Rowyna had to be here. She didn’t really have a choice.
The Epistocrats at the art gallery acted stiff and distant to her, and it had been a long day. She’d rather curl up with a good book in her dorm, or have a quiet game night with the other Paragon students.
But, these were some of the most powerful, influential people in the Principality, and Rowyna needed to network.
The girl across the way had made an overnight fortune in the stock market. The boy to her left had developed a new microscope model over his winter break. And the boy next to him had more music awards than fingers. And those were just the first Paragon students she glanced at. The students.
The standards were high – impossibly high. If Rowyna wanted to stand out, find success, she had to take little steps like this, pushing past her limits to build her connections. Lose an hour of sleep here. Cancel something fun there. Fill up this chunk of free time. She needed to prove, beyond denial, she was better than the competition.
In the long term, it would add up. For now, her legs were sore.
The art was pretty, though.
They depicted all sorts of uncanny, ethereal scenes. Landscapes of endless waves. Infinite triangles within triangles, an eternal fractal that got as small as the eye could see. Ancient men and women reaching towards a starry sky as water rose over their shoulders. The Great Scholars, perhaps.
And from this gallery in Paragon, Rowyna could gaze out one of the windows and see the entire city glowing beneath her. If she looked out another one, she could watch the sunset over the ocean, staining the clouds pink and orange.
Epistocrats milled around Rowyna, in suits and dresses and designer bodies, whispering and making comments on the gallery. She overheard one circle chattering about the painting in the corner of the room, a work from the anonymous street artist Kashaf Ram. I need a fresh opinion to stand out there.
So she strode to the corner, and pondered the art.
Of all the pieces in the exhibition, this might be the only one that disturbed her.
It depicted a woman in a dark maroon dress, singing as though she were in some sort of opera. She stood on top of a massive crashing wave, stretching from the top to the bottom of the painting, a tsunami of epic proportions beneath a carpet of stars.
It rushed towards a city full of people, but none of them were running, or hiding. They were smiling, standing in front of the oncoming wave, tears running down their faces.
The painting had no description, and no title. Kashaf Ram has a twisted sense of style. But she needed something more insightful than that.
Is it depicting a fictional scenario? Some theory as to what happened in the past? What is the wave supposed to represent, when –
“It’s all whaleshit, you know.” A girl’s voice echoed from behind her.
More interruptions. Rowyna turned behind her again. A girl with a vaguely eastern look strode towards her, hands in her suit pockets.
“Excuse me?” Rowyna said.
The girl patted down her tangled black hair. “It’s all a scam. The galleries pick a bunch of random fucks to designate as ‘artists’, inflate the prices, then sell it off to oligarchs to fill their pockets.”
Rowyna smirked. “I think the Epistocrats here are a little smarter than that.”
“They’re in on it!” the girl said. “They can use it to hide their money. Write off taxes or avoid them entirely. At best it’s a bunch of nonsense so they can prove they’re richer than all the other squidfuckers. All the dinner and flowers and prestige is just to make it look dignified.”
Rowyna folded her arms. “So you don’t think it has anything to do with beauty? Or talent?”
“This – “ The girl gestured at the caterers, the view of the city, the walls filled with art and the live band playing soft classical music. “Is just rich assholes justifying their power. Half of high culture is rich assholes justifying their power.”
“Not everyone is just out for themselves, you know.” Rowyna raised her voice.
“Not everyone.” The girl nodded. “Just these people.”
Rowyna’s face grew warm. The girl would dismiss the great plays and symphonies of history, the novels that had shaped the world, the sculptors who shaped the very ground they walked upon. Such rudeness.
“Just who are you, exactly?” said Rowyna. I don’t want to have to talk to this bitch ever again.
The girl handed her a dark blue and purple business card.
Second-Year | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273
“I’m your new squadmate,” Grace said, extending her hand.
Oh scholars, please no. Rowyna raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around classes before.”
Grace shrugged. “I was a Grey Coat the last two semesters.” She pointed at Rowyna. “You’re passionate. I like that. For all the wonders we get to uncover here, not many people seem thrilled about them.” She snapped her fingers, creating a puff of smoke.
“What are you doing?” hissed Rowyna. “There are Humdrum caterers here.”
“Sorry,” said Grace, waving the smoke away. “What I’m trying to say is: it’s nice to meet you. You seem better than most of this lot.”
“It’s been a long, hard climb to get to this level,” said Rowyna. “But we all deserve it.” Disagreeing with Grace and complimenting her at the same time.
“How did you get here?” said Grace. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
Rowyna mulled over the question.
How am I still here? Kurayo wondered.
It just didn’t seem fair. Jonathan Hosmer down the street got to attend the college of his dreams, all because his great-uncle had made a fortune off some soda company. Meanwhile, Kurayo was stuck in this mediocre seaside leech of a town, that would suck the life out of her until she became as boring as the baker.
All because she hadn’t checked the mail. Because her mother had gotten to it first.
Kurayo’s mother shook the packet in her face. “You applied to Elmidde University?”
If Kurayo had gotten to the front door first, before her mother went through the mail, she could have kept this hidden. But she hadn’t expected the letter to arrive this fast. Now, she –
“Look at me when I talk to you!” her mother shouted. “Show your parents that much respect, at least.”
“You promised us,” her father said, his voice measured. “That you wouldn’t apply.”
“You locked me in my room,” Kurayo said. Keep your voice calm. “You wouldn’t let me out until I agreed.”
“You manipulated us,” her mother said, pouring hot tea into a cup. “How could we have raised such a deceitful child?”
“You said I was a moron yesterday,” said Kurayo. “Which is it? Am I a deceitful genius, or a moron?”
In response, her mother took Kurayo’s bowl off the table and scraped the rice and salmon into the trash. The metal spoon screeched on the porcelain, making Kurayo wince. Other kids at her school got eggs and bacon. She had to settle for fish, the kind that made students wrinkle their noses at her lunch.
“You’re just proving my point,” her mother said. “Scholars, I love you, but you can be both short-sighted and cunning.” She filled the teapot up with boiling water. “Now, do you think you deserve to sleep in the house we bought? On the bed your father built with his blood and sweat?”
Kurayo stared at her empty bowl. Stay calm. When she cried, they called her hysterical. So she drained the emotions out of her face, turning it into a stone mask.
