15. Ruins

Candle wouldn’t let me go home that night after we met with Chief Inspector Rhyme. She was afraid I was going to get picked off the street as soon as she let me out of her sight, so she brought me to her family’s apartment for dinner. It was a small space on the fourth floor of their building, and the piles of tagged artifacts, stacked shadowboxes, and rumpled notes laying on every surface made it seem even smaller.

Len and Martha Candle were happy to have me, as always. They still wore their shorts and khaki button-ups, even at home. I think they thought that at any moment they had to be prepared to drop everything and dash into the wild.

“Adventure is a capricious houseguest,” Martha would say, grinning. “You never know where its many moods will call you.”

And Candle would roll her eyes and turn back to her thaumascope.

Today, the apartment smelled like belaroot sprouts and onions. Len was in the kitchen, and a cloud of steam was billowing past the lintel, the sound of a sizzling pan popping at the walls.

“And this is a piece of a tablet from—we think—around the mid-to-mid-late era of the Lorn,” Martha said. She was sitting next to me on the saggy couch, which pressed our legs into each other in the divot. “It was sent to us from Eldehill, can you imagine! See the lettering on this side? We think it’s probably a segment of laws from some Lornic city, maybe Ruins 3-403. And over here, on this side—”

“Mom, I don’t think Nova cares about the forgotten history quite this much.” Candle was sitting across the room at the table, fiddling with a mess of gears and energy discs.

“Oh, but this is exciting! Look at this, Nova—see that there?”

“The tree symbol?” I asked politely. At least I thought it was a tree. It was made of broad, overlapping triangles, hard-edged and sharp.

“Yes! That glyph is all over the ruins, especially the big ones like class fours and fives.”

Len came in from the kitchen, mopping his brow. “We think it must be the sigil of some kind of government, or ruling class,” he said.

“Len thinks that,” Martha said, “It’s his pet theory.” She smiled kindly at him. “But there are other possibilities.”

“I’m sorry,” Len said affably, “who’s the cryptographer around here?”

They both shared a chuckle, throwing googly eyes at each other, and I thought I might be sick. Candle was staring at her work with furious concentration.

Len passed to a window and lifted it open, allowing a cool breeze to send the steam from the kitchen whippling off into nothing. He leaned out to where a large windowbox was overgrown with herbs, spices, and small vegetables.

“Thing about it is,” he grunted over the noise of the streets, “it really could be anything. That’s the problem with having a hole ripped through your history. It could mean nothing.” He edged back in with a handful of thyme. “Or everything.”

I watched him disappear back into the kitchen.

“Is this symbol in the ruins outside of Blush?” I asked.

“Sixteener?” Martha said. “Of course.”

The sixteener ruins—categorized as 4-716 to be exact—were a large swathe of half-crumbled towers just beyond the city limits, in the middle of the cebelis forest. They were the hollow remains of some Lornic town, now overgrown with moss and secrets, and were Len and Martha Candle’s primary fascination.

“There we go!” Candle said from the table. I looked over to see a tiny contraption whizz into the air. It had a flat top, like a saucer, and the energy disc at the bottom glowed orange, pushing it up into the air on borrowed magic. From within the contraption, between the sparse, snapped together framework, I saw a sliver of a prism, glowing pink.

“That’s very impressive, Emma Lyn,” Martha said.

Candle sat hunched in her chair, her fingers pinching two little levers that were connected through a mess of wires to another energy disc. She maneuvered the levers and the flying machine dropped a few feet, then did a somersault.

Candle beamed. “Hey little guy,” she said.

She sent the machine flying over to us on the couch, where it swooped under her mom’s hands and lifted the tablet fragment up on its saucer-like top. “Watch it,” Martha said as she let go of the tablet in surprise. Candle laughed, and sent the machine soaring through the room with its ancient cargo. “Emma Lyn, that artifact is thousands of years old.”

Candle twitched the levers and sent the machine dipping back toward her mom. “Order up.” Martha took the tablet and frowned. Candle paused for a moment, considering. The machine whirred in mid-air. I stood, carefully, recognizing the glint in her eye. Suddenly, she twitched the levers again and sent her contraption zooming out the still open window.

We both ran for it, sticking our heads out and watching the softly glowing light ascend into the evening sky, higher and higher, toward the stars. Then the light went out.

