After the destruction of Dorylus, Lasius replaced the former capital city as the headquarters of Formicidan’s Prime Military Central branch. A majority of refugees and tourists had also shifted towards the city. Ya Nu guessed that Erina deserted to Lasius for a very relevant reason but she couldn’t begin to guess why. Their first stop to finding out was to stake out the Prime Military Center.
She waited inside a café across and three buildings down from the targeted building, watching the Prime Military Center’s front gate from a window seat. Za took the seat opposite her at the same table, his back to the building but occupied with observing the customers and workers at the cafe. He sat with his knees raised and the heels of his shoes resting on the edge of the chair.
The time struck noon. They waited for over an hour with neither a trace of Lucas or Erina. Erina’s absence was understandable, but Lucas’ tardiness was a concern for Ya Nu.
She said aloud, “Lobelia’s late.”
“He’s not coming,” Za said.
She took her eyes off the building and looked at him with some confusion. “How do you know?”
“Lucas would’ve gone in a different direction to confuse our trail,” Za surmised. “There’s no other reason to split up.”
Ya Nu realized the logic of it and was ashamed to know it late. She leaned forward, head first, and pressed her forehead against the surface of the table. “Stupid. Why is he acting so cool alone? We should’ve talked about it.”
“You know Marigold,” Za said simply. If they were to succeed in finding Erina Marigold and persuade her to return, Ya Nu needed to be here.
Ya Nu sighed and turned her head to the side, still pressed against the table, and stared out the window solemnly. Of course, the first part of their journey had gone too smoothly. The problems were catching up to them. Yet, she believed this couldn’t be a mistake.
“I don’t think it was wrong to follow Erina,” she said. “I wanted to do it, so I did. I don’t like waiting.” An image of her mother popped into her head, sitting in front of a dying camp fire with cold and empty eyes. She didn’t want that to be her. And yet, after coming this far she was waiting.
She asked, “Do you have regrets?”
Za was silent for a long time and Ya Nu thought he had completely ignored her question. Finally, he said, “I don’t think about it.”
“Haa.” Ya Nu wanted to laugh at herself. He made it sound so easy.
Beyond the window, people of different ages, visuals, and background passed through the streets. As expected, there was a large crowd here. The fear that had spread through the ISC-M countries during Alight’s Day three years ago had subsided. Tourism and travel had returned to its former numbers just a year after the events of that day. The recovery of the human psyche was truly exceptional.
Another stretch of monotonous, uneventful happenings passed. Another hour gone.
Za stood from his seat. “I’ll sweep the city,” he said.
“Alone?” Ya Nu was doubtful he could cover the entire city by nightfall. But he was already heading out.
She turned back to looking out the window, her frustration rising. The one to leave should have been her. She didn’t want to be here.
The mid-afternoon had passed by and nothing changed. She was wasting her time. Lucas was not coming and Erina might never pass by. This was not a good plan. Time was too important.
One more hour, she told herself. If nothing happened, then she would begin searching the city. The Prime Military Center was their predetermined place to meet, but she had no obligation to remain if both Lucas and Za was gone.
An unremarkable young man walked by her seat alongside one of the waitresses. “I can’t stay today. I have a delivery for Marigold,” he said.
Startled, Ya Nu straightened in her seat. Marigold? A coincidence. But very lucky. This was the lead they were all waiting for. If she didn’t follow up on it, not only would her efforts here be wasted, but she’d be stupid.
The young man bid farewell to the waitress and was on his way out. Ya Nu stood from her seat and followed several steps behind him. Around the side of the building, he hopped onto a scooter wagon and drove down the road. In no time at all, she picked the lock of a nearby bicycle, apologizing to its absent owner, and rode after her target.
The delivery man meandered through the bustling city of Lasius, stopping into a few buildings along the way. Ya Nu tried to remain out of his range of focus but followed him in and out, and each time she learned that he was making a purchase or greeting friends. In fact, he was doing anything but delivering to Marigold. Ya Nu could see the boxed package in his cart. He had no other deliveries except the one.
At his next stop as he left yet again to enter a shop without the box, she stayed behind. This wasn’t the place. Hiding around the side of the building, she heard a muffled burst of laughter from inside the shop. He had too many friends. It was suspicious.
Finally, he left the shop and continued down the road.
Sucking in a breath to tame her frustration, Ya Nu turned the corner and followed.
Around Lasius they went, circling streets, cutting through crowds, up hills and down steep slopes, and even more. The city was not much different from how Dorylus was described. The dunes, the stone buildings, and the number of people may be comparable. However, unique to Lasius were the glittering gems that had been pressed into the gravel that lined the streets, shining brighter as the skies darkened.
