In a few hours, Chie became part of something much greater than herself.
She found herself organizing her countrymen, and she scared herself at how efficiently she worked. After all, she had practice.
Those who had friends in other quadrants were quickly grouped together and sent there in travel clouds. She rapidly listed the groups, and their final destinations. Those whose houses were attacked were distributed among these people, brought far away from the confusion currently in the capital. Those who were too injured to be moved had to be found places in their underground hideouts.
She was not the leader of those helping refugees escape from the capital. That was not her uncle, either. But Soji of the meridian had a reputation among the refugees, and he was one of the respected heads of the suddenly-formed organization.
It had no name, no motto. It only had one mission: to ensure that Selatan will fight this Pendi injustice.
Between rushing here and there, making sure that families stayed together and left together, Chie watched her uncle. She had not had much time to talk with her uncle before this. He had always been busy with the coffee shop, and Chie lived with relatives of her father, whereas Soji was a relative on her mother’s side. He was a young uncle, only a few years older than her. She did not know much about him, only that his mother had been killed when he was rather young. She only knew that he owned a coffee shop, that he was friendly and hardworking. But she had never seen him like this. He walked among the Selati with an air of dignity and leadership. They turned and bowed or smiled to him. They parted to let him pass. His gestures were efficient, his words precise.
Yet he also seemed different in another way. His frown was deep. His brows were knit together. His eyes were fiery. His hands were always fisted. In the coffee shop, Soji was never like that.
“Uncle? Do you want to rest?” Chie asked in their language, too many times during the night.
“Do your work, and don’t bother mine,” he glowered.
“I know you’re angry about what happened, but…”
“Leave me alone, Rachel. Do your work. If you don’t want me to hurt you.”
Chie sighed, and tallied those who came and went as late into the early morning as she could bear.
She finally dozed off at an hour she never thought she would see, even during the worst of the cramming seasons. Just an hour, she swore to herself, just for an hour.
But she woke up to the voices of several men and one high-pitched voice piercing the quiet. Tired and sleepy, she had trouble wondering if she was hearing Selati or Pendika being spoken.
The noises came closer, and she sensed her uncle getting up. As she opened her eyes, she saw several burly men enter the large room.
“What is the matter?” Soji demanded.
“We have an intruder, sir,” one of the men spoke as another one pushed a young woman forward. “She was lingering around the premises, and she kept giving your name when we caught her.” The young woman had black hair streaked with white. She wore loose trousers under an even looser tunic.
Soji stared at her with a slack jaw. “Maestra Beika!”
The young woman cocked her spectacles and grinned widely. She spoke in Pendika. “Hey, Soj. You look VERY tired.” She spread out her arms, ready to hug.
But Soji did not step forward or smile. “Release the heal programmer,” he said in Selati. He waited until the men removed their hands and backed away from her. “What….why….How you get here?” he then stammered in Pendika.
Beika shrugged. “I just followed the trail of words I didn’t understand?”
She waved a hand over her face. “Oh, don’t you worry about Lan, he’ll be fine.” Then the smile suddenly curved downward. “It’s you I’m worried about.”
He stepped back and raised his right arm, its hand ungloved, the programming sash glowing over it. “I said! Do not find, do not follow!”
“I know, old friend, I know. But I was never too good at accepting things as they are.”
Soji frowned even deeper, as he paced the floor. He muttered to himself audibly in Selati, “Damn you, you’ll get us into more trouble!”
“Talk to me in Pendika, Soji! I WILL hear what you have to say,” the healer said, in her language.
Soji paced with wider and hastier steps through the floor, his hand gesticulating in front of him. His teeth were clenched.
Chie gently stepped forward. “I can translate for you–”
“Stay out of this, Rachel!” he snapped.
“Uncle. Say what you want to say. I’ll translate. Tell your friend what you want to say.” Chie kept her voice quiet and calm.
Soji pulled at his hair until his knuckles reddened. Then he spoke rapidly in Selati, as his feet quickened the pacing back and forth.
