The clock ticked in the corner of the kitchen, the only sound in the entire house.
Hira stood at the edges of the room, watching us with both bodies crossing their arms. Ana clenched her fists, staring me down. Neither of us spoke.
Ana’s hands were out of her pockets. She hadn’t made any moves to assemble her machine pistol or draw her cattle prod. At least, she hadn’t appeared to.
I projected towards her, feeling the position of her gun’s barrel and the handle on her baton. They match what I can see. They hadn’t moved – not yet, at least. But at a moment’s notice, Ana could flip on her illusions and take me out when I wasn’t paying attention. If I projected into her gun too long, she might notice too.
If we fought, I’d have to rely on my paper to scout Ana’s position, but I didn’t like my odds against a gun at this range. I didn’t have an autonomous bullet defense, and she could get the drop on me at any time. Plus, I got the feeling that if anything happened, Hira wouldn’t intervene on either side.
No, if Ana wanted to kill me, I had to strike first.
You worthless piece of filth. She hadn’t said a single word, and I was already thinking of how to kill her. Was this how I wanted to treat people?
“Hira’s not lying,” said Ana, “is she?” She clenched her jaw. “It makes perfect sense. Your fixation with the Broadcast King. Your desire to get back to your old fiancé. Your style of projection training.” She shook her head. “How the fuck did I not I see it earlier?”
There’s no point in lying now. No matter how hard I denied it, Ana could test me by saying my old name and verifying my mental block.
And maybe she deserved to know the truth.
“Hira’s telling the truth.” I nodded. “Once I got back into my family, I was going to give you a body for free – the one that my fitness double Poppy uses. And all the money I could spare.” That hadn’t been true when I met her, but it was now.
“If there had been one more member of Steel Violet in the penthouse,” said Ana. “Or if they’d positioned themselves a little better, or if Hira hadn’t intervened. We would have died, or worse. We weren’t ready for that, and you pushed us in anyway. Because you wanted the rewards all for yourself.”
I held up my hands. “But we made it – together, we made it through. And do you know why I’m going to all this effort to get back to my family?”
“You could offer me five times the Broadcast King’s fortune, and I still wouldn’t want to go back to my mother. It’s not about the money, or the power, or the spot at Paragon. It’s not even about the body.” Passion slipped into my voice. “When I was Ousted, I got separated from my fiancé, Samuel Pakhem. I got separated from Eliya Brin and Leizu Yao, my best friends. I need to get back to them.”
“Wait.” Ana’s eyes widened. “You’re telling me you’re engaged to Samuel? The guy with the metal wires? And you’re best friends with Eliya? The people who I fought the night of my body heist?” She turned her glare towards me. “What is this, some kind of revenge thing? Are you trying to hurt me like I hurt them?”
“No!” I shouted, then lowered my voice. “No, that’s not it. I thought you were dangerous, but that wasn’t – that wasn’t it.”
“I can’t apologize for wanting to go home.” Desperation slipped into my voice. “You know what that’s like, don’t you? I needed those files to get back to my family.”
“Hey, Wes,” Ana stared at the ground, and her voice grew soft. “Back in that penthouse. If it was a choice between my life and going home, what would you have picked?”
I didn’t have an answer for that.
I kept sizing Ana up, watching her body language, her clenched fists and downturned eyes. Is she masking her true reactions with illusions? She could be setting up a shot behind me right now, and pretending to look withdrawn. Now I know what Ana’s enemies feel like.
“On the night that I decided to work for Isaac Brin,” said Ana, “I made a promise to myself. That I would taste Paragon Academy’s mulled cider. And when I did, it’d be with a friend.”
Cute. To be fair, Paragon’s cider was bloody amazing.
“It was stupid and naive and childish, but…” She bit her lip. “I thought you could be that friend. I imagined drinking it with you, fighting side by side, helping each other towards a better future. I almost drowned for you.” She looked up, staring me straight in the eye. “I was lonely. And you exploited that.”
This time, it was me avoiding eye contact. Weston, you fucking asshole.
“I’m getting shivers now,” she said. “Whenever I’m not moving a lot, I start to shiver and shake after a few minutes. I hide some of it with illusions, but it’s getting worse. At night, no matter how many blankets I throw on, it feels like I’m freezing from the inside out.” She pulled up her sleeves, showing her bare arms with the bulging grey veins crisscrossing up and down. “It’s been hard. To get more than a few hours of sleep a night.”
When I squinted, I could see the movement, just barely: her arms were shaking.
