Atienna is in Cancer acting as an advisor to Virgoan Diplomat Dimka who has gotten his foot in the door of Cancerian affairs. At a party, Atienna is invited by the Duke of House Lune Aldéric Échecs to somethin akin to a date. Aldéric’s brother Albertine meanwhile lurks in the background. Atienna agrees to the date upon discovering that the Échecs still live in the same estate as Louise Bonnefoy, a True Conductor and a duchess whom Atienna is searching for, formerly resided.
Now on this hunt, Atienna…
Troublesome things befell troublesome people. Pleasant things graced pleasant people. Therefore, if one wanted to live a happy life, then one should aim to be a happy person. Similarly, if one desired a simple life, it was best to be a simple person.
Atienna had read that line of thought in a book somewhere several years ago. Perhaps it had been in one of her old adventure books where an old and wizened wizard bestowed that pinnacle of wisdom to a naive hero off on some journey of self-discovery.
Atienna had always questioned the ideology, even when she’d been younger. Constantly questioning things perhaps brought about unhappiness, but curiosity was an insatiable thirst. Quenching it made unhappiness worthwhile.
In the end, she’d come to a tentative conclusion. Troublesome things fell on a person no matter what kind of person they were. Right or wrong, good or evil, righteous—liked her mother—or malevolent—like Scorpio. Of course, those labels were also subjective. What was not subjective was that trouble was indiscriminate.
Even so, if it were possible to reverse that way of thinking and extrapolate type of life to type of person, Atienna wondered what she and the others would be labeled as.
Atienna pondered these things as she prepared herself for her evening outing in her room. She had been in this town for almost an entire week now. Dimka had been quite busy in his engagements with the Cancerian elite. Atienna’s time browsing these dinners and meetings and casual engagements with him just made her more and more aware of how separate Capricorn and Aquarius were becoming to the rest of Signum. It was troubling and Atienna couldn’t help but think of the words Ferris had left Jericho with months ago—
And now, in the midst of this tumult, here she was about to take up the Duke of House Lune’s invitation to her for a casual outing. That was the event that she was busily preparing herself for at the moment. During this week, Dimka had more readily taken to adopting the Cancerian culture so much so that he’d started to wear extravagant Cancerian suits that. These suits had been a gift from the duke, of course, just as the dress that Atienna had put on only a second ago had been. It was natural that one adopted the manner of dress of the country and culture they were in. That was respect. Then again, Atienna wondered if it was necessary and right for one’s own culture to be put aside for something like this.
Adapt, adapt, adapt. And—appearances. Was that it?
Atienna sighed and inspected her dress in the long mirror set across from her bed.
Atienna personally felt uncomfortable in this type of wear. Her arms were bare—and open to the cold. The bodice of the dress was of silk with a sheer lace climbing up to her neck. The same sheer cloth dropped down from her thighs to her feet—and was easily to trip over. The entire thing was white—which stained so easily, the imperfections so readily spotted.
The music trilling out from the radio sitting on her dresser suddenly became interrupted by a cracking voice—
“Thank you for tuning into the official radio broadcast by Virgo’s Maneo Tribe. Today Strange activity from the Great Tree of Virg—”
Atienna frowned and approached the radio before another, familiar voice broke through.
“—and we’re back with another grand weekly update of the chairman elections!” Hideyoshi.
Atienna tuned her ears.
“This week we have the first round of the elections! Isn’t that exciting?” Louise.
In the background, the faint sound of rushing water could be heard.
Still in Cancer? Atienna wondered. Perhaps. There were a handful of waterways in this country, after all. However, it would be presumptuous to make any certain conclusions here…
“Let’s have a quick recap of what everyone’s said so far!” Hideyoshi continued.
The radio crackled.
“First Chairman of the Reservoir Conservation Department, William Saovàng,” came a voice distorted by static. “My stance is only this. Vote for someone who you know will actually implement the change that they promise. Words can only go so far. That’s all.”
More radio static.
“Well, that’s certainly good advice!” Hideyoshi broke in.
“What a wonderful way of words!” Louise hummed. In the background, there was the cawing of birds. “I wonder why he didn’t use that as his motto?”
“So he could save all of his wonderful words up for now!” Hideyoshi boomed. “Now onto the next one—”
“Please don’t vote for me,” Saddine’s voice cracked out. “I’m serious. Please don’t vote for me. First Chairman of the Communications Department, Saddine Agwuegbo. Do not vote. Please.”
Hideyoshi cleared his throat. “That must be some intense reverse psychology. By saint’s name! It’s—”
“—ingenious!” Louise chimed. “Absolutely ingenious! Now, I really want to vote for him—”
“You should take caution tonight,” a voice resounded from behind Atienna.
Atienna turned to find Werner sitting on the edge of her bed. It was always odd to see him out of uniform but she supposed it suited him at the same time. In the distance, she could see that in reality he was at the desk in his room at the inn looking through the files of potential True Conductors.
