Fen concentrated, imagining a cool gray light spreading out from under her fingers and up the walls, the way she’d seen it happen when Luke first brought her to Syl Var.
“Light,” she said again. Under her fingers, she felt nothing, no stir of magic, no responsive quiver.
And the darkness stayed impenetrable.
“Come on,” she whispered.
She wasn’t scared of the dark. But it was so deep, so solid. In Chicago, it was never truly dark. Light seeped through windows, under doors. In the loneliest hours of the night, street lights, car headlights and store signs still created shadows, patches of warmth. She’d never experienced a darkness like this one.
Fen clenched her fists. She squeezed her eyes shut, picturing the grey light as clearly as she could, and demanded, “Light.”
She opened her eyes just in time to see a flicker of grey starting at her feet. It spread a foot or two, maybe more, before fading away again.
All right, she needed to focus. Specific direction, concentrated something-or-other–she’d heard the instructions for good magic often enough that she ought to remember them by now. Successful manipulation of the nanomites required clear communication, an ability to convey exactly what she wanted.
So what did she want? Light, but what made light? How did it work? Why did the walls glow? What created the glow? Maybe she should have paid more attention in science. She shoved the questions away and closed her hand around the crystal at her neck, images of lights floating through her mind. Overhead fluorescents, desk lamps, the heavy weight of a flashlight, the warm glow of a candle, the dancing heat of a fire.
“Light,” she demanded. “Enough for me to see.”
Her shoulder itched.
She lurched forward in the darkness, falling forward onto her hands and knees as a burst of heat trickled up her back and along her neck. “Ow.”
Automatically, she clapped her opposite hand over her shoulder. “What the hell?” Her shoulder stung, but no worse than a bad sunburn. But her dress felt frayed under her fingers, bits crumbling away at her touch. What had happened? She sat back onto her heels.
Above her, her phoenix flew in lazy circles around the room, casting shadows with every sweep of its fiery wings.
God, it was pretty.
An involuntary smile crept across her face. She should probably be freaking out. The stupid thing might catch the whole house on fire. But she’d always liked her phoenix tattoo and in the dark room, it was gorgeous, the purest of oranges and yellows, graceful and elegant.
“An interesting decision,” Elfie said.
“Mmm, yeah.” Should she mention to Elfie that she’d had no idea that would happen?
“Perhaps not the safest choice.”
“Yeah, maybe not.” Fen scrambled to her feet. She eyed the phoenix. It was nice that it hadn’t seared another gaping hole in her back when it broke free, but she didn’t think she’d invite it back under her skin any time soon. Maybe when Gaelith showed up, she could get it back. Meanwhile, it wasn’t like having real lights, but it was better than nothing.
She looked around her. The foyer was mostly empty, with a small table in the center of the room, arched openings on three sides, and, behind her, the door that led outside. “So how do I lock the door?”
“Seal it to those of Wai Pa.”
“Okay.” Fen waited, but Elfie didn’t elaborate. “How?”
“Yes. Tell me how.” The door was just a door. It didn’t have a handle or a knob, no lock or deadbolt. From the outside of the building, it had been clearly marked, deep grooves around it indicating its purpose, but on the inside, it merged with the wall with only subtle seams to reveal its boundaries.
“Library Level One states that the enclaves of the six cities are open to business from parties within the city, but can be sealed for privacy.”
“Yeah, I got that,” Fen said, starting to feel impatient. “What I don’t know is how to lock the door. What do I do?”
Elfie didn’t answer.
“Elfie? What’s up?”
“Many things,” Elfie said, sounding surprised. “From where do you wish to measure? The ceiling, the second story, the roof—“
“Stop, stop,” Fen said. “I meant, what are you doing?”
“I do not believe your interpretation pattern is functioning as well as it should,” Elfie replied, sounding disgruntled. “I was searching.”
“Looking for data in Library Level One that would explain the process by which one seals the door. Unfortunately, it appears that this is knowledge too common to be indexed.”
Damn. Fen traced a finger along the edge of the door. It must be a simple action. She could order the door to seal itself. But the magic — if it worked at all — would do what she envisioned it doing, not necessarily what it ought to do. What if she trapped herself in the house? The empty, creepy, dark house that was a memorial for the dead?
Nope, not going to do that. She turned back to the room. Like a lot of the furniture in Syl Var, the table in the center looked as if it had grown in its place, with a twisting stem emerging from the floor and spreading out into a flat surface. On top of it sat a basket that appeared to be carved from some kind of big shell.
