Things begin to darken. The ending is almost here. Only one more episode to go.
The chateau was a hive of activity. The entire premises boiled with the comings and goings of the Syndicate's agents. Like so many ferrets, they slipped sinuously through the rooms, getting their assignments and setting out to accomplish them. They called themselves "The Goons" - a name which their chief had found amusing when she first heard it since it piqued her sense of irony. They had adopted a uniform which covered them, male and female, from head to toe and offered no loose ends to snag in dangerous close quarters and permitted them to venture into any space with no fear of leaving any trace of themselves behind. LeBlanc had always enjoyed watching them in action, taking pleasure in their athletic grace and gymnastic talents as they retrieved for her the treasures to which she directed them.
Today, one of her most proficient teams had laid before her a prize. They had unearthed a cache of spheres at the site of an abandoned Yevonite monastery - one of those hidden sanctuaries of the disgraced warrior monks and other religious adherents who had gone to ground after the disclosure of the great Yevon conspiracy. Under a flagstone in the cemetery of the community, a carefully lined wooden box held a collection of prime, glowing recording spheres untouched since the last monk had either died or been killed.
"Yes." LeBlanc breathed softly to herself. Spheres like this would offer a logical excuse to summon Nooj to her side again. It had been nearly a week and she had almost run out of ways to resist the urge to send for him. Now, she was free to do what she so desperately wished.
With a smile and a liberal plastering of praise, she pressed gold coins into the hands of the members of the triumphant search party, sending them on their way to celebrate their success as they fancied, secure in the regard of their employer.
Things were going smoothly. The Syndicate's business prospered with all the new discoveries coming in. Since most of them were commercial in their subject matter, they were valuable to collectors of the various genres of performance art and the family albums were still much in demand by hobbyists. The retailers in the cities continued to clamor for as many spheres as she could supply. Fortune seemed to favour the teams under LeBlanc's management.
The lady herself was still torn. One of the reasons she was so relieved to be able to send for Nooj was that she was being tormented by the doppelganger
she had welcomed into her house and private rooms. Night after night, she felt the figure she had commissioned leave its case and come to her bed. There it had taunted her and forced her to perform and to submit to acts which left her bruised and still unfulfilled the next morning. She would find the evidence of the experiences on her body and her linens but could never quite wake sufficiently to protest or otherwise engage the image in a plea for mercy.
She was sure of the reality of what was happening in spite of the difficulty in either comprehending or explaining the events. When the celebrated mage finally came to her and she questioned him as to where truth might lie, he only repeated to her the same scripture she had heard from every other source. "Well, Lady LeBlanc, you do understand that Spira is a land of mystery which holds in its bosom many areas which are little understood. You may not be aware that in the days of Yevon certain persons willingly took on this burden so that they could help preserve the ..." He droned on and on, telling her things she had known from her youth and had dismissed as legend.
"So, my lady, it may well be that your great love for this man whose image stands in your house has mystically invested that same image with some of the life you feel in the actual man and in fact ..." His commentary veered into metaphysics and became more and more unintelligible.
LeBlanc had paid the fee suggested and sent the seer on his way with false thanks. She was no wiser than she had been before his visit.
With a sigh, she reflected that this night she would be protected by the presence of Nooj - if only he would come. She did not think the simulacrum, no matter the extent of its animation, would challenge the original directly.
When Omri had responded to her bell, she handed him the note she had written informing Nooj of the discovery of a new and special sphere. She would risk offering only a single sphere once more, holding the others in reserve for the time when she would have to sweeten her bribe. "Here!" She instructed the rotund servant. "Send this to Mushroom Rock Road by the quickest means. It's important."
"Yes, madam." Omri bowed as far as he could and turned to go. "Oh, ma'am, I almost forgot - I found this on your bed table this morning. Is there something you asked and I didn't understand?" He held out a somewhat crumpled slip of paper.
She took it and ice ran in her veins. 'Pleased with your choice?' It was the note she had found in the hand of the statue after Nooj had left her that first night.
"What choice, madam? Did I miss something?" Omri's query broke her spell.
