Atienna is in Cancer acting as an advisor to the Virgoan Diplomat Dimka who has gotten his foot in the door of Cancerian affairs. While there, Atienna becomes familiar with the Duke of House Lune Aldéric Échecs and his brother Albertine. She also discovers that chlorowheat has found its way into Cancer as well. Her concern is not this, however, but Louise Bonnefoy whose house she invades in search of clues. While she does find Louise’s personal journal, she also encounters Aquarian spies in the residence. This further sparks tension between Caner and Aquarius. Atienna also cares little for this and sets her attention on finding Louise.
Lueur de Fée.
That was the name of an infamous waterfall located at the very heart of Cancer. According to the texts, the waterfall geysered out right into a river beneath which flowed a vitae-stream that supplied its reserves to more than two thirds of the country.
It was also the location named a multitude of times in Louise’s journal which Atienna had continued to peruse through after taking it from Louise’s place of residence. The waterfall was in fact mentioned 156 times precisely, as Werner had readily counted. One passage had read—
Lueur de Fée. If I ever have a child, I’ll certainly name them this! The most wonderous, magical, beautiful place in the world!
Another passage had read—
I wonder if faeries actually live at the Lueur de Fée. They say that Cancer—the Ancestor not the country—used to go to the falls to communicate with spirits wandering beyond death’s door but I think it’s much more romantic to imagine them speaking with faeries.
Louise’s apparent obsession or admiration of this ‘natural’ wonder paired with the constant trickling of water and the Cancerian chatter in the background of her radio broadcasts painted a certain picture to Atienna—Louise was most likely there.
Atienna herself had much time to research the waterfall since she was on a technical lockdown as the result of an internal investigation by both Cancerian law officials and the International Relations Department of Ophiuchus. She wasn’t the main subject of the investigation, of course—even though she’d been directly involved in the affair. ‘Fortunately’—although the word seemed tactless and cold—everyone Aldéric had invited to his estate was a suspect. The flint that ignited the investigation was the organized group found trespassing in Louise’s estate. Rather, it was the Aquarian spies found invading a Cancerian duchess’s estate—or so the headlines like to put it.
And so Atienna found her subject to a familiar line of inquiry once more by men and women in suits—peacekeepers and not. Even some of the peacekeepers were familiar to her.
“Fancy seeing you again,” said one of the Ophiuchian agents whom Atienna recognized as having previously come down to Aquarius following the Zatenminye Caverns incident. “Work as an advisor still seems to bring its own troubles, doesn’t it?”
Yes. No. I didn’t see anything. I really don’t know. I was in the bathroom at the Duke of House Lune’s estate at the time.
Atienna merely had to answer simply. She didn’t even need Cadence’s influence to help in that regard. Well, perhaps it was just that those helpful aspects of Cadence had already been ingrained deep inside her. Either way, with everything Cadence was dealing with concerning the children and Alpha, Atienna didn’t wish to add to her stresses and troubles. Werner’s either. And yet the troubles seemed to keep piling up…
* * *
“Are you nervous?”
During an interview in the middle of the first week of the investigation, Atienna was asked this not-so-unusual question by the attending peacekeeper. What was unusual about it, however, was the flippant tone with which it was proposed.
The interview—rather, the interrogation—was being held in one of the duke’s many private rooms at his estate. His maids and butlers had emptied it out of most of its extravagant furniture leaving only a lacquered wooden table and two chairs on opposing sides. The murals of Cancerian wilderness and swirling reservoirs, however, remained steadfast on the walls, giving the room a liminal and empty feeling.
Atienna regarded the peacekeeper who sat across from her carefully. He was a tall man with a high nose—mostly likely of Aquarian origin. His eyes were sharp, his brow prominent. A serious peacekeeper, indeed, but—
“It wouldn’t be sensible to be nervous while I’m in the presence of and under the omniscient gaze of someone who has invested in my survivability, don’t you think?”
The peacekeeper—rather Scorpio’s offshoot—spread his hands and smiled. “That you are right, Miss Atienna Imamu.”
Werner synchronized in with her sharply then, shadowing in like the moon. She glanced at him half-curiously, although she was comforted by his presence.
Scorpio gestured to her. “I hope this hasn’t put too much of a damper on your investigations into Louise. You do remember the deadline.”
“Oh, I’m very aware of the deadline,” Atienna replied, “and I appreciate your attentiveness… though I do have to wonder—is that deadline coincidentally in line with the coming of the ‘syzygy’?”
Scorpio arched his brow and then nodded. “Indeed it is, so we should prepare a celebration. Mark your calendar!”
How Talib-like, Atienna thought.
Humming, Scorpio moved to pick up the paper set in front of him and scanned it. He sighed a moment afterwards and threw the paper back down. “These questions make me want to claw my eyes out. ‘What are your opinions on Aquarius? What are your opinions on Cancer? What were you doing on the night of February 28th?’ I mean, really?”
“They are quite roundabout and evasive,” Atienna agreed.
“And you’re very familiar with that, aren’t you?”
Scorpio’s smile thinned for a moment before he pulled out a pen from his pocket. Werner tensed at the sight, but Atienna relaxed as she saw the saint candidate begin to fill out the questions on the sheet.
“Let me do you a favor and save you the time,” he said.
“Oh, you’re quite generous.”
