Atienna is in Lueur de Fée, Cancer alongside the Duke of House Etoile Aldéric Échecs and his brother Albertine Échecs. She is accompanying Dimka on a diplomatic mission and has Sefu at her side, but her true purpose is to find Louise Bonnefoy, the True Conductor. And that she does but not before witnessing Aldéric’s true affection for Louise. Even so, Atienna chooses to coldly turn Louise over to Scorpio after dueling with Reneé. Slowly, the fallout from her decision to work with the saint candidates reaches her.
Lueur de Fée, Cancer
The phantom tendrils of Scorpio’s embrace clung to Atienna’s body like wet cloth. No matter how hard she scrubbed herself in the bath in the following days, his cold warmth still lingered. It felt almost as if he occupied the minuscule spaces between her skin and bones—deep-rooted and impossible to remove without injuring herself.
Two nights after Louise had been turned into Scorpio, Aldéric visited Atienna’s room. He gave a knock at the door before sweeping in with an air of gusto that seemed completely opposite to the desperate moroseness that exuded from his pores when he’d stumbled upon Louise in the caverns. Atienna wondered if his feelings surrounding Louise were able to be likened to Cadence’s feelings towards Alma. A longing for someone who just wanted to escape.
“The sights of Cancer are really something else, aren’t they?” Aldéric said as he walked up to her window. He leaned against the glass and peered out at the town’s night scenery. The moon eclipsed the buildings with silver light. “I’m sure Virgo has its own flavor of beauty.” He smiled as he took in a breath and turned to her slightly. “If it matches your own beauty, I dare say it might be greater than Cancer’s.”
He was here to touch base about Louise most likely or to divert his attention away from his concerns with small flirtations—a coping mechanism—but Atienna was in no mood to entertain him or anyone.
Atienna had spent these past few nights—when everyone but Werner was asleep—walking around the town and revisiting that light-bound cavern and pounding its stone wall over and over again with her fist. She was aware she was doing just as she had done in the Zatenminye Caverns when she had first met Louise. A cycle. Perhaps, she was hoping to find Reneé somewhere on her short walks, but she never actually did. How cruelly humorous the irony of it all—her relationship with caverns, fists, and Louise.
Every night, Werner had synchronized with her on her fiftieth kick or fist swing and calmly advised her to rest and care for her hands. He also advised her to be cautious of waking the others. Sometimes he even stayed with her and aided her in hand bandaging.
The fist-throwing excursions officially ended when Sefu had found her one night in the cavern after he’d noticed she’d been missing from her room and had followed her. Surprisingly yet unsurprisingly, he had offered her not protection but company. From then on, he’d frequently bring with him assortments of food as additional company and even admitted several times to having stolen it all from Aldéric’s pantry.
“You should have seen the amount of food they have in that place,” Sefu had said when Atienna had subtly teased him about it. “I swear you can feed the entire Tribal Council twenty times over! Too much for just two brothers.”
Brothers. Siblings. Bachiru, Kamaria, Kichea. Family. Blood family.
Again, Atienna had felt the longing to return home. She knew as soon as she faced her feet in the direction of Virgo, however, she’d feel the overwhelming urge to escape lest she become rooted to the ground once again. Besides, going along with that course of action would be avoiding responsibility for her actions.
“I must admit that this place is mesmerizing,” Sefu had admitted during his second time accompanying her. “It’s beauty is almost akin to that of the Great Tree.”
The Great Tree, she had thought. Home.
She hadn’t written back to her siblings and father since she’d arrived in this Cancerian town. It was quite a ridiculous feeling, but she felt as if she’d stain them with her misdeeds somehow—with her letter serving as a vector for some disease. How troublesome.
“That… Louise…” Sefu had said on his third day with her. “I know it is unwise to speak of the politics of another country when you do not live in it, but I have to admit that… seeing Aldéric ‘let go’ of Louise reassured me of his character and the character of Cancerians. Perhaps Cancerians are not all just for show in the end.”
Let go? Atienna had wondered about that statement. “Yes, but I do wonder… if that was freedom for her or for him…”
Either way, she had chained both Louise and Aldéric back once again. Notably, Louise was the only one cognizant of her prison.
Back in the present and pulling herself away from her thoughts of the recent past, Atienna offered Aldéric a small smile. “Your words are too generous, Aldéric. I do wonder though—they say the most beautiful things are ephemeral. There’s quite a debate about it in art. Ephemerality versus eternity. The beauty in permanence—carved by time and history—versus transience—which disappears in a moment’s notice. I believe a widely popular Cancerian artist in the 17th century believed that transience held more meaning than permanence, since things—or people—that are rare tend to be held with more value.”
