13-B The Butterfly’s Dilemma

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Wes

The first thing I felt was the cold.  The sweat soaking into my suit, and the wind blowing across, turning me into an icicle.  I lay on something hard, like a rock, and it jabbed into my legs and back and neck in all the least comfortable places.

My eyes snapped open, and I found myself lying on a pile of rubble, grey morning light streaming in through the shattered glass roof of Paragon’s entrance atrium, making my eyes sting.  A corner of the room had collapsed, forming a squat hill of brick and metal off to the side, which I’d passed out on.  Or been dragged to.

Men and women shouted orders in the distance, and my head ached.  Nausea bubbled up from my belly and I gagged.  My mouth had dried up, and the slightest movement made my lips crack.

It felt like a nasty hangover.  I’d been dry for a while, so the feeling was strange.  Jun’s tranquilizer hits hard.  I groaned, a ragged, creaky sound.

Principality soldiers streamed around me, emerging from a reattached cable car and a pair of zeppelins nearby.

One of them pointed a gun at me.  The other one shook his head.  “Hey,” he said.  “Are you alright?”

I pushed myself to a sitting position, an agonizing effort.  Then I forced myself to stand.  My back ached, and my legs burned from the effort.  Is this how Jun feels all the time?

“I’m fine,” I said.  I stepped forward, tripped on a brick, and caught myself before I fell.

Guardians with wingsuits flew overhead beneath the grey sky, circling the perimeter of the academy.  More soldiers jogged throughout Paragon, but I didn’t hear any gunshots, or sounds of fighting.  I couldn’t even hear shouting.  Is it over?  Had we won?

One of the soldiers glanced at me, then handed a five-pound bill to the man next to him, grumbling.

“See?” the other one said.  “Told you he was alive.”

The lights in all the buildings still looked dark, wrapped in a layer of early morning fog.  But I didn’t see any more smoke.  They put all the fires out.

On the far side of the room, Principality soldiers paraded a line of Green Hands forward in handcuffs.  In the hallway outside, another squad of soldiers zipped up rows of body bags stretching into the distance.  So many body bags.  Students in blue school uniforms and Green Hands alike.

Inside one of the bags, Adam Lynde’s eyes stared up at the ceiling, unmoving.  The soldier zipped it up, covering his face.

The battle had ended.  And the Principality had won.  But at what cost?

Cry, she said.  Lose sleep.  But crawl forward, if you have to.  And find a thousand reasons to keep crawling.

A wave of panic bubbled up in my stomach.  I shook off my stupor and ran to the nearest soldier.  “Hey!” I shouted.  “What happened to Anabelle Gage and Hira Kahlin?”

“Who?”

“The Blue Charlatan,” I said.  “Queen Sulphur.  The mercenary group that was fighting here.  Their names and faces appeared in the paper recently, after they attacked the Verity host.  Do you know what happened to them?”  They sacrificed themselves to go after the Pyre Witch.  But they might have survived.

The soldier shrugged.  He has no idea.

“What about Chimera Squad?” I said.  “They’re students here, they would be on a list of official casualties.”

“Sorry, kid,” he said.  “I don’t have any list like that.”

“Who does?”

“Admiral Rowyna Ebbridge is leading the cleanup effort,” he said.  “She’s set up a temp HQ in Alabaster Hall.  Least damaged building in this place.  It’s straight and then to the – “

“Thanks!”  I ran off.  She’s running her operation out of my old dorm.  Where I’d spent my last night as Lady Ebbridge.

I jogged down the hallway, past the rows of body bags and soldiers, past the broken glass and demolished walls.  Layers of dust covered the floor, coating the soles of my shoes.  Ash rained from the sky, making me cough as I ran.  Lightbulbs flickered on and off overhead.

I gazed to my right, out a shattered window.  The grassy pavilion for squad battles had burned down, the green lawn turned into a blackened crisp.  To my left, dozens of soldiers guarded the path to the Great Library.  There would be even more inside.

My entire body ached as I ran.  I hadn’t sustained any serious injuries during the battle, but it had exhausted my body and Pith on every level.  The tranquilizer and a nap on hard rubble hadn’t helped much.

In the distance, across another bridge, Opal Hall had been demolished, the front half crumbled into rubble, spilling off the edge of its floating island.  Fog swallowed the other half.  Further away, I could make out the remains of the banquet hall, burnt down by Deon’s coal dust fire.

Deon’s dead too.  It didn’t feel real.  The fog surrounding Paragon seemed like the ethereal mist of a dream, or some strange place between sleep and consciousness.  And in this part of the academy, the soldiers’ shouts faded into the distance, leaving a bitter quiet hanging in the air.

I’d been hearing screaming, gunfire, explosions all day.  Now, I only heard the wind.

For a moment, I ran through the ruins of Paragon alone.  Just me and the ash and the rubble.

I jogged across the sturdy wooden bridge to Alabaster Hall, one of the few that hadn’t been damaged by the battle.

A squad of soldiers stood on the far side, in front of Alabaster Hall’s front door.  They leveled their rifles at me, and I raised my hands, stopping.  “Password?”

I sighed.  “Can I just talk to my mother?”

“Give us the password, or fuck off,” a soldier said.  “You know how many tricks Commonplace has played in the last forty-eight hours?”

“If I was Maxine Clive,” I grumbled.  “I would already know your stupid password.  And if I was the Pyre Witch, I would have already set your stubborn faces on fire.”

She tightened her grip on her rifle.  “Is that a threat?”

I jabbed a finger at my face.  “Does it look like I’m alive enough to burn anyone right now?”  So much paranoia.  Maybe I should have set myself on fire.

The door swung open, and my mother’s voice called out from inside.  “Let her in.”

The soldiers stepped aside, glaring at me, and I walked in.

On a normal day, Alabaster Hall’s common room would be filled with students.  Studying, playing Jao Lu, chatting around the crackling fireplace.  Popcorn and chocolate and mulled cider would sit on all the tables.

Today, the fire had been put out.  Maps and supply boxes sat on all the tables.  Military officers and Guardians streamed about, muttering to each other.

And mother, Rowyna Ebbridge, stood in the center of it all, still wearing her blonde Maxine Clive chassis.  She stared at several stacks of papers on her desk, and floated a dozen pens around her to read and write on them all at once.

After all the deaths, all the destruction to her second home, she looked normal.  Cool and collected, like today was just another ordinary day.

She’s alive.  Despite everything she’d done to me, an odd sense of relief washed over my body.  How messed up is that?

“516125871-R,” she said.  “You survived.”

“How do you remember all those numbers?” I said.  “I sure can’t.”

She said nothing, continuing to scribble on her stacks of papers.

“My friends,” I said.  “Chimera Squad.  Queen Sulphur.  Are they alright?  Are they alive?”

“Queen Sulphur?” she said.  “No idea.  But Chimera Squad’s alright.”

I exhaled, my shoulders relaxing.  Samuel and Leizu and Eliya are safe, at least.

And my mother had just told me.  A rare act of kindness.

“516125871-R,” said my mother.  “Do you know what day it is?”

I shook my head.  This can’t be good.

“Do you know what day is tomorrow?”

The answer came to me.  And I didn’t like it.

________________________________________

At the crack of dawn, I was to enter the most important challenge of my life.  A battle with no holds barred, a final exam to determine my future against an opponent who had crushed me once already.

I showed up half an hour early.

My mother had let me sleep in a temporary bed in Paragon, stuffed into an empty lecture hall with a dozen others, temporary shelters for students and soldiers whose dorms had been destroyed.

I’d paid another student with an internal alarm clock to shake me awake early in the morning, and I’d gone to sleep early after a lengthy afternoon of studying, making sure to get a good night’s rest.

Then, I’d taken the cable car down here, and walked to the mansion grounds.  No champagne flutes this time.  My mother had fired Oswald, the family butler of twenty-three years, when she could no longer afford his salary.

I took all the Ousting written tests.  Normally, they happened over of a week, but we’d run out of time before the official Ousting date.

And, to my surprise, the tests went well.  My new studying methods with Hira seemed to have paid off.  Or Tasia did really poorly on them.  Or both.

And now, I’d made it to the final stage.  Single combat.

Since I had extra time, I did a routine of stretches and warm-ups that Jun had taught me, getting my body ready for the bout ahead of me.  This time, the Ousting area in the Ebbridge mansion’s grounds looked different.

