“Weston Brown,” the boy said, smiling. “Wes for short. I understand you’re in need of assistance.”
I looked at the card he’d given me.
Major Isaac Brin
The Scholar of Mass
Director | Principality Counterintelligence Division
Professor | Physics, Paragon Academy
A business card meant trust, usually. And they were near-impossible to counterfeit. Brin didn’t give me one. I bent it back and forth, and watched it curl back into shape, the crease vanishing.
But Brin hadn’t told me to expect anything like this. The card could be stolen, or faked by people with serious resources at their disposal. It was unlikely, but possible. My knife was in a hidden sheath tucked beneath my coat. I had no idea how to use it properly, or if I even felt capable of using it on another human being.
And if it came to a fight, one Nudge was enough to put me out of commission.
The boy didn’t wait for a response. “You’re Anabelle Gage, right? One of Professor Brin’s associates sent me to partner with you.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Was he probing for information, like that Paragon girl the night I’d stolen the body? Would answering him play right into his hands? I settled for a question that revealed almost nothing about me. “Do I know you?”
“Nope!” He shook his head. “But listen, I understand why you might be concerned or suspicious or whatever. So here’s my offer: Give me a job interview. Public place. You can ask all the questions. And you don’t have to trust a word I say until you verify with the big boss.”
I was silent. Was there any way this could be construed as a trap? Nothing came to mind.
He pointed behind him. “I’ll buy you a bowl of broth at the noodle bar down the street. Crispy Kingdom, or whatever.”
“That’s a convenience store.”
“The Shenti slums are only half a mile away,” The boy – Wes – looked exasperated. “We’ll find a noodle bar somewhere. You’re eating canned lentils, you must be fucking desperate for some real food.”
Free food was free food. I nodded, failing to find any reasons why this was a bad idea.
Ten minutes later, we were in a private booth at a Neke-style noodle bar in the industrial district. The place was nearly empty, and our booth had a curtain. I sipped a bowl of pork ramen, not mentioning that it tasted like cardboard to me.
Wes tilted his bowl back and poured the broth into his mouth. He dabbed his mouth with a napkin, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “Salty. So salty. Why did I expect better?” he muttered, and reached for his bottle of beer, downing half of it in a few gulps.
I didn’t say anything, but it was his fifth one of the night. His face was already turning red.
“You going to say something, Illusion girl?” He rubbed his bruised neck. “Ask me a job interview question. Want to know my greatest weaknesses? Or where I see myself in five years? Or we could waste a few minutes on small talk.”
He knows my Vocation?
“Stop looking so surprised,” he said with a full mouth of beer. “Your body language is very easy to read. Bad habit. You should work on that. Anyway, like I said, I’m with Major Brin.” He swallowed. “Go on, ask me something. Interview me.”
I forced my hands to stop shaking. “Um,” I said. “Who are you, exactly?”
“Oh, right,” said Wes. “Should probably lead with that. I’m from the Northern Colonies. Got taught projection from some Shenti ex-priests, but got rejected by Paragon. Got by with odd jobs, that sort of thing.”
He’s like me. How many projectors in the Principality were Paragon rejects? Most of them were beginners, no doubt, but not all.
“Been trying to steal from the mob and Commonplace. Worthy targets, right? Make a little dough while still performing my civic duty. Brin’s guy – gal, actually – caught me and offered me this gig, said you were a total beginner who needed me. Because of my veteran expertise and all.” He grabbed his soup bowl and knocked his beer over, spilling it all over his lap.
“Alright,” I said. That was something I could ask him about. “What expertise?”
A thick wad of napkins dislodged themselves from the table’s dispenser, soaking up the bubbly stains on Wes’ pants. One of them floated in the air, and a second one sliced through it, cutting it in half. A dozen more napkins folded themselves into paper cranes, and flapped around my head before exploding into confetti.
Wes raised his hand, and all the remaining napkins soared in front of him, arranging themselves side by side to form a wall between us, blocking my vision. Then, at the same time, all of them crumpled into balls, raining down on the table between us. Several of them landed on my soup, sinking in.
“Oh, sorry about that,” he said. The dripping paper lifted out of my bowl and plopped onto the table. “But you get the idea, right?”
