Jade Rose II: Celestial Rebellion
Death to Eie
Chapter 4: At a Distance
Dimitri bit down hard into his Old World cigarette. The tobacco crusted bitterly over his teeth and melted into the flesh of his tongue. Though he knew that the full effect could only be obtained through "inhaling the essence" as they said on the screen advertisements, Dimitri discovered long ago through his misadventures as an adolescent that chewing on the stems felt just as good. He never really thought clearly when he did it. After all, that was why he smoked in the first place. Biting just sort of happened sometimes when he was in that moment that every man gets into after they were halfway through their fourth cigarette of the morning. This time it happened when he thought of Kaci. Whatever the cause, every Old World cigarette was rendered useless after being bitten through, so he plucked it from his mouth and tossed it underneath the seat in front of him.
He was on a train to Libreville. Whether or not he would find Kaci there, of course he did not know. It was important that he did his best not to waste any time because there was no knowing how much time his sister had left. He was no fool. He knew that whoever kidnapped her were the same people who kidnapped their mother six years ago and that meant that once they did whatever they were going to do with her, she would end up dead on the side of the road somewhere. They must have known. Lara, Matteo. The people who were supposed to love her. They had to have known. So why were they not doing anything to prevent that from happening again? It was easy enough to say that Matteo cared only about himself and that Lara would have to go along with whatever he did, lacking the independence to be any other way. Too easy, in fact. Dimitri never let go of the idea that there was some higher plan at work. There always was, and he was always left out of the loop.
The inquiry came from a mousy-haired stewardess. They saved the attractive ones for the first-class car, which without his father's funds and name to throw around, he found himself unable to afford. She stood over his seat and offered him a plastic cup of water and just as he was about to wave her away she smiled oddly at him.
"I'm embarrassed to say this," she looked down at the floor. "But I've been watching you for a while and I can't help but notice that there's something really heavy on your mind."
Dimitri stared at her.
"I know you'll probably say 'no,' but, do you want to—"
"Sure. Of course. Yes, I want to talk about it," Dimitri blurted, sounding more anxious and pathetic than exasperated, which was the tone he was going for.
"Great," the girl said, coyly twisting a loose strand of her dull brown hair around her index finger. "My name is Willa, by the way."
She took the empty seat next to him and looked away as he made eye contact with her. The ladies always did seem to lose themselves around him, but it was no fun for Dimitri when they were so shy that they could not even look at him while he spoke to them. Shy girls were perhaps the most boring type of people he had ever come in contact with, next to people like his father who were the exact opposite and talked so much and so long about how wonderful they were that they would have been more likable if they stopped speaking altogether.
"I've been working on this train since I was sixteen," the girl said, taking a short glimpse at him every now and then. "And I don't remember ever seeing you. Where are you from? That is, if you don't mind my asking."
Now it all started to make sense.
"I think you know exactly where I'm from," Dimitri reached down over their shared armrest and took hold of one of Willa's hands.
She let out a little gasp.
"Now tell me, Willa, assuming that's really your name," he leaned in. "How much did my old man pay you to spy on me?"
"I…I don't know what you mean," she tried to turn away but Dimitri grabbed her cheek and forced her to face him. "Please don't hurt me."
"Why would I hurt you?" Dimitri moved in closer and whispered into her ear. "Is something you say gonna give me a reason to?"
"Come on," he stroked her cheek. "If you tell me the truth, we can have that conversation you were dying to have, about what's 'on my mind' and all that. I know your type. You love to see guys like me crumble. Gives you the illusion that people like you and me aren't so different after all. And as washed up as that sounds, I'm willing to humor you. But first you've got to be straight with me."
Willa's face turned hot and red and she tried her best not to look at him, even though he practically forced her to. Eventually, however, she made eye contact with him and relaxed the muscles in her face.
"Are you all right, Will?" another plain-looking stewardess approached, rested her hand on Willa's headrest, and gave Dimitri a stony glare.
"Yes, I'm fine," Willa responded innocently.
Her wary cohort held her eyes on Dimitri for a moment before moving away.
"All right," Willa said with a sigh. "The President only told me to look out for you on this train. He probably has other girls on other trains watching for you also."
"That bastard," Dimitri released Willa's cheek. "Did he say why?"
