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Gauntlet: Chapter 6

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #007 back issue.

“This is so amazing,” Clio said for what felt like the hundredth time that day. She couldn’t help herself. To say that Clio liked August’s home was a vast understatement.

“It’s like some…I don’t know…medieval walled city in Italy.”

“It is,” August agreed with a hint of amusement. “You’ve been to Italy?”

Clio protested. “Oh, no–but it’s how I always imagined it, from what I’ve seen and heard.” She beamed at their surroundings.

The walled enclave really did seem like a hidden sanctuary. The miniature city within a city was a treasure hidden within the Gauntlet. She had to wonder how many layers there were in this place, and if she’d ever find the center.

August’s warm chuckle made her blush; his fingers linked with hers to draw her farther along the cobbled street. She found herself hoping, in sudden fussiness, that her palm wasn’t sweaty.

They started crossing a small footbridge over a running stream. Rows of stone houses were connected all around them, but each had its own pretty little doorstep and colorful door with an iron knocker. People obviously lived in them; some of the windows above the doors were open, with lines strung between the frames to hold fluttering sheets and assorted garments. She was curious about the people inside. She wondered if their tales were similar to hers.

She could see a clock tower in the distance. She’d heard it tolling when she’d first woken up that morning–groggy in the little building just inside the city walls–and then every hour while August had led her deeper into the city. He’d been sure to stop along the way to show her particular points of interest.

It was the library that had really won her over. Now, when she thought about it, that was when her initial attraction to August had begun to rapidly grow into a crush, and when a tiny ember began to glow in the back of her mind that perhaps–under certain circumstances–the Gauntlet might not be so unbearable after all.

How could she resist floor-to-ceiling shelves stuffed with leather-bound books, curving staircases, and heavy old desks with deep leather sofas that just invited her to curl up in them? Especially when they came with a handsome young man lounging on top, wearing a smile that held a hint of something intriguing?

August had had a hard time luring her away from that particular delight. He’d only succeeded by promising her another visit soon, a surprise at the end of their journey, and an actual hot meal. Her stomach had rumbled in a very embarrassing way in response.

She finally caught a glimpse of the heart of the little city. “So that’s where you live?” she asked.

“Yeah. I call it the town.” He gestured to a structure in the near distance. “I’m in the building right in the middle; you can’t see it from here, but it’s next to a few other buildings across from a small commons. Typical set up–tacky sculpture in the fountain, statue of someone no one knows, park benches. No massive pigeon gangs, though, so it’s safe to walk around without a hat.”

Clio giggled. “That’s good to know. I’m sure it’s very nice.” She took another sweeping glance at the quaint scenery and sighed. “I wish I could paint this.”

“You paint?” August’s eyebrows rose in curiosity.

“No,” she admitted sheepishly. “I’m hopeless at drawing–even my stick figures are terrible. I just wish I could.”

August chuckled.

“I can’t carry a tune, either, just so you know.”

That only made him laugh more. “You’re cute,” he drawled.

Clio made a face. “By cute, you mean I’m a dork.”

“I would never say that!” August exclaimed in gallant denial. “You strike me as the opposite of a dork, actually.”

August lifted the hand he still held and made an exaggerated bow. He placed a light kiss on her knuckles as she laughed, a little embarrassed.

“Are you ready to see the heart of our humble little home?”

“I can’t wait.”

He tugged her hand as she stepped off the little bridge, and again he turned his grasp into a loosely entwined grip as they walked along. Clio felt her cheeks warm, even though she wasn’t sure he meant anything by it.

August glanced over his shoulder. “I wonder if I could convince Sunshine to hold an umbrella over our heads for shade.” He looked up at the cloudless sky. “It’s ridiculously hot out here.”

Clio had come to find August’s lurking hulk of a watchdog charming, in a bizarre way. It gave August an exciting air that she wasn’t immune to.

“Shh,” she whispered. “I don’t think he’d enjoy that.”

August pursed his lips in thought. “I guess I could just ask him to walk right behind us. His looming shadow should be enough.”

“You’re awful,” Clio said lightly, stifling another giggle. “But he’d probably do it. He obviously worships the ground you walk on.” She hesitated. “Can you… Can you tell me more about what they did to him, and how you…helped him?”

August was silent a moment, and Clio began to worry that she’d offended him by asking something too personal. But when she began to apologize, August flashed her a reassuring smile.

“I’ll tell you all about it soon,” he promised, looking apologetic himself. “It’s just that now isn’t the right–”

Clio’s head bobbed up and down. “Sure–I get it.” She cast a quick look back at Sunshine. “It was rude of me to ask, anyway. But I…”

“You want to understand. Who wouldn’t? I’m planning to show you everything I’ve learned.” He gave her hand a quick squeeze. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, okay?”

It was uncomfortable having her thoughts so easily read, but his assurances did make her feel better. She responded with an uncertain smile.

“It’s okay. I mean, I’d understand if you didn’t trust me–but I’m glad you do.” She squinted at the clock, trying to calculate the distance at a brisk walk. “We’re close, right? I’m starving.”

August smiled again, and the tension melted out of the moment. Clio reminded herself to tread carefully with her questions.

Fifteen minutes later, they reached a small court. The surroundings and buildings were somewhat stately, despite their small scale and picturesque facade.

August was greeted by almost everyone they encountered. Clio couldn’t help but notice their enthusiasm and, well, deference. She caught August glancing at her when one particularly fawning young man went on and on about some improvement August had recently made.

