“A good plan is like a road map: it shows the final destination and usually the best way to get there.”
H. Stanley Judd
A figure hurried quickly and silently along the empty corridors, a moving shadow in the otherwise completely still palace. The figure knew exactly where it was going, and never hesitated when faced with a choice of direction. Eventually, the shadow came to a pair of large oak doors, opened them slightly, and slipped inside. Inside was dark. So dark, in fact, that the only thing the figure could see was a slightly lighter shadow in the shape of a chair at the opposite end of the hall.
“My lord” stated the shadow simply, bowing so low that its head was almost touching the floor. “I have news from the Argeian Empire, your majesty.”
“Really? Proceed.” Intoned a voice from the opposite end of the dark hall. The shadow-figure stood up.
“Lord Vimark has fallen, your Excellency. The Argeians have annihilated their base of operations, and several other gang leaders in the process.”
“Good, good.” Said the voice, and the shadow-chair turned round to reveal a figure sitting bolt upright in it, but it was still encased in shadow. “Everything is going exactly as planned. Soon, I shall have my revenge and the Emperor” he spat the word with such venom that the first shadow flinched. “Shall know my wrath” continued the figure in the chair. He returned his attention to the figure standing in front of the doors. “Prepare the second phase of the plan, while they’re distracted. Prepare your troops for war, commander.”
* * *
The dropship shook violently as it was hit by another gust of turbulence.
“Why couldn’t we take the train?” moaned Jess, hiding her head in her hands.
“I wouldn’t peg you for suffering from air sickness, Jess.” Laughed Rob next to her, and put his arm round her shoulders. Whether consciously or not, she shifted closer. Rob coughed awkwardly, then noticed the amount of grime on his sleeve. “What colour was your hair originally? There’s so much dirt on you, it’s difficult to tell!”
“Blonde. I’m blonde.” She mumbled into his shoulder as she buried her face into his chest.
“What are you doing?” He asked, feeling rather embarrassed.
“I really don’t like flying.” Came the muffled reply. “How can Steven sleep like this?” she unburied her face long enough to look at Steven, who was snoring quite happily on the chair opposite them. The dropship shook again, and Steven just shifted in his sleep. Jess, on the other hand, just turned round and put her face in Rob’s chest again. Rob silently thanked the gods that no one could see him go bright red. ‘At least we’ll be back in Roctate soon.’ He thought. It was a shame they had to part ways, though, and Rob knew he was going to miss them.
“I don’t know how he can sleep, but I would certainly like to.” laughed Rob. “Erm, by the way, if you feel like you’re about to throw up, could you point your head away from me. Preferably at Steven. Lets see if that wakes him up.” He said the last bit quietly, but Jess still heard, and gave a muffled giggle into his shoulder.
“No problemo boss-man.” She agreed rather too happily. “It would be my pleasure.” She started to laugh, but was cut off by another lurch. Instead, she buried her face further into Rob’s shoulder. Rob heard a muffled cry.
“Are you OK?” he asked, quite concerned by now. She had seemed the brave, loud type to Rob, but when she had seen their transportation, she had all but collapsed, and had to be forced onto the dropship. He was also quite annoyed that she had stopped laughing. As much as he was embarrassed to admit it, he really liked the sound-a sort of ringing, bell-like tone that was very nice to hear-a sound you wanted to hear again and again. His musings were cut short, however, by Jess’s stifled and quiet reply.
“No.” she was talking so quietly that Rob had to strain to hear her. “My family was killed in a plane crash when I was six.” Rob waited, until it became apparent that she wasn’t going to elaborate.
“Its okay, nothings going to happen to you here- you’re safe.” He assured her, tightening his grip in a way that can only be described as protective. The irregular movement of her upper body, and her panting breaths told Rob that she was crying. “It’s okay.” He murmured into her hair.
“ETA, two minutes, guys. Get your gear ready.” Called back the pilot.
“You hear that?” Rob whispered. “It’ll all be over soon.” He looked at Steven, still snoring and smiling happily. “Do you want to do the honours, or shall I?”
“I will. It’ll cheer me up.” She replied, lifting her head up to look at Steven as well. She wiped the tears away from her cheeks, and raised her bent leg. She looked up at Rob. “Thank you.” And with that, she gave Steven the heftiest kick that Rob had ever seen.
