The sun just set. The delicate scent of the broth emanates through the dining room. Vittoria shut down the gas stove as soon as she is done slicing a cucumber. That’s when another girl comes up with a pile of small plastic bowls.
“That smells delicious.” She says. “I never thought you’d make an excellent cook.”
Vittoria leers at her while pouring the broth into each of the bowls before putting it aside. “This is the particular activity that my parents taught with the most excellence. They wanted me to be a decent housewife once I am married.”
“Ah, impressive.” The girl responds while shifting to the other side to place the bowls on to the trays set out on the counter. “With these, I’m sure everyone would set out with their stomach happy.”
“I…” Vittoria stops midway. “Would be grateful, if my dishes could fulfill that.”
“With this tempting smell, I’m sure everyone won’t let it pass.”
Not long after, two boys burst into the kitchen. They are Fred and Lennard.
“Julia, Vittoria, are you two done?” Says Lennard.
“Yeah, I can smell something great and that tickles my stomach.” Fred barks, like he usually do.
“How about you two help us out?” Julia smiles to them, her hands crossed behind her hip.
“Well if it meant larger portion…”
“Fred…” Lennard leers at him with a bitter sight.
The two boys help assemble the remaining platers. Then the four of them delivers the meals to the front counter of the dining room, where everyone else could take them. There are no chairs nor seating of any kind. So everyone just sit on the carpet-covered floor with their meals on their laps.
Vittoria sits between Fred and Julia, without any meal in her lap since she is an Android. It is not long before someone shoves a spoon into their mouth and yells out,
“Hey Vittoria, I swear I never had something this tasty since I’m here.”
“Yeah. Could you stay for maybe a week after you could afford a ticket home, please?” A girl follows up.
Similar cheers from twenty other teenagers fill the dining room. An incoherent choir to which her heart blooms and prances. She never thought that the praises hit gently on her soft spot. Her response is a simple smile that she directed toward everyone.
“It’s lovely here isn’t it, Vittoria?” Fred asks with a smooth tone.
Vittoria’s heavenly glee turns at Fred, blinding his vision. “I concur.” She responds.
“Hey, Fred!” A boy cries out from one corner. “You’re rooting for her aren’t you?”
“What the hell did you say!?” Fred yells while training his spoon at him.
“Uh, oh.” Another boy’s response follows up. “Looks like someone just got exposed.” He says, rolling his eyes.
“Come here you!”
The two boys make a hustle as soon as Fred’s tall stature rises from its seat and begins to march at them.
The chatter here and there across the room is in contrast with her solitary bedroom that saw the most of her shedding petals. The genuine cheers and jeers are a fresh breeze to the dull well-mannered speech of her servants which is most probably staged to exhibit proficiency in serving her. She breathes a relief knowing that her mother’s words could actually led her to such experience for once. However, it’s not long until the gray clouds her face.
A notification from her utilizer. The receiver is wired to her system, hence there’s no need for the utilizer to blip when it receives messages. Which is essential at this moment, since she strives to prevent anyone from noticing.
“I will be absent for a moment.” She says to Julia and Fred.
Vittoria nods before standing up and proceeds to the back. At the moment, everyone is busy with their own conversation. Even if they notice Vittoria’s leave, they aren’t really concerned. She goes all the way to the backyard of the small barrack, where there’s no one to see her.
Then she opens her utilizer.
I’ll convince the rest to board the Ferry before dawn break, according to the schedule you sent me.
Her will to respond is suppressed by a gentle voice calling for her from behind. She hastily retracts her screen and leers behind her. From the corner of her eyes, she could make up a figure leaning against the side of the door, gazing upon her.
“Zen.” She says after turning around.
He jerks his head in silence. Thinking that he is curious of what’s going on, she turns her gaze to the skies behind her, before returning it to him once more.
“The stars. They’re magnificent.”
A chill starts to run down her endoskeleton as the boy lifts an eyebrow. She wonders whether he really saw what she did. She begins to heat her core, preparing to execute a backup plan should this one is foiled. But just as the water boils, Fred bursts through the door.
“Hey, hey.” He proceeds pasts Zen and head for Vittoria.
Zen leers at him as he nudges his shoulder.
“Tell me you are alright back here.” He says to both of them.
