The White Rose of Fiorazzurro
Chapter 28 (or, “The Door Not Opened”)
"This way!" Rifka called out, and Calimero followed close behind, straight toward the Crystal Palace's main doors. They left the cheering crowd behind, bent on finding Rosa and using what was left to free her from her own prison.
And they didn't have a lot of time. They still had to get Calimero to limbo before the merge happened. They had hours at most, but they had to find Rosa -- and fast. Not only that, but they had to find a way to turn Dark Rosa back into regular Rosa without disturbing the continuum. Rifka would have to find a way to get Jason’s boombox into the Crystal Palace. But first, she had to find Rosa.
“Where do you think she went?” Calimero asked as they ran inside the huge throne room.
Rifka bit her tongue. She didn’t know this Rosa. Regular Rosa was a bit crazy anyway, unpredictable, but loyal. She always put her friends first. This Rosa didn’t have the same agenda. “The others should have come with us,” she muttered.
She nearly jumped a mile when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Turning, she saw Tama, Jason, and Jen right behind her. Tama had Jason’s boombox in tow. “We have three hours, fifteen minutes, and forty six seconds,” Tama told Rifka. “We need to split up.”
“Y’all need any help wit yer search?” Sheriff Collodi and Blue were right behind them. “Queen Daisy’s out der wit her people, but we kin’ sure help.”
“We need all the help we can get,” Rifka said, smiling.
Tama took charge. “Sheriff, Blue, go with Jen to the left. I’ll go with Jason to the right. Rifka, you and Calimero take the center. QWERTY operatives, keep your communicators on GPS mode and let us know if you find anything. Let’s move!”
Their feet echoed against the glass floors as Rifka and Calimero ran toward the door behind the throne. The grand tapestry hanging behind the two chairs had two doors by it, and Rifka pointed her communicator toward one and pressed her Colemak button. It opened of its own volition, and they ducked down a long hallway. “This must be where the servants went,” Calimero said as Rifka led, using her phone as a flashlight.
“How much longer do you think this hallway is?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I’ve never been in the Crystal Palace before.”
She peered at her phone. While the GPS was good for spatial coordinates, it often didn’t work the same way as a ‘normal’ GPS would. There was no automatic map of the Crystal Palace she could use. On one of their previous adventures, Jen had mapped the area as he had traveled, but that wouldn’t help them any here. They were on their own.
“If I were Rosa,” she muttered to herself, “where would I hide?” That was simple: as evidenced from one of their boring days in class, Rosa was a master of hide and seek. Despite being the tallest member of the team (and despite being dressed in short skirts and heels), she always managed to fit herself into the smallest spots, then became so quiet, nobody could even hear her. It had once taken them three hours before Sarah Dealey herself had found Rosa behind the break room’s refrigerator.
Rosa could be anywhere. But she wouldn’t be out in the open.
She checked the walls, but there were no crevices to hide. She listened carefully, but all she heard were her own footsteps. This was going to take a while -- too long, if she wasn’t careful. If they didn’t fix the problem, not only would everybody on Fiorazzurro die in the resulting merge, but Rosa would be stuck this way forever. It would ruin QWERTY.
“We need to keep going.” The light caught at the left, and she noticed a small trap door there. “Here!”
“Why would your friend be in here?” Calimero asked, some five meters back, bewildered.
“I don’t know, but this just seems like something she would do.” Rifka ran to the small door, not more than a meter high, and opened it, shining her flashlight inside. “I think this leads somewhere. Can you fit?”
Calimero took one look at the small door and shook his head. “There’s no way I can fit in there.”
“Then I’ll go alone. Stay here.” Rifka slipped her communicator in between her corset and swung herself into the small space. She found herself able to stand here, and lifted her phone over her head, light cascading over the tall ceilings in this hidden room.
“What is this place?” she muttered.
There were hundreds, if not thousands of bunks here, each facility stretching five beds high, connected with the others for stability. There was no room for personal effects, just simply beds upon beds upon beds. The ceilings were simple, and this entire room wasn’t actually crystal, but some sort of brick. Even the floors were dirty, and Rifka wondered if anybody had recently used this room. So many of the beds near her were empty.
She walked along a short corridor, with just enough room to maneuver. Had this been for all of the servants? She raised her makeshift lantern high, catching tattered blankets all the way at the top. The light came down on a bed in front of her, and she peered closer. There was still someone in the bed -- dead, chained to the post.
