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I turn to see Loricel watching this exchange with the hint of an upturned lip. I wonder how old she really is. If she has this much tech at her fingertips, why is she showing her age at all? Or is it that she’s actually extremely old, and only now starting to reveal it?
‘Older than you think,’ she mutters, and I turn away, embarrassed that she knew what I was thinking.
They’re clearing our dessert plates and offering coffee when a broad-shouldered gentleman crosses to the podium. He waits as the conversation dies down. It’s Prime Minister Carma, current head of state.
‘Greetings to you, keepers of Arras. This has been a momentous year. We have seen unprecedented peace and prosperity . . .’
I’m straining my neck to see him, but I wish I were at home where I could go about my night while the address streamed unobtrusively into my life. Here, next to Cormac, Stream crews are recording guest reactions, so I keep my face blank. They won’t show someone as uninteresting as me. My mind wanders to Jost, and I wonder if he’s stuck serving the officials. I wish he would come and feed me now like he did in Cypress. Jost knew exactly how much to scoop on the fork, and when I was ready for the next bite. I remember how his jacket was warm and soft in the cell. I want him to take care of me now. But even thinking about him is a welcome distraction from this evening’s politics, until everyone at the table starts to whisper in exhilaration, drawing my attention back to the speech.
‘We’re confident that safe mind-mapping will be available to the general public by this time next year,’ Prime Minister Carma says from the podium. ‘Imagine being able to save the treasured memories of your elderly grandparents before their removal or to deal painlessly with behavioural issues in your children. Until now these minor inconveniences have been the only flaws in Arras, but soon they’ll be a thing of the past.’
‘Wish we had that last year,’ Magdalena says quietly to the other wives. ‘Korbin held on to his mother for two years before I convinced him to put in the removal request.’
The wife to my left laughs, and whispers, ‘Not to mention dealing with Joei. I didn’t think I would get her through testing without killing her!’
My eyes meet Loricel’s, but I say nothing.
The speech continues with crop predictions and reports and proposed changes to the weave, which the Guild will apparently be voting on in the coming election. Then the prime minister begins calling on various officials to stand to receive recognition for their contributions throughout the year. When Cormac’s name is called, I try to smile at the vlip recorders that are trained on us.
Prime Minister Carma ends the accolades with his arm pointed to our table. ‘And, as always, the Guild offers its gratitude for the continued service and skills of the head of Manipulation Services, Loricel.’
She doesn’t stand. She doesn’t even smile. They clap anyway.
Cormac is called away when the address is over. Loricel leaves soon after, and I wait at the table, unwilling to risk going near the dance floor, where the older Guild officials linger, dragging Spinsters out to dance. That leaves me to eavesdrop on the gaggle of wives whispering across from me.
‘He may have the half the women in Arras drooling over him, including you,’ Magdalena says, poking the woman next to her, ‘but he’ll never get the nomination.’
‘Men like him, too,’ the other wife protests.
‘No, they’re jealous. There’s a difference,’ Magdalena points out. ‘And even if we did have a say, he still wouldn’t get elected. Cormac’s single, and no bachelor will ever get elected head of state.’
‘You’re just hoping Korbin will get the nod,’ whispers the other wife.
I peek over at them and notice Magdalena flinch at this accusation. Her eyes travel to mine.
‘Regardless, Cormac won’t ever be prime minister if he keeps running around with little girls,’ she says bitterly.
I take this as my cue to finally slip back to my apartment. I’m sure they’ll turn their venom on me next. Scanning the room, I don’t see anyone who will stop me from leaving, unless one of the officials tries to get his hands on me. That’s something I’d like to avoid, as the men who are here alone are as undesirable as they come – dumpy, hairy, and smelly. The only girl who would go after one of them would be a girl after power.
I guess that’s why Pryana’s draping herself over the dumpiest, hairiest, and smelliest of the undesirables – the minister of Ambrica, a large region that contains most of the Eastern Sector. It’s situated along the seaboard, and his bulging waistline is evidence that he enjoys the benefits of a rich seafood diet as well as far too many of the wines that are produced in the region. Unfortunately, he seizes my arm as I try to steal past them.
‘You must be the other new hire.’ He winks at me, and Pryana glares, her body still pressed against him.
‘I suppose so,’ I say, as bored as possible.
‘You are a fine-looking pair. These days it’s rare we get two ideal new Spinsters at the Western Coventry in one year,’ he says, moving so close to me that the stench of garlic and whisky stings my nose. ‘But you two are exquisite.’
I try to think of something clever to say without insulting him or encouraging his perverted commentary. I can’t come up with a thing.
Thankfully, Pryana, who appears to be trying to permanently adhere herself to him, steps in and bats her overlong lashes. Her body language tells me to back off, and I want to scream at her that this is the last place I want to be.