“If I had to guess,” she said, her voice low. “I’d say it’s anemia of some sort. It could get worse and leave me bedridden for the rest of the year. Or something else could snap – something important, like my lungs, or intestines, or kidneys. I might have much less than a year.”
I felt like throwing up. If Ana’s objective was to make me feel guilty, she was doing a bloody good job of it. I’d treated her like a toy, or a Jao Lu piece in a game. Just like mother would.
But I had to keep going. For the sake of my family, and Samuel, and Chimera Squad. I couldn’t back down now.
“What now?” I asked. “Is Queen Sulphur over? Are you going to rely on just Hira, now?” My voice got louder. “Do you think you can fight Commonplace and the mob with just the two of you? The jobs are going to keep getting harder.” I swallowed. “You still need me.”
Ana stepped forward and slapped me. It was a soft blow, but my cheek still stung.
“I don’t have many allies,” said Ana. “I lack offensive power, scouting abilities, and traditional projection power. I’ll still carry out jobs with you, but – ” She scowled. “Clear your things out. And then get the fuck out of my storage unit.” She glanced back at Hira. “Copycat. Is he hiding anything else from us?”
Both Hiras – both Copycats – shrugged. “My background checks aren’t perfect, and my Vocation is more art than science. But I don’t think so.”
“Good,” said Ana. She leaned close to me, her hands folded behind her back. “Lie to me again, and we’re done.” She lowered her voice. “And if you try to betray me, I’ll break you.”
I blinked. When I opened my eyes, Ana had vanished.
The clock ticked in the background, the only noise in Copycat’s house.
“She was already gone.” Hira snorted. “Dramatic bitch. Hope she doesn’t hit any of the booby traps on my front door.” He glanced out a window. “You want a drink?”
You’re stupid, Wes. So bloody stupid. But I couldn’t slow down.
I swallowed, wiping my sweaty hands on the pant legs of my suit. “I want to make an offer to you.”
I gulped down the last of my Arak cocktail, feeling the warmth in my throat. “Say what you will about Ilaquans, you people sure know how to put together a drink.”
“Meanwhile,” said Hira. “You Principians still can’t cook a damn cow.” He took a swig of his drink and slid his Dancing Painter forward on the Jao Lu board. His hand slapped the timer between us, and it began to tick down for my turn.
The room wobbled back and forth in front of me. Hira’s Right body was wearing only a bathrobe and a pair of underwear briefs, which made for a distracting image, considering the size of his pectoral muscles.
I mentally slapped myself. You’re doing this for Samuel. Don’t ogle other people. Even if he was probably ogling my replacement. As I thought of Samuel, Lyna Wethers’ face popped into my mind, giving me a burst of pleasure at its elegant aesthetics. Followed immediately by a burst of disgust and horror.
Concentrate. Just enjoy the game.
In response to Hira’s move, I played my Blue Charlatan in the center hexagon of the board, cutting off his assault. A second after I slapped the timer, I realized my mistake. In two plays, he could cut my forces off and put me in a stranglehold.
Thirty seconds later, Hira did exactly that.
“How the bloody fuck are you winning?” I grumbled. “Oh, right – you’re cheating.” I’d seen Hira stick his hands in his pockets before the start of the game, the telltale sign of when he was using his skill-stitching Vocation. Copying skills made his hands flicker with purple lightning, so sticking them in his pockets kept it hidden.
“Of course I copied your Jao Lu abilities, dipshit,” said Hira. “It wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise. On my own, I don’t even remember the rules.”
But he wasn’t just playing me at an even level. He was crushing me.
If I was being honest, the booze wasn’t helping. I’d downed enough to make this body feel nauseous. Thank the Scholars for low alcohol tolerance.
It was probably dangerous to be this drunk in the house of someone I knew this little, but what the fuck else was I supposed to do, confront my feelings? Think about Ana and Lyna Wethers and all the other shit that made me sad and angry?
“What was that offer you mentioned?” said Hira. “Was it just to get drunk and play the most boring game in the Eight Oceans?”
“It wouldn’t be boring if you challenged yourself,” I grumbled.
Hira leaned forward, smirking. “What I’m saying is, there are much more entertaining things to do in this city with red-hot people when you’re all hosed up.”
Is he coming on to me? I slid my pieces forward, forfeiting the game. “The offer is this. You’re part of Queen Sulphur now, so you’re getting a share of the profits like me and Ana. But I don’t need the money. Not really.”
