31. Strength

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Morning. Spring. Bright and clear and blue. The funeral took place on a large, rolling hill some ways outside the city of Yillig. Its silver skyline drifted lazily on the horizon. You’d never know from looking that there was something broken in the heart of it. Beyond, the Chasm was a thin, hazy smear that stretched from one end of the Ferren to the other. The edge of the world. Or of Gesh, anyway. It seemed unseemly to hold her funeral in sight of that thing. There, on the horizon, was her grave, the pit where her body had fallen, was maybe still falling. This was just a hill.

The hill looked as if it had only recently turned green, parched grasses stretching themselves up for the first time after a long sleep. It was enclosed by a stone fence, half crumbled in places, moss growing in the cracks. Within the fence were the graves of, I was assured, some very important people. Their gravestones were pale and spread out, almost chalky in the sunlight. There was plenty of space. The trees were just barely beginning to bud. There was, obviously, no body to bury.

But there was a gravestone. There was a plot. And there were quite a few people who had come to lay flowers on that plot. More than I expected. I wore a plain, black button up, and stood off to one side with Garrel Gruffin, who’d arrived by skyrunner only that morning. We watched the mourners come and go, and occasionally flick glances over to me as they passed. They always looked away quickly with that same wince of embarrassment.

“Doesn’t seem right,” Gruffin said. He hadn’t dressed for the occasion. He wore jeans and a wrinkled plaid shirt of yellow and orange that stood out among the dark clothes like a firecracker. His beard did looked like it had been oiled, though.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I don’t think she would have liked this. Bunch of people moping after her. Some random graveyard in a random part of the Ferren.”

“I’m not sure she would have cared one way or the other.”

“Yeah.” Gruffin sniffed. “I guess not. Still. Half expected her family to hold a ceremony in Eldehill. Guess not even death reties knots.”

“We’re her family, Gruffin.”

Across the cemetery, Candle stood with her mother and sister. We’d come to the funeral together, but had sort of naturally drifted apart sometime during the proceedings. I wasn’t sure how it had happened. Martha kept giving me pitying looks, and Hazel Mars seemed to think I was angry with her. The truth was, I didn’t have the energy for that. And Candle was taking care of it for the both of us. As promised, she hadn’t spoken a word to her sister yet, and took care to make sure she was always standing with their mother between them. Staring across at them, I met Candle’s eye and thought about approaching. We hadn’t talked much, either, in the past few days. She looked away quickly, and I stayed put.

Commander Rhyme stood in front of the grave with his husband, a short, curly haired man I’d seen but never met before. They’d brought a large bouquet—a bramble, really—of steckleberries, and I wished I’d thought of that.

“Did they ever get you to leave the investiture?” I asked Gruffin.

He grunted. “Left a couple months ago. Set me up in a nice apartment on the far side of Blush. Tiny little thing, but nice.”

“What do you do?”

“There’s always work for a wizard.”

There were more familiar faces. The Wizards Starmine, Ketchling, Fellish, and Edel were there, my teachers from the Advance Academy. Seeing them brought back sharp memories of the observatory, and white robes, and gleaming white hallways. Given time, I would probably have to go talk to them. Fellish at least. She’d caught my eye in passing and thrown me a wink. Edel, the man who’d first put the prisms in my spine, kept giving me studious glances that filled me with anxiety for what was to come. My spine itched in six different places.

But that all, clearly, was to come. For now, we were in a bubble of time. A pocket in which everyone seemed to have agreed to be civil and sad.

I tried to remember this when, through a gap in the crowd, I saw Dean Enislen speaking with a woman I didn’t recognize. It was obscene how normal she looked, in the same starched suit she always wore. Same high collar. Same painted fingernails. As if nothing had the power to change her. Even her scarred face seemed to cause her no discomfort. My own fingernails bit into my palms and my jaw went hard.

“Stay here,” I said, starting forward.

Gruffin saw her too. “Wait, Nova, no.” He followed at my heels.

