The atmosphere of the manor had completely changed by the night of the ball. Maids and servants were panicking over last minute preparations. Guests entered the home, each one so loud there was no problem knowing where each one was at any given time. No eyes would dare wander away from the activity. This party had to be perfect, and its guest were going to enjoy every minute of it.
It was why Gemma was not as nervous as she should have been as she stood alone in the library, facing the portrait, door to the hallway locked from the inside. A quick pat of the pockets assured Gemma that she had everything she needed. Not that it would have mattered if she missed anything; it was too late to turn back now.
With a deep breath to fill her lunges, Gemma began inspecting the frame - she was unable the day Maybel returned, for the door to the office was left wide open, and closing it would have raised suspicion. Gemma frowned and, taking no effort, removed the portrait. The hook holding the portrait jutted out, and the back of the frame was no different than any other painting. It was just a regular picture hanging on just a regular wall.
"Can't be," Gemma whispered. If there was a puzzle here, she would solve it. Even if the solution to the puzzle would not come to her easily.
Further inspection of the portrait revealed nothing of use to her, but she did notice something amiss about the wall the portrait covered. So finely that Gemma would not have noticed it had she not been studying closely, a patch of the wallpaper was sown over the rest of the wall. The patterns fit so well that from a distance, nobody would ever suspect the patch to be anything out of place.
"Perfect." Gemma pulled out a small knife and, as carefully as possible, cut around the edges. When the piece of the wallpaper had fallen away, a small sheet of paper fell with it. Gemma snatched the sheet up before it could hit the floor, put the portrait back on its place on the wall, and picked up the piece of wallpaper to put in her pocket and discard elsewhere later. Unfolding the piece of parchment, Gemma read its contents.
R – 9
14 FROM L
Gemma furrowed her brows, wrinkles forming on her forehead. This was not like any puzzle she had seen before. With locks, the solution was laid out in front of her, and all she had to do was look for it. Yet that was not the case this time. This was not a lock. It was a code.
Swearing lightly under her breath, Gemma grit her teeth. Codes were not necessarily puzzles. Her gift would only be of so much use. If she was going to figure out what the words and letter meant, she would have to get creative.
She looked around in hopes of finding something to help her solve the problem. Books, books, and more books. There were other items in the library, of course, but none with as pressing a presence as books.
Gemma stopped. A steady grin grew on her face.
"Of course," she muttered. Shaking her head as she laughed at herself, Gemma repeated, "Of course."
Maybel shifted her weight from foot to foot. Many guests responded to the invitation to celebrate Marionette's return, but that seemed to be all they were interested in doing. Celebrating. Other than a friendly face here and there, nobody paid Maybel any interest. It was as if celebrating Seńor de Camilla's long-lost daughter was as good a reason to celebrate as anything.
Since hardly anyone paid attention to her as she passed, Maybel played around with taking things out of peoples' pockets or off their wrists. She was even dauntless enough to take a woman's purse which now housed the watches and bracelets Maybel was collecting. If anyone missed anything, he didn't make a big deal out of it. It almost disappointed Maybel. She wanted someone to know she took something from him.
Hiding the purse with her prizes under a table, Maybel stood by the corner and watched the guests who were supposed to be celebrating her return. Nobody acknowledged her as either reunited daughter or thief. It was as if she didn't exist.
"No friends eager to reunite and catch up with you?" Garrett asked quietly as he approached Maybel and offered her one of the finger foods on the tray he carried.
"No friends at all, it seems," Maybel answered as she accepted a cucumber sandwich. A look of disgust immediately crossed her face. "I hate cucumbers."
"And I hate practically everyone here asking me to refill them on their wine. Do I look like the wine guy to you?"
"Well, you certainly sound like the whine guy."
Garrett narrowed his eyes. Maybel smiled. "Very funny."
"Just keep yourself out of sight," Maybel said, replacing the cucumber sandwich she had grabbed with a tomato and basil one. "I'll search for you if I need anything."
Nodding to confirm that he understood, Garrett walked away from her and disappeared into the crowd. Maybel continued to awkwardly stand in the corner. This was no good. This ball was thrown to celebrate the return of Marionette, and all 'Marionette' was doing was standing away from the people there to celebrate her. She was nothing more than a wallflower.
