If nothing else, it was waking up alone in Ribbon’s bed that made the decision for her.
The spot where Ribbon had lain was still warm, telling her that the woman hadn’t been gone for long, but the fact that she was gone was what gave Amadhay a moment to let the silent part of her mind speak. She had come here because she had seen something in the Palnoki that she hadn’t seen in the Phoegani. But the longer she stayed, the deeper into it she became, the easier she was seeing more aspects of the Phoegani in the Palnoki than she liked. There were still secrets, there were still innocents being hurt, there was still an ingrained hierarchy and a goal that she didn’t know furthered by pain she didn't understand.
The family aspect that she had once seen was starting to lose its finishing. Atlas was still very much in charge and he had no problem using his power to make the others do what he wanted. The faces were different, but the problems were still the same. She had traded in one evil for a newer one and while she wasn’t going to lie and say that she wasn’t part of the problem, she could honestly say that at least in the Phoegani, she knew where she stood. Here everyone kept changing their stories, everyone kept adding new dimensions to something she had thought to be a linear. The only thing she knew for certain was that Atlas hadn’t lied to her when he had explained why she was here.
“You are here because I want you to be.”
That was the only reason she was there. As much as she wanted to, as hard as she had tried, she didn’t fit into their tight knit community. No matter how much Atlas wanted her to be there, she couldn’t stay. As long as she was there, she would always wonder what they weren’t telling her. She would always wonder if Ribbon was only her friend, her lover, because Atlas wanted her to be. She would always wonder if they would target other people she cared about. She would always fear that one day she would open a door and find Monkey or Benjy or even one of her sisters being held captive, tortured, killed.
She wasn’t going to let that happen. Never again. She was determined that Indigo was going to be the last person she cared about to die right in front of her eyes without her doing anything. The thing was, she knew that going back to the Phoegani wouldn’t make it any better. Atlas had been right. There, she was simply another asset, another well-trained killer. She didn't know their goals, and doubted she would stand by them given a chance. She was just another piece of the puzzle, or worse, just a replaceable tool to be discarded when she was no longer of use.
The true problem was that she feared that here, with the Palnoki, she was no better. Despite what Atlas and Ribbon, or even Tenshu and Kimiko told her or tried to make her believe, she couldn't help but to believe that there was more going on than she was seeing. And that was why she needed to go back. Not just for Christein and Benjy. Not just for her sisters and family. But because she needed to see more than she was. She needed to figure out what was going on, who was truly in charge, what everyone was trying to do. At least with the Phoegani, she could work her own agenda. She couldn’t be the Amadhay Atlas wanted, not while they were still killing people all around her and she didn’t know why.
Finally made up about what to do, Amadhay sat up. She set her feet on the floor and it felt strange. It wasn’t the plush carpet from the Ice Castle or the smooth wood from the Sand Castle. It was cobblestone and for some reason she couldn’t explain, that caught her attention. Cobblestone is so hard to wash blood out of.
Shaking her head to push away the strange thought, Amadhay got off of Ribbon’s bed. She paused at the wardrobe, momentarily thinking about changing, but decided not to. There was no point in drowning herself in Ribbon’s clothing when she was leaving her behind. It would only confuse her and make it easier for Atlas to convince her to stay. It was already going to be difficult in the clothes Atlas had dressed her in, but it would nearly be impossible if she were wearing Ribbon's. She would feel protected if she were wearing Ribbon's clothes and she didn't need protection; the weak needed protection. She had to be strong.
Purposely avoiding the mirror, Amadhay smoothed her hands over her hair, knowing that it was a curling mess and not wanting to see herself looking wild and untamed, especially since that was how she was feeling on the inside. For a moment, she almost laughed, thinking I bet I look just like Amaya. But then she pushed that thought back as well, leaving her hair in its natural form. Instead, she focused on what she could fix, straightening her purple dress so that the ribbons at the waist fell in neat bows at perfect points on either side. She ran her fingers over the lace collar to make sure it was all laying flat. The kitten pin that Ribbon had put on the dead center of her chest, she took off, setting it on the bed.
She nervously fixed the pinstripe stockings so that the lines were straight and the pattern was mirrored perfectly on both legs. Taking a deep breath to set herself, she left Ribbon’s room, closing the door softly behind her. For a moment, she paused, looking down both sides of the hallway to try to reacquaint herself with the set up of the building. It was different from both other Palnoki buildings she’d been in. She had mildly wondered if all the Palnoki buildings were different. Now she’d never know.
There were only three places she knew in this building, not including Ribbon’s room: Atlas’ room, the mudroom that led to the gardens, and the meeting room. She doubted that Atlas would be in the mudroom or the gardens, so she decided to try his room first. She wasn’t ready just yet to go to the meeting room, where Indigo had died.
Of course, however, she had to pass the meeting room before getting to Atlas’ room since Ribbon’s room was on the opposite side of the building, closer to the gardens than his was. It was purely by luck that she happened to hear voices coming from the meeting room as she passed it. In fact, she still would have passed it if she hadn’t heard Atlas’ voice, sounding angry.
“You are honestly telling me that you can’t get anything off of that chip?”
She paused, considering making her presence known, but Kimiko’s response changed her mind.
“I’m assuming that they had Base fix it.”
“And you aren’t skilled enough to break his coding?” Atlas demanded. “Maybe I should replace you. You haven’t been much of a help lately.”
“She almost had it,” Tairyn defended. “But then Ghost Sparrow and Red Baron got in the way. Again.”
“What were they doing there?” Atlas demanded. Amadhay moved closer to the door, listening more closely now that she had heard Benjy and Christein’s code names.
