The Aftermath Academy - CH17 (Olivia)

I twirl easily across the dance floor, as light on my feet as when I can fly.

Ok, that’s bullshit. There’s no way in hell this desultory dance I puppet to is as comely an affair as the lithely lilting my lissome form is capable of performing when full of Envy. But as far as Hope is concerned, I’m the most becoming creature to cantor to the mellifluous tune floating through this opulent ballroom. Did I say that right? I’m practicing my Nova impression so I hope that was as pedantic as possible.

Anyways, Hope is teaching me to dance without my powers, having felt terrible about neglecting me yesterday during the ceremony. If Void weren’t sucking away my abilities, leaving me an empty hollowed out shell, I would have much more mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I love dancing. Learning to do it without risking my companions on the dance floor falling to pieces on me would be great, were I ever willing to voluntarily suppress my own powers. On the other hand, her teaching method is to have another one of her little toys treat me like a goddamn marionette.

Miss Hiraeth, which I can only assume is a codename because it is the saddest fucking name I have ever heard. Seriously, look up the meaning of Hiraeth. I’ll wait.

It’s fitting, given she comes from the winter-lands of Redarctica which, let’s face it, unless she has a great radiation suit like Krieg does, she is never returning to. Unless some tech genius figures out how to clear millions of square miles of radioactive wasteland. In fairness, Krieg’s done stranger things. Like help accidentally make millions of square miles of radioactive wasteland.

If you’d ever visited the winter-lands you’d know it wasn’t a big loss and clearly Miss Hiraeth over there is seriously melodramatic. But I’m also wondering if she’s seriously powerful. This dancing lesson is a parlor trick, but can she take over an unwilling participant? Can they resist? It’s not mental control. The Butler might be concerned by whether Void’s power would take precedence, and there’s all sorts of reasons he avoids bothering to mess with Hope. But if there were word of a telepath actively using her abilities in Hope’s court, I don’t believe he’d leave things alone.

So Miss Hiraeth is either controlling my muscles or has a very versatile form of telekinesis. Combat potential, but not as great as Severo’s.

As Hope twirls around with me with schoolgirl laughter, I realize how futile my little errand is. Hope’s city has millions of people. It is the densest remaining population center and a disproportionately large number of which have abilities of some kind or another. Trying to figure out which ones have combat powers that could pose our tiny group a problem, especially when backed by Hope’s immortality field, is a fool’s errand.

Even the art of this ballroom is a testament to that. Stained glass windows ran along the dance hall, backlit by powerful lighting that cascaded the colors across the dancers between carved stone pillars. Both art forms depicted fight scenes from great tournament battles Hope had thrown in her domain. The ability to fight with almost no restraint was a great draw for those with a competitive streak. There weren’t any on record who could beat me, but a lot of them combined with some creative use on esoteric abilities? Not even Krieg will be able to account for all the possibilities.

Which means to be safe, we’ll have to suck it up and use Abe. Dammit. That gives us a clock once the assault is underway. Well, if nothing else, he’ll be happy.

Dancing like this, no real need to pay attention to my movements or body, slowly just learning the muscle memory from actions unassisted by my flight, I slip into a peaceful oblivion of sorts. Perhaps this is the point Hope wishes to instill in her toys, that the time they should feel most at peace is when she controls them, in one way or another.

It would be an ephemeral peace. Incandescent security burning out at the denouement of the story she writes in her mind. She would have her subjects believe even the umbrella of her unconscious protection will lead to a sempiternal haven reminiscent of halcyon days that never really existed but are still somehow remembered by the old and the foolish. Ok, I totally nailed Nova that time, admit it.

But seriously, The Plague’s attack should have shaken these people’s belief in that faulty notion, yet some extra security and a few nifty tricks and they think nothing like that could happen again.

“You seem preoccupied,” Hope comments lightly. Shit, guess she’s not totally unobservant.

“I apologize, the movement is just so relaxing,” I reply casually. A curious look goes through her eyes and I realize that it may not have been casual enough. “May I ask, were those carvings on the columns done by normal artisans or a power user? They are quite beautiful.” Appealing to her vanity might distract her. Certainly her eyes light up at the complement.

“The models were hand-crafted by over one hundred artisans, but the full size versions were created by a Gifted artisan,” Hope says. “Now may I ask, Princess Adaliah, whether you know of an Antoine Eisen or Jedidiah Meyer?”

Mother fucking cheese and crackers, I didn’t distract her at all!

“The names sound familiar but I can’t say that I can place them.” Totally smooth, no way she sees through that reply.

“They were two of your country’s greatest anti-annexation proponents following your mother’s death. They both died in freak plane crashes. Some claim that a Gifted individual saved most of the people from the crash, but one of the pilots swore that he saw a young girl flying in front of the plane before the impact,” Hope says sweetly, giving me a spin. She catches me then bends me backwards and rights me.

“Sounds like a tragic accident,” I say measuredly. “Perhaps a young Gifted girl was just out for a morning flight when their planes hit her. I imagine she would have tried to save as many people as possible. I certainly hope not too many other people were hurt in those unfortunate events.”