“Although the dukes may appear harmless, appearances are deceiving,” Werner continued. “You should remain attentive to not only your own actions but their actions as well. The duke appears to be—”
“—he’s a playboy,” noted another voice. Cadence, filtering into place beside Werner with crossed arms and an arched brow. She was laying on a sofa in Francis’s exitless room on her end of things. “Trust me. I know these types. Like to frequent places like the Casa more than they’d like ta admit.” She snorted. “Some of ‘em admit visitin’ with pride. Now those are the fun types.”
Werner’s eyes narrowed. “His behavior is inappropriate.”
“He’s a sleaze…” muttered another voice.
Atienna’s heart fluttered, and she turned to find Olive sitting on the floor beside the bed. Only a few centimeters away from him resided Jericho. Respectively, they seemed to be residing within a train compartment and working away inside a cubicle. The only one left was—
“The duke? He reminds me of some of my old crew, no? Like Tulio?” Maria’s voice filtered into Atienna’s mind as the woman apparated from thin air and walked leisurely across Atienna’s room.
Cadence cocked her head at Maria’s arrival. “That the guy ya scared off the ship?”
Maria smiled fondly at the memory. “That was when I first met Leona!” She peered around at all of them. “That was when I first met all of you, no?” Her face brightened and she whipped around. “Yes—”
“Since we’re all gathered here,” Werner interjected, “we should begin another synchronization meeting. With the recent developments with Epsilon, Conta, and Andres, we should be discussing what our next decision point and approach should be.”
“Listen, Captain, I appreciate your forward thinkin’. Ya know I do,” Cadence drew. “But do we really need ta turn this meetin’ into a serious synchronization one? I mean, first off, this one ain’t planned so we don’t have the meetin’ materials and the kid doesn’t have his book ready for meeting minutes and all that.”
Atienna felt Werner’s internal sigh then his reluctance.
Werner nodded. “That’s acceptable given the suddenness of this synchronization. We’ll use this time for group recuperation.”
Cadence clapped her hands together and gestured to Atienna. “I say we use this group recuperation time ta rate Atienna’s outfit. Now if I saw someone outside walkin’ in a fit like that, I’d get on my knees and propose!” She snapped her fingers and nudged Werner’s arm. “What do ya think, Captain? Keepin’ up enough with appearances for ya?”
“You look appropriate for the occasion,” Werner commended. “Cancerian wear is something to be admired, although Virgoan fashion is also something to be appreciated.” After a pause, he added, “You look nice, Atienna.”
Jericho offered a thumbs up. “Good colors and matching outfit. Alice would like it.”
“You look absolutely wonderful, my dear Atienna!” Maria sang. “I remember stealing a dress like this the last time I was in Cancer, yes? It was back when we were taking this wardrobe or closet from some mansion…? I mentioned it before, no?” She beamed. “It was very fun! Conta tried on all types of dresses. She is very fond of beautiful things.” She pointed at Atienna. “She would be very fond of you!”
Olive toyed with a strand of his hair before muttering, “I like the dress… Too bad the occasion doesn’t match it…”
“Thank you.” Atienna relaxed slightly and noted that her dress felt somewhat more comfortable than before.
Jericho smiled slightly at her before turning sharply to stare at Olive. “Olivier—Olive. You should say that out loud or think it ‘louder’ for everyone to hear. Intuition. It’s important. It’s better that way. Teamwork. Synchronization.”
Atienna looked between them and could just faintly hear Olive’s thoughts and feelings stirring beneath the surface. She wondered why he felt so distant despite how close he was now. A handshake brought people as far apart as it brought them together or so it seemed.
Olive stiffened, flushed, then mumbled, “With Epsilon’s conducting… I mean, separating vitae and memories… There’s something here. I can feel it. Maybe if we combine that with something else—I don’t know—that we find somewhere—maybe in Sagittarius—then maybe we could…” He grimaced suddenly.
And then Atienna felt a sharp and painful prick at the center of her chest that dipped into a deep pit that made her stomach churn. She looked up quickly to find Cadence grimacing, Jericho holding his abdomen, Werner’s brows furrowing, and Maria’s smile.
“I-I’m sorry…” Olive tensed and looked around with worry. “But I… can’t stop thinking about it…” He stared at a point on the floor. “What if….back in the capital… what if all we needed was to wait for someone with Epsilon’s conducting ability. Trystan, Marta… what if…”
“Not good ta play with ‘what if’s in this case, Your Highness,” Cadence drew with a sigh as she rubbed her chest with discomfort. “Thinkin’ of ‘what if’s’ll just send ya right with all the guys who visit the bar like it’s a barber shop.” She looked down at him and rubbed the back of her neck. “Besides, Francis laid it down like it is… if anyone knows anything about weird vitae things, it’d be him, kid.”
“Cadence is correct,” Werner added calmly. He reached over and slowly placed a hand on top of Olive’s head. “We need to focus first on the task at hand and what is manageable. Epsilon is an asset and a possible path for recovering Lavi, but we should be cautious on how we proceed since our activities are beginning to converge again and draw attention.”
