The film crew set up next to the Surf Club, with a crowd on onlookers gathered around. The kitchen set was put out, with the fridge and oven hooked up.
“Today we have a special guest,” Erika said to the cameras. “As viewers of my previous program may remember, I would occasionally have my little brother on before his untimely passing. As it turns out, he faked his death in circumstances he is yet to adequately explain, so for the first time on Beachside Kitchen, please welcome my brother, Jason Asano.”
“What kind of introduction was that?” Jason asked, walking into shot.
“Well, if you’d like to explain to the viewers what you’ve been doing for a year and a half?”
“Time and place, Eri!”
“Then I hope you’ve got a better recipe than you do an explanation,” Erika said. “It’s dessert week on Beachside Kitchen and Jason will be helping me make a Russian honey cake. Before that, though, we’ve each picked out a simple dessert recipe that we’ll each be making. What do you have for us, little brother?”
“I’m going with a brioche frangipane apple pudding, how about you?”
“I thought I’d pay deference to the lovely warm spell we’re enjoying here in Casselton Beach by making a simple and summery key lime pie.”
“West Indian lime pie,” Jason corrected.
“Most people will know it as a key lime pie, Jason.”
“We’re in Australia, Eri, and in Australia they’re called West Indian limes, not key limes. Ergo, West Indian lime pie.”
“Ergo? Are you trying to make the viewers hate you? Key lime pie is universally acknowledged as a delicious summer dessert, while the internet will tell you that West Indian lime pie is a gross sex thing.”
“It’s the internet, Eri. Everything is a gross sex thing,” Jason said, pulling out his phone. “You probably made that up anyway, so I’m going to look it up.”
His expression froze for a moment, then he put his phone away and flashed the camera a big smile.
“So today, Erika will be making a delicious key lime pie…”
Out of shot, standing next to the executive producer, Taika leaned over to whisper a question.
“You don’t put the bickering in the show, do you?”
“We edit it back for the airing,” Wally said, “but we do a special cut for the website. It’s a massive traffic driver every time he’s on. The audience love them together. I’d have him co-host if he’d just agree to it. Selling stationary and he doesn’t want to be a TV star. I don’t suppose you could try talking him into it?”
“I don’t think so, bro. He doesn’t sell office supplies anymore.”
Several hours later, Jason was dealing with a group of stern Chinese men who did not look like big Beachside Kitchen fans. The man at the front was the leader of the group and one of only two that had spoken during the meeting. The only flower among the rocks was being the leader’s beautiful, young-seeming daughter, wearing the same sharp suit and sharp expression as the rest.
“You are a fool to reject our entreaties, Mr Asano,” he said.
“I was already a fool, Mr Li, so it wasn’t out of my way.”
A smile teased the corner of his daughter’s lips but she quickly schooled her expression. They were standing in the conference lobby of Castle Head’s largest business resort, although the only other one was just marginally smaller. Li and his daughter were both silver-rankers, while their unspeaking flunkies were all iron.
“You will come to regret being so flippant,” The elder Li said and marched away. The flunkies followed in lock-step, but his daughter remained behind.
“I always do,” Jason confided in her. “Actually, that’s a lie; I thought it would sound cool. To be honest, I’m killing it.”
“You are an unconventional man, Mr Asano,” the younger Li said. “Although we have not come to an agreement today, I hope you will consider yourself open to perhaps a more modest collaboration in the future.”
“Modest isn’t really my thing, but I’ll try and be open-minded. You know, I respect the approach you’re taking. You figured out that you didn’t have anything that would swing me, so your Dad comes in all bluster, making me feel powerful in rejecting him. Then you step in, reasonable, graceful and measured, to keep the door open.”
She gave him a wry smile.
“Did it work?” she asked.
“Definitely,” Jason said with a grin. “I’d give you my phone number but something tells me you already have it. How about you give me yours?”
