Chapter III

I am quite aware of the situation at hand. In fact, I am too aware. Alethea wouldn't have liked me doing this, neither would she have liked me eating raw fish, but nonetheless, I do it. Because I had been late to Rhea's training earlier, and then late to Alethea's briefing, Miss Briah herself has self-proclaimed a coffee break for herself before she begins the briefing. I don't know what came over me, but I had a sudden urge to break into her files and see what was really up.

So now I lean over a cabinet full of cream colored folders, expecting something boring and false than what was in my mind. Instead, I find the opposite. I spot a weird name, a name I know I shouldn't be finding. But for some reason, the name seeps into my bones and gives me a vague sense of who might own this name. I think back to my dream, the dream that displayed a weird love I had for someone. How odd. Could this man be the man from my dream? My eyes carve his name into the papers I stare at.

Soren Hayes

I trail my finger down the document, my bottom lip trembling. Kais had told me that I was a speed reader, but I hadn't believed it. Now I do. Time is ticking, floating over my head and getting ready to squash me at any second. Alethea could be back in with her coffee at any minute. I read about Soren being an orphan, about him growing up on a ranch somewhere in Verunt Providence, and how he moved to New Nalar to find a job. There he found an organization—

I hear a door shut behind me, and I realize that I was caught in the act. I expect a stern voice coming from Alethea's drawling hiss, but nothing comes. Instead I hear a sigh, and a very annoyed female voice sounds around me. "I thought Secretary Briah was in here, but apparently she got a new intern. Where is she?"

I turn slowly, closing the file very cautiously. "She's on a coffee break. May I…help you?" I don't know what else to do, so I leave it at that, and let the woman decide for herself who I was.

"Oh, no, I can catch Alethea another time." Her eyes flash, and she turned away from the door, letting me relax. It was a close call. I turn to put the file away, but as I crouch down, I freeze where I am, hearing not only the woman's voice, but now Alethea's haughty voice as well. Please, please distract her, I think to myself. I slide the file into the cabinet and close it softly. I slowly sink back into the seat Alethea left me in just as the woman herself clicks into the room.

"Excuse me for that; Zish is an old friend of mine. I had to correct her on thinking you were an intern of mine…" Her icy glare shoots daggers into my face, "She said you looked like one for some reason." I avoid looking Alethea in the eyes, knowing it was only a matter of time before things really get bad.

"I…apologize…"

"No need. We need to begin your briefing now, if I am ever going to get my lunch break with Zish." Alethea waves her hand and bends down behind her desk to yank open a heavy looking cabinet. I decide to sit tight, and let her do all the talking. "We will not continue this in my office, however. Too many people will interrupt if that is the case. We will go to the briefing room, with quite a few of these heavy folders." Alethea looks at me over the desk, her lips parting in a knowing manner.

I nod, as usual, and stand. Alethea leads the way out of her office, despite me knowing how to get out myself, and catwalks down the hallway. I follow self-consciously, wondering how in the world Alethea could do that, being as old as she was. But I guess that's what plastic surgery does to people like her.

The briefing room looks like any other room in this metal factory: cold, grey, dark. The people it must have held, the stories it must have told, all disappear when Alethea enters it behind me. In the center of the room is a long oak table with two chairs on either side of its lengths. There is nothing else in it. The door closes with a loud slam, and it startles me deeply. I try to keep a cool, collected stare, but I can feel my shaking knees and my clammy palms. There is no mistaking the fear I feel when I think about the boy I looked up and the mission Nero had assigned me. God, is there ever a day when I don't have to think Nero's name in my mind?

"Sit." Her voice echoes around me when I take a seat in the closest chair. I know Alethea doesn't like me, but I didn't know she wanted to be this mean to me. The coldness of her voice makes goose bumps rise along my arms and legs. It's as if she's the villain, not the enemy I'll be briefed about.

"Alethea, please, you don't need to act so mean." I tell her, hoping she'd cut the act. No one is in the room, no one is listening in, so why does she act so rude to me?

"Listen," Alethea leans towards me and keeps her voice so low, I can barely hear her, "Mr. Matteo is on the other side of that wall, listening to what I'm about to tell you, so I have to play it cool. He didn't like being kept waiting." She leans back, but it just encourages me to lean forward.

