Grace Thorn pressed her back hard against the wall, feeling as though her shaky knees might give way at any moment. She couldn't afford to collapse. She stared down at the bundle in her arms and knew that she couldn't even afford to rest. With her free hand, and with some effort, Grace pushed herself away from her attempt at a brief respite, drawing away from the wall and continuing down the alleyway.
The alleyway's mouth yawned open into a splendour of light and colour. Cars and motorbikes rocketed down the streets – yet there were few of them, for everyone caught the underground shuttles or the zeppelins these days. The bundle in Grace's arms made a soft noise of protest, and she glanced down at the baby once again, rocking the bundle to offer some sort of false comfort. She had to continue, for the sake of the baby alone. Those who pursued her would be close behind.
Grace passed the front of a closed shop, glancing quickly at her reflection in the grimy window. It was laughable really, how unrecognizable she looked. How unremarkable. A cap was pulled tight over her head to conceal her most identifying feature: her flame-red hair. A stealthy noise made Grace start, pressing a hand over her heart as she noticed a cat slinking sullenly away down the street. She released the breath she didn't even know she'd been holding.
Zenith Underground wasn't too far. Grace could close her eyes and there would be a map of Heart in her head, she knew the territory that well. She glanced around and descended the stairwell. The lights overhead were so bright they made her wince, designed to compensate for the darkness that was Zenith Underground. It wasn't a remarkably big station – only five tunnels ran through, the shuttles like fat, oval silver capsules pushing to a halt after reaching speeds of up to two hundred and fifty kilometres an hour. Grace had never liked shuttles.
Of course, even Zenith wasn't abandoned – it was nearly eleven o'clock at night, and the entire station was bustling with activity, the flurried movement of youths heading to nightclubs and adults coming back from a nice drink. Grace didn't mind – the crowd would serve to hide her well. She clutched the baby tight to her chest, heartbeat so fast now that she was sure the child must feel it.
"One ticket to City International," Grace stated as she reached the ticket booth. Of course, the officer on duty would look at her and see a woman in her mid-twenties carrying a baby. He would not know the identity of either mother or child.
"Twenty silver," he responded in a bored tone that told Grace he'd repeated this phrase all too often. She fumbled in her purse, attempting to steady her hands as she handed over the silver pieces. A wave of frustration came over her as the officer silently counted over the pieces. She ground her teeth at his languid pace, but forced herself to remain calm. It wouldn't do her well to lose her cool now.
The officer nodded and stamped Grace's arm. As she jostled with the other passengers for the shuttle, she saw the barcode glimmering fluorescent in the dark. Stepping into the overcrowded shuttle, Grace immediately allowed herself to be lost in the congregation. Even catching a glimpse out of a window could surely result in her doom. The baby made a distressed noise, and Grace kissed the top of the child's head.
The trip to City International from Zenith Underground was a brief seven minutes, but those minutes were tense, and it seemed to Grace more like seven hours before they reached the station and began to disembark. She took a deep breath and stepped out, knowing that the City International station would overwhelm her like it did every other time.
The breeze whipped around them and Grace raised a hand to hold her cap in place. She looked up, eyes watering slightly from the wind. A huge, gun-metal grey passenger zeppelin was descending over the City International – but she wasn't looking for any commercial zeppelin. The crowd was ordered to push back as the zeppelin's turbo thrusters powered down, and Grace weaved her way through, blue eyes searching keenly. She found what she was looking for – a small black zeppelin three levels up.
She had no desire to battle for the elevators, so instead she hurried up a few flights of stairs, took a right and ended right down to the far end. It was deserted here, apart from a crewmember here or there, and by the gritty atmosphere one could almost feel that these zeppelins were for trade. She skirted past a man welding something, sparks flying out in all directions. Grace glanced around anxiously for her contact, and a smile broke across her face for the first time in many stressful hours as she raised her eyes to the zeppelin's ramp.
The girl watched Grace with an impassive expression, her silvery-blonde hair blowing in the wind. She could not have been more than seventeen or eighteen years old, yet her blue eyes were old and solemn for a girl so young. She strode down the ramp to meet Grace on the platform, inclining her head. If there was not the need for secrecy, Grace had no doubt that the silver-haired girl would have bent the knee.
