Quartz: a serial novel

In order to save their world, the mages of long ago plunged it into eternal night.

Now rare veins of quartz provide light, heat, and food to a dying world. And Rafael Grenfeld has just learned that the biggest quartz pillar of them all, the legendary Tower of Light, exists. Unfortunately, his informer died before revealing its location and he’s stuck in the hostile totalitarian state of Blackstone.

Desperate to find the Tower of Light for his people, Rafe forms an uneasy alliance with the mysterious and maddening Isabella. They’re not the only ones interested in the quartz. The Shadow, chief of the Blackstone secret police, is also hunting for it. As darkness-loving demons devour souls and dangerous magical artifacts resurface, Rafe must tap into the lost powers of the mages in order to find and secure the quartz—before his world is destroyed by famine and war.

Quartz is a serialized novel that updates on Tuesdays, with Saturdays available for a donation of $5 per episode. Donors will also receive the complete novel as an ebook in a format of their choice once the serial is finished. Thank you for your support!

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Episode Seventy Six

Chapter Twenty Eight, Part Two

Shimmer

Sighs in the dark, soft, wordless, regular, like the drip-dripping of a leaky tap. Rafe curled his fingers around Isabella’s hand. The light of his pathetic torch—a block of wood wrapped in cordage—barely lit his feet. He held it close, almost hugged to his chest, as if to protect it. The belt around his waist had once strapped down prisoners. Now it held wood, paper, lighter, whatever fuel they could salvage. Beside him, Isabella held her torch almost carelessly, less as if she needed it and more as if she were providing him with assurance.

It was a good thing that he walked with someone who could face the krin without the light, right?

For the first time he wondered who could be so terrible that even the krin feared her. Who—what—was Isabella that she could hear the whispers and feel the ice and not be driven mad?

He was hardly reassured. He made to loosen his grip on her hand, but Isabella’s nails dug deeper.

“Listen,” she breathed.

The soft sighs rose in volume, became a small wind that touched Rafe’s skin with cold, played with the tiny flames in his hand. Rafe pushed his chin downward, as if to guard the fire. Heat bored into his skull, forced painful tears from his eyes.

“Keep going,” muttered Isabella. “It will only get worse. The thing is to go quickly.”

Thanks for the cheerful words. Even with his own ironic voice speaking to him, Rafe found it hard to move. His feet were fixed to the floor, as if a mixer had come around while he stood and poured cement all around his ankles. Isabella pulled and his feet stumbled on, wading through slush before they hit their stride again.

Bossy, that one. It’s not really so hard to see that she’s Rocquespur, after all. Resentment kindled in his chest. Resentment that she was so strong while he was so weak. That she was rescuer and protector, walking as if she were in light while he stumbled in the dark.

She had dumped him in the Barrens.

She had tried to steal from his uncle, and provoked him into destroying Leo’s house and killing his neighbors.

She’d had him arrested and sentenced to hard labor.

She’d lost him his friend.

And even when he thought he was free of her, there she was, as Rocquespur. With a sense of shock, Rafe realized she had known him and he her long before that night in the old theater in Blackstone. They had been rivals for antiques and art objects. They had fought the battle with money and wit and tenacity and sheer dumb luck, barely meeting face-to-face, but competing always.

Forget that Leonius was the one funding Rafe’s expeditions, forget that Leonius had started him down the path and that Rafe had surrendered his prizes to his uncle’s possessive hands. It was the hunt that had mattered, fighting against Rocquespur’s network of informants, Rocquespur’s money, Rocquespur’s influence. Losing the prize to him again and again and having to smile and tug his forelock, say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ and bow and scrape…

Rafe pulled his hand free from hers. Isabella gave him a sharp sideways look. He made a show of fumbling in his pocket with his free hand.

“Ah, sustenance!” He held up a tin of peppermints, the can dented and the paper peeling. Rafe popped open the lid. “Care for some?” He tossed three into his mouth, the combined mint taste, strong and sweet, with a punch of bitter, brought water to his eyes.

“No, thank you,” said Isabella. “I am not fond of mint.”

However does she manage to sound like a spinster aunt? Or is it a Sister of Selene? “Oh, I forgot that you liked snuff better.” Rafe patted his pockets. “Want me to see if I have some?”

“Not that, either,” said Isabella, wearily. The sigh at the end of her sentence made Rafe feel like an exasperating child.

“So, tell me, Isabella,” he asked from around the mints in his mouth. “How does it feel to be a badly-dressed yellow-toothed old man?”

“Rafe—”

“I was not aware that we were on such close terms.”

“Rafe.” She stopped, turned, put her hand on her hip. “They’re getting to you.”

