20. Midnight

The eleventh hour at Storm, Pinwheel, and Vane. I lay in my surprisingly comfortable bed in a room that was little more than a closet. There were no windows. Everything was pitch black other than a narrow strip of light beneath the bottom of the door. It had started to rain, and the steady drumming of water overhead mingled with the creak of the windmill and the occasional grating noise from the workshop downstairs. If I closed my eyes—well—if I closed my eyes it looked about the same as if I kept them open. So I kept them open. The sheets were starchy and smelled like mildew.

It felt as if I were hanging there, in the middle of something warm and full. I couldn’t put my finger on what that feeling was, and then I realized: I hadn’t felt comfortable going to sleep since before I was taken by the Advance Academy. At the observatory, my bedroom had been cold and white and sterile. And ever since I escaped, I’d been traveling. Sure, I’d spent a week or so at Gruff Stop, but it hadn’t been the same. The city was ruined, and while I tried to find rest up in the attic in my once-bedroom, I’d felt just as displaced as ever. Stuck in a past version of my life. And now here I was, in a windmill investiture in a town I’d never heard of until two months ago, about to visit the blind old monks who wrote out the prophecy that sent a lightning strike of change through my life. What a weird place to find comfort.

I was just about to drift to sleep when I heard the soft pad of footsteps passing by in the hallway outside. It didn’t have the slow rhythm of Fogwillow’s steps, so it must have been Candle. I waited for several long minutes, but they never came back the other way, and now I was wide awake again. The room suddenly felt hot and oppressive. Walls closing in.

I threw off the covers and sat up on the edge of the bed, peeling the back of my pajama shirt off my skin where it was stuck with sweat. Standing, I poked my head into the hallway. Dim light from a single bare bulb. Empty. I stepped out and padded to the end of the hall, where a staircase wound down to the first floor. I could hear voices speaking faintly below. I paused there to listen, but couldn’t make out any of the words. The steps creaked when I descended.

As I rounded the corner landing, a pair of pale green eyes turned to me from just below the top step, nearly scaring me out of my skin. I flinched backward, my heel striking the steps behind me, and somewhat gracefully turned my fall into a gentle sitting thud. The eyes rose, and a yellow-orange cat sauntered up onto the landing and into the half-light. I didn’t know much about cats, but I swear it could hear my pounding heart, and was judging me for it.

“Hey,” I whispered.

It shoved itself around one of my legs, turned, and then padded back down the stairs. Standing, I followed after.

The voices were coming from an open doorway, awash with light, and I made it to the bottom of the steps just in time to see the cat’s tail slip over the threshold. Quietly, I approached and peered into the room.

It was a kitchen. Small. Busy with brass pots and utensils and jars filled with all sorts of spices and grains and teas. The counter was cluttered, the sink stacked with dirty dishes. It looked like a hundred thousand meals had been cooked in this place, and in the far corner was an old brick hearth with a roaring fire and large leather chairs arranged in front of it. In one of those chairs sat Candle, and across from her was Bo, absently poking at the coals with her staff. The tawny cat bounded into her lap, and she looked up in surprise to see me standing in the doorway. She smiled warmly.

“Nova! Welcome to the restless sleepers club, party of three. Can I get you some refreshments?”

“We have chocolate,” Candle said, twisting around.

“Is that cat safe?” I asked.

“What, this cat? Della’s lived here for fourteen years, so I would hope I’d know if she was a shiftie by now.”

I took a hesitant step in. “I would take some chocolate.”

Bo motioned me over and I took the leather chair beside Candle, who broke off a bar of chocolate from a sidetable and passed it over. It was very bitter. As I got comfortable, Bo set her staff aside to make more room for the cat, who curled up and stared at nothing while Bo stroked her head.

I got a better look at that staff as she leaned it against the side of her chair.

 “Is that…is that a wizard’s staff?”

Bo caught my eye and nodded. It was shorter than I had expected one to be, and a little more hefty, with a hook sticking off one end like a curled finger. Reflected in the firelight were fine threads of gold inlaid along its length in intricate, organic designs that almost seemed to emerge from the core of the staff itself, rather than having been carved. Like whorls on a tree.

“Yeah, this is my staff,” Bo said pleasantly. “Seems Eoea was accommodating enough to make its length more manageable, but something tells me our almighty creator wasn’t imagining his creation quite broadly enough when he decided to make the primary tool of a wizard a walking stick.”

