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WAR OF ROSES

CHAPTER 6

Just as his alarm clock had mimicked nuclear time bombs, his eyelids ripped apart.
His feet immediately responded to lead him to his blue shirt, silver watch, thin silk
overcoat, and fine cigar imported from Cuba where hundreds of smoke artisans harnessed
their craft and dedicated their balding hair to tobacco chemistry.

However, all those could not suffice.

Wilson Roth got to miss his coffee alamid. Unintentionally, his lighter too.

He shook his head. Such misfortune pushed him to refuse a car service to be sent
to the Head Hall.

Wilson grunted. He walked instead to wake his senses up.

His eyelids drooped. He got not enough sleep. Aside from the midnight party, he
spent the hours of his night with a phone clapped on his ear, listening to his daughter’s
cries and pleads of retreating from the two-month program she was to take in Calibre
Complex. It had just started yesterday. He knew from the beginning Margaret was a
feeble fox, not a wolf. However, he could not sound how he felt. Faltering and hiding
inside a cave was never an option for her and the rest of the brats. She got to stay strong
for her own good.

For her own survival.

Wilson chewed his hollowing cheek, trusting it as a hopeful alternative to caffeine.


He yawned, his breath filled of lingering tang of alcohol in spite of his quick mouthwash,
still unprepared for the morning sunflowers which would eventually lift their heads and
worship the rising sun.

He was an old pistol, never to be trusted to fire accurately in 4 AM meetings. He


cursed Heralline under his breath as he walked past the hedges.

He had predicted already where this early morning conference would lead:
revisions in some provisions to be required by the Confederation of Nations for Peace and
Prosperity, what countries would refuse from the Empire’s terms, arguments to be
thrown into the table of the Board later, et cetera. Grand Lady, Grand Arche, Alyxander,
Ruiz, and Stick Man could handle already the discussion happening in the conference,
presence of half of the members would not even do a purpose. As a matter of fact, he
missed to input significant contribution in molding the provisions the Empire got to
present in the Summit, too busy in his own assignment dealing with the Empire’s affairs
to negotiation between Ppa Region and Soviet Union.

But he had to attend. It was not just anyone’s request. It was Heralline’s order.

Upon his arrival at the Talk Hall, he heaved a sigh of relief as he gave his overcoat
to the servant and saw the prepared cups of coffee. His nostrils tickled with their aroma.
Hall’s composed of polished wood walls, thick square windows, a blue ornate chair on a
small square stone platform facing an arching table with seats for ten people, and a
plenty of maroon seats for audience.

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He looked at his watch. Three more minutes before the start. He approached the
table which its ten seats had been occupied by men and women, some chatting with their
cups and cigars on their hands.

Wilson patted a bony shoulder blade. “Lovely midnight, eh?”

Stickman raised his face, recognizing him, a couple of seconds. “Oh.”

“Look at you, Rommy.” Wilson noticed the dark circles under Stick Man’s eyes and
thinning black hair as he brushed his stomach bulging against the buttons of his shirt.
“She even got you going.” His sight wandered the place. Aside from a couple of servants,
he, Roman, and other nine Board members, who half of them looked like farm animals,
well, except the Hippo, were still the only ones to be found.

Grand Arche and Grand Lady, not a sign of them.

“Grand El,” Roman said, acknowledging Wilson’s presence. “Grand Lady’s serious.”
He squared his shoulders. “I don’t even see her, yet,” he said, glimpsing over his
shoulder. “Bum me a smoke?”

Wilson drew a metallic case of cigar from his pocket. “Ah, we know she and Grand
Arche come exactly on time. There’s still a minute left.” His fingers stopped from picking
a stick. He cursed. “I forgot my lighter.”

Roman handed Wilson his red lighter glinting like a ruby and received a stick in
return with his thin fingers. They lighted each other.

Wilson puffed a cloud, next a series of rings of smoke from his cracked lips.
“How’s your Leo?” His voice sounded like a grumble.

“Kid’s preparing seriously.”

Wilson whistled. “Did I hear it right?” He cracked a crooked grin.

Roman chuckled, his fingers scratching his forehead. “He’s hoping he doesn’t
repeat his VR tests.” Roman sucked through his cigar.

“Good for the brat he’s got the heart to tone down his naughtiness.” Wilson got no
reach to imagine Leo tackling his affairs seriously. He knew well the brat’s a wide-
grinning Joker. “VR tests . . .” He shook his head, recollecting how those mind dungs
changed him.

Wilson pursed his lower lip, his chest rather drumming as Margaret’s face emerged
from among his thoughts he had prepared himself to discuss in this morning’s meeting. He
puffed once more, this time, inhaling hard without him noticing it himself.

Margaret will be good, he told himself. For a moment, he set his eyes to pierce
through a window, staring at trees’ rustling leaves.

“Good morning.” A soft teasing voice calling his eyes.

Wilson turned.

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“Ladies, gentlemen, settle yourself.” Heralline, the Grand Lady, said rather loudly
as she stood near the doorway. His husband, Janus, who was the Grand Arche, began
walking from behind her and directing toward the square platform where he was
supposed to sit.

Heralline was an image of a whore sparkling in gold. She wore a stunning gold
dress that revealed her slender back and edges of her supple breasts. Her long neck was
locked by some kind of golden brace that got lots of gold beaded laces attached. Her
movement glued Wilson’s eyes and made him feel his underwear vanish for a couple of
seconds. His favorite image of her was when she once had worn a whitish pink dress
serving upper halves of her breasts and an inch of her butt crack like appetizers for lunch.
He remembered her call it, the naked dress.

Heralline never failed to fascinate him in terms of power. Heralline was a woman
who knew she needed not to be a man.

All men had stared at her the whole time who some of them got their traces of
mushroom soup dripping down their chins, except the Hippo Faggot who spent the whole
time scowling at her and her husband who seemed displeased.

He gulped and unbuttoned the nearest one to his neck.

“I apologize, but everyone’s presence is a must. All of us cannot miss this.”


Heralline’s lips curved a smile.

Wilson stood a meter near the left side of the square platform where Janus sat on
his chair and crossed his arms. Wilson’s gaze remained stuck on Heralline’s hips. One by
one, the Grand Lady bent and kissed each member: cheek to cheek to a woman, lips to
cheek to a man. She stood the right side, opposite to him.

Wilson spotted Stick Man adjusting his pants.

All of them, who were sitting, rose from their seats and bowed, addressing the
Grand Arche’s presence. Wilson and Heralline bowed next. Janus raised a hand. Members
then settled on their seats.

Behind the Grand Arche, a wide white screen emerged, gliding down from the
ceiling. Then above the maroon seats appeared a three-paneled one.

The Grand Arche began to speak. “This morning we’ll do two resolutions on the
table first before the live feed with our delegates starts in relation to Global Economic
Unity and Prosperity Summit currently held in Singapore.” A servant who wore a maroon
jumpsuit treaded in front of the members, handing out tablets that got texts needed for
the meeting. “Members, the two resolutions laid on the table are one, about the
aftermath of unpredicted destruction of City 1-Ppa to us, and two, about government’s
future set of moves against our proposition to the Summit.”

Wilson asked himself how long this would proceed. But once he stared at
Heralline, he’s pleased to know he didn’t need an answer.

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“Let’s begin. First, the matter concerning City 1-Ppa’s destruction.” Janus laced
his hands.

Because he wanted to end this as early as possible, better that he fired first before
he rusted on his feet. “My lord,” Wilson said, his eyes on Janus’s eyeglasses. “The
President’s party members are insistent on doing such act. The Higher House’s ass has
felt threatened. City 1-Ppa’s public statements are contagious.”

“We could have prevented this if we acted quickly enough.” Janus said, his voice
still and cold. “We could have exposed this through media to provoke chaos from the
public and prevent this from happening if only we discovered this plan soon.”

Few seconds of silence passed the hall.

“Orin,” Janus called the Hippo Faggot, his eyes smoldering.

Orin functioned as the hand of external communications of the Empire. He was the
head tasked to collect outside information essential for the organization’s plans and
resources through media institutions such as corporations and black market conspirators,
inside and outside the country. In simple terms, Orin acted the Empire’s ear of its media
powers. “What do you think?” Janus asked.

Wilson felt small heat making his cheeks flushed as when he stared at Orin.

The Hippo Faggot pursed his lips. “My lord, an inevitable media control inside the
Higher House happened that kept us clueless of such action. My Grantees’ hands are
tied.” Grantees were the ones acting as the external hands of the organization. Empire
gave them money and power, turning them as Alta in exchange for their services that
were always to prioritize its interests before theirs.

“You should have let us know,” Wilson snapped.

“Grand El,” Orin said. “With all due respect, everybody should have known that
such an unpredicted act would be executed by the government. Frequent reports of
resistance of the City 1-Ppa’s mayor and his sub officials had been prevalent for previous
weeks and I unwaveringly reminded each one of us to prioritize this matter. We should
have planned immediately right there, at that moment.”

“Really, is that so?” Heralline placed a manicured hand below her neck.

“If there is one thing I have to apologize for, that would be my lack of creativity in
keeping my ears omnipresent, my lady.”

Heralline’s lips twisted a sultry sneer. “Well, love, let me remind you that such
reasoning will not impress our Sponsors. Number one is that we lost some of our
purposeful Grantees. Grantees we enriched with our huge money. Number two is that we
lost a land. A land we had spent our time and resources to in starting to build our future
medical labs. Number three, our Sponsors’ other investments—public-private ones which
were nothing but a pile of rubble now.”

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With her straight composure as the Grand Lady, Heralline addressed everyone as
she opened her arms and her sharp eyes wandered the whole place. “You see, we cannot
afford to see colors draining from their faces.”

Orin opened his mouth to reply. But Heralline took the first sweep.

“I believe this would never have happened if it were not for the tiny pickle of our
President. I do, my lord.” She cast her eyes on Janus. “But we know we can’t put the
blame on it.”

“Well said,” Janus said, his face still. “Orin, you’ll present yourself to Sponsors
and explain our side.”

“Granted, my lord,” Orin said, his eyes intending to burn Heralline on her dress.

Wilson moved his face to loosen his neck. The coffee did a great reminder. With
his lips closed, he yawned through his expanding nostrils and reached the table to gulp
half of a cup.

