It’s been almost a week since my time with Angan. Nothing seemed to change, save for one thing. A new construction, a complete secret to everyone but the guards. And you’re about as likely to make water bleed as it was to make guards talk, so rumors were plenty. I had my fair share of busybodies and curious seekers coming up to me. I wish I could tell them the truth; that I don’t know more than they did. It’d certainly ease the worry that creases my forehead so frequently as of late.
“Carran, are you alright? You’re playing with your food.” A colleague of mine remarked whose name eludes me at the moment.
“Is it because of what happened last week?”
“It’s not a week yet, Manam.” I huffed at her inaccurate timekeeping. “And I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh come on now. Everyone knows you met our leader in the arena.” Manam said, “Lucy says you’re going outside for a mission. A long one.”
“Lucy hates my guts. I’m sure she’d love nothing more than to see me gone.” I stated the obvious. Freaking Lucy. “And you know I can’t tell you what I and Angan talked about. It’s one of the rules.”
“I know, but it still bugs me. Who’ll fill in for you? There haven’t been new trainees for Carers in the last few years.” Manam laid her head on the table and sighed. “No one seems to like handling the newborns except me and you.”
It’s the only way I can get new allies around here. I thought silently. Not that it’s working.
“So what is the mission, Carran? You’re a sharp one, so you probably already know what it’s going to be, right?” Manam looked at me.
“Oh come on, I’m sure Angan hasn’t told you the exact details yet. And I’m not telling anyone, so what’s the harm?” Manam smiled as she seemed convinced of her victory.
“ … E-”
“CARRAN CARER, CARRAN CARRER, CAN I GET A CARRAN CARRER TO COME WITH ME TO THE HEALTH ROOMS!” The loud and public proclamation. The boisterous voice. The grin that I knew would be on her face. I shook my head and groaned at my bad luck. With not much enjoyment to be found in the future, I ate up the rest of my meal. Once I was done, I waved goodbye at Manam and left her to take care of my mess.
“Oso, did you have to do that in front of everyone?” I asked the slithering and duplicitous mass of red hair before me. Her grin was as annoying as I remembered it, as was her penchant for absurd poses. For now, she elected to mimic a three-footed stool and a walking stick having sex. With a carpet. How that works and why such a description came upon me is a mystery for the ages.
“NO, BUT I LIKE SEEING YOU SHY.” Oso guffawed. “IT IS A GOOD LOOK FOR YOU, CARER. YOU SHOULD TRY IT WHEN WE’RE ON THE BED.”
“Oso, what did I tell you about announcing private affairs?” I said with a sigh.
“THEY ARE PRIVATE, SO KEEP IT PRIVATE.” Oso said, “I KNOW, I KNOW, I’M GETTING USED TO THAT.”
Common sense isn’t something to get used to! I shouted at my dance partner’s infuriating openness. And also, no. No timid shit while on the bed. We fuck like beasts or not at all.
“So, health rooms? Lead the way.” I said, throwing my arm around hers.
“YES. LET US GO.” Oso practically wrapped herself to my side. The pressure made my arm numb and paler than it’s supposed to be, but it was par the course. As we walked, we passed several colleagues and guards. Everyone ignored us, too absorbed in their affairs. Once the air felt like shifting bands of cold and heat, I knew we were near to our destination.
“Which room are we going to today?” I asked Oso.
“MINE, LATER. BUT NOW, WE GO TO MY SISTER’S PRACTICE.” The tone drop in her voice was clear as day. She was unhappy, and for good reason. Unless given an order or permission from Angan, one couldn’t freely walk everywhere. The guards would and did prevent any strays from going to where they’re not supposed to. The exception to this was the living quarters.
“Why? I’m healthier than a fiddlestick’s ox, you know that. And isn’t your sister a researcher, not a doctor?” I said carelessly.
“WE ARE BOTH RESEARCHERS AND DOCTORS, CARER.” Oso said, “YOU DESERVE A PUNISHMENT FOR FORGETTING THAT.”
“Oh my, I’m so terrified,” I said with a mock tone. “What will big bad Oso do poor little me?”