"What, don't you want to enjoy your own party?" Rosetta asked as she stalked towards Maybel. She wore a soft pink dress that really brought out the pink in her hair, which was styled into a high ponytail with braid along the side of her head. The young girl smirked as she studied Maybel, choosing to wear the red dress she had arrived in nearly two weeks prior. "With what you're wearing, one would think you would be more interested in dancing than hiding away all night as you stuff yourself with food."
"You know I don't like parties, Rosetta," Maybel answered, feeling her face heat up. Ricardo's sources did confirm that Marionette was by no means a party person, but even she was never this antisocial. Maybel needed to learn to mingle before anyone else called her out on her unusual behavior. "Has any drama happened with our neighbors since I have been gone?"
Rosetta's face lit up like the candles. "Oh, lots and lots of drama! Where should I begin?"
Grateful that the young girl was now distracted, Maybel allowed herself the opportunity to breathe as she nodded her head towards an older woman in red fur. "How about we start with her?"
"Here we are," Gemma sang as she pulled the thick volume off the shelf. Ninth row, fourteenth book from the left. She then flipped to page 153 and read the third paragraph. She then wrinkled her nose and slowly closed the book.
"Blah, so dry and boring. Just what Garrett would read." With a shake of her head, she placed the book back on the shelf.
As Gemma evaluated and decoded the hidden message she believed to be within those words, Gemma prayed that Seńor de Camilla wasn't simply playing games with anyone who tried to steal the artifact. It would be the cruelest prank.
The paragraph was about honeysuckle. Gemma pursed her lips and looked around. Nothing in the library even hinted at honeysuckles. If this was another clue, the next step was not within those walls. Chewing her lower lip, Gemma thought out her next course of action. She needed to search someplace else, but she didn't know where.
Gemma thought through her days at the de Camilla home in hopes of remembering anything related to honeysuckles. The gardens appeared to have nothing but roses. The paintings were either of people or lakes. There were vases filled with flowers scattered around the manor, but Gemma couldn't remember if any of them contained honeysuckle. She forced air out of her nose. It was little to work with, but it was all she had.
As she was about to leave, Gemma froze with her fingers just above the doorknob. Voices sounded from the other side. They may have merely been passing by, but Gemma knew better than to take the risk. In the span of three seconds, Gemma searched for someplace to hide.
She had less time to get into that hiding space.
Fortunately for Maybel, Rosetta was more than content to tell her all about the gossip and drama of their neighbors and acquaintances. It was as if all suspicion was gone. More than that, it was as if whatever dislike Rosetta had of her sister vanished. Maybel listened closely to what Rosetta was saying, but she also kept this strange shift in attitude from the younger girl in the back of her mind. If she could manage to keep Rosetta in these moods as often as possible, the better off it would go for Maybel and the twins.
The thought brought Maybel's mind back to Gemma. Has she found the artifact yet? Is she okay? Neither Garrett nor I am in the position to help her if something goes wrong.
Both girls turned to look at the speaker. Rosetta immediately furrowed her thin brows, her lower lip sticking out into a pout of sorts. Maybel sucked in a sharp breath. She recognized the man who was approaching them from all his pictures in the newspapers.
"Pope Jonathan," she greeted as she lowered into a curtsy. "How are things at the Church?"
"Who cares about the Church? It's so good to see you again!" The bald, elder man, roughly in his late fifties, reached forward and grabbed both of Maybel's shoulders. He pulled her towards him so that he could kiss each of her cheeks. "I have prayed for you every day since your disappearance. Blessed be the Lord for bringing you back to us, safe and sound."
"Your prayers are much appreciated," Maybel replied, neck burning. "How are you fairing?"
"As well as I can." The pope shook his head. "Those rotten Migloritas have been causing me too much trouble lately. Have you heard that a group of them stormed the Church just a few days ago? They know they aren't welcome on the Lord's ground, yet they insist on tainting what's pure with their demon-cursed bodies. I sure hope there's more hope for their immortal souls than their unholy vessels."
Maybel did not miss the smirk Rosetta wore on her face.
"It is a shame," Maybel reluctantly agreed. Then she quickly added, "Although, how are we to know that the miglior gifts of these children are demonic? Could they not be blessed by the Lord? After all, nobody knows where these abilities came from or why they exist only in select children."
