Gold ribbon accents hung from the ceiling, silver candles decorated the tables, and men and women alike were gathered around the room in designer black clothes waiting for the performer to sit in front of his gilded instrument. It was possible that I would hate them less if they didn’t lounge in establishments like this. If they were quieter about the profit they were making off of innocent men, women, and children, it would be slightly harder to hate them as much as I do.
Madden grabs my arm, keeping me from walking any further into the lavish room. His light, almost feather-like grip makes me realize that my hands were in fists at my side. “Trust him,” Madden mouths as I look up to make eye contact. Nobody understood that I was trying.
I was trying to get revenge. I was trying to make these people, these corrupt, selfish torturers, pay for everything they had done. I was trying to make a difference. I was trying not to let my anger get the best of me. I was trying to trust Even with the fragility of the only family I had left, because, of course, I was trying to get my brother back. I was trying to keep my life together without allowing all of these emotions to boil over.
Nobody seemed to see this but me.
Nonetheless, I give Madden a sure nod, hoping it looks genuine. Even walks past us, without even acknowledging, nothing more than a paranoid glance over his shoulder. He didn’t need to be associated with us at all when obtaining this information. Madden, Kali, Koi, and I would watch him, each of us waiting patiently for any kind of transfer of information or details. Kali and Koi sat down at a table and waved over to us, as if we were two couples meeting for drinks, yet somehow in perfect sight of Even and the OFM Board of Directors.
As soon as we sit, the murmuring in the room dwindles to hush as a man in a silver suit and silver mask walks on the stage quietly and takes a seat behind the sleek black piano. As the man’s hands make their way to the crisp white keys, I look one more time to make sure Even is all right. He sat quietly with the Board, intently and eagerly waiting the performance, playing the role of Signian diplomat quiet well. His embellished suit and slick back hair almost looked natural on him, and even though I had seen this boy nearly every day drenched in sweat wearing worn grey training uniforms, he somehow seemed more at ease amidst the clamor of wealth and status. A mining town surely couldn’t give him that, so how did he know how to act so flawlessly pristine?
The melody begins, and my confused thoughts come to an abrupt halt, and as they should. There was no place for me to be thinking like that, especially when there were greater issues on the table.
The song was pretty enough, still, I’m not sure I would pay the overpriced entry fee just to watch a guy in a mask play piano. Either way, my ears were pleased in the least while my paranoid eyes continued to scan the room in search of someone connected to the case. Instead my eyes once again fall on Even, a pleasant smile on his face as he nods with the men around him. If only they were turned towards me, maybe I could catch a glimpse of what they were saying, I wasn’t sure I could wait to hear Even recap it later.
Once again my thoughts were interrupted, but this time it was by waiters in long tailcoats and top hats, each bringing around trays of beverages in skinny cylindrical glasses. The beverages smells sickly sweet of all sorts of fruits, most of which I had probably never even tasted in reality, at most I would have had the synthetic fruit substances the compound produces, but these drinks smelled too sweet to be anything close to those synthetics. When the waiter sets my drink in front of me I smell it before I even know what sits in front of me. This one I had tasted before. Certainly. At the bottom of the cylinder was an apple wedge, bright and red as blood, the rest was filled with a bubbling creme colored liquid. Before I took a sip, even dared to try it, I looked around the room. Eating and drinking on missions was always a tricky thing. Koi nodded to me and Kali proceeded to tilt her head back and down the entire thing in one gulp. She then proceed to take out the three grapes at the bottom of her cup and eat them quickly, as if trying to hide the fact that her drink was gone from everyone around her. Madden chuckles quietly beside me and rolls his eyes at her antics before taking a sip of his own strawberry flavored drink.
I take a deep breath and take a sip of my own, the carbonation in it warms my mouth as the drink slides down my throat.
