Only seven days had passed since Ila’s first meeting with Ru, and the Americans were on the verge of their year’s end. She was now no longer a scholastic; graduation had passed, and the day had come for her regency to begin.
As she continued frantically packing her things, running from all corners of her apartment back to the open bag on her bed, Isstahv continued to protest.
“This doesn’t sound right at all,” he said with crossed arms, watching Ila scramble around. “What about our original plan? You were supposed to fulfill your regency under Nueva.”
“I am thinking about the plan,” Ila replied, hastily folding a coat before pounding it down into her bag. “This seems like the most prudent choice.”
“She’s a princess of the prime family!”
“One who wants to dismantle Rededication.”
“And you believe her?”
Stopping, Ila took a moment to honestly consider this one more time. In reality, this was certainly not the first time she had stopped to consider the real possibility that Ru might be leading her on. Looking up from her mostly filled bag, she met eyes with Isstahv directly.
“Even if Ru is lying,” she began, giving him her undivided attention, “I can still learn more about Rededication from a member of the prime family than I can by shadowing Nueva Sehrk.”
Respecting her for giving him an attentive response, Isstahv calmed himself, though the matter at hand was far from settled for him. “I’m worried for your safety, Ila. This princess managed to mark you. You’re under an investigation that not even I was aware of—and I’m a pontiff! If the lower legislature knows nothing about this, then only the prime family knows.”
“Ru hasn’t turned me in,” Ila assured him.
His temper rising slightly, Isstahv fired back, “There’s no way to be certain she won’t do just that someday! You’ll be alone with no one but the prime family if you go. Who’s to say all of this isn’t an attempt to reeducate you and put you in favor of the Rededication program?”
Giving up on her bag altogether, Ila looked directly up at Isstahv once more. She rounded the bed and stood right before him, staring up at the high face looking back down at her.
“Isstahv, how did you meet my parents?”
“I fail to see how that’s relevant—”
“Just tell me—please?”
Resisting the urge to sigh, Isstahv said, “Your mother and I were scholastics when we met, around your age. We were in similar classes. She met Aurin shortly after that, and I became acquainted with him shortly after they announced they would be married.” He grimaced at how nonchalantly he had said these things to Ila, but he didn’t take the time to scold himself. “I’ve known them ever since.”
“Today,” Ila replied, looking up at him still, “on the surface, it looks like two random engineers ended up becoming close friends with a pontiff, of all people. To put it another way, two renegades became allies with a highly revered politician. But no one would guess that rebels would have managed to befriend and enlist someone so high up in the legislature.”
“I believed in their vision,” Isstahv said resolutely. “When they approached me, I knew it was the right thing to do.”
“And that’s exactly it—you trusted them when they came to you. But it was the relationship you formed while you were still my age that made that possible. You knew my parents long before they ever came to you with this mission.” Ila’s eyes seemed to almost sparkle as they looked more intently into him. “I believe we can create a world where people are free to be what they are, Isstahv. Until then… I’ve met Ru, and I believe she and I can make great things happen in the future. With her, I can accomplish the very task I was sent here to carry out.”
Staring into her hopeful eyes, Isstahv gave up his fight, feeling unable to persist. He tilted his eyes up and found her bag. “You should pack far less than that,” he told her, as if their previous conversation had not happened. “It is the duty of a mentor to tend to their regent apprentice’s basic needs, such as clothes, food, shelter.”
Turning around to reexamine her bag, Ila realized she had completely forgotten this. In her panicked packing, she had tried stuffing the bag as if she was simply moving. Returning to the bag to remove any unnecessary items, Isstahv informed her that the extra room would give her the opportunity to pack more personal items, if she wished. Ila thanked him absentmindedly as she returned to packing, as haphazard as before, though with clearer direction now.
Watching her zigzag about the open apartment once again, Isstahv still felt something weighing on his mind. He felt it would be a disservice to Ila, difficult as it would be to hear, if he did not speak.
“Ila—you know that there is more to this scenario than attempting to peacefully end Rededication.”
Ila stopped dead between her bed and the bathroom. She lowered her eyes, lost in the same thought. Isstahv thought he might have stomped out the embers of hope he had seen in her eyes a moment ago, but to his gratitude, she raised her starry eyes to him once more, still alight with the same fire.
“I know my part in this mission never received much confidence. For a while, not even I was sure I could do it. But I knew that I had to try.” Her gaze narrowed, the sparkling stars in her eyes focusing into a more mature mien than before. “If Ru is true to her word, then I can do this. I can fulfill my part of the mission. And then maybe people won’t have to die.”
Isstahv knew it would be cold, but he pressed forward nonetheless, intent on telling her what she needed to hear. “I’ll support your decision,” he said coolly, lowly, “but you must keep this one thing in mind: you must always remember the trigger—the wakeup call. You must never tell anyone about your mission, not even the princess. And no matter what happens, no matter what may be consumed in the flames… if the time comes, Ila, you must not hesitate to activate Ridarin.”
Ila bowed her head once more, unable to answer him. But Isstahv would not take silence for an answer.
