Virgoan advisor Atienna Imamu found herself wondering recently what type of government would best achieve peace. What degree of public freedom would be enough to satiate the people without resulting in the crumbling of law and order? What degree of law, control, and order would be enough to promote stability without imposing on the people excessively? Anarchy versus totalitarian dictatorship, democracy versus oligarchy, confederation versus aristocracy. Signum had seen it all one time or another from the theocracies of Leo back in the 1500s to the oligarchy of modern age Aquarius.
Atienna was certain the saint candidates had seen it all themselves too. She wondered how active they were in those past governments and if they had formerly agonized over which governance to choose.
Then again, in the end… whether something was right or wrong, a choice needed to be made, didn’t it?
“That must be a very interesting book, Atienna. You’ve been staring at it for hours. You’re not trying to avoid conversation, are you?”
Atienna stirred from the pages of her book on Cancerian dialects and turned her attention to the older man sitting across from her. He was dressed in multi-layered silk robes and had a silk square cap resting on his head. The clothing of the straight-faced woman sitting next to him was much tighter and laced with bits of leather, as was the clothing of the man sitting to Atienna’s right. Dimka’s guard and her own guard Sefu.
Whenever she thought about the latter, a heavy sadness would overtake her and her mind would briefly be filled with thoughts of Trystan, then Marta.
Glancing out the train window to her left and watching as the rain droplets raked across its surface, Atienna hid a chuckle with her hand and said, “I’m sorry about that, Dimka. In my defense, I am being lost in these words for you.”
Dimka gave a hearty laugh. “I’d much rather you be avoiding conversation here and smoothing out your knowledge, than for me to be avoiding conversation once we get to the meeting because of my lack of knowledge.”
Unlike Chiamaka, the Virgoan diplomat before him, Dimka had not given up on his diplomatic career, despite straying to the center of a harrowing international event. This didn’t mean he held pleasant feelings towards Capricorn, however. He was very vocal about the disdain he felt towards the way Capricorn had treated its people during the Week of Blindness and about its mishandling of the event and the fall-out of the diplomatic conductor convention. Atienna wondered if he believed Virgo’s governance was superior to Capricorn’s.
In the end, however, Capricornian government disdain aside, Dimka’s venture into Capricorn had brought out a benefit for Virgo. During the chaos of that week, Dimka had somehow befriended a Cancerian senator and had come to foster positive relations with them. Some back-and-forth had occurred in the month following that, culminating in a friendly formal invitation to a small manor in a Cancerian city-town. The other invitees were unknown. The entire event was being hosted by the Duke of House Lune. And from what Atienna understood, the pleasantries would be ‘casual’ with the possibility of ‘opening doors to other topics.’ In other words, it was an event similar to the tripartite meeting in the Zatenminye Caverns. Atienna merely hoped it would not have the same ending.
An entire week they were to stay there…
“At least have some tea, dear.” Dimka gestured to the four cups of tea set out on porcelain platters in front of them. Only her cup had been untouched. “The stewardess was kind enough to bring us this without us even asking. Cancerian hospitality at its finest. Or perhaps it’s catering to tourism!” He guffawed.
Atienna smiled pleasantly, nodded, then picked up the cup to sip. When she finished her tea and set the cup down on its platter, she noticed that there was a number imprinted at the bottom of the cup. She recalled that very same number labelling a private room door in a lavish compartment she had passed when boarding the train. A message. One that was late received.
Atienna quickly excused herself from the table to the restroom. Sefu gave her an odd glance and looked as if he were about to follow her, but she departed quickly before he had the opportunity to. She didn’t want to draw him in any more than she already had.
The train was quiet as she made her way from compartment to compartment. The train itself was quite empty, but that was expected given that their destination was barely large enough to be considered a city. Once she reached the compartment she was searching for, she paced over to the private room alongside the wall that was labeled with the number imprinted on her teacup.
Atienna knocked on the door once.
The door opened from the opposite side and a single, familiar, slender figure stood there wearing a pleasant smile. Pale complexion, dark curls, red lips, jet-black eyes that seemed bottomless. Cvetka Akulova, dressed in a thin and loose black dress despite the cold of the train. Behind her was a small booth with a table set with two cups of tea. A window letting in gray light opened up on the other side of the booth.
