“Aaaaa-ha!” Candle said.
I looked up from where I’d been studying my staff. As I’d been training with Fogwillow, it had begun, curiously, to grow leaves on one end, where it branched into that weird flourish. The leaves were pink, like a cebelis tree. “What?”
“I think I did it. I think I found a way to contact airbird sevens.”
I practically threw the staff back into the Crystic.
We were camped out at the top of a squat rock mesa, worn smooth and red from centuries of wind and rain. The cliff edge was just a little ways away, with only about a hundred feet or so to the bottom. It overlooked sweeping fields of tall golden grass as far as we could see. The sun was out and the air was chill but not unpleasant. Fogwillow said this was about as bad as winter got in the Geshan midlands. Apparently they hardly ever saw snowfall at all. It had been two weeks since we’d left the Pillars.
Even Fogwillow perked up as I hurried over and crouched near the lightscreen. She was sitting on the edge of the cliff, diligently digging out this dull green moss that grew in the crevices. She continued her work, but her eyes wandered over to us every now and then as we talked.
“How did you do it?” I said.
Candle looked insufferably proud. “Everyone leaves an imprint when they use the Crystic. Like you always say, magic is connection, so when someone sends messages down the lines they tug on all those thousands of connections as they pass. Including her.”
“Sort of like those people who track someone through the woods by finding broken twigs and stuff.”
“Er, yeah, kind of. Anyway, I went into the Crystic’s code and just began following her, um, broken twigs. She did a really good job of hiding them, put up some really nasty security, but I think I made it through.”
“It honestly was mostly luck. I wouldn’t have—”
“Candle.” She paused and looked at me. I tried to keep my voice level. “Candle, seriously. I don’t think even the Advance Academy was able to do that. They were trying to get me to tell them her location right up until the end.”
Candle’s ears went pink. “So what do you want to say to her?” she said.
I turned to the lightscreen. It felt like there were one thousand rabbits hopping around in my stomach.
“I don’t know. She’s…she’s supposed to be my mom, right? How about…how about ‘Hi, mom’?” Candle raised her eyebrows, but reached for the keyboard, which the thaumascope was projecting into the air before the lightscreen. I panicked as her fingers neared. “No, no, no actually, just ‘Hi.’ Plain and simple. Wait. Actually that’s stupid. Should we give her more context? How about ‘Hi, I’m traveling through Gesh with Fogwillow and Candle, on my way to see the thaumaticians…what are you up to?’”
“You’re overthinking this, Nova.”
“That’s what he does,” Fogwillow called from the ledge.
“Hey, stay out of this.”
“Oh, fine,” Fogwillow said. “Eoea knows I’m only the wisest member of this team.”
“How about just ‘Hi,’” Candle said, “‘can we talk?’”
“Hi, can we talk,” I repeated. “Okay.”
Candle typed out the message and hit send. The lightscreen was showing things I didn’t recognize. Mostly lines of code. However we were contacting airbird sevens, it wasn’t through the Hero Trotter forums.
“Wait, I don’t think that’s enough,” I said. I nudged Candle aside and typed out a second message, which appeared just below the first.
Wish I could see you sometime.
I sat back, content for only a fraction of a second before doubt came wiggling back. “Actually…” I typed out a third message.
Thanks for trying to help me, by the way.
And then a fourth.
And just ignore my other message. We don’t need to meet or anything.
I mean, unless you want to.
“Keep digging that hole, Nova,” Candle said.
“Rods. Is there a way to undo all this?”
“Nope.” Candle pulled the thaumascope away from me before I could do anymore damage.
“Hold on,” Fogwillow said, frowning. “There’s no way for someone to trace us using these messages, is there?”
“Fogwillow, please. I’m Emma Lyn staving Candle.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“I think it means we’re safe,” I said. “I’ve heard of wizards who can conjure walls of fire, but few can match Candle when it comes to firewalls.” Candle groaned. Fogwillow didn’t seem to get it. “All I’m saying is, we’re safe.”
“I’m sure airbird sevens felt the same way,” Fogwillow said.
I decided it was time to change the subject. “What are you doing over there, anyway?”
At this, Fogwillow stood. She’d gathered quite a pile of moss on the ground next to her, which she picked up with both hands and brought over to our meager encampment.
“This,” she said, “is urellastaemia. Or, simply, urella.”
“What’s it for?” Candle said.
I’m not sure what answer I expected, but it was not that.
“Fogwillow, I wouldn’t eat that for all the magic in the Ferren.”
“Well, not cold, certainly. You’re supposed to heat it up.”
“Even better,” Candle said. “Hot, soggy moss. Yum.”
“It’s actually quite good. Salty. Filling. Geshans think of it as comfort food. It’s traditionally served in little round balls, atop a pad of rice. We don’t have any rice, of course, or seasoning, but plain urella will serve us just fine.”
“Wait, you’re actually expecting us to eat that?” I said. “I thought this was just, like, an object lesson.”
“No. It’s our lunch.”
So Fogwillow molded the moss into a dozen or so compact spheres with her palms and set them on a large, flat stone. She touched her fingers to the edge of the stone and I felt a prickle of magic in the air as it began to heat up. Candle and I waited in unenthusiastic silence as the moss balls warmed. I kept checking the lightscreen every few seconds, but so far there was no reply from airbird sevens, and her absence seemed to make the wait even longer.
Finally, Fogwillow plucked one of the balls from the heating plate and held it between the tips of her fingers. “It is traditional, in polite company, to offer a toast, and take our first bites at the same time.”
