[chapter 8 continued]
Mira jogged upstairs to Olivier’s room, holding her ribs as each step jarred the tender spot where she’d been kicked in her last sparring match. She’d tried sparring above her level again, an eight this time now that she was holding up at a seven. As a result she had a new collection of bruises, and that blow to the ribs was causing enough pain that she thought she might have broken something. She made a mental note to see Theo after checking in with Olivier.
When she reached his room, the door was shut—a common sight these days. She knocked twice, and he let her in, closing the door behind her.
“We got another message from Lucas,” Olivier told her by way of greeting. He picked it up from his desk and handed it to her. “It’s a long one, but still using the plum theme.”
“A plum tart recipe?” she asked disbelievingly. “Wow, Lucas. Wow.”
Olivier shrugged. “I’m guessing he needed to send a longer message than the past ones allowed.”
Mira frowned. “Usually he’d just doodle something in the corner if it were a longer message than the cipher text.”
“That was when he knew he was handing the cipher to you. Right now he doesn’t, so he’s keeping up the plum theme.” Olivier sank back into his chair, resting his interlaced hands on top of his head. “Though with the Jade League out in the open now, we might as well let him know you’re with us.”
Mira glanced up at him from the message. “Is it all right with Etienne?” she asked.
“I’ll ask him, but I don’t see why not,” said Olivier, leaning back in his chair until his knuckles grazed the wall. “You’re strong enough that the city isn’t a threat to you, and it might tell us something to see what Lucas does next.”
She helped herself to a pen and a blank pad of paper from his desk. “What do you think he’ll do next?” she asked, bending over the recipe and pad as she deciphered Lucas’s message.
Olivier made a vague grunt of a response. “What do you think he’ll do next?” he asked. “You’re the one who knows him.”
Mira took a deep breath and set down the pen in her hand. She looked at Olivier thoughtfully, her arms crossed at her chest while she considered his words. “The Lucas I knew would have joined the Jade League the moment he knew it existed,” she said slowly. “But the Lucas I knew also wouldn’t abandon his sister either, assuming he found Isabelle before he knew about the Jade League.” She sighed, shaking her head. “I don’t know, Olivier. There’s something keeping him there—keeping both of them there with the government—something that I can’t understand. Lucas is,” she paused, searching for the right words. “He’s fiercely loyal. In high school, if anyone so much as made a mean gesture at me, he’d jump to defend me whether I needed his help or not.” She smiled to remember the time they’d both been dragged to the principal’s office for fighting in the halls, but her thoughts returned to the present. “But here… he’s standing by his family, he’s standing by Isabelle, but I never dreamed he’d turn his back on his fellow mages.”
Olivier was quiet for a time, thinking about what she had said. Mira bent over the desk again to decipher Lucas’s message. As usual, the discussion brought clouded, confused questions to her mind, but she pushed them aside to focus on the task at hand. Perhaps one day one of these messages might answer all their questions.
After a while, Olivier rubbed his eyes and sat forward. “Do you think it changes anything that you’re with us?” he asked.
Mira turned to him, brow furrowed. “I really don’t know,” she said. “At the very least I hope it’ll give him some assurance that I’m all right. Like he won’t have to worry about me, you know?”
“Who knows,” she said, shrugging. “Maybe that’s enough for him to abandon Favreau and join us.”
Olivier shook his head. “And leave Isabelle?”
Frowning, Mira tapped her pen against the thumb of her other hand. “Try to bring her with him, if he can?”
But Olivier sighed. “Look, Mira, I know Lucas is important to you, but you’d be hard pressed to find a mage in Paris who would welcome Isabelle Brunet.”
Mira acknowledged his point with a weary nod. “There’s more to this situation,” she sighed. “I just don’t know what.”
Standing from his chair, Olivier reached up and stretched. “Well, let’s tell him you’re here. Then we’ll see what happens.” He crossed the room and toppled onto his bed without bothering to straighten out the covers.
The sight made Mira smile, although in the back of her mind she knew he, like many others in the Jade League, were working to the point of exhaustion. It was a different kind of paranoid fear that drove Etienne, Olivier, and the other high-ranking mages in the league, a brand of panic painted by the fact that hundreds now relied on them for protection and livelihood. They worked in a desperate sprint to stay ahead of the government—it was no wonder that Etienne barely slept. The worries of the entire city weighed on his conscience.
