The stalls fade in the distance behind us. I follow Nate away from the sound of laughter to the very outskirts of the fields. Soon, he comes to a sudden halt outside an old wooden fence. My eyes skip between its decaying planks and his hazel eyes. He flashes me a toothy smile.
‘Are you ready for this?’
‘Then you’d be wrong.’ He cackles theatrically before jumping over to the other side.
‘What in Curl’s name are you doing?’ Through a circular hole in one of the planks, I watch his tall, agile body disappearing between the trees.
‘You know that’s the Iron Forest. It’s dangerous. You’ll get mauled by a wild boar or something,’ I yell.
‘For once, try not to be a coward. The place is safe...enough. A bit untamed that’s all. Believe me, you’ll like it. There are loads of trees you can climb here. Maybe you can visit your chimp brothers and sisters.’ He laughs to himself.
I stick my hands on my hips and tut.
A light breeze carries Nate’s voice. ‘Hurry up.’
I shake my inhibitions away, throw my purse over the fence then leap to the other side. My feet land with a crunch on a cushion of sun-baked leaves, shrouding the parched earth like a carpet. Densely packed trees rise out of the ground like titans. Their bare branches stretch towards the sky and block most of its dwindling sunlight. I amble in the shadows between their trunks.
Nate glances over his shoulder at me. ‘Now follow me.’
His legs pick up speed and he turns into a rough patch of dry stalks, meters tall. I fight my way through them, barely keeping up with Nate as he disappears and reappears between them like a ghost. We soon arrive at a clearing the size of a small room. Its parameter is enclosed by an army of evergreens that shroud the area, keeping it cool and dark. My skin puckers and I pull my blazer tighter around me. We walk to the end of the clearing and stop in front of the side of a small rocky cliff; concealed for the most part by a tangle of creeping vines.
‘We’re almost there.’
I watch him sit down and slide his legs under a small opening, half a meter high beneath the cliff. It looks dangerous, dirty and more than I’m prepared for. Without thinking, I take a few steps back. Sensing my hesitation, Nate glances over his shoulders.
‘I’m not trying to kill you. Stop worrying and do what I do.’
He lies back, fingers curled over the rocks above him, pushes forward and slips under the cliff. I throw myself against opening and call his name. His voice echoes back, urging me to follow. I don’t want to. But if Nate is stupid enough to put himself in danger, I don’t want to be the coward who left him behind. Pressing my purse against my chest, I sit down and wriggle my legs through the space. Beneath them the earth feels cool and slopes downward; so I lie back to avoid hitting my head on the ridge of the opening and slide into a massive underground cave
My eyes take a minute to adjust to the sudden shift in light. It should be too dark to see in here, but instead, the cave is shimmering. I suck in a sharp breath and arch my neck. Studding the roof are thousands of crystalline speckles twinkling above us like clusters of the finest aquamarine. The rocks are glowing, flooding the space with a breathtaking, luminescent bluish light. It’s like walking straight into a treasure chest. I hear Nate’s feet shuffle to my side and suddenly realize I’m still on my knees. My trousers have already soaked-in the cool moisture of the ground. I release the breath I was unconsciously holding and stand.
Nate is thrilled to see the cave’s effect on me and watches every shift in my face with a smile.
‘It’s a glow beetle cave.’ He says. ‘These species are from the phengodidae family. Most of them have gone extinct since the Old War. But these have been sheltered enough on our side of the island to survive the toxic dust left behind from those days.’ He sticks his hands into his trouser pockets and sighs. ‘It’s beautiful isn’t it? When I look around here, I think of all the other amazing things in the world that we’ll never get to see because of those bastard Othersidians. Before the War, this planet was paradise.’
‘Do you really think they’re as bad as they say?’
He looks at me. 'The Othersidians? Is that even a serious question?’
I pull my curls to one side. ‘I know they did terrible things during the War and to Elriya and other hair-theists. But some of the things we’ve been taught are just so hard to believe. Like do you really think Othersidians have tails?’
‘I don’t think there’s any point in asking. It’s not like we’ll ever be able to meet one to find out.’
