Candle was awake in the parlor when I came in. She didn’t notice me. It was one of those moments when you know you’re going to scare someone, and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. No voice or noise soft or loud enough. Her mechanical parts were spread out before her on the low table, and she sat cross-legged before them, tinkering in the magenta gloom and the moonlight coming in from the balcony. Her hair, usually kept so short back when we lived in civilized times, had grown long enough to actually brush the tops of her shoulders and block her face.
I cleared my throat. “You ever going to tell me what you’re working on?”
She jumped, turned to me with a guilt-stricken face, and tried to shuffle the components into her backpack.
“Sorry,” I said.
“No, no, I was just—it’s fine.”
But as the pieces fell into the backpack, I caught a glimpse of one of them in the half-light, and the sight made my skin go cold.
Candle finished stowing her project away and turned to face me, sitting up straight, lips pressed together in embarrassment. I remained frozen, my surroundings forgotten, Thetazin forgotten, everything that had happened that night—forgotten.
The words came soft and slow, more accusation than question. “What are you working on?”
Candle seemed to scrunch into herself. “I’m just trying things out.”
“Candle. Emma Lyn.” That sucked the air right out of the room. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d used her first name. “I saw it.”
Wincing, Candle reached into her backpack and pulled out a small prism, bound in silver. It winked between her fingers, edged with teeth that I knew were meant to bite into skin. One long wire trailed from the bottom. Like a tentacle.
Or a spinal cord.
“You made another one,” I said evenly.
Candle held a hand up and tried to forestall my anger. “I know what was done to you wasn’t good, Nova, but it’s not as if they’re evil. Not in and of themselves. You have to realize that.”
“I have to.”
“I know you’re sensitive about this. It wasn’t like I wanted to keep it a secret.”
“But you did.”
“Out of respect for you! For your feelings.” She waved the thing around, and its wire tail snapped in the air in a way that made my stomach queasy. I turned away. Candle groaned. “Come on, Nova. It’s the perfect intersection of magic and tech. You had to know this would interest me.”
I tried to push down the nausea, believe me, I tried, but it was getting wrapped up and tangled with anger and panic and disgust and a dozen other emotions that wouldn’t stay put. They were all writhing in my stomach, entangled in my throat, pushing up against the soft space at the back of my mouth. I felt, more forcefully than I had in months, the ossified chunks of six prisms lodged in my spine, pressing into my back as surely as fingers. Something convulsed through me, I shuddered, and then threw up.
“Rods,” Candle said. She set the prism down and hurried over to where I was doubled over on the floor. “Rods. I’m sorry.”
My cheeks were burning. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve, and wouldn’t look at her. Without speaking, we gathered towels from a restroom just off the parlor and cleaned the floor. There was water in a basin, which helped to get the last of it, and as we knelt beside each other with the dirty towels piled at our feet, trying to pretend the smell didn’t bother us, I whispered, “Does it work?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Not yet, though.” We stared at the floor. “Look.” Candle went to the table. I didn’t follow. “I’m going to make you confront this, Nova.”
“You think I’m being irrational.”
“Actually, I don’t. The Advance Academy gave you perfectly good reason to be angry and afraid. If it were irrational, I wouldn’t be trying to fix it. Come here.”
Reluctantly, I joined her, and she picked up the terrible thing and turned it over in her hands. I had never seen the underbelly of one before. It was like turning over a beetle to find the clicking legs beneath its carapace. The silver ring cradled the prism in a mechanical setting, a delicate pattern of circuits and wires and little brass conical things and slender shining pins, the sight of which, all packed together and prickling, made my stomach churn again. I looked away quickly.
“It seems complicated,” I said.
“Why do you think it’s taking me so long? I can wire up a smoke bomb in seconds, but this…Nova, this could change everything.”
“Everything.” Not wanting to look at the dirty towels, or the prism, I turned and looked at her, standing too close, her face lit with a familiar rapture, the kind she reserved only for mechanical things. The scent of fried circuit boards that always seemed to follow her was particularly strong. “I asked you, in the Pillars, if you could help me take them out. I wish you’d told me, then.”
Her expression faltered. “I was going to, but…I wasn’t sure I could even get it working. No point upsetting you over what might amount to a lot of garbage.”
I squirmed, still riding off the fumes of residual anger and panic. “This isn’t just experimental, is it? You actually want to use it.”
“Like I said, it could change everything.”
Nope, there was still some anger left. A lot of it. “You should have asked me.”
“Why would I need to ask you?”
“Because it’s my body! Even if it would never work, even if it was just to open up options, I don’t like the idea of you making plans for me behind my back!”
“What are you—? Oh.”
I missed all the warning signs, all the micro-changes in her expression. I plowed straight onward, anger rising. It felt good. I began to pace. “Everyone is always making secret plans, the Advance Academy, the thaumaticians, the Shift Patrol, Fogwillow—I thought I could at least count on you! We could have talked about this. I don’t think a seventh prism will even help that much. And besides that, Fogwillow won’t even let me charge them!”
Candle pulled the prism in closer to herself, as if to protect it. “Nova…” There was a pained look on her face. “Nova…I didn’t make this for you.” She wouldn’t meet my gaze. “I made it for me.”
Cold shock. My face drained, and I swayed on the spot, staring at her.
“For…” I said.
There was silence. And then Candle started talking at a mile a minute. “In your ticker you wrote that the Wizard Edel called them amplifiers, but he’s a wizard and was only thinking of them from a wizard’s point of view. When you already have magic, it makes sense you’d only see them as a boost. But they could be more, Nova. They could be conduits. Think about it. Just…I know this is a lot to take in…but think about it for a minute. These could bring magic to anyone—everyone.”
