The clock struck 11:11 and Klara was in a tizzy. The potatoes were roasted to perfection, she'd polished every bulb on her prized electric chandelier to a brilliant shine, and she'd needlessly nudged every piece of silverware on the table at least four times each. But the train was always on time, and unless there were any other travelers that evening it would probably stop directly outside her front door, in which case she wouldn't have more than a moment to panic. What if she needed two moments to panic? Three? What if after only the fourth moment of panicking would she realize how she could have better prepared the evening, but she never had the chance to get that far because the train only allowed her one or two? She should never have let the Mentalist talk her into this.
The earsplitting metallic whistle of the train made Klara yelp in surprise – just as she feared, directly outside her door. "Oh dear, oh dear, this is fine, oh dear," she ping-ponged between self-pity and reassurance, and a quick final look in the mirror found her looking immaculate, not a curl out of place nor a ball bearing unpolished. That was a relief at least. And her dinner parties were always the talk of the town the day following. And she did so love meeting new people. She patted her hair and dimpled a smile at herself in the mirror. Yes, this would be fine.
A knock at the door revealed her three guests: Klara held the door open wide for them, ushering each into her home with a sudden surge of confidence. Her anxieties could always be counted upon to give way to hospitality.
"Monsieur Fleur, a pleasure to see you."
"Madame." Fleur whipped off his scarlet hat with a flourish and bowed low, his remarkably mobile mouth twisting into an unctuous smile. Klara laughed when he took her hand in his and kissed it.
"Your Excellency," she greeted the next, more seriously to match the Counselor's grave countenance. "My, I'm glad you didn't have too long a walk in those shoes!"
"Klara," he returned in a gravelly rumble, inclining his head. The way he slithered into the foyer stood completely at odds with his vivid yellow robes.
"And you must be John." She beamed at her final guest, who was hovering in the threshold looking uncertain of whether he'd found the proper place. "I'm so glad to finally meet you."
"Enchanted," he said with a broad smile. He discarded his apprehension long enough to grip her hand in a friendly handshake, but it was back again once he caught Fleur studying him with a critical eye. John tugged his violet suit jacket straighter and lifted his chin.
"Well then!" Klara clapped her hands together twice, beaming at the haphazard trio. "Why waste another moment? To the dining room!"
A sharp and sudden clack made three of them jump, and Klara cast around the room to see the Counselor lowering a pair of polished wooden sticks from over his head. She snatched her hand back from where it had flung to her heart before she could cause offense and cleared her throat.
"Ah, yes. This way!"
The roast turned out splendidly, just as Klara had dreamed. She carved the meat with great relish (despite John's repeated offers to do it for her) and all appeared to enjoy it, even the Counselor, whose brows hardly ever lifted from a scowl and whom Klara was finding most difficult to read. Ever the practiced courtier, Fleur led most of the conversation, talking them all in long, elegant circles about nobility, tradition, and pesky youth revolutionaries that would threaten his gilded way of life.
"It sounds so romantic," Klara sighed, closing her eyes. She could see the vaulted ceilings and ornate mirrors now.
"You'll want to get them under control," the Counselor warned Fleur, breaking the spell with the first words he'd spoken in quite a while. "If you need resources, I am glad to oblige, for a price."
Fleur chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "I hesitate to cause much disturbance. Can you guarantee discretion?"
Klara's smile faded and her eyes darted between the pair of them. She cleared her throat delicately. "Gentlemen, surely you don't mean—"
"Expert trackers. Deadly spies. Silent mercenaries." The Counselor nodded as he listed each one. "Or if you can rely on your own, my son has developed an explosive compound that if properly concealed—"
"I'm sorry, I don't think I'm supposed to be here," John interrupted suddenly, his chair scraping loudly against the floor as he stood. Fleur's and the Counselor's attention shifted to him as though they were just noticing him for the first time. "There must be a mistake, I apologize for the intrusion; Klara, it's been wonderful."
"Oh no John, do stay!" Klara insisted, all but diving across the table to keep him from going too far. "I arranged a meeting for diplomats, the dinner would be incomplete without you!"
"I'm no diplomat," John said on a strangled laugh, "and by the sound of it, neither are they. No offense meant, of course," he added hastily. Fleur shrugged but the Counselor remained stony-faced.
"Don't sell yourself so short! Don't you supervise those that wander through your mists?" Klara caught hold of his suit sleeve and pulled him back into his seat. "See, there you go, tuck back in, have some more asparagus."
John rubbed the back of his neck, caught between flattery and sheepishness as Klara heaped his plate with vegetables. "Well, that's very kind of you to say. But it's not really supervising so much as babysitting, and they're not really my mists so much as his. Its. Theirs?" He frowned in thought, then dismissed whatever idea had confused him.
There was a pregnant pause, then Fleur repeated flatly, "Babysitting."
"Not really babysitting, but you know, they tend to be on the younger side," John said as though anyone at the table had any idea what he meant.