“Ila, please, you must answer me. Tell me that you understand.”
“I understand… But…” She looked up at him one more time, her determination still not lost. “I will do everything it takes to make sure we don’t have to go that far.”
Now distraught, though holding that in, Ila returned to her open bag, closing it up. She then heard the sound of soft footsteps, and by the time she looked up, she found Isstahv next to her. He put his arms around her and gave her one last, warm embrace.
“It may be some time before we meet again,” he said fondly, “so I should give you a proper farewell. Ila, I am proud of your accomplishments. I know how capable you are. But please remember, if you ever need help, do not hesitate to contact me.”
Returning Isstahv’s embrace, she wrapped her arms around his waist, her face resting against his abdomen. She had forgotten how tall Isstahv really was until then.
“Thank you,” she told him.
With that, Isstahv prepared to leave. Before departing, though, he told Ila that he would break the news to Nueva himself, so she shouldn’t worry. Ila thanked him once again, and he took his leave.
Only a few minutes passed after Isstahv left before a heavy knock at the door told Ila it was time for her to leave as well. She opened the door to two towering men in all dark, official clothing. With black-gloved hands, one of the men took Ila’s bag, and together they took a silent trip through the hall, down from the high floor of her complex by way of the elevator, and out the front doors.
A vehicle waited for them outside, as dark as the clothes Ila’s escorts wore; it was sleek and well maintained, but nothing about it gave away where Ila would be going, or who had sent for her. The man with her bag stowed her luggage in the back of the car, and his partner opened one of the doors for Ila, ushering her in. There were six seats in total, two rows of three, each facing the other; Ila took the middle seat of one row, and the two men sat on the opposite side.
As the vehicle made its way along its preprogrammed route, the two escorts sitting across from Ila watched their objective in continued silence. Ila thought to strike up a conversation with them, but immediately decided against it—she guessed these men were probably not the talkative type. So she settled in and watched the scenery go by.
Despite how massive and busy Felicity was, the trip itself was surprisingly brief. The security checkpoints were what took the longest time.
Three high walls encircled the prime family’s compound, with security stations perforating each wall and military bases filling the two rounds of negative space between the walls. At each station, under high-rising hutches of dense concrete, their vehicle slowed and drove between two translucent, green screens, which scanned the people inside for weapons or any unauthorized items. The sweep also included a cursory search of each passenger’s nano-net, but that didn’t worry Ila—her mother was far too clever when it came to nano-nets. Her secrets would remain well hidden.
They passed through three checkpoints, each like the last. With every depot they cleared, they drove deeper into the sprawling structure at the center of the city. Once they passed the third and final wall, the environment changed completely. Smooth streets became roads of worn cobblestone, so smoothly laid that Ila had to look out the window to notice the transition, never feeling a bump. They were shouldered on both sides by buildings far shorter and finer than the more modern structures in the city. Something about them boasted great age, as if they could speak as eyewitnesses of countless generations.
Beige, sanded stone, supported on columns, skirted by short flights of stairs—nothing about the central compound seemed cogent with the rest of Felicity, or even the Coalition for that matter. Rather than the cramped arrangement outside the walls, the buildings here stood apart from each other, with room to spare. Together, they formed a pleasant array of faded pale hues, yellows and reds, earthy and sandy tones—all drastically different from the streamlined, polished, and dark colors of the city. With the natural colors and alien architecture, it was as if the central compound was an ancient settlement encapsulated within a city hundreds of years ahead in development, yet several tiers below in beauty.
At last, they arrived at the main palace. The road ballooned into an expansive roundabout, and they rode the circumference until stopping at the foot of the palace’s entranceway. A tall hillside of steep stairs led up to the front doors of the prime family’s home.
Ila’s escorts were the first to disembark, one of them fetching her bag while the other ushered her up the stairs. The walk itself felt more like a hike up a mountain than a hill, but despite her first impressions, she managed to keep up with the two men. On the way, they passed a number of statues flanking the stairwell on either side. Whitewashed and stony echoes of former superior generals and venerable members of first spheres long since dissolved all looked off into the distance with ghostly, lunar eyes.
Reaching the top of the stairs, Ila and her escorts approached the palace’s façade. Three towering columns winged out to their left, and three more to their right, together supporting the weighty architrave which loomed over the palace’s entrance, seeming to block out the sun. The façade itself was elegant and far more intricately detailed than the rest of the buildings in the compound, but their faces all seemed to bleed together for Ila, who was only used to the homogenous curtain walls of Felicity and cities on Eilikh. Even the primitive Americans didn’t seem to have buildings as exquisite as this, from a time when the face of the building was so important to the architect that they would sacrifice practicality for fancy.
“I’ve been instructed to bring you to the garden,” said the freehanded escort as his partner disappeared with Ila’s bag. “Your things will be taken to your room.”
“My room?” Ila asked, already feeling lost.
“This way,” the same man said, brushing her question aside as they entered the spacious atrium of the palace.