“This isn’t…” What? This isn’t what? “This isn’t you.”
Candle gave me an incredulous expression. “What do you mean?”
“You’re…” I gestured. It was becoming really staving difficult to find my words. “You’re a tech person. You make things out of circuits and wires. You’re a wizard with the thaumascope, and fixing things, and and and…code!”
“Only because I can’t be an actual wizard.” She held up the prism. “Now I can. Maybe.”
I thought of Rhyme and the glimmer. “Rods! Why does every kyving person want to be a wizard?”
“Why wouldn’t I want to be a wizard, Nova? I mean, look at you. You’re skinny and not very tall, you’re not very good with people and it can be a royal pain to coax a conversation out of you, but Eoea’s staff, Nova, you’re cool.”
Well, that was deeply offensive. “I am not cool. I’ve never been cool and you know it.”
“You are cool, to me, and why is that a bad thing?”
Because Candle was my best friend in the whole wide Ferren. Because she had always liked me in spite of my reclusiveness, my inability to know what to say, my general dislike of other people, my weird thing about being touched. She had liked me even though there was no reason to.
If there was a reason…
If she only like me because I had magic…
I was more afraid, in that moment, than I had been all night. It was beyond throw-up fear. Beyond stomach churning, panicky fear. It was still. And calm. And empty. A fear that she wasn’t the kind of friend I thought she was. And that she never had been.
But that wasn’t what I said. What I said was the very, very wrong thing to say.
“You could put a hundred of those things in your body, Candle, and you still wouldn’t be a wizard.”
Candle went blank. It was so much worse than if she’d exploded. “How can they be so bad?” she said in a measured voice. “They helped you reach your staff.”
“Unnaturally!” I said. “Inorganically.”
“No. Just with tools. Every normal person in the Ferren uses tools—prism powered, mechanical tools—to help them achieve things. You don’t think what I do is as good as wizardry? It isn’t as pure, or something?”
“I would never say that. I never have said that.”
“But you think it.”
“It’s just…why do you think I’ve spent so long training with Fogwillow?”
“I could train with Fogwillow.”
“But it wouldn’t—”
“Wouldn’t what, Nova? Wouldn’t be natural? Wouldn’t be right? Honestly, if you have such a Lornic view of what it means to be a wizard maybe you should have just stayed at the Advance Academy after all.”
“The Advance Academy wasn’t good for me,” I said.
“The Advance Academy was giving you a nice, traditional training. We’ve been on the run for months! Alone. Barely getting by. Always just on the brink of capture. Can you really say this has been easier?”
“You think this was wrong.”
“It’s just that you could have had so much more help. You could have had friends. Instead you made an enemy of the entire Ferren—for what? So you wouldn’t have to talk to people you didn’t want to talk to?”
She was doing this on purpose. I wouldn’t get distracted. “This isn’t the point. It’s not about training or tradition. You could train with Fogwillow. That’s fine! But the power…Candle, I’m just being logical. The power wouldn’t be innate. Someone would have to charge your prisms. Every day. Maybe even after every use. You wouldn’t have any magic of your own.”
Candle stared at me for a good long while, unblinking. Then, in a soft voice, more vulnerable than I would have expected, she said: “You told me, in the Pillars, that you would give me all your magic if you could.”
I shook my head. There was nothing to say. Nothing I could think of anyway. I’m sure someone smarter than me could have found some words that would get them out of this personal quagmire, but that has never been a skill of mine. I brushed past Candle on my way out to the balcony.
“Where are you going?” she called after.
“I’m going down there.” I pointed. “To the Shift Patrol camp.”
“Because Commander Rhyme is here and I believe he knows where one half of Eoea’s staff is, and I think he’s still conflicted about chasing after me.”
I gripped the balustrade and peered out over the encircling tents. The air was cold out here, and the trees were nothing but humped shadows, like mountains floating over the darkened camp. Only a few watch fires dotted the view. The clearing before us was pink and gloomy. I looked over the edge. It wasn’t too far down.
“Nova, this is crazy,” Candle said, joining me. She had left the prism behind. “You can’t just leave.”
“I’m going to find Rhyme. I’m going to try to talk some reason into him.”
“You’re still in your pajamas.”
I hopped up and kicked my feet over the railing. Behind me, Candle groaned, then heaved herself up to sit beside me. She began to pull her hair back with a band from her wrist.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I’m coming with you.”
“Candle, I—” I took a breath. “I need to be by myself. For a little while.”
“Then go sit in the bathroom. You’re about to do something dangerous, and I’m coming with you.”
“Would you like me to wake Fogwillow? I’m sure she’d have some excellent ideas about this plan of yours.”
I bristled, looking back at the parlor, which was empty. Forcing another breath, I turned forward again. “You are the worst.”
“And you know what? Right now, so are you.”
Without even waiting for her, I heaved myself off the balcony and plummeted toward the ground. As I did, I connected to the Crystic and sent a flush of magic downward, which caught me and Candle both in its updraft. We touched down, not lightly necessarily, but without breaking anything.
The edge of the camp didn’t start until about fifty yards into the glade. The two of us straightened, brushing ourselves off, and looked across the gap. Trying my best to ignore Candle, I crept forward, keeping my head low and footsteps light.
“Hey,” Candle hissed at my side. I looked at her, expecting some kind of apology. I didn’t get it. “While we sneak our way into the thick of what is quite possibly the most dangerous place in the Ferren for us, you can tell me what you mean by Eoea’s staff.”