He told me this because I’d asked him what our parents’ funeral was like.
Now I wander among the guests, lost and aimless, responding to the sympathetic words of those around me with appropriate, practiced replies. “I am so sorry for your loss,” they say. I recognize some of Metias’s professors, fellow soldiers, and superiors. There are even a couple of my classmates from Drake. I’m surprised to see them—I’d never been good at making friends during my three years in college, considering my age and my hefty course load. But they’re here, some from afternoon drills and others from my Republic History 421 class. They take my hand and shake their heads. “First your parents, and now your brother. I can’t imagine how hard it is for you.”
No, you can’t. But I smile graciously and bow my head, because I know they mean well. “Thank you for coming,” I say. “It means a lot. I know Metias would be proud that he gave his life for his country.”
Sometimes I catch an admiring glance from a well-wisher across the room, which I ignore. I have no use for such sentiments. My outfit is not meant for them. Only for Metias do I wear this unnecessarily exquisite gown, to show without words how much I love him.
After a while, I sit at a table near the front of the room, facing the flower-strewn altar that’ll soon be occupied with a line of people reading their eulogies to my brother. I bow my head respectfully to the Republic flags. Then my eyes wander to the white coffin next to them. From here I can see just a hint of the person lying inside.
“You look lovely, June.”
I glance up to see Thomas bow, then take the seat beside me. He’s exchanged his military clothes for an elegant, white-vested suit, and his hair is freshly cut. I can tell the suit is brand-new. It must have cost him a fortune. “Thanks. You too.”
“That is—I mean, you look well for the circumstances, given all that’s happened.”
“I know what you mean.” I reach over and pat his hand to reassure him. He gives me a smile. He looks like he wants to say something more, then decides against it and turns his eyes away.
It takes a half hour for everyone to find their seats and another half hour for the waiters to start arriving with plates of food. I don’t eat anything. Commander Jameson sits opposite me on the far side of our banquet table, and between her and Thomas are three of my Drake classmates. I exchange a strained smile with them. On my left side is a man named Chian who organizes and oversees all Trials taken in Los Angeles. He administered mine. What I don’t understand is why he’s here—why he even cares that Metias died. He’s a former acquaintance of our parents, so his presence is not unexpected—but why right next to me?
Then I remember that Chian had mentored Metias before he joined Commander Jameson’s squad. Metias hated him.
The man now furrows his bushy eyebrows at me and claps a hand on my bare shoulder. It lingers there for a while. “How are you feeling, my dear?” he asks. His words distort the scars on his face—a slice across the bridge of his nose, and another jagged mark that goes from his ear to the bottom of his chin.
I manage a smile. “Better than expected.”
“Well, I’ll say.” He lets out a laugh that makes me cringe. His eyes look me up and down. “That dress polishes you up like a fresh snow blossom.”
It takes all my control to keep the smile on my face. Stay calm, I tell myself. Chian is not a man to make into an enemy.
“I loved your brother very much, you know,” he continues with overdone sympathy. “I remember him as a kid—you should’ve seen him. He used to run around your parents’ living room, holding out his hand like a little gun. He was destined to enter our squads.”
“Thank you, sir,” I say.
Chian saws off a huge piece of steak and shoves it in his mouth. “Metias was very attentive during the time I mentored him. Natural leader. Did he ever tell you about that?”
A memory flashes through my mind. The rainy night when Metias first started working for Chian. He had taken me and Thomas, who was still in school, out to the Tanagashi sector, where I ate my first bowl of pork edame, with spaghetti and sweet onion rolls. I remember the two of them were in full uniform—Metias with his jacket open and shirt hanging loose; Thomas neatly buttoned up, with his hair carefully slicked back. Thomas teased me over my messy pigtails, but Metias was quiet. Then, a week later, his apprenticeship with Chian ended abruptly. Metias had filed an appeal, and he was reassigned to Commander Jameson’s patrol.
“He said it was all classified,” I lie.
Chian laughs. “A good boy, that Metias was. A great apprentice. Imagine my disappointment when he was reassigned to the city patrols. He told me he just didn’t have the smarts to judge the Trials or organize the kids who finished taking them. Such a modest one. Always smarter than he thought he was—just like you.” He grins at me.
I nod. Chian made me take the Trial twice because I got a perfect score in record time (one hour ten minutes). He thought I had cheated. Not only do I have the only perfect score in the nation—I’m probably also the only kid who has ever taken the Trial twice. “You’re very kind,” I reply. “My brother was a better leader than I’ll ever be.”
Chian shushes me with a wave of his hand. “Nonsense, my dear,” he says. Then he leans uncomfortably close. There’s something oily and unpleasant about him. “I’m personally devastated by the way he died,” he says. “At the hands of that nasty boy. What a shame!” Chian narrows his eyes, making his eyebrows look even bushier. “I was so pleased when Commander Jameson told me that you’d be tracking him. His case needs a pair of fresh eyes, and you’re just the doll to do it. What a gem of a test mission, eh?”