We arrived in Yillig, tired and hungry, one week later. I still remember the sight of it coming over those hills. It was just past sundown, and the world was the dark blue of an ocean bottom. To the east, Tillamen Road was a bright ribbon of light, ramrod straight, the brighter patches of headlights passing up and down like blood vessels, cutting through the blue until it—ended? expanded?—collided with the city on the northern horizon.
I’d heard stories of Yillig. I’d seen pictures. None of them did it justice. The city glowed in the night, light blooming between the grand, alien towers, vermilion and purple and aquamarine and emerald. Not a single star could be seen against the brilliance, every building cut from the night in swathes of crisp, static light. It was the light of thousands of levitation discs, built into the undersides of the city, lifting each individual piece of it up!
The building—the buildings! They floated. Only a little, not enough to send them up into the sky, just enough to get them off the ground, to give a sense of weightlessness, of wonder. They swayed like barges at sea, stretching toward the sky in points and curves, all glass and steel. Some were bisected, one half floating over the other; some had rings about their tops; some scattered into the air, breaking off into a dozen drifting pieces. The effect was like a mirage, a shifting image seen through a haze of light. A city fractured and frozen.
To the west of Yillig was the Iris, a large sea that fed into the ocean. The light from the city fell across its waters and broke against the waves as they swept toward the shore.
I laughed. My chest felt like it was floating too. “Where do they get all the power?”
“Connect to the Crystic. You’ll see.”
I did. The magic landscape that surrounded this part of the Ferren was sweltering. The fuchsia plains churned in agitation, and besides that, they seemed to be rushing away, filtering down rapidly toward Yillig. I gasped. The city was sucking magic out of the Crystic at a heart-thumping pace, an open dam between the Crystic and the Ferren. I disconnected, reeling.
“How…” I stammered.
“All those bright minds at the university. They sure do think up some wonders.”
We crossed into the basin, and it was another half hour before we reached the city itself. As we neared, my skin began to prickle with static, and I noticed, just on the edge of hearing, a deep, subdued hum, more a feeling than anything else. A slow, subtle vibration in my bones. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Fogwillow and I crossed an overpass above Tillamen Road, teardrop streetlamps arcing overhead, and joined the flow of traffic into the city.
Through the crosshatch of light, the crowded streets seemed even more frenetic than they probably were, shadows jumping and stretching, skims honking and pushing slowly through clogged crosswalks, headlights flickering between passing legs. People shouting and laughing. And on either side, shining towers shifting slowly overhead, smaller buildings and lifts caught in their orbit. The levitation discs lit their foundations below, where markets and restaurants and gated parks swallowed up the crowds and spilled them back onto the street. It took some amount of effort not to feel dizzy.
It was easy to blend in, though. We kept our hoods up and relinquished our staves to the Crystic. No one was looking at us. And if they did happen to catch a glimpse, all they would see was a flash of a face in the shifting lights. There, then gone.
“This is nothing like Blush,” I said as I pushed my way after Fogwillow. The sidewalk was pressed with people. Brushing up against them was unavoidable, and I was caught in a perpetual cringe.
“You’re not a fan?” Fogwillow said.
Empty bags of koba crisps gathered in the gutters, and crunched underfoot. We passed storefronts and restaurants, bars and clubs, all blaring their own music, which meshed together in a far less pleasing way than the lights. It smelled like alcohol and roasted almonds and garbage. I forgot to respond to Fogwillow, who looked back at me and tried to offer a comforting smile.
“We’re near the university,” she said, as if that excused the crowds. “We’ll be out of this part of town soon enough.”
But the overwhelming stimuli never went away entirely, only lessened a bit. After fighting our way up several blocks, Fogwillow turned down a side street, where the foot traffic dispersed enough for me to catch my breath. I motioned for a stop and put my hands on my knees.
“You okay?” Fogwillow said.
“Just…just give me a moment.”
When I was feeling less dizzy, I straightened and looked up. The buildings glared into the sky, the lights shifting from sherbet orange to sandy cinnabar. The deep vibrations I was feeling seemed to be coming from the levitation discs, which hurt to look at. The sheer amount of power they put out made the air around them harsh and hazy. There were no cebelis trees here. Nothing to soften the edges of steel and glass.
