Oreilin awoke in a panic, unsure of where she was for several moments. Everything felt wrong– smelled wrong. Her body’s clock told her it was morning, but a morning without sunlight. Her bedroom window back home faced full east, so was it overcast outside?
No. Now she remembered. This wasn’t home.
This wasn’t even a sorry imitation.
She sat up and pulled her knees to her chest. She felt the urge to relieve herself, but until her panic subsided she didn’t dare leave the security of her bed. Oreilin Iliensdaughter, what would your mother say to such cowardice? she scolded herself. After a few calming breaths, she threw her legs over the side of the bed and lowered her feet to the floor.
Several minutes later she emerged from the bath chamber to a medley of scents: breakfast.
“Did you sleep well, Your Highness?”
“Well enough,” replied Oreilin, irritable now that the smell of food had stimulated her hunger. “Where’s Rodget?”
“Shall I fetch him, Ma’am?”
“Immediately, please. I need him to explain my breakfast to me.” She needed no such thing, but Rodge had stressed to her the importance of revealing no hint of her Enhancement in Berea Prime.
“I could do that for you, Ma/am,” Kamelain offered.
“I need Rodget. Now.”
“Wait,” said Oreilin, as the woman’s scent began to depart. “A robe, please.”
“Of course, Ma’am.” Kamelain fetched the desired clothing and placed it around the princess’s shoulders.
Minutes later Rodget was there, and Oreilin breathed him in with barely-contained joy. He led her to the breakfast table, and described the dishes upon it. After several bites of marmalade toast and a delightfully-warm, runny egg, Oreilin sat back and smiled at her guide. Kamelain remained somewhere close by, so she had to be careful with her words.
“How did you sleep?” she asked.
Oreilin doubted this. “Have you met with the other servants? Did they make it to the palace?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your things have all been safely delivered,” Kamelain chimed in from near the front door. “Your servants were sent home on the early morning train.”
“What?” Oreilin barely resisted rising from her seat.
“They won’t be needed here, Ma’am; the palace will supply you with all the servants you need during your stay. Your guide excepted, of course, though I’ll have you know I had to vouch for him personally.”
“Thank you,” replied Oreilin. “But–” what? She was in a new place now, with new customs. She’d have to adapt. But she didn’t like it. She had known every one of those servants personally– hand-picked them to accompany her. To be bereft of them now increased her homesickness nearly beyond bearing.
She turned to Kamelain. “Which way does the sun face?”
“Beg your pardon, Ma’am?”
“It’s customary in Alturia to greet the morning sun.”
“Oh.” The maidservant paused to think. “I believe it would be to your left, Ma’am. Though personally, I would advise you to leave such quaint customs behind during your stay here.”
“I’ll do no such thing,” said Oreilin, and promptly rose from her chair. Turning to her left, she raised her arms and recited the morning prayer:
Blessed Sun, which casts your light
Upon the rich and poor alike:
Give generously, Sun, and never gray
Until you rest from labor’s day,
To rise again with waking morn
And smile upon a world reborn.
“Amen,” murmured Rodget beside her. Then they both sat, and Oreilin resumed her meal.
Kamelain stepped into the large closet and re-emerged with the announcement that she would help the princess dress for her interview when she had finished eating.
“I’ll see the Emperor as planned, then?”
“You, see the Emperor? No, Ma’am, you misunderstand. The Emperor will see you.”
So that was it. Oreilin’s head reeled at the implications: she was to be a subject of study, observation, a prisoner of the palace according to the Emperor’s whim. Well, best to make the most of it. She rose from her seat and brushed the crumbs from her gown. “Let’s get started,” she said. “Rodget, please wait for me outside the room.”
Rodget gone, Kamelain got to work, fitting Oreilin into her new dress. Oreilin swallowed her pride and asked the maid to describe the outfit: blue, understated with a lace trim around the knee-length hemline and the loose, elbow-length sleeves. The bodice was low-cut, though Oreilin didn’t have much to show off. It felt exposing, but Kamelain explained that the air circulation would be most welcome in the heat of the day.
“It fits well,” said Oreilin, once all was settled.
“Your measurements were sent in advance.”
“I would like to speak with my parents later. When will my voice-activated com-pad arrive?”
“I sent for one; it should be installed for you by tonight. On to shoes, then?”
“Something comfortable, please. And flat, so I don’t trip.”
They settled together on a pair of white leather-topped shoes that felt like they’d never been worn by anyone before.
“Did my parents pay for all this luxury?”
“No, Ma’am. It is a gift from your Emperor. He wants you to be happy here.”
