To the surpise of all assembled, a small slit on the wall opens up – exposing a complicated series of conveyers attatched to a dumbwater, from which tantalizing smells lurk just beyond a series of covered dishes.
“How clever! It looks like our Host hasn't forgotten us, even if he can't make it himself!” The Major mutters only half to you, and half to himself.
“Well. I'm not one to ruminate too much on an empty stomach. I say we dig in!” The Reporter adds cheerfully, grabbing her platter without a second thought. Despite some misgivings, everyone else decides to do so as well – you included.
Inside awaits a genuine feast;
Poached eggs on a field of rice, slathered in a delicate sauce that tastes of ground oranges and pepper;
Fresh legs of crab, steamed to perfection and only slightly hinting of lemon zest, white wine and the sea;
A thick burgundy soup the consistency of chowder, rich and tinny to the taste;
Fresh fruits and cheeses next to an assortment of pastries – and mulled teas and bitter coffees to finish.
There is little conversation over the exsquisite meal, and the mood has improved massively by the time it is finished. The night having colonized the treeline outside in full force, the only light comes from fashionably crafted electric lights designed to cast fanciful shadows amongst the dining room wall.
As the last traces of food disappear from their plates and you do what you can to clean them, the Singer finishes recounting a story, looking much brighter then when you first encountered her.
“So, it wasn't long before everyone had just burst out laughing – I was going to half die of fright, I told myself... But you have to keep going. If you stop to think about what the crowd thinks, even for a second – it'll grab you with a mighty terror, and never let go.”
Smiling, the Singer finishes, staring up at the ceiling.
“Come to think of it, I'd say that was the first day I was aware of just how scary an audience is. It's easy to be scared of an individual – but people who can just choose to walk away, that's a totally different kind of fear.”
“Surely, you'd make a good soldier with that kind of attitude.” The Major chuckles to himself, lying back in his seat with an unconcealed look of content exhaustion plastered across his face. “There's nothing more frightening then just you, perhaps four or five hundred of your boys – and not knowing who is out there, waiting for you.”
“Perhaps, Major – but I cannot imagine wanting to kill someone. I'm flattered, but I must decline.” The Singer responds with diplomatic grace – her voice doing much to avoid politicizing the statement further.
“If I may interrupt, I don't think it's people that are so scary. It's the things you hear about working long nights – rumours and such – that send you on a long, hair-brained investigation that leads you to conclusions you didn't even think were possible.” The Reporter interjects thoughtfully.
“One time, for example, I was covering elections – and there had been rumours about voting fraud, of course. So I went down to this rural village – Major, it had about four, maybe five hundred people, like you'd imagine. And the thing is? One in five of them had a twin, or even triplets.”
“How on earth are triplets terrifying?” The Aristocrat chuckles in response, glancing distractedly at the ashes of previously burned paper still dusting the table. “More so then the unknown, anyway?”
“No, that's precisely why! It didn't make sense... Can't really explain it to you if you don't see it, but it isn't right. Didn't sit well. And there's other stuff – weird stories you hear about people spontaneously jumping into the sea during long voyages...” Silent until now, the Financier holds up a hand.
The room goes silent, the previous atmosphere dispelled almost in an instant. Outside, the harshness of the rain is audible – loud and shrapnel-like against the unyielding windows.
“... In investiture, you're always looking for patterns, how things are related. At first, I figured – and I apologize, but this is what I do – that maybe we all owed something to our Host. But, and forgive me if I'm guessing wrong, but, that's a pretty esoteric field of knowledge, Madam Reporter.”
Bristling, the Reporter's brown eyes blink twice as she spits back a reply. “It's just stuff you pick up as you go, nothing important! Why focus on it, anyway?”
“Because – and again, someone leap out, tell me if I'm wrong – is it only just you that's had such experiences? Heard such... Rumours?”
Once again, the room goes silent. The Financier slinks into his chair, moving his feet against one another with a very nervous expression.
“Please, if someone wants to, I'd love to be wrong here - “
“... You know, there is a kind of idea people have of Kamerun, of the people there.” The Major begins. He is cautious as he speak – the ponderous slowness of his tone highlighting his slow choice of words outside of his native Deutsche.
“But I... Never once did I say any of my boys do anything wrong. I felt I had served admirably and come back admirably, and that was the matter of that. No – it was when I was in Hamburg that I first saw it.”
Hesitantly, he raps his knuckles against the table unconsciously. Nervously.
“There was a little show – one of those traveling museum pieces. I'd gone to see it, aaah – I was in a deep depression then, over some news. And there it was – like a circlet of green fire. I remember thinking that something so horribly beautiful shouldn't be seen by the public. I didn't want to see it, no – but I couldn't look away.”
He clearly has more he wants to say – but the Major's mouth flaps open and closed several times before going completely silent. No more words from him.
“Baltimore, 1898.” The Singer interjects, her eyes glassy in recollection.
“It was the second-to-last concert I'd performed in the USA. There'd been a lot of trouble about me booked up in Maryland, and the crowds were ugly. There'd been a couple... Brawls, before everything started up. We had a few local acts warming them up, bless their hearts – but it didn't stick. Nothing stuck.”
“Then this woman gets up, older then time itself. She points at a man in the audience, spits right at him. “You should drop dead!” She yells, and then he does. “And you, and you!” And one by one, some of the audence just keels over, like puppets with their strings cut.”
“Finally, we got to restrain her, but she just walked on off the stage like it was no thing, and the weirdest part is that the crowd was subdued and mellow after that. No one wanted to perform but - “ She trails off.
“My story actually relates directly to our illustrious Host.” The Financier says, no longer looking nervous but instead focused with a certain intensity to his gaze, fingers steepled – and occasionally glancing over his shoulder, as if expecting that same Host to appear at any time.
“We both had an interest in rare things. Artifacts, precious treasure, rumours, stories. He would always bring over these manuscripts, excited, and ask what I thought of them. At the time I could only read a few languages, but I stumbled through Naacal to read that one. It was so ridiculous I laughed it off at the time. Ancient gods, coming back to bring the ruin of humanity? It was worse then a cheap novel.”
Closing his eyes, the Financier whistles to himself, smiling.
“But that leaves at least one of us who hasn't said anything – you've still got a few minutes left if you want to end this right here.” Turning to face the Aristocrat, the attention of the group turns with him. Her expression is practicedly neutral as she replies:
“This is foolish, and we're all foolish for buying into the mindgames of our Host. I'm going to return to my quarters for a bit.”
Rising to her feet, the Aristocrat makes leaves with measured tread towards the upper level. The Singer's eyes narrow as she recalls something, and excuses herself before calling out;
“Hey! That's the Host's room. What on earth do you think?”
Jimmying the locked doorknob several times, the Aristocrat knocks sharply on the door – first once, then twice.
“Open up, please! We would all be grateful for the courtesy of your presence!”
She's smiling, but it doesn't quite reach her eyes. No reply reaches any of you from the inside of the door – and at some point, all of you have found yourselves clustered around it. The atmosphere is rank with tension and sweat – but still, no reply comes.
“Clearly, the man's just decided to be a no-show. He's working us up, probably planning to make a dramatic announcement at breakfast tomorrow.” The Reporter quips, turning on her feet. “I'll see you... All...”