"We all have something that digs at us…" – Incubus
When his students had suggested a little pre-expedition party, Edward Rasta (P.H.D.) had consented quite readily. After all, he reasoned, there was no harm in a little celebration to set the tone for the trip. And, once his students realized what a dreary rigor actual archaeology was, it would give them something to look back on wishfully. Besides, he was quite looking forward to having a juicy haunch of deer and a little dish of mead before spending a few months out away from civilization.
Unfortunately, he had let one of his students pick the joint where they were currently dining. 'Dining' being a relative word in this case, because most of the feasting being done at the moment was conducted not with the mouth but with the eyes. Professor Rasta sat back on his haunches and stared balefully at his students, most of whom were standing up by the stage.
The stage was a fairly narrow affair, running right down the middle of the establishment. It was made of polished, paneled oak, but no one was paying it much attention. Instead, most eyes were on the elaborately costumed men and women who strolled up and down it, waggling paper fans in front of their faces. If his physiology had allowed for it, Rasta would have sighed.
Monkeys, by his reasoning, were one of the most ridiculous ideas in the entire history of Nature's great experiment. They had precious few natural defenses, hooted and gibbered when they were annoyed (or afraid, or happy, or pretty much any state of mind), and thought about sex all…the…time. Not like canines, who at least had the whole business down to a cycle; monkeys were constantly in heat.
And what ridiculous rituals they had…
Rasta fixed one of the men on the stage with academic scrutiny. He was draped head to foot in elaborate silks. The only bit of skin showing was his face, which was caught in some ridiculous expression that involved a slight squeezing of the eyes and a narrowing of the lips. His hair was piled up in black layers on top of his head and pulled together with a handful of what looked like staples. As he walked, little eddies of silk swished and flurried around him. It was a miracle the monkey didn't trip. And, of course, the worst part of it all was how Jennifer Rayburn, one of his premiere students, was jumping up and down, waving at him with her free hand. Her other hand was closed around a pint of beer. Bitter, unpleasant stuff that it was.
The male students in his class weren't much better, and they spanned across several species. Colby Burke (his given name was almost an almost unpronounceable slough of apostrophes and umlauts), a Daonine Sidhe, was dressed in his finest tux. He leaned one elbow on the stage, cradled a carafe of wine in his off hand, and chatted with Daniel Wan. Daniel darted the occasional look up at the stage, his massive tarsier eyes flitting from woman to woman while his tail swayed rhythmically behind his back. A little further away were Emil Lorenz and Elizabeth Feist, who might have been deep in conversation. They might have also been whispering romantic nothings to each other. Rasta decided not to sharpen his ears and find out. The three tentacles that protruded from Elizabeth's back were all waggling and twisting into interesting curlicues.
And then there he was, professor Rasta, fearless organizer and planner of their expedition, sitting on his haunches in a corner of Shikibu's Palace (as the shingle out front advertised) and feeling dreadfully bored.
Colby Burke was drinking in the ambiance in between sips of wine. He let his senses drift out across the room, occasionally reporting back on what they found. He heard soft, twanging instruments that marched up and down their respective scales in a kind of atonal harmony. He saw red paper lanterns burning dimly, hanging from the beams overhead. For just a moment, he noticed one or two waiters, who scurried unseen and efficient from table to table, delivering orders in secrecy. And then he remembered the conversation with Daniel that was still floating in the air, unfinished.
"Sorry, it's easy to get distracted by all this. You were saying?" He took another sip of wine. It wasn't bad, as far as flavored vinegar went. He'd had worse.
Daniel's eyes swiveled and swelled. This wasn't an expression of surprise or anything of that nature. It was—like his dark, chitinous skin and the barbed tail that bobbed behind him—just a part of what made Daniel Wan Daniel Wan. His eyes bulged and swelled with regularity, almost as if they were breathing. "I was saying that it's a little disappointing, after a fashion. The flyer out front advertised all these exotic beauties, and what did we find inside? Everyone up on stage is cosmetically identical to the old humans…" As he was speaking, a woman with lustrous white wings walked by. "Okay, that one excluded. But I still think they're clinging to an outmoded idea of beauty."
"Well, scientifically speaking, beautiful has always been the most difficult kind of fashion." Colby spoke lazily, his brain on autopilot again while he observed the surroundings. "In societies where most people work out in the field, looking pale is fashionable. In societies where everyone works inside, it's tanned skin that you need to have. There are so few unaltered, unblemished humans around these days that it practically has to be in vogue, even if it's completely impractical."
"Now, that's exactly what I mean. It's impractical." Daniel's tail started gyrating behind him. Up on the stage, a man in silks sashayed to the side to avoid it. "It's like everyone's hell-bent on thwarting their biology these days."