"Ivory. I can't say I've ever been more grateful to see you."
The girl, Ivory, allowed herself a fleeting smile. "It's good to see you alive, your Majesty. I was concerned that the Guild…"
Grace shook her head fervently. "I managed to evade them. For now."
The baby made a soft noise and Ivory's attention turned to the bundle. She held out her arms and Grace hesitated. She bit down on her lip, but she had made her decision long ago now. Kissing the baby's forehead, Grace handed the bundle to Ivory, who accepted the baby in gentle arms.
"Does she have a name?"
"Alix," Grace responded, her voice little more than a melancholy whisper. Her gaze turned upon one of the commercial zeppelins, pulling away from the platform and rising, thrusters beginning to burn blue and heat up. Her enemies would be coming for her even now. It was not safe for her to stay at City International now that her mission was complete. She turned back to Ivory and offered the girl a brave smile, although she battled the tears that threatened to blur her vision.
"Keep her safe."
"Have no fear, your Majesty." Ivory reached out a hand to tenderly stroke the baby's dark hair. "She is safe with me."
Grace stepped back, knowing that she had to distance herself, and quickly. She might be the baby's mother, yet she was also the Queen of Hearts. Sometimes, the heart would triumph, but for now she had to keep thinking with her head if she wanted to keep Alix safe. Without another word to Ivory, she turned on her heel and swept back down the platform. Her arms felt strangely heavy, oddly empty without the presence of the baby.
It would be a long journey back from City International, but her enemies would linger around Zenith Underground like a bad smell, waiting for her to foolishly return to the station so close to home. Instead Grace risked the journey along unlit streets with no crowds to disguise her. Yet…the longer Grace thought on it, the more likely it seemed to her that she would never see home again.
Suddenly, someone caught hold of her arm in a bruising grip, slamming her hard against the wall. The cap was ripped from her hair and her auburn locks fell past her shoulders, betraying her. Grace struggled, breathing hard, before she acknowledged that she recognised the man before her now. The sandy-haired man before her was only a year her senior, yet she knew enough about him that a chill ran down her spine and she realised she was very afraid.
"Zammiel." The word was no more than a murmur that dared to pass through frightened lips. He was one of the most prominent Guild members in the City – but that was not what scared Grace. She had once known this man, he had been a friend to both her and her husband…but the years had changed Zammiel Darke, and not for the better.
"Grace Thorn." Zammiel raised an eyebrow elegantly. "What's the matter? Should I bow and call you 'your Majesty'? No, I don't think that would endear me to you."
"Traitor," Grace spat the word in his face and her hand roamed towards her belt, searching for the only weapon on her person. In truth, Zammiel's blood was as royal as hers, but he had long since forsaken Diamond. She slammed her heel into Zammiel's shin, and when he cursed she jammed her elbow into his chest, making him stagger backwards. Ripping free her gun, she pointed it at Zammiel's head…and he raised his hands, and laughed.
"I don't think you have it in you to shoot me," Zammiel stated mildly. Grace wanted him to reach for his own weapon, but his words were a bold truth – he knew that she could not kill him, not after how close they had once been. "Your husband could do it. Connor Gold was always a practical, if ruthless, man. But you can't. Even if you did kill me, the others would find you. We have a Mystic, a telepath. He'll get inside your head, find out where you sent the baby…"
"No!" The cry of rage tore free of Grace's mouth and she flicked the safety off the gun. It would take a flick of the finger, then a bullet would be smashing through Zammiel's skull…but she couldn't. She was not a violent person by nature. She was not a murderer.
"You still can't do it," Zammiel appeared surprised now, as though he had expected her to shoot him down once he had threatened the safety of her child. He watched as Grace lowered the gun, but before he could act, she had turned it upon herself, pressing it to her temple. "Grace…what are you doing?"
"You have a telepath." Grace's voice was shaking, but the hand holding the gun to her head was perfectly steady. "No matter how strong I am, you will work my daughter's location out of me…but I won't let you. I can't. I know what happens when you find her. I can't kill you…but I don't have to."
Zammiel's eyes flared with shock and he lunged at Grace, but it was already too late. The gunshot ruptured the silence like a knife, and the Queen of Hearts crumpled to the ground and stared at the stars with unseeing eyes.