Vittoria turns away from him while Zen exhales and head back inside without saying anything. Fred turns his attention to Vittoria.
“Nothing.” Vittoria says, trying to shove his worries away if there is any. “I hope my parents, if they are still alive, see how I long for this moment.”
When she glances back at him, she finds his face with a little hint of red. His mouth is gaping, and he is frozen in place.
“You…the gathering right?” He stutters.
“What else?” Vittoria replies.
“Right, right. Reasonable indeed.” He says while rubbing the back of his head.
Vittoria then head back inside, followed by Fred.
“Ears on me, you delinquent lass.” His voice, so loud that it trembles the whole room, comes through my utilizer. His overwhelming tone is like a thunder splitting the sky. The following shock shoves me deeper into a point where I have never reached before. It’s the Primus’ right-hand man, Microv Edward. He’s the supreme leader of the maid section. Colonel Iva’s rank is just below him. “One more grumble and I swear to shove your arse down a pit where you’d wish we had executed you instead. Do you hear!?”
“Y-yes, si-” I stutter. And perhaps because of it…
“Do…you…hear!?” He calls it out even louder.
This feeling. The shivering view of my parents perishing into the ember to save me, the overlapping screams of my scattered people as columns of monarchs flew overhead in harmony. I can’t believe that this man brought a similar experience just by raising his tone.
“Yes, sir.” I respond with a sturdier tone. But then I begin to sniffle.
“Rest sort it out as well. For failure won’t spank only her.” He says. “Off you go.”
For the first time in years, a tear streaks across my cheek. A pain is throbbing my heart. Despite of it, I gaze up to everyone else. Theirs however falls bitter upon me. In the next second, Hana turns away from me in silence. Her sight is no longer as sharp as before. Her face is one that lacks of any will. She marches into the bunk without leering back. The maiden that I thought I could trust the most is the first that wavers.
“Hana…” I reach out to her, but to no avail.
“I’m sorry, Lena.” Rina says before following her.
Theo nods two times with her eyes closed without saying anything.
“Rina, Theo…” Still they ignore me.
“Um…” Seeing everyone walks away from me seems to have driven Eri nervous, evident from how she taps her indexes in quick succession. She then turns to me. “Uh, Lena. Just do what the man said okay?” She says. “This is for your good, for our good, for everyone. Okay?”
“Eri…, everyone…” The only words that came out of me as soon as Eri shut the bunk’s door.
Here I am left alone again.
It’s way past dinnertime already and we have no more task on the list for today. The Primus, once again, didn’t touch his meal. I wanted to reach for the bunk’s door, but somehow couldn’t. Something inside prevents me from doing so.
Then my tears break free.
“Damn it.” I grit my teeth. I can’t look up to them like this.
I don’t know what I was thinking, I found my body hustling to the main gate before I realize it. The delay between each step shortens as time goes, and the load in my head inflates with each step. My composed march to the main gate turns into a rush once I cleared past. With all my might, I split the night at a blistering pace, my legs from knees down whimper in the process. I couldn’t tell where I am going. All I know is that I’m taking myself as far as possible from everything. Eventually, I collapse under a sizeable tree, my face fell flat on the ground.
My tears are flooding, and I couldn’t resist the urge to commit all my voice into the weep.
Why did it end up like this? All I did is for the best of the Primus, for the best of his reign, and for the best of the citizens. How couldn’t they see that? How could they refuse the deeds that clearly will benefit the realm in the long term?
Suddenly I feel a presence. My breath is still caught, but I decide to raise my head and wipe my eyes. I was surprised to see who it is.
“Are you okay?” It’s Zen. He then kneels before me as soon as he asks that question. “What are you doing here this late?”
A small orange glow illuminates the place, originating from a lantern hanging on a wooden stake protruding out of the tree’s trunk. His face reflects off the glow, in stark contrast with the surrounding darkness. I see a pair of stars chasing each other as his eyes gaze down on me. It is as if the light comes from him instead of the lantern, even with his indifferent face that shouldn’t radiate anything.
The faint brilliance sweeps the glitter in my eyes away, and for some reason it manages to breathe my will back to life. I rise to my knees as I wipe the remainder of my tears away.
“I…” I sniffle. “I don’t know. Maybe I just need some space.” I say, turning my face away as I sit on my calves.
