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Chapter 17: Dilemmas

HORIZON’S CROWN, CASTLE 5


Day 5

2nd day of the storm.

Sophya flicked the pen up, tilted her head at the letters, and chewed on her bottom lip. No, this isn’t right, she thought and set the pen back down to turn the small s bigger and bolder and positively fat.

2nd day of the Storm.

it read now. Better.

Her eyes fixed on the top of the page. Five days? Really? Only five days?

The pen’s butt end found its way into Sophya's mouth. She chewed on it, her mind absent.

SIN insisted that it’d been no more than that since the crash; rather than the hundred-something which Sophya had expected, because there was no way someone’s life could get so quickly turned around twice in a single mortal lifetime.

Honest, there ought to be a limit on how often you were allowed to be existentially redecorated.

Her teeth clicked down on the pen once more.

・・・ “Darling,” SIN purred from where she was curled up next to Sophya’s elbow; an echo of how this had all started: in Sophya’s small room in front of a fake viewport, surrounded by all she owned. Back then she’d not known how she’d been one positive message away from ruining her life.

Today, she sat in V’s room. At V’s desk. None of which was right.

・・・ “You have got no idea where this pen has been.”

Mildly horrified, Sophya slipped the pen out of her mouth and put it to work instead, its tip scratching over the cheap paper.

And once she started, it seemed like she might never stop. That she’d keep writing until her hand fell off or— more likely —she’d run out of pages. And the more she wrote, the more of the unthinkable happened: the perpetual tightness in her chest unknotted; like a badly bundled length of wire being slowly pulled apart.

She wrote about the Jack of Hearts. About the Well (The Cataract, SIN complained). About Pete and the crash and then Pete again.

After three paragraphs about him, she wondered if maybe she was spending too much time on a boy she’d hardly known.

No. She spent too little on everyone else, she decided, ashamed how she’d forgotten all their names.

Three pages filled.

Then another.

And another.

Her fingers grew tired. Her neck— still wrapped in the collar —got heavy. But she couldn’t stop yet. She’d only gotten started. And she’d only just now caught up.

Eventually, it all came to:

I’m ready to admit that sleeping in a bed is better than sleeping on a lumpy sofa, even if there’s a second person in the room with me and I’m not sure how to cope with that.

Sophya raised her eyes from the page. They landed on the stacked bunk bed, with its stubby ladder (one rung played host to two headbands looped around it) and crumpled sheets hanging off its edge. Her bed, the one at the bottom, had neatly folded sheets and a fluffed-up pillow. Then she shifted in the seat and looked to the door. Voices snuck under it. And noise. Lots of noise. Cartoon violence, she assumed, which had been on all morning now that Sophya had been given a place to retreat to and there was no longer a need for silence in the living room.

And retreat she had.

She didn’t belong out there, after all.

Where do you belong?

Back to the page.

Yes, I’m better. Overall. The meds are working. My head isn’t near as clouded anymore as it was yesterday either, let alone the day before that. With any luck, I’ll be able to walk about again prope

Sophya frowned.

The r meant to follow the e came out thin. So thin, she could barely see it.

“Bollocks.”

Sophya shook the pen. Set it back down. Pressed it down hard, but still, there was no ink. The pen had run as dry as whatever grace Elaya might have once had to spare for her.

Following a habit more than anything else, Sophya pulled the first desk drawer open, where she found three more pens idly rolling over a stack of folded paper. She’d nearly swiped up one of the pens when the paper caught her attention. It was lined with drawings. The blueprint sort of drawings, full of thin and thick lines and angles and whatnot. She could see a portion of the header near the top, indicating it as something-something LE SEVEN.

And then the pens (and blueprint) dropped from her mind when she found what else V had stashed in the drawer: puzzle boxes. A whole pile of them.

Sophya pulled the drawer open all the way.

She counted seven of the fancy gadgets altogether and fancy was about right. They looked to be on the more expensive end of the selection; their bodies round and smooth and the grooves where they were meant to pop open once solved (or cracked) nearly invisible.

Puzzle boxes were versatile (and, no, they weren’t always square boxes). They could be kids’ toys. Fidget playthings. NetCaster training wheels. They could even be set up to be near-uncrackable and give veterans a run for their money, but what they weren’t were something she’d anticipated finding in a grounded Hawk Jokey’s desk.