“I’m all about giving people what they want,” Scorpio returned after he finished his scribbling and set down his pen. He reached into his pocket once more and set something on the table in-between them. A pair of suppression cuffs. “I know Jericho has probably sent you one of these already but we can’t be too cautious, right? Even with your prowess, Queen of the Night.”
* * *
When Atienna wasn’t being interrogated by Cancerians or Ophiuchians, she was perusing the Lune estate’s plentiful library for information about the waterfall. The bookshelves here were mahogany and matched the large Sagittarian rug fitted right beneath the low-v-light chandelier. There was not a single speck of dust on any surface. Unfortunately this merely highlighted the fact that the books themselves were so evidently rarely-touched.
Werner approved of her thoroughness in her research but pressed her on their deadline. He was quite gentle with his words despite the fact that she could see that he clearly thought she was stalling and stretching the matter out. Was it because of that protect, protect, protect due to Scorpio or his leniency showing due to their connection? Atienna wondered.
Stalling on the other hand? Perhaps she was. But one couldn’t remain in place forever—especially when one had already made a decision. And so, when the peacekeepers concluded their investigation and returned to Ophiuchus, Atienna had no more excuses left.
* * *
Atienna had been worried how she would manage splitting off from Dimka and Sefu in order to pursue Louise. Fortunately, however, a little bit of discussion with Aldéric resolved that issue. With Cadence’s help, all Atienna had to do was drop a quiet ‘oh, this place is a bit stuffy, don’t you think?’ and a ‘I’ve always wanted to visit that one famous Cancerian waterfall…’ and Aldéric immediately booked a weekend trip to the location. He, of course, cordially invited Dimka as well and brought along several other diplomats and ‘friends’—mostly women—whom were invited to the initial party. Albertine invited himself.
As expected, Aldéric wholly rejected the idea of taking a train—even a luxury one—to their destination. Atienna wondered if he thought it was too far beneath him or if ‘riding with the common man’—as he put it—simply made him feel uncomfortable. Olive had a few choice words to say about it.
And so, instead of taking a v-train, they travelled by v-ehicle. Atienna rode with Aldéric and Albertine alongside Sefu and Dimka. Albertine had his own driver much to Sefu’s evident relief. The arrangements, however, made it so that Sefu, Aldéric, Dimka, and Atienna herself had to share the space in the backseat of the v-ehicle, while Albertine manned the front with the driver. Despite the extravagant design of the car and its leather seating, it was quite a tight fit. Thankfully, Aldéric opted not to smoke or bring out his chlorowheat and instead chatted idly with Dimka about v-ehicles and the like. Atienna was grateful for this as it meant that she had more time to pour through her book on the rather interesting history of the falls. Or at least she tried to.
V-ehicles had rapidly evolved in these past few months, Aldéric was saying, and vr-fueling stations dotted every town, city, and place in-between. He and Dimka marveled at the innovation with Dimka even allauding how rapidly Cancer had picked up the v-ehicle boom. Aldéric returned the praises ten-fold.
Was this truly diplomacy? Atienna wondered as she listened to them chatter on. Or an exchange of reassurances? She didn’t have quite long to ponder the idea because it was during this time that Tau revealed the criteria for saint candidacy to Maria, Jericho, and Cadence and the three ELPIS leaders debated on the possibility of their being a seventh True Conductor to their group.
It sounded quite fairy tale-like in Atienna’s opinion. Or perhaps it was more akin to something like a somber tragedy given that all six of them had no knowledge—or ‘memory’ as the ELPIS leaders said—of this mysterious seventh. A sad story indeed. But it was a distant event and only seemed to hold importance in the way it applied to Olive’s research on improving Lavi’s condition.
The drive to the waterfalls was quite a long one so it left Atienna with much time to think on the topic. Every so often, however, they would have to refuel the v-ehicle at a vr-station or find recluse at a rest stop.
During one of their rest stops at a vr-station, Atienna opted to remain inside the v-ehicle while Dimka, Albertine, Aldéric, and Sefu went to relieve themselves. The driver opted to remain inside the car as well, but the two of them hadn’t exchanged words as of yet so Atienna didn’t feel pressed for conversation.
“So,” the driver drew suddenly, stretching his arms out across the length of the locomotive. “Anything interesting in your readings, dear Atienna?”
“Scorpio,” Atienna greeted, offering a pleasant smile. Much to her surprise, Werner did not appear at her side. She supposed it wasn’t too surprising though given the time of night. He tended to turn in earlier for rest recently. She wondered if it was the cold. Either way, it was deserved. “It seems as if we keep meeting each other for casual conversation like this.”
“Although I did say that you were quite like Libra,” Scorpio hummed, “I have to admit you’re a much more entertaining conversationalist. Perhaps even more so than the other five.”
“Oh, I doubt I’m that entertaining,” Atienna returned, knowing full well that the latter part of his sentence was intended to rile her. “Although I appreciate the company, from what I understand, you have your hands quite full.”
“Yes, well…” Scorpio sighed melodramatically and leaned back in his chair. “Who am I to stop the will of the people? They’re dissatisfied with the current state of affairs—be it regarding their country, their neighborhoods, each other, or themselves.” His eyes narrowed as he said the last word, and he held up three fingers. “What do people do when they’re dissatisfied? One, they run and hide in one shape or another—sometimes not in the way most people think. Two, they struggle and fight for what they believe is right. And three—” He pointed back to her. “—they become frozen in place and wait for the world to change around them. A useless endeavor. Really.”
“And which one are you, Scorpio?”