"No," she said. "He only told me to let him know if I happened to cross paths with you. There was nothing else to the conversation than that."
Of course there was not. Dimitri knew Matteo well enough to know that the man knew how to cover his tracks. If there was ever any doubt concerning his integrity, he would do something or say something, anything. It would be exactly what needed to be done or said in order for that doubt to melt out of anyone's mind. Not Dimitri. He knew what was going on. Matteo kept tabs on him because he knew that Dimitri was a threat. The list of possible reasons Dimitri could have been a threat to Matteo was a long and convoluted one, but he was almost certain that it had something to do with the disappearance of his sister.
"I'm sure he's just worried about you," Willa said in an almost irritatingly matter-of-fact kind of way. "I mean, from what I've heard about you, you do seem to run into quite a bit of trouble. He's only looking out for your safety. He doesn't want to intrude on you. He doesn't even want you to know about any of this. He probably thinks you'll think he's gone soft or something."
"You really are stupid, aren't you?" he asked her straight.
She did not answer. Of course, no one ever answered that question. Her cheeks lit up again and she crumpled her fingers into the fabric of the dress at her lap where her eyes lingered.
"Hey, where are you from?" he leaned forward again to look into her muddy brown eyes. "I don't know anything about you yet. You can't ask me to let loose when all I know about you is your first name."
Willa shifted in her seat. Dimitri knew that she had to have been loving this. What were the chances that a girl like her could ever even get a guy like Dimitri to even look at her, much less hold a conversation with her? She would tell him everything he wanted to know and maybe even add in a few extra details. He wondered if she was having as much fun with this as he was.
"I'm from Ilo, same as you," she said, her eyebrows slightly tensing. "I've only been working on this train as long as you've been away. Since the time you first ran away from your home."
"So you're a professional spy then, huh?" Dimitri observed, considering the fact that he had been in and out of Ilo for the past three or four years.
"No," Willa said with a firmness he hardly expected out of her type. "I'm just a girl from the lower district trying to earn enough money to get my father out of debt. I'm no one special. I just happened to be in the same building as a scout. They said that I'd be perfect for the job. Just some ugly skinny girl working in the back of a train. No one would ever suspect me and no one would miss me if something happened on the job."
Somehow Dimitri knew that it would turn into this. Everywhere he went he ran into someone with a sob story. Not enough money. Too far in debt. From the lower district. All of these people had all of these problems, and when given the chance they let it all loose on Dimitri, the "rich kid" who supposedly "had it all." Sometimes he believed they were put on the Planet specifically to tell him how lucky and how ungrateful he was. How he would never know hunger, poverty, or even fear. How he could do something to help those less fortunate than he. What was he to do for them? He did not have the resources to bring every lower-district resident out of poverty, and even if he did, he did not see why he should have had to do that. What gave them the right to think that they were worth something like that?
"Why take it then?" he challenged. "I know that old bastard better than anybody. He couldn't be paying you that well."
"I did the math," she said. "He's paying me more than I was making at my old job and more than I'd be able to make anywhere else in Ilo with my level of education. Besides, there was something else that interested me more than the money."
"Look, Willa," Dimitri said with a grin. "You know it would never work out between you and me."
Willa laughed. It was a short laugh, but still a laugh nonetheless. Not a coy, embarrassed laugh, but a critical, haughty laugh laced in disbelief.
"What's that about?" Dimitri inquired, almost insulted.
"I think you misunderstand," Willa said, her smile slowly starting to fade. "It's true that I took the job because of you, but it wasn't because I want to be with you. I sought you out because I truly wanted to help you."
Dimitri lifted an eyebrow.
"Years ago I watched the news stories on the screen about what happened with your mother. I know that's why you ran away. I know that your family was never the same after that, and you couldn't bear to be there in that house with the man you grew to hate."
Dimitri tightened his grip on his armrest. Her words grated on his ears like bad music. Why did everyone have to pretend that they knew him? Why did everyone think that they had him figured out? Of course this girl knew as much as she told him. Everyone knew that much. His life had been broadcast over those screens for as long as he could remember. Everyone knew him. Everyone knew about his family. But no one really knew anything at all.
"I just want to ask you one thing," Willa went on.
He looked at her.