The stands had emptied.  No Chimera Squad.  No Epistocrat onlookers or curious professors.  Just my mother, sitting in the front row, slouching over for the first time in her life.  Everyone’s busy with the clean-up.

Chimera Squad hadn’t lost anyone, thankfully.  Queen Sulphur, on the other hand, had gone missing.  Nobody had seen them since the battle.

Nobody had seen the Pyre Witch, either, who Ana and Hira had been chasing after.  According to my mother, the vast majority of Paragon’s intelligence bureau thought she’d escaped overseas.

Which meant she’d probably killed my friends.

My throat clenched.  My fingers tapped on the side of my suit leg, faster and faster.  Don’t get distracted by speculation.  Focus on what’s in front of you.

I adjusted my suit jacket over my thin combat armor, a dapper white three-button ensemble fitting over my mother’s provided defenses.  A layer of beauty and elegance over the cold and practical.  If I win, this might be the last suit I wear.  I wore Samuel’s white crane mask, too.

Two minutes before the scheduled start of the match, a girl jogged up to the raised wooden platform.  Her black hair had turned into a mess of tangles, her flawless skin looked pallid, and dark circles had formed under her sharp green eyes.  Her blue combat armor looked loose in a  few places, like she’d thrown it on at the last minute.

Tasia.  The imposter.  The girl who’d taken my name, my body, my life.  Who I’d fought, and fought alongside.  The prodigy with strange dreams of immortality and the secrets of Null Particles.  Ana’s friend.

She climbed onto the stage, sat down at the edge, and closed her eyes, taking slow, deep breaths.  It didn’t look like she’d gotten much sleep last night.

“A judge has approved this last-minute Ousting ceremony,” said my mother.  “In spite of the circumstances, and the recent events in this nation, the ordained day is still upon us.  All participants have survived, uninjured, so tradition will be upheld.”

I jumped up and down, stretching my arms like Jun had taught me.  Tasia pushed herself upright, forcing her eyes to open.

My mother went over the stakes of the duel, reciting the same speech as last time from her book on the Epistocracy’s traditions.   “We are gathered here to decide the fate of the female progeny of the House Ebbridge. The winner of today’s bout will keep the name, body, and enrollment in Paragon Academy of the family member for all time.  Further Ousting ceremonies may not commence, as the member in question will pass the maximum age for expulsion before this day of the following year.“  And the loser would have to separate from the family, lose the name, and wipe significant Paragon knowledge from their Pith.

Remember your planning.  All those late-night sessions with Hira, working out what Tasia might have learned, what tactics she’d bring to the table now that she knew most of my abilities.  Now that she’d been studying at Paragon for a year.

I’ve been studying too.  Squad battles looked cool from a distance, but at the end of the day, nothing made up for real battle experience.

Jun’s patient discipline.  Hira’s versatility.  And the tactics of Anabelle Gage.  I carried a piece of each of them into this battle.

Tasia stared at my mother as she talked, with a look of profound exhaustion and disappointment.  Nothing like the focus she’d brought to my first Ousting.

“ – the first to touch the ground beneath the platform will be considered the loser.  May you strive to become an Exemplar.”  My mother turned to me.  “First combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”

I leaned over and picked up my burnt fish leather briefcase, unlatching the top.  No crates of projection material for me this time.  I didn’t need them, and Tasia would just use them against me.

Is this what you want?  I’d been moving so fast over the last day that I’d barely had time to reflect.

I thought of the body, and felt nothing.  I thought of Tasia’s struggles.  But then I thought of Leizu and Eliya.  Of Samuel, embracing me.  Of the pardon for my crimes, that Ana and Hira had sacrificed themselves for, that had caused Jun to get captured by the Shenti.

Crawl forward, if you have to.  And find a thousand reasons to keep crawling.

It doesn’t matter that I have to disconnect from my old life.  I had nothing left there.

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m ready.”

“Second combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”

Tasia slid her foot back and bent her knees in a combat stance.  She raised her fists in front of her, and blue-purple lightning crackled around them.  Then she nodded.

“Sorry, Tasia,” I said.

“Begin!” my mother barked.

My briefcase swung open, and I shot stacks of paper out of it, fanning them out into the air.

When I’d first fought Tasia, I didn’t realize her Pith-draining Vocation until halfway through the battle.  I’d thrown my aggression at her, and she’d used that to suck all the energy out of my soul.

Not this time.  Instead of swarming Tasia, I held my sheets a few meters away from her, making a rotating dome of paper.  Her Vocation pushed other Piths out and drained their energy.  I’m not going to give you free resources.

Tasia stared at me for a second.  Then the blue and purple lightning swirled around her, coalescing around her right arm.  It formed a long, narrow sword, and she slashed at the rotating dome, aiming to push out my Pith.

Her attack looked clumsy.  Slower than I would have expected.  I pulled back the paper around her attack, dodging her strike and preventing her from gaining any energy.

At the same time, I pulled in the paper behind Tasia, on the far side of the dome.  It slashed at her exposed ankles, drawing blood.  She summoned the blue-purple lightning around her feet, but my sheets of paper pulled out, dodging just in time.  They joined the rotating dome, blood staining the white paper.

That trick’s only going to work once.  She would be expecting a simultaneous paper attack from behind, now.

Which meant we had reached a stalemate.  If she committed to attacking me, I could retreat and slash at her with paper, hitting exposed places that she couldn’t cover in time.  But if I committed to an attack, her Vocation would crush mine in an all-out brawl, pushing out my attacks and draining my energy.

Then Tasia called out to me.  “Remember what you told me?” she said.  “On the day we met here, exactly one year ago.”

“Not even remotely,” I said.

We circled each other.  I darted two more sheets of paper at her from behind, aiming for her neck.  Blue and purple lightning crackled around her spine before I could touch it, and I felt my Pith being pushed out, the energy being drained from it.

Tasia summoned an orb of lightning around her fist and threw it at the edge of my rotating sphere.  I moved my paper aside, making a hole in the sphere and avoiding her attack.

Jabs.  Testing each other’s defenses.  Both of us careful.  A far cry from our desperate melee a year ago.

“You told me, ‘they will peel away your time, your energy, your mind’,” Tasia said.  “‘Layer by layer.  And when you have nothing left, they will cast you aside and make you thank them for it all.’”  Blue and purple lightning ran up and down her arms, and she stayed in her fighting stance, legs bent.

“Wow,” I said.  “You have a really good memory.  I can see why mother liked you.”

“You were trying to mess with my head, distract me for the fight,” said Tasia.

“Yes,” I said.

“But you know what?” said Tasia.  “You were right.”

What happened to her over the last year?  Had my mother done something to her?  Or maybe she’d seen something.

Tasia’s lightning formed a pair of axes in her fists, and she darted forward, swinging them at me.  I shot paper at her from behind, and dove to the side of the wooden platform, projecting into my armor and dodging her strike.

As I did, the flat of Tasia’s axe curved around behind her, brushing aside my paper attacks and pushing out the Pith there.  A crate behind Tasia exploded, and a cloud of sand shot towards my eyes.  Same as last time.

I projected into my suit and lifted myself, jumping to the far side of the raised platform and dodging the sand.

It turned midair, following me, and I projected forward, into one of Tasia’s crates that had been filled up with water.  I pulled a gallon of water out of it and floated it in front of my eyes, ears, and mouth, forming a transparent mask, goggles, and earmuffs to protect me.

The sand blasted over me, scraping my exposed skin, making my neck burn.  But it didn’t get in my eyes.  It didn’t cause unbearable pain, or block my vision.

Wooden rods shot at me from all angles, trying to hit my neck or my face to incapacitate me.  But they looked slower than before, less accurate.  My paper is blocking her sightlines.

I projected into my armor, dodging the strikes.  One rod got close to my face, and I projected into my briefcase, swinging it around and batting it aside.

Blood soaked into Tasia’s socks from the cuts on her ankles, the only times I’d been able to touch her.  She kept attacking.  And I kept dodging her.

Green lightning crackled around me, and a headache throbbed in the back of my skull.  This isn’t easy for me, either.  All the dodging and blocking and simultaneous attacking took energy out of my Pith.  But with this year’s non-stop fighting, I’d worked my soul out like a muscle.  And I’d grown far stronger.

