33. Numbers

I wonder how many of my windows are still there.

In the two days following the news about Blush, the Advance Academy was a whirlwind of activity as silver-cloaks began to move everything out in preparation for our relocation to Dean Enislen’s safehouse. Boxes lined the white halls of the observatory, spilling over with hastily packed personal possessions. Everything was being prepped to be taken directly to the cloudweaver once we were able to fly. Once we were sure the prism powering the airship wouldn’t sputter out on us. I had never seen so much personality in the normally flat, sterile hallways. Poking out of the boxes, I saw books and dartboards, board games and journals, thaumascopes and photographs. I had never really considered what the silver-cloaks did with their time when they weren’t guarding me, escorting me, or watching me. It was unnerving to suddenly discover signs of a whole other world churning beneath the surface of the observatory, but once we broke routine, once we sent all the careful motions of the Academy into disorder, it all came bubbling up. Everything hidden within the equation.

I had nothing to pack, so I walked the hallways in an anxious haze, my lessons disrupted, a pit growing heavier in my stomach. I kept stopping by Dean Enislen’s office to see if there was more news about Blush, but every time I did she just looked up from her desk, weary-eyed, and shook her head. And the pit grew heavier.

The day before we were to be cleared for departure, in the afternoon, I wandered into the equatorial room. I must have had some subconscious inclination to say goodbye, or maybe just good riddance. When I entered I saw Marewill puffing slightly as he carried a box up from his office down below. He heaved it up onto a stack of more boxes piled up in the center of the room, and the stack buckled precariously. I hurried over to help him steady the pile.

“Thanks,” he said, wiping his brow as I shifted some of the boxes.

“These are really heavy.”

“Lots and lots of paper. It’s like carrying tree stumps up the stairs.”

“All notes?”

He opened a box to reveal piles of haphazard pieces of paper. “All notes.”

I peered down at the tiny scrawl, but Marewill folded the flaps back over before I could make anything out.

“What the matter?” I said. “Aren’t they all about me?”

He gave a thin laugh. “Nobody needs that much information about the way their own essence is built.” When he saw me frown at the boxes, he added, “What’s the matter?”

“It’s just… when you talk about numbers and equations, it’s easy to imagine something sort of insubstantial.” I set a hand down on the pile. “I didn’t realize my essence was so heavy.”

A broad smile broke across Marewill’s face. He looked as pleased as I’d ever seen him. “You get it!” he said. “I think the same thing. Your body and mind operate on a million weightless algorithms, but pull them out into the physical world, break them down into component pieces, and they become heavy indeed. Isn’t it fascinating?”

“Uh… sure.”

I winced suddenly, stiffening. There was a sharp pain in my back from where the sixth prism had been embedded yesterday. Hefting those boxes hadn’t been a great idea. Marewill noticed and his face grew uneasy.

“Are you okay?”

“It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s really fine.”

He cast a quick glance upward, and I followed his gaze, curious. Dean Enislen was standing in her office, black-suited and stiff. She was looking down at us through the window, and when I met her eyes she held them for a moment, then turned away.

“I had surgery once, you know,” Marewill said, drawing my attention back to him. “It was the night before my eighth birthday and I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited about my friends coming over for the party the next day, so excited that my stomach hurt. A lot. Turns out, the pain wasn’t excitement. It was my appendix bursting. We had to cancel the party, but the hospital bent their fire code and allowed my parents to place one candle in a cafeteria pudding cup.”

I stared at Marewill, amazed.

He gave me a pained smile. “I know. I’m no good that this. I can’t be your Fogwillow, Nova.”

“In all fairness, nobody can be Fogwillow but Fogwillow.”

“You’ll have to find comfort elsewhere.”

I laughed hollowly, then broke off, unsettled. “Do you feel like you know me?” I said. “From all these pages?”

“I would certainly hope so.”

“But… it’s just numbers.”

“Nova, all I understand is numbers. Numbers allow a person to not get distracted by emotion, which can so often be unreliable. The numbers have rules, and the rules can tell a person what is right, what is good. What is correct… ”

He gave me an odd look, then. It might have been uncertainty.

“It just doesn’t feel like… ” I began, then stopped.

“Feel like what?” Marewill said, and a tinge of defensiveness edged his voice.

“Nothing.” I kept my own voice delicate. “Do you need any more help?”

He relaxed. “No, that was the last of it. I’ll just leave these here until we can load them onto the cloudweaver. You should get some rest tonight, Nova. Nine hours and twenty minutes of it to be exact. Allow yourself to heal. Tomorrow will be a lot of work.”

I had a long, easy training with Fellish that evening, to get my body used to the sixth prism, and then, after dinner, I started back to my room. I was still thinking about my conversation with Marewill, about numbers, about whether someone really could be broken down into an equation. The entire Advance Academy had been built on this belief, I knew, but it had never hit me quite as hard as it did just then. They thought they could grind a hero out of a system. They thought the Answer to Prophecy was a device to be built, a champion that could be designed down to a certainty by whittling away the rough edges, the exploring and questioning, the life. Just plug in the right algorithms and solve for a splintered world.

And the thing that horrified me most of all was, maybe they were right. I wasmore powerful. I did seem closer to being able to take on the Ryvkk. It made me quite suddenly sick, and I stopped in the restroom on the way to my room and threw up the dinner I had just eaten.

