The Broadcast King collapsed, bleeding from dozens of cuts. Joseph raised his sawed-off shotgun toward me.
As he pulled the trigger, I dove to the ground, crashing into a pile of scrap metal and rotting fruit. The crack of a gunshot rang in my ears, and the window exploded outward, glass shards raining onto my back.
He has a double-barrel. Two shots. Block his second one.
I projected towards Joseph as he sprinted towards the broken window, into the paper bandages all over his body. All at once, I ripped them off, shooting them towards his face. Pressing them together and against his eyes, I formed a barrier, blocking his vision.
As he clawed his face to pull them away, I gathered the rest of my stashed paper in the room, forming several layers of sheets floating in front of his face. A trick I’d learned from one-on-ones against Leizu.
I half-crawled, half-swam out of the trash heap, cutting my biceps on the shattered glass as Joseph fired his second shot blindly, shattering a glass bottle behind me.
He snapped down the barrel to reload, climbing through the window, and I punched him in the throat, feeling a satisfying thud of impact as my fist connected with his larynx.
While he gasped for air, I sprinted away, heading for my original escape route.
My ears rang from the gunshot, a high-pitched whine that made it difficult to discern Joseph’s shouting or the movements of his men. But as I reached the alleyway, I stopped short. One of Kahlin’s mercs is blocking the way. That Ilaquan bastard with a submachine gun that would shred me the moment he saw me.
I gathered a swirling cloud of newspapers and sheets around me, then shot it down the alleyway, until it hit something solid and human-shaped. In an instant I had a rough map of his body, sensing the outline from the positions of all my projected weapons.
Then I hardened the sheets, and started slicing. Or tried to, at least. The mercenary’s skin was hard, rigid, not giving way to my paper cuts. Body armor. I had forgotten. It covered him from his toes all the way to his neck, with no gaps I could slide them in.
So I went for his face and head, slashing at his scalp, his cheeks, his mouth, pressing in with each piece of paper and sliding as far as I could. I couldn’t knock him out with blood loss, but maybe I could cause enough pain to distract him. He pressed his eyes and mouth shut, swatting at his bleeding face with his right hand and pulling bits of paper off.
Move while he’s blind. I focused on his eyes, clumping as many layers as I could on top of them.
Still protecting his face, the mercenary held the submachine with his left hand, and fired short bursts down the narrow alleyway. Covering my only pathway with sprays of bullets.
The others will be here in moments. Everyone knew where I was and this asshole was probably already thought-stitching my tactics to his team. I didn’t have the time to wear him down over time.
An idea flashed through my mind. I ripped two tiny squares of paper off a sheet, about an inch wide each. Projecting into them, I reached for my physics tutoring. The stuff I had been taught years before entering Paragon Academy. That hadn’t been scrubbed from memory.
Pressing my palms together on both sides of them, I willed space to fold within the objects, and the width of each square warped and shrunk, giving it the appearance of a white needle, or a straight, one-dimensional line, so narrow as to be barely visible to the naked eye. My Physical Vocation at work.
I kept up my assault on Kahlin’s merc, ears ringing from the noise of his shooting, and floated the shrunken paper towards him.
When they were less than a foot away from him, I shot the warped papers at his face, sliding them between his shut eyelids.
The moment they were in, I let them snap back into squares, shoved them into his eyeballs, and sawed back and forth. I felt stiff flesh giving way, as the edge of the paper dug into his corneas, making shallow slices.
As the paper got deeper into his eyes, I felt my Pith bumping up against his, getting pushed out of my weapons. I lost control of my two impromptu razor blades with them embedded about a quarter inch into his pupils. Yuck.
But the damage had been done. Kahlin’s merc sank to his knees, blood seeping out of his eyes and dripping onto the ground beneath him. He dropped his gun and lay down on his side, taking deep breaths.
I bolted past him with my storm of paper How is he so calm? If I got an injury like that, I’d be unconscious or screaming my lungs out. He had to be using his mental link to his squadmates somehow to offload the pain.
I pumped my arms, shoes bouncing off the pavement as I ran. My chest ached and stomach ached from the running, a stabbing pain getting stronger with every step. Get to the larger street. There would be more people there. Maybe even a police officer or two.
The cloud of fluttering paper around me made rustling noises as it glided through the air, masking the sound of my wheezing breath. I seem to be running from things a great deal this week. A side effect of losing most of your projection and stalking Green Hands.
I turned a corner in the winding alleyway, and caught a glimpse of Main street a few dozen meters ahead, broad enough to fit four cars side by side. It was the only road on Gestalt Island that still had working street lamps, which cast bright, pale light on the empty concrete.
A car drove in front of the alley, blocking it. An Ilaquan woman hung out of the side with a bolt-action rifle, aiming it at me. Another car pulled up behind theirs, full of Joseph’s men.
Damn their coordination. I staggered to a stop and pushed my projected paper in front of me, linking them together to form a wall, a visual barrier. As it formed, I shuffled to my left.
The crack of a gunshot rang out, and a bullet hole appeared in one of the sheets of paper, barely a foot off the ground. Why aren’t they aiming for center mass?
Another bullet whizzed through my barrier, and I spun around, looking behind me. Two Green Hands were charging towards me with pistols, from the far end of the alleyway. But not firing.
