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So, this is the second chunk of the chapter, significantly larger than the first....
I sincerely hope you like dialogue. :( And you don't mind subplots reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution. And you like eery clock-and-dagger type dealings. (But who DOESN'T like those?)
Next chapter, I check in with Willow again....
Sun streamed through the narrow, tapered windows, perched high up on one face of the vaulted, alabaster ceilings of the West Gallery.
Portraits of disgraced family members and other unimportant things, Helena recalled saying. The words had come from her own mind with decided ease; almost indifference. Now that she stood facing a certain such portrait of a certain disgraced family member, the words were more difficult to swallow; they left a foul taste in her mouth, forming a lump in her throat, breeding guilt in her conscience.
Disgraced, she thought as she looked into the red eyes of the painting, accurately captured by the painter in their characteristic brooding anger. I suppose that I am to blame for that much.
“Who is he?” inquired a nonchalant tenor voice from somewhere behind her. Helena recognized this as Thainen—or, rather, assumed it to be. His voice had an endearing, almost seductive quality that Helena could not, for the life of her, give a name to.
“Elstane,” Helena said instantly, an automatic response. She then realized how little that name probably meant to Thainen, and continued, with a touch of chagrin, “My brother.” Half-brother, she thought quietly, reasoning that that one little word wouldn’t matter the slightest bit to Thainen.
“The infamous Elstane,” Thainen mused, a touch of dry amusement coloring his voice. “Whose painting now grimaces out at those of similarly disgraced individuals—demoted to hanging without even a name plate.”
Hearing the word infamous adjoined to the name of her brother came as a blow, but she bore it stolidly. “It surprises me that you did not put a name to his face instantly,” she said levelly, keeping her eyes on the painting of Elstane, as if expecting some reaction on his behalf. “Seeing as he has found his place in your land, serving your father.”
Thainen maintained silence, causing Helena to wonder if her words had offended him. It seemed peculiar that he had not known…
Perhaps it was Elstane’s taciturn presence that silenced him. The painting was eerily lifelike. The painter had spared no details. The darkness of his eyes was there, the hollowness of his cheeks was there, the prominent bridge of his nose was there, the cleft of his chin was there, and even the ancient, faded scar above his left eyebrow was there. The painting was an exact likeness of him. With a tide of melancholy, Helena realized that almost five years spanned between she and her brother. He could have become an entirely changed person, and she never would have known.
“The last time I saw him was two years ago,” Helena said quietly. “When he was—exiled.” Her words left her feeling naked, exposed. It had been ages since she had felt this vulnerable. She prided herself for her strength, or façade of strength, and here she stood, opening up to a man she had for less than half an hour.
“You say that he was exiled as if you had no hand in it,” remarked Thainen, lowering his own voice. “I do not wish to contradict you, Empress Helena, but if the accounts I have heard of the event are correct, you were one of the nobles advocating his exile.”
“It was not my decision,” Helena snapped, wheeling around to face Thainen. She held her composure and steeled herself to look him in the eye. She saw now that he was unnervingly handsome, but his appearance was something that Helena would have to overlook. He returned her anger with a shrug of apology.
“May I ask whose decision it was?” implored Thainen, with the same cool tone. He lowered his voice even more, as if that would somehow disguise the fact that his questions were becoming increasingly invasive.
Footsteps echoed down the corridor. Both Helena and Thainen turned. The new arrival presently arrived at the top of the stairs. Seeing the face of the new arrival reignited the smoldering coals of the rage Helena had long held for that particular man.
“Greetings, Empress Helena,” said Lisius, giving a brief, deferent bow. “And greetings to you as well, Prince Thainen. I am Lisius, Advisor to the Empress.” He amiably offered a hand to shake.
Helena said nothing. How dare he so openly interfere with her life? How dare he approach so boldly, in Thainen’s presence, nonetheless? Helena glanced at Thainen, to see that his expression was colder than before, and entirely unamused. At that moment, her abhorrence for Lisius flared white-hot.
“Well met,” said Thainen dryly, declining to shake hands.
Lisius clasped his hands before him, not allowing Thainen’s lack of courtesy to ruffle him in the least. “Seeing as the two of you have already become acquainted,” he interposed. “Would you not like to continue your meeting, as planned, in the Orchid Parlor? If I am not mistaken, the servants have already prepared a delightful array of pastries and beverages for the occasion.”
“The Empress and I began our conversation here,” Thainen said impatiently, turning a cold stare upon Lisius. “I would like to continue it in the same location, regardless of the lack of delightful pastries. I will assume that I am not interfering with your plans too severely in asking as much.”