Scorpio remained silent for a moment before he smiled. “Oh, you know the answer to that! You know everything.”
“Oh, I don’t know everything. I do wish I did though,” Atienna said. “And… I was more so referring to the… confuddle with Alpha and his plans to raid Ophiuchus than any other generalizations…”
“Hm, oh yes. Leona was quite surprised when my dear partner brought that subject up to her—not so much surprised about Alpha but about the fact that Jericho had brought it to her attention. We’re quite aware that Alpha’s been moseying around Signum stocking up supplies. The Ophiuchus raid was a surprise though, I have to admit. Although… It wouldn’t be the first time he’s trying to break into Ophiuchus.”
Scorpio leaned forward against the wheel.
“I never quite liked Proteus. He always thought he was so suave in his apathy. He touted knowing everything and not caring for everything, but I see him for what he truly is. A hypocrite in search of an answer. I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea, Atienna.”
“Is that how you see me as?” Atienna queried before she pressed curiously—“And what answer is Alpha seeking exactly?”
Scorpio’s eyes narrowed. “Ophiuchus.”
“Miss Imamu.” Scorpio smiled cordially as he peered at her through the rear-view mirror. “You’re quite shrewd, managing to uphold your role as an advisor and a True Conductor hunter like this. Somehow still not making a choice.”
“I commend you the same,” Atienna responded quickie, “for upholding the guise of a peacekeeper, a chairman, a saint candidate, and all the people you’ve planted your spores in all at once.”
Scorpio opened his mouth to retort but the passenger door opened and Albertine re-entered the v-ehicle.
The driver shut his mouth and flashed a smile. “Monsieur Albertine, how was your smoke?”
* * *
Lueur de Fée, Cancer
Atienna heard the waterfall before she saw it. The drawn out yet quiet roar, like muffled static on one of Werner’s radios. A low rumble only a few notches below the rumbling of the v-ehicle’s conducting engine. A resonating sound.
The first sign of it that she saw was the fog that rolled on from down the road. The fog itself was not gray but colored instead with various shades of red, green, and blue. Most likely, it was reflecting the light from the nearby vitae stream or had taken up some stray vitae particles itself.
The driver slowed the v-ehicle to a stop as they neared the top of a cliff that seemed to oversee the waterfall in question. There were several other v-ehicles already parked along the side of the road there, and a handful of people stood pressing against the fence at the edge of the grassy cliff.
Aldéric took Atienna’s hand, then her waist, and led her to the fence. Sefu seemed quite displeased with the fact but tailed them anyways alongside Albertine and Dimka. As Atienna neared the fence and peered down the cliff, she let out a quiet breath and reached out for the others. Jericho, Cadence, and Olive were the only ones to answer her call, and together they admired the sight.
Despite the darkness of the sky, the waterfall was illuminated all the way up its length in splashes of greens and blues and reds. The waterfall itself was a large and almost monstrous thing, torrenting down into the wide river below it without relent. The river itself served as the source of light. No, that wasn’t quite right. The source of light lay deep inside the river, piercing up through its depths and spreading its luminesce through its waters.
A vitae stream flowing hot right below the river. How fascinating to see it with one’s own eyes.
From this angle, it looked as if the vitae stream was trapped beneath a thick glass that fractured its glow against the cliff-faces, trees, and everything near it.
“This is what Cancerian beauty is!” Aldéric exclaimed to Atienna’s left as he pulled her close.
Cadence and Olive shared looks—the former with an amused smirk and the latter with an unamused scowl
“I agree. It’s quite beautiful, no?” came a quiet voice to Atienna’s right.
She glanced absentmindedly in the direction and froze as she registered the profile of a familiar man with distinctly Cancerian features. Blonde hair tied into a loose pony-tail and a well-fitted blue suit with a plaid design.
Olive’s guilt seized Atienna’s chest.
“Chevalier Reneé LeBlanc?” Aldéric gasped. “Is that you?”
Reneé offered a bow in response and began to take each of their hands and place a kiss upon it. Afterwards, he offered Aldéric a respectful nod. “It’s a pleasure to see you both here, Aldéric, Albertine.”
“What are you doing here?” Albertine’s brows rose.
“Well, I am on vacation,” Reneé responded good-naturedly. “I had to attend a meeting in Sagittarius in place of a couple of our officials, so now I’m just relaxing.”
“Oh, right… that…” Aldéric hummed. “Sorry for shoving that responsibility on you. I had a party to host, you see? Diplomacy and whatnot.” He gestured to Dimka. “This is my good friend Dimka. A diplomat from Virgo.
“A pleasure.” Reneé nodded at Dimka before turning back to Aldéric. “And, I am a chevalier, Aldéric. I don’t mind it. My purpose is to honor and serve the people of my country. Say, how about I serve you a little bit more and take you to dinner?”
* * *
Reneé invited them to dinner at a restaurant at the foot of the falls. A portion of the restaurant extended out into the river which was where Reneé had them seated at. Atienna felt a bit uncomfortable with the affair but she quite enjoyed the peaceful serenity of the view.
Once the dinning activities were well under way, she discovered through conversation that Reneé happened to be staying at the same inn that they were planning to stay in. It also appeared as if Aldéric, Albertine, and Reneé shared some sort of history. It didn’t seem to be any deeper than surface-level, however, so Atienna gauged that they were merely acquaintances through the Cancerian courts.
