Ali showed up shortly after the raven left. An hour after that, I finished talking through some plans with Ali, making some minor concessions to him as he pretended to give me a hard time haggling. He left, grinning, and returned a couple minutes later. “My father agreed, Zeke.”
I grinned right back, happily. “Any last minute problems you can think of, Ali?”
“No. I think we covered all the bases, Zeke.”
I nodded. “Time for Phase two then.” I picked up my phone off the desk, and looked at the time. A bit after one o’clock in the afternoon. Plenty of time.
I dialed Anne’s new phone number, and after two rings, she picked up.
“This is Anne.”
“Hello, most beautiful one!”
Anne hesitated, briefly, “Hello forgetful one!”
I deserved that. At least she doesn’t sound mad. Yet.
“Anne, it’s been too long since we had a night out. Do you think you could be ready for a formal dinner in about four hours, and maybe a little music and slow dancing afterwards?” I grinned as I asked the question, because I knew what her answer was going to be, even if the words might not be what I imagined.
“Just us, and you’ve planned it responsibly? I don’t want the band chasing you around, trying to beat you to death with their instruments. Again.” She chuckled. “I have to admit, it’s funny after the fact, but the bill for those instruments wasn’t cheap, and we’re fortunate none of them hurt their hands. It’s the only time I’ve ever been part of a band.”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little. My surprise birthday party the prior year had been a surprise for everyone. Including Danny, Anne, and the five piece band Anne had hired because they knew some of my favorite music.
“Just us. Table for two in a nice, secluded place. The music won’t be live, but I’m sure we can put up with a recording.”
“Hmmm, sounds good. What will we be eating?”
“Whatever you want.”
“Now I’m curious enough to want to go, just to see the kitchen. We are going to be eating real food, right, not conjured food from Ali, right? Matty said eating conjured food is a really bad idea.”
I looked over at Ali, who nodded, and mouthed, silently, “She’s right.”
Then I realized who Anne had just told me she’d been talking to.
Matty? She’s already talking to Matty after the other day?
I considered asking questions to find out how Matty had managed to get Anne to talk to her so soon, but quickly discarded that idea. If Anne wanted to tell me about it, she would. I wasn’t going to interfere in any way between those two after the other day. The wrong word at the wrong time might be disastrous.
Maybe she was just lonely.
It’s not like I’ve been around much.
“Real food is the plan. Anything you want, as long as you don’t start asking for moonbeam casserole.”
“But moonbeam casserole is my favorite!” Anne chuckled. “Did you Elvis a restaurant, Zeke?”
Did I what?
Oh, right, Elvis used to rent entire restaurants so he could eat in peace when he wasn’t at home or in a hotel with private dining.
“No, I’ve been given access to a private dining area. Very high class, with an amazing selection of cuisine. Ali and I will be by in a bit more than four hours, at six PM, if that’s OK?”
“Should I ask Danny?”
I made sure to pitch my voice so it would carry. “Adults only tonight, I think.”
Danny’s voice piped up. “I heard that!”
I spoke a little louder. “No offense Danny, but your mother and I haven’t had a night out in a long time.”
“I imagine I can find something else to occupy my time – other than improving my skills at getting in the way.” I could hear the smile in Danny’s voice. “Mom and I were just going over some of the qualifications of the prospective board members. I had no idea how much experience you needed to be an executive.”
“I picked people with strong track records and paid them very well, Danny. I could have gotten some pretty good people with a lot of promise for much less, but I paid substantially more to get highly qualified people with strong, proven ability.”
I don’t want to get bogged down in business talk.
“I’ll be happy to talk to you more about hiring strategies later, Danny. Right now though, I suspect your mother is probably getting ready to poke you in the nose, because you and I are now talking business after she and I were beginning to talk about a night out. You are there, I’m not. Therefore you have certainly become the default target.”
I heard Anne growl a mock growl.
Danny laughed. “Yes. Yes she is. I believe I’ll take that as my cue to retreat to the safety of my room, and see if any of the grandparents would like to spend some time with their poor, neglected grandson.” He chuckled, but the chuckle ended with him speaking in a serious tone. “I’ve been meaning to introduce them to Jane, and I’m going to need to plan that out fairly carefully. I’ve asked her if we can meet with her mother. I think I’ll learn a bit more about Jane’s needs in semi-public places from watching how she and her mother interact. That should help me plan the visits with the grandparents.”
I heard the sound of a chair dragging across a hard floor. They must have been sitting at the kitchen table.
“That’s probably a good idea, Danny.” I thought for a second and decided to give a little warning. “When you talk to my parents, make sure you don’t make it obvious that you two are sleeping together already. Don’t lie, but don’t throw it in their faces either. Anne’s parents probably won’t get upset about it as long as you aren’t blatant, but you will get under my parents’ skin pretty quickly if you force them to recognize you’re having sex outside marriage. They will think you are, probably, but if they don’t know you are, they won’t have to acknowledge it.”
Anne spoke up, a bit of humor in her voice. “I already warned him, Zeke.”
Introducing Jane to mom and dad will be a bit of a trick.
Should I speak to them first, to head off any surprises?
