Authors: Sarah Remy
Nan would cackle as she embroidered primrose and tulip
s onto the a pair of Gloriana’s gloves or across the edges of a royal gown.
The tunnels below
often eat a fool to the bones before he finds escape,
he finds escape,” Nan claimed. She rolled her eyes at young Aine until the girl squealed. “Just remember, child, we are a jealous folk, loathe to part with our own.”
Aine, squirming on her mother’s knee, would look away from Nan’s sharp teeth and up across the dais at Gloriana. Then the Queen, always attuned to the nuances of her Court, would bestow upon her a smile of such reassurance that Aine knew she need never fear
’s unforgiving maze.
That maze was meant as punishment for the living, not the dead.
“Only fools and traitors are sent to the caves,” she reminded herself now. “And I was raised to be neither.”
She had to bite her tongue to keep from trembling, but she forced herself to walk down the passage alongside the iron road. Each time the tunnel was
interrupted by a tapestry she pushed the fabric aside and continued on.
Aine could no longer hear Richard’s footsteps, but the ticking sound grew as she progressed.
She found Lolo’s room by the purple pelt abandoned all in a heap. She couldn’t see the floor beneath sagging cushions. Another square box hummed in one corner, and atop it loomed a large opaque picture frame.
The space stank of young male, of sweat and grease and unwashed linens.
Aine made a face and continued on.
Past Lolo’s chamber she unearthed what she recognized as a make-shift library. Books spro
uted from the dirt floor in man-high piles, and someone had pinned a map to the one earthen wall. Someone else had left a bowl of licorice candies on the arm of a stained and overstuffed chair.
Aine’s mouth flooded with saliva. She didn’t know how long it had been since she’d last eaten. Hours, a day? How much time had passed between death and waking?
She took the bowl of licorice with her to the map, chewing candy thoughtfully. She was glad that she had been allowed to retain her sweet tooth in the afterlife. She might possibly learn to abide underground so long as there was a steady supply of sugary confections.
The map on the wall was drawn in black ink, in a neat hand. Aine had once studied topography alongside the Queen’s nephews. She recognized the map for what it was.
“So many passages,” she said to the mouse who crept up against her foot. “It must have taken a very long time to map them all.”
Others did the work many years ago,” replied the mouse. “Winter added his own interpretation to the original.”
What are the stars?” Tiny red stars cut from foil glittered randomly across the map. One or two were peeling away from the paper, losing their stick.
Trouble.” The mouse smoothed her whiskers, then shrugged in a very un-mouselike manner. “Come with me, child. Now that you’re dressed, there’s a few things need to be cleared up.”
Beyond the library was one last room. It was smaller than the others, the dirty tapestries so threadbare they were nearly worn through. A tattered rug spread across the dirt. On top of the rug sat a single mattress.
At the head of the mattress, against the rough tunnel wall, crouched a large clock. The face of the clock was gold and blank, the hands copper, the base twisted pipe. Three rusted weights hung on three chains between the pipes.
The clock ticked steadily as the hands on the unmarked face kept unmarked time.
Richard made it for Winter,” Gabriel said. “Two years past.”
Aine studied the ugly thing with distaste.
“Is it a joke?”
Richard never jokes. Come this way.”
Past the last tapestry the tunnel opened up into a small cavern. There were more bright globes hanging from the ceiling, casting thin light on an astounding collection of junk.
“Richard’s workshop,” said the mouse. “Try not to touch anything. He gets fussy. Follow me.”
A narrow path snaked through the collection. Aine followed the mouse past shoulder-high piles of neatly coiled wire, sheets of metal balanced against broken cable, and crates of broken glass. Through a forest of discarded pipe she thought she caught a glimpse of a wooden butter churn.
More lanterns graced every level surface, wicks snuffed.
Watch where you step. He does his best to keep the path clean, but better be cautious. Lately he’s taken to experimenting with shrapnel.”
Aine stopped, distracted.
“I smell fresh air. A breeze?”
As much as we get down here,” chirped Gabriel. “And a blessing it is.”
The mouse disappeared around a tower of dusty metal cylinders.
Aine hurried after, and nearly stepped off the edge of the world.
“Careful.” Winter snagged the back of Aine’s trousers, and kept her from toppling. “Won’t kill you, but it’s a bit of a drop if you’re not expecting it.”
Aine looked down between her stockinged feet into a sloping pit.
“They used the bottom of the air shaft as a refuse pit. Richard dug most of it out years ago.”
