Nissa reveled in the feel of the three dresses draped over her arm. They were heavy, but they felt glorious. They were smooth and lacy and beautiful… She knew she’d walk in and take the spotlight that evening. She grinned at the thought, gathering up the dress skirts so as not to let them drag as they crossed the street.
Lucienne held the door open for her to step inside the shoe shop and Nissa was in heaven. Her jaw dropped at the sight of all the shoes. Boots of all colors, shapes, and heights; high heels in all sorts of styles; simple flats for more common occasions.
“This is my new favorite building,” she whispered.
“Why do you want to go to the basement?” Detren asked. He should be out in the courtyard talking with people, doing princely things, not roaming a dusty, moldy basement.
“Because it’s interesting. I’m tired of dancing.”
“You could play croquet.”
“I don’t know how. Besides, exploring basements is much more interesting than hitting a ball with a stick through some hoops. Please? I’ll find it myself if I have to.”
Detren’s mental image of Nissa wandering unsupervised through the castle scared him more than the trouble he might get in for leaving the gala, so he sighed his defeat. “Fine. It’s this way.” He led her into the kitchens, the scent of cooking meat making his mouth water. Pots and pans sizzled over a number of fires, and the heat was almost enough to make him sweat even in the minute it took them to get to the cellar door. As he opened the door, he caught Nissa stealing a blueberry tart from a tray. “Nissa!”
Nissa just grinned, licking her already-blue fingers.
Detren rolled his eyes and gestured for her to follow before descending a set of wooden steps into the much cooler cellar. “Close the door behind you,” he said. When she obeyed, the only light coming into the room was from a small window near the ceiling.
“Well this is underwhelming,” Nissa said, looking around the tidy earthen room. Fruits and vegetables were lined up neatly on shelves against every wall, and salted meat hung from the ceiling in well-organized rows. “This isn’t a basement.”
However, Detren was already feeling across a blank spot on the left wall. His finger found the depression and he pulled, his finger straining to pull out the rotted wooden door, which some ancient king had covered in dirt to hide.
“Ooh.” Nissa came over, looking into the dim passageway he’d uncovered. “How did you find this?”
“I was running from the cooks when I was eleven. I’d stolen a lemon tart and didn’t want to get caught. I don’t remember exactly how I found the dent. I think I was probably just running my hands along the wall for any way to get out. I remember my fingers were so dirty afterwards, because the dirt stuck to the lemon filling.” He started down the passageway. “I spent a long time in here before the rats and spiders scared me enough that I dared go back out and face the wrath of Patty, the head cook. Dad and Terlon already knew about the passageway, and they figured out soon enough that I’d found it. I asked Terlon for a few too many books on the history and architecture of the castle for it to escape his notice, and I think all the soil and spiderwebs all over me gave me away to dad.”
“Did your mom know about it?”
A pang shot through Detren’s chest. His mom. “She died the year before. Stealing sweets was my way of coping with her death for a long time. They distracted me. For a little while at least. I made myself sick all the time, because I could think of how bad I felt physically instead of focusing on the pain of losing her.” He looked down at the dirt floor beneath their feet. “I got out of it eventually.”
“I’m sorry.” Nissa’s voice was quiet. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
Detren shrugged. “It’s fine.” He knew his tone, however, said it was not as fine as he pretended.
They walked in silence for several minutes before coming to a two-way fork. Each tunnel was marked with a charcoal symbol on the wall right at the opening, and Detren smiled faintly at the memory of etching them there.
“I explored each tunnel in this place and marked them all,” Detren said, glancing back at Nissa before heading down the left fork. The tunnel was marked with a simple box, because his younger self wasn’t very good at drawing books.
“Fun! How many rooms and tunnels are down here?”
“There are about a dozen tunnels and two dozen rooms.”
“How long did it take you to mark them all? You must have gotten lost at some point.”
He had, and he remembered it all too well. He’d been in there for hours, sitting in one of the tunnels, before Terlon found him. When Detren had realized he’d gotten lost, he sat down in the middle of the tunnel and rested against the wall. Before too long he was crying, all of the stress of his mother’s death and his becoming lost and everything happening in the castle stacking and crushing him.
“I did,” he said. “I think it took me about a month to mark everything, and then I drew myself a map and memorized it so I wouldn’t get lost again. I spent a lot of time down here. I still do, actually, when I’m not busy with my studies.”
The tunnel ended at a large room lined with shelves. Several of them had cracked or fallen, and none of them held anything at this point except dust and probably some mouse droppings. A half-collapsed table and a pile of wood that was once a chair stood in the middle of the room, and a mouse skittered into the shadows next to one of the lower table legs.
