Candle and I followed Plum to the outskirts of the city, to breaker row, where the pale buildings and cebelis trees spilled onto a wide overlook. Down below, the sea sparkled with the lights of the skyscrapers, running into the clear distance. When the sun rose over that horizon, the high crescent broke the dawn and waves alike against its sheer rock face.
But it was dead night now, and the waters beyond the glittering shore were as black as the sky. The cebelis trees were shadowed and hunched, and the wind in their boughs mingled with the soughing of the waves down below.
Plum—or rather Plum’s shadow—turned a corner up ahead, and Candle and I scampered along the storefronts, which were starting to close for the night, their shades drawn and softly golden in the darkness. We were two silhouettes against them.
I peered around the corner and heard a bell ring as Plum entered a shop. He stood for a moment, framed in the glass-paneled door, then moved out of sight.
“He went into the takky shop,” I told Candle, ducking back behind the street corner.
“Sweet tooth?” she said. Her expression was drawn and slightly pained. “Let’s go back, Nova, I don’t like this.”
“I told you, you’re welcome to leave. This is my mystery.”
Candle squinted at me. “You’ve offended me, Nova Scratshot. You’ve offended me deeply.”
I looked around the corner again.
“He’s not coming out,” I said. I scanned the nearby streets, bouncing on the balls of my feet. Had I missed him? Did I look away for too long? Bracing myself, I stepped out and headed toward the shop.
“Nova,” Candle hissed.
I passed through a small park, where a ragged trio had appropriated a bench, their laughter harsh and grating in the settling air. As I crossed into the street, I heard quick footsteps behind me, and then felt Candle at my side.
“All right,” she said. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right. Sorry about this.”
Candle grabbed my hand. Hers was sweaty, and her stubby fingers slid, damp and soft, between mine as she closed them. I recoiled at the touch, my arm squirming, but she held on tight.
The takky shop rose up before us, its windows etched with old-fashioned filigree. Through them, the shop was bright and warm. And Plum was nowhere to be seen.
The bell rang as we pushed our way inside.
“We’re closing in three minutes,” said the man behind the counter. He was old and bald, gnarled like a weather-beaten staff.
“Oh,” Candle said, and she giggled. I turned and stared down at her. Candle never giggled. Her hand was latched onto mine in a death grip, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at her. Her eyes had gone wide and her jaw slightly slack. “We… we won’t be long.” She held her free hand up to her mouth and suppressed a giddy laugh. It came out as a snort.
The shop owner raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and turned back to the newspaper he’d been reading.
Candle released my hand, and I let out the breath I’d been holding. I tried to catch her eye, but she wouldn’t look at me. Instead, she elbowed me in the ribs and retreated—still extremely giggly—to the far corner of the shop.
I took a moment to study my surroundings. Glass tubes filled with takky lined the walls, stretching all the way to the ceiling. The sticky candies shone in a hundred different colors within the dispensers, wrapped in waxy paper like little bows. I approached one, pretending to inspect the acidic looking yellow and green takky.
Apart from the entryway, there was only one other door, and it was behind the desk where the old man sat. Assuming Plum hadn’t left the shop, that was the only place he could have gone.
Behind me, Candle giggled again, and I heard a sharp cranking sound. I turned. She was jamming the handle of a dispenser back and forth, a paper bag held beneath the opening.
“Sir, it’s not…” She snickered. “It’s not working.”
“Hey, just leave it alone,” the shop owner said.
Candle gave a shove and the handle snapped off. “Oops!”
The shop owner pressed his lips together so hard that his mouth nearly disappeared, but he made no move to get up from his chair.
Candle caught my eye. Sighing softly, I reached for the Crystic. There was a snapping sensation in my mind as I connected, then I flicked my wrist and suddenly the bottom of the broken dispenser dropped open and the entire glass tube emptied onto the floor.
The shop owner cried out as an avalanche of takky spilled across the tiles, spinning in bright reds and oranges. Candle leapt back, made a show of tripping over her feet, and fell on her rear. She giggled.
The shop owner slammed down his paper and rounded the desk, stooping down to clean the candy as Candle rose awkwardly to her feet.
“Can I buy this?” she said, holding up a handful of takky.
“We’re closed!” the shop owner snapped, and Candle shrugged and retreated.
When I was sure he wasn’t looking, I flicked my wrist again and rang the bell over the entryway so it would sound like we left, then Candle and I slipped behind the desk and into the back room.
“Please don’t do that again,” I said in a whisper.
“If you want to get things done, sometimes you have to spill a little takky.”
“No, I mean the giggling.”
“What? You don’t like it?” She pulled open a piece of takky and popped it into her mouth. Then giggled.
I rolled my eyes and turned to inspect our surroundings.