She nudged the puzzle boxes with her finger, rolling them from side to side. Four of them were marked with a thin slice of red tape. She picked up one of those and let it settle in her palm.

And it was warm.

Active.

Furrowing her brow— and with curiosity climbing to the surface— Sophya allowed herself a little bit of freedom. It didn’t take much; only a light touch of a narrow thought.

I’m here, the puzzle box declared. Except, well, not really. Puzzle boxes didn’t speak. They had about the most rudimentary of Aesten-tech imaginable stuffed into their small shells and that was hardly enough to form any kind of intent. What’d pinged her back was just the wireless connection waiting to be tapped into and so Sophya did just that.

She hooked herself into the weak spark of Aesten-made tech and asked, politely, to be shown its puzzle.

Eager, the box unfurled its mystery around her. Bared its purpose. And it did so with all sorts of flair.

Puzzle boxes, as the name so suggested, were, well, puzzles; put together from riddles, equations, broken lines of code in need of fixing, and whatever else the designer thought to cram into the small space. The default interface most people used would lead them through each challenge at a time and once they’d all been conquered, the box would pop open to reveal its prize.

To her, the box bared itself differently.

A stack of mazes buzzed alive around her, spreading through the air like strands of thin light. Each stack— each layer —held a different hue of orange. Ordinarily, all it’d take for her to break the box open was to walk the mazes, one by one. Not literally, of course; no marching needed, only a narrow focus and clear intent. Then, once she’d reached the centre, the puzzle would pop open and that’d be it.

Except— Sophya sat a little straighter.

Geometric symbols were lodged into the mazes, locking them together and clogging entire sections.

Seals.

Spell seals.

This was not an ordinary puzzle box, she decided. Someone had tricked it out extensively. Sophya pursed her lips in concentration and raised a finger to tap lightly at a seal hovering by her left. It looked like a sharply angled dice with way too many sides. Each side reflected a different colour back at her.

Her brows rocked up.

A memory seal?

They were near impossible to crack.

She turned in the chair and swiped another seal from the air, where she cradled it in her palm. This one had the body of a moth and a hummingbird’s wings. As the wings beat quickly, delicate motes of light fell from them, tickling at her with a soft and giddy kind of joy.

An emotion seal; the sort of lock that even the original key holder could often never undo again. Emotions were tricky like that. Situational.

She bounced the seal back where it belonged. It fluttered there, happy; a child’s joy as it pried open a present from a parent who’d prior barely looked at them.

Sophya took a deep breath and with her exhale shrugged off the alien emotion that didn’t belong to her. Once it’d fled, she refocused on the maze, which was when she noticed the blurry imprint of a cracking gremlin in the top right corner of the stack. There, the gremlin did its very best gnawing through a wall.

Judging by how close it was to the edge still, it hadn’t made much progress since it’d been injected into the puzzle box. Though it had busted open one of the seals: a simple, though solid, spell lock.

Sophya doubted it’d make it far.

Should she help it?

Crack the puzzle open?

It’d distract, her she figured, much like the writing did, and that poor gremlin would torture itself forever otherwise.

But before she could make up her mind, the lights went out.

. . .

Plunged into darkness, Sophya sat very still, the puzzle box’s maze stack still pinned to the air around her. It was a little unsettling, what with how it was made of light that did not give light. It didn’t shed a glow. It didn’t cast shadows. It simply was, put there by Sophya thinking it to life.

Unlike SIN.

SIN had flopped onto her back on the desk, her paws up and playfully scratching at a seal within reach. Her cinnamon fur held a solid, warm glow that washed out across the room.

Sophya had never truly managed to understand how SIN did that. How she could be so real without being… tangible.

Touchable.

Sophya had just let her hand drift towards SIN’s belly— even if she knew all she’d get was an electric phantom for a touch —when the door behind her opened.

It swung open quick, letting in not only the storm’s dirty light as said storm threw itself relentlessly against the window out in the living room, but also one Varrett Vild Vickers.

He paused with one foot off the floor— which would have looked droll if it hadn’t been for the sickly light enveloping him from outside —and stared at her. Rather, he stared at the puzzle box she held up and at its maze projected in his room.

“Snooping?” he asked and strode the rest of the way in. His arm flung up, waving through the maze. The maze, in turn, winked out as quickly as it’d sprung up earlier. “What’d we say about not touching my stuff?”

Not to do it, that’d been what.

