Blurring the Line

 

Chapter Four

 

It was the lack of movement that broke through the vagueness Brian had drawn around himself as a defense. The lift they were riding slowed gradually and then came to a halt, something screeching to announce the end of that trip.

The girl with the crossbow sighed, sounding frustrated. "When are they going to fix that?" she murmured, obviously to herself, and moved over to the wall, feeling for something on the side with her free hand.

Near Brian, a part of the wall creaked as it slid open, making him jump. Light burst into the dark space all at once, and he raised an arm to protect his eyes, squinting out into the open space.

Omen stepped up beside him. "You don't need to be so worried," he said, making a dismissive noise. "If she wanted us dead, she'd have killed us already. No one out there is going to attack you."

Brian shifted his gaze and managed a half-hearted glare. "You don’t need to treat me like I'm a complete moron, you know."

"I don't know what moron means," Omen pointed out, giving him another of those flat stares. "But stop acting stupid, and I'll stop treating you like you are."

I resent that…

"Lady Aedwen!" An older man had somehow managed to get to the entrance without either of them noticing - not that that would've been hard at the moment. Unlike the girl, he was actually dressed - in a strange array of blue and green robes that fell in layers like a rainbow and looked thick and heavy.

"My Lord." The girl inclined her head a bit, then turned her attention to her prisoners momentarily. "Move," she ordered, waving the crossbow again.

The man in the robes moved aside so that they could get out. He didn't have any facial hair, Brian noticed, and his chin was sharply pointed. There was an almost boyish look to him, but the grey-blue, obviously thinning hair on his head made it obvious he was at least middle aged. He had the same strangely bright eyes as the girl, but his were green rather than blue. "Are these…?"

"They were wandering around on the walkways," the girl explained, tossing a sharp look at the two of them. "Under the circumstances, I thought it'd be better to hold them here until we figured out what business they had in this area."

Brian took the opportunity to take in their surroundings. The brief exchange with Omen had made him feel more grounded, and less like he was falling into something dark and dangerous and out of his control. At least he could manage curiosity, despite the current situation.

They were somewhere beneath the sea floor - that much was obvious. Brian considered himself fortunate that he wasn't claustrophobic, because the ceilings were not particularly high, and the room they were in wasn't very large. The walls appeared to be made of stone, but in a way they seemed to lean inward, as if attempting to get closer to the inhabitants. Almost everything was black or grey, and it gave the room a gloomy sort of atmosphere. The strange lift sat at the center of the room, and there weren't more than a couple of steps from it to any wall. There was one doorway out of that room, and Brian could see what looked like a hallway swerving to the left on the other side of it, with glass lanterns hanging from more grey stone walls and something that might be a carpet lining the floor.

Is this where they live?

"As you think best, my Lady." The man bowed his head respectfully. "My Lord has asked to see you, if you will. I would be happy to take care of escorting these outsiders to a place of confinement until a decision has been made on what to do with them."

Brian swallowed. That 'place of confinement' had 'dungeon' written all over it.

"Thank you, Lord Staefen." Their captor handed him her weapon, keeping her eyes fixed sharply on the two of them - as if she thought they'd actually try something, in the middle of an unfamiliar area controlled by those who had taken them prisoner. "If you'll excuse me." Finally moving her piercing gaze away, the girl strode sharply through the door and down the hallway.

The man turned back toward them, pursing his lips slightly as if deep in thought. "You won't do well to give anyone here any trouble," he said, in a considerably sharper tone than he'd used with the girl. His face was free of wrinkles or signs of age, but there was a tight look to it that spoke of little patience for foolishness. "If and when we choose to allow you to leave, one of our people will be needed to operate the lift."

If anything, Brian felt his spirits sink even lower. Well, that clinches it, then, doesn't it?

Reaching out with one hand, the man easily found a hidden trigger on the wall, and part of the stone rumbled into motion, covering up the hallway that the girl had just disappeared down and uncovering another door with a set of winding stone starts beyond. The same sort of lanterns lined the walls, giving off a soft, luminescent glow that allowed for shadows along the way. There were no carpets to cover the rough grey stone.

"Inside," the robed man said curtly.

