Hugo and I sit at the walls of the Grand Hall where the E.O.I ball is taking place. Though music plays, most people are congregated in the centre of the hall to make conversation or show off their formal attire. I’m guessing most previous balls would have had a much lighter atmosphere - but the boys are leaving in two days, and I think I’ve seen more tears than smiles since the news. Even Clementine broke down a few days ago, expressing her fear for Eric’s possible demise. The coldest hearts are breaking. Nobody is safe, at home or at war.
Hugo has spent most of the time quite silent about it all. I can tell that he’s been giving himself internal words of encouragement; words that can keep up his morale and convince him that he’s fighting for a good cause. Words that can convince him he’ll come back alive, in one piece or sane. Apparently most war veterans end up in psychiatric detainment for the remainder of their lives, trying to rid themselves of nightmares and constant panic attacks. Say Hugo is to come back alive and physically intact – what’s not to say that he won’t be the person who left?
“I’ll be fine.” Hugo sighs, sipping on a glass of the flavoured beverages provided on the food table.
“I know you will. You still have two months until combat anyway. I’m sure the Higher Division offers highly-skilled and experienced trainers to help you through it.”
“But what if it’s all about luck? Being in the right place at the right time?”
“I’m not sure, but I doubt it. The Southern Empire can’t be beating us out of luck. They’re crazy for victory – it’s obvious that they’re putting something into it, you know?”
“...I guess. I just don’t want to feel like it’s all just a game of fate.”
I respond with silence, examining my black dress under the soft illumination of the hall lights. I would have never been able to afford this if my leisure and maintenance ration wasn’t raised. I don’t think I would have chosen to wear it either, if my overly enthusiastic mother wasn’t a part of the whole picking process. We made our way to a clothing store in the Central Division and looked around for almost an hour, before coming to the conclusion that a black, long-sleeved V-neck dress with crystal embellishments trailing up from the floor-length hem would do. The retail assistant grinned and congratulated me on my award, perhaps having familiarised my name when it appeared on the computer screen, after I scanned myself in with my tag.
A lot of girls saw this event as a chance to outdo one another in terms of attire. Most people tried their best, and those who weren’t willing to stayed at home. Clementine was also on a mission to drop jaws it appears; she turned up looking as elite as she possibly could, wearing something that would mostly be donned at an exclusive event in the Higher Division. If anything, it was likely handed to her from her mother. She entered the hall with Eric, standing tall in her golden shear gown, short fitted in a satin bodice and a pearl-embellished overlay. She waltzed into the room, knowing that all eyes were on her for a few minutes. I think maybe she lives off the attention – soaks it in, injects it into her system like a recharge. I think compliments and gazes revitalise her more than any medical procedure could.
“I’m going to miss you a lot.” I whisper over the moderate noise of the hall.
“I’ll miss you too, Eden. But we might meet again in the Higher Division, if you make it there. I don’t know how they control access to the trainee soldiers and other citizens, but I think this won’t be the last time we meet.”
“I hope not. I hope there is never a last time. And if there is, it better because I’m eighty years old and near death.” I chuckle lightly.
In our following silence, the conversation I engaged with the elites over the canteen table a few weeks ago seeps back into my mind.
“There’s this teacher that I was suggested to visit.” I pipe up.
“Teacher? You don’t need one.” He snorts before emptying the rest of his glass in his mouth.
“That’s what I thought. Eric explained it all to me. Told me he’s doesn’t suit the current academic curriculum, and that he’s a bit left-wing.”
“What does he teach? Satanism?”
“No.” I breathe. “Philosophy, apparently.” I watch the ceiling lights of the hall glimmer. They take up the same aesthetic as the windows in our bedrooms at night, except with many more stars scattered across. Spot lights elucidate everything in what would have been pure darkness. It feels like we are covered in night.
“Do you care to enlighten me on this subject?”
“It’s funny you say that. The whole purpose of the subject surrounds enlightenment. Revelation. Understanding. As if I don’t know enough.” I joke.
“If an elite is suggesting something to you, I think you ought to find out about it. Even if it doesn’t interest you at first. They have way more answers than regular citizens.”
