I didn’t realize there were still places like this left. Carefully carved stone made up the walls of the room, shapes curving into spirals etched in their sides. The shapes reminded me of ancient buildings, and I could imagine an architect pouring over every detail in the individual panels. I didn’t know how old the building was, but even in the modern world, it was a grand display of wealth.
Mixed in with copper - or were they gold? - statues of dragons, acting as pillars, and holding up the majestic archways. Their paws held above them, every one unique in its features and position. Even their eyes seemed to convey personality, one beside the fireplace looked menacing, while the one at the front entrance seemed friendly and kind.
Above, a chandelier of vintage wax candles and crystals sent an orange glow flickering over the room. The mass was so large it seemed to blend into a detailed heap of beauty.
I sucked in a breath at the sight of it all, my hand clenching the champagne glass tight enough that my knuckles began to turn white. If I didn’t relax soon, taking a few sips might be in my best interest after all. Though I had never tasted the intoxicating substance, I could see the effect it had on people. Looseness, carelessness, all things I strive to avoid. But if I were to succeed, I would need to seem friendly and easy to talk to, and the alcohol might help me ease up.
Refraining from sipping just yet, I slowly made my way through the crowd. Smiling politely at anybody who looked my way, making small talk but drifting away just before they could ask who I was. After all, everybody knew anybody who was at the Polif’s spring dance. It would be rude to be upfront and ask, but probing questions were more than common when you were among the rich.
“I hope your journey was not far?” An Italian man, one she did not recognize, asked me. Unlike the others, his gaze was sharp and analytical, his hand free of a wine glass. His breath smelled of peppermint, and he stood too close for comfort. Then again, when bodies were cramming the room, there was not much of an option for distance.
“Likewise,” I said briefly, giving a small smile. Something about him felt familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I knew him from. “I mean not to be rude, but I seem to have had too many sips of my champagne and can’t quite put a name to your face.” Laughing nervously, I hoped it was not too far-fetched. His eyes lingered on my full glass and I instinctively pretended to take a sip.
“You did not swallow.” He said, ignoring my remark.
I felt the blood go up to my cheeks and was startled at how astute this man was. My mission relies on a hidden identity, and while I have one, it was safer to avoid any person who was outwardly aggressive in their demeanor. Yet, his eyes bore into mine, and I felt frozen in place.
“I-” I started, trying in vain to think up a valid reason why I would not take a sip. When none immediately came, I simply lied. “I don’t understand what you mean. Of course, I took a sip.”
His eyes narrowed, and nervous energy ran up my spine. “You look rather lucid to me.” I fought another nervous laugh, opting to fiddle with the zip of my dress behind my back. My spine was straight, my body tense and ready for an attack from this man for a reason I did not understand. This was not the image of a calm, tipsy young woman from Iceland.
“Forgive me, your accusations are making me quite tense,” I said, taking a shaky breath. “Now, if you forgive me, I really must use the lady’s room.” My voice came out unwavering, and I naturally backed away from the man. The instinct to run thrummed through me, but I would not act on it when there was so much at stake.
His hand shot out and grabbed my exposed arm, tightening around it to the point of mild discomfort. However, to any unfocused eye, it would look like he was gently trying to get her attention. What game was he playing?
“It is me who has been rude, please, I know you have been intending to slip away for such a purpose for a while now, Ms. Ovale but keep walking the other direction. You must be so very confused, and I’m sure the champagne does not help.”
How could he reveal so much knowledge, unveil such a vague threat, in two simple sentences? Any random man in the crowd would not have focused so long on a single person, their goal was to socialize and get as many people to acknowledge their existence as possible. Only people like her - and him - were truly paying attention to the patterns and discrepancies in the movement of the crowd.
I bit my lip, hesitating as he refused to let go of my arm. I could always yell for help, cause enough commotion to get away from him. But then my face would be memorable, and people might start getting curious. Alternatively, I could follow him and deal with the issue in a private place. The latter seemed a much better option.
