Gregor and the Code of Claw
Mareth rose to block his way. "Wait, Gregor. It is not so simple now. We are at war."
"Yeah, that's what I'm talking about," said Gregor. His fingers fumbled in their eagerness to buckle on the belt. "Is Ares still in the hospital?" He knew his bond would be as anxious as he was to rejoin their friends.
"Yes, down the hall. But listen a moment —" Mareth began.
"Great, then we can get going," said Gregor. He moved for the door only to find he was being lifted in the air and thrust back against the bed. Mareth might have lost his leg, but he could still toss Gregor around, no problem.
"Listen!" said Mareth. "During wartime, you are a soldier. Perhaps the most valuable one we have. You cannot go running off when the mood strikes you. You will be expected to follow orders."
"Whose orders?" asked Gregor.
"Solovet's," said Marefh.
"Solovet's?" said Gregor, genuinely thrown. As far as he knew, she was no longer in a position to give anyone orders. "I thought she was locked up in her room and had to go on trial for causing the plague."
"The trial was put on hold once it was known that Luxa had declared war," said Mareth.
"But... why? That doesn't change what Solovet did," said Gregor. "She still ordered the doctors to make the plague into a weapon. She still killed all those people and bats. She almost killed my mom."
"By accident. Her plan was to kill rats," said Mareth. "Now that we are at war with them, a person who thinks of little but killing rats is of great value. So the council has reinstated her as head of the Regalian army."
"The head of — no way!" exclaimed Gregor. He'd thought that maybe they'd made her the leader of his squadron or something. But now she was back in charge of everything? "Couldn't they get someone else?"
"There is no human, save yourself, who the rats fear as much," said Mareth. "Solovet is both cunning and ruthless in war. It was felt we needed her to survive."
"But — that trial will never happen now!" said Gregor bitterly. It wouldn't. The war would erupt and blank everything else out. As the hatred against the rats built, the humans would think that Solovet had had a good idea in turning the plague germs into a weapon. Despite all of the deaths she had caused to her own people, she would be seen as heroic, not criminal. Gregor thought of his mom struggling to breathe somewhere in the hospital. The purple scars that Ares's fur still could not quite cover. All of the people and bats and rats who had died. "That's not right, Mareth," said Gregor. "Do you think it's right?"
Mareth sighed and averted his eyes. He released Gregor and took an awkward step back. "Whatever my private opinion of the situation is, it is of no matter. Solovet is now in command."
"Not of me," said Gregor. Of one thing he was certain. He was not going to go to his death on Solovet's terms; he was going to go on his own.
"Be careful to whom you say that, Gregor," said Mareth quietly. "Not everyone here is your friend." With that, the soldier limped out of the room. Gregor took a few deep breaths to get a handle on himself, then unbuckled his sword belt and placed the blade back in the corner of the room. He wiped up the pudding he'd knocked to the floor and neatly reset the tray. Then he lay back down in bed to look like a model patient while he worked things out in his head.
Mareth was right. Not everybody in Regalia was Gregor's friend. Plenty of people would be more than happy to spy on him for Solovet. Gregor didn't know what she had in store for him, but it was unlikely it involved him hopping on Ares and flying straight back to the Firelands. Probably he would be part of some master plan. Whatever Gregor wanted would be of no consequence. She would view him as a weapon to be used at her discretion. If he was going to get back to the Firelands, he would have to do it in secret. And he would have to do it carefully.
"What's your plan?" he heard Ripred's voice in his head. The rat was trying to break him of the habit of flying off the handle and taking action without thinking of its consequences. "What's your plan?"
"First of all, I can't let anyone else guess that I want to go back," Gregor thought. He was pretty sure Mareth wouldn't tell anyone. But he couldn't count on other people's loyalty. Gregor's initial impulse had been to run straight to Ares, but that would be odd. If he were not obsessed with returning to the Firelands, if he were planning to stay in Regalia like a good little soldier, wouldn't he ask to see his mom first? He felt a flush of shame. Shouldn't he have asked to see his mom first either way? Yes. Only the truth was, if she was well enough to see him, she was going to be both furious about his trip to the Firelands and adamant that he return immediately to New York City. Which he wasn't going to do. So he would either have to fight with her, openly defy her, or lie to her. All three options were lousy. Underneath it all, though, he was still aching to see her.
When a doctor came by a few minutes later, Gregor asked if he could visit her and was given permission to do so. Briefly. "It is fine to use your knee, good even. But take it slowly for the first few days," said the doctor, helping him into a pair of sandals.
"Got it," said Gregor, and made a big show of walking carefully down to his mom's room. He had to wear a mask, not for his own protection but for hers.