By the time Rodget was readmitted into her presence, Oreilin was ready to fall into his arms in distress and ask to be taken home immediately. She didn’t like the way her visit had gone so far; she didn’t like the things she was hearing; she didn’t like it here at all. Why was the Emperor trying so hard to impress her– a blind, fifth daughter of a border kingdom hardly worth his notice? What were his intentions? Her parents had told her so little: “What the Emperor commands, we must obey.”
Rodget placed a comforting arm around her and leaned in close to whisper in her ear, “Keep it together; now’s not the time to exhibit weakness.”
Oreilin straightened and nodded. “I’m ready.”
Four hours later, Oreilin stormed back in the general direction of her chamber, Rodget hustling to keep up. She got like this sometimes, emotions so intense she practically forgot her limitations and stormed off in any random direction, not caring where she wound up, or whom she might run into along the way. Rodget managed to warn most of the people walking the halls with gestures to move out of the way, but one soul chose to hold his ground as the princess charged toward him.
His skin was lighter than most native Bereans, suggesting a mixed heritage. He stood tall, but his light gray eyes grew wide when he realized the girl ahead was not going to stop, and indeed seemed intent on walking right through him. He let out a sharp yelp and Oreilin stopped abruptly, a mere inch away from the man. Her nose touched his chest and she backed away.
“If you please,” said the man, then opened his mouth to say more, but Rodget took him firmly by the arm and turned him around.
“You must forgive the princess,” he spoke in low tones.
“But she nearly rammed herself into me. Unbelievably reckless behavior. I demand an apology.”
“You will have one,” Rodget promised. “If you’ll join her this evening for supper.”
“Really, Rodget!” Oreilin pushed her guide aside. “I’m blind, not mute. And certainly capable of making my own dinner arrangements.”
“Blind, you say?” The proud man turned back toward the princess. “I beg your pardon, Highness. I see now it was I who was in the wrong.”
But Oreilin smiled and curtseyed. “I shouldn’t have been walking so fast. May I beg your pardon as well?”
“Of course.” The man took the princess’s proffered hand. “And it is freely given.”
“I am Lord Lammely.”
“Princess Oreilin of– Berea Octavus.” Rodget knew she’d been about to say Alturia and changed her mind at the last second; he thought the decision a wise one and nodded behind her. “This is Rodget, my guide.”
Rodget stepped forward and the two men shook hands. Rodget took the opportunity to assess the man more thoroughly, judging him to be a pleasant enough person, but with an air of self-conceit that came out in unguarded moments, as it had the first moment they’d “met.” His handshake was firm, and stiff. Rodget wondered how much Oreilin sensed, and decided to question her about her own impression later.
“You’ve traveled a long way,” said Lammely, taking Oreilin’s vacant arm not occupied by Rodget, and they walked.
“Three days by dirigible,” said Oreilin.
“Three days!” Lammely whistled. “And what brought you here?”
Oreilin frowned. “I don’t know. The Emperor summoned me, so I had to come. I just spent the last four hours in a room being ‘observed,’ supposedly by the Emperor, but I can’t really be certain since he never showed himself or spoke to me.”
Lammely nodded. “Sounds like the Emperor.”
“You mean he does this with everyone?”
“Absolutely. I’ve spent countless sessions in court. The Emperor never shows his face, and rarely speaks. He sends nearly all his communications via com-pad.”
“How do you know it’s him, then?”
“Who else would it be?” Lammely shrugged.
Oreilin paused and gaped. “Practically anybody? If my father tried that in Octavian court, there’d be an uprising of people demanding confirmation.”
“Ah, but the Emperor is too powerful for anyone to dare that.”
“How long has he been in hiding like this?”
“Since before I was old enough to notice such things.”
“Do you think he fears for his life?”
Oreilin thought about it. “I suppose so.”
“Power invites a certain measure of respect and wealth, it’s true; but it also attracts other, more unenviable things– jealousy, fear, anger, vengeance. Any man or woman in power will tell you of the countless number of sleepless nights spent wondering if they’ll live to see the morning.”
“Yes. Father has spoken of it a time or two. I never thought much of it, though. We always had bodyguards around in public, and the very best security we could afford at the palace. And Father is well-liked by our people, so who would want to hurt him?”
Rodget had said nothing throughout the exchange, but as he listened to the princess speak he was reminded of how naive and innocent she really was. “We’ve reached your chamber, Ma’am,” he said, stopping at the door.
“Thank you, Rodge.” Then she looked up and smiled at Lammely. “Despite my annoyance earlier, I would like it if you could join me for supper. And don’t think of it as an apology if you’d rather; think of it as an offer of friendship.”
Lammely released Oreilin’s arm and bowed deeply. “It would be my pleasure,” he said. “But if you’ll grant me reprieve tonight, I have a few things to attend to. May I see you tomorrow night instead?”