Aldéric chuckled. “My, my, yes, that was the great artist Abel Échecs. He was actually my great uncle. You certainly do know your history—” He paused, eyes widening as if the true meaning behind her words had sunken in. The smile left his face, and he set the wine glass he’d brought with him on the windowsill. “What exactly are you implying…?”
Atienna placed a hand to her mouth. “Oh, I… wasn’t implying anything. I was just rambling about something I’ve been reading recently.” She lowered her hand and met his eyes. “I’m sorry, Aldéric, if you interpreted it as something else…”
Aldéric’s jaw tightened before he seemed to relax slightly. He spread his arms as he approached her. “I’m sorry, Atienna. I can’t help but feel slightly on edge after what happened with…” He quieted and smiled. It seemed genuine for once. “I do appreciate your discretion.”
“I think I understand your feelings, Aldéric. I have a friend,” Atienna continued gently, “who was—and still is—in love with someone who grew up in an environment that made them feel caged in. All they wanted to do was be free. My friend was willing to do anything for that person—break any rule, law, or status quo. Beyond that, however, she didn’t stray far from the path. No, she followed it regardless of the plights of everyone else.” Atienna chuckled. “The path itself was a technically lawless one, but… I wonder… what were her actions more of: selfless or self-serving?”
Slowly, Aldéric’s smile fell from his face and his eyes darkened again. Confusion, however, overtook his expression a moment after. He’d only known the ‘proper’ side of herself, after all. He viewed her only as kind and shy.
Aldéric neared her, running his hand down her arm. “I think I might be misinterpreting what you’re saying again, Atienna. Perhaps you read too much or I not enough.”
“It’s most likely that I’ve been thinking too much rather than reading too much,” Atienna murmured. “I wonder… if it’s courageous for people to run from the situation they’re in and cowardly to stay in place… or vice versa? It’s always the opposite interpretation in books, but reality is more nuanced, don’t you think?”
Aldéric’s expression darkened again.
The reality of it was that she had nowhere to put her frustrations so that was why she was saying these things. She was tauting his strings just as Scorpio had tauted theirs. The gruesomeness of it was that she hadn’t picked up this trait from Scorpio—no. She had used this technique on Werner back in the Zatenminye Caverns and on Cadence back in the Twin Cities—although it didn’t work as effectively on the latter. Back then she’d been pressing, pressing, pressing them both and hoping to uncover—what? Atienna didn’t know then and now. Curiosity had been the cause of her prying back then, but now…?
Did she want someone to blame? For instance, if Aldéric had forced Louise to stay and return home then Louise would once again become an ‘important political figure.’ The saint candidates would elect to watch her from a distance instead of sweeping her into the depths of the Serpens Establishment. A shift of perspective.
Atienna knew the folly of that thought, of course. It was a naturally conceited way of thinking meant to sooth the ego.
“The figureheads versus the political heads of a country,” she continued. “I wonder if such a relationship is prominent throughout all countries in Signum that still have monarchs in place. People either blame the figureheads or the political heads, but both should be held with accountability, don’t you think?” She sighed. “I wonder… you’ve been writing letters to Ilunaria this entire time just as you and Louise wrote to each other in the past. It makes one think what the common variable between them is and perhaps if they’ll share the same path—”
Aldéric lunged forward, hand swinging, but she caught him by the wrist before his hand contacted her cheek. They locked eyes.
Aldéric searched her face before he flushed a second after and pulled away. “I—m-my apologies, Atienna.” He straightened his suit and reached for her arm again—most likely to try for another caress—before pausing and dropping his hand. He searched her face almost fretfully. “I do have your discretion, don’t I? About her?”
Despite his increasingly reddened cheeks, he pushed on. Conquering his shame as if he were Maria.
Atienna was familiar with the feeling herself. Or was she? Was that nausea she felt after she’d turned in Louise disgust? Was it guilt? Or did she only feel nauseous because she didn’t feel any of those emotions she knew she should have felt? Or was it because she’d tried playing Scorpio’s game and lost?
A creak at the door prevented Aldéric from going any further. Hugging his conducting spear to his chest, Sefu stood at the threshold behind her.
“Excuse me, Monsieur Échecs,” Sefu said, “but I would like to mention that in Virgoan culture, respecting one’s privacy is of utmost importance. Paired with our general politeness, when we feel uncomfortable and intruded upon, we don’t usually say it flat outright. However, one generally understands the feeling.”
Aldéric pulled away from her and relaxed visibly. “Oh, I see.”
* * *
The following morning, Aldéric decided to take them all out for a walk along the river and for a swim. Atienna wasn’t quite feeling the latter activity, so she’d purposefully forgotten the swimwear Aldéric had gifted her back at the inn. Dimka, on the other hand, seemed very excited about the entire experience. He was from a tribe that preoccupied Virgo’s eastern sea bank, so his fondness for waters was akin to Giorgio’s Atienna supposed.