“The pen ran out,” Sophya explained, her voice sounding about as small as she currently felt as V loomed next to her. All. Loomy.

“Oh yeah?” He plucked the box from her palm, chucked it back into the drawer, and pulled out a pen instead. It landed in her hand. “Here. That’s a pen. Case you forgot what they look like.”

“Ta…”

On the desk, SIN had gotten to her paws. She stretched, her tail up high and her ears flicking. ・・・ “What you got all them puzzle boxes for anyway?”

“Pet project,” he said at length as he shoved the drawer shut.

“What sort of pet project has you train cracking gremlins on spell seals?” Sophya asked.

V stood straight. Not that he didn’t always seem to stand straight. Like a board. With his shoulders back. Spine all vertical.

His eyes cut to her and Sophya found herself a little grateful that he wasn’t one of those blokes who made their veil eyes glow in the dark. That was just tacky. And creepy. “You can tell?”

She shrugged.

Still looking at her, V pulled open another drawer and yanked out a flashlight. He clicked it on, got her straight in the eye with the bright beam, and then slid the light down to point at the desk.

At her journal.

Which was still open.

With the words all bared.

She fumbled to close it up.

V’s lips quirked into a crooked smile. “Okay. How about… I’ll tell you about my pet project if you tell me more about her.” His chin indicated SIN.

SIN’s eyes narrowed.

“What? It’s only fair,” he said. “A secret for a secret. Tit for tat. That kinda thing.” He wagged the flashlight. “Sooo- Where’d you find her? What kinda deal did you strike?”

SIN’s eyes had turned to slits.

Sophya sighed and slid the journal off to the side, eager to get it as far away from him as possible. Then, because V refused to stop staring and was beginning to burn holes into her with his default setting having been (inconsiderably) left on intense, she said: “There’s only so much you could need a gremlin that’s been trained on seals for. Obviously, you’re trying to get through a lock. Or a number of locks. But you’re not a Caster so you got to outsource, which would mean you need a gremlin to do most of your work. You used one on me, no? You didn’t crack my spell seal yourself, SIN said so. Anyway. The real good ones are regulated and can’t be bought or operated by just anyone. Meaning you got to—“

“Ah,” V said, a finger held up high. Sophya’s mouth snapped shut. “You’re no fun.”

She bit at the insides of her cheek.

His comment should have stung.

But it didn’t.

Why didn’t it?

Why did it tug on her instead? A shy pull travelled through her; as if something had gotten caught in her, as things so often did. Ships. Stations. And, lately, Hawk Jockeys. The pull made a bid for her attention and so Sophya raised her chin to meet his eyes. There wasn’t any mockery in them. No har-har, you’re no fun to match his words.

What she caught was a challenge. A glint of sorts. Sophya, irritated by the fact, didn’t know what to do with it.

So she shrugged again and said, “I know.”

V’s shoulders slumped and his stare blunted. Almost as if he was disappointed she hadn’t argued.

“C’mon,” he said and waved her up with a jerk of his hand. “I found you a pair of veil glasses at the Tweedle.”

“The Tweedle,” she echoed.

“The Tweedling Dragon. The bar. From yesterday.”

・・・“Where you tried to get rid of me,” SIN commented.

V’s posture stiffened again. He nodded.

“So you want to go down there?” Sophya looked around. At all the shadows barely kept at bay by his flashlight and the murky storm. “Now? In the dark?”

“Mhm.” When she hadn’t moved, V grabbed the back of the chair and wheeled her out from under his desk. “In the dark.”


Walking through the unlit hallways was entirely unpleasant, Sophya thought, especially with the nauseating colour of the storm washing in through the windows lining one wall.

“Why’s the power out anyway?” she asked, even as she carefully picked her way down the stairs she’d rather liked yesterday. The ones with all the paintings. “You said there’d be blackouts, but hadn’t said why.”

“The storms,” he said from all the way down at the bottom of the steps. His legs were entirely too long. Which meant so was his stride. “They’ve fucked with the power grid even before, but back then it wasn’t such a big deal since we still had working Needles.”

・・・“You’d think there are enough people in your castle for a Needle to function,” SIN said as she hopped down the steps one kitty bound at a time. Which’d be right. There were easy as many souls packed into the castle as there were on a station and that was plenty for a Needle to stay running.

“Probably. If we had one in here, maybe we’d be fine, but we don’t. And almost all of the ones outside quit the moment the city died.”

