A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

5.7 – Puer Molestia {Boy Troubles}

It had been one of the most satisfying nights’ worth of sleep that Elena had experienced, but it still hadn’t been enough for her to catch up on the past week of deprivation. Every injury she had sustained over the long attack ached deep in her muscles, but she sat straight and tried to blink the sleep out of her eyes. She could see that her studiomates were also having trouble staying alert. Across from her, Arturo’s head nodded, and she gave him a prod with her foot under the table. He jerked awake and flashed her a grateful smile.

“This is one of the most unusual set of accounts for a given month that I’ve seen in some time,” the Coin Collector tutted, sliding his thin glasses up the bridge of his nose. He certainly matched Elena’s mental image of what a Milian Coin Collector would look like; he was a stuffy and portly man, slightly greying, but his fingers flitted through the account books and pieces of paper with startling speed. “Eight studios’ worth of coins passing back and forth in so many different attacks and counterattacks, taken and retaken, everything in chaos. It has made my job incredibly difficult, let me tell you.”

“We’ve been keeping accurate records,” Isadora said carefully, exchanging a look with Elena. The students were all gathered at the dining room table, used primarily for meeting and speaking with visitors to the studio. Its surface was covered in papers and accounts, most of them belonging to the Coin Collector, and he furrowed his brow as he shuffled through them. He had been most concerned with the set of papers Isadora and Elena had been keeping, accounts of Studio DaRose’s exchanges.

“The records all seem in order, as far as I can tell, but it’s not often we see the sheer amount I’m looking at here.”

“We’ve been a busy studio this month,” Isadora nodded, “but if you’ll notice, most of the coins were gained from attacks on us.”

“Yes, that’s another irregularity that concerns me. I may spend most of my time in the Palace, Miss Torchlight, but I spend that time focused on the finance of the studio system. I’m not as out-of-touch or disconnected as many think I am, I knew this month would be chaotic, but…” he pulled one of his books closer, opened it and compared to the sheet in front of him, “…there’s a difference between mentally preparing for a chaotic month and seeing it in person.”

The room sat in silence for a few moments before he spoke again.

“Very well, I think that covers all of my questions, I can get through the rest on my own. Thank you, garzoni, as usual you’ve been most helpful.”

“So…where are we in the hierarchy?” Elena asked, as the Coin Collector began collecting his books and papers. The entire process of studio accounting was new to her, and despite Isadora’s assurances that Studio DaRose was better off than they had ever been, Elena was still nervous.

“Ah, you’ll be Miss Cog, yes? I’m afraid that remains to be seen until I take these records back to the palace and review them in the context of all of the studios. Don’t worry, Master DaRose will be receiving his letter in the next few days.”

“We appreciate your time, sir,” Isadora said respectfully as the students rose and the Coin Collector stacked his books and papers, “as always, we’ll be quite excited to hear what Master DaRose has to say.”

“Yes, Master DaRose is one of the more talkative ones isn’t he,” the Coin Collector said dryly on his way out. As soon as the door shut quietly behind him, the collected garzoni seemed to breath a sigh of relief

“We can go back to bed now, right?” Dolce asked, rubbing her eyes.

“We have a meeting with Studio Malatesta in a few hours,” Isadora said, but her eyes softened as she looked around the table, “but I think I can handle that. Get some rest everyone.”

Elena stumbled on the way to the room that she shared with Isadora and Dolce. Even simple tasks like walking were proving difficult with the weight of weariness bearing down on her, but the prospect of being able to sleep for longer was enough to keep her moving.

She didn’t hear the knock on the door, but her Storm buzzed in her temples, filling her in about all the particulars of her studio, and she knew someone had knocked as certainly as she knew that her ribs ached. With a groan she changed course to move instead towards the kitchens where the door to the studio was.

“Niccolo! Vittoria!” The exhaustion was all but forgotten for a few moments as Elena greeted her old studiomates, “I didn’t realize you were coming by!”

“Hello Elena, Ele, it’s good to see the both of you,” Elena hadn’t seen Vittoria’s smile since Studio De Luca, but it seemed a bit more wan than she remembered it, and Niccolo’s smile was tight, much less friendly than his typical roguish grin. The sky was covered in deep clouds, and as Vittoria spoke a roll of thunder rumbled in the distance. Behind them, across the street, Vi and Nicci talked to one another in low tones, shooting glances in the direction of Studio DaRose.

