19. Smoke Town

The place was decidedly un-smoky.

“I’m not sure what you expected,” Fogwillow said upon seeing my stricken face.

“You told me there were these deep pockets of moisture that heated up and…” I made a motion with my fingers like smoke billowing.

“In the summer. When it’s hot.”

I crossed my arms and grumbled.

“Are you really that disappointed?” Candle said.

“Yes! I wanted to see some smoky staving buildings.”

“You can,” Fogwillow said. “You’ll just have to come back in three to four months.”

We stood on a hill overlooking a depressing landscape of thin gray grass and stunted shrubs. The ground was unusually bumpy, pockmarked with holes like a sponge, which was exactly where I expected the smoke billowed out during the summer, and currently only served as a reminder of everything I was missing out on. Honestly, at the moment, with the ground hardened by winter, those holes were a little grotesque.

“Unfortunately,” Fogwillow said, “we have to go into town to find news of the thaumaticians, but other than that I’d like to spend as little time here as we can. We’re very close to Tillamen Road.”

“I don’t think we can go down there without being recognized,” Candle said.

“No,” Fogwillow replied. “But we can control who recognizes us.”

“Meaning?”

“I have an acquaintance here.”

“Really?” I said. “A trustworthy one?”

“We’d better hope.”

The town itself was pretty quaint. In its isolation and its hush, it appeared to have lain down to sleep in the middle of the barren landscape, a slumped collection of rustic wood houses with pale beechwood trim, separated by wide roads and dotted with gnarled, leafless trees. Empty planter boxes hung beneath windows and the slate gray roofs sloped at tired angles, gutters clogged with refuse. It was getting on in the evening, and long pale shadows broke themselves against the houses. It would’ve looked great with plumes of smoke billowing everywhere.

“What do they do?” I said as we neared. “I mean, why is this here?”

“Used to be a prison town,” Fogwillow replied. “They sent them here from Yillig to get them out of the city, but the prison got shut down years before any of us were born. Now it limps along, sucking in what tourists it can from the Road. Put your hoods up.”

We did, cloak, hoodie, and jacket.

We came into the town through a side alley, moving though the evening shadows and peering out at the mostly empty streets. To my surprise, a few of the houses along the road were sporting ink-stained flags, and I gave Candle a pleased look. Fogwillow made sure the coast was clear, and then beckoned us out of the alley. We hurried over the cobblestones, faces hidden, trying not to draw too much attention. It almost felt harder here in the vacant streets than it had on Tillamen Road. There, everybody was out in the open and we could blend in with the crowd. Here, there could be eyes in any window, and if they happened to look out they would see the only three people moving down the empty road.

Fogwillow led us to a side street, where iron lampposts craned their necks overhead, bulbs yellowed and buggy.

“If I’m not mistaken…” she said under her breath. “Let’s see, Storm, Pinwheel, and Vane, two streets down, yes, here we are…”

We turned down another side street, a long corridor that opened up—retreated more accurately, like pepper from a drop of soap—at the far end, making space for a squat little windmill in the center of a plaza.

She brought us to a stop in front of the windmill, wood paneling well worn, vanes tattered but spinning slowly, and windows fogged with the grime of ages. Black letters hung on the door that seemed to read St rm, inw eel, an Va e, with an upside down P hanging in there somewhere.

“It’s flying my flag,” I said, nodding to the ratty white cloth hanging over the door. “That seems like a good sign.”

Fogwillow’s lips compressed into a thin line. “Remember when I said Tillamen Road was famed for its investitures? This is not one of them.” She opened the door and a bell rang somewhere inside. Candle and I followed.

The interior of the windmill was much more orderly than the outside would have led me to believe. Sure, it was dimly lit, and the shelves were in rough shape, and the racks held out-of-date magazines, and the boxes of prismints looked like they’d expired years ago, but despite all of that, the investiture was arranged with surprising care, a sort of spare and efficient approach to merchandising that might have impressed even Gruffin. Whoever owned this place clearly had an eye for detail.

