We stand in a horizontal line in the atrium, in front of the open, elaborate double doors. The same string of maidservants stream back inside, carrying mine and my brother’s luggage. They march ahead, a straight path from the threshold to the main stairway that connects all four landings with protruding balconies all aligned with each other from top to bottom.
With a choice of right or left staircase that both elegantly swivel up to the same point, the chain of maidservants trails up the left side in single file, disappearing down the west corridor. On the ground floor, beside the main stairway it seems to lead to an exterior courtyard.
Although Josh’s hand is small, the boy has a tight grip.
His eyes transfixed down the grand hall on our right that stretches out endlessly, strangely bare despite all the space. The barrel-vaulted ceiling hoists up extravagant tiered chandeliers dangle above, adorned with glistening diamonds, spaced out at intervals to illuminate the great expanse, flooding it with a ravine of golden light.
The baroque-styled design is humble compared to the gaudy and magnificent basilica erections like the Cologne cathedral. But the Apion manor is a praiseworthy contender, especially that it is private home.
Distant echoes beckon for my attention, I focus my vision beyond, and I see four figures trooping towards us. I recognise the gait of the first to be our dad and the other three are foreign. Both Mr and Miss Apion with another at their tail.
Dad approaches and we all graft him into a family circle, huddling together.
“Just spoke with aunt and uncle Apion, everything’s arranged. Whereas I need to drive back to the airport.”
“Papa,” Joshua says, his voice small and adorably soft like fluffs of cotton. “I don’t want a holiday anymore; can we all go back home instead?”
Dad lets out a peaceful exhale and lunges, one knee on the ground, his face aligned with Joshua. “I need you to be a big boy for me and look after your siblings, can you do that for me, Joshie?” he asks and playfully tugs at his short-sleeved top.
Joshua pouts his lips and nods sadly.
“Good boy, now don’t you worry, papa is going to be back soon. But you’re going to have so much fun here, you’re not even going to want to leave.” And engulfs little Joshua into a bear hug.
“I seriously doubt that,” Atticus mutters.
Dad looks up and burns him with a searing glare. Atticus wilts and looks away with a scowl.
He plants a quick kiss amidst his curly locks and rises to his feet. He opens his arms and like magnets, both Atticus and I are drawn to his warm and strong embrace. I hold unto my half of him as tight and for as long as I can.
Eventually, we break apart and dad swivels around. Mr and Miss Apion staring back at us all with assessing looks.
“We’ll be in touch. Thank you guys again,” he says and flashes a smile.
Mr Apion bows his head in a formal farewell, and Miss Apion waves a gloved hand.
Interesting. I wonder what they discussed.
Dad spares us all one last lingering look, an inconceivable look of pain storms in his eyes, and for a moment he looks like he can’t do it. But he does. He has to. He rotates and vanishes through the doorway, his frame recedes, swallowed into the bright noonday light, his steps clapping on the spherical marble staircase.
A servant on either side of the door gradually draws the doors inward, and they close it with a heavy thud.
We all three face our new temporary guardians.
“I want you three to feel at home during your stay here, roam and do as you please, everything in the Apion manor is at your disposal. If you need anything, the servants will tend to you and fulfil any of your desires,” Miss Apion welcomes.
Miss Apion’s pallid skin contrasts with her ebony hair swept up in a flawless chignon. Newborn wrinkles betray her true age. Although she aged like wine, time’s unfavourable hand left the marks of its corrasive touch on her skin. Her tall and petite frame is enveloped in wintry, conservative clothing. A dark sangria scarf swathed around her neck, tucked into the chest of her fitted jacket. Not a slither of skin exposed besides her face.
Miss Apion smiles at us warmly with, believably, genuine delight to our arrival. Mr Apion, however, examines us with this cold, calculating look like we’re a dilemma that needs to be solved. He’s evidently older than her, his pompadour hairstyle groomed to the back, lined with silver streaks.
“Hilda.” Miss Apion beckons. With a flourish of fluttering her gloved fingers, an elderly, stone-faced woman appears by her side, her arms clasped behind her back, posture rigid.
“Hilda manages the servants and oversees the manor and all of its affairs,” Miss Apion explains. “She will look after you, if you are ever in need of something. You need only to ask, if not from me then Hilda.”
