The hours sped past as class went on as its usual efficient route. Kids at their desks, working on their studying or assessment projects. Silence with the exception of small talk and inquiries with the teachers.
Even as she poured all her attention into her work, Raena couldn’t help but notice her deskmate being more jittery than usual.
Meina’s mouse like features seemed heightened, jumping at the slightest of movement or sound.
Raena stole a glance at the clock. Just about an hour or two before class ended. After, Raena would have plenty time to find what had her friend so shaken up.
Instead, she looked away towards the opposite direction, at an unusually quiet Eliot.
Raena and Meina had been horrified in the morning when they saw the bruises that reshaped his face and body, as if someone had attempting to pinch a drying clay sculpture into something new at the last few moments of hardening.
“What happened?” Raena couldn’t help but sputter, her concern spilling out like a leaking balloon.
“Guards, duh.” Eliot chuckled. “It definitely wasn’t my sweet little sister tossing a tantrum.”
“But.. why?” Raena couldn’t help question. She couldn’t wrap her head around the concept of the Council guards beating someone for no reason.
They must have had a good reason. The Council only aimed o protect the people from what they called the Black Beast. A monster they claimed wallowed in the shadows, leaping from the trailing shade of people as it devoured their happiness.
Of course Raena knew some punishments of trying to conjure or spread the Black Beast were extreme and even a little cruel. But the Council had explained many times, it was a monster that could slip between the cracks of wood planks, the tiniest drop of paint. All their actions were to ensuring it would never touch the people. And those infected would be taken away, so the rest and their happiness could be preserved.
They said the Empress herself had fought with the Black Beast before, and as a result of finding an escape, knew how to keep it at bay.
Yes, Raena believed the guards must have their reasons of good intentions. But Eliot? Why Eliot? What could her friend have done?
Then her memory drifted back to the evening before.
“Did... Henri..” Raena murmured, shocked by her own voice as it spoke and suggested the unthinkable.
“Henri?” Eliot echoed, as if forgetting his name for a moment despite seeming to love pestering the Council officer apprentice. “No, it wasn’t because of him.”
“He may be a huge idiot most of the time,” Eliot chuckled to himself. “But he listens to you. I suppose.”
“At least he has some sort of dignity of not going behind his girl-to-be’s back.”
“Class, please put away your studying material and projects. Officer Bryan is here to conduct a law briefing.”
The screeching of chairs littered the classroom as students stowed away their work and sat straight in their chairs, giving the visiting authority the respect and attention commanded.
Raena felt her table shaking, looking about her now cleared desk in confusion. Nothing on her desk could be causing the vibration, where was it coming from?
She traced the source to the desk beside her, it being Meina’s hands as they clasped the edges of the table. Her knuckles were bone white as her fingers tightly clung on.
“Meina, you alright?” Raena whispered, startling the petite girl, who stared back at her with wide brown eyes.
“No,” She trembled. “Not at all.”
Before Raena could pry, Officer Bryan entered the room. His authority spread out like a thick mist, turning every child’s attention to him.
He was a regal man, well built and his eyes buzzed with an analytical intelligence. He scanned the room, as if able to pick out certain categories from the students.
His eyes betrayed a look of disappointment as he swept them over Eliot. His gaze burned hot against Meina, whom struggled to hide her fluttering hands that flapped like terrified butterflies in her lap.
Finally he reached the center front of the room, chin lifted slightly as he addressed the teenagers.
“Good evening.” He spoke briskly, as if every second he spent here wasted his time on more important matters. “I am Officer Bryan, and I will be conducting today’s Law Briefing.”
Raena let the familiar recounting of laws filter into her ears as she pinned her main focus on Meina.
She was fidgeting. Her fingers rolled over each other, like weasels playing a dance. They fumbled, tumbling, unravelling and tangling an invisible string.
She almost resembled playing a lyre, plucking notes from the tightened strings, with a carefulness that burned down to her very ability to live.
Before Raena could figure out how he had even gone without anyone noticing, Eliot had slipped beside Meina, concern plastering his expression.
But before he could whisper a word, the Officer took notice of his sudden change in seating and paused, furiously glaring at the source of interruption.
“May I know what is so important for you to discuss with your classmate mid way of me explaining the Law?” His lips tightened as he bore down on Eliot with irked eyes.
Meina looked as if she were on the verge of being blown to ash by the wind or a single touch.
“We were simply talking about the best way the Council can detect those who are disobeying the Law.” Eliot spoke with such smooth boldness, Raena marvelled at his skill.
If Officer Bryan thought otherwise, he didn’t show it.
“Well, you have no reason to question our methods.” He assured firmly, challenging them to disagree. “The Council sends its best to dispose of threats and defend the community.”
Eliot nodded, smiling like any citizen told of how the Council was always looking out for them.
“Of course.” He bowed slightly, almost mockingly with a twinkle of sarcasm in his eyes.
The officer narrowed his eyes but said nothing, scanning the boy a few moments before resuming his briefing.
“What’s wrong?” Raena whispered coarsely to Meina, her eyes trained on Officer Bryan as he went back into the Law of conversation topics. “Quit it or he’ll notice you again!”
With a tiny whimper, Meina strangled her wrists with her tight, trapping her flapping hands in the net of her skirt.
“Guards are timely set to check houses for any physical proof such as illegal art pieces or inappropriately themed writing and will investigate accordingly.” Officer Bryan went on, dwindling down the hours like flint under sand paper. “Those responsible will be dealt with accordingly. All citizens withhold the responsibility to report such acts to the Council if sighted.”
Meina is pale. Raena cannot help but stare at her, expecting someone, even Officer Bryan himself to notice.