“I think everyone deserves a bed to sleep in,” said Kurayo. “And the chance to build their own life in the world.”
But her calm tone and rational arguments were futile. She was standing up to them, and that was enough to damn her.
“Come on,” her father said, placing a hand on her chair. “Let’s go.”
Kurayo could resist, but they had other ways to punish her, and she had no legal recourse. Her parents never hit her, so nobody in town gave a shit. Never mind that she’d gotten sick when they starved her, caught cold when they made her sleep outside. Unless she came to them covered in bruises, the police would just laugh at her and her quirky foreign parents.
So she went with them, walking through the front door and out onto the lawn.
The worst part was, she didn’t even deserve it. Kurayo was a good kid. She got exceptional grades, stayed out of trouble, hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol like other teenagers. She had even joined her school’s science club to study physics and chemistry in her spare time.
They should have been proud of her. But they loathed her. And she had no idea why.
“In a few decades,” her mother said. “You’re going to grow old, and your skin is going to sag, and your naive dreams are going to fade away. Then, you’ll stop thinking of yourself as the next Great Scholar. Then, you’ll understand how this world works.”
Still holding the teapot in one hand, her mother ripped open the packet, reading the content inside. A smile spread across her face.
“Looks like this conversation is moot,” she said. “You’re not going to Elmidde University either way.”
No. That couldn’t be right. Admissions were competitive, but Kurayo had gone above and beyond with her application.
Her mother held the letter in her face. A rejection. Clear and inarguable. Elmidde University had rejected her. No, no, no.
“You’re mediocre,” Kurayo said, the words spilling out of her mouth.
I should stop talking. “You’re miserable and mediocre, and you never made money in the Principality because you’re not talented enough. And Dad wanted to be a painter in the Floating City. He married you and immigrated here because he failed at his dreams too.” She clenched her fists. “I won’t let you drag me down with you.”
Her mother said nothing, her face twitching.
Then she threw the teapot at Kurayo.
Time seemed to slow. “No!” Kurayo reached forward, holding her hands in front of her face as she snapped her eyes shut.
Unbidden, all the physics of motion she’d studied ran through her head, all the chemistry. She reached.
The teapot never hit her. And there was no sound of shattering porcelain, no splash of hot liquid on the concrete.
When Kurayo opened her eyes, the teapot was hovering in midair. The tea splashing out of it was frozen in time, too.
Her parents gaped at it, whether in awe or horror, she wasn’t sure. She stared with them, feeling dizzy.
Then she blinked, and the teapot fell to the ground, shattering on the stone pathway through their lawn. The tea splattered on the grass.
Her parents looked at her with a new disgust. Whatever Kurayo had just done, it was more frightening and immoral than the rest of her transgressions put together.
Wordless, her mother stalked towards her, clenching both fists.
And then, two steps away from Kurayo, she stopped. Her angry expression melted, into a blank, vacant stare. She blinked, and beamed at her daughter.
“Come inside, dear,” she said. “We’re just about to have breakfast.”
“Yes, dear,” her father said, with the same smile. “It’s grilled salmon with rice, just the way you like it.”
They strode back to the door, beckoning her in. What’s going on? Her parents never acted like this.
Normally, after something like this, Kurayo would run away, to hide in the local library or at the back of some cafe. But despite everything, her instincts were telling her there was no danger here.
So she followed her parents back in.
When she came inside, an elderly man was sitting at the table.
She blinked. No, not an elderly man. A middle-aged man with a long black beard and a patient smile. He just seemed old in his bearing, wearing what was either a monk’s clothes, or a bathrobe.
“Who are you?” said Kurayo. She’d never seen this man before.
The stranger tipped his hat to her. “In a moment. But first, if you please, I would love to take part in this scrumptious feast.”
Her parents smiled when they saw him, as if he was an old friend. “Tea?” her mother said. “How do you like your fish?”
“Black and crispy.” The man tucked his napkin into his collar. “But anything would be lovely, Mrs. Norrys.”
“And you, Kurayo dear?”
Kurayo blinked. Her mother never called her ‘dear’, and never used a tone that sweet. “Um. The same, I guess.”
A few minutes later, her mother placed a hot bowl of food in front of her, like she hadn’t just thrown one away in a fit of rage.
“Eat,” said the stranger through a mouthful of rice. “Thish ish amazing.”
Kurayo nibbled a piece of fish, keeping her eye on the man.
“They never would have let you go, child,” said the man.
“No matter what you said to them, no matter what you did to please them, they would have kept you locked up here for the rest of your life.”
Kurayo’s mother poured her a fresh cup of tea, still beaming.
“How do you know all that?”
“Your parents are afraid of your gifts.” The man took a sip of tea. “Your intellect and hunger that outstripped theirs many years ago. They are furious at the thought that their child might surpass them, might live a life that eclipses their strangest dreams.” He handed his empty bowl to her father, murmuring thanks. “They have been through pain, but they are unkind. Even for Humdrums.”
Humdrums? “Is this about what I did to the teapot?”
The man nodded.
“Who are you?” she asked again.
“I’m the reason you didn’t get into Elmidde University,” he said. “You’re an exemplary student. You were near the top of their list, but I made them reject you.”
The anger bubbled up in Kurayo again, and her throat clenched. “Why?” she said.
“It was ill-suited,” he said. “For your talent.”
“It’s the best school in the country,” she said, through gritted teeth.
The man chuckled at that, a warm, light sound that made Kurayo feel at ease.
“What’s so funny?”
The man leaned forward. “My name is Nicholas Tau,” he said. “Headmaster of Paragon Academy. How would you like to find a real home?”
“There are four schools of projection,” said Headmaster Tau, floating cross-legged above the water. “Physical projection is concrete and external. It modifies the physical world around you.” A green orb of light appeared in his palm. “The nation of Neke excels at this school. To balance it, you must learn humility.”
I don’t want to talk about Neke. Kurayo had left all that behind.
“Like when I stopped the teapot,” she said, sitting on a boat next to him.
He nodded. “Joining projection is concrete and internal. It modifies the physical world inside you – your body.” He held a rock in his other hand and squeezed, crushing it into pebbles. The orb of light turned red. “The Shenti are known for this school. To balance it, you must practice discipline.”
