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The Height of Rumour
Seven knew his own strengths. No point bragging about them though, “Just supposing,” he said with a quirk to his lips that suggested humor. He already teased at mock humility and the night was still young. Ephraim made a waterfall of alcohol down his throat. Zhenya was not as rapid a follower, but her glass was rapidly emptying while Seven’s was merely sipped. For good measure, he partook of his own. He didn’t guzzle like a greedy American, but he caught up with his hosts’ pace.

Ephraim’s hint at the past made Seven laugh. Given his previous contemplative demeanor, it was a sudden burst of merriment. “Three, four hundred years ago, they may have tried to burn me at the stake, but the attempt would not have gone favorably for them.” Contest gleamed his gaze.

He came to Ephraim as a favor gladly called, but the hints of purpose that were dropped along the way suggested dangers Seven did not often dabble. At least, not in a long time.
“I must agree with your assessment, Ephraim. Accidents befall anyone, but the consequences are dire should they befall one such as me.”

His head tilted, considering the options. “You’ve whetted my appetite, Ephraim. Let’s hear more.”
“Why thank you so very kindly for exemplifying my point, Seven. Woe the humble witchfinder.” Ephraim grinned, and toasted his glass, but maybe there was something not quite pleasant to it. It flashed and then passed. Zhenya’s own smile had gone quiet around the edges, her expression set in soft repose rather than anything so severe as a frown. It was clearly not what she had been expecting of the evening. Though on reflection, Ephraim had spoken of the future like a gift to be bestowed upon the next generation in the moments before Seven had arrived, and it was admittedly not his usual patter. Her eyes were dark and luminous in the light, circling the edges of true intrigue, but not quite yet slipped full into its depths.

“Your technology, Pervaya’s expertise, and Seven’s feeling. That is what you are suggesting, no?”

“And in so doing, diversifying Paragon’s offer.” Emphraim splayed his palms. He drank the vodka like spring water, but clearly it only fired his ambition. His manner was supple and persuasive. “Any resultant tech would be mine, of course -- with Pervaya’s first refusal on purchase rights. That goes without saying, my dear.”

“You’ve a feeling for the past, Seven, but have you the same nuance for the future? The limitations of modern technology generally do not fare well against a channeler’s hiccups, let alone one military-grade trained. And they already exist, believe me. Pervaya’s expertise will provide the foundational research for development, and your mysterious feeling of no bloody name will push us beyond the brink of our current limitations.”
He grinned.If you think you are up to the task, of course.”
Seven toyed with the lines of the power that neither of his companions could see. They dangled and tied around his fingertips, but until the knot was snug, it was nothing but an invisible fidget-device. He held no investment in the achievement of either company goals, even if he owed it to his debt. The volley between ready players neither held his interest. He was only listening out of polite gesture for a host.

But when the notion of his honor came to the fold, Seven flicked a daring gaze. “When do we start?” his smile gleamed with promise.
“Hopefully after the debauchery, glory and pillaging,” he laughed and pushed aside the remaining vodka tonic.

With the summons of a holoscreen, Seven input a few commands into the system. Soon after, music shifted to something fluid and sensual. Brows lifted with the question unspoken, wondering which of them would be willing to dance. Ephraim was comfortably lounged, but Zhenya may be game. Either would play to his desired outcome.
Ephraim kept half an eye on her silent response once he had finished speaking, and her lips sealed with the small tease of a smile as she became aware of the attention. Though she dutifully put the pieces together for him, it was unlikely to escape his notice that it had only been phrased as a question. There was no intended sting in that though. The details of any deal would not be bargained tonight anyway, and the office would negotiate Pervaya’s stake. The premise was intriguing enough; this time he really could forward a proposal and expect to hear back. Beyond signing it off, Zhenya need not be personally involved at all if she didn’t wish it. But none of those things were what caught on her attention and soothed her into pensive thought.

In comparison Seven sought the challenge quickly, but she suspected either Ephraim was assured of a favourable hearing from him or he simply had nothing to lose in taking part. He came from money, perhaps, for while he had been enthused for the stagecraft of his own work he showed less interest in the minutiae of business.

She laughed a little for the declaration, pulled easily back into the moment as the music shifted and her mood shifted playful with it. Ephraim showed no indication of finding his feet, though he did appear to be amused. “Oh, most definitely after,” he assured, and made a tip of his glass that might either have meant he was disinclined to this particular challenge else for now he preferred the company of the alcohol.

Zhenya plucked the tiny winged boar from the arm of her chair as she stood, like she did not wish to leave it behind. The vodka was warm in her limbs, but barely a buzz towards her limitations; just languorously pleasant. She smoothed the dark waves of her hair over one shoulder as she twisted the trinket a final time between her fingers, quite certain it was nothing power-wrought but still intrigued as to the lure of it.