Her conversation partner noticed me coming first, and quickly excused herself, ducking her head in apology. Dean Enislen turned about in confusion, and when she saw me, smiled mildly.

“Goodness, Nova, that look could kill a horse.”

My voice was a low growl. “What are you doing here?”

“Same as everyone else. I came to pay my respects.”

“Get out.”

Dean Enislen glanced from side to side, and when she saw that no one was looking at us (making a point, in fact, of not looking at us) the smile slipped from her face. She stepped very close. “Don’t make a scene, Nova.”

“I won’t if you won’t.”

“I have as much right to be here as anyone else.”

“The only reason we’re here at all is because of you. Do you even care that she’s gone?”

“Of course I care.” And for an instant, the mask fell, and I thought I saw a glimmer of hurt. “Nova, it breaks me up inside, the things I must do, but you already know why I do them.”

“I’m not going back to the Advance Academy.”

“Who said anything about the Advance Academy? Seems to me you’re strong enough already.” The smile came back on, and she took a step back, nodded pleasantly at a passerby. “No, Nova,” she said between her teeth, “there’s a far bigger fight ahead of us, and it starts in the courtroom.”

“We should go,” Gruffin said, making a movement to leave that he clearly hoped I would follow. I stayed planted.

“Where’s Marewill?” I asked.

Dean Enislen rolled her eyes. “He couldn’t make it. Actually, he thought his presence would make you uncomfortable.”

“This whole thing is uncomfortable.”

“Nova,” Gruffin insisted. “We should pay our respects.”

“Listen to your boss, Nova,” Dean Enislen said. “He’s very wise.”

I bristled, but forced myself to take a breath. “Yeah…yeah, it’s time.” Gruffin’s relief was palpable as I turned and followed him away.

“Call your lawyers, Nova,” Dean Enislen said at our backs.

The gravestone. It might have been my imagination, but I could swear a hush fell over those nearby as I approached, and I felt the pinpricks of dozens of pairs of eyes on my skin. I tried to ignore them.

“Here,” Gruffin said, and pushed a bouquet of roses into my hands, wrapped in paper and twine.

“What? No. You brought these.”

His eyes were wet. “We’ll lay them down together, how about?”

So we did. We knelt before the rounded gray stone, each with a hand on the bouquet, and set them down softly. Gruffin was whispering beside me, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. I felt awkward and ungrateful, wondering where my tears were. And then, reading the gravestone, I bristled.

 “That’s not her name,” I whispered.

Gruffin stirred. “What?”

“That’s not her name.”

He blinked and looked up at the gravestone, which read Wendolen Rarecrest in big block letters.

“It’s okay,” Gruffin said. “It’s fine.” He laid a hand on my shoulder, then removed it quickly. I tore my eyes away from the thing, fighting down a panicked breath, and looked up, trying to think about something else. Anything.

The trees were strung with memory pennants. Barely green branches looped with rope and small, triangle shaped flags in earthy reds and greens and oranges. They fluttered in the breeze.

“You never know what you’ve never known,” I said, taking over the part she usually recited. There was no one to give the reply.

When we stood and withdrew, I scanned the crowd, trying to pick out anyone who might be family. If her parents or relatives were here, though, I didn’t recognize them. No one with her piercing eyes or her particular shape of nose. No one with her chin or thick, tangled hair, or stern, easy posture. I tried to find her face in every person I could see, until…no. I had to stop.

Thankfully, I was distracted and pleasantly surprised when I saw Bo Salla, from Smoke Town, arrive, wheeling through the front gate of the cemetery dressed in a threadbare black dress. Her braids were brought back behind her, and she carried a single yellow petunia on her lap. When she caught my eye, she nodded. I nodded back, poised to approach, but found myself stuck in place when Candle beat me to it. Bo smiled at her and shook her hand, and within moments they were deep in conversation.

Giving Gruffin a hasty excuse, I went off between the trees to cry.