The first time she’d chased me, I’d had far less energy than her, and tired myself out in under a minute.  But this time, she’d barely drained anything from me.  And she looked sweaty and out of breath, too.

Tasia paused her attack for a moment, and we both leaned over, catching our breath.

“I’m not sure,” wheezed Tasia, “why you want to go back into the diamond cage.  But whatever happens, I hope you’re happy at the end of this.”  She stared at me.  “I hope you’re happy.”

Focus.  Don’t get distracted.  She was screwing with my head, like I’d done to her last time.

But something about her words hit close to me, twisted a knife inside me that I’d forgotten about.  And hot rage bubbled up under my skin.

“And why aren’t you happy, then?!” I shouted.  “You took everything, you’re a prodigy, and you still couldn’t be satisfied?  What is wrong with you?”

Her sister, Ana’s voice whispered in my head.  She’s trying to save her sister, remember?

And she thinks you’ll be just as miserable in her place.  That I’d feel just as empty and hopeless, that a victory would be pointless for me.

The thought filled me with loathing.

I projected a metal cable out of one of Tasia’s crates, made a single loop, and lifted it behind her, silent.  Preparing to do Samuel’s attack from last time.  The trick that had almost beaten her last year, choking her out and immobilizing her while keeping my Pith a safe distance from her.

Tasia charged forward at me again, and I used the end of the cable to shove her ankle sideways, tripping her.  She fell on her stomach with a hollow thud, dazed for a moment.

As she pushed herself up, I dropped my rope over her, just like last time.

Tasia whipped two of her orbs to the side, tossing them at the ends of the cable my Pith was projecting into.  She expected this.  The spheres of lightning flew down the length of the cables and pushed out my Pith.  The cables fell beside her, limp.

I felt a stabbing headache, and green electricity flickered around my eyes, as my energy dropped.

As she blocked my cable attack, I shot a single piece of paper towards her face, preparing to cut her eyes.

Tasia bent her knees, about to leap to the side and dodge.  If she does that, my trap won’t work.  My ultimate gambit for this battle would fall apart.

Then she flitted her gaze towards me, and we made eye contact for a fraction of a second.

She summoned a flat shield of blue-purple lightning around her palms, and held them in front of her face to block the piece of paper.  Yes.

As she did, I jumped back off the raised platform, projecting into my suit so I didn’t touch the ground and forfeit the match.  I pulled my legs into my chest, using the wooden arena as cover for myself.

Tasia’s shield passed through my sheets of paper, forcing out my Pith, nullifying my projection there.

And the three frag grenades I’d squeezed between them unflattened, no longer bound by my Vocation.  Three frag grenades with the pins pulled.

A strangled yell came out of Tasia’s throat, and a low boom rang through the trees.  Shrapnel flew overhead, and punched through the wooden floor, tearing splinters out of the platform.

As my ears rang, I projected into my suit and yanked myself back onto the stage.  Tasia flew backwards, limp, surrounded by blue and purple lightning.  Not her Vocation.  I exhausted her Pith.  Defending herself from the blast took almost all her energy.

I saw no blood, no torn limbs or punctured flesh.  She isn’t injured.  But the blast wave had to have stunned her.

Always confirm the kill.  I wouldn’t fall for her possum gambit a second time.  I flew forward, projected into another crate, this one filled with metal spheres.

I lifted it above Tasia’s head, green lightning crackling around me from the effort.  Sheaves of paper swirled around me, and I stretched my arms forward, clenching my teeth.

Do I really want this?  Will this make me happy?

A headache stabbed into the back of my skull, and my arms shook.  Focus.  Always confirm the kill.

I clenched my fists, and brought the heavy crate down on Tasia’s chest.  It smashed apart and knocked her to the ground.

Tasia landed on the grass, rolling.  She’s touching the ground.  It was over.

Still, I stood in a combat stance for a good thirty seconds, casting my gaze around me for surprise attacks, feeling Tasia’s armor with my paper to make sure she’d actually touched the ground.

This day, this victory didn’t feel real.  This is too easy.  I had to be on the guard for something going wrong.

My mother clapped, the only member of the audience.  It’s over, it’s over, it’s over.  I’d won.  I’d Ousted her.  Tasia groaned on the ground, rolling over and rubbing her temples.  I let my Pith fall out of the paper storm around me, and they fluttered to the ground, or drifted away on the breeze.  The green lightning faded around me, and my briefcase fell out of my hand, thumping onto the wood.

And my mother was applauding me.  She walked forward in the stands, still clapping, staring down at us with a triumphant gaze.

I just stood there, stunned, arms limp at my sides as the wind blew over me, and the sun rose from behind the fog.

________________________________________

I didn’t remember my first Ousting.  My mother’s memory wipe had lingered in my Pith, wiping out everything that took place for two days after my defeat.  All I’d been left with was a lingering sense of resentment, and the pain.

This time, I got to be awake for the ceremony.  Tasia had been knocked out and laid on the roof of my family’s mansion, enveloped in a shallow bath of blue liquid with the consistency of wet concrete.  

Both of us had been changed out of our combat uniforms.  Tasia wore simple blue pants and a shirt, the same light shade as the liquid bed she lay on.  I wore Tasia’s old clothes – old, ratty pants and a faded red shirt with holes in the back.

The sun rose over the fog, casting Elmidde in a yellow glow.  From the roof here in Hightown, we could look over the whole city.  Smoke from the fires in Midtown and Lowtown.  The bordering islands where I’d lived with Ana and Hira and Jun.  Military trucks driving through the streets, enforcing martial law.

I could see people, too.  Ordinary people, on bicycles and cars and on foot.  Going to work, or checking in on their families.  Skirting around the police and the tanks and the blockades.

And, of course, Paragon Academy.  Floating above our heads, spires broken, bridges collapsed, buildings turned to rubble.  How many died up there?  How many bodies had I run past?

“Come,” said my mother.  “It’s time.”

I nodded, and lay down on the blue liquid, opposite Tasia.  It fit my body perfectly, and shifted me forward, so the soles of my bare feet touched Tasia’s.

Her skin felt ice cold.

“Will you transfer us?”  I looked at my mother.

She looked down on me like I’d gone mad.  “This is your name,” she said.  “You need to earn this.”  I have to do the transfer.  Force Tasia’s Pith back out of my body and into her old one.  “Are you ready?” she said.

No.

“Yes,” I said.

My mother raised a hand, and gravity shifted around me.  It pulled me towards my head, instead of the floor.  It felt like I’d been turned upside down, my feet right above my head.  The floor became a wall, and Tasia stood above me, encased in the blue concrete, her feet still pressed against mine.

Blood rushed to my head, making my skull throb, and my forehead feel warm.

This is everything you wanted.  A triumphant return.  My friends back, my world back.  A pardon for the crimes I’d committed over the last year.

Hira’s face flashed into my head again.  Jun’s smile.  Ana’s determined glare.

I thought of my life when I was first Ousted.  Struggling on the streets.  The poverty, the desperation and self-loathing and dead-end future.  That’s what I’m dooming Tasia to, now.

Is this what you thought when you first Ousted me?

But then why didn’t she fight back harder today?  I could have fought her for much longer, won a slow battle of attrition, but the Ousting duel had been so easy, in the end.

A diamond cage, she’d called it.  Did she let me win?

A cloud drifted away, and the noon sun glared into my eyes.  I closed my eyes, my head thumping.

“What are you waiting for?” hissed my mother.  The headache grew worse, accompanied by a wave of dizziness.

I opened my eyes, and stared above me, straining to see the body I would be inhabiting.  My body, since birth.  My real body.  Silky black hair.  A heart-shaped face, and pale white skin.  A beautiful porcelain doll, elegant and sharp.  Do I want that, too?  I’d spent so much time outside of it.  The thought of inhabiting it again felt so foreign.

Then, I thought of Samuel’s warm body, pressed against mine.  His steady hand.  And your mother’s finally proud of you.  She’s finally proud.

I gathered all the willpower in my soul, all the strength.  And I reached.  I stretched my Pith above me, through my feet.

Then I felt Tasia’s soul, flickering through the nerves and brain of her body.  And I pushed.

An electric buzz spread over my skin, pins and needles that covered every inch of my body.  Green lightning flashed around me, and a stabbing headache exploded in the back of my skull.  Blue-purple lightning flashed around Tasia.  It felt like trying to lift a refrigerator with my pinkies.  Forced transference.  The only Whisper vocation that used brute force.

