Jehane stretched across three of the seats in one of the media halls, ferociously concentrating on the novel displayed on her tablet. So far, she’d read four pages in the last two hours.
“Poor Elian,” said a girl’s voice drifting through the partially-open door.
“Why don’t you close the door?” whispered Elian, his voice rising from the floor. The media hall was currently arranged as a small theater, with a screen at one end. Tiny lights illuminated each of the seats.
“Because then people would know somebody was in here,” Jehane breathed, and shifted to listen.
“I heard that the Tanist was really upset,” said a second girl’s voice. They were distantly familiar but Jehane could only remember them by their shadow music, not their names.
“You shouldn’t eavesdrop. Read your book.” Elian wasn’t nearly as good as Kentigern at sounding stern, but he was trying hard.
“Yeah, but not because she didn’t expect this to happen.” The door slid open. “She knew somebody had to replace Kentigern. She just wanted it to be Jehane, because she hides all the time, and the system might have acquired her special abilities.” The speaker paused. “Elian, is this hall actually reserved? Nobody’s here. Are you still confused?”
“I said it was. Trust me. You don’t want to be here right now.”
There was an extended pause, somebody whispered something that almost sounded like Jehane’s name, and then the first speaker said, “Oops. Uh, sorry.” The door slammed shut.
Jehane sat and drew her legs up. The tablet slid from her fingers to the floor, and she stared blindly after it. “I knew it. And she was probably right! Oh, poor Rohan!” Elian said something but it was just meaningless syllables to Jehane. She sprang to her feet and fled the media hall, hearing nothing but the shadow music.
A few moments later, she stumbled into the third courtyard, following Rohan’s shadow music. An orchard occupied half the courtyard, but the other half only held well-groomed shrubberies, old oaks, and the markers of the dead. Tombstones set flat into the ground were crisply maintained by dedicated micromachines. Here and there crypts rose, of mixed Tower material and imported Earth stone. The names of Guardians past covered the walls of the courtyard, just as the alien writing filled the walls elsewhere in the Tower.
Rohan sprawled on the grass between the orchard and the cemetery, laying on his stomach with his cheek pressed against the ground. When Jehane sat down near him, he gave her a dull look before returning to his inspection of a blade of grass.
“How are you?” she asked, after a moment. She managed to keep the sob out of her voice.
“I haven’t been disintegrated, so obviously I’m fine.” He sounded dead.
“Please, Rohan,” said Elian, his voice higher than usual.
Words tumbled out of Jehane. “I’m so very sorry, Rohan. I took Elian to the core, and I left him there and it should have been me. The Tanist even wanted it to be me. Elian had just manifested his stage 3—” She managed not to sob, but she couldn’t stop the tears streaming from her eyes. She wiped them away, frustrated. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Rohan sat up, staring at her. “I wish that was true. The Tanist really meant it to be you?”
Angrily, Elian said, “Yes, she did. Does knowing that somehow improve things? Because I can tell you other things, too.”
Rohan looked up at the sky, then shook his head. “It shouldn’t have been anybody. It shouldn’t have happened.”
“I volunteered! ‘Shouldn’t have been anybody’. Yeah, right. In this ideal world you’re imagining, Kentigern wouldn’t have needed to exist. We have to work with what we get.”
Jehane didn’t trust herself to speak, and silence fell. After a moment, Elian said, “And guys? I wish I could knock Rohan upside the head, or tweak your nose, Jehane. Part of me is always asleep and dreaming now, of what happened, and of what will never happen. It isn’t exactly easy—”
Rohan sprang to his feet. “You said you were fine! Why are you making this even worse?”
“Because I’m still Elian, and I want my friend back! I will lie to the Tanist, and to Natalie, and to all our teachers, but I don’t want to lie to you. I don’t want to be alone. I’m not just a machine with a new voice. I’m still Elian. My body is just— gone.”
Tremulously, Jehane asked, “Did it hurt?”
“Kentigern put me to sleep first. I think that’s why— but no. It didn’t hurt me like it hurt him, anyhow. I can remember silence, and dreaming.”
Rohan crouched down, pulling hard on his hair. “I was just figuring things out, Elian. I don’t know what to do now.”
“We keep figuring things out. Just… don’t stop talking to me. Please. Even if you think I’m a monster now.”
Rohan’s hands opened, releasing his hair. “You’re not a monster. I just don’t know if you’re still Elian. I’m sorry.”
After a painful silence, Jehane finally found her voice. “When will this happen again? Kentigern said it happened because he was so old, so damaged by time. How much time did you buy us?”
His voice calmer, Elian said, “That’s a really interesting question. You see, the system absorbed Kentigern before he’d learned anything about anima. He learned it all afterward, inside. The structures that the system absorbed are different this time; I’d not only been luminated but I did achieve anima mastery, at least briefly. That’s going to change things. So it could be… this won’t ever need to happen again. If I can sort out a few details, like whatever’s happening with Tower Di.” His voice became meditative, Kentigern-like. “That could be problematic.”
Rohan wrapped his arms around himself, and as Elian’s voice wavered between his own and Kentigern’s, he shuddered. Jehane wished she could blame him, but she couldn’t. All she could do was wish for a way to make it up to both of them.