She gave him a sunbeam smile and handed him a business card with both hands. Jason looked it over, seeing her work numbers on the front. He chuckled as he turned it over and saw another number, hand-written in pen and labelled ‘personal.’
“Is your dad really like that, or was it a show for my benefit?”
“This approach was his design,” she admitted, “although he was playing to his strengths.”
“I think you both were,” Jason said.
“And what do you think my strengths are, Mr Asano?”
“Most things, from what I can tell. Not blending in, though. I have trouble imagining a crowd where you don’t stand out.”
“Daughter!” her father barked from the lobby entrance. “We are leaving!”
“I have to go, Mr Asano.”
“I am genuinely disappointed, Miss Li. I look forward to seeing you again.”
As the Beijing Network delegation left, Jason wandered over to one of the lobby couches and crashed down.
“Strewth, that was a good plan.” Jason said. “I think they may have sent the most beautiful woman in China.”
“She is silver-rank, Mr Asano,” Shade pointed out. “She most likely heard what you just said.”
“Oh, you’re right,” Jason said. “Whatever will I do now she’s heard me call her the most beautiful woman in China.”
“Ah, you intended her to hear. I may have spoiled your intentions by drawing attention to it.”
“No, I expected you to point that out.”
“Then why say it?”
“Because she doesn’t need me to tell her how gorgeous she is. But this way I get to do it while demonstrating that I thought things through this far, knowing that she’s listening to us right now.”
“Aren’t you concerned she might see you as smug?”
“I am smug, Shade. I find it best to put that right out there, given it’s a core character trait.”
“When will you let her know about the melodrama?”
“Ideally while I’m rescuing her as she’s falling off a building.”
“She’s a silver-ranker, Mr Asano. I imagine she would rescue herself.”
“That does make it tricky,” Jason agreed. “How hard would it be to arrange another rolling motorcycle shootout?”
“I believe events of that nature are best left to occur organically,” Shade said.
“How often does something like that happen organically?” Jason asked.
“Well, Mr Asano,” Shade said, “how has your week been so far?”
“I was hoping we could meet on your remarkable houseboat,” Lance Houseman said in a neutral accent. It reminded Jason a little of Farrah, whose translation ability made her English somewhat flat. Not everyone had Jason’s aptitude for forcing some local flavour through the sieve of a magical translation.
The American’s accent was not the result of a translation power, however. It was the classic mid-Atlantic banality, designed not to offend anyone yet slightly annoying everyone. Or perhaps that was the work of the smug self-confidence, Jason considered. He wondered, for a moment, if that was how people saw him, then dismissed the thought.
They were sitting in a Castle Heads café, the American with a long black and Jason with an iced chocolate, piled high with cream. Houseman had chosen to meet him alone.
“Your people have been examining my houseboat for days,” Jason said. “You should ask them.”
“That wasn’t us,” Lance said. “You might want to look to the Chinese for that.”
“You just lied to me, Mr Houseman,” Jason said. “Not a great start.”
Jason sipped at his ice chocolate, getting whipped cream on his nose but seeming not to notice. The American’s attention was drawn to it, distracted, but he didn’t say anything.
“Why don’t we get straight to the point,” Lance said. “My understanding is that you’re not a man to beat around the bush.”
“And you’re not a man to act incautiously,” Jason said. “All those category threes lurking around. Do you really think I’m that dangerous?”
“If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be worth my time, Mr Asano.”
“Sure I would,” Jason said. “I could be a bumbling fool and you’d be here, so long as I was a bumbling fool with a looting power. Even if that’s the only worthwhile thing I picked up over there, that’s money in the bank.”
“I don’t think you want money, Mr Asano. We can offer you more than the locals, no question, but you don’t care because you don’t need it. You’re waiting to hear what we can give you that they can’t.”
“Actually, I’m waiting for you to leave. I made a deal that I can’t close because you and your people are obnoxious enough to insert yourselves where you aren’t wanted. I guess I am the magical equivalent of an oil-rich nation.”