We were in a storage room, dimly lit, with rows of metal shelves on which plastic bags of takky were heaped in cardboard boxes. Quite unlike the warm, sweet scent of the store itself, this room smelled oiled and industrial. There was only a thin sheen of sugar in the air, and when I did catch a whiff of it, it smelled almost antiseptic.
“Oh,” I said, my shoulders slumping.
“What’s the matter?”
“I guess I didn’t realize… ”
“Didn’t realize that the takky was shipped in from big warehouses?”
“Not so glamorous when you peek behind the scenes, is it? That’s why you should only buy your takky from places with integrity, like the Corner Blossom or Renela’s. These shiny places are all a scam.” She untwisted another piece and grimaced as she chewed. “And they taste like foam.”
I stepped into the aisles. There was no sign of Plum. No shifting shadows, no quiet footsteps. The only sounds were the whir of cold, forced air from the vents and the muttering of the shop owner beyond the door.
“It’s kinda funny,” Candle said as we crept along the storage boxes. “I hadn’t thought about it, but this isn’t something you would learn from sitting up in your attic, Nova.”
“Mm,” I said.
“The world is about creating experiences, like the feeling of dropping by your local, home-and-hearth candy shop. Never mind that behind it all is a whole, carefully designed industry. Everything is a manipulation.”
“That’s great, Candle. Real cynical.”
“Hey, I’m all about the future, remember. Your cynicism is my—”
I held up a hand and Candle dropped silent. We had come to a stop at the end of a row, in front of a concrete wall. Set in the wall was a door.
This door was not kidding around. It was heavy and dark, made of metal and edged with a thick, burnished frame. The handle gleamed silver, and looked like it was designed to facilitate not turning. I reached for it, but Candle suddenly grabbed my arm and yanked me back.
“Don’t,” she said. “That handle is surging with magic.”
“How can you tell?”
She nodded to a keypad beside the door, with a blinking yellow panel and a small, button sized prism set into it.
“I’ve seen those before, in the warehouses where the Assemblage stores artifacts from the Lorn. My parents take me sometimes. If you touch that handle you’ll be fried crispier than a koba crisp.”
“How do we get in? This is where he went, I know it. This has to be where he went.”
Candle stared at me for a long time before finally saying, “Are you sure you want to do this? You realize what’s probably behind this door, don’t you? What this whole candy shop is a front for?”
I swallowed and nodded, even though I knew she had more to say and that my agreeing with her wouldn’t stop her from saying it. And what do you know, I was right.
“You’re talking about infiltrating the Diosec’s hideout. This isn’t just following a man down the street anymore. You’re talking about breaking into a place where a known criminal organization is plotting to kidnap children. You’ve already uncovered something huge, Nova. Take it to the Shift Patrol. The takky business will be tanked. The Diosec—”
“The Diosec will find another cover,” I interrupted. “They’ll go further underground and we’ll never find them again and I’ll never understand why airbird sevens contacted me. We’ve gone this far, Candle. Please.”
So Candle nodded and turned to the keypad. That was the great thing about Candle. Once she was on your side, it didn’t take much to keep her there. She was loyal—and she expected loyalty in return.
She pulled a screwdriver out of her pocket and undid the faceplate.
The door at the other end of the storeroom opened, letting a beam of light in over the tops of the metal shelves, and I heard the shop owner muttering to himself. Everything inside me went tight, and I looked over Candle’s shoulder. She was fiddling with the wires inside the exposed guts of the keypad, disconnecting some here and reconnecting them there. She turned a gear with her screwdriver that sent a whirligig of other gears spinning.
The shop owner’s muttering grew louder as his footsteps grew closer. I heard the sharp crinkle of plastic as he grabbed new bags of pre-packaged takky, wending his way slowly through the aisles.
The button prism in the keypad throbbed, sending pink threads of energy spiraling through the device. At the end of the aisle, the shopkeeper’s shadow lengthened. Candle, with her tongue between her lips, pressed gently on a switch.
The lighted panel turned from yellow to blue. Candle nodded.
I grabbed the door handle. It was ice cold, and gave me a nasty static shock, but was otherwise defused. Opening the door was like moving a refrigerator. Candle helped me ease it forward a crack, and then we slipped inside and pushed it shut behind.
I let out my breath and a soft, worried laugh, letting my shoulders slump. Sweat was beading up along my hairline. Candle twirled her screwdriver between her fingers, then slipped it back in her pocket.
“Worst excursion ever,” she said with a smug smile. “Though I do like a good puzzle. Let’s break into the Assemblage’s tower in Eldehill next.”
We were in a small room lit by a single, flickering light panel. The brick walls wept with condensation, and a drain in the corner was rimmed with swampy water. I could hear it trickling away somewhere deep within the walls. A metal staircase led the way down in a spiral through cheese-grated light. Candle and I stepped carefully onto the stairs and wound our way down.
