A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

4.2 – Diligat Amicos et Notos {Friends and Acquaintances}

 

“About a third of them hate your guts, a third of them love you, and a third of them think you’re harsh but fair,” Belloza had a white cloth draped around her neck, and every now and then would wipe sweat from her brow, but she’d already caught her breath from the workout. Elena was a little jealous of how in-shape the Saggitara was; she was still panting even though they had finished the run ten minutes ago.

The back stairwells of the palace were less ornate, stone and wood rather than the gold and marble of the main halls, but Elena prefered using them when sweaty and grimy, dressed in armored leathers. She didn’t interact much with the courtiers and nobles, and she didn’t want to gain the wrong sort of reputation. The servants and merchants they passed on the back stairs were much less likely to judge her.

Elena had to steel herself for each stair, her beleaguered legs complaining with every step.

“Why…did I…insist on an eighteen furlogh?” she groaned.

“Because they insulted your pride and you’re easy to needle,” Ele snarked from behind her.

“No, it was a good move,” Belloza walked slowly to keep pace with Elena, even though it was clear she could’ve bounded up them two at a time if she’d wanted. “It sent a strong message, and it did more to win over the troops who believe in pushing themselves and the like.”

“How do you even know how the troops feel?” Elena’s legs felt wobbly when they reached their floor, and she leaned one hand against the wall for support, “you were clearly with me, how did you get them to open up during a single time.”

“Eighteen furloughs is a lot of time to chat,” Belloza shrugged.

“Belloza is a modest soul,” Bello spoke so infrequently that his voice startled Elena. “The truth of it is that half of the troops already know her.”

“It’s not my fault,” Belloza protested, “you can’t expect me to spend all evening cooped up in my palace rooms when the barracks are so much more fun! And I don’t know half of the troops, just the ones who play Primera after hours. I like card games.”

“And the ones who play dice in the mess hall,” Bello added, “and a few of them were in that group you go to the tavern with.”

“Alright, alright, you old bear,” Belloza laughed, “so I have fun with a lot of people, don’t string me up for it.” She winked at Elena, “if I let him have his way, we’d be going to bed at ten-stroke every night.”

“Or at least some time before four-stroke,” Bello said.

“You and I should switch Stormtouched,” Ele joked, “having some fun would be a nice change from mandatory naps in the afternoon.”

Elena frowned. She didn’t mind Ele joking around, but she had been trying to keep her daily naps as quiet as possible. Of course, no one could connect her naps to the Dream World, but she worried about the questions that people might ask. Luckily, Belloza didn’t seem the slightest bit curious. The pair walked in comfortable silence the rest of the way to the workshop.

***

 

“You’re late, and we’ve been stuck until you got here,” Frederica greeted Elena with her customary bluntness.

“Good morning everyone, and I’m sorry, Maple,” Elena smiled, using her friend’s nickname to mollify her.

“Elena made the squad run a double distance this morning to show them who’s boss,” Belloza flopped down in the chair by the window, setting her crossbow down carefully.

“You’re going to get stabbed one of these days,” Arturo chuckled from the desk where he worked.

“She’s just doing what she has to do to get the job done,” Arta sat cross-legged on the floor next to his chair, a notepad on her knees, sketching, “isn’t that right, Belloza?”

Belloza answered with a small snore, and Elena smiled. The little workshop reminded her of the days spent in Vittoria’s room at Studio De Luca, quietly working on their little projects and enjoying each others’ company. Owl sat at one desk, using pliers to bend little strips of metal into the right shapes, and next to him at Elena’s desk, Arturo carefully painted a set of wooden rats that Frederica had made. Frederica hadn’t yet performed the final cut that would perhaps imbue them with life, so they were still beneath Arturo’s paintbrush. Frederica herself sat in her customary spot on a piece of cloth in the corner, so that the scraps that fell from her knife would be easy to clean. In front of her a wooden man lay on his back in two pieces; the wood of his chest and stomach lay off to one side.