Gregor had underestimated what a relapse could be. His mother was as sick as she'd been when he'd first seen her with the plague. Sicker, maybe. Then, at least, she'd had the energy to order him home. Now she was too weak to even speak. All of her effort went into breathing. When he held her hand, the skin was hot and dry from fever. Her eyes had a distant look.
"This isn't the plague, right?" Gregor asked the doctor.
"No, this is a lung infection. I believe you call it 'pneumonia' in the Overland," said the doctor.
"But she could go home, if she was well enough to travel?" said Gregor.
"If she was well enough to travel, but she is not," said the doctor.
Gregor stroked his mother's cheek. "Don't worry, it's going to be all right. It's going to be all right." He couldn't tell if she understood him or not.
Outside the room, the doctor took Gregor aside and spoke in a whisper. At first Gregor assumed it was for his mom's sake, but then he realized the doctor was afraid of anyone hearing his words. "Warrior, if she were my mother, I would use whatever influence I have to get her back to the Overland. Your hospitals could treat her as well as ours now. And with the war commencing, the palace may come under attack. She may even have to be moved to the Fount."
"But you said she was too sick to travel," said Gregor.
"That is what I must say. And it is true. For a time of peace," said the doctor. "But now you must weigh the dangers of her staying here during a time of war." He looked nervously around. "Please, keep my counsel to yourself." Then he walked swiftly away.
For a moment, Gregor felt torn as the desire to get to the Firelands fought with the need to get his mother to safety. His mother won. His friends in the Firelands had one another and an army to lean on. His mother had no one but himself.
Gregor left the hospital without permission and found Vikus in the room off of the High Hall. "When are you sending the next message to my father?" he asked.
"I was about to do so now, Gregor. Is there something you wish me to include?" asked Vikus.
"Yeah, my mom," said Gregor.
Vikus rubbed a hand over his eyes. "I have tried, Gregor. Three times already. The council has denied the requests." Gregor knew Vikus couldn't officially move his mom without the council members' authority, but he couldn't help being frustrated by the way the old man constantly deferred to them. "But she can't stay here during the war. What if the rats attacked the palace? You'd have to move her somewhere else, anyway." Gregor thought he could say that much without getting the doctor in trouble.
"I have made this argument," said Vikus. "But the council does not accept if. They refuse to let her go. My wife has convinced them that your mother's health will not bear the move."
Suddenly Gregor understood what was going on. "It's not about her health. It's about me. It's about keeping me here," he said. Solovet was holding his mother hostage down here. She knew Gregor would never leave without his mom.
Vikus's silence confirmed his words.
"You tell the council they'd better keep her alive. If she dies, you just lost a warrior!" said Gregor.
"Are you sure you wish me to say this?" asked Vikus.
"Why wouldn't I?" said Gregor.
"It gains you nothing and it reveals much of your hand," said Vikus. "I myself find it wiser to keep certain thoughts to myself until they can be to my advantage."
Vikus was right. The doctors in the hospital would do their best to heal his mother. Threatening the council members would only increase their suspicion of Gregor at a time when he was trying to appear tractable. "I see what you mean. Thanks," said Gregor. At least Vikus was still looking out for him.
He headed back to the hospital, gripped by fear for his mother. Could he move her on his own? No, she was way too sick. That would take a whole team of doctors. When she got home she'd have to go straight to the hospital and then the questions would begin. Even so, Gregor would rather gamble on his dad and Mrs. Cormaci coming up with some crazy story to explain his mom's condition than to risk having her down here during the war.
It was all a moot point, though, because of Solovet. She would never let his mom go until she was through using Gregor. A voice came out of the past: "I was just thinking, it did not take long for my mother to get her claws into you." Hamnet. That's what Hamnet had said on their first meeting in the jungle, before he had been Gregor's guide, before the ants had killed him. Hamnet, a famous warrior himself, had fled Regalia because his conscience would no longer allow him to fight, and he knew his mother, Solovet, would try to force him. Who would know better than Hamnet what it felt like to have Solovet's claws in him? Well, they were digging into Gregor now, in a whole new way. But it only increased Gregor's resolve to defy her.
He returned to his hospital room to find that another meal had showed up. He ate it to keep up appearances. Probably needed it, anyway. He might be back on a diet of fish and mushrooms pretty soon. Then he went to find Ares. Since he'd seen his mom, this would not raise any red flags.
Ares was just finishing up his meal when Gregor came in. A nurse was gathering up the platters that had held the bat's food.
"How you feeling, man?" asked Gregor.
"A bit stiff, but I am well," said the bat. His voice, which was usually a low purr, was hoarse from the volcanic ash.
"Think you'd be up for a game of chess later?" asked Gregor. This was entirely for the nurse's benefit. Gregor and Ares had never played chess before. Never even spoken about it. But Gregor had seen a lot of people and bats playing in the hospital while they were recovering. It seemed like something the nurse would be in favor of.