* * *
They got off a couple minutes later. Jess had cheered up considerably, and to tell the truth, so had Rob. A couple of seconds later, the reason for their good-humour followed them out.
Still limping, Steven staggered off the dropship. Rob knew it was mean, but Stevens reaction! He practically jumped out of his skin, and had let out a stream of profanities that even rapists and murderers would have been shocked. The upside, though, was that Jess was no longer crying. He didn’t know why, but her crying had bothered him. True, girls crying in general made him uncomfortable at the best of times, but this was…….different, in a way that Rob couldn’t put his finger on. He just decided to put it down to the fact that she had endured so much in her short time in the dungeons, and resolved to think more about it later. A man was waiting for them at the edge of the landing pad. He was about the same size as Rob, but that was where the similarities ended. Where Rob had a fairly pale complexion and fair hair, the man was quite dark, with black hair done into dreadlocks that fell about his shoulders. His eyes? Well, while Robs were quite a warm brown colour, the mans eyes were obscured by stylish black-tinted sunglasses. To be frank, the man was built like a bouncer, except that he wore a plain black suit and tie with a white shirt underneath.
“Corporal Robert, Driver Steven and Miss Jessica of the imperial spy network. I must say, I admire your style.” The trio must have looked confused, because the man laughed. It wasn’t a pleasant sound-it was cruel and mocking. It was a sound that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1980’s villain. “Lord Vimark-remember? You all but levelled his base. No chance of covering that up. What were your orders?” he cocked his head. “Oh yeah-kill him silently. Avoid detection. Good work on that.” he sneered. Rob could tell that if he didn’t hit this man, then Jess would. And she wouldn’t pull any punches. ‘For your sake, I hope you stop.’ he thought, praying that the man would shut up and go away. He didn’t, though. “Jessica. What kind of spy are you, that gets captured on a standard recon mission.” He sneered again. “And I understand you suffer from air-sickness. You’re pathetic.” He laughed. Rob saw Jess turn from white, to pink, to red, all in the space of a second out of the corner of his eye. ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ he urged mentally, desperate for this unpleasant man to leave.
“And who are you” growled Jess through clenched teeth “To call me pathetic, you loathsome, ugly little man?”
“I,” he said, puffing his chest out arrogantly “am the personal advisor to the emperor himself. So don’t you push me little girl, or you’ll be behind bars again. Only this time, you won’t be as comfortable as you were in the criminals’ hideout.” Rob could almost feel the loathing radiating from Jess, and barely controlled a flinch. “At least there, you had food, and the brief glimpse of light.” He laughed again, this time specifically at Jess.
“Why don’t you” she whispered. ‘Oh no’ thought Rob. ‘Here it comes.’ Jess continued “Turn around, and haul that fat ass back to your mother, and get her to beat some sense into you before I do it for her.” Rob sincerely hoped that the man would take the hint and run, but he knew the chances of that were slim.
The man glared down his nose at the comparatively small, wiry frame of Jess. “Didn’t your parents ever teach you to respect your superiors? Oh, wait.” He grinned nastily. “They couldn’t. Being dead and all.” He cackled. Jess’s fists bunched and Rob put his head in his hands. Steven just muttered something to the effect of “you’re gonna regret that”.
Jess flew at the still cackling advisor, and landed an amazing haymaker to the side of his head, sending him onto the ground. She then jumped on top of him and proceeded to punch, kick and bite him savagely, with Steven and Rob just looking on in dumbfounded amazement.
Several people heard the commotion and ran over to investigate why there were suddenly black bits of blood-stained skin littering the pavement. One person, a middle aged man only a couple inches taller than Rob, who had similar coloured skin to the advisor, hurried up and skidded to a stop next to where Rob and Steven were standing.
“Aren’t you going to stop her?” he demanded.
“Yeah, right.” Steven laughed sarcastically. “I have no wish to end up in hospital tomorrow!”
“To tell the truth, I’m tempted to join in beating him up” Rob stated. “If you want to, though, be my guest.” The man didn’t move. Rob looked at Steven. “I guess we should calm her down.”
“Are you INSANE! She’ll kill you! My leg still hurts from where she kicked me!”
