I. At Break of Day
The warmth—a prickly, heating flame—grazed Vincent’s face, the red heat of sunlight burning behind his closed eyelids. The panicked rush of daylight-Above-hide-run! still disconcerting after more than a month in the brownstone, causing his heart to beat a frantic rhythm until the faint fragrance of Catherine’s scent reached him. Home. Their brownstone, their home, their place between the worlds. Bluebird House. The distant flutter of birds’ wings in the trees below told him it was early in the morning and he stretched, opening his eyes. Catherine lay beside him, one bare leg outside the covers (how she could sleep with one leg exposed, Vincent never understood—no matter what the ambient temperature, she always slept like that.) There was a subtle play of light and color over her skin; their bed was angled so that the muted colors from the stained glass window were the first to greet them each morning.
As Vincent watched, dust motes glistened, shining miniature prisms stirring in the subtle air currents. The play of light on Catherine’s leg—a diffuse red, palest green, the faintest violet—blushed on her fair skin, a kaleidoscope on satin. She stirred in her sleep and Vincent froze—would she wake, somehow sensing his regard? Instead, she burrowed more deeply into the sheets.
He leaned back against his pillow and pondered the day ahead. The day before, Father had received a message from the outer community that Angela and Lucas’s infant son was ill, and with Peter attending a conference out of state, Father had taken the unprecedented step of accepting a car ride from Catherine so he could more quickly attend to his patient. He had left Vincent in charge of the tunnels until his return, and Vincent had, of course, accepted. There was no one else Father would have considered asking, no one whose leadership he trusted and as he’d said before Catherine’s car door ended their conversation, “You’ll have to do this one day anyway. I know you’ll do it well.”
“Well” was relative, Vincent mused. He knew the outward functions of running the tunnels, the day-to-day minutiae which Father handled with apparent ease. But observation was vastly different from having the entire responsibility thrust upon him and as the muted noise from the radiator—in reality, messages from the pipes Below—began to increase, Vincent could only hope Father would return soon.
“You’re brooding again,” Catherine murmured beside him.
The golden spill of her hair partially covered her face; Vincent brushed it back with a gentle hand. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”
“I was dreaming,” Catherine said, “and you called to me.”
“What were we doing in your dream?” he asked, taking her in his arms. Frequently her dreams were a quicksilver river merging with his own as they slept, but the boundaries between their conscious, awake minds were not as fluid.
“We were playing baseball,” Catherine replied. She grinned. “Do you even play baseball?”
“I did. Of a sort.”
He gestured in the rough direction of the tunnels. “There’s a lot you can do in the wider corridors without…anyone noticing.”
Catherine laughed, a delighted trill. “Vincent, you were rebellious!”
“Guilty,” he replied, unrepentant. “Father didn’t like it, of course, not with the torches everywhere. And I suppose it was dangerous—”
“Hardly,” Catherine put in. “Now, if you’d played baseball in Central Park? That would have been dangerous.” She propped her head up on one hand. “So, we were playing baseball in the park and Father had just bunted and you wanted me to run to third. That was when I woke up.” Her small hand cupped his chin. “Why are you so…preoccupied? Father?”
There was no hiding the truth from her, something which was occasionally as harrowing as it was comforting. “Yes,” he admitted. “Santos, Kanin and Angus want my input on the tunnel expansion project. They’ve waited some months and Santos thinks he’ll be able to…borrow some surveying equipment without any difficulty.”
“But Father has the final say?”
“Father and the council, yes. This meeting is a preliminary one, mainly to see what the full extent of their plans are. Angus would, of course, like a final decision now, but…”
“The decision isn’t mine to make. And even if it were, I don’t want to be…seen to be taking too much of Father’s authority while he’s gone.”
“I don’t blame you,” Catherine said. “Especially since you’re not sure if you want to take over for Father one day.” She paused. “Wait. Angus wants to do something with Kanin? And it doesn’t involve using him as a punching bag?”
Vincent smiled. “They seem to have mended their fences. I doubt they’ll ever be friends, but…civility is a welcome change.”
“Will you go with them on the expansion project?” Catherine asked.
“Yes. My skills will be needed.” He kissed the palm of her hand, felt the small thrill shoot through her. “And there is…considerable pressure from the community to see this done and done quickly.”
“Space is at a premium, isn’t it?”
“It always has been. We have several teenagers who should be moving into their first chambers now and out of the children’s dormitories, but there’s simply not much room to spare, and families have priority on what room we do have.”
A message clanked its way through their radiator: a reminder of the Council meeting set for later on this morning. “What else is on the agenda?” Catherine asked.
“Minutiae, mainly. Elizabeth seeking help expanding the Painted Tunnels; Mary wanting scheduling for the inventory of supplies in the hospital chamber; Mouse’s latest plans for the freshwater source he and Angus discovered last week, which will doubtless include one or more gizmos. For the sake of Father’s blood pressure, I suspect I’d best take care of those plans before Father hears of them.” He breathed out and smiled. What was it about her presence that made his problems easier in the telling? “It won’t be a difficult meeting.”
