“What a lovely surprise, Martha,” Rhyme was saying in the other room. “What brings you around these parts?”
I was watching through the gap between the hinges while Fogwillow tried to beckon me into a broom closet. I ignored her.
“I don’t think you’ve met my oldest daughter, Hazel Mars.”
“A pleasure.” I shifted to get a better view as the chief inspector gave Hazel Mars a warm handshake, folding both of his hands over hers.
“We’re on our way to take a look at the broken terminal,” Hazel Mars said, “but I wanted to, you know, stop and see where it all started.”
“You’re a fan of Nova?”
“I mean I’m mostly a fan of my sister, if I’m being honest.”
“Guess I can’t blame you for that. Got any idea where she is?”
“Haven’t heard from her in weeks.”
Rhyme spread his palms. “It’s the same story everywhere, right Gruffin?”
Gruffin was standing behind the counter, keeping perfectly still and watching the proceedings unfold. He grunted.
“We should be on our way,” Martha said with a toothy smile. “Good to see you chief inspector. Let me know if there’s any news.”
When Rhyme’s back was turned, Hazel Mars gave a hasty look down one of the aisles, and I realized with a jolt that Candle was hiding there. Hazel Mars inhaled sharply, hesitating. She sent an uncertain look toward the chief inspector’s back, then gave a quick nod and followed her mother from the investiture. Just like that, they were gone.
“Gruffin,” Rhyme said, approaching the counter. I drew back from the doorway, but kept Rhyme in my sight. I had almost forgotten how tall he was. Thin, stretched, and slightly slumped, as if he were used to hitting his head on things. He moved, as usual, with that sort of limber precision that always made me feel unsettled, like he’d forgotten he wasn’t in the shape of a lynx. His long face was tired, shadowed with an exhaustion I’d never seen there before. His thinning hair wasn’t quite as tidy as it used to be. His eyes though, ringed with a curious green, were still watchful as a cat’s. Their familiar kindness seemed more forced now, as if he were mustering all his strength to stay upbeat. The yellow shiftie insignia was pinned smartly to his chest. His uniform buckled him in and kept him whole, reminded him of his shape. “No sign of our young runaway?”
“Not today, no sir.”
Rhyme lifted his head to the heavens in mock frustration. “Alas.” He leaned a willowy arm on the counter and poked around in a jar of individually wrapped takky. “What’s this I hear about some commotion a few days back?”
“So I hear. Nova’s fan club is saying a cloud descended on them from the heavens. Seem to think it has some greater significance.”
“Staving idiots. Thought it might scare them away.”
“Yes, well. If there’s one thing I know about people it’s that you’re not going to break their fanaticism.” He plucked a piece of takky out of the jar and slid a trib across the counter in payment. “You did manage to get them to give you some space, I see.” He squinted toward the window.
Gruffin palmed the trib and cleared his throat. “It’d be easier if I had some help.”
“I couldn’t possibly evacuate them without sending you packing as well, Gruffin. Wouldn’t be fair.”
“Of course, there are ways for us to both get what we want…” Gruffin stood as immovable as a tree stump, and when he didn’t respond Rhyme pushed fluidly off the counter and brushed himself off. “Well—”
“Any ideas where he might be?” Gruffin said.
Rhyme paused. “Nova? No, no, I’m afraid not. We expected him to come home, but he would be here by now if he had. Of course he’d be foolish to come back to the investiture, even if he is slinking around Blush somewhere. Or you could be lying to me, of course.” He gave Gruffin a narrow look.
“Could be,” Gruffin said. “Very well could be.”
“No, I think if he did come to Blush, he left as soon as he got here. He’s probably well on his way to the thaumaticians by now.”
“Why do you say that?”
Chief Inspector Rhyme shrugged. “It’s where I would go.” He rapped his knuckles on the counter and turned. “See you in a couple days, Gruffin. I’ll get you out of this place eventually, if I have to condemn the whole building.”
“You can try, sir.”
Rhyme ducked gracefully beneath the half-jarred doors and stalked out into the marshy streets. As soon as he was out of sight, I felt a cold rush of air sweep past me as Fogwillow barreled out of the break room. I came around the door to see her bolting to the windows and scanning the streets. To my left, Candle carefully made her way out from between the aisles.
