4-C The Mortal Soul

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[    ]

“I think [    ] should lead Chimera,” said Samuel.

I shifted my position on his lap, stretching my head closer to the fireplace in Alabaster Hall’s common room.  Samuel poked the tip of my nose with his finger, and I beamed at him. “Why?” I chuckled. “I’m a fucking idiot.”

Eliya Brin, the platinum blonde, placed her Fortress on the middle hex of the Jao Lu board, cutting my Lancers off from a key resource.  “Yes, why her?” As always, she sounded irritated.

Samuel stroked my hair.  “Did you see her one-on-one with Ralph Corbiere last week?  The boy has a Praxis Vocation to enhance his combat analysis, and she wiped the floor with him.  I’ve known her long enough to trust her tactics.”

I sat up and played my Monk behind Eliya’s Fortress, denying the resource and trapping it away from the rest of her army.  The game would be over in a handful of turns.

Eliya lifted her finger, and a stream of mulled cider flowed from her mug into her mouth.  “Because, as we all know, if you’re good at board games, you must be a genius at everything else.”  She scowled.

I projected into a square of paper and folded it into a crane, fidgeting with my Pith.  “Have I done something to offend you, Eliya?”

“I forfeit.”  Eliya picked her pieces up off the board.  “Here’s the ugly truth, [ ]: A squad leader doesn’t just develop strats.  They manage paperwork, analyze other squads, and have to lead under pressure.  You and Samuel have been engaged for who knows how long, but me and Leizu just met you two weeks ago.”

Leizu nodded, doing a headstand on the floor next to the fire.  “Blondie has a point. Once we make this choice, we’re locked in for the rest of the semester.”  The Shenti girl kicked her legs back and forth in the air, juggling a trio of steel dumbbells on the soles of her feet.  With her bulging leg muscles and Joining specialization, she made them look as light as rubber balls.

“I have a name,” said Eliya.

“I use nicknames,” said Leizu.  She pointed to me and Samuel. “Jitterbird.  Razor Bull. Get used to it, Blondie.”

“I’m a drunk, irresponsible little shit,” I said, lying back down on Samuel’s lap.  “But if you want me to lead, I’ll give it my all.” As soon as I finish that bloody Chem p-set for Oakes.  I’d known Paragon was competitive, but a ten-page problem set in the first two weeks was brutal.

“Listen,” said Eliya.  “I don’t know what you’re going through, and your mother’s achievements speak for themselves, but your resumé is – “

“Lukewarm whaleshit?” I said.

Thin.  And much as I’d hate to admit it, Samuel has better grades than me.  At the same time, he’s won an Akhara Scholarship, manages a relief charity, and speaks every major language on the Eight Oceans.”

Samuel looked at his feet, uncomfortable.  “I’m really not that special.”

And, he’s great at false modesty,” said Eliya.  Eliya looked at Leizu, who was now balancing herself on one finger.  “As a bonus, he’s never fought for the enemy.”

Leizu pushed off with her finger and flipped forward, landing on her feet.  She caught the dumbbells in her hands. She was one of two Shenti defectors in the academy, and didn’t like being reminded of it.

“I’ve met your kind before.” Leizu spoke in a light accent, betraying her eastern heritage.  “Spoiled fucks who think they’re clever enough to get away with it. But you’re still a spoiled fuck, whose bones are very fragile.”

“Violent threats from a Shenti grunt,” said Eliya, rolling her eyes.  “How surprising. Next thing you’re going to tell me you shower less than once a month.”

“My point is,” said Samuel.  “[ ] is smart.”

“We’re all bloody smart,” said Eliya.  “Chimera needs someone responsible. Someone who truly strives to become an Exemplar.”  Her fingers tapped on her cider mug. “Someone who shows up to class on time, and turns in assignments within a week of their due date.”

My face grew hot, and I felt a growing desire to give Eliya a paper cut.  I pushed myself up to a sitting position.

“I agree with Blondie,” said Leizu.

They all look down on me.  They all thought I was weak, lazy, stupid.

Samuel stood up.  “I refuse. Nominate one of yourselves if you want to, but I won’t be your leader.”  He put a hand on my shoulder. “If you want proof of [ ]’s competence, you can both fight her one-on-one.  If one of you wins, I’ll consider your proposal.“

Eliya froze a mouthful of cider into a long needle, pondering it.  “Can’t hurt.”

Leizu rolled back into a headstand and squeezed a dumbbell between the heels of her feet.  The metal groaned, flattening into a mangled ball. Showoff.  “Alright,” she said.

They both think they’ll crush me.

I flicked my paper crane at Samuel, and he snatched it, smiling at me.

