Blades & Barriers: Chapter 42

                Babysitting diplomats was turning out to be roughly as exciting as Angela expected. Sure, the fact that one of them was keeping a secret made it mildly more interesting, and there was the potential to be attacked at any moment. Until any of that actually happened though, her job was to sit around, wait for the press conference to be set-up, and watch as Iliana and Steven reviewed page after page of documents. Part of her had wondered what it would be like, serving as envoy to another country. She’d even imagined herself in the role once or twice, exploring new cultures with a tinge of danger looming constantly in the air. Then she’d gotten a look at how the job actually went and her half-cobbled daydream withered on the spot. Hero work already had too much paperwork for Angela’s taste, which was a statement that depressed her more the longer she thought about it.

                Eventually Steven and Panic left the room to attend to some details and Iliana took a break from her pages. She walked over to the refreshment table, helping herself to a soda and carefully lowering herself into a seat near Angela. The composed, slightly-glowing woman took a tenative sip from her drink before letting out a soft belch moments later. Iliana flushed from her neck to her ears, turning the light on her skin a slightly crimson shade.

                “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t expecting that. We didn’t have these sorts of drinks when the Republic of Krezic was in charge.” Iliana moved the can like it was a bomb set to go off, gently setting it down on an end table before jerking her hand away.

                “No need to apologize. I’ve heard and done worse just this week.” Angela wasn’t entirely certain that this was comforting, or appropriate, but it was the only thing she could think to say in the moment. “I’m way more shocked that the old regime didn’t allow soda. That seems crazy. What about beer? Don’t tell me you guys never had any beer.”

                “The Republic itself had plenty of both beer and soda,” Iliana clarified. “What I meant is that we weren’t permitted any. Supers were kept under close observation, our diets among the many things that were constantly controlled.”

                “Oh. So, was that all Supers, or… you know what, never mind. I think I was about to go down a very undiplomatic road there, and I’m sorry for even getting close to it.”

                Iliana smiled, a strangely endearing gesture given what Angela already knew about her tendency to hide things, and carefully patted Angela on the arm. “It’s fine. You want to know if they did that to all the Supers, or just the ones they were experimenting on. In other words, you were about to ask if I was a test subject. It’s okay, Charon. You’re not the first to broach the subject, and you won’t be the last. I wouldn’t have been selected for this job unless I was comfortable talking about my past.”

                “That’s quite brave of you.” It was the first time Unseelie had joined the conversation, glancing over from her guard position near the door. Angela had a hunch that if she hadn’t backed off the questioning, Unseelie would have intervened. It was a lucky break that Iliana was being so cool about the near gaff.

                “Thank you, but I do not consider this bravery. Those working hard to build our new nation back home, rooting out the last of those loyal to the old government; they are the truly brave ones. I am only asked to talk and tell my story while living in luxury. Many jobs are far harder than my own.” Iliana paused, her hand creeping over and picking up the soda once more. “To answer the question you were too polite to ask, Charon, the short version of the truth is that yes, I was among the test subjects of the Republic of Krezic. Would you like to hear the longer version?”

                Angela’s eyes darted over to Unseelie, who gave her no expression in response. Iliana had opened the door, whether she wanted to walk through it or not was on Angela. Asking wouldn’t be rude, but it would probably end with her learning something uncomfortable. People didn’t typically provide off-ramps on conversations going to pleasant places. In the end, curiosity won out. Angela was the type to always prefer knowledge over ignorance, even when it made things more complicated.

                “If you’re comfortable sharing, then I’d like to hear the longer version,” Angela said.

                “Then I shall tell you. The truth is that under the Republic of Krezic every Super was considered a test subject. The only ones who lived in any sort of peace were those who managed to hide their powers from the moment they manifested, and even then the government forced Supers with detection abilities to try and root them out. I have met a handful of Supers who lived free during the old days, all of them with weak powers and careful natures. For the rest of us, we were usually scooped up within a week of gaining our gifts.” Iliana was strikingly calm as she spoke, no emotion or tremors creeping into her voice. This was her story, and she’d told it only the gods knew how many times over the years. With a wary expression, she took another sip of the soda, this time without the follow-up belch.

                Angela, on the other hand, was trying hard to stay collected as a fire of rage kindled inside her. She couldn’t imagine being hunted down like that, caged and experimented on because she could do something others couldn’t. Would she have gone peacefully, or died taking as many as possible with her? It was easy to say now, as the woman she’d grown into, but if she’d been child without her grandfather’s teachings it was impossible to guess. She was just grateful she hadn’t ever had to find out.

                “What about Powereds?” Unseelie asked from her spot near the door.

                For the first time in her tale, Iliana’s face flickered with sadness. “Powereds… those poor souls. They were the easiest to find, for obvious reasons, but few could actually be put to use by the government. They were considered the most expendable of test subjects, used for procedures with almost no chances of success. Supers were seen as valuable commodities to be researched or bent to the will of those in charge. Powereds were viewed as disposable, and treated thusly. When the revolution came, we freed all those who remained. There were horrendously few.”

                “No wonder it’s taking so much effort to convince the ones who left to come back,” Angela said. She was trying to keep her mind on the task at hand now, refusing to entertain images of her life, her family, if they’d been born in the same situation as Iliana’s people. Even if she didn’t fully trust the woman, there had to be some grains of truth in this story. The revolution itself and the UN’s investigation afterward confirmed the largest pieces of her tale.

                “It is a difficult task,” Iliana agreed. “And yet one that I must not fail on. So many of our people are out there scared, paranoid, looking over their shoulder at every turn. I need them to know that it’s finally okay to come back. They have somewhere they can be safe at long last. If it takes me the rest of my life, I won’t stop until every last one of my brothers and sisters knows that they have a home.”