Where foundlings hide, p.19
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       Where Foundlings Hide, p.19

           KL Mitchelson
 
Chapter Nineteen

  My fingers tremble with nerves as I am swept into a brightly-lit banquet room. The ceiling is high, just like the one in the library, but this room is filled with hundreds of people seated at long, glass-top tables that appear to be lit from underneath.

  Enormous, sparkling chandeliers hang from the ceiling, decadent and orb-like, and rows of tall, potted trees decorated with twinkling fairy lights, flank each side of the room.

  The sea of faces turns in our direction as the Vedmak Household stands to greet us, their chairs scraping against the polished, wooden floor.

  As I follow Roma up a set of steps onto a high dais, there are whispers of excitement from the curious crowd, the room filled with a growing tension, expanding, filling every corner of the room and seeping into my lungs. I feel like I’m going to throw up.

  Roma holds up her hands and the Household falls silent. “Members of the Vedmak Household, as you all know, sixteen years ago we made the heart-breaking decision to send the remaining Foundling children to Earth. At the time, Displacia was ravaged by war, and the followers of Ezra Vedmak had made clear their intentions to regroup.” Roma swallows reflexively when she says her brother’s name, and I feel Ivy reacting silently beside me.

  “Since then, we have rebuilt our world,” Roma continues. “Reformed our inter-Household alliances; we have made Displacia good again. While the Shadows are still at large, I cannot bring all of the Foundlings home, but tonight, I offer you a reminder of what we are fighting for. I give you my niece, Princess Acacia, the youngest of the Foundling children.”

  She beckons me forward and I imagine the room cloaked in purple, shielding my thoughts from the eager Household.

  At first, there are murmurs of disbelief, wide eyes, stunned faces, and then the room erupts.

  There are cheers and applause, people are on their feet, whistling, catcalling and I feel my face blaze.

  Roma lets the commotion continue for a few moments, before signalling again for silence. “There are many among us who feel that sending the Foundling children away was wrong, that they should have remained here, with their families, with their Households, but Acacia is living proof that we did the right thing. Without our intervention, she may not be standing here, alive and well, free from the influence of the Shadows.”

  Guilt starts to creep over me. Acacia is dead. What would the Vedmak Household think if they knew the truth?

  “When we can be sure that Displacia is safe,” Roma continues. “We will bring back all of the Foundling children, and they will lead us to greatness.”

  There is another round of applause, and then someone calls out from the crowd. “To Princess Acacia.” It’s Caleb, standing close to the dais, his glass raised in the air.

  “Princess Acacia.” The crowd repeats.

  Caleb smirks as he raises his glass to his lips.

  Looking at his smug face makes me want to rip off my crown and hurl it at him. He must hear my thoughts, because he laughs raucously as the Vedmak’s take their seats and I hastily visualise the purple cloak again.

  Caleb sits down beside a beautiful, dark haired woman with the same piercing green eyes. She looks so much like him that it must be his Mother. He leans in to speak to her, but his eyes are still on me.

  Ivy and Roma lead me to a table adjacent to the one where Caleb sits, and the occupants eye me eagerly as I take a seat. Butterflies dance in my stomach, but I am spared the Household’s attention by the arrival of dinner.

  It starts with a rich, vegetable soup and platters of appetisers – mushroom tarts, cheese and olives - followed by a dish of chicken in a sweet sauce served with rice and vegetables. I devour every mouthful placed in front of me and I still find room for the fruit and chocolate pudding that is served for dessert.

  Roma intercepts most of the questions from the curious Household members; I try to appear flattered by their interest, while maintaining my hold on the purple cloak in my mind. After a couple of hours, I feel my concentration slipping, especially after we are served a smoking, red concoction in stemless, crystal goblets.

  Our server - a tall man wearing a bland, brown ensemble - tells me that it’s a Displacian liquor made from elderberry, lime and agarwood.

  I raise the goblet to my nose and inhale the heady scent of citrus and alcohol. My eyes flit to Ivy and I wait for her to reprimand me, but she simply says. “Just a taste”, and raises her own goblet to her lips.

  I take a sip. The liquid is both bitter and sweet, and it smoulders all the way down.

  Roma rises from her seat at the head of the table and leans over my shoulder. “It’s time for us to circulate.”

