Sammy tried to keep her mind blank by not thinking of anything, but it was impossible. Trying not to think of anything typically results in you thinking about the thing you didn’t want to think about in the first place. As she came to the conclusion that she needed to think of something else, in order to replace the something she didn’t want to think about, she turned a corner and was dazzled by the galaxy of lamp post lanterns surrounding the palace.
She stopped and rubbed her puffy eyes.
“What’s up?” Mehrak asked.
“This is the palace,” Sammy said.
“Yeah. The infirmary’s on the other side.”
“Does Hami know about Borzin yet?”
“I don’t know. He’ll find out soon enough though, won’t he?”
“But until then we’re free. Unguarded.”
“I suppose. But the lift site’s manned, so we can’t leave, which means we can’t get to Louis.”
“We’re not going to leave or see Louis. We’re going to the market.”
“Why the market?”
“I need to see that old woman. The one Hami strangled.”
“She’s Esther. The old woman that gave me the bracelet to look after.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me? Are you serious?”
“Of course I’m serious. I couldn’t tell you before because Hami was with us, then there was Leiss and … There just wasn’t a good time, okay?”
“We could’ve gone to the market instead of going to Bertie’s.”
“We couldn’t. Leiss said it was off limits. That’s why Hami sent them with us. He knows about her, somehow. You should’ve seen the way he grabbed her. You missed most of it. He was like my dad when …” She stopped. “Actually, never mind.”
Mehrak frowned. “I know you were impressed when Hami defeated that manticore, but using violence …”
“Can you save the lecture.”
Mehrak blew out a long breath. “Okay. We’d better get going. We won’t have much time before Hami figures out we’ve gone.”
The streets near the market were crowded. People were out buying clothes, picking up groceries. And Sammy was gathering attention. The children were the most blatant. They pointed at her, then put their hands to their heads and giggled.
“They’re all looking at you,” Mehrak said. “We aren’t even going to get to the market at this rate.” He stopped. “Follow me.” He pulled Sammy down a narrow alley between two crooked shops. “Stay down here while I find something to cover your head.” Then he left.
Sammy waited in the shadows. It was far quieter in the alley than out on the street, like the passage near Bertie’s house. She imagined the place getting hotter, the tall figure appearing at the end of the street. Her heart was already racing.
She closed her eyes and held her breath. It wasn’t getting any hotter; she was being irrational. She wasn’t as brave as she thought she was. She slouched against the wall and considered how lame she was in real life. All those Arnie movies she’d studied, too. Maybe she wasn’t a total coward – she was disobeying Hami. But did all adventurers feel this ill during their escapades? Indiana
Jones, Nathan Drake or Lara Croft wouldn’t suffer stomach cramps and irritable bowels.
Sammy walked further up the alley and crouched in the recess of a doorway. She sat down, hugging her knees to her chest, and waited.
Mehrak had been gone ages. What was he doing? She couldn’t stay where she was forever. She peered round the doorframe.
In the street, two Marzban were talking with the children who’d seen her earlier. One of them pointed down the alley in her direction. The men turned towards her. Sammy ducked back into the doorway. Had they seen her? Probably not. The Keep was a dark place and the alleyway even darker.
They were coming though; she could hear them. No need to panic. All she had to do was move on and find somewhere else to hide.
She ducked out of the doorway and crept up the alley, hugging the wall.
Outside of the main, brightly lit thoroughfares, the Keep was a warren of dark, intertwining passages, which would help hide Sammy from the guards, although she’d probably lose Mehrak as a result.
The guards were getting closer. Sammy made a run for it, legging it down another passage at full pelt. And crashed head-first into someone coming the other way. She squawked as she hit the floor.
“It’s me,” Mehrak said as he hoisted her up. “The whole place is swarming with Marzban. Word’s out already; they’re looking for us. I think one of them saw me. Maybe we should give ourselves up and try another time.”
“No.” Sammy shoved Mehrak back up the alley, away from the pursuing Marzban. “There won’t be another time; we’re leaving tomorrow.”
“Oi, you!” called one of the guards behind them. “Stop!”