The answer to my question came to me in a flash: They want to interrogate me. Another one of Kahlin’s mercs positioned himself behind the charging Green Hands, blocking that escape route further.
Just in case, I pressed my Pith towards their minds, to see if the Humdrums might be malleable to nudging or basic sleep. Nothing. They’d had the standard defensive training.
I broke off a few sheets of paper to slash at their wrists and fingers, prompting one of Joseph’s men to drop his gun and the other one to stuff his hands into his pockets. While that occupied them, I cast my gaze to the sides and above me, looking for another way out.
About halfway back down the alleyway, a rusty fire escape zigzagged back and forth several stories up an apartment building, culminating in a ladder towards the roof. And there you have it. Probably a dead end, but it was the only route they hadn’t closed off yet.
I ran towards it, projecting into the lever and pulling it to release the ladder at the bottom. When I strained, I could get weak metal projection.
Clambering up, I raised my visual barrier to keep it between me and the sniper in the car. Seeing what I was doing, the Green Hands tried to follow me up. The moment they lifted their hands to grasp the first rungs, I slashed at the webbing between their fingers with paper, prompting them to let go.
The metal stairs rattled and groaned beneath me as I charged up, flight after flight. Please don’t collapse. Bullets pinged off the fire escape around me. One went through a window above me, cracks spiderwebbing on the glass.
Nobody seemed to follow me up as I climbed the last ladder to the roof. I ran to the middle and cast my eyes around, scanning the adjacent buildings for an escape route.
One of Kahlin’s mercs was standing on a rooftop looking straight at me. An Ilaquan woman in a light purple tunic with matching pants, wearing thick steel gauntlets clenched in her fists. Her face looked familiar. Must be a common fabricated model.
She stood a handful of stories below me, with at least ten yards horizontally between us. Far out of reach.
I stuck my tongue out at her and waggled my fingers.
Then she bent her legs and leapt forty feet into the air.
Bloody joining specialists. The techniques were mostly practiced by the dumb brutes on the front lines of the Shenti, but many of the common vocations had spread to the other three Domains. Unfortunately for me. Here, the Ilaquan bitch was using a joining vocation to enhance her leg muscles and who knew what else in her body.
I scrabbled back the way I came, shooting my flock of sheets and newspapers around her eyes, craning my neck to watch her trajectory.
She landed on the roof where I’d stood moments ago. In a flash, she jumped again, flying at me through my tempest of paper. Before I could react, the cold metal of her gauntlet was around my throat, and she was tackling me off the edge of the fire escape.
I felt my stomach drop. Wind blasted my ears, drowning out my screams as we plummeted towards the ground. The Ilaquan joiner’s metal fingers tightened around my throat, squeezing my windpipe shut. The sky and buildings spun around me, up and then down and then up again, until I stopped with a loud crack and a sharp stab of pain.
I coughed, the wind knocked out of me, but still unable to breathe. The sharp stabbing pain expanded through my chest. Broken rib?
I stopped myself. Wait, I’m alive? Blinking, I looked up to see Kahlin’s merc cradling me in her arms like a baby. She absorbed the impact with her legs. Most of it, at least.
“Stay back!” yelled the mercenary, looking towards the Green Hands. “He’s got paper projection. You’re not equipped to defend yourself against it.” Joseph’s people backed away.
Even in this state, it was still a surreal thrill to be called he.
Shaking off my initial shock, I covered every inch of my assailant’s body with paper, sliding it underneath purple cloth and into soft, squishy areas. I pressed down and cut, like I had so many times before.
Nothing. The edges of my weapons slid off her skin, not even breaching the top layer. I might as well have been trying to slice through a steel wall. More joining.
If she hardens her skin, I’ll go for what it doesn’t cover. I shrunk two pieces of paper into thin slivers, expanded them around her eyes, and sawed back and forth across her corneas. The same trick I’d used on her comrade.
To no avail. It was like trying to cut a diamond with a butter knife. She looked down at me with contempt, not even blinking in the face of my assault. Her voice was almost disappointed. “Is that really the best you can do?”
Actually, yes. I’d try to talk my way out of this, but these guys were professionals and I was currently being choked into unconsciousness.
I recognized the Ilaquan mercenary now – she was inhabiting a chassis made popular by a beloved I-Pop band. This model was almost identical to the lead singer, who had the voice of an angel and wrote the catchiest songs in the Eight Oceans.
I felt a pressure around my skull, the warm, stifling feeling of another’s Pith at the edge of mine, projecting into my mind’s executive function and twisting it, altering its path. She’s trying to nudge me. On instinct, I pushed back, easily throwing out the intruder. Good to know I can still do that. No matter how strong she was, she wouldn’t be able to force my mind into submission.
The joiner frowned, then turned and sprinted towards the car. In a flash, the door was open and she was flinging me into the back seat. I crashed onto the laps of the sniper and a man, dressed in purple like she was. They grabbed my arms and legs, twisting them into joint locks.
I shifted my weight, trying to force out of the locks.
As I struggled, the man casually grabbed my left pinkie and bent it back with a sickening crack.
I howled in pain, writhing and slamming my head against the car door. I overhead shouting in the distance. “What the fuck are you doing with him?” Joseph’s Green Hands. The Commonplace thugs.
