“My mother knows?” I exploded. “That we’re meeting?”
Samuel looked over me, and his blue eyes widened with concern. His dark blonde hair was a tangled birds nest, tousled and damp with sweat. “What happened to you? Did Commonplace and Kahlin – “
“I lost your recorder,” I said. “Sorry. No evidence.”
Samuel cradled my broken fingers in his hand, examining them. His touch was still soft, comforting. “I told you to stay away from Commonplace. Those guys – “
“Have machine guns and voidsteel and Joiners strong enough to tear my spleen out with their pinkies. Yes, I encountered a few of those things.” I sat down on the wooden chair behind me.
“Are you in danger?”
What do you think? “They know my face and my Vocation, but, silver lining, if they track me down and murder me, I won’t have to think about that conniving little psychopath riding you like a mule in my bed.”
Samuel frowned at me. “That’s not fair. I’m still keeping my distance from…her. The whole squad is.”
For now. I didn’t feel like arguing with him. There were more urgent problems. “How did my mother find out about us?”
“The audio equipment,” said Samuel. “She saw the records of me borrowing it from Paragon’s supply yesterday. She tailed me that afternoon with one of her birds.” He grit his teeth. “I didn’t notice it. She was watching when I dropped it off for you.”
I massaged my temples. “The handoff was the same afternoon that you checked it out. How does anyone move that fast?”
“It’s your mother. For all we know, she was already monitoring me. Or both of us. But regardless, she knows we met.”
I leaned my head off the back of the chair. “What did you tell her?”
“I told her you were going after Commonplace. And the Broadcast King. She already knew everything else.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. “And today?”
He shook his head. “It took me an hour to shake the bird she assigned to spy on me. I was planning on bringing the rest of Chimera squad, but there’s no way we all could have kept it hidden from her. But I don’t think I was followed here.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Of all the scenarios I’d dreamed up in my head, this one might have been the worst. Full separation was a strict rule of Ousting, and if my mother had proof I’d broken it, she could legally impose all sorts of horrible punishments on me and Samuel.
“She’s not going to go after you. Or me. On one condition.”
My fingers tapped on my thighs in a rapidfire pattern, faster and faster. I felt my shoulders tense.
“We can’t meet again. Ever. Full separation, just like everyone else. I shouldn’t even be here. If she catches me, and she tells my parents, I could get Ousted. At the very least.”
I didn’t like where this was going. “Alright, then. We’ll have to lie low for a while, not see each other in person, at least until she stops spying on you with her creepy birds.” I thought for a moment. “If you go inside to leave dead drops, the birds won’t be able to follow you there. And if it’s a place you go normally, she won’t think to post permanent sentries there, and I can pick them up. We can exchange messages to coordinate when it’s safe to find a new spot to – “
“I’m sorry,” said Samuel, speaking slowly, as if afraid of his own words. “I wasn’t making my point very clearly. What I mean, is – “ He stopped himself for a moment. “What I mean is, I’m taking your mother’s offer.”
Silence. The chill air bit at my skin.
“What the fuck?” I stared at him.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make. But I don’t think it’s wise for either of us to keep meeting.” Samuel kept his voice level.
“Speak for yourself,” I said. “I lost all my friends, my money, my name. I don’t have anything left she can take. Except you.” She got to him. Admiral Ebbridge was nothing if not methodical. I didn’t think that Samuel would cave so easily. That everything would happen so fast. Damn her, I wanted more time.
“I thought you didn’t want me to get Ousted,” Samuel raised his voice. “My family may not be in debt, but they still need me. And Chimera Squad already lost its team leader.”
I grit my teeth. “But you don’t know that my mother will find out. And if she tells your parents, they don’t have to Oust you if they don’t want you. They need a candidate for replacement.” I counted the requirements off on my fingers. “If you haven’t committed a serious crime, they need to wait until the ceremony a year from now. And they need to be massive, gaping assholes who have no love for their children.”
Samuel said nothing.
I stood up, staring him down. “Don’t abandon me based on a hypothetical.”
“I know my parents,” said Samuel. “If they find out, it’s a little more than a hypothetical.” He furrowed his brow. “But you can study. Train. Get a spot back in your family, and we’ll be allowed to contact each other again.”