“Down here!” Sammy ducked down a passage to the left, dragging Mehrak with her. Sammy pushed him into an alcove and flattened herself next to him as the Marzban came around the corner carrying lanterns. Light sloshed up and down the walls as the lanterns swung in time with the men’s footfalls. The light briefly touched on Sammy and Mehrak, but the guards didn’t see them and clattered past.
The dark returned as the guards disappeared out of sight.
Mehrak let out a long sigh. “That was close.” He took a ragged pashmina out of his pocket. “Sorry about the colour, but this was all I could find.”
Sammy couldn’t really see the colour in the semi-darkness. It was a bit browny, maybe. No big deal. If it meant finding Esther, Sammy could do brown. “It’s great,” she said. “Thank you.”
Mehrak placed the scarf over her head and tied it under her chin. “I found it in a dog basket.”
“What?” Sammy pulled the scarf off. “That’s disgusting! It’s probably got fleas. Why didn’t you tell me about the dog basket before apologising for the colour?”
“This was all I could find. Do you want to get into the market or not?”
“Of course I want to get into the market!” Sammy snatched the scarf back.
“I thought you liked animals.”
“Not on my head!”
Sammy looked at the scarf. The dog was bound to have been incontinent or have some skin disease. Urgh. She took a deep breath and put it on. The most important objective was to get back to the Mother World. She’d get some flea powder or whatever she needed when she got home.
Mehrak bent down, rubbed his hands in the dirt, stood up and rubbed them on Sammy’s face. She squirmed as he smeared it on her.
“Bleurgh!” Sammy spat out the grit that had found its way into her mouth and dragged a sleeve across her face.
Mehrak stood back to admire his handy work. “A street urchin if ever I saw one,” he said.
Sammy would get him back for that. But for now, she said, “Thanks,” as unappreciatively as she could, and exaggerated spitting out more grit.
“You can thank me when you’ve found out how to get back to the Mother World,” he said. “The market is that way.” He pointed. “You won’t have much time. Hami will have kept Esther a secret so the Marzban won’t be guarding her, but they’ll know you’re headed for the market. Keep a lookout; they’ll be patrolling the area. I’ll go back to the street and create a diversion.”
This was it, and Sammy couldn’t move. Mehrak put his hands on her shoulders. “The worst thing that can happen is that they find you and bring you back to the palace.”
Sammy stared into his hazel eyes. “No. The worst thing is that they bring me back to the palace, we leave the Keep tomorrow and I never get the chance to speak to the only person in Perseopia that knows how to go to, and from, the Mother World.”
“Just make sure you don’t get caught, then,” Mehrak said, then turned and ran in the opposite direction.
Sammy set off slowly, creeping through the crooked back alleys. It was an assault course of undesirable obstacles; mounds of damp fabrics and brown, mushy vegetables pulsating with maggots. She even stepped over a drunk, sleeping off a hangover in the gutter. He smelt worse than her dad after the coach dropped him off following an away defeat.
She sped up a bit. She was moving too slowly, she might not have long left. She flew round a corner and almost crashed headlong into a pair of Marzban. She stopped. They were facing the opposite direction and hadn’t heard her. Quietly, she tiptoed back around the corner.
She’d seen the market though, just past the two guards. She’d have to double back and find another route, but time was running out. Stay calm.
Three shrill pips of a whistle chirruped in the distance behind her.
“That didn’t take long,” said one of the Marzban.
“A young girl and a villager from the boundary?” the other said. He snorted. “They were hardly going to pose a challenge, were they?”
Sammy ducked behind a pile of festering vegetables. She sat in the shadows on the floor, pinching her nose and holding her shirt over her mouth. She gagged as quietly as she could while the Marzban jogged past and disappeared round the bend.
“Not quite as easy to catch as you thought, scum bags,” she whispered. Well done, Mehrak. Maybe I won’t get you back too hard for the dog scarf.
Sammy kept her head down and the scarf pulled tight as she weaved her way through the crowded market. The scarf turned out to be an inoffensive browny-green colour. Why the heck did Mehrak even bring the colour up? Sammy rolled her shoulders back and exhaled her anger. Forget the scarf. Relax.
