“You,” Dexter said, his gaze sweeping across her.
Rose swallowed. That was strange. The storms usually muted fear, but she could feel a nervous fluttery feeling in her stomach.
Dexter ran a hand through his hair, turning back to the table. His hand came away greasy. He wiped it on his shirt.
“Why don’t you wash your hair?” Rose asked.
“You said once we made it through the catacombs, you’d answer any questions I have. Why don’t you wash your hair?”
Dexter’s hands tensed. They didn’t form into fists, but rather arced open into claws, tendons standing out and knuckles pressing white against the skin. A moment later, they relaxed.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “I need to work.”
“I can help.”
“I can. You can talk to me. Tell me what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, as–”
“No!” Dexter said loudly, just barely shy of shouting. His hands tensed and untensed again. “Leave.”
“Leave, or I’ll make you leave.” It didn’t sound like a threat, just a simple statement of fact. Rose noticed, with a second glance, that there was a knife laid out on the table alongside the strangely twisted shapes of paper.
She brushed her hand through her cloak, absently. The inside was still bone dry. She felt her iron, her stone, – neither of them were right. The feather and glass weren’t even under consideration. Finally her fingers closed on the chunk of driftwood.
People were just puzzles of a different sort. Rose felt the texture of her wood, light and airy, letting her mind drift across the hints she had.
She looked over the table again, more carefully. Paper in strange shapes, lit by a candle. A sheet had been folded into a box, closed on all sides but one. Another had been rolled, folded to keep it shut, with a second piece of paper across it and bent oddly. Like one of those seed pods that would spin as it fell from a tree. One sheet had been scraped, probably with the knife, as if in a crude effort to make it thinner.
She couldn’t seem to make the connection. Her eyes landed on the candle, and she realized, suddenly, that it wasn’t for light. A lantern hung on the wall of the room, the same as in the rest of the inn. If Dexter wanted light, he would have just moved that closer.
The candle was half burnt, but didn’t seem to have dripped enough onto the table to match its height. It had been used before. Had he brought it? Dug it out of his bag, for some reason other than light? None of the paper looked burned.
“Give me a hint, and I’ll leave,” Rose said. She couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t see what he was doing, couldn’t find the magic words that would make him open up to her. But she would.
“Just one. I’ll figure it out anyway, just slower.”
She needed to pique his interest, present it as a challenge. She’d figured out that much about him at least. He didn’t care much what other people wanted, but he did care about his own cleverness. “My mother always used to say that a good hint guides the clever and delays the dull. Give me one that gets me there faster, if I was going to get there eventually, without just taking me there.”
Dexter reached for the knife on the table, picking it up casually, and turned to her. His face was blank. At least he didn’t look angry.
Rose had a knife of her own tucked away in her cloak. It was for woodwork, which seemed appropriate. Driftwood still clutched in her left hand, she used her thumb to slide it from its sheath, lowering her hand to her waist so that the metal flashed in the torchlight.
Dexter smiled, for the first time since she’d entered the room. “I know you, Rose, better than you think. I know who you are. You aren’t going to cut me for my secrets.”
“Then put the knife away.”
Without warning, Dexter threw his head back and began to laugh. She’d heard his laugh before, in the catacombs, high and wild, but with the storm pressing down on them it was almost madness. His knees bent, and he steadied himself on the table as his frame convulsed from fits of laughter. She was worried that he would cut himself from the spasms, but somehow the tip of the knife never found his flesh.
There was a banging noise at the door. Rose’s eyes darted to it, and she saw that it was locked. “Dexter!” Borodin’s voice boomed through the wood. “Rose! Are you alright?”
“I’m fine!” she called, unsure if Borodin could hear her over Dexter’s howling. “I’m fine!” she repeated herself, louder.
Dexter seemed to regain some control. He stabbed his knife down into the table, hard, and the tip buried itself almost an inch into the wood. He wrapped his arms around himself, until his laughter trailed off into a high-pitched tittering.
“Of course,” he said to himself, turning away from Rose and back to the table. Borodin banged on the door again, but they both ignored him. “Of course you won’t just go away. You’re like a stubborn puppy.”