Reneé seemed to have gotten better since Olive had encountered him earlier in the month. The man’s eyes were less shadowed under, and his laugh seemed louder and clearer. But appearances were deceiving. Atienna wondered exactly what was happening to Hilton beneath the Serpens Establishment.
* * *
Upon nightfall, Atienna snuck out of the inn they had found seclusion in and slinked towards the waterfall with Louise’s journal in her hand and two pairs of suppression cuffs hidden at her hip. There was a specific passage in the former that denoted a particular location around the waterfall—
They say that if you enter the cave behind the waterfalls at midnight and make a wish, it will come true. Oh, I hope it’s not one of those curses where your wish is granted in some terrible way. That’s why I have to make a smart wish. Remember, Louse. Be smart!
The atmosphere closer to the waterfall was a bit odd. It wasn’t cold despite the winter season and the rush of the waterfall, yet contrarily it wasn’t warm either despite the pulsating glow of the vitae stream. It felt to Atienna like she was stuck in a rift between two worlds.
She quickly crossed a metal bridge that connected one side of the river to the other and continued across the rushing waters. Despite the elevation above the waters, the bridge was still quite slippery. Atienna managed it, however, and passed over slowly, stopping only to marvel at the psychedelic glow beneath the black waters.
Upon reaching the other side and walking up to the cliff-face there, she noted with mild relief and surprise that there was a small opening between the falls and the side of the cliff.
As she drew nearer to the lip of the divide, a light, happy, fluttering laugh rang in her ears. It wasn’t an unusual laugh. There was nothing particularly special about it. Really, it was a simple sort of sound. At first, she’d thought she’d misheard the sound since it was so simple and since the waterfall was roaring so loudly, but—there it was again.
Tucking behind the falls along the slippery rock as she followed the sound, Atienna took note of how the light from the adjacent vitae stream still somehow managed to pierce through the downpouring waters and into the cavern. The luminesce painted both the cave’s obsidian walls and the small pool within it in shades of blues, pinks, purples, and greens.
It was quite mesmerizing, and Atienna would have liked to admire it more if it weren’t for her current task at hand. She was certain Jericho would be fond of a sight like this and perhaps would even want to sketch and paint it in one of his journals. Pondering this, Atienna scanned the cavern more carefully—
A young woman with straw blonde hair and wearing a loose summer’s evening dress stood in the shallow pool facing the waterfall. The spray of the waters had misted her hair in droplets causing it to sparkle with the light from the vitae stream.
Atienna froze in place, somehow still surprised at the sight of the woman despite having expected to find her here. Her hand moved to the suppression cuffs hidden at her waist, but she then paused as a hand ghosted her own.
Atienna considered this and supposed it would be best to approach this as a pacifist. Best to talk things through before raiding with a fist.
With that in mind, Atienna pulled out from the shadows and cleared her throat. “Louise…? Is that you?”
Louise startled, turned, stared. Then, her cheeks flushed and her lips curled. “Oh my saints!” She threw up her hands. “Is that who I think it is? Is that Atienna Imamu?” Without showing any hesitation or suspicion, she ran up to Atienna and wrapped her in a warm embrace. “I haven’t seen you in forever! I was actually thinking about you just the other day!”
Atienna returned the gesture and pulled back. “Whatever are you doing here?”
“Extreme tourism, of course!” Louise laughed. “I’ve always wanted to visit this place since I was young, but never really had the thought to try it until now. They say if you make a wish here at midnight, it’ll come true! But first you have to swim from one side of the river to the other on a crescent moon night! And guess what kind of night it is tonight?”
Swimming across the river?
“This is what extreme tourism is all about!” Louise proclaimed, swinging her hand widely around. She abruptly clasped them over Atienna’s. “Oh—wait, why are you here, Atienna? Are you also going in for a wish?”
Atienna held Louise’s gaze. “I’m actually here as an advisor with a new diplomat. Dimka. He was invited here to Cancer by the Duke of House Lune after they met each other at a ball…. He invited me here too.”
Louise’s brightness dimmed, and she paled.
“Louise… You’re the duchess, right?” Atienna pressed. “They say you’re sick which is why you haven’t showed your face to the public, but—”
“Is my title more important than who I am?” Louise interjected with a whisper. She tensed. “You didn’t tell them about me, did you? Mention me?”
“Of course not,” Atienna drew carefully, sitting down and guiding Louise to a seat beside her as well. “I figured it was something more private… It was just that when I was there at the estates, everyone seemed very worried about you, Louise—”
“Oh, Atienna, you’re such a good person.” Louise let out a sigh—seemingly one of relief. She seemed to catch herself and quieted. “And oh, don’t worry about. I’m certain everyone is relieved that I’m no longer there. It gives them an excuse not to have to fiddle with the court politics… It gives them something to talk about.” Louise then placed a hand to her cheek and stared into the distance. “Oh, I know they care for me and miss me, but…” She dropped her hand and stared into the pool. “How much of my happiness do I need to sacrifice for everyone else’s—”
Atienna shot up to a stand at the familiar voice resonating from behind as did Louise. Upon turning, Atienna found a trio of men standing at the very entrance of the cavern by the waterfall. Sefu, Reneé, and Aldéric.
Atienna tensed. “What are you doing here?”
Aldéric glanced at her briefly. “Well, I… went to see you in your room and you were gone. I got worried. Your guard did too. So we went searching together and…”
Sefu crossed the distance and came to Atienna’s side immediately. “What are you doing here, Atienna?” His gaze flicked between her and Louise. He whispered, “Is this… one of those things?