“Maybe you’re getting to me.” In spite of his waspishness, Rafe did pause. He did not feel presences in his head, could not hear voices. Yet this belligerence was unlike him, too.

On the other hand… “You’re changing the subject.” He continued walking the corridor, sloping steadily downward, leaving her behind. “You’re not telling me anything. Again.”

Her light flickered as she jogged back into place by his side. “What’s there to say? I do what I have to.”

“And what is it that anointed you as the Savior of the World, Defender of Mankind?” He was skeptical, jeering and he knew it. It felt good to be a jerk, and he shut out the tiny voice in his head that had raised its hand and was trying to get his attention.

“Tradition. The Rocquespurs have always been Slayers.” Isabella lifted her light higher. “Ah, an opening out of the vault, no doubt leading further below. You were right.”

How had she seen it? Rafe barely made out the opening until they were upon it. A crack in the wall to their left, just wide enough to admit them. Provided they turned sideways and sucked in their stomachs as they slipped through.

“There is still the way ahead,” Rafe gestured with his free hand, still cradling the torch.

Isabella tilted her head. “No, I think it will lead it us back to where we started. Shimmer mazes are like that.” She stepped through the crack.

Rafe hesitated. His earnest words of a while ago seemed foolish now. How were they to find their way out? They could wander the caverns below forever. Was it really better to be caught by the krin down there than up here?

“Coming?” Isabella called.

Stop ordering me around! His mental tone was savage. Rafe fought the thought down. Don’t jump down her throat for everything.

Were the krin messing with his head? He heard nothing now, no wind, no sighs, just the rasp of his own breathing. Even Isabella’s movements had ceased.

“Isabella?” Rafe inserted himself through the opening, scraping against rock.

“Here.” Her hand found his. “My light went out.” She said it calmly, but behind her words, Rafe heard the echo of a conversation long past, dug up from his memory.

What is it, soldier?

The lights, sir, the lights have all gone out. And Lang cannot raise anyone on the wire, sir. The generators, sir, have all gone out. It’s coming, sir, it’s coming! The fire is coming!

Hold on, private, hold on. Don’t assume the worst, just yet. Tell Lang to get out the signaler. We hold our positions still.

Rafe blinked it away. No. That war was over. He was not a soldier anymore. “Here, take mine.” He thrust it into her hand, fumbled with lighter and wooden block. Another meager flame twinkled in the blackness, and he felt all the better for having the pair.

“Take care. The footing here is not the best.” Isabella started forward. Rubble crunched and turned underfoot. Walls crumbled on either side, leaving just the support beams, like the bones of a ribcage, vaulting overhead. This tunnel had lasted hundreds of years, maybe; surely it could last a few moments longer.

“How will we know which way to go?” he ventured.

“I’ve studied maps of Shimmer,” she responded. “We’ll stay below ground until we get closer to the hills, and then we’ll take the sleigh out to the Gathering Place.”

“Take?”

“Commandeer,” she amended.

“I hope you have a plan for that.”

“Actually, I was going to leave it up to the soldier to figure that out. Didn’t I vote for you to be awarded a medal for capturing that Blackstone convoy?”

Rafe snorted. “You voted against it. You and Verney. The only two.” He thought about it, then added the extra four votes Rocquespur controlled. “Actually, that was six votes against.”

“Did I, really?” Isabella’s voice hollowed and echoed, and the quality of air around them changed from dense to light, as if it were now allowed to expand. “It must’ve been a political thing.”

“No doubt.”

Her fingers touched the back of his hand lightly. Prickles ran down Rafe’s spine. He waited for her to say something, but she didn’t. He should know better than to expect apologies or explanations from her.

Episode Seventy Five

Chapter Twenty Eight, Part One

Shimmer

They sat in the chamber with the torture device, which they picked because it was near the door and could be salvaged for fuel. A small fire, nestled by strips of Isabella’s dress, burned through a bed of scrap paper—a newssheet from a week ago and a receipt for a new hat, the only tangible summation of Rafe’s life. Rafe watched the headline, ANTIMACHINISTS ATTACK SUBSTATION, glow in the heat, then blacken and curl into ash. He wondered what was going on in Oakhaven, whether Leo was alive, whether Tristan had been forgiven. He no longer felt that cold hard knot of bitterness; it was hard to feel that angry when he was trapped in the darkness and the cold, waiting for the Soul Eaters to claim him. Shimmer was a dream, but Oakhaven felt like a memory of a memory, a place where another Rafe had walked and talked, had laughed and played cards and flirted with debutantes, the whole city laid out like a plush carpet at his feet.

There was very little feeling in those feet now. It was cold as well as dark, and an aching absence where ka should’ve been. Rafe shifted a little, glancing at Isabella who stared, frowning, into the flames. Her only paper contribution was a train ticket from Clearwater to Longstown, a trip she did not explain, and one Rafe did not ask about. He would not have been surprised to see her produce a ticket from Selene to the Point.

