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Africander Fic: Facing the Heart In Darkness; Part 2/?

For the Scatterlings and Orphanages Afircander Fiction Challenge from ludditerobot.

For all previous parts, go here.
Continued from Part 1.

“I’m not as sure,” Jonathan said with knowing nod. “I know you don’t listen to gossip, but a few of the old boys aren’t pleased with the new direction. If they can find a way to make use of this, they will. You can be certain of that. Between you and I, I think Mr. Giles is being naïve.”

 

In the late spring of 2004, barely two weeks after I parsed the interviews with the Harrises, I received a mysterious summons to meet with Roger Wyndham-Pryce at his city residence.

The Wyndham-Pryces were a very old Watcher family. Although influential, their power was somewhat in decline even before the destruction of the First Council. Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s only son was an utter failure as a field Watcher and had been summarily fired for incompetence. He later threw in with Angel, a vampire with a soul and sometime ally of Miss Summers.

As has been mentioned before, the sins of the fathers and mothers had been held against countless generations of young Watchers. I suppose it was only more than just that the sins of the sons and daughters were once held against the parents.

Despite the humiliation of having such a son, the proud history and noble tradition of the Wyndham-Pryce family’s service to the First Council had shielded Mr. Wyndham-Pryce and his wife from the worst of the fallout. In addition, although the family’s influence was on the wane, it was still formidable and no one felt secure enough in their position to place a black mark against them.

My parents were not fond of Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, but felt it wise to remain on good terms with he and his family. Although I also come from an old and noble Watcher bloodline, for my sake my parents made it a policy to remain on friendly terms with as many people in positions of authority as they could. They stayed out of the internal politics of the First Council as much as possible and did not muscularly acquire additional influence for fear of drawing attention to our family. As a result, I was acquainted with Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, but I cannot claim to have known him or any of his family well.

In the early days of the new Reformed Council, it appeared that Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s star was again on the rise. He was one of the few survivors with any experience from the First Council and, as such, Mr. Giles took the prudent step of offering him a position of authority. Years later I learned that Mr. Giles did so with great trepidation, but felt his hand was forced on this matter as he believed Mr. Wyndham-Pryce would do more harm if he was left out of the formation of the Reformed Council. Mr. Giles bet that by giving him a stake in the rebuilding efforts, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce would be more willing to work with the new blood now entering Council service.

I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, that it was a bet that Mr. Giles almost lost. While I am tempted to start recounting the most fascinating maneuvering in this battle for the Reformed Council’s future direction, and although I wish dearly to expound upon what it said about the character of all parties involved, now is not the time to discuss such matters. Rest assured, however, I will discuss this event much later in this memoir. So I beg for your indulgence and patience while I concentrate on the story at hand.

Despite the very public burying of the hatchet in 2003 when Mr. Giles invited Mr. Wyndham-Pryce to join the Reformed Council, Mr. Giles himself told me some years later over glasses of port that he did his best never to figuratively turn his back on the other man. It was a wise move on his part, as Mr. Wyndham-Pryce and his allies could be counted on to defend tradition whenever possible, even though the old ways may no longer apply to our present situation, and to constantly find weaknesses in whatever new methods Mr. Giles or his supporters might propose.

And truth be told, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce was not entirely unjustified in some of these protests, just as there is no excuse for some of his actions. I suppose this is why he remains such a polarizing figure. He was wrong where it mattered, and yet, and yet, and yet…

I’m certain, dear reader, that you are shocked at hearing such sentiments from one such as myself. Rest assured, this is not an act of contrition on my part. I remain firmly allied with those who advocate for a less tradition-bound Council. Given who I am, it wouldn’t make sense for me to be otherwise, if only out of base self-preservation. However, on more than one occasion I have felt compelled to play the devil’s advocate when the enthusiasm for change threatened to overwhelm the good we inherited from the First Council. This has, at times, bedeviled friend, foe, ally, and family alike.

When you have lived as long as I have, and have seen as much as I have, you tend to learn that it is rare indeed for anyone to be completely on the side of the angels or of the demons. Often we are trapped somewhere in the middle as we muddle through life as best we can. Rarely does anyone consistently favor one extreme or the other.

I will stop testing your patience now and will return to my tale.