“Yet you’re brooding,” Catherine observed.
“I heard what Father said to you before I drove him to Angela’s tunnel entrance,” Catherine went on. “He…assumes a lot. Doesn’t he?”
Vincent nodded. “Yes.” That there was more, he didn’t need to say, the press of expectations and a promise made in miasmic darkness nearly choking him again. “There was no one else he could ask.”
“This time, yes. The next time, though?” Catherine asked gently. She shook her head. “He’s not a young man. If you don’t think you want to lead the tunnels, then the two of you will have to find some other way.”
“Yes,” he replied. “I know I need to talk to him about this, but…I am afraid.”
“Of what?” Catherine asked.
He let out a dry, rueful laugh. Even to his own ears, there was no humor in the sound. “Of his disappointment. He’s built so much and if I choose wrongly…”
“My father planned to leave his partnership in his law firm to me,” Catherine told him. “And when he realized I wasn’t going to come back and take that corner office, it was hard, very hard. But it was my life. I was the only one who had to live it.” Her hand brushed his hair. “You showed me I had the strength. And you’re not alone.”
Catherine was conscious of Vincent’s pensive silence as they walked the long corridors in the tunnels. She didn’t need to attend this meeting, it was true, but her presence gave Vincent a measure of support. “Has there been any word on Joshua’s condition?” she asked.
“No,” Vincent replied. “Father said he’d send a message once he was stabilized.”
“Do you think it’s very bad?”
“It’s hard to say,” he admitted. “Angela and Lucas are…not always forthcoming. But for them to contact Father—”
Catherine nodded. “It doesn’t sound good.”
“No. And Joshua is Leah’s age—a newborn, or at most a few months old. It’s…worrying.”
“How many families live in the outer community?” she asked. There was so much she still didn’t know about his world—their world, now—so many stories she’d never heard.
“We don’t really know,” Vincent answered. “Father told me there were three or four families when Grace brought him Below, but they…discouraged any further questioning.”
“With guns,” Vincent told her. “They…didn’t want to be bothered. Grace thought it a good idea to leave them alone.”
“Wow, yeah. I can see why.” Catherine said, astonished. “Are they as…feisty now?”
“Yes and no,” Vincent answered. “We have very…tentative relations with them; I got to know many of the families when Mouse first came to us but in the main, they live precisely as they wish to, separate from the rest of the main community.” He shook his head. “There is no physician among them and coupled with their extreme isolation…it can be dangerous to live as they do. It’s only been in the last few years they’ve made it to a few Winterfests, but there are entire families living in the outer areas who are almost strangers to us.”
He walked into a narrow side corridor and Catherine followed him. When the corridor dead-ended, he said quietly, “Several of the outer ring families live very close to the remnants of Paracelsus’s community.”
The evil that men do, Catherine thought, wondering if the community—and Vincent himself—would ever be free from that most malignant of ghosts. “Is Father in danger?”
“No…at least, he didn’t believe so. But it’s always been a concern, you understand.”
She nodded. “You don’t know where their allegiance was.”
“Precisely. I’ve asked Rhys and Quinn to meet him there as soon as their other duties are completed. Quinn was trained as a nurse in the Army—and Rhys is….”
Catherine smiled as a picture of the broad-shouldered Welshman flashed before her. “Formidable. When he’s not getting lost.”
Vincent nodded. “Yes. Father…debated about going but he couldn’t stay away. But that doesn’t mean he should be alone there.”
“Of course not,” Catherine replied. “When will Quinn and Rhys arrive?”
“I heard the message while you were in the shower this morning; they should arrive early this afternoon.”
Catherine looked up at him. She could almost feel the weight of his burdens pressing on her shoulders, see the tension deepening the furrow between his arched brows, the lines around his eyes. Vincent was worried, and by more than just Father’s absence. “What is it, love?”
“The other families don’t live as we do. They have a rather…intense dislike of the world above.” He tilted his head. “Do you remember when I told you about Father’s discussion with Mouse?”
“Which one?” Catherine asked with a grin and was rewarded by a chuff of raspy laughter.
“The one about ‘finding, not taking,’ ” Vincent went on with a smile. “Since our community was founded, we’ve survived by society’s cast-offs…later, as the first helpers’ network began, it became easier to draw that bright line in the sand and say, ‘We do not steal.’ ” He paused. “There is no helper the outer communities trust, no one they can depend on to bring them food or medicines in times of crisis. Except for Father.”
“Then how do they survive?” Catherine asked, though she felt she might already know the answer.
“They steal, Catherine,” Vincent responded. “They justify it as profiting from a city which has already rejected them, but…”
“I can’t imagine that goes over well with Father,” Catherine said.
“No,” Vincent agreed. “We co-exist well for the most part, but he worries—as we all do—that one day, their actions will bring unwanted scrutiny on us. And if it does…” he spread his hands.
“The expansion project,” Catherine realized. “You’re also looking for a place to retreat, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “If we must. We had no such plans when the foundations for Burch Tower were laid.” He shook his head. “We will not be caught unawares again.”
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