Chapter 12 - An Unparalleled Offer
Faeron didn’t know what Mathas said to Auri that night at the Woven Dome, but whatever it was had kept her in her room all week. The only time he saw her in the days leading up to the Unity Festival was when she made short trips out to the kitchen to cook up dinner. She looked tired and unkempt, and refused to answer his questions about her conversation with Mathas or what was occupying her time. She even turned down his offers to set up Unity decorations, something they’d done together every year they’d lived together.
Once Faeron realized Auri was adamant on remaining undisturbed, he instead split his time between Quinn and Lydia. Quinn was entirely absorbed in Deity after his tournament, going so far as to program Logic to play against him. Swiftly learning new strategies, Quinn was now beating Faeron nine times out of ten. Lydia, meanwhile, had Faeron on his toes. Some nights she’d meet him for dinner, others they’d spend in Loem Park, or the Astral Cafe, or the thirty story zoo in Sombara Tower. It was never the same thing twice. Despite the fact that Faeron had lived in Eredith all his life, being with Lydia made the city feel fresh again, like he was seeing it with a whole new set of eyes.
On the evening before the Unity Festival, a soft snow danced about the city, though Faeron wouldn’t know it from a small simulation chamber in the Arches of the Ages. There, a golden afternoon sun slowly sank down a cloudless sky and an ocean breeze carried the sharp cry of circling seacrows. Dozens of children played in the sand, the same children who had played here for years. They, like the adults sunbathing and setting up picnics along the beach, were part of the simulation.
“I know it’s no Prophet’s Guard,” said Lydia as the pair of them walked along the beach, “but sometimes I like to use these history sims to practice dancing alone, away from the studio. I only wish I could take off my shoes and feel the grains between my toes.”
“Or the waves lapping at your feet,” added Faeron, staring off to sea. “You know, when I look out over the waves, I could swear I’ve sailed before. It’s like… déjà vu.”
“In a dream, as Jakob?” asked Lydia.
“That’s the strange bit,” said Faeron. “For as long as he’s lived by the ocean, I don’t think I have a single memory of Jakob on a boat. Still, there’s so much I don’t remember…” Faeron felt his glove tighten and looked down to see Lydia holding his hand. His gaze rose to her glossy pink lips and twinkling blue eyes.
“If it’s not a memory,” she said, “maybe it’s a premonition… or ambition. You’re already shaping energy and Auri… well… she terrifies me to be honest. It’s only a matter of time before you’ve found your mom, cured the plague, and freed us of these walls, but then what? Maybe you’ll head out on the Long Sea and fight off all the monsters from the deep.”
“Or, maybe I’ll get the alca network back online and take you for a walk on this beach,” smirked Faeron, his chest swelling with confidence.
A smile crept across her soft pink lips as her eyes gazed into his. "You know, I think I'd like that," she said, grasping his hands tighter.
He and Lydia walked the beach for the remainder of the evening, and as the sun set over the ocean, the pair exited the simulation and turned in their boots.
“My show ends a little after noon tomorrow,” said Lydia, as she followed Faeron out the front door of the Arches of the Ages, “which means I should be ready by fourth hour.”
“Your place, fourth hour,” said Faeron, watching snow drift lazily past Lydia’s pale face. “We can grab food on our way to the Athenaeum. There’s a rooftop overlook with a killer view of the parade.”
“And after that, the Ballroom at Bistro Elledin,” said Lydia, rocking back and forth on her heels, seeming almost to burst with excitement. “I’ll need to wear something extra special… though not too restrictive. You’ve got a dance lesson tomorrow.”
“I’ve been looking forward to it,” grinned Faeron. “Well, that… and what comes with it.”
“Hmm,” said Lydia, stroking her chin playfully. “I don’t have a clue what you mean.” She winked and then dove straight into a hug, flinging her arms around him. “Goodnight, Faeron. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I can’t wait.” Faeron squeezed her tight and closed his eyes. For a moment, there was only her warmth.
Faeron wore a grin all the way home. It was dark in the common area of his apartment, the only light beaming in through the long sliding glass door. Out on the balcony, silhouetted against the stars, was Auri.