“Something is wrong,” Elena stepped aside to let the two enter, her stomach already in knots, “has something happened?”

“You might say that,” Vittoria said gently, glancing around her at the kitchen. She touched the table gingerly and glanced at Elena before sitting down.

“You’ve heard about the table trap,” Ele grinned, “don’t worry, we keep it disarmed during the day.”

“Thank you. To answer your question, Elena, although it wasn’t entirely unexpected, something definitely did happen. You can shut the door, Vi and Nicci are keeping watch.”

Elena tried to make her tired mind reconcile the careful tone in Vittoria’s voice with her warm and happy friend from Studio De Luca, but she was tired and it was hard to come to a conclusion. “Vittoria you’re worrying me, what’s wrong? And Niccolo, you haven’t said a word. Please, tell me what’s going on. It’s not,” she suddenly gasped, “Frederica didn’t get hurt, did she? Tell me everything is okay.”

“It’s not that, no one is hurt, calm down,” Niccolo said, running a hand through his hair, “but everything isn’t okay. You know that Carlo is a garzoni of Studio Malatesta, yes?”

“I know,” Elena nodded. Knowing that had played a large part in coming up with Studio DaRose’s plans to keep Studio Malatesta blind. As long as he was working for Studio Malatesta, they would always have at least some information from the Artifex’s prophetic frescoes, so it was impossible to blind them completely. Elena thought, however, that they had done quite well given the circumstances.

“He has sets of tiles that monitor the position of the Studios. Their places in the hierarchy,” Niccolo’s words came out short, clipped, “so Studio Malatesta knew this morning what the results of the Coin Collector will be. Vittoria came by to tell me.”

Elena stayed silent as he spoke. A part of her felt just a little bit hurt and left out; if Vittoria and Niccolo were so willing to share information with each other, why couldn’t they with her? Why did it always feel as if Studio Malatesta and Studio De Luca were working together on the opposite side from DaRose?

“Studio DaRose is the top studio of Milia, Elena.” Vittoria said.

Elena blinked. “The…the top? Above Studio De Luca?”

“It’s close, closer than anything Carlo has seen, it might only be by a few coins, but it’s DaRose.”

“That’s…that’s amazing!” Elena beamed. She wanted to dance around the kitchen, but she was so tired that she settled for bouncing in her chair, “I knew we were doing well what with the extra coins from all of the raids, but I had no idea we were even close to the top! We won’t keep the title next month, I’m sure, but I can barely believe it, Studio De Luca has been the best Studio for…for years!”

“Decades,” Niccolo corrected quietly, “that’s sort of why we’re here, Elena.”

Elena paused in her bouncing to look at her friend and boyfriend more carefully. There was something about the way they held themselves, the way their lips tightened at the corner of their mouths…

“You’re not…angry that we’re the best, are you?” she asked, suddenly self concious.

“Not the best, just the top right now,” Niccolo corrected again.

“And we’re not angry, Elena, not at all,” Vittoria said, “it’s just…do you remember when we all met with you in your room in De Luca’s studio?”

“Which time?”

“Just before the final projects. You were going to make Niccolo a bow, and we helped you think bigger. We helped you see how the studios worked.”

“You’re here to do the same thing again,” Ele was standing behind Elena, his arms folded across his chest, a frown on his face. Elena could tell from his expression that he had caught something she hadn’t yet, and she furrowed her brow.

“Well, we can’t be doing a lot wrong,” she reasoned aloud, “if it’s resulted in this.”

“That’s just it, Elena,” Niccolo was on his feet next to Vittoria, and he leaned on the table to look at Elena earnestly, “it’s not anything wrong, but you can see that you’ve upset the system, right?”

Elena clenched her teeth. She was exhausted, and every ache that the exhaustion brought with it was another reminder of the raids.

“I think every studio in Milia has shown us that they don’t like it when we attack during the day,” she said, trying to keep her voice pleasant. It’s not Niccolo’s fault that I’m exhausted, she reminded herself. “And anyways, the raiding rules are in the rulebook now, so it won’t be happening any more.”