Kurayo nodded, clenching her fist and staring at her light brown skin. Not sure if that’s the school for me.
“Praxis projection is mental and internal. It modifies your own Pith – your mind.” The orb turned purple. “Our colony Ilaqua, and its religion, the Harmonious Flock, are most adept at this school. To balance it, you must have empathy.”
That leaves out my parents, then.
“Whisper projection is mental and external. It modifies the Piths of others. The Principality was best known for this, but in recent decades, we’ve improved in the other schools as well.” The orb turned blue. “Your Pith was blue, which means you’re a Whisper Specialist, with a Whisper Vocation, even if you don’t know it yet. To balance it, you must practice ambition.”
“Why?” said Kurayo. “What does ambition have to do with mind control?”
“Whisper Specialists often feel incomplete,” said Tau. “They escape into their dreams, or the minds of others, minimizing their own identity in the process. This often helps power their Vocations. To balance this, you need to have a strong sense of individuality, and a goal to hold it together. Without those, you risk losing yourself.”
Kurayo closed her eyes. Individuality. A goal. Simple enough, right?
“That’s what Paragon is all about, isn’t it? Forge the Stars in Your Image.”
“Yes,” he said. “Not everyone can forge the stars in their image, reach the highest levels of the library. But the ones who can?” He smiled. “They can create beauty beyond our strangest imagination.”
Kurayo would train for at least another year, before attempting her first great challenge. It would be strenuous, far more difficult than anything at Elmidde University. But through it all, she would make sure to hold onto those words.
It was the crack of dawn. Kurayo was to enter the most important challenge of her life. A battle with no holds barred, a final exam to determine her future against an opponent stronger than any she’d faced before.
And her enemy was an hour late.
Kurayo paced back and forth on the dewy lawn, making the occasional glance up towards the wooden platform where the ceremony was to take place. Her enemy’s Epistocrat parents sat off to the side, next to Headmaster Tau, the only witnesses attending.
Tau made eye contact with her, and they smiled at each other. His training over the last two years had been patient, but thorough. Still, she was shaking from the anticipation. Or was that the cold?
Kurayo had no choice – it was this, or let herself be crushed under student debt at Paragon, with far weaker opportunities for advancement. But still, she felt guilty, at ripping someone out of their life like this.
The feeling wouldn’t last long.
Rowyna Branigen, Kurayo’s opponent, emerged from the fog, wearing a Maxine Clive, an expensive designer chassis. Her blonde hair was a tousled mess, and her eyes twitched back and forth, bloodshot, a telltale sign of recent nudge powder use. She’s high for her own Ousting.
“Apologies,” Rowyna said, floating herself onto the platform. “My assistant forgot to wake me up. When this is over, I’ll go shopping for one of the five servants in this city who isn’t a book-burning idiot.”
Kurayo climbed on top of the stage, and Rowyna strode towards her, muttering in her ear. Does anyone care how illegal this is? “Eighty thousand pounds,” she whispered.
Kurayo said nothing.
“I hired someone to do some digging, Kurayo Shrivatsa, and I know that’s more money than you’ve seen in your life. All you have to do is…”
Throw the match.
“You’ve only been training for a few years. You’re not even from here. I’ve been training my whole life. My parents have tried Ousting me several times before, on all sorts of whaleshit charges. I showed up to them even more groggy and shitfaced than I am now, facing girls with more experience than you, with more anger on their faces.” She leaned close and whispered in Kurayo’s ear. “I beat all of them. I’m not going to lose to some island rat.”
Kurayo had beaten Rowyna on the written tests, but only barely. And according to Tau, the other candidates had gotten this far too.
“Even if you did win,” said Rowyna, still quiet. “You don’t want my name. To you, this world is still brimming with magic and wonder.” She shook her head. “This world is empty. You might have been the most clever rat in some Nekean backwater, but here, there are thousands smarter than you. More special than you, with a grander destiny. When you realize that, deep down, you’ll get how this world works.”
Then, Kurayo understood her enemy.
Rowyna was mediocre. Like Kurayo’s parents, she aspired to nothing, stewed in envy, and resented those who reached higher than rock bottom. She wanted to prove that the whole world was as miserable and uninspired as she was.
That’s why, despite Rowyna’s obvious talent and intellect, she’d done nothing with her life. Had failed enough to get herself in this position. As long as she could feel superior to someone, she’d be satisfied.
This family, this country deserved better than her. That Maxine Clive body deserved to be worn by someone who would treat it right, not rot it with alcoholism.
No one would ever follow Kurayo Shrivatsa into battle. A name like that was doomed to mediocrity. But they would follow Rowyna Branigen. They will follow me.
Rowyna’s mother gave the standard ceremonial speech, and the explanation of the rules. “ – the first to touch the ground beneath the platform will be considered the loser. May you strive to become an Exemplar. First combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”
“Yes,” said Rowyna.
“Second combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”
Kurayo said her first and only words to her opponent. “Do you want to know who trained me?”
Kurayo pointed to Headmaster Tau in the stands.
The confidence drained out of Rowyna’s face.
“I’m ready,” said Kurayo.
Kurayo reached out with her Pith. The dozens of cages behind her swung open, and a wall of birds expanded behind her. Falcons, eagles, delirium hawks. Enough to blot out the rising sun behind her, cloaking her in shadow.
A look of fear passed across Rowyna’s face. Then the girl snarled, green lightning crackling around her fists. “Come on!” she shouted, in a burst of desperate bravado. “Show me what you’ve got!”
Kurayo showed her.
Rowyna’s men were losing.
Gunshots and mortars rang out in the snow-covered hamlet far down the coast, tiny flashes of light in the darkness. It was hard to see details at this distance, but the Shenti’s tanks were pushing the Principality’s soldiers back, shattering their assault.
And Rowyna couldn’t do a thing about it.
There were many thousands of Humdrum witnesses here on both sides – far too many to memory wipe. And no enemy projectors had been reported, so Revenant Squad couldn’t step in, thanks to the Treaty of Silence. They had to sit back and wait for the enemy’s Joiners, who might never show up.
What a strange dance this is. Fighting a secret war beneath the ordinary one, with its own set of strict rules.
