The Silent City: Part Four
Luke was holding Etana’s arm tightly, as if he thought she might fall over. For a moment she did wobble a little on her feet, left dizzy by the last blink of light as the glass figure vanished once more, but she remained standing.
“Are you alright?” Luke demanded, brow furrowed in concern.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, I just...” saw a phantom Zafara made of glass vanish right before my eyes? “I felt a little dizzy,” she finished lamely.
“Come on, let’s get some fresh air.” He nudged her onward gently, and they began down the corridor once more, Luke still clutching her arm as if he expected a relapse at any moment.
Etana was pleased to be out of the palace; even the hauntingly empty sandcastle streets were a relief. They walked for a while in silence, then Luke raised a paw to point toward the sea.
“Have you ever been to a beach?”
“I’ve waded in rivers, and I’ve seen the sea from the cliff edge,” Etana replied, remembering her trip out with Pedin and Brogan, shortly after Alice – more commonly known as Queen Alastrine – had accepted the throne and made it easier for pets to come and go through the city gate, into the wide, open world outside.
“Ah, but the beach is different,” he said knowingly, wheeling her around and marching her back down the street.
The sand shifted under Etana’s feet and she decided she’d probably have fallen over if it weren’t for Luke’s firm grip on her arm. She shuffled through the sand, eyes narrowed in concentration. Luke laughed.
They shuffled along for a while, talking aimlessly, sometimes turning the discussion to Rosesand and Queen Melesse. Suddenly Luke became solid and unmoveable at her side, his arm clamping mercilessly around Etana’s. She wobbled, turned, and followed his gaze to a clump of rocks set against the unevenly rising, although still only Etana’s height, beginning of the cliff. Etana looked at the rock impassively for a moment, then scrunched up her face in the sudden realisation that the lump was moving slightly – and slowly her eyes adjusted to the sight and revealed a clan of scrawny, bedraggled pets, hanging on to each other, giving the appearance of one big rock.
Luke moved forward at a much faster pace, Etana struggling to keep up as she staggered and tottered across the uncertain, changeable sand. The pets cowered away as they neared, the tallest wriggling to the front of the pack and holding out her arms boldly to protect her fellows. Luke held up his paws when he saw this, to show he meant no harm, and Etana lurched sideways in surprise and landed heavily in the sand. Etana’s clumsiness seemed more reassuring to the huddled pets than Luke’s gesture of harmlessness, and they seemed to relax. One particularly small Blumaroo even giggled as Etana picked herself up and dusted the rosy sand from her impractical, although incredibly fashionable (by Rosesand standards), spangled gown.
The pets spread out a little now. There were about fifteen of them in total, none of them fully grown, all of them scruffy and unhealthily thin. One yellow Kougra, who seemed older than most of her friends, had a baby Kougra strapped across her front, who was grizzling and waving its paws around, and a knee-high yellow Kougra attached to her leg, as though he were afraid of getting lost. She glared at Etana and Luke unkindly, placing a protective paw on each of her siblings as if the newcomers might try to tear them apart.
The tall blue Acara that had stood in front of her comrades stepped forward eagerly, now, as if expecting something from the visitors. Aware of movement, Etana turned to discover Luke burrowing into the small bag that hung at his hip.
“It’s not much, I’m afraid,” he said, sounding genuinely remorseful as he withdrew half a loaf of bread that had survived their journey from Thornstone, “but-” before Luke could finish the blue Acara had wordlessly snatched the food from him. She waved a paw and forward stepped the smallest and tiniest of the pack, to whom the Acara passed the bread.
“Thank you,” the Acara now said, and her voice had a strange cobwebby creak to it, as though she hadn’t spoken in a long time.
The yellow Kougra hobbled forward with difficultly, dragging the leg to which her brother clung, and signed something with her paws. The blue Acara nodded. The Acara raised her own paws and then, with a small shake of her head, let them fall back to her side. Instead she cleared her throat.
“You are from Thornstone?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Etana, with a smile.
“Where the Rebels are?” piped up a small voice filled with awe. The little Blumaroo that had laughed earlier now gazed with amazement at Etana and Luke, as though seeing someone from a fairytale step into reality.
“You could say that,” Luke replied pleasantly, a hint of gentle laughter in his tone, “although we don’t have to call them Rebels any more. That age is over.”
Now the whole group seemed overcome with amazement.
“Are you Rebels?” asked the small yellow Kougra that clung to his sister’s leg.
Luke glanced sideways at Etana, a look of interest on his face. Etana realised quite suddenly that this was something she hadn’t really discussed with anyone, not even Pedin, since Alice’s reign began.
“I suppose I was,” Etana answered thoughtfully, remembering her initiation not long before the Rebels were absorbed back into society.
