14-B Imposter Syndrome

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Nell

I didn’t want to fly.

For years, I’d dreamed about this day.  Soaring through the heavens with my wingsuit, free and unbound.  Watching Harpy’s plane had motivated me last year as a mercenary, when I’d been using the name ‘Wes’.

And now, I stood at the top of North Tower in Paragon, overlooking the grassy floating island where we held squad battles.  A flexible wooden platform extended out of a doorway, hanging over the clouds like a diving board.  And a strong, lightweight fabric had been strung between the arms and legs of Paragon’s practice armor.  My wings.

Everything fit perfectly.  The armor, my helmet, the wingsuit and my goggles.  All of it light and easy and simple.

I was ready to jump.

But I didn’t want to.

“You’ve trained for this,” said Professor Tuft, scowling.  “Stop fucking around and jump.  The invasion’s in just a few months, and you need to fly for that.”

Tuft hovered in the air, wind blowing through her short brown hair.  The noon sun shone down on her.  She wore goggles in place of her usual librarian’s glasses, and her wingsuit instead of her usual outfit, which resembled an elderly librarian’s.

The suit covered up her scabs and injuries, but I could still see the dark circles under her eyes.  Her pallid skin and the weary expression on her face.  Still recovering from her bout with Tunnel Vision.  With her prison body, she couldn’t transfer to a fresh chassis, and had to rely on her weak Joining to heal her.  A slow, agonizing process.

“I have to change my bandages in an hour,” said Tuft.  “Haven’t got all day.  Come on, you’ve trained for this.”

True.  In the last few weeks, I’d practiced the basics of maneuvering in a vertical chamber filled with Tuft’s projected wind.  And I’d jumped off loads of shorter platforms to drill the muscle memory into my Pith.

“And I’ll be tailing you,” said Tuft.  “If you get out of control, or close to hitting anything, I’ll take over.  And I’m much faster than you.”  

“My armor’s got Voidsteel in it,” I said, feeling material I couldn’t project into, in the narrow pouches all over my suit.  “You won’t be able to project into it.”

“That’s not Voidsteel,” she said.  “It’s an old synthetic ceramic.  We don’t use that material anymore, so most younger people can’t project into it.  But I can.”  She pointed to the grassy pavilion ahead of us.  “You just have to fly down there.  Straight shot.  And you did fine in basic training.  You’ll be a good flier.”

But the fear wasn’t holding me back, either.  I’d trained and practiced and studied for this.  Even though the boring, painful parts of the lessons.  I’d used the techniques I’d perfected with Hira to maintain my attention, keep my mind active and learning.  I knew I wouldn’t crash.

But I’d dreamed of this for so long.  What if it’s disappointing?  What if it didn’t live up to my expectations?

Memories rushed through my mind.  Samuel’s kiss.  Getting my mother’s business card – the symbol of her approval.  And that Whisper Vocation she’d put on me, the one that dissolved my whole sense of self.

Ana and Hira’s faces flashed through my head.  Dead.  Both dead.  I clenched my teeth, taking a sharp, rapid breath.

Cheering rang out in the distance.  I glanced down at the grassy island below.  A boy and two girls stood on the edge, waving at me and making noise.  Samuel, Leizu, and Eliya.  Chimera Squad.  My friends, and my fiance.  They’d finished their first flights over the last few minutes.  I was the last in line.

Nell!  Nell!  Nell!”  They cheered my name, pumping their arms in unison.  “Nell!  Nell!  Nell!

I glanced down at myself.  Paragon’s practice armor covered my body, hiding most of its contours, but I could still feel everything.  Could still hear that name, that had been locked away for a year.

It all felt so strange.  Familiar, but strange.  Like coming home, only to realize your bedroom had vanished.

I squinted, making out Samuel’s elegant, chiseled face.  Beautiful, comforting.  But strange, too, in its own way.  Uncomfortable.

Nothing is turning out the way I expected.  And what if nothing ever went back to normal?  What if everything would always feel off-color, like an itch in my mind that couldn’t scratch, like I was watching myself through a pane of foggy glass?

I sighed.  You have a beautiful fiance, wonderful friends, and money.  I had nothing to complain about.  Stop complaining, jump off the platform, and just have fun.  My throat clenched.

“Hey.”  Harpy softened her voice.  “Look at me, Nell.”

I looked at her.

“Ignore them,” she said.  “Don’t focus on me, either.  Don’t think about the drop, or what it means, or anything larger.  Look at the big picture too much, and you’re gonna tie your brain in knots.”  She jabbed an arm stump in my face.  “Shut your brain the fuck up.  Right now it’s just you, your suit, and the air.  That’s it.”

Alright.  I nodded, and let my thoughts go blank.  I pushed away the discomfort, the questions, the endless background noise in my mind.

And I stepped off the edge.

My stomach dropped, and I fell through the sky head-first, my arms and legs flattened to my sides so my wings didn’t open.  Wind rushed in my ears, deafening, but the suit kept me warm as I accelerated downwards.