"Marionette, Marionette, Marionette." Pope Jonathan shook his head. "I understand that you have always been defensive of the Migloritas, but you know that they are not blessed. Had they been Godsent, I would have had a premonition about them. Yet I did not. Demonic or not, they are tools used by the enemy to take down everything Inonvouslee has fought so hard for in the last century."
"The Migloritas are people too, Father."
"The enemy is not afraid to use the very people we love most against us. In fact, I believe that it is our greatest weakness."
"With all due respect," Rosetta began in the most disrespectful tone Maybel had ever heard, "we were in the middle of conversation. It is quite rude to interrupt people when they're talking, you know."
"Yes, yes. My apologies." Before he left, Pope Jonathan looked Maybel in the eyes and said, "Do keep what I said in mind, won't you?"
He was gone before Maybel could ask what it was he wanted her to keep in mind.
"You're going to get caught if you hang out in the open like that!" Garrett hissed as he closed the library door behind him.
"How did you even get in?" Gemma demanded, one leg thrown over the desk as if she was about the jump over it and hide there. "I locked the door."
"I managed to get the key during all the hustle for this stupid ball. I thought that if I ever got a break tonight, I would help you steal the artifact. For the next ten minutes, nobody will be looking for me. Until then, I can help any way I can. Now, what have you discovered so far?"
Leaving nothing out, Gemma quickly went over what had happened since she began looking for the artifact.
"I was just beginning to search for honeysuckles," she continued, "but there are some serious flaws to that plan. What if there are no honeysuckles to be found? What if I waste time and we make no progress whatsoever all because I screwed up and misunderstood the hint?"
"But what if that's not what the clue is implying?" Garrett suggested, tapping his chin.
"What do you mean?"
Garrett began to inspect the bookshelves. "Gemma, do you know the scientific name for honeysuckles?"
It took all of Gemma's willpower not to snort. "Of course not. You're the studious one. I might be able to solve the puzzles you can't solve, but you're still the book smart twin."
"The scientific name for the honeysuckle is Lonicera," Garrett said. "Lonicera is also the surname of that author Maybel really likes."
"Suppose it makes sense you would know that last part." Gemma also began to study the spines of the books. "Maybel always sends you out to do her shopping. Do you think we'll find any of that author's books here?"
"Not really," Garrett answered, "but it's worth trying."
Working fast, the twins read each and every spine in sight until Garrett finally said, "Found one!"
Gemma bounced forward. "Just one?"
"Better than none." Garrett flipped through the pages of the hardback. "There doesn't seem to be anything here, though."
"Wait." Gemma yanked the book out of Garrett's hands. "This end page had a bulge in it."
Without hesitation, Gemma again pulled out her knife and cut along the sewn lines. This time, a small key fell out.
"Where do you think that fits?" Garrett asked as he studied the small object in his sister's hand.
"The desk," Gemma answered. She ran to the desk and fit the key in the center lock. Sure enough, it fit. Carefully, Gemma opened the dresser. She rummaged around in search of her next clue.
Forcing out air, Garrett shook his head. "How many steps does this guy have to get to the artifact? Most people just have two or three locks."
"Because this isn't the path to getting to the artifact." Gemma studied the notes she now held in her hands. "These are the answers to the locks. He was keeping the answers under lock and key. The path to the artifact itself must be out in the open if it's the answers Seńor de Camilla is so heavily guarding."
Garrett looked over his sister's shoulder and studied the notes. "I've seen that lock. It's on the door under the main stairs."
After thinking about what her brother said, Gemma groaned. "Do you mean the stairs just in front of the ballroom?"
"I'm afraid that is what I mean."
Gemma groaned again. "How am I supposed to get through there without attracting any attention?"
"No idea. Hate to say it, but you may need to try another time."
"Or," Gemma's smirk begun to rise, "I can create a little diversion."
It was enough for Garrett to narrow his eyes. "What exactly are you thinking?"
"Oh, nothing." Gemma giggled. "Absolutely nothing at all."
Other than the random person here and there wanting to tell Maybel how "happy they were she was back," she had been as good as ignored the whole night. It was almost as if nobody truly cared that Marionette was even gone. For most of the ball, nobody seemed to be aware of her existence. It made it all the easier for Maybel to sneak around and study the environment. And, of course, pickpocket some more.
