Talia strode through the halls of her father’s compound in the Iranian mountains, walking at his side and listening carefully. Her eyes were always alert for any potential threat even here in their stronghold, and her mind presently whirled at a pace that her serene expression belied. She had been home from London less than a day, and had much to catch up on. Ra’s al Ghul had tolerated her absence without much complaint, but he would brook no further delays now that she was back under his thumb where she belonged.
“Our assets in northern Afghanistan are being compromised,” Ra’s al Ghul told her. “Find out who, and why, and deal with them appropriately.”
She already had an idea of who and why, just given the location. American interests in the region were trying to stop the poppy trade which fed some of the biggest narcotic cartels in the world, and the local extremists were trying to take over that same lucrative trade to fund their exploits. The interaction of the two was interfering with the peaceful current of business—and the steady flow of money into al Ghul coffers. All that remained was to determine if her hunch was correct, and make an example of the fools who thought they could rob the Demon. The Americans could be distracted, but the extremists understood only bloodshed. “It will be done within the week,” she replied confidently.
Ra’s continued without questioning her. “The Kazakh cell grows fractious. Eliminate them, if you must, though I prefer a more conservative solution.”
Unsurprising. It was more than time to remind the Kazakhs who their master was. That particular group was bold, fearless, and extremely competent; a pity to waste them for some minor insubordination. “I will handle that personally,” Talia said after a moment’s consideration. An appearance by their leader’s right hand—who happened to be a woman, and who also happened to be capable of putting down any five of their best men in under three minutes—would remind them of their loyalties. For a while, anyway. Eventually a lasting solution would have to be found, or that group would need to be reorganized.
“The Korean situation has been resolved satisfactorily, and we’ve successfully brokered the Pakistani arms deal,” Ra’s told her, and Talia nodded. She had made the arrangements in both situations before leaving for Gotham. Ra’s continued, “Our investments in Europe are holding steady. I expected more profitability.”
That was the legitimate side of their commerce, of which Talia had near-total control. Not even Ra’s could equal her business acumen. It was also her cover for her recent absence; some things were better handled from London, where she was known as a ruthlessly competent CEO. Confidently, Talia replied, “We are playing the long game in regards to the stocks. Profits will increase slowly but steadily over the next year. I do not intend to get caught in another market crash if American financial systems fail again. The British and European industries are much more stable, if less likely to yield sharp increases.”
Ra’s nodded, pacing gravely with his hands clasped behind his back. They had pulled out of the American banking industry months before the last financial meltdown, missing out on some spectacular gains in the final days of the housing bubble—but also missing the terrible plummet, when entire fortunes had been lost overnight. When it came to money, Ra’s trusted his daughter completely. It was perhaps the only endeavor in which he did so.
Now he said, “It also appears that our associates in Serbia are having some difficulty.” At that, her blood ran cold. Jason Todd had last been sighted by her trackers on the Serbian border, and he had a tendency to cause difficulties for mobsters. But why would he choose to interfere in their business?
Jason had disappeared from Talia’s London safe-house just over a week ago, without a word or a note or any hint whatsoever that he was thinking of deserting her. He’d hadn’t been taken against his will, because any kidnapping attempt would’ve left severe property damage and many bullet-holes. So he’d simply … left, of his own volition, and with no immediate explanation for having done so.
Talia had been surprised by that, and very little surprised her, especially about someone she’d studied so thoroughly. She and Jason had been together near-constantly since she’d rescued him from Gotham, with her watching over him as he healed. Jason was an impetuous, impulsive young man, but she would have thought he would at least tell her if he decided to move on. They were far more than mentor and protégée, after all, and he’d shared her bed consistently for weeks. That alone was enough to keep other men docilely at heel.
Of course there had to be a reason. She’d looked to see why he would have left even as she’d ordered men to track him. The answer was in her computer, which was set to log every keystroke and action by the user. Jason had booted it up while she was out, having somehow acquired her password. It was time to go to biometric security on every device, but she hadn’t thought the laptop was at any risk. Talia hadn’t even known Jason was second-guessing her. Then again, she should’ve expected it. The Lazarus pit did tend to cause paranoia. Once he’d gotten access, he’d rummaged around for a bit and then copied a file to an external drive. His file. The one that contained everything she knew about him, and everything that had been done since she’d found him.
Talia supposed Jason had taken offense to that. As if she wouldn’t have all available data on him. He was quite the mystery, and until recently no one else had known he was even alive. It only made sense to keep all the salient facts at her fingertips. He likely saw things differently, and with the way the Lazarus pit had quickened his temper, it might just have been reason enough to start a war.
