13-D The Butterfly’s Dilemma

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Ana

On the day after I stole my body, I decided to cut my hair.

Grace Acworth had kept it long, a tight ponytail that stuck out of her bowler hat, hanging halfway down her back.  A distinct, iconic look, even if that wasn’t her intention.

I was not Grace Acworth.

In the long run, I might get the body I dreamed of, the happy, red-haired girl I could have been if I hadn’t gotten Loic’s Syndrome.  The girl that Hira had painted for me, on my birthday.

But for the time being, it made tactical sense to keep this chassis.  Assume the identity of Tunnel Vision.

And it couldn’t be her body.  I had to make it my own.

So, I wanted a haircut.

But this face had been put on thousands of wanted posters, now.  So Hira had obliged me.  She went into town, stitched the best hairdresser she could find, and did the job herself.  I sat down in a chair on the balcony at Grace’s safehouse.  Hira threw a blanket over me, and I gazed out at the beach, at the Eloane Ocean and the waves washing against the sand.

I leaned back, bathed in warm sunlight, and Left-Hira massaged shampoo into my hair, just like they did in fancy salons.  A quiet, melancholy guitar song played on the gramophone in the corner, and I closed my eyes, enjoying the sensation as she washed the blood and grease out of my long brown tresses.  Her experienced touch felt relaxing, easy.

As I opened my eyes, Right-Hira pulled out a pair of scissors and a straightedge razor for precise cuts.  Left-Hira patted my hair down with a beach towel, and leaned my head back up.

I found myself thinking back to the last time I’d cut my hair.  When Clementine had Nudged me, and forced me to use a razor just like that.  The day when I’d thought up my body heist.

A year ago.  That was just a year ago.  Before I’d met Hira.  Before I’d met Wes and Jun.

Thinking of those last two made my chest ache.  Wes won.  He’d become Lady Ebbridge again.

And I wouldn’t be seeing him again for a long, long time.  If at all.

“So,” said Left-Hira, combing my hair and snipping off chunks.  “According to the stylist I just stitched from, this would be a good time to share gossip.  Who you’re dating, what your family’s doing, all the drama you’ve been up to.”

“I always hated that part,” I said, in my brighter, higher voice.  Still getting used to that.  It didn’t sound identical to Grace’s – I had my own inflections, my own tones and subtleties.  But it sure sounded similar.  “I just wished I could get my haircut in silence.”  Though I hadn’t gotten one in years.

“But you have been up to drama,” said Right-Hira, with a knowing look, as he sliced off a tuft of hair.

Might as well get started on the work, then.  “Earlier this morning,” I said.  “You said I’d become the head of the Principality’s mob, with some big caveats.  What caveats?”  What the fuck are we supposed to do now?  “I don’t want to be like Grace.”  I didn’t want to be a mob boss who exploited people for profit.  No matter how good the cause.

“You’re not like Grace,” said Left-Hira.  “You’re barely even rich.  The Pyre Witch spent almost everything on her Paragon operation.  She’s got near-zero capital left.”  She stepped back on the porch and squinted at my hair.  “If we don’t want to go bankrupt in about – “ she paused.  “Two days, we need to lean on our revenue sources.”

“No,” I said.

“Just let me explain,” said Left-Hira, going back to my hair.  “Tunnel Vision’s mob currently makes money off a variety of sources.  Some are legitimate businesses that launder money and make real profits.  Restaurants.  A bowling alley.  A shitty dance club filled with ugly blowhards, that throws people out just for having a good time.”

“You go to dance clubs here?”

“Not anymore,” said Hira.  “But my point is, legitimate businesses make up a small fraction of the mob’s income.  The real money comes from protection fees, prostitution, drugs, illegal gambling, and defective body sales.”

I clenched my teeth at the last one on that list.

“Though,” said Hira.  “Grace took special care to avoid human trafficking.  It seems even she had lines she wouldn’t cross.”

The waves washed against the beach.  I gazed at a small boat in the waters around Elmidde, far in the distance.  Looks like the one I used.  On the night of my body heist.

“Protection fees are cruel and unjust, and involve squeezing innocent people.  Cut them.”

“They’re the majority of our income,” said Hira.  “Without them, we’ll be crippled.  No money, no power, no criminal empire.”

“Cut them,” I said.

Hira sighed with both bodies.  “Alright.”

“Defective body sales are out too, for obvious reasons,” I said.  “We’re not scamming anyone.”

“What about the terminally ill?” said Hira.  “We could be honest with them, tell them about the expiration date.  They don’t have any other option.  This could give them a few more years, at least.”

I shook my head, clenching my teeth.  “Cut them.”  I won’t ever put someone else through that hell.  Even if they went willingly.  “Cut the prostitution and illegal gambling too,” I said.  “I won’t oversee that kind of exploitation, either.”

“And the drugs?”

A cool ocean breeze blew over the balcony, batting around tufts of my fallen hair.  “How many people die a year from overdoses in the Principality?”

“I thought you’d ask that.”  Right-Hira grabbed a folder off a table.  “Thirteen thousand and seven.  At least.”

“Cut it,” I said.

“Running a criminal organization isn’t cheap,” said Hira.  “Without all those, you won’t be a mob queen.  You’ll just be some illusionist with a submarine and some extras.  Especially now that the Broadcast King, the Shenti, and whatever’s left of Commonplace have all cut off contact with us.  And would probably try to murder us if they found out we killed Grace.”

“So be it,” I said.  “I don’t want to be a mob boss.  I don’t even know if I want to take Tunnel Vision’s identity.”

“You want to get your throat slit?” said Left-Hira, running her fingers through my hair.  “Want to get your eyes put out and your skin pan-fried with onions?”

“Maybe,” I said.  I probably deserve all that.

Hira flicked the back of my head with her finger.  “Don’t get clever.  Without the false identity, we’re dead.  And Clementine or Eda Fortescue or whoever’s most powerful takes over the mob.  Then they start doing all the stuff you’re trying to get rid of.”

I sighed.  “That all makes sense.”

While Left-Hira cut my hair, Right-Hira flipped through the folder in the warm sunlight, frowning.  “All these budget cuts are gonna be a fuckload of paperwork.  I can stitch an accountant or two, but I’ll need you to help me.”

“Sure,” I said.  “We can cut our expenses too, can’t we?”

“Oh boy,” said Hira.  “I know where this is going.”

I glanced back into the house, past the sliding glass door and into the comfy living room, with the couches and the mountains of pillows and the still life paintings.  And the bookshelves on the far wall.

The Lavender Book still sat on the coffee table, too, an unanswered question.  Neither of us had opened it yet.  Just looking at it intimidated me.  Later.  You’ll read it later.

“Grace kept good records, right?” I said.  “We can use those to determine the most morally bankrupt members of her organization.”

“The work will be a real tit-punch,” said Hira.  “Especially if anyone discovers our true identities.  But we can get something like that.  Probably.  How do we get rid of the troublemakers?”

“We’ll figure something out,” I said.

“But,” said Left-Hira, spraying some sort of liquid onto my hair.  “Having a small army of projectors can be helpful, depending on what you’re doing.”  She looked me in the eye.  “What are we doing next?”

My chest ached, a stabbing pain that reminded me of my old body, for a second.  I closed my eyes, forcing myself to take deep, slow breaths.  Breathe.  Breathe.  You’re safe.

Left-Hira patted my shoulder.  “It’s fine.  We can talk about that later.”  I opened my eyes, and she stepped back from me.  “Haircut’s done.”  The only mirror in the house was in the bathroom.

The ache faded, but didn’t go away.  “Thanks, Hira,” I sighed.  I swept the blanket off of me, knocking the fallen hairs aside.

“Wait,” said Left-Hira.  “Wait.”  Right-Hira ran back into the house, and emerged with a canvas bag.  “My skill-stitching from that salon left me some extra talents.”  Right-Hira held up the bag.  “And I swiped this on my way out of Elmidde.”

“No,” I said.  “I will not get high with you.”

Left-Hira rolled her eyes.  “Lund pe chadh.  That’s not what I’m asking, dumbass.”  She reached into the bag and pulled out a narrow tube of eyeliner.  “Do you want a makeover?”

I felt something in my chest.  A swirling maelstrom of conflicting emotions.  A thrill, and fear, and guilt, all mixing with my memories.

I haven’t had one of those in more than a decade.  An eternity, in this world.  I used to have them all the time.  With my friends, my mom, at a store in town.  But they didn’t feel right in my new body, so I pretended I’d just grown out of them, at the age of ten.

I felt immense gratitude towards Hira.  But at the same time, accepting almost felt like asking too much.

Fuck it.  After everything I’d been through this year, I deserved to not overthink something, for once.

I nodded to Hira, and she got to work on my face.

First, she touched my cheekbones and jaw with the tips of her fingers.  She turned my head to the left, then the right, pinning my brown hair back with clips.  Examining me.

Then, she held my eyelid open, and started with the liner.

I changed the subject.  “Did you find Cardamom when you went to the city?”  At the start of our final mission, we’d left him back in that shack with a bowl of food.

Right-Hira’s face fell.  “I looked around for an hour, but didn’t find anything.  The martial law and wanted posters made it a bit tricky.  I ordered your guys to put out missing cat notices all over Lowtown and the outer islands, but in this chaos?  Who the fuck knows.”

A pit opened up inside my stomach.  He’s gone too.  Like Jun, like Wes.  So many people I’d taken for granted.

Left-Hira drew liquid eyeliner on the rim of my eye, slow and precise.  “We might never find him,” she said.  “But we’ll do our best.”

Half an hour later, the tide had risen to engulf more of the beach.  And Hira finished her makeover.  She guided me to the stocked closet in my room, and with her stylist’s expertise, rummaged through the options available for me.

“No,” she said.  “No.  No.  Hideous.

These didn’t look like clothes Grace Acworth would wear.  She liked black.  Suit jackets and skirts and bowler hats.  Grace’s subordinates must have stocked this, mobsters filling up with supplies for a generic summer vacation.

“Hey,” I pointed at a light blue summer dress.  “That one looks nice.”  It reminded me of my combat suit.  It looked short and casual, complete with a seashell pattern and cap sleeves.

Left-Hira raised an eyebrow.  “Once a Blue Charlatan.”  She nodded.

I put on the dress while she looked the other way.

Then, I walked to the bathroom, and looked at myself in the mirror.

A girl gazed back at me.  A different girl than this morning.

Her light brown hair had been cut to a short, choppy bob, stopping just above her shoulders.  Sunlight from the window washed over her, casting her in a warm, comfortable glow.

Her face looked different too.  Winged eyeliner curved around the sides of her long, dark lashes.  Blue and red eyeshadow had been painted over her lids, and her lips had been given a natural, pink gradient, like the styles they used in Ilaqua.  Blush had been spread on her upper cheeks, in the Nekean drunken style.

Then, below that, she wore a light, comfortable summer dress, complementing the rest of her look.

The girl looked comfortable, relaxed, for the first time in many, many years.

This wasn’t the body I imagined in my dreams.  It looked like a cross, between Grace Acworth and someone else.  A sibling, with a divergent sense of style.  But it’s incredible.  And now, after all those changes, it felt a little easier.

I don’t deserve this.  I deserved to get shot by Grace, and cast into the frozen lake of Akhara’s Gate.

But I had it, anyways.  I could be grateful for that.

Left-Hira stepped behind me.  In this new body, her female chassis stood half a head taller than mine.  She placed her hands on my shoulders.

“Looks incredible, Hira,” I said.

“Yeah.  It does.”  She grinned, glancing at her makeup bag.  “And the bitch I stole this from charges a thousand pounds for a haircut.  She can buy a new kit.”

“This is nice,” I said.  “You’re acting so nice to me.  Why?”  When I don’t deserve any of it.

“Shut the fuck up,” said Hira.  “You’re my friend.  That’s all.  I look out for my friends.”

My stomach growled, and a twinge of hunger grew in my belly.  Not yet, I told myself.  I still had work to do.

________________________________________

“You’re sure this won’t get stolen en route?” said Hira.

I tied a string over the cardboard box, sitting down on a crate of apples.  In this basement’s dim light, I had to squint to work out the knot.

Then, I picked the box up and shook it.  Nothing bounced around inside.  I packed it well, then.  “Packages get stolen all the time,” I said.  “But nobody’s gonna know what’s in this.”

“Yeah,” said Right-Hira.  “But that’s a lot of money.  You said your hometown’s small, right?  Lot of homely trusting folks, low crime rates?”

I nodded.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “I’d keep an eye on your neighbors.”  Her fingers tapped on the telephone receiver, sitting on a crate and plugged into the wall.

I glanced up the staircase, my foot tapping.  For this, we’d moved to a different safehouse.  Some basement in a suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Elmidde.  Should be secure enough.  “And you’re sure they’re alive.”

“Your parents?” said Right-Hira.  “Yeah.  The Shenti never got within five miles of the Agricultural Islands,” I said.  “Even if they weren’t a diversion fleet, that crazy music lady got to them first.”

“The Symphony Knight.”  According to a local newspaper, Lady Corbin was already planning a live concert for the piece she’d composed during that battle.

“I mean, maybe your parents slipped in the shower and bashed their heads against the toilet bowl,” said Hira.  “But they didn’t get firebombed.”

I sat the box in my lap and scrawled the address on the top.

Phineas and Idalia Gage
19 Beech Street
Inncill, The Principality

Then I slouched over, leaning on it.  I stole three hundred pounds from them.  To a family like ours, that was no small sum of money.  I’d spent it on a ferry ticket to Elmidde and necessities, promising myself that I’d become a Guardian and pay them back tenfold.

I would never be a Guardian.  A stupid, naive dream fueled by years of lies and propaganda, but coming short of that still hurt.

Still, at least I had money, now.

Someone knocked on the door to the basement, coming from the movie theater aboveground that served as a front for the safehouse.

Left-Hira floated her shotgun into her hands and stepped back into the shadows.  Right-Hira walked up the stairs, and opened the door.  A man on the other side handed him an envelope, then walked away.

Right-Hira shut the door, and spun the envelope on the tip of his finger.  “Fuck is this?”

“I asked one of Grace’s – one of my people to buy it for me.  On impulse.”

Right-Hira tossed the envelope at me.  I caught it and peeled it open.  A scrap of cardstock fell into my palm.

FROM: ALCAROSS
TO: LANDDEN
DATE: 8/30/520 – 0730
ONE-WAY

“A ferry ticket?” said Hira.

“From one of the Principality’s northern ports to the Agricultural Islands,” I said.  “Under a false name.  I’ll be using a different body, and leaving from a port they’ll be watching less carefully.”

“So you’re going home,” said Left-Hira.  “Have you decided that, now?  Are you sure?”

I shook my head.  “I’m not sure about anything.”  According to a subordinate, Cao Hui, the Black Tortoise, had just broadcast Christea Ronaveda’s recording to the public.  The Commonplace recording, which demonstrated that Parliament had been hijacked, probably by Paragon itself.

The loyalists wouldn’t believe it.  And everyone still thought that Commonplace had murdered Parliament.  The true horrors of Paragon remained hidden from ordinary Principians.

But still, the country might see a lot more chaos going forward.  Inncill included.

And that speech meant something else, too: The Black Tortoise must have taken Jun.  A genocidal dictator had captured our friend.

“Well,” said Left-Hira.  “Either way, I picked up a lead on – “

Another knock at the door above us.  This time, in a pattern of threes.  A simple code, of sorts.

“She’s here,” said Hira.  “Are you ready?”

I stretched my neck, my stomach rumbling.  “No,” I said.  “But send her in anyways.”

Both of Hira’s bodies stepped into a side room in the basement.  Right-Hira drew his sniper rifle, and Left-Hira pulled out her shotgun.  They shut the door, hiding.

Then, Hira projected into the entrance to the basement, and it swung open, letting in my visitor.

Light flooded into the room, and a tall, slender woman limped down the steps.  Her milky white skin looked paler than usual, and her wavy red hair had grown tangled.  Her left leg had been chopped off below the knee, but rather than crutches, she used projection to move without falling.  An Elizabeth Cranbrook chassis.

Clementine Rawlyn.  Mobster.  Ex-Pilot.  Survivor of the Edwina Massacre.  And my former boss.

An expression of wonder spread across her bright eyes, her perfect high cheekbones.  False deference.

“Ma’am,” she breathed.  “You’re alive.”

“So are you.”  And she didn’t even have to swap chassis.

We exchanged passwords, confirming our identities.  Hira’s stitched codes worked fine.  She really thinks I’m Grace.

I indicated my hand, and Clementine sat down on a crate across from me, a makeshift seat in the basement.  Next, I threw an illusion over her, making it seem like I was sitting down like normal.

In the real world, I stood up, assembled my machine pistol in the air, and walked next to Clementine.  I aimed the barrel at her head.  If I fire close enough, even normal bullets will go through her ABD.  And she wouldn’t scan the room or prepare for a fight when she thought she was talking to her boss.

She’d mistreated me, attacked me.  And unlike Grace, I knew she hadn’t done it for some greater good.  Clementine would have joined Paragon in the blink of an eye, if it meant she could climb the ladder there.

“Ma’am,” said Clementine.  “May I ask why you’ve called me here?  What’s your plan, going forward?  And how can I help?”  She’s not that high-level in Grace’s organization.  Meetings with the boss would be rare.

According to my file on her, Clementine had lost her fancy house and most of her money, along with her leg, after my Verity speech and the broad crackdown against the mob and the attack on Paragon.  The woman had almost nothing.  Which meant she wanted something from me.

“Are you planning to leave the Principality?” said Clementine.  “Please, allow me to assist in any way I can.”

I see.  Clementine thought that Grace was going to flee the country, and she wanted in.  An escape hatch to evade the authorities and start a new life overseas.  Always looking out for yourself.

I want to talk about you,” I said with my illusion.

Clementine looked taken aback.  “Oh.  Of course, ma’am.”

You survived the Edwina Massacre,” I said.  “That must have been difficult.

Clementine held up her hands, her voice quickening.  “Of course, ma’am, I understand what you did.  The Massacre wasn’t your fault at all.  It was war, and all, you know.  I have no issue with any of that.”  She knows Grace is the Pyre Witch.

Sure,” I said.  “But it must have been difficult, losing your ability to fly a plane with that hand injury.

