She sat perched on the window sill, her eyes lifted to the blue skies and the slow crawl of the clouds, her damp hair cold against her neck despite the warmth of the blooming spring. Morning, she thought, lifting the china cup to her lips, tasting the bitterness of her coffee. Another day in the company of Lilith Samuels, another day in that dusty old house.
Behind her, seated at the table, one hand poised in lifting his own cup to his lips, the other holding the newspaper before him, Alfonse Saint Libatique, the Delgado family butler, studied the morning news with care and attention, as was his custom.
She had been told on numerous occasions by both her father and the housekeepers not to come down to the kitchen in the morning, not to bother the staff on their breaks, but each time she had paid such instructions little notice, deciding that really such matters were up to her to decide. After all, it was herhouse, she had a right to go where she pleased, and if she decided to spend breakfasts in the kitchen, then surely that was no concern of anyone else.
“A big day ahead?” he asked without looking up from his paper.
She both bristled at his informality and was comforted by it, pleased that he felt comfortable enough in his position to talk to her in such a way, yet also frustrated at the inference of such a manner, the suggestion of a lack of respect.
She swung her legs down from where she had been sitting, careful not to spill coffee over her bare legs, and approached the table.
“Visiting a haunted house,” she remarked, as if it was nothing special at all, her expression coy.
That got his attention. He looked up from his paper, raising an eyebrow.
“A haunted house?”
She held his gaze, dared him to look away first. He did not.
“The one by the Family Mart,” she said. “You know the one.”
She was 17-years-old, she understood exactly what men thought of her when they looked at her, and whilst she did not invite the attentions of the man sitting at the table before her—in spite of his warm, tanned complexion, his dark hair shot through with silver—she found it humiliating that he showed no interest in her, not in the way that she now expected men to.
He looked at her for a moment longer and then nodded, turning his attention back to his paper.
“Oh. One of the old Foundation dorms. Yes, I can see why you’d think such a place might be haunted.”
Phoenix struggled to keep the surprise from her face.
“Wait, the Foundation owns it?” she asked.
Alfonse nodded once more, but did not look up.
“The Foundation owns everything,” he answered unhelpfully. With a sigh, he put the paper down, and begrudgingly returned his attention to her. “Yes, the Foundation owns it. It used to be one of their dorm houses for staff working on those blasted homunculi, I believe.”
Realisation began to stir.
“Does everyone else know this?” she asked.
“I believe so,” came the reply.
Further humiliation, she thought. Of course that explained why Poppy Labyrinth had spent so much time there; of course that explained why her little gang—Lilith included—had always been so well prepared in stupid tournaments; they had all been hanging out together in the pocket of the Foundation.
“Well, that makes sense,” she said bitterly.
Alfonse looked at her with an expression somewhere between amusement and indifference.
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with that Labyrinth girl, would it?”
“No,” she said, far too quickly for her reply to be believable. “I’m going there to train my simurgh against owbs. Apparently, it’s the best place to find them.”
His expression changed, softening slightly, becoming sad even, and she struggled to understand his reaction, to second guess what it was that he was feeling.
“Yes, I imagine it would be the kind of place owbs would be drawn to now.”
“What do you mean by that?” she demanded.
The sadness did not leave his face.
“Well, owbs are drawn to human emotion, aren’t they?” he said, as if this was something he expected everyone to know. “They were always meant to amplify what it was that people felt, or, sometimes, to quell such feelings. It makes perfect sense that they would gather in a place with such a history.”
He looked away, glancing down at the paper again, as if the matter was settled, and Phoenix said nothing—found she had nothing to say, and was left only with the feeling that something had happened, an entire narrative unfolding, and she had not known of it, had not been a part of it.
“Hmm, look at this, a number of Foundation employees abroad have been fired for trying to use those bootleg creature things instead of their homunculi. Very amusing.”
She ignored him, her eyes glazing over, oblivious to the sensation of her wet hair upon her neck, the taste of coffee still on her tongue.
She had been left out, she thought, something sad twisting in her stomach. Once again, she had been left out.