It was good to hear her family’s voices. Her day had been very strange, but at least her evening could end on a high, Oreilin thought, as she listened with joy to her little nephew singing her favorite Alturian anthem.
All the children were eventually shuffled off to bed, and then Oreilin was alone on the com-pad with her parents, King Boelis and Queen Ilien.
“So how are you settling in, really?” the queen asked straight away in their native tongue, voice laced with anxiety. Oreilin had answered the question already, but apparently her mother didn’t fully believe her report.
“I told you,” said Oreilin. “I’m well taken care of. And,” she added, hoping the new information would put her mother off from further interrogation, “I made a friend.” She briefly described Vel, but fabricated a story about them bonding over their shared love of sculpture to explain how they met at the museum.
It was still a puzzle to Oreilin why Vel had disappeared on her at the Institute without a word of warning, but she had decided to believe for now that Vel had had a good reason and would explain herself later. Rodget, of course, was more suspicious, but perhaps it was his suspicion that had tipped Oreilin squarely onto the side of trust. Or maybe it was their shared secret of both being Enhanced– a fact even Rodget was not privy to.
“I hear they have plenty of food in Berea,” King Boelis chimed in.
“Yes,” said Oreilin. “People are quite wasteful with it, as far as I can tell. My breakfast this morning was certainly more than I and Rodget could enjoy combined, and I don’t know what Kamelain did with the leftovers.”
Then, Oreilin had to explain how a Berean had been given an Alturian name, and that moved them into discussion of concern over their culture becoming assimilated into the wider Empire and losing their Alturian identity.
“That’s what the Emperor wants, I suppose,” Oreilin concluded near the end. “First he changes the name of our country, then our language, and finally our entire way of life.” She had suspected as much before, but this was her first time voicing the thought aloud. Alturia had only been a part of the Empire for seventeen years– long enough that Oreilin barely remembered the time before; but recent enough that her parents had been able to instill in her a national pride in her country and culture before falling into the new Berean curriculum. “Why did you choose to join the Empire?” she asked, suddenly.
Her father cleared his throat. “I was younger then,” he said. “It seemed the best way to protect our people. To avoid a war we couldn’t hope to win.”
“And would you make the same choice today?”
“I– don’t know,” Boelis confessed. “But what’s done is done. My only hope now is to preserve what dignity we have left.”
“Well I think you’ve done a fine job,” said Oreilin, hoping to boost her father’s drooping spirits.
“I thank you,” said the king. “I hope you’re right.”
“I’ll do my part as well while I’m here,” Oreilin added.
“No doubt you will.”
The compliment made Oreilin blush, with pleasure but also apprehension. She didn’t even know what her part was yet. Aside from not angering the Emperor.
An awkward silence filled the space between them, until the king addressed Rodget for the first time. “I hope you’re adjusting,” he said. “I know it must be difficult, returning to a place of such painful memories.”
“I’d suffer a great deal for the princess’ sake,” Rodget replied, with feeling, bringing another blush to Oreilin’s cheeks. “But I’m coping well enough. That– medicine your doctor prescribed has helped.”
“I didn’t know you were taking medicine,” said Oreilin, rounding on her companion.
“It didn’t come up,” said Rodget, quietly.
“What other secrets are you keeping from me, I wonder?”
But Rodget said nothing, and Oreilin was forced to abandon the pursuit. Her mother had spoken, and she’d missed the first half.
“–be happy to send you anything you need.”
“Thank you,” said Oreilin. “I truly am well taken care of. But, it would be comforting to know all the servants have returned home safely, when they arrive.”
“The Emperor has supplied you with Berean servants, then?”
“He has,” Oreilin said, frowning. “I’m guessing you weren’t informed beforehand that that would be the case?”
“No,” said Boelis. “I’m not entirely surprised, though. I suppose he means to keep you under close observation during your stay. You must be careful.”
“I gathered as much,” replied Oreilin.
“I wish I had more wisdom to impart to you,” the king said. “I’ve only ever been to Berea Prime once myself, so our sources of instruction have been the same. You’d think after seventeen years I’d be more informed; but to be quite honest, it’s mostly my own stubbornness that has prevented me from learning more. I didn’t want to learn, didn’t want to fully accept my lot as the monarch of a conquered kingdom. I’ve done the bare minimum to keep our Emperor satisfied, and little more. For seventeen years he practically ignored our little corner of the continent.”
