Chapter 1: Calling an Ubu
Meanwhile, far from Gotham…
Ra's al Ghul regarded the form in the mirror with satisfaction. He made a barely visible movement of his index finger and Ne'roal, the individual to his right, held up a black suit jacket. Ingar, the servant on his left, adjusted his tie. And Ko'rath stood behind waiting with a jewel-encrusted cloak.
By tomorrow, he would again have an Ubu standing by to fulfill Ko'rath's role as his bodyguard and personal attendant. This would please Ko'rath no less than it would please Ra's Al Ghul himself. For Ko'rath, while an admirable soldier and an adequate valet, had one personal habit Ra's could not abide: he played the flute. It was galling to sense that his first attendant, the minion singled out above all others to serve his personal needs until the next Ubu was called, actually wanted to be finished with the day's work and return to his own room. Ubu always stood by to listen respectfully to his master's musings on the day's events. Ko'rath positively rushed the evening toilet in his haste to be on his own personal time, and then, mere minutes after he retired to his room, the quaintly doleful music of the hill people would begin to seep through the wall separating the valet's quarters from Ra's bedroom. Ra's considered moving Ko'rath down the hall, but that rather defeated the purpose of having his attendant's room adjacent to his own.
Satisfied with the adjustments to his tie, Ra's dismissed Ne'roal and Ingar and nodded to Ko'rath to step forward with the cloak and wrap it around his shoulders.
"No," he declared as Ko'rath brought forth a golden clasp to fasten it, "the crimson diamonds today."
The red diamonds he desired to fasten his cloak at the throat were the same scarlet as his tie. It was well to consider such things when he was leaving the compound to be seen by the people, for the peasantry would speak of this day and how he appeared for generations to come.
"Beautiful, aren't they?" he said absently, "Crimson diamonds. I came upon them over a century ago visiting a tribe in Zaire. A fascinating representation of the classic 'diamond in the rough' adage, as I could hardly believe that that particular tribe, extremely poor and savage, could possess a stone of such beauty. When they found it missing, they slaughtered all of the neighboring tribes in retribution. I had these two fashioned out of the original as a reminder of the brutality inherent in human nature. Appropriate, I think, that they are the color of blood."
Ko'rath made the quiet grunt Ra's had come to recognize as respectful acknowledgement, although its similarity to the Detective's grunt nearly caused Ra's to have Ko'rath killed the first time he heard it.
That the opposition of that one man could slow his march to world domination, it was intolerable. Every year wasted made it more intolerable. Perhaps the time had come to reassess the situation. He would have plenty of time to consider the question in the course of the day's journey.
Ra's had castles, compounds, and installations all over the world, but his principle base for acquiring and training personnel remained in the wild Fagaras Mountains of Transylvania. The wandering gypsies that came each year to nearby Bistrita brought a regular influx of recruits. The gypsies were outsiders in Romania; despised as thieves and vagabonds, they kept to themselves. If a few young men disappeared from their midst as they made their pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Gregory, what could they do? Of course, the snatching of gypsies for the lower tiers of soldiers was beneath his notice. But today's business did require his Imperial attention. Today he traveled to Sighisoara, a town almost perfectly preserved in its medieval heritage, to call forth the next Ubu.
If Sighisoara was known to the West, it would be as the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, commonly called Dracula. But Ra's al Ghul had seen that the town never received that kind of notice, for that would bring tourists and change. And he wanted Sighisoara kept unspoiled. For that reason, he had kept them sheltered from the Communists, and the villagers were appropriately grateful. They showed their gratitude by sending every healthy born male who met the proper physical requirements to the special training compound outside Eger in Hungary. The fierce warriors of Eger were legendary in this part of the world. It was said 2,000 Hungarians of Eger once drove off 100,000 enemy Turks. The defeated Turks themselves spread the story of how the Egerians' mouths were red; it was whispered they drank bull's blood to gain superhuman strength.
This was the grand tradition in which his elite troops were cultivated… And still the damnable Detective thwarted his men at every turn! Since the spy Nethal was sent back to him in disgrace, no fewer than nineteen agents had been expelled from Gotham City. All had been bested, physically as well as mentally, and not all by the Detective's own hand, but his followers: the upstart boys, that girl assassin, the Canary, and even the feline.
The Demon's Head was still determined to have Batman for his heir. But in the privacy of his own mind, on this bumpy road to Sighisoara, he did begin to consider: perhaps, just perhaps, there was more to it than the blanket admiration he granted a worthy foe. There was something about that place that produced these people: not the Detective alone, but those others he gathered around him, that kept getting the better of all his minions. It warranted investigation.