“Koba crisps, a bite of crunch,” sang a disembodied advertisement from somewhere down the street.
“We’ll never find her here,” I said quietly.
“We haven’t even tried, yet.”
“We weren’t fast enough, and there are so many people.”
“Nova, look.” Fogwillow pointed down the road. The buildings opened up near the end into a plaza. “You think I lead you blindly?” We walked on, dodging a group of twenty-somethings coming out of a shop. Fogwillow drew up against the side of a building near the corner, and nodded ahead.
Nestled into the middle of the plaza was an enormous black dome, shining like a beetle’s carapace. There had been a similar one in Blush…before it had been incinerated.
“A Vault,” I said.
Fogwillow nodded. “The headquarters for the shifties here in Yillig.”
I licked my lips, drawing closer. Fogwillow clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth in warning, and I remembered myself, retreating back around the corner. I forced myself to breathe. “She could be in there.”
“Could be,” Fogwillow replied.
“We could go get her. We could go right now.”
“Nova, listen to me. If—and only if—I agree to help you infiltrate that place, it will be very dangerous, even with a well-formed plan, and as of now there’s no guarantee she’s there.”
“But how will we ever know unless we try!”
“We need a place to rest,” Fogwillow said, unabated. “A place to plan. Rushing into things was what got us into this mess.”
I bit the inside of my cheek, peering around the corner at the Vault, somewhat chastened, though not willing to admit it. She was right. Everything so far had been my fault.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. A place to plan. Do you have any friends in Yillig?”
“Can’t say that I do.” Fogwillow’s face was unreadable, though I thought I saw the passage of something like amusement in her eyes. “But you might.”
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
“Well look who decided to come crawling out of the woodwork,” Hazel Mars said. She stood with one hand against the doorjamb of her apartment, wearing a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and fuzzy pink socks. Her hair hung in two long braids. She did not look happy to see me.
“Hi, Hazel Mars,” I said.
She stared, tapping a finger against the doorway. Somewhere behind her, dishes were clattering, and a dog barking. A lightscreen was flipped on to the news.
I tried again. “Can we come in?”
For a moment, it actually looked like she would say no. But then her eyes flicked up to Fogwillow, behind me, and her face paled. She leaned out and glanced down the hallway on either side. It was empty.
“Fine,” she said. “Whatever. Make yourselves at home.”
Hazel Mars pushed off from the doorway and turned, striding over to comfort the barking dog, who was being held back by the collar by a tall, athletic looking man with short black hair, neatly parted. I looked up at Fogwillow, who shrugged and motioned the way in.
The apartment was small, but cozy. The dining room shared space with the living room, and through a narrow archway in the back I could see a miniature kitchen, glowing with yellow light and steam. It smelled like garlic. There were potted plants and stacks of books, and on the windowsill, an army of pictures in golden frames. The table was set for some combination of dinner and study hall.
As soon as the door was closed, the man let go of the dog’s collar, and it bounded over, jumping up and pawing at my waist.
“Alphabet! No!” Hazel Mars said, ineffectually. “Sorry.”
“Um, hi,” I said. “Alphabet. Hi.” He was golden, about knee-height, with big floppy ears and a white speckled nose. He was trying to lick my fingers and bark at the same time.
Without a word, Fogwillow bent down and redirected the dog’s attention. He came down from my waist, fell silent, and sat on his haunches as Fogwillow let him sniff her hands, then scratched behind his ears. His tail wagged across the floor.
We all watched the pair of them until Hazel Mars broke the silence.
“He likes you.”
“I like him,” Fogwillow said. “He’s very handsome.”
Alphabet looked over his shoulder at me, somehow smugly, and I met his eyes in a state of mild bewilderment.
“That’s her backpack.”
I flinched, tearing my eyes from the dog. Her voice had been quiet. Hazel Mars was staring at the bag I’d let fall to the floor, the one I’d been toting all the way from the Wanted Woods. Something cold and aching went up between us, and in that uncomfortable moment, the sound of the newscast broke through to my consciousness.