"Then I guess you shouldn't have had that coffee break." My voice is lower than hers, but her eyes narrow like a cat cornering its prey. I figure she wasn't as hardcore as she lets on to be, and this only makes me feel better about myself, and my purpose for being here. As long as I can talk back a little, and with Nero watching, it gets even better. He'll see how tough I can be…I hope.

Alethea clears her throat and raises her voice louder than it really needs to be to begin the one-way conversation. "Celeste Symone Blaine, Nero Matteo has given you a mission, and it's a very confidential mission. The mission pertains to the fate of this country, that it will bring fortune to you, as Mr. Matteo's queen-to-be, and to Mr. Matteo himself, as the king, and to the people of Callahana. Whatever happens to you will affect our plans. Soren Hayes is the last heir to the royal bloodline of the late King Idail Aveto. He is an orphan, raised in Verunt, east of Bronwyn and the home town of King Idail Aveto. From there, Hayes grew to be a questioning young man and moved to New Malar to find a job in our enemy political organization; the Redbeelin. The Redbeelin has our same purposes: to find a king and have the people vote on it, but we are ahead. We have found Soren Hayes, who lives under their noses, and we will become the leading political organization through him.

"As a young woman, Celeste, you will infiltrate the base headquarters under the pretenses as an inspiring collaborator and get inside Soren Hayes's head. You will trick him into signing a blood contract while acting as a member of the Redbeelin. Once signed, you will kill Mr. Hayes before he finds out what you've done and make your way back to this headquarters unharmed and as soon as possible.

"You are given two months at the enemy base to complete your mission, and please Mr. Matteo enough to become his lovely bride."

I only stare at her.

"Well? What have you to say on the matter?" Alethea asks irritably.

My lips open, but nothing comes out. I'm conscious of the wall behind me, of Nero's possibly narrowed eyes gazing daggers into my back. Alethea's warning expression pushes me to force the words out. "I accept…" The words don't feel right when they escape my stiff lips. They are cold and empty, meaning completely out of the question.

They are good enough for Alethea. "Sign here, on this line, so that we know you are forever bonded to the contract and will not back out. You leave tomorrow at precisely five thirty. A Track will greet you at the Track Station and take you to Erehwon Track Station, where you will get off at precisely eight o' clock and board the next Track stationed to leave at eight fifteen. You will be taken to New Malar where an agent on the inside will guide you through the rest of the steps." Her long, painted nails tap the paper with a click at every instruction she relays to me. "If you forget, which is likely, you may turn to this paper for help, which is required to be folded neatly in your dress pocket."

All I can really comprehend is a blabbering at me, rather than to me. My mind drifts off to that mysterious dream I had this morning, and I try to picture the man, but all that comes to me is a mixture of possible features for my possible dream man.

Alethea's heavy hand slams down on the table in front of me, jarring me immediately from my daydreaming. She tends to do this a lot. "Huh?"

"You weren't even listening to me!" Alethea exclaims, her eyes narrowing on my disturbed face, "You better be glad I've gotten word that Mr. Matteo has left the conference room. Otherwise he'd be gazing at you and me with a disappointment so great that he'd throw us onto the streets."

I purse my lips at the sudden accusations that flew at me. "Sorry?"

"Go pack your things. Immediately." She barks at me.

In a flurry, I jump from my chair and rush to the metal door of the briefing room. I turn to the upset woman one last time, "Is there anything else I might have to know? Dialects?"

"You've already been taught the southern dialect in your studies, Miss Blaine. Don't push my buttons because you like it."

At that, I turn and leave with a happiness that acknowledges my freedom from Alethea and her bossing around.

I meet my emotionally-disturbed mother in the hallway. "Oh Celeste! Tell me how it went! When do you leave? I'm so excited for you! Oh but you're leaving so soon! My baby!" Her hands grip my face and she begins to tug my face towards her for a wet-mommy kiss.

"Mama!" I complain, pulling away from her in fear.

"Oh I'm sorry, darling. I'll miss you so much!" She fretted, crossing her arms and hugging herself tightly. "I'll miss you so, so, so much! I have the perfect dress for you tomorrow morning. I'll see you off to the Track Station! You need some sleep. Do you need help with anything?"

"Just packing," I answer, weary of her endless stream of questions.

"I love packing!" She coos.