“YOU DISGUST ME.” Oso shook her head. “BUT DO REMEMBER NEXT TIME, OKAY?”
“Yes, Oso,” I promised, tracing a line from my chest straight up to my neck. “Wait, are we going the right way.”
“YES, WE ARE-” Oso stopped as she took in her surroundings. I followed suit and saw a barren hallway with lines on the floor. Supposedly, these mark the grooves by which the health rooms can be moved. I never saw such a thing happening in person, but according to Oso, it does happen.
Another remarkable thing about the health rooms is that none of them are marked in any way. Aside from their openings, the rooms can’t be noticed to the average viewer. Even Oso, who’s worked here for as long as I’ve known her, can get the rooms mixed up.
Identifying them was reliant on visiting the place regularly, among other things. Or you could check them one by one; that works too. Feeling lucky, I opened the second entrance to my right. The darkness caught me off-guard at first, but I adjusted soon enough. Of all the dark shadows I could see, one was moving.
With rhythm and precision, it went, so busy it was that it did not notice me or Oso. Getting the light back on was a matter of snapping my finger, but that seemed unwise. I instead relied on a safer and more reliable approach.
“Oso, can you check if that’s your sister or not,” I asked my companion. Her grip tightened, then loosened, then became almost painful. I gave her a peck on the cheeks as an apology. She responded by pinching me. That lovely gesture aside, she parted from my side and walked over to the moving shadow in the room. She touched what I assume to be the shadow’s shoulder and shook it a couple of times.
“Oh fuck me!” The shadow shouted as it swung an arm at Oso. The attack was dodged easily and Oso returned to my side, frowning. With more cursing, beakers and vials could be heard clinking. Knowing what was to come, I closed my eyes. Once that ended, a finger snap was heard and light flooded the room.
“Oh, it’s you, Carer.” Oso’s voice came from before me. I opened my eyes and beheld Oso’s twin sister, Sos. At a glance, both of them could be mistaken for one another. That is if they wore the same clothes and moved the same way. But for Oso, her preferences seemed to lie with the color orange and absurd poses. For Sos, she was clad in a blue and white ensemble, with a weird headpiece that looked like an unfurled crown.
“Your sister came to get me,” I explained with a sheepish smile. “She was not subtle.”
“I KNOW WHAT I WANT,” Oso said with no shame. “LIVING LIFE TO THE FULLEST.”
“In deep, dark and dank caves. A wonderful life we all have here.” Sos smirked. “In any case, she’s no longer needed. Run along now. Carer and I will need some privacy.”
“It’s Angan’s orders. Nothing I can do about that.” Sos threw her hands out in mock defeat.
“ … CARRAN.” Oso growled as she spoke. “I CAN TRUST YOU, RIGHT?”
“Yes, you can,” I assured her. “I’ll come and find you when I’m done.”
“YOU BETTER.” Oso gave one hateful look at her twin before walking away. I sighed from built-up tension, and Sos seemed to relax a little as well.
“She’s a handful. Are you handling her alright?” Sos asked with a softer tone than I thought possible.
“I’m more surprised she can handle me.” I laughed. “But yes. I am doing right by her. It’s weird how hostile she is to you though.”
“It’s a long story.” Sos waved my curiosity away. “A lot longer than the examinations I have to do today for you.”
“You’re checking me out?” I said.
“No, I’m examining you. I don’t ‘check you out’. Not the slightest bit.” Sos scoffed. “It’s important for the disguise that you’ll be using for your mission outside.”
“What, like clothes and stuff? I don’t need that; I can move around when it’s at night or dark out. I’m subtle.”
“You’re dating my sister,” Sos stated flatly.
“She’s the exception.” I tried to defend myself. “Love does that to you.”
“So you say.” Sos rolled her eyes. “In any case, it’ll be easier to show you what I’m working on.”
Sos walked out of the room with me close behind. The room’s entrance closed on its own once we were outside, its distinctness fading to memory. Sos moved without hesitation, which left me no choice to trail along like a hunting dog. After what felt like hours, she stopped before a large door I had never seen before.
