Iara and I made our way quickly through the capital comb, the Healing Center drawing ever closer. We slipped in and out of the glow water pools, staying shallow but using the water for cover. Our bodies created silhouettes against the algae, but we were only noticeable from above. From ground level, we were able to slip by several patrols without being noticed.
The third time we slipped into a pool, I noticed it was much darker than the others. Tucked in between the two volcanoes of the capital, this one was fortunately empty. Iara and I dove into the water and swam straight down, forgoing our kickboards for the time being. But after about a minute, when the tunnel turned, I began to worry about air. I flailed my arms a little and Iara welcomed me, giving me what I needed. My shoulders relaxed, and I bent my head back and forth to the sides before slipping on my finboard and getting one more pull of oxygen. My movements were quicker. I forced my thoughts to the task at hand, to Liz and to Jonah, and sped off through the darkening tunnel in front of my companion.
Our next push took us through the jelly wall and out into the open waters. The familiars had joined us during our trip through the tunnel, and I enjoyed watching Iara as they created a haloed clutter around her head. She was herding us to another tunnel, so I followed, glooping through that jelly and ascending quickly.
When we broke the surface I could hear a tremendous amount of cheering coming from outside. We were just beneath the Healing Center, and it felt like all of Zebulon was roaring its approval in the main thoroughfare.
I realized what had happened. “She’s told them about Jonah.”
“Yes,” said Iara. “Jonah is child of her child. Heqet gives him to Zebulon.”
“What a bargain.” I managed to keep the enthusiasm out of my voice.
Strange, I thought, that there’s an inverse relationship between popularity and righteousness. Maybe if Christ’s death on the cross came with bikini models and tequila shooters, we would be more willing to give up our own lives rather than co-opt the lives of others.
Iara moved before I did and began to slink in and out of the shadows created by the glowwater, always moving closer to the Healing Center. Eventually she crouched down on all fours and wiggled herself into something that looked like a giant mouse hole. I followed, regaining my feet on the other side. We were in a darkened storage closet, lit only by the faint flow of Iara’s eyes.
Iara motioned for me, and I came closer. She put her foot on the top of my thigh and I got the hint, bracing her as she hoisted herself up into another small opening about chest height from the ground. I followed once more. We army-crawled just long enough for sweat to form on my eyebrows. I reached up and wiped them off, fingers coming away wet and cold. I felt like I had just petted a snail.
A space opened up around us laterally. The ceiling was still low, but there was room for me to move around beside Iara and peek down through a hole in the floor. We were right above the tear-shaped room where I had stayed during the experiments with Scyla and Schylla. I could hear someone chiding and scolding in the room next door, so I made to drop down silently.
Instead, I landed flat on my bum.
Iara was more graceful, hardly making a sound. We looked around carefully, checking corners, but there was no sign of Jonah. Pincoy had told us that Jonah would likely be under guard. But here we were, babyless.
Two hunters entered the room and I reacted instantly. Truth be told, I didn’t know I had it in me, but I rushed them and bulled them both over. Somehow I managed to keep my feet and was able to kick aside one of their spears. The other one, however, grabbed me by the ankle and pulled me down on top of him. While the first guard wrestled with Iara, weaponless, I grappled on the floor with the second. He was much stronger than I was and before long I was beneath him. I knew I had to do something to stop him, or else he would split my head open from neck to nose. I could feel the blood matting on the back of my skull, and I was seeing stars. Frantically I began scrawling my hand across the ground. We were close to the cavern wall, and a ledge hung out just a little. In a panic I drove my hand beneath the ledge, looking for anything at all that I might use as a weapon. I was hoping for a rock, but instead I found something sharper. It was thin and pointed at one end. I didn’t have time to wonder about the ethics involved. My consciousness kept flashing black, and I was operating purely on survival instinct. I’m not sure how it got there, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was one of the leftovers from my ordeal with the old infected.
Just before my lights went out for the final time, I jabbed the spinefish needle into the hunter’s neck. Both his hands went to his throat, eyes widening in horror at what I had done.
Iara screamed, “No!” but it was too late. The guard I had stabbed began to writhe and scream, lurching at his companion. It was too early for the effects of the toxin to be working, but the encroaching fear made up the difference. The other hunter was confused by my savagery. When he recognized the needle, he screamed and Iara pounced on him, mashing his face with her iron.
We didn’t wait to see what would happen. The second guard was unconscious, and the infected was too self-absorbed at the moment to be much of a nuisance.
