When Zeke awoke in the princely room beneath the train station, the lights had been somewhat dimmed and the cottony taste in his mouth suggested that he’d been asleep for longer than he’d meant to be. He smacked his lips together and tried to moisten his tongue.
“Ezekiel Wilkes,” said a voice, before Zeke even realized that he was not alone. He rolled over on the bed and blinked.
Sitting in a chair beside the fake window, a man with folded arms and a monstrous air mask was tapping one gloved hand against his knee. He was wearing a red coat that looked like it was meant for a foreign king, and boots that were shiny and black.
“Sir?” Zeke said. He could scarcely force the question out.
“Sir. You call me ‘sir.’ I suppose it belies your appearance, that simple indication of manners. I’ll take it as a good sign.”
He blinked again, but the strange vision didn’t change, and the man in the chair didn’t move. “Of what?”
“Of how breeding might overcome raising. No,” he said as Zeke began to sit up. “Stay down. Now that you’re awake, I’d like to see that gash on your head, and the one on your hand. I did not want to examine them while you slept, lest you awaken to this.” He motioned at his mask. “I’m aware of what it looks like.”
“Then why don’t you take it off? I can breathe in here.”
“So could I, if I chose.” He rose then, and came to sit on the edge of the bed. “Suffice it to say, I have my reasons.”
“Are you all scarred up or something?”
“I said, I have my reasons. Hold still.” He pressed one hand against Zeke’s forehead and used the other to push the matted hair away. His gloves were warm but so snug that they might as well have been his naked fingers. “How did this happen?”
“Are you Dr. Minnericht?” he asked instead of answering the question.
“I am Dr. Minnericht, yes,” he said without changing his tone in the slightest. He pressed a place here, and nudged a spot there. “At least that’s what they call me these days, in this place. You ought to have stitches, but I think you’ll survive without them. It’s been too long since you sustained the injury; your hair has gummed up the wound; and for the time being, at least, it isn’t bleeding and it doesn’t appear inflamed. We should keep an eye on it, all the same. Now, let me see your hand.”
If Zeke heard anything after the “yes,” he didn’t react to it. “Yaozu said you knew my father.”
The prying hands withdrew, and the doctor sat up straighten He said, “He told you that, did he? He phrased it exactly that way?”
Zeke scrunched his forehead, trying to remember more precisely. His furrowed eyebrows tugged at the torn skin farther back on his skull, and he winced. “I don’t remember. He said something like that. He said you could tell me about him, anyhow.”
“Oh, I certainly could,” he agreed. “I wonder, though. What has your mother told you? ”
“Not much.” Zeke scrunched his body up to a seated position, and he almost gasped to see the doctor from this other angle. He could have sworn that the man did not have any eyes, but behind the visor of the elaborate mask, two blue lights burned sharply where his pupils ought to be.
The lights flared brighter for a moment, then dimmed. Zeke had no idea what it might mean. The doctor retrieved the boy’s hand and began to wrap it in a thin, light cloth.
“Not much. I see. Should I guess instead that she’s told you nothing at all? Should I furthermore assume that everything you’ve heard, you’ve heard from history—and from your schoolmates, or from the gossip of men and women in the Outskirts?”
“That’s about right.”
“Then you don’t know the half of it. You don’t know a fraction of it.” The lights flickered as if he were blinking, and his words slowed down, and grew more calm. “They blamed him for the Boneshaker’s failure, because they are ignorant, do you understand? They blamed him for the Blight because they knew nothing of geology or science, or the workings of the earth beneath the crust. They did not understand that he’d only meant to begin an industry here, one apart from the filthy, violent, bloody sport of logging. He was looking to begin a new age for this city and its inhabitants. But those inhabitants…” Minnericht paused to gather his breath, and Zeke surreptitiously burrowed more deeply against the pillows at his back. “They knew nothing of a researcher’s process, and they did not understand that success is built on the bones of failures.”