“…still no sign of the Answer or the Wizard Rarecrest, though reports from the Vault say his traveling companion, Em—”
The lightscreen clicked off. I blinked. The athletic looking man stood up from the table, smiling with a wide set of white teeth, remote control in one hand. He wore a purple plaid button down, tucked in, sleeves rolled up, and a pair of glasses with thick plastic rims. Hazel Mars, also coming out of her reverie, found his eyes, then forced out a smile.
“Sorry, this is Kodaselu. Ah, Kodaselu, this is Nova Scratshot, my sister’s friend, and his, um, Fogwillow.” There was so much unsaid in that introduction. The unspoken context hung between us, everyone trying to avoid pulling the words out of the air.
“Hi,” he said, warmly, and held out a hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
I did not want to shake his hand, but I did, as did Fogwillow. When the ordeal was over, Kodaselu turned to Hazel Mars. “I forgot, I have some papers I need to grade before tomorrow or Almann is going to kill me.”
“But…” Hazel Mars looked back at the kitchen, then at me and Fogwillow, clearly not wanting to be left alone. “Dinner…”
“I’ll grab something on the way. Call if you need anything.” He gave her a peck on the cheek, then nodded to us as he grabbed a coat from the back of his chair and slipped past. “It was nice meeting you.”
The door opened. The door clicked shut. He was gone. Alphabet looked lovingly up at Fogwillow. Hazel Mars avoided our eyes.
“Can he be trusted?” Fogwillow said.
Her response was heated. “I don’t think you’re in any position to be asking that question.”
“Fair,” Fogwillow said. “All the same, it must be asked.”
We stood in a stewy silence, and I was starting to regret coming here at all. “He won’t say anything,” Hazel Mars said at last. “He’s not like that.”
Something buzzed in the kitchen. Hazel Mars shook her head, then disappeared, and I heard the sound of water being dumped through a strainer.
“Can we help?” I called.
“Sure, why not?”
The three of us crowded into the tiny kitchen and Hazel Mars set us to work chopping vegetables while she seared several cuts of fish in a cast iron pan, and from time to time added our vegetables and pinches of seasoning to a simmering pot. Other than her curt instructions, we prepared the food in silence. Fogwillow had tried, once, to offer a suggestion with the spices, but Hazel Mars glared her down. When her back was turned, Fogwillow snuck a few slices of carrot off the cutting board and stowed them in the folds of her cloak.
“What are you making, anyway?” I said after a time.
The word brought back a memory. “Candle mentioned that. It was her favorite.”
When we were finished, Hazel Mars ladled out three bowls of the soup—though to call it soup was stretching the definition of soup; watery salad might be more accurate—and we sat down at the table, which was barely big enough for all of us. Alphabet made his camp underfoot and from time to time I saw his face peering up at me from between my knees, hoping for some food. Candle had been right; the soup was very good.
“Thank you,” I said quietly. “And I’m sorry for barging in on you like this.”
“Do you have any news?” Hazel Mars said, her voice curt. “Do you know how she’s doing?”
“Then why are you here?”
I shared a glance with Fogwillow, and hesitated before responding. “Because we didn’t know where else to go. Because we needed a safe place to hide out before…before trying to rescue her.”
“Rescue her?” Hazel Mars gave us a dumbfounded look. “You can’t be serious.”
“What else can we do?”
“What else can you do? What else can you do? How about any other thing? My sister is in the hands of some of the most powerful people in the Ferren, and to them, she is the most valuable resource they have right now. She knows everything about you, where you’ve been, what you’ve learned, and where you might be going. If they give her up, they’ve lost you too. The only person smart enough to spring her out of there is Emma Lyn, herself. There is no way you’ll be able to do it.”
“Well, thanks,” I said.
“You barely made it out of the observatory without help.”
“Like I said, thanks.”
Hazel Mars leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, staring at her empty bowl with a furrowed brow. “Do you know what I did when I found out they’d caught Emmy? Before I realized you were still on the loose? Before I realized they weren’t going to let her go?” She gave me a piercing look and I shook my head dutifully. “I celebrated. I was glad this mess was finally coming to end, that she’d found her way out, even if it wasn’t by choice. Now you want to pull her back into it. Pull me into it?”
I stood. “We shouldn’t have come here. We’ll go.”
Hazel Mars sighed. “That’s just like you, isn’t it?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“A little conflict and you turn tail and run. Stand your ground, for Eoea’s sake.”