I’d swapped bodies a few times in my life.  But this didn’t feel like any of those.  This felt like a fork scraping over porcelain, except with my skull.  After a few seconds of agony, Tasia’s Pith budged a few inches, jostled out of place by my projection.  I kept pushing, my limbs shaking, sweat coating my hair.

Is this what giving birth feels like?  With luck, I’d never find out.

Tasia’s Pith gave way, and I felt my essence streaming upwards through her feet.  Everything moved.

And the world vanished around me.  I floated through a black void at the speed of sound.  I remember this.  From when Hira’d given me a forced swap with Afzal Kahlin’s decorator.

But this time, I still had my body.  I hadn’t been dissolved into my abstract being.  I glanced down, and I could see my arms, legs, all like normal.

And I saw someone else.  Tasia, racing towards me from the far side of the void, headed for my point of origin.  Wearing her blue shirt and pants from before.

We both froze next to each other, a moment of stillness before we rushed past each other.

Tasia leaned forward.  And she hugged me.

What?  I stared past her, into the black emptiness.  Too stunned to hug back.  I opened my mouth to speak, but the void swallowed all my words, an infinite silence encroaching on all sides.

Then, the world pulled us apart, shooting us towards our opposing destinations.

My eyes snapped open, and I found myself standing right side up.

I glanced down, and saw a brown-haired boy hanging upside down, unconscious.  Wes.  The chassis I’d inhabited for a year of my life.  I noted the long hair brushing my shoulders, making them itch.  My smooth, cold skin, rubbing against my blue pants and shirt.  My swollen chest, heavy, unbalancing.

The lightning faded around us.  It worked.

Now, I stood above Tasia.

“Your name,” said my mother.  “Is Nell Ebbridge.  And you are my daughter.”

________________________________________

Nell Ebbridge, I told myself.  My name is Nell Ebbridge.

I thought I’d be happier with it.  Like knowing it would fit some missing puzzle piece in my mind, make everything come together.  That word had been blocked from my mind, a space at the center of my Pith for the last year.

But it was just an ordinary name.  Nothing special.

Other memories had been un-encrypted from before.  Classes I’d taken at Paragon, books I’d studied.  According to my mother, those would give me a boost in some of my physical projection, and help me catch up on what I’d missed with my academics over the last year.

On top of that, my father had hugged me for a good thirty seconds when he first saw me, tears running down his cheeks.  “We’re so proud of you,” he said.  “So proud.”

A part of me felt relieved, like exhaling after holding my breath.

Another part thought, you stood by as mother Ousted me.

My mother had given me a brief overview of our debt situation, too, now that I’d rejoined the family.  With the Broadcast King a fugitive, the debts owed to him by the Ebbridge family had been declared null and void.

The family still had almost no money, and had lost critical connections with other Epistocrat families.  ‘Great House’ no longer described us.  But we’d pulled ourselves out of the red.  Thanks to me.

“Well done,” my mother had told me.

With those words?  She might as well have knelt before me.  Maybe that was what I was fighting for.

To mark her approval, she’d given me an allowance again.  A reward for my great victory, up in Paragon and in the Ousting arena.  In the long term, they would set a proper account up, but for now, I had a stack of paper bills in an envelope.

Over the last few months, I’d come up with a shortlist of items I’d been missing in my exile, that I would buy as soon as I returned to my old life.  Fortunately, I remembered them all.

  1. Fine liquor
  2. Teacakes
  3. Proper suits
  4. Makeup that doesn’t give me rashes
  5. Bubble baths

I’d think of more in the coming weeks, but for now, those would occupy my time and wallet.  Hightown had sustained less damage from the battle than the rest of Elmidde, and most of these items could be found there.

But, on the day of my victory, I found myself walking not through my family mansion.  Not through my garden or my lavish bedroom or the Hightown streets nearby.  I walked towards Lowtown.  Most of the trams still worked, so I took one of them from Hightown towards the lower reaches of Mount Elwar, wearing a dress and coat that made my armpits sweat.

I gazed out the window.  Soldiers patrolled the streets with rifles.  Cops stuffed lines of protestors into police vans.  Men and women swept broken glass from their broken storefronts.  Halfway down, a fire truck sped past the tram, sirens howling, on its way to put out another blaze.

What a bloody disaster.  I’d grown up during the Shenti War, and I still hadn’t seen anything like this.  The whole Principality had never seen anything like this.  Not within its borders.

I found myself walking towards a familiar bar, with an ash-stained sign hanging out front.

Leo’s Place

The front window had been demolished, and pieces of the front wall had turned black, from a fire.

My stomach dropped.  Oh, fuck.  I sprinted inside, bursting through the front door.

The inside of the bar looked better.  Some windows in the back had been shattered, a few chairs had been smashed, and a corner of the room had been burnt, with some overturned tables.  Other than that, nothing had changed.

A middle-aged man stood in the corner, sweeping glass into a dustpan.  He leaned over and massaged his thick neck, his brown hair damp with sweat.  Leo.

I let out a half-exhale.  He’s alright.  And his place hadn’t been destroyed.

Leo glanced at me, and jumped, shocked.  His grip tightened on the broom.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said.  “Can I help you?”

Of course he doesn’t recognize me.  Not in this new body.

“Hi,” I said.  My female voice sounded high, breathy.  I’d gotten so used to my masculine tones that this sounded almost unnatural.  “You know me.  I’m Wes.  Sort of.  Not really.”

His eyes widened with recognition.  “Well.  That’s a nice look.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “My fiance might kiss me back, this time.”  I glanced at his sweeping.  “Need any help?”

Leo glanced to the side.  “Thanks.  I think I’ll be fine.”

“Please,” I said.  “You look like a Shenti factory worker.  Have you been cleaning all day?”

He winced, leaning on his broom.  “Since four in the morning.”

“Aside from a light alcohol dependency, this body’s pretty strong.  Let me help, it’s the least I can do.”  After all the chaos I helped incite.

Leo paused for a moment, then nodded.

Minutes later, I found myself mopping the floor, washing away dust and grime.  Leo started his sweeping again on the far side of the room, quiet.

“What happened here?” I said.

Leo said nothing for a few seconds, then spoke up, his voice soft.  “Gang of loyalists came in,” he said.  “Felt like throwing their weight around.”

A stabbing pain exploded in my chest, and I closed my eyes.  “I’m sorry.”  I hadn’t led the Loyalists, but I’d been a part of Ana’s operation with Verity, the spark that lit this fire.  I’d incited so much of this.  “You read the paper?”

“Yeah.”  Leo’s voice grew heavy.  “I saw your photo.”

Then he knows.  He’d seen everything I’d done.

“Mother’s a stickler for tradition,” I said.  “According to our esteemed Ousting traditions, I can’t even be here.”  Full disconnection from the old life.  “But she’s busy, at the moment, cleaning up bodies and talking down to the survivors.  So she won’t notice.”

“But that’ll change,” said Leo.  “So this is our last meeting.”

I nodded.  “I’m just here to say goodbye.  And thank you.  For taking in the drunk, selfish little homeless wretch.”

“That was easy,” said Leo.  “You were desperate.  You needed help.  Don’t seem so desperate now.”

“Don’t count on it,” I said.

“Judging by your new body, I’m guessing you got your old life back.”  From his tone, it almost sounded like an accusation.  “I hope you made the right choice.”

“Me too.”

I projected into the water-filled bucket, picked it up, and walked over behind the bar to mop it.

“Hey,” said Leo, a note of anxiety slipping into his voice.  “You don’t need to go there.”

I stopped.  “Oh.  Sorry.  Want me to mop anywhere else?”

He shook his head.  “Thanks for all the help.  Think I’m done for the afternoon.”

There’s something that he doesn’t want me to see.  I stretched my Pith forward, behind the bar.  Stacks of papers sat in one of the cabinets, the only new addition I could feel.

I projected into them and read the contents.

Hope is Eternal
We are the Common Foundation

Posters.  Commonplace posters.  Accompanied by pamphlets about how to join the political group.

Everything made sense.  Leo joined Commonplace.  That’s why loyalists had attacked his bar.  They must have found out he wasn’t a fan of the Epistocracy.

I felt no weapons behind the bar.  No references to the underground, violent part of Commonplace.  But those pamphlets felt official.  Like they’d come from the organization, not from some random street artist.  And he’s distributing them.  Which meant he’d committed himself.

