1. Wings

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When I first met Emma Lyn Candle, she was trying to fly. Fogwillow had forced me outside with the dawn for a hike through the forests around Blush. The magenta leaves of the cebelis trees for which the city took its name stood still and quiet, white trunks spreading in a hundred branching directions as the morning light softened the edges of the wild. The entire world outside the city was colored in pink and cherry and rose, and beyond the treetops I caught glimpses of the distant purple mountains. I was nine years old. I hated the outdoors.

I walked quickly through the woods, thinking, maybe, that the faster I moved, the faster the hike would be over, and the faster I could go back to playing Hero Trotter in my attic bedroom above the investiture. But Fogwillow was nothing if not stubborn, strolling with deliberate, infuriating slowness—pausing to take in the scenery, to dip a hand in the stream—as if to force me to take my time. It didn’t work. Before long I’d left her far behind.

As I rounded a hill, I was caught off guard by movement in the trees up ahead, and the glimmer of something bright. I stopped in my tracks, looking behind for any sign of Fogwillow. The woods were empty. I was alone.

Cautiously, I approached the tree and squinted up into it.

“If you’re going to just stand there,” came a voice from the branches, “you might as well help.”

The leaves parted and a white face peered down, plump and dirty, with sharp eyes and short blond hair that tangled and stuck up in all directions. My chest grew tight—I didn’t like people, much less strangers, much less tree-climbing kids my own age—and I turned on my heel and stalked off in the opposite direction.

“Hey!” the girl cried. “Where are you going?”

The indignation in her voice brought me to a halt.

“That’s better. Now, come here.” I obeyed. “Wait, stop! Don’t step on it!” My shoulders hunched up near my ears as I jumped back. There, on the ground, half buried in the fallen leaves, was a small prism, its sides smooth and edges knife sharp. I crouched down to get a better look. It glowed pink with power. “I dropped my prism,” came the voice from the tree. “And now I’m stuck.”

I looked up. From this angle, through the weeping boughs, I had a better view of the girl. She was about my age, wearing a mishmash of clashing patterns, and strapped to her back was a pair of mechanical wings. They were clearly homemade, pieced together with whatever the girl had been able to find, bent at awkward angles, asymmetric.

They looked, in short, terrible.

“Can you toss it back up?” she said.

I considered running away again, but now the girl had piqued a morbid sense of curiosity I hadn’t known I’d had. There were some things that promised to be so wonderfully disastrous it would be a crime to look away. Sometimes, I realized, life did give you gifts.

Without a word, I took the prism and threw it up into the tree. It took me a few tries, but eventually she caught it and snapped it into a slot on her wings. I stood back.

“Here we go!” the girl announced, stepping out onto a limb. Her voice rose in proclamation. “Mark it. Today humankind takes to the skies. ‘Wizardry,’ you say! And I reply: no. You’ll find no wizardry in today’s marvels. ‘Then how?,’ you say! And I tell you…” she fumbled and trailed off. “Hey. Hey, you. What’s your name?”

“Nova.”

“And I tell you, Nova, to cease your questions and witness the first flight of the CandleWing Six.” She paused again, uncertainty creeping into her voice. “The, uh, the first five were supposed to do what they did. I was testing for other things, of course.”

“Why, what did they do?”

“Well they didn’t work, that’s for sure.”

And then she jumped.

The prism flashed, the wings beat up and down once, and for a moment she hung suspended in the air, bursting from the fuchsia leaves like a cannonball, a triumphant smile on her face. My heart skipped a beat. And then…well…if there’s one thing I’ve come to understand about Candle over the years it’s that she’d rather come in for a spectacular crash than never have flown at all.

When she hit the ground, the wings cracked, and something else too, and she rolled over onto her back, panting and clutching her arm with the mechanical monstrosity crunching beneath her.

“Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow.”

I hurried to help her up, but I don’t like touching people so I actually just knelt beside her, hands held awkwardly as she pushed herself to sitting. She broke into a grin, then winced, then grinned again.

“Did this one also do what it was supposed to do?” I asked.

“Ha ha,” she said. “Ha ha.” She adjusted herself, pushing the wings out of the way with her good arm, then gave me a look of cool regard. “I’m Emma Lyn Candle.”

“Candle? That’s a weird name.”

“Is it? And what’s your last name, Nova?”

“I don’t have one,” I mumbled.

“What are you, a scratshot kid?”

I didn’t answer, and she didn’t press. In any case, she was quickly distracted as she pulled the broken wings around onto her lap. “Aw, rods. What I really need is a more powerful prism. Then it would’ve worked. Look.”

She showed me the slot where the prism was stuck. The shard of crystal had lost its pink glow, now so clear it was almost transparent. The magic had gone out of it.

“It’s going to take me weeks to save up enough to charge it again. And the investiture near our house keeps raising its prices. Magic’s getting kind of expensive lately, that’s what my parents say.”

Wordlessly, I plucked the prism out and cupped it in my hands. It wasn’t very heavy, no more than a chip of crystal, and already growing cold. I came to a decision almost immediately. Closing my eyes, I connected to the Crystic.

The warmth of a million interconnections wove through me, the bristling feeling of my mind linking with every other wizard, with every prism, with every terminal, with every single point of energy that built up the magical web of the Crystic. Magic was connection, and to be a wizard was to pull energy out of that connection. Within the web, I sought the place where the small prism in my hands was lodged, and gently began to pull the power back up through it. In a matter of seconds, I had reconnected the prism to the Crystic network, and the pink blossomed within it once more.

I opened my eyes. The girl was staring, not at the newly charged prism, but at me. She whistled. “A scratshot kid and a wizard. And you have the nerve to say my name is weird.”

“It’s still pretty weird, Candle.”

