The refugee camp was alive with activity, despite the hour. It had taken Fogwillow, Candle, and I two weeks to get here from the observatory—trekking through mountains and cross country, camping in rain and fog—which meant it had been almost three weeks since the Ryvkk made his attack on Blush, and people were still trickling in from the ruined city. We kept our hoods up as we walked, and stuck close together with Martha in the lead. Every so often she would stop and we’d have to clear the narrow path between tents and trees as men and women passed carrying stretchers between them, or supporting the injured by their shoulders as they limped along, or carting food and supplies to other parts of the camp. Once when this happened, I risked a glance beyond my hood, searching for faces I knew, terrified I would actually spot one. Or worse, that someone would spot me, would call my name, and in their shout summon Dean Enislen and her silver-cloaks as if by magic.
I ducked my chin and turned away.
“Blush should not be alone,” Fogwillow said quietly.
Martha shook her head. “Eldehill sends supplies. Food, water…” She motioned upward, “…lights.” There were prism-powered lanterns strung from branches overhead, glowing in crisp shades of teal and plum. Their cool light bled between the patchwork homes, and the cosmic glow made the camp feel inappropriately ethereal, as if the light of the heavens had fallen here. Martha cleared her throat. “Also…one of the Headstones is coming down soon.”
“A Headstone?” I said, lowering my voice when Candle shushed me. “Here?”
“Well, of course. This is the largest attack by the Splintered One in years, Nova. It would be unusual if someone from the Assemblage didn’t come investigate.”
I had never seen a Headstone before, not in person. There were seven of them, the greatest wizards in all the world, and together they made up the Assemblage, the ruling body of the Ferren. Together, they led the collected continents from Trill all the way to Kelefen, where their tower rose over the city of Eldehill. Seven rulers, establishing in their bond and shared power the very essence of magic: connection. It was said they could read each others’ minds. I wasn’t sure if I believed that.
The Assemblage was also, I remembered as my stomach tightened, the same ruling body who set up the Advance Academy, and granted them the authority to run the Diosec program—the shadow organization Dean Enislen used to flush me into the open, to help me discover my fate. To make me murder innocent people. If one of the Headstones was on their way here…
“It won’t be safe for Nova much longer, then,” Candle said.
“It isn’t safe now,” Fogwillow replied.
She was right. The Shift Patrol was everywhere. In their black, buckled uniforms, they almost blended with the night, animals on the prowl. Their movement through the moonlight and the lanterns did nothing to help assuage the strange illusion that their forms were vaguely unstable. As they passed between trees and tents and in and out of darkness, their bodies seemed to yoke and unyoke from the bands of light and shadow. It made my eyes hurt. It made my brain hurt. I should have been able to trust them. They had always been on my side before.
“They expect him to return,” Martha said, and I noted that she spoke as if I wasn’t there. “To come back home. They’re watching for him.”
We came to Martha’s tent and she ushered us inside. It was a cramped space for four people, though larger than many of the other tents I’d seen. It might have been able to fit us all more or less comfortably, actually, except that it was absolutely cluttered with junk. Broken stone tablets tagged with handwritten labels. Jars of black sand. A shadowbox pinned with dead insects whose wings were singed and serrated bodies desiccated. Scraps of clothing and other forgotten things.
“All this is yours?” Candle said. Martha was already digging through a pile of papers.
“I’ve been helping study the ruins.”
“Even now?” I said. I thought of the sixteener ruins, the crumpled towers and monuments that lay just outside the city. They were from the Ferren’s forgotten history, the prime fascination of Len and Martha Candle. Their apartment had always been filled from wall to wall with tagged and catalogued relics from sixteener.
Martha raised her eyebrows at me. “Not those ruins, Nova. I’ve been helping study the ruins of Blush.” The pain in my chest sharpened. She continued digging through her papers. “There may be patterns, you know. Patterns in the way the terminal split, in the way the destruction coursed through the city. It could give us clues about the Splintered One, if you know where to look. How to look.” She turned and I caught a glimmer of the only smile I’d seen on her face since we arrived. “Luckily for us, this ragtag assembly of survivors still has one of the Ferren’s best archeologists on hand. Now then. I supposed you want to get into Blush, don’t you?”
I looked at Fogwillow. “Er…yes…I think.”
“I want to see the destruction for myself,” Fogwillow said. “And Nova should see it, too. It could be educational.”
“Funny,” Martha said. “I thought he was abandoning his education.” Before I even had time to feel the sting, Martha pressed something into my hands. “The keys. To the investiture. I assume that’s where you’re going? Gruffin keeps it locked most of the time now because of…well, you’ll see.”
“And the broken terminal?” Fogwillow said. “What will we need to make it there?”
“Nothing but nerve,” Martha said. “There’s a thin border of shifties, but no one is really trying to enter the field of impact. They don’t want the Specter of Anon-Golish haunting their dreams.”
Candle snorted. Martha gave her daughter a disapproving look, then gestured to the exit. “Come on. I’ll lead you out.”
We passed as calmly and inconspicuously as we could to the other side of the camp. As we went, I again tried to catch glimpses of the people passing by. I wasn’t looking for friends—I didn’t really have any of those—but there were still people I wanted to see alive. People I’d only ever seen from a distance, but known for years.
“Who are you looking for?” Candle said, coming alongside me.
“No one,” I replied. Then I realized Candle was talking to me for the first time since we arrived, and decided maybe I shouldn’t push her away. She didn’t look like she believed me anyway. “Remember when I showed you my windows?”