“I’ll be just fine, the soldiers can like or not like me as they see fit, there’s no need to worry,” Elena assured her friends. “Frederica, where is Freja?”

“She’s in my quarters,” Frederica said, brushing hair from her face as she leaned in to continue hollowing out the wooden man’s insides, “it’s just down the hall, so Fred is down there as well. I thought she might find this disturbing.”

“Probably,” Elena herself found it a little disturbing, but she didn’t voice her thoughts. “You said you were stuck?”

“The locks won’t attach, and we don’t know why,” Frederica said.

Elena closed her eyes and focused, her temples buzzing with the Storm, and a design slowly unfolded in her mind. The figure that Frederica was carving was human-like, a large and burly human, and it was progressing nicely, in two separate pieces. Though the Caelator had never attempted making a hollowed-out sculpture before, she didn’t seem to be having any problems.

The wooden rats were all painted but two, and although Elena had no idea whether or not they would come to life, she could tell that Arturo’s storm had touched them all. Anyone the rats bumped into would be overwhelmed with the mental images of burning flames, or the punch of a wave, or the blinding of shadows.

On the inner side of the wooden man’s chest and stomach, small strips of metal had been carefully attached, each with a row of little machinery nubbins. The pieces that would lock into those nubbins were on Owl’s desk, and it was with them that the problem lay.

“Those mini-locks, the ones that will keep the rats in place, they’re not hooking together correctly?” she asked, just to be sure. When she knelt down to peer into the hollow figure, Elena’s little wooden Ermine, Frell, popped its head from within, then scampered up the arm of her leather jerkin.

“That’s exactly the problem,” Owl’s brow was furrowed, “there’s no point in attaching the lockpins to the rats if the lockpins won’t stay in place. Malus sum discentem, I had always been so confident in my Storm before coming to court, but it’s seems more and more likely that I’m the only one who can make my locks work.”

“Boo hoo,” Arturo said without looking up from his work, “how is that any different than the rest of us? At least you can rest assured that if you do make it work, your Storm will embue it every time. Freddi and I can’t say the same, half the time our Storm doesn’t deign to show up in our work.”

“Don’t call me ‘Freddi’,” Frederica flicked a long curl of wood from inside of the man, and it floated to the ground like a leaf.

“You’re still figuring your Storm out, Owl, that’s all,” Elena hurried to reassure him. She was used to his grave demeanor, and by this point she could read the subtle variations on his face. The slight tug at his brow meant he was frustrated, and she wanted to do anything she could to make him feel better.

“I wish I had your confidence,” he said, “I’ve spoken to Captain Giuseppe, in charge of security at the palace, and he says the palace will pay me journeyman’s wage to design locks for the whole of the palace…if I can give them to workmen to install. It would be impossible to install them all myself.”

“That’s why you’ve been trying to make locks other people can put together,” Elena guessed.

“‘Trying’ being the operative word,” Owl sighed, “but enough about my personal projects. This problem with the locks, do you have any idea?”

Elena closed her eyes again, focusing on the row of metal knobs hooked into the metal strips. “Try it now?” she asked. Owl obediently gathered a few of the little pieces from the desk and walked over to the wooden torso. When he tried attaching them to the knobs, Elena could plainly see the problem in her mind’s eye.

“Those are upside-down,” she said.

“That can’t be, I added little score marks on the tops to tell me which way was which,” Owl said, turning the piece upside-down, “specifically so I wouldn’t make that mistake-” the piece in his hand snapped into place with a metalling click. Owl heaved a sigh and rubbed his eyes.

“How long were you working on that?” Ele asked.

“An hour or so. I don’t even remember how many times I took it apart trying to solve the issue.”

Elena frowned, noting for the first time how weary her friend looked. “Owl, when was the last time you got a full night’s sleep?”