Za had seen Ya Nu following another man several times as he swept through the city, but her decision to leave the café was none of his concern. She was on track of her own business and he didn’t care to know the reason.
The sun had descended in the meantime. The waning orange-yellow sunlight cast shadows across the city.
He stopped at one of the recreation parks he came across during his sweep, particularly the children’s playground where many kids of all ages had gathered earlier. Miram, Lucas’ hometown, had open fields but no designated areas. Celaeno had numerous open grounds for recreational activities, but he hadn’t examined the properties beyond Lucas explaining its purpose to him.
All the children’s playground in Lasius were encircled by evenly spaced stone gargoyles, looking out as if they were guarding the grounds within. The center of the field was occupied by an enormous domed enclosure of interwoven bars that left enough gaps for people and children to climb inside.
He moved closer and peeked through the grid. Within the domed playpen were apparatuses for the children to use; built into the very structure as an interconnected set of arm bars, wheels, swing sets, seesaws, slides, pulleys, and more. Strange. He had seen similar apparatuses in the laboratory that his master destroyed. Cruel, she had called it. Yet here was something mirroring those same equipment, but especially set up for kids.
His curiosity got the better of him and Za climbed into the playpen. At this late time, no one else was present and he had the playpen to himself. He climbed, jumped, swung, and hung himself upside down; examining the equipment and figuring it out. He lightly tested the strength of the dome enclosure and was surprised at its sturdiness. Upon closer inspection, Za understood. This domed playpen and the equipment were made from a similar material to the dual trucks, from the bones of CODED. Out of the many uses for such expensive material, Lasius used it to build the children’s playground.
He climbed to the pinnacle of the dome and was hanging off it inside when a small head poked through one of the openings at the bottom. A young girl. She stared up at him and he stared back at her. Suddenly, tears rolled down her cheeks. She opened her mouth wide and wept loudly. Za was startled as the image jolted his memory.
A jumble of words came out of the young girl’s mouth, but Za did not understand her. She spoke a different language. Many tourists were gathered in Lasius and Za guessed that she not a native either. He leapt to the ground and crouched to level with her. She looked right at him through her tears and spoke to him again. Foreign words. He shook his head. Neither of them could communicate.
Well, he considered that since this was a playground for children then she must want to play.
He walked to the swings and waited for her to follow. Again, he watched her and she watched him, and soon her tears dried up as he continued to wait. Sniffling and swallowing her sighs, she wiped her face with a sleeve and spoke again. It sounded like a question. He didn’t respond.
She breathed in almost like defeat, then climbed into the playpen and joined him at the swings.
He realized that he’d used the swings wrong when she sat down on the lowest end and kicked off with her feet. Held by the ropes, she swung back and forth in the air. He followed her lead. Despite his silence, the young girl continued to speak to him. She said many things, telling stories and asking many questions he guessed, and it appeared that she didn’t care if he replied as long as he listened.
Eventually, a passing cloud obscured the moonlight, wrapping the two of them in darkness.
Za left the swings, went out the enclosure, and climbed up the dome to the top where he sat in the open to look over the grounds. The young girl observed then followed him. She had some difficulty and a fear of falling, and he didn’t move to help, but she pushed forward with willpower to reach him.
Finally sitting next to him, she looked out at the view and giggled in childish delight. The streets of Lasius were lined with gems that shone in the darkness. She spoke quickly and excitedly as the gems glittered like stars.
Her joy was interrupted when a strong light shone up at them from another end. A man standing in the shadows beyond the gargoyles aimed the light and a gun at Za. “Hand the child over,” he said.
The young girl grasped onto Za’s sleeve and leaned back against him. Confusion and fear spread over her features.
Unmoved by the demand, Za couldn’t hand over the girl. She wasn’t his to give. But he wasn’t going to stop the man either. He didn’t want any part of this. He decided to leave.
As he turned to depart in the opposite direction, the young girl held onto his arm. She screamed several words at him and shook her head. She didn’t want him to leave her.
“Release the girl now!” the man demanded and cocked his gun. The light remained shining on Za and the girl, blinding them and obscuring the man’s identity.
The young girl’s eyes welled up with tears and Za didn’t like it. She shouldn’t be crying.
He asked, “You don’t want to go with him?”
He knew she couldn’t understand his words, but she seemed to understand his meaning. She nodded her head.
“Okay. Let’s go,” he said.
She was much smaller than him, perhaps eight or nine years old. He easily hoisted her onto his back and leapt down the dome on the opposite side. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he ran.
The man shouted at his back and pointed his gun to the dark sky. He fired two warning shots. A streak of red and white smoke lit up the darkness. A signal.