The masked man at the piano keeps playing, even as his own drink, one filled with a lime green liquid and one kiwi wedge gets set in front of him. My eyes return to Even as the song reaches the peak, he still has that pleasant smile on his face, now somewhat turned into a smirk. The men around him keep nodding, either with the rhythm of the song, or quietly discussing topics we most wanted to hear.
“Shame you have to pay so much for music like this.” Madden whispers in my ear, causing my to jump slightly in my seat. My eyes had been so trained on Even, my ears so trained on the piano, that I nearly forgot the red headed boy was beside me, much less with his hand on my back and his face so close he could whisper in my ear without being heard. I just give Madden a small smile and nod, turning my gaze and seeing the devilish smirk on his face. Why did we ever invite him along?
As the song decrescendos to a quiet hum, people raise their glasses, the stark bright color of the drinks looking even more vivid against the backdrop of their black clothing. We raise our drinks as well, even Kali, whose drink is completely gone. When the music stops, the musician stands, raising his own glass, and then, almost in unison, everyone tilts back their heads, and drinks. It was odd in a ritualistic sense, by the atmosphere in the room it was clear this happened at every performance. Were we supposed to just know this was happening?
The man walked from behind the piano and gracefully came down the stairs to mingle and accept accolades from people at the surrounding tables. Even looks over his shoulder for the briefest second and makes eye contact with me, widening the smirk as he does so, but the glance is brief and his mischievous brown eyes were gone as soon as they appeared. At least, from the fleeting glance I received I know he was confident. If he wasn’t, he would have even looked back, much less smirked. He knew how much was at stake, and he knew how suspicious he looked. Looking at me – at us – was a risk he would only take if he was confident.
“Stop staring, aren’t you supposed to be my date tonight and not loverboy’s over there?” Madden asks coyly, making Koi smile and take a sip from his drink.
“Jezzie doesn’t care about going on dates with either of you, but seriously girl, you look like you are about the murder them, cool it. The whole point of this is not to get caught.” Kali says, waving someone from the waitstaff over for another drink as she says so. I roll my eyes at the two of their comments and gladly take another sickly sweet drink from the man after he hands Kali her own.
“He has something, I know it.” I say, focusing my eyes on the musician traveling around the room instead of my co-commander.
“Ok, you will find all of this out later, didn’t you ever learn how to have fun? We get to drink, and listen to pretty music, and you are ignoring all of it to look at a boy you can look at any day of the week.” Madden says, causing Koi to continue chuckling. I roll my eyes again, listening, but not paying attention to their incessant teasing. My mind was caught up with the masked man, who kept looking in my direction. With my excessive attire I wouldn’t be surprised, I did look out of place, but surrounded by all of these other people dressed in the same fashion as myself, it seemed odd.
Madden, perhaps confused at my lack of response to his comment, follows my gaze and sees the musician looking directly at me. Instinctively he puts his arm around me, watching as the mask turns away and he goes to greet another table sitting near the front.
Koi clears his throat. I turn to look at him and see that all of our gazes fell in the same suspicious direction. “Madden watch him. If he makes a move, take her outside. Even will know what to do. Take her outside before he notices and gets involved.” Koi whispers, barely audible over the clamor of discussion across the room. Masked man looks back over towards us again, but this time his gaze lingers on Kali, not myself. What could he need?
My eyes flit to Even again, and his eyes too, connect with the musician. Something was off. Even moves quickly, nodding and shaking hands of the men at the table. “Start moving.” Koi says, and I run through the motions we had tried so hard to make look believable.
I whisper in Madden’s ear as he moves his hand from my shoulder to cup my back, behind him the musician inches ever closer to our table. Madden stands, unaware of the man forty feet behind him, and he extends a hand to help me down from the tall stool. Koi does the same to Kali, even though she is just as tall as him if not taller. I step towards the door, planting an unnecessary, but harmless, kiss on Madden’s cheek for good measure as we begin to walk out.