She didn’t seem to notice him until he slid open the door. Looking up suddenly from a book resting in her lap, Auri looked crazed. She wore a baggy t-shirt with unkempt hair and shadows beneath her eyes. It looked like she hadn’t slept an hour despite having locked herself in her room for a week.
“I hope you’re not planning on coming to the festival dressed like that,” joked Faeron as he took his seat beside her. “Whatcha readin’?”
“I think…” Auri began, but she stopped herself, furrowing her brow as if a sudden thought struck her. “No. I don’t want to tell anyone until I’m absolutely sure. All I can say is that I think I know why the gloves never worked for me.”
“You afraid I’ll tell someone?” asked Faeron, stung by the secrecy.
“It’s not about trust,” said Auri, earnestly. “I just don’t have the full idea ready. This is big, and I want to be absolutely sure.”
“I get it,” said Faeron, taking his seat beside her. Knowing better than to push her further, he changed the subject, asking, “Any word when your dad’s getting home?” Vox always came back for the Unity Festival, though he sometimes missed a night or two.
“Host Eamon got word from dad a couple nights ago,” said Auri as snow tumbled about the balcony, falling heavier here than the streets below. “A sandstorm held them up for a day in East Saldun, but he’s doing everything he can to get here tomorrow.”
“Knowing your dad,” said Faeron, “I wouldn’t bet against him. What’s the plan if he does show up tomorrow?”
“Don’t worry,” smiled Auri, “I won’t abandon Quinn. We’ll still join you and Lydia at the parade, just the four of us. I’m sure your dad will invite us all over after the ceremony for…”
“Chocolate brews around the fire,” Faeron finished for her, practically tasting the warm confection already.
“As is tradition,” yawned Auri. She folded the book in her lap and rose with a stretch. “I’m gonna go read in bed for a bit before I pass out. I’m nearly done and the quicker I fall asleep, the sooner I see dad.”
“I’m about there as well,” said Faeron. They walked inside together and said goodnight before Faeron retreated to his bedroom. Wasting no time, Faeron buried himself in the covers and closed his eyes. Despite his excitement for tomorrow, or perhaps because of it, Faeron found sleep difficult. He tossed and turned, coming up with corny one-liners to woo Lydia in their first dance. Eventually the images of him and her locked in arms faded and the light of peridom took its place. The stream carried Faeron through vivid scenes of wondrous worlds to a smoky round room, cast in pink light and littered with colorful pillows. There, Jakob Rite stirred.
“Jakob… think you conked out on us… Jakob, hey Jakob!”
Jakob felt a strong grip tug on his shoulder, and he propped himself up, blinking awake. The whole room was filled with a pastel rainbow of pillows and even the floor itself was cushioned. Madeline Empire knelt before him, shadowed by the smoke swirling about the dim pink room.
“So much for staying up all night, ay Jakob?” she wafted away a plume of smoke and he could see a winning smile stretch across her face.
Jakob yawned and sat up. “Lizzy still here?” he asked, trying to remember when exactly he’d passed out.
Madeline pointed over her shoulder to a dark figure across the smoky room.
“So, this is all you?” asked Jakob, breathing in the scented haze. The whole room smelled of herbs and berries.
“One of us had to make it until morning,” she fell backward and snatched some papers on the far side of the bed before springing back up to a sit. “Here,” she said, then handed the stack to Jakob.
“What’s this?” he asked, flipping through the papers.
“A full manuscript for that Salduni Royalty’s Biographic Fantasy,” said Madeline excitedly. A groan sounded from across the room as the other girl grabbed a nearby pillow and placed it over her head.
“A Biographic Fantasy?” asked Jakob.
“It’s like a normal biography, except certain bits are spiced up,” answered Madeline.
“And you really got through all of this last night?”
“I was in a trance,” shrugged Madeline. “One second I was setting my pen to paper, the next thing I knew it was morning and here you two were, fast asleep. How late did you make it?”
Jakob looked at a smaller pile of papers, scattered beside him. “Half a chapter, I think.”
“That’s good!” clapped Madeline. “Means only a chapter and a half to go. You’ll be shipping it off to Vennamin any day now.”
“I can hope,” sighed Jakob. “I’ve only got a couple weeks left before...”