The grassy island floated in front of me, with only the open sky and Mount Elwar below.  I’m not about to hit anything.  So I closed my eyes for a moment, and let myself free fall.

Harpy’s voice rang in my ears, carried on the projected wind.  “Nell, you’re falling too far, you’ll undershoot the island.  You need to fan out your arms and legs.

“Open your wings!” Leizu shouted at me.  “Open your wings!”

I’m fine,” I whispered, knowing Harpy would carry it to her ears.  “I know what I’m doing.

My eyes snapped open, as I undershot the grassy island where my friends stood.  I projected into my training helmet, made of a metal I could project into, unlike the ceramic of the suit.

I pulled my helmet up, making my body flat, horizontal.  The islands of Paragon shrunk above me as I fell.  I’m about to pass outside the deceleration field.

Then I spread my limbs, opening the wings of my suit.  The wind caught me like a sail, and I shot forward through the sky.

I flew.  The suit accelerated me forward, and I darted under the grassy island, wind whipping past my goggles.  My arms wobbled, and I projected into the outside of my suit, stabilizing myself.

Left to its own devices, the wingsuit was just a glider.  It could move me forward, but I’d lose altitude, and couldn’t fly up.

So I projected into the rest of the suit.  The parts of it that weren’t the old ceramic plating.  And I pushed.  I accelerated myself forward, adding thrust to my glider.

Then I pulled, turning the suit vertical again and soaring up, up, up.  I flew above the floating island, watching my friends gape at me from the grass below.  Then I flattened myself and shot forward again.

Flying felt natural.  More natural than most of the things I’d done the past few weeks.

The assignment was just to fly straight and land.  No one else had gone past that.  I’d already overstepped by flying under the island and going back up.

But I felt like doing more.  So I stayed in the air.  I circled over the grassy island.  I did loops, vertical, one after the other.  I flattened my arms, let myself fall, then stopped myself at the last minute, soaring back into the sky.  Green lightning crackled around me, and my temples ached.  But I kept projecting, kept doing spins and spirals and flips.  My raw projection’s grown over the last year.

For a moment, it felt like I had left my body.  Like I’d was just a Pith, a free spirit soaring through the air.

Chimera Squad kept cheering, impressed by my antics.  Finally, my Pith grew too tired to keep me afloat, and I landed on the lawn, jogging and slowing myself to a stop.

Samuel and Eliya and Leizu ran up to me as I caught my breath, their faces lit up.  Samuel approached me, at an intimate distance, and kissed me.  I kissed back.  He’s beautiful, stop overthinking it.

Leizu rapped my shoulder with the back of her knuckles.  “Not bad, Jitterbird.  Not bad.”

Eliya snorted.  “Showoff.”  But she still looked impressed.

“You’ve got to be more careful,” murmured Samuel.  “Reckless behavior could get you hurt.”

Eliya elbowed him.

“But that was some nice flying,” he said, smiling.

“If you say so, squad leader,” I said.  Still getting used to that.  At my recommendation, Samuel had taken my place as the head of Chimera Squad, even after I’d returned.  I’d been gone for a year, and didn’t feel comfortable being in charge for a while.

Samuel still didn’t want the job.  But I’d asked.  So for now, at least, Samuel would lead us.

And I could fly, free of the burdens of leadership.

“You’re using too much energy.”  A boy’s familiar voice rang out from across the grass.

We turned to look at the source.  A pretty boy with pitch-black hair approached us, staring at us with cold blue eyes.  Lorne Daventry, accompanied by a tense-jawed Nekean boy.  Naruhiko.

What are they doing here?  Maybe they were up next for flight training.

“What?” I said.

“Those fancy flips feel nice and everything, but they’re worthless in battle.  They’ll just slow you down, waste your energy with all the altitude gains.  Just makes you free pickings for the eastern dogs.”

Leizu bristled at that phrase, but didn’t say anything.

“You wouldn’t last sixty seconds against a normal Shenti Joiner,” said Lorne.  “Much less one of their commandos.”

Stay calm.  Hit back, and don’t show vulnerability.  That’s how my mother would handle this.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t have much battle experience.  But at least my squadmate wasn’t a mole.”

Lorne snarled.  Matilla Geffray, his first-year squadmate from last year, had been Commonplace’s inside agent here, enabling the Pyre Witch and her goons to break into the academy.

Lorne’s other squadmate, Deon, had died in the battle.

“How many people lost their lives here?” I said.  “On the dirt we’re standing on.  How many of our friends and classmates?”  I sighed.  “We fought side by side, Lorne.  This prep school bullying routine is getting old.”

“I remember.”  Lorne clenched his fists.  “I just got back from my best friend’s funeral, moron.  And I remember a lot from the last few months.  Like when my mother had the Pyre Witch in her sights, before your girlfriend, Anabelle Gage, betrayed us and used an illusion to save the enemy.”  His eyes bored holes into me.  “Do you remember why she did that, Lady Ebbridge?”