"Why did you leave her?" her eyes softened, but these words were harsher than anything else she ever could have said. "Why did you leave Kaci?"
Dimitri shook his head, trying to force himself to be still and quiet.
"She felt your pain," Willa said. "She knew everything you were going through because she was enduring it all, too. You could have confided in each other. Why did you leave?"
"Shut up," Dimitri mumbled. "You don't know a damn thing."
"Maybe I don't," Willa said. "That's why I'm asking you. I want to hear it straight from you."
"Because I'm a goddamn idiot, that's why!"
His outburst hushed all conversation taking place around them and everyone looked over to see where the commotion had come from. After identifying the source of the action, people started to whisper. Women told their children to look away. Men stared at him. It was as if they all expected him to apologize, not for what he had done wrong, but simply for disrupting their nice uncomfortable lower-class ride to Libreville. The poor and the wealthy were not so different. Both groups only seemed to care for their own interests above all others.
Dimitri was no different.
"I've always been like this," he said, trying to lower his voice, trying to quiet his mind, but now that he had opened the floodgates, everything else just rushed out on its own. "I don't want any of the blame pinned on my mother, not even that worthless piece of garbage that calls himself my father. It's just me. It's all me. The first time I left, it wasn't because of anything that happened in my family. It was just because I wanted to get out. Because I wanted to, no other reason. Kaci couldn't come with me because she was too little. Besides, I didn't want her getting in trouble because of me. I did try to protect her, but I didn't try hard enough. That's why she's gone now."
He felt a soft hand move smoothly over his and squeeze gently, urging him to continue.
"It's just like back then," he said, looking out the window at the vast fields of summer that rested between Ilo and Libreville. "I told her not to follow me then, but she can be just as stubborn as me sometimes. She was five years old. I was thirteen. It was before anything happened with our mother. I left home without telling anyone because I wanted to see some girl. Kaci followed me down the street. I didn't realize she was right behind me until I heard her scream. No one screamed like Kaci. Normally she's as quiet as can be, but when she gets scared, she can make these loud screeching noises and scare the hell out of you. It turned out that some goddamn weirdo recognized her and thought he could kidnap her and make a fortune off of the ransom money. Like hell I was gonna sit back and let that happened. Needless to say, I kicked his ass. I forgot all about that girl I wanted to see and took Kaci right back home, where she wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms. Even after I told Matteo everything that happened, he grounded Kaci and forced her to stay the smallest room of our basement for three days. I argued with him, but that never got anywhere. Matteo, always the politician, spoke calmly and gently, thinking that he could convince me that what he was doing was the right thing. I knew it was just a bunch of garbage."
"What did you do?" Willa asked.
"Nothing," Dimitri said without hesitation. "I didn't do a damn thing. I got mad at him and I left. I left her there."
What just happened? Why was she making him say all of this? Who was she? How did one decision to get on a train to Libreville lead him to spilling his guts out to some third-class stewardess? This was part of the plan. Matteo probably told her to ask him all of these uncomfortable questions to get some sort of insight into what Dimitri was planning to do. That made no sense. Dimitri was never less than crystal clear with Matteo because he simply did not care what the man thought of him. Only one person's opinion ever mattered to him, and only that one person's opinion ever would. Willa knew that just as well as he did, so why did she delve so deeply?
"Mr. Blair," Willa said, holding steadfast to his hand. "Do you know where she is now? Is she in Libreville?"
"I don't know," Dimitri pulled his hand away from her and massaged his temples with his thumb and forefinger. "I don't have a clue."
Willa opened her mouth to say something else, but decided against it and looked away.
"Do you know where she is?" Dimitri asked, accusing her with his eyes. "Does Matteo know where she is? Am I the only one who doesn't know where she is?"
"You really want to help me? Tell me where the hell my sister is! Now!"
Willa fidgeted with the fabric of her faded skirts.
"Oh, you don't know?" Dimitri looked back out the window to see Libreville's impressive skyline glittering beneath the light of the sun. "Then I guess there's no real reason for you to be sitting next to me, then. Maybe you should get up and do your job. Work for those crumbs Matteo's throwing at you."
Willa took one last lingering look at him before she stood and started to walk away.
"And when you meet up with him for a debriefing, tell him I'm dead!"