Still, her body appreciated the break. Her squad had been fighting Shenti projectors for the past week, soaring on wingsuits between ships and over moonlit waters. They hadn’t encountered any commandos, thank the scholars, but even the weaker Joiners were threatening. They never seemed to tire, and a single punch could snap your spine.
Every muscle in Rowyna’s body ached. Everything felt heavy, sluggish, like she was moving through a five-ton river of mud. Even her breaths felt heavy, and when she lost focus, her eyes fluttered shut and she had to snap them open again.
If Revenant did come across Shenti commandos, Rowyna didn’t like their odds. They’d only graduated from Paragon a few years ago, and gold-ranked Joiners were still giving them trouble.
“You’re brooding,” Florence said. The woman strode towards her cot, playing with her blonde hair between her fingers. Waves crashed against the cliff beneath them. “Overthinking. Am I wrong?”
“Can I join you? It’s been a week since I showered, but I promise I don’t smell that bad.”
Rowyna nodded, and Florence slipped under the thick blanket with her. After hours of shivering in the cold, the warmth was pure bliss.
“Remember back in Paragon?” said Florence. “During winter break, when I showed you how to make a snow falcon.”
“Is that what this is?” said Rowyna. “Trying to get me to ease up? We’re fighting a war, you know.”
“All I’m saying is, the last time you did that, it led to your first kiss.” Florence rubbed her hands over Rowyna’s, warming them up. “So maybe you should try it again.”
Rowyna pointed down the coast, towards the village of Binan Suo. “Our Humdrum soldiers are dying over there. Isaac is panicking at the edge of camp. Grace is fuming that we can’t do anything to help them. Any moment, we could be called into battle. I can’t relax now. But I’m too tired to think.” She sagged down further.
Something moved beneath the surface of the water, a distant light getting brighter and closer by the second.
Rowyna’s breath caught in her throat. “Is that – “
“It’s not the Shenti,” Florence said. “We’re alright.”
The light grew, flickering blue, green, purple, red. The sea exploded into a rainbow of colors, and Rowyna finally understood.
Lantern whales. A whole colony of them, skin shining bright, swimming past the coastline, bathing the frozen cliffside with a warm glow. They didn’t usually come this close to large landmasses, and Rowyna had never seen them before. Just one of them was longer than their entire camp.
Seeing twenty of them, Rowyna forgot to breathe.
Isaac strode to the edge of the cliff next to the cot, gazing out at them. Then Grace, wiping the angry tears from her cheeks.
They might all die tomorrow in this frozen wasteland. They might lose the war, watch their country torn to pieces.
But for a moment, Revenant Squad stood together, and watched nature light up the darkness.
Florence wrapped her arms around Rowyna, and Rowyna pulled her closer. There were no more words that needed to pass between them.
Rowyna let herself relax.
It was enough, for now. It was enough.
She’s gone she’s gone she’s gone she’s gone she’s gone. Both of them were gone. Florence and Grace. The Shenti Commandos had taken them in the blizzard, after breaking Isaac’s spine and massacring most of their unit. Eastern dogs.
Rowyna had kept her cool throughout the escape from the pass. As they slipped past Shenti battle lines and clambered over icy cliff faces, she’d stayed calm and rational for the sake of the mission. For the sake of Isaac, who was still in critical condition, and the handful of Humdrum soldiers who had survived the commandos’ nighttime assault.
But now, they’d made it back to camp. Isaac got his replacement body, and the handful of surviving Humdrums were memory wiped. They were safe.
And Rowyna was free to break down.
She knelt on the cold stone ground, eyes welling up with tears, hands shaking. Isaac, in his new body, put a hand on her shoulder and she shrugged it off. “Don’t touch me.”
“Step back, please,” said Tybalt Keswick, a new professor, looking at the other Guardians around them. “Give her space.”
Rowyna projected into the ground, and ripped. She punched the stone, and cracks spiderwebbed out beneath her fist. She reached to the side, projected into the frozen pond next to their camp, and shattered it, turning the ice into fine dust.
Then, she projected into a trio of trees in the distance and slashed her hand through the air. The trees burst into flame.
The other Guardians backed up.
Except for Headmaster Tau. He knelt beside her, his robes brushing the ground. “There are no words,” he said, his voice soft. “But there are others here who have known what you did. They are all here for you. As am I.”
Professor Keswick nodded, along with Sebastian Oakes and a handful of the other Guardians. It’s been a brutal war.
“What do you know of loss?” she spat at him.
“More than you could imagine,” he said.
Rowyna inhaled and exhaled, catching her breath. She closed her eyes. “Do we know they’re dead?”
“We don’t,” said Professor Keswick, folding his arms. “They were undoubtedly taken for interrogation, but as per protocol, they’ll have erased their relevant memories. Past that, we’re not sure.”
He’s not saying the obvious. If Grace and Florence were no longer useful, the eastern dogs would execute them.
“Why, for fuck’s sake, did they have to be so stupid?” she said. “There were other solutions, other strategies. They didn’t need to throw their lives away. We could have immobilized them and hit them with our Voidsteel bullets, we could have split them up and fought them four on one.” There were so many options.
“It’s not always that simple,” said Headmaster Tau.
“They chose to sacrifice themselves,” said Professor Keswick. “So that you and Captain Brin could keep fighting. Grace served as my Grey Coat back in Paragon, and I know she wouldn’t settle for anything less.” He stared at her. “Mourn however you need, but honor that.”
Rowyna exhaled, a slow, agonizing sigh. She projected into the icy water of the lake, washing it over the burning trees as she wiped away her tears.
Then she nodded.
The battle was over. The last enemy ship had been bombed into a burning hunk of metal, one of almost a dozen nearby in the Chamakna Ocean.
And Rowyna was still losing the war.
Her forces had been outnumbered more than two to one, with far superior equipment on the enemy’s side. This was the fourth bout she’d won this month against impossible odds, and she’d only lost two small ships in the process.
But the Shenti kept coming, week after week, with more battleships, more bombers, more carriers. And they kept gaining ground. At this rate, the nation, the people, and the light wouldn’t be around in a couple of years.
Even now, after a victory, Rowyna had to abandon Shizukesa, a tropical island with an airfield that was close enough for the eastern dogs to launch long-range bombers at Jaye Aman, the capital of Ilaqua. The strategic value was obvious, but she no longer had the manpower to hold it.
