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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