Rowan did like it that Harmony, the coffee shop, was popular, especially with the trainees. It had a good place, at the corner where it could serve both scholar trainees and program trainees. The food was good and filling and affordable. She still could not believe sometimes that she was working at Harmony. That she was actually lasting there.
She had been working part-time at the coffee shop for months now. That was the longest she ever stayed at any job. She was fired after a month at the other places she had been to; she had gotten into arguments with customers or with staff. For some reason the chief never got mad at her, just chuckled and taught her the right thing to do.
Apparently he was used to tough individuals, so the rumors went. So she had noted herself, the few times Marceau of the defense committee stormed into Harmony and demanded coffee.
Rowan got away with more things with the chief. She was grateful. The least she could do in exchange was to work hard and work as well as she could.
There was another reason why she called him the chief, although he never brought it up. He did remember it when it was mentioned, but being in the capital, they did not talk about it much.
One of Rowan’s very first jobs was when she was seven years old, already going home at night to her aunt and uncle (she only went home to sleep and to have dinner, so she did not call it living with them). She was a trade runner. She took packages from Selatan and delivered them where they were wanted in her town, on the Pendi side of the river.
Since they were in a town near the ports, often she met the people who rode the trade boats. One of them was the chief of the younger set. He was twelve then, already that cheerful, and worked as hard and as bravely as the others.
Out of all the people she had to accept packages from, she always liked it when she had to talk to the chief. He had a nice voice, even when he whispered, melodic and caring. He never seemed to be in a panic, even when the situation was dangerous. And he always smelled of cake. He once told her that his mother baked a lot and he helped out, to explain the cake scent.
She was sad when she was nine and saw him for the last time. He said it would be his last trade run, because his mother died and the operation would be closed down. She did not see him again for years, and did not expect to see the chief again.
On a dreary day when she gave a customer a black eye and was immediately fired, she trudged the streets already looking for another job. She was used to it; she had done it all the time. When she came to the corner where the coffee shop Harmony was. It was small, simple, and rather quaint. It smelled of coffee, cake, and muffins. She could afford the cheapest coffee. They were looking for a waiter.
She went in and gave it a try; she applied for both male and female positions; work was work and she could do most things either gender could do. To her surprise she was greeted by a sandy-haired young man, who spoke Pendika exactly like that revered young chief from back when she was little, choppy and accented but understandable.
Toward the end of the application interview, the young man tilted his head and stared at her. He smiled, but was uncertain. “Little redhead?”
She wanted to jump up and hug him right then and there. “Chief!”
The chief closed the folder with her papers. “Work for me again?”
Rowan sprang up from the chair. “Of course! Of course I will, chief!” Then she paused, and sat down again. “But….I’m sure you’re gonna fire me too…”
Rowan sighed. “Because. I get riled up too quickly…” she blushed as she bowed her head.
Soji patted her shoulder. “Will see, will see.”
She did not dare lift her head. “Really? You’ll let me work here?”
She started to adore him then.
“Rowan? Something wrong?” she heard his voice beside her.
Rowan had gone to market with the chief. He needed someone to help carry the vegetables and goods bought. Watching his strong back as he walked in front of her, Rowan had stopped to stare. So kind, so understanding, in such a capable body. Thoughts that had been buried by the excitement of the last few days resurfaced with a vengeance.
She liked this man. She adored this man. She loved everything about this man.
When she was younger, she saw him as something like a big brother who talked oddly. She did not have big brothers or big sisters, she only had playmates of her age. The chief was the nicest of the older children that ran those errands in the night. But that was when she was younger. She had had six months of working in the coffee shop with the chief now, had seen him go to market and cook and talk to customers.
“What is wrong, Rowan?”
She looked up at the chief, and wondered why she was saying what she was saying. “I…I…think…I like you, chief.”
“Yes, I see, Rowan…”
“No, chief.” She still was not sure what she saying, why she was saying it now. She was not a girl by most standards, and she knew a fighter should not have thoughts like these. But she could not stop her mouth from saying them.
If she stopped, she would not say it at all, so it came out in a rapid blur.
“I think I like you, I think I love you, I want to be with you all the time, I don’t want to be away from you, I don’t know how life will be like without you.”
Then she slapped her forehead. All that sounded so terribly mushy and gooey.
Soji’s eyes grew wide. “By He who controls all programs.”
Now she totally regretted what she just said. She hated even thinking that way. It would ruin everything now.
He took a deep breath. He placed a hand on her shoulder. He spoke slowly. “I do not know what to say.”
“It’s alright, if you have another woman,” she mumbled. “It’s alright.”
Soji kept the hand on the shoulder. He spoke very slowly, weighing every word. “Rowan, you like me. You do not love me.”
“It is the same with me.”