Clementine put on a forced smile.  “It wasn’t too bad!” she said, with a little too much enthusiasm.  “I got projection, which is a thousand times better, of course!”

But you got rejected from Paragon, didn’t you?  Twice.

Her smile grew more strained.  “But I got to work for you, ma’am.  That’s so much better than working for those elitist crooks.  And I hate writing essays, anyway.”  Her voice grew quicker.

My illusion said nothing.

Clementine sighed, and stared at her feet.  Her smile faded.  “You must think I’m pretty pathetic.  A bottom-feeding failure.  A disgusting cripple.  You must be pitying me, right now.”

No,” I said, meaning it.  “I’ve been rejected by Paragon too.  And I know how it feels for your own body to betray you.”  And by this point, I’d done things far worse than her, no matter how pure my intentions.  “Did it make you feel better?

“What?”

When you stood over others.  Your servants, your subordinates, the people you hurt.  When you put them down, did you feel like yourself again?  Did you feel less worthless?

Clementine clenched her fists, and squinted at my illusion with new suspicion.  “What’s going on?” she said.  “What does that have to do with anything?”

Just answer the question.

“Yeah,” mumbled Clementine.  “I didn’t feel like myself.  But it helped.”

I shifted my illusion, turning my image of Grace into an image of my old body.  The grey-haired boy’s face she would recognize as Anabelle Gage.  Revealing myself, so it seemed.

Then, I shifted the imagined position of my Pith and clothes, too, so she would think I sat across from her, and not behind her, though that took some additional effort.

Clementine’s eyes widened, and she stood up, knocking over her crate, standing on her one leg.  I felt her Pith next to mine, trying to Nudge it.  I edited my Pith away, fending off the attack with ease.  She tried Basic Sleep next, and I pushed that away.

A knife shot out of a hidden sheath at Clementine’s waist.  Before she could fling it in my face, my illusion shouted at her.

Don’t move!

Clementine paused in her attack.

And I wouldn’t use your Whisper Vocation, either.  You’re surrounded by a lot more firepower than you think.  I wouldn’t reveal myself unless I knew I could beat you.

Clementine shook, her face contorted with rage, loathing.  At the humiliation of being tricked.  At getting vulnerable in front of me.  “Where’s Tunnel Vision,” she hissed.

Dead,” I said.  “I killed her.

A mixture of shock, disbelief, and paralysis passed over Clementine’s face in quick succession.   “Then you had better kill me,” she snarled.  “Because the moment the world knows that Tunnel Vision is a fake, they’ll rip you to shreds.”

Will they?

“I have connections to the mob.  They weren’t all wiped out.”

They’re all working for me,” I said.  “A few words won’t change that.

“Then I’ll tell Paragon.”

Go ahead,” I said.  “See how far that gets you.”  If she wanted to get arrested, she could go right ahead.  I had my own plans around Paragon.

Clementine furrowed her brow.  “You’re not going to kill me?”

Her voice rang in my head, from a year ago.

Ana, why don’t you carry out the gentleman’s request?

I do pity you, poor thing.

Cut your hair off, drop the knife, then jump.

I used to think that Clementine, and by extension, her boss, Tunnel Vision, were the worst sort of people in the world.  The monsters that Guardians needed to protect us from.

Then I’d broken into Clementine’s house, and read the books in her basement safe.  Everything she’d been through after the Edwina Massacre.  Her struggle for purpose and meaning in her life, for identity, when everything she’d dreamed of had been destroyed.

And then I’d walked into Akhara’s Gate, and seen the true face of Paragon Academy.

I kept aiming my machine pistol at her head.  But I didn’t pull the trigger.

I came here to tell you something,” I said.  “You can leave if you want.  You can quit.  I won’t harm you.

“How magnanimous.”

But if you want to stay here,” I said.  “If you want your old job.”  My illusion stood up, above Clementine.  “Then you work for me, now.

Clementine clenched her teeth, taking sharp, rapid breaths, staring at my illusion.  For a moment, it looked like she would attack anyways, despite my illusions.  Despite her inferior firepower, despite her missing leg.

Then she turned around and limped up the stairs, out of the basement.  She slammed the door behind her, stalking out of the building.

I disassembled my machine pistol, and slid the pieces back into my pocket.  Hira opened the side room door and stepped back in.  Both bodies tossed their guns aside.

“She sounds pissed,” said Left-Hira.  “Sparing her could come back to fuck us.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It could.”

“So, why did you?  You’ve killed loads of people.”

I have.  In my darkest moments, I’d killed scores of enemies.  And I’d killed Clementine’s boss, too.

“I guess,” I said.  “I related to her.  And that disturbed me.”

Hira snorted.  “You are one strange bitch, Anabelle Gage.  I’m not sure I’ll ever understand you.”

“That makes two of us,” I said.  “But I’m working on it.”

The telephone in the corner of the room rang.  Right-Hira floated the receiver to his ear, nodding.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Yeah.”

“Was going to tell you before Clementine came in,” said Left-Hira.  “Someone responded to the missing cat posters.  Some boy.”

My heart clenched.  They found Cardamom.  But could this be an enemy who knew we had a cat?  A trap?

“The agents said he didn’t seem threatening, so I had him sent here.”

We’re playing pretty loose with security.  “Alright,” I said.  “Send him in, then.”

Right-Hira muttered something into the phone, and the door to the basement swung open.  I threw an illusion on the person entering, shifting my position, re-assembling my gun.

And Weston Ebbridge walked down the stairs.

A pale, freckled boy stared at me, his light brown hair tangled, his hair caked with blood and his cheek bruised.  He wore a backpack slung over his shoulders.

I blinked at him, dumbfounded.  Too surprised to say anything.

Wes held up his hands.  “Tunnel Vision?” he said.  “What are you – “  He staggered back, shocked, and fell on the stairs.

I shifted my illusion, making my face look like my old one.  Showing him my identity.

Wes, if anything, looked even more surprised.  “Ana?” he said.  “Why are you disguised as Tunnel Vision?”

“Wes?” I said.  Didn’t he Oust his replacement?  “I’m in Tunnel Vision’s body.”

Wes sighed, then shook his head.  “Tasia,” he said.  “I’m sorry.”

Of course it’s Tasia, idiot.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I’m just so used to seeing Wes in that body, and I – “

I cut myself off, paused for a moment, then raced forward and threw my arms around her.  Taisa hugged me back.

“Scholars,” Tasia breathed, in Wes’ masculine voice.  “I thought I’d never see you again.”

I thought the same.  “I’m so sorry,” I said.  “For lying to you.”  For pretending to be Ernest.  “I should have told you who I was.  I should have been – “

“No,” said Tasia.  “You were keeping yourself safe.”  She squeezed me tighter.  “I just wish that Paragon hadn’t gone after you.”

“Me too.”

Something meowed from Tasia’s backpack.  A bright green, long-haired cat stuck his head out of Tasia’s backpack and nuzzled the back of her neck.

“Cardamom!” I shouted.

Tasia and I broke off our embrace, and she slung off her backpack.  Cardamom crawled out and ran to me.  I scratched behind his ears, pet him and hugged him.  The hug seemed to confuse him, but he still rubbed his head against my leg, purring.

Hira’s bodies ran over to us, and joined in the petting.

“So soft,” I murmured.  “You are so fluffy and soft.”  Another face I thought I’d never see again.  “How did you find him?”

“I was wandering the streets of Lowtown,” said Tasia, rubbing his belly as he rolled over.  “He just ran up to me.  I think people matter more to him than places.”  And he’s got a nose like a bloodhound.

We reveled in the reunion for another few minutes, and Cardamom obliged, happy to see his humans again.  I still find him adorable.  Which meant Grace had let this body get infected with Maojun.

Halfway through, Cardamom smelled something, ran to the corner of the room, and tried to bite into a crate filled with dried fish.

“Bad Cardamom,” I said.  “That’s wood, it’s bad for you.”  Tasia pulled his teeth off the crate.

Right-Hira cocked his head to the side.  “Fuck it.”

He stretched his hand forward, and the seams of the crate ripped themselves apart in a shower of splinters.  Cardamom darted back, scared.

Then the sides of the crate fell off, and a mountain of tiny dried fish fell out, a yard tall.

Cardamom stared at it for a few seconds, in sheer disbelief.  Then he dove into the pile head-first, the front half of his body disappearing.

Eventually, he got tired of eating, and curled up on a mountain of seafood to fall asleep.

“So,” I said, turning to Tasia.  “Wes Ousted you.”

Wes – Tasia’s face fell.  “Yeah,” she said.

“Nell, now, I guess.”

Tasia recoiled.  “I’m guessing you just said my old name.”  Right.  Forgot that’s blocked off from her.  “But yeah.  It was my time.  We can talk about the details later.”  She looked me up and down.  “But what about you?  How did you take the Pyre Witch’s body?”

“Actually,” I said.  “She kind of took mine.”

Tasia looked confused.  “How?  Is she still hunting you, then?”

“Remember the pills that took Kaplen?   Kraken’s Bone?”

Tasia’s face tensed up, but she nodded.

“Yeah,” I said.  “She’s not hunting us anymore.”

Left-Hira stuck her hands in her pockets, squinting at Tasia.  “She doesn’t seem to be an imposter,” she said.  “But it’s possible to fool my Vocation.  And even if she’s the real Tasia, she might have other motives for coming here.”

“I’ve made a lot of dumb mistakes this year,” I said.  “But I don’t think this is one of them.”  I looked into Wes – Tasia’s eyes.  “I trust her.  Beyond a doubt.”

Left-Hira relaxed, and removed her hands from her pockets.  “Well,” she said.  “If you’re done hugging each other, Cardamom has reminded me how fucking starving I am.”

“Me too,” said Tasia.  “Want to get some dinner?  Catch up?  So much has happened since we last talked.”

My stomach growled again, but I shook my head.  “I have to do something first.”

________________________________________

On that night, I burned my body.

The Neke had a tradition, with the invention of fabricated bodies.  When someone went through the Liminal – reincarnated themselves in a new form, they would burn their old chassis and push it out to sea.  Saying farewell to their old life, and ushering in the new.

It seemed like a nice way to say goodbye.

Hira had dragged my old chassis out of Akhara’s Gate, using it to confirm Grace’s demise after she’d copied all its codes and passwords.  She’d wanted to toss it somewhere, use it to fake my death for Paragon.

But I’d looked into my old body’s eyes, and shook my head.  “No.”  It didn’t seem right to dump it into the bay, to wash up rotted on some shore.

So I’d bought a large canoe.  From the same company I used a year ago, for my first body heist.  I’d used illusioned money then, so I paid them a little extra this time.

After the sunset, Hira and Tasia and I rowed out onto the dark waters of Meteor Bay, with the help of our water projection.

And then, we got set up.

We lifted the shroud covering my body, laid lengthwise along the canoe on top of crumpled newspapers, with the blood and vomit washed off its clothes.  Next, we doused the newspaper with gasoline.  We stood on the surface of the bay, using a water walk to keep ourselves afloat.

Finally, I removed a stack of photos from my bag, and began to lay them around the edge of my corpse.  It had taken some effort to get them assembled this afternoon, especially in the aftermath of the battle.  The best resource had been the previous owner of The Silver Flask, who had taken all the photos with him in his house, even after the cafe had been blown up.  A few copying sessions and we were set.

First, the fallen students of Paragon.  All we could find.  Adam Lynde, who I’d sabotaged for Lorne during my time as a Grey Coat.  Marion Hewes, killed in the bomb attack on The Silver Flask.  Dozens of others, all posing for pictures with the owner of the restaurant, smiling.

They died for the wrong cause.  An academy that cared little for its students, and even less for the innocents below.  But they didn’t need to die.

And that could have been me.

And a red-haired boy, a broad smile painted across his round, cherubic face.  The baker.  The cat lover.  Kaplen Ingolf.  Without his advice about the Empty Book, I never would have learned to defend myself against Nudging.  I would have died a long, long time ago.

No matter what happened to me, I couldn’t forget him.

The fallen Guardians, I left out.  Penny and Sebastian Oakes were higher-level at Paragon.  Penny Oakes had used Lyna Wethers to get her husband, and Sebastian Oakes could have been involved with the shadier aspects of the place, like its deliberate restriction of the chassis supply.  And the papers hadn’t published anything on Isaac Brin or Florence Tuft, so they’d probably survived.

Last, I put down a surprise.  An old photo that The Silver Flask’s owner had still kept, after all these years.

A girl my age, with light brown hair and a nervous smile, looking at the camera with a massive pie in front of her, losing a Jao Lu game to the rest of her team.  Grace Acworth.  Having a moment of fun with the rest of Revenant Squad, when they were all still in school.  Before the Shenti War.  Before everything went to hell.

Hira didn’t make any disparaging comments this time, no vicious jabs.  She just helped, silent.  Tasia helped too, with a lingering, pained look at Kaplen’s face.

I didn’t have any photos of Wes or Jun.  But this was a funeral pyre, a memorial for the last year.  And neither of them had died.  They can still be saved.

Then, it was done.  The canoe bobbed up and down on the smooth water.  My body lay in the center, surrounded by those who had passed.

We stood back from the boat, on the surface of the water.  A cool ocean breeze blew over us.  There were no other boats nearby.  No lights except the dimmed glow from Hightown, far up the slopes of Mount Elwar.  Even Paragon’s lights had darkened.

“Do you have any words?” said Tasia, breaking the silence.

I’d never been the eloquent type.  But Hira wasn’t going to say anything, and Tasia looked absorbed in her thoughts.

So I gave it a try.

“They were noble, and they were devils,” I said.  “They fought for their ideals, crawled through an endless dark cave with a thousand branching passages.”  I stared at the photo of Grace.  Some with more success than others.  “They never made it out.  But they gave hope for the rest of us, that we might see the light, one day.  And they deserved life.”  Far more than I do.

I stared at my old chassis.  The hated body I’d spent most of my life in.  My broad shoulders.  My thick forehead and bulging grey veins and wispy grey hair, covered in bald patches.  I thought I’d die with that face.

Tasia summoned a spark on the tip of her finger, then flicked it onto the oil-soaked kindling.  The newspaper caught fire, with a rush of air and a wave of heat.  The flames spread around the canoe, swallowing my old clothes and the photographs.

The three of us stepped back, as the fire grew larger, taller, engulfing the whole boat.  The wood of the boat crackled, and the heat warmed our faces.

As the pyre burned, I gazed back up to Elmidde.  I looked past the outer islands, past the darkened Lowtown and Midtown, above the streetlamps of Hightown to the black floating islands of Paragon Academy, high above the city.

I’d looked up at those so many times from Clementine’s porch, when they were aglow with multicolored lights.  I’d felt longing and hope and ambition, imagining the wonders I could experience if I could just get up there and fix my broken body, if I could just belong.

But Paragon had caused my broken body.

And without lights, the broken spires looked terrifying.  A dark fortress filled with the powerful, who called themselves wise, and cared not for the fortunes of those below.  Who let thousands of people die, every year, because they didn’t want to mass-produce bodies.  People like me.

Now that I had this body, now that I knew what they’d done, what did I have to look forward to?  Going home?  Reuniting with my friends?  Something else?

In the darkness of Paragon, a tiny green light flickered into existence for a few seconds.  A faint, minuscule glow, followed by a dim white flash.  I squinted at it.  Wonder what that is?

After another minute, Tasia turned and walked away from the floating pyre, as it drifted away on the current.  Hira’s bodies followed her.

I gazed at my burning face for a few more seconds.

Then I strode away, leaving the remains to drift away on the current.

Now can we eat?” said Left-Hira.  “My stomach’s about to implode.”

“Almost,” I said.  “We’ve got some reading to do.”

________________________________________

“You got that,” said Tasia, incredulous.  “And you haven’t looked at it already?”

The Lavender Book sat on the coffee table of Grace’s summer house, innocuous.  If it weren’t for the broken mechanism and the torn Voidsteel lock, it would look like any other decoration in the room.

Tasia leaned forward on the couch, her eyes lit up with moonlight.  She looks so different from Wes.  Even in the same chassis.

“Grace told me this contained answers, not a Vocation Codex,” I said, staring at the book.  “But when she skimmed it in Akhara’s Gate, she looked frustrated, and called it worthless.”

I’m not worthy of something this important.  But neither was Paragon, and right now, I didn’t trust anyone else to hold it.

“It’s probably not a big deal, then,” said Left-Hira, leaning back on a cushion.  “Maybe Paragon just wanted a red herring for dumbfucks like us to focus on.”  Right-Hira gazed out the sliding doors at the moons and the ocean, not even paying attention.

“Grace wasn’t a dumbfuck,” I said.  “And she thought this was important.”

Tasia picked up the book and flipped through the pages.  She squinted, turned a page, then held the book closer to her face.  She flipped to the ending of it, then the middle, confused.

“What?” I said.  “What’s in it?”

“I – “ said Tasia, furrowing her brow.  “I can’t read it.”

“If it’s in a foreign language,” said Left-Hira.  “Gimme a few minutes, and I’ll find someone to stitch.”

“I don’t think it’s foreign,” said Tasia.  “But still, I can’t read it.”

“Let me see.”  Hira handed the book to me.  I flipped to the first full page.

Words and sentences had been written there.  In the Common Tongue, it seemed.  But they didn’t click in my head, didn’t form any meaningful pattern.

It reminded me of the math books I’d studied for the Paragon entrance exams, during the asides when they described higher-dimensional objects, and what they might look like in just three.  I couldn’t parse any of them.  They looked like utter nonsense, and even trying to imagine the extra dimensions seemed ridiculous.

This was like that.  Even though the language fit, even though the words and sentences seemed normal, I couldn’t understand any of them.  When I squinted at them, I could sometimes make out individual letters, one at a time, out of order, but couldn’t string them together into anything coherent.

It was like they’d been cut out of reality itself.  Like someone had carved a hole into the fabric of the universe, and scooped out the contents of this book, to dump them in some strange alternate realm.

I flipped through the book, to see if the other pages looked different at all.  Nothing.

“That – “ I said.  “That’s like – “

“ – the Spirit Block,” said Tasia.

The contents of the Lavender Book had been twisted into some alternate plane of reality, made unreadable by human eyes.  Just like The 99 Precepts, the holy book of the Shenti’s dominant religion.  Their former dominant religion.