“You gonna stop wearing those pretty suits and give up your nice briefcase?”
“I’ll figure something out.“ I’ll steal.
“What are you paying me for?”
I clasped my hands together. “In most of my recent fights, I’ve either gotten my ass kicked, or I’ve escaped just in time. My mother’s mind-wipe did a number on me. If I want to counter-Oust my replacement at the end of the school year, I need to get stronger. And smarter. I’ll turn twenty next summer. After that, she’ll be past the maximum age permitted for Ousting.”
“ – Which means you’ll only have one shot. Fuck this up, and you’ll never get your life back.” Right-Hira leaned forward, spreading his legs. “You want me to train you.”
“I was going to ask Ana for help, but…” I felt another stab of guilt at my gut, and banished it. But you had to tell her everything. At this point, I was too tired to be angry at him.
“How many hours a week?”
“As many as you have,” I said. Before, I’d spend a good chunk of my free time with Ana, or at the bar. Now, I’d have a lot more.
Hira bit his lip. “Pay me seventy percent of your share.”
“Forty,” I said. “We can change it if the training goes well.”
“Seventy.” Hira scowled. “Lund pe chadh.”
After some heated debate, the two of us settled on fifty percent of my share. “I should have copied a stockbroker this morning,” grumbled Hira.
“What does lund pe chadh mean?” I asked. “It’s Ilaquan, right?”
“‘May you find joy and happiness in the souls of kinship’,” he said, deadpan.
“Uh huh.” Yeah, right.
“I’m not going to pull any punches when you do something fuckin’ stupid,” said Hira. He stood up. “And I’m not gonna stroke your little Epistocrat’s ego if you start crying. I’m going to make this training as brutal and fast as possible. And you only have a year.”
“Good,” I said. This would give me something else to think about besides my replacement, and Lyna Wethers, and Samuel, and Ana, and what she’d said about our friendship. Did she really hate me that much? And would she ever forgive me? Was she the type of person who would hold a grudge?
And what if she was right about me?
Shut up, idiot. I had to focus on something else. “I’ve been procrastinating my training,” I said. “Because most of it is boring, and I’m shit at motivating myself. So please, light a fire under my ass.”
“You can stay here tonight on the couch,” said Hira. “If you drink more, don’t fall asleep on your back.”
“Oh, I’m definitely going to drink more.”
“We’ll begin tomorrow morning,” he said, striding towards his kitchen. “When you finish vomiting into my trash can. I know just where to start.” He turned back to me, a glint in his eye. “You don’t happen to have a rowboat, do you?”
My biceps ached as I pulled the oar through the water. “Why am I the only one rowing?” I grumbled. “I have twice as much of a hangover as you do.”
At the other end of the canoe, Right-Hira lounged back on a pillow, wearing a thick winter coat and a pair of sunglasses. “Upper body strength.” He snorted a line of yellow powder off a curved knife, took a gulp from a bottle of sake, and nibbled at the end of a kebab. “You gotta keep your body in shape. This is part of your training.”
How are you still in shape? As far as I could see, Right-Hira was as decadent and lazy as they came.
A chill breeze blew through the morning fog, and I shivered. Beneath me, the wooden seat was damp, soaking through the seat of my pants. “Why are we even here? It’s winter. You don’t go canoeing in winter.”
“Exactly,” said Hira. “Did you see how cheap the boat rental was? And there’s nobody around to watch us do illegal training. If Paragon caught me teaching projection, they would not be pleased.” He yawned. “Sorry. My other body is still in bed right now. Catching up from a night of revels. So I am literally half-asleep.”
Lucky bastard. My head ached, a thick, heavy pressure crushing it from all sides. I leaned over, clutching my stomach and pushing down the nausea.
In retrospect, training with a hangover may not have been the best idea.
“Stop here,” said Hira.
I let go of the oar, rubbing my sore arms. Fog surrounded us, making Mount Elwar a blur above us. There wasn’t another soul in sight. As soon as I stopped rowing, the air fell silent.
Hira stepped out onto the water. The surface ripped beneath his feet, and he lied down on top of the water. The liquid depressed to fit his body like it was a mattress. “Now,” he said, floating the pillow beneath the back of his head. “Did you read the books I assigned?”
“Yes,” I said. He’d given me a set of chapters from three separate natural science textbooks, dusty old tomes lying beneath a pile of shirts in his bedroom. Two on physics, and one on chemistry.
“Really?” He took a swig of sake.
