There was a crowd gathered around the investiture.
“What is this?” Fogwillow said, and I was surprised to hear the disgust in her voice. We were hiding around the corner a couple blocks away. Martha had been right. This part of the city was entirely flooded. The water only came up to our ankles, but as we cut a wake through the empty streets I couldn’t help but feel we had entered a city growing out of the ocean itself. The sun was starting to rise, and it cast a white and red sheen across the surface of the water, where litter floated like lily pads—posters for bands, old newspapers, coupons for ten percent off a bag of koba crisps. Lights sparked in high, abandoned windows, and here and there we passed the ruins of a building that had completely given out. The rubble tumbled down into the street like a pier.
Fogwillow hiked her robes up and edged closer, squinting at the gathering. “Unbelievable,” she hissed.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
Fogwillow gave a lengthy pause, and Candle cleared her throat. “You might as well tell him,” she said.
I looked back and forth between the two of them, utterly bewildered. “Tell me what?”
Fogwillow raised her eyes to the brightening sky. “I never told you this, and I can’t imagine Dean Enislen would have wanted you to know, but…Nova, you…you…”
She couldn’t seem to bring herself to complete the sentence. So Candle did it for her. “You have fans,” she said, and suppressed a snort.
The blood drained out of my face. “Fans?” My voice cracked.
“If these were different times we might have called them worshippers.”
I gave the crowd a closer look. They weren’t just gathered around the investiture. They were living there. They had tents set up on a dry patch of the street under the investiture’s pavilion. The outside of the building was lined with piles of flowers and candles and a good number of weybisk boxes, as if given in offering. I thought I was going to be sick.
“You’re the Answer,” Candle said, not without a hint of sarcasm. “You will save us all, Nova.”
“But why are they here?”
Fogwillow gestured to the heights of the building’s ten floors, to the attic. I could see the enormous skylight from here, slanted and white against the morning. “This is where you lived your entire life. Your home. So, naturally, people want to see it. Offer their support. Take pictures.”
The full significance of this struck me all at once. “Are you saying I have…tourists?”
Candle nodded sagely.
This was the worst thing. I thought about all I had ever written on my ticker, all the details about my life here in Blush, and regretted every single one of them.
“I suppose that’s why he keeps it locked,” I said, and Candle nodded.
“People have been visiting and camping out here ever since you were taken. It’s been driving Gruffin up the wall.”
“I thought maybe the Ryvkk attack might drive them off.” Fogwillow’s voice barely escaped her clenched jaw. “But no.”
“So what are we going to do?” I said.
“They will recognize any three of us in an instant.” Fogwillow looked back at me and Candle. She was one of the most powerful wizards I knew, and even she seemed helpless when up against the prospect of dealing with countless strangers.
“Can’t you use magic?” Candle said. “Make us invisible or something?”
“It doesn’t work like that.” I shook my head. “Magic is an ancient power. When we tap into the Crystic we’re wielding something primal, something that shaped the Ferren itself. It can’t be used for cheap tricks.”
Candle gave me a blank look. “Wow, Nova. Guess you did learn something in that prison-school of yours.” The words cut into me, but she didn’t notice. “Eoea’s staff,” she continued under her breath. “This is exactly why magic needs tech. Without people like me, it’s essentially useless.”
She shoved her head back around the corner, looked both ways, then darted across the street, sending debris swirling in her wake. I hurried after.
“I mean, I could blind them if you wanted. Summon some piercing light. They wouldn’t be able to see us then.” Somehow I didn’t think I was making things better.
Candle shoved open the doors of a run-down phone booth. She yanked the phone off its cord and the whole thing sparked. She smiled. “Excellent.”
“What are you doing?” I said, watching from just outside as she opened the box and began pulling out its guts—a mess of wires, gears, and circuit boards. Fogwillow peered over my shoulder. I could feel the frown on her face as if it were giving off heat.