Must be the new construction everyone was talking about. I thought, noting the freshly twisted wood and carved rock sewed into the door frame. Sos knocked twice, after which the door swung out. The room inside was the biggest yet that I’ve seen in the caverns. Equipment and guards filled it. There were pools filled with multi-colored liquid spread here and there. Fungi grew from dead guards. I recognized the hum of magic throughout, channeled through vines. A massive undertaking was taking place and I felt worried for the first time.
“What is all this?” I asked out loud. “Are we going to war?”
Sos didn’t reply, heading instead to a nearby stairway. The door led to a smaller room than the one below, but still bigger than most. It felt more personal with a bed and a kitchen, but there was no mistaking Sos’ tools. Shelves and racks of things in glass containers. I think she called them “samples”, whatever that means. A part of me wonders how she makes the time between her practice and this place.
She gestured for me to sit on a nearby sofa and I complied. She took the most comfortable seat in the room, right behind an impressive desk. A large mirror hung behind her, though it didn’t seem to reflect anything. As though it was natural, two guards walked out of the wall behind her. They passed her and walked over to stand guard by the door, their branches alert.
“I assure you that the secrecy is necessary for what I’m going to tell you next, Carer.” Sos began with a reassuring statement. “The mission Angan gave you, well, will give you isn’t a typical one. You’re not only to infiltrate the humans and further our cause. You are to represent us in its entirety, to end potential threats, and to increase our influence. You will be a spy, an assassin, a soldier, a scout, a diplomat, a trader, and many other things. You will be Angan’s will made manifest.”
“I-I don’t know what to say,” I said with complete honesty for once. Part of me wanted her to grin and say that she was messing with me, but her face said otherwise. It was composed and focused; the look she has when she expects results. A brief pondering of her statement though, made me wonder how I’m supposed to achieve such lofty goals? I had skills, yes, and determination. But that doesn't mean mistakes can't be made.
“Your worry is anticipated for, Carer. Angan’s plan was not made without foresight. As of late, we are hard at work on creating a magical tool to be merged with your body. When it is complete, it will provide you with all the means necessary for completing your mission. To assist with its creation, tests will be done on you every day in the testing area.” A glint of satisfaction passed by Sos’ eyes. This was a change of routine that neither I or Oso will appreciate, and she knew it.
“Uh, how long will it take for this tool to be completed?” I asked.
“A year, based on the progress so far.” Sos said, “The insight and knowledge that Angan shared with me and my team has to be understood first. Tools have to be custom-made for the process, and some materials have to be searched for. But lucky you, Carer. You don’t need to lift a finger at all for now. Angan informed me that aside from tests, you are free to do whatever you want.”
The news put my already confused mind into a free-spinning dive. This is a trap. I thought. No offer can be this good and not be a trap. I have to refuse it, apologize to Angan. It’s a gamble not worth the risk or reward, no matter how big it’d be. Yes, that’s the smartest choice. Don’t let the other side force you to play your best hand early. I can wait a little longer. I’ve waited this long after all.
But as fate would have it, for every side, there would be its opposite. So what if it's a trap? This tool that they’re making sounds like what’s needed to tip the balance over. It’s not the time to play it safe now. Risks need to be taken eventually. All the power and favor that’s been built up so far? It’s time to use them, to make sure that this threat becomes our greatest ally. I’ve never been a puppet to anyone, to play a tune that’s not my own. I control others, not the other way around. I’ve waited this long after all.
To my dismay, the options seemed tantalizing. Refusal to be fooled and refusal to submit. Dismissive of blatant traps and dismissive of failure. Fear of failure either way. And it all came because of the whim of someone else. Angan. The queen on the throne that I covet most. There was no doubt in my mind that she knew of my ambitions. How else could one explain to me being assigned to teach newborns of all things?
“Carer.” Sos’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Are you listening to me?”
“Oh, yeah.” I said, “I mean, I am now. Sorry. I’m trying to take in all that’s happening so far. There’s a lot to think about.”
“YES, YES THERE IS.” I turned around and saw Oso leaning on the door frame. The two guards from before were nowhere to be seen. She took a step inside and closed the door behind her at the same time. Another step later and she came to rest beside me, draping herself over the sofa. By habit, she took out a small, hollowed horn and started smoking.