I avoided his vicious stare.  Samuel stepped in front of me, a human shield from Lorne’s words.

“Because you got captured by the enemy.  Because, for all your chaotic strategies and last-minute saves, you got in the way when it mattered.”

“Shut it, Lorne,” said Eliya, glaring at him with her one eye.  “Go polish your knob with bleach, and leave the rest of us normal people alone.”

My friend is dead,” said Lorne.  “Because of your failure.”

I squeezed my eyes shut.  Shut up, shut up, shut up.

“But I shouldn’t be so harsh on you,” he said.  “You can probably relate to me, considering what happened to your real squadmates.”

Ana and Hira and Jun.  Dead, or captured by a genocidal monster.

“She saved this country, you ignorant pus sprite,” said Eliya.  “None of us would be standing here if she hadn’t warned us about the Paragon attack.”

I opened my eyes, and Lorne spread his arms, gesturing around him, at the broken towers, the ash-stained walls, the piles of rubble.  Most of the debris had been cleaned up in the last few weeks, but some remained, lit up by the noon sun.

“Does it look like she saved the country?” said Lorne.

“She did more than you, rich boy,” said Leizu.

“Finish your business and leave,” said Samuel.  “Why are you here?”

“For you, Chimera Squad,”  Lorne said.  “I wanted to be the one to tell you.  You might want to step up the pace with your wingsuit training.”

“Stop being vague,” said Leizu.  “Just spit it out.”

“The invasion’s starting in a week,” said Lorne.  He looked straight at Leizu.  “Chimera Squad’s going to war with your best friends.”

What?  “Whaleshit,” I said.  “The Shenten invasion isn’t starting until the end of the winter.”

“Yeah,” said Leizu.  “Daksha the Butcher was the last one who tried a winter invasion there.  Very long time ago.”

“What happened?” I said.

“As I recall, he fell into a lake of ice water,” said Leizu.  “I guess you could say he froze under pressure.”

No one laughed.  Eliya patted her on the shoulder.

“Why did they move up the invasion date?” said Samuel.  “They must have had a reason.”

Lorne laughed.  “You think I’d tell you?”

“So soon,” I murmured.  “The last-minute prep’s gonna be a nightmare.”

“Oh,” said Lorne, laughing.  “I forgot to mention.  The real Chimera Squad’s joining the invasion.  You get to stay home and fatten yourself on tea cakes.”

The world dropped away from me, becoming blurry, distant.

“You’re not included, Nell,” said Lorne.  “We’re going to war without you.”

________________________________________

I knocked on the door to my mother’s office, floating a mirror next to me to make sure my hair looked proper.

Eliya had helped me with my makeup, and selected a trim blue dress for me.  Tight across the chest, but it looked elegant.  The outfit of a well-mannered court lady.

As I knocked, my mind drifted to Lorne’s news.  We’re going to war without you.  I was going to be separated from my friends again.  I’d worked so hard to get back to them, and now, they were leaving again.

And this time, it might be for good.  I can’t protect them from an ocean away.

Taking them away was just cruel.  But Admiral Ebbridge might be able to do something.

“Come in,” her voice called out from inside.

I opened the door.  Admiral Ebbridge sat at her desk, writing on a pair of typewriters with projection.  She still wore her blonde Maxine Clive chassis, even after the events at Paragon.  It looked like she was writing in a pair of books, with an ink that I couldn’t project into, obscuring the words.  Her Vocation codex.  That Afzal Kahlin had coveted so dearly.

When she saw me, her face lit up.  Has she ever reacted like that before?  Seeing enthusiasm in her eyes still felt strange.

“Ah, Nell,” she said, pausing her typing.  “Have a seat.”

I sat down, making sure to sit up straight and maintain proper posture.

“I read your latest chemistry exam.  Excellent work.  I shall have to up your allowance.”  She folded her hands on her desk.  “But that is not why you came, I think.”

Don’t beat around the bush.  My mother liked directness.

“My squad is going to war,” I said.  “But I’m not.”  I paused, taking a breath.  “Did you have something to do with this?”

“Perceptive,” my mother said.  “You figured it out quick.”

My throat clenched.  Stay calm, don’t yell at her.  If I talked back, she might use that ego-dissolving Vocation again, and I would have no chance of joining my squad.

“Why?” I said.  “You said it yourself.  The war is a chance to reclaim our family’s glory.  To build a magnificent legacy.”

“True,” said my mother.  “And you’ve done marvelous work so far, my daughter.”  Her voice hardened.  “But still.  You are not ready for war.  You don’t even know how to make an Autonomous Bullet Defense.”

“What of my performance over the last year?” I said, keeping my voice steady.  “I have more experience in the field than most of the students in my year.”  Except for Lorne, who’d started fighting at a young age, and Leizu, who’d been a Shenti wingtrooper before defecting here.