“You wuss.” Rob criticized. He took a deep breath, and plunged into the fray.
It was difficult to separate the wildcat that was Jess from her prey, but eventually he managed to grab her waist and haul her, still kicking and screaming, away from the figure that was curled up on the floor. He spun her round to face him. “Jess, Stop.” He told her sternly. “Calm down. Breath. Good, that’s it, just breath.” She took some more ragged breaths. He pulled her closer, and hugged her. “This is becoming a bit of a habit, isn’t it?” he whispered, and he felt her laugh into his neck. “For what its worth, that was one hell of a haymaker!” she laughed again.
“I just hope the emperor doesn’t mind that I beat up his advisor.”
“I don’t think anyone would mind if you beat him up, to be honest.” She pulled herself away from him, and looked around.
“Rob, people are watching!” he looked around, and saw that she was right.
“And who cares? They were watching you beat him up” he nodded to the crumpled figure in a torn suit. Jess blushed. “Now that’s something I never thought I’d see-a blush from Jessica the wildcat! And besides-what are they watching? A good friend calming his mate down after a fight, that’s what!” She still looked embarrassed, so he let go. She stood there uncertainly, feeling awkward, as did Rob. “Would you look at that!” he mock-groaned, in an attempt to break the awkward silence. “I thought it was impossible, but you’re even dirtier! It’ll be a miracle if we ever get you clean.” He ran his fingers through a bit of her hair which was particularly lumpy, and found his fingers covered in dried blood. “Look at this!” he said, flicking it off his fingers. “Come on, let’s get you a bath. I’m sure we’ll be hearing from the emperor soon, and we wouldn’t want you covered in grime when he does speak to us.” He gave her a gentle shove in the direction of the inn opposite. “You go get Steven, get a bath and I’ll meet you with some new clothes ready for you.”
“Have you got enough money?” she asked worriedly. “I’m sure I could spare some…”
“No, its okay.” Rob laughed. “I’ve got a lot of money saved up! By normal standards, I’m quite wealthy!”
“But……How? A soldiers’ wages can’t be much…”
“Yeah, but if you’re smart, it can add up-I won’t need much money if I’m posted in the desert or the badlands, will I?”
“Okay, if you’re sure…..”
“Of course I’m sure. Now go get a bath, you!” She nodded and turned around. “Wait, Jess.” She stopped. “When you get there, ask for Kara, and say ‘Rob is calling in his favour’. She’ll take good care of you.” Jess nodded again, and ran over to where Steven was watching while trying to appear like he wasn’t. When she reached him, he said something, probably to the effect of ‘are you all right’, before walking off with her to the inn, which was ironically named “the Brawlers Fist”, and disappeared inside.
* * *
The interior of the inn was quite……..complex, Jess had to give it that. It was divided into two parts. On the left hand side was a smoky bar, complete with gruff barmen and the type of client that you’d expect in the brute squad of an elephant military. On the right side, in stark contrast to the bar, was an elegant, sophisticated looking restaurant area with nice, clean tables and a polished wooden staircase to the left of a clean, posh-looking till.
It was like looking at a photograph of two different places, and sticking them together half-and-half. The overall effect was bizarre.
The men-if, indeed, they could be called men with their gargantuan build-at the bar were staring intently at them, and in particular Jess, with her torn clothes and dirty, well, everything, so they decided to head the opposite way and into the ‘posh’ area to book a room, but Jess sincerely doubted they’d be able to afford one, even one of their worst ones.
As they approached the desk, they noticed a woman at it, talking with a tall, dark haired man with a skin tone somewhere between that of the advisor and that of her own pale complexion. He looked about the same age as Jess and Steven, and a couple of years younger then Rob, which would put him in the region of twenty, maybe twenty-one. He was dressed in a simple brown T-shirt and dark blue jeans. The woman had the same skin and hair as the young man, but looked about 40-ish, and wore a white jumper and a red knee-high skirt. Both looked up as they reached the desk.
“OK, Jake. Go on, be off with you-I’ve got customers.” (I should mention this isn’t the same Matt as earlier) The dark haired man nodded, and with a brief grin at Jess and Steven, turned and walked into the back room. “So, what can I do for you?” she asked with a warm smile, apparently not bothered in the slightest about Jess’s dirty, blood-stained appearance. To be honest, Jess could still feel the bar-goers eyes boring into her back.
