The Traitor's Heir

Chapter Eleven

They walked along the waterfront, past more shops than Quara had ever imagined still existed in their devastated world, and as her wide eyes gazed at the well-stocked shelves that had been frozen in time, her sister held tightly to her hand and half dragged her along the path with her own insistent pace, reminding Quara any time her steps became too slow that they had much to see and little time to see it before they needed to begin the long climb back up through the tunnels.

“What are all these places?” Quara asked when they passed the fifth enormous, finely ornamented room filled with dozens of tables. “They look like the cafeteria attached to the garrison, or the space where the Craftsman eat their lunches, but they’re far grander than any of those.”

“From what I’ve read in some of the descriptions of the city that I’ve found, they’re called restaurants and people would come to these places, by themselves or in groups, to be served and eat food that others had made. And it seems that different restaurants had different themes and served dishes from all across the known world. There’s even a Za’Reekan restaurant if you head the opposite direction, where the pillars that hold up the room are made to look like the branches of great trees.” Quara marveled yet again at her sister’s new found knowledge and confidence. It seemed that the task of tour guide suited her enormously.

If you go far enough this way you’ll even hit carts surrounded by tables where the workers could buy their lunches, or even just rest at the noon hour and eat what they’d brought with them. This is the nicer part of the city where the aristocracy and richer merchants and craftsmen, and even people from other countries who had come to see the splendor of the City, would shop and dine. The workers and laborers, live quite a distance that way,” she gestured up, in the direction of the palace, “past the palace and even past where you can see if you stand in the palace gardens. And those workers were even lucky in a way, for like the Caverns this isn’t the only level that the City holds. There is another level, below this one, that’s dark and dreary and not a place even I would like to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary in.” Lina had a far off look in her eye and Quara could tell that she was remembering the things she had seen even further below ground.

“You went down there?” Quara asked the question while knowing the answer, and knowing that nothing that her sister did or said should really shock her any longer. She found she couldn’t help herself though, and she sometimes felt that if she asked her sister enough questions she might gain a tiny bit of insight into the way Lina’s mind viewed the world.

“Of course. What kind of an adventurer would I be if I didn’t? And I figured it couldn’t be any worse than the mines. And father has taken me down into those twice, probably in an attempt to make sure I never ventured down there myself.”

“Was it worse?” The girls were walking side by side as they spoke, and as Quara asked the question Lina gestured to turn off to their left and begin climbing a steep staircase.

“Not worse. Not really, I mean. I guess really it was much the same. But the thing is, in the Caverns, people don’t live in the mines. Here they did. In a world without any light other than oil burning lamps, with walls as black as soot. It’s a good way down from here. I can’t even imagine,” her voice trailed off and both girls were silent as they passed several levels of shops before the upscale businesses gave way to grand villas and spacious manors.

“It’s hard to gauge the size of these from the other side of the lake.” Quara’s eyes registered the shock of seeing homes that could easily be described as enormous. “Are these supposed to be for ten or twenty families? They’re nearly the size of an entire level in the Caverns. I mean, I know there are families in the Dome that have ten or twelve rooms, but these, they must have at least a hundred.”

“At least.” Lina echoed the words. “And yes, they are for single families. There are maps that have the family names and titles. And from what I’ve found it seems that many didn’t even live here most of the time. Nearly all of the wealthy families down here below had manors or estates up above ground as well.”

“I’ve never understood,” Lina continued after they had walked a ways in silence, “why you would live under the ground if the world above wasn’t poisoned with evil. I mean, before the wars and battles destroyed most of what was up above, why would anyone ever burrow down into the ground to live?”

“You know the answer to that.” Quara was breathless again, as they climbed up and up, the houses growing smaller, although she could clearly see that up above they began to expand again as they neared the Palace’s enormous walls.

“I guess I do. I mean, I know we’ve been told that the Caverns existed long before the war and were a center of commerce because of the wealth that lay below the land. And after a while, the Dome was so excavated that people decided that they might as well live there. And then it began to be built up. And when the war started they destroyed most of the original entrances, created new entrances and defenses and basically stayed safe in their little burrow while the world outside died, nearly altogether.”

“Then you know why this city exists. Whatever they brought out of those mines that are below us now must have been a thousand times more valuable than what they’ve brought up out of the Dome.”