Brian started for the stairs, but was halted by a surprisingly strong grip on his arm. When he turned, Omen was staring up at their captor with a bit of a frown. "He can't breathe underwater," the younger boy replied, just as shortly.

The man's lips pursed again, and he stared at Omen with interest. "How," he began, in a slow, sort of dangerous tone, "did you know that there was water down there?"

There's water down there? Brian turned to look at the staircase again. There was nothing to indicate water. Shifting his gaze back up to his companion, he swallowed hard, trying not to act as frightened as he felt. I really don't like this place.

"I heard it," Omen said back, shrugging. He didn't seem particularly bothered by the obvious threat; if anything, the gaze he returned was pugnacious. "Can't you?"

Brian winced. He's really got no tact, hasn't he?

The robed man smiled thinly. "Can't any water sprite?" he returned, and reached out to press another hidden trigger on the wall. "But neither of you is one of us; your coloring is wrong. I also noticed you said 'he can't breathe underwater'." Another part of the wall slid away, covering the staircase and revealing a hallway identical to the one the girl had taken, but curving to the right and with a red carpeting rather than blue. "Can you?"

"No."

Another thin smile. The man waved them into the hallway and continued the conversation, staying slightly behind the two of them. "So you don't need to breathe at all, then?"

The gold-haired boy's answer was almost snarky - and typically ambiguous, since it could be either answer. "Yeah."

Would it kill him to be polite? Brian felt more than a little threatened at the moment, and wished Omen would stop showing off the fact that he didn't. It was obvious he could take care of himself, but of course that wouldn't help if the guy in the robes suddenly decided to kill Brian instead.

Yeah, well, it's not like that would matter much to him.

"This will be your room." The man - water sprite? - announced that before they actually reached the slight indent in the wall at the left side of the hall. Beyond it, the tunnel went on, but there probably wouldn't be a chance to find out exactly where it went. Reaching out for another one of those wall triggers, their jailer slid open the new doorway. "For the present, at least."

The room was not quite what Brian had expected - although he wasn't really sure what he'd been expecting in the first place. The grey stone walls that seemed to characterize every place in this underwater fortress were almost invisible under a myriad of red and gold drapings, arranged artfully so that they layered just right. Somehow, it almost seemed that the entire place was on fire - the carpeting, too, was a warm red shade, and the bookshelf that took up almost the entire wall facing them was a brilliant orange. There were two couches, each able to fit about three people, against the walls to the sides, facing each other. They had the same firy appearance - constructed of red-brown wood and with gold cushions, carved in a way that seemed strikingly flame-like. There was an open door on the right wall beside one of the couches, and beyond, Brian could see the same kind of décor but with a large, canopied bed and night tables rather than couches and bookshelves.

What the hell is this place? It looked far too fancy to be a dungeon.

Apparently Omen thought so too. "Is this where you always keep your prisoners?" he just about scoffed, taking a few steps inside and then turning to frown back at their captor.

Could you just not say anything? Brian was not interested in hearing 'oh, you're right, this is a mistake' and then having their guard cart them off to be shackled to the wall in a dank smelly cell. He moved inside ahead of Omen, to avoid being grabbed and dragged back out again. This place is just fine. Let's not complain, huh?

The man smiled humorlessly, regarding the two of them - Omen more so than Brian. "You'll find yourselves in good company," he remarked, without bothering to answer the question. "I'd suggest you relax. It'll be a while before anyone has time to see to you."

Something about the way he said 'see to you' just didn't sound good at all. Brian swallowed hard without meaning to, and jumped when the door slid shut firmly, locking them in.

"What are you so nervous about?" Omen gave him a disdainful look. "These people aren't even dangerous, and we haven't done anything. They're civilized." He said the word as if it were some sardonic joke of his. "They don't kill people for small things."

"Only if you're found guilty for large things."

That had not been Brian's voice; he jumped again, spinning around to face the second doorway he'd noticed earlier. Leaning against the frame was a young man who was maybe an inch or two taller than the girl who had brought them - putting him at around the same height as Brian. He matched the room well; his skin was a deep bronze shade, as if he'd spent hours out in the sun, and his hair was a brilliant red - too red, in fact, to be a color that would be considered natural back in Brian's own world. His eyes were large and deep black, and his face had the same impish sort of shape to it as the man who'd led them in. He looked a couple of years too old for his size, as well, despite having the same frail-looking form that the other two had displayed.

