6. Hearth

Candle was the first person I ever told a secret.

It was about Hero Trotter, a game on the Crystic. We used to spend a lot of time playing Hero Trotter, as did most people my age. Gruffin didn’t approve of it. Gruffin thought all these new ways of passing information back and forth along the Crystic amounted to sacrilege of an ancient magic. The Crystic was meant to be a latticework of connection among wizards, a connection that, in turn, fueled the wizardry we performed. But the invention of the thaumascope changed all that. Today, to most people, the word meant something else entirely. By focusing the Crystic through a prism, normal people had learned to tap into that latticework, and use it to pass information across the Ferren.

And create virtual games about young adventurers.

“Appropriation,” I’d heard Gruffin say with disdain. “All this information that’s hijacked our lines of magic, it’s a poison. The Crystic doesn’t mean what it used to mean.”

I always thought that was a little hypocritical. He, himself, taught me that the Crystic was connection, so why shouldn’t we use it to connect? Especially since new technology allowed people who weren’t wizards to access it.

Candle loved technology. She loved the idea that human tools could give her access to the power of wizards, that she had the potential to make sorceries out of circuits and gears, the same as the grand mages could with their staves.

“Emma Lyn Candle will never understand the Crystic,” Gruffin said. “Ordinary people never will. Not in the same way as you or I. They don’t have the respect. The Ferren’s bereft of awe.”

I’m not sure why Gruffin ran an investiture. He seemed to hate the idea of ordinary hands using magic. And it’s not like he was doing much with his own magic, anyway. I’d hardly ever seen him pick up his staff, and he’d never bothered to show me how to make my own. Not that I wanted one, or needed one. Staves were for educated wizards.

But I was going to tell you about Hero Trotter, because there’s something I want you to understand about Candle, and why I was friends with her.

We were thirteen the first time she ever visited me in my attic bedroom. We’d already known each other for years, but most of our interactions were outdoors, when Fogwillow would take me to get fresh air, or over dinner at Candle’s parents’ house. We knew we both played Hero Trotter. It was one of the things we talked about incessantly—about the best strategies for quests, and where you could find hidden items, and the glitch near the eastern wall of Umlot’s Cavern. She told me all about her character, and I revealed what I could of mine, but I’d never told her my username, despite endless pestering.

Then there was this one day in the dead of winter. Blush became soft and pale when the snow came. The pink leaves fell from the cebelis trees, leaving their white barked skeletons twisting through the air, shining like bone. The snow stuck in powdery clumps to the eaves of the buildings, coating the roofs of skyscrapers and the icy sidewalks down below.

I was at my desk when I heard a knock on the door. It was a sound I’d never heard before. Gruffin, who lived out of his office on the first floor, never came up here, and Fogwillow didn’t knock. Frozen, I called out, “Who is it?”

“It’s me,” came Candle’s voice.

I started to sweat, despite the chill, and a horrible, twisting anxiety choked me. I looked at my unmade bed, my bare walls, my cluttered floor and my crumb-covered desk. Before I could move to fix anything, the door opened and Candle waltzed in, looking like she’d been there a thousand times before. She stopped in the middle of the room, glanced around at the bare, splintered wood, squinted out the enormous, slanted window at the white sky, then sat down on my bed and wrapped herself up in my quilt.

“This place is chilly.”

“What are you doing here?” I blurted, then regretted.

“What does it look like I’m doing here? I’m here to visit you, of course. I can’t visit a friend?”

This took me aback. It was the first time friendship had ever been mentioned between us. I grimaced and twisted sideways in my chair. What did one do with a friend?

“Hey, pass me your keyboard,” Candle said. “I’ve been wanting to show you my Hero Trotter profile for ages.”

Wordlessly, I handed her the keyboard, and she scooted forward on the bed. I twisted my scope around so she could see, and she navigated to her account. Instantly, a tall, broad-shouldered woman appeared on the lightscreen, her hair buzzed short, dressed in battered leather armor. She was standing on the deck of a flying ship, which cut through the virtual clouds as if through an ocean. Grinning, Candle moving her character up a ladder to the crow’s nest, where she could look out at the cloudscape from up high. A low, ethereal tune began playing from the scope’s speakers.

“Behold!” Candle said. “The mighty skywheelerx0, cloud crusader extraordinaire.”

“Whoa,” I said before I could stop myself. I came around the side of my desk and sat cross-legged on the floor, looking up at the screen as she played. “Is that the Ship of Broken Dusk?”

“The one and only.” Candle could barely keep the pride out of her voice. “I had to ransack seven dungeons to find the way up here. Took me months.”

A flying creature with a wingspan made of shadows appeared on the screen, swooping toward the crow’s nest where her character still stood.

“Look out!” I said.

“Nah, that’s just Panwither. He’s my familiar.”