I could see the memory of it cross her face in flickers of surprise and pain. The night I’d taken her up to the roof to see all those little lives in all those windows in all those apartments on the city blocks surrounding the investiture. The smoke from the ventilators. The chill night air. And a thousand worlds viewable from a single dark roof. I’d given those people names, backstories. I’d watched them grow and change, all within their postcard squares of light. I was friends with almost no one in Blush, but I thought maybe I knew more about its people than anyone else in the city.
“Some of them will be here,” Candle said.
“Some of them,” I echoed, and Candle tried to respond, but then shut her mouth tightly and turned away. My chest tightened. “I’m sorry.”
It seemed like such an inadequate thing to say, and we both knew it. There were too many emotions pushing against my throat, and no words to release them. I looked around at the passersby once again, not expecting much, but gave a start when I found myself, alarmingly, standing directly in the path of a woman I knew. We locked eyes. I prayed to all the magic in the Ferren that she wouldn’t recognize me.
But I recognized her. She had straight brown hair that cut across her jawline. Large, round eyes. The beginnings of wrinkles in her tired face. A face I could read almost perfectly, a face in which I’d seen the skill of the student playing piano in the next room as her eyebrows rose and fell with music I couldn’t hear. Someone from my windows. I’d named her Amber.
It was wrong to see her here. Wrong to see her out from behind her desk. Everyone was out of their boxes. The Ferren was falling part.
I mumbled an apology and stepped to the side. She passed without a second glance.
“Where will everyone go?” I said a little bit later.
“Some have already left,” Martha said. “To other parts of the Ferren. Some, I think, intend to stay here.”
“And do what?”
“Wait? Wait for what?”
“It doesn’t matter. Some have nowhere to go, Master Answer.”
At this, Fogwillow gave me a surreptitious look over her shoulder, a look I maybe wasn’t supposed to see, and I realized, from that look and Martha’s words: I had nowhere to go either. I never had, even before the city was attacked. Dean Enislen had taken me from Blush with no intention to send me back, and I’d escaped from the Advance Academy knowing full well the city wouldn’t be here for me, that I was on the run with no destination in mind but the wild. Fogwillow was trying to take me home, but home wasn’t here anymore. I was a refugee, too.
“Here we are,” Martha said.
We’d reached the outskirts of the camp. The tents gave way to more trees and we left the lanterns behind, striking out into the darkness. The sounds receded behind us. After a while, we came to the bottom of a hill, and Martha stopped.
“You’ll be able to get your first view of Blush from up there.” She hesitated.
“What?” Candle said.
“It’s just…you may want to brace yourselves.”
We climbed the hill. The trees thinned as we neared the top, and the sky grew large above us. A billion stars lit the Ferren from one end of the world to the other. The ground stretched out into a promontory that rose like a wave above the cebelis forest. We neared the edge…
Blush of Trill. The only home I had ever known. The skyline, once flush with light and color, was broken. On either of the far ends, the buildings still rose like lonely giants, though what little light remained in them was pale and flickering. But in between, right in the center of the city, was a gaping hole of darkness. An absence. Where once the city had risen to its triumphant heights, now it plunged into a sinkhole of nothingness. The view was so overwhelming, so huge, that I found myself unable to move, unable to comprehend. I had seen broken things before. Shattered plates. Lightning struck trees. Even condemned houses. But this. The destruction was mythic in proportion. It should not have been allowed to be.
Martha’s voice came as if from far away. “When the terminal shattered, the destruction was not immediate. I don’t think anyone expected that. Oh, Central Circuit was vaporized pretty thoroughly right off the bat, but the rest came in rings, expanding out hour by hour. To see the people trying to run as the circle widened…it…”
She had no more to say.
I don’t know how long we stood there. Time sort of fell away.
“Did anyone see him?” Fogwillow finally said. Martha stirred.
“The Splintered One? I…I expect so. I didn’t.” She took a deep breath, her slight shoulders rising and falling. It seemed to help, because when she spoke again her voice was more steady. “Head for the investiture. It’s still standing, and Gruffin is as bullheaded as ever. He refuses to leave.”
I was thankful for the smile this brought to my face.
“Be careful, though,” Martha continued. “The coastline is broken. There’s a lot of flooding in that area, and some of the buildings are unstable.”
“We’ll go slowly,” Fogwillow said. She drew her robes tighter against a sudden breeze and readied her staff. She turned to Candle and I. “Ready, you two?”
I wasn’t ready. I would never be ready to enter that place. I turned to Martha, who was saying goodbye to her daughter.
“What are you going to do?” I said.
Martha turned two sharp, curious eyes on me. “Right now? Right now I’m going to go back to my tent and try to get some sleep. Beyond that? I don’t know, Nova. Stay here, probably. Help rebuild.”
“That could take years. Decades.”
“They’re going to need someone with a good eye for finding truth among ruins.” She kissed Candle on the top of the head, then stepped back and crossed her arms. “What about you?” she said to me. “What do you intend to do?”
My shoulders were inching up again. “My responsibilities…”
“Don’t tell me about your responsibilities, Nova. I read what you wrote while you were at the Advance Academy. You’re a pretty introspective kid, you know. Always have been. That’s good, admirable, even, but you need to find a way to look beyond yourself every once in a while. Those people back in that camp? Their futures hinge on you. You don’t want to be the Answer? You feel like your life isn’t yours? Fine. I can’t blame you for that, really. But you’re all we’ve got.”
“You wish I hadn’t left the Advance Academy.”
“There are people who will condemn you for abandoning your training. I’m not one of them. I care about you, Nova. But I’m done reading about how sorry you feel for yourself. So, again, what do you intend to do?”
“What do you want me to do?”
She poked me in the chest. “Give a damn.”