“Aldéric…” Louise’s faint whisper ghosted Atienna’s ear.
Aldéric remained frozen in place, staring intently at Louise as if unbelieving.
Atienna looked between them, heart hammering. Perhaps this was the moment she’d been waiting for. To have someone other than herself bring Louise in instead. Ah, yes. This would work out, wouldn’t it? Now that Aldéric was here, maybe he could convince Louise to return. If she returned then…? Perhaps this was why Atienna had been so eager to have the duke come along. After all, she’d read clearly in Louise’s journal—
Aldéric is such a nice person. He’s been so kind to me since we were children. Can I really leave him behind? Really… He’s only been kind to me… His proposal… I feel terrible. He’s probably not doing it because he wants to…
“You’re alive,” Aldéric breathed. After a moment, he closed the distance between them and held her by the arms. “You’re…” He pulled her into an embrace. “Alive.”
Louise stiffened in his hold, and Atienna took a step back with Sefu.
This was quite a curious development.
Aldéric silently whipped off his jacket and threw it over Louise before shivering in the cold. Louise immediately took it off and handed it back to him. Aldéric accepted it in confusion.
“Aldéric,” Louise finally drew, “please don’t tell anyone you saw me here.”
“Why?” he pressed. “Was I not enough for you? Was the pressure of the courts too much? What was it? Why didn’t you say anything? Why did you just…? Do you know how worried—”
Louise squirmed. “They said you’d proposed to the Princess of Leo….”
“Well, yes, of course! You know how it is!” Aldéric shook his head incredulously. “The government asks us to do something and we do it. The courts, the performances—that’s all it is! A performance. I’ve only met Ilunaria once!”
Louise flushed lightly but would not meet Aldéric’s eyes.
How odd, Atienna thought in wonder. So their relationship went deeper than what was in the papers and Louise’s journal. Of course, that wasn’t too surprising. Words were never able to capture everything, after all. Atienna supposed she would never be able to ascertain the depth of their relationship, but it was certainly a curious thing.
“I just want to have fun, Aldéric…” Louise whispered, pulling away from him. “I wanted to leave—”
“Fun?” Aldéric gestured around the cavern wildly as he slipped from Common into Cancerian. “You mean this? You can see all of this as the Duchess of Etoile too!”
“You know it’s not like that at all…” Louise returned in the same language. “A chess piece…”
Like a bird in a cage.
“We’re living lives of luxury, Louise.” Aldéric shook his head. “Men, women, money, land—we ask for it and we’ll receive it. We’re lucky. We should act responsibly with that luck.”
Oh? That was unexpected.
“Are you saying even if you have all of these things,” he continued, “you can’t do your duty as a duchess and smile and wave to the people? You don’t want it? Do you know the heartache you’ve put people through?”
Louise quieted. “You know it’s not like that…”
Aldéric quieted too before he asked, “Do you care for me, Louise?”
Louise looked up in confusion. “Of course I do, Aldéric.”
“Do you love me, Louise?”
“Of course I do, Aldéric…” Louise glanced away. “But more than that… I just want to be free from all of it, Aldéric. I am free with…”
Much to Atienna’s surprise, Aldéric didn’t recoil in rage nor hurt. Instead, his hand ghosted Louise’s cheek. “Are you happy like this, Louise? That’s all I need to know.”
Atienna regarded Aldéric in surprise. She had not expected to hear that question from his lips. Appearances really were deceiving. But now that those words had been spoken out loud, Atienna knew that there was now only one outcome.
“Of course I am.”
Aldéric dropped his hand.
The waters roared in the silence.
Aldéric turned to Atienna then with an extended hand. “Miss Imamu, would you please accompany me back to the inn for some wine? I’ve been in search of you all night.”
Gaze lingering on Louise who was looking to Aldéric with gratitude, Atienna accepted the gesture and allowed the man to guide her to the mouth of the cave. Sefu and Reneé followed behind them—one man more clearly confused than the other.
“Reneé—no, Hilton…?” Louise stared at Reneé wonderingly. “Is that you…?”
Reneé paused, turned, merely placed a finger to his lips, and continued to follow on behind.
Once they were outside the cavern, Aldéric stopped short and turned to them abruptly. “Please don’t mention this to anyone. Not to Dimka. Not even to Albertine.” His tone was hard despite the fact that he was rubbing circles into her hand.
“You are asking me to lie to the diplomat of my own country?” Sefu challenged. “I don’t even understand what this is.”
“It’s not a lie. It’s the price for that woman’s happiness.”
In the end, Sefu and Reneé conceded while Atienna merely nodded and offered a polite, shy smile.
Ah, she thought, so it appeared as if she would have to unfortunately become the villain to Louise’s story on her own merit.
At the thought of the other five, however, it seemed a bit less so. But that in itself was troubling in an entirely different way.
* * *
Atienna visited the waterfall again the next evening after everyone had turned in early for the night at the inn. She was somewhat more honest this time with her departure and told Sefu—and Sefu only—that she would be wandering around the falls for the night. She managed to convince him to stay put and to tell the others that she was unwell if they requested her.
Olive synchronized in with her lightly as Atienna traversed the distance from the inn back to the falls. He didn’t speak but she could feel the apprehension, disappointment, and nausea curling in her stomach.