The joiner called out to them in that sharp, melodious voice. “Safehouse. Locals heard the gunshots. Police will be on site in minutes.”
“We have questions for him.”
“When we’re done, you’re free to interrogate what’s left.” Scholars damn them. They couldn’t brainwash me, so they were going to torture the truth out of me. “Go, now. The police are already on their way.”
As I caught my breath and regained my bearings, I reached for the paper around me and found nothing inside the car. Not even a paper bill in someone’s pocket. They must have thrown it all out. The driver floored it, and the automobile accelerated into the middle of the street.
After a few seconds on it, he swerved into a side street, tires screeching on the pavement. Outside the car, we passed the occasional pieces of paper, and I projected into them, exerting myself to drag them alongside the car, each sheet matching the vehicle’s speed.
If I block the windshield, I thought, I can stop them from driving. I gathered a cloud of paper on the hood, and –
Another snap echoed in my ear, and I felt another stab of pain, this time in the fourth finger of my left hand. I clenched my teeth, holding onto my projection.
The joiner in the passenger seat turned to look at me. “Project again – “
– and we’ll chokehold you.” The sniper grabbing my legs spoke.
“When you wake up – “ Said the driver.
– you won’t have any fingers left.” The man who was holding me. They’re finishing each other’s sentences. Insufferable twats.
I let go of the paper, letting it blow away in the wind. Think, idiot, think. Who were these people? Their bodies were absolutely gorgeous, which meant they were wealthy. They were ex-kuttas, so they were experienced skill-stitchers.
The joiner chuckled. “You got some good hits on Mr. Kahlin, you know.”
“A few more minutes and he would have bled past the point of no return.” The sniper.
“Even with that swap, it looks like he might have had some brain damage – ” The joiner again.
“- And that means Pith damage – ”
“- And that means permanent.” The joiner let the words sink in. “Needless to say, he’s very eager to chat with the man responsible.” Now far away from the scene of the crime, the car slowed down to a normal pace.
I snorted. “What’s he gonna do, write a mean op-ed about me?” In truth, I was feeling a lot less confident than I sounded. Unless you knew how to modify your Pith’s pain receptors, which I didn’t, physical torture was more than enough to break someone. The cold, inevitable reality of that was beginning to set in.
It would take every bit of willpower to resist them, especially if they brought extra bodies to force me into. Chimera Squad. My family. Samuel. Spilling everything would be the ultimate betrayal of them. The greatest possible failure.
I looked out the side window, at shantytowns, ruined buildings, and more heaps of trash. There has to be some other way. If I could alert the police as to our location, or get some message out to Samuel, maybe I could break myself out.
A few blocks ahead of us, I saw a strangely familiar face. The homeless Neke woman I’d seen earlier, shivering under a blanket by the side of the road, two green stripes tattooed across her light brown forehead. Odd, I thought. Last time I saw her, she was on the other side of the island.
As we passed her, something moved next to her in a blur.
The tires hissed, and the wheels on the right side made an awful metallic scraping sound. The car veered from side to side, braking to slow down. The driver grappled the wheel to seize control, to no avail.
As the car turned left and began to flip, all four of Kahlin’s mercs in the car lifted their arms, clenched their fists, and swung them to the side. The car froze, diagonally balancing on its two right wheels. Metal projection. It crashed back into a normal position, slamming my broken rib into one of the mercs’ knees. I groaned in pain.
In an instant, the driver was stepping out of the car and floating two thick, curved swords from beneath his seat.
When the door was halfway open, a bare foot slammed into it with a side kick, smashing the driver’s head in between it and the vehicle’s roof. As he collapsed, a bladed object smashed through the window, passing next to the joiner with gauntlets.
The joiner collapsed on the leather seat, limp, a thin red gash on her forehead. How did that weapon cut through her skin? And it had taken her out with barely a scratch.
I caught a glimpse of the object as it was yanked back into the assailant’s hand. A wooden spear, with a thorny vine twisting around the shaft, culminating in a bright orange rose next to the blade and crescent-shaped crossguard at the top.
The homeless woman was clutching it, tattered rags rippling as she moved, eyes cold and focused.
The two Ilaquan mercenaries in the back with me looked upwards. The roof of the car bent above us, breaking off into a huge sheet of metal from their projection. They shot it towards the attacker and leapt upwards, out of the car. The sniper flipped backwards, putting the car and me between her and the attacker, while the other flew vertically into the sky, lifting himself by projecting into his clothes.
The homeless woman leapt over the car, going for the sniper on the right. In response, the sniper flipped her hand, and the trunk of the car popped open. Half a dozen shotguns shot out of it, fanning out and pointing at the homeless woman’s head. They opened fire all at once, taking chunks out of the concrete road around her.
Not stopping to gawk at the spectacle, I opened the door on the left side of the car, crawling out, wincing as my weight shifted onto my broken fingers. Gunshots cracked from behind me, and I sprinted for the closest alleyway.
As I ran, something cold and hard clenched my ankle, yanking me off balance. I slammed into the ground, scraping my hands on the pavement with a scalding sensation.
There was a chain wrapped around my ankle. It moved upwards diagonally, hanging me upside down above the ground next to the car. Looking upwards, I saw the source of the chain: the mercenary, floating a good fifty feet above me and grabbing the other end with his clenched fist.
