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Layer Beneath the Underlayer
Jain left his pregnant wife behind to go scavenging in the sewers beneath Verash. The upper levels were still in use and covered in sticky dark muck that was half waste and half fungal bloom, and he was forced to step around the puddles and slow-moving streams destined for the Eld. He descended through a little-used tunnel, through a storm grate that’d been broken long before Jain set foot beneath the surface, and stood on dry, dusty ground at the top of a long slope.
Another light bobbed toward him from the opposite direction.
“You’re late,” Jain said as Fion came into view.
Fion threw a goofy smile. Ruffled dark hair, bright white teeth, stained and tatters scavenging clothes, boyish and handsome. “You don’t mind going through the shit.”
“It’s faster.” Jain turned away and looked down the tunnel mouth. “You ever gone this deep before?”
“Never.” Fion stood next to him and the pair didn’t speak for a long moment. Jain glanced at his best friend, at those dark eyes and the slope of his nose, and felt a shot of anger he struggled to keep under control, but if Fion noticed, he didn’t mention it.
“Let’s get moving then.” Jain descended and Fion hurried behind him.
The floor sloped sharply then turned to the left in a slow spiral. “It’s like the bottom of the ocean down here,” Fion complained. The air was heavy and damp, and the walls seemed to ooze with humidity.
“Keep an eye out for something useful.” The tunnels beneath Verash were old and some still held artifacts that might be worth serious money at market. Most scavengers were afraid to come this deep—the oldest parts of the underground were dangerous and crumbling, and cave-ins weren’t unheard of, but Jain had a baby on the way nod needed the cash, and Fion probably felt too guilty to let Jain come down alone.
Not that Jain could say for sure what Fion did and didn’t feel.
“How’s Inge?” Fion’s voice echoed forward as the path leveled off and they moved down a long hallway. They checked each small niche and room, kicking through rubble, finding mostly trash.
“Starting to get to her,” Jain said. “Being pregnant isn’t easy.”
“So I hear.”
“But she won’t complain. Won’t even take any time off her feet.” He felt a strange surge of pride, his beautiful wife, her stubborn pride.
“Doesn’t surprise me.”
“Are you still seeing that tavern girl? What was her name?”
“Hiliza. No, not anymore.” Fion hesitated as they passed beneath an old arch with faded carvings.
Jain tightened his grip on the lantern. “You could consider settling down, you know. She was a good one. Liked you, anyway.”
“Put up with me, you mean. And she only liked me for the same reason all the others like me—fun for a night but no good for a life.”
That was Fion’s favorite saying. Jain used to think it was funny and clever, but now it twisted his guts.
More rooms broke off from the main hallway. Ahead, the passage continued to drop down. They were in the ancient ruins, the layer under the underlayer, the sewers for the old city. Verash was a trash heap, an accumulation—it’d been built, over and over, on top of its previous incarnations. Once, this could’ve seen the light of day.
“Inge thinks it’s time to give up on all of that, you know.” Jain looked over his shoulder. Fion held back a few feet, looking into the side rooms. “You’d be happier with someone steady.”
“I’m not so sure about that. Are you happier, now that you’re married?”
“I know that when I get back to the surface, I’ll have Inge waiting for me. That’s more than you can say.”
Fion’s face twisted for a moment. “I’ve got plenty waiting.”
“You’ve got a single ratty room in the back of a run-down tavern, two changes of clothes, and a drinking problem. You gamble all your money away and sleep with whatever’s willing.” Jain walked faster.
“What’s your problem?” Fion kept pace. His footsteps were hurried and sharp.
“You’ve been like this as long as I’ve known you, ever since we were kids. You think it’s cute to be lazy and directionless and you get away it, gods know how. How long do you think scavenging the sewers will support you?”
“I don’t see you getting a job anytime soon.”
“I’m working on it.” And he was—Jain planned on begging Inge’s uncle for a position in his restaurant.
They passed another arch and the path began to spiral again, dropping precipitously. Jain walked recklessly fast and Fion was nearly jogging to keep up.
