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Gregor and the marks of.., p.7
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.7

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  Howard remained behind. He was examining them closely. A little too closely. "That was a lively story. About the jungle. And it would have explained one thing," said Howard.

  "What's that, Howard?" said Gregor, suddenly feeling cautious.

  "This," said Howard. He reached his hand up to Luxa's hair and removed a piece of vine. It was small, only a couple of inches long, with three tiny greenish-gray leaves. Gregor had not even noticed it. Unfortunately.

  "Oh, that?" Luxa coolly took the vine from Howard's hand and curled it around her finger. "I must have picked it up when I visited the fields yesterday morning. The council has asked me to familiarize myself with the maintenance of the crops, so that when I am queen I may quickly distinguish a good year from a bad one."

  "Really? I know of no crop we grow that resembles that vine, Cousin...." said Howard. "What is it?"

  "Well, I am not yet an expert, Howard. That is why I must visit the fields," said Luxa matter-of-factly.

  Howard's eyes moved back and forth between them. "You two look tired. You should get some rest." He gave them a smile and left.

  Before he went to lunch, Gregor washed up in the bathroom and put on fresh clothes. The dark fabric and dim light in the nursery had concealed the fact that his garments were splattered with dried snake blood. Then he went to see his mom. By the time he got there, Vikus had been to see her, so after a brief scolding about being irresponsible, Gregor was allowed to go eat.

  When he reached the dining room, he found Vikus, Howard, Luxa, Hazard, and Boots gathered around the table. The servants began ladling stew and passing bread.

  They were just starting to eat when Mareth appeared at the door, speaking in a rapid, breathless voice. "Vikus, pardon the intrusion, but there is an occurrence of which we can make no sense," said Mareth.

  "What is it, Mareth?" Vikus asked.

  "Our scouts were patrolling the river that runs from the Fount," he said. "They pulled this from the water. It was wedged between two rocks along the beach." Mareth gestured to someone in the hallway. Two Underlanders came in hauling a large, round basket between them. It was covered with a tight-fitting lid. Water still dripped from its woven exterior. They set the basket carefully on the floor, and Mareth eased the lid off.

  Inside the basket were half a dozen squirming baby mice.

  ***

  CHAPTER 9

  The mice were about the size of full-grown house cats back home. Their pink bodies were covered in a downy layer of gray fuzz. The sudden light seemed to pain their eyes, and they buried their faces in one another's sides. They were squeaking in fear and distress.

  "Ooh, baby mouses! M is for mouses!" cried Boots. She wiggled off her chair and hurried over to crouch beside the basket and pet their fur. "Hi! Hi, you!"

  "They are hungry," said Hazard. He took a loaf of bread from the table and sat beside Boots.

  The two kids broke off bits of bread and fed the mice, who gobbled down the food ravenously. Hazard made soft squeaking sounds that were indistinguishable from the babies' noises. Boots giggled as a little muzzle rubbed against her palm. "You tickle," she said.

  But no one else was laughing. The Underlanders' faces expressed deep concern.

  "You say this basket was pulled from the river?" asked Vikus.

  "Yes, to the north of us," said Mareth. "It is one of our own making."

  Vikus fingered the woven lid. "We send gifts of grain to the nibblers near the Fount in such baskets."

  "How could someone have done this?" said Mareth. "Putting these pups on the river in this frail vessel. It is a miracle they survived."

  Gregor had to agree. He had been on that river in a small boat. The current was so powerful, it churned the water to a white froth and carried along large boulders like they were Ping-Pong balls.

  "If someone wanted to kill them, this seems an elaborate way to do it," said Vikus. "Who would go to the trouble to place them in the basket and set it on the river?"

  "It was their mother," said Hazard simply. He fetched a bowl of stew from the table and fed the mice bites. "She put them in here and told them to stay quiet."

  "Oh, Hazard, can you understand what they are saying?" said Vikus.

  "Some of it. They talk like babies," he said.

  "Ask them why their mother did this," said Luxa.

  Hazard squeaked back and forth with the mice. "I can't tell exactly. Something bad was happening and all the nibblers were very afraid."

