The news was on in the small holding room where I waited. The shiftie Vault was cold and dark, and the newscaster’s voice echoed through the bare room with its black brick walls and threadbare carpeting.
“…Nova Scratshot, the Answer to Prophecy, was captured yesterday morning in a dramatic brawl outside the Tera B. Reedling Terminal Dome, a brawl that set off one of the largest disasters Yillig has seen. The destruction of levitation disks for several blocks around the dome resulted in the freefall of many prominent buildings, reducing much of the terminal district to rubble. The cause of the power loss is still unclear, but many are hoping Commander Rhyme’s press conference later this afternoon will shed some light.
“In the meantime, theories have run rampant on the Crystic network, as images of the disaster spread like wildfire over the past twenty-four hours. Many have said that the clear, outward-expanding pattern of the rubble, seen here, shows that the power loss may have been due to a large-scale burst of magic, knocking down buildings in concentric rings for about a quarter-mile into the city from the Reedling Dome. More on that later this hour.
“There is some news to brighten this scene of disaster, however. Thanks to the evacuation of the terminal district, ordered by Yillig officials late last year as a precaution against attack by the Specter of Anon-Golish, the horrifying turn of events, miraculously, resulted in few casualties. The single confirmed death, however, is a weighty one. The Wizard Wendolen Rarecrest, who some of our viewers might know better as Fogwillow…”
I fumbled for the remote and clicked the lightscreen off. Silence fell. I sat and stared at the wall, wishing I could fade out, lose track of time, but it didn’t happen. For over an hour I sat there, acutely, painfully aware of each passing minute.
Then the door opened.
“Hey there, kid,” Rhyme said with a smile that looked like it would crumble at the faintest breeze.
“What are you going to tell them?” I said without preamble. “In your press conference?”
Rhyme pulled a chair over so he could sit across from me. He spun it around and sat with his arms propped on the back. There were a few magazines on the coffee table between us. I think we used to sell some of those at Gruff Stop.
“I’ll tell them the truth.”
“All of it?”
“I’ll tell them what I can. What I know.”
“She killed her, Rhyme. She had her in her grasp and then let go.”
“I believe you.”
We sat quietly. There was nowhere for this conversation to go. Nowhere it hadn’t already been several times in the past twenty-four hours.
“Do you hate me?” Rhyme said. I shrugged. “Well, that’s okay. I very much dislike myself at the moment.”
That made me look up. “Rhyme…”
“No. It’s fine.” He looked like he wanted to say something else, but it never made its way out. Instead, he told me that preparations were being made for her funeral, here in Yillig. It was going to take place on Wardin, three days from now. I heard all of this from a distance, as if on the other side of a pane of glass.
“You’ll be allowed to attend,” Rhyme finished.
That smile again. “Certainly.” When I didn’t gush my thanks, his expression fell, and his eyes slid away from mine. His next words were more measured. “It wasn’t supposed to hurt.”
He blinked, as if surprised he’d actually said it. “The process of creating slipshapes. It wasn’t supposed to hurt. The Assemblage has spent decades trying to ease the process, but it still…” He inhaled shakily. “I think it’s because they only have half of it. A broken shard of the Genesis Rod. It’s magic is incomplete, but that doesn’t stop them from using it, from making us. At this point, I think they’ve given up. I think they think that the hurting is necessary, that the pain is part of the process. To create…” He broke off again, then tried, carefully, to pick up the pieces. “The body remembers pain, Nova. Even when your body is as fluid as mine. When I shift, it’s there, like a rock in a stream. I break against it every time.”
I stared at him. His knuckles had gone white on the back of the chair. His green eyes stared out from his long face, trying as hard as they could—so hard—to reach across the table of month-old magazines and reach mine.
“I’m sorry for what happened, Nova. You will carry this for a long time. Forever, maybe. I’m sorry for my role in it. But listen…if you truly need Eoea’s staff, I will do whatever is within my power to help you get it.”
