The City Below
Ever since Kate had first learned about the Skilled she had always expected them to look different from most people in some way. Not one of the people standing around her was extraordinary, but the one feature they all shared was their unnaturally dark eyes. Kate had heard that the more time the Skilled spent looking into the veil the darker their eyes were meant to become, and even in the brightness of the lantern light their eyes looked as though their pupils had leaked out to overtake everything else, leaving just a faint line of their true colours circling around the edge.
Kate realised she was staring and looked away.
‘My name is Mina,’ said the woman. ‘Edgar asked us to wait for you both here. Do you know where he is?’
‘No,’ said Kate. ‘We got separated.’
‘He was worried that might happen. We have no choice but to go on without him. Here, he left this for you.’ Mina handed her a tiny roll of paper tied with string.
Kate recognised Edgar’s handwriting on the outside of the roll. ‘But … how do you know Edgar?’ she asked.
‘We have known him since he was a boy,’ said Mina.
The men all nodded together. ‘He’s a good lad,’ said one of them. ‘He’s had no kind of life. No kind of life at all.’
Kate was confused. Was there anyone in Albion who didn’t know Edgar?
‘There is no time to read the letter now,’ said Mina. ‘But soon. When we are safe. The council will not find you where we are going. This way.’
Kate held the little letter tightly as the Skilled led her down into the house’s cellar. One by one they stepped through a door disguised as a stack of shelves and came out upon an underground path that was very different from the tunnels Kate had seen beneath Morvane. This path was not just an ordinary tunnel, it looked like it had once been above the ground. Its walls were the fronts of two rows of houses facing one another, light came from candles propped on the outside of window sills and the path was wide and cobbled, with worn wheelmarks where carriages had once run.
The few windows that had survived the years reflected the group’s lanterns as they walked past, but the houses had no doors, only bricked-up arches where they had once been, and the rooms inside had long since been buried under fallen earth.
‘Will Edgar be able to find us down here?’ asked Kate.
‘He knows the way,’ said Mina. ‘But I do not hold much hope for his safe return. It will not take long for the wardens to see through his lie. We all told him it was foolish of him to go back.’
‘Back? Back where?’
‘I will explain everything soon. For now, we must walk.’
The understreets seemed to wind on forever, linked together by staircases and bridges that spanned deep chasms sliced into the earth. Looking over the side of those bridges was like looking down into the underworld. Some of the chasms had people working in them, hanging from long rope harnesses and chipping away at the rock, while others were abandoned and so deep that it was impossible to see the bottom of them in the dark.
‘Graverobbers,’ said Mina. ‘In the bonemen’s time, the Night Train carried coffins here, and they laid the bodies to rest in long tombs that run deep beneath our feet. Fume’s towers were built as memorials to the families laid to rest beneath them, but since the High Council took it as their capital they have made it a place to be feared, not respected. The bonemen are gone and the Night Train carries the living into slavery, war and death. That is not the way things are meant to be.’
Kate dared to lean out a little further over the side.
‘Do not let them see you!’ whispered Mina. ‘The wardens are the graverobbers’ enemies as well as ours, but they would not hesitate to report us if they decided it was worth something to them.’
Mina’s group did their best to stay out of sight and headed down a narrow tunnel that had been cut into an old rock fall. Mina unlocked a green door hidden behind a flap of cloth and Kate followed her into a beautiful street lit by tiny lanterns hanging down from its ceiling. It was an arched cavern lined with red bricks and metal frames that protected the houses underneath from collapse. Every one of them was as perfect as the day they were built. There was even a working fountain in the very centre and lanterns edging the paths, giving the street a warm friendly glow.
‘This is where some of the bonemen used to live,’ said Mina. ‘If your uncle had listened to me years ago, you would already call this place home. I am only sorry we could not bring you here sooner. You will be safe here. My home is close by. We will talk inside.’
Mina took Kate into a small well-kept house and sent the others away, but some refused to leave.
‘She could be dangerous!’ said one. ‘The High Council kept her alive. What do you think she gave them to deserve that?’
‘I think she gave them hope,’ said Mina. ‘Something none of us have had in a long time.’
‘Look at her eyes! They are already half-dark and she is too young for them to have coloured so quickly. Da’ru has forced her too deeply into the veil. If she was not guided there properly, shades may have followed her spirit back out. She may be corrupted.’
‘This girl is too strong for that,’ said Mina. ‘As you can see, she is one of us and she needs our help.’
Kate tried to listen to what else was being said, but they lowered their voices too quietly for her to hear. Whatever Mina said to them, it worked. The group left her and Kate alone. Mina locked the front door and, noticing Kate’s uneasiness at being locked in, immediately pressed the key into her hand.