“Erm….we’d like three rooms, each with a bath, if possible please.” Jess answered uncomfortably. The woman just nodded, and made a note on the screen that was on in front of her on the desk. “Erm….is it possible for us to speak to a Miss Kara, as well please?” this time the woman smiled.
“That’s easily done. Kara, owner of this establishment, at your service.” She offered her hand, which Jess took tentatively. Now, I know what your thinking-why is Jess acting so shy? Well, think about it-she’s just had a fight in the street, and come into an inn covered in mud and blood. Enough to make her a bit shy, isn’t it?
Anyway, Jess shook Kara’s hand. “And, if you don’t mind me asking, how do you know my name? I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of such a fiery young woman.”
“I saw your little display out there through the window, and I must say, I’m quite impressed-no one’s had the courage to stand up to that unpleasant little weasel ever since he got appointed the emperors advisor. And I think that the people staring at you are just as impressed as I am.” Jess smiled despite herself.
“It was my pleasure. As for how I know you’re name” she said, gaining more confidence as she realised she was turning into a mini-celebrity, “My friend, the one who pulled me off of the advisor” Kara smiled. “Said to ask for you by name, and to say that Rob’s calling in a favour.” As Jess said Robs’ name, however, the smile disappeared, and Kara’s eyes widened. Without a word, she made some notes on her screen, and pushed a button on the desk next to the screen. The man named Jake came round the corner from the back room, with a confused expression on his face.
“Yes mum?” that explained the similarities between them.
“These two would like three rooms for the night. They say they’re friends of Rob.” Jakes’ eyes widened too.
“Does that mean……”
“Yes, I’m guessing so.”
“Then I’ll take these two to their rooms”
“Wait” said Jess hurriedly, “How much do we owe you?”
“Owe us?” Kara looked confused “My dear girl, if Rob is calling in a favour, we can hardly charge you”
“But--” Jess started to protest.
“No.” Kara stated firmly, but not unkindly. “No. Thank you for the offer, but no thank you.” Jess was still confused, but allowed herself to be led up the stairs and into a long corridor with doors equally spaced either side of the corridor. As they walked, Jake looked over his shoulder at Jess and Steven.
“So, how is ol’ Rob?”
“Fine. I haven’t known him long, so I really can’t tell you.” Jess admitted.
“He’s doing OK. He doesn’t really talk about himself that much.” Steven said. “How do you know him?”
“Ha! I was only ten, so I don’t remember him much. Only that he saved mine and my mothers’ life.”
“Really?” Jess and Steven both asked at the same time.
“Yes. You see, it was in the last year of WW3, eleven years ago, and we were living in the Sahara desert, just on the outskirts of what is now the Ofricon union. He was a two year veteran at the time, and he found us huddled in a basement. If he hadn’t found us, we would have died in the air strike that was called in to dislodge the union troops. We owe him our lives.”
“Eleven years? How old is he?”
“Only about thirty. Why?”
Steven answered before Jess had a chance. “He looks about twenty-four.”
“Well, I guess he takes care of himself. Here are your rooms. Inside each room is a double bed, a bath and a television.”
“Thanks” said Jess gratefully “Are you sure you’re OK with us taking them for free?”
“Of course! Without Rob, we wouldn’t even have our lives! If you want dinner, just come down anytime, and we’ll take your orders. OK?”
“Yes, thank you so much.” Replied Jess, while Steven just smiled and shook Matts’ hand. Matt then turned, and strode down the corridor. Jess turned to Steven. “You’ve been unusually quiet.” She said accusingly. “What’s up?”
“Does it seem like something’s up?” he replied indifferently. Jess nodded. “Oh, well I’m sorry to worry you.” He winked, and Jess punched him playfully on the arm. “Ow! I just talk a lot when I’m nervous. Other times, I’m quite quiet.” He turned to his door. “And now, if you don’t mind, I need a bath.” He stopped before closing the door. “And, if you don’t mind me saying, so do you-you stink!” and with that, he ducked behind the door to avoid the throwing of a clump of mud that Jess had pulled from her hair.