“You can’t think that way,” said Madeline. “Tell you what, I’ll give this draft a read as soon as I’m back from the… facilities. I just realized I haven’t been all night.” Madeline got to her feet and rushed through a curtain of colorful sequins.
Turning his attention to the lensed device resting beside him, Jakob whispered, “Proto, cease private mode. Any news?”
The lens flickered with blue light. “Thank goodness, I thought you’d never wake up,” said Proto excitedly, “Pinstripe called. You’re on.”
“Pinstripe!” exclaimed Jakob, springing to his knees. “When?”
“Today!?” In a frenzy, Jakob swept up his papers, stuffed them into a nearby leather messenger bag. “How long?”
“You’ll need to leave within the hour. Sylvia is already on her way here.”
“This is it, Proto,” said Jakob, springing to his feet and fixing the lens to his shirt. Lizzy groaned and rolled over. “The investigation, my last chapter, Pinstripe has the answers.” He rushed through the sequin curtain that Madeline had disappeared into only moments before and emerged into a cramped bookshop.
There were no windows here and the peeling egg-white ceiling was quite low. The pathways between the rows of bookshelves were hardly wide enough to walk through, and the piles of books at the foot of the cluttered stacks made the passageways even more precarious. Jakob weaved a path through the clutter, reaching a desk at the far wall. Mountains of books were heaped on top of the desk with only a small open area near an old-fashioned register, probably as old as the building he was in. Beside the desk was a shoddy wooden staircase leading upward.
The door at the top of the staircase opened and Madeline appeared. She wore a long loose sapphire dressing gown over a black tank top and grey sweatpants covered in coffee stains.
“Sneaking out?” she asked, descending the stairs slowly with a steaming mug.
“Meeting Pinstripe, if you’ll believe it,” boasted Jakob.
“Pinstripe!?” Madeline stopped sharp, nearly spilling her drink. “Jakob, are you sure about this? I know what it all means to you but owing a favor to a broker is a big deal.”
“Don’t worry. Words are my superpower,” said Jakob. “I’m not going to let him walk all over me.”
“If you say so,” sighed Madeline, continuing down the steps. “You want me to take a look at your drafts?”
“I’ll send over a copy,” offered Jakob, meeting her halfway up the rickety steps. “Sylvia’s already on her way.”
Madeline took a deep draw of her coffee and looked out over the stacks. “Funny,” she said, “all these extraordinary books, some rare as precious stones, and nobody seems to know or care that they’re down here.” She smiled sadly then took another sip. “Then there’s you, selling your soul to a devil just to add your own story to this musty basement.” She gave his arm an affectionate squeeze then continued past him down the stairs. At the bottom, she paused and turned. “Good luck, Jakob,” she said. “See you here next week?”
“If my manuscript isn’t on Vennamin’s desk by then,” grinned Jakob. “Until next time, Madeline.”
Above the bookstore was a quiet coffee shop. The ceiling was much higher and strung with dozens of lights in old glass bottles. A well-tanned man with short silver hair and a tidy white apron was using the lull in business to sweep when Jakob emerged from the basement door painted with silver letters that read: Books Below.
“You look like you’ve seen better days,” called Max, the silver-haired barista, sporting a glowing smile as he set the broom aside.
“Oh no,” groaned Jakob, running a hand through his matted hair. “Sylvia is gonna beat me to a pulp.”
“I’d pay to see that,” said Max. He pulled out a stool from a short round table and took a seat. “So, you two goin’ somewhere?”
“To see Pinstripe.”
“Pinstripe?” asked Max. “Is that what this has all come to? You know, his deals are never worth it. He preys on people who can’t go anywhere else.”
“I know, and chances are he’s got nothing for me anyway,” shrugged Jakob. “If, by some miracle, he does what I’m looking for, I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“I see your mind is made. Well, maybe I can still help you keep your dignity,” sighed Max. “I have some spare clothes in back, just in case there’s ever a spill. I think I’ve got something for that nest on your head as well.”
“Oh,” said Jakob, feeling quite self-conscious as he glanced down at his wrinkled grey tee. “Thanks Max, that’s very thoughtful… but, are we even the same size?”
“Of course,” scoffed Max, as if Jakob was an idiot for even asking. “And think nothing of it. I won’t have you seeing an info broker looking like the Ossun Cave Creature.”