Zen exhales. His face remains indifferent. “Well, I guess you are welcome to stay.”
Just when I begin to wonder what he is implying, he sits before me, his back against the tree trunk. Those lustrous eyes now turn to the night sky glittering with stars from one end to the other.
“Wh…what are you doing?”
That indifferent face of his turns to me. “This place is my contemplation haven.”
“You don’t have any patrol duty?”
“Not my turn. But I’m on standby.”
A silence ensues for a moment. I never sit beside a boy I just met before. Especially one that drives this feeling inside me. This blooming feeling that still finds me scrambling for words to describe properly.
I shift and turn a bit so that my bottom sits on the grass while my back leans against the trunk.
“What happened?” He suddenly asks.
“There has to be a reason why you are crying up here.” He says with his face remains to the stars.
For a moment I am reluctant to share the reason. But knowing how he seems to be the only person I can talk to at this moment, I don’t have a choice.
“I wanted to change someone else’s behavior, but to no avail.”
“I see.” Zen responds.
Somehow, I was expecting more whereas I should have known that it’s the reply that he would provide given his personality. However,
“Well,” To my surprise, he continues. “One does barely step out of their status quo.”
“Change has always been a subject of opposition. It’s never easy for anyone to move out of the place they are already comfortable with.”
My gaze falls to my feet as I come to realize. It is indeed difficult. But that doesn’t mean we should forever refrain from making a change. We won’t go anywhere if we don’t struggle to change ourselves. As long as we have the will, we would emerge victorious beyond our comfort zone.
“But they could if they have the will.” I say.
“But the problem doesn’t just stay there, it goes further to what preventing the will to rise in the first place.”
“What preventing the will?”
“Say, if you’re to organize a mass for one common goal, a change for better life, but then finds out that they’re only benefitting from you and ditch you on your most dire of needs, would you be willing to organize another mass?”
That feels too extreme. If it ever happens to a person, then it has to be traumatizing.
“You wouldn’t.” Zen answers that on his own. “Even when someone else is rallying, you would remain still, no matter how hard they try.”
I think I can agree. It’s almost impossible to overcome a traumatizing experience. The monarch swarm flashes into view as soon as I thought of that. The hellish view where only fear and despair can be found. The ember tide that sweeps through my village, engulfing everything including my parents. I wish every night that I can rest soundly without ever seeing such calamity unfolding again.
I snap back to our conversation and make my remark.
“I don’t think that could ever happen. What kind of person devious enough to benefit from a person who strived for their well-being?”
“My people, my former ones.”
His former people?
“The lower classes folk that I strived to protect, those I have created an association with for their own good, ditched me. My parents and the other higher classes took away their rights. I struggle only to alleviate their pressure. Until one night when I heard that the higher classes were plotting against me. My parents didn’t even bother to protect me, so I seek protection from the lower-classes. They denied my request, even exposing me in the process.”
Oh my goodness.
“I’m…” I feel like I have to say something, but I couldn’t come up with anything. “I’m sorry.”
His gaze turns on me again. “I was accompanied by my best friend when I left the little town, but covering me had cost him his life. And that’s how I end up here. Far from everyone, even the concerns of protecting the weak.”
“But you’re a militia in this place.”
“And so it seems. But my effort in every patrol is nonexistent. I even drift here for my personal solitude despite the order to stand by the posts.”
I exhale. That’s unfortunate. So far, I’ve only received warning from sir Microv. But the unfortunate that befall him drenches me in ponder. Should I really proceed carrying out my plan and risk a fate worse than death? Or should I just stop, and abide the orders that have been laid out?
“Could you, by any chance, restore the will that you’ve held out before?”
He directs his gaze back to the stars and exhales. The expression that he is showing makes me feel dumb for asking such question.
“I don’t think I have the heart for that anymore.”
That incident must have left a deep scar in him. And it’s most likely why he appears to be exhausted all the time. The lower-classes’ refusal have stripped him of his will. And now it seems like he only works for himself. If there’s one thing that he’s protecting, it’s probably the remainders of his heart.
“If you think you are willing to make a change, you have to be prepared for consequences such as those.” Zen shrugs. “I hope you don’t end up like me.”