‘You are not a prisoner here,’ she said. ‘This street is the safest in the City Below. Edgar hid here with us when he first escaped the High Council. Did he tell you about that?’
‘He didn’t tell me anything,’ said Kate. ‘Edgar escaped from the council?’
Mina regarded her carefully.
‘He says we can trust you and he is not a boy who trusts easily. He must think a great deal of you to go back to the chambers after all this time.’
‘I didn’t even know he’d been to Fume before,’ admitted Kate.
Mina took her into a small room where two comfortable chairs sat either side of a table spread with a deck of picture cards. ‘Edgar left this place three years ago,’ she said, gesturing for Kate to sit down. ‘He always was a good boy. Cunning and quick. Never frightened of danger.’
‘That doesn’t sound much like Edgar,’ said Kate.
Mina gathered up the picture cards and shuffled them as she talked. ‘We all change in order to survive,’ she said. ‘Edgar was taken from his family at a very young age. The councilwoman Da’ru Marr bought him and his brother Tom from the Night Train. Edgar was one of her servants for more than four years. As far as most of the wardens in the chambers know, he still is.’
‘He worked for Da’ru?’
‘Not by choice, you understand. When Edgar was thirteen he escaped from the chambers. He tried to take his brother with him, but Tom was not where he was meant to be that night and Edgar had to leave him behind. Da’ru knows he will go back for his brother one day, so she always keeps Tom close, hoping to draw him out. There is nothing she dislikes more than a traitor.’
‘Edgar walked right past the wardens outside my room,’ said Kate. ‘If they knew who he was, why didn’t they just arrest him then?’
‘Da’ru would never admit that one of her servants had tricked his way into freedom,’ said Mina. ‘Most wardens would assume Edgar had been working in one of the other towns on her behalf and now he has come back. The men stationed on the Night Train were mostly new, so they would not have recognised him, but the High Council rarely change their chamber guards. Edgar was counting on them to recognise his face. That was how he planned to get you out. The moment Da’ru learns he is back, she will hunt him down. No one enjoys being deceived, which is also why my people are so reluctant to have you here. They think you have been corrupted and that bringing you here will invite danger into our homes.’
‘I’m not dangerous,’ said Kate.
Mina did not look convinced. She laid three cards face down on the table. ‘You may believe that now,’ she said, ‘but they do have good reason to be afraid. Last night there was a shift in the veil and the minds of the Skilled were blinded to it for a short time. That only happens when a powerful soul connects with the veil, an event so rare that none of us here have experienced it in our lifetimes. Even the shades were agitated by it. Do you know what a shade is?’
‘Spirits?’ said Kate. ‘I’ve read about them. Spirits of the dead who have not been able to leave this world behind.’
‘But you do not believe in shades, do you?’ Mina turned the first card face up. It had a painted picture of a tree upon it - an enormous tree with wide branches spreading out across mountains, rivers and groups of tiny people.
‘I don’t really know what to believe any more,’ said Kate.
‘That is often the first step on the path to knowledge. You do not have to understand what life shows you, you only need to be open to it.’
‘What are those?’ asked Kate, pointing to the cards as Mina turned the second one face up. Its design was much simpler than the first: its two halves painted in black and white, with a grey silhouette of a person standing half in one side, half in the other.
‘They are windows,’ said Mina. ‘Sometimes the cards reveal truths that we cannot yet see within ourselves or others. I am using them to learn more about you.’
Kate did not know if she liked the idea of that or not. ‘What do they say?’
Mina pushed the two cards towards her. ‘Sometimes the veil likes to keep its secrets,’ she said. ‘You are a mystery, it seems. Even to the cards. There is nothing definite here. Only possibilities. Your path is not yet clear.’
Kate saw a look of worry cross Mina’s face. ‘What about the third one?’ she asked.
Mina slid the last card off the table and put it in her pocket. ‘This one is not for your eyes,’ she said. ‘I already know what it will say.’ She gathered up the rest of her picture cards and smiled. ‘The shades are very interested in you,’ she said brightly, trying to lighten the mood. ‘Do not be afraid of them. They can be troublemakers, but they cannot do any real harm. There is a lot for you to learn and the Skilled will help you if we can.’
Mina looked at Kate sadly, and the room slipped into silence.
‘Well then,’ Mina said, standing up. ‘First things first. There is a room you can use while you are staying here. I will show it to you now so you have time to read your letter. After that, when you are ready, there are important matters we need to discuss.’ She left her picture cards stacked on the table and Kate could not help looking back at them as she led her out into the corridor.
Mina’s spare room was right at the back of her single-storey house, set deep into the wall of the cavern. There were no windows, but it was still airy enough to be comfortable, and Kate was glad to have somewhere she could be alone.