Nobody saw me like that.  Not my new classmates, not my professors, and certainly not my mother.  To almost everyone, I was a liability, something to be pitied or ignored.

But not to him.

To him, I was still breathtaking.

“Well.”  I smiled back.  “Let’s get started.”

________________________________________

Wes

I glanced at the white crane mask in my bag.  Let’s get started.  

My palm rubbed a dollop of concealer over a vein on Gage’s neck, masking the dark grey with her skin tone.  “That suit looks great on you,” I said.

“You’re lying,” said Gage.  She looked miserable in her stolen tuxedo, squirming underneath my gaze.  “And Scholars, it’s tight. It’s going to take an hour to get off.”

Well, the suit looks great.  But she had no appreciation for its refinement.  “How can it look good on you?” I snapped.  “You look like you want to burn the damn thing off.  Do you ever wear anything besides baggy pants and oversized coats?”

Gage slumped over.  “I’m going to die in a suit.”  She leaned back against the wall of her storage unit, bathed in harsh white light.

“We might not die,” I said.  “We could become slobbering lovesick slaves to a red-hot mental hijacker.”  I pulled a brown wig over her scalp, concealing her tangled grey hair. One of the other items I’d stolen.

“We need a better plan,” she said, biting her lip.  “How do we deal with Honeypot’s Vocation?”

“We don’t.”

“No, no, we can do more planning than that.”  She paced back and forth, muttering. “We don’t split up, no matter what.  We check each other every five minutes. If we notice suspicious behavior, we try to help – “

“If I get hijacked,” I said.  “Don’t waste time on dramatic speeches appealing to my humanity and willpower.  That shit never works on anyone. Just take me out of the action as quick as you can.”

I flipped up Ana’s collar to hide the thick veins on her neck.  Without them and the grey hair, she almost looked like a normal, somewhat ugly boy.  Almost.

“What about the people on the ship?” she said.

“Can’t trust any of them.  For all we know, they could all be puppets.”

“And what if they are?” asked Gage, pacing faster and faster.  “If she corners us, there’s no radio, no flare gun, nothing to signal Major Brin.  We’re on our own.”

I put a hand on her shoulder, halting her in her tracks.  “Gage. Calm the fuck down.”

Gage’s chest rose and fell.  “Do you think these aren’t problems?”

“We’re here,” I said.  “We’re doing this job. Panic won’t help either of us, no matter what we’re dealing with.”

There is no fucking way I’m telling her about Copycat.  The grey bitch was wound up tighter than a steel cable.  If I told her I’d promised to kill Honeypot, she’d snap for sure.  We could talk about it afterward, when Lyna Wethers was no longer a threat to anyone and Gage’s moralizing wouldn’t hinder us in the field.

That reminds me.  I extended my open palm towards Gage.  “Can I have the Ventrinol? The Kraken’s Bone?  The pills.”

Gage’s brow furrowed.  “Why?”

I held up the briefcase I’d stolen from the yacht.  “I’ve got a place to hide it, I’m better at lying than you, and I can spike drinks at range with my paper projection.”

Ana frowned for a minute, then reached into her bag, handing me the small metal pillbox.  I flipped it open, careful to not touch any of the contents inside. Twenty-five tablets.  Enough to knock out a small crowd, or kill a handful of people.  Eight in a drink should be more than enough.  Unless Honeypot was a Joiner who could nullify the poison, she wouldn’t be able to survive that.

“Can we run the test?” she asked.

I nodded, and we stepped out into the hallway.  I projected into sheets of standard office paper and flattened them edge to edge on the floor.  Counting them, I measured out twenty meters from Gage and positioned myself there. “Ready.”

Gage closed her eyes, and a dark brown sparrow materialized on her finger.  Her Vocation.  The illusion cocked its head to the side, indistinguishable from the real thing.  How does it look so good?  Every motion it made, every feather on its wings was perfect.

“I see it,” I said.

Gage inched backwards, stepping further away from me.  At twenty-four meters, the bird flickered. Blue lightning crackled around her head, and she clenched her teeth from the strain.  The lightning got brighter and brighter, becoming a tiny storm around her skull, until the bird vanished at thirty meters.

“Thirty max, twenty-two reasonable with one sense,” I said.  “That’s half a meter more than yesterday.” Her range is improving.

Gage bent over, out of breath.  “Where does the lightning come from, exactly?“

“That’s your Pith,” I said.  “That’s what it looks like, inside.  The blue is ‘cause you’re a Whisper Specialist.  It gets exposed outside your body when you work hard with it.  It’s harmless, but if you see it a lot, you should ease up.”

