Key woke up with a gasp, disoriented, with a fresh, vague panic squeezing his chest. Cold sweat beaded on his collar bone beneath his school shirt. His room was dark. He scrambled out of his bed and looked out the window, seeing that it was full night. Breathing frantically, he uttered a curse and walked to his bedroom door, pressing an ear against the cool, polished wood. He heard nothing but quiet, the sound of a household long abed.
His pocket watch was on his writing desk. He popped it open, relieved to find it wound. The time on its face alarmed him. It was near midnight. Shame flooded through him. He couldn’t help but think that he’d proven his father right: he’d fallen asleep, like a child. Because that’s what he’d been acting like. A man would have accepted his father’s words and made his peace with them. He heard Valkin’s voice in his head, calm but somehow still harsh: you are a child. A coddled, weeping child, too concerned with a child’s dreams to concern himself with the business of being a man.
For one, long moment, Key reconsidered his plan to run away. Perhaps he was being unreasonable. Perhaps there was some truth to Valkin’s words. What if he wasn’t ready to make a man’s decisions? At the end of the day, what did he know of being an adult, of supporting himself, let alone a family—of determining, educated foresight, the path of his future? He was, after all, only twelve. He knew for a fact that there were other boys his age whose mothers still tucked them into bed at night, who would be horrified at the idea that they might be old enough to claim responsibility for themselves. Was he being hasty? Was he allowing emotion to masquerade as logic?
Keynish and Valking Helg would never love each other. They would never be friends. But that didn’t mean that his father was incapable of being right.
The moment of indecision came to an abrupt close when he wiped at his nose and felt a wave of pain. No. No, Valkin was not right. Valkin was a tyrant. Behind his father’s cold eyes lay nothing but years of aggregated greed, envy, and hate. There was no man there that Key could find. As long as he stayed in Valkin’s house, he would live at his whim, his spirit ground beneath his sooty boot heel.
His mind made up, Key picked up his bag, strapped it astride his chest, and considered the best way to leave. He hadn’t really considered how he’d get out of the house without anyone hearing or seeing him, beyond a vague fantasy of climbing out his window and down a drain spout. Which was beyond impractical: his bedroom was on the third floor, easily thirty feet above the ground, far from the nearest drain spout. Which left the classic method of tying his bedclothes into a makeshift rope. The logical side of his brain assured him that this way lay death, or, worse, crippling injury, which would only put him more at the mercy of his father.
Taking a deep breath, he slipped off his school shoes and put them into his bag with his clothing. Easing open his bedroom door, he peered out into the wide hallway. Lit only by moonlight through the large windows at the front of the house, the way seemed clear enough at first, until he noticed the amber glow beneath the door to his father’s suite.
With any luck, Valkin had simply fallen asleep with the lamp on. He was known to do that. The servants, or Mother, when she was alive, had found him more than once passed out at his desk beside a half-empty bottle of brandy.
Key crept out into the hall, shutting his door carefully behind him. The house was huge and old and solid, for the most part, but there was an odd creaky board here or there. After a moment’s thought, he turned right, rather than left, away from both his father’s door and the main staircase.
The servants’ stair ran at the back of the house, a narrow, claustrophobic switchback with access to every floor. He was more likely to run into a servant there, but as Key had never known Valkin to set foot in the servants’ staircase, he felt sure he would not be found there by his father.
The door to the staircase was open; he took the steps one at a time, slowly, keeping his footsteps as soft as he could. He’d made it to the landing above the first floor before one of the treads creaked beneath his foot, a rusty squeak Key was sure had woken the entire house.
He waited, frozen, for a dozen breaths before deciding no one would come running. Why was he so nervous? It wasn’t as if he had done anything wrong, not yet: it was his house too. If he were caught, he’d just say he was going to the kitchen for a snack. And the bag? The bag. Well, never mind the bag. Key shook his head in frustration and continued down the stairs.
They let out into the kitchen, the last obstacle to his freedom. It was unlikely anyone was up at this hour, but if they were, this was likely where they’d be. The servants’ rooms were on the first floor and in the basement, and there was always the outside chance that the cook was up late preparing ingredients for tomorrow.
He allowed himself a quiet sigh of relief when he stepped out of the stairwell and found the kitchen abandoned, dark but for a banked fire in the grate. Valkin had not yet sprung for one of the new gas ovens, though the cook often grumbled about it.