Lisius stared at Thainen blankly. It was deeply gratifying to Helena to see him so utterly at a loss. Lisius turned his eyes to Helena, searching for some protest on her part. Helena, content to remain in the gallery if it entailed snubbing Lisius in any way, offered none. She gave him a pleasant smile and added to Thainen’s speech, “Yes, I too am content here. Lately, time to explore the galleries has been rare. If you would be so kind as to allow us to resume our conversation…”
Lisius’s stare morphed ever so slightly into a scowl. He made a deep, mocking bow before turning on his heel and proceeding back down the corridor.
Helena smiled triumphantly. She felt emboldened, somehow, by Thainen’s presence. For too long, she had bent to suit Lisius’s will, as he strung her up with promises of power and greatness, before manipulating her like a marionette.
Thainen turned to face Helena, with a grave look upon his face. “You must be rid of that man,” he said simply, as Lisius disappeared around the turn of the staircase. Thainen’s words echoed along the hallway, resounding off the white stone of the walls and the arched ceiling. His words were just loud enough that their sound had a chance of reaching Lisius’s ears.
“Such are my wishes,” said Helena, grimacing back. “But speaking of the matter is much easier than resolving it.”
“He is listening now,” stated Thainen, eyes venturing to the staircase.
“I do not doubt it,” murmured Helena, gaze following the same path as Thainen’s.
Suddenly, a wave of noise assaulted Helena’s hearing, reverberating painfully through her mind for several seconds, before fading away. She winced.
Thainen, grave as before, looked back at her and stated, as if it answered everything, “Now your ‘advisor’ shall encounter difficulty hearing us. That is, unless he has some hidden means of listening to this precise stretch of hallway.”
“While I am not one to underestimate his means,” said Helena. “I think it would be a safe assumption to say that he does not.”
Thainen nodded. He stood for a moment, eyes fixed on some point further down the hallway.
Helena had been contemplating Thainen’s reason for requesting a meeting since she learned of it. The precautions against eavesdroppers, the cold, indifferent manner, the brawl with the guards, everything he did and said and hinted at only intrigued Helena further—by this point, she was at a loss to deduce the reason for his visit. All she felt certain of was that he was not here to propose marriage, or here to declare war.
Also—she felt increasingly convinced of this fact—he was acting of his own accord; not on behalf of his father or his country. The remaining uncertainty was a parasite happily gnawing away at Helena’s mind. She looked into Thainen’s red eyes, seeing nothing there but the same vague turmoil she had felt in his mind. She did not wish to wait on his whim. He seemed to be strolling towards his eventual topic at a leisurely pace, in no rush whatsoever to reach it—almost reluctant to reach it. It pained her to disregard propriety, or to show any disrespect towards The Crown Prince of Magtara, but she was miles beyond anxious to get to the point—whatever it was.
“Thainen,” she stated his name with quiet dignity. “Why did you wish to speak with me? What is it you wish to discuss? I regret being so impertinent, but I feel that we have spent sufficient time on irrelevant banter.”
Thainen's eyes snapped up to meet Helena's and his expression went blank for a moment, in something like disbelief. Then his lips relaxed into a smile.
"Helena, are there horseless carriages in Soltara?" he asked, looking through her eyes, into the deeper recesses of her mind. "Are there machines that can perform the labor of hundreds of workers? Are there sources of light without flame or heat?"
Helena stared at him. She was not sure how to respond to this. Was he attempting to offend her, to indicate the inferiority of her land to his? "No," she muttered. "I know of the mills, the factories, but that is it. You must recall, however, that your country is more apt to accept mages than mine."
Thainen's face altered again into a slight, reticent smile. "You assume that magic is responsible for these creations." He crossed his arms, still maintaining a disconcerting degree of eye contact. "In Magtara, these things are now possible, and by the average man. Recent inventions, all. In fact, most of the population is not yet aware of these luxuries, except of course, the mills."
Helena nodded mutely. A hope, a question, built like a bubble in her chest, rising through her being. The bubble would have burst, if she let it. That hope would have risen to her lips and manifested, if she hadn't been more careful. She was yet uncertain as to the reaction Thainen sought with his speech, and was yet uncertain where the smooth river of his words led. She could not see below the surface, but the surface itself looked inviting.