“They were destroyed?”

“No. They quit. They stopped creating power and fell dormant or something, I dunno. So, that means when the storms hit nowadays, we get to run off reserves because there’s fuck all to do for our solar panels and the wind turbines need to be folded down or they’ll get ripped off the building. Ergo, rolling blackouts dictated by Dispatch.”

・・・“Your Dispatch doesn’t only hand out work then?”

“Nah. They run the place. Everything from water supplies, power distribution, food rationing, you name it. They also organise all the living arrangements in the castle and, yeah, there’s really nothing here they don’t have their wicks in.”

・・・“Eugh.”

“Exactly.”

Sophya shoved her hands into the large pockets of her trousers. Her overall trousers. Because she was an overall gal. She bristled. Briefly. Then she went back to feeling disquiet over what he’d just said; about the Needles not working. It bugged her that they had— as V had put it —died.

Horizon’s Crown was, after all, not empty.

Needles didn’t care if the souls they harvested residual energies off of were healthy or not. All they had to be was there; didn’t matter if they came tethered to bright-eyed Earthers or those shambling creatures she’d seen hordes off in the news. The Revenants. The Revs.

So, why then, had the Needles quit?

Oh, she’d have loved to ask SIN. Or V, even, but there sat her dilemma.

Even to this day, Needles were a mystery to most everyone. Yes, the general consent was that they ran off large clusters of souls. Clusters you’d find only in metropolises, stations, or the Aesten starsailers, where life tended to come together in one teeming, vivid mass.

But no one knew what to do if a Needle quit. Not even the Aesten. All anyone could do to fix them was let loose a mischief of Einlings and hope for the best; that whatever had broken could be repaired by the crafty Reapers.

Who then would ask: Why’d your needles die if your city is full of Revenants?

Who was the sort of person to wonder, loudly, Does that mean Revenants have no souls?

Not a NetPagan. Why’d a NetPagan ponder that? Why’d anyone have their throat gradually pull tighter when they considered: Everything past those castle walls is soulless.

But that could not be. She knew that. Knew that, because tangled up in her since birth, rested a soul so ancient, she had nearly forgotten everything of her first life, but she still remember this: No. Living. Thing. Is. Soulless.

And Sophya had learned to understand it as her burden (her gift, her mark, her budding insanity) had grown, despite SIN’s best efforts to suffocate it. She’d learned that every living thing, no matter how small, no matter how insignificant, possessed a soul. She had, in fact, become so acutely aware of it, that it had nearly cost her her mind.

How couldn’t it, when you could hear them whisper wherever life bloomed?

Blades of clustered grass had a soul between them. So did moss clinging to rock and that rock had likely leeched a little off its surroundings, too. It’d been around long enough, after all. Ants. Sheep. Cats. Dogs. Worms. Even the air and water weren’t entirely without, brimming with small life as they both did.

So how could Revenants have none?

Even music thrummed with soul. Books leaked them. Arguably, the only thing soulless were the Reapers. And even they came fashioned with the means to borrow one, lest they’d be no more than dead-eyed husks.

So. Yes. It bothered her. It bothered her that she couldn’t blurt that question out without giving V the wrong (or right) idea. It bothered her enough, she hadn’t noticed how they’d arrived at the same bar that V had parked her in front of yesterday.

He glanced at her and gestured for her to go on in.

Sophya gathered up her thoughts, shoved all her questions to the back of her mind, and shuffled over the threshold, still bothered.


Inside, Sophya found a lot of silence. Plus a grand helping of darkness along with it. The sickly light of the storm didn’t reach into the roomy bar and so all she had to see by was a singular lantern standing on an empty table.

Naturally, all the tables were empty and tables in a bar ought not to be empty. They ought to have people sitting at them; chatting, laughing, eating drinking. Not have their chairs stacked on top of them, the chair legs sticking up towards the ceiling like the legs of a dead bug.

It was eerie.

. . .

A bit like the thought of millions of soulless things out past the castle walls.

Sophya shuffled along, trailing V, her hands still in her pockets and her elbows squeezed to her torso.

A man looked up from the far left. He was dressed in an Aestling robe so traditional, that it managed to rival even SIN’s. Wraps and all. He held a mop in one hand. It dripped with water.

Sophya’s nose itched and she sniffed. The air smelled of soap, and when she looked down at her feet she noted how the floor was damp. Her toes curled in her shoes and she (very slowly, damn that collar) threw a look over her shoulder, where V and she had left footprints.

