Chapter 32

Acceptance

She ran through the underground, a pale, frightened figure with a dishevelled cloak of silver-blonde hair sweeping out behind her. In one hand she clasped an old lamp, its flame locked behind a frame of grass and twisted copper, in the other the hand of her twin, whose neon orange hair was like a flame itself. Ahead of them, the passageway dropped into an uncertain darkness. The woman with the silver-blonde hair glanced over the edge.

“It’s about ten, maybe fifteen metres and pretty steep,” she said. “You want to jump or climb?”

Her sister looked horrified at the thought of either. “What I want is to go home,” she said. “I’m worried about mother.”

“She’s not our mother, Lonie.”

“Shut up!” Lonie’s lips twisted into a vicious scowl. “At least she actually gives a damn. Face it, Liza, our real mother couldn’t care less what happened to us. That’s why she ran away. She’s nothing but a stupid wh—”

Liza’s slap echoed through the cavern, leaving a mark on her sister’s cheek almost as bright as her hair. “Our parents are dead,” she said. “Pleiades killed them, and if we’re not careful, they’ll come after us, too. That’s why they sent us to live with Uncle Verraden. It was the only way to keep us safe. The only way to keep you safe.”

Lonie turned away, hiding her face behind a sweep of hair. “D—don’t start that again. I’m not an Oracle or whatever. I—I’m just a girl! A twelve-year old girl!”

“You don’t look twelve. Now come on, unless you want to try your luck with the Sophists.” Securing the lamp to her belt, Liza started her descent.

I don’t know if they were following us. I don’t know if they even cared. But I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know who else to turn to.

Lonie glanced back the way they came, then started after her sister. “Why are we even doing this?” she asked, voice trembling on the verge of a sob. “We don’t know anyone down here.”

“I do,” replied Liza, as she jumped the final few metres to the ground below. “I know Fomalhaut.”

Lonie landed next to her. “I didn’t come all the way down here just to meet your imaginary friend,” she said.

“He’s not imaginary,” said Liza, unhooking the lamp from her belt.

“You told me he was a fish. A talking fish.”

“What is it Uncle Verraden always says? Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Lonie grumbled, but did not question her sister.

The tunnels continued for what seemed like hours, a network of forgotten catacombs and irregular stairways that twisted in on themselves and under themselves and down, down, down into the depths of the earth. Just when it seemed as if their journey might never end, the way ahead opened upon a cavern, wide yet low, and filled with the sound of sloshing water.

Liza hurried ahead. “Fomalhaut?” she called. “Fomalhaut, it’s me, Aliza!” Reaching the shore of an underground lake, she tossed her lamp aside and started into the waters.

“This is crazy,” said Lonie, picking up the lamp and casting its light over the dark waters. “There’s no one here.”

Aliza ignored her. “Fomalhaut, where are you? We need your help.”

They both look about eighteen, actually. And, when their mother was twelve, she looked about twenty-one. Or, you know, a full-grown adult. Being a Maiden is fun like that.