4-A The Mortal Soul

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“Queen Sulphur?” Wes asked.

I paced on the grass around him.  “Apparently, it’s some red and blue butterfly species that can grow really big.”

Wes did a sit-up, pulling his torso up to his knees.  He winced, touching his broken rib, then lied back down and did it again.  “Seems a bit silly.” Sweat soaked into his tank top, darkening the white fabric.

I frowned.  Is he ever not dismissive?  “It’s mostly symbolic.  We won’t be saying our secret codename in front of everyone we meet.”

I glanced around Darius Park.  Joggers ran across footpaths through the trees nearby, and a pair of women sat on a blanket nearby, bathing in the afternoon sun.

“We should probably lower our voices,” I said.

Wes shrugged.  “Calm down, Gage.  We’re not important enough for anyone to spy on us.  I guarantee you, none of these people give the slightest shit about us.”

A presence wormed its way into the edge of my Pith, pressing on my executive functions.  Wes’s Nudging.  I pushed it off in tiny pieces, holding the concept of the Empty Book in my mind.

“You’re getting faster,” said Wes, with a note of approval.  “The Major finally drilled the proper defense into that thick skull, did he?”

Not exactly.

Wes flopped back on the grass, his chest rising and falling.  He reached next to him and cracked open a cold beer bottle from a case.  “Thank the Scholars, I remembered how to do temperature projection.” He tilted it back, pouring it into his mouth.  “Thirsty?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t drink.”

“Your loss.”  Wes tossed aside the glass bottle, cracking open another one.  “So. We’re going after a Guardian.”

“Ex-Guardian.  Gold-ranked.” I flipped open Brin’s dossier on Lyna Wethers.  No photos.  “More foreign intelligence and espionage than direct combat.  Her co-workers called her ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’.”

Wes folded a sheet of newspaper into a square.  Sunlight passed over his eyes, and he squinted. “Hard label to earn at Paragon.”

“Her expertise was love potions.”

Wes snickered.  “Love potions don’t exist.  No projector with half a Pith believes that sort of nonsense.”

I nodded.  “It was part of her act.  A cover for her Vocation, which she used to enthrall her assets in the Floating City and Shenten.  She’s a Whisper specialist.” I flipped the page. “A honeypot is an op that involves sex or romance and blackmail.  It’s how she got her nickname.”

“I see.  So she’s a seductress type.”  Wes finished his newspaper crane, and balanced it on his nose.  “The most fun kind of villain to fight.” He smiled.

I scowled.  Is everything a joke to you?  “Wethers was imprisoned on thirteen counts of first-degree mental hijacking.  Her Vocation is permanent.”

Wes stopped smiling.

“The first cases were almost a decade ago, and they still haven’t found a cure for it.  Once she’s put her effect on someone, even she can’t undo it. And from the reports, it’s more about emotions than sex.”

“Alright,” said Wes.  “So we keep our distance.  Make sure we don’t turn into drooling slaves.”

I nodded.  “Like many Whisper specialists, Wethers’s Vocation has a hard range limit.  About twenty meters when they threw her in prison. It may have changed since she broke out.  Since her escape, she’s been going to expensive events and hosting parties under fake identities.  Major Brin tracked her to this one.” I tossed a folded paper card at him, and he caught it.

Wes opened it, staring at the silver and green embossed letters on the cardstock.  “Bhais Baldana: A Dusk Masquerade.  On the Golden Moon yacht, leaving from Pier 52 at nightfall.  In four days.”

“Word is, several members of parliament will be attending, along with Tallis Breck, the executive of Principality Steel, and Christea Ronaveda, host of the radio show Verity.  Roscoe Belville, a shipping executive, is the official host.”

“About as elite as you can get without bringing Epistocrats into the mix,” muttered Wes.  “Wonder why Paragon didn’t shut it down.”

“Same reason they’re not bringing her in themselves, whatever that is.  Regardless, Honeypot is said to be either hosting or attending, though Brin didn’t give any more details.”