With him, the night flies without a care in the world. It’s already late when I return to the mansion. Zen accompanied me all the way. I told him it was unnecessary, but he insisted that a girl of my age shouldn’t walk along a dimly lit road by herself. I never walk alongside a boy before. Even more awkward is that he is five years older than me. Regardless, it’s a sweet experience that pats me in the back, one that I barely had in years.
When I head inside, I notice something. The Primus refused to have his dinner, and we have had our dinner. Which means that the dishes that we washed, should have dried out by now. However, one of the plates is still damp, with droplet running across its curved surface.
Not long after Theo comes into the kitchen.
“Lena, how are you?” It feels odd that she asks me that, but I do appreciate that she concerns me after that scolding from sir Microv.
“I’m fine. Thanks for asking.” I flinch my head.
“I guess that extra plate serves you well.”
“So it’s not you who made that noise?”
“I was outside, catching some air.”
“We were all in the bunk when that porcelain noise occurred.”
It seems like Theo is speaking the truth, she’s not the kind to lie. But if they’re not the one who is having a late-night snack, then it is…
I sigh. “He was snacking again, wasn’t he?”
“Apparently.” Theo says.
“Let’s just have our rest for now. It might have been a lot for us today.”
“It definitely is for you, I guess.” Theo smiles at me.
I smile back. I can’t be sure whether her smile is genuine or not, but it shines an encouragement. Knowing that at least one of the maids is still with me restores my confidence, enough to meet the next dawn. Everyone else is already wrapped up under their blanket. Theo follows suit not long after.
My mind drifts to what Zen has told me. I begin to consider whether I should continue with giving the Primus a proper meal, in proper times. Doing so would free me from sir Microv’s haunting words. But the prime value of this nation would remain tarnished. His improper meals might be irrelevant and insignificant. Yet, how many times have irrelevant and insignificant things caused the fall of kings?
Without my consent, those thoughts lull me to my dreams.
Day three. I wake up to my alarm at the same time as yesterday. I slept late, so the reluctance to rise from the mattress is immense. I even have a hard time opening my eyes. But I have to. There’s a work to be done.
However, as soon as I put on the maid uniform, a sight shocks me to the core.
“Hana? Rina? Eri? Theo?”
They’re nowhere to find around their mattresses.
“This…” This is a joke isn’t it? “Please tell me this is just a child’s play.” I say as I roam around the mansion. It turns out they’re also not in the mansion. My heart begins to race as I begin to search the gardens.
“Hana! Rina! Eri! Theo!” I call them out, as I trot around the garden.
For a moment, I couldn’t believe it. They’re really gone. My gaze turns to the direction of the settlement, where I got the groceries yesterday.
“Could it be…?”
No, no, no.
I streak alongside the dawn breeze flowing downhill, rushing my way to the settlement. My heart beats at a rate that I never thought it would reach. There’s still five kilometers left once I reach the main highway. That’s when I begin to lose my breath. The exhaustion from last night’s burst still has their grip on me. I couldn’t make it in time. Just as I thought of letting them go, a motorcycle comes up beside me. A brief grateful bloom from within when I see who it is.
“Z-Zen.” I call him, stuttering due to my heavy breath.
“I see four maids boarding a ferry for the mainland.” He said with a louder tone.
I hop into the backseat as soon as he flinches his head, gesturing me to head in. The motorcycle splits the air, which forces me to grip its back tail. We arrive at the settlement ten minutes later. Zen has to reduce his speed since crashing, no matter how minor, would cause inconvenience for the settlers. It takes another five minutes before we arrive at the docks.
I then hustle in as soon as Zen stops before the main entrance, hoping that there’s still time to catch them. How could they decide to abandon me? Have I really been that mistaken?
The ferry’s horn blares. Two men with uniforms blocked the path leading to the ship as soon as I reach it.
“Pardon, ma’am. You have to show that you’ve reserved a seat inside.” Says one of them.
“Please, let me in! My colleagues are there and I need to get to them!” I frantically gesture for the ferry, hoping that he would let me pass.
“The leave schedule is here. Do you have the receipt or not?”
“No, no. You don’t understand!”
Not long after, his colleague near the ferry gives the greenlight. The horn blares again. The staircase is lifted, and it begins to drift away from the docks. Only then I am allowed a pass.
I sprint all the way to the end of the docks.
“Hana! Rina! Eri! Theo!” I cry out their names at the top of my lungs.