“Alright, I skimmed them. I was drunk and it was past midnight.” My eyes had glazed over after the second paragraph, and besides, it was a ridiculous assignment. “How is any person supposed to go through that many pages in seven hours?”
“You studied at Paragon, you tell me.” He chewed on a piece of kebab meat, talking with a full mouth. “Oh. Right. You flunked out.”
“I am beginning to regret inviting you onto Queen Sulphur,” I said, massaging my temples. “You’re the child of a billionaire. How are you so….coarse? Where are your manners?” I reached for the sake bottle, and Hira slapped my hand away without looking.
“You can drink once you’ve trained.”
“But I need to drown my hangover in alcohol. And I’m freezing.” Another icy gust blew across the water, and I stuffed my hands into my pockets.
“You want a drink? Let’s see how much you remember. State Rashi’s Three Laws.”
I know this. “First law,” I said. “To control, you must understand.”
“Second Law. The Pith cannot – will not – of the in-itself and the of-itself…fuck.”
“Even Humdrums know the Three Laws,” said Hira. “How much did you drink last night?”
“I got my memory wiped,” I snapped. “Just explain them to me again.”
Hira sighed. “Pay attention, because I won’t repeat this. Rashi’s Three Laws were discovered by Such-and-Such the Noble, some old fart from the Great Scholars who nobody cares about.”
“Whatever.” He took a swig of alcohol and lifted a single finger. “First law.” A book floated from his lap, unfolding in the air. “To control, you must understand. If you want to project into something, you need to understand the details of how it works.”
“Like studying chemistry for Physical projection.”
“Yes, and individual Vocations have lots of details to them in their codices. Rashi’s First Law is why even talented projectors can barely lift a pebble without good training. And why all the strong Vocation Codices are locked up in Great Libraries. They don’t want you learning too much.”
I rolled my eyes. “Paragon Academy is a school. Learning is the whole point.”
“The Yokusei Pact limits the number of projectors any one nation can have. And nobody has tried to break it, even during the Shenti War. Because every projector is a time bomb. The less of you there are, the easier they can control you. They’re afraid of people like you and me.”
He doesn’t see the value of stability. Not all ancient traditions were bad.
Hira tossed a kebab stick overboard and held up a second finger. “Second law. Two Piths cannot occupy the same space.”
“Like if I wanted to project into something you were already projecting into.”
“You’d have to push my Pith out first. The same goes for my body. Though I’d love to boil my father’s brain fluid with water projection, I can’t do it unless I force his Pith all the way out of his body.” He lifted a third finger. “Third Law. Weirdest law. Pay attention, cause I’m not going to repeat myself.” He folded his hands across his stomach. “Projection cannot beget projection.”
The concept echoed in my mind. A memory bubbled up of my tutor, a tall, bone-thin man screaming at me in my mansion’s study room.
“Rings a bell,” I said. “What does it mean?”
“Skill-stitchers like me,” said Hira. “Can copy over abilities from the Piths of others. Mathematics, dancing, martial arts, anything we want, with some caveats. But if I went to your Headmaster Tau tomorrow and used my Vocation on him, I wouldn’t become the strongest projector on the planet. Because you can’t use projection to make someone better at projection.”
I scratched my head. “Well, that’s bloody confusing. Why’s that important?”
“Well, for one, it means Praxis specialists can’t recursively upgrade their intelligence to make themselves mind-gods. Their extra smarts don’t make them better at projection, which limits how much they can improve. It also means you can’t teach someone to project using a Whisper Vocation. No shortcuts.” Hira glared at me over his sunglasses. “There. That quick enough for your attention span, princess?”
I tapped my fingers on the oar. “You know, there’s no need to be so harsh. I’m a fast learner, when the situation calls for it.”
“And when does the situation call for it?”
I shrugged. “Anytime I’m not bored. During a fight, sometimes.”
“Alright, then.” Hira grinned and sat up. “Let’s see what you can do.” He held up the bottle of sake in his fist. “Try to take a sip. Succeed and I’ll buy you breakfast.”
Shit. I forgot to eat breakfast again, didn’t I? I did enjoy fighting, and I’d made a similar offer to Ana when I first met her, but I sensed foul play here.
“No,” I said. “You’re trying to kick my ass so you can humble me and make yourself feel strong. I won’t play into your student-teacher power trip.”
“Well, yes, obviously I’m going to crush you,” said Hira. “But you’ll learn from it. Or you’ll just get pissed. Either way, I get to have a fun new experience and wake – “
As he talked, I formed a blunt icicle out of the cold water and shot it at his hand from behind, hard enough to knock the bottle out of his grip.
