II. Some Enchanted Meeting
Vincent had been attending tunnel meetings since his early childhood; some of his first memories were of sitting among the large bookshelves in Father’s upper alcove while the discussions went on far beneath him. It was only later, when his roles and responsibilities had grown exponentially, that he had been expected to attend every one, no matter how mundane, and contribute something to the discussions. He’d fought it at first—the lure of late-night strolls in New York City far more attractive than the early-morning tunnel conferences—but Father had silenced his objection with a stern, “And how do you think it will look when you lead these people but don’t know the first thing about governing them?”
As a teenager, Father’s logic had been smothering and something dark and wrathful had arisen inside him—surely it had only been Vincent’s own imagination which had heard the Other’s mocking laugh as they’d argued, the thwarted roar of fury rattling against the iron bars of its mental cage. Later, maturity and hard, brutal experience had brought a different perspective: he was not Winslow, who had apprenticed Above for a time, nor was he Devin, who had fled in anger, nor was he Stewart or Marta or Ike or Janelle, or any of the other young people he’d grown up with. They had options, dreams of a world beyond the tunnels…and though Father had never said so openly (of course, some dark inner voice snarled) Vincent had come to acknowledge—if never fully accept—that their dreams and his would never be the same.
Vincent settled himself in the large carved chair which had been his since before his feet could touch the ground and watched as the members of the community began to enter Father’s antechamber. Not everyone was present—the haphazard nature of tunnel life meant that at any given time, there would always be people involved in maintenance or patrols which couldn’t be interrupted. But the chamber would nevertheless be nearly full, something which had astonished Catherine the first time she’d attended. “You’d be lucky to get ten people to attend my co-op board’s monthly meeting,” she told him. “Such a difference between our worlds.”
Now, all these years since his first meeting, Vincent understood Father’s wisdom in some measure; attending so many had given him a real understanding of the inner workings of the community, the tensions and the unspoken needs of people who lived in very close proximity. And in his role as unofficial mediator of a good many disputes, both trifling and otherwise, nothing could have given Vincent a greater sense of the community. But it was still…nerve-wracking…to stand in Father’s stead.
There was a cool wafting breeze of calm in their bond and almost as if Catherine stood near enough to brush his hair back, he felt her ghosting touch. She was seated with Valerie and Cullen and Marisol nearest the spiral staircase, but she met his eyes and smiled slightly. I’m here. Relax.
Angus ambled in, with Santos and Mary behind him. Mary had never been merely prompt for a meeting; she had usually an hour or more before, and many times Vincent had arrived to find her deep in conversation with Father. Today, as Vincent saw her laugh at something Santos said, he thought he had never seen her as young…or as content…before. Angus was another surprise, in a different vein; he sat down between Mary and Quinn, where before, he would have clung to the edge of the crowd, if he’d come at all. Of course, this was partially his project, Vincent mused, but still it was…interesting.
He glanced down at his notes written on one of Catherine’s legal pads (not for anything would he have used one of Father’s leather-bound ledgers) and rose. The crowd quieted almost immediately. “Good morning, everyone,” Vincent said. “No doubt William has prepared brunch for us so if we can finish this meeting quickly—”
“—That’ll be a first,” Cullen drawled and everyone chuckled.
Vincent smiled. “There’s a first time for everything, or so I hear. Elizabeth, you had a request?”
Elizabeth was neither frail nor particularly daft, Vincent knew, but she was preoccupied and frequently ill-at-ease with the larger community. Nevertheless, she stood and spoke in a firm, carrying voice. “I’m running out of wall space, you see, and I’d like to expand the Painted Tunnels.”
“How much space do you think you’ll need?” Vincent asked.
Elizabeth paused for a moment. “Two more tunnels, for now. The empty ones, you remember?”
He did indeed remember; the last time she’d needed additional space had been just before he’d found Catherine so…over three years ago now. He made a quick notation, absently calculating time and effort against the multiple maintenance projects already planned or in progress. “I don’t see why not, Elizabeth. There will be a sign-up sheet outside the commons; all who are interested in volunteering should sign up.”
Elizabeth smiled, though there was something a bit…mysterious about it. “Thank you. I’ve got a portrait in mind, you know.” Incredibly, she winked at him and with a swish of her skirts, sat back down.
Now, that was perplexing, Vincent mused; Elizabeth did paint more massive murals on occasion, but she preferred to save her larger scenes for her canvas works. And two tunnels’ worth was a considerable amount of space. I wonder what she’s planning? Putting away the mystery for a time, he looked at the next item on the list. “Mary, you wanted to schedule an inventory of the supplies in the hospital chamber?”
She rose to her feet. “Yes. Peter sent word last week that he’s going to be buying some supplies for his own practice soon, and he wanted to know what we need.”
“When is Peter planning to go shopping?” Vincent asked, making another notation. Inventory was something everyone dreaded at the best of times for the sheer monotony of the work, but it was necessary.
“His note said he’d be going in two weeks. We haven’t inventoried the largest stockroom since last winter so it’ll be a large job.”
Not since last year? Vincent wondered, startled. Father always insisted the inventories be done every three months—why was this put off for so long? Did he forget? Aloud, he said, “There doesn’t seem to be any important projects scheduled for this weekend so…any volunteers?”