“I swear to the Scholars,” grumbled Wes.  “If this is all some elaborate test, I am going to chop Brin’s balls into ground meat.”

I wrinkled my nose.  Thanks for that image.

“So what do we do when we find her?” he said.

I reached into my pocket, pulled out a metal pillbox, and tossed it to Wes.  “Brin gave us a choice.”

He opened it.  Around forty small, white tablets sat inside.  “What are these?”

“Ventrinol,” I said.  “More commonly known as Kraken’s Bone.   A drug distilled from chemicals found in the skeletons of Storm Krakens and other deep-sea animals.  Half a tablet crushed in a drink will knock out a woman of average weight for twelve hours or so.”

“And more than that?”

I took the pill box from his hands, closing it.  “The primary plan is to knock her out and get her to the rendezvous point with Brin.  Once we deliver her, he’ll give us the reward. He has a safehouse set up on the western docks.”

“And the other option?”

I pursed my lips.  “We’re not entertaining the other option.”

Wes sat up, his tank top soaked with sweat.  “We’re mercenaries.  I’m not advocating for it, just saying we should be aware of our options.”

“It’s not happening.”  I’m not taking a life just to save my own skin.  Not for money.  No matter who that person was.  I already stole plenty from my parents.  “Apparently, it kicks in fast, especially if the person hasn’t eaten recently.  So once we dose Wethers, we’ll have to move fast.”

“What’s the rest of the plan?” said Wes, handing back the embossed card.

“Keep that,” I said.  “That’s an advertisement, not an invitation.  You’re getting us in.”

“Brin didn’t get us an invite?”  His nose wrinkled. “Lazy bastard.”

“It’s possible he doesn’t want to leave an obvious paper trail.”  I sat down on the grass next to Wes. Or, more likely, this is some kind of test.  Like Wes feared.

Wes grimaced.  “Then why am I doing it?  This Queen Sulphur secret mercenary group whaleshit is a partnership, right?“

I have an exam and two papers this week.  But he couldn’t know I was at Paragon.  “I have other business to attend to this week.  And you’re more familiar with this sort of discreet, illicit business.  Given your past merc experience.”

“Right, right,” said Wes.  “Yes.” He glanced at the card.  “How are we supposed to smuggle someone off an entire boat?”

“Illusions, probably.  I’m working on the plan.”

Wes stood up, fidgeting with the strap of his tank top.  “And how are we supposed to defend against a Vocation that could turn us into slobbering love-slaves?”

“We can’t.”

The words sank into Wes.  He had no response.

“In the years Honeypot was a Guardian, neither she nor her comrades developed a block for her Vocation.”  The reality was, most Whisper Vocations were unblockable. Usually, it took decades of poring over Vocation Codices before people could figure out how to defend against them.

“And if things go bad on her ship, that will probably be filled with guards and projectors, what are we going to do?  Jump out and swim?”

“Oh, um.”  I bit my lip.  “I can’t swim.”

Wes pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Gage. What the fuck.”  He closed his eyes.  “I thought you were from the damn Agricultural Islands.”

“Yes, but they’re big islands.  We produce more than eighty percent of the Principality’s food.  Where I grew up, it was wheat and cows and mud as far as the eyes could see.”

“You’ve lived in Elmidde for years.”

I haven’t exactly had a lot of free time.  What did he want me to say?

“Have you considered,” said Wes, “Other ways of earning money for a new body.”

You think I haven’t thought of everything?  “Told you already.  Anywhere that pays enough won’t hire a freak.  And with my credit history, nobody is willing to give me a serious loan, even the predatory ones.”

Wes looked confused.  “But you’ve got a great Vocation for theft.  You could take someone’s wallet right from under their nose.  Paragon wouldn’t even notice, as long as you only targeted low-value marks.”

Low value marks?  My irritation boiled over.  “I’m not going to steal from ordinary people.  They’re struggling just like we are.” He thinks I’m like Clementine.  Another thug out for easy cash, putting on an act of kindness.