“That’s a cheap shot, Asano.”
“You present such an easy target. I’ve heard that the Chinese and US branches are a lot more unified than most of the Network.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a strong national identity.”
“Fair enough. You know I’m Australian, right?”
“Australia is the kiddie pool. We look at you and see a man with infinite potential, but you’re stuck teaching the children to swim. You need come and join the adults who already know how or you’ll never fulfil your potential.”
“Oh, I didn’t realise you could explain it with an easy to understand metaphor; you’ve totally turned me around.”
“Sarcasm is also cheap.”
“And you’re treating me like an uneducated white voter. We may keep voting our own idiots in, Mr Houseman, but we’re not America yet.”
“You seem to have a problem with my country, Mr Asano.”
“Mate, everyone has a problem with your country. You made children fear the sky and that was your last president. Do I even need to talk about this one? We know you haven’t read him in on magic because it’s still a secret.”
“Mr Asano, you sound like a hipster art student. One semester of political science does not make you Noam Chomsky. Whatever you may think of my nation’s politics, our magical community is something else entirely.”
“If you remain here, Mr Asano, you’ll spend all your time lifting others up. Come with us and you’ll be the one who rises.”
“That’s a very capitalist pitch,” Jason said. “You’re proposing I choose selfishness over helping others.”
“You’re very high-minded for someone who tried to sell gold to Armenian gangsters.”
“Everyone’s a hypocrite, Mr Houseman. I’m not responsible for the largest military and the largest economy on the planet, so my selfish choices can only hurt so many people. Selfish choices is your country’s political doctrine at this point.”
“We need to move on from this unproductive topic, Mr Asano. You can hate our politics all you like, but as you just pointed out, we have the money and we have the power. This is as true of magic as it is of everything else. If you ever want to get your friend home, you’ll need the greatest knowledge base and the largest pool of magical resources on the planet. That’s us.”
“Speaking of my friend,” Jason said. “You should call off your people looking for the chance to approach her separately. You won’t like what happens if you if they do.”
“You can’t threaten me, Mr Asano. We aren’t some half-baked French traitors trained in the worthless strategies that we forced on them. Our silver-rankers are more than capable of fighting on your terms. I know you aren’t stupid enough to think you can beat one of them, let alone a small army of them. You can feel them around us. This is how many silver-rankers we had to spare for this trip.”
“I’m not going to fight you,” Jason said. “I’m going to give the world the tools to stand up to you.”
“You aren’t as valuable as you think, Mr Asano. Don’t throw away a golden opportunity out of stubbornness. Think about your family. You can essence them up here, but we can make each and every one of them a powerhouse. They can all have mansions in Miami with a cupboard for monster cores in every one. We’ll turn them all into silver-rankers, guaranteed. No expense spared.”
“And all I have to do is clip a leash on my neck.”
“I’m not looking to put you in a box,” Lance said. “I’m offering you freedom. Freedom, within a much larger framework.”
“So, a big box, then.”
Lance shook his head.
“It pains me to look at someone like you, with all you could be, running around like a racehorse with blinders on. All you can see is the narrow path someone else has put in front of you. I want to open your eyes and let you see the world.”
“As long as I follow the tour guide’s directions,” Jason said.
“I didn’t want to bring this up,” he said, “because I knew it would be a delicate topic. Your friend, Farrah. She’s been through a lot. I wanted this to be a pleasant surprise after you signed on. We have expert counselling services that specialise in magic-related trauma. Our people can help her recover after the terrible circumstances she experienced because they have the training, the knowledge and the experience to give her the help we both know she needs.”
“You seriously think that I would trust your people to crawl inside her head?” Jason asked. “I think we’re done here.”
“Negotiation is a long road,” Mr Asano. “We’ll talk again.”
