24. Ink

I did not reach my staff that day with the Wizard Starmine. And I didn’t reach it the next day, or the next day either.

Meanwhile, the spot on my chin where she had cracked me with her own staff bloomed black and purple, and broken blood vessels crept up into my left cheek. My face was swollen and my jaw was stiff with pain. I could barely chew or swallow. No one at the Advance Academy remarked on this, not Starmine or Fellish or Ketchling or Marewill. Only Dean Enislen acknowledged it. She had tilted her head to get a good look, her expression unreadable, then made a noncommittal noise and passed on.

The renewed energy I felt upon my return from the broken terminal started to dissipate. I could see the way forward, I could see the bright spike of light in my future, but something was still holding me back. Dean Enislen’s talk of remaking me was all well and good, but there were still things in my recent past that I couldn’t get away from.

In my memory, as in the curling expanse of the Crystic itself, a row of bodies unfurled themselves one by one by one.

I have one day off a week at the Advance Academy, Eptre. It’s when I get most of my writing done for this ticker. There’s more time for that these days, with Fogwillow gone. When she was still around, I would spend a lot of it with her, playing cards or talking or just sitting and staring out at the mountains. Now, when I get sick of sitting and staring at my lightscreen, thinking about how frustrating it is to have a thaumascope that can’t actually connect me with anyone (except, I guess, indirectly, to whoever’s reading this), I crack my knuckles, take a long, long shower, and then go walking through the observatory.

(Candle, are you reading this?)

This is how, earlier today, my ears still wet from washing, dressed in a fresh set of white robes, I found my way to a part of the complex I had never come to on my own before. I usually avoided the equatorial room in my wanderings, preferring not to have to think about my lessons with Starmine when I didn’t have to, but the last week had been so brutal that I felt it might be healthy to get a different perspective on things. The dead bodies kept bobbing to the surface of my memory like chunks of ice, cold and bloody.

First, I poked my head in the door to make sure no one was around. Looking up to the balcony, I scanned the windows that looked into Dean Enislen’s office, but they were dark. I was alone.

I pushed my way into the chamber. Everything was quiet, except for my footsteps, which echoed off the high domed ceiling. In the stillness, I could almost feel the sharpness of the vast silver instruments swooping overhead. Their forms were keen and curving. The telescope threw a shining pattern of sunlight across the floor.

I wondered what the scientists had seen when they looked through its lens, how close they were to the stars. Maybe they were on the verge of a great discovery when the Advance Academy booted them out. Or even a small one. Maybe these halls were thrumming with awe, drifting in the darkness of the mountains, watching the brightness of the sky. But now this place felt hollow. They must have taken the stars with them when they left.

To one side of the room was an open doorway, much smaller than the main entry. I approached and peered in. There was a set of stairs leading down. Looking back at the empty chamber, my eyes flicking again up to Dean Enislen’s darkened office, I drew in a deep breath, then turned and descended.

The stairs went at least three floors down along the side of the promontory and emerged into a wide, windowless hallway. The space was harsh with florescent light. On one wall, the outside wall, I thought, was a large garage door. A docking station for a skyrunner, probably. I turned off down another hallway, then another, until I came to what seemed to be a dead end.

However, when I looked down, I saw that there was a large trapdoor beneath my feet. It was made of riveted steel, and I knelt to run my hand along the edge. It was slightly warped, and I was able to get my fingers underneath, but it was too heavy to budge.

“Nova?”

My heart skipped a beat as I looked around.

Marewill Noal was standing in a doorway, blinking at me. His slouched shoulders looked even more slouched than usual, and his eyes were drawn and tired.

“What is this?” I asked, motioning at the trapdoor.

“The end of the path,” he said, shrugging. When I just stared at him, he sighed and continued. “I think Dean Enislen mentioned that this place used to be called Severet’s Lookout? That name predates even the observatory. At some point in the Lorn, ancient peoples laid a path through the Iniblis Mountains. That path eventually cuts into this very promontory and winds all the way up here. The trapdoor marks journey’s end.”