Without looking, Hira lifted his right arm, dodging the projectile. In the same motion, he lifted his left pinky finger, and a cold, stinging pain rushed through my body again. I fell back onto the boat, twitching.
I glanced down at my feet. A thin rope of water connected a patch of skin on my ankle to Hira’s finger, letting him conduct electricity into me. How long did he have that there?
“Not bad,” Hira said. “Distracting me before a quick strike. But you lack awareness.” He slapped the water next to him, sending out ripples. “Can you do a water walk? Surely one of your seventeen tutors must have taught you.”
So many digs at my wealth. And yet his daddy was a hundred times wealthier than my family had ever been.
“I don’t think so.” I remembered some of the fundamentals – the basics of surface tension and adhesion and dynes per centimeter, but there were gaps in my knowledge, conclusions that I knew without understanding the proofs, or independent facts disconnected from outside context.
The water walk was one of the first things you learned at Paragon – I’d learned it years before – but I wasn’t sure anymore.
Hira stood up on the water and extended his hand, several meters away from the canoe. “Come here and shake my hand, and I’ll give you a sip.”
I focused on what I remembered. Cohesion and adhesion. Force over length. Difference in pressure. Contact angles. I reached my Pith out into the water in front of me, willing it to harden, strengthen.
My mind flashed back to the day I’d first learned the water walk. Samuel had guided me by the hand across his family’s swimming pool, both of us only thirteen years old.
I leaned out of the boat and pressed my palm against the surface of the water. It bent beneath me, like an invisible skin had been stretched across.
Then I put some of my weight onto it and it snapped beneath me, exploding in a splash of water and swallowing my hand. I reeled back, flailing my arms to regain balance, and slumped back in the boat. Something thin and sharp poked into my leg, probably a splinter from the canoe’s damp wood, and the boat rocked back and forth.
My Pith hadn’t even strained. No green lightning, no headache. Well, no headache beyond the usual hangover, that is.
At the Golden Moon when fleeing from Lyna Wethers, I’d controlled the water just fine. Why was I having so much trouble here?
Idiot. I felt like Ana – too inexperienced to even know the basics.
I projected into the water and tried again. Then again, and again, and again. Every time it was the same result. The water broke underneath me. I need to refine my technique.
“You’re not going to beat your replacement if you can’t even do a water walk,” said Hira.
“Really?” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “I had no idea. Thank you for the insight, wise master. Now I know why I pay you so much.”
“If you spent more time studying and less time mouthing off like a fourteen-year-old,” said Hira. “Maybe you’d actually be smart by now instead of just clever.”
More criticism. And comparing me to a child. My mother was fond of that one.
“What is your problem with me, exactly? Are you this rude to everyone who has the misfortune of talking to you?”
“No.” Hira tapped his foot on the surface of the water. “Just the Epistocrat princesses who want to lick off their war criminal mommies so they don’t miss out on their chocolate scones and barrel-aged gin.”
I wrinkled my nose. “You think I like gin? What kind of swine do you take me for?”
“You were part of the ruling class of one of the ugliest nations in the world, at one of the most repressive, uptight projection schools, inside one of the nastiest social groups. And now that you’re free, all you can think about is how to wriggle your way back in.”
So that’s how he sees me. I clenched the oar handle, tapping my fingers in a rapid, escalating pattern on the wood.
“You’re paying me,” said Hira. “So I’ll keep kicking your ass until you get better. But nothing in our agreement requires me to indulge in your petty Epistocrat fantasies. Your odds are shit, [ ] Ebbridge.”
“Don’t call me that,” I said.
“And even if you do get back to the Southern Typhoon and her fucked-up world, it’s not going to make you happy.”
“I’m not going back for myself,” I hissed. “I’m going back for my family. Because I’m loyal to them. Maybe you find that concept too hard to understand, after dear old dad used you as his lab rat.”
Hira clenched his fist and the boat flipped underneath me, throwing me at the ocean face first.
As the icy water rushed towards me, I reached towards it reflexively, flailing my arms. I reached.
I bounced off the water.
The surface had been hardened beneath me.
I was doing a water walk.
It felt like the insides of my skull were on fire, and little bursts of green lightning flickered around my arms. The scabs on my back stung, splitting in places.
But still, I was doing it.
I tensed my muscles, holding myself above the water on my hands and knees. Hira’s book and his plate of kebabs bobbed up and down in the water around me.