“Then why not stay in your body?”  Wes looked at his thick biceps, stretching his arms.  “Being a boy isn’t so bad. You get to wear tuxedos, you can grow facial hair, and you don’t feel bloody cold all the time.”

Because I’ll be dead in a year.  “Have you had experience as a girl?”

Wes grimaced.  “I, uh, used to live with an ex who liked swap-screwing.  Scholars, what a nightmare. But you didn’t answer my question.”

I looked at the statue of Darius the Philosopher in the middle of the park.  “I just don’t like it, alright? It’s grey and ugly and fucked-up.” I neglected to mention that my body was still decaying, or my one-year deadline.  I didn’t need his incessant questions or suggestions or pity. And if I didn’t trust Kaplen or Tasia with that information, I certainly wouldn’t trust this boy.

“Have it your way.”  Wes shrugged.

“Get us into that party,” I told him.  “I’ll do the rest.”

________________________________________

Professor Oakes flicked his wrist, and the machine projector flipped to the next slide.  It shone the image of a chemical formula on the white screen at the front of the classroom.

“Corbiere, what is this?”

The captain of Cyclops Squad spoke up.  “Pyruvate Kinase. An enzyme that catalyzes the final step of glycolysis regulated by a variety of factors in the human body, including allosteric effectors and covalent modifiers.”

He flicked to the next slide.  Another diagram of molecules. “And this?”

“Adenosine diphosphate.  The product of Pyruvate Kinase catalyzing phosphoenolpyruvic acid.”

The machine clicked, projecting another image.  “And this?”

“That’s your wife, Penny Oakes, in pajama pants.”

The blonde woman on the screen beamed at the camera underneath a small mountain of pink blankets.  A green ice cream soda floated in front of her mouth, overflowing. Sure enough, it was the other Professor Oakes.

“Exactly!” boomed Oakes.  The loudness of his voice made my ears ache.  They were still sensitive after Wes’ excruciating gambit with the toothpicks, causing flare-ups of pain with loud noises and not hearing quiet ones at all.  “And if any of you have high-level questions about chemistry, go to her, because she wrote the book on the subject. Literally.”

I looked down at the class textbook: Advanced Principles of Chemistry, by Penny Oakes.  Does this count as nepotism?

The Obsidian Foil continued.  “The only reason I’m teaching this class instead of her is that she’s doing R&D with the navy, and I wanted a break from field work!  She’s a great chemist, an incredible guardian, and just…so, so red-hot.”  He gazed at the image with a sparkle in his eye.

About half the class stared at the professor, confused.  The other half scribbled on their notebooks, writing down every word.  Next to me, Lorne sat back in his chair, picking his nails. The rest of Golem Squad coalesced around him with the exception of Kaplen, who was nowhere to be seen.

“I mean, look at those eyes.  You just want to stare into them all night long as you have an intense debate about the implications of Rashi’s Third Law on the neurochemistry of Praxis Specialists, all while – “  He stopped, and cleared his throat. “Anyway, this week’s exam. Make sure to cover both chapters twelve and fourteen, in addition to one through eleven. Live and breathe the concepts on your handout for the next two days, and you’ll be fine.”

Despite his cheery demeanor, Professor Oakes was known for giving brutal tests.  Though, to be fair, everyone does here.

He spent the rest of the class rushing through the chemistry concepts from chapter fourteen, with barely enough time for me to write down half of it.  I wouldn’t mind the screeds about his wife if he took the rest of the lecture at a normal pace.

When he finished, I gathered up my books and handed my notebook to Lorne.  I’d learned to use Tasia or Kaplen’s notes to study, since Lorne was always hogging them to himself.

As I stood up, I felt the worm of Nudging wriggling into the edges of my consciousness.  I held the maxim of the Empty Book in my head. Write the next page.  I molded my mind back to normal, forcing out the invader.

