Nova woke up the next morning in a rather sore body. She stretched out her limbs while still in bed, trying to work off some of the pain.
It wasn’t just her shoulder. That had mostly healed, in fact. But the sequelae of the previous night’s stunts were starting to be felt. Slamming a truck into another vehicle at high speed was little different from being involved in an actual car crash. Nova had had time to brace for impact, of course, and when her body had been warmed up and full of adrenaline, she hadn’t suffered many adverse effects. But now, with a night’s rest cooling down her muscles, she realized once again that she wasn’t quite as indestructible as Sirius was.
It wasn’t debilitating, though. She’d likely be fine by tomorrow.
Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, Nova slowly crawled her way out of bed and carelessly dug into her suitcase for clean clothes. She found the same outfit she’d worn on the plane trip to Verizen, with the suspender skirt and black thigh-highs. It had already been cleaned and pressed by the suitcase’s internal mechanisms upon being stored back into it, so Nova put it on without further ado, though she left her hair unbound, this time.
The sun was already high way up in the sky. Last night, after returning to civilian clothing, she and Sirius had taken a taxi back to the Antema household and arrived just a little after dawn. By now, after a short sleep, it was closer to lunch than breakfast.
Nova made her way down the stairs to the first floor. In the living room, Rana and Camilla were in front of the TV, playing some sort of racing video game together. Sirius and Fareed were nowhere to be seen, and Nova couldn’t feel their presence anywhere in the house. Maybe they’d gone fishing or something, as a father and son bonding experience.
It was a bit surprising that Sirius was already up and about, though. Did the guy not sleep at all? After running around like a madman all night long? His endurance was really out of this world.
“Good morning,” Rana said with a smile while Camilla glared holes into Nova. Rana took advantage of her distraction to take the lead in the race. How merciless.
Ignoring the death glare aimed her way, Nova plopped down on the couch to watch the game, since she didn’t really have anything better to do. The couch was pretty wide, and there was room for her on either side, but she deliberately sat next to Camilla, and uncomfortably close at that, in an effort to improve her own mood by getting a rise out of the poor girl.
‘Are you still angry about being left out last night?’ her mechanical voice asked pointedly.
“I am not,” Camilla said through gritted teeth, her gaze turning and fixing unnaturally on the screen in front of her. She couldn’t have been any less credible if she’d tried.
‘I assure you that you didn’t miss anything worth your time. It was noisy and tiresome, and the company left much to be desired. It was downright traumatic. PTSD-inducing, even, for those with weak sensibilities. I for one would have been much happier reading a book at home. For the record, I blame your brother for inviting me.’
This seemed only to increase the heat of Camilla’s glare, though it was still directed at the television screen. That television screen must have done something extremely evil to be subjected to such an intimidating stare. “Oh? Is that why you didn’t return until this morning?”
‘That was Sirius’s fault, too. He refused to leave before we’d greeted all the guests personally. There were a lot of them, and they were all very rude. It was quite tedious.’ When Camilla stubbornly refused to give any other response than a tightening of her jaw as she clenched her teeth, Nova scooted closer to her. She wrapped an arm around the girl’s shoulders and placed a finger under her chin, gently turning her head so she was forced to look at Nova. ‘Stop sulking. I already told you my relationship with your brother isn’t like that. Actually, I generally prefer women.’ Nova brought her face closer, to the point their noses almost touched. ‘On that note, would you like to go on a date with me, this afternoon?’
Camilla’s pretty eyes opened as wide as saucers as they looked into Nova’s. A bright flush, visible even against her brown skin tone, crept up her entire face. And her ears. And her neck. Nova could almost feel the heat radiating off off her body.
And then, her brain overloaded, and she bolted.
Camilla abandoned her controller and ran away, rushing up the stairs in record time. A fraction of a second later, the door of her room slammed shut as she took refuge from the horrible, strangely arousing threat prowling outside.
Nova remained seated on the couch, nonplussed, now alone with Rana.
Something isn’t right. Even though I look like this, everyone I ask out rejects me. Lynn. Esfir. And now this little girl. Unthinkable! There must be a bug in the matrix or something! God-thing! I demand a refund again!
“Was yesterday’s party really so awful?” Rana suddenly asked, bringing Nova out of her inward call for divine customer service.
Nova’s eyes turned to her. Rana was looking at her intently. There was something in her gaze that told her there was more to this question than it seemed on the surface.
Heh. Is Mama Sirius going to give me a lesson on morality, too?