We emerged onto a catwalk. A whole cross-section of them, actually, hanging high above what seemed to be a vast warehouse. Through the grid of hexes below our feet, we could see dim cutouts of people moving back and forth between rows of wooden boxes and crates. They wore yellow uniforms with caps pulled low over their eyes. Not sunshine yellow, not daffodil yellow, but a dirty, mustardseed almost-brown, like boiled egg yolks. I shared a look with Candle, whose face was pooled with worried shadows. We crept along the catwalk, and through the mildewed air I caught a whiff of salt and brine.
We were at the foot of breaker row, and at the far end of the warehouse a garage door was open to the sea, and a ship was moored just beyond. More people in yellow uniforms were unloading more crates along a series of gangplanks, their voices curt and faint. Somewhere, people were talking loudly, giving orders, and their muffled conversation rattled through the catwalks.
Crouched down, we crept along further.
“There!” I whispered suddenly. “Look.”
Candle peered around me. To one side of the warehouse, the crates were being broken open and unloaded, their contents stacked in neat rows amid the debris of packing straw. The crates appeared to be filled with smaller boxes, thin and oblong. Plum walked among them, his hands behind his back, talking quietly with one of the workers at his side.
Candle nudged me forward, toward a set of stairs leading down. I clenched my teeth, hesitating.
“Really?” I said.
“We’ve already decided to do dangerous things.” Candle pushed me forward, insistently. “Let’s not argue about it now.”
So we climbed down to the floor of the warehouse. The stairs were heavily shadowed, and we kept our movements slow and footsteps light. At the bottom, we ducked behind a row of boxes and ran along toward Plum. We swept past him, keeping our heads low, and at the end of the row came upon an empty crate. Candle shoved me in and pulled the lid shut behind us. It was hot and cramped inside, and smelled of straw and oil. We peeked through the wooden slats.
Plum was approaching, eyeing the cargo from behind his tiny glasses.
“That’s just about the last of it,” his companion said, one of the yellow-uniformed agents. Plum turned to her and frowned.
“It’s less than I’d hoped.”
“You have any idea how expensive these things are?”
“The cost is negligible when you consider the advantage.”
The agent snorted. “You’re not as ahead of the curve as you think, Plum. Soon every staving alt in the Shift Patrol will have one of these.”
We pressed back against the far side of the crate as they passed by, their movements striped and stuttering between the slats. As I crouched back, my hand fell on something hard and pointed, and I gasped.
One of the thin, smaller boxes was still left in the crate with us. Candle’s eyes went wide, and she reached for it. I shook my head furiously.
A little ways down the row, Plum stopped and turned to survey the warehouse. I could see the easy posture of his shoulders beneath the purple suit, and the golden valley where his hair came to a point at the nape of his neck.
“You taking care of your end?” said the agent, coming up beside him.
“Not your concern.”
“I’m just saying it’d be a shame to go to all this trouble and have him slip through our fingers.”
Plum turned to the side, away from the agent, and frowned. Then he twisted all the way back around, staring at the very row of boxes in which Candle and I were hiding. My breath came up short, and I edged back into the corner.
“Start loading the empty crates back onto the ship,” Plum said. “There’s far too much clutter in here.”
The agent barked some orders, and before I knew it, we were surrounded by shadows, and rough hands were heaving us upward. Panicking, I connected to the Crystic and pulled some power up through my fingertips, holding Candle’s hand for the second time that night and pushing part of the power into her. My skin warmed as I expelled the magic, and we both rose into the air with the crate. It wasn’t perfect, or by any means elegant, but it would be enough to make them think the crate was empty.
If I could sustain it.
Our knees knocked gently against the bottom of the crate and our heads brushed against the top. Only a couple seconds in and I was already starting to sweat. It felt as if I were trying to push all of my insides out through my pores, and every muscle was burning with the effort.
“And don’t worry,” I heard Plum say as we were carried away. His voice was growing fainter, and I strained to hear through the ache of my screaming limbs. “I will take Nova Scratshot soon. And then we’ll see how long our advantage can last. The Answer to Prophecy is a limited commodity indeed.”
For me at least. Everything else seemed to roll onward, like a train I hadn’t been able to catch, left behind on the platform and watching the world pass by around me. Plum’s words repeated over and over again in my mind, but some deep, stubborn part of me wouldn’t let them sink in, couldn’t integrate them into any meaningful parts.
Dimly, I was aware of wind through the slats and moonlight and the heavy tread of feet on a gangplank.
And then my exhaustion caught up with me, my body gave out, and Candle and I fell against the bottom of the crate. There were shouts as the workers fumbled for control of their cargo, but they were lost in the crash of waves against the bluff. The box tipped, Candle and I rolled, and seconds later we hit the cold waters of the sea far below.