  Leaving my goblet on the table, I cast a frantic look at Ivy as Roma leads me to the back of the room and out on to a shadowy terrace.

  Many of the Household members have converged out here; they sit around small, candlelit tables, their faces aglow with warm, flickering light. Some are cosied-up in colourful cabanas, partially concealed by voile drapes that ruffle in the breeze.

  People press forward as I approach. I shake hands with almost everyone, cringing each time another person’s emotion surges through me – curiosity, enjoyment, trepidation, even envy.

  By the time I’m introduced to a handsome man wearing a suit of dark green, a broadsword sheathed at his belt, my whole body is shaking from the impact of everyone’s excitement, and I am struggling to cloak my thoughts. “Roma, you are looking particularly beautiful this evening,” The handsome man pulls Roma into an embrace. “I’m sorry I missed dinner.” His skin is golden, as though he spends much of his time outdoors, and his eyes crinkle when he smiles.

  “Nicholas,” Roma gently pushes him away, but her voice is filled with affection. “This is my niece, Princess Acacia.” Roma’s face is flushed, her composure slipping ever so slightly.

  “I am pleased to meet you, Princess.” Nicholas tears his eyes away from Roma and extends his hand to me. I brace myself for whatever illicit emotion he’s feeling right now, with Roma, clearly the object of his affection, standing so close beside him.

  But when I take his outstretched hand in mine, I am surprised to find that he is wearing a pair of black, leather gloves. I revel in the calmness of feeling nothing from him at all, before realising that it’s actually a little strange to be wearing leather gloves on such a warm evening.

  “Ah,” Nicholas smiles apologetically. “I was involved in an accident on Earth, sustained burns to my hands while trying to dismantle an explosive device. The Halers are still working on the scarring.” Nicholas clasps his hands behind his back.

  “Nicholas is the leader of the Smith Household,” Roma explains, patting Nicholas on the arm. “His soldiers are providing some extra security around our Household, so I granted him an invitation to your homecoming to show my gratitude.” Roma flashes Nicholas a smile, and he returns it warmly.

  “How could I refuse such an invitation?”

  They gaze into each other’s eyes like there’s just the two of them here. I hastily look around the terrace, hoping that someone will come and rescue me from being the third wheel.

  “You must be very pleased to be home, Acacia,” Nicholas says, catching me off guard. “Will we see you in training any time soon?”

  “Nicholas,” Roma laughs nervously. “Acacia has just returned to us; it will be some time before she is ready for combat.”

  My stomach jolts. “Combat?”

  “The Foundlings are great soldiers,” Nicholas explains. “I’m sure you’ll show my Household a thing or two.”

  Roma looks suddenly perturbed. “Acacia has lived on Earth since she was a baby, her powers were suppressed. She has a lot to learn, Nicholas.”

  Nicholas waves Roma’s concerns away. “She’ll be a natural, all Foundlings are.”

  My hands start to tremble and I scan the crowd again, hoping that Ivy will appear to whisk me away.

  “Roma, I was hoping to show Acacia the grounds.” I breathe
a sigh of relief as Caleb’s hand slips into mine, his reassurance radiating into my palm.

  Roma smiles gratefully, her shoulders relaxing a little. “That’s a lovely idea, you two go ahead. The grounds are really pretty under the stars, Acacia.”

  Nicholas whispers something to Roma, and I hear her laughing as Caleb leads me away from the crowded terrace.

  He heads towards a cluster of curved, stone benches, my hand still folded in his. I take a seat and I am pleasantly surprised to find that the stone is warm, like a clay sculpture fresh from the kiln. I look around the deserted grounds. Everything seems to be coated in a strange, celestial glow, bleaching the colour from the grass and the trees.

  I look back at the Atrium. It’s huge, easily the length of two football pitches, and it’s made mostly of steel and glass. Small spotlights scattered around the grounds glance off its surface and cast shadows in the strange curves and angles that make up the structure of the building.

  Caleb releases me and lies down on an adjacent bench, the curve of the stone fitting to his neck and back perfectly. “Look,” he points towards the sky. I follow the line of his finger and gasp. There are millions of stars strewn across the sky forming a glittering, curved canopy that meets the distant horizon. “Is that real?”

  “No,” Caleb laughs. “The atmosphere around our planet is too strong to see the real stars. It’s a hologram.”