Slowly, the anguished feeling dimmed in Atienna’s chest and she could feel herself able to breathe again. She stared across the distance at Olive and hesitantly reached out for him through their connection. He didn’t tense away as he normally did which was a relief but he didn’t reach back either.
“Trystan.” Jericho stared at Olive for a long moment, and Atienna could hear faint whispers of the cycle buzzing inside of his. “He—”
Cadence cleared her throat and nodded at Jericho. “Aside from the excitin’ things we got goin on here, detective, what else is new for ya? There’s definitely somethin’.”
“Leona has given me a project.” Jericho stared at Olive before looking to Werner. “And she asked me to pass out campaign pamphlets and prepare a short speech. I am not good with speeches. I don’t like public speaking. I would rather not.”
“I can help ya with that, detective,” Cadence noted, “but I feel like I shouldn’t be helpin’ at the same time, ya know?” She looked around. “We want Gabe ta win right, so how about some good old-fashioned sabotage?”
Jericho gazed blankly at her.
“Sabotage?” Maria brightened and paced over to them before leaning in. “May I join? We are working so closely together now, no?” She pulled back, cocking her head. “This isn’t one of your sabotage tricks, is it, Cadence? This is one of the open sabotages, yes?”
Cadence arched a brow then chortled. “Never knew there was more than one type of sabotage—”
“Atienna,” Werner interjected, pulling his hand away from Olive’s hand and pulling out his pocket watch. “You’ll be late.”
Atienna nodded and pulled back from the synchronization to the best of her abilities. The other five slowly dimmed from her vision as she did so, although their faint whispers ghosted the recesses of her mind.
As she passed by the threshold of the door, her eyes became drawn to a worn envelop sitting on top of her dresser.
She’d received that letter in the mail from Bachiru, Safiyah, and her father just the previous day. In it, they’d discussed their activities of the previous week—ranging from a troubling council meeting to international relation troubles and finally to a peculiarity occurring with the Great Tree. They weren’t quite fond of telephone calls as the operators often incorrectly connected lines, so this had remained their preferred form of communication. The Communications Department of Ophiuchus was particularly efficient in that regard. She had yet to muster the strength—perhaps, the motivation—write back to them still.
Blood family or this family—‘of the soul’ a poet would probably lyricize—was such a choice really necessary?
This distance—Atienna knew—was one she was making on her own.
* * *
Much to her surprise, Atienna was greeted by two men in suits upon exiting her hotel. They introduced themselves as the hired guards of the House Lune, and they reminded Atienna more of the ‘guards’ the Foxmans or the Romanos would bring with them rather than the guards that had surrounded Olive in the past. After one of the guards took Atienna’s hand and kissed it, they led her to a large and extravagant, shiny black v-ehicle parked at the foot of the building. Once she was situated inside on the red leather seat, the v-ehicle started and sputtered up along the road, past the fountain and v-train station, and out of the town while sputtering and dribbling out noise from the radio on the dashboard.
Atienna wished they weren’t so… extravagant. She hadn’t told Sefu and Dimka of this excursion, after all. Keeping this ‘covert’ as Werner would say was one of her goals.
Sneaking out at the dead of night like this—it reminded Atienna of her time in the Night Circle, from her covertly slipping out of an esteemed estate to entering into a less than standard and typical world. She wondered who was champion there now since she was gone. The anonymity made it difficult to discern.
The v-ehicle ride lasted for quite some time and so Atienna began to digest the scenery. They threaded through pebble stone roads lined with flat plains that gradually became dotted with black matchstick trees that had long since lost their leaves.
After half an hour or so, they pulled in through a large gate at the end of a dirt path hidden by matchstick wood that had long lost their leaves. This particular route was on a diverging road that sprouted from the main street out from Secoursonne. It was quite an eerie journey accented by a thick shroud of mist creeping across the ground.
Once the v-ehicle pulled past the gate, it ran a little further before a large and ornate stone water fountain three times the height of Atienna at the center of an immense square. Glowing liquid geysered out from the fountain and cast faint light on the four yards that surrounded. At the far ends of those expansive yards that were dotted with trimmed hedges and other gardening displays rested large mansions that reminded Atienna of Olive’s mansion back in Aries. They looked about four stories tall and each had an extended marble balcony that led to a pair of large and open glass doors. The mansions were topped with a triangular roof that hung heavy over their pristine white and gray bricking. Behind all of them stretched a hedge maze that seemed to connect one backyard to the other, although Atienna couldn’t tell for sure due to the iron gates that guarded the yards of each mansion.
The question was now which mansion belonged to the House of Etoile—Louise Bonnefoy’s residence.
