30. Nice

I sat in my bedroom at the Advance Academy, at the foot of my bed, in the dark.

The door opened, letting a shaft of light fall across the floor, and in that light, the silhouette of a silver-cloak.

“Master Answer,” he said. I didn’t respond. “Dean Enislen requests your company for dinner.”

Without a word, I stood and followed the silver-cloak out the door.

I am sorry. It’s been over a month since I’ve written here, though to tell the truth I’ve lost track of the days. It might be closer to two months. I didn’t mean to let it go so long. In the week after my first surgery, after Fogwillow left again, I would sit in front of the lightscreen and let the cursor blink holes into my eyes, but I couldn’t bring myself to type. After the first week, not writing became easier, and I pulled the thaumascope out less. Lately, I haven’t even bothered to get it out at all.

Physical training with Fellish has become more difficult. Each session leaves me trembling and breathless, my muscles sore and my body so dense and leaden that I feel I might sink down into the earth, grinding through solid stone. History lessons with Ketchling are a welcome relief. I sit at the table with the stoop-backed old wizard and learn the known timeline of the Ferren backwards and forwards—the Prism Wars, the Great Infusion, the Fostering, the Age of Devices. It’s dull, but my mind needs dull things now. To recover.

There are now five prisms embedded in my back. They crawl up my spine like beetles. Two times a week, Dean Enislen herself unfastens the back of my robes and charges each prism in turn. As each one reconnects, a thrum of magic goes searing up my spine and into my brain, and I can feel the Crystic itself, shifting all around me, brushing against my skin, as if I were walking through a field of gossamer webbing. The sixth prism goes in tomorrow, and the seventh one in another couple weeks. I don’t even bother to greet the Wizard Edel now, when I go into the operating room. I don’t say much to anyone at all.

There is more power inside of me now than I ever knew possible, but I don’t know what to do with it. There is still a block in me somewhere—a wall of dead bodies and a shine of tiny spectacles—that prevents me from reaching my staff. I can get closer now, yes. Much closer. I can come within an arm’s length of it, but when I reach my hand out, the Crystic telescopes and the staff moves farther away. Mendiwat raises her eyebrows at me each time I fail.

“I suppose those booster packs plugged into your nervous system aren’t so kyving useful after all,” she says.

And I don’t respond. There is nothing to say anymore, there are only things to do, so I do them and don’t complain, and I know that when I meet the Ryvkk I’ll be ready. I’ll be a hero, if not entirely myself. I’m not even sure where the pieces of me are anymore. I walk through the halls of the observatory, and I feel strong and I feel powerful, but there is nothing behind my eyes, and every movement is by rote. I’m a cast iron husk.

And I think Dean Enislen is noticing. It’s probably why she invited me to dinner.

“Nova,” she said with care as I entered the cafeteria. It was nighttime, and the world beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows was dark. The cafeteria had been cleared out and there was a single, oak table in the center, set for two. The light from the wall sconces was dim and warm.

“Thank you, Palit, you can leave,” the dean said to the silver-cloak, who nodded and retreated. “Now, you see, Nova, it’s just the two of us. All by ourselves. Isn’t that so nice? We haven’t had time together like this in ages.”

She went around the far side of the table and took a seat. I followed and sat down across from her. The space between us was set with steaming dishes, and there was a covered platter near my plate.

“Rice and vegetable blend,” Dean Enislen said. “With a side of lamb. And, because it’s such a nice night… ”

She motioned to the covered platter with an expectant smile. I lifted the lid. The dish was set with a careful arrangement of weybisk crackers. All four flavors. I cracked a smile, setting the cover down to the side.

“That’s the Nova I wanted to see,” Dean Enislen said, and lifted the serving spoon. “Give me your plate.”

After dishing the food out to each of us, she unfolded her napkin with a little flourish and set it in her lap. And then we ate, and our silverware clinked together in the silence, and every once in a while Dean Enislen threw me a small glance over the top of her wine glass.

Finally, she said, “Nova,” and leaned forward. “How are you doing?”

I looked up at her, my mouth full. I shrugged lightly.

“Fine,” I said.

“Really? Is that really the truth? We’re all a little worried about you. I’m worried about you. I’m worried that you aren’t taking to this whole Answer thing very well.”

“I’m fine. I’m doing everything that I’m supposed to, aren’t I?”

“Yes… yes, you are… ” Dean Enislen’s smile wavered. “Nova, if there’s anything you want to say to me, you can say it. That’s why I asked you to dinner. Think of this as… a pleasant check-in. A way for you to update me on how you’re doing, your thoughts, your concerns. I thought we could make a tradition out of it—”

“Are you trying to be my therapist, Dean Enislen?”

The dean blushed—the second time I had seen her do that lately. Something had unmoored her. Good.

“I’m just concerned about you,” she said. “Nova, I… I’m not too big to admit that I may have made some mistakes in calculating your training. We push you, I know, we push you because it’s what must be done, but surely we can find some… some way to add a measure of balance to your life. We can adjust our systems.”