But all the people we've seen here have been short, haven't they?

"Who are you?" Omen asked him, the typical suspicion coloring his voice.

The other boy smiled, tilting his head almost mockingly. "Your cellmate, you could say - at least for as long as I'm here. Prince Cetoriass al'Hran if we were back in my own realm." He pushed himself away from the wall long enough to give an extravagant bow, one hand extending out as if to spread a cape that he wasn't wearing. The effect was a bit strange in the simple white cotton shirt and loose black pants he actually wore. "Introductions all around, then?" he suggested, rising up again.

"Ah - Brian. Henderson." Getting over his shock, Brian managed to get out his own name with a minimum of hesitation. "This is Omen." Remembering what the younger boy had said about worlds that knew about the existence of others, he added, "We're from the BorderLands."

The red-haired boy raised an eyebrow, leaning against the wall again. "So where's that?" He gave Brian an appraising look, then went on, "In the Earth realm, maybe? You've got strange eyes for an Earth sprite, though."

"Earth sprite?" And… he was lost.

"He's human, not a sprite." Omen's attempt earned him another raised eyebrow, and no comment. "The BorderLands aren't a place on your world - we're from somewhere else. There's a race there called 'humans' - that's what he is." He did not, Brian noted, take the time to mention which race he belonged to.

"Like aliens?" The boy looked skeptical, but apparently chose not to press it. "Well, whoever you are… What did you do to wind up in here, anyway? Get in the way of the investigation?" That last word came with a grin just short of a sneer.

"We didn't do anything," Brian defended himself hastily. He glanced at Omen quickly, and kept going. "We were just walking around. We didn't even realize we'd left the BorderLands until we saw all the people swimming around…" He paused there, not too sure if it was worth it to go into the whole story.

The redhead shook his head, turning to lean his back against the door frame and slouching down so his right foot slid across the floor and braced itself against the opposite side. "Bad time to just come wandering in. They'd suspect anyone now - there's no way you'll convince them you were just passing through, at least until they've found out for certain what's happened. Even a state visitor has to be kept under house arrest." There was a certain resentment in that last bit; the boy stared sullenly down at his outstretched foot.

Brian wasn't sure if he should be more chilled or intrigued by that. He pushed his worries aside for the moment and went with his curiosity. "What's going on here, anyway?"

"Oh, some state symbol of theirs was stolen." The boy waved a negligent hand, as if this kind of concern didn't involve him. "I don't know much about it; there was a big commotion, and of course they blame us, even if they're not saying it outright." He snorted. "The Fire and Water realms haven't gotten along well; that's why this alliance is being worked out in the first place, but it means that any time something goes wrong, we - myself and my attendants - get all the blame. We're supposedly locked in our separate rooms here for our protection." That brought another almost-sneer. "Right."

Fascination overrode fear. Brian licked his lips and held in a grin, feeling as if he were in his element - although at a level higher than he'd been before. This was a set of rooms for important state visitors, and the person in front of him was a prince. It was like something from a book. I'm actually living through something that'll probably shape the future of this place. "So you're here as an ambassador, then? Or a sign of good will, since you're the Prince."

"Second son of the King," the boy was quick to clarify, moving his foot and straightening to meet Brian's gaze. Some of the hostility seemed to have leaked out of him, but there was a sense around him like it could return in a heartbeat if something gave him a reason to call it back up. "And I'm not an ambassador, I'm an offering." A corner of his mouth quirked up. "If you like to think of it that way."

"All right." That seemed to fit - important people were usually sent on these sorts of peace missives, at least in a lot of what Brian had studied. His mind was already busy processing the situation; the presence of a relatively understandable set of events made him feel as if some heavy weight had been lifted. "If things are tense between your - realms, right? - then it makes sense that they'd think of you first when something important was stolen." He frowned then. "But we were just walking around on the surface - why would that girl think we stole it?"

"We're different - anyone different is suspicious," Omen contributed suddenly, in a flat tone. He caught Brian's questioning gaze and shrugged. "Even if we didn't steal it personally, we could still be accomplices."

