(The cover made by Elaina Lee )
Amanda, with her skirts lifted high, more stumbled than ran past flower beds and sculpted shrubbery, the rain wetting her veil, her ginger hair and her white frock. Over her harsh and shallow breathing she could hear the noise of battle coming from the broken French windows of the villa behind her. She tore off the veil and threw it aside while she stomped over the freshly cut lawn, the heels of her white satin boots sinking into the wet earth.
Five minutes ago she was standing beside a stranger she had met an hour earlier, while her guardian, her uncle, insisted that she say 'I do' to the magistrate's question. She refused.
At the sound of crashing footfalls, she looked over her shoulder and in the twilight saw the dark shadow of a man catching up with her. Who was he? The groom? Or one of the three men that had burst into the drawing room, interrupting the wedding ceremony? Who were they? And what where they doing there?
She silently cursed the whiteness of her dress, the tightness of her corset and weight of her petticoats as she quickened her pace, hoping to reach the iron gate at the end of the garden. A night constable regularly patrolled the street beyond it.
Just a little bit farther.
Nine. “Help,” she yelled. “Help!”
Seven. “Help!” Could anybody even hear her through the thick curtain of rain?
Five. Please. Please, let there be somebody there. “Please, help.”
Two. With her last strength she threw herself forward. Her hands touched the iron gate, trying to open the bolt with her clumsy fingers as she stared at the empty street barely visible in the drenching downpour. “Help!”
A heavy weight fell on her, knocking her down and away from the garden path.
She shrieked, her heart beating in her chest like a frightened bird as she lay face down on the wet grass.
A hand pressed against her mouth.
She bit into it and kicked backward as hard as she could with her legs entangled in the wet cotton of her petticoats, glad that she hadn't worn a skirt with hoops.
Cursing filled her ears and fingers dug into the skin of her face as the weight on her pressed her deeper into the earth and the edges of her corset cut into her skin. She couldn’t breathe.
She expected a slap or a well-aimed punch, something to render her immobile and silent, a violence to put her in her place, something her cousin was so fond of doing.
Fingers released their painful hold and moved so that only a palm covered her mouth. “It's me, James. I won't hurt you,” a soft, gentle male voice said, so different from the one her future husband had used to shout at her when she had refused to repeat the wedding vows. “I promise.”
Like she would believe him. She tried to kick him again and flapped her arms around.
“Calm down.” The hand withdrew. “Amanda, calm down.”
“Please, please, sir,” she begged as she wiggled under him, hoping to toss him off, while her lungs desperately gasped for air and numbness crept into her limbs. “Let me go. I'll make it worth your while,” she whispered, her voice breathless and barely audible. If he knew her name -- how did he know it, and how dare he use it so freely? -- he might also know that she might not have money now, but a fortnight from now she would receive her inheritance. Thanks to her parents’ contrivance, that was, since under normal circumstances a woman could inherit money and property only after her twenty-first birthday. A day she could hardly wait for. The day of her independence. That was all she had ever wanted to be: an independent woman, free of her dominating relatives.
“Calm down. It's not my intention to harm you.” An arm forced its way under her and around her waist; half of the pressure withdrew.
The hope that she might be able to scramble up and away rose up and her hands clawed at the earth. If she could just shake him off long enough to reach the gate. Just for a short second. She dragged herself up on her knees, ready to spring up and forward at the first opportunity. But then he hauled her upward, so fast that she stumbled. The downpour abruptly became a soft drizzle.
What should she do? A burning sensation pricked at the corners of her eyes as she, swallowing hard, lifted her head to look at her captor.
Her green eyes met warm brown. She could see their colour so clearly in the light of the gas street lamp just beyond the iron fence. And she could see him. The youthful square face framed with brown curls that stuck to his forehead and cheeks as he so seriously stared at her. He looked like that boy from her dreams, just older, more mature.
“Hey.” He gave her a smile, a gentle half-curve of his mouth that lit his face and made her feel he was her savour, not her jailer. “All will be well now.”