When she finally arrived at the cavern behind the rushing falls, she found Louise sitting and dipping her toes into the pool inside. Louise was not alone, however. Sitting at her right was none other than Reneé LeBlanc.
Olive squirmed at the sight of him as usual and a wave of guilt crashed through Atienna’s entire being.
Louise noticed her first and waved wildly. “Oh, Atienna! I was hoping you’d visit before you left!” She gestured to Reneé. “I was just telling Reneé here about our adventures in Aquarius and the Twin Cities a couple months ago!”
Reneé turned and studied Atienna before slowly rising to a stand. His eyes were narrowed. “I thought your name sounded familiar, Madame Imamu.”
Louise looked at him curiously as she also rose. “Oh, do you know Atienna, Reneé?”
“She was with you in the caverns, was she not? And I heard over dinner that you were in Capricorn too,” Reneé continued. “You showing up at all these places and now here where Louise is…”
Atienna eyed the conducting glove on the man’s hand.
Reneé LeBlanc regarded her with contempt as he pushed Louise behind himself. “You’re part of that True Conductor group that made that deal with the saint candidates, aren’t you? And Louise is…? You’re planning to take her.”
“T-Take me?” Louise stammered. “You mean ‘kidnap’? Atienna will? Oh no, Reneé! You’ve got it all wrong. Atienna and I—”
Atienna met Louise’s gaze and offered her a sympathetic look. Louise quieted immediately.
“It would be dishonorable to my status as a chevalier to let you do this.” Reneé brought his gloved hand to his chest. “Even if you’re a fair maiden, if your heart is rooted in selfish evil then I have no choice but to stop you here and now with force.”
Saints. Does he think he’s in theater? came Olive’s thought, but… I understand where he’s coming from.… Atienna—
In a flash of light, Reneé conjured both a thin blade and a pistol. Atienna tensed as did Olive which was Atienna noticed something occurring on Maria’s end of things.
Alpha, pounded Maria’s and Jericho’s intertwined thoughts. The One. Him—
Olive’s eyes widened, indicating that he could feel it too, but—
Reneé fired off his pistol before Atienna could reach out to Maria. The bullet grazed her ear and cracked into the cavern wall behind her before ricocheting and flying past Reneé’s own head. Louise let out a yelp of alarm and stumbled back before ducking behind a large boulder.
Is he crazy?! Olive thought in alarm.
Atienna didn’t have time to answer because Reneé continued to fire off several more rounds. She ducked behind a formation of rock and pressed back tight against it as his bullets chipped away at its surface. She reached out to Werner as the smell of gunsmoke filled her senses, but he didn’t answer her call—
“Reneé conjure me a conducting blade!” Louise shouted suddenly.
What? Oh. Hideyoshi, was it, perhaps? Atienna wondered, peering around her cover towards Louise who had peeled out of her own cover. Hideyoshi had to be a Projector then. This was quite useful information. However—
As Reneé looked over to Louise in confusion and appeared to start his conjuration of the requested item, Atienna ducked out of cover and darted to Louise’s side. Reneé fired his pistol at her alarm, but it appeared as if he was much slower than he was when he’d fought in Hapaira and Die Hauptstadt. He stopped firing as soon as Atienna reached Louise’s side.
Atienna took the opportunity to deliver a swinging kick to the side of Louise’s head. Although Louise managed to bring her arms in time to block the blow, the kick sent her flying back against the cavern wall which she cracked her head against. She fell to the ground a moment afterwards unmoving.
Before Atienna could think to move towards Louise or duck for cover, she felt the cold press of a pistol against the back of her head. For him to be bringing a ranged weapon so close—Atienna thought—he truly wasn’t thinking straight. She let out a quiet breath, studied where Reneé’s shadow fell against the flower, and then swung her leg out. Her foot contacted the man’s hand and sent his weapon flying.
When she whipped around, Reneé had already conjured another gun but Atienna easily swiped this one away with another kick as well. He merely conjured another one. Another kick. Again, again, again, again. Reneé was almost back against the wall now. But then—Reneé started swinging his blade as he started conjuring another pistol, forcing Atienna backwards.
This wasn’t too good a development, was it?
Olive, Atienna thought faintly as she extended her hand.
Olive didn’t hesitate—
Deep green sparks leapt at her fingertips and erupted into embers that flurried out into bright flames. They shot out towards Reneé who just managed to bring up his hand in alarm. His conducting glove and conjured blade melted into nothing as did the sleeves of his suit. He let out a yelp, crawled over to the pool, and dunked himself into it. Afterwards, he pulled himself out, curled on the floor, and groaned in pain.
Atienna’s stomach churned at the sight.
Still, Reneé pulled himself up to his knees and crawled towards her. So unlike the man Atienna remembered the others encountering. She took a step back in alarm but he had already wrapped his arms desperately around her leg.
“You can’t take her,” Reneé pleaded. “You can’t put her through this. You don’t know what it’s like being in that place! Under their eyes!”
Hilton, was it?
Atienna… Olive again. W-We can stall somehow. It’s still a couple more months before the deadline, right? We can stall and try to figure something out—
“I’m sorry, Reneé, Hilton…” Atienna murmured. “I have to protect the people in my own world. I can’t do both.” Olive, we have to do this. Think of Werner, Maria, and Cadence—
“Yes, you can!” Reneé urged. “How can you say something so cold-hearted? Do you really not feel anything?”
Atienna shook her head uncomprehendingly as she looked down at him with sympathy. “You don’t even really know her—”
“I don’t have to know her!”