“Could this be another copy of The 99 Precepts?” I said.

“No,” said Tasia.  “Those books are all over the Eight Oceans.  Millions and millions of them.  Even after the Spirit Block.  But Paragon took the time and effort to guard this one.  It has to be different.”

A security precaution.  Paragon, or whoever wrote this book, didn’t want other people to know the contents, even if they managed to steal it and break it open.

“Like I told you,” said Left-Hira.  “Useless.  We can’t bend reality, any more than the Shenti crackpots who get high with delirium hawks to try and read The 99 Precepts.”

I tossed the book onto the coffee table, sighing.  “All that information, right in front of us.  The truth of this world.  And we can’t see any of it.”

Tasia leaned forward, squinting.  “No,” she said.  “Wait.”  She flipped through the pages again.  “Yes,” she breathed.

I sat up.  “What?  What did you find?”

Tasia turned to the title page, and pointed to the corner.

Someone had scrawled something there with a pen, using messy handwriting.  The rest of the book looked printed, perfect.  But not this.

“A person wrote in the margins,” said Tasia.  “And their words haven’t been pulled out of reality.”  Weren’t affected by whatever was shaping these pages.

The note on the title page was tiny.  Just a single word.

Egress

“The fuck is an ‘Egress’?” said Hira.

“It means ‘exit’,” said Tasia.  “And the first letter is capitalized, which could mean it’s a proper noun, in this context.  Or a title, if it’s on the first page.”

“I didn’t stitch any grammar weirdos,” said Left-Hira.  “The fuck is a ‘proper noun’?”

“A name,” I said.  “Of an organization, maybe, or a plan, or whatever this book’s about.”  I sat down next to Tasia.  “Flip through the whole thing, let’s look for other notes in the margins.”

Tasia turned the pages, and we scanned them for something, anything that we could read.  Minutes passed.  The moon rose over the dark water in the distance, and my eyes ached.  Every line seemed to be gripped by the strange warping effect, the aura that kept us from seeing its contents.

And then, Tasia pointed at a page.  “There!”

Another tiny note had been scrawled between two lines, with an arrow next to it, pointing to something.  A line edit.  I squinted again, reading it.

10,000

“I could be wrong,” said Tasia.  “But I’m pretty sure that ten thousand feet is the deepest point in the ocean that anyone’s allowed to travel to safely.”

My stomach clenched.  The water is rising.  It drowned the Great Scholars, and was on its way to drown us.  This must have had something to do with it.

“Let’s keep going,” I said.  “There has to be more.”

We kept flipping through, scanning between every line, looking at every blank space.  More time passed.  Left-Hira got bored and stood up from the couch.  She sat on the porch outside with her Right body, gazing out at the water and taking puffs from her purple hookah.

And then, near the end of the book, we saw a picture.  A drawing, rendered in color with incredible detail.

First, I saw the ship, floating on the blue ocean at the corner of the painting, depicted from a bird’s eye view.  An old ship, wooden, with masts and sails like the ones from hundreds of years ago, before the invention of steamboats.  Judging by the sails, though, it seemed large.

The boat only took up a fraction of the image.  A tiny sliver of space.

The rest of the drawing was filled with the ocean surface.  And corpses.  It took me a second to process the details.

Not just any corpses.  Storm kraken corpses.  Hulking creatures, with tentacles big enough to pull down a destroyer.  Dozens of eyes, each wider than a man was tall.  And massive, ovaloid mouths, that could swallow an entire whale.  Some of them looked like elder krakens, stretching to the size of small islands.

Even today, just one storm kraken could still rip apart merchant ships, and the occasional military submarine.  Anything less than a battleship, and captains needed to steer clear of hurricanes, and the monsters that came with them.

And dozens of them had been butchered here, floating on the surface of the ocean.  What the fuck killed them?

They’d been laid out in some sort of strange pattern.  Tentacles and eyes and chunks of their bodies had been sliced off and rearranged.

Together, they formed a massive triangle.  Then, a smaller triangle, of the same shape, flipped upside down and placed inside, dividing the larger one into four separate triangles.

Even smaller triangles had been placed in those ones as well, dividing them up.  And triangles within their triangles, and so on, getting more and more minuscule, as far as the eye could see.  The triangles stuck out at odd angles, too, expanding from the largest one and forming endless branches in ever-smaller Y-shapes, all part of the same elegant design.

“It’s a fractal,” breathed Tasia.

“A what?”

“An infinite pattern, that repeats over and over again.  It’s a math term.  You see limited, finite versions in nature a bunch, like with algae and tree leaves.”  She thought for a moment, then nodded to herself.  “I’ve seen that one before.  It’s called Akhara’s Triangle.”

Hira and I looked at each other, both thinking the same thing.  Akhara’s Gate.

“Akhara the Polymath developed it.  A Great Scholar, and one of the Four Eternals.  It keeps getting smaller, on to infinity.  Triangles within triangles.  In theory, at least.  Magnify any part of it, and it’ll look mostly the same.  The base equilateral triangle and the three main branches are a variation on the basic one.“

I pointed.  “There’s something else in the drawing.”

An oracle snake flew above the triangle pattern of corpses, winding back and forth in the air.  A large, flat serpent, gazing down at the historic event happening below.

“On its back,” said Tasia.  “Are you seeing that?”

Its silver scales formed a pattern.  Interlocking triangles.  Narrow, with smaller, identical shapes contained within them and branching out from the vertices.

Akhara’s Triangle.  The snakeskin had the same pattern as the sea kraken corpses.  A fractal, seeming to repeat to infinity.

Below the snake, another note had been scrawled into the margins of the page.

Broken Gods

“A ‘broken god’ did that.”  I turned to Tasia.  “Does that mean anything to you guys?”

Left-Hira ignored me, standing up and walking to the sliding doors.  “Guys,” she said.

“Oracle snakes are present for major historical events,” I said.  “So maybe they had something to do with the Great Scholars and their drowning.”

“Look at the detail on those fractals,” murmured Tasia, her eyes bright.  “That structure of corpses held together in the ocean.  Despite all the waves.  How many recursions are contained within that?”

I stared at the triangle pattern.  At how every triangle subdivided and branched out, getting smaller and smaller and smaller.  Patterns within patterns within patterns.  Familiar and alien and breathtaking, all at once.

“Guys!” shouted Left-Hira.

The two of us glanced at her.  Hira pulled open the glass sliding door and stepped onto the porch.  She looked upwards with both her bodies, and the two of us followed her gaze.

Then I stood up and walked outside, shaking, my skin cold.

Two oracle snakes flew in the sky, undulating beneath the starless expanse, their triangular scales glimmering with moonlight.

Oracle snakes only appeared one at a time.  Every sighting, every history book pointed them to being solitary creatures.

A dark cloud drifted to the side, moonlight shining in its wake.  And I froze.

Not just two.

The sky was full of oracle snakes.  Hundreds of them, maybe thousands.  Small ones, the size of a man, and massive ones, larger than this house.  Larger than most ships I’d seen.

They wound their flat coils back and forth under the night sky, silent, floating high above the ocean.  Each of them had Akhara’s Triangle on their scales.

Tasia held up the Lavender Book, and we looked at the painting of the oracle snake.  It’s identical.  An icy breeze blew across the water.

Then she lowered the book, and we saw.

The oracle snakes were looking at us.

All of them had turned in our direction, staring down with tiny, pitch-black eyes.  Not at Elmidde, not at Paragon Academy.  Towards a small beach house on the coast of the mainland.

Towards us.

The rest of the world dropped away.  The sensations from my body faded into the distance, as every muscle clenched up.

Next to me, Tasia clenched the Lavender Book, her hands shaking.  Both Hiras stared up at the army of oracle snakes, eyes wide with terror.  She never looks scared.

A wave of dizziness washed over me, and I grabbed a chair for support.

I need to put together my machine pistol.  But would it even do anything, to that many oracle snakes?

I didn’t move, paralyzed, staring up at the host of serpents above us.  The waves washed against the sand, the only sounds out here.

And then.  Is that a trick of the light, or – 

Were the oracle snakes getting closer to us?  They drifted in our direction, slow at first, but constant.  Inexorable.

My throat tightened.  Sweat soaked my palms.  No.  I staggered back, falling against the glass sliding door.

And then, the oracle snakes froze midair.  In unison, they turned north.  Gazing back towards Elmidde and Paragon Academy, still dark after the attack.  They see something there.

The army of snakes scattered like cockroaches.  They shot away in a hundred different directions, flying back into the thicket of clouds, soaring away towards the open ocean.

A second later, they were gone.  Vanished, without a sign that they’d ever been here.

But the three of us still stood there, scanning the starless sky, looking behind the clouds to see if any of them had lingered, if they would come back.

A minute passed, and nothing came.  The night grew colder around us, biting into my skin and making goosebumps prickle on my arms.

Five minutes passed.  Then ten.  Then what felt like half an hour, or longer.  No more Oracle Snakes.  Nothing in the sky.  Just the quiet sound of the waves, splashing against the sand below.  They’re gone.

Tasia exhaled, and I unclenched my fists, letting my arms fall to my sides.  Left-Hira slumped over on her porch chair, exhausted, and Right-Hira hunched over, his eyes dark.  I slid down the glass sliding door, sitting down on the porch, knees pulled into my chest.

For a few seconds, nobody said anything.  Then Tasia spoke up, for the first time in an eternity.  “It’s cold out here,” she said.  “Let’s continue this inside.”

Everyone moved, in silent agreement.  Nobody wanted to spend another second out here.  Not tonight.

We shut the sliding door and the drapes behind us, cutting off our view of the ocean.  Hiding us from its eyes.  Then we sat down on the couch again.  I felt heavy, all of the sudden.  My muscles ached, and my lungs felt winded.

“Maybe we should move,” I said.  “Get out of here.  Those things, they know where we are, now.”

Right-Hira shook his head.  “If they wanted us that bad, they would have attacked.”  But they saw something.  “And the clouds blocked us from view of the city.  Paragon doesn’t know about this either.  Probably.”

Left-Hira nodded.  “And they found us here already.  In this safehouse that nobody else knows about.  Where could we possibly go to hide from them?”

That’s not much of a comfort.

My hands dug into the couch cushion, and I forced myself to take slow, steady breaths.  “I don’t know,” I mumbled.  “I don’t know.”  But if that’s true, then our lives hang by a thread again.  By whatever strange force in the city that drove the oracle snakes to flee.

“They wanted this.”  Tasia flipped open the Lavender Book again, scanning it with a new fervent zeal.  Then, she jabbed her finger into the last page.  “There,” she said.  “There’s one more note written in the margins.”  That wasn’t carved out of reality.

Then she looked closer at the note, and her hands clenched the book.  Her eyes widened, and she stopped breathing for a moment.

I leaned forward to look at the handwriting.  It sat in the middle of the page with an arrow, replacing something, or adding to something.

Then I read it, and the world dropped away for a second.

Rowyna Branigen

What?  “Wes’ mother is involved in all this?” I blurted out.  Branigen is her maiden name.  Wes told me she’d picked up ‘Ebbridge’ after marrying a newspaper heir, his father.

“She’s a part of the conspiracy,” said Tasia.  “Whatever’s going on here with this ‘Egress’, she’s involved with it.”

The ache in my chest returned.  “Which means Wes is going to get tangled up in this, too.”

First, he’d put himself back into a hell-den of competition and viciousness.  Now, his mother had joined some huge conspiracy.  Something involving the oracle snakes, and the rising water, and ‘Broken Gods’.

Something terrible.  And far, far above any of our pay grades.

“You know,” I said.  “A day and a half ago, I thought Wes got the sweet deal, going back to Paragon.  But now?”  I shook my head.  He’s out of the fire, and back to the frying pan.

“So,” said Left-Hira.  “What the fuck do we do, then?”  Right-Hira stood up and walked out of the room, into the hallway.

“I have no idea,” muttered Tasia.

I reached under the Lavender Book, beneath a magazine, and pulled out the envelope with my ferry ticket.

FROM: ALCAROSS
TO: LANDDEN
DATE: 8/30/520 – 0730
ONE-WAY

My path back to the Agricultural Islands.  Back home, as soon as I put together a proper false identity.

A part of me wanted to grab this and run.  To flee all of this madness.  To sleep on my bed and eat my mom’s pancakes and not feel terrified for my life every day.

But then, I thought of confronting my parents.  For the money I’d stolen, yes.  But also the mob I’d stirred up, the violence I’d incited.  All the people I’d killed for the wrong side.

And I thought of Jun, dragged away by Pictogram to Cao Hui.  Wes, being caught up in this vast apocalyptic conspiracy.

I closed my eyes, and I saw the games of Jao Lu I’d played with them.  All the times Wes had saved my life, when Jun had patched me up.  Both of them, offering me their earnings from Brin so I could afford a replacement body.

“In some of her last moments,” I said.  “Grace said something to me.  ‘We’ve committed great sins, the two of us.  It would take a lifetime to atone for them.’

“Bitch didn’t pull punches,” said Left-Hira.

I tore the ferry ticket in half, and floated the pieces into a trash can.  “So,” I said.  “Let’s get to work.”  I have much to answer for.  And recognizing that failure wasn’t enough.  I had to act.  “We can’t abandon Jun to some murderous Shenti dictator.”

“Yeah,” said Left-Hira.  “For all we know, they’re already torturing him.”

We all fell silent for a moment.

I exhaled, and nodded.  “We’ll get to him first.  Free him, no matter how secure the prison, no matter how strong the locks.  We’ve got an illusionist and the best password thief in the Eight Oceans.”

“And if the Black Tortoise just executes him?” said Left-Hira.  Always the cheery one.

“Jun hasn’t seen his father again,” I said.  “He can’t die.”  I patted the Lavender Book.  “Then.  We go rescue Wes.”

Left-Hira grumbled.  “That boy is way over his head.”

I nodded.  “And with every day that passes, it’s going to get worse.”  I gazed at his mother’s scrawled maiden name.  “We’re going to pull him out of this Egress conspiracy thing.”

Tasia flipped through the unreadable pages.  “And while we’re at it, we can get to the bottom of this.”

I looked at the shut drapes, and thought of the waves lapping against the shore.  The dark clouds where the oracle snakes had hovered, staring down at us.  My breath shortened, and a chill spread through my flesh.

“The water is rising,” I said.  “It’s time we find out why.”  I glanced at Tasia and Left-Hira, then held up my hands.  “If – if you want to join me, of course.  It’ll be beyond dangerous, of course, and there probably won’t be much money.  And Tasia, you don’t even know Wes and Jun.  You don’t have to – “

“Ana,” said Left-Hira.  “You’re not the only one who gives a shit about Wes and Jun.  I’m coming.”

Tasia looked at me.  “I don’t know your friends,” she said, in Wes’ voice.  “But I know you care about them.  You’ll need help if you want to rescue them.”  She indicated her head to the book.  “I still need to save my sister.  And whatever she was looking after had something to do with this.”  She beamed.  “And I’d never pass up the chance to uncover the world’s secrets.”

I nodded at both of them.  “We’ve got a submarine, now.”  I smiled.  “Let’s go on an adventure.”

“But after we save them,” said Tasia.  “What then?”

“Assuming we survive,” said Hira.

“Then,” I said.  “We strive to become Exemplars.”

“We’re not becoming Guardians any time soon,” said Left-Hira.  “So what the fuck does that mean, now?”

“Paragon has their ideal,” I said.  “And so does everyone else.  The Shenti value discipline.  The Neke value humility.  And the Harmonious Flock values empathy.”

Some of the Harmonious Flock,” muttered Hira.

“An Exemplar is your best self,” I said.  “So it means whatever we want it to.”  Write the next page.

What do I write next?  What kind of person did I want to be?

A year ago, I would have said “Guardian”, without hesitation.  Even when that dream grew impossible, I’d given wrong answers to that question.  Again and again.

I’ll have to figure out a new one.  I found myself looking forward to the task.

Then my stomach growled, with a lingering ache, like it had been all day.

Hira and Tasia looked at me.  “Please don’t tell me you swallowed more Kraken’s Bone,” said Left-Hira.

I’ve been so busy with everything today.  I hadn’t had the time for a meal.  A proper meal.

And I’d transferred out of my old body.  My senses would work fine again.

I’d be able to taste food for the first time in years.

“I’m hungry, too,” said Tasia.  “That…incident outside took my appetite for a bit, but it’s back.”

I leaned back on a couch cushion, exhausted.  “Do we have anything in the pantry?”  I had next to zero cooking experience, except with Kaplen’s stress baking sessions, and felt far too tired to try tonight.

Tasia stood up and rummaged through the kitchen cabinets.  “I could boil some pasta,” she said. “Add olive oil.  I’m not a great chef, but I can do that much.  Heating water gets real easy with projection.  Might taste a little bland, though.”

“I don’t mind,” I said, massaging my growling stomach.  “As long as it’s not Maldano’s Canned Lentils.”  I’d only eaten those with a broken mouth, and shuddered at the thought of actually having to taste them.

“Actually,” said Left-Hira.  “I have something for this.”

She beckoned, and Right-Hira stepped out of the hallway, floating a heavy stockpot next to him with projection, Cardamom draped over his shoulders.  He set it on the coffee table, and Tasia jogged over.  The three of us gathered around it, and I leaned in.

“What’s that?” said Tasia.  Her eyes widened.  “Oh!  That has to be – “

“Shut it, bookworm,” said Left-Hira, scratching behind Cardamom’s ears.  “Don’t spoil the surprise.”

Right-Hira took off the lid, and an incredible scent wafted before me, as the air grew warm.  Cinnamon and allspice and cloves.  A faint whiff of fresh oranges.

And apple.  The overwhelming aroma of baked apples.

It smelled like a home I’d never been to, like nostalgia for a life I’d never lived.  It made me think of comfort, rainy days by a warm fireplace, and all the hopes I’d once gripped in my heart.

I gaped at the stockpot, filled with a steaming liquid the color of autumn.  “Is that – “

“Paragon Academy’s mulled cider,” crowed Hira.  “Hot and fresh.”

“But – “  I blinked.  “How – “

“During the cleanup,” said Hira.  “While I went into town to copy that hairdresser, I stopped by one of the Paragon relief tents.  The ones they set up for Humdrums, with lighter security.  Then, I just had to find a chef and use my Vocation to steal their famous recipe.”

