It was an auspicious day for one born in the Year of the Rat to begin a new enterprise.
Ra’s al Ghul knew perfectly well that his astrologer was a coward who followed the age old practice of those who read the stars of kings: he told only those parts he thought his master wanted to hear. This was not the objectionable sort of cowardice; it was right and natural that they be afraid. Any monarch worthy of the name enjoyed the terror he inspired in his followers. Nevertheless, it was inconvenient when it came to horoscopes. The Demon’s Head wanted to know what the stars truly revealed so he could modify his plans accordingly.
That is why he had disguised himself in the lowly garb of an Ajax commander and gone into the village for a second opinion. Sighisoara was Romanian, unfortunately, and their fortune tellers were shackled by the Western world’s names of the stars and constellations. But Sighisoara was loyal, and that surely is what mattered. When Ra’s al Ghul sent an Ajax commander to have his fortune told, that man’s fortune would be told with accuracy. And this local witch with her teas and talismans had, more or less, confirmed his own astrologer: It was an auspicious day for one born in the Year of the Rat to begin a new enterprise.
Technically, the enterprise began some months before. Technically, the seeds were planted years before that. But Ra’s al Ghul preferred to view any operation as begun only when some definite action had been taken. His planning was so intricate and his understanding so vast, drawn from so many eras and so many nations, even he could not pinpoint the precise moment when a plot suggested itself. Consciously, the current operation had been forming in his mind for, perhaps, six months, but in a more meaningful sense, did the methods and practices he employed not predate even his first meeting with the Detective?
Were the seeds not sown decades before, when those OPEC sheiks, having taken such a preposterously long time to realize the power their oil reserves gave them over the West, failed so miserably to make use of it? Could it not even be argued (if one were to be as ludicrously precise as these astrologers would wish about the exact hour and minute of one’s birth, for example) that the operation which began today truly had its beginning when Ra’s first learned of Atlantis in 1937?
Thus, it was folly to name any particular day and hour as the nascent beginning of his operation. Since he could not go by planning, he may as well award the honor to that moment when steel was first unsheathed in his cause. That moment was today—although Western mercenaries were too coarse and barbarous to literally carry a sword. Nevertheless, men of action took action on this day, when the Vermillion Bird (which Western infidels called Mars) entered his star sign and the Azure Dragon they called Jupiter rose into alignment with his celestial stem.
He could hardly pretend surprise. Auguries and horoscopes notwithstanding, he had finally devised a method to circumvent the Detective. If he had only thought of it sooner, the whole fiasco with Talia would have had a very different outcome. To every creature, there is its own particular lure, specific to its nature. One does not lure the honeybee with light nor the moth with fragrant flowers. It is folly to turn to a man such as the Detective as if he were a Tartar prince and say “Here is a female. Since she is here, enjoy her favors.”
Rather than trying to divert the Detective’s attention with such paltry offerings, Ra’s al Ghul would now COMMAND it. He would monopolize that mighty intellect, not occupy it momentarily with some passing distraction. No, he would leave it wholeheartedly absorbed. He would sate the Detective’s appetites with the meat of his very nature. He would present his worthy foe with... a mystery.
C’ra, son of N’fai, had the misfortune to inherit his mother’s slight frame rather than his father’s warrior build. He could never hope for the glory of a combat posting; he was destined to serve the Demon’s Head as a humble messenger. But even among messengers there was a hierarchy, and the son of the famous N’fai was at the very top. When Ra’s al Ghul had a message he wanted delivered, it was C’ra who was called to the fourth chamber, and often as not, he received instructions directly from Ubu.
After all these years of such glamorous access, C’ra still felt a thrill walking through the portico, knowing that through the archway behind Ubu was the third chamber. It always emboldened C’ra to hold his head a little higher as he announced to Ubu that his unworthy self had been summoned (which the bodyguard certainly knew already or he would not be waiting there). C’ra nevertheless completed the formula: he had been summoned and was presenting himself to receive The Demon Head’s will.
Rather than relaying whatever message Ra’s al Ghul wished to be delivered, Ubu merely said “Come” and turned on his heel. He walked through the archway, right into the third chamber! C’ra was nearly paralyzed, the fear and awe stopping up his blood in his veins. Did Ubu’s order really mean he was to follow into the third chamber? He swallowed hard, feeling his mind was not working as quickly as it should in the face of this unprecedented order. He… he… he was sure to fail if he did not pull himself together and obey his orders as he understood them. He hurried through the arch—and had not a moment to take in the wonders of the third chamber for Ubu was stepping through another arch into the second. C’ra trembled, and he struggled to make his legs work without betraying his weakness as he followed through yet another archway into the antechamber of the throne room itself. There was an odd clackety sound which he realized too late was the chattering of his own teeth. He locked his jaw to still them as Ubu continued into… into… C’ra could feel nothing but a vein pulsing in his neck as he stepped into the throne room and saw the actual chair in which Ra’s al Ghul sat when holding court.
