calm sea during golden hour





12/10/20237 min read

With quick, firm footsteps, she bypassed the smooth grey floor and stepped onto the platform, dropping into the chair and whisking the headset onto her head.

Did I go blind?

For seconds, there was only pitch darkness. And then the screen booted up with a light chime, some melody she recognized as Niflheimian, and she was suddenly looking out at a fisheye view of a grocery aisle- which wasn’t normal. It looked like a grocery aisle out of some pure Niflheim citizen’s dreams- something somebody who had never stepped onto Terra had thought up. Instead of crisps and sodas and ramen, the shelves were stocked with port bottles full of cumin soda, bags full of narotumaki and other black packaged food she knew would NEVER show up in the aisles of Terra. The walls were black marble, and the shelves were smooth granite. Unrealistic all through. The counter seemed to be manned by a computer alone. How strange. The entire scene must have been trotted out bit by bit from Elswyth’s fragmented recollections of earthly grocery stores and slowly constructed into a playable VR scene.

She looked around and found much of the same. People milled by, people- Vienna bit back a grin- people who were curiously based off of the Royals. She saw only blonde, black and brunette hair- the Sirens had no clue of hair dye.

She idled for a while, just looking at the unnaturally realistic animation, until a red-faced ‘human’ marched up to her and demanded the immediate presence of music in the store. Vienna looked at the ceilings- there were no speakers or audio sources.

A bunch of options popped up on the screen.

ª Apologize and inform the customer of the missing speakers.

ª Retort wittily with an insinuating pun.

ª Play music from your defective phone

ª Calmly leave

ª Push past the customer and hand it over to the manager

Vienna snickered. Resisting the urge to choose something stupid, she pressed on the first option and watched as the customer calmed down and left.

There was a minute’s interval as the scenery abruptly changed, from the store to an elite clothing shop. The scent of money and designer clothes wafted, the walls were gold marble. Clothes hung on diamond racks. Vienna watched as a thief ran past with a limited edition coat.

ª Let the thief go

ª Shout at the staff to do something.

ª Run away in fear of questioning and suspicion.

ª Seize something expensive and leave undetected because of the distraction.

ª Run and tackle the thief to the ground.

She picked the last option and was aware of physical movement. She knocked the thief down and seized the coat. The thief was arrested and she was promoted.

A vast array of scenarios played out in front of her eyes. She played the hero in most and only didn’t when the situation dared hurt somebody, like a hostage situation. After what felt like hours, she felt the lights dim, and then a voice was announcing that the session was over, she was free to leave.

Her stiff fingers lifted the headset from her head, careful not to muss up her hair. On second thought, it was probably already ruined, the way it had endured the tank and the writing test and lunch and now the headset. She ran her fingers through it, then patted herself down before setting down the headset. The room was now filled with darkening light from the sky outside, still golden, but slowly trespassing into the blue hour.

She looked out. It was gorgeous, as it always was. She’d never been to the sea or its shore, though she wanted to. The seashore, composed of spinel and sapphire flattened by years of the cruel, crashing tide, sparkled like diamond in the dimming light. It would be so tranquil over there, and yet, she remembered, one needed a permit to be down by the seashore. She didn’t feel like bothering anybody with it. Maybe she’d ask Elliot when she confessed her knowledge of his mutinous plans. She didn’t feel like annoying Elswyth with such silly things.

Vienna should get out of here, once she was done. She would get out and go to her room, shower, eat something light, then dress in something that WASN’T a jumpsuit, meet up with Dimitri and apologize for withholding the crucial information, then talk to Elliot, spill about everything she knew and pray he didn’t die of shock.

She opened the door and walked out. The Pneumas were gone- only a Crimson Badge stood with a scroll in hand, tossing it from one hand to the other. It was the same thing Morta and Decima had been doing her first day in Niflheim, and she realized she missed them.

The Crimson Badge stuck the scroll in their pocket once they saw Vienna and snapped to the attention pose.

“Doyenne Elswyth Arabella Mistral has addressed the following message to Vienna Ellerie Elswyth Hawkins.” The Crimson Badge said almost robotically. “Dear Vienna Alcestis: you are free for the day and may return to your room or elsewhere after this final test is done. You do not have any other obligations for today and therefore you are free to unravel or relax for the rest of the day.”

