I had never been able to say a proper goodbye to home. It was time to fix that.
Evening fell all-too-dark over the broken city of Blush. I’d spent the day cleaning my room, a comfortingly domestic task that seemed to suck some of the tension away. There was a lot to clean. I’d never really bothered taking care of the place when I lived here, and now I ended up with four paper bags full of flattened weybisk boxes, seventeen decks of the shiny foil cards that came inside of them, two overstuffed trash bags, and piles of dirty rags and sponges. I’d made my bed. I’d folded my clothes and put them in the trunk. The attic looked like a different place. Much emptier.
I suppose that was appropriate.
My backpack was packed. Everything seemed quiet for miles. I took one last look out the window, touched my desk once, then a second time when the first time hadn’t felt just so, and left.
Down on the ninth floor, I popped my head though the doorway to see the empty offices of Orbi and Orbi, the lawyers I’d always tried to sneak past on my way down to work. It was dark inside. I could barely even see the reception desk.
Fogwillow was waiting for me in the investiture when I arrived. She gave me a skeptical once over.
“Those are not exactly wizard’s robes.”
I looked down and spread my arms, though I knew perfectly well what I was wearing. Jeans and a t-shirt. Scuffed shoes with threadbare laces. “What’s wrong with it?”
“You don’t look the part.”
“You really want me in ancient robes? Maybe white, tied around the waist?”
“Nonsense. You’d only have someone splatter ink on them again. But a touch of the traditional might not be uncalled for in the Answer to Prophecy.”
“What can I say? I’m a modern wizard.”
Fogwillow sniffed. “Dean Enislen wouldn’t approve.”
I hefted my backpack onto my shoulders and we waited in silence. It was a pained kind of silence, filled with things unsaid. Neither of us had spoken of our conversation from a few nights ago, when Fogwillow had said some things about her past she probably wished she hadn’t. When I had asked her to be my teacher. I was both afraid to bring it up again and afraid I had imagined the whole thing.
“The back way is clear,” Gruffin said, entering from the break room. “No one in sight. Your fan club’s still keeping its distance.”
“You must have really scared them,” I said.
“If there’s one thing we know about Garrel Gruffin,” Fogwillow said, “it’s that he does have a tendency to scare people away.”
Gruffin shifted his weight. “Yes, well, er, I suppose I’ll be seeing you Wend—Fogwillow.”
The two of them met eyes, then quickly averted them. We waited in the cold, darkened investiture, between scavenged aisles of chips and candy, for what must have been a thousand years, and then Fogwillow finally stirred.
Candle emerged from the stairs. Fogwillow went quiet. The four of us waited in strained silence for someone to say something, and eventually I realized that that someone was probably me.
“Goodbye, Gruffin. Thanks for putting up with us.”
“I won’t hug you this time, don’t worry.” Gruffin stroked his beard nervously. “It’s been…well…you know…I’ve liked having you around the place. I mean, even before all this, when you were young…” He gave half a chuckle and then sighed, slumping. “Eoea’s staff, maybe it was better when Dean Enislen whisked you out of here without a word.” That made us all laugh, and the space between us eased.
“Ready to go?” Candle said to me.
We crossed into the break room and filed through the back door, then hurried down the alley behind the investiture, water sloshing about our ankles. Behind us, Gruffin leaned through the doorway and called out in a whisper.
“Goodbye, Nova. Goodbye, Emma Lyn. Goodbye, Fogwillow. Safe travels. Eoea protect you. Crystic connect you, and all that.”
I heard the door click shut.
Several blocks away, as the flooded streets began to rise and the water fell away, I stopped to look back at the darkened shape of the investiture. It was solid black against the night sky, coming to a sharp point at the very top, at the roof, where I had spent so much time looking back on the city I now was sneaking out of. A pang of longing took hold of me. A deep, hollow ache I could do nothing with except allow to consume me.
The investiture had always done exactly what its name implied. When I worked there we sold magic, filled empty prisms with hot pink energy so they could power a million mechanical tasks throughout the Ferren. Its chief purpose was to give purpose. To restore. It did its job well, as a business and as a home. And now I was on my own.
The goodbye had felt a little more complete this time.
“Are you okay?” Candle said, appearing at my shoulder.
She nodded to the investiture. “I’ve been remembering all the time we spent up there.”
“Lots of time.”
“So much time. I could barely ever get you to go outside.”
“We were as much a part of that room as the floorboards.”
Candle laughed, and tore her gaze away. In a quieter voice: “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” I said again. “The best part of it is coming with me.”
Fogwillow’s warning came like a whip crack through the night. “Nova.” I flinched and looked for a place to hide. But it was too late. A small figure stood in the mouth of a nearby alley, half obscured in the shadows of the broken buildings. It took a step forward and I tensed. Fogwillow was halfway down the block, and the figure stood between us. It lifted one hand as if in offering.
“Master Answer,” it said. His voice was small, the voice of a boy. As he drew closer, out of the shadows, I saw that he couldn’t have been more than ten. Still, I didn’t move, even as he came closer, until he stood directly before me with one hand held high.
He was offering a scrap of cloth. White. Torn along the edges.
“Are you from the camp?” I said. “Are you with the people…the people outside the investiture?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” the boy said. He squinted up at me. “It’s really you.”
I looked past him, to Fogwillow. She held her staff at the ready but kept her distance.
“What, um…” I licked my lips. The boy was still holding up the cloth. “What do you want?”
With his other hand, the boy offered something else. A pen.
Candle held back a snort beside me, and I froze. “I don’t,” I said. “I don’t think. That’s not really.”
“Listen,” Candle said, picking up the conversation as the boy’s face began to fall. She knelt down in front of him. “The Wizard Scratshot will be happy to sign the cloth, but only on one condition. Do you know what it is?”
His eyes grew wide, and he nodded.
“I need to hear you say it,” Candle said.
“That’s right. Not a soul. We were never here. The Answer most certainly was never here. You got it?”
“The Answer was never here.”
“Good.” Candle looked up at me with an infuriating expression. She was enjoying this a little too much. “Nova?”
Everything in me resisted, but I took the pen. And then, just as I was about to sign, an idea occurred to me. As the boy watched, his mouth agape, I twisted off the top of the pen, cracked the inkwell, and splattered the ink across the white cloth, just like Marewill Noal had done to me in his quiet office beneath the observatory, surrounded by the numbers of my life. A little imperfection.
“Sorry about the pen,” I said, and fished a couple tribs out of my pocket. “Here. Gruffin sells them at the investiture.”
The boy beamed, and I brushed past him, anxious to get away.
“When people ask,” Candle said to the boy as I hurried over to Fogwillow, “you say you made it. You made it to show your support of the Answer. Okay?”
I heard feet scampering off. When Candle rejoined us, I glowered. “Don’t say a word.”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Candle said brightly.
Fogwillow cleared her throat. “You need to work on your conversation skills, Nova.”
“You’re one to talk,” I said.
“And you are not. And I am not the most famous wizard in the Ferren.”
“Please stop reminding me. Aren’t we worried he’ll tell?”
“Of course we are,” Fogwillow said. “So we’d better hurry.”
Without another word we were off, cutting deeper into the city, toward the burnt and broken heart of Blush.