Days 29 – 35 of the experiment.
About half a dozen emotions flitted across Tweedle’s face at that news before he settled back to his barely contained rage.
Gil refused to back down for the obvious intimidation tactic he knew well from his childhood. He brought himself up to his full height which was still nearly a head shorter than Tweedle, chin held high and a practiced, indifferent expression plastered on his face.
Finally, Tweedle stepped out of Gil’s personal space and dusted the front of Gil’s jacket like he was straightening out the wrinkles Gil had already fixed. “The Baron, you say? I heard a rumor about you.”
Gil cocked one eyebrow under his fringe of bangs and crossed his arms over his chest. “Which one?”
“That you’re the orphaned son of homicidal Sparks that went on a rampage, and the only reason you’re an apprentice is the Baron feels sorry for you.”
Gil wanted to laugh–as if his father would give such an important job to someone out of pity. Instead, he shrugged as if the words didn’t bring back loathsome memories. “Close enough.”
As expected from habitual bullies, Tweedle looked even more annoyed that he didn’t get a rise out of Gil, but he recovered quickly. He took two menacing steps towards Gil and shoved a finger in his face. “Baron or no, I don’t care who you are, if I catch you around my sister again-”
Seffie interrupted him with a swat on the back of his head. “Martellus, no. Bad brother.”
She grabbed Tweedle’s rather large and solid forearm and tried to drag him away which had the effect of her trying to move a train until she pinched him in the side.
He didn’t say anything else as he finally allowed his sister to pull him down the hall, but he did smack Gil’s head into the wall one last time for emphasis.
Gil rubbed the back of his head as he watched the von Blitzengaard siblings round the corner then glanced at Anevka. She had her face in her hands.
“I’m so sorry about that. My family is–embarrassing.”
“Aren’t they all?”
She looked at him through her fingers then dropped her hands with a dry laugh. “I guess you’re right and my family has the market on humiliating twisted branches cornered.”
“I don’t know–Seffie seemed okay.”
“Well, you don’t know her like I do,” she said with a grin. “Come on, there’s still time before the summit reconvenes.” Anevka slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow, leading him down the hall opposite the way Tweedle and Seffie had disappeared.
Gil looked over his shoulder. “I don’t think we’re supposed to leave the luncheon.”
“They won’t even notice we’re gone. Besides, you’re with me and this is my home.”
Gil had a feeling the Baron would not accept that excuse, but he continued to follow Anevka farther into the castle, memorizing the route just in case.
They took two lefts, a right, went up a flight of stairs, two lefts then right, left, right before going down a very narrow spiral staircase lit by something glowing on the walls. Fascinated, he reached out to touch the substance, but it contracted into itself with a pip causing a cascade of lights going out up and down the stairs.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
Anevka laughed. “Don’t worry–they’ll light back up if we’re quiet.”
Sure enough, the walls began to glow softly a moment later until they were back at their original brightness. Gil leaned closer to get a better look; this time without touching. “It’s a fungus–that glows.”
“Pretty, isn’t it? It grows in the mines all around Balan’s Gap–the miners use it instead of gas lamps or candles with the added benefit of it processing just about every toxic substance into oxygen so-”
“No chance of sudden asphyxiation–a light source and air scrubber in one. That’s brilliant.”
Anevka smiled then tugged him along. “Well, I can’t take credit for creating the things, but I did bring them up here and plant them along the walls in some of the lesser used passageways that are too troublesome to keep lit with gas lamps or wire for electricity.”
“This was your idea?’
She ducked her head and despite the green glow, Gil had the distinct impression she was blushing which made him feel a little light headed.
They got to the bottom of the stairs when Anevka suddenly turned to him, eyes twinkling in the shimmery light. “If you like plants, you’ll love the arboretum,” she said, guiding him to the left. “We have hundreds of specimen from all over the world–Mother used to get dreadfully sorrowful during the long winters so Father brought the tropics to her. It’s all very romantic.”
Gil coughed then started choking before nearly tripping over his own feet.
Anevka tried to hide her giggles behind her hand but didn’t do a very good job. “I’m kidding, Gil.”
Gil let out a breath, face blushing fiercely.
Anevka pinched a cheek. “Aren’t you just adorable.”