Jess turned and looked at the room, and gasped. It was much too huge for one person, surely? In the middle of the far wall was a large, four poster double bed, complete with satin sheets and red silk curtains, and in the right corner was a bath tub that, again, was way too big for one person, with a partition around it. The room was huge compared to the other hotel rooms that Jess had stayed in, which completely flabbergasted her-how could one person need such a huge bed?
Then it hit her-they didn’t. This was a couple’s room. The thought was oddly disturbing, but she couldn’t identify the reason why-maybe because she might be denying a couple a room right now, and they would be leaving disappointed.
She sighed. It couldn’t be helped, though-Rob had obviously pulled some strings here, and Kara and Jake had been generous.
It was with this thought in mind that she moved towards the bath tub, and turned the hot tap on to full, sending hot, steaming water cascading into the circular bathtub. Jess breathed in the hot steam gladly-how long was it since her last bath? 3, 4 months? Too long in any case, and she was sincerely looking forward to it.
She flopped onto the bed, waiting in the agony of anticipation, and thought. Nothing in particular to start with, but eventually her thoughts drifted to Rob-who was he? Where did he come from? And more importantly, what was his past like? He had told them, on one of those few occasions he spoke about himself, that he was in the demolitions squad, and had been for two years. But before that? Obviously, if Jake was telling the truth, Rob had spent at least 13 years in the military, which would place him, at the youngest, at about twenty-nine. And that’s if he joined when he was sixteen, which was unlikely.
She glanced at the tub, and rushed over there when she realised it was almost full. Jess immediately stripped off her clothes, and sank gratefully into the hot, relaxing water with a sigh. She let her head flop back onto the side, and closed her eyes. This felt good-the hot water soaked into her skin, relaxing and calming her, washing not only the dirt, but the exhaustion away too. Before too long, her breathing was becoming slower and deeper. She realised she was falling asleep, but didn’t care-she was welcoming it with open arms. After all, didn’t she deserve a comfortable rest?
A knocking on the door made her start awake. She looked at the clock-she had been in the bath for half an hour.
“Who is it?” she asked groggily, groping for a towel.
“It’s Rob” said a voice behind the door. “I’ve got your new clothes here, if you want them….”
“Er, yes. Yes, of course.” She cursed silently-she’d left the towel on the bed.
“Can I come in?” Jess thought about it-she needed the clothes, but couldn’t be bothered right now to get out of the bath and even if she could, she needed the towel.
“Er, OK. Just keep looking at the wall!” she insisted. Rob laughed.
“In the bath, are we? Don’t worry, I won’t peek.” He said reassuringly.
“Oh…..alright. Just leave the clothes on the bed and chuck me the towel. And remember-no peeking, or I’ll be quite upset!”
“Oh, I’ve seen you when you’re upset, and I don’t want to end up like the advisor!” they both laughed.
“Well, hurry up and come in then, before I change my mind!” she yelled, feigning impatience. Rob laughed again, and opened the door. Pointedly staring at the wall the opposite direction to the bath, he put the clothes down on her bed, and picked up the towel.
“I hope you don’t mind jeans and T-shirt. I just couldn’t imagine you in anything else!” joked Rob, walking slowly backwards, getting dangerously close to the bath.
“Stop! Any further, and you’ll fall into the bath!” Jess cried in mock-panic. She couldn’t see properly, but she was sure Rob smiled. He flicked back the towel.
“Here you are” He said, moving the towel slightly. Jess reached out and grabbed it, and pushed Rob forward, sending him staggering forward and tumbling onto the bed. She lifted herself, dripping, out of the bath and had wrapped herself in the towel before Rob got up. “Oi! That wasn’t very nice!” he laughed.
“Out now.” She replied sternly, giving him another shove. He moved to turn around “No, don’t! Remember you’re promise!” she chastised. “Now, out. Go on!” she gave him another shove.
“Alright! I’m going!” They had reached the door, and Jess was about to close it when she opened it a crack more.
“Something Jake said-you fought in World War three?” there was a dead silence, and Jess instantly regretted her tactless question.
