It wasn’t so much that she had other places to be, or other things to do. She simply couldn’t bear to be in the same space with Fenrick’s overwhelming emotions.
Grief. Loss. Anxiety. Mingled with hope, longing, and a desire to be helpful. She had told Fenrick she wouldn’t be back for days.
She might need that long to fortify herself for their next meeting.
She’d read the man’s files. She’d thought she knew him well enough prior to the rescue mission. No. Not well enough at all. He was stronger than she thought he’d be– psychologically speaking. He didn’t deny his emotions, but owned them fully. He lived with his grief, but he didn’t drown in it.
Perhaps he could teach her how he did it. Sarcasm and wit could only take her so far, and she was feeling the strain of her line of work. What she wouldn’t give to be merely a medical student.
And now she had the added pressure of training a new recruit.
But not today, she told herself. Today, I live my own life.
“Vel!” Her roommate, Nema, greeted her as she entered the overcrowded mess hall. Like the way white noise can soothe the ear, she found highly-populated spaces to be the easiest to relax in, to filter the hubbub of emotions surrounding her. Individuals were far more difficult to ignore.
“We were so worried about you! What happened? What did that man do to you?” Nema asked breathlessly.
Vel went through the line and collected a bowl of hot cereal and a peach before turning to address the inquiry. “Nothing,” she said with a shrug. “He made me give him a robe and lead him out, then he let me go.” She moved down the line and added a plate of eggs and toast, juice, and yogurt.
“If that’s true, why didn’t you come to the dorms last night?” Nema’s boyfriend, Senn, was a constant fixture. For some reason, he disliked Vel, but Vel had never asked him why. She had always tried to be respectful toward him, though lately that was becoming increasingly difficult.
“Isn’t it obvious, Senn? She needed some time alone, don’t you think? We all would have just bombarded her with questions if she’d come home right away.”
Vel nodded, silently grateful for Nema’s volunteered explanation; it was better than what she had come up with.
“So then where’d you go?” Senn pressed, intent on his purpose.
“I walked around. Climbed up high and watched the sunrise. There were heavy clouds on the horizon; I think it might rain some more today or tomorrow.”
“Oh, I hope so. I miss the soggy plains of Quaternus,” Nema said as they took their seats at a long table. “Mother sent me pictures of all the green meadows and flowers back home; it made me so jealous.” Nema sipped her coffee and then frowned into its depths.
“We’re almost finished, though.” Vel was happy to lead into a new topic of conversation.
“Three more months.” Nema sighed. “Provided I pass the exams this time.”
“You will.” Vel placed a soft hand over Nema’s to reassure her. “I’ve seen how much you study.”
“And I’ll need every second of it.”
Vel tried to ignore Senn’s eyes boring into her, to ignore his judgmental curiosity. He let the subject of last night drop, which ought to have been reassuring were it not for Vel’s cursed Enhancement. She sensed, however, that his suspicion would not be easily averted. She’d have to watch herself around him.
“You really ought to slow down,” Nema said after a few moments of watching Vel shovel food into her mouth. “You’re overeating again.”
It was true. And why was Vel so ravenous when she’d just eaten with Fenrick? “Sorry,” she said, setting down her fork and taking a swig of juice to wash down her last bite. “Just nervous, I guess.”
“Sure. Big test today.”
“That’s today?” Vel let out a groan and made a show of hitting her head on the table.
“You’re surprised every time,” Nema observed.
“I think it’s an act,” said Senn, with a sneer, “to make the rest of us feel more confident in comparison. Everyone knows Vel’s a genius.”
“I’m not a genius,” said Vel. “Excuse me.” She shot out of her chair and dashed to the toilets as her esophagus rebelled against her overeating.
She didn’t return to the mess hall afterward, and supposed she’d have to thank Nema later for clearing her tray. So much for having a day to myself, she thought glumly as she sped to her dorm room to study.
The test was easier than she’d expected, and she left class looking forward to a hot meal. She didn’t relish the thought of going back to campus, however, so she diverted her footsteps and walked to one of her favorite restaurants instead.
Only when she arrived, she was nearly bowled over by the wave of collective excitement that rushed over her. “The princess,” was what she heard over and over from one cluster of people to the next. “The princess was here.”
“Excuse me, what princess?” Vel asked one group.
“The princess from Octavus,” said a young girl with stars in her eyes. “Ooh, it must be sweet to be a princess.”
“Princesses are people just like the rest of us,” said the girl’s mother, taking her daughter by the hand and dragging her away from Vel.
“She was beautiful!” the girl cried over her shoulder, prompting a smile from Vel. But inwardly she scolded herself for forgetting. Of course, Fenrick had been transporting the princess at the time of the explosion.
“I heard she’s on her way to the art museum next. Taking a grand tour of the city, I suppose,” came another voice nearby.