“We’re on our own, Rafe,” Isabella finally said. “No one’s coming. Not Sable, not Mirados, of his minions, no one, save the krin.”

“You can’t know that. Mirados will want to question us, or gloat over our fate. He’ll make an appearance and we can bargain or charm our way out. You charm, and I’ll bargain. Or maybe,” Rafe peered at Isabella’s stony face, “the other way around.”

“He won’t come. Not into the dark. Not a Shimmerite. He’ll let the krin have their way with us, then turn up the lights as bright as they will go. In a few days, the automatons will be along with their white gloves and quiet feet and clean the place up. Put everything back the way it was, so that Master Mirados doesn’t have to face unpleasantness.” Repressed virulence vibrated through her voice. “So much for there not being any krin in Shimmer. Mirados is using them to do his dirty work.”

“Like Karzov?” Rafe asked quietly.

Her breath came out in a hiss. “Like Karzov.”

“Well, then,” Rafe rose to feet and held his hands out to Isabella. “What say you to moving on to more congenial quarters?”

Isabella lifted her eyebrows in question.

“There is apparently no way out to the rest of Mirados’ mansion from here, aside from the metal door we cannot budge or burn or hack. Correct?” He waited for her nod before he went on. “But there is the rest of this corridor we haven’t explored, and presumably there is a way going… underground.”

Isabella shook her head. “There might be, or there might not be. The krin don’t  need space to travel the way we do.” She struggled for words. “It’s not like they can go wherever they want, or glide through rock and metal and wood. It’s… complicated.”

“But,” he persisted, “there must be cellars here. Tunnels under the cellars. Sewage pipes. Machine ways. There must be, even in Shimmer.”

Isabella gave a small tilt of her head, as if she didn’t want to assent, but couldn’t bring herself to lie, either.

Rafe crouched, took her slender cold hand in his. Face close to hers, foreheads almost touching, he whispered in her ear, soft as a lover’s endearments, “I don’t want to die here, with everything turned to ash around me, waiting in the dark and the cold for them to come find us. If we are to die, let’s do it fighting. Are you with me?”

He felt her breath catch, heard the rustle of fabric as her chest expanded, then constricted. Her cheek nearly touched his. “They will sneak into every open place of your mind. They will take your emotions and memories, twist them, corrupt them, throw them back in your face. I have spent years building up my armor against them. What will you do when they come to you with the faces of your loved ones and whisper to you the love song of death?”

“Run like mad. Scream. Grab your hand and try to hide behind you.” Rafe rocked back on his heels. A rueful smile twisted his lips. “I won’t be of much help. But you may have a chance. If the worst happens, you can run and leave me.”

“Oh, I plan to.” Isabella smiled, too, all irony and softness and steel. “There are things greater than you and—I have obligations. But, knowing what you do about the things in the dark, the things they do, that I might have to leave you, will you still do it?”

Rafe left the meager shivering circle of light, crossed over to the doorway. He stared in the direction of the closed door, not able to see it, and tried to imagine it opening. Would Mirados come to gloat over them, or rage in fury and judgment? Would Rafe himself beg and mewl for mercy?

Would Mirados or Raman or any of the partygoers care enough to personally carry out the punishment?

No.

Shimmer was beyond caring, beyond concern, beyond judgment. Let things happen for good or ill outside their borders, let men kill or forgive, it mattered not. Let someone else take care of the unpleasantness, the passions of the younger nations, the work of judging and redeeming. As long as their gardens were frost-free and their parties full of novelties, they were content.

Rafe turned, set his face down the corridor, towards the unknown. “Yes,” he said.

“So speaks one who has no idea what is to come,” said Isabella. “You’re crazy, you know.”

Something, a small sound, caught at his attention. “Probably. But could you please get that wood and the flames and come over? They’re here.”

Episode Seventy Four

Chapter Twenty Seven, Part Four

Shimmer

“I feel it. It’s here,” he called over his shoulder.

Small chambers, little more than alcoves, led off from the corridor. Rafe peered into one. All it contained was a life-sized statue of a man chained to a rock, breast torn open to reveal a heart forever frozen in agony.

The next alcove held a wicked-looking contraption, all sharp points and sharp blades, hammers and balls, with a man-shaped depression in the center of it.

“So this is Mirados’ fun side,” commented Rafe. “Charming.”

“It’s dark in this one,” said Isabella.

Rafe’s scalp prickled; somehow it was sinister for there to be total dark in light-loving Shimmer. “Do you sense something?” he asked.

“No. Do you?”