"Why do you think this is meant for you?"
"It's your handwriting, my lady. And you sometimes leave notes for us there." He studiously looked at the tiles on the floor.
"My hand ...?" She looked more closely. It did resemble her way of forming letters. Had it always looked like that? Could she have absently made a copy of the original? Aware that her servant was waiting, she brusquely responded, "Never mind. It's just a reminder to myself. Get that message off right now. Hurry!"
When she was alone again, she fell back against the support of the chair since her spine would no longer brace her. The paper fluttered from her hand and she did not have the strength to pick it up.
When she sat across the table from Nooj that evening, LeBlanc had herself well in hand. She had pushed the matter of the note to the back of her mind resolving to deal with it later.
"So, Noojie, are things going well with the Youth League? Any more rumours about New Yevon getting its hands on that secret weapon?"
The tall man would not repress a shudder at the use of the hated nick-name. He had been relieved to find his hostess less frenetic than on his last visit and had hoped that this evening might focus on business.
"We're still trying to piece together just what New Yevon knows about the last days of Old Yevon. Your contributions have been of immeasurable help." He pushed away his plate and leaned forward, his arms folded on the surface in front of him. "I'm eager to see what you have for me today."
She smiled archly. "I'm sure you are. Shall we go upstairs to find out?"
"Can't you send for the sphere? One of your servants could spare you the trouble of fetching it."
"It's no trouble; let's go up together." She was adamant and he realized with a sickening conviction that she would exact her price for the information he wanted.
Without bothering to continue the futility of arguing, Nooj pushed himself to his feet and followed her from the reception room, through the atrium and up the curving staircase like a condemned man being led to the gallows. He was angry with himself for obeying her summons. He should have sent Lucil; at worst she would have been refused entrance and he would then have had a lever to use in further dealings with the arrogant woman who led him up the endless stairs to the destination he dreaded.
He paused at the entrance to her suite, hoping that he could avoid entering the chamber which seemed to breathe seduction from its furnishings and perfumes.
"Come in, Noojie." Her voice called from inside, a quaver changing the timbre.
LeBlanc was standing to one side of the draperies which muffled any sound from the room, staring fixedly at the contents of the glass case which occupied the space beside her dresser. Her back was rigid against the wall and her hands were pressed to either side of her body. She seemed frozen with fear.
"Look, Noojie." She demanded. "It was about to open the door when you came in. It's scared of you."
"What are you talking about, woman?" Nooj spoke more loudly than he had intended.
"Your twin. He hurts me. When you're not here, he hurts me." She still gazed bleakly at the statue.
Nooj moved to come between her and the vitrine. "Stop this, LeBlanc, you're acting like a lunatic. That's just a statue you had made. Get rid of it. It's bad for you."
She buried her face against his chest. "No, I can't. It won't go and won't be sent away. You think it's just a statue but I know it lives. It lives and tortures me. When I'm alone. ... Hold me, please, hold me and love me."
She had clung to him with the desperation of drowning woman during the night and wept forlornly when he rose before the dawn to take his leave. At her request, he made sure the glass case was securely locked and the key placed in the chest on the dresser from which he retrieved the promised sphere. He kissed her, trying not to show his blended pity and disgust, and pushed back the heavy curtains which lined the door so that any sound could be heard by the guards on the outer landing.
When he was finally free of the stifling atmosphere of the chateau, Nooj paused before continuing on his way. He was horrified by the direction in which this affair was turning. He should have kept his vow to stay away from her after the first night in her bed. She was becoming less stable with each meeting and he wanted no part of her dissolution. But the spheres... He felt he and his researchers were growing ever nearer to unlocking the secret of
the Ultimate Weapon of which the Maesters had boasted in their private communications. If he could only discover it and render it useless or, better yet, stow it away where only responsible leaders such as himself might have access, it would assure the safety of Spira into this new age. Was such an eternity of peace worth the sanity of one sad woman? He would have to make a decision; this could not go on.
Still thinking, he limped toward the entrance of Guadosalam where he could find a hover to take him back to his headquarters.