Rude, no?

The man did not seem to mind. He dropped the mop into its bucket with a splash and gave them both a nod.

“Hey V. You looking for Col?”

“Yessir,” said V. “He in the back?”

Sophya’s eyes came up from the floor to take a sweep of the room. There were plenty of shadows cast by the lonely lamp, but even so, she saw colour splashed across the furniture and up on the stage, where a piano monopolised a large slice of real estate off on the right.

And behind that stage— where one might have expected a panorama window not unlike the one in the Vickers unit —was a painting. A series of paintings, rather, all of which depicted the eventful life of a cartoon dragon. The dragon liked to sing. And dance. And nap in a pile of empty bottles, with its belly all fat and notes bubbling from its nostrils.

“Hey, Fi. Let’s go.”

. . .

Sophya’s neck grew a degree or so hotter under its collar. She disliked how Fi had gotten her attention so quickly — and V? V appeared positively chuffed. So chuffed, it summoned a tentative tickle at her insides; like a kitten swatting at a feather.

Her being the feather.

Him the kitten.

“Sophya,” she muttered before following him behind the bar’s counter.


One door later, and she found herself in a narrow corridor which would have been pitch black if not for V’s flashlight snooping on ahead. The light landed on streaks of uncoordinated colours sprayed along the walls; like rainbows that’d gotten all confused and been twisted up in each other. A curtain stoppered the corridor. A heavy thing, the fabric so thick, Sophya assumed it wouldn’t have let light through even if there’d been any.

V pushed it aside, caught the curtain against his arm, and waited for her to step on in before he let it fall again. What he didn’t do was wait for SIN, who let her displeasure known by rumbling up an annoyed mrrrooow as the curtain settled over her theoretical shape.

When she reappeared on their side, she’d ditched the paws and wore her Aestling tunic once again, along with all her freckles and a bemused scowl.

The room on the other side stood bathed in a soft, flickering glow. Which meant the flashlight went away, replaced by oh-so-many candles, Sophya knew she couldn’t count them all without losing her stride a few times over. They stood everywhere: on shelves, on rolling cabinets, and even on top of the NetSage’s chair sitting in the centre of a long and wide room with a ceiling so tall, it made the place feel almost airy.

Whoever lived her must have spent hours putting them up.

In front of her, right by the entrance, stood a large sofa crowded with pillows. Next to that was a bird’s cage. One of those large, square ones. Though she saw no bird in it, only a few thick branches and — electronic scrap?

If it hadn’t been for the gods-forsaken collar, Sophya would have tilted her head.

Failing that, she carefully shrugged off SIN’s leash— who threw her a quiet glance —and tentatively quested for the cage. This took a bit more doing than prodding at a puzzle box or getting Aesten tech’s attention. It was a deliberate and precise exercise, one that ended with her touching a timid pulse of life. A curious one. A hungry one. And one borrowed. The moment Sophya had slipped near enough, the tiny Reaper tucked away inside the cage took a careful nibble. Then, when it’d realized what a tasty treat had come to join in its cage, it straight-up chomped down on Sophya’s questing soul.

She recoiled.

“You alright?” V asked. His eyes narrowed and he looked about the place like he was trying to find something that’d startled her, a search that came up empty.

“Fine,” she squeezed up and pressed her elbows tightly to her sides. Her insides smarted.

・・・“Curiosity. Cat,” chided SIN, her voice a private echo itching in Sophya’s head.

Bully.

You could have warned me, Sophya thought back loudly.

“Huh? About what?” V, who’d been making his way towards the back of the room where more heavy curtains blocked off the view, stopped and turned to her.

. . .

Sophya’s cheeks ran red. “Nothing,” she managed. Barely. And then she tried very hard not to think a single thought until SIN had wrapped her leash around her again. Lest she’d ruin all her hard work lying to him by thinking the wrong thing a little too loudly.

Or was that just how things would be until she figured out how to untangle them?

Now that — that was a sobering thought.

Wait, had he heard that?

V’s right brow crept up.

He couldn’t have. Could he?

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

No. No, he hadn’t. Sophya unclenched her aching jaw and tried to get her shoulders to stop bunching up so tight. She nodded.

“Riiiiight.” V gave his head a quick shake. “C’mon, let’s go find Collin.”

