“You spoke with airbird sevens?”
Candle and I sat in Hennen Park, a safe distance away from the massive tree that was the park’s central feature. A horde of young kids was running around it, climbing up the trunk and swinging from its broad branches, which zigzagged through the air like bolts of lightning. The skyscrapers rose up all around us, and across the street a block of restaurants and convenience stores ran off into the city. We were sitting in the grass, a set of colorful playing cards stacked before us on a stone slab that was supposed to be a bench.
“Typed,” I replied, “but yes.” I furrowed my brow at the cards. “I… I don’t think that’s the most astonishing thing, here.”
“A golden-haired man hunting you down? The Diosec on your trail?” She spread her hands as if to lay out the oddities before me. “These are shocking, Nova, yes, but not as shocking as you willingly talking to a stranger.”
I shrugged uncomfortably. “He was easy to talk to.”
Across the rolling greens, the kids’ laughter rose as one of them nearly slipped from the tree. A few of them stood tapping sticks on the ground nearby, like makeshift staves. They were singing a children’s song, their voices out of sync and piercing.
“Sha, Batten, Mace, and Dowl. Wardin, Cantic, Eptre.”
It was a wiggling, schoolyard melody to help them learn the days of the week. I tried to tune them out.
“Let’s see what we’ve got,” I said, changing subjects and reaching for a box of weybisks. I tore open the top, pulled out the plastic sleeve of crackers and set it beside me, then reached in and withdrew a bright, foil card. It flashed in the sun as I held it up.
“Daranell, Lord of the Whisper Realm.”
“That seems good,” Candle said, trying to sound enthusiastic.
“I’ve got fourteen of them. Fifteen.”
Candle rolled her eyes.
I dropped the card on the bench between us and opened up the sleeve of crackers. They were my favorite flavor: cheese. I offered one to Candle, but she made a face, so I ate it instead. Then, I sat up straight and mimicked rolling up my sleeves.
“Okay, Candle. Are you ready to be thoroughly crushed?”
“Whatever,” she replied. She pulled a piece of takky out of her pocket, unrolled it, and pushed it into her mouth before shuffling her deck.
Sometimes, on very rare occasions, I convinced her to play the trading card game that came in the boxes of weybisks. She usually only agreed when she was feeling sad or worried about me. The Diosec out to kidnap me seemed like good enough leverage for it today.
We each drew a hand of cards from our decks. As we studied them, I ate another cracker, chewing slowly and contemplating my strategy. Across the street, a lightscreen was playing commercials outside a café, and the muted jingle mixed with the sound of the singing, screaming children around the tree.
“Koba crisps, a bite of crunch—”
“Sha, Batten, Mace, and Dowl—”
“Koba crisps, seven happy flavors—”
“Wardin, Cantic, Eptre—”
I laid a card down on the bench. Candle did the same.
“Why would the Diosec be after you?” she said.
“Why would they be after anyone? Your mom said they were kidnapping people all across the Ferren.”
“I guess I didn’t realize… I didn’t assume they were targeting… ”
She shook her head and drew another card, sliding it into those fanned between her fingers and adjusting the spread. She pushed a strand of hair out of her face and stuck her tongue between her lips.
We played through a few hands, but I could tell that something was wrong. Candle was making moves that didn’t make any sense. Stupid moves. As if she wasn’t even paying attention. To test her, I laid down a character card out of turn. She didn’t even seem to notice, she just went ahead with the game.
“How’s school?” I said lightly. Candle looked up but didn’t seem to see me.
“Fine,” she said. “It’s fine.”
“Do you… do you still like your independent study?” Usually when I mentioned her independent study she couldn’t stop talking about it. It was in the tech shop, just her all by herself with a teacher checking in every once in a while. She loved to tell me about all the cool things she was making. She could go on for hours.
“Yes,” she said.
I played a weybisk cracker in place of a card. Candle didn’t notice.
“Candle,” I said.
“Is something wrong?”
Candle fixed me with a look, then threw her cards down on the bench.
“Eoea’s staff, aren’t you worried at all?”
I bit my lip and looked up at the sky. “Talking to airbird sevens helped.”