‘I’ll cook us some food,’ Mina said on her way out. ‘You can’t have eaten well since you left home. Take as long as you need here and come along to the front room whenever you’re ready.’
‘Thank you,’ said Kate. ‘For bringing me here and telling me about Edgar. I don’t know if he would ever have told me himself.’
‘You don’t have to thank me, child. I am sure he would have told you everything, given time. The boy is quite taken with you. Though I am not certain even he knows it yet.’
Mina smiled as she left and Kate made sure that the door was propped open before sitting down on a cushioned chair. Edgar’s letter was still in her hand. She unthreaded the string, unrolled the page and began to read.
I know you’ll have questions, but if you’re reading this it means I can’ t answer them yet. There are things you don’t know about me. Mina will explain if you still want to know, but believe me, you have more important things to think about right now.
Mina says she knows where Artemis is! One of Da’ru’s men bought him from the wardens at the station. She’s making him work for her now. Something about finding a missing book. The Skilled know how to get to him and Mina’s promised to take you there whenever you want to go.
You can trust these people, Kate. They’re my friends.
I hope you’re OK. Stay safe, and don’ t worry about me. These wardens aren’t as smart as they think. I’m sure I’ll think of something.
See you soon.
Kate read the letter twice.
She had left him behind. Edgar had risked so much to help her and she had left him behind.
Kate rolled up the letter and tucked it away. If Mina knew where Artemis was, she had to speak to her. If there was a chance she could find him, she had to know for herself.
She caught her reflection in a mirror on her way out. She looked tired. Her blue eyes were washed out and there were black veins appearing within the blue that had never been there before. She looked away from the glass, refusing to think about what those veins might mean, and walked out into the corridor.
A muffled shout from the front room made her stop halfway.
Kate froze. The window next to the front door was hanging open. She was sure it had not been like that before. She looked back down the corridor. The entire back of the house was built into the ground. If something bad happened, that door was her only way out.
She walked towards the front room, concentrating so hard on listening for Mina that she did not feel the floorboards flex beneath her as someone closed in from behind. She did not see a faint shadow pass across the wall, or smell the scent of blood upon the air.
Kate peered into the front room and saw Mina lying still upon the floor.
Too still.
She bolted for the door, only to be grabbed before she could even push her key into the lock.
‘Very well done, Kate,’ said Silas, pressing his hand over her mouth before she could shout for help. ‘I see your friend had something to do with your escape. Perhaps I underestimated his skills after all.’
Kate squirmed in his arms but he would not let go.
Silas pushed her into the front room, forcing her to step over the dead woman on the floor. Mina was lying on her side, her eyes wide and empty. In her hand was the third picture card, the one she would not let Kate see. On it was a picture of a skeleton laid out on a platform inside a tomb: a picture that could only represent one thing. Death.
Instinct made Kate reach out a hand to try to touch the dead woman, desperate to call her spirit back into life as she had done with Kalen, but Silas held her back, refusing to let her try.
‘At least you are showing more confidence in your abilities,’ he said, smiling at her as she struggled against him. ‘The Skilled will believe you did this. They will not protect you now that you have murdered one of their own. None of them know that I am here and you will keep it that way, unless you think your new friend needs some company on her journey into death?’
Silas tightened his grip so that it hurt and Kate stopped struggling.
‘Good. Now … you will return to the tunnels. You will look at no one. You will speak to no one. Each time you disobey me, I will take a life, and the blood of those people will be on your hands. Do you understand me?’
Silas bullied her to the front door and Kate looked out at a group of people talking by the fountain, each of them oblivious to what had just happened inside the house.
‘Now,’ said Silas. ‘Walk.’
Kate looked back to say something, but Silas was already out of sight.
She knew she looked suspicious as she walked along that street, it was impossible not to with a madman tracking her from the shadows. Soon the Skilled would go into the house to look for Mina, and any trust Edgar might have earned for her would be gone. She wanted to tell them what had happened. She wanted to warn them, but all she could do was walk.
Kate’s eyes flickered up, just for a moment, and the man whose nose she had punched on the surface waved to get her attention from the other side of the street. Kate looked away quickly, concentrating on walking to the green door.
She heard footsteps close in on her as the man jogged to catch up, but she did not turn round. Her hand went to the door handle, hoping that it was unlocked.
‘Hey! Where are you going?’
The man pressed his hand lightly on her shoulder. Then it slid away, his throat squeaked quietly and she heard his body drop to the ground.
‘I saw you look,’ Silas whispered in her ear. ‘Step through.’
The door opened easily against Kate’s shaking hand. The Skilled were right, she was dangerous. She had led a killer right into their home.
Kate felt Silas’s presence move closer behind her. She was on her own now. No one was going to help her. She walked out into the tunnel, not daring to look back.