Fen crossed the room and looked in the basket. Stones filled it, almost to overflowing.
She picked up a piece of pinkish quartz. A garden of pink flowers shimmered into being, translucent but vivid, filling the room. A warm contralto voice surrounded her, saying, “The plumeria are in full bloom and in celebration, the House of Breane cordially—“
“What the hell?” In her surprise, Fen dropped the crystal. The garden disappeared and the voice fell silent. “What was that?”
“An invitation, I believe,” Elfie said.
Tentatively, Fen reached out and took another stone from the basket, this one smallish and golden-brown. A tiny golden bird burst forth, warbling as it flew toward the ceiling. The phoenix paused in its flight, and then spiraled higher, circling around the smaller bird.
“Join us,” sang the little bird in a piercing trill. “Join House Teugin for an evening of music, including the traditional cantatas of our beloved ancestor, Shay Teugin, to be sung by our house choir, featuring solo performances by Isaechael and Annissri of House Teugin.”
The bird paused, then dived at Fen. She winced and put a hand up to stop it from flying in her face, but the bird didn’t hit her. It paused in mid-air, whirring its wings like a hummingbird, and cocked its head to one side.
“Yes?” it prompted, eyes bright, beak sharp.
“Um, okay?” Fen answered.
“Glad tidings, glad tidings.” The bird began flying around her head. “Engagement added to calendar, escort provided. Glad tidings!” With one final warble of delight, it disappeared in a burst of gold sparks, like a mini-firework. The phoenix flew down to investigate the fading sparks.
“Ohhh-kay.” Fen breathed out a sigh and set the rock down on the table. She eyed the basket warily. She thought maybe she wouldn’t pick up any more rocks for now, but as she watched, another rock shimmered into existence on the top of the pile. Yeah, she was definitely not touching those.
She turned away from the table and looked at the openings in the walls.
“Do you no longer wish to seal the door?” Elfie asked as Fen moved toward the opening on the left.
“Oh, I still wish to. I’m just not sure trial-and-error with magic that has a mind of its own is a good idea.” Fen paused in the archway, shivering. The building was cold and the darkness made it seem colder.
“I do not believe the magic has a mind. I have surmised that the Sia Mara are careful not to allow nanomites to form consciousness,” Elfie answered.
“Yeah, I noticed that, too.” Fen glanced over her shoulder at her phoenix, still circling the foyer. “Come on, Firefly.”
The bird obediently swooped over Fen’s head and into a big, empty room. There was no furniture to give her clues as to what it might have been used for, but the walls were covered in murals. The style was similar to those of the murals on the walls of the dining room in Caye Laje, artistic rather than photo-realistic, but detailed and graphic. And in this case, beautiful. They depicted a landscape of colorful small houses and rolling hills, surrounded by giant kelp forests.
She didn’t have to ask Elfie to know that it must be Wai Pa. They’d painted their home on the walls of their home-away-from-home. Had it made them homesick to look at the pictures, to see the place they’d left behind? But they couldn’t have known that someday it would be gone.
Her mother must have grown up there. One of those houses might have been where she was born. It was stupid to let the idea make her sad, though. She’d never even seen the place, why should she feel her eyes prickling at the thought? Annoyed with herself, she turned away from the walls.
Would the room have been a reception room, maybe? Or a waiting room? Was this place something like an office? But it didn’t seem to lead anywhere, so she returned to the foyer.
The opening in the wall directly across from the door opened into a open courtyard. Fen’s shivers grew deeper as she followed her phoenix into the echoing space. A central fountain was still, an inset circle on the ground around it dry, while a ramp flowed up the side walls, making a spiraling path to the second and third floors.
Fen tried to imagine what it would have been like when people stayed in the villa. Did they meet in the courtyard? Eat breakfast by the burble of the fountain? Or just pass through on their way to other places?
It needed plants, she thought. Lots of them. And maybe benches.
Her stomach rumbled and she pressed a hand to it. Damn it, this sucked. She should have eaten more, but she’d been too nervous, and the food too weird. Now she was cold and hungry and tired. She needed to find a place to stay, a safe place with a door she could lock. And some blankets would be nice, too. Would bedrooms be upstairs?
Her phoenix seemed to like the courtyard. It was exploring the corners, flying in long, lazy glides around the upper reaches. Fen followed its lead, finding her way to the bottom of the ramp and starting to walk up. The ever-changing light from the flight of the phoenix cast strange shadows on the walls and she kept close to the railing of the walkway as she climbed. But there were no doors. The path led all the way up, three stories at least, and then out, onto a rooftop terrace.