Aldéric took the entire flock—Dimka, his guards, Sefu, Atienna herself, and other high socialites—along and proceeded to orate his own historical narrative of the background of the waterfalls. He mentioned his great grandparents and his wealth and estate while somehow simultaneously throwing flirtatious remarks here and there. When they passed by the caverns, he gave it a passing glance before moving on ahead.
Near the end of the trip, they reached a small sandy bank at the very edge of town. While Aldéric slowly—almost seductively—sloughed off his suit to reveal his swimwear to several of the female socialites, Albertine whipped off his shirt and immediately dove into the waters. Dimka moved to chatter with Aldéric meanwhile.
The previous night had seen Atienna reviewing with Dimka the proper etiquette on beach behavior in Cancer. When Atienna subtly touched on the topic of the growing political tensions around Signum during their information session, Dimka had stated that his focus was on improving relations not worsening them. Dimka’s enthusiasm and positivity was once again unparalleled—or perhaps he was averting his eyes unwittingly. Atienna wondered if the same could be said about Maria.
As everyone else moved to enjoy the waters or bathed in the light emitting from the river, Atienna sat on the bank’s edge, tucked her knees beneath her chin, and put her toes in the water. It was warm. Sefu sat beside her with two warm, buttery croissants in hand. He offered her one, but she declined and watched as he inhaled them both without trouble.
Dissonantly, she gazed across the river at Albertine who swam back and forth along its length. The deep light from below cast him in green light, yellow light, blue light—each shade causing him to appear as if he were a different person. He dove down a couple times before emerging and floating on his back only to go back down again several minutes after. Atienna’s vision strayed from him towards Aldéric. He was still chatting amicably with Dimka and a handful of other socialites. Oddly enough, he didn’t seem to be flirting any despite his earlier behavior. He had to keep up appearances, most likely. Seeing him so cheerful made Atienna feel as if his encounter with Louise had not even occurred at all.
Life moved on even when one was gone—contrary to Francis’s point on mourners. Jericho’s recent conversation with Nadinaline gave Atienna much to think about in that regard, however.
She glanced back at the river and perked her head up with a frown. The waterline was empty. How long had it been since Albertine had last resurfaced—
Abruptly, a waving hand popped out of the water, startling Atienna. It was Albertine. Before she could even process the development, Atienna launched herself into the water and began swimming towards him. Sefu shouted her name while Aldéric cried for his brother. Ignoring them both, Atienna pushed forward through the cold. As she neared Albertine, however, he slipped from her sights and sank into the depths. Taking in a deep breath, she submerged her head and scanned the water only to be nearly blinded by the intense light that met her eyes. Despite the vitae stream pulsating like an artery hundreds of meters below, its luminescence touched every inch of the river.
The fish, the seaweed, the algae, the delicate features of the rock bed and smooth stones. Every detail was clear—but where was Albertine?
He was sinking downwards, twitching slightly, fidgeting, being illuminated by the shifting light several meters below.
Atienna broke up into open hair and took another deep breath before diving back below. She reached Albertine in a few seconds, but by that time, he was already unconscious. However, this wasn’t a negative development from Atienna’s perspective. He would be dead weight now and easier to transport. After wrapping her arms around his waist, Atienna sought the surface light. But it was disorienting—a streak of light coming from below and a streak of light coming from above. It was difficult to tell which direction was up and which was down. After deliberating a second more, she went with her gut and began to kick both of them up in the direction she believed was up, up, up. She broke back up to the surface of the water a moment later with Albertine in tow and began to paddle back to the bank. Sefu met her halfway, and together they managed to bring Albertine back to shore. They laid him flat on his back before they were crowded by the others.
Aldéric was in hysterics, clawing at Albertine’s body and pulling it closer to him as if he could resuscitate Albertine by touch alone. With difficulty, Sefu managed to shove him away.
“A Transmutationist!” Dimka called out. “Is there a Transmutationist around?”
People whispered, but no one moved forward.
As Atienna observed the chaos with dissonance, a faint sensation of deja vu wafted over her. One of the others had experienced something similar. Werner and Maria.
Tulio—an old crew member of Maria’s ship who had left after Leona had incited a mutiny—had once fallen overboard the ship. While Maria had been able to dive into the ocean and pull him up back onto the ship, he had already taken in a lot of water. Before Maria could even think of what to do next, Conta had leapt on top of him and had begun performing compressions. At the end of it all, Tulio was successfully resuscitated and had smothered Conta with an embrace.