A month ago, being a peaceful member of Commonplace would earn you glares from Guardians.  Now, it might be illegal.

Leo glanced at me, clenching his broom with shaking hands.  He avoided eye contact with me, but I could see the fear in his gaze.

And I made a decision.

“Don’t worry,” I said.  “I won’t tell anyone.”  I meant it, to my surprise.  “And you won’t ever see me again, after today.”

Leo’s shoulders relaxed.  He let out a slow exhale.  Relaxing.  “It’s been a long year,” he said.  Do you want a drink?”

A drink sounded so delicious.  After everything that had happened over the past few days, the pleasant buzz of liquor would be like heaven.  And Hira wasn’t here to stop me.

I leaned the mop against the counter.  “I’m good,” I said.  “Enjoy the day.  It looks beautiful outside.”

Then, I walked out the door, nursing that thirst itch in my throat.

Outside, I glanced back.  One of Leo’s second-story windows had been shattered, too.  The room where I’d stayed during my first week after the Ousting.  Thanks to his generosity, I’d stayed off the streets and away from the crowded homeless shelters.

I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the blue envelope where my mother had stuffed my allowance.  A small package, bursting with hundred-pound bills.  It would have been a fortune, to someone like Ana.  But Ana was gone.  Probably dead, a voice whispered in my head.  Probably a charred corpse in a gutter, and you just don’t want to admit it.

I glanced back through the window, to make sure Leo wasn’t looking.  Then, I unpeeled the envelope, projected into the bills inside, fanned them out, and shot them all through the broken window on the second floor.

They drifted to the ground around the bed where I’d slept.  A small carpet of money.  This way, Leo would find it as he cleaned up later today.  And he might not know who sent it.

A small sum, in the grand scheme of things.  But it would help him rebuild his business.  So much for my shopping afternoon.  Maybe we had teacakes at home.

I strode back up the road.  The midday sun shone above me, bathing me in warm light.  And for a moment, the street seemed free of arrested protestors.  Free of military trucks and grim-looking soldiers and rubble and smoke.

A salaryman, walking home with a briefcase.  A brown-haired woman on a bicycle, pedaling around the city.  A kid my age, jogging around the block for a workout.  Ordinary, going about their business.

For a moment, the street looked normal, again.

I walked towards the cable car up to Hightown.  As I recalled, my mother wanted to meet me around two.

________________________________________

I stood across from my mother, in the chilly confines of her study.

On normal days, the towering chamber would be filled with birds, frozen in place on the thin wooden perches throughout the walls.  Today, they had emptied.  Casualties from the battle.  Or they’d left to do work.

Just me, my mother, and my father, in a stone room without much furniture.  My mother stood across from me.  Her twin typewriters sat still, unused.  I had her full attention.  My father sat at the edge of the room, behind me.  A cool summer breeze blew through the open window.

A human-sized object stood on the far end of the office, covered with a blue sheet.  My mother nodded at my father, and he projected into it, sliding it off and revealing the figure below.

A mannequin, wearing a suit of dark blue armor.  Its surface, rather than normal plate or chain mail or bulletproof armor, was made of countless interlocking triangles, a modern, geometric look that belied its ancient age.

The Ebbridge family armor.  Constructed centuries ago, and passed down through the generations.  Light as a t-shirt and stronger than diamond.  It could deflect Voidsteel anti-tank bullets, be reshaped to fit any user, and modified to hold any sorts of holsters, hidden weapons, or wingsuit attachments desired.

A work of pure beauty, that my mother rarely took out of our vault.

I stared at it, transfixed.  Why is she showing it to me?

“You,” she said.  “Need to start training with this.”

“W – what?”

“You are the heir to the Ebbridge Family, from now until the day I die.  A worthy heir.  And you must be prepared to wield this tool.”

A rush of warmth came over me, with a mixture of feelings.  Pride, honor, the sheer thrill of hearing my mother say those words to my face.

“Are – “ I stuttered.  “Are you sure?”  Stupid. What a stupid question, why are you asking her that?

“You are my daughter,” she said.  “I chose you.”  She indicated her head forward.  “Go ahead.  Touch it.”

I stepped forward, tentative, my eyes locked on the glittering patterns in the armor.

Then my hand stretched in front of me, slow, careful, and grazed the tip of the helmet.  I projected forward into it, and felt every interlocking triangle of it, a perfect jigsaw puzzle assembled in three dimensions, each piece fitting together no matter which way you adjusted them.

And for a moment, I felt the legacy of our family.  Generations of minds, working in harmony.  Struggling, failing, and making the wrong choices, but making a better life for their children, in the end.  Enduring through hellfire, just like this armor.

I can fly in this.  I could soar to the moon, magnificent, invincible.

My mother handed me a card.  Blue, with a pale square in the center, with words embossed on it in a plain font that reminded me of lettering on newspapers.

Lady Rowyna Ebbridge
Admiral | Principality Navy
73 – 9989 – 4095
17 Patricius Street, Elmidde, The Principality

Her business card.  The signifier of her favor, her approval and trust.  She’d never given this to me before.  I knew how to call her, of course, but the gesture mattered.  The pride.

“In times such as these,” my mother said.  “Our armor must be unbreakable.”

My mother sat down, and leaned on her desk.  And for the first time in my life, I saw her looking tired.

“What’s the damage?” I said, sitting across from her.

“More than eighty percent,” she said.  “Of Paragon’s students have been killed.  The gas attack killed every single member of Parliament.”

I sagged back in my chair, the room wobbling back and forth.  Eighty percent?  No, no, that couldn’t be right.

“This is the worst attack on the Principality’s soil in history,” said my mother.  “Even the Shenti never got this far.  And the Pyre Witch has dropped off the grid.  As far as we can tell, she’s disappeared.”

My entire body grew heavy.  And images flashed through my head, one after the other.  Adam Lynde’s eyes, staring up at the sky, unseeing.  The rows and rows of body bags in the ruined halls of Paragon.  Ana and Hira’s farewell hug.

“But,” said my mother.  “We found Maxine Clive’s body on a river bed.  The one she used for the attack.”  She exhaled.  “Her wrists were covered with cuts.”  She snorted.  “So much for the common foundation.”

Suicide.  It made a certain sort of sense, if her life’s mission had failed.

“It could be a fake-out,” said my mother.  “An imposter in her chassis.  But it could be real, too.  We might never know for sure.”

I stared at my feet.  The things Maxine Clive had told me and Ana.  The disturbing details of her creation.  She’d only given us snippets, but I could guess at the rest, even if she couldn’t prove that Paragon had done any of those horrors.

No matter what she became, no one deserved a fate like that.

“Afzal Kahlin has been crushed, his debts nullified and his assets seized.  Oracle Media Group has been disbanded in the Principality.  The Principality’s law enforcement has seized its newspapers and radio programs, and is considering us as a beneficiary when they are redistributed.  The Ebbridge family has lifted itself out of the red, but that’s about it.  We have this mansion and nothing else.  If things go on like this, we’ll have to sell it and buy something cheaper to live in.”  She sighed.  “Once we were great.  An esteemed house.  We sat on the Conclave of the Wise, noble and wise.  Now?”  She snorted.  “We might as well be Humdrums, or Shenti scavengers.”

My shoulders tensed.

“In terms of our power and money?  Our respect?”  She gave a mirthless laugh.  “We’re not much better than those grey creatures you spent the last year chained to.”

Leo’s face flashed into my head.  Jun’s warm smile.  Don’t say anything.  I couldn’t be Ousted anymore, but I had other ways of jeopardizing my future.

I clenched my teeth, and leaned forward.  “Humdrums are determined,” I said.  “They’re intelligent, and they’re capable of acts of empathy that we’ve choked out of ourselves.  And the Shenti are not just simple brutes.  We were fools to dismiss them, and we’d be fools to do it again.”  I raised my voice.  Ana and Hira’s faces flashed through my head.  “And if you hadn’t dismissed my friends for the last year, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Admiral Ebbridge lifted her pinky finger, and the world dropped away from me.

My senses turned to a soft blur, and I felt my thoughts dissolve, my memories and consciousness melting into a puddle.

What’s my name?  I couldn’t recall.  Where am I?  What do I look like?  If you’d asked me who my friends were, my favorite foods, my personality traits and desires, I couldn’t have told you any of them.  Do I even exist?  Is there an ‘I’ in here?  Which person, or persons were imagining these thoughts?

