As they trudged toward Reiont, Chantal asked question after question. Does King Aligh have a long white beard? Is he grumpy in the morning? How old is Prince Lanre? Would she be welcome at Reiont? Did she know any Yekarans? Were they nice or as mean as they looked? Was she scared she’d be stepped on? Maya answered each question as well as she could while they hurried toward the relative cool of McLay’s Forest.
Chantal’s questions quieted when they entered the forest. Maya could feel the younger girl’s unease in the dimming light and foreign surroundings. She assured Chantal they were almost to the castle, but quickened her pace nonetheless. It was nearing midday, and there was much left to do.
Before long, the girls came upon an ancient tree devoid of leaves. Maya told Chantal they’d arrived and was rewarded with a confused expression. Grinning, Maya grasped one of the “tree’s” branches, feeling the moss covered metallic surface, and pulled down. Once again, the neglected joints had corroded and refused to budge. Chantal watched her with an upraised eyebrow and poorly hidden smirk.
“The lever’s stuck,” Maya explained. “Help me.”
Still looking unconvinced, Chantal took hold of the branch and the two pulled together. The hinge finally gave way with a grating groan, pulling moss from the “trunk” and startling a small cloud of tiny insects into flight. The two batted the insects away from their heads as the passage opened. Chantal’s hands stopped mid-swat when she caught sight of the trap door in the path.
“Don’t know if I would have found that,” Chantal said. “The mechanism is much different from the one at Tembar.”
“It’s an older design,” Maya answered, pulling the box of matches from her pocket in preparation. “Tembar was built a couple of decades after Reiont, when the population grew too great for this castle and before we were willing to spread out.” She turned and led Chantal into the passage. After a morning in the open, the smell of earth and mold was overwhelming. “Joshua Marx was long dead by then. Tembar’s catacombs were designed by another engineer.”
“Joshua Marx?” Chantal asked. The questioning look on her face became apparent as Maya lit the remains of the torch she’d used back before dawn.
“You haven’t been taught much of our history have you?” Maya asked. She snapped her mouth shut as her eyes went wide. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud, and she felt her face grow hot. “We have to close this,” she said indicating a rope pull attached to the trap door.
“Of course,” Chantal answered and reached to grasp the rope. It was outside her reach as she stood on tiptoe. Dust showered down around her as Chantal jumped and caught the rope. The door started to close by centimeters under her weight.
“Did dust begin to fall before Chantal grabbed hold?” Maya wondered.
Chantal’s feet finally touched the steps, nearly causing her to overbalance when the door’s progress stopped. Maya placed the torch in the sconce and joined her, knowing it would take the both of them to drag the door the rest of the way since they’d lost the advantage of gravity.
Both girls strained, digging their heels into the step fronts for leverage. By the time the last rays of daylight were extinguished, both girls were dripping in sweat between the day’s heat, their efforts, and the warmth of the torch. The two stood for a moment, panting to regain their breath.
The acrid smoke from the torch wasn't helping. Maya pulled the handkerchief she'd used to filter the air earlier in the morning from her pocket and tore it down the middle. She handed half to Chantal and used the other to cover her nose and mouth.
“We need a bath before we see anyone,” Maya said once she regained control of her breathing.
“I wouldn’t say no to one,” Chantal sighed. “It feels like I haven’t had a bath in weeks.”
“All the more reason,” Maya teased. “Come on.”
The passage, an old escape tunnel included when the castle was first built, twisted and turned to disorient any who attempted to use the route to infiltrate the castle or escape from the dungeon. However, for those who knew the correct path, it was a short walk from the entrance to the exit in the surrounding forest.
It was mostly forgotten and neglected over the years. The documents Maya’d found buried in the library said the passage roof was over two meters high, but the roots of the trees above trundled down into the tunnel several centimeters in their search for water before turning until they found the walls or floor. Maya was a small woman, but she still had to crouch to avoid becoming tangled in the mass or setting it on fire with the torch. Chantal didn’t have the torch to contend with, but her loose curls caught and snagged on the roots.
Maya led the way through the catacomb’s twists and turns, finding it much easier than the morning’s trip. She grinned to herself. Her mother’s old advice, “Know it backwards and forwards,” came to mind. She’d always hated seeing those words written in her mother’s rough hand following a letter where she’d complained about her studies.
Maya realized they were both running on little more than adrenaline. She wondered how sore she’d be in the morning, and she hoped Chantal was actually as healthy as she appeared after several days in the Wastelands. At the least Chantal would be sore and prone to the chills for the next few days with the burn she’d sustained. If it was worse than she let on, she could collapse as soon as the adrenaline wore off or spike a fever overnight.
