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datatime: 2022-09-27 10:31:30 Author:xbKjjAgs

"I'm fine," said Finlay. "I heal quickly."

He shrugged. "Something like that. You need every advantage you can get in the Arena. The regeneration device can work miracles, but you have to live long enough to reach it."

"What about your honor and your Family? We could have just left and let Robert and his people fight their way into the tower, but you couldn't allow that. You'd rather make a deal with the father you detest than let armed men from another Clan run loose in your Family home. It would have been wrong, and you knew that. Please, love, don't let's argue anymore. Let's just go. There's nothing keeping us here now."

"How angry is he likely to be?" said Finlay.

"Don't worry," said Evangeline quietly beside him. "Everyone does that the first time they see the leaders."

And then the esper leaders appeared suddenly in the chamber before him, and for a moment his poise vanished as he stared with open eyes and mouth. He realized he was gaping, and pulled himself together. He had a strong feeling a good first impression was going to be important. Remember the code of the aristocracy: dignity at all times. He hoped no one had noticed his lapse.

"Shut up, Finlay," Evangeline said quietly, forcefully. "You're here under sufferance. The underground has no use for the Families. They've seen too many good men and women killed by the powers that be for daring to struggle to be free. The only reason you weren't shot on sight was because you were with me. And they're not always that happy about me. Now be quiet, and let me try and put in a good word for both of us."

"Don't worry," said Evangeline quietly beside him. "Everyone does that the first time they see the leaders."

She still didn't look round, but her hand was in just the right place to receive his when he reached out to her.

"Shut up, Finlay," Evangeline said quietly, forcefully. "You're here under sufferance. The underground has no use for the Families. They've seen too many good men and women killed by the powers that be for daring to struggle to be free. The only reason you weren't shot on sight was because you were with me. And they're not always that happy about me. Now be quiet, and let me try and put in a good word for both of us."

They stood comfortably, companionably together as the elevator sank into the depths. The doors finally opened out onto the subcellar, a dark and dank empty concrete box littered with junk. Evangeline led Finlay to another hidden door, and they made their way through narrow tunnels into the undercity, the interconnecting subsystems where the underground had dominion. Evangeline usually felt a surge of freedom and pleasure on the downward journey, as she left her Family self and obligations behind her, but it was muted this time. For all her brave words, she knew she'd have to return to Tower Shreck at least once more, to keep her promise to her father. If she didn't, if she just hid herself away in the subsystems forever, as she wanted, he'd take an awful revenge on Adrienne and Robert and all the lesser Campbells he could reach. She'd seen his rages before. No one ever crossed the Shreck and got away with it. And it wasn't such a hard price to pay. She'd paid it often enough before. The first time, she'd thought she'd kill herself, but she didn't. She wasn't that strong. Finlay must never know. For his own good.

"Very. Can your cousin handle a little pressure?"

"How angry is he likely to be?" said Finlay.

"My name is Hood," said the tall man with no face. "I advise."

"Oh, yes. Robert's a lot tougher than he used to be, poor fellow. What will your father say when you do finally go back?"

"How angry is he likely to be?" said Finlay.

Finlay didn't blame them. A waterfall splashed down from high above, gurgling and splashing. An abstract pattern folded in upon itself endlessly. A giant hog with bloodstained tusks glared at him with tiny crimson eyes. And a ten-foot woman wrapped in shimmering light looked down on him with cold disinterest. Evangeline had warned him that the leaders hid their true identities behind illusions for security reasons, but he hadn't expected them to seem so... real. He swallowed hard, and held his head high.

She still didn't look round, but her hand was in just the right place to receive his when he reached out to her.

"My name is Hood," said the tall man with no face. "I advise."

Finlay looked around the meeting place with interest. An abandoned workstation by the look of it, bristling with half-repaired, obsolete equipment. Dangling cables hung from the high ceiling, and battered viewscreens lined the walls, hissing with static. Evangeline had said he'd be meeting the esper leaders here, so that they could check him out, but as yet there was no sign of them. There was no sign of anyone, and Finlay didn't blame them in the least. The place was a dump, and filthy beyond belief. He had a strong suspicion he was in danger of catching something unpleasant just by being there. If this was typical of the subsystems, he'd have to think twice about staying. There were limits, after all.

"I'm Finlay Campbell, or I was. Not really entitled to the name anymore, I suppose. Are you part of the underground, too?"

He shrugged. "Something like that. You need every advantage you can get in the Arena. The regeneration device can work miracles, but you have to live long enough to reach it."

"I don't know if I am going back. You're going to need me in your new life with the underground. And dear Daddy can go to hell. I would have disappeared into the subsystems long ago, if it hadn't been for you. And if I hadn't been such a useful contact for the underground. I think that part of my life is over now. Whatever happens from now on, we'll be together. And that's all that really matters."

Finlay decided to let Evangeline do all the talking. He put on a respectful face while she talked to the leaders and carefully kept his hands away from his sword and gun. He looked across at the few relatively normal-looking people in the chamber with him, and moved over to join them, bowing respectfully.

"Interesting friends you have, Evie," he said brightly. "Usually to see something like this I'd have to ask Valentine for something from his private stash."

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