Rafe listened. Nothing lovingly whispered murderous thoughts to him. “No, not from here. But this way…” Something strong and familiar tugged him down the corridor, which bent around two corners before straightening out again.

Rafe led the way into a series of chambers, finally stepping into a alcove. “Ah.” They stood side-by-side, staring at the last Key.

This one was the most detailed of the group, with gold trees and cavorting deer all over its deep green surface. It stood in its own stand, and when Rafe reached out, it gave a hum of recognition.

It lifted easily, almost eagerly, into his hands. Rafe stood a moment, enjoying the warmth and power it emanated.

Isabella beckoned from the doorway. “Hurry.”

Rafe stuffed the Key into his pocket. They took two steps into the corridor, and the lights dimmed further, ominously low.

“Listen.” Rafe stopped. A growl began beneath his feet, vibrated through his bones.

“Keep going!” Isabella grabbed his hand and they ran, her skirt swishing against his leg, his hip crashing against stone as they rounded corners. The wall-lights flickered like candles in the wind—was it his imagination or was the very air getting heavier, pressing down on his shoulders, expanding into stone in his lungs?—and the doorways were gaping jaws into the subterranean as they fled past. The Key thunked against Rafe’s thigh, Isabella’s hand was warm in his own sweat-slicked one. They stumbled and tripped, but one was always there to pull the other along, and when they ran flat out together like this, strides matching, Rafe had a sudden ludicrous feeling of happiness, as if all tangled emotions, past betrayals, words unsaid, secrets untold, his fate and the fate of his world was swallowed up in this present moment—this movement, this pump and ache of muscles, this pounding of blood and hammering of hurt, this burning of air, this squeal of shoes against floor, this slap of marble against feet.

A feeling that was as abruptly cut off as they barely stopped themselves from slamming into a closed door that had not been there before.

Rafe stared at it, dropped Isabella’s hand, and threw his shoulder against the door. The redhot aliveness still coursed through his blood. He pushed, he shoved, ran his hands all over that cold hard surface, looking for a hole, an indentation, a handle, anything he could grab and poke and wrench.

Nothing.

Without ceremony, the lights winked out.

Rafe’s ragged breath was loud in his ears. “Did you bring Raman’s keys?” he asked.

“They won’t work,” said Isabella flatly.

“Give them to me.”

“It’s not—”

“Just give them!” All that free-flowing energy that had powered his muscles was pent-up, dammed, rising in a tide of frustration and rage. He held out his hand and somehow, despite the darkness, Isabella managed to slap them down smartly on to his palm.

“Several useless keys coming right up,” she said crisply.

Rafe did not bother to reply. One by one, he slid the keys over the door, trying to find some place they might fit into. Tongue firmly behind teeth glued shut, he worked with a savage meticulousness, eliciting squeaks of protest from the keys as they scraped against that unyielding surface.

The last key failed to produce an open door. Rafe uttered an oath, threw down the key ring. It landed with a weak chink.

“Rafe?” Isabella, from farther away, sounding as if she stood with her back to him, guarding the way they had come from.

“Yes?”

Her low voice was as tight as a coiled spring. “Get out whatever lighters you have and anything that you don’t mind seeing go up in flame.”

Sweat prickled down Rafe’s back. A sound nibbled at the edge of his hearing.

“I may have been wrong about Shimmer,” whispered Isabella.

Scritch scritch.

Episode Seventy Three

Chapter Twenty Seven, Part Three

Shimmer

The threesome lurched their way into a circular chamber, with passageways radiating out from it like spokes from a hub. Raman gave Metal Man a cheery wave as the door spiraled shut behind then. Another of the same doors stood directly opposite. It was, of course, closed. Raman tugged them in the direction of a less formidable-looking door to the left. This one was only rectangular.

Isabella slipped her hand from Raman’s arm. “I’ll wait for you two here.”

Raman beamed. “We’ll be right back, my dear.” He pecked at Isabella’s cheek, missed by several inches and caught her shoulder instead. Above his head, Isabella looked pained.

“You brought him here,” Rafe mouthed, turning the youth around by a shoulder. The lavatory door hissed and slid aside, and Rafe propelled Raman through the doorway and into a gold-and-white marble cavern. Soft music drifted through the air and several fountains poured foamy water into scalloped basins. A massive sunken bath occupied one corner, a glass-and-tile stall stood in another. Mirrors of various sizes hung on the walls; elegant silver tables covered with glass jars stood under them. Urns and pots and pillars divided the room. Rafe finally located a place for Raman to relieve himself behind a screen of potted ferns, fronds entwined in loving embrace.