During this time period, I was blissfully unaware and uncaring of the low-level political war raging in the upper levels of the Council between the modernists and the traditionalists. Even those more politically astute than myself never heard anything more than rumor, innuendo, and idle gossip. In fairness, I should give credit to Mr. Giles and Mr. Wyndham-Pryce in equal measure for this, as I believe open warfare between the factions would have surely split and weakened the Reformed Council at a most critical time.

The meeting with Mr. Wyndham-Pryce took place some weeks before we heard news that his only child and heir had been lost in the conflagration that destroyed a quarter of Los Angeles. I wish I could say the loss of his son had mellowed the formidable old man. However, quite the opposite occurred. Mr. Wyndham-Pryce became more resolute in defending the old ways against what he saw as the pernicious cruelty of reform for reform’s sake.

I cannot help but wonder if he would have softened his stance to one that was more reasonable had his son survived to be welcomed into the arms of the Reformed Council and restored to the position of full Watcher.

Such, I suppose, are the winds of fate.

The long-time retainer of the Wyndham-Pryce family who had delivered the summons to me in secret stressed that my discretion was required. Were it to slip that I was to meet one-on-one with Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, his employer would deny that any meeting was in the offing and that I would find my career unaccountably stalled in the lower echelons. Given that I was the last of the Swithin line, and that I believed myself without powerful protectors within the Reformed Council itself, I felt that I had no choice but to comply with my instructions.

I do confess, however, that I was immensely curious. As mentioned before, I was acquainted with Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, but he had no cause to single me out for any reason, save one. I was fairly certain my secret was still mine alone, but I had no way of knowing if it was true. Any number of things may have occurred to unmask me. The discovery of errant files that somehow escaped destruction not just once, but twice; the Devon coven pointing a finger in my direction; or perhaps an ill-timed word into the wrong ear could serve as my downfall.

Needless to say, it was with some trepidation that I met with Mr. Wyndham-Pryce on a cool spring night.

Upon my arrival, I was quickly ushered into his study. To take my mind off my worries, I casually browsed the books on the shelves. To my surprise, most of the spines revealed the books were works of classic literature, rather than volumes that focused on the Council’s work. I cooled my heels for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes before the man arrived.

“Sit, sit,” he ordered me with a jocular air. “You were bang on time. I apologize that I was not.” He tapped the side of his nose with his finger and winked at me. “Council business, you understand.”

I gratefully slid into one of the fine leather chairs placed just so in front of his desk. Mr. Wyndham-Pryce took the large chair behind it without hesitation. This simple dance between my superior and myself told me that this meeting was about Council business. Were it a social call, he would’ve have chosen a different chair. If it was about my secret, no doubt others would have been in the room so I could be safely confronted.

In either case, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s simple assertion of authority was a source of comfort to me and I immediately relaxed.

“Miss Swithin, how long has it been since we last met?” he continued in a friendly tone.

I gave a vaguely safe reply, although my precise answer escapes me at the moment. I suspect I may have mentioned that I attended one of the many lectures he gave prior to the First Council’s destruction.

“Excellent, excellent.” He nodded in such a way that I wondered if he had heard a word I said. “Those were the days, eh? Study, preparation, and building on our proud tradition. Remaining stalwart in the face of a chaotic world and serving as the strong shield for humanity in face of overwhelming odds. By god, we knew what we were about then. Now,” he waved a desultory hand, “now we send people into the field woefully unprepared for the reality that awaits them.”

At this my heart began an uneasy beat. I feared the direction of this conversation and I suspected I would find myself in the field unless I did something to dissuade Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. I felt it wise, however, to at least hear him out so I might best come up with a strategy to sabotage the effort.

Until his intentions were clear, the best I could do was to remain neutral. “I cannot say, sir.”

He casually reached for his pipe and began filling it. “Like your parents, you are a diplomat. They were fine, fine people. I could always count on them to step in to soothe tempers and find common ground. It’s a quality that goes often unappreciated, I find.”

My nerves were too taut to allow me to relax and my nose twitched at the overwhelming smell of vanilla-scented tobacco emanating from the open pouch. As I silently cursed my oversensitive nose, I said, “My parents had a policy of trying to see all sides to any argument. They often felt there was merit to be found even in the most extreme positions.”

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce paused to light his pipe. My eyes began to water as he puffed smoke and the tobacco in the bowl caught. As he waved the match to kill its sulfurous flame, he noticed my reaction.