  “Who needs the real thing?” I say, staring dreamily at the dazzling sky.

  “We didn’t,” Caleb says. “Until we saw your world, with your sun during the day and your constellations at night. We saw green forests flourishing, unusual crops growing. We wanted a sky of our own.”

  We lay there in silence for a few moments, both of us gazing up at the sky.

  “This is amazing,” I say. “This whole place. If people back home knew that life exists on another planet…”

  “But they can’t know.”

  “I know that; I’m just saying…it’s a big deal.”

  “Yes we are.” He laughs.

  “You’re so annoying.” I say, pulling a face at him.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Yes, you do, and it’s not just your bad jokes. Whenever I need rescuing, you always turn up, like some kind of knight in shining armour to make everything good again. Only… I’m not sure you did make things good this time.”

  “So you would prefer it if I didn’t rescue you? Because I can take you right back to Nicholas so you can show him your skills.” He laughs.

  “I’m not talking about right now; I’m talking about bringing me here, saving me from those creatures back home.”

  Caleb sits up and looks at me incredulously. “Are you saying I should have left you there, so you could face the Khuulsu alone? Don’t you know what they would have done to you? You’ve just said this place is amazing.”

  “It is, but it’s also terrifying. I travelled through time and space to find out my whole life was a lie.”

  He shakes his head. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong things.”

  I chew the inside of my mouth, unable to find the words to explain to Caleb how I feel about him bringing me here. I know it’s not his fault, not really, he was just following orders. “You could have taken me home, to Evergreen,” I say, somewhat lamely. “You could’ve told me about everything before you brought me here.”

  He rolls his eyes. “The Khuulsu are relentless, they would’ve followed us there and I couldn’t have fought them alone. They incapacitate their victims before they drain them, and Vedmak’s can only fight their power for a short while. Only Foundlings are completely able to throw off the Khuulsu’s hold.”

  “Is it true what Nicholas said then, about the Foundlings being natural soldiers?” I imagine an army of beautiful children, wrapped in armour, swords in their hands.

  Caleb shrugs. “I suppose, but it’s kind of a preconceived idea. People believe that the Foundlings are great soldiers, so they’re trained hard, moulded to fit our expectations. You could argue that we would all be just as good if we were trained in the same way, if we were given the same attention.”

  “But they have the powers of all the Households don’t they? That must put them at an advantage.”

  “Nicholas thinks that a Foundling without any training would be a natural soldier, able to pick up a weapon and fight, but I have to disagree. They have to develop their abilities and learn to use them appropriately. We’ve never given a Foundling the opportunity to see what they can do without training.”

  I glance sideways at him; his face is dazzling in the starlight. “Are Roma and Nicholas a couple?”

  Caleb snorts. “He wishes.”

  “So they’re not together? Is it because she’s royalty?”

  “No,” Caleb laughs. “Roma can be with whomever she chooses, but inter-Household relationships are complicated.”

  “Complicated, how?”

  Caleb’s brows knit together, like he’s looking for the right words. “We are happiest with our own Households. If we marry someone from another Household, we have to choose where to live. Inter-Household relationships are difficult, because most Displacian’s can’t bear to leave their people, but they do happen. There are communities of inter-Household families scattered across Displacia, they still visit their Households and they contribute to our efforts on Earth, but they live outside the bond of their people, it’s…difficult.”

  “So, Roma and Nicholas aren’t together because one or both of them would have to leave their Household?”

  Caleb nods. “And they’re both leaders, they wouldn’t just be leaving their Households, they would be giving up their positions.”

  “And if they had children, would they develop the abilities of both parents?”

  Caleb shakes his head. “Not unless their children are Foundlings; one set of powers always dominates the other.”

  “And what about the Foundlings? How do they have so many powers?”

  Caleb looks amused by my curiosity. “We used to conduct studies, but we never discovered what caused the Foundling gene. We know they don’t inherit it from their parents though, it’s completely random.”

  “And aside from the Foundlings on Earth, the rest are gone now?

  “Yeah, the ones we know of. The war wiped out all adult Foundlings, young and old; all of the remaining children were sent to Earth. If there are any remaining Foundlings, they won’t make themselves known.”

  Lana flickers into my mind, but I won’t let myself think of her for too long, it’s too hard.

