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6.03 – Medium Mundi {Half-World}

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The heavy door drove Elena to her knees before bouncing off its other corner and careening into a pile of rubble to her left. After the impact, the noise of the building falling down around her suddenly dulled, as if the door had left a ball of wool in each ear. Her vision spun, and for a moment Elena wondered if she was going to pass out. A few weak motions brought her to her wobbly legs, but then she stumbled, lost her balance and tumbled to her stomach.

The floor had stopped rumbling, but every now and then the impact of another piece of the monastery toppling indicated that the danger wasn’t past. Elena grabbed a nearby handle sticking out of the floor and dragged herself to her feet again, this time closing her eyes. Without sight, her balance was a little better, and a three-fingered hand grabbed her own and helped her to her feet. Her whole body felt heavy, and she focused on her feet, forcing herself to put one in front of the other.

The light started to change as they left the monastery, Elena leaning heavily on Frederica’s shoulder. Her friend was silent, and pulled her forward with a stubborn steadfastness, just a little faster than Elena felt she could manage. Slowly the sound of falling rubble died away, but the Calaetor didn’t slow until the darkness of the indoors had given way entirely to the early morning sunlight outside.

“-difference of a few seconds,” Emerald was saying through the muffled haze. “Of all the Twisted, I didn’t think Coastering would come the closest to killing us.”

“Our own fault for walking into what we knew was a trap,” Fred said. Elena blinked, a motion that seemed to take far too long. The Echo’s voice wasn’t as muffled as Emerald’s. With great effort, Elena lifted her head and looked around.

The speckles of black and white stretched out as far as the eye could see, layered into and a part of the expanse of land that stretched between the monastery and Florenzia. Elena almost retched at the disorienting double-vision, her mind trying to reconcile the two images she saw clearly at the same time.

Her friends were looking at her, half-present in the swirls and whorls of fog that inhabited the world of dreams. Beside them, Ele and Fred were as crisp and clear as ever, present in both double-vision images.

“I’m okay,” she slurred, “I’m fine.”

“Let me see your head,” Owl helped support her other side, “I saw that door come down.”

“He didn’t kill us,” Emerald said, encouragingly, “they thought they’d finish us off here, this is a win for us.”

“My mother is dead,” Elena said dully. The little group grew silent as Owl carefully prodded the bruise on her head, and Elena looked out at the speckles of white and black and tried not to throw up.

“Dying too the progeny of myself they are,” a deep voice from just behind her should have been startling, but Elena had almost been expecting it. “Can not for them the sympathy of heart be yours?”

“I think you’re fine, for right now,” Owl said, carefully releasing her head. Elena was surprised to find that she liked his gentle fingers on her scalp, and was sad when he let her go.

What a silly thing to notice, given the circumstances, she thought, turning.

Even halfway between her old world and that of the Storm, the scene in front of her was clearer than her own friends. The Storm sat completely still at a very small table behind her. Behind him, the crumbling wreckage of the monastery still kicked up a cloud of dust, and the cloak that wrapped around the Avatar seemed to whip in the wind of it.

“Small, is the life of you,” the Storm said, “a leaf cannot a mountain move. With effort greatness is the survival of you…with impossible is the winning of you. Even now, final are the pieces whose moves are made. Pieces the greatest do the chessmasters move against you.”

“The Twisted have been telling me this whole time how impossible it is to defeat them,” Elena snarled, “I’d think you’d get tired of it.”

“Who are you talking to, Elena?” Owl asked from far away. Elena put a placating hand on his arm.

“I’m sure this is confusing to watch, but there’s someone here I need to talk to,” she said, before turning back to the Storm. “Do you think you can convince me off? Do you think killing my mother and dropping a building is going to make me curl up and cry? You’re not scaring me away from killing the Twisted, you’re just making me want it more.”

“This is the thinking of you, that killing of the Fulvio, the Coastering, the Mia, it is win-making?” The Storm had no features, but his voice held contempt.

“And you,” Elena said. “Don’t forget yourself.” She glanced around, the motion enough to make her stomach turn, and found the quarterstaff that one of her friends had pulled out of the rubble.

“Forgetting I am not,” the Storm said.

“No, you’re just overconfident,” Elena said thoughtfully. “I don’t think killing you here will kill you for good. But I do think that killing you will keep you from coming back for quite some time. Enough time for me to cut the rest of the Twisted off from each other. Enough time to finish them off.”

The Storm’s laugh was like hailstones falling on armor, clear enough that it pierced through Elena’s mental fog and made her head pound.

“Finishing, is the winning of you?” the Storm chuckled, “center of the world, is the thinking of you of Italoza?”

“You have other Twisted in other countries,” Elena said, “but you need rulers all over the world to open the gate between your world and this one.”

“Rulers of all is the wanting of me,” the Storm said. “Was the wanting. The needing of me, now changed is it. The needing of me now is one. Ruler one, crown one, it is the needing of me.”

Elena wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “I’ll stop you,” she said simply.

“Death will you be the stopping,” the Storm said. “But if not, other Twisted will the gate-opening perform. Twisted of Francas, or Twisted of Espana. Twisted of countries which you are of not-knowing, of Mericas and Nipon and Jawoyn. One, a gate single is all the needs of me, for the progeny to enter. Once entered are they, more will gates they open.”

“I’ll kill them too, if I have to,” Elena fired back, “any Twisted I can’t convince to join me instead. With you dead for a while, I’ll have plenty of time.”

“Floating leaf,” the Storm craned his head suddenly, looking over her shoulder, then slumped in his chair, as if even that action had completely exhausted him. “Plenty of time is not the having of you. Time is not the having of you at all.”

“Elena,” Frederica’s voice was still muffled, but her tone was sharp. Elena ignored it, lifting her quarterstaff in a two-handed grip. The Storm raised his head and met Elena’s gaze, and for a dizzying moment she looked into a million black-burning stars in a void of a thousand snowstorms.

Elena brought the quarterstaff down hard, shattering through the Storm and the chair and the table. The staff snapped in half before it connected with the ground, and Elena let go of the pieces to let them clatter across the ground. The pieces of the Storm’s body melted into the speckled black and white landscape, and Elena turned her back on them before they had even finished dispersing.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “that must’ve looked-”

Her friends weren’t paying her any attention, staring instead toward the city. Elena had to focus her gaze through the fuzz and haze, to see what was actually in the distance when she accounted for the fog and speckles that weren’t there.

The man was on horseback, and easily could’ve crossed the distance between them in the time it had taken for Elena to finish with the Storm. He was moving slower than he could’ve, however, so that the complement of guards on foot could keep up with him. They moved in a tight formation that spoke of years of practice moving as one, from the city toward the lonely pile of rubble.

“If they just wanted guards to kill us, the Twisted could’ve sent them in the first place, and not bothered with the monastery,” Emerald said, “what’s their game?”

“Maybe it has to do with spectacle,” Frederica pointed toward the walls, where rows of specks indicated they had an audience that stretched from one city wall to another.

“All of that for a demolished building and a handful of fugitives?” Owl clutched at his knife nervously.

A strange calm had come over Elena, one which didn’t mesh at all with the circumstances she had just realized surrounded them.

“They’re not watching because of the monastery,” she said, her eyes locked on the group. “They’re not even watching because of us.”

I should’ve realized earlier, when the Storm mentioned the chessmasters moving their greatest pieces.

“What is it, then?” Ele asked, “what’s so interesting that the whole city has to watch?”

Elena nodded to the figure on horseback, now close enough that the band on his head glinted in the sunlight.

“They’re watching the King of Italoza.”

***

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6.02 – Contione {A Meeting}

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“Normally when I feel like I’m being watched, I assume it’s just paranoia and try to ignore the feeling,” Emerald said.

“I’m just the opposite,” Owl said, “normally when I feel like I’m being watched, I assume I’ve observed something that makes me nervous without realizing it, and I try to identify what spooked me.”

“Either way,” Emerald said, “it’s a new feeling to not just suspect, but to know we’re being watched.”

“New, yes,” Owl agreed, “I can’t really say that I like it.”

Although there was no one around to hear them, they spoke in hushed voices, voices befitting the mist that curled along the stones of the hard-packed ground. The sun had only just risen, and it would be some hours before the mist cleared. It made the walk from the city walls to the monastery feel as if they were walking on a flowing river of clouds.

“I’ve never felt like I was being watched,” Elena said, “but I don’t like it either.”

The group moved in silence for a little while longer.

“I wish we’d had more time to plan,” Frederica broke the silence.

“Would we have come up with anything better, even with more time?” Elena asked. “If we don’t meet them, they’ll kill the hostages. We don’t have a say in what the Eye does, so we can’t force them to back us up.”