“She must be dazzled,” said another. “I hear Octavus is a poor country itself, with nothing like the splendors of Berea Prime.”
Several murmurs of assent, and a collective pride in the country these people called home. It was true, Berea had flourished since the Empire began nearly seventy years ago. Vel wished it could be said for all the other lands claimed by the Emperor.
“Did you notice something peculiar about her?” Vel’s ears perked up at these words, and she inched her way closer to the speaker.
“It was her eyes, wasn’t it?” came the reply.
“Didn’t you know?” came a third voice. “The princess is blind, from what I hear.”
“Oh. Well, that makes sense. But why would the Octavian king choose to send his blind daughter as envoy when he has plenty of others to choose from?”
A shrug. “What should we care about politics anyway? So long as our bellies are full.”
Collective laughter as the line of waiting diners moved forward. Vel moved with them, but then on impulse stepped out of the line and made her way to the art museum. She suddenly didn’t feel like eating anyway.
The stern bodyguard posted outside the museum entrance let Vel know the princess was likely inside as rumor had circulated. She made her way up the steps to the grand building, only to be stopped at the top.
“I can’t let you in without a thorough search,” the bodyguard said.
Vel submitted to a pat-down, which the bodyguard was no more pleased about than she was. Then he stepped aside and let her in.
It had been months since she’d been here, and it looked much the same as it had then. Only the entrance hall was surprisingly bereft of people. “Where is everyone?” she asked at the concierge desk.
“Where else?” said the woman in a bored voice– but Vel sensed the jealousy behind it.
“Wherever the princess is,” Vel realized aloud.
“Genius,” the woman replied. Then she waved Vel away with her hand and started reading from her com-pad.
As she made her way to the first wing, Vel glanced at a stack of news pamphlets on a low table and grabbed one up. Maybe it would have more news.
She sat on a bench at the top of the stairs and opened the pamphlet, scanning its pages for key words– “princess,” Octavia,” “train bombing.”
Nothing. What? She combed over the articles again with the same result. How could something so significant have been overlooked?
It couldn’t, of course. Which meant the Emperor had banned it from publication. She’d have to talk to her uncle about this.
Vel tossed the pamphlet and followed her empathic sense until she found the back end of a crowd of people clustered excitedly outside the Flammet Exhibit. Having nothing else to do and no other purpose than to catch a glimpse of the same personage they were all here to see, she leaned against a far wall.
“Are you familiar with Flammet’s work?” the museum guide asked.
“My father owns one of his statues,” Oreilin replied. “Bird on a Clock. The texture is exquisite.”
“Yes.” The guide, Jaff, cleared his throat. “Well, we don’t normally offer this, but in your situation, I’ve taken the liberty to procure you a pair of gloves, so you may touch any of the artwork you desire. Only do be gentle.”
Even without sight, Oreilin thought she sensed a wince in the man’s voice. “I’m always gentle,” she reassured him, as she donned the proffered gloves. They were thin and snug, so she’d be able to feel through them. Kamelain had questioned her desire to visit an art museum, but sculpture was Oreilin’s favorite art form and she wouldn’t be dissuaded on account of the fact that so much of the rest of the museum would be meaningless to her.
She spent several minutes enjoying the first statue, then the next, and the next. She ran delicate fingers along grooves, over rough, smooth, bumpy, and dimpled surfaces. She followed the movement of feathered wings, muscled limbs, curved spines, and bushy tails.
Beside her, Kamelain offered the occasional observation: “This bear’s eyes look so real,” or “Amazing how seamlessly the woman changes into a tiger at the forelegs.”
As they explored the exhibit, Oreilin was painfully aware of the crowd waiting just outside, held back by one of her bodyguards. She felt silly. No one had made such a fuss about her back in Alturia. She’d been made to understand, however, that such treatment was standard in Berea Prime. Then Kamelain had let slip that Oreilin wasn’t the only high-profile visitor at the moment, but she was certainly one of the most popular.
Maybe Rodget was right: maybe she’d brought undue attention to herself with those schoolchildren.
“I think I’m finished here,” she said at last, her fingers lingering on the last statue– a giant representation of the first Emperor, too tall for her to take in all of it. “I’d like to go back to the palace and rest a while.”
“Shall I have the crowd dispersed?” Jaff asked, a hint of nervousness in his voice.
“No,” Oreilin replied. “I’ll walk among them.”
“I object,” said Kamelain. “They’ll smother you.”
“I don’t think they will.” So saying, Oreilin didn’t wait but began moving forward with confidence, remembering the way out. She delved into the sea of strangers, taking in their collective and individual scents as she passed by. As expected, they parted before her, but only barely. She held her hands out before her to prevent any collisions and moved slowly. Jaff and Kamelain followed after her, restraining the press of people from behind.
