A knock at the door. Parn paused in the middle of lacing up his boots. He could see the door from his chair by the fireplace. It was still late summer. Morning. The coals were cool, though mornings in Akken were crisp, and Parn could have used a small fire to warm up. However, that was a lot of effort, and Parn didn’t feel like it. He hadn’t felt like doing much for the past several days, but he’d run out of food. Hunger was forcing him out. He’d even put on pants.
A second knock. Sounded heavy.
Parn never had guests at his apartment. Once, twelve years ago, when he had been a day late with the rent, Parn’s landlady had knocked on his door. Parn’s landlady was an elderly lady named Gladys. She appreciated things being on time and responded with vigor when they were not. Parn had paid his rent on time ever since, rather than risking another visit.
He assumed the hand rapping on his door did not belong to an irritable old lady with blue hair and too much makeup. Parn liked Gladys. She kept the riffraff out of the building, so Parn never had to worry about arresting his neighbors. Well, not anymore. Parn was no longer a constable. Just a civilian now.
Four days ago he’d been a constable. Parn was a Class Four Refractor, immune to magical effects at will. He made an excellent first responder in dangerous situations. It meant he went through the door first when an angry talented on the other side was setting fire to everything. It meant he took the first hit.
He’d been a special constable in the White Ring, a designation so new nobody had done any paperwork on it. The White Ring was a permanent investigative arm of the Akken wizards. Their primary job involved capturing or killing renegade wizards. The dangerous jobs. The White Ring almost always applied lethal force.
A third knock.
“Trippers,” a voice said, “I know you’re in there.”
Parn recognized the voice. Kris Danvers. A constable. Parn liked Danvers, but not enough to want to see him today. Parn didn’t want to see anybody today. Well, I’d see Jikka. Parn would let Jikka Brattle in, no problem, but the woman had left Akken without saying goodbye.
She’d sent him a note. Short on words and details and any personal touch, the note said Jikka was leaving, and she wasn’t sure if she’d ever come back. Parn didn’t blame her for not wanting to come back. Akken hadn’t been too kind to Jikka.
A grunt on the other side of the door. “Don’t make me break in.”
“I’m coming,” Parn said.
He finished lacing his boot and stood up. Out of habit, his hand reached for a jacket on the empty hook next to his chair. His hand waved at air. The jacket and artifact harness were not there. They wouldn’t be there again. Ever.
Parn went to the door, unlocked the heavy bolt, and opened it.
A short, squat man stood in the hallway. Danvers had close-cropped brown hair, a round face, and small eyes a smidge too close together. He was just on the right side of the constabulary’s acceptable height-to-width ratio. He was eating a piece of frosty bread with one hand and carrying a paper-wrapped stack of it in the other.
Parn wasn’t sure how Danvers had managed to knock while carrying all that. The aroma of frosty bread, dough cooked in hot oil and slathered with butter and doused in sugar, hit Parn’s nose.
Frosty bread was an Akken staple. Sellers operated small food carts at just about every intersection. A person could tell what part of town they were in from the quality of the cart. Some people added spices. Parn loved the type that had a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg, and it appeared Danvers had brought some of that. Parn’s stomach rumbled. It was all he could do not to snatch that stack of frosty bread from Danvers’s hand.
Parn focused on Danvers’s jacket and artifact chip harness. Small stones of various shapes, artifact chips bestowed magical properties upon the wearer. Made them stronger, faster, more resilient. People sewed the chips onto their clothing. If they could afford one. Most people couldn’t afford artifact chips. Rich people owned two, sometimes three. Danvers had at least fifty chips on his jacket, constabulary standard issue. Parn had worn a harness and jacket like it. Covered with the things. Never again.
Four days ago, on his last day as a special constable, he’d discovered it had all run on a terrible secret. Artifact chip production had made Akken the strongest of the six continental cities. A special group of Akken wizards, called artificers, had made them. They were only made in Akken and were the city’s primary export.
For centuries, the artificers had been converting talented people into artifact chips. The process was gruesome. They had fed talented people to the Kaon. The creature had excreted the chips as waste after eating talented people alive. The only good thing about what Parn had seen was that all the artificers were dead. The Kaon was dead. No more artifact chips.
Parn pointed with his chin at the stack of food in Danvers’s hand. “You bring that to share?”
“Yep,” Danvers said. “Your landlady worries about you. Hasn’t seen you leave for days and says you never cook here. I figured you’d be hungry.”
Parn stepped out of the way and motioned for Danvers to come in. “Gladys is worried about me?”
“Worried might be a strong term,” Danvers said as he waddled in. “Her specific words were ‘I’ll kill him if he dies from starvation up there and starts to rot. He’ll stink up the place.’”
Parn chuckled. “That sounds more like her.”
“You got a plate for this?” Danvers asked.
“Put it on the table,” Parn said. “I’m hungry. I was about to go out for food. It won’t last long.”
Danvers walked right into the kitchen without looking. Parn knew Danvers had never been in his apartment, but Danvers had likely been in an apartment in the Yard District, which meant he knew the layout of Parn’s place. All of the apartments in the Yards were the same.
Akken had gone through a rapid expansion at one point, and to speed up construction, the builders had copied the same design for ten city blocks. The kitchens were all to the right of the sitting room, bedroom in the middle, with a privy in the back. If a person had been in even one apartment in the Yards, chances were they’d been in them all.
They both sat at the table, and Parn attacked the frosty bread. It tasted so good. Danvers let him eat one, two, three of them in a row before speaking again.
“Why are you hiding in here?” Danvers asked.
“I’m not hiding,” Parn said around a mouthful of sugary, buttery bread.