Maya gave the torch to Chantal as she grasped the lever. She instructed Chantal to stamp out the exhausted torch and leave it behind. When the light was gone, Maya pulled the lever and stepped back as the wall slid open. She waved Chantal through, mouthing to her not to move out of the cell, before she followed. Once she was through, Maya took hold of the sister lever, which was covered in a disgusting slime mold after the transition rains, and turned it. She dried her hand on what remained of her handkerchief as the slick passage door closed once again and stuffed the soiled and fraying scrap of cloth back into her pocket.
She looked at Chantal, who seemed daunted by the discovery they’d entered the castle dungeons. Maya had been obliged to use her empathic senses to navigate in utter darkness earlier in the day, but torches now hung in sconces every few meters. The light was dim, but they could hear the prisoners mumbling and faintly make out a few of them moving in the cells down the hall from the unused cell they stood in. Most of the men here were petty thieves and conmen, though there were a few with violent tempers they were either unable or unwilling to control. Maya laid a comforting hand on the younger girl’s shoulder and nodded for her to follow. Then, she eased to the door and peered around to see who was on guard duty. Jahr’s name was on the rotation list, but that didn’t mean he would be the one sitting by the door. However, she could see the familiar young man with a boyish face darting around inside the guard booth.
He was practicing sword drills, likely daydreaming of future days and more exciting assignments. She didn’t think he would notice them sneaking past the guard station, so she began to creep toward the far door.
They kept as quiet as possible, trying to avoid attention. However, Maya noticed the prisoners’ weary, wild eyes follow them down the corridor. She tried to ignore their gaze and encouraged the natural distrust of what they saw with as powerful of a mind graft as she could produce.
The sound of water from the previous day’s rain dripping from the ventilation tunnels echoed rhythmically around them. A murmured cry for rose from the cells, but it was too faint for Maya to understand. Before she realized what was happening, loud pleas and filthy, reaching hands surrounded them.
“Please, it was all a mistake,” cried one man. “I never stole anything, let alone a child!”
“Angels!” one crazed looking old man cried, falling on his face. “My day of freedom’s come at last!”
Maya glanced around, and saw Jahr stop his sword drills. She grabbed Chantal by the arm and pulled her into a side passage to another block of cells. They pressed as close to the wall as they could. Maya held her breath as she watched the adolescent stomp by them.
“Quiet you crazy old fools,” Jahr called. “There are no angels here.”
Maya took advantage of the boy’s turned back and pulled Chantal back to the main passage. They trotted down the last few meters and through the guard station, Jahr’s yells fading behind them.
Maya couldn’t wait to reach the women’s baths. She felt disgusting, and she had no idea how she would explain her condition to anyone they happened to run into. Besides, a little warm water and a scrubbing sponge would help ward off the aches and pains she expected. The midday meal would be served soon, so there was little chance they’d be discovered unless Lanre or Selah had raised an alarm over her absence.
The baths’ door was down the hall, almost at the foot of the southeast stairwell. Maya pushed the door open, walked through, and held it ajar for Chantal. The girl froze just inside, so Maya barely managed to close the door without hitting her.
“It’s enormous,” Chantal whispered, “more than twice the size of Tembar’s.”
Maya looked around the room, trying to see it through Chantal’s eyes. She’d grown accustomed to the castle years ago, but she could still remember the awe she’d felt when she first saw the place. They were standing in the wide dressing area. Several wooden partitions stood more than two meters high in front of them, each surrounding one of the eight large bathing pools.
She could already feel the warmth emanating from them and longed to sink into one of the large pools. However, she knew a visit to the storage and laundry rooms off to the side would be necessary before she could enjoy her soak.
“You won’t need those clothes anymore,” Maya said as she walked toward the stack of wood in the corner. “So we might as well burn them. “We could never get all of the sand out of the material now, anyway.”
“I agree, but I don’t have anything else.”
“I’m sure we’ll find something here in the store room,” Maya answered, taking wood from the stack. “Girls your age tend to tire of clothes or outgrow them well before they’re worn out, and I know there are five or six of us not much bigger than you who don’t have younger sisters in Reiont. I’m sure we have more dresses your size than you could wear.” She knelt to stack the wood in the fireplace and pulled out her box of matches and the last soiled bit of handkerchief. She struck a match and used the handkerchief for kindling before standing again. “Okay, let’s see what’s there.”
She led Chantal over to the storeroom and opened the door. Chantal gasped as row upon row of dresses, blouses, skirts, underclothes, and shoes arranged by size came into view. Maya walked to one of the racks. There was her old plain brown riding skirt, white blouse, and high leather boots she’d outgrown several years before all placed together. She pulled them from the rack to show to Chantal, but the girl was still standing by the door.
“I’ve never seen so many gowns,” Chantal said.
“Oh, there’re lots of young ladies here,” Maya answered. “Too many sometimes, I think,” she continued under her breath before holding up the outfit again. “What do you think?”