“You should hold on to this,” she teased, tucking the boar into Seven's top pocket when she drew closer. "You do not seem fond of the vodka. Perhaps we shall find a better way to learn the truth of a man." She winked. The invitation had been his, but it was she who pulled him by the hand towards the dance floor, though she paused to ruffle her fingers through Ephraim’s curls as they passed behind his chair.
The weight of the statuette hung in the pocket, but Seven tugged at her wrist, smiling coy and receptive, when he pulled her near as whispers. The lights licked, casting both their faces in and out of shadow. The lithe and line of her body hugged close. He wasn’t a monster of a man and her diminutive shape matched his fairly well. Still, he was surprised that the usual prickle of warmth did not tingle at her touch.

He was an easy lead of the dance, and once in a while, the tip of a finger or the fling of the neck showed a certain flair for the dramatic that sparked proud smiles afterward. “A strange and mystical place is Argentina. I once spent an evening in a tango bar in Bueños Aires perfecting the art with the most exotic of partners,” he turned the step into one that drew her knuckles to his lips, but at the last moment, plucked one of his own fingers straight across his teeth, “with a rose gripped like this,” he laughed and returned to a more normal posture.

“And you, Miss Zhenya, do you travel much? A CEO must be bound close to their headquarters. You may actually benefit from Ephraim’s wild ideas? Don’t you think?”
“Perfecting?” She laughed, amused at his antics and playful in kind. Such a bold claim.” Yet he was a particular pleasure to dance with, tuned to that indefinable rhythm as people sometimes were. Zhenya was naturally inclined to all things beautiful, and the fact he seemed neither shy nor leering with his easy lead of the moves flushed her with unthinking enjoyment. A rare delight.

“I’ve travelled some. Less than you have, I’d wager. I have particularly fond memories of Paris, though it rained much of the time I was there.” Coyness lit the depths of her expression, a tapestry of stories assuredly as long as his, though he was right about her ties too. “This city has my heart, though. Perhaps you’ll learn to love her too, if you intend on staying a while.” A brow rose in soft jest. There was a faint question on if, and perhaps some interest in the answer.

The twinkling cityscape blurred beyond the dark windows, and she pulled gently at the light as they moved; just a subtle thing at first, mixing the shadows to her own soft palette amidst the venue’s own. It was as natural to her as breathing, that slow coax of the stars from their pedestals, pulling the night around them in ethereal shimmers.

The question suggested he meant her personally, though Zhenya wasn’t clear exactly what truth he wished to charm from her lips. She laughed, but offered little insight to her own motivations if he was only using his ears. “Oh of course. Eph and I disagree on some of life’s fundamentals, but he’s exceptional at his work. If I sought to do business only with like-minded individuals I would be left very poor of choice. Pervaya will make good use of his wild ideas, I will ensure it.” 

Her operators would always have every advantage she could afford them, once assured that it would not compromise them either. She did not intend any kind of moral high ground when she openly disparaged Ephraim’s ideals, nor did her tone suggest it. Morality was a pinhead to be balanced upon, to be sure, but Seven would not have to dig very far to learn the sorts of lawyers Pervaya leaned its weight on. Sometimes dangerous men needed such protections, even if she did not always approve. But it was all to one end: they were not the soldiers Ephraim envisioned, nor would she allow them to become such.

The lights coalesced, spinning lazily, their cores beginning to pulse with the music’s beat. “Of course, for the moment wild ideas are all they are.” She winked, since Seven himself was the apparent lynchpin in all that. “And you?” A separate weave of seidr flared at his ribs, half tickle and half poke. “You seem a man who might easily become bored, and I suspect you have little need of Ephraim’s coin. Or mine.” She was not digging for the leverage Ephraim hinted at; that was a secret they could keep, unless she was given cause to suspect foul play, and Seven didn’t seem unwilling to be here. She thought he would at least see through his obligations, but she was not much interested in obligations either; she was more interested in passions. “Do you always work alone?”
“Ah, Paris,” he mused. Fond memories or not, there was a gleam to Zhenya’s eye when she mentioned the city of love. What else captured her heart while she visited a rain-speckled Paris? Seven smiled with all the appreciation of one who had been there himself: figuratively and literally.

She was a pleasant dancer, if a little restrained for his taste, though he didn’t mind. Seven compensated enough flair for the both of them. “Boredom is the father of mischief,” he spoke the epithet like it was a quote although it was his own. Depth of insight out of Seven usually surprised his company. He typically wore a shallower mantle.

“I only work alone when more gentile company abandons me,” he laughed as he lifted her hands. Her clothing spun on the curl of air, light as a breeze. The lights caught his attention, but the warmth of the dance could not stave the chill flushing the back of his neck. As Zhenya glowed with near perfect radiance, Seven’s tongue loosened on her charms.