"Imagine the effect of these inventions on a society," murmured Thainen, breaking into a wild grin, born of a wild passion that set fire to his red eyes. "Imagine the changes on the world, if implemented ideally. Helena, these are things that could change the life of the individual, the nature of an economy, the rhythm and rhyme of everything we know. I have seen what these things can do, on a minute scale. I have seen underground rooms ablaze with a pure white light, in and of itself, needing no fuel and leaving no smoke. I have ridden across the countryside under the curtain of night, on a vehicle that requires no horses or drivers. And I am sure you are quite aware of the massive revenue garnered by the watermills of the south."
Helena stared at him for a moment. She felt now that she was riding the current of the river, floating on the quicksilver surface. Still, she knew nothing of the depths. However, she was beginning to feel that she could not concern herself with their contents. The surface was so pristine that the depths could little diminish its splendor. She had no reason to dive deeper, save curiosity, and that was little reason for anything.
Yet, she felt that same question rise in her chest. This time, she did not attempt to contain it.
"Why do you tell me of this?" she inquired cautiously, trying to penetrate Thainen's eyes, as he did her own. "Is it consequential—to me?"
Thainen nodded, the same eerie light illuminating his eyes. "It is quite consequential to you," he cried, with the same wild grin. "Helena, with your leave, I could plant these innovations in your land, where they could induce your society to flourish. Soltara would be the envy of the civilized world."
Helena was beginning to feel the heat, the force of Thainen's eyes. She forced herself to withstand it. "Why?" was her meek reply.
Thainen's grin vanished and the light in his eyes, mercifully, faded. He looked away, seeking counsel from a sagely silent expanse of alabaster wall. "I knew you would ask this," he muttered darkly. "And after consideration, came to the conclusion that the only way I could provide you with a satisfactory answer would be to tell the truth."
Helena knew that her expression was rather uncouth, but she did not care a whit. She felt quite uncouth. Disoriented. As if she no longer flowed with the current of the river, and could no longer discern which way was forward.
Thainen continued, facing away. “I would like very much,” he began, slowly, deliberately. “To see the sun rise on a new society. A society untainted by corruption and greed, and—” He paused, leaving a blank space that Helena would have to fill with her imagination. “I know, as well as any cynic, that this is impossible.” He turned back towards Helena. “I know that human nature forbids harmony and equality, or any semblance of peace. However,” here, the fire that slept in Thainen's eyes reawakened into brilliant flame. “I believe, firmly, that society, as it lives today, could be molded into a shape that bore more resemblance to this ideal.”
Helena nodded once, firmly. She was growing rather weary of Thainen's dramatic pauses and grandiose preludes. Thainen spoke to her ambition, and her ambition solely. As his previous speech had portended, he was attempting to entice Helena with fine tapestries depicting the power and progress he had at his fingertips, free and abundant to those who he selected.
Helena found that she was very much enticed.
“I come here to aid Soltara, with your consent, to this ideal.”
And there it was. Those words sent a balloon of excitement through her chest. She smiled evenly, with the remarkable composure she had acquired long ago. “You have my consent,” she said. “Provided that you have a reason for wanting to further a country so long opposed to your own.”
Thainen gave Helena a blank, searching gaze, which soon morphed into an expression of surprised amusement. He then became preoccupied with a loose cufflink and looked away. “I suppose one could say that Soltara retains more innocent, more guileless than Magtara,” he began, all the while refastening that rebellious accessory. “You are a country virgin to industry.”
He turned back to face Helena. “Industry took root in Magtara long ago, sprouting from a seed already corrupt and immoral, and growing into a beast that thrived on the suffering and ill-treatment of many, and served the ravenous purses of a select few. I feel that industry, were the seed carefully tended and well-manicured until established, could grow into something that would serve and satisfy many, functioning on honest hard work. I feel that there is room for change here, room for evolution and progress and improvement.”
Helena wanted to believe his words. While she doubted he would call Soltara innocent if he knew of their mage-burnings and peasant revolts, his words brimmed and overflowed with passion, and Helena could easily let her guard down, and easily call that passion genuine and his motives good. She steeled herself to ask a question she knew would drive straight through whatever masks Thainen wore, whatever pretenses he enacted, through to his core.
“What are the King’s opinions regarding this?” she asked, unintended coldness chilling her words. She studied his countenance for a reaction.
“He knows nothing of this,” Thainen snapped, suppressed rage flickering through those words. For a moment, or perhaps it was only her imagination, the same rage flared across his countenance, raw, animalistic, and quite terrifying. And then his face was blank again, but bereft of any cordiality.
