"We should get Noni. She'll throw a monumental mardy if you try to leave her out."
Demetrius shook his head vehemently. "It's better that she stays here. I'll leave a message with one of the butlers, he'll keep her here and safe."
"You don't know that it isn't safe where we're going," I pointed out.
Chrysander increased his pace to stand beside me. "Look, no matter the blasted hurry, you can take five minutes to go and talk to your fiancee about what you plan to do, make her bloody stay here, and then meet us back here." He put a hand on my shoulder. "I've got to find a handkerchief, and unless those red and brown marks are decoration on our Athena's shirt, she needs some medical assistance before she's going anywhere."
"She isn't going anywhere," Demetrius said firmly. "And neither are you. If you can't help me find my father, then you're just a useless lump."
Delayed retribution caught him in the jaw. Chrysander took a step back, massaging his hand. "Go and talk to Noni. We're going to be here when you get back, and I intend to have a plan."
Demetrius held his fists stubbornly at his sides, neither hand even reaching for his face. "I don't need your help."
"You do, you're just too pigheaded to accept it like a man. I'm a bleedin' bounty hunter, you moron. Take advantage of your friends once in a while." Then, acting as coarsely as he was speaking, Chrysander actually pushed Demetrius along with a kick.
Watching in open awe, Soterios did not move at all. He could have been a statue. I started to motion him over, not sure what I would do, but recognising at least, that we were in the same boat.
Chrysander stopped me with an absurdly gentle hand on my arm. "Sorry I'm not a healer like that great idiot. But our friend here grew up in a healing house, yeah?"
Soterios and I both nodded. There was something... arresting about Chrysander just then. Soterios bobbed forward and held out his hands as if waiting to be handed a book. It took me a moment to realise that I was supposed to pull my shirt up and let him see my wounds.
They weren't bleeding anymore, but I could see where the scabs had torn and new cuts had marred the shape of the toothmarks. It was no longer perfectly clear that a mimet had bitten me. I could have been attacked by a threshing machine, the way things looked now.
Soterios told Chrysander what he needed, and Chrysander took us to a sort of infirmary. It was small and, judging from Soterios's dubious expression, not very well equipped, but we were in and out of there rather quickly. I knew that my movement was stiff, but I blamed it on the bandages and a lingering astonishment.
"Are you doing okay now?" Chrysander asked me as we hurried back to the main room, just in case Demetrius tried to take off by himself.
"I'm doing well enough, all things considered. Soterios knows what he's about, don't you, Soterios?"
"I ought to."
We shouldn't have worried about Demetrius taking off, though I still experienced a moment of panic when we arrived back at the place Chrysander had sent him off from, and couldn't see anyone. It didn't help that there appeared to be more open doors than when we had left it. But then he came stalking in from the same direction he had left, Noni ranting after him.
"Don't you think we should at least--"
"No! I don't want to hear it. You're staying here. It was bad enough when I had to drag you through the tunnels before." Her arm was hooked with his, but nothing like any way I had ever seen her holding onto him before. It was more pleading, and that seemed to go against the Noni I knew.
She was scared. For him, or of something, I wasn't sure. As a matter of fact, I wasn't sure of anything. Chrysander seemed to be working on some kind of basic function as a bounty hunter--something or someone is lost and someone else wants that thing or person found--while Soterios was obviously content to take Demetrius's worry as a hint that we should believe led to an actuality.
All I could think was that it was an awful lot to just stumble upon after what we had found. The Grandmaster couldn't have been taken anywhere. But what did I know?
Noni dug her heels into the rug, but that didn't do anything at all. It was only a rug over a slick hardwood floor, after all, and Demetrius pulled her along until a butler actually had to appear out of whatever space butler's kept themselves in to fix it. I nearly moved over to help, but my own awkwardness stopped me.
Then she stamped her foot, not careful at all of the butler's industrious hands. She missed them, but I still winced. "Pigheaded, stubborn... rrgh! I don't know what to do with you sometimes."
"That's why I told you not to do anything. Just stay here."
"I can't do that, you could be walking into a trap."
"That's a bit excessive, isn't it?" Chrysander waltzed between them, tweaked Noni's nose, and then darted back to me. Acting the playful child again, but with an edge to it. He was worried about things now. Maybe Demetrius's mood was catching, or he'd had time to think and something, some clue, fit into a greater idea that he could see and I had missed. "We're only going after a missing parent, Noni. And we're going into the squeezing, cloying dark."
The fear on her face was evident. I thought of how she had reacted to the first trip we'd had to take through the tunnels, feeling foolish and awful. That was the kind of thing I should have remembered.
But she just set her jaw and balled her hands into fists. "I know that. Demetrius said you're going into the tunnels to track down Grandmaster Trevino. He barely told me how he could think his father had gone missing in such a short time."
"It's been longer now," Demetrius said, and there was such a mournful note of desperation in his voice that I started to ache. "We're losing time."
"That might not be a problem," Soterios tried reminding him, but there was no swaying him.