We stood clustered in the entry as Fogwillow scanned the low aisles. On the opposite side of the room was a counter and cash register. To our left, with its grate hanging open, was a mechanical lift that rose up to the second floor, metal parts rusted, but snug and secure. From overhead, faintly, came the ponderous, shuddering sound of the windmill turning. There was no one else here so we lowered our hoods, though I clenched my teeth as I did so. After so many weeks in isolation, it was surprisingly difficult to stand there, in the open, exposed to whoever might see. When a loud bang came from one of the back rooms, and the entire building vibrated with the explosion, I nearly bolted for the door. Fogwillow had to motion for me to be still.

“Be right with you,” came a voice from the same direction as the blast. There were a few muttered curses and a scraping sound. The three of us edged farther into the investiture, and then a door behind the counter swung inward violently. I jumped in alarm.

A woman using a wheelchair pushed herself through, using a short wooden staff to hook the door and slam it shut behind her. “Welcome to Storm, Pinwheel, and Vane,” she said, “your one stop shop for—” She came to an abrupt halt. Taking the three of us in, her eyebrows drew into a deep, disapproving furrow. She set her staff down in her lap. “Eoea’s staving ass. Look who it is.”

She was a lot younger than I’d expected an acquaintance of Fogwillow’s to be. For some reason I had this mental picture of Fogwillow only associating with other old people, but this woman could only be in her mid-thirties. She had a round face, framed by hundreds of long, black braids that spilled down over her broad shoulders, halfway to her waist. Her dark skin was a mess of freckles, and her eyes were slightly protuberant, as if she couldn’t hold them open wide enough to take in as much of the world as she wanted. Her clothes were a shambles, but looked as if they’d been quite fine at one point.

“Guess I should be calling the shifties, then, shouldn’t I?” she said.

“You fly the ink-stained flag,” Fogwillow replied.

“And you carry the genuine article.” Without any preamble, she motioned to me with both hands. “Here. Come here, kid. Let me take a look at you.”

I looked at Fogwillow in bewilderment, and did not approach.

Fogwillow gave me an amused smile. “Nova, this is Bo Salla. The Wizard Salla, I should say. You may not believe it, but she’s one of the brightest minds in the Ferren.”

Bo gave a genuinely gleeful laugh, her hands still upraised toward me, beckoning. “Don’t let her talk. Hurry up, kid, we don’t have all night. Come here.” Fogwillow prodded me with her staff and I skipped a step before making my slow way across the dingy room. When I reached the woman, she pointed to the ground. “Kneel.” I did so, feeling ludicrous, as if I were pledging fealty to a queen.

Bo Salla leaned forward. She lifted her staff and prodded my chin up, then sideways, her eyes growing even wider.

“Probably coulda been one of the brightest minds,” she said, almost to herself as she inspected me. She poked her staff under my arms, into my shoulder, against my ribs. “Truth is, I spent almost a decade studying at the university, then gave up right at the end and left.” She spoke quickly, but it wasn’t curt or brusque. There was a gentle cadence to her voice, as if she were telling a bedtime story to someone very young. Or maybe very stupid.

“Why did you leave?” I stammered.

“Eh. It was boring.” She seemed satisfied with what she saw in me and leaned back. “Guess we’re both drop-outs, huh?” Then, turning her attention behind me: “And you must be Candle.”

“Yeah.”

“Read all about you in this one’s ticker. Sounds like if anyone in this room’s got the brightest mind in the Ferren it certainly isn’t me.” As Candle blushed, the woman wheeled herself backward and crossed behind the counter. “Now. Let me—let’s see—let me do this whole official thing, hang on—”

Fogwillow and Candle joined me as I stood. Bo Salla dug around on some shelves and produced an old top hat, which she beat against the counter a few times, sending up a cloud of dust. She rested it on her head, and then promptly tipped it off again in greeting.

“Welcome to Storm, Pinwheel, and Vane, your one stop shop for the everyday conveniences of modern life. I’m Bo Salla, but around here they call me Backfire Bo. Special sale today: for a mere two sken, five ovics I’ll recharge a medium capacity prism and throw in a sample size Egrid’s Magical Cleaning Sponge for good measure. Shock those germs into oblivion with a jolt of one hundred percent pure Crystic. Have you tried Egrid’s?”