“The messenger, milord,” Ubu intoned formally.
C’ra screamed and fell to the floor in the most awkward but surely the most obsequious bow the throne room had seen in a generation. For in the seconds it took C’ra to realize what Ubu was saying, he realized Ra’s al Ghul was actually in the room! Standing at a side table! Eating a fig! C’ra recited the oath of loyalty to the floor under his face, and begged The Great One to pardon the unforgivable slowness of his bow.
Pardon was apparently granted, for Ra’s al Ghul told him to rise.
“Today I begin a great enterprise,” The Demon’s Head confided, in an unfathomable gesture of liberality. “I wish to consult an astrologer, but my own is too frightened and will tell me only what I wish to hear. If I am to have worthy counsel, I must resort to a deception which I would normally think beneath me. For that, I entrust you, C’ra, son of my most valued warrior N’fai, with a mission of the utmost secrecy. You are to leave the compound through the kitchens, tell no one where you are going, speak to no one you pass along the way. Go through the forest and beyond, until you reach the village of Sighisoara. Make inquiries and find me their most reliable fortune teller. When you have located this person, tell them to expect a visitor from the DEMON compound. Tell them Ra’s al Ghul is sending a valued lieutenant who would know what his stars foretell, and that it is a matter of indifference to me if the news he receives be good or bad—so long as it is accurate. Do you understand?”
C’ra confirmed all the particulars. He had never before been so bold; with Ubu he would merely have nodded. But to be called into the throne room itself and receive his instructions from The Great One’s own lips, surely such an awesome responsibility required the most aggressive vigilance. He repeated the whole of the message, all the precautions to maintain its secrecy that Ra’s al Ghul was so good as to outline for him, and then he bowed and stepped backward, bowed and stepped backward, until he ultimately reached the fourth chamber and felt free to turn his back on The Great One and move in a more natural way.
He had made it as far as the long corridor to the kitchens when Ubu stepped into his path.
“I knew your father,” Ubu said seriously. “He was a great fighter and it is wrong that his only son serve at such a low level. This is a great opportunity for you, to be taken into the master’s confidence as you have been. It could lead to great things, but only if there is a happy result for the master. You must ensure that the master will be pleased with what he hears.”
“I cannot possibly disobey the direct orders of Ra’s al Ghul,” C’ra cried. “He ordered me of his own lips to tell the gypsy to be accurate.”
“There is another way. Fortune tellers want to be loved; they’ll always say what will please if they think they know what it is. When you find this gypsy, tell them the man who comes today has been given permission to marry. His star is on the rise, and as a reward for some service, Ra’s al Ghul gave him permission to marry. You do this, she is sure to see those portents that speak of a happy and prosperous future. That will give the master comfort, and when he next has an important mission, he will remember C’ra, son of N’fai, did well on this portentous day.”
C’ra’s chest swelled with pride, to be the son of a warrior who even now inspired such loyalty.
“I will do so,” he declared.
“Ubu, send someone to check on the food taster. My breakfast does not sit well. The entire morning listening to Anglaf, I could think of little else. He had nine days to work on that horoscope, yet after ‘Year of the Rat’ and ‘Vermillion Bird’ there was only this cloying taste of spiced raisins, stiffness in my legs, and a disagreeable ringing in my ears.”
That was how the day began. Ubu answered “Yes, Master,” as always, but he knew there was nothing wrong with the food taster or the food. Any time Ubu was occupied with the morning intelligence reports and let Lamar collect Ra’s al Ghul’s breakfast tray, the master lingered too long in his shower, for Lamar had no gift for the complicated task keeping the Demon’s Head on schedule. Too much time in a too-hot shower produced the ear ringing, and the low, hard benches in Anglaf’s quarters took care of the rest.
It would be death to suggest Ra’s al Ghul needed a digestive, so Ubu merely ordered one for himself. If the master happened to eat it, so much the better. If not, Ubu’s own digestion would certainly feel the benefit. He felt it was going to be…
“Ubu, these reports from Madagascar are 36 hours old, whatever are you thinking?”
He felt it was going to be one of those days.
As if answering Ubu’s private thought, Ra’s put the antique intelligence reports aside and resumed his complaints about his astrologer.