In the end, it wasn’t grand strategy that mattered, but simple economics. The nation with the more efficient industry would win. And in that aspect, the Principality wasn’t even close to the Shenti, thanks to the Black Tortoise.
For all of Rowyna’s creative tactics, she didn’t matter much more than a Humdrum grunt.
But the sailors were all cheering around her, thumping their boots on the ship’s metal deck, chanting the nickname she’d recently picked up.
“Ty-phoon!” they shouted. “Ty-phoon! Ty-phoon!” The Typhoon of the South. Since she’d been operating in the southern seas around Ilaqua, and because of her unique strategy two weeks ago.
The rising sun bathed Rowyna in warm orange light, and she let the cheering wash over her. They were losing, but it felt nice, for now.
“Attend to the damage!” Rowyna shouted. “Make sure nothing got broken after that last strafing run. Then report back here for ice cream. Captain’s orders.”
At the phrase ‘ice cream’, the sailors doubled their cheering. “Ty-phoon! Ty-phoon! Ty-phoon!” They’d been eating stale bread and powdered eggs for the past five months.
It had been an exhausting few weeks, and the troops needed a morale boost. They’d saved the ice cream for this sort of occasion.
Rowyna would let them have this.
The soldiers dispersed, and Rowyna was free to trudge back to her cabin. The moment she got the door shut, she slid off her tight bra and unclipped her military bun, flopping over on her cramped desk.
She fed a piece of paper through her typewriter, beginning her report. Who do I even write it to? Vice Admiral Marsham had drowned a week ago when her ship was torpedoed. And Rear Admiral Baret, her replacement, was in the medical bay, pissing herself and shivering, dying of whale’s fever.
Rowyna outranked most of the Humdrums, but still had little experience as a naval commander – she’d only just got command of the destroyer squadron five weeks ago.
And now, it looked like she was going to be in charge of an entire carrier group. It was all so much, so fast.
Someone knocked on the door. “Come in!”
It swung open, and the sounds of laughing men drifted in, mixed in with happy shouting and the occasional cheer.
Her assistant leaned in, extending a metal bowl of ice cream towards her. “Vanilla? We ran out of all the other flavors.”
Rowyna took it. “Thanks.”
“The guys are really happy about your performance in the last battle. Feel like joining us?”
Rowyna shook her head. “Work. Always work.” Her assistant nodded, and swung the door shut.
Kerst. Vice Admiral Kerst, of the CNS Edwina. He was her immediate superior, and the person she would send the report to. The man was a Humdrum, but she hadn’t encountered any projectors in the last few weeks, so who cared?
After she finished the report, Rowyna rubbed her eyes, resting her face on her arm.
This isn’t what she wanted to do. She’d wanted to lead a mission behind the Shenti lines with Isaac and other Guardians, to see if Grace and Florence were still alive. And if they were, then rescue them.
But Headmaster Tau had recommended her for this position. And a part of her knew, deep down, that such a mission would be pointless. The Principality executed enemy projectors that were Platinum-ranked and above – imprisoning them was just too dangerous. And the eastern dogs were far less civilized.
And it had been two years.
It was funny. Rowyna had dreamt of being an admiral for so long. And now, on the verge of fulfilling her dream, it barely felt like an afterthought. The world is ending, we’re losing a war against monsters, and half the people I care about are dead. In the face of that, everything else seemed trivial.
She glanced at the pile of letters to the side and flipped through it. The mail had arrived weeks ago, but she hadn’t had the time to look through until now.
One message caught her eye. A marriage offer from another Epistocrat.
When she read the name on it, she blinked, and had to check it again. Lord Felix Ebbridge. Heir to The Elmidde Chronicle, the largest, most prestigious newspaper in the country. She’d seen him at a couple of parties, and he’d seemed funny and easygoing.
She wasn’t attracted to him, of course, but this was an incredible offer, from a family far more renowned than the Branigens. Love had nothing to do with it. His family was simply recognizing her accomplishments, and opening a door to untold opportunities.
Florence’s face went through Rowyna’s head, and she felt a twinge of guilt. Are you going to hold yourself back because of a memory? Marriage was a vital part of Epistocrat life. Without the war, Rowyna would have married ages ago.
If she survived, this would be the most important decision she made.
There was glamour in being a rebel, in defying the system. But realistically, if Rowyna wanted to forge the stars in her image, she had to accept this offer.
Florence would have understood.
She squeezed her eyes shut, clenching her fists. It shouldn’t have to be like this. This world could be so cruel.
Another knock at the door. “Come in.”
Her assistant peeked in again. “Headmaster Tau on the phone for you in the comms room, ma’am.”
Letting me know about my promotion to Vice Admiral, no doubt. That she was about to be put in charge of an entire carrier group.
Rowyna glanced down at her ice cream bowl. In her haste, she’d forgotten to eat it. In the heat, half of it had already melted into soup.
“Of course,” she said. “Let’s go.”
As she left the cabin, she glanced back at the letter from Felix Ebbridge.
She would think about it.
When Florence and Grace returned to the Principality, they had a reunion like no other.
There was crying and hugging and food. Their friends were breathing, healthy, and not compromised. Against all odds, they had escaped from the Shenti.
Rowyna brought blankets, flowers, and balloons to meet the two of them at the port. The members of Revenant Squad embraced each other and went to a Midtown soda fountain to celebrate their shore leave.
Then, Rowyna broke up with Florence.
Florence just smiled at her, resting her wrist stumps on her lap and nodding. “I understand,” she murmured, staring at her strawberry float. “I understand.”
“And I can’t do anything secret with you,” said Rowyna. “No forbidden romance. No midnight trysts.”
“Because there’s no guarantee that we could hide it. And if it ever got out, it’d hurt us both. And you deserve a real relationship.”
“I understand.” Florence kept smiling at her, behind her huge glasses with deep brown eyes. In her new body that the hypocritical Shenti had forced her into. Scholars, she’s still beautiful. It wasn’t fair. “I’ll find another great love. I’ll be fine. And we can still be friends.”
Rowyna steeled herself, suppressing all of her emotional reactions. Florence’s new body was less conventionally attractive than most of the chassis at Paragon. Shorter, mousy, less symmetric, duller lips, skin with moles and imperfections. And, of course, she’d lost both hands.