"The question is, are you up for it?" asked Ares.
"That sounds like a challenge," said Gregor with a grin.
The nurse seemed to approve. "I will see if we have a board available." She collected the dishes and left the room.
Gregor and Ares waited a few moments, then spoke in urgent whispers.
"We must get back to the Firelands," said Ares.
"I know. But Mareth says we're under Solovet's command now," said Gregor. "Can you meet me at the place?" "The place" was a pretty general term, but he knew Ares would understand he was referring to the spring-fed lake known as the Spout. There was a secret passage that led to it from a stone turtle in the old nursery.
"In one hour," said Ares. "The nibbler pups are still in the nursery. If your sister is not with Hazard, she will likely be there, too."
"I'll find a way," said Gregor. Although persuading Boots, a litter of mouse babies, and probably their nanny, too, to look the other way while he flipped open that big stone turtle shell and climbed through it was going to be some trick.
The nurse came in holding a chessboard. "I have a board but no pieces at the moment. Some will be available soon."
"You know, I think there's a set in the museum," said Gregor. "I'm supposed to exercise this knee some, anyway. I'll get it." There actually was one of those little magnetic travel chessboards complete with pieces in the museum. It was the perfect excuse.
Gregor stopped by his hospital room and buckled on his sword belt. If anyone asked, he could always say he was just trying to get used to the feel of wearing it. But he still waited until the hall was free of doctors and nurses to slip out of the hospital. He took a less-traveled route to the museum as well, and managed to avoid running into anyone but a group of school-children.
When he got to the museum, the first thing that caught his eye was a brown cardboard box that was sealed with masking tape. The words for gregor had been printed neatly across the top in red marker. He recognized the handwriting as Mrs. Cormaci's. When had this box come? Today? Yesterday? Or during his week or so of absence in the Firelands? Gregor ripped open the box and found a note right on top. As he read the words, he could hear Mrs. Cormaci's voice in his head.
Well, this is a fine how-do-you-do. Everyone's in a state because you've disappeared on some picnic, but I feel certain you've got yourself mixed up in some kind of funny business down there. I know it's strange, but I'm not even worried. Not about you or Boots. Although your parents ... well, that's another story. Do you realize, I wonder, what it does to your family when you go off?
Gregor felt like someone had hit him in the stomach. Yes, he realized! Of course he knew! Hadn't he been the one waiting for his dad for two and a half years? Didn't his family's situation gnaw away at him every time he was on some mission?
Now you're in Regalia because you're reading this. So it's a good time to step back and take a hard look at things. I know most of what happens to you down there is out of your control. I know you're only doing what you feel you have to do. But your family is hurting right now. All I'm saying is, don't let yourself get killed, or you'll have an awful lot of explaining to do.
Love, Mrs. Cormaci
Why had she written that about him being killed? It was almost as if she had read the prophecy. But if she had, she would also know that his death was one of those things out of his control. As for explaining things once he was gone... well, that didn't even make sense. Why was she even saying this stuff to him? Maybe she meant it as a joke. Of course, it being Mrs. Cormaci, maybe she didn't. Wait, there was something at the bottom....
P.S. Lizzie helped make the cookies. She says to share them with the rat. So Lizzie was home from sleepaway camp. He knew she'd be a wreck. Even when things were going fine, his sister was anxious. He could see her face now, her brow furrowed the way no eight-year-old kid's should ever be. Skinny, little, nervous, way-too-smart-for-her-age Lizzie. Worrying about him and Boots. Worrying about his mom and dad. Even worrying about cranky old Ripred.
"Next time I see Lizzie —" Gregor thought. And then he realized he would never see her again. Or any of them back home. Because he was never leaving the Underland. He was going to die down here....
Gregor watched as the note floated from his hand and came to rest gently on the floor. And that's when Sandwich's words finally hit him.
When the warrior has been killed
The room spun around and he clutched a shelf to keep from falling. He felt an immense pressure in his chest, as if he were in danger of breaking into a thousand pieces, and was unable to draw a breath. "No! I don't want this! I don't want to die!" he thought. His entire body began shaking as he tried to push the threat from his mind, but it was too powerful. "I can't do this. I can't. I've got to get home." Luxa was right. It was too much to ask of him. To give his life, his future, to give everything he had for the Underlanders. "I'm getting out of here. Going to get Boots and my mom and get home and — never — look — back!"
For an instant, he thought he really might do it. But then what? What? What happened to everyone he loved down here? They would all die as the prophecy foretold. He could never let that happen. Would never let that happen. So then —
Gregor sank to the floor, panting, as the waves of tremors ran through him.' He struggled to get ahold of himself. This had to stop! He couldn't flip out every time he thought about what lay before him. Of all the people he would never see, or all the things he would never do. He would be worthless. Of no use at all. He had to have something in his mind to hold on to. Something that gave him strength. Images flew through his head, of his family, of his friends, of places and things he loved. None of them were of any help.