The blood toll was accumulating quickly, and I was starting to feel like I was accruing a debt I couldn’t repay. I tried to justify it to myself, to rationalize why I’d done that. After all, they had a cure now. It only cost them a baby. I told myself that when wrath is deserved, it becomes justice instead. But no matter what thoughts I had, I couldn’t stop my stomach from knotting up. I was guilty as hell.
We sprinted down a hundred halls, many of which crisscrossed back and forth to the palace. I wasn’t certain which direction we had come from or where we were supposed to go. Clearly Iara didn’t know either. I figured we would find an exit eventually and so we pressed on, adrenaline fueling our efforts. But we kept finding ourselves back at the same intersection. We were going in circles.
Just as we stood there, confused and frustrated, another batch of hunters came running down the hall. Before I could think or even react, Iara called out to them. “f!f,” she said, pointing down the way we had come. They had heard the screaming. They stopped briefly to talk with her, but Iara shushed them on.
“What did you tell them?” I asked once they had turned the corner.
“The truth. There is an atah. They go to stop him.”
Maybe, in the confusion, they were more intent on finding the source of the screams than stopping the runaways. But who cares? They let us go. Those few moments relief were enough to calm us down and get us oriented, and because of them we were able to quickly scout each room in the Center looking for Liz and Jonah.
We checked all the rooms branching off the tear. We checked the storage closets and every one of the hallways. We re-checked everything just to be sure we weren’t accidentally overlooking some hiding place. But we weren’t. Liz and Jonah were not there. Fortunately, no one else was in the Healing Center either. I guessed they were all at the hullaballoo in the main thoroughfare, celebrating Heqet.
“Where?” Iara asked.
“There’s only one other place, right?” I asked, already certain of the answer.
“With Heqet,” she said.
“They’re in the Palace. She wants them close.”
Having done so many circuits of the Center these last few minutes, I now had a much better idea of the layout. Without the impending threat of discovery or confrontation, we ably navigated our way out and back into the capital comb.
The palace is pretty hard to miss, looming over the city like North on a compass, pointing straight up in the middle of Zebulon like a black spire. We could hear all kinds of commotion and crowd-noise coming from the far side of the palace. That must be where Heqet was gathering her people. But from this side, the way to the palace was almost completely open.
I began to make my way through the comb, taking care to pause and listen for any intruders. Iara was always more careful than I was, slowing me down when I was too cavalier. We never came close to another person. No hunting parties. No guards. No nothing. It was almost too easy. That’s never a good thing to consider. But as luck would have it, the ease was no disguise for hardship.
Iara led me through a series of shadowy caverns and half-emptied caves. I can’t say for sure how long we moved, but she continuously checked to make sure I was following, waiting, beckoning, keeping me moving. I don’t typically trust my sense of time, but I know I ran long enough to run out of breath on three separate occasions. My muscles were screaming.
And then we were moving through a jelly wall that served as a side-entrance to the palace.
We crept through well-lit passageways, again marveling at the absence of absolutely everyone. On one level this made perfect sense: Heqet was about to announce the single-most important discovery in Atlantean history. This was on par with splitting the atom or the advent of cold fusion. This was a discovery that would change the fate of every man, woman, and child under the water. Everyone was on hand to celebrate, literally, and that meant that these corridors were almost abandoned.
I found myself in a familiar hallway, one I recognized from my brief visit in the home of the Queen. We stood there catching our breath for a minute, until I saw Iara’s ears perk up as she glanced at the entrance to a nearby room. A collection of guardsman, crustaceans, and hunters was coming our way. There were perhaps thirty of them, but Pincoy was leading them.
He had Jonah. He didn’t look good. My son was shaking and making this mewling little noise. I had never heard him make that sound before. The experiments had obviously taken their toll.
“We must go,” the little man said. “Now.”
“Where was he?” I asked, collecting Jonah gently from the Consort.
“He was in the care of several guardswomen. You might be interested to know that many of the Zebulani females do not enjoy the thought of Heqet using Jonah for science.” Pincoy looked sideways at me, a smirk shuddering on his bottom lip. But his eyes were flint. There was irony here, but not amusement.
We started following this makeshift army down the hall, but then it was my turn to pull up short. “Where’s Liz?”
Pincoy looked at Iara, and then at the ground, before meeting my gaze. “With Heqet.”
“What’s she doing with the Queen?”
“She is showing her loyalty, showing everyone that she approves of Jonah’s gift,” he said.
“She does not,” Iara said.
“No. But Heqet is asserting herself as mother. She is giving the people the gift of Elisabeth’s approval.”
I could hear Heqet’s voice coming from inside her room. We only caught snippets of the conversation, but Liz was definitely there. I could feel the spite coming from under the door.