He led Jakob through a door behind the bar into a wide storeroom. There were cabinets on one wall and a line of trunks at the back. Max rushed to a leather bag resting on a trunk and procured a neatly folded shirt and pants.
“This really too much,” said Jakob. “I don’t want to take your stuff.”
“It’s really not,” said Max, holding up the clothes until Jakob relented and took them. Turning back to his bag, Max began to rummage again. “I’ve got a mirror in here somewhere somewhere... then a comb and some spray for your hair. That is, if Lizzy has ‘borrowed’ them again… Aha!” He set up a small standing mirror on one of the crates and placed both a comb and a metallic silver spray bottle beside it.
“Honestly Max, this is a lot,” said Jakob. “Thank you for this.”
“Anytime,” said Max, waving him off. “You’ve been comin’ here every week for a year now. That makes you part of the family. Just do me a favor and come out of this closet looking like a human being, alright?”
“I think I can do that,” laughed Jakob then Max returned to the foyer.
Jakob took the folded clothes and did as he was instructed, fixing Proto to the breast of the slim fit navy button up. The tight grey jeans had enough stretch in them to keep his legs from feeling constricted and fell right to his ankles, as if he had pulled this from his own closet. After dressing, he approached the mirror and inspected the bottle. He gave his hair a few spritzes of whatever the bottle held and ran a comb through his locks. When Jakob looked into the mirror felt a swell of confidence brewing inside. He strode from the closet, showing off his new look.
“Like it?” asked Max.
“Love it,” said Jakob.
“Of course you do,” beamed Max. “Now, I think if—”
He was interrupted by the chiming of a bell above the front door.
Sylvia strode into the store, dressed in a black blazer and dress pants. Her eyes flicked between Jakob and Max suspiciously. “Are those Max’s…” she began, then stopped herself. “Never mind, I don’t want to know. You ready to get out of here?”
“As I’ll ever be,” said Jakob. “Thanks for the help, Max. I’ll bring these back tomorrow.”
“You better,” said Max. “Now go on… and you two be careful around Pinstripe.”
The bell sounded a second time as Sylvia and Jakob left the shop.
It took Jakob’s eyes a moment to adjust to the blinding sunlight as a chilled wind bit at his neck. When he could see, Jakob found himself on a wide street that ran between rows of rickety looking buildings. The busy alca network formed a grid above the streets, held aloft by a series of towering pillars that cast long shadows across the slanted wooden rooftops.
There were tracks embedded into the roads as well. The middle of the street was where the majority of local traffic (mostly older-looking models in this area of Colo Flats) rode the rails unimpaired. Whenever an alca reached its destination, it would switch to the outer lanes and stop just long enough to unload its passengers before rejoining traffic and speeding off toward some distant lot.
“Proto,” said Sylvia. “Mind calling the alca?”
“Already did,” reported Proto. “Coming in three… two… one…”
A flash of silver emerged from traffic as Jakob’s Pursuer model pulled up in front of the café. They wasted no time in boarding and the Pursuer was off. At the end of the block, they took a rising rail up to the main grid then sped south.
“You sure about this?” asked Sylvia from the bench across from him. Though her nerves didn’t show by looking at her, Jakob could hear it in her voice.
“If Pinstripe’s willing to hear us out, it’s because he’ll want some in on my book,” said Jakob. “We trade favors up front, and any mention of illegal activities… we walk. I promise.”
“And what if he wants to touch my work, my research?” asked Sylvia. “He invited us, not just you.”
“Then you get to set the boundaries,” said Jakob. “Your work, your rules.”
“Fine,” said Sylvia, “and we don’t agree to anything without discussing it first.”
“Deal,” said Jakob.