"Our guests." When still no one reacted, John cast around the table, puzzled. "Don't you have guests?"
"Of course!" Klara trilled with almost manic assurance. "All the time, just like the three of you, and what a pleasure it is to have you." She hefted a bottle like a shield. "More wine?"
The group's departure was a stilted one. Poor John clasped Klara's hands in his own and apologized again for the confusion, and her heart went out to him – he was the only one at her table mercifully disinterested in discussing assassins for hire or whatever else, a quality for which she never thought she'd be so specifically grateful. They kissed both cheeks before he stepped out onto the porch.
"Madame Klara, charming and invigorating as ever." Monsieur Fleur bowed low again, but his expression betrayed his feelings on the evening's guest list.
"Your trust and hospitality is a blessing on any occasion," the Counselor said in a tone that immediately made Klara feel distinctly less trusting and hospitable. She was about to dip a curtsey to bid him goodbye but he whipped out the two polished sticks again, clapping them together in another piercing crack that made them all jump.
Klara deposited herself in a wooden saloon chair with a great clatter of her skirts hardly an hour later, the remains of their dinner left forgotten and unwashed in her kitchen. Bella Donna was at her elbow instantly with a glass of cordial in hand.
"Don't be so hard on yourself, darling!" Bella Donna said as soon as Klara had related the entire sorry tale, cross-realm conspiracy plotting and all. She gave Klara an encouraging rub on the back, but Klara's shoulders only slumped lower until she was on the verge of slipping beneath the table entirely. "You couldn't have known! And the food was divine either way, I'm sure."
"Where is the Mentalist?" Klara moaned. "This is his fault! He apparently had the foresight to stay away from here tonight but not enough to know he was setting me up for failure!"
"Cheer up, have a drink, there you go." Bella Donna motioned for the bartender behind Klara's back when Klara drained the glass. "Next time will be better."
The infamous diplomats' dinner was a week behind her but the sting of it still lingered in the corners of her ruthlessly tidy home, and no matter how many times she chased the feeling out with a feather duster, it settled in another dark corner just out of reach. But Bella Donna was right. This time would be better, her guests didn't have half the rank as the previous trio, and in fact she was pretty certain they came from places that bucked against the concept of rank entirely. The clock struck 11:11, the train whistle sounded mere yards from her dining room table – when would it spare her nerves and give her just a few minutes' more time? – and Klara scurried to meet them at the front door.
"Monsieur Pierrot!" She clasped her hands together in delight, and the White Clown gifted her with a gracious smile and polite nod of his head. "So good to see you again, do come inside. Did you meet the others on the ride here?"
Behind him stood four, not two figures in the low evening light beyond her porch, and Klara noticed the White Clown's smile become fixed. Oh dear. Six total? But she had only cooked for three guests and herself! She stifled a renewed flush of anxiety as the tallest of the lot approached, all leg and trailing coattails.
"Good evening, my Klara," Eugen said before she could speak, patting her hand kindly. "I was so grateful for your invitation. What an interesting evening you have devised for us already."
The things Eugen tended to find interesting were often incomprehensible, invisible, or downright dangerous; Klara forced a smile that she hoped looked more gracious than trepidatious. She was just about to ask whom Eugen had brought along with him when the sight of Eugen's bleakly formal tuxedo was replaced with a sudden swirl of wind and color: the Trickster swept into a deep bow before Klara instead, and all anxiety was flung far from her mind.
"Dearest Trickster!" She clapped her hands and embraced him, which he permitted for one courteous moment before stepping back to straighten his lapels with a sharp jerk of his wrists. Behind her, the White Clown fought to maintain a neutral expression. "I'm so glad to return your hospitality at last."
"The pleasure is mine," the Trickster answered in a voice like silk, cool and smooth. He glanced over his shoulder and waved someone forward, a boy by the look of him, and dressed in the same blue-orange-white striped pattern the Trickster wore, only loose and set horizontally. He was clutching a long glittering baton as though wishing he could hide behind it, but Klara placed her hands on her knees and leaned down to smile warmly at him. The boy's face lit up to match.
"And who do we have here?"
"Oh, you brought one too?" Eugen had to lean quite a bit further to get a good look at the boy, who's smile faltered a little under the scrutiny of such a bizarre man, not that the one he had come with were any closer to normal. "What's yours named?"
"The Innocent," the Trickster announced, positively radiating pride, and the Innocent took one of his hands off of the wand just long enough to wave at everyone.
"Mine is Guifa. Guifa, come introduce yourself." Eugen waved the last stranger forward, a young, bright-eyed man wrapped in a red and yellow tunic.
"My name is Guifa," Guifa said completely unnecessarily, but he squared his shoulders with a broad grin anyway and Eugen gave an approving nod. "It's a pleasure to meet you all. Especially you," he added to the boy, "since it looks like we have a lot in common. Is Innocent your real name?"
"Is Guifa yours?" the Innocent piped up. Guifa considered for a moment, then looked back at Eugen, who just shrugged.
