“You shouldn’t beat yourself up so much, Zarigüeya,” a genial voice said over an intercom. “You did an excellent job serving the queen, for a man who only considered it a cover.” Friedrich heard the heavy ka-chunk of a door to his left unlock, and winced as light broke through the darkness. He turned back toward it, clenching his eyes as they adjusted, and caught sight of three figures entering, Chicadino hopping cheerfully in front. The bird clicked his tongue in disappointment. “Oh, look at this. They just left you in here with the lights off? Could have at least pointed you away from the tank if they wanted you to be able to sleep properly.”

“Mr. Prime Minister,” Friedrich greeted him, as the lights flickered on. Two odd-looking cats stood off to the side, but for now, his attention was focused solely on their boss.

[Image 1]

“Would you like something to drink before we continue? I have a very wide selection of teas and spirits to choose from.”

“…No, thanks,” Friedrich responded. In spite of having met dozens of times, he still never knew quite how to read Chicadino’s behavior. While there was obviously a great cruelty and cunning at the core of his being, as soon as he was in control of a situation, he would go right back to being genuinely friendly, his ulterior motives aside. He was the kind of man who could have a person’s house burned to ashes and then offer them familial advice in the same breath.

“Down to business, then. You’re an interesting fellow, Zarigüeya, understandable you’d be recruited as an agent for the Veil, you fit their profile to a T. Clever, capable, possessing an uncanny knack to be in the right place at the right time…” Chicadino trailed off, a nostalgic look in his eyes. “Yes, the moment we met, I had a feeling this day was going to come.”

“I certainly hope you won’t be expecting my superiors to overlook my disappearance.”

“Of course not!” Chicadino raised a projected hand to his breast, offended. “You didn’t think I was planning on killing you, did you? Oh, Zarigüeya, please, you’re not the first Veil agent I’ve had strapped to a chair. Besides, I certainly wouldn’t want to upset your dear wife. No, I can get everything I need from you without harming a single hair on that handsome head, and then you’ll go off on your merry way, like nothing happened.”

“Hrem,” a deep voice coughed from the sideline.

“Oh, yes, not that I’ll be the one picking apart that brain of yours,” Chicadino laughed. “Pardon me, allow me to introduce you to my specialists for this sort of thing, The Twins.” He gestured to the creepy black and white cats who had followed him into the room.

[Image 2]

“This charming gentleman is Kuroscuro.”

“Nice to meet ya’,” said the man in black, fiddling with a set of keys that Friedrich recognized, but couldn’t quite place.

“And this is his enchanting sister, Chiaroshiro. She’s who you’ll be spending most of your time here with.”

“It is a pleasure,” the woman in white whispered, her voice as soft as her smile. Friedrich wasn’t buying it for a second, he’d seen the same smile once before clinging to the face of a comrade from his service days. It was the mask of a sadist trying to ape compassion without ever having known it.

“And with that out of the way, you must excuse me.  I’m expecting a phone call.” Chicadino skipped back to the doorway, before pausing a moment and turning back. “Don’t forget, you two! Not a scratch on him, or I’ll gut you myself!” And then he winked and disappeared behind swinging doors.

“You know,” Friedrich started, as they wheeled him down the hallway into a side room. There was an open drain in the middle of the floor, and the space absolutely reeked of industrial cleaner. This was not a room where good things happened. “As much as I appreciate the atmosphere, it does rather kill the tension when I know you’re not allowed to hurt me from the start.” The Twins only turned to one another and shared a little laugh. He almost thought it sounded like pity, had he believed they were the sort of people capable of it.

“Oh, Mr. War Hero,” Chiaroshiro came in close to him, way too close for comfort. She pulled his head tight to her chest and cooed in his ears. “You have no idea the sensations I can create for you.”

[Image 3]

Friedrich tore himself away from her with the small amount of articulation his torso was allowed in the chair, as Kuroscuro wheeled over a small table covered in a thick sheet.

“Before we begin, I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” she whispered. “That’s only fair, after all, it’s boring if you’re the only one doing the talking. Would you like to hear my philosophy?”

“Not rea-”

“The world you and I live in isn’t real,” she continued. “Everything you see, and hear, and touch, and believe in your precious little heart is all in your head, just a big illusion. Nothing you say, or do, or think can prove your own existence.” Friedrich suppressed the urge to roll his eyes.

“Yes, yes, and I’m going to guess that you’re the only real person, and we’re all just figments of your imagination for you to toy with? That’s fairly common sociopath mentality.”

“I’m not real,” she spat back, her warm smile enduring. “Weren’t you listening? This world doesn’t exist, thus, I don’t exist. What’s that phrase? I think, therefore I am? That’s already too great an assumption. I don’t know that I’m thinking. I think that I’m thinking.” Friedrich could tell that pointing out the obvious contradiction would only be encouraging her delusions further.

“Alright,” he humored her. “Let’s agree you’re not real and nothing matters. Why bother with any of this to begin with? Why take these orders, or try to further a lifestyle you don’t even think exists? Why not just kill yourself and save us some trouble?”

“Because,” she replied, finally discarding her smile for a moment, leaving her expression dead blank. “A puppet that can see her own strings will continue dancing to them regardless.”

“The money’s damn good too,” Kuroscuro finally chimed in. He clearly did not seem to share his sister’s beliefs, or lack thereof.