“This was the library,” Detren said. “Terlon took out all the books when he realized they were down here, so that he could preserve them. There was a lot of lore down here that wasn’t recorded in later books, and I didn’t have classes for over three months because he was so absorbed in them.”
“Well that’s nice.” Nissa grinned.
Detren shrugged. “I kind of missed it. But it gave me a chance to explore more down here and clean some things up. I haven’t come in here much since it was cleared out, hence the disrepair.”
“It’s more interesting that way.” Nissa smiled. As she brushed her hand across the table, the legs that were already broken collapsed entirely and the mouse squeaked, running out for a safer lurking place. “Oops.”
Detren smiled, stifling a chuckle. “It’s fine. Come here. There’s a room I know you’re gonna like.” He headed back into the tunnel. When they returned to the fork, he took the other tunnel, marked with a crown, a wave symbol, and a bottle.
At the end of this tunnel were two doors flanking an open doorway. The one on the left was marked with a crown, and the one on the left with a bottle. Nissa was attracted to the glow from the central room and started walking in. “What’s thi—”
Detren grabbed her arm. “That’s not what I want to show you. We can go in there next.” A smile played at his lips. “You’ll like this one even better, I promise.” He opened the crown-marked door and Nissa’s jaw dropped. Detren grinned as she walked in slowly, taking in the view around her. This was the ancient treasury, and much of what it held was still around. Gold and jewels glittered in the light of hanging candelabras. A suit of armor stood guard against the back wall with a sword pointed down at its pedestal. There was a polished ebony box at the armor’s foot.
“Promise you won’t steal anything in here,” Detren said with a grin.
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep.” Nissa smirked at him over her shoulder. Her attention was drawn to the ebony box, and she knelt before it, running her hands along the seam. “What’s in here?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been able to open it.”
“It’s beautiful. How have you managed to keep it in such good condition?”
“I haven’t. It does that itself. It’s weird. I’ve never been able to figure out this box’s secrets.”
“Do you think Terlon might know?”
“Maybe, but I haven’t told him about this room. I’ve told him I wasn’t able to get it open, because I know if I told him about it he’d take all this stuff and examine it for months. I like preserving the original layout of ancient places, and I value my classes enough to not disturb them.” Detren let out a dry chuckle.
“Plus if you’d done that, I never would have found this.” Nissa turned around to face him and he saw an onyx and gold necklace around her neck that hadn’t been there before.
“How did you put that on without me noticing?”
“I’m a thief, silly. Being secretive and stealthy is my job.” She winked. Turning back to the box, she returned to her examination. “I really want to figure out how to open this box, though. It’s fascinating, not to mention beautiful.”
“Well I’m afraid you won’t find any answers from me.”
Nissa stood. “We can look at it later. What’s in the glowy room?”
Detren led her out of the treasury, closing the door behind them, and stepped into the ‘glowy room,’ as she’d called it, which was dominated by a hot spring. The glow was coming from luminescent blue crystals inset around the pool, and water flowed in from a gap in the back wall, spilling over from the main pool into a smaller lower pool and draining from there into who-knows-where. Detren didn’t know how the pool worked, exactly, but he liked relaxing here now and then at the end of a particularly stressful day. Which he had too often, it seemed. Particularly when Anaya Morwen was involved. Goodness did she get on his nerves. There was more than one reason why he avoided her at all costs. To be entirely honest, these tunnels were his favorite place to hide from her.
“This is a nice place,” Nissa said, lifting her skirt above her ankles, removing her shoes, and stepping into the low pool.
“What is your favorite room in this place?”
“I like the treasury a lot, especially trying to figure out that box. I also like the wine cellar just because it looks cool. But my favorite room… Let me just show you.”
Nissa stepped back out of the pool, leaving her shoes on the floor and letting the hem of her dress fall back to brush against her damp feet. Detren headed back down the hallway about halfway and stopped at a grey door, which was easy enough to miss if you weren’t looking for it. Whoever had built this basement – King Weiden, he assumed, the same person who built the castle itself – was an expert in camouflaging things.
Detren pulled the door open and allowed Nissa to step in first. It was another tunnel, and this one had branches along its length, as well as at its end. Detren made his way to this last fork and headed down the right tunnel, marked with a door. When they reached the end, the corridor opened up into a large cavern with stalactites hanging from the ceiling and a round tunnel dug into the right wall.
Detren pointed to the tunnel. “That leads out into the city.”