My chair tipped over, and I fell on my side, sliding on the cold floor, dropping my mother’s business card.  The borders between my Pith and existence had dissolved, and my sense of self was melting like a snowball in the sun.

Terror flooded into my veins, and my chest tightened, making me gasp for breath.  No other emotion seemed possible.  I couldn’t even remember what other emotions felt like.  I writhed on the floor, wheezing, shaking.

In the swirling maelstrom of my soul, the flickering connections in my synapses, a single desire rose into existence, the only coherent thought in the chaos.

Please.  Stop.  A cure, a bullet to the brain, I didn’t care how.  I didn’t have the words to say it out loud, but the thought ran throughout my head, again and again.

Then, as quick as it started, it stopped.  The sensation vanished.  My limbs stopped writhing.  My thoughts put themselves back together, and I remembered my name again, my friends, my desires.  You are Nell Ebbridge.  Nell Ebbridge.

I lay on the floor, soaked in sweat, shivering and twitching.

“This,” said my mother, “is a reminder.”

I stared up at her.  Reminder?

“While you transferred back, I installed a Whisper vocation onto your Pith.  It causes a temporary disruption of the ego.”

“Disruption,” I muttered, wiping drool off the edge of my mouth.

“The effect, I’m told, can be uncomfortable.”  She stood up, towering over me.  “In previous years, you could not control your habits.  So this will help you.”  Her voice hardened.  “You will not immerse yourself in your old life.  You will not let your academics slip.  And you will not use that old name again, that old body.  You will do nothing to jeopardize your upcoming marriage contract with Samuel Pakhem.  And I will never have to use this again.”

A reminder.  Of who held all the cards, all the power, even after I’d pulled this family out of debt.  I would have to earn every inch of respect.

“Do you understand?”

I squeezed my eyes shut.  That Whisper vocation felt worse than anything I’d ever experienced.  Worse than any physical pain, any emotional wounds.  It was a slow, agonizing death of my identity, or at least, that’s how it seemed.  And the foreignness of my new body didn’t help, either.  I had no anchor, nothing familiar to hold onto.

I couldn’t experience this again.  Not even once.

My mother stared down at me, expectant.  My father sat on the far end of the room, his expression pained.  But he didn’t intervene.

She baited you into this.  She’d said bad things about Humdrums and my old companions as a test.  And I’d failed.  So stupid.  I’ve been so stupid.

“Yes,” I whispered.  “Yes, I understand.”

“Do not rot the fruits of your labor, Nell,” she said.  Then she extended a hand to me, and pulled me on my feet.  “You’ve done great things.  Incredible things.”  She put a comforting hand on my shoulder.  “I underestimated your abilities.  It seems this Ousting was just the push you needed to unlock your true potential.  With this progress?”  She nodded.  “In a decade, you’ll be just like me.”

The world dropped away from me, and for a moment, I was looking at myself from a distance, staring at this strange porcelain doll and her strange, porcelain life.  Everything felt cold, numb, like someone had wrapped an ice pack around my Pith

“And,” my mother added.  “You’re just getting started.”

I shook myself back to reality, picked up my mother’s business card, and stood up.  “What do you mean, ‘just getting started’?”

“With your help,” said my mother.  “The Ebbridge family can reclaim its old glory.  All the wonders that have been denied to us.  We can forge the stars in our image.”

“How?”

“All’s well that ends well.”  She patted my shoulder and sat back down at her desk.  “In the aftermath of the Parliament attack, this nation recognized the need for strong leadership to guide us through this crisis.”  She smiled.  “The new appointments to the legislature have authorized the reformation of the Conclave of the Wise, to serve as a military advisory during the coming conflict.”  Excitement slipped into her voice.  “The old ways,” she said.  “They’re coming back.  We just have to play our cards right, and we can usher in a golden age again.  For this nation, for this family, for everyone.”

My stomach dropped.  This feels bad.  But I had to ask.

“The coming conflict?” I said.

“Of course,” my mother said, her eyes glimmering.  “Those eastern dogs funded and helped mastermind an attack that massacred our projectors of all ranks, butchered our government, and stole the Lavender Book.  We need to finish the job you started.”

Oh, dear.  I sat down in my chair.  “What does that mean?”

“War, Nell,” she said.  “We’re going to war.”

________________________________________

Unsure of where to go next, I found myself striding to the ruins of Paragon’s banquet hall.  No one seemed to know where the rest of Chimera Squad had gone today, though they assured me that none of them were dead.

Deon had burned the building down, during the battle, but the arriving soldiers had cleared the rubble away and set up temporary tents for food.  Lunch had finished, so most of the soldiers and surviving students had cleared out, leaving the wooden benches near-empty.

I got myself a cup of mulled cider, sat down, and took sips, slouching over on the table.  The apple tasted sickly sweet, like sugar being painted on my tongue.  Too strong.  Too heavy.  I recoiled, and put down the mug, leaving the rest unfinished.

Ana would have loved this.  I enjoyed Paragon’s cider, but I didn’t adore it.  Ana would have been in awe.

Too hot.  I blew on the cider, then took another sip.  The clatter of construction and the roar of machinery echoed in the distance, as soldiers continued the cleanup.  In contrast to the clouds of yesterday, the sun shone clear through the sky, warm and bright.

Here, at least, the ash had been scrubbed away.  They’d moved the body bags to other islands in the academy.

So I enjoyed a moment of odd peace, in the aftermath of the battle.

Before we went to war with the Shenti.  What have I started?  With every second that passed after this battle, it became clearer and clearer that Ana and I had been children playing with matches.  No, children playing with dynamite.

“Hey,” a man’s voice rang out behind me.

I glanced back.  Professor Isaac Brin wheeled towards me, floating his wheelchair over loose bits of rubble.  He leaned back in his chair, tired, but alive.  In a new chassis.  An empty cup sat on his lap.

He might be willing to talk about Ana and Queen Sulphur.  My mother had told me she knew nothing, but that could have been a lie, to keep me from thinking about my old life.

He wheeled next to me, under the shade of a tent.  I picked up the pitcher of mulled cider and filled his mug.

“You made it,” I said, my voice quiet.

He sipped the cider.  “So did you.”

“What about your friend?  Professor Tuft.”  Harpy.  But I wasn’t rude enough to use that name to his face.

“Her Joining saved her.  Got her back to shore and to an emergency room in time.  She’s in the hospital,” said Professor Brin.  “Your mother’s visiting her, I think.  But it looks like she’ll be alright.”

“At least someone survived this carnage,” I muttered.  The Rose Titan’s face flickered into my head, unbidden.  “I never asked.  What happened to your other mercenaries, once Ana got exposed?”

Brin’s face darkened.  “When my own people came to arrest me, I had no choice but to give up their names.  A few of them got caught, went to prison.  But most of them fled the country, the Rose Titan included.”  He sighed.  “Don’t imagine I’ll ever see them again.“

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’d mark that project down as a failure.  Maybe think about that next time before you start recruiting Ousted Epistocrats and Paragon rejects again for your suicide missions.”

“You know,” said Professor Brin.  “I always hated you as a student.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “You and half the academy.”

“You turned in late assignments.  You never paid attention in class.  And despite that, you still had that smarmy attitude, that thin veneer of smirking wit to cover your insecurities.  It was insufferable.”

“Thanks, Professor.”  I probably deserve that.

“But Scholars,” he said.  “You made a bloody fine mercenary.  I expected you and the rest of Queen Sulphur to peter out in less than a month.”  He leaned back in his wheelchair, satisfied.  “But here you are.  Guess I never knew much in the first place.”  He snorted.  “All that paranoia, and Grace still got a mole in Paragon.”

“A mole?” I said.

“That poor girl in Golem Squad.  Matilla Geffray.  Grace snuck her in right in front of me.  In the center of my blind spot.”  He clenched his teeth, tapping his hands against his leg.  “If I’d been more attentive when I found her.  If I hadn’t left those Commonplace thugs to bleed out on the street…”

I shrugged.  “It’s pointless to speculate.”  Though I had no idea what he was talking about.  I’d never even met that girl, though I’d heard Ana mention her name once or twice.

“My fear kept this nation safe,” muttered Professor Brin.  “For so many years.  But I failed.  At every turn against Grace, I failed.  Perhaps we need more.”

