Gregor and the Code of Claw
Gregor gave a cry of fury that was muffled by his gag. He made it to his feet and ran blindly toward the door to his cell, slamming into it. This was no good. It was a thick slab of stone; the only thing damaged was his shoulder. For a while he continued to yell but eventually gave that up as well. There was no sound outside of his cell. If there were guards, they were silent and unresponsive. He slumped against the door and tried to control himself. But it wasn't easy. The rager sensation had begun to brew in him from the moment the door had swung shut. Without a way to focus the bizarre feeling — like, say, battling rats — he felt out of control. He could not keep himself from straining against the leather strap that held his wrists behind his back, from making growls of frustration. From wanting to kill someone.
"Calm down," he ordered himself. "Calm down!" He took deep breaths while he tried to assess his situation.
"What's your plan?" he imagined Ripred's voice again. Somehow it helped him to focus.
"The first thing I need to do is get my hands free!" he snapped back in his head. They had not taken his sword, so there had to be a way. Gregor scooted his foot along the wall until he came to a corner. He inched his sword belt around so that the weapon was behind him. He wedged the point of the sword into the corner of the floor and braced the hilt with his back. The blade was very sharp, and by rubbing the leather strap against it, he was able to saw through his bonds in a matter of minutes. Next he cut through the gag and flung it away. He could scream now for real. But he didn't bother. He knew no one was going to come to his rescue.
It was pitch-black. They hadn't left him with so much as a candle. The flashlight York had returned to him ... where was it? Lost somewhere in the confusion of the hospital. The door fit so tightly into the walls around it that not even the faintest shaft of light leaked around its edges.
Gregor felt his way around the cell. It was small, about ten feet by ten feet. If he stood up straight, the ceiling brushed his hair. There was nothing to be found in it. Not a bench to sit on. No food or water. No place to pee. No blanket to keep him warm, which was his most immediate concern, because it was cool in the cell and he was soaking wet from bathing the mice. He slumped down in the corner and pulled his arms inside his shirt to conserve body heat.
Why had Solovet done this? Probably to punish him for running back to the Firelands. To show him that she was in charge and, if he disobeyed her, she could toss him in the dungeon anytime she wanted to. But that wasn't exactly the message Gregor was getting. If she had really been in charge she wouldn't have needed Horatio and Marcus to abduct him secretly and spirit him down to this cell. He had been arrested one other time, when he had placed the baby Bane in Ripred's care instead of killing him. But there had been an official, public arrest and a trial to follow. Gregor had an unsettling feeling that now no one but Solovet and a few of her soldiers knew where he was. Who else could know? Who would come to his aid or even notice he was gone? Dulcet had seen Horatio and Marcus take him away, but they could easily say they had escorted him to the hospital and then he'd slipped off again. If Dulcet even had time to think about it, because she definitely had her hands full in the nursery. Mareth usually kept an eye on him, but again, with the general confusion going on in the palace, it would be easy to think Gregor was in another place dealing with another problem. Even Boots would be too busy to miss him. His mother was sick, his dad back in New York City. Luxa and Howard were barely hanging on to life. Ares? No doubt Ares was expending every bit of energy he had helping to airlift the nibblers out of the Firelands and back to Regalia. A job like that could take days. That pretty much left Vikus. Would he realize Gregor had been imprisoned? With the war starting, he was probably working around the clock, too. And Gregor felt certain Solovet hadn't told him about this. They were married but they didn't always confide in each other. Take the development of the plague as a weapon. If Solovet had hidden that from Vikus, then concealing that she had locked up Gregor was nothing.
Hours passed. Gregor huddled in the corner trying to stay warm. His clothes barely seemed to be drying at all. He was hungry and exhausted. The lack of light weighed on him. His thoughts turned to "The Prophecy of Time," to his death, to how he was meant to kill the Bane. He didn't see how he was going to get a chance to do that in here. What would happen if he didn't? And what was going on with that Code of Claw thing? Boots had been in the nursery, but wasn't the princess supposed to be working on that? The prophecy had mostly been about how important it was to break the Code of Claw. Gregor and the Bane's death had been rather minor points compared to that, at least to Sandwich.
