Amber didn’t have a great head for heights, but she was learning to overcome that. She stood upon the flat roof of Hopeswell’s town hall and leaned her hands upon the stone balustrade. Hopewell’s clock tower, a surprisingly ornate edifice in such a town, loomed darkly behind her. The rest of Hopeswell spread out below, the black shapes of one-story buildings huddled together, threaded through with dotted lines of faintly glowing street lamps. A dark sea glimmered in broken waves to the east; the oblong bulks of warehouses were a solid mass to the north.
“Now, here’s the deal, dollface,” Waleem had said earlier, rubbing his long-fingered hands together. “You ain’t got the sort of magic folks will pay big bucks for, but there is something you are good at and that’s finding things. And I’ve got a client lined up who’s willing to give you your lucky break. Thing is—are you man enough to take it?”
He probably imagined the look he gave her was an inspiring combination of challenge and encouragement. It just made him look constipated.
Amber folded her arms. “Go on.”
Waleem looked crestfallen at her lack of enthusiasm. “Well, thing is, client wants you to prove you’re as good as I know you are. He wants you to find something for him and he’s ready to lay out in cold hard cash”—he paused dramatically—“one thousand coppas!”
“I’m not doing anything illegal,” said Amber automatically.
Waleem let out a gusty sigh and rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Look at her,” he said to the sky. “Why does she think the worst of me? I know her—straight as an arrow and true as the day. Baby doll, would I ever get you in trouble?”
“Don’t call me baby doll,” said Amber, more out of habit than with any conviction he’d actually stop. “And, yeah, you wouldn’t hesitate to throw me to the dogs to save your hide. Tell me more about this oh-so-legal job of yours.”
“Well, the fact is… the fact is… that you’re right,” conceded Waleem. “There’s been some hanky-panky, but not by the client. Seems like his property was stolen and he’d like it back. Now, just wait a moment—” He lifted a beseeching hand as Amber drew in a quick breath. “I ain’t asking you to go into some smugglers’ den with all suns blazing and neither is he. He just wants you to find where the thing is and slap this tracking spell on the place. You won’t get your hands dirty at all.”
Waleem smiled slyly, showing crooked, yellow teeth, and tapped the breast pocket of his grubby coat. “I have five hundred coppas here in crisp banknotes—half the payment upfront.”
A thousand coppas! That was several train tickets out of Hopeswell.
I could go home. I could get my license. I could pay the Mages’ Guild fees back in Ravin. Amber could scarcely breathe as the possibilities unfolded. To someone who’d been counting her coppas in tens, the prospect of ten hundred was dizzying.
“And the price goes up the closer you get,” Waleem went on. “A thousand coppas for slapping the spell on the building where my client’s property is. If you put it on the object itself, the price goes up to five thousand or more.”
Five thousand. Visions of rented apartments and grocery shopping trips and maybe a trip to the theater or two danced in Amber’s head.
“All right,” she said. “What do you need me to find?”
Now Amber looked down at Hopeswell and wondered if she’d actually pull it off.
Waleem had dug into the many layers swathing his scrawny frame and pulled out a wrapped package with a flourish. Amber recognized the gauzy packing material as silence, a magic-dampening substance. It numbed her fingers as she unwrapped a hollow wooden stem, tapered at one end.
“What’s this?” Amber held the object between her fingers. Residual power throbbed deeply within it. Its magical signature was definitely unique.
“No idea.” Waleem shrugged. “It’s part of the stolen property. Can you find it?”
“Oh, I think so.” Something this individual would stamp itself deeply into the pattern of Hopeswell. She rolled it between her fingers. It was too dark to make out the grain, but the stem had been worn satiny-smooth. Is this some kind of mouthpiece? To what? “With this in hand, it should be easy enough to create an attraction spell—”
“Uh, no. I have to take the thingummy back with me. You don’t get to keep it, baby girl.”
Amber was exasperated. “Does your client actually want me to find his property or is he amusing himself by making this hard for me?”
“You should be grateful, doll. You really want to be found snooping around with that in your pocket? You won’t be able to sweet talk your way out if you were.” Waleem widened his eyes and pitched his voice high. “Oh, please, sir, I was only taking a short cut and I got lost and there was this big, hungry dog…”
“All right, all right, I get it.” Amber closed her eyes and focused on that signature. I can find this easily enough. She rewrapped the stem in silence and thrust it at Waleem. “Now give me that tracking spell, and I’ll be off.”
“Godspeed, baby doll,” said Waleem with false piety. He made a blessing sign at her. Amber stuck her tongue out at him.