“That…uh…does seem like an oversight.”

“But I’ve found there are so many more uses for it if you’re willing to get creative. Closing doors, reaching something off a high shelf.”

“I mean, aren’t they kind of meant to be utilitarian?” Candle said.

“Oh sure. Perfectly functional for all kinds of things. Pounding in nails, knocking down beehives, rolling dough…” Candle stifled a laugh, which became a snort when she looked over and saw my dumbfounded expression. Bo winked at me. “Really, it’s a wonder Fogwillow deigns to speak to me at all. Of course, back when we met she wouldn’t have cared.”

“Wouldn’t have cared?”

“How old are you two? Sixteen? Seventeen? I suppose you’ve only ever known her as Fogwillow, but she was pretty transgressive about magic in her time, she and Gruffin.”

“That’s hard to believe,” Candle said. “Are you sure we’re talking about the same Fogwillow?”

“I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard the nickname.”

“Um, yes,” I said. “She hates it.”

“Didn’t used to. Used to wear it like a badge of honor.”

Candle gave her a troubled look. “I always assumed it just meant she spent all her time in the wild.”

“No, no. She was wild.”

“What did she do?” I asked.

A shadow of hesitation passed over Bo’s face, and she rubbed one of the cat’s ears between her thumb and forefinger, looking uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was going. “You have to understand, I was a teenager while she was in her heyday. A teenage wizard on wheels, born with a hole in my spine, being told that to reach the height of my powers I had to go into the Crystic and fetch a walking stick. Now here was this wizard turning conventional wisdom on its head, pushing the boundaries of what tradition said magic could be used for. I looked up to her.”

“Come on,” Candle said, sitting forward in her chair. “Tell us what she did.”

“I just want you to understand that you’re going to get a more positive reading of Fogwillow from me than from…others.”

“Her family,” I said, and Bo nodded.

“For one, yes. I think that’s a lot of the reason she became what she did. Always finding ways to break whatever strictures the Rarecrests put on her. Rods, that’s partly why she ended up with Gruffin.”

“What do you mean?”

At this Bo actually squirmed. “You know, I think maybe we should talk about something else.”

I groaned. “So close. We always get so close to learning something about her before getting closed off. Before she shuts us down.”

“That’s precisely it. If she doesn’t want you to know, I have no right to reveal. Fogwillow spoke up for me at a time when no one would listen. I owe her a bit of loyalty.”

“Secrets,” Candle said. “Everything’s just a whole bunch of secrets.”

We leaned back in our chairs, and I broke off another piece of chocolate. The fire cracked in the hearth, but it couldn’t burn the tension away. No matter how long the silence lasted, the mood left over by the conversation just wouldn’t break. Outside, the rain was coming down harder, and we all sat as if at the edge of a precipice, avoiding each other’s eyes.

“I’ve known Fogwillow my entire life,” I finally said, when it was clear her presence wasn’t going to dissipate. “She found me in the scratshot home, and in fits and starts throughout my childhood tried to raise me. It never lasted long. Just when I thought I was getting close, she would disappear, and it would be me and Gruffin again, working the investiture, selling magic. Gruffin was always more of a boss, and Fogwillow was always more of a spirit, and I’ve never been much more than an employee. Candle was more of a parent than Fogwillow ever was.”

“Don’t…don’t say that,” Candle said.

“Sorry. I just mean…rods, I don’t know what I just mean. It would be nice to know, is all.”

“You feel like you deserve it,” Bo said, without a hint of judgment. I shrugged, and she sighed, scratching the cat’s head. “The Wizards Gruffin and Rarecrest were not a pair you wanted to wind up on the wrong side of. In that generation, the only respectable form of magic was polite and unassuming. The hard labor of magic was done in investitures, in the service industry, so any upper class wizards naturally drifted to more intellectual practices. In a world like that, the two of them were a tidal wave upon the magical static of the Crystic. They didn’t want to sit in parlors and talk about the latest treatise from the thaumaticians. They wanted to do something, like the wizards of old. They wanted power, and they wanted to use that power to shape the Ferren. So…” She hesitated, reaching for a teacup nearby and taking a long sip. “They…ah…they tracked down and captured rogue wizards. Brought them to justice.”

She gave us a meaningful look, and I began to understand.

“They were bounty hunters,” I said.