I paced back and forth. “That bitch who Ousted me? The one who gave me this?” I pointed at my face. “Unless she gets struck by lightning or I get spontaneously recruited into a Shenti Commando unit I’m not going to beat her. Not in the exams or the ring.”
“But you could still get into Parag – “
“- And I failed most of my classes last semester,” I interrupted him. “I have no chance in the normal entrance exam.” I said my next words slowly, through gritted teeth. “I’m not getting my name back. I’m not getting my body back. If you break off contact now, you will probably never see me again.”
Samuel stuffed his hands into his pockets, clenching his fists.
“Give me the mask back,” I said.
“The crane mask I lent you. Your gift for the masquerade. Give it back.” I extended my good hand. The ache in my stomach grew.
“You said you wanted me to keep it.” Samuel looked hurt. “So I could have something to remember you by.“
“Give it back,” I repeated.
Samuel reached into his bag with one hand, rummaging through and pulling out the white masquerade mask. Lightweight, covered with intricate designs and pristine feathers.
With his other hand, he reached in and removed a large paper package, and extended both objects towards me.
“No,” I said, feeling sick. First he dumps me, then he tries to buy my forgiveness. I reached into my coat, grabbing his original package of bills from yesterday, and tossed it towards him. “I don’t want your money.”
“It was the largest sum I could gather without drawing attention. Any more and your mother would have found out.” He moved both hands closer to me.
I grabbed the mask out of his right hand, ignoring what was in his left. “Fuck off,” I said. “I don’t have anything left to say to you.” Nothing I could say would change his mind, make him think beyond basic self-preservation. This money was just an attempt to drown his guilt in pity cash.
“You need this. It’ll help you get a job, pay for any medical expenses, let you have an adequate quality of li – “
“If you make me take it,” I said. “I’ll dump it into the ocean.” It felt like someone was driving a corkscrew through my stomach. My headache was a dull throb at the back of my skull, rising, then falling, then rising again.
“I don’t understand. You were fine with taking it last time.” Samuel looked confused.
Last time, I thought I had a future with you. That I would be able to return the favor, someday. Everything felt distant to me, like I was staring at it from far away. The chair, the hedges, the garden around me.
And Samuel most of all. A part of me wanted to embrace him, close my eyes, and pretend none of this had ever happened, to hold a last moment of sweetness before saying goodbye.
A larger part wanted to project into those bills and give him a few dozen paper cuts in the most painful places I could think of. Leave a few scars to remember me by.
But I just stood there, frozen. “Go,” I said, finally. “Have scones and strawberry jam and tea with the thief. Marry her. Graduate side by side with the highest honors. Let yourself forget.” I stuffed the mask into a pocket.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to – “
“I’m sorry,” said Samuel. “I’m so, so sorry.” He stepped back, hefting his bag over his shoulder, and walked out of the enclosure. A dozen yards away, he turned back towards me. “Love you,” he called out, waiting for a response.
Several long seconds of silence passed.
After a few more, he started walking again. I watched him go, until he turned a corner on the path, and vanished behind a tree.
I stood there for a while, every breath a small jab of pain where my rib had been broken. This is the price you pay, I thought, when you can’t be smart enough, can’t work hard enough to stay afloat. Dew soaked into my peeling shoes, getting my socks damp.
The guards will be back on shift soon. David would get up from his morning nap by the fountain and start patrolling again. It’d be much harder to leave then. I forced my feet to move, carrying me towards the fence at the edge of the Ebbridge estate.
But as I walked, mind off of my surroundings, I found myself turning around, taking strides back towards my mansion through the trees and gardens. What used to be my mansion.
As I drew closer, my level of awareness increased, scanning the grass around me for guards and the branches above me for my mother’s birds.
In fifteen minutes, I found myself at my intended destination. A smattering of hedge sculptures on the northern side of the mansion, packed close enough to act as a visual barrier. And right next to the northern dining hall, where my mother’s weekly breakfasts were held.
I ducked from sculpture to sculpture, getting closer and closer to the house until only a huge green eagle stood between it and me, taller than the top of my head. I peered through the leaves and branches on its wing, gazing through one of the dining hall’s two-story windows.