“Alyxander will help you form a proposal for our Sponsors to compensate for some
of their losses. In addition, you two have to worsen the public image of the President’s
party so his members now will know how to trust His Excellency and not their egoistical
minds.”

“Just a side note, my lord—an advice,” Wilson said, slightly bowing his head to
address Janus as he puffed. Then he set his gaze to Orin and Alyxander. “Have one of
their heads on a spike if needed, and press the point that the motive pertains to immoral
act of the Party. Make up stories, you know. The old farts—” he yawned, scratching his
beer bump “—need to learn their lesson.”

“As for manpower,” Heralline said. “I am glad to lend you some men, my lovely
gentlemen.”

Alyxander was a handsome, young pistol who could get anyone in his bed. But the
boy’s got no bullet. Rarely grinned, but when this lad did, it was white and nasty Wilson
wished he got. Those reasons already sufficed to shut Wilson’s mind up in inventing a
label for the lad. But his good points would not flow off.

Though still in his thirties, he succeeded as a Board member. He got the job of
using media powers of the Empire as its arms to smoothen paths for its activities, as well
as offense and defense against people and organizations which hindered its operations
and goals despite the fact that they were unaware. In simple terms he was mainly
involved in fabrication and manipulation of information spread through the general
public, all for the Empire’s sake.

The Empire existed around eighty years as a secret society. Wilson was certain the
whole party would feel like a boat whipped by a single yet mighty wave, except the
President.

The President was the only one who knew about the Empire, and such decision of
the Empire for his Party members would not be a bit of a shock. For the presidential

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terms nearing six the President ruled, Wilson believed the President should have been
used to seeing brother blood splattering on his daily polished Classic Oxford shoes.

It’s logical if the Empire desired to live long. In this world, no one needed to know
that only few were destined to prosper and benefit from society’s idiocy and poverty.

“Yes, my lords.” Alyxander and Orin said.

“Next matter,” Janus said after he cleared his throat. “The government’s moves
against our proposal in the Summit. This will be quick, though. Members, today we will be
joined by our Grantee, Ms. Sow, to give us an oversight for us to prepare.”

He nodded once.

A white noise followed Janus’s sentence, piercing all of the people’s ears. Few of
the members touched their ears with pinkies. It must be coming from the wide screens
which had glided from the ceilings.

The screens started to claim life, its backlight indicating. Then a woman
materialized. Or a shadow. She got bronze skin and huge circular eyes almost sticking out
from their socket.

“Greetings, my lords and ladies,” the woman said.

“How many of our beloved senators didn’t buy?” Wilson said.

“Twenty, my lord. We can assume they would affirm to their decision until the
end. The deaths of the two senators failed to control the damage. Other contents of the
proposal were leaked beforehand.”

Wilson chewed his cheek.

“They can’t be bribed?” Ruiz said.

“They refuse to, my lord, though they tell me their minds can change,” Ms. Sow
sighed. “The senators are skeptical. They would like to know the source of the money
first.”

Even if the Empire gave a fabricated name as a source and bribed the senators
not to hinder the proposition, Wilson knew better they would not be fools falling to the
trap, especially now that they discovered Ppa Region would suffer in the long term as
exposed by the second leak of the proposition. That was why they initiated it to the
Summit, since once the Confederation endorsed it, as well as a little support from some
members of the lawmakers, the President would gain an official power to give it teeth
despite the senate’s opposition.

Unfortunately for the Empire, two senators uncovered the conspiracy and ruined
its plan. They exposed not only of the proposition’s existence, but also a large part of its
content.

Secretly, the Empire was proposing Trade and Investment Cooperation Initiative to
the Confederation. The agreement primarily contained a corporate-driven agenda. In a

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nut shell, dominating multinational corporations and financial institutions—where the


Empire and Sponsors got shares—would be enriched at the expense of other businesses
and nation’s economy itself. This would succeed through single-sided provisions of the
agreement such as protection of intellectual property rights and neoliberal policies solely
directed to selective justice.

The Empire had expected a major fall of Elite class in the future as result, but it
couldn’t care less. The organization got future projects vital for its strength, power, and
domination.

“What about some gold?” Loren asked from the table, holding her ridiculous curly
black wig.

“We will be traced, Loren,” Janus said. “Central Bank has developed a new system
a month before.”

“My lords, I deem any form of bribery is ineffective at the moment,” Ms. Sow said.
“We can only blackmail, but only a few of them.”

Janus clutched his collar, pulling it slightly off his body to get a breath.

“I volunteer to resolve the matter, my lord,” Loren said, chin up, face
determined.

Janus nodded once, addressing her volunteerism. “Anyone against?” Janus asked,
his eyes wandering across people’s faces.

“I suggest we let her have it, my dear lord,” Heralline said.

“Loren, you know what to do.” Janus looked at Ms. Sow, his eyeglasses displaying a
warped reflection. Loren beamed and bowed her head a little. “The live feed, please.”

A couple of seconds, Wilson finished his stick and recognized a dead air hanging in
the room. Astonished, he found himself looking at intersecting confused eyes and knitted
eyebrows.

The screens displayed not a school of delegates or even a face. It was playing
dancing bananas wearing neck loops of flowers one saw in a movie set in Hawaii.

“What’s going on?” Janus shouted. Wilson’s butt of cigar slipped from the clamp of
his fingers. “What the heck?!”

A pixelated monkey materialized, its mouth open just like everyone. And blared as
loud as a siren, “Secret lab! Secret lab! Secret lab!”

Wilson could not move his mouth to mutter, holy monkey, and sensed thick smoke
blocking his windpipe. He threw his hand to his mouth, wheezed, and coughed his lungs
out. Though he had witnessed couple of these in the past, he still got stunned to know
Empire’s such perfect system could be hacked. Because after the chimp, series of photos
of science laboratories he never saw before ran across the screen again and again. As the
seconds passed, shift’s speed climbed. In a minute or two, it stopped and an icon of a file
popped in all of a sudden.
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A memory dashed across his mind. He recollected of a serious photo delivered to


his and the other Members’ phones by an anonymous where it showed the Grand Arche
inspecting information inside the Empire’s primary data bank in secrecy. Since then, the
Members had no choice but assign men from the Army to stand close and monitor his
actions and the people that met and talked to him every day.

He got no clue where in the hell these things came from.

But Wilson was certain of his glimpse. Amidst a field of confused faces, a
controlled momentary smile differed from the rest. Smile that only belonged to the Grand
Lady.

***

Before I decided to sit on this vast space full of white sand and cold sea breeze, I
visited my mom first and listened to Grey.

I had asked the hospital’s receptionist and gone to my mom’s room first which
was heavily secured by three security men of this palace. I stayed there for almost an
hour. I took the whole time just holding her hand which lent me warmth and pressing my
lips to her soft knuckles like forever. I inquired the assigned doctor about her health. But
the answer did not differ from things I heard before. Just like the previous hospital where
she had stayed, this facility couldn’t even find its medicinal prediction tools useful to
know when my mom could regain her consciousness.

As I gazed at the pristine moon Grey suddenly appeared on the door.

“We need to have a talk.” Grey said, sounding it like an order. He could now walk,
at least with a help from his walking brass rod.

I still was unsure if I would manage to hear more of his words difficult to trust
anymore. Worse, I didn’t even know if this night was the right time for my tolerance to
bear another ton of truths hitting me like bricks. But I gave it a shot, anyway.

“Sure.” I breathed through my nose. I convinced he would not lie to me this time,
or so I hoped.

“Miss Lucia, I and your mother only did what we had to do,” Grey said while
looking on my mom. “Your mother, she chose what was best for you.” He paused, perhaps
waiting for my response. I just nodded, barely looking at his face. “She has lived in the
city’s sheltered zone because that was the only haven she could be safe and live with no
fear. Your mother visited you once in a year, keeping her promise to the Grand Lady. She
would stay at the gateway and wait for me to receive your candid photographs only to cry
once she touched them.”

I told myself I wouldn’t cry. I didn’t. I just let my teardrops descend.

“She loves you.”

I wiped the tears with my fingers. With a broken voice, I asked, “Do you know
where my dad is? Do you know him?”

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Grey sat on the edge of my mom’s bed. His eyes glistening from his tears that
controlled as he shifted his eyes to the wall. “Miss Lucia, your mother worked as a
prostitute.”

I couldn’t believe my ears and felt my windpipe squeezed. I stared at him, wide-
eyed. “I—I—don’t understand what—” Every word took my breath. I swallowed and bit my
lip.

“When the Grand Lady discovered your mother needed my help,” Grey said. “She’s
the one who volunteered to help Alice from her dilemma.”

“Why would she do that?”

“The Grand Lady’s husband made love with your mother, and you are a child of
his. We are sure of it. He’s the one who was trying to find, kill you and Alice since you
were two. All of us do not know the reason why, the Grand Lady has been curious ever
since.”

Heat bubbled up to my chest. I clenched my fist to prevent them from trembling.

“The Grand Lady has a deep grudge against her husband. She believes he does not
trust a reckless decision, especially one that will put the Empire’s existence known to
public such as assassinating you.” He looked at me. “Unless he desires to keep a secret. A
secret critically against him.” He inhaled deeply. “That is why upon her discovery of her
husband’s scheme and Alice’s need for a hand, she summoned Alice immediately and
made an agreement to keep you hidden from him.”

I stood and walked to the opened window where I set my hands on its frame and
could feel the air like a palm patting my shoulder, convincing me with a lie that
eventually, everything would be fine. Waves crashed on the shore, only to pull the sand
and went back to where it belonged. As my eyes flew at the expanse of the sea, I saw a
gigantic white building with a pyramid roof made of glass standing on a square of land.
From afar, it looked like floating on the surface, both of its sides having two stone
bridges which had no railing, curving their directions before meeting the shore.

“Alice declined at first, knowing the Grand Lady believes to use you eventually.”
Grey said. “But your mother has known it’s the only hope she had. She trusted the Grand
Lady not only to keep you safe, but for you to have a life she has never had.”

“So my mom knows I have to live that way? Always alone?” I asked, controlling my
voice. “That I have to be kept insisted with your—your bullshit, telling me I have no
family? I have no one?!” I brushed hard my fingertips to my temples to loosen my jaws
and my scalp out of frustration.