A dark look came over Gage.  “Lyna Wethers’ range is almost as good as mine.  I won’t be able to put illusions on her without risking myself.”

“Then we’d better keep our distance.”  And kill the bitch.  “Soon as we locate her, one of us should keep an eye on her at all times, to make sure we’re far away.”

“We watch each other’s backs.  Protect each other,” said Gage.  She slid on a black lace mask, completing her outfit.

I thought about her cutting off Eliya’s hands.  Blowing off Samuel’s leg with a shotgun, just so she could get a more cushy body.

I glanced at the white crane mask in my hands.  Samuel was the only one at Paragon who’d respected me, loved me without condition.  I pictured resting my head in his lap, back in the Alabaster Common Room.

I’ll protect her as long as I have to.

________________________________________

“Scholars,” said Gage, affecting a more masculine voice.  “How rich are these people?”

A line of gorgeous men and women extended behind us on the pier, all wearing the latest suits and dresses.  Even under their masks, you could see their effortless beauty. The sculpted cheekbones, the deep red lips, the flawless, smooth skin.  And the hair in every color of the rainbow.

As I recalled, dimples were in this season, which meant every woman’s face seemed to have a friendly smile plastered on it.  They looked like dolls, primped-up, polished, and fragile like porcelain. Scholars, I do not miss that.

“Rich enough to buy tacky fucking bodies,” I muttered.  One of them had a green-haired Maxine Clive, which reminded me of my mother.  I wrinkled my nose.

“I’ve been in Lowtown hospitals filled with cancer patients,” said Gage.  “And these people buy new chassis for fashion.”

A woman two spots ahead glanced behind at us, then whispered something in her date’s ear.  They sniggered. I could guess what the joke was. Others stared at us, giving looks of confusion or distaste.

Gage stared at her feet, uncomfortable.  We stand out.  I didn’t imagine these people had seen a pimple in their lives, and I had two, though my face was handsome enough otherwise.

Gage, on the other hand, looked a swollen blister next to these people.  The grey hair and veins were hidden, thank the scholars, but her jaw and forehead were too big, even for a male body, and the proportions of her figure were all wrong, somehow bone-thin and blocky at the same time.

It could be a problem.  “Act like you belong,” I hissed at her.  “Don’t draw attention to yourself.”

After more agonizing waiting, we reached the front of the line, and I figured out why it was moving so slow.

Two guards stood by the staircase up to the Golden Moon.  Before any guest went on the yacht, they patted them down from head to toe and searched all their bags.

One of the guards extended his hand to me.  “Bag and briefcase, please.” Gage slung her bag off her shoulder and handed it to him.  Hope Gage didn’t pack any weapons.  I gave him my briefcase, and our two invitations.

He flipped it open while the other guard patted us down.  The only things in my briefcase were a few bills, a stack of letter paper, and the Kraken’s Bone.  The man flipped through my paper. “They’re all blank. What are these for?”

“Contracts,” I said, hoping that didn’t sound like whaleshit.

The man scowled and flipped open the pillbox.  “What are these?”

“Anxiety meds,” I lied.  “For my panic attacks.”

“Are you expecting to have a panic attack here?”  The man had a pistol and a baton holstered at his waist.  And I still didn’t have an autonomous bullet defense.

I shrugged.  “You never know.”

Gage bit her lip, shifting from foot to foot.  Could she be any more obvious?  The guard stared at me for a long second, then snapped the box and my briefcase shut.  “Welcome to Bhais Baldana, gentlemen,” he said. “Please enjoy yourself.”

The two of us took our belongings back and ascended the staircase to the deck.  I glanced behind me. One of the guards muttered something in the other’s ear. The man he’d spoken to walked off with purpose.

Attractive people filled up the deck, clumped up in circles and chatting amongst themselves.  There was no food, no drinks. Just conversation and anticipation. The party hadn’t started yet, but the deck was packed full of the rich and famous.  For the ones who weren’t wearing fresh bodies, the masks did little to hide their identities.

My mother had trained me religiously on the names and faces of the powerful.  I noted Jance Sitani, one of the few private investors in the Droll Corsairs. Next to her, I saw the best friend of a Shenti warlord, and the son of the Neke Prime Minister.

“This way.”  I led Ana inside the ship, through the rooms on the various levels, testing which areas were open and which ones were locked.  Almost everything was open and decorated to the gills, though no appetizers had been served yet. Four bartenders were crammed behind the counter on the top level, waiting for the party to begin.

The only real exceptions were the bridge, the private rooms, and, of course, the panic room.  We could scout out the lower rooms when the party started, since that was our best bet for hiding Honeypot’s body.  The panic room was out of the question – our best bet was to take Wethers out before she could get there.

