Rose woke up. Yes, that was the right way to put it. The first thing she noticed was the smell. The air smelled electric. Wet, pungent, with something sharp underneath. A gust of wind blew through the room, and she pulled her cloak tighter around herself. The temperature had dropped.
No doubt about it. There was a storm outside.
She felt odd, in a familiar way she’d felt every few months since she could remember. Her consciousness felt like it was brushing over her body, ephemeral. She reached through her cloak for her driftwood, and it felt like her hands were moving on puppet strings.
The wood was smooth under her fingertips. She was hyper-aware of every detail on its surface, of the way it shifted in her pocket as her fingers brushed it, light and rigid. The effect was immediate, purer and stronger than normal. Her mind felt so clear.
She opened her eyes. Her notebook had fallen to the ground as she drifted off, but she left it there, closing them again. She remembered the games.
The world around her faded away. The smell, the air, the room, Merzhin – was he even still there? – it didn’t matter. She recalled the game with the 8x12 chessboard, the way the king moved, and she saw it painted in her mind’s eye. Not the rules, not the board, but the game itself.
It was a complicated, branching structure, growing as she examined it, board states separating and rejoining. There were three moves to start – left, down, or left/down. But if you moved down, then left as the second move, it was like having moved diagonally – she saw the branches merging, the same board reached through two different paths.
When the shape grew too complicated, she left it frozen there, turning her attention to the other game. So many more moves, so many more branches – but were there? Most of the moves in this game of nim were identical. If you took from a pile of one, it didn’t matter which one you took from. If you took one from a pile of two, it was like taking a pile of two and adding a pile of one, which wasn’t a legal move but meant that the board collapsed if you took one from a pile of two then one from a pile of one, which meant–
The second game grew in her mind’s eye, more slowly than the first, branches collapsing and identical states merging together. She flickered her attention back to the first game, comparing, and stopped short. They looked so similar.
Almost. Almost similar. There was a giant bulge, in the game of nim, an explosion of possibilities from the 2 piles of 10. But if you lopped off that bulge, ignoring the two piles of 10, then the two games weren’t just similar. They were the same.
Moving diagonally was the same as picking up a pile of two stones. Moving non-diagonally in the longer direction was the same as picking up a pile of one stone. And moving non-diagonally in the shorter direction was the same as taking one stone from a pile of two. She rotated the game shapes in her head, lining them up, and they matched perfectly.
She got to choose which game to play each turn. But in nim, she got to choose which pile to take from, and wasn’t that the same thing? She was looking at three games – the chessboard, a game of nim played with 2 piles of 10, and a game of nim played with the rest of the piles. Every turn she chose one of the three to play.
A game of nim with two piles of equal size was silly. She knew that from playing with her mother. Whoever went second won – whatever your opponent did, you just mirrored it, and eventually they couldn’t move.
But then – if the chessboard, and the game of nim left after removing the 2 piles of 10, if those two games were identical – wouldn’t the same thing work?
How was this even a puzzle? It was so simple. There wasn’t anything to solve, there wasn’t any there there. It was just a game of mimicry.
She released her driftwood, and the room reappeared in her consciousness. The intricate structures of the games wavered in her minds eye. She let them collapse.
She rose, stretching, feeling every kink and knot in her muscles. Her stomach growled, but she didn’t feel hungry. Just light and empty.
Merzhin was sitting at his desk, an empty plate on the corner. No, not empty. Covered in crumbs. The plate was white, ceramic. The crumbs were brown and flaky. Probably bread crumbs. But none of that was important right now.
She walked forward, her cloak trailing behind her. Merzhin looked up at her as she approached. She drew to a halt in front of his desk. Yes, definitely bread crumbs on the plate, and maybe a bit of oil giving the ceramic a sheen–
“Yes?” Merzhin said politely.
Right. She had to say things. “I’d like to go second,” she said.
Merzhin’s eyebrows climbed higher. “A productive nap, then?” he asked.
He sounded surprised. “The storm,” she said by way of explanation, impatience clear in her voice.
“Ah.” Merzhin drummed his fingers on the table. “Hm. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather–”
“I’d like to go second.”