“Many were hurt, but there were very few casualties. It is an interesting coincidence though, don’t you think? First your mother was killed in a helicopter crash, which you implied that you believed was an accident, rather than an assassination. But then two more important political figures bite the dust in further accidents?”

“That could be why my Uncle insisted I stay in hiding as long as he did,” I tell her. “He has a difficult time believing in coincidences.” She pulls me in close then pushes me away, Miss Hiraeth helping me to perfectly follow her lead.

“That could make sense,” Hope says. “But there is one more curiosity. Even with those figures out of the way, there would have been considerable opposition to annexation within your military’s ranks. Enough that even your Uncle might not have convinced them to go along with the plan without the possibility of a civil war. Yet shortly before the Consolidated Empire made its move, your armed forces were decimated. The acting parties were careful, largely focusing on equipment, leadership, and the units with the most powerful gifted members. Some believe The Butler was involved despite his claims to political neutrality, but the targets were more aligned with someone trying to avoid his involvement. What is more, there were a great number of reports concerning the appearance of a young girl again during the slaughter, this time with much more detail. Of particular note was her olive skin in an area where most citizens are pale as ghosts…”

“Mother did always enjoy Destrian men,” I say, knowing this point of conversation would be much more difficult to avoid than I’d hoped. “I was far from the only participant in the slaughter of my army, but must confess that I may have indulged in some mind-altering substances around that time that may have brought about some poor behavior. I was not used to the isolation or boredom that comes from being in hiding and acted out in a manner that was most inappropriate for my station. I can only speculate at what was going through my mind at the time, but I think I may have been angry at the army for their failure to protect my mother.”

Lies, lies and more lies. And I am not an accomplished liar. Except the thing about Destrian men. I don’t know who my father was, but knowing my mother he was some poor Destrian labor that she entertained herself with before throwing him away, quite possibly literally. Like, down a garbage shoot. I’ve seen her do it.

“Fear not, Princess, I know more than most what sometimes must be done to alleviate boredom,” Hope says, her musical tone rich with understanding. “It is good of you to admit involvement in that piece of the puzzle, unintentional as it might have been. Still, another accident. How curious it is that one of the most peaceful annexations by the Consolidated Empire thus far had the way paved by bloody accidents. One might almost think that someone with great power and a wonderful understanding of politics did all of that intentionally. The type of understanding displayed by someone capable of making an award winning doctoral dissertation at the age of fifteen.”

“You give me far too much credit, Lady Hope. Dissertation aside I have never been very interested in politics, despite my mother’s best efforts. I can’t say that my powers have left my hands entirely clean of blood, but that is because I was a careless youth, struggling with ADHD and not enough understanding of my ability to impact the world. I have much more control now, having spent so much of my time in hiding, training to better control myself.”

She looks at me with an appraising stare, no doubt wondering if I’m lying to her. “Forgive me for spending so much time on a subject of so little interest to you, but being stuck in my little kingdom gives me quite the thirst to understand what is happening beyond my rooms. If you would indulge me a little longer, I am curious if you might speculate why, pretending that the events were intentional, someone might desire the outcome that occurred.”

Hope hopes to understand me, even while humoring my half-truths. Maybe she even wishes to catch me in a flat out lie, so as to punish me later for my deception. But this hypothetical is easy to humor her on.

“I can only speculate, but there are a couple of reasons one might have preferred the current situation. When we first spoke I believe I mentioned that the annexation was a good idea because it allows consistency in response to high casualty events. But less publicly known is that my mother could be a harsh ruler, and she led a nationalistic policy that encouraged military membership for dangerous people. She was the kind of person who might have sought to adopt some of the C.E.’s imperialistic tendencies, but the only source of real military power she had were her Gifted. She was not the sort to allow international treaties to stop her usage of them.”

“You think she would have used them on civilians?” Hope asks. “Even after what happened to the Indigo Empire?”

“She already used them on her own,“ I reply. “She would have tried to be sneaky about it. And she thought she had troops that could stand up to The Butler when he finally figured it out. That our nation could be beyond his judgment. There were many in her government and military of like mind.” “And they would have been like lambs to the slaughter,” Hope said with a whimsical smile. “The Butler would have guillotined through your entire country’s government and military, just like he did to the Indigo Empire after their unprovoked attack of Destria.”

“He warned the entire world,” I say. “Don’t use gifted on other countries’ civilians. He might overlook isolated incidents until there’s enough evidence to be sure someone isn’t setting him up to attack their enemies. But at the end of the day, he’ll come. How many people did he kill in the Indigo Empire? And that was before he could teleport.”

“So if someone within your country would have been used in a combat perspective, it might have been in their own best interests to attack their own people rather than face The Butler?”

“Exactly,” I say. “Again, this is only a speculation.” And a bullshit one at that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s true as far as it goes. If not for all my happy accidents my mother would have put me up against Jared Butler and he probably would have butchered me, her, and the rest of our country’s military and government because they were too stupid and power hungry to follow the new rules of this world. In hindsight, I really dodged a boogieman on that one.

Maybe someday I’ll tell Hope the real reason I killed so many members of my own army. Probably while I’m killing her. For now though, I just smile at her beautifully inscrutable face, swinging to the music she dances us around to.