It was a blowsy, damp spring evening and the open shutters rattled against the windowframe as the steerswoman paced back and forth in the small sleeping chamber. Her travelling companion seemed content to hunch in his chair by the fire, studying his magic box by the combined light of fire and lamp, but inaction ate at her like stinging insects.
Rowan paused to lean on the back of the tiny room's other chair, her hand brushing the leather strap of her sword-belt where it hung within easy reach. The itch increased. Bel was out on the road ahead of them, where Rowan would rather be, despite the likelihood of rain before midnight.
Her left leg ached, old injury. A dry roof and hot dinner were rare enough for a steerswoman with wizards for enemies—but she would still rather be scouting with Bel. She limped to the window and looked down into the inn courtyard, half-expecting to see soldiers on horseback come galloping in. There was nothing but the stable-boy crossing the muddy yard with a sack of grain flung across his shoulder.
She sighed and resumed her pacing.
"Please stop doing that," Willam said. There was a slight plaintive note to his voice, at odds with the power he wielded so casually. "I can't concentrate."
His copper eyes glinted in a face older and more sea-weathered than she recalled from sixteen months ago in Donner. The flat black box in his lap was new, too, courtesy of a terrifying, polite exchange with Corvus in a pleasure-house in Wolfshaven, certain details of which had been left to Rowan's imagination.
Blue letters flickered in the air in front of him, and Rowan suppressed a shiver. It's only power, she told herself. Only energy. A more complicated version of the clock. The link was child's play compared to Jannik's house, she knew. Unlike Fletcher's, Willam had assured her, it did not speak to the Guidestars by default. It did not actually link anything. Not now.
Rowan sighed and flung herself down on the bed, in no mood to move her pack from the chair. There was but the one bed, and it was narrow to sleep two—especially if the other sleeper were not Bel—but it aided their cover as a married pair. The dishonesty wore at her on top of everything else, but at least she hadn't had to lie. Willam had done all the talking.
"Have you found anything more?" A small yellow rectangle had come with the black box. Willam had talked excitedly about storage bites and then explained that it held Krue records.
"Slado was definitely near Lake Aizi last year," Willam said distractedly. "But some of this is locked. There's only so fast I can work, even with the decryption program—"
He flicked aside the invisible page with blue letters, and began another; she understood from the way his fingers moved that he was instructing the link himself, rather than only reading what it showed him.
Decryption. It sounded too much like crypts and tombs. She remembered Bel's laugh, her teasing Willam about "writing with magic."
Rowan considered her steerswoman's logbook, open on the coverlet where she had left it. Restlessness had taken her usual interest in documenting what was around her. What could she record, anyway? Twelve days north of the Archives. The innkeeper died last year, and his nephew does not know me. Muddy.
In the next village, she and Bel would be the couple and Willam would straggle in as if he were a stranger. Never the same two together in successive places. Sometimes Willam was her brother, or Bel his aunt, though try as they might she and Bel could not pass for siblings. In battle or in the search for knowledge, Rowan found focus and calm, but this uncertainty and waiting had begun to fray her edges.
Something flickered in the corner of her vision and she sat up. A new page had appeared to the upper right of where Willam was working. The white frame around it blinked, twice, but Willam did not look up. After a few moments it dimmed slightly.
It can't receive messages, he had assured her. I've made this link as deaf as a stone, Rowan.
But even stones had energy.
This page showed nothing like she had ever seen of magic devices. Not words, and no diagrams or maplike images. Instead there were brightly-coloured irregular blobs; at the angle at which she sat she could not discern exactly what they were. Most of the page was still, but one or two spots seemed to move repetitively. Some kind of code or signal?
Not even to ping it? she had asked, and he had been very sure.
She found her fingers clenching in the quilt on the bed—a soft and homely thing in the eerie light of magic. Possibilities were two: Willam had called this thing up, or he had not. "Willam," she said, with the same forced calmness she might use when something moved in the underbrush just outside the light of a campfire.
"What?" His head jerked up, irritation at being interrupted again warring with the low warning in her tone. He followed her gaze to the bright splotchy square of light. He froze. "Ohh, no," he groaned.