“Don’t look far, he’s right here,” said a voice from behind the thick wall of curtains. It was followed by the creak of springs (a bed, Sophya assumed) and then the thump of feet hitting the ground.

The curtains parted — and kept parting, pulled along by a softly whirring mechanism until they’d bared a slice of space so homey, Sophya immediately wished to have one just like it.

A rumpled bed— round, not square —stood in the right corner, its surface covered in blankets and cushions and the walls nearest to it positively monopolised by bookshelves. The immediate area around the bed was kept lit by a single lantern; one that dangled from a long cord attached to the tall ceiling.

There were also clothes. Lots of them. They hung from crowded racks not unlike what she’d seen at the shop yesterday— but.

Never mind all that.

The lantern.

Sophya stared.

The lantern didn’t hold a flame.

Instead, its light poured right out of the golden liquid filling half of its fat, bulbous body; as if someone had liquified a flame. A second globe— this one much smaller —hung suspended inside the large bulb. It was filled with small, red bubbles.

Nicora sap and firefly fuel.

A fortune dangled from that rope.

“Where’d you get a sap light from?” Sophya blurted.

Collin— the young bloke they’d chased from his bed —stopped in his tracks, clearly startled. Which looked a little comical, really, especially with how it made him hold up the book he held in one hand and how his entire lanky frame bounced with a nervous energy that may or may not have come from the smoke he held pinched in the other hand.

The thin blue smoke curling off the cylinder’s gleaming tip smelled a tart kind of sweet; she could taste it from all the way over here.

“Ah,” Collin intoned. And then, after a moment of vigorous contemplation, added an excessively informative: “Uuuh.”

“From me,” V said.

Sophya looked from the sap light to V and then back. “They cost a fortune.

“Not in this economy, they don’t. Most shit is free if you know where to look.”

“Ah. You looted it.”

“Mhmm,” he said. He’d folded his arms and cocked his left brow in a way that made her want to step on his foot. Didn’t matter which. Left. Right. Long as she stepped hard.

While she contemplated how much stomping force she could apply, Collin nodded. Enthusiastically. It made the delicate veil visor he carried around his neck bounce. Then he darted off to the side to put out his cigarette before he shuffled up to them, the book held in front of his narrow chest like some sort of shield.

Oh.

Suddenly, Sophya remembered. And suddenly she no longer wanted to step on anyone’s toes.

He knew. Or, at least, he knew what V did.

And that meant he was scared.

Of her.

Sophya’s fingers curled in her pockets— since she had yet to remove them from their comforting depths —and she made sure not to look at Collin directly, focusing instead on the book.

A Home Lost, the title read. Trero’s traditions and customs, read the subtitle. Sophya considered the book. And then she considered the general state of the place; the bold colours, the use of drapes. The sap light. It all reminded her of an Aestling’s den who missed a home he’d never seen. And wouldn’t. Ever. What with how Trero, much like the Earther’s, well, Earth, was a thing unreachable. More so, if you were being perfectly honest about it.

But Collin? He did not look Aestling.

Even if he kind of dressed like it, she admitted.

She looked up, where she found Collin staring at her. Much like he’d done two days ago. Before the storm. And the whole getting shot at bit.

Thankfully, V stepped up to him and plucked the book from his hands, putting an end to the staring. “You got the veils specs?”

“What? Oh. Yeah! Yeah, I do. Hold on.” And off he went, buzzing over to an equipment shelf up against a wall.

Which left her standing around awkwardly with the man whose toes she’d contemplated murdering.

Sophya turned on the spot. “So. You— you have a NetSage here?” She gave the chair a longer look. It was old and had a makeshift kind of look about it, with none of the parts looking like they belonged to a set. The chair was one brand, the equipment arm yet another. And a fair share of the anchor wires above it looked like their protective sleeves were peeling off.

“You’re looking at him.” V jutted his chin at where Collin was rooting through a box.

Sophya blinked. “He’s a Medica? But he’s not Aestling, how—“

SIN, her timing impeccable, pinned a handful of large, glaring red letters up in the air. Right where both Sophya and V could see them.

RUDE, they spelled.

Sophya, mortified, snapped her mouth shut.

V snorted.