“Maybe.” Lina glanced from side to side and paused for a moment to look back out over the empty lake and the many levels of homes below them. “But maybe not. After all, who knows what the Dome might have become over centuries if it still had a market for its goods beyond its own population. Maybe it would have been this great too.” Quara looked skeptical, but she was also relieved that her sister had paused long enough for her to begin to catch her breath and she wasn’t going to waste it arguing over what might have been if the world above hadn’t been almost entirely destroyed.

“We need to keep moving. We’ve got to start back before,” whatever words came next were completely overwhelmed by the booming roar that shook the entire City, from the lake to the Palace to the light source overhead. Quara’s right hand shot out and she reached for the wall next to her while dropping down into a crouching position, her left hand braced against the ground beneath her. Lina bent her knees slightly and stared out over the lake.

“An Earthquake?” Quara asked the question in a small voice, a few moments after the shaking ceased.

“I don’t think so,” Lina was staring out in the direction of the tunnel and dry waterfall. “But I do think that we should keep moving. If I’m right it doesn’t make much difference whether we go forward or go back. In fact I think that the most important thing is that we stay away from the walls. Especially on the lake side of the City.”

“Lina, what are you thinking?” Quara followed her sister’s lead and stood, continuing the brisk walk up the steps while trying to ignore that fact that her legs felt like they’d been turned to jelly. Her heart hammered wildly in her chest, a fact that had nothing to do with the last hour’s exertion.

“Do you remember what Dad was doing today?”

Quara thought back, but apart from her mother’s glares and dramatic sighs, she could remember little from the conversation of the night before. She had been too wrapped up in her thoughts and in the worry that someone would ask her about her supposed trip to work in the Meadow earlier that day. As she cast a long look back over her shoulder one more time, she couldn’t help but think that it felt like far more than a half rotation of the planet had passed. Lina sighed in exasperation at her sister’s slow moving feet and grabbed her arm and began to drag her up the steep marble steps.

A second boom followed the first and Quara skidded to a stop, but Lina’s grip remained firm, both to steady her sister as she faltered and to urge her forward. “We don’t have time to stop and I think it would be best if we got inside and out of sight. Although perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. Depending on who it is.”

“Who?” Now Quara did stop as she stared at her sister in disbelief.”

“Yes, who. Last night while you were fretting about what you were going to tell Mom if she asked about your day, Dad invited all of us to come down to the mines. They thought they’d found something, but I know from what I’ve overheard they’ve been making little progress getting through the rock in the direction they’ve been trying to go in and today they were going to try to blast their way through.” Lina shook her head in disbelief. “I know that our mine is spread out and goes deep down into the earth. And I knew that it was always a possibility that they’d blast their way into the city. I guess in a way I’m surprised that they haven’t found it before now. But I was still really hoping it would go on being undiscovered for a while longer. At least until we were done exploring and had found what we’re looking for.”

Quara looked at her sister sharply, focusing in on her last sentence and letting the rest of her rather shocking assumptions fall away, at least for a few moments.

“What exactly are we hoping to find. Because there’s no way that you were talking about the ending to some story that you found half-finished in an old journal.”

“Quara, please. Hurry. We don’t have time for this right now. I don’t even know what it is that I was hoping for. Not really anyways. But I do know that I could be wrong and that the blasts could be coming from the other side. You heard Xav and Iggy talking. There’s something going on outside of the Caverns too. From the way they’ve been acting I wouldn’t be surprised if the enemy was camped immediately outside the entrances of the Dome. Have you seen how the guards are all acting? Haven’t you felt the tension? It’s so painfully apparent that something dreadful is about to happen and they’re desperate to get as many men, and even boys at this point, ready to fight. Who knows, they may even be laying siege to the Dome, for all we would know, if the behavior of the guard members is any clue at all. So if my first guess is wrong, and it isn’t the miners delving deeper into the earth, than I’d say there’s a fair chance that it’s the enemy trying to find his way into the Caverns and missing his mark.”

“This is insanity.” Pushing a stray strand of golden hair back behind her ear, Quara noticed that her hand was shaking.

“And we can talk more about how insane all of this is later. Once we’re inside.” A third blast echoed through the massive cavern and Quara pushed her legs to move faster, adrenalin giving her an extra boost of energy that she hadn’t known she had left in reserve.

Together they ran up the stairs. Quara did her best to ignore the stitch that quickly formed beneath her ribs. Lina might spend all day climbing and running and jumping, but Quara spent the majority of her free hours curled up in a corner reading, and even the massive staircases that she ran up and down every day in the Caverns were miniscule compared to the length of the staircases inside of the much larger city.

