by Anna M.C.
The first thing to strike a visitor to Castle Blackpool -- besides the fist of a Death Guard, obviously -- was an overwhelming sense of *absence*. Tangible as the sense of presence which permeates most imposing edifices, the atmosphere of Dirk's domain seemed defined by what it lacked: light, color, warmth, even sound itself. After all, Blackpools were not the sort to lend themselves to the propagation of noisy neighbors; an acute awareness that disturbing the peace would be synonymous with resting in peace was a more than sufficient reminder to the Karteian populace to keep any infrequent festivities down to a very dull roar.
This went double for Vector's chambers; while the Prince's quarters were enlivened with the glint of silver (albeit sharp-edged silver) and the occasional decorative splash of blood-red (sometimes quite literally), his wizard's dank retreat was a soundproof study in sensory deprivation. As Dirk Blackpool shifted against the cushions of a high-backed armchair, the subtle friction of black leather meeting black velvet hissed forth loudly as a malicious whisper in the uncanny stillness. Vector claimed that the unnervingly minimalist motif eliminated trivial distractions, thus aiding in the distillation of magic into purer forms. Privately, however, Karteians speculated that he was just a gloomy bastard.
Booted, muscular legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles, Dirk reclined in Byronic splendor, elbows planted firmly on the armrests, fingertips pressed together in a reflective steeple of concentration. He glanced upwards and to the left at the figure of the robed wizard hovering above him like an impatient vulture. Vector rarely sat in Dirk's presence, usually claiming that it would appear disrespectful. Privately, however, Karteians further speculated that he was simply insecure about his height in comparison with Dirk's impressive proportions. It is interesting to note that the vast majority of Karteian speculation did tend to occur in private. Public gossip about any of the denizens of Castle Blackpool fell somewhere under "Skydiving off the Cliffs of Death" on the List of Clever Things to Do with Your Spare Time.
Without warning, Dirk laughed, shaking his head in bemusement, impeccably white teeth set in a deceptively attractive smile. When he spoke, the softly sonorous tone of his voice was equally deceptive, textured rich and butter-smooth as his fine leather apparel. "Vector, you should be taking notes. I do believe this one is an even more outrageous liar than you." Accompanied by a conspiratorial wink, the grin deepened, taking on the feral cast of jungle-hungry things with claws and teeth as terminally sharp as their appetites. The flickering torchlight reflected off his obsidian-black hair and ravaged the beauty of the sensual planes of his face, resculpting its exquisite contours into a ghoulish battleground of light and dark -- with dark, as always, emerging victorious.
He redirected his gaze at the wavering shadows pooling towards the far end of the chamber, flamelight glinting in the steel-blue depths of his irises with an eerie luminescence. "It is an amusing story, to be sure, but I'm afraid I have no need for a court jester at this time; Geoffrey fills the role quite nicely. In fact, I rather resent how you beguiled me into this meeting with the lure of an ultimate weapon against Erik, only to insult my intelligence with such an obvious scam. I don't know what you hoped to gain, but I assure you that your temerity will not go . . . unrewarded." He pronounced the last word with a breathy sensuality, the syllables echoing in the silence like the soft swish of a whip slicing the air. As legions of fortune hunters had discovered to their short-lived dismay, Dirk's "reward" system tended to go light on the kolnas and heavy on the spiked boots.
Although at first glance it would appear that Dirk was, for inscrutable reasons of his own, addressing the wall (an activity known in Aperans as having a "Belladonna moment"), an observant eye could discern how the shadows coalesced into a deeper darkness. The vague silhouette of a tall, black-cowled figure was skulking in the corner like an agoraphobic grim reaper; the sudden resentful straightening of its shoulders and crossing of its arms clearly conveyed that indignation was overruling fear. This, the body language proclaimed, was someone who skydived off the Cliffs of Death before breakfast.
"How dare you talk to me like that. Everything I've told you is true." Instead of the sepulchral intonation usually associated with such an apparition, a distinctly feminine voice emerged from the hooded robe, the faintest tinge of a southern accent coating the vowels with a brown-sugared glaze.
"Perhaps those gullible halfwits in Camarand might believe you, but we're all grown-ups here, my dear. We're a bit too old to play with dolls." He gestured with contempt at the small object she clutched in her right hand.
"Look, Dirk, if you just ask Vector --"
"My name is Prince Blackpool. You should guard against such slips of the tongue, lest I resort to removing it for you."
