There are now forty-eight hours until trainees leave for combat. It’s still sinking in that Liza is one of them. I know I’ll miss her dearly.
Hugo has hardly talked to me since I last spent the night at in his dorm last week. And it’s not that he hasn’t talked, but it’s more like everything has gone back to how it used to be. There are seems to be no sign that anything ever happened. I know I shouldn’t be annoyed, because I told myself I didn’t want this, but I am nonetheless. Maybe it’s just a teenage girl thing.
I’ve been shrugging it off since but it always manages to find itself in the forefront of my thoughts when my mind wanders. And just like Liza, we still see each other within our group hangouts. It’s just that nothing ever goes past our small talk. I bet he doesn’t even tell his friends about me.
During lunch, the trainees sit at the other end of the HDSS canteen, where many people congregate for food in its busiest hours. Vera, Clementine, Janna and Zoe talk between themselves while I find myself subliminally excluding myself from conversation. I sip on my carbonated beverage, thinking deep thoughts and trying to hide my inner frustration.
“Why do you keep looking in that direction?” Zoe asks me, managing to pick out the source of all my attention. I realise that I’ve been staring at the trainee’s table for a few moments now, my eyes darting back and forth between here and there.
“You’ve been so weird lately.” She says. “You hardly talk anymore in our dorm.”
“Seriously, what’s wrong?” Janna asks.
“Nothing. I was just thinking about the soldiers, how they’re leaving in two days.”
“We’re all thinking about that,” Clementine sighs. “That can’t be the only reason you’re so depressed.”
“I’m not depressed!” I object.
“Are Osscarte’s classes bringing out your darker side?” Zoe teases.
“No. It’s not that.”
“OK. So it’s something.” Vera adds. “Something to with the soldiers leaving. And it’s making you blue. Listen, whatever it is, you’ll get over it. I’m sure things will be fine.”
That’s when I blurt out, “It’s Hugo Alden. He’s been ignoring me lately. But yeah… you’re right. It’s no big deal, really.”
“Did you fight? Did you try tearing him apart like you did to Liza?” Clementine laughs.
“No, we didn’t at all. But I’ve been trying to reach out to him, but since I started the lessons he’s just super... dismissive.” It’s a half-lie, half-truth.
“Gain wisdom, lose friends?” Vera shrugs. “Don’t worry about it too much.”
The minute I questioned Hugo on the meaning of love, he rolled his eyes and said that Osscarte had been feeding me too many of his theories. I tried my best to show him how captivating it all really is but he shrugged it off. It’s almost as if knowledge of the unknown leaves a bad taste on his lips, and anything out of the ordinary is not worth much. He told me how I was a somewhat more different person than the one who he left the Fourth, and he couldn’t quite pinpoint if that was a bad or good thing. It was funny, seeing his emotions and feelings about me reach highs and lows in such a short amount of time. First, I was fascinating, and then he loved me. Then he wasn’t even sure if he liked the person I apparently am now. I still found it too hard to utter those three words back to him, so I let them hang in the air along with all the unfinished questions, and I left. The bracelet my mother gave me as a leaving gift is still over there somewhere, and I’m not sure if it’s convenient to try and get it back before he goes, seeming as we’re on such awkward terms. I know that his roommate Michael hasn’t been drafted, so I can guess I can always make a brief visit subsequent.
“Have you heard about the Purity Pact?” Zoe asks. “Most trainees are doing it.”
“And it is...?” Janna responds.
“Well, you know they released the chances of mortality in the war on the news the other day, and it has risen from forty percent ten years ago, to well over eighty percent based on how well we’re doing and how many people have died on both sides of the war. So as you can tell, most of the guys are super scared about adding numbers to the mortality. And some decided that if they were to die, they didn’t want to die Pure.”
Clementine leans forward in interest, eyes widening. “No way. Who told you this?”
“Guy tells me everything. And he told me how they have been finding parties to attend, events to mingle at and friends to call partners, just so they can strip themselves of their Purity and earn themselves a badge of manhood before their possible deaths.”
“I think the word desperation is an understatement here.” Vera says.
“But if you think about it, half of these boys aren’t even adults yet. They expected to have many more exhilarating teenage experiences before they were whisked off anywhere,” Janna argues in defence.
And all the while, I just sit in silence, calculating the possibilities of why Hugo instantly lost interest in me. Then I’m lead to the only conclusion I can think of.
I have a terrible habit of lashing out at people unexpectedly, without even seeing it coming myself. In the spur of the moment, I’ll have a flush of fury, and black out when I lunge at whoever has come to hurt me. I don’t remember much of the scene later, but I can never forget why I did it.
When I first come in contact with Hugo Alden, I feel like I am only seconds away from killing him. Before I can strike, his newly-learnt defence mechanisms kick in, meaning he can stop any blow I make before I make it. Holding tightly onto both of my wrists, he hisses in a low tone, asking me what he did to make me mad. He pulls me out of the lounge of the apartment we’re in, where an elite student threw a pre-departure gathering for a group of us. Around thirty students and trainees hang around and make conversation, including our group.
“You used me,” I spit, writhing my hands out of his. “You stopped talking to me like nothing happened and I know now why you did it. You really think that was a good idea?”
“Eden, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The Pact you and your friends made, huh? You were quick to sign up for it.”
“I have nothing to do with any of that. It was mainly elite trainees whose egos needed boosting. Don’t pin this on me. And let’s remember who started our scenario, because it certainly wasn’t me.” He states, annoyed at my explosive reaction.
“That doesn’t mean anything! You spent a fair few weeks trying to cosy up to me, and that’s a fact. Then, suddenly it’s over.”
