The next couple of days followed the same routine. They rotated between guard duties and rebuilding until finally, the first tower was cleared to come back online. And the soldiers were dismissed to return to their regular assignments.
Rayne saw little of Kale over the two days, though she spent a good part of her time working alongside Lena. Through their brief conversations when lulls in work would permit them to talk, Rayne got to know the other girl who, though clearly disciplined, always seemed positive and easy with her smiles.
While the stood shoulder to shoulder on the temporary guard towers, she came to know Lena as the youngest of three children who grew up a couple of neighborhoods away from Kale although they had never met until training. An older brother and sister both worked in the military hospital that Kale's father worked at, but Lena knew soon after starting school that her calling lay in active duty. So as soon as she was old enough, she enrolled in training and left her family.
While they slept under the wide expanse of starry skies at night, she discovered that Lena had often wanted to quit during her first year, would cry silently at night for her mom. But as she learned more about her fellow recruits and grew in her training, befriending Kale along the way, she found a new sense of security and family who were united under the same purpose that had inspired her to enlist in the first place.
Rayne allowed Lena to do most of the talking, occasionally offering a few words at first, but relying on her faux amnesia to excuse her from answering any personal questions. Lena didn't seem to mind filling in the silence, seeming to understand Rayne's reluctance to talk.
But as Lena talked about herself and her family, Rayne realizes that she wouldn't have been able to tell her anything even if she had wanted to. She had no family to speak of, no fond memories to share from early childhood, or funny stories about siblings. All of her early memories were of being tutored by Cora and learning martial arts. She had been trained to look forward, not back.
Strangely, she found herself slowly growing more interested in Lena's story, gradually asking her more questions as the days passed. Her life was so different, so unimaginable; Rayne found she couldn't picture herself in Lena's place. It almost hurt to think about it too much, too confusing. Rayne was almost grateful when they were ordered back to the compound to resume training and strategy, where all she had to focus on was blending in and moving on with her mission.
It was late afternoon, two days after they returned to the compound, when Rayne was walking back to her bunk after showering post-training. She was in soft green pants and a white tank top, her damp hair cooling the sun burn on her shoulders and neck. As she drew nearer, she saw that Kale was leaning against the bed post, waiting. His head rested back against the post, his eyes closed, arms crossed across his chest, one knee bent for balance, peaceful.
At the sound of her footsteps he stirred, his face lighting up when he saw her approaching.
"Hello," she said, offering him a slight smile. It was hard not to smile back at him when he seemed so happy to see her.
"Haven't seen you in a while," he replied jokingly, although in truth they hadn't crossed paths in a while. It was strange, in a way, after spending so much time with him.
"We've been busy the last couple of days," she said. Folding her towel she placed it on top of her bed and straightened her sheets. Kale gently touched the bright pink skin on her shoulder that her hair had parted to reveal.
"I wanted to see if you wanted to get dinner with me in the mess hall," he asked.
Rayne shrugged. "Sure," she said.
She followed Kale as he led her through the compound to the squat little building that served as a dining hall. Many of the tables were already full, the air filled with easy chatter after a long day of training. Kale and Rayne got in line at the buffet set-up and filled trays of bread and beef stew before making their way to table in the back that had just freed up.
Zander waved at them as they crossed the hall. Rayne lifted a hand in greeting. Turning back to the other soldiers Zander whispered something and they all erupted in laughter, several of the boys turning to grin at Kale who dutifully ignored them. He plunked down at the open table while Rayne slid into the seat across from him.
She began methodically breaking off pieces of her bread and dipping it in the thick soup, satisfying the insistent growling in her stomach she hadn't realized until now.
"So how is everything going?" asked Kale as he followed her example and began tearing his bread.
"Fine," answered Rayne.
Kale arched an eyebrow and Rayne realized that would not suffice as an answer for him.
"It's different than I expected," added Rayne. "But I think I made the right decision."
Kale chuckled unexpectedly.
"What?" asked Rayne, looking up from her plate.
"What exactly were you expecting?"
Rayne sighed inwardly. Why did Kale have to go so in-depth with everything? She pulled her now-dry hair out of her face and twisted it up in a bun so she could look at him clearly.