“Are you sure this isn’t just a trick to get us to eat mold?” I said as we each took one of the damp green lumps—the smallest ones. Fogwillow held her hand up.
“To safe travels,” she said. “And people to share them with.”
“You hate people, Fogwillow.”
“As do you, Nova. As do you.”
We ate the urella. It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting.
Twenty minutes later, with our stomachs full and a warm, contented feeling coming from somewhere within, we gathered our things and set out again, tracing the edge of the mesa as it cut northward. The wind rippled the golden fields to our right. The sky was the blue of the shallows. High up within it, the long dark line of a skyrunner train streamed into the north like a mechanical serpent, carrying passengers and cargo across the Ferren.
It had taken Candle a few minutes to pack up her gear. It seemed we couldn’t stop for more than a short break without her spreading her tools and wires and screws out along the ground. “Are you still working on the same thing?” I asked as we walked.
“Yep,” Candle said.
“And you’re still not going to tell me what it is?”
“Not a chance.”
She held her thaumascope in one hand, the lightscreen bobbing back and forth with her gait. Still no response.
“Are you sure we got through?” I said.
“As sure as I can be.”
The excitement I’d felt from sending those messages was starting to ebb. I bit my lip, looking sideways at the lightscreen as Fogwillow led us to a sloping path cut into the side of the cliff. A farmhouse had appeared in the distance, nestled snugly in the fields. Though it seemed too far for us to be spotted, we kept a cautious eye out as we picked our way down the side of the mesa.
“They grow apple spice in these fields,” Fogwillow said. She cast an arched eyebrow back at me. “Though, of course, you don’t cook.”
“I know what apple spice is,” I said. They’d once made an apple spice flavored weybisk cracker. It was gross. Even I thought so.
“The fields are golden year-round,” Fogwillow continued, “except for two weeks in early autumn when the stalks, having grown tall all year, suddenly turn a crisp red. It’s a frenzy of activity trying to harvest it all in time. The midlands smell spicy-sweet for miles.”
We reached the bottom of the cliff. The grasses were waist-high, and we waded through them, Fogwillow pushing aside the stalks with the butt of her staff to carve a path. Candle picked a bit off one and nibbled on the end.
“Bleh. It’s sour.”
As we came in line with the farmhouse, still a good distance away, I raised a hand to shield my eyes against the sun. “Guys. Guys, what is that?”
We all stopped and turned to the squat little building, half shrouded in the grass. What wasn’t shrouded, what was in fact perfectly clear in the bright air, waving on a pole high above the roof, was a white flag. A white flag, dotted haphazardly in black.
“No way,” Candle said. “No way.” She opened up a new page on her thaumascope, hurriedly typing out a search query. Fogwillow’s frown was as deep as I’d ever seen it. After a few moments, Candle gasped. “It is! Nova look.”
She turned the lightscreen to me, and I scanned the page she’d pulled up, an article from a Geshan newspaper. As I read, I was unsure whether the growing feeling in me was shock or horror or guilt or joy.
“The Ink-Stained Flag,” Candle said.
“What is it?” Fogwillow asked.
I took a step back, and turned my attention to the farmhouse once again. “It’s a message,” I said.
Candle was practically bouncing on her feet. “People are flying it all across the Ferren. It’s a message of support. For the Answer to Prophecy.”
Fogwillow’s frown deepened. “Support?”
“Apparently,” I said, “not everyone thinks I’m a traitor to the Ferren.”
“And more than that,” Candle said. “Some people believe you’re doing absolutely the right thing. You see, Nova? Not everyone’s out to get you.”
“It must have been that kid,” I said under my breath. “The one from when we left Blush. I knew I shouldn’t have signed his staving scrap of cloth.”
“I don’t know that I understand,” Fogwillow said. “What does this accomplish?”
“Solidarity, Fogwillow,” Candle said, grinning.
“I see. And will that help us get to the thaumaticians faster? Will it throw itself in the path of the Shift Patrol?”
“You don’t understand. At least it might make Nova feel better.” She turned to me, hopefully.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Seems like flying that thing could attract the wrong kind of attention. I don’t want anyone to get hurt because of me.”
At this, Candle threw one hand up and then closed the window on her lightscreen. “You two are hopeless. The Ferren’s beginning to fight for you.”
“All I see is an empty field we still need to cross,” Fogwillow said. “Let’s keep on.”
Soon, farmhouse and flag alike disappeared behind us. We pushed through the apple spice fields in silence until nearly sunset, walking in the detached familiarity that had become customary to our long afternoons of travel these past couple weeks. There was little to say to each other anymore, and not in a bad way, but in the way that just seemed to happen once we’d spent enough time together. When we’d grown close enough to realize that sometimes the greatest gift you can give a person is, for a few hours, to not make them suffer your presence. We each moved, if not pleasantly than at least cordially, in our own little worlds.
And then, as the sun folded itself over the horizon, sending warm swaths of light to pick out each individual stalk in shadowed hues of amber and gray, Candle gave a little jolt, and held the lightscreen up to her face. It painted her ghostly white. My stomach leapt into my throat, knowing it had finally come.
“We got a response!” Candle said. “She actually replied, and—! Oh.”
A wave of guilt crossed over her features, and I had to take the thaumascope from her hands to read the message from airbird sevens, the first contact we’d had since I learned she was my mother. It was very short.
Please do not try to contact me again.