"You really ought to be more careful with that wand," the White Clown said with a disapproving look at the Trickster. "It's dangerous to hand it out to whoever—"
"How dare you," the Trickster interrupted with a scandalized hand to his chest. "Have you ever known me to be cavalier? The mere suggestion is an insult. Off you go my boy, run along, take Guifa with you."
The Trickster flicked his wrist and a sudden breeze picked up, scuttling leaves across Klara's front porch. The wind caught the ends of the Innocent's clothes and swept him out into the dusky yard: the Innocent gave a little yelp of surprise and redoubled his grip on the wand but didn't resist as it carried him off. Guifa glanced down at his own clothes, marveling at how he hadn't been affected, and trailed after the Innocent, eyes alight with interest. Before Klara could even draw breath to speak, the Trickster was ushering the remaining three of them inside as though he owned the place.
"Now. Shall we?"
Dinner this time was much more jovial than the last, thank god. When asked if the Innocent and Guifa would like something to eat, the Trickster and Eugen exchanged a glance as though the very idea were comical. No, they both assured Klara, they would take care of themselves and she needn't worry.
"It was best that I bring him along, that's all. He tends to create trouble when we're separated," the Trickster explained while Eugen nodded his sage agreement, swirling a glass of wine.
"But you just separated from him," the White Clown pointed out irritably.
"I suppose I did," the Trickster said with a grave nod. "Oh, don't forget: start with the outside fork, White. That's the one you use for salad."
"Glad to see you've learned some table manners."
Klara noticed with alarm that the White Clown was already clutching the proper fork with enough force to bend it, and she cleared her throat.
"I didn't know you two knew each other so well," she said, hoping to inject a bit of levity into whatever aggravated undercurrent had taken hold of the White Clown's mood.
"Oh yes," the Trickster said, a smile unfurling across his lips. "Cut from the same cloth, you might say. If, of course, the tailor decided to use one piece to make a spectacular suit and the other to make, well…." He gestured vaguely at the White Clown's ruffles. "That."
"You must be great friends to joke so often." Klara cast a glance at Eugen for help, but he didn't appear to have heard a thing. Noticing his empty wine glass, she hastened to refill it.
"Great friends," the Trickster agreed at the same moment the White Clown grumbled, "Acquaintances."
The dinner carried on in much the same fashion, the White Clown barely keeping a grip on his aggravation while the Trickster appeared completely at his leisure, long legs crossed at the knee and one arm slung over the back of his chair. Hoping to encourage the White Clown into better spirits, Klara poured with a slightly heavier hand than usual and was careful to inquire about the goings on in his town. How were the people? As lively as ever? Had he seen any of the angels lately? She would so like to meet one. She jumped when a pea shot across the table and hit the White Clown right between the eyes: there was a clatter as the Trickster put his fork back down, hands raised in innocence.
"How clumsy of me, forgive the interruption. You were saying the funeral business is treating you well?"
"The funeral business?" Eugen repeated in the first sign of life he'd shown in some time, apart from downing several glasses of wine in startlingly quick succession. "How macabre. Good for you, boy. Someone's got to do the work."
"It is my honor to do it. It can be challenging to find people to preside over life's transitions with dignity and respect," the White Clown said with a pointed look at the Trickster, who was busy using his fork to inch the White Clown's glass nearer and nearer to the edge of the table so that it might spill into his lap.
"Now Trickster, I don't want to have to ask you to behave," Klara chided. The White Clown sat back in his seat, smug, until he noticed that the apologetic smile the Trickster flashed Klara had tarnished her cheeks with a vivid blush. Eugen chuckled into his glass.
"No, no, I insist!" Klara said later, busy wrapping up plates for the three of them to take home. "The two of you hardly touched your food, and I can't bear to let the poor boys you brought with you go hungry, no matter what you say. You at least liked my cooking, didn't you, Monsieur Pierrot?"
"It was divine, Klara," the Trickster assured her before the White Clown could answer, joining her at the kitchen counter and snaking an arm around her waist. Klara startled out of her faux pout with a delighted giggle, all aflutter as he finished the preparations with a delicate flourish of his wrist. The White Clown rolled his eyes.
"Guifa should be along any moment—ah." A knock sounded at the front door just as the words were out of Eugen's mouth and a few long strides carried him to the foyer. He opened the door to reveal Guifa and the Innocent, both sopping wet and grinning ear to ear.
"Do you have one of these, signore?" Guifa asked excitedly, brandishing the Trickster's wand. "It's incredible, and this kid really knows what he's doing, but he couldn't find a way to dry us off…."
This time Klara sank into her seat at the saloon with a sigh and a smile still playing at the corners of her mouth.
"Better this time?" Bella Donna asked after she'd slid into the seat opposite, but she could already see the answer written on Klara's face.
"Much better, yes. I don't know if the food impressed them, but perhaps they do not eat very often."
"And the company was…?"
"Fine, the company was fine," Klara said too quickly to be casual, and Bella Donna laughed at her blush.