“Jess.” The mood had turned from friendly and playful to cold and hostile in the space of a few moments. She made a sound as if to speak, but an upheld hand stopped her. “Jess, I didn’t tell you for a reason.” His voice had taken on an emotionless and flat voice. “I don’t like to talk about it. I lost a lot in those four years, and I prefer to leave the memories buried. OK?” the last ‘OK’ changed from emotionless to such aggressiveness that it shocked and hurt Jess. She hadn’t expected such venom in his reaction, and she flinched.
“OK. I won’t mention it again…..” she managed to mumble, before shutting the door gently. At least, she tried to, but found a foot in the door. She looked up to see Rob looking at her, his expression stony.
He noticed her wounded face, and his expression softened. “Don’t worry about it, Jess. Just be careful what you ask, OK?”
“OK…sorry….” She mumbled.
“Jess. I’m serious-don’t worry about it.” She must have still looked upset, because Rob placed his hand through the gap in the door onto her shoulder, whilst being careful to ONLY touch her shoulder. “Jess, look at me.” She did so, albeit reluctantly. “Jess, you’re curiosity gets the better of you. Please don’t take it personally; it’s just a difficult subject for me…..much like you and your parents. Please?”
Jess started at the mention of her parents, and looked into Robs’ eyes. She saw that he was serious. “OK. Let me get dressed, and I’ll meet you and Steven downstairs for dinner.” She managed a weak smile.
Rob smiled back, a sight which caused an unaccountable feeling of happiness-Rob wasn’t mad at her! Her smile widened.
“OK. See you downstairs, Jess.” He withdrew his foot, turned, and headed into his room to get ready.
Jess, in the mean time, closed the door and flopped onto the bed. ‘Why, Jess? Why? What did you think you could achieve by asking that question?’ She thought. As no answer came to her, she resolved to put it down to experience and try to avoid that sort of situation again.
With a sigh, she heaved herself up and got ready for dinner.
* * *
Dinner was passing uneventfully, all three chatting and laughing together, enjoying their meals. When Jess had walked down the stairs and seen Steven and Rob in smart black shirts and jeans, she had stifled a giggle-she had never imagined them like this, and they had obviously had a thorough wash. Their hair was brushed, so all-in-all, they didn’t look like they had come from a battle-ground. They had turned round at the sound of her giggling, and their jaws had all but hit the floor-she was standing there in tight fitting dark blue jeans and a white T-shirt that stopped just above her belly-button. Her bright blonde hair was falling down about her shoulders in curls, and stopped at her chest. She had laughed at their reactions, and had shepherded them to their table.
“Mmmm…” mumbled Steven, shoving more of his 20oz steak into his mouth, and chewing thoroughly “This steak is good!”
Jess and Rob both laughed. “Be careful, Steven. You’ll make yourself ill!” Jess mock-scolded.
“Oh, that’s rich!” Rob exclaimed. “Coming from the girl who scoffed her food in 5 minutes!” He laughed, and Jess blushed.
“I can’t help it if I’m hungry after that little…..scrap earlier!” she said defensively. “And you demolished yours quickly as well!” she accused, staring pointedly at Robs empty plate. He laughed, all trace of the earlier conflict seemingly destroyed.
“You have a point.” He admitted, still laughing, and then turned to her. “How did you learn to fight like that anyway-I’ve never seen anything like it!” Jess turned serious as she thought about his question. The answer was personal, but it might help encourage Rob to answer her question from earlier. She took a deep breath, and prepared to start.
“Well,” she began, and even Steven stopped stuffing his face to listen. “It all began with my upbringing, really. You’ve heard of the slums?” Both Rob and Steven nodded.
“Nasty place, I’ve heard.” Said Steven. “Muggings, murders, rapes-they’re all common in the slums.” Jess nodded.
“You’ve heard correctly. It’s a dangerous enough place for a boy to grow up, let alone a young girl. When my parents died, I wasn’t taken in by any of my parents so-called ‘friends’, so I was sent to live in the slums. I survived through minor theft of food and doing odd jobs around the neighbourhoods.” Both Rob and Steven nodded sympathetically, and Jess debated whether or not to tell them the next part, as it was VERY personal, but concluded that telling them was the best way to get Rob to talk about HIS past, which Jess was still dieing to know about. And besides-if she had to tell two people, Rob and Steven were the two she’d choose. “Well, there were a lot of drunks and criminals in the slums-too many to count. One day when I was nine, three years after my parents’ death, I was out on a routine apple-theft when a group of four drunks staggered into the street and spotted me.” She hesitated, and put her head in her hands as she remembered what had happened. Rob moved his chair round to be closer to her.