Slits in domed and vaulted ceilings washed the dark gray and sandy tones of the palace’s interior in natural light. The floor was made of smooth stones, countless pieces of multiple cool colors, arranged into mandalas beneath Ila’s feet. As she followed her escort, she passed mosaics scrawling across the walls on either side, depicting characters in brightly colored dress, who made strangely impractical and dramatic poses against their blazing orange backgrounds. Their eyes were always on one another, never their observers.
The escort led Ila to the crossway at the center of the palace, where a massive interior dome billowed overhead, bathing a gurgling fountain in twilight. She nearly stopped there, realizing she was surrounded by four massive figures, each at a corner of the intersection. They were made of dark marble, and they watched over the fountain and open crossway from great heights; unlike the people in the mosaics, their disdainful eyes were not on one another, but focused downward, landing squarely on Ila, and no one else.
In a way, to Ila this made sense; these four, two men and two women, would certainly disapprove if they knew why she was really here. After all, these were the first four members of the original prime family, renowned for their incomparable knowledge and wisdom, as well as their insuperable power—and, most of all, for having founded what the Coalition now knew as Rededication. They scowled statically down at her, and it was all Ila could do not to scowl back at them out of sheer impulse.
They would never welcome her anyway, not when she had come with the intent of destroying their legacy.
Keeping close to her escort, Ila and the dark-clad man wound their way through relatively cramped corridors. Panels of white stone and black metal alternated over the walls, and the rounded ceiling was illuminated in an almost sickly yellow light. To Ila, this felt more like traveling through a dungeon compared to the open atrium before.
At the end of one last hall, her escort gingerly pushed open two swinging doors, letting in the bright world. Taking a few steps past the threshold, the setting sun blazing on the rim of one of the distant walls around the compound, Ila heard the doors close behind her, her escort disappearing behind them. Ila found herself surrounded by foliage of all kinds, neatly trimmed hedges, trees arranged in meticulous patterns. An immaculately white pathway extended from where she stood, winding its way through the entire garden in a complex pattern, which was outlined by delicate blue flowers poking up through the gaps between the stones.
At the center of the garden, Ila saw a tall, open gazebo, as immaculately white as the web of paths around it. And there, in its shade, she could see two people. One of them was Ru, but the other was someone she had not met, yet whom immediately recognized. He was an older boy, about Arras’ age, perhaps among the oldest of the children of the second sphere, old enough to serve as an interim in the first sphere, under the Superior General.
As Ila approached, Ru spotted of her and threw a lively wave, calling for her to hurry. Abandoning the monotony of waiting for her guest rather quickly, Ru rushed from her seat and met Ila at the gazebo’s opening, hugging her with a suddenness and enthusiasm that made Ila’s heart leap. She was still not yet used to Ru’s mannerisms, which were exceptionally unique compared to the rest of the prime family. Any other member of the second or even third sphere would never dare make such contact with another, let alone with someone outside the family, but Ru’s uncontained excitement peaked into a grin which made Ila feel as if they were nothing more than schoolmates—at least, for the moment.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Ru nearly cheered, stepping back and taking Ila by the hand. “Come on, there’s someone I need to introduce you to.”
Ru tugged Ila all the way into the gazebo and before the older boy, who stood politely as they approached. He was obviously far calmer and more contained than Ru, but he still felt as welcoming. Standing high above Ila, but not as high above Ru, he had a neatly kempt mop of short, sandy curls, which ended just above two bright emerald eyes—eyes as calming as Ru’s own amethysts.
The boy’s wiry frame twisted into a respectful salute and bow as he greeted their guest. “I presume you are Ila Enqelin,” he cordially stated.
“You’re darn right!” Ru replied for Ila. “Say hello to my new regent apprentice.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” the boy said, extending a hand to Ila, which she briefly touched with her own hand. “My name is Rahka Vali Ahrman of the Astayya family.”
“Rahka’s actually one of my brothers,” Ru explained to Ila, still holding her hostage in her arms. “He and I come through different mothers, though; that’s why he has a different family name. That makes him a second sphere prince, but he’s already serving in the first sphere.”
Rahka looked almost embarrassed by all this, as if he felt Ru was giving him too much credit. “I’m currently one of the senior interims.”
“And he’s just like us,” Ru added, her voice dropping to nearly a whisper. “He’s working for the same thing you and I are.”
Ila looked from Ru to Rahka, feeling a newfound and desperately needed sense of relief. Knowing she was in the company of someone who at least considered himself her ally, she felt freer.
Shyly running his fingers through his hair, Rahka swept a few errant bangs from his brow. “Ruhnaria’s right,” he told Ila. “I’m thrilled to finally meet you.”
“Y-you as well,” Ila managed to stutter back, unsure of what else she could say. “Thank you for your welcome.”
“I hope you’re ready to work,” Ru interjected, at last relinquishing Ila. “Because your lessons begin today. Welcome to the prime family, Ila.”
Hearing those last words, Ila noticed something inside herself. Though she smiled at her new mentor, she could feel the relief slipping from her chest, replaced by something else entirely. It felt like nausea, the faintest hints of anxiety, but she was uncertain about what it could truly be.
All she knew as that it felt like a hole. And it wouldn’t go away.