“Your Vocation is paper control. With a lot of precision control and area of effect.”
He shook his head. “Not my Vocation. Just a technique I’m good at. Not great at multitasking, but if there’s a unified pattern I can make them all do something at the same time. Like crumple or fold into paper cranes or slice up some prick’s asshole. Or some asshole’s prick.”
I thought about it. He could attack someone from all sides, block their vision and hit vulnerable areas without any opportunity to defend. “That’s very strong.”
“Thank you!” he said, smiling. “Most people who see it for the first time always says it’s weak, or stupid, or ridiculous. Usually right before I give them a fuckload of paper cuts.”
“What about your Vocation?”
Wes pushed the napkin dispenser in front of him, and pressed his hands together. The metal box flickered with green lighting. He was a Physical Specialist, then, judging by the color of his Pith. The box squished together, flattening into two dimensions. He pulled his hands apart, and the dispenser snapped back to its normal shape.
I leaned in. “That’s remarkable. You can – “
“Fold the dimensions of small objects, temporarily, with almost no expansion force. Looks impressive, but practically it’s useless. Pretty much the opposite of my paper projection.”
He counted off items on his fingers, two of which were wrapped in makeshift splints. “I can do mid-level physical projection, nudging, basic sleep, and martial arts.” He beamed. “I’m also great at drinking games, and moderately subpar at tap dancing.”
“Right,” I said. He sure talks a lot. But it was hard to tell how much whaleshit he was throwing at me.
“What’s the issue?” he said, leaning in. “Still don’t think I can cut it?”
“I – “
“I know,” he said, grinning. “How about a bet? We fight, right here, right now, outside in an alley somewhere. You use your illusions, and I’ll use my projection. If I win, then you hire me – ”
“If you win – “ he stopped, frowning. “Wait, why not?”
I don’t want you to know how weak I am. “That’s not how I do things.” Not that I’d ever given a job interview before. Just failed at them.
“Alright, alright, fine,” he said. “Then answer this: What do you plan on doing once your enemies get familiar with your Vocation? When they figure out you have a range limit to your illusions, that you can’t affect a person’s sense of touch or their projection sense?”
I was silent.
“It’s a good Vocation, don’t get me wrong. Maybe great, if you can get creative. But when you lose the element of surprise, it’s just a gimmick. Look back to your body heist a week ago. If those two Paragon students knew about your technique, they’d have wiped the floor with you. That trick isn’t going to work on everyone.”
Much as I hated to admit it, he had a point.
“You need variety. Range. Offensive power.” Wes leaned in towards me, his foot tapping against the floor. “I can give you all that and more. Cutting your share in half won’t make much difference when we’re taking in bounties ten times as big.”
“Why are you doing this?”
He shrugged and massaged his bruised neck. “Gotta pay rent somehow.” He stared at his soup, wrinkling his nose. “If we beat up enough mobsters, maybe Brin’ll pay us enough for a decent fucking meal.”
“But – “ I stopped myself. “Why work with me?”
For the first time in our entire meeting, he paused to think. “You’re clumsy. Unrefined. And your breath smells like stale beans. But…”
I breathed through my nose, looking away from him. Your breath smells like beer.
“But you beat two Paragon students. That takes a certain vicious aptitude.” He beamed. “That, and I enjoy gambling.”
I slurped up a mouthful of noodles and chewed, using the action as an excuse to not talk.
“Well?” he said. “Yes? No? Are we doing this?”
We’ve known each other for less than half an hour. Not that there was any established hiring process for illegal mercenaries. I wanted to take the time to mull over my options, weigh the pros and cons of partnering with this strange forward boy. But time was short.
“How about this?” said Wes, no doubt sensing my hesitation. “Check with Brin. He’ll verify everything I’ve said. Then do your first job with me. Just one. If you like what you see, bring me on for a second one. If I fuck it up, throw me out. I’ll find some way to get by. I’ll scam tourists at the ferry terminal, or become a high-priced escort for emotionally starved trophy wives.”
He extended his hand towards me. I hesitated. He’s pushing really hard.
“But I won’t fuck it up.” He grinned.
