Rose slowly realized she was conscious. She was wrapped up in her cloak, and it might as well have been midnight for how dark it was in her cocoon, but she could tell she was awake because her fingers were cold. She slowly stirred to life and tucked them into her armpits.
Usually she woke up with a start, the moment the sun touched her face. But the mornings after a storm were special. Relaxed, in a way that was hard to describe.
She was still holding the driftwood in her hand from last night. She rolled it between her fingers, feeling the shape, but for the moment it was just an ordinary piece of wood. Nothing special. She tucked it away in a pocket.
She stood, balancing carefully on the slanted roof while keeping her hands tucked in her pits. She shook her head. Her hood fell back, and she saw that it was well past sunrise. She’d slept in; her shadow was barely twice as long as she was.
She was hungry, thirsty, and her back had a crick from sleeping cross-legged. But she felt fine. She realized she was wearing a goofy smile on her face.
She had a routine, after a storm. First was find her dad, let him know she was OK. Her smile faltered a little. She could probably skip that step.
Step two was food and water. She couldn’t remember where she’d left her bag – it hadn’t seemed important, at the time – but she wouldn’t have left it in the catacombs, so it was probably in the inn. She’d given her notebook to Borodin, she remembered that much. She’d need to get it back for step three.
Her hands were a little warmer now. She removed them from her armpits and flexed the joints, blowing slowly onto them with a wide mouth to heat them up. The air was chilly enough her breath came out as steam, floating up and away to join the smoke from the chimney she’d slept against.
Something worried at the edges of her consciousness. Something she’d realized last night. Related to smoke? Warm breath in the cold? Both? She couldn’t quite remember; it was like trying to feel the shape of an object through a warm blanket. If she could just–
But no, she had a routine. Food and water came first. She dropped to all fours and began to carefully pick her way across the roof. The tiles were still wet from the night before, and a fall from this height would be dangerous. How had she even gotten up here?
“Rose!” a voice called.
Rose finished pushing through the front door of the inn, looking back and forth for the voice. It had seemed safer to shimmy down than to try and swing through a window again.
The inn was maybe a third full, but compared to last night it was a crowd. Daylight made the odd shade of orange on the walls a little cheerier. The old woman from the night before stood behind the counter, slowly polishing a glass, and Rose could almost believe she hadn’t moved. A younger woman with the same nose and cheekbones bussled between the tables, talking and laughing with the customers.
Rose’s eyes found Alexandria quickly. The blonde girl was waving frantically from a table near the hearth. Borodin was seated beside her, slumped over with his head on the table. Esper was there, too, but she was seated on the far side with her chair pushed away toward the center of the room, leaning her head back as though thoroughly disengaged.
Rose waved back. Alexandria’s brow was knit; maybe she was concerned? It was hard to feel worried about anything, in the afterglow of the storm, but it would probably be polite to wander over and calm her down. She needed a bite to eat anyway.
She hadn’t brought any money, she realized as she picked her way over through the maze of chairs. Hadn’t thought she’d need it up here. But the area around the tower was more like a normal town than she’d expected.
“Rose,” Alexandria said again when she was close enough. “Come sit down. Are you alright? Where did you go last night? Did you sleep?”
She’d told them, hadn’t she? That she was going on the roof. They probably didn’t think she’d spend the whole night up there.
“I’m fine. Great. Do you have any money?” Rose asked as she sat down. Alexandria quirked an eyebrow, nonplussed. “For food,” Rose clarified. “I’m starving, and I didn’t think to bring any.”
Her mouth felt dry as she spoke. How long had it been since she’d had water? Twelve hours? Sixteen?
“You sound awful,” Alexandria said. She knocked sharply on the table and raised a hand to get the server’s attention. The young woman looked up from her conversation, annoyed, but wrapped it up and made her way over.
“Yes miss?” she asked.
“This is my companion, Rose of Summervale. She’s on the tab. Could you see about getting her something? She spent all night out in the storm, and–”
“Absolutely, miss,” the young girl said, flashing Rose a smile and ducking away before Alexandria could finish her sentence. Alexandria let her mouth hang open for a moment before snapping it shut.