The ride lasted only an hour and a half. The rickety buildings of Colo Flat’s northern neighborhoods made way for larger mansions, just as densely packed but each taking up full blocks on their own. When the mansions ended, there were busy roads lined with shops, then a district with huge warehouses and dozens of industrial alcas. The further south they rode, the more snowy patches began to pop up on rooftops and roads. The warehouses went right up to the icy waters of Lake Akai. On clear days, like today, Jakob could see all the way across the cold grey lake to the tiny silhouettes of Centra’s skyscrapers on the far shore. The rail network ran in a wide circle around the lakeshore, offering views of nearly all of Hampson’s districts, each with their own distinct look; Outmarr was the only district with one and two story homes within sight of the lake, while Long Branches blocky mega-residences were draped in blankets of snowy plants. As they neared the southernmost point of Lake Akai, the imposing towers of Centra loomed tall in the east. The Purser diverted off to a sidetrack toward a cluster of snowy buildings at the lake’s edge. Their destination stood out among the others. Shaped like a giant orb, some twenty floors tall and floating several stories off the ground, the incredible structure was only accessible by a wide docking ring around its central floor.
Jakob was surprised to see dozens of people standing all around the ring. Pinstripe was infamously difficult to find time with, and Jakob had always imagined a smaller, more intimate setting. The Pursuer arrived at their destination with forty minutes to spare. Jakob shivered as he stepped onto the platform, his every breath turning to mist. Heating towers were set up all around the walkway, but they couldn’t stop the frigid winds from the lake.
“Mr. Rite, Miss Rite,” called a voice. A bald man in a black vest and white tie walked gracefully toward them. Drawing close, he bowed. “Welcome to Pinstripe’s Palace. I am Yllandro, here to guide and to serve.”
“You know our names?” asked Sylvia.
“Of course,” smiled Yllandro. “We receive dossiers on all our guests before their arrival. In fact, I was the very one to approve your docking.”
Looking around, Jakob suddenly realized that he recognized many of the faces around him. There were movie stars, politicians, business leaders, and more. Some exchanged small talk but most kept to themselves as they waited for their fancy sports alcas to dock.
“It’s a pleasure,” said Jakob, stepping forward to shake Yllandro’s hand. In this company, Jakob was beginning to feel a bit like a star himself.
“Likewise,” said Yllandro. “If you’d just follow me, I can guide you to a nice warm waiting room where we can discuss refreshments.”
Yllandro led Sylvia and Jakob to the sleek silver structure and the wall of the orb slid aside. The hallway inside was completely devoid of decorations. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all pure white, with neon blue stripes running along the corners.
Just before they reached an intersection of hallways, Yllandro stopped suddenly. “Right away,” he said, seemingly to no one, then turned to face the siblings. “Pinstripe’s had an early departure. Would you like to see him now?”
Jakob had all the time he needed to prepare on the ride over, so he looked over at Sylvia who simply shrugged and nodded.
“That works for us,” said Jakob. No sooner had the words left his mouth than his chest grew tight. The confidence of standing among such legendary figures was still there, but he knew Pinstripe’s reputation for enforcing deals. He just had to make sure to word their bargain carefully.
Yllandro led the siblings down a path on the right to a stretch of wall that looked like any other. “Just in here,” said the guide, and the wall split open, making an entry to a large round room.
The round room was nearly as plain as the hallway. There were no windows, only a set of three hovering white chairs.
“Should we…?” Jakob looked to Sylvia and jerked his head toward the chairs.
“I guess,” she said, marching over to take a seat.
Jakob joined her, finding that the floating chair had surprisingly good support. “Nervous?” he asked, noticing Sylvia’s face slightly paler than normal.
“We don’t belong here,” she said, though it wasn’t fear in her voice. “The whole ride over, I thought about what Pinstripe could want from us. You saw those people out there. Legends. A favor from any one of them could change the lives of millions.”
“Do not undersell yourself, Miss Rite,” the voice booming behind them was powerfully baritone but not unkind.
Jakob turned in his seat to find a figure in a white pinstripe suit towering in the doorway. His skin looked as though it were made of polished onyx, and his face was unmoving as stone. He walked forward, like a statue brought to life, and the door slid shut behind him.
“Pinstripe!” said Jakob in awe.
“You are correct in assuming I don’t take audience without purpose,” boomed Pinstripe, taking the last seat. His lifeless eyes made getting any kind of read on him impossible, and Jakob found it unsettling that the broker’s mouth didn’t move as he spoke. “Truth is, you two are no exception. In you, I see not wealth or influence, but intrigue and opportunity.”
“Opportunity, how?” asked Sylvia flatly.