“I’m glad you made it. I was starting to worry when you didn’t show up, Atienna.” Cvetka spoke in Common as she closed the door behind Atienna and sank down at one side of the booth. She gestured to the other side, lips curling.
Werner appeared at Atienna’s side in an instant. It appeared as if he was still riding in the train bound to Aquarius himself, although it seemed as if he’d stowed away in a private resting room before synchronizing with her. His presence was a welcome one; and when she sat down across from Cvetka, he appeared beside her sitting on her left.
Upon spying the tattoo crawling up his face, however, Atienna looked away from him. She had not been able to say the words she’d wanted to say to him back when they’d gathered in the Capricornian capital, so it seemed almost impossible to say them now.
Although Olive had brought them all together, Cadence had sewn in the expanse between them, and Werner had filled in the cracks in the metaphorical concrete, an invisible distance had somehow formed between them since their collision ith Scorpio. It wasn’t as if they had drifted apart—no, that was impossible. Truly, if anything, now that Werner’s perspective had shifted, they were closer than ever before. But…
Atienna wondered if their individual journeys through Capricorn had moved them forwards or pushed them backwards. They had conjoined much earlier to piece together their individual memories of that time to form a whole picture, but every conferred recollection had been only surface-level. The true feelings, tucked away somewhere.
However, sometimes if Atienna listened close enough to Werner, she could faintly hear soft buzz bleeding out through the thread that connected them. Protect, protect, protect.
It was endearing, frightening, curious, concerning. She never allowed herself to listen for too long or too close in fear that she would be pulled in with him. If that were to happen, then who would pull him out? An arrogant thought—
Mind if I dip in for a sec too?
Atienna stirred out of her contemplation and found Cadence’s mirage seated at her right. By the woman’s cheery appearance—all dimples—it seemed as if she hadn’t caught on to Atienna’s own thoughts. Or perhaps, Cadence was merely acting.
All in all, Atienna didn’t think Cadence needed to ask before synchronizing in.
‘Ey, aren’t ya the one who was talkin’ about manners a lil’ while ago? Cadence spread her arms before nodding at Cvetka. Tryin’ ta get all the info I can ‘bout the stuff happenin’ back where I’m at, so… Maybe doll here’ll let somethin’ slip since she’s all buddy-buddy with the chairwoman of the ELPIS Department.
While that was not a terrible idea, Cvetka was quite sharp and clever. Squeezing information out of her would be like squeezing juices from a dried lemon.
“Interestin’ analogy.” Cadence chortled.
These two were the only ones who openly spoke their approval of Atienna’s choice. Well, it was more like they were the only ones who actively, frequently reached out to synchronize with her outside of weekly synchronization meetings and serious discussions. The others…
“I’m always surprised at how easily you’re able to find me,” Atienna said, breaking the silence between her and Cvetka.
This was the sixth time Atienna had encountered Cvetka in a manner like this. The first had been on the train ride away from the capital after the Kaiser’s death where the woman had laid out the guidelines for their deal with Leona. What they received from the deal was the freedom to move about ‘as they pleased’ under a ‘watchful and protective eye.’ Their loved ones would also be under that same eye. In return, they would help with the identification of True Conductors in their respective spheres of Signum. “True Conductors naturally are drawn to True Conductors,” was a phrase Reneé had thrown around back then. Subsequent meetings with the woman had been Atienna upholding their end of the bargain.
It did make Atienna wonder how much reach and power the saint candidates had if they were relying on True Conductors to find other True Conductors for them. Was it a game? If not…?
“You know that I’m not the one who finds you,” Cvetka murmured. “No matter where you are, you’re always within their—his—sight. Just like no matter where other True Conductors are, we’ll find them, right?” She chuckled lightly. “I’ve said this many times before, but you’re very good at this.”
It wasn’t very difficult to find potential True Conductors. All one had to do was look to political ‘foibles’ across Signum. Tuning into the radio and newspaper headlines, while staying attentive to frequently mentioned names or groups was the second step to that. The third was cross-referencing these names and events with other events going on simultaneously across the continent.