“True,” my mother said.  “They’re not ready for war, either.  Even weakened, the eastern dogs have a talent for butchery.  I would never say it publicly, but a single commando could match half a dozen of our Guardians, at least.  And many of our younger graduates have no experience fighting Joiners.”

“You’ve beat commandos, haven’t you?” I said.  During the last Shenti war, when she’d fought alongside Isaac Brin, Harpy, and the Pyre Witch.

“No,” my mother said.  “We lost.  I barely escaped.  If I face one again, I can’t speak to my odds.”  She scowled, staring down at a map of Shenten on her desk.  “Normally, I wouldn’t push students into this, but Commonplace killed a great deal of Guardians.  And their coup attempt in the military took out a substantial chunk of our army and navy talent, once we finished our vetting process.  We need every projector we can to fill our ranks.”

“But not me.”

“Yes,” she said.  “I’m sparing the first-year students, and you.  I wished to save Samuel Pakhem as well, due to the importance of our marriage alliance with his family.  But his parents would not allow it.”  She sighed.  “I will have to keep him away from the worst fighting.  We cannot afford to lose your pairing with him.”

“And what of our legacy?” I said.  “What of opportunity?”

My mother smiled.  “We have a far larger crop of first-years this fall, to make up for our losses.  You will help teach the new generation of projectors.”

What?  “I am to be a….teaching assistant?”

“Many of our professors will be overseas, fighting.  And there will be many students.    The task shall be difficult, especially for your temperament.  But it is important, nonetheless.”

“Is that even legal?” I said.  “Training that many projectors at once.”

“Yes,” she said.  “But only because we lost so many.  You’re referring to the Yokusei Pact, yes?”

I nodded.  That’s what they call it, isn’t it?

“The pact limits the numbers of trained projectors for any individual nation.  All the great nations have maintained it, even during the Shenti War.  Breaking it would mean chaos, an arms race of world-shattering power.”

“Because projectors are dangerous.”

She nodded.  “It is critical to ensure that there aren’t too many of us.  Isaac Brin broke this, when he hired his mercenaries.”

Queen Sulphur.  Us.

“A stunning transgression,” she said.  “Were it not for his esteemed record, he may have been memory-wiped and exiled, or put to death.”  She leaned forward. “But this new crop of students exists to fill in for our losses.  It will not put us over the limit.”

“But,” I said.  “This war.  It won’t be that deadly, will it?”  I stared down at the map.  “The Shenti aren’t an empire anymore.  After the Spirit Block, they’ve collapsed into infighting and poverty.  Until the Black Tortoise came back, they were a bunch of disparate warlords squabbling amongst themselves.”

“All true,” said my mother.  “But in the last decade, our spies and informants in Shenten have dried up, one by one.  Other than the basics, we know little of what’s going on there.  And are you familiar with Cao Hui’s Vocation?”

“He’s a Praxis Specialist, right?” I said.  “Something to do with economics.”

“A more accurate term would be logistics,” my mother said.  “Nowadays, wars are not won in singular, epic battles.  They’re not won through brilliant strategy, or mighty projectors.  They’re won by industry.  The nation that pumps out the most tanks, planes, ships, and oil to power them will win.”

“And that’s where Cao Hui comes in.”

She nodded.  “When he orchestrated his coup against the Emperor, some divisions of the Shenten army still used crossbows.  But by the time he started invading his neighbors, no Domain in the Eight Oceans could match his war machine.”  She rested her elbows on the desk and massaged her temples, a rare show of vulnerability.  “Only a fool would underestimate such an enemy.”

I bowed my head.  “I apologize.”

“You asked questions in good faith,” my mother said.  “Never apologize for that.  And as I said, your task is important.  You will have opportunities to distinguish yourself, help make a name for this family.  With you safe, reducing the risk of our alliance with the Pakhems being shattered.”

“While staying home.”  Away from my friends.

“Study,” my mother said.  “Train.  Grow stronger.”  A dark look passed over her face.  “You’ll get your taste of war soon enough.”

I nodded.  The rational argument didn’t work.  So I only had one tactic left.

“Commonplace butchered my classmates,” I said.  “And the Shenti funded them.  The people that I care about most in the world are going to fight them.  I’ve grown up with them, studied with them, drank with them.  I’ve shared secrets and confessions and pain with them.  When I was at my lowest, they dragged me back to the light, saw potential in me when no one else would.”  I looked my mother in the eye.  “Let me repay the favor.  Please.”

“You are young,” my mother said.  “So I will accept this, for now.”  She stared at me, unblinking.  “But your emotions have no place in this decision.”

I kept my face passive.  At the same time, I clenched my fists under the desk, at an angle where my mother couldn’t see it.  The frustration built under my skin, ready to burst forth like a popped balloon.

She has a point.  In a few places.  And it wasn’t like I could challenge her authority.

But I couldn’t abandon my friends.  I couldn’t watch them sail away on a battleship, and sit at home playing teacher, waiting for terrible news to come about Leizu, or Eliya.  Or Samuel.