“So was I,” Luke agreed, “but it really is over now. Everyone lives together happily; there’s nothing to rebel against.”
“Are you rebels?” Etana asked carefully, the words of the Faerie Bori ricocheting through her mind: ‘unruly hooligans in the forest’, she’d said.
“No,” the taller yellow Kougra retorted, scowling, “we’re hiding, not fighting.”
Some of the younger pets looked disheartened by this proclamation, but the blue Acara nodded.
“It will always be the age of hiding in Rosesand. We have to keep moving. Queen Melesse sees things she shouldn’t see.”
“The mirror breaks us all,” agreed the yellow Kougra, “eventually.”
“She knows our limits.”
“She knows where to look, even when we’ve been careful.”
“Everywhere seems empty but nowhere is safe.”
“The mirror tells her things that mirrors should keep to themselves.”
“Do you have any more food?”
Etana and Luke glanced at each other, trying to digest all the information they’d just been given.
“Why’s the city empty?” Luke asked at length.
“The city? Everywhere is empty.” The Kougra continued to glare, as though Etana and Luke should know this already. “They’ve all gone to the land of the giants. They’ll be back soon, but they won’t ever come back... and you’ll never understand. You’re strangers here! You’ll never understand.”
“What won’t we understand?” Luke asked gently.
“I told you,” the Kougra said heatedly, paws rolled into fists, “I told you already!”
Etana backed away defensively, and Luke, apologising and promising to bring more food to the beach soon, followed. They sprinted all the way back to the palace.
* * *
They’ll be back soon, but they won’t ever come back... the land of the giants... empty... you’ll never understand.
The words flitted back and forth in Etana’s mind, seeming more and more nonsensical the longer she thought about them. Deena, with a small pack of food and a thin bundle of letters, had left several hours earlier, a willing messenger. Luke had disappeared after dinner, back to the beach with a whole hamper full of food. He’d been forced to take Ashie with him and disguise the outing as a picnic. Etana had insisted on staying behind, although she’d been forced to promise she wouldn’t leave her room under any circumstance. Etana had already broken that promise, and she felt strangely guiltless. She couldn’t sit around. She needed to walk; to think; to try to make sense of those senseless words.
The mirror breaks us all eventually.
Etana stopped, shaking her head. If she were more inclined to talk to herself, she’d have verbalised her exasperation, but instead she just sighed and leaned back against the wall, one paw to her forehead as if she might be able to feel the shape of her growing headache there.
Then she heard voices. She stiffened, eyes pinging open, and was horrified to find herself standing opposite Melesse’s private chamber. Its door was closed, but words seemed to float from the room, loud in the persistent silence of Rosesand.
“I told you, that’s not your job,” came Melesse’s voice, strangely even and bare of her usual over dramatic tone. “Your job is to help me bring them back here. You’re not to get involved in anything else. I need you all alert and healthy; no injuries. They’re bound to put up a fight.”
Etana tiptoed across the hall and stood against the cool wood of the door, guiltily enchanted by the change in Melesse.
“Of course, Your Majesty,” someone agreed.
“NO!” bellowed the queen, making Etana flinch. “You do your job and nothing else. If you mistrust my judgement then leave NOW, I will not have disloyalty on my team. This is dangerous and important. We have one chance. If any of you fools ruin it you’d better vanish very, very quickly because the consequences will be calamitous. Let’s just say the dungeon would be the last on a long, long, long list of punishments.”
A glimmering caught Etana’s eye, and she turned sharply to see the glass Zafara once more, waving his paws in a terrified way, as if trying to push Etana away; he seemed to be mouthing something, but by now Etana was too caught up in the conversation behind the door to be distracted. She frowned and turned away.
“Good,” Melesse snarled, “the next full moon is in two nights. Meetingplace isn’t far from here, so I think we can get away with leaving in the early hours of the day after tomorrow. Don’t let me down.”
She’d heard enough. Etana spun hurriedly around, suddenly very conscious that she was all alone in the palace. She started to run in the direction of the stairs; she had to find Luke and Ashie. But as she began to run her left foot got tangled in the hem of the silly spangled skirt. She struggled for a moment, hopping and leaping in a desperate attempt to keep upright, but then she toppled to the ground, slamming against the hard white floor with a sickening thlump. Terror and pain paralyzed her; she heard the door behind her swing open, and a dozen voices stop all at once. Someone was dragging her to her feet...
Etana kicked out, her skirts flying around her in their useless, pointless way. The knight held one of her arms tightly, but the other she tore free, swinging herself around to face the doorway. Melesse was standing passively, her arms folded, between two of her knights. A slim spotted Lenny with small round glasses hovered at her shoulder, looking pleased.
“Oh dear, Etana,” she said with mock sadness, “How very rude of me. I never gave you a tour of the dungeons.”
To be continued...