I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately. Not because I’m not tired, and not because I’ve been having bad dreams. No. I’m not afraid to shut my eyes. I’m afraid to open them.
Because there’s always a moment, lying in bed as I start to wake up, when I’m sure Plum is there, just on the other side of my eyelids, a skin-thick barrier all that separates me from that grinning face. And I know it’s impossible, know for a fact that he’s not roaming the halls of the observatory, but the more I feel trapped by the sharp design of the Advance Academy, the more I think of him, and the more difficult it becomes to relive these memories, knowing that demons appear when I’m asleep, afraid they’ll still be there when I wake.
It has happened before.
Back in Blush, after I dropped unconscious in the forest, I woke to see Plum sitting across from me, well-coiffed and with a cool smile, one arm draped casually over the back of his chair.
“Feeling better?” he said, and each word was like a dab of honey.
I fought against the lingering effects of whatever they had used to put me to sleep. Plum looked on in amusement as I blinked hard, trying to take in my surroundings.
I was sitting in a bare room, with concrete walls and a chipped tile floor. Everything was dim. In fact, the brightest things I could see were the two spots where Plum’s tiny spectacles flashed in some unseen light. When I tried to move my arms I discovered that they were tied together, wrists bound behind my chair. To my left, a breeze blew against my face, and I turned to see a small, grated window, high up on the wall. It was dark beyond the bars, but I could hear the sea, and the wind coming in smelled like salt.
I was in the Diosec hideout, beneath breaker row.
“Got your bearings?” Plum said. “You’ve been here before I think.”
I looked back at him, surprised.
“Yes, I thought so,” he continued. “Gave our takky-peddling friend quite a bit of trouble a few nights back, didn’t you?” Suddenly, he detached himself from the back of the chair and leaned in close. The shadows lengthened on his face as he rested his elbows on his knees and peered up into my eyes. “What did you see? What did you hear?”
I leaned back as far as I could. The chair creaked beneath me.
In that moment, I connected to the Crystic, but I was still exhausted, and the little magic that flowed through me was weak. Even at full strength, I don’t know what I would have done. I was an investiture attendant. It’s not like I could use magic to fight. My bones warmed, then cooled, and Plum seemed none the wiser.
“I suppose it doesn’t really matter,” he said, and he was so close I could smell his breath. “We have you, now.”
Briskly, he stood, picked up his chair, and set it aside.
“Follow me. You’ll find your bonds are not tight. A counterclockwise twist of the wrists should do it.”
To my surprise, he was right. The rope fell from my hands and I stood, massaging where my skin had begun to chafe.
“We didn’t think you’d actually try to escape, you see,” Plum continued. “Do you know how we knew? Because we’ve been watching you. You’re not brave enough. You don’t have the willpower to save yourself.”
Plum stepped to the door and swung it wide.
The warehouse was less busy than it had been last time I was here, and many of the wooden crates had been cleared away. As Plum led me out into the vast stillness, I saw that only a few agents were present, walking in twos and threes between the broken, half-empty rows. Their whispers echoed up to the catwalks, and a few threw me curious looks as we passed.
“This way,” Plum said, placing a hand on my back and guiding me to the right. I stiffened at his touch, his fingers like centipedes crawling between my shoulder blades.
“I’m sorry,” he said, noticing my discomfort and withdrawing his hand. “I hadn’t realized.” After a moment he chuckled to himself. I looked up at him. “It’s nothing,” he said, shaking his head slightly, mouth still edged with laughter. “It’s just a funny thing. There are some things you can’t tell about a person, no matter how closely you watch them. You have to touch someone to find out they don’t like being touched.”
We went up a flight of stairs to a low walkway, along which were several doors. Plum guided me to the farthest one and ushered me inside.
It was like stepping into another world.
His office, because that’s where I could only assume we were, was as different from the cold, concrete warehouse as possible. The air was warm and tinged with the scent of cotton and shoe polish. Old oak furniture and plush chairs upholstered in paisley were arranged in cozy-looking corners. Shaded lamps cast a soft glow over a floor laid with overlapping rugs, and near the far wall was a massive desk, dark and brooding. The walls were hung with heavy drapes. No detail had been spared in the effort to disguise where we were.