That comment might sting, tomorrow, but those feelings were far away. Rose tucked her own knife back into its oiled leather sheathe.
“Fine,” Dexter said. “A hint. And then you’ll leave?”
Dexter stood at the table for a moment, seeming lost in thought. He brought the first knuckle of his right index finger to his mouth, biting it.
Rose let him think. Eventually, he removed his hand from his mouth. He’d bitten hard enough to draw blood. “When I was young, my adoptive parents put me to work in a paper factory. It was horrible, smelly work. One of Ludd’s edicts requires that all paper be over a certain width. I was always curious as to why. One week we had a bad batch, much too thin, that was to be destroyed. I stole some. I found a secret, in that paper. A secret that could reach up to heights I’d never dreamed of. It got me sent to the pen.”
Dexter licked some of the blood off his finger. The cut didn’t seem deep. “There. One hint, for all three of your questions.”
“I know you. You have three questions. I just gave you a hint to all of them, as an expression of my gratitude for seeing me and those fools through the catacombs. Now leave.”
She had said she’d leave, hadn’t she? Rose turned, and swung out through the window, not even turning back to see if Dexter was watching her.
“Absolutely mad, both of them! I told you–”
Rose heard Borodin’s voice through the window as she swung back toward the other room. She debated waiting outside and listening, but eavesdropping was rude, and worse it was a waste of time.
She let her momentum carry her forward, catching the edge of the windowsill and swinging to land gracefully in the room. Borodin and Alexandria appeared to be having some sort of argument, while Esper floated at the edges, smiling. Robin was nowhere to be seen, but there was another man she didn’t recognize.
He was tall, with close-cropped hair and gold-rimmed spectacles. He carried a strange square-cut case in one hand. His outfit was made of a woven white cloth that must have stained teribly easily. Probably the doctor, Rose thought.
He didn’t look like a proper tower doctor. No heavy black coat, for one thing. No leather mask with dark glass eyes either. Maybe those were just for special occasions.
Borodin turned as she swung through the window, his face flushed. “Rose!” he said, a little too loudly. “Thank god. I heard that lunatic shouting at you. What in the world were you–”
Borodin’s voice was angry, but his posture said he was scared. Her mind briefly superimposed an image of her father on the scene, like a flash of lightning, the same odd contradiction of emotions. Maybe the same solution would work for both?
She stepped forward lightly and wrapped Borodin in a hug, the top of her head brushing the bottom of his beard. He was surprisingly soft. “I’m fine,” she said, her voice a little flat. That was unfortunate, but hard to fix right now. “Thank you for worrying about me, Borodin. I appreciate it.”
She waited for a moment, but Borodin failed to sigh heavily and hug her back, like her dad would have. She gave him a final tight squeeze and backed away, turning her chin up to see his face. He was blushing bright red below his thick beard.
“Absolutely mad…” he muttered, turning away.
That was dealt with then. She turned to the doctor, who was wearing a bemused look on his face. “Ms. Rose, I presume?” he asked.
She nodded. “Hello doctor.”
His eyebrows went up a hair. “I don’t believe I introduced myself.”
“Are you quite well, then?”
“She’s–” Alexandria started.
“I am,” Rose interrupted her. She continued talking to the doctor, not breaking eye contact. “So is Dexter.”
“The young gentleman I was fetched for? Ms. Kastchoff here was just telling me that he threatened her with violence no less than three times today, once with a weapon, and seemed to be displaying symptoms of nervous mania. Has he calmed down then?”
Rose considered lying, but it seemed like it would cause more problems than it solved. Her hands started to fidget under her cloak. She needed to be alone for a while, needed to get out of here and think. That was the difference between her and Dexter, maybe. He defended his space. She just wanted to leave.
“He just wants to be alone. Leave the door closed, he’ll be fine in the morning.”
“That doesn’t work,” Alexandria broke in, too quickly for Rose to interrupt. “We only have three rooms. He and Robin were supposed to be a pair, and Robin’s stuck in the hall while–”
“Give Robin my bed,” Rose said.