It’s when Hana appears on the starboard deck and gazes upon me. But it’s too late. The ferry has gone far from the docks. I only see her waving at me with a bitter face, not saying anything. I probably won’t hear it either.
“No.” I said, as I collapse to my knee.
Why? Why is this happening to me? I raise that question as my eyes begin to well up. I can’t believe this. Just why. I was about to make things right. Why do they have to leave just as that is going to happen?
But my lament hits a sturdy wall. It’s too late. No matter how hard I cry, how deep my regrets are, they won’t change anything.
“Lena.” I hear Zen’s gentle voice reaching out to me.
I don’t respond, still soaked in my weep. Then I feel his hand on my right shoulder.
“There’s nothing you can do about it now.” He says.
Even if my weep won’t solve anything, it is still hard for me to stem these tears and get over it. I probably become an attention center in this dock, but that doesn’t matter. It’s like a small cut on the skin after having pikes pierced through my chest.
“Lena,” When Zen says my name for the second time, he raises my face to meet his. “Hush.” He said.
His cold hand is holding up my face. But somehow, I felt only warmth. His ebony eyes gaze straight into mine. I feel my soul is being embraced. His smooth feature which I already found captivating, is heavenly this close. For a moment, everything feels fine. And the wound that the maids have inflicted upon me seems irrelevant. The pair of stars I saw last night return. This time they bring a painkiller that I never thought exist.
“You are the Primus’ maid, so behave like one.”
“B-but…how could I?” Especially when a charge is waiting for me on the other side due to my inability to maintain the integrity of my team. “He is not going to forgive me for this.”
“Listen, you still have a chance. The Primus is still depending on you to take care of his mansion. He still needs you. You have to cast aside this regret of yours for a moment.”
I sniffle. He then releases his hand from my face. The hands that gave me warmth, enough to contain my tears.
“I…don’t know.” I say. I really couldn’t come up with any thoughts right now. This is just too much for me to wrap up in a brief amount of time.
“I’ll take you back. All the way before the Primus himself.”
It’s an astounding declaration. He’s going to stand with me in confronting the most powerful man in the world.
“Are you s-sure?” I stutter again.
“Come.” He says as he grabs both of my hand, pulling me up, during which I could only stare at his face in astonishment.
Zen pulls up his utilizer and speaks through it, seemingly telling his colleagues. Together we reach the doorstep of the Primus’ mansion, again. We climb the path through the gardens after getting through the main gate. And he is there, on the bench sitting at the fourth layer.
“Where have you been?” He asked while we’re on the staircase to the fourth layer. “And I don’t remember giving you permission to invite strangers.”
Zen and I share a glance before climbing up the stairs to meet him. So far everything didn’t go well between the Primus and I. That makes me wonder what will he pull out of his sleeve and lay down on me.
“Where are the others?” He continues asking.
“The other maid decides to abandon their duty.” Zen steps in front of me before I can finish my sentence.
The Primus turns his menacing gaze at him. When he gazes back at me, Zen is pushed back down the stairs. He is now where he was a few seconds ago. But nothing is pushing him. It just happens. I am left gaping for a moment. This superhuman power, perhaps it is why he is feared by everyone. I tremble as I think of anything that he might be capable of.
“Continue.” He says, calmly.
“With due respect sir, the other maids have abandoned the mission.”
“That scolding last night was too much?”
Perhaps he was referring to the night where sir Microv yells at us.
I lower my gaze. “It…was.” I said. But then I add, along with returning my gaze to him, “But I never thought of abandoning my duty.”
He is probably squinting at me right now. Zen is still in the same position, possibly held in place by the Primus. What else can he do with his powers?
“Regardless, this lack of discipline will not go unpunished.” He said.
Those words of his probe my nerve, provoking another rapid development. I now shiver not due to dread, but irritation at the irony just before me. For a second, my urge stacks up. And I don’t even think twice about it. I take a deep breath.
“Sir.” I say. “You have no right to dictate our lack of discipline.” I point at him.
His face might be concealed, but his mask couldn’t hide the gesture of raising an eyebrow. “Did your head crash into something yesterday?”
“No.” I take a deep breath. “I won’t let my discipline be judged, by a person who doesn’t have his meal properly.” I state, glaring back at him.