“Emma,” Martha said softly from behind.

Candle turned and shrugged, tossing the jury-rigged levers back onto the table. “I wanted to see how high it could go.”

A moment later we heard a sharp tinkling sound on the street below. Candle hurried out to fetch the prism from the wreckage.

Over dinner, we talked more about trees made of triangles and the sixteener ruins, but Martha kept shooting her daughter worried looks over her forkfuls of belaroot sprouts and seared chicken.

“Hazel Mars loved to play near the ruins,” Len said at one point. “Don’t you remember Martha? How she would pretend they were giants stomping through the trees?”

“I remember, Len.”

Hazel Mars was Candle’s older sister. She was twenty-seven, studying historiography way across the Ferren. I’d only met her a couple times, over holidays mostly. She seemed fine, but very different from Candle. I could never figure out their relationship with each other. Candle seemed all at once to admire and resent her older sister.

I asked Fogwillow about it once.

“I don’t blame you for being confused,” she’d said. “You’ve never had a sibling. These are not things you can learn about tucked away in this attic.”

Thinking about Fogwillow made a knot form in my stomach as I remembered what Candle had said earlier that day. She does well with kids. It’s a wonder she doesn’t have any of her own.

Except she could have. If she’d wanted one.

“I’ve always thought the sixteener ruins were kind of sad,” Candle said suddenly.

Everyone looked at her.

“I suppose so,” Martha said in a careful voice. “All ruins are kind of sad in their own way. They represent everything we don’t know. Everything we lost.”

Len leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “You know, I’ve always felt the same thing. All these rocks. Tagged and catalogued across the Ferren. They’re just sitting there, in the middle of a world that likely seems very unfamiliar. Rocks with no past and no future, but to be dissected. Alone in the middle of everything.”

“No one claims them,” Candle said. “And I think it’s good that you guys get so excited when you talk about them. We should all claim lost things.”

She looked at me, and I looked down at my plate.

After dinner, Candle walked me home. The streetlights were shaded in hues of yellow, and the cebelis trees formed the shadows of hunched monsters in the darkness beyond the sidewalk. I walked with my hands in my pockets.

“I don’t need you to be my sister,” I said as we neared the investiture.

“What?”

I said it again, more clearly this time. Candle looked taken aback.

“I’m not trying to be.” She stared straight ahead, her mouth working up and down as she searched for something to say. Her waves of sandy blond hair fell past her ears, looping down and shielding her eyes. “Look, I definitely don’t need another sibling. I just wish you had what you’re looking for.”

“Right. Well. It’s condescending.”

“Condescending to treat you like a human being? Like you deserve—Eoea forbid—someone who cares about you?”

“Yes! Exactly. Nevermind.”

I gritted my teeth, staring at the windows of the investiture a block away, lighting up the street. She didn’t understand. What I wanted was something she couldn’t give me: a life like normal people. A life where I didn’t have to ask to be cared for. From Fogwillow, or Candle, or Gruffin, or anyone else. Where I wasn’t a trinket someone had found and passed along.

Suddenly, I froze.

Through the windows of the investiture, as if within the flatness of a lightscreen, I saw Plum talking to Gruffin at the front desk. I grabbed Candle by the arm, and pulled her into an alley.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“It’s him. It’s Plum. He’s inside the investiture again.”

Candle groaned.

I peeked my head around the corner and watched as Plum left through the sliding doors, tugging at the cuffs of his suit and wiping a hand along the side of his head. He looked up and down the street, then started walking toward us.

I shoved Candle further back into the alley, and we crouched down, holding our breath as Plum passed by, a purple shadow with sharp, designer shoe footsteps.

I took three breaths, then made a decision.

Candle grabbed my sleeve as I left the alley. “Where are you going?” she hissed, nodding toward the investiture behind us.

“I’m going to follow him,” I said. “I’m going to see what he’s up to.”

Candle looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “What? Why?”

Two blocks ahead, Plum’s silhouette rounded a corner. If I didn’t hurry—if I didn’t go now—I would lose him. I looked back at Candle.

“Because,” I said. “Because I want to know who airbird sevens is. I want to know why he cares enough about me to save my life. Somehow this is all wrapped up in the Diosec, and if I can find out why then maybe I’ll understand why I’m worth saving at all.”

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