A low hum of voices surrounded her, but Oreilin kept her head forward and only acknowledged the crowd with a smile. Eventually, she made it through and then stopped abruptly at a familiar scent. It belonged to someone– someone she’d met recently. She stepped to the side, following her nose to the source.
“Pardon me, Your Highness,” said a woman’s voice.
“Do I know you?” Oreilin asked.
“I– don’t see how you could.”
“Oh. You– your voice sounded familiar.”
“One of those voices, I guess.”
“Yes. That must be it.” Oreilin felt a bead of sweat trickle down her spine at how close she’d come to revealing her secret.
“Welcome to Berea,” said the woman.
“Do you like it here?”
“It’s very grand,” Oreilin replied. “And I’ve only visited a very small part. What’s your name?”
“Velvina Ro, Ma’am. I’m a medical student. Here on sponsorship from Tertius.”
Oreilin was only half-listening, distracted by the woman’s odor, mingled with that other familiar scent she’d detected before. Maybe they hadn’t met before, but Velvina had recently been with someone else Oreilin already knew, however briefly. It wasn’t Lammely, nor any of the servants she’d met. “Velvina,” she said. “Would you walk with me?”
“I?” came the startled reply. “Well. Yes, of course.”
“Good.” Oreilin put out her arm and Velvina hooked it in hers. “I could use a real friend here,” she spoke softly in the young woman’s ear. She ignored the heightened murmur of voices behind them, some shocked at the princess’s choice of companion. Whispers of “Who is that?” and “Do they know each other?” echoed through the high-ceilinged great hall before the two women stepped through the smaller reception area, and at last down the front steps and out onto the street.
“Tell me about the city,” Oreilin said, as they walked down the sidewalk. They could have taken transport, but Oreilin was still nervous after recent events. “Something I don’t already know. What are the people like?”
Velvina shrugged. “Much like people anywhere, I suppose.”
“Do they seem happy?”
“Yes. Most of the time. People are well cared for here, as long as they keep out of trouble.”
Oreilin felt her heart rate increase, thinking about the trouble she herself might get into. “Are you happy here?”
“That’s a difficult question to answer.”
Oreilin realized perhaps she was overstepping and decided not to press. “You say you’re a medical student.”
“Please call me Oreilin.”
“Alright. Oreilin. I’m a medical student at the Prime Institute.”
“For how long?”
“I’m nearly finished.”
“What’s your discipline?”
Oreilin lowered her voice. “Do you know much about Enhancement?”
“Why do you ask?” Velvina matched Oreilin’s volume.
Careful, Oreilin. “I’ve known a few Enhanced people; I’ve been curious about it for a long time.”
“Such curiosity can be dangerous here,” said Velvina. “Is it not so in Octavus?”
“Not so much. I’m aware of some of the persecution, though.” Oreilin frowned. “No one really knows how it works, do they? Do you think that’s why people fear it?”
“I think some people know,” Velivna replied. “Or have come close. Others just don’t believe what they hear.”
“You think there’s some truth to the parasite theory?”
“As much as any other theory, I suppose. But your servant ahead of us is looking at us strangely. Perhaps we ought to speak more loudly about a safer topic so as not to arouse suspicion.”
Oreilin took up the suggestion readily, having already prepared herself. “The palace is magnificent,” she said, expecting the new subject to please Kamelain. “Rodget walked me all about the place earlier.” It wasn’t exactly true, but the reality was more complicated so Oreilin prevaricated. “He’s my guide,” she added. “From Octavus. I gave him the day off today. Maybe you’ll get to meet him later, if you don’t mind staying awhile.”
“I have a class later tonight, but I’m free until then. The Institute isn’t far from the palace.” Velvina spoke with ease, but Oreilin could smell her nervous sweat.
“It’s not an obligation; I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“I know. It would just be nice to change into something a bit nicer.”
“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. It doesn’t concern me what you wear.”
“I suppose not. But I’m not dressed at all for a visit to the palace.”
“Would you come by later, then, on your own? I’d let the palace guards know you’re coming.”
“Thank you. Yes, I could do that.”
Oreilin smiled. “I’m glad.”
“Are you really that starved for company?”
“I admit I’ve felt rather lonely. I haven’t met any other young women near my age since I arrived. I’m so happy we bumped into each other. I felt from the start I’d like to get to know you better.”
Velvina said nothing in reply, and Oreilin spent several awkward moments agonizing over what the other girl must think of her forwardness. They hadn’t even bumped into each other, not really. The only reason Oreilin had approached Velvina at all was because of that familiar-yet-unidentified scent. She could still smell it, and not remembering to whom it belonged was driving her crazy. But she couldn’t ask Velvina directly about it.