Calimero hadn't been sure if he could fit through the door before. Now, he couldn't bank on it. "Rifka!" He tore open the door and forced his long legs inside, then pivoted and tried to pull the rest of himself in. It took a moment, but with a resounding crack, he broke the door frame and entered the room. He tossed the frame aside and, moving quickly, ran into at least three bedposts before finding Rifka's light, on the ground, illuminating her entire area.
Rifka was on her knees, eyes closed, shaking. Calimero couldn't tell what she was so disgusted by until he looked up and saw hundreds of dead bodies, all chained to the beds, all in different states of decay. "What is this?"
"I don't know. I don't want to be here anymore."
That was enough for Calimero. He grabbed Rifka under one arm and her communicator with the other, then helped her up. "I'm going to get you out of here, okay?"
"I don't know." Rifka was a blank slate. "I don't know."
He gave her communicator back to her. “Hold that so I can see, understood?” And then, he reached down and picked her up, bridal-style, and shuffled through the huge room sideways, dodging bedposts the entire way. He found his way to the left, then saw the small, now ruined doorway and put Rifka down. “Through here.”
She finally found her footing, but crawled through the doorway and stayed on the ground on the other side. “Let’s not do that again.”
“What was that back there?” He panted, staring at the ground, in disbelief. Those couldn’t be the servants...could they? That didn’t make any sense...unless they really weren’t servants at all. They had been chained to the beds. Perhaps they were people of magical heritage, and Queen Cendrillon had imprisoned them there, forcing them to work as slaves. Calimero would never know. Their stories could no longer be spoken.
“We’re not gonna make it,” he heard Rifka mutter from across the shallow hall, curled up in a ball. “We’re not gonna make it. We’re gonna fail.”
He crawled over to where she was hiding. “No, it’s going to be fine. Daisy is the ruler of Fiorazzurro. We’ll find your friend and set everything right.”
“No, not only that -- we’re not going to get you to limbo in time. We can’t save this world. Unless…” Rifka bit her lip, remembering the girl they had found in a closet back in QWERTY headquarters, the girl still unconscious. Nobody knew if she would wake up or not. “If we run out of time, you can still save the world.”
“So if we fix your friend, that man -- he’ll still destroy everything? Everyone will still die?”
“Yeah, we have to stop him, as well. Or, really, you have to stop him. If you go to limbo and take him with you, it’s possible that you won’t make it back here to your own world. You’d get lost in the shuffle...or really, as it turns out, you’d probably become a member of QWERTY.”
Calimero felt his heart drop. Never see this world again? His mother, Daisy, Collodi and Blue and the magic users and the Ovest Traders Market -- all of them would be just a memory. But what would happen then? “A member of what?”
“A member of QWERTY. With me.” Rifka was hasty. “I mean, that’s not guaranteed or anything, but -- Dvorak still doesn’t have any power right now. If we go to limbo at this very moment, he can’t keep you there. We can all go together, I’ll help you sign off on the world, and everything will be back to normal. I’ll return to headquarters, and you’ll never see me again.”
Calimero nodded. It wasn’t what he wanted, but that was the best option.
“But if Dvorak gets his power back somehow,” Rifka said, “and trust me, I wouldn’t put it past him, then you both can still go to limbo. But you can’t come back here. You’ll go to QWERTY headquarters instead after the universes fold, and you’ll do what I do.”
“So I would see you all the time?”
He couldn’t see her blush in the low light. “Yes.”
“And if I save the world, I’ll never see you again?”
“You’ll remember me, but I can’t return here.”
He leaned forward and hugged her. “Is it wrong of me to say that I love you?”
She fought back tears. “Maybe? We only have an hour or so left.”
“Yeah, but if I somehow end up where you are, I want to be with you. And if I don’t, then I don’t want you to ever forget it.”
Rifka nodded. “How long can we stay here?’
“Not long if we want to find your friend, according to you.”
Her communicator flashed, and she unlocked it with a swipe of her thumb. Jason had messaged her with coordinates. “We have to go.”
She bit her lip. She always did what was needed for her mission. Unless…
“Five minutes,” she said. “Five minutes. You and me. Here. Together. And after that, we jump to this location and save Fiorazzurro.”