“Have you tried Egrid’s?” Fogwillow said, raising an eyebrow and looking around the investiture.

“Ah, no.” Bo threw the top hat down and her expression grew serious. “Really, though, what can I do for you? I may be flying that dumb flag, but it’s not exactly safe for you here, is it?”

Fogwillow opened her mouth to speak, but Candle beat her to it.

“Why do they call you Backfire Bo?”

“Ah. An excellent query, the answer to which should be making itself known any moment now.” Bo lifted a finger. As if on cue, an explosion erupted from the back room again, and the windmill shuddered. “Do I make myself clear?”

Candle and I both tried not to smile, not to be charmed. Fogwillow gave all three of us disapproving looks and said, “Is there somewhere we can talk, Bo?”

“Sure, sure. Good idea. Never know who might wander in off the street. Come into my workshop. Don’t worry, it’s quite safe, despite what you’ve heard.” She came out from behind the counter and approached the door to the back room, pushing it open and ushering us through. As we filed in, my mouth dropped open.

The workshop seemed to move. It was a cramped, narrow space, made all the more so by the hundreds of interlocking mechanical parts that snapped into each other overhead and to every side. They spun and turned together, slowly, with the rhythm of endless repetitions. The sounds they made were gentle, breezy, though somewhere within the intricate maze I heard the steady clank of iron on iron, of endless rotations. With each passing second, the room seemed to fold in on itself, turn over into new clockwork, each part affecting every other part of the whole.

I had seen this before. Kind of. It was, I realized belatedly, a weird imitation of the Crystic itself. A mechanical fractal, a manufactured flowering of gears and spokes.

“This is…” Candle said, and wasn’t able to continue. There was a shine in her eyes. I supposed she had, in a way, found herself walking into her own magical alternate reality.

“What it is, is useless,” Bo said, wheeling herself through beneath the clockwork canopy, between hissing pistons. “It moves, of course, with the windmill, but it doesn’t work. Yet.”

“It’s come, er, quite a ways since I was last here,” Fogwillow said. She stood as if trying to take up as little room as possible, cloak drawn tight around her.

“Oh!” Candle said. She approached the center of the cramped space, where a glowing device about the size of a fist was wedged into a network of rods and wires and spinning steel hoops. It looked like a miniature solar system, fed motion and life by the machinations all around us. Candle’s face was tinged pink from the thing. She was beaming. “It’s a prismatic turbine!”

“Very good,” Bo said.

I looked back and forth between the two of them. “What? What’s that?” I looked to Fogwillow too, but she just rolled her eyes.

“I’ve read about this kind of thing,” Candle said. “But didn’t know anyone was actually trying it. You’re crazy. You’re also underselling yourself.”

“What is it?” I said again.

“Magic in motion,” Candle said, grinning from ear to ear. “Kineticrystics.”

“Oh good. More funny words.”

“It’s a new way of storing magic, kid,” Bo said. “One that wouldn’t require prisms.” As she said it, the entire spinning room shuddered, gears grinding against each other, and a blast sounded—a backfire, an explosion of magic much louder than I had expected. I jumped as pink bolts of magic shot out from the glowing core and sent sparks dancing through the workshop. The light faltered, eventually flickering out completely. The room continued to spin, but now around a cold and darkened center.

“Ah. Third time’s the charm.” Bo reached into the metal hoops and plucked out the core, holding it up for us to see. It looked like nothing but a charred hunk of wires and rods, pieces hanging off and tangled.

“The problem,” Candle said to me, “is that kineticrystics doesn’t work.”

“Yet,” Bo said, brandishing the core. It was smoking.

“It’s not efficient enough,” Candle continued. “It takes most of the stored magic just to keep the turbine spinning—oh!” Her face brightened. “Which is why you’re using the windmill.”