While the youth was occupied, Rafe examined a nearby table. Sweet-tasting water gushed out into a leaf-shaped basin. He filled the least decorative of the empty bottles with water, tore open a packet from his pocket and dumped its powdery contents into the liquid. He stoppered it and swished the liquid around until it was almost as clear as before, only a few grains swirling lazily in the colorless depths. Too small for Raman to notice in his condition. Rafe crumpled the packet and stuffed it back into his capacious pocket.

Raman staggered out from behind the screen. “I say. I’m having the hardest time with this.” He collapsed against Rafe’s shoulder, his trousers still unfastened. “I need a drink.”

“Here. This will help.” Rafe closed Raman’s fingers around the bottle and tipped the water down Raman’s throat. Much of it splashed on to the youth’s chest, but in his inebriated state it wouldn’t take much to push him into unconsciousness.

Raman managed to hold himself upright for a moment. “Well?” he announced brightly. “Shall we see what Mirados has just acquired? Oh my.” A peculiar expression crossed his face, as if he was going to be sick.

Rafe moved out of the way, in case he was.

“My tongue feels like it’s been rolled in cat shit. This stuff tastes rotten.” Raman’s eyes rolled back into his head and he fell to the floor in a graceless faint. The glass bottle chinked as it fell out of Raman’s lax fingers, and rolled away into a corner.

Rafe dragged the youth to a more comfortable, better-hidden spot behind the ferns and fished a keyring of shining discs from his pocket.

Isabella met him outside the door. “You hit him?”

“No, used the powder Sable gave me.”

“Pretty potent drug,” she commented.

“It wasn’t supposed to act that fast,” said Rafe. “It must have been all that alcohol in his system.”

“Then I hope you haven’t killed him.”

“Where do we start?” Rafe looked around.

“The passageways lead to the public galleries—open to visitors if they ask politely and make a deposit of their souls, according to Raman. If we’re lucky, the Key will be here and not in the super-private collection which no one but Mirados sees. He won’t even take souls for a glimpse at those.”

If we’re lucky.”

They weren’t.

After a thorough search of the adjoining chambers, including peering behind frames and looking into urns, they still had not turned up the Key.

They turned their attention to the locked door, a tougher twin of the one they had come through. It was reinforced with even more ka, and the only discernable opening mechanism was a circular slot half the size of Rafe’s palm right in the center. Isabella tried Raman’s disc-shaped keys in the slot. None worked. They even fetched the unconscious noble from the bathroom and pressed his hand against likely-looking plates.

Nothing.

“Well, he is only a nephew, and feckless one at that,” said Isabella as they returned Raman to his hiding place.

Rafe looked at the door with what he was fast coming to think of as his ka-sight. A complicated tangle of ka-threads surrounded it. He tweaked one, but his mental touch slid right off.

“Well?”

Rafe shook his head. “It’s almost like a puzzle, but…” He jerked. Something popped inside his skull, creating a vacuum. Silence and darkness rushed in to fill the space, leaving him deaf and blind.

It took Rafe a moment to realize that his eyes and ears still worked.

“Rafe, what happened?”

“The ka. It’s gone.” Rafe stared at the door. Some of the ka still threaded the metal, but most of it had just—vanished.

“Quick, then, before it comes back.” Isabella picked at the door lock with a knife.

“Wait.” Rafe withdrew something from his pocket. A red-and-white paper-covered tube with a long fuse lay in his palm.

“A fire cracker?”

“An explosive.” Rafe grinned. “I hope you don’t mind me bartering some of Rocquespur’s candlesticks for this. There was a Clearwater mining train next to us at the Gathering Place.”

Isabella laughed. “Oh, why not? It’s not as if the candlesticks were going to help us open this door.” She stepped aside. “Do it.”

“It might bring Metal Man running,” Rafe warned.

Isabella shook her head. “He’s only charged with keeping undesirables from that door. I think you’ll find the automatons are more ready to obey the letter of the law than the spirit.”

“Sounds like many privates who served under me.” Rafe stuffed the explosive into the key-hole and lit the fuse. “Stand back.” He ran across the chamber and hunched behind a pillar, shoulder-to-shoulder with Isabella. Strands of hair had come loose from her elaborate hairdo. They tickled his cheek.

The explosion was a mere pop and fizzle, a small flash of light and a whiff of chemicals.

For a few moments, Rafe thought that the explosive had no effect. Then he saw that the key-hole was several inches larger and the door itself looked rather loose. While Isabella examined the panels that made up the door, Rafe wrapped his neckcloth around his hand. He jiggled the internal mechanism of the lock. Metal groaned as the inner whorls ground together and widened until they formed a good-sized hole.

Rafe grinned at Isabella. “Hope that dress won’t hold you up too long!” he said and climbed through. He jumped into a dimly-lit corridor and jogged down it, gaze probing the shadows. From behind came a ripping noise, and the sound of nimble feet hitting the floor.

The dress hadn’t held Isabella up at all.

