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Keeper of the Lost Cities, Page 10

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  “Kelpie dung,” Alden explained. “Takes the sting out of most bites.”

  She hoped she wouldn’t have to touch any dung while living there.

  Grady closed the stinky jar and wiped his hands on a cloth the gnome handed him. “I think you were right, Sophie. She seems more relaxed now. You must be good with animals.”

  “I can be—with normal animals at least.” She stole another look at the gigantic feathery lizard. Verdi was still watching her, and maybe she was crazy, but she could swear she was trying to thank her.

  “Well, come on, Edaline’s probably waiting.” Grady’s voice sounded wary, and his steps were almost as reluctant as Sophie’s as he led them to a house overlooking the ocean. It was small compared to Alden and Della’s palatial estate but a mansion by human standards. The house was taller than it was wide, with golden columns breaking up the etched glass walls, and a glittering cupola rose from the center of the roof.

  There was no fancy entryway like Everglen’s, just a huge room with clear walls overlooking the ocean and scattered furniture breaking up the space. A wide central stairway curved to the upper floors, and a chandelier of intricately braided crystals cascaded from the domed ceiling. It was simple but elegant, and very, very clean. So clean it didn’t look lived in.

  Edaline swept into the room in a pale blue dress made of wispy fabric that floated around her as she moved. She had soft pink cheeks, wide turquoise eyes, and amber hair that fell past her shoulders in soft curls. Aside from Della, she was the most beautiful woman Sophie had seen—except for the purple shadows under her eyes. Sophie’s human mom had similar dark circles sometimes, but only when she was stressed.

  She wondered what Edaline was stressed about. She hoped it wasn’t the idea of having her live with them.

  Edaline frowned when she saw Grady. “You’re covered in dinosaur fluff! I’m sorry, I told him to be presentable,” she told Alden.

  Alden laughed. “I’ve yet to see someone ride a T. rex without picking up a few feathers.”

  “You’ve never seen Edaline in action,” Grady corrected with a smile.

  Sophie tried to imagine someone so delicate playing rodeo cowboy with a dinosaur. Nope, she couldn’t picture it.

  “I’m going to wash up,” Grady said, dashing up the staircase.

  Edaline nodded. Then she took a deep breath and turned to Sophie. “Welcome to our home.” Her shaky voice sounded more nervous than Sophie felt, which actually made Sophie feel better. At least Edaline thought this process was scary too.

  “Thank you for having me.” She didn’t know what else to say.

  Edaline smiled, but sadness lingered in her eyes. “I hope you can stay for tea,” she told Alden. “There’s mallowmelt.”

  Alden’s face lit up. “If you insist.”

  Mallowmelt turned out to be a gooey cake that tasted like fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies soaked in ice cream and covered in frosting and butterscotch. It melted on her tongue and was, hands down, the best thing Sophie had ever tasted. She giggled as Alden helped himself to three pieces. Grady joined them a few minutes later—his hair still dripping from a hasty shower—and helped himself to four slices.

  Tea was served in a nook in the kitchen, and even though Sophie could see orange, feathery dinosaurs grazing outside in one of the pastures, it reminded her a little of home. Maybe it was the pastel linens on the table, or the intricate flowers painted on the china—but for the first time all day she didn’t feel the empty, homesick ache she’d woken up with.

  “Would you like some lushberry juice?” Edaline offered Sophie.

  “Um, sure.”

  Edaline snapped her fingers. There was a tiny pop and a flash of light, and a bright green bottle appeared on the table.

  Sophie scooted back like the bottle was possessed.

  Grady laughed. “Guess you’ve never seen a Conjurer in action before.”

  “How?” she asked when her mouth was able to form words again.

  Edaline smiled for real this time, and it lit up her whole face. “If I know where something is, I can bring it here with my mind. It’s kind of like teleporting, but with objects.”

  That was pretty much the coolest ability ever. “What can you do?” Sophie asked Grady.

  His smile faded. “Nothing nearly as fun, trust me.”

  She waited for him to elaborate, but he looked away.