Lorne nodded at me.  He was testing me.  “Glad to see you’re capable of the basics now, at least.  You’re learning, which is more than I can say about half the preening idiots at this school.”

I felt my chest swell with pride, in spite of myself.  That was the nicest thing he’d ever said to me. “Thank you, sir.”  I handed him his pressed uniform for the next two days, and a brown paper bag with The Silver Flask’s iconic cherry scones.  “I won’t let you down.”

Deon snorted, standing behind Lorne.  Naruhiko rolled his eyes. With the exception of Kaplen, the rest of Golem Squad hadn’t warmed up to me.

“Work hard,” said Lorne.  “I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.”  He strode off, flanked by his two squadmates.

Up until today, it had just been insults and dismissal.  Is he warming up to me?

Oakes strode out of the lecture hall.  As he turned down the hallway, he threw off his professor’s jacket and pulled off his button-down.  He wore a short-sleeve combat suit underneath, hugging his body and showing off his bulging arm muscles.

As he folded up his clothes, I spotted the purple book again, tucked into an inside pocket.  It was the same one I’d seen with Harpy the other day, without a doubt, or at least a copy. The cover was sealed shut with a Voidsteel lock.

By the pound, Voidsteel was more expensive than diamonds.  What is it guarding?  And if it was so important, why was it here and not the highest levels of the Great Library?

In a place like this, maybe it was best to not ask questions.  But then again, maybe Tasia would know.

________________________________________

“Ernest?  Ernest, wake up.”  A hand pushed my shoulder, stirring me from my sleep.

My eyes snapped open to a glaring noon sky.  I squinted, covering my face with a hand. “Damn it,” I muttered.

“Next time,” said Tasia, tucking a strand of black hair behind her ear.  “You’re up to about a fifty percent success rate.”

My head rested on a pillow on the academy’s pavilion, on a seat of the bleachers.  I pushed myself into a sitting position. Ahead of me on the arena, Phoenix and Talos squad were engaged in a squad battle, exchanging volleys of projected material.  “Alright,” I said. “Again.”

Tasia’s Pith pressed in at the center of my soul, as soft as a finger tapping against my forehead.  It targeted a different place than Nudging: my consciousness itself, and my mind’s internal clock.

A thick cloud of drowsiness filled my mind, and my eyes fluttered shut.  I sliced through the fog, molding my Pith back to its normal clarity. My arms flailed as I fell backwards, and caught me before I landed on the pillow.

Tasia smiled.  “Nice. Now you just need to work on your speed and reactions.  Soon enough it’ll be like an instinct.”

Basic Sleep.  A common Whisper vocation designed to knock people out.  The technique was nearly as common as nudging, which meant I also had to learn it for my own safety in the field.  

I was improving in my mental defenses, and my physical projection as well, though even simple things like a water walk still put an enormous strain on my Pith.

I fended off another mental assault, wobbling before righting myself.  “I have a question.”

“Go ahead,” said Tasia.

“The purple book that the professors sometimes carry.  I can’t be the only one who sees it. Do you know what it is?”  I felt bad asking the girl so many questions, but I needed to know everything I could to survive here.  If she told me some crucial tidbit and I communicated it to Lorne, I could gain more of his favor.

Tasia put down the parchment notes she was studying.  Her eyes lit up, and excitement crept into her voice. “It’s called the Lavender Book.  Nobody knows much about it. But word is, it’s a Vocation Codex. Maybe the strongest one ever written.  They pass it between high-level Guardians because even the library isn’t safe enough.“

My breath caught in my throat.  “A codex for what?”

“Some people think the Lavender Book is how Headmaster Tau won the Shenti War.  Something that could eradicate an entire culture in a single night.” Her voice lowered to a hush.  “An old vocation from the Great Scholars, powerful enough to crack open reality like an egg. Something that would make the Droll Corsairs look like five-year olds with sticks.”

Stay far away from that, I told myself.  You’re not equipped to handle something of that magnitude.

“You’re a real history buff, aren’t you?” I said.