The houses on either side of the staircase had begun to grow large again before Lina raised her hand and signaled for her sister to stop. “There were only three blasts. Usually when our guys set the explosives when I’ve been down there they do them in threes. That fact, combined with the fact that I’m nearly certain that the sound was coming from the side that we came in on, a ways to the right, but in that general direction, leads me to believe that it is the miners that we’re hearing trying to blast their way through.”

Quara nodded, bending forward with her hands on her knees as she tried to catch her breath. “The worst thing that happens, if I’m right, which I think I am, is that we get caught down here and we get the lecture of a lifetime. Well. You do anyways. I’m sure they would be plenty disappointed in you, running off like this and going to this dangerous place. They won’t be nearly as surprised or disappointed in me, because they’ve come to expect it. And let’s face it. After all the trouble that I’ve gotten myself into and out of, they don’t really worry about me all that much anymore. I mean, they do, but they sort of guess that it’ll come out all right.”

Lina touched Quara’s arm lightly and motioned again for her to keep moving. “We can walk though. And talk even. Just not too loudly. And keep listening for the blast that brings them through. Although I guess we can probably be pretty confident that we won’t miss it. At least while we’re outside of the library. It’s not like they’ll be stealthy.” Quara was still too out of breath to respond, and so she merely nodded and forced her wobbly legs to comply with her brain’s request to keep going.

“Either way though, I think you need to get used to the idea that when we get home we’re going to be in some pretty hot water. I know it’s not what you’re used to. And I know how you like to mentally prepare for these things.” Lina gave her sister a sideways glance and waited for her to respond, half hoping that she was so out of breath that she would let the comment slide.

“What do you mean?” Quara half gasped the words as they began to pass by opulent houses that were practically palaces in their own right. “They might blast right on by. I mean, we don’t know how close they are. There’s a good chance that they won’t come anywhere near the city. Or they might blast through into the lower level and miss it altogether, and only find this upper area later.”

“That’s all well and good. But you’re missing the point. Even if they don’t find us here, we’re going to get caught for not being where we were supposed to be, because we’re not going to be home when we’re supposed to be home. We can’t go back into the tunnel until nightfall, which means we’ll be late, which means that Mom is going to start asking questions. And once she starts asking questions it’s all over. She’ll find out we missed class. And while I can get by giving vague answers, or not answering altogether, you are going to crack the moment she looks at you and shakes her head and purses her lips.”

“Honesty isn’t a weakness Lina.” Quara stopped walking and stared at her sister, suddenly standing straighter, her blue green eyes wide and her hands on her hips as she regarded the younger girl. “There’s a reason that people trust me. There’s a reason why Mom and Dad put their confidence in me. And it’s because they know that I tell the truth. Not because I can’t lie. Anyone can lie, really. I mean, how hard is it to choose to save your own hide? To spin some fantastic or absolutely ordinary story. But just because you don’t get caught doesn’t mean that telling half-truths or outright lies is right.”

“Then why did you come with me?” Lina raised her eyebrows and watched her sister with an amused expression. Having known Quara her entire life she recognized that she’d pushed her just a little too far. The older girl was slow to anger, but even she had a limit, especially in the high stress situation that they had found themselves in since the explosions had started. Thankfully she knew that Quara was also incredibly quick to forgive.

“Because you asked me.” The older girl shrugged as she said the words and shook her head again.

“Well, thank you. And I don’t lie just to lie. I try not to lie at all.” Quara raised her eyebrows incredulously. “Dad usually knows where I’m going. Not here of course. This would have been too much even for him. But I do try to tell him about where I’ll be. In case anything goes wrong. He knew that school was never any good for me. And I just didn’t really mention it to the rest of you.” Lina could tell that the explanation hadn’t convinced Quara.

“You know that if Dad knows than Mom knows, don’t you?” Quara had finally caught her breath, and she asked the question slowly as her eyes scanned back and forth across the wall opposite of their climb.

“There’s no way she knows. She would have completely lost it.” Lina shook her head at the idea.

“I’m telling you. If he knows then she knows. Ask her.” Quara said the words in a particular matter of fact tone that she knew irritated Lina whenever she used it.

“I’m not asking her. Are you insane?” They walked on in silence while Lina thought over what Quara had said.

“But why are we inevitably going to be in trouble now? What changed since we started out, when you were so sure that we could come down here and you could show me the city and get me home in one piece.” Quara kept her eyes on the steps, taking them one at a time and making a point not to look up to see how much further they had to walk to reach the palace.

