you deal. If you can even touch me, I’ll buy you dinner in Paris in 1900. Trust me, that’s a good offer.”
“You’ll buy me dinner?”
“So what are you waiting for?” she asked him “Touch me.”
And she smiled. He felt dizzy again, and almost hit the floor.
“Okay. Favourite book?”
“What? Oh. Sorry, I was just distracted, I mean. It’s awful!”
He was gazing in mute horror over her shoulder. Puzzled, she turned around to see what he was looking at.
The Eiffel Tower stood proudly astride the Parisian skyline, lit up and golden.
“I mean, how did they ever get away with building it?” he asked her.
“Actually, when most people think of Paris, they think of that.” she informed him “It’s probably the most famous monument in the world.”
“Whoever designed it should be shot.” said Virgil prissily “Clearly good taste died along with the nineteenth century.”
“I don’t know.” she said “I think it’s kind of elegant looking.”
“It’s an abomination.” he told her.
“Ah, but it brings in the tourists. Anyway, how’s the food?”
“Wonderful.” he said.
“Good. So, as I was saying, favourite book?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I was raised in the twentieth century, that’s how we do it.”
“You ask each other about books?”
“Books, music, hats, anything. It’s just a way to get to know each other.”
“I see. Where…when I come from we do things a little differently.”
“Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not Duchess Pennyfarthingchuffingberry and I don’t know how to waltz and my father doesn’t own half of France and I doubt I could even fit into a corset. So…what’s your favourite book?”
“And for God’s sake don’t say Count of Monte Cristo!”
“I wasn’t going to. Why not?”
“Oh.” she said, running her fingers through her hair “It’s just everyone keeps telling me how great it is and I just never understood the appeal, sorry, my problem, I’ll deal with it. You were saying?”
She blew a disgusted raspberry.
“Did you just blow a raspberry at Dante?” he asked.
“Yes I did.”
“Why did you blow a raspberry at Dante?”
“Because he’s boring, and dull, and pious, and boring and stupid. That’s why.”
“You were forced to read him as a child.”
“How did you ever guess? Dad worships it. You’ll have something to talk to him about now.”
“Read it again.”
“Read it again, I say. It’s the greatest work of literature since the Bible.”
“Which also sucks.”
“Jeda!” he exclaimed in mock horror.
She blew another raspberry “…to the Bible” and another “…to Dante” she said.
“Philistine.” he said.
“And proud.” she rejoined.
Virgil gazed at her. He had not know that women like her existed. The only women he had ever known were either lambs or shrews. But she was…coarse? Yes, definitely that. And uncultured, and opinionated and she spoke to him like she thought he was his equal. And she was kind, and smart, and funny. And in the candle light she could take his breath away. And he looked at her.
“Through me the way into the suffering city,” he said.
“Through me the way to the eternal pain,”
“Through me the way that runs among the lost.”
“Justice urged on my high artificer;”
“My maker was divine authority,”
“The highest wisdom, and the primal love.”
“Before me nothing but eternal things were made,”
“And I endure eternally”.
“Abandon every hope, ye who enter here.”
“Wow. Don’t you know how to sweet talk a girl?” said Jeda.
“You can’t say that doesn’t move you in the slightest?” he pressed.
“Alright. It was pretty, I’ll grant you that.”
“And “I’ll try reading it again”.”
“I never said that.”
“Alright, Virgil, fine. I will try. For you. But you have to do something for me.”
“Anything.” and he blushed a little at how earnest that had sounded.
She reached into her bag and drew out a small paperback.
“You, she said, have to read this.”
“What is it?” he asked.
“This actually is the greatest work of literature since the Bible.”
He turned it over in his hands.
“Who’s Adrian Mole?” he asked.