“What?” Owl seemed surprised by the question, “oh, I guess last night…or rather, a few nights back. Certainly in the last week probably.”

“You should go rest. The lock pieces work, so you won’t be able to do anything on the project until Frederica and Arturo are done anyway.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Owl yawned. On his way out of the door, he bumped into Emerald coming in.

“Elena!” the woman’s silvery voice conveyed her excitement, “you’ve been summoned by His Princeps, you’re to come to the council chambers at once. The Eye of the Storm wishes to meet you!”

Elena’s heart skipped a beat, and she was on her feet in an instant. “You all don’t need me anymore, do you?” her words almost tumbled over themselves in her haste.

“Elena, before you go, stop by my room at the end of the hall and use my rainsluice,” Frederica said, “you stink.”

Elena blushed, but now that she thought about it she had started the day by running eighteen furloughs in leather armor.

“Why didn’t anyone-”

“Because they’re all more polite than me,” Frederica interrupted, “now don’t keep them waiting, hurry. Take one of my dresses from the closet.”

“Thank you Maple thank you thank you,” Elena cried, as she ran from the workshop to meet the Eye of the Storm.

 

***

Frederica’s dress swished with every step Elena took, and she patted at it nervously as she paced. Its ruffles and skirts seemed too heavy on her lower half, and the lace that left her shoulders all but bare felt too light on her upper half. Still, she was grateful that she didn’t have to worry whether or not the outfit was appropriate. Frederica had treated courtier life as a skill to practise and master from the day they’d arrived, and Elena trusted her opinions.

Besides, she had glanced in the mirror before she’d left, and rather liked the way the soft yellow looked with her long black curls and green eyes.

“Aren’t your legs sore from the running this morning?” Ele asked, watching her walk back and forth along the hallway in front of the door, “doesn’t that hurt?”

“They’re very sore, yes,” Elena said, “it’s helping take my mind off of things.”

“What do you think they want to talk to you about-” Ele began, when the door was thrown open and a guard emerged.

“Miss Lucciano, His Princeps and company will see you now,” the guard said respectfully. Elena raised an eyebrow at Ele, took a deep breath, and entered the room.

She had been expecting a meeting room with a long wooden table, much like she had met the Captains in. Instead the room was somewhat small, round, with plain walls of stone, and a door on either side. The table in the middle was a half-circle, with seven figures seated around it, facing her.

The sight was so unexpected and intimidating that it was all Elena could do to continue walking to the center of the room, and it took her far longer than it normally would have to recognize those few figures that she did know in the room.

At its head of the table sat Prince Langone, and on the table’s far left sat Master Apollo and Master Artemis. It was strange to see them without their weapons, but Elena appreciated the presence of somewhat familiar faces. Next to Master Artemis sat a man with messy straw-yellow hair and smiling eyes who was peering carefully at her. On the Prince’s other side sat a serious looking woman with long black hair, the medico Master Asclepius who had helped heal her arm, a beautiful brunette woman in a simple pink dress.

“Thank you for joining us, Journeyman Cog,” Prince Langone said. The name and title provoked mixed messages in Elena. On the one hand, as she was no longer a student in a Studio, she wasn’t technically a garzona any longer…but on the other hand, the title “Journeyman” was usually reserved for those who had served their four years.

The title also reminded her of Master Apollo’s name for her, now that he no longer called her “Master Hephaestus”, and she glanced at his face. The man was sitting up straight in his chair, clearly uncomfortable, but when he caught her eye he smiled reassuringly.

“Of course, Your Princeps,” Elena said with a careful curtsey.

“I believe you’ve met Masters Apollo, Artemis, and Asclepius,” Prince Langone continued, and Elena nodded politely when the Prince indicated them.

“Cos says hello,” Master Artemis said, “he’s with the other Echoes at the moment, patrolling.” It took a few moments for Elena to realize that Master Artemis meant her Echo, and by the time she connected it the Prince was speaking again.