“Unless I ask you,” said Hira. “Don’t fucking talk about what my father did.”
“Did you set all this up to help my projection?”
As I stopped focusing on it, my projection broke beneath me, sending me splashing into the cold water.
“Lund pe chadh.”
I paddled back towards the capsized boat and clambered onto the top, then released my projection and relaxed my Pith. “What does that mean?” I gripped the side of the canoe.
Hira strode towards me. “It means you’ve got a lot of work to do.”
As per usual, I was bored.
It was remarkable. Even when things were dire, when I was prepping for the fight to take my life back, I was incapable of concentrating on something.
I sipped my ice cream soda. If I gave a thoughtful look at the chemistry textbook in front of me, I would look like I was reading it.
Of course, I was just scanning the same two paragraphs over and over again. Who the fuck cares about the difference between instantaneous and induced dipoles?
Advanced Chemical Principles was written by the worst kind of academic, who couldn’t describe a piece of toast without using every ten-syllable word in the dictionary. The language was elaborate, the examples were confusing, and the font was so tiny and poorly spaced that I had to squint to read it.
Natural science could be intuitive and beautiful, when the concepts built on one another and flowed in elegant patterns. But most of the time, you were expected to memorize an equation or a set of rules, rushing onto the next topic before you could fully process the first one. There was nothing beautiful about that.
It was so much easier to just skim them, cram the night before and wing it when test time came. But Hira had made me promise not to do that anymore.
So here I was, sitting in the Silver Flask, leaning against an unstable wooden table that wobbled back and forth every time I shifted my weight. Pretending I wasn’t miserable.
I glanced around the bustling room. I noted members from Centaur, Phoenix, and Sphinx squads, but nobody who would recognize me in this body.
Most of the other guests had metal tables. They didn’t wobble. They didn’t creak. They were thick and sturdy and weren’t a constant bloody distraction, unlike mine. How was I supposed to concentrate with all this stimulus?
I glanced up at Hira, who was reading a gun magazine. “Where am I going to stay?” I asked.
Hira stuffed a fistful of almonds into his mouth, talking as he chewed. “Shtop dishtracting yourshelf and get back to shtudying.”
I fidgeted with the corner of one of the pages, folding it into an origami leaf. “Ana kicked me out, homeless shelters are filthy and dangerous, and now that I’ve given you such a big share of my profits, even renting something as cheap as a sleeping pod is going to be tricky.”
“No,” said Right-Hira, leaning back in his chair. “You cannot stay at my house.”
He catches on quick. “You have a couch,” I said. “I’m already paying you money.”
“You’re not broke, and you’re clever. You’ll think of something.”
“Just give me a month,” I said. “I’ll find my own place, I just need time.”
He sighed. “Two weeks,” he said. “And don’t try to haggle with me, I copied the skills of a very persistent stockbroker this morning and we both know that’s the lowest number you’ll agree to.”
Two weeks. It wasn’t a lot of time, but I’d solved harder problems with less.
“Now,” said Hira. “Leave me alone and get back to reading.”
I forced my gaze back towards the book, doing my best to filter out the constant noise in the background. Students chattering with one another about squad rankings. The clink of metal utensils on plates. Swing music from a gramophone. The clatter of dishes and faint shouts from inside the kitchen.
A middle-aged Neke man picked at the bread of his sandwich, removing the crust. At the far side of the room, an old woman with chapped lips rubbed her fingers on her thick briefcase, looking half-asleep. In the corner of the room, Anira Olwyn of Talos Squad touched her finger to a mind-sphere holding the Pith of her squad leader.
Stop, idiot. Focus. Why was this so difficult? Ana was improving. Her physical projection was inching along towards competence, she could block most common Whisper techniques, and her Vocation was improving in leaps and bounds. The girl was always buried nose-deep in one of her books. Why was I having so much trouble with it?
How had I survived nineteen years in my family when I was this airheaded?
The old woman was listening to a popular radio talk show, which I could catch snippets of. They’re talking about us.
“A projector did this,” said the man on the radio. “Witnesses reported a figure seen flying into the top window moments after the car bomb went off, and Kahlin’s bodyguards all describe grievous injuries from two projectors who stole the bodies of staff to enter the premises.”
Kahlin had disclosed a great deal to the local police. Thankfully, he’d left out most of the details that could identify me or Ana.
“Are you suggesting a foreign element?” A woman. One of the other hosts of the show. “One of Kahlin’s enemies in Ilaqua or The Neke Islands. Or perhaps a private military, like the Droll Corsairs?”