What startled Atienna was not Reneé’s exclamation nor the burning desperation in his eyes. No, what startled her was that such desperation resonated out from Olive as well. The same exact tone and thought. That was their reality, it seemed.
Olive was a kind boy despite his sharp tongue. Atienna was quite proud of him for it, although she wondered if she was the opposite of him in that regard. In the end, however, there was a choice to be made.
“She’s a Cancerian duchess,” Atienna informed the three quietly. “She’s someone who’s of high status. They’ll want to keep her in the public eye. She won’t be brought to wherever Hilton is… I’m sorry. Really, I am….”
Reneé gazed up at her with aghast before she slammed her fist against his head. He cracked to the ground unconscious and she quickly slapped suppression cuffs over his wrists. After resting for several seconds, Atienna paced over to Louise’s side and gently pressed her extra pair of suppression cuffs over the woman’s wrists as well.
* * *
Atienna pulled both Reneé and Louise out from the cavern. She turned Reneé into a local clinic and propped him up in the waiting room before removing his suppression cuffs. There couldn’t be anything else he could do since he was under Scorpio’s eye, after all. Afterwards, she proceeded to bring Louise to a small rest shed a little ways away and remained there for a moment to catch her breath.
Olive kept silent the entire time. Atienna found her gaze constantly attracted to Louise’s eerily peaceful face, indicating to her what Olive’s thoughts were on the situation.
It was only after this that both she and Olive were able to reach out to Maria. They found her sitting on top of a small building that stood high enough to look over the seaports in the distance. In the courtyard below the building rushed men and women in white lab coats.
A hospital, Atienna realized.
Jericho was already synchronized here with Maria—or perhaps he hadn’t yet left her side.
Memories of the conversation and clash with Proteus, Dominic, and Nu rushed at Atienna slide-by-slide, feeling-by-feeling. Cadence and Werner synchronized immediately after Atienna was able to grasp the full weight of the situation—the former panting heavily and the latter somewhat dazed and distant.
“I… I’m sorry…” Olive whispered, breaking the silence.
Atienna let out a breath. “Oh, Maria…”
“The kids…” Cadence stared blankly at Maria before her gaze drifted to Werner. “Where were ya, Werner? I was callin’ for ya the entire time—”
“I apologize for my absence and neglect. I retired early for the day,” Werner responded with a tight expression.“I shouldn’t have. I should’ve been here. That was my mistake.”
“It’s… alright, Captain.” Cadence held her hands up in the air. “If ya need ta rest, then rest. I doubt the outcome woulda changed much anyway…”
“It was my battle, yes?” Maria seemed to agree. “But maybe I shouldn’t have cheated, no?”
Cheated? Did she mean with using Jericho’s conducting? What a peculiar thing to focus on. Or perhaps that focus was a distraction. Even so, Atienna wasn’t so sure if Maria would have been able to win the skirmish against Dominic without Jericho’s assistance.
Maria looked up to Atienna, gaze piercing. “You have so little faith in me, my dear Atienna?”
It wasn’t that… but—
“Maria, I warned you about Veles’s departure,” Werner interjected. “I understand that at the time that situation was beyond your control, but it may have been preventable to some extent. This issue has come up repeatedly—”
“Werner…” Atienna murmured. This was a bit harsh, wasn’t it? Especially after everything that had happened.
“We need to address this issue so it doesn’t happen again, Atienna. I apologize if I seem cold but this is a necessity.” He hesitated then reached out and placed a hand on Maria’s shoulder. He said nothing else.
“No, you’re right, Werner. I have lost my ship, my crew, and…” Maria looked over to Cadence. “My dear Cadence, I’m sorry… about the children… it’s not the circumstances—yes?”
Cadence remained silent for a moment. Atienna could feel it there—the discomfort, the disappointment, the fear, the apprehension, the circumstances. After a pause, however, Cadence flashed an easy smile. “It’s alright, sunshine. We just gotta work with what we’ve got now… Plus ya managed ta beat the hell out of that Nu.”
She should have attempted to incapacitate him so we could bring him into an interrogation, came Werner’s wandering thought as he eyed Maria, but perhaps this isn’t the right moment to bring the issue up to discussion—
“You can tell me, Werner,” Maria interjected. “I made a mistake, no? Many mistakes? If you do not tell me them, then how will I learn?” She stared out past the dark horizon. The sea was barely visible there. “Conta said something earlier about mistakes, I think… Or was it something else about strength? I can’t remember….”
Werner was quiet.
“You hide nothing, yes, Werner?” Maria returned her attention to the man and smiled faintly. “Because you are strong. Because you are with me.”
There was a stretch of silence.
“Our goal will remain the same,” Werner said after a beat. “We will continue focusing on places where we suspect Alpha will appear.” He added more gently to Maria, “I don’t like to speak in certainties, but I’m sure Lita and the other children will not bleach their vitae.” He nodded at Atienna next, but Atienna was somewhat unnerved by the distance in his eyes when he spoke—although she supposed she was a hypocrite for thinking so: “On our other objective: good work, Atienna, Olive.”
Olive tensed at this and looked away from them both.
* * *
Atienna rang Leona a half hour later to inform her of the successful capture of Louise, but it seemed as if Leona was already well aware of the fact. Scorpio’s eyes no doubt.
“Bring her to the nearest train station. I’ll send someone to retrieve her,” Leona said over the line. “Good work.”