I stood up and bowed.  “I understand, mother.”

Time to look for alternatives.

________________________________________

Headmaster Tau ate lunch in the tents where the Banquet Hall used to be.  Humdrum construction workers moved around the edges of the space, rebuilding the structure.  You’d think that all the food would be filled with sawdust and bits of concrete, but projectors were special, I suppose.

Various Paragon teachers sipped on bowls of fish soup around the administrator’s table.  I noticed Harpy, Professor Derrington, and Professor Olwen.  None of them spoke, too tired to strike up a conversation.

The headmaster sat at the end of the table, twirling his spoon to make patterns in his soup.  He stared at it with a vacant look in his eyes.  Splashes of tomato stained his black beard and the front of his beige suit, from where he’d spilled it on himself.  A bit of crab had fallen in his shoulder-length hair, and nobody had pointed it out.

Nicholas Tau still looked middle-aged, on the surface, but if you watched for more than a second, you could see the depth of his age.

“Headmaster?” I said.  “Do you have a minute?”

Tau didn’t look up, still stirring his fish soup.

“Excuse me, Headmaster?”  I raised my voice a hair.  “Headmaster?”

Professor Derrington tapped Tau on the shoulder.  “Nicholas,” she murmured.  “A student’s here.”

Tau blinked, and dropped his spoon.  It splashed into his soup, and he glanced up at me.  Recognition spread across his face.  “Afternoon, miss.”  He smiled at me.  “What can I do for you?”

“I understand you’re busy,” I said.  “But could I ask for a few minutes of your time?  Alone, if possible.”  Headmaster Tau didn’t have office hours, and some of the higher-level professors bristled at someone that much lower on the hierarchy asking for their time.  “I understand that’s a serious request.”

Tau beamed at me.  “Of course!  I always have time for my students.”  He stood up, and the bit of crab fell out of his hair.  “Want to talk in my office?”

A few minutes later, Tau was guiding me through the half-broken Great Library, past more construction workers and up temporary ladders in places where the staircases had broken.  He flashed his Level Five library card at one of the security checkpoints, but even with his authority, it still took us forever to get through the Whisper-Sec and ID confirmations.  Not taking any chances after last time.

As Tau climbed up the ladders ahead of me, my throat clenched for a few moments when his grip loosened and it looked like he could fall.

Pith aging is a true nightmare.  Maybe that was why he’d accepted my request, and had walked off in the middle of lunch.

“This is a lot of ladders,” I said.

Tau laughed, and nodded.  “My body double keeps my chassis fit, so it’s not so much of a problem for me.  Besides – “  He gestured around Level Four, where glowing, unbound pages swirled through the air, arranging themselves in geometric shapes.  “What a view, right?”

We climbed up into Level Five, the sphere with warped gravity that Commonplace had invaded.  Where Parliament died.  And I’d been too slow to save them.

Before, the mysterious Librarians had defended the high-level books here, like they did in the other Great Libraries.  But the Pyre Witch had incinerated them all.

Now, ranks of Humdrum soldiers and Guardians stood here, ready to slaughter anyone who came through unauthorized.  Headmaster Tau gave his passwords, and we walked around the sphere, the floor becoming the wall, then the ceiling as we traveled to the far end, upside-down.

Tau pressed a button, and clockwork mechanisms spun.  An elevator rose out of the floor, shaped like a blue filigree cage.  The door swung open, and we stepped in.

I’ve never seen Headmaster Tau’s study before.  Even Maxine Clive hadn’t gotten this far.

The door shut itself, and the elevator descended into the floor, gears whirring.  The world went dark around us for a few seconds, and it became impossible to distinguish up from down.

Then we emerged, into the sunlight.  And I stared, frozen to the spot.

Because the elevator was floating in the open air.  The blue cage flew straight up, giving us a spectacular view of the islands of Paragon Academy, and the sloped city of Elmidde far below.  No cable pulling it.  No wind or projection or obvious magnetism.  Just the spinning gears, untethered, propelling us into the sky.

Below us, I saw the conical levels of the Great Library, with the temporary patches from where the Pyre Witch had blown holes in the wall.  We must be in the tower.  Which meant it was invisible from the inside.

Permanent projection.  Like the floating pages in Level Four of the Great Library.

That shouldn’t be possible.  But here we were.

The elevator rose through a platform that seemed to be floating in the air, just like us.

We passed through the darkness again, and emerged in Headmaster Tau’s study.

And in contrast to the elevator, it looked quite simple.  A desk sat in the middle of the room, with some cushioned chairs and a folded blanket.  A set of bookshelves sat behind it, illuminated by the warm noon light from the many windows on the walls.

No, not windows.  There were no windows in the Great Library.  Some of the walls must be invisible from the inside.  Just like the rest of the tower.

I glanced up.  Sunlight glinted off a giant metal sphere above me, hanging from the tall ceiling.  The Eight Oceans and the continents of the world had been engraved on its surface, and a pair of tiny moons had been hung near the edges of the room, attached to their own steel mechanisms.  A globe.