Samuel and both of my parents were sitting around a table, in a dining room over three stories tall. Samuel stared at a pair of untouched fried eggs on his plate, his dark blonde hair combed and pristine once more.
My father said something I couldn’t hear – judging by his expression, a mediocre joke. He laughed, the kind of forced, uncomfortable cheeriness only he could produce, and nibbled a scone.
And my mother. Admiral Ebbridge, the Typhoon of the South. She sipped bitter tea from a porcelain cup, calm, measured. As if nothing had changed. As if my replacement had always been her daughter.
A thin smile played around the edges of her lips. I hadn’t seen that smile in over a decade. Not since I was a child.
Anger bubbled up within me. She’s thrilled. This is her dream come true.
At the other end of the table, sat me.
The thief inhabiting my body, with a name I couldn’t even think of anymore. A pale, slender girl with wavy, pitch-black hair and a heart-shaped face. She was wearing one of my dresses, navy blue and white lace interspersed with one another: the colors of the Principality flag.
It wasn’t one of my favorites. I didn’t like my dresses in general, but it was mine, damn her.
Unlike everyone else at the table, the girl was stuffing her mouth.
Pork sausages, poached eggs, bright yellow custard tarts and round green grapes. Crumbs dribbled from her mouth and onto the dress as she bit into a piece of toast with grilled tomatoes on top. She paused a moment to down a cup of coffee in two gulps, then dug into a strawberry shortcake, smearing a dollop of whipped cream on her cheek.
No table manners, I thought, with a twinge of satisfaction. Despite her combat training, her academic prowess and powerful Vocation, she still betrayed her common origins. She wasn’t fitting in.
At the same time, the breakfast was enough to make my stomach ache with hunger. Some of those were my favorite foods.
She had all that and more, available at the snap of a finger. I had burnt bacon and a three-year-old mask.
Not much left to lose.
I took one last lingering look at Samuel before turning around and leaving.
Four hours later, I was staggering across lowtown, clutching a brown paper bag with a bottle of Ilaquan arak inside. Potent stuff, distilled from anise and bought with bills from the Rose Titan’s goodie bag.
I reached inside that bag, wrapping her dark indigo blanket around my shoulders and stuffing a handful of yuzu sponge cake crumbs into my mouth.
I could have gotten drunk for free at Leo’s Place. I could have eaten some of his famous stew, complained to him, and watched him look at me with that perpetually worried expression. Judging me. Pushing me to talk about my emotions. To think about the future.
I couldn’t handle that. At least not for now.
Clutching a railing beside me for balance, I looked around. I was standing on the side of North Bridge, the massive steel suspension bridge strung between Elmidde and the mainland of the Principality. Roaring automobiles surged back and forth on the concrete road to my left. To the right was the Carheim Ocean, extending far into the horizon, speckled with the tiny dots of sailboats below and cargo ships in the distance.
A gust of wind blew over me, and I wrapped the crumb-coated blanket tight around my arms to keep it from flying away.
I pulled out the white crane mask from my bag, fidgeting with it in my hands.
I’d known Samuel since we were seven. I’d played Scholar’s Puzzle and Hidden Snake and Jao Lu with him and other boys. In burning hot summers, we’d chased each other around his family’s pool and pushed each other in, or smuggled towering ice cream cones into the movies past the ushers.
Years later, I’d fought alongside him dozens of times in squad battles. And he’d helped me study through exam after exam, school after school, all the way up to Paragon.
Without Samuel, I’d have been Ousted years ago.
I kicked the railing, making the metal clang, then punched it, putting my entire body into the strike. The impact sent shocks of pain through my fingers, and I clutched them, doubling over. It felt like I’d broken half the bones in my good hand.
I screamed, a wordless yell echoing out over the water, making my vocal cords ache. A handful of nearby pedestrians glanced in my direction and speed-walked away from me.
I wished I still remembered my metal projection, so I could tear it with my mind and toss the scraps into the ocean.
The pain arced up my arm, and I winced, squeezing it with my other hand. I sighed, and the rage seemed to seep out of me. Slumping over on the railing, I stared down at the water hundreds of feet below.
It was probably selfish. Wanting Samuel to risk his future for me.
How many times had he saved my grades from crashing? How many times had he picked me up from a bar at dawn, making sure I was safe and sober by morning? Even outside Paragon, I’d needed to be rescued by the Rose Titan.