“The finest in Gesh. Locked their fair share of criminals in ouklettes. But more than that, they were idealists, idealists in a career not typically seen as one with much status. They had this vision of wizards cultivating the world. Watching out for it. Traveling. Caring for nature and humanity. I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Maybe such a thing would have been possible in the Lorn, but in modern times all that gets you is a pair of vigilantes. Of course, over time they mellowed, and the world began to accept them, as happens with all things. It’s partly due to those two that bounty hunting is legal in Gesh to begin with. They were the only pair who could reliably capture the most powerful wizards, and the Shift Patrol was actually the source of most of their commissions. Rods, the Assemblage itself even hired them a couple times. It’s really tricky, you know, when a wizard goes criminal. You can lock their body in chains, but you can’t imprison their access to the Crystic.”

I thought about what Rhyme had said. About why he’d been so drawn to the glimmers.

Bo sat back and took another sip of her tea. “Of course, then there was that whole mess with Fogwillow’s sister and things just sort continued downward from there. Sorry, I shouldn’t…”

“Wait, wait,” I said. Bo was trailing off and I felt like I was chasing a rabbit down a hole. “What happened with her sister?”

Bo winced. “Ahhhh…that is not my story to tell.”

“But you’ve told us so much already,” Candle said.

“Fogwillow would kill me if she knew I told you she even had a sister.”

“She already told us,” I said. “Her name was Elora, and she died a long time ago. Fogwillow showed us the doll she made her.”

“Did she now? Hm. I’m impressed. I haven’t heard Fogwillow mention her sister in years.”

“What happened to her?”

“Doesn’t matter. The girl’s dead.”

“Doesn’t matter?” I repeated, looking at Candle sideways, aghast. “It has to matter. You know Fogwillow, Bo. You know what she’s like, and she didn’t get that way from nothing. From the greatest bounty hunter in Gesh to this? It has to matter.” I held on to the edge of my chair so tightly that my fingers grew sore. “How did Elora die?”

Bo sighed, so long and deep that the cat jumped off her lap and scampered away. She looked after it longingly. “All right. All right! But to your grave you must pretend I never told you. You must pretend you don’t know.” Candle and I nodded vigorously, and Bo looked back and forth between us. After she’d sized up our sincerity, her shoulders slumped, resigned. “Elora died in jail. She got herself into a bit of trouble. Graft. Embezzlement. It’s those staving Rarecrests and their secrets. The family pattern repeating itself. She was such a nice girl, too.”

“She died in jail?” I said. “What does that have to do with anything?”

But Candle seemed to have gotten it. I heard her breath catch beside me.

“Put two and two together, kid,” Bo said. “The Rarecrests are a family from which no secret escapes. To expose a daughter of the house to that kind of publicity, to that kind of public disdain…it would ruin the family! In their eyes, at least. One would have to weigh one’s values awfully carefully before committing to that kind of embarrassment.”

“The bounty hunters who caught Elora,” Candle said.

Bo nodded. “It was Fogwillow and Gruffin. Fogwillow’s the one who put her sister away.”

Everything snapped into place. Her guilt, her solitude, her distance. The way she drifted whenever I got too close, like a wisp of a dandelion. The reason she’d never given me the only thing I’d ever wanted. I was acutely aware of Candle’s eyes on me.

“Staving rods,” Bo said, shifting in her chair. “It’d be hard to live like that, knowing you did the right thing, but always wondering if you should have just let it go. Upheld the family name.”

“I used to wonder why she gave me up,” I said. “Why she left me with Gruffin. I used to think everything would be better if she could have just told me I was hers, parent and child. It wouldn’t have even taken that many words.”

“Except words are useless,” Fogwillow said.

We all flinched. She was standing in the doorway, watching us with her arms crossed before her, her hair loose and wild. The room went cold.

Bo tried to speak. “Fogwillow, I—” Fogwillow silenced her with a glare.

When she moved, it was slow. Step by step, she crossed to the cluster of chairs by the fire, and bent down to inspect the chocolate. She broke off a piece and nibbled on the corner, then broke off another, wrapped it in a bit of foil, and hid it away in her robes. When she spoke, it was calm. Very. Very. Calm.

“I told my family I loved them, but I destroyed them. I told Gruffin I loved him, but I betrayed him. I told my sister I loved her, but I killed her.”

“You didn’t kill her,” Bo said.

Fogwillow rounded on the woman. “One year, Bo! That’s how long she lasted in there. She always had a weak constitution. So no, I don’t know I did the right thing. In fact, as time goes on, I’m becoming increasingly certain I didn’t. I am, after all, a Rarecrest.”

