Installment Eighteen: A Homey Beacon
"I think we should have let her stay at the Meadows!"
"I wish we could, but she'll go wandering off! We have to take her with us."
"To the meeting??"
"Hopefully we'll find a suitable hiding place for her until it's all over," I say, furrowing my brow as we merge with the path to No Man's Landing.
It's almost a week after we discovered Nelly, the creature from the Urchin's Grotto, and Leina and I have a dilemma on our hands.
Christopher Puddlevest (the one who fought off the automaton with a hammer on our first day here those weeks ago) has been kind enough to invite us to a meeting with his friends, but we don't know what to do with Nelly. If we take her with us, she'll probably frighten everyone, and might even be taken away from us. On the other hand, if we leave her in the Evergreen Meadows, she will quite possibly wander off and get lost. We tried asking Buzz (who had inadvertently discovered Nelly not long after we found her) to look out for her, but he refused ("The bees would not be happy with her!").
"Why don't you ask Shep or Buck?" asks Leina, kicking a pebble sitting in her path.
I glance down at the creature, trotting by my feet on all fours. She looks back up at me with an oddly trusting look in her eyes. "Neither of them know about her, unless Buzz has broken his promise to not tell them. And the less people know about her, the safer I feel."
"So where will we hide her?"
"I don't know," I answer with a hint of annoyance showing in my voice, "We'll figure out something. Use your good sense of direction!"
"Like that's any help. I'm good at navigation, not finding things!"
"You didn't seem to have much trouble locating Nelly in the Grotto."
At this, Leina falls silent. Neither of us have quite figured out how she knew where Nelly was, the day she led me into Urchin’s Grotto and I found her cowering in a dead end.
As the buildings of the city loom into view, I realize that it’s going to be a lot harder than we think to hide Nelly. The streets are often teeming with people, which means she will always have a curious pair of eyes on her.
“Korey, look, it’s Petie!”
I’m so busy trying to shield Nelly from the prying eyes of the townspeople that I almost don’t hear Leina’s exclamation. I glance in the direction she’s waving and spot him against the wall eating an apple. When he sees us, he waves casually, pushes himself away from the wall and saunters toward us. “Need ‘n escort?” he asks.
“Desperately,” I groan, nodding my head.
“Mmmm. . . somewhere quiet and not crowded?”
“Right, the Grotto shoul’ do jus’ fine.”
I walk, keeping Nelly as close and as calm as possible, while Leina and Petie orbit around us like bees, keeping townspeople back and directing us toward the Grotto.
Finally, after what seems like hours, the burning eyes have faded away. We are alone, save for Petie, and the occasional frightened urchin peering from inside his hut, or from behind a heap of junk.
I steer Leina, Nelly and Petie into a secluded alleyway, the same one -- I note with some amusement -- where I first met Nelly. Under the shadow of the cliffside and the abandoned, dirty buildings, I part my lips and loose a relieved exhale.
“Need anythin’ else?” Petie offers with a smirk and a twinkle in his hazel eyes. It’s clear that he’s enjoying all the excitement. And I don’t blame him. It’s certainly not everyday for an urchin who spends most of his life living in filth and poverty. My heart goes out to him.
I look him in the eyes and reply, “Yes. We need suggestions.”
~ ~ ~
“Honestly, Kor, I think there should have been another way,” says Leina, glancing back at the pathway to the Grotto.
“Possibly. But this was the most convenient option available. Besides, we can trust Petie, and I think we can trust the other kids, too. I have to hand it to the chap; he has been a wonderful help.”
“He has. I really appreciate it. I’m just worried how they’ll fare with Nelly. . . and without you.”
“I gave her a little talking-to. I think she’ll be fine -- at least for quite a while.” I hope.
Leina is not the only one with doubts nagging in her head. Nelly trusts me, but she’s still unstable. She’s still wild. The best I can do for her is assure her that I’ll be back, and that the kids can be trusted. But after I leave?
“This looks like it!” At Leina’s voice, my mind surfaces from under my own thoughts. We are standing in front of a building that looks like it used to be a house. In the sideyard, large pieces of machinery hiss and rattle. Hanging above the carved double-doors is a wooden sign with faded yellow lettering.
We approach the door, and Leina tentatively lifts a fist to knock. I place a hand on her shoulder and say in a low voice, “I don’t think you need to do that. Christopher said it’s a printing shop.”
“Mm.” She lowers her hand and turns away, clearly annoyed. I flash a warm smile at her, close my hand around the knob and open one of the doors.
Inside, it’s awfully quiet. The atmosphere is a little stuffy, but not suffocating. It reminds me of the library where Leina and I spent much of our time studying, back in Enfranya. I hear music playing, but I can’t tell where it’s coming from. In the back of the room are a couple book shelves filled with colorful books and small gadgets of many shapes and sorts. By the left wall is a single towering machine. Possibly the printer, I wonder to myself. On the right is a desk with a phonograph on it; that explains the music.
I shut the door behind me as we take in our surroundings. “So. . . no meeting?” Leina whispered.
This is the right place, isn’t it? It has to be! Christopher made his directions crystal clear: Every weekend, at the only printing shop in No Man’s Landing, there was a meeting. So why was there nobody here?!
At least I assume there’s nobody here. . . that is, until, a nearby door slam makes us nearly jump out of our skins.
I hadn’t noticed the wardrobe in the corner just to the right of the door until now; let alone the figure who has just emerged from it. Its body is completely covered in metal except the head and neck, which is yet obscured by a blue mask and a strange-looking helmet. The figure notices us and pauses. We stare back, unsure of what to think or how to react. Leina squeezes my tense arm.
All is dead silent save the phonograph and the grandfather clock next to the wardrobe.
The figure cocks its head and breaks the silence. “What’s up?”
A female voice. At least she doesn’t sound like an automaton.
“Uh. . . hello!” Leina manages a wary smile.
“You two are pulling off a rather intense gawk,” she remarks with a hand on her hip. I pick up amusement in her voice, muffled by the mask.
“I’ve never seen that outfit before,” ventures Leina.
“Oh, this old thing?” She bows her next towards her outfit and, to our mild surprise, throws back her head in a pleasant laugh. “It’s one of my favorites! I made it myself. So don’t worry, I’m not as menacing as I look. Usually.”
Scanning the outfit, it’s hard to imagine that she put this together on her own. I can’t help but admire her handiwork.
The woman walks around the desk and approaches us with casualness in her step. “So, can I help you with something?”
“Actually yes,” Leina replies, “We were invited to a meeting and we’re told that it’s being held here in the Beacon.”
“A meeting, you say. Hmm. . .” The girl cranes her neck towards us slightly. She appears to be studying us intently, as if still trying to decide whether or not she can trust us. I guess I don’t blame her.
I add, “We were invited by a ‘Christopher Puddlevest.’”
She relaxes. “Ahhh, ol’ Cap! How good of him. Follow me! I’ll take you to the meeting. I’m Missy, by the way.”
The house is only so big, I think to myself, How does one stash a meeting in a compact place like this?
Missy comes up to one of the bookshelves and heaves it -- book, gadget and all -- away from the wall. It moves as if it were on a hinge, which -- in fact -- it is. Behind it was a flight of steep stairs leading down a dim hallway.
Well, that answers that question. . .