The next morning began early for Oreilin, with Kamelain coming to her room and presenting her with her official schedule for the day.
“But there will be little time for leisure,” Oreilin observed to Rodget in Alturian, after hearing the agenda to the end.
“Perhaps that is the purpose,” replied Rodget.
Oreilin frowned, but then turned back to Kamelain. “Very well,” she said, once more in Berean. “What would you recommend I wear for the morning audience?” The first item on the agenda– after a rushed breakfast and preparations– was a visit to the Secondian quarters, where (she was told) the Secondian Ambassador was eagerly awaiting her. After that, the Quaternian Ambassador had also requested an audience, followed by lunch with a few influential noble ladies of Prime. There was a brief court session scheduled for the afternoon, to which Oreilin had been invited.
At least the dinner hours would be free. Except halfway through Kamelain styling Oreilin’s hair (in the current Berean fashion), a messenger showed up with a formal invitation from Lord Lammely to spend the evening with him.
“The nerve!” Oreilin emoted aloud. “After I’d already invited him– informal though it was– he decides to pre-empt the overture with one of his own. Can he not allow himself to be anyone else’s beneficiary?”
“Perhaps that is exactly his problem,” Rodget observed, dryly.
“Well,” said Oreilin. “I don’t intend to become one of his, either.”
Rodget said nothing to this comment, but if Oreilin could have seen his amused smile she might have slugged him.
“Tell His Lordship I accept his invitation,” said Oreilin to the messenger after some consideration. She was still peeved about it, but thought it would be rude to refuse. She’d simply have to figure out some other way to assert her independence if not her superiority. It wouldn’t do for any of the dignitaries here to believe she was attempting to form an alliance or exert undue influence on local affairs. Of course, that meant that by accepting Lammely’s invitation, she was opening herself up to potenital countless future invitations as well which she would be unable to reject on principle, lest she appear to show preference. The messenger left the room, and Oreilin immediately regretted her decision.
“No need to be so fastidious,” she said to Kamelain, who had resumed the task of taming the princess’s natural curls. “Let them see me as I am, not as what they expect me to be.” Having lost her patience, she rose from her chair, as Kamelain hastened to fasten one last clip. Oreilin wouldn’t be so callous as to undo the woman’s work, however much she might be tempted. But she wrapped an airy shawl over her head and tied it beneath her chin before Kamelain could object. The shawl– though lighter than the kind Oreilin would have worn up north– reminded her of home, and grounded her nerves for the long day ahead. She’d requested it earlier, despite Kamelain’s discouragement: It would be too hot, the woman had argued; the princess would draw undue attention to herself; she’d do much better to blend in with the rest.
But Oreilin didn’t intend to blend in. She’d spent her entire life feeling invisible to all but her most intimate family and friends. So many seemed to think that since she couldn’t see them, there wasn’t much point in them seeing her either. But since coming to Berea Prime, she’d managed to make herself noticed not only by those with whom she came into direct contact, but all the city seemed to be talking about her. Sure, it made her uncomfortable at times; but it was the kind of discomfort that comes with a certain sense of excitement, and the thought that maybe– here in Berea– she could finally break out of her chrysalis and become the beautiful butterfly she was meant to be.
Here, she could make a difference.
Bolstered by this thought, and by her parents’ encouragement of the night before, she took Rodget’s arm and he led her– following Kamelain– through doors, down stairs, and along corridors, until they reached their first destination.
“Professor Norlan?” Vel spoke through the crack in the slightly open door to Norlan’s office. Most professors had an open-door policy during school hours, but he could be in the middle of a lecture elsewhere on campus. No answer came, so Vel pushed the door wider and stepped inside.
It wasn’t her first time here. Norlan’s office looked much like any other office, except less tidy. His books sat on stacks on the shelves, rather than upright in orderly rows; and the desk itself was covered with piles of papers, amid a few knick-knacks. No one sat behind the desk, so Vel took a seat and waited.
She’d been there nearly twenty minutes, taking occasional glances at her portable com-pad for messages, and was just thinking about coming back later, when the professor finally appeared. He didn’t seem to notice her at first, coming in from a side door. He sat at the desk, rifled through one of the stacks, then looked up and started.
“Velvina,” he said, having recovered from the shock. “Please excuse me, I didn’t see you.”
“I suppose it’s my fault for being so quiet,” Velvina replied with a smile.
Norlan relaxed, but Vel sensed the undercurrent of his curiosity. He was a man with much on his mind, and it took him some time to become mentally present. He still sported a swollen face from Fenrick’s punch, and his nose remained slightly crooked though he must have had a surgeon put it back in place. When he spoke, his voice was more nasally than usual.
“I hope your face heals up nicely.”