“I heard Captain Waltz is pursuing his first hunt,” Cvetka continued, taking a quiet sip of the tea. “If you need any advice in that area, I’d be more than happy to provide it.” She batted her eyelashes in false shyness. “We’re allies now…. right?”
What a troubling word.
“Then again… I’m sure someone with your captain’s caliber doesn’t need any help. Really, it’s just like hunting. My father used to take me all the time. You choose a mark, but you’re not sure if it’s the mark that you’re really looking for… so you quietly approach it and blend in with its surroundings until the very last moment when you pull the trigger.”
“That’s an interesting way of hunting,” Atienna noted pleasantly. “It’s the first time I’ve heard of it like that.”
Cvetka chuckled, then abruptly asked, “Hilton Tyler and Reneé LeBlanc—a Libran and a Cancerian connected and working together… You remember them, right?”
Atienna found it quite hard-pressed to forget her last glimpse of Hilton smoking a v-cigarette before he was led away by peacekeeping agents from the ELPIS Department.
“It’s quite romantic, isn’t it? Those two working together?” Cvetka drew. “If you think about it hard enough, maybe you’d even feel a bit hopeful about how things will turn out from now…” She set down her tea. “Am I being too obtuse?”
“Oh, you don’t need to worry, Cvetka. Even if you spoke even more unclearly or in riddles, I’ll do my best to understand you. It’s an unspoken part of our occupations as advisors, don’t you think—to bridge the gap between misunderstandings?”
“Ah, I’m not an advisor anymore.” Cvetka said nothing else, merely stared into Atienna.
Atienna returned the stare evenly. “Cancer and Libra—their relations have been terrible since the 1600s. There were claims over the Cancerian throne between the two after a marriage between a Cancerian and a Librish royal. A long rivalry reaching until now…” She paused. “For Hilton and Renee to come together despite this is… comforting. Is that what you were saying, Cvetka?”
Atienna could feel Cadence tense but lean forwards with interest.
“Yes, that troublesome marriage… You would think that people would learn that marriages across drawn lines would unite people, wouldn’t you? It’s never like a fairy tale, is it? We simply can’t put our differences aside collectively. What is it? Pride, justice, greed that makes everyone so disagreeable?” Cvetka smoothed out her dress. “The same even happens on a smaller scale, doesn’t it? It’s what happened in Gemini between the Campanas and the Romanos.”
Atienna’s stomach twisted at this, causing her to spare Cadence a look of sympathy.
“It makes you wonder what it would take to unite everyone. Perhaps if we had no differences? Maybe… if we became one? Maybe if everyone was a True Conductor?”
“Is that what the syzygy aims to do?” Atienna tried, despite knowing Cvetka wouldn’t take the bait. “That sounds like quite a science fiction tale, don’t you think? I suppose those books can be sophisticated at times too, depending on the reader.”
Cvetka leaned back slightly. “You’re always so daring, Atienna. I admire it. Asking about the syzygy when you’ve barely started working with us…” She swirled her tea. “It’s more of a dream that I have than anything else. A utopian dream.”
“Please correct me if I’m wrong, but are you saying that you’d prefer it if we all became the same? Would that be in exchange for our freedom?” Atienna pondered. “There are quite a few novels in dystopian literature that paint that as a nightmarish reality.”
Cvetka smiled. “The only ones in those novels who find it odd and cruel are the ones who aren’t the same as everyone else. They feel the need to make everyone the same as them, don’t they? For their own happiness and comfort, they would prefer to tear down the happiness and comfort of others. That’s not so different from us, is it?”
Cadence whistled and leaned back as she ran her fingers through her hair. “Feisty, Atienna, feisty. I’m on the edge of my seat here. This is more grippin’ than those drama shorts they play on the radio.” She winced abruptly and glanced across at Werner. “‘Course, I’m still readin’ and practicin’ readin’. Not just listenin’ ta that.”
Werner glanced at Cadence briefly, before locking eyes with Atienna. Atienna, this is not the time to be prodding Cvetka with word games and indirect insults.
Werner was right, Atienna thought. This was an itch that shouldn’t be scratched now. Perhaps sometime in the far, distant future, but not now.
While I understand your feelings, Werner added, we need to tread carefully.