“I need magic,” Candle said. “I’m going to try to draw it from the city’s prism stations. Looks like they’re still sending some juice. It’s weak, though.”
I looked up at the power lines overhead, which were hooked up somewhere far away to large prisms that each took five wizards to power. I’d seen them for myself one day, when Gruffin got it in his head to inspire me with dreams of what a simple investiture attendant like me could aspire to. I had, actually, found them sort of neat. Usually a prism was stuck directly into the piece of tech it powered, but there were other ways. When the city had been whole, the prism stations sent magic to every household in Blush, powering a thousand different devices.
“I can give you magic, you know,” I said to Candle. “It’s kind of what I do.” I held out my hand.
Candle gave it a quick glance over her shoulder, flinching, and hesitated for much longer than was comfortable. My hand wavered between us.
I realized what was happening with a feeling like an icicle straight through my heart. She didn’t want me to touch her. That was supposed to be my thing. Candle saw me realize it, and went beet red. I brought my hand quickly back to my side, and we both turned away.
I listened to her work for several long, uncomfortable minutes. Fogwillow, meanwhile, stood over me and didn’t say a word. She could have been off in another universe. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to understand why that moment had been so weird between Candle and I, but when it hit me I was very nearly crushed. I thought about Len Candle, I thought about him being dead and the shattering of Blush, and the guilt I had been trying to ignore could not be shoved down any longer. My skin began to prickle, particularly around my eyes.
“Okay. I’m done.” Candle’s voice was quiet. She was holding a makeshift device, made up of several long wires she’d pulled out of the box, stripped, and wrapped around a piece off one of the circuit boards like a cocoon. “I need to get this into the crowd.”
“That is something I can do,” Fogwillow said.
Candle set the mechanical cocoon in the water and Fogwillow placed the butt of her staff atop it. The air around her seemed to lift, her tattered gray hair rose with static, and the water at her feet rippled, as if Fogwillow were a stone that had been dropped into a shallow pool. There was a jolt. The device went sailing off toward the investiture, and soon came to a stop at the edge of the water, near the line of tents.
“Magic is connection,” Candle said, turning to the phone box. “For wizards. But for people like me, it’s mostly been used to separate, to draw a line between those with access to the Crystic and those without. Technology levels the playing field.” She punched a few hasty numbers into the keypad. From off near the investiture, there was a muffled ringing sound.
And then a white plume of fog exploded from the surface of the water. There were a couple hasty shouts and in seconds the entire investiture was shrouded in steam, rising off the surface of the flooded streets.
“You made a cloud,” I said. “Candle, that’s genius.” She went beet red again.
“Come on,” Fogwillow said. We hurried into the mist.
The glass doors of the investiture didn’t slide open when we reached them, as they had when I’d worked there. They were locked, and slightly askew in their tracks. I slid the key in and Fogwillow got her fingers around the crack and heaved one side open, jerking her head to motion us in. As soon as we were safe inside, trailing mist and dripping water, Fogwillow released the door and it snapped back shut, cutting off the muffled confusion of the crowd outside.
I was so preoccupied with shaking the water out of my shoes and gathering my wits that I didn’t entirely remember where I was until I straightened in the entryway and a wall of memories fall smack dab on top of me.
The investiture was filling with morning, even through the white mist still billowing against the windows. It broke against the tile floor and sent spears of light fuzzing against the shelves of candies and the magazine spinners, against the sprawling racks of koba crisps and the smaller kiosks of weybisk crackers, against the signs advertising the daily sales, now three weeks outdated. The last time I had been in here, there had been blood on the floor. It was gone now, and it wasn’t too difficult to imagine this place—Gruff Stop, sellers of fine magic—continuing on in the months I’d been at the observatory, of the customers coming and going, of Garrel Gruffin drinking his elg and barking orders into his beard, all without me. There were different chocolates on the endcaps.