Headmaster Tau lifted a finger, and a record spun on a gramophone, playing soft classical music.  He strode forward, sat down behind his desk, and slumped back in the chair, closing his eyes.  His head lolled to the side, and his chest rose and fell, slow and steady.

Did he just fall asleep?  I knew his Pith was old, but I hadn’t expected it to be this bad.  He didn’t even say anything to me.

“Um, Headmaster?” I said.  “Headmaster?”

No response.  At least he isn’t snoring.

I coughed, clearing my throat.  “Headmaster Tau?”  I raised my volume just a hair, shifting back and forth on my feet, fingers tapping against my pant leg.

Still nothing.  His face looked peaceful, like a great burden had just been lifted from his shoulders.

I inhaled, taking a deep breath.  Let’s hope this doesn’t make him pissy.  “Headmaster Tau!”  I shouted.

Headmaster Tau’s eyes snapped open, and his gaze darted around the room, taking in his surroundings.

Then, he sighed.  “Please excuse me.”  He gestured to the chair across from him, and I sat down.  “So, what did you want to talk about?”

I explained my situation to him.  “I love my friends,” I said.  “They’ve kept me going when no one else would.  And now, they’re going to war without me.  My mother wants me to stay home for my safety, and I understand, but – “  I looked Tau in the eye.  “What about my squad’s safety?  What about them?”

The Headmaster nodded, folding his hands together with a thoughtful expression.

“And I wanted to ask for your advice.”  So you can use your clout to get me back with my squad.  But I couldn’t say that up-front.  “You’ve lived through so much, and I know you’ve gathered untold wisdom.”

“Would that the Conclave of the Wise cared for my wisdom as you do.”  Tau massaged his tired eyes.  “If they’d asked for my opinion, I would have told them to stay home.  Don’t pursue this mad war.  Don’t get innocents killed.”

“But they didn’t listen to you.”

Tau gave me a wan smile.  “I’m not Headmaster Tau, anymore,” he said.  “I’m just a senile old man with dreams of peace.  Sometimes, I feel as if forces are moving about in Paragon that I cannot sense.”  His shoulders sagged.  “I can no longer see into this academy’s heart.  It’s darkened to my gaze.”

I leaned forward.  “But you made the Spirit Block,” I said.  “You still don’t think war is necessary?  After all the students they killed?  After Parliament?”

Tau gazed out through one of the transparent walls with a regretful look in his eyes.  “Our own citizens did this,” he said.  “The Black Tortoise just helped.  If we’d built a better world for them, then maybe none of this would have happened.”

I stared at my feet.  He has a point.  The Shenti had funded Commonplace, but the movement had some legitimate concerns, mixed in with all the terrorism.

“I saw Isaac growing marigolds behind the stands in the pavilion, today.”  Tau’s face lit up.  “He’s starting a flower garden, I think.”

“That’s nice,” I said.  But what does this have to do with anything?

“We should be building gardens,” he said.  “Not warships.”  He brushed a bit of soup from the edge of his mouth.  “Or seafood restaurants.  The crab in this city isn’t what it used to be.”  His voice quickened.  “I think overfishing in southeastern quadrants of the Eloane Ocean has changed the composition of the ecosystem.  As a result, there are fewer crabs, and they tend to be blander.  Less of a salty bite to them, you know.  Nekean crabs have much richer flavor, but that’s because their government puts strict limits on the fishing trade to ensure a more stable environment.  I think if we shifted national policy, then – “

He continued his strange tangent about the Principality’s shellfish industry, a faraway look in his eyes.  I sat there, half-listening.  Be polite.  Don’t interrupt him.

Tau paused for a moment, to take a breath.

“Headmaster?” I said.  “We were talking about the war?”  This used to be the smartest man in the Eight Oceans.

“Ah, yes,” he said, his mind drifting back to reality.

“A decade ago,” I said.  “The Black Tortoise almost conquered all Eight Oceans.  Only the Spirit Block stopped him.  With his Praxis Vocation, Shenten could turn into an unstoppable force again.”  Like my mother said.

Tau shrugged.  “I don’t know.  But I am sure of one thing: No matter how desperate we are for projectors, none of our students belong in a war.  You included.”

“Why?” I said.  “We’re of age.  We’re not children.”  The Principality recruited Humdrum soldiers as young as eighteen.  Though Tau probably didn’t approve of that, either.

“War breaks something in you,” said Tau.  “And when you’re young, that something is the foundation of your soul.  The roots from which the rest of your life will grow.  Break when you’re older, and you can regrow yourself.”  He got a heavy look in his eyes.  “Break when you’re young, and you’ll have those scars forever.”

I sighed.  He’s not going to get me to the front lines.  His pacifism reminded me of Jun, with a much younger body and a much older mind.  He needs my help, too.

“So I can’t give you special treatment,” said Tau.  “Even if I know how you feel.”