Standing by herself in the warm night air, Amber caught sight of Hopeswell’s one chapel and felt a wriggle of guilt. She’d always prided herself on her integrity, but here she was, doing something that she couldn’t say for certainty was honest, all for the price of a train ticket out of Hopeswell. Not only that, but she’d actually broken into a building to gain access to a vantage point. It didn’t matter that one of the side windows of the town hall had ben unlatched, that it had been child’s play to lift the sash and clamber over the sill. Amber was still not supposed to be on the roof of the Hopeswell town hall.
She just couldn’t bring herself to compound her wrongdoing by praying for help, so she didn’t.
Instead she did a mental twitch. Lines in all sizes and colors sprang out all over Hopeswell.
Amber smiled to see it. These strings connected everything together. To her senses, they were smells and colors, textures and tastes. They touched her in ways she could hardly describe, because her ability was rare enough that there were no words for what she sensed and did with the pattern.
All right. Now to find that signature.
The entire city was made up of patterns upon patterns. They interwove, interlaid, overlapped. Amber could focus on even a millionth part and lose herself in the patterns for hours, for days. There was no way one human mind could encompass all the richness and complexity of a pattern. It’d be overwhelmed and lost.
Overload was the danger of pattern magic.
Dotted all over the pattern were nodes, pulsating in vibrant colors, ever-changing designs swirling across their faces. These orbs were reservoirs of magical energy. Many resided inside people—the sun mages, like the boys at the bakery. The nodes tugged at Amber’s senses, pulling her toward them. The stronger the node, the harder it was to resist its attraction.
Distance helped, which was why Amber had chosen this rooftop.
Time to get to work. She held the energy signature of the mouthpiece in her mind, turning it this way and that. It was only a part of a whole; she noted it ragged edges. Somewhere was the rest of the piece, and she rather suspected that it was a smoking pipe. The signature put in her mind of solidity and comfortableness, of controlled power and a quicksilver mind and a sly, twinkling humor. The lines of the part-pattern of the mouthpiece reminded her of an exhibition of Serepentine artifacts she had once attended. Amber had learned to trust her instincts, so she recalled images from the pipes exhibit and selected one that seemed to fit.
Now for the fun part. She would make a ghost, a temporary pattern image that she’d set loose among the lines and loops of Hopeswell. Once it found a match, it would tug her toward the location. The challenge was that she’d have to create the ghost by extrapolating from the meager information she had.
Carefully, Amber worked out the pattern of the rest of the piece. Extend that line here, smooth out that curve, add a jagged edge where the pattern was broken. There was a taste of ash against her lips, a scent of tea in her nose. Yes, certainly the Serepentine Isles. And one of the powerful sun mages of that archipelago had owned the pipe.
Soon the ghost was ready, pale and fluttering in her mage senses. Amber breathed out, and the ghost drifted into the Hopeswell pattern. It floated down, stuck onto an energy line. The line brightened, the ghost sped up, and disappeared among pulsing gold swirls.
And now I wait. Amber sat down on the cold rooftop, knees drawn up against her chest. She rested her chin on them. I hope I gave it enough longevity. I didn’t know that there was so much complexity in Hopeswell. From up here, she saw several clusters of suns, the strong nodes of magic.
She wondered if one of those clusters was the Kael and the rest of his group, then rejected the notion. They’d been too well-shielded to stand out. But a frontier port like this was bound to be home to organized smuggling and other assorted crimes. It was not uncommon to find magic hand in hand with whatever passed for power in a place.
Several parts of the pattern attracted her, but Amber resolutely pulled back from it. It had already been a long day and she was tired. She didn’t know if she had the willpower to keep from getting lost inside the magic.
I need to rest my eyes and my mind. Amber yawned. It may not look it, but pattern manipulation is work. A deep ache lay in her muscles, a sure sign that she had pushed her magical skills beyond the norm.
She left herself open enough only to detect immediate threat or a ping from the ghost, then dropped her head to her knees.
Amber must’ve dozed off, because when the jerk came, she started and bit back a yelp. Her muscles were stiff, her eyes gritty, and damp had seeped through her clothes.
But her ghost had found the stolen artifact. Take that, Mr. Client! She thought, but her mind painted instead an image of the magic-school boys with their hidden insignias and not-quite-uniforms and superior suns and tight shields.
Why am I thinking about them, anyhow? They’re just a bunch of pampered jerks who’ve had everything handed to them. Surely I’m not that insecure.
Amber held on to the railing and climbed to her feet. Forget them. I have a job to complete.
Author’s Notes: That Waleem sure is a slimy character, isn’t he? I loved writing more about Amber’s magic. It has so much potential, and I’m looking forward to what else she can do with it. She has a lot of growing up to do as a character, too, but I have a lot of sympathy for her position. I see her situation like a gap year gone awry, hee!
Do you have any questions or comments? Any typos I missed? (There are always typos I missed.) Let me know below!