"All right, *Prince* Blackpool," the figure snarled, deliberately placing excessive emphasis on the honorific. "Ask Vector, he should know magic when he sees it. And didn't anyone ever tell you that a superficial obsession with titles is a sure sign of deep-seated feelings of inadequacy?" In a mocking quick-change, her voice had, with the fluency of a born vocal chameleon, shed its southern flavor and assumed the sensual rhythms and sibilant enunciations of Blackpool's own linguistic style.
Vector hastily moved to intercept the Prince, who had leapt to his feet and was now advancing on the hooded figure with a panther's inexorable tread, the monocle pulsing in time with his skyrocketing blood pressure. "Actually, my lord, she is correct. Not about your feelings of inadequacy," he hastily corrected, as Dirk skewered him with a venomous look, "but about the doll. Such magic does exist."
"What?" Dirk stared at Vector with the expression of a child offered indisputable proof of the existence of Santa Claus only after he has squandered the month of December in general naughtiness. "Why was I never told of this, then? You're my wizard, Vector, why in Aperans do you think I keep you around? The inexpressible joy of your companionship? Your knack for interior design? Your taste in hats?"
The wizard's face retained its habitual deadpan expression, betraying his rage only via the subtle flaring of one nostril in his beakish nose and the not-so-subtle telekinetic shattering of every glass object in the antechamber. "My lord," he ventured, managing somehow to make the two perfectly respectable syllables encapsulate an entire lexicon of profanity, "such magic is not within my area of specialty. It is a very . . . inferior magic. Limited. Primitive. *Feminine.*" He pronounced this last with withering scorn, directing a sneer at the hooded figure. In his misogynistic mind, no greater condemnation was possible. Of course, to be fair, Vector didn't care for either gender very much.
He was answered with a snort of derision from said hooded figure. "I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss feminine magic if I were you, Vector. Last I saw, Bethel still had *her* monocle."
This time it was Dirk who restrained Vector from a murderous onslaught, holding the fuming wizard by the collar with the same ease as he would grasp a dog by the scruff of its neck. "No, not now. If there's even the slightest chance it will work . . . ."
The woman stepped out of the shadows, still entirely concealed by the dark robe. She reached out a slender hand in offering. "Here. Try it yourself."
Dirk accepted the small, ragged object with his free hand and examined it closely. A rough assemblage of twigs and rags bundled in scraps of red silk and gold lamé, it could be said to resemble a human figure only in passing. Bits of stringy yellow yarn festooned its rag doll head, and small blue buttons stared up at him cheerfully over a bright painted smile. Absently fingering the yarn hair, Dirk smiled in return, releasing the still-struggling wizard with a curt command. "Vector, show him in the vision scope."
Very slowly and deliberately, Vector straightened his collar, smoothed his robes and settled his dignity, pointedly ignoring the woman's muffled snickers as he stalked over to the magic mirror. Favoring Blackpool with a tiny deferential nod, he waved his arms in a complex semaphore of spells, orchestrating the dark intangibles of the universe with unerring precision. Slowly, the mirror mists cleared to reveal a vision of a shirtless Erik Greystone gazing into his mirror lovingly while shaving and whistling a cheery little tune. He was a picture of self-satisfied peace and domestic tranquility.
For about 15 seconds, that is.
Then, eyes glazed with hatred, Dirk accepted a pin from the woman's hand, and skewered the doll straight through.
Justin Greystone did a classic spit-take with a mouthful of wine upon hearing his brother's blood-curdling shrieks echo through Castle Greystone. Still clutching the bottle, he bolted full-tilt down the hall, almost tripping over the prone and writhing form of Erik as he burst through his brother's door.
"Erik! C'mon, what's goin' on? You havin' that Ariel dream again?"
Huddled in a fetal position, Erik only answered him with more unintelligible screams. It involved something about being stabbed, apparently. Crouching down to examine his brother, who appeared to be outwardly unharmed, Justin sighed heavily. Another day, another fraternal obligation to save Erik's sorry butt. So much for this morning's poker game; his schedule would be shot all to hell once again. "Erik, just calm down, I'll go get Traquill, OK? Don't go anywhere. Here, have a drink, you'll feel better." Reflecting on that last statement, Justin took a bracing swig himself. He had an uneasy feeling he'd need it. It was going to be one of those days.
"It's . . . marvelous." Dirk's voice actually broke, a sob of joy catching in his throat.
"Told you so. It's yours, then. For a price."
