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Gregor and the marks of.., p.5
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.5

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "Luxa, I can't dance, okay? I think I've made that clear," Gregor said.

  "But this is a simple dance, and the words tell you exactly what to do. Come, or Hazard will think you do not like his party," she pleaded.

  Gregor sighed and reluctantly put down his plate.

  "All right, but just this one dance." He let Luxa lead him out onto the field. Another circle was forming, but this time everyone had a partner.

  "Start by bowing to me, and then just follow the words," said Luxa. Suddenly the music began and Gregor found himself bowing like some character out of a cartoon.

  "Join the dance and come be merry.

  Take my hand and do not tarry.

  One, two, three steps up,

  One, two, three steps back.

  Turn around

  Off the ground

  And set down what you carry. "

  He didn't do too badly. That last part about "off the ground and set down what you carry" was a bit tricky. He was supposed to lift Luxa up, spin her around, and set her back down. He did it, about four beats behind everyone else, and then suddenly Luxa was gone and he was weaving around the circle, catching one person's hand and then the next, until he found himself back face-to-face with Luxa, bowing again.

  "Join the dance and conquer sadness.

  Take my hand and banish madness.

  One, two, three steps up,

  One, two, three steps back.

  Turn around

  Off the ground and give yourself to gladness."

  Off he went again, making his way around the circle. By the third verse, while he would never admit it, Gregor was actually beginning to enjoy himself.

  "Join the dance and be lighthearted.

  Take my hand lest we be parted.

  One, two, three steps up,

  One, two, three steps back.

  Turn around

  Off the ground

  And finish what you started. "

  At this point, people stepped back from their partners for one final bow. As Gregor straightened up he found himself looking into Luxa's violet eyes. Her cheeks were pink from the dancing. She was laughing, but not at him.

  "You did very well," she said.

  "Yeah, right," said Gregor.

  At that moment two unexpected things happened. Gregor realized that he thought Luxa was pretty. And a gold crown dropped out of the air and landed on the ground, squarely between them.

  ***

  CHAPTER 6

  Gregor automatically raised his head to see where the crown had come from. A big orange-and-black-speckled bat was circling above them. Gregor recognized him as one of the bats who frequently delivered messages.

  "For you, Your Highness," said the bat. "Sent by a nibbler I encountered at Queenshead. She said that you would know its meaning."

  Luxa laughed. "It means I was again forgetful of where I laid my crown, Hermes. I thank you for your trouble."

  The bat flew off. Luxa picked up the crown and began to head off the field. Her hand lifted in the air to signal Aurora. Puzzled, Gregor ran a few steps to catch up with her. "Hey, isn't that the crown you gave the mice in case they--"

  Luxa clenched his arm and spoke in a hushed voice. "Please, Gregor, tell no one what I said that day. And do not let Hazard or Nike know the crown has been returned. They, too, may remember its meaning and speak of it." She looked anxiously around the arena. Hazard was happily pointing out the animals on his cake to Howard. Nike had been around earlier, but she was nowhere in sight now.

  "So? Why can't anyone know?" asked Gregor.

  "I will explain after the party. I beg you, keep your silence until I have a chance to speak privately with you," said Luxa.

  "Okay," said Gregor in confusion.

  Luxa took a few steps and leaped into the air onto Aurora's back.

  Gregor scanned the crowd to see if anyone had noticed the odd sequence of events. Even if they had, only Gregor, Aurora, Nike, Hazard, and Boots had been present when Luxa gave the crown to the mice. They had been in the jungle, preparing to return home. To thank the mice for their kindness in keeping both herself and Aurora alive, Luxa had given them her crown and said ... what was it? He remembered. "If ever you have need of my help, present my crown to one of our scouts, and I will do whatever is within my power to come to your aid."

  Well, the crown was here, so the mice must be in trouble. But why was Luxa so insistent on keeping that a secret? If the mice were really in danger, shouldn't she be alerting guards or something?

  She was back in less than a minute, flipping down off Aurora's back and landing beside Hazard with a cheerful, "Is it not time to slice this cake?"

  Gregor looked up to see Aurora and Ares landing side by side in the stands. They huddled together, their heads touching as they exchanged some sort of information. What was going on?

