“... and that night, we became the witnesses of the first contact. We were incredibly lucky, weren’t we? To be among the firsts to lay our eyes on the otherworldly beauty. Your little adolescent heart must have been stolen right there and then by your cousin hailing from your favourite moon…”
“Cut it, Henrietta. She’s not my cousin. Fey was not actually my aunt, even if she did live with our family.”
“…and not just that. Now your crush is your tutor in university. You get to meet her every day. You have a real chance at her. Isn’t that a dream come true for our little Alex? Serena’s fans must love to switch places with you.”
“Sorry. That blushing face of yours is just too funny. Wonder what the girls will think if the saw that.”
“Thank God you didn’t bring a camera.”
I suppose I know what Henrietta meant.
There were too many coincidences. First, her family was able to repair the Atlantis using an artifact they happened to have. Second, she operated a spacecraft that should have been foreign to her and landed successfully. Third, she landed with us, whose families were close to her mother, in front of her. And finally, with her newfound popularity in Frescia --- you don’t get to see a literal alien that often --- she had a myriad of career options. She could have been a writer, writing about her home planet and its exotic cultures; she could have been a fixture in the showbiz with her unmatched beauty; or she could have been a politician, having inherited the right to the citizenship and enjoying great popularity. Instead, she appeared in front of us again, as a university lecturer and the leader of our research team. As if…
“The Professor and you were bound by the thread of fate?”
“Stop reading my mind.”
With a bright smirk on her face, Henrietta took a sip at her floral tea, the subtle and refreshing scent leaking from the golden liquid. One of the Walled Garden’s special items, the floral tea was said to be able to boost concentration and alleviate anxiety, which proved to be an instant hit among the university students traumatised by exams. It’s also Henrietta’s favourite; though, in Henrietta’s case, she simply liked the taste.
I took a sip from my cup too. It was scorching hot, forcing me to make a funny face while I struggled to set down the boiling liquid. As if to stop Henrietta from laughing at me, I spoke:
“Of course not. But think about it --- it’s crazy to think our tutor is a literal selenite. She chose us herself, too. It’s as if it was all a part of a grand plan...”
“So I wasn’t alone in feeling that... especially considering what a team she has gathered.”
The Focus Group for Applied Artifact Research --- our research team was a team created by the Professor. She handpicked every member of the team, often from unrelated fields and from students. How she managed to get permissions and funding was still a mystery for me. Jokingly named “Serena’s Tea Party”, due to our preferred meeting location being the Walled Garden, our team was, if anything, eccentric in its composition.
“A pompous artist, a pragmatic engineer, a loner physicist, and a military historian, who are an Imperial prince, a Communard elite, the grandson of the director of the Space Agency, and the daughter of a Senator, respectively. People with strong personalities that normally don’t mix at all, and powerful ones nonetheless.”
“It’s even more confusing how well we mixed with each other. Especially those two.”
“Especially those two.”
We let out a collective sigh.
The pot of tea had run out, the clear glass teapot now without a trace of the golden liquid. Gone with it were the sweet but subtle floral smell, and in its place a hearty savoury smell permeated the cafe. Teatime was over; it was the time for dinner. As the guests next to us swapped their tea for mouth-watering steak sets one by one, the moribund sun had quietly gone into the night, its dying breath igniting the antique gas lamps in the Walled Garden. With their wavering flames, the gas lamps did their best to illuminate the room, yet with their light, there came the shadows. The shadows overlapped with one another, sometimes flickering and shaking, as if they were living creatures dancing to the tunes played in the cafe. The ornate faux-Imperial style architecture added to the elegant atmosphere that was so beloved by the students. A waiter brought to us a lit candle, as if its dim light could save us from the creeping darkness. A moment passed, the candle’s flame then started to dance: a loud chime broke through the room, the old faithful bell fulfilling its duty to the campus and its lazy residents. The clock had stroke eight. The other team members were nowhere in sight.
“Should we eat now?” Succumbing to hunger, I asked, and before Henrietta could answer I ordered two sets of steak.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the others?”
“C'mon. When they arrive, we are probably done eating anyways.”
It was a quarter to nine when the missing members of the research team finally showed up. Even before the two appeared on the mosaic floor, one could conjure their figures from their voices. A blonde man of tall and handsome figure, of elegance and extravagance, and of over-dramatic manners. A brown-haired girl of diminutive size but grand intellect, of rationality and simplicity, and of straight-forward, if rude, manners. The man was talking about art, history and the seven-coloured staircase; the girl was questioning the necessity to climb the said staircase when there was a lift.