Somehow she doubted that, especially when darkness appeared at the edges of her vision, closing in on her. She hadn't been eating and sleeping properly since learning about the weeding, three days ago, too busy searching for a way out of the room in which they had locked her.
The sounds around her hushed and dizziness overtook her.
She staggered and her eyelids fluttered closed no matter how hard she fought against it. She fell, succumbing to the darkness; into the blackness filled with dots that connected into images. The images passed by her, displaying a few memories of her past, the rare ones that had stayed with her after the accident. The times spent with her parents, feeling loved and special... like her existence mattered.
“Wake up,” a woman's voice requested as fingers curled around Amanda's shoulder and shook her. “Wake up, please.”
“Just a moment,” Amanda murmured.
Amanda didn't want to wake up, why should she when the darkness held her in such a soothing embrace? Waking up meant dealing with her uncle, his wife and his three offspring; something that she would rather avoid, if possible. And besides, she didn't feel too well; her head felt as full as if she had spent a whole day listening to her uncle's rambling about his own brilliance and his wife's complaints about Amanda's ingratitude. They were living extravagantly on her inheritance, not the other way around, no matter how much they pretended otherwise.
The shaking didn't stop, and the calls for her to wake up become louder.
Amanda rolled onto her side, away from the noise, too drowsy to bother opening her eyes.
A sigh, then fingers pinched her arm.
“Ouch.” Amanda sprang up into a sitting position, blinking in the hushed light coming through the heavy caramel-brown curtains.
A girl sat on the edge of the bed dressed in a simple, dark blue dress, her black hair slicked into a bun. “Finally.” She took a glass from the night stand and offered it to Amanda.
Amanda took it, frowning, not used to the help addressing her so informally. Her gaze glided over the medium-sized room. A dresser stood on her left with a wardrobe a step away and an upholstered armchair and end table beside the window, a chest of drawers beside it; everything in brown tones from the oil-varnished and carved Birdseye maple to the chocolate brown damask of the armchair. The only thing that wasn’t brown was the wall, red with an elaborate rose pattern the colour of cream. Her room at the villa was smaller, with walls, curtains and upholstery of light blue, and mahogany furniture. “Where am I?”
Then she remembered: the wedding, the men invading the villa, the boy imprisoning her. She jumped up.
The glass fell on the coverlet and yellowish liquid made a stain on the beige cotton.
“Where am I?” she repeated as she stumbled backwards over the mattress until she pressed herself against the wall at the head of the bed, her bare feet sinking into the still-warm pillow. “Where am I?”
The girl sighed again as she rose up from the bed. “In the Underhouse.”
“The Underhouse?” Amanda narrowed her eyes. What was that supposed to mean? “Who are you? Why have you brought me here? I demand you release me this instant.”
“I'm Alice,” the girl said. “As for the rest... I will take you to the man who can answer all of your questions, but first you should dress. We can't have you running around in just your night gown.”
At the girl's words Amanda took notice of what she had on, a night gown, which she hadn’t put on by herself. She paled, then redness covered her cheeks as she protectively wrapped her arms around her middle.
“Your clothes were soaked and leaving you in them would have been the death of you,” the girl explained as if she could read her mind. “Mary and I had to take care of you.”
Amanda might have argued that they could have woken her up or left her in her wet clothes, but that would have been silly and wouldn't have accomplished anything. She was imprisoned in this Underhouse and if she had learned anything while living with her relatives, it was that objecting only made things worse. That was why she obeyed the girl and put on the simple grey dress laid over the chair before the dresser while the girl waited outside the door. Then she silently followed the girl through the hallways and down the stairs into a large room, a library with a mahogany table for six before a large, heavy desk scattered with piles of papers and with bookshelves lining the red walls. An old man with a long white beard sat behind the desk. He stood up at the sight of them and a wide smile lit his face.
“Welcome, welcome.” He came around the desk and grabbed Amanda’s hands with his long, callused fingers, shaking them. “Oh, it’s such a pleasure to finally feast my eyes upon you. Thank you, Alice.” His grey eyes slid to Alice for a second before they were back on Amanda again, glittering in something that looked like genuine joy. “Yes, such a pleasure.”