“Or beginning, depending.”

“Yes.” Marewill removed his readers and tucked them into a coat pocket. “What are you doing?”

“Exploring.”

“Ah.” He stood there in the doorway awkwardly for a moment, shifting his weight, then nodded inside. “Come here. There’s something I want to show you.”

Hesitantly, I stood and followed him into the room.

And was immediately taken aback by what I saw there. This chamber, in the underbelly of the equatorial room, was clearly Marewill’s office. There was paper everywhere. On shelves and bookcases, on tables and chairs, hanging by clips from lines of string. Dog-eared, black-scrawled, autumn-crisp paper, marked all over in Marewill’s tiny, careful script. Here and there between the stacks of pages, thaumascopes projected screens of numbers and diagrams in green, blue, and orange light, cackling with magic, their prisms glowing.

I stood frozen in the doorway, a little overwhelmed.

“Let me clear you a seat,” Marewill said, bustling back and forth through the room, clearing away piles from a chair. I stepped slowly inside.

The room itself seemed to cling to the bottom of an overhang, like a cocoon. There was a grid of windows all along the far wall, and they curved down into the floor, so far that you could stand at their edge and look down at the dizzying drop.

“Don’t worry,” Marewill said, seeing me approach the windows. “The glass is quite strong.”

All the same, I backed away, feeling sick to my stomach.

“What else are you documenting in here?” I said.

“What else? Oh no. No. This is all about you, Nova.” He finished clearing the chair and stood next to it, in the midst of all his data, his expression a strange mixture of pride and uncertainty. “This is what I wanted to show you. These are some of the numbers that run your experience here at the Academy, and show your place in the Ferren. I thought it might be useful. Another way of looking at your self.”

I turned to the nearest hanging page, but the writing on it was too dense for me to make anything out. “There’s so much,” I said.

“Not a fraction of what’s in your head. Or in your future.” He tilted his head and moved toward his desk, lowering himself into his chair with a soft sigh. “Do you think about the future much?”

“No.” I gave an unhappy laugh. “I’ve mostly just been thinking about the past lately.”

“I know. Your last entry… it… I found it to be… ” He gave me an uncomfortable look.

“Thanks,” I said.

Marewill cleared his throat and motioned to the chair he had cleared. I sat down, pulling it up to the side of his desk. There was music playing somewhere, low and operatic, in a language I didn’t recognize.

“Some of your past is in here, too, you know,” Marewill said, waving a hand at the room.

“Is that important?”

“Of course.”

“Is there stuff… ” I winced. “Is there anything from the scratshot house?”

If Marewill was bothered by the epithet, he didn’t show it. “The orphanage? Yes, there is a little bit from there.”

I rolled my eyes, my stomach twisting. “Fogwillow took me from there when I was still a baby. I don’t remember anything about the house, but people call me a scratshot kid anyway.”

“It doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

“I don’t want that in my equation.”

“Well. It is unfortunate, but the fact of the matter is, you were born there and you were left there, and the reasons for that may have implications.”

I perked up. “Do you know who my parents are?”

“Er… no.” I eyed him, but he only gave me a mild smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Is that why you stopped going to school?” he said. “The other kids?”

“How long do you think you’d be able to stand being called the Wizard Scratshot?”

“It’s not such a bad name.”

“It’s unheard of!” An old anger welled up inside of me, burning like the Crystic in my bones. I remembered long mornings in the classroom and even longer afternoons in the park. “People don’t give up wizards. You don’t have an accident when you’re magical. Wizards are only born when they’re wanted.”

“Ergo, you must have been wanted.”

I fell back in my chair, my fists clenched. “That isn’t what I meant.”

Marewill stared at me a moment longer, still smiling that stupid smile, then coughed, straightened a pen on his desk, and shifted an inkpot a few inches to the left.

“In any case, that’s behind you,” he said. “I look at it only as a matter of theory.”