  Alden rose. “I, unfortunately, must get going.” He dug a scraggly paper out of his pocket and handed it to Edaline. “Elwin wants her to take these medicines for the next few weeks. You should be able to find them at Slurps and Burps.”

  All the color faded from Edaline’s face. “I guess I’ll take her tomorrow. Is there anything else she needs?”

  “Della took care of the rest. You know how she is when it comes to shopping.”

  “I do. I made the mistake of letting her help me shop for a gift for . . . a friend’s daughter one time. Four hours later I had a whole new wardrobe and still no gift.”

  Grady took Edaline’s hand and she turned away, staring out the window.

  Sophie’s heart ached for them. She knew their pain—she’d lost an entire family. Maybe that was why Alden put them together. They all knew what it was like to grieve. But she didn’t feel like talking about it, so she kept quiet.

  Alden fished a thin crystal square out of his pocket and handed it to Sophie. “This is an Imparter. It’ll allow you to communicate with anyone in our world. So if you need anything, or simply want to talk, say my name to the screen and you’ll reach me. Okay?”

  “Okay.” She strangled Ella as her heart pounded in her ears. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Grady and Edaline—but it would be weird to be alone with them. What would they talk about?

  Alden leaned closer, so he could whisper. “It’s going to be okay, Sophie. If you need anything—anytime—I’m here. Use the Imparter.”

  She nodded.

  “Good.” He waved to Grady and Edaline, gave Sophie one more reassuring smile as he held up his pathfinder, and vanished in a flash of light.

  The silence he left behind was deafening.

  Grady snapped out of it first. He jumped to his feet and nudged Sophie. “Let’s show you your new room.”

  “THIS IS REALLY ALL MINE?” Her bedroom took up the entire third floor.

  Star-shaped crystals dangled from the ceiling on glittery cords, and blue and purple flowers weaved through the carpet, filling the room with their sweet scent. A giant canopy bed occupied the center of the room, and a huge closet and dressing area took up an entire wall. Bookshelves full of thick, brightly colored volumes filled the other walls. She even had her own bathroom, complete with a waterfall shower and a bathtub the size of a swimming pool.

  “I hope it’s okay,” Edaline said, biting her lip.

  Was she kidding?

  “It’s awesome,” Sophie said, feeling more excited about her new home already. She dropped her backpack off, but decided to keep Ella with her. It helped having something to hold.

  Half of the second floor was Grady and Edaline’s bedroom, and the other half was a long hall with three closed doors. Two were their personal offices. One they didn’t explain, but Sophie assumed it was Jolie’s room. They didn’t forbid her from going to that part of the house, but they didn’t give her a tour either, and with the way their voices strained as they spoke about it, she decided it would be best to stay away.

  After an awkward but delicious dinner of soupy green stuff that tasted like pizza, Grady and Edaline left Sophie alone to unpack—which turned out to be a good thing.

  Unpacking made everything real.

  She lived here now, in this strange, slightly too perfect world where everything she knew was wrong and all she had to show for the past twelve years of her life was a backpack stuffed with wrinkled clothes she’d never wear, a
n iPod she couldn’t charge, and a scrapbook full of memories that had been erased from everyone except her.

  At least she knew her family wasn’t missing her the way she missed them. Their new life—wherever it was—would be better without her. Alden and Della would’ve made sure of it.

  Tears welled in her eyes as she put the last remnants of her human life away. Then she curled up on her bed with Ella and let herself have one last good cry.

  When her eyes finally dried, she promised herself she wouldn’t look back anymore.

  Grady and Edaline weren’t like her parents, and Havenfield wasn’t like her old house—but maybe that was better. Maybe it was easier if they were different. And maybe, with time, it would really feel like home.

  SIXTEEN

  SOPHIE WOKE TO AN AMAZING SUNRISE— pink, purple, and orange streaks blending the ocean and sky into mirror images. She enjoyed the view, but she would need to figure out a way to darken her glass walls. Sunrise was too early to be awake every day.