“And?” said Tasia.

“It’s not that complicated,” said Hira.  “The trick is the ingredients.  Those took me some time to put together earlier this evening.  But this should be as good as the real thing.  Better, since it isn’t being served in a tacky banquet hall filled with imperialists.”  She grinned.  “And I wrote down the instructions.  I’m going to leak it to a foreign newspaper somewhere.  Fuck their secret recipe.”

“I – “  I stuttered.  “I’m not sure what to say – “

“So yeah,” said Left-Hira, avoiding eye contact.  “I thought you, well, might appreciate it.”

I stood up, ran to Hira, and hugged both of her bodies, taking care not to knock over the pot.  “Thank you,” I breathed.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“Lund pe chadh,” she mumbled.  “That’s for saving my life, dumbass.”

We broke off, and Right-Hira floated a quartet of mugs into the air.  Four streams of mulled cider arced up from the stockpot, pouring into them.  “You don’t need to blow on them,” he said.  “I heated them to the perfect drinking temperature.”

I placed my hands around one of the mugs and pulled it out of the air.  The others did the same.

Cardamom jumped onto the couch and curled up next to me, purring.  Left-Hira tossed him a dried fish, and he snapped it out of the air.

I sat back for a moment.  Feeling the warmth on my unblemished palms.  Enjoying the smell of apples and spices.  I looked down at the cider, steam rising off the surface.

Then, on a whim, I projected into the drapes to the balcony, throwing them open again.  I gazed out past the glass door, past the beach and into the empty night sky.  Past where the oracle snakes had been.  Long gone, now.  Above, to the two moons shining overhead.  Two full moons, or close to it.

I turned my head leftwards, and gazed at the darkened Paragon Academy, the dim lights of Hightown.  I saw the cable car station, far in the distance.  The place where I’d clipped one of the trees near the peak, during my frantic descent to chase after Grace.

I’d imagined myself looking at that view, sipping mulled cider in one of Paragon’s common rooms or its banquet hall, with my newfound friends.  I’d imagined soaring through the air.

But this was better.  This was so much better.

“Thinking of those oracle snakes?” said Tasia.  “I think Hira’s right.  They’re not working with Paragon, or that battle with Commonplace would have gone very differently.  We should be safe here, for a while.”

I shook my head, and pointed to Paragon.  “Thinking of how I got down from there.”

“Hira tells me that you flew, right?” said Tasia.  She got knocked out near the end of the battle.  A curious spark had been lit in Wes’ eyes – her eyes.  As I recalled, her raw projection hadn’t been strong enough to learn flight, despite her academic prowess.  “How was that?”

“More like falling to my death,” I said.  “There was a fair bit of screaming and wobbling.  Kind of a miracle that I didn’t crash, given the state of my body.  And that I’d never trained for it.”

“Yeah,” said Tasia.  “But how was it?”

I breathed in the scent of the cider, still not drinking it yet.  “When you get past all the fear,” I said.  “All the horrible stuff that was going on.”  I paused for a moment, closing my eyes, remembering the sensation.  “I suppose it was electric.”

Tasia smiled.

I lifted the porcelain mug to my lips, and took my first sip of mulled cider.

A storm of flavors unfolded inside my mouth.  The apples, sweet and thick and simple.  A tinge of orange, adding a faint sour note.  All the spices, intense and rich, each distinct, but building on each other.

And the warmth.  The cozy heat, running down my throat.

Incredible.  Beyond everything I’d ever hoped for.  Every note hit with perfection.  It felt like taking a breath, after I’d been choking for years.  It felt like hearing music, for the first time.

I took another sip.  Then a gulp.

Then, I chugged down the whole cup, and extended it to Right-Hira, who refilled it with another projected stream from the stockpot.

I pet Cardamom’s soft green fur with my off hand, looked at my friends, and thought back to what I told Isaac Brin, the night I’d met him on that boat.  Bobbing up and down on the dark ocean, while I bled out from his dart.  My response, to his generic, vague encouragement.

See yourself as a caterpillar, he said.  Imagine your future as a butterfly.

Most caterpillars die in the cocoon, I’d told him, laughing.  They’re eaten by ants or birds or reptiles. Parasitic wasps will lay their eggs inside them and sprout out of them.  The vast majority never make it to adulthood.

I was right.  Many caterpillars do die in the cocoon.  You can fail yourself in a thousand different ways.  The world can be more brutal and dangerous than you imagine, as you forge your Pith, write the next page.

But if you survive, you get to fly.

And doesn’t that make it all worth it?





End of Volume 1





Author’s Note:

Hi all.  It’s done.  It’s really done.  I actually finished the first Volume of this story.  I’ve written stuff before this, but never anything this long.  Not even close.

And despite its considerable length, in a lot of ways, Volume 1 is only a prologue to the rest of the story.  The biggest, wildest stuff is yet to come.  God help my sleep schedule.

Since TopWebFiction isn’t back up yet, Pith has now been cross-posted to Royalroad!  If you want to support the story, the best thing you can do right now is leave us a rating or a review there, so we can get visibility and reach a wider audience.  Any help would be greatly appreciated.  Or, just check it out if you feel like reading it without the dark background.

Being able to edit chapters in advance and make big shifts in the story before publishing is super important to me.  And over the last four months or so, I’ve burned through the majority of my backlog, and am only writing a few chapters ahead of the actual story.  So, to give me time to catch up, Pith will be going on break for three weeks.  The Volume 2 prologue, titled ‘Free Waffles’, will drop on March 8.  During or soon after the break, I may post a rough retrospective, of sorts, where I analyze the writing of Volume 1.  If you’re interested in learning about my convoluted, work-intensive writing process, feel free to take a glance.

To be honest, the last year has been pretty rough for me.  Through all the horrible stuff, this story has been a lifeline for me.  It’s grueling work, but breathing with these characters, this world, is deeply rewarding.  And seeing your comments – your thoughts, your reactions, your theories, has been nothing short of incredible.  It makes all of the hours of editing and outlining and pacing around my room feel worth it.

So to anyone who made it this far, thank you.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you.  And welcome to Pith.  Hope to see you in Volume 2.

– MWS

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13-C – Max

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“You were right,” said Max.  “You were always right.”

Max’s Nekean therapist nodded from the other chair, scribbling in her notebook.

“This world is the real one,” Max sighed.  “My revolution was a dream.”

The therapist smiled, something in between warm beaming and a smirk.  And for a moment, Max wanted to kill her more than anything.  She wanted to gouge that woman’s eyes out, pull each tooth out, one by one.  She helped cut me up for the scientists.  For all she knew, that therapist had given Max all these torturous dreams.

But Max couldn’t make a move against her.  The commands and the Nudge Powder prevented her from doing any sort of violence, or using commands to free herself.

“I’m glad you’re facing reality,” said the therapist.  “What happened?”

“My revolution failed,” said Max.  “We took the academy, briefly, and got a message out to the people about the truth of their leaders.  But we lost in the field.  My best friend captured the Lavender Book, a critical item, but I’m certain she’s dead now.  We failed, largely, due to the efforts of a girl in a decaying body and an Ousted Epistocrat.  Two people who should have hated Paragon more than anyone.”  Max slumped back on her chair.  “But they never came round.  They stayed indoctrinated to the end. ”

Why had Max put so much faith in people?  What had Max believed that all the people would rise up in unison?  So many people act like Anabelle Gage.  Like Weston Ebbridge.

People had a way of disappointing you.

“It makes sense now,” Max continued.  “That the revolution didn’t happen.”  This elaborate dream was just some other torture method.  Giving her hope and then tearing her down again, to make it more painful each time.  She’d never been in control.  She’d never done anything important as the leader of Commonplace.

And now that her revolution had failed, her dream world looked just as empty and cruel as Buttercup Lodge.

Maybe I knew it would end this way.  Pure agony.  A puppet full of needles, screaming as it danced on the strings.

“So,” said Max.  “Please.  How do I get rid of them?”  Her voice grew weak, desperate.  “I want to stop dreaming.”

“There are ways,” said the therapist.

“Do I need to die in the dream?” said Max.  Maybe Paragon would finish her off, or she’d finish bleeding out in her next dream.  And then, she’d wake up here for good.

Before, if she felt a hope, however faint, that the world of her revolution was real, she couldn’t kill herself there.

But the hope had evaporated.  Max just wanted to wake up.

“Perhaps,” said the therapist.  “But you’d probably just start dreaming about something else.  Or your dream world wouldn’t let you kill yourself.”

Max leaned closer.  “You can do something, then, can’t you?”  They’d already broken her mind in so many ways.  Controlled her, ripped away all her autonomy, peeled apart her identity.  Fixing some bad dreams seems simple, in comparison.

“I can’t,” said the therapist.

“Can’t,” hissed Max.  “Or won’t?”  She enjoys watching me suffer.

“It’s not within my powers,” she said.  “But you can make the dreams less painful.”

“How?”  Max clenched her fists.

“You need to find something to bind yourself to this world,” said the therapist.  “The real world.  Something you love.”  She stared into Max’s eyes.  “Then, you’ll find the power to endure the illusion.  In the dream, you’ll be unbreakable.”

Max slumped back on her chair, feeling more exhausted than ever.  She stared outside the window, past the fluttering drapes and over the flowing yellow hills of Buttercup Lodge.  The buildings where the scientists tortured and imprisoned her.  The watery pit where hell itself had leaked through in her dream.

How can I love something in a place like this?

________________________________________

To her great disappointment, Maxine Clive woke up.

Her eyes snapped open, and she found herself in some stranger’s bedroom, a dusty studio apartment with a kitchen and small bathroom.  Much like the ones she’d spent her teenage years in, before Buttercup Lodge.  Used newspapers, empty beer bottles, and a half-eaten box of takeout fish and chips littered the floor.  Morning light streamed in through a blurry window in the corner.

For a moment, Max thought she’d returned to her old life, her life as a bicycle courier.  Maybe I dreamt up Buttercup Lodge.  Maybe I dreamt up everything.

Then she saw the headline on one of the newspapers, stuffed into a mail slot in her door.

PARAGON ACADEMY SAVES ELMIDDE

And below it:

SYMPHONY KNIGHT AND HEADMASTER VANQUISH COUP

Max turned over on the bed, and closed her eyes.  Her legs ached, her chest covered in bruises.  And her clothes didn’t help, either.  Whatever she was wearing, it felt tight, rough, squeezing her waist and legs and stomach.  These aren’t pajamas.

One glance, and she saw her outfit.  A dark blue military uniform.  A Principality uniform.

A strand of light brown hair fell into Max’s face.  My hair.  This wasn’t the Maxine Clive chassis she’d used for the battle.  I got swapped again.

Memories flashed through her head.  Grace, carrying her bleeding body through the streets.  A red-haired Principality soldier, leaving a house, aiming her rifle at Grace.  Grace, jamming the gun, tackling the woman inside her home.

And then Grace, kneeling over Max, purple and white lightning crackling around her.  Performing a forced transference on her and the soldier, swapping their bodies.  Pushing Max’s Pith into the healthy body, and pushing the enemy soldier into the one covered in blood.

“I’ll draw them off,” Grace had said, slinging the body over her shoulders.

“Your Vocation,” mumbled Max, the world blurring in and out around her.

Grace turned around.

“It’s been focused on nothing but this mission for the last decade.  What does it think is going to happen next?  What future is it perfecting you for?”

“Nothing,” said Grace, her voice flat.  “I see nothing.”  Sirens rang in the distance.  Approaching police cars.

“The day we met,” said Max.  “We went out for lunch together, to that salad place.” She chuckled.  “I tried to eat healthy, but you only ate croutons and olive oil.  The entire restaurant stared at you.  Do you remember that?”

Grace shook her head.  Her Vocation’s erased it.  Her knife scored down the woman’s forearms, faking a suicide.

“Don’t worry,” said Max.  “I’ll remember it for you.”

And then Grace had left.

In the present, Max sat up in her bed, her military uniform tight and uncomfortable.  She staggered to the window and stared out, squinting through the morning sun.  A military truck rolled past the street, filled with Principality soldiers.

She knew the protocol for this situation.  Protocol that she and Grace had set up.  If everything went to shit, and Max got isolated, she could give a signal in a dead drop and convene an emergency meeting of whoever survived.

So many contingencies.  Max had insisted on contingencies.  Grace only cared about Plan A, her single perfect world that she drove towards with all her might.  She anticipated victory, at every turn.

Max, on the other hand, had expected failure from the start.

Thanks to all the drills she’d insisted on, Max knew exactly which code to use, which location to place it in.  She knew exactly how to regroup, figure out the next steps for fighting Paragon’s tyranny.  She could do it right now, if she wanted to.

Max crawled back under the covers, and closed her eyes.

She tossed and turned for half an hour, unable to sleep.  So she started thinking.

Our revolution failed.  It had given Paragon a scapegoat to kill Parliament, so Commonplace might have even made things worse.  A return of the Conclave of the Wise seemed likely.

They’d made that damning recording with Christea Ronaveda, demonstrating how Paragon had hijacked their own parliament.  But without the Radio Man, they couldn’t broadcast to every radio in the Principality.  They just had to pick a channel and hope that people were listening.

And judging by the headlines, not enough people had tuned in.  Or a few of them had, and Paragon had muzzled the newspapers.  It didn’t matter either way.  Max didn’t have a copy on her anymore.

Grace.  Afzal Kahlin.  Pictogram.  All the Nudge terrorism she’d authorized.  The chassis scams on innocent people.  The ordinary soldiers she’d butchered.  The servants she’d used for their Paragon assault.  All the violence and cruelty and death.  All the moral compromises.

What did those accomplish?  What was the point?

In the flood, Max had become the cruel ant queen, ordering others to give up their lives to join the living raft.  And they’d drowned anyways, ants and beetles alike tumbling into the water and choking out.

Only Max, the tyrant, had lived.

Max thought of Khona and the Farmer, the parable she told Pictogram, when she met him.  The world is Khona.  And I am the farmer.  Committing atrocities over and over again, hoping for some end to justify the means.  An end that never came.

Our revolution failed.  The stars were still gone.  And the water was still rising.  Humanity’s twilight has begun.

Please, Max thought.  Can this dream end already?

Max lay in bed for hours, at least.  She had no clock in the room, but the sun rose in the sky, and sunk into the early afternoon.  Lying here made her more exhausted, not less.  A headache started to throb in the back of her skull, and her muscles burned where she’d been lying on them.

And the more exhausted Max felt, the harder it was to pull herself out of bed.  A vicious cycle.  She’d been carrying such a heavy burden on her shoulders for the last few years, and now, it felt like her feet had been cut off.  The weight crushed her.  She couldn’t even crawl.

It’s all a dream, right?  This world was empty, in the end, just some figment of her imagination.  Might as well enjoy it.

Max rolled out of bed and slumped onto the dusty floor, on all fours.  After a minute, she pushed herself to a standing position, stumbled to the closet, and ripped her military uniform off.

As she did, she glanced at the back of her hand.  A white scroll on a blue square had been tattooed on this person’s wrist, with a sword stabbing through it.   The Principality’s flag.  A military symbol.  This soldier had been a true believer.

Max kicked her military clothes into the corner of the room, and pulled on a simple pair of pants and a shirt, with a pair of shoes.  A wallet sat on the bedside table, next to a pistol and a holster.  The wallet had a few pounds in it, plus the woman’s identification cards, and a small key.  Ailith Roland.  Thirty-four years old.

She whispered a quiet apology to Ailith, then picked up the pistol, examining it.  I could put this beneath a coat.  Conceal it, so she could still defend herself on the streets.

Max put the gun down.

Then, she walked out the front door, into the glare of the midday sun.  She found herself looking at a flat Midtown street, wrapping around the western slope of Mount Elwar.

A pair of soldiers jogged past her on the sidewalk, carrying submachine guns, and she staggered back, out of their way.  Don’t piss them off.  Max didn’t need extra attention.

A bicycle had been chained in front of the apartment building.  On a hunch, Max knelt by it and used the key on the lock.  The mechanism clicked, and it came undone.

Max tossed the chains onto a pile of trash.  And she biked off into the city.

As she passed ruined storefronts, Max thought of what she could do.  What’s supposed to be fun?  Max didn’t know anymore.  So she just followed the first thoughts that popped into her head.

First, she went to a movie theater.  One of the ones that hadn’t closed.  She bought tickets for all the showings, and at the last minute, wandered into The God and the Dancer, a cheesy Ilaquan romance flick about a famous chef falling in love with a backup dancer.

In the lobby, Max found herself tempted by the popcorn on display, and the ice cream sodas she saw everyone else buying.  But she didn’t order them.  I still don’t know if my sense of taste will work in a new body.  If she had a problem with her Pith, then it’d be broken forever.  And besides, she craved bacon, not theater food.

Still, Max enjoyed the movie.  She found herself laughing at all the jokes, joining the rest of the audience.  Such a normal act, after such a violent day.  Max found herself surprised, that the citizens of Elmidde weren’t hiding under their beds, or praying, or getting blackout drunk right now.

Their city had just been attacked, and here they were, watching a matinee.  It seemed almost remarkable.

Is this what normal people do?  Is this a normal life?  It seemed nice.

When the credits rolled, Max walked back to the box office, bought another ticket, and watched a second movie, A Hero Rises, an action flick about some heroic soldier during the Shenti War.  This one irritated Max a bit.  Untrained guitar players can’t land headshots at a hundred meters.  Totally inaccurate.

Plus, A Hero Rises came off as war propaganda.  She had a hard time ignoring that, no matter how much she tried to turn off her Pith and watch the explosions.

I could have done this for years.  Instead of fighting for a future that she’d never see.  For a world that would never answer her prayers, an empty dream designed to torture her.

This could have been me.  If she’d ignored that fake letter from Paragon.  If she’d just stayed in her apartment, looked away from the temptation.

She’d spent all the money in her wallet, so she biked back to the apartment to pick up more money.  When she got back, a stack of bills had been shoved through Ailith Roland’s mail slot.  This doesn’t slow down, either.

This time, Max also noticed a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, a veritable mountain of filthy pots, pans, and plates that would take half an hour to clean.

Where do you see yourself in five years?  The job interviewer asked her, so many decades ago.

