Read The Canticle of Whispers Online

Authors: David Whitley

The Canticle of Whispers (6 page)

BOOK: The Canticle of Whispers
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The room erupted into applause. On his stool, Mark shuddered. He remembered those words. But last time he had heard them, they had been spoken by Lily. In an odd way, Crede reminded him of Lily—she had always been determined that the world should be more fair. But Lily had planned to do it with compassion, not by starting a war.

Mark tore his gaze away to look around the room. The way Laud had described Crede's operation made it sound like an army in the making, especially considering the way they antagonized the receivers. And it was certainly true that there was a sprinkling of people who, like Nick, looked as though they weren't here for the speeches. But at the same time, most of the listeners were much more inconspicuous: men, women, even children, mostly poor from the looks of their clothes, and all captivated.

“Hey, you,” the barman grumbled. “You going to order a drink or what? Crede can set up shop here, but I need to make my living as well.”

Hastily, Mark shrank away, trying to mingle with the crowd. As he did, he caught a glimpse of a small, dark-haired woman, watching silently from a doorway. For a second, he was sure that he had seen the woman before.

“Miss Devine?” Mark said to himself under his breath. “This isn't your kind of place at all…”

Mark remembered Miss Devine, though he had met her only once. She was the neighbor of the Temple Almshouse, and officially a glassmaker by trade. But her real business was rather more strange—extracting and selling the emotions of others. When Mark had been a rising star of the Agoran elite, it had been fashionable to pass around a few tiny bottles of emotion at parties, and Miss Devine had been the best supplier. But what was she doing here? As far as Mark remembered, she was doing well, and hardly interested in the rights of the downtrodden …

“And now, my friends, there is someone I want you to meet,” Crede pronounced at full volume. “Comrades, don't think that our only support comes from lowly folk like us. Why, even some of the highest in the land have joined our cause, so moved are they by our plight! I present to you, Miss Serapha, the daughter of the elite!”

“Serapha?” Mark said, turning his head. “That sounds … familiar…”

He stopped, mouth agape. There, with the crowd opening out around her, was Cherubina.

“Is this not a symbol of our cause?” Crede said, bowing gallantly in Cherubina's direction. “Started by the purity of a young maiden—Miss Lilith—and after her mysterious disappearance, continued by such shining examples of charity as Miss Serapha, who willingly gave up an elite family to live among us. Whatever the Directory may say, as long as such people flock to our cause, we know it is just and true!”

There was a cheer from the crowd around. Cherubina remained still, her eyes cast demurely down—standing in a borrowed dress, under a false name, and being praised as a heroine of truth.

Mark thought that it seemed to sum up Crede's movement pretty well.

He waited until Crede moved to another part of the taproom, still talking, and the crowd followed him, away from Cherubina. Then, he crept toward her, and grabbed her shoulder.

“Ma—?” Cherubina gasped as Mark pulled her into the quietest corner of the room. Mark glared at her furiously, and she hastily swallowed the name. She had promised not to say it in public. “What are you doing here?” she whispered.

“What am
doing here?” Mark replied. “In what way is becoming a symbol of a revolution keeping a low profile?”

“I'm finding us some allies,” Cherubina replied, proudly. “Aren't these people just like your friends at the other almshouse? Except, of course, Crede actually takes action. They say that the receivers don't dare come into the Taurus district anymore…”

“Fine, fine,” Mark said, glancing around to check that no one was listening to them. Fortunately, Crede was still very much the center of attention. “But how did you know about this place at all?”

Cherubina smiled in a way that she clearly thought was mysterious.

“Mr. Crede sent me a note—one of his men slipped it under our door. He said I might be able to help them. At first, I went because I was curious, and because they promised to protect me, but now…”

“How did they know about you?” Mark interrupted, and then shook his head. That much was obvious; he recognized several ragged figures here that had been at the Temple Almshouse. News obviously traveled fast in the underworld. “I wish you'd told me,” Mark said, uneasily. “Didn't you think that one or two of these people might let the receivers know where you are?”

