Anabelle Gage was a pain in the ass.
Some people just had the perfect combination of traits: Clever enough to be a threat, and stupid enough to fall face-first into trouble.
Leizu, back in Chimera Squad, was one of those people. But she was a Joiner with bulletproof skin and kicks that could flip cars. Gage’s skin, on the other hand, looked like it was about to fall off. Those bulging grey veins certainly didn’t offer any protection. And worse, she insisted on playing the hero at the most idiotic times.
And what did we have to show for it? Those poor mind-spheres in Commonplace HQ were out of our reach for good, still being tortured by a freak with a rock hammer. And the Green Hands now knew what we were capable of. If they were clever, they might have even figured out Gage’s range limitation.
After all the nonsense she’d pulled, it had almost been satisfying to stab her eardrums out with toothpicks. Almost.
Fortunately, the psychotic little body thief hadn’t caught onto my plans to use her against the Broadcast King. But given what I’d seen, if she found out, she might react with violence. In a fair fight, I could crush her, but not if she got the jump on me.
I’d have to be careful. Turn her against Kahlin without setting off any alarms.
An automobile rushed by my face, shocking me back to reality. I staggered back, off the street and out of the path of the cars. In the middle of the sloped road, a trolley on a rail climbed the slopes of Lowtown, ascending towards Hightown.
And above them, connected by a cable car, Paragon Academy, its floating islands hanging beneath a carpet of grey clouds. Taunting me.
Gage had learned Nudging defense, but that was the most basic of basic techniques. Now we were up against a real projector, an Ex-Guardian who’d gone through six years of Paragon training.
If I didn’t feel prepared, Gage sure as fuck wasn’t.
And the girl was hiding something. Other than her body, underneath her ridiculous baggy clothes. How had Professor Brin tracked her down? What deal had she struck with the uptight bastard? I’d have to investigate, when I had the time.
To top it off, she had awful taste in food, even for the average poor person. All she had to eat were these disgusting canned lentils. I’d felt guilty when I stole a few cans from her storage unit.
But then I remembered that she’d almost gotten me killed, and I was fine about it.
Now, she wanted me to smuggle the two of us onto an exclusive yacht party while she read comic books or whatever in her little capsule. In four days.
Did she know how hard those sorts of invites were to secure? Elitist assholes like Lorne Daventry built their identities on excluding as many people as they could from their social circles. I doubted our target would be any different.
Odds were, it wouldn’t be as simple as summoning up an illusion for the doorman at the pier. If my experience was anything to go by, there would be a unique serial number on each invitation, which meant we’d have to steal one, or get invited.
My plate was already full with whaleshit to manage. I had to study for the Ousting exams in a year. I had to study the Broadcast King so I could bring him down and erase my family’s debt. And I had to study Ms. No-Name’s tactics so I could counter-Oust her the next time my mother pitted us against each other.
The thoughts churned up my stomach again, a storm of vague, long-term tasks I had to juggle and allott time to. This type of shit, I hate the most.
I couldn’t even do my own laundry. How was I supposed to manage something as complicated as revenge?
I sat down on a bar stool, and blinked. After saying the word “study” in my head three times, I’d directed myself to the nearest bar, almost on pure instinct.
A Steel Violet tune played in the background, and I nodded my head along to it. The group had attacked me and almost killed me, but damn if their music wasn’t catchy. “Can I get you anything?” said a bored-looking man behind the counter.
Well, if I’m already here. “Western Gin.”
He poured a glass, which took two gulps to swallow. “One more.” I needed something to calm me down and clear my head. This was already helping.
How was I supposed to beat my replacement? Strangling her with those ropes was a one-time trick. It wouldn’t work now that she knew about it. And now, while I drank this body into oblivion, she’d be getting top-notch training in tactics and projection at Paragon.
The bitch would even learn how to fly. If we fought again, she’d have a much larger toolkit and know all my abilities.
If I wanted to beat her, I’d need to come up with something new. Some unexpected strategy she wouldn’t see coming. Pure technique wouldn’t cut it.
Then I could get my name back, get back Chimera Squad and Samuel and a room with more than three square feet.
Samuel. I downed another cup of gin. Some of it splashed, and I wiped my chin with a napkin. Would he even want me, given enough time with his new toy?
And would I even want him? The prick had abandoned me, afraid of even the possibility that he’d lose his cushy Epistocrat life and break the rules. All he’d left me was a crane mask. No matter how much I hated myself, that would always be true. And in a world of fabricated bodies, there were thousands just as pretty as him, or prettier, as long as they had the money to pay for it.
But all the same, when I thought of his dirty blonde hair, or his knowing smile, or his calm, but righteous speeches, I couldn’t help but feel something. A faint reminder of what it was like to feel comfortable, not just with a bed and food and clothes, but with a person who understood the depths of your flaws, and cared about you anyways.
