It hurts to write about Candle now that I may never see her again. She’s one of the few people I can manage to talk to. I don’t know why. I don’t know what’s different about her. I like being by myself, and somehow with people like Candle or Fogwillow I can feel like I’m by myself even when they’re with me. Other people demand too much, they take up space in my head. Candle doesn’t. She could be standing right next to me and I would still feel alone.
Dean Enislen takes up an enormous amount of space in my head. She’s like a buzz that drowns everything else out. In the aftermath of the incident at the investiture, with the dead bodies and the blood, I barely had room to think about what I was leaving behind.
“Have you ever been on a cloudweaver?” she asked.
We were standing outside the investiture. The bodies within had already been removed when I was led from Gruffin’s office, but the blood had not yet been wiped away. Gruffin himself was nowhere to be seen, though I was assured that he was okay. We’d moved between the racks of food and candy like harried shoppers heading for the door—Dean Enislen, Fogwillow, myself, and three or four of the silver-cloaks.
Before we’d reached the sliding glass, Dean Enislen had stopped, turned, and looked into my face.
“I must warn you, Nova, there may be some reporters out there. Photographers, too. Pay them no mind, I’ll do the talking. Just follow me and be yourself.”
I don’t remember the next few minutes very well. Just pieces that I can’t connect. The crowd outside the investiture shouting. The bulbs of cameras going off in my face, everything blurry and disorienting. Flashing blue and yellow lights from the shiftie skims. Dean Enislen intercepting a cluster of reporters as my two silver-cloak guards led me forward along the Shift Patrol barrier. Fogwillow keeping pace quietly just behind, as was her way. She hadn’t said one word to anyone since talking to me on the bench, yet no one had told her to go. No one had dared.
After finishing up with the reporters, Dean Enislen suddenly appeared by my side.
“Have you ever been on a cloudweaver?”
“No,” I said to her, growing increasingly overwhelmed. Then, before I knew what I was doing, my knees bent and I sunk down onto my heels, right in the middle of everything. My head was reeling. There were so many sensations coming in all at once. Above, Dean Enislen looked from side to side, then knelt down on the pavement before me. She ducked her head to look into my eyes. The crowd roared, and the sound of snapping cameras crescendoed.
“What’s the matter?” Dean Enislen said softly.
“I just need a minute,” I said. “I don’t like crowds.”
“I understand.” Her voice was too breathy. Too concerned. “I’m a little overwhelmed, too. But listen, Nova. You don’t ever have to be in a crowd again if you don’t want to. In fact, I’ll make you a promise, now. If there are ever too many people nearby, tell me and I’ll make someone leave. You have control over your own environment. Your space is yours.”
I looked up at the group of silver-cloaks from the Advance Academy. I nodded to them.
“Do they have to be here?” I said quietly.
Without missing a beat, Dean Enislen stood and turned to her agents. “We’re going on ahead. Stay behind and take the next seed up.” The silver-cloaks eyed each other sideways, but said nothing. Dean Enislen looked down at me and smiled. “Come on, then. Let’s get out of here.”
There was a seed parked nearby, just beyond the investiture’s pavilion. With its pod-shaped platform and giant propeller that stretched high overhead, it reminded me mostly of an enormous white dandelion wisp. Dean Enislen ushered me and Fogwillow up to it. We took hold of straphangs on the metallic stalk and Fogwillow silently showed me how to strap my feet into the narrow platform. Dean Enislen took hold of a lever.
Beneath the platform, the ground was lit up pink from the prism that powered the vehicle. Above our heads, the propeller began to whir and the seed lifted smoothly into the sky.
The crowd surged underneath, but I didn’t look. I watched tall buildings move past around us, the straphang digging into my palm and wrist as I clung more tightly the higher we went.
Dean Enislen maneuvered the lever. The seed swept up and forward at an angle, and the wind lashed against my face. The city passed by in a pink blur around me, the cebelis trees growing full and magenta between the rising buildings and from high terraces. Within seconds, we crested the skyline, and my breath left me as I looked out onto the sweeping view of Blush.
Blush of Trill. The only home I had ever known. The skyscrapers looked pale and lonely from so high up, poking between the rosy cebelis trees like giants reaching for the sky. It really did credit to its name when viewed this way. Its fuchsia arbors and amaranth groves flushed the coast of Trill with bright, healthy color. To the east, I could see the ocean. To the west, the cebelis forest stretched away to the far purple mountains.
This, apparently, was how I was going to leave Blush: hustled away without a chance to say goodbye to any of the people I cared about. There weren’t even that many.
“There we go,” Dean Enislen said, cracking into my thoughts once again. “There’s the cloudweaver up ahead. The Spirit of Deliverance.”
“That’s kind of on the nose, isn’t it?” I said.
Dean Enislen shrugged. “Why be subtle about it?”
She pushed on the lever and the seed went angling off toward the cloudweaver. My stomach lurched, less at the movement and more at the sight of the thing. The ship was large and disc-like, with a sleek dome of segmented glass. The entire thing was ringed with seeds, much like this one, whose propellers kept it floating, dreamlike, in the sky.