“There are only two rules that we ask you to adhere to,” Mr. Apion declares.
He takes a step forward; his black embroidered shoe echoes a dominant thud on the glazed barkwood floor.
“Every evening we shall all dine together, and you will all dress accordingly. My sister has taken the liberty of tailoring formalwear for dinner and other events, later for the upcoming social season. You will find all the outfits are in your separate chambers, along with your luggage,” Mr. Apion expounds.
His eyes scanning our faces, his steely-eyed look; piercing and aloof.
“If the designs are not to your liking, the dressmaker and the tailor can always redesign it to your preferred taste,” Miss Apion mindfully adds.
“The last rule is that you can roam free on the manor grounds and in it, the east and the west wing you can explore in your leisure,” Mr. Apion offers. “There is only one room out of bounds, and this is my workplace on the third landing. My job implores confidentiality.”
“Why?” Joshua asks and rattles off his questions. “Do you work for the government?” His voice rises with budding fervour. “Like a spy or a secret agent?”
Mr. Apion’s face uncomfortably cracks into an amused grin.
“No… but just like them, I help people. I help save them and my workplace has many confidential matters, for my eyes only,” Mr. Apion clarifies vaguely. Joshua slowly nods his head but by the show of his lips curling and eyes darting, his avid curiosity burning to know more, but thankfully he restrains himself.
“I hope you enjoy your stay as we will enjoy having you here. A banquet will be held in the dining hall, in honour of your arrival, promptly at six. In the meantime, Hilda will show you to your quarters.” Miss Apion smiles and nods to Hilda in gesture.
Miss and Mr. Apion exchange meaningful looks. They revolve around and stalk down the open-floor foyer, vanishing down the same hallway that they came from.
“If you will follow me,” Hilda directs and extends an arm to the dual stairway. Her hair is completely silver despite the few defiant sienna strands that refuse to lose its lustre.
Hilda turns and leads us in the same direction that the other maidservants went in, stringing us along up the left staircase. My eyes drift over the intricate iron design of the polished railing beside us, sumptuously webbed all the way to our stop at the second landing.
We trek down the corridor and after a few turns; it seems the maze of passages never end. The floors are carpeted with plush crimson coverlets, the old English-styled wallpaper designed with red and gold panache that boasts royalty.
“Jeez, how big is this mansion?” Atticus queries, his face curdling with an unimpressed expression.
Hilda flicks him a look off her shoulder and grudgingly responds, “The Apion manor has stood for over two centuries, and countless generations have dwelled in it. There are over thirty bedrooms, twenty bathrooms and ten state rooms. There are lounges speckled through the east and west wing. With two main kitchens, a dining hall, drawing room and ballroom for the social season.”
Surprise inflates my eyebrows.
“This manor is a historical landmark, a relic of time itself,” Hilda educates, with distinct note of pride in her tone. “The only renovations done was to maintain the upkeep, besides that it still holds most of the original stonework and tapestry.”
Atticus releases an exaggerated whistle, and a wolfish smile spreads across his face. “I could throw one hell of a party here.”
Shortly, we are shown to our separate quarters that all share the same corridor. Hilda shows each of us our custom-designed outfits for supper, and future events, all kept in large oak wardrobes. Despite that, we all have our own chambers; the boys choose to take it upon themselves to host a gathering in my bedroom. For the meantime.
Atticus sits at the foot of the queen-sized bed, with Joshua glued to his side.
“So… we are allowed to play outside, right?” Joshua asks.
Hilda snaps a nod. “The stables house four prized horses that have already lived their glory days, you may ride them if you wish... just do not stray too far from the manor.”
I frown and narrow my eyes at her, and my curiosity voices itself. “Why?”
A wry line carves itself on her face. “Children tend to vanish when they venture too far from home. I would hate for any of you to end up like the lost heirs,” she says, and I think she meant it as a joke because her dreary eyes shine with dark humour, but I also think it was a sincere warning.
“The lost… heirs?” I repeat questioningly, hopefully a worthy prompt for an elucidation.
A ghoulish glint sparks in Hilda’s dull eyes. “The lost heirs; twins that braved into the woods. Rumours speculate that it was to visit their favourite spot by the lake which they visited religiously, but one day… they never returned.”