“Angela, what group of projectors hates Afzal Kahlin the most? Who did he displace when Oracle Media Group rose to power in this country?” The man paused. “Epistocrats. Billionaires with more money than they could ever spend in their lives and an army of ruthless black ops Guardians at their fingertips. Specifically, the Ebbridge newspaper family. The nobles who helped keep an entire world of magic secret from the people of this country.”
My stomach clenched. It was just speculation. They didn’t have any evidence.
“House Ebbridge owes millions of pounds to Afzal Kahlin’s private equity firm. The wealthy have done a lot worse things than murder for much smaller numbers than that.”
“And they wonder why people are rioting. When you’re made that powerless, when you’re cornered like that, what choice do you have? Commonplace just wants stronger regulations, an end to the house of lords, redistribution of bodies. But when that’s impossible, you get desperate.”
As I recalled, this talk show was owned by a company affiliated with Oracle Media Group. These are Kahlin’s words. Kahlin’s narrative. The rhetoric was amping up since our mission, getting more aggressive, more violent.
Water splashed on my shirt. I jerked back, and saw Hira holding his empty glass towards me. “You’ve been reading page thirteen for the past twenty minutes. Were you listening to the radio?”
“It’s difficult to concentrate when I have to listen to your father causing the end of the world over there.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Hira. “No, he’s just trying to end the country.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Been meaning to ask you about that. How much do you know about your father’s plan?”
Hira shrugged. “I know the basics. It’s pretty simple. Get the public hateful, dehumanizing their enemies, and believing that violence is the only option. Then when it’s hit a fever pitch, Commonplace and the mob are going to use the weapons they bought with my dad’s coffers. The ones stored at those coordinates I gave you. And they’re going to try to burn down this trash heap.”
I frowned. “Kahlin’s strong, but he’s not a god. I’ve landed hits on him, and I’m an idiot.”
“He’s unfamiliar with combat. But he’s not alone.”
“The Principality has,” I counted off on my fingers. “The Symphony Knight, who can tear through fleets with a single song. Sebastian Oakes – the Obsidian Foil, who’s never lost a fight against anyone. And Headmaster Nicholas Tau, the most powerful projector in the world.”
My voice faltered at the last one. He’s a senile old man. For all we know, he can’t even project anymore.
“How the fuck,” I said. “Is your father going to beat all those people?”
Hira shrugged. “No idea. But those are his most obvious obstacles. You really think he hasn’t planned for them?”
“Is that all you know?” I asked. “You did use your Praxis Vocation on the Broadcast King, didn’t you? You could read his thoughts, right?”
Hira folded his magazine shut. “I may have…implied that my Vocation was more versatile than it is. It lets me skill-stitch over an entire person’s abilities within a few seconds, but each copy only lasts around ten hours. And every time I copy from a single person, their mind builds up resistance and it gets a little less effective – I can only do it about ten-twenty times on a target, and only for about five seconds at a time.”
“And that’s when you can read their mind.”
“I can experience the target’s thoughts when I’m copying them, yes. For spurts of five seconds. And I can’t view their memories unless they use them all the time.”
“So even when you did use it on your father, it didn’t tell you what his plans were.”
“Oh, I didn’t use it on him,” Right-Hira said. “He built up natural immunity a long time ago.”
The Silver Flask’s front door opened, ringing a bell. It drew my attention for a split second.
Before I could look away, Samuel stepped into the diner.
I could recognize that dirty blonde haircut even from across the crowded room. A platinum blonde strode into the room behind him. Eliya. My throat tightened. I felt myself breathe faster, and my grip tightened on my textbook.
Don’t look at them directly. I watched them out of the corner of my eye, keeping my face turned away from them. If they spotted me, there could be problems. And if they were seen interacting with me, Samuel could be Ousted and Eliya could lose her place at Paragon.
The two of them sat down at a table near the middle of the room, just far enough to be out of earshot. Neither of them so much as glanced at me. They haven’t seen me yet. Or were pretending they hadn’t.
“Those people,” said Hira. “The boy and the girl you’re pretending not to look at. Who are they?”
“Waiter,” I said, waving him over. “I’d like a shot of rum, please.” I turned back to Hira. “He’s my ex-fiancé. And she’s one of my former best friends, and Professor Brin’s daughter. I’m not supposed to talk to them at all. And we split up on bad terms.”
A look of realization dawned in Hira’s eyes. “You did this on purpose, didn’t you?”