  Caleb jumps up suddenly. “C’mon.” He takes my hand and I feel a prickle of excitement as he pulls me to my feet and leads me around the side of the glass building. Up close, I see that the glass is mirrored. I can’t see anything inside; instead, I see my own wide-eyed reflection, like a character from a fairy-tale, swathed in a beautiful dress, walking hand in hand with a handsome knight against a backdrop of glittering stars.

  We head up a narrow path towards a cluster of trees, where starlight filters through the branches and dry leaves crunch underfoot. There is a path of stepping stones that weaves through the trees, but I have to lift the hem of my dress to stop it from snagging on the uneven ground. “Where are we going?”

  “You’ll see.” Caleb smiles.

  We emerge on a street lined with tall Tudor-style houses. It is eerily quiet, and the sound of our footsteps echoes in the silence.

  “This is where most members of the Household live,” Caleb explains. “It’s just Vedmak royalty, diplomats and their bodyguards that live in the Atrium. My house is up there.” He points to a winding, cobbled street just off the main road.

  For one, terrifying moment, I wonder if that’s where we’re headed, but Caleb just grins and continues up the main street.

  “Do you live alone?”

  “No, I live with my parents and my older brother. He’s getting married soon, so he’ll be moving
into his own place.”

  “How is it that you’re working for Roma? Aren’t you too young?”

  Caleb thrusts his hands into his pockets. “We start training at sixteen,” he explains. “For Vedmak’s that means training as Agents. Once we’re qualified, we work mostly undercover on Earth, gathering intelligence and keeping an eye out for anything strange.”

  “So you’ve been training for two years now?”

  He nods. “I shouldn’t be in the field yet, but Roma needed someone who could infiltrate the school, and a teenage student was the perfect pretext.”

  My stomach lurches thinking of Malvern and my friends. “Have you heard anything more about the attack?”

  His brow furrows. “Our Agents banished the Khuulsu from Malvern, no one was hurt.”

  I let out a breath. “Good. What about the damage to the building?”

  “Repairable. We’re trying to fix as much as we can without being seen, but it’s difficult.”

  Caleb quickens his pace and I have to almost jog to keep up. His legs are so long that one of his steps is two of mine.

  “Did you know that the school would be attacked?” I ask.

  “We suspected,” Caleb says. “After you saw a Khuulsu in the river that night, we knew that it was only a matter of time before they stepped up their game.”

  An image of the scorched hand in the river flashes through my mind. “The night I was sleepwalking. I knew it wasn’t just a dream, but you were so angry at me.”

  Caleb frowns. “I couldn’t tell you about the Khuulsu then, we were trying to hold out until we could gather more information. My main objective was to keep you safe, and that night, I realised just how difficult it was. I hate to think what might’ve happened if…”

  “If you weren’t there to save me?” I nudge him playfully in the side.

  He frowns at me, but there is a hint of a smile around his lips. “Exactly. Roma would never give me another assignment if something happened to you.”

  “Hey.” I shove him in the shoulder.

  He laughs and the sound echoes through the empty street.

  The road slopes upwards and at the summit, Caleb pauses and points in the direction of a cluster of white, hexagonal-shaped buildings, made from glass and steel like the main building, and all connected by tunnels.

  “Our laboratories,” he explains. “We conduct our studies of Earth from here.”

  As the path descends, our steps quicken and the wind picks up, whipping my dress around my calves.

  There are two men stationed at the front doors. They wear the same high-neck, navy-blue suits as Roma’s bodyguards and they cast sideways glances as we pass.

  “There are Agents stationed at the labs around the clock now.” Caleb says, holding his watch up to a pad by the entrance. The doors slide open with a hiss and we’re met with the strong smell of cleaning fluid.

  We walk through white, clinical corridors, brightly lit and spotlessly clean. At the next set of doors, Caleb presses a sequence of buttons on a keypad and presses his thumb against the sensor beneath.

  I follow him into another corridor, past windows that offer a glimpse into rooms filled with desks and computers, past laboratories filled with bottles of various liquids and strange, exotic plants that reach up to the ceiling and snake across the floor.

  We approach a solid-looking metal door, with a crank in the centre. Caleb holds up his watch to another sensor, and then presses his palm against the metal. There is a shrill beeping sound, and then the crank starts to turn.