Atienna offered him a small smile and nodded. Conformity, was it? No, ‘protection.’ Protection through conformity and obedience? Oh, Werner—
“Oh, it looks like we’ve gotten side-tracked in our talks like usual.” Cvetka cleared her throat. “It’s quite difficult not to. It’s much more enjoyable to wander off the beaten path—and here I’m becoming side-tracked again.” She sighed, placing a hand on her cheek. “I’m not just here for pleasant conversation, and I’m not here to merely collect another list of potential True Conductors either.”
There was a pause. The rain tapering against the window was almost hypnotic.
“My employer has decided that it’s about time we take in Louise Bonnefoy,” Cvetka said. “I’d liken it to karmic justice for her, wouldn’t you? Her… selfish choice led to something quite sad for Hilton and stirred things up between Cancer and Leo, didn’t it?”
With Cadence’s assistance, Atienna kept her expression unaffected.
“Since you’re going to be in Cancer for quite some time, it makes sense that you should be the one to find her, shouldn’t it? According to your information…?”
That much was true. Atienna had handed all these details in full over to Cvetka the last time they spoke. Just by listening to Louise’s and Hideyoshi’s daily radio broadcasts through the others’ ears, Atienna had been able to deduce the following:
Firstly, Louise and Hideyoshi were not traveling physically together. The background noise from Louise’s end and Hideyoshi’s end were completely different. Gauging by the crickets and leafy whisperings on Hideyoshi’s side and the chattering and honking on Louise’s, Atienna had surmised that Hideyoshi was out in the wilderness somewhere while Louise was in some city.
Secondly, Louise was in Cancer. At times, Atienna had been able to faintly make out Cancerian dialogue in the background of Louise’s end of their broadcasts. While this fact alone didn’t limit Louise’s location to Cancer, Louise’s occasional whimsies about experiencing rainy weather paired with it did. Unfortunately, Atienna had been able to make out the dialect of the background chatter, so she’d been unable to pinpoint the exact Cancerian region Louise was residing in.
“The deadline for finding Louise Bonnefoy and bringing her in is six months, Atienna. Leona also wants you to increase the amount of True Conductors you report in from two to three every two months.” Cvetka paused, expression empathetic, eyes unmatching. “I know it’s a lot, but I’m sure you can manage it in that time…”
Six months. Werner’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
It appeared as if that time frame was one he was already acquainted with.
Did that perhaps indicate the syzygy was approaching within that time frame…?
“Oh. There’s a deadline now,” Atienna tried. “That’s a surprise.”
Cvetka’s expression remained impassive. “If there weren’t deadlines in place, then no one would ever get anything done, right…?”
Atienna could feel Werner’s morbid agreement with the statement. Deadlines served as concrete parameters to meet. They were a guideline.
A deadline with a goal of uprooting another’s life, Atienna thought. She would achieve that goal surely, albeit morosely with distant sympathy.
Atienna murmured, “I do recall reading a study where subjects who were given a smaller time frame to complete a task were much more efficient than their counterparts who were given a larger frame.”
“We’re quite slovenly beings, aren’t we?” Cvetka murmured, glancing out the window. “I’m sure that’s why Scorpio did what he did.”
Werner tensed almost imperceptibly.
“Are you going to be helping me, Cvetka?” Atienna inquired pleasantly. After noticing how the woman’s lips twitched at the question, she added, “I… was just considering that with your presence here and me being tied to Dimka here…”
“Are you really needed by Dimka’s side?” Cvetka tilted her head, gaze lowering.
“Well, I… am an advisor,” Atienna began.
“And… I was an advisor too,” Cvetka drew quietly, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “Now, I’m a liaison for Ophiuchus. I feel like a bit of a senior telling you this but—” Her smile dissipated suddenly, somehow causing her eyes to lose even more light—“You’re going to have to choose one or the other eventually. The advantages of being an advisor are great, but the job requirements can become a restriction.”
Atienna knew this. But if she gave up being an advisor to pursue this path fully, then she would be going against her original reason for leaving Virgo and for pushing for Virgo’s exit of isolation. It had all been to move forwards along with her mother’s initial passions. Justice, in a sense. Somewhere along the way, however, the path appeared to have been lost.
