Something immediately bristled within Rowan as she heard that voice, the voice of her greatest daily irritation. Another something wanted her to run away, quickly, from this voice. And yet another something planted her firmly where she was.
The Eloise standing beside her was a different person. Her platinum-colored hair fell in loose waves over her shoulders. She wore a simple cotton dress that covered her knees. Her feet were covered only in slippers. The stockings and boots were gone. The dark and heavy layers of clothing were gone. The sense of domination was gone. All that was left was defeat.
Just another strange thing among many strange things she had already seen in one day.
This is such a nightmare, Rowan decided. Yet it could still get worse. Ren could probably attack with his electric programs. Johann could suddenly arrive and play that horn of his. She hoped that would happen and then she could wake up from all this.
Soji spoke in a long string of Selati, his face grim and distant. Chie translated: “It’s better if you go now, Rowan. The less you know about us, the easier it will be for you. Stay with Master Lan. He does need someone with him. It just can’t be us right now. Do you understand? So go while you can, and take that Pendika with you.”
“What about Miss Beika?” she asked.
Soji answered himself. “She stay here. Tell Master Lan sorry.”
Beika nodded and stood beside Soji. “Go. Take care of yourself.”
“Don’t worry about us.” Beika smiled, but sadly. “Things will go back to normal soon. But we’re needed here. Tell Lan I’m fine. Stay with him, for me. Now go, before Marceau finds you here.”
Chie weaved them through the maze of narrow streets and alleys, looking both ways, stopping at every corner. She held Rowan’s hand, as Rowan held Eloise’s.
“I’m sorry about my uncle,” Chie said as they walked quickly through the alleys. “Even I’m not sure what’s wrong, and I’m related to him. Miss Beika’s not used to it either. He took it hard.”
“What happened to Harmony,” Rowan said.
“Yes,” Chie said.
A silence fell as they kept walking. Then Rowan asked, gently, “Will he be all right, the chief?”
“I don’t know,” Chie said.
“What about her?” Rowan asked, tossing a head toward Eloise. The platinum-haired girl had not spoken a word. The only sign that she was still with them was the firm hand Rowan held.
“She hasn’t spoken to any of us, actually,” Chie said. “Those words she gave a while ago were the only words she has ever said since we found her.”
“Found her? She wasn’t causing trouble?”
“She was IN trouble. It was Ren and some other people who were causing trouble.”
Rowan quickly looked again at Eloise, wondering if that could even be possible without her being around. Eloise still looked lost. She even looked drowned, not merely drowning like the redhead Rowan just left.
“Uncle and Beika found her in an alley behind the music hall, while we looking for Selati among the injured,” Chie said. “They would not tell me how they found her. All they tell me was that she was unconscious and bloody, so they had to take her with them. She stayed among the injured since. She ate when we fed everybody, but didn’t say anything.”
“So the dress isn’t hers.”
“Yes, someone gave her that dress, I don’t remember who. I also don’t understand it, why she doesn’t care what she looks like now.”
No matter what Rowan and Chie discussed, no matter where they turned or when they stopped, Eloise remained silent and followed along like a scared little puppy. Rowan was used to kids and trainees being like this whenever she was around, and it made her happy that people put their trust in her. Still, having this sort of thing from one of the reasons trainees had clung to her…something was really wrong about this.
Chie finally stopped at a corner with a main road. She let go of Rowan’s hand.
“This is as far as I dare go. I’m sorry I have to leave you now. Can you make it back from here?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Rowan said. “Sorry I couldn’t help your people more, Chie. Take care of the chief. I’ll kill you if something happens to him.”
Chie smiled at this. “I’ll give your chief back to you, I promise. Take care of yourselves.”
She quickly ran back the way they came.
Rowan turned to look at Eloise again. The girl still held her hand in hers, trembling and firm. She stared at something at a distance, with an open mouth.
“Is there anywhere you want to go, Eloise?” she asked.
Eloise kept staring beyond Rowan. Rowan followed her gaze, and saw the remains of Eloise’s three-floor apartment. Everything was broken or sooty. The building was decimated and burnt.
Rowan scratched her head. There goes the notion of leaving Eloise somewhere with other people. She took a deep breath. “You know Assistant Lan, right? Are you fine with staying the night with that moper?”
The frightened-puppy routine was getting stale. “What’s the matter with you?” Rowan asked. “Are you Eloise’s twin sister?”
The girl shook her head slowly.
“Aren’t you going to talk?”
Eloise remained silent.
Rowan rolled up her sleeves. She would be ready to fight, though she hoped she would not have to. She programmed for a travel cloud while they stood at the hidden corner between a dark narrow passage and the wide street. She still hoped she would not run into Ren. She did know what to do yet if she did, though a good punch or three seemed to be a good idea.
The travel cloud floated beside Rowan. “Get on,” she told Eloise. But seeing her hesitation, she added, “Do you think I make flimsy travel clouds?”
Eloise meekly sat on the fluffy cloud that adjusted to her position. Rowan molded handlebars in front of her. She lifted the cloud higher than the buildings around them. She flew them back to the fire program guildhouse by the shortest route.
The capital of Pendi looked like an abandoned battlefield. Too much smoke rose from too many points. Broken glass spilled onto the pocked pavement. The central fountain was still and lifeless. The defense committee and the police sped on travel clouds through the lanes and streets.
Rowan saw a small splash of fiery red interrupt the monotony of soot, glass, and pavement. It moved slowly from the academic district lane, walking in the middle of the deserted road.
She had no idea what could possibly make Lan get out and walk toward the central fountain. That was the direction he was headed, looking straight ahead of him, not turning his head left or right nor keeping his head lowered and staring at the pavement.
