Chapter 8 - Versus
FOUR DAYS LATER, ARTEMIS FOUND HERSELF COMFORTABLE WITH JUST EMRYS AND ELEANORE CASUALLY TALKING TO HER.
She stayed at the first floor since she’s an unofficial member of LITRature, and helped Eleanore around with the chores and the housekeeping. She met Dana, the sweet little girl who makes little notes to cheer everyone up in the building. She also helps Eleanore distribute books and fliers and post announcements on the bulletin board. Artemis would often find her with the stern-looking Chase (whom Artemis honestly thought was a girl at first, until he spoke and yelled at Nikolai) and the quiet Elbert.
For the past days, Artemis would wake up to a list of book titles pinned on her door. She suspected Nikolai Flume (she had never seen anybody in LITRature with a handwriting as messy as his), but she kept the titles anyway. After helping Eleanore around, Emrys would accompany her to the fourth floor, often to help her look for the books written on the list Nikolai gave, but since the books where nowhere to be found, Emrys would just leave her there until dinner.
The fifth day, Emrys didn’t show up, and Artemis was alone in the kitchen with Eleanore, peeling the potatoes for dinner.
“You look distracted,” Eleanore noticed, chopping carrots.
“I haven’t seen Emrys around today,” Artemis answered. “I’m worrying that Nikolai got him.”
“He must be with Fraein.”
“For that project Fraein was asking him?”
“Probably. Would you please hand me the onions?”
“Am I allowed to know what that project is?” Artemis placed the plate of onions on the counter just beside Eleanore.
“I don’t know what Fraein is planning, sweetheart. Even Connor doesn’t know.”
“Shouldn’t Connor know everything that everyone is planning? If something goes wrong without Connor’s knowledge LITRature will be in trouble.”
“It’s Fraein, Artemis. Nobody knows how he thinks—maybe except for Connor—but everyone trusts him. It’s how things around here goes: by trusting each other.”
“You don’t worry about traitors?”
Eleanore smiled and shook her head. “We don’t worry about them.”
“I worry about them,” Luca interjected, a glass of water on his hand. Artemis assumed he entered the room just in time to give that remark. Then he smiled, the same salesman smile that he’s shown Artemis the first time they’ve met. Artemis wondered if that smile was just a façade.
“Why?” Artemis asked. She was sensing a tragic backstory incoming. She also wondered if Nikolai Flume was involved, because in his Book, she’s read a phrase, betray Nightfall. Luca is a Nightfall.
“I manage the bills and the budgeting.” Luca’s shoulders sagged. “They don’t pay their share of the bills and I don’t know where to dig such amount of money.”
“That... must be really troublesome,” Artemis commented. The tragic backstory didn’t come. “But, if LITRature is against the government, what bills are you paying?”
“We’re against the government, but we are not against the people. If we mindlessly revolt, the civilians will suffer, and we are not that strong nor established to support the entire NDC. We pay taxes, but we have our own source of electricity and food.”
“That explains the greenhouse behind the building. I don’t mean to be rude if it’s confidential, but I’m just curious. Where do you get the money to pay for your bills?”
Luca and Eleanore looked at each other, before Luca gently laughed and answered, “Almost everyone in LITRature has a day-job to go to. Those who doesn’t have a day-job to go to calls themselves a full-time writer. They have their share of bills, and we make sure we take care of them well, and reassure them that whatever happens to their jobs, they can always resort to writing. Oh, and by the way, Fraein pays for whatever the writers can’t pay for.”
“Connor assured us that the money Fraein is giving us is not dirty money,” Eleanore added and winked.
“I don’t know why you needed to add that,” Artemis said, “but I am glad and relieved to know.”
“Fraein has a mansion in Sect. 1,” Luca said. “And he’s a best-selling author so he earns a lot.”
“Oh, so is he staying in Sect. 1?”
“No, he lives in his room upstairs.”
“Artemis?” Emrys appeared from the hallway door.
Artemis brightened up. “Emrys! I thought Nikolai got you for good.”
“Erm, thanks for worrying?” Emrys stood beside Luca, who was drinking water. “By the bye, the Trial starts the day after tomorrow so I wanted to check on you.”
“Aww, that’s sweet. Better than tossing me a stolen twig, actually.”