Rowan was on her feet in an instant. "What is it?" she said sharply, stopping half a pace from her sword when she realized it would do no good against whatever magic could enliven a deaf link.
"No, no." Willam had sunk his face in his hands, but now he had one hand over his eyes and was waving her off with the other. "It's not a—"
"Has Slado found us?" They could destroy the link, fling it into the fire perhaps, and flee into the forest—but how much speed could they make at night? Slado must certainly have a flying cart like Jannik's, with lights of its own. How near was he?
Willam was shaking his head now, and he dropped both hands to his lap. His face was flushed. He said very clearly, "We are not in danger."
"Oh." Rowan's heart was thudding. "Are you sure?"
Willam gave a little huff of laughter. His face went redder. "Not from my link, in any case."
Rowan stared. He was embarrassed.
He wiped his forehead, and pulled the coloured page closer to him, widening it as he did so. "Let me show you. It's a—it's a game, really."
"Oh." She drew a deep breath. "Like the jammers, that reflected Olin's tastes?" Such rude pictures might explain Willam's dismay at their sudden appearance, especially in her presence.
He laughed. "Not quite. Come and see."
She went to crouch beside his chair, but he gave up his seat for her instead. She conceded, not wanting to embarrass him further. "A game, you said. Like noughts and crosses, or chess?" Not a running or skipping game, presumably, not with lights from the link—but surely something like a wizard's dragon could be made to do so.
Willam was nodding. He reached over her shoulder to tilt the square at an angle where they could both see. "Yes, but your opponent is the machine itself."
"The program." The lists, repeated over and over.
It was a drawing, she saw now. It resolved quickly enough into a picture of a small room, with a table, a chair or two, mats on the floor, and several outlandish furnishings she did not recognize. Everything was bright and simple, as if painted by a child. And there were... "Cats?" She blinked. "Those are cats."
Rowan could tell from Willam's voice that the blush was returning. "Kittens. Yeah. Uhm..."
Rowan stared in fascination. The unknown artist—was it Willam himself?—had captured the nature of the common housecat in a few quick lines. She counted eight of them. Some sat complacently, some curled as if sunning themselves at a window, others appeared to be playing—the repetitive motion she had noticed was a black cat with glowing yellow eyes batting at a spinning toy.
She knew to look for patterns, and she saw them right away. The cat's front paw went up, and hit the coloured plume above its head; the toy spun; the cat's rear paw wiggled, endearingly like a real cat. The cat's front paw went up—it was really a very simple pattern.
She looked for others: all the cats were the same. Their faces were the same shape, though the colouring was different, and those that lay down, reclined in the exact same pose. Those that stood, stood identically. If another cat were drawn in motion—how did you draw something so that it moved?—would it move the exact same way as the black kitten?
Lists. Patterns. Moving lights. A kitten playing with a toy, over and over and over forever. Never getting tired, never bored—unless the lists told it otherwise. It would have been unnerving, except...it was so cute. The little noses, the small round faces—
"Why is that one different?" she said, pointing to a much larger cat depicted near the bottom of the frame. It reclined in front of what she supposed must be a food dish, plump and self-satisfied. The artist had been very good. "The mother?"
"I don't know," Willam said, sounding as if he had never considered this. "Everyone always called him a male cat."
Rowan peered more closely, but could not find any identifying characteristics that would lead one to that conclusion. "Everyone?"
Willam rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, not Corvus. He was above stuff like this. But all the servants and underlings, everyone who—who had access to magic. Played it. They, um, compared, uh...different cats..."
Rowan looked at the kittens again, thinking again of chess. Different colours and markings. "Are they game tokens, then? What do they signify? What are the rules?" She paused. "What do you win?"
But Willam was shaking his head. "It's not...it's more like...like a one-man card game. Or like—like the dragons."
Rowan drew back, her fingers just about to touch a small dark brown cat where it dozed on a cushion. "How like the dragons?"
"You—well, imagine these were real cats." He waited for Rowan's nod. "They're not, of course—they're picks...uh...pictures made of light. But if they were. You would have to feed them, right?"
