In Ru and Ila’s absence, Rahka was left to tremble beneath the first sphere’s scrutiny.
In order to conceal their brief visit to Vahna, he decided to report to the Superior General and his fellow members of the sphere that his fiancé and her regent apprentice had actually left to visit the remains of Kavatea. According to Rahka, the goal of this outing was for Ru to further instill in Ila the necessity of Rededication in quelling violent uprisings, and to give her a tangible example of the only solution for such revolts. Upon their return he would report that Ila had learned her final lesson well. For the time being, however, he was left to squirm his way through his morning meetings.
The Superior General’s instruction was simple and quick, and the rest of the first sphere’s business proceeded normally. Once the meeting was officially adjourned, Rahka told himself he was finally free, that there was nothing left for him to be concerned about; Ru and Ila would return later that day, and his false report of their outing would go entirely unquestioned.
His heart nearly fell from his chest when the Superior General himself bade him wait. Once the rest of the interim members of the sphere had departed, Rahka descended to a single knee before the center seat of their meeting room, before His Grace, the Superior General—Halta Esimios Ehdetton of the prime family.
The rapidly aging man sat in a reclined position, his seat thick with cushions to sustain his withering body. Streaks of ignited nanomachines frequented his wrinkled, spotted flesh as his net worked several times more than its normal function in order to sustain his failing body. His breathing, deeply strained and quickly turning into lung failure, was also assisted by an apparatus stretched over his face. His speech was aided only by what his nano-net could do with his vocal cords. “Ila Enqelin is away, correct?” Ehdetton wheezed in a weak voice.
Though his question was short, Rahka waited an extra second in order to ensure he did not dare speak over the Superior General. “Yes, Your Grace. Ila Enqelin and Ruhnaria have likely arrived on Kavatea by now. They will not return until the end of the day.”
“I see… Then there is a matter of utmost urgency which I would like you to handle personally.”
“Of course, Your Grace. How may I obey you?”
His lips crinkling into a pleased smile, Ehdetton raised a bony hand, the shape of his stringy tendons clearly visible beneath his thinning skin, and conjured a light screen. With the relevant data displayed, he wafted the screen to Rahka. “Two individuals were arrested late last evening, on Eilikh,” he explained as Rahka surveyed the screen. “Nueva Sehrk and Isstahv Luhotaeva—a provincial superior and a pontiff of the lower legislature, respectively.”
The screen showed Rahka the pictures of the two individuals in custody, along with detailed descriptions of their physical appearances and professional backgrounds. The man, Isstahv, glared dourly back at Rahka, with long, thick ropes of chestnut hair framing his face like pillars before a palace. The other picture was of Nueva Sehrk, an older woman with thinning, red hair.
“These two individuals are both related to Ila Enqelin in differing ways,” the Superior General continued. “One of them, the woman, approached our investigative agency directly, claiming she and the man were involved in a plot against the Coalition—one which she claims centers in some way on Ila Enqelin. I would like you to oversee their interrogations immediately.”
“Certainly,” Rahka replied with a tone of deep respect. However, beneath his tributary sentiment, he felt nearly frozen to the floor, his heart pounding. He mentally raced through every report he had given the first sphere on Ila, wondering if he had somehow slipped up. Attempting to calm down, he reminded himself that these allegations had not come from his reports, but from whoever this woman was—Nueva Sehrk.
“If I may ask, Your Grace,” Rahka risked, keeping his head low, his eyes on the ground, “what manner of accusations has this woman raised against Ila Enqelin?”
Drawing a difficult breath, Ehdetton replied, “According to the woman, Madam Enqelin is supposed to be involved in some sort of secret plot, one which seeks to destroy Rededication by violent means and to murder each member of the prime family.”
Squinting quizzically at the floor, Rahka had not expected such a detailed response. He was not surprised to hear Nueva Sehrk had alleged Ila was somehow involved in plans to shut down the Rededication program—but by violent means? Even more, Rahka had never heard a single whisper that Ila Enqelin might additionally seek to put the lives of the prime family at risk.
“Because your fiancé Ruhnaria has spent so much time with Ila Enqelin,” the Superior General explained further, “I wish for you to investigate these claims. Determine if there is any veracity to them.”
“I will obey,” Rahka submitted soberly, though he had much to hide already.
While he was indeed concerned for Ila’s safety, all he could think of then was Ru. He wondered if these claims could really be true, and if Ila could so callously put Ru or him at risk like that. What little security and certainty he had left, had begun to slip through his fingers—but he knew what he needed to do in order to solve this mystery.