Zeke wished he had more room to retreat, but he didn’t, so he made small talk instead. He said, “You knew him pretty good, then, did you? ”
Minnericht stood, and strode slowly away from the bed, folding his arms and pacing a short path from the basin to the bed’s foot. “Your mother,” he said, like he meant to begin a new train of conversation.
But he stopped there, leaving Zeke to feel sick about the venom he heard. “She’s probably pretty worried about me.”
He did not turn around. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t give a damn. Let her worry, after what she’s done—hiding you away and abandoning me to this place, these walls, as if I’d made for her a prison and not a palace.”
Zeke froze. He was already holding still, and he didn’t know what else to do except hold even stiller. His heart was banging a warning drum between his ribs, and his throat was closing up with every passing second.
The doctor, as he said they called him now, gave the boy time to absorb the implication before he turned around. Then he did, his red coat following with a flourish, and he said, “You must understand, I had to make choices. I had to make compromises. In the face of these people, and in the face of their catastrophe and loss—which was no fault of mine—I was forced to hide and recuperate in my own way.
“After what occurred,” he continued, playing his voice like a symphony of sorrow and story, “I could not simply emerge and make my case for innocence. I could not rise from the rubble and announce that I’d done no wrong, and created no harm. Who would have heard me? Who would believe such a protest? I am forced to confess, young man, that I would likely not believe it either.”
“Are you trying to tell me… you’re…”
The smooth timbre of Minnericht’s monologue cracked. He said flatly, “You’re a smart boy. Or if you’re not, you ought to be. Then again, I don’t know. Yourmother”—and again he poisoned the word as he spoke it—“I suppose I can’t vouch for her contribution to your nature.”
“Hey,” Zeke objected, suddenly forgetting all of Angeline’s advice. “Don’t you talk about her, not like that. She works hard, and she’s got it hard, because of… because of you, I guess. She told me, just a couple days ago, how the city, the Outskirts, how people out there would never forgive her for you.”
“Well, if they can’t forgive her, then there’s no reason I should either, is there?” Dr. Minnericht asked. But seeing the reflexive defiance in his ward, he added, “Many things happened back then—many things that I don’t expect you to understand. But let’s not talk about those things—not yet. Not now. Not when I’ve freshly discovered a son. This should be an excuse for a celebration, shouldn’t it?”
Zeke was having trouble soothing himself. He’d had too much fear and too much confusion since coming under the wall. He didn’t know if he was safe, but he suspected he wasn’t—and now his captor was insulting his mother? It was too much, really.
It was so much that it almost didn’t matter that this Dr. Minnericht professed to be his father. He wasn’t sure why he found it so hard to believe. Then he remembered some of the princess’s parting words.
Whatever he tells you, whatever he says, he’s no native of this place and no man he ever claimed to be. He’ll never tell you the truth, because it’s worth his trouble to lie.
But what if Minnericht wasn’t lying?
What if Angeline was the liar? After all, she could say Minnericht was a monster and the whole world feared him, but she’d been on awfully good terms with those air pirates.
“I brought you some things,” Minnericht added, proffering a bag, either to break the silence of Zeke’s inner battle or as a parting missive. “We’ll take supper in an hour. Yaozu will come for you, and bring you to me. We’ll talk all you like, then. I’ll answer your questions, for I know you must have some. I’ll tell you anything you want to know, because I am not your mother, and I do not keep secrets like she does—not from you, and not from anyone.”
As he stepped toward the door he added, “You might want to keep close to this room. If you’ll notice, the door reinforces from the inside. We’re having a little problem upstairs. It would seem that some rotters are wandering a bit close to our perimeter defenses.”
“Is that bad?”
“Of course it’s bad, but it’s not terrible. The chances of them getting inside is quite low. But still—caution is always prudent,” he said. And with that, he left the room.
Again, Zeke heard no lock. He could see for himself that yes, the exit could be barred from within; but again, he remembered that he no longer had an air mask. How far could he expect to go without it? Bitterly, he concluded aloud, “Not far at all.”