For over a decade, I’d been a burden to the people around me.
My Ousting was born of my stupidity and mistakes. My fault, not his. It wasn’t really even my mother’s fault, or my replacement’s.
I’d been given every privilege, every advantage, but I hadn’t truly earned those things. I just wasn’t good enough.
I reached into my pocket, pulled out the two business cards tucked inside, and flipped through them. First, Leo’s.
197 West 18th Street, Elmidde
Plain white paper, crumpled a little bit, with a standard font detailing his address and phone number. It was like he’d pounded it out on his typewriter, then cut it out with scissors. He was probably waiting for me back at the bar, keeping a bowl of his signature stew warm for me. Another gift for the new hire.
And then, Professor Brin’s.
Major Isaac Brin
The Scholar of Mass
Director | Principality Counterintelligence Division
Professor | Physics, Paragon Academy
Major Brin’s card was a rectangle of bright, shining silver, with his information printed in a pitch-black cursive scrawl. I bent it back and forth, trying to fold or tear it, but it always gradually bent back to its normal, wafer-thin shape. Not a crease on it.
The flexible material was only created by a single company, preventing counterfeits, and was rumored to be forged using projection. It was the kind of opulent design limited to Guardians and the extraordinarily wealthy. In my hands was power and prestige and money, all contained inside a tiny, simple rectangle.
The roar of an engine sounded out in the distance. I looked back towards the island. A dive bomber soared over Elmidde, circling Paragon Academy. Navy blue, with white stripes crisscrossing its body.
Crooked Talon. Harpy’s plane. Only the Scholar of Air herself was famous or skilled enough to have her own special aircraft.
After she made her second pass, Harpy flew towards the bridge, spinning and making sharp ninety-degree turns that would be impossible without projection, with two tiny figures soaring beside her in a V formation.
As they grew closer, I could make out their wingsuits, the same color as the plane. Guardians. Using projection to propel themselves, they mirrored the plane’s every movement and stunt.
One of them projected into his fabric wings, detaching them from his arms and rolling them up by his sides. He pressed his arms and legs together, making himself narrow, and he shot like a bullet towards the water.
Moments before he hit the surface, he snapped his wings back open and was gliding again. In another second, he was flying straight up, projecting into his suit to accelerate himself. He passed close enough for me to see the ear to ear grin underneath his helmet.
The daredevil rejoined the formation, and the trio kept flying in circles. A training exercise, maybe. The Scholar of Air tutoring some students before the school year began, in preparation for her legendary course, Combat Maneuvers and Aerodynamics.
The class I would be taking this semester, if I was still in Paragon.
The afternoon sun shone above them, casting them as silhouettes, and the glimmering water reflected their images. With a gust of projected wind, Crooked Talon spun a hundred and eighty degrees, changing direction in an instant. The two Guardians in training flipped in midair, following her. They were graceful, agile, perfect. A brilliant show of competence and speed.
What must that feel like? To be detached, blindingly fast, leaving everything on the ground with the wind in your face. If I had just one more semester. If I’d pulled myself together, concentrated during those stupid, boring pneumatology lectures and those ten-page essays, given a shit about anything other than fighting and booze.
I clenched my teeth so hard they felt like they were going to snap off, jaw aching from the exertion. I gripped the railing, my broken fingers giving me jabs of pain.
The truth was, no matter how much I hated myself, I wanted to be up there with them, shooting through the air. I wanted to know people as remarkable as Harpy and the Symphony Knight, to have the most thrilling job in the Eight Oceans. I wanted to eat incredible food and go on wondrous adventures, and live in a world infused with magic.
I didn’t want to sit back as an honorary Humdrum, accepting my failure. I wanted to strive to become an Exemplar. I wanted to fly.
Though it was hard to admit, I wanted to be back with Samuel, too. But not as a sad weight dragging him down, but as an equal, someone worth respecting, who would push him forward, not drag him down. The heir to a debt-free family ready to reclaim its noble standing in the Epistocracy.
Harpy and the Guardians finished circling, flying back towards Paragon. It was pathetic, dreaming so hard for something I’d failed at so terribly. But it was even more pathetic to let my family down. To let my friends and the love of my life drift away until they were gone forever.