"Yes." What did cats made of lights, living in a link, motivated by patterns, eat?
"Here." He found the drawing of a second food dish in the picture, and brushed a fingertip through it. A small box appeared in its place, and he tapped it several times, bringing up neatly-labelled drawings of what Rowan eventually realized were different kinds of food. He selected one. "So you feed them. And you see the toys? The cushions, the red chair? The tube?"
Her eyebrows went up. "That's an extraordinarily long cat."
He grinned. "No, that's two cats. The front of one is here, and the tail of the other is here."
"Oh, yes, of course. The one is striped, the other is plain." Rowan added to the list of cat shapes: standing, lying, playing...showing backside-first. The artist, uninterested in distinguishing cats by sex, seemed willing to depict other organs.
"So, uh, toys." Willam rushed on. "You give the cats food and you give them toys. Then you wait. If they like the food and toys—that is, if the program's conditions are met—images of cats will appear. The level of food in the dish will drop." He demonstrated how this was marked. "Eventually, they'll go away."
Rowan eyed the bright display of cat drawings. The cat with the spinning toy had not paused or varied its routine in all the time they had been talking. It was remarkable, but it must seem far less impressive to people used to the sort of magic wizards lived with every day. Was there some hidden goal? "And what is the objective of all this?"
Willam shrugged. "They bring you fish."
Startled, Rowan laughed. It was not what she expected of wizards. As Willam explained the exchange of food and toys for fish, and fish for food and toys, Rowan followed each step of logic but grew more and more puzzled.
"And you can eventually buy new houses for them—this copy only has the first level, but I can—"
Rowan stopped him with a hand on his arm. "But why?"
He shrugged, again. "It's a game. Foolish entertainment."
"It must be more than that. To go to all this effort—" Rowan shook her head, frowning.
"Well, Corvus let me have it as a practice program. To get used to the interface. And to get behind it. I can...I can turn the cats blue, if I like, or design my own toys. Or make them come sooner, or leave more fish. I figured out how to hack it so the rare cats would show up more often, but then I decided that was cheating."
Of course he had. It was a strange sort of honesty, but one Rowan could appreciate. She knew better than to suppose that such small choices made a wizard moral, but this was Willam, and it fit with the earnest young man of her acquaintance.
"But, really, it's a game. Even wizards have games."
Rowan watched him bargain silver fish for gold ones. "Wizard games get people killed."
Willam touched the cat square at its corners and made it smaller, then moved it off to the side. He brought up the page of blue text again. "Not this one. The worst that can happen here is that Tubbs eats all your food. At least he brings fish."
Rowan blinked the real world back into focus. The sky had darkened while they talked over cats made of wizard lights. She got up, wincing as the scar on her leg pulled, and moved to the window. They were above ground level and she did not think the lights from the link would be distinguishable from lamplight to anyone outside. She fastened the shutters closed, nevertheless. And thought of Bel, on the road, alone and watchful.
"I feel like that big white cat," she said, taking up her logbook. This time she moved her pack off the second chair, and settled in by the fire. "Spoiled and well-fed."
The look Willam cast her was disbelieving, but then he gave a wry smile. "I used to feel like that with Corvus." He shook his head, as if trying to dislodge memories. "He does look supremely satisfied with himself, doesn't he?"
Rowan bent and began to sketch wizard cats in her logbook. "It ought to be a pass-phrase: 'The white cat in repose.'"
He grinned at her through bars of slightly sinister blue light. "'Tubbs in repose: all is well.' 'The cat dish is empty: trouble at hand.'"
She giggled; she couldn't help it. "'A rare cat came: a windfall of information!'"
"'The long cat is...' I don't know. Long?"
Rowan stretched her feet out towards the fire. "'The cats are in the tube: our resources are stretched.' But how are we going to explain this to Bel?" A smile still twitched at the corners of her mouth as she finished doodling the contented white cat. In small neat capitals, she wrote beneath it: ALL IS WELL.
"Oh, well." Willam's hands moved through the air. "Bel's the one that's going to fight me for the link just so she can play it."
And that, Rowan had to concede, might just be so.