“I’ll have to check my schedule,” Oreilin replied. “But leave your information with Rodget and I’ll be sure to message you in the morning.”
Lammely eyed Rodget a moment, as if judging whether he could trust another man who was obviously already close to the princess. But then he shrugged and smiled. “Why not?” He produced his personal com-pad and Rodget did the same, the information exchanged in moments.
Lammely left, and Rodget opened the chamber door. Safely inside, Oreilin surprised her guide by falling into his arms.
“Gods of the sky!!” Rodget cried. “You’re trembling.”
“That man,” said Oreilin, still clinging to Rodget as he led her to a chair. “You must learn everything you can about him.”
“Are you that taken by him?”
Oreilin shook her head. “It’s not that…” She trailed off, and for a moment Rodget’s heart leapt within him. But then it fell again at her next question. “Didn’t you smell it?”
“I lack your talent in that area.”
Oreilin sighed. Then she sat up and her expression sharpened. “Tar,” she said. “And smoke. And–” She breathed heavily for several seconds. “Blood, Rodge. I don’t know where, or how, but there was blood.”
Rodget wiped his hands reflexively on his pants. He began to pace. “Are you certain?” he said.
“I know what blood smells like. And no,” said Oreilin, “It’s not my own. I just had my cycle last week.”
Rodget was glad the princess couldn’t see his face. “I wasn’t going to suggest that.”
Oreilin turned away, appearing for all intents to be staring out the window. “He frightens me,” she said in a quiet voice. “But my instinct tells me it would be better to keep him close– watch him, listen to him, learn from him what I can. But he can’t know of my suspicions.”
“It’s a dangerous game, Ma’am.”
“I know…” Oreilin slumped in her chair. “I feel exhausted,” she said. “Who knew four hours sitting and doing practically nothing could wear on one so?”
“It’s a psychological strain.”
“Perhaps. Also mental. I’m perplexed.”
“As am I.”
Oreilin sat up again. “You spent most of your childhood in Berea.”
“Is it still the way you remember?”
“Worse, I imagine. I have no desire to explore the city, if that’s what you’re moving toward.”
“That’s exactly it,” Oreilin said, without a shred of apology for her guide’s feelings. “I want to go out. I can’t stand being cooped up in here. Summon Kamelain, please.”
Rodget was shocked, a half-hour later, when Oreilin informed him that Kamelain would be her guide in the city. He objected verbally, but Oreilin pulled him aside and explained in hushed tones, “Remember what I asked you to do?”
“This will be the best chance for you to explore the palace, maybe meet the other servants and make some inquiries. Also, let’s let Kamelain believe that I’m beginning to feel at home here, that I trust her.”
“I’m not sure. But I trust her enough to guide me through the city. She’ll probably arrange for a bodyguard or two as well. I’ll be fine.” She added this last in a voice loud enough to be overheard; let it be inferred that she was merely soothing her guide’s anxiety.
Rodget nodded and straightened. “I will trust your judgment,” he said.
“Good. Kamelain, I’m ready.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling more comfortable here.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“And I received word regarding your com-pad: it will definitely be ready for you by suppertime.”
“That’s good,” said Oreilin with a smile. “I’ll let my family know how well-accommodated I am, and how generous the Emperor has been to me.” She made her voice gush a bit, playing into the facade.
“I’m pleased, Your Highness.”
Rodget felt a surge of pride in his charge’s emerging talent in subterfuge. Perhaps the king and queen had chosen the right princess for this appointment after all, though she hadn’t been told the whole truth regarding her visit. Rodget would have to tell her eventually, but not yet. The less she knew, the better.
“Where will you take me this evening?” Oreilin asked Kamelain as they left the room– and Rodget– behind.
What an unpleasant thing, to be idle. This was Fenrick’s reoccurring thought as he alternated between lounging and pacing in the small apartment provided to him as his “hideout.” His neck was feeling better, as long as he didn’t turn his head too sharply. His shoulder throbbed, and he hadn’t slept at all. Nervous energy kept him on edge. Velvina hadn’t even given him a com-pad, not that he would have dared contact anyone. But he could have looked up the day’s reports at least, to find out what officials were saying about his disappearance, if anything.
Maybe that’s what Velvina didn’t want– what “the Organization” didn’t want.
But what else could he think about? He missed his family. He just wanted them to know he was alive and safe– relatively safe. He wondered what his co-workers were up to. His future now was uncertain, and his imagination too limited to guess at what was in store for him next. Maybe they’d let him continue driving trains.
That was doubtful.
They’d probably want him to use his Enhancement. A lot.
That was an unpleasant thought. Fenrick hated being so strong. He hated violence. Gods, please don’t make me kill anyone.