“I’m allergic to tobacco,” I apologized. “It’s a recent sensitivity. I don’t know where it came from.”

“My apologies,” he said. He immediately got up and opened a window. He then very thoughtfully snuffed his pipe and set it aside. Say what you will about Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, he was a gentleman at heart and was capable of great thoughtfulness. I know some of you may be hard-pressed to believe it, but I find that the private person often has very little in common with the public persona.

“You should have said something, my dear,” he chided me. “I would’ve never smoked in your presence. It’s a filthy habit, and one I would do well to be rid of. But I am an old and stubborn man and my pleasures are so few this late in the game. I find I simply cannot completely cut it out of my life.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he said when he retook his seat. “I should apologize to you. I should’ve realized that you might be too intimidated to say anything.”

“Well, you do have me there,” I admitted.

This surprised a laugh out of him. “I see you have your parents’ honesty as well. I count that as a good thing.”

“Thank you.” My infernal curiosity finally got the better of me. It has landed me in trouble all of my life, so I don’t have to tell you that this time was no different. “Why did you wish to meet with me?”

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce chuckled. “And you have inherited your parents’ insistence on quickly getting to the heart of the matter as well.”

It occurred to me Mr. Wyndham-Pryce was excessively complimenting me, which meant that my suspicions were correct. I was about to be asked to do something I didn’t want to do.

He leaned forward and said, “I fear the Council is facing a great threat from within. We have on our hands a cadre of woefully unprepared people working in the field as Watchers. They have not undergone the rigorous training required for such a position and I fear that some may be crossing ethical and moral lines without realizing they are doing so.”

His abrupt change in manner caught me off-guard. However, I gamely pointed out that we were rather short-handed, which was distressingly true at the time, and that we were reduced to making do with people who were able, willing, and seemed to have a good head on their shoulders.

“I do not deny the reality of our situation,” he allowed. “And certainly, we all do the best we can to make sure those with a less-than-excellent mind are not left unsupervised in the field. However, our screening procedures are not what they once were and it is entirely possible for someone who seems fit for the job while within the safety of these walls to become a loose canon in the field.”

I wondered if he was making reference to Mr. Giles, as it was well known that he had defied the First Council’s wishes and lost his position as a result. He was eventually restored with back pay, which I understand caused quite the scandal when it happened. As to why the First Council had backed down and gave in to Mr. Giles’s mysterious demands, whatever they were, no one would say.

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce leaned back in his chair and continued, “Before I go any further Miss Swithin, I must have your word that this conversation will remain between the two of us. Your discretion on this matter is of the utmost importance.”

I paused a moment and considered what he said. “I cannot promise anything either way, sir, as I don’t know the purpose of this meeting. Are you seriously asking me to keep a secret without knowing what the secret is?”

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce seemed apologetic on this point. “I wish it were not so, but I fear that is our reality. I have expressed my concerns to Mr. Giles, of course, but…well, I cannot get into that yet. I need to have your word. However, if you feel uncomfortable giving it, you are free to leave and, rest assured, I will not hold it against you.”

I know you may also find this hard to believe, dear reader, but I did believe him. As I said, in private Mr. Wyndham-Pryce was a gentleman of his word. If I had walked out of his office at that very moment, I could sleep easy knowing that I would continue my career with the Council without a black mark against my name, at least over this incident.

Yet, my troublesome curiosity overrode all commonsense. Besides, I was already an expert at keeping one dangerous secret. I reasoned that there was no harm in keeping yet another. How little did I know that I was starting down the very path that would define my career and force me to take a more prominent role in the Reformed Council than I ever desired.

Yes, dear reader, I am the living testament that the cliché is very true. The path to landing in hot water really is paved with good intentions.

“If you have already approached Mr. Giles with your concerns and haven’t received satisfaction, then I have no ethical objection to you taking me into your confidence,” I said. “You have my promise that I won’t breathe a word.”

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce actually seemed relieved. “I cannot begin to tell you how pleased I am. You were at the top of my list for this mission. Many of your superiors have noted that you are intelligent, quick-witted, and blessed the famed Swithin level-headedness, sense of fairness, and discretion.”

“They have?” My voice rose in surprise.

“Indeed.” His eyes twinkled, as if he was pleased to pay me a genuine compliment. “I will need your many gifts to head off what I suspect may be a tragedy in progress.”