‘It was impossible to remain a victim forever,’ Atienna recalled telling Cadence in the Zatemeniye Caverns months ago. The line dividing them was thin and easily blurred. In the end, one side would tip over into the other. In the same sense, one couldn’t remain both a victim and a perpetrator at the same time—
Are ya alright? Cadence peered at her and then grinned. Nothin’ else quippy or bite-y ta say?
You should remain attentive, Atienna, came Werner’s thought; and with it Atienna’s focus on Cvetka re-sharpened.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Cvetka drew suddenly, “do you think about your family, Atienna?”
Atienna tensed at the question. “I’ve been wondering the same about you.”
“‘Between those you’re connected to and your blood family, which would you choose’?” Cvetka’s gaze became distant. “That’s what Scorpio asked me back then. He said that not choosing one would be too greedy. He said that… ‘In the end, you’ll always choose one over the other. You can’t hold multiple things to the same level of importance. Choose one and pursue it to the ends of the world.’”
“That’s quite an invasive question for an employer, don’t you think?”
Cvetka glanced out the train window. “If you’re curious, I’m sure my answer would most likely reflect your answer.” A long stretch of silence passed before Cvetka looked back to her and smiled. “You can go now, Atienna. It was nice catching up.”
* * *
Atienna stepped off of the train onto the black-stone station platform as the train horn gave one last bellow. There was a faint mist coming down from the sky, but Sefu was quick to pull out an umbrella beside her. She gave him a grateful look before surveying the small square beyond the terrace that oversaw the station.
Although the sky was dark, the orange light from the small, beige buildings that hugged the bricked roads gave the illusion of warmth. The buildings were packed close together and housed pointed roofs, extended roofs, and everything in-between. A stone fountain spurting out what appeared to be glowing vitae graced the square’s center. At its front, a musician standing beneath a make-shift canopy was playing a melancholy tune on the violin. Now that Werner and Cadence had pulled away from her slightly, the music was especially poignant.
Despite the drizzle, the square was full of people—all of whom were dressed extravagantly. The men wore bows; the women wore bows. Some women wore headpieces dangling with tiered gems; others wore ones protruding with plumes and feathers. There were even some men wearing similarly. Half of the evening strollers were linked arm-in-arm. Tiered dresses, tiered suits, absolutely dazzling.
Atienna wasn’t quite familiar with Cancer. She only really knew it from her books and the one time Jericho visited Lepischau while on assignment with Talib many months ago. As Maria had repeated many times—‘experiencing an event or view through a book or through someone else’s eyes was much inferior to experiencing it yourself’—or something along those lines
Atienna thought contrarily—though she kept this opinion carefully folded away to herself. Experiencing an event or scene one’s self compared to how one would imagine it or read about it would be very dull—moreover, it would always be disappointing. Although fiction reflected reality, fiction painted a rosier, more beautiful version of reality. Disappointment and dissatisfaction were naturally succeeding feelings when faced with this.
It was a line of thought Atienna knew Cadence and Olive shared too. For Cadence, it was knowingly chasing an unattainable dream. For Olive, it was the belief that disappointment awaited at the end of the road—
Dimka filed out from the train and came to stand beside her. He took in the scenery with a pleasant smile. “It is much easier to enjoy another country’s atmosphere when there is not a tense political affair around the corner, am I right?”
To live as freely and as spirited as Dimka—or perhaps as Maria—was something Atienna wondered about a lot too. She also wondered what needed to be given or forgotten in exchange for being in such a state.
* * *
The four of them checked into their shared inn room—the inn, an old yet lavish building standing on only one floor—before sharing a brief dinner beneath a chandelier in the hotel lobby and then turning in for the day.
That night, Atienna had a restless dream. It was the same dream she’d had every night since she’d left Capricorn. She was sitting beneath the glowing white Great Tree while resting her head on her mother’s lap. Her siblings were sitting beside her admiring the tree, while her father was approaching them with a wave from the distance.
A little farther off, Werner was setting down a picnic cloth as Cadence and Maria played cards and Olive and Jericho watched them with varying degrees of interest. As Atienna turned her head to admire the tree, she spied Yulia Kriska, Kovich, and Fritz von Spiel standing near its roots. They were standing close together and smiling as if posing for a family portrait.