“You’re amazing, Conta!” Maria had cheered along with everyone else afterwards. “I didn’t know you could do that!”
“I learned from a book,” Conta had mumbled with embarrassment afterwards. “It’s nothing really.”
“I want to be useful to you, Captain,” Conta had answered, flushing. “So I’ve been trying my best to learn things to help you in areas that you’re not as strong in—n-not that you’re weak! I-I just want be useful.”
Werner, on the other hand, had learned the entire procedure initially from Maria’s memories. He, however, wanted practical experience in the procedure so he’d pulled Nico aside in during their shared lunch break several months back in the capital and had politely requested to be taught the ‘procedure’ hands-on. Nico happily obliged although it was apparent he found humor and amusement in the seriousness with which Werner handled the situation as well as with the fact that they were in an office setting.
“Usually we have a dummy that we practice on for these types of resuscitation procedures, Captain,” Nico had remarked. “It’s kinda awkward if we don’t have a model.”
“There’s nothing awkward about learning,” Werner had replied evenly. “Just show me where I need to put my hands.”
Moved by these memories, Atienna crawled forward and positioned her hands over Albertine’s chest and began to pump to the beat Nico had taught Werner and Conta had taught Maria. Then, she moved to blow air into his airway. Over and over again. She repeated this several times and watched with a foggy head and ringing ears as his face became more and more blue. Still, she kept at it. Finally, his body jolted and he hacked and coughed as water sputtered out from his mouth. Heart hammering, Atienna rolled him onto his side and watched as even more water dribbled out from his lips.
Aldéric scrambled forward and held Albertine’s hand. Albertine groaned, and several of the socialites drew nearer. Some even started clapping.
“Stay away from him!” Aldéric snapped at them, eyes wild, diplomatic and amicable nature gone. “Stop clapping!”
Atienna started to pull away but Albertine grabbed her arm before she could make an escape.
“I was knocking on death’s door there.” Albertine let out a sigh of relief before falling back onto the sand. He took in a deep, long breath and held her gaze. “You saved my life. Thank you.”
Atienna felt the urge to submerge herself back into the river because she could feel him again. Scorpio—crawling beneath her skin. Regardless, she offered him a tight smile and a nod.
Not so long afterwards, Olive encountered Hideyoshi Kuroihoshi. The vehement in that man’s eyes was directed at herself, Atienna knew. And yet Olive had offered a helping hand once again.
Werner’s shivering pain struck at midnight only a few hours after that.
* * *
The consequences of that choice had been direr than Atienna had expected—although using the term ‘expected’ seemed callous. The path she’d opened up for herself and the others when she had shaken Leona’s hand was one she knew strayed between right and wrong—as every choice did. To choose the other five over the other True Conductors wandering around Signum—rather it was to value those close to her above those distant or, as Cvetka preferred to iterate, to become a villain.
Only Werner and Cadence had a non-negative reception to her decision, and it had taken quite some time for the others to stop holding her at a distance—well, not quite a distance but a ‘tentativeness.’ To be slightly more exact, it had taken around two months for Olive and Jericho to come around to speak casually with her again. From an outsider’s perspective, Atienna knew that didn’t seem quite a long time. However, since their connection ran so deep, it felt like a very, very, very long time period of cold shoulders. Atienna wondered about it often—the aspects that made this connection a blessing and the aspects that made it otherwise. Support, reliance, dependence—the line in-between it all.
It wasn’t right what they were doing to the other True Conductors, but it wasn’t wrong either. No, it was both ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Wrong for the people outside of them, but right for their circle and for their close friends and family members.
Werner worked proactively alongside her the entire way. They had come to a silent agreement together following the events in Capricorn—coming to terms on what was truly important. It was quite a point of unity between them and it involved many late night private conversations. Atienna liked to think that such conversations drew them closer and closer together. Werner, of course, outside of this was always preparing for something. Perhaps he was readying himself for the syzygy itself. In the beginning, he spoke of key allies and preparation and timelines—although as time went on, he spoke of it less and less. Nothing was concrete anyways.
She found cruel and minor comfort in the fact that when she received the black order to finally go on the hunt, Werner received that mandate too. It was a terrible feeling to adopt—she knew—but it found home in her heart. He thought and felt similarly to her: necessary distance, unaffected condemnation, and pragmatic execution. Yes, a kindred spirit.
Her presumptions, however, had proven incorrect.
Werner was not like her at all. He was not as unmoved as she was nor was he able to maintain a pragmatic distance. The logic was there, but the necessary cold-hardheartedness was not. From the very beginning, he had been deeply afflicted by the repercussions of the hunt. Atienna knew she should have deduced as such not only given the fact that he was the center of Scorpio’s machinations during the Week of Blindness but also due to his deeper nature. Perhaps, she’d once again averted her eyes from that too—just hoping that the oddities that she noticed would ease away with time.