As important as the people at the party might have been, they didn't interest Maybel the slightest. What really caught her interest was what Seńor de Camilla and Pope Jonathan seemed to be discussing. She zeroed her attention on them, casting away the noise around her. Their souls revealed the anger and irritation they felt, but it was not enough for Maybel to figure out what was causing those emotions. She tried to get closer so that she could listen in, but she was interrupted.
"May I have this dance?"
Seemingly from out of nowhere, a young gentleman took Maybel by the hand and led her away. Too shocked to remember what she was doing, Maybel didn't fight it. She looked at the one who swept her away so that she could study him.
He was tall and had royal blue hair. His eyes were gold like the twins, but they were almond-shaped instead of wide and round. The attire he wore was a bright pink, not a flattering color on his olive skin. As Maybel did not recognize his face from any newspapers recently, she assumed that he was a neighbor and not anyone of importance.
"I suppose you may," Maybel said, remembering that she had to answer the young man.
As the man led her to the dance floor, Maybel was grateful that the song playing was one of the face-paced ones. Had it been slower, she didn't think she would have had it in her to be polite. She could not bear to be so physically close to someone who was a stranger.
Fortunately, he said nothing more as he and she began to dance. The song was The Standoff, an upbeat song which had a dance that required a lot of shuffling, jumping, and stomping. It was impossible to dance along without breaking into a sweat.
In a lot of ways, the dance was exactly what Maybel needed. She could get her frustrations out and free herself for just a moment. It was not the same as dancing with Gemma, but it was still a release in its own right. To forget about everything and to just dance it all away – there was nothing that could calm Maybel more.
Her partner was not so bad himself. Without any fault, the man executed each move precisely and perfectly. He didn't stumble once, and he even had it in him to laugh at the dance without instantly losing his breath. Whoever he was, Maybel was glad that he had asked her to dance.
Until she remembered what she needed to do.
When the song ended, Maybel stood still as her shoulders rose and fell. Catching her breath, Maybel said, "It was an honor to dance with you, but I'm afraid that I must retreat now."
The man looked her up and down before lifting an eyebrow. Pulling one of the corners of his lips into a half smile, he replied, "Why is that so? Certainly you have it in you for one more dance. Why stop now? Or . . . is there a certain prize you are hoping to have in your possession by the end of the night?"
Face paling at the sudden question, Maybel opened her mouth to answer, but the words were caught in her throat as she noticed Garrett staring at her. Before she could decipher what the look on his face meant, Garrett shook his head. He then made a show of covering his ears before he turned around and left. There wasn't much time for Maybel to figure out what was going on.
Trusting what she believed Garrett signaled to her, Maybel told the man she had danced with, "I need to go," and fled the dance floor. She didn't make it far before the high-pitched cry began to sound. As she fought through the pain in her ears and the splitting in her head, Maybel found an empty closet and locked herself inside. It didn't tune out the noise, but it reduced the sound to be almost bearable. Maybel kept her hands over her ears regardless.
She had no way of knowing what the guests were doing to react. None of them, no matter how drunk, would enjoy this. All of them would be moving fast to leave the party and flee from the alarm as fast as possible. This had to have been Gemma's doing, Maybel knew. It made her grateful she and Gemma had decided to keep the little alarm from the train.
The cloths she had stuck into her ears did little to block out the wailing of the alarm, but it was all Gemma had to depend on. She could only hope Garrett had warned Maybel and the two of them got away before she set it off. The guests were no doubt going to panic when they heard the device, and many of them would not hesitate to push others out of way so they could escape the nonexistent danger. It would not be a good end to the night if either Garrett or Maybel got trampled.
The alarm also acted as a signal, although not that either Maybel or Garrett were aware. It was Gemma's own back up plan, one of the very few she had ever made and kept to herself. If the alarm went off, it was signal to Ricardo's men – some hiding outside the home and others disguised as guests within the very walls – to take action. While the partygoers reacted to the high pitch noise, the men would do whatever it took to keep all attention away from her.
Working fast, Gemma found the locked door in the now empty hallway – the servants didn't hesitate to get away, either. Never would have Gemma imagined that the artifact would be kept behind a door everyone could see.