Over by the shelf, Collin let out a triumphant “Aha. Found them!” He held up a dusty set of veil glasses, their lenses delicate, long things and their frame so subtle it was near invisible. “And it’s cool,” he said as he walked right up to her. He was smiling; a kind, youthful smile unburdened with the reality of how she’d just insulted him. “I get that a lot. No, I’m not a Medica. I’m half-Aestling with a quarter of a neural science degree. But truth is, HC is short on Medica and even shorter on trained Sages, so here I am. Plugging a hole.”

He cleaned the glasses on his shirt. A dusky pink thing with a wide, round neckline that was way too wide for him, baring a sharp collarbone and equally sharp shoulders.

The smile hadn’t gone anywhere even by the time he offered her the glasses. If anything it’d gotten wider.

“If you want to step in though, be my guest. Since, you know—“ He wagged the glasses at her, while Sophya had been busy staring dumbly at a spot above his shoulder. He wore slim, synthetic feathers for earrings. They were dyed a pastel blue, a pastel pink, and carried a slice of white in-between. “—I’m a big fan.”

. . .

Sophya’s collar once again contributed to her neck overheating. She unearthed one hand from her pockets and plucked the veil glasses from Collin’s fingers. “I’m not a Medica either and I don’t know the first thing about working a chair.”

“That’s a shame,” Collin said, shuffling back a step as he did so.

At least someone appreciated her need for personal space, she thought. V for certain didn’t. He’d drifted in closer, close enough to inspect the glasses and to nearly rub shoulders with her.

“Ta,” she said anyway, before shoving the glasses and the hand attached to them back into the pocket they belonged into. “For the glasses, I mean. But what am I supposed to trade for it?”

“You, nothing,” V said. He slipped a finger into a pocket on his stiff—collared leather vest and pulled out a small and insignificant looking vial. The vial’s thin glass body was sealed with a red cap.

Sophya remembered the look of them. She’d been given one just like it when they’d arrived on the OI.

Re.X.

Or Shimmer, as SIN painted in the air next to the vial.

Sophya’s eyes cut to Collin’s wrist. He wore an identical bracelet to the one Gabriel had, except it was a bit bigger. Not that Collin had particularly strong wrists. They were thin and reedy like the rest of him.

Three green lights flashed on the bracelet’s side.

“For the glasses, the Gabe sitting, and putting up with my shrieking the other day,” V said.

Collin inclined his head in a grateful gesture and accepted the Shimmer, right before he swiped the book back from V.

And then they talked.

V and Collin, anyway.

Like friends so did, she figured. They gossiped. They complained. Mostly complained, really. About the blackouts. The storm. About less customers in the bar and on the chair when no one knew when the lights’d go out, and a lamenting note concerning a date which V hoped wouldn’t be ruined.

Right about then, Sophya had begun to gather enough courage to drift away from them. Or, rather, she’d given in to curiosity and began a slow and steady wandering back to the bird cage.

“Naemie?” she heard Collin ask. “You’re persistent.”

“We keep getting interrupted.”

“Maybe that’s a sign. Ever considered the universe is trying to tell you it’s not meant to be?”

“The universe can go fuck itself.”

“Hm. I think it’s the other way around.”

“Jesus, Collin.”

And so on.

And so forth.

Sophya wandered up to the cage. She leaned her torso forward— a motion that’d hurt a whole lot more yesterday, but which now only ached a little —and tilted her head in an attempt to peer into the small box mounted in the middle of the cage.

“Did you know he has an Einling?” she whispered.

SIN had spread herself out on the sofa next to the cage. She nodded.

The Einling was hungry. As Sophya’s nibbled-on soul could attest to. Nibbled on, but not entirely scared off, and so Sophya shrugged free of SIN’s sheltering constraints again and carefully reached for the borrowed spark pulsing meekly inside the box.

The Einling jostled its home.

This time, it didn’t straight up bite into her. It picked at her, carefully, tentatively, worried she’d pull away again, no doubt, because it hadn’t had a soul come near it for so long, it’d forgotten what it was like to feed on more than just scraps.

And, more so, it’d all but forgotten what company felt like.

Loneliness washed over Sophya. One way too deep and heavy for such a small creature. It reminded her of when she’d woken up a few days ago to find SIN gone, though it was muted. Almost like the soul wrapped up in it had grown used to it. Had grown numb to the pain.

Sophya’s fingers bunched up inside her pockets. Then, slowly, she lifted one hand out and set it against the cage.

The loneliness didn’t surprise her; an Einling without its Ein and its mischief was a terribly lonely thing. But that didn’t make it hurt by proxy any less.