I feared to ask which gifts he was referring to and forced myself to focus on his words. “Tragedy?”

“You have heard of Alexander Harris?” he asked.

My mind quickly went to the now-archived interview with the Harrises. “Of course. He’s Mr. Giles’s man in Africa. Last I heard he was making his base of operations somewhere in Mali.”

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce startled. “I noticed you said he was Mr. Giles’s man, and not the Council’s.”

“I don’t pay much attention to gossip, but what little I’ve heard of the man indicates that he was in Africa before Mr. Giles solidified the Council membership. As Mr. Giles sent him, I can only assume that he is Mr. Giles’s man. I suppose that I expected fully trained Watchers would be joining Mr. Harris in Africa, once we finished putting out fires.”

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce relaxed. “Ahhhh, a reasonable assumption. Or rather, you’d think so.”

The way he rendered this comment made my ears prick. “There are no plans to send Mr. Harris Watchers to help him?”

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce took a deep breath. “I am getting rather concerned with the Africa situation. Mr. Harris continues to operate without any direct oversight from the Council and there doesn’t appear to be any plan for that to change.”

“But surely Mr. Giles has taken that responsibility on himself,” I said.

“Mr. Giles is a very busy man. I find it difficult to believe he is providing the necessary oversight required,” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce said. “Furthermore, I am becoming increasingly concerned about Mr. Harris’s fitness to serve.”

“Oh?”

“Mr. Harris’s reports are getting increasingly erratic and…evasive, for lack of a better word. I get the sense that there are important details missing in some instances, and that in other instances his reports are being scrubbed by well-meaning individuals in Mr. Giles’s office,” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce continued. “When anyone other than Mr. Giles attempts to contact Mr. Harris directly, he is either unavailable or outright refuses to answer queries regarding his activities.”

“What else?” I was sitting on the edge of my seat.

“There have been some disturbing rumors, none of which make sense,” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce said.

I frowned. “Has Mr. Giles addressed them?”

“Mr. Giles refuses to hear anything against the man and will not even entertain for a moment that Mr. Harris is not fit to serve in the field, let alone all by himself in a position of authority.”

“Hard words. But you still haven’t told me what you heard, let alone how you came by hearing them if there is resounding silence around Mr. Harris within the Council,” I said.

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce explained, “I still have many contacts outside the Council. In my youth I served several years in Egypt, so my contacts in northern Africa are rather good, if I do say so myself.”

Again, I was taken by surprise. “Really?”

“I know what you’re thinking, my dear,” he chuckled.

Since I didn’t know what I was thinking, I was pretty sure he didn’t either.

“Why have I not impressed upon my contacts to step up and help us get on our feet?” he rhetorically asked. Before I could reply, he answered, “I have, of course. But my contacts are admittedly not the most pleasant creatures or people to deal with. One or two are considering my offer; most have categorically refused. I hope to turn that around over time.”

“So it is through these questionable contacts you’ve heard rumors,” I suspiciously said.

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce didn’t seem insulted by my implication, quite the opposite in fact. “Were it only one or two giving me this information, I would be inclined to dismiss it. However, there is a certain uniformity to what I am hearing about Mr. Harris.”

“Which is?”

“The details aren’t clear, but it appears that Mr. Harris may be carving out a kingdom in the desert, so to speak,” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. “Rumor has it that there is a cult of personality springing up around him, one which he has done nothing to discourage. They say the Slayers under his authority use a language that is known only to them and they communicate with each other exclusively using that language, regardless of the girls’ country of origin. There also appears to be a certain groupthink in operation, and that the groupthink is guided almost exclusively by Mr. Harris’s whims.”

Given that I had briefly met several new Slayers who had passed through the London headquarters — although I hesitate to add that I had not yet met any hailing from Africa — I found it difficult to believe that any Slayer would blindly follow anyone, regardless of how charismatic that person was. I did not hesitate in expressing this doubt to Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, although I did so diplomatically.

“My dear girl, we are talking about Africa,” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce easily waved aside my objection. “Many of these girls expected to live the life of chattel or worse. Can you imagine suddenly gaining this great power, a power that could put them in danger of their lives if discovered? They would be forced to hide in plain sight, unable to use their gifts because they don’t want to be murdered or sold to the highest bidder or kidnapped by some godless terrorist group. And you can be certain that this would be their most likely fate if they were unmasked.”