“Hey, Eden. Let me tell you why I didn’t go further.” He looks directly at me. “I told you I thought that maybe I felt something for you, and instead of getting the same thing back, I got some stupid philosophical debate. That’s why. I just can’t stick around for that. We’re just in different places.”
“We’re not going in different places. I’m not a different person, Hu. Yes, maybe I’m learning new things, but it hasn’t changed me.”
“That’s what you want to think. That’s what you tell yourself. But how can you be so sure about that? You seem to know everything about everything, but nothing about yourself. I’m telling you – something has changed within you, and you just don’t seem to recognise it. That’s kind of frightening, really.”
“I really thought I saw a spark in your eye. You’re just shrouded in mystery and intrigue, but the closer I get, the harder I find it to know who you really are. It irritates me. It really does.”
Once again, I’m left with nothing to reply with.
We return to the lounge from the hallway we stood, parting ways. I drew too much attention with my volatile approach, so it seems everybody wants to know what the deal is.
Vera is the first to ask once I’m seated next to her.
“It’s nothing,” I mumble.
“Did he say something?” She prods.
“It really doesn’t matter, OK? It’s nothing to worry about, so I suggest you let it go.”
After a few moments of Vera appearing to be thinking hard about something, she says, “Let’s leave. Let’s get our swim gear and go down to the Tunnels. I’m still yet to take a midnight dip. We can go and grab something to eat, I’m kind of hungry and this party is bland.”
“I don’t know; this might be the last time I see these guys.”
“Are you not coming to say goodbye tomorrow?”
“I don’t really feel like it. And there’s a lesson at noon. I want to attend. I think I’ll just use this chance to see them off.”
And with that, I announce my early exit, hugging and wishing as many trainees as I can Adaven’s blessing, including Eric. Liza is the last person I hug, and it lasts the longest. A wave of fear suffocates me for a second when I think back to the opposition’s threat, and I don’t want to believe this could be the last time I ever see her.
The only thing I can do when I see Hugo is give him a small, meek smile and wave lightly. I know I made things difficult between us, and I’m not sure if I’m willing to try and patch up what I ruined. I should have never done what I did. He had always been a childhood friend and it should have stayed that way.
He returns the smile, but it’s just as empty as mine. It’s the last thing I see before closing the door and leaving with Vera into the hallway.
I make a mental note to go over to his apartment and check for my bracelet.
I bring up the imprint that I discovered, while at Hugo’s place as Vera and I wade our feet in the water of the Night Tunnel.
“I have the same thing!” Vera gasps. “I felt it the other day, just like small bumps over my skin. I told Clementine about them and she told me Eric and Joseph have the same thing. She doesn’t have it, and neither do a lot of other people. But I’m so confused - why do we have them? And did whoever put them on us assume that we would never find out?”
“I’m putting money on Cheyenne.”
“No, no. I think it’s something more than that. But... a part of me is scared to know the answer. It’s the weirdest thing to have ever happened to me, as far as I know. I feel like it appeared overnight.”
“However long we’ve had them, I just know they came from the H.D.”
We decide to do a few laps in the pool before coming back to the edge for breath. That’s when I feel the need to mention something about the night at the Rilams’ residence.
“Don’t you dare tell anyone about this.” I begin.
I pause before continuing. “…. I accidently walked into Aris Nestor’s study the other week.”
“What do you mean? How could you have even done that?”
“It was at the party. I wandered around the house for a while, when I got bored. I found the floor of the family studies, and I ended up in there.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I’m being serious. It was full of books and scrapped paper, just piled up and thrown around, possibly as if he was rummaging around for something. And he had these sketches drawn on his wall whether they are from him or not, they scared me enough. They were of various beings. Non-human. Not even resembling humans. It was crazy.”
“Whoa,” Vera exclaims. “Why was his study even left open?”
“I’m not sure but I think it was unintended. That place looks like a private haven, I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted anybody walking in on it.”
“Which is what you proceeded to do,” She snorts. I would protest by telling her I was hiding from General Bidas and the authority he was talking to, but then I’d have to explain that I was eavesdropping on a terrible conversation that I’m not ready to let anybody else in on.
“It’s not what you think,” I say.
“Just admit that you’re a curious person and that if you ever got the chance to find out more about someone who keeps their private life under wraps, you would want to find out.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But trust me when I say that I didn’t mean to cross any boundaries. I hope I can explain everything one day.”
“Wait, what do you mean ‘everything’?”
I sigh earnestly. “I’ll explain everything, one day, I promise.”
“Love is the desire for Truth,” Aris says. “That’s how I see it. Sometimes, we’ll look to the souls of other people for guidance – normally, people who we feel to be wiser than us, even if we don’t realise that. It can be hard to always be looking within ourselves.”
Not many people attend today’s lesson, due to the departure of the soldiers this morning. Keeping to my word, I didn’t go to wave them off, but the news was being broadcasted live in the Square and on every TV screen anyway; there was no way I could miss it. “When we love someone, we see Truth in them that attracts us. Our souls all belong in that world, so there’s an intrinsic value that we hold. We might see a glimmer of Truth in one’s eye, and we might fall for it.”
He continues to say how love doesn’t necessarily coexist with physical attraction and that one can be beautiful and unloved, and one can be unattractive and loved nonetheless. “There are different kinds of love, from romantic to compassion to admiration. The best kind of love comes from the passion of wisdom and the desire to find Truth.”
After the lesson, people pack their notes away and begin to leave. Before I can proceed to do so, Aris stops me. “There’s something I need to talk to you about,” He says, resting his hand on my shoulder. “And I think you might already know what it is.”