The man was Carl Canterbury-Lothringen; an international student of humanities, and out of his unparalleled love for art, he travelled around the world to study artistic expressions in different cultures. Or, at least, that was what he claimed to be. Even if his well-designed outfits and exceptional talent in art could back up his claims, the man was in fact exiled here. The third prince of the Imperial Commonwealth of Anteland-Estrania, he was supposed to inherit the right --- and responsibility of royalty. Instead, he wasted his days in taverns and nightclubs, earning him an unsavoury --- but down-to-earth --- reputation that nonetheless earned him the affection of the people. The tales of his misdeeds were the favourites of the tabloids, as were the tales of his brother’s, the Crown Prince Williams’s, numerous attempts to rein him in. The Crown Prince eventually gave up, and “persuaded” him to study here by shipping him to Frescia in a locked railway carriage with boarded up windows. For his part, he was initially upset about his treatment; but easily distracted and unchained from the strict codes of the Imperial household, he soon realised life in Frescia was a gift, rather than a curse. His favourite saying,
“Do you not feel the beauty in your heart?”
…was notorious among female students because he often used it as a pickup line.
His counterpart was a radically different person. Natalie de la Tour, the short girl with a childish appearance, was however easily the most academically accomplished person in the research group, the Professor notwithstanding. Born to parents who were both factory workers in the Federation of Kaledonian Communes, she inherited neither the glamour of nobility nor the responsibility associated with it. She was a commoner, in every sense of the word: she ate the same food, read the same books, and went to the same school as her everyone else. She was to graduate from school, become an apprentice, and one day become a proud worker in the local commune.
Yet she defied every expectation.
Always thought to be a clever kid, the school administration was however shocked when Natalie finished the 6-year course in a mere 2 years. So shocked, in fact, that the principal sent a letter of recommendation to the Federal Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious research organisation of the country. The letter intrigued the Academy, whose investigators, seasoned academics themselves, were in turn impressed by the little girl, especially by her understanding and interest in the Artifacts. By 12 she was a student at the Academy. By 16, a full member leading her own research team. She was, in fact, not a student but a guest lecturer, even in Frescia; she had accepted the Professor’s invitation, perhaps both due to her personal interests, and the Academy’s interests, in the Professor’s research. But even if --- and perhaps because of --- she was one of the most well-learnt people on this planet, she still sometimes slings insults like a rough daughter from a working family:
“You motherfucker better not try that on me.”
“No! My wonderful lady, I merely wished to…”
Sensing I should put an end to this unproductive conversation, I chimed in with a smirk on my face.
“Prince Carl, Comrade Natalie. You two are on friendly terms as always. My loner’s heart, however, wishes you could refrain from displaying your affection in public.”
“Your joke is as lame as ever, Alex. Also, I don’t remember you being my comrade.”
“Everyone in this research team is working towards a common goal, no? That, by definition, makes us comrades.”
“To hell with your slick tongue.” Natalie quipped as her eyes surveyed our table. “I see you’ve had your fill already. We will have ours quickly then.” She called over the waiter and asked for two hamburgers. She did not order any drinks.
“Can I also have a lime shortcake, a cup of Imperial Grey tea, a glass of lemonade, and a bottle of Kaede soda, please?” Carl asked the waiter before he left.
“Sure. But isn’t that a bit too much for you and the young lady over there?”
“We have another friend coming, and the cake is for her. Can I also ask you to hold onto the cake and the soda until our friend gets here?”
“Of course, sir.” The waiter left with haste.
“I didn’t think you would remember everyone’s favourite drinks, Carl.” I spoke with a hint of amazement, “But is a cake enough for the Professor?”
“Knowing Prof. von Eisenstadt, she probably just woke up and won’t have much appetite anyways. If she wasn’t planning on napping, then she wouldn’t hand those handouts to me.” Carl took out several documents and began distributing to the team members.
“I doubt she’s napping… Though it wouldn’t be out of her character to do it.” Henrietta picked up her copy and skimmed through it. “A new research project… Collaboration with National Artifact Administration… A request for Artifact analysis and restoration? Did the Professor took an odd job again?”
“She did. Looks like we get to work on some famous stuff now. Pretty boring technologically, I would say, but it looks like something right up your alley.” Natalia answered.
“It’s an object of great historical importance --- or so I’ve been told. Not that I am familiar with Frescian history to begin with.” Natalia let out a dry laugh, “I guess the Professor can explain it better.”
“Speaking of the Professor, where is she?”
“I wish I know.”
IRL has gotten me quite hard in the last few weeks and obviously I will not be able to finish the novel before the competition ends. However, I plan to continue to update this novel, until it is finished. For my readers out there, thanks for reading and supporting me.
Next chapter: Serena von Eisenstadt has a quest for her team.