Passing through the halls, Rowan heard music wafting through the air. A short glance through the open area showed a music programmer, still in basic, a young man with hair that fell to his fancy leather belt, pulled back at the neck with string, and kept in place with a brimmed hat. He played before of a small group of girls, relishing the attention.
Rowan smiled in spite of herself. He was still the same music-headed horn-player. She felt somewhat drowsy, though, while the music floated around her.
Come, listen to me, it told her. Come, listen to me. You know you want to. Stay and listen.
She started walking out to the open area, her feet taking her along as she drifted toward it. He was indeed better at the horn-playing now. She really should come and listen. Come. Stay and listen.
That was when she heard her name mentioned a short distance away from her.
“Rowan? You can’t be serious.”
She slammed a palm onto her forehead, to clear it. She headed toward the voice, away from the strains of Jo’s sleep-inducing melodies.
The voice was of an adult, an old one. Likely a teacher. What would a teacher want with her so early in the year? She tapped her forehead again. The drowsiness left her, as she walked away from the music and toward the voices that spoke her name.
“Rowan? Of southeast? It has not been acertained if…”
“But her hair is red, Teacher Cielo.”
“No, sir. Red.”
The two people considering her hair color were fire programmers in the tunics that they wore, which were lined with access lines through many points. One was an elderly teacher who sometimes checked on the fire programmers in basic program training, Cielo. The other one was Beika’s friend who drank coffee like water.
“If that is so,” Cielo, the elder programmer, asked, “then why has it not manifested?”
The younger one shrugged. “Very good innate control?”
“That hot-tempered trainee?”
“Why not, sir? People told me my master was a very angry young man then.”
Cielo chuckled. “True, true.”
Until now neither had noticed Rowan approaching them slowly, wondering why she was the topic of the conversation.
“But, Rowan of southeast? A fire programmer?” Cielo asked.
“Possibly, sir,” the redhaired man said.
“And a possible Crimson Master?”
“Do you know what you’re getting yourself into, Melancho?” Cielo asked.
“Is there something I must know?” the other asked back.
“The child has a reputation in these halls! A rabble-rouser! Who picks fights faster than anyone here!”
Rowan had reached them and had heard Cielo clearly. “I do NOT pick fights! They ask to get beaten!” She stomped her foot.
Cielo just chuckled. “So, Melancho, this is Rowan.”
Rowan crossed her arms and scowled at them. “What do you want?”
“Now, program trainee, show respect. This is Melancho of northeast.”
“He is Crimson Master of Pendi.”
“So?” She could not believe Plain-black was a master anything.
“He’s the best fire programmer in the guild.”
“I still don’t care.” She tossed her head.
“He says you’re a fire programmer.”
Now she was interested. “Oh?”
“He thinks you’re the next best fire programmer.”
She raised an eyebrow. “So what?”
“He wants to teach you a few things. Then, maybe, after advanced program training, make you apprentice.”
She smirked as she looked him over. The redhaired man was thin, weak, soft-boned. He wouldn’t even last two punches. Even worse than Jo.
“I am not interested.”
She turned and headed off, leaving the two older men wondering about her.
“Hot-tempered, I told you,” the elder programmer repeated to the younger one.
“I heard that!” she shouted back.
First of all, for the benefit of all and sundry, and for the information of all who needed to hear: his name was Johann. Yo-han. It was pronounced that way, in the musical melody of the classic programmer encoders during early Separation and even in the days of Bersa. He was Johann, pronounced yo-han. Not that irritating ‘Jo’ thing that his childhood friend insisted on using.
And, by all that the One controls, how that girl can punch.
Two punches into his abdomen, and one to his right cheek. His face was swollen, and stayed swollen to the next day. No amount of ice or face powder could decrease or hide the fact. He refused to go out. He could not bear to show himself as less than perfect. Who knew who he might meet, and that person might get a terrible impression of him, with a swollen face like that.
Besides, it would be embarrassing to tell anyone that he got beaten by a girl.
Granted, Johann was not sure if Rowan WAS a girl. Over time she had developed what the rest of womankind had developed, but still he was not convinced that she was female. Ro never emphasized those parts of her, the parts that other girls flaunted to full advantage. This is beside the fact that there were many boys who fell under Rowan’s fists, not just him.
Yet it was still true that his belly was sore, his face was sore, and he did not want to go out. At least Ro did not give him a black eye. That would take longer to heal! He would not be able to attend classes if that happened. He did not look good with an eyepatch, he had already tried that before, and it was not easy to read code sheets with an eyepatch.
He still did not know what made Ro do that to him. He just tried his old, time-tested tricks. Then again, he had forgotten that Ro was not probably a girl, and the tricks of crooning and cooing at a girl worked with many, no, most…just not Ro.