Still, though, the destruction of Blush had left its scars. Jagged cracks spidered across the floor, and on the other side of the investiture a few shelves had toppled, spilling their contents. It was quieter than usual. No cheery melodies piped from the speakers. The ceiling fans weren’t spinning. Behind the counter, though, the owl clock still ticked away the time.
“No, no, no!” came a harsh voice. “No one allowed inside. Out!”
A disheveled, tired-looking man appeared from the back office, a man I hadn’t seen since he’d been lying unconscious on this very floor. Garrel Gruffin stepped out from behind the counter, brandishing a broomstick as if it were his wizard’s staff, but when he saw who was standing in his store, he froze. His bushy eyebrows shot straight up, but they still barely revealed his eyes. He swayed on the spot. I gave him a weak smile.
The burly man dropped his broomstick and swept forward. When he hugged me, he pinned my arms to my sides and his beard squished between us. The top of his head barely reached the bottom of my chin. I gave Fogwillow and Candle a wide-eyed look, breath squeezed out of me, and Fogwillow cleared her throat.
“This is an unusual display of affection, Garrel,” she said.
Gruffin broke away from me, and some color rose up from beneath his beard, turning his white cheeks red. “Wendolen,” he grunted at her, tipping his head. He shuffled backward and gave me a few embarrassed pats on the elbow. “Nova. Good to see you. Looks like you ate more than just weybisks while they had you up there.”
“I did more than just sit in front of a thaumascope, too.”
“Gruffin didn’t read your ticker,” Candle said. “I tried to fill him in, but he usually wasn’t listening.”
“Yeah, well.” Gruffin looked down. “Seemed too personal…”
I muttered a quick “that’s okay” and waved the topic away.
Outside, the fog was beginning to clear. Gruffin cleared his throat again, and buttoned the top few buttons of his shirt. “Guessing you saw your admirers outside. Get away from these windows.” He waved us deeper into the investiture. “Staving menaces. Won’t leave me alone.”
“What do they want?” I said.
“To be near you, of course. And if they can’t be, then to get as close to the places were you’ve been as possible.” He gave a stiff laugh. “There were expeditions to try and find the observatory, you know, course the Assemblage shut that down right quick. Then they began visiting here all the time offering smiles and well wishes, setting up camp, staring up at your bedroom, and I suppose those on high figured it was better than snooping around the mountains, so for the past few months they’ve been my problem.”
“I don’t get it, though. What do they think I can do for them?”
Gruffin shrugged. We had reached his office and he paused in the doorway. “Give their lives meaning or hope or whatever. Same thing you’re going to do for the entire Ferren, I guess.” He met my eyes and then quickly became distracted by a bit of fuzz floating past. “Save them.”
I looked back at the glass doors to the investiture, where the air was clear once again. Through it, I could see the warped, indistinct movements of the tourists—fans—talking to one another, poking around the water, trying to figure out what had happened. I shivered.
Gruffin waved us into the office, which was still as cluttered as ever. Stacks of paper overflowed the corners. There were no fewer than a dozen rim-stained dirty mugs on his desk. “Course your fans’re nowhere near as bad as the Shift Patrol these days. They won’t leave me alone either.”
Gruffin hesitated. “Well, for one they want me out of here. Say it’s dangerous. Only reason they haven’t forced the issue I guess is…they think you’ll come back.”
Gruffin gave me a calculating look. “Well you did, didn’t you?”
Suddenly, Fogwillow swept forward and shoved Gruffin back against the wall with the butt of her staff. “You planning to sell us out, Garrel?”
Gruffin held up his hands. “What? No!”
“How often do they ask about him?”
I tried to break in. “I don’t think he—”
“This is between me and Garrel, Nova. Stay out of it.”
“He wouldn’t sell me out!”
“He’s done it before, haven’t you, Garrel?”
“They don’t know he’s here,” Gruffin said. “I haven’t alerted anyone.”
“You didn’t answer my question. How often do they ask about him?”
