Deep underground, the sky was a great big ceiling of dark, grey stone. She might have called it a cave, except that it didn’t feel like a cave at all. The ceiling was very high, at least six stories tall, and so wide that the walls seemed to fade into the distant darkness. Anny couldn’t even see them from where she stood, and the cavern’s size was lost to her completely as they continued to what lay within.
Everywhere she looked, she saw shops. Odd little street shops, like the ones from the familiar city streets way aboveground. But Anny knew right away that these were different. Each shop was filled to the brim with fantastic curiosities, overflowing with strange, unimaginable wares. It almost seemed as though the goods themselves were beckoning to her, inviting her to investigate each store and discover its mysteries.
And the people! There were crowds of them, everywhere! Where had they come from? Why had they come in the first place? Although many of them seemed normal, for the most part, Anny noticed right away that others were dressed like her entourage in long robes. And there were even more people whose outfits were simply too bold to go unnoticed. It seemed that, upon entering this underground expanse, she had stumbled onto a strange kind of society, a secret world hidden from those who lived in the city far above. She desperately wanted to stop and look at all the beautiful shops, but a gentle push from behind reminded her that she hadn’t been brought here to sightsee. She had almost forgotten that she was in trouble.
On they went, past countless curiosity shops and their colourful, eccentric owners. The clamour of the market was overwhelming. Even as they passed, Anny heard the vendors crying out to the guards surrounding her.
“Come, fine sir! A gift for your lady at home, eh?”
“Ah, those robes are looking quite tarnished, no? Why not try out a new cloak? I have a generous offer lined up especially for you, my friend!”
“Stop just a minute, gentlemen! Take a quick break from your noble charge to sample my latest goods! You won’t regret it, I guarantee!”
The eager cries fell upon deaf ears. The sentinels had their hands full, and weren’t at all willing to be enticed by the chorus of calls.
The group continued, heedless of the chaos that surrounded them. The guards had formed a small perimeter around the two kids, making it difficult for Anny to see what was happening, but she still tried to steal a glimpse here and there. She found it strange, enchanting, to see trees all the way underground in this dark market. More enchanting still was how their roots and branches entangled themselves with the storefronts of the little shops, as if the streets themselves had grown from the very ground. And as she glanced upwards, she caught the glimmer of lights strung from branch to branch, suspended over the street like lazy fireflies. It was a welcome substitute for the stars that would have shone through the darkness if not for the ceiling of stone overhead.
At last the group slowed their pace, halting in front of a prominent building. Unlike the surrounding storefronts, this place brought to mind an ancient watchtower, reaching up a whole five stories to where it overlooked the market. Anny could see a solitary sentinel on duty, standing way up at the top. But the sight escaped her as they were led inside, the busy market shut away behind a heavy door. Once in the tower, the group dispersed, heading this way and that to complete whatever tasks they had in mind. Only one guard remained to lead the kids away.
The man pulled down his mask and took a deep breath, relieved to have escaped the hectic marketplace. Anny stifled a gasp as she saw his eyes. They were bright red.
He looked at her, saying nothing. All he did was tip his head to the right, indicating that it was time to keep moving. She didn’t need to be told twice, but as she walked ahead she could hear the other kid arguing with the guard just behind her. He sure had some attitude.
As they walked down the hall and up the stairs, Anny was overwhelmed a second time, gaping at everything around her. The few electric lights that hung isolated from the ceiling were surrounded by candles, torches, and lanterns, lending a natural warmth to the stone tower. In the absence of windows there were tapestries along the wall, boasting intricate embroidery that seemed to move with the flickering light. She noticed a repeating symbol woven into their designs. And even on the floor, the carpet had signs of that same pattern. She could make nothing of it, however, and the sight did little to ease her nervousness.
Arriving at the second floor from the winding stone staircase, the two were led to another door. The guard knocked, waited for a response from within, and then opened it. He waved his hand, gesturing for the two to enter. And although she hesitated, Anny knew that it was too late now to think of escaping. A deep breath, and she stepped forward, with the kid at her heels. At least she wasn’t alone.
The room was dark compared to the hall. There was one window behind a large desk, and a few other sources of light scattered about, but there were none of those bright electric lights that she had seen downstairs. The fireplace in the corner was the brightest thing in the room, though Anny had to look twice to assure herself that, yes, the flames were violet. This underground world was different from the one she was used to.
In the dim light, she hadn’t noticed the man beside the mantelpiece. She nearly jumped in surprise when he began to speak.
“Ah, what a relief,” he said. “So they managed to find you… That’s good.” Emerging from the shadows, he made a sweeping motion to the sofa in front of the fireplace. “Just wait here a moment. I’ll let Bellator know you’ve arrived.” Exiting the room, he shut the door behind him and left the two alone.
Anny obediently took a place on the sofa, saying nothing as she allowed her eyes to scan the spacious office. Everywhere she looked, the walls were covered in papers. There were maps and drawings, pages from books, and the occasional newspaper clipping. From her seat on the sofa she could read one of the headlines. Market Collapses in Nihonatcha. She wondered what it could mean.
Still taking in her surroundings, she ignored the other kid as he sat down at the opposite end, hugging the teddy bear close to his chest. She cast a sideways glance in his direction, but looked away before their eyes could meet. She wanted nothing to do with him.
For a long while, neither said a word. The kid kept lifting his head, about to speak, but was unable to break the silence. It was only after a minute or so that his eyes lit up with an idea.
Bounding from the sofa, he made his way to the desk and grabbed a pen, fingering the blank tag on the bear. He scribbled something onto the tag and returned to his seat. Placing the bear in the gap between them, he tapped Anny’s knee.