I’m not sure how long I was there. Long enough to notice that the crowd had thinned considerably by the time my eyes cleared. I didn’t rejoin them. It was quiet here, on the outskirts of the cemetery. The gravestones had been worn down and overgrown. There were birds in the trees, picking at the memory pennants. The sun was higher in the sky, and it cast dappled shadows at my feet. It seemed like a place Fogwillow would have liked more than the crushing press of mourners around her empty grave.

In fact, standing there, away from the buzz and noise, with nothing but my own thoughts in my head, I could almost make myself believe she might appear at my back, surprising us all. That she was still alive. It wasn’t difficult to get my mind to spin in those circles, and for a few moments it was actually enjoyable. There wasn’t a body. We hadn’t seen her hit the ground, and actually, she was still alive when the darkness swallowed her up. She was one of the most powerful wizards in the Ferren and—

No. No. I forced myself to stop. She’d been hit by a glimmer just before falling. She had no magic to save herself, to call her staff back into her hands. The Chasm was deeper than discovery.

Fogwillow was dead.

Just as this thought hit me—the heaviness of it nearly bringing up another bought of tears—I noticed someone approaching from the funeral party, already having covered half the distance. He moved slowly, patiently, and I squinted, trying to work out who it was, and whether I should try to slip away. His face looked vaguely familiar, but at the same time I was sure I’d never met him before in my life.

Then the sun caught on something shiny, nestled in the man’s forehead, and I stiffened, pure fear locking every joint and limb as if by magic. A Headstone.

He came toward me, moving as slowly, as inexorably, as if he’d been drawing closer all this time, ever since I first saw him approaching across the terminal wastes in Blush all those months ago. Crossing the barren landscape like a reaching shadow, unalterable in his path as the moon and sun. Now, with an ease, he arrived.

The Headstone stopped a few feet before me. His hands were folded in front of him, a gesture of penitence. He was very tall. So tall that he sort of wilted forward, head and shoulders bending over like a top-heavy stalk of wheat. As if he were always, perpetually, a god, looking down on his creation. His skin was a dark, solid black, his hair big, gray, and curly, as if his head were caught in a storm cloud. He wore a clean cut, deep blue robe, trimmed with gold. Punched into the skin of his forehead was a bright, irregular pink prism.

“Master Answer,” he said. He spoke so quietly I almost couldn’t hear him. “We wonder if we might have a moment of your time.”

“I…yes…” I said hoarsely. “Yes, of course.”

“My name is Emon Reh,” he said. “I am a Headstone of the Assemblage.”

“I know who you are.”

Emon Reh gave me a small smile. His eyes were a kind, deep brown. “As one of the Assemblage, please allow us to extend our sincerest condolences. The loss of the Wizard Fogwillow is a deep blow to the Ferren.”

The words brought a burst of fresh anger, and with it, brash confidence. “Why don’t you tell that to Dean Enislen?” And just as quickly, the confidence died. I pressed my lips together in embarrassment.

The Headstone looked amused. “You have strong opinions about the way your life should be run, don’t you?”

“I guess?”

“You’re thinking that’s not unusual. You’re thinking everybody wants a say over how their talents and values grow inside of them.” He held up a finger. “Not at all true. You would be surprised how many go through life without questioning the structures that shape them. The stories we tell about ourselves.”

I had no response to that, and silence fell between us. Emon Reh didn’t seem to mind. He only watched me, as if we had ages and ages to stand here, studying one another in peace.

I couldn’t meet his eyes, but I also couldn’t help flashing glances at the prism in his forehead. I wondered if the rumors were true. I wondered if those prisms really did allow the Headstones to read each others’ minds. Emon Reh was here, looking at me, but were there six others too, hiding in the well of those deep, deep eyes? Was the entire collected power of the Ferren’s ruling body staring me down? The prisms in my own body itched just thinking about it.

“Does yours bother you as much as mine do?” I asked. Emon Reh stared. Then let out a soft, pleasant chuckled. I twisted my fingers together. “What?”