He tried to smile, but he suddenly felt uncomfortably aware of their isolation. “Where even are we?” he asked after they passed numerous unadorned and presumably locked doors.
“The East Wing or as it’s affectionately called, the ‘Fire Mountain’ Wing.”
“Why do you call it that?”
Anevka just smiled as they spilled out into a large, open atrium–the glass dome soaring at least ten meters above them–and covering every wall, a mural depicting the surrounding mountains burning.
Gil’s eyebrows shot up–‘pretty’ was not the word he’d used to describe it.
Terrifying, morbid, twisted–those worked better, but he just nodded, not that she was paying any attention to him anymore.
She twirled around the center of the room, face turned up to the dreary sky beyond the glass. “This is my favorite room in the entire castle.
You should see it during the sunrise and set–the whole room is ablaze of reds and oranges thanks to the special glass.” Her eyes looked a little on fire themselves when she glanced back at him. “The flames in the murals seem to dance, and you can almost feel the heat.”
“Uh, that sounds-”
She continued to dance, oblivious to his awkwardness.
He needed to move things along because Anevka was seriously creeping him out right now. “So, you said something about an arboretum?”
She stopped abruptly then grabbed his hand at a run. “I almost forgot–we don’t have much time before we have to get back.”
Gil let out a sigh, allowing himself to be dragged along again. This girl was going to give him whiplash, and it reminded him of his father’s numerous lectures on the evils of women that Gil mostly ignored because he thought the theories were just his father’s way of coping with being bad at relationships. Maybe he wasn’t so wrong after all.
A minute later, they dashed under an arch adorned with angels of some sort and through a set of glass doors.
The air inside was humid and you swam through it more so than walked, and everywhere you looked were plants and trees and more plants–the ground, the walls, hanging from the ceiling, growing in planters.
“You like it?”
Gil could tell this was important to her so he nodded, not that it was a lie or anything; the place was amazing.
“Come on, I’ll show you my favorite spot.” Anevka reached her hand out to him, wiggling her fingers in invitation.
Gil had a feeling he was going to regret spending so much time alone with this girl, but she was nice and a princess so he could hardly refuse. Besides, it was kind of nice having the attention on him for once and not have it involve fists and stolen food.
He pushed those thoughts away, took Anevka’s hand and followed her through the maze of tropical trees and flowers until they came to a clearing near the center where the largest tree towered over the others, its’ branches heavy with long strings of leaves reaching to a little pond at the base.
“This is the best spot for picnics,” she said, flopping onto the ground and patting the soft grass next to her.
Gil scratched the back of his neck as he looked around, unease growing in the pit of his stomach. “It’s getting kind of late–don’t you think we should go back?”
Anevka threw herself back, her red hair splaying around her face, contrasting with the dark green grass. “You know, you remind me of my brother.”
Gil sucked in a sharp breath. “Why would you say that?”
“Oh, you know–you’re both concerned with following the rules and being responsible.”
That’s how she saw him? Responsible? Gil mulled that over while Anevka continued to ramble about the garden and what having fun actually meant. He considered how it felt to be compared to Tarvek so easily and cluelessly.
As a kid, he probably would have puffed up with pride if someone thought he was like Tarvek who was smart and resourceful and brave, but what would Anevka think if she’d been on Castle Wulfenbach with them when they were skipping classes and sneaking around in restricted areas?
The thought made him smile–sure, Tarvek was always the voice of reason when they planned their adventures, but he never stopped them and came up with more than his own share of stupidity.
“What’s that grin for?” Anevka asked, breaking into his reverie.
Gil schooled his features. “You really think I’m like your brother?”
She cocked her head, considering the question. “No, I suppose not much–he’s way stuffier than you. He’s always studying and playing by the rules to get ahead. I can tell already that you’re a lot more fun–Tarvek would have never doodled during a meeting.”
Gil hoped his disappointment didn’t show too much.
Anevka didn’t seem to notice. “You’ll see when you meet him later. Come, sit with me.”
She patted the ground next to her, her expression way too innocent to be authentic–Gil didn’t like it. “We really should be getting back,” he said, taking a step towards to exit. “I don’t want to make the Baron mad.”
* * *
Violetta balanced on a branch in one of the great trees in the arboretum watching her cousin and the Baron’s apprentice chat. Since she’d been following them, she’d learned his name was Gil, he was lying about being an orphan, had zero experience with girls, probably spent most of his life on Castle Wulfenbach by the awed way he stared at the foliage, and obviously already knew Tarvek even if Anevka seemed oblivious to that fact.