Much worse was the guard presence.  There were too many to count, filling the edges of rooms and blocking doorways, wearing cheap suits and no masks.  Every single one of them was armed with a pistol, which was more than enough to kill both me and Gage.

Even with Gage’s Vocation and my paper storms, we’d have trouble dealing with this many.  I was shit at multitasking, and Gage had some hard range limitations.

We climbed from a lower deck back onto the main one.  A voice talked in my ear. Gage’s voice. It sounded like it was coming from all directions.  “Did you see Honeypot?

“Are you speaking to me with your Vocation?” I muttered under my breath.

Gage nodded.  “Less prying ears.”  Her voice echoed in my ear without her lips moving, sounding softer, closer to her normal pitch and resonance.

Where was Lyna Wethers?  All we had was an old photo of what she looked like, but nobody we’d seen had matched her description.  The masks made it even harder.

We stepped out of a door.  The main deck was filled with people, now, all looking at an attractive brown-haired man in a dinner jacket and bowtie.  Roscoe Belville.  A shipping executive who’d made hundreds of millions developing ports in Ilaqua and the Floating City.

Since the Broadcast King was a secret Praxis Specialist, that made this man the richest Humdrum in the Principality.

Waiters handed out narrow flutes filled with white wine, but nobody drank yet.  I grabbed one. Gage held up a hand to refuse the waiter.

What are you doing?” she hissed with her illusions.  “They could be spiked.

“Love potions don’t exist, remember?” I mumbled under my breath.  “She’s not going to drug her entire party.”

“But you’re drinking on a job.”

I shrugged.  You could use one.

A waiter handed Roscoe Belville a fork, and he tapped his wine glass with it, climbing up on the dais in front of the band.  The lights of Elmidde and Paragon were framed behind him. The partygoers fell silent.

“I look at you all,” he said, beaming.  “And I see some of the brightest minds in the Eight Oceans.  From Ilaqua to the Floating City to Elmidde. Gathered here to celebrate the world we have built.  The peace we’ve kept for nearly a decade. The breathtaking culture and art we’ve created. All thanks to a handful of remarkable individuals, striving to become Exemplars, who can’t get enough thanks.”

All in all, I thought it was a pretty shit speech, but rich people loved flattery.

The crowd burst into applause, and Belville continued.  “But I just provided the boat.” He gestured with his hands, his smile widening beneath his mask.  “I can’t wait to introduce you to the woman behind it all.

Me and Gage shared a look.  He knows Wethers.  Was she going to show her face?

“In my life, I’ve met some incredible people.  Guardians. Businessmen. Visionaries. I’ve been to the Locus’s summer solstice party, and I’ve witnessed the Four Daydreamers play a game of Jao Lu.  But the woman who’s brought you here tonight,” he chuckled. Then laughed.

Then he kept laughing.  I thought it would stop after a second or two, but he just kept going, doubling over, shoulders shaking, a stupid grin frozen onto his face.

Nobody else talked.  The rest of the Golden Moon was dead silent, except for him.

Finally, his laughter trailed off.  “Well, I just hope she decides to show herself tonight.”

Scholars,” Gage illusioned in my ear.  “She already got to him.”

“No shit,” I muttered.  Poor man.  I felt almost as bad for his wife.

“To borrow a phrase from Paragon Academy,” he said.  “May we all forge the stars in our image.” Everyone drank.

Cheers exploded from the audience again, shattering the awkward silence.  Belville clapped his hands, and the band started to play. The propeller churned up the water below, and the yacht took off from the pier, gliding out onto the dark Eloane Ocean.

Light, fast swing music filled the air.  Waiters poured out of doors, carrying wine bottles and trays covered in neat rows of nigiri sushi.  Others offered us garlic lamb skewers, tiny porcelain bowls filled with pudding, or tiny chocolate wafer cookies smaller than my thumb.

A pair of women slid into the hot tub, still wearing their satin gowns.  It was bubbling and frothing, some new Ilaquan invention I’d seen before at Lorne Daventry’s mansion.  The crowd closest to the band began to dance.

Stick to the plan,” said Gage in my ear.  “Track her down together, then use my illusions to lure her into a private room.

But how do we track Wethers down?  I glanced at Roscoe Belville.  He leaned against the fondue table, in conversation with a man and a woman.  Three guards surrounded him, each of them scanning the crowd and the people near him.  “Let’s try to probe other guests. If the guards loosen up on Belville, we can move on him.”

Gage nodded.  The orange and yellow lights of Elmidde and Paragon shrunk in the distance, going from a towering mountain of lights to a bright dot in the distance.  There were no other boats within sight.