Atienna carefully studied each of those buildings as the guards led her to the gates of the closest one. She watched as they reached for their belts and unlocked the large iron lock fastened there and followed them through the long stretch of yard, up the marble steps guarded by a pair of stone crab claw statues—which was rather tacky—and into the building. From there, Atienna was left idly alone for a minute or so and allowed to momentarily bask beneath a twelve-tiered chandelier emanating v-light so intense that she could feel its heat. Eventually, a butler came to her and led her up a series of twisting carpeted flights, down several cream-painted halls, and led her to a tall mahogany door behind which a large room opened up.
In that large room cloaked by an odd smog and lit only by a large fireplace crackling alongside the wall sat a singular large red sofa that took up half of the space. There, Atienna found Aldéric laying leisurely and gazing up at a large portrait of a faceless androgynous figure swathed in silk and surrounded by a dozen men and women tugging at their arms and sleeves. In the corner of the room flickered an incense burner that seemed to be the source of the smog.
Not much to Atienna’s surprise but much to her chagrin, she found that lounging with the duke on that sofa were two women—one each in the duke’s arms. The woman on his left was wafting herself with a feathered plume, while the woman on his right was sipping on a glass of wine. They were dressed in an outfit similar to hers, although their dresses were black instead of white. Hm.
“Welcome, welcome!” Aldéric spread his arms wide as he untangled himself from the women’s arms. He beckoned Atienna. “Come, come!”
Atienna approached the sofa and allowed the duke to take her hand and kiss it. When he gestured to the open space on the sofa beside him, she seated herself and eyed the liquor bottles set up on the gold tabletop set in front of her. At the opposite end of the room was a windowed door that led out into the balcony. Moonlight was barely spilling on through the haze of cloud and mist.
“Atienna here is from Virgo.” Aldéric relaxed back into his seat and threw his arms behind the back of the sofa. “An advisor.”
“La Vierge!” The woman on his right gasped, snapped her fan shut, and spoke in Common. “How fun! You’ve only just started to come out of isolation, isn’t that right? Do you speak any Common? Do they still teach Common there?”
“Don’t say that, Esmée,” the woman on his left chided. “Don’t you know how to be polite? Of course they teach Common there. They teach Common everywhere.”
How unpleasant for them to judge so easily—although, Atienna supposed that she was just the same.
Atienna flashed a smile. “Yes, it’s quite a thing coming out from being away from everyone for so long. It’s not as if we cut off our communications completely since we remained in contact with Ophiuchus, don’t you think?”
“Oh, that’s right.” Esmée fanned herself and turned to Aldéric with a pout. “I wonder how Ophiuchus will manage your marriage, dear. Since it’s practically uniting Cancer with Leo.”
Aldéric sighed as he eyed Esmée lavisciously. He curled his finger around a blonde strand of her hair. “All I know is that Ilunaria has been bestowed by our gracious national newspaper with the title of ‘Where the Sun Never Sets.’ Apparently, she’s quite the enthused traveller. She writes to me all the time.”
Oh? Hadn’t the duke supposedly been head over heels for the princess of Leo? What was this distance then? It appeared as if the invisible hands had been moving the two supposed lovebirds together all along. Now was that invisible hand the governments of their respective countries themselves or…?
“So lucky,” the unnamed woman on Aldéric’s left cooed, trailing her fingers along his chest. “To receive letters from her all the time. That Ilunaria must be infatuated with you.”
Aldéric turned to Atienna suddenly, sharply. “Would you like to see the letters, Atienna?”
How unpleasant such a relationship was, but then again that was the nature of some relationships and she also needed to get closer to him.
Atienna smiled pleasantly, shyly and nodded. When she batted her eyes—quite an embarrassing action—the duke grinned and indicated for the woman at his left to move aside. The woman’s eyes narrowed but she obliged, carelessly—or perhaps carefully—stepping on Atienna’s foot as she stepped over her and seated herself at the other end of the couch. Atienna paid no mind and took the woman’s spot beside Aldéric.
Aldéric, in turn, threw his arm behind Atienna and rested his hand on her shoulder before digging into his pants pocket with the other. He pulled out two folded letters stamped with a broken seal of paraffin wax. “I always keep the letters dear Ilunaria writes to me.”
Atienna smiled pleasantly, accepted the letters from him, and began to scan them. The first spoke of Ilunaria’s travels to the seaside towns of Leo and her ventures to orphanages. She waxed lyrical about the ocean waves and the sound bells. The second letter detailed Ilunaria’s longing for the duke and wishing him to visit her in Leo.
Half way through this second letter, Atienna found herself pausing.
The tone of voice between the two letters was completely different. One adventurous and strong, the other wistful and mellow. It was almost as if they’d been written by two different people.
For a moment, Atienna considered the possibility of two different ghost writers typing up these letters. It wouldn’t be a peculiar for such a thing to occur given the invisible hands acting here. But then again—and Atienna affirmed this as she scanned the bottoms of both letters—the signatures on the letters were different from each other. Her mind immediately went to the Espada and police activity in the Leonian towns Maria, Cadence, Jericho, and Francis had visited lately.
As curious as this was, however, it had to be set aside. What she came here for was not this.