The market was hotter and sweatier than the inside of a football mascot’s costume, and Sammy was shoved around as she made her way through the crowd of people. A chunky woman pushed past her and the scarf came loose. It was only down around her neck a moment, but that was enough. A tall round-bellied man with a beetroot face and small piggy eyes spotted her.
“Look at this girl’s hair,” he called. “It’s bright yellow!”
Sammy pulled the scarf back over her head and rushed on.
“Come back, deary,” a woman called. “He don’t mean nothin’ by it.”
Sammy clutched the scarf by its corners, kept her head down and ran. Most of the market dwellers weren’t interested in her, but a couple stopped to comment.
She rushed through the shoppers and stall owners, ducking under hanging meats, pushing through embroidered fabrics, making for the back of the market.
She staggered to a halt in front of Esther’s stall, flustered and not at all prepared for what she wanted to say.
The old woman looked down at her, then flinched. She looked about nervously.
“Why did you come back? What do you want from me?” She had blotchy purple bruises around her throat, turning yellow at the edges.
Sammy stared into her eyes. “I want to go home.”
Esther said nothing as she glanced at the market behind Sammy.
“The magus isn’t with me,” Sammy said. “What he did, that was nothing to do with me. I didn’t mean for it to happen.” The scarf was coming loose again. She pulled it tight.
The woman fixed Sammy with burning eyes. “Where’s Esther?” she asked.
Sammy experienced an odd sensation of the ground slipping away beneath her. A floaty numb haze filled her head. The woman’s olive-green eyes met hers. Olive-green, not pale blue. It was so obvious, but her brain was taking an eternity to process the information. And then, like a Jean-Claude roundhouse kick to the face, it hit her.
The woman wasn’t Esther.
“But …” The words weren’t coming to her, like someone had anesthetised her brain. “You’re not Esther?”
“You thought …?” The woman’s eyes left Sammy and focused on something behind her. “Is there anything on the stall that I can interest you in?” she said.
“What?” What was she doing?
“I think this marble candle holder may be what you’re looking for,” the woman said, leaning forward to pick it up from the front
of the table. As she did so, she whispered, “Don’t turn around. You’re being watched.”
“Well?” the old woman went on, normal volume again. “Is this what you were looking for?”
Sammy could feel eyes burning into the back of her neck. “Er … yeah, I suppose,” she said. She clutched the corners of the scarf.
“The girl went that way,” came a loud voice from behind.
Sammy couldn’t bear it any longer and chanced a look. It was the man who’d pointed out her yellow hair, Mr Beetroot-head. He was talking to the Marzban. She turned back to the woman, gripping the scarf.
“Keep calm. They haven’t seen you yet,” the woman whispered. Then she said louder, “That’ll be four Staters.” She held out her hand. “Pretend you’re giving me some money, take the candle holder and then walk slowly into the alleyway to my right.” She tipped her head towards it.
“But I need to ask you –”
“You must hurry!” the woman urged. She paused. “Too late.” She dashed around the table, grabbed Sammy by the wrist and dragged her down the alley.
“Where are we going?”
“If you want to know more about my sister, stop talking and run!”
Sister. It was so obvious, she should’ve seen it.
“Come back!” came the call, followed by the echo of footsteps in the alley behind them.
Esther’s sister dragged Sammy through the dark alleyways, navigating the maze of intersecting passages almost at random until Sammy thought they must be impossibly lost. Then, without warning, they barrelled through a crooked door into a small, dim living area. The door clattered against the inside wall, a woman screamed and a baby cried out. Esther’s sister grabbed the door and pushed it shut behind her.
The woman looked up at them from her seat by the fireside, the whites of her eyes shining bright in her grimy face. “Zara? Is that you?” she said. A small face peered out of a bundle of rags on her lap and cried.
Esther’s sister slumped against the door. “Yeah, it’s me,” she said. “I’m sorry, Labina, I didn’t know where else to go. We’re being followed.”
“Oh my goodness! Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. I’ll explain everything later. Can we use the bedroom?”
“Of course. Is this to do with –?”
“I’ll explain, later. I don’t have time right now. Can you keep Mito quiet, please? She’ll give us away.”
