2. Candle

I know, I know, I just kind of threw you into things there. But to be fair, that’s exactly how I felt. Confused, adrift, and overwhelmed. I suppose I should start farther back, on the day I first heard of airbird sevens, who got me into this mess to begin with.

This was a couple months ago. Maybe even less. I was sitting up in my room, goofing around on the Crystic, which is where you can usually find me. I had the day off because it was Eptre, the weekend. I work (worked) selling magic at an investiture called Gruff Stop, which is owned by a wizard named Garrel Gruffin. He’s a short, burly man, exactly what his name implies. He’s got the bushiest beard you’ll probably ever see, thick and brown and curly, and his eyebrows are so big that it’s hard to tell if his eyes are open or closed most of the time. He doesn’t talk much, and I’m not sure he even likes me, but he owns the building and he’s let me sleep in the attic bedroom on the tenth floor ever since Fogwillow pawned me off on him. I like to call it the penthouse suite, but he insists it’s just an attic, and I go along with it. (Went along with it.)

The investiture is on the first floor, and Gruffin rents out floors two through nine. The lift doesn’t go to the attic, so I have to get out on the ninth floor and take the utility stairwell up to my room. The ninth floor houses the office of a pair of lawyers. They’re brothers, and they’re pretty nice, but I don’t like talking to people so I usually try to sneak past the front desk as quickly as I can.

The room itself is what you’d expect of an attic, with one exception. The ceiling slants dramatically to the side, and set into it is an enormous window. It tilts at an angle against the eastern sky, which makes the attic feel bright and open. The bottom of the window frames the pink of the city skyline, and above is all blue. Depending on the weather, of course.

On that day, the day it all began, there wasn’t a cloud in sight, just blue as far as you could see.

I sat at my desk, which was shoved against the wall, and the slant of the ceiling meant I had to hunch over to see what I was doing. Fogwillow thinks this is why my posture is so bad. I was sitting with my keyboard in my lap and the lightscreen hovering over my desk with images from the Crystic. A movement of my hands sent the images sweeping away, and I pulled up a forum, my fingers flying across the keyboard. Before I could finish my post, there was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” I called without looking.

I heard the door open and the creak of footsteps coming inside. Everything in my room creaks. (Creaked, sorry, I’ll get the hang of this eventually.)

Then, Candle’s voice: “Broken rods, Nova, have you left that chair at all this weekend?”

“Hang on,” I said, trying to finish typing my thought.

“What have you been eating?”

Still typing with one hand, I reached for a sleeve of weybisk crackers and pulled out one of the thick, doughy wafers. I wagged it back and forth in her direction, then shoved it in my mouth.

Candle made a noise of disgust.

I finished my thought, motioned for it to post, then turned to face her with my most aloof expression. To which she only rolled her eyes.

Emma Lynn Candle was stout, shorter than me by at least a head, and her clothes were a mishmash of faded patterns, of cornflower blue paisley and sun-washed yellow polka dots. I don’t know how she managed it when I could barely put together jeans and a t-shirt. She had blonde hair that might have been chin-length, but it was hard to tell because it sort of flew back in waves and tangles as if she were caught in a perpetual wind.

I eyed her coolly up and down. “I thought you were coming over on Wardin.”

“Yeah, well, I did too. Mom and Dad sprang one of their surprise expeditions on me. No tech. All weekend. There was nothing I could do.”

“Figured.” I looked back at the screen. “This thing’s been glitching nonstop.”

“You made it through, though.”

“Barely.”

She smirked. “Let me take a look.” Candle was not a wizard, but she understood magic far better than I did. At least, she understood the devices it could power. She had a mechanical mind.

She pushed her way through the clutter of discarded weybisk boxes and approached the desk. I got up and gave her my chair, and as we crossed paths, bent against the slanted ceiling, I caught a whiff of something like fried circuit boards. Candle scent.

I couldn’t imagine I smelled nearly as good.