Now’s a good time.  “I want to know what’s happened to the rest of Queen Sulphur,” I said.  “My mother knows nothing, or won’t tell me what she knows.  Do you still have connections with counterintelligence?”

“I don’t have much clout there anymore,” said Professor Brin.  “I’ve been demoted, remember?  As a result of my illegal black ops mercenaries.”

“Sorry,” I said.

I’m sorry,” said Professor Brin.  “I underpaid you to keep you on a short leash.  I pushed you into difficult missions, and when Grace exposed you, I couldn’t protect you from the brass.”  He stared at his feet.  “Demotion is a small price to pay for my sins.”  He finished his mug of cider.  “But I’m proud of you.”

“What?”  I must have misheard him.

“I wish Miss Gage was here, so I could say it to her, too.  I remember when she was just learning a Nudging defense.”  He laughed.  “I saw a bundle of fear and desperation and self-loathing, and wondered if I’d made the wrong choice.  But she struggled.  She fought.  And she proved me wrong.”

“Proved both of us wrong,” I said.  I thought she was just a psychotic body thief.

“Thanks for the drink.”  He turned his wheelchair around.

“But do you know anything about Ana and Hira and Jun?” I called out.  Will I ever see them again?  “What happened to my friends?”

Professor Brin looked back over his shoulder.  “It doesn’t get easier,” he said.  “But you do get used to it.”  His wheelchair pushed itself away.  “Chimera Squad is back in Alabaster Hall,” he said.  “Welcome back, Lord Ebbridge.”  He wheeled across the burnt grass, into the distance.

I glanced down at my frilly dress, at my long black hair.  Lord Ebbridge?

________________________________________

I burst through the front doors of Alabaster Hall, sprinted up the stairs past my mother and the soldiers and all the crates and papers of the cleanup operation.

Three figures sat on a couch in the hallway upstairs.  A square-jawed, muscular Shenti girl.  A wiry, tall platinum blonde with manicured nails, a blue eyepatch, and an impatient expression, leaning on the other girl’s shoulder.  Leizu and Eliya.

And a boy with dirty blonde hair, slouched over, with dark circles under his eyes.  Samuel Pakhem.

Eliya’s eyes widened as she saw me.  She jumped off the couch, raced forward, and threw her arms around me.  I hugged her back.

Leizu raced forward a second later, and joined the hug, squeezing both of us until my chest ached.  “Welcome back, Jitterbird.”

We stood there for a moment, embracing each other.  Breathing together.  We’d seen each other during the battle, and for a moment in the van after they’d rescued us.  But this was different.  We weren’t under fire, desperate.

And I’d returned.  Despite everything, I’d returned for good.

With their bodies pressed against mine, I could feel every inch of my new chassis.  The painful tightness of my dress.  The weight on my chest.  You’ll get used to it.

Then we broke off, and I looked at Samuel, as he stood up from the couch.  We made eye contact for a long time, neither of us moving, or speaking.  After a few seconds, Samuel avoided my gaze, wiping his sweaty hands on his pants.

“They never fucked,” said Eliya.

I turned to her.  “What?”  My bright, girlish voice still sounded foreign, too.

“Blondie, is this the best time?” said Leizu.

“Him and Tasia.  They didn’t kiss, either.  I never even saw them holding hands.  For the whole year, Samuel held onto his loneliness, and he stayed faithful.”  She glared at him.  “Though he developed something of a friendship with her.”

“Do you miss her?” I said.  “The girl who lived in this body.”

Samuel said nothing for a few seconds.  Then he nodded.  “Of course I miss her,” he said.  “But I missed you too.”

I’d missed him as well.  With an agonizing longing that I would never admit out loud.

Damn him, why does he still look so beautiful?  The sweep of his hair.  The sharpness of his jawline and the steady, deep tones of his voice.  The easy strength of his thick muscles.  I could stare at his face for hours.

I admired him for a minute, and just let his comfortable beauty wash over me.  Let it relax my shoulders, slow my tense breathing.  Lyna Wethers’ pretty face flashed into my mind, sallow and smirking and perfect, and my stomach wrenched.  Then I banished it, letting Samuel’s comfort drown out the agonizing memory.

Then I strode forward and kissed him.  His lips felt cold and wet against mine, and all the sensations seemed odd in this new chassis.

Then he kissed me back, and I let myself forget all of that.

I bathed in the sheer bliss for a moment.

Then we broke apart, and gazed at each other.  I let myself get lost in his adoring eyes.

I didn’t want to think about how he abandoned me, how he opened himself up to Tasia, my replacement.  I just wanted things to return to the old days. With Samuel, at least.

But it feels different.  Tainted.  I didn’t relax around Samuel, anymore.  I didn’t feel safe, the way I felt before.

Eliya and Leizu crowded around us, smiling.  Leizu punched both of our shoulders.  Happy at our reunion, his apology and my implied forgiveness.  Chimera Squad had returned.

I couldn’t tell anyone about the hole opening up in my chest.  I couldn’t ruin the fun, demolish some of my only intact relationships.  Ana and Hira had perished, most likely.  The Shenti had captured Jun.

This is all you have, now.  If Leizu, Eliya, and Samuel found me too much of a downer, I wouldn’t have any friends left.

Tears welled up at the edges of my eyes, unbidden.  I blinked, and wiped them away, but Samuel still caught notice.

“It’s alright, Nell,” he said, rubbing my shoulders.  “You’re home.  You’re home.”

I smiled at him, gazing at his perfect face through a film of tears.

________________________________________

I spent my first night back at Paragon.  In my old dorm room at Alabaster Hall, on the feather bed I’d missed for a year.

No makeshift cots on the upper levels here.  No command center.  No soldiers or dust or rubble or ashes.

Just the room.  The bright blue rug.  The old wooden desk and bookshelf.  The soft moonlight, shining through the window.  And a gramophone, complete with an album of Steel Violet’s greatest hits.  It looked the same as it did a year ago.

Here, for a moment, I could pretend that things were alright again, that life would be comfortable and stable and easy.

Samuel cuddled up next to me, his head pressed against my shoulder, a smile spread across his sleeping face.  Faint snores came out of his nose.  That helps, too.

At least, it should have.  But the summer air already made the covers feel too warm.  With Samuel’s body heat, the bed turned into a furnace.  My nightgown got coated with sweat, and I adjusted my position for what felt like hours, unable to fall asleep.

I couldn’t even toss and turn without waking Samuel up.  One of his arms had draped itself over me, locking me in place.

And on top of that, the new body felt uncomfortable.  New, like I was riding a bicycle for the first time.  All the proportions felt off, a new irritation that made it harder to relax.

In a decade, you’ll be just like me, my mother said.  In a decade, you’ll be just like me.

So, after hours of failing to fall asleep, I slid out of bed, letting Samuel’s arm fall on the warm depression on the mattress.  My damp nightgown stuck to my legs, and I stretched my neck, my body aching.

I glanced back at Samuel, straining my ears.  Still snoring.  And his chest rose and fell in slow, steady breaths.  He’s asleep, not pretending.

I slid my wardrobe door open, projecting into it so it didn’t make any noise.  I pushed past the dresses and skirts and school uniforms on the hangers, and pulled the fish leather briefcase I’d stuffed in the corner.  A black singe mark sat in the center, from where I’d used it as a shield to protect Ana from palefire.

Then, I unclasped it and pulled out the false bottom.  A precaution for my mother’s searches.  A temporary hiding place, until I could find a better one.

A flattened object popped back into three dimensions, no longer pressed down by the false bottom.  A suit.  A black slim fit, double-breasted with a peak lapel and cuffed pants, made with the finest Ilaquan wool.  One of the suits I’d stolen from Lyna Wethers’ yacht, almost a year ago.

I slid my nightgown off and tossed it in the corner of the closet.  Then, I pulled on the suit, as quiet as I could so I didn’t wake Samuel.  The material felt cool and rough against my skin, a refreshing sensation after the wave of heat, after all the stifling discomfort of my bed.  I buttoned up the jacket.

Then I added my white crane mask, pulling it over my eyes.  The one Samuel had bought me for the masquerade.  The only object from my old life that I’d taken into Queen Sulphur.

I stepped out the door, projecting into the hinges to keep them from creaking, and padded through the hallways, barefoot, on the balls of my feet.

