Promised Page 24

Pearl pulled up a wooden box from a low cupboard and began rummaging around. “Ah,” she said, producing what looked like a wide gray bar of soap. She stepped to the table and held it up to the light bulb, turning it slightly, and to Gaia’s surprise, it began to glow a soft green color.

“Oliver made this for a school project,” Pearl said. “It’s glow-in-the-dark chalk. It doesn’t last long by itself, only a few minutes, but if candlelight hits it, you’ll see it easily. You can draw arrows or marks on the tunnel walls as you go.”

Gaia took the stick, feeling the powderiness of the chalk. “What’s it made of?”

“Zinc sulfide mostly,” Pearl said.

Gaia felt more hopeful as she took the chalk in her hand, giving it an experimental turn under the light to see the pale phosphorescence. A hint of outside gray light showed in the crack of the shutters, and Gaia didn’t dare wait any longer. Pearl rapidly put the chalk together with some candles and matches in a bag, and Mace wrapped a couple of warm rolls in a paper before dropping them in.

Pearl pulled Gaia close in another hug.

“Get over here and try to say something nice,” Pearl said to Mace.

“Next time, plan on visiting longer,” he said to Gaia. He set a warm, heavy hand on her shoulder and looked frankly into her eyes. “Bring your fiancé by so we can have a chance to get to know him.”

“I will,” she said, feeling marginally better. “Take care of Angie,” she added, and slipped back outside.

*   *   *

Gaia walked quickly through the dim quiet streets, letting her hair fall forward to cover her left cheek. A couple of the coffee shops were opening, plus a small corner store that sold milk and eggs, but the rest of the merchants had yet to open their doors. It wasn’t long before Gaia turned down the alley that backed up along the buildings on the Square of the Bastion, and followed Pearl’s directions to a narrow green door. Old copper numbers bled green into the stone lintel: 49. She rapped. Then she curled her hands around her face and peered in the little window in the door.

A sconce light came on down a hallway, and a slender figure came progressively nearer. The door opened a crack and a young woman peeked out.

“Yes?” she asked.

Recognition took only an instant on both sides. Rita opened the door farther. “Come in. Quickly,” Rita said, guiding Gaia into a narrow hallway and bolting the door behind her.

Rita was no longer dressed in the distinctive red of the young female students who served in the Bastion, but in beige and cream. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a tidy ponytail, changing her appearance considerably, but her eyebrows arched over the same almond-shaped eyes, and her face was as delicately expressive as Gaia recalled.

“Leon didn’t tell me you’d be coming,” Rita said, keeping her voice low.

“He didn’t know,” Gaia said.

“Great,” Rita said. “Am I going to get filled in at some point?”

“What did he tell you?” Gaia asked.

“He didn’t want me to know anything, for my own safety, like he’s some big master spy now,” Rita said.

“I’m worried he’s gotten hurt,” Gaia said.

“You don’t know our boy very well if you can say that,” Rita said. “Have a little faith. He thinks fast on his feet.”

“Unless he’s unconscious.”

Rita glanced briefly over her shoulder. “All right, I’m worried, too, but what’s there to do? My aunt will be coming down any second. You can’t stay here.”

“I’m going after him,” Gaia said.

Rita regarded her skeptically, and then apparently made a decision. Following Rita, Gaia bypassed the library’s main reading room and took a staircase down to the archives. The close, dry smell of ink and old paper made Gaia sneeze. Dozens of shelves were packed so closely together that Gaia’s shoulders would have touched both sides if she were passing through the aisles straight.

“Watch your step there,” Rita said, as they descended into a second room that was even more tightly packed.

Little wisps of colored paper poked out between the books like flags, and Gaia inadvertently brushed her cheek against one.

“Have you been friends with Leon a long time?” Gaia asked.

“We were in the same class as kids,” Rita said. “He and Jack Bartlett and I ran together. Didn’t he ever say anything about me?”

“He mentioned Jack.”

Rita laughed. “Perfect. He is so clueless. I only had a crush on him for four years in a row.” She glanced back, her eyes bright. “Don’t worry. I’m over it. Sort of. Here we are.” They reached the end where an old, narrow door was fitted with clamps for a heavy beam. The beam was leaning against the wall. “Normally, we don’t want any surprise intruders, but I’ve been leaving it open in case Leon comes back. Do you have any idea where you’re going?”

Gaia replayed their progress through the house, remembering the turns, and pointed to her left. “I go that way toward the Bastion.”

“Correct,” Rita said.

“Thank you,” Gaia said. “I mean it.”

“I’ll feel really stupid if you don’t come back. So come back.”

“I will.”

Gaia lit a candle and then, with a last nod to Rita, she stepped through the door. She followed the dusty tunnel downward into air that had a different, fetid staleness. She held her candle high to illuminate the tunnel. To her right was darkness. To her left, far ahead, she could see daylight filtering down. A shallow gully cut down the center of the passage, with bits of rotting detritus that she surmised had been washed there by the last rain. She left her first glowing chalk mark at the base of the ramp: an arrow that pointed the way she was going.