“Maybe we could’ve, maybe not,” Frederica said, “but they’ve had time to prepare, and more resources.”

“It’s like the Milian Studio attacks on Studio DaRose,” Owl spoke up again, “especially since this long walk assures we don’t have the element of surprise.”

Elena felt her chin jut out stubbornly, but she didn’t say anything. Even if they believed it was a lost cause, her friends were here with her. They hadn’t been able to find her a warhammer, but Elena was armed with a quarterstaff. Frederica had said she prefered her own knives to any the merchants had, so Owl now carried the knife they’d bought her. Emerald wore a long thin sword at her belt.

Perhaps it wasn’t wise, and perhaps she’d been backed into a corner. Still, Elena held out hope. Her Storm was strong, and even though the Twisted knew what she and her friends were capable of, they didn’t know how their compatriots had died. They didn’t know that each of the other Twisted had underestimated her.

The monastery seemed so far away for the entirety of the walk out, but now that it was in front of her it had returned to its previous state of unimpressiveness. The ancient stones, cracked and crumbly, were a stark contrast to the modern and technological city they had just left. The morning air was still, without even a breeze to whistle the wind.

“We should be careful in our approach,” Owl said. “It’s safe out here, I think you should stay here while we check for traps or guards, Elena.”

“I don’t want you to risk yourselves for me,” Elena said, looking at the large oak door of the monastery and feeling very small.

“If the Twisted are going to be defeated, you’re the one to do it,” Frederica said. “We’re not losing you to an arrow trap on a threshold.”

“I’d go alone,” Fred said, “but I won’t trigger a trap meant for a Mortalis.”

“I can’t ask-” Elena began, but Frederica and Owl were already moving toward the door, followed by Emerald after a moment of hesitation. The sound of the door opening on old hinges broke through the morning’s silence and sent shivers down Elena’s spine, and then her friends slipped inside, and there was only silence.

“It’s possible that the place is empty,” Ele said, “maybe they only wanted to draw you in to the city, to know where you are.”

Elena shook her head. “They would’ve posted people on the city walls in wait for me,” she said, “besides, they knew I was nearby Venecchi when they made me the offer.”

Owl poked his head out from behind the door. “No guards, no traps,” he called, “but it is a little ominous.”

She didn’t need Owl to tell her how ominous it was, not with that yawning door in front of her. Even had the circumstances been different, there was something unsettling about the monastery, as if the old stones themselves were warning her away. Elena took a deep breath, focused on Owl rather than on the doorway around him, and followed him in.

It was dim inside, but much brighter than Elena had assumed it would be without windows. The morning sun filtered in through slits near the ceiling, and caught motes of dust kicked up by their movements. The building was taken up almost entirely by the empty chapel, a huge room that should’ve been filled with rows of seats, but instead was utterly empty but for four full length pictures, long cloths draped over each.

“You see what I mean about ominous,” Owl said quietly, but even the soft whisper seemed far too loud for the silent room.

Elena did see. The dark forms of the covered pictures were like oversized gravestones, and it didn’t escaper her attention that there was one for each of them. Each footstep echoed as she went further and further into the abandoned chapel, drawn by the mysterious forms.

She stood in front of the closest for a long time, not reaching out for the heavy canvas that covered it, but instead peering at the cloth as if she could see through it.

“If there’s a trap that the Twisted set for you here, this is it,” Ele said.

“Do you think I should leave them?” Elena asked.

Owl smirked. “When I first met you, you wouldn’t have asked, you’d already be pulling off the cloth.”

“Things have changed since we first me,” Elena said. “I’ve changed.”

The group waited for a few more moments, then Ele sighed and shrugged. “I don’t see how it can hurt.”

“Let me do it, just in case,” Frederica moved Elena out of the way of the picture, and pulled the cover from it.

The painting was of a handsome young man with tousled yellow hair and dark bags under his eyes. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but in the dim light Elena couldn’t put her finger on it. He had been lounging on a bench with a book dangling from one hand, but when the cover came off he looked up and blinked.

“Ah, hello there,” he said, dropping the book and leaning forward. “I don’t like to complain, but it was getting really boring under there. I don’t suppose-” He froze, looking past Frederica and Elena to where Owl and Emerald stood. Slowly, a smile broke out over his boyish face.

“Meryl,” he grinned, “god, you got so old.”

Emerald’s face was motionless, her arms crossed as if she had suddenly grown cold. “Ulric,” she said, “just as ugly as I remember.”

“Better ugly than an old crone,” Ulric chuckled, standing from his bench to move closer to the frame. “You don’t have your mask anymore, have they started going softer on Rhetors now?”

“Emerald, who is this?” Elena asked, her eyes locked on the painting. She didn’t really have to ask, she had already put the basics together. Master Coastering’s Storm had made him one of the more famous Artifexes in Italoza, and everyone knew what he could do. He painted the dead, and his paintings animated with all of the life and personality and memories of those deceased.

“This is my brother, Ulric,” Emerald said, the discomfort still plain from her body language, “he died a few years after I was given my mask.”

Perhaps coming to the same conclusion that Elena had, Owl and Frederica moved to the next painting and pulled off the cover, revealing a small girl who broke into a gap-toothed smile.

“Aunty Frederica!” the girl squealed. Owl moved on to the next, pulling the cover off to reveal a woman in silver armor, but Elena’s focus was on the final painting, still covered, waiting for her in the place where an altar should’ve been. As if drawn by a magical force, Elena approached the last covered painting.

“Allvero,” the silver-armored woman’s voice was loud and commanding enough that Elena could hear it even though she wasn’t paying attention, “you’ve grown into such a man, you look so like your father.”

“Ele, the Twisted did this, so they did this for a reason,” Elena murmured, “keep an eye out for me?”

“Of course,” Ele said. “If I were Coastering, I’d think this would be the perfect way to…”

He trailed off as Elena pulled the covering away from the painting, revealing the inside of a humble home and a woman with her back to the frame, looking out through the window.

She recognized the back of the hair and the bent of the shoulder, but even if she hadn’t, the dull feeling of foreboding told her who was behind the frame. She had been expecting her dead tormentor from the Studios, Slug, or Arturo and Arta. Even having braced herself, Elena wasn’t prepared for this.

“M…” Elena had to swallow and take another breath before she could finish the single tremulous word. “Mama?”

Joanna Lucciano turned in the painting, fixing Elena with a smile of mingled pity and sorrow.

“Oh, Elena,” her mother shook her head, “I’ve missed you so.”

“Mama you’re… I didn’t know… I didn’t… I warned you to leave, I warned you to run away,” Elena’s voice was surprisingly calm, but the whole monastery around her seemed to be spinning around itself.

“Now now, there there,” Joanna said, “dry up your tears my dear, you’re not the one who died, now are you? If anything I should be the one crying- but never mind, never mind, I can put on a brave face for my daughter. My daughter the Master craftswoman in the courts.”

Despite her mother’s pride and her directions not towards, Elena could barely see the painting for the tears welling up in her eyes. She had been so prepared for a trap that she hadn’t even considered another motive from the Twisted.

“They didn’t want to kill me, they wanted to break my spirit,” she whispered.

“Now don’t be dramatic, Elena,” her mother said with a beleaguered air, “you had to have suspected, what with all the trouble you brought down on your family. Now I’m not blaming you, of course, but really, this cannot be so much of a shock.”

Elena put out a hand to lean against the frame. It was too much, even after everything that had happened it was too much to take. Not only was the room spinning, but it felt as if she was spinning, fast enough that she thought she may fall over despite her grip on the frame. Snippets of her friends’ conversations with their paintings reached her ears and flitted away as she focused on not throwing up.

“-don’t know, sis, that seems like a big risk-”

“-didn’t know you could do that, Aunty Frederica-”

“-think it through, Allvero. Your enemies want you here, talking to us. Why?”

Elena turned back to her mother.

“Mama, I don’t know what to say,” she said. “I didn’t want this to happen, I didn’t want any of this to happen, I was only trying to do the right thing.”

“I’m sure you were, my dear,” Joanna said kindly, “I know you meant well, no matter how it turned out.”

“And I…I…” Elena trailed off. What could she say? Nothing could make this right, nothing could make up for what she had done, and certainly no words spoken to a portrait that wasn’t even her mother…

Owl slammed his knife into the corner of the portrait, and the momentum of it almost knocked the painting over to the ground. Elena was so startled she almost screamed, but the fright was nothing next to her horror as the painting suddenly stilled, her mother frozen in the midst of a sad smile. In a heartbeat, the Artifex painting had gone from animated and living to utterly still.