“Doesn’t make any difference,” I said. “There are bullies here, too.”

Marewill’s eyes fell, quickly, on my bruised chin. He looked away, uncomfortable.

“Starmine can be… ah… a tad overblown at times. She had hopes of joining the Assemblage when she was young, and when that dream failed, her showmanship soured. She’s haunted by the belief that she wasn’t impressive enough. I don’t think she reads your ticker, by the way, so don’t worry about writing this in there if you want.”

“She has a thing against Crystic technology.”

“She has a thing against most things but her own magic. She’s a bit Lornic in her thinking. Imagines herself a wizard of old.”

I furrowed my brow and slumped lower into the chair.

“Nova, what’s bothering you?” Marewill said.

“I guess… ” I sucked in a breath. If there’s anyone I would have wanted to talk about this with, it would have been Candle. Or maybe even Fogwillow. But neither of them were here, so maybe Marewill Noal, mild-mannered alumscript that he was, would have to do. “I can’t stop thinking about the people I killed.”

“At the investiture?”

I nodded, and a sharp pain unspooled in my stomach.

“I never,” I began, then had to start over. “I never thought I’d be the kind of person who could do something like that. I still can’t get the feeling of blood off of me, but Dean Enislen dresses me up in this perfect white robe in these perfect white halls and pretends I’m the pure savior of the Ferren. It’s wrong. It’s not what’s in my mind.”

“You were scared,” Marewill said. “And they were bad people, Nova. The Ferren loves you for what you did. You made them safe. You were a hero before they knew you were a hero.”

“None of that gives me the right to kill anybody.”

“You’ll have to do a lot worse if you’re going to take care of the Ryvkk.”

I stared at Marewill, my eyes burning. This was a mistake, opening up to him. He was terrible at this. But it was too late. Everything dark and rotten was gushing out of me.

“I can’t help but feel that something’s missing,” I choked. “From the Academy. I’ve been beaten, I’ve been ground down, I’ve been exhausted within an inch of my life. And I’m stronger for it, I know, but in some ways I feel like the beating doesn’t go deep enough, that I’m being reshaped around an ugly pit.”

“Oh, Nova. Nova, Nova.”

“I need more. I need them to be harsher, to wipe away everything.” I motioned to the room and the pages upon pages. “And I don’t want to be numbers, because it means… it means those dead bodies… that’s who I am.”

“No, no.” Marewill leaned forward across the corner of his desk and tried to take my hand. I jerked back in the chair, sending it rocking on two legs. Marewill caught himself and pulled his hands into his lap. He looked at me solemnly. “The beautiful thing about numbers, Nova, is that they move. They change. The prophecy algorithm is strung with variables, and each time one shifts it sends ripples through the rest of the Crystic. Every choice you make changes everything.”

I gave a bitter laugh. “I think Starmine is dead wrong. I think technology is the best thing that’s ever happened to us. Maybe it’s good to get all this power out of our own hands.”

Marewill furrowed his brow, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

I wiped away my tears, my pain hardening, and sat up straighter, the way Fellish had taught me.

“I’m scared of my power,” I said coldly. “I didn’t know it until Dean Enislen took me to the broken terminal. When I stepped into the scorched earth and was cut off from all the magic of the Crystic—I was relieved. And I realized… I just want my magic to go away.” I looked at him. “Does that make me a bad hero? A wrong Answer?”

Marewill sighed. This was clearly all too much for him. When he invited me into his office I don’t think he expected to be burdened with the whole dark depths of my emotions.

“Nobody expects you to have figured everything out right now,” he said wearily.

“Dean Enislen does. I think she expects me to be perfect.”

Marewill considered me for a moment with his usual, dry stare. Then he picked up his pen and dipped it in the inkpot. He held it up before me for a moment, then, with one quick gesture, flung it at me. The ink sprayed out along my perfect, pristine robes, staining them in a splatter of black.

“There,” he said mildly. “A little imperfection.”

I couldn’t help but smile.