Tasia’s head bobbed up and down.  “I’d kill to know what’s inside that book.    Not actually kill, but – you get my meaning.”  Her hand ran over the parchment diagram she was examining.  “This school is full of mysteries like this.” She looked up at the conical tower of the Great Library.  “Sad thing is, the Headmaster has probably forgotten its contents by now.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “What do you mean? He’s a little out of it sometimes, but the Headmaster is the greatest projector alive.  And he’s in the best bodies money can buy, he doesn’t have any diseases.”

Tasia’s face fell.  “Do you know how old he is?”

I shook my head.  “Nineties, I thought?”

“A hundred and fifty-seven,” said Tasia.  “The body can be replaced, but the soul is mortal.  Doesn’t matter how smart or powerful you are, you’ll decay over time until you fade away completely.”

I looked away from her.  “You don’t believe in an afterlife?  In a world where the soul has been proven to exist?”

“How much Pneumatology have you studied?”

I shrugged.  “Not much.”

As she talked, Tasia’s expression got harder.  “The Pith is made up of soul particles, all linked in a network of signals.  One by one, over time, they transform into null particles. Dead, colorless, not communicating with each other.  Until eventually, the Pith runs out of room to grow new soul particles. New connections.”

“But how do you know they’re really dead?”

“There have been studies conducted on men and women over the age of a hundred and sixty.  If you study the right vocations, you can watch someone’s consciousness fade out, piece by piece.  It’s the cruelest possible thing you can witness.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, on reflex.  Has she seen that happen before?  “People haven’t tried to fix that?”

“Of course they’ve tried to fix that,” snapped Tasia.  “Epistocrats have been studying Pneumatology since this country’s inception.  They’re no closer than they were centuries ago. Ninety-nine percent of the time, if a Pith is broken, there’s no way to put it back together again.”

I shrunk back away from her.  Is she mad at me?  “I’m sorry, I don’t know much about this subject.”

Her fists clenched.  “The truth that nobody wants to think about, is that our souls are not made of steel.  They’re made of glass, and they’re easy to shatter.”

I don’t think I’d ever seen Tasia this upset, including before exams and after losing squad battles.  Some people don’t like thinking about their own mortality.  I couldn’t blame her.  Every time I imagined what would happen a year from now, I felt like throwing up.

In moments, it could become an all-consuming mental void, sucking up my attention with how unfair it all was.  What it would feel like to have my consciousness snuffed out like a candle. How terrible my odds were. I could pace back and forth for hours, heart thumping while I imagined every possibility.

So far, the only thing that could reliably distract me was my work.  I could bury my head in it, invest every ounce of my energy until I was too numb and exhausted for anything but sleep.

Maybe we should talk about something else.  “Have you seen Kaplen today?” I asked.  “He wasn’t in chem with Oakes.”

Tasia shook her head.  “He was supposed to be in my morning pneumatology course.”

“Could he have caught something?”  Every fall, some new variety of coughing sickness made its way through Lowtown.  Perhaps it was the same up here.

“Modern designer bodies are created with top-notch immune systems.”  Tasia stood up, sliding the parchment into her bag. “Even without joining, they don’t get affected by common ailments like that.  And if they do, they get better in a flash.”

Concern slipped into my voice, and I stood up with her.  “He lives in Amethyst Hall now, right?”

________________________________________

I knocked on Kaplen’s door.  “I shouldn’t be here,” I muttered under my breath.  I glanced down the corridor of Amethyst Hall, my heartbeat thumping in my ears.  Empty, except for me and Tasia.

Still, if I got caught here with my grey uniform, I could be suspended or expelled.

“Everyone’s out at classes during this hour,” said Tasia, tapping her foot.  “I’ll float you out of a window if I hear someone coming.”

More importantly, Kaplen could be in trouble.

I knocked on the door again.  Silence. “Kaplen?” I called out.  “We brought you sweets. Tasia tried using your fast bake technique.”