“Owl, what have you done-” Elena began, but Owl was already dragging her by the sleeve, and she suddenly realized that the others were yelling as well, that Emerald was running, that Frederica was on her other side yanking her along with them.

The first rumble deep within the stones of the monastery struck when the group had almost reached the door, and it was enough to throw Elena off of her feet. She scrambled and stumbled, Owl and Frederica helping her regain her footing almost as soon as she had lost it. A glance behind her revealed that a section of the ceiling had fallen, crushing the picture of Joanna and a fair-sized chunk of the floor around it. Even as she watched, more sections fell, letting patches of morning sunlight and noise penetrate the dark quiet of the monastery.

The cacophony of falling stones made it too loud to hear her friends’ shouting, but Elena didn’t need them to tell her to get out. For a split second Elena wondered how long she would’ve stood there, had Owl not frozen the painting and pulled her out, but before the thought had fully formed, a dark shape blocked out her vision.

She had just enough time to identify the shape as the heavy door swinging wildly on its hinges before it connected with her head.

***

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I think the curse on the vote for Twisted Cogs link has worn off, but maybe give it another week, djinn are notoriously dirty and he might’ve gotten grease on the vote button


6.01 – Obcasus {Sunset}

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The monastery was humble, small and unassuming. From the little window of her group’s room in the inn, high above the city, Elena had a clear view directly to it, on the outskirts of the city. In itself, it wouldn’t have been remarkable in one way or another. Being so close to Florenzia, however, so near to all of the capital city’s indulgence and opulence, the humility alone was remarkable.

Elena had travelled far since she was first blown away by Milia, her country-girl naivete making the small city seem huge and menacing. Even with all of her travelling and experience, even after seeing the grand towers of Rimi and the intricate layout of Venecchi, Florenzia was more overwhelming than anything else she had ever seen.

Florenzia was the heart of Italoza, the ruling city in the alliance of city-states that made up the country. It wasn’t as big as Rimi, or as urbane as Venecchi, but Florenzia was the lantern to which all of Italoza’s best artists and engineers were drawn, and it showed in a million small but impactful ways.

Little levers stood on pillars at the entry to their rooms, and when thrown they would light all of the lanterns in the room. While they could’ve taken stairs to their room, a clicking and whirring set of pulleys dragged a box from floor to floor, allowing people to cross the distance in the space of a few seconds. Elena could drag a finger across the glass of the window to turn the glass dark, casting the whole room into an artificial night.

Somehow, the wonders of the city of marvels failed to delight Elena. Though she could have dimmed the lights, she instead stared down at the monastery and tried to work around the pit in her stomach.

“Strange to think it’s going to end down there, isn’t it?” Ele said quietly, “this whole long mess.”

“I don’t think it’s going to end down there,” Elena answered, not taking her eyes from the small building. “I’m expecting to see either Coastering or Fulvio waiting for us, maybe not either but certainly not both.”

“It still might end, if we all walk into their trap and die,” Fred said from her right. Elena glanced at the Echo, usually so quiet and at Frederica’s side. As an Echo potentially dooming himself to remain incorporeal forever, Fred should have been more invested in matters than anyone, but he seemed as calm and clinical as his Stormtouched did, sitting in the corner and carving a little block of wood.

“Hopefully we won’t let that happen,” Elena said, “but if it does, the Eye will still be around to keep on fighting. With hostages in the hands of the Twisted, we don’t precisely have a choice.”

She snuck a look at Owl. The young man she had assumed was Tomas, a poor family-less garzoni, revealed to be the son of a courtier on the run from a Prince for most of his life. Despite what she had told him four days ago, part of her kept expecting her opinion of him to change. Each time she snuck a glance at him, she wondered if she would suddenly see Allvero D’arcangelo, a young man who she had no feelings for.

It hadn’t happened yet, and it was proving distracting for Elena, wondering if she would survive the next day or if she would die without telling him how she felt. Owl suddenly looked up from his book, catching her stare through his long curly hair, and he smiled at her encouragingly. Elena returned his smile, but turned away.

Focus, she told herself, no matter which way that conversation were to go, it would only make tomorrow more difficult.

“We should see about getting our hands on some weapons,” Owl broke the quiet in the room. “I’m not going to be much help, but Elena your Storm-assisted ability and Frederica’s skill with a knife might actually do well against whatever the Twisted are going to send to the monastery.”

“Should we risk being seen, going out into the street in search of weapons?” Emerald asked.

“We’ve already been seen,” Elena said without hesitation. “Fulvio and Coastering knew when we left Venecchi, they knew we were coming here. Even without Fulvio’s Storm, between the two of them they have enough influence that they could have put the guards on alert at every single gate. The Twisted know exactly where we are, and the fact that some plan hasn’t been enacted against us means they’re going to keep to their end of the bargain, at least as far as letting us get to the monastery tomorrow.”

“Weapons, then,” Owl said. “We don’t need to spend a lot of money on mine, I’ll be just as useless with a cheap sword as with an expensive one, but we should get a good knife for you, Frederica, and for Elena a hammer, if we can find one.”

“An’ a crossbow,” a weak voice came from the bed, and Elena spun around in delight.

“Belloza!” Elena rushed over to the plush bed where Belloza lay, closely followed by the two Echoes and three Stormtouched.

“This doesn’t feel like a Rimi bed,” Belloza mumbled, blinking her eyes and slowly rousing. “We got out of the city alright?”

“Well, you were stabbed, the wound became infected, and you almost died,” Owl said dryly, “so I don’t know I’d say ‘alright’.”

“We ran into the Eye near Venecchi, and Master Asclepius patched you up.We’re in Rimi, meeting the last two of the Twisted at an arranged time and place in exchange for hostages not being harmed,” Elena said, “Marsillo Del Farvero is dead.”

Misericordia et in ignominiam,” Belloza swore, “he would’ve been a feather in my cap. When all this is over, can we tell people I was the one to kill him? It would help my reputation.”

“If you like,” Elena gave a small smile. The casual use of the phrase ‘when this is all over’ made her wonder afresh how likely it would be, the entire group surviving the next few days.

Belloza closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them. “What hostages do the Twisted have that are making you do something so stupid?”

“My sister,” Owl said, shifting uncomfortably, “I’m…I’m not Tomas, my name is Allvero, and my sister and I have been running from a Prince our entire lives.”

Belloza nodded, the corner of her mouth twitching. “I suspected all along,” she said, “it’s what I assume of all of my friends, really. Was there anything else I missed while I was asleep? Did it turn out that Emerald has actually been a ghost this whole time, and Elena’s mother is leading the Twisted?”

“Somehow I don’t see my mother being nasty enough to try to end the world,” Elena smiled.

“I’m not so sure,” Frederica said, her face serious, “I’ve met her…”

The others laughed, and for a brief moment the laughter lit up the dismal room. When it quieted, the atmosphere shifted along with it, replacing smiles with serious and grim intensity.

“When do we leave for the meeting?” Belloza asked.

“As soon as the sun rises we’ll head down to the monastery where we’re to meet,” Elena said, “but there’s no ‘we’, you’re not coming with us.”

“You can’t be serious,” Belloza said, “I’m a Sagittara, I’m your best fighter.”

You can’t be serious if you think I’m letting my Stormtouched join in on this,” Bello rumbled from where he lay nudged up against one wall, “or do you forget I know exactly how weak you are and how much pain you’re in?”

“Belloza,” Elena said quietly, “the Eye is off preparing for a hostage rescue as we speak. We can’t let the Twisted shut us down completely here. Even if they succeed, we need to tell the world who did this and how. If things don’t go well for either group, you’ll be the only one who can tell the world what happened.”

“No,” Belloza said, “if things don’t go well, he’ll be the only one who knows what happened.” She gestured toward Bello. Although she grinned as she said it, none of the group laughed this time.

“It’s getting close to sundown,” Owl said, “we need to get those weapons.”

Elena estimated the weight of the purse she carried. They had picked up more money here and there, but a few weapons would be enough to chew through almost all they had left. She shook her head as she followed Owl through the door. It didn’t matter, if it gave them any sort of edge the next morning.

They would need all the edge they could get.

***

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5.07 – Tunc Usque Nunc {From Then to Now}

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3 years past

With his father’s training, Elogio was fairly sure he could’ve made his way across the rooftops of the city. It would’ve been faster, in times like these, to fly from the tiles of one roof to the other, to not have to weave in and out between the press of people and take long detours along the watery channels to find a bridge to cross.

To fly like an Owl, he thought, wistfully, but then shook himself and returned his focus to moving as quickly as he could without drawing anyone’s attention. To move from rooftop to rooftop would be faster, but it would also be obvious, it would draw peoples’ attention and stick in their minds. No matter what chased him, it was better to be unseen than to be quick.