Then he wondered if he was being watched, or if anyone was listening. He clamped his mouth shut to play it safe and approached the bundle wrapped in a fabric bag. The doctor had left it beside the basin, along with a freshly refilled bowl of water.
Not caring that it looked terrible, or that it might be a ridiculous display of bad manners, Zeke thrust his face down into the bowl and drank until the porcelain was dry. It amazed him how thirsty he’d become; and then he was amazed by his hunger. The rest of it amazed him too—the airships, the crash, the station, the doctor—but he did not know how much of it to trust. His stomach, though. That could be trusted; and it said he hadn’t fed it in days.
But how many? How long had it been? He’d slept twice, once beneath the rubble of the tower and once there, under the station.
He thought of his mother, and of his tightly made plans that had been guaranteed to get him in, out, and home safely in time to keep his mother from going mad with worry. He hoped she was all right. He hoped she hadn’t done anything crazy, or that she wasn’t sick with fear; but he had a feeling he’d blown it.
Inside the bag Minnericht had given him he found a clean pair of pants and a shirt, and socks that didn’t have a single hole. He peeled off the filthy things he was wearing and replaced them with the cleaner clothes, which felt soft and brand-new against his skin. Even the wool socks were smooth and not scratchy. His feet felt funny while wearing them in his old boots. The boots knew where his old socks were worn through, and they’d come to hug the calluses on his toes. Now they had nothing to rub.
In a frame atop the basin, Zeke found a mirror. He used it to examine the bloody sore spot on his head, and to check the bruised places he could feel but not quite see.
He still looked like a dirty kid, but he looked less like a dirty kid than he had in years. He liked it. It looked good on him, even with the thickly bandaged hand to spoil the overall effect.
Yaozu arrived and opened the door without a sound. Zeke nearly dropped the mirror when he caught the Chinese man’s tiny, distorted reflection in its corner. The boy turned around and said, “You could knock, you know.”
“The doctor wishes for you to join him at supper. He thought you might be hungry.”
“Damn right I’m hungry,” Zeke said, but he felt silly about it. Something about the fine surroundings and the nicer clothes made him think he ought to behave better, or speak better, or look better—but there was only so much improvement he could muster on short notice. So he added, “What are we eating?”
“Roasted chicken, I believe. There might also be potatoes or noodles.”
The boy’s mouth went soggy. He hadn’t even seen a roasted chicken in longer than he could remember. “I’m right behind you!” he announced with honest enthusiasm that overwhelmed and sank any fear he might’ve let linger in the back of his mind. Angeline’s warning and his own discomfort vanished as he followed Yaozu into the corridor.
Through another unlocked door—this one with dragons carved into its corners—the pair of them passed into a room that looked like a windowless parlor; and on the other side of that, there was a dining room that could’ve come from a castle.
A long, narrow table covered in a crisp white cloth ran the length of the room, and tall-backed chairs were pushed under it at regular intervals. Only two places were set—not at opposite ends where the diners would not even see one another, but close together at the table’s head.
Dr. Minnericht was already seated there. Over his shoulder he whispered to an oddly dressed black man with a blind left eye, but Zeke could not hear what they said. The conversation came to an end when Minnericht dismissed his conspirator and turned to Zeke.
“You must be starving. You look half-starved, at any rate.”
“Yeah,” he said, flinging himself into the chair by the place settings without wondering if Yaozu ate elsewhere. He didn’t care. He didn’t even care if Minnericht was a false name, or that this man was pretending to be his father. All he cared about was the golden brown and juicily dripping flesh of the carved bird on the plate before him.
A cloth napkin was folded into the shape of a swan beside the plate. Zeke ignored it and reached for the bird’s drumstick.
Minnericht reached for a fork, but he did not critique the boy’s dining style. Instead he said, “Your mother should have fed you better. I realize that times are difficult in the Outskirts, but really. A growing boy needs to eat.”
“She feeds me,” he said around a mouthful of meat. And then something about Minnericht’s phrasing stuck in his teeth like a tiny bone from a bird’s wing. He was about to ask for clarification when Minnericht did something remarkable.