“I apologize,” said Helena quietly, looking away. “I desired to assure…”
“That I am not my father’s puppet, come to bring about Soltara’s ruin?” Thainen completed her words, smirking coldly. “Let me assure you: I act on behalf of no one. I obey orders from no one, let alone my spineless excuse for a father.”
With those biting words, Thainen turned and stormed down the corridor, white light streaming through the high windows onto the defiant set of his back. A low, sweeping wave of sound echoed down the corridor, declaring that Thainen had removed the barriers that had enclosed their conversation. The tattoo Thainen’s boots beat on the white marble of the floor seemed to fill the gallery, louder and more definitive than it should have been—with more finality than it should have contained.
The echo of Thainen’s footsteps faded as he descended the stairs. All too eagerly, silence took hold of the room. It was an unquiet silence, however; a silence that said everything, yet said it inaudibly, invisibly and intangibly. Accusing, tormenting.
With one final glance at her brother’s disapproving eyes, Helena fled the silence.
The stranger waited. He sat silently against the cold, unforgiving stone of the wall, invisible to eyes that would never fall upon his slouched form—for the corridor was empty. No magic was required for that.
He extracted his pocket watch from his shabby, brown waistcoat. Its assiduously polished, black-enameled case contrasted shamelessly with his plain attire. He paused for a moment to examine his reflection. He frowned.
His reflection looked too much himself—far too recognizable. He needed a new name and a new face for this new employer. As always, it would have to be a face that resembled many and none, one that would never be recognized amid a crowd. First, he addressed the issue of his nose; the way the tip of it turned up was far too distinctive. Calling upon magic, he pushed down the tip his nose several degrees, and bound it there with invisible force. Then there was his coloring; his pale skin and pale hair were rare features in Soltara, where the norm was black hair and olive skin. He altered the way the light played off his features so that they appeared according to this norm. His cheeks looked rather hollow; he manipulated the light to make them look fuller. He contemplated adding a beard to his smooth chin, but decided instead that facial hair was more distinctive than a lack thereof.
Satisfied with his work, he opened his pocket watch, to see its authoritative arms indicating an hour and fifteen minutes of noon, in Magtara’s time. He then considered use of the watch’s other functions—and decided against it. He flipped closed the case, and returned the device to its residence. While it pained him to sit idle until his employer’s whim led him back to this place, a good first impression was imperative; he did not want to be found sneaking about. Again. So he sat. And waited. As he had been instructed.
Lisius returned soon enough. The thick, oaken door moaned on its hinges as Lisius forced it open. The stranger judged from the faint scowl darkening Lisius’s countenance that reality had differed somewhat from the scenarios that Lisius had desired for this day. The stranger stood, and bowed curtly to his employer.
Lisius nodded in return, clearly in no mood for pleasantries. “If I am to hire you,” he began grimly. “You must first testify that you are suited for the position. I have three questions.”
The stranger nodded, as ambivalently as possible. It would not do well at all to offend the employer before the position was even secured.
“First,” continued Lisius. “You must explain to me the reasons you have for assuming this profession.
“Money,” said the stranger, quietly, definitively.
Lisius nodded. “Second,” he continued. “What methods do you generally use?”
“I prefer to use magic,” muttered the stranger. “How I use it depends. I prefer to keep a distance, though—make it look like an accident.”
Lisius nodded again. “Do you possess any morals?”
“No,” answered the stranger, in his quiet breeze of a voice.
Lisius nodded one final time. He reached behind the lapel of his ultramarine, double-breasted jacket, and withdrew a slim, milk-white envelope. “Here is your first task.”
The stranger nodded, and slipped the envelope inside his waistcoat, for later inspection. “When need I be finished?”
The faintest hint of a sneer pulled at the corner of Lisius’s mouth. “Whenever you are able,” he said, assuring that the words held quite a bit of gravity.
The stranger nodded again.
Lisius turned on his heel and strode away from the courtyard, deeper into the corridor. “You would do well to begin soon,” he said, not even offering his new coadjutor the courtesy of eye contact. “Do not enter my presence again until you are finished.”
The stranger nodded one last time, even though his employer was turned away. Lisius seemed like a nasty piece of work. He had not requested a name, credentials, background, or any other of the questions that employers usually asked. The questions that Lisius asked had been almost too simple. Too plain, too straightforward, too direct and too few. Perhaps Lisius believed that any remaining questions would be answered in time.
The stranger looked at the envelope in his hand, and knew, very acutely, that this assignment was no more than a test, and no less than his future.
|IV. The Orchid Parlor||I. Hawthorn|
|VI. Helena||III. Caisus|
|II. The Corridor|