“Eleanore, can I borrow Artemis for a while?”
Eleanore looked up from the onions and tearfully nodded. Luca rinsed the glass on the sink and decided to ask, “What are you borrowing her for?”
Emrys’s eyes drifted to his left. “I was just worried because Connor said the King and the Queen of Crowne would be watching.”
“Don’t you trust Artemis’ abilities?” Luca smiled. Artemis felt her confidence building up with Luca’s trust. “She can pass the Trial by her own wits.”
Emrys said between his teeth, “Luca, please let me borrow Artemis for a while because I don’t want my room to be filled with Jell-O.”
“It’s Nikolai, isn’t it?” Luca, Eleanore, and Artemis chorused.
Emrys swallowed and slowly nodded.
“I think I should go,” Artemis said.
Eleanore nodded. “We think you should go, sweetheart.”
“I think so too, for Emrys’ sake,” Luca agreed. “But, I am telling Connor.”
“Please don’t hurt Nikolai, Artemis, honey.”
“But,” Emrys said, “just in case, I’m going to write something.”
“You need to back out.”
Nikolai gave a very bad start.
“It’s not like I think you suck, woman. I am saying this as a concerned person, with a good heart and a charming personality.”
Artemis stared at him, her hazel eyes resisting the urge to roll, and her hands both balled in a fist, trying so hard to keep them from punching Nikolai. The boy was sitting on the concrete bleachers, at LITRature’s gymnasium. Artemis and Emrys stood on the grounds, looking up at him. He was not wearing his usual potato sack sweatshirt and he was dressed rather decently today—a plain white tee inside a dark blue coat rolled up to his sleeves, black trousers, and a comfortable pair of brown boots.
Artemis snapped out from being a fashion critic and replied, “Excuse me?”
“I said you need to back out, did you not hear me, woman?” Nikolai repeated.
“Why does she need to back out?” Emrys asked. “She can pass the Trial. I mean, I passed it. It’ll be easy for her.”
“No wonder the girls think you fell from Heaven, Emrys,” Nikolai narrowed his eyes at him. “The Heavens kicked you out for being stupid.”
Emrys frowned. Artemis stood up for him and said, “Oh, you know what, Mr. Freshness? I clawed my way out from the depths of Hel to give you a very friendly high five on the face with a metal chair. I’m just waiting for the right moment to fulfil my duty.”
“Look, stargazer, I am not in the mood to fight with you, okay? I am sincerely concerned for your well-being!”
“Then at least tell me the reason why, because I am not a mind-reader! Why do you want me to back out?”
Nikolai rolled his eyes. “Because the King and the Queen of Crowne will be watching!”
“I don’t know why they suddenly decided to watch but once they arrive, a lot of people from Axis will flood this place. LITRature will be filled with people from the Axis, and that is not safe.”
“A number of people would be joining too, so if you’re that worried, shouldn’t you be telling everyone else to back out and not just me?”
Nikolai’s scowl got worse. He jumped off from the bleachers. “We can’t cancel the Trial just because of that.”
Emrys stood between Nikolai and Artemis, just in case. He put his hand on Nikolai’s shoulder and said, “You’re the only tensed one, man. We’re all cool with it.”
Nikolai cast him a very disdaining look.
Emrys sighed and frowned at him. “If you continued being like this, I won’t hesitate to tell Connor to lock you up the next Trial.”
“I would lock him up any given time, truth be told,” Artemis muttered under her breath.
“The damages you made the last Trial wasn’t even repaired yet, you know that, Nikolai?” Emrys huffed. Nikolai just glared at him.
“What happened the last Trial?” Artemis asked.
“Nobody knows the real reason why,” Emrys answered, “but we all know for sure that the reason why nobody passed the last Trial is because Mr. Flume suddenly attacked everyone.”
Nikolai’s eyes widened. A crooked smile appeared on his face but his eyes were telling otherwise. “That... That’s not true,” he spluttered.
Artemis furrowed her brows. “Is that the medic’s fee Luca was talking about...? That they can’t control anger?”
“I didn’t attack everyone!” Nikolai protested. He panted after yelling, and Artemis was shaken at the unusual rage.
Emrys was taken aback, and his ever-angelic face looked worried. “You attacked us, Nikolai. Without Connor and Fraein, LITRature would be a rubble now.”
