The smell of Mrs. Monday's sugar cookies filled the kitchen, along with a faint scent of chamomile tea. The kids were clustered around one end of the table, all intent on devouring as many cookies as they could get their hands on.
Mrs. Monday bustled around, placing mugs and plates at the other end. She looked up, saw them walking into the kitchen, and for a brief second, Libby thought she saw Mrs. Monday's lips tighten and her eyes narrow.
But the angry look quickly smoothed away as she picked up the plate of cookies amid the protests of the kids.
"No, no, you've had quite enough!" she told them. "Don't you go sticking your lip out like that, Toddy—any longer and a bird will mistake it for a perch. Run along, go play until it's time to help with supper."
"Just don't go outside!" Maricossa raised his voice over the mayhem of eight kids arguing over what they were going to play.
Dash led the stampede from the room, and Mia, straggling at the back, paused to wrap her arms around Maricossa's leg. Maricossa, with more gentleness than Libby had ever thought possible, ruffled Mia's hair. Mia's eyes brightened, and she blew a quick kiss up to Maricossa before galloping after the rest of the kids.
Libby resisted the urge to say something sappy, sat down, and pulled a mug of tea toward herself. "How did I ever manage that thundering herd by myself?"
Mrs. Monday chuckled, though it sounded a little strained. She sat down beside Libby with a sigh. "I've wondered that myself, dear, many times. You did a wonderful job for what you had to work with."
Maybe. Libby chewed on her lip as Skylar, Maricossa, and the Professor all took seats around the table. She glanced over her shoulder, but Hez hadn't followed them. If she'd done a “wonderful” job, would they really be here, stuck in a rundown bunker and not able to even stick their noses out the door for fear of the White Tiger?
Skylar patted her hand and shoved a cookie into her lips.
Libby spluttered and salvaged cookie crumbs with one hand while swatting at him with the other. "Really, Sky!"
The Professor chuckled, and she looked over in time to catch the smile that he tried to hide by raising his mug to his lips.
Maricossa cleared his throat. "I saw an airship today," he told the Professor. "Couldn't tell if it was a White Tiger ship or not, but it does beg the question: what will we do when the White Tiger comes?"
The Professor glanced around the kitchen and shoved his spectacles onto the bridge of his nose. "I'd hoped we'd be able to hide here until it was safe…" His voice trailed off. "I suppose that was a bit optimistic, since we're so close to Shandor Rei."
"Given our loud and flamboyant exit, I'd say so," Maricossa said.
Mrs. Monday frowned, and looked down. There was an awkward silence, and Libby knew everyone was thinking of Coll.
"And since we're already seeing airships, the quicker we could get out of here, the better, right?" Skylar said. The forced tone of his voice told Libby he was trying to keep the conversation moving.
Maricossa nodded, staring into his mug.
"Moving on sounds good to me," Libby muttered. Were they ever going to be able to put down roots and stay somewhere kind of like the Library? Getting away from this blasted, falling-apart bunker might be the start, at least.
A scuffing sound came from behind her, and Libby twisted to look over her shoulder. Hez limped in, his face twisted in a grimace as he massaged his neck where Maricossa had hit him. He pulled out the chair next to Skylar, flopped down, and hit the edge of the seat. She tried not to laugh at Hez’s wild flailing as he barely managed to keep the chair upright and keep himself in it. He dropped his head into his arms with a groan.
Maricossa needs to teach me that move.
The Professor blinked. “Hez,” he exclaimed. “What happened to you?”
Hez glared at Maricossa. “Nothing,” he growled.
“What he means is,” Maricossa explained, his tone prim and crisp, “An unstoppable force met a stubbornly immovable object. The immovable object was moved.”
Hez looked like he wanted to crush Maricossa under the heel of his boot. He started to rise to his feet.
Oh, not again… “Can we deal with this later?” Libby asked quickly, hoping to distract them.
Hez looked up at her. His eyes narrowed as he glanced back and forth between her and Maricossa, then shook his head.
She rolled her eyes.
Mrs. Monday pursed her lips. "And why can't we stay here?" she asked. "We weren't followed out of the city, so I don't know why we should worry about the White Tiger finding us here." Emotion flashed quickly through her eyes, and Mrs. Monday looked down into her mug.
Skylar tensed a little beside Libby.
She reached out, put her hand on his, and squeezed. She wished she knew how to reach out to Mrs. Monday as well, but the woman had an almost off-putting stiffness about her.
The Professor had no such qualms. He patted Mrs. Monday on the arm and hardly seemed perturbed when she shook him off, grabbed the cookie platter, and stalked to the counter.
"So, if we're going to leave…that's why you said we need to go back to Shandor Rei," Libby said slowly. "To tell Hamlet. But, Maricossa, what about Brick? And the books? How many more trips do we need to get the rest of the books out of the Library?"
Maricossa took a deep breath, and she knew what his answer was going to be in that instant.
"No," she said sharply. "No way can we leave all of that. We can't let those books fall into White Tiger hands!"
"Somehow I think that the books will be safer once all activity in the area is gone." The Professor's voice was mild and muffled by his mug.
"And Brick?" she shot back.
Maricossa scratched the stubble on his chin, not meeting her eyes again. Libby pressed her lips into a thin line. Again, she knew what he would say. She also knew that if Maricossa dared suggest it out loud, either Skylar or Mrs. Monday would snap.
He was thinking of leaving Brick behind, just as he'd left Coll.