A nose poked from the small house. It was a round and twitchy thing, with whiskers that glinted golden in the candlelight.

“Hello,” Sophya said. She kept her voice low and polite.

The nose twitched some more.

“You’ve got a lovely snout.”

Twitch. Twitch.

Small— but long and nimble —fingers set around the edge of the hole and then, with one fluid motion, the Einling slunk out from its house and scampered up onto the nearest branch. Or flowed, really. Einlings moved with a liquid kind of grace that extended all the way to the tips of their very, very long tails.

This one’s body was about the length of Sophya’s forearms (from her wrist to her elbow) and it had a tail about twice that length. Short grey fur covered most of it, darkened by a nonsensical pattern of tiny, black feathers. Its wings— currently tucked tight to its body —were much more colourful. Their feathers shone a vibrant green and bold orange.

“And lovely wings,” she added.

The Einling ruffled said wings. Only one of them was still fully intact, the other hand been mangled. The wounded wing still had its arm and fingers, but where there should have been folds of skin and feathers was no more than scarred flaps.

“Well. One lovely wing,” she said. “I’m sorry about the other.”

The Einling tilted its head before it leapt, crossing the distance between its branch and the cage’s mesh with one short jump. It landed where she’d put her hand.

Its fingers latched onto the mesh and so did its back paws, their curved black claws hooking in tight. Large, perfectly round black eyes stared at her, their depths swimming with shapeless, orange pupils that matched the plumage on its wings. Sizeable ears perked on top of its head— a head squarely somewhere between a cat’s and a ferret’s —and between those ears sat two stubs.

Antlers.

The way they’d been rounded at the top and capped with plastic nubs, Sophya figured they’d been filed off.

She frowned and stuck her fingers through the mesh to scratch at the Einling’s neck.

It cooed.

And chirped.

And flapped its one still winged arm, the small fingers at the end of it— those things meant to tie wires and loosen bolts and deftly muck with circuitry —pumping with delight.

“I bet you had the most stunning of antlers, too.”

“I’ll be damned,” V’s voice said from right behind her, startling Sophya enough to have her heart momentarily forget where its rightful place in her chest was. She did not, however, stop scratching the Einling’s neck. Its fur and the tiny feathers layered into it were soft. And warm. She could scratch it for hours if given the chance to. “You got Crimp out of his house. How’d you do that?”

“Crimp?”

The Einling rattled up a chittering purr.

“Mhm. Collin found him in the walls back when they were turning the place into a NetSage shop. He thinks someone up on this floor kept him as a pet.”

“Einlings aren’t meant to be pets,” she said.

“True.” V folded his arms and peered at her. “Don’t get mad at Col though. He didn’t want to turn him over to Dispatch since they’d have either killed him or thrown him out into HC. And the little bugger’s wing was all busted, so—“ He pointed at the cage. “—he made him a little loft.”

Sophya’s finger ceased its scratching. She’d been about to pull it back out, too, but Crimp grabbed it. Not hard, of course. Einlings didn’t exactly have a Troll’s grip. And he kept his tiny claws well away from her skin, just wrapped his small three-fingered hand with its opposing thumb around her finger and squeezed lightly.

A small chirp followed.

A forlorn noise, really.

Sophya’s heart did a little sideways shuffle, tripped, and said she ought to move to this sofa.

“Aw, he likes you. A lot.”

“Appears that way,” she muttered, tugging her finger out from the mesh. Once she’d reclaimed it, Crimp leapt back to its branch. His long tail wrapped around the wood behind him, easily reaching all the way to the other end of the cage.

“You know, I don’t think Col would mind if you come visit,” V said, right before he extended his arm to point to the curtain at the entrance. But for now, let’s go, the gesture said.

Sophya chewed on her bottom lips, looked from him to Crimp, and then over to Collin.

And there was that dilemma again, though this time it wore an oversized pink shirt.

Collin watched her. Quietly. He had his hands on his book, and held the whole thing close to his chest. And before SIN could leash Sophya’s soul again— since it’d gone dancing off with Crimp the Einling while neither of them had paid much attention —Sophya felt it: the sharp touch of suspicion.

Sophya hugged her arms to her chest and shuffled after V.

Maybe she’d imagined it. The suspicion. The there’s something off about you that lingered in the back of her throat like a bitter aftertaste.

She rather hoped she had.