Tasia held up a tin of blackened brownies, burnt to a crisp on all sides.  Turns out she’s not a damn prodigy at everything.

A phone rang from inside, startling me.  The loud, piercing bell sound went for almost a full minute, until it went silent.  Unanswered.

Tasia indicated her head, and my hand reached for the doorknob.  It wasn’t locked. I eased the door open.

The lights had been switched off.  Faint afternoon light filtered through the shades on the windows, which had been pulled down all the way.

Through the dim light, I made out a figure on the bed, its chest rising and falling.  I inched forward.


“Kaplen?” said Tasia.

No response from the figure.  I stepped forward, taking a look at its face.  Kaplen.  The messy red hair and round face were unmistakable.  His eyes were wide open, staring at the phone on his bedside table with a mixture of fear and apathy.

His arms were wrapped around Cardamom, a green ball of fluff curled up next to his chest, asleep.

This wasn’t anything like the Kaplen I’d grown used to.  There was no hint of cheer or pluck. No patient inspiration or unfettered joy.

This was more like the Kaplen he’d told us about before, on the grassy ledge behind Opal Hall.  The lethargic, self-loathing Grey Coat, afraid of falling asleep because he didn’t want to think about tomorrow.

The phone rang again, and he closed his eyes, pulling the blankets up to his chin.

“Are you going to answer that?” asked Tasia.

The only sound was the phone, ringing and ringing.  Kaplen lifted a finger at it, and its plug pulled itself out of the wall socket.  When it stopped, the whole room fell silent.

I stepped closer, and Kaplen avoided eye contact with me.  He looked shameful, like he’d been caught doing something embarrassing.

“Are you sick?” Tasia said.  “Do we need to fetch a doctor?”

“No,” said Kaplen.  Then nothing else.

“I’m sorry,” I said, staring at my feet.  I wasn’t sure what else to say.

Tasia stretched out the tray of brownies to him, and he didn’t respond.  I took it from her and placed it on the bed right in front of him.

After a moment’s hesitation, his hand reached out and took one.  He stuffed it into his mouth and chewed, silent.

“Sorry for burning them,” Tasia gave a nervous chuckle.

“They’re delicious,” said Kaplen.  He’s lying.  I could see those brownies were burnt almost all the way through.  To anyone with working taste buds, they’d taste like charcoal coated in sugar.

Kaplen was lying to make us feel better.  How many times has he done that before?

“Sorry,” said Tasia, for the second time.  “Next time, you can teach me how to do them right.”

“No, I’m sorry you have to see me like this.”  Kaplen smiled, still avoiding eye contact with us.  “It’s shameful.” He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye.  “And I made you come in here too, Ern. You could get caught, because of my stupidity.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Kaplen lay back on his pillow, rubbing his bleary eyes.  “It’s just exhausting, sometimes.”

“What’s exhausting?”

Kaplen laughed.  Cardamom crawled up next to his head, nuzzling his cheek.  Kaplen scratched the cat behind his bright green ears, smiling.  “Thanks, buddy.” He drew Cardamom into his arms, cuddling him. “No matter how grim things get, he always cheers me up.”

I looked at the unplugged phone on the table.  “What were the calls about?”

Kaplen forced his eyes shut, grimacing.  “It’s stupid. You don’t want to hear about it.”

“Tell us,” said Tasia.  “We can help you. That’s what Guardians do.  If it’s a problem we can’t fix, then explain it to us and we’ll leave.  But otherwise, we’re going to do everything we can, right Ernest?“

Scholars, I hate that name.  I nodded.

“And we won’t leave this room until you tell us.  What was the call about?”

Kaplen sighed.  “It rang three more times this morning already.  I can guess.” He petted Cardamom. “My father works in a ship factory in the Southern colonies.  My mother’s an accountant at the port. They both work over ninety hours a week to pay my tuition here.  And that’s with the debt I’ve already taken on.”