“Oh good,” I said, pushing rice around my plate. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”

Dean Enislen stared at me with wide eyes, then propped her elbows on the table and rested her head in her hands. “We’re just… we’re so excited about this. About you. Why can’t you be excited, too? What are we doing wrong?”

I dropped my fork, finally allowing some of the frustration to come piping up to the surface. “You’re not doing anything wrong.” Dean Enislen looked up at me, partly surprised, and partly self-satisfied. Her lips twitched. She had been waiting for this. “Does that scare you?” I continued. “That maybe this is just what I’m like and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Good, Nova, let it out. Let it all out.”

“That’s not what I’m—this isn’t—!”

“You will never unlock your full potential if you suffocate your feelings. I need you to find wholeness. You’re angry at me?”

“Yes!”

“How angry?”

“I can’t—” My fists were curled at my sides. “I don’t want—”

Dean Enislen stood, scooting her chair back. “If you’re angry at me, Nova, then be angry at me.”

“I don’t want to!” I stood, and on impulse, like a fire billowing in the breeze, my magic flared. I connected to the Crystic, and all up and down my back the white-hot prisms scorched my spine. The table rattled, the dished shivered. My cup fell over.

“You want to smash something, then smash something!” Dean Enislen said, and slid a hand under her quivering plate, upending it and sending vegetables and lamb flying through the air.

“There’s no room to move,” I said. “No room to breathe. Everything is a new way to control me, to plug me into an equation. You took me away from my home. You don’t let me talk to anyone outside. Every sentence anyone ever says to me is perfectly calculated. Every lesson is perfectly balanced. How many meetings did you have with Marewill before you planned this dinner? Before you decided it was okay to let me talk about my feelings. You want me to be happy? It’s okay if I don’t want to be happy. You want me to be angry? It’s okay if I don’t want to be angry.” I lifted a hand and dug my fingers into my curls, taking in a heaving breath. “Eoea’s staff, I can’t keep up this level of control.”

Dean Enislen gave me a long look and a slight smile. Then her face darkened.

“Is that all this is?” she said quietly. “A petty rebellion? A way of proving we don’t control you? Nova, people have died.” Her hand went, automatically, to her locket. “The Advance Academy knows a hero’s design, and you must fit yourself into the pattern. But you are right, in one aspect our design must be adjusted.” She pulled her hand away from the locket and gestured to me, and the motion took in my trembling hands and my ragged breathing. “This is what is missing in your training, Nova. Passion. And if it has to start as outrage, even at me, then fine. I can handle it. You will never reach your staff if you don’t find passion for this work. If all you want to do is go home.”

The dishes continued to shiver before me. Dean Enislen leaned across the table in her starched black suit, her eyes on fire, boring into me. I took a deep breath in through my nose, and as I did the dishes lifted slightly. When I let it out—slowly, so slowly—the dishes settled and, finally, went still.

I slumped back into the chair, holding my head. “Thanks for the lesson,” I said coldly. “You’re right. This was nice.”

“Are you going to eat those staving weybisks or not?” Dean Enislen replied. I looked over at the untouched plate of crackers, and couldn’t think of anything less appetizing.

I was saved from making an excuse, though, when the door to the cafeteria opened, and a silver-cloak hurried in.

“You better have a very good reason for interrupting us,” Dean Enislen said.

The silver-cloak made a quick bow. “Apologies.” He carried a long, thin telephone in one hand. I stared. Telephones were usually connected to outlets, powered by circuits carrying magic from city prism reserves. But this phone was not hooked up to a line. Instead, an individual prism was set into the cold metal casing. It was a waste of magic. A misuse of one of the Ferren’s finite prisms.

And then, watching the prism-powered tech, my spine prickled, and I looked away from the device, deeply uncomfortable.

“The Assemblage wants to speak to you,” the silver-cloak said.

Dean Enislen froze.

Then, slowly, she took the telephone and turned her back to us, raising it to her ear. I leaned forward in my chair, but I could hear nothing from the other end of the line, and Dean Enislen only spoke in short, cryptic phrases. After a few moments she lowered the phone and turned back around.

Something in the way she looked at me made my heart skip a beat.

There was a hollow cast to her eyes, and all of a sudden my palms were sweaty, though I couldn’t say why. I rose from my chair, and waited for her to speak.

“It’s Blush,” she said.

My heart skipped another beat. A sour taste filled my mouth. “What do you mean?”

“Is there a… ” Dean Enislen swallowed, and looked toward the window, as if she could see the city from this distance, from around the curvature of the Ferren. “Is there a terminal in the city?”

“Yes. In Central Circuit, near the Shift Patrol Vault.”

“It’s…” Dean Enislen looked back at me as her voice caught. “It’s shattered. The Ryvkk… they think he may have been targeting you… ”

It was hard to get my next words out. “Is it okay?” I looked to the silver-cloak, then back to Dean Enislen. “Are people okay?”

“Nova… Nova, most of Blush is gone.”

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