“Thank you,” said Norlan, with a grimace.
“I sure would like to punch that man back for you,” Vel added, with fervor, playing into her act from two nights ago. “It makes me so angry he got away.”
Norlan mumbled something unintelligible to himself, then looked at Vel. “I was wondering,” he said. “What happened after he left with you.”
“I was powerless to stop him,” Vel said, in a hopeless tone.
Norlan became utterly sympathetic, to the point of patronizing his young female student. “Of course,” he said. “You’re just as much a victim as I was. More, even. It must have been terrifying for you. But,” he continued. “The odd thing about it all, was that none of the security cameras were able to follow you or the man during his escape.”
“What?” Vel feigned shock.
“It appears they’d been tampered with.”
“Oh.” Vel slumped in her chair.
“But now you’re here, you can tell me what happened.”
“Oh,” Vel said again. “Right.”
“That is why you came?”
Keep playing the helpless victim, Vel reminded herself. “Yes,” she said. “Though, it’s difficult to think about.” She looked into her lap.
Professor Norlan rose quickly from his seat and came around the desk to Vel’s side. He stooped down and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. Even through his apparently genuine concern, Vel sensed the man’s opportunistic nature regarding having her here in such a vulnerable position. She didn’t think he’d take it too far– not this time– but the inclination was still there. It made Vel sick, but she pushed down her revulsion and accepted the touch for now.
“A terribly traumatic experience,” said Norlan. “Take your time.” His hand moved down her arm until it rested in the crook of her elbow, his fingertips brushing against her breast.
This was a bit much for Vel, who jerked her arm away reflexively. But she quickly recovered and followed the action up by throwing her hands to her face and sobbing. “I tried to stop him!” she wailed. “I had that scalpel, and I was ready to use it. B- but he w- w- was too strong!”
She’d had plenty of practice inducing tears in the past and they came easily to her now. Norlan fetched her a tissue and she took it. Then he waited patiently while she steadied her breathing and dabbed at her eyes and nose. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Hush, no need to apologize.” A pause. “Did he– hurt you?”
“No,” said Vel. “But he threatened to. Multiple times. He made me get him clothes from the laundry room, then he escaped through the sewer.”
“I knew it!” Norlan stood up and practically glowed with triumph. “I’ve been telling them for months that’s how they’re doing it.”
“They?” Vel asked.
“Sorry,” said Norlan, catching his slip-up. “No need to concern yourself with that.”
But Vel continued to press, hoping to get more of an idea of what Norlan knew– or thought he knew– about the Organization. “You think he wasn’t working alone?”
“With the security system so conveniently out of commission?” Norlan scoffed. “Of course he wasn’t working alone.”
“Oh,” replied Vel.
“But like I said, no need to concern yourself.”
“But what if it happens again? With another– subject?”
“Don’t worry,” replied Norlan. “We’ve learned our lesson this time. And you told me about the sewer, so now we can have that exit guarded in the future.”
Vel hated the realization that she’d given away such a great secret, but it couldn’t be helped. If she’d tried to fabricate any other explanation, the falsehood would have been discovered with very little investigation.
“In any case,” said Norlan, returning to his desk. “I’m glad you’re safe. I was quite relieved to see you last night, and intended to ask after you but you disappeared.” His suspicion was palpable, especially in contrast to his former concern. “You were with someone,” he continued. “I didn’t get a good look, but she appeared to be someone– important?”
“Just a friend,” replied Vel. “She’s new to Prime and I was showing her around campus.”
“I see,” said Norlan. But he wasn’t ready to drop the subject, and Vel sensed his excitement over something. “You know, I spotted her again later, and you weren’t with her anymore. But she had a man with her, and two others who appeared to be bodyguards. I followed them as far as the palace– from a distance, of course.”
Vel cursed internally, hoping her aggravation didn’t show on her face. How much more did Norlan know?
“I’m impressed you were able to befriend a princess,” said Norlan, dropping the final bomb in his arsenal. “I wonder, though, what your intentions are?”
“What do you mean?” Vel’s heart rate was already increasing; her palms began to sweat and she resisted the urge to wipe them on her skirt.
“I mean, you seem rather keen on developing high-profile relationships, by any means necessary. Oh yes, I’ve heard the rumors,” Norlan said, when Vel opened her mouth to object. “I wasn’t inclined to believe them at first, but now–” He stopped, looked at Vel with sharp eyes and– though he couldn’t know of Vel’s empathic sense– an eagerness bordering on obsession.
Instinctively, Vel rose from her seat and backed away a few steps. Norlan followed this movement, and quickly responded by moving around the desk until he was near her again. “Don’t leave yet,” he said with subtle intensity, breathing heavily through his mouth. “I was about to make you an intriguing offer.”