“Hmm… ” Candle said. She reached through the bright colors of the lightscreen toward its source, the thaumascope. With a wave of her other hand, she shut the screen off and the scope went dark. She pulled a screwdriver from the pocket of her plaid skirt and opened up one of the three lens casings, fishing within the circuitry with stubby fingers, which were no less nimble for it.

“Looks like you cracked an optic.”

I leaned over her, peering at the device. “What does that mean?”

Candle poked at the telescoping lens and popped out a small glass disc, which, indeed, had a thin line running down the middle of it.

“That’s it?” I said.

“Doesn’t take much to set things askew.”

I frowned and gave the scope a wary glance. “I really thought it was just the prism. I charged it five times trying to reset it.” Within the scope, I could see the prism glowing faintly pink—the device’s power source, its well of magic, a focusing of the Crystic.

Candle replaced the casing and slid the device back into place.

“It’ll work for now,” she said, “though the colors won’t be as bright. You’ll have to buy a new lens. F807.”

“Can you do it for me?”

She gave me a flat look. “Rods, Nova, it’s not that difficult.”

“I don’t like talking to people,” I mumbled.

“You sell them in the investiture. Ask Gruffin for one. Say: Gruffin, I need an F807 lens for my scope.” As if she knew how hard that was. “Really, though, your lens was basically useless anyway. Getting broken was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to it. They make them much better now, your machine will be way more powerful.”

Candle stood up and gave me my seat back. I slumped into it, waving the Crystic back up and taking another weybisk from the sleeve.

“What flavor are these, anyway?” Candle said, picking up the box and turning it over. “Garlic? Ugh.”

“Not as good as cheese, granted,” I said, pulling up the forum I’d been on. “But it’s all we had in stock, and they still come with the trading card.”

Candle looked down at the pile of shiny foil cards on my desk.

“Yes, but Nova, no one actually trades those cards because weybisks are lame and gross.”

“Speak for yourself, Candle. The cards are actually kind of fun if you give them a chance.”

“No. Thank you.”

Candle set the box down and threw herself on the bed with a huff, wiping cracker crumbs off my quilt. “Anything new on the tickers?” she asked.

“I haven’t been reading them.”

“What have you been doing all weekend, then? Besides eating weybisks.”

“Mostly playing Hero Trotter. They released some images from the next update. Look!” I pulled up the pictures I’d been looking at. “They’re adding cleaning. Brooms and feather dusters and stuff.”

“Nobody but you could possibly get excited about that.” Then, after sitting up and looking around the cluttered attic: “Maybe you should clean your real bedroom first.”

I ignored the remark.

We both enjoyed Hero Trotter, but we each had different ways of playing it. Or, I guess, I had a different way of playing it. Candle played it the way you were supposed to. More on that later.

“Hey, do you know the user airbird77?” I asked, changing the subject.

“No, why?”

“He sent me a message this morning. I ignored it, but he’s sent me more throughout the day. Nine more, actually.”

“Nine?”

“They’re all exactly the same.” I pulled up the chat log. “Please avoid the golden plum.”

“It’s probably spam. Just block him.”

“See, that’s what I thought, too, but then I kept thinking about it, and now I can’t get the phrase out of my head. It’s almost poetic. I keep repeating it to myself out loud. It changes, you know, depending on which words you emphasize. Listen. Please avoid the golden plum. Please avoid the golden plum. Please avoid the golden plum.”

Candle stared at me, her hair falling down slowly around her head. “You need to get out of here, Nova. You shouldn’t be alone so much.”

I paused, unsure, then set my keyboard on the desk and turned around to face her. “I know. You’re probably right.”

She stood. “Get up. Let’s go down to Renela’s.”

I looked at the lightscreen, which was starting to burn grooves in my vision, then back to Candle. “Fine. I can buy you cream tea and takky as thanks for fixing my broken scope.”

Candle waved a hand. “Technically, I didn’t fix it.”

“You’re really going to turn this down?”

“I suppose not. I mean, tea and takky would be nice. But getting you outside and away from the thaumascope?” Suddenly she smiled, and her entire face lit up like a prism. “Nova Scratshot, there’s nothing I’d want more in the whole wide Ferren.”

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