I looked around the bustling deck.  Who would Lyna Wethers target?  I zeroed in on someone I thought I recognized.  A wealthy heiress of the Coomes family who had just filed for divorce with her husband.  Money, power, lonely.  A perfect victim.

I strode towards her, Gage close behind, and listened in on the heiress’s conversation with a blonde woman in a pink flapper dress.  “What brings you here?” asked Lady Coombes. “I’m here for investment. I hear private militaries are making mountains on the Shenti continent.  Constant fighting and all.”

“I’m here because I was insecure about my friends having fun without me,” said the blonde flapper.  “If they have a great time and I’m not there, I think they’re going to abandon me. And I get lonely on weekends.”  I recognized her cheery voice in a heartbeat. Christea Ronaveda. The host of Verity, incapable of saying anything but the truth.  “But I’m regretting that now, because my friends are scattered to the winds and all I’ve had are boring conversations with self-centered Epistocrats.”

I’m the only person you’ve been talking to,” said Coombes, glaring at her.

“But I paid for a ticket,” said Ronaveda, “So I’m going to stay, get blackout drunk, and eat an entire cheese platter.”  She patted Coombes on the shoulder. “The sunk costs fallacy is a bitch, isn’t it? Enjoy the party.” She grabbed a whisky glass in each hand and staggered off.

I approached Coombes, grabbing a tiny plate and filling it with sushi.  Gage followed me. “Fine evening,” I said.

“Hi,” said Gage.

“Eat anywhere nice lately?” said Coombes.  It was an odd opener.

“I went to this Neke gourmet ramen bar,” I lied.  “Fantastic shoyu.” I used a tiny fork to shovel pieces of fatty tuna into my mouth.  Fuck, that’s delicious.

Lady Coombes gave me a thin smile  “I know a woman here who lived in the Floating City for a decade.  Knows all the best ramen places around the Eight Oceans. I simply must introduce the two of you.”

I felt a twinge in my stomach.  Something’s not right.  “Wonderful,” I said, beaming.  “Do you know where she is?”

“Don’t know.” Her smile widened.  “I’m sure you’ll run into her at some point.”

“Please excuse us,” said Gage, pulling me away.  As we walked, she whispered into my ear with an illusion.  “Is she – did Honeypot –

“Maybe,” I said.  “Let’s try someone else.”

I recognized someone else in the dining room.  Brown hair. Square jaw. Quinten Keswick. The young Epistocrat at Paragon who I’d deliberately lost a game of Jao Lu to.  He’d bragged about having tickets to Bhais Baldana, so it wasn’t surprising to see him here.

I nodded in his direction, muttering to Gage.  “I know that one. Let’s try him.”

Gage bit her lip, looking more wound-up and uncomfortable than ever.  “I think people are more defensive when it’s two of us and just one of them.  And I’m a bit uncomfortable to look at. I’ll stay close and keep an eye out for Wethers.”

I nodded.  How anxious can this girl get?  Though she wasn’t wrong.  I approached Quinten, smiling and waving at him.  “Evening, mysterious stranger.”

“Alastor!” he said, grinning.  “Sorry, masquerade, no names. You got tickets!”

I grinned back.  “Worth every penny.”  My teeth bit into a chocolate wafer.  “The food is incredible here. Have you tried the sea urchin?”

“Try it?  I ate half their stock?”  The two of us laughed at his terrible joke.  He held up a piece of sushi with his chopsticks.  “You have excellent taste. Eat anywhere nice lately?”

Is everyone at this party a foodie?  How common can that exact phrasing be?  I made something up on the spot.  “Went to a magnificent Ilaquan Biryani house in East Hightown lately.  Takes forever to get a table, but so worth it.”

“Marvelous.”  Quinten gave me a knowing smile.  “Though, to be honest, I care a lot less about those kinds of prestigious status symbols than I used to.”

Sure you do.  He’d spent our entire Jao Lu game trying to look wealthy and smart in front of his friends.  “What do you mean?” I asked.

Quinten bounced up and down, his eyes wide open under his dark blue mask.  “Paragon students can be so strange, don’t you think?  Epistocrats too. We’re constantly one-upping and putting each other down, maneuvering around each other’s social circles like stealth submarines and thinking that’ll make us happy.”  He laughed.

I kept smiling and nodding.  I barely know him, why is he sharing all this?

Quinten kept laughing, a light, jovial sound, and poked my chest.  “I’ve realized that the real happiness, the real satisfaction comes from somewhere deeper than that.  Somewhere primal.”

I laughed with him, though mine sounded more nervous than light.  “Wow,” I said. “Why the big change of heart?”