The chlorowheat. Oh, the chlorowheat.
Atienna had never dealt with anything like this before. It had been a rare subject in the books she read—both fiction and non-fiction. It was something resolved with hand-holding, hugs, and sometimes even some roughhousing in the more questionable books. To see it happen in reality—to see someone whom she loved and held dear suffer—on the other hand…? It had been Werner of all people too.
Cadence had come to Atienna after Werner was drawn away by Francis and Nico. She’d come asking for direction and comfort, but Atienna frankly had no idea what to do. So, she’d consulted her books and had chosen to approach with an intervention. In the end—after some rather horrifying words had spilled out from Werner’s mouth—Werner had accepted their help. It was not like in her novels at all—not tied with a pretty and neat bow in the end. The reality lingered over them all. The shame she knew Werner felt was most likely crippling as was his guilt and remorse.
Atienna had allowed herself to cry afterwards as her thoughts swirled with what ifs. What if Werner never recuperated? What if this addiction bled into the other four? What if this reached Virgo? What if Bachiru got his hands on something like this? Kamaria? Kichea? What then? From what she’d seen from Jericho’s end of things, the Medical Department didn’t have any grasp at all over this chlorowheat situation. Jurisdiction, respect of sovereignty—there were ‘too many’ variables involved. Atienna wondered if that was truly the case. No, she supposed it did matter.
“I’m sorry,” Werner said to her afterwards when she’d synchronized with him during a promised visit. “There’s no excuse. I’m sorry.”
Atienna wasn’t like Olive, Cadence, Maria, or Jericho. She didn’t know what to do or say. She didn’t know fully how to comfort someone like him. So, all she did was remain by his side.
With Werner out of commission, the responsibility of the group fell solely on her shoulders. Or so she thought. In the end, both Maria and Olive had stepped forward and put down their feet. They had made a decision—one to resist. Atienna herself was uncertain of it—even more so now than before. One could always easily add something to a mixture or a garden, but removing it afterwards proved far harder an effort. Atienna’s family was still under Scorpio’s surveillance as were the families of everyone else. Atienna had already made her choice, but everyone else seemed to have chosen the opposite.
One needed either a powerful voice, charisma, or the majority to move people in the direction one wanted them to move. Unfortunately, Atienna had neither of those things. So the others moved on without her—Maria, especially.
Alpha—rather, Dominic— knew exactly how to push Maria’s buttons. They were raised to be the same, after all. The set up was premeditated. The reflection put up, the spotlight shone. Under that heat, Maria pushed Atienna and the other four all away—to prove herself to herself, Atienna knew. Maria processed things differently than the average person, but she was still human in the end. When made to question herself and her existence, she rebuked it without a second thought and with brimming absolutism. When rebuking wasn’t enough to throw off assailants to her ego, she fought tooth and nail.
When Atienna finally was able to feel Maria again on that day she faced Alpha, all Atienna could feel was Maria’s pain, her distraught, her confusion, her trembling will remaining iron hot. Atienna nearly fainted when she saw the state of Maria’s arm through Jericho’s eyes. What had followed was a complete blur.
Atienna slipped between synchronizations with Jericho, Cadence, and Maria—doing whatever she could to stay as long as she could by Maria’s side. Nico’s father and Nico himself were called in to assess Maria’s condition. The two men worked alongside each other silently, stiffly, until they reached the conclusion Atienna had been dreading. In the end, the damage from Rho’s vitae was too great. Maria’s left arm had to be removed from the elbow down.
There wasn’t enough time to calculate the appropriate amount of anesthetic to use, so Maria had been fully conscious during the entire procedure. She hadn’t even cried or shouted. She’d remained silent as the incisions were made and had only looked away after Doctor Fabrizzio politely requested her to. The portion of the anesthetic that did work made it difficult to feel the extent of Maria’s pain and to hear her thoughts. Despite everything Atienna had come to learn over this past year, she couldn’t bring herself to look during the procedure nor hold Maria’s gaze. She had averted her eyes, but so had Cadence and Olive. Jericho was the only who stood in place—gaze unaverted and gripping Maria’s good hand tightly all the way.
Afterwards, Atienna had caught only a glimpse of Werner’s reaction to the fallout when he regained consciousness an hour or so later. Just as he had done with Gilbert, Werner had held the empty sleeve of Maria’s shirt and had said nothing. From this too, Atienna looked away.