“I think we would have much to teach each other, that is all. Unfortunately our time is short.”

“Are you going to try to convince me that this is all for the best? That I belong under your control? That nothing about me matters except that I can save the Ferren?”

“No. All of those questions must be answered, but not right now. Right now, Master Answer, we merely want to ask you a question.”

“Okay. Shoot.”

“Two paths lie before you. First, you can come quietly. When you wake up tomorrow, you might be in a prison cell, in the custody of the Shift Patrol, facing a long and difficult trial. Alternatively, you can run away from all of this. Again. You could wake up on your own with an unclear path ahead, ready to set out once again and use your own resources to overcome a great threat. On the one hand: control. On the other: the wild. So, the question is…how would you like to proceed?”

I was taken aback. “You’re giving me a choice?”

“No. We cannot say that we are. However, you’ve made a convincing argument for yourself these past few months. We are prepared to take your opinion into account.”

“Well, thanks,” I said scathingly. The Headstone’s eyes flashed. His face changed, hardened around the edges, and I was reminded, all too forcefully, that I was speaking to a powerful and frightening man. Adopting a little more humility, I stuttered out a response. “I don’t know how to answer that question.”

“We are certain you do. All of this will have been a waste otherwise. You must make a decision.”

I looked back at the funeral party, dwindling down to a few stragglers talking in quiet groups, not even looking at the gravestone. As if they’d forgotten why they were there. “Well…I know I don’t want Dean Enislen to be put in charge of me again, that’s for sure.”

“That is not on the table.”

“It has to be.”

“Dean Enislen has been empowered to do whatever it takes to save the Ferren.”

“She killed Fogwillow.”

“If she ran the calculations, then we trust her.”

“How can you say that? She murdered someone. She killed my…” I stumbled over the word that came next. What was Fogwillow? A friend? Family? “She killed someone I loved.”

“To save billions. Literally billions, Master Answer.” He let that number sink in. His voice had risen in pitch and volume, nothing at all like the soft-spoken man who had approached me. “Her task is not an easy one. Neither is yours. Do you think any single individual—let alone a seventeen-year-old boy—could possibly have what it takes to save an entire world? To have the fortitude and skill required without shaping, without the stepping stones of strain and loss and trials and success? The thought is laughable. And so Dean Enislen is, first and foremost, a storyteller. She must push and pull and negotiate and compromise and shore up and lay down. In story and circumstance, she is building a machine that will spell out the future of our entire world, and you are her material.”

When he was done, he put a hand to his forehead, swaying back onto his heels. His face relaxed, except for a flicker of pain that was a long time dying. “We apologize. We try not to let any one of us gain too much control, but when emotions run high…”

I shifted my weight, unsettled. “So there really is more than one of you in there.”

“Not all the time, certainly no, but at the moment…” He searched my face and remembered himself. “Back to the matter at hand. How would you like to proceed?”

I took a gamble. “You have a piece of the Genesis Rod.”

“Yes, we do.”

“I want it.”

“We figured you would need to make use of it eventually. But we cannot allow you to wield it until you know what to do with it.”

“I know what to do with it. I’m going to find the other half and make it whole.”

“Whole. Hm.” The Headstone grew quiet, and distant. He turned toward the funeral and considered something for a time. I wondered if they were talking to each other, he and the people in his head. The thought unnerved me.

“Do you know why there are seven of us?” said Emon Reh. I shook my head. “It is because of an idea. An idea that has sustained the Assemblage throughout the centuries we have existed. An idea that forms the core of our beliefs and actions. The very marrow of our rule. It is this: power thrives when divided.” He turned back, and his gaze settled on me. “When consolidated, it festers and turns, becomes rot and putrefaction. But splinter it, and it grows.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You do. You don’t want to admit it yet, though. Think about what you have been through. Muscles tear and heal stronger than before. Friends fight and make up and their bond grows closer. Your self, the pieces inside of you, they break apart through loss and hardship, and in piecing them back together you become more fortified. Strength arrives through brokenness, Nova.”