“No, but she had a hunch.” Grey looked at my mom and pursed his lips. “She never
knew until after two years of the agreement,” he said as if the words tasted bitter in his
mouth. “Alice isn’t happy, never happy with how the plan went. There were times she
had attempted to retrieve you, but as she saw you well provided and protected, she
willed herself blindingly to the plan.”

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So this was Heralline’s plan all along. I need your rage. I need you. The sound of
her voice filled my head, repeating and repeating like a sound from a broken player.

Heralline anticipated me as her pawn.

She did this to have me full of hatred against his husband who turned out to be my
father. His husband who wanted the death of me and my mother. My skull was cracking as
I thought of a hand locking to his throat. Heralline should not have bothered herself to
make my life miserable and full of hatred as I lived with Grey. Because I knew better,
there’s no need. No matter what the fuck he was, my father or not, pursuing to kill me
and my mom was more than enough to drag him to hell myself.

I gazed at my mom. And it broke my heart knowing I would never know when I
would see the gleam from her eyes again. I’ll make them pay for what they’ve done to
us.

“Heralline,” I spat. “She’s the actress, right? How come?”

“She’d like to be the one introducing herself to you. You’ll meet her tomorrow.”

“What’s his fucking name, Grey? Who is he?”

“Janus Leviathan. He’s the Grand Arche, the highest leader of the Empire.”

***

I had asked Grey why it took seventeen years before I was finally sent here to be
his madam’s ace to win her uncertain but deadly card game. He said it was not their
actual plan for they had intended to bring me here after I turned eighteen. Heralline
believed it was the right age for me to ensure highest probability of my survival in this
place. How far could her sincerity get any further?

He explained that the plan got short of its time when Janus discovered my
mother’s location. Instead of killing her immediately, Janus’s minions devised a plan to
trace me: fooling her that I would be ambushed. Knowing my impulsive actions which
turned out to be a scheduled routine she got updated through Grey, mom knew that day I
would go to park for a walk.

Those words, her telling me I was okay, I wasn’t hurt, I was fine flashed in my
memory. And her touch . . . There was a pang in my chest I couldn’t help but miss her so
much.

I learned from him that ever since Janus realized his inability to trace me and
mom, he kept her identity under monitored. Mara’s words gradually dawned on me,
making sense.

When a person searches for a particular profile the CSO put under monitoring,
those big fishes will know immediately who that curious person is. Ferina wouldn’t be
able to have us as anonymous, take note, if we happen to stop by a monitored profile. If
Alice happened to be a monitored profile.

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Right after I and Mara did our investigation to CSO, I had been tailed by a pack of
vans to kill me after Heralline killed my driver who was supposed to abduct me.

“The Grand Lady kept an eye on you, and saved you,” Grey said, sounding as if I
owed Heralline a million bucks.

But for the reason why Albert and the Red Taurus just suddenly joined the circus
of my confusion, Grey took a short pause before he said he had no idea with a stern face.

And when I asked him what really the Empire was, other than just being a cult
secret society where people just got lashed on their backs and pressed with melting,
smoldering iron bar on their skin, there was a brief silence before he gave what seemed
like an oversight.

He said the Empire was one of the world’s major secret societies which planned
and executed large-scale conspiracies all for its three goals: profit, power, and
domination. I asked if it was like in the conspiracy books which were banned mostly from
all over the world. He said, “Partially, yes.”

I told him I still couldn’t grasp. But he assured me I would understand eventually.

“About those people in the Banq—yes, the Banquet Hall.” The horror grew in my
stomach once again. It was clenching my insides, forcing me to vomit as images of those
people tied on their hands and feet permeated my memory. I resisted the urge to
discharge bile. Hot acid lined my throat. “There were slashes, long cuts on their backs.
What are they doing? What is the Empire doing to them?”

“Grantees. Critical players in the Empire who execute its plans. You may think of
them as the ones who get their hands dirty for the organization.” He cleared his throat.
“The event which took place earlier was a celebratory ritual to honor the admission of
new Grantees.” Grey suddenly placed his eyes on me. “Interested to know the specifics of
the ritual, Miss Lucia?”

“Where are we in the map?” I asked, reserving the information for other time. My
stomach would not be able to hold the specifics this time, I knew.

“If truth be told, we are not in the map since we cannot be traced by just any
satellite. This palace of the Empire hides in the coastal land part of the Prime City.”
Prime City—Ppa Region’s capital.

“How is that possible?”

“Can you recall the Forbidden Lands?”

They were contaminated areas the government had prohibited citizens of Ppa to
come near at least eighty, ninety meters away because of active radiation present on
their soil, air, and groundwater. All these were brought by war involving nuclear weapons
which shook half of the world. Despite the fact that it occurred a century ago, the level
of radiation remained considerably high.

“So this place—this palace stands in a Forbidden Land?”

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“Yes, Miss Lucia. Impossible, I deem as well. Though I knew nothing how the
Empire abled to stand on this land, but it’s the truth. The palace is on a Forbidden Land.
Another factor that hides the Empire’s palace behind a thick cloak of secrecy is we are
surrounded by trees that have become deadly mutants—trees even curious outsiders
won’t find themselves amused to.”

“Triffids. Carnivorous woods.”

“John Wyndham,” Grey said.

Triffids were flesh-eating trees, incredibly massive and tall. Capable of moving.
Once they sensed their prey through changes of heat in the atmosphere, their arm-thick
roots would erupt from the land, chased it at a slow pace, coiled themselves around and
ground it to bits who or which presumably was suffering in the presence of radiation
around the place already. Other particular mutant trees spat handfuls of venomous goo
instead before consuming the prey.

Image of a boy victimized by a Triffid popped in my memory. I saw him featured in


a newspaper article ages ago. He had bloodshot eyes. Purplish corpse. White, thick
bubbling saliva oozing from his mouth. Legs twisted in disturbing angles.

My breathing trembled.

The term for these carnivorous trees came from the fiction novel, The Day of the
Triffids written by Wyndham.

Who would have thought one day it would become true?

I inquired him if he had knowledge what Heralline would use me for, especially
how she would devise me as a pawn against Janus. He said the Grand Lady wouldn’t
mention a word of it. She planned to prepare me for something relating to a theory she
kept only to herself. A theory of why I had to be killed.

“What if I say no to be her piece? What if I become useless to her plan?”

He didn’t give an answer. I could see it in his eyes that he really couldn’t, perhaps
because had not thought of it or asked Heralline about it.

Then I wondered if that twist was ever discussed in the agreement.

CHAPTER 7

I stayed awake for the entire midnight until dawn. Not because my eyelids had not
yet become heavy, but because I would like to see the sun rising from the water with my
own eyes.

Thanks to Grey, now I knew what I could anticipate.

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WAR OF ROSES

Jade had showed up in the doorway and handed me comfortable pink boxer shorts
and a white cotton shirt—I folded its sleeves. I asked her where the other maidservants
were, where they would stay including her. She had thought they were here, too, but
Grey confessed that when they landed to Prime City, the maidservants had been sent
away bringing enough money for all the trouble they encountered so they could start a
new life.

Jade told me that Grey explained everything to her and pleaded if she could stay.

“Why, with the money you’ll get from Grey, you can now go to your—” Then I
remembered her story. Jade had no knowledge where her parents and siblings were.

Then she said the words that pricked my heart, “Miss Lucy, you’re my family now.
I’ll stay here with you.”

I bit my lip and nodded.

“Do you need someone to talk to, my lady?”

“No. I’m good.” I smiled.

“Or my lullaby—I can sing so you can sleep—”

“No—no.” I chuckled and stared at her eyes for a moment, thinking if I could cry
with her by my side. Geez, I should not cry. If I needed to survive this place, my first
lesson I had to learn was how to stay strong and independent no matter how heavy the
circumstances were. “You should go get some sleep. Where will you be?”

“I’ll sleep with other maidservants, Miss Lucy.”

I called her as she moved her hand to open the door. She faced me and I said,
“You looked wonderful at the Banquet. And thank you. For the sticks and the lighter.”

I set my feet on the water, feeling its coldness creeping from my soles to my legs,
as I sat on the sand, inhaling my cigarette’s life span. My other hand supported my body,
deeply rooted on the sand and I stared at the indigo sky as wind blew my hair and my
smoke.

Two, six, twelve stars I could see and they were blinking like little eyes of babies,
defying the darkness that surrounded it. Then there was the isolated building with the
pyramid glass roof where it interested my mind for a while, keeping me guessing what’s
inside. Everything my sight could reach was all a part of somewhat a night club; sand as
the dance floor, moon as the party ball, stars instead of laser lights, salty wind instead of
smoke from dry ice, sea waves crashing on the shore as the main music. A peaceful night
club not for the souls who went astray, but for the souls who found their way.

I smiled. Since when did I become a poet? Well, I realized it wasn’t so bad. There
were just times in our life where we all could do nothing but take a moment, embrace
the night sky hanging above the sea, and let ourselves breathe the salty wind and enjoy
our own versions of weeds and cigarettes.

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WAR OF ROSES

I stood and brushed the sand off my shorts and walked, my feet feeling the tickles
of water that hit the shore and leaving a deep trail of my footsteps.

My walk seemed endless, the path uncertain, but not the kind that would exhaust
me, but rather the kind that would give me some drive.

I had no idea of how in the world would I be able to topple someone like Janus. Or
even be useful to one of Heralline’s schemes. The more I thought of him, and the more it
dawned on me, the grandness and darkness of the Empire, the more I realized how hard it
was to survive in the world of humans as an ant knowing anytime one could press a finger
and crush me instantly.

But I should not let get them into me. They dropped me in one of their games, I
would not die without playing my best damn shot.

My mom sacrificed almost her entire life and endured her sadness and loneliness
just to keep me safe. I wouldn’t waste it. I would live. For myself. For her.

Silence went on forever, the indigo sky seemed gradually poured with water as it
cleared to give way to new bright colors, until I somewhere, not so far away, I heard a
faint sound from a distance not so far away.

I ran forward to where the sound seemed to come from. My heartbeat raced,
temples pulsed, adrenaline rushed to entirety of my body. Slowly it registered to my mind
as a faint scream that grew louder and louder every time I took steps.