“I don’t understand, do you want me to go or do you want me to stay?”
“I want you to show a little staving grit, Nova!”
I threw my hands up and dropped back down into my chair, upsetting Alphabet beneath the table, who retreated to a safer place by Fogwillow’s feet. Fogwillow herself was staring into her bowl, stirring the dregs absently with a spoon. She didn’t look uncomfortable. Just waiting for a storm to pass.
Hazel Mars reached for the remote and clicked the lightscreen on. It flared up before the opposite wall, a burst of Crystic pink before settling into normal colors.
“…where is Rhyme?” a talking head was saying to the news anchor, who nodded in agreement. “Where is Enislen? After that press conference a few days ago, nothing. I mean, why the silence?”
A burst of crosstalk before another panelist was able to cut their way through.
“It seems to me—it seems to me, Flora, to indicate Miss Candle’s being very tight-lipped, which is a sign that this whole course of action might not be panning out the way they hoped it would, which would be—it would be an embarrassment, quite frankly—”
“It makes me wonder what they’re doing to persuade her. If you look at Rhyme’s history when he was Chief Inspector in Blush, if you read the reports, he’s not known for being much of a strong-arm.”
“But Vika Enislen—”
“There’s no way she won’t get her due.”
“There’s another possibility to consider, though, Flora, which is that maybe they’re hoping he’ll come to her. That—”
Hazel Mars clicked it off and set the remote down with a clatter. She leaned back in her chair, staring at me.
“That’s what it’s like,” she said. “All day. Every day. The faces change. The wording changes, though barely. But I’ve heard essentially that same conversation more times than I can count in the past few days. It’s driving me crazy, Nova. My professors have started to give me this look. Pity, I think. It’s a terrible look. I couldn’t go in today.”
I stood up, brusquely, though when I got to my feet I didn’t know what to do. I just needed to move, to help dissipate whatever burning, twisting feeling was building up inside me. I circled, once, swinging my arms, then went to the window and looked down over the city. We were on the fifteenth floor. A levitation disc on the underside of a tower floating above us sent waves of amber beaming into the tiny apartment. What a weird city. It was so busy and so noisy, its edges so…hard. The light didn’t soften it. It only made the lines stand out even more against the shadows. Down below, through the railing of a narrow balcony, I could see crowds of people moving up and down the street, and if I turned to the side, gazing northward down a corridor of light, I thought I could just make out, far, far away…
My breath caught.
A wide, dark streak where the light ended.
Hazel Mars came up by my side. “Yeah,” she said, looking in the same direction. “It tends to have that effect on people.” Fogwillow rose, too, and joined us by the window, Alphabet padding at her heels. Together, we stood with our cheeks almost pressed up against the glass, staring sideways at that wide, long line of darkness.
“Do you study it?” I asked. “In your…what is it you study again?”
“Historiography. The history of history.” She took in a breath and then let it out slowly. “You’d sort of have to be fundamentally incurious not to study the Chasm at some point in your academic life. Especially when you go to school in a city practically built on top of the thing. It’s actually one of our standard assignments. They give it to fresh little first years, just entering grad school.”
The Chasm marked the northern border of Gesh, with Yelding on the other side. It was one of the largest scars left over from the Shattershock, when the Ferren broke into a hundred tiny pieces, when our history vanished into the Lorn and we were left stranded atop the ruins. It stretched sheer across from one coast to the other, five miles wide, unnaturally linear, fathomlessly deep. There were stories of people who tried to find the bottom. No stories other than of those who tried.
Even in the darkness of night, when it was just a patch of deeper darkness half seen down a wide avenue of the bright city of Yillig, it was impossible to take our eyes off it. We stood transfixed, in our pocket of light and warmth, high above the crowds. Eventually, Hazel Mars spoke into the silence, though just barely.
“So what are you going to do?”
“I want to fix things,” I said. “I want to undo them. Everything I broke.”
She made a skeptical noise. “You want to rescue her? Please do it. I beg of you. But there’s only one way to get my sister out of their hands.” With a force of will I did not yet possess, she tore her gaze from the Chasm and pulled back from the window. I heard her begin to clear the dishes behind me. “The only way they’re going to let her go, Nova,” she continued, “is if you turn yourself in.”