“…you took my son!” Even sick to death, Liz wasn’t backing down.
“Your son will save my kingdom,” Heqet replied, calmly. I wondered if she would be so calm if she knew Jonah was already missing.
“I don’t care if he’s Jesus. You had no right to take him.”
“You are Christian. Isn’t your religion about a son giving his life?”
I couldn’t hear Liz’s response. I wish I had.
Pincoy was whispering something to Iara. He shushed me back from the door and pushed it open.
“Consort,” Heqet began, turning to see Pincoy as he came into the room. “aabdfb?”
Pincoy responded confidently. “Everything is prepared, Heqet. The people await you upon the platform.”
I imagined Heqet nodding once to him, before glaring at Liz and making her way out. I could hear her footsteps padding away. Pincoy was alone in the room when we came in.
“I thought you went with the Queen?”
“She has taken Elisabeth onto the platform, David.”
I was aware of all my emotional torment, all my guilt, and all those sappy country-song feelings I had just worked through. But it still took me about 1/1000 of a second to pass Jonah over to Iara and turn around again, bolting for the platform.
The little man beat me to the punch, though. He ducked under my arm and got in front. “Let me be the Christ,” he urged, before lurching onto the stage with his arms raised. Heqet hadn’t seen me come in a second later, hiding behind a column, but I could tell she was clearly caught off guard at the appearance of her Consort. The platform was elevated about ten feet off the ground, flat, and only about as the size of a basketball court. There were no hunters, no guards or priests or escorts. Heqet was standing alone and proud in front of her people, and, if I had to guess, I’d say they were all there. A sea of undersea humanity. It had to be fifty thousand souls.
“My Queen!” Pincoy, shouted. “There has been a great theft!”
Heqet swiveled her head. Her mouth was slightly open and she was trying not to look embarrassed. “Consort, what is this?” Pincoy approached the Queen and prostrated himself at her feet. He kissed them, as I had seen him do so many times, and stood to address the audience. I’ll give some credit to Heqet. She knew something was up. From the look on her face, she knew she was being set up for something, just not what, or how.
“Oh Queen,” he began, supplicating himself. “I apologize for the interruption, but a terrible evil has come to Zebulon. It must be dealt with immediately, or we may all suffer for it.”
“Is this the time, Pincoy?” Heqet turned her head back slightly to the people and attempted a smile, but it didn’t get all the way to both corners of her mouth.
“A powerful ambassador has taken another man’s wife, Heqet, and her child, by force. The ambassador lords power over the poor family, and refuses to make recompense.”
From my vantage point at the back of the stage I could see that Pincoy’s words were having an effect on the crowd. He was respected, and the Queen knew she couldn’t just blow him off. Such a sleight would hurt her reputation more than his. Heqet was eager to resume the celebration, but she had to do it right. “Then they shall be measured and justice shall be meted out. After the celebration.”
“My pardon, but it cannot be later. Right at this moment the woman is being forced to do things against her will. The ambassador molests her. She is tortured and the child is near death. If you do not act now, as their Queen, they will either wish for death or have it.”
The crowd clearly did not like these alternatives. The murmuring swelled. “Yes. Tell me, who is this ambassador?”
I came all the way out onto the platform, ready to speak, but again I was beaten. “You,” a voice called from the back of the cavern.
It was Lithe. He was dressed regally, no longer the random husband of a surface wife, nor the athletic hero of the games. He was the Crown Prince. He wore a coral headdress, elaborated with the bones and spines of many undersea creatures. He carried the sopher shebet, not a spear, and he spoke as one with authority.
I remembered the words of Ezekiel, so fitting here.
The princes of the sea shall come down from their thrones,
and lay away their robes
and put off their embroidered garments:
they shall clothe themselves with trembling;
they shall sit upon the ground,
and be astonished.
Iara, with Jonah in her arms, stood near me and translated as Lithe continued in Zebulani. “It is time, mother, to give back what you have taken.”
“He’s right, Heqet.” Pincoy looked sad. “You have given us much. You must give something more now.”
Like a snake, Heqet crossed the space between herself and Pincoy and clapped her hand over his mouth. She began to urgently whisper to him, pulling at the front of his garment to draw him closer to her, both begging and ordering him not to continue. Iara translated for me. “This child will die, either in service to the people or along with them. Better to sacrifice one than all.” Pincoy sadly shook his head. “You cannot ask this of me, Consort,” she continued. “All I have ever done is give. A gift is not given if it is not given freely.”