“You’re an elite, though.”
“Being a descendant doesn’t make you a real elite. A direct elite has parents born and bred in the H.D. A descendant has at least grandparents that lived there, and great-grandparents that are full-blooded elites. Plus, my mother’s father was from the LD, and her mother was an elite. She was brought down the minute she married him. I may have a few cousins up there, but that doesn’t make me any more legitimately elite than you. My blood is tainted.” He laughs quietly.
“I am full of LD, 2D and 4D blood, and that’s it. Not even a drop of elite. Count yourself lucky.”
“I’ll try.” He responds, chuckling.
After a moment of silence, I ask, “But what if this is all just a setup? See, these ‘lessons’ are taken in the Lower Division in an abandoned manufacturing unit called the Warehouse. It’s all completely free of charge. It’s not part of any seminary syllabus; just something on the side. Isn’t that kind of… odd?”
“Well, I’m not very familiar with all of this. What did you think they mean by ‘understanding?”
“I’m not sure. I tried to get more information from the elites, but they silenced me. They just keep telling me to turn up to the session and see what I think. I know Eric has been going there for a month, and a few other peers that he knows. This man sometimes has an assistant-like character with him. Aris Nestor, I believe?”
“Did you just say Aris Nestor?” He turns to me.
“He’s comes from one of the most privileged, well-known elite backgrounds in this city. Some of his relatives are fighting on the side of the opposition. He’s known more for having such an influential family, if anything.”
“I’ve heard his name in fleeting conversation, and maybe I’ve seen it dotted in newspapers, but I’ve never heard much of him.”
“He’s the silent one. He’s gotten on with his life on the side-lines, letting his siblings and parents take the limelight. Demus Rilam is his stepbrother. John Rilam is his stepfather – a pretty well-known politician. So my verdict is that if Aris really does attend these lessons, you should too. He isn’t just a ‘nobody’ from the LD.”
Soon Liza approaches us, deciding to join in our conversation. She bought a dark red satin gown with her ration, and it compliments her rich complexion well. There is a softer radiance about Liza this evening; her eyes are warm; her smiles are frequent. I’m guessing she may have heard decent news earlier today.
“Who is this you speak of?”
“Aris Nestor. Ever heard of him?” I ask.
“Maybe. The name rings a slight bell; I can’t be too sure. Have you tasted the food on the menu tonight? I’m pretty sure I haven’t tried of the majority of the cuisine before.”
“Probably some special stuff from the H.D.; who knows?” Hugo mumbles, losing slow interest in the diversion of the conversation.
Before he can change the topic, sudden yells break out in the centre of the hall. Everybody is surrounding an unanticipated brawl between two students. Hugo and I stand, slipping through the crowd to find out who is in the centre of all the attention. As expected, it’s Clementine. A taller girl with long, sheen perfectly trimmed black hair is grabbing Clementine by her flaxen locks, wrenching as Clementine shrieks. The girl’s eyes are smoky, glazed over in wrath. My first instinct it to question what Clementine had said to provoke her.
Soon, Patrolmen appear in the scene to help tear the two apart. Eric has already restrained Clementine, but the girl, who now know to be called Vera, continues lashing out.
“Who do you think you are?” She bellows at one point, once Clementine is off the ground.
“I think I’m everything you’re not. And I think you’re just scum of the Lower Division and that you should stay there.” Clementine hisses back. Eric holds her firmly, talking sternly to her with gritted teeth.
The Patrolmen only seize Vera, getting the news that she started the physical altercation. They escort her out of the hall as Clementine fixes her dishevelled attire and runs a hand through her hair, sighing. “Wow. The nerve that girl had, to even look me in the eye let alone touch me.”
“God, you’re so embarrassing sometimes, Clem.” Eric snaps curtly.
“She embarrassed me!”
“You provoked her!” Eric sighs, watching as Vera is lead to the double doors of the hall. The spotlight is shining over her as she turns her head back and throws a look of relentlessness towards us.
It’s the last thing I see, before everything turns black.