“Right, right, of course.” Merzhin sighed, but he reached forward and pushed the king down one square. Rose took one disk from a pile of two. A small voice in the back of her head told her she should be more careful. That she should check, and double-check. But the voice was faint. What was there to double-check, even? The answer was just the answer.
Merzhin pushed the king to the left, and Rose picked up a pile of one disk. Merzhin picked up a pile of one disk, and she moved the king to the left. Merzhin picked up a pile of two, and she moved the king diagonally down and left.
Merzhin pushed the king to the left, and she picked up a pile of one disk. They did that three more times until there were no stacks of one left. Merzhin moved the king to the left again, and Rose flipped the board across the diagonal in her mind, the symmetry obvious. She picked up one disk from a pile of two.
Merzhin halfheartedly took three disks from one of the stacks of ten, and Rose took three from the other stack of ten. He sighed, leaning back in his chair. “Fine, fine. Very well. You understand the trick then. Congratulations Ms. Rose.” He smiled, and Rose felt a warmth in her chest, as if from very far away.
“What next?” she asked.
“Well, traditionally I would escort you into town. But given your condition–”
“Let’s go.” She was being rude. That was stupid. This man seemed kind, perhaps even a little befuddled, but he was still an agent of the tower. “Please,” she added, before he could speak.
Merzhin sighed, pushing himself up from his chair. He gathered his papers, leaving the game boards where they lay. “Out of curiosity,” he said, as he turned and led her down the hall, “if there had been only a single pile of two, would you have gone first or second?”
Rose thought about it. The game states unfolded in her mind, again. She stared at it in her mind for a while as she walked behind Merzhin, carefully poking at the shape. What was she–ah, there it was. There were self-symmetries on the chessboard game, she didn’t actually need perfect symmetry with the–
“Nevermind,” Merzhin said. Rose realized she’d been silent for almost a minute. Her driftwood had gotten into her hand, somehow, without her noticing. She released it. “I suppose that answers my question,” Merzhin continued. “I was a bit worried you knew the secret to Nim already, somehow, but I suppose I will have something to teach you after all.
“The secret of Nim?” Rose asked. Merzhin didn’t answer. He didn’t have to, though. He’d interrupted her thoughts so quickly. There was some sort of trick she didn’t know, something that would have let her answer right away. “What’s the secret of Nim?”
“I’m afraid that will take rather longer than our short stroll to explain. But if you come to my classes, I would be happy to teach you what you need to understand.”
If she came to his classes. Was there even a question? It hit home for the first time that she’d made it through. She almost wished it had happened differently, that she hadn’t been gripped by the storm when she heard the news that she was going to study at the foot of the tower. It would have been easier to feel elated.
It wasn’t just her, either. All her new friends had passed. They’d made it. She could feel the joy, very bright and very far away, like the moon behind the clouds.
Merzhin whispered something to his raven, and it took flight with a rustle of wings. A single feather shook loose as the bird left his shoulder. The feather fell slowly, weaving back and forth in the air. Before she realized what she was doing, Rose’s hand darted out and caught it, bringing it back to her cloak.
Merzhin was ahead of her, and didn’t seem to have seen the feather. She tucked it away in a deep pocket without breaking her stride.
They emerged from the catacombs onto the great plateau. The staircase that took them the last short ways up emerged into a small stone building, perhaps a third of the way from the tower to the lip of the mountain. Rose could tell something was off right away.
A figure stood in the doorway, a girl’s frame obscured by a light traveler’s cape and the late hour. Long locks of hair spilled from the hood. She was damp but not dripping from the storm howling outside. Whoever it was had been waiting, but Rose was distracted from wondering why by the storm.
The storm. It was glorious. Rain blasted against the walls and roof, invisible in the darkness, but so hard and fast it sounded halfway to hail. Wind billowed through the one-room building, driving her cloak up and behind her, bringing goosebumps to her arms. Rose took a deep breath through her nose, smelling the fresh wet earth, and stretched her arms above her even as Merzhin drew his robes tighter around him.
There was a flash of light, revealing Alexandria’s face under the caped figure’s hood, her mouth drawn tight. A peal of thunder rumbled through the room a moment later. Rose frowned. Something was wrong.