And he was surely keeping other secrets that Violetta was eager to discover. She was tired of people like Martellus always underestimating her. She could do this job–she could be a good Smoke Knight if they just let her try.
Down below, Gil took a step away from Anevka. Violetta swiveled to keep him in sight, her foot sliding from the edge of her branch. The whole tree swayed and she scrambled for a better grip, cracking several twigs in the process. She finally steadied, holding her breath as Anevka looked around suspiciously then she got up, dusting off her skirt.
“Yeah, you’re probably right; we should get out of here,” she said, holding her hand out to Gil who reluctantly took it, following her out of Violetta’s eyesight.
The girl slowly let out the breath with a groan. “I suck at this,” she mumbled, tears filling her eyes while she quickly slid down the tree trunk. “Can’t even spy on my own stupid cousin.”
She gave herself a full minute to wallow then sniffled and wiped her eyes with the corner of her cloak. She couldn’t keep following Gil–Anevka was on to her now–so she left through the opposite door into a darker, cooler corridor that was only used in the summer months.
Consumed by her thoughts, Violetta almost missed the voices growing louder as she walked towards them. At the last second, she darted into a corner and used a technique to blend with the shadows, staying absolutely still without so much as blinking her eyes until the people passed.
She let out the breath she’d held too long and followed after the three older boys–Martellus; that oaf, Orrik; and one of the assistants brought by a distant uncle controlling a nearly non-existent kingdom in the north. She tiptoed behind them, darting between shadows, trying to keep up–all thoughts of Gil and Anevka fading from her mind at the mystery before her.
Somewhere in the back of her head, Tarvek’s voice whispered that this is the kind of thing that would get her killed, but like the real boy, she ignored it as always–Tarvek never had any fun.
They took several turns and staircases, including a hidden one, making Violetta wonder how well Martellus knew the castle when he didn’t live here full time–she barely even knew where they were and only did because of the scorch marks on the walls.
This hall led to several abandoned labs. Abandoned by people, at least. The accident that nearly took out a quarter of the wing released quite a few unruly monsters that wreaked havoc for days before they were forced back into the labs where they were left to rot–no one smart came over here anymore. So of course, Martellus was here; he was one of the biggest idiots Violetta knew, and too full of himself to know any better.
Eventually, she got close enough to catch their conversation while Martellus consulted a ring of keys in front of a very impressive oak door covered in more locks than seemed necessary. He was actually going to the labs–idiot.
“Martellus, where are we even going,” Orrik whined as he leaned against the wall looking sleepy.
“It’s a surprise,” her cousin answered, finally finding the first key.
“I don’t like surprises,” said the other boy who looked a little older than Martellus–maybe in his early twenties and still pockmarked with acne that his scraggly beard couldn’t hide.
Three more locks were undone followed by a steel bar across the entire door. “Relax Warner, will you?”
Both Orrik and Warner contained any other complaints as the last lock fell off and it took all of Martellus’ strength to pry it open–they didn’t look very happy about any of it. The door creaked open, and Martellus stepped aside to let the other two through.
Violetta needed to get through that door but there was no way she’d be able to open it on her own–she needed to think fast. She quickly pried free a chunk of battered wall and tossed down the hall, catching Martellus’ attention.
As soon as his head shot up, she bolted for the door using another Smoke Knight technique that was supposed to shield her from view even up close. She’d only learned it a month ago and wasn’t sure she could even do it correctly yet, but she skirted past her cousin and slid into the shadows of the room beyond where the other two boys were arguing softly.
Not seeing anything, Martellus closed the door, blanketing them in absolute darkness, causing Warner to squeak in surprise.
“I don’t like the dark any more than I like surprises.”
Martellus lit a match and pulled a candle from a shelf near the door.
“Oh, shut up,” he commanded, shoving between the other two towards a dark set stairs at the far end of the room–these led to the labs in the bowels of the castle.
The three were silent as they descended which made it harder for Violetta to follow without being heard. When they reached the bottom, Martellus opened another heavy door that led to another staircase–this one only a few steps long. The complaining started up again as soon as they got to the bottom and realized the room was filled with over a foot of water.