“Chief Inspector Rhyme comes around every couple days.”
“I know Rhyme,” I said. A gorge was rising in my throat. I wasn’t used to seeing Gruffin and Fogwillow fight. I wasn’t used to seeing them talk to each other much at all. Was this what it felt like to Candle when her parents fought? “Rhyme likes me. He wouldn’t turn me in.”
Fogwillow’s voice was a snarl. “Rhyme is who we’re running from, Nova, like it or not. He’s a shiftie. He works for the Assemblage. He’s the in in turn in.” She turned back to Gruffin. “How much is the reward?”
Gruffin lowered his hands. He stared Fogwillow in the eyes and said, in a slow voice, deeper and more gravelly than before. “I wouldn’t do that, Wendolen.”
Fogwillow’s breath was still coming in great heaves, but she lowered her staff and tucked it against her side. She turned away. “Call me Fogwillow.”
“How about I call you Wendo the Wild and you call me the Wizard Gruffin.”
“Some wizard,” Fogwillow snapped, and jerked her head in a way that seemed to encompass all of the investiture.
I shared an uneasy look with Candle during the silence that followed. Eventually, I got up the nerve to speak. “I’m sorry I made your life harder, Gruffin.”
Gruffin seemed to fall back down into reality from wherever he had been. “What?”
“You know. The tourists. The shifties. Now you’re going to have to lie about me being here. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back.”
Gruffin stared at me. “Look behind you,” he finally said. I turned. “On the wall.” I took a step closer. There, hanging in a cheap black frame, was a copy of the city’s newspaper, the front page. It was dated from three months ago, and headline was just two words, in two-inch letters. ANSWER FOUND.
I caught my breath.
There was a picture below the headline. It filled the entire page from one side to the other, printed in soft, muted colors. It was from the morning I’d left. The morning Plum had forced me into a moment of need and awakened my power. The morning I’d killed those people. The morning Dean Enislen had taken me away. It was taken from some distance, capturing the entire investiture, with its glass windows and broad pavilion. The edges of the photo were rounded out by crowds, held back by the shifties in their blue-and-yellow flashing skims. And in the center, just under the pavilion, all alone, was me. I was crouched down on my heels with my head buried between my knees, and Dean Enislen was crouched down across from me, tilting her head to stare into my eyes. My stomach twisted as I took in her starched black suit and glossy red pixie haircut.
“That was your introduction to the Ferren,” Gruffin said. “It’s how everyone met you, their savior.”
I turned around. Fogwillow still had her back to us, but Gruffin and Candle were studying me carefully. I quickly wiped the corners of my eyes. Eoea’s staff. I really needed to pull myself together.
“I look so small,” I said.
Candle took a step forward. “That picture is everywhere, now. I think you can get t-shirts of it.”
I laughed. “Great.” I looked back at the picture one more time. There were words beneath it, a whole article, but I couldn’t bring myself to read them. “That was when she promised me. When she told me that from then on I’d have control over my own environment. That my space would be mine.”
What a lie.
“You’ve been under my care since you were no taller than my knee, Nova,” Gruffin said. “And that day, the day that picture was taken, you saved my life. Don’t apologize to me. If anything, I failed you.”
“Because on the day you went out into the world you looked so staving helpless.”
We filed out of the office and into the stairwell.
“Gruffin, why are you still staying here?” I asked as we climbed. “Why not go to the camp?”
Our footsteps echoed in the dark, cinderblock space. Ahead of me, Gruffin shrugged. “After Blush’s terminal shattered, people across the Ferren got spooked. More than usual, even. I think because we’d finally found you. Made everything seem more real. Other cities with terminals in them began to empty. People fled places where the Ryvkk could strike, and there are whole city blocks that are now just as dead as Blush, and no one’s even attacked them.” Gruffin fell silent, and when he spoke again, it was almost too low for me to hear. “This is my building. Guess I wanted to show them they couldn’t take my home.”