Ro was an orphan who lived with an aunt and uncle in the southeast. For some reason that aunt and uncle thought it best to let the child run loose in the town. So it was that the town knew Ro, but at the same time did not know anything about Ro. The hard fists of the redhead kept bullies and petty criminals at bay, anyway, and that could not be a bad thing.
Every kid in their town knew Rowan. Rather, they knew to fear the kid. Boy or girl, all knew that they could not beat Ro in a fist fight. Very few could match her skills at climbing trees. Only teenagers could beat Ro at running, and even then only a few teenagers could.
Johann knew Ro because he found himself always the beneficiary of Ro’s punches. Whenever older kids came up to Johann and tore up his code sheets or broke his flute, Ro would suddenly come out of nowhere and kick and punch at those older kids until they went away. After which, Ro would either stomp at his foot or punch him in the belly.
“You’re useless. A boy who can’t fight for himself,” she always said before she ran off to go somewhere else.
He had accepted that fact, that he could not fight. He compensated by being the darling of the grown-ups with his flute-playing and his oboe-playing. He made up for it by being likeable to the girls, who did not know what the older kids did to him.
Besides, why did he need to dirty his hands, the hands he needed for playing his instruments? If Rowan wanted to do it, it was her choice. His choice was to keep clean and nice, and good-looking.
He got the oboe as a gift from friends, sick and tired of hearing him play a cheap wood pipe. He practiced at night and at playtime when he was smaller. He had lessons once in a while on the sly. HIs parents had pretty much given up on him not playing musical instruments, but did not encourage it either.
He was in the capital for basic programming, since his parents had been told that he needed to go, for his safety and the safety of others. But he was only going to stay with their tuition for basic programming. If he wanted advanced programming training, if he wanted to be a full music programmer, he would have to do that on his own.
No redheaded girl who looked and fought like a boy would stop him.
“You’re going to break that wood pipe, you know,” someone spoke beside him.
Johann quickly loosened his grip on the oboe. He had noticed how tightly, how angrily he held it.
He turned and wondered who spoke.
He found himself face to face with one of the prettiest girls in the basic programming classes. “You’re Eloise. Of the capital.” He could not believe his timeline.
“And you’re Johann of southeast,” she said. “I’ve seen a few things and heard a few things about you.”
“Really?” That was beyond surprising.
She came up until her chest met his own. “And I think, we should know each other better.”
Eloise of the capital had silver hair that fell in two ponytailed waves to the side of her head. It gave one the impression of something alive, constantly moving, menacing in its movement. And yet one could not take his eyes away from the electricity activity the hair provided. Her eyes were also rather interesting to stare at, dark and deep in their blueness as they were. They bored straight into the depths of someone, penetrating what dark secret they had, and wanting more.
She wore her clothes in layers, all close to herself, revealing a well-defined physique that interested many and intrigued others. Most of the pieces in her attire was dark, and daring, skirting, maybe shunning the limits the program training halls allowed. The skirt ended mid-thigh, to be followed by leggings that emphasized the contour of her legs. Her feet were covered and hidden by boots, rough and ready to step on others, instead of revealing style.
Those clothes, that body, that face, those eyes, that hair. They were either against him or inches away from him. That close. That incredibly close.
He almost dropped the oboe.
Surely, definitely, a beauty like this, a young lady this beautiful and this dangerous, surely she needed something from him. Yet his heart kept pounding heavily inside his chest, his brain could only process the heady perfume she wore, and his eyes kept staring at that perfect face with the penetrating deep eyes. Of course he wanted her. If she wanted something from him, he was quite ready at the moment to allow her anything she wanted.
She smiled at him, sinister, yet alluring, yet wonderful. She had him, he knew it, and she knew it.
“To what do I deserve all this?” Johann finally gained enough of his senses to ask.
“You ARE handsome,” she slowly pushed him toward the nearest alley, and pushed him to the wall.
He only retained enough sense to keep his hold on the oboe. The instrument was rather expensive, and held memories for him. But otherwise, he kept breathing in her perfume, her hair, her heavy breaths.
“Th…thank you, of course,” he stammered. “You’re really beautiful yourself.”
She spared no words and swooped for his lips.
Johann no longer breathed.
Oddly, the only thought that came to his head was: Ro will kill me, Ro will kill me, Ro will kill me, when she finds out about this, Ro will kill me!
What did it matter what that tomboy thought, anyway? She hated his guts, she hated his music. Yes, what did it matter, what did it matter? Can that tomboy kiss like this, the way the world of Pendi just stopped and existed only for the girl? Can she even kiss?
And yet the thought remained: Ro will kill me.
Johann caught his breath and the girl released him.
“Who are you, what are you?” he asked.
“You already know,” she said. “I’m Eloise. I can make you famous.”