Fuck me. Couldn’t I fight some incompetent crooks for a change? I hated feeling this helpless.
I reached for all the paper in my range. Barely any in this part of town. A handful of newspapers. An old pastry wrapper. A box of tissues. I floated them all towards the chain wielder. He drew another chain, slapping them out of the way with ease.
Then I noticed. The sound of shotgun blasts had stopped.
The homeless woman leapt onto the taut chain, sprinting up its length towards the mercenary. She got almost halfway to the top before he reacted, letting go of the chain and tossing his end at her. It twisted around her, coiling like a python, then snapped tight, intended to bind her limbs.
Inside the shrinking cage of metal, the homeless woman moved with the grace of a dancer, grabbing onto some chains and kicking off of others. In two fluid movements, she slipped through a gap in the shrinking cage and leapt up, still a few dozen yards from her enemy.
She extended the spear, and the rosevine wrapped around the shaft twitched. It unravelled, shooting out towards the chain wielder. At the end of it, the bright orange flower brushed his face, forming a path of living tissue: him, to the vine, to the spear connected to it and the hand of the woman wielding it. All high in the air above me.
He went limp in an instant, dropping like a rock. The chains around my ankle loosened, and I fell to to the ground. There was a sickening crunch as the merc landed nearby.
The homeless woman rolled as she hit the ground, taking a five-story fall like it was nothing. Before I could get up to run, or gather paper, or open my mouth to protest, she was next to me, clamping her hand to my neck.
The last thing I heard was sirens in the distance.
My eyes fluttered open to the pale, bright glow of a street lamp above me. I was splayed out on the soft ground, staring up at the empty night sky. Cold, wet grass tickled my hands, and I pushed myself into a sitting position, dew soaking into my clothes.
My vision snapped left and right, getting my bearings. I was in an empty park, still in the dead of night. Next to me sat a life-sized marble statue of Darius the Philosopher. Darius Park. Where Samuel had given me my audio equipment earlier today.
Then I froze. Shit. I’d left the audio equipment on Gestalt Island, back in the heap of trash where I’d been hiding. Joseph was probably poring over it now with his Commonplace buddies. There go my chances of incriminating the Broadcast King.
“Great, you’re up,” The Neke woman swung around from behind the statue, smiling broadly. She had changed out of her tattered trousers and coat, and was now wearing a bright green set of robes, tied around her waist with a sash and extending just above her knees.
I scrambled to my feet, backing away from her and projecting outwards, searching for paper I could use. Nothing. Not even a single scrap.
The woman held up a hand. “Breathe, boy. You’re safe, at least from me. I just wanted to talk to you.”
I stopped backpedaling. If it came down a fight, I’d be done for anyways. The woman was a good head taller than the statue, six feet at least, with much broader shoulders, muscles bulging underneath her clothes. The two green stripes on her forehead meant she had experience. And that was without her joining-enhanced physicals or the spear.
I’d had enough of getting my ass kicked tonight. Talking seemed the best way out.
My shoulders relaxed a hair, and I nodded. “Who are you, then?”
“Real names are dangerous in my industry.” The woman sat down on the edge of the statue’s pedestal, leaning against Darius’ leg. “But you can call me the Rose Titan.”
“I’m – “ I stopped myself. I didn’t actually have a name right now. “What did you do to these guys?” If she wasn’t going to kill me, I wanted to extract as much information as possible.
The woman – the Rose Titan – clenched her teeth, glaring at me. Finally, she exploded. “God, what were you thinking?!” she shouted, not answering my question. “Taking Steel Violet head-on.”
“Steel Violet? What are you talking about?” They can’t have been Steel Violet. That didn’t make sense.
“The guys who were a fourteen-minute drive away from torturing you.” The Rose Titan swept her dark brown hair out of her face. “An Ilaquan merc group from the Harmonious Flock. Damn expensive one, too. You know they used to be – “
“A band,” I said. “They’re an I-Pop band, not a bunch of stone-cold skill-stitchers. I’ve bought every single one of their albums, I should know. One of those mercs was just using a similar chassis.”
“They’ve been a girl group,” the Rose Titan said. “And a champion cricket team. And award-winning chefs. And Kutta special forces. That’s the kind of career path you can have when you’re expert skill-stitchers with an endless supply of bodies.”
Bloody scholars. They’d been my favorite band, and now they were working for my worst enemy. I need a drink.
Plus, this woman’s chastising was reminding me, oddly, of my mother, and it was starting to irritate me.
“And yet you still tried to fight them. They could have killed you! You ever try picking on someone your own size?”
“You took them on just fine,” I muttered under my breath.
“I took on four out of eleven of them, with the element of surprise. And as far as I can tell, their teammates rescued them before the police got there. Commonplace got off too. Not a single arrest.”
So they’re not dead. She must have been using some kind of Whisper Vocation to stun or paralyze them. And the Broadcast King had escaped too, albeit with some damage to his Pith.
In truth, no matter how much I hated him, I was glad to know he wasn’t dead. No matter how much they had tried to prepare me for it at Paragon Academy, I didn’t feel comfortable taking another human’s life.
With no paper to fold, I tapped my fingers together in rapid succession, fidgeting. Then I stopped.