Rahka was swiftly ushered to a surveillance room in one of the military installations between the three walls around the compound, where he currently was. There in the dark space, illuminated by the glow of light screens hovering over the walls, was a specialist interrogator who introduced himself to Rahka as Teliya.
As the interrogator explained the situation to Rahka, they both surveyed the two most prominent screens, security feeds coming from two different holding rooms. Isstahv and Nueva were being held separately, though they both appeared to be badly beaten; they were each strapped to a table, their limbs outstretched, made to stare at the ceiling of their torturous cells.
“Nueva Sehrk was the one who approached us,” Teliya explained dispassionately. “But all she could tell us was that the Enqelin girl is somehow involved. That’s not what alarmed us, though. Sehrk knew very little, but she knew enough to tell us there was some sort of contingency plan the Enqelins devised before their deaths, one which supposedly their sole surviving heir is responsible for. That’s all she could give us, though.”
Teliya directed Rahka’s attention from Nueva’s feed, where she stared dully into the security camera, to the feed of Isstahv Luhotaeva, who appeared far more stalwart than his companion in crime.
“The master pontiff hasn’t been nearly as chatty,” Teliya said with a hint of amusement. “Sehrk keeps insisting he knows more than she does, and his silence only reinforces that—at least as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know what it is, but he’s hiding something.”
“May I try, then?” Rahka asked as unsympathetically as the interrogator himself. “I don’t wish to insult your tactics, but perhaps a change of approach might cause the pontiff to open up. I’ve had the opportunity to study their backgrounds in detail already, and I believe I may know how to break him.”
“You’re certainly welcome to try,” said Teliya, a glint of curiosity in his eyes. “I’ll show you to the room.”
Far beneath the surface of the installation, Teliya led Rahka to Isstahv Luhotaeva’s cell. Rahka informed the interrogator that he would perform his interview with the pontiff alone, to which Teliya excitedly agreed, saying only for Rahka to contact him immediately if necessary.
With a deep breath, Rahka stood outside the cell’s door, preparing himself mentally for the nightmare waiting ahead. The door slid aside, and he stepped inside the cell, the door closing behind him.
The cells in which Nueva and Isstahv were held were not plain rooms, nor were they anything humane. Though Rahka was familiar with the Coalition’s interrogative techniques, not even the camera feeds he had seen moments ago could accurately convey the trauma this room embodied. The walls of the tight, six-by-three foot room were curved inward and outward, in odd and discomforting patterns. Unsightly shades of green and blue, as well as faint hints of other clashing colors, were splattered all around in patterns that strained the prisoner’s mental perception, engendering anxiety and putting the captive perpetually on edge. Swoops and straight lines, cubic and circular shapes, all of varying scales and distances, seemed almost to jitter in place on the walls and floors. Normally the lighting in the room would be lowered and left to flicker, so the neon walls would dimly glow while their abstract forms appeared to the prisoner to warp and contort before their very eyes.
For Rahka, the lights had been raised to a comfortable level, yet even in such a state, the room still brought him some mental strain. Though he would be fine for his visit, he could not imagine what hours, let alone days of exposure to this sort of environment could do to a person.
At the center of the room, strapped in place, was Isstahv Luhotaeva. When no one was in the room and the lights were low and flickering, he was left unstrapped from his bed. Finding it impossible to sleep in the partially inclined bed, however, he would be forced to his feet. Even then, movement was restricted by various obstructions scattered across the floor, preventing even Rahka from finding a comfortable standing position.
Looking down into Isstahv’s eyes, Rahka wondered if the man was even conscious. “Can you hear me, Master Pontiff?” he asked. “Do you understand me?”
After a few seconds, Isstahv sneered, caught between humor and indignation. “You do this to me, and yet you still call me a pontiff? Out of the goodness of your heart, or…?”
Rahka turned to one of the walls, pressing his palm to the curved surface, syncing his net with the local security system. In a moment, he managed to cut the feed—video and audio—for the room, giving him the privacy he desired.
Turning back to Isstahv, he began, “My name is Rahka. I’m a member of the second sphere of the prime family, and an acting interim member of the first. I know Ila Enqelin, and I know what she wants. I’ve been helping her ever since she arrived at our compound, along with my sister Ruhnaria, Ila’s mentor.”
Isstahv’s contempt melted into a pitiful smile, though Rahka was left to wonder if the man lying before him was merely entertained.
“What do you want with me, boy?” Isstahv asked rather indecorously.
“I… I realize your predicament. It also places Ila in trouble. I want to protect her, but in order to do that, I need to know what’s happening. You’ve been arrested for conspiracy to commit treason, but no one knows what the real conspiracy actually is. All they have are hints.”
“Nueva,” Isstahv groaned. “Blood and family mean nothing to her.”