“Neither can you give something you stole, Heqet. Calling it a gift does not make it so. To take from one and give to another, no matter how good you meant the taking to be, is wrong.”
“Mother,” Lithe spoke with power, but with also the slightest hesitation. He did not shy away from what was happening, but neither did he relish it. “I have been with Chayot.” The crowd gasped. “Zebulon is sick.”
Heqet was changing shape. She hunched over. Her chin leaned out over the balcony. An accusatory finger crooked itself toward Pincoy. “You are no longer my Consort.” That evil crook swung then to Lithe. “And you are no longer my son. I give you both back to the water. May you drown in it.”
Pincoy weighed in once more. “Be generous, my love. Glaucus has given you a gift you cannot repay. He is the greater giver. You must give Zebulon to him. Chayot has said it.”
“You will have to take it,” she hissed. “You are son-with-no-mother, water-from-no-ocean, king-with-no-kingdom.”
“You can make a gift of your people, and of yourself, Mother, but if you keep the gifts of the Mollai they will destroy you.”
Heqet looked as if she would relent then, but from behind her I saw a shadow lurking. Monkey had clambered up the side of the platform and was making her way behind Lithe. From the position of her body I knew she had murder in mind. I began to run. I saw Monkey reach behind her back and then a knife blade caught the cool play of the bioluminescence.
“Akhoya!” I screamed and leaped across the stage, putting myself into the path of the blade. Monkey was caught off guard and turned her body to face me. She stabbed at me twice with the knife, but Nixie caught her wrist on the second attempt. I had barely been cut. I looked up to see Heqet grab a spear and hurl it towards Lithe. He snatched the spear out of the air and broke it in one fell stroke across his knee, hoisting half the broken spear in one hand and the sopher shebet in the other.
Enthralled, I wanted to watch. Lithe was my friend. But my first duty was to my family.
“Where’s Liz?” I asked Iara, and she nodded to the far side of the stage. Pincoy was already leading Liz back to us. He had cut the bonds to her hands, but her feet were still held together, only about a foot apart at the ankles. She was hobbled. The people gasped when they saw this. They hadn’t been able to see her bonds before. In cutting them, Pincoy had exposed the charade.
I ran to meet her partway, but she brushed off my embrace and went to Jonah. Liz looked worse even than the last time I had seen her. She was a walking corpse. Her skin was flaking off and the color of eggshells. She pulled Jonah roughly from Iara and held the boy to her chest, giving me a glare that would’ve stopped the devil himself, using all her remaining strength to protect our son.
Mothers and their children. The human pair embraced. The Zebulani danced with spears.
Pincoy pushed us back out into the hallway, and there we stopped for only a second while Iara cut Liz’s ankles free.
“Liz,” I started, voice thick with emotion. “My God. I feel like I’ve been looking for you for a thousand years.”
Her voice creaked like old ice. “We have to go, David.”
I recognized that familiar chill. “I’m glad you’re okay. We’re getting out of here.”
“Fine,” she said, turning to Iara. “Don’t ever touch what’s mine again.” Iara backed away, but I just stood there for a minute, made apprehensive by the tone of her voice. I’d chased her to the bottom of the sea. We had a child together. I’d just rescued her from a mad matriarch, and she didn’t have five seconds to tell me she loved me. That hurt.
We made our way down the hall until we came to the top of a ramp. At the bottom, facing away from us, were two of the hunters.
Pincoy took control. “Surface friends. This is where we say goodbye. I believe you can get home, with help. Iara has explained it to me. Pray for us, David Mann. Pray for Lithe. Pray that when Christ returns he will come also to Zebulon.” Then the funny, thin little man skittered down the ramp and pulled both hunters with him, pointing off to the side, describing some diversion or another.
We waited for a beat, and then Iara took us down the tunnel and outside. “Liz,” I tried again. “Let me take Jonah; he’s heavy.”
“I’m not giving him away.”
“I’m his father, let me take him.” And just as I said those words, I knew what was coming next. It hit me like bricks in the teeth.
“You mean like last time, David?”
I stopped, but no one waited to see if I was following. Iara was way out in front, with Liz and Jonah falling a little further behind. I didn’t want my life right then. I wanted something different. But I caught up anyway, telling myself that life isn’t about what I want. It’s not about me. It’s about everyone but me. It’s about Jonah. It’s about Liz.
The least I could do was keep them from regretting life as much as I did.
We made our way without incident through the capital. There was plenty of activity, but the fight on top of the dais proved to be the perfect distraction. Every eye was focused on the clash of the new and the old, the promise and the perversion, the king and the queen.
I didn’t wait to see how it turned out.