“Huh?” Amanda knew that she had just made an unladylike sound, but she couldn't help it.
The man released her and with his hand on her back he ushered her toward the table a step away. He pulled out a chair, rotating it away from the table, and offered it to Amanda. When she sat down he took the chair beside her, turning it so that they faced each other. “Look at you, you have become a young lady now, and such a pretty one.” He patted her hand.
“I beg your pardon?” Amanda shifted her hand away.
The thick white brows descended low over man's eyes. “Amanda, my dear, don't tell me you don't remember me?” When she just stared at him, he said, “It's me, Uncle Nicolas, your dear, dear Uncle Nicolas who played horsey with you when you were little.”
She shook her head in a no. There was no way she would be able to forget somebody like him. But after her parents' funeral, when her parent’s solicitor had told her that the guardian they had appointed, her father's sister, was deceased and that her closest relative, her mother's cousin, would fill the role, he had also handed her a letter. And in the letter, which was by now burned into her memory, her parents had written the names and addresses of people she could turn to in times of need. But when she had tried to locate them on the rare occasions she managed to escape her guardian’ control, two of those three addresses had proved invalid and the solicitor, the executor of the will and the last on the list, had informed her that legally there was no way to free herself from the bridle of her relatives. “Are you Nicolas White, sir?”
“That's correct. So you do remember me?”
“I'm afraid not.”
“Child, you can't be saying that you have forgotten all about me?” He stroked his beard. “It must be the beard. I grew it out when I became the leader of the Underhouse's Elementals. Otherwise people don't take me as seriously as they should. Apparently I look too young.”
Elementals? What did that mean?
“Where did you learn my name then?”
“From the letter my parents left me, sir.”
“Your parents should have never left the Underhouse -- I know it was a bad decision as soon as they mentioned it, but nobody thought of stopping them.” He combed his fingers through his white beard. “You see, being a member of the Underhouse is a choice, not an obligation. But if I had known what would happen, I would have at least tried to stop them, to change their minds.” He curled his hands around hers. “Whenever thoughts of you or your parents crossed my mind, a heavy burden weighted my shoulders. I have always felt guilty, as if they died at my hands.”
“They died in an accident, sir.” In a train wreck on their way from London; she had been there too, but she couldn't remember it, except a few shattered fragments of people crying and shouting and the dead weight of her parents' arms forming a protective cocoon around her. That had been almost six years ago, but here and there she still had nightmares about it.
“Sir? You have to call me Uncle Nicolas as you did before,” he said, then sighed. “I always doubted that it was an accident, we all did -- too convenient -- but we were never able to investigate it fully. Unfortunately, neither were we able to trace your whereabouts. With the fire in our archive, we lost all the personal information about our former members and nobody could remember your mother's maiden name or the name of the parish in which your parents married.” He shook his head, sadness in his eyes. “The truth is, as much as I dislike Humphrey, I have to thank him for leading us to you.”
“It's Nicolas, child. -- Humphrey is the man you were about to marry.”
“He was the groom?”
“I'm sorry we were so late --”
The door of the room burst open and a brunet walked through it. “Nicolas, the-- Oh, I wasn't aware you had company.” He strode to the table, his gaze on her. “You are already awake. How do you feel? Well?”
Amanda glared at him. He was the boy who had attacked her. “He assaulted me, sir,” she whispered to Nicolas.
“Yes, we are sorry about that.” Nicolas gave her an apologetic smile. “But time was of the essence and we were afraid that you might not want to cooperate with us. That you might want that wedding -- and what did I say about you calling me sir? It's Nicolas. Nicolas.”
“I would never want to marry that man.”
“Humphrey can be charming when he chooses,” Nicolas said. “James, would you be so good as to show Amanda around the Underhouse, please? It seems that she is having some problems with her memory.”
“There are Riders outside,” James said.
“That's why you are here, correct?” Nicolas stood up. “I will join them shortly, but only if you promise me that I'm leaving her in good hands.”
“Like anything could happen to her in the Underhouse.” James rolled his eyes.