“I’m going to assume they were looking for Red Bird,” Ribbon stated sardonically. “Since they keep showing up. Everywhere.”
“They’ve shown up more than once?” Atlas was sounding even less pleased.
“I’ve run into them three times,” Ribbon admitted.
“They tried to corner me and Tenshu a few months back,” Cowboy added. She could hear a savage grin in his voice. “They won’t be trying that again.”
“Why is this the first I’m hearing about their interferences?” Atlas asked. Amadhay had to strain to hear him because his voice had gone low and quiet.
There was silence for a moment.
“They haven’t really been an interference until now,” Kimiko said slowly. “Just minor annoyances.”
“Annoyances large enough that they stopped you from being able to use Base Inventions mainframe,” Atlas reminded them in the same, even tone.
“If we could just kill them it would be easier,” Tairyn said, making Amadhay clench her fists in anger. He had been their friend. How could he even suggest that?
“Then why haven’t you?” Atlas asked, almost conversationally.
There was another silence. This time Johannes broke it.
“You told us that they were off limits.”
“Because of Amadhay?” Cowboy reminded him.
“Amadhay would never have to know,” Atlas said, his voice sounding tense. “She hasn’t heard from them since coming here, has she?” he paused for a click, but no one answered him. “She hasn’t. For all she knows, they aren’t even looking for her. Kill them. If she finds out, we’ll comfort her later. But right now, I need you to get them out of the way so that we can get the information we need.”
Ribbon was hesitant when she spoke. “Is that an order?”
“Yes,” Atlas said, “Kill the phantom and the Hakinato. They’re not in my plans.”
“I’ll do it,” Cowboy volunteered when Ribbon didn’t say anything more.
“No. Ribbon will do it,” Atlas stated. “It’s her job. I have another job for you anyway.”
“With Tenshu?” Cowboy asked, “Because it’s getting more difficult to bring him out. The Heralds are getting fond of him, enough so that they ask too many questions when he leaves.”
“Just you and Stefan. Don’t worry. I need him right where he is. He’s vital in bringing the Heralds to us.” There was a pause in which Amadhay imagined Cowboy nodded his head. “You need to bring me Darach. He’s been playing with the Hakinato’s far too long. He’s forgotten who he really belongs to.”
Someone laughed, and since Stefan’s voice was still amused when he spoke, Amadhay assumed it was him. “I was wondering how long you were going to let him hide out there.”
“Darach Devalier is one of us?” Tairyn asked in a shocked voice.
“The game with Darach goes much farther than this one with the Phoegani,” Stefan answered, giving another laugh. “Though I doubt he’d call himself one of us.”
“I don’t understand,” Kimiko said.
“You don’t have to,” Atlas snapped, causing silence to fall again. “You just need to get to decrypting that personnel chip. I need to know who else to bring from the Phoegani before we destroy them.”
“I really don’t think there’s anyone else worth your time,” Tairyn spoke, sounding sure of himself.
The ice in Atlas’s voice mirrored Amadhay’s own feelings toward Tairyn at the moment. “I’m sure I didn’t ask you.”
There was a loud thump against the door and an accompanying grunt, making Amadhay jump back, but the door didn’t open. Instead, she was able to hear Atlas perfectly, telling her that he was at the door.
“In fact, I’m trying to decide if you are even worth keeping around anymore. Your information is outdated. I have Amadhay. Really, the only reason I can see to keep you around is to keep Kimiko happy, since you being here makes Amadhay decidedly unhappy.” She could hear the sound of a series of flat slaps, which she imagined was Atlas patting Tairyn’s cheek.“So if I were you, I would be silent and hope that Kimiko is able to decrypt the files soon, because if not, I might not be so easily persuaded to keep you around.”
“Atlas…” Kimiko started.
Atlas gave a low chuckle. “Just playing, Sweet. I won’t hurt your banshee. He makes you too happy. Just know that I won’t be happy until you’ve decrypted that chip.”
“I get it,” Kimiko said in a tense tone.
“I hope you do,” Atlas said. Someone, probably Atlas, clapped their hands. “Everyone knows what they’re going to be doing?”
There was an assortment of different confirmations. Someone started to pull the door open. “Oh wait, wait.” Atlas stopped them from leaving. The door was closed again.
“Has there been any success with the Heralds?” he asked.
“Other than Tenshu becoming close to Amaya and Blu? Not really,” Cowboy answered. “If anything, they’re more closed off since the Feral wolf incident.”
“Closed off in what way?” Atlas asked.
“It’s going to be difficult to bring them here. More difficult than expected. They’ve settled in Ratigattan and the Pirate King has decided to become their protector. Any move to change that will be met with with extreme resistance. I doubt we can keep them and fight him and the Phoegani all at once.”
“We can wait,” Atlas decided. “If push comes to shove, we can have Amadhay infiltrate. They didn’t notice the last time, right?”
Cowboy seemed hesitant. “She wasn’t under much scrutiny then. One wrong move and—”
“You can train her on how to be more like Amaya,” Atlas dismissed. “But as I said, it’s our last case scenario. I’d prefer not to have to put her into this.”
“She’s always talking about wanting to help,” Ribbon mentioned. “I think she’ll be thrilled to know she’s part of the plans.”
There was a certain sarcasm to the words. Or maybe Amadhay just imagined it there because no one said anything about it. Amadhay backed from the door, feeling betrayed on too many levels to count. Atlas had played her. She had been the game. She had been the game and he had played her so expertly that she had fallen for it, for him.
No more, she decided.