“And what is that?” asked Vel, keeping her eyes on the man’s disfigured face.
“I need access to the palace,” said Norlan. “There are archives there– medical records. I’ve been conducting some research on Enhancement, as you know.”
“Yes,” replied Vel. “I know.”
Norlan chuckled. “Apparently I wasn’t being subtle enough about my intentions; several students have been bold enough to ask me about my research, until I was forced to be open about it. It’s better this way, in any case. No more hiding. And two nights ago, I realized that all my students are just as eager to learn as I have been, as evidenced by everyone’s excitement over the opportunity to operate on that– man. No one even questioned me on the fact that such an operation would have killed the beast.”
“Beast!” Vel exclaimed, momentarily unhinged by the implication. “Fenrick’s not a beast.”
“Aha!” Norlan crowed, and Vel snapped her eyes away, ashamed with herself for falling into the trap. What was happening to her? She’d already revealed the secret of the sewer, and now this…
“Don’t be distressed,” said Norlan, taking Vel’s arm with a firm but gentle grip which she didn’t fight. “So the man told you his name, talked you into believing he was worth saving. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, you’re merely human after all.” He practically crooned now, like a mother soothing a guilty child. “Unlike that man and others like him.”
Vel took a few deep breaths and allowed Norlan to guide her back into her seat. Inside she was fuming, but she couldn’t let it show– not again.
“You have what– two months left before you graduate?”
“Three,” replied Vel, quietly.
“Then there’s not much to worry about,” Norlan reassured her. “You know we come across live specimens so rarely, it’s unlikely you’ll be faced with such an ordeal again. And even so, if it distresses you too much I’m sure I can arrange for you to be excused from the exercise.”
His words were so kind, so– fatherly. Except Vel sensed the motivation behind the words, and that was anything but kind. Norlan’s heart was cold, his mind determined. And there was something else– something revealed by his sense of triumph at Vel’s reaction to Fenrick being called a beast, and a lingering suspicion about something. Did he suspect that Vel, too, was Enhanced? And if so, what did that mean for Vel? Would he reveal her secret?
No. He would keep it to himself, so he could use her– at least until he had no more need of her help. The man wasn’t only unhinged, Vel realized– he was far more dangerous than Vel had thought.
“But what of my proposal, then?” Norlan asked after a beat. “I’ve been unsuccessful myself in gaining access to the archives– apparently they’re restricted to state personnel, and your princess friend would certainly qualify.”
“I don’t know,” said Vel, truthfully enough. “She might not be inclined if I ask her. And perhaps you’ve heard, but– she’s blind.”
“Oh.” Apparently Norlan hadn’t heard.
“I’ll see what I can do, though,” said Vel, deciding to play into the role for now, well aware of the potential stakes. “What exactly are you looking for?”
“Not a whole lot,” replied Norlan, attempting to sound careless. “Just some of the more antique records, from before our Beloved Emperor rose to power. Specifically anything regarding the origin of Enhancements– when they emerged, and where they were first observed. Also, just as a matter of curiosity, I’d like to find out who was the youngest person on record as being known to possess an Enhancement.”
Vel took in this instruction dispassionately, nodding every few seconds to indicate understanding.
At the end of his speech, Norlan clasped his hands together. “I’m pleased,” he said. Then he looked at Vel, again with those sharp eyes. “You’ll be rewarded for your efforts, of course.”
Vel returned the steady gaze. “It will be enough,” she said, “to know I’ve helped to further the cause of scientific research.”
Norlan nodded and smiled. “You’ll be careful, of course,” he said, a hint of trepidation creeping in. But it was concern for his own welfare, not Vel’s. Vel understood well enough that if it came down to it, Norlan would betray her to save himself. “It’s possible the Emperor doesn’t wish this information to be discovered.”
“I’ll be careful,” Vel reassured him. “It’s wrong to hide such knowledge, if it exists. My first loyalty must always be to discovering the truth.”
“Good girl,” said Norlan, endowing his student with a fatherly gaze and a pat on the shoulder. But then, again, the hand on Vel’s shoulder lingered, and his gaze became something other than fatherly. “If you ever need– comfort,” he said, swallowing a little, “you know I’m here for you.”
Vel recoiled at the very thought, recollecting previous encounters with men not that much younger than Norlan, and equally patronizing. How had she ever allowed herself to descend so low? But she looked up at her professor and nodded, murmured a “thank you,” then turned away and walked slowly out of the office.