And so Atienna leaned in closer to Aldéric as she slipped the letters back into his suit jacket and reached out to Cadence. But her call went unanswered after three attempts. Synchronization attempts were rarely faulty nowadays, but perhaps Cadence was busy? As soon as this thought left Atienna’s mind, she came to a startling realization—
She couldn’t hear or feel the others. Not even in the distance. It was absolutely silent. Exactly like how it had been like back in Capricorn. At the thought, Atienna felt her blood run cold and felt her mind drag itself into that strip of flattened earth in unoccupied territory. Otto, wheezing as he held his abdomen, eyes wide and desperate as he begged for his life. Yulia, spluttering on her own blood and Kovich and Fritz seizing beside her as they desperately reached for each other. No–
Before she realized what she was doing, Atienna was on her feet.
Aldéric looked up at her sharply.
“It’s just a bit muggy in here. Please excuse me,” Atienna managed before she fled for the balcony glass doors. Taking a moment to eye the incense burning in the corner of the room, she burst out into the cold night air, fought against the billowing satin curtains, before dashing out to the balcony’s railings. She coughed as she leaned against them and took in a deep breath as she tried to reach out to the others. Again, there was nothing and her head spun at the emptiness.
This almost reminded her of the time she’d been poisoned by Usian all those months ago. However, this feeling was one she had encountered more than twice already so it had lost its thrilling edge and novelty. This emptiness now was no longer curious and much unwanted.
With difficulty, Atienna calmed her breathing and centered herself as Werner would.
Unsurprisingly, Aldéric hadn’t followed her out. She supposed he would forget her face within a week, but that was just how some people were. Awfully careless. Like Alma, perhaps. Or perhaps even like Atienna herself.
“Oh, is my brother’s egomaniacal speech too much for you already?” came a sudden voice from behind her.
Atienna didn’t need to turn to see who it was. Logically speaking, it could only be one person who could speak so casually. This paired with the fact that there were two women inside made it easy for Atienna to deduce the man’s identity.
“Oh, I’m very familiar with egomaniacal speeches, Monsieur Albertine,” Atienna drew with a faint smile as she peered at Albertine Échecs leaning against the wall behind her with a glass of wine. “I assure you that your brother misses the mark.”
Albertine chuckled. “Is that meant to be a form of reassurance, Miss Imamu?”
Atienna managed a smiled as she felt her sweat chill the back of her neck. “I didn’t realize morrowheat could be so potent…” A lie.
Albertine frowned and took a sip of his wine. “It’s not morrowheat.”
Instantaneously, the dots connected within Atienna’s mind. Chlorowheat? All the way up here? She searched her memory. Chlorowheat—the most she knew about it was that it was a cross between sorrowheat and morrowheat, it was being sold by the Romanos and shipped by the Foxmans, it had been stolen form the Romanos, and it had been spotted near the Aquarian-Capricornian border. It’s effects were unknown to her as was the reason for it being here in Cancer. Perhaps… it was the cause of her not being able to hear the others? It was quite ludicrous, but nothing was impossible as Maria said.
At this thought, Atienna’s nerves settled down. This meant that this disconnect from the others was probably only a temporary ailment that was to pass once the chlorowheat cleared her system. Perhaps.
“Have you ever thought that the way Signum functions is peculiar?” Albertine stared into his wine glass. “We have a variety of different governments all squeezed into this continent here. It’s surprising how we haven’t tried to kill each other even more so yet. Militarism, monarchies, a half-formed feudal system playing democracy, a couple of true democracies and federacies here and there. It’s a clash of ideologies.”
Atienna studied Albertine carefully. From the little conversation she’d had with him so far, she could easily tell that he had some disdain for his brother and his own position. Quite an understandable thing but Atienna was more interested in something else, and so she responded lightly, “I’m sorry to say that I’m merely an advisor… I’m always warned to stay away from political topics.”
“And I’m merely the duke’s brother.” Albertine glanced at her. “We’re taught all these things that we never make use of.
It appeared as if Albertine’s issues were slightly more multi-layered than a mere sibling rivalry and inferiority.
“Learning about things and discussing things like politics without having to implement that knowledge is a bit of a relief, don’t you think?” Atienna tried, meeting Albertine’s eyes and then averting them towards the other mansions in the clearing beyond them. She watched from the corner of her eye as Albertine’s gaze followed hers to the same direction. “I wonder if that’s how all the political commentators feel regarding the marriage between the duke and Ilunaria. It’s so easy to discuss how the duke’s romantic interests have switched while watching on from afar, isn’t it?”
Albertine regarded her for a moment before he joined her at the balcony. “I suppose you’re right, although ” He gestured across the yard towards the mansion directly opposite of them. “If one path doesn’t work, then you find another one. When Louise Bonnefoy ran—fell ill, my brother went to that mansion there every single day asking for her. We’ve known each other since childhood, did you know? She writes to him still just like Ilunaria does.” Albertine took another big gulp of wine. “He showed you Ilunaria’s letters he keeps in his pocket, didn’t he? Well, he keeps his letters from her right over his chest.” He gulped again before pushing away from the railings and heading back inside. “It’s always the careless ones that move forward and the careful ones that are left behind.”