“The more I know about this supposed contingency plan the Enqelin family put together,” Rahka continued, “the more equipped I’ll be to help Ila. She wants to end Rededication. So does Ruhnaria. And so do I. So please, help me—help her.”
Glancing back up at the corners of the ceiling, Isstahv murmured, “You shut off the cameras… You expect me to feel so safe… I didn’t become a pontiff without learning the lengths to which the Coalition will go to get what they want.”
“This isn’t a trick, Isstahv. I know you’re aware of Ila and why she came to the palace. I’m on her side, and yours. Please—”
“Please? How novel… a member of the prime family pleading for help—from me.”
“Isstahv, I do need your help. I have to know…” Rahka sank beneath the weight of his questions for a moment, but regained his strength. “I need to know if what they’re saying about Ila is true. Does she really have a plan to destroy Rededication and… to kill the members of the prime family?”
“Predators are what they are by nature, not choice, boy.”
“Master Pontiff, please! I can help her! I want to help her!”
Rahka’s words seemed to almost shock Isstahv; the old man grimaced, then settled back. Staring at the ceiling, he seemed lost in thought, as if seeing something other than the dissecting psychtechnics before his eyes. At last, he rolled his head over, staring directly at Rahka with newfound lucidity.
“Ila understands her true purpose more than you ever will,” Isstahv seethed through his teeth. “She knows what must be done.”
Isstahv’s response caused Rahka to stumble backward, landing against the curved wall behind him, one of his ankles twisting between two anchored blocks. It was as if the man’s collection of words and expression had come as a sledgehammer to Rahka’s chest, leaving damage that did not fade or heal.
Without regard for the boy’s own shock, Isstahv turned back to the ceiling. “Now leave me to my end. You’ve already robbed me of the right to die my own death. Perhaps soon my body will give up on its own and rob you in turn.”
Staring down at the pontiff, Rahka’s mind sprinted from one conclusion to the next. He replayed for himself all his memories of Ila Enqelin, since she had arrived at the compound—no, even since Ruhnaria herself had mentioned the girl’s name. Though he had not realized it before, he marveled then at how long their time together had been. Admittedly, he had grown fond of Ila’s presence, especially considering how happy Ruhnaria seemed to be compared to the days before her regent apprentice’s arrival. But now he couldn’t help but wonder if it had all been a lie. If it had all been some elaborate ploy or unseen scheme to take what Ruhnaria wished to attain by peace—and then to slaughter anyone who might stand in her bloody way.
“Thank you for your time, Isstahv,” said Rahka with a ghostly dignity, recovered from his fall.
Without another word, he reactivated the cameras, then left the old man in his cell. Returning to the surveillance room, he found Teliya already eagerly awaiting results. His disappointment was apparent when Rahka reported he could not break the man, but the interrogator seemed to regain his fire as he redirected the young prince’s attention to Nueva Sehrk.
“We’ve managed to wring her of every detail we could,” Teliya proudly reported. “She’s confirmed that there are indeed other people involved in this plot, all of them scattered throughout the Coalition. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any information pertaining to these sleepers, but we believe we’ll gain such intelligence from Isstahv.”
As soon as the name left the interrogator’s lips, a loud crack ran from Nueva’s cell to the speakers of the surveillance room, causing Rahka to jolt upright. Snapping back to the feed, he could see the provincial superior, Nueva Sehrk, stretched out on her bed, her head cracked open by a pointblank gunshot. An automaton turned to the camera and gave a salute, reporting that the deed had been done. Teliya looked back at the drone soldier through the feed, brimming with excitement. Rahka, however, fought to keep the contents of his stomach down. Pushing his horror deep down into himself, hiding it where no one else would see, he regained his composure.
“On my order, Teliya,” Rahka said to the interrogator, pulling him from the mess that was once Nueva Sehrk, “you will maintain any and all details you have learned and have yet to learn with absolute secrecy. In order to ensure no detrimental rumors leak to the public, you will report your findings to me alone. I will then report them to His Grace, the Superior General, myself. Am I understood?”
“Entirely,” Teliya replied, bowing deeply to the young prince. “You will be the first to know when we discover their treachery in full.”
Leaving things at that, Rahka departed from the military installation and receded back to the center of the compound, to the palace. Though his business with the prisoners had concluded, he was far from finished with this investigation. What he had learned from Isstahv—or rather, what the old man had said without words—was too much to pass over. He would leave the particulars of his meeting with Isstahv out of his report to the Superior General, and his investigation would continue.
There was still one more person with whom he needed to speak before rendering judgment. If Ila truly wished to wipe out the prime family, including Ruhnaria, he would hear it from her own mouth.