She did not understand. No one ever did.
When the train made its stop at the Libreville West Station, Dimitri took the back exit just to ensure that he would not run into her again. As soon as he stepped off of the train he nearly disappeared into a mishmash of aristocrats, businessmen, glitzy vacationers, and the "others," who stood out like ink blots on white paper. The "others" could have been anyone from anywhere, but because they were poorly-dressed and wore the telltale look of pure awe as they gazed upon the city before them, they were instantly looked down upon by everyone else. Dimitri wondered if the people of Libreville would regard him as an "other." He had been wearing the same faded shirt and shabby pants for longer than he could remember. A small chasm appeared in the crowd on either side of him and the people he passed, especially the ones with feathers on their hats and glitter on their fingers, gave him the long, snide up-and-down looks that people give other people who were not exactly from "their side of town." Of course none of that mattered to Dimitri, and not simply because he was the son of the president of one of the top three wealthiest cities on the planet. Nothing mattered then but Kaci.
He searched for her from the second he stepped off of the train. The plan was first to scour the streets, then the alleys, and finally he would go door-to-door from one shop, library, school, residence, or place of business to another. He would ask them simple questions on her whereabouts and only give more detail if they told him anything of interest. It was exactly what he did in the past twelve or so large cities he visited since Kaci was taken. No one ever had anything important to say. Some people recognized him and changed the topic to politics or something else that Dimitri did not really care about. Some people noticed that he had not slept or eaten in a while and invited him in. In Libreville, he did not expect any hospitality. He did not expect to learn much from the people, either. There was something about his sister's disappearance that someone did not want him to know. That much was made clear to him in the beginning. The sole solution was to sneak into a place where he was unexpected and eavesdrop. The people with the most money kept the most secrets. Matteo taught him that.
He would check the library district first, as he believed the search there would yield more fruit than elsewhere. The walk to the library district took longer than he expected it would take. The amount of tourists was far too high for the circumstances. He thought that Ilo's war with the LI would scare everyone back into their big comfortable estates. Apparently, however, these people were either ignorant of the magnitude of war, or maintained the almost tragic illusion that their wealth and status would protect their cities from being burned to the ground. Whatever the case, they were no concern of his.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a duo that stood out even more-so than he did. He turned to find two obviously Beidanese girls. Sisters. One perhaps in her late teens to early twenties while the other was still a child no older than ten. They both scurried through the crowd, the elder nearly dragging the younger along with her. She scrambled in his direction, grumbling at her sister to speed up. As she looked down to scold her, she very nearly knocked Dimitri over, who did not have enough room on either side of him to move out of her way. Her shoulder bumped into his arm and she looked up at him fiercely as if she meant to blame him for barring her path when it was obviously she who was in the wrong. Dimitri was fond of her type and he was almost tempted to approach her and ask her just what the hurry was about. Chances were slim that they could have given him any information on the whereabouts of Kaci, so he continued along his way, forgetting that he ever saw them in the first place.
"Mona, please," Elina flinched under Mona's grip every time they came dangerously close to other crowd dwellers. "Slow down!"
"You speed up!" Mona squeezed her little sister's hand.
They cut down the wide open roads packed with the uppercrust, a ripple of upturned noses paving their way. She did not know how she ever could have convinced herself that Libreville of all places was the right place to seek refuge from the conflicts of Beidan. It took her all but a day to realize the mistake she had made, but what sparked her into action was the mention of her cousin's name on one of the many screens that littered the inner city area. A tall blond newscaster revealed that Chief Tabari refused negotiations with Archduke Garnier. There was more to the story than that, but Mona stopped listening after the first sentence. Tabari was alive. It was all she needed to hear to return to her senses.
The quickest way back to Beidan was to either go the legal route and pose as travelers to a land near enough to Beidan to walk or to "borrow" some transportation of their own and head directly to Beidan without any prescribed stops. The reasonable choice, of course, was to steal a ship. It would not necessarily be stealing. The Beidanese invented the original designs for the Librevillian ships long before the Librevillians painted them all sorts of preposterous colors and branded them with the seal of their monarchy. Besides, as soon as she and Elina arrived with the other refugees, the Archduke himself told them that the city of Libreville would do anything to aid them.