Even now, when what chased him was rumors that the Prince had found them again.

It had admittedly been foolish, Elogio mused as he moved. He had thought it a clever idea, hiding out from Prince Ulisse in the man’s own city, but now he worried that it had been arrogance. Even more, he worried that his sister would answer for his arrogance.

Ela sat on the railing of the balcony outside of their rented room. As an Echo, he was a little more free with his ability to be high up and remain relatively unseen, although the sight of his sister’s Echo perched up high made Elogio’s stomach clench. It had been three years since his Echo had died, but it still stung him in a place that was hard to put a finger on.

Elogio gave the signal, and Ela slipped from his place on the balcony inside. Without even pausing at the house, Elogio continued on his unhurried-but-quick pace, changing course slightly so that he now headed toward the walls.

Ela would give the warning, and Elaide would assemble together the three little innocuous bundles stashed around their house, together comprising the personal belongings she needed to keep. It would only take her a few minutes, and she’d be clear of the house in less than five.

Elogio didn’t need to gather anything from the house; the only personal item he cared about was safely lodged in the pocket of the light jacket he wore. Out of habit he checked that it was still there, a tiny nugget of doubt vanishing as soon as his fingers brushed the small leather-bound book.

With Elaide’s bundle and Elogio’s book removed from the house, everything left was little more than window-dressing, nothing that could be used to identify them. The siblings had long since learned to express their individuality in ways that didn’t leave a trail.

“Brother dearest, you’re out and about late,” Elaide fell into step next to him, barely breathing hard from running to catch up. Elogio glanced up at the rising moon, almost surprised. He’d known it was late, but hadn’t realized just how late. For the past several years, he had had so much trouble sleeping that these days he didn’t bother trying until the early hours of the morning.

“Elaide,” Elogio said. He paused for a moment as the pair of them pressed a little close to a group of students emerging from Studio Neptune. Even after they had passed, he didn’t trust the crowds around them. “It’s happening again.”

“I assumed as much from the direction we were headed,” Elaide sighed. “Pity.”

“It’s only rumors,” Elogio said, “it might be  nothing.”

Elaide didn’t respond. She didn’t have to, the pair of them knew that rumors were far and away enough reason to start moving again.

“I’d started talking with the girl in the shop,” Elaide said after a while.

“Oh?” Elogio frowned, “started making friends?”

“Stupid of me, I know,” Elaide hurriedly added, “but…perhaps we start thinking about it.”

“Is it worth trying to settle in and put down roots when at any time we might be torn away again?” Elogio asked.

“It might be,” his sister said thoughtfully. “We spent two and a half years here. That would’ve been a lot of time to spend with friends.”

“And we’d be heartbroken right about now, missing those friends,” Elogio pointed out. They were nearing the lock, where the ferries would take loads of people across the water that surrounded Venecchi.

“I get the opposite impression,” Elaide said quietly, “I think keeping yourself walled away is causing you far more heartbreak.”

“There’s something on your mind,” Elogio said.

“We’re going to split up, this time,” Elaide answered. “You need to form new connections, connections with other people, or I’m worried you’re going to turn into something our parents wouldn’t want you to. I’m not going to keep holding you back from that.”

Elogio absorbed the information as he always did, quietly and without comment, mulling it over and picking it apart in his head. From a utilitarian standpoint, it would be good for the pair of them to split up, much as he hated the idea. Prince Ulisse was looking for a brother and sister, he wouldn’t expect them to separate.

“We’ll have to keep in contact,” Elogio finally said, adopting his ‘haggling’ voice.

“You’ll have to join a studio,” his sister countered.

“How on earth do you expect me-”

“Joining a studio will force you to interact with people, and it will force you to put down roots,” Elaide said firmly, “and what better time to show up suddenly to a new city than when a host of prospective students are showing up to a new city? It’s perfect, Elogio.”

Elogio nodded, but frowned. They’d need new names, now that they were leaving. Maybe something like Tomas…

***

2 years past

Beetle, as Tomas was called by his studiomates, looked for all the world as if he wasn’t paying attention to Doubletap’s dilema. His eyes were focused on the little coiled spring, held in place by long thin tools that he manipulated in millimeter-long movements. It was a bad habit of his, he knew, that he looked so caught up in his work no matter what, and he appreciated of his Studiomates that they didn’t seem to mind it.

“I’m just not great with words,” Doubletap was complaining, “it’s all very well to explain it to you, but if I try to tell her the way I told you, I just know it’ll come out wrong.”

“You sell yourself short,” Beetle murmured, “besides, you said she was the smartest girl you’ve ever met, don’t you trust her to understand what you’re trying to say?”

“I guess I do…” Doubletap said without much enthusiasm, “maybe that’s what I’m worried about. Once she understands that I’m not as well-off as I may’ve implied, what if she doesn’t want to go out with me anymore?”

Beetle carefully removed his tools and fastened both sides of the lock together, inserted the key, and turned it. When he held it to his ear, the satisfying tick of clockwork within made him smile. The lock would be impossible to open for exactly five hours.

“Then it would be good to find that out sooner than later. Are you interested in going out with a girl only interested in you for your florins?” Beetle asked, beginning the meticulous process of cleaning up his workspace.

“No…that’s a good point, I’m not,” Doubletap hopped down from where he’d been perched, his actions much lighter than when he had first hopped up. “You’ve been a huge help, Tomas, thank you.”

“Anytime,” Beetle began putting his tools into their cases, shooting a smile over his shoulder at the boy.

“I’ve been talking to Snugglet about it, and when she suggested I get advice from the owl I was a little surprised, you don’t seem the sort-”

“The what, now?” Tomas half-turned, expression blank although his heart suddenly raced. “What did you call me?”

“Oh, the other garzoni…we um…we call you the owl, you didn’t know that?” Doubletap shrugged sheepishly, “you’re always up and working in the night, and you’re smart and wise…it seems more apt than calling you beetle, anyway. Why, does it bother you?”

Tomas mused for a moment, then smiled.

“No, not at all,” he said, “I actually kind of like it.”

***

Now

Owl kept his chin high as he spoke. It was tempting to not meet anyone’s eyes, to perhaps stare at the ground, but he resisted the urge. Instead he clenched his fists and braced himself for what the others might say. That he should’ve told them sooner, that they deserved to know, that he had put them in even greater danger by travelling with them.

“Well,” Elena finally said, flatly, “this changes things.” Even though he had been expecting it, Owl almost winced. Of all of the friends and allies in front of him, she was the one person he would’ve rather not disappointed. His feelings for Elena were complicated, made the more difficult by the fact that he had purposely tried to keep her at arm’s length, but no matter what the feelings, he knew he didn’t want to disappoint her.

“I’m sure it does,” he said, trying not to sound stiff.

“Those other threats might’ve been bluffs, but if they could identify Ava by name, it’s almost certain they actually have her,” Elena continued, frowning, “I’d hoped they were bluffing about everything, but if they have her hostage, they’ll have no qualms about using the junior members of the Eye as hostages also.”

Owl blinked, caught off guard. He had expected many different reactions, but this one hadn’t occurred to him.

“That means we’ll have to meet them at the monastery,” Emerald said, “whatever plan we come up with to defeat the rest of the Twisted, it’s going to have to be on their terms.”

“We shouldn’t discount the aftermath, either,” Master Asclepius broke in, “even if the Twisted show up at the monastery at all, they certainly won’t bring Owl’s sister with them. Most likely she’s being held with the junior members of the Eye. There will have to be rescue attempt, either after you kill the Twisted, or more ideally, at the same time.”

“All of Italoza will be hunting us after that, Prince Ulisse included,” Elena said, gravely, “your sister can join us, Owl. Better to be hunted among friends than alone.”

“I don’t…” Owl searched for the right words, “I’m not sure I understand. You don’t seem upset.”

“Of course I’m upset!” Elena said, surprised, “but we’ll rescue her, don’t worry.”

“I mean, upset that I kept this secret,” Owl looked back and forth between Ele, Emerald, Frederica and Fred, unable to hide the confusion on his face, “especially you all…for so long…”

Frederica glanced up from the block of wood in her hand for a moment. “Stupid,” she said, then returned to her carving.

“Tomas…” Elena rested her hand gently on his shoulder, a weary but fond smile on her face. “To us, you’ll always be Owl.”

“Touching,” Master Zeus interrupted the sudden swell of warmth that rushed to Owl’s face, “but if you don’t mind, I think it’s time to begin planning. We have a little less than five days to come up with a plan to kill the most dangerous group in Italoza.”