A murmur went around the room as people suddenly found items of great interest in the worn carpeting underfoot, their shoes, even the darkened rock walls. Vincent repressed a sigh. “I need ten volunteers to work throughout the week. If I don’t get them, I’ll have to start picking people at random.” He felt rather than saw Catherine’s intent gaze and the impression of her assent crossed their bond. “Catherine and I will help. Who else?”
Catherine pulled the loose folds of her cardigan closer against the perpetual tunnel chill. She was seated in a low alcove near the spiral staircase; it was, as Valerie observed quietly as she finished feeding a hungry Leah, an excellent place to watch without being too much in the forefront. “That’s for people who actually have items on the agenda,” Valerie said in a whisper, lacing the front of her blouse closed again as she shifted Leah to her shoulder. “And I don’t know about you, but I hate sitting that close to Father in full meeting mode. Makes me feel like I got sent to the principal’s office.”
Catherine laughed, the memory of her own lectures from Father no longer quite as stinging. “I don’t blame you.”
Now, as the meeting continued around them, Catherine enjoyed her chance to watch Vincent all unawares. Such opportunities were rare; he was simply too aware—of himself, of her, of their bond—to ever be totally unguarded. Even in his deepest sleep, her slightest movement would cause him to shift, to draw her near. But in her observations now—with Vincent fully preoccupied with Mouse’s report of possible new water source—she came to a stunning conclusion, something she had sensed on an instinctive level but had not seen fully until this moment: Vincent was a leader. These people—his people—trusted him, his ability to mediate disputes and make decisions on their behalf, and no matter how uncomfortable Vincent was to be acting in Father’s stead, his community accepted him in the role. Whether Vincent himself ever would was another matter entirely, Catherine mused.
Valerie touched her arm. “He’s good at this, isn’t he?” she murmured quietly.
“Yes,” Catherine agreed.
By the end of the meeting, the minutiae had been taken care of; Vincent folded his notes into a folder for later presentation to Father and the council. “Angus, you wanted to discuss the expansion plans?”
Angus wiped his hands on his jeans. “Um…yeah. Santos, do you have the plans?”
Santos nodded. “Si. Here they are.”
Both men stood and walked towards the rough center of the room. Angus unfolded an easel and placed a carefully drawn map on it. Vincent could see the notations of the city streets and neighborhoods—West 60s, Midtown West, Lincoln Square---written besides those of the various tunnels; clearly, Angus and Santos were taking no chances that the breadth of the expansion plans might be misunderstood. Angus cleared his throat and began speaking. “We’ve been talking for years now—certainly since I came to the tunnels, and probably before that—about the need for this community to expand. With the help of Santos, we’ve been able to come up with a few areas where we think we could expand safely.”
A pleased murmur rose from the crowd. “The first step,” Angus continued, “is to get an accurate survey—to have clear maps of the areas we’re hoping to expand into so we know exactly what we’re dealing with. I know you all have seen our maps; some of them are so old that they’re nearly illegible. With Santos’s help, we hope to get that fixed. Then we can return and discuss the actual expansion plans with the Council.”
Vincent nodded. “How long do you estimate the survey will take?” he asked.
Santos tilted his head and considered. “A week, perhaps two, depending…”
“Depending?” Vincent inquired.
“If we do not have major projects planned,” Santos replied. “If I can get the necessary equipment. You know.”
“I do,” Vincent assured him, feeling the other man’s nervousness as if it were his own. Santos wanted so badly to make a good impression for…for….for Mary, Vincent realized, the current between them as alive as the one between he and Catherine. It was unusual to sense the other man’s feelings so strongly and Vincent firmly closed the mental door which protected him from the onslaught of others’ emotions; he could not afford distractions in the middle of this meeting. He fought back a wince as the first ominous pulse of a headache began to hammer. Of all the times…Vincent thought, but it could hardly be helped. “The sooner we can begin, the better,” he said aloud. “If the Council approves the survey project—which won’t happen until Father returns—when could you start?”
Santos shrugged. “A week or so. I do not think the surveying equipment will be noticed then, and things are always going in for repair, you understand…”
“Of course,” Vincent said dryly. “Thank you, Angus and Santos. Who would you want to come with you on this project?”
Angus wiped his hands on his patched and faded jeans. “Well, you of course—you were there with Simon when he made the original maps and that’s an area I’ve never traveled. The three of us should be able to get the initial surveys done and return inside of a week or so. For the actual expansion project itself—Kanin and his crew, you, me and whomever else volunteers. It should take a month or two, depending.”
Depending. Once those words had held a darker import—depending, Simon had once muttered under his breath, if they didn’t run into a rockfall where none should be, or an uncharted settlement of what Vincent later knew to be Paracelsus’s followers. Depending. And now? What will we find now? “That sounds reasonable,” Vincent stated, making a series of notations on his legal pad. “Father wanted to call the Council once he returns from the outer community; once a decision is made, you’ll be told. Thank you.” He looked around at the crowd. “If there’s nothing else, I think we should all head to breakfast.”
Click here for Chapter 3...