Doing dishes, Max had thought.  Bleeding out of my ears.

Yes, maybe this would have been her life.  The monotony, the money troubles, wading through bureaucracy until she died.

Max stuffed the dirty dishes and bills into a large trash bag, then pulled open her rear window and threw them out.  They landed in the alleyway below with a crash.

Then, on one of the bookshelves, she spotted a stack of Nekean romance manga, Panda Blossom.  Volumes one through fifty.  This wouldn’t irritate her with war propaganda, or feeble attempts at realism.

Max refilled her wallet, took all of them, and went to a cafe.

She sat at a window table, drank hot water, and dug into the stack of foreign comics.

It was the most ludicrously stupid thing she’d ever read.  She dug through fifteen volumes in an hour.

Heavenly scents of coffee and fresh pastries drifted into her nose, with the heavenly scent of fresh bacon, sizzling on a pan somewhere.  But Max still didn’t order anything, no matter how tempted she felt.

On volume twenty-seven, Max reached a boring part of Panda Blossom, some lengthy side POV, and glanced around the cafe for a moment.

The men and women here looked exhausted.  Half-awake.  They slouched over at their tables, didn’t talk, stared at their drinks with baggy eyes.  A tank drove down the street outside, its motor growling, its metal joints screeching as it bumped over piles of rubble.

These people don’t look normal.  They looked like the citizens of Kiterjede after the Corsairs’ conquest.  Or the Shenti, in the aftermath of the Spirit Block.  They’ve lost the will to exist.  And now they were drifting through life, aimless, waiting for the next apocalypse.

The simple life was never possible for me.  A ‘simple’ life required financial stability and free time.  Her boss at the bike company had taken that from her when he decided to pay her starvation wages.  The moment he fired her for showing up late on one delivery.

In Ailith’s life, the fantasy would fade.  She’d have to buy new dishes and clean them.  She’d have to fish those bills out of the trash and pay them.

This would be her future.  A slow, lonely existence.  Going to work again and again, until she grew old, imploded from the medical bills, and died, wondering what could have been, whether any of this had been real.

Until they forget me.  This was the future of so many in the Principality.

Max gazed out the window.  A lone Green Hands ran away from the military, his hands cuffed behind his back.  A Principality soldier tripped him, and another one kicked him in the face, sending up a spurt of blood and broken teeth.

Max flinched.  This is my fault.  This wouldn’t have happened if they’d won.

She stared at the bleeding Green Hands, as the soldiers dragged him into a truck.  You deserve the magnificent world that I hoped for.  But she hadn’t built that.  She’d crumbled.

Even if this was a dream, even if this was all pointless, Max still felt responsible.  No matter what she did, the weight of the world still pulled down on her shoulders.

Max left some money on the table for her hot water, though it was technically free.  Then she picked up her manga and left the cafe.

________________________________________

Max strode towards the edge of the North Bridge.

She leaned over the metal railing, next to one of the massive steel cables suspending the whole structure over the water, connecting Elmidde to the mainland of the Principality.  A warm summer breeze blew through her brown hair.  Behind her, a line of trucks and automobiles waited at a military checkpoint, undergoing inspections before entering or leaving the city.

Next to them, military trucks sped into Elmidde, filled with Principality soldiers.  An endless parade of enemies.

Max stared down.  The Carheim Ocean sat hundreds of feet below, a flat expanse of water extending far into the horizon.  It looks so blue.  So clear and inviting.

She closed her eyes, and pictured clambering over the railing.  Leaping off, dropping through the sky, and crashing at the bottom.  At this height, the impact would crush her in an instant, and with the military and hospitals this busy, they wouldn’t have the time to fish her out and tend to her wounds.

A burst of warmth flooded Max’s veins as she thought of this.  She couldn’t save this city or wake up from this nightmare.  But she could control this, at least.

If this was a dream, Max could finally free herself of its cruel whims.  And if this was real, then Max wouldn’t have to live with her failure.  She would get the punishment she deserved.  The endless water would take her, just like it had taken the Great Scholars, and so many others.

The sea remains.  She’d used so many slogans, but should have focused on that one.  The one prevailing truth, that preceded all others.

Max pushed herself up on the railing, clumsy, unfamiliar with this body.  She vaulted one leg over, and glanced back at the road, towards the pedestrian walkway on the other side of North Bridge.

A short woman stared at Max, dressed all in black.  The two of them made eye contact for a second.

Then the woman opened a grey carton, and threw an egg at a passing tank on the street.  It struck the vehicle’s slanted blue armor and ran down the side.  Impotent.  Harmless.

The woman sprinted away, and a police officer tackled her, slamming her onto the concrete and knocking the carton out of her hands.  He pressed her face into the pavement, while another officer cuffed the woman’s hands behind her back.

She knows she can’t harm the tank.  That she was powerless next to the military might of the Principality.  She had no guns, no explosives, no projection.  The tiniest ant against a beetle the size of a mountain.

But she still threw the egg.  She still made a petty act of defiance, even though it would cost her freedom.

Max broke out into laughter, doubling over on the railing.  Her shoulders shook, and her chest ached as she guffawed, the noise echoing over the bridge.

One of the soldiers stared at her, fury in his eyes.  “Hey!” he shouted.  “Shut the fuck up!”  He’s giving me an out.  In case Max was laughing at something other than him.

Max kept laughing.  She stared at the tank with the egg white running down the side, the yolk broken on the sidewalk.  And she kept laughing.

The soldier sprinted over to her, crossing both streets filled with stopped cars.  Then he grabbed Max’s shirt.

For a moment, it seemed like he was going to shove Max off the bridge.  To give her the silence she’d wanted for so long.

One push, and it’d all be over.

Then he pulled her off the railing, onto the bridge’s sidewalk, and started kicking her.  His steel-toed combat boot slammed into her stomach, knocking the wind out of her.  The next kick smashed into her face, breaking two of her teeth and blurring her vision.

Max didn’t stop laughing.  Not even when the third kick went between her legs, sending agony throughout her body.

The soldier raised his boot for a fourth kick, a stomp to her nose that might be enough to kill her.

“Enough!” a voice shouted in the distance.

Max’s vision cleared.  Another soldier stood behind the man kicking her, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“Enough,” he said.  “See her wrist, book-burner?  She’s one of us.”

The man grabbed Max’s right hand and held it up, staring at the tattoo of the Principality’s flag.  Then he stepped back from her, clenching his teeth, his boot stained red with blood.  “Why the fuck was she laughing at us?” he snarled.

“She’s shell-shocked,” said the other soldier.  “It makes people do crazy shit.”  He knelt next to Max.  “Hey.  Sorry about that.  Do you need any help?”

Max shook her head.

“Let’s go,” he said, standing up.  “You’ll have other outlets for your anger, Clarke.”

“Forget it,” said the violent soldier.

Both of them walked back to the tank, and stuffed the handcuffed young egg-thrower into a truck.  The kinder soldier slammed the door shut, and they drove off.

Max lay on the ground for a few minutes, curled up, as the aches subsided, blood and drool leaking out of her mouth.  That could have gone much worse.  The soldier hadn’t kicked her in any important places.  If I didn’t have that tattoo.  She didn’t want to think about it.

But she’d survived.  Instead of jumping off the bridge, she’d broken out in laughter.

Max stood up, brushed herself off, and strode down the sidewalk, blood dripping down her chin.  Back towards Elmidde.

That evening, as she walked through the streets, she overheard a radio broadcast, echoing out of a cafe on the street.

A man’s voice, deep and measured, with a thick eastern accent.  “My name is Cao Hui.  The Black Tortoise.  The Scholar of Economy.  Conquerer of the Nekean Islands, Ilaqua, and the Principality, and Grand Marshal of the Shenti Empire.

Max froze.  Impossible.  The Black Tortoise was wasting away in a hut somewhere, not broadcasting on the radio.  The Shenti Empire had dissolved into a chaotic mess of squabbling warlords and bombed-out buildings.  It wasn’t unified.

Then she ran into the cafe.  A group of waiters had gathered around the radio on the counter, listening to the broadcast.  “Where’s that coming from?” Max said.

One of them shrugged.  “Some music station out of Alcaross.  I think someone broke in.”

Cao Hui continued.  “Two days ago, we orchestrated our greatest attack yet against the imperialist butchers of the Principality.  Our agents in Commonplace, under the command of my generals, struck a mighty blow, to bleed the enemy.

Max clenched her teeth.  Bastard.  He was taking credit for all of Commonplace’s hard work.  Her Shenti warlords had provided funding and training, and an elite soldier, Pictogram.  But Max had set all the priorities, not them.  She wanted to build something.  They just wanted revenge.  They wanted to use me.  And maybe they’d succeeded.

They exposed the truth of the Principality’s so-called democracy.  Their bloated, aging government, propped up by stolen wealth and mental hijacking.  They made a recording, with their own spoiled celebrity, who could tell nothing but the truth.

He found out about Christea Ronaveda.  Then he’d heard the recording, even if most of the Principality hadn’t.

Paragon Academy did its best to hide all copies of this recording.  But it failed.  And so, I share it with you today, so that you may know your enemy:

A woman’s voice crackled onto the radio.  “My name is Christea Ronaveda.

Cao Hui played the full recording from the Great Library.  Exposing how all of Parliament had been hijacked, that Paragon was responsible.  How many people are listening to this?  It didn’t sound like a popular radio channel, but the word would be spreading.  People would be tuning in around the country.

See you in paradise, squidfuckers,” said Ronaveda.

The recording finished, and Cao Hui’s voice came back.  “So,” he said.  “To all my brothers and sisters of the Shenti.  To our children who have left our shores, and traveled to the lands of the enemy.  To all who feel the infinite cruelty of the Spirit Block.  Our hearts, ripped from us.”  He paused.  “I call on you to fight with me.  To gather your arms and your bodies and all your strength.  Join me, and witness the rebirth of the Shenti Empire.

The recording ended.

The cafe fell silent.  None of the waiters or the guests spoke, frozen in pure shock.  The Black Tortoise has returned.  The enemy they thought they’d defeated a decade ago.  The Praxis specialist genius who had turned the Shenti’s industry into an unstoppable war machine.

Eastern dogs,” muttered one of the waiters.

If the Principality had been harboring any doubts, they were definitely going to invade now.  Their enemy had revealed himself.

Max forced herself to take slow, calming breaths, slowing her rushing heartbeat.  Then she stepped out of the cafe.

She had a dead drop to make.

________________________________________

Leo’s Place, the sign said, bathed in the orange glow of a streetlamp.  A contingency of a contingency.  A few alphabets away from Plan B.

One of Max’s subordinates had given her a list of locations to memorize before the battle, a long series of emergency backups in case of catastrophic failure.  All the other spots ahead of it on the list had been demolished, or had closed, with the owners missing.  Or had a heavy police presence nearby.

Someone had smashed the front window of the bar, and streaks of black ran up the walls from a firebomb.  But otherwise, it looked fine.  Next to the rest of the country, it’s pretty much paradise.

Max strode through the front door.  The bartender, a middle-aged man cleaning glasses, indicated his head to the back room.  I’m late.  The meeting had already started.  Max had kept herself busy this afternoon.

She strode through the door, to a dusty hallway in the back of the building, lit by a single dim light bulb.

Voices echoed from the room ahead.  Two men, angry.  Nelson Hicks and Cyril Hosmer.  Two of her lieutenants, lower on the command chain, who hadn’t participated in the attack.  Makes sense that they survived.

“They’re dead,” Nelson said.  “Tunnel Vision and Clive.”

“What about the Broadcast King?” said Cyril.

“Kahlin’s safehouse got attacked, too, after the battle.  He’s gone missing, which means he’s either dead, a traitor, or on the other side of the world.  And our Shenti contacts have gone silent, now that their new boss has taken our credit.”

“Eastern dogs,” a woman muttered.

Nelson’s voice grew heavy.  “We’re alone.  We have nothing.”

“Then who called this emergency meeting?” said a female voice.  Flora Davis.  “Only a few people have those security protocols.”

“Maybe it’s a trap,” said Nelson.  “Maybe a few of us in this room have already been hijacked, or replaced, and they’re just waiting for more of us to show up before they sweep in and arrest us.”

“No,” said Flora.  “Paragon is reeling and disorganized after the battle.  They don’t have the resources for that kind of offensive right now.”

“They weren’t supposed to have the resources to crush us like this, either,” said Nelson.  “Maybe this is just the last, dying gasp of our movement.”  His voice echoed through the shut door.  “We’ve spent our money, our guns.  And our people are dying.  We invested everything into the attack on Paragon.  An empty, pointless defeat.”

“It wasn’t pointless!” hissed Flora.  “Look at how many Guardians we slew.  Listen to the radio!”

Nelson and Cyril started shouting at the same time.  Flora and another two voices joined them, making an incomprehensible din.

Max burst through the door.  “Hey!”

Inside, a dozen men and women stood up from a table and pointed guns at her.  New body, new rules.

“Three-One Purgatory Exclamation,” she said.  The password.  “Sit down.  We have a lot to discuss.  I didn’t call this meeting so we could all yell at each other.”

Her lieutenants lowered their guns, and stared at her.  Then, one of them spoke up.  “Ma’am?”

“I told you,” she said.  “‘Max’ is fine.”

“You have a plan, right boss?  Max.”  Flora gazed at her, expectant, puffing on a cigarette.

“Of sorts,” said Max.  “Give me all your guns.”

The men and women around her flicked their safeties on and handed their weapons over.  Max stacked pistols and submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns in her arms, a pile weighing her down, even in this fit soldier’s body.  An array of customized, death-dealing tools, each tailored and perfected by its user.  Loaded with steel and Voidsteel and all sorts of buckshot.

Then, she walked to the edge of the room and dumped them in a trash can.  They clanked to the bottom, making a crunching sound on a paper bag inside, none of them firing on accident.

The men and women shouted, made sounds of irritation and confusion.  “I spent five thousand pounds on that gun!” yelled Cyril.

Max raised her hands to quiet the din.  “We,” she said, “can’t fight with these anymore.  You just described why.”

“Then we can die honorable deaths,” said Cyril.  “Or fight until the people rise up and join us.”

Max strode to the edge of the room and threw open the curtains, letting in dim light from the streetlamps.  From this window as a vantage point, they could see some of the larger streets of Lowtown in the distance.

Even at this late hour, tanks rolled down the boulevards, past storefronts and apartment buildings, accompanied by soldiers and the occasional Guardian.  Far more soldiers and firepower than Commonplace had ever gathered in one place.

That’s what we’re up against.”  Max paced back and forth in front of the table.  “Paragon has overwhelming strength.  Very soon, they’ll come after us with all their military, all their intelligence and projectors.  We don’t have Kahlin, or the Shenti, or the Pyre Witch to fend them off.  We won’t even have Parliament’s bureaucracy to slow them down.”

“Then,” said Nelson, his voice heavy.  “What are we supposed to do?”  He snorted.  “Peaceful protest?  Like a decade ago?  Give out free hugs to the armed riot cops?”

“We have only one, slim chance for victory,” said Max.  “Scatter.”

Dead silence.  None of them had expected this, not from her.

“Flee to the corners of this nation.  To the corners of the Eight Oceans, if you have to.  Cut off contact with all other major branches of Commonplace, and perform memory wipes, so if any one group gets hijacked, it won’t affect the others.”  Her voice grew quiet.  “Forget your colleague’s faces.  Forget their names.  Forget the internal workings of Commonplace.  Forget me.”

The silence lasted for another second.  Then everyone broke out in shouting again.  Questions, protests, suggestions of alternatives.

“But if we separate,” said Flora, breathing out smoke.  “How can we coordinate action?  Keep fighting the war?”

“We can’t,” said Max.  They still had some soldiers, their Conduit, and a few leads Max hadn’t explored yet, but none of those were enough to take on the full force of Paragon.

Flora slouched over on her chair, putting out her cigarette.  “Then we’re fucked,” she said.  “The Principality is lost.  Paragon Academy will roll over us, and the forces of cruelty will own this nation.  At least until the water drowns us all.”

Max thought of the young woman on the bridge.  The one who threw the egg.

“We’ve lost the military war,” said Max.  “But – “  She reached into her coat, pulled a folder out of her pocket, and set it on the table.

“What’s that?”

“A poll,” said Max.  “Finished four hours ago.  Three hours ago, an appointed security panel banned it from public release for ‘purposes of national security’.  So an office assistant gave it to one of our people.  They passed it on to me this evening.”  She slid it to the man next to her.  His eyes widened as he read it.

The folder circled the table, each time stirring surprise and wonder from the people gathered.

“Two weeks ago, national support for Commonplace sat at thirty-one percent,” said Max.  “Four hours ago, it sat at fifty-three.  Paragon’s crackdown.  Our revelations about Parliament.  They didn’t fall on empty ears.”  She shrugged.  “Of course, it wasn’t enough to turn the whole military, or key government officials, or deliver us the country.  Anabelle Gage exposing our Shenti connections didn’t help.  Neither did the Black Tortoise revealing himself.”  Cao Hui was a genocidal maniac, not an ally they could trust.

“That’s a cute number, Max,” said Nelson.  “But we can’t overthrow an oligarchy with slips of paper.  That fifty-three percent is going to be bombarded with propaganda.  Without Kahlin’s papers, we can’t counter it.  And there’s the matter of the Shenti, too.”

“Yes,” said Max.  “The Principality will invade Shenten.  For a time, this may rally the public around their struggle, and against us.  Righteous vengeance against a shared enemy.”  She smiled.  “But sometimes, nations wage wars because they’re weak, not because they’re strong.”

“What does that mean?” said Flora.

“Paragon won’t fix any of their subject’s real problems.  And so, a day will come when this nation tilts off-balance.  When a foreign war can’t quell dissent anymore.  When the people’s horror overwhelms their apathy.  When that day comes, we’ll be waiting.”

“Waiting with no guns,” said Nelson.  “No serious force of projectors.  No money.”

“I’m not telling you all to be peaceful,” said Max.  “I’m telling you to be quiet.  For now.  Hide.  Listen.  Train.  Let Paragon think we are defeated, broken.  They’ve always underestimated us.”

Nods around the table.  On that, they all agreed.