“Talking to a wacko stranger who sends you cryptic messages helped?”
“He made me feel like someone was on my side. I mean. I know you’re on my side, but you don’t know anything.”
“This person—and by the way, I’m not assuming they’re male just because you seem to have defaulted to that—this person—and let’s just assume they’re telling the truth—this person has more information on the Diosec’s activities than has ever been documented. Why do you think that is? You need to take this to someone. The Shift Patrol. Gruffin, at least. Rods, Nova, you probably shouldn’t even be outside!”
“You think the mob is going to snatch me in the middle of a park in broad daylight.”
Candle rubbed her face with both hands. When she spoke, her voice was muffled from between her palms. “I don’t feel like you’re taking this seriously.”
“I don’t think…” My voice was so quiet I wasn’t sure if she’d heard. I cleared my throat. “I don’t know if I feel anything at all, really.”
Candle dropped her hands and stared at me. It was enough of a stare to make me flinch, but before she could go off about how of course I feel something, and how my feelings were just gentler and less noticeable than those of others, a shadow fell across our cards.
I looked up.
Silhouetted against the sun, Fogwillow leaned on her staff, frowning down at me, her stark, clear eyes unblinking.
“Nova,” she said by way of greeting. Then, “Candle.”
“Hi, Fogwillow,” I mumbled.
“How has your day been, Fogwillow?” Candle said.
Fogwillow’s eyes shifted to her. “Pleasant.” She moved around to the short end of the stone slab and picked a weybisk cracker out of the sleeve, pocketing it. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” I said quickly. “Everything’s great.”
Fogwillow narrowed her eyes. “You’re playing with the weybisk cards.”
I recognized the look in Candle’s eyes. It was a look that meant she was about to ruin everything.
“Someone’s been bothering me on the Crystic,” I said before she could open her mouth. “That’s all.”
Fogwillow’s frown sunk lower, but she seemed content enough with my answer. Before she left, she tapped me against the base of my spine with her staff, and I sat up straight. I twisted to watch her tread off toward the tree where the children were playing and singing.
“Sha, Batten, Mace, and Dowl. Wardin, Cantic, Eptre.”
I used to sing that song, too, when I was young and still in school. Before I left. Before I holed myself up in my attic. Hearing the tune now brought me right back.
A few of the kids screamed dramatically when they saw Fogwillow approaching, and ran off into the park. Fogwillow prodded her staff in their direction and sent sparks chasing after them. I could see the grin through the back of her head.
“She does well with kids,” Candle said behind me. “It’s a wonder she doesn’t have any of her own.”
And then she realized what she’d said and gave me a panicked look, but I pretended not to notice. Eventually, she averted her gaze, and left the unspoken thing sitting in the air between us, dense and suffocating. It pressed softly against my throat: if Fogwillow had been entrusted with my protection, why had she placed me with Garrel Gruffin? Why couldn’t I be fully hers, parent and child?
I turned back to Candle.
“Do you ever feel,” I said, “like you can feel the planet tilting beneath you as it turns? Like you feel yourself attached to this enormous object as it’s spinning through the stars, and you’re about to fly off of it?”
“I can’t say I have,” Candle said.
“Just wait,” I said. “Sit still and look at the sky.”
We both did, and my fingers tightened into the grass, into the soft earth, holding on tight for dear life.
“Nova,” Candle said, but I shushed her. “No,” she said, trying again. “Nova, hold on tight and look behind you.”
Frustrated, I looked around, across the street…
And an icy chill ran up my spine. Plum was sitting at the small café, out on the patio. He had one leg crossed over the other, reading a newspaper through those tiny, plum-tinted glasses. His hair was majestic in the sunlight.
“That’s him, isn’t it?” Candle said.
I quickly hunched over, putting my back to the man. “You think it’s a coincidence?” I said. “Has he looked our way?”
“I don’t know. I just noticed him.”
“He could have been sitting there for hours.”
“Koba crisps, so trendy, so cool—”
I looked around for Fogwillow, but she had already disappeared. Candle started gathering up the trading cards. “That’s it,” she said. “I’m taking you to the Vault. It’s time to see the Shift Patrol.”