When the time had come to depart the comforts of the transport for the stink of the village streets, Ra's Al Ghul deigned to speak to his driver:
"Driver, send word to Ulstarn that I wish a teleconference as soon as I return to the compound. That will be after two o'clock Gotham time, but see to it that he is there well before three."
Ra's saw no need to explain to a subordinate that the timing was to insure the call would be done with well before dinner. Speaking to Ulstarn, his lieutenant governing the Gotham City operation, always put Ra's off his food.
The Demon's Head proceeded to the Goldsmith's Tower, highest point in the Citadel, for the ceremony. The three young men deemed worthy presented themselves for consideration as Ubu. They prostrated themselves and gave the oath of loyalty—in the long form. This was appropriate to the solemnity of the ceremony, but Ra's couldn't help but wince, knowing Ulstarn would insist on reciting the long form once, if not twice, in the course of their upcoming phonecall.
As the three Ubu candidates performed the ritual trials of strength and bravery, Ra's started to reconsider: Simply talking to Ulstarn was an annoyance. Did he actually want to travel to Gotham City and have to deal with his psychotically paranoid lieutenant in person? He did not. Nevertheless, it was necessary. If he was to solve this mysterious advantage the Detective seemed to draw from his city, it was necessary.
The trials concluded, and Ra's had each Ubu-candidate step forward in turn. During this phase of the ceremony, he could question each man at length. But the details of their genealogy and training were already known to him, and there was nothing else to ask about. They had no lives or interests beyond the indoctrination to the DEMON Cult. He therefore asked each man how he felt during the previous trials and didn't bother listening to their answers. Instead, he thought ahead to the difficulties of infiltrating the Detective's city with his Imperial presence while delaying the Detective's knowledge of said presence for as long as possible.
Eventually, the room went still. The last candidate had answered the last question, and all waited for The Demon's Head to speak.
"Number three," Ra's al Ghul pronounced finally, "Number three that was born Corcea Porumbescu, son of Joseph Porumbescu of Sighisoara, I call you forth to serve me as Ubu."
The first two candidates were immediately escorted from the ring and offered a variety of knives, swords, maces and chains. Each chose a weapon and then returned to the ring to attack. When the unarmed Ubu successfully fought his armed opponents to the death, the ceremony would be concluded.
Meanwhile, even farther from Gotham…
Batman hit the side of the Watchtower transporter tube with the full force of his fist. His costume was visibly ripped and torn, but that was nothing compared to the body underneath. The headstrong fools, they couldn't do it his way, and this was the result. They had to make up their own plan—to use the word loosely—as they went along. What the hell was Superman trying to accomplish anyway? And Diana was worse. Everything he tried, they undermined. Everything! Whatever he did reverted back to… to whatever it was they was going for, and even now he couldn't say what that was—nor, he guessed, could they. And this was the result. He was battered. His entire body was utterly, brutally battered! It was the most humiliating physical beating he'd suffered since Prometheus, and it was all because the queen bitch and her Kryptonian lapdog had to do it their way.
"Batman, you're still here?"
"Yes!" he spat, "what is it, J'onn?"
"I wanted to thank you. That was a close call with the ion accelerator, if you hadn't bought us the time to… well, Atom would be gone and Plastic Man—"
"Would be permanently trapped as a mass of unstable proton soup, I know. Next time—"
"Next time, I, for one, will vote to do it your way."
Batman grunted. It was a little late for promises like that. J'onn's abstaining vote had stung him far worse than that Gev/R beam. As much as Diana evangelized about leadership in the League ("Kal is the real leader"), Batman and J'onn were the only real strategists, and Batman had always felt that created a knowing bond between them.
є˜˜You realize,˜˜э he thought the rebuke rather than speaking it aloud, є˜˜Your vote would have made the difference. The brat pack follows your lead.˜˜э
є˜˜Don't call them that,˜˜э J'onn thought back. It was true that Flash, Green Lantern and Plastic Man were apt to follow whenever Batman and the Martian jointly supported some strategy. But J'onn preferred thinking of them as Wally, Kyle and Eel, not as a voting block.
є˜˜They are a voting block,˜˜э Batman thought dryly, and only then did J'onn realize he had let his thought float over their telepathic link where an alert mind, such as Bruce's, could sense it just as he might read body language.
є˜˜They're friends,˜˜э J'onn argued.
