My situation had just become a lot more complicated. Not only did I have to cover for Leon and Ryonel, I also had to hide and care for two kids until we could make our getaway. And then where would we go? Hopefully Ryonel had a plan.
Madia knew a way to disable the Vaer’s monitor long enough for us to get back to floor 43 without climbing 559 stairs. It was as simple as popping a panel and setting a small crystal askew on it’s tiny pedestal. I felt a new respect for the girl who had seemed so helpless in the field of lilies. She was smart and resourceful.
“We have to hurry,” Madia whispered as we stepped into the Vaer. “Evening Sustenance will be over, and someone might come to check on you and find out why the monitor isn’t working.”
“There are other rooms - empty rooms near mine,” I said.
“I know. It will not be hard to hide. But for how long? And what will we eat?” she asked.
“Don’t worry, Madia,” Danteres asserted, taking her hand. “I will bring food for you. They will never know.”
“It’s true,” Madia exclaimed, stopping the Vaer doors from closing. “They may not have missed Danteres yet!” She knelt before the boy and spoke earnestly,
“Dante, if they ask, tell them you were too sad to take sustenance, but now you are a big boy and do not begrudge the gods their dues.”
Danteres shrugged as if he had already thought of that answer.
“I will come to you in the middle of the night when the monitors are off,” he said. “I will bring you whatever you want.”
“Can you bring my brother?” I asked him.
“Your brother?” Danteres and Madia asked together.
The secret was out. There was nothing to do but acknowledge it.
“Leon is my twin brother. But don’t tell anyone that, okay?”
“Twins!” Madia whispered in amazement. “Just like the Heroes of Nedan, who saved us from the terrors of the Dark Wood. I thought it was only a story.”
“We’re not those twins,” I protested.
“Someone is coming!” Danteres whispered.
“Run, Dante! Run and hide,” Madia exclaimed, pushing him away from us, and letting the Vaer doors close.
As soon as the Vaer opened, I ran to my room, removing the mask and putting it with the stun gun back into the backpack. I then leaned against the backpack as though it were a pillow.
Madia ran past me down the dark hall and found a vacant room in which to hide.
Our haste was unnecessary, for it was several minutes before anyone came down the hall. I had time to relax my breathing and prepare a deceptive presentation for whatever child had come to check on me this time.
When the door opened, my breath caught in my throat. It was the Marchempor Bartroles, dressed in kingly attire, complete with heavy gold chains around his neck. In one hand he carried an intricate vase containing a bouquet of calla lilies. In his other hand, Bartroles held the heavy silver scepter.
He set down the vase of lilies on a table near the window, and opened the shutter on the globe lantern I had shut earlier. This “flashlight” lit up the whole room as thoroughly as a lightbulb would have. I groaned and covered my eyes with my arm, as though awakened and miserable.
“Greetings, Lani. How do you fare?”
“Not so well,” I mumbled, looking through my fingers for other visitors, hoping Bartroles had not come alone. No such luck.
“I am grieved to hear so,” Bartroles returned, and actually seemed to mean it. He studied me openly in the light of his globe lantern. “You must do your best to recover and make the most of your moment.”
“I would like to see Leon,” I said, putting my arm down to look directly at Bartroles.
He hesitated under my gaze and shrugged uncomfortably.
“It’s against the ordinance, “No fraternity with the ill,” he explained.
“You are here fraternizing with me,” I pointed out.
“There is a red ring around your face,” Bartroles evaded. “Does it hurt?”
“Yes, it’s quite painful,” I lied. The ring was no doubt left by the hepa filter mask. “What causes it? Do all of you get sick often?”￼
“No more than the gods deem necessary for our perfection,” Bartroles said. “When you become accustomed to our atmosphere, I will give you a tour of my kingdom. I am Marchempor of all Alomine.”
“What is Alomine?” I asked, curious in spite of my distrust of him.
“Existence,” he answered, smiling down at me.”All that is and can be.”
“How can you rule where you have never been and do not know?”
Bartroles gazed at me in silent disapproval. “You do not understand our ways. If you did, you would fear to speak thus. I could give you to the gods.”
“Well, at least you rule them,” I conceded dryly.
Bartroles appeared to misunderstand my sarcasm and smiled condescendingly.
“I brought you flowers.” He picked up the vase again and held it out toward me.
I took the vase reluctantly, and then held it up to read the inscription. Bartroles quoted grandiosely;
“It says, “May the gods favor your moment.”
“Uh. . . no, it doesn’t,” I contradicted, more to myself than to the Marchempor. I turned the vase around, looking for another inscription other than the one that lay within the intricately carved vines and flowers. There was no other. I read the one inscription aloud:
“It says: “To be rung in gratitude for the gift we have received. Year 213 of our Freedom.” Oh! Is it about the bell? What was the gift, I wonder?”
Bartroles was silent. I looked up at him. His face was white and impassive. The sagging lines of his premature age appeared sinister in the blue light of the globe. His thin lips were pressed tightly together and his chin was thrust forward in anger. I realized suddenly, and with the first pang of terror I had felt since our landing: he could not read. Perhaps none of them could. An elaborate belief system had been built on relics no one living could remember or understand.
A tangible silence filled the room. I was treading on sacred ground—and nothing turns into a bloody war faster than a trampled religion.