Her skin was like cloudy milk, her cheeks flushed with specks of scattered snow, hi-lighting the veins that gleamed blue in her fear.
Raena felt her curiosity and concern skyrocket. What could have her friend so stripped of her comfort?
As Officer Bryan wrapped up the briefing and began to make a move, the bell announced the end of class in its reverberating clanging song.
Instantly the class rose to pack away their things as Meina burst from her seat as if it were on fire.
“Meina!” Raena called out, stunned by the petite girl’s sudden dash out the door.
She caught sight of Eliot at the corner of her eye dart after her.
“Wait up!” I half-hazardly stuff my books into the throat of my bag and race after them.
“Meina!” Eliot panted as he finally caught up to her. His sides heaved and sweat plastered a dark patch on the back of his shirt. “Man, I didn’t expect such a short girl like you to-”
“What do I do?” Her words slipped from her lips before she could hold them back in her mouth. It was not a question, it was a plea. “What do I do?”
“Hey, calm down.” Eliot grabbed her arm, easing his grip as his cheeky voice melted to a serious tone of worry. “What happened?”
The truth burst from her screaming chest much to Meina’s dismay. The confession burned her throat as it wriggled its way out, spilling the cursed words that had birthed under her pen.
Eliot only listened, not uttering a word of shock, but instead held her, as if somehow sensing her fragility threatening to have her collapse into mere shards.
His eyes held a sort of empathy no one in this community could have under such circumstances. If it weren’t for his steady grip, Meina could hardly realise how badly she was shaking.
“I’m scared.” She spat, the very idea of it a forbidden sin on her tongue. “I swallowed it sure, but what if they somehow find out? What if...”
She choked on terrified sobs, only now aware of the tears staining thick lines down her cheeks.
“Hey, hey.” Eliot soothed, his levelled tone drawing her scattered focus to one point. “Listen. No one will find out. You literally erased all evidence. Those idiot guards will never find out.”
“But...” Hiccups bubbled in her mouth, obstructing the words she blabbered. “But..”
“Hey hey!” Eliot scowled. “Butts are for sitting on. Not a word to be repeated!”
He softened, slowly letting go, leaving her to stand on her own two feet, now no longer quivering.
“Look, I don’t care what those morons say. I won’t report you. You did nothing wrong. They won’t find you or hurt you.” Eliot mumbled. “I promise. You can tell me anything. I won’t sell you out.”
Raena listened to all this a good distance away, but their conversations, Meina’s confession, had been loud and clear.
Raena was now rooted down.
Meina had broken the law.
But she couldn’t report her, could she? Eliot had already sworn to keep it secret.
Yet, it was the responsibility of all citizens to report such acts. It was to protect the community as a whole after all.
But this was Meina. A girl she knew since young. A friend she played with and had come to love and appreciate having in her life.
Could she really betray someone she was so used to having around to face a fate so harsh?
Before she could make up her mind on her loyalties to the Council and to Meina, she became aware of the figure beside her.
“Henri,” Her mouth ran dry, a stone falling in her chest.
The look in his eyes as he stared across at her friends told her he had heard all he needed to.
Slowly, he turned to her, expression revealing nothing. Instead, he seemed to be waiting for an expected answer from her, to a question she didn’t want to hear.
“H..Henri... um..” Raena struggled to find the words she needed before he cut her off.
“What were they talking about?” He asked simply, almost bored and uncaring, much to her surprise.
“O-Oh!” Raena gulped, seizing her chance. “Just d..discussing how Officer Bryan really ex..explained the Laws well t..today...”
“I see.” Henri grunted, simply looking at the duo with disdained interest. If he truly knew anything, Raena couldn’t tell.
“That’s good to hear.” He added, after like what seemed to be an eternity of suspicious silence.
“Let’s leave them be. I should be getting home.” Raena urged. “I have homework to do.”
Henri nodded without question and started leading her to her street.
As her house came into view, he spoke.
“I wouldn’t stick so close around those two if I were you.” He said casually, as one might chat of the weather. “They’re not the best influences. Seem like the kind to wrap themselves up in trouble.”
Raena wanted to protest and speak up for her friends, but found herself too weary to.
“Goodnight.” He wished as he left her at her own doorstep, leaving her swimming in her own conflicting thoughts.
“You’re proceeding well with the training.”
“Thank you sir.”
The officer’s boots tapped with authority as he strode down the corridor. His trainee followed behind him, a small distance maintained between them.
“The Council will be pleased to have a strong, wise young man like you to ascend to our ranks.” The officer noted, plucking a report from the hands of a passing guard. “Your apprenticeship should end soon, and we will welcome you as a fellow honourable officer.”
“I look forward to providing my service.” The boy responded, no obvious joy present, but his mentor was pleased.
“Indeed. However, of course, you need to prove yourself before we can welcome you to or boughs.” The officer reminded. “Don’t get me wrong. We do not doubt your abilities or loyalties, but it is required you bring in a Law breaker on your own. Of course you have authority to call upon low ranks of guards to assist you.”
Upon earning silence from his student as an answer, he sneered in the semi lit chamber. “Of course, I trust in you to do so by the end of the week?”
In a moment of analysed thought, the trainee gave a quiet “yes”.
“Great.” His mentor smiled. “Good luck.”
They kept walking, passing through the prison walk.
The trainee could hear them, those tainted by the black beast, howling in their cells with anguish and fury.
Sorrowful wails echoed the hallway and made him cringe. How could humans sound so sad? To feel sadness was a crime. It was the signs of the black beast manifesting. Of course short periods of it were fine, but if such feelings stretched too long, they were to be taken away as to not infect the others with such a horrendous disease.
All he had to do was find someone who had disobeyed such a law, and bring them in.
And he would do as he had been training to, and protect his people from the monster among them.
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