“You made a shade glider your familiar?”

“Well, I wanted something that flies, and this was clearly the coolest thing on two wings.”

“You’re insane. That’s insane. How many quests have you completed?”

When she didn’t answer right away, I twisted to look up at her where she sat in my bed. She smirked, her eyes fixed on the screen, her face set and determined. “One hundred and thirty two.”

I was speechless. I would have whistled if I could whistle. As it was, I just sort of pushed some breath out between my lips. Then, Candle turned to me. “Here,” she said. “Your turn.” She pressed the keyboard into my hands.

I recoiled, and my stomach plummeted. “I don’t know… ” I avoided her eyes.

“You’ve been putting this off forever, Nova Scratshot. The time has come. Why do you think I invited myself over in the first place? Let’s see your epic deeds.”

“This is why you came?”

Candle shrugged. “You never seem to leave this place except with Fogwillow. And that’s what, once a month, if you’re lucky? I wanted to see what you have to show for yourself, alone for weeks on end.”

It was my turn to shrug, though I don’t think I pulled it off as well. “I don’t sit inside here all the time. I like to go up on the roof.”

“Great,” Candle said, and jumped off the bed. “Let’s go.”

“No!” I said it a little too quickly. “Sorry, I mean. The roof is just… I don’t think I want anyone else up there.” My face was getting hot, and to my surprise it was more from anger than embarrassment. That was new.

“Fine. No roof. I crashed your bedroom, I guess I have to let you have the roof.” She flopped back down on the bed. “What else do you do all day then?”

“I don’t know,” I said, wishing she would go away. “Read tickers, learn about things on the Crystic, play Hero Trotter.”

“Exactly. You’ve probably clocked more hours than anyone. Go on. Let’s see what you’ve done.”

This is the part where I tell you that this was the closest I ever came to hating Emma Lyn Candle. I’ve never told her that. I don’t know if she knows how easy it would have been for me to loathe her for the rest of my life. I don’t think I wanted her to know. What would she think of me if she’d known I could have just as easily discarded her as befriended her? What kind of value does a friendship like that even have?

Well, she knows now, if she’s reading this.

“Fine,” I said through gritted teeth. Simmering with anger, I pulled the keyboard closer and navigated to my account, making sure to make the keystrokes as loud as possible, as if each one were a jab at this strange girl who had invaded my private space.

My profile popped up on the screen before us. Without even looking, I handed the keyboard up to Candle, then crossed my arms, glowering at the floor.

I barely breathed for the next sixty seconds. There were so many thoughts in my head that it was all just white noise. Beside me, I heard the tap of the keyboard as she moved my character around.

Finally, she said, “What is this?”

“It’s my account,” I said.

“I know that, but what is—”

Sighing in exasperation, I took the keyboard from her and looked up at the screen, navigating through my profile. “Look. See. My character’s name is hearthfire140. That’s his house. It’s small, I know, but it’s comfortable. The room upstairs is for his parents, and there are two other rooms for his siblings. A brother and a sister. He also has a cat and a dog, and there’s a little farm outside. I should probably harvest my corn, actually… ”

“Were are your… where are your items? You haven’t… Nova, you haven’t completed any quests?”

“Not… not really, no.”

She held her arms out, disbelief written all over her face. “What do you do?”

“Well… every morning I build a fire in the hearth and bake bread for meals. I do the daily chores and keep the livestock fed. There are some good books in the game, most people probably don’t notice. I read them out loud sometimes in the afternoons.”

The silence stretched on, long and painful, as I went outside and harvested my virtual corn. It wasn’t really a part of the game, officially. But I was a wizard, and I could manipulate the coding of the Crystic however I liked. That doesn’t mean I could do it well, though, and I had to wait a couple times while the environment glitched out trying to render the corn.

When I finished, I looked up at Candle to find that she was staring at me. All at once, shame flushed up the side of my neck, and I looked away quickly.

“You used Hero Trotter,” she began, “a game where the entire world is at your fingertips, where you can have any adventures you can dream of—to… to build a home? And a… and a family?”

“I don’t want adventures,” I said, bristling. “I don’t want the world. I just want… ” I gestured nebulously at the screen.

“Stop,” Candle said, holding up a hand. “You don’t have to.”

We stayed there in silence for a moment longer, and then, suddenly, Candle stood and walked to the window.

“Look,” she said, pressing her hands up against the slanted glass. I turned to the window. Up in the pale winter sky, a cloudweaver was passing, shining sharp and crisp as a knife, its propellers carrying it along to other parts of Trill. “I’ve always wanted to fly in one of those,” Candle said.

She let out a breath, and it fogged the window, leaving an imprint where her nose grazed the glass. Her nose print was there for the rest of the winter.

And that’s why Candle is my friend. Because she saw a piece of me and didn’t laugh. She didn’t even make me explain it.