Atienna again allowed herself to cry again afterwards as ‘what if’s assailed her once more. What if Maria wasn’t able to recover completely—not only physically but emotionally and mentally? What if Rho decided to stop by Virgo? What if Rho swept up Kamaria and Kichea? What if—
But they were useless thoughts and tears and accomplished nothing. While she knew it was good to sit down and cry and think once in a while, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of indignation at her body for squeezing tears and thoughts and nothing else out. She also felt furious—furious at Werner for thinking he could control himself with chlorowheat, furious at Maria for even wanting to try to face Alpha alone, furious at Cadence for trying to maintain such a ridiculous lie, furious at Alpha for knowing which of Maria’s buttons to press, furious at Jericho for bringing Leona with him without consulting her and the others first, furious at Olive for making that penultimate decision to resist on his own.
Now a lesson had been learned. It was a terrible lesson to learn, but it was still a lesson—‘You are not invincible’ and ‘You are not always in control’ and ‘Things will not always turn out the way you want them to.’
This was reality, not a fairy tale or a novel. One was not impervious and invincible to failure and accident. Mistakes had consequences. Consequences taught lessons. If one didn’t learn and acknowledge their own faults, failures, vulnerabilities, and these consequences, then one could never learn and could never change. A balance needed to be maintained between self-belief, self-criticism, and self-realization.
How could Maria be so foolish—putting herself in danger like that just because of her belief in herself? Although such a belief—Atienna supposed—was not an ‘incorrect’ way of thinking, just look at what had happened as a result of her choice.
Along with this reasoning, a faint thought echoed at the back of Atienna’s mind: it served her right. Atienna despised herself for thinking in such a way. No, she was furious at herself for it. She was also furious at herself for trying to play Scorpio’s game and win against him in a game of passive-aggression, for trying to act as if they were on the same playing field—as if it was all a game. She was furious at her hesitation in not taking the reins after Werner was no longer able to hold them.
And yet despite all of her fury, she had been the one who embraced Scorpio despite everything he’d done and she had been the one who pushed them into this deal with the saint candidates. She was also the only one who didn’t want to rescind their hand in this deal.
The reality of it was that the others were naturally ‘good’ people at the core. If they were not ‘good’ people at the core, then they were becoming ‘good’ people. Atienna, however, was neither of these things. Then again, taking a look at the situation from a different angle, would spell out a very different story.
Atienna disgusted herself for thinking this way—or maybe it was one of the others who felt some manner of disgust towards her.
* * *
Aldéric wanted to move back to Secoursonne. He cited home-sickness, but Atienna knew he wanted to get as far away from the falls as possible. Atienna, chest still constantly aching from Werner’s withdrawal symptoms and left arm pulsating from Maria’s phantom pain, didn’t feel like doing anything besides lying tangled in her sheets all day. She didn’t even have the energy to turn the page of the Cancerian fable she’d taken to reading since she arrived in Lueur de Fée. The pain itself would come in waves. Most likely that was the result of Werner reeling it in whenever he could.
Albertine seemed to share her sentiments, although unlike herself he was quite vocal about his reasons.
“Aldéric, my head is pounding,” he complained at breakfast. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”
Aldéric had opened a sort of mini-breakfast banquet in the dining hall of their inn. Platters piled high with an assortment of breads, baked goods, eggs, meats, and cheeses lined the long table at center of the hall, while circular tables ringed around it. Atienna sat at one of these tables with an amicably chattering Dimka and Aldéric, a food-inhaling Sefu, a disgruntled-looking Albertine, and several other socialites.
Aldéric merely waved him off. “Nothing a little bit of painkillers and a breath of fresh air can’t fix, dear Albertine.”
Albertine scoffed in response and muttered off to the side—“It’s always easy to wave off problems and push for those sort of remedies when you have money lining your pockets, isn’t it?”
Aldéric stiffened at the comment and glanced around the table as several of the socialites began to whisper amongst each other. He quickly moved around the table and bent over to whisper something into Albertine’s ear.
Albertine cleared his throat and straightened himself afterwards. “My apologies, everyone. I was merely making a jest. We all know wealth comes with problems of its own.”
And that’s how he tries to recover from what he just said?
Olive. Just a stray thought, fortunately. If he were fully synchronized, then… it would be troublesome.
Atienna felt the hairs on her arm begin to rise to a stand. She cautiously glanced at the corner of the room where Albertine’s v-ehicle driver was happily helping himself to a plateful of cinnamon-dusted toast. It didn’t seem like he’d noticed the discretion. Nervously, Atienna watched as Albertine excused himself from the table and exited the hall to rest.
After a moment’s hesitation, Atienna rose from her table to follow him, but an arm around the waist directed her back to the food line. Soon, she was standing in front of ten trays piled high with colorful orbs of fruit. At first, she thought it was Aldéric, but then—
“And how’s the headache? That has to be one of the more pleasant withdrawal symptoms, right?”
