He was asleep, but woke at the sound of the key turning in the lock. The storage room held winter linens, and no one should have been interested in it in the middle of summer, and certainly not in the middle of the night. By the time the door was open, he had slipped through a square hole in the stones of the wall and soundlessly closed the metal door that covered it. He was in the narrow tunnel that connected a stoking room to the hypocaust of a minor audience chamber down the corridor. The door he'd crawled through was intended to allow smoke into the storage room to fumigate the linens. Moving quietly, he inched down the tunnel to the open space of the hypocaust. Squat pillars held the stone floor above him. There wasn't room to sit up, so he lay on his back and listened to the thumping noises, like drumbeats, as people hurried across the floor of the audience chamber over his head. They could only be looking for him, but he wasn't particularly worried. He'd hidden before in the spaces under the floors of the palace. His ancestors had used the tunnels of the hypocausts to hide in since the invaders had built them to heat their new buildings hundreds of years earlier.
Noises traveled down the long, narrow tunnel from the stoking room: shuffling thumps and a crackle that he strained his ears to hear. A fire was being lit in the furnace chamber. Soon the warm air and, of more concern to him, the smoke would be fanned into the hypocaust to warm the audience room above and drive the quarry out. Silently, in the pitch-dark, he moved between the brick pillars to a wall and then along it to a flue in the wall with an opening slightly larger than the others. Even with the enlarged opening, it was not an easy task to fit himself into the narrow vent, and while he maneuvered, the warm, smoky air blew around him. He remembered how easily he had slipped into the flue the first time he'd tried it. His grandfather, who'd brought him to the palace, had grown too old and too big for most of the passages and had had to stay at an inn in the town while his grandson explored on his own, finding everything just as he'd heard it described.
Once inside the flue, he wedged his fingers into cracks and braced himself with his feet to climb until the space turned at an angle to join the chimney above the audience room. When he reached the chimney, he cursed silently, though what he found was no more than he should have expected. There was a fire in the hearth below. Fortunately they hadn't already had a roaring blaze going when they chased him out of the linen room. They must have just lighted the fire, but the air in the chimney was smoky and quickly growing hot. With no other choice, the thief climbed into the chimney and moved up it as quickly as he could, relying on the sound of the fire to cover the sounds his soft boots made on the ridged bricks of the walls. The chimney was much wider than the flue, and the ridged bricks were intended to be climbed easily by sweepers.
He went on until he reached an intersection where several chimneys came together into a much larger one that rose to the roof of the palace. The chimney was warm and filled with smoke, but instead of climbing it, he turned to another opening and climbed down. He guessed that the queen had soldiers posted on the roof of the palace to watch the openings of the chimneys.
He breathed shallowly and slowly, stifling a need to cough. Any sound might betray him. As he dropped lower in the chimney he'd chosen, the smoke grew thicker, his eyes watered, and he missed a handhold and slid down with a thump to a ledge below. He sucked in a lungful of smoke and then covered his mouth with both hands while his face turned red and the blood pounded in his ears. The breath trickled out between his fingers and he breathed in again more cautiously, but his throat burned and his head swam. His breath came and went in huffs of suppressed coughs.
He was on a ledge where the chimney divided into smaller flues that led down to several different rooms. He closed his eyes and listened for sounds, but there was no shouting, only the muted crackling of the fire somewhere below. He poked his head into one chimney after another, debating with himself before choosing one he hoped led to the stateroom of some foreign ambassador too prestigious to be disturbed in the middle of the night by soldiers wanting to light an unnecessary fire in his hearth.
The chimney he chose descended from the main one in a long, shallow slope. Once he was away from the main chimney, the air was free of smoke and he stopped to draw grateful breaths until his head cleared. When he reached the turn where the chimney dropped straight to the hearth below, he paused and settled himself to wait. There was no sign of a fire laid underneath him, so there was no immediate need to get down, and he thought it best to be sure there was no one waiting for him in the room below. After a long silence he heard the creak of a bed as if its occupant had shifted in his sleep.
Excerpted from Queen of Attolia, The EPB by Megan Turner Copyright © 2009 by Megan Turner. Excerpted by permission.
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