Downstairs, in the common room, the makeshift command center had emptied, inactive during the night.  The soldiers had gone home for the day, or were sleeping elsewhere throughout the academy.  My mother had returned to the family mansion for the night.

I tiptoed to the corner of the room, pushed a crate of medicine aside, and knelt.  Then I twisted out a pair of screws, lifted some floorboards, and pulled a bottle of whiskey out of the hole.

Alabaster Hall’s hidden stash of liquor.  They didn’t confiscate it.  It had survived the last year, survived the battle and the posse of soldiers filling the room.  I clenched the bottle in my fist and strode out the front door, still barefoot.

The moons shone down in the night sky, full and bright.  Around me, the ruined Paragon Academy had turned dead silent.  Everyone had either fallen asleep, left, or been killed.  I stepped forward, and my bare feet padded over a layer of ash on the grass.

I gazed over the demolished buildings, the burnt-down banquet hall, the splintered bridges.  It’s never going to be the same.  Inside, I could pretend with Samuel, but one look out here shattered the illusion.

What are you doing here?  I needed to go to sleep, to regain my energy for the busy day ahead of me, all the trials my mother would put me through.  You need to be strong for the family.

I turned around, facing the red, triangular building of Alabaster Hall.  I stared at the front door, through the windows into the dark common room.

Then I turned left, and walked alongside the wall of the building, over a layer of ash and gravel towards the edge of the floating island.

Ahead of me, a narrow rocky ledge ran alongside Alabaster Hall, leading behind it.  I projected into my suit to steady myself, pressed my back against the wall, and crept forward.  Below me, thick grey clouds blocked out my view of the city, reflecting pale moonlight.

This body’s proportions felt unbalanced.  I’m too bloody top-heavy.  What a nuisance.  The suit felt light and gentle on me, but chaos reigned beneath my skin.  But with the help of projection, I made my way over the dark, bumpy rock without falling.

I wrapped around to the back of Alabaster Hall, and found myself at a grassy ledge, an outcropping of rock the size of a large rug.  A single pack of cigarettes leaned against the wall.

This is the place.  The place Ana had told me about, where she’d spent time with Tasia, and the boy, Kaplen Ingolf.  The first casualty of this half-baked civil war.  And now, they’re all gone.

I sat down at the edge, my feet dangling into the air with my smooth suit pants, still clutching my whiskey bottle.  Below me, the clouds had blown away, revealing the city beneath.  On normal nights, Elmidde looked like a carpet of fireflies, street lamps and houses and towers all glittering with bright lights, in Hightown and Lowtown, Midtown and Gestalt Island.

Tonight, darkness enveloped most of Mount Elwar.  Power outages from the battle.  Curfew.  The only lights I could see were from Hightown, with mansions like my mother’s aglow with yellow.  The smooth business roads near the cable car station had working street lamps, too.  They got the repairs fast.

The rest of Elmidde?  They had to make do with moonlight.

I glanced behind me, and floated the pack of cigarettes into my hand.  All of them had been smoked, except for one.

Damn, no lighter.  I pulled out the cigarette, held it in my fingers, and focused on making a fire at the tip.  My flame projection had always been terrible, and I hadn’t studied it at all in the last year.

Make a spark.  Just make a spark.  I strained my Pith, focusing on the cigarette in my fingers.  Green lightning flickered around my body, illuminating the darkness.  I fight half a war, and this is what exhausts me.  Figures.  Why was a single spark this difficult?

Then, the cigarette exploded in my hand.  A bright flash of light filled my vision, with a blast of stinging heat on my hand.

“Ow!”  I recoiled.  “Takonara.”  Scraps of tobacco and paper drifted away on the wind.  A bright red mark had been seared onto my palm.

I should be back in bed, getting a good night’s rest.  Not breaking my sobriety streak, or setting myself on fire.

I glanced at the whiskey bottle clenched in my fist, peeled off the label, and started folding it.  Hira’s not here to stop you anymore.  No one was here, anymore.  They’re all dead, or worse.  Ana, Hira, Jun.  All torn to shreds by this damn war.

And all those people in Paragon.  All those body bags.  Adam Lynde staring up at the sky with blank eyes.  Those Nudged servants, forced to stab the students, hijacked and deafened.  The stench of blood and smoke, filling the hallways of my adolescence.

How many more would die, in this war against the Shenti?

And you survived.  I got this name, this wealth and power.  This body.  Without deserving any of it.  All my new work ethic, all my struggles, and that fundamental fact hadn’t changed.  You don’t deserve any of it.  I wouldn’t be a better Guardian than Ana.  I didn’t have Tasia’s academic prowess, her lofty ideals.

I finished an origami crane from the whiskey label, a dark bird to match the pale one on my face.  

Then I unscrewed the bottle of whiskey, tossed the metal top over the edge, and lifted it to my lips.

I stopped, halfway there.  At this distance, I could smell the liquor, a sharp, comforting odor.  This is what I deserve.  A withered mind and the pain of addiction.

You have turned despair into a security blanket, said Jun in my head.  Caring, and then failing, has become so terrifying, that self-loathing is a comfort.  Like I said, a coward.

Write the next page, said Ana.

I projected into the whiskey bottle, floated it in front of me, and squeezed.

Cracks spiderwebbed all over the glass.  Then it imploded, shattering into a thousand pieces.  The dark brown liquor poured into the dark sky, out of sight, and the glass shards broke further, becoming a million glittering grains of sand.

I let go of them, and they drifted away on the breeze.

Then I leaned back, on my hands.  In the future, I might not have the willpower to do that again, not without Hira.

But for now, I would go thirsty.

Is this what it feels like?  To strive to become an Exemplar, to be the best possible version of yourself.

I chuckled to myself.  What the fuck does that even mean?  What was ‘best’?  What was ‘yourself’?

I gazed out over the city, over the dark, endless ocean.

A single orange dot shone on the water.  A tiny fire on the surface.  Miniscule, but still flickering.  Still alive.  Still fighting against the void.

Weston Ebbridge.

Tomorrow, I would be Lady Nell, the good daughter, the noble hero of Paragon.  Tomorrow, I would be Nell forever.  I would enjoy my new life, be grateful and humble and honest and hard-working and moral, in all the ways Ana would have wanted.

But here, for just a moment, I would be Weston.  Wes, for short.  I would indulge in the hedonic pleasure of that name, the great privilege.

I gazed down at the orange light on the water, and smiled.

Wes.  For the time being, it would do.

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7 thoughts on “13-B The Butterfly’s Dilemma

  1. Hi all! Big chapter today. Final chapter for this character, this volume. A fight scene and emotional turns. Wrapping things up, and setting stuff up for Volume 2. For a variety of reasons, this one went through a lot of edits. I am very tired. I am also rewriting parts of my Volume 2 Outline, and writing the thorny first chapter. I’m pleased with the results, but to reiterate. I am tired. Writing hard. I’m also in the process of rereading every chapter I’ve published, and am tentatively planning a retrospective of everything up to this point, where I go over my writing process, and where I think I succeeded/failed.

    Regardless, hope y’all enjoyed this chapter. Two more chapters in Volume 1. A side POV and one final Ana chapter. Then a break, before Volume 2. I continue to pray for the timely return of TopWebFiction, so that I can grow the audience of this serial and maybe make it a career. Lord knows my other one ain’t going nowhere. Thanks for reading!

  2. Been following Pith for a couple months now, very interesting to see how Wes/Nell ended up getting what they wanted, but maybe not what they needed. They’ve changed too much in the past year or so, and I’m proud of their growth.

    Very interested about the hints of body dysmorphia, if you can call it that.

  3. Hey, really great series you have written here – couldn’t stop reading it since I discovered it the past 2 days! Just wanted to point out that since Florence was experimented on by the Shenti to become body locked, she shouldn’t have been able to transfer out into a replacement body, right? Having her be a casualty would also be more realistic, I think – somewhat of a stretch that she and Brin both survived 2 encounters with Grace.

    • She doesn’t transfer out! Florence is capable of some Joining, which allows her to survive her wounds in the hospital, which weren’t inflicted with Voidsteel. Totally fair point on the realism, though. Thanks for reading!

      • Ah alright – think it might not have been clear from this sentence: “Her Joining saved her. Got her back to shore and **in a replacement body** in time. She’s in the hospital”. Thanks for the reply!

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