“Screw the revolution,” said Ben.
“Should have said that to their faces,” said Camry.
“They ran away before I could.”
I stood in the basement, several hours after Sally and Jerome had left. They had been too fast for the rest of us to stop them. It was almost daytime but the curfew was still in place, so there would be no crowd to mingle with, but there would be a lot of light to help the patrolling guards see us.
“Should we try to follow them?” I asked Elenor. Both the finders were with us, so tracking them would be a simple matter. Whether we could catch up to them, was a different question.
She shook her head. “Let them go, they didn’t make this choice lightly.”
That was true. I felt close to Jerome and Sally, they were some of my closest friends in this world, and I was sure the feeling was mutual. We’d gone through a lot together, so their decision to leave us behind while they went to Bendeck alone must have been a tough one.
Besides, they’d left behind Ben.
I glanced at the red-haired boy. He was sulking in the corner, without his usual thoughtful demeanor. He’d been unwilling to leave Sett with us at first, but now he was objecting to being left behind. He wasn’t just friends with Jerome, he was Jerome’s apprentice, entrusted to him by Ben’s previous master and foster father, Postick. Even if Elenor and I couldn’t be considered part of their team, they should have at least taken Ben with them.
Then again, that just proved how serious the situation was. From what I could make out of their cryptic conversation, Sally and Jerome were going to throw themselves into the middle of the conflict. I also finally knew why Jerome knew so much about Project Poppy: he was a former member. Or at least, that’s what their conversation implied.
They weren’t going to be working together, although they were probably on the same side. I didn’t know what Sally was going to do, but it seemed like Jerome was going to work with the Orange Hats – the guilds’ militia – who Camry had said had been rounded up by Inline.
I felt the cold mask on my face. Going to Bendeck with this on would be suicidal. The government would pounce on me, and if they saw I didn’t have any signs, they might think I was Epilian or a rebel Header trying to run away.
But I had to go. I was too close to give up.
“How far is the capital?” I asked no one in particular.
“Around five days by road, a little less if you go off the road,” answered Elenor.
“Why is it faster to go off-road?” I asked.
“It’s faster if you cut through the mountains. The roads circle around them, near the river by the foothills. It’s shorter but building a road there is tough, and it’ll be hard trekking through it, too.”
“It’ll be harder to track us, though. Alright, let’s go through the mountains.” I faced the door.
“Don’t go,” said Ben.
“Sally and Jerome were right, it’s too dangerous. The situation should be resolved in a few days. This isn’t the first time the Project has tried to stir up trouble. Things always settle down quickly,” said Ben.
“I can’t afford to wait,” I said as I stood up.
“Why not? The guy you’re chasing wouldn’t be stupid enough to go to the capital in the middle of this mess,” said Ben.
But I wasn’t looking for him in the capital, I was chasing a lead to a Wonder. Demetrius could afford to wait, but I couldn’t. Besides, I felt like Demetrius wasn’t going to let a civil war interfere in his plans.
According to Static, Demetrius was being guided by Bit. He already had a head start and the gap between us was only widening.
The thought made me frown. I hadn’t given much thought to what Demetrius was doing while I chased him. He couldn’t know about Henry, the guy Moxy told me to meet in Bendeck, but Demetrius could have found another lead to the Wonders.
In fact, the whole reason I was searching for the other Wonders was so they could lead me back to the House of Wisdom, so Demetrius was probably using the House to track the other Wonders. He might even be after the same Wonder I was!
I looked around. Sally and Jerome had left most of the supplies and gear here, wanting to travel light and to help the kids deal with the next few days. All the stores and markets were closed, so I couldn’t take the kids’ food.
I’d just have to make do with whatever I found outside.
“Thanks for the hospitality, Camry,” I said. “Is it alright if I go out the way I came in?”
Camry nodded. “I’d rather you stayed but I won’t stop you from leaving. Thanks for coming, Val. Be careful.”
“Stay safe,” said Idel.
Olive glanced at me but didn’t say anything. Betsy gave me a quick hug and said, “Could you tell uncle Jerome and aunt Sally to come visit more often?”