My fingers weren’t broken. The fourth and fifth fingers on my right hand bent and wiggled with ease, unscathed. What the fuck?
I felt around my face and body, noting the shape of my jaw, the ratty clumps of light brown hair, the series of scars on my back. As far as I could tell, I was still in the same body, or at least a very remarkable replica.
My shoulders tensed. “What did you do to me?” I growled. “Mental projection? Are you inside my head?”
She had touched me to knock me out earlier, using some Vocation I was unfamiliar with. Had she slipped in the backdoor of my mind while I was unconscious? What if she had twisted my thoughts, snipping and tearing and modifying how she pleased? Like mother.
The Rose Titan raised a hand, indignant. “Calm down. I said you were safe from me, and I keep my word. You’re in a mental reality inside my Pith. Sort of like a dream, but fancier. In the real world, you’re lying asleep in my safehouse on a very warm Kotatsu sofa, but I’m afraid I can’t share the location with anyone.” Her expression was apologetic. “Last time I messed that one up, I barely escaped a Shenti commando. He ripped out my intestines with his bare hands, and I had to go apartment hunting in Elmidde. All in all, a pretty bad week.”
I’m inside her Pith. Was this her Vocation? She was keeping its details hidden from me.
I gazed around me at the park. “Then why – “
“I thought you’d be more comfortable with something familiar. But if you don’t mind, then – “ She snapped her fingers.
The night sky and the park dissolved around me, including the ground. For a moment, my feet were hanging in empty air, until they touched down on smooth, brown wood, illuminated by warm daylight.
The noon sun hung above me in the bright blue sky, and the environment around us had shifted to a broad canal, teeming with boats, people, and cars on the shore.
Me and the Rose Titan stood on a long, flat barge. Surrounding us were tables and tables of food and drink. Platters of round, yellow cakes and tea stands stacked high with strawberries and grapes. Wooden trays with neat rows of fresh sushi, and dozens of carafes of wine.
“A Neke pleasure barge,” said the Rose Titan. “From the Floating City. Home sweet home.” She reclined on a plush couch, head hanging off the end.
My mouth opened and closed, not forming words as I drank in the scenery. In truth, I had never traveled across the Eight Oceans, or to any of the Four Domains outside of The Principality. Even rendered in a dream, the sight was far more breathtaking than the magazine photos I’d seen. I should get kidnapped more often.
I plucked a piece of fatty tuna with my fingers and dropped it into my mouth. Immediately, a sharp, tangy flavor filled my mouth, sickly sweet and full of citrus. I spat it out, and it plopped into the water of the canal.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry,” said the Rose Titan. “All the other senses work just fine, but for some reason, all the food here tastes like Jwala’s Orange Soda. My brain can’t seem to get enough of that stuff.”
I set down the sake glass I had just filled with Tsunemori Sake. Jwala’s had spread across all Eight Oceans like an epidemic, but the liquid was as filthy as it was cheaply made.
“So,” she said, closing her eyes. “Why were you going after the Broadcast King? I have my theories, but I’d like to hear it from you.”
I began the lie I’d prepped. “Well, I was on Gestalt Island to tour the Shenti slums, when I saw someone with green tattoos on his hands and a gun – “
“Nope,” said the Rose Titan.
“Doesn’t fit your profile. I should know.” She held out her hand, and a manila folder dropped into it. “I read through your whole dossier the day you got ousted. You are Lady Ebbridge, right? Sorry, the former Lady Ebbridge.”
Scholars damn her. How did she know? Who had a dossier on me? “I’m sorry, what are you talking about?” I wrangled my face into an expression of innocent bemusement.
“Nope again. You lied to me. Just now.” She leaned upright, giving me a knowing look. “I’ve studied the Empathy vocation, and it’s very easy to tell. There are people who can resist it, but you’re not one of them, Mr…Ms…do you have a preference? Or a name?”
“My family owes about fourteen million marks to the Broadcast King,” I said. “I knew he was working with Commonplace and that if he got convicted of treason, they’d dissolve all his assets. I was following him to catch him in the act.”
The Rose Titan chugged an entire goblet of orange-soda flavored wine, pouring herself another. “Interesting. Isaac did say you were, quote, ‘a feisty little shit’.”
I froze. What the fuck. “You work for Professor Brin?” Eliya’s stone-cold father.
“Whoops!” The Rose Titan covered her mouth. “Don’t think I was supposed to reveal that. I’m bad at this whole tradecraft thing.” She winced. “My expertise is more in pneumatological neuroscience and beating the snot out of people.” She brushed a brown strand of hair out of her face. “Me and Isaac have a sort of under the table thing going. Nothing intimate. Gods, I wish, though. Whoever designed that chassis deserves a raise.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “I lose half my memories, my body, almost get killed by my favorite band, and now, it seems my old professor is running some kind of sinister conspiracy with promiscuous Neke War Priests from the other side of the bloody Eight Oceans, all in the span of six fucking days.” I dropped onto a sofa face-first. “What’s next? Is Samuel’s pet guinea pig a Droll Corsair? Is he secretly undermining governments with his furry little paws?“
The Rose Titan chuckled, looking around her at the Neke city. “Just because I’m from here doesn’t mean I’m a war priest. I’m not very religious.” She smiled, stuffing grapes into her mouth. “So Isaac gets me tailing a mid-level Green Hands. Joseph Kemp. I follow at a distance, expecting to take a few pictures and be in bed by midnight, reading a pulpy romance novel under a heated blanket. Tia Wallace. Great chemistry, nightmarish prose.”