“Looks like we’re here,” Velvina said at last, as they stopped in front of the palace.
“When can you return?”
“It won’t be long. Like I said, the Institute isn’t far from here, and the dorms are just beyond that.”
“I can have a car arranged for you.”
“Thank you, but I enjoy walking.”
Oreilin smiled. “So do I. We don’t have the sort of transportation systems in Alturia that you have here.” She realized too late her slip of tongue, but then guessed Velvina was probably the kind of person who wouldn’t mind.
They unlocked their arms and Velvina stepped away. “See you soon,” she said.
As Oreilin made her way up to her suite, she decided it was a good thing Velvina would be gone for a while, as she wanted to talk with Rodget about what he’d learned during her absence. When she entered the room, Rodget was already there and greeted her right away.
After Kamelain had left them, Oreilin kicked her shoes off and lay back on her bed. “Well?” she began.
“Right.” Rodget cleared his throat, and Oreilin noted the footsteps that indicated he was pacing the room. “I haven’t learned much, to be honest. Lord Lammely belongs to an old noble family that pre-dates the Empire by a couple hundred years. He has the potential to be a very influential person, but from all accounts his involvement in the Empire appears to be inconsequential. He spends most of his time at his country estate minding his own business, and only happens to be here in the city for a few short weeks. What he was doing roaming the palace this morning I can’t say, but I understand it’s customary for the higher-ups in society to pay occasional in-person tribute to the Emperor, so he might have been here for that.”
“What is his occupation outside of his role as a lord?”
“To find that out, I had to go to the city archives– at least, what’s available to the public. Records say he spent three years as a student at the Prime Institute, studying engineering and technology. But he never completed his certification, and what he does with his time now is not on record. He’s never been married– he’s twenty-seven years old, by the way– and has few known family connections, being an only child. His parents both died of the Kellinic Plague when he was still a youth.”
“That’s awful,” said Oreilin, sitting up and remembering a few of her own friends and family members who had been likewise afflicted. The plague had been a terrible disease, rampaging through cities and villages across the entire continent. Oreilin’s oldest sister and her infant son had been among the agonized dead, their bodies unfit at the end for anything other than cremation.
Despite her first impression of the man, she found herself feeling sympathetic toward him now. After all, there could have been a benign reason for him to smell the way he had. Maybe he’d taken a fall on the street and scraped his knees. Maybe he was a construction overseer. An odd activity for a lord, but he could do it if he chose. Though if either of those had been true, would he have gone straight to the palace afterward without washing? And wouldn’t the public records have made note of such an occupation?
Maybe he just had poor hygeine.
Maybe he tinkered with machines as a hobby.
Rodget made a soft noise to get her attention and she shook herself. “Sorry,” she said. “I was thinking.”
“I could see that.”
“Rodge. Before I said anything, what was your impression of Lammely?”
“That he was very proud,” Rodget replied. “But then he changed very quickly, became perfectly affable, even deferential.”
“Hmm. Which was the act, do you think?”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps neither. Once he realized you were a princess, his pride diminished.”
“Was it then?” Oreilin tried to recall the brief encounter. “I thought it was after he learned I’m blind.” The way people patronized her sometimes. She sighed. “Anyway, his reaction is apropos to nothing.”
“Do you still wish to get to know him better?”
“I suppose I’d better follow through with our dinner tomorrow at least. Maybe his tongue will prove looser than official channels.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t learn more from the servants,” Rodget added. “They were rather closed-off to me when I approached them about anything; only two would talk much to me at all.”
“Hmm.” Oreilin had been so enveloped in her own sense of loneliness she’d forgotten Rodget must feel just as isolated. She rose and went to him, placing a hand on his arm. “Maybe next time I give you a day off you should leave the castle to go make a friend or two. There are several restaurants that might suit your taste, or you could find a game of pike ball to join. I know you weren’t excited to come here, but you might as well make the most of it.”
“I would enjoy the exercise,” Rodget replied. “As long as you’d feel comfortable without me.”
“I think I would,” said Oreilin. “I’ve made a friend myself; she’s coming to visit later and I’m eager for you to meet her.” She spent the next few minutes describing her encounter at the museum, and the familiar scent she’d found lingering around Velvina. Rodget made a remark about Oreilin’s new penchant for collecting mysteries, and that made her smile.
“There’s one other thing I need to report,” said Rodget. “Your new com system is ready.”
“Oh!” Oreilin dashed to the back of the room and sat at the com desk.
“We need to teach it to recognize your speech.”
“Let’s do it, then.”
Oreilin had so much she wanted to tell her family– things she didn’t dare discuss over a com-pad. But at least she’d get to hear their voices, and news of home. Maybe her little nieces and nephews would sing to her, or recite for her.
She’d be calling home soon…