Let’s hope I don’t regret this. I grasped his hand and shook it. “I’m going to check with Brin first.”
Wes stood up. “Marvelous.” He moved towards the curtain. “We’re going to conquer this city together, Anabelle Gage.”
“Trust me. I know what I’m doing.” He stopped. “Unrelated question, do you know where the nearest homeless shelter is? Or anywhere with working toilets and a bed, honestly.” He pulled wads of crumpled cash from his pockets, counting it. “Something I can afford on one, ten, thirty – fifty-seven pounds.”
“You said you’d pay for lunch.”
Wes glanced at the bill at the edge of the table. “Something I can afford on thirty-four pounds. Some lowtown motel, perhaps, for a few weeks.”
He thinks thirty-four pounds will last him a few weeks. Clearly, he wasn’t from around here. “Homeless shelter is on…Cadwell Street and Silver, I think. Northeastish.” Months ago, after Clementine threatened to fire me for the third time in a week, I’d stayed up all night and researched all of the shelters in lowtown.
“You could get one night at a cheap capsule hotel with that. That’s about it.”
Wes paced back and forth, muttering to himself under his breath. “Get extra funds? No, no time. Shelters full of disease, violence, poor hygiene. Public parks? No, police kick homeless out by nightfall. Perhaps – “
I sighed. “If you want to stay a few nights in my storage unit, you can.”
His eyes lit up. “Really?”
He already knows where I live. And I wasn’t storing anything in there besides my toiletries and canned beans. “It’s not big. And you’ll have to get your own bedding. But yes. It’ll be warmer than the streets.”
Wes nodded, his chin bobbing up and down as he slapped a pair of ten-pound bills on the check. “Yes, yes, that should work. I suppose I’ll have to stage a heist on a mattress store. Or pick some newspapers off the street. Whichever is easier.” He leaned out of the booth, looking at a clock on the wall. “Well, I must be off. Time is an impatient little shit. You’ll be at the place this evening, right?”
I nodded. Not like I have anywhere else to go.
“Buzz me in.” He pushed through the curtains.
“One more question,” I said. “Are you familiar with the concept of The Empty Book?” Maybe if someone else explained it, I could unlock whatever was missing in my projection.
Wes raised an eyebrow, confused. “What, is that some sort of riddle? No, never heard of it.”
“Never mind. See you tonight.”
He gave me a thumbs up. “You won’t regret this. I know what I’m doing.” And then he was gone, speed-walking to the front door.
The more he says that, the less I believe him.
Later that evening, I went to one of the local libraries. I had already studied the Major’s materials until my head hurt. I needed something new, and had different problems now.
The card Brin had given me would work on any branch in the Principality, all of which were ranked below Paragon’s. Low-level branches wouldn’t have any Vocation codices, but since the public exposure of projection, they carried plenty of useful texts.
I grabbed every book I could find on mental projection, nudging, and pneumatology, adding in the suite of guides I’d used to study for Paragon’s entrance exam. When I left, my arms were straining under the weight of a tall stack of hardcovers.
It was a lot to go through, but as an assistant, I was only at Paragon three days a week. Until I got my first mission, I’d have a lot of free time on my hands.
I spent the rest of the evening devouring a tome on the history of mental projection. When Wes rang the buzzer, I handed him the key to my storage unit. Somehow, the boy had procured a huge pile of blankets, which he lugged into his tiny room, draping it across the concrete floors. He’d wrinkled his nose and called the place “hideous”, but had also muttered some words of gratitude.
I still wasn’t sure what to make of him.
I went to sleep early, folding my school uniform tomorrow and taking it into my pod. With no alarm clock, I couldn’t risk being late to the first day of classes.
The next morning, I leapt out of bed with more than two hours to spare, wide awake and light on my toes. Despite everything that had happened this week, I was going to Paragon Academy. Training at the foot of the best Guardians in the Principality, experiencing the vivid wonders of projection, meeting interesting and brilliant minds. Learning how to defend the people of my nation.
Being a Grey Coat was only a fraction of my dream, but even a fraction was enough to send shivers down my spine.
And if I did things right, I wouldn’t need to fight for Brin anymore. I could be a real student. A real Guardian in training.