  We pass over the threshold on to a metal balcony where we are greeted by a deafening roar. I peer over the side and see water below, churning, tossing against the walls, rushing towards a huge hole in the centre. It’s like a giant whirlpool, with a huge, dark hole in the middle.

  “A portal,” Caleb yells over the noise. “The very first one. We extracted it from the cave and buried it here below the ground so we could study it.”

  He motions towards a set of steps at the other end of the balcony and I follow him, our feet pounding on the metal structure. The stairs end halfway along the wall in front of another metal door. This one swings open easily and once inside, Caleb pulls the door shut behind us, blocking out the sound of the rushing water.

  There are desks filled with buttons and controls under a big window that looks out over the portal. “What are all these for?”

  “They control it,” he says, nodding towards the crater in the floor outside. “We can’t spend too long near it; people say they feel like jumping in when they work up here for too long.”

  Caleb takes my hand and spins me around to face him, but it’s difficult not to look over my shoulder at the black hole in the floor. “But if someone jumped in, wouldn’t they just end up on Earth?”

  Caleb looks grim. “Not necessarily. Everyone wears a special amulet to protect them from the dark matter in the portals. I have some inlaid in my watch,” Caleb hold up his wrist, the face of his watch is decorated with a circle of tiny, red gems. “But moving the portal made it unstable, if someone jumped in, even with an amulet, they could be lost in there forever.”

  Something catches my eye over Caleb’s shoulder. Television screens – about fifty of them – from floor to ceiling on the wall opposite.

  “That’s what I wanted to show you,” Caleb takes my hand and leads me over to the screens. “It’s our surveillance system.”

  “Surveillance?”

  “We usually have a team of people up here monitoring events on your planet, but at night, they keep watch on handheld devices. We also get alerts from our Agents on Earth.”

  “So, you’re like…spying?”

  “Monitoring,” Caleb corrects, “We can’t help the inhabitants of Earth if we don’t know what’s going on.”

  There is a row of desks in front of the television screens, each holding a computer. Caleb presses a few buttons on a keyboard and all of the screens flicker to life. “We can see any country, any street on Earth,” his fingers skim over the keys. “This is Vedmak Agent 22145, show me the Malvern Academy, Northumberland, England.”

  I recognise the school immediately – the winding driveway with the fountain in the centre, the babbling river, the Sixth Form lounge filled with students – each screen shows a different part of the building and surrounding grounds.

  I scan the images until I see a flash of red hair. Bria. She is sitting in the lounge, curled up on the sofa beside Nick. Orla, Jas and Sabrina are there too.

  “I wanted you to see that they are safe.” Caleb says.

  “What about Molly?” I don’t know if it’s concern or fear that makes me ask about my former friend.

  “Our Agents took care of her,” Caleb says. “Her parents are on their way to collect her; she’s going home for a while.”

  I watch my friends onscreen, thankful that Molly won’t be able to hurt them.

  “She only wanted to hurt you,” Caleb says, reading my mind. “She was being controlled and you were her target. She never showed any aggression towards any of your friends, or anyone else for that matter.”

  I pull a face at him. “Do you have cameras everywhere?” I ask. “I never noticed any at school.”

  “We have satellites; they are camouflaged so they can’t be detected. We can also turn any electronic device on Earth into a piece of surveillance equipment, that’s how we see inside the school.”

  “Seriously? Is that even legal?”

  Caleb smirks. “Does it matter? It keeps people safe.” Caleb shifts around the computer and opens a drawer on the far side of the room. He returns with something in his hand, extending his fingers so I can see.

  It looks like a tiny silver insect, no bigger than a fly. It even has six legs, two bulging eyes and a pair of delicate wings protruding from its back.

  “When we need to monitor a building, we release these and they attach to all electronic devices within the vicinity.” Caleb explains.

  A c
rackle of static fills the room, then a voice sounds overhead. “Is someone there?”

  “One moment.” Caleb rushes across the room and picks up a telephone receiver hanging from the wall. “Go ahead.” He says.

  I watch as he converses silently, his eyes flickering to me now and again. I know that he is communicating telepathically, keeping his conversation hidden from me.

  I look back to the screens and something occurs to me, something much more worrisome than the surveillance at school.

  “Show me Evergreen, Cormorants Bay, England.”

 

 
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