***

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5.06 – Cadit et Flammae {Falls and Flames}

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***

6 years past

Father was a fisherman, so the beach wasn’t a special treat to him like it was to Lorella. Mother had been so many times that she was content to sit on the blanket and read her book. To Lorella, though, the beach was so magical that she couldn’t possibly sit still.

At first she was content to sit with Mother on the blanket, reaching out to clasp at handfuls of sand and watching them run through her fingers. It didn’t take long for Lor to convince her out closer to the water, and for most of the day she ran back and forth, adding to a growing collection of shells and smooth stones and other of the sea’s little trinkets.

It was…comfortable. The sound of the sea a steady pleasant background, Father and Mother and Lor nearby, the occasional faroff laugh or shout from Magno and Mag in the distance. Lorella didn’t want to be ungrateful, but it was a pleasant change to be comfortable, to be dare she say happy. It was a feeling she hadn’t had very frequently in the last two years, since that horrible night.

The smile on her face slowly melted away along with the pleasant feeling as her thoughts strayed. She didn’t think about it often, not even now that the heartrending sting had mellowed to a constant dull ache. Not thinking about it made it easier to remember that the fisherman and his wife were Father and Mother, that she was Lorella and her brother was Magno.

I should be able to remember without effort, she thought severely, twelve years old is old enough to remember without trying.

On the other hand, thinking of herself as Lorella made it hurt worse at times like these, when she suddenly remembered, and her day was ruined, even on what was supposed to be a pleasant trip to the seaside.

“I think it will get easier,” Lor said, reading her expression and sudden shift in mood.

“No it won’t,” Lorella said quietly. Her parents had no objection to her speaking to her Echo, but it made her self conscious, as if she was repaying Father and Mother’s hospitality with mockery. Both she and Magno tended to only speak to their Echoes quietly, or when alone.

“It will,” Lor insisted, “it’s better now than it was then, and in two years it will be even better than now.”

Lorella didn’t answer, turning instead to distract herself by arranging the flotsam and trinkets on the sand. With every pretty piece placed meticulously in order, she reminded herself that she should be happy with what she had, that it was ungrateful to be sad.

“Lorella,” Mother’s sudden voice startled her, and she turned guiltily.

“Yes, Mother?”

“It’s been awhile since I’ve heard Magno, will you run and check on him? Tell him to stop playing by those high rocks, he could hurt himself.”

“Yes, Mother.” Glad for the distraction, Lorella set out toward these ties of towering rocks a little ways from the sand. They jutted out from the dirt, the smallest of them just small enough for someone her age to climb, and from there it would be an easy thing to leap over to the next one, and from there to the next…

“Something is wrong.” Lor’s worried tone matched the one Lorella had been about to use. The laughing and little screams of play had clearly come from this direction, but the rocks were empty.

“Magno?” Lorella called, moving not toward the high rocks but instead toward the small spaces in between them, into the little canyons and coves that the large rocks created at their bottoms.

When the playful salt breeze by the sea entered the little canyons it whistled forlornly, and Lorella’s feeling of unease deepened. When she turned the corner, the sight she was met with drove everything from her mind, even the constant effort of remembering her and her brother’s new names. In the presence of the scene before her, pretending she wasn’t Ava and her brother wasn’t Allvero seemed unimportant.

She found Allvero on his knees in the dirt and stone, his shoulders slumped, his hands clasped uselessly in his lap. In front of him, her body twisted awkwardly where she had fallen, his Echo was slowly blowing away in the wind.

In the quiet broken only by the wind’s whistling, Ava knelt next to Allvero, a lump in her throat, and put her arm around her brother. Ala had been one of her best friends, but there was nothing Ava could do for the Echo now, not even give her a comforting touch.“We were just playing,” Allvero said, dully. His eyes were dry, but his voice was quiet. He stared at the spot in the sand, even after Ala’s remains blew away like cobwebs in the whistling wind, “we were up on the rocks, just playing, we didn’t…she slipped and…”

Ava kept her arm around Allvero as the pair of them walked slowly back across the beach toward the fisherman and his wife. Allvero stared at the sand in front of him, still not crying, not even speaking.

“Owl-” Ava began, but her brother yanked away from her hug, so suddenly that she fell over into the sand. When she looked up, Allvero was on his feet, fists clenched, trembling.

“Magno,” he corrected, “my name is Magno, your name is Lorella, we’ve never heard ‘Owl’ or ‘Songbird’, stop forgetting.”

Ava’s heart practically broke at the expression on her brother’s face. “Allvero, that doesn’t matter right now,” she said, “Ala is-”

“It matters,” Allvero rubbed his eye with a fist, as if furious at the tear that had formed there, “it matters more than anything. If you keep calling me that, someone will hear. Someone will find out.”

Ava smoothed out her dress, still in the sand. “In private, though, when no one is listening-”

“Not even then,” Allvero said fiercely. He helped her to her feet, then crushed her in a hug, his body shaking with tears. “Please,” he whispered, “you and Lor are all I have left.”

Ava’s own vision blurred as well, and she hugged her brother tight. He was right, she had been foolish. It only took one slip of the tongue, and they couldn’t afford the possibility. Ava took a deep breath in, and Lorella exhaled. “Of course, Magno, of course,” she answered, hugging him tightly back. “Lor and I will never leave you, I promise.”

***

“Magno, you haven’t touched your food,” Mother said. Lorella looked anxiously back and forth between her brother and the plump woman clearing dishes away from the table. Her brow furrowed in concern, but her eyes only only held vague annoyance. “Do you not like your fish, son?”

“Thank you, Mother, I’m just not very hungry right now,” Magno said quietly. He hadn’t spoken above a murmur since Mag had died.

“You’ll catch your death,” Mother clucked disapprovingly, “growing boys need their strength.” Despite her words, when Magno helped her by collecting an armful of dishes, his own still heaped with food, Mother didn’t object.

Lorella didn’t like speaking up, but the way her brother’s clothes hung on him, the way his eyes seemed sunken made her lean forward.

“Couldn’t you try to get just a little bit of it down?” she asked, almost in a whisper. “I know you have no appetite, but it’s not healthy…you’ve always loved the taste of fish.”

“I didn’t really notice the taste,” Magno said, his gaze drifting over the table.

“Now that is quite enough!” Mother slammed the dishes down on the counter so hard they rattled, “I’m just about at my wit’s end with all of this moping, Magno!”

“Now, now, Delfina,” Father tutted. Clearly assuming that his argument had been made in its entirety, he went back to the nets he had been working on.

Mother turned to the pump and angrily filled the little dishbasin. She muttered just loud enough that the little room could hear a few words of each sentence. “….last straw…ungrateful…raised that way…”

Lorella winced at the last phrase.

“The children have had a lot to adjust to, Delfina,” Father said.

“I’m not denying it,” Mother said, “Lorella has had to adjust too, you don’t see her moping around, not eating her supper.”

“Mother, you remember I told you?” Lorella glanced at her brother, “Magno’s Echo?”

“Oh,” Delfina only deflated by a few degrees, “Of course I understand that you’re still sad, Magno, but really it’s been months now.”

Magno quietly left the table, while Mother continued talking, not noticing that he had left.

***

“Magno,” Lorella hissed. Without a candle or lantern, she couldn’t be sure whether her brother was awake or not, so she continued gently nudging him, waiting for him to respond. “Magno, wake up.”

“Too early,” Magno mumbled.

“It’s not early, it’s late,” Lorella said, “it’s the middle of the night. Get out of bed and come with me.”

“Those two statements don’t really belong together,” Magno whispered back, but the telltale rustle of blankets told Lorella that he was following.

The small sliver of the moon wasn’t truly enough to light their way, but Lorella and Magno had played and explored enough around the hut, their new home, that they didn’t need much light to navigate their way. The rolling hills weren’t difficult to cross anyway, although in the dark of night, each little dip and valley was a pool of pitch black, like a hole punched into the world.

“Where is my insane sister taking me this later at night, Lor?” Magno asked.

“Somewhere important,” Lor responded evenly. The three of them fell silent again until they reached the little hill.

It was small and out of the way enough that Mother and Father would never have reason to pass by. Close enough to the sea that one could hear the ocean, but far enough away that they couldn’t see the rocks that had been the cause of that horrible day.

The little grave looked lonely and bare on that hill in the dark. Lorella looked back and forth anxiously from Magno to the grave as her brother knelt in front of the gravestone.

“Here lies a kindly sister, a faithful companion, a best friend,” Magno read quietly.

“I didn’t think you’d want me putting her real name,” Lorella said, “but putting ‘Mag’ didn’t feel right either.”

“She would’ve liked it, I think,” Magno stood, staring down at the little grave. “I…I think it’s good.”

