Hugo stepped into the Hall of Wept Gold. Legend held that it bore the name because when the miners had first cut through the rock here, near-pure gold lined the walls, looking like tear-streaks from above.
He wished he could’ve seen that. Now, maybe a century after the tunnel had been first mined, the dull stone walls were stained with soot from countless fires and oil from countless hands. Some of them watched him now.
The ten minutes felt like an hour, but his tentative steps brought him to a closed door. In Hugo’s neighborhood, it would lead to a storeroom with local necessities. Here, a balding man with a cudgel leaned against the wall next to it. Hugo approached slowly, each step smaller than the last until he feared he’d never get there. When he stopped, looking up at the scowling guard, it took all his will to say, “I’d like to see Mr Stern.”
The tough didn’t say anything, just unfolded one arm enough to pound on the door between him at a measured tempo. The door opened and a small woman beckoned him in. The room was cut to the same measurements as the storerooms back home, but instead of supplies it had been turned into some kind of open office. A couple dozen people spread out across a number of chairs, desks, and lounges. The space quietly hummed with people at work. At the center of it all, a woman sat and watched him. Hugo’s guide brought him to her.
“Uh… Mr Stern?”
She looked bored. “Speak.”
“Uh, right. My wife. She, um, see, she got caught up in the protests last month and, um—”
“She’s been exiled.”
“Want to find out if she’s still alive? The old tunnels are dangerous, most exiles don’t last long. If she’s alive—or if you’re optimistic—we can get her a letter, or a care package. Most exiles appreciate food.”
“Um, I was told you could also get things into the city.”
Hugo’s voice wavered and tears sprung to his eyes. “I brought all my money—”
“It’s never worth it. Someone finds her, she gets kicked out again, the council starts a headhunt for the smugglers and we have to suspend operations. Too expensive.” She shooed him away with a gesture and the small woman began solicitously tugging him to the door by his sleeve.
Hugo took two numbed steps before pulling away from her. Five of the people who had appeared to have their attention elsewhere stood, focus on him. He raised his hands to placate them. “I’d like to send something to her, then.”
Now Mr Stern smiled. “Fine. I’m sure there’s a lot she’d like to have up there. Torches for light, food, water, clothes… weapons, of course. We have a price list around here somewhere.” She waved a hand at someone who went looking.
“I’ll take all of those.” Zar looked her square in the eye. “And I want you to send me with it.”