Uncalled For Actions (16/?)
Days 106– 112 of the experiment.
Gil wedged himself between a sturdy storage rack and the barrel and waited while Theo stood in the shadows next to the still-open door. As soon as the guards appeared, Gil kicked the barrel as hard as he could, sending it tumbling into the unsuspecting men.
“Go,” he yelled, dashing forward and hurdling both the guards and barrel. Theo was right behind him as they sprinted down the hall, sliding around the corner, only slowing when they came to a set of stairs.
“Which way?” Theo asked, glancing up than down.
Gil patted his pockets looking for his directions before remembering Celeste crumpled them. “I don’t know–do you have a map or something?”
“No, I was following Zulenna.”
Behind them, footsteps grew closer, setting Gil into full flight mode.” Down is quicker,” he finally said before taking the stairs two or three at a time, leaping from the landing to the floor below, but the doors into the hall beyond were locked.
The two just shrugged and continued down the twisting stairs until the light from above disappeared. They pressed against the cold stone and waited for chasing footsteps, but it was quiet.
“I think we lost them,” Theo whispered.
“I think we lost us,” Gil responded.
“Do you have a match or something?”
Gil closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall, listening to their breathing even out. They’d have to risk going back up–no telling where the guards would be.
Theo tugged his sleeve repeatedly. Was he always this easily excited? Gil realized he didn’t really know Theo or any of the other kids very well–he refused to let himself get close.
“Gil, look,” Theo hissed in his ear.
Forcing his tired eyes open, he found the staircase softly glowing. A smile spread across his face. “Anevka’s fungus. I think I know where we are.”
Gil guided Theo down the stairs and to the left. He had no idea if the party was anywhere near here, but at least, he could maybe find his way back before they got caught.
A moment later, they stepped into the familiar atrium with the creepy murals.
“Wow,” Theo said, taking in the room filled with the glow of the stars and moon above.
Gil ignored him, pacing a corner of the room as his brain sifted through all the info he had about the party which, admittedly, was little since he hadn’t bothered to fully read that scrap of paper. “Where would they host a clandestine party?” he wondered out loud.
“I don’t know,” Theo answered.
“Where do they have them on Castle Wulfenbach?”
Gil was kind of flattered the kid thought him popular enough to be invited to parties. But just because he was never invited didn’t mean he didn’t know about them. They were usually up or down–dead spaces in the shop where mechanical systems ran between sections.
“I remember reading that Sturmhalten was built over some geothermal vents that power most of the castle and the town.”
“Well, yesterday I noticed heating vents in my room kind of like the ones we have on Castle Wulfenbach which means they have to connect to the thermal vents beneath the castle somewhere.”
Theo cocked his head to the side, one eyebrow raised. “Again, I say, ‘so?'”
“So-” Gil began examining the exterior of the walls in the room. “-I bet there’s a mechanical substation somewhere that forces the heat where it needs to go. It’ll be loud and probably steamy-”
“A perfect place to hide a party,” Theo finished.
“Exactly,” Gil said, snapping his fingers as he found what he was looking for–a grate carved into the stone wall in the corner. They peered inside but couldn’t see much past the grate. “We need a candle,” Gil said, looking around.
Theo clapped loudly, the sound echoing in the large space. “I have an idea,” he shouted then darted off before Gil could stop him.
Not my problem if he gets caught, he told himself, but he wasn’t very convinced. He was about to go check on him when Theo came bounding back into the room, his waistcoat bundled in his arms.
Carefully, he opened the fabric revealing clumps of fungus. “I think I killed them,” he said, shoulders slumping.
Gil took the fungus and placed it in two small saucers he found in a curio. “No, I think it’ll be okay–Anevka said they’ll come back on when they’re not spooked anymore.”
They waited a moment, Theo gnawing his lower lip until slowly the plants began to glow again. “See?” He squeezed Theo’s shoulder. “Good thinking.” Theo grinned up at him, filling Gil with an overwhelming pride he found a little confusing if satisfying.
They took the dishes of fungus over to the vent and peered inside, seeing only slightly farther than before.
“We can’t fit in there,” Theo said as he tugged on the solidly attached grate.
“No, but we can hopefully get an idea which way the ductwork goes.” Gil moved the fungus back and forth but couldn’t get enough light down the vent to see any turns.
“Ooh,” Theo said suddenly then plucked a small amount of fungus from his dish and rolled it into a ball before flicking it into the vent. It rolled a few meters then sat there for a full minute until a glow built from within it, lighting the end of the tunnel which seemed to turn left.
“You’re really good at this adventuring, you know?”
Theo’s smile grew even wider. “Thanks, Gil–I’m having a lot of fun.”
Gil couldn’t help but smile back at Theo’s contagious enthusiasm.
“So if we’re not going in the vent, what now?”
“Now we figure out where the vents go.”
They exited the atrium and found an unlocked room in the direction the vent had turned. It took only a moment to find the grate showing the duct beyond extending left and right. Twenty minutes later, they tracked the ventilation to another storage room–this one full of empty crates–where it took a turn down.
“Guess the answer is down.”
Theo didn’t question as they left the storage room and found a set of stairs behind a wrought iron gate that was conveniently unlocked. The stairs led to a narrow hall carved into the bedrock, water dripping eerily from the arched ceiling less than a half meter above Gil’s head.
The farther they got, the less quiet the tomb-like space and the more damp. Gil slipped off his Wulfenbach sigil and undid the buttons of his shirt while Theo fumbled with his sleeves until Gil took his saucer of fungus so he could roll them up.
The hissing and whooshing of the ventilation system drowned out all other sounds–it seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, but soon that was replaced by the chaotic beats of some kind of tribal drum.
They hurried to the end of the hall and squeezed through a partially open gate into a huge cavern filled with shouting kids and lots and lots of steam. The drums crescendoed then were joined by other instruments–a harpsichord and horns and things Gil couldn’t identify combining in a discordant racket that was surprisingly catchy.
“Is this… music?” Theo asked, head bopping to the beat.
“I think so.”
Theo turned that bright, earnest smile at Gil again. “I think I like it.” Then ran off into the crowd.
Gil set his fungus on the edge of a blinking monitor then peeled off his jacket and waistcoat, rolling his sleeves up like Theo. He watched the throngs of party-goers who seemed to be almost every apprentice, some of the summit support staff, Sturmvoraus relatives, and even castle servants. They appeared and disappeared amongst the steam–that along with the pounding music gave everything a hazy, surreal feeling that appealed to Gil.
Suddenly, the air crackled with electricity as purple fingers of lightning stretched overhead to the amazed “oohs” and startled cries of the partiers. Gil followed the display back to the epicenter–a strange coiled contraption–just as an older gentleman with a mustache snapped a large leather case shut.
“Thank you so much, Nikola,” Anveka said, clapping her hands. “It’s absolutely perfect.”
The man bowed and tipped an imaginary hat. “My pleasure, Princess. If it gives you any more trouble let me know before I set back to Paris.”
“Oh, Gil!” she shouted, tugging him closer to the coils as the man passed with another slight bow of the head. “Isn’t it amazing?”
“What is it?” He could already feel the Spark lighting in his chest as he examined the machine.
“A frequency alternating-current resonant transformer.”
“What’s it for?” As he reached for it, the purple light arced from the coils to his fingers, making him jump, but he experienced none of the expected electrical shock, only a slight tingle.
Anevka smiled at his obvious wonder and delight as the current hopped from finger to finger. “Does it need to be anything more than this?” she asked, twirling with her arms over her head to encompass the spectacular show of lightning flickering through the fog down to her fingers.
“I guess not,” he said, matching her smile.
She dropped her hands and returned to his side. “I’m glad you made it, Gil,” she said softly, ducking her head. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come after how horribly I treated you at dinner last night.”
At least she admits it. “So we’re still friends?” he asked tentatively, not sure he could allow himself to trust her but desperately wanting to.
“If you’ll have me.” He swore she blushed despite the dim lighting. “I mean as a friend.”
He still didn’t really trust her, but he also didn’t need more active enemies so he nodded. “On one condition.”
Her smile faded slightly. “Oh?”
“You tell me how I can get my hands on one of these,” he said, pointing at the coil until the tendrils extended to his fingertip again.
Anevka giggled–an absolutely splendid sound on all accounts. “You’ll have to talk to Nikola. Father hired him from Paris to upgrade the electrical wiring in the castle while they were tearing things up for the new heating system. When he heard about the party, he said he had something that would steal the show.”
She looked up at the lightning that seemed to almost move in time to the music. “It’s genius, isn’t it?”
“Brilliant; I want to know how it works!”
“Of course you do.” She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm. “I’ll get you his card, but he’s returning to Paris soon–something about a big job offer in the Americas.”
Gil wanted nothing more than to tear the coiled device apart, but he allowed Anevka to drag him away instead as she chattered about the party. He turned down the glass of slightly glowing blue liquid that surely contained more alcohol than safe to ingest at one time but allowed the ambiance and music to overtake him.
It seemed like almost everyone under twenty was at the party. Arabeth, the coffee girl, waved to him from where she perched on a long cylinder that probably housed some kind of turbine talking to a boy wearing half a Sturmhalten guard uniform. And he found Zulenna dancing with Celeste leaving him wondering how they talked themselves out of trouble. Theo waved as he danced with a girl Gil remembered from Castle Wulfenbach that had left a year before for some reason.
“You seem to be making friends,” Anevka said.
Gil shrugged. Making friends wasn’t hard–it was keeping them that was difficult which reminded Gil of the one person he hadn’t seen tonight. Not that he cared at all what Tarvek was doing he told himself without much conviction.
* * *
When Tarvek got back late from translating in the library, he checked every room in the royal residence but couldn’t find his sister. His anger and annoyance kicked up a notch with each room he investigated so by the time he retired to his own in frustration, he slammed every door on principle.
“Violetta!” He waited for his Smoke Knight to make herself seen but nothing happened. Several beats passed before he remembered their fight the day before. “Dammit,” he shouted, kicking a stool across the room with a crash.
A moment later, someone knocked on the door, and their butler, Hans, poked in his head. “Is everything all right, Master Tarvek?” he asked, eyes darting around the room suspiciously.
Tarvek removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Yes, everything is fine.”
The man nodded, backing out of the room.
“Wait,” Tarvek called as he replaced his glasses, “have you seen my sister anywhere?”
Hans seemed to consider his answer thoroughly which just set off warning bells for Tarvek. “No since earlier this evening, sir. She was making plans with some friends.” He made a face like he tasted something sour. “They mentioned, ‘banging music, cocktails, and a light show,’ I believe.”
Tarvek sighed. “A party?”
“I believe so, sir. Will you be needing anything else tonight?”
“Short of the location of the party?”
Hans shook his head. “I’m afraid I wasn’t privy to that information,” he said then shut the door before Tarvek could question him further.
“Apparently neither was I,” he muttered.
The clock on his bedside table said it was nearly midnight. It had taken a ridiculous amount of time to finish the translations they’d started that afternoon. Apparently, they had put off the Russian pages for two days and since Holzfäller decided to show off and start them, his father insisted they should be caught up before tomorrow.
Too bad Gil hadn’t bothered to help.
“Self-centered jerk,” he mumbled to the empty room. “Great, now I’m talking to myself. He’s driving me crazy, and he isn’t even here.”
With a disgusted noise, Tarvek crossed to the corner of his room and pressed a series of stones, opening a door in the wall that he quietly slipped through. He followed the twisting passage until it emerged on the other side of the castle then headed down the stairs.
Two of the maintenance workers hired to help with the heating system scurried out of his way, but Tarvek didn’t miss their stifled laughter as he passed. He shot them a look over his shoulder that only sobered them until he turned the corner when he heard them bust out laughing fully. Ahead, a guard leaned against the wall, twirling the hair of a maid standing beside him.
Tarvek growled as he got closer. “Shouldn’t you be patrolling?”
The young man snapped to attention as the maid dashed off, red-faced, before Tarvek could reprimand her, too. “Yes, sir, I was just-” He waved lamely, obviously finding no plausible excuse in his tiny brain.
“Uh-huh,” Tarvek said then motioned him off.
The guard trotted off in the direction of the main, snickering into his hand. Tarvek wanted to scream to the Heavens as he slammed open the door to his lab at the end of the hall.
“What is with everyone today?” he yelled.
A body shot up from the cot in the corner, eliciting a started cry from Tarvek until he saw it was only a sleepy Violetta. His momentary fear quickly morphed into irritation. “Where the hell have you been?”
“What?” Violetta said, rubbing her eyes.
“I was looking for you.”
She swung her feet around to the floor and stretched. “Well, here I am.”
Her nonchalance wasn’t helping his mood any–he had quite enough insubordination today. “Well, you’re supposed to be there when I call you.”
Violetta crossed her arms in obvious defense. “I’m not your dog to beckon, and you told me to leave you alone.”
Tarvek’s anger deflated at the hurt in her voice, and he dropped onto a stool at one of the tables. Neither of them said anything for a long time. Admitting he was wrong was never one of Tarvek’s strong suits, and Violetta was probably even more stubborn than him.
He fiddled with some empty test tubes in a holder. “So where were you all day?” he finally asked, hoping he managed to keep the accusation out of his tone.
Violetta joined him at the table, her fingers tapping a random rhythm that reminded him of Gil earlier in the day. Finally, she let out a breath that he interpreted as forgiveness.
“I was keeping away from Martellus like you said only I don’t think he got the memo.”
Tarvek’s expression darkened.”What do you mean?”
Violetta shrugged, trying to play it off as nothing. “I went to training and Tweedle thought it would be fun to-” She finished with another shrug.
Every muscle in Tarvek’s body tensed–if that idiot hurt her in any way. He clamped down on the murderous rage. “What happened,” he asked with as much calm as he could muster.
Violetta eyed him; she always could see right through him. “Nothing I couldn’t handle,” she said finally, ending the conversation by turning away.
Tarvek took a moment to process her words, general attitude, and the slight tremor of her hands. Whether it was fear or anger he couldn’t tell, but it was obviously affecting her even if she didn’t want to talk about it. He decided the best course of action was to simply change the subject and save them both.
“What’s going on here?” he asked, noticing beakers set up. “Some kind of science experiment–do you have another exam coming up?”
Violetta’s shoulders slumped. “Nothing like that. I’m testing all my potions.”
Tarvek picked up an empty bottle now labeled with a number that seemed to correspond to a page in a small notebook filled with chemical diagrams and ingredient lists. “Move-it number two,” he read from the book before setting down the bottle. “What seems to be the problem?”
She sighed in what appeared to be defeat. “I was trying to determine if the right potions were in the correct bottles and if so if they were the right formulas.”
“And the conclusion?”
“Everything is what it’s supposed to be,” she yelled, throwing her hands up.
Tarvek bit back a laugh at her dramatic overreaction.
“Shut up,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest again, “it’s not funny.”
He stopped trying to hide his smile–Violetta was such a little spitfire, as their grandmother liked to call her.
This time she threw a balled-up scrap of paper at him that he easily batted away, but at least she was smiling a little now. Several more papers came his way, forcing him to dodge right off his stool, hands up.
“Okay, okay, I surrender,” he said, laughing.
Violetta jutted her chin high in the air, hands on her hips. “As long as you know your place, “she said with a gap-toothed grin.
For the first time all day, Tarvek felt the tension drain from his tired muscles. He’d looked for Anevka to vent about Holzfäller, but he guessed he just needed to let off a little steam. The thought reminded him of another problem, though, souring his mood again.
“I know that look,” Violetta said. “Just tell me who I have to poison with Ten-Hour Tinnitus, and I’ll get it done.”
Tarvek couldn’t tell if she was serious or not so was thankful her potion supply was currently spread out in various experiments in his lab.
“It’s nothing,” he told her as he began picking up the scraps of paper. “I was just looking for Anevka earlier, but no one seemed to know where she was.”
“She’s probably at the party by now.”
Tarvek stopped half-bent, still reaching for a paper to look at his cousin. “Wait, you know about the party?”
Violetta rolled her eyes. “Everyone knows about it.”
Tarvek stood, frowning at his polished boots as his arms fell limply to his sides. “I didn’t know about it.”
Violetta shrugged. “I guess you weren’t invited.” She seemed to suddenly realize what she said, eyes widening while her face darkened slightly. “I mean, I wasn’t invited either–it’s just my job to know what’s going on around here. And the older Smoke Knights love to brag.”
Tarvek sighed–sounded like everyone but him was at this party. “So, do you know where it is?”
She cocked her head in thought. “Considering the number of people I heard traipse past the lab in the last hour, I’m going to guess down in the steam room.”
“Why–that seems like an awful place for a party.”
Violetta shook her head, eyes rolling again. “It’s not one of your dinner parties, stuffy–the steam room is perfect. It’s loud to cover the noise and hot so people start taking off clothes-” she pretended to gag, “-but most of all, it’s someplace no one would look because they think like you.”
“How do you know so much about parties if you’ve never been to one?”
“I said I wasn’t invited, not that I never went–lots of interesting stuff happens at those parties.”
Tarvek rubbed his forehead. “Great, so my ten-year-old cousin has more of a life than I do. Terrific.”
“Where are you going?” Violetta asked when he turned toward the door.
“I’m, to the party so I can see what I’m missing, of course.”
Her left eyebrow shot up. “Dressed like that?”
Tarvek threw up his arms with a huff. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
“Besides the fact that it’s probably thirty-seven degrees down there so you’re going to suffocate in that getup, and that it’s powder blue so it’s going to attract every bit of grime?”
A growl caught in the back of his throat. “Yes, besides that,” he said flatly even as he slid out of the jacket and brocade waistcoat.
The smirk that curled her lips made him pause. “Those flowers drawn on your butt are probably going to get more than a few laughs,” she said, not even bothering to hold back her own giggles.
He twisted around to see the back of his trousers–sure enough, a floral pattern covered most of the seat. It looked suspiciously like the design of the chairs in the summit room. Holzfäller.
“I’m going to kill him! No wonder everyone’s been staring and laughing all day. I knew I wasn’t imagining it!” He continued to rant and mutter curses as he stormed around the lab looking in lockers and closets for something to wear, finally finding sturdy work trousers that were at least clean.
Violetta busied herself cleaning up her bottles while Tarvek changed. She busted out laughing when he finished. “You’re probably going to want the shirt, too.”
Tarvek frowned then caught his reflection in the mirror above the sink. His silk shirt with the flouncy sleeves and ruffled collar and cuffs was the height of fashion in Paris but looked ridiculous against the charcoal gray utilitarian bibbed trousers. With a disgusted grunt, he carefully undid the Mother-of-Pearl buttons and hung the shirt on a hangar in the locker then tugged on the twill lab shirt and rolled the sleeves to his elbows to hide the worn cuffs.
“Better?” he said with a scowl.
Violetta snorted. “Not really; let’s go.” She flung her cape around, settling it on her shoulders as she passed, nearly smacking him in the face.
Tarvek growled but followed her out of the lab and to the left. A few minutes later, they crept through the unlocked gate at the top of the maintenance stairs that led to the tunnels under the castle. The way was lit by some of the fungus Anevka liked to play with, but it grew dimmer the farther they went–not that it mattered as they could easily find their way by the deafening beat of what he assumed was supposed to be music.
Squeezing through a broken gate, they entered the aptly-named steam chamber. Only moments in and Tarvek’s clothes clung to his damp skin, making him thankful he left his expensive silk shirt behind.
Everywhere was steam and people or illusions of people and noise and purple lightning. “This is madness,” he shouted at Violetta.
“They look like they’re having fun,” she said, gesturing at the wildly gyrating partiers.
“Than they’re mad, too.”
Violetta laughed then skipped away, calling over her shoulder, “Try to have some fun, huh?”
Not likely, he thought as he stalked the perimeter of the space, trying to stay out of the way and unnoticed, but inevitably the whispers started. And the pointing and laughing. Tarvek hunched his shoulders, trying to ignore the ill feeling growing in his chest.
“Why am I even here?” he muttered after yet another group of girls fell into giggles after he passed them. He wasn’t just not invited–he wasn’t wanted here by anyone. To test the hypothesis, he smiled and waved at a girl he knew from the summit.
The smile on her face instantly vanished, and she was suddenly very interested int eh ventilation monitor next to her. Tarvek’s heart hurt as he made his way to the exit–he always liked to think himself impervious to the alienation he experienced, but it was one of the many lies he fed himself.
He should have just stayed in his lab with Violetta, safe in his bubble of aloofness. Now he couldn’t deny the loneliness he felt standing in this crowd of people–many his own family–that apparently hated him. The realization was a little too much to handle after the day he had. He didn’t bother looking for Violetta as he pushed through the throngs of partiers.
He was almost to the gate when he heard the familiar tinkle of Anevka’s laughter pulling him back into the room. He’d stay just long enough to ask his sister why he wasn’t invited. No, why no one liked him? Why she didn’t even want him around?
“Could I be any more pathetic?”
He started to turn around before he could feel any more like a loser when he heard another familiar voice. Peering around a monstrous shaft, he found Aenvka dancing–if you could call it that–wrapped in the arms of the one person he really didn’t want to see tonight.
As he watched in frozen horror, Anevka slid her hand along Gil’s jaw then leaned in, her lips pressing gently against his as both their eyes fluttered shut.
“No, no, no!” The words rumbled in his chest and up his throat until they exploded from between ground teeth. People nearby quickly got out of the way as he stormed towards the two of them. “Get the hell off my sister, you swine,” Tarvek shouted, grabbing Gil by the collar and throwing him to the ground.
“Tarvek,” Anevka yelled, “what are you doing here?”
“I just came to see what I was missing which apparently wasn’t much besides horrible music and you snogging my sworn enemy.”
Anevka rolled her eyes hard. “Sworn enemy, really? Do you even hear yourself? Is it any wonder you’re not invited to anyone’s parties?”
Tears burned his eyes. “I don’t care about their parties,” he said as calmly as he could. “But yours-”
She had the decency to look abashed, eyes darting away from his.
“That’s what I thought,” he mumbled, no longer caring about his dignity as he turned and pushed through the curious and amused onlookers.
[ Part 17 ]