“Assured success against the Gotham infidel. That’s all his predictions amounted to. Year of the Rat, Vermillion Bird, and certain victory over the Detective, how am I to put any credence in a horoscope like that? It’s cowardice. He says what I would hear because he fears to do otherwise—which is admirable in most, but not in Anglaf. Those whose minds are so unformed, whose thoughts and views so lacking in comprehension, they should be silent. If they must speak, since they can have nothing to say to minds of merit, they should simply pay their homage and be done. But an astrologer is no such animal. His counsel is sought, and if he will merely bleat like a sheep, he is no use to anybody. One may as well sacrifice him to the dragon’s flame and be done with it. Hope for a better one next time.”
Ubu said nothing. He merely examined his plate of figs and ate a few before laying it aside for Ra’s al Ghul to appropriate.
Anglaf was not a coward; Ubu knew that. Yes, the astrologer told Ra’s whatever he thought he’d want to hear. But he didn’t do it because he was afraid not to. He did it because… because he wanted to be liked. There was a desperate neediness in the man, you could sense it whenever you talked to him. He would predict anything you wanted in as much detail as he could muster if he thought you’d be his friend. It was rather sad, but it was hardly worth killing him over.
“Perhaps a test is in orde… Ubu, attend! I was speaking of the operation in the Falklands earlier, and I sensed I did not have your attention as fully as did that plate of figs. Now that I am ready to impart my strategy in re Anglaf’s cowardice, you are looking at the door.”
“Forgive me, my lord. I sent for a messenger to answer for the late dispatches from Madagascar. I will be but a moment.”
Anglaf was not a brother or even a friend, but Ubu did not like that word ‘test.’ It was death to question the reasoning of Ra’s al Ghul—but if it became death to simply tell him what he wanted to hear, that was bad news for everybody. Ubu didn’t care that much if Anglaf lived or died, but if being too loyal became cause for suspicion… no, Ubu did not like this at all.
The messenger was waiting in the fourth chamber, but Ubu could not waste time on him now. He hurried back to Ra’s.
“A test, that is what is called for, Ubu. I will go into the town and consult their astrologer. If he confirms what Anglaf said, Anglaf will live. If he does not, there will be a lesson that shall teach the next ten generations of augers the price for—”
Ra’s al Ghul was interrupted by a crash. The messenger who followed Ubu apparently tripped on the carpet and fell on his face.
“Rise,” The Demon’s Head said absently. “Your timing is impeccable. Go into Sighisoara—do not stop in the barracks on your way to take orders from your friends. If you return with cigarettes and pornography, I will know and you will be flogged. Go into Sighisoara and find me an astrologer. Tell them to expect a visitor who is to be told the truth of their horoscope, no matter how unpleasant.”
That did it. “No matter how unpleasant.” Ra’s was setting Anglaf up to fail this test, and Ubu just couldn’t stand by and let it happen. He said he was going to check the reports from Australia, and caught up with the messenger before he had left the compound.
Dika sat in her comfortable flat—one of the nicest in the village, as it happened. Three bedrooms with ceramic tile floors, central heating, and occasional wafts of paprika, sweet onions, and garlic from the Two Feathers restaurant below. One of the nicest flats in the village, which her rude visitor had called “a hovel.”
She pulled the bell rope attached to a tapestry, causing it to scroll up like a venetian blind, revealing her television.
A hovel—just the sort of arrogance you’d expect from a “rising star” in the service of Ra’s al Ghul. Dika’s family might have settled in Sighisoara rather than braving the dangers of nomadic existence under the Soviets, but that did not mean she was unaware what DEMON did to her people. Every year when they made their pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Gregory, young men disappeared. Because they were outsiders in Romania, it was pointless to go to the police. They were despised as thieves and vagabonds, and a few less gypsies, male or female, was viewed as a very good thing. In one sense, no one knew what became of them—but in the truer sense, everyone knew. DEMON. Wherever they were taken and whatever became of them, it was in the service of the undead monster Ra’s al Ghul.
When Hajna called from the restaurant and said one of those fanatics had seen Dika’s flier and was asking questions, she hoped for a little payback. But never in her wildest dreams did she think she would get to strike at Ra’s al Ghul himself.
The first mousy little man—Carl was it? Or Kral? Kra? Something like that. Whatever his name, he was an easy conquest. Dika was no great seductress, but the cooks at the Two Feathers restaurant certainly were. All those delicious aromas wafting up from downstairs… The poor ass had come all the way down from the mountains, it was ludicrous to go back without at least having a cup of tea… and a bite to eat... Her own kitchen was small and cramped, there was really no point in having one at all with the Two Feathers right below… So down they went for a nice lunch of paprika hendl and a glass of wine, after which it was just as silly to go all the way back to his base without at least having his palm read.