“When we started out this morning I planned on having us eat lunch here and visit the library. After that we were going to head back up the tunnel. It’s not a fun climb at all. But there are places along the way where we can rest. We would have made it.”

“I don’t see why we still can’t.” Quara scuffed her boot against the stair she was standing on and Lina sensed that she was ready to turn around right at that moment if it meant getting home before they were missed.

“Well now we won’t be able to go into the tunnel until the miners are finished for the night. If we go in now, or in a few hours, we take the very real risk of getting blown to bits if that tunnel happens to be in the way of wherever it is they’re trying to blast through to. We’re going to have to wait until the final work bell rings and they pack up and go home for the day.”

Quara stared at her silently, realizing that she was obviously right. As she turned the problem over in her head she came to the conclusion that there really wasn’t any safe, sure fire way out of their predicament other than the one Lina had just described.

“What timing we have,” she half sighed the words, linking her arm through her sister’s as they began to walk again. “I mean, in a thousand years they haven’t found this place. And the one day that you decide to convince me to come down here with you is the day that they decide they’re going to blast down to the heart of the earth, chasing after those precious metals, and they happen upon this place on their way there. We must have the worst luck in the entire universe.”

“Or you could say that the glass is half full,” Lina said the words, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “You are going to get to spend an entire day exploring the library of this city. It is spectacular. It’s very likely going to be the most exciting day of your life so far. It might be the most exciting day of your life, ever, since I’m pretty sure that you’re going to be grounded for years after this.”

“I’m going to be grounded? Shouldn’t you say ‘we’re going to be grounded’ if you’re mapping out punishments?” Quara frowned and together they started to walk again, slowly knowing that they were near their destination.

“Not really. I mean, I’m sure they’ll say that I’m grounded. But what happens when we’re both trapped in our little home with mom for more than a handful of days. She’ll love having you there, helping her cook and bake. But me? She’ll be tired of me bubbling around being noisy and accidentally breaking things by the end of the first day. Before the week is out she’ll be coming up with reasons to send me out. To help her she’ll say. But we’ll both see it for what it is. By the second week the pretense will drop. She’ll be tired of coming up with fake errands to send me on. There’s not that many things to be fetched and she doesn’t want to make more work for herself than she already has on her plate.”

“You’ve really given this a lot of thought.” Quara’s mouth twisted up into a half smile as she watched her sister reason her way through the coming week.

“You might think so, but I’ve just been in trouble far more often than you have and I know how it works. And I know you. And Mom. I am sorry though. That I’ve gotten you in to trouble. I was hoping that it could be avoided, but it seems that that isn’t going to be the case this time around.” Lina ran a hand through the short layers of her dark tresses.

“This time around?” Quara raised her eyebrows but Lina missed the skeptical expression splashed across her older sister’s features, because her eyes were fixed firmly ahead and slightly above their path.

“Yes. This time. I’m quite certain that this is only the first of our adventures together. For whatever else I’ve said, about you being grounded for the rest of your life, I’m quite certain you’ll find a way to come with me the next time I ask you to.”

“I will?” The older girl’s tone was mocking, as if she couldn’t imagine anything further from reality.

“You will. And because I can tell that you’re dying to ask me why, I’ll be more than happy to explain. The first reason you’ll come with me the next time I ask you is because I’m your sister and you just can’t get enough of my effervescent personality.”

Quara grabbed her sister’s arm lightly as though she were off balance. “Sorry Sis. My eyes just rolled so hard that I almost fell back down these stairs.”

“But wait, there’s more.” Lina’s voice bubbled with laughter.

“Of course there is.” Quara tried to make her own voice sound flat and irritated, but her sister’s happiness was contagious and she couldn’t quite manage it.

“The second reason you’ll come with me the next time I ask you is because I’ve brought you to what is very likely the greatest library in the entire world. And we’re the first ones to lay eyes on it for a very, very long time. See.” Lina had stopped walking and Quara, standing beside her, followed her gaze.

They had reached the outer wall of the palace. It stretched before them, several times higher than the lake wall. It was polished so that the unblemished white marble shone brightly in the mid-morning light. Quara blinked, her eyes watering as she peered up at the small piece of the palace she could see from such a close vantage point. Lina made a sweeping gesture with her hand, directing her sister’s attention to something that she hadn’t yet noticed. Before them, slightly off to one side, there was set into the wall an intricately carved gate, standing open, inviting them in.

Lina grabbed Quara’s hand and pulled her forward into the darkness.

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.