The kitchen was a small wing unto itself, which stuck out into the back grounds. A simple door led out into the kitchen garden. Key unlocked it, swung it open just wide enough to get through, and pulled it shut softly behind him.
He’d have to leave it unlocked, as he didn’t have a key, but there was nothing he could do about that. He was halfway across the back lawn when he remembered, with a shock, that he also had no key for the back gate. His plan had been to go through the little gate in the wall out into the back alley that ran between the Helg estate and the properties on the next boulevard over. But Key didn’t have a key for that gate. He wanted to smile at the irony of it, but the cold panic was back. They’d catch him. They’d find him scrabbling at the wall, alert the household, perhaps think him a burglar and call the constables—
The thought broke off abruptly when he remembered the old alder by the back wall. The climbing tree. The one with limbs that hung over the wall.
This time he did smile. Key would be his own key, and he’d get to climb something tonight after all.
A few minutes’ climbing in the familiar tree and he was on top of the old stone wall, looking down at the ten foot drop to the alley below. He swallowed, let himself over the edge, and dropped to his feet, managing to find his balance before dropping to his backside.
Shouldering his bag, Key started walking down the alley, the smile on his face returning in full force. He was free. He had no master but himself. Valkin Helg was already a memory, and he was surprised at how good it felt.
He couldn’t wait to see Seffa tomorrow, to tell her about his plans. He’d make her understand why he had to do it.
At the bottom of the narrow alley with his thoughts on dreams of tomorrow, he walked away from mansion Helg without seeing the dark figure outlined in lamplight in the central back window of his father’s bedchamber.
* * *
He woke to find the cistern eerily quiet. The normal gush and flow of adjacent water and sewer pipes was absent; only an occasional dripping from the western entrance broke the silence.
Key took out his watch and wound it. Despite likely being a few minutes behind by now, it read nine o’clock. He had six hours before Seffa’s usual arrival time.
His workbench and Seffa’s chair were on a raised stone platform off the cistern proper, which he hoped would spare his equipment in the unlikely event of overflow into the chamber. His makeshift bedroll was laid out beside the bench, on the cold stone. He considered going back to it, briefly, when he realized that the only work he really wanted to do involved Seffa’s amulet, which he didn’t have.
He settled on reorganizing his equipment, which took several hours. If he were going to be spending all of his time down here, he wanted his lab arranged as efficiently as possible. Organization was good: his obsessive nature craved it. It filled his mind, leaving no room for higher thought. Among the many things it helped him avoid thinking about were Valkin’s reaction to finding him gone, and Seffa’s potential reaction to the proposal he had decided to make to her.
Arriving at their hideout last night, Key had realized that leaving Valkin’s house for good was not the only decision he had made, almost unconsciously, over the past several weeks. A larger plan had begun to form in the back of his mind. A series of hypotheticals had slowly but surely become intentions, and as he had rolled himself into on of the musty blankets he kept on hand for Seffa’s use, he knew that it was time to put the plan into action.
It wasn’t perfect, he knew; for one thing, it hinged quite dramatically on Seffa’s involvement, both logistically and emotionally. Loathe as he was to admit it, the idea of going on without her was…distasteful. It reminded him too much of losing his mother, which led him down a path into a part of himself where he preferred not to go.
She—Seffa—was the only one, including Mother, who had ever come close to understanding him. The only one who seemed to accept him as he was, without asking for more. Without asking for something he couldn’t give.
When midday came he ate the small amount of rations they had stored there as afternoon snacks. He would need to go out for food, he knew, a task he was dreading. It seemed too soon to venture out into the city. If Valkin were looking for him, which Key rather hoped he was not, he could easily be spotted at any of the places he knew to go for groceries. Perhaps he could convince Seffa to do the shopping.
After his unsatisfying luncheon he lost himself in his books for the entirety of the early afternoon. He became so diverted by The Nature of the Phiros that he didn’t even notice when Seffa arrived, at her usual time. He looked up from one of Kalan’s discussions of the metaphysical nature of the phirotic energies themselves—sadly incomplete, as the only surviving copy of the book found after the Rehabitation was in very poor condition—to see her ensconced in her chair, reading a book of her own, toying with a tendril of hair.
He tensed, realizing the time, and snapped his book shut so loudly that she jumped.
“Seffa,” he said, tonelessly.
“Hello,” she said, alarmed. “You frightened me.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. He waited, as he usually did, for her to respond to his apology. After a moment she remembered this habit, and did so.