But still, Rowyna kept feeling twinges when she glanced at her.
And the guilt. The guilt felt like a black hole opening up inside her stomach, swallowing her organs one by one.
“I’ll be fine,” said Florence, taking a sip from a straw.
Grace slammed her empty glass on the counter. “She won’t be fine.” She pointed at Florence. “Look at her face.”
She’s right. The frequent blinking, the tense upper lip, the glances at the floor. Florence had never been good at hiding her pain.
“We survive hell,” said Grace through clenched teeth. “She loses both her hands. And the first thing you tell her is that you’re leaving her? For some boring lord with a newspaper?” She jabbed a finger in Rowyna’s face. “We went through things we will never talk about, but I’ll say this much: You were the thing that got Florence through the camp.”
“It’s my choice,” said Rowyna, her voice quiet. “This is for my career. For the rest of my life.” Being with Florence wouldn’t destroy her career, but it would damage it.
“Is climbing the ladder all you care about?” said Grace. “Is there a line you wouldn’t cross if it meant you could achieve success?”
Florence forced her eyes shut. “Please,” she half-whispered. “Let’s not fight. We’re friends.” She looked at Rowyna. “Grace has been through a lot.”
And that’s no excuse for being an ass. “I wanted to be up front,” said Rowyna. “Address the major issue right away.” She sipped her chocolate float. “Florence has every right to be mad at me, but I’d rather it be now than later.”
Isaac piped up. “I’m just happy that you’re both alive, and that the Shenti didn’t hijack you.”
Florence slouched over further, her face practically buried in her ice cream float.
“I’m sorry, Florence,” Rowyna said. “For what you went through. And for – for this.”
“I know,” said Florence.
Grace turned her gaze on Rowyna.
“It’s the hardest choice I’ve made in my entire life,” Rowyna said. “But I have to follow my ideals. I have to make something beautiful in this world. And – “
Something slammed into the side of her face, and she fell off the stool, her head spinning. Rowyna slammed on the ground, and spun around to face her attacker.
Grace stood over her, fists clenched. The knuckles on her right hand were red.
She punched me. Then: She punched me?
The side of Rowyna’s head ached. That’s going to leave a bruise. She pushed herself back to a standing position, and stared back at Grace.
The two made eye contact. No one spoke. After a few seconds, Grace turned and stalked out of the soda fountain. The door swung shut behind her.
The headache was bad, but not nearly as painful as the memories running through Rowyna’s head. The feeling of Florence’s body, intertwined with her’s, as they stared out at a colony of lantern whales. Their first kiss in the fresh snow at Paragon.
“It was difficult for her,” said Florence. “Very difficult. She’ll be better next time.”
Rowyna paid for her drink. “I need to make a phone call.”
“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice,” said Rowyna. “I know your schedule is full, but I’m shipping back out tomorrow.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Lyna Wethers, known in the field as ‘Honeypot’. “I always make time for other Guardians.”
Rowyna stared out the window of the lecture hall, casting her gaze over the city of Humdrums below. A layer of light projection kept Paragon Academy and the cable car hidden from the outside, making the view blurry.
She almost envied the Humdrums. They walked those streets in ignorance, free of impossible expectations. They could live a simple life without the weight of the world on their shoulders.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” said Wethers.
It was all legal, of course. There had been forms to sign, interviews to complete. Counterintelligence was monitoring this conversation, all to ensure the transaction was voluntary, not mental hijacking.
But Rowyna did not make this decision lightly. After spending more time with Tuft, her feelings for the woman hadn’t diminished at all. Even after a stint in a prison, Florence still had the same energy, the same curiosity and eagerness.
She would be spending more time with Revenant Squad, and marriage alliances were fragile. If she was caught with Florence, her betrothal to Lord Ebbridge could be shattered. That family had connections all over the military. They would know.
And after she’d accepted their offer already, trashing the alliance would make them attack her reputation, spread rumors amongst the other Epistocrats. The Ebbridges would demolish her chances of another marriage alliance. She would go from the Typhoon of the South to the laughingstock of Hightown.
Below, in Paragon’s pavilion, students sat on the grass, their heads buried in books and pages of notes. All studying. All working their hardest to move forward for their country, to achieve greater heights.
Everything she’d sacrificed. All the pain she’d put herself through.
It couldn’t be for nothing.
Forge the stars in your image. Strive to become an exemplar.
Rowyna had to be here. She didn’t really have a choice. Her first name, her parents, her Nekean roots. Those were all just things holding her back. This was no different.
After this, she would have genuine love for her husband-to-be, and be free of her uncomfortable feelings for her squadmate. She could go on with her life, and fight beside Florence without complications. Unlike others who used Wethers’ services, she would keep all her memories, so she maintained perspective.
This was the responsible choice, the rational one. Even if it made her feel like a monster.
Rowyna projected into the window and cracked it open, letting in a cool summer breeze. She exhaled.
“Ms. Wethers,” said Rowyna. “I have a question for you.”
Honeypot leaned back in her chair, putting her feet on a desk. “Shoot.”
“Piths are not singular entities,” said Rowyna. “They’re made of soul particles that form clusters. And those clusters combine and flow into each other.”
“Of course,” said Wethers. “That’s basic pneumatology. Everyone knows that, why are you telling me this?”
Rowyna breathed in the fresh air. “Old people, truly old people, as they age and build up null particles, begin to lose clusters. They’ll get aggressive, forget their loved ones, become apathetic or compulsive or cruel. People who know them often say they’re not themselves anymore.”
“Yes,” said Lyna. “What’s your question?”
“If an important part of you dies, one of the most important parts – “ She exhaled. “Does that mean you die?”
Lyna Wethers laughed, tilting her chair back. “People say the strangest things.”
She slid out of her seat, walking towards Rowyna. “You’re just a bunch of glowing bits stitched together in a skull. The you, that’s just an illusion, a story we tell ourselves because it’s more convenient.” She tapped Rowyna’s forehead, and Rowyna flinched. “You can’t die, because you were never alive.”
“Is that supposed to be comforting?”
“Your mind is whatever you make of it.” Wethers shrugged. “That’s either a blessing or a curse, but it’s true either way.”