“I must be having a great week, is all.”  Quinten grabbed both my shoulders, squeezing them.  His smile widened. “I’ve really got to introduce you two to someone.”

 “That’s great,” I said.  “I’m going to go to the bathroom.  You can find me later, but I might be a while.”

I walked towards the restrooms, glancing behind me.  Gage tailed me. “What happened?” she asked with her Vocation.  “Did Wethers get him too?”  I saw Quinten look away from me, and I turned left out the door, striding to the railing at the edge of the ship.

The city of Elmidde was barely a faint glimmer in the distance now.  The dark ocean surrounded us, calm and quiet. Two thin crescent moons hung in the starless sky, the only light source outside the boat.

The moonlight illuminated faint shapes near the ship.  Dark, triangular constructions made of metal, sticking out of the ocean.  Most of their walls had been stripped away, leaving only the rusty frames inside.  What floors remained were filled with holes and gaps.

“Are those shipwrecks?” I asked Gage.

“They’re skyscrapers,” A female voice spoke from behind me.   A lithe, heart-faced woman sidled up to me and Gage, leaning against the railing.  “The legacy of the Great Scholars.”

I stared over the edge, into the endless black ocean.  The Shenti had a saying they used when bad things happened: The Sea Remains.  Their unofficial motto.  No matter what victories you had, no matter who you loved or what you built, it would all slide back under the waves in the end.  All forgotten.

I was out here in the ocean, alone, with no friends, no fiancée, and no future.  The saying was starting to make sense. “I suppose our host has an appreciation for history, taking us here,” I said.  Now, time to try something out.  “Food, too.  How about you?  Eat anywhere nice lately?”

It was the conversation starter both Lady Coombes and Quinten had used, word for word, and my answers had provoked strange responses from both of them.  Let’s see what she says.

“Imagawa House,” she said.  “Excellent Yakitori skewers.”  She grabbed my hand, squeezing it tight.  Her eyes widened, and she looked at Gage. “Him too?”

This is bad.  My heart thumped in my ears.  I nodded. “Him too.”

She grabbed me and Gage by our shoulders, grinning.  “Congratulations,” the woman said. “She’s wonderful, isn’t she?”  Oh fuck.  Oh fuck.

Scholars,” said Gage with her illusions.  “It’s a password.  Asking about restaurants.  Responding with that phrase about Yakitori.  They’re testing to see if other people are controlled by Wethers.

She figured it out just after I did.

Takonara,” I muttered under my breath.

“She’s such a joy to be around,” said the woman.  “Life can be so difficult, it’s not often you find people so naturally bright and positive.  I’ve been introducing people to her all night. Just like you two have, I’m sure. A few more hours, and we’ll have everyone.”

A chill breeze blew over the deck.  For a long moment, none of us moved or said anything, as the implications of this sank in.  Gage gripped the railing, her hand shaking.

Lyna Wethers is trying to get everyone on this ship,” said Gage with her Vocation.  “They’re feeding us to her one by one.

“Where did you last see her?” I asked the woman.  Don’t think about the victims.  Don’t think about the fact that Wethers’ Vocation was permanent, with no cure.  “I’d love to introduce more people to her.

She shrugged.  “Can’t remember.  If I spot her outfit anywhere, I’ll let you know.”

“Remind me, what was she wearing tonight?  I met her last week.”

“Green dress, blue mask.  Very distinct.”

“Well, it was nice meeting you.”  I turned away.

She beamed at us.  “Have a lovely evening.”  She strode away, calling out to another person nearby.  “How are you? Eat anywhere nice lately?”

I muttered under my breath to Gage.  “We know what her code is, now. We can impersonate one of her thralls.  We sweep each deck for her. Then we use your Vocation to get her alone. Gage?”

Gage didn’t respond.  She wasn’t even looking at me.  She was staring at something in the middle of the deck, in the main dining area.

I followed her gaze, to the appetizer table.  Two young men in masks sat around one of them, sipping from martini glasses, one with red hair, one with brown.  I had to look at them for a few seconds before I recognized the first one’s pale skin and cherubic face. Another Paragon student, like Quinten.

Why is Kaplen Ingolf at this party?

The brown-haired man grabbed Ingolf by the wrist, leading him downstairs to the lower decks.  Ingolf stumbled, bumping into people and tables.

Gage stepped forward, panic in her eyes.  Does she know him?

A tall female figure emerged from upstairs, blocked from my vision by a crowd of people.  She strode downstairs, following Kaplen. Though most of her face was hidden, I could make out parts of her body and outfit.

A woman wearing a bright green evening gown, with a blue mask over her eyes.

