Gregor and the Code of Claw
At first Gregor thought Solovet was joking. But she was not the sort of person who kidded him. If she said training, she meant training. He tried to control his temper, but he had left the battle only minutes ago. His rager side was still hot. And Solovet's order, obviously meant to humiliate him, stung. "That's crazy! You need me out there!" he burst out.
Solovet raised her eyebrows. "We have been fighting the gnawers for centuries. I think we will muddle through without a barely trained boy."
"Well, that's news to me," said Gregor. "You've been sending me on your most dangerous missions since I landed in this place."
"But not because I expected you to astonish us with your fighting," said Solovet.
"I can fight! Ask Ripred! He put me on the front line in the Firelands!" retorted Gregor.
"Well, someone had to keep an eye on you. I thought sandwiched between Perdita and me you might actually come out of the whole thing alive." Ripred shrugged. "But don't think it was an easy job."
"What? That is such a lie!" said Gregor. To suggest he had been on the front line for his own protection was outrageous. He yanked the helmet off his head and was about to throw it in Ripred's face when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Perdita give an almost imperceptible shake to her head. Gregor didn't know why — maybe it was because he respected Perdita so much — but he managed to redirect the helmet so it ended up wedged under his arm. He noticed how closely everyone was watching him and knew he had to get himself under control. He took a deep breath and crammed the anger back down inside of him. "All right. When's the training session?"
"You will be sent for," said Solovet. Gregor gave a short nod and climbed on Ares's back. As the bat took off for the city, he heard her give a laugh and say, "Now who is alienating him?" To which Ripred chuckled, "He rises to the bait so easily."
Gregor knew then that at least part of pulling him from the battle and criticizing him had been a test. To see if he could keep his head and take orders. And he had all but failed.
"I should have just shut up," said Gregor. But they had been tearing down the one thing he thought he was any good at.
"It is hard, when they provoke you so," said Ares glumly. "It took me quite a while to learn to, as you say, just shut up."
They reported back to the hospital so that Ares could get his wing sewn up. While Gregor hadn't received any new wounds, he'd popped the stitches on the cut on his calf and the area was slightly inflamed. He was sent to soak in some bitter-smelling medicinal bath and stitched up again. They gave him fresh clothes and he put on his sword belt but left off the armor. Then he and Ares were both free to go.
"I must sleep," said Ares. "The many trips to the Firelands have worn me down."
So Gregor was left to himself. He knew he probably should check in on his sisters. Luxa might be awake, and he was still due at least four of his five-minute visit. But suddenly he felt overwhelmed by everything, and the only person he wanted to see was his mom.
The doctors gave him permission to enter her room but warned him not to upset her. His mom was lying down, slightly propped up by pillows, but her eyes were open. Gregor could tell just by looking at her that the fever had passed but that she was still very tired. He pulled a chair up next to her bed and took her hand.
"Hey, Mom," he said.
"Hey. I was wondering when I was going to see you again," she said.
"Sorry. Lot of stuff going on," said Gregor. He couldn't begin to tell her about it. Wouldn't know where to start. Besides, he was not supposed to upset her. So he just rested his head on the edge of her bed and didn't even try to explain. Her hand stroked his hair and the knot of bad feelings — anger, fear, humiliation, desperation — began to unravel. He wanted to stay there forever, letting her soothe him, pretending he was just a kid and his mom could make everything okay.
"I only hear bits and pieces. I know a war started. I see them carrying the wounded past my room sometimes. You going to tell me about it?" she asked.
Gregor shook his head without lifting it,
"And I can't make you anymore. I know that," said his mom. She gave the back of his neck a squeeze. "Just tell me this. The family doing okay?"
Grandma in the hospital. His dad in relapse. Mom right here, too weak to sit up. Lizzie in the code room. Boots caring for sick and orphaned mouse pups. Gregor marked for death. All of them trapped in one way or another.
He lifted his head. "Everybody's hanging in there, Mom," he said.
"Okay. Okay. I just have to trust you now, Gregor. To do what's right for us," she said. "I love you, baby."
"I love you, too," said Gregor. "Now you should get some sleep." He kissed her on the forehead and left before he broke down and told her everything.