The Crimson Badge snapped off a salute and disappeared. Vienna bit back a laugh and quietly left the room. She descended floors until she was back in her room, which had been tidied and prettied up for her in her absence. Vases full of violet gerbera daisies, moonlight and monsenor carnations and those wild Niflheimian flowers which grew on vines and glowed in the dark. All the books she had scattered had been replaced on the shelves, and her beds were made up perfectly. There was even a steaming cup of coffee on the table, just how she liked it- plenty sweet and plenty milky. She showered, and then drank her coffee with a fudge iced brownie. There was nothing to do if she gained weight- her motto was “If you die of something you caused yourself, make sure you do it well.”

That was a joke. Her sense of humour was rubbish and all over the place. That was why it was HER sense of humour.

She smiled at herself and once more entered the dim lavender haze of the closet, putting together an outfit. A black shirt tucked into high waisted jeans- and guess what? A short Burberry violet trench coat. She paired it with black suede boots and she suddenly had her DREAM outfit. She twirled in the mirror, grinning at her reflection. All that was left was her double silver necklace and a few brushes of her hair, and she felt perfect.

She didn’t even feel tired.

She could totally talk a Prince through mutiny and a Guard through acceptance.

She could do it!

With renewed rejuvenation and confidence, she marched outside to the spot she knew she could always find Dimitri. Outside Elliot’s study which was his official spot to guard. Dimitri was also allocated with accompanying Elliot on his hunting trips but obviously- ever-mighty Elliot didn’t need protection in those puny woods.

Dimitri snapped to attention once he heard her footsteps and then relaxed once he saw her.

“Hey, Vy.” He said, a slight smile appearing on his face. He shifted from one foot to the other, stuffing his Blue Badge Taser- like thing in one pocket. It was a light weapon all Blue Badges carried, a Taser which had a retractable dagger blade. The other Guard on duty flashed them a glance and then looked back at the opposite wall, disinterested. “What’s up?”

Vienna awkwardly smiled. Apologies would come later, she wanted to get the storm over first.

“Nothing much, I just wanted to talk to Elliot a little first.” Vienna clasped her hands together. Dimitri’s face fell, and Vienna imagined he looked almost disappointed. Then he nodded and knocked on the closed door of the study.

“Prince Mistral, Miss Vienna Alcestis is here to see you.” He called through the thick wood. There were a few moments of silence, then Vienna heard footsteps through the wood and the door opened halfway, revealing a disgruntled Elliot.

“What is it again, Ivanov? I swear, if it’s one more of those knock-knock jokes…”

He stopped when he saw Vienna, who stood there nervously before curtseying.

“Good evening Prince. I was hoping I could discuss a matter with you.”

Elliot raised his eyebrows, as if disbelieving, but then lowered his guard and gestured in the study. “Evening. Come in.”

Vienna gave Dimitri a small smile before following Elliot into the study. It was a huge room, looking like it was straight out of a Renaissance Architecture picture-book, with huge arched windows and embellished walls. The roof was a high dome, and a floaty staircase in the middle of the room twisted its way onto balconies edging a second floor which was lined with bookshelves. The desk by a huge window was carved from pure mahogany- the curtains drawn. Pity. The view would’ve been marvelous. The décor, however, came as a shock- Elliot didn’t seem the artsy type- yet it was his study they were in. Vienna would’ve expected décor like this from his twin sister, not him.

Elliot laughed when he saw Vienna staring at the décor with her neck craned.

“Like it? I’ve always had a fascination for history.” He asked, sitting down at his grand desk by the window.

“Like it? Of course. It’s Renaissance Florence- inspired, isn’t it?” Vienna asked.

“How’d you know?” Elliot asked.

“My mother’s a Literature professor, and I’m a bibliophile. I read a lot. Like a lot, a lot. It’ll throw you off how much I read.”

Elliot laughed. “I know how much you read. You’re a bit of a genius.”

Vienna tried to detect sarcasm in his voice, but found nothing.

“Thanks.” Vienna said. “About the thing I wanted to talk about…”

Elliot gestured at the chair across from him, looking tired. “The mutiny.”

Vienna’s jaw dropped. He knew? And he was okay with it? Vienna had been wondering why Elliot hadn’t just hired somebody to kill her off. Damn, he could afford it. Or maybe…that was why he had accepted her offer so easily.

Elliot sighed at her expression. “I know. You found out. It wasn’t difficult to guess how, considering you’re friends with Ivanov- and the fact that you like taking walks in the vineyard.”

How does he know that?

“I have a great view.” Elliot said, almost as if he had heard her thought. His right hand gestured at his window. “I’m in here a lot. And I see everything.”

That meant he’d seen her stumble into his cave…and he’d done nothing about it?