He removed his mask.
It took a moment, and it looked like a complicated procedure—one that involved a small host of buckles and latches. But when the last loop was unfastened and the heavy steel contraption was set aside, the doctor had a human face after all.
It was not a handsome face, and it was not a whole face. Skin bubbled up in a gruesome scar as big as a handprint from the man’s ear to his upper lip, sealing his right nostril shut and tugging at the muscles around his mouth. One of his eyes had difficulty opening and closing because the ruined skin verged on its lid.
Zeke tried not to stare, but he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t stop eating, either. His stomach had taken over and now controlled his face and hands, and he couldn’t imagine setting the chicken aside.
“You may as well look,” Minnericht said. “And you may as well be flattered. I only feel safe going barefaced in two rooms, this dining room and my own private quarters. I could count on one hand the number of people who know what I look like beneath the mask.”
“Thanks,” Zeke said, and he almost ended the word with a question mark because he didn’t know whether to be flattered or concerned. Then he lied, “It’s not that bad. I’ve seen worse in the Outskirts, people who’ve been burned by the Blight.”
“This isn’t Blight-burn. It’s merely a burn from a fire, which is bad enough.” He stiffly opened his mouth and began to eat, taking smaller bites than the hungry boy, who would’ve stuffed the bird’s whole leg in his mouth if no one were watching him. The doctor’s face was partially paralyzed—Zeke could see that, when he watched the way the lips moved and the one working nostril failed to flare when it breathed.
And when the doctor talked without the mask to filter his words, Zeke detected the small struggle required for him to speak clearly.
“Son,” he said, and Zeke cringed but did not argue. “I’m afraid I have a bit of… potentially distressing news.”
Zeke chewed what he could and swallowed the rest before it could get away from him. “Like what?”
“It has come to my attention that your mother is looking for you, here in the city. A swarm of rotters overran the place where she was seeking information, and now there is no sign of her. Rotters are a perennial problem down here, inside the walls. I believe I mentioned that we’re having a bit of an issue with them right now, ourselves, so she could hardly be called careless for encountering them.”
The boy stopped eating. “Wait. What? What? Is she all right? She came inside here, looking for me?”
“I’m afraid so. I suppose we must give her points for persistence, if not for exceptional mothering skills. Have you never seen a napkin?”
“I’m not—where is she?”
The doctor seemed to reconsider his approach to the situation, and quickly reframed his explanation. “No one’s told me that she’s dead, and there’s no sign that she’s been bitten and turned. She’s simply… missing… in the wake of that particular event. Perhaps she’ll turn up yet.”
There wasn’t much left on his plate, but Zeke couldn’t see himself finishing it. “Are you going to go look for her?” he asked, but he couldn’t decide what he wanted the answer to be, so he did not press the matter when Minnericht took a few extra seconds to respond.
“I have men watching for her, yes,” he said.
Zeke didn’t like the forced caution he heard, and he didn’t like the tone Minnericht used. “What’s that supposed to mean?” His voice climbed higher and louder as he said the rest. “Hey, I know she’s not a perfect mother, but I ain’t no perfect kid, either, and we’ve done all right by each other so far. If she’s down here, and she’s in trouble, I’ve got to help her out! I’ve got to… I’ve got to get out of here, and go find her!”
“Absolutely not.” Minnericht said it with authority, but his body language had frozen, as if he were not certain how he ought to proceed. “You’ll do no such thing.”
“Says who? Says you?”
“It is not safe beyond this station. Surely you’ve noticed that by now, Ezekiel.”
“But she’s my mother, and this is all my fault, and—”
Minnericht broke his stillness and stood, pushing his chair back and letting his napkin tumble to the floor. “All your fault though this may be, I am your father, and you will stay here until I say it’s safe for you to leave!”
“Not going to keep you here? Son, you are mistaken.”