Noni reached for him again, but he shook her off and started for the tunnels, dragging us all behind him with the power of nosy, vaguely helpful friendship. "At least tell Dr Cordet," she said, taking three steps to Demetrius's one, "she can be obnoxious and pushy, but she knows the tunnels. And she knows how to conjure light globes."
"We can't do that," I said, feeling even guiltier. "Dr Cordet left soon after we arrived here. She said something about compiling data and a hot bath."
"I could do with one of those, even with the data part," Chrysander mused, keeping pace with Demetrius. "Someday I just might get one. For now though, we'll just trudge on ahead after Master Goat-face here and take torches. We're tracking a dad, they leave distinct trails."
In spite of myself, I sped up in order to punch him in the arm. There was such a thing as trying too hard to lighten any atmosphere. "They don't really."
"This one will. He carries a walking stick when he goes on long journeys, and any journey through the tunnels is a long one."
Demetrius pushed open the doors and hopped down the steps toward the tunnel two at a time. He snatched up a torch as he went. "He's right. It's long, winding, dark, and we might find anyone down there."
"Lots of people use the tunnels. They connect more than the mansion and Cordet's laboratory."
I fell back to stand with Noni while Soterios and Chrysander fetched a torch for each of the rest of us. Chrysander kept Demetrius in the anteroom, waiting, with a firm hand on his shoulder and a soft word that I didn't hear. "Noni, if you're scared..."
"Future wives of stupid soldiers don't get scared."
She looked up at me, blue eyes shining in the flickering light as the torches were passed around. Our expedition would only leave one torch to light the anteroom when we departed. "He's a Trevino. They always go off to war. One day, Demetrius will be a general, or something high up. It's a family tradition."
A torch each was handed to us, and then she moved ahead, to stand by Demetrius. He pretended not to notice her, but I noticed his shoulders tense as she approached. For some reason, I couldn't help thinking that it was one of the saddest things I had ever seen. But I couldn't imagine what it was that made it compare to anything else.
Soterios tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned to him, I saw my swordbelt in his hand. "I hope you don't need these, but it might make you feel better to go about armed."
"It might..." I wasn't so sure about that, but my head hadn't been the best place for thinking clearly. Things were still happening too quickly for me to keep up with them. Although I did have to admit that the unfamiliar weight of the sword belt hanging from my hip and shoulder was oddly comforting, I didn't want to let myself dwell on the fact that the most instruction I had ever received in using a bladed weapon of any kind was to be told which end I held and which end was meant to go into my aggressor. Soterios might as well have given me a baseball bat.
An arm looped with mine and suddenly I was whisked off toward the front lines, so to speak. Demetrius and Noni had already entered the tunnels, but even dragging me along, Chrysander managed to get ahead. He held up his torch like a beacon to the helpless. "Out of the way, Dem. I know it's your dad, but you were taught to track creatures in the outdoors. My training focused on people, and that's the kind of game we're after."
To my utter astonishment, Demetrius gritted his teeth, his face odd and alien in the torchlight, and stepped aside. He was holding Noni's hand. "Fine. Just..."
We travelled in silence for a time. It was nothing at all like the first time we had gone through the tunnels. Dr Cordet had used so little light then that I found myself wondering why. Armed with our own light each, the tunnel was almost brightly lit. Especially after the failed expedition to find the Hollow Man.
I tried to remove my arm from Chrysander's hold, but he didn't make any move to release me. "Stay close," he said quietly.
"Why? There's nothing down here. You don't need to protect me."
"Don't be too sure about that. Grandmaster Trevino is a tough old nut, and there are some signs of things I'd rather not say within his son's hearing."
Pretending not to have heard that, but shivering anyway, I waved my torch a bit. There wasn't a lot of room to manoeuvre. Enough that I could see why Dr Cordet had had us hold hands and travel in a line before, but not so little that it seemed absolutely necessary. "Why didn't we just walk like this the last time?" I asked, wishing that we could go back to that.
"I'm not sure," Soterios said. At some point, I didn't remember when, he had moved up to the middle, clustering between us all somehow. It was another odd comparison to the last time. I wasn't getting any fonder of those. "Asclepia told me a few things on the way, but she used a lot of big words. I think it had something to do with secrecy and the dunderwyrms."
"Secrecy?" Demetrius walked even closer, and the heat from our bodies and the torches threatened to make me sick. "What needed to be secret?"
"The location of her precious laboratory, most likely. You dunderhead. Now back off and stop crowding me or I'll bop you one in the gob again," Chrysander snapped. "Simply put, she had us going in a line because she didn't want any of this foolishness going on. You all need to move back. We've all got lights, so we can afford to spread out a bit."
"None of that, we've each got one already. Soterios, take the rear, we might hit corners and I don't want Noni to worry about phantom things she's invented behind her."
"Thank you so very much, Chrysander bloody Vedas!"
"You're welcome. Now everyone shut up for two blasted seconds."
Even though I had already stopped talking, crushed beneath the collective outburst, I clamped my mouth shut as well. It was probably easiest for me. Not only did I have almost as little stake in this venture as Soterios, but I was up front, watching everything Chrysander did. Front row seat, and all that.
