"Tricky place to hide it," Zane said as they approached the sprawling mansion. "Easier to keep secrets where the walls don't talk."
"That's probably why they hacked a Valentino bash and not one in some other mansion," Tally said.
"Except I had to go and screw everything up," Zane said.
Tally looked at him. "You?"
"We started off down in the stone mansion, but when we couldn't find you guys anywhere, I said we should go up into the new party spire so the smart walls would find you."
"We had the same idea," Tally said.
Zane shook his head. "Yeah, well, if we'd all stayed down in Valentino, the Specials wouldn't have spotted Croy so fast. He would have had time to talk to you."
"So they can listen through the walls?"
"Yeah." Zane grinned. "Why do you think I suggested a picnic on this bogusly cold day."
Tally nodded, thinking it through. The city interface brought you pings, answered your questions, reminded you of appointments, even turned the lights on and off in your room. If Special Circumstances wanted to watch you, they'd know everything you did and half of what you were thinking. She remembered talking to Croy up in the spire, her interface ring on her finger, the walls catching every word..."Do they watch everybody?"
"No, they couldn't, and most people aren't worth watching. But some of us get special treatment.
As in Special Circumstances."
Tally swore. The Specials had shown up so quickly last night. She'd only had a few minutes with Croy, as if they'd been waiting close by. Maybe they'd already spotted that the party had been hacked.
Or maybe they were never very far away from Tally Youngblood...
She looked into the trees. Shadows shifted in the wind, and she imagined gray shapes flitting among them. "I don't think last night was because of you, Zane. It was my fault."
"How do you mean?"
"It's always my fault."
"That's bogus, Tally," Zane said softly. "There's nothing wrong with being special."
His voice trailed off as they passed through the main arch of Valentino Mansion. Within the cool stone walls, it was as silent as a tomb.
"The party was still going when we left," Zane whispered. "They probably all just went to bed."
Tally nodded. There weren't even any maintenance robots at work yet. Bits of torn costumes littered the hallways. Spilled drinks filled the air with a sickly sweet perfume, and the floor was sticky underfoot. The glamour of the party had been stripped away like bubbliness turned into a hangover.
Her finger felt naked without an interface ring, bringing back memories of sneaking across the river as an ugly, the terror of being caught. But fear kept her bubbly her senses sharp enough to hear stray party rubbish shifting in the drafty corridors, to separate the raisiny scent of spilled champagne from the stale funk of beer. Besides their own footsteps, the mansion was silent.
"Whoever lives in 317 is going to be asleep," Tally whispered.
"Then we'll wake them up," Zane said softly, eyes flashing in the semidarkness.
The ground-floor rooms were all numbered in the one hundreds, so they looked for a way up.
New elevators had been added to the mansion at some point, but without interface rings, the doors wouldn't open for them. A set of stone stairs brought Tally and Zane to the third floor, across from 301.
The numbers counted up as they walked down the hall, odds on one side and evens on the other. Zane squeezed her hand when they reached 315.
But the next room was numbered 319.
They retraced their steps, checking the other side of the hall, but found only doors numbered 316, 318, and 320. Searching the rest of the floor, they found more 320s and the 330s, odd and even, but no Valentino 317.
"This is a bubbly puzzle," Zane said, chuckling to himself.
Tally sighed. "Maybe it was all a joke."
"You think the New Smokies would hack a citywide invitation, sneak across the river, and crash a party just to waste our time?"
"Probably not," Tally admitted, but she felt something in her starting to fade. She found herself wondering if this whole expedition was kind of lame, looking for some big secret that uglies had left behind. Sneaking around in someone else's mansion was pretty bogus, after all. "You think breakfast is still warm?" she asked.
"Tally ..." Zane turned his intense gaze on her. With trembling hands, he pushed her hair behind her ears. "Stay with me."
"I'm right here," she said.
He drew closer, until his lips almost brushed hers. "I mean, stay bubbly."
Tally kissed him, and with the pressure of his lips the world sharpened again. She pushed the hunger out of her mind and said, "Okay. What about the elevator?"
She led him back to the space between Valentino 315 and 319. The long expanse of stone wall was interrupted by an elevator door.
"There used to be a room here," she said.
"But they got rid of it when they put in the elevator." Zane laughed. "Lazy pretties. Can't climb two flights of stairs."
"So maybe 317 is the elevator now."
"Well, that's bogus," Zane said. "We can't make it come without our rings."
"We could wait around until someone else calls the elevator, and slip in."
Zane looked up and down the empty hallway, piled with plastic cups and torn paper decorations.
"Hours from now," he said, sighing. "When we won't be bubbly anymore."
"Yeah. Not bubbly." A layer of fuzziness was starting to sink across Tally's vision again, and her stomach growled in a food-missing way, which called up the mental image of a warm chocolate muffin.
She shook her head to clear it, visualizing a Special Circumstances uniform instead. Last night the sight of gray silk had focused her mind, had propelled her after Croy and into the fire stairwell. The whole thing had been a test to see how well her brain was working. Maybe this was another test. A bubbly puzzle, as Zane had said.