“Opportunity for you and me, Miss Rite,” said Pinstripe, reaching into the pocket of his coat. He pulled out a small vial, looking as though it contained nothing at all. “You want to change the lives of millions? This is how it’s done.” He held out the vial for Sylvia to take. “Go on,” he said, “have a look.”
Sylvia took the glass from his hand and held it up close to her eye. “Pollen?” she asked.
“Spores,” said Pinstripe. “From the dead coast.”
“Impossible,” said Sylvia.
“And yet, it is so,” countered Pinstripe.
“Then it’s worth more than I can pay,” said Sylvia, handing it back.
“I don’t want your debt,” said Pinstripe. “I want your assurance of its thorough research. I can provide you with a lab and all the funding you ever need.”
“You want me to abandon my degree and come work for you?” asked Sylvia sharply. “Not a chance.”
“You can finish your education here, in my facilities,” said Pinstripe, “under whatever instruction you desire. Not just from your university, but any in all of Irasil. I would not dare rob a mind like yours of a full education. Sylvia… if I may.” She nodded. “Sylvia, after the Quisitive’s docuVUE, some twenty thousand souls sought me out regarding the Dead Coast. You are the only soul that I’ve shown this sample. Do you know why?”
“Enlighten me,” challenged Sylvia.
“I’ve read your recent publication on rapid mutations in the beasts of the Long Sea,” said Pinstripe. “Your experience alone sets you apart, but it’s more than that. The way you translate your deep understanding— no, expertise of underlying concepts to the page... I couldn’t imagine a better champion for this cause.”
“And what do you get from it all?” asked Sylvia. “Ownership over my research?”
“Use your research to any end you wish you wish,” said Pinstripe, “and I’ll apply what we learn to my own pursuits. Where those interests cross, you have my full backing.”
“I…,” said Sylvia, paused a moment. “Your offer is generous,” she said, “but my answer is still no.”
“I find the world is not so simple as ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” said Pinstripe, reaching out a hand for the vial, “but I shall accept your answer for now, Miss Rite. Just know that there is no other path. Once you realize this, my door will be open. Now… to you, Jakob Rite, weaver of written word,” When Sylvia returned the vial to Pinstripe, he turned his unblinking eyes to Jakob. “I am quite intrigued by the message you left for me. You claim to have recordings, evidence of conspiracy within the story of Doctor Vukor Rotier. Explain.”
Jakob was shocked by the abruptness, but he had prepared for this. “Near the end of the recording, there is a shimmer,” he began. “Some forums have taken to calling it The Woman in the Corner.”
“I am aware,” said Pinstripe. “So… do you believe in vengeful spirits, Mr. Rite?”
“What I do or don’t believe doesn’t matter,” said Jakob. “This recording does. Proto, play the clip.”
“Happily,” said Proto. The lens on his shirt glowed blue and an image of the park projected into the air between them. They watched as past Jakob left the library and set off across the lawn.
“Watch the girl, there,” said Jakob, pointing to the dancing figure that had just come into view. Her body was obscured by a rippling effect, like heat in air. It seemed to follow her every movement.
"Proto, what is this?" asked the recording of Jakob. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Like what?" the recording of Proto chimed. "Dancing?"
"No, The light."
“Proto, pause there,” said Jakob, and the recording halted. “You see that shimmering effect? It’s the same as in the docuVUE. Before I passed out, I saw a light surrounding the girl. It had a powerful effect on my mind, in fact, when I woke up, I could hardly remember anything at all. I believe whatever technology she used, is housed in the pen held by Rotier.”
“I’ll bite,” said Pinstripe. “Why the pen?”
“Just before the shimmer begins,” explained Jakob, “Rotier’s hand passes over a gemstone on the pen. I believe it was a switch of some kind for a device within the pen.”
“And you want me to procure the pen?” asked Pinstripe, stealing Jakob’s buildup.
“Exactly,” said Jakob.
“Impossible,” said Pinstripe. “Rotier has gone missing. The whole residence is an active crime scene.”
“Missing?” exclaimed Jakob. He looked over to see his sister’s eyes, wide with surprise.
“News of it hasn’t even reached Irasil yet,” said Pinstripe, “well, besides me. Consider that tidbit payment for that enlightening observation you brought me. But, as for your ask, it’s impossible. All the favors in the world won’t buy you into a Roane investigation.”