The nearest hangar flanked the outskirts of town and was not as heavily guarded as the others. Mona stopped behind a quiet café, tugging Elina to stand close beside her. Where they stood, no one was in the direct vicinity aside from the spattering of guards around the hangar and they were spread thin enough so that they could not interrupt each other's shifts with unrelated banter. The nearest sounds came from a comfortable distance and they were the solid hum of noise that accompanied an immense crowd of people.
"Mona," Elina broke the silence.
"Ssh!" Mona immediately turned to her little sister and lifted her finger to her lips. "What?"
"Are we going to steal a ship?" Elina whispered, wide-eyed and with an innocent edge of contrariness.
"But what if we get caught?"
Mona leaned against the side of the café and peered across the empty street towards the hangar. First, she identified the nearest entrance. A utility entrance. That meant that there would be fewer guards and employees but the route to the actual ships would be a long and roundabout one. She had no weapons on her, nor did she trust her fighting skills enough to take on armed guards, so it was the only option open to the two of them. She took her sister's hand and moved swiftly yet quietly towards the utility entrance. The door was locked, which was expected, but that was no issue to Mona, who learned from a few unscrupulous friends of hers a while back how to pick locks. She took one of the hairpins that held the hair at the back of Elina's head into a neat up-do, bent it between her teeth, and carefully jigged it into the keyhole until it gave way. No alarm sounded, so she crept in first, and once she was certain that no one was near enough to notice them, she pulled Elina inside behind her.
To her pleasure, she found the halls of the inside empty and quiet, almost too quiet, but they had to take this chance. They scurried down the hall, Mona peeking behind every corner as they went, until they reached the actual hangar, which housed three vessels. Two large and one small. Three guards kept solid posts at either of the main doors, as if expecting the only trouble makers to come marching in the front. Obviously they did not have a thief problem. Mona mapped out a path in the shadows that led to the small vessel and did not think twice before dragging Elina in that direction. Every time she felt her sister hesitate, she squeezed her hand tighter. Someday this girl would thank her for all of the things she did. Someday she would see the successes made possible only through risk.
Breaking into the small vessel brought the first challenge on their mission so far. As soon as Mona lifted the lever that slid the door open, it made a whisk of a sound that alerted the nearest guard, who came running towards them. Mona pushed Elina inside first before scrambling in after her, shutting the door and then sealing it. The guard banged at the door with what sounded like the mouth of his gun and asked several times for them to come out. Mona had nothing to say to them. She had to concentrate on hijacking the ship. Elina quietly crawled into the copilot seat and fastened her belt with trembling hands.
"I wish you would stop banging on the damn door," Mona mumbled. "I can't concentrate."
There were only two security codes to bypass and thankfully, they were lower level codes and still identical to the ones used on the ships in Beidan. The fools never bothered changing them because they clearly never expected a Beidanese person to pilfer one of their ships. She hated being underestimated, but at times it worked to her advantage. After powering up their lift off, she gently pressed down on the yoke to get them off the ground and moved towards the open hangar door, where a small but dense spattering of guards approached, aiming their guns as if they were going to shoot. They never did. Probably because there was no one there to give the order. Highbrows. Compliant to a fault.
Taking to the skies and setting a course for Beidan, Mona felt her chest twitch. Only now had she realized what she was getting herself and Elina into. She remembered why she had left. She told her people that she wanted to live. Somehow, she thought that justified it. The truth, of course, was that she was afraid back then. She feared for the lives of her family, but mostly for the life of her little sister, so she left. Even if that meant leaving Tabari to die. For so long she believed that she was doing what was right. What was best for Elina.
She looked over at her sister, who looked down at her knees as she sat. Though Elina's silence betrayed her fear and uncertainty, she never complained. She always trusted Mona's judgment, no matter what. For a girl of her age, she had seen and heard of much strife, danger, and death. Grown adults that endured the same were rendered mute, some mad. But Elina, young, beautiful Elina sat willingly on an airship destined to the place that they worked so hard to escape from and faced with the harsh reality that there was a high possibility that they would not survive this time. Knowing all of this, Elina stood by Mona.
It's okay, Lina.
Mona smiled and reached over to stroke Elina's plump cheek with her knuckle.
I'm going to make it right this time.