Albertine’s driver. Scorpio. His words grated her ears. His smile as he scooped up a heap of blueberries from the display bowl onto his plate grated on her nerves.
Atienna reached forward and picked up one of the set out plates and a fork so as to not appear out of the ordinary. “You knew.” But how much did he know?
“And you didn’t,” Scorpio noted. He offered her some berries with the spoon. “Or should I say you didn’t want to know. Curiosity disappears as soon as you encounter reality. Reality is disappointing, so it’s more enjoyable to explore possibilities instead.”
Atienna declined his offer. “It’s interesting you bring up exploring possibilities given your recent conversation with Gabrielle and Jericho. A possibility that one of Gabrielle’s associates might not be entirely with her. From what I’ve garnered from passing, you’re quite… against Gabrielle’s… pursuits… I wonder… It’s just strange even if you’re trying to sow seeds of doubt, don’t you think? Helping her when—”
Scorpio continued smiling. “We’re talking about our dear Werner, not Gabrielle, right? Werner—he pursued his passions and had quite a time with it. He certainly did enjoy himself. I can see though now that he’s happily returned to his post. You’re all handling the withdrawal symptoms better than I expected. I suppose it makes sense. Appearances and all that.” He chuckled. “I am curious about the drama that unfolded afterwards. I did spy Cadence running her little way through Polovinastadt without even a winter coat on that night. Of course, you all disappeared and reappeared before I could manage another sit-down with Cadence, but… she has quite a history with those types of substances, doesn’t she? Werner, meanwhile—well, I’m sure you can see it—is the perfect type of person to be susceptible to something like that.” He placed a hand to his chest. “Irony aside, it was inevitable from the very beginning.”
Atienna clenched her fork and plate tightly.
“I do admire the deepness of the connection True Conductors share as I’ve said many times before.” He turned to her, smirking. “Collectivism at its finest—at least, that’s what it should be. When wills and morals and priorities are off-balance, I bet it does cause quite a conundrum. Your group is certainly—”
With a roar, Atienna spun on her heels and smashed the plate against the man’s face. As shrieks erupted and fruit went flying, she jabbed her fork into his below. And as Sefu and Dimka shouted at her in alarm, she picked up the pieces of her shattered plate from the ground and began to gouge them into Scorpio’s flesh. Red stained her hands, his shirt, the carpet, but she didn’t care anymore.
This was her decision—
—or so Atienna imagined. Back in reality, she set the fork down on her plate and her plate in the dirty plate bin, offered Scorpio—who was still looking her over with interest—a polite smile, and walked away.
* * *
They set off back to Secoursonne the next day. Again, Atienna rode in a v-ehicle with Aldéric, Albertine, Dimka, and Sefu. Atienna offered to sit in the front with Albertine’s driver much to Dimka’s delight and Sefu’s disdain, so Albertine could ‘rest in the back’—or at least, that was how Atienna had sold it as. For the time being, she wanted to keep Albertine as far away from Scorpio as possible. She intended to do so until she gauged whether or not her deductions were right.
Two hours into the v-ehicle ride and they pulled into a rest stop and the men stumbled out to relieve themselves. As soon as the men left, Albertine’s driver turned to Atienna with a pleasant smile. Before Scorpio could say a word, however, Atienna excused herself too. She made her way around the central log cabin of the rest stop to the restroom block in the patchy woods just behind it. She had spied Dimka and Sefu in the window of the former and immediately realized she had to move quickly. As she neared that long, flat building that served as the restroom house, she caught sight of Albertine and Aldéric entering the men’s room together. Swiftly, she went around the building and scanned the back wall.
A small square window opened up on the far end of the wall and seemed to lead to the men’s room. Only feeling slightly ashamed, Atienna clambered onto the pile of wood stacked just below it and then peered through the window.
Inside, she found Albertine doubled over in front of one of the restroom sinks. Aldéric stood just behind him.
“Aldéric, something isn’t right,” Albertine groaned as he buried his head in his hands. He waved his hand in the air, gesturing to the flickering v-bulb above the sink. “I keep… My head’s not right. I think I have brain damage from the accident.”
Aldéric snorted. “Usually people celebrate when they’ve survived a near death experience not pout about it.”
Atienna was both surprised and unsurprised at the lack of grace and informality in their behavior. Appearances were deceiving, after all.
“I’m serious, Aldéric! I think… I really do think I have brain damage. Hypoxia or whatever they call it.”