Finally, she turned to him, reaching for the bear as she eyed the message on the tag.
She scowled and threw it right back. “Apology not accepted.”
“Why ya gotta be like that?” He slumped down and hugged the bear. “Some thanks I get, for saving you and all that.”
She clenched her fists and turned away. “You didn’t save me from anything, genius. We got caught.”
He shrugged. “Okay, so maybe the rescue plan could’ve been a little better. But still, that was one heckuva first kiss, right?”
“It was disgusting,” she replied haughtily. “And completely unnecessary. And it didn’t work. At all.” But then something occurred to her. “Hey, what do you mean, ‘heckuva first kiss’?”
“Hmph! I’ll have you know that my kisses are high-end. Not my fault you have a bad taste in smooching.”
“No, not that! How did you know it was my first kiss?”
He yawned and stretched out his legs. “It was sloppy.”
She was about to deal a snarky reply when the door swung open. Sitting to attention, they both turned to face the incoming stranger. He was tall, with slick black hair flecked with a touch of grey. Forsaking the customary cloak, he was wearing a collared shirt with an expensive jacket. Paired with a heavy frown, he looked intimidating. This guy had to be the boss.
But his firm expression vanished into annoyance as his gaze fell on the sofa. With a weary sigh, he turned to the kid with the orange hair.
“Kitsune Mustelini,” he said. “I should have known the moment they mentioned the golf cart.”
The kid rose and took a bow. “No need to be so formal, Bellator.” He straightened out with a smirk. “Kit will do.”
“You’re in here far too often for your own good.” He thrust a finger in his face. “You’re lucky that my men picked you up. Do you know how much trouble you would be in if the overworld police had got there first? Your little excursion is likely to be on television tonight.” The heavy frown returned. “I’m afraid you won’t be leaving the Market for some time, not after an incident like this.”
“Oh, dratters,” said Kit, blatantly unconcerned. “Looks like I’ll have to entertain myself around here from now on.” Another smirk. “Got any golf carts handy?”
“Listen here, kid.” He stepped forward and grasped his shoulder. “You’re walking a very fine line. One more misadventure and you’ll end up behind thick concrete walls for a good long time.”
“Now that would be unfortunate,” he replied. “It’d be awfully difficult, finding some other sucker to supply you and your wife with free tickets to the club. You might even end up,” he gasped mockingly, “buying them yourself, if something like that happened.”
Reluctant as he was, Bellator released his shoulder and backed off. “They should be VIP at this point,” he growled. “What with all the headaches you’ve caused me.”
“Sheesh, take it easy! Even I can’t swing VIP tickets. Lavinia keeps them all for her boyfriends.”
“Hmph. Sure, kid.” After this brief exchange, Bellator turned his attention to where Anny was sitting. “Would you happen to be Anastasia?”
She considered lying, but the thought only lasted a moment. The intensity in his eyes gave her the impression that she wouldn’t be able to get away with it, not this time.
“Yes,” she said, deathly afraid of the consequences.
But what happened next took her by surprise. With a great sigh of relief, he exclaimed, “Thank goodness! Are you all right?”
This was unexpected. She could barely manage words. “Y-yes!” she stammered. “I’m fine. But I don’t understand, I thought–”
“Yes,” said Bellator, somewhat embarrassed. “I have my bumbling overground men to thank for the confusion. They’re not what you would call my, uh… brightest division.” He cast an angry glance at Kit. “It wasn’t your fault you were surrounded by idiots.”
Kit started flinging insults and excuses back at Bellator, but Anny didn’t hear any of it. She fell back in her seat.
“Oh…” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I really thought… So I’m not in trouble?”
“No, no,” said Bellator, “of course not.” He flicked Kit on the nose and turned back to her. “Well, not here, anyway. But we do have to talk about aboveground matters now that you’re safe.”
“Safe?” She frowned. “What do you mean, safe? Was I not safe before or something?”
“Uh… yes,” he said, noting her concern. “That’s why I sent my men to pick you up. As soon as I found out that your parents…”
He halted midsentence, glancing at Kit. With another weary sigh, he pointed to the door.
“Out,” he said. “You can talk to your friend later.”
Anny glowered at Kit as he left the room. “We’re not friends.”
“We’re lovers,” he added, quickly shutting the door behind him.
“What? No!” She felt her cheeks turn red, this time from embarrassment. “We are not lovers!”
Bellator rolled his eyes and pulled up an armchair. “Kitsune is something of a regular around here. I don’t know how you got mixed up with him.”
Come to think of it, neither did she. “It was a complete accident, I swear.” She paused. “Are you the police?”
He leaned back in his chair and smiled, amused. “Yes, I suppose you could call us that. We’re like police, except the bulk of our operations take place underground. We have a few special divisions that keep an eye on the overground as well, but we try to stay inconspicuous.”
Well, that effort had been a gigantic failure. “But who are you? If you’re not actually police, what do you do? And what is this place? And what were you saying about my parents?”
He smoothed his hair back, thinking of how to proceed. “We have a lot to talk about. I’m assuming you know nothing of this place, am I right?”
Anny looked around the room, glancing first out the window and then to the strange fire burning in the corner. Never had she really believed in a place like this.
“Nothing,” she said quietly.
“Alright then,” he said, clasping his hands together with renewed zeal. “Steel yourself for what I have to say. I’m afraid it might be a lot to take in at once.” He paused. “And it may sound crazy.”
“Crazy?” she said. “I just spent the last couple hours with crazy. I’m ready for things to start making sense.”
“Good.” He offered another smile. “Then I believe we’re on the same page.”