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Gauntlet: Chapter 9

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #010 back issue.

Clio shook the cans of red and black spray paint, sending the balls inside rattling. The broad, unmarked wall presented an appealing canvas, and she pursed her lips and thought a moment before stepping forward and releasing the paint with broad sweeps of her arm. A satisfying hiss accompanied her efforts; she dropped one can and continued with the other. She finally stepped back and surveyed her handiwork with a smirk.

graffiti_smaller

The signature logo she’d made for him dripped a little red paint to the right of August’s name. Every leader needs a symbol to represent him, Clio had decided when she’d stumbled across the cache of paint cans. Fortunately for her and her limited artistic abilities, an asshole was exceedingly easy to render.

She’d spread it far and wide across his precious domain, thanks to the tunnels that spiraled off what she thought of as her tower. Chance was probably going to be pissed that she didn’t stay put like he’d insisted, but she was tired of following other people’s orders.

Besides, technically, she was still connected to the tower, since the hidden passages all led from it. Popping outside when she was absolutely sure it was safe was her risk to take if she wanted. She couldn’t pass up the perfect opportunity to find out what was going on, and it had been an excellent way to spy on August. Indulging in a little guerilla warfare of her own was just an added bonus.

Scrawling August stinks! throughout his pristine little kingdom might not do much actual damage, but she was sure it drove him crazy nonetheless. At the very least, it showed other people that not everyone lived in fear of him. Okay, maybe she was afraid of him, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t fight him. Maybe August wouldn’t even figure out that it was her, and worry that he had more enemies to watch out for.

This was the first time she’d dared to venture so close to his inner compound, though. It was worth it–he’d see the message, and so would more of the people who surrounded him.

“Not so untouchable now, King Asshole,” she muttered.

The sound of voices sent her hurrying back into the safety of the tunnel, but she watched from a tiny viewfinder that allowed her a fish-eyed view of the street. Two girls stopped and gasped; one of them giggled before the other girl shushed her and tried to rush her past the wet graffiti.

Before the girls could escape around the corner, three of August’s goons showed up–wearing those quasi-military outfits that Clio now knew were meant to intimidate. The girls certainly looked afraid as they were questioned brusquely.

The goons eventually dismissed them. As the girls scurried away, Clio strained to hear the conversation of the three men.

She caught Sunshine’s name.

“…take it to him, not August,” the possible leader said firmly.

“He’s just as bad,” one of them grumbled.

“Trust me–you don’t want to go near August right now if you can help it.” The leader pointed to the graffiti. “He’s losing his shit over that. With the skirmishes outside the gate, he’s got a short fuse.”

“You mean he’s fucking nuts,” the grumbler muttered. “He loses one girl and we all have to suffer.”

That earned him a smack upside the head. “Shut your fucking mouth, moron. You don’t want the wrong person to hear you talking like that.” The leader jerked his chin at the man who hadn’t spoken yet. “Get a cleaning detail on this. If Chance is back, we’ll inform him.”

“I thought we were supposed to keep him out of the loop for now.”

“It’s your job to think now?” The leader sneered. “But if you’re so worried, you can tell Sunshine.”

The grumbler’s protest faded as the men rounded the corner; Clio’s grin of satisfaction warred with her concern for Chance. None of her spying had yielded a glimpse or a word of him until now. She was worried about the implications of him being left out of the chain of command. Had August turned on him?

Her sense of fun faded. If Chance didn’t turn up soon, what would she do?

The lead goon had mentioned that Chance might be around. Maybe she could find him before she returned to the tower.

“I’ll just have a quick look,” Clio murmured to herself. She wouldn’t leave the tunnel unless it seemed safe enough.

She backtracked a little and took the branch that led toward August’s main headquarters. A short stairway took her up to a narrow, street-level alcove that allowed her a decent view of the little square through some kind of decorative, tightly woven, metallic mesh screen. She wasn’t sure what the exterior of her hiding place looked like, but she guessed she was between the walls of two rooms; she saw the outlines of milling people and heard the muffled, irregular sounds of life from both sides of her.

Her view of the square meant this building was the dining hall. If she waited long enough, Chance would have to pass this way, if he was in the area at all. She squatted down–quiet as a mouse–and squinted through the metal at the people passing back and forth.

They seemed more hurried than she remembered, their attitudes tense as they moved from place to place without a lot of idle banter. August probably was in a bad mood.

Clio chewed her lip, her worry for Chance intensifying along with her guilt. The guilt made her a little angry, too. She hadn’t asked for any of this–if Chance was in danger, it wasn’t because she’d done anything wrong. But the feeling kept her there long after her cramped legs had gone numb.

The sounds of muted chatter and clattering cutlery grew louder on either side of her as more people came in to eat at the height of the dinner hour. August, Chance, and even Sunshine were nowhere to be found. Gradually, most of the diners streamed away to other activities, and Clio grew hungry and sore.

She was ready to go back to the tower when August angrily strode into the courtyard. She gasped and ignored the pins and needles in her legs as she shifted to press her face against the metal screen.

Her heart thundered when Chance followed. He called out August’s name sharply, and August wheeled around; August threw something that bounced off Chance’s chest and clattered noisily on the paving stones of the square.

It was one of her paint cans.

August looked incensed, even from this distance–his perfectly put-together look was mildly disheveled. Even that was startling. She had gotten under his skin.

Clio grinned.

Chance ignored the can and watched August stalk away. Before August disappeared into the building, he spun around and raked a hand through the hair that fell forward over his eyes. It seemed to comb out the agitation he was radiating.

“Find the little bitch.” August smiled coldly–Clio flinched at the venom in his words. “It looks like you need more incentive, Chance. After she gives me what is mine, then you can do whatever you want. You can have her, if you still want her.”