“NICE PLACE YOU GOT HERE. COMFY AND STYLISH. THE SECURITY COULD USE SOME WORK, BUT OKAY, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.” Oso looked at me and smiled. “DON’T BE SO STIFF, CARER. I AM HERE TO KEEP THINGS FAIR AROUND HERE.”
“Fair? The mission Angan gave Carer is a once-in-a-lifetime chance! Not to mention that when the magical tool and he are combined, he will be unstoppable.” Sos barked. “Refusal is unthinkable and stupid beyond measure. Not to mention that going outside is a personal dream of him, isn’t it Carer?”
“I … have no comment on that,” I said. “My mind is taking a break right now, so come back in like, a couple of days or so.”
“WHICH IS EXACTLY WHY I AM HERE TO NEGOTIATE THE TERMS OF THIS MISSION. FOR CARER’S BENEFIT AND MINE.” Oso exhaled a hefty smoke cloud. “FIRST OF ALL, NO SECRETS. I DON’T CARE IF ANGAN HERSELF TOLD YOU TO KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. IF I WANT TO KNOW SOMETHING, YOU WILL TELL ME EVERYTHING.”
“SECOND, I WANT TO BE REASSIGNED TO THIS PROJECT, WITH AUTHORITY SECOND ONLY TO YOU. I WILL LEAVE THE DAY-TO-DAY ORDER BARKING TO YOU, OF COURSE. THINK OF ME AS A GHOST HAUNTING YOU, ONLY MORE PLEASANT.”
“How dare you-”
“THIRD, I WANT A PLACE OF MY OWN, PREFERABLY LIKE YOURS. WE CAN BE NEIGHBORS AGAIN, THOUGH I HOPE THE WALLS HERE ARE THICK. ALSO, CARER WILL SLEEP WITH ME.”
“Hold on, I’d like a room too, though a modest one works for me.” My mind snapped back long enough to save me from a terrible fate.
“I can arrange something for Carer. But you, Sister, will not-”
“LAST BUT NOT LEAST, I WANT TO BE ABLE TO COME AND GO AS I PLEASE FROM THIS PLACE. NO GUARDS OR ESCORTS OF ANY KIND. THE SAME APPLIES TO CARER.” Oso seemed satisfied that she completed her list. “YOU LOOK LIKE YOU’RE READY TO ACCEPT MY TERMS. WANT TO SHAKE ON IT OR PUT IT ON WRITING FIRST? IT’S ALL THE SAME TO ME.”
I looked at Sos, expecting a vengeful storm of fury in place of her face. And it was there and quite terrible, but she did not strike. Instead, she brought out a sheet of paper and began writing something. Her hand didn’t stop once. Once she was done, she gestured at me to take the paper. As I did so, I felt a small prick from my thumb. A sliver of blood flowed to fill a seal on the paper, which seemed to be a genuine contract of employment. I gave it to Oso, who read it with intensity before nodding to herself.
“The contract, with all that you asked for and a bit more,” Sos said with quiet hatred. “I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into, Oso. If you drown this time, I’ll watch you sink to the bottom.”
“YOUR WORDS MAKE ME FEEL SO LOVED, SOS.” Oso laughed. She took the hollow horn from her mouth and twisted it into a stylus. With a small stab, she filled it with red ink and signed her name on the allotted space. She turned to face me and offered the bloody stylus.
To my luck, I managed to remember my stylus was still on me. I took it out and showed it to Oso, who nodded and retracted the offer. Once I signed, the contract glowed, magic searing the words into an invisible web of force. A symbol seared itself onto my left hand’s back, the mark of solemn promises and binding laws; a chained book.
I rubbed my hand and stood up, eager to leave. Oso did the same, putting her arm around mine and leading me towards the exit. Sos said nothing even as the door closed, to which I let out a sigh. The fatigue of revelation took its toll, with me leaning upon my companion for support.
A million questions were inside me. Some for Angan, some for Sos, and some for Oso. A fair bit was for me, torn between those two options that for now remained quiet. There will come a time when I have to make a choice and stick with it.
But not now.
Now, I rest.