Jakob sank back into his seat, letting the news wash over him. “This is all the more evidence,” he said. “The message must have been a warning. It’s why he reacted the way he did. I don’t know if he’s gone on his own, or if someone’s taken him… Pinstripe, can you get me to Roana?”
Pinstripe threw back his head and a raucous laugh filled the whole chamber. “You want to visit Roana and teach the investigators to do their job?” he thundered. “Mr. Rite, a million men and women have asked me for a ticket to Roane soil, but this has to be the most entertaining of the lot.”
“It’s no joke,” said Jakob. “A girl used this technology on me last year, and I still don’t know why. If I can get to Roana—”
“That’s just it though,” said Pinstripe, “you can’t. Of those million men and women, how many do you think ever reached Roana?”
“None,” said Jakob through gritted teeth.
“There was one,” said Pinstripe. “Just one in a million, he and his cause both were. You and yours are not.” Pinstripe rose and offered a hand to Sylvia. “You will think on my offer, won’t you?”
“My answer isn’t going to change,” she said, meeting his handshake.
Pinstripe then offered the same gesture to Jakob. “I do wish you luck.” he said.
Wordlessly, Jakob shook the robot’s cold stone hand and then Pinstripe strode from the room.
“Come on,” said Sylvia, and Jakob felt her hand on his shoulder. “We’ll find another way.”
“We always do,” Jakob responded, although he struggled to believe it.
On their way out of Pinstripe’s Palace, all Jakob could think of was having to tell Vennamin he hadn’t finished his story. He supposed it was his own fault, building his whole story on a real-world investigation that was always going to be a shot in the dark. As Jakob watched over the crowd of famous faces for his alca to approach, his eye was drawn to a strange light. Standing alone in the distance of the loading ring was a girl, too young to be in this company, dark skinned with darker hair that fell down her back in waves. Rainbow light glimmered in the mist of her breath, and even from here, Jakob could see the technicolor radiance of her eyes. There was no doubt in his mind, this was the girl from the park.
“Sylvia,” said Jakob, tugging her sleeve. He pointed back to where he saw the girl, but she was gone. All that was left was a trail of light, leading around the bend of the loading bay. “The girl from the park. She was there. You see that light? It’s her.”
“What light?” asked Sylvia.
“Of course,” said Jakob to himself. “It has to be me! Proto, start recording!”
“Jakob, what you are you—” asked Sylvia, but, before she could finish, he ran off.
Jakob wove like a madman through famous faces, not caring how he might look. The light was fading, and he wasn’t going to lose the dancing girl again. Ignoring the frigid wind, Jakob charged headlong after the trail of light. Suddenly, his body froze. Jakob couldn’t move another step.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” came a girl’s voice.
“Who are you?” asked Jakob. “How are you doing this?” His eyes darted around for the source of his entrapment, but he didn’t see the girl anywhere. Everyone around him was perfectly still, their eyes gazing off with empty stares. Even the alcas on the rail network were moving at a snail’s pace.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” she repeated. “Roana, Rotier, the Dead Coast… what do they mean to you?”
“Everything,” said Jakob. No matter how he fought, his limbs wouldn’t budge. “This is the same technology from Rotier’s pen, isn’t it?”
“You’re perceptive,” said the girl, finally stepping into view. Rainbow flame rushed from her eyes and surged through her hair.
“Why me?” asked Jakob.
“Because your eyes were open and you saw what others wouldn’t,” said the girl. “My name is Lylliana, and if you want to know any more than that, you’ll meet me, alone, at the Edgeview port in North Ri’kalla tomorrow morning. Our boat leaves at fifth hour. Bring clothes enough for a week.”
“A week? Where are you taking me?” asked Jakob, but the girl walked out of view and the world sprang back to life. Frantically, he whipped his head about, searching for any sign of the girl. She was simply gone.
“Jakob!” Sylvia’s voice carried from a distance.
He turned to see his sister running after him.
“What was that about,” she said, huffing and puffing after him.
“It’s…” Jakob started, but he didn’t know how to describe what had just happened. Not that Sylvia would believe him anyway. “I have an appointment tomorrow that I can’t miss.”