One week after our expedition with Candle’s parents and our encounter with the elegon, I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling of my attic bedroom and mumbling to myself the words that airbird sevens had been sending me through the Hero Trotter forums. It was morning, and I’d woken up with the phrase on my lips, as if it had slipped into reality from a dream. I couldn’t tell you why, but I found it comforting.
Candle said I was developing an obsession. But that wasn’t anything new.
I ate half a sleeve of weybisks for breakfast, then clambered down the stairs and snuck past the front desk of the law office to board the lift down to the investiture. At the bottom, Gruffin greeted me by clearing his throat and raising his mug of elg toward me.
I ducked into the kitchenette in the break room to down a glass of water (it was the only thing resembling a kitchen in the building) and tie on my apron. The apron was baby blue and hung loose on my wiry frame—my own, poor version of a wizard’s robe.
“Hey,” Azlo said from behind the counter as I pushed my way past, carrying a box of toothpaste to restock. “Hey, oddball!”
“Morning, Azlo,” I said.
Azlo was a little older than me, in her early twenties. She had dark skin, much darker than mine, and long, greasy hair that poked out from underneath her knit cap. The cap was always the same cap, orange and ragged, and tugged down over her brow, halfway over her eyes like drooping eyelids. She had almost no chin.
“Wekk’s coming in today. Better steel yourself now.”
Wekk was another person who worked at the investiture, and he really liked talking to me. He thought that because we both collected the cards from weybisk boxes it meant we were friends.
“You ready to compare your nerdy little cards?” Azlo said.
I ignored her and turned down the toiletries aisle. I found that ignoring people was usually a good philosophy. It’s what I did with Azlo. It’s what I did with Wekk. Anything I said would just prompt a response, which would prolong the conversation.
I heard the door slide open as I knelt down to open the box. Footsteps approached the counter. I pulled out an assortment of Terminex brand toothpaste.
“Welcome to Gruff Stop,” Azlo said.
The conversation drifted lightly over the tops of the shelves as I arranged the rows of brightly colored tubes.
“Yes, hello. I’m looking to pick up a prism I had ordered through your store about a week ago.”
“Did we call you? It can sometimes take two to three weeks for prisms to come in.”
“All the same. I’d like to see if it’s here.”
“I can look it up. What’s your name?”
I froze, a tube of toothpaste in my hands. My heart started beating faster, and I looked from side to side. The aisle was empty. Swallowing, I slowly peeked over the top of the shelf.
Standing in front of the counter with his back to me was a tall, broad-shouldered man in a deep purple suit. As I watched, he turned to the side, revealing a chiseled profile and a pair of tiny, purple tinted glasses. I ducked back out of sight.
The man called Plum had short, perfectly groomed, golden hair.
Was I being paranoid? No. This was too much of a coincidence.
“Hmm… there’s nothing in here under the name Plum,” Azlo said in a bored tone of voice. “Is there a first name?”
“Who helped you with your order?”
“A young man. Skinny fellow. Curly hair. Looked like he was of mixed heritage.”
“Yes, that was it. Nova Scratshot.”
I was squeezing the tube of toothpaste so tightly that the lid popped off and cool mint paste exploded all over my hands. I held my breath as the lid went bouncing down the aisle, spun in tight circles past the endcap, and came to a stop.
“Nova?” Azlo said. I didn’t reply. A sharp pain seared through my chest, as if someone had driven a needle through me. I held a hand to my ribcage, breathing through the pang of anxiety, and tried to think of what to do before realizing that I’d already been told.
Please avoid the golden plum.
Azlo continued, “I don’t know where he went.”
“No matter,” Plum said. “I’ll find him.”
My stomach coiled in fear, and I dropped onto my hands and knees, listening to the man’s footsteps clip their way across the tile. I crept down to the end of the aisle, in the opposite direction of the footsteps, and hid myself behind a rack of koba crisps.
Through the wire framework, I saw a delicate hand slide into view on the other side of the investiture and pick up the discarded toothpaste lid. Golden cufflinks flashed in the sun. Plum seemed to pause. Then he rounded the corner into the aisle, and I threw myself down the one beside it. In my haste, I smacked into a row of prismints, and a couple boxes tumbled down onto the floor.
The footsteps paused on the other side of the shelf. I crouched down and tried not to breathe.
In a sunny patch along the far wall, Plum’s shadow rose up as he neared the shelf and pushed aside a row of cotton candy to peer over the top. I tucked my feet in close, willing myself to melt into the floor. Every muscle was tight and aching.
“We will give you a call when it comes in, sir,” Azlo called from the counter.
“Hmm… ” In the shadow on the wall, Plum stroked his chin. Then turned away. “Yes. Well. I’ll be back.”
“Yeah, maybe wait for the call next time,” Azlo said. Then, after the doors slid shut, “Weirdo.”
I let out my breath.
“What’s going on in here?” came Gruffin’s voice. Feeling dizzy, I stood and emerged from my hiding place to see Gruffin standing in his office doorway, and Azlo staring at me like I was crazy. “What’s that?” Gruffin said.
I looked down to see that I was still clutching the now empty tube of toothpaste, mangled between white knuckles.
“That man was looking for Nova,” Azlo said.
“I’ve never seen him before,” I said.
Gruffin’s beard furrowed into what I recognized as a frown.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Next time, no hiding from customers.”
I nodded, still feeling like I was in a daze.
Azlo snickered. “Lighten up, Gruffin. As if our customer service ratings matter when we’re all going to die by the Splintered One’s hands, anyway.”
Gruffin gave some sort of retort, but I didn’t hear it. My eyes had picked out, through the window, the straight-backed figure of the man in purple, waiting for the crosswalk down the street, staring up at the sky and smiling.