11: For a Father’s Approval
Astrid took her friend’s hand. She was trembling. The Founding Fathers’ indoctrination burned deep. Had it not been for her parents, it might well have claimed Astrid too, but they had taught her well. Guirlandes did not bow easily to the Aristocracy’s control — a flaw that cost Astrid’s mother and Elizabeth’s mother their lives.
Astrid forced a smile. “We’ll be all right, Lizzie.”
Vesperia raised a hand for silence. A moment later, a high-pitched squeal echoed through the streets below.
“Cerry! Cerry! Look what I found!” said Korrie Wedekind, her grating voice like that of a petulant child. The Donaran’s voice mumbled a reply. “But I want to keep it,” said Korrie. “Let me keep it, Cerry, pleeease?”
Elizabeth snuck closer to Astrid, her whole body shaking. Astrid kept a hold of her hand. She wished she could do more.
Vesperia, meanwhile, was already scouting out the way ahead. Astrid often wondered if she was afraid of anything.
“There is a stairway about thirty feet away,” she said, returning a moment later.
The same path the witches took, no doubt. Astrid felt Elizabeth shiver at the implication. At least, she reasoned, they could keep their distance, hide in the plentiful shadows — just as Seelie would expect of them, as ironic a twist as it was. And maybe, while they were there, they could watch Ceres and Korrie trigger the Founding Father’s trap.
Assuming, of course, there was such a thing.
As the three girls made their way down to the streets below, Astrid began to appreciate Elizabeth’s anxieties. A thin layer of dust covered everything in sight, absorbing the limited light and casting them into an unnatural darkness that Vesperia refused to punctuate with her cellular’s light for fear of alerting the witches ahead of them. Astrid wasn’t even sure if they were walking a street or a road or some decayed field, its grasses long since withered away. As the temperature began to drop, she wrapped her arm around Elizabeth for warmth.
“Why are we even here, Princess?” asked her handmaiden. “It’s cold and its dark and I’m bleeding and my feet hurt and—” she stifled a sob, “I—I’m scared.”
“We need to know what’s going on,” said Astrid, as much for her own sake as Elizabeth’s. She could feel her father’s hand on her shoulder, encouraging her. Stay strong, it said; do not feed the shadows with your fears. He would—no, he did understand why she was doing this, and he had every faith in her success. “We need to know the truth.”
After a short while fumbling through the dark, they came within sight of the houses Vesperia had spotted from atop the wall. The haze of blue light illuminated a stirring mist that played about the streets. After a quick scan to make sure that no one was waiting to ambush them, Vesperia urged her friends onwards.
“Rembrandt Payne did not disclose the location of our crystals,” she said. “We must scour every possible location.”
“I didn’t come here to impress Seelie,” said Elizabeth.
“But what if they’re up to no good?” said Astrid. Seelie, she thought, or the Aristocracy. “Isn’t that worth the risk?”
“Maybe,” she mumbled. “But please, let’s make it quick. I’d rather spend a night in the catacombs than another ten minutes in this place.”
Vesperia darted ahead to take cover in the shadows cast by the blue light. The houses themselves were three storeys high, modern and spacious in design, each one standing separate from the others, but not so isolated as the mansions of Malkuthians immigrants or Seelie’s overdesigned fortresses. Astrid reckoned there was probably eight or nine of them in the circle. As she slipped from shadow to shadow, she caught sight of the courtyard at their centre and the source of the light — some kind of obelisk, about seven or eight feet tall.
Everyone has their own ideas for what makes the ideal town. The Aristocracy prefers traditional streets and roads, the Donara favoured petal-like formations of houses around a central, communal courtyard, as demonstrated here.