“Rose?” Borodin mumbled to himself, head still down on the table. “Mrghlablegrab.” He shifted, turning his face over to the side, and Rose could see a thin line of drool falling from his mouth onto his hand. Fast asleep.
Rose realized her face was making that goofy smile again. Well, that was fine. She was happy.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Alexandria asked. Her eyes flickered to the top of the stairs. “You seem a little distant.”
“I’m sure,” Rose said. “Just a little fuzzy.”
“Warm, safe, a little slow, a little far away. That’s how it always is after a storm. It’s a day for napping.”
Alexandria’s eyes flickered to the top of the stairway again. “I guess that explains a bit. Dexter hasn’t gotten out of bed all day. And I don’t mean he’s like this one,” she clarified, elbowing Borodin in the ribs. “He’s awake, just won’t talk to me, or do anything but stare at the wall. I’m thinking about calling the doctor back.”
“Mrghl,” Borodin said, readjusting again in his chair. “The absolute lout…margflurghl.”
Rose shrugged. Maybe she could feel concerned, but it was hard right now. “It’s a little different for everyone, I think. Does he have some water?”
“He won’t drink anything.”
“Give him a few hours,” Rose said. “If he still won’t drink we can use a funnel.” That would probably work. Or if it didn’t, it might shock him out of it.
Alexandria sighed, letting her head sink into her hands. “This is all such a disaster.”
Rose shrugged again.
“I don’t mean,” Alexandria continued, wincing. “I don’t mean I’m not grateful we made it through. I was really glad to see you last night, Rose; truly. But it’s just been one thing after another. The boys were fighting all last night, until Dexter went crazy. Esper’s no help at all. No offense, Esper, if you’re listening.”
Esper nodded slightly, head still leaning back in her chair at the edge of the table.
“And today was supposed to be our first day,” Alexandria continued. “There’s details to be sorted, supplies to be restocked, lessons in the agora that started an hour ago, all sorts of things. But Dexter’s comatose. Robin locked himself in his room. You disappeared to who knows where, Borodin won’t wake up, all Esper wants to do is sit here like an old eavesdropper, and I can’t even go myself because someone needs to take care of you all!”
Alexandria’s voice rose slightly as she finished talking. Rose’s eyes darted down to see that the other girl’s left hand had clenched into a fist, the knuckles white.
It was sort of fortunate, that she was still basking in the warm glow of the morning after a storm. It made it a little bit hard to think, to focus, but it made it easier to deal with people who were upset. Normally she had trouble separating her emotions from theirs. She’d get upset too, or stressed, and she’d shut down or echo their negative emotions back, or something. But all Alexandria needed right now was to calm down, and she could help with that.
Rose reached out and patted Alexandria’s arm. The other girl’s blue eyes flickered down. She saw that her hand was in a fist, and slowly relaxed it.
“It’ll be alright,” Rose said. “It’s the day after a storm for all of you, too.” She racked her brain for the little hints she’d gleaned about her companions, trying to think of something comforting to say. Her thoughts were slower than she’d like. “Let Borodin have a good night’s sleep for once. Let Robin have a second alone. Let Esper listen to new people, let Dexter recover his strength. Let yourself take a few hours off, let them be and worry about yourself, just for half a day. We’ll go to class tomorrow, all of us.”
Rose patted the other girl’s arm one last time, withdrawing her hand. Alexandria’s brow was furrowed again, but she looked more confused than upset.
Before Alexandria could reply, the server appeared over Rose’s shoulder with an array of dishes balanced between her arms. She set them down one by one, and Rose’s eyes widened. There was a plate of eggs, scorched bread with someing gooey scraped across it, crumbled meat, and two cups. One was full of steaming water, and the other was as black as ink.
“Here you go, miss,” the server said, darting away just as Alexandria opened her mouth again. Alexandria sighed. Rose stared at the food, picking up a fork and poking at the crumbled meat. She put a tiny bite in her mouth. It was too salty, probably preserved somehow, but seasoned with something sharp and delicious. She took another bite, suddenly ravenous, pairing it with a bit of egg to cut the salt. Hesitantly, she took a sip of the water. It was perfectly normal water, just warmed for some reason.