"I'm not sure. Maybe I wasn't really expecting anything. But I like the work. It makes me feel as though I have a sense of purpose that I didn't have lying in the hospital or at your house."
Kale nodded thoughtfully, pausing to take a mouthful of stew.
"Although," added Rayne before she could stop herself, "people still don't seem to take me seriously here."
"What do you mean?" asked Kale. His curious green eyes searched her face as though he was genuinely interested.
Rayne snorted. "Stracka?" she hinted. "Don't tell me you didn't see the way he looked at me when I first walked into his office. He thought I was weak."
Kale regarded her almost sympathetically. "Well, you've given him reason to think otherwise now," said Kale. "And you've definitely impressed Marrow," he added with a slight edge to his voice.
Rayne shook her head and reached for another roll, using it scrape the last of her stew from the bowl.
"He might have been taken by surprise," she conceded. "But he doesn't like me."
She was careful to avoid mentioning that he didn't trust her, wary that it might sound suspicious to Kale.
Kale laughed again. "He doesn't like anyone. Don't take it personally."
Rayne didn't think that was the only issue Stracka had with her, but decided to let the subject drop before it went deeper into unsafe territory.
"And what about you?" she asked. "From the very beginning you underestimated me. You didn't think I could ever become a soldier."
Kale didn't answer immediately. Instead, he took several seconds to finish his dinner and then pushed his tray away.
Looking her in the eye, he said, "Yes. I did underestimate you, but I never thought you were weak." His face had taken on a serious quality and his voice was steady and low. "From the time that I found you in the field, still breathing even as so many lay dead around you from the airship explosion, I knew you were a fighter. And even when my father said there was a possibility you might not make it, I knew you would."
Rayne blinked, taken aback by his words. "Oh," she said finally. "Thank you."
Silence fell between the two for a moment, and then Rayne asked, "But you still didn't want me to become a solider?"
Kale nodded. "Yes," he said. "I know how difficult it is. The commitment it takes. If there was any chance of finding your family, I wanted you to have that chance…and even though I knew you were a fighter, I didn't want to see you bleeding in a field again."
Kale's voice gradually became deeper and softer, and he leaned slightly closer towards her, his eyes never leaving her face. Rayne felt blood pooling in her cheeks, heat rising in her face. Why did it sound like he cared so much? And why was she reacting this way? She leaned back in her chair and Kale, seeming to realize how much closer he had moved, did the same.
He saved her form answering by adding, "Obviously you wouldn't give up on the idea, so I couldn't deny your request any longer."
Rayne nodded, still slightly at a loss for words, and dropped her gaze to her plate. She picked absently at the residue of food with her fork.
"Do you understand why now?" she finally asked.
"I do," said Kale. "It's the same reasons why I wouldn't give up the idea of joining even as my father asked me not to."
"I thought it was because of your brother," said Rayne momentarily confused.
"It was initially," agreed Kale. "But when the worst of my grief and anger subsided, it came down to the fact that I wanted to serve my City. I wanted to protect it."
"What attack did you brother die in?" asked Rayne, slightly hesitant because she knew it was a sore subject.
Sure enough, his expression darkened slightly. A subtle cloud of grief and anger drew down the corners of his mouth and eyes.
"It was in June," said Kale. "He was on a mission to infiltrate the West City, to get a sense of their weapons and air force. But something went wrong and they were discovered on the outskirts of the city where they had made camp. They were bombed in the night by West City airships. None of them survived."
"I'm sorry," said Rayne. And even though she was the enemy, she did feel sorry for Kale.
"It was cowardly," Kale continued. "They should have been taken as prisoners. But, the East took their lives to send a message."
Rayne vaguely remembered that attack. It was one of the first real attacks that sparked the war between the East and West City, but she couldn't recall specific details from it. She herself had just recently returned from a mission in the Southern City.
"What message do you think they were trying to send?" she asked, curious as to what his perspective on the attack would be.
Kale shook his head and exhaled slowly.
"The West obviously wants to win this war. Ever since we decided to no longer adhere to the City Rules once they no longer worked for us. They want us back under the Treaty control because they see us as a threat without them. But we have to show them that they aren't the ones in control. The Cities govern themselves."
"Don't you think they might have a point?" mused Rayne before she could stop herself.
Kale nearly choked on the sip of water he had taken.
"What?" he asked incredulously.