Love is a privilege. One that I’d taken for granted. I’d have to earn that comfort and beauty back. If he could admire me the same way I admired him. And if I was back in my weird, dolled-up, black-haired sexpot of a body, maybe we could build something again.
A cat padded down the counter, leaning down to nuzzle my hand. Disgusting. Cats were for the poor and filthy, not something I wanted to associate with.
But for the first time in my life, when I looked at this hairy creature, I felt something other than pure revulsion.
It’s cute. Scholars damn me, this body’s brain was infected with Maojun. Now I would find all cats adorable, even if it made no rational sense and I hated myself for it. Another annoyance at the life I’d been saddled with.
The bartender slapped the bill in front of me. Twenty-three pounds. My head felt light as a balloon, and the warm, tingly feeling had spread from my chest to the rest of my body, which meant I was just the right amount of drunk for two in the afternoon. Time to head out.
I reached into my pocket for my bills, and pulled out a paper clip, two pencils, a coupon for a swap brothel, and the ad card for Honeypot’s ‘Dusk Masquerade’. Digging to the bottom, I pulled up two quarter-pound coins. One forty-sixth of what I needed.
Scholars, not again.
“Actually,” I said. “I don’t think I’m quite done. I’ll have a – ” I glanced at the rows of bottles behind him, finding the liquor on the highest shelf, further from the door. “I’ll take the ‘27 Celetrian Barrel-Aged Malt Whiskey.” I slipped off my shoes with my heels.
“It’s eight hundred a bottle, are you sure?”
I nodded, and reached down to pick up my shoes. The bartender fetched a stool and climbed it. While he stretched up to reach the highest shelf, I slid off my chair, silent, and ran for the door.
In ten rapid steps and one grab of the handle, I was out. Two more quick motions, and I was jogging forward with my shoes on, blending in with the dense crowd on the far side of the street.
Good to see that stealth training come in handy. I felt a twinge of guilt at stealing twenty-two and a half dollars from the man, a sinking feeling in my stomach that fought against the soft embrace of the gin.
I glanced down at the piece of paper. Bhais Baldana: A Dusk Masquerade. On the Golden Moon Yacht. Leaving from Pier 52 at nightfall.
Well, I thought, let’s check out Pier 52.
Even for me, the Golden Moon yacht was huge, a giant white vessel at least five hundred feet long, with five distinct decks tapering up to the top. Whoever owned it was rich enough to store it in Pier 52, smack in the middle of Elmidde’s port.
Whether Honeypot or some billionaire she’d seduced was floating the bill, that couldn’t have been cheap. And you could practically smell the money dripping off every inch of the ship, from the smooth modern architecture to the ornate furniture inside the windows.
And, most importantly, nobody was watching it. The pier was as empty and dead as my elementary school talent show. The only two guards nearby were a good two hundred feet away, smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio. Both looking in the opposite direction.
The lock on the gate to the pier wasn’t even Voidsteel. It had taken two and a half seconds to shrink it with my Vocation.
To a certain extent, it made sense. The controls on the boat were locked down, and if anyone somehow stole it, it’d be noticed and chased down in minutes. All the valuables inside were furniture, as far as I could tell, all far too heavy to smuggle away.
In three days, this vessel would be miles into the Eloane Ocean, filled with wine, wealth, and Lyna Wethers, the Honeypot, who could reduce both of us into limp piles of adoration with a flick of her wrist. And for all we knew, she could hire private security too.
We needed to know the interior of that ship. We needed an exit plan for when our plan inevitably collapsed. And if Wethers left a few extra invitations lying around on her yacht, that was just a bonus.
I glanced over to make sure the guards were looking the other way, then slid the heavy bag off my shoulder. My hands pulled open the drawstring on the top, and I projected inside, lifting.
Three hundred pieces of damp newspaper flew into the air, flapping like birds and soaring over the yacht’s balcony. They made almost no sound, softened by a quick dip in the harbor twenty minutes ago.
I spread out my flock, setting them down on the outermost deck, thirty feet above my head. My Pith saturated every sheet, crackling, coursing through their fibers. Though I couldn’t see them, I could feel every movement they made, their position in space, the shape they took.
I felt the surface of the deck, noting couches, smooth tables, and what I guessed was a hot tub.
Two of the sheets slid around the edge of the railing, until they hit a long, coiled object. Rope. Just what I was looking for.
My sheets of paper tied the rope around the railing. I didn’t know any sailors knots, so I just looped it back and forth and around until it was too tangled for me to make any sense of.
I sent the other end flying over the edge, and caught it with one hand.
As I climbed up the side of the yacht, I gazed over at the two guards in front of the dock warehouse. Their backs were still turned to me, as they bent over their radio, intent. Must be a good show. Or a strong cigarette.
The climb was easy, fast – far smoother than I’d expected, even with two broken fingers and snapped ribs. This body’s forearms had bigger muscles than I’d ever handled, even in my combat chassis. Testosterone is one powerful drug.