I flushed, and watched the chunky sickness as it swirled down the toilet, and couldn’t help but feel gratified. There go some amount of calories, unaccounted for. Marewill’s equations would be off.

The smug satisfaction was quickly replaced by another bout of nausea, and then a hollow, empty feeling, and the burning of six crystals biting into my spine. I wanted to cry, but there was nothing in me to spare for it, no soft material among the hardness and the emptiness to squeeze into tears. So I stared blankly at the toilet bowl instead, and realized with sudden certainty: I couldn’t do this much longer.

My body and mind would only tighten so much until they splintered like the terminal at Blush. I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t even find the pieces of my self to put them together. The boy in Blush. I didn’t know his shape anymore.

“Feel something,” I said, and gritted my teeth. “Feel something.”

But the Advance Academy had not built me as an instrument for feeling.

I wiped my mouth. My vertebrae snapped into alignment as I rose. I gathered my breath. Then, when I had collected and controlled my prism-cut self, I opened the door.

The door knocked into a silver-cloak who was passing by. The silver-cloak let out a surprised noise, fumbled the object she was holding, then dropped it to the cold, white floor. There was a shattering sound.

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “Let me help.”

I stepped around to peer at the broken object, but the silver-cloak maneuvered to block my way, her eyes wide and… panicking? I paused.

“No, no,” she said. “Don’t worry about, I’ll… I’ll take care of it… I… ”

I craned my head around her. She stepped into my path.

“What is that?” I said. I caught a glimpse of a tall object shrouded in cloth.

“Rennel, Carver,” she said, looking past my shoulder. “Quickly.”

I heard footsteps running up behind me, two pairs of them. Then, firm hands gripped me by the shoulders and started leading me away. I recoiled at the touch, shuddering.

“Wait!” I said. “Let me just… I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay,” said one of the silver-cloaks, whose fingers were digging into my armpit. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I didn’t mean to—” I thrashed, and tried to turn back around.

“We know. It’s fine.”

“We just—” said the other silver-cloak holding me. “It isn’t safe. We need to get you away.”

The fingers dug in deeper. “Stop,” I said. “Stop touching me!” I connected to the Crystic. The prisms flared one-by-one up my spine like a fuse, the magic traveling up, in lightning fast increments. When it reached my brain, a white-hot magic seared inside of me, and a wave burst out, a crackling force that pushed the two silver-cloaks away. They released their grips and went flying, slamming into the wall on either side before crumpling to the ground.

I turned. My whole body tingled. The other silver-cloak, the first one, had also flown backward, and she lay sprawled across the floor near the object she had dropped.

My breath caught. I took a careful step forward.

Peeking out from beneath the cloth was…

If there had been anything left in my stomach, I would have thrown it up again.

Broken pottery. And spilled soil.

The hall seemed incredibly, impossibly long. I passed down it mechanically, then approached the fallen object and knelt. The white cloth fluttered in a draft coming down the hallway. Nearby, the silver-cloak wheezed on the ground, her arm twitching.

I pinched a corner of the cloth and lifted it up.

Bulbous roots, covered in a black, tubule fungus, exposed amid the broken pot.

“Wait,” croaked the silver-cloak.

I lifted the cloth further, and saw, within a protective wire dome, like a birdcage, a deep purple flower.

My heart was beating so fast that it hurt. I held my free hand to my stomach and bent over myself, groaning.

“Master Answer,” said the silver-cloak.

I groaned louder. It echoed up and down the quiet corridor, where three bodies struggled to consciousness in pools of silver cloth.

Then, as abruptly as I had started, I stopped.

The silence rang. I stood, dropping the cloth.

Something else was coming bubbling up through the equation. I could feel it, but I didn’t know what it meant. It didn’t mean anything. Not yet. Not until I could piece some things together. Not until I could find more information.

Fortunately, I knew precisely where to get it.

My expression hardened. I turned. And set off down the hall.

“Wait,” the silver-cloak called. “Wait, Master An—wait, Nova! Someone! Someone help!”

Footsteps coming from behind me, from around the curved walls. I heard someone shout, and I ran.

The observatory flew past around me, white sunlight breaking on white walls. I looked over my shoulder, once, to see five silver-cloaks rushing after, calling my name. I grinned. They were fast, but Fellish had trained me well. I was faster. And… there was more, too. I reached into the Crystic again and sent a surge through my body, down my studded spine, into my feet. Magic snapped at my heels, sparking, and launched me forward into the air. My feet thrashed beneath me and then I hit the ground hard, rolling onto my side.

Laughing, I jumped up, then tried again. A little less magic, a little more control. Yes. My heels grew hot, pushing me faster and farther. The distance between me and the silver-cloaks grew.

I reached the equatorial room and skidded to a stop. Up above, Dean Enislen’s office was dark and empty. Good. I hurried back to the doors and shoved them shut just as the silver-cloaks appeared around a corner. Then I reached deep into the Crystic and sent a wave of magic pressing into the doors, sustaining it with the wells of energy from my spine. I sent another wave snapping back, slamming the door leading downstairs closed and holding it fast. The force would keep me locked in here for a little while. Long enough.

I turned.

My footsteps echoed in the vast, empty dome as I approached the boxes and boxes of Marewill’s careful notes.