“How will we avoid the guards?” asked Elenor.
I smiled. I was glad she was coming along. “Make sure they don’t see us, and if they do, take them out.”
“Sounds foolproof,” said Ben, dryly.
“Got any better ideas?” I said.
“Yes. You ever hear stories where people throw pebbles to distract giant monsters, then rush through?”
“Let’s do that.”
“You’re going to throw pebbles?” asked Camry.
“Don’t doubt my pebble throwing abilities.”
“How’s that going to help us leave the city?” I asked.
“You’ll see, come on.”
We went upstairs. Only Camry came with us, while Idel made sure Betsy and Olive didn’t follow. Elenor tapped on the back door and signaled that the coast was clear. I peeked out.
The dusty roads were empty but the sun was shining brightly. The air was dense with silence, suffocating silence. There were no guards on the walls, but one would probably appear soon.
Ben stepped out, picked up a pebble, and juggled it with one hand.
“You should stay inside, Camry,” he said as he clenched the pebble in his fist and pulled his hand behind his shoulder.
Camry peeked out like I had.
Ben chucked the pebble then waved hurriedly for us to run. I grabbed Elenor’s hand and followed him, hugging the wall and crouching to stay as hidden as I could. There was a loud crash in the distance, one that couldn’t have come from a tiny pebble.
I heard footsteps above us as guards raced towards the sound.
“What did you do?” I asked in a hushed voice as we continued to run.
“The outer walls aren’t very well kept. All you have to do is apply the right amount of force in the right places, and whole chunks of it will collapse,” he said.
I looked over my shoulder. There was a sizeable hole in the wall near the edge of my vision. I saw tiny figures running towards the hole, leaning out over the edge to judge how much damage had been done. They were probably scouring the area for the culprit. They’d end up blaming the Project, just another senseless act of terror by Project Poppy.
“It’s here,” said Elenor.
We stopped. Ben bent down and dug into the earth. The soil gave way and the tunnel appeared. I was the last one to step inside. I cast a glance at the city behind me.
The air was still quiet. I couldn’t see the guards from here, but they were probably raising a ruckus near the hole. Camry and the other kids were underground like most of the other Cheeks in the city. Was it different in the Headers district? Most Collars couldn’t afford basements, so was their district full of life or were the people more subdued because of what was happening in the country?
I crouched down and crawled through the hole.
I shook the dirt off my clothes as I came out the other side. The skull was still standing on the pillar of earth Jerome had left for it when we first came through.
“Won’t they see us running across this open field?” asked Elenor as she tapped her baton on the ground.
“What else can we do?” asked Ben.
“The Collars district is outside the city. Can’t we walk onto the road from there?” I asked.
“They’ll be guarding the Collars district and the road too,” said Elenor.
“Then should we wait for nightfall?” I asked, biting my lower lip. We should have stayed with Camry for the day.
“Well, there is one thing we could do,” said Elenor, slowly.
“What?” I asked.
“The river’s that way, right Ben?” she said.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Do you know how to swim?”
I grew up in Fenbay. They taught us how to swim almost as soon as we learned how to walk.
“Yes,” I said.
“I’m not very good at it,” said Ben. “But I won’t drown.”
“That’ll have to do,” said Elenor as she shuffled along the perimeter of the wall.
The river appeared a few minutes later. I could barely make out the Collar’s district in the distance. The river itself was murky, probably full of waste and human refuse. Clumps of dirt appeared sometimes, pulled away by the powerful current.
“There’re people above,” whispered Elenor while she tapped her finger on the wall.
The guards didn’t move. They were probably told to keep a watch on the river. Although we could hide ourselves underwater, they would notice us splashing into the water. We needed a distraction.
“Got any more pebble tricks, Ben?” I asked.
“None that could help us in this situation,” he said.
I frowned. My books wouldn’t be much help either.
I glanced at Elenor. “Any ideas?”
“There is something I could try, but if it fails, we’ll be found out for sure,” she said.
It was the best choice we had. “Go for it.”
