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They ask about the food, my work, the other Eligibles, and I recite my answers as naturally as possible, like a good machine.
‘Last one,’ Erik whispers to me as a middle-aged man steps forward with his vlip recorder thrust in front of him to catch my response. He’s dressed in an unremarkable navy-blue suit and he looks as bored as I’m starting to feel. I sift through my prepared responses for the answer to the only question left unasked and wait to answer, ready to retreat back to the comfortable chair in my rebound chamber.
‘Miss Lewys,’ he begins smoothly. ‘Can you tell us what happened to your parents, Benn and Meria Lewys?’
Erik’s response to the question is so expertly choreographed that I can see him rising above personal assistant soon. If the other Stream reporters felt any allegiance to this man, they don’t show it. Instead, several back away from him. Jost gently takes my arm and pulls me into the rebound company’s lounge, but I can see the vlip operators and reporters part for the guards. The man who asked about my parents doesn’t put up a fight, but he keeps his eyes on me as they lead him away.
‘Sorry about that,’ Erik says, moving to block my view of the activity in the station hall.
Play dumb. I can see it in Jost’s eyes.
I shake my head. ‘Guess he didn’t get his question memo in time.’
‘Probably not.’ Erik smiles. ‘We still need to do the image shoot. I think everything is reorganised and ready for you.’
I follow him back into the silent hall. The Stream crew gathers around us mechanically, but no one speaks. The flash of cameras and hurried instructions from my aestheticians do little to distract from the sombre atmosphere in the echoing hall. I turn to see the rosy-cheeked reporter who’d joked during the interview standing at my side. I meet his eyes and smile, but he looks away. These reporters may not have stopped the guards from taking the other man away, but obviously they feel the sting of it.
I’m too distracted to enjoy my next rebound, but this time when the stewardess helps me from my seat I’m not dizzy, which is good because Cormac is waiting in the doorway, and I don’t want him to see me stumbling around. He immediately drags me into a small bar next to the lounge. The place is empty. Not even a bartender is here, thanks to the travel restrictions security has arranged. I perch on a tall mahogany stool and rest my arm on the cool wooden counter, feeling a bit out of place.
‘I hear you had some excitement,’ he says, straightening his black bowtie as he surreptitiously looks me over.
‘I guess so.’ I shrug like I hadn’t noticed.
‘It was nothing,’ Erik says as he strides over to him. ‘Adelice handled it like a pro.’
‘I bet she did,’ Cormac responds. ‘Where’s my valet?’
‘I’m here,’ Jost calls from the door.
‘Good, make me a highball,’ Cormac orders. Turning back to me, he says, ‘It’s really incredible. I can have him make you one. I’m strongly considering reassigning Jost to a permanent position. He’s the only valet who knows his place.’
I stare blankly at this suggestion, but manage to shake my head at the drink offer. I don’t like the idea of him taking Jost away from the Coventry, and I bet Jost wouldn’t either.
‘Probably best. Wouldn’t want you drunk for the Stream crews.’
I quickly learn that Cormac’s idea of keeping on time is different from the rest of the group’s. His schedule apparently calls for a quick cocktail followed by syrupy banter with the long-legged stewardess who made the mistake of coming to check on us.
It’s Erik who finally says something. ‘Sir, we need to hurry or we’ll have to cut the image shoot.’
‘The image shoot? Didn’t they get enough poses at Nilus?’
‘Yes,’ I break in, forcing myself to sound sweet, ‘but not with you.’ Even I’m grossed out by how saccharine my words sound.
‘I guess you’re right. They’ll want photos of me with my escort,’ he says, looking away from the girl and downing the remnants of his drink.
‘Of course,’ I continue in the sugary voice, ‘and we don’t want you drunk for the Stream crews either.’
So much for sweet.
Cormac’s grin slips from his face, and he elbows past us to the bar’s door.
‘Adelice,’ he says with his back to me, ‘try to keep a lid on it.’
‘Of course, Cormac,’ I reply. I know better than to provoke him this way, but I hate the way the rest of his team kowtows to him. I can only imagine the panic attack Enora would be having at this point.
‘You seem to have quite an effect on him,’ Erik murmurs, coming up beside me.
‘Cormac and I have an understanding.’
Erik raises an eyebrow. Clearly he’s got the wrong idea.
‘Don’t worry. It’s a death-threat thing.’
‘Oh,’ Erik says, ‘just that.’
The crews here are on their best behaviour, and I wonder if they’ve been prepped on the situation in Nilus. There’s no good-natured ribbing or unapproved questions. The interview runs as precisely as loom-work, and although the image shoot with Cormac is less than comfortable, it’s over quickly. He slides an arm around my waist, signalling me to cosy up to him. Standing this close together, I notice an antiseptic smell that hangs on him, covering up his cologne. It burns my eyes.
‘For the love of Arras, smile, sister,’ a broad-faced photographer calls from behind the snapping cameras, but he shuts up when a guard edges his way.