* * *
Atienna waited outside for fifteen more minutes afterwards before peeling back inside. The room was even more cloudy than before. It was almost as if she were sifting through a thick fog. She held her breath as she passed through the room and spied Aldéric passed out in a tangle of limbs with the two other women on the sofa. Upon stepping outside, she was met by the same butler who’d led her into the room.
“Would you like to go home now, Miss Imamu?” he asked.
She considered it. Worry boiled at the pit of her stomach despite her earlier deduction on the effects of chlorowheat. If she could just make a call to one of the other five just to be sure. Another choice to make.
No, she had to do what she came here to do.
And so, she politely requested to use the restroom and was escorted through the tall halls to a bathroom guarded by a gem-encrusted door. This was quite a gamble—maneuvering in an unfamiliar place under the invitation and eye of an esteemed individual. Werner would certainly disapprove of acting on such an uncertain basis despite his demeanor lessening these past months, but Atienna’s hands itched with anticipation.
Offering the butler still waiting idly behind her a smile, Atienna pushed through the door and took in a breath. Inside was a gold-frame mirror and a porcelain bathtub marked with a gold handle and faucet and—
—a window pressed against the far stone wall.
Atienna let out her breath and locked the door behind her. A second later saw her pulling up the trailing hem of her dress and tying it up near her waist. It was too long to hike up completely so it still brushed just above her knees. Still, it was better than before.
With that, she slipped off her shoes and easily pulled herself up and out of the window. She perched there on the ledge peering down at the two story drop below her before noticing the extended ledge of the window just below her.
Upon landing on the wet ground, she shivered and surveyed her area. Tall green hedges squared off the yard around her with the only opening being the entrance of the maze that she’d seen connected the back of the mansions earlier. In other words, it appeared as if she was in the backyard of the mansion and the only way out was through this maze.
How unfortunate yet ironic at the same time.
Atienna approached the entrance with a sigh and stepped into the maze quietly. Placing her left hand along the leftmost wall, she began to walk. She paced for quite some time and passed by several openings that led to different mansions that were not the one that she was looking for. Every so often, she would have to backtrack or press back against a dead-end of the maze when a guard would pass her on by.
Eventually after fifteen minutes or so, she caught sight of the backyard of the mansion Albertine had indicated earlier. Two pairs of suited men passed her by as she poised hidden by the maze entrance. They walked around the expansive yard in an eight-shaped pattern Atienna memorized after their second run through. On their first run through, she had noted the visible locks on the back door of the mansion. Since she couldn’t feel Cadence at the moment, there was no way for her to easily sneak past the guards or pick-pocket them.
Dealing with the lock itself without the keys…
It would be so much easier if she had Cadence’s lock-picking readily available to her or Olive’s conducting to crack or do away with the lock altogether. While Atienna had spent some time learning lock-picking from Cadence, she was nowhere near adept at it yet and she doubted she could crack it without the guards seeing her.
Atienna’s gaze trailed up from the locked door to the garden trellis set just beside it that shot up to a third story window.
The window, it was.
As the duo of guards passed her by again, Atienna darted forward and ducked behind a shrub cut into the shape of a heart. As they rounded around her, she ran forward again and hid behind a stone fountain. Once they passed by the entrance of the maze, Atienna shot up the trellis with quiet ease and pulled herself up through the window there just as the guards turned to face her.
Upon slipping inside into the dark hall, Atienna immediately dropped low to the Sagittarian long carpet that ran down the floor. As she moved forward, she ducked beneath the moon rays beaming in through the windows and tucked away behind an old Cancerian knight’s armor set out on display as a maid briskly dashed around the corner past her.
With care and steadiness, she passed by what appeared to be a closed study room that was still occupied despite the late hour. Faintly, she could make out conversation—
“Reneé is still searching for her, isn’t he…?”
“From what I understand, dear, I think he’s set aside the search—”
“—no! Oh no…” A weary sigh that wasn’t quite a sob. “Why can’t she just come home? Louise—”
Atienna briefly thought of her own family and wondered if they felt the same. The heaviness in her chest was painful to bear on her own, but she did her best to brush it aside and continue forwards. After listening into about five rooms and dipping into three and finding nothing, she finally came across a door at the end of the hall with a door knob that looked immaculately wiped clean.
After pressing her ear to the door and ensuring no one was inside, Atienna pressed through and slipped in. The room itself was quite lovely with light pink silk drapes hanging down not only in front of the windows but also down from the top of the queen-sized bed pressed up against the wall and also over the front of the large closet doors that took up the entire left wall. Opposite stood a desk with a large mirror propped up behind it.
It felt almost more like a young girl’s room than a young woman’s room.