“It may or may not be news to you that Masters Apollo, Artemis, and Asclepius are part of a group dedicated to protecting the interests of Italoza, named the Eye of the Storm.”

Elena hesitated, unsure of whether or not it would be rude to say she already knew who they were. She was saved the trouble when the black-haired woman sitting next to the Prince leaned forward and spoke.

“Thanks to Apollo’s loose lips, I have it reliably that she knows quite a bit about our organization, Langone.”

Elena’s eyes widened at the disrespect of calling His Princeps by his first name, but the Prince didn’t seem bothered in the slightest as the woman continued.

“Hello, Journeyman Cog. I am Master Athena. It is good to put a face to the rumors I’ve been hearing from my companions,” she said. “Before we begin, I wonder if you would be so kind as to show us Master Asclepius’ work?”

Elena extended her arm, and after a few moments Master Athena nodded.

“I told you, sewing,” Master Asclepius shook his head as if he barely believed it himself.

“I-” Elena began, but then hesitated. How did one address a Master in a secret guild? What was the honorific for one who was on a first-name basis with the Prince?

“Go ahead, Cog,” Master Athena said, briskly but not unkindly.

“You said ‘before we begin’, but I don’t know why I’m here, ma’am,” Elena said.

“In your case, we’re serving three purposes at once,” the brunette in the pink dress said. Her very voice put Elena at ease, gentle and friendly, and it reminded Elena of Vittoria’s or Frederica’s. It was the voice of a big sister, and some of the panic in Elena’s chest eased away a bit.

“Cog, this is Master Aphrodite,” Master Athena introduced the woman. Elena’s brow furrowed for a moment…the theme among the Eye was obvious, but Elena couldn’t remember the real name of the Graecan Goddess ‘Aphrodite’…was it Vesta? Or perhaps Minerva?

“The most obvious reason was to meet you, after what we’d heard from Asclepius, Artemis, and Apollo,” Master Aphrodite continued. Elena was surprised to hear that Masters Artemis and Asclepius had also talked about her. “The second reason was to make absolutely certain that you aren’t aligned with the rebels.”

“Not that we don’t trust you,” Master Athena said, “but we prefer to work only with those we have no doubts about, and His Princeps tells us you have been entrusted with vetting the entire army. You understand that we must test you.”

“I…yes, that makes sense,” Elena bit her lip. It sounded ominous, but Master Apollo was still smiling, and he didn’t seem the sort who would be happy if the test was unpleasant. “What’s the third reason?”

“Also served by the test,” Master Athena said offhandedly, “you are being considered for a junior position among the Eye of the Storm, and establishing the extent of your loyalty is a prerequisite for that consideration.”

The casual way in which Master Athena spoke the words did nothing to soften their impact, and Elena sucked in a shocked breath.

“I’m…I…me, I’m…” she stammered, looking back and forth across the seven assembled faces. Master Apollo was grinning from ear to ear, and the corner of Master Athena’s mouth twitched wryly.

“Don’t be too impressed by the honor just yet,” she said, leaning back, “you are among several hundred Italozans being considered, a large portion of which are completely unaware of who we are and what we do.”

Elena didn’t care, she was still so excited she almost bounced up and down in place. She was a Twisted, and she had friends, she could handle competition.

“Of course, Master Athena,” she said, “what do I have to do? I mean, to be more acceptable as a junior member?”

“Do? You don’t do anything,” Master Athena said flatly, “if it were a matter of deeds or reputation we would hardly be the force that we are. No, what you do is less important than who you are, your character.”

“But how am I supposed to show off my character?” Elena asked, a bit deflated.

“You needn’t worry about it,” the blond-haired man spoke up, “Master Hermes, by the way. So far we’ve never accepted a member of poor character, junior or no. We have ways of getting at the soul of a person, you see.”