‘Our ancestors were Othersidians, they must have been normal.’
Nate rubs the back of his neck. ‘Yeah, but the first Othersidians, like Elriya and Avander immigrated before the Old War broke out, and the families that came after didn’t feel the full effects of the War. Otherside has been exposed to toxic dust for centuries. Who knows how the people there look like now. Sprouting a tail isn’t a far-fetched deviation when you think about it. If Othersidians were still allowed into Tressia, we’d be seeing people who look very different to the first immigrants.’
‘I guess you’re right.’
‘Enough about them. Come with me.’
He takes my hand and we walk further into the cave’s belly, past rivulets and a deep pool of water that spreads out like a lake. Where the glow beetles decrease, dangling shards of rock take their place. Nate points at one. His lips close the distance between us as he leans in to speak into my ear.
‘Those are called stalactites. They form when water dripping from the roof of the cave leaves behind mineral deposits. The ones growing from the ground are stalagmites.’ He’s so close I can feel the warmth of his breath against my cheek. I turn my face to look at him. His features are a hazy smudge in the dim light.
‘They teach you things outside hair science?’ I ask.
‘The necessary stuff.’
I raise an eyebrow. ‘And that’s not enough for you?’
Nate grins and shrugs. ‘You’re not the only one who likes to do some extra-curricular reading.’ His eyes wander over my face and for a second, land on my lips. I swing away from him and run my fingers over a stalagmite.
‘You’re reading banned science books?’
‘It’s not really banning when they make it so easy to find them.’
My eyes skip to his face and I walk past him, back to the front of the cave.
‘You could get into a lot of trouble.’
He snorts. ‘Look who’s talking.’
I stop and glance at him over my shoulder.
‘My situation is different. Handling censored materials is my job.’
Nate smirks. ‘O-kay, remind again me how breaking into the storages and stealing Othersidian books is part of your role as a censorship clerk?’
I swallow. ‘Well, how else can I study for my exam? The language books the Department recovers are always sent directly to the Centre. Do you have any Othersidian grammar books lying around?’
He follows me as I walk off again, hands in his pockets as if we’re talking about the most mundane thing and not a crime punishable by death.
‘That’s exactly the point Elle. There aren’t any Othersidian books lying around. The Centre is a tightly knit community. They train their own circle of self-entitled snobs. They hire their own people. They won’t accept outsiders.’
‘That’s why I need an edge.’
‘And you don’t think they’ll be suspicious that some random twenty-year old with apparently no access to resources can speak better Othersidian than most of them?’
‘I’ll figure something out, some excuse before then. It’s worth the risk if they take me on.’
‘You’re right.’ Nate pauses. ‘Some things are worth the risk.’ Something in his voice makes me freeze. He approaches me from behind and drapes his arms over my shoulders, wrapping them around my neck like noose. He sighs.
‘I’m tired of talking about this.’ He pauses and for a while, I can only hear his breathing, heavy and laboured. ‘Don’t you want to know that thing I was going to tell you?’
Yes? No? I can’t find the words to reply to his question.
He rests his chin on my head. ‘You already know? I’m not surprised. You always know what I want to say.’
‘Elle. I don’t want this to be weird.’ My cheeks burn and I stare at his arms around me, at his chipped nails, stained with ink. He smells of coconut soap, fresh and sweet. It’s both awkward and soothing having him so close to me.
‘Just say it.’ My voice is sharp. It slices through the silence like a blade. Nate’s muscles tense against me. He lets go of me and puts some distance between us.
‘I didn’t mean it to sound like that. Nate I-’
‘I want you to help me get with Lina.’
His words are a slap to the face. I blink again and again.
‘Is this one of your jokes?’
He furrows his brows. ‘Why would I be joking?’
He crosses his arms. ‘What’s wrong with Lina? You like her. She’s your friend’.
‘So you’re lying!’ The accusation echoes across the cave.
Nate winces. ‘Why would you even say that?’
‘Because I know you.’
‘You don’t know every-’ His eyes skip past my face to something behind me. ‘Who the hell is that?’