The wind blew harder, the sea got wild, my hair got to my eyesight where I had to
pull it back to my head and stay holding it. I screamed I was here to respond to her cries.
Thankfully, she cried harder.

The sound came from almost forty meters away. There she was, a girl the same
age of mine struggling to keep her head above the water, her hands holding bridge’s
concrete support tight and still against the wildness of the waves.

“Wait!” I shouted.

Perhaps she didn’t know how to swim or was too terrified. I twisted and my sight
darted over my shoulders as I sprinted forward, leveling to the spot where she was. There
were no life guards around or boats and there seemed no one from the isolated building
who could hear her cries.

And there was no time.

I had no chance to differentiate stupidity and bravery in my mind, because when I


saw her terrified face being swallowed by a wave, and heard more of her strangled help .
..

I heaved a breath and lunged to the water.

My arms and legs propelled, doing their best to be inevitable as much as possible.
Each time I did a cycle of freestyle, I felt my energy stripped away from my body, my
clothes heavy, hindering me to move freely. My lungs squeezed I could imagine myself
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WAR OF ROSES

going purple, making it hard for me to breathe. Though I kept them close, it was
unavoidable. My eyes were a flesh wound poured with lemon. Thanks to adrenaline, I
thought it was enough to keep me going forward.

It was late before I realized my mistake. I should have gone to the bridge, jumped
off from there to cut my hardship short, carry the girl to the shore. But I chose not to
indulge in my error more than five seconds.

So I did the best option: I continued.

Despite the waves swallowing me down to the sea’s belly, making me feel like a
chicken being pulled from its legs and head, most of the times I opened my mouth to
breathe in the air while my head was still emerged on the surface. Accidentally, I gulped
a handful of merciless sea water. It was bruising my throat and scratching my tongue with
some grains of sand. Each time I consumed a volume of salt solution, I felt like stopping
for a minute just to throw up.

“Help! Please, help!” I heard her scream getting harder, synchronizing with the
throbbing of my skull, stomping my heart’s accelerator. If she wanted both of us to stay
alive, she had to save herself by calming down first. The waves got wilder, bigger, size of
two men, to be precise; twice I was pushed off from my direction, water started to
invade me that pierced my ears, requiring me to double the effort of my exhausting body.
There was a pang on my thigh I could not entertain as of the moment. I had no more time
to wonder if ever I’d be going to make it or not in spite protests of my lungs and muscles.

I had to continue. I had to move.

I inhaled a deep breath, plunged to the water to keep going. Gathering more
power to my hips, extending my arms longer, straining them to strengthen my position
against the waves, I was sure I was making progress. After a couple of minutes, I reached
one of the bridge’s supports near her spot, my hand pressed on a bricked wall which
turned out to be a cultivation farm of slimy field of moss and rough sea mussels.

Upon I drew my head above the surface, everything almost went black in my eyes.
I coughed and wheezed and panted and panted. Skull rang in pain, as if being scraped by
sharp metal objects simultaneously, high-leveled pulses present in all of its areas.
Needle-like pains shot my legs and thighs. Back spasmed. My chest was suffering in
numbness, an animal where a boulder was dropped on its body. My jaws and fingers
convulsed, teeth clattered like noisy plates. In a millisecond, shock of water’s freezing
temperature held me immobile and shaking uncontrollably for a short while before I
realized I had to save somebody.

I could see her opened mouth shouting to call me, but I could only hear the throbs
of my flesh. One more swim.

Taking the last shot, I plunged deep in the water and went to her.

I kept a grip on the bricked wall, set my head above the water.

“I’m here!” I shouted against the waves.

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WAR OF ROSES

The girl gripped my shoulder with one hand, I could feel her tremors. “Please, help
me! Please! I’m scared!”

“I’m here already, okay? We’ll swim—” A monstrous wave passed over us I almost
lost my grip to the wall. I brushed my hair off my eyes and said, “We’ll swim together.”

“Please, I’m scared. I was running—I slipped down here. Please, get me out of
here, please!”

“Okay—”

“I have to get out—” A wave pushed us once again, and the girl continued wailing.

My nose stung, and my blood started to boil. Right this time, there were three
available methods we could die: get frozen, get drowned, or get hysterical.

“Listen to me!” I shouted to her ears. I had touched her neck then shook it. Her
face was a swelling sphere. I pierced my raw eyes to hers that were green. “You need to
calm down your whiny butt, okay?!” I tightened my grip to her pale-white arm only to find
out it was soft as a pillow. Suddenly, I melted when I noticed traces of blood coming from
a slit on her forehead.

As calm as possible, I said, “I am here, okay? We will swim together.”

Every time she tried to speak or whimper or cry, which was eight or nine times, I
raised a hand to disallow her mouth from firing away. I needed solid silence and
concentration. First priority was to get me and her out of the lunatic waves. Warm colors
began pouring the sky with its colors. I told myself I would like to see the sunrise, but not
in this way. I wanted to curse, but the girl I was carrying might misunderstand me, so I
kept my mouth and soul shut.

Must be a miracle, I guessed.

It was a laborious work, bringing her along with me against the waves. She was so
soft, fragile I got to the point feeling very conscious if I’d be going to break her. I decided
to be upfront. A lot of times I asked if weak paddling of her feet and arms was all she
could do. I didn’t save her just to feel like I was bringing a sack of rice for nothing in the
end. I came here to the water to save a life. She said her trembling soft-hitting ‘yes’. At
first I thought she was lying.

Then after a couple of minutes, with my lower jaw too drained to speak, I decided
I was wrong.

I asked if she’s still getting a good grip of herself which was so off from my
personality. Then I got her trembling nods.

To spare myself from frustration, I was the one who shut up.

When we hit the sand that looked completely like a mattress, I collapsed. Stomach
contracted. My hands were pillars of my limping body. My butt cheeks were screaming in
pain, telling me to sit down. My chest and shoulders protesting in numbness, ordering me

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to lie down. I was too drained, too pained to stand. However when I heard the girl making
gurgling and grumbling sound, I did.

Seeing the girl bending down, I knew what I had to do just like what Mara would
always do for me when we went bar-hopping. I gathered her blond hair behind and held
it.

There she was, her hand pressed on her stomach, throwing up all she ate
yesterday.

My stomach grumbled, disagreeing. It must be screaming, you should not have


done that!

I brushed my hand slowly at her back, patting her shoulders a bit. My other hand
wiped sweat off my forehead with its back.

“Thank—” The girl bent again, puked. Yellowish bile splattered on the sand.

“First, puke all you want.” I gritted my clattering teeth. “Later, you do your
talking.”

Minutes passed before I bore her hand on my shoulders and treaded with her to the
palace’s hospital. Gladly, she never opened her mouth on our way.

***

Thankfully, the nurse and the doctor, both male, assigned to me granted my wish
without second thoughts. Now, I was back in the room where I stayed yesterday night.

Breakfast, of course, was a feast I wolfed: Large cup of Frappuccino, grilled pork,
buttered rice, natural potato chips, a hand-sized watermelon slice. After the delightful
meal, and drinking vial of solutions of sweet-tasting drugs, I slept for what seemed like an
hour or so. Where all these came from, I had no answer. The doctor merely asked what I
liked to eat for breakfast, I just told him what I had on my mind. After all, every hero
deserved a celebratory feast.

When I was inquired for my basic details, including who in the Empire had let me
here, I told them not to mention this to any people with my mouth full, especially to Grey
and Heralline. The doctor and nurse looked at each other.

“Madam, apologies, but calling the Grand Lady like that is very preposterous.”

“Oh.” I dug my nails to my palms, swallowed down my food to my stomach, and


just smiled, bits stuck and showing in my teeth. Now, I doubted if my second wish would
ever be granted. “Grand Lady, yes. Grand Lady . . .”

That was close.

When they left my room, I remembered the terrified girl I saved in the sea . . .

Other than feeling obliged to know her condition, I thought she could also help me
know more about this place. In addition, I felt hollow by not even trying to know her

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name since I acted bitchy earlier, knowing I deserved silence and not whines after
bringing her out of the grasp of the sea.

Fortunately, this hospital was generous enough to give me white shirt and shorts
and pink flip flops instead of hospital robes. I ironed out my bed first, expressing my
polite gratitude, before going outside to ask for her room. The female nurse led me to
her room which was located on the lower floor. I peeked inside the room through its
square glass.

The girl was sitting on her bed, gazing at the blue sky. I knocked twice and waved
my hand. I bit my lip, combed my hair through my fingers, my left hand pushing the door
open.

“Getting better?” I asked. She needed not to answer, because I could already see
the wound drying on her forehead.

I spotted her eyes widening a few seconds. She nodded, smiling reluctantly a little.
“Thank you so much for saving me,” she said, her voice I could barely hear. “I thought I’d
be gone so I panicked and I cried, thinking I couldn’t swim and—thank you.”

I laughed. “Yes, you really did. You almost drowned both of us, bi—”

“I’m sorry—”

“No, it’s—it’s okay, really,” I said in an assuring manner. I was too close my heart
almost dropped on the floor. “It’s all good, you don’t have to worry about it.”

The girl’s thumbs tipping against each other, her other fingers wrapped with one
another. She was no more looking at me since, her focus seemed fixed on her hands.
Awkward silence permeated the air, and the longer it surrounded us, the more I felt my
windpipe grasped by massive but invisible hands.

At last, she spoke, “I never saw you here in the palace. Are your parents new
Sponsors?”

I didn’t understand what she said. Should I tell her that Heralline randomly put me
in here and I had no idea for how long would I stay here? Instead, I just said, “Sponsor—
No, no. Ha ha. I’m a—I’m kind of visitor or something in here. Are you?”

The girl shot me a confused look. “Not really.” She brought her knees against her,
hugging them. “My pops works in here and we live in here as well. What’s your name?”

“Luce,” I said. “Well, Lucia Salazar.”

“My name is Margaret Roth,” she said as if she pulled her words back to her.

Her room was way much bigger than mine, but simpler. Its walls painted in silver
peony, its windows elaborate and pure white. I could see a statue of an angel with
splintered hands on the corner as if it never intended to cease inspecting me through his
blank eyes. On her mint green table laid a tray of two emptied plates and pairs of spoon
and fork.

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“Someone came here to visit you?” I asked.