Episode Seventy Two

Chapter Twenty Seven, Part Two

Shimmer

Mindful of his role, Rafe meandered the room, stopping to gawk at every exhibit like any tourist. It wasn’t all that difficult to maintain that look of slack-jawed bemusement. Mirados’ entertainment consisted not only of the gravity-defying and tireless acrobats, but miniature horses spreading gem-studded wings and trailing flames from their tips; a castle as tall as Rafe made from gleaming confectionary, with spun sugar towers, fountains of wine and walking sentries made from pastry; and many more besides. Mirados’ guests were about as bizarre as the entertainment with their hair and skin in rainbow hues, moving tattoos on their faces, and multiple piercings. As he stared at each curiosity, more marvelous than the last, Rafe began to tease out the separate threads of ka that wrapped against his skin in sticky spider threads and pinged his nerves with bursts of color. That gold-orange strand created the illusion of flames, an outlining band of pale green kept the fire’s shape. Whorls of pastel colors maintained the open, perfect blooms in the vases.

And all of that energy came from quartz. Plates of quartz hung on the wall, chunks of it studded furniture, still more was set in the floor, and besides all that, there was quartz below, underground where Rafe could only sense it. His feet thrummed with the radiant ka as it flowed into his bones.

This tamed ka was so different from the white heat that assaulted him in the agri-caves. In fact, if he reached out with mental hooks and pulled that greenish-yellow strand there…

One of the marching sentries on the confectionary castle stiffened and toppled off the battlements. Rafe drew back, guiltily, but no one else seemed to have noticed. The ka strand flapped loosely and Rafe clumsily tied it back to the miniature sentry. The pastry man lay on his side, flailing his arms and kicking feebly. He looked a lot like a fellow quartz-sickness sufferer, and none of Rafe’s attempts succeeded in getting the poor chap on his feet. He finally left the exhibit before anyone realized what he had done.

It was highly unlikely that the Renat Key was in the lobby. Rafe joined a party overflowing into the next room, and eavesdropped shamelessly as one of its members—a person of indeterminate gender with a cap of sleek ice-blue hair, silver rings at the corner of enormous slanted eyes and a rail-thin figure—spoke to a companion in a husky voice.

“ … got the last one of Carisa’s moving paintings, damn the man…”

“… I’d love to see it…”

“If we can get into Mirados’ private gallery. He has one of his automatons on duty there and you know what they’re like…”

“Damn right, I do. Can’t bribe, seduce or make ’em drunk!” Both broke out into hiccupping giggles.

Private gallery. That sounded promising.

Beyond the lobby, the rooms were arranged like clearings in a forest and the ways between them meandering dimly-lit paths, with nooks and overlooks. Rafe stepped off the path and through a curtain of lacy vines whose sweet smell lingered on his hands. He stood looking down at a golden-hued waterfall. The liquid at the bottom splashed itself into foam against the inside of a giant shell. Partygoers scooped up in the foam and ate it off their fingers.

Another guest, this one whose only eccentricity was green hair, turned to Rafe. “Flavored foam. Pretty amazing, huh?”

“Oh, well. It is impressive, in a showy way. I was hoping for something more, though…” The ka fueling the waterfall looked tenuous somehow, interlaced in a web of colors so pale they were hardly there. Rafe wondered if the foam was at all filling, or just a tasty illusion. There was no end to the abundance of food, artfully incorporated into the exhibits, but the guests were abnormally thin.

The young man gave Rafe a knowing wink. “Well, there are some very accomplished body performers further in.”

“No, I meant more historically and culturally valuable artifacts.”

“Like, you mean, paintings and such? Oh, Mirados has thousands of them. Keeps them guarded, though I don’t know why he bothers. I’ll show you the way to his galleries, they’re close to where the skins are.” The youth drew Rafe out of the waterfall chamber. The young man’s chatter fall on Rafe’s ears like a prattle of rain.

They parted ways at the entrance to the skins’ area—skins, Rafe surmised, being those who performed naked. The youth found Rafe’s tastes sadly lacking, but he didn’t try too hard to persuade Rafe to join him.

Rafe strolled through a doorway half-hidden behind a screen of potted trees, and entered another world. A smooth white marble corridor, clear of any clutter or decoration, led to a shiny round metal door. White light shone from recessed squares in the ceiling. Rafe felt the powerful pulse of ka coming from the door.

“No guests allowed.” The being who blocked the corridor to Mirados’ art collection appeared to have been dipped in molten silver and frozen. Blank eyes looked beyond Rafe.

“Ah, I’m sorry to trouble you, sir.” Rafe flashed a smile. “I was hoping to use the facilities quickly, and someone mentioned that there was a privy just back here.”