I bent over and scurried across the deck, staying below the guards’ eyelines. The newspapers swirled beneath me, and I pulled with my Pith, drawing them back into my bag.
I used my Vocation on the first door I found, folding both the deadbolt and latch into two dimensions. This lock wasn’t Voidsteel either. Green lightning crackled around the knob, and I pulled it open. My Pith drained out of them, and they snapped back to three dimensions. I repeated the process on the other side to close it.
I was in what looked like the main dining area, a long, carpeted room with three separate chandeliers. Rows of high tables extended from wall to wall, the perfect height to serve appetizers and drinks.
The space was dark. The red curtains on the windows were drawn shut, letting in only slivers of afternoon light.
I committed the layout to memory, and set to exploring the other floors of the ship.
Above the deck, the furniture and rooms grew more and more opulent, even for my tastes. Chairs coated with gold leaf shaped into flowers. A stocked bar filled with bottles older than my mother, from all four Domains and all Eight Oceans. And a walk-in wardrobe with suits, dresses, shoes, and hats in every style and color imaginable.
The lower floors grew darker, with fewer windows and portholes in each of the rooms. I tried flipping one of the light switches, to no avail. Maybe the electricity is on lockdown too.
On a side room in the first deck, I found the lifeboats. There were just two of them, barely large enough to fit ten people each. If the Golden Moon sunk, they wouldn’t even hold a fraction of the guests that would be aboard. Just enough for one private security team, and one massive asshole.
In this vein, both lifeboats were secured to the room with chains, running through metal loops the side of each one, and fastened with bright green metal locks. Voidsteel. My Vocation would be useless on it. If I had to bet, the owner would have the only key, so that his own security wouldn’t abandon him.
Neither Gage nor I had the metal projection to break the chains. If we got discovered by Wethers, we wouldn’t have the time to track down the owner and grab his key. Then we’d have to drag it from here onto the water, which neither of us were strong enough to do.
All while under attack by an unblockable Whisper Specialist, and scholars knew what else.
Privately, I made a decision in advance. If things went bad, I’d jump into the water, use my dark clothes to stay hidden, and make my way back to the harbor. Even if Gage couldn’t swim. It wasn’t the honorable thing to do, but if we went for the lifeboats, we were fucked.
And besides, the grey-haired fuck had blown off my fiancée’s leg with a shotgun. And sliced off the hands of one of my best friends. If she wanted to escape, she could find her own way.
The lowest floor was dead silent. The only noises were the soft thumps my shoes made on the wooden floors, and the green lightning when I used my Vocation on locks.
I was in a dark hallway flanked by bedrooms and small lounges. There were enough of them for dozens of people to live on the ship at a time.
At the end of the hallway was a steel door with rounded edges. It looked out of place, something you’d see on a battleship rather than a luxury yacht.
I extended my Pith towards the lock mechanisms, and met a solid wall of empty space, material I couldn’t project into. Voidsteel. The entire mechanism was made of it, even the bolt. Voidsteel, by the pound, was more expensive than diamonds. How much did this cost?
And what was inside?
Without going in myself, it was impossible to tell. None of my papers could wriggle into any of the gaps, and none of the ship’s air ducts went into it. The whole room was airtight, with its own ventilation system.
My best guess was that it was some sort of panic room. A reinforced place where the ship’s owner could bunker down, shut down the engine, and alert law enforcement. The owner of the Golden Moon was one paranoid squidfucker.
If Lyna Wethers ran or was taken here, it was all over for us. So no prolonged fights. We’d have to knock her out fast.
Then we just had to steal a lifeboat without alerting anyone or dropping our disguises.
Speaking of our disguises. I was still wearing the ratty brown coat and pants I’d had for weeks. The stitches were coming undone, it was covered in stains I couldn’t wash out, and the entire garment reeked of dust, even after I’d washed it twice.
Looking like this, I wouldn’t make it within a hundred feet of this party. And neither would Gage, with her oversized, baggy coats and wrinkled pants.
An idea came to me, and I ran back through the ship, bursting through doors until I found myself back in the yacht’s walk-in wardrobe.
I grinned. I may have had no idea how to clean my room, buy groceries, wash dishes, sort through mail, register to vote, fix a car, drive a car, buy a car, apply for welfare, or find a doctor. But this world, I understood.
After trying on dozens of dinner jackets, black ties, and lounge suits in front of the mirror, I settled on one. A pitch black single vest tuxedo with a white waistcoat and dress shirt underneath, paired with a pair of dark brown shoes. Beautiful craftsmanship, that would go well with my white crane mask.
I guessed Gage’s sizes from memory, and grabbed a few outfits and shoes that should be vaguely her size, along with a mask. I grabbed a briefcase, too. A polished, black fish leather beauty that balanced just right in my hands.