“Mr Houseman, I apologise for my ambiguity. I don’t actually think that we’re done here. I know we are. Definitively. This is a hard no.”
Houseman stood up and adjusted his jacket.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr Asano. You’ll come to realise that we aren’t trying to recruit you because we need you. We’re doing it because you need us.”
Jason remained seated, spooning some cream into his mouth.
“That’s alright, Mr Houseman. The hard way is kind of my thing.”
Houseman went outside and got into the back of a black Mercedes that drove away. Jason felt the nearby silver-rank auras retreat.
“He said silver-rank, rather than category three,” Shade observed.
“I noticed that, too,” Jason said. “Did you spot that one aura?”
“The silver-rank one that was free of monster core residue?” Shade asked. “Yes, I did. It was holding back, mostly likely outside of what they believed to be the range of your aura senses.”
“It seems that he wasn’t lying when he said that I’m not as valuable as I think. The Americans already have the training methods for non-core advancement.”
“It’s not overly surprising,” Shade said. “If they could figure out the right meditation techniques it wouldn’t be that hard. It’s unlikely they have a means as quick as using cores unless they have information from another world like you, but it would at least be an acceptable pace.”
“That makes sense,” Jason said.
He had learned that many branches had someone like Nigel who attempted to muddle through advancement without cores. They even had an informal network where they shared insights. Jason highly suspected that, like anyone with looting powers, the Americans snatched up anyone who made real progress.
Being in Castle Heads already, Jason offered to pick Emi up from school. Erika agreed, especially since they were still living in Jason’s houseboat. When Jason and his niece arrived home, they heard music blasting from the rear of the houseboat.
Jason sensed Hiro in his cabin with the soundproofing to maximum, while Farrah and Taika appeared to be dancing on the rear deck. Farrah shut off the sound system as Jason approached, rushing up to him.
“Tina Turner is old!” she said.
“I’m aware,” Jason said.
“We need to get her essences, now.”
“I don’t think the Network will be okay with that,” Jason said.
“Did you ask?”
“Did I ask if it was okay to give Tina Turner a set of essences? No, I did not.”
“Well, you have the speaky thing in your pocket, right?”
“You want me to call up a secret society of wizards whose core purpose includes hiding magic to ask if we can give magic to an internationally famous singer?”
“That would be great, thank you,” Farrah said.
“It wasn’t a suggestion,” he said, running an exasperated hand over his face.
“It can’t hurt to call, can it, Uncle Jason?”
“You too?” he asked Emi. “Don’t give me the puppy dog eyes, that isn’t going to … oh bloody hell.”
He jabbed a finger at his niece as he fished out his phone to make a call.
“I cannot believe I’m doing this. It’s only because I need to call Anna anyway, and you both owe me for… Anna, G’day.”
“What can I do for you, Mr Asano?”
“You can just call me Jason. Look, I’ve been asked to check if it’s at all possible to give essences to Tina Turner.”
“I’m afraid not,” Annabeth said with a laugh. “The international Committee had to put a stop to giving celebrities essences in the eighties.”
“It did happen, then?” Jason asked.
“Oh, yes,” Annabeth said. “Willie Nelson, Christie Brinkley. They should have been more careful with the essences they gave Ozzy Osbourne.”
“Is that why he’s not dead? What about Australians?”
“Well, the Perth branch is almost entirely made up of Cricketers everyone thinks are dead. They keep proposing to magic up Steve Waugh and I know at least one instance they tried to give Boonie essences on the sly.”
“So, that’s a no on Tina Turner?”
“Maybe take it up with the Americans. Did you talk to our foreign guests, yet?”
“I did, but found their proposals unappealing. I’ll come to you and finalise our agreement tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s fantastic,” Annabeth said, not hiding the relief in her voice. “They couldn’t tempt you away?”
“You helped me get Farrah back,” Jason said. “I know you and the International Committee had your own agenda, but you helped us and lost people in the process. I won’t forget that.”