His charm had no affect on the metallic man. “Turn around, down the stairs to your left, two doors to the right.”

“Couldn’t I nip in there for a little bit?” asked Rafe. “It’s rather urgent.”

The guard made no reply. It apparently went deaf after a basic exchange, and there was no way Rafe could wrestle his way past. Bunches of ka, like bundled cord, lay within it. Rafe wondered which one would turn the automaton off, but any experimentation was just as likely to raise an alarm.

And even if he disabled the automaton, there was the door to deal with. Wires of green ka permeated the metal. Rafe didn’t think the purpose of that bit of magic was to shower visitors with bonbons and songs of welcome.

“Darling, you have to see Mirados’ new paintings. They are simply splendid, divine!” Raman, now thoroughly drunk, staggered in, held up only by the woman on his arm.

Isabella rolled her eyes at Rafe, but her tone was all breathless sweetness. “I would adore it of all things!” She fluttered her lashes at Raman

Isabella, flirting. What next? Was the Mage Renat going to rise up out of the floor, waving a pink wand and save them all the trouble of finding the Keys?

The Earl waved at the metallic guard. “Let us through, old chap.” The automaton stared bleakly at the youth, then stepped aside in one well-oiled motion.

The door opened, its whorls retracting into the walls. Isabella gave Rafe a significant look; he returned it with a bland expression. Somehow, as the couple came up and Rafe turned to head back to the lobby, he managed to trip over Raman. The man staggered impressively, pulling Isabella off-balance.

“Steady there,” Rafe took hold of Raman’s free arm. “Need some help, old fellow? I’m afraid your lovely companion isn’t as strong as she could be.” He grinned at Isabella over Raman’s head.

Raman clutched at the lace ruffles of Rafe’s borrowed finery, and hauled himself upright. Stitches ripped, and Rafe wondered if he could write the mending off as a business expense.

“Th-thank you. Why, it’s the outsider, again. Still. Since you haven’t left, of course. Unless we’re talking about leaving the ball—”

Rafe interrupted before Raman could talk himself into more tortuous syntax. “May I be of assistance, my lord?”

“I do seem to be clumsy tonight, don’t I?” said Raman frankly. “I suppose I could use some help. No hard feelings about stealing the lady?” He peered up into Rafe’s face.

“None at all,” said Rafe smoothly. “I’m glad she found a friend. I was only trying to be kind.”

“Good, because she’s promised to be my special companion, haven’t you, dear?” He patted Isabella’s hand.

Rafe thought about commenting on the implications of special companionship, but Isabella’s bright smile had gotten noticeably brittle and he thought he’d rather not goad her.

“Ah, I need to use the privy,” complained Raman.

Even better. “This way.” Rafe gestured past Metal Man, through the opened doorway.

Episode Seventy One

Chapter Twenty Seven, Part One

Shimmer

Shimmer was a riot of colors, a bouquet of scents, a psychedelic assault on Rafe’s senses. From the moment their transport—a filigreed sleigh floating a foot above the ground and with no discernable means of propulsion—slid in through the opalescent dome surrounding Shimmer, he was staring like a Blackstone drone in an Oakhaven agri-cave. Vast swathes of grass in shades of green, purple and blue stretched in every direction under the warm golden glow of lights set high in the dome. Flowers burst out of every dimple and hollow in wild petal-shedding abandon. Water jetted out of fountains in physically impossible trajectories, danced past gleaming crystalline chimes suspended from posts, splintering rainbows. And off in the distance….

“Look!” Rafe pointed. “Those are horses.”

The animals, in hues of blue, silver and gold, lifted their heads to stare at them out of limpid dark eyes. A soft wind ruffled the feathered wings that lay across their sides.

Rafe jerked back into his seat as chirping balls of light whizzed past his face in a blur of jewel-toned bodies and translucent wings. The light changed, from honey gold to burnt amber to silver starlight in the space of a few moments. Curtains of blue-purple light rippled in the air, obscuring the horses. All around, cunningly-wrought crystalline statues glowed with light—one a tree with its limbs all twisted over itself with the unnerving grace of a contortionist, another of a large feline poised to spring.

And ka flowed through it all. Rafe winced away at its touch, his muscles clenched, but it did not burn or pummel him. The touch of this ka was actually… pleasant. Do the rohkayan process ka somehow? Tame it and make it more manageable?

A shower of sound made Rafe look upwards. White flakes swirled down upon the open carriage, chiming as they fell. His skin tingled cold where they touched, though their taste upon his lips was sweet. Rafe caught one in his palm, feather-like, but it dissolved into nothingness when he poked it with a finger.

Isabella looked at him, white gleaming on her dress. “Welcome to Shimmer, where life is one big theater production. Mirados’ house is up ahead.”