“I don’t see how this is relevant.”
“Imagine my surprise when I see you, the guy slash gal at the top of my shortlist, getting tenderized by Steel Violet. I felt awful. I was supposed to watch your back! Keep you from trouble! I would make a terrible mothe – ”
I held up a hand. “Shortlist?”
“Darn,” she said, rubbing her striped forehead with a calloused hand. “I was supposed to practice a whole pitch and everything. Oh well, here goes: how would you like to make some money off that highfalutin Paragon training?”
Interesting. I rolled my eyes. “What training? They took almost everything. I can’t even do a water walk.“ If she has to convince you, she’ll talk more.
“Didn’t look like you forgot everything out there. You’ll do just fine.”
“Isaac is hiring mercenaries. Discreet ones, who can act when his hands are tied.”
Everything fell into place. Professor Brin was chief of counterintelligence for Paragon, which basically meant counterintelligence for the whole country. If anyone could pull off an operation like that, it’d be him. My head was still spinning, but it made a certain kind of bizarre sense. “You. That’s your job. That’s what you’re offering me.”
The Rose Titan nodded. “You start with barely anything, but the salary goes up with every successful job, and I do make a hefty amount now.” She clapped her hands, and another folder appeared in my hand. “You’d be helping this one. Odds are, she is far too gullible and inexperienced to last more than a few weeks on her own.”
I skimmed through the folder, past fields of mundane details until my eye stopped on a single line.
Vocation: Audiovisual Illusions (limited range, high potential to strengthen parameters)
It’s her. The psychotic body thief who butchered Samuel and Eliya. I breathed deeply. Stay calm. Don’t give anything away. I glanced at another line.
Signs of bodily decay/rapid aging. ~11 months before irreparable damage to Pith. ~13 months before full neural collapse.
Another puzzle piece fell into place for me. “You know, I took a class on psych warfare from Professor Brin, and I paid attention at least some of the time.” I grinned, in spite of myself. “Let me guess. You’re recruiting desperate projectors down on their luck. You promise them the world, then use them as disposable cannon fodder. It’s the same shit Guardians do when they honeypot agents in other countries.”
“Yup.” The Rose Titan nodded emphatically. “I was building up to that. Unlike Isaac, I don’t lie whenever it’s convenient.”
I thought for a moment. “I bet every loser who gets Ousted from Paragon goes on that shortlist.”
“Right again. And most of the people do die on the first or second job.” She clenched a fist, and her spear materialized in it. “But a year ago, I was that cannon fodder. And now I get paid better than most surgeons.”
“I don’t need money. Probably.” Thanks, Samuel.
The Rose Titan snapped her fingers again, and the lively canal melted around me, replaced by a familiar sight. Rows and rows of tables, covered with sky blue tablecloths. A glass ceiling extending dozens of stories above us. Warm, yellow light, seeming to emanate from the walls themselves.
Paragon’s banquet hall. I felt a twinge of nostalgic pain.
The Rose Titan picked up a porcelain creamer, examining it. “Is this really how people drink tea in this country?” She snorted, pouring its milky white contents onto the marble floor.
“Why did you take me here?”
The Rose Titan pointed towards the wooden chair at the raised end of the room, a light grey oak, covered from top to bottom with swirling, ornate carvings of the Great Scholars in various dramatic poses. Like the rest of the hall, it was empty. “When was the last time you saw that principal of yours?”
“Headmaster Tau?” I sat down on a plush chair. “Start of summer. He gave the most dull end of term speech about moral responsibility and scholarship and whatnot. I think he changed about five words from last year’s.”
“Know how old he is?”
I shrugged. “Old enough to be more patronizing than my mother.” It was a silly question. At Paragon, there wasn’t a grey hair in sight. The moment a body aged a day over forty, it was swapped out with a new one, more inhumanly beautiful than the models used for its blueprints.
“A hundred and eighty-three years. The body can be replaced, but the mind, the Pith?” She shook her head. “Even he can’t stop it from aging. Constant fatigue. Dizziness. Sometimes, according to Isaac, he gets this vacant look in his eyes, and he forgets the contents of entire meetings.”
I hunched over, gritting my teeth. It was sobering news.
The Rose Titan waved her hand, and the headmaster’s chair disappeared. “When the other three Domains learn the greatest projector in the Eight Oceans, the most powerful defender of this nation, has become a senile old man, how long do you think it will take them to pounce on the opportunity? And that’s not even counting Commonplace, or whoever is hiring the Droll Corsairs right now.”
I stared at the floor. “You’re from the Neke. Why help us?”
The Rose Titan pointed to the two stripes on her forehead. “I’ve been reborn through the Liminal twice. Ninety-two years in total. I was on the front lines of the Shenti War. I have no intention of fighting another.“
I sighed. “And I probably fucked that up a bit, didn’t I?”
The Rose Titan nodded. “Kahlin and Commonplace know we’re tracking them now. They’re going to up their security. We’ll need good agents more than ever. The water is rising.”