I cannot protect you from Father if you insist on getting in his way, Talia thought worriedly. Aloud, she spoke with perfect calm, her mind racing for an alternate explanation. “I’ll look into it. We know the Serbians have a record of getting their hands dirty. Perhaps they attracted someone’s ire.”
Ra’s was silent for a long moment, long enough that his daughter wondered how much he knew. “Hmm. They are involved in human trafficking, as of the last report from our watchers. I prefer not to have to cultivate new contacts simply because these men cannot resist a profit. Perhaps whatever vigilante has noticed their activities can be persuaded to forget.”
Human trafficking. That meant women and children for the sex trade. Talia’s hopes rose cautiously at that. It was the sort of thing that Jason would investigate and destroy, not out of some sense of revenge, but because he could not bear to let it go on. His ethics did not allow him to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of the innocent and helpless. Perhaps, then, it was him, but he had no idea he was causing trouble for the League of Shadows. That was the best possible explanation, if Jason was involved.
Musingly, she replied, “Perhaps. Or perhaps we might let the Serbian mob fall, and be replaced by their rivals, whom we can ensure are deeply in our debt by the time they rise to power. They might be more manageable, and more tolerable, than the present gangster scum we work with.”
“As you see fit,” Ra’s told her lightly. That tone meant he had no idea of Jason’s potential involvement—she hoped. So far as her father was concerned, the boy had stolen from him: money, Talia’s time, and most damningly, the rejuvenation of the Lazarus pit. Ra’s might be willing to ignore the rest, but the theft of the Lazarus pit could not be forgotten, and he would always seek repayment in the form of Jason’s life. Something Talia could not allow him to take.
They walked on; this place was sprawling, and had been added onto over the years, resulting in almost labyrinthine corridors. Ra’s had no intention of remodeling. The current floor plan would confuse any intruders long enough for the guards to dispose of them at their leisure. He and Talia were accustomed to it, and could have navigated the entire compound blindfolded if necessary.
This particular hallway had one wall made up almost entirely of one-way mirrors, looking out into the main training room. They were halfway down it when Ra’s said curtly, “Stop obsessing about the boy, Talia.”
Those words startled her; Jason Todd had been on her mind a moment ago, and she could not let her father guess how often she thought of him. Not if she wanted to keep him safe. But he wasn’t the boy he meant, and she knew it almost immediately, a hot flush of anger rising to her cheeks.
Elise woke up feeling groggy, and shook her head to clear it. She immediately noticed two things: one, she wasn’t in her dorm, and two, she was sitting in a chair. Well, kind of stuck in it somehow. Wondering how the heck she’d fallen asleep sitting up, Elise tried to lift her arms.
They wouldn’t come up, and then she woke up all the way. She was bound to the chair, her arms and legs and waist secured to it. Elise looked around her wildly, trying to figure out where she was. The details of the room were invisible to her; a bright bare bulb swung over the chair, casting her in a pool of brilliant light and hiding the rest of the room in shadow.
Now she remembered. Stepping into her room and hearing a faint hissing, seeing the unobtrusive little canister right before the sleeping gas took hold. Elise had been kidnapped. Her heart started to race. “Hello?” she called, not expecting an answer. She just wanted an idea of how big the room was, based on the echo or lack thereof. Maybe that would tell her something about who had taken her.
“Hello, Miss Thorne.” That reply, obviously from a voice scrambler, freaked Elise right out. It sounded like it was right in front of her somewhere, but all she saw was blackness outside the ring of light.
Elise took a deep breath, and tried to put on a jovial tone. “Hey, look, I think there’s some sort of misunderstanding here. I’m nobody important.”
“The only misunderstanding is yours. You underestimate your importance.” That voice, it was impossible to guess age or gender or anything else. This was no cheap spy-shop scrambler, it was the real deal, rendering the speaker’s voice completely unrecognizable.
Okay. Breathe. Think. How are you gonna get out of this? There has to be a way. Maybe it is just a mistake. But even as she coached herself, Elise knew it was no mistake, and knew exactly why the mysterious person in the shadows had captured her.
Aloud, though, she only said, “Seriously, I think the only person who’s gonna miss me is that girl in my chem class who stayed home sick and needs my notes. So really, you’ve got the wrong girl.”
“Are you or are you not Miranda Elise Thorne?” the voice asked.
For a half-second she thought of denying it, but remembered in the nick of time that she’d already answered to the name. “Yeah, that’s me. Second-year chem major. No one special.”