  A few minutes later Boots ran up to Gregor chirping, "Gre-go! Mama says we can do sleep-over!" So, apparently they were spending the night.

  "That's great, Boots," he said, and swung her up on his hip. He went over to check the news with his mom.

  "Luxa suggested it. I guess there's a special family dinner tonight for Hazard and he wants you two to come. You might as well spend the night. We sent a bat up to the laundry room with a note for your dad," said his mom.

  "Sounds good," said Gregor, but he knew something was up. He tried to catch Luxa's eye, but she seemed determined to avoid him. For hours. All through the rest of the party, through the family dinner, he could not get her attention.

  Ares was no help, either. "What's going on with Luxa and that crown?" Gregor asked him as they flew to dinner.

  "I cannot say," the bat responded. Which could have meant either "I don't know" or "I can't talk about it here." Gregor suspected the latter.

  It was not until Hazard and Boots had been tucked in bed in the royal chambers and were fast asleep that Luxa opened up. They gathered around the fireplace in her living room, just Gregor, Luxa, Ares, and Aurora. Even though the guards outside her apartment were a good distance away, Luxa made everyone speak in whispers.

  "The nibblers are under some threat. It must be significant if they sent back my crown, for they are resourceful creatures and have handled many difficulties on their own," she began.

  "So let's go tell Vikus and get some help,"' said Gregor.

  "No!" the other three responded as one.

  "He would have to tell the Council, Overlander," said Ares. "On so little evidence, and with so much chaos in the wake of the plague, they would not sanction action."

  "But they would put me under guard," said Luxa unhappily. "Knowing this answer would not satisfy me. Knowing of my affection for the nibblers and that I consider myself to be in their debt. I would be watched constantly to make sure I did not leave Regalia."

  "Even though you're the queen?" asked Gregor.

  "Especially because she is the queen. They do not wish to risk putting her in danger again," said Ares.

  "That is why we must divine the nibblers' situation on our own," said Aurora. "Perhaps with more knowledge, we can make a case to help them."

  "Whoa! Okay, hang on a minute. So, 'we,' meaning the four of us, are going to do what?" asked Gregor.

  "Fly tonight to Queenshead," said Luxa.

  "Is that where the mice live? In the jungle?" asked Gregor. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it.

  "No, it is merely a landmark in the territory west of here. But that is where Hermes said he encountered the nibbler who gave him my crown," said Luxa. "I am sure she will still be waiting at Queenshead, expecting me to meet her. Will you come, Gregor?"

  On the one hand, Gregor knew this was a bad idea. Not informing Vikus and the council. Sneaking around behind his mom's back. Man, if she knew he was flying around the Underland after hours he'd be grounded the rest of the summer. Not in Regalia. In his apartment.

  On the other hand, nobody seemed to feel it was safe to confide in Vikus these days. Maybe
the mice were really bad off. The other three would go, and if Gregor didn't, he'd be letting down not only his friends but also his bond. What if they ran into danger and Ares needed him? If they left right away, just to talk to the nibbler who'd sent the crown, could they be back before his mom even woke up?

  "How far is Queenshead?" he asked.

  "A short flight. We could be there and back before we were missed," said Luxa quickly.

  "I guess that could work. But how do you plan on getting out of the palace without being spotted?" asked Gregor.

  Luxa and Ares exchanged a look. "Henry knew a way," said the bat. "Aurora and I will meet you at the drop."

  "Yes. Just give us a few minutes to ready ourselves," said Luxa.

  They dressed in dark clothing. Luxa had torches, but they made a quick trip to the museum so Gregor could duct-tape a flashlight to his forearm. It was not supposed to be a dangerous trip, but after his encounter with Twirltongue and her friends he was so scared of being without light that he took all the precautions he could. They stopped by one of the palace's many armories to get a couple of swords. Luxa chose a light weapon with a long, thin three-sided blade that came to a deadly point. She had told Gregor once that she preferred this sort of sword because it was good for the acrobatic form of fighting she excelled at. Gregor picked a version of the heavier sword Mareth had been encouraging him to use in training. Its blade was flat, about an inch wide, and razor sharp. Then they tiptoed through the halls, avoiding the occasional guard, to a part of the palace that Gregor had never seen.