“But now he’s asked for an ambassador, and you chose to send me.”
“We chose you,” Boelis confirmed. “You mother and I together, with the guidance of the gods.”
Rodget was not well, despite his earlier assurances to His Majesty. As soon as he’d parted from Oreilin for the night, he rushed to his chamber and rifled through his luggage until he found the small pill bottle concealed among his underclothes. He opened it and shook out two pills into his palm. Then he stood for a long moment, staring at the small green caplets. Sleeping pills, meant to quiet an anxious mind and send the user into a dreamless sleep.
Might as well try it, Rodget thought with a shrug. He fetched a glass of water, inserted the pills into his mouth, and washed them down.
Last night, he hadn’t felt he needed them. Funny, he thought. He could go through an ordeal like a train exploding without losing his mind; but as soon as he walked onto a campus populated with old men, he fell apart.
Secrets, thought Rodget. Oreilin’s accusing voice echoed in his mind: what other secrets are you keeping from me?
Too many, Highness.
He removed his shoes and outer clothing, laid down on the bed, and stared at the canopy ceiling. His fingers traced again and again over the familiar scars beneath his thin undershirt. But the pills seemed to be working: he could remember the cause of those scars– as he’d done countless other nights– but the urge to tremble at the old memories had left him.
When he awoke, Fenrick found himself in a dimly-lit room, lying on an itchy sofa. As his eyes adjusted to the low light, he took in other details: a concrete floor; a long, low table about a foot away from where he lay, littered with paraphernalia; and a small window in the wall behind him, from which a faint light glowed. He turned his head to get a better look and was rewarded with the same pain at the base of his skull that he’d been feeling on-and-off all the previous morning. He wasn’t certain, but he guessed by the way he felt that he’d probably be too dizzy to sit up or stand. He groaned.
“You’re awake,” said a deep voice from across the room, making Fenrick jump. “Sorry to startle you,” said the voice, as the body drew nearer, backlit by some light beyond. The silhouette was tall, but not large. A man, Fenrick guessed by the voice.
“Are you a friend or an enemy?” Fenrick asked.
“The former, I hope,” said the man.
“I can barely see you.”
“I’ll turn on more light, if it won’t bother you.”
“Please,” said Fenrick. He suspected the light might make his headache worse, but he wanted to see who he was talking to.
The man reached up and pulled a cord, and the room was flooded with light from a bright lamp hanging from the ceiling. Fenrick winced briefly, then opened his eyes. He took in the man’s face– light gray hair, deep-set eyes, and protruding features. “The name’s Dierro,” said the man. “And if I’m not mistaken, we fight on the same side.”
Another member of the Organization, thought Fenrick. Aloud he said, “I never wanted to join any fight.”
“Understood,” said Dierro. “But it looks like the fight found you anyhow.”
“My leg,” said Fenrick.
“We managed to finish the job you started,” said Dierro. “And gave you a blood transfusion, so you should be feeling more like yourself soon enough.”
“My head hurts,” said Fenrick. “Why is that?”
Dierro shrugged. “Blunt trauma, probably. You’ve suffered a mild concussion sometime in the past day or two.”
Fenrick didn’t remember hitting his head, but it could have happened after he blacked out behind the train. “Are you a doctor?” he asked.
“No, said Dierro. “But a doctor was here earlier. I suppose you could call me your nurse for the time being. Though my official profession is in architecture.”
“Where am I?” Fenrick asked, eyes darting about the basement room.
“About as far as you can get from where you were and still be in the same city,” Dierro replied. “I’m afraid that entire quadrant has been… compromised.”
“Terrorists attacked the apartment building I was in,” said Fenrick, remembering.
Dierro pulled up a chair and sat on the other side of the low table, facing the sofa. “They attacked several buildings known to be harboring Organization members,” he said, soberly. “Many didn’t make it.”
“How did you get me out, then?”
“We had help from an unexpected source.”
Fenrick felt his heart rate increase. “Patrean?”
“I didn’t get his name,” said Dierro.
“A young man, skinny, rust-colored hair, blood on his pants.”
“That’s him,” said Dierro with a nod.