At last, he let go of me to hold up a hand to halt everyone else, and knelt down to touch the ground. I crouched next to him. Whispering, I asked what it was he'd found.
"Blood," he said, so low that only I could hear him. "I think that I need to stop calling Dem paranoid."
"When did you call him paranoid?"
"I don't know, I've lost count of all the times I've done it in my head. How many times out loud?"
I gave him a funny look, but he just grinned at me. It was quite obviously forced. "Are you ever going to be serious?"
"This seems as good a time as any, doesn't it?"
"I would say so."
He took my arm in his hand and looked straight into my eyes so that I nearly flinched. There was too much going on in that tunnel, even with the space he'd forced everyone to make. "Tell you what," he said, nearly absent of playful malice, "if you stick close and help me follow this through to the end, I'll tell you a secret."
I blinked at him. "What if I don't want to know?" I asked, thinking about all of the many, many things I did not want to know about the young men who bumbled around in my life. Mostly him and Demetrius, but even Soterios. There were just some things that were better left to fly about in their own heads and leave me well alone.
"Then you can slap me and tell me you never wanted to know."
"That doesn't sound like a very good arrangement."
But he had already stood up and turned to address the rest of our company. "Bad news, Dem. I think you're right."
Demetrius pushed forward, although I noted with some approval that he did not let go of Noni's hand. Her face glowed pale as our lights added to one another again. "What do you mean? Say it exactly."
"You pedantic bugger. I think someone did take your father and I don't think he went willingly at all. Not the persuasive type, it would seem."
Swearing, Demetrius tried to rush on ahead, but between Noni and me, he didn't even get far enough to warrant another punch from Chrysander. Perhaps that was women's intuition at work. Swinging at one another inside the freezing confines of the tunnels was something they would certainly do, and it wouldn't help anything at all.
He sagged, then shook us both off. On his own, he took Noni's hand, but it looked like an automatic action. He wasn't thinking about it. "How do you know?"
"That isn't important. It's just part of the trail. The important thing is that this doesn't look like the kind of person who thought to cover their tracks. Not here. There's no sign in the house, but houses are easy. You always think to cover what you've done in a house, if you don't want someone knowing." Chrysander took a few steps backwards, eyes on all of us, as he moved deeper into the tunnel. He waved the torch around, the flame making oscillating trails as he went further into the dark. "But in a place like this... Whoever it was must have been travelling with a globe of light. They'd have to have their hands free to..."
My own face softened as I realised that he was giving Demetrius a look of, not grudging pity, but honest sympathy. It was jarring, but not unwelcome for all that. Demetrius finished the sentence for him. "To carry off my father."
"Yeah." Chrysander turned around and motioned for everyone to follow after him. "Light globes are useful, o' course, but you've seen them. Not a lot of light for the energy pay off. Some people like them that way, like Cordet and her secret way to the laboratory. Whoever this was either didn't think about needing to see their own tracks to cover them, or they didn't care. I'd lay odds on either option, if I was a betting man, but in the end, that only important thing is that we've got a clear way to running straight after them."
Demetrius's hand slipped free of Noni's, and he drew his sword. I started to go back to take her hand myself, but Chrysander had taken hold of mine when I hadn't been paying attention. Before I could pull away, explaining or not, I saw Soterios move forward to offer his own empty hand. Noni took it gratefully, but she still looked sad and a little angry at Demetrius. There was a general look of bafflement on her face that hadn't cleared throughout the exchange.
I didn't blame her. "There's a question that no one has even asked yet, I don't think," I said.
"Oh yes? And what is that?" Perhaps he didn't mean to snap, but every part of Demetrius was so clearly tight that he appeared to twang when he so much as blinked.
But I didn't flinch. My father may not have turned out to be a terrific prize of a dad, but I still understood what it was like. Maybe a little too well. I met his hardened gaze steadily. "Who would take your father? And why?"
I think it drags a little here, but that's because it is the beginning of the slide to the end, and y'all know I was nervous about getting to that ending.
Of course it all worked out, but it was only about a week ago at most that I wrote this, I think. Proof that I do need TWOTW on a backburner for some time before I edit.
Of course it all worked out, but it was only about a week ago at most that I wrote this, I think. Proof that I do need TWOTW on a backburner for some time before I edit.
Does it feel like it's taken the basic route you wanted?
I didn't really have one in mind for a long time, and it wound its own path until I realised that I had hit that point just after the middle, when I wasn't allowed to drop hints at possible things anymore, and things needed to be explained and start tying together. Once I got there though, I think I did get it to all come together, yeah.
And that's got to be satisfying.
It really really is. Like that whole year that I griped about frustration and blechness to you was just a forgotten moment that didn't matter.
I guess we look at moments like frustration and blechness as fertilizer for the up and coming creativity...and I'm glad that time's over with.
It's a good way to look at them. Being in the middle of mucking out the stables, so to speak, is not generally a time when one feels terribly optimistic.