Fogwillow’s shoulders didn’t relax until she was certain the coast was clear. Then she turned and gave Gruffin a skeptical look. “You didn’t rat us out.”
Gruffin puffed out his chest. “Surprise, surprise.”
Candle joined Fogwillow by the window, peering out and looking slightly forlorn. “What a shame. Rhyme always seemed so nice.”
“He still is,” Gruffin said. “Doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a job to do. From what I heard, the Advance Academy and the Assemblage alike are leaning pretty hard on him.”
“Do you think they’ll be back?” Candle placed a hand flat against the window, and it took me a few seconds to realize she was talking about Martha and Hazel Mars.
“That’d be fairly suspicious,” Gruffin said.
“And anyway,” I added, coming out from behind the counter, “we probably shouldn’t stick around here for much longer.”
At this, everyone gave me a startled look. Fogwillow raised her eyebrows. “Oh?”
I nodded. “We can’t stay cooped up here forever. I didn’t run away from the Advance Academy to go back to my old life shriveling up in my attic.”
“Penthouse,” Gruffin said.
“Attic. Anyway, I think it’s time for us to go.”
Fogwillow held my gaze, then broke into a wide smile. “Then by all means,” she said, “take the lead.”
“Finally,” Candle huffed.
“What do you mean, ‘finally?’” I said.
“I didn’t think you’d ever notice, but the only reason we’re still here is because of you.”
“You are so oblivious, Nova. Everything you ever wrote while you were at the Advance Academy was about home. How much you missed it. How much it meant to you. Well, here we are. It seemed like something you needed to linger on.”
I frowned. “Well, I’m done lingering. And I think I know where we need to go next.”
“And where is that?” Fogwillow said.
“You heard it yourself. From Chief Inspector Rhyme. We need to go see the thaumaticians.”
Fogwillow blinked. She spoke slowly, mulling it over. “I suppose it’s not a terrible idea.”
“Great,” Candle said, rolling her eyes. “A bunch of ancient wizards going blind in a crumbling monastery. Great.”
“I know it’s not what you might want,” I said. “I know it’s not the future, but I think it’s important anyway. At least to begin with. The thaumaticians were the ones who first wrote out the algorithms of the prophecy. They transcribe the Crystic itself in formulas and variables. I need to know more about it.”
“About the prophecy?” Candle said. “You know about the prophecy. You know you’re the Answer to it. You know you can defeat the Ryvkk.”
“That’s the what for. I need to know the why. I need to know why I’m here at all, what the prophecy says about me, who the Ryvkk even is.” I met Candle’s eyes. “I need to know more history.”
Candle hesitated, on the brink of saying something more. But then she seemed to bury it, her expression grew determined, and she nodded once. “Fine. If that’s what it takes, then let’s do it. Where are they?”
“Thought you might ask that,” came Gruffin’s voice. I turned to see him emerging from his office with a cardboard box overflowing with papers. I hadn’t even noticed him leave. He plopped the box down on the counter, spilling some of its contents. “Maps,” he said. “Charts. Lists of codes and equations.”
All three of us approached the counter and huddled around the box. “Gruffin what is this?” I said, inspecting a topographical map of some part of the Ferren I’d never seen before.
“I just told you. Maps. Charts. Lists of codes and equations.”
“No, but why?”
“You think I’d learn the Answer to Prophecy had been living under my roof for years and not do a little research of my own? Don’t look so amazed. After that horrible woman took you, I began to root around for whatever scraps I could find about the prophecy and those who put it to paper. Came up with some surprising stuff, course most of it’s incomplete.” He lowered his chin, and I could see spots of color spread up from beneath his beard. He grunted. “It isn’t much.”
“It’s more than we had two minutes ago.”
Fogwillow, Candle, and I plunged our hands into the box. In no time at all, the counter of the investiture was covered in pieces of paper showing lists of numbers, pages of scratchy handwriting, and maps crisscrossed with thick black lines whose significance I couldn’t begin to fathom.
“The thaumaticians don’t like to be disturbed,” Fogwillow said, squinting at one of these maps. “They keep the precise location of their monastery a secret.”
“True,” Gruffin said.
“But somebody must know,” Candle said.
“I mean, the Assemblage does, presumably.”
Candle looked up from where she had been sifting through papers at the bottom of the box. Her eyes were lit up the way they always were when an idea sparked in her head. “There’s a Headstone on the way to Blush right now.”