“What would be wrong with
Miss Serapha
coming to the meetings?” Cherubina replied, with all the subtlety of a brat of four summers.

Mark sighed, and raised his hand to touch Cherubina's ringlets. “There are more things than names that can draw attention to us,” he muttered. “Did you know Miss Devine is here as well?”

“Who?” Cherubina replied, deeply uninterested.

“Miss…” Mark looked around, but the emotion peddler had vanished in the crowd. He dismissed her with a wave of the hand. “It doesn't matter. Someone we don't want following us. The point is, anyone could be here, even an undercover receiver.”

“Nick on the door knows every undercover receiver that dares to work at this end of the city,” Cherubina replied, with a touch of pride, “Mr. Crede's not stupid, you know.”

“Baiting the receivers when they're already on edge. Promising fairness to everyone in Agora…” Mark sighed. “He doesn't look or sound like someone who's very closely in touch with reality.”

“He's trying to make a difference,” Cherubina said, quietly. “And so am I. All my life I've been a prize, used by other people. Not anymore.”

“No,” Mark muttered, sarcastically. “And your ‘purer than a lily' act there certainly wasn't Crede showing off his new possession.”

“He's the Director's enemy, so that makes him our friend,” Cherubina said, loftily. “Crede said I'm too valuable to let anything happen to me. He already knows where we live. I've seen some of his men watching me as I come home. He's keeping me safe.”

“It doesn't work like that,” Mark insisted. “He isn't really out to help people. He's after as much power as he can grab. You think he really cares about you?” Mark took her hand. “By all the stars, Cherubina, this isn't a game! I thought you did some growing up over the past year…”

Cherubina snatched her hand away, furious.

“Don't you
talk about that dreadful time again. Don't you
treat it like a joke!”

“Then you shouldn't treat our hiding like it doesn't mean anything!” Mark snapped back, barely trying to keep his voice down anymore. “We're hiding from
, Cherubina, from Snutworth! Even if he doesn't really care, he'd take you back out of spite—you know he would.”

“That's why I need proper protection,” she said, scornfully. “You think just because Crede's got vision he's stupid? He understands everything. He was just telling me before you arrived, now that Snutworth's the Director, we have to plan carefully…”

Cherubina trailed away as she saw Mark's expression.

“You told
about Snutworth?” Mark whispered. “You told him who you are?”

Cherubina crossed her arms, defiantly.

“It's my secret,” she said. “I can tell who I want.”

Mark stared at her, marveling.

“Do you have any idea what he could do with that kind of knowledge?” Mark said, quietly.

“Of course I do,” Cherubina said, intensely. “He told me himself. Right now, the people are scared of the Director—they think he's a myth, all powerful.” Mark detected a hint of Crede in her tone, as though she were repeating something he had said. “But as soon as they know that he's just an ordinary man…”

“An ordinary man?” Mark interrupted, putting his head in his hands. “A few years ago, he was my servant, and now he's the ruler of the city! There's nothing ordinary about him, and you know it. And anyway, that hardly robs him of his power—or have you forgotten about the receivers? Dad says that they've stepped up their training. Some of them are even practicing with swords, not truncheons. You really believe that Crede's army of thugs is going to be able to fight them?”

“So you think we should just do nothing?” Mark was amazed to see that Cherubina's eyes were wet. She seemed to be almost crying, but her voice was still dangerous. Mark gingerly laid a hand on her shoulder.

“I'm saying you shouldn't be getting involved in this. I hate Snutworth as much as you do, but you can't keep obsessing over him. You've escaped—you need to live your own life…”

Cherubina met his gaze.

“And how can I do that?” she asked, softly. “By doing everything you say?”

Mark pulled his hand back, stung, but Cherubina was unrepentant. She turned her back, stiffly.

“I need to get back,” she said, pointing to the crowd, still ignoring them, enraptured by Crede. “He wants to introduce me to some of the new recruits.”

“You're just a tool to him,” Mark protested, feebly. Cherubina didn't turn around.