“Not every studio in Milia is against you. There was the mystery studio that helped you when you attacked Malatesta, the one that is apparently sharing their rulebook with you.”

Elena bit her lip. If they were going to keep their alliance with Studio Foscari a secret, she would have to be more careful about exactly what it was that she said.

“That’s not even the half of it,” Niccolo continued, “it’s not just about the day-raids, not just about the double-studio attack. They’re all flashy, one-off strategies to keep us off balance, but I’m not distracted by the flash.”

“Form over function,” Elena remembered the lecture Niccolo had given her in the her first days in Studio De Luca, “you think this is all a distraction for something sinister?”

“I know that Studio DaRose can promise up and down that it won’t raid in the day anymore, won’t team up anymore, but you won’t give up your sudden fascination with plans that bend the rules to their breaking point,” Niccolo didn’t seem to realize that he was raising his voice, “I don’t like seeing the studios gamed, I don’t like having to keep an eye out for the next underhanded tactic!”

“That’s pretty rich,” Elena snapped before she could help herself, “when we teamed up with another studio to fight off an alliance of six.”

“Elena-” Ele said quietly.

“An alliance that you forced by spitting on the rules to attack Malatesta in the day,” Niccolo snapped back.

“Niccolo, calm down-” Vittoria began, but Niccolo interrupted her without decreasing his volume.

“Coordinating attacks isn’t new, but hidden alliances that have us all checking over our shoulders, wondering which of the other studios stabbed us in the back-”

“Defending a helpless studio isn’t stabbing you in the back!” Elena yelled.

“Studio DaRose is the farthest thing from a helpless studio, now that it’s decided to forsake years of tradition for a little gains. It’s at the top of the heap, so I suppose every little unprincipled trick has payed off for you, hasn’t it! DaRose has never really cared about the purity of art, but don’t think I haven’t noticed exactly when all of this started; the flash might be from Studio DaRose, but I know who’s been at the heart of all these shrewd little plans, Cog!”

Elena opened her mouth to snap a retort, and froze. She could hear her own heart beating hard and fast in her chest, but everything else sounded dull around her, except for another roll of thunder, closer to the studio this time.

“‘Cog’?” she asked in a voice so quiet she herself could barely hear it.

“I meant…sorry, I meant ‘Elena’,” Niccolo looked down at the table, his face red, “I just…we were talking about Studio stuff.”

“The ‘Studio stuff’ you promised wouldn’t come between us?” Elena didn’t realize there were tears in her eyes until one of them rolled down her cheek. “Why don’t you just admit it, Balance. You’re angry because Studio DaRose is ahead of Studio De Luca, and you don’t think we deserve it.”

“You don’t deserve it.” Vittoria broke in. As usual, her face was calm, serene even, but her tone was one of a parent scolding her child. Elena felt as though she had been slapped in the face. “You used tricks to get ahead, instead of the system that was designed for the studios to use.”

“A system designed for ONE studio to use! A system that will always, always keep every single studio underneath De Luca and Malatesta!”

“Well maybe that should be a hint!” Niccolo exploded, “maybe Studio DaRose should take that as a clue to actually know-” he stopped, suddenly, clamping his mouth shut and breaking Elena’s gaze to look down at the table. His hands were clenched tight, his shoulders tense with frustration and anger.

Perhaps it was the exhaustion, perhaps the aches and pains that throbbed throughout her whole body, or perhaps it was because in her heart she had always known Niccolo felt this way. Whatever the reason, the anger drained out of Elena, to be replaced instead by a sadness that threatened to tear her tired little heart from her chest.

“To actually know where our place is,” Elena finished for him, quietly.

“I didn’t say that,” Niccolo snapped.

“But that’s what you meant.”

Niccolo didn’t disagree. Vittoria didn’t speak up.

The three garzoni of the three very different studios sat, quiet, without looking at each other. The gentle patter of rain on the roof of the studio filled the silence, but it only seemed to highlight the tension in the small room. Elena felt as if all it would take was another roll of thunder to shake her apart. Ele was silent, but he rested his hand gently on the table through where Elena’s rested, like he used to do when they were children and her mother was screaming at her.