  Grady and Edaline were in the kitchen finishing up breakfast when she came downstairs. Sophie hovered in the doorway, not sure if she should interrupt.

  “Either you’re an early riser,” Grady said as he moved the scrolls he was reading to make room for her, “or you didn’t close the shades.”

  She sank into a chair next to him. “How do I do that?”

  “Just clap your hands twice.”

  “How about some breakfast?” Edaline asked. Her voice sounded tired, and the shadows around her eyes were so dark they looked like bruises. At Sophie’s nod she conjured up a bowl of orange glop and a spoon. Each bite tasted like warm, buttery banana bread, and Sophie was tempted to ask for seconds, but she didn’t want to impose.

  She didn’t know how to talk to them, so she stared at Grady’s scrolls. The sloppy handwriting was impossible to read upside down, but she did notice a symbol in the corner: a hooked bird’s neck, with the beak pointing down. The image tickled her mind, like she should know what it meant, but she couldn’t find the memory it belonged to.

  Grady caught her looking and rolled them up. “Boring stuff from a long time ago.” He said it with a smile, but it was obvious he didn’t want her seeing the scrolls, which only made her more curious. Especially when she spotted a line of runes running along the bottom, and this time they made sense.

  “‘Project Moonlark,’” she blurted, before she could think it through.

  “You can read that?” Grady asked.

  Sophie nodded, scooting back a little when she saw the look in his eyes. Anger, confusion—and fear. “Usually I can’t, but this time I could. What’s Project Moonlark?” she whispered.

  Grady’s mouth tightened. “Nothing you need to know about.”

  But Alden had said the word she used to babble as a baby might mean “moonlark.” That couldn’t be a coincidence. She tugged out an eyelash.

  Grady ran a hand across his face and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just, these are extremely classified documents, and those are cipher runes. No one is supposed to be able to read them unless they’ve been taught the key.”

  She swallowed, trying to get enough moisture on her tongue to make it work. “Why can I read it, then?”

  “I have no idea.” He shared a look with Edaline. “Maybe the way humans taught you to read, or write, made your mind see things a little different.”

  That was the same excuse Alden had given for why she couldn’t read normal runes. It wasn’t particularly believable, but she couldn’t think of anything better. She was pretty sure she’d remember being taught to read cipher runes.

  “If you’re ready to go, we should get those medicines Elwin prescribed,” Edaline interrupted, standing. Each word was drawn out, like the whole sentence was one long sigh, which didn’t exactly make Sophie eager to go. But she couldn’t really say no, so she rose, fidgeting with the ruffles on the purple dress she was wearing. It was the simplest dress Della bought her, but she still felt ridiculous. Did the elves have something against jeans?

  Grady nodded. “Say hi to Kesler for me.”

  Edaline groaned. “This is going to be interesting.”

  Sophie glanced at Grady, hoping he wasn’t mad about the scrolls. He gave her a small smile. Then Edaline took her hand, and they glittered away.

  THEY LEAPED TO AN ISLAND called Mysterium. Small, identical buildings lined the narrow streets like they’d been cut from a mold. Street vendors filled the air with the scent of spices and sweets, and conversation buzzed around the crowded sidewalks. Sophie’s and Edaline’s gowns stood out among the simple tunics and pants of the other elves.

  “Hey, how come they don’t have to dress up?” Sophie complained.

  “Mysterium is a working-class city.”

  “Oh. But wait—doesn’t everyone get the same amount of money in their birth fund?”

  Edaline nodded. “Money has nothing to do with social rank. Our world is ‘talent based.’ Those with simpler abilities work simpler jobs—and they dress correspondingly.”

  “Seems kind of unfair,” Sophie mumbled. “You can’t control how much talent you’re born with. Why should you live a lesser life?”

  “Their lives aren’t lesser. They have houses just as fine as Alden’s or ours. But when they come to work, they come to a different type of city. A city designed for their kind of work.” Edaline’s grip tightened on Sophie’s hand as several people waved at her.

  “You okay?” Sophie asked.