“No, you’re not my father. I think you’re a liar. Though I don’t know why you’d want anybody to think you’re Leviticus Blue anyway, since everybody hates him.” Zeke leaped up out of his chair and almost planted his hand in his plate in his hurry to back away. “You talk about my mother like you knew her, but you didn’t. You don’t even know her name, I bet.”
Minnericht reached for his mask and began to wrestle it back onto his head. He donned it like armor, like it would bolster him against these verbal attacks. “Don’t be ridiculous. Her name was Briar Wilkes when I married her, and Briar Blue afterwards.”
“Everybody knows that. Tell me her middle name,” Zeke demanded triumphantly. “I bet you don’t know it!”
“What does that have to do with anything? Your mother and I—it was a long time ago. Longer almost than you’ve been alive!”
“Oh, great excuse there, Doctor,” Zeke said, and all the tears he was holding back were distilled into sarcasm. “What color are her eyes?”
“Stop it. Stop this, or I’ll stop it.”
“You don’t know her. You never knew her, and you don’t know me, either.”
The helmet finally snapped into place again, even though the doctor had barely eaten. “I don’t know her? Dear boy, I know her better than you do. I know secrets she’s never shared with you—”
“I don’t care,” Zeke swore. It squeezed out more desperate-sounding than he wished. “I just need to go and find her.”
“I told you, I have men looking for her. This is my city!” he added with a jolt of fervor. “It’s mine, and if she’s inside it—”
Zeke cut him off. “Then she’s yours too?”
Somewhat to his surprise, Minnericht didn’t contradict him. Instead he said coldly, “Yes. Just like you.”
“I’m not staying.”
“You don’t have a choice. Or, rather, you do, but it’s not a very good one. You can stay here and live comfortably while others seek your wayward mother, or you can go up topside without a mask and suffocate, or turn, or die in some other horrible manner. That’s all. You’ll find no other options available to you right now, so you may as well return to your room and make yourself comfortable.”
“No way. I’m finding a way out of here.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he spit. “I’m offering you everything she’s denied you for your whole life. I’m offering you a legacy. Be my son and you’ll find that it’s a powerful position, regardless of old prejudices or rumors, or misunderstandings between me and this city.”
Zeke was thinking fast, but he wasn’t thinking much. He needed a mask; he knew that much. Without a mask he was screwed and doomed—Minnericht was right about that. “I don’t want…” he started to say, but didn’t know where to finish the thought. He tried it again, with less passion and more of the blankness he saw in the doctor’s mask. “I don’t want to stay in my room.”
Minnericht sensed a winning compromise, so he calmed. “You can’t go topside.”
“Yeah,” he conceded. “I get that. But I want to know where my mother is.”
“No less than I do, I assure you. If I make you a promise, will you behave like a civilized young man?”
“Very well, I’ll take my chances. I promise that if we find your mother, we’ll bring her here unharmed and you’ll be free to see her—and then you’ll both be free to go, if you like. Does that sound fair?”
But that was the problem, really. It sounded too fair. “What’s the catch?”
“There is no catch, son. Or if there is, it will come from your mother. If she cares for you as much as she claims, she’ll encourage you to stay. You’re a bright boy, and I think that together we could learn much from one another. I can keep you in a much finer lifestyle than she can provide, and for that matter—”
“Oh, I get it. You’re going to pay her to go away.”
“Don’t be crass.”
“That’s the point of it, ain’t it?” Zeke asked, not even angry anymore. He was surprised, and disappointed, and confused. But he’d gotten a promise, and whether or not it was kept or broken, it was a place to begin. “And I don’t care. You two can work it out between yourselves. I don’t care. All I want is to know she’s all right.”
“Then we can work together, see? I’ll find her and bring her here. We can iron out the details later. But for now, I think that this first attempt at a family dinner… Let us conclude it,” he said, looking past Zeke at a man who was standing in the doorway.
It was the same black man with the milky eye. He bucked his chin up as if he wanted Dr. Minnericht’s attention.
“I want a mask,” Zeke said before the moment fully passed and he lost the doctor’s attention.
“You can’t have a mask.”