Backsliding was not an option, nor was running in place. I had to move forward and earn my place. But how?
I looked down at Isaac Brin’s silver business card, flipping it to see the address scrawled on the back, and the name written just below.
Anabelle Gage. The illusionist who’d been rejected from Paragon, the crazy body thief who’d cut Eliya’s hands off and blew through Samuel’s knee with a shotgun.
Judging from the Rose Titan’s file, she was powerful, but an amateur. Determined, but inexperienced. Tactical, but socially inept, and desperate to save up enough funds to buy a new body.
If I could convince this Anabelle Gage to go after the Broadcast King, I could use her to get incriminating evidence on him. If I could trick Gage into chasing the same target as me, we could bring him down together, under the guise of whatever mercenary work Professor Brin was assigning us. Her illusion Vocation was perfectly suited for infiltration and thievery. And I no longer needed to worry about Samuel’s involvement.
Given Gage’s record, it’d be dangerous, but possible.
If I was a mercenary, a year was enough time to study, to get better at fighting dirty. Twelve months from now, I could show up to my mother with everything she needed to throw Kahlin in prison and get his contracts voided. If it saved the Ebbridge family from her debt, she wouldn’t ask too many questions about where the information came from. My mother was nothing if not practical.
And if I pulled off something that huge, she might start to respect me. She might give me back my name and title.
It was a long shot, a gambit that could blow up in my face like so many others had before. But I was already at rock bottom. There wasn’t much left to lose, weren’t many obligations holding me back anymore.
Not quite. I looked at Leo’s business card, imagined him stirring that beef stew, waiting for me to come back. Then I looked at Paragon Academy, floating high above Mount Elwar on massive chunks of rock, sunlight reflecting off its towers and halls and the Great Library.
I can’t settle for a Humdrum’s life. Not when something more was possible. But the thought of saying that to Leo’s face was excruciating.
You already gave him plenty of money. At the end of the day, he’d probably be grateful to not have to take care of me anymore. As his employee, I’d be little more than a forgetful, perpetually distracted alcoholic with violently low self-esteem. Not worth the wages he’d be giving me.
This way, he wouldn’t have to fire me and feel bad about himself.
I let Leo’s card fall through my fingers. The white slip of paper spun as it dropped towards the water hundreds of feet below. It shrunk in my vision until it was too tiny to see.
I turned and started walking back towards the city, holding Professor Brin’s card up to the light, reading what was scrawled onto the back. 178 West Vanora Street, Sleeping Pod 151. I patted my hair down, brushing dirt off my jacket.
By the time I made it over to southern Lowtown, the sun was setting over the water, silhouetting Bartolet Naval Base and the CNS Rhona with soft orange light. The address pointed me to a storage facility in the industrial district. It was the kind of place where people got murdered in pulpy detective novels, sporting windowless concrete walls and three separate locks on the front door. I read the large poster over the front door.
Silver Palace Sleepbox & Depot
Storage Units and Capsule Hotel
It was a strange combination of amenities, and was caked with enough grime, empty beer cans, and cigarette butts to make me cringe. Don’t turn back. You can do this.
I approached the front door and rang the buzzer for Pod 151. While I waited, I straightened my jacket and took deep breaths. After what felt like several minutes, the door remained shut, with no response from inside. I rang the buzzer again, tapping my foot.
After another few minutes, there was still nothing.
Maybe she’s not home. I stepped back, preparing to leave.
The door opened.
A lanky young man stood inside, sporting tangled, short grey hair, wide shoulders, and grey veins bulging on his forehead and neck. He – she – held a can of beans in her hand. It matches her physical description.
“Um, hi.” Anabelle Gage stared at me, blinking. “Who are you?” she said, hesitant.
I can’t use my real last name. She’d know I was an Epistocrat, and the most cursory research into the Ebbridge family would reveal my ulterior motives to set her against Afzal Kahlin. In a flash, I decided on an answer: what my parents would have called me if I was born a boy.
I handed her Professor Brin’s business card and put on my most winning smile. “Weston Brown. Wes for short. I understand you’re in need of assistance.”
My mother’s words echoed in my head. Body is a privilege. Memory is a privilege.
Name is a privilege.
Wes. For the time being, it would do.