  "Tell them that they are safe here with us. That no harm will come to them," said Vikus. "Put them in the old nursery. Have Dulcet care for them. And Hazard, perhaps you could visit with them from time to time so that they may communicate with us." He shook his head. "I must alert the council of this."

  Gregor, Luxa, Hazard, and Boots accompanied the guards and the mice to the old nursery. Dulcet, the really nice nanny who usually looked after Boots, arrived almost immediately. She instructed the guards to bring in plenty of torches, and when the room was brightly illuminated it at least seemed less creepy. The stone animals were not so intimidating, and now Gregor could see that each creature had a fun little song carved next to it, like "Bat, Bat" or the thing about the nibblers. Except the evil turtle. Sandwich hadn't given it a song. Dulcet cleared out an alcove in the room and fashioned a large, comfortable nest out of blankets. Then she sat cross-legged in the middle of the nest and spent a few minutes with each mouse, talking to it in a soft voice, cuddling it, and giving it bites of what looked like carrots. Soon they were all vying for her attention, trying to sit on her lap, rubbing their noses under her hand so she would stroke their heads. You would have thought that she'd been a mouse nanny her whole life. Of course, Boots and Hazard had to get into the nest, too. Soon the two kids and six mice were all snuggled around Dulcet in a comfortable heap. She began to quietly sing the children's songs from the walls. It did not take long for the exhausted mouse babies to fall asleep.

  Luxa pulled Gregor into the hallway where they would not be overheard. "We must go to the nibbler colony by the Fount," she said.

  "No. No, thanks," said Gregor, and started off down the hall. He did not want to go on any more secret adventures with Luxa or even talk to her, really. Not after what she'd said about him enjoying the slaughter.

  "We must find out what provoked a mother to place her pups on that river," Luxa said, following him.

  "Maybe she was crazy. I can't think of any other reason," said Gregor over his shoulder.

  "You can think of no reason you might place Boots in a basket and leave her to the fate of the waters?" Luxa insisted. "Gregor!" She grabbed his arm and swung him back around.

  "No!" said Gregor, wrenching his arm back. "Will you just back off?"

  "You did as much in the jungle," said Luxa.

  "What?" said Gregor.

  "In the jungle. You sent Boots away with Aurora, who was wounded, and Hazard, who was but six. When the cutters came," said Luxa.

  "Yeah, because she would have been killed if I hadn't!" said Gregor. Luxa's meaning was beginning to dawn on him. Something very frightening had been happening when the babies had been placed in the basket. The mother had had no choice... .

  Inside the nursery one of the mouse babies had begun to cry out in its sleep.

  "So you think the snakes attacked the colony near the Fount, too?" Gregor asked.

  "No, the twisters cannot live outside the jungle. It is too cold for them," said Luxa. "We do not know that they attacked Cevian's colony, either. Only that they attacked us. The nibblers may have left for reasons that had nothing to do with the twisters, who then took advantage of their absence to occupy the land."

  "I guess so, Luxa," said Gregor. She was holding out hope that her friends were still alive, but it seemed like a long shot to him.

  "Something is very wrong if both the nibblers in the jungle and the ones at the Fount are in trouble. Perhaps every nibbler in the Underland is in peril. I need your help, Gregor," said Luxa. She looked so unhappy. L
ess than a day ago they had been dancing. Now Cevian was dead. The rest of the jungle colony had probably been eaten by snakes. The basket of baby mice had arrived indicating more tragedy, this time for the nibblers by the Fount.

  Gregor could feel himself weakening. "Maybe we should just let the council handle this."

  "They will do nothing. Not without days of deliberation," said Luxa. "I do not know if Aurora and I can face this alone. Please."

  Whatever remnants of resistance Gregor had melted away with that word. "All right," he said. "Let's check out the colony." There was no way to leave until the next morning. For one thing, Aurora and Ares were exhausted from the jungle excursion and had to rest. For another, Gregor and Luxa couldn't sneak out through the nursery now that the baby mice were there, so they had to leave by a legitimate route. Luxa decided the best thing would be to tell everyone they were going on a picnic, which would allow them to take along food for the long trip to the nibblers' colony by the Fount.