Atienna lifted a hand to wave at them, but as she did so—like all the other times before—the Great Tree suddenly trembled. Its branches shot out like bullets and pierced through the trio before consuming them whole in warping white light. A second later, those branches clawed out in the direction where Olive and the others were still sitting pleasantly.
In horror, Atienna tore towards them. As she reached a half-distance, however, a terrible squeal resounded from behind her. Upon turning, she was met with the sight of those white branches tearing towards her family. Olive’s agonized cry sliced through her core next, then Kichea’s once more.
Atienna had to choose. She had to. But, she was rooted to the spot much like the Great Tree that was tearing apart the ones she loved.
Choose. Choose. Choose!
As always, Atienna woke up startled with sweat dripping down her back. Thoughts of Bachiru, Kamaria, Kichea, her father, and her mother swam through her mind before they were overtaken by thoughts of Olive, Cadence, Werner, Maria, and Jericho.
She glanced across the room and spied Sefu sleeping soundly on the leather sofa across from her. She stared down at her hands which were littered with faint scars that were almost invisible now because she had not used her fists in some time. Perhaps she should train more, she thought, like Werner was despite him being away from the battlefield. Or perhaps she should get him to relax…?
Atienna laid back down on her pillow as she hesitantly reached out and faintly felt the wisps of dreams from three out of five of the others. Pulling away from them as to not intrude on such private things, she stared up at the Cancerian feathering designs gracing the borders of the ceiling.
Cancer… Louise Bonnefoy… More True Conductors… After that then…?
* * *
The following morning after Atienna had breakfast with Sefu, they prepared for their meeting.
Atienna went over the customs and etiquette of Cancer—what way to fold napkins, what way to shake hands, which gestures were polite and which were not—with Dimka on their way to the manor. She had been hoping that Dimka would excuse her from attending the meeting so that she could attend to her troubling issue regarding Louise Bonnefoy. While six months was a somewhat lenient time frame to find her, Atienna didn’t have very many clues besides Louise’s broadcasts to go off of. In the end, despite her efforts to dissuade him passively, Dimka had insisted that she come in case he needed her.
Soon, the large four-story beige-colored manor loomed before them. Upon ascending the marble steps leading up to the glass doors of the estate, they were greeted by two butlers and two maids. The quartet bowed and curtsied at their arrival before escorting them into a large greeting room laid with a Sagittarian carpet and with walls lined with Virgoan tribal masks. At the very back wall above a corridor led into a mirrored hallway sat a gothic watch of clearly Capricornian build. With great difficulty, she resisted the urge to palm the Leonian and Piscese trinkets displayed on the lower wall.
After taking their coats, the maids and butlers separated Atienna and Sefu from Dimka and his guard. The latter were then led into a chamber down the mirrored hall. Atienna herself and Sefu were brought down an adjacent corridor with walls filled with murals of different people and scenes.
One painting of particular interest to Atienna was of a man floating stomach-up in what appeared to be a pool of vitae. His hands were reaching up towards the sky, while shadowy hands hidden in the light of the pool held onto him tightly. It was signed by P.S. Cies.
As Atienna continued to admire the passing paintings, she wondered what other countries thought of Virgo—not the politicians who praised Virgo’s exit from isolation and waxed lyrical about Virgo’s contributions, but the common people. This maid, this butler, that musician before the fountain, the ones wandering the square. Gilbert, Stein, the Foxmans, Maria’s crew, Ferris, Gabrielle…
Eventually, Atienna was brought with Sefu into a room so large and spacious that she was vaguely reminded of the tribal meeting hall back home. The ceiling above stretched to almost impossible heights and threw back the echoes of the many that gathered below it. Atienna was somewhat alarmed by how many people were gathered here. Twenty? Thirty? Forty? She couldn’t quite count. They were all dressed lavishly in suits and dresses, and not a frown could be seen anywhere. A practiced affair. Some kept to the walls as they conversed, while others perused the long dining table piled high with platters of food at the room’s center.
She was quite underdressed for this affair, Atienna thought. All she had on were her usual multi-layered, green and blue silk wear. Nothing ornate. She wondered if all these other individuals were advisors or assistants as well.