“Maybe,” she admitted, “but at least he's doing some good. He's not sitting at home, waiting for Daddy to visit. He can keep me safe.” She glanced over her shoulder. Her anger seemed to have gone; now she looked sad, almost disappointed. “Why don't you go? Crede is handing out bread, and we don't have much to trade. I'd ask you along, but he only gives handouts to men of action.”

And then, before Mark could reply, she walked away, mingling in the crowd.

Mark couldn't think of a single thing to say. Not as he left the smoky bar, the sound of Crede's speeches ringing in his ears. Not as he crept through the streets, and returned to their lonely house.

Not even that night, when the receivers walked past, ringing the new curfew bell. All he had was a jumble of thoughts about Cherubina's safety, and his own inability to decide what to do. But by then, it didn't really matter.

Because, by then, it was clear that Cherubina wasn't coming back.




where she was anymore.

Every time she woke and lit her lantern, the rocky passageways disappeared into darkness on either side. She began to wonder if they went on forever.

It was hard to tell how long she and her new friends had been traveling; they hadn't seen their pursuers once since that first encounter. They had slept fifteen times, that was certain, but whether this had any bearing on day or night it was impossible to say. She was tired most of the time, but considering the constant walking and stone surfaces where she was forced to sleep, that was hardly a surprise.

On the second “day,” they had found a cache of lantern oil, and Lily had been given her own lantern. She had taken to keeping the flame low after she woke up, and then raising and dimming it through the day, making her own sun. She found it strangely comforting.

It wasn't that the tunnels were dull. Often they opened into caverns of breathtaking beauty, with rock that rippled across the walls like water. Or they would find a cave full of quartz shards that burst through the floor to make scintillating forests of crystal. Even when they had to crawl through spaces barely wide enough to breathe, the rock under their hands and knees was mottled with a hundred different tones, textures, and colors. Under normal circumstances, Lily would have been fascinated.

But she found herself longing for the real forests of Giseth, or even the crowds of Agora. There was no chance of meeting anyone new down here. If they heard the sound of approaching footsteps, they had to hide. Lily had tried to get Septima and Tertius to explain again why they were on the run, but all she got for her troubles were veiled comments about the evils of the Conductor, and increasingly suspicious looks.

That was the other problem. She could cope with sleeping on rock floors, with nothing but her pack for a pillow—she had suffered worse. She could cope with being lost, and the lack of light and stale air. But her companions were another matter. She was beginning to suspect that accompanying Tertius and Septima anywhere was not a good idea.

If anything, their behavior became even stranger as time went on. Unless Lily mentioned it, they seemed to have forgotten that they were being chased. In fact, they couldn't seem to latch on to one thought for more than a few minutes. They chattered continuously, but never about anything of importance. Occasionally, they claimed to be fleeing to a secret rebel encampment, but they seemed to have little idea of where to go. If anything, their journeys were simply from one concealed food parcel to the next, and even that was strangely convenient. At first, they claimed that they had left the food there, in cases of emergency. But it soon became clear that it never even occurred to them to take any of the food with them. In fact, they carried no supplies at all, apart from their lanterns. They slept, sprawled on the floor, without any need for comfort, brushing the dust from themselves in the morning, and washing in the pools of water that formed in the damper caverns.

Above all, they didn't seem to have any plan. On the seventh day, Tertius led them on a breakneck chase through a maze of tunnels, only to show them a smooth, egg-shaped nugget of crystal growing out of a wall. Septima stared at the amber stone in delight, watching the light of her lantern play off its surface.

Lily leaned against the wall of the tunnel, thinking of all the similar crystals they had seen, growing from the walls, in their journeys through the tunnels. She remembered her own tiny crystal, the one that had led her here, still buried in the depths of her pack. It was one of the crystals that Verity, her father's sister, had brought to Agora. She had thought it so strange when she had first found it; she could never have imagined that she would find a whole land of them.

BOOK: The Canticle of Whispers
2.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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