I didn’t need the money. Even if I didn’t get butchered within the first week of babysitting that psychotic body thief, I would probably land a substantial prison sentence if they caught me. Tailing Joseph a few times was one thing, and joining a criminal military operation was another.
But still, her offer was tempting. The Principality was clearly on the verge of something dire.
She smiled, extending her hand to shake. “What do you say?”
I thought about Samuel. The secret meetings we’d planned. If I got caught as an illegal merc, he could be incriminated with me. He could get ousted, or arrested with me. Chimera Squad too, if they made contact regularly.
If Samuel hadn’t studied with me four nights a week, my mother would have kicked me out years ago. Him and Eliya and Leizu had put their trust in me, elected me their team leader, given me every fleeting success and victory I’d enjoyed at Paragon.
I’d already let them down enough. If I took this offer, I’d have to stop seeing all of them to avoid the risk.
“No,” I said.
The Rose Titan nodded, unfazed. “Why?”
“I’ve already let down my friends enough,” I said. “If I get caught, they could lose everything, just like I did.”
“Good,” said the Rose Titan.
“You’ve got to know when to say no. You’ve got to trust your moral compass, know the lines you won’t cross, no matter what. Throw those out, and there’s no telling how far you’ll sink.” Silent, she walked up to me and patted me on the shoulder. “Stay warm, kid. Things are going to get a lot colder around here.” She smiled. “You ever change your mind or find yourself in a corner, you’ll know how to find me.”
She flicked her wrist, and her dreamscape dissolved around me like wet paint, walls and tables and chairs melting into each other, getting darker and greyer.
“May you strive to become an Exemplar.”
The Rose Titan vanished, and I found myself standing on a street in Midtown. I teetered off balance for a moment, catching my bearings. The sky was black again. In front of me, was a cable car station, with tracks leading down the mountain towards Lowtown.
Our meeting was over, without even a goodbye.
The pain was back in an instant. A stinging sensation on my upper arms and palms. Aches all over my chest and neck. And two of my fingers on my left hand, bent back at brutal angles.
I reached towards my back, feeling a new weight there. A dark indigo blanket was draped over my shoulders, soft and warm. Guess she was literal about staying warm. On top of it, a cloth bag hung from a strap. Not one I’d ever seen before. Parting gifts from the Rose Titan.
I opened it. Inside were a handful of bills, a cable car ticket, and a warm, white paper box the size of a loaf of bread. I held up the ticket. One pound and thirty-nine sen. Exactly enough for a trip to southern lowtown.
Five minutes later, I was sitting on the wooden bench of a late-night cable car. As it descended a steep street, engine creaking, I leaned out the window. The lights of the city spread out below me, growing dimmer and more sparse as they got lower. Across a short bridge, Gestalt Island was almost pitch black, with no working electricity.
It wasn’t much, next to a mansion. It was barely anything at all. Better get used to it. The one lead I’d managed to catch was dead. The Broadcast King would be watching his penthouse more closely now, and I had no idea where Commonplace would stage their next meeting. I hadn’t even deduced what Kahlin’s vocation did.
Half a dozen kilometers from the shore, at Bartolet Naval Base, a handful of orange lights around the base illuminated the airstrip, and the faint outline of the CNS Rhona. My mother’s flagship supercarrier. Even on the opposite side of the island, I couldn’t escape the old hag.
A chill breeze blew through the open window, and I wrapped the Rose Titan’s blanket around my arms. Undoing the laces, I pulled open the lid of the box she’d given me. A bright yellow, rectangular sponge cake sat inside. A gift of some sort.
Why was she being so nice to me? Was this all a ploy to coax me into accepting her offer? What possible use could she have for me?
It was the same question I’d wanted to pose to Leo. In my experience, most lowtown strangers who were this nice to me either wanted booze money or oral sex, neither of which seemed applicable here.
Fuck it. When had long-term, paranoid planning gotten me anywhere? At the end of the day, I wasn’t going to pass up on free dessert. I ripped off a corner of the cake with my fingers and stuffed it into my mouth. Yuzu Lemon. Tart and soft and better than anything I’d had all week. I’d made the right choice.
I bent down to shovel another piece in, and noticed a glimmer on the box. A silver business card was taped to the bottom of the lid, reflecting light from the two moons off its surface. I peeled it off, examining the front.
Major Isaac Brin
The Scholar of Mass
Director | Principality Counterintelligence Division
Professor | Physics, Paragon Academy
On the back, an address in western Lowtown had been scrawled on top of the printed cursive phone number. 178 West Vanora Street, Unit 27. Presumably the body thief’s base of operations, since the Rose Titan was unwilling to share hers.
Sorry, professor. I wasn’t in the mood to become anyone’s pawn, especially if it meant never seeing my friends again.
All the same, a card like this usually meant access. Exclusivity. Favor. I could probably wave this around at any restaurant in Hightown and get a table at the snap of my fingers. Department stores might give me free samples in the hopes of impressing such a high-ranking Guardian. There were all sorts of ways one could leverage a treasure like this.
I stuffed it into my coat pocket. I’d always wanted to try wearing a dinner suit.
I slammed the empty beer mug on the bar, letting out a loud belch. “How long?”
Leo rolled his eyes, looking at the wall clock. “Nine seconds. And maybe a half.” He cut himself a slice of sponge cake.
