14. Slipshape

The Shift Patrol headquarters were in the heart of the city. Candle and I took the trolley uptown, gliding along beneath the dappled light coming down through the branches overhead. The street was covered with fallen fuchsia petals; they blew out from under the trolley as it hovered over them, its crystal levitation discs glowing blue and purple underneath as they sucked power from the prism to push the long, open-aired vehicle up over the ground. Along the side of the road, power lines ran in gentle curves between utility poles, bringing magic through Blush from the city prism stations.

I didn’t want to go to the shifties, but Candle had grabbed hold of my arm and hadn’t let go yet, so there wasn’t much of a chance to escape. I thought I could feel the pulse beating in her wrist as she held me tight. She knew I’d bolt at the first opportunity.

The trolley swept into a wide circular plaza and pulled to a stop in front of a sleek, glass pavilion. “Central Circuit,” said a cool voice from above. Candle pulled me off.

I hated it up here. Everywhere we looked, people were passing by. The sheer sight of them all, stacked one after the other, in suits and robes and uniforms, was enough to make my skin crawl. How did everyone learn to walk through each other so easily? When I looked out, all I saw was a dense mass of humanity, but here they were, finding pockets of space and paths with which to cut through each other, all without jostling or breaking pace. The geometry of a crowd was indecipherable to me. These people seemed to see patterns in others that I couldn’t detect.

“Come on,” Candle said, hitching me up by the elbow and pulling me in.

We cut through the plaza. Tall buildings rose into the sky in a ring around us, wide and gentle. In the middle of the plaza, a terminal stuck up like a shrine through the slate gray cobblestones. As we passed by I let myself leech off its pink glow. It helped a little.

A two-tiered building loomed up before us. It was round, and its solid black exterior was shiny, like a beetle’s carapace. The Vault. The den of the shifties. I squirmed in Candle’s grip, but she pushed me up the steps and inside.

The Vault’s lobby was dim and quiet. Windows circling the high ceiling sent white shimmers of light down through the charcoal-black space. As I watched, a pair of cardinals fluttered in and perched on the sill, as bright as drops of blood.

“We’d like to report a suspicious character,” Candle said as she approached the desk.

“Oh!” said the woman sitting behind it. “Let me just find the… yes, of course… hello, by the way. Welcome.” She said this all rapidly, bringing up her lightscreen and flipping through page after page. She had big round glasses and thin brown hair that grew straight down her back. “And—oh, yes, hello chief inspector—”

The woman bit her upper lip and nodded to someone passing by. I looked out of the corner of my eye and went rigid. A lynx had sauntered past the desk. Its coat was gray and clean, its two-tufted beard perfectly fanned, and its pointed ears were flat to its head.

“He’s been following my friend around the city,” Candle continued, ignoring the lynx.

“Right… someone suspicious… can I get your names?”

“Emma Lyn Candle. And Nova Scratshot.”

At the sound of my name, the lynx swung its head around, ears perking up. Its eyes caught mine. They were bright green, and ringed with curiosity.

“Hold up a moment, Harriet,” the animal said. “Nova, did you say?”

I nodded, my stomach falling. I’d thought that was him.

Suddenly, the lynx smiled. It padded closer, and as it did, its form shifted. He rose up on two legs, his fur folding into skin, his ears traveling down the side of his face and flattening. The man who now stood before me was tall and limber, with a thin face and easy, muscle-bound limbs. He still had those same green eyes, though, like chips of emerald.

“You’re Fogwillow’s charge, aren’t you?” he said. I frowned. “What? You don’t recognize me?”

Over our heads, the two cardinals on the windowsill swooped down into the lobby and glided easily off down a hallway. Shortly after they were out of sight, the sound of their wings was replaced by footsteps echoing into the distance.

“Chief Inspector Rhyme,” I said.

“That’s right!” He lifted a hand as if to congratulate me. It was a fluid motion. He made no movement that wasn’t perfectly formed. Every tilt of his head weighted and sharp. “I haven’t seen you since you were no taller than a terminal. How are things?”