“Excuse me!” The musician hurriedly finished a conversation with the table he was just at to run over to us before we could make our escape. “My name is Chamberlain, Destin Chamberlain, and yours?”
Looks like the cheek kiss wasn’t enough. I open my mouth to speak but Madden snappily replies before I can say my own name. “Her name is Ms. Garter to you, now if you will excuse us we must get going, it’s our anniversary, you see. Excellent job tonight, just wonderful sound, it was worth the extra money to hear it. Thank you, we will be going.” Madden says, trying to drop his head to avoid conversation and move quickly out of the musician’s range.
“Sir, excellent job. I would like to talk to you more about the piece-” Koi blurts from behind us, trying to get us away. Koi and Kali could handle it if things got rough, and Madden and I could too, but I knew his true worry. Lately, Even had been slightly more protective than usual, and I knew Koi figured if I was part of the fight that he would join in, and that could not — under any circumstances — happen today. We were so close to getting the information we needed, and I did not want that being jeopardized, and I knew nobody else did either, yet, Even’s rash emotions could compromise it in one fell swoop.
“One moment, Ms. Garter, sir would you let her speak? I want to hear her thoughts on the performance.” I look to Madden and gives a small nod. I put on a brave face and take a deep breath, looking straight at the mask. Short and sweet.
“I thought it was just the most wonderful noise. I haven’t heard music like that since I was very young. Thank you for a breathtaking performance, but I’m afraid my love is right, we do have to get going. Thank you again, Mr. Chamberlain.” I say, my voice quiet but precise, my body tense, waiting impatiently for a move to be made. Out of the corner of my eye I see Even briskly walk out, without even the slightest glance over his shoulder. He had faith in us, or he knew something we didn’t.
“C’mon darling, we should hope our driver isn’t impatient.” Madden says, looping our arms together and walking me through the large black doors that blocked off the performance hall from the rest of the exclusive business club. Even was just down the hall on the other side of the doors, pretending to take a call. In truth he was probably calling Solesm, or whoever it was he spent the weekend with. It was weird that a weekend trip would change him this much, but everything seems different about my co-commander.
I hear Kali’s loud laugh as the door closes behind us, and I know their fine for now. She was always a better actor than I was in those situations. Even smirks down the hall as he sees Madden and me. I can’t help but smirk back, holding back a laugh. To think I thought there was going to be some dramatic fight, yet I’m twenty feet away from Even and my floor length black evening gown doesn’t have a single scratch on it. The door opens and closes behind us, and I peer over my shoulder to see Koi and Kali walking calmly in our direction. Even hangs up the phone and begins walking out of the lounge. We wouldn’t all meet up until we were outside of the perimeter. Even would get in a government owned vehicle and Koi, Kali, Madden, and I would get to ride in a Harbor Compound vehicle.
Unlike the plan, Koi and Kali are at our side in seconds, their calm walk somehow disappearing in just a few strides. “The room was bugged. I saw one around a few tables. I’m not sure what they were listening for, but when I went back to get my coat I didn’t see any near our table. Something more sinister is going on here, but I don’t think it has to do with us. Chamberlain told us that he singled us out because we looked new. He said it was not often newcomers were seen in a lounge that prestigious. He didn’t say anything about Even though. I assume those men bring in guests all the time. We should be safe, but I’m going to put you four on lockdown for a week or two just in case. They need to forget about you and your faces. We can’t risk running into them on any other missions anytime soon.” Koi explains quietly, his pace becoming more relaxed again. I take a deep breath, holding back my anger about lockdown. I hated being quarantined like that, but I understood his concern. If anything, Even would hate it more than I would. As we come up to the cars I look back at the inconspicuous building and smile, whatever Even had, he had enough to leave early, and enough feel confident as he left.
Even though my responsibilities were minimal, my heart swelled knowing that we were ever closer to finding my brother, and ending years of torment for so many others. No matter what Even got today, it was more than we had yesterday, and I am more than happy to consider that a job well done.