The writer, the painter, the dancer, the traitor, the rebel, the soldier, the spy

The prince and his knight, the priest all in white, the bookkeeper and the blue eye.

x

"You've come to a series of damned brilliant conclusions. They're all wrong, of course."

Professor Burlow scanned the bookshelf quickly but thoroughly, taking in titles he had doubtless seen and read many times before.

"Of course they're not – ah," Tasha clung more tightly to the old wooden ladder as it trembled beneath her. She glanced down at the old man, trying her hardest not to appear frightened out of her wits. It might be difficult to keep a job at a bookstore if the owner learned she was afraid of the heights required to fetch just about anything of value.

Burlow glared up at her from underneath thick, stormy-gray eyebrows that stood out sharply against his pocked bitter-chocolate skin. "Did you find it?"

"No," she huffed, forcing herself to give another sweeping glance. "Are you sure it's not – oh, here." She stretched cautiously for a leather-bound book just barely in her reach and with one burst of bravery leaned over to grab it. Feeling the impatience radiating off of her boss, she hurried back down to ground level.

"But of course they're not wrong," she said as she tried to match Burlow's brisk stride from the Special Collections section, marveling at how a stout man who seemed at least eighty could move so quickly and purposefully. "They can't be. It's – I know it's crazy, but it's the only thing I can think of to explain everything that's happened to us. To all of us."

Burlow looked at her from the corner of his eye. "You're not a stupid girl, Tasha. You're on the right track. But it's ridiculous, not to mention unhealthy, to think that you are living inside of a book. Don Quixote. Read it within the month."

"But Professor - "

"Not another word. I have a customer. Now think about it and talk to me again. You're right, there is something abnormal about you and your friends."

And Tasha was left scowling in the science fiction section.

Tasha was halfway right, of course, in more ways than one. She isn't the main character, but she's doing fine for herself.

But stop, it would be easier to tell the story in a linear fashion. Left to right, like reading. We'll start at the beginning, or what the closest approximation can be. Before anything strange in this Boston suburb drew any attention from anyone at all. We'll have to begin with the petty gossip and criss-crossing curves of high school relations and the battlegrounds therein. We have a few introductions to cover.

Welcome to Roosevelt High School. Something is going to happen soon.

"Have you ever seen someone so ugly that you just…you're angry when you look at them?" Bill sprawled on the school lawn, propping himself up on his elbows to watch what he considered the parade of multicolored Ambercrombie shirts headed out of the building after the class he hadn't gone to. "You haven't even met them before, but they're just so damn ugly that it's like, it's funny and you hate them."

"Huh?" Hark hadn't been listening, involved as he was by his DSI.

Bill and Hark were odd. If you believed the rumor mill, they were drug addicts and sex fiends. They were outcasts but only in the loosest sense of the term, mainly because the rest of the school had never seen anything quite like them, had no idea how to react, and therefore left them mostly alone. They were purposefully extravagant and wild, doing odd things and dressing in odd ways for odder reasons. In these ways they were alike. For a whole host of other reasons, they were different.

Hark, or Harken, was a freshman and a bit short for his age, with a wild mess of bushy, carrot-red hair tied back into a pony down to his mid-back. He was raised by parents who were a hybrid between hippie, New Age, and self-expression-is-the-only-thing-that-matters. He didn't believe in holding anything back, emotional or otherwise. Hark, more often than not, didn't remember that people who might find him strange existed.

He let out a burst of inventive cusswords as he lost his boss battle, then flopped onto his back.

"I need to get laid."

Bill snorted. "Whoa there, kid. Don't look at me."

"Ha." He lazily flung his arm over his forehead. "Seriously, though. I would settle for a girl at this point."

"I thought you were crazy for that one on the dance team – Bea?"

"Bela. And duh, she's hot."

A snigger. "You're a paradox. What is it like in your tiny little brain, I wonder?"

Bill, a sophomore, had dyed his short, messy hair last week to represent every cool color on Rainbow Fish's scales in various patches all over his head. This looked almost normal compared to his bright red hoodie with the Darwin fish, orange cleats, and jeans splattered with silver paint. He was likely to pull pranks, both simple and elaborate, and then laugh at the stupidity of the entire idea.

Hark was often described as overwhelming. Bill was described as a trickster. Hark did odd things because he didn't care what people thought of him. Bill did odd things because he cared a great deal what other people thought of him, just not in the usual way.

"My brain's probably a whole lot more interesting than yours. You don't do anything fun."

"What do you call what we do?"

"Naw, I mean like – fun stuff. You even told me, you don't even think about stuff. Weird prude."