Velvina had promised to return with food; she’d been gone for three hours. Fenrick had raided the entire kitchen, but found only a box of stale cookies and a half-empty bottle of juice that he wasn’t quite desperate enough to risk drinking.
At least the closet had clothes. All kinds of clothes in all sizes. He got the impression that this was a common place for new recruits to be brought to await their official assignments.
Mercifully, he’d found a set of comfortable clothing that fit well enough. Though he’d have to inform Velvina– if she hadn’t figured it out already– that his new wardrobe would require certain features: fabric that would stretch with his growing muscles and shrink back down afterward, that wouldn’t overheat his body in a rush of adrenaline.
Jemma had always taken care of those things before. It made Fenrick feel guilty having another woman take her place that way. Eight years, and the loss still hurt. Even moreso now that he’d lost the rest of his family as well.
When Velvina finally arrived with food and supplies, Fenrick’s eyes were dry and he gave into a ravenous appetite. Velvina let him, refraining for once from making any smart remarks. As his eating slowed, however, she opened herself for questions.
Fenrick had questions. “What next?” being foremost.
“You’ll have to lie low for a while.”
A grunt. “Makes sense.”
“We can’t risk you being seen right away, before we’ve had time to work on you.”
“Work on me?”
“You’re in dire need of a makeover.” Velvina grinned. The smart remarks were back.
“So, what? A haircut? Maybe some colored eye-lenses?”
“There are a few options to consider. I’m afraid it’ll take more than a change of hairstyle, though, to disguise you from the authorities. You’ll need surgery.”
Fenrick rose in surprise. “On my face?!”
Velvina winced. “Yes, on your face.”
“Only the best doctor in our employ.”
“I hope so!” His mind reeled and for several seconds he just stared at his companion. “Did they have to alter you?”
“Only a little.”
Velvina sighed, then rose and stepped forward into full light. “My nose used to be wider,” she said. “And my hair isn’t naturally black. Or straight. Also, I had several freckles lasered. I was born a Nailander.”
“Amazing,” remarked Fenrick, as he examined the flawless work. “I would have guessed you were from Yavin.”
“So you see, you have nothing to fear.” Velvina sat back down, the show clearly over.
“What are my options, then?” asked Fenrick, as he returned to his own seat.
“We could change your skin tone.”
“How easy would that be?”
Velvina frowned. “Not easy at all. A uniform lightening is possible, but extremely difficult, even for the most talented doctor. Darkening is easier, but not without risky side effects.”
“Which would be?”
“Extreme vulnerability to the sun.”
Fenrick shook his head. “That’s out, then. I’m not giving up sunlight.”
“Our next option is to age you.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.” Fenrick sighed, resigned to his fate. “Very well, do what you must.”
“It’ll only be a surface aging; your body will still be forty.”
“Forgive me.” Velvina grimaced, then– perhaps as she sensed Fenrick was not upset about her mistake– relaxed again. She smiled. “I’m twenty-nine,” she said, leaning forward across the table. “Not too old and not too young.”
“Please.” Fenrick tried to give a pained expression, forgetting for a moment that Velvina didn’t need to see his face to know how he felt. And right now, she knew he wasn’t nearly as repelled by her advances as he tried to let on.
But he owed it to Jemma to try. Didn’t he? What if she was watching him right now?
Fenrick’s fingers itched to touch, to caress. Only the wood slab between him and Velvina prevented further action. They spent countless moments staring at each other across the table, lingering as if in a trance.
Velvina broke away first, getting up and beginning to clear the dishes from the table. “Too bad I’m officially your handler now. You really should have taken me up on my offer last night.”
Embarrassed, Fenrick murmured an apology to Jemma. “I’m sorry,” he said to Velvina next. “I’ll try to contain myself.”
“So will I.”
“Did you mean what you said before, about being with a lot of other men?”
Velvina hid behind the cold-box door. “I’d rather not talk about it. It’s not something I’m proud of.”
What now? The current conversation was going nowhere, so Fenrick got up and began clearing the table in silence. They worked together wordlessly until the job was done, but it was as if a fine thread had been tied between them and was in danger of becoming much thicker the longer they remained in the same room.
Velvina left him with instructions to stay put, get some rest, and to make sure he cleaned and re-dressed his shoulder wound regularly. She showed him the medical supplies she’d bought, including a bottle of pain pills. “You’ll need to recover sufficiently before the doctor agrees to perform your surgery.”
“I can’t wait,” Fenrick replied dryly.
“Also, you might want to check the bed for bugs, and replace the sheets. You’ll find clean linen in the closet next to the bathing room.”
“It might be a few days before I come back.”
“Oh?” Fenrick’s eyebrows raised.
“I can’t talk about it.”
And then she was gone.