My grip tightened on the handle of my briefcase.  That’s her.  And she was about to use her Vocation on another Paragon student.

“Gage,” I said.  “Do you see – “

She unclasped my briefcase and pulled out the metal pillbox, stuffing it into her pocket.  “I’m going after Wethers,” she said. Her chest rose and fell in shallow, rapid breaths. “Before she can destroy anyone else’s mind.”  She spoke out loud, not bothering to use her Vocation.

She wants to protect Ingolf.  “Gage, I know how fucked up this is, but we have a plan.  We can’t rush in like this, or we’ll just get hijacked too.“

“Every moment we wait is another Pith she gets to burn.“  She walked forward, jaw clenched. “You can come with me or not.”

“Gage, you were just talking about how careful we need to be around her.  We can’t split up.”

“I’ve got an idea.”  The girl quickened her pace, ignoring me.  “She’s not invincible.”

“Gage!” I shouted.  Scholars damn her.  The bitch was going to get us both killed or worse.  Normally, I was the one coming up with stupid, reckless improvisations.

Think, think.  What were my options?  What would Samuel do? Or Harpy, my old tactics professor.  If I followed her, I could hide my paper somewhere and use it to attack Wethers without drawing attention, outside of her range.

But Wethers might have the tools to block it, and the corridors were tight down there.  She could set her guards and her mob of brainwashed thugs on me in a heartbeat, and then it’d be over.

I had no way to contact Isaac Brin for backup, but I could steal a radio and use it to ring up the police.  But who knew how long that would take? And if Gage got turned and spilled the beans on me, there was nowhere for me to hide on this ship.

I need an escape.

If Gage wanted to charge in and get hijacked, that was her choice.  But in the meantime, I was going to secure our escape route.

Using my Vocation, I could break into the lifeboat room with ease, but the boats themselves were still locked with Voidsteel chains.  I need the key.

The most likely people to have it were Honeypot herself and Roscoe Belville, the owner of the Golden Moon.  They wouldn’t have it in a safe, where it could be slow to access in an emergency.  No, they’d have it on their person, or somewhere they could get to in a heartbeat.

I wasn’t going to ever get that close to Lyna Wethers, so I’d just have to hope it was with Belville.

After a few minutes of looking around, I found him: The upper deck, sitting at a window table in front of the bar.  With the party in full swing, his guards seemed to have left.

I moved towards him, keeping an eye below me to make sure Wethers was still belowdecks with my neurotic, psychotic partner.  Don’t think about Gage.

I leaned on the chest-high table Belville was sitting at and set down my briefcase next to me.  “Evening.”

He smiled.  “Eat anywhere nice lately?”

“Imagawa House,” I said, following the password.  “Excellent yakitori skewers.”

I projected towards the CEO, feeling around his body for metal.  A silver ring on his finger. A steel watch around his wrist. And a key-shaped hunk of brass pressed against his collarbone.  He has the boat key.

But it was hanging around his neck.  And touching his skin. If I took it now, he’d notice right away.

I had to lull him, distract him, then take it without the other guests noticing.

“‘18 Arak,” I said to the bartender.  “Neat.”

What would distract him enough?  Something he was so obsessed about, it’d keep his head in the clouds while I stole the key to his lifeboats?

Belville chuckled.  “She’s marvelous, isn’t she?”

And there it is.  “Tell me more about Lyna,” I said.  “I’m dying to know her better.”

Belville took my hand in his.  “You know her name. She must trust you a great deal, then.”

The bartender handed me my drink, and I took it in my hand, watching at all times.  Don’t let anyone drug it.  The bartender began to shuck oysters with a thin knife, placing them on a bed of ice in front of Belville.

“Well,” said Belville.  “She’s an ex-Guardian, who specializes in the Whisper school of projection.  Two months after we met, she used her Vocation on me.”

I choked on my drink, coughing.  Why would he tell me that?  “A Whisper Vocation?”  I tried to sound surprised.  “What did she do to you?”

“It took hours to go into effect,” he said.  “But by the time she was done, I belonged to her.  And she belonged to me.”

I gaped at him.  “You mean – you – we only love her because of mental projection?  And you know? You don’t care about that?”

“Imagine if you realized, today, that every value you ever held, every love, every passion, was constructed by someone else.  Would you reject it? For what? It’s everything you are.  It’s permanent, unchangeable.  You can hate yourself, or you can embrace it.”

I thought of Kaplen’s fluffy green cat, what-its-face.  The main reason that boy found it adorable was likely a benign bacteria the animal had spread to his brain, Maojun.  But he knew that, and no matter how many times other students reminded him, he still loved it.  Still brought it everywhere.