Candle would be so jealous.
After we docked, I was led along a high walkway and into the dome. When the door closed behind me, everything fell quiet as the roar of the wind and the spinning of the propellers cut off.
“Now then,” Dean Enislen said, crossing into the great room beneath the dome. “This is the observation deck. No one will bother us up here. Take a seat. We’ll need to send a seed down for the silver-cloaks we left behind, and then we’ll be sailing off toward our destination. Nothing to do now but wait.”
I moved carefully into the room. Everything was so clean and bright and expensive. I turned away from the plush red chairs and gripped the railing that lined the observation deck. Through the glass, I took another look at the pale buildings of the city far below. I thought I might be sick.
“Where are we going?” I asked, hands still tight around the rail.
“We’ve requisitioned a space in the mountains west of here. It should be nearly set up—we put in the request very soon after catching your trail. It’s an old observatory, for watching the stars and such. I’m so excited for you to see it.”
“You can do that?” I said softly. “Just ask for a building and it’s yours?” For some reason, it made me unsettled.
“What about the people there?”
“They’ve been compensated handsomely. This is far more important than astronomy, Nova. You are far more important.”
I turned from the glass. Dean Enislen was sitting on a cushioned bench, picking the last of the blood out of the grooves in her locket. Fogwillow had crossed to a high table and was inspecting the nuts there, laid out in a serving dish. She slipped a few of them into her pocket.
“So this observatory… ” I said to the dean.
“It’s the Academy, now,” she said.
“What am I going to do there?”
Dean Enislen let the locket drop onto her chest and leaned back on the bench. Her eyes danced again. “Train,” she said. “Learn. Become more powerful than you could ever have dreamed.”
I walked over to her and sat in a chair opposite, holding my head, digging my fingers into my tight, dark curls. “What if I don’t want that?”
I looked up in time to notice Dean Enislen come closer than I’d seen yet to frowning. But she caught herself just in time. Instead, she smiled as if to comfort me.
“In the old, wild days,” she said, “in the Lorn, perhaps, heroes by and large did their own thing. Unsupervised, uneducated, undisciplined. When the world needed saving, it merely sat back and hoped the chosen one would get it in gear in time to save it. We are not of that age any longer.”
“Then the Academy—”
“Is a place for you to take the measured, carefully constructed steps you need to be ready to save us when the time comes for it. It is in the interest of the Ferren to be invested in its own salvation, and so your ability to be a hero—the Answer to Prophecy—really belongs to something much larger than yourself.”
“It’s like a school. A school for wizards.”
“Not wizards, Nova Scratshot. A single wizard. An entire education system and training regimen developed to produce a single hero. You. You are the first and last pupil of the Advance Academy. A class of one.”
“But if I’m prophesied to save the Ferren anyway, does it matter if I receive training?”
“The prophecy is more of an equation than a prediction.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“Don’t worry. You will in time.”
I frowned at Dean Enislen. Could I trust her? I didn’t want to, but she had saved my life, after all.
The dean reached down and pulled something out from underneath the bench. “Meanwhile,” she said, “I have a task for you. Something that may help you process all of this.” She handed me a keyboard and set a thaumascope on the table in front of me. This drew Fogwillow’s attention, and she abandoned her bowl of nuts to sit in the chair beside mine.
“I’d like you to consider starting a ticker, Nova,” Dean Enislen said. “For everyone in the Ferren to read.”
“A ticker? What would I have to write about?”
“Yourself.” She waved the scope on and the screen materialized before me. It was open to a blank page, the cursor blinking, waiting for me to type. When I hesitated, Dean Enislen raised her eyebrows. “You saw those reporters down below. They will spread stories about you, about what you did. Some will be true, some will be close enough that it won’t matter, and some will be outright lies. You have an opportunity to tell about what happened, and about what is happening, in your own words. The Ferren is so very interested in you, Nova Scratshot. You are their hero. The Answer. Tell them what that’s like. Take control of your own narrative.”
My fingers hovered above the keyboard and I stared at the screen, my mind—for once—completely blank.
“Where do I start?” I asked.
Dean Enislen made a helpful gesture. “Tell us what you saw when you looked into the Crystic.”
I stared at the blinking cursor and took a shaky breath. Then, slowly, I typed:
I saw myself as a beautiful algorithm, covered in blood.
Dean Enislen smiled at me.
Right now, in this very moment, the sun has gone down, and the cloudweaver The Spirit of Deliverance is flying straight beneath a sea of stars. Outside, everything is sliding past as if we are stationary and the world itself is spinning beneath us. Dean Enislen has retired to her room below deck. In the chair beside me, Fogwillow is asleep. She’s snoring softly. I turn from the light of the thaumascope screen and look out through the glass, at the shadow of the approaching mountains, and know for certain now that I’ll never see Candle again.
But hours ago, the sun was still up, flashing off the propellers of a returning seed as it brought the silver-cloaks back toward the ship. Dean Enislen was smiling at me and I returned it weakly.
I looked down and read over my first sentence.
And then I wrote the rest of it.