“I…I can’t-” Elena began, but her voice broke. She had to try twice again before she could get the words out, “I don’t know if I can be with someone who only likes me if I’m in the right studio, Niccolo.”

Niccolo remained silent.

NO! shrieked the voice in Elena’s head, so loud she winced, my boyfriend my Niccolo MINE.

She felt each individual prickle of the Storm stab like a needle through her head, her fingertips buzzing so hard that she half-expected to see them shake, and data, designs and information of Niccolo Loredan, Elena’s sweetheart, flooded through her mind.

She was surprised, in a dull sort of way, to discover that he had memorized a recipe for crepes from Frencai, one he had practised and had one day hoped to make for her. Amused, in a detached way, that he smelled of violets because he kept a little bottle of violet water in his rooms that he applied every morning, because he knew that girls liked it. Numbly relieved that he hadn’t taken Leanarda up on her many subtle hints that she kept her dorm room door unlocked at night, relieved that he hadn’t even acknowledged her flirtation at all.

The information flicked through her mind in an instant, a host of knowledge it would be pertinent  to know about a boyfriend. Sadly, slowly, Elena let it go, let it slip through her mind despite the outraged shrieking of the Storm in her mind.

If he had ever been before, Niccolo wasn’t “hers” any longer.

Elena carefully wiped the tear from her eye as the buzzing in her temples and fingers melted away. She raised her chin, adopting what Ele liked to call her ‘Joanna face’. “I think the two of you had better go,” she said, quietly but firmly, “I’ll pass your sentiments on to the rest of Studio DaRose. We’ll keep your arguments in mind.”

Vittoria and Niccolo exchanged a look, and without a word both walked to the door. The rain was beginning in earnest now; winter was truly over. It was fitting that the first day of Rains should start today, as if the season was weeping right alongside her.

Niccolo hesitated at the doorway. “Elena-” he began.

Elena met his gaze evenly, although her heart felt as though it were being clenched in a fist. “Don’t come back again unless you’re on a raid,” she said quietly. Niccolo nodded, once, and closed the door silently behind him.

 

***

 

When it was the only source of heat in the cold studio, the boiler room had been the de facto gathering place for DaRose garzoni when they were working on projects or reading books. Now that the weather wasn’t so bitterly cold, and the repaired boiler pumped out heat to the entire rest of the studio, the students rarely came down. It was too hot, but it was quiet, and there was no one around to see Elena crying. Ele had mercifully left her alone, and she hugged her knees to her chest, her shoulders shaking with sobs.

Outside, the raindrops hit the windows of Studio De Luca, and the grey and hopeless clouds had snuck inside and infected her heart. There was nothing fair in this world. How could it be that something as painful and horrible as getting kicked out of Studio De Luca could also be the cause of not being with Niccolo? How could her new Studio, one full of people so closed off from her, be responsible for losing two of the first friends she had made?

The door to the boiler room opened, quietly enough that she couldn’t hear it over the rain outside, but she could feel it through her storm. Elena sniffed, rubbing her eyes on a sleeve and setting her chin stubbornly. She didn’t have to be a mess in front of her studiomates, they had only just started coming around to her. She felt her fellow garzoni slump down next to her, and she tried to calm herself.

Get it together, Elena, take a deep breath…

Elena burst into tears again, but strong arms wrapped around her to hold her close as she did so.

“I’m sorry-” she began.

“Shhh,” Arturo murmured, “it’s alright. I heard about what happened, it’s okay to just cry.”

It felt okay to cry, with Arturo hugging her tight and stroking her hair.

“I just feel cheated,” she mumbled into his shirt, “it’s not fair, none of it is fair.”

“I know, I know.”

“He said I shouldn’t take s…s…studio business seriously,” Elena sniffled, drawing away to look at Arturo, “but it seemed awfully serious to him when he was losing.”

“Some guys are just like that, Elena,” Arturo said sympathetically, “some guys can’t handle losing.”

“I just…I just…” Elena’s sobs threatened to keep her from finishing the sentence, “I just didn’t think that he cared so much about the hierarchy…I just thought I’d gotten lucky and found a really nice boy on my first try!”