I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be feeling these things in this room with this person. He was nothing to me. A set decoration. A paragraph of useless prose from a mediocre novel. A cardboard box trying to show me kindness. Whatever I was feeling, he couldn’t help me carry it, he didn’t have the power or the permission, but when I thought about who did, the only person who came to mind was the one person who wouldn’t be able to help. Not now or ever again. Rhyme was right. Maybe I was doomed to carry this forever.
“What’s going to happen to me?” I said quietly. The distance was closing. Fear crept into my voice. Rhyme heard it. He probably thought he’d broken through.
“Well.” He scooted up in the chair. “There are two ways to answer that question. First, Nova, you’re going to be taken to Eldehill. It’s unclear what will happen to you there, but it’s likely you’ll stand trial, nominally for assaulting the Shift Patrol and for the destruction of a good chunk of Yillig, but it’s going to be much larger than that. The question at the root of all of this is how much power the Assemblage has over the one person destined to save the Ferren. It will be about whether or not you can or should be controlled. It will be about who your life belongs to: yourself or the Ferren. It remains to be seen whether the law is equipped to deal with those questions.”
My laugh was hollow.
“But there is another way to answer your question, Nova, and it is this: you’re going to be okay. You’ve traveled across half the Ferren on foot. You have friends who care. You’ve proven time and time again that you will do what’s needed to save the ones you love. All of this, everything that’s to come, is just noise. You’re okay, Nova. It will be hard, but you’ll be fine.”
It was a nice sentiment, but I got stuck on one phrase, and I repeated it quietly. “Save the ones I love.” I twisted my fingers together, then untwisted them. “I’ve seen more of the Ferren in the past few months than I have in my entire life.”
“And what did you think?”
“It’s broken. The whole thing. Completely busted up. Littered with ruins. Everyone’s scared.” I thought of a walk around a frozen lake under a fall of snow. “I guess I do love it though.”
“That’s what you’re fighting to save.” Rhyme considered me, and then rose out of his chair. “Come with me, there’s someone you should talk to.”
He led me from the room and down the long, dark halls of the Vault. There were other shifties about, but I tried not to look at them. I could feel their eyes on me as we passed. I could feel their gaze following after.
Rhyme stopped at a nondescript door and motioned for me to go in.
“You’re not coming?” I said.
“I’ll wait in the hall. After ten minutes, I’ll knock.”
Stomach twisting, guessing who was on the other side, I reached for the handle.
It was another holding room, similar to my own. Different magazines on the coffee table, though. They were pushed to the side, and a thaumascope had been set up, its lightscreen beaming into the air. Through its pinkish hue, sitting crosslegged on the ground and typing on the keyboard, was Candle.
She stood bolt upright when she saw me enter. Her eyes were wide, and a little wary.
I felt like I thudded back into my body when I saw her. A strange and confusing mixture of emotions fell through me, only a few sharp enough to name. Relief, sorrow, and perhaps strongest of all: fear.
Neither of us moved. Standing on opposite ends of the room, it was as if—despite everything that had happened in the past week—we hadn’t left that parlor in the thaumaticians’ monastery at all. That we were right back were we’d left off. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.
My cheeks grew warm. I could see hers begin to redden.
“Are you okay?” Candle said at last.
“Me neither. I saw it. I saw the whole thing but there was nothing I could do.”
“If it’s any comfort, I’m never speaking to my sister again.” It wasn’t a joke. There was something steely in Candle’s eyes as she said it.
“Don’t blame her,” I said. “She only did it because she cares about you. I was stupid to believe she’d be able to set that aside.”
“She should have left me alone.” The intensity in her eyes reached a crescendo and then flickered and sputtered out, exhausting itself. Candle slumped and shifted her weight. She seemed to be wrestling with something. “Nova, I—”
“I love you.” It just sort of came out. Maybe because it was true. Maybe because I wanted it to be true. Maybe because Rhyme had got me thinking about love. Maybe because I was afraid of losing her, too.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh.”
We stood there, in silence, for several long minutes, each waiting for the other to reach out across the gap. Neither of us did. So the silence went on.