“Yeah, my pops came here quickly when he heard I got an accident.” Looking
down, Margaret brushed strands of her shiny blond hair behind her ear. Her hair quite lost
its natural oil.

“Must be a good father,” I said curtly.

Margaret slightly nodded.

I glimpsed at her skin and realized we got severely tanned by the long walk we did
under the sun to the hospital. My fingers touched the back of my neck that felt raw,
stinging. Sunburn. I wondered how Dr. Vreeland would react when he saw me looking like
a dried seaweed. “How come you ended there at the sea? You went out, and it’s already
past midnight.”

“I—I—uh—don’t know. I was running away from the Complex and crying because I
don’t want to—I can’t finish the program. I know it was foolish, but I didn’t notice my
path. I—I fell and I couldn’t swim because I was too scared to remove my grip on the
pillar.” Margaret looked at me. “Sorry,”

I swallowed, startled to respond. In the name of wisdom, I had to stay and endure
this conversation. But I had to stop her before she burst. “Complex—is that the white
building on the sea?”

Margaret nodded. “You don’t know it?”

“Well, I—I do, but I just heard a little about it.” I nodded twice. “I’m a visitor,
right?” I heaved a breath. “So, what do you do there?”

“We’re supposed to train with the Empire’s Army for two months as a part of our
education we accomplish before being admitted in the org. Outside—it’s like um . . . you
know—”

“Physic Ed with guns?” I asked, a little amazed, and a little uncomfortable since I
couldn’t imagine Margaret holding one and I heard the word army.

“Yeah, like that. I’m displeased in all kinds of fighting. It’s never kind to me.”

I noticed I was a little lost because of the complexity and awe, but I thought I was
still on track of the essentials. “I heard, yes, I heard about that. I always think it’s cool! I
can name a few guns but—so, you study in here, in the palace?”

“Basically, I and other children of the org’s members learn outside until high
school. After we graduate, we come back here in the Empire to continue our study and
prepare to become new members of the org.” Then Margaret gazed upon the sky, her
eyes looked like journeying so far. “Each of us has no choice.”

I saw Margaret’s hands clutching harder to one another and glimpsed at her eyes
that glistened with few suppressed tears. “We can’t refuse.”

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A stone had just been dropped in my stomach. I knew how it felt. To be a bird
confined in a cage. To be forced to play a game I never signed up for. A small prick
touched on my chest as if a tiny heartstring had just been snipped.

She looked at me and asked, “Who invited you in the Empire?”

For a moment, I couldn’t speak, my tongue got tied in a knot. So I asked, “What
did you say?”

When Margaret was about to speak, there were three knocks on the door.
Throbbing of my chest went to my throat. The door swung open.

“Madam,” a plumpish nurse holding a clipboard against her breast said. “Someone
is looking for Miss Lucia.”

“Who is it?” I asked.

“It’s me, my lady!” said by a familiar voice cheerily. “Jade!” She appeared behind
the nurse and took a few steps inside.

I exhaled a thousand of carbon dioxide through my mouth. I almost lost my soul,


thinking it was Margaret’s father! “Yes, Jade?”

“Mr. Ortega wants me to bring you to the Grand Lady, Miss Lucy.”

Jade waited for me outside the room. I bid Margaret a good bye, saying it was so
nice to meet her. Before I stepped near the doorway, I heard her faint voice call me.

“Can we—can we meet again?” she asked reluctantly.

I twisted to face her. “Yes, absolutely.” I smiled and said, “Hey, do you mind if I
call you just ‘Gee’? Margaret to Margee to Gee, yeah? Your name’s a little long to
pronounce. Are you okay with that?”

Gee faintly nodded, but I could see her beaming. It was cute.

When I and Jade walked along the hallway, she said, “A new friend, Miss Lucy?”

Though Gee was a bit whiny, often self-pitying herself which I found beyond my
capacity, there was something about her I found irresistible to like. It was because I could
see a part of my past self in her. Gee, now I missed Mara so much. Where were you,
bitch?

I wrapped my arm to Jade’s and replied to her question, beaming.

“I guessed so.”

***

I and Jade went inside a limousine to be sent to a place which just thinking about
it gave me chills quickly on my palms and back of my neck: Heralline’s house. I was
seated only for not more than nine minutes, yet I already felt the leather beneath my

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butt cheeks smoldering. My sight shot randomly inside and outside the vehicle like a ball
bouncing off the walls. I swallowed.

Going to Heralline’s house meant I would meet her. And her husband. The man
who dared to kill me and my mom. I clenched my fist, preventing my stomach from
turning. I felt like I was on the sea again, carried by the wild waves only for my body to
hit a stone bridge’s support. Actually, no—this time, it’s drowning. So slowly, I breathed,
convincing my nerves to calm at the moment.

“Miss Lucy?”

“Yes?” I said, my focus swiftly shifted to Jade.

“Are you all right?”

I touched my face glowing red, recognizing the heat pooled in my flesh in spite of
the car’s cool air. Beads of sweat crowded my forehead. Suddenly, I felt thirsty. “Do you
bring some water?”

Jade moved her body and leaned to the side of her seat, handed me a stainless
bottle a size of my arm which I opened immediately, gulping its content as fast as I could.
It was late before I realized my mishandling, some of the water slipped flowing on my
shirt.

I was too nervous I forgot to curse under my breath.

“I apologize, Miss Lucy. I forgot to bring a hanky.”

I raised my hand and waved as I said, “It’s all good. I’m okay.”

I was not.

As the limousine took its easy pace through the palace’s garden to our destination,
I could see more houses growing in my vision. The Empire must have been a really huge
dark secret society that earned a lot of money intensely from its activities. Just guessing
about what it did sent my skin gooseflesh.

Our free ride arrived at a wide building which appeared to be a single piece of
three dome-shaped houses combined together, surrounded by elaborate metal fences and
statues featuring huge jungle cats. White tulips were popular along Heralline’s garden.
The house’s outside walls were painted pristine white with few touches of black, high-
arched windows open.

Two guards stood at the gateway, their stature were high.

I combed my hair through my fingers. My heart jolted as I heard the limousine’s


door closed behind me. Thankfully, Jade was here to give me some moral support. I was
tempted to clutch her arm, but resisted.

Though inside I struggled, I could not let Heralline think of me as a girl who always
needed someone to be at my side.

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After we were let inside by the guards, I knew Jade was saying a lot of things
about Heralline’s place, praising how beautiful its elements came together to look orderly
and peaceful as she led me somewhere. But I felt too much overwhelmed to care of
Heralline’s taste for aesthetics.

There at her house’s veranda, Heralline waited sitting on a red velvet chaise
lounge. An illustration book about mollusks on her right hand, a glass of iced lemon tea on
another. In front of her was an empty chair, as if she was expected my arrival. Suddenly,
I sensed something was missing I couldn’t identify. My eyes traveled along the place.
Then the answer dawned on me when I looked at Jade whose face seemed half-
concerned, half-confused.

There were no maidservants around.

I was late to notice Heralline had already put aside her book and stared at me with
a grin.

“You seem bombarded by the absence of servants,” Heralline said, placing her
iced tea on a small oaken table near her lounge. “I take pleasure doing things myself.”

“Why did you request me here?”

“I want to see you.” Heralline stood straight and dazzled with her vintage floor-
skimming gold Dior dress, long neck adorned by endless gold-beaded necklaces. She was
few inches taller than me. Her blond hair was pulled back into a pony tail, few curly
strands of her bangs set on the side of her forehead. “And I do. Here you are wearing a
tee and shorts.”

“Let’s get to the point,” I snapped.

“Can you leave us for a second?” Heralline asked, her cold gaze shifted to Jade. “I
want a word with your young mistress.”

My insides twisted. I couldn’t afford to be alone in times like this. But I couldn’t
give Heralline the pleasure of seeing it on my face. So I looked at Jade and nodded, my
face straight.

Jade did a few worried glances over her shoulder before finally disappearing in the
rays of sun.

“It is for real. I have wished to see you to know if you’re still whole.” Heralline sat
on her lounge once again, crossed her legs. “I applaud you for your boldness and patience
to Margaret. Exceptional, it was. But you see, love, she’s a sweet girl. I suggest you keep
being good to her since I believe this isn’t the last time you’ll interact each other.”

Heralline pointed her open palm on the chair. I didn’t sit.

“Where’s your husband?” I asked and gulped down a lump stuck on my throat.

“Do not worry, he is not here. He is currently working hard on a crisis.” Heralline
chuckled.

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“I never knew you had a second husband.”

“Oh, love, are you a fan of mine? Grey told me you love my film and you seem to
be updated of my life.”

Heralline was an actress who rose to fame after playing the role as an Earth
Goddess who sacrificed everything she had, even her mortal lover to save a crumbling
town from being invaded and destroyed by beasts. It was a tragic film. Not only because
she and her lover did not live a happily ever after, but also because the people she saved
from the destruction turned out to be not worth of her sacrifice. Town people forgot the
purpose of her act of heroism as they chose to continue plotting and doing evil against
each other to satisfy their own greed.

Entitled as Lamb for the Sky, it was one of the greatest films I had ever watched.

From what I remembered, news had reported her husband, Francis Legarda, a
known business mogul whose age was higher than hers ten years, died two years ago. It
turned out it was all false, a big lie all people believed about her. I couldn’t imagine how
many things mainstream media were hiding behind general public’s eye. Now I doubted if
ever I’d watch news again.

“Janus is my real husband,” Heralline said. “What you see, what you feel in this
present moment is the truth. No doubt about that, love. Francis, he never existed from
the first place. He was simply a man I paid to act as my husband for a year to keep my
life as interesting as possible to my fans.” She sipped her iced tea. “I put a chunk of bills
on his hand afterwards to start his new life.”

“Why do you need to be an actress?” I asked. My temples pulsed with every


syllable she spoke, with every conspiracy she confidently revealed to me.

“One of the perks we have as official members of this secret society is that we can
own any public identity we want. I have dreamt of being an actress someday that’s why I
chose it. However, you see it’s not that simple. It will only be approved by the
organization as long as it will have a significant purpose to its activities as least
indefinitely and will not hinder our priorities.”

“How many are you feeding us with lies?”