I also took a pair of whiskey bottles as tall as my forearm, because cheap liquor tasted like piss, and scholars knew I’d need some of the good stuff sooner or later.
I had our outfits, I knew the ship. Now I just had to get our tickets.
The tailor measured my waist with a tape, nodding to himself. I gazed at myself in the mirror, admiring my newly fitted tuxedo.
It was just the right amount of tight on my shoulders and chest, both comfortable and stylish. With this, I could blend in with Epistocrats and run with a full range of movement.
Stealing this had been the best decision I’d made all week.
I strode out of the tailor wearing a delightful fitted suit, with three more in my bag. Gage would have to do with an untailored outfit. The service had cost almost all of the money I’d pickpocketed yesterday, so I’d have to eat Gage’s nightmarish canned lentils for dinner instead of something reasonable. I felt nauseous at the mere thought.
But at least I wouldn’t look poor, which was critical for the next step. And even if I was scrabbling in the dirt for coins, it felt nice to at least own some proper clothes.
The next morning, I went to the midtown train station again and used my projection to slide paper cash out of people’s wallets.
People squeezed into the packed corridors shoulder to shoulder, pushing past one another to get to their platforms on time. Humdrum pickpockets already frequented this part of town, but projection made it a hundred times easier.
I tried to steal from people wearing nice clothes, but I still felt guilty at taking people’s hard earned cash. This sort of thing was also risky – if I got discovered as a projection criminal, the Guardians would surround me like wolves. Still, I needed it for the next phase.
It took me all of the morning rush hour and the first half of the afternoon to gather a few hundred pounds. After about thirty minutes, the initial thrill of danger faded away, replaced with crushing boredom at repeating the same routine over and over again.
Once I’d collected enough money, I took a tram up to Hightown, to the Petal Tea Lounge. The entry fee at the front door was fifty pounds, not counting the pastries and drinks inside.
In spite of our debts, my mother had taken me here many afternoons, to sit in on her many afternoon teas with other Epistocrats. The scones and cakes weren’t even good, but she’d reminded me that the point was exclusivity, and its long history of serving people who Mattered.
In short, this was exactly where I could get tickets to a yacht party.
After paying the entry fee, I strode past the atrium and into the parlor section. A thin cloud of tobacco smoke permeated the room, filling my nostrils. Women in shimmering cocktail dresses flirted at the bar with men in lounge suits. Businessmen sat back on couches and puffed cigars.
Not one looked a day over thirty. And every one of them more beautiful than magazine models. I spotted Tabitha Blues, Louis Maughams, and of course, blonde vintage Maxine Clives, which still bore an unsettling resemblance to my mother’s chassis.
A trio of Epistocrats I recognized played Jao Lu with a pile of money on the table. Two boys and a girl from a year ahead of me. More watched from the sidelines, adding to the jackpot and shouting bets at each other.
There’s my in. Serial procrastination had made me a bloody virtuoso at the Shenti-imported board game. I approached them, leaning over the back of the couch to observe the game.
Lucky for me, none of them were any good. They all followed common strategies they’d no doubt picked up from books, but it was clear they didn’t understand any of them. When their plans failed, they kept charging forward without a single drop of improvisation or adaptation.
After fifteen agonizing minutes staring at their clumsy tactics, I watched the least incompetent one win the war of attrition. He cheered, sweeping a pile of money towards him.
A girl he’d beat slammed the table. Patricia, I think her name was. As I recalled, she was one of the least popular girls in her class. She was both belligerent and dishonest, and didn’t have the social skills or money to get away with it. I expected the same was true here.
“Another!” Patricia growled. “You had lucky draws.”
I leaned in. “And you played your Blue Charlatan too early.”
Her glare could have cut Voidsteel. “What?”
“Scorpion Prison, the strategy you followed, tells you to play it early, but you couldn’t make any space for it. The other guy’s Lancers were ass-fucking the center in the midgame. If you’d just waited, you’d have slaughtered them both.”
Then, she said exactly what I hoped she would. “You think you can do better?”
I beamed. “Oh, absolutely. Can I tag in as player number four?”
Ten minutes into the next game, I knocked her out, causing her to storm out of the parlor in a huff. Another eleven minutes after that, I’d lost on purpose to the other two at the table, ignoring three separate times I could have cut their formation to pieces, and losing myself a hundred pounds.
I’d beaten the unpopular kid, and lost to the popular ones.
“Yes!” crowed the winner, scooping up my money. “Scholars, that was a close one.” His friends cheered behind him, clapping him on the back.
I extended my hand to him. “Fantastic game, chaps,” I lied. “Best I’ve had in a long time.” You are terrible at this game.
The boy shook it, grinning. “You too.”
“Is she always that…”
“Pissy? A poor loser? Yes.” The boy nodded, grimacing. “Jon thought we’d invite her for a change, try to be inclusive.” He chuckled. “Not making that mistake again.”