With Olivier sprawled out on the bed making frustrated noises at the ceiling, Mira took over his desk chair and went back to translating the cipher. The process was tedious—she and Lucas rarely traded messages this long back at school. Usually they were short, pointed, and gossipy: Check calc hw b4 practice? Sarah-Dan broke up… again. Coach broke arm sparring yesterday. The only time in recent memory they’d sent a note this long was when she gave him their friends’ orders the last time he snuck off campus to the closest In-N-Out Burger during the lunch break. The food was always soggy by the time they could eat it in the safety of the Mage Society office, but the thrill made it worth the trouble.
Mira almost laughed aloud—her entire perspective on what was considered risky had shifted so far from those clandestine lunch runs ever since she’d left home for Paris. For the first time, it truly struck her how much she’d grown since parting ways with Lucas. Would he recognize her now? With her hair cropped short, her muscles taught from sparring with hardened adults, and her mind employed in strategizing for the Jade League—would he know her the way he had when they’d left? Or had she changed so much that she was as much a mystery to him now as he was to her?
She let herself keep drifting through these thoughts as she continued deciphering. After a while, she checked back over her translation so far. Something wasn’t right. The message wasn’t stinted abbreviations and jumbled letters anymore. Full words emerged, clear as mountain air.
“Olivier,” she said slowly. “Are you sure this message hasn’t been altered or anything?”
He sat up on the bed, alarmed. “It hasn’t been changed by anyone with us,” he said. “The only person to even see it was the patrol mage who brought it directly to me.” He rubbed his head, mussing up his short hair so that it stood at conflicting angles. “Why? What’s wrong?”
Mira rechecked a random letter, and it came back correct again. “It’s just—the plaintext is almost completely straightforward.” She tossed the pad over to him.
He caught it deftly. “You’re sure you’re using the right cipher?” he asked.
She nodded. “Lucas is good, but he’s not so good that the wrong cipher would return plaintext clearer than the right one.” She went over to the bed and peered over his shoulder as he read her handwriting.
After a moment, Olivier scratched his head and turned the pad sideways, hoping for an epiphany. “It’s straightforward,” he said slowly, “as in there are full words, but I can’t tell what it means.”
She frowned at the pad of paper. “Maybe that’s why he didn’t bother to obscure it,” she offered. “It’s already just a jumble of nonsense.”
He rubbed his eyes and flattened his hair on the top of his head. “What is he doing?” he demanded, his words grinding in his throat out of frustration.
Mira sighed and took the pad back to the desk, where she slumped in Olivier’s desk chair. “I think we’d all like the answer to that.” She finished off the last few lines of cipher text and threw the pad back at Olivier, who was sprawled out on the bed again and didn’t bother to catch it this time but let it slide across the covers until it came to rest against his elbow.
“Done?” he asked without moving. He had closed his eyes, but Mira could tell he was still alert.
“Done,” she said. “You know, I wrote up these ciphers for you so you wouldn’t need to wait for me every time there’s a new one.”
He made a vague waving gesture with one hand. “I know, but you’re still faster at translating them.” His eyes fluttered open, and he bent his neck up just enough to smile at her before letting his head drop back to the comfort of the bed. “I’ll talk to Etienne about telling Lucas you’re safe with us.”
“Here,” she said, tossing him a folded note she’d written on a blank scrap of paper.
With effort, Olivier retrieved it and unfolded the sheet, holding it over his head to read it. “‘Package arrived late October, no plums damaged.’ Clever.” He examined the page for a moment. “No cipher text?” he asked, noting the lack of marks on the page.
“I’ll let you and Etienne decide that,” replied Mira. “If it were up to me, I’d just say, ‘what the hell are you doing?’ but I think Etienne might have something more elegant to convey.”
Olivier chuckled. “Perhaps.” He glanced at the clock on the bedside table and groaned. “You’d better grab lunch before the rush starts. I’m going to attempt to take a nap.”
Smiling, Mira wished him luck and let herself out, careful to close the door behind her.