Zara led Sammy across the small room, passing bags of dirty fabrics, boxes that served as furniture, and through a door opposite. They entered a second, smaller room where Zara closed the door and dragged a tattered curtain across a single porthole window. Zara pulled up a box to use as a chair and motioned for Sammy to sit on a small, metal-framed bed against the wall. Sammy sat. The adrenaline that had been driving her since Borzin’s attack was dwindling and she was shattered. She almost didn’t care about anything right then; all she wanted was to lie back and go to sleep.
As Sammy’s eyes acclimatised to the dark, she realised Zara was so like Esther they could almost be twins.
Zara watched her. “What do you know about Esther?” she asked.
“How about you tell me what your sister’s done to me first?” Sammy replied.
Zara pursed her lips. “I don’t know what she’s done. I haven’t seen her since she left the Keep thirty years ago.”
Sammy wasn’t expecting that.
“Look. I’m sorry if Esther’s tricked you or upset you in some way,” Zara said. “But we don’t have much time. It won’t take the Marzban long to track us down. All I care about is where you saw
her.” She took a sharp intake of breath. Her eyes were filling with tears. “I thought she was … She hasn’t written in so long …” She stopped herself and took another long breath and held it. When she let it out she asked, “When did you see her?”
Sammy looked into Zara’s eyes. She was either a really good liar or she was actually telling the truth.
“I saw her about five days ago,” Sammy said.
A laugh burst from Zara’s mouth and she wiped the spit from her lips. Tears streamed down her cheeks but she smiled through them.
“Where?” she asked.
“In a market.”
“One where I come from.”
“And where’s that?”
Sammy’s heart sank. Zara didn’t know anything. “The Mother World,” she said, and then waited for the reaction.
Zara didn’t react as Sammy had expected. A wry smile spread across her lips.
“You have spoken to her, haven’t you?” she said. “Esther would never admit that she was mistaken. I bet she’s still living with the Hirbod, too proud to come home. Did she put you up to this?”
Sammy was tired and frustrated. She couldn’t be bothered to convince Zara that she came from the Mother World. “Why do you think I’m being chased by the Marzban?” she said. “Look at the colour of my hair.”
Zara raised an eyebrow.
“Esther went to the Mother World,” Sammy said. “I don’t exactly know why, but while she was there, she found a magic bracelet to bring her back here. Except it didn’t work for her, it worked for me instead, and now I’m here and she’s still there. I don’t care if you believe me or not. All I need to know is how your sister got to the Mother World in the first place, because I want to
go back.” Tears were blurring her vision, but she forced herself not to cry.
Zara watched her. “She really made it?”
Sammy maintained eye contact. “Yeah. She did.”
Zara bit her lip. “Esther said she’d go places. She was my little sister, but so much more confident than me. She had aspirations above our class, wanted more out of life. I took over the family market stall. She showed signs of magi abilities. A female magus! No one could believe it. The first in a hundred years.” Zara laughed and shook her head. “The magi were thrilled – of course – and she was taken to the magi garrison for training. We didn’t see her for a long time. But one day she came back. She’d run away, left the brotherhood. She said it was because she didn’t agree with their agenda, but I think she’d met someone, someone who was influencing her decisions. I once overheard her tell my mother she’d met a girl from the Mother World, and that she was going there. The girl had told her amazing stories of vibrant multi-coloured vegetation and blue skies. Then her friend Levellie, the Regent Mother, got her a job at the palace library. After that, we hardly ever saw her and she spent most of her time at work. But one night she came home excited, said she was leaving the Keep, going travelling.”
Zara paused. “That was the last time we ever saw her. We received a single letter while she was staying with the Hirbod, then nothing.”
A door crashed outside the room.
“They’re here!” Zara said.
Sammy leapt up. “Did Esther say anything about how to get to the Mother World?”
The bedroom door burst open and four hefty Marzban officers bundled in.
The largest one stepped forward. “Principal Hootan said you’d be here.” He grabbed Sammy by the arm. “Your presence is required at the palace.” And he pulled her out of the room.
“Where did she go?” Sammy cried. “I need to know!”
“I … I don’t know …” Zara called back, as the front door slammed and Sammy was dragged away along the alley.