“You suggested that we come to the Silver Flask to study. And at this time. You knew when your old buddies liked to visit, and you wanted to stalk them.” He grinned, clapping me on the shoulder. “You could have just told me up front.”
“I’m not stalking them,” I snapped. “This is tactical. I wanted to spy on my replacement. She just didn’t show today.”
“What do you gain by watching her eat pancakes?”
“I need to know her strengths and weaknesses. Where she spends her time and what she cares about. How she does in class and on the battlefield, and where the fuck she came from.” I took another glance at Samuel’s table. “Projectors as skilled as her don’t just materialize out of thin air. Someone trained her. Someone good.”
“And you’re going to get all that by watching her eat lunch.”
“Knowing her schedule would be a start, yes.”
Over by their table, Eliya hunched over, whispering with Samuel. How would she feel if she knew I was secretly working as a mercenary for her father? Knowing Eliya, I wasn’t sure if she’d slap me or hug me.
She said something, and both she and Samuel laughed, smiling. My stomach clenched.
The two of them didn’t look sad, or grieving, or anxious. They looked like they did in the year before I got Ousted. They were joking with one another, smiling, going out to lunch during their break and enjoying their favorite dishes.
That stung, more than any failure I had today, more than any criticism from Hira. How long did it take them to adjust?
I thought back to something Ana had told me, when describing her early teens. The worst loneliness isn’t pure isolation. It’s watching people have fun without you.
“Waiter,” I said. “Another shot.”
How much could they have adjusted? Was life really back to normal? I would have given anything to have one more conversation with Samuel in private, one more update on his life without me.
I’d need to be drunk, of course, and I’d probably throw my drink in his stupid face, but it’d still be worth it.
“What’d he do to you?” said Hira. “Or, what did you do to him?”
Three shots later, I spilled everything to Hira. My engagement with Samuel. Chimera Squad. Our secret meetings after I’d been Ousted and how Samuel had abandoned me.
And my resolution to win him back, along with my name and my position in my family.
Why am I being so open with him? It was the kind of information Hira could use against me, if he wanted to. He wasn’t the type to offer emotional counsel, and even if he did, there wasn’t much he could do about my situation.
But fuck, it felt good to finally vent to someone about all this whaleshit. I’d kept all this hidden from Ana, and now that she hated me, that door was shut.
“You should have expected it,” said Hira.
I scowled at him. “Samuel is the most loyal person I know.”
“People give off that impression because they have the bare minimum of a moral compass and are afraid to challenge authority. Don’t mistake that for genuine faithfulness.”
“Boy, I bet you’re overflowing with friends.” I poured my shot into the rest of my ice cream soda and gulped it down.
“The bottom line is, you put your trust in him, and when you needed him most, he left you to the wolves.”
Samuel and Eliya still hadn’t seen me. “He did what he had to do. To protect himself and his team. If he’s seen with me, he could lose everything.”
“Yes,” said Hira. “And that’s the first and last thing he thinks about every time he pictures you now. He’s shown you his priorities. If you rely on him again, he’s going to ‘do what he has to do’ again and again until you learn your lesson.” He leaned forward. “I’m considering this part of your training.”
“Insulting the love of my life is training?”
“There are lots of ways to protect your mind. Whisper defenses. Killing the right projectors. Recognizing cult tactics. And,” he said. “Not letting the wrong people get your emotions by the balls. The Neke call that ‘Mental Hygiene’.”
Nothing’s sacred to him. And I thought I was callous.
“He’s not some kind of monster,” I said through clenched teeth. “Where did you learn to shit on people so much?”
“Meeting lots of Samuels,” Hira said.
“Fuck you,” I said, raising my voice until it was almost a shout. “This is none of your business. Stay away from Samuel.”
Samuel turned towards the source of the noise, and looked straight at me.
My chest tightened. The world in the background faded to a distant blur. The two of us made eye contact, staring at each other.
In spite of myself, I smiled at him.
Samuel looked away from me and said something to Eliya, his face pale. In response, Eliya’s brow furrowed, and she dumped a stack of bills onto the table. Both of them stood up and walked towards the front door, avoiding eye contact with me.
They walked towards the old woman, and she flipped open her briefcase, peering in.
In the seconds while they passed her, several things happened.
The woman reached her arm deep inside.
Hira grabbed my shoulder and reached his other hand towards the metal table to our right. It flipped onto its side and shot towards us, spilling fries and soda all over the floor.
As the table rolled between us and the old woman, her briefcase exploded.