"Now, I don't know what you're talking about there. I like my biology just fine." Colby jabbed a finger at his pointed ears. "These guys have always given me a certain edge with the ladies."
"But, are they functional?"
"Yes, indeed. I can, for instance, eavesdrop on what the two lovebirds over there are saying." Colby grinned.
"Oh, come on. Let them have their moment."
"I was just saying, is all…"
Colby would probably have been disappointed, because at that moment Elizabeth and Emil were no longer talking. Instead they were gazing. Elizabeth let her eyes roam, taking in the topography of his perfect, porcelain face. She wondered, a little dizzily, at what she had done to catch his interest. At how he had suddenly started responding to her blushing, averted glances with looks of his own. It wasn't every girl who managed to catch the interest of a real, breathing (well, almost) vampire.
For his part, Emil looked back with a kind of subdued wonder. He had fallen in love a handful of times over the years, and he was constantly amazed at how he managed to gravitate towards the imperfect ones. After all, he was a vampire, complete with incisors and unearthly charm. People still wrote trashy romance novels about his kind, despite proof of their existence. He could have his pick of some of the most beautiful women for miles around. And instead he settled for mousey, academic, tentacular Elizabeth. And while part of him could be smug about that, another part of him was tempted to raise the first part by the collar and yell "don't treat her like that" at it.
After a while, the gazing grew old, and the talking resumed. She spoke first. "So, are you ready for a couple months of adventure and mystery?"
Emil raised an eyebrow. "This is archaeology we are discussing, yes? Not the permanent excitement that is spending time with you? Because, I think the former is supposed to be boring."
"Oh, come on. You've heard stories about this sort of thing. Majestic ruins and startling discoveries."
"I have. It's mostly undergraduate kids who tell them."
"Pfft," Elizabeth made a hand-batting motion. One of the tentacles mimicked it, curling and uncoiling in a flick of suction cups. "Have some imagination. We all know on the surface that it's going to be boring, but that isn't stopping me from hoping otherwise. Suppose that deep beneath the catacombs of what was once Wheaton college, there lies a golden chalice overflowing with magical energy, hmm? Wouldn't that be exciting?" Her eyes flashed mischievously.
"And what would any of us academic types want with a big old bowl of magic? There's already plenty of that to go around."
"Well maybe it's special magic. Rare magic."
"Rare magic? There's no such thing, 'Zabeth."
She feigned a pout. "Well, how would you know, when you're so busy being dry and vampirey and boring?" She punctuated the last few words with jabs to his chest.
"When you're a dry, boring vampire, you know these kinds of things." He crossed his arms sagely, just in time to deflect another poke. "Look, I know you're excited, but try not to get your hopes up too much for this. It's just a bit of fieldwork."
"Realist. But if it's fantasy you insist on…"
Jenny loved the dizziness that surrounded her. The blur of lights and colors that stretched thin every time she moved her head. She was vaguely, peripherally conscious of a glass of something in her hand. Reflex guided it to her mouth and she sipped what turned out to be beer. It didn't really taste like anything, which was an improvement, so she chugged the rest of it and set the mug down. On the edge of the stage. It seemed like an alright place for it.
In a few minutes a waitress appeared, grabbed the mug, and said something admonishing. Jenny glanced at her, nodding attentively while the words slipped in one ear and out the other. When she was gone, the world blurred and refocused on the stage. A woman in colorful, layered silks walked by. Jenny scowled. A few seconds later, she was followed by a muscular man.
Although she would be unable to remember much later, she probably said something like "whoooo!" at this point. Specifics didn't matter, because the man paused at that point and delicately blew her a kiss. His open hand, five feet above her, mingled with the carnival of dim lights and sound. She grinned rosily back.
Look at that. It was enough to make any self-respecting wolf despair. He considered laying down and propping his head on his forepaws. Waiting the rest of the night out. Parties like this were usually for the benefit of the students, true, but he was still miffed. What did he want to watch a bunch of bipeds walk around for? Surely his students could've guessed that and picked a better spot, or at least…
"Excuse me, sir."
Rasta blinked. The open space in front of him had resolved itself into a waiter. "Er, yes?"
"I just had a word with our chef, and she recommended that I bring you one of our…less traditional menus." He held out a piece of paper dotted with little color illustrations. Some of them were pictures of spare ribs, or flank steaks, or whole rabbits.
Rasta's mouth opened, and his pink tongue lolled out. A single drop of drool rolled unconsciously to the end of it and dropped onto the floorboards. "Aww, you shouldn't have."