I could more than sympathize with this point.

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce then leaned forward. “Now, imagine, along comes their liberator in the person of Mr. Harris. He promises them a better life under his tutelage and protection from the human monsters that rule their lives. Perhaps he may tell the story of how he was one of those that granted them such power. They are grateful for the power, but what’s more, they’re grateful they can use it provided they throw in with his cause. Maybe they are frightened that what he gave with one hand, he can take easily away with the other. They may fear and love him in equal measure for this, thus ensuring their loyalty, not to the Council, not the mission, not to their sisters-in-arms, but to Mr. Harris personally.”

I was less sympathetic to this point, but I could definitely see how it was possible if the girl in question actually wanted to exercise her power without fear for whatever reason. It behooved me, however, to bring up a final point. “Do you honestly believe what you’re saying is true?”

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce leaned back and thoughtfully replied. “That’s the point. I honestly don’t know. I’d feel more comfortable if Mr. Harris’s reports were more thorough. I would feel more secure if he wasn’t so damned evasive when questioned directly by a Senior Watcher. It would definitely put my mind more at ease if he had direct oversight from someone other than Mr. Giles. What we need to do is send in someone trustworthy to assess the situation and either put our minds at rest or confirm our fears.”

I closed my eyes and swallowed hard. I did not need to be telepathic to guess at the point Mr. Wyndham-Pryce was driving at. “This is where I come in.”

“Precisely.” He seemed pleased that he didn’t have to spell it out for me.

“I haven’t been trained for field work,” I desperately pointed out.

“Exactly.”

“I realized early on that I’m not suited for it,” I said as my desperation grew. “I know of several good candidates who would be—”

“It must be you,” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce insisted.

“I’ll make a hash of it!” I protested. “I don’t know anything about West Africa, let alone any details about the societies there. I’m sure to miss something important.”

“I have great faith in your abilities, more than you have in yours it would seem,” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce said.

“But why me?” The pleading question was not my capitulation to Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s wishes, but rather a prayer to whatever deity may be listening to somehow dissuade him from this mad notion to send me into unfamiliar territory without the comfort of my books or my own pillow.

“I chose you precisely because you have no desire to serve in the field,” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce said. “Someone more ambitious may be suspect. Some on the Council might question any negative reports from that direction, believing that the messenger might wish to displace Mr. Harris and grab his position for themselves. After all, anyone evaluating Mr. Harris would already be familiar with the situation such as it is in Africa and could easily leapfrog over those more experienced to win a position of great authority. It would give them a great leg up on their career and lay the groundwork for choice assignments at a later date.”

I could see his point. I didn’t want to, but I could.

“However, it is well known that you don’t wish to serve in the field. If you file a negative report, no one will question your motives and Mr. Giles will be forced to finally do something about controlling Mr. Harris,” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce said. “In addition, you have a reputation for being fair-minded and not prone to jumping to conclusions, especially conclusions that cannot be proven. No,” he shook his head to emphasize his point, “you are the only one who can do this job.”

“I don’t want to go.” The statement jumped out of my mouth before I could call it back.

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce got to his feet. All trace of joviality and kindness fled from his face and his expression turned very severe. “When you took the oath, you vowed to serve the Council in whatever capacity we saw fit. I have taken you into my confidence and have laid a charge on you. You have come this far, and so you have lost the option of refusal. Back out now, and you will find yourself seeking employment elsewhere and rest assured, your task will not be an easy one. My reach is very long and my connections run very deep.”

This statement was not issued in a loud voice, but in even, measured tones that told me that Mr. Wyndham-Pryce was not making an idle threat. As I had grown up training for Council service my entire life, I’m ashamed to admit that I was sufficiently cowed. Despite that, however, a spark of rebellion within me provided a brief moment of illumination.

“And if I go to Mali and find that Mr. Harris is wholly innocent of these charges, what then?” I asked.

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce relaxed, as if relieved that he would not have to carry out his threat. “I am very confident that you will discover something the Council would find worth delving into.”


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Tags: character: ensemble, character: oc, character: xander, fanfiction: 2006, fanfiction: buffy the vampire slayer, fanfiction: facing the heart in darkness, fanfiction: fic-a-thon
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