He wouldn't do that. Coll…Coll was dead. Her hands tightened around her mug. It was the first time she'd let herself even think the word. What if Brick was dead too…or Hamlet? What if the White Tiger had followed Hamlet back to the Library and killed him and already taken all the books?
Stop it. Stop it, Libby.
"I suppose the greatest question that remains, Maricossa…" The Professor cleared his throat. "Well, I guess it would be: where do we go after we leave the bunker? I'd never planned for anything like this…"
“I have,” Maricossa said, his voice calm and bland.
Libby narrowed her eyes at him. Too calm and bland.
He crossed one leg over the other. “I came up with a contingency plan while I was working for the White Tiger.”
“Trusting fellow, isn’t he,” muttered Hez. Skylar elbowed him—sharply—and Libby stifled a smirk at Hez’ grunt of discomfort and the dirty look he shot Skylar.
Maricossa acted as though he hadn’t noticed. “It was never meant for this many people though,” he cautioned. “No more than two, actually.”
Two…him and his girlfriend Connie. That's why he was being so bland, not letting anything on his face show. It was hard to remember sometimes that Maricossa had lost someone too when he left Shandor Rei.
"But we could make it work for more?" Skylar asked.
Maricossa leaned back and crossed his arms. "Probably."
The Professor looked doubtful. "And where was the location of this 'contingency plan'?"
Libby raised her eyebrows. "Tianzhu?" She'd read about it in books. Jungles, elephants, tigers, lots of bright, flashy clothes, and big, open spaces outside the cities. "It's not a cave in Tianzhu, is it?"
Maricossa smiled. "No, it's an old warehouse. I have a lot of things stashed there—money, food, clothes, weapons. And on the plus side, Tianzhu isn't controlled by any of the Cardinal Point Alliance groups, though I think one or two years back the Black Tortoise tried to infiltrate them. It would be excellent neutral ground for us."
Everyone glanced at the Professor. The older man sipped at his tea, ran his hand through his shock of white-ginger hair, and nodded.
So that was it, then. Tianzhu.
"How do you plan on getting there?" Hez didn't bother raising his head from his arms. "Because I'm not—"
"We already have an airship," Maricossa said lightly, though his eyes narrowed just a little as he looked at Hez.
Hez jerked his head up. "I'm not taking this mangy group to Tianzhu."
Libby elbowed him. "Shut up, Hez. You're the only option we have."
He gritted his teeth. "I will not—"
"Shut up, Hezekiah," Maricossa said.
Hez rose from the table and stomped out.
Libby sighed and rolled her eyes. "Little tip," she said to Maricossa as she got up and hurried after him. "Hez doesn't like authority. He's like me—only worse."
She found Hez leaning on the catwalk railing in front of the Daniel Defoe. One hand gently massaged the area of his neck where Maricossa had hit him. The other clenched the railing so tightly his knuckles were whitened.
She leaned beside him. "You're going to have to learn to deal with Maricossa, Hez."
"He's an overbearing idiot."
"Yeah, overbearing he may well be, but he's no idiot."
Hez leaned toward her, his dark hair falling in loose curls over his eyes. "What's with you lately?"
"What do you mean?" she snapped.
"The Libby I know would never have let anyone push her to abandon books. She wouldn't have abandoned two of her kids to fend for themselves. And she definitely wouldn't let some know-it-all son of—"
"She wouldn't let anyone boss her around."
"Maricossa isn't a know-it-all. But he can keep us safe from the White Tiger because he understands how it works," Libby said quietly.
"I don't know why you let him and that cyborg kid into the Library in the first place."
Libby's ears turned warm. "They found us, okay? I had to do something to keep them quiet. And don't call Skylar that."
"What, cyborg? He is one, Libby!"
"He doesn't like it."
Hez didn't say anything, and Libby finally looked at him. He was staring at her, his eyes narrowed—not in a hostile way, but more the way she remembered when he didn't understand something in school and was trying to work it out. The corner of his lower lip tucked in, and he chewed on it for a moment.
"You like Skylar," he said finally.
More heat flooded her face. "He's a really nice guy, Hez."
"And despite their arguments, I can tell Skylar looks up to tiger boy. So you're basically throwing away everything my mother taught you to follow a traitor and a cyborg into who-knows-what."
She spun and swung at him. Hez easily deflected the blow and pinned her wrist against the catwalk railing.
"You were the one who left the Library, Hez! And do you want to know how Skylar became a cyborg? Saving me, that's how! Because I thought I could follow your example and take off without Needle knowing! It's my fault that Skylar is a cyborg!" She wrenched away from him. "Don't you go telling me what I should and shouldn't have done, because you'd left us a long time ago, you didn't even care about what kind of influence you were giving the kids younger than you, and you have no idea of the circumstances surrounding my decisions, so you can just shut up because you don't know anything! Don’t you dare say I’m the one walking away from what Needle taught us!"
Hez stepped back from her, a wall coming down behind his eyes. He tilted his head to the side. "You're scared."
"Gee, talk about the understatement of the millennium, stupid." Libby resisted the urge to smack him again. Definitely need to have Maricossa teach me how to fight. "What's wrong with you? I don't remember you being this much of a thug-head."
"You learn things when you're not stuck in a Library, Libby. Out in the real world, books and talk don't work so well. Force does." He grinned. "When you get used to it, it's kinda fun."
Libby stepped away from him. "I don't think I like that, Hez."
Before she could move very far away, he muttered, "You're going to have to decide, Libby. Why are you out here? Why are you following tiger boy and the cyborg? Better make sure it's not because you feel guilty."