It was not so much that he said he did not love her back. She pretty much expected that response. She was an employee of Harmony coffee shop, after all, and her boss could not think properly whenever futuretell Marceau was there.What she did not understand was the first statement. That she liked him, but did not love him.
He kept walking. She followed, walked beside him. He kept walking, but not toward the coffee shop. He changed direction and started a straight course toward the main gate of the capital. He walked, occasionally looking behind him at Rowan, who still followed, still carrying the groceries.
He made his way past the capital’s gate, and out into the path to Duaran.
“Chief? Where are we going?” Rowan finally asked.
“Little redhead,” he said kindly. “Many things, you not know about me. Many things.”
“So? I’ll find out,” she declared.
“Want me to be a girl like the rest of them? I’ll do it. Want me to stop dealing with Eloise? Just say so.”
He shook his head. “Little redhead, no understand.”
“Stop talking in riddles, then! Stop giving vague answers!”
He stopped walking and faced her. “Rowan, little redhead. You like me. You not love me. Someone eventually you will love, will see all and accept. But not me. You not see all and accept for me.”
He looked around. Rowan found herself standing in a clearing, filled with grass, bordered by trees. To one side of the clearing was a burned-down shack. Program line controllers were placed in regular distances, peeking through the grass.
Soji stopped where he stood. He frowned. “We’re here.”
Rowan turned to face him. “Huh?”
He took out a piece of cloth from a pocket. A sash. He tied it over his forehead, as he still frowned at Rowan.
“Codificare. Pugnale di ghiaccio. Attivare.”
He encoded for a long ice dagger, almost a sword.
He swung at Rowan without warning. He thrust toward her torso.
She jumped away, but just barely. She dropped the groceries and left them where they stood. “What the–!”
“Fight, Pendika,” he frowned and glared at her. “I let you see what you don’t want to see.” He let two ice daggers fly, tearing at her sleeves.
She ducked and ran. “What do you mean, fight? I got no offensive programs!”
“I kill you, then.” Two more daggers flew and missed her feet as she jumped away.
“You can’t be serious!” She dodged behind a rock.
“Pugnale di ghiaccio.” Four ice daggers sailed over her head and ripped her wool cap.
Rowan ducked and stared at wool yarn snowing over her head. “No fair!”
“No mercy in war.” He jumped over the rock and aimed a palm at her head.
“I can’t fight you!” Rowan cried.
“No emotion in battle!”
He drove two ice daggers through her tunic and planted her to the ground. Then he made another swordlike dagger and pointed it at her neck.
She looked up a face full of menace and danger. If he wanted, he could have sliced her neck in two already. The realization made her heart pound. “But…but…chief!” she whimpered.
He kept the dagger under her chin. “I say. You not know me. Many things, you not know.”
Rowan remained stunned as she stared up at her chief and the ice dagger he kept over her neck. There was no way she would fight against him. Not because he was capable to doing her harm, but because he was the chief and would always be.
“If you’re gonna kill me, do it already,” she challenged. “I have nobody to answer to, I have no family to go back to.” He only had to push the dagger down, and it would all be over.
“You throw life away so fast.” He kept the dagger over her. “You worse than Master Lan. You not worth this.”
With several rapid strokes he split her sweater into pieces, and separated her sleeves from her tunic. He did all this with an efficiency and an emotion that she had never seen before.
“You are future Crimson Master. Selatan has no good attack against you. And you throw life away so fast. You have no chance to win over Pendika, even training hall bully. None.”
“So?” The sinking knowledge of her being just one person, of her being useless, as well as of being summarily rejected, fell all in one heavy blow.
He deactivated the dagger. “By all He controls!” he shouted. “Rowan! Listen! Why do you just accept! Why you not fight!”
“Because there is no point,” she sighed, her back still over the grass.
He yanked her up by the front of her shirt. He choked her at the neck.
“I say you don’t love me. Prove me wrong. Eloise say you can’t win. Prove her wrong. People say you not worth it. Prove them wrong. You say you not worth it. Prove you wrong!”
“Why?” she asked, between coughs.
“They are wrong, you are wrong. Now prove it.”
He pushed her back to the ground and kept the choke over her neck.
But the lack of air to her brain actually cleared it somewhat. She pulled Soji down to the level of her face.
She reached up to him, and met his lips, and closed her eyes, and savored the one and only time he would be so close to her, so close that she could feel his cheeks and his nose and his hair, savor the scent of coffee and pesto and chocolate muffins all over him.
Maybe he was right after all, and she only saw one thing about him. But she knew what she felt about him, and if needed that she know the rest of him, she would, no matter how painful, no matter how terrible, the experience would be. She swore that to herself. He would probably never return the favor, but that was alright. That he did not refuse, that he did not push her away, this time and this moment, it was enough.
She let go, pulled away, jumped to her feet.
“That’s one thing proven.” She placed her fists in front of her. “Now let me prove the rest.”