“Except even still I can’t make a pinwheel powerful enough to hold a charge. The movement of the turbine can spin magic out of the Crystic, but it can’t keep it, and eventually all I’m left with is a silly nickname.”

The implications of the conversation, little that I understood of it, hit me all at once. “Why would you want to replace prisms?”

“Think about it,” Bo said. “We’re going to run out of prisms someday, get too big, too complicated, the demand for magical power too high to meet. We’re going to need an alternative.”

“It just doesn’t seem…” What? Natural? Respectful? I glanced at Candle, and decided not to finish that sentence.

 Bo grinned. “And people thought I was stupid to buy this place.”

Across the room, Fogwillow cleared her throat.

“Right,” Bo said, setting the core aside. “But that’s not why you’re here.” She beckoned us farther into the workshop, to her desk, which sagged beneath the weight of dozens of mechanical parts. Candle lingered behind, touching the smoking core with light fingers.

“We’re trying to get to the thaumaticians, Bo,” Fogwillow said, taking a seat by the desk. There were no other chairs, so I stood awkwardly behind her.

“Yeah, I figured you’d say that.”

“Last I heard they were near Smoke Town.”

Bo ignored Fogwillow and looked directly at me instead. “Why would you want to go see those blind fools?”

The question cut deeper than anybody else in that room could have known. Rhyme’s words came back to me in full force, as did the uncertainty and guilt.

Why are you going to the thaumaticians?

“Nova has some questions for them,” Fogwillow said.

Still, she ignored her. “I can answer any question you have for the monks, kid. Here it is, ready? The Crystic declares it so.”

“Nevertheless,” Fogwillow said.

“If you ask me, you’re better off just going straight for the Red Wilkin and getting this whole thing over with as soon as possible.”

Fogwillow crossed her arms. “Nobody is asking you.”

“And besides,” I said, a little more forcefully than I intended, “I don’t even know how to go after the Ryvkk. The Advance Academy never made it that far.”

Bo reached for her braids, guiding them from one side of her head to the other, and considered the pair of us. She looked at the piles of mechanical parts on her desk—the piles, I realized, of charred rubble, of a hundred past attempts at changing the world—and shook her head.

“Fine, whatever. The thaumaticians are still here, though barely anybody wants to go near them or their staving monastery.”

“Why not?” I said.

“The Whisper is…unsettling.” But if she had more to say, she declined to say it, every silent thought communicated in the barest shiver. “Follow the Hazeway out of town and keep north-by-northwest for a few hours until you come to the Wanted Woods. There’s a terminal in there, in the middle of a large glade with a shallow brook running through it. You know the place, Fogwillow. The thaumaticians have been there for almost a year now. Staving things won’t go away.”

Fogwillow bowed her head. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Just not sure what you hope to learn from a bunch of eggheads in robes.” She came out from behind her desk and poked me in the chest with her staff. “Sometimes you need to spend less time overthinking things, kid, and more time just doing things.”

 There was the sound of the front door opening in the other room. The tinkle of a bell. All of us tensed.

“Be right with you!” Bo called. She gave us a grim look. “Well, at any rate, you’d better stay the night. The thaumaticians aren’t bound to be pleased if you show up on their doorstep at one in the morning.”

“Nonsense,” Fogwillow said. “We’re well used to traveling at night. We’ll leave now.”

“How far have you dragged these kids across the Ferren, Fogwillow? All the way from Blush, right? Look at them. They’re exhausted. They’re falling over where they stand. I have some spare rooms, so you’ll spend the night.”

I felt Candle holding her breath behind me, and gave Fogwillow a hopeful look. The thought of sleeping in an actual bed was almost too good to comprehend. Fogwillow’s expression was sour.

“Fine,” she said. The sweetest word I’d heard in months. “But we’re leaving first thing in the morning. Before the sun’s up, even. I don’t want to linger.”

“Fair enough,” Bo said, and then she was making her way across the workshop, pulling the door open and pushing herself through. “Welcome to Storm, Pinwheel, and Vane, your one stop shop for the everyday conveniences of…” Her voice dampened as the door closed behind her.