The view was amazing. Fen still hadn’t figured out how the Sia Mara told time — the sky seemed always in a lighter or darker shade of twilight, sometimes looking like early morning, other times looking like nightfall — but at the moment, it was its deepest shade of blue, with the lights of the city a warm blaze of color before her. She could hear faint music, almost eerily distant, coming from the direction of the pleasure gardens, while the air felt damp and chilly, as if fog would start rolling in from Lake Michigan any minute.
But Lake Michigan was a long way away.
Damn it, Fen was not going to cry. Not, not, not. But she hated the way she felt — lost and alone, scared and uncertain. And hungry, damn it.
With one last look at the city spread out before her, Fen turned and went back inside. She paused at the top of the ramp. It felt even darker than it had before, although her phoenix still spiraled its way around the heights of the room.
And what was that sound?
The soft shuffling sound of someone walking below her was unmistakeable.
Fen’s heartbeat accelerated.
She held her breath, listening with all her might. She was okay, it was okay, she told herself. Her phoenix would defend her. Her ivy would keep her safe. She didn’t need to be afraid.
The reminders didn’t help.
“Fen?” The call was tentative, hushed, as if the speaker were afraid to break the silence. “Are you here?”
Fen’s fear washed away. “Luke!” She broke into a run, barreling down the path without worrying about what she might trip over until she reached Luke. She flung her arms around him without hesitation. “I’m so glad to see you.”
He laughed, sounding relieved as he said, “Me, too. Glad you’re here, I mean. This place is spooky.”
“It is, isn’t it?” She didn’t want to let go. He felt so solid, so warm, so real. She wanted to burst into tears and cry on his shoulder. But if she did… well, she could imagine the results.
Luke would be horrified. He’d pat her on the back helplessly and want to do something, anything, to make her stop crying, and then try to pass her off to Gaelith as quickly as possible, none of which would make her feel better. So she swallowed down her tears and took a step back and smiled at him, as brightly as she could.
“What are you doing here?”
He rolled his eyes. “Gaelith is missing, the Val Kyr are missing, you were missing.”
Before he could say anything further, Fen interrupted him. “Gaelith is still missing?”
He shrugged. “Healers are always on call and Gaelith has been a healer for over two score. She probably removed her communication pattern ten minutes after the morning’s Great Council meeting when the Queen told her she was no longer allowed to heal. She’ll be dancing somewhere, I expect, or sharing pleasure with one of her flirts.”
Fen blinked. Luke was awfully matter-of-fact about his sister’s hook-ups. “Does she have lots of flirts?”
“Oh, Gaelith,” Luke said, as if it were a complete answer. He started walking down the ramp, back toward the ground floor, and Fen fell into step beside him.
“Are you hungry?” Luke lifted his arm, showing her that he carried a basket.
“Starving.” Fen reached for it and he let it go, passing it over to her. “How did you know?”
“Kaio said you would be. He was not best pleased when he found they’d left you alone.”
“Your mom said they’d be right back. I waited for a while, but…” Fen shivered, remembering the feeling of being alone in the gardens. “How did you know where to find me?”
Fen paused. “The bird people?”
“Scored the social coup of the season when you accepted their invitation. I’m guessing the bragging started within ten seconds. The word made it to my mother just before she started sending out search parties.”
Fen was not going to ask if Lady Cyntha had been angry that Fen hadn’t waited for her. She did not care. Or so she resolutely told herself, pushing the feeling of guilt away, and pulling back the cloth folded over the top of the basket.
Rolls, yay. Rolls made of nice, familiar, ordinary bread… at least if she ignored the color. But in the dim light, the green tint from the seaweed flour was hardly noticeable and she knew from past experience that it would taste fine. She grabbed a roll, ripping into it with her teeth.
Luke gestured to the phoenix, flying overhead. “Where did that come from?”
“I, ah, needed light.”
“Wow, Wai Pa must have been an interesting place if that’s how their lights worked.” Luke’s tone was admiring.
Fen’s shoulder itched. Should she tell him? She took another bite of her roll instead as Luke kept talking, telling her about the music at the banquet and the shows they were missing.