Air!” Aine closed her eyes and inhaled greedily. “Fresh air.
air and wet leaves and loam and . . .” She stopped, puzzled. “Sausage?”
That would be Sayad, hot dog vendor extraordinaire. He’s usually above our vent this time of the morning.”
Aine opened her eyes. Winter smiled up from his perch at the edge of the pit. His legs dangled casually in the air, but his grip on her clothing held firm. The gemstones in his ears sparkled in the faint light.
“Sit down. Let me take a look at you. I see you found Lolo’s candy stash.”
I was hungry.” Aine lowered herself onto the dirt. She could feel the draft now, a waterfall of breeze across her cheeks. “I still am hungry.”
Winter’s smile widened.
“A girl after my own heart. I’m sure we can come up with something better than sweets. We do live beneath a culinary paradise. What would you like? Thai, Italian, Tex-Mex, Parisian pastries?”
“Sausage,” she said. Her stomach growled in emphasis.
“Whatever the princess desires. Gabby, please go tell Richard we need Sayad’s morning special.”
Aine watched the mouse dart back through the forest of metal and disappear.
“It’s fall up above.” Winter leaned over, plucking a licorice from Aine’s bowl. “The rainy season is almost over. Soon enough we’ll get sleet and then snow.” He popped the candy into his mouth. “What season did you leave behind?”
She didn’t have to ask what he meant.
“Spring. It was spring when I . . . died. Just turning spring.”
The grey-eyed boy scooted away from the edge of the
pit. He wrapped his arms around his knees. “What is it makes you think you’re dead?” He pointed his chin meaningfully at her bandaged feet. “Seems to me you’ve got more life in you than the rest of us.”
“I remember dying. I remember the pain, here.” She touched her brow, and was reassured to feel the healthy, unbroken bulge of her skull. “And falling. Then running. And then, nothing. I couldn’t breathe. There was nothing.
And then waking.” Her fingers rose to the ends of her shorn hair. “In the wall. I couldn’t move. And I hurt.”
She fisted her fingers in her hair, twisting. Even pain was better than nothingness.
Winter watched her with sympathy.
You’re not dead, princess, although maybe you’ll be wishing you were. And the Metro can look and smell like Hell, but I assure you it isn’t.”
Aine stiffened. Was he mocking her?
“Hell is a human fiction,” she said. “A story told by mortal parents to frighten children.”
His eyebrows quirked into an arch. They were fine brows, as dark as his hair, and looked as though they had been inked onto his fair skin.
“You might be surprised,” he said. He uncurled and stood up. “Mind if I take a look?”
Aine grasped the hem of her sweater in both hands.
He made a sound that was more grunt than laugh.
“At your feet, princess. I’m hardly one for molesting little girls.”
Heat flared in her cheeks again. Aine told herself it was anger.
“I’ll be ten and seven this
. Gloriana plans to find me a consort before summer. She’s already having my Court gowns sewn.”
Age is as mutable as Hell.” Winter pulled a rusting bucket through the dirt, and sat on it. “Now that you’re a ghost you’ll have no use for court gowns. Up here, please. I want a good look.”
Aine pressed her lips together. She sat perfectly still, stubborn. His brows rose higher, and he only smiled, patient as a Huntsman awaiting the sound of Gloriana’s silver Horn.
She’d nearly lost her resolve when Richard broke their silent tableau.
“Whatever it is, better do as he says. It’s easier. He’ll only win in the end. Besides, tossing commands about is Winter’s way of showing concern.”
Richard,” Winter said without taking his steady grey stare from Aine’s face. “This time I smelled you coming. Luckily. Else you might have had to fish me out of the pit.”
Richard set a small white bag on Aine’s lap. He tossed a second at Winter who caught the bag in midair.
“I didn’t know what you like on yours, Aine. So I got you everything. Winter’s only harassing you because he’s concerned even though I promised him you were almost as good as new. He wants to make sure I wrapped your bandages just right, and didn’t leave you to fester. Also, he’s a control freak who doesn’t know how to say please and mean it.”
Please,” Winter repeated. Aine thought he meant it.
She set a foot on the bucket, and then went to work on her little white bag. The smell of sausage and
- onions? - was overwhelming. She decided the two of them could poke at her feet as much as they liked just so long as they let her eat.
Lantern?” Richard asked.