Shared hatred of a third party was one of the fastest ways to earn people’s trust. I felt guilty at manipulating them like this. But then again, these were the same groups of people who’d made fun of my low grades for years.
“I’m Quinten,” said the winner. “Of the Keswick Family. I captain Leviathan Squad at Paragon.” He slid a smooth navy blue business card into my hand, with the bright yellow Keswick insignia on it. Not bad. Bit tacky.
“Lokridge,” I said. “Alastor Lokridge. Pleasure to make your acquaintance. Graduated two years ago on the research track. I’d give you my card, but they’re still at the printers.” I smiled, hoping it looked easy and not forced. “Can I buy you all a drink?”
And then I was in. Even if I hated people like this, Epistocrat small talk was easy for me. Forty minutes and three drinks later, we were discussing our various theories on Commonplace’s financiers, surrounded by a thick cloud of second-hand smoke.
“I think they’re funded by a foreign spy agency,” said Jon, confident. “The Harmonious Flock’s my guess. Ilaqua. Same thing. The desert rats are excellent at moving money around. ”
I thought of the Broadcast King, and his vast sums of wealth wielded in backroom deals with Joseph. Perhaps.
“Not one of the Four Domains,” said Quinten. “I’ll bet it’s the Droll Corsairs. They’ve wanted us gone for years.”
Jon snorted. “They’re hired guns.”
“Hired guns who make up the largest private military in the world, beat our best Guardians, and took over an entire country. My guess, they’re using Whisper vocations on the public to make them angry and pliable.”
No need, the public does that all on their own. “Either way, they’ll have us all on stakes if someone doesn’t deal with them.”
There were nods all around.
“I’m just grateful we still have places like this. Experiences like this.” I steered the conversation towards my real goal. “Speaking of that, have any of you heard of that masquerade ball in a few days? Bhais Baldana, I think it was called.”
“Oh yes,” said Jon. “Sounds wonderful. I have a dinner scheduled for that night, unfortunately.” He couldn’t get a ticket.
“I have three tickets,” said Quinten, failing to contain his smugness. “For myself and my squadmates.”
“You wouldn’t be willing to sell any of those, would you?”
He laughed. “Christea Ronaveda, the host of Verity is going to be there, and they’ve hired a sushi chef from the Floating City’s Endless Bathhouse. I hear his Uni is legendary.” He flashed a thin smile at me. “Those tickets are in our family safe until the event. I wouldn’t give them up if you offered me a billion pounds and the Headmaster’s Vocation codex.”
His safe. Shit. So much for stealing them. I looked around the table, at the various Epistocrats and rich kids gathered around me. “Any of you happen to know where I could find some? I just need a couple.”
“Tunnel Vision,” said Quinten.
I choked on my whiskey, coughing it back into the glass. Scholars, not her. “What?”
“She’s a mobster. Owns and moves around Nudge powder, loans, casinos.”
And works with Commonplace. “She scalp tickets too?”
“Pay enough money, and she’ll get you anything. She got my cousin into Lorne Daventry’s winter solstice party, and box seats at the Lightning Hawks’ latest home game.”
“Know where I can find her?”
Ever dramatic, Quinten wrote down an address and price on a napkin and slid it across the table. I read it.
I was going to ask a heartless criminal to sell me a ticket, in disguise, and I’d just spent the last of my cash. I wouldn’t be able to scrounge up enough with a month of pickpocketing. I wouldn’t have enough money.
The enemy’s Lancers held the middle, and I was about to play my Blue Charlatan.
I pictured Samuel’s face and steeled myself. I held up my half-empty glass to the bartender. “Excuse me, sir? Can I take this to go?”
The Neke man darted forward, a long thin knife glinting in his hand. At the last second, he ducked down and sliced his opponent’s upper thigh, rolling past. Blood sprayed onto the pale sand of the fighting pit, and the crowd cheered.
His enemy, a muscular, clean-shaven Ilaquan boy, or man, staggered backwards, clutching his leg. Did he cut the femoral artery? No, there would have been much more blood, and he would have collapsed in seconds. The Ilaquan had escaped a messy death by a handful of inches.
A woman shoved past me in the stands, startling me out of my concentration. Something damp splashed on the shoulder of my suit, and I glanced behind me.
The man on the seat above me shook his glass as he cheered, spraying beer everywhere. Takonara. This jacket was brand new. If the stain didn’t come out, what was I going to do, steal another one?
I needed to find Tunnel Vision somewhere in this chaos. The fighting pit had been converted from a large auditorium, and it was filled to the brim with screaming Humdrums. Is this what passes for entertainment in Lowtown? Though, to be fair, I’d been dragged to the opera once or twice, and this was much less excruciating to watch.
I scanned the top of the room, and my eyes landed on a squat, balding man in a corner. He sat in a roped-off area with empty seats on all sides and a microphone in his hand. He must be the one who announces the fights. The Pit Master, or whatever the official title was. He wasn’t Tunnel Vision, but he’d know where she was.