“The illusionists were beginning when my mother called me away. Richa, he used to be a Watcher, he does these incredible things with animals. When I was little, I thought he’d made them all up, imagining dogs small enough to fit inside a hat and creatures with ears half the length of their body. Oh, and the ones with the fat tails. They’re very charming, those creatures. But they have them in Chicago. I saw them there. Richa’s imagination is not nearly as good as I thought it was. The real things, the squirrels, they’ve very fast and they climb trees. You should see them jump.”
As they reached the ground floor, Luke kept moving, drawing them toward the front door, but Fen paused by the empty fountain. Putting a hand on the sleeve of his robe, she said, “Wait. Where are you going?”
“Back to the party, of course.” Luke sounded surprised. “It will go on for hours still.”
Fen held the basket tighter. “I don’t want to go back there.”
“But the sky painting hasn’t even started yet. It will be beautiful.”
Fen didn’t even feel tempted. “I’m tired. I’m hungry and I’m cold and I’m tired and… and I’m scared of the Val Kyr. I don’t want to be out there pretending to have fun while secretly worrying that they’re hunting for me.”
“Security is searching for the Val Kyr now.” Luke stopped leaning toward the door. “But they’re probably gone, escaped through the dome already.”
“Maybe. Or maybe not. They wanted to kidnap me before, remember? And they kidnapped my mother from Wai Pai.” She gestured around her at the dead room, the cold walls, the dry fountain. “She said this was their fault, remember?”
“I didn’t see her.” Luke raised his hand, touching his head gingerly, as if it might still hurt. “I only got out of the nursery the day before you.”
Fen’s lips twitched. Nursery. She should probably tell Elfie to fix the translation pattern on that one, to something more like hospital or medical ward, but the mistranslation amused her.
“Yesterday, that was.” Luke looked around the dark, echoing space, lit only by the wings of the phoenix still circling and the dim light of the twilight sky far overhead. “You want to stay here?”
Fen set the basket on the ground, by the edge of the fountain’s base, and knelt next to it. “Want to? Not so much.” She lifted on shoulder in a shrug. “But no rats, no bugs, nobody who wants to kill me. I’ve been in worse places.”
Taking the cloth off the top of the basket, she shook it out before spreading it on the tiled floor. She started unpacking the basket onto the cloth. Had Kaio packed it himself? Probably not. But the bowl on top held the green frondy salad thing that he liked. Fen didn’t bother to search for a fork, scooping some out with her fingers and eating greedily.
Luke crouched next to her. “You could come back to my mother’s house with me. We have plenty of room.”
Fen was sure they did. She’d seen Luke’s house, or at least the entrance to it. The place was a palace in its own right. If she went there, she’d spend every minute squirming under Lady Cyntha’s neutral gaze, worrying that she was committing some unforgivable rudeness. A comfortable bed wasn’t worth it. “I’m cool here.”
“Cool? Cold, I’d say.” Apparently resigned, Luke sat down next to her.
“You could keep me warm.” Fen shot him a glance under lowered eyelashes, trying to make her voice sound inviting. She liked Luke. Maybe he didn’t make her flush with heat the way Kaio did, but he was cute and sweet and gallant. She wanted to feel his arms around her, his skin next to hers.
“Of course.” He closed his eyes, frowning with concentration.
Fen set down the bowl. Did he want her to kiss him?
“Air is so difficult,” Luke muttered. “It flows worse than water.”
Fen’s eyes narrowed. That didn’t sound romantic.
Luke opened his eyes. Apologetically, he said, “The warmth rises. My endeavors profit us naught. Perhaps the house magic shall serve better?”
Fen bit back her sigh. She should have guessed. Kissing her probably hadn’t even crossed his mind.
“Magic doesn’t seem to work very well in here. The door was slow, the lights wouldn’t come on.”
“The longer magic goes unused, the slower it gets.”
“How do we speed it up?” Fen leaned forward, taking a few more bowls out of the basket, before finding a flask that should hold a drink. Experimentally, she squeezed the top open and sniffed, before taking a sip. Tangy, fizzy — close enough to lemonade. She took a larger swallow, then held it out to Luke in invitation.
He shook his head, but his expression was thoughtful. “I know not. That is a question that I have not heard asked before. Or answered. Magic grown slow is simply… slow. But slow does not mean dead.”
For the next several minutes, Luke told Fen stories about magic while she worked her way through the picnic basket. More bread, skewers of spicy roasted fish, a creamy spread, some chewy sweets that reminded her of gummy candies. Finally, she sat back with a satisfied sigh.
She felt better. Not so lost, not so scared.