Arturo’s hand was still on her back, and he gave her a gentle pat before reaching up to brush a tear from her cheek. “Maybe you did, and you just didn’t realize it,” he said quietly.

Elena’s sob turned into a startled hiccup.

What.

“Maybe there was a really nice boy by your side this whole time, someone you can depend on.”

What.

“Maybe he’s just been working up the courage…waiting for the right moment…” Arturo’s face was closer to hers, too close, this was all going too fast, “…to do this.”

His lips pressed into hers, hard, insistent. Elena’s mind, far too slow to keep up a few moments ago, now was moving too fast, too many thoughts and feelings to keep straight. It was too soon, far too soon, and although she had known he had feelings for her she hadn’t processed how she felt about him…how could she have a chance to, when up until less than an hour ago she had been with Niccolo? Less than an hour ago!

Elena leaned back, away from the kiss, and Arturo leaned forward, following her down…

“Stop!” Elena pushed him, just a touch harder than she had to. At the hurt and confused look on his face she instantly felt horrible. “I’m sorry, Arturo, I just…I need to…”

“No, I get it.” Arturo’s face darkened. “I’m not your type.”

“I…I don’t even know if I have a type.”

“Sure,” Arturo stood up suddenly, jamming his hands into his pockets.

“I can barely think right now, Arturo, about anything let alone about that.”

“What’s there to think about?” Arturo avoided her gaze, “either you like a guy or you don’t. But you know, if you don’t, the least you could do is not act like he has a chance. It’s pretty hurtful.”

“I didn’t act like you had a chance!” Elena protested, and then winced as she realized how it must’ve sounded, “what I meant was, you were my first friend in Milia, I’ve always seen you as a friend-”

“I’ve always been a friend,” Arturo muttered, “I hinted about the interstudio fights when De Luca was keeping you in the dark, I got DaRose to let you into the studio, I’ve always backed you up on your plans.”

“I know you have, Arturo! You’re a wonderful guy-”

“But that’s just not good enough for some girls, I guess.” Arturo said flatly. Elena was taken aback by the bitterness in his words, but before she could think of a response he turned on his heel and was walking towards the door of the boiler room. “I’ll leave you alone, I can tell that’s what you want,” he said, his tone clipped.

“Arturo-” Elena began, but her words were cut short when he slammed the door to the boiler room behind him.

Her Storm helpfully informed her that he slammed every subsequent door on his way to his room.

 


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If you caught that there are five seasons in Italozia BEFORE this chapter, take a celebratory vote on TWF! If not, you should vote on TWF as your punishment

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13 responses

  1. A nice double-sized (almost triple-sized!) chapter as a thank you to my lovely readers for bearing with me as I paused to work on the eBook!

    I promise that I’ll eventually stop ranting about how awesome it feels to have Twisted Cogs Book 1 up for sale, but I’ve been blown away by the amazing response from family, friends, and fans.

    I’ve been working with the printers to get the physical edition up and running, and I’ll be receiving a proofing copy from them before the end of the week! I’m so excited!!!

    Lest they feel forgotten in the hullaballoo of the eBook coming up, it’s that time of month where I also give a big shout-out to my amazing Patreon patrons! They’ve been keeping patient with me even as all this editing and publishing has made me too busy to draft up chapters in advance, because they’re awesome! The Bonus Chapter Page has been updated to reflect their generous contributions, but let this serve as an additional ‘thank you’. You all rock!

    Like

    2015-05-06 at 11:16 pm

  2. Stormblessed

    Arturo is still a giant jerk. You don’t try to manipulate someone into another relationship right off the back of a previous one.

    I’m hoping Arta tells Arturo that.

