They were easy to spot, their faces glancing around suspiciously, never fully off duty. There was four of them at the table, and as promised my sister had transitioned back into a gezalle and twirled into view every time one of them looked too long at anybody.
Everyone else in the bar had continued as usual with one key difference, the laughter was slightly forced and the topics flowed less freely, circulated on only things ministry approved.
I spun towardsthe bar and grabbed Worm's offering drink with a thanks. The woman hadn't even looked up, clearly uncomfortable with the pubs current residence.
'Mango,' Squid called from the bar, 'How's the military treating your brother?'
'Huey's only complaint is that they don't let him cook.' And that he thought that the war with Neoti was a rouse for some Ministry agenda.
'He's a fussy one,' Squid chuckled. 'You'd think the Military would squash that out of him.'
The sky through the open windows were beginning to turn orange.
I glanced back at the Nerials and found dark eyes on me. Even sitting I could tell he was tall, his lanky torso sitting uncomfortable upright, as if he didn't want to touch more of this environment than he had to. Everything about him was neat, from his collared black shirt to the way his long slender fingers held his glass. His hair was a sandy brown though, that looked permenantly windswept atop his angluar head.
When he refused to avert his gaze, I habitually scratched at the rough skin that lived permanently at my neck. A habit that eluded to the uncomfort I felt, though i didn't let it show, lifting my glass in a silent cheers towards him and gulping it down. I risked a judging glance at the others at the table and found them more fitting the Ministry's Nerial stereotype.
Two women and a younger lad lounged in chairs with their legs sprawled out asking to be stepped around. One of the women had a ball of light on her palm that she tossed around on her fingers like a coin.
I'd seen her before. She liked to show off at the festivals held in the Ministry's honour. Their suscipious glances at the room were more deliberate, tilting heads and winking at all who caught them. I'd heard rumours that they looked for isolated folk to experiment on. I made an effort to appear social whenever they dropped by, though I never managed it quite as well as Tessa.
She had fallen into this man's line of sight of me, presummably not a coincidence and I saw the man ask her a question. I went to turn back to Squid when Tessa's eyes met mine in a frown before she reluctantly beckoned me over. Scratching my neck again, I retracted my neria energy further into me than usual just in case.
'This gentleman wished to speak to you,' she said when I reached her.
Her eyes flashed in warning to be on my best behaviour before smiling at the gentleman in question and stepped off into her dance once more.
'What's your name?' Already I could feel the interogation behind his words.
'Mango,' I supplied, figuring out what my hands should be doing to seem most inconspicuous.
'Like the fruit?' The other woman drawled.
'Yep.' I settled on having my hands behind my back, an innocent pose.
'I would expect someone with a name like that to look more curvy.' I smiled at the other man, to show I wasn't offended, if that was his intention.
The initial man spoke up again then, and his voice held more authority than his cohort. 'Maybe it's because she's so small.' I ignored the feeling of his eyes travelling from my brown skirt to the curls that had escaped at my forehead again. I heard a question in there, but couldn't pick what it was.
'Just your type then, Tai.'
Tai shifted his eyes to the speaker and you could feel a tension appear that wasn't there earlier. 'Fix the wound on her neck, won't you Brad?'
I touched the skin under my ear and noticed my finger came away with a droplet of blood. I remember him watching me as I scratched at the area earlier, is that all this summoning was about?
Brad held Tai's attention for a further moment before sighing and standing up and placing his hand over my neck. His clammy hand was quite different from the feeling of neria energy that crept over below my skin. A warmth of neria energy rose to meet the soothing pulses, but I mentally challenged it to retreat until the feeling dissolved and Brad sat back down.
A few customers had their eyes on us now, but Tai didn't seem to care.
'How long have you had that rash?' I touched the area and found it smooth and painless.
'Since I was young.'
'What was it from?'
'My sister thinks it's because my dad beat up my mum while she was pregnant with me.' I could only hope my tone matched his interrogational one.
I didn't want to be seen as easy prey. Healing me was pressumably nothing but a ploy for a bigger game.
'And what do you think?' He countered, not even blinking at my admonision.
We stared at each other in a battle unspoken, wondering who would be the first to end the game. I felt the questioning gaze of his peers but sucessfully ignored them.
Tai smiled then, slow and deliberate. A smug grin that felt like nothing but another mask he gave to the world. 'I guess it'll be interesting to see if it comes back.'
Knowing I had been dismissed, I politely thanked Brad for his gift and departed hoping the swish of my skirt was half as impressive as Tessa's because knew he was still watching.
I situated myself back at the bar and settled in to conversations about domestic life, military training and news from the wharf.
Simon stood in front of me and stared over the top of my head as I felt Tai's eyes heating the back of my neck. Keeping his eyes behind me he moved his mouth desceetly on a nonchalant mutter. 'I heard they'll be more whippings soon. Keep your head down.'
I determinedly ignored Tai and his cohorts until they got up to leave.
Tai caught my glance and gave me one last smirk. I ignored the unsettling feeling in my belly and chose not to respond.
Tessa pulled me into the empty kitchen and immediately demanded an explanation.
She was admiring my new soft skin when she asked the question everyone had subtly been trying to ask me, 'But, why?'
'I don't know,' I answered honestly, and the worry of not knowing was what would keep me awake tonight I knew.
'I managed to slip into the conversation that I had a sister, so hopefully they won't come back and steal me away for experimentation.'
It wasn't often when she stopped acting the big sister and allowed uncertainty and worry to show. 'Do you really think that's what they're doing?'
Her reluctance at this thoery was founded in her worry over what would happen to Mika or I if we were caught. The Ministry's academy was at least a known option, but disappearing altogether was a nasty option.
'I haven't been able to find Joe,' I say, despite her already knowing this fact. 'Martha has been missing for two days now as well.'
'Do you think the gangs could've-'
'That's where I'm checking tonight.'
'I wish you wouldn't,' She placed her hands on my shoulders and offered me a sad smile. This was the Tessa I loved most. I pulled at a section of her hair that threatened to fall from it's ribbon and watched as the ginger strands went from perfect to unkempt. She let it hang there for several seconds before sighing and tucking it behind her ear. The same sigh still hung in the air as she started fingering the piles of clean dishes sitting aside the sink.
'Please tell Mika that he needs to be more careful.' She picked up a mug before changing her mind and putting it down again. 'I see him learning to love life more everyday and it breaks my heart to know it's because of the one thing he has to hide.'
'I'll tell him,' I say and watch Tessa take a breath and shake the last moments from her persona. 'But you know that's only one of the reasons he's learning to love again.'
She smiles at me gratefully before gracefully stepping out into her royal ballroom once more.