Atienna headed to the desk and began to rifle through it. Scrapbooks and old romance texts from the 1600s. Nothing to gain from these things besides the confirmation that this was in fact Louise’s room gauging by her name scribbled on every item. Still, it was all quite quaint and cute. Perhaps if she looked a little further into the items Louise owned, she might deduce something about the woman—quite a convoluted idea in retrospect.
It was then that Atienna decided to search the bottom of the desk. Much to her surprise, she found something rectangular, thick, and smooth wedged into the rightmost far corner. With effort, she pulled it and found a thick light pink journal pressed in with a heart on its cover.
Atienna allowed a smile to touch her lips as her fingers began to itch.
This was what she was looking for. Insight to Louise that would possibly point her to the right direction. Gingerly, reverently, Atienna opened the journal and read a middle entry.
I’m going out on another outing with Aldéric and Albertine again. July 30th.
Atienna frowned. The writing was so subdued compared to the Louise she was more familiar with. Pondering this, she turned the page.
Mother said I have to prepare for the ball next week. August 16th.
Ah, how sad. Atienna lowered her gaze and thought, So this is why… She flipped the page again and paused.
Something amazing happened today! When I was going to sleep tonight, someone broke in through my window! Can you believe that? Some adventurer! They took everything in my closet, but oh my! They asked me if I wanted to come with them on an adventure! I wanted to, but I had to decline because I don’t want to leave my parents behind… Oh, she made it sound so fun! I want to see everything like she does! I—
Atienna reread the passage again. It couldn’t be, could it…? Unsure of whether to chuckle or frown, she turned to the very last page.
I want to have a house by the sea,
I want to be able to feel the ocean breeze,
I want to go where the ocean and rivers meet,
I want to be free.
Atienna stared at the stanza as her heart faltered slightly. How sad—
A movement out of the corner of her eye gave her pause. A shadowy figure was eclipsing one of the windows. Atienna froze at the sight of it before darting into the closet and closing it partially behind her. She settled in between what appeared to be a rack of scarves as the sound of the window creaking open reached her ears.
Shortly after came the stomp, stomp, stomp of footsteps and hushed, low whispering. Through the crack in the closet, Atienna was able to spy four to five shadowy figures rummaging through the room and turning out the desks and the mattresses.
Atienna tensed, palms itching, as she spied one of the figures turn towards the closet she was hiding in. Oh dear, she thought as the figure drew nearer and nearer. The closet was the least undiscoverable place to hide, wasn’t it?
With anticipation, she wrapped the scarf around her lower face and found herself vaguely reminded of Gabrielle. She tensed as the closet door began to be pulled open, and she stared at the white crack of light growing in front of her widened and widened. A pair of eyes appeared in that whiteness and wallet her gaze.
“—what the? Someone’s in here—” Common.
Atienna kicked the door open fully and sent the man standing there flying backwards as she burst outside. In the darkness, she quickly counted five figures including the man she’d just thrown. Two of them were standing close to her on her left and right and were both staring at her seemingly flabbergasted from behind their half-masks.
Atienna grabbed a hold of one of the closet curtains and quickly looped it around the chest of the figure—the man—nearest to her. She pulled her and felt the man struggle in the stranglehold. As the next figure rushed at her, Atienna swung around the figure wrapped in her cocoon and delivered a flying kick to the other. They flew back against the window and cracked their head against the windowsill before falling unconscious.
The two other figures still standing exchanged looks of confusion before reaching for their belts—conductors most likely. Atienna didn’t allow them the opportunity. Pulling the drape she was still strangling the man along with her, Atienna charged at one of the figures and swept her feet beneath them. They fell backwards and knocked themselves unconscious against the bed railings. Once the man in Atienna’s curtain-stranglehold fell limp, she released him, grabbed another hanging drape and threw it in the other figure’s face just as they drew out a vitae-blade. Atienna quickly ducked beneath the figure’s blind swing and kicked out their feet beneath them too. The fall didn’t knock them unconscious, however, so Atienna quickly straddled them and cracked them continuously against the jaw until they stopped moving.
Whipping her head around, she found the man she’d initially sent flying back with a kick scrambling up into a groaning stand. For this last person, Atienna merely delivered a firm blow to the head with the side of her heel. With a sharp crack, the man too fell to the ground unconscious.
In the remaining quiet, Atienna was left panting as she tuned her ears to any other stirrings in the household. However, it was quiet. And in the quiet, her heart roared. Oh…. This excitement. She missed it.
A creak resounded behind her, however, breaking the moment in two. She whipped around to find one of the men picking himself off the ground. His mask had slipped from his face, revealing rather youthful yet sharp features beneath. He didn’t look Cancerian at all.
She ran to him, picked up by the scruff, and prepared to deal the finishing blow. Then, she saw the dark blue scorpion tattoo crawling up his face. The man’s eyes crinkled at her hesitation.