“Splendid.” He smiled, and took my arm in the crook of his, leading me to a seemingly random hallway as I suspected. I already proved to him somehow my intentions were not true, and I winced at the thought of how splintered my identity already was to this man. And then it hit me with a wave of force, he had called me Ms. Ovale. Not only was that my real name, I had not even told him my fake identity. Fear trilled through my veins, and I wished I had followed my instinct to run earlier.
When we passed through an arch with a dragon intertwined with it, clutching the hitches in the wall, he suddenly pulled me into a private room. Swiftly pulling my out of the world full of eyes into a room that nobody may visit for months to come. Adorned as nicely as the main ballroom, the tiny room was dimly lit with candles flickering above. The wax was barely affected by the flame, still tall and lacking drips. Whoever lit them had been there less than a few minutes before.
Using her free arm, she pulled off her heel and swung it towards him in an easy movement she had practiced hundreds of times. He barely reacted except to grab her hand, swing the heel out of it, and pull her close. The glint of a knife flashed from beneath his tuxedo, and her eyes widened at the sight.
“I see you’ve finally realized the severity of your situation.” I tried to pull away, but his arm held me tightly against him. But I wasn’t going to give in easily, stomping on his foot I twisted out of his loosened grasp and grabbed his neck. Using it as leverage, I jumped up onto his back and secured my legs across his chest.
“How do you know my identity?” I asked, my voice little more than a hiss. Not staying still long enough for him to react, I reached for the knife inside of his suit. His hand grabbed mine and tried to drag me off of him, but I held on and twisted my wrist out of his grasp before he could make me unbalanced.
His movements were almost as quick as mine, slowed only by his larger weight. He fell backward, pinning me below him. The breath left my lungs, leaving me struggling to breathe for a moment filled with pure panic. Even as he recovered himself, he kept some part of his body to force me down and prevent me from standing. No matter how hard I struggled, I was stuck between him and the hardwood flooring.
When he was finally in a position he could work with, his face looming above mine. His suit was ruffled and out of place, despite my struggle, he came out on top. I squirmed, but it was useless.
“Have you figured it out yet? They said you were supposed to be extremely intelligent. I disagree, especially after we left the busy ballroom.” He seemed moderately tired, his posture not quite as stiff as before, the smallest hint of breathlessness.
“I have a few theories,” I grunted, trying to leverage my way out from under him. He seemed to move only to prevent my escape, no more.
“I’m surprised they didn’t tell you. If you had known, you’d likely put up more of a fight. As it is, you walked blindly into my trap.”
“What are you talking about?” I winced at his raised eyebrows, his pity. I wanted answers, and to finish the mission. He was the gateway to only one of those things. I felt pins and needles in my toes, growing more severe and violent by the second. “Please, you’re hurting me.”
“I don’t care.” His words were vehement, and he did not let me go. I didn’t know what she expected, even after going through the academy I still believed people didn’t enjoy hurting others. How naive he must’ve thought I was, begging for mercy, pinned underneath him like a butterfly on a corkboard. How long would it be until I stopped fluttering?
“Niceties are unnecessary now. We are enemies, the Academy sent me on the same mission as you. Whoever does it most efficiently gets to graduate to the Agency. The other won't.” He said it plainly, not bothering to sugar-coat it for me. I appreciated it, though what he said was troubling.
Sighing, I blew a stray hair out of my face. “So, what? You thought I would win, so you decided to try and lock me in a room, take me out?” He shrugged in response.
“Why bother explaining this to me?” I asked. Another shrug. “If you’re going to kill me, you may as well answer a few questions.”
“I don’t intend to murder you, Evie.” He said, and I rolled my eyes. Trying to sit up and make a point, he shoved me back down to my back.
“Yes, but trapping me here is sentencing me to death. It’s just with the academy’s hands all over it. You know they don’t allow any with the knowledge of it to live.” My voice was razor-sharp, angry. At him, the academy, or the unfairness of it all, I didn’t know.