I poured half a can of lentils into my mouth and slid on my uniform, careful to not crease or wrinkle it. The grey pants and button-up tunic reminded me of my hair and the bulging veins crisscrossing my skin, but still looked more expensive than anything I’d ever worn.
In the bathroom, I ran my fingers through my hair, combing the bird’s nest of grey strands. It was still a mess, but it was the best I could do on my budget. Clementine hadn’t exactly given me a clean haircut, and I wasn’t about to dig into my savings to pay for a visit to the barber.
And then I was out of the door, headed for the tram that would take me up the mountain. When I stepped into the vehicle, I made my way to the front balcony, leaning over the edge as the machine climbed uphill on its metal rail. The morning air was sharp, brisk, turning my breath to fog in front of me.
High above the peak of Mount Elwar, a thick cloud of fog was gathered around Paragon, blocking it from view. Whether it was natural, or from projection, I couldn’t tell. The line on the cable car extended into it, the upper half hidden behind the mist.
The sky itself was grey, overcast, blocking out the sun. As the tram entered Hightown, the sloped roads got smoother, and the houses got larger, until we were passing entire mansions, walled off by tall iron fences and surrounded by lush gardens. The Kesteven Building, the tallest structure in the Principality, rose above the rest, a skyscraper of glass and steel.
As we grew closer to the cable car station, boys and girls walked past us on the street, wearing Paragon’s navy blue uniform. There were just one or two at first, but they became more frequent as we got closer, clogging up the streets. Brilliant minds hailing from dozens of different neighborhoods around Elmidde. All going in the same direction.
Finally, two blocks away, the tram stopped, at the end of the line. The road continued past the buildings, winding into a dense green forest surrounding the peak of Mount Elwar.
I stepped off and joined the river of people, striding into the trees.
At the end of the road, a vast crowd of students had gathered in front of the station, packed shoulder to shoulder in an ocean of dark blue, surrounded by a wall of green. Among them were a gaggle of reporters, stretching cameras over the throng to take photos and scribbling on notepads, pulling random people aside to ask questions.
At the edge of the mob, even more people were gathered, not dressed in any sort of uniform. Men, women, and older teenagers, all staring at the huge oak doors of the building, each at least thirty feet tall. Paragon fans. Here to watch the festivities, or catch a glimpse of projection in action. I had done the same thing after failing the entrance exam two years ago, as a motivator.
The building itself was massive, surrounded by pale marble columns. The Principality’s flag was painted across the front wall: a white fist clutching a scroll on a dark blue field.
Guards were everywhere. At the edge of the crowd in suits, perched on rooftops with scoped rifles, packed into police vans in alleyways. Many more than previous years. Commonplace is stepping up their attacks.
They weren’t letting anyone on yet, but the throng was still gathering out there. No sense in waiting here. I stepped off the trolley, walking towards the crowd of students.
Almost everyone was already in tight circles, chatting with each other. It was hard to make out any individual voice, but they all were fast. Excited. All making new friends. About to embark on a great adventure, the experience they’d spent years striving for.
It wasn’t until then that I realized my uniform was a different color than theirs. An assistant, not a student. I was a grey spot on an endless plain of navy blue. A silent figure surrounded by noise. So far, at least, I was the only assistant there.
Stop brooding and talk to someone, idiot.
But I couldn’t exactly force my way into a conversation. It seemed everyone had already formed groups. I could be using this time better. Reviewing the fake ID papers Brin had given me. And cracking open his damn lesson, so I could figure out how to un-Nudge myself.
I needed to remember my deeper pitch and altered resonance, too, working against the voice training I’d put myself through the past few years. The more masculine I sounded, the less questions I’d have to face.
I waited for what felt like hours, as the crowd of students, fans, and journalists grew behind me, more than I could count. While I was muttering a bit of fake backstory under my breath, a deep boom echoed from within the building, and the giant wood doors cracked open. Students and bystanders backed up to make room.
A single man stood in the antechamber, tall and broad-shouldered, sporting a thick brown beard and thicker biceps that were barely contained by his suit jacket. Though he looked not a second older than thirty-five, I knew he had just turned ninety-two.