Eventually Gregor fell into a kind of stupor, not fully asleep but not quite awake, either. And in this state, visions of the battle he had just fought began to replay in his mind. The elation he had felt from fighting had completely dissipated. Now when he saw his sword slicing through the rats' flesh, their claws coming at him, he felt scared and weak. It was as if some other person had taken over his body for the duration of the battle. But that person had deserted him in the dungeon, leaving a kid who suddenly wanted nothing so much as to wake up in his bed in New York City and find his mom telling him to hurry up, it was time for breakfast.
He finally went to sleep, curled up in a ball on the stone floor. Luxa wove in and out of his dreams, laughing on her bat, dancing in the arena, and then, as his dreams changed to nightmares, lying in a hospital bed where he couldn't reach her, breathing slower and slower until she stopped breathing entirely. He woke with a start, his brow beaded with sweat, in time to hear the door of his cell slam shut. Stiff and aching, Gregor crawled toward the sound. His right hand landed in a plate of something. Stew? He found a small loaf of bread. A mug of water. There were no utensils. Famished, he crouched in the dark, cramming the food into his mouth. At least Solovet didn't plan on starving him to death. No, he was her prize weapon. She wasn't trying to kill him, just punish him, humiliate him, and break him, probably. He lifted the plate and licked the remaining sauce from its surface. He could have eaten ten times as much, but it at least stopped the hunger pangs in his stomach. That was all that had come, the food on a tray. Gregor really needed to go now. He didn't want to pee in his cell, so he went in the mug. Then he went back to his corner and curled up on the floor again.
The darkness continued to press upon him, making him feel a little crazy. He shut his eyes tight and tried to imagine he was lying on the grass in Central Park on a warm day. Basking in the sun, feeling it soak into his skin. Maybe he would get up and buy a pretzel, heavily slathered in mustard. He would take Boots for a ride on the carousel. At the children's zoo, they would feed the pig that always made her laugh until she hiccuped.
But it was no good. No good. He could not wish himself out of this dank, lifeless hole in the ground. He didn't think he could stand it very much longer. He needed light, he needed people, he needed to know what was going on! Was Luxa alive or wasn't she? That was the cruelest thing Solovet had done to him, cut him off from the world. How could she do it? How could no one notice he was gone? It had been hours now, maybe days. Didn't anyone even care where he was? Suddenly he was so upset he had to bite his lip so he didn't start screaming. And then something happened that changed his entire perception of the world. Gregor coughed. It was just a small cough. But the instant it left his mouth, it was as if lightning had struck the room. He could see! Okay, not see exactly, because it was still dark in his cell. But he could tell with absolute certainty the proximity of the wall across from him. It was almost as if a picture of it appeared in his head. Shocked out of his despair, Gregor sat up and coughed again. There was the tray, the plate, and the mug. Somewhere in his brain he could register their shapes on the floor, as if in silhouette. But there was more. The mug gave off a faint redness that suggested heat. Why? He scooted over to the mug and wrapped his fingers around it. It was still warm from his pee.
He had finally gotten it. The thing that Ripred had been so bent on teaching him, that Gregor had been so unable to learn. Echolocation. All those hours of clicking around in that dark cave, trying to locate the rat, miserably failing, had not been a waste of time. He had radar! Just like a bat! He set the few objects he had around the room and clicked and coughed at them. It wasn't just a fluke; he hadn't gone temporarily insane. He could "see" them all, even the photograph of Luxa he'd been carrying in his pocket. Well, he couldn't actually make out the picture, only the small, thin square. But maybe that would come in time.
His preoccupation with his newfound skill kept him from going nuts. Kept him from breaking down and begging the guards to let him out. And he knew he couldn't do that. Let Solovet win. He had to leave this cell as uninfluenced by her as he had entered it, or he would just become her pawn in this whole awful war. And he would really, truly rather be dead than do that. If he gave that woman control over him, there would be nothing left inside of him.
Instead of brooding, he devoted himself to combining his sword work with his echolocation. It was even better in rager gear! Just the mild sensations he got from practicing with his sword heightened his echolocation ability. The wall was there! The plate there! The door there! The tip of his blade tapped each in turn. He couldn't wait to tell Ripred!