“Fine.”

“Come back to my office, we’ll catch up.” Then, turning to the receptionist, “I can take care of this, Harriet, thanks.”

The receptionist smiled and adjusted her glasses.

As we passed through the dark hallways of the Vault, I took a small amount of pleasure in Candle’s surprised silence at my side. Finally, as we were ushered into Rhyme’s office, she turned to me and punched me in the arm.

“You know the chief inspector?”

“He knows me,” I said.

“I know Fogwillow,” Rhyme said, chuckling. “But then, who doesn’t?” He rounded his desk and sat down. “It’s not difficult to remember the time she came back to Blush with a bundle wiggling in her arms. Seems like she’s always showing up with trinkets and treasures. No surprise she’d emerge from the wilderness one day with a baby. That’s Wendo the Wild for you.”

“She doesn’t like that name,” I said.

“No, of course not.” He steepled his fingers together, smiling mildly, but not seeming to understand my bitterness. Not understanding why I might snap at being compared to one of Fogwillow’s trinkets.

“So,” he said as Candle and I sat down across from him. “What’s going on?”

Candle explained it. The Diosec. Airbird sevens. Plum. As she was talking, I stared at Rhyme’s uniform. It was the standard uniform of all the shifties. Black and buckled, as if slipping shapes so many times somehow loosened their boundaries, and they had to tie themselves in. Pressed into his lapel was a pin bearing the Shift Patrol insignia. The outline of a yellow circle, broken at the top.

Fogwillow had once told me that the shifties represented modern progress in wizardry, entirely separate from technology. An evolution not propelled by human invention, but by the shaping of ancient powers. Slipshapes like Rhyme and the rest of the shifties were not wizards. They were normal humans. Technology was meant to allow normal people to use magic through external means, through prisms and devices. But people who had signed up to join the Shift Patrol had been blessed internally, given a second form by the Assemblage. A single—almost divine—magical attribute.

No one knew how it worked.

When Candle was finished, Chief Inspector Rhyme pursed his lips and looked over our heads, as if there were answers drifting around behind us.

“Well,” he finally said, “there’s not much we can do about Plum right now. He hasn’t exactly broken any laws, has he? Still, we’ll keep an eye on him. A thin lead on the Diosec is better than no lead at all.” Rhyme’s green eyes flicked down to me, and he leaned forward. “I’m actually most interested in this person from the Hero Trotter forums.”

“Airbird sevens?” I said. “He’s not… that’s not important.”

“Someone contacting you out of the blue through untraceable means? Someone who claims to know a lot about the Diosec that they’re not sharing? You don’t think that’s of interest to me?”

Staving rods. I knew this was a mistake. I shot a look at Candle, who tried to give me an innocent expression.

“I don’t think airbird sevens is a problem,” I said.

“Ah,” Rhyme replied, “but I do. Is there anyone you think it might be? Any friends who might be playing a prank?”

“This isn’t a prank. Plum was looking for me.”

Rhyme held up his hands as if to say, I believe you. “And airbird sevens didn’t say anything that might tip you off as to their identity?”

I crossed my arms. “No.”

Except they had.

You’ll always know what is ever known.

In some ways, I was following the same thought process as the chief inspector. I didn’t care about the Diosec. I didn’t care about Plum. Airbird sevens was the mystery that really mattered. I had just probably come to a different conclusion than Rhyme.

Chief Inspector Rhyme took a detailed report, then sent us on our way, promising to keep an eye out. I tried to be friendly as we left, or I knew Candle would give me a hard time for it later. The problem was that I’d never liked Rhyme, not when I was a kid, and not now. He was too cheerful, and not in the way Dean Enislen is cheerful. I’ve come to understand this only recently. Dean Enislen’s smile has a knife-edge hidden between the lips, something sharp that she’s trying to bite down. Chief Inspector Rhyme smiles because he’s never known any better.

Because the Assemblage blessed him with a single magical talent and now he thinks he’s Eoea’s own child.