“I still don't know why I'm here,” she said almost adding “sir” at the end of the sentence. “And how long you are going to keep me imprisoned?” Amanda rose too.
“Everything in due time, child. Everything in due time,” Nicolas said. “Just know that you are a guest here, a welcome guest, not a prisoner, and that you are free to leave any time you like. Though, if I were you, I would wait until you reach your eighteenth birthday. We could arrange a large gathering, a party, for all those birthdays of yours that we missed.”
“I can go if I want to?”
“Yes, yes, of course. But I do want you to know that you can rely on us for protection and that we can help you in establishing your own household if you feel there's a need for it.” He bestowed another pat on her hand before he stood up. “Now, excuse me, it seems that I'm needed elsewhere.”
James sat on the table watching Nicolas's exit until the door closed behind him.
Amanda scrutinised him. How old was he? Older than her, probably.
“You probably wonder why I look so familiar.”
“Actually, no.” It wasn’t like she was going to admit to him that she dreamt about him. Well, not exactly him, but a younger, cuter version of him.
“No.” James jumped off the table. He pushed the sleeve of his white shirt up his left arm and showed her a star-shaped scar beside his elbow whose points spread up and down from it. “What about this?”
“Why should that look familiar to me?”
“Because you made it.”
She would never harm another being. “How could I have inflicted that on you when I have never met you before?”
“What happened to you?”
“What do you mean?” She folded her hands over her abdomen.
“You adored me and now you are pretending that you’ve never even met me.”
“Adored you!” She didn't appreciate him fabricating stories. “I never.”
“Yes, you did.” James nodded.
“Yes, you did. You even said that you were going to be my bride, insisted on it actually.” James set his arms akimbo, smirking, looking so smug.
A memory of a young boy in an identical pose flashed before her eyes. Could she really know him? Were the dreams she was having fragments of lost memories? She couldn't remember a lot from her early childhood, it was like the accident had wiped most of her memories away.
He grabbed her hand and laced their fingers, his warmth seeping into her. He pulled her toward the door.
She dug her heels into the thick carpet.
“Don't you want a tour of the Underhouse? I will show you my favourite spots.”
“And answer my questions?”
She relented. But she did wiggle her hand out of his.
“Who is Humphrey?” she asked as she trailed behind him down the long, semi-dark hallway illuminated with small strings of golden marbles that looked strangely familiar and which she noticed as soon as she stepped out of the room. So she had walked down this hallway before? And she knew these people well enough for them to call her by her first name? If they had known her whereabouts after the accident they would have taken her in? She might not remember them, but Nicolas seemed a good man, and James might not be that bad either. She glanced at his back, at the brown hair curling against the starched collar of his shirt, then her eyes slid over his broad shoulders and back covered by a red silk vest. Her two cousins would ooh and ahh over him. “I mean, Uncle Nicolas told me that he is the gentleman I was about to marry, but how do you know him?”
“A gentleman? Not likely. Even though he likes to imagine so. He's the previous leader's son,” James said as they come to the end of the hallway. “He counted on becoming the next leader, I reckon, since when we chose Nicolas, he had a fit and threatened that we would all be sorry. And then he set the main study on fire. It's a good thing I was home at the time or we would have lost more than just our archive.”
Did this have anything to do with her? When she had first learned about the wedding, she thought that her uncle had arranged it to keep her inheritance, since she and her money would have become the property of her husband, whom she assumed was nothing more than a pawn in her uncle's hand. But now she doubted that this was Humphrey's main goal, even though she couldn't understand what else he could have gained by it. “What does he want from me?”
“Your power most likely.” James pushed his way through the door at the end of the hallway. They stepped into a large kitchen.
“My power?” What power? “I don't possess any powers.” Well, if she didn’t count the power of patience she had acquired while living with her relatives.
“Ladies.” James nodded to Alice and an older lady by the stove.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” the old lady said.
“And afterwards it’s your turn to do the dishes.” Alice, who sat behind the table, pushed the bowl of shelled peas aside.
“It's already Thursday?” James picked two apples from the bowl on the table that dominated the middle of the kitchen.
“You know it is,” Alice said.
“Maybe Amanda could do that honour.”