We reached the tenth floor and filed onto the landing to the attic. Gruffin reached for the doorknob.
“Wait,” I said. Everyone paused and stared at me. I shut my eyes and took a breath, remembering how the Wizard Fellish had trained me, with the deliberate movements of her aging limbs and her knife-like concentration. Deep, calming breaths, to quiet my mind. I opened my eyes. “Okay,” I said.
Gruffin pushed open the door.
It was the same as I had left it. And yet it felt smaller than before. My bed was shoved against one wall, the quilt in disarray and the pillow still indented from where I’d slept on it. There was garbage and clothing on the floor, and a lot of empty weybisk boxes in all four flavors. The slanted window let in a curtain of light, which revealed a thick coat of dust where it fell. Across the room, my desk was scattered with foil trading cards and…
Something was missing.
“I never touched your room,” Gruffin said, “but the shifties took your thaumascope. For evidence.”
I took one slow step forward. And then another. I had to hold a hand up to shield my eyes against the sun.
“You let them have his thaumascope?” Fogwillow said, and there was heat still left in her voice.
“It’s fine,” I said, though it felt like the bottom had dropped out of my stomach. All those days and nights spent in front of the lightscreen, messing around with games on the Crystic, browsing forums, building my virtual family in Hero Trotter…
…talking with airbird sevens. My mother, though I didn’t know it at the time.
“It’s not like I could use it anyway,” I continued weakly. “They’d be able to trace me.”
“They’ll have access to everything,” Fogwillow said, voice rising. “Everything you did on the Crystic from the time you were small.”
“Does that hardly matter?” Gruffin said. “They know more about Nova at this point than anyone in the Ferren.”
She rounded on him. “We are trying to protect his life, Garrel. Not give it away. I don’t want the kyving Assemblage or the Advance Academy to have one crumb of one staving weybisk that has been in Nova’s hands. I don’t want them to know a single thought more that goes through his head than they already know, and here you are giving them his childhood!”
Gruffin was standing his ground. “I did my best.”
“That’s not what you said downstairs.”
“Your little pity party. Am I supposed to feel bad that you weren’t as good of a guardian as you could have been?
And now Gruffin was getting loud. “You left him under my care, Wendolen. You did. Without barely even asking you dropped a three-year-old scratshot kid off on my doorstep.” He turned to me quickly. “And I don’t regret it, Nova, I don’t.” Then back to Fogwillow. “But you have no right to judge. Where were you? I took him to school when he was a boy. And I gave him a job when he wouldn’t go anymore.”
“A fine gift, Garrel, an attendant in a second-rate investiture. You should have made him go to school.”
“And you should’ve tried. So who does he belong to, really? You or me?” He looked like he wanted to continue, but he had run out of air. Without even realizing it, Candle and I had drawn closer together, and we watched as Gruffin deflated, and said in a quieter voice: “Wendolen.”
“I told you to call me Fogwillow.”
“Fogwillow.” Gruffin snorted the name. “I don’t know who that is. She’s certainly no woman I ever knew—”
“—and you can go ahead and tell Fogwillow that if Wendolen Rarecrest wants to talk—”
Fogwillow slammed her staff in one furious motion and suddenly Gruffin was knocked off his feet. He hit the wall behind him and slid down to the floor, where he winced and massaged the back of his head.
Fogwillow stalked out of the room.
Gruffin pushed himself to his feet in the silence left behind. He wouldn’t look at us as he made for the door. “Glad to have you back,” he muttered. “You can stay here for as long as you need. Or at least until the shifties finally get it in their heads to boot me out good and proper.” He shut the door behind him.
Candle and I stood side by side in my old bedroom. We met each other’s eyes and smiled weakly. Then, Candle bent down and began to clean up the empty weybisk boxes. After a moment, I went to help.
And it was just the two of us, alone in the attic. Just like old times. Except not like them at all.