  Gregor got permission from his mom to stay over a second night. Since he hadn't slept in two days, he was ready to go to bed as soon as supper ended, but he made one last visit to the museum to prepare for the next day's travels. As a precaution, Gregor kept a fresh supply of batteries in the museum at all times. He put them, along with three flashlights, some duct tape, and a liter bottle of water, in a backpack. These things were now standard supplies on any long trip. After a moment's consideration, he added a pair of binoculars he'd found when he was digging around looking for things to sell. They were real binoculars, not the toy kind, and seemed like a cool thing to have on a trip. Since most of the Underland was in darkness, he wasn't sure when he'd get a chance to use them. What he really needed was a pair of those infrared night goggles, but Central Park drew a lot of bird-watchers, not commandos.

  As arranged, he met up with Luxa, Aurora, and Ares in the High Hall early the next morning. Luxa's eyes were reddened and somewhat puffy. He wondered if she had slept at all or spent the night weeping for her friends.

  A couple of servants finished securing a huge picnic hamper on Ares's back, and left.

  "I told the cook you eat like a shiner," Luxa told Gregor, giving the hamper a nod. "Shiner" was the Underlander word for firefly. Gregor had met two fireflies, Photos Glow-Glow and Zap, and they were both absolute gluttons and unbelievably obnoxious.

  "Thanks," said Gregor. "So do you go around thinking of ways to insult me, or do they just come to you naturally?"

  "It was the only way I could justify asking for such large quantities of food," she said, and attempted a smile. "Do you want to spend half the trip hungry?"

  "No, I want to spend it eating like a shiner," said Gregor. He had swung a leg over Ares's back when a voice behind him made him turn his head.

  "Going on a picnic?" said Howard. He was seated on Nike, who was just coasting in for a landing. The two had been spending a lot of time together in training lately, although they were not officially bonds. Howard's sword was in his belt. A hamper sat behind him.

  "That was our intent," said Luxa.

  "Nike and I had the very same idea," said Howard. "Shall we all go together?"

  "Do you not have duties at the hospital, Cousin?" asked Luxa.

  "I am free until the night shift," said Howard. "Surely you are planning to return by then."

  What could they say? What could they possibly say to prevent him from coming along?

  "Of course. But I am unable to invite you to join us, Howard," said Luxa. "Because ... because ..." She looked at Gregor for help.

  Only one thing came to his mind. "Because this is kind of like a date," said Gregor.

  "A date?" said Howard. The word was clearly unfamiliar to him.

  "You know, when you hang out with just one girl. Not your friends," said Gregor. It was such an outrageous statement, he couldn't believe he had uttered it. With really just the right touch of embarrassment, too. The expression on Luxa's face was indescribable. He decided to go with it. "Okay, see, now Luxa's mad because I wasn't supposed to tell anyone."

  Luxa flushed bright pink, but she had no choice but to go along with him. "Yes. Yes. I thought it was a private matter."

  "Well, it is. But do you want Howard coming along on our date?" said Gregor. Like he knew anything about dates! Not only had Gregor never been on a date but his mother would probably never even let him ask a girl out until he had finished high school. Once he had gone to a party at his friend Angelina's home and he'd been too shy to ask anyone to dance. But here he was. The date guy.

  For just a moment, Howard actually seemed like he might be buying it. Then his eyes rested on the hamper. "That seems like an awfully large hamper for one ... date."

  It was ridiculously large. For two people. On a date.

  "It is none of your business, Howard," said Luxa in a dangerous tone. "Go and let us be."

  "I cannot. Though it be at the risk of intruding," said Howard. "You see, Nike and I, we know about the crown."

  There was a pause.

  "Hermes mentioned he delivered the crown to you in passing," said Nike. "And I told Howard its meaning. Of how you gave the crown to the nibblers in the jungle and instructed them to send it to you if they ever had need of your help."

  "Oh!" Luxa literally stamped her foot on the ground. "You cannot come!"

  "Let them come, Luxa," said Gregor. "We might need their help."

  "Stay out of this!" said Luxa.

  "I tried to, remember?" said Gregor.

  "Here are your choices. You take Nike and me along on whatever mad scheme you have cooked up, or I go directly to Vikus," said Howard.

  And as if on cue, Vikus appeared, an armful of scrolls rattling under his arm. "Did I hear my name? What is all this, then? A pleasure outing?"