Bill gave him a look. "And you're a virgin, so shut yer trap."

Hark laughed, loudly and fully, until Bill punched his exposed stomach.

At the moment Hark was hacking out winded insults, Casey was walking home with her friends Tasha and Chase. You've already met Tasha, of course. She was currently embroiled in an intense debate with Chase about whether or not there was any artistic merit in screamo music, and was most definitely on the negative side. Casey was looking supremely uninterested, scanning the just barely changing, edge-of-fall leaves.

Casey was the shortest of the trio, with blonde hair cut straight across at the chin, framing her almost childish face with its dainty upturned nose. She and Chase were down-dressers, which contrasted with Tasha's selection of scarves, knit hats, and legwarmers that were rotated on a daily basis. Tasha was tall and just barely chubby, with hair dyed red and usually worn in pigtailed braids just to her shoulders, bangs framing her square black glasses. Chase, a Puerto Rican, wore his short dark hair spiked, which Tasha told him repeatedly was the only "cool" part of his appearance compared with the various internet in-joke and superhero t-shirts he wore on a daily basis. All three were freshman, and had been friends though elementary school.

"But you listen to such stupid music," Tasha insisted, crossing her arms against the almost-chilly air.

"Oh, okay. This is coming from the girl who listens to guys with banjos singing like girls."

"Indie. Folk," she annunciated clearly for what was probably the eighteenth time.

"Guys, really?" Casey murmured, fiddling with her phone. She had had a long day and wasn't exactly in the mood for any of this, although Tasha and Chase arguing was more or less a daily occurrence. Tasha liked to argue.

"Yes really. There is no art in -"

"It's not about that, it's about the music."

"That doesn't even - "

Casey threw her head back and shoved her hands in her pockets, an obvious indication to shut up, which the other two did. Obviously this was one of her bad days.

They walked in silence for a few more moments before Chase felt that they needed a new line of conversation.

"So that Bill guy. What the hell?"

Tasha blinked. "What about him."

Chase glanced at Casey. "He threw paper airplanes at her all day in English."

"Oh, what the hell," Tasha said, indignant. "You'd think he'd've outgrown that in middle school. What does he-"

She blinked, realizing that Casey had stopped. She was staring into a bookstore's picture window, particularly at the sign propped up on the ledge. Help wanted. This was a good sign, and a better one that Casey had bothered to stop. Tasha glanced from Casey to Chase to the sign and back, thinking furiously.

"We should apply!" she said, completely on a whim and not sure whether or not she was serious.

"What?" Chase looked at the sign. "Eh, nah, I've got fencing and stuff."

"You can work around – Chase, doesn't that start today?"

Chase blinked at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, then his mouth dropped open. "Oh shit." He began to sprint back in the direction they had come, while Tasha shook her head.

"Do you have everything?" she called.

Chase gave a halfhearted wave back at them, so she assumed he was fine and looked back to Casey, who had gone back to playing with her phone. Tasha shifted her weight from foot to foot before daring to break the sudden silence. "It could be fun."

She really, honestly hoped Casey wanted the job. She had been going through a rough time since her father passed away. This in itself was enough to make Tasha's heart break for her friend – Mr. Foster had always been quirky and funny and kind – but what made it worse was the sudden death of Casey's energy that came along with everything else. It had been two years since the death, and Casey still lacked much of her motivation and, what Tasha suspected was worse in Casey's situation, her imagination. She used to write grand, complicated fantasy stories that, while they hadn't been Tasha's style, had impressed her through their energy and genuinely good writing. She had no idea if Casey had even touched a notebook since. Maybe a job, in a bookstore no less –

"No."

"What? Why?"

"I'm not old enough. I'm still thirteen until November." Casey looked at her blankly and stashed her phone. "You can go in if you want, you'd probably like it."

"Well, I just…" she trailed off into her own thoughts. This had been an attempt to liven Casey up, not something for her own gratification. But now that she thought of it, the work would be right up her alley, and if she could work around the dance team schedule…

"Go in," said Casey with a small smile. "You'd love it. I can get home fine."

Tasha frowned. "You sure? I mean, not about walking, but…"

"I'm not offended; you'll be great. Go."

Tasha glanced at the low brick building, latest titles propped invitingly in the window. She had gone inside many times before. It was a nice location, and cozy like a good bookstore should be. She honestly would not mind one bit having to go into the Ivory Tower Bookshop every day.

Tasha smiled hesitantly, then with a fluttery, excited wave, opened the door. The tinkling of the bell sealed her arrival, and she stepped inside.