“They boil all the water here,” Alexandria said, anticipating her question. Rose looked up from her food to see the other girl smiling for the first time since she’d entered the inn. “Some sort of superstitious belief about disease. Go ahead and eat; it’s good.”
Rose did just that, shoveling food into her mouth. When her plate was half empty, she took another big gulp of water, and turned her eyes to the inky cup. “What’s this?” she asked.
Rose had heard of coffee. It was expensive, at least where she was from; it had to be shipped all the way up the channel. She tried a sip, and almost gagged. It tasted like poison. It was somehow bitter and sour at the same time.
“How much does all this cost?” she asked, realizing she’d dropped the thread about money earlier. Alexandria shrugged. “I don’t know. The tower covers room and board, for four years, as long as you share a room. One of Merzhin’s assistants got us set up here.”
“What happens after four years?”
“Nothing. If you’ve entered the tower, great. Otherwise you have to work. Keep trying to get in, or make a life for yourself in this town. It’s how everyone got here. Not everyone, I guess; some people have kids.”
“Wouldn’t it be mostly people born here? I can’t imagine there’s famine at the foot of the tower.”
“Doesn’t seem to be that way. Not sure why.”
Rose nodded. She tried the coffee again, and it tasted exactly the same. She wrinkled her nose and pushed it away.
Alexandria shifted in her chair, restless.
“You should go,” Rose said impulsively.
“I’m back. Everyone’s safe. You want to get things done today, everyone else wants to rest. Go do whatever you want to get done. We’ll be fine.”
Alexandria put her hands together, lacing and unlacing her fingers.
“I’ll tell Borodin where you went when he wakes up. I’ll bring Dexter some water. He’ll be fine for a few hours, if he still hasn’t had anything to drink we can figure it out when you get back. Robin probably won’t even notice you’re gone, if he’s shut up in his room.”
“He’s shut up in your room,” Alexandria muttered. “Says he won’t stay with Dexter. I tried to explain to him that there’s only one clear way to divide up the–”
“And Esper will be fine,” Rose continued. Was that the first time she’d ever cut Alexandria off? It felt good, but the other girl must be floundering. Alexandria wasn’t one to let herself get talked over.
Esper stirred, as if fetched back to life by her name. “A very funny word,” she said absently. “A trap for the unwary etymologist.”
“Fine?” Rose asked, when it became clear the tall girl wouldn’t continue.
Esper shook her head gently. “Eavesdropper.”
Rose racked her brain, finally placing the reference. Alexandria had called Esper an eavesdropper almost ten minutes ago.
Esper continued, oblivious. “The word sounds rather like our dear Rose here: someone who finds themselves dropping down from eaves. But, in point of fact, it has as a root the now-archaic noun ‘eavesdrop’, which once referred to the ground below the eaves, where drops of rainwater would fall. ‘Eavesdropper’ is a relative-place noun, like ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’. It implies you’re standing outside the window below the eaves, listening in.”
She turned her head in Rose’s rough direction. “I didn’t get a chance to say, last night, but I’m quite gratified you made it. Well done in the catacombs, very well done indeed.”
Rose smiled, before realising the other girl couldn’t see her expression. “Thank you,” she said. Esper nodded, returning her head to its position leaned over the back of her chair. Rose realized the other girl had sat as close to the center of the room as possible without actually leaving their table, her head angled directly toward the largest mass of patrons.
There was conversation going on all around them, a low hubbub that Rose had tuned out, except to note that it gave their own words a measure of privacy. But now that she saw Esper paying so much attention, she began to feel a little curiosity of her own bubbling up. What did people talk about, up here, in this little magical town that had sprung up around the tower?
But she had a routine. She’d told Alexandria she was safe, which seemed as good a substitute for her father as any, and she’d eaten and drunk. Now it was time for step three.
She scooted her chair over next to Borodin, and poked him in the ribs.
He grunted, swatting limply at her hand. She poked him again, and his brow furrowed. “Rgrah.” he said.
Alexandria rolled her eyes and elbowed him, hard. The large boy started awake with a snort, fire burning in his sleepy eyes as he swept his gaze around the table.