She bit her lip to keep from laughing; August kept sending surreptitious looks of exasperation her way. Despite that, he was unfailingly friendly to everyone.

“It’s like you’re the king,” she commented when they had a moment alone again.

August smiled wryly. “You’re really gonna make fun of me once I change my clothes.”

“Why?”

“Let’s just say that some of my less loyal subjects,” he raised his eyebrow dramatically, “accuse me of being a little…flashy with my wardrobe.”

“Clothing fit for a king? Should I call you Your Majesty?” Clio teased.

“Visiting dignitaries are allowed a first-name basis,” August drawled.

“I’m a dignitary?”

“Amazon queen, obviously.”

Clio laughed out loud. “No, that would be my friend Britt.” Her smile faded a little.

August seemed to notice. He placed a hand behind her back and nudged her toward a new corridor. “Let’s get you settled, and then you can tell me more about Britt.”

The night before, Clio had gratefully collapsed on the first available horizontal surface she’d been offered in the guardhouse by the wall. But this building–where August lived–seemed much more accommodating. They passed common areas, like a kitchen and grand dining room, as well as a small number of private apartments. He didn’t say, but Clio got the impression they were reserved for a core group of his trusted friends.

“And finally…” August drew out the moment with a fancy flourish of his wrist. She preceded him down the hall to a door with an old-fashioned brass knob. Sunshine silently followed several paces behind them, as he’d done all day.

“This is your room. I hope you like it. Mine isn’t far.” August’s eyes danced in anticipation.

Clio looked at him in surprise. “I’m going to stay here?”

“Of course. What, did you think you’d be bunking in the guardhouse from last night?” August scoffed. “It’s barely better than a broom closet.”

“It’s way better than a broom closet. I speak from experience.” Her mouth curved in a wry grin. “It was like heaven after how I’ve been sleeping lately.”

“We’ll teach you to expect better around here.” August flashed a smile that made her stomach flip-flop. “Go on. Take a look.”

Clio’s hand flew to her mouth when she opened the door. The room was as charming as the modestly named “town”–a huge window looked out over a manicured garden, right beside a plush, oversized bed that was so high it had a wooden stepping stool. A beautiful desk with a lovely inlay stood in one corner, along with a tall bookshelf filled with an array of books–which immediately filled her with greedy desire.

Now she knew why August had steadfastly refused to let her take any books from the library, no matter how she begged. For all that the Gauntlet could be terrifying, it could also be deathly boring; she was starved for any form of entertainment. She wanted to consume every last book on that shelf, no matter what kind of books they were.

Again, that faint ember flared a little brighter in the back of her thoughts–a seductive, uneasy pull. She still wanted to get out. She needed to find Britt. But…it was so nice to finally find something good and, on a more superficial level, beautiful. Her gaze flicked to August and then back to her room.

Overwhelmed, she joked, “What? No television?”

August laughed. “Sorry, but there’s something you might like even better. Especially after I’ve dragged you around town all day.”

“No–it was really nice! I loved seeing everything, and it’s really beautiful. I think it’s really amazing that you did all this–that you found it and made it better, and brought people here and helped them instead of…well, taking advantage of them or…or giving up. I really admire that.”

August smiled at her, obviously pleased. Clio blushed.

She was gushing now. How many times had she used the word really?

“Thank you.” His smile softened, as if he’d noticed her embarrassment. “I’m glad you like it here in our little town.”

“You mean heaven,” Clio corrected.

August laughed again. “No angels here.”

You could’ve fooled me.

The thought threatened to make Clio blush again, so she stepped forward and ran her hand along the bed’s covering.

“I can see why people call this a sanctuary.” The weight of everything that had happened seemed to settle on her shoulders; they slumped unconsciously. She curled her hand around one of the bedposts and leaned against it.

“You’re safe here, Clio.” The unexpected touch on her shoulder made Clio start, but when she looked at August, the concern in his eyes seemed…honest. She relaxed against the post, resting her temple against the smooth wood.

“Do we all get a bodyguard?” she teased, tilting her eyes toward Sunshine’s shadow in the doorway.

“Not unless one adopts you, like Sunshine did me. But you won’t need one here–unless someone tries to do you in for your private bathroom.” A sly grin stole over his features, and he nodded toward the door she’d barely noticed before.

Clio’s eyes grew wide, and she immediately ran to the door and threw it open. Moist, hot air washed over her, and she actually squealed when she saw an enormous tub, filled to the brim with hot water and bubbles.

“Oh…oh my God.”

August shrugged. “I thought you’d like it.”

“This is for me? Really?” A giddy laugh bubbled up her throat. “Tell me I’m not still hallucinating!”

“It’s real–I promise.”

The seriousness in August’s voice brought a strange silence between them. It wasn’t exactly uncomfortable, but Clio still felt her face heat.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d bathed. People could probably smell her coming from miles away. She brushed hair away from her face self-consciously.

“It’s been so long, my grime has grime. I must look awful.”

“You look very pretty, Clio.” She glanced up to find August’s face closer than before. Her stomach fluttered. “A little dirt can’t hide that.”

Suddenly at a loss for words, Clio gave a flustered, breathless laugh. August leaned closer, and he reached up to gently tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Her heart began to pound frantically.

He was going to kiss her. She was sure of it.

Proceed to Chapter 6, page 2–>