It is an intimidating sight. His stare is that between contempt and resentment. Even though his face hides behind his mask, I can still feel it. In fact, his mask makes it even more terrifying. Maybe that’s where the fear factor is all along. One couldn’t determine his feeling at any given moment. Feelings lead to actions. And since he’s the most powerful man in the world, it’s hard to determine what would he do next. But at this point, I’m pretty much used to it.
I take a deep breath. I guess that’s it. I’ve crossed the line. Perhaps it’s all I could manage against the most powerful man in the world. It’s something to be proud of however, since none survives his first glare. If he were to struck me down, right here and right now, it’ll be worth it.
It’s when I can feel something thrusting for my left cheek. A quick blow, perhaps powerful enough to cause a long-lasting scar.
“Not again.” A dim voice that I manage to catch coming from him.
Then something comes in to block it. They reach out and grip the blow that’s supposedly aiming at me. It’s hard for me to make out what it is, because both happened at a quick succession. And they left a shockwave that tosses me back. My back hits the path first. Zen rushes over and helps me recover. As soon as I do, the Primus is already walking inside.
“Get that boy off the lawn.” He gently says as he enters his mansion.
Zen and I share a glance.
“What was that?” He asks.
“That’s the highest authority snapping at me.”
“No, I meant the…”
I raise my hand and stops him midway. He must have meant the occurrence of the shockwave. I was as curious as him. But right now, I don’t have the space for that. That’s why I pretend to be oblivious.
“You should leave now.” I say to him.
He sighs and nods. “Stay safe, Lena.”
I nod back. It’s the last thing he said before he shut the main gate and off with his motorcycle.
With that, I enter the mansion. Suicidal thoughts start to flare in my mind. My limbs move at a slower pace, as if they are bound by weights. So much so that the distance between everything feels longer. I don’t know whether I can work in a state like this. I’m going to need a daylong idle. Contemplating, or even lamenting, everything that I did. Or perhaps considering to resign from this duty.
No, anything but resigning. I can’t let him view me as a deserter either.
But I can’t be idle. With everyone’s gone, all the task falls on me. I have to work on them. The Primus has already charged me for my inability to keep my team together. Let that be the last. I have to keep working. That’s when I thought of entering the kitchen and prepare his meal. This time, I resolved, to only make his preferences. But only serve them at proper meal times.
I come knocking at his room as soon as I’m done making his breakfast, since he’s not found anywhere. But there’s no response. I take it that he might not be starving yet. So I place the meals on separate metallic pots and put them on a heater to keep them warm. This is what the colonel told us to do when there’s still plenty of leftovers. We were told to standby for another cook because it is known that the Primus prefers that his preferences aren’t served in a succession.
It’s time for another task. Laundries, groceries, watering, sweeping, inspection, documentation, etc. I now have to do them all by myself. This place is so vast, that five maids is required to take care of it. No doubt, there will be tasks that left out. But I have to try. My duty is not over yet.
Come on, Lena. Cast your sadness aside for a while.
I proceed to water the gardens as soon as I’m done sweeping the mansion. And I find that it’s already past noon when I’m done watering, my second task of the day. I haven’t procured any groceries, so I rush for the grocery bag and head for the market. Unfortunately, most stands have close up shop. Hence, most items on the list is nowhere to be found. Not only the tasks grew in numbers, I also have to deal with lesser groceries. Which is another problem, since that would hinder me in cooking his preferences.
The sun is setting when I came back. Comparing it with yesterday, my walk is slower. I can’t determine whether it’s due to my exhaustion or my unhealthy emotion this day. I’ve been working across the mansion all by myself. One thing for sure is that I sit with my limbs numb as soon as I put down the groceries. My head falls on the table. Just ahead are his meals that I place on a heater to warm. I examine closer, to find that it is still untouched since the morning.
This is strange.
When I knocked on his room today, I told him that I’ve made his preferences. Though I’m afraid that it’ll be the last thanks to the insufficient acquired grocery items. But why he still didn’t touch his meals? I decided to head for his room again. I knock on the door, only to hear no response from him. Since there’s no reason for me standing here waiting, I grab the door handle and turn it. The shock that comes when I found out that it isn’t locked is dwarfed by the one when I see that the Primus is gone.
Now him too.
This duty is a mistake in the first place. I shouldn’t have been assigned to this.