John and Tionne Rilam stand on the stage in the party hall of the Rilams’ residence, where over one-hundred guests are gathered around dinner tables. Tionne stands in front of the microphone stand first, slowly easing the mic off as she clears her throat. Her hair is darker than night – a modification, as you can tell she’s possibly in her early fifties and should have at least a silver strand showing. Her children all sit around the table closest to the stage, some listening intently whilst others appear not to have much interest. The eldest Nestor siblings, Deiman and Gladwin speak in hushed whispers under the sound of their mother’s speech. Toni, the youngest Nestor, sits with a Smartphone in her hands, more invested in her current virtual conversation than in the party. Aris keeps his ears and eyes open, appearing to take everything in. He holds the expression that he almost always has - a look of scrutiny, curiosity, fervent interest. It’s always in the furrowed brows and dusk green eyes.
My eyes flick over to Anthony Rilam, the last born of Tionne’s children. Hugo told me how he was born in the same year that she married John Rilam. He’s also training for the war with the current draftees. “He’s really the only family member I can stand. He’s not too cocky like Demus, or insane like Aris. And at least he really knows who he’s fighting for.”
Speaking of Demus, I finally get to see the Northern Empire’s poster-boy of beauty in the flesh. His conventional attractiveness fails to attract me, ironically. Seeing how girls would respond to him in magazines and TV ads had always seemed so over-the-top to me. My conceptions have been confirmed – he’s definitely not worth screaming about. Plus, all the over-pampering from being a born and bred elite definitely takes away a lot of value.
“I thought I’d begin by giving a very important mention of gratitude, appreciation and praise to any fallen soldier of this war. It’s been almost twenty-seven years since it began, and that’s twenty-seven years’ worth of loved ones lost. It’s a hard thing to have to deal with and take on, but this city has kept our head up through thick and thin, and we will continue to do so until the end.” Her voice is mellow, provoking sleep, but in a calming and motherly way. “They deserve to be honoured and commemorated, and one day they will be. We are very true to any promise we make.”
She goes on for a bit longer, dropping out a few significant names, including the General Clese, who led the Northern Empire into the war and died a few years into it. After a small applaud, she signals to her husband to talk about the present situation. He repeats a lot of what she has said before giving the current and future soldiers a blessing and requesting for the hall to make a silent prayer for our city.
“Before we move along to meals, we would just like to welcome a very special person to the stage. Not only is she training for the war, but she is the first female to volunteer for the position, in the history of the war. We must applaud Liza Hawkin for her bravery and willingness to sacrifice her life for us.” Everybody in the hall applauds and cheers as she enters the stage, decked out in a shimmering silver gown. Despite my grudge towards her, I can admit that she is glowing and it shows on her face. This is something that means a lot to her.
“I would like to firstly apologise,” she says once the crowd has hushed. “There are people that I had to lie to, to get here. There are friends who I had to deceive, or keep things quiet just so the word wouldn’t spread. I’ve disappointed a few of the people I love, just by my lack of honesty. There is only so much I can do to show them that I never intended any harm. I just want them to know that I’m sorry if I hurt them.” She looks right at me, smiling lightly, with eyes full of sincerity. I can’t help but smile back. She knows I forgive her.
“This is something I decided to do because I felt it was my calling. I felt I had no choice. I just wanted to contribute. Whether we win or lose, whether I live or die, I know that this was what I was meant to do. I hope that I can inspire other people to follow their own desires, whether they’re the first people to go down that route or not.”
All in all, the speeches are done within forty minutes, and food is served instantly after.
“This dress is way too uncomfortable. I won’t be able to eat much with it on,” I say, writhing in my seat as I try and adjust my skin-tight ivory coloured evening dress. I was offered a stylist for the black tie party, and after reluctantly budging, I came here feeling silly, with gelled back hair and large, heavy golden diamond studs.
“I think it looks stunning,” Hugo says.
“Your suit and tie doesn’t look half bad either,” I grin. We continue to chat between ourselves as the dinner is served to everyone. We sit with strangers on our table, as the table which our friends sit on filled up before we could get there in time, straddling along behind them. During the dinner, performers grace the stage, dancing, singing and even acting. Each piece is around three minutes long, and very fast-paced. It keeps a lot of people entertained in what would have otherwise been quite a bland night.
“I’m being serious. I don’t think I can finish this.” I say, still quite overwhelmed with the abundance of foods compared to the Fourth. What would be just an average plate seems like a feast, and it makes me feel uncomfortable digging into it. Hugo on the other hand, has no issue going straight in for the kill. War training must leave you with a large appetite.
“Don’t feel obliged to finish it all.”
“But... it just feels wrong; you know? They’re practically restricted from eating much down there and here we are, stuffing our mouths until we don’t even want to eat much. I’ve never not wanted to eat before. Damn, I would feel guilty leaving a spoonful in my bowl back with my mother.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Hugo responds with a mouth full of some sort of boiled carbohydrate meal. “But you’re going to have to deal with it. You can’t exactly smuggle spare desserts back into the Fourth, can you?” He shrugs his shoulders.
Music beings shortly after the meals, and the floor is instantly flooded with people. I’m reluctant to dance - I’ve never had the best of rhythm. Hugo still feels the need to pull me up for a slow-dance once the right song comes on. A well-renowned musician graces the stage, bringing people closer together under the hauntingly beautiful melody that she plays along with the band.
