Library:Sante Reze - Christmas Massacre
Illeana was by far Nicolo's favorite sibling. She was remarkably young given the ages of the rest of the family, but in spite of that she had earned his favor quickly with her quick wit and a loyalty to him. Nicolo was the next youngest and twice her age - twenty-eight at her fourteen. She had been a late pregnancy for her mother Ilari, a miracle really.
Likewise, Nicolo was Illeana's favorite. He was attentive, kind at least to her, and she seemed to always be his priority over his own personal ambitions. It was hard for her to even pin down what those ambitions might actually have been. In that respect, he was probably the least successful of the core Giarelli family but that didn't bother her.
When she heard that Nicolo was coming to the family's ancestral home for the holiday, she was ecstatic. She was surprised, to be sure, because he usually stayed away from the compound outside of family get-togethers, but he was apparently bringing his daughter. Three years old, she was an adorable new addition to the family. Publicly, it was a shame that the mother was out of the picture as quickly as she had come in but Illeana had always been privately pleased to not have to share him further. She could handle the child - she could be the motherly aunt.
Illeana's tutor, on the other hand, was Leandro k'Ordiane, a striking man of twenty-four with dual degrees in education and finance. It wasn't a popular combination, but the two degrees in five years of university was the norm for Rezese of his station. She was going to do the same, though for the life of her she had no idea what she would have done for either of those degrees had she not been her parents' youngest and therefore slotted into specific expectations.
He struggled to keep Illeana focused once she heard that Nicolo was on his way. His interest was at this moment solely in making sure his charge was preparing for her last year of secondary school and squaring away all of her obligations to the university which was meant to attend. Ideally it would be done before secondary classes started up again in January.
“Work, Illeana,” Leandre said, balling up a piece of scrap paper and throwing at her from his casually-seated spot, legs raised, on the other end of the table. The paper ball hit her in the face, making her flinch and shoot him a scowling glance.
“I just wanted to check my phone,” she said. “My brother will be here in a few minutes.”
“Well, you better hurry with your forms, then, right?”
“Right,” she replied and returned to the tablet where she had a dozen documents to read through and e-sign.
It didn't help that she had stayed up late the evening before for the estate's Christmas festival. Between the endless food and the game stalls, there had been hours of entertainment to be had. Plus she got to meet countless people who came in for the holiday. It was the one time a year the estate opened its gates to the public for a communal feast and the annual gifts to the people. She'd had a fantastic time, though most of her family hadn't been present. They had been enjoying their holiday week in San Gianpier with the mix of business and pleasure that the city had to offer during the season. Christmas was the finest week for political and financial deals, after all, and San Gianpier was traditional.
She'd only been up for an hour, having been forced up with just enough to dress and have breakfast before beginning the day's work. She was, they said, too important to take entire days off.
Tracing another signature with her finger, she muttered, “Don't we have, like, servants for this sort of thing?”
Leandre nodded. “The family does, yes.”
“Why can't they do this, then?” She knew the answer, of course. She couldn't have this signed by a proxy, and she needed to know what she was signing. If she had to read it anyway, she might as well be signing. But still.
“Because they are not my students,” Leandre answered, taking a different tack. “Regardless of personal responsibility on your part, this is part of my job and I do my job.”
Illeana couldn't help but think about the actuary down the hall who loved this sort of thing and had always told her she'd do anything for her. Well, she wasn't down the hall anymore. She was probably passed out in a drunken stupor on one or under one of the festival tables outside in the plaza like she had been when Illeana had gone to bed last night.
She scrolled through another document. This one was acknowledgement of current class scores and interest in attending Ateze like almost every cazique present and future. Hell, even past since the university's inception. Why they needed the current scores when the last year was typically what “sealed the deal” for most students, she did not know.
"If I'm guaranteed admission and family members or employees will take care of everything, anyway, I don't really see the point."
Once the words left her mouth, she realized that was one of those things that were better left unsaid.
Leandre closed his eyes so she couldn't see him roll them. "That's not the point. You need to know how to do things on your own. You think Nicolo waits around for other people to do his work for him?"
He did delegate a lot but she didn't know that, and it hit her just in the right place. She wanted to be like him. If Leandre understood anything about the siblings' relationship, it was that.
His phone vibrated suddenly. Picking it up, he didn't even bother entering the passcode. The information needed had taken over the screen. It was an automated emergency message from the family's security company. He bolted to his feet, rushing across the room to a chest of drawers while calling back to her, “Nevermind all that now, Illeana.”
The alarm in his voice was clear. It was just short of sheer panic.
“What?” Illeana asked, standing and holding her tablet tight to her chest. She knew something was wrong. Whatever it was hadn't come through to her phone, though.
Leandre turned back to her with a pistol in his left hand and a magazine for it in his right. “I need you to take everything I say very, very, seriously, Illeana. Do you understand?”
His voice was deeper, monotone: absolutely critical. He stared at her unblinking while loading the gun.
She nodded, fear growing in her eyes and leaving a pit in her stomach. There was no rational explanation but suddenly the thought of impending death latched on to her spine, chilling her through.
“Call your brother,” he said, checking the gun and going over to the room's door. He shut it and latched it using all four bolts. Illeana had never seen anyone use all four on any door.
The urgency exploded out of his voice. “Yes!”
He tapped at his phone, and some bolts in the wall clicked shut as well. That was another security system Illeana had never seen used before. He returned to her side, waving toward her phone.
“Give him to me,” he said.
“I-it's still ringing.”
“Fine, just hand it to me.”
She did so, her hand shaking and her breath trembling. Her eyes darted around and she tried her absolute best to control her breathing. She remembered the mindfulness exercises and tried desperately to inhale slowly and deeply. It was impossible.