I clenched my teeth, and a chill crept over my skin.  Paragon’s tuition had always been enormous, but while I was studying for the exam, I’d just imagined paying back the debt after graduation, or passing some test to qualify for financial aid.

In truth, I hadn’t even gotten in.  If Lorne did give me a spot here, could I even afford it?

Kaplen glanced at Tasia.  “I’m not strong enough to Oust anyone from the major Epistocrat families, and I don’t think I could bring myself to do it, anyway.  So my only option is to get a high-paying scholarship by next semester. Or drop out.” He looked almost bored. Uninterested in his own crisis.

“And the phone call?” Tasia asked.

“Last night, I was scheduled to meet with a naval officer who handles the sort of financial aid packages I’d use.  Vice Admiral Rentis. I spent the better part of a year working every connection I had to secure thirty minutes in his schedule.”  His voice grew soft. “They’re calling to see how it went.” A tone of loathing and disgust crept into his speech. “They’re invested in my future.  They believe in me, and can’t wait to see the wonderful things I’ll accomplish.”

“How did the meeting go?” asked Tasia, even though we both knew the answer.

“I didn’t go,” he said.  “I went to a dancing party, and spent fifty pounds on cocktails.”  I didn’t think I’d ever heard that much raw loathing in his voice. “I was tired in the morning when I had to go to class, so I slept in.  But when I woke up at noon, I didn’t feel rested. I felt even more exhausted.”

Neither me or Tasia said anything.  It was starting to dawn on me how big of a problem this was.

“And do you know what the worst part is?” He laughed again.  “During that entire party, I wanted to carve my eyes out. I used to love going out on the town, experiencing Elmidde’s nightlife, but now it’s a crutch.  I use it to hide whenever I feel sad, and when I’m done, I feel worse. Something I enjoyed, something fun, and I made it bitter.”

I stepped forward.  “You taught us to fight for ourselves.  To take our identities into our own hands.  You can still – 

“I said to take responsibility for your identity,” Kaplen petted Cardamom.  “All this. Everything that’s happened is my fault.  I keep trying to improve myself, doing everything right, being a positive influence, but it’s never enough.  I’m a second-year, and I haven’t even found my Vocation yet.”

I slammed my palm on his bedside table.  “The Empty Book isn’t about blaming yourself for everything.”  I raised my voice. “Maybe you don’t fix everything.  Maybe you don’t become the perfect successful Exemplar like the Paragon pamphlets promised.  But you’re better. You gained a little ground. And that’s worth fighting for. Your soul is worth fighting for.”

Kaplen didn’t speak.  Cardamom nuzzled his head against Kaplen’s hand.  The room was quiet. The smooth floorboards creaked underneath my feet.  Tasia bit her lip, twisting a strand of black hair around her finger.

“Do you enjoy spending time with me?” Kaplen’s voice was soft.  “Do you think I’m annoying? Lorne does. I think most people here do.”

I opened my mouth.  “Ye – “

“Be honest,” said Kaplen.  “Please, no matter how much you think it’ll hurt me, be honest.”

I clenched my fists.  “Kaplen, you’re the only reason I made it this far.  I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t met you.” Floundering, failing, and without a single mission.  Without Kaplen, people like Clementine and Lorne would still be able to nudge me.

Yes,” Tasia whispered, just loud enough for me to hear.  “I don’t have anyone else.  But if I did, I’d choose you anyway.

Kaplen pushed himself upright and put Cardamom onto his lap.  He beamed. “If I can make the lives of my friends a little happier, then maybe mine has some worth, too.”  He lifted his index finger, and the blinds rolled up on the windows. Golden light streamed into the dark room.

I ran forward and wrapped my arms around him, squeezing him in a tight hug.  “Sorry. Are you okay to hug right now?” I loosened my grip.

To answer, Kaplen embraced me, smiling.  “Thanks, Ern. I’ll cut it out with the whining.”

Another set of arms wrapped around me, and several strands of black hair draped over my face.  Tasia, hugging both of us.