“It’s your life or mine, darlin’ and it isn’t going to be mine.” With that he cuffed my hands tightly together, the metal digging into my wrists so hard I feared they would draw blood. “Can’t chance you slipping out.” He explained, giving me a grim smile.
I felt a pinch in my left shoulder and instinctively shuddered. There was nothing I could do to stop him, the drug was already in my system and sinking into my veins. Whatever he used, it was fast-acting. The sound of his voice became distorted, hollow, and twisted into something so deep I couldn’t make out words.
He was no longer on top of me, when did he get up? Standing near the entrance, his suit black then green, changing colours along with my vision. Spotty, black yet with flashing colours. The world seemed muted like I was watching it from outside my body. Numbness and pain, which was it? A faint metal taste in my mouth. The creak of a door. Followed by nothing.
I didn’t know how much time passed before I felt lucid again before the dragons sculpted onto the walls stilled. Before my ears did not feel like they were stuffed with cotton. Before the fog stifling my brain faded and left me wide-eyed, cuffed, and stunned.
His timing was perfect, within half an hour of my arousing Academy agents made their way through the door, ready for a fight. They did not get one, when they came through the door I only managed to kick at one of the agents. Catching my leg, I was thrown off balance and grabbed from behind by another.
“I demand to speak to Dean Fuhtra,” I commanded, unsure of whether any of the agents cared about what I asked. Either way, the idea was out there. If it was entertained, then I had a string of hope to hold onto, to focus on to prevent panic.
I wasn’t ready to die. Not at the hands of another agent, one as underhanded as him. I don’t even know his name, I thought. He played me like a guitar, toyed with my strings then left me to collect dust. I have something to contribute to the academy. I fought so hard in all my classes, went from a scrawny girl to one capable of holding her own. For five years I focused on nothing more than graduating and getting out into the field, and in the final challenge, I was taken out by another student. One disguised so well, my trained eyes couldn’t detect him.
My surroundings passed in a blur, between being blindfolded and the constant brush of fabric against my skin, it was difficult to keep track of where I was. When I was finally allowed to see, I cringed under the bright fluorescent lights. The faded drug left a pounding headache, and I struggled to make out my surroundings.
Mirrors on all sides, reflecting me, looking tired, and beaten down. I instinctively straightened my posture and looked directly at my captor. It seemed they entertained my desire to see Fuhtra, as he stood in front of me. The coldness of his blue eyes, the rigidity and tightness of his body, it centered me. While it was not comforting, the familiarity of his presence was a reminder of my place in the academy.
“So, from what I’m told from the competition, this is my execution.” Fuhtra’s eyes narrowed, and his ring finger twitched ever so slightly. His nervous tick, the only thing I found that indicated his surprise as his face remained stony. “Is that a no?”
“Mr. Bavaro likes to toy with his victims.” He said matter of factly, his eyes trained on me. His staring tactic worked with many of the other students, but I had grown accustomed to the intimidation method long ago. “The academy is not so wasteful as to discard over 50% of potential graduates.”
Bavaro, the name was distantly familiar. “There is a consequence, I’m sure.” He nodded briskly, shifting his arms in front of him. I saw a faded ring I had not previously noticed, something engraved too small to read from afar. Likely not his initials, he would never wear something that betrayed the tiniest sliver of information.
“You have not been granted the position of officer, only the best graduates get that prestige.” I nodded, not caring much. I desired to be in the field, not overseeing it from the base. If anything, the failure benefitted me.
“Do not expect another failure to be forgiven, Ms. Ovale.” His voice cut through my optimism like a knife, severing any lingering relaxation leftover from learning I was not to die. I had made a mistake, and in the academy, mistakes were not taken lightly.
“I would expect no less,” I said, pushing myself to my feet. “I do not intend to fail again, sir.”
“You never intend to do anything, Ms. Ovale. You just do. Let's hope what you do is smarter next time.”
I didn’t know how to respond, his words were cruel in their truth. Veiling the hurt on my face, I gave a small nod. Taking my hand in his calloused ones, his voice was little more than a whisper. “Congratulations on your graduation. ”