"I guess." Brian wasn't sure he bought that. "But that girl - what was her name? Ayed-something - she acted like she was taking us in just because we were walking around where we weren't supposed to."

The boy pushed himself away from the wall at that, looking interested. "Her name was Aedwen?"

"Yeah, I think that was it." Normally, he was good with names - in this situation, it seemed impossible to remember exactly. "She pointed a crossbow at us and forced us down here - what?"

Their host had started snickering to himself, just loud enough to interrupt. When he looked up, his gaze was wicked. "You've met my fiance," he announced.

That derailed his thoughts a bit. Brian blinked. "Fiance?"

"Princess Aedwen la'Wiusa, first daughter of the King of the Water realm. She outranks me - she'll be the Queen one day, and I'll be just a consort." He scowled again suddenly, dark eyes flashing as if at some remembered indignation. "I suppose that's why they feel they can treat me like a common thief, locking me up in my rooms like this."

His mood switches were a bit hard to keep up with. Brian glanced over at Omen quickly, apprehensively. This guy seemed pretty touchy, and the younger boy was just too good at offending people. "So that's part of the alliance - you marrying her?"

"It is if it ever happens." The boy shrugged his shoulders sharply. The way his mouth twisted gave away his own feelings about it. "This doesn't seem to be the best sign; for all I know they'll send us home after this and tell us to keep our alliances."

"Not if this is an alliance that's in the best interests for both sides," Brian pointed out, glad to be feeling useful again. It was kind of strange to realize it, but now that he was able to make sense of things, a lot of the fear from before was gone. The confusion and worry and nausea he'd suffered before weren't bothering him half as much now. There was a delicious mess of facts swimming in his head; putting them together was like finding puzzle pieces to fit - he was good at that.

Focussing on this, he could forget the other strangeness, too.

With considerably more confidence than he'd felt in a while, Brian went on, "They wouldn't risk it by accusing you openly, right? So unless you actually did steal their thing, they probably wouldn't throw you out."

The boy gave him another one of those curious looks - as if he were attempting to sort him into a category in his mind and not quite managing it. Instead of answering, he said, "Who did you say you were?"

"Brian." He couldn't help but grin then, not really sure why. "And you're… Cet-er-yas? That's right, isn't it?"

His pronunciation must've been off - the redhead winced at that, then returned the smile with some wryness. "Cet is fine - that's about the only part you got right, anyway. And since you're aliens, I guess you don't have to worry about formality." That came with a real grin. "Besides, we're in jail together, aren't we? No princes in here."

"If you call this a jail." Brian looked around again, skeptically. "If this is a cell, what would you call my room, a rat-hole?"

"Depends on what's living in it," Omen pointed out, without turning from where he was poking around under the wall hangings at the other end of the room.

Brian shot him a brief glare that didn't have much force behind it. He was starting to get used to those kinds of comments, being around the shorter boy all the time.

"A real spark of light, isn't he?" Cet noted.

"You don't know the half of it," Brian agreed, wryly. And you won't hear about it from me, that's for sure.

The redhead turned away from Omen as if he weren't important. "Come on, I'll give you the grand tour," he offered, turning to head back into what was obviously the bedroom.

There was more in there than what Brian had seen at his first glance. The bed was large enough that it'd probably comfortably fit about five people, but it took up less than half of the room. Canopies draped over the sides that hid the inside of the bed from view, and there were two elaborately carved night tables on either side of it. At the other end of the room was a set of large doors with the red and gold fabric arranged to drape around them. A closet, probably, Brian guessed.

And, just like the first room, it seemed almost like the place was on fire.

"To make us feel more at home," Cet explained, when he asked about it. "Where I live, we're surrounded by fire - the same way they have the water all around." He smiled a bit. "This entire building under here is for official conduction of business, and the housing of the royal family. Their people actually live out in the water."

"And your people live out in the fire," Brian finished for him.

"That's right."

Omen joined them before there could be more questions, frowning. "I can't find anything out there," he reported shortly. "It must be in here."

Brian and Cet shared a quick, puzzled glance and then looked back at him.

"What?" Brian ventured, when the younger boy ignored them in favor of peering under the drapings.

"The tunnel."

Another puzzled glance. "Tunnel?" Cet repeated, raising an eyebrow.