“That’s what you’re mad about? You think I should get a job? I remember you saying labor didn’t define a person.”
“I remember you not being such a waste.”
“That’s definitely not true.”
They reached the bottom of the spiral. Jain hurried into a wide, open chamber, echoes bursting off the walls and the floor—and came to a sudden stop. Fion clambered up against him, and both men stood in silence, staring at a wide, circular pool of chalky blue water, perfectly still in the darkness. It was enormous, big enough that their weak lantern light didn’t reach the distant shore.
Jain had never seen anything like it.
Fion walked past him and knelt. “What the hell is this?” he asked softly, reaching his fingers out.
Jain wanted to kick him in the back and shove him under. He could almost feel Fion struggling, fighting against the thick liquid as Jain held him beneath the surface until there were only bubbles, then nothing.
His friend would drift away into this ancient, forgotten pit and nobody would ever find him again.
Jain turned away, hands shaking. In the gloom, a shape stood to the side, a few feet from the water’s edge. Jain walked to it and sucked in a breath—it was a statue of a woman, slightly damaged, but otherwise perfect.
“Fion.” Jain reached out to touch the stone.
Verash was dotted with ancient fountains and each of them held their own god. Most of the statues were broken or weathered beyond recognition, but this one was pristine. He guessed it was older than older, and might’ve stood in its own fountain once, thousands of years ago.
Her painted green eyes stared sightlessly from her handsome face. Her simple dress fell in folds, and her hair was detailed enough to look real, thick and draped down her back. Her right hand was pressed against the soft swell of her pregnant belly, and her left was held up in the air. Her fingers were long and gorgeous.
“That’s one of them, isn’t it?” Fion stood a few feet back, his mouth open.
“It’s got to be.” Jain touched the goddess’s cheek. “But what’s she doing down here?”
“I don’t know, but it looks like she’s pregnant.”
Jain took a step back then turned. Fion stared at him, dark eyes, mop of hair, boyish smile getting older every day.
“I know it was you.” Jain barely whispered but the words echoed off the water and the stone walls and filled the space around them.
Fion’s smile faltered. “You know what’s me?”
“I know it was you,” he said again, gripping his lantern harder. “Inge and the baby. I know it was you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But his smile was gone.
Jain stepped toward his friend. The man he knew was dead.
“When we get to the surface, you won’t come around anymore. When the baby’s born and it’s got your eyes and your nose, you won’t say a word. You’ll make jokes if anyone asks and smile and do your charming bullshit, but you won’t come to visit, you won’t pay your respects.”
“Jain—“ Fion started, but Jain stepped closer, inches away, his lips pulled back in rage.
“You won’t speak to her. You won’t look at her. That baby is mine, do you understand? That’s my baby.”
“Jain, let me explain.”
“She already explained.” Inge crying in their small bedroom, her shoulders hunched and shaking. She told him everything, and he’d forgiven her because he loved her, and because Fion could never raise that baby, and because the baby hadn’t done a thing to deserve any of this.
Fion’s face went slack and he stared at the floor. “It was only once. I was drunk, she was drunk, it was a mistake.”
“I know all about your mistakes. You won’t come around. Do you understand?”
The anger left him in a rush.
Jain’s legs ached and his chest burned from their long trip into the darkest pit of the underworld and now all he wanted to do was climb out and kiss Inge’s belly and tell her how much he loved her.
He shoved past Fion and walked toward the entry arch.
“Wait,” Fion said. Jain hesitated, looking back. “The goddess.” Fion raised his lantern. “We can’t just leave her down here. I mean, something like this, in this sort of condition, it’s got to be worth a fortune.”
“Leave her alone,” Jain said. “You’ve done enough already. Just leave her.”
Jain left the chamber, and in the corner of his eye he thought he saw a pile of rags and a tumble of bones, but maybe it was his imagination, or maybe it was this place, the cistern of horrible water, that impossible goddess standing all alone beside it, and his best friend, dead to him now, buried back there in the sediment of the city and the years and the piled resentment.
If Fion called for him to wait, Jain didn’t hear it, and didn’t care either way.
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