Rowyna shut the window.
“Do it,” she said.
Wethers raised her hand. Rowyna looked off to the side, as if she were getting a shot and afraid of needles.
Out of the corner of her eye, Rowyna could see the blue lightning. Flickering, growing, and finally, engulfing her vision.
Killing Humdrums was easy.
There were a total of twelve in the mobster’s safehouse, six armed with Voidsteel bullets. And one projector with them – a Joining Specialist. But it didn’t matter.
In unison, Florence, Isaac, and Rowyna flew through the pouring rain and crashed through the windows of the second floor. Florence’s projection kept it silent, and their armor protected them from the glass.
Florence grabbed one Humdrum, using her air projection to immobilize him. Their guide, to get to Tunnel Vision through the sewers.
The rest were expendable.
A Voidsteel dart shot through the Joiner’s forehead, exploding it. Isaac.
Then, three dozen swiftlets, one of the smallest, most agile birds in the Principality, dove past Rowyna to the stairwell and nearby rooms, with a package tied to each of their legs.
Rowyna’s Whisper Vocation programmed the birds to search the rooms, scanning for humanoid shapes and unrecognized faces. They would blow holes in doors and fly in, darting to avoid gunfire.
When they found a target, they would dive for its face at seventy miles per hour, then squeeze its talons twice in quick succession. The tiny shaped charge attached to its leg would detonate right on the enemy’s forehead, destroying the brain.
Rowyna’s birds could pick out a target in a crowd through a layer of fog. To them, this was as easy as breathing.
All Rowyna could hear were a series of faint pops, one after another. It only took a few seconds for her scouting birds to return to her, broadcasting images of the dead targets.
Next step. Rowyna stretched her Pith forward, Nudging the one breathing target. He’s immune.
Isaac leaned down and muttered something in the man’s ear. A threat. The man’s eyes widened, and he nodded. Mobsters, not Green Hands. These people weren’t eager to die for the cause.
The man stood up and led them down the stairs to the basement. Inside a closet, he brushed off a layer of dust to reveal a hidden trapdoor, then yanked it up. He explained the layout of the tunnels – what he knew, at least, then Isaac placed a hand on his forehead, knocking him out with Basic Sleep. An associate of theirs would come to arrest him later.
One by one, they dropped into the trapdoor, down the rusty ladder into a sewer tunnel. It stretched into the distance, barely wide enough to fit in without hitting your head, lit only by the occasional dim lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.
They strode forward on top of the water. Rowyna noted Florence’s thin, black armor, skin-tight in all the relevant places.
And she felt nothing. Even after her death, Lyna Wethers’ Vocation was doing its job.
“Rowyna,” said Isaac, his voice carried by Florence’s Vocation. “Your turn.”
Rowyna flipped open the visor on her family’s armor, wrinkling her nose at the stench of the sewer. She blew a whistle, making noise at a frequency humans couldn’t hear.
A stream of birds exploded from the trap door. Bee hummingbirds, all colored pitch black, small as a fly, and able to see in the dark. Her scouts.
They dispersed into the tunnels, flying silent, keeping to the shadows. Another cluster of birds stayed with Rowyna, a group of larger, more agile fliers with explosives.
A few minutes later, the scouts flew back, streaming information into Rowyna’s Pith.
“Five targets ahead,” she said. “One thousand feet, left-right-left. Pistols and a radio. Mobsters dressed like construction workers.”
“Let’s get close,” said Isaac. “Stay quiet.”
They approached, staying behind the bend, out of sight. Florence extended her Vocation forward, carrying the enemy’s faint voices into their ears.
Pointless chatter, all of it, complaining about the smell and diseases down here. Then, after a few minutes, a woman’s voice crackled on the radio. “Pearl Vale.”
“Feather Ink,” the man said in response. A code. Regular check-ins.
Isaac glanced at her, nodded, and gestured forward. Execute.
Rowyna sent a signal to the birds behind her. A dozen of them shot forward, fanning out. Thanks to Florence’s Vocation, there was no sound from the explosions, not even a splash as their bodies dropped into the filth. Rowyna projected into the radio so it didn’t fall into the water.
After a few seconds, they strode forward, past the five bodies with holes in their heads. They took the radio, moving faster.
The sewer tunnels wound back and forth, going further down the slope of Mount Elwar. There were no more guards. The enemy didn’t want to call too much attention here.
Ten minutes later, the radio crackled. “Pearl Vale.”
Florence used her Vocation, making vibrations in the wind to copy the exact sound the guard had made. “Feather Ink,” the wind replied.
Near the bottom of the mountain, below Lowtown, they reached a service door, blocked off and marked as an area taken out of commissions. According to the man they’d threatened, this was where Tunnel Vision’s territory began.
The locking mechanism was Voidsteel, and the door itself was built of reinforced steel, designed to tank heavy explosives. Inside the mechanism, Rowyna could feel wires and circuits, some of them Voidsteel as well. If they were broken, they’d set off alarms, traps.
And Rowyna could feel the Piths of people inside, at least a dozen, maybe more. Probably not the target, but there was always a chance.
Isaac knelt by the door, pulling off the gauntlet on his armor. He felt the door with his bare palm like a doctor with a stethoscope, closing his eyes and nodding.
“Alright,” he said. “Stand back.”
“Leave one alive,” said Rowyna.
They stood back. Isaac drew seven darts from his belt, floating them at specific points around him.
He made them light, shot them forward in unison, then made them heavy. They struck precise points in the door with a clang, disabling key systems and smashing structural weak points, blowing seven clean holes in the metal.
No alarms went off. None that they could hear, at least.
The door swung open, and Revenant Squad dashed in.
This room was larger, well-lit, with a ceiling two stories tall and a variety of furniture inside. Couches, chairs, tables, bookcases, even a second floor with a balcony and a staircase.
And the people. Mobsters, men and women, young and old, from all corners of the Eight Oceans. All carrying guns.
Florence struck first, cutting off all the sound leaving the room. Gusts of wind blew everyone to the ground, slamming their heads against the hardwood floor. A layer of projected air fit over their heads, holding them to the ground, blocking their noses and mouths.
Four mobsters in dark coats resisted Florence’s blast, staying on their feet. Projectors. One of them raised a fist, green lightning crackling around it. A Physical Specialist.