Silence settled into her ears, nudged only by her own soft footfalls. The passage was nothing like the old mine routes she’d traveled with Leon, but she hoped those were ahead. As she came to the patch of daylight, she looked up several meters through a storm grid to a square of early morning sky. Faint voices and a rumbling of cartwheels sifted down.

Another patch of light shone farther along the tunnel, and when she looked up through that opening, the top of the obelisk was just visible. A pile of incongruously fresh-looking wooden boxes blocked much of the passage, as if someone had recently stored something there, but she was able to squeeze past to where the darkness was complete again. She lifted her candle to see glimmering spiderwebs, and pushed on.

When a scurrying passed over her shoe, she jumped. The hairless tale of a rat disappeared before her. The tunnel branched, and Gaia made another arrow mark at eye level on a stone that bulged out into the tunnel. She went only a little farther before she realized that finding Leon was going to be nearly impossible.

She didn’t know which way he’d gone.

Or the tunnels themselves.

She should go back.

Gaia knew this, but when she thought of returning to the Jacksons’ and doing nothing while he could be down here somewhere, hurt and needing her, she couldn’t give up.

“Leon?” she said. Her voice sounded muffled and foreign.

A new passage on her right narrowed and descended into black granite, but the walls ahead were cut into a creamier stone, more like sandstone, so on instinct she went straight, hoping to find the tunnels she’d once traveled with Leon. Every time she came to a turn, she marked an arrow at eye level, and lifted the candle toward it to check that it glowed. She lost her inner sense of direction, and she couldn’t help thinking again that this might be a mistake. But the tunnels had to lead somewhere, and she kept hoping she’d recognize some landmark from her earlier time there, like the fort area where Leon and his sisters had played as children.

She stopped often to call Leon’s name and listen. A mine shaft opened up, wide and low-ceilinged, with cooler air, and she followed that. When she came to another fork and began to write her arrow, she saw a glimmering of pale green light on the adjacent wall.

She stepped nearer, staring.

It was one of her own marks.

It could mean only one thing: she’d gone in a circle.

Chapter 14


SHE STOPPED, FEELING THE sweat along her neck, while her mind rapidly grappled with the significance of the circling.

“Stupid,” she said.

Before she could get confused, she deliberately made another mark with a 2 under it in the place where she’d just discovered the doubling.

Her heart kicked in hard. Just how much danger she truly was in became suddenly, painfully obvious. This was no longer about Leon. If she lost track of her back trail, if she became lost, there’d be no way to get out. She needed to head back directly.

She realized suddenly how thirsty she was, but because she’d arrogantly assumed she would only be down for an hour or so, she hadn’t thought to bring anything to drink. Unbelievable, she thought. How stupid could she get? Had she learned nothing about preparation or caution being Matrarc?

She struck back along the path she’d taken, crossing off each mark as she retraced her steps. She went carefully, deliberately taking the time at each intersection to check each tunnel for faint green marks to be certain she wasn’t missing any.

When the 2 appeared before her again, she became seriously scared. She did not understand, logically, how she could be making loops back to the same mark. She had to be missing some faint trace that was supposed to guide her to the original path, but she’d checked carefully at each branching of tunnels and didn’t understand how she could have missed it.

“How am I supposed to get out?” she said.

She forced herself to stop and rest, trying to clear her mind of panic. She listened to the complete stillness until it became an oppressive presence in her ears, and she had to rub her fingers together just to hear anything and know she hadn’t gone deaf. She lifted the candle, her second of five, to watch the flame. If the flame would waver even the least bit, she would know some movement of the air existed, promising an exit.

It did not flicker. The steady yellow flame cast echoing images of blindness on the walls when she blinked away from it.

She checked her locket watch, dismayed to find that more than four hours had passed. It must be close to noon outside. Leon could have traveled back through the tunnels and left by now.

Smugglers have died down there, Mace had said.

It could happen to her. She was seriously lost now. She closed her eyes and touched a hand to her cheek, finding tear tracks.

The prospect of death brought biting clarity: she wanted to marry Leon, raise little Maya, have kids of her own someday, and deliver babies. Period. The rest of it, all the managing and diplomacy and frustration of being Matrarc was completely secondary. Her secret pride and her power meant nothing. And yet she needed a just, fair society in order to have her ideal life with Leon, which brought her back to her responsibilities.

Gaia gazed wearily at the candle flame again. Like it or not, she was Matrarc. She had to get herself out of here and do her job as long as it was hers. Despair was a luxury she could not afford. She set her hand on her knee and hauled herself up again. If she couldn’t find her old way out, she would find a new one.

*   *   *

Many hours later, Gaia stopped at of the opening of another passage, checking the flame of her fourth and last candle to see it flicker slightly. She turned her face, concentrating, and thought she felt the faintest hint of moving air trace the scar on her left cheek.

The passage aimed downward, defying her instinct to go upward, but she tried it anyway and eventually the tunnel leveled out and began to rise, lifting her hopes with it. Please, she thought. Let this be a way out. In the silence, she heard a distant cough, then nothing. She headed onward, her ears aching for another sign of life, until the tunnel turned a sharp bend.

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