"Just listen," said Rayne, thinking quickly and carefully about what she was going to say and how she was going to say it. "The Treaty of Cities and the City Rules were designed for a reason. They're guidelines for us to live in harmony with one another. To be able to govern ourselves, yes, but to trade and interact with other cities as well. They were drafted and signed to prevent one from growing too powerful and sending us back to the Dark Days. It's why we have population limits, trade laws, building regulations, environmental policies."
"The Treaty had its uses when the cities were first created, some aspects of it still do," agreed Kale. "But the cities have grown, have made advances past what was expected and it needs to be revised. We tried negotiating with the other cities but the West refused even to listen. Until they agree to rewrite them or allow us the autonomy we were granted then we will fight. And we will govern ourselves as we see fit."
"Doesn't some of it unnerve you though?" asked Rayne, choosing her words carefully. She tried to remain relaxed and conversational so that Kale didn't pick up on any unease.
"We've grown bigger than any other City. It has to start building outwards, past its original boundaries and taking the land with it. It's grown so that we have to import more food than any other city and it's putting strain on the South. The Placement Committee and Decision Board have been disbanded so children have to choose what to study and families have to make decisions that could result in them falling apart."
"You're saying 'have to,'" pointed out Kale. "What about 'can?' Now they can choose what they want, who they want. It's not being dictated. Isn't that a good thing?"
Rayne tucked a lock of loose hair behind her ear, thinking carefully about what he said. "I suppose," she said. "But don't you see how much can go wrong from it too?"
"It's a risk," he agreed. "But it's freedom. The West may have a good community where people do well in the jobs their placed in and well in the marriages and families they help create. But is that living? Having someone else decide your life for you?"
"Not everything is decided for them," argued Rayne.
"All the important things are," countered Kale. "What to study at school. What job to take. Who you marry. How many kids you can have. Where you live. What else is there for you to decide?"
It was true that the Placement Committee studied children, monitored their progress and decided what area they should study and what jobs would be best for them to pursue. It was true that the Decision Board evaluated partners and decided whether or not it would be in their interest to marry. And it was true that they placed them in housing, but that was all for fairness. It was so that everyone was guaranteed to perform to their fullest potential for themselves, their family, and for the City. Unless of course you were found to be a traitor or consistently did not perform well at work so that the community suffered from your incompetence; that was when you were reassigned to the slums. But not every decision was dictated by the City. Though there was a limit of three children per family, partners were allowed to decide how many they wanted to have. And you were allowed to re-petition the board for job placements and marriage proposals.
"The citizens only like the system because they don't know any better," continued Kale. "If they were given a choice, I'd bet they'd want to live our way. It worked all those years in the past, why not now?"
Rayne snorted. "And look how well it turned out for those people. They're gone, destroyed hundreds of years ago because of their own decisions, because their choices and consequences got the better of them."
"But someone has to make those decisions," said Kale, leaning towards her again and speaking earnestly. "The West still has decisions being made, someone else is just doing it for them. Who's to say that will work for a while, and then disintegrate like it did in the past? If it's a cycle, I'd rather make my own mistakes than have someone else make them for me."
Rayne realized he did have a point, whether or not she agreed with the other things he had said. The Placement and Decision Boards decided nearly everything for everyone, and they decided who would succeed them when they retired. But was it wrong if everyone benefited from their decisions? Was it wrong if everyone liked the system?
She shook her head. She couldn't think like that, couldn't indulge herself to think about Kale's propositions. It was treasonous to her City. Kale was getting in her head, distracting her. She couldn't afford that. Especially now, when she was so close. The whole reason she was here in the first place was for the very reasons he was pointing out. The East City was deviating from the Treaty, renegading from the other Cities, and if it continued they would grow too powerful. They had to be brought back under the Treaty control, made to see reason so balance between the cities was restored. There was already vague stirrings, though unconfirmed, that the East was attempted to get the Southern City to join it's movement and persuade the West to let them expand. As Kale said, it would only end when one city won the war. The West had to win.
But some small part of her brain was still questioning her. It replayed over and over what Kale had said, wondered if maybe what he said was true, if maybe he had a point and the Treaty should be revised to allow the expansion of the Cities.
He was creating something that she had never felt before. He was creating doubt.