“He helped me,” said Fenrick. “After I–” he’d been about to say something about sparing the young man’s life, but then had another thought. “After I took out his companions.”
“Hmm,” said Dierro. “I suspected he was more than just an innocent bystander as he claimed.”
“He was innocent,” Fenrick said with fervor. “He just got… tangled up with the wrong sort of people.”
“Well,” said Dierro. “We’ll find out for sure soon enough.”
“What do you mean?” There was something in the man’s tone that worried Fenrick.
“We’ll have one of our empaths test him, that’s all.”
“No,” said Fenrick, speaking the thought aloud before he could catch himself.
Now he had to scrabble to explain. “It’s wrong,” he said. “A man’s thoughts and feelings should be his own.” He had felt as much the previous night with Velvina, but hadn’t had the leisure to dwell on it. He knew an empath like her couldn’t help themself to some extent– like he couldn’t always control when his muscles grew. But he had to believe a well-trained empath ought to be able to filter– to channel– their ability to avoid unnecessary intrusion.
Dierro’s eyes narrowed. “You think it’s immoral, then?” he asked, the challenge in his voice unmistakable. “You think these gifts we’ve been given ought not be used?”
“I didn’t say that,” said Fenrick, quick to defend. “Only that they be used judiciously, with permission from those affected by them.”
“I suppose you asked permission, then, before taking out those terrorists in your apartment?”
Fenrick hated to admit the man had a point. “That was self-defense,” he said after a pause.
“So is this,” said Dierro with finality. “We can’t keep a potential traitor in our midst. Especially not after what just happened.”
After what just happened… “How many did you lose?” he asked at last, fearing the answer.
“Reports are still coming in,” replied Dierro. “Though I’m not privy to the latest intel, last I heard we had at least forty-four unaccounted for.”
“Forty-four!” Was the Organization that large?
“At least,” Dierro stressed.
“I had no idea there were that many…”
“That’s only a fraction of the whole, of course.”
“I gathered that.” Fenrick thought a moment. “Where is the boy right now?”
“Not far,” Dierro replied.
“I’d like to see him.”
“I don’t get to make that call, but I’ll pass on the request.”
There was a coldness about Dierro, Fenrick decided, as the man dimmed the light and left his side to tend to some other business. He closed his eyes, unable to power through the headache any longer, and fell asleep.
Help arrived in the early morning in the form of a familiar face– one of Vel’s professors, though Vel hadn’t known she was part of the Organization until now– and another, sent to finish the clean-up from the night before, and to check over Vel’s work on Senn.
“Well done,” Professor Kratt said at last, with a hint of unmistakable pride. But Vel also sensed a weariness about her that was more than merely physical.
“What happened yesterday?” Vel asked, hoping for first-hand intelligence.
Professor Kratt sighed. “A catastrophe, that’s what,” she said.
“What’s all this about?” asked Senn, reclining in a chair now after being cleared by the professor. Vel had forgotten that she’d told Senn nothing about her conversations with Panni.
“A terrorist attack,” Kratt replied. “Larger and more organized than any we’ve ever faced. It’s suspected that we have a traitor in the Organization.”
A traitor! Then, another horrifying thought occurred to Vel. “Where?” she asked.
“The whole north-east quadrant.”
“That’s where F–” She stopped herself just in time. “I know someone who was staying there,” she finished, trying not to let her anxiety show.
“You might know more than one,” said Kratt. “Many of our people worked or resided there. It was supposed to be our most secure location, being farthest away from the palace.”
“A psychological deception at best,” Senn interjected. Both the women looked at him incredulously, while Don the custodian continued to clean, pretending not to be listening. “It’s a fallacy,” Senn explained. “It’s natural to believe you’re safest from a threat when you’re farther away from it, but in the modern world that’s rarely the case, however true it might have been for our distant ancestors.”
“I suppose you mean the threat is all around us, thanks to modern technology,” said Vel.
“And we’re better off befriending the threat– so to speak– than hiding from it.”
“No, that can’t be the way,” said Professor Kratt, with a frown. “I mean, I suppose we’ve done that in some ways. Surely we have operatives within the palace itself, but I’d hardly call that befriending. And you seem to be suggesting,” she said, poking a finger at Senn, “that we ought to embrace the enemy, not just spy on it.”