And then he needed to talk to someone badly, someone he didn't have to pretend with. He went straight to Luxa's room and badgered the nearby doctors until they agreed to let him in for another short visit. They made him wash his hands in disinfectant, but he did not have to wear the mask this time. Luxa looked remarkably better, given that only about six hours had passed since he'd seen her last. She was still wheezing slightly as she breathed the misty air, but she was sitting up, leaning against a stack of pillows. There was a tray on her lap with broth, pudding, and what looked like mashed sweet potatoes. She was rearranging the potatoes into a tower with her fork, just like his sisters did at home. Her face brightened when she saw him and he could feel some of the heaviness of the day fall away.
"Mmm, what's for lunch? That looks really good," he said.
Luxa frowned at her tray. "It makes good buildings. My throat is still too sore to eat anything I actually like."
"Everybody likes pudding," said Gregor. He scooped up a spoonful and held it up to her mouth. She ate it, swallowing painfully.
"Ouch," she said. Her eyes widened as they lit on the dagger at his belt. "What did you do to get that? Kill Solovet?"
"No, she gave it to me," said Gregor.
"Oh, I hate you. She never even allows me to hold
it," said Luxa. Gregor pulled the dagger from his belt and handed it to her. "Knock yourself out."
Luxa turned the dagger over in her hands, admiring it. "What are you, her favorite now?"
"Oh, yeah. She dressed me up in this totally stupid black armor and then threw me out of battle until I learn to fight," said Gregor.
"You are back in training? I would not take that too personally. She does it all the time," said Luxa.
"Really?" said Gregor.
"Of course. No one is ever good enough for her. She would give Ripred pointers if she thought he would not eat her," said Luxa.
That made Gregor feel a lot better. Maybe going back into training was no big deal. Besides, if he were fighting, he wouldn't be here with Luxa now. "How long do you have to stay in the hospital?"
"I should be out now," said Luxa grouchily. "They let Howard out. He is even treating people."
"You were sicker," said Gregor.
"I do not suppose it matters. They will not let me do anything, in or out. Now that I am back, Solovet will have me watched around the clock," said Luxa. "I am surprised you do not have bodyguards."
"I did. For a while," said Gregor.
"How did you get rid of them?" asked Luxa.
Gregor felt, himself blush. That wasn't a question he was ready to answer. He could hardly just blurt out, "Oh, because Solovet knows I'm in love with you now." So he did his best to come up with something else. "Uh ... I guess with my sisters and mom down here and all... You really should eat some more."
Luxa choked down a couple more spoonfuls of pudding. "Mareth says your sister Lizzie plans to stay, too."
"Yeah. Ripred thinks she's the code-breaker. They've got her in some room with a tree on the wall," said Gregor.
"The Tree of Transmission. Henry and I had to learn that. It was awful. Our teacher was a nibbler who was about a thousand years old. He'd make us send messages for hours." Luxa began to laugh. "Then one day Henry wrote, 'Help me, I am dying of boredom,' and the nibbler refused to teach us anymore."
Gregor laughed, too, but behind it was the discomfort he always felt whenever Henry was mentioned. Henry's closeness to Luxa and Ares. Henry's betrayal. Henry's body smashing apart on the rocks.
"That seems like a whole other lifetime," said Luxa quietly.
"Things change fast down here," said Gregor.
"Yes," said Luxa, twirling her fork in her potatoes. "Look at you and me."
That was it. That was his opening to tell her how he felt. Make it official. He might not get another chance. Who knew how much longer he'd even be alive? Another day? Another week? But Gregor couldn't seem to speak. In the silence that followed he could hear the precious seconds running out.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. ...
Then someone was at the door. "Overlander, you are summoned to the arena for training," said a voice.
"Okay," said Gregor.
"Do not forget your dagger," said Luxa, handing him the weapon.
He could hear the disappointment in her voice as he stuck the dagger in his belt. She knew they only had a matter of hours, too. How could he face an army of rats and not have the courage to say something so simple and obvious?
Suddenly he felt his hand reaching into his pocket and pulling out the photo of them dancing. The one that had convinced Solovet he was crazy about Luxa. He placed it on her tray. "This is the reason I don't have bodyguards," he said, and promptly headed for the door, too afraid to see her reaction.
But as he rounded the corner, he caught her smile.