“You’re very special. To someone.” The voice let that ominous phrase hang in the air for a moment, and Elise bit her tongue not to reply, just listening. She thought she heard a faint hum, like a motor. What that could be, she didn’t want to guess, her mind helpfully presenting her with images from gory horror films. Why the hell she’d ever seen that one about the murder club and the backpacking teenagers, she couldn’t possibly figure out now.
“Well, all right, to my parents, but they’re in New Zealand. And we’re not rich and famous,” Elise said nervously. She wouldn’t bring up Corrin if she could help it. Whatever she was mixed up in, he couldn’t get dragged into it.
Her answer was a low laugh, eerily distorted. “I had someone a bit more super in mind.”
At that, Elise froze. Oh, shit.
As they walked, Talia had turned without even consciously realizing it, looking through the one-way mirrors at the training in progress. Given what she saw there, her gaze had been captured and transfixed. Beyond the glass, a young boy somewhat fairer than Talia—but otherwise strongly resembling her—faithfully practiced his sword katas under the watchful eye of a skilled swordsman. Most children of his tender age would have considered running without falling down to be a feat, but he was sure-footed and agile as a cat. He already handled a wooden practice sword with surety, and he was just about to turn four. This boy had the strength of both halves of his lineage coursing through his veins, and as the heir of both Ra’s al Ghul and the Batman, he had been exemplary from the moment of his birth. He was called Damian, and he had been bred to rule as his father the Detective refused to do.
More important than all of that, however, he was Talia’s child, and her gaze sought him out even when she couldn’t go to him. Once upon a time, she had thought she understood what it was to love completely, fiercely, and unconditionally. The moment Damian’s eyes focused on her, however, Talia had realized just how wrong she was. If the love she’d felt before had been like diving in the ocean, this was like swimming along congratulating herself on how deep she’d gone, and suddenly finding a drop-off that descended into unknowable dark blue depths. And then falling, willingly, gladly, into a love that frightened her with its intensity. For Damian, she would remake the world if she had to.
When Ra’s would have walked on after that curt remark, Talia came to a full halt, forcing him to turn and face her. She lifted her chin and said with cold determination, “Father, ‘the boy’ is my son.”
Ra’s gave a small, irritated sigh. “He is in good hands. In any case, he cannot see you watching over him with maternal pride, and you do not have the time to offer advice or criticism at this moment. You have been gone too long already, Talia.” A hint of reproach in that; perhaps he knew what she’d been up to in London, tending and tracking Jason instead of just tending to business.
Likely he did. Talia was rarely able to keep secrets from her father. But as long as she continued the work and didn’t allow her side projects to interfere with what he considered important business, Ra’s al Ghul was willing to turn a blind eye to her concerns. At least, up to a point. If he pressed the issue, she generally gave in.
For the most part, Talia yielded to his judgment. He was, after all, vastly older and wiser and more objective than she was. Ra’s had proven his superior reasoning to her many times. But on this matter, she would not surrender. Still giving him a confrontational stare, she retorted, “Caring for my son—and wishing to see him after an absence—is not obsession, Father. Damian is my only child.”
“And he is my only heir,” Ra’s replied, with a touch of warning in the tone.
Talia held herself perfectly still as only one trained by ninjas could, not even the motion of breath betraying her. She might have been a statue cunningly painted to appear alive, and a casual observer would have complimented the artist on the portrayal of the look of challenge in her eyes.
For a long moment they faced off, with the object of their quarrel completely unaware of them. At last Ra’s al Ghul sighed. “My daughter, you know well I can refuse you nothing you truly desire. Go to the boy, then. Your mind will not be at ease until you have spoken with him.”
He had compromised; so would she. The balance of power must always be maintained. “Let us finish this first,” Talia said in conciliatory tones. “I must know what is to be done, even if I will see my son before I begin it.”
His eyes narrowed very slightly; at the moment there were no traces of crow’s feet at the corners, but those minute signs of aging came sooner and sooner each time. Ra’s had perhaps a year before he would need to use the Lazarus pit again, Talia guessed.
“Very well,” he finally said, and turned back to resume their walk—which forced her to catch up, but so be it. “I shall tell you what we’ve recently learned of our friends in Australia.”
Talia’s mouth turned down in a scowl; Lex Luthor and his plots were not topics calculated to ease her mind. By her reckoning, they should have simply seized his laboratory once they knew he’d built it directly over a potential Lazarus pit site. But Ra’s was cautious, and he had a use in mind for the brilliant American.
Still, news of their temporary allies would be useful when Luthor inevitably tried to betray them. Talia kissed her fingertips and touched them to the glass for one last look at her son, before hastening to follow her father and devoting her full attention to the work.