“Rose!” he said, his bleary eyes focusing on her. “You’re alright!” He smiled, seeming genuinely excited she was back.
It felt good that he was happy to see her. Rose considered giving him a hug, but he’d been awkward about it last night. They didn’t really know each other that well, after all. Another thing to write down.
She settled for clapping a hand on his shoulder. Borodin reached his arms back and over his head, yawning with an enormous open mouth, and as he brought them down he clapped her on the back so hard she almost pitched into the table.
“Excellent!” he said, as she straightened herself out again. “Fantastic!”
“It’s good to see you, Borodin. I’m sorry about last night.”
“Nothing to apologize for, nothing at all.” Borodin yawned again, a little less wide this time, and smacked his lips. “Are you going to finish that coffee?”
Rose looked down, surprised, and slid the disgusting black liquid over to him. Borodin downed it in three swigs. “That’s the stuff. Liquid glory.”
Rose raised an eyebrow, but refrained from commenting. Maybe it was an acquired taste. “Do you have my notebook?” she asked.
“Of course, of course. Guarded it with my life.” Bormoir reached down and untucked his shirt at the side, pulling the notebook out from where he’d carried it pressed against him. He handed it over proudly, and it was warm to the touch when Rose’s fingers closed on the cover. “Thank you,” Rose said, holding it to her chest.
“Don’t mention it, don’t mention it at all. Not even once! I’m in your debt, for seeing us through the mountain, and this doesn’t even constitute an interest payment!”
Rose smiled, and Borodin smiled back, one eye still half-closed with sleep.
Alexandria cleared her throat, and both of them turned to look at her. She seemed amused for some reason. “Borodin, Rose has encouraged me to go see to our disposition here in town. I’ll be back in a few hours. Could you keep an eye on things for me?”
Rose had offered to keep an eye on things, she recalled. It was the sort of thing that might have made her peeved if she weren’t still basking in the warmth of the morning after.
“Absolutely not,” Borodin said, standing and pushing his chair back. “I’ll come with you. No sister of mine is wandering around this mad little town alone.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine, Borodin. It’s not exactly the docks–”
“No, I won’t hear of it! This inn is secure, as near as I can tell. Rose, Esper, will you guard our worldly posessions while I escort my sister to market?”
Esper made some sort of hmming noise in her throat, not moving. “Sure,” Rose said, flicking a glance at her. “Actually, do you know where my bag is?”
“It’s upstairs in our room,” Alexandria said. She dug around in one of her pockets and produced a shiny metal key, which she handed over. Rose took it. Her eyebrows rose as she felt the metal. It was made of good steel. She could tell it wasn’t brass from the color, and silver would’ve been extravagant, but it was still a strange use of steel.
“Thank you,” Rose said. She slid a long piece of charcoal out of the binding of her notebook, flipping through it to find an empty page. There was some more chatter and movement, Alexandria and Borodin bickering good naturedly as they gathered their things. Rose let it fade into the background noise of the inn as she began to write.
First she wrote down the facts of last night. The final games, the solution, everything she could remember Merzhin saying, the walk to the inn, the conversations with Dexter, what she’d seen in his room.
Then the ideas. These were fuzzier, especially the ones after the storm came. She wrote down her insights about the games, about mirroring his play. Then she wrote down everything she could remember thinking about Dexter, his clue, what he thought her three questions were, her strange obsession with her own warm breath rising through the air to join the chimney smoke…
She heard a sharp clatter on the table. She looked up, realizing quite a bit of time had passed. Alexandria and Borodin were long gone. Esper had shifted positions – maybe her neck had finally gotten tired – but still sat quietly on the other side of the table.
There was another cup on the table, and her eyes traced up it to find the face of the serving girl. “Thank you?” Rose said, questioningly.
The girl smiled. Her teeth were bright white, if a little crooked. “Don’t mention it, hun. Thought you might like this a bit better.”
Rose looked back down at the cup. The liquid in it was an off-brown, and seemed thicker than water. “Tea with milk and sugar,” the server clarified, taking a half-step back. “Can I bring you anything else?”
Rose’s eyes glanced out the window. It was almost noon. “Could I have a tray to take upstairs?” she asked. “Some food and water? One of my companions is indisposed.”