  "A picnic," said Gregor, Luxa, and Howard in unison.

  "A picnic?" asked Vikus. "I wish I had time to join you. That's quite a basket. How many are you expecting?"

  A flutter of peach-colored wings drew everyone's attention, and Thalia landed in the High Hall. That could only mean one thing. And there they were -- Boots, decked out in her princess attire, and Hazard running in to meet the bat. Temp pattered along behind them.

  "Hazard, I thought you and Boots were with the nibbler pups," said Luxa.

  "We were. But it is time for flying at the arena," said Hazard. His face lit up as he spotted the basket. "Oh, are we going on a picnic? You didn't tell me."

  "It was meant to be a surprise," said Luxa. "I was just about to send for you."

  "Well, mount up, then," said Vikus. He lifted Boots up onto Ares behind Gregor.

  "Now what?" thought Gregor. It was bad enough that they were sneaking off to the nibbler colony on their own, but if his mom found out he'd taken Boots along ... well, he'd rather face another round of snakes than that.

  Temp skittered up next to Boots as Vikus settled Hazard on Thalia's back. "Enjoy yourselves and be home for supper," he said.

  "Yes. Supper. Off we go!" said Luxa, taking her seat on Aurora.

  "Pic-a-nic! Pic-a-nic!" sang Boots, drumming on the back of Gregor's head with her scepter. The whole princess costume thing had been a mistake. Next time he'd get her a coloring book.

  They soared out over the city and then made a U-turn and headed to the north. Beneath them lay fields of grain, illuminated by an elaborate system of gas lighting. Underlander farmers were harvesting the grain with long curved blades attached to poles. The blades were like something people used in movies about olden times.

  Once they had cleared the fields, a terrible fight broke out among them. Luxa laid into Howard for interfering, at Nike for telling Howard about the crown, at Gregor for taking Howard's side. She was probably furious about the date thing, too, although she didn't mention it. And she was absolutely determined to go on, even with Boots and Hazard along.

  Gregor had plenty of misgivings about that part, but Luxa brushed off his concerns. "If there is danger, we will send them directly on to the Fou
nt."

  "The Fount? Where are we going?" asked Howard. Gregor filled Howard and Nike in on all that had happened regarding the nibblers and on their plan to journey to the colony by the Fount.

  "It is most troubling. But Luxa is right. Appealing to the council for help would be worthless. We must go ourselves," said Howard.

  The trip to the nibblers' colony took at least twelve hours. For most of it, they flew up the wild river that flowed from the Fount down past the colony, past Regalia, and then emptied into the vast Underland sea known as the Waterway. About halfway, Thalia, who was still several months from being full-grown, ran out of steam, and they had to rearrange everyone so she could ride on Ares's back. Luxa took Hazard, Boots, and Temp on Aurora, and Gregor joined Howard on Nike.

  It was during this leg of the journey that Howard brought up the whole date subterfuge. "Gregor, as Luxa has no older brother, I feel I must speak for her. As I would speak for one of my little sisters. I know you used what you called a date with her as a cover, but in the future you must think of an alternative."

  "Why?" said Gregor, although he could guess.

  "Because she is a queen, because you are an Overlander, because you are both too young, and because even if you were not, such a pairing could have no happy future," said Howard. "The process of finding a spouse in the Underland is a long and delicate one."

  A spouse? This was getting entirely out of hand. "Howard, it wasn't a date in the first place," said Gregor.

  "I understand. But for you to even mention it as a possibility shows how little you know of the Underland," said Howard. "Remember, too, that you expected me to believe your lie. And ask yourself why you thought it was a plausible one."

  That pulled Gregor up short. He could feel himself blushing as deeply as Luxa had. At the time, he guessed he had expected Howard to at least entertain the possibility that he and Luxa might like each other. And worse still, there had been that moment when Howard looked like he was buying it.

  "Dates aren't a big deal in the Overland," Gregor said lamely. They would be for him, but he knew kids his age who sort of dated. Went to movies. For pizza. Which was kind of like a picnic. Except inside.

  "Well, they would be monumental here," said Howard. "Especially with my cousin."

  "Got it," said Gregor, who was really ready to drop the whole subject.

 
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