  The entrance to the secret passage was in a nursery that had fallen into disuse after the large, cheerful one Boots played in had been built. The old place was a little spooky, actually. Sandwich had spent time in it as well as in his prophecy room, carving a menagerie of animals into the walls. It should have been cozy. But in the flickering light from their torches the stone creatures appeared threatening, their eyes too bulging, their fangs too prominent. Gregor felt trapped, not comforted. Even if you filled it with children and toys, it would not be a happy place.

  "I have never cared for this room," said Luxa with a frown. "Fortunately, they had built the new nursery by the time I was born. But this is where Henry spent his early years."

  "Maybe that's why he was so messed up," thought Gregor, but he didn't dare say it aloud. Luxa could speak about Henry more easily now. The wounds from her cousin's betrayal were beginning to heal. But the subject was still painful and nothing she could joke about.

  "Here is the entrance," said Luxa. She stopped in front of a large stone turtle that sat up against the back wall. It reminded Gregor of the big metal turtles Boots loved to climb on in Central Park. Except it had a furious expression on its face and the mouth was opened as if it was about to inflict a vicious bite.

  "Yikes," said Gregor. "Bet the kids loved that."

  "No, they avoided it. Except for Henry, who rode on its back and made up fearsome tales about it. And one day, while the others napped, he found the courage to do this." Luxa stuck her arm into the turtle's mouth, felt around, and twisted something. There was a click and one side of the turtle's shell popped open ever so slightly. "He closed the shell before anyone could know of his discovery, but that night he returned to the nursery and opened it." Luxa lifted up the turtle's shell to reveal a stairway. "He showed me this when I was eight. It was our special secret, Henry and I." Sadness flashed across Luxa's face and then was replaced by resolve. "Let us go."

  Gregor had to turn sideways to inch himself along the narrow staircase. The air smelled old, as if it had been trapped back in Sandwich's day and hung there ever since. Gregor had been wearing his sword in a belt, but when it first clanked against the stones Luxa made him remove it and carry it in his hand. "We are inside one of the palace walls," she whispered. "We must not be discovered."

  It seemed to take forever to make their way down to the bottom of the stairs, where another turtle awaited them. This one appeared to be laughing. But the leering grin was even more unsettling than the angry turtle in the nursery. Luxa unlatched its shell in the same manner. When she lifted the shell open, a gush of cool, damp air hit Gregor in his face. He looked down through the hole. Nothing was visible, but he could sense a large open space. Instinctively he took a few steps back.

  "What's down there?" he asked.

  "The Spout. It is a lake fed by a spring. It provides much of the cold water in Regalia," said Luxa. "We must drop."

  Before he could react, Luxa stepped through the hole and vanished.

  "Hey!" he said in surprise, and leaned over the opening. There was no corresponding splash. He could not see Luxa, but the light from her torch reflected off the water about twenty yards below.

  "Drop, Overlander," he heard Ares purr. Oh, great. Another chance to hurl himself into a dark void. "May as well get it over with," Gregor thought. He slid his sword back in his belt and got a firm grip on his torch. He balanced for a moment on the edge of the rim, then took a small hop and began to fall. Ares had him in seconds.

  It took about an hour to fly to Queenshead, which turned out to be a large rock formation in the center of a cavern. The rock did vaguely resemble a woman's head with a crown on it, but only if you weren't being too particular.

  As they coasted down to its base, he heard Luxa cry out excitedly, "Look, there is Cevian, Aurora! There she is!"

  Gregor spotted a small furry form crouched at the base of the rock. It was a mouse who had apparently fallen asleep as it waited for them. "That's a dangerous place for a nap," he thought. "Anything could find you."

  "Cevian!" called Luxa. "Awaken! We have come!"

  Ares landed before Aurora, so it was Gregor who reached Cevian first. It was almost like he knew before he touched the cold, stiff frame and noticed the indentation on her head where a blow had fallen. Gregor turned and caught Luxa by the shoulders as she ran up. He hated to tell her but didn't want her to make the discovery herself.

  "She's not waking up, Luxa," said Gregor. "She's dead."