It feels odd at first, trying to move in sync with him. My footing is awkward, my concentration elsewhere. But soon, I ease into it. I wrap my arms around his neck and hold on. It’s hard to let go once I have to - I’m way too comfortable. When I instigate pulling away after the song ends, he holds on. “They’re playing one more.”
I chuckle. “Well, find a new dance partner.”
“Well, what if I don’t want to?”
The Rilams’ mansion is monstrously huge – it’s no wonder at twenty-four, Aris still hasn’t moved out yet. There is enough space to fit at least four regular apartments in here. The structural design is spectacular, with most entrances to other rooms being elaborately shaped marble arches instead of doors.
When I excuse myself from the hall using the age-old toilet break lie, I find myself going on a mini-tour of the mansion. At first, I stay in sight of most of the guests, but before I know it, I’ve walked into a seemingly unattended wing of the residency. It took two small lifts to get here.
I walk down a silent hallway which eventually leads to a foyer to another set of rooms. The names on each door suggest them to be offices or studies of some sort. In the middle of the foyer wall hangs a large family portrait of the family. They all sit poised with stunning, fake smiles and body language that lack genuineness. I should note how Aris is the only person who isn’t smiling. Which isn’t a surprise at all.
The further I creep into the study hallway, the closer a group of voices sound. And the last door is ajar, meaning that it’s most likely also occupied or recently has been. I have no idea why I’m so curious – if I’m found here, I could get into deep trouble. Something compels me to stick around nonetheless.
I stand behind the door, peeking between the small crack too see into the room. A group of middle-aged men sit around a table, including Head of State, General Bidas. My heart begins to race at the realisation that the people he is talking to seem too unfamiliar. Too out of place. It could be their body language, or the fact that two of the men are wearing suits with the logo of the God of War, Sera. That is the logo representing the Southern Empire.
“We are giving you six months, Bidas.” One of the two men says in a hard, rough voice. “If your city doesn’t win, which it won’t, you will have to surrender. It’s unfortunate, but that’s how it will have to be. This cannot go on for any longer.”
“What are the repercussions of surrendering?”
“Oh, it’s very simple,” the second man chimes in. “We’ll take over.” The laugh that arises from his throat instantly afterwards causes nausea to run through me. “Just as we always planned to do. It will be easier than you think to recruit people from your side, too. See, one of my younger cousins has shown interest in doing so. We’re sure he’ll be a perfect addition to the Southern’s family. By this point, we won’t have to refer to ourselves as the Southern anymore. There’ll be no more Northern. It will just be...the Empire. I’d say, Nestor’s Empire. It’s a little big-headed but it’s a good place to start.”
“Do you realise that you are not even the Commander of your own city, let alone the ‘Empire’ you’ll build after the war?”
“The key word there is ‘build’, my friend.” Enemy number two responds. “If we build it, we’ll be naming it. Simple.”
I realise how frozen still I’m standing, my muscles painfully tense and my breath completely being held in. I know if I’m caught from this point, I’m definitely dead.
“We’re going to run an Oligarchy. We’ll pick the members… we need some headstrong men. Once you come to terms with your surrender, please do recommend me any good matches for our movement. That would be lovely.”
I think back to the last lesson I attended in the L.D., and it seems that the craziest of Osscarte’s wishes were possibly going to come true. Now is not definitely the appropriate time to make a sound, let alone cry. I can feel tears coming on, and I’m shaking more than I ever have.
“We will not surrender.”
“Oh, you will. You have to. We’re going to run you down. We’re going to annihilate you. You won’t see it coming – you won’t even understand how we did it. But it will happen. You either adhere to this deal or you fall even further than you already will. There is no turning back, nor is there any point in trying to turn against us. It is over.”
“I wouldn’t say so just yet.”
“Well… we’ll continue this conversation another day. Next time, bring John along. It would be nice for him to know of our proposals.” The first man says. I start to panic when I hear them rise from their chairs.
It’s either I try running down the hallway, back to the lobby and into the lift without them having any idea that somebody was eavesdropping on them, or I hope and pray that one of these studies are unlocked.
The first one isn’t, so I panic. In desperation, I hurry to the next door, frantically trying to turn the handle as nimbly and quietly as I can. It still doesn’t open.
Listening out for the shuffling of feet, I sigh with relief as I find the third door to be unlocked, sliding in swiftly and as silently as possible. I close the door behind me, waiting to hear the men pass by. Sitting in darkness, impatience fills me up when I realise they’ve decided to continue a bit more of their morbid conversation. I feel around for the light switch in the room, flicking it up once my fingers surround it. My jaw drops at the sight in the room.
Piles and piles of books overfill shelves, tower over desks and are scattered across the floor. Some look store-bought, and some are handwritten in messy scribing, left half-open and unkempt. Papers plaster the walls, uneven and ripped, torn and aged. The thing that catches my eye instantly, has to be the unusual drawings; tremendously odd looking creatures are scribbled on some of the pinned paper, as well as three-dimensional shapes and imagery that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s all very abstract. Very frightening, at that. But it’s also fascinating.
As I venture more into the room, I nosily flick through notebooks. Most of the words are hard to comprehend, so I don’t pay much attention to them. However, the last page of the current notebook I have my hands on has the words written in larger letters, so I can just about make out what they say.
I’m imprisoned. When will I ever be released? When can we all be released?
I close the book, standing back in pure awe. By now I’m certain that the men have left back down to the lobby and I’m safe to leave. The uncanny feeling that this room leaves me makes me wish I was back in the party hall with everybody else. When I step out after switching the light off, I take the time to look at the name of the study room.