“Sure thing.” The server bussled away, leaving the steaming cup on the table. Rose picked it up and took a sip, her eyebrows rising. It was strange, with just the smallest hint of bitterness, but…it was sweet. And good. She took another sip.
Rose knocked gently on Dexter’s door. Then she knocked sharply, then as loud as she could. No response. She shifted the tray she was carrying to one arm and tried the handle. It was unlocked.
She eased the door open, shouldering through. Her eyes swept the dim room, finally picking Dexter out, reclining in one of the beds.
He’d drawn the curtains, letting only a thin line of sunlight leak through to highlight the mess he’d left strewn around the floor. Three candles were burned down to nothing on the table, and bits of paper were strewn all around the room. Some were bent into strange shapes, some were covered in scribbles, and not a single one looked like it belonged where it was.
Her eyes went back to Dexter. He was lying in bed, hands behind his head, staring off into the middle distance. He didn’t look over or even wince as she dragged the table to his bedside, leaving the tray on top of it.
Rose felt a dim pang of worry. She waved her hand in front of Dexter’s face, with no response. His eyes didn’t follow her hand at all.
Maybe calling a doctor was a good idea after all. She shrugged and began to gather up the objects strewn around the floor.
“Don’t,” Dexter’s voice said behind her, sounding dull and far away. She turned back, to see that he’d finally shifted, his head falling to the side so that he could look at her. “Leave it.”
“I brought you some breakfast. When did you drink last?”
The boy blinked, slowly. “What does it feel like?” he asked.
She wrinkled her brow. “Having something to drink?”
“The day after a storm. What does it feel like, for you?”
Rose put a finger to her lips, thinking about it. “Fuzzy,” she said, using the same word as before. “Slow, and warm. Like I’m wrapped up in a big blanket. Everything’s fine, but it’s not a day for doing things.
The corner of Dexter’s mouth pulled up, jerkily, and then slid back down into a flat line, as though even smirking were too much effort. “Of course it is,” he said. “Of course.”
“What’s it like for you?”
“That’s it? Tired?”
“No, I’m tired, and thus don’t want to be interrogated.”
“I’ll leave after you have some water.”
Dexter shifted his head again, looking away from her toward the wall.
Rose left the garbage on the ground and walked over, sitting at the foot of the bed. Some part of her wanted to rest a hand on Dexter’s knee, but she didn’t.
“If you don’t have something to drink, we’re going to call the doctor again. It will be a whole thing. If you want to lie there doing nothing, the best way to–”
Dexter sighed, heavily. “Please don’t.”
“Then have some water.”
“Because you’re dehydrated.”
“What does it matter?”
Rose picked up the cup of water, which had cooled enough to be drinkable, and held it out to him. After a moment, Dexter groaned, and straightened his posture enough to take the glass. His face was blank, but after a moment he brought the cup to his lips and took a sip.
Rose stood, brushing her cloak straight. If he wanted to be alone, she’d leave him alone. She turned to go, but Dexter’s voice stopped her just as she reached the door.
“Like a blanket. That sounds about right. Like an enormous, lead-filled blanket, pressing me down into the bed.”
She turned back, and Dexter wrinkled his nose. “That wasn’t an invitation to stay. Consider it an apology, and leave me be.”
“An apology for what?”
“A misunderstanding. I didn’t pull a weapon on you, Rose. I was just picking up a tool, before I went back to work. I want to make sure you know that.”
Right. The knife. She wasn’t a hundred percent sure she believed him, but she smiled anyway. “Of course. If you want to apologize more, make sure to eat a little bit.”
Dexter closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the bedframe with a clunk. “Leave now, please.”
Rose slipped out the door, clicking it shut behind her. They could talk more tomorrow.
Rose knocked gently on Robin’s door. “Go away,” Robin’s voice immediately called from within.
“Just wanted to check on you.”
“I’m fine, thank you very much. Go away.”
Rose gently turned the door handle, just to check, and felt the resistance of a lock.
She shrugged. He sounded fine. She had nothing else to do for the day, no responsibilities. She could go and sit by the fire in the common room, write in her notebook, maybe even have another cup of tea…