“I screwed up the brownies, didn’t I?” said Tasia.  “I’m looking at them now, and they’re basically burnt all the way through.”

Kaplen laughed, a warm, breezy sound that couldn’t help but lift your spirits.  “These are a good effort. I’ll teach you how to balance the temperatures in the vocation.  I got the technique from a level 1 book, it’s very simple.”

I felt Tasia let out a sigh of relief.  “I’d like that.” She let go of both of us, and I followed her.

Kaplen scooted himself to the side of his bed.  He lifted the droopy Cardamom off his lap, and draped him over his shoulder.  Somehow, the green cat managed to cling to his shirt, balance perfectly, and stay fast asleep at the same time.

“Want to study?” I asked.  “We can help you figure out how to navigate your scholarship stuff.  And Oakes’ class is killing me.”

Kaplen nodded, sympathetic.  “He spend half the lecture showing you pictures of his wife?”  He stood up, walking to the door. A comb floated above him, running through his wild red hair.

I chuckled.  “Pretty much.”  Me and Tasia walked after him.

He laughed, a bright, warm sound.  In an instant, the boy was back to his usual cheer.  It was as if the last twenty-four hours had never happened, and he’d always been this happy.  The upbeat, sunny baker who believed in you and himself, no matter what.

His optimism was infectious, irresistible.  It made you want to fight and struggle alongside him, to improve yourself and write that next page with a smile on your face.

But as he strode out of the room, laughing, a sobering thought sat at the back of my mind, nagging me.

How much of it is real?

________________________________________

I shifted underneath the blanket in my sleeping capsule, scanning the chemistry textbook for Oakes’ class.  My eyes ached, and fluttered shut for a moment, before I forced them back open, squinting under the exposed lightbulb above my head.

Even after studying with Kaplen and Tasia, many of the concepts still trickled out of my mind like water through my fingers.  The Obsidian Foil might be nicer than Harpy, but his tests weren’t any easier.

You can do this, I reminded myself.  Write the next page.

But it wasn’t even four in the afternoon, and I was already falling asleep.  Last night, I’d only gotten two hours of sleep, deciding to study instead of rest.

And Lyna Wethers’ party – Honeypot’s party – was tonight.  It started in less than six hours, and I hadn’t heard a peep from Weston Brown.  Every time I’d been home, he’d been out of his storage unit. He hadn’t responded to any of the messages I’d left on his mattress.

Had he jumped ship?  Even after I figured out my Nudging block?  If I didn’t succeed at this job, I’d be dead broke in less than two weeks.

Footsteps approached, and I snapped the book shut, stuffing it under the covers.  The less people knew I was at Paragon, the better. Wes included.

Wes’ grinning face came into view.  Somehow, despite his complete lack of funds, his light brown hair was washed and styled, brushed into neat, smooth waves that stood up on their own.

I pulled the sliding door open.

“Evening, Gage.”  Wes straightened his black tuxedo vest and adjusted the cuffs of his white dress shirt.  The boy was living in a pigsty of a storage unit, using newspapers as blankets, and yet somehow, he looked like a wealthy businessman or Epistocrat.

I sighed.  “Did you get any of my notes?  I left them on your mattress.”

Wes shrugged.  “Don’t think I noticed.  Probably got lost in all the newspaper.”  He lifted a finger. “Oh, no, wait, I think I read one of them a few days ago.  I was going to respond, but I forgot to. I was, uh, intoxicated at the time. And very badly bruised.”

I ground my teeth together.  This boy is insufferable.  How did someone as irresponsible and absent-minded as him survive this long as a mercenary?

“What’s your status?” I asked.  “What’d you find out?”

Wes tossed a paper bag into my capsule.  “Your outfit’s in there.” He held up a large mug.  “You look tired. You like coffee?”

“No.”

He extended it towards me.  “Too bad. Drink up. You need to be alert tonight.”  He reached into his pocket with his other hand and pulled out a narrow white party mask, waggling it in front of his face.  “We’ve just been invited to a masquerade.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter