If you are just starting, read chapter one here.
It had been his uncle Rearden who had first shown Cinis the labyrinths beneath Querkus. Like many of the city’s popular taverns and alehouses, Horsekick’s Tavern kept barrels and casks underneath its foundation where one of the abandoned tunnels grazed the surface. Below the surface, the temperature was lower, keeping the beer refreshingly cold. Beverages aged in the ancient subterranean halls filled a man with warmth on even the coldest nights, and the connoisseurs claimed the air itself imbued a finer quality to the spirits. So many establishments followed the practice that it was said a man could travel underground from the East to West gates without developing a thirst, provided he survived.
Unlike many of its competitors, Horsekick’s kept its merchandise deeper, where the threat of thievery lessoned and the barrels could fully absorb the forgotten tunnel’s memories. Years before, Rearden had dismissed the rumors of the haunted nature of the corridors and taught Cinis the way to their storehouse.
“Fear,” he had said, “is what keeps man from the sweetest of life’s nectars. And rightfully so, for those who cannot appreciate them will taste only poison.”
As he grew older, Cinis had traveled further and further into the underground. He had learned its secrets, touched its treasures, and beheld its art. If Rearden had minded his venturing, he had never acknowledged it, being content so long as Cinis was on time to his classes and completed his duties in the tavern. Rarely was he ever late—the light in the walls always led him back safely where so many other travelers had lost their way.
But tonight, as Cinis walked back from the cellars carrying a prized bottle of wine Rearden had sold to a passing merchant, the walls tugged with an unnatural strength at his fingertips. He had been slow to notice, but as time passed the urgency grew stronger until he realized that his walk had turned to a jog, the wine sloshing unnoticed by his side. The singing began.
It started low, the notes almost too low to be picked up by his ears, minor notes rumbling through the tunnels and reverberating through the bottle in his hands. As his feet quickened, the song did too. An urgency entered the voice, drawing him forward. Pulling at his spirit, his soul.
As he ran a sense of foreboding swept over him. Something was different, both with the voice and with the direction. He was nearing the surface instead of descending and the corridors grew familiar, ones that he had traversed many times before. There was the broken statue of a long forgotten queen, holding blooming roses as snow fell about her, now rapidly departing behind him. Another left and he passed through what he liked to call the diamond gate, a doorway carved entirely from hardened glass, two entwining dragons carved along the arch to meet in a snarling embrace at the uppermost point, from which water slowly dripped to the ground.
With legs racing to meet the drumbeat of both his clamoring heart and the hypnotizing song, and increasingly labored breathing, he realized he was being taken back to the tavern. He took another turn at full speed as a flash of brown hair appeared, and he nearly collided against a woman leaning with her hand against the pole, jumping aside at the last instant so that he just brushed against her shoulder.
She spun with force, her brown hair whipping in a graceful arc before resting at her shoulders, half obscuring two chestnut eyes that peered at him from underneath. Tripping over the folds of her silver cloak, he lost his balance and tumbled into a nearby pillar.
“Are you alright? You’re bleeding!” A hand gripped Cinis’ shoulder, preventing him from falling to the ground, and he looked up into her face. For an instant the song screaming in his ears was silenced as a set of wide, sapphire blue eyes blinked at him from underneath a veil of golden locks. Her features were slim and fair, topped with a smooth face, unnaturally creased by a frown. The glowing walls cast a halo glow about her, and the cloak about her shoulders created a shadow that stretched out like wings. The sight rendered him speechless.
Cinis flushed, his face reddening as he looked down at his bloodied knuckles.
“I… I, uh…” but then the tugging of the song resumed, and he forgot both his embarrassment and confusion in the encounter.
“I have to go.” He jumped to his feet and took off again, as she called behind him.
“Can’t! Sorry!” he shouted over his shoulder, watching the last of her silver robe disappear behind a corner as the walls spurred him forward.
Jessica stooped, picking up the earring that had fallen out in the collision and now lay among shards of glass from the bottle of wine the boy had been carrying. When it smashed, the red liquid had sloshed onto her cloak, ruining it from the knees down. She turned over the glass to see the label. Horsekick’s Tavern’s finest, a blend of seagrapes and time. At least her stains were high quality.
Sighing, she started walking in the direction the boy had taken. Already she had been lost for over two grueling hours, where the corridors seemed to warp her paths into circles. I should have just left the palace by gate, she thought. But that would have attracted attention, and attention was one thing she could not afford to spare. But now she could find her way out—his foot steps were easy enough to follow, the boy was tracking wine wherever he ran. Hopefully they led to an exit.
With a cupped hand she tried wiggling her earring back into the lobe, but it stubbornly evaded the hole, refusing to slide back into the piercing. Curse this vrael, she thought. The city was thick with it, but in the tunnels its presence was lighter, and despite being lost, she found herself enjoying the brief reprieve from its oppression.
Stopping at a cracked glass frame that had once held a painting long stolen, she ran her hands through her hair and inspected herself. Everything seemed to be in order, and thankfully only one earring had fallen out, since trying to fit both back in would have been near impossible. She squinted into her reflection, grimacing as she forced the disobedient point back into her earlobe, drawing blood twice before succeeding. With a click, it snapped back into place. Her reflection smiled and blinked, as its eyes flickered from azure to chestnut.
As she walked, she studied the wine wrapper again, reflecting on how she should pour herself a glass when she returned to the palace, maybe even using Air Magic to make it fizz. There was a list of spices running down the paper that had been added to the wine, though she only knew about half of them, and there was the name of the winery that had delivered the grapes, and under that, the signatures of those that had turned them into wine, then fermented and aged it.
Rearden, she read, then flipped the wrapper around as her heart stopped, and Cinis.
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