Directing a disbelieving glance at her audacity, Dirk unsheathed a small jeweled knife, testing the sharpness of the tip of the blade with his index finger. "Are you attempting to bargain with me? Very well, then, let's make a deal: I get the doll, and you get to die quickly instead of slowly. Fair enough?"
The woman held up her hand. "Not so fast. This sort of magic doesn't work unless I want it to, Blackpool. It's organic, bound up with my life force. Kill me, you kill your chance to torture Erik in unimaginable ways for years to come. Making me happy is a much more desirable option. It doesn't take much, really."
Dirk beckoned his wizard with a sharp jerk of his head, his dark, heavily feathered bangs bobbing with the motion. "Is she telling the truth?"
Curling his lip and wrinkling his nose with distaste, Vector nodded in affirmation. "Unfortunately, yes. I told you that form of magic had definite . . . drawbacks."
Inspecting his knife for some seconds more, Dirk finally resheathed it. "What precisely is it that you want, then?"
The woman told him.
Several minutes later, Dirk finally stopped laughing long enough to speak. "You can't be serious."
"I'm deadly serious. That's what I want. I'm sure Vector can handle such a simple request given his vastly superior magic, right? Oh, and I want delivery by tonight."
Pursing his lips reflectively, Dirk extended his hand, tracing the line of her jaw beneath the concealing hood. "What a pity that your taste in men is less sophisticated than your magical abilities. No matter. You have a deal. In fact, I rather like the idea. Knowing how he is, your plans will doubtless be as torturous for him as my plans will be for Erik."
"My lord, I don't think --" Vector interjected, only to be interrupted by Blackpool's dangerously quiet reply.
"Are you contradicting me, Vector? That would be . . . unwise."
"Of course not, my lord. I am merely stating that it will be something of a challenge. Rather a large challenge. Of course, Traquill will be distracted by Erik's ailment, but still, without my monocle . . ."
Blackpool sauntered over to Vector, wrapping his arm around the wizard's shoulders in a friendly fashion. "But I have faith that you're up to the challenge, Vector -- even without the monocle. Right?"
Vector swallowed what was obviously a vast quantity of bile before answering. "Right, my lord."
The woman turned as if to leave, then paused. "You will, of course, refrain from mentioning my involvement in all this to . . . certain other people?"
"Ah, so that's what lies behind all this subterfuge. You don't wish to be known as the Judas who brought about the downfall of Camarand's favorite son?" he smirked.
Her shoulders shrugged beneath the cloak. "Tamara would never forgive me. But sometimes, you just have to follow your heart. Or at least your hormones." And with that, she vanished.
Seconds later, in a small, unassuming house in a small, unassuming neighborhood in a small, unassuming suburb of New Orleans, a black-cloaked figure which was most definitely neither small nor unassuming materialized in the living room. Collapsing on the sofa, the woman yanked off the hood, briskly fluffing her shoulder-length brown hair with both hands. She paused to finger a single skunk-stripe of grey running along her part, smiling ruefully. If today's misadventure didn't add more grey hairs to its ranks, her name wasn't CJ Johnson. She desperately needed a cup of tea to soothe her shattered nerves. Hell, she needed to steep her entire body in one big teakettle at this point. Still, you had to take a few risks. You had to wreak a little havoc. If not, what was being a Cajun all about, anyway?
With a sly grin, she picked up the battered, well thumbed paperback which graced the coffee table in front of her: *Voodoo Magic in Ten Easy Lessons.* "Best $4.50 investment I ever made," she muttered to herself.
At that moment, an older but shorter version of herself poked her head around the door and clicked her tongue with disapproval. "You're sick, sis. You need professional help."
CJ shooed her away in irritation. "If I want your opinion, Deb, I'll ask for it."
Deb stalked off down the hall, grumbling something about how *she* was never allowed to dabble in black magic. "That's because you may be the elder but I'm the meaner of the two of us," CJ yelled after her retreating form. Thinking of her sister's favorite person on Babylon 5, she added, "Besides, I don't think you *can* make a deal with Kosh for Marcus."
Placing the book back on the coffee table, she sighed nervously and blew a renegade lock of hair out of her eyes. Standing with a weary determination (materializing in alternate realms after only 10 lessons tends to take a lot out of you), she regarded her reflection in the mirror thoughtfully. He was bound to be a little disoriented at first, possibly even a little uncooperative, after Vector transported him there. A few Cajun Coolers and a night of Mardi Gras was bound to change that, though. After all, everyone knew that Justin Greystone was a sucker for a good drink and a great party.
The sly grin returned full force. "Justin . . . I'm waiting."
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