Alexandria’s brow furrowed. “But you were going to sleep with Esper, and I’m not sure she’d be comfortable with Robin. And besides, don’t you need your bed?”
“Then you sleep with Esper, put Robin with Borodin. Or drag the beds in one room. Just let him be, it’s easier.”
“Of course it is,” Robin drawled. Rose flickered her eyes to the doorway, where the smaller boy had appeared, his arms crossed. “Just accomodate the feral stormtouched’s every whim. Of course. He’ll be skinning us for his experiments by midnight, but who cares, it’s easier.”
The doctor coughed into his hand. “Feral stormtouched are a superstition, young man.”
“Are they? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Robin,” Alexandria hissed. “Be polite.”
Robin rolled his eyes, pushing off from the doorframe back into the hall. He didn’t actually seem upset about the new sleeping arrangements, now that he’d gotten a few licks in.
“So are lunatics,” Esper commented. She was still hovering at Alexandria’s elbow, smiling absently.
“Excuse me?” The doctor asked.
“Lunatics,” Esper repeated. “Borodin, in a fit of pique, described our companion as a lunatic earlier. A superstitous myth of men driven mad by the full moon. Why did you correct one and not the other?”
The corner of the doctors mouth pulled slightly upwrad. “One is a colloquialism, young lady, while the other is only ever used in its mistaken sense.”
“Ah.” Esper seemed satisfied.
“Where are you from?”
The doctor nodded, not seeming to realize that Esper couldn’t see it.
There were too many people here, too many different lines of thought and inquiry wrapping around each other, cluttering out the ones she cared about.
Rose coughed into her hand, mirroring the doctor, and it seemed to produce the same effect. Everyone looked at her. With the storm outside, she didn’t even feel the pressure.
Rose turned to Borodin, who was standing awkwardly nearby. His blush had faded, but he still seemed a tad flustered. “Borodin,” she said, and he turned to look at her. “Could you hold onto this for me? Without reading it?”
She dug through her cloak for her notebook, holding it out to him. He took it. “Of course…” he said, hesitantly. Then, with more certainty, “Of course.” She could tell he meant it. Alexandria might peek, Robin might forget about it, Esper might be swayed by a clever argument from one of the others, but Borodin would take care of it for her. She smiled at him.
“Thank you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to be on the roof for a little while. Don’t bother Dexter!”
“Wait,” Alexandria said, but Rose was already turning. She swung lightly out the window again, leaving human problems behind her in the light and warmth of the inn.
The roof was cold and slick. Worse, it was slanted. But she’d done this before. She picked her way carefully across the shingles, nestling herself into the wedge between the roof and the chimney, and wrapped her warm dry cloak tight around herself.
The chimney bricks behind her were hot, which helped. The inn should keep the fire stoaked all night. She extended a hand to brush the outside of her cloak, just to double-check, and felt the watter scatter. It was still well oiled. She’d be fine.
The wind picked up, making an eerie howling sound, entirely unlike the way a rainstorm sounded in a forest. It must be all the buildings. How did wind produce sound, anyway? Why would it be different?
Rose nestled deeper into her cloak, feeling heavy raindrops pound against the cloth, entirely unable to reach her. She let the hood fall as low as it could while still giving her a glimpse of the outside world.
She’d wanted so badly to speak with Dexter, to engage with another mind while they were both fully awake. She should’ve known how it would go. After all, she herself was terribly insistent on being alone when a storm came. Of course it would be the same for him.
But he’d given her something. A hint, a puzzle, from one mind to another. A story from his past that held a secret. Held three secrets, if he was right, and she expected he was. It was such a brief interaction, just a few words, but it was enough.
She let her hood fall the rest of the way, blocking out the world entirely. She ran through the scene again in her mind, burning every hint into her memory. The story, the candlelight, the strange shapes on the table, the intensity of his eyes…
She reached for her driftwood as the world began to fade around her. The cold underneath her, the warmth behind her back, the noise of the rain and the wind, the smell of the smoky chimney, all of it vanished, and she was left in the dark with an airy piece of wood in her hand. She began to think.
END PART 1