A half hour later—a strong lifeline, a few tealeaves, and six tarot cards later—Dika knew her next visitor, the rising star lieutenant, would be much more than he appeared. “Much wiser, much grander, and much, much more important.” Dika considered this, because this Carl had already said he was a rising star who had done something so grandiose he’d be given a bride (poor woman). Dika figured a fine form of revenge would be to plague this man with doubts about his future wife’s virtue, since he certainly wasn’t in any position to refuse her. He would be miserable. Take that, Rising Star.
But now, Dika began to wonder. He was a rising star, plus he had enough pull that he not only gets to come into town and get his fortune told, he sends in an advance team, even if it was mousey little Carl, to do the legwork for him. He sounded like quite a big shot as it was. How could he be more than that unless…
And then Dika considered: Had she ever heard of anyone being a big shot in DEMON? Granted, she’d never made a study of it, but she had the impression that there were two categories: Ra’s al Ghul and everyone else, the head undead and his serfs. But that would mean… and that was just too good to be true.
Dika refused to get her hopes up. It couldn’t be, it wasn’t possible and it was not going to happen. But without getting her hopes up, she was going to be ready. If the one in a million happened and Ra’s al Ghul himself came through her door (with his sniveling minions priming her to pump him full of good news), then she would be ready.
She grabbed her coat and went to see Bogdan, who still had a photograph from when Ra’s al Ghul walked through Sighisoara the last time to call forth the next Ubu. Dika memorized it, and when the cloaked figure who called himself D’t’t’ve came through Dika’s front door, the hope that refused to rise earlier now refused to do anything else. Her hopes soared! She had him. She had him. Ra’s al Ghul in the hideous flesh. If his future was full of promise, she would warn him of so many ill omens that he would fear to even get out of bed—nor would he get a wink of sleep. And if his stars foretold calamity, she would pass on not a single warning. She might even spin a curse or two once he was gone to help the ill omens along.
After refusing the hospitality of her hovel, this D’t’t’ve finally put back the hood of his cloak, revealing the face from Bogdan’s photograph.
Dika smiled warmly.
Be careful what you wish for. It seemed such an absurd maxim, as if even lying back and dreaming of bliss was a serious matter that should not be indulged in without prudent consideration.
It’s not like his wishing made it happen. Selina was an independent, freethinking woman and she chose what to do with her time, in costume and out. Circumstances arranged themselves to put a choice before her, and she chose, of her own free will, to become a part of Batman’s work. If the situation did correspond to a wildly improbable wish-dream he’d considered from time to time, that didn’t mean there was any cause and effect. And since his wish in no way brought the situation about, it was nonsense to think any little blemish in the reality was somehow laid at his door. It’s not like he was an architect who didn’t plan for adequate drainage when drawing up blueprints. Still, if he had been responsible, it’s not like any man could anticipate feline logic as if it was average rainfall at the 41st parallel.
Selina being Selina, she would never abandon Catwoman’s nightlife and become a de facto Robin. Five nights a week, she prowled as she had always done. But two nights, she came down to the cave before setting out, consulted his patrol route in order to intercept him in town, and they met, usually around 10 o’clock at the close of his early patrol. They patrolled together until dawn and often slept in the penthouse rather than negotiate returning to the manor in separate cars. She could have picked any nights for her dalliance with crimefighting, but catlike, she had to find some way to make the decision uniquely her own. She had set on Friday and Saturday since they were “date nights.”
Date nights. His enemies had thrown some preposterous ideas at him over the years, so had his allies for that matter. But never had anyone come up with something so utterly... She was getting feline logic on his Mission, that’s what she was doing. Date nights. How utterly Catwoman. The irony was that he’d never acknowledged the concept in his fop days. Batman patrolled every night, so his true work life knew no variation in routine. And Bruce Wayne’s playboy had always sneered at the workingman’s concept of a weekend. It was true he made appearances in the offices at Wayne Enterprise, but it was universally understood that he did so only when it suited him. In his efforts to be as conspicuously obnoxious as possible, he flouted the notion of weekends as the quaint folk custom of wage slaves.
It was strange to think only now when the playboy pose was finished would the notion be introduced—introduced into Batman’s life, no less, rather than Bruce Wayne’s—and by Catwoman. Of all the preposterous ironies his enemies had thrust on him over the years...
Yet the fact was, feline ironies aside, she was a good partner. Like him, she was an ordinary human with all the ordinary vulnerabilities, and like him she knew what is was to work alone before teaming up with a partner. The combination gave her an instinctive understanding of the responsibilities that always eluded the sidekicks. For years, whenever Catwoman ventured into the night in costume, she was her own mistress. She knew what she was giving up in partnering with him—and hence, what he was giving up partnering with her. Each valued the other’s trust more because they understood it from their own experience, and valuing it made each more determined to live up to it. So it was a good partnership, and Bruce would be the last to minimize the significance of that fact.
He just wished it wasn’t date night.
To be continued...