Ava recovers first. “You–you know what we’re doing, right?”
Lydia nods, leading the group into the garden proper. Now that they’re closer Clea recognises the sleep smudged eyes of two people recently dragged from their bed in Fionn and Gabrielle. It’s then she realises.
“You had a vision,” Clea says, and Lydia grins at her.
“Just so I have this straight,” Fionn says. “I got dragged out of bed to plan a clandestine mission to the borough that almost kidnapped us yesterday?”
Ava stops at Clea’s hand on her arm, even as it seems to cost her to do it.
Clea takes a deep breath. “We’re doing this,” she says, and even Ava looks at her in surprise. “Are you going to report us?”
Gabrielle chews on her lip but remains silent, looking to Fionn. It’s not a surprise. They’re so frequently on mission they’re more siblings than fellow princesses. Where Fionn goes, Gabrielle usually follows.
Fionn seems to stew on their answer before turning their attention to Ava. “You said they asked for help. Are you sure?”
Ava straightens up, fire behind her eyes. “Positive.”
Fionn groans. “I’m gonna need coffee.”
The coffee is hot, bitter, and amazing. Fionn fairly groans around her first sip, the sound of it reverberating around Clea’s work shed loud enough to startle the seedling wolf flowers in the corner.
“How’re we going to pull this off, then?” Fionn asks, and all eyes turn to Lydia.
Lydia shrugs, cupping her own mug in front of her. “Don’t look at me, I only saw tonight’s meeting.”
“Great, so we’re definitely getting caught,” Fionn says and Clea can’t help it, she snorts. It earns her a smirk from Fionn as Ava rolls her eyes.
“We won’t get caught,” Ava says. “We just need to be smart about this.”
“We’ll need a rail car,” Clea says, Fionn quickly translating for Gabrielle. “And we need enough jewel of strait to establish a viable crop.”
“Will it even grow out there?” Gabrielle asks. “It seemed . . . hot.”
“They have a hydroponic setup in their greenhouses,” Clea explains. “It will take.”
It would have to take. Or all this risk will have been for naught.
“We’ll need Linh,” Ava says, turning now to Fionn. “She practically runs the rail – could she get us a car?”
Fionn shrugs. “How the hell should I know?”
The statement earns her a look from every princess around the table. It’s an open secret that Linh and Fionn are romantically involved. It’s only slightly less known that Linh regularly uses her influence over the rail infrastructure to orchestrate clandestine meetings between the two.
Fionn sighs under the collective judgement and rolls their eyes. “Fine. Yes. We can get a car.”
“How long will it take to get the seedlings ready?” Ava says, turning her attention now to Clea.
“Seeds,” Clea corrects. “They’ll be easier to transport. And I can establish them well enough once I’m there.”
Ava shakes her head. “You don’t have to-”
Clea cuts Ava off with a hand on her arm. She can’t deny that the thought of sneaking out of the castle makes her belly clench uncomfortably. But she also can’t deny that she’s right. Seeds will be easier to smuggle and they’ll be able to transport more of them to boot.
“I can do this,” she says, reassuring herself as much as Ava. “We just need the car.”
And luck. A whole lot of luck.
It takes them two days of planning. Clea concentrates on harvesting as many seeds as she can get away with given the Castle’s watch over her inventory. Gabrielle and Ava help her smuggle them down to the rail hidden among another shipment bound for West End while Fionn works with Linh securing them a rail car.
By the time the night of the trip rolls around, Clea is a highly strung mess of nerves. Everything has gone perfectly. She doesn’t know whether to feel relief or dread – surely something has to go wrong at some point.
“You look like a cat dreading a bath,” Ava signs as they make their way through the castle.
It’s past curfew which means they’ll do well not to be caught out of bed let alone caught doing what they’re about to do. Clea hunches her shoulders. “I’m fine.”
“Hey,” Ava stops, turning Clea to face her. “You don’t need to come – we have the seeds-”
Clea shakes her head. “I need to establish the crop,” she says. “Without me they’ll wait months for a viable harvest.”
Ava raises her hands again and Clea forstalls her. “I’m okay,” she says. “I promise. Just—” Petrified. “Nervous.”