As I pressed through the bloodthirsty crowd, the agile Neke man cut his enemy two more times. Instead of a knife, the Ilaquan wielded a heavy electric cattle prod, and swung it like a club, clumsy and slow. The Neke man danced and weaved around his attacks with ease, looking almost bored.
Poor fucker. The Ilaquan was going to get bled like a pig, and the crowd would keep on cheering. There was no way this seedy fucking place sponsored replacement bodies.
The men and women in the dark stands around me chugged beers, smoked cigarettes, and shouted numbers at each other while handing fistfuls of cash to bookies running to and fro.
How much money is in the pot tonight? It was a miracle places this huge managed to operate without the cops finding out. It was either a testament to the cop’s incompetence, or Tunnel Vision’s genius.
A pack of gamblers surrounded a giggling woman in a bright pink dress. An Ilaquan, with light brown skin and narrow eyes. She had reserved her very own table, which was covered with seven empty shot glasses and a miniature hookah, and her brown hair was a tangled mess.
“Twenty to one on the Neke!” shouted one of them, shaking a slip of paper in her face
“Yes!” she bellowed. She scrawled her signature on the paper, rocking back and forth. “My countrymen are strong and hardy!”
“Fifteen to one!” another one, eager to exploit the drunk idiot.
In the pit, the Ilaquan man swung his prod down two-handed. His opponent spun around, and sliced his shoulder before he could dodge.
The woman took a hookah puff, downed another shot, and burped. “Fuck yes, fifteen to one! I’ll fifteen-tuple my money! Lund pe chad!”
I found myself judging her. Not even I was stupid enough to gamble when I was drunk. Watch yourself. These greedy squidfuckers would slit my throat if it meant making an extra pound or two.
I pressed forward, and reached the Pit Master. “Excuse me, sir.” He ignored me, staring down at the fight. “Hey!”
The Pit Master spat out a ball of chewing tobacco and stuffed another one into his mouth. “Fuck you want?” he mumbled.
“I need to talk to Tunnel Vision.”
He raised an eyebrow, looking down at the fight. “Need?”
“Want – want to talk to Tunnel Vision.” I blurted out my prepared lines, putting on my best haughty Epistocrat airs. “My name is Alastor Lokridge. I desire tickets to Bhais Baldana, the masquerade being thrown this week on the Golden Moon yacht. I was told your superior was the one to ask.”
The pit master turned his gaze towards me. Somewhere beneath the thick eyebrows and layers of stubble, tiny, calculating eyes flitted over me. He’s analyzing me. “And why, Mr… Lokridge, would you want this?”
My heart thumped in my ears. Play up the vanity. “I was told Christea Ronaveda of Verity would be there.” I examined my nails, and brushed a bit of lint off my sleeve. “As well as prominent executives in numerous industries, and a sushi chef from the Endless Bathhouse.”
The man leaned forward, scratching his chin. He stared at me without a word. “Lokridge. The name sounds familiar, are you an Epistocrat? Your father’s in parliament, isn’t he?”
He’s baiting you. Don’t get trapped in a lie. “I’m afraid not. I’m just a Paragon student who values comfort and conversation. I do play Jao Lu with a great many Epistocrats, though. Can you help me?”
The man broke into a wide, easy smile, showing off his pale white teeth. He leaned back, relaxed, and tapped his fingers against the edge of his chair. “I’m so glad you came.”
Why does this feel worse? Was he toying with me? “What does that mean?”
The pit master’s jaw worked up and down, chewing his tobacco. “Have you ever heard of the Ant and the Beetle? It’s an old Neke riddle. More of a parable, really.”
Scholars, please, not a parable. My father had been full of those, and they always ended with me wanting to chop my ears off. “No, go ahead.” I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes.
“Long ago, an Ant and a Dung Beetle were close friends in the forest. They believed in each other, and enjoyed the prosperity of their world together.”
Beneath us, the Ilaquan had gotten cut three more times. His blood-soaked clothes clung to his body as he stumbled around, flailing at the Neke man with his cattle prod.
“One day, a great storm came to their home. The rain fell in a deluge, flooding the forest. The ant locked jaws and legs with members of its colony, forming a raft that would protect the larvae and queen. The ant was at the very bottom, with its head below the surface.”
The Neke man whipped his arm around, and the Ilaquan man dodged too late, taking a cut to the forehead. Blood poured down his face and into his eyes, blinding him.
“The ant begged its friend to join it. But the beetle climbed on top, weighing the others down. The colony was too occupied to fight it off.” The pit master got a faraway look in his eyes, gazing down at the fight. “The ant drowned. Its corpse, with thousands of others, gave life for the rest of its colony, for the greater good. When the raft reached dry land, it started anew. And the beetle fled, to burrow back into the dung and filth.”