As I stood there trying to process everything, Plum clicked the door shut and approached a sideboard. “How do you like your tea?” When I didn’t answer, he poured two cups and brought them over on saucers, passing one off to me. “Rooibos, with a bit of lemon and honey. I won’t ask you to sit, as you probably want nothing less than to get comfortable in my presence right now.” He took a sip and stared at me intently from over the top of his cup. I had not spoken a single word to him since waking up, but if he was thrown off by my silence, there was no sign of it. He would wait.
I held the cup and saucer awkwardly, not trusting it, unsure how it was supposed to taste and how I would know if there was something in it. Avoiding Plum’s gaze, my eyes were drawn to a pedestal that stood by itself in the center of the room. On top of the pedestal was a tall flower. It grew from its pot in a long, thick stalk, and at its top it bloomed into an enormous mess of purple petals. They curled in and around each other, dense and soft, almost like a cabbage. I stepped past Plum to get a closer look.
“Mm,” Plum said, swallowing his tea. “You’ve noticed my narylis flower.”
It would be hard not to notice it.
“Kenroch’s Violet Heart, you might have heard it called.” He followed me over, his tea balanced perfectly in one hand. “This is my pride and joy. I’m partial to the color, as you may have guessed, but also to the skill required to care for one. They are exceedingly difficult to grow, narylis flowers. Their water intake, their exposure to sunlight and shadow, their clipping and maintenance—everything must be just so. Set one thing out of balance by a fraction and the flower will die, even after decades of care. I’ve had this one for over fifteen years, but I believe its actual age may be closer to sixty.”
I looked up at Plum.
“What do you want with me?” I said.
“We want to find out if you’re the Answer to Prophecy.”
I blinked. I hadn’t been expecting such a blunt response. Plum held my eyes for a few seconds while he took another sip of his tea, and I realized, belatedly, that he likely wasn’t trying to poison me at all. This tea, the cup and saucer I was still holding onto with both hands, and the manipulation, masked as a mercy, to keep me standing—it was just another show of power. My legs may be tired, but I would stand because he wanted me to. I may not want tea, but I would hold it anyway because I was not welcome to set it down. My hands, in this new, polite way, were still bound.
“What do you know of the prophecy?” Plum said.
“I know what I’ve researched on the Crystic. What I’ve heard people talk about on the tickers.”
He nodded slowly, considering, then held up a finger. “Look at this.”
Plum walked over to his desk, set his tea down, and picked up a scroll. With a flourish of his hands, he sent it unfurling, rolling off over the carpet, nearly to the other end of the room. When I squinted down at it, I could see that it was covered in calculations.
“This is a transcription,” Plum said, “handwritten and illuminated by the thaumaticians, themselves, of the first branch of the prophecy, called the Incitement Proof.” He got down on his hands and knees, his face so close to the parchment that his nose nearly touched the beautiful calligraphy. He ran a finger along a few of the lines, muttering, almost to himself. “Here is where it says that a variable—a hero—will be born in the Age of Devices, and that this variable will come to make the Ferren whole again, to thwart the plans of the Ryvkk.”
With surprising speed, he crawled sideways, to the middle of the scroll. I had to move aside to make room, careful not to knock into the narylis flower behind me. “And here is where it says, and this is important, Nova, that the variable will know him or herself by looking into the Crystic at a moment of need. There, they will see the wholeness of the algorithm laid out before them, the deep equations that run the Ferren. Then they will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, who they are and what they can do.”
He craned his neck around to look up at me. “Do you see? This is what I find so interesting about all of this, and the way we talk about it.” His stare was so intense, so expectant, that I had to look away.
“I don’t think I understand,” I said.
Plum rose to his feet.
“I always wonder,” he said, “with every child we’ve taken: why this person? Why might this person, specifically, be the one chosen by the Crystic? And I wonder it about you, too, Nova. Are you particularly powerful? Are you extraordinarily clever? Is there anything special about you at all? Looking at you now, I wonder how you could possibly save anyone. Can you even save yourself?” He tilted his head and stepped closer, as if I were a hole that he could peer deeper inside. “Or are you just a number to be crunched? A box to tick in the destiny of the Ferren.”