“Oh, I feel terrible!” I exclaimed and hastily put the vase down beside the bed. “I think I’m going to throw up!”
I gagged over the side of the bed and held my head as though it hurt. Bartroles backed away with a satisfied expression on his face.
“The justice of the sovereign gods will prevail. You must conform to our ways Lani. So shall your moment linger.”
Upon delivery of that piece of kingly smack, he swept out of the room without a backward glance. I fell back onto the bed with a grimace. What a pompous ass. But a dangerous one.
Madia joined me within minutes of Bartroles’ exit, and we shared the food Ryonel had left in the bundle. I did not explain it’s existence. Although I liked what I knew of Madia so far, I wanted to know her better before putting my life in her hands.
She looked so poorly from her ordeal I took out the first aid kit and gave her one of our treasured super-food pills. Within minutes she perked up and acted like a kid on espresso. I was exhausted. Leon and I had been traveling through space for three days. But I knew I should take advantage of her willingness to talk and learn as much as possible.
“Can you read?” I asked as she thumbed through the first-aid booklet curiously. She looked at me with wary surprise.
“A little, but it is forbidden.”
“Why?” I asked. “Being ignorant is dangerous.”
“I know! I’ve been trying to tell— It’s complicated. No one realizes how much we could learn from the archives. . .”
The flood gates were open and all of Madia’s pent-up frustration came gushing forth. She paced the room as she talked, her thin arms waving expressively in the air and her piquant little face transparent with emotion.
“There is something about our past we don’t know. I think our history has been changed for the sake of conformity and obedience. If we knew the truth about the past maybe our future would be different. Maybe we would be able to do the things the Ancients could do. All this art and architecture around us. . . none of us can do these things anymore. The knowledge is lost. Even the ability to read about it. . . gone. All gone.”
“How did you learn to read?” I asked, stifling a yawn.
“My care-sister taught some of us. She was taught by Ryonel’s mother. Ryonel’s mother’s-mother was not from here.”
“Wait. Ryonel’s grandmother was not from Solanti?”
“Not even from Nedan. Like you, she arrived in a damaged spaceship. The others died in the crash, but our people rescued her and soon after she gave birth to a baby girl, whose father was of Earth. Ryonel’s grandmother’s name was Madia, just like me, and her daughter was called Eden.”
“Maria!” I exclaimed, realizing suddenly who Madia must have been named after. “Doctor Maria Espinoza! She was part of a research team that went missing around thirty-seven years ago. She taught you to read?”
Madia shook her head. “No, she taught her daughter Eden to read and write, and many other things. Later, Eden taught my Care-sister to read. Madia Espinoza died of great age soon after Ryonel was born, and then Eden refused to come down and worship the bell anymore. Because the Marchempor loved her so much, he would not put her to death for defying the law. Instead, he said she was insane and let her live on the Starport.”
“And she was Ryonel’s mother,” I mused, putting together the pieces, “I guess that’s why he doesn’t have a Solantian accent. And Eden? Did she die?”
“Yes, about ten years ago. She was already very aged when she moved up to the Starport.”
“Have you talked to Ryonel?” I asked. “Do you know him?”
Madia shook her head, “No one is allowed to talk to him. They say he has a disease. How do you know him?”
“I don’t really - not very well anyway.” I shrugged. “I just met him briefly.”
Madia seemed satisfied with my answer and was bursting with more to say.
“I have been teaching Danteres to read,” she said, with shy pride. “He is so intelligent and willing to study! Some of my other children have learned as well.”
“Oh, wow. That’s super cool, Madia.” I felt genuinely impressed.
“Cool?” she asked, giggling at my slang.
“Cool is something my mother used to say. It means “great.”
“Is it worth dying for?” She asked.
“What do you mean?”
“That is why Batroles gave me to the gods. He found out I was teaching the children to read. I told Danteres it was because I have not born a child yet, but in truth it is because Dante had asked Bartroles if he could have access to the archives.”
“Why would he care? It doesn’t make sense to hide the truth.”
“Doesn’t it?” Madia asked.
We were silent, each lost in our own thoughts. I was remembering the war that had destroyed my own home; the conflicting stories of who the enemy was, and the appalling lack of knowledge. And now it was too late. I felt the tug of grief I had put away for another day, still waiting.
Madia yawned. She stood up to go, but paused at the doorway, smiling. “We always say, “may the gods bless your moment” when we part. But now I no longer know what to say. What do you say where you’re from?”
I swallowed back tears, and whispered my mother’s nightly salutation, “Good night, sleep tight, God keep you till the morning light.”
“Which god?” Madia asked, unaware of my grief.
“I don’t know. . . I guess the Creator one.” I was ready for the conversation to be over. Grief and fatigue were washing over me like heavy waves of dark water.
“Anyway, sleep well,” Madia said, sensing it was time to go.
“Yeah, good night.” I replied, and shut the shutter on the lamp, casting the room into darkness.
Madia departed for her own room. I laid down on the heavy wool-stuffed mattress, still wearing the heap-filter mask. For the first time since Earth burned, I found myself able to think about the loss of my family and home and what the future might hold. Tears rolled down my cheeks and fogged up the mask, but I was too tired to care. Utter fatigue won out over grief, and soon I was fast asleep.