Then he remembered the stone knight in the Cloisters. Cold, hard, unyielding, long since removed from anything in life that could hurt him. A long time ago, the knight had fought ... maybe died in a horrible battle, too ... everybody had to die eventually ... but now he was invulnerable. Sleeping on his marble bed. Safe. Peaceful even. Somehow the thought of this other soldier from another time comforted Gregor in a way that nothing living could. He had gone through something awful, but it was over, and he was now in a place where no one could ever harm him again. The shaking began to subside. Gregor inhaled and the pain in his chest lost its grip. "That's me. I have to remember that's me from now on," he thought. "I'm that knight, I'm made of stone, and in the end nothing can touch me. Okay. Okay, then. That's how it is."
As he calmed down, he remembered that Ares was waiting for him. He had things to do. People to help. And time was short.
Gregor retrieved the note and pulled himself to his feet. He saw a foil-wrapped package that had to be the cookies. But the box was too deep to hold only cookies. He lifted out the foil package and his heart skipped a beat. Two flashlights. A big stack of batteries. And a brand-new pair of sneakers. The good kind. Mrs. Cormaci. How did she know? How did she always seem to know what he needed? The waterproof flashlight she had given him before he'd crossed the Waterway. The work boots that had saved his toes from being destroyed by acid in the jungle. Could she see the dangers he would encounter in those tarot cards of hers, even though Gregor would never let her do a reading on him? Or was she just a good guesser?
Gregor added a new roll of duct tape and two water bottles to the box. The bottles were the kind joggers used in Central Park. They were empty, but he could fill them up at a stream along the way to the Firelands. He looked for a new backpack, but all he could find was a small pink one with thin cords for straps. He emptied out a lady's wallet, a makeup case, a book of maps of Manhattan, and a hairbrush, and stuck it in his box. It didn't look like something a warrior would carry, but it would hold his supplies and that was all that really mattered. Then he placed the cookies back on top of the whole thing. He wouldn't get ready to travel until he was in the secret passageway that led to the Spout. Remembering his story to the nurse, he placed the magnetic chessboard on top of the cookies. He probably wouldn't see her again, but he wanted to cover all of his bases. Now he had to get to the old nursery and into that passageway.
Gregor picked up the box. He walked out of the museum and down the hall. "Taking your time. Looking natural," he thought. "You can do this."
Then he turned the corner and pulled up short.
Solovet was standing in front of him. Behind her were two men.
The last time Gregor had seen Solovet was months ago, when he had arrived back from the jungle. She had been in the council meeting where they had arrested Dr. Neveeve. By the time Gregor had been treated for his injuries and come out of the anesthesia, Dr. Neveeve had been executed and Solovet confined to her rooms. Gregor had been glad she'd been taken away to a place where he couldn't see her. Where he didn't have to deal with what she'd done to his mom and Ares and Howard and countless others. But here she was. The woman who wouldn't think twice about letting his mom die if it meant holding on to Gregor. In one second, he realized both how much he hated her and how careful he had to be. She was now in command of him.
"Gregor," she said with a warm smile. He smiled back. "Hey, Solovet. How've you been?"
"Very well. And yourself?" she asked.
"Doing all right," he said.
"What have you there?" she asked, nodding at the box;
"Mrs. Cormaci sent me some cookies. Thought I'd take them back up to the hospital. Spread the goodness around," said Gregor. "Want one?" He peeled back the foil on the cookies and the delicious smell of oatmeal raisin filled the hallway.
"Why not?" Solovet accepted a cookie and took a bite. She chewed it thoughtfully and nodded her approval. "Excellent."
"So, I need to talk to you pretty soon, right?" asked Gregor as he shifted the box to his hip. "See what you want me to do. Mareth says you're running the war."
"Yes. Yes. And you are, of course, very precious to me. Know you Horatio and Marcus?" Solovet casually gestured to the men behind her.
"Hi." Gregor gave them a wave and they nodded back. For the first time he noticed how they were dressed. They each wore protective gear made of leather and metal on their chests, legs, and arms. Helmets covered their heads. Wicked-looking swords and daggers were at their belts. "Are they, like, generals or something?"
"No, Gregor. They are your personal guards," said Solovet. "We are very concerned with your safety."
"My personal guards? Great." Her real meaning was beginning to dawn on him, but he just laughed. "I sure could've used them a few days ago. Doesn't seem like I'd need them in here, though. Aren't even any rats around."
"The guards are not to keep the rats out," said Solovet pleasantly. "They are to keep you in."