  ***

  CHAPTER 7

  "What?" Luxa shoved him aside and rushed to the mouse. "Cevian?" But as she touched the body she became still. "Oh, Cevian ..." she said, and knelt down. Her hand came to rest on the creature's paw.

  "It was Cevian who found us in the jungle," said Aurora. "We would have been lost but for her."

  Gregor knew when Aurora said "lost" she didn't just mean lost in the jungle; she meant dead. Luxa and Aurora had been separated from their friends in a rats' maze during the quest to find the Bane. Completely outnumbered in a battle, they had held off the rats long enough to allow Temp to escape with Boots and then fled themselves. After several hours of being trapped in the maze's twists and turns, they had managed to find an exit. Unfortunately, it had led straight into a sinister jungle where Aurora had lost the use of her wing. The mice had taken them in and saved their lives.

  "When my pain was very bad, she would sit beside me and tell me stories or play word games to distract me," said Aurora. "She was so determined I should not give up hope "

  "I trusted her," said Luxa softly. The words hung in the air. Gregor thought this might be the highest praise Luxa could ever give someone. The list of those she trusted, especially since Henry's deception, was almost nonexistent. Aurora. Ares. Nerissa maybe. Gregor doubted even Vikus made the cut and was sure he didn't. Certainly Luxa hadn't trusted him a few months ago in the jungle when she'd been willing to let him sink to his death in quicksand because he'd showed up with a couple of rats.

  Cevian must have been someone very special to be on Luxa's list.

  "I'm sorry about your friend," said Gregor.

  "I, too," said Ares.

  Aurora gave a small flutter of her wings in reply, but Luxa had not seemed to hear them.

  "Who killed you, Cevian?" asked Luxa, stroking the mouse's soft ears. "For what reason? And why did you send me my crown? You are so full of secrets tonight."

  Luxa rose and buried her he
ad in Aurora's golden fur. The bat wrapped her wings around the girl. It was not a long embrace.

  "This is not the time or place for mourning," said Luxa.

  "We must go to the jungle," said Aurora.

  Gregor was unprepared for this. "Right now?"

  "Cevian is killed. We know not why. Only that she came to Queenshead because the nibblers are in great jeopardy. Since she cannot speak, we must go to the jungle to find those that can," said Aurora darkly. "We must discover what threatens the nibblers. We must avenge Cevian's death."

  This was quite a strong speech for Aurora. She didn't talk much around Gregor, and then only in brief, quiet sentences. Despite three journeys with her, Gregor didn't know Aurora very well.

  "Go back if you do not have the stomach for this. Aurora and I will manage the jungle on our own," said Luxa. If he didn't have the stomach for this? Did she mean if he was afraid? Gregor bristled at the comment because, in fact, when he was upset the first thing that reacted was his stomach.

  "You and Aurora in the jungle? That didn't work out so well last time," said Gregor.

  Luxa glowered at him. "Go home, Overlander. We no longer want your help," she said. She swung onto Aurora's back. "After you return him, you know where we shall be, Ares."

  Aurora lifted into the air and sped off, away from Regalia.

  Man, Luxa could get under his skin! She knew he'd help her out in the jungle if she asked. Why did she have to turn the whole thing into an insult? A dare?

  Ares shifted uncomfortably. "There are many dangers in the jungle."

  "Uh-huh. I've been there," said Gregor.

  "Even the plants will attack," said Ares.

  "Got the scars to prove that," said Gregor.

  "Luxa speaks with an edge because she is in pain," said Ares.

  Gregor turned to his bat in exasperation. "Look, Ares, we both know we're going! Let's just give it a few minutes so it looks like it was hard for you to talk me into it, okay?"

  Ares gave one of his rare laughs. "Huh-huh-huh."

  Gregor shook his head but then laughed, too. He stopped when his eyes fell on the mouse. "Should we do something with Cevian? I hate to leave her sitting out here. Something's just going to come along and eat her."

  "We had best let Luxa and Aurora decide. She was their friend," said Ares.

  "Yeah, I guess you're right," said Gregor. He noticed a crevice at the base of the big rock. "We could at least scoot her back in that crack. Hide her a little."

 
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