“Love, it’s a surprise.” Heralline opened her arms as if had demonstrated


something easy. “You will learn exciting things here you’ve never learned before.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. My cheeks warming, my palms sweating. There was a


part of me shouting me to leave.

I resisted.

“I know it is too much to handle, all of these.” Heralline’s blue eyes pierced on
mine. “Simply bear it.”

She might be expecting me to say something. I glared as a response.

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“Another reason I called you here is because I want to remind you that we
cooperating with each other is inevitable. I don’t plan to indulge on your angst. Both of us
are now gambling our stakes we can’t lose. Your future absolute focus and obedience, I
am in dire need of them.”

“You expect me to sign up for it?” I scowled, heat expanding on my chest. “You
haven’t even told me your plan.”

“My plan for you, for the next turn of events I need you to cooperate with, is
simply to ride along.”

A little clueless, more frustrated, I still said, “I say no.”

“I lose from my scheme, you lose everything. Do you want that, love? Let me
remind you I fed and protected you with my own resources. Your mother is recovering
here because of me. Do you ever think I’ll accept your answer?”

“Why don’t you just kill your husband yourself? You sniped Albert so easily to his
death.”

“Oh, so you’re impressed.”

I didn’t speak.

“Technically, it’s an act of treason. Sponsors will not be joyful to know I try killing
an Empire’s Member—not to mention, the highest leader. Janus plays a very important
role in his hands. Therefore, when I kill him myself justified solely by personal reasons
which have nothing to do with the benefit of the Empire, what do you think will happen?”

I stared at my feet for a moment. Warmth gathered on my forehead. I found


myself striving to breath when I said, “You’ll—you’ll not become the highest leader
yourself. The Empire won’t let you have it.”

Heralline smiled. “Exactly.”

I still had a lot of things stuck deep below my throat. Either I fire these away or I
die.

“Are you certain? About all these things?” I asked. “You bothered yourself to keep
me and you put my life on the line already without even knowing at the first place how
useful would I be to you. You’re going to waste your time.”

“You really fancy that idea?” Heralline took steps forward with grace, facing me. I
held on my posture as she moved her face to mine. Her face that I foolishly had thought
was beyond beauty.

“When I spoke to Grey—”

“I can’t have you asking a lot of questions, spitting a lot of things. I am perfectly
aware of what I am doing and you do not know anything.” I opened my mouth to speak,
but she cut me off with her hand. “You have to keep your mouth shut from anyone, even

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to Grey. Choose your words always, starting today. I know you’re smart. You get what I
mean.”

She distanced her face from me and looked at my whole self as if I was a fly. Her
eyes were silently burning me to where I stood. Arms, legs, my whole body seemed bound
by ropes to a post where I’d be put in flames.

Heralline neared her face to mine. Cold wind wrapped around me. “You and me,
we play, we help each other. I do my part, you do yours. For you. For your mother.”

CHAPTER 8

I had asked Heralline if she could lend me a phone. She answered, saying she
would have me my own tomorrow. However, I couldn’t wait any longer to call Mara just
to hear her voice since I had not heard it for a while. My palms were soaked in sweat,
there’s a fist grasping my intestines.

Heralline requested me to go back to Vanity Manor. She said I would meet a lot of
important people before a quarter of an hour, so I needed to appear presentable. In the
contrary, I felt like a pig being forced to feed on a gigantic heap of crap before getting
slaughtered.

“For what?”

“What have I said?”

Ride along. Ride along. Ride along. The two words swam in my head it almost
forced me to feel like trapped in a vortex where escaping was more than impossibility.

As I put a foot on one of the stone steps leading to Vanity Manor, I asked Jade. “Is
Grey going to be there?”

Jade raised her shoulders as she said, “I do not know, Miss Lucy.”

I hated to admit it, but I hoped he would be. I missed his presence. Well, a little,
perhaps. Or perhaps I was just used to having him at my side when things went downhill.

I gulped. The day felt like similar, as if it was bound to repeat what happened
yesterday night. My ankles itched to walk away from my standpoint, but Heralline’s words
pierced on my brain once more like pushpins sticking a stack of reminders on a bulletin
board.

“You and me, we play, we help each other. You do your part for you. For your
mother.”

Jade was not allowed to get inside again. This time, I couldn’t find my courage to
protest how wrong it was. For me, at least.

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WAR OF ROSES

I knew Jade would like to ask me a million times if I still got a grip, but she knew
better I would have disliked it, especially now that I was very preoccupied. I owned no
words to speak to her. She had none to speak to me. I looked rigidly at her black eyes
that shimmered from the soft glows of afternoon sun, convincing her I wouldn’t explode
to multitude of tears, and turned my back to proceed inside the Vanity without any
goodbye.

I couldn’t hope she would be there. Not possible.

“Second floor, madam.” The man whom I got heated with yesterday muttered
under his breath.

This time, I was fortunate. I didn’t have to worry myself getting pricked by a large
injection, dipping in a tub full of black liquid again by Dr. Vreeland. All I needed to
accomplish: press a powder, wear a dress, do a promenade.

I approached the elevator and waited.

Number two blinked with orange light. I stepped outside the elevator and saw the
same landscape again. Dresses, shoes, bags, they stood and hung everywhere, enchanting
my eyes but only for about three seconds. I pressed my hand on my chest, giving it a faint
push, trying to feel my heart if it still beat.

“Madam, we are awaited to the next room,” said by a woman who had appeared
to assist me to a room where I would have my face pressed with various color powders.

“I’m not obliged, am I?” I asked. She nodded once. “I’ll just—shower. Just shower,
I guess. And cream foundation—yes—no more makeup colors.”

I hung my bathrobes on the wall. I preferred the bathroom dimmed, so I didn’t


click the switch to open the lights. Few rays of sun from a small circular window could be
enough. I longed to feel the shadows cloak me inside its darkness where I could feel safe,
where no one could see me, use me for their own sake. Coldness crept inside me through
the soles of my feet, pores of my skin. Both of my hands gently pulled my shirt, my
shorts, my underwear off me, placed them on a green bin.

I was naked. Interrogation, or questions, or any words of people I’d never met
would strip my soul away from my own skin. Later, I expected to feel more exposed than I
could ever imagine.

But this time was different. This time, it was only me.

Slowly, I turned the knob of the shower. At first, what came out from the tiny
holes a spray, a drizzle, then it became a heavy rain. Like the safest animal in the world,
water crawled from my hair, through my shoulder, chest, past my thighs and legs, to my
toes. My hands pressed on my temples, combed my hair and collected it behind with a
clutch.

I gasped, lifting my head with my eyes closed, opening my mouth, gurgling to


quench the thirst of my tongue, my throat, my chest.

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WAR OF ROSES

I let my hands brush, travel along my skin from lower, to upper body. I aimed my
neck on the falling water. Fast drops tapped my body like little fingers. My hand reached
to another knob, lowering the temperature. Then the water became a rain before winter.

I gasped.

I let the water flow and flow and flow until my skin got almost numb.

***

“This is the brat, eh?” a lean man said whose cheeks were hollow, stomach was
inappropriately round and large. He was standing on the left side of the hall which
seemed to be invisibly divided by a man, whose beard was trimmed and eyeglasses hid his
black eyes, sitting on an elaborate blue chair set on a raised square portion of the floor as
if it was a throne.

After I had taken a shower, dressed myself with a simple white sleeveless laced
dress from Valentino, and set my feet on a pair of comfortable white pumps, I came here
together with Jade and spotted a meeting of thirteen people already taking place. I
waited outside the hall first before being requested to enter.

Time appeared to be in such a hurry. Earlier, I was just in Vanity, waiting for
execution. Now, I found myself standing on Heralline’s side in what looked like a hall for
large meetings or talks where plenty of pairs of eyes pointed at my soul like daggers
threatening to slit one’s neck.

But it’s not the cause why I inhaled deeply through my nose until my chest and
nerves exploded. It’s the man on the blue chair showing a rigid face and keeping his lips
tightly closed.

It’s Janus. I knew it must be him. Two minutes had passed, but he never took his
eyes off the wide screen above and attempted to even take a glimpse of me.

I gritted my teeth as my eyes darted to his face, hid my fists behind my back when
I noticed them uncontrollable from shaking. My cheeks were feverish they could overheat
a thermometer.

“Yes, my lord.” Heralline said. “This little lady we have in front for us to see is the
person whom my husband attempted to liquidate.”

“Your name, lass?” A man whose size as wide as three thin humans combined
together asked whose voice was faintly feminine. His opened palm bent, pointing me. He
was sitting behind a long, curved desk with other nine people. His nostrils were as huge as
his stubby fingertips.

“Lucia Salazar,” I said.

“How old?”

“I’m seventeen.”

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WAR OF ROSES

The man’s gaze lingered to my presence for a moment, inspecting me from toe to
head. He nodded as if he looked pleased before shifting to Janus then to Heralline. “You
surely are a good keeper, my lady.”

“Of course, Orin,” Heralline said, sounding quite airy. “My heart always goes to
those who need it, particularly to this young love whose mind can’t justify the hunt
intending to kill her. In addition, she is a daughter of a friend of Grey. You know me. In
times of adversity, I don’t hesitate to help a friend in need. It is why I responded when he
asked my grace to help his friend.”

“What is the point of all these, if you may, Grand Lady,” another man from the
table said. He was not young, nor old. His shoulders were broad, his amber-like eyes had
this hint of glint that was too magnetic not to notice.

“Alyx, have you not still gotten it?” Heralline said. “The acts our Grand Arche
executed behind our eyes as what I mentioned earlier—assassinating a boy two years ago,
and recently, hunting this young love down—were highly suspicious we cannot disregard.”
She strolled to Alyx and met his eyes with hers. “We ask ourselves, why? One, what is in
these children that they have to brutally disappear? Two, why conspire it from us?”

“It is personal.” Janus snapped, containing his calmness. “I didn’t need to


proclaim it. It’s my own matter.”

“It is true, my lady.” The lean man with the round stomach raised his hand.
“There is no sense tackling this subject at this place, at this time.” He grunted and
rubbed his fingertips through his stomach.

“Spectacular ambush schemes expose us, Wilson,” Heralline said. “Secrecy of our
name has been put as a huge stake in his own habit of liquidating juveniles. Another
thing, since this young love is his daughter, she deserves a place in the Empire.” She
walked toward my side. I winced after she put her arm on my shoulders. “I say this as a
claiming mother.”