Ava glances around before opting to pull Clea with her behind a dusty tapestry. It’s one of Clea’s favourite, actually – depicting the succession of the Dragon Queen following the passing of the last human Queen before her. Behind the tapestry is an alcove, one that Clea and Ava have made extensive use of while dodging their chores as children.
It’s dark and warm, almost too dark to make out Ava’s hands as she signs. “I know you didn’t want to do this,” she says.
Clea shakes her head but is forstalled as Ava continues. “I just— I wanted to say thank you for doing it anyway.”
The shadows are almost too dark to see Ava’s features but Clea knows them by heart anyway, can picture the dark of her eyes and the pink of her lip. She knows Ava. She knows.
“I trust you,” Clea says, smiling gently. “And I— We’re doing the right thing.”
They are. They have to be.
The rail car, this time, is a more subdued affair. Only Clea, Ava, Fionn, and Gabrielle have opted to make the trip, leaving Lydia at the castle to cover for them should their absence be noticed. Ava and Gabrielle quickly fall asleep, Ava’s head on Clea’s lap, and Clea knows she should follow suit. It’s the only rest they’ll get tonight if all goes to plan, but she can’t seem to shut her eyes.
At least she’s in good company. Fionn across from her seems in much the same boat, gazing sightlessly through the armoured windows at the passing lights.
It takes a moment and a gentle kick to the shin to get Fionn’s attention – time for Clea to second-guess her question but in the end, she asks anyway. “Why did you agree to this?”
She half expects an eye roll – it’s Fionn’s signature move. Instead, Fionn looks at her consideringly for a long moment before speaking.
“Did you know I was at Holland three days before it fell?” Fionn says.
Clea can’t help her sharp breath. Holland was the last borough to fall following three consecutive crop failings and two major wall breaches. It’d been . . . messy, mostly due to the size of the population that was rehomed. Families had been torn apart, people had died on the streets of what was supposed to be their new home. Their new hope.
“I can’t imagine what that would have been like,” Clea says. And she can’t, she realises all too suddenly. Coomera was her first mission – her first time outside the walls of the castle since arriving as a child. For all she knows about the intricacies of crop cycles, she’s woefully lacking when it comes to life on the ground in the outer boroughs.
“We could have done more,” Fionn says, and there’s a thread of steel in their voice that hadn’t been there before. “We should have done more.”
Mere days ago Clea might have argued that point. The Castle does it’s best, she would have said. Now, as she looks at Fionn’s hard expression, she can’t bring herself to say the words. The Castle does it’s best; she does her best. But do they really?
Does she really?
It’s the dead of night by the time the rail rolls to a halt at the Coomera main station. Where their last visit met them with dry, oppressive heat, with the night has come the sort of cold that sinks into Clea’s bones. She’s suddenly twice as grateful to have Fionn by her side – a wall of heat as they use their power to light the way ahead.
This part of the plan is the most tenuous. Lydia’s vision showed her nothing of Coomera itself and they weren’t willing to risk sending word ahead, for fear it got back to the castle. Their actions now are blind. No contact to meet. No one who knows the risk they’ve taken coming.
And even with everything, Clea can’t help remembering Gus’s words: a hostile borough.
Ava leads the way to the greenhouses – Alma lives and works on-site and they’ve all agreed she’s their best bet for first contact. Clea just hopes their instincts are right.
Fionn knocks as Ava loops one arm through Clea’s, pulling her tight against her side, and Clea’s never been so grateful for her support.
The Alma that opens the door is sleep-smudged and obviously grumpy at being called from her bed, but it takes only a split second for her to recognise them. Her mouth drops open but despite her shock, she’s quick to usher them into the warmth of her small cottage.
“What are you- How did you-”
Ava steps forward, and Clea immediately misses her warmth despite herself. “We’ve brought jewel of strait,” Ava says.
Alma is a switched-on woman. Clea supposes you’d have to be to keep a borough’s crops afloat through the sort of crisis Coomera is facing. As she looks at the small group of them, rugged against the cold and with no escort, it takes her no time at all to understand.
“The Castle didn’t send you,” she says.