I shook my head and decided to stay out of it. While I did need to talk to my parents again soon, because I hadn’t spoken to them in more than a week, I wouldn’t do it just to go behind Danny’s back. I would help him if he asked, but he hadn’t asked.
I also hadn’t spoken to Miss Perfect since I told her I had accidentally let Anne know who her father was. I wasn’t sure any help from me would be appreciated by either Jane or Danny, even if it was a good idea.
For that matter, mom and dad would probably think I was being weird and overly protective if I tried to insert myself into the process of Danny introducing Jane to them.
They would be right. Definitely hands off, unless asked. If it’s a disaster, it’s a disaster. They have been together for years, I can’t imagine they would intentionally set themselves up for failure.
“Earth to Zeke. Hello Zeke.” Anne repeated.
Shaking my head to clear my thoughts, I realized that Anne had been trying to talk to me for a few seconds. “Oh, sorry Anne, I was thinking about a couple things, what were you saying?”
Anne paused. “Small talk, not important. I think I know what you were thinking, but I’m not sure what decision you made.” She paused a moment, and I could clearly imagine her tapping her teeth with her index finger a couple times while she figured out how to say what she wanted to say. “Stay out of the way. Danny’s a big boy. We’ve both given him clues and warnings about our parents, and he’s certainly aware of the challenges involved in introducing Jane as something more than a picture.” She paused. “We can be there if he needs us but if we try to be there when he doesn’t, we won’t be welcome long.”
I chuckled a bit as I answered. “I agree. I had to think it through for a few seconds, like you guessed I was doing, but I agree.”
“There you go, thinking for yourself again, when all you had to do was ask me. When will you learn, Mighty Hunter?”
“Once again, I bow to the superior instincts of the Domestic Goddess.”
We both laughed.
After a brief moment of silence, I asked, “I don’t know if you are set for formalwear, after the move. Should I make a trip over there early and bring anything?”
“Hmm, no. I’ll be ready, Zeke. Six PM then, and you will come here?”
“Indeed, Tux, top hat and cane.”
“That hat and cane make you look like the snack peanut.” Anne giggled.
“Nah, he doesn’t wear snakeskin boots. Besides, I like being nearly seven feet tall in the hat, it’s fun.”
“I’ll be ready at six PM then. I’ll match you, as long as your tux is the black one. Right? Your hat and cane are the same ones?”
“Same outfit as our last time out, Anne. I wouldn’t try to sneak something like that past you.” I paused. “Sometimes I do learn after the first time I make a mistake.” I had tried to surprise her once with my formalwear choice on a night out. It had not been a pleasant evening for either of us.
“I know Zeke, but you’ve had a lot on your mind recently, and…” Anne started to choke up a little bit.
“…and I’ve been away too much.” I broke in.
“Yeah, that.” Anne sniffed. “See you at six. Love you, Zeke, but I need to start getting ready!”
“Love you too, Anne. I’ll see you at six!”
Anne hung up.
I locked my phone, set it on my desk, and then removed the teleport belt. I had spent a little time reading the manual for it. I looked up the code for unavailable and the secondary code for twelve hours, programmed the belt using the codes, and then set the belt on the desk next to my phone. I needed to go to the main house for my formalwear, so I stood up from my seat, picked up my phone, and headed to the door.
Ali looked at me, tilting his head slightly, and stepped between me and the door. “Zeke, it’s in the contract that you have to wear the teleporter, even if you set it to disabled. If something critically bad happens, they might need you.”
Figured he might object.
“What about if I want there to be no chance of my being interrupted, Ali?”
“I’m afraid you can’t turn the teleporter off completely, Zeke, and you have to keep it on you at all times.”
“Fine, Ali, I’ll wear it, and I won’t turn it off completely.”
Ali sighed. “Good.”
I spoke out loud. “Please ask that Valsom attend me at his earliest convenience.”
There was a short, barely audible whistle, and then my hair raised on end, very briefly. Ali, spun quickly to face the corner of the apartment where the whistling noise came from, sniffed, looked closely at the corner, and then looked closely at me.
“Zeke, the relational connections between you and the Svartalves are far stronger than they should be. I’m going to try to give you the benefit of the doubt here, but I know you’ve been dabbling with them. In this situation, I’m very close to just taking what I need to know out of your mind.”
Ali looked upset. Even a bit angry.
“Give me two days, Ali? I will not speak to them again, without your presence, for those two days. I need to think and talk to some people, and Valsom is consulting about an idea I spoke about with him. I am not planning on doing anything without getting permission.”
“I should say no, but I think it will be more interesting if I agree.” He paused and said a few words I didn’t understand, which faded from my mind seconds after he uttered them. “I am not reading your mind, but I will know if you are telling me the truth. Sorry. I’ll give you the two days before poking around in your mind, but I can’t afford to not be sure, especially since it’s pretty clear that you’re about to use the Svartalves to disable the belt and violate the spirit of our contract.”
“That’s fine, Ali. Ask away.”
“Are you trying to find a way to remove, replace, or significantly alter the existing Svartalve geas?”
“No.” I smiled.