The Ilaquan staggered back to the edge of the ring, wiping blood out of his eyes. “Please, sir,” he said. “Please.” The Neke man circled him, bounding on the balls of his feet, spinning his knife between his fingers. Are there no tap-outs?
“The ant died for the sake of others. The beetle lived off the backs of others, from its selfishness. But in the end, its only friend was dead. It was alone.” The pit master looked me in the eye. “Here’s the dilemma: Is it better to be the beetle, or the ant?”
I thought of the people I knew who saw themselves as ant queens. Lorne. The Broadcast King. My mother. None of them would think twice of using me, of pushing me underwater for their ‘greater good’.
The beetle, I thought. “The ant,” I said.
The man’s mouth curled back in a wolfish grin. He pointed down, at the drunk Ilaquan woman surrounded by gamblers. “Her name is Copycat. She’s a mercenary.“
The idiot who’s about to lose all her money? I nodded at the pit master, and made my way back through the crowd.
In the sand pit, the Ilaquan man was still bleeding from his forehead, holding his cattle prod in front of him like a shield. He closed his eyes and ripped a piece of his shirt off, holding it to his head to stop the bleeding.
While his opponent’s eyes were shut, the Neke man knelt down and picked up a fistful of sand. He held it behind him, concealed. The knife darted forward, and the Ilaquan man dropped the cattle prod, clutching his hand.
As the Ilaquan looked down, the Nekean spun around, flinging the sand into his target’s face. The Ilaquan clutched his bloody eyes and doubled over, groaning in pain.
The Nekean went in for the kill, feinting down the knife, then going up. The blade flashed forward, slicing at his blinded opponent’s throat.
With his eyes still coated with sand, the Ilaquan man grabbed the Neke man’s wrist. His arms and legs moved in a blur. In three fluid movements, he snapped the Nekean’s fingers, kicked in the side of his knee, and smashed a fist into the base of his throat.
The Neke man staggered back, choking. In the split second while he regained his bearings, the Ilaquan slid to his left and roundhouse kicked the back of his head.
The Neke man dropped to the ground, unconscious. His left knee and fingers were bent sideways at a sickening angle.
In less than two seconds, the fight was over.
Groans erupted among the stands.
In the blink of an eye, the Ilaquan had gone from a clumsy amateur to a nimble expert who could fight blind. An act.
Angry men and women surrounded Copycat, shouting at her. She giggled at the gamblers around her, slurring her words. “Ilaquan strong! I’m a lucky! Go to – go to pit mathter to depothit my winningth.” She slammed her tenth shot glass on the table so hard it cracked, and cackled. The bookies inched away, muttering under their breath.
I approached her. The closer I got, the more unkempt she looked, even for the average person here. Her brown hair was a tangled, uncombed mess. Her pink cocktail dress was wrinkled, a size too small, and torn all over. And she stank of alcohol and tobacco from head to toe.
“Hi.” She wobbled back and forth, flashing me a sultry look. “Whatth your rate, angel? If it’s under five hundred a night, I’m game. Jutht made a mountain of dough.”
My face grew hot. “I’m not an escort.”
“Then why do you dreth like one?” asked Copycat. She rested her head on the table, her miniature hookah. “And why are you talking to me?”
“I need tickets to an event, and I was told you’re the woman to ask. But I require discretion. Is there somewhere we could talk in private?”
“The north alleyway,” she said. Her finger wiggled in the direction of a side door. “Wait there. I mutht collect my prithe money.” She threw on a coat, collapsed her hookah into a pocket, and staggered towards the pit master. “I shall bring all my ticketth.”
I waded through the crowds and out the door. The alleyway was dark and deserted, and the view to the nearest street was blocked by a chain-link fence and a pair of dumpsters. Perfect.
A mercenary like this would never sell Bhais Baldana tickets to me at prices I could afford. It was unpleasant, but if I got Copycat alone, I could overpower her and force her to give them up. My testosterone-fueled muscles would give me the edge in hand-to-hand combat, and my martial arts training hadn’t been taken by my mother’s memory wipe.
Plus, she was half-comatose already. With luck, she would be drunk enough to black out, and she wouldn’t even remember any of this by morning.
I stared at the door, waiting for Copycat to come out.
Cramps washed over my torso, spreading to my arms and legs. Cold, stinging pain rushed up my skin. The muscles in my body clenched up, and I fell to the ground, twitching. What the fuck?
I reached for the paper in the alleyway, discarded newspapers and food wrappers in the dumpster. Pushing through the pain, I projected into them.
As I slid my weapons through the narrow gap in the lid, someone pulled me onto my back. They wrapped their arms around my neck from behind, putting me in a chokehold. Another shock ran through my body, and I shivered.
I reached my Pith out behind me, trying to Nudge the person attacking me. Nothing.
“Drop the projection, you smug cunt.” It was Copycat’s voice. Sober, without a trace of a slur. “Or I’ll light you up with enough volts to power a city.” She’s not drunk.