After a decent workout, he rested against the wall. His clothes were finally dry. He was no longer cold. His mind was electrified by the echolocation. He began to consider a plan to break out of his prison. Someone was going to have to open that door again to feed him. And when they did he would be ready. He would overpower them and fight his way back to Vikus or Ripred or Ares or someone who would take his side. He would get out of here and he would let everyone know what Solovet had done to him. He would — what was that?
Gregor flattened himself against the wall a few feet from the place where the door opened. In this position, he figured he would have a couple of seconds to attack his guards and break out. But something was confusing him. He could hear voices outside. One was deep, probably Horatio's or Marcus's. But the second was light and high and female. The person to whom it belonged was arguing with the guard, although Gregor couldn't quite catch the words. Who could it be? Not Luxa or his mom. They wouldn't be well enough. Had Dulcet tracked him to the dungeon? Or Perdita come looking for him after they had fought side by side in the Firelands?
The lock turned in the key and the door swung open. Torchlight flooded in, hurting his eyes. From outside came a shaky voice. "Gregor, it is only I. Sheath your sword."
It was Nerissa. Luxa's cousin on the royal side. Gregor did not have to ask how she had discovered he was in the dungeon, how she knew he had been poised, sword drawn, ready to attack the guard. She could see things that no one else could. Visions of events past, present, and future. She had no doubt seen him here and realized he needed help.
He knew Nerissa was his friend, but he didn't think much of putting away his sword with the guards out there. "I'm okay in here," he said, not moving.
Nerissa stepped into the cell and steadied herself on the door frame. She was as thin and fragile as ever, bent under the weight of the heavy, mismatched garments she wore to keep warm. Her long tresses had been braided into a loose plait that, by Nerissa's standards, counted as a fancy hairdo. "We have need of you in the code room."
This was the first Gregor had heard of the code room. But it had to be a step up from the dungeon. "Solovet wants me there?" he asked.
"She will. Once I have spoken to her," said Nerissa. "But you must come with me to see her first. And you must let Horatio and Marcus bind your hands if they are to risk moving you. They only do so now because I have explained the crisis that faces us. Breaking the code is our priority and it does not go well. Please trust me on this, Gregor."
Even though he did trust her through and through, it took her a while to convince him to sheath his sword and let the guards tie his hands behind his back. He hated being so vulnerable again. But if he could get out of the cell without fighting his guards it would be better. That would make him an instant fugitive and make it even tougher to move around freely. Still, he remained undecided until Nerissa said, "Luxa has been asking for you."
"She has? She's alive, then? I mean, obviously she's alive if she's asking for me, but she's awake and everything?" he burst out. The news made him so giddy he wasn't thinking straight.
"Yes, she heals. And she wishes to see you," said Nerissa. "But I will be hard-pressed to arrange it with you in the dungeon."
That was when Gregor slid his sword into his belt and let Horatio tie the leather strap around his wrists. Then, with the guards flanking him, he followed Nerissa up through the palace. Luxa was alive! She had pulled through! He found himself grinning from ear to ear. As they ascended from under the palace, the atmosphere in the hallways quickly sobered him up. Anxiety showed on the faces of everyone he passed. They spoke in hushed, hurried voices. From time to time, he heard wailing. He remembered the Underlander bodies piling up around him at the mouth of the cave in the Firelands. Not everyone had been as lucky as Luxa. By the time he had reached the council room, his grin was long gone.
"That's just as well," thought Gregor. He didn't plan to let Solovet see him show any emotion at all. Not anger, not fear, and certainly not happiness. As he walked in to meet her, he made his face as impassive as the stone knight's.
The council room had been transformed into a kind of war center. About a dozen bleary-eyed Underlanders were buzzing around, making notes, delivering messages, drinking mugs of tea. There were a couple of bats there as well. Piles of scrolls were strewn across the table. Platters of food covered a long table off to one side, indicating people were working here around the clock. The giant map of the Underland that Gregor had seen once before, when they had planned his trip to the jungle, hung on the wall. Groups of different colored pins were arranged here and there. It didn't take a military genius to guess those represented troops.
Ripred, who had been bathed and bandaged, had positioned himself by the buffet. By the array of empty dishes around him, he'd been having quite a feast. He was currently dipping his face into a pot of his favorite shrimp in cream sauce. Besides the rat, the only ones Gregor recognized were Solovet and Mareth, who were discussing a grouping of red-colored pins on the map.