Atienna attempted to tune her ears to the chatter around the room. Most of the conversations ongoing were in Common, but there was some Cancerian mixed in there—some Sagittarian languages and Geminian as well, perhaps. No Aquarian or Capricornian words to be heard, it seemed.
Oh, dear. This was troubling in more ways than one. Atienna wished she’d brought along a book.
At that very thought, Olive phased at her side. He stiffened as their synchronization increased to levels where she could see her surroundings and he could see hers. In the distance, she could make out that he was in Claire’s villa and watching as Claire’s vassals hurried in a panic around the household.
After a beat, he muttered, “Hi…” He glanced around. “At least there’s food.”
Atienna greeted him with a smile, but he avoided her gaze.
“Would you like to sit, Atienna?” Sefu asked from beside her, surveying the room. He eyed the food displays. “Or perhaps eat?”
Atienna hid a chuckle with her hand and then moved with Sefu towards the dining table. While Sefu hungrily piled up all sorts of cheeses, meats, and even escargot onto his plate, Atienna merely took it in with her eyes. After some thought, she decided to move on towards the deserts section to appease Olive; but just as she was about to reach for a glazed pastry, she was abruptly pushed to the side by a man who plucked her targeted pastry right out from beneath her. The man was tall and blonde with high cheekbones dusted with faint, almost glittering powder. His suit was jet black, his bolo tie encrusted with gems.
“Excuse me,” Sefu interjected, eyes narrowing. “That was rude.”
The man glanced over at Sefu and then immediately extended out a hand to Atienna. “I apologize for that, Miss?”
“Atienna Imamu,” Atienna replied, accepting the gesture.
“Of the Virgoan Imamu tribe?” the man raised a brow. “I’ve always been interested in Virgo. Now that your country’s opened its borders, I’ve been considering visiting there for vacation. That Great Tree of yours is splendid, I’ve heard.”
Olive frowned at the man, glanced at Atienna, then looked away. Instant dislike, it seemed.
“Virgo is a wonderful place to venture for those with the right mindset,” Atienna returned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t quite catch your name…”
“The Duke of House Lune,” the man returned.
Atienna tensed internally. The duke? Here? It made sense since this was a manor owned by him, but to actually attend and be amongst people who were most likely labeled ‘assistants’ was…
“Last time I checked, that wasn’t a name…” Olive muttered under his breath.
Atienna relaxed, although she still felt her bare palms itching. After a second pause, she offered a pleasant smile. “Ah, so you’re the ‘lord of the manor’, then? I’m honored.”
Atienna could feel the woman faintly there—not synchronized strongly enough to fully appear before her, although Atienna could tell that the woman was back in Francis’s exitless room. Olive perked up from beside Atienna at Cadence’s arrival, his gaze searching but finding nothing.
The Cancerian man stared at Atienna for a moment before chuckling. “I’m joking. I’m his brother. Albertine Échecs.” He gestured across the room where a taller, blonder man wearing a white suit stood chattering away with a group of women and men. “The great duke Aldéric is over there.”
Look at that guy’s smile. Hand around one woman’s waist and winkin’ at another guy? Duke’s a player. Feel sorry for that Leonian princess. No wonder she hasn’t answered the guy yet. Some proposal that is, if the proposer’s off flirtin’ here.
“I know people like him,” Olive mumbled from beside her. “They always end up getting used by politicians… or using them.” Clear disdain.
Atienna blinked. Well, then… She cleared her throat. “Are you enjoying yourself, Monsieur Échecs?”
“Just Albertine is fine. I don’t mean to be frank or rude, but I don’t even know why my brother and I are even here.” Albertine sighed, waving his fork around loosely. “We’re not even doing anything important, and we have no official power here. The royalty, the houses, the dukedoms are just relics of the past. There’s ‘preserving history’, and then there’s dragging it out. Why can’t they just take our money, rub our backs a little, and call it a day like everyone else?”
Atienna was startled at the bluntness of his words. It wasn’t as if she thought so much differently—although she could somewhat see the other side of things. But to speak of it so openly…
“I suppose being able to see the potential saint candidate of Cancer before everyone else earlier this week was a nice exclusive treat. Still.”