“I wouldn’t say I work alone,” the mischief in his own gaze gleamed with a promise he wasn’t going to share. At least, not without a good attempt at equal barter. “In this case, I wouldn’t mind a collaborator. Do you know anyone with experience?” The upward flick of his green gaze roamed from light source to light source before fixing her with the sort of accusatory gleam of co-conspirators that stopped more than one heart in the past.
“Is he now? I do hope that’s a promise.” A soft breeze ruffled her clothes in repartee, which almost made her want to giggle like they were children. Channelers were not a common breed, and even now knowledge of them was public the old fears restrained others from the sorts of frivolity she revelled in. Seidr was the most beautiful thing in existence, and she soaked in its joy like skin warmed under the sun -- more confident in the rising of a new age than her fear of those that would hunt her for the gift. Though of course she had always had Pervaya’s protections, and her father’s household before that.

Few had the luxury of the teacher she’d had either, nor the time, energy or resources she’d ploughed into her own self-education since. Ascendancy’s mastery sparked marvel in her, not least when she beheld the wondrous beauty of the Arch, then or since, but she had never had the pleasure of meeting him. She doubted much in the way of playfulness lurked under the shadows of his stern manner though, and certainly not the sort that would tease her like this.

“I find myself unconvinced such company would choose to abandon you, Seven, gentile or even otherwise.” 

In business she was shrewd. The office would take care of the paperwork in the morning. She would oversee the details with a ruthlessness most were surprised to discover dwelt within the demure shell of her skin, at least until one realised that Zhenya was a woman who got what she wanted. Then she would appoint others to necessary tasks, steering the ship with the chair of an occasional meeting to ensure smoothness if not direction. She’d already tallied a mental list of names; those with both the expertise and enterprise to shape development in Pervaya’s favour, and who might also enjoy the challenge.

All things organised by an instinct born of experience, without much thought on her part.

By the effusion of light into her expression she was delighted that he caught on quickly to the proposal that stirred the real interest in her. The twinkling orbs were really little more than decoration to a story she had been told once, in which dreams or souls hung like lanterns in a velvet oblivion. Tricks she could do without thinking, as she did often to soothe Auri in the night. Under the snare of his attention they disbanded now, flowing out like mist into colours instead, dreamy and undulating as the dance of aurora borealis, little wisps of them drawing inwards to curl about their limbs. A small touch sent them rippling, like an extension of each movement. “Experience is a matter of judgement, no?” She winked at the pretty ribbon she tied on the regift of his own words, wondering how many hearts shipwrecked on the gleam in him now. The spark of her own charm was no less vibrant. He was intrigued but teasing her too, not that she minded. Her mind puzzled the hint of secrecy, but she would chase what she wanted from him first. She laughed. “I know someone with enthusiasm. What do you suppose boredom may be the mother of?”
The lights were entrancing. Almost subconsciously, he swept his fingers through the ribbon, chuckling at the ephemeral waves rippling from the disturbance. Seven was not without his own clever creations, but the thread of competition did not pull him to action. He had no desire to upstage the lady but rather to glory in her talent.

Her question sparked fresh light through his expression. This was a challenge of intellect that he did not dismiss. “Ah! An easy answer. Boredom is the mother of innovation,” with an elegant conclusion of their dance, he paused, holding her in his arms for the duration of an extended dip. His smile hovered above her face until replacing her feet beneath her once more. “But this is far too philosophical a discussion for Ephriam’s debauchery and pillaging. Perhaps we should ensure he has not forgotten us?”

He offered his hand with a rather formal gesture, but Seven was hardly stiff in his posture. “Besides, I am going to order another drink. Perhaps you could advise me with a recommendation? And I will advise you in turn.”
Zhenya smiled at his enchantment of the swirling lights as they misted ethereally from his questing touch. She would have liked to see more of his own capabilities, but it was only impatience, and for now she did not mind the tease of the chase. Seven’s spark at their banter of wits suggested she would not be disappointed there either.

After a flourish their dance ended. He offered a hand, but she wrapped herself delicately around his arm instead. Even Eph did not escape her naturally affectionate manner, and she did not expect Seven would mind. If they were to work together on the mysteries of the power, he would discover she did not stand much for ceremony, particularly amongst those she was fond of.

To the bargain she agreed easily, but added her own mischievous amendment as she glanced up at him, a smile on her lips. “I think I will surprise you, instead.”

Behind them the lights shimmered and began to fade seamlessly into the bar’s more mundane efforts. She had been showing off, and the point was made, but she could not bear the lack of artistry in simply cutting the weave so abruptly. The intoxicating lull of the seidr slipped slowly away as the last glittering remnants dissolved.

When they returned, Ephraim’s legs were propped on the table, his latest drink held aloft in the slim fingers of one hand while the other pressed his index finger against his lips. He smirked up at them, amused. “You know, watching beautiful people together makes me quite sick.”

Zhenya only laughed as she slipped herself free of Seven, the sweep of her glance encompassing both men with a faint smile. She was not ignorant of more tactful motivations for the dancing, much as she had enjoyed the diversion of it, and she was inclined to allow them the space for their own discussions free of her presence. The Apex Lounge boasted excellent table service, of course, and the bar at its heart was mostly clear of patrons, who were typically ensconced in their own private groupings. As the hour wore on, the place had grown busy. Not that she would normally offer up her services as a waitress, but she had promised the pick of Seven’s drink to be a surprise.

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