“Sir,” Leandre said. “Did you get the message? No, I don't. We're going to the basement, yes.” There was a long pause before he said again, “Yes. My office. Are you sure? That's dangerous to her, too”
She was lost. There was a panic room in the basement that would keep them safe, so that made sense. But danger to her? Maybe the entire situation, she couldn't know, but what specifically did he mean?
“Yes, sir. Right away. She loves you, too,” Leandre said before hanging up.
He crossed back to the set of drawers and reached over it, withdrawing two boxes. One was an obvious first aid kit with the humanitarian green checkerboard on it. The other was a steel lockbox no longer than maybe Illeana's forearm. He set it heavily on their table. Its lock was evidently undone with a phone app. This, again, was something with which she had no prior knowledge or experience.
Inside the box were two knives in bone sheathes. He took one and placed it on his belt, and handed the other to Illeana.
“Take this, Illeana. Don't touch the blade, don't take it out unless you absolutely have to. If anyone - anyone - tries to grab you or hurt you, draw it and swing it at them as fast as you can. Don't let it cut you.” He knelt beside her so he could look up into her eyes and close her hand around the knife. “It doesn't matter where you hit them. Draw blood and they will die. But you can't hesitate, Illeana. For the love of God, you can't hesitate.”
Tears were streaming down her cheeks now as the reality of the situation started to sink in. She still had no idea what it was but this whole performance was foreign to her. Locks, guns, knives with whatever toxins… was this really something the family needed? She had no idea, but she was being ordered to potentially kill someone. “I don't want….”
“You have to, Illeana.” God, he was using her name a lot. So much more than usual. “I'll try to stop them first, but if they get past me, you run. If they catch you, this will save your life. It's the only thing that might.”
Who was “they”? What was happening? What about the security? They were guarded by the house's personal military. They were supposed to be the best of the best, over two hundred kondadere. How could anyone get past that? What had she ever done to anyone anyway? The questions poured through her head but she couldn't manage to control herself enough to ask any of them.
Leandre took her by the hand and pulled her toward the sofa against one wall, pulling it roughly forward and pushing her behind it. She let it happen, having no idea what to do otherwise. He kicked in one of the wall panels and it opened to reveal a crawl space, entirely hidden by the sofa.
“Go in, don't make a sound,” he ordered. His demeanor changed back to its “teacher-mode” - stern but guiding, calm and understanding but stressing the importance of his words.
She did as told, crawling into the gap. He followed. In the dim light, she waited listening to him grunt with exertion as he pulled the couch back into position, the legs screeching against the hardwood floor. The crawlspace went black as locks clicked into place.
The area then lit up as he turned on the flashlight on his phone, showing her the narrow secret corridor, barely wide enough for an average person to squeeze through. There was another low door visible coming from the door next door to Leandre's office, and a thin ladder up and down for quick movement between floors. The air was old, as stale as the ancient webs of long-dead spiders would suggest. That was no surprise; like the locking mechanisms in the office, she had never seen these passages used before. There were of course always rumors and no one had ever flat out denied their existence, but she hadn't actually seen any before.
Fourteen seemed somewhat late to actually learn of corridors hidden in the walls. She might have actually dwelled on that, were her thoughts less preoccupied with escape from a nebulous “they” and survival against whatever it was that “they” would do.
Leandre whispered to her, “Ladder down to the basement, all the way. Watch your step, hold on tight. No talking.”
She nodded, suppressing a whimper but still breathing out heavily trying to catch her breath from her quiet sobbing. It was absolutely the time to try her best and not ask questions; that much she could feel as deep into her soul as she knew anything else. But she had never felt so trapped before, like the very walls themselves were her enemy and the air was threatening to deprive her of enough oxygen to stay alive. Her back and knees begged her to stand but there was little room; despite being between the walls, the actual space was nowhere near tall enough to support standing. Why, she couldn't say. She could only scream in her head, cursing the centuries-dead architects for building the estate this way and cursing the hopefully soon to be dead “they” for forcing her to learn about and use this passage.
She was able to stretch out on the ladder, and was thankful for that. As close to thankful as she could be in any case. Leandre's phone kept the ladder illuminated as they both descended down past the ground floor and into the first basement, and then into the second basement level of tunnels. Here, she could stand, though it was still small and she herself wasn't that tall. Leandre was leaning over to protect his head.
The moment he stepped off the ladder, he put his phone away and replaced it in his hands with the gun. There was enough light down here to see that they had two potential paths and further ladders could be seen farther down in each direction. He stepped in front of her and grabbed her hand, pulling her after him momentarily. He gave her hand a light squeeze for reassurance because letting go and taking a two-handed grip on his weapon. They passed another ladder and he pointed the barrel up and watched the opening as they walked; at a corner, he leaned against the wall and looked around quickly before stepping into the open, adopting a low firing stance.
They hadn't seen anyone else yet, and there was no one around the bend either. He rose from his crouched position. “Come on, hurry, there's a safe room right down there.”
Their steps echoed as they rushed down to a hatch with a circular latch. Leandre had Illeana open it while he watched their backs. She struggled initially, but took a deep breath, wiped her hands off on her skirt, and made another attempt using the skirt as a barrier between her sweating palms and the slippery metal.
It took more force than she expected to get started, but once loosened, it swung open with little sound at all. It was, apparently, well-oiled and not nearly as forgotten about as the crawlspace passage might have otherwise implied this system to be.
Pulling on the door, she heaved it open and was bathed in bright daylight LEDs, far more intense than the basement tunnels had been. Her eyes ached and she raised a hand to shield them just in time to spot the movement in front of her. There were guns - she saw those well before she saw the people behind them.