I kept myself steady as much as I could. My flesh was shuddering in repulsion


against her words, her touch, her whole presence. On the back of my neck, skin of her
arm felt like an iron bar stored long in an ice cave. Her skin was literally chilled. I strived
to bury the palpitations building below my throat. I wanted to push her off me, scream,
beat the brains out of these people. These people never cared about me or my mother, or
at least about the alarming fact that a person among them just ruined our lives by
attempting to kill us.

Neck and shoulders tensed, ready to lunge anytime soon.

But I thought of my head and my mother.

Ride along. The two words of Heralline appeared deeply stamped on my brain.

“This is nonsense!” Janus hollered, smashing both of his palms together. Green
lines lumped into his stretched neck.

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Silence swam in the center of everyone. I could see his temples pulsing alongside
every second. He’s not doing enough, I thought. I yearned to see him thrash, explode into
bits because of frustration, lose in the gamble he himself started.

“She can’t be my child.” Janus said. “Her mother is a whore, we know what a
whore is, everyone. This little lady came from any other man her mother had.”

My ears swelled upon his words. They twitched the way they responded to two
metal objects rubbed against one another. I attempted to lunge forward to beat him to a
pulp, my upper body ready. He’s a psychotic beast who deserved no mercy. I would kill
him with my own hands. But a pang bit my shoulder, stopping me. I grimaced. Heralline
had locked her grip, keeping my body at her side.

“Let me go,” I whispered hoarsely. I dared to scale a foot, but her grip hardened
and the pang on my shoulder only worsened.

“Careful there, Grand Lady,” Wilson said.

Heralline ignored him. “With all due respect, tell us first why you have to kill her,
my lord. You simply fancy the idea?” I gritted my teeth, glowering at her.

“You may think of that as answer if it satisfies you,” Janus said.

“We are not contented.”

“We’re not heading into something if this continues, my lords and ladies,” Orin
said, heaping his ham-like hands on the table. “This is just a plain family matter isn’t
worth troubling ourselves from.” He paused for a moment, addressed Heralline. “Grand
Lady, this lass, you can have her. I’m in faith everyone agrees you can do anything you
want as a good-hearted guardian. However, it will only happen if she truly came from our
Grand Arche.”

“I have proof,” Heralline said. “I conducted a DNA test.”

Orin breathed deeply, his chest a balloon expanding. “Fine, fine, my lady.
However, everyone is mindful the Empire’s administration process do not welcome one-
sided sources. We’ll hold the test in here, instead. So lass, keep your hopes down.”

I unzipped my lips. Heralline’s icy eyes froze them. Words of protest ceased at the
deep end of my tongue I almost choked.

“And my lady, the reason why you push all these nonsense—we understand you.
You have been so upset because you could have gotten killed in the ambush. Our Grand
Arche didn’t perceive you would give his prey your good heart. He’s not informed!”

Heralline raised an eyebrow. “This is never nonsensical.” Calmly, she said


straightly, “Isn’t our Grand Arche’s grand scheme enough to act as a proof that there is a
link between him and her existence? If this young love isn’t his, then who is she to him
that has to cost her and her mother’s life?”

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WAR OF ROSES

Serious looks exchanged, considering Heralline’s words for a moment. Quietness


and tension permeated the entire space of the hall. Few nods appeared among the people
in the hall except Janus and the fat man who both inhaled deeply through their noses.

Wilson’s eyes seemed searching for eager and supportive looks from men and
women sitting behind the table before finally muttering, “Grand Arche, if truth be told,
we are curious as well. We’ll be more pleased if you’ll tell us more.”

“Cunt,” Janus spat, sneering. The lean man drew his hands behind his back, looked
at his side to hide his sour expression of disappointment. He chewed his cheek as Janus
continued breaking the silence, ignoring him. There were looks that grew skeptical,
eyebrows raised. “It doesn’t matter whether she comes from my sperm or not. I bust a
gut to kill her, her mother whore, and it is a personal matter.”

I saw Heralline swallowing a lump, but I could see her eyes sneering, hiding from
her straight lips and perfect composure. Inside, my body was a rising inferno which
needed my muscles tensing like steel to contain it.

Janus continued. “Our Grand Lady gets to keep her pet under her care if the test
proves she is my child. She may claim that liberty. But if the test opposes my dear wife’s
exposition, I impose we stick to our rules about strangers overexposed to how we exist.”

I almost collapsed if it were not for Heralline’s arm. Kneecaps had just melted.

Janus was emotionless when he said, “The young lady has to be executed. But
young lady, you have chance. Until truth is declared, you can flee this place and save
your life.”

Tranquility fell upon each face. But in my case, I burned inside.

“This matter my dear wife put on the table for us to notice will be primarily
handled by you, Orin,” the beast said. “Naturally, in cooperation with Heralline. After
dinner, we’ll be updated with a conclusion in relation to this matter.”

I could see nine pairs of eye calm but doubtful.

He stared at all of them for a moment, his Adam’s apple moved as if he just
gulped his saliva. “People,” He shut his eyes for a second, breathing hard and silently.
“Meeting’s adjourned.”

After years, Heralline lifted her arm from my shoulders that numbed completely
and whispered something to my ears. But thoughts made the first move. They circled in
my head like thousand tops bound to endless rotation, leaving no space for Heralline’s
words of wisdom, blocking my sense to hear like water flowing inside my ears. I sensed a
clutch from her that was supposed to be nothing but pure pain.

Surprisingly, it felt nothing.

I shoved off her arm by throwing my elbow. I didn’t notice if I hit her or not. I
didn’t care. I sprinted to Janus who just had stood while looking over Wilson. I grabbed
his collars. Looked at his startled eyes. Slammed my fist on his nose.

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WAR OF ROSES

He fell to floor, stumbling on his side where no one gave a damn to catch him but
his elbow. He cried in pain.

“Who do you think you are?” I shouted, flesh in my face boiling. “Who do you think
you are?!”

I had no idea what I was doing, what it was for. No, I did what I had to do—I
exploded. I’d die if I did not. Then my shoulders began to feel light, my chest cooled, my
knuckles had turned white, and now, painful. In front of me was a damaged nose held by
a hand showered with blood.

I knew it was a sign of trouble.

But I just won’t ride along.

It took a short moment before my cheek swelled, my head wobbled, my nose


almost had the same fate on the floor if it were not for my hands which pressed swiftly. A
paralyzing grip on my arm had turned me around. A sharp slap swept across my face.

A flash of black, then spots danced before my sight. Throbbing black pain
devoured side of my face. Back of my neck felt like bitten with a clamp filled of sharp
steel teeth as it abruptly twisted when I crashed down the floor. It didn’t take me a long
time to compose myself, stand to her face to face. But my head remained ringing.

Heralline glared at me like a viper. “Lucia, he is the Grand Arche of the Empire.”

***

I remembered the time when I was still a freshman at high school. Self-
introduction was one of my biggest pet peeves. It was pretty boring. Stupid was the right
word, dread way to kill time. Worse, there’s a part of it which literally would grip my
tongue rigidly and make me stutter to respond to: its beauty pageant-like Q&A. One of
the questions that owned me was, “What is the biggest mistake you have regretted?” I
couldn’t remember my answer, but I knew I just made it up for the sake of my teacher’s
peace. Yes, I pondered on wrong things I did, but it never occurred to me I regretted
doing them, even one at least.

Until now, even though my life hung at the edge of a cliff for throwing a punch on
Janus’s face, I had faith I remained owning no answer for that question.

I stared at my knuckles which recently stopped throbbing brought by a lightning


punch I gave on Janus’s snout. Unreliable knuckles—definitely power magnets attracting
Grim Reaper in a second, no doubt. My chest burned as Janus’s words and his emotionless
face streamed in my head fast.

It doesn’t matter whether she comes from my sperm or not. I bust a gut to kill
her, her mother whore, and it is a personal matter.

For whatever reason why Janus wanted us dead, I never thought of giving a damn
to it. All I cared for was how I and my mother would survive in this place where rules and

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laws only favored his kind—monsters. I struggled gulping for air. Beads of sweat dripped
from my armpits, dampening my dress.

Suddenly, a silly but scary thought dashed in my mind. I pursed my lips. If the
result confirmed Heralline’s belief, that I was her husband’s illegitimate daughter, would
I be forced to be a part of this dark place and become a monster as well?

I shrugged off the idea. As long as I stayed here, I was in no safe place. Heart
rattled ribs.

I thought of my mom. No, Grey was here. He wouldn’t let my mother get harmed
in any possible way. He would protect her, just how he did to me. Though I knew he lied
to me tantamount of times, he was real. He was a real godfather to my mother.

He granted her wish himself. He protected me himself.

“You shouldn’t have allowed that to happen,” Jade said. “You should have
controlled yourself. Look at you, my lady.”

“This is nothing.” Gently, I rubbed a berg of an ice in a circular way to the


throbbing dark spot that lumped, widened without my knowledge. “Ow.” I hissed.
Coldness had gotten my skin pricking up.

“But my lady, for real, I thought she punched you. It never occurred to me that
her hands weigh a ton more than Mr. Ortega’s.”

“Should that annoy me, or annoy me?” I said.

Jade couldn’t help but form a grin while I suffered in pain.

I and Jade were sitting on the edge of a wide square holding mass of land under a
wide shade of the tree. I reached to softly slap her knee with a hand which she caught
with a gentle palm. “Stop, Jade!” I stared at her and chortled when I saw her trying to
calm her warming face. “I know, I know. I mean, Grey never gave me something like
this.” I gestured, pointing a finger at the spot with my other hand. “Even I—I was shocked
to death, do you believe that?”

Sides of her grin almost reaching her ears. “Then what did she say again, Miss
Lucy?” She was referring to Heralline’s words after I ended up with a pang on my cheek.

“No. Don’t make me repeat it. It’s not funny, Jade.”

“Last, Miss Lucy.”

I sighed. Ice melted in my numbing fingers, water dripping down the ground.
“Lucia, he is the Grand Arche of the Empire,” I mimicked Heralline with a monkey version
of her face. “Her hand is a fucking brick.”