The sausage was wrapped in more white paper, couche
d between two pieces of bread. The bread and meat were awash in red sauce and a variety of shredded vegetables. Aine took a bite. She sighed in pleasure. Onions. She loved onions.
d little attention to the silver light flickering around her toes or the tug as Winter removed her stockings and peered beneath the bandages. His fingers were soft as butterfly wings.
Richard’s right, as usual. You don’t need the bandages anymore. Keep the socks on. I’ve got a pair of shoes you can wear. They’re not pretty, but they’ll do.”
Aine nodded, concentrating on her sausage. She was down to the last bite of bread and onions before she registered silence. She looked up.
Richard and Winter were studying her with almost identical expressions of disbelief and dismay. Richard held her bandages loosely between his fingers. Winter sat motionless on the bucket, her feet in his lap. A small, bright globe of silver light hovered in the air over Aine’s ankles, shedding cloudy illumination.
Aye?” She blinked. “Is something amiss? They don’t hurt, anymore. My feet.” She sat up straight, alarmed. “What have you found?”
Richard looked away. Winter’s expression turned to reluctant amusement.
“What have we found?” He whistled softly, then snuffed his light. “A pretty girl who materializes out of nowhere into a subway wall, grows new hide so speedily a basilisk would blink, and finds Sayad’s hot dog more interesting than Gathered starlight.
What do you think we’ve found, Richard? Keeping in mind, of course, that the possibility is impossible.”
Keeping that in mind,” the other boy replied, droll. “She’s obviously come from across the Way. Your mother will have a coronary.”
There are no such things as basilisks,” Aine said, annoyed by their disgruntled fascination. Although she wasn’t entirely sure. Nan’s outlandish tales had not been limited to vengeful lakes and underground catacombs.
She doesn’t believe in Hell or basilisks,” Winter said to Richard. He looked mournful. “Next she’ll say it’s not Santa’s been leaving a lump of coal in my stocking every Christmas.”
She’d be right,” Richard returned. “Saint Nick doesn’t visit the wicked. You know Lolo’s been recycling the same lump of coal year after year.”
Winter sighed. He stood up, gently dislodging Aine’s feet. He closed his paper bag with a twist, then dropped the package into her lap.
“Shame on you. You’ve gone and chased my appetite away with your blasphemy. Finish that for me. Back in the tunnel, if you don’t mind. I’ve got an unpleasant call to make.”
Don’t you want her to stay?”
No.” Winter tossed Aine’s stockings, now rolled into a neat little ball, after his lunch. “I definitely do not want her to stay. Tuck her into my room. She looks like she could use a nice nap anyway.”
I’m not tired,” Aine argued. “I’m never tired. Please stop talking about me as though I’m not here.”
But you’re not here,” said Winter. “You’re back in my room, sitting on my bed, quietly eating the rest of my lunch without fuss. Go.”
I beg your pardon. You can’t just -”
But Winter turned away, staring into the pit.
Richard reached down, catching Aine’s fist before she could throw Winter’s little white bag.
You’ll regret that.” He cautioned, “It will just make a mess and be food wasted. Here. Put on your socks and come with me.”
But, I don’t understand -”
I know.” Richard slipped the heavy stockings over her feet himself. Before Aine could protest he had her by the hand and was leading her away from the waft of fresh air. “You’ve questions. I’ll do my best to answer them.” He looked down into her face. His smile was sweet if not as lovely as Winter’s. “Sometimes it’s better to leave him be when he’s in a mood.”
Aine glanced over her shoulder, but the pit was obscured by stacks of metal detritus.
“Is he often in a mood?”
Nearly always. You’ll come to forgive him for it.”
Aine shook her head.
“And do you always make excuses for him?”
Richard’s smile grew sweeter still.
They were almost through Richard’s workshop when the hairs on Aine’s scalp lifted. She shuddered. A blast of cold air broke against her shoulders, and it wasn’t the pleasant waft of sausage that sent her staggering, but a carrion reek, the distinct odor of something rotten and molding.
gagged, then staggered, overwhelmed.
What is that?”
But Richard was halfway back down the passageway, almost disappeared into the metal forest. Aine managed to right herself against a length of pipe.
He didn’t answer. She was alone.
A scream pierced the air. The ground trembled, rattling pipes, shaking lanterns to the dirt.
Richard!” Aine stumbled back toward the pit.
The path seemed narrower, and far longer than it had been. Smoke or fog wafted around Aine’s ankles. The carrion stink grew thick.
The onions she had so enjoyed rose in the back of her throat.