“I understand,” I said.  “But in that case, could you get the rest of Chimera Squad to stay back?  Then I wouldn’t have to worry about their fortunes in the war.  And I’m sure we could use the help back here.”

Tau put a hand on my shoulder.  “I will do what I can.”

“Thank you.”  That’s the best I can hope for, now.

“But this academy respects power and intelligence,” he said.  “Mine, I’m afraid, are decaying at quite a rate.  Please.  Don’t be too disappointed if I fail.”  He leaned back in his chair, a soft exhale escaping his lips.

Should have expected that.  Tau’s influence wasn’t what it had been, either.

I stood up and bowed to him, even though it wasn’t custom.  A show of gratitude.

When I straightened myself, Headmaster Tau had already fallen asleep again.  If I’d seen what he’s seen, maybe I’d be tired too.

But he’s not wearing a coat.  And clouds had passed over the sun, turning the weather more chill.

Before I left, I picked up the blanket from his desk and draped it over him.

In his dreams, Nicholas Tau smiled.

________________________________________

I shot a slip of paper at Leizu.  She tensed her legs and leapt over it, flipping forwards.

As she jumped, I fired another dozen sheets at her, closing in from behind her.  She can’t maneuver as well when she’s airborne.  Her Joining was her fastest tool, and she needed something to push off for that.

But Leizu knew that too.  She projected into her clothes, dragging herself onto the grassy hill of the pavilion.  Then she darted left and right, contorting her body to avoid my attacks.

Not one bit of paper touched her.  But I kept going, launching feints and counters and surprise attacks all at once.

If I touched her with paper, I won.  If she lasted another ten minutes, she won.  A game of tag.  And practice, at the same time.

Leizu bent her legs and leapt five stories into the air, high above any of my paper.  She flipped in the air and laughed, showing off.

As she twirled, I ripped my sheets of paper, splitting each one into a dozen scraps.  Smaller, faster, and covering a wider area.  Then, before she hit the ground, I came at her from every angle, a sphere enclosing her on all sides, with no hole large enough for her to fit through.

Red lightning crackled around her fist, and something moved there, so fast I could barely see the blur.  A cone of force blasted out, knocking aside half my sphere with a dull boom and clearing a path for her to escape.

“Oh,” said Leizu, her tone light.  “Is that your best, Jitterbird?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m very weak.  Please lower your guard some more.”

Leizu didn’t fall for it, and we kept up our game.  Her Joining gave her body strength, agility, and speed, but it had blind spots, too.  Weaknesses.  And this is good practice for fighting Joiners.  There would be a lot of them in Shenten.

“Hey,” said Eliya.  “Your move.”

My attention flitted back to the Jao Lu board on the picnic blanket in front of us, and the clock ticking down for my turn.

I was multitasking today.  For training.  And for fun.  Flipping back and forth helped keep my attention, so I didn’t get too bored from any one task.

“Ambush,” I said.  “You just fell into my ambush.”  I squinted at the hexagons on the board, and moved my dancing painter forward.  “No, wait, I’m a turn too early.  Shit.”  Shouldn’t have said that out loud.

Eliya moved her blue charlatan back, avoiding the ambush I’d just told her about.  She sipped a mug of mulled cider, a thin smile playing across her lips.

Normally, with my Jao Lu obsession, I’d crush her, but with my attention divided, we were having an even game, for once.

Samuel sat on the picnic blanket next to me, studying a book written in Shenti.  Preparing himself for the war.

While I stared at the board and moved, he leaned over and planted a kiss on my cheek.  I jumped, surprised.  “What?  What was that for?”

He smiled at me.  “Nothing.  Just wanted to kiss my fiance.”  He ran his fingers through my long black hair.  “Your hair is so pretty.”

“Oh, right.”  I smiled at him.  So sweet.  And his face still looked perfect, beautiful.  Attraction wasn’t the issue.  So why does it still feel so strange?  Maybe I was still getting used to this life.

Eliya rolled her one eye, the other behind a blue eyepatch.  “Gross.”

“My red-hot boyfriend?” I said.  “Or the fact that you’re still losing?”

“Both,” she said, pressing the button on the clock.  “Your move.”

I sipped the mulled cider.  It tasted better than last time.  Less sickly sweet, more balanced.  And I let my shoulders relax.

This is nice.  This was what I’d fought for.  Getting to spend time with my friends, with Samuel.  Being home.

My stomach twinged, and my shoulders tensed again.  Everything felt heavier, more exhausting, like I’d sunk chest-deep into a river of mud.

I relaxed my Pith, letting the pieces of paper attacking Leizu drift to the grass of the pavilion.  Leizu darted sideways, keeping a safe distance.

“Everything alright?” said Samuel.

“I’m thirsty,” I said, taking a sip of mulled cider.  I could use a drink.  A real drink.

Samuel stared at me.  “Be strong.  You can do this.”

I pushed the thought of liquor away from my mind, and it crept back at the edges.  You can’t ruin things now.  No matter how lost I felt, I couldn’t lose all my progress.