“I brought your book from your room,” Lorella said, pressing it into her brothers’ hands, “Mother’s book. I thought…I thought it might you might want to read something from it?” It felt strange, using the word to talk about their real mother, and it bothered her that it felt strange.

She knew Magno didn’t need the book, he had memorized its contents long ago. Still, she was glad she had brought it. For the first time since his Echo had died, Magno looked at peace, standing over her grave with the book of poems open in front of her. Without looking at the pages, barely illuminated by the sliver of moon, he began to recite.

“When dark and storm does take you…”

***

Lorella knew that her brother wouldn’t recover from his loss at once, but the funeral seemed to take a weight from his shoulders. She paid more attention to him than to the path on their way back to the house, although it was dark enough that she could barely see either. There was no way to know the answers to the questions she looked for…she barely knew what those questions were.

With her attention on her brother, Lorella saw his reaction before she caught sight of the house. In the flicker of fear, anger, panic, and sudden hard determination, she barely had to glance toward Mother and Father’s house to know what had happened.

Magno didn’t drop as much as he slunk down to his knees, turning so that he could slip into the dip of pitch black darkness that the hills created. Lorella was more out of practice with their Father’s teachings, but she followed Magno soundlessly, only peaking over the edge of the dip after she was sure she was out of sight.

In the dark of the night, the flames seemed brighter than they ought to, yet at the same time darker, deep and violent reds and oranges. They licked across the thatch roof and lit a wide ring of light around the house, wide enough that the men around it could be seen.

“No guard livery,” Magno whispered. “Could be robbers.”

“You know they aren’t robbers,” Lorella murmured back. From within the house, the muffled sounds of a struggle reached their ears.

“There’s nothing we can do here,” Lor was already moving, slinking further into the dip of darkness in the opposite direction. Magno followed him, and with a wrench in her gut and a last look at the flames, Lorella followed them.

The darkness seemed more a friend than an enemy now, and not for the first time, Lorella silently thanked her father for teaching them how to move silently across uneven ground.

“They had horses,” she whispered.

“That will work in our favor,” Magno said quietly, “men with horses hunting children will take the roads, they’ll take them all the way up to the nearest city. They won’t expect us to make our way through the forest and across the lower slope of the mountain to Licre.”

“We’re just children, we can’t survive that!” Lorella protested, although she knew there was no other option.

“We’ll take our chances with the mountain, we’ve a better chance there than on the road.”

“They’ll eventually turn away from the road and find the grave,” Lor said, “they’ll assume it’s Ava-”

“Not Ava,” Magno interrupted, “and not Lorella either, now that they’ve made the connection.”

“I don’t think we have to worry about names while we’re actively running for our lives, little owl,” Lor said. “They’ll put two and two together and decide that Ava is dead, that’s something in our favor.”

“Assuming we get through the mountain,” Magno said grimly.

“Like you said, we don’t have a choice,” Lorella said. The longer they spent running silently through the dark hills, the more her fear and addrenaline hardened into something cold and intense. “A lot of people have died to keep us alive.”

Magno remained silent for a long time, and the whistle of air in their ears and the distant roar of the sea was the only sound.

“We’ll make it out the other side, songbird,” Allvero finally whispered.

“I know we will, owl,” Ava whispered back. “We must.”

***

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5.05 – Gloria Sine Volatus {Flightless Butterfly}

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***

8 years past

Cassiano Nazzaro slouched, hands in his pockets, a smile on his face, as he wandered down the hallways of the palace toward the action that would result in his execution. Maybe. Perhaps. It was all a matter of timing, more than anything else, as everything else in his professional life.

“I know that look, Cass you mongrel,” one of the chambermaids grinned as she passed him in the hall with an armfull of linens, “you’re musing on where your next conquest is going to be.”

“You know me too well, Sarabell” Cassiano gave a half-grin, turning to walk backward so he could give her the attention she expected while still not pausing his slow, loping path. “Any suggestions? What about that sister of yours, she’s almost as pretty as you but doesn’t know better like you do.”

“Cass you are a beast!” Sarabell giggled and blushed, “is there any redeeming quality to you at all?”

“Not a one,” Cass chuckled. He knew he should avoid the main hallways lest he get pulled into conversation, but on the other hand, it would be well to leave a trail of people who had seen and talked with him this afternoon.

The sound of a young boy’s laughter floated through the window, coming from the very courtyard that Cassiano was languidly moving toward. Carefully, the man released the fists he’d been clenching, willing his muscles to relax. He chided himself for having to make the effort. It had been decades since Cassiano had let anything like stress or worry show on his face or in his body language. Spies who showed their nerves tended to become spies who showed their innards.

Still, some of the tension in his shoulders lessened when he actually caught sight of the boy playing in the courtyard with a few of his friends. The child was the very spit of Cassiano’s old friend and commander: long silken black hair that fell to his shoulders, framing a noble and thoughtful face. A leather-bound book sat open on an empty bench nearby, that would probably be the boy’s Echo, but Cassiano wasn’t going to risk talking to empty air if he wasn’t sure.

Even if the child hadn’t resembled Ticone so much, Cassiano would’ve been able to pick the boy out of a crowd. Before he had even taken two steps into the courtyard, the boy had glanced up to take note of him. By a few more steps little Allvero has stopped playing and was watching his approach with sharp interest, clearly poised to run or respond if he needed to. Cassiano smiled appreciatively. That was the son of the King’s spymaster alright, ten years old and trained with better instincts than most of the people in the castle.

“You look like you’re having fun, child,” Cassiano said, “although one can have too much fun, you know. Just ask the baby chickens in a stew.”

Allvero had looked to be a little bundle of energy and on the verge of running, but at the codephrase he grew as still as a Mortalis statue. “I have to play with you guys later,” he murmured to his friends. Cassiano watched the boys scamper off. He regretted the witnesses, but at least he still had a chance of surviving…chances were slim someone would think to question what looked like kitchen children.

“What’s wrong?” Allvero asked. There was so much wisdom and seriousness in his dark eyes that Cassiano almost told him the truth, but thought the better of it at the last second. He needed the boy to move quickly and decisively, and that wouldn’t happen if he knew about his parents, no matter how mature.

“You’re in serious danger,” he said instead, “but there are arrangements to take you somewhere safe. Your father says you know of a safe meeting place?”

“Which one?” Allvero asked.

“I don’t know any of them, I don’t know who will meet you or where they’ll take you, you know your father’s rules on secrecy. He said to mention a flightless butterfly to you, does that help?”

Allvero nodded, turning to pick up the leather-bound book from the bench. “And my sister? My parents?”

“I’m going to find your sister now, she’ll meet you there,” Cassiano had already turned toward the castle once more. “Your parents are already somewhere safe.”

It was technically true. No one would be hurting Ticone or Porzia ever again. He was glad to hear Allvero’s footsteps sound behind him, quick enough that the boy would seem busy, but not so fast that an adult would stop him.

Ava was more difficult to track down, which worried him. He had already checked seven of the eight places Ticone’s message had marked out as the places she liked, and if the girl wasn’t in the eighth, Cassiano wasn’t sure what he would do. The old spy was out of practice, he had already left a trail of witnesses and clumsy covers behind him, but if he didn’t keep to his timetables there was a very real chance he would die with the child.

The heavy ballroom door let out a groan on its hinges as he shoved it inward, and Cassiano’s heart sank even as he entered the quiet room. A door like that was hard for him to open, no ten-year-old girl would be coming and going. Still, he was too thorough not to check. Even normal children had hidey-holes and little ways of getting into places, the daughter of Ticone D’Arcangelo would probably have more.

The room was dusty and echoed, laid aside in favor of the newer ballrooms in the northern side of the palace. Motes of dust filtered through the yellow shafts of sunlight, kicked up by Cassiano’s boots, and the despair in his stomach grew even more pronounced. No one had set foot in this ballroom since the last time nobles had danced here.

Cassiano turned back to the doorway, to find it filled with four soldiers in the pink-and-white livery of Venecchi. Decades of experience kept him from reacting more than a single raised eyebrow.

“I didn’t think an empty ballroom would need guarding,” he said.

“Apparently it doesn’t, with a brave man like you here to keep it safe.” Cassiano vaguely recognized the guard at the head of the little group, Vulpiano, a rogue who used to serve Ulisse as an advisor. It made sense that the new Prince Ulisse would have Vulpiano do dirty work like this.

“What can I say?” Cassiano didn’t waste much effort in his grin, “this is one of the best places to avoid work, no one comes ‘round here.”

“Indeed? Then if someone did, surely you’d remember it? Have you seen anyone?” Vulpiano moved into the room cautiously, flanked by the other guards, as if he expected Cassiano to trigger some trap for him.

I should’ve set up some trap for him, Cassiano mentally cursed, it makes sense that he would have the same list of places the children like that I do.

“As I say, no one comes around here,” Cassiano shrugged, not retreating from the group, but putting his hands into his pockets to seem less threatening.

“I recognize you, you know,” Vulpiano said. “You’re one of the old spymaster’s spies.”

“Retired, but you have the vague thrust of it right,” Cassiano shrugged, glancing around the upper levels of the ballroom, “doesn’t mean I see people who aren’t here.” When he caught sight of the little fingers gripping the railings on the balcony, dark little eyes peering down at him, his heart almost stopped. Carefully, he let his gaze continue moving, praying his surprise hadn’t made him pause for a half-second. Of course, Stormtouched. Her Echo could’ve given her warning that he was approaching, giving her time to hide.

This was a problem.

“I would imagine that a spy, even retired, would retain loyalty to their spymaster,” Vulpiano said.

This was a huge problem. Cassiano’s mind raced through all of the possibilities in time with his hammering heart. As long as he let him, Vulpiano would continue to talk in circles, clear to the both of them but far too subtle to warn the little girl that she was in danger. If Cass tried to warn her, he would expose her presence to the guards, but if he didn’t, she would wander away and into their clutches soon enough.

There was really only one way forward, no matter the consequences that one way would bring down upon his head.

“Can we speak plainly, here?” Cassiano made a show of looking bored, “this runabout is tiresome.”

Vulpiano smiled, thin-lipped, “by all means, if you think I am not speaking plainly. What is it you have to say?”

Cassiano carefully didn’t let his gaze flick back to the balcony. He was old and made far more mistakes than he had in his youth, but he would not make such an obvious one now.

“You’re looking for the D’Arcangelo children so you can kill them,” he said flatly. He continued quickly to mask any noise of surprise Ava might make above them, “it boggles my mind that scum like you can be so comfortable killing children, but shy away from saying it aloud.”

“What a ridiculous, paranoid fantasy,” Vulpiano’s smile didn’t falter, “honestly, old spy, where would you come up with such an idea?”

“You think I’m trying to trap you, that I have some compatriot witness hiding behind the furniture,” Cassiano indicated the covered furniture around them, not drawing attention to the balcony, “I’m not, and I don’t. I just find you disgusting.”

“No, no,” Vulpiano smiled wider, “I would really like to know where you came up with such an idea. Why, it almost sounds as if you’ve been talking to someone else with paranoid fantasies, like D’Arcangelo senior, perhaps.”

Cassiano kept his face completely still, itself a tell. The guards that had been flanking Vulpiano moved forward to surround him, while Vulpiano himself continued, quietly.

“You can’t have known the children are in danger unless Ticone somehow passed a message to you,” he said, “and he wouldn’t have passed on a message without instructions. You’re the reason we can’t find them anywhere. You’ve spirited them away somewhere.”

Cassiano kept his eyes locked on Vulpiano’s. The man had made the right guess, he’d just messed up the timing. It would be plain enough for the little girl to connect the dots, if she was as smart as he guessed, now all Cassiano had to do was ensure the girl knew where to go.  “Look at how far you’ve come, Vulpiano,” he said contemptuously, “from the lowly station you’ve risen, and now here you are at the lofty heights of child-murder, dressed in pink and white like some kind of flightless butterfly.”

“Ironic,” Vulpiano said, as the guards grabbed Cassiano, “since, by the time we’ve convinced you to tell us where the children are, I imagine it’s you who will resemble an insect with its wings ripped off.”

Cassiano chuckled with genuine good humor at the quip. A daughter of D’Arcangelo would have all she needed now to meet her brother and escape. Chances were high that they’d be out of the castle before the hour was up, and he knew he could withstand torture for that long. After that, he couldn’t give up their location even if he wanted to.

More out of a sense of obligation than anything else, Cassiano kicked out and broke one of the guard’s ankles as they dragged him out of the ballroom. It would be a nasty end for him, but he’d made his peace with that ever since the day he first took on as one of Ticone’s spies. A nasty end in service to saving the lives of his old commander’s children? He couldn’t think of a better reason to go.

Just as the door to the ballroom swung shut, Cassiano could’ve sworn he saw a flash of lavender up in the balconies, and he nodded to himself approvingly. He’d worried she would panic and freeze under the pressure, but the girl was moving already. She had a bright future ahead of her.

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5.04 – In Somnis Illi Gloriam {Dreams of Former Glory}

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8 years past

 

“It feels like it’s been months! What have you been doing?”

Mia Nellada, in the guise of a small golden child, looked up from her heavy tome and raised an eyebrow at the intruder. Since her imprisonment over thirty years gone by, she had enjoyed the contemplation and introversion unique to isolated prisoners, and interruptions tended to rattle her a little more these days.

Perhaps reading the expression in the girl’s golden eyes, Porzia continued a little more contritely. “I just meant…I went to a lot of trouble to contact you, my Queen.”

Though her golden eyes had no pupils, Mia’s body language made it clear that she had returned her attention to the book in front of her. “It’s ‘Little One’ again,” she said shortly, “the title of Rebel Queen died with the rebellion, as according to strategy.”

Porzia furrowed her brow. This meeting, so cautiously arranged and so costly, was not going at all as she’d planned. Perhaps she had been too optimistic, hoping for a meeting of the minds, a careful planning session between captain and trusted lieutenant. The old days were long gone, and it was the first time they’d seen each other in decades.

“My apologies, Little One,” she proceeded more carefully, feeling her old commander out, “but the rebellion was hardly the last step in your overarching plan. As your lieutenant, I assumed you’d want me following your blueprints, progressing your goals even in captivity. That’s why I assumed you’d be more eager to hear a report from your lieutenant…”

Despite herself, Porzia couldn’t help the note of bitterness that crept into her words, although she regretted them almost as soon as she spoke them. Mia, too, had been captive ever since the rebellion, and unlike Porzia she didn’t have a husband or children to keep her company and soften the pangs of imprisonment.

Mia swung the book closed with a thud, turning her full attention toward the woman in front of her. The face was decades younger than the Rebel Queen that Porzia remembered, more soft and chubby. The gold hair which replaced Mia’s raven black made the difference even more stark.

Even so, the mannerisms which had made the Rebel Queen such a fierce and intimidating leader still remained. If anything, they looked even more harsh set in that young face, and with a shiver Porzia straightened, old undying habits pulling her to attention. It had been rare that Mia’s full ferocity had been turned on her, and Porzia had a burst of sympathy for the poor fools who had received it in the past.

“Do you imagine it’s a small thing, pulling together a coherent dream in which I can work?” Mia asked, “much less drawing a Mortalis into it as well, while keeping her knowledge and intent intact?”

This was most certainly not how it was supposed to go. “I’m sorry, Little One, I know it-” Porzia began, but Mia continued.

“In addition, to be brutally honest, your report did not strike me as important enough to prioritize highly. Like me, you are imprisoned within the walls of the castle, but unlike me you have no method of enacting plans or gaining information. Even so, as a concession to the part you played in the rebellion, I have reached out to hear what you have to say. Now would be the time to say it.”

Porzia swallowed, and spoke very fast. “I have, Mia. Have enacted plans, that is, plans to solve your greatest problem.”

Mia’s voice was quiet when she spoke. “And what plans might these be? How have you solved this problem of mine while remaining imprisoned and cut off from the world?”

Porzia straightened with pride. “I may have been imprisoned, my Queen, but I am a lieutenant of the Stormhearts Rebellion, and we don’t allow something so small to stop us. You used to speak of your plans after the rebellion, you groomed me to carry it on after you were imprisoned or killed, do you remember? The dynasty of strategic minds that would see your plan to fruition?”

“I remember.” Mia said, her face expressionless. “Then you were imprisoned, and that dynastic line had to be cut.”

“Not necessarily,” Porzia beamed, “I’ve been imprisoned, but alongside my children, my children who will be free when they grow older. I haven’t forgotten the things you’ve taught me, my Queen. If I can’t be your heir, I can at least provide you with two from the next generation.”

Mia remained silent for long moments, her golden gaze steady. Porzia waited, proud that she had so impressed her Queen, waiting to say more until the girl had processed her news.

“Ava and Allvero, if I remember correctly. How, exactly, have you trained them?” Mia asked. Her voice was calm, and betrayed no emotion, but Porzia could tell she had made an impression.

“The same way I was trained, my Queen, though I had the opportunity to start much earlier. I’ve been teaching them about intrigue, how to see what people want, how to lie, how to tell the truth in the most pleasing way. They know how to read between the lines, and they know when to speak plainly and when to be more subtle. Their father thinks I’m simply preparing them for the courts, and he’s taught them his skills as a retired spymaster. How to move stealthily, how to observe the things normal people don’t observe. In a few years, when they’re older, he’ll teach them how to use weapons, and how to defend themselves without.”