  “Yes, I’m just not used to being around so many people.” She kept her head down as she led Sophie through the busy village, avoiding the other elves they ran in to. Everyone seemed to recognize Edaline, though, and whispers followed them wherever they went.

  “Look, it’s Edaline Ruewen—can you believe it?”

  “I thought she never left the house.”

  “She doesn’t.”

  Edaline pretended not to notice, and they didn’t slow their pace until they reached the only building that was different: a store painted twenty different colors, with curved walls and a crooked roof—like it belonged in a nursery rhyme.

  SLURPS AND BURPS: YOUR MERRY APOTHECARY.

  The door belched as they entered.

  The store was a maze of shelves filled with colored bottles of liquids and pills. Edaline went straight to the back, to a laboratory complete with beakers bubbling over burners with rainbow-colored flames. A slender man in a long white lab coat hovered over the experiments with a skinny boy at his side—probably his son, since they both had the same tousled strawberry blond hair and periwinkle eyes.

  “I’ll be with you in two minutes,” he promised as he added a blob of orange slime to one of the test tubes. “Get ready to add the amarallitine, Dex.”

  The boy used a long pair of tongs to pick up a glowing yellow vial and hold it over the experiment from a safe distance. “Ready?”

  “Not yet.” He slipped on a pair of thick black glasses. “Okay. Now!”

  He jumped back as the boy poured in the contents of the vial. The beaker sparked and released an enormous plume of smoke, filling the room with the smell of dirty feet. Sophie fought off a gag and hoped the concoction wasn’t on Elwin’s list.

  The man pounded the boy’s back and removed his glasses. “First one we haven’t exploded all day. Edaline!” he exclaimed, finally looking up. “Is that really you?”

  “Hello, Kesler.”

  “‘Hello, Kesler,’” he repeated, with a convincing impersonation of her soft voice. “That’s all you have to say? Get over here and give me a hug!”

  Edaline moved across the room like sludge, but he wrapped her in a big bear hug anyway. “You look good, Eda—but what are you doing here? You never come to town.”

  “I know.” She handed him the crumpled scrap of paper. “Elwin said I need to
get these for Sophie.”

  Kesler scanned the sheet for half a second before his head snapped up. “Sophie?” His eyes found where Sophie was standing and his jaw fell slack. “Did . . . . miss something?”

  “Yes.” Edaline took a deep breath. “Sophie lives with us now.”

  Kesler’s eyes darted between Sophie and Edaline, like he couldn’t decide who was more fascinating. “Since when?”

  “Since yesterday—it’s a long story.” She gestured for Sophie to join them. “Sophie, this is my brother-in-law, Kesler, and my nephew Dex.”

  “Hi,” Sophie mumbled, too nervous to make eye contact, especially since these were Edaline’s family. She could practically feel their stares.

  “Sophie will be starting at Foxfire on Monday,” Edaline explained.

  “Cool,” Dex exclaimed. “What level will you be?”

  “Level Two.”

  “Me too! Do you know your schedule al—whoa!” He leaned close to her face and pointed to her eyes. “How’d you do that? I turn mine red sometimes—totally freaks everyone out—but I’ve never seen brown before. I like it.”

  She could feel her cheeks blush. “Actually, I just have brown eyes.”

  “Really? Excellent. Do you see them, Dad?”

  “I do.” Kesler studied her like she was one of his experiments. “Where exactly are you from, Sophie?”

  “I . . . uh . . .” She wasn’t sure if she was allowed to tell the truth.

  “Sophie’s been living in the Forbidden Cities until a few days ago,” Edaline answered for her.

  Sophie cringed as Kesler asked, “What?” at the same time Dex shouted, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard! Was it awesome? I bet it was awesome. Hey, are you human? Is that why you have brown eyes?”

  “I’m not human. I was just raised by them.” The words came out, but they felt wrong on her tongue.

  “Dex, I think you’re making Sophie uncomfortable,” Edaline said, before he could ask another question.

  “Am I? Sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

  Sophie shrugged. “It’s okay. I know I’m strange.”