“I don’t like water,” Warner muttered.
Martellus ignored him, marching through the room with purpose.
Violetta hurried to stay within sight of the dim candle but paused at the bottom of the stairs. She had no fear or general dislike of water, but this water had an oily gleam to it and smelled foul–like rotting eggs. The surrounding room showed the obvious signs of the devastation from the explosion and ensuing battle.
Chunks of walls and ceilings poked above the water and broken furniture floated in the boys’ wake, but the lab tables along the edge of the room looked sturdy and intact if more than a little worn. Violetta stuck to these, hopping from table to table to stone blocks to barely stable shelves–anything to stay above the water and out of sight.
“What was that!” Orrik yelled suddenly. “Something touched my leg.”
Warner glanced around at the mostly placid water. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“No, really, I felt it.” Orrik’s voice continued to rise in pitch.
“You’re imagining things–it’s just water.”
Violetta perched on a crooked chandelier as the boys argued beneath her, but her attention was on the water.
Martellus had stopped as well, spinning slowly to shed his light on the surrounding room. The water glistened green and purple but nothing moved. “Keep moving,” he ordered, putting everyone in motion again.
Violetta swung the chandelier enough to hop to a beam hanging at an angle on the opposite wall then to an equally cockeyed shelf that nearly gave out under her weight.
The idiots were making enough noise not to notice her presence much to her relief. They continued through a heavy metal door blown nearly off its hinges into a bigger lab where the main explosion must have taken place by the nearly complete destruction of the contents–nothing was untouched by fire or left unbroken which left Violetta with a lot fewer choices when moving.
“There it is again,” Orrik screeched, his voice echoing in the large space and causing everyone to freeze.
Martellus swung the candle in an arc around them showing placid water except where Orrik churned it up with his nervous dancing. “Knock it off, idiot–you’re scaring Warner.”
“I’m telling you there’s something in the water.”
Martellus growled in frustration. “I swear, you whine more than my little sister. Now get your heads in the game.”
Warner still watched the water warily. “But I heard there were monsters under Sturmhalten, and we are most certainly under Sturmhalten.”
“Why are we even down here, Tweedle?” asked Orrik. “I thought you said we were going to work on the plan.”
Violetta’s ears perked at this new information. A plan? What plan? What were these idiots up to way down here with the monsters other than being monsters themselves? Her mind swirled with intrigue but stayed alert enough for other clues.
“We are,” Martellus said, his annoyance growing. “We just need one thing.”
“What’s that?” Orrik asked, inching closer to Martellus but never taking his eyes from the water.
Martellus fiddled with a dented and rusted cabinet in the corner until he pried open the door with a loud squeal of twisting metal. He pulled out a bottle of iridescent liquid with a triumphant smile stretching across his weasely face.
“And what’s that?” asked Warner, peering over Orrik’s shoulder to get a better look.
“Just something my great-uncle cooked up–right before he cooked himself,” he said glancing around the destroyed lab with a chuckle.
He left the cabinet door hanging open and trudged back towards the stairs, Orrik and Warner muttering behind him. Violetta didn’t need to know what was in the bottle to know it was bad news–it was made by someone in her family and locked in a lab destroyed by Madboy experiments and monsters.
What she did need to know was what they were planning on doing with it because her imagination ran wild with the possibilities including plagues and mind control. You just never knew with her family.
She quietly followed them back up the stairs, hiding in a dark corner while she figured out how to slip out without being seen which ended up not being a problem because as soon as Martellus shuffled the others out, he wheeled around and tore Violetta from the shadows.
“You just never learn, do you?”
“Damn,” Orrik yelled from out in the hall, “look at the time, Tweedle.”
That was enough to get Martellus’ attention and give Violetta the seconds she needed to escape in a less violent method than she’d originally optioned for which would have probably led to one less future Blitzengaard heir.
She did a quick twist maneuver with a practiced ease that made her heart pound with glee. Before Martellus knew what was going on, she dropped from his grasp, grabbed the bottle from the pocket in his coat and darted out the door–all Martellus found was the broken remnants of a chair wrapped in a piece of tapestry with a dirty mop for a head.
She didn’t stop to hear what curses her cousin threw at her–she knew she couldn’t outpace him in a foot race which meant she needed to get sneaky. And fast.
[ Part 6 ]