“Our job, for the present,” said Max.  “Is not to trust in foreign intervention, or wealthy backers, or the raw power of Tunnel Vision’s mob.”  She looked at each person in the room, one at a time.  “No fancy Vocations.  No awe-inspiring power.  No ambushes or assassinations or terror strikes.”  She exhaled.  “Our mission is to trust in the people we’ve spread the truth to.  The Common Foundation.”

“A slogan,” muttered Nelson.  “Against trained Guardians.  Against the Symphony Knight.  Forgive me for feeling a bit disillusioned.”

“When garbage collectors skip work,” said Max.  “The city chokes.  Trash fills the streets.  When factory workers stay home, the war machine grinds to a halt.  And when farmers all quit, people go hungry.  Even the Symphony Knight needs to eat.”  She clenched her fist.  “No nation, no matter its strength, can survive without the Common Foundation.”

Nelson relaxed his jaw.  Then he nodded.  The others nodded with him, reluctant.

Max sat down at the table and poured herself a glass of water.  “Now,” she said.  “Let’s hash out the details.”

________________________________________

That night, Max fell asleep in Ailith Roland’s bed, and woke up in Buttercup Lodge.

For the first time in her life, she felt ready for it.

The wake-up music drifted into her ears, same as usual.  “Sway on the blue, skip on the sea, dance on the waves with me.

Max’s eyes snapped open.  Her sleepiness vanished, and she sat upright at the edge of the bed, pushing away the covers.  Just like she’d been hijacked to do.

The nurse came to dress her, gave her the daily dose of Nudge Powder to extend her commands, and led her through the field of buttercups on the island.  Past the silent waterfall, and the deep pit of black water, as the sun rose over the ocean.  Into the building where they’d chopped her up and put her back together.  To the room where she’d talked for hours and hours, outlining all of her plans, her hopes and dreams and failures.

“So,” said her Nekean therapist.  “In your dream, you’ve taken a new body, a new name.”

“Yes,” said Max, sipping her tea from a dainty porcelain cup.

“And you commanded your people to go into hiding.”  She scribbled in her notes, furrowing her brow.

“Yes.”

“Because you got inspired.  After you saw a woman throw an egg.”

“Yes,” said Max.  “We showed the world that the Principality is fragile, that the might of Paragon Academy can be challenged.  That was our first attempt.  You should fear our second.”

The therapist kneaded her forehead, and sighed.  “You’ve been busy in your fantasy world,” she said.  “You sound pleased with yourself.  But you need to abandon the fantasies.  Have you thought at all about what I said earlier?”

“Yes,” said Max.  “I have.”

She’d thought about that lots after her meeting at the bar.  You need to find something to bind yourself to the real world.  Something you love.

“Maybe it’s not important, which world is real,” said Max.  “The important thing is which world I care about.  Even if they’re both real.  Or if they’re both fake.”

“So you’ve found something here,” said the therapist.  “Something to anchor yourself here?”

“Well,” said Max.  “I found something to anchor myself.”  She stood up, her voice calm and measured.  “I’m going to kill you someday.”

The therapist looked taken aback.  “What?”

“I thought that if I endured enough pain, I could somehow find the strength to escape this world, to live in a place with possibility and hope, instead of hollow misery.  To wake from this nightmare.”  She shook her head.

“Max,” sighed the therapist.  “We’ve been over this.  You can’t wake up from here because it’s the real world.  I thought that you were – ”

Max stomped on the wooden floor, making her therapist flinch.  She couldn’t perform any direct violence, but the commands didn’t prohibit loud noises.

“But I am a Humdrum!” Max cried out.  “We don’t get shortcuts.  We don’t get easy solutions.  But we endure.  We can get knocked down and spat on and hijacked, and we still find a way to kick you in the balls.  We still strive to be our own Exemplars, our own best selves.”  She smiled and closed her eyes, thinking of the woman throwing the egg.  Of her friends in Commonplace.  Of Grace.  “I know which world matters to me.”

“It – it doesn’t matter,” said the therapist, stuttering.  “You can’t escape.”

Max shook her head.  “Someone did this to me.  Put me in this hellish dream world.  I don’t know who, but if they did it, they can undo it.  I don’t care how long it takes.  I will outlast you.”  Her smile widened, into a grin.  “I’m not your patient, or your victim.  I’m your worst enemy.”

The therapist just blinked at her, shocked.

Max leaned forward, placed her palms on the woman’s ears, and kissed her forehead.  “Hope you’re ready for war.”

The kiss shook the therapist out of her stupor, and she jumped out of her chair.  “Guard!” she shouted.  “Guard!”

The guard burst into the room and whistled, freezing Max’s movements in place.  He hefted his rifle.  “Ma’am, are you alright?”

The Nekean woman exhaled, her forehead and armpits damp.  “We’re done for the day,” she said, out of breath.  “Escort the patient back to her room.”

The guard gave Max another clicker-whistle signal, compelling her to follow.

Before Max stepped out of the door, she called out to the therapist.  “See you tomorrow, genius.”

A thousand Whisper vocations at your fingertips, thought Max.  And I’m the one who made you sweat.

________________________________________

Max woke up in the real world.

The world of a thousand flaws.  The world where she’d met Grace, fought alongside thousands of comrades.  Where she’d failed.

Max had escaped Buttercup Lodge.  She had led a revolution.

It didn’t matter what Whisper Vocations the scientists had thrown over her.  It didn’t matter what kind of soup they’d turned her Pith into.  To Max, this world was real.  This world was worth fighting for.  And that was all that mattered.  The next time she fell asleep, she would wake up in Buttercup Lodge again.

But she would be ready.

Her eyes snapped open in bed, and she jumped out, feeling her bare feet on the cold hardwood floors.  An anchor.  Max smiled.  That therapist was right about one thing.

She couldn’t dwell on her internal struggles.  Paragon’s crackdown was about to start.  She had work to do.

First, though, she needed breakfast.

One quick trip to the grocery store, and she had two large bags filled with supplies.  One large supply, really.  The soldiers on the street stared at her, but the sun had risen.  Curfew had lifted hours ago, and she still had her military tattoo on this chassis.

Max slammed her apartment door shut, and turned on every burner on her stove.  She flung open the cabinets and pulled out every pot and pan that Ailith Roland had bought.  That she hadn’t thrown away already.

Then she reached into her grocery bags, and pulled out two dozen packages of bacon.  Since she’d never made bacon before, she set the burners at all different temperatures, then ripped open the packages and slapped on the strips of meat.

In minutes, the smell of bubbling pork fat filled the room, thick and rich and smoky.  It stung Max’s eyes a bit, and she pulled open the window to let it out.  The bacon sizzled in small lakes of oil, crackling and browning.  One of the pieces went pop, splashing droplets of hot liquid onto her arm.

Max flinched, then smiled.

As Max cooked the bacon, she gazed out of the open window, past the alleyway with her trash and to the street outside.

Soldiers jogged down the sloped street, all carrying rifles or automatic weapons.  A pair of them kicked down a door across the road, running in.  A tank rolled next to them, its engine growling, and a pair of trucks drove behind, stuffed with groggy men and women in handcuffs.

The purge has started.  The mass arrests in the aftermath of the attack on Paragon.  With luck, most of the victims would be sent to prison, rather than murdered.  The Principality hadn’t descended to that point.  Not yet.

Max slid pieces of bacon from the stove onto a clean bath towel, calm, draining out the grease.  They ranged from almost raw to crispy and burned.  She stuffed them into the largest paper bag she could find, then tossed the grease-filled pans out of the window, into the alleyway.

Then, she dressed up in her military gear and left the house.  Ailith Roland had gotten a phone call from a superior, ordering her to help with the ‘cleanup’ efforts, excoriating her for missing a day of work.

Max had faked some sickness.  Her CO had bigger things on his mind, and at this level of the military, people didn’t use personalized passwords.  That bought her a day, but to maintain her cover, now, she had to go to work.  Report to the office in Midtown for her assignment.

She shut the door behind her, locked it, and walked through the streets, calm, as sirens rang in the distance and soldiers shouted orders.  The sun rose over the Eloane Ocean, casting warm, orange light over the city.

A few soldiers and cops gave Max odd looks as they jogged forward.  As she stared at them.  But none of them aimed at her.  Whenever any of them got close, Max flashed the military tattoo on her wrist, and they backed off.

It only took a few minutes for Max to get to the tram station.  A pair of soldiers guarded the lobby, forcing people to go through an inspection to get on public transportation.  As a result, the line of people stretched around the block.

When Max came up to the checkpoint, the soldiers smiled at her, and waved her through, not even bothering to check her bag.

As usual, the station’s platform was full, a crowd packed shoulder to shoulder, shouting, jostling for space near the front so they had a chance of getting a seat.  Purge or no, these people had places to be.  When the train arrived, they pushed forward, flooding into the tram.

Max didn’t push.  She just strode forward, calm, and squeezed herself into a corner of the car.  Indistinguishable from any of the hundreds around her.  Just another member of the crowd.

When the engine started, the crowd pressed Max up against a window.  So as the train chugged up the slope, Max had a perfect view of Elmidde as it spread out beneath her.  The sun rose behind Mount Elwar and Paragon Academy, casting them in a dark silhouette, obscuring their features.  And even with the military, people walked to and fro on the streets of Lowtown.

A magnificent city.  A wondrous people.

As the tram rumbled on the street, Max whispered a quiet prayer under her breath.  For the innocents she’d killed in her Nudge attacks, her assault on Paragon.  For the young students she’d hurt, indoctrinated into a cruel system.  Matilla Geffray and all the others.

But most of all, she whispered a prayer for the citizens of the Principality.  The Humdrums who would face terror and death and endless propaganda.  Who would watch their country and their hope slip away from them, inch by inch, day by day.

We’ll take it back, one day.  But it wouldn’t be soon.  It wouldn’t be easy.

I hope we make it that far.

Max reached into her bag, pulled out a thick piece of bacon, and bit into it.

The tastes of salt and fat and pork blossomed in her mouth.

Not bad, she thought.  Not bad.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




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.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




13-A The Butterfly’s Dilemma

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“Write the next page,” said Kaplen.

He lay back on the grassy ledge behind Alabaster Hall, next to Tasia and me.  We stared up at the moons overhead.

“Take responsibility for your soul,” he said.  “And write the next page.  Even if it’s the weakest, faintest effort, you can still finish it.  Then the next one, and the next.”

I thought back to some of my recent exploits.  Helping Lorne Daventry bully other students.  Scrubbing the floors of Clementine’s house, a mobster who hurt innocents.  I did all that to survive, but what if I didn’t?  What would be the meaning of all those hard choices, then?

“What if the book gets destroyed?” I said.  “What if you work so hard to write the next page, and then realize you were writing the wrong ones this whole time?  That you were building the wrong foundations for your soul?”

“In my experience,” said Kaplen, sitting up.  “When your sense of self gets annihilated, you have a choice.”  A cool breeze blew through his hair, and he stretched his hand above him, pointing his finger at the sky.  “You can let yourself wither.  Or keep writing, and find out who you really want to be.”

“I hope I write a soul that I’m proud of,” I said.

“Me too,” said Tasia.

Kaplen leaned over and hugged Tasia, then me.  “Well,” he said.  “I’m already proud of both of you.”

The moon shone down on us.  I returned the hug, squeezing him tight.  Holding back my tears.

Please, I thought.  Let it be worth it.  Let it be worth it.

________________________________________

I slumped over on my chair, my arms and legs squeezed down with metal cables.  The purple sun shone overhead, casting Grace Acworth’s office in a dim lavender glow.

Nausea bubbled up in my stomach, growing stronger by the second.  A throbbing headache assaulted my senses too, worse than before.

I’d cry, but I felt too exhausted.  I’d scream, but I didn’t have the breath.

So I just lay back, shivering, gazing around at the crumbling factory of Grace’s mind.  Staring at my enemy, as she strode forward with her Voidsteel dagger.

Grace picked up the gramophone that had been playing Maxine Clive’s broadcast, and flung it out of the window, too fast for me to catch with my projection.

Then, she slashed the strap on my helmet, pulled it off, then tossed it into her bag, sealing it shut.  The last piece of metal in the room that I could have maybe, maybe used as a weapon.  The chairs were too heavy, Grace was projecting into the cable, and I didn’t have the strength to rip a chunk out of the walls.

Then Grace leaned forward with the knife, raising it to my throat.

“Wait!” I wheezed.  “Wait!  Please.”

She placed the blade against my windpipe, about to slash it.

“Hira’s outside!” I shouted.  “Hira’s waiting outside.”

Grace kept the icy blade against my neck, but didn’t cut my throat.  Waiting.  Her eyes shone in the darkness, the rest of her face covered in shadow.

“Hira’s waiting for me in your submarine,” I said.  “With both her bodies, a fuckload of weapons, and more energy in her Pith than both of us combined.”  My breaths grew rapid, short, and I talked faster and faster.  “You’re not strong enough to beat her, not in your state.  Not in a fair fight, when you’re this exhausted.  If you kill me, you’ll have to deal with her.”

“My crew is disciplined,” said Grace, massaging a scab on her neck.  “They will not allow your friend to control the sub.  I can wait to regain my strength.”

“I don’t know how this place works,” I said.  “But I do know that it’s breaking down.  You won’t be able to stay here much longer.  Kill me, and she’ll butcher you, and be thrilled doing it.”  My voice turned into a bitter hiss.  “She’ll blow up your submarine, wait for you to swim out, and cut your fingers off.”  I inhaled, choking down the nausea.  “So let’s talk.  Let’s make a deal.  Please, Grace.  We don’t have to fight.”

Grace sighed, removed her knife from my throat, and sat down on the chair opposite me.

For now, she wasn’t killing me.

I leaned forward on the metal cables, exhaling.  Still tight.  Grace didn’t loosen her grip.  The stomachache exploded with new intensity.  If I wasn’t bound to this chair, I would have doubled over.

We stared at each other, silent.  I threw a basic illusion over her, using it to flatten my body language so I wouldn’t give anything away.  Out of sight, a chunk of metal fell from the factory, crashing into the ice of the lake below.  A chill breeze whistled through the holes in the wall.  In the back of my mind, my internal clock vocation measured the time.

For several minutes, neither of us spoke.  For what seemed like an eternity, the two of us just watched each other, wary, exhausted, catching our breath.  I clenched my teeth, forcing myself to stay awake.  It could have been five minutes.  It could have been an hour.

Then, I spoke.

“You were right,” I said, my voice faint.  “I saw your memories.  You were right about Paragon this whole time.”

Grace snickered, then broke out into laughter.  “You topple our whole revolution,” she said.  “You murder scores of our people.”   Her shoulders shook as she guffawed.  “And now, you see the obvious.”

“You don’t care, though,” I said.

Grace shook her head, slow.  “Max might have still recruited you.  After everything you’ve done, that woman would have forgiven you.”  She stared at me.  “I am not Max.”

“I don’t want to join Commonplace,” I said.

She doesn’t want to let me live.  But she hadn’t killed me yet.  She’s stalling.  I had some guesses as to why.

“You were right,” I said.  “So why did you hire people like Clementine?  Why did you have to scam my parents?”  My voice lowered to just above a whisper.  “Why did you have to hurt Kaplen?

“Who?” said Grace.

“A boy,” I said through clenched teeth.  “A kind, blameless boy, who found himself at Lyna Wethers’ yacht party.  After you freed her from prison to make Paragon look bad.”

“She hijacked him?”

“He’s dead,” I said.  “He forced me to help his suicide.”

“I’m sorry,” said Grace.

The stomachache was pure agony.  A corkscrew twisting through my gut, just like the night I’d met Isaac Brin.  It made it difficult to think.  But I tried anyway.

I glanced at Tunnel Vision’s off hand, at the Lavender Book in her tight grip.  I’m not strong enough to pull it out of her grasp.

Then I glanced at the other book on the far wall, behind her.  Could I use that as a weapon?  It sat far away, and I wasn’t Wes – I couldn’t control paper that well.  But it’s something, at least.  Grace hadn’t put it in her bulging duffel bag.  Maybe it’s too full.  And the book seemed important to her.

I reached my Pith forward, starting to stretch it towards the book.

Then Grace stretched her hand behind her, and the metal wall crumbled behind the book, and it went tumbling towards the lake, a new hole opening in the side of the factory.  I felt no loose scrap metal around the hole.  No weapon.

Grace glanced back at the noise, then back to me.  Now, there was truly nothing else I could use in this room.  It was all in Grace’s bag, or her hands, or her projection.  Bypassing my illusions.

“Where are we?” I mumbled.  “None of this should be possible with projection.”

“Akhara’s Gate,” said Grace.  “An artifact.  A shard of projection, frozen in time and fitted to my Pith.”  That’s still impossible.

“It’s seen better days,” I said.  Why is she telling me all of this?

Grace nodded.  “My Praxis Vocation shaped my mind towards a single goal.  It failed.  I have spent myself, and this world reflects that.  For now.”

“You had the truth,” I said.  “You were right.  So why did you need all this cruelty?  Was there no other way to win the public?  To make the necessary funds?  Why?  Has your Praxis Vocation consumed that much of your soul?”

Grace hunched over, exhausted too.  “Why did you kill so many for Isaac Brin?  Why did you join Lorne Daventry in his bullying?  Why did you give a speech that turned this nation into a maelstrom of rage against its Shenti citizens?”

“I thought – “ I said.  “I thought it was necessary.  I didn’t think I had a choice.”

“You have answered your own question.”

“I’m barely twenty,” I hissed.  “I was dying.  What’s your excuse?”

“Even as you killed and suffered,” Grace said.  “This world sheltered you from its worst transgressions, its deepest horrors.  Knowing what you know now, how would you have fixed this nation?  Our elected officials were all being hijacked.  Peaceful protests were suppressed, ignored and dismissed by society.”

“Yeah.”

“The world was never simple,” she said.  “You just thought it was.  The parliament of this nation is beyond saving.  They will never act against their masters.”

What?  “Parliament is dead,” I said.  “A gas attack.  You killed them all.”

Grace’s eyes widened a fraction, a hint of surprise passing over her face.  “We never planned for that.  We wanted to hold a trial, show the world.  We didn’t even bring lethal gas to the library.”  She clenched her teeth.

“You said they were hijacked,” I said.  “You hate them.”  I took deep, slow breaths to stifle the nausea, coughing.