“We sent us,” Ava says, and her voice is threaded with the same determination that’s coloured her plans for their rebellion. “We want to help.”
Alma pauses and for a tense moment Clea wonders if they’ve made a mistake. That Alma will sound the guard, have them brought back to the castle in shame. Then she smiles.
“Show me what you’ve brought.”
Alma wakes what seems like half the town to Clea’s frayed nerves – the more people that know they’re there, the higher the chance of getting caught. But she can’t fault the woman’s logic. There’s a substantial amount of seeds to shift and the fewer trips they do the better.
Clea’s job is to establish the seedlings in the greenhouse. Jewel of strait is sensitive to frost and won’t handle Coomera’s cold nights if planted outside but Alma has been nothing but industrious in her greenhouses. As Clea takes in the hydroponic setup, she can’t help but be impressed. And . . . actually . . .
Clea frowns, taking in the scope of the hydroponic garden. How . . .
“I see you’ve noticed the set up,” a voice says behind her.
Clea jumps and turns to find Dynah putting down a box of seeds. She’s rugged up against the cold in multiple layers of thick wool – she looks almost . . . cozy. It should serve to soften her but Clea still can’t seem to make herself relax around the woman.
“I- I’m surprised by its size,” she says, gesturing to the hydroponic setup. It stretches the whole of the western wall of the greenhouse – a formidable setup that shouldn’t be possible given the Castle’s strict water rationing.
Dynah smiles, like Clea’s passed some sort of test. “I told you there were other ways for Coomera to source what they need.”
But that- “You’re a smuggler!” Clea exclaims.
Dynah laughs. “Takes one to know one?”
Clea stops. Blinks. Because . . . she’s not wrong? Oh Dragon, she’s not wrong. Whatever her face is doing, Dynah takes pity on her.
“We’re helping people,” Dynah says and she sounds so sure Clea can’t help but feel slightly better. “Just because it’s not Castle-sanctioned doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
Clea looks down at the rows of seeds ready to be established. “I’m just— I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says, immediately regretting airing the sentiment. To Dynah of all people. The woman is . . . vexing.
But Dynah doesn’t turn from her in disgust. Doesn’t scoff. Instead her dark eyes soften and she’s no less imposing but Clea’s shoulders ease under her kind scrutiny.
“I’ve found there are very few people who know what they’re doing at any one point,” Dynah says. “You just do the best you can and hope you make the right choices.”
Dynah gestures one gloved hand at the seeds. “This? This was the right choice.”
Dragon, Clea hopes so.
Everything goes perfectly until it doesn’t.
Clea’s magic flows true, establishing the seedlings ready for harvest within the next week. Only once she’s checked on each plant, pushing a little fortifying magic into each leaf does she allow Ava to lead her from the greenhouses. Gabrielle and Fionn are at the hospital, Gabrielle tasked with doing what she can for the sick of the town. Their route is short. Ought to be easy.
They don’t count on the guard.
Clea only just sees the cherry tip of a clove cigarette before Ava hisses, grabbing Clea’s hand to pull her into the dark of an alley between two dilapidated buildings. Dynah isn’t far behind them but it’s too late, the guard grunts and a muffled, “Hey there!” follows them into the darkness.
Footsteps approach at speed and Clea turns to run only to find there’s nowhere to go. Ava in her haste has trapped them in a blind alley. Clea’s heart is too loud in the dark of the night, hands shaking as Ava pulls her against the wall, trying in vain to blend into the rubble. If they’re lucky they’ll only be reprimanded. At worst . . .
Then Dynah turns and places one finger over her lips in the universal sign for quiet before she-
“What-” Ava hisses but it’s too late. Dynah has straightened and is walking to the mouth of the alley.
Clea holds her breath but it does nothing to steady her as Dynah reaches the mouth of the ally . . . and is met by the guard.
They’re too far away to hear what’s said. Too far to do anything but watch helplessly as Dynah’s shoulders bunch and then . . . relax. Because the guard is turning away. And Dynah is . . . coming back.
“What did you say?” Ava hisses in the darkness when Dynah rejoins them.
Dynah just grins. “Smuggler’s secret.”
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