Chie faced Beika as she spoke her uncle’s words: “You’re an idiot to follow after me! You know who I am, you know what I have done, even more than many of the people here. I will get arrested eventually, and you’d be considered an accessory and a traitor! Why did you think I did not want you to follow me? This is our problem to face, not yours. I wanted to keep you safe, away from us, away from this! We’re going to attack your people, you know! They have been unfair to us, for something a Pendika did! A Pendika! And a child! We’re not going to tolerate any more of this stupidity out of your people. I can’t protect you if one of our people suddenly turns on you! You’re such a big idiot, Master Beika! Stop being stupid and go back!”
“Fine, I’m an idiot,” Beika grinned. “But you’re my friend, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Soji stepped toward Beika, and shouted to her face. “Take this seriously, heal programmer!” Chie translated. “Our people are dead or wounded because of this!”
“I am taking this seriously, ice programmer.” Beika lost the grin and glared back at him. “Because I am your friend. And because I’m a healer, I feel the pain of those dead and wounded even more.”
“You will become an enemy of the central government,” Chie translated. “You may no longer be able to work as a heal programmer in Pendi, because you allied yourself to Selatan.”
“I’m not allying with anybody. I’m just staying with you,” Beika replied. “We swear to use our heal programs to help anyone in need, no matter who needs it. Right now your people need it more. You need it more.”
Soji raised a hand. He spoke for himself. “You sure, Master Beika. No turn back.”
Beika nodded. “Of course not, old friend.”
Soji breathed deeply, and turned his back to both Chie and Beika. “Sick and wounded, all there.” He pointed past the door to his left. “Bandages all gone.”
Chie watched as Beika checked over her programming tunic. “How many?”
Soji kept his back to them. “Twenty. Hurt bad. More coming.”
Chie sighed. Her uncle himself had scratches and bruises all over his arms and face. His eyes were bleary from exhaustion.
“I’m on it,” the heal programmer said.
Soji caught her as she passed. He kept a firm grasp on her hand.
“Please, stay, Master Beika,” he said.
“Don’t leave us again, Soj,” she said.
He looked away again, as Beika immediately went to work.
Rowan woke up on a strange but oddly comfortable bed. The mattress was soft and rather worn, having waves and elevations. She felt like she had been on it for days.
She had heard voices around her, but none of them sank in to her. None of them were talking to her, anyway. She could not understand what they said, even if it was all in Pendika. One of the other voices was Lan, talking in the quiet way he had.
Only three things pounded into her then: I hate me. And: What now? And: What in the world am I wearing?
She got up, mussed her hair, and looked around. She found herself in a simple bedroom, clean but sparse. She opened the door and walked into a dark space, an area for a dining table, a sofa, and a kitchen. The only light came from sunlight through a window. There seemed to be no lanterns, candles, matches, or electric lights within the quarters.
She found a redhaired young man crumpled at a shadowy corner. He stared out the window, blankly. It was hard to tell how long he had been there. But only one other Pendika had hair like hers.
She dragged her feet to where he was. He did not move in response to the shuffle of her feet. He remained blankly staring out.
“Hey.” She tapped a knee, afraid that tapping his shoulder would make him jump. “Hey. Plain-black-chicken-sandwich. You alright?” She waved a hand over his eyes, and saw them blink. So he was not in a trance nor in Deep Sleep. “Hey. Assistant Melancho. Talk to me.”
He shifted, then he sighed. “Rowan.”
“Yeah, it’s me. Can I help you with anything? Are you hurt?”
He shook his head.
“Why don’t you sit on the couch or something, Assistant Melancho?” She used his formal name among the trainees, unsure how he would react to any other name at the moment.
“Sleepy. Let me sleep.” He did curl up in that little shadowy corner, drifting off into a drowse.
Rowan left him there and walked to the kitchen.
The cupboards only had several mugs and a bag of coffee grounds. The kitchen counter was impeccably clean. It had several apples and oranges and a pitcher of water. She eventually found his coffee-maker and a kettle.
She began to fix a cup of coffee, the way he liked it back in the shop, a fast and dark brew. Of what was left of the hot water, she made a cup of caffe latte for herself.
She brought both cups of coffee to the corner where he remained. She let the scent of the fresh brew waft up to him while she sipped at her own cup.
“Get it away,” he groaned as he stirred. “I need sleep.”