“Jess, you don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to…..” he put his arm around her shoulders, and hugged her.
“No…its okay.” She sounded more confident then she felt, and it took her all her willpower to stop her voice from shaking. She paused a moment more to compose herself before continuing. “They chased me for several blocks, calling out all sorts of crude comments, before managing to corner me. I was only nine, so I couldn’t fight back, and….” She gulped down a breath. “….and when they had finished, they left me-broken, bleeding and naked-in the alley. I swore to myself then that I would never be abused like that again without putting up a fight.” She jutted her chin out defiantly. “So I started training. I got some of the older boys to train me, and I grew to be quite the fighter. Eventually, when I had just turned fifteen, imperial spies keeping an eye on the slums heard rumours about a ‘wild girl’ that was causing havoc amongst the boys in fights.” She smiled. “They came and found me, and took me to a place where I would not only be safe, but where they would, in time, train me to be a spy. And that’s really all there is-I could go through my training, but it’s classified, and you probably wouldn’t be interested anyway.” She finished and sat up, noticing for the first time that Robs arm was round her.
She also noticed how quiet it was. She looked to either side of her to look at Steven and Rob. Steven’s face was a mask of horror, of the sort you get when you take a sad face and twist it and turn it into a disfigured semblance of disgust.
Rob, however, was wearing a mask of pure rage. His eyes were widened, and his lips were pulled back over his teeth in a feral snarl. His pupils were tiny pinpricks in his eyes, and his face was snow-white. “Rob?” she asked, quite frightened by his angry lion-like face. “Are you OK?”
“How can I be OK,” he snarled through gritted teeth “when I have just heard the most shocking story of my life?”
“Don’t worry about it, Rob-they were caught and punished severely. The courts were just as enraged as you are now.”
“I very much doubt that” he snarled, but the fact that they hadn’t gotten away with it seemed to have placated him. Jess looked at Steven. “What about you?” she asked in an effort to change the subject. “What’s your story, Steven?”
“Nowhere near as exciting as you’d think. Basically, I ran away from home at eighteen, and joined the army. There, I enlisted in the stealth division, but got transferred to the mobile supplies regiment when it became apparent that I was no use at stealth.” He chuckled.
“How long have you been in the military?” asked Rob, but he was obviously still angry.
“Four years. One in basic and advanced training, one in the stealth division, and the other two in the mobile supplies regiment.”
Jess pouted. “Everyone here is older than me!” she mock-complained, and Rob and Steven laughed.
“I know it’s not polite to ask, but how old are you, Jess?” asked Steven.
Jess smiled at Stevens’ directness. “Twenty-one” she said.
“Wow. Looking good, Jess!” Rob whistled, and Jess felt herself blush. Rob didn’t see, thank god, because Steven had just said his name. Rob let go of Jess, and moved back to his original position. “Yes?” he asked.
“Rob, we’ve explained how we got here,” Jess’s blood turned cold as she realised where this was going. ‘NOOOOOO!!!!!!’ She screamed inside her head. ‘DON’T ASK HIM!!!!!!’ she thought desperately, but Steven continued, completely ignorant of Jess’s wild looks that she was throwing at him from behind Rob’s back. “Jess and I were talking to Jake earlier,” Jess’s signals got more and more desperate, shaking her head, chopping with her hands, everything, but Steven was totally oblivious. “And he said you fought in World War Three. Is that true?” Steven finished, and Jess banged her head several times on the table gently behind Rob’s back. Steven noticed her all too late, and threw her a confused and quizzical look.
Rob, however, wasn’t paying attention. He had closed his eyes and stood up.
“I don’t mean to sound unfair,” he said evenly, in the same emotionless voice as earlier. “But I don’t want to talk about it. As I told Jess earlier, I lost a lot in those four years, and I don’t want to relive them.” With that, he turned and strode off up the stairs and, presumably, to his room.
Steven and Jess just sat there, dumbfounded, as Rob stormed off.