She stared at the elevator door. There had to be a way inside.
Slowly, a memory came to her. It was from back in the ugly days, but not so long ago. Tally remembered falling down a lightless shaft. It was one of the stories that Shay always liked to hear her tell, about how Tally and David had snuck into Special Circumstances headquarters..."The roof," Tally said.
"You can climb down into an elevator shaft from the roof. I've done it."
Instead of answering, Tally kissed him again. She couldn't remember exactly how, but knew that if she just stayed bubbly, it would come back to her. "Follow me."
Getting up to the roof wasn't as simple as she'd expected - the stairs they had taken up stopped at the third floor. Tally frowned, frustration deadening everything again. In Komachi Mansion, getting up to the roof was easy. "This is bogus. What do they do if there's a fire?"
"Stone doesn't burn," Zane said. He pointed at a small window at the end of the hall, sunlight streaming in through its stained-glass panels. "That's the way out." He strode toward it.
"What? Climb up the outside wall?"
Zane stuck his head out and looked down, letting out a long whistle. "Nothing like heights to keep you bubbly."
Tally frowned, unsure whether or not she wanted to be that bubbly.
Zane pulled himself up onto the sill and leaned out, grasping the top of the window. He stood carefully, slowly rising until Tally could see only his boots standing on the stone ledge outside. Her heart began to race again, until she could feel it beating in her fingertips. The world became as sharp as icicles.
For a long time his feet were motionless, then they shuffled closer to the edge, until only Zane's toes rested on the stone, precariously balanced.
"What are you doing up there?"
In answer, his boots lifted slowly into the air. Then Tally heard the muffled sound of soles scrabbling on stone. She stuck her head through and peered up.
Above her, Zane dangled from the edge of the roof, his feet swinging and scraping. Then one of his boots found purchase in a crack between the stones, and he hauled himself over and out of sight.
A moment later, his face appeared, grinning from ear to ear. "Come on up!"
Tally pulled her head in and took a deep breath, placing her hands on the ledge. The stone was rough and cold. The wind whistling through the window made the tiny hairs on her arms stand up.
"Stay bubbly," Tally said softly. She pulled herself up to sit in the window, the stone cold against her thighs, and took a quick glance at the ground. It was a long way down to the scattered leaves and tree roots that would break her fall. The wind picked up, making nearby branches wave, and Tally could see every twig. The smell of pine tree sharpened in her nostrils. Bubbly was not going to be a problem.
She slid one foot out onto the ledge, then the other.
Standing up was the scariest part. Tally clutched the window frame with one hand as she rose, the other feeling for a handhold on the outside wall. She didn't dare let herself look down again. The cool stone was pocked with holes and cracks, but none seemed large enough for more than fingertips.
When her legs had straightened all the way, Tally found herself paralyzed for a moment. She swayed slightly in the breeze, like an unsupported tower built too tall.
"Pretty bubbly-making, huh?" Zane's voice came from above. "Just grab the ledge."
She tore her gaze from the wall in front of her and looked up. The edge of the roof was just out of reach. "Hey, this isn't fair. You're taller than me."
"No problem." He lowered one hand.
"Are you sure you can hold me?"
"Come on, Tally-wa. What's the point of having all those new pretty muscles if you don't use them for anything."
"Like getting killed?" she said under her breath, but reached up to take his hand.
Her new muscles were stronger than she'd thought, though. With her fingers locked around Zane's wrist, Tally pulled herself easily up from the window ledge. Her free hand grasped the roof's edge, and one toe managed to get purchase in a crack in the mansion wall. With a grunt, Tally was up, rolling over the ledge and onto the roof. She sprawled on the reassuringly solid stone, giggling with the rush of relief that swept through her.
Zane grinned. "It's true, what I said before."
She looked up at him questioningly.
"I've been waiting for someone like you."
Pretties didn't blush - not in an ugly-making way, at least - but Tally rolled to her feet to hide her reaction. The bubbliness of their death-defying climb had made Zane's gaze too intense. She stood to take in the view.
From the roof, Tally could see the spires of New Pretty Town still towering over them, the green trails of pleasure gardens snaking up the central hill. Across the river, Uglyville was already awake. A soccer field full of just-turned-uglies swarmed around a black-and-white ball, and the wind carried to her ears the sound of a whistle being furiously blown. The view seemed terribly close and in focus, her nervous system still ringing, echoing from the moments she'd swung from Zane's hand.
The stone roof was flat, marked only by the spinning heads of three air vents, the towering transmission mast, and a metal shack no bigger than an ugly's closet. Tally pointed at the latter. "That's right above the elevator."
They crossed the roof. In the shack's ancient door, a rust-covered sheet of metal like those that littered the ruins, letters had been painstakingly scratched: Valentino 317.
"Very non-bogus, Tally," Zane said, grinning. He yanked at the door, but a shiny chain snapped taut with a screeched complaint. "Hmm."
Tally looked at the device that kept the chain from slipping, wracking her still-spinning brain.