And not so trapped in the dark.
She tilted her head back and looked up, up, up, to the open ceiling and the sky that should have been in a steady state of twilight. “Oh, wow.”
She lay back on the ground to get a better view. Streaks of purple and gold edged puffy, light-filled clouds.
Luke glanced up, too. “Sky painting,” he said matter-of-factly. “Art created with water vapor and light. On my first night as a Watcher, I demanded Kaio tell me the name of the surface artist. He didn’t laugh at me, but his smile was most aggravating.”
Fen bit back her own smile. She knew exactly the expression Luke meant and it really was damn annoying. “It’s gorgeous.”
“The view would be better from the gardens,” Luke tried. “We could still go back there.”
Fen shook her head, not bothering to stir. “Not me.” She gazed up at the sky, admiring the shadings of violet and blue. The ground underneath her, though, was cold and hard, especially in the bare area where her phoenix had scorched its way out of her robe, so reluctantly she sat up again.
If this was her house — or at least the place where she was going to live while she was in Syl Var — she needed to figure out how to make it livable.
She rested both hands on the floor. It felt dead. If there was magic in it, the magic had no interest in her.
What could wake the magic up?
“Old magic, Elfie,” Fen said. “What do you know about it? How can I make it work again?”
Elfie’s pause was brief. “Library Level One contains no content on this subject.”
“Library Level One sucks.”
“While that is not the terminology I would choose, I concur. My inability to access data from higher levels of the library is irksome,” Elfie replied.
Fen shook her head, lips twitching. “I’ll talk to Gaelith next time I see her,” she promised. “Maybe she’ll unlock a few more levels.”
The tile was cold on her fingers, but the steady pressure was making it feel warmer. Or maybe it was warmer, her body heat spreading to the floor. “The magic, it’s like molecules, right?”
“Nanomites are molecular-sized structures, yes, capable of manipulating the bonds of matter.”
Fen hated science. It was so boring. Long lectures, longer words, and the math made her stomach hurt. But she had a vague memory of some chemistry class where the class clown made a crude crack about molecules getting excited.
Maybe that was what these nanomites needed, a little excitement in their lives.
And she had just the guy to do it.
“Can you heat the floor, Luke?”
“The whole floor? No, it’s much too big.”
“How about just this part?” Fen nodded toward her hands. “Just under my hands.”
“All right.” Luke leaned forward, his hands coming to cover hers. His touch was gentle, the warmth pleasant, but under her fingers the tile jumped in temperature, rapidly moving from cool to warm to almost hot.
Fen concentrated, closing her eyes. She didn’t want to do anything too complicated: no trying to change the nanomites from one form to another. But what if she told them to wake up their neighbors? Like one long domino chain, each nanomite nudging the next until the whole building… well, hopefully didn’t crash down into a huge messy pile.
But she formed a picture in her mind of the molecules dancing, moving faster and faster as the temperature rose, and then imagined the warmth as an energy sparkling from one bit of magic to the next, zapping them into wakefulness.
Would the magic understand her?
“Hmm.” Luke pushed down, exerting a force that flattened her fingers, pressing her palms into the tile. “It’s not working.”
“Sure it is.” The tile hadn’t gotten any warmer, but Fen could still feel the heat, like touching the outside of an oven, not enough to burn, but definitely hotter than it should be.
“The warmth is flowing away again. Like the air. But it shouldn’t. It doesn’t make sense.” Luke sounded confused.
Fen didn’t explain. She could feel it now, the nanomites coming to life under her touch, stirring in a way that tickled her skin. “Do your jobs,” she told them. “Tell your neighbors to do their jobs.”
Nothing discernable happened. The courtyard stayed cold and silent, with deep shadows cast by the flickering wings of the phoenix and the art in the sky.
“Come on now,” she coaxed. “You can do it.”
“What are you trying to do?” Luke asked.
Fen wasn’t sure she knew the answer. Maybe that was the problem. “Lights, camera, action?” she tried flippantly. “Get to work, you slackers.”
The ground next to her rumbled.
Luke straightened, pulling his hands away. “What was that?”
“Nanomites don’t get mad, do they?” Fen asked uneasily as the ground under her hands began to vibrate.
“Of course not,” Luke replied. “The magic has no room for emotion.”
“Elfie?” It wasn’t that Fen didn’t trust Luke, but a second opinion would make her feel a lot better about the deepening grumble. Had her image of the building falling like a heap of dominoes been prescient?