Then their heads exploded. Four Voidsteel darts impacted the wall behind them, making small craters.
Florence’s targets choked, unable to breathe in or out, and Rowyna’s birds shot forward, diving for their foreheads and necks. A series of cracks rang out, with small explosions of bird feathers and gore.
And a few seconds later, it was over. Revenant Squad stood in a room filled with corpses. The enemies hadn’t gotten a single gunshot off. Most of them had died before realizing what was happening.
This had been easy. She wasn’t even out of breath. But the real fight hadn’t started.
Rowyna’s Pith cast around the room, and her birds scanned the area, confirming that they’d killed everyone, save for the one man they’d kept alive.
Rowyna stared at the bodies, and felt a growing wave of disgust. We risked our lives for you devils. Guardians had fought and bled and died to keep the Principality safe from the monstrous Shenti hordes.
And now, these ungrateful wretches were repaying them with betrayal. As cruel book-burners with Commonplace, or selfish monsters with the mob.
Which one is Grace? Perhaps neither. It didn’t make sense. Grace had fought in the war with other Guardians, she understood their value.
Maybe we’ll figure it out after we kill her.
Florence released the last remaining enemy, the Humdrum woman dressed in the most expensive clothes. The one most likely to be in charge.
Brin knelt next to her, his voice muffled by his combat armor. “One chance.” A single bloody dart hovered behind him. “Where is she?”
She told him.
Two minutes later, they reached the area she was talking about, a door at the end of a dark hallway. They would have used the air ducts, but they were too small for a person to fit in.
One of her chameleon birds shifted the color of its feathers, blending in with the background, and inched its head up to look through the window, relaying the images back into Rowyna’s Pith.
Rowyna’s breath caught in her throat.
Unlike the dark concrete tunnels of the rest of the area, this room was pure white, glaring under the light of lamps far above. The walls were made of some foam-like material, the kind that absorbed sound. It looked like some surreal billionaire’s office. How can someone build a room this big without being noticed?
Desks packed the tiny space wall to wall, filled with mail clerks, people on phones, guards with shotguns.
And all of them were wearing Tunnel Vision’s body.
Every single one of them had Grace’s light brown hair, in a thin, long ponytail. Every one of them wore some form of suit jacket and skirt.
There was no obvious person in charge, no single desk that rose above the others that everyone seemed to be reporting to. It was organized chaos, a swarm of ants moving in a swirling pattern.
“Isaac,” Rowyna whispered, indicating her head.
Isaac peeked in, staring through the window. He could get spotted, but his threat analysis vocation, Eyes of the Makara, might be the only thing that could pick out her target.
A few seconds passed. If the real Tunnel Vision sees him, it’s over. Or if someone opened this door.
“I’ve got one,” said Isaac. “A pattern, someone who’s connected to everyone else, who people are treating like an authority figure.”
“How sure are you?” said Rowyna.
“Sixty percent, maybe.”
Shit. “Then target them all,” said Rowyna. “Every dart you have, sorted by how likely you think each target is.”
“Judging by their actions,” said Isaac. “Some of them may be prisoners.” He kept staring through the window.
“If we don’t kill her right away,” said Rowyna. “She’ll burn us to death.” She was too competent for them to leave alive.
“There’s a good chance it’s a trap, too,” said Isaac. “If that’s the case, we should leave. Now.”
“If it’s a trap,” said Rowyna. “It’s already too late. The only way out is through.”
“We should leave,” said Isaac.
Isaac’s not being rational. Maybe it was a trap. Maybe there were prisoners in that marble room. But Isaac Brin, the Scholar of Mass, was simply afraid of killing his old friend.
Isaac turned to Florence. “What do you think?”
The black helmet hid Florence’s expression, but Rowyna could see her shoulders tensing. “Do it,” she said.
Isaac Brin floated almost every single dart from his belt, from the extra slots in his armor and the bag slung across his back. A hundred, at least. Maybe half of them were Voidsteel. They made tiny adjustments, angling to aim at every person in the room.
“Florence,” he said. “You remember the standard fast breach?”
“Then on my mark. Three. Two. One. Mark.”
Even with Rowyna’s keen eyes, the attack was almost impossible to follow.
Isaac’s first four darts hit the door’s hinges and handle, and Florence made a gust of wind, blasting it to the ground.
Then something moved in a blur, a dull boom rang through the air, and a hundred heads exploded.
Eleven Tunnel Visions were left standing. Autonomous bullet shields. Non-Voidsteel darts. Half a second later, their heads exploded too.
A flock of birds darted in, scanning for survivors in the room, for hidden chambers or enemies playing possum.
All headshots. No movement. Rowyna cast her soul out, and felt a room full of dying Piths, dispersing in the air without a vessel to hold them. Nothing living.
The desks and white floor were coated with blood and bits of grey brain matter, with a layer of corpses draped over it.
“Did we get her?” said Florence.
“No,” hissed Isaac. “This is too easy. She has to be somewhere else. Look for her.” His eyes widened. “No, a trap, we – “
The lights went out, turning the subterranean room pitch black.
In the split second before they could react, a wave of palefire washed over them, filling the room with white light.
Rowyna spun around. Florence stood between her and the source of the flame, wind whipping around her, creating an invisible cocoon to keep the fire out. She’s holding it back. Keeping it starved of oxygen. A storm of green lightning raged around her body, and the Scholar of Air screamed from the effort.
Rowyna’s family armor was maybe the best of its kind in the Principality. It kept the worst of the heat out, but still, it felt like someone was pressing her face to a hot pan.
And in this burning nightmare, as the desks, the corpses, her birds turned to blackened crisps around her, as the back of her mind raced to come up with an exit plan, Rowyna thought of the night she met the Pyre Witch, at that art gallery, when she’d just earned her name.
She should have paid more attention to that moment.
Did I ever really understand Grace Acworth? Did any of us?
Another thought: How much has she found out about us?
“Guardians!” Rowyna shouted over the wind. “If you ever thought yourself an exemplar, if you ever dreamt of forging stars, then do not stay your hand.” She ripped out a chunk of the floor, using it as a shield. “The nation, the people, the light!”
As one, Revenant Squad dove into the river of flame.