I relaxed my projection, letting the paper drift to the ground. “What are you doing?” I hissed. “Is this how you treat all your customers?”
“Just the greasy little shits planning to double-cross me.” Her arm tightened on my windpipe. “What does the Scholar of Mass want with Lyna Wethers?”
She knows about Brin and the mission. How the fuck did she know? “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You must have mistaken me for someone else.”
“I don’t think I have.”
A pit opened in my stomach. Can she read my memories? Some Praxis or Whisper Vocation, no doubt. This was bad. She had me cornered, and once she’d pulled all the information out of me, she could kill me at a whim.
“How the fuck do you know that?” I said. Probe for her abilities. If I knew that, I could counterattack. “Is that how you rigged the match, too? You did rig the match, didn’t you?”
She waggled her finger in front of my face. “Naughty naughty. Answer the questions, no misdirection. I’ll know if you lie.”
I slumped over. “Isaac Brin wants Honeypot – Lyna Wethers – out of the picture. Dead or alive, I think.”
“I don’t know,” I growled. “He spies on me, judges my career, and never tells me anything. He’s like my aunt.”
“Yeah, my aunt’s a real bhenchod too.”
I shifted my weight on top of her to be more comfortable. My back was pressed into her front in an awkward position. “Point is, I need two tickets to the masquerade on that yacht. I wasn’t lying about that.”
I heard her spit behind me. “But you’re poorer than a Shenti monk.”
“Look who’s talking,” I said. “Did you run that dress through a shredder before putting it on? Same machine you used for your hair?”
“Fucking Epistocrats,” muttered Copycat. “You take one little test, and you think you’re better than everyone else. And you didn’t even pass that test. What are you to Brin, anyway?”
So she doesn’t know everything. “I’m an under-the-table mercenary for his dirty work. It’s a lot less glamorous than it sounds.”
“It doesn’t sound all that glamorous.”
“And you were ready to kill for him.”
I sighed. “I wasn’t going to kill you. I just really, really need those tickets. Why do you care about Honeypot, even? I thought you Ilaquans lived for knocking boots. Isn’t that what the Harmonious Flock is all about, anyways?”
Copycat spoke with a clipped voice. “Not all Ilaquans are in the Harmonious Flock. And the Flock isn’t all about orgies.”
“But it is the only religion that includes them.”
“Honeypot got to someone I cared about. My underworld contact. He’d never fallen for a man, woman, or otherwise in his life. Not a speck of interest in any of them.”
“And then she found him.”
“I’d worked with him for three years.” Copycat’s voice fell. “And he tried to shoot me in the back. I took him to five pneumatologists to try and fix him. Nothing.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. She wants revenge on Wethers. “Is that why you have the tickets?”
“They were his. He was going to take me to the party, no doubt to bring me under her control too. Lyna Wethers is gathering people. Business leaders. Politicians. Mercenaries. And she’s doing it with Guardian-level opsec, which means she hasn’t caught too much attention.”
Enough attention for Brin to notice.
“I’ll give you the tickets. For free.” Copycat fell silent for a moment. After several long seconds, she spoke again. “On one condition. No ‘dead or alive’ whaleshit. You kill her.”
“My partner won’t like that.” Bloody Gage. “She gets off on having the moral high ground.”
“Change her mind, lie to her, I don’t care. But don’t let Wethers live. Her Vocation is too strong to leave her alive in a prison.” She loosened her grip on me. “I’m going to let you go now. If you try to fight back, I will win, I will pump bullets into your skull, and I will enjoy it.”
I nodded. She released me, and I rolled off of her, still aching from her electric attack.
Copycat leapt to her feet, pulling back her shaggy brown hair in a ponytail. Her pink dress was stained with dirt and sweat. My sweat.
I massaged my arms and legs, shaking them to get rid of the pain. “If it’s so important to you,” I said. “Why do you even trust my word? We just met five minutes ago.” And she’s not stupid.
Copycat flicked her wrist, and a bag flew out of a third-story window in the arena, landing next to her. She pulled it open, glancing at the stacks of bills inside. “Because if you don’t kill her, she will kill you. Or worse.”
“And why not do it yourself?”
“It’s simple,” she said. Her smile faded. “My life is as cheap as they come.” Her fist tightened around the bag. “But I’d chug arsenic before taking a sip of a love potion. I care too much about my mind.” She reached into her bag. “Lucky for this country, some of you don’t.”
Does that make me a fool? I pictured Samuel’s smile, his patient embrace. Reuniting with Leizu and Eliya. My friends. Returning to Paragon, and reclaiming my family’s glory for the children I might have one day.
Proving I was worthy of all of them. For any of them.
Copycat pulled a pair of dark purple tickets out of her bag and extended them towards me. I projected into them, floating them into my hand.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll kill Honeypot.”