Omen let out a frustrated sigh, and turned to give them a condescending look. "There is a tunnel leading out of these rooms - separate from the one we came in through." He frowned again, eyebrows coming down. "I just can't find it."

"Hold on a minute." Cet stepped over to where the shorter boy was standing, returning his gaze a bit suspiciously. "How would you know there's a tunnel if you haven't been able to find it?"

"I can feel the space," Omen replied indifferently, already back to looking around at the walls.

"Feel the space?" Cet repeated incredulously. He looked back and forth from Brian to Omen, searching for an answer. "Like an Air Sprite? Or are you something different?"

A set of flat silver-blue eyes turned sharply toward him at that. "None of your business."

Cet bristled noticeably.

"Wait a moment," Brian cut in, before they could start a serious argument. Since Omen had mentioned the tunnel, he'd been playing around with a sort of idea. "Let me try something - I mean, I don't have super senses that can tell about tunnels or whatever, but I've read a few historically-based novels, and the most common theme when it came to hidden passageways was this - "

He took hold of the large gold door handle on the closet doors, and pulled them open, pushing past the rich, bright rows of clothing. The inside was fairly deep; he had to flounder for a bit - trying not to damage anything - before his fingers brushed against the back wall.

"What are you doing in there?" Cet's baffled voice carried through to him from back outside. "Trying to put together a disguise from my state robes?"

"I'm looking for a catch - " Brian pressed himself against the wall, groping with both hands for anything that felt out of place on the smooth stone. " - to get this to - here!" A slight indent caught at his wondering fingers; he pressed the tips against it.

Abruptly, the part of the wall he was leaning against slid aside, and he found himself falling forward, landing in a painful heap in the middle of quite a few years' worth of dust. "Ow!"

There was a rustling sound behind him, as if someone were following him into the closet. "What happened?" Omen's voice asked, slightly closer than Cet's had been.

Brian sat up, absently brushing off his clothes, and looked toward the entrance he'd just opened. It was a narrow hallway, constructed a lot like the other hallways they'd seen but without the carpeting and big enough for only one person to travel down at a time. There was no light to see how far it went. It seemed too open to end very soon, though. "I found your tunnel."

The smaller boy emerged from the clothing, looked down at where he was still sitting in the dirt, and without a word offered a hand down to help him up.

"Uh… thanks."

Omen pulled him back up with that surprising strength, then shrugged, letting go of his hand. "This is it," he agreed, and spared a quick grin for Brian.

Even that little bit was enough. The familiar quickening of his heartbeat had him pressing a hand to his chest unconsciously, as if he could still it. "Oh - good." There was a goofy sort of grin spreading on his face; he could tell, even if he couldn't stop it. Omen's whole face changed when he smiled; it reshaped, brightened - as cliché as that seemed, it was true.

Does he have any idea what he's doing?

Brian really hoped he didn't.

"I had no idea…" Cet pushed carefully through his racks of clothing a moment later, looking past them to the tunnel with wonder in his expression. "How could they have forgotten something like this was here?"

"Could be a lot of reasons." Brian looked away from Omen, deliberately pushing the uncomfortable feelings aside, and fingered the tunnel wall thoughtfully. There was quite a bit of caked-on dust. "This might be an escape route left over from when things were dangerous or something. It could lead to someone else's bedroom - makes it easy for affairs that you don't want other people knowing about." He grinned a bit. "But a secret passageway is only a secret if no one else knows about it, right? When it wasn't needed any more, probably no one who knew felt the need to tell anyone else about it - especially if it revealed a few things about them that they didn't want other people knowing."

There was silence for a moment. Brian looked back at his two companions, and found them both looking back at him. "What?" he said defensively, squirming a bit under their scrutiny.

"You're an awfully good person to have around," Cet commented, sounding more than a little impressed. "Some of my advisors don't have that much sense. And you must be younger than them, too." He clapped Brian on the shoulder, as if he were a close friend.

That definitely made him feel good. Brian grinned.

"I'll go first," Omen said abruptly, cutting into the conversation. "You two probably can't see in the dark, so just follow me." He paused for a moment, then narrowed his eyes, not quite glaring at Brian. "And you owe me more stories - don't forget."