Atienna glanced around but noticed that everyone else was too engrossed in their own conversation to pay them any mind.
Then again, this was the perfect opportunity to get closer to the duke to get more details on Louise—Atienna pondered this line of thought for a moment. Olive’s apprehension stirred in her chest.
“Oh, I understand the feeling,” Atienna said. “We had a similar practice back in Virgo where the chieftains’ families would gather together during important tribal meetings. It was expected of us to engage in the same political talks going on inside official meetings despite our discussions surmounting in… nothing really.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Sefu frown slightly.
“A fellow sufferer, I see… Everyone here is just a chess piece on display.” Albertine chuckled. “The thing is that we don’t know who’s the player and who’s the piece.” A blinding smile then ripped across his face as he stared over Atienna’s shoulder. He spoke under his breath as he offered a wave to someone behind her— “Oh dear. Here comes the great duke himself…”
And come the duke did with a blinding smile. He’d shed the flock of men and women around him; and without them, Atienna could see that he was quite dazzlingly handsome up close. His cheekbones were just as high as Albertine’s, and a mischievous glint lit up his eyes.
The duke slung an arm around Albertine’s shoulder before glancing at Atienna. “And who is this, dear brother?”
“This would be Atienna Imamu. From Virgo,” Albertine replied. “A good listener.”
“Ah, Virgo….” Aldéric’s eyes trailed her up and down. “I’ve always wanted to go to Virgo.”
Olive grimaced. I’m going to puke.
Atienna smiled. “Perhaps you can take the Princess of Leo there after she accepts your proposal?”
The duke appeared unaffected by the insinuation and hummed. “Yes, yes, let’s hope she does. I don’t quite have great luck with proposals seeing how my other one went.”
“The other one…” Atienna pondered with false ignorance. “Would that be Louise Bonnefoy of the House Etoile…? I heard about it in the papers.”
The duke’s eyes widened slightly before his lips pressed into a thin smile. “She was a lovely thing—that Louise. Like a bird. I waited quite a long time in hopes that she’d accept me.”
“You speak of her quite fondly,” Atienna drew carefully. “I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds by asking this but… perhaps… were you two quite close?”
“I still remember the first time I saw her in our neighborhood. We still share it by the way, but she never visits.” The duke sighed. “It’s a shame how her illness’s bedridden her.” He placed a hand over his heart. “I’m a man of passion, and I’m young, spirited, free! I can’t wait around for someone forever.”
So Louise and the duke grew up in the same neighborhood… Atienna thought. She could use this. She paused, wondering if the duke truly bought into the widely accepted belief that Louise was bedridden. Reneé had not been sent after Louise by Leona, after all, but by Cancer itself—or so Cvetka had highlighted many times before.
“Well, anyone who receives a proposal from you would most definitely feel flattered,” Atienna said, “so perhaps it’s merely shyness and shock that keeps them from answering right away?”
Sefu frowned as did Albertine.
The duke looked Atienna up and down again before smiling. “You’re quite a flatterer, Mademoiselle Imamu—”
“Please. You can just call me Atienna.” She reflected his trailing gaze. “Monsieur…?”
“Just Aldéric.” The duke took in a breath, then glanced around this room. “Say, this meeting is going to stretch out this entire week, isn’t it, Atienna? It would be quite boring to just wander this small city-town the entire time, wouldn’t it? How about you come over to my personal estate some time? We can have a cultural exchange of sorts. What do you say?”
Hook. Line. Sinker—
Olive’s nausea twisted Atienna’s stomach so tightly that Atienna put down her food plate back onto the table. His thoughts bled deeply into her own—was she really going to do this like this?
Yes, Atienna thought, most definitely because she would choose the happiness of those close to her over the happiness of others distant to her no matter what. This had been her decision in those caverns, her decision in the Capricornian capital, her decision now.
Averting her gaze from Olive’s, Sefu’s, and Albertine’s growing frowns, she said, “Oh, I’m honored. That would be lovely.”
One thought on “22.5: The Advisor & The Devilish Acuerdo?”
Still feel bad that the main six now have to try apprehend Louise.
totally understandable that you would fled the country if it means being away from this Aldéric guy 🤣