“What is it?” she asked, striding forward past Merzhin. He quickened his pace in turn, catching up to her elbow as she drew near to Alexandria.
“You made it,” Alexandria said, her face softening a little. She smiled, and Rose made an effort to smile back. She knew how forced it must look, and dropped it as quickly as seemed polite.
“I did. What’s wrong?”
Alexandria’s brow knit when Rose spoke. Maybe it was something in her voice? Alexandria looked over at to Merzhin, raising an eyebrow. Merzhin shrugged helplessly. “It’s affecting you too, then?” Alexandria asked, turning back.
“The storm? Yes. It’s clarifying. It’s good to see you, Alexandria, really, but please answer my question.” Slow. Everything was moving so slowly. If there was a problem, why weren’t they solving it?
“It’s Dexter,” Alexandria said. She shifted her weight awkwardly, turning back to Merzhin. “He’s…well, he’s having a bit of a fit. We just arrived, and we don’t know where to–”
“A fit?” Rose asked, interrupting Merzhin’s potential response. Of course. He was stormtouched too. It was different, at least a little different, for everyone, but if he was feeling like she was feeling…
“Where is he?” Rose asked, before Alexandria could even answer her first question. What would it feel like, to speak to someone else with a clear mind? She had to know.
“We rented rooms in town, before the storm hit. He’s shut himself up in one of them, won’t let anyone in. He almost set the whole place on fire. Please, Master Breton, I’m not sure–”
Alexandria was still talking to Merzhin. She’d come here with a plan, and she was executing on it. Fine. Rose felt through her cloak, her hand tracing it perfectly as it billowed, and touched her iron. Like the wood, she felt it perfectly, every nook and cranny, every pock in the surface. It was heavy and hard.
She walked forward and grabbed Alexandria by the arm. She tried to pull the other girl along, but Alexandria was stronger, and only began to follow after a moment’s hesitation. “Take me to him,” Rose said firmly. “I can help.” It wasn’t quite a lie.
Alexandria cast a look back at Merzhin, who sighed heavily. “I really must be getting back to my duties,” he said as Rose dragged the two of them forward into the storm. “But I’ll see about having a doctor sent over. You’re at the Tawny Portus?”
“Yes. Thank you!” Alexandria called back, and then they were outside in the pounding rain. Rose released Alexandria’s arm to wrap her cloak tightly around herself. The rain bounced off of it and ran down the sides, leaving her perfectly dry. It was too big for her, by the normal reckoning, and so not even her ankles got damp as she followed Alexandria into town, although the hem began to muddy.
Once Rose saw that Alexandria was following, she turned forward, raising her head to see a smooth stone road leading into town. She stopped dead, feeling the breath slowly leave her lungs. Before her were more buildings than she’d ever seen. A light shone in every third window. Most of them were flickering, but a few closer to the center of town were smooth and steady like the globe on Merzhin’s desk. And in the center of it all, rising straight and impossibly tall into the sky, was the black tower. Light shone from it as well, from windows and balconies jutting from the side hundreds of feet above her, a dizzying spiral of faerie lights that took her breath away.
Rose felt through her cloak, until she found the raven’s feather she’d plucked from the air below. It was soft, delicate, and as she stroked her thumb over it, it never felt quite the same way twice. The moment seemed perfect, a single instant of experience frozen in time. The pounding rain. The electric energy in the air. The town and the tower and the lights.
Rose felt Alexandria bump into her back, jarring her from the moment. Alexandria muttered an apology. Rose reluctantly ticked the feather back into its secret pocket. She lowered her eyes and began to walk again, her pace quick. The town would be here tomorrow. The tower would be here until the end of time. But Dexter…well, he’d still be here too, but not in the sense that mattered.
Alexandria led her to a wood-framed building near the edge of town. It was two stories tall and decorated in an orangish brown that toed the line between ugly and charming. Rose took it in at a glance, not even slowing her stride as she followed Alexandria through the door.