Uh, so it’s one of those stories.
Boogieman tales meant to frighten little kids into submission, and if they rebelled, the lock ness monster will slink out of the lake and gobble them up. Like when did stories like that ever work? And this, lost heirs, wreaks of urban legend.
“I must go, much to prepare for the banquet this evening. Be good, children.” She rotates around and hastily exits my room and closes the door behind her with a soft click.
I sigh and revolve around to face the wall of veneered oak wardrobes. My luggage already placed inside, so huge that I wouldn’t be surprised if I went in again and found myself in Narnia.
I rotate to the side and I stroll to the floor to ceiling windows with wings of scarlet drapings. I stare out of the arch-shaped glass, gazing down at the front cobblestone and my eyes slide up to the gate. The entire estate seems to be protected by wrought arms, most of which is shrouded by the thick foliage that encroach its borders.
“Such security…” I mumble to myself. “I thought small towns were supposed to be safe.”
I swivel around to look at my brothers, Joshua kicks his feet up and down in sheer boredom. Atticus sits slanted forward, his elbows resting on his thighs with his phone in his grasp. His eyes inspecting his screen with a perplexed look that twists his facial features.
“Alright,” I clap my hands and walk towards them. “I think I need to nap and allow my brain to… process all of this. Just in case my mind starts to rebel against reality.”
Atticus doesn’t move an inch, his investigative gaze still eyeing his phone, and Joshua goes on absently as if he didn’t hear me.
“That was a polite way of telling you to leave, in less polite words. Leave,” I say bluntly.
He finally lifts his face from his screen and chucks a jaded look at me. “Don’t talk to me like I actually want to be here with you.”
I snort at him. “Your presence here says otherwise.”
“Do you know how dad contacted the Apions?” He asks, diverting and for now, I bite.
“No, why?” I cross my arms, growing increasingly impatient.
“He turns his phone around and showcases me his home screen. I tilt forward and I can feel the creases on my forehead deepening.
“I want to see!” Joshua pounces on Atticus and grips onto his arm, trying to claw for the phone. Atticus silences him and gently nudges him off with his elbow. Joshua plops down beside him in defeat and huffs angrily.
“You would think as wealthy as these Apions are, that they would be able to afford Wi-Fi.” I straighten.
Atticus’s head sways to and fro, considering. “Yeah, okay, that too. But look at the bars,” he directs. I take a step ahead to lean fully forward, eyes contracting to zoom into the top right corner of the screen.
“There is completely no signal here… it’s not like we’re in the middle of nowhere. This manor is like a five-minute drive from town,” Atticus points out.
I shrug indifferently. “News flash, this town is in the middle of nowhere. It makes sense that there’s no signal,” she retorts.
Atticus looks back at me dubiously, clearly unconvinced. “I assume these Apions get their millions from somewhere, corporations, right? Businesses?”
I slowly nod my head, unsure of where he’s going with this.
“Even if they own it and they have people to run it, surely they have to be involved in some way. Which means their companies should be able to reach them: zoom meetings, emails, conference calls or whatever.”
I nod again, still not following, but intrigued by his choice of direction.
He looks back at me with a worn-out expression, like he’s lost all hope in me. “You are the dumbest smart person, ever. Don’t you think it’s strange that they don’t have any signal up here or internet. Like in this day and age, it’s pretty difficult to live without it.”
I brush off his unfounded suspicious with a wave of my hand. “You’re being paranoid, dude, so what? The loss of signal may be because we’re up in the hills. Did you take that into consideration?”
He looks away, but his face is still cynical.
“Maybe they’re old school and use those old…what you call it?”
I snap my fingers incessantly.
A synapse fires in my brain.
Atticus cringes. “That’s equivalent to a telegram. They might as well be using carrier pigeons.”
My eyes nearly roll out of its sockets. “Finding fault with this place will not change the fact that it’s our—” Joshua captures my gaze, I look back at Atticus, “—new holiday home for the summer. We need to accept and move on, and hopefully before we know it. Dad’s back to fetch us.”
Atticus concedes and pockets his phone.
“Well, that just leaves one thing… who’s up for a lil exploring?”