Paragon killed parliament, book-burner,” said Grace.  “It had to be them.  It covered their tracks, gave them martyrs.  And now, it gives them pretext to return this nation to the Conclave of the Wise.  They must have a bomb on that level of the library, as a precaution for when Parliament gets holed up there.”

“Or you did it,” I said.  “And you’re passing it off as a false flag.  Just like your Nudge terrorism.”

Grace shook her head.  “Why would I lie to you now?”

“If that’s true,” I said.  “If Paragon killed Parliament, and not you.  Then it’s your fault that they had an excuse.  They used your revolution to crack down, and now what little democracy we had is peeling at the edges.”

“This was inevitable,” said Grace.  “Without us, they would have done it years ago, in a less violent and entirely legal manner.  This is a conspiracy beyond your comprehension, with plans for humanity that stretch beyond the deepest horrors you can imagine.”  She rubbed her eyes, dark circles underneath them, dried blood staining her cheeks.  “At least I tried to fight it.  At least I put my life on the line for something worthy.  Have you ever heard the parable of the Ant and the Beetle?”

“I saw it,” I said, shivering.  “When Professor Keswick explained it to you.”  The story about the self-sacrificing ant in the flood, and the selfish beetle who survived.

“Ah,” she said.  “Then you witnessed my shame.  When I caved to Tybalt and helped him get away with his crime.”

“You couldn’t have beat him in combat,” I said.  “And Paragon wouldn’t have believed you.  You made the right choice.”

“Yes,” said Grace.  “That is the difference between us.  I am an ant.  You are a beetle.  You have protected yourself and justified it, again and again, even if it meant letting the world crumble.”

Is it really that simple?  I’d stood by Paragon, even when they weren’t looking out for me.  I’d refused to steal other people’s bodies, even after I’d been expelled from Paragon, and after Lorne had lifted the tracer on me.

I killed so many people in the field.  I could have captured one of them, taken their body and left them to wither away in mine.  Like Lorne had done right in front of me, when Deon was already dead. While I just watched.

But I never did.  And yes, a brute-force transference took energy and time.  Yes, I was more familiar with this body for battles.  But that wasn’t all.

I didn’t want to be a thief again.  I wanted to be a hero.  Or, a part of me did.  A silly, delusional part that refused to die.

And now look at me.

“But I have this now.”  Grace held up the Lavender Book.  The Voidsteel lock on the cover had been ripped open.  A broken mechanism lay on the inside, some kind of bomb she’d disarmed, designed to explode and incinerate the pages if someone tried to force the book open.  “I’ll have all the answers I need to reshape this rotting planet.”

“Answers?” I said.

“You’ve been told,” said Grace.  “That the Lavender Book contains vocation codexes.”  She shook her head.  “A lie.“

“Then what’s in it?”

“The truth,” she said.  Grace finished prying off the lock, and flipped the book open for the first time, staring at the pages.

She squinted, flipping through to the end, then random points in the middle.  Her teeth clenched, and her grip tightened on the book, her hands shaking.  She slammed the book shut, and threw it in her bag, angry.

“Worthless,” she muttered.  “Fucking worthless.

What did she see in there?

Stabbing pain exploded in my stomach, even worse than before.  I gnashed my teeth.  The fear overwhelmed my thoughts, my senses, everything, making my limbs twitch.

“You’re not going to make a deal with me,” I said.  “Are you?”

Grace looked at me like I was an insect, some repulsive bug that she had to squash as quick as possible.  She shook her head.

“You were never going to let me live, were you?” I said.  “Even with Hira outside.”

She shook her head again.  The steel cables tightened around my arms, pressing into my skin.

I don’t have much time left.

So I asked Grace Acworth my final question.  “Do you feel any regret?” I said.  “For the innocents you’ve hurt.  Your Nudge terrorism.  Kaplen.  Me.”

“Once,” said Grace.  “But my Vocation got rid of that.”  She clenched her fist.  “And if I could go back, I’d do it all over again.”

I sighed, a faint breath of air escaping my lips, that turned into a wheezing cough, my lungs burning.  Alright, then.

“But I am sorry, Anabelle Gage.”  She stared at me.  “I am sorry for the life I cursed you with.”

The two of us made eye contact.  A breeze blew through the holes in the wall, and purple sunlight made Grace’s eyes shine.  My stomach felt ready to burst.

“We’ve committed great sins, the two of us,” Grace said, her voice quiet.  “It would take a lifetime to atone for them.  Unfortunately, you don’t have that long.”

My eyes fluttered shut, then snapped open.  The world blurred in and out around me, a purple maelstrom of reality and thought.

I do pity you, poor thing, whispered Clementine.  Even if you fail, said Isaac Brin, you’ll still get to protect the people of this nation.

Life passes in blinks, said Jun, and then you die.

Your minds are the most beautiful gifts in existence, said Maxine Clive.  And you are wasting them, on a thousand elaborate reasons for the boot to stomp on a face.

Grace stood up from her metal chair and dragged it over to mine.  Her knife blade shot back into the hilt, and she tucked it into her belt.

Most caterpillars die in the cocoon, I thought.  Most caterpillars die in the cocoon.  Most caterpillars die in the cocoon.

I’d walked beside death so many times, fought so many battles.  I’d been beaten, shot at, almost drowned.

But now that I stared death in the face, sliding towards it, I thought that I might see something profound.  The meaning of my struggle.  Some deep coda to build a vast and beautiful narrative out of my pain.

When I’d met Isaac Brin, bleeding out on that boat almost a year ago, I pictured death as a light, warm and embracing, a brief cocktail of tranquility before my soul was extinguished.

Now, I just saw darkness.  An infinite, final silence, rushing towards me at the speed of sound.

Wes’ grin flashed through my memory.  Hira’s faces, Jun’s warm smile.  Cardamom, purring and curled up next to me.  My body relaxed, no longer shivering.  The stomachache paused for a moment.

I’m glad, at least, I thought.  I got to make some friends.  It wasn’t enough, but I was glad for that.  I could have shriveled up on my own, in a homeless shelter or a prison.  This way, I got a year with a little less loneliness than usual.

I could make peace with that.

“You’ve guessed,” said Grace.  “Why I haven’t made a deal with you.”

“I disgust you,” I said.  “And so does Hira.  You think both of us deserve to die, no matter how many apologies I made.  No matter what words I say.”

Grace nodded.

“But why haven’t you killed me already?”

“Because you were right,” said Grace.  “If I fight your friend Hira in this state, I’ll lose.”  She stepped next to my chair, standing over me.  “So,” she said.  “I’m going to be you.”

My nausea grew, overwhelming, and the room seemed to drop two degrees.  “What?”

“Copycat is no fool,” said Grace.  “The moment she sees you walk out of this place, she’ll use her Vocation on you and confirm your identity.  If she senses an imposter, she’ll attack.”

I strained against the metal cables, giving myself friction burns on my exposed neck, casting my Pith around the room for something, anything.  But Grace held me tight.  And I found nothing.

“But now that I’ve talked to you,” said Grace.  “I have a pretty good sense of your personality and skills and thoughts.”  She adopted a withdrawn, nervous expression, slouched her right shoulder, and exhaled.

The motions looked familiar, on a deep, unconscious level.  She’s mimicking my body language.  Perfectly.  That was why she’d stalled, instead of murdering me right away.

“My Praxis Vocation has been working double-time,” Grace said, in a voice that sounded eerily like mine.  “You’ve been using illusions to flatten your body language, but you’re tired, too.  Every time I say something that shocks you, it slips, and I see your true face.”

That’s her Vocation’s new goal.  Mimicking me.

“And now that I’ve fed it a bit, I’m certain that I can fool your friend’s Vocation.  And my crew responds to codes, not bodies.  They won’t attack me, either.”

I clenched my teeth, pushing my attention away from the agony in my stomach.  “It won’t work,” I said.  “Hira will find out.  There are nuances that your Vocation can’t copy.  And you can’t make illusions, either.”

Grace nodded.  “Yeah,” she said.  “She’ll find out soon enough.  That’s why I’m going to kill her right away.”

The world dropped out from under me.  I felt dizzy, like I was falling, another sensation to add to the imploding furnace in my belly.

“Palefire to the eyes plus a bullet or two ought to do the job,” said Grace to herself.  “Just need to get the drop on her.”  She looked down at me.  “And she’s sure to give me a bit of leeway,” she said.  “After I show her that I’ve killed Tunnel Vision.”

She’s going to swap us and kill me.

“And now that I’ve revealed this to you,” she said.  “I know what your shocked reactions look like.”  She clenched her teeth and narrowed her eyes, mimicking my surprise and tension.

“Wait,” I said.  “Please.  There has to be a different way.  You don’t have to do this.  Take me, please don’t kill Hira.”  The nausea and stomachache kept growing and growing.  It felt like a miracle that I hadn’t thrown up already.  That my intestines hadn’t burst on the spot.  “I have a backdoor!” I shouted.  “Hira has a code that only I know!  She won’t respond to anything else!”

Tunnel Vision ignored my desperate lies, sat down on the chair across from me, and placed her palm on my forehead.  Pressure exploded at the point of contact, and blue lightning exploded around me in a panicked storm.  Purple lightning exploded around her, showing the effort for her, too.

Forced transference.  One of the few Whisper vocations that relied on brute force.

Which meant, to force my Pith out, Grace had to overpower me.  And I could fight back.

I screamed, clenched every muscle in my body, and held my soul inside my body, tensing my Pith like I was taking an endless inhale.  Heat spread across my skin, and the tips of my fingers and toes went numb.

No!” I screamed.  A force pushed against Grace, holding me in my body, but she smashed through it like a sledgehammer through porcelain.  The numbness spread to my feet, my legs, my arms, as I felt my Pith flowing out of my body, ripped out of me by the inexorable force of Grace’s soul.

Then my body vanished, and the pain with it.  No more stomachache.  No more nausea.  I floated in the black void, dissolved into liquid.  I could feel the empty space around me, pulling at me, breaking apart my mind at the edges.

A dot of light flickered in the distance, and grew to fill my vision, wiping out the darkness.

And I watched the world through two sets of eyes.

Anabelle Gage, the Blue Charlatan, sat draped against the chair, held down by a projected metal cable.  A square-jawed boy with a thick forehead, wide shoulders, and balding grey hair.  Wearing a torn blue combat suit, grey veins bulging out of the gaps.  Eyes wide with shock, fear, pain.

A loathsome, decaying cage, that I’d been locked in for over a decade.  Thanks to Paragon’s elite indifference.  Thanks to Grace’s willingness to exploit that.  And thanks to my failure.

Grace Acworth, Tunnel Vision, the Pyre Witch, sat back against the opposite chair, gripping the other body’s forehead, blue and purple lightning swirling where they touched.  A tall young woman with long, tangled brown hair, blood staining her face, her suit jacket, her skirt.

Her eyes glinted in the dim purple light.  Staring forward.

From this angle, it almost looked like they were burning.

Then Grace Acworth’s body vanished, the second set of vision popped out of existence, and I found myself gazing at my own body.

I’d avoided mirrors as much as possible over the last few years.  I’d pulled myself into the abstract world of my mind to avoid thinking about that masculine chassis.  I’d fought, worked myself until I collapsed, just to distract myself from that repulsive face.  The agonizing pain had grown so ordinary, a constant piercing background noise that blended into my daily life.

And now, I’d been freed of it.  Even if just for a few seconds.  I’m grateful for that, too.

Grace Acworth’s body felt tired, from its head to its toes.  Every muscle ached, and the cold bit into my skin, making goosebumps prickle up and down my arms.  I felt the sting of recent wounds on the back of her neck, her legs, and smelled the unpleasant stench of dried blood and ash in my nostrils.

But compared to five minutes ago, it felt like a palace.  I could feel all my limbs, all my fingers and toes.  I wasn’t as cold as an icicle, and my breathing was smooth, easy.  The intense ache in my gut had vanished.

I’d forgotten how much pain I was in.  After so much constant suffering, an ordinary body seemed like a miracle.

As I recovered from the shock of the transfer, my old body flung its hand forward.  The metal cable unwrapped from its chair and wrapped around mine, holding me down again before I could stand up.

I pushed back against the cables, straining, my muscles clenching.  I felt stronger in this body, too, a breathtaking power that most people took for granted.  Every movement didn’t feel like swimming through quicksand.  Compared to my old body, this one felt light as a minnow.

For more than ten years, I’d been dead.  For a moment, now, I got to be alive.

Grace stood up in my body, wobbling on my sprained ankle, and opened the duffel bag she’d been projecting shut.

The pieces of my machine pistol floated out of the bag and slid themselves together, assembling in her palm.  She examined it from every angle, making sure it worked.  She ignored her Voidsteel knife at her waist.

She needs to sell the story to Hira.  Hira had to see ‘Tunnel Vision’ dead from one of my bullets, not a knife wound.

I could throw more illusions on Grace, disguise my position, or invent false enemies to fight.  But I couldn’t move.  She knew my exact location.  And she wouldn’t believe any of my whaleshit.

And my Pith felt tired, so tired.

My old body looked down at me.  Its cracked lips moved, and Grace spoke in a perfect imitation of my old voice, even more surreal when coming from outside my head.

“Goodbye, Anabelle Gage,” my old body said.

She pulled the trigger.  Click.

The grey-haired boy – Grace – removed the clip from the machine pistol and examined it.  Empty.  “Clever,” she said in my voice.  “You emptied the bullets from the clip while they were in the bag.”  She shrugged, and reached into the bag, projecting a stream of bullets out and inserting them into the clip, one at a time.

That only buys me seconds.  I didn’t have the strength to rip the bullets out of the bag, or apply enough force to make them blow up, so that was the best I could do.

As Grace loaded the bullets, I summoned up all the energy in my new body, all the strength in my soul, and I made eye contact with her.  I called out to her, speaking in her voice.

“Your plan to kill Hira,” I said.  “It won’t work.”

“Oh?” said Grace, as she worked.  “Why?”  She pushed in the last bullet and loaded the clip into my machine pistol, gazing down at me with my old body.  A withered, furious chassis, covered in grey rot and swollen veins, bathed in dark purple sunlight.  An exemplar of deformity.

“Because,” I said.  “I’m not a beetle.  And I won’t let you hurt my friends.”

Grace aimed the gun at my forehead.

And she retched.  She gagged, doubling over.  Her hand grabbed the chair for support as she wobbled back and forth, dizzy.

“What did you do?” she hissed.  “What did you do?

She vomited, splattering warm liquid onto my black skirt.  Then she knelt and ripped open the duffel bag, rummaging through, ripping out my cattle prod, my empty bullet shell, my spare ammunition.  All my gear.

I’d seen cold rage from Grace Acworth before.  Calculated focus.  Disgust.

For the first time in my life, I saw her look terrified.

She pulled out my metal pillbox of Ventrinol.  Kraken’s Bone, the poison I’d given to Kaplen.  She flipped it open.

The container was empty.

I’d swallowed every tablet inside.

Grace’s eyes bulged.  And she vomited onto me again, splashing liquid onto my shirt.  I looked down.  Red liquid.  Grace was throwing up blood.

Her arms and hands shook.  Her skin turned pale.  She bent over at my feet, vomiting again and again, a puddle of blood spreading over my combat boots.  Thanks to the Kraken’s Bone, she couldn’t transfer out of the chassis now, either.

“Careful with that body,” I said.  “It’s a piece of shit to handle.”

The tight metal cables around me loosened, as Grace’s Pith drained out of them.  I stood up, throwing off my bonds and knocking the chair over with a clang.

Bent over in front of me, Grace clenched my machine pistol in her shivering hand, steadying herself on the ground.  She started moving it in my direction.

I projected into the hilt of her Voidsteel knife, tucked into her belt.  It yanked itself out of her belt, flipping through the air.  I snatched it and projected into the mechanism inside.

The green dagger blade shot out of the hilt, and I flung it forward and downwards, directing it with projection, the Voidsteel cutting a hole in her ABD.

Grace aimed the gun at me, and the knife thudded beneath her oversized forehead.  It sunk hilt-deep into her grey eye.  My eye.

The machine pistol and pillbox fell out of Grace’s hands.  She slumped onto her back, in a puddle of her own blood.  One eye had a blade embedded in it.  The other stared at the purple sun overhead, unblinking.

Goodbye, Grace Acworth.

When Hira found me, I was staggering through the electric fence in Grace’s body, delirious, covered in blood and stomach acid.

The purple sun had grown faint, and the mist had cleared over the lake, the voices and memories nowhere to be seen.  Both Hiras jogged over the ice.  Right-Hira shone a flashlight through the darkness and held a pistol.  Left-Hira aimed her trench shotgun at me, keeping her distance.  The door must have opened back up.

Where the fuck is Ana?” both bodies growled.  “I’ll give you five seconds, squidfucker.”

I threw an illusion over her, and imagined a bunch of arrows pointing to me, floating in the air.  It’s me, I wrote above my head in bright lights.  My Pith had grown too tired to modify two senses at once.  It’s me.  We swapped bodies.

Then I collapsed onto the snow, face-first.

Hira ran towards me, purple lightning crackling around her hands.  Confirming my identity.  Right-Hira knelt beside me and flipped me over.  Left-Hira pressed a finger to my neck, checking my pulse.  She shone the flashlight into my eyes, over my cut leg and the scab on my neck and all my injuries.

The ground shook, a rumbling earthquake beneath us.  A massive chunk of metal fell off the factory and crashed into the lake.

“Wait here,” said Left-Hira.  “I’ll be right back.”  Both bodies stood up and sprinted into the hole I’d climbed out of.  Into the factory.

The earthquake grew more intense.  I turned my head in the snow, looking out at the world around me.  An avalanche tumbled down a mountainside in the distance, sending up clouds of white snow.  Then the mountain itself fell, crumbling into a pile of rocks.

The rest of the bridge collapsed into the lake.  The pale searchlights in the guard towers went out.  Then the towers themselves tipped over, and crashed into the electric fence.  Grace’s world is falling apart with her Pith.  It meant this wasn’t another act.  Her soul was really crumbling.

The purple sun flickered in the sky like a broken lightbulb.  Then it went out, turning the world pitch black around me.  The snow seeped into my clothes, getting them damp, but I didn’t push myself off of it.  I just lay there, every inch of my body and soul drained of energy.