Plum paused and motioned to the scroll. “Reading this gives me clues, and recently I’ve begun to wonder… it’s not so much that the hero is the Answer to the prophecy. It’s that the hero knows the Answer to the prophecy. They are blessed, in their moment of need, with the solution that will make the equation—The Ferren—whole.”
I gave a hollow laugh. “I was never so good at math.”
“Bah. I’m talking semantics, really. The important thing is that we have reason to believe you are the Answer the Ferren’s been seeking.”
“You’re making a mistake. It can’t be me. The Assemblage has been looking for the Answer for decades, they would have looked into me by now if they suspected—”
“The Assemblage and their precious Advance Academy?” Plum chuckled. “Useless. They will never find the Answer, because left as he is, the Answer will never find himself.”
“What do you mean? The prophecy says, in a moment of need—”
“A moment of need,” Plum repeated disdainfully. “And yet it’s been years since the prophecy was written out, and the Ferren is only getting worse and the Ryvkk stronger. This is something the prophecy doesn’t seem to take into account: that the Answer could live their entire life without hardship. That they could remain passive and alone. Weak. That they never find their calling and, thus, never know what they can do to save us all.” There was something uncomfortable about the way he looked at me, then, like I was an animal, ready for slaughter. He fingered something at his waist. “Perhaps, in such a case, it would be prudent to forceupon them a moment of need.”
And then I saw what he was reaching for. It was one of the magic-powered weapons Candle and I had found, tucked in a holster at his side, its barrel long and gleaming. He saw me notice it, and smiled.
“It’s called a glimmer,” he said. “A new kind of device. I think you will be interested in what it does.”
Every ounce of courage I had left in me melted and pooled at my feet. My cup rattled on its saucer once, and I stilled it with an enormous effort. Plum loomed over me, growing like a shadow against the setting sun.
“That’s what you want?” I said. “To… to put the Answer in danger so… so he will find himself?”
“If the workings of the Ferren won’t do it, human hands will have to satisfy.”
“You would manipulate the prophecy?”
“No, no, no. Don’t you see? I am the prophecy. I am your moment of need, Nova Scratshot.”
I swallowed. “And what are you going to do to me?”
“Ah, ah.” Plum held up a finger. “Before we get to that, there’s one thing I must know, and that is this…” He paused, and suddenly a look of genuine curiosity appeared on his face. It was unsettling. It was the first honest thing I had seen him do. “How did you know to be scared of me?”
I froze. I tried to speak, but my mouth was too dry. I licked my lips and tried again. “W-what?”
“How did you know to hide from me? To follow me? Who tipped you off?”
I tried with all of my will not to think of airbird sevens, even though I knew it was unreasonable, even though I knew Plum couldn’t read my mind. I felt, in that moment, that it was unsafe to have airbird sevens’ presence near me in any way, shape, or form. Afraid his name would spring to my lips as quickly as it tried to spring to my head.
I didn’t reply to Plum. I couldn’t. And after a few more moments, he backed off and turned away. He folded his hands behind him and looked up at his narylis flower.
“No worries, we will get it out of you. I will take you back to your cell, now, and tomorrow we will get started.”
And then he did something odd. He unclasped his hands and stuck his fingers in the dirt from which the flower grew. He closed his eyes, heaved a sigh, and dug up a thick, hook-shaped root. Against my better judgment, I came closer, and what I saw made me sick to my stomach.
The root was covered in long, fuzzy growths, black and putrid. They corkscrewed out with knobby tendrils and white fuzz beneath their scales like armpit hair. It didn’t look right. It didn’t look healthy. It looked like they were consuming the flower from beneath the ground.
“What is that?” I said in horror.
“That,” Plum said, “…is the radet fungus. Scientific name, dioseccaulus. It looks bad, I know, but in fact they pass nutrients from the soil to the flower, and the flower, in turn, passes carbon down to the fungus. They coexist, these two. The beautiful bloom and the ugliness that eats it.”
He opened his eyes.
“You need us, Nova Scratshot. We will make you strong.”