It was easy to recognize him from the papers. Brigadier General Sebastian Oakes. The Obsidian Foil. The Scholar of Strength. One of the greatest Guardians alive. His signature weapons were slung across his back: two rapiers, razor-thin and pitch-black, hardened and made flexible by his Vocation. He’s ready for a fight too.
His perfect face broke out into a wide smile, and all of us burst into applause.
He spread his arms wide. His words boomed throughout the entire street, louder than any natural human voice. “Welcome, first-years! Today, your conquest begins!” Behind him, a series of walkways and stairs extended to higher floors, all bristling with soldiers. “Upperclassmen are moved in already. Today, you will join them!”
Between platforms, over two dozen cable cars were sitting in the station at once, all at the ready. Among them, I caught a glimpse of several Guardian uniforms, but no faces I recognized.
“Students may enter! Travel within the green sections painted on the floor, and form lines once you have entered the building! All twenty-three cable cars will be leaving the station within the hour! May you strive to become an Exemplar!”
The crowd of students pressed forward through the doors, flowing around Oakes, organizing into a line. The Obsidian Foil rose into the air, floating above the mass of people. I followed the others, pressing forward in the packed crowd towards the vast doors of the station.
I stepped inside, underneath Oakes, making my way along the painted green pathway to the nearest metal staircase.
“Grey coat! Boy! Stop!” A guard shouted at me from my right. I stopped. “Over here!”
I pushed away from the current, out of the line. The guard glared at me, hefting a submachine gun. “Students first, idiot. Assistants and other support staff board afterwards.”
Nobody told me. When I’d spectated previous opening days, I’d never paid attention to the people in grey. I looked at my feet, my voice quiet. “I’m sorry, sir.”
He rolled his eyes and pointed to an open space next to the door, taking a puff of a cigarette. “Wait there.” His voice was impatient. “Don’t move.”
I plodded to his designated spot, slouching. It seemed Grey Coats really were second class here. I could be here for a while. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to use the bathroom before leaving.
Students in dark blue uniforms streamed through the doors, filling the walkways and stepping onto cable cars. One after another, they ascended up the diagonal cable into the fog surrounding Paragon, until there were only a handful left.
I passed the time in my imagination, picturing myself in Paragon, as a full student, in one of the common rooms. Sipping that mulled cider with a friend and protecting the people of this nation. You’ll get there.
It felt like another hour before a guard strode to the doorstep, shouting out to the crowds. “Assistants and licensed support staff may now board! Everyone else, go home.”
An assortment of people came through the doors. A handful of maids, servants, and a trio of men in hard hats. And maybe four dozen assistants, all dressed in grey coats like me. I joined them, stepping back on the pathway and clanging up two flights of metal stairs.
We boarded the last cable car on the platform, a huge metal box encircled by four transparent walls. A guard lined us up on the platform, carrying a clipboard. For every assistant or servant, he had a short conversation with them under his breath, consulted his clipboard, and waved them on.
I was one of the last ones. When he got to me, he looked at me with disapproval, no doubt uncomfortable from my veins and discolored hair. “Name?”
Anabelle Gage. “Ernest Chapman.” I showed him my library card, putting on my best masculine voice. “ID 768277315K.” My ID number, another tool to ward off imposters.
“What was your favorite food when you were a kid?” His voice was soft, so the others couldn’t hear.
“Bread pudding.” An outright lie from Brin’s fake papers. I hated the doughy stuff.
The security guard passed his hand over my face. “Brace for micro memory-wipe.”
I felt my recollection of the last ten seconds slip, then fade away in a burst of light-headedness. I knew he had asked me a security question about my fabricated past, but couldn’t picture exactly what it was. Another tool to protect me from identity theft. Banks in Elmidde used the same procedure, along with a subconscious key.
He checked off a box on his clipboard. “Welcome to Paragon Academy, Mr. Chapman.”
I stepped into the cable car, sitting on a chair and pressing my face against the glass wall at the front. Minutes later, the door shut, and the floor jerked below me. We were moving.
This was my dream, the vision I’d strived after the past eight years of my life. But how watered-down? How twisted?
Time to find out.
Smooth as silk, the cable car glided up into the clouds.