But how long would that last, if my friends went away, into snow and blood and violence?  If I had to weather all of this alone?

“It’s fucked up,” I said.  “That all of you are going to the invasion, but not me.”

“We could train you some more,” said Samuel.  “Get you an ABD.  Try to convince your mother that you’re strong enough.”

I shook my head.  “Doubt it’d change her mind.  I just get to be a fancier Grey Coat, trying to teach projection to a thousand smarmy first-years at once.”

“You were a first-year pretty recently,” said Samuel.

“Yes,” I said.  “So I know what I’m talking about.  First-years are idiots.”

“Trust me,” said Leizu.  “You’re the lucky one.  A real war will break your spine.  Leave you sobbing on a pile of corpses.”

And she knows that better than most.  Even after the war, Shenten had been fighting with itself constantly.  Leizu had served as a wingtrooper for one of the many warlords there.

“Yeah,” I said.  “And you guys have to go into that hell without me.”  I sighed, leaning back on the picnic blanket.  “I should stop whining.  I have a fortunate life, wonderful friends, a beautiful fiance.”  I squeezed Samuel’s arm.

And I don’t know what else to try.  Now that my mother hadn’t budged, and Tau probably couldn’t do anything, I’d arrived at a dead end.

“I feel fortunate too,” said Samuel, giving me a sad smile.  “You’re going to be spared the worst horrors of war.  I don’t have to worry for your life.”  But you are going to worry for my liver.

I sat up and glanced around the pavilion, at the other students.  Studying, practicing projection, throwing a ball around.

Just a few weeks ago, this lawn had been filled up with body bags.  Endless rows of Green Hands and Guardians and students.

I imagined Samuel and Eliya and Leizu joining those lines of corpses, and felt sick.

“Stay safe, alright?” I said.  “If any of you die, I’m going to hunt you down in the afterlife and give you a paper cut.”

“I promise,” said Samuel.  Eliya and Leizu nodded agreement.

As Leizu nodded, I brought a tiny slip of paper up behind her and scratched her behind her ear.  She jerked, ducking down and darting to the side, but it had already grazed her.

“Got you.”

Leizu snatched the paper out of the air, crumpling it up in her fist.  For a moment, her muscles tensed, and it looked like she was about to get mad.

Then, she grinned at me.  “Well struck.  Another round?”

I nodded, reset the clock, and shot a volley of paper at her.

________________________________________

After another two rounds, Samuel and Eliya had classes, so we all went our separate ways.  After all that, the uneasy feeling stayed, a discomfort at the back of my throat.

So I went to Midtown, to my favorite store: Impeccable Bath Goods.  They offered all sorts of products, but their finest offers were bubble baths.  Glass bottles of liquids that you could drop into your tub, to elevate your bathing experience to a whole new level.

I’d missed them during my stint as a mercenary last year, so I used them all the time, now.  And I’d ran out yesterday.

I pushed open the door and strode in.  At three in the afternoon, the store had emptied, so I had it all to myself.

My eyes passed over the shelves, looking for Coconut Paradise, my favorite brand, made by the owner of the store himself, rather than bought and shipped in.

The shelves marked ‘Coconut Paradise’ were all empty.  I sighed.  Should have got here sooner.

“Hey,” the clerk said, behind the counter.  “Looking for Coconut Paradise?”

I glanced at him and nodded.

“Sorry, we’re out of stock.  Resupply in a week or two.”

“Alright.  Thanks anyway.”  I turned to leave.  Nothing’s going right for me today.

“But,” said the clerk.  “If that’s your favorite, I can show you our experimental supply.”

“Experimental bubble baths?”

He nodded.  “Stuff we’re still mixing in the back, and aren’t ready to show to the public yet.  Crazy stuff, that moisturizes your skin and keeps the water warm and smells great.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “Alright,” I said.  “You’ve piqued my interest.  Show me.”

The clerk opened a door behind the counter, and I followed him into the back of the store.  We went through a hallway, and past an office, before the clerk pushed open a door to a storage room.  “Right this way.”

I stepped up to the room, and froze.

A middle-aged man with brown hair and a thick neck sat in the center of the room.  Leo.  The bar owner who’d taken me in after my Ousting.  Who’d become a secret member of Commonplace.

“Leo?” I said.  The fuck is he doing here?  “I thought I said we’d never see each other again.”

“Leo isn’t here,” said Leo.  “He’s lending his body for the time being, so we can talk.”

“Lending?”  I clenched my fists.  “To who?”

Not-Leo sighed.  “I’m sorry to approach you like this, but I can’t be seen with my normal face.”  He chuckled.  “And to be honest, I didn’t want to remind you of your mother.”

Then, it came to me.  The identity of the woman inhabiting Leo’s body.  The only option that made sense.

I staggered back, reaching my Pith for paper around the room.  “You’re – “

“How’s it going, Wes?” said Maxine Clive.

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