“What—What did Connor and Fraein do?” Artemis queried.
“Fraein battled Nikolai and when they cornered him, Connor talked to him.”
“T-That’s not what happened,” Nikolai said firmly, yet his voice cracked.
“Then tell us what happened, Flume, because nothing will change if you just keep on denying it,” Artemis said.
Nikolai held her shoulders and shook her lightly. Or maybe he was giving all of his strength and Artemis was just too healthy and tough for him. “You’re going to believe me, aren’t you?” he asked.
Artemis easily shoved him away from her. “I will listen to your side of the story, just don’t touch me or I’ll punch you in the throat.”
“What really happened then, Nikolai?” Emrys asked. “You created an earthquake and summoned a hailstorm, directing them towards the applicants.”
“I-I was trying to save everyone!”
“How? From what?” Artemis asked, secretly giving Nikolai’s Book a glance.
“From... ” Nikolai trailed off.
“From you?” Emrys asked flatly.
Nikolai flailed his arms around in irritation. “Listen here, Black, nobody is asking for that topic to be brought up again. Connor said we should never talk of that accident again. I just came here to tell Artemis to back out from the Trial.”
“Because?” Artemis raised an eyebrow.
“Because the king and the queen will be watching and there will be members of Axis everywhere and... ”
“And if anything happens... ”
“If anything happens, the Gull Division is there to protect everyone,” Emrys said.
“You can’t even protect yourself, Emrys, shut your adroit mouth up.”
“Wow, Mr. Freshness if you’re going to pick an insult make sure it’s really an insult.”
“I can protect myself and I can protect LITRature and the applicants!” Emrys fumed.
Nikolai’s glare turned deadly and in a split second, he has his silver pen on his hand. “Pen’s up, writer, or you die,” he threatened and raised his pen up at Emrys’ eye-level.
Emrys groped the pockets of his khaki shorts for his golden pen, whilst Artemis stood between them and said, “Hold up, lads, you’re not fighting. Nobody’s around and I have no one to place bets with so let’s do this inside.”
“Stop talking, woman,” Nikolai hissed. “Let Emrys prove himself!”
Emrys finally had his golden pen raised up as well. Gently, he told Artemis, “Please retreat to a safer place, Artemis.”
“I need a nice view though,” Artemis mumbled, climbing the bleachers. She knew she ought to stop them, but this will be the first time she’ll be watching an actual fight between writers, and stopping them is a damsel-in-distress’ job.
Artemis yelled, “First one to strike thrice wins!”
“That’s not how it works, woman!” Nikolai screeched back.
“I was just suggesting, idiot! Emrys, beat that hamster cheeks!”
Emrys just swallowed nervously, watching Nikolai carefully, in case he decided to suddenly attack. But Nikolai tauntingly spun his pen around his fingers, saying, “Let’s see... Axis has guns and what do you have? A degree in Architecture?”
“I am not just an architect, sillyface.” Emrys frowned, shaking his pen a little. “I am also a member of the Gull Division, which is higher than your non-existent Silfr.”
Nikolai scowled and summoned three floating guns in front of him. “I could attack now, Emrys, and you still have to write to fight.”
Emrys smirked. “Shāh māt, Nikolai.”
Nikolai blinked. “What?”
Marble pillars fell down from the skies and destroyed the guns Nikolai had in front of him. A mock copy of a famous ancient statue appeared and caved-in in front of Nikolai, splitting into two before trapping him side to side. The ground shook from the collapse, and it left Artemis in awe. She clapped and wished she really had someone to place bets with. And then she remembered she doesn’t have any money.
Emrys climbed the wreckage of the statue and looked down at Nikolai. “You didn’t notice that I’ve had those pillars above you right from the start. And that’s how we’ll protect the applicants from the Axis.”
Nikolai, wide-eyed and grinning as if he won, replied, “Always two steps ahead the enemy, huh?”
“I may appear weak, Nik, but I am still a member of Gull.”
Nikolai laughed ruefully and waved his pen up, the marble around them disappearing.
Emrys looked concerned. “Why are you laughing?”
Nikolai fixated his eyes at Emrys, biting his lip to stop the fake laughter and showing how pissed he really is. He glowered at him and said, “Burn.”
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