“I’m not saying that, either,” replied Senn. Vel remembered their earlier conversation, and apparently he was thinking of it, too, when he said, “I’ve lived with my enemy in the past; it didn’t end well. There are certainly times when it’s better to flee. But in the case of these terrorists, fear is exactly the reaction they’re looking for. But there, you mentioned spying– that’s more what I mean. We need some of our own people to get in on the other side, but not just to observe from a limited perspective. We need real intelligence. We need people who can get close to whoever’s in charge and earn their trust.”
“How do you know we don’t have that already?” Vel asked.
“Would we have been blindsided like this if we had? If we do have spies, they’re obviously not sufficient.”
“Are you volunteering yourself?”
Senn turned to Professor Kratt. “If I was, who would I talk to?”
But Professor Kratt shook her head. “I have no idea. The Organization operates on a–”
“–need to know,” Senn finished. He sighed. “Yes, I know.”
“Anyhow, you need to heal first,” said Vel. “I know you probably feel ripe and ready all things considered, but–”
“–I know,” Senn interrupted, giving Vel a stern glance and projecting his annoyance directly at her so that it nearly knocked her back in her seat. It was a new experience for Vel, realizing that a person could do that if they knew what she was capable of. The message was loud and clear: Senn didn’t want Kratt to know what his Enhancement was, and she’d better be more careful about revealing his secret in the future. She gave him a humble, penitent glance in response, and he relaxed. Then he suddenly tensed up again, but this time Vel could tell it was an act.
Professor Kratt gave Vel a reproachful look. “When was his last dose of pain medicine?”
Senn groaned softly and pressed a hand to his abdomen. He really was a good actor; if anyone could handle being a spy it was Senn. Playing along, Vel glanced at the clock on the wall and pretended to consider. “About…six hours ago,” she said.
“He’s long overdue for another dose,” said Kratt, going to the med kit and searching for the painkiller herself. She found the bottle and opened it, then gave Senn two dissolvable tablets. He swallowed them obediently, and within minutes relaxed into the supposed effects of the medicine.
“I’m sorry, Senn,” Vel said to him. “I was neglectful.”
Senn waved off the apology. “I could have reminded you,” he said.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” said Kratt. “You’re still new to caring for an actual patient, after all.”
With that, the subject was dropped and there seemed to be not much else to talk about– and yet there was still so much on Vel’s mind. She packed up her med kit, leaving out the bottle of pain medication for Senn to take home with him. “I can walk with you,” she said to him.
“Thanks,” said Senn. “But, I’ve been thinking perhaps it would be best if Nema continues to believe that I hate you.” While he said the words, he once again projected a different private sentiment, assuring her of his newfound respect and even friendship.
“I understand,” said Vel.
“I don’t,” said Kratt. Then she laughed. “Ah, the politics of youth. I don’t understand it at all. But don’t worry,” she reassured them. “Your secret is safe with me.”
A part of Vel still couldn’t get over the fact that one of her professors had been part of the Organization this entire time. And the fact that it was Kratt was even more surprising, though she couldn’t clearly identify why it should shock her so. Kratt was just one of those people who seemed so– boring. She wasn’t the best of teachers, though she obviously knew her field. And she tried just a little too hard to get the students and other faculty to like her, to the point that she often achieved the opposite effect.
But then, that was the great thing about the Organization: it sought to help all Enhanced people who needed protecting, and utilized the unique skills and connections of each to accomplish its goals. Kratt was well situated, after all, to keep an eye on the other professors– and Norlan in particular, Vel supposed– though she wasn’t about to ask. It might even have been Kratt who’d recommended Vel and Senn for the rescue of two nights ago. Had it really only been two nights?
On the way back to her dorm, Vel decided it was about time to face Professor Norlan, and she’d rather do it on her own terms than wait for him to track her down. She washed and changed– relieved to find Nema absent– and gathered her things for class, though she hardly felt like going today. She didn’t feel like going to the mess hall, either, so she grabbed some grapes and a roll from the snack bar in the common room and ate as she walked. A few people greeted her, but something in her expression must have discouraged any friendliness, and it was true that right now she preferred it that way.
All through the first lecture of the day, her mind kept going over scenarios regarding her anticipated meeting with Norlan.
And pointedly avoided any speculation about what might have happened to Fenrick.