“Damn. Almost,” I said. “Half a second short.” My chugging record was just under nine. I slid my mug towards him, slapping a handful of bills next to it. “One more. I got this.”
Leo poured it. “One more. Then you should go to sleep. You have that meeting with your fiancé in the morning. And you’ll heal better.”
I looked down at myself. After I’d insisted I didn’t want to go to the hospital, Leo had wrapped thick white bandages over the glass cuts on my biceps, my scraped palms, and my two broken fingers. When I moved, my broken rib sent stabs of pain through my chest, and my neck ached after being choked by that joiner.
Thank the scholars for hard liquor. With no Whisper Specialists on hand to dull my pain, it was the next best thing.
“Can I ask what happened tonight?” said Leo. “Did you get mugged?” He chewed a bite of cake thoughtfully. “Wow, this stuff is amazing. Where’d you get this?”
I rested my head on the bar, stuffing a handful of crackers into my mouth from a bowl, feeling the energy drain out of me. “Purshued an opportunity,” I muttered, my mouth full. “Did not pan out.”
If Leo was frustrated by my vagueness, he didn’t say anything about it. He sighed. “What are you going to do next?”
I tapped my fingers on the beer mug in front of me, thinking about my options. I had zero clues as to how I’d spy on the Broadcast King again, or move against Commonplace. I’d fucked up my only shot at erasing my family’s debt. My only chance of going back to Paragon.
If I became one of Brin’s henchmen, I risked incriminating Chimera squad. Or never seeing Samuel again.
And I was exhausted. I’d spent seven days running, fighting, and getting the shit kicked out of me. Before that had been two years of desperate, sleep-deprived chaos at Paragon, never stopping, constantly on the verge of collapse, until I finally did.
Everyone had limits. Maybe it was time to finally accept mine.
I grabbed the mug and tilted it back, chugging it in a handful of gulps.
“Eight seconds,” said Leo. A new record.
I slammed the mug on the bar. “I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll work for you.”
I came downstairs to the smell of burning pork. The bar was filled with smoke, and all the windows had been opened, letting in a chill morning breeze.
The smoke billowed out from a side room with the door flung open. Leo emerged from a cloud of it, carrying a frying pan with a dozen pitch black rashers of bacon, looking frazzled.
“Leo? What’s going on?” I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, blinking from the smoke. Once again, I had a throbbing headache from the night before, on top of all my other injuries.
“Sorry, sorry!” Leo used a shirt to fan the smoke towards the windows. “I’m not used to waking up this early. Or cooking bacon.”
“Why were you – “
“I wanted to make you some Principality-style breakfast before you went. To welcome you to the team!“
“Is it a team if it’s only two people?”
Leo nibbled the end of a rasher, wrinkling his nose. “Yeah, I can’t salvage this.” He stroked his chin, then nodded to himself. “Let me make it up to you. I’ll go to the grocery store and throw something together for lunch. I don’t know a lot of recipes, but I do make a lethal beef curry.”
Eclairs, sponge cake, and now bacon. Everyone I know is giving me food handouts. “You can take the cost of the ingredients out of my wages.” I didn’t want to be in debt to anyone.
He waved his hand dismissively. “You don’t owe me anything. It’s just basic hospitality for a new hire.”
Could I get used to this? I wasn’t sure. In comparison to the world-altering intensity of Guardian training, the Humdrum life was pretty dull. But I’d have Samuel. I’d have Chimera Squad. And I’d have Leo.
“Besides,” he said. “You’re going to need all your energy for the evening rush.”
“I must warn you,” I said. “I have the dexterity of a drunk whale. And the short-term memory of a chimpanzee. And according to my mother, the work ethic of a sloth on painkillers.” And she was probably right. I turned to leave before he could respond.
“One last thing,” Leo ran up to me and handed me a small business card. Thin, off-white paper, in standard typewriter font. “I had them made a few years back when I thought this place was gonna go big.”
197 West 18th Street, Elmidde
I stuffed it into my pocket. “Thank you,” I said to my new boss. “I’ll try not to lose it.”
Samuel was an hour late. Or at least, that’s how it felt. It was difficult to keep time without a watch, and there was no clock on hedge walls surrounding me. Or anywhere in my family’s gardens. But I’d timed my break-in using a clock tower in hightown to ensure I’d evade the guards, and I knew I, for once, had actually shown up on time.
After folding origami cranes out of every piece of paper in my bag, I was out of distractions, and was starting to worry. On this day every week, my parents hosted a breakfast in their mansion, one that took place an hour and a half after this meeting. If he was too late, he’d have to bail completely.
Maybe he already has. Hot tea and a red-hot girl with huge knockers sounded a lot more appealing than wet grass and a petulant ex with a hangover.
I’d been on our dew-soaked blanket for what felt like an eternity, staring up at the morning clouds when I finally heard footsteps approaching. I pushed myself upright to face Samuel, dressed in a suit and grimacing.
I spread my arms for a hug. He didn’t move to reciprocate.
“What happened?” I said. “Alarm broke? Car trouble? My father tell you one of his Shenti War stories? At this point I’ve memorized about all of them, which is impressive, considering they’re about five hours ea – “
“Your mother,” said Samuel, interrupting me. “She knows we’re meeting.”