“Speaking of which, we have quite a long afternoon ahead of us,” Master Athena clapped her hands, “it was wonderful meeting you, Elena, but I’m afraid it’s time to test you so that we may move on to others whose loyalty we must be sure of. As Master Aphrodite pointed out, this is a test which all of the hopeful junior Eye members will be undertaking, but since you already know of the Eye, we can be much more up front with you about it. Prepare yourself.”

Elena stiffened as the door across from her opened, her pulse quickening as she waited for whatever test was about to enter. The light in the room visibly brightened as the figure entered, eclipsing the torches on the walls.

The girl who entered was made of patterned yellow glass. She looked like a sculpture, one of Frederica’s creations or the marble Pietro, her hair and skin and eyes all the same cracked dull yellow, but Elena knew she couldn’t be, no one could carve a figure from glass. Suspended within the girl was a white flame, tinted slightly by the glass but bright enough to cast patterns all over the stone of the room.

“Elena, this is my creation, Apate.” Master Athena stood and rested a hand on the glass girl’s shoulder, and Apate turned featureless glass eyes in Elena’s direction. “She’s going to ask you a few questions.”

***

Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

***

If you have a favorite member of the Eye yet, you should vote on TopWebFiction. Not vote for your favorite member of the Eye, that would be silly, leave that below in the comments

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11 responses

  1. My health is much improved this week, and thank you so much to all of the well-wishers and friends rooting for me :)

    Of course, it never rains but it pours, and this week I had a spat of mandatory overtime at my work. It hasn’t been *quite* so bad as being sick, but it has meant that I’m a bit behind in my writing, so as you can see above, the final third of this chapter is postponed until Tuesday, but it will be well worth the wait!

    Thanks again to all my wonderful readers, your sympathy and patience has been amazing!

    Like

    2015-09-20 at 9:35 pm

  2. Soronel Haetir

    This was a nice little diversionary chapter. well done.

    Like

    2015-09-20 at 9:55 pm

  3. Awesome, thanks for the chapter! Hope life treats you better.
    Elena’s power has so many uses.

    Like

    2015-09-20 at 9:55 pm

    • Thanks much! I think things are slowly getting better, now that there’s both less sickness AND less overtime :)

      Like

      2015-09-23 at 12:38 am

  4. I know that feeling; poor health and too much work have resulted in delays for me as well. Real life is most inconvenient for one’s writing schedule.

    This is still my favorite serial, though! I detect no drop in quality. :)

    Like

    2015-09-20 at 10:04 pm

    • Seconded.

      Like

      2015-09-20 at 11:24 pm

    • Aw, how sweet, thank you!

      Someday I hope to be able to handle both real life AND a writing schedule…not consistent luck so far, BUT SOMEDAY BY GOSH

      Like

      2015-09-23 at 12:40 am

  5. Stormblessed

    I just wanted to state that I really like the Belloza and am glad that Elena is becoming better friends with her.

    Their interactions are so adorable.

    Liked by 1 person

    2015-09-20 at 11:36 pm

  6. Karltio

    I’ve got a niggling feeling that there was more going on there than just the piece being upside-down.

    Like

    2015-09-22 at 2:12 am

  7. I really liked this chapter! We got to see two cases of interesting Storms; one with the Arturo and Fredrica combination, and the other Master Athena’s work. I wonder how on earth did she suspend the white flame within her sculpture? Is it hollow?

    Like

    2015-09-26 at 1:20 am

  8. AceOfSpade

    Can’t Owl just make the locks whole and then the workmen only have to fix them in place on the door and frame? No assembly required. If it’s something about the alignment of the bolt and strike plate I’m sure Owl could figure a way to keep the two in the correct alignment until installation. Or maybe he could make self installing locks? Just press the thing on the door and it’s frame and it install itself!

    Oh my god, the potential to mess with people…

    I don’t have a favorite member of the Eye yet, because we haven’t seen much of some so It’s hard to say wich ones are more interesting.

    Like

    2015-09-26 at 8:32 am

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