є˜˜They're friends, yes. Because they're young. Because two of them replaced older heroes. Because they have things in common. And all that means they can be influenced by the same appeals. They are a voting block, J'onn. I won't stand by and let them become a faction.˜˜э
є˜˜And they're a faction if they agree with Clark and Diana instead of you?˜˜э
є˜˜Yes, because Diana has an agenda. All she cares about these days is gaining back her prestige after that disaster last year.˜˜э
є˜˜And what is your agenda, Bruce?˜˜э
Batman's eyes met the Martian's, and he dropped the conversational tone of their telepathic exchange for the deep menacing gravel:
"Not to ever again take a beating like that because Princess got her hair mussed."
"What are you going to do now?"
"Go home. Analyze what went wrong."
"Wrong? We were successful… in the end."
"Look at me, J'onn. With these bruises, it'll be two weeks before Bruce Wayne can go out in public. I don't mean to waste that time playing solitaire. I'll be analyzing the battle, figuring out what went wrong, and planning a better defense for next time. Work the mind while the body heals."
"I see," he shrugged and started to leave, then turned back as an unexpected thought flashed over the telepathic link a nanosecond before Batman disappeared in the transporter. The Martian smiled. "Yes, I expect she will."
Meanwhile, not quite so far from Gotham…
: Great One, : the cloying voice groveled over the satellite hookup, : your lowliest and most humble servant begs to greet The Demon's Head with the oath of loyalty! :
"That will not be necessary, Ulstarn. This communication must be very short, you will soon learn why."
: Yes, my Master, your undeserving servant begs to know how he may serve. :
"I will require lodging in Gotham City for myself and an entourage of forty-six. The top three floors of the Imperial Hotel proved adequate last time. And prepare a list of promising individuals who have opposed the Detective. Successfully, mind you, I shan't waste my time with failures incarcerated in their prisons or asylums."
: My Master honors me with his orders. Sire, your servant begs to be allowed to sign off with the oath of loyalty… :
Meanwhile, in the heart of Gotham…
Harley Quinn tossed her last bite of pretzel to a pigeon and shuffled out the east exit of Robinson Park. Alone. Forlorn and alone. She didn't even know why she'd come to the park with Poison Ivy still incarcerated in Arkham. So alone. So forlorn and alone. Her Puddin' had cast her off like so much used bath water. And Red! Her bestest buddy Red had cheered the news. Nobody understood her woes. Nobody understood her breaking heart. HER PUDDIN'! The one and only Mistah J! And he was done with her!
Unable to stand Joker's pointed rejection in the rec room and Ivy's equally pointed lack of sympathy, Harley gave one of the most astounding pretences of sanity ever seen within the halls of Arkham Asylum. It achieved her release in under two weeks, setting a new Arkham record, but it booted her back out here, in Gotham, with nowhere to go. Alone, alone, forlorn and alone. Her heart was breaking and there was no one to turn to. No Mr. J. No Red. Roxy Rocket hated her living guts. "A mere sidekick" that achieved such a prominent place in Gotham, whereas Roxy, a crook in her own right, couldn't get into the spotlight if she did a striptease in Gotham Plaza.
Looking up at the lush parkfront condos, Harley realized that Selina lived in this part of town. Selina wasn't a bestest buddy or anything like Red, but Harley had heard her use the phrase 'estrogen solidarity' one night at the Iceberg. That was worth something. It was worth a shot, certainly. Anything was better than being oh so alone, alone, forlorn and alone in her misery. With a new skip in her step, Harley trod under the canopy, past the doorman, and into the apartment building.
Approximately ten minutes later, she rushed out. "Scary man in Catty's apartment," she told the doorman. "Scary man from the Highland games, moving into Catty's apartment," she told the pigeon. "Scary man with Bride of Frankenstein hair!" she yelped to the coffee vendor, pointing towards the building.
Raoul looked at the fevered blonde, then in the direction she was pointing… the tall redheaded man who had bought a tall espresso that morning.
"What about a nice café au lait, Miss. You know, I've been on this corner for quite a while. In my experience, it doesn't do to be a snob. Stand outside the park long enough, you'll see just about everything. Just because someone is a little odd, maybe even looks like a dangerous crazy, that doesn't mean they don't have 5 for a cup of coffee."
He handed her a cup, and held out his hand expectantly.
Harley looked at Raoul, reminded of the Starbucks clerk Puddin' killed that time, and burst into tears.
…to be continued…
WatchtowerNote: "All she cares about these days is gaining back her prestige after that disaster last year" -See Myklarcure's JLAin't: A Year in the Life for the full story