“At least do that on the couch, Assistant Melancho–”
“–Lan, sir, at least sleep on the couch where you can stretch out,” Rowan said. “And you have good beans. I’ll be sorry to have a nice brew go to waste.”
He sighed as he uncurled. He took up the mug and walked slowly to the little sofa. His slight frame sank into the soft upholstery as he wordlessly held the mug and sipped.
Rowan was sure that she did not want to leave him, even if she did not know what else to do. He looked as if he was drowning, in something that was not water. If she did not stay, she was sure he would definitely sink. She saw in him what she kept seeing in all the trainees before she came up to help with her fists. Hopelessness, defeat, despair. If only she could find out how else to help.
“It was good, thank you.” Lan rested the mug on the table. Then he rested his head on the armrest and stared blankly beyond him.
She patted his knee again. She would not let him slowly sink. “So….why am I here in your guild quarters?”
He kept staring at the distance as he answered. “To keep your fire programs controlled.”
“But they haven’t even activated for me.”
He sighed. “They have.”
She suddenly focused. “How?”
He sighed again. “A complicated story.”
Rowan scratched her head. Despite the strong brew, he seemed to be drowsy again. “You want breakfast, Assistant Melancho?” By all He controls, how does Beika stay sane around this guy! “Where IS your friend, anyway?”
He groaned again and curled up tighter.
“Talk to me, Assistant Melancho! Where is iced-tea-ham-sandwich—I mean, where’s healer Beika?”
“Gone. With him. Left me alone. Gone.”
Rowan took to shaking him again. “Left? With whom? Look, she can’t have gone far, I can bring her here…”
He groaned. “Encode for Deep, please. Please.”
“Deep Sleep? Are you kidding me, Assistant Melancho? The best I can do are travel clouds. I can’t even make a straight Fire Torch…”
“You can now.”
This was getting really, really annoying. And really, really confusing. “Lan, sir. I’ll ask, you’ll answer. Please.”
He nodded silently, his eyes still blank.
Rowan used the interrogation tone she used when dealing with bullies who would not answer her. It was the fastest, most direct way to get information. “Why am I here?”
Lan spoke slowly, as if struggling through the thinking. “I brought you here.”
“You activated all your fire programs, at once. While at the music programming hall.”
“What happened? How did I even get there?”
His words came with great effort. “I’m not sure about that. Ren…” He sighed deeply. “And your music programmer friend.” Another sigh. “They probably know more. All I know is you were there, at the front rows. A Straight Blast electric program shot through the bleachers, near you. It was during your friend’s performance. Whatever your friend did, during his performance, something made you activate.”
He sighed. “First activation for a fire programmer, especially for a potential Crimson Master, tends to be an uncontrolled…explosive…event–”
“I caused an explosion?! In the music programming hall?!”
She stepped back, and stared at her hands.
“I put a temporary override to lock all your fire programs for now,” Lan said, still in a hesitant drawl.
“But…but….the music hall! The people!”
“Most are all right, Marceau said. But, the Selati…”
“What? Are they hurt?” She paused. “The chief! How’s the chief!”
He groaned and curled up.
She shook him again. “Lan, sir! What happened to the chief!”
“The explosion is being blamed on the Selati refugees,” Lan drawled. “One of the first places attacked in retaliation was…Harmony.”
She paused, for a long moment.
“Where is the chief?” she managed to ask.
He looked away. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
“With the chief?”
“Yes.” He closed his eyes for a while. “Please stop asking. Let me sleep.”
She shook him. “Why is this a big deal with you? The chief is crazy over that green-haired defense committee lady, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I thought…I thought…”
“That Bei…that she was…I don’t know…”
Oh. Now Rowan understood at least part of the problem. She raised an eyebrow. Still, she realized just how big a mess both of them were in. She could not blame the redhead if he wanted to drown and forget it all.
“We gotta do something,” Rowan said. She wanted to fix everything, make everything all right again. She did not even know where to start.
But now that Rowan had stopped the rapid tirade of questions, Lan shut his eyes.
“Lan, sir! What do we do?” Rowan said.
He did not answer. He already drifted back to sleep.
Rowan scratched her head. She needed to do something about this mess. But she did not know how. She needed Assistant Melancho to help her.