If all Inonvouslee knows one of the artifacts is here, Gemma wondered, then why hide it out in the open? Why not in a more secret, harder-to-find place?
As she locked for the lock, however, Gemma quickly found the answers to her questions. The door was easy to find because that was how confident Seńor de Camilla was in his security system. He was showing off.
Gemma smirked. It was her turn to her show off. If she could figure out just how to do it, she could get the ring off the iron bars. Removing the ring would unlock the door, but just to find the way to move the ring through the three-dimensional maze was the tricky part. She could barely hear herself think through the stupid screaming alarm. If she did not work fast enough, someone would catch Gemma in the act of attempted thievery. Gemma grit her teeth. If she were to be caught, it would be in the act and not a sorry excuse of an attempt.
When she finally managed to free the ring, Gemma hooked it onto her belt and snuck through the door. The room was pitch black, but Gemma prepared for such. She removed a small, lamp-shaped object from her pocket and wound it. A new invention of Clyde's and one Gemma was glad to have received before she and her friends began this mission.
Light emitted from the device, brightening the dainty room. There was not a lot illumination to see, but it was better than nothing.
At the end of the room was a safe fitted with four locks. One was a slider, the other was a cube, the third was another iron ring maze, and the last was a combination code. Gemma took a deep breath. She went to work.
Gemma had solved many puzzles before, but none as complicated as the ones keeping her away from the artifact. The slider must have had one hundred pieces, and the desired shape was confusing to form without having to backtrack and figure out where she went wrong. The cube was harder still, but matching all the pieces on the right sides proved to not be impossible. After the warmup to get into the room, the iron ring maze was not as hard as it could have been. It was the last lock that threw Gemma off.
Combinations were not puzzles. Her mind did not know how to solve this. When it came to solving this problem, anyone else's guess was as good as hers. Gemma bit her lower lip. There had to be another way.
She looked the safe over and over for another means of unlocking. Then she saw it. A shape pressed into the safe, waiting for a missing piece.
"There we go." Gemma picked up the ring she had retrieved from outside. She placed it in. It was a perfect fit.
The front of the safe popped, and Gemma heaved as she moved it away. Inside sat the first of the four artifacts – a golden ring with a sapphire pressed into the band. Gemma, after determining there would be no negative consequences in doing so, snatched the ring from the safe and put it in her pocket.
Then she realized that the alarm was no longer crying its signal. It had been shut off. Someone had to be coming.
With no way of knowing how long the alarm had been deactivated, Gemma knew better than to escape the way she entered. She needed to find a new exit. The approaching voices told her that she needed to find that new exit fast.
When one of Seńor de Camilla's servants came in to investigate the open door, he was horrified to see the open, empty safe. He searched around frantically, looking for someone, anyone to place the blame on. Nobody in sight. All he could do was swear before he ran off, letting his master know the horrified crime that had just taken place.
Meanwhile, Gemma crawled through a vent she had found while searching the walls of the room. It was times such as this she was grateful the place she, Garrett, and Maybel had called home for two years had such beams for her to play on so that it was nothing for her to climb the beams up to her new hiding spot. It gave her the chance to build her body strength, overcome her fear of heights, and to know that any room without windows had another way for air to enter.
Now that she had the artifact, Gemma had to return to her quarters and come up with a story about where she was when the theft happened.
"Over here!" someone shouted as they ran beneath Gemma. "The ring is missing! If we hurry, we can find a lead and catch up with him!"
Gemma gulped. She had to get out of there fast. The walls suddenly seemed to close in on her. It was dark. Oh, so very, very dark.
Gritting her teeth, Gemma pushed forward. She forced on hand in front of the other, and she demanded her legs follow suit. The more she crawled, the further away she got from the light. It was growing darker, darker, and darker still.
Tears pouring from her eyes, Gemma used the last of strength the push herself forward. She didn't make it much further than that. Consumed with the memories of the past, her nightmares, and everything in between, Gemma could fight it no longer. The mental torment and the emotional anguish were too much for her.
Collapsing on the bottom of the vent, Gemma curled in on herself. Her little body shook, racked by her sobbing. She was alone. All alone.
Maybe this time, nobody would come.