“I don’t buy it. I don’t think you have to suffer to grow.”

“It’s not that you have to. It’s that you will. And when it happens, when you shatter like the Ferren itself, you will have a choice. Fight to hold things together and you will stagnate. Allow yourself to break, and you will thrive.”

I bit my lip, wishing he would stop studying me, wishing he would go away and let the hundred thousand thoughts swirling through my mind settle and go still.

“So my choices…” I said.

“Your choices. Yes. If you choose the wild again, choose to flee, you will be alone, running, figuring things out for yourself without a soul to remind you what has happened here in Yillig. What you’ve lost. You’ll be on your own. If you stay, if you come to Eldehill with me to stand trial, the Ferren will have a say in your fate. You will be reminded, daily, of what you lost, the mistakes you made, and those you hate. But you will also be surrounded by people you care about. We will have a conversation, all of us, about who you belong to, and the surest path to your success. By democratizing the power over your life, we will find our answer, and he will be genuine and he will be whole. So one last time: how would you like to proceed?”

I couldn’t stand here anymore. Fighting back a painful, tearing sensation that was pushing up through my chest, I brushed past Emon Reh and stood beneath the shadow of a tree, watching some of the final mourners take their leave of the cemetery. There were a few familiar stragglers, however. Martha and Hazel Mars stood by the gate, speaking to each other in hushed tones. Candle, Gruffin, and Bo Salla were together near the grave, and I could tell they were waiting for me. Dean Enislen was gone. But Rhyme…Rhyme was standing off to one side, pretending not to be paying attention to me.

The sight of them all brought up a feeling I hadn’t known was still buried inside. Something pleasant and sad and sharp, not joy exactly, but the memory of joy, which was almost as good as the thing itself. Gratefulness, I would later call it. A longing sort of gratefulness that comes from knowing that the best things in your life are things you can’t touch, that even as you notice them, they’re already farther gone.

If I stopped running, if I rejoined the world, all these people would be here for me. Except for Fogwillow. Would I be betraying her if I gave it all up? If I cast aside the freedom she’d paid with her life to defend?

That wasn’t what she was paying for, came a tiny voice inside of me. The voice, which took on a familiar cadence, nearly made me choke up again. I didn’t know what it meant, but I do know that Fogwillow herself told me I’d eventually have to go back.

Only when you’re ready, though.

Was I ready?

There was a gasp from somewhere up ahead, and the source of it was easy to spot. Atop Fogwillow’s gravestone, an elegon had appeared. It was red, a shifting pattern of geometry in the clear morning air. Bo Salla wheeled forward, then stopped as another elegon appeared beside the first, this one purple, floating along the edge of the gravestone. My breath caught in my throat. They were popping up all over the place, between the flowers spread out before the grave, studying the petals and leaves with curious gaping eyes, clustered in the branches of the trees overhead, drifting with the pennants. The little spirits came forward, like travelers at the end of a long pilgrimage, through the awakening grasses, only the tops of their bright forms visible above the green. Gruffin took a step back, legs spread wide as if afraid he would step on one. Candle smiled and knelt down, watching them go as one would watch ants. The elegons clustered around the grave by the dozens, and my heart lifted as I watched.

The Headstone had come up behind me. “Well?”

A tinge of fear. But I nodded, and set my jaw. “Take me in.”

Looking back, I saw Emon Reh’s mouth twitch in satisfaction. He had gotten exactly what he wanted, and I hated him for it. He motioned for Rhyme to come forward, and the fear twisted even tighter in my chest when I saw what the Shift Patrol commander was carrying.

I looked back at the elegons one last time. At the way their forms cast patterns of colored light over Fogwillow’s memorial, like a stained glass window.

And then a shadow passed over my eyes and something heavy pressed down against my head. I heard the close, sharp click of a lock and smelled the iron bite as my face was hidden by the cold, dark weight of an ouklette.

 

THE END OF PART 2

 

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