“What is it?” she asked, pointing to the skirt.
“It’s a riding skirt,” Maya explained. “They’re cut like loose-legged breeches to allow a lady to ride without sitting sidesaddle, but lots of women use them for long treks or outdoor work. The material’s thick, warm, and takes years to wear out.”
“That’ll work,” Chantal said and took the clothes from Maya.
The girl stepped behind one of the partitions to get started while Maya went to the rack just outside the laundry room. As she expected, the dresses she’d sent to be washed a couple of days before had been cleaned, dried, and were hanging there waiting to be picked up. She chose one and hung it over one of the partitions. Then, she returned to the dressing area. She unpinned her hair and laid the pins and her circlet beside her box of matches on one of the tables and retrieved two towels from the closet. Maya hung one over Chantal’s partition and pulled down the discarded disguise at the same time.
“Oh my,” Chantal said, “this is much better than what we had back home. The water was always freezing, even in summer.”
“Natural hot springs surface here,” Maya explained just before she tossed the sand-infused clothes into the fireplace, “so the water’s always warm. Don’t worry; you’ll get used to the smell.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Chantal returned.
“The smell of sulfur’s a small price to pay for hot, running water in the dead of winter.”
“You’ll get no arguments from me,” Chantal said amidst the loud pops of rapidly heated sand coming from the fireplace.
“Hurry now,” Maya said as she stepped behind the partition surrounding the pool she’d chosen. “There’s much to do before day’s end.”
“I am, but it may take a while,” Chantal answered. “I think sand’s found its way into my pores.”
“Well, make sure you get clean,” Maya chuckled as she slid into the pool. “I’ll have to wash out my dress before we leave anyway.” She dove under the water and dampened her hair. Then, she took the scented soap from the shelf and scrubbed herself until her skin tingled. She let the slight current sweep the grime away and reached for the cake of soap. Maya lathered her hair well and dove again to rinse it clean before climbing out of the pool.
She dried herself quickly and dressed. Then, she retrieved her dress and cloak, taking them to the pool’s edge instead of the laundry rooms. She knew the laundry maids would be at the washtubs, and she didn’t want to attract attention.
She refused do anything to create a scandal. It was bad enough many thought the prince too young for rule, she wouldn’t have them thinking even she would show him distain. She washed out the dress and cloak before hanging them over one of the drying racks in the outer laundry room.
Maya returned to the dressing area, expecting to find Chantal waiting, but the room was empty. She sighed. She didn't want to lose any more time, but decided to give Chantal a little longer. A warm bath was a luxury enjoyed by few outside Reiont and a couple other castles built over hot springs, and it was her first. So, she found a jar of the hair softening salve kept in the cabinets and worked a small dollop into her curls. She picked up a polished wood comb and began to work the tangles out of her hair before pinning it up around her circlet.
“I feel like a new woman,” Chantal sighed as she appeared from behind the partition. “Now, if only I could work with my hair the way you do with yours.”
“You can’t do your hair up?” Maya asked, putting the last pins in her hair.
“It just gets bigger and bigger the more I try,” she answered with a helpless shrug.
“I’ll have to teach you,” Maya said and motioned for Chantal to sit on one of the benches. “The lessons will have to wait though, I’m afraid. Right now we need to hurry, so I’ll just pull it up for you.” Chantal sat down and held very still while Maya worked the salve into her hair and eased the knots loose.
“If you’ll forgive me, how old are you, Chantal?” Maya asked as she worked.
“Sixteen,” Chantal answered.
“Turning in a parent who is breaking the law would be very hard for anyone,” Maya said. “I can’t imagine doing so at your age.”
“It is.” Chantal’s voice cracked on the admission. “But then I saw what he was doing, not just to the people he was to protect but to their children.” There was disgust in her voice, and she rubbed at her face and sighed. “What kind of person would I be if I ignored that?”
Maya paused in pulling the mass of ringlets into a basic knot. Suddenly her hands were shaking, and dread tightened her gut. “What exactly was he doing?” she asked.
Chantal twisted her fingers together. “Let’s just say Brance, that humanoid arachnid you saw at Tembar, wasn’t an accident like Ralic says,” she answered so quietly Maya almost didn’t hear her.
Her heartbeat thundered in her ears as Maya fumbled with the hairpins. Ralic had returned to his genetic manipulation studies? What else had he done? If what Chantal said was true, it seemed obvious he was experimenting.
“You… You saw this?” she stammered.
Maya’s throat tightened, and she had to blink back tears. What had he done? Her hands shook as she pushed the last pins into Chantal’s hair. She swallowed hard and cleared her throat.
“I’m done,” she said. “Come. I’ll introduce you to your grandfather.”
Continue to Chapter 3.