A dark forest spread before them, with lanterns tangled among the trees. As the carriage continued along its way, the branches, thin and flexible, swept out of their way. They had no leaves, just lots of fine silky strands like tresses. They brushed Rafe’s cheek and smelled of rain and perfume.

“This is different,” Isabella noted. One tree-lock crept up coyly to her shoulder; Isabella absently yanked it off and tossed it on the ground.

The trees didn’t try flirting with her again.

“You’ve been here before.”

“My father brought me when I was a child, before he and Mirados had their falling out. Ah… here we are.”

Rafe looked around, expecting a grand edifice, but the carriage stopped in a small stone-paved circle. A narrow crack in a waterfall-clothed hillside was the only place to go.

Rafe hopped down onto the flagstones, and ka pin-pricked up his leg. It felt ticklish. He held out his hand gallantly to Isabella, who took it as she alighted.

“Are you all right?” she asked him.

“Yes.”

Isabella signaled with a finger, and a ka-powered servitor detached itself from the carriage and hovered obsequiously behind her. It looked like a fancy floating table with arms curving over its top. Sable’s flower was cradled in between them.

They walked arm-in-arm through the water-bordered opening. Rafe looked dubiously at it. His senses felt something ponderous and heavy gathering beyond the gap. As Isabella tugged him through, static brushed his hair. The border between outside and inside felt slightly soapy and cool, like walking through a bubble.

When the film finally popped, a thousand fireworks exploded into shrieking color right in front of his eyes.

Rafe stumbled, and only Isabella’s grip on his arm kept him up. Half of those fireworks were just in his head, the colorful trails of a hundred little magics, tangling and kissing and parting with each other. The other half was an assault on his normal senses. Mirados’ vine-colored lobby was filled with flame-dripping birds, acrobats creating archways with their bodies, chairs with their backs spread out in real feathers.

And that was just in the first few feet into the chamber.

“Too much ka,” he whispered to Isabella. “I can’t separate them all!”

Isabella squeezed his hand. “Give it a bit of time to get used to it. You know the scent of what you’re looking for. I’ll find someone to help us get close. Look sharp, here he comes.”

Rafe straightened and hoped that his sickened expression could be mistaken for a look of stunned astonishment.

“Welcome!” The man who strode up to them was broad-chested and black-bearded. A medallion of beaten gold lay on his bare brown chest and his only concession to decency was a loincloth around his hips. The thongs of his leather sandals snaked up his hairy muscular legs. Rafe noted for the first time that their host was not the only one in the room displaying a rather large expanse of naked flesh. “Lady Maerilla, what a pleasure to have such a beauty grace my little gathering.”

Isabella ducked her head and simpered, “Oh, Preceptor, you are too kind! Such a privilege… honor… oh, the sights…!” She trailed off breathlessly and fluttered fake lashes at Mirados, who had already turned to the rose and was crooning over it.

Rafe took the opportunity to whisper in her ear, “Laced that corset too tight, did you?” for which impertinence he was rewarded with a tap of her fan.

“Say, Uncle, where’s that dancer from last time? You know, the one with the chocolates down her…” The youth who interrupted was slender and unsteady on his feet, and he made a gesture towards his chest to indicate which part of the dancer’s anatomy had contained the delicacies.

“My boy, that was last time.”

“But, Uncle, I liked her.” The youth’s voice took on a nasal whine. His hair was purple and slicked back, and his dark-complexioned face sprinkled with glitter, but in tone and attitude, he could’ve been Tristan’s twin. Tristan. A pang through him. Tristan, who could be justly executed under the law for his treason.

“There are other dancers tonight, and more attractions besides. Come, my boy, here is Lady Maerilla all the way from Oakhaven.” Mirados turned his nephew by the shoulder, lights glistening off the youth’s mirrored vest, towards Isabella.

Isabella gave the youth a sultry look from under her lashes, one that she could’ve only learned from Sable. A come-hither look. From Isabella.

He’d have never believed it possible if he hadn’t seen it.

“My nephew, Raman.” Mirados pushed him toward Isabella, and duty done, turned towards Rafe. “First time for you, too, Lord… Oldmine?”

“Oldmill, actually, and gosh, yes, it’s just grand…” Rafe let his eyes stray towards the acrobats in scanty red leotards with fabric cut away from the sides as they changed formation in a shiver of movement and went still again. “Just grand,” he finished lamely, employing the inarticulate eloquence of the young man whose identity he’d assumed for the evening.

Mirados followed Rafe’s gaze. “You will find, young man, that we are a very free and accommodating people. Go on and find a friend, like your young lady companion did.”

Isabella had vanished with Raman, and in the time it took for Rafe to sweep the room for her, Mirados, too, stalked away, the servitor bobbing at his side.