When Nerissa, Gregor, and his guards entered, the room gradually fell silent. Solovet took one look at the newcomers and said calmly, "All excuse themselves but Mareth and Ripred." In a minute, the others had cleared out. "What is the meaning of this?" she asked.
Nerissa did not give the guards time to answer. "We have need of Gregor in the code room. I took it upon myself to have him released and now ask permission for his aid."
"And how did you know where to find him?" asked Solovet. "No, never mind. I suppose you saw him in a dream. What else does our little visionary see?"
"I saw nothing but Gregor locked in a dungeon," said Nerissa quietly. Gregor could see by the look of shock on Mareth's face that the soldier had had no idea of his situation. And Ripred even stopped eating for a moment.
"Oh, tell me you didn't," said the rat, as the cream sauce dripped off of his muzzle.
"Only for a couple of days," said Solovet with a slight shrug. "I would have had him arrested sooner but I thought it more prudent to wait until Vikus had gone to enlist the spinners. What urgent need can you have for him in the code room, Nerissa?" She rolled a red pin between her fingertips, seemingly impatient to get back to her map.
"It is Boots. We feel she would be of more use if Gregor were there to help manage her," said Nerissa.
Solovet glanced at Gregor's face and shook her head.
"Well, you will have to do without him. I cannot risk him disobeying orders yet again and running off to who knows where," she said. "Return him to the dungeon."
"He did not run off to who knows where. He came back to battle," said Ripred. "And lucky for us he did. Really, Solovet, I don't see how this is encouraging any sort of allegiance to you."
"He's had no light, no medical care, no bed, and little food," said Nerissa.
"Oh, excellent," said Ripred. "Let's alienate the warrior altogether."
"Fine, allow him a torch and a blanket," said Solovet.
"I will take responsibility for him," said Mareth. "He will not leave Regalia."
"No, I need you here. And if he outsmarted Horatio and Marcus, there is no guarantee you can hold him," said Solovet.
"What holds him is already in Regalia, Solovet," said Ripred.
"His family was not enough to keep him from going before," said Solovet.
"Not his family. Your granddaughter. Why do you think he was in such a rush to get back to the Firelands? Concern for me?" said Ripred.
"Luxa? What has she to do with it?" asked Solovet. For the first time she appeared interested in the conversation.
Gregor could not keep himself from speaking. "Shut up, Ripred."
"See how he protests? Oh, he's head over heels. I got my first smell of it when they were having some quarrel in the Firelands," Ripred said nonchalantly. Gregor remembered that argument. He had blown up at Luxa for abusing Ripred and bossing everybody around. It had ended with him feeling very confused. That's when Ripred had taken a deep, noticeable sniff. So rats could smell more than fear, they could smell love as well.
"He about got himself killed in the Firelands when I just mentioned she was unwell," continued the rat. "Oh, think back about half a century, Solovet. You remember what it's like."
"He is in love with Luxa?" Solovet asked with a look of amusement. "Is this so, Gregor? Is this the reason you disobeyed my order?"
Gregor made no reply. His face burned like fire.
"If it were so, I would be far more amenable to letting you free, as I do not believe Luxa will be planning any outings anytime soon," said Solovet. "But I should like to hear it from you."
Gregor stared at the ground, thinking of what he might do to Ripred if he ever were free.
"No? Then perhaps the dungeon is the safest place for you," said Solovet.
The guards had just laid hands on him to lead him away when Mareth burst out, "Check his pocket!" Gregor shot Mareth a look of disbelief. This was far worse than Ripred's betrayal. With his hands tied behind his back, there was nothing Gregor could do but watch as Solovet crossed to him and plucked the photo from his shirt. She examined it closely for a moment, then laughed and held it up for Ripred to see.
"What did I tell you?" said the rat, and stuffed a clawful of shrimp into his stupid mouth.
Gregor knew then it was all there in that photo. All the proof anyone needed of his feelings for Luxa, captured in that one shot. He had been an idiot to carry it around. But how could he have anticipated this moment?
"This has simplified my job immensely." Solovet tucked the photo back in Gregor's shirt, gave it a little pat, and smiled at him. "Do not worry, your secret is safe with me." She nodded to the guards. "Unbind his hands, he is free to go."