Nova laughed inwardly as she took the controller Camilla had abandoned. She started playing as she answered. Controlling her racing car in the game made it a bit harder to gesture all her words with her bracer, but she managed. With her circumstances, she’d long since acquired perfect hand coordination.
‘Yes. I wouldn’t call it a wasted evening, but I certainly wouldn’t want to go through something like that again, either.’
Even as she spoke, Nova wondered once more if the places each of them reincarnated to were decided randomly. Surely not, for Sirius and his mother – and father, too, come to that – to be so alike and compatible… Well, she’d already pretty much made up her mind on that question by the time she calculated the odds of being born part of the Storm family out of all the households in the world, but it was always nice to receive more confirmation for her theories.
Which poor bastards got saddled with the mind controller? He must have killed or enslaved them as soon as he was able, right? That’s just a terrible way to go. Ending up like this because some god-thing selected you as an unknowing sacrifice…
“You wouldn’t?” Rana said. “So you were talking about yourself when you spoke of PTSD?”
Nova shook her head. ‘No. I dislike such parties only because they’re bothersome. And dangerous. You never know whether you’ll be able to handle all the rudeness coming at you or succumb to it. But putting these rude guests in their place isn’t something that affects me much at all.’
“Are you even sure all these guests were rude? What if a polite person was somehow caught in your arguments?”
Nova really wanted to smile at their conversation. She almost felt like a spy, talking in code. What an amusing experience. She was starting to like Rana more and more. Though she did seem to share her son’s unfortunate preaching tendencies.
She shrugged as the racing car she controlled made a particularly tricky turn down the track, gaining on Rana’s. ‘I didn’t bother checking. Sirius seemed very sure of himself; that was enough for me. Even if he was wrong or some of them were forced to be rude by coercion or necessity, I’m not concerned. I’ve long since accepted the fact that I too can sometimes be quite a rude individual.’ She gave a sidelong glance at Rana. ‘What about you? Are you always unfailingly polite to everyone, like your son?’
Rana tore her eyes away from the screen for a moment and gave Nova a look before she refocused on the game. “No, I don’t believe I am.”
‘Are you just being modest? Or have you raised your standards too high on what you consider as polite behavior?’
“Neither. I simply believe that there are situations where the only recourse is to be rude so that others won’t have to.”
Nova nodded. ‘Returning rudeness in kind is hardly the worst you could do.’
The room was silent for a little while except for the sound of the video game. Rana was clearly not focused on the game, and Nova was making up for the time Camilla had lost when she argued with her earlier. At this rate, there might still be a chance for Nova to be victorious.
“Have you thought about what’s going to happen, now? With this party disbanded, another is inevitably going to pop up to fill the power vacuum. And the hosts of this new party might send invitations to even more terrible guests. And, with no idea where the party’s taking place, the police will take longer to respond to the neighbors’ noise complaints.”
I see. Better the devil you know than the one you don’t, is it? I wonder if Sirius and Wieslaw considered that, as well. Probably. They’re not stupid.
‘That’s not my concern. I’m only a tourist, here. I’ll be gone long before the noise can start again. It shouldn’t affect me.’
Out of the corner of her eyes, Nova could see Rana’s brows crease into a frown. “Isn’t that a little irresponsible?”
‘Absolutely. That’s because I’m not responsible for anything. I have no duty to deal with this situation and its consequences. You do, detective; you and your colleagues. As I said, I’m just a tourist.’
Rana’s eyebrows climbed up toward her hairline as she regarded Nova next to her. She didn’t say anything, though. Perhaps, she was simply impressed by the heights of shamelessness her guest had reached.
Eventually, an announcement of victory popped up on the screen.
‘I’m sorry. You lost,’ Nova said. She was actually feeling quite smug at coming back from the awful position Camilla had left her in, but unfortunately, her bracer didn’t translate that emotion into sound and just sounded characteristically monotone.
Rana just blinked, like she hadn’t even noticed. She’d presumably been ruminating on their conversation while Nova expended all her brain power to snatch victory from the jaws of ignominious defeat. “It appears so.”
Nova stood up from the couch. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, as the tourist I am, I think I’m going to go and visit your fair city. I’m sure it’ll be more pleasant under the sunlight.’
With Sirius pulling her to his university yesterday, then the planning session in the coffee shop, then the actual operation itself, Nova hadn’t had time to kick back and enjoy her vacation. Violence and death may not engender anything like guilt inside her, but the tension and danger, despite their comparatively short durations, were still intensely exhausting, both physically and mentally. Now, Nova really wanted to relax.