Near the fountain she saw a small outpost made by the defense committee. Pacing the tent was that green-haired young lady the chief was fond of, Marceau. She paused in the pacing when she saw Lan nearing the central fountain.
“We’re going down, Eloise,” Rowan told her passenger, and dove in.
She stopped in front of Lan, the outpost and the fountain behind her. “Assistant Lan? What’s going on? You need help?”
But the fire programmer’s eyes were blank and glassy.
“By all He controls!” Rowan grit her teeth as she hastily waved a hand over his eyes. He continued to advance, ignoring her, his eyes staring blankly toward the fountain. She grabbed his shoulders and shook them. He kept walking forward.
“Trance program,” Eloise finally spoke.
“But who?” Rowan asked, jogging after her wayward master.
“Who else.” Eloise sighed.
Rowan looked behind her. Futuretell Marceau had an odd triumphant grin on her face as she looked at Lan.
“Hey! Green hag!” She shouted toward her. “Let go of him!”
“After I get what I need,” Marceau declared. “We need the Force Field, we need it now, and I’m not taking any answer but yes.”
Lan kept walking forward. Rowan blocked his path and shielded him behind her. “You’re crazy! He’s too weak for the Force Field! Healer Beika is not here to help!”
“What do I care about that crazy healer, trainee?” Marceau said.
“He’s too weak for the Force Field!” Rowan repeated.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. Eloise pointed near the outpost. Johann was polishing his oboe with the end of his shirt.
“How do you know?” Rowan asked.
Eloise sighed and did not answer.
Rowan slapped her forehead in annoyance. Then she faced her musician friend. “Johann of southwest!” Rowan ran toward him. “Let go of Plain-black!”
But Johann also had that odd triumphant grin the green hag wore. “Oh, Ro. So glad you could join us,” he sneered, but the bitterness was palpable. “With Eloise, too.” He peered toward the platinum-haired girl. “Couldn’t get her out of your head, huh, Eloise?”
Rowan had reached him. She grabbed at his shirt, like usual. She shook him back and forth. “Stop being weird and let go of Plain-black! Deactivate the trance program!”
“I’m just following orders, Ro,” he said. He looked at Eloise again. “That’s all I’m good for. A lackey. A go-fer. A horn-blower for people. Might as well be useful.”
Lan had reached the central fountain, now that Rowan no longer restricted his sleepwalking toward it. He stopped in front of the fountain, gazing blankly before him.
Marceau approached him. “Encode. Information trance. Activate.”
Lan maintained the blank glare. “Activated. Hey, green hag.”
Marceau smirked as she placed a hand over his head. “Encode. Read immediate timeline.”
Both stood in silence as she read for a few moments. Then Marceau removed her hand. “So the coffee girl gives correct information. Beika is not with you.”
“I already told you that, green hag!” Rowan said. But she offered no further information, for fear of getting the chief in trouble.
“Yes, Marceau,” Lan drawled as well.
Marceau frowned, but did not press the issue. “Is the coffee girl also correct in saying you would not be able to activate the Force Field?”
“It’s not just Beika that’s the problem, green hag,” he answered frankly but blankly. “The fire program lines might have been damaged by the riots. The same goes with the controller points. I need to check them all. If the controllers are damaged, I’m not a metal programmer to fix them quickly.”
“We have no time to fix them,” Marceau said.
“There will be another firestorm if you insist that I make it under these terms. It is not lack of skill. It is too risky. It will help if you get me another heal programmer, get another fire programmer to check those lines, and get a metal programmer to fix the controllers. You have the layout of the fire program lines, I gave it to you.” He then drawled out a list of high-level fire programmers, starting with Cielo of the program training hall. “Place these people in key points to start inspecting the program lines.”
“Noted, Melancho. I wish you were this easy to talk to all the time.” Marceau chuckled. She then faced toward Rowan. “And this is why I had the Crimson Master placed on a trance program, do you understand?”
“Rowan is with you, green hag?” Lan asked flatly.
“Yes. Rowan of southwest, Johann of southwest, Eloise of the capital.”
“Unlock the program lock on Rowan. Eloise is good enough a metal programmer for the work I need. You know what to do with Johann.”
“I can’t lock or unlock fire programs, firespark. You have to do that yourself.”
“Undo this, then. I need to rush through her training so she can help.”
“You’re hopeless without outside prodding. I can’t keep an eye on you all the time.”
“I can’t do my best work when you’re pounding on my head,” he drawled.
“Very well.” Marceau placed a hand over his forehead again. “Deactivate all trance programs.”
Lan’s head lowered. It lifted again as he opened his eyes, looked around, and yawned. He sighed. “So, what did I promise to do for you, green hag?”
Marceau placed a hand under his chin, forced him to look into her eyes. “I want a Force Field as soon as you can give it to me, firespark. You will do what you need for the Force Field, with the help of these trainees. You have the defense committee’s assistance at your disposal. You will stop moping, now. You will do this, now.”
“Bei’s with Soji, you know,” he spoke quietly.
Marceau paused, stared at him, clenched her teeth. Her cheeks reddened. “I…I…I don’t care, firespark! I don’t care one bit whoever that Selati decides to be with! I care only for Pendi, and I will defend it with my life! That Selati…that Selati can do what he wants, and I don’t care!”
“So you say,” he said.
“Shut up, firespark! Shut up! Just…just…just do what you have to do! I need that Force Field, the soonest you can!”
“We’ll forget about them, won’t we, green hag. By burying ourselves in work.”
“Yes…yes, we will, firespark. Yes, we will. Let’s get to it, you…you and I. You’ll start, right now!”
He sighed, smiled bitterly, and nodded.