I handed the prism back quickly, taking care not to let our fingers touch.

Candle looked as if she wanted to say more, but before she could open her mouth, a shout cut her off.

“Emma Lyn! What in the Ferren do you think you’re doing?”

I backed away from Candle as two adults hurried through the trees. The first was the woman who had spoken, wide-eyed with worry. She was tall, with stick-like limbs and long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. She wore a short-sleeve button up, a pea-green neckerchief, and a wide brimmed hat. She looked, in other words, like she was about to go on a safari.

The man who followed her was much shorter, his burly limbs covered in hair. He had a bristling moustache that sat on his upper lip like a caterpillar, and he was dressed the same as the woman, with the added touch of a pair of binoculars around his neck. When he saw us—me trying to look invisible and Candle with her broken arm—he leaned against a tree and fanned himself with his hat.

“Eoea’s staff,” he said. “Again?”

“Emma Lyn,” said the woman, coming over and helping Candle to her feet. “I thought we talked about jumping out of trees.”

“I wasn’t jumping out of trees, mom.”

“Was she jumping out of trees?” the woman asked, turning her gaze on me as if we were old friends.

“One tree.” Candle gave me a withering look.

The woman turned back to her daughter. “Are you okay? Anything besides a broken arm?”

“My butt kind of hurts.”

“And let it be a lesson,” the man said, detaching himself from the tree and coming over to me. “Hi, there. What’s your name?”

“That’s Nova,” Candle said as she and her mom picked up the remains of the mechanical wings.

“Nova?” The man studied me, and I felt even skinnier and more anxious under his gaze than usual. “I’m Len, and that’s Martha.” He held out a hand the size of a dinner plate. I stared, but didn’t take it.

“You’re her parents,” I said.

“That’s right.” Len seemed to understand I wasn’t going to shake his hand, and played it off smoothly, moving to rub his moustache. “A bit shy, yes?”

“What?”

“I mean you’re a bit shy.” I didn’t respond, and a grin broke out across his face. He came down to one knee and spoke conspiratorially. “That’s okay, bud. Listen, I was shy too when I was young. Nothing wrong with it. Come here.” He beckoned with a finger, and I leaned in, curious. He smelled like mothballs. “I want to tell you something, but it’s going to be our secret, okay? Here it is: one day I decided I wanted a friend or two, so I made this deal with myself that I would talk to one person every day—a single sentence even—and if I could do that then I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone else that whole rest of the day. Now that was my choice, it worked for me, and it might not work for you.” He threw a furtive glance back to where Martha was fussing over Candle. “Martha there is my one-a-day, now. It’s easy to be shy when you’ve got your one. You’ve already got your one in for the day, right? By talking to Emma Lyn.” I gave a small, wide-eyed nod. “Good. So guess what? You don’t need to touch anyone you don’t want to touch. And you don’t need to say anything to anyone you don’t want to say anything to. You’ve got your one. Deal?”

I smiled. He seemed to accept it as a response.

“Now,” Len continued, standing. “Let’s try to find your parents.”

I hesitated. The truth was that I didn’t know where my parents were, or even who I considered them to be. My mother had dropped me off at an orphanage—a scratshot home—when I was a baby, and Fogwillow found me there, took me, and deposited me, soon after, with Garrel Gruffin at the investiture, where I spent all my time working, or being picked on in school, or by myself in my attic bedroom, making a virtual family and home for myself in Crystic games and forums.

But I didn’t think Len wanted to know any of that.

Luckily, I was saved by Fogwillow’s voice echoing through the trees, calling my name. “She’s just behind,” I said to Len.

And that’s the way it always was with Fogwillow. Just behind, always just behind. Always calling, unseen, keeping her distance. Forever merely there. She was supposed to look out for me, and she did, but never much more than look.

Len gave a hearty smile. “Well, thank you for looking after Emma Lyn for us.”

“Are you out here in the wild often?” Martha said.

“When Fogwillow makes me.”

“Oh! You’re Fogwillow’s charge! Yes, of course. We know Fogwillow, don’t we Len?”

“As much as anyone can know that woman.”

Fogwillow called my name again. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than for everyone to go away, to leave me there alone in the woods. I didn’t think I’d be able to stand it when Fogwillow got there, when everyone laughed and caught up with each other, and made introductions and small talk. It sounded like too much to handle.

“He’s over here!” Martha called, and I grimaced. I could hear Fogwillow approaching from behind. I closed my eyes.

“There you are,” came Fogwillow’s voice, but I kept my eyes closed. The world was dark, and I could handle the noise if I could block out at least one of my senses, if I could keep the information coming into my brain at a reasonable level. I listened as the three of them struck up a conversation. I felt the stirring of a breeze. I smelled the loamy scent of the forest baking under the mid-morning sun.

And then Candle was by my side. She pressed close, sudden and warm as the Crystic. “Just wait until I make the CandleWing Seven,” she whispered. “That one will work for sure.” I opened my eyes and she flashed a smile. I smiled back. Together, we stood and watched the grown-ups chat, and I remember in particular studying Len and Martha as they pestered Fogwillow with questions, one of them taking up the slack in the conversation as the other let it go, their energy bouncing back and forth, a dance.

I remember thinking what a strange thing it was, to be tied so closely together with someone. Len and Martha were the first parents I’d ever really talked to, and over the years they played a large role in shaping my understanding of what a family could be. I loved watching the way they talked to Candle, and the way Candle talked to them. I envied their fights, their compliments, and their silences, the way those silences were filled with knowing, the kind I imagined could only come after years of being together. I remember thinking they were exactly what parents should be, two peas in a pod, archeologist and cryptologist, complementary. Inseparable.

It wasn’t true, of course, that last one.

Len Candle is dead.