Now that I think about it, wasn’t that a bit rushed? Everything just happened so fast… In only a single day, bam-bam-bam, done. No faffin’ about. Though I guess Sirius and Wieslaw must have planned that for long before they invited me. I only got to Verizen in time for the fireworks to start.
Rana blinked again. “You’re not staying for lunch? Fareed and Sirius should be coming back from the lake soon with their catch.”
Wow, so they really did go fishing? That’s adorable.
But Nova shook her head. ‘Thank you for the offer, but I’ll eat outside. I want to try the restaurants in Verizen. I’ve heard good things about them on the internet.’ Then, because that kind of made it sound like Rana’s cooking was just too shit for her high-class palate, Nova hurriedly added, ‘I’ll be back for dinner. I’d be very grateful if I could try whatever you feel like making.’
Rana smiled, not showing whether she’d been affected by their earlier conversation or not. “Sure. See you later, then. Be careful outside.”
As it happened, Nova had told the truth. It wasn’t an excuse to get away from more questioning or avoid a rematch in that racing car game. She genuinely wanted to visit Verizen. It was one of the oldest cities in the world, with a lot of history to it.
Before being the capital of Amidonia, it had been the capital of the old Lumen empire, a theocracy with impressive disregard for human rights and other such trifles. This empire conquered half the world, while its remarkably similar counterpart, the Scherner empire, another theocracy, conquered the other half. The funny thing, though, was that both sides practiced different religions, but both religions were monotheistic and demanded aggressive and systematic repression of all infidels. Long story short, the two empires didn’t hesitate in the least before smashing each other into oblivion. Decades after the two empires disintegrated, once countless wars and skirmishes over territory concluded, hundreds of smaller countries coalesced from the ashes of the two defunct behemoths.
And the largest of those newborn countries was Amidonia.
Most of the churches and places of religious worship in the country had long since been demolished, but there still remained enough vestiges and ruins and monuments of that time to attract curious tourists.
Nova thus didn’t find herself as a lone, bold adventurer into the unknown when her taxi dropped her off in Old Verizen, where most of these historical attractions were located.
As a touristic area, it obviously couldn’t do without overpriced restaurants. Nova quickly found one that looked decent and enjoyed an early lunch – or a late breakfast, from her perspective. Incidentally, despite that she wouldn’t have had any trouble paying for that meal, she didn’t even have to. Upon seeing her, the boss offered his food for free if she ate it at one of the tables outside. Nova had no trouble accepting this deal; the weather was nice, and she was used to such arrangements after doing the very same sort of thing at her series of part-time jobs. Putting a pretty face at the front of a shop would bring in clientele. Some may not enjoy eating with people watching their every move, but Nova didn’t mind the stares. She was used to them.
Afterward, she spent most of the afternoon visiting what needed to be visited. She didn’t bother taking any pictures, though. Her perfect memory diminished the need for them; just closing her eyes and reminiscing would bring her back to these moments more starkly than any high-res photograph. Toward the end of the day, she found herself wandering around in a centuries-old gallery displaying paintings of all styles and genres hung upon walls of bare, ancient stone. Nova could almost smell the years of the place. Both the building itself and the artworks housed inside it were well worth the entry fare.
The internet on her bracer also told her it was a very prestigious place which had produced countless famous painters and artists over the years.
I guess it’s a bit like the Royal Concert Hall back in Altera. Except older.
Nova toured the museum by hitching a ride on the tail of a herd of foreign tourists. They were accompanied by a guide who gave descriptions of the most notable works they passed. They weren’t speaking in Amidonian or Alteran but in Teklish, a language which Nova had fortunately learned some years ago when she’d had nothing better to do with her brain power.
Eventually, she got bored with all the inane details the guide peppered his narration with to pad for time, and struck out on her own, walking around at random as she looked for the best-looking paintings. Soon, she wandered toward quieter parts of the old museum, where fewer tourists infested the premises.
As she walked down an isolated corridor, her footsteps muffled to nothing by the carpet, Nova idly glanced into an open room. She saw what looked like a lesson or a workshop in progress. A small group of students of all ages, from men in their thirties to little kids in their early teens, were seated far apart from each other, facing toward a beautiful painting set up on a tripod in front of them. They all had canvases before them and were all trying to replicate that painting, with varying degrees of success.
Her interest piqued, Nova entered the room and took a seat on a bench set up against the wall near the door, out of sight of the amateur artists. She watched their progress in silence, appreciating their efforts.
The painters’ dedication and focus were worthy of praise. Several hours passed, the room suffused with a quiet and studious atmosphere. It was all quite restful and relaxing for Nova to watch, so much so that she barely saw the time flow by.