“No.” Fogwillow’s voice was stern. “Absolutely not. I won’t let us within a hundred yards of one of those.”
“We’re never going to get anywhere if we don’t take some risks,” I said.
“And if we take those kinds of risks you’ll wind up right back in Dean Enislen’s hands. No, I will not budge on this. We’ll have to find the thaumaticians ourselves.”
“All these maps,” Candle said, scraping the bottom of the box. “None of them has the monastery’s location on it? Honestly?”
“Oh, also, forgot to mention,” Gruffin said. “The monastery moves.”
“Moves?” I let the paper I was holding flutter to the ground.
“Not sure precisely how, but there’re rumors of it being sighted in every continent in the Ferren. They call it the Whisper, you know, ’cause it seems to come and go on a breath.”
Fogwillow waved a hand. “Disinformation campaign. We saw it with the Diosec.”
I looked back and forth between Candle’s bewildered expression and Fogwillow’s seeming calm. “So where should we go?” I asked. Fogwillow shrugged.
“The Whisper…” Candle bit her lip. “Where was the last sighting?”
Gruffin pulled out a long, rolled up sheet and flattened it atop the others. He weighed one side down with the jar of takky and jabbed a finger at a small depiction of a group of houses at the edge of a forest. The trees were drawn like little clouds across the surface of the parchment.
“Here. In Gesh, just north of a small place called Smoke Town.”
“It’s built on these damp pockets of earth. In the summer, when it gets hot…”
He made a motion with his fingers like smoke billowing. I peered closer at the map. “I see.” I leaned back. “Well, then. I guess we’re going to Smoke Town.”
Fogwillow cleared her throat. “Before we go anywhere—” She set down her sheaf of papers and wiped her hands, “—we have one last thing we must do in Blush. We must go see the broken terminal.”
“I’ve seen a broken terminal before, Fogwillow.” I couldn’t keep the whine out of my voice. I had no interest in repeating the experience.
“Nevertheless,” Fogwillow said. “I support this plan of yours, Nova. The Whisper may indeed be a place we can find guidance for your path, but a closer look at the destruction of Blush might also prove fruitful.”
“Why do I need to go see a dead relic?”
“For the same reason we’re doing any of this. The Ryvkk. He was in this very city not three weeks ago. He may have left traces. Something we can learn from.”
I nodded, and took a deep breath to untie the knot that was forming in my chest. “Okay. Okay. So…here’s the plan. We’ll go check out the broken terminal. Tonight. When we leave here, we’ll have our bags packed and our goodbyes said. From the terminal, we’ll head out of Blush and start the journey toward Smoke Town.”
“Which is in Gesh,” Candle said, crossing her arms. “Which is halfway across the Ferren. Unless we stowaway on a skyrunner it’ll take months.”
“Then we’ll pack some lunches.” I smiled at Candle. “Come on, Candle. It’ll be fun.”
“Fun?” She raised her eyebrows.
That small movement was like a punch to the stomach. My thoughts flew to Len. The memorial pennants hanging in the trees. Two huddled figures. “Sorry. Not fun. It’ll be…”
I trailed off. Candle nodded as if in confirmation and looked to Fogwillow. “And did we consider that this is exactly what Rhyme said he expected us to do? That maybe we’re following the most obvious path and it’ll be filled with people waiting to snatch us up?”
That gave us all pause. I felt the wind leaving the sails of our adventure, bit by bit, and I mustered all the energy I could to get it back. “It would be foolish to leave this stone unturned. They might expect us to follow this path, but if you’re looking for an answer, start with the obvious.”
“That’s exactly what I’m worried about.”
In a surprising move, Fogwillow leaned across the counter and laid a hand on Candle’s shoulder. The old wizard’s eyes were calm. “We’ll travel as fast as we can, Emma Lyn. No one is taking this lightly.”
Candle stiffened and her eyes went soft and shiny, even as her face grew tight. She opened her mouth to respond, but the words wouldn’t come out. She looked across the investiture to the window, as if she could still see her family making their way back to camp, then pulled away and hurried to the stairs. I heard her footsteps all the way up.
Fogwillow worked her jaw back and forth. She tore her eyes away from where Candle had vanished. “Very well then. We leave tonight.”