A few minutes later, both Hiras sprinted out of the factory, shining their flashlight ahead of them through the darkness.  They held my machine pistol, Grace’s Voidsteel dagger, and the Lavender Book Grace had stuffed in her bag.  Left-Hira had slung my old body over her shoulders.

Left-Hira tapped her temple.  “Her Pith was unconscious and fading, but not quite dead.”

Her Vocation.  She’d used it to copy Grace’s passwords and skills, conscious and subconscious.

“Is she gone, now?” I mumbled, looking at my old, greying chassis, limp in her arms.

“Yeah,” said Left-Hira.  “She’s gone.”

The ground shook again, and the far half of the factory crumbled, crashing into the lake.  Time to go.  But I could barely keep myself awake, much less run.

Right-Hira picked me up in his arms, and Hira’s bodies ran across the frozen lake.  Cracks spiderwebbed beneath them, but they kept running.

The ice broke under them, and they projected into the lake beneath them, doing a water walk.  Behind us, the dark silhouette of the factory collapsed with an almighty screech, turning into a pile of scrap metal in the center of the island.

Ahead of us, something rumbled, and another massive avalanche crashed down the cliff ahead, headed straight for us.

Hira doubled her pace, and sprinted onto the shore.

Above us, cracks of pale light spread over the sky itself, like the heavens here were just another frozen lake, a thin layer of ice.  Fissures opened up in the cliffs and mountains surrounding the lake, letting in more light.

Both Hira and the avalanche shot towards the door.  A crack opened in front of the two Hiras, and they leapt, projecting into their clothes with a crackle of purple electricity and pulling them over.

From this angle, I could see the white light shining from below, casting Right-Hira’s face in a pale glow as he carried me.

My eyes fluttered shut, then open again.  In that light, he almost looked mythical.  Like some otherworldly savior, come to save the day.

Then Hira landed on the far side of the fissure.  As the avalanche crashed over us, Left-Hira dove through the door to the submarine, and Right-Hira dove above her.

In unison, Left and Right-Hira reached away from the light.

We emerged from the door in the dark side room of the sub.  Right-Hira tripped over the door and fell, dropping me with a clang onto the metal floor.

Behind us, the violet portal flickered on and off, just like the sun.  Snow rushed over the world inside, blocking our view of the collapse.

The portal vanished, becoming a flat metal wall of the room.  Just an ordinary feature.

Then it flashed back into existence, except the world inside had vanished.  Instead, the door opened up to a pale void, an endless white expanse stretching into infinity.  The lightning around the edges of the door had changed from purple to white.  A blank canvas, now that Grace’s Pith no longer shaped it.

I didn’t get up from the floor.  The world blurred around me.  Everything felt so heavy, so difficult.  I wanted to lie on this cold hard metal for a week, a month, the rest of my life.

Right-Hira picked me up again, and Left-Hira burst through the submarine door.  “Hey!” she shouted.  “Hey!  I need help over here!”  Right-Hira ran after her, keeping close, but with every shout, Left-Hira’s voice sounded more distant.

A pair of sailors came running down the hall, and they stared at Hira with suspicion.  “Who the fuck are you?”

“Marble Provoke Seven-One-Seven-Eight!” shouted Left-Hira.  “Quit fucking around, the boss needs medical attention.”

Confusion pressed in around me.  The boss?  Who is she talking about?

And then Right-Hira adjusted his grip, and a strand of light brown hair fell in my face.  I’m in Grace’s body.  The submarine crew thought I was Grace.

One of the crew members bit his lip.  “I didn’t see you get on the sub.”

“Obviously,” said Left-Hira.  “We came from Akhara’s Gate.  So unless you’re a pneumatology expert, I suggest you stop fucking around and get us to the nearest safehouse.  The boss needs our help.”

The crew members nodded, and ran back down the hallway, towards the bridge of the submarine.

Right-Hira looked down at me, and squeezed my hand.  “Breathe, Tunnel Vision,” he said.  “You won.”

My eyes fell shut.

________________________________________

Clementine Rawlyn thought sleep was a luxury.

When I’d been her servant, she’d kept us working from sunrise to late at night.  On top of that, I had to fit in time every day to study for Paragon’s entrance exam, which drained even more rest out of my schedule.

Then, I’d become a mercenary for Isaac Brin, and a Grey Coat assistant at the same time.  Schoolwork had its demands, Lorne had his demands, and every mission had a mountain of planning and practice to go before it, if I didn’t want to get killed.  So a good night’s rest still eluded me.

Then, I’d become a fugitive, an unpaid, vengeful butcher for the Principality.  My body had decayed to its worst point, and new stresses and revelations bombarded me from all sides.  Meeting Maxine Clive.  My speech on Verity.  Admiral Ebbridge’s Ousting offer, forcing me to compete with Wes.  There, I’d slept plenty, lying on my bed for the vast majority of the day.  But no matter how much I slept, I still felt exhausted, every minute.

So when I woke up now, well-rested, it seemed like a miracle.

The first thing I felt was warmth.  The heat of the soft, heavy bed covers, and the toasty air inside the room itself.  A soft wind blew across my exposed feet, cooling me to the perfect temperature.

My eyes fluttered open, and I found myself lying on a bed with blue sheets, in a wooden bedroom.  Sunlight streamed in through a pair of swirling pale drapes, and a breeze blew through the open window.

Seagulls cawed outside, and I heard waves washing against a shore, smooth and gentle.  A clock ticked on the far wall.  11:05 am.

I bathed in the cozy atmosphere for another minute.

Then I got out of bed.  Not because I had a deadline to meet, or a job to prep for, or a test, or some inane task Lorne or Clementine wanted from me.  I didn’t need some agonizing feat of willpower or discipline.

I got up because I felt like it.  And right now, I didn’t need anything else.

How much of last night was real?  The memory hadn’t faded, but so much had happened, so fast.  It feels too good to be true.  Sooner or later, the floor was going to fall out from under me, and I would realize it was all fake, or pointless, or temporary.

I walked into the hallway, wearing a pair of blue pajamas, and turned into the bathroom to splash water on my face.  I turned on the sink, looked up, and gaped.

A pretty girl in her early twenties or late teens stared at me through the mirror.  Her long brown hair still looked tangled, caked with ash and dried blood.  A hint of eastern features shone through in her hazel eyes and her angular jaw.

I splashed water onto my face, and Grace Acworth gazed back at me, gaping, water dripping from her forehead.

It wasn’t a dream.  She’d really swapped with me.

I blinked, and walked out of the bathroom and down the hallway, into a simple, but well-furnished living room.  Couches and a coffee table sat in the center of the room, on top of a bright yellow rug.  Warm sunlight lit everything in a soft glow, and the sea breeze blew through another set of curtains.

It looked like a beach house from a brochure.  The kind they used to trick you into buying overpriced furniture.  Inviting and simple.  Luxurious without being gaudy.

I’d read magazines like that when I was shopping for Clementine.  I would flip through them in the store, hold the images in my mind, then imagine myself there while I lay in her basement.  The kind of vacation a Guardian could afford.

The Lavender Book sat on the coffee table, unopened, its lock still broken.

I left it there.  I’ll deal with you later.

The breeze blew one of the curtains aside, revealing Left and Right-Hira sitting on a table outside, on a balcony overlooking a beach.  Left-Hira puffed on her purple hookah, and Right-Hira flipped through a notebook.

They saw me and waved me out.  Left-Hira put down the hookah, waving the cherry-scented smoke away.  An unusual act of courtesy.

I stepped out of the sliding glass doors.  Both Hiras grinned at me.  “Morning, slayer.  How does it feel to wake up after 6 am?”

I know that’s Hira.  Both her bodies were prison chassis, so Grace couldn’t have swapped in or out.  And Grace never would have carried me out of Akhara’s Gate.  Only Hira would have saved me.

Exhale, girl.  The Pyre Witch was gone, for good.

“What happened?” I mumbled, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.  My voice sounded different too, effortlessly high and bright and smooth without me even trying.  I’d heard it so many times before, loathed it, fought against it.

But now, it was mine.

“You felt a bit tired after the battle,” said Left-Hira.  “So you slept in for – “  Right-Hira scribbled some numbers on the notebook.  “ – twenty-nine hours.”

Scholars.  “I slept through an entire day?”

“Yup.”  Right-Hira leaned back in his chair.  “I thought you might be in a coma for a second, but your doctor did a full check-up and told me that you would be fine.  Your Pith just needed a recharge.”

“My doctor,” I said.  Jun’s face flashed through my mind.  He’s gone.

“Tunnel Vision’s doctor,” said Left-Hira.  “You’re the Pyre Witch, now.  Congrats on the promotion.”

“Everyone believed it?” I said.  “They didn’t just kill us on the spot?”

Hira shook her head.  “I copied all of Tunnel Vision’s passwords, remember?  Even the tricky subconscious ones.”

Her Praxis Vocation doing work.  I’d grown so used to Hira’s presence, I’d forgotten her strength, why her father had been so keen on capturing her.

“And they’re used to her acting strange.  The skill-stitching has faded now, but I wrote down all the codes and operating procedures that I could remember.”  She wiggled the notebook between her fingers.  “Plus, it looks like the bitch kept detailed records for almost everything.  Guess she didn’t want to waste memory space in her head.”  She gestured to the beach house around us.  “So, you’ve got the full amenities befitting the head of the Principality’s mob.  With some big caveats, we can get to those later.”

I sat down on a cushioned chair on the deck across from Hira, still half-dazed.  Then I gazed out over the water.  To the north, up the coast, I could make out Mount Elwar, and the various parts of Elmidde.  Hightown, Midtown, Lowtown.  Gestalt and South Islands.  A few of the larger bridges.

And Paragon Academy, half-hidden in a puffy white cloud.  One of its spires had been broken at the top.

A safehouse.  Where Tunnel Vision could be safe, while still being close enough to watch the city.

I leaned back into a sunbeam, bathing in the summer warmth.  “So,” I said.  “Tell me.  Why are you here, sitting with me, and not there, fighting?”  I pointed back at Elmidde.

“The Principality won,” said Left-Hira.  “No more fighting left, for now.  Commonplace was hinging on those missiles and having some time alone with the city.  But Paragon got a warning real fast and got back in time to save everything.”

“Thanks to us.”  Radio Man.  We’d turned the tide, when we killed Radio Man and signalled Paragon’s fleet for help.

In the distance, on the horizon, a pair of battleships sailed towards Elmidde.

Left-Hira raised an eyebrow.  “You don’t sound all that pleased.”

“I killed her.”  I stared at the table.  “I killed Grace.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “I was not expecting that.  I thought she’d wreck you, and I’d have to peel her skin off with a bread knife.”  She leaned forward.  “How the fuck did you manage that?”

“I poisoned her,” I said.  “By swallowing my own Kraken’s Bone.  I did it under an illusion, then slid the pillbox back into my pocket before she disarmed me and stuffed it all into her bag.  She thought she had everything covered, but I’d already finished my most critical move.”  She couldn’t predict everything.

Hira whistled.  “That took balls.  Before the swap, at least.  Bet your timing had to be fucking perfect.”

“I stalled her,” I said.  “I knew the moment she swapped our bodies, she’d kill me.  So I slowed her down as much as possible.  And after she started vomiting blood, the Kraken’s Bone locked her in that chassis.  So even if she beat me again, she couldn’t transfer out of that body.”  I knew that from personal experience.

“But the Kraken’s Bone could have locked you in your dying body,” said Hira.  “Before she transferred you.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It almost did.”  Grace had pushed through the drug’s barrier before it got too strong.

“So how the fuck did you time it?” said Hira.  “Swap too early, and Tunnel Vision would shoot you.  Too late, and the poison would kick in and kill you.  So how did you know she’d swap with you at that exact time?”

The waves washed against the sand below.  I gazed out towards the ocean, the water extending over the horizon to infinity.  Such a perfect blue.

“I didn’t,” I said.  “I took the Kraken’s Bone at my first, and only opportunity, as soon as she’d beaten me up.  I knew that she was too exhausted to use her Praxis Vocation much, or fight you.  I knew that impersonating me was her best chance of killing you.  And that taking the Ventrinol was my best chance of stopping her, one way or the other.  My internal clock helped me track the time, but I got lucky.”  I sighed.  “To be honest, I didn’t think the poison would kick in fast enough to save me.  But I did it anyway.  I didn’t want her to kill you.  You’re my friend.  You came back.”

Both Hiras stared at me, as my words sunk in.  She folded the notebook shut, and leaned forward.  Of all the people in Queen Sulphur, she might understand the best.

“Well,” she said.  “Either way, it’s damn impressive.”

“It had to be done,” I said, in my strange, melodic voice.  “But it’s the shittiest thing I’ve done all year.  And that’s saying a lot.”

“The shittiest thing?” said Hira.  “What happened to hating the bitch?”

I took in a deep breath, and explained everything I’d seen in Akhara’s Gate.  Grace’s memories, from the moment she’d caved to Tybalt Keswick to the moment she’d become the Pyre Witch, and the snippets I’d seen after.  Including Paragon’s deliberate restrictions on chassis supply.

As I spoke, Hira leaned in closer, clenched her fists, and stared at me.  When I finished, she slapped the table, making me flinch.

“Fuck,” she said.  “Fucking liars.  Lund pe chadh, are you serious?”

“When was the last time you saw me make a joke?”

“Well,” said Hira.  “Back in the winter, I called Paragon a shithole, and you said ‘I like it’.  That was pretty funny.”

“You never liked Paragon much, did you?”  I leaned back, balancing my chair on its back legs.

“No shit,” said Hira.  “I joined Queen Sulphur, at first, to keep myself safe from my father.  Then, I came back, because I cared about my friends.  With a brief spell in halfway through where I fought with you because I was fucking Wes.”

My chair tipped back, off-balance, and I flailed my arms.  Hira projected into the chair, slamming it forward onto four legs.  “You were sleeping with Wes?” I said.

“Point is,” said Hira.  “I never had your blind spot, as a citizen of the Principality.  Ilaquans have always known the true face of this nation.  I always hated our bosses.”

“Well,” I said, my voice heavy.  “I’d say you’ve earned an ‘I told you so’ today.”

“What kind of person do you think I am, Anabelle Gage?” said Hira.  “No, I’ll be saying ‘I told you so’ for at least another five years.”

“Five years,” I breathed.  I hadn’t even expected one.  “I thought I’d be dead by this point.”  For as long as I could remember, I’d barely been able to think more than a week ahead.  Five years seemed an eternity.  “But I am sorry,” I said, staring back towards the coffee table inside, to the Lavender Book sitting on top.  “You were right about Paragon.  Jun was right.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.

“And so much of the evidence was right in front of us.”

“Yeah.”

“Wes and I were fools.  Hijacked, vengeful, stubborn fools.”

“Yeah.”

“Can you forgive me?” I said, glancing at the side of Left-Hira’s head.  Avoiding eye contact.

“I fought alongside you,” said Hira.  “I killed alongside you.  If you’re guilty, so am I.  I’m not the people who deserve your apology.  So I can’t give you absolution.”  She slapped my shoulder.  “But thanks.  For saving me from white hellfire, I guess.”

I laughed.  “If you weren’t in danger.  If Grace had cornered me alone.  I wouldn’t have lifted a finger.  I would have just sat there, and let her do what she wanted.”  I gave her a wan smile.  “So really, you saved my life.”

“Great,” grumbled Hira.  “Two people with a death wish.  Queen Sulphur’s going to become a suicide pact.”

“Does Queen Sulphur even exist anymore?” I said.

Hira shrugged, gazing out at the battleships sailing towards the city.  She didn’t have an answer for that.

I gazed with her.  “I thought I’d feel happier,” I said.

“What?”

“I thought I’d feel happier, after getting a new body,” I said.  “I do feel happy – “

“That sounds nice.”

“ – But I thought that this would solve all my problems.  That I could just lay back in the sunlight and revel in my victory, and everything would feel easy.”

Hira shook her head.

I thought back to the men and women I’d shot.  Forced to hurt their friends.  I thought of The cruel Professor Keswick, and Grace Acworth, and all the things I thought I’d known about the Principality.

“I guess my problems run a bit deeper than that,” I said.

“Some of them,” said Hira.  “Still.  You did it.”

“I did it,” I said, closing my eyes.  I did it, I did it, I did it.  I made it.  That sweet joy, that triumph filled me up with warmth, despite everything.

Wes and Jun’s faces flashed into my mind, and my blood ran cold again.  A bitter taste lingered after the sweetness.

“Where’s Jun?” I said.

Hira flipped to a page in her notebook.  “Tunnel Vision’s agents couldn’t locate him.  Luo Cai and Gao Mei, her Shenti Warlord allies, seem to have broken contact with us.”

The Shenti don’t like failure.

“But, as far as the agents could gather,” said Hira.  “Jun is alive.  And he’s being taken somewhere in Shenten.”

I slumped back on my chair.  They’re using his skills again.  He was going to make weapons for some power-hungry warlord again.

You got him into this.  I’d recruited him, pushed him into our final mission against Commonplace.  Despite his pacifism.  Despite his aged body.  Despite my misgivings about Paragon.

You’re a monster.  I was everything Grace had accused me of.  And now, my friend was being dragged into hell.

“And what about Wes?”  We need to find Cardamom, too.

“Once the military and Guardians returned to the city, it didn’t take them long to clear out all the poor Green Hand fuckers.”  Left-Hira clenched her teeth.  “The moment she returned to her mansion, Admiral Ebbridge moved forward with her plans, even while the firefighters raced around the city, putting out blazes.”

Oh, fuck.  I had been so focused on Commonplace’s attack that I’d forgotten the calendar.  “What day is it today?” I said.  It happens on a specific day near the end of Summer.

Left-Hira cleared her throat.  “Admiral Ebbridge performed an Ousting ceremony this morning.  To decide who would end up her daughter.”

Wes versus Tasia.  I stood up, and blood rushed in my ears.  “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”  My throat clenched.  “Who won?  Who the fuck won?”

Hira slid a folded stack of papers over the table, held together with a paper clip.  “Your agents filled out a report on the aftermath of the battle, including the movements and notable actions of all Epistocrats in the city.”

I sat down on the chair, unfolded the paper, and began to read.

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