Eventually, however, the young woman sitting in front of Nova finished her work and stood up from her stool, stretching her arms and arching her back. Her rendition of the painting she was supposed to copy was quite good. Nova could see a few imperfections here and there, but the girl was clearly one of the most talented of the lot. It was the reason Nova had chosen to sit behind her, in fact – that, and her perfectly formed backside clad in tight jean overalls.
She was a girl with blond, shoulder-length hair. Most of it was messy and disordered, except for short braids with tiny bows tying the end of them framing both sides of her face. Her eyes were a very clear blue, one of them underlined by a smudge of black paint. She had more stains all over her hands and forearms, and over her clothes. She wore a plain white T-shirt under her overalls, and a pair of flat sandals were on her feet, their laces wrapping up around her ankles.
As she continued stretching left and right, giving Nova a pleasant view to watch, the young painter finally caught sight of her in her peripheral vision. She turned toward the intruder and raised a hand in salute.
“Well? Hello, there!” she said in a cheerful, musical voice. “And who might you be?”
Her greeting and question caused the rest of the class to look in Nova’s direction. Most of them then froze for a couple seconds before hurriedly picking their jaws off the floor. Nova thought it a bit strange; wouldn’t these artists be somewhat inured to seeing pretty things, considering their profession and work environment?
She was still wondering if access to this section of the gallery was restricted and how that would affect the answer she had to give the young woman, when the latter simply continued on her own.
“Ooooh, are you the new nude model for the class? Are you going to pose in front of us?”
The girl’s infectious smile made it clear she was only teasing Nova. It was the same kind of shit-eating grin Lynn so often wore – at least when she was the perpetrator of pranks rather than their victim.
‘I’m afraid not, but I wouldn’t mind putting that on my schedule, if you want me to.’
Most of the class seemed bewildered by the mechanical voice. A few more actually processed her words’ meaning. Some looked tempted, while the younger ones blushed.
The young woman herself, though, just grinned wider. “How about you pose for me, personally? In a more private setting? Like… my place? Tonight?”
Nova blinked. Slowly.
That… is unexpectedly blunt…
This time, pretty much everyone else blushed at the girl’s bold proposal. One of the older women tried to rebuke her, though her helpless tone told Nova she didn’t expect her words to have much effect. This clearly wasn’t the first of the girl’s antics.
“Iris, please. There are children in the room.”
The young woman, Iris, just laughed it off. “I’m inviting a girl to pose for a painting. Surely, there’s nothing wrong with that. And anyway, statistically speaking, most of everyone in this room has experienced or will experience something similar in their life, right?” Iris turned back to Nova and gave her another perfect smile. “Are you upset, too? Surely, with your looks, I can’t be the first to make you that kind of offer.”
Nova shook her head. ‘Most people don’t have the confidence to just come up to me and ask me. Of those, there are even fewer I’ve considered seriously. Of those, there are none I’ve eventually taken up on their offer.’
“Well, you have until I’m finished cleaning and packing my stuff to change your mind, if you want,” Iris said, reaching for the backpack propped against her stool with exaggerated slowness. “It should take me three or four hours, at this rate, so take your time.”
Nova leaned back on her bench, her eyes on Iris as the girl went to one side of the room and scrubbed her brushes and her palette under an open tap, the gentle clinks of her tools and the splashes of the water a peaceful background music to the studious silence of the room.
To be honest, she was indeed a bit tempted by the offer. What she’d said to Iris was true. It wasn’t the first time Nova’d been propositioned by a stranger, but she’d never actually accepted any of them. For one, most had been men. And while Nova didn’t really mind the idea of having a relationship with a man, she usually did prefer women. Especially for one-night stands. Sex with a man seemed more invasive, so Nova felt more reluctant to do it with a guy she didn’t already know and like.
Her standards for women were less stringent.
And Iris did meet those standards. She was cute. Nova couldn’t deny that, apart from watching her paint, she’d also spent some of the past few hours imagining what she looked like naked.
Maybe I should just go for it. That would be a good way to relax after everything that happened yesterday.
Soon – sooner than the three or four hours she’d promised, at least – Iris was done packing up her stuff, though she left her finished painting on its stand. Perhaps it wasn’t as finished as Nova thought? Or perhaps it would just be safe here until Iris’s next lesson.
“So?” She asked as she made her way to Nova. The other students had gone back to work, but Nova could tell most of their attention was still on the two of them. “Have you made a decision? Want to pose for me?”
‘Sure. Why not?’