“It’s all right,” she said.
“I wanted to talk you,” said Key.
“That’s nice,” said Seffa, looking back down at her book. “What about?”
“I’ve left home,” he announced.
“I can see that,” she said. “As you’re here.” At first he took it for sarcasm, a concept that was foreign to him at the best of times, but then realized that she looked genuinely confused.
“No,” he said. “I mean, for good. I’ve left home for good.” Seffa’s eyes widened.
“You mean…you’re…running away?”
“My father says I’m old enough to make a man’s decisions. That means I’m too old to run away. So it’s not running away. It’s a choice. And I chose to leave. For good.”
Seffa shut her book slowly and sat up straighter. “Key…” she began.
“I know it seems sudden,” he said, knowing no such thing but trusting that he had conveyed his feelings as poorly as ever, “but it was necessary. My father…is not a well man.”
“From what you’ve told me, I think I agree,” she said. “But Key, this is rather drastic, don’t you think? Where will you go? Where will you live? Do you have other family?”
“No,” he said, quietly. “My parents’ family is all dead. But even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t matter. I’m going to live here. For now, anyway.”
“Here?” she exclaimed.
“Yes, here,” he said. Now it was his turn to look confused. “We spend enough time down here already. What’s the difference if I sleep here, too?”
“Because…because it’s…” she trailed off, shaking her head. “Key, I’m not sure you’ve thought this through.”
“I think everything through,” said Key.
“What I mean is, how will you…support yourself? Even living here, how will eat? What kind of life could you have, living in a sewer?”
“A life free from him.” That shut her up, but her eyes were wide.
When she didn’t speak again, Key continued, seeing an opportunity. “I don’t plan to stay here forever. Just long enough to build up a savings. There are lots of things I know how to make that the city’s merchants need. Chemicals—reagents, solvents, catalysts. And I can draw—anatomical sketches. Of animals and plants, even human bodies, if I can get them. The University won’t want my work, but there are plenty of potheks and barbers and midwives that will pay good money for them. Medical texts are hard to come by.
“And when I’m not doing that I can continue my research. On your necklace, if you’ll let me. I know I’m close to a breakthrough. Something big, Seffa. Something they might not know, even at the University.”
She looked stunned.
“And what will you do with your…savings,” she asked, “once you’ve got it? Buy a house? Buy your way into university?”
Key laughed inadvertently. He hadn’t expected her to think that way. The thought hadn’t even occurred to him. “No,” he said. “I’ll travel. Leave Oridos for good.”
He came out from around his workbench, where he’d been sitting.
“Passage on a coastal skimmer isn’t so expensive. Or we could just take the ferry over the Inner Sea, and head overland. The Southern Estates are abandoned, but they aren’t dangerous. The Sheriff—”
“Wait,” interjected Seffa. “We?”
Key paused. “Of course,” he said, before continuing. “We could head to one of the Islands. I thought that might be the most beneficial. Brytman Kar is still inhabited—they do a bustling trade with the tribes in the far south, importing cinnamon and all manner of spices and botanicals for sale in Oridos. The Rehabitation—”
“Key,” said Seffa, standing up. “What do you mean by ‘we’?”
He had started pacing, he realized, and stopped, stumped by her question. “I mean you and I. I want us to go away together, Seffa.”
“As what?” she said. Key couldn’t read her face.
“As what?” he echoed. “I don’t understand.”
Seffa stood up, putting down the book she’d been reading. “Key, I…” She didn’t seem to know what to say. A number of different emotions seemed to cross her face, one after the other, too fast and too subtle for Key to understand. Had one of them been anger? Had he done something wrong? He had thought—
“I don’t know what to do,” said Seffa, tears suddenly welling in her eyes. “I can’t…I can’t say what I need to say, to you.” She scrubbed an arm across her eyes, then looked at him pleadingly. Key had never wished he were normal before, but in that moment he wanted to understand her more than anything. He felt certain that other people would know what to do, or what to say. That Seffa, in his shoes, would understand how to help him.
As he was only Key, he stood silently, chewing his lip and waiting. She looked at him a moment longer and the moment shattered.
“I have to go home,” she said.
“But—” But Seffa held up a hand, a strangely adult gesture he’d never seen her make before.
“Please don’t. I can’t,” she said. “I have to go.”
And like that, without another word, she turned and hurried out of their hiding place, leaving Key to palpate the anxious confusion in his mind like the alien thing it was.