“An impressive set of skills, for a pair of ten-year-olds,” Mia said, her voice still without inflection. “And what of the particulars of the plan? Will I have to fill them in on the details, when I meet them?”

“Oh, no!” Porzia said, “they’re still young, yet, so I’ve only given them the broad strokes…that the quelling of the Stormhearts Rebellion was only the first step, because Stormtouched and Mortalis will always be in turmoil with each other. That more of these rebellions will have to be orchestrated, since they are inevitable, Stormtouched turning on Mortalis, Mortalis turning on Stormtouched. When they’re older I’ll tell them about the dynasty of planners, how as long as we guide each rebellion we can minimize the damage it causes, and mollify whichever side feels more oppressed.”

Mia nodded, seeming to come to a decision, and Porzia held her breath. She knew she had been forward, making the choice of heir on her Queen’s behalf, but she hoped Mia would find her initiative a sign of loyalty rather than insubordination.

“My dear lieutenant,” Mia said with a regretful sigh, and Porzia’s heart dropped. “You have shown your faithfulness in our plans…but I wish you had consulted with me before you had moved forward with these plans.”

“I…I promise you, I’ve been careful,” Porzia stammered, “I’ve done for them everything you did to turn me into your heir-”

“I’m quite sure that you have, Porzia,” Mia said kindly, “but the plan has changed since the two of use were imprisoned. If I’ve timed my workings correctly, the next rebellion will be an uprising of discontent Mortalis against a ruling Stormtouched class. Your children are both Stormtouched, are they not?”

“Yes…they’re both Faberi…” Porzia said faintly. “Ava sews, Allvero can pick locks.” The wrongness felt as if it would overwhelm her. So much time, so much effort, so much emotional investment, all in service to the Rebel Queen, none of it worth anything. “Surely…” she mustered, “surely there’s something I can do? Something can be done…perhaps they can live as Mortalis, no one needs to know-”

“Porzia,” Mia said, even more kindly, “you know that won’t work. People can be fooled, but the type of plans I lay don’t operate on the level of single people. No matter what they pretend to be, your children will think like Stormtouched, they will act like Stormtouched, and they will make decisions like Stormtouched.”

“You couldn’t adjust- no, of course not,” Porzia interrupted herself. She really was in a state, if she had almost asked the Rebel Queen to adjust her decades-long strategies just to take on her children. “I’m sorry, my Queen. I had such high hopes that I…I let them carry me away.”

“It is admirable, your loyalty,” Mia said. “And I do believe that your children will be a great addition to the cause, in their own way.”

“Thank you,” Porzia bowed. Disappointment warred with embarrassment in her stomach. What had she been thinking? If Mia had wanted her children to be the heirs to her plan, she would’ve orchestrated it herself. The woman who had led the Stormhearts had more ability, more knowledge, and Porzia was lucky that her clumsy attempts hadn’t caused damage to the strategy her betters had come up with.

Mia was gracious enough to not point out her incompetence, she could be gracious enough to let her Queen work unbothered. “If I can be of any assistance…” she trailed off.

“I will certainly let you know,” Mia said. The knowledge that Mia would never come to her for help lay unspoken but heavy between them.

Porzia tried to hide her heartbreak until she had at least made it out of the room.

 

***

 

Mia didn’t return to her book, even after the echo of the door closing in the dream room diminished to a whisper. She stared at the door Porzia had left, even when her Echo slipped through the screen he had been sitting behind and came to join her.

“After months of waiting and years of planning, she accepted your wisdom without more than a few words of complaint,” Mi said quietly. His thoughtful eyes under bushy black eyebrows made him resemble her father, even though she knew the resemblance was actually to herself. “It never ceases to impress me, how loyal your lieutenants are to you.”

“If she had told me what she wanted sooner, I would’ve been quicker about it,” Mia furrowed her brow, still staring at the door, “and if she had told me much sooner, I wouldn’t be in such a difficult position. I’ve had Waldren searching for a new heir to my plans since practically the day of Porzia’s imprisonment. Midora will do, in a pinch, if she has to.”

“You could’ve told her that, rather than making up the nonsense you gave her. The next rebellion may be one of Mortalis against a leader who supports Stormtouched, but their leader needn’t be Mortalis.”

“Kinder to tell her that than to tell her I hardly trust her judgement on who my plan’s heir should be,” Mia said. “Kindness is the least I can give her now.”

“Ah,” Mi said. “You’ve decided that Porzia is a liability, then? Worried that she has told more than just her children about your plans? Or that she will?”

“Her children are quite enough to be worried about,” Mia snapped. “Children.”

“She only told them that Stormtouched and Mortalis are destined to always be at odds.”

“That’s all she thinks she told them. For Storm’s sake, Mi, we’re talking about a plan that spans decades. They have so many more years to piece things together, to trust others and share with those others, to make their own plans…” still staring at the door, she shook her head sharply. “I cannot afford to let someone I trained train others. I trust one person to handle my plans, and that person is not Porzia D’Arcangelo.”

“Even the wise can be blinded when it comes to their own family,” Mi sighed. “You should make it look like an accident, and if possible avoid letting someone know you want the D’Arcangelos disposed of.”

“It would hardly do to leave further loose ends as I tie up this one,” Mia agreed. “What powerful people do we know with prickly tempers who can be goaded into turning their ire where we need it?”

“Those with enough power to have the D’Arcangelos killed will also have the temperance to not be so easily goaded- although…” Mi trailed off, and Mia waited patiently for him to turn the thought over in his mind before speaking “…Prince Ulisse is at the court for the next few days.”

“I don’t recognize the name,” Mia said.

“You wouldn’t, he’s barely on the chessboard as yet. He was crowned Prince of Venecchi two weeks ago. Power, but not yet temperance.”

“Very well, how do we make him the D’Arcangelos’ enemy?” Mia lifted the book from the desk and carried it to the nearby bookshelf, not for the first time cursing the small body she inhabited in this world. “Is he brash enough that he would respond to an insult or a ‘foiled’ plot against him?”

“He’s arrogant, but not reckless. Ulisse has had to be careful to attain the position of Prince. No, I had a different sort of idea,” Mi said carefully. “I gossip with Waldren, sometimes-”

“Why?” Mia wrinkled her nose, “do you not find it tiresome?”

“I find it useful,” Mi replied. “Ticone D’Arcangelos was the king’s spymaster, it is believable that he might have contacts, believable that he might know information about Ulisse. Ulisse’s Echo has apparently engaged in some…improprieties with Florenzia’s accounting guild.”

Mia had been listening with interest, but now she rolled her eyes. “Really, Mi, you think that’s enough for the Prince to murder an entire family? That the world might know his Echo had a fling? Improprieties aren’t illegal.”

“For a new Prince, fresh and green and desperately striving to tell the world what kind of Prince he’ll be? Something illegal might be easier for him to ignore.”

“Hmm…” Mia mused. “So you think him wise enough to worry about risks to his reputation, but brash enough to take drastic steps. I suppose it depends on how bad the hit to his reputation. Which member of the accounting guild did his Echo dally with?”

“The accounting guild,” Mi said flatly.

“Oh. Ah.” Mia nodded, “yes, that will probably do. Letting Prince Ulisse know how dangerous the D’Arcangelos are will be tricky, I’ll need to think of how best to arrange it.”

“Let me go,” Mi said.

“Out of the question,” Mia said, “too dangerous. There are Echo guards out there, and they’ll kill you on sight.”

“I’ve met Ulia, many years back. She’s a lonely woman, a mute, and she trusted me as soon as I signed to her. She’ll believe me when I tell her of the D’arcangelos danger, and she’ll tell her Stormtouched. The Prince leaves in two days, sending me is your best option.”

After a long while, Mia nodded, once. “Please be careful,” she said.

“I assure you, I am well aware of my own mortality,” Mi said wryly, making for the same door Porzia used. At the doorway he paused, looking over his shoulder to search his Stormtouched’s young face.

“What is it?” Mia asked, selecting the next book in her search.

“A family will die, probably within the next few days, by your actions. Does it bother you at all that one of them served you for years? That the husband and children won’t have even met the woman who killed them?”

Mia’s eyes were cold, even through the warmth of the gold that comprised them.

“A great many people have died in service to my plan, Mi,” she said. “A great many more will die for it in the future. None of them are enough to change my resolve, but all of them bother me. Each and every one.”

Mi nodded thoughtfully. “I will see you when I return,” he said, and vanished through the door.

 

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