Ali just stared at me for a second. “Are you trying to find a way to allow Svartalves to interact with humans, with fewer restrictions?”
“No, definitely not.” I smiled, again, making sure to show teeth in a big grin.
Ali tilted his head at me, genuinely curious, apparently. “Are you talking to the Svartalves and making plans that they are enthusiastic about?”
“Yes, I am.”
Ali swiped his right hand over his eyes and then made a throwing away motion with that hand. “OK. I’ll stop there. You’ve got me curious. You’re treading on thin ice to work with the Svartalves at all, especially as a mortal, but if you aren’t going to agitate for their freedom or try to reduce their restrictions on how they can deal with humans, it probably won’t get you killed out of hand. Probably.” He looked at me, clearly not entirely confident in what he had just said.
“Ali, I certainly hope not. Even though my life has gone to hell over the last few months, I don’t want to check out just yet.”
Then why am I risking this?
After he stared at me a few more seconds, Ali shook his head. “I don’t understand why you are doing this then.” He looked at me again before shaking his head some more. “In two days, if you don’t tell me something that makes sense, I’m going to get it out of your head. If you do tell me something that makes sense, I’m going to make sure it’s the truth, by verifying it in your head. I know you don’t like that, but you clearly do not understand just how serious the magical community is about keeping the Svartalves from killing off a second race of sentients.”
Ali’s eyes darted right, and he turned away from me, to the right. A moment later, a familiar high-pitched voice spoke. “While this is a fascinating conversation, I suspect that witnessing it was not why you requested my presence, Mr. Collins. How may I assist?”
“Valsom, can you modify this teleporter so that when I have it in disabled mode, it cannot teleport me? Additionally, please alter the function of the device so that when it is disabled, remote control of the device is also disabled?”
“Mr. Collins, of course I can.” He paused a moment. “Next time, feel free to ask the Svartalve who is attending you if they can perform a task. This particular request for modification of a few binary logic circuits and some firmware code is easily within the capabilities of almost any Svartalve that you will ever meet.”
I thought they were just all over the place. I didn’t realize they were attending me.
“Sorry Valsom, I will remember.” He didn’t sound angry, but he was a supervisor or leader of some sort, and I’d pulled him away from other things to perform a routine task that I should have asked someone else to do. I held the belt out in my right hand.
“I’ll be back in a moment.” The belt was plucked out of my hand, and there was a puff of displaced air.
A looked at Ali. “Svartalves are rather magically gifted, it seems.”
Ali just stared at me for a moment. “Yes, they are, for mortals. In some ways they are more potent magically than I am. Especially their elders.”
“Yes, like Valsom, Zeke.”
I leaned against the wall, next to the door out of the apartment. “The Svartalves seem able to move around more freely now. They don’t need your door.”
“That’s because you are creating connections with them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, provided you don’t engage in activities with them that will get you killed.” Ali crossed his arms, looking a bit worried. “At first I was confident that you would understand how dangerous dealing with the Svartalves might be. You still have all your fingers and toes, and have been working with tools for your whole life, so you clearly respect danger. You even grew up on a working farm, with all those associated dangers, some of which you couldn’t simply avoid by refusing to do the work.” His eyes narrowed. “Then I leave you alone for a few minutes and you have a discussion with Svartalves when I can’t be there to make sure you aren’t taking actions that will get you killed.”
There was a puff of air with the scent of cinnamon, and Valsom started to speak. “I see a lot of tension between you two, and it’s clear why. We have great hopes for Mr. Collins, young Jinn, so we will try to prevent him from taking actions on our behalf which would certainly lead to his death. While it is certainly possible that some beings might take offense at what we are planning, it is not an attack on the geas or an attempt to facilitate Human-Svartalve interactions.” The teleportation belt was carefully placed on my desk, and Valsom began speaking again. “The alterations you requested have been completed, Mr. Collins.”
“Am I really the first person to think of the idea and mention it to you, Valsom? What we were discussing earlier, that is.”
“No, Mr. Collins. We have several thousand records of similar ideas. However none of them have been initiated by a human before. They have all been internally generated by Svartalves in contingency planning or brainstorming sessions, just in case any non-Svartalve ever did mention it.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t help but feel a little upset. Based on his reaction earlier, I thought I might have come up with something new.
I was apparently telegraphing my thoughts with my facial expressions or body language, or perhaps he was reading intent in some way. There was an amused whistling laugh. “Remember, Mr. Collins, my race has had millions of years to consider our fate, and we are both very thorough and highly dedicated when the task is important. I was pleasantly surprised that you thought about it, startled, even. Most others are only concerned about what Svartalves can do for them.”
With a slight bow in the direction of his voice I said, “Thank You, Valsom, for the adjustment to the belt, and the knowledge.”
“It was my pleasure, Mr. Collins. I must now say good bye, however, as I need to return to conference. I and several of my colleagues are still working to determine what the top ten options are for working with your idea, we’re down to the best eighty-seven now.”
Svartalves are scary in several ways, that’s for certain.
Ali simply stared at me. Not angry anymore. Curious. When he saw me looking at him, he simply said “Two days, Zeke.”