“She is a guest and we don't use guests for doing chores,” the old lady said.
Alice and the old lady, despite being simply dressed, didn't appear to be servants, but they had to be since they were doing chores. “Should servants speak to you like that?” she asked him after they left the kitchen and stepped through back door into what looked like the beginning of a well-groomed garden.
“Servants?” A sound that was half-snort, half-chuckle left James's mouth. He offered her an apple. “What gave you the idea that they are servants? They better not hear you calling them that.”
She took the apple. “But they are working in the kitchen.”
“If you stay here very long, you will probably help in there, too.”
“What?” She stopped.
“We don't employ servants here. We have to do our chores ourselves.”
“This is the Underhouse. People without powers have no business being here.”
Underhouse, she silently repeated while she absently gazed around, over the path that wove between neatly arranged flower beds, bushes and trees. Such vibrant greens, blues, reds and yellows against the brown. Brown. She frowned at the brown sky above her, which as she noticed wasn't the sky, but earth that arched above her. How could that be? With the sun -- but no, the glowing ball of light, as much as it reminded her of the sun, seemed too close. Was this the same as the golden marbles that lit the hallways and which she had promised herself to examine later? “We are underground?”
“Yes, we are.”
“How? How can there be so much greenery? And that sun?” And the smell of spring perfuming the air.
“Being an Elemental has its advantages.” He lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers.
Steam lifted up from the earth and a soft drizzle started to fall.
“Rain.” She frowned as she stretched out her hand, palm upwards, to catch the raindrops. “You have something to do with it?” was more of a question than a statement.
“Water is my Element.” His hand curled into a fist before he lowered it by his side. The rain stopped.
A house and garden hidden underground. With its own sun hanging above. And a boy who could make rain. Didn't he say that she had a power too? -- She needed to sit down. She noticed a bench three steps away, set before a small pond with a willow overlooking it, the tips of its branches almost brushing against the water’s idle surface. She went to it and sat down.
James joined her, he half-leaned, half-sat on the bench's curved arm, playing with the apple in his hand. “Beautiful, right?”
She raised her brows, cradling the red fruit in her palms.
“The lake. We didn’t have one at the previous Underhouse. But when we had to move -- because of Humphrey, you know, since we feared he might cause us more damage or even try to expose us to Outsiders -- and we reshaped the garden I thought, why not spice it up? It even has fish, look.” He pointed at the dark, oval blurs swimming in the water. “Now, we can have fresh --”
“What is my Element?”
“Well...” He rested his elbow on his thigh as with what seemed like an absent-minded gesture he pushed the strands of hair from his furrowed forehead.
“Does that mean that you don't know?”
“Not exactly, it’s just... My base Element is water, which means that I can connect with every form of water; steam, rain, lake, sea, you know...”
“While with you... I don't know what your base Element is, since, well, I don't know what the essence of lightning is.” His warm brown eyes glanced at her.
“As a child I was so envious of you. You had lightning and I only had rain.” His hand crept toward hers and he curled his fingers around hers. “But then, by sheer chance, we made a storm together. A storm. It was... brilliant.” His eyes glittered and a smile lit his face for a short moment before a scowl cut a wrinkle into his forehead. “I got this --” he glimpsed at his arm “-- that time. And they, Nicolas and your parents, restricted your Element, afraid that you might hurt yourself and the people around you.”
“Was that why we left this -- the Underhouse?”
“Like they would have trusted a child with the reason for their decision.” He slid on the bench beside her. “But... it happened months after the incident, so I don't believe so.”
She brought the apple to her mouth and bit into it. A sweet, juicy flavour filled her mouth. How strange. With just a few sentences her world had changed, widened to the point where she couldn't see the horizon anymore. It felt as if she had fallen into the kind of bizarre dream only a weary mind could produce, and in the morning she would wake up in her room, with the threat of a wedding hanging over her head. If she thought about it, even though she couldn't claim to know the Underhouse's residents, she preferred to continue dreaming. She studied the boy sitting beside her, surprised how comfortable his presence felt. Yes, she definitely preferred to continue dreaming.