Elenor stopped tapping the wall. She grabbed the top of her baton and brought it to her lips. Her fingers grabbed it like a flute and she took a deep breath, then blew.
A familiar tune began to play. It was an old song, one I’d heard on Earth. Back when my grandpa was still alive, he used to play it on one of his ancient machines, something called a CD Player. I remembered sitting next to him on a rainy afternoon, listening to his squeaking rocking chair while lamenting my inability to play with the neighborhood kids because of the weather. He’d tried to talk to me but I’d ignored him. In the end, he pushed a button and listen to the song.
I was never particularly close to my grandpa, nor to any of my family, for that matter. Yet, hearing this song made a layer of sadness drape over my shoulders. I couldn’t shrug it off.
The song promised that the world was a beautiful place, full of trees of green and clouds of white, red roses too under skies of blue. It was a whimsical song, naïve and hopeful. I couldn’t take it seriously, not when it talked about rainbows and laughing children. It was corny. It was cringeworthy. And it was old as all hell.
Worst of all, it was a lie. A sweet, sweet lie, but a lie nonetheless. The world wasn’t wonderful. It was full of sadness, pain, and loneliness.
My shoulder shook and I blinked.
“Jump,” hissed Elenor.
I heard a splash. I didn’t move.
Ben cursed and grabbed me by the arm. I rushed into the cold water, smooth Jazz still playing in my head. There were no cries of alarm from above. Ben pulled me forward underwater but I slipped from his grip. I swam forward, squinting my eyes in the murky depths. I could barely make out Ben’s figure in front of me, but I could see that he was struggling.
This time, I grabbed his arm and pulled him forward. He began struggling, so I helped him surface. Peeking from the surface of the river, I filled my lungs and glanced back at Bass.
We’d surfaced in the shade of a tree, so I wasn’t worried about the guards spotting us. The walls were far away, and I could only barely see the Collar’s district in the distance.
Elenor surfaced beside us. Muddy water dripped down her glasses, and her brown hair stuck to her head.
“How far does this river go?” I asked, between breaths.
“To the ocean,” replied Elenor.
“Does it go to Bendeck?”
“Wouldn’t it be faster to follow this?”
“No, it curves around the mountain and runs along the road. We’d be found at some point.”
“So we have to go through the mountains after all?”
I thought for a moment then nodded. I took a deep breath and prepared to go underwater again. We should put some distance between us and the city.
“Wait!” cried Ben, who was still gulping for air.
“Oh, my bad,” I said.
We waited for Ben to catch his breath before diving back in. I kept close to the surface and surfaced once I thought we were far enough away.
I dragged my soaking wet body out of the river and caught my breath. It was only then that I noticed I was wearing my mask. I’d gotten so used to wearing it, I hadn’t questioned the lack of water splashing onto my face.
Ben lay sprawled on the ground, breathing furiously. Elenor pulled herself out of the river and tapped her baton on the ground. I shook my clothes, then took off my robe. Elenor did the same. We went off to the side behind a tree and began to dry off as best we could.
“Where’d you learn that song?” I asked, as I scrunched up my robe.
“It’s one of the books I read. The second one, to be precise,” Elenor said, wringing the water from her hair.
Had she read the sheet music or something? “Was that burnt magic?”
She shook her head, sending drops of water my way. “No, it’s unburnt magic. The baton lets me play it, but all my magic does is tell me what notes to play.”
An interesting way to work around unburnt magic’s inability to affect the outside world. The music definitely effected my state of mind, and it lulled the guards into not noticing us.
“Why were you asking?”
I cursed. I couldn’t tell her I’d heard it at my grandfather’s house on a different planet. “No reason, it sounded like something I’d heard before.”
“That’s strange, it was a book Moxy gave me personally. She said nobody in the world had ever read a book like it.”
“It wasn’t exactly like the song I’d heard before.”
“Epil must be a wonderful place.” Elenor laid most of her clothes on a rock under the sun.
“Yeah,” I said, thinking about my grandpa and his old CD player. “It sure is.”
We stood in silence, waiting for our clothes to dry. My skin was still wet and the chilly breeze made me shiver.
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