Jade put a hand near her mouth and started laughing which half of it felt like an
insult. I convinced myself it’s not meant for me, though.

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“I really hate her. She must die, Jade. I’d pull strands of her hair out of her head
until she had none.” I shook my head while my canine teeth grazed against each other.
“I’m looking forward to celebrate her death day.”

Jade tried her best to compose herself as she panted for air, her head bowing
down to hide lips that rather irritated me. She heaped both her hands on her lap. And
giggled.

“What?” I said, suppressing a grin. She didn’t stop making funny noises as she
couldn’t stop herself from giggling. Holding the ice on my hand, I swayed it a few times,
aiming at her. Water drops flew to her grinning face which she jerked her head away
from. “Stop, okay? I hate you now,” I said. I swayed it one last time to her and threw it in
a far distance.

Coldness subsided from my hands together with her laughter, at last. Breeze swept
my hair, I placed a palm on top of my head to settle it. Suddenly, my fingers, mouth,
nose sensed a familiar itch demanding to be scratched once and for all. I touched my
neck, cleared my throat. “Cigarette,” I managed to choke.

Jade twisted to a side where she opened a bucket bag of my survival supplies with
her delicate olive-skinned hands.

Jade put a box of pleasure on my readied palm. I opened it and drew a stick.
Clamped the butt between my lips. She clicked a lighter for me. Minty smoke breezed
from my mouth to the thin air as I sucked its taste.

For a couple of minutes, we spent our time just looking at the brightly lit
afternoon sky. My hand with a stick, the other hand on the edge of the tree’s square. I
exhaled, pack of gray cloud escaping my mouth. Its ashy heat spread to my face, but I
didn’t care.

“Jade,” I said as my eyes walked faraway to uncertainty.

“My lady?”

“What would you feel if you discover that your father whom you haven’t seen your
entire life happened to be someone who wanted you dead all this time? Would—” I bit my
lower lip to remind it not to tremble. “Would you still be fine? I mean, regardless you
forgive him or not, would you still be okay? After knowing it?”

My windpipe twisted.

A short silence sat between I and Jade until she started speaking.

“My lady, there is a thing I didn’t tell you.”

I looked at her.

“Years ago, before I lived and left the orphanage, I lived in—in—I spent my young
life in the streets.” She stared faraway, just like I did. And her eyes were showing soft
glimmer. I had no idea if it was the sun or something else. “I ran away. My papa sold me

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WAR OF ROSES

to someone. He said I assemble my things up because tomorrow morning, someone would


come to get me.

“I—I escaped—escaped from their arms when they went to the house. I lived in the
streets after, before I got to the orphanage and ran away again.”

I remembered the time when Grey showed up in the front door being wet because
of the storm. And he’s not alone. Behind him, a girl, taller than I was, appeared on his
side. She’s wet as well. Her green shirt clung to her thin body, hair a wet clump set on
her shoulder.

Grey said, “Miss Lucia, this is Jade. We adopt her from the orphanage. She will be
your new maidservant.”

That’s all I knew about her. The fact that she lived in an orphanage, the fact that
she didn’t know where her family was. I thought I knew enough.

“I didn’t know how I should feel,” Jade said. “Till now.”

We spent the afternoon covered in silence until I finished my stick and stepped on
its remain. I was sent back to my mom’s hospital room accompanied by Jade. I settled my
head on the side of my mom’s bed.

I fell asleep. This time, there was no dream. Just a smooth drift to nothingness.

It was when I woke up, spotting the bleeding late afternoon sky with my sticky
eyes through the window that I realized I missed something as I patted my stomach that
growled like a pup. I had skipped a lunch.

CHAPTER 9

It’s dinnertime.

“Can’t I just eat here in the hospital?” I asked.

Jade shook her head. “Grand Lady’s request, Miss Lucy.”

“Request, really?”

I couldn’t believe I overlooked the truth I was now Heralline’s dog, too.

I did no more asking why. It’s expected. Heralline would want me there for no
reason. Well, maybe that was wrong, if one would count the fact that she just felt liking
to see me confused and tortured with curious stares from other people.

Before I came with Jade to go and eat dinner at the Banquet Hall, I washed my
face in the mirror at the hospital’s public restroom, cupped some water, poured it on my

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WAR OF ROSES

neck. My wet palms ran along my arms, sending coldness I needed to remove the red glow
of my cheeks, calm my shuddering nerves.

I’d meet them once again. Those apathetic people of the Empire. No doubt about
that. I stared at my reflection, noticing my soaked hair hanging in clumps, its ends
reaching tails of my earlobes. I ran my fingers on my head, settling it behind.

It’s just a dinner, Luce. A dinner.

I dried my skin and hair with a white towel a nurse handed me in the door. Hands
and arms stretched, diagnosing if my senses still in touch or not.

With a last exhale, finally, I was good to go.

The Banquet Hall surely had a lot of surprises. Maybe it’s because it’s not too
populated this time. Regardless, it looked entirely different. From a party place, it
transformed into something that could compete against a four-star restaurant. White
sheets covered round tables, pink drapes of silk fabric hung along the side. White and
pink tulips, roses, and hydrangeas were everywhere. On the tables. On the corners of the
hall. On the gateways.

Jade told something in my ear which I barely heard. I replied, yes, anyway.

The air replenished my lungs, permeated with aromatic bouquet of wines. A wide
chandelier—its light bulbs enclosed in numerous circular ornate opaque glass spheres—
replaced the party ball I had adored, casting warm but soft glows that made spoons,
forks, knives, and glasses glint like rose gold wares. Two long tables held a feast. Chicken
thighs dripped with tomato sauce, surrounded by potatoes. Glinting grilled pork chops to
be matched with peanut sauce. Grilled and baked arm-sized yellow fin tunas stuffed with
chopped onions, green jalapenos, and tomatoes. Mushroom soups on small bowls . . .

A perfect place for a hopefully perfect dinner.

Stomach grumbled in agreement.

In every table, two to three people—children, adult women, adult men—had been
seated already. All wore themselves in pretty simple dresses and button up shirts. Hair
nicely combed. I speculated this happened frequently. Perhaps, daily. Weekly, at least.

Their empty white porcelain plates lined with gold looked pleasing, waiting for the
foods’ arrival on them. Some eyes on plates, some were on phone screens. On the corner
of the hall, two children in peony and dark blue shirts were giggling and sprinting after
one another.

I smiled. Pink cheeks. Delicate small hands. Marble-like eyes. Handsomely cute.

I couldn’t see an opportunity when and how to get a phone and make a call. Many
things just had happened, causing me to forget about it. I decided I had to have a phone
on my hand before midnight ticked in the clock. I twisted on my waist to ask where Grey
could possibly be. However, Jade’s not around.

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I remembered her saying something to me earlier. She might have told me she
would leave and meet Grey. I hoped I could eat dinner with either of them.

Uncertain, I just picked a chair from a deserted table near the long tables holding
all the heavy, meaty dishes blanketed by thick sauces. I insisted my mouth to contain
itself as patient as how it could get. No one in the hall held their plates yet and
approached the table.

I placed both arms on my table. Head moved a little bit to scan faces. So far, a
pair of blue eyes matched with blond hair and slender shoulders was not yet around.

Minutes later, footsteps sprouted in the air, gradually multiplying. Beats of my


heart, too. When I looked at the gateway to see the sources of the footsteps, I recognized
the pack belonged to same age as mine.

Quickly, I shifted my attention on my empty plate. My breathing was a shuddering


one.

Then a hand tapped my shoulder.

“Hey,” It’s Gee, wearing a rococo red dress and black stilettos. Her blond hair
gathered in a bun.

“Oh my Gee,” I stood and hugged her in an arm, planting my cheek to hers. “I’m
seeing you again.”

Gee hid her beam under her closed lips. “Are you with someone? I—I have no one
yet to sit beside me. Hemlock told me she’ll be late. Pops—he’ll be late, too. Something’s
stirring among the Board Members, you know?”

So his father was one of those people I met in the hall, those people who almost
kissed Janus’s ass. I was a little tempted to ask her father’s name or how he looked like,
thinking I could materialize his face from my memory, but I couldn’t be prepared to feel
annoyance this time. Gee’s a nice girl. If her father was shitman, she had nothing to with
it. So I shook myself off the whole idea and responded to Gee, “Okay. Yeah—yeah sure.”

I pulled a seat for her. “Thank you,” Gee said.

When I sat down, my eyes caught a glimpse of her hands rubbing on her knees. Her
palms must be really sweaty tonight.

“Here.” I handed her the white cloths from the table which she took fast.

“Thank you.” She put the cloth on the table and laced her hands on her lap. “Are
your parents in here?”

“No, not exactly—not yet,” I muttered. “My companions—yes—um—they will be


here in a minute.”

“I told Pops about you and how you saved me and cool you are.”

“That’s—that’s nice.” I grinned. “What did he say? What did he think about it?”

36
WAR OF ROSES

“He thinks you’re a Wonder Woman. He’ll give you a gift, you know?” She leaned
over swiftly as she said. “He said you’ll love it.”

I raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Great.” I chortled, half-impressed, half-


disbelieving. Gee’s a keeper. “He’s kind of confident, huh?”

“Pops always gives gifts almost to everyone.” Gee said, her green eyes gleaming.
“He’s everyone’s any-holiday-your-Santa-Claus man, you know?”

“I know what I will give him in return the next time it’s my turn. A red hat and a
red sack.”

We both chortled under our soft breaths. “I am not kidding, you’ll love it, I predict
it, too. Guaranteed.” I raised an eyebrow, making a wolfish grin. She said, “Pops does his
research first whenever he hands a person an exceptional present.”

“I know, I know, I believe you,” I said. “Anything’s fine with me. And I’m certain
I’ll love it. A present is a present. I do say yes to it always.” I gave her arm an assuring
squeeze. Gee was so easy to talk with, so comforting to be with. Though she’s a little
talkative considering this day was the first day we met, I felt grateful to be with someone
who’s not afraid to be transparent. I couldn’t be certain if it was because I knew there
was a gift her father planned to give me, or because of the idea that I just made a new
friend officially, or so I thought. Despite that, I knew something was certain at the
moment, and it felt like a very good note: there was a light thrill surging inside me, and it
was because of a fresh companionship I was having with Gee.

37

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