Even better… Turning away from Cet, he followed the shorter boy down the tunnel.

It was not a pleasant trip. The tunnel was wide enough for them to pass through, but the ceiling was so low that Brian worried about bumping his head if they got to a sudden low point. It was so dark that he couldn't see at all, and had to rely on trying to feel how Omen was moving in front of him. There was dust everywhere - on the wall where he braced his hand, under his feet as he walked, in the air as they moved and stirred it up. It got into his eyes and made them sting so that he had to blink rapidly; it clogged up the air and made breathing a chore in itself. It felt cool in there - compressive. He could hear gurgling sounds like water around him, and couldn't help but get the impression that this tunnel was exposed somehow - that the walls forming it were all that kept the enormous amount of water between them and the surface from pressing in and crushing them.

From the ragged sound of Cet's breathing close behind him, he had a feeling that he wasn't the only one who felt that way.

"Stop," Omen's voice said, quietly, from ahead of them. Brian halted immediately, squinting ahead into the darkness despite the fact that he wouldn't be able to see anything anyway. "We're at another wall," the younger boy went on. "There's a room through here."

He could hear Cet swallowing, hard. "Is there anyone in there?" the redhead asked, obviously making an effort to keep his voice steady.

It's probably worse for him, Brian thought, a sudden wave of sympathy overtaking him. He's used to fire. I'll bet it's frightening, being under so much water and knowing it's there. No wonder he doesn't want to get married, if he'd have to live in this place for the rest of his life.

"Let me listen," Omen replied shortly, and there was a moment of silence while they waited for a report. "I don't think so," he said after a moment. "I don't hear anyone moving."

"You can't tell for sure?" Cet demanded, partly anxious and party indignant.

"No. Why don't you try?" There was no need to wait for a reply to that; Brian could feel movement in front of him again - Omen was probably searching for the catch that would open the door.

"I'll excuse your tone since you're obviously ignorant about how things work here." Cet's tone was unmistakably stiff; he sounded offended. "You haven't chosen to tell me anything about yourself, so you will of course forgive me if I make a few assumptions that turn out not to be correct."

"I don't care if you excuse my tone or not." Brian caught a slight shadow of the figure in front of him; Omen was still facing the wall, running his fingers over it to find the hidden catch. "If you don't like it, don't listen."

Before Cet could have a chance to reply, there was a sudden click, and the wall in front of them let out an alarmingly loud creak and slid away.

It was another closet. There was a dim light seeping in from under the door at the other end, so he could see the clothing hanging up in there. Unlike Cet's, the cloth seemed to be of more muted colors - no less fancy, but in cooler shades, like blues and greens.

Omen moved out to push his way through them without hesitation, forcing the other two to follow.

Geez, he could wait… I hope I don't get dust all over these clothes. Brian kept his hands tucked in against his chest, trying to touch as little of the material as possible. One way or another, they'd probably end up getting in trouble for it if they left a mess behind.

"You don't think anyone's out there?" he asked softly, coming up to where Omen had paused near the closet doors.

He got a shrug in return. "Well, let's go then," the younger boy said, shooting a quick glance his way before pushing open the last thing standing between them and open space.

For a moment, the light blinded Brian; he had to cover his eyes and squint, and he couldn't get so much as a glimpse of the room around him. As he stumbled out and blinked to get his eyes adjusted, though, things started to come into focus. He lowered his hands slowly, looking around with interest.

The room was arranged a lot like Cet's had been - they were in the bedroom, and the bed was even in the same place, with tables on either side of it. There was another room too, the same way there had been back where they'd come from. But there were no drapings on the walls of this place; it was just plain grey, all the way through. The bed didn't have canopies; it was large and plain and the covers were a simple light blue. The tables were not carved the way the others were; they seemed more or less plain. There was a large, fancy-looking robe sprawled across the bed, as if someone had taken it off and thrown it aside in a hurry, and a crossbow leaned against the wall opposite them.

Brian glanced sharply at Omen. "Do you think this is - ?"

The question was never finished.

From outside the room, they heard one of those sliding doors opening - and then before any of them had a chance to react, the sound of footsteps across the room carried to the door in front of them the girl that Cet had identified earlier as Princess Aedwen, the future Queen of the Water Realm.

 

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