"Did he say 'Ruby Tanner'?" The Colonel asked. "Is that her up there? What did he say about her?"
Eddie stared, dumbstruck. It was Ruby up there on the platform with King Basha, holding his hand. It was her. The fact that the colonel knew her too didn't even register. She was up there, and she'd promised to marry the king.
She kissed him.
Eddie said nothing. He pushed forward through the crowd.
"Eddie, where are you going?" asked the colonel.
Eddie didn't answer. He didn't think. People eyed him irritably as he pushed past bodies, trying to reach her, to see her, to understand. He didn't know why it was so imperative. She'd never promised herself to him.
"English boy," Devick called. Eddie barely heard her over the king's speech and the answering cheers. "Get back here. We're not ready for a—"
Eddie moved faster. If he could just talk to her, to understand, then maybe he could make sense of his feelings right now. She'd only been a voice on the phone for so long now. And now she was there, so beautiful, so perfect, so...
Eddie's foot hit something that squirmed. He stopped only for an instant. A rat scurried over his shoes. More rats followed. He nearly stepped on one. He frowned down. Only rats. They couldn't stop him. The rats in the cave had been much bigger, and they didn't harm him at all. Eddie shuffled forward, taking turns to watch his feet and look up at Ruby. She smiled so radiantly.
The king's speech faltered as a murmur rose from the crowd. A few people cried out. The Ord priests that ringed the crowd looked uncomfortable. Someone shouted "Rats!"
People ran. Suddenly, the whole crowd moved in all directions. The calm scene became chaos. Ord priests raised their hands to subdue them, but the people were already in motion—already in a panic.
The king, Ruby and Jarrock all stood confused. The priests converged on them, protecting them, drawing them back into the palace.
Bodies jostled into Eddie. He shook it off. Ruby was leaving. He had to follow.
"Where are you going?"
A pocket of space amidst the fleeing bodies had opened around him, and there, standing in front of Eddie, stood the boy Timmy.
Eddie stared, dumbstruck. He struggled to find his voice. "How... did you get here?"
"I followed you and the old man and the mohawk lady. I don't think they wanted you to go this way."
"But that's Ruby up there. It's..."
He looked up. Ruby was gone. Most of the crowd was too.
The rats were gone.
"I think you might get yourself killed if you go that way," Timmy said.
Eddie stared at him. This boy did not look unusual in any way. He was just Timmy, the kid who played with Kai on the pyramids field only yesterday.
"Who are you?" Eddie whispered.
The boy shrugged. "I don't know. I don't remember much."
"I've met you before. You were in Holcomb. You were in the badlands underground."
The badlands. Eddie remembered that moment towards the end, when he was sneaking around the gurg sentries, trying to reach his friends. He wouldn't have made it if a trio of giant rats hadn't provided a necessary distraction. Barlow had been there. What did that mean?
And what about the rats here? Where did they go?
"We should go back to the others," Timmy said. He reached out to take Eddie's hand.
Eddie flinched back. "You can't touch me, remember?"
Timmy shrugged again. "I guess. Let's go."
Eddie took one last look at the palace. A line of Ord guarded the front doors. No one else was around. Ruby was somewhere inside.
He turned. The colonel and Devick both stood near a statue, looking conspicuous. The colonel waved.
Eddie and Timmy jogged back to the others.
"You're a damn fool," Devick said. "Are you trying to get noticed?"
The colonel turned and walked back towards the university. "We should get out of the open."
They walked without speaking along the road beside the Ord building. The Ord guards watched them once again, especially Devick. One stepped forward. "Stop."
Eddie turned to face the priest. "Is there something wrong?"
"There are intruders in the city," The guard said. "And I don't recognize any of you." He flashed another glance at Devick, who looked back without emotion.
"We're new here," Eddie said. "We're pilgrim scholars applying to the university."
"Pilgrims," the priest repeated with a scoff. "There are no pilgrims anymore. I think you should come in for questioning."
The other Ord guard stepped forward. "These people don't match the descriptions of the giant's gang."
"They may be allies."
"We don't have time to interrogate everyone who looks out of place."
The suspicious guard was about to say more when a row of priests raced down the steps between the guards, around Eddie and the others and down the street.
"What's going on?" said the second Ord guard.
"We've spotted the giant on our surveillance. He's by the south gate."
They raced off down the street.
The suspicious Ord guard took his time scowling at Eddie and the others one last time, then stepped back to his post.
Eddie took this as a dismissal. He continued down the street. The others followed. They passed another building, then retreated into the shadowy alley beside it. Eddie nodded to Devick, who pressed the button on Chandra's device. Immediately, disabled surveillance bots rained down from the surrounding walls.
"So, what now," the colonel asked. "Are we any closer to knowing how to kill Jarrock?"
Eddie translated. Devick replied, "You could leave it to me. I'll sneak into the palace, find the man and cut his throat."
Again, Eddie translated, then said, "You don't know where he is. You might disable all their surveillance, but it will be obvious to them that something's up. You don't know the layout or anything."
"She's gonna kill someone?" Timmy said. "Cool."
"She's going after Jarrock, the leader of the Ord," Eddie said. "But I don't think she can reach him. Who knows where he is now, and the surveillance is everywhere."
"We might be able to help with that," said a voice in English from above.