“Scorpio,” Atienna said calmly, releasing him. “It’s a bit strange for you to bring such a foreign person into a country like this, don’t you think? I’m quite warmed and appreciative of your care, but I’m starting to feel somewhat embarrassed…”
“I didn’t bring this man in here, Miss Atienna Imamu.” Scorpio chuckled in Common, gesturing to himself as he picked himself off the ground. “He came here of his own volition. I merely came along from the ride.”
“That does appear to be what it looks like on the surface, doesn’t it?”
The moonlight seeping in from the window seemed to intensify.
“I’ve always wondered why you send us to hunt True Conductors when you’re able to come in like this so easily,” Atienna drew as she cradled her throbbing hands. “Is there a reason you can’t find them all yourselves or are you… perhaps just giving us a way to bide our time?”
“Are you questioning your value and purpose?” Scorpio rested his hand on his cheek. “Isn’t living idly like this everything you’ve ever dreamed up?” He reached out to her, palms up, eyes wide. “A life of excitement and thrill without consequences, change, movement, decisions. Black and white and gray ill-defined. What more could you ask for before the syzygy turns?”
Atienna tensed in her quiet mind and averted her eyes. “So, this man is Aquarian.”
Scorpio’s eyes narrowed slightly but he smiled again. “So he is. I didn’t think you’d hear the accent. What’s an Aquarian doing here?”
“Oh, haven’t you already learned, Atienna?” Scorpio shook his head. “You’re the brightest of the lot, aren’t you? Don’t you know everything?”
“You know that I only wish I did,” she responded.
“So you say. Well, if a country as stringent as Capricorn has—had—an entity known as the Watch, what makes you think other countries don’t have the same?” Scorpio shrugged. “You can claim that privacy is a right but then choose to spy on the lives of others through reading those newspapers of yours and tuning into those radio broadcasts. Privacy is impossible for social beings, and yet people demand it. It’s against nature itself.”
“It’s quite easy to view oneself as justified when one is committing the deed deemed wrong, don’t you think?” Atienna replied. When she saw a light abruptly burn in Scorpio’s eyes, she felt the urge to extinguish it. “Oh, Scorpio, I’m very aware of my own hypocrisy…”
But the fire in his eyes only burned brighter. “You acknowledge your faults and find pride in your own acknowledgement but you don’t seek to change it. You even find a sense of pride in being aware of not changing. You are an unmoving stone.”
“Isn’t that what you like to see, Scorpio?”
“It’s not what I like to see, dear Atienna,” Scorpio replied. “It’s what I expect to see. It’s what I always see. I’ve been inside you. I know you can see it too. It’s just that you’d rather choose to avert your eyes away from it.”
“Are we still speaking of myself or people at large, Scorpio?” Atienna returned pleasantly.
Scorpio lifted up a finger and pointed to Atienna’s chest right above her heart—right where Werner usually kept his pocket watch. “The passion of the people moves the gears of time.” He pulled back slightly and shook his index finger—tick, tock, tick, tock. “But a watch’s hands only go in circular and cyclic motions, don’t they?”
“Watches and people are quite different, don’t you think…?”
Scorpio merely smiled again. “I saw some interesting things through some offshoots of mine earlier this week. A certain swindler with an old teacher-turned-student-turned-teacher of mine running around in the Twin Cities. I also swear I saw one Maria Gloria-Fernandez facing Beta of all people in some seaside town in Leo.”
Atienna knew he was baiting her. He hadn’t mentioned Jericho, Cadence, or Francis yet, possibly meaning he hadn’t yet discovered them working together. Mimicking pleasantness, Atienna then said, “Really? I’m a bit surprised, Scorpio…. I would’ve expected you to confront Maria if you saw her there. While we are working together, from what I understand, I wonder… Do you dislike Maria or find her hard to bear? She can be a handful sometimes, but… you area saint candidate, aren’t you?”
Scorpio’s smile thinned slightly. Instead, he pointed to the floor. “Bonnefoy’s parents are beginning to wake up. You best leave, partner.”
Atienna was quite glad Jericho was not with her now because the jab had been clearly directed at him. And so, she did her best not to react and instead gestured to the men groaning on the floor. “Will you get them out too? It’ll cause some trouble if Aquarians are found in a Cancerian household like this, don’t you think?”
“It has nothing to do with the people and things you care about, so isn’t it best to leave it be?” Scorpio threaded his hands through his hair and gestured to the window. “You don’t even care about your own country so caring about another’s is a bit disgusting, isn’t it?”
* * *
Atienna made it back to the Lune mansion in fifteen minutes time and took only five minutes to fix her appearance. The returning path always seemed shorter than the starting path, after all.
Aldéric greeted her sleepily as the butler led her out to her v-ehicle once she announced her departure, while Albertine watched her from a high window as she loaded into the waiting v-ehicle. As the v-ehicle itself began to pull away from the large estates that seemed to contain so little, Atienna cradled the journal that she’d slipped beneath her dress and waited, waited, waited.
Finally, a warm voice bled through her mind—
Atienna, how was your date?