As the name suggested, Secondus had been the first nation to ally itself with the would-be-Emperor nearly a hundred years ago. Officially the Empire wasn’t declared until seventy years ago, but Prime and Secondus had been plotting together much earlier. Few alive now remembered Secondus’ original name. The same applied to Tertius and Quaternus, the next nations to come under the Empire’s rule.
So Rodget knew Oreilin would have to tread especially carefully around the Secondian Ambassador, considering their fierce alliance with the Emperor; and same for her visit to Quaternus later.
“Please come in,” said the manservant who answered the door to the Secondian suite. Oreilin and Rodget stepped into the large antechamber. Compared to the splendor of these rooms, Alturia’s quarters were plain and sparse, and for a moment Rodget felt embarrassed for the princess.
But Oreilin, with her characteristic optimism and blissful ignorance to visual indicators of wealth and influence, smiled and curtseyed, seeming entirely at ease. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m glad to be invited here; it will be good for me to get to know the other ambassadors.”
The servant eyed Oreilin, looking with uncertainty into her face, taking in the fact of her blindness. But then he shrugged, and turned. “This way,” he said.
They followed the manservant into a short hallway, then into a sitting room where the Ambassador and a few others rose at their entry.
“Welcome,” said the Ambassador– a tall, gray-haired woman with golden skin and well-proportioned features. A stunning woman, even at her more advanced age; though to Rodget, the most inviting thing about her was simply that she was not a man. “Please call me Urissa.” She indicated a spread of food on a short table in the center of the room. “Please help yourself to the food,” she said. “And Borgé will bring you wine, if you desire it.”
Rodget helped Oreilin to a chair, then began arranging a plate for her. But Oreilin said to the Ambassador, “No wine, thank you.”
“You don’t take alcohol?”
“Only rarely,” Oreilin replied. “It’s not really part of Al– Octavian culture.”
“I see,” said Urissa, frowning slightly.
“This cheese has an interesting fragrance,” Oreilin remarked, holding a piece up to her nose.
“It’s been infused with rose petal oil,” said Urissa, smiling.
Oreilin took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. Rodget knew she wasn’t an appreciator of floral flavors, but she made a good show of enjoying the cheese and even managed a second bite.
“Perhaps you’d try the smoked lamb.”
Rodget had purposefully not put any of the lamb on Oreilin’s plate. Now, she scrunched up her nose. “Thank you,” she said. “But I’m avoiding meat right now.”
Urissa raised her brows. “Another cultural custom?”
“No,” said Oreilin, apologetically. “A– personal choice.”
“If you would,” Rodget cut in, attempting to redeem the interview. “I think Her Highness would enjoy a description of your beautiful sitting room; I’ll oblige, if you don’t mind.”
After a moment of consideration, Urissa smiled and nodded. So Rodget spent the next minutes describing the various items about the chamber– the draperies, the pictures on the wall, the fine dishware. He saved the most interesting item for last, knowing how Oreilin would react. “And there’s a statute in the corner,” he said. “A raven, carved from obsidian, it appears.” He gave Urissa a questioning glance, and Urissa nodded, affirming his guess.
“The raven is the symbol of Secondus,” said Urissa. “One of the few relics left from before the Empire.”
“Oooh,” said Oreilin, fingers already twitching. “I have a weakness for sculpture. May I touch it? It’s the only way for me to ‘see’ it.”
This request seemed to please Urissa, who smiled and gestured, “Go ahead.”
Rodget led her to the statue, and Oreilin enjoyed several happy moments exploring the smooth beak, the texture of the folded wings, and the raven’s regal stance. “Why a raven?” she asked.
Urissa shrugged. “I’m not sure. There are a lot of them in Secondus, perhaps that was reason enough. But there might have been some symbolism in the creature that has since been lost to time and progress.”
Time and progress. The words echoed in Rodget’s mind. Yes, much had been lost to time a “progress” since the rise of the Empire. On the surface, much of that progress seemed a very good thing, but Rodget understood better. And he would fight to his last breath to help Alturia preserve as much of its pre-conquered culture as possible. Alturia would not forget the significance of its customs and relics.
The rest of the visit passed dully enough, with both parties avoiding any charged topics of conversation. After her pleasure at sharing the sculpture with the princess, Urissa’s attitude toward Oreilin reverted to a neutral tolerance, and when they parted there was no expressed wish to repeat the experience any time soon, but plenty of well-wishes for health and happiness.
“I think that went well,” Oreilin said, brightly, once they’d exited the suite. And even Rodget, who knew her better than any unattached man had the right to know a woman, couldn’t tell whether or not she meant it.
She kept the mask on throughout the following hours, first with her Quaternian host, then at the noble ladies’ luncheon. It wasn’t until the afternoon court session that Rodget was able to detect hints of the trepidation that lay beneath the surface of Oreilin’s careful facade.