I cleared my throat. My voice was hoarse, and I was sleep-deprived enough that I wasn’t thinking straight, and the night and the rain and the stories had lulled me out of my senses, but if there was ever a time to say something, it was now. “I would have given the Ferren to hear you say you loved me.”

Fogwillow turned. I was pleased to see she was a little startled. “Nova.” She reached a hand out as if to touch my chin, then thought better and pulled back, squeezing her fingers a couple times before letting them fall to her side. “I won’t live up to it.”

Somewhere in the windmill, a clock struck midnight. By the time the last bell had rung, Fogwillow was gone.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

I woke up just before dawn. I had never really gone to sleep to begin with. The light beneath my door had brightened some, enough that I could see the pale outline of the room. I flipped on the lights, changed, reorganized some things in my backpack, and had no sooner opened the door than I found Fogwillow coming straight toward me down the hall, Candle fast at her heels.

I tensed, ready to be embarrassed, ready for an awkward conversation about last night, but Fogwillow didn’t wait for me to say anything. She pushed me back into my room and eased the door shut as soon as Candle had slipped her way in.

“What’s—” I began, and she held a finger up for silence. We stood crowded together in the tiny room, breath held, listening. I heard muted sounds from below.

“Bounty hunters,” Fogwillow whispered at last. “Bo’s stalling. Talking to them downstairs. Seems they heard reports of three figures entering this place last night and never leaving.”

“Eoea’s staff.”

“How are we getting out, then?” Candle said. Her face was pale.

“There’s a way out the back, but we’ll have to sneak it. Are you ready?” I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. “Then let’s go.”

She opened the door and stuck her head out, then motioned us forward. We hurried down the hall, and were only a couple yards from the stairwell when the voices suddenly got much louder, and footsteps creaked on the stairs below.

“I told you, Bo,” said a woman’s voice, “you’re gonna attract a lot of attention flying that flag.”

“Please, it’s hardly illegal. And you won’t find anything up there.” Bo’s voice was a lot louder than seemed necessary as she called up the stairs after the bounty hunters. That, of course, was for our benefit. Fogwillow flipped around and shoved us back down the hall. We scrambled, trying to keep our steps quiet.

“That rag may not earn you much trouble,” came another voice, a man’s, “but harboring fugitives sure kyving will.”

“You thinking of turning me in, Rosco?”

We rounded a corner into a narrow alcove and threw our backs up against the wall. To our right was a latticework of metal grating. The lift. We probably wouldn’t be able to use that without making a whole lot of noise. Just ahead was a window, through which the sky was an early shade of yellow. I was already breathing heavily. To think, less than five minutes ago I had been safe in bed.

“Won’t have to.” By the sound of the bounty hunter’s voice, they had already reached the top of the stairs. “A couple dozen shiftie squads are heading up the Road, right for Smoky, here. They’ll be more than happy to talk to you themselves.”

I froze. Turning to Fogwillow, I searched her expression for some sign of comfort, but her face was just as tense as mine. Down at the other end of the hall, there was a swing and a bang as the bounty hunters threw one of the bedroom doors open.

“Just a moment, just a moment,” came Bo’s voice, fainter this time, and moving away. “Let me come up there and show you around.”

“No need for the tour, Bo, we won’t be long.”

Another door banged open, a little closer. I could see Fogwillow eyeing the window across from us, but just as I was starting to psych myself up for a leap out a second story window, the floor beneath us rattled, and from somewhere just beyond the walls of the windmill came a mechanical ratcheting sound. This lasted several long seconds, drowning out the noises of the bounty hunters sacking the bedrooms, before Bo rose into view on the other side of the metal lattice. She shoved open the grate and locked eyes with us, apologetic and a little panicked. We executed a swift and silent exchange of places, sliding into the lift past Bo as she maneuvered into the hallway. Fogwillow slid the grate closed again.

Beyond, the bounty hunters footsteps were moving closer from around the corner. Fogwillow, Candle, and I were crowded together in a space not built for three. Bo’s dark, freckled face was cross-sectioned through the iron lattice. She nodded, something sad and fleeting alighting behind her eyes. Fogwillow nodded back. And then flipped a switch.

The lift shuddered. Just before we slipped out of sight, I caught a glimpse of two large shadows, and a flurry of movement as Bo swung forward to meet the half-obscured shapes coming around the corner.