    Liked by 1 person

    2015-05-07 at 12:31 am

    • Long, long lecture incoming. ;P

      Like

      2015-05-11 at 2:22 am

    • :( Something tells me Arta isn’t a position to tell him anything. She seems scared of him…

      Like

      2015-05-11 at 2:23 pm

  3. EchoStep

    I have always loved Elena and have found it difficult to read about all of her problems and failures. That’s why I was so excited to see her succeeding in Studio DaRosa and it’s really reaffirmed my faith in Elena. Then that little SH*T Nic-whatever WALKS AND RUINS HER RELATIONSHIP BECAUSE SHE’S MAKING HER STUDIO WIN! Yeah, no. I hope Elena crushes every single one of them and never let’s them back on top (except Federica lover her!!!) On the other hand this her chance to get close a certain “owl” XD

    Like

    2015-05-07 at 6:05 am

    • Angel

      I’m not saying she deserved what she got, nor am I saying the others weren’t in the wrong, but she was also wrong. Her hidden alliance was fine as everyone else also made one against DaRosa, but attacking during the day was definitely a mistake. I can understand that she’s young and they massively insulted her and everybodies attitude to DaRosa was wrong, but attacking in the day was equally an attack on the art.

      I’m hoping that now she’ll focus on the art and prove DaRosa deserves a top spot the proper way and not through underhanded means (now she can use her storm I think within a month she’ll show them her worth).

      Like

      2015-05-07 at 3:00 pm

  4. daniel73

    Poor Elena, I was happy for her as the chapter started and her hard work had paid off but niccolo and Arturo ruined that :(
    Although I was glad she discover he was faithful and everything before they broke up(and I would not like to be the boyfriend of a girl who knows everything about you)

    Now I hope Elena gets a break, she might need to sleep through the day for a while and then she can get back to the ART …

    Like

    2015-05-07 at 6:52 am

  5. Dogged

    I feel for Elena. That was rough. Arturo really needs a few good hard lessons in how to treat people and geez Niccolo I really thought you were one of the good ones. I guess you still are but still, disappointed.

    I’m a little confused at the meeting with Malatesta Isadora mentioned. Is this them meeting the messenger Malatesta said they’d send at the end of the previous chapter? If so then did they give the coins to Foscari without getting Malatestas confirmation of their deal? A little confused there as I would’ve thought they would need to do all that before the Coin Collector came round.

    Like

    2015-05-07 at 12:09 pm

  6. Kunama

    Turns out Niccolo and Arturo are both entitled shits.

    Liked by 1 person

    2015-05-07 at 12:31 pm

  7. Someone suffers from an advanced case of Nice Guy Syndrome.

    Liked by 1 person

    2015-05-07 at 8:09 pm

  8. AvidFan

    Does anyone else think it might not be the smartest thing for Elena to be messing with the order of the studios? Because… Well… Isn’t that exactly the kind of thing the other Twisted Cogs would be looking for to find her? Plus it seems they have a connection to the court, so they’re likely to get wind of this.

    Like

    2015-05-11 at 1:31 am

    • I was all ready to cheer for Elena’s upstart to the system, because screw those guys, these traditions need to change. But that was before I remembered the Twisted Cogs. Oooookey-dokey. I’m with you on thinking this is bad. Forcing a rule change is one thing, but she’s seriously narrowed it down for them.

      Like

      2015-05-11 at 2:26 pm

  9. NOOOOOOOOOOOO!! I CAUGHT UP! GodDAMMIT!! D:< But I have only myself to blame…

    So. Niccolo. I mean, I'm not surprised, because I noticed how little he registered in my head over time – definitely Elena getting him to admit he was only at DaRose on business first, relationship second – so this seemed like a natural conclusion. I don't feel too bad for Elena giving him up, but it was really interesting to read how her Storm reacted. I liked its panic! And although, yeah, she technically lost Vittoria too, I'm still a but miffed by her sabotage.

    Niccolo's gonna go straight for Leanarda. The only way he can possibly redeem himself in my oh-so-important eyes is if he doesn't, but he totally will. And Leanarda's gonna be so 'I'm sorry, I know this must be awkward, but I'm gonna do it anyway lol friendz?' Maybe that's another reason why I'm okay with this. For a guy who saw all Leanarda's flirtations (biiiiitch), he didn't exactly shut it down in front of Elena. He basically forgot about her. This all came together very nicely from that. Calling her 'Cog' though – oooooh. I was like, 'Damn, son. I guess you rip your Steampunk Italian band-aids off, too'.

    Last thing: EW EW EW EW EW EWWWWW ARTURO EWWWWWWW! He's everything a Nice Guy (TM) could ever hope to be! D:

    Liked by 1 person

    2015-05-11 at 2:22 pm

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