“Trippers, you’ve been cooped up in your apartment ever since you came back from the Tower. This place doesn’t really look lived in. It’s like a place where you keep your stuff. I bet you’ve never spent a whole day in your place at once, much less four. Everybody knows you don’t take time off. How come you’re not out on the street, walking a beat?”
Parn opened his mouth to respond, but no words came out.
He’d walked a beat for his entire career. Rain, snow, even during that one freak hailstorm a decade ago. Some wizard experiment gone awry. Chunks of ice bigger than a man’s fist had pummeled the Yards for fifteen minutes straight. Parn was always out there. He’d worn down many boot soles on the streets of Akken.
It didn’t matter how much Parn had loved walking the streets of his city; constable work was dangerous work. The artifact chips had kept him safe and whole. He couldn’t police a city full of talented people without them, at least not for long. Parn had vowed to himself he’d never wear an artifact chip again, not after seeing how they were made. No artifact chips, no constabulary. He had no idea what he was supposed to do now.
Parn pushed the feeling of hopelessness away and took another bite of frosty bread. “I don’t feel like walking a beat.”
Danvers drummed his fingers on the table. “Doesn’t seem like you.”
“Everybody says I should take time off,” Parn said, “and when I finally do, you show up with convalescent food? It’s only been four days.”
Danvers shrugged. “Out of character for you is all. What happened to you up in the Tower?”
“Can’t talk about it,” Parn said.
He wanted to talk about it. He wanted to tell everybody. Scream it from every rooftop. He wanted to run up to every constable and tell them that each chip meant a talented had died a horrible death. Parn couldn’t. The White Ring would kill him.
He might be able to tell a few people. A handful if he shouted the truth out in a busy café, but the Ringers had sworn him to secrecy and enchanted his voice for good measure. They had made him relax his refraction talent to let them do it. If he spoke the secret to anyone, or wrote it down, the Ringers would warp to his location and judge him on the spot. Death.
The White Ring believed the population of Akken would turn against the wizards if they knew the truth. Turn against the Tower, turn against wizards who hadn’t known how chip production worked. Only a small group had known the process, and that group was now dead, and the Kaon destroyed. No more chips. Telling the truth to people served no purpose other than destroying the city’s stability.
It was a sound argument, but Parn still didn’t like it. People wouldn’t wear the artifact chips if they knew the truth. The wizards weren’t giving them the chance to decide for themselves. It made Parn sick to his stomach. He couldn’t even leave Akken to get away. The artifact chips were everywhere, in every town and every city. He couldn’t tell anybody. He had to relive the nightmare in his head whenever he saw an artifact chip on somebody.
Danvers sat across the table from him, wearing a lot of dead people.
“Wizards and their secrets?”
“Something like that.”
“I don’t suppose it has anything to do with Marin putting me in stasis, does it?” Danvers asked. “She wouldn’t tell me why I’m missing a whole day. Woke me up in the North Bend Precinct and then left without so much as an explanation.”
It didn’t surprise Parn that Marin hadn’t explained anything. Marin was a White Ringer with a grouchy disposition, and the events in the Tower Danvers was missing would put him in the same situation as Parn. Keeping Danvers in the dark was for his own safety.
“Can’t talk about that either,” Parn said.
“You’re still going to work for them, then?”
“No,” Parn said.
Danvers’s face brightened. “Then you’re coming back to the constables.”
“I’m not doing that either.”
“What? Why not?”
“Can’t,” Parn said.
“Can’t talk about that.”
Danvers squinted at him. “So, you’re not working for the wizards, you’re not going to be a constable anymore, and you can’t talk about any of it.”
“You get fired?”
“No,” Parn said. “Ilo wanted me to stay on.”
Ilo Tannen was the leader of the White Ring. He’d recruited Parn in the first place. Said Parn could wear the white jacket without the chips at all. Said he didn’t have to wear them if he didn’t want to. But Parn couldn’t shake the feeling that Ilo had known about the artificers’ process.
Parn thought Ilo was a smart man. A person didn’t get to run the White Ring without being able to puzzle things out. Maybe Ilo hadn’t known exactly what the artificers were doing, but Parn figured Ilo had known it was horrible.
“Ilo wanted you to stay on, and you still said no?” Danvers asked.
Danvers looked at him for a long time. “Something happened.”
“You can’t talk about the bad thing, and it was bad enough that you won’t work for the wizards. Constables neither.”
Parn gave another nod. He wondered if Danvers would figure it out.
“That’s silly,” Danvers said. “Constables don’t have anything in common with the wizards.”
Parn sighed. It was right there in the open. Both the White Ring and the constables wore jackets with artifact harnesses. Many of the chips were the same. Parn wondered if he could explain any of this without breaking his covenant of silence.
There was another knock at the door.
“You expecting someone else?” Danvers asked.
“I wasn’t expecting anybody,” Parn said. “Not even you.”
He got up from the table and crossed into the living room. Past the fireplace, past the umbrella stand he’d purchased after moving in and hadn’t used since. Parn reached the door. The bolt was still undone from letting Danvers in. Parn’s fingers grasped the knob. He heard Danvers get up from the kitchen table, fast. Heard the chair scrape back in protest.
Parn knew an artifact chip sewn onto Danvers’s jacket conferred the ability to see harmful intent and lit up the person’s outline through walls. No outline meant they didn’t care about you. White meant they were thinking bad words in your direction. Yellow was the universal color for “As soon as I get the signal, you’re going to be on fire.” Red meant death and an attempt to make that a reality was underway. He wondered if Danvers could see the outline of the person who’d knocked on the door.
Parn took his hand off the knob. He backed up a step. Blue and white flames surrounded the door. He felt a small breeze around the back of his head as the air rushed forward. The door blasted off its hinges and came straight at him.