“Albertine, you’re being ridiculous.” Aldéric rubbed his brother’s arms. “Straighten up a bit, would you? All we need to do is look well enough and have this silly little wedding with ‘Ilunaria.’ Then you act as a supportive brother, give your congratulations, and then we’re on our way again out of the public eye. Cancer and Leo united, hand-in-hand. The politicians can have a field day, while we go on vacation.”
Albertine scoffed. “And what happens when the Leonian politicians decide to use Ilunaria’s absence to stir the pot of Signum? Are we supposed to be stirred along with them?”
Aldéric’s gaze narrowed. “We don’t know she’s missing for sure.”
Albertine snorted. “I’m pretty sure there’s little other explanation for her lack of show face. Soon, they’ll be saying that she’s too ill to come out into public. Just like Louise—”
Aldéric grabbed hold of him and shook him hard once, twice, thrice. “Albertine, what’s gotten into you?”
Albertine stared at him for a moment before holding his temple and grimacing. “Sorry, Aldéric. You know I didn’t mean anything like that. I know how much Louise meant to you.”
Aldéric pulled away and sighed. “Just… Sleep it off, Albert. We’ll be fine. Just freshen yourself up, and then we came go home.” And with that, he swept out of the bathroom.
Albertine returned his attention to the mirror then and stared into his reflection as his grip on the basin tightened. “Who are you? Why are you doing this to me? Why are you so rude?” He continued staring for what seemed like half an hour before he dipped his head. “I’m talking to myself. I’m going insane.”
Atienna felt her heart drop into her stomach as she watched him turn and head to the bathroom’s exit. Her suspicions were now completely confirmed. He was a new one. A new True Conductor. Newly-minted. Freshly connected. Ripe for the saint candidates’ picking.
They had already captured Leona—although Jericho didn’t seem to define it as such. Soon, Scorpio would grow suspicious of her absence and start looking into the matter. Thus, they needed a distraction to keep Scorpio away while they got their bearings together. So, what better distraction was there than presenting him with a new True Conductor? It was not a good choice, but it was not a bad choice either. In fact, the cons were far and few in-between. This held true especially for Albertine’s case since he was someone in the public eye. The saint candidates would leave him well enough alone while they searched for the ones he was connected with. He would be alright for a short while. That and he would be given their protection. For the time being, wasn’t this choice the preferable one?
Yes, she could leave right now and inform Scorpio of her findings without interacting with Albertine directly. She’d be able to hold herself at a distance from the Cancerian-but it was wrong.
Contrarily, Albertine’s true freedom would be taken from him. Contrarily, he would most likely be pressured to find other True Conductors too. Contrarily, he would become more of a puppet than he already was. Contrarily, he would be put under tight stress and pressure by the candidates before even fully forming meaningful connections with those in his psychic circle. Contrarily, he would suffer for her sake. Contrarily, the other five would also suffer in turn. Werner’s heart was too fragile, Jericho too unstable, Olive too goodhearted, Cadence too strained by consequences, and Maria too bright to handle another Louise.
But what of their family? Their friends? The playing pieces Scorpio was laying out against them?
Atienna buried her face in her hands.
Again and again she was faced with these decisions. Again and again she made choices that were both wrong and right. The other five made their choices so easily with such intense belief in the choices that they made. Although her choices changed just as theirs did, unlike them, the person she was inside remained the same. Even so—
Atienna hoisted herself up onto the threshold of the window and then down into the bathroom. She landed on the sink deftly before slipping onto the floor. The rubber soles of her shoes squeaked against the wet tiled floor, but she did not flinch as much as Albertine did.
Albertine whipped around, eyes widening as his mouth drew ajar. Atienna was on him immediately, slapping a hand over his mouth and pressing a finger to her lips. His brows furrowed, but he nodded, and so she released her hand.
“Saints!” He gasped. “Miss Imamu—what…?” He looked around. “This is the men’s restroom!” After studying her for a moment, his gaze strayed up to the ajar window and he paled. “How much did you hear?”
“Enough, Monsieur Albertine.” Atienna took a step back. “I know that you’re experiencing headaches, nausea, and maybe even some deja vu. You always feel like you’re remembering things that you’ve never experienced before. Perhaps you’re even starting to hear voices and see people who aren’t there.”
Albertine paled. “How do you—”
Atienna extended her hand and smiled gently. “I’m just like you, Albertine. And I must say that this world is becoming more and more dangerous for True Conductors every day. So, it would be best to accept some form of assistance from a party in the know, don’t you think?”
a/n: thanks for reading!! this chapter was definitely on the hsorter nnd ((At least for me)) so there’ll be an exxtra chapter coming out this tuesday/wedesday. i’ll put the officially-ish date up on the index around monday probably. but! form them on we are returning to the rotating schedule of Undecdied Weekday & Saturday / Saturday…. if that makes sense;;; have a great weekend o/