“You’re asking me to trust you. How am I supposed to do that if you won’t trust me back, just a little?” Zeke pleaded.
“You are smart. I’m glad to see evidence of it; But the only reason you’ll need a mask is to leave the grounds, and I am not yet prepared to take your word that you’ll remain here of your own volition. So I’m afraid I’ll have to refuse your eminently reasonable request.”
“What’s that mean?” Zeke asked, thrown by the big words and getting mad about them.
“It means no. You can’t have a mask. But it also means you don’t need to stay in your room. Roam wherever you like. I know where your boundaries are, and believe me when I say this: Within the confines of my kingdom, there’s nowhere that I can’t find you. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” he said with a sulk and a slouch.
“Yaozu will… Damn it all to hell, Lester, where’s Yaozu?”
“I couldn’t say, sir,” Lester replied, which did not mean that he did not know—only that he declined to say anything in front of Zeke.
“Fine. That’s just wonderful. He’s off doing… I don’t care. You. Come with me,” he said to Lester. “You,” he said to Zeke. “Make yourself at home. Explore the grounds. Do as you like, but I’d recommend that you stay close to the core, here on this floor. When I find your mother, I’ll bring her to you. No matter what you think of me or what you believe, you can rest assured that even should you somehow make it to the topside and mount your own search, I’ll find her first. Unless you want to be left out and lost when I locate her, you’ll stay close to home.”
“Not ‘home,’ ” Zeke echoed with displeasure. “I said I understood, all right?”
“Good,” Minnericht said. It was less a positive declaration than a dismissal, but it was the doctor who flounced out of the room, almost dragging Lester behind him.
When they both were gone, and Zeke had the dining area to himself, he paced back and forth and then returned to his plate—though he did not sit down. He needed to think, and thinking was easier to do on a full stomach and in motion, so he carried the chicken with him. He gnawed it until there wasn’t a scrap of flesh left on the small bones; then he turned to the food that Minnericht had left behind on his plate.
After cleaning that plate too, and wondering briefly where the kitchen might be, Zeke let out a mighty belch and thought some more about gas masks.
Dr. Minnericht—whom Zeke refused to think of as his father—must keep some down there someplace. Clearly the doctor’s own was a custom model, made for him and no one else, but Zeke had seen several people down below. There was Yaozu, for starters, and the one-eyed black man. And with all those other rooms, locked or unlocked, there must be other people who manned the facilities. Upstairs Zeke could hear footsteps—heavy ones, like men in boots. Sometimes they walked as if on a guard’s dull circuit, and sometimes they ran in groups.
Whoever these men were, they weren’t stuck down below. They came and went. They must have masks someplace, and if Zeke could find a big storage closet or a room where such devices were stashed, then he wasn’t above stealing one.
If he could find one.
But after wandering around for a while, he could immediately locate neither a secret stash of gas masks to pilfer nor any other people. The underside of the train station was a ghost town except for the intermittent background noise of distant feet, conversations barely beyond earshot, and pipes in the walls that hissed and strained to accommodate water or warming steam.
Surely someone, somewhere tended the guest rooms; and certainly someone must have cooked, and must be coming back to clean up later—or so Zeke assured himself as he wandered the levels that had been deemed acceptable by his host.
In time, he successfully followed his nose to the galley; and from the cupboards he scavenged wax-paper packets of jerky, a pair of gleaming red apples, and some dried cherries that tasted as sweet as candy when he gnawed them. He couldn’t find the source of the fresh food that had been served at dinner, but Zeke was pleased with his loot. He hauled it back to his room for a later meal, or a midnight snack.
He hadn’t found what he’d meant to find, but his need to swipe and hoard something had been appeased for now. He went back to his room, sat on the edge of the overstuffed bed, and fretted idly about what would come next, the roasted chicken warm and heavy in his stomach. The weight of the meal pinned him onto the blankets and lured him into deeper and deeper comfort. It coaxed him back under the sheets, and though he’d only meant to close his eyes for a few moments, he did not awaken again until morning.