And so Atienna did just that, taking up a residential taxi to bring Louise to the station. She hid Louise’s cuffed hands with an overcoat the entire time and informed people who asked that the woman just had too much to drink and that she was taking her home for the night.
Once Atienna arrived at the station, she sat Louise down upright on a bench overlooking the tracks and sat down beside her. She used her body to support the woman, causing Louise’s head to fall onto her shoulder.
Are you alright, Atienna?
Atienna looked to her other side and found that Werner had synchronized in almost fully next to her. The concern in the man’s eyes was both reassuring and concerning.
You did what was necessary.
Oh, I know, Werner. Atienna studied her bare hands which were beginning to crack in the cold. I know that much.
Werner’s gloved hands ghosted over her own, and she could almost feel the illusory warmth. You need to wear gloves, Atienna. The temperatures in Cancer sometimes drop as low as the temperatures in Capricorn at night.
Atienna glanced back at him and offered a wan smile. She could faintly see his bedroom in the distance. It appeared as if he was staying up late to talk to her. Ah, the sentiment. This was her reason behind her actions, she thought to herself.
This is only a temporary measure.
Temporary until the syzygy? Well, Atienna supposed she was fine with that. But now that she was finished with this task, she wondered if she should return home now. Home. She glanced down at Louise at the thought.
“I have to say that I’m quite impressed that you’ve managed to find Louise.”
Atienna looked up at the voice and found Albertine’s v-ehicle driver standing at the edge of the station platform. Scorpio.
“What will happen to her now?” Atienna asked quietly, rising to a stand after gently setting Louise down.
“I didn’t think you cared.” Scorpio turned and arched a brow. “What do you think will happen to her?”
“She’s a Cancerian duchess, so she’s important to the public eye. In that case, you would merely keep an eye on her.” Atienna paused as her mind turned. “But… she’s also a runaway, so she’s no longer in the spotlight. No one knows where she is and her family and the government continue to pretend that she’s sick in order to keep her out of the public eye… so… in that case…. from your perspective, it would be best to keep her in Ophiuchus.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
Scorpio’s smile grew as he closed the distance between them in one heartbeat. “Oh, Atienna. You really do know everything, don’t you?”
The moon became unveiled from behind the clouds up above. A crescent.
Atienna tensed beneath his gaze, heart hammering, sweat dripping down her back, as Werner drew closer to her. “I… don’t know everything.”
“I’m…” Atienna hesitated before she finally spoke the words she’d always known—the words Scorpio had known that she’d always known— “… glad I don’t.”
Scorpio’s smile split white and wide across his face, and he spread his arms even wider. Then—he brought them down around her, wrapping her in a tight and warm embrace.
“There you go,” he whispered as he patted her on the back. “You’ve finally got it.”
Atienna felt her stomach clench but she did not move. Werner had gone quiet, so she was left in Scorpio’s embrace in silence. And the embrace stretched on and on for what seemed like eternity. The seconds ticked by in her mind, and she could feel the rise and fall of his chest, hear his breathing, feel the warmth of his breath tickle her ear—
Finally, it boiled over. A heat rose from the pit of her stomach and climbed up her throat. She wasn’t quite sure whether it was from Scorpio’s ease at embracing her or at her own ease at being embraced by him. Whatever it was, it had reached boiling point.
Atienna tore herself from Scorpio’s grasp and shoved him all the way back. He stumbled back at this and flashed her a look of confusion paired with a smile of understanding. Atienna held his gaze for a moment before turning on her heels and briskly walking away. Her ears rang, her heart hammered, the cold winter air swirled in her lungs.
She stumbled forward and forward until she suddenly found herself at the very edge of a cliff that oversaw the waterfall. From this angle, the lights from the natural wonder twinkled beautifully. It truly was a shame of what had to happen to make the vitae stream glow so vibrantly.
Atienna collapsed onto all fours into the thin snow that had formed along the grass there and fisted it in her hands.
Clink, clink, clink.
A flash of white lit up the very top of the waterfall briefly. Chains snaking through the sky.
Iota? And if Iota was here then…
Atienna crawled to the edge of the cliff and squinted. Just barely, she could make out two other shapes dancing across the top of the falls with Iota in the darkness.
But the distance was too far to reach.
Atienna blinked and the white lights were gone—almost as if she’d borne them from imagination after witnessing them in the others’ memories. Dazed, she gazed back down the waterfall towards the river and vitae-stream that flowed below it. From this particular angle, she realized, the entire river seemed to be glowing, throbbing like a human vein. Vaguely, Atienna was reminded of the roots of Virgo’s Great Tree. She then recalled a particular passage from Louise’s journal.
They say the best view of the Lueur de Fée is from a hidden cliff just a little bit beyond the main train station outside the area. They say if you look at the river from that point, you will never know a greater happiness. Oh, I want to see it so badly!
How beautiful, Atienna agreed.
Great Tree, Virgo
“What do you see, Lita?”
Lita tried not to tremble as Alpha placed a hand on her shoulder. “What is that…?”
“Another reason to excise yourself from the cycle.”
WAIT A DIDDLY DARN MINUTE, DEAR READER.
Sorry awoieureiw had to make sure I got your attention. They may or may not be a change to the update schedule and it all depends on the votes on THIS POLL right here! the poll also has some quick and fun extra questions too aside from scheduling ones. I’ll share the results with y’all in a week or two!
Thanks for reading!