Chance just stood there as August left. Clio stared at him, trying to make sense of what she’d heard. After a moment, Chance bent and picked up the can.

She felt a zing of adrenaline when he began to walk toward the dining hall. Clio was thrown by August’s words, now unsure of herself and Chance. Was August just…just spewing hateful words, or was there truth to it?

Chance approached; she watched him with her heart in her throat. He stopped a few feet from the entrance at her left, gripping the paint can tightly in his hand while he scowled at it.

“Clio,” he muttered in a low voice that she could hear from her position. “What the hell are you doing?”

He sounded pissed off, exasperated…and worried.

Clio took a deep breath. “Chance,” she hissed.

His head jerked up. He stiffened for a moment before he made a visible effort to relax and peer up at the sky, as if he were trying to determine the time of day.

“I’m over here,” she whispered as loudly as she dared. “Behind the big bush by the wall. Inside the wall.”

Inside the…” His eyes flicked in her direction. He clenched his jaw and bent down to adjust the laces of his boot.

“Go back to the tower,” he said in a low, angry voice. “This is pointlessly dangerous.”

“Not when I’m being careful,” she whipped back. “I’m not going to sit around forever.”

“I told you to wait for just–”

“But I found these tunnels and–”

“Shh! I’ll come tomorrow. Around this same time. Listen for once and wait there.”

“Wait! Chance. I–”

Clio bit off her words when Chance stood abruptly and a few people she didn’t recognize came out of the dining hall. She waited, but without even a look over his shoulder, he walked away with them and didn’t come back.

Disgruntled and swearing as her legs dragged painfully under her, she climbed back down into the tunnel and headed for what she called “home” at the moment.

Chance’s dismissal soured the entire day. She spent the rest of the evening stewing over his arrogance and the creepy offer August had made him. There was something about August’s wording that shook Clio to her core.

“You can have her, if you still want her.”

She…needed to think about that one. If Chance had ulterior motives…

Despite her concern, waiting for him in the safety of the tower seemed her best option for weaseling out the truth. Besides, it wouldn’t exactly be a hardship to relax for once, especially after the less-than-stellar accommodations during most of her stay in the Gauntlet. The unexpected oasis she’d found at the top of the tower was pretty sweet.

So the next morning, she climbed to the top of the tower and just sprawled out under the sun. She lay in the heat until it filled her with a sluggish comfort. Her back, bottom, and the undersides of her legs felt almost weighed down by the pleasant warmth; unwilling to relinquish the lazy enjoyment of the morning, she rolled onto her back and let the sun warm her breasts and belly instead.

She had to admit, it gave her a thrill to be able to do so, knowing that she was the only one who had access to this place. If it was a reward for making it this far, Clio felt it was entirely deserved. The mature fruit trees surrounding the lush lawn that spread over the tower top provided her with fresh food, and the cushioned-filled gazebo was a lovely place to sleep. If the outdoor shower enclosed along the curve of the wall had been a splash pool instead, her temporary paradise would’ve been perfect. As it was, she couldn’t complain.

She wished she could mail August a postcard to rub it in his face. She fanned a hand across her eyes and grinned. Her smile slowly faded as she remembered her hurried parting from Chance.

Would he really come that day? What if something worse had happened between him and August? And…and did Chance actually have some sort of feelings for her like August had implied, or was that just August being obnoxious and awful?

Chance seemed to stick his neck out for her a lot, but considering how much she’d been manipulated already, she assumed that had more to do with her role in the Gauntlet’s machinations. He didn’t seem to like her much as a person. Then again, it wasn’t like they’d ever hung out in a normal context, so it was hard to tell. She couldn’t fathom why or how he liked her, if he actually did. She wasn’t sure how that made her feel, honestly. Beyond wary and doubtful.

What if he came in here and tried to seduce her like August had?

Well, he could try. She wouldn’t fall for something like that a second time.

“August has to be full of it,” she thought aloud. Chance knew where she was–if he wanted to give her up to August, he would’ve done it already.

But what if August wasn’t full of it? What if Chance genuinely felt something for her?

Augh!” She pressed her face into her hands and vented her frustration by drumming her heels against the grass. Her stomach squirmed in something like anxiety.

Clio sat up and looked around. What if this was just another trap? Things with August had looked good, too. Even if it wasn’t, this little resort was still keeping her from what she wanted.

Which is to get out, she told herself firmly.

The thought drove her to her feet. Chance wouldn’t arrive for a while; instead of lying around like she was on vacation, she’d check out more of the tunnels. Maybe there was more than one way out of this nightmare.

She stood under the cool spray of the shower and let the sun dry her skin. She got dressed and pulled her damp hair into a ponytail. Before she could finish putting on her boots, a small beeping noise almost made her lose her balance, and she hopped precariously until her foot slid all the way in.

She ran to the sound. A decorative plate on the wall had slid aside to reveal a small screen.

“Cool,” she breathed.

The screen showed the base of the tower–where Chance stood. He stared at the wall before craning his neck upward, looking a little nonplussed. Some proximity alarm had apparently been set off by his presence.

Clio snorted a laugh. He was early, and he obviously hadn’t given a thought about how he was supposed to get her attention. He was alone, as far as she could tell.

It took her a while to make it down to ground level; Chance looked immensely relieved when the tower opened up. He stepped in quickly, and they stared at each other in awkward silence.

By the look on his face, he wanted to lecture her. But whatever Chance was thinking, he seemed to shrug it off.

“You’ve been busy.” His dry words sounded almost amused, if a bit exasperated.

Proceed to Chapter 9, page 2–>