It was warm inside, and bright. Dry, too, she supposed, looking down and seeing how her cloak dripped onto the wood. Perhaps she should’ve–
Alexandria made a beeline for the stairs, and Rose pushed thoughts of decorum aside to follow her. There was an older woman behind the counter, and a handful of people sitting at squat round tables, all of them staring. On another night, Rose would’ve found the attention distracting, the weight of unasked questions oppressive. But she hardly noticed, and none of them said a word as she followed Alexandria up to the second floor.
She’d never stayed in an inn before, but she knew the general idea. Food and drink below, guest rooms up above. So she was unsurprised when she clattered up the stairs after Alexandria to see a short hallway lined with four doors. There was a ladder at the end, maybe leading to an attic, and standing in the hall were familiar faces.
“Rose!” Borodin’s voice boomed down the hall. He took a step forward from the door he was leaning on, his ruddy bearded face lighting up, but then seemed to think better of it. He glanced at the door behind him, and grudgingly returned to his place, pressing his weight against it.
“Is that Rose?” Esper’s voice came from a room to the side. She poked her head out the open door, cupping a hand to her ear. “It’s me,” Rose said, and the taller girl smiled. “So it is! Excellent.”
“You certainly took your time,” Robin chimed in. The small boy was seated on his trunk at the far end of the hall, looking surly. He had what looked to be a nasty bruise forming on his cheek. Rose felt a glimmer of concern, from far away, but pushed it aside.
“Where is he?” she asked.
Borodin looked at Alexandria, who shrugged. “In here,” Borodin said, tapping the door he was leaning against. “The madman’s having some sort of fit. Never seen a stormtouched in–er–actually, now that I–” Borodin trailed off, looking befuddled. He looked back and forth between Rose and Alexandria again. “No offense meant, of course…”
Rose strode forward past Alexandria, approaching the door. “I’m feeling great, Borodin, before you ask. Fantastic. It’s different for everyone. Do you mind?” She reached past him for the handle, but the large boy didn’t move. He was looking at Alexandria again, his face troubled.
Everything was moving so slowly. He was going to let her in, she was sure of it, but first he’d say some nonsense about how it was dangerous, then Alexandria would say something, then Esper would pipe up with some fun time-wasting anecdote, then Alexandria would say something again and Rose would try to get a word in but Borodin would interrupt her–
She could wait, and let her precious waking moments tick away. She could try to talk her way through faster, not that that ever worked. She could get him away from the door. Trick him into picking something up, start a fire he had to put out, that sort of thing.
Thunder boomed outside, shaking windows she couldn’t see in the rooms on either side of the hallway. In a flash, she realized she was solving the wrong problem. She hadn’t heard any rain pounding on the windows. She walked past Borodin, slipping into the room just past the one he was guarding, on the same side of the hall.
“Rose!” he called after her, not leaving his post. “I’m glad you’re alright, but–”
The room looked much like she’d thought. It was tiny, with two beds on opposite sides, two old trunks, and a single table with a beaten-up chair in one corner. There was a window on the far wall, latched shut. As soon as she was out of sight of the hall, she ran toward it, her cloak flaring behind her.
It felt good to move quickly. Why didn’t she run everywhere? It was so much better. She reached the window, popped the latch, and just as she heard someone rounding the door behind her, she swung out onto the outside of the inn.
The window to Dexter’s room was already open, which simplified things significantly. The inn had large eaves that kept the rain far from the windows, and the windowsill wasn’t even a little slippery. Dexter’s window was almost ten feet away, but the eaves had bare crossbeams holding them up, and she felt with her hand to find a gap between the top of the crossbeams and the roof itself.
She swung across, beam to beam. The others were slow, of course, and before they even reached the window to see what she was doing, she swung into dexter’s room and landed lightly on her feet, cloak pooling on the floor as she bent her knees to absorb the impact.
She took in the room at a glance. Dexter’s bag was on one of the beds, torn open. Odds and ends were strewn next to it. Loose sheets of paper covered in scrawls were scattered across every surface.
Every surface except the table. On top of the table was a single candle, burning, and a collection of paper scraps twisted into strange shapes. Standing before it was Dexter, who half-turned to look at her over his shoulder.
She stopped, caught in his gaze. His eyes had always been sharp, but now she felt as if they were dissecting her, flickering quickly across her different features with an energy and intensity that set her on edge.
“You,” he said.