The bartender placed another shucked oyster next to him.  “But I loved her before any Vocations.”

“Why?” I asked.

Belville leaned forward.  “Because she’s innocent. All the mental hijacking cases Paragon brought against her – they’re all whaleshit.”

I faked a sigh of relief.  “That makes so much sense. Why?”  I reached my hand into my pocket, and projected the thin slip of paper inside it up the long sleeve of my jacket.

“Paragon has no right to accuse her.  They ordered her to do all of those hijackings, and many more.”

The bartender rammed his knife into an oyster, forcing it open.

“What?”

“She was a tool for Paragon to use – not just on their enemies, but themselves.  How do you think Epistocrat arranged marriages stay together?  Lyna was paid to use it on Danae Corbiere, Jonathan Nevitt, Rowyna Ebbridge – “

I froze.  The world faded into a dull buzz in the background.  My mother used it on herself?  I hated the bitch, but her love for my father was one of her few redeeming qualities. Did she make that up too?

“- Maelor Tanwen was only interested in men.  And Gwaun Breyel wasn’t interested in anyone at all.  And after they were done, they paid even more to have their memories of Lyna erased, so they could pretend they’d loved their spouse all along.  Lyna didn’t have a choice. She owed everything to those people in power, and knew they could take it away in a heartbeat.”

He has to be lying.  She could have fed him whaleshit and he could be spouting it without question.  That seemed like the simplest explanation.

As he talked, I dropped my hand to my side, and let the slip of paper fall under my chair.  Projecting into it, I slid it along the floor, beneath his chair, and lifted it behind him.  I slotted it in the collar of his shirt, right on top of the tag, where he wouldn’t notice it.

“Lyna knew the consequences for disobeying.  So when her superiors asked her to use it on the love of her life, she complied.”

She hijacked her own lover?

“Another woman’s family wanted an alliance with him, you see, and his thoughts didn’t factor into the equation.”  His voice went quiet, full of regret. “She did it while he was asleep. Their relationship ended in tears, and he never found out why.”  He flashed a wan smile at me. “When the other woman courted him, it was love at first sight. Who knew?”

My paper was ready to cut Belville’s necklace.  I needed to distract the many others in the room, something that would get them to look away.

“Who was the love of her life?” I asked.

“Professor Sebastian Oakes,” said Belville.  “The Obsidian Foil. He married a woman named Penny Alden, and they’re still happy together.  After that, she refused to sell her Vocation to Paragon anymore. And that was when the criminal charges appeared.”

Professor Oakes?  No, no way.  Him and his wife were the cutest couple in Paragon.  They loved all the same things, loved spending time with one another.  Their personalities were compatible.

“Does she want him back?”

Belville shook his head.  “The Vocation can only work once, and even she can’t undo it.  She’s experimented for years, on hundreds to try and find a cure.  To no avail. We must live with the consequences of our actions.”

The bartender forced open another oyster, placing it next to him.

“What Lyna is going to do,” he said, his voice growing soft.  “Is find the people who hurt her. Find their families, their friends, everyone who loves them.  And use her Vocation to take them all away.”

“I love her so much,” I lied.  “Why would she do this? And why are you telling me all this?” I asked.  Does he vent like this to every person she’s controlled?

“Because,” said Belville, “Lyna’s Whisper Vocation works two ways.  The first is shallow. Physical attraction, obsession, raw infatuation for personality quirks.  But the second requires further conditions. If you want to make someone truly fall in love, you have to harness something deeper.  The comfort of being tucked into bed by your mother. The trust, when you open up to your best friend with your most painful weakness.  The satisfaction, when you lie down next to your wife of five years, and know that you’ve connected with someone who cherishes your every facet and flaw.”

This is it.  I prepared to slice the string around the back of his neck.

Belville leaned close to me, intent.  “If you want to make someone love your mind, you share your perspective with them, mercenary.”

The bustling room went silent.  Every man and woman on the deck stared at me.  Under their party masks, their eyes were wide open, unblinking.

In the next second, three things happened.  Belville snatched my piece of paper off his collar, crumpling it in his fist.  I leapt out of my chair, reaching for my briefcase with my Pith. And a muscular arm hooked my neck from behind, yanking me back.

The guard behind me tightened his forearm around my windpipe, and I choked, gasping for air.

Get the paper.

I projected into the metal latches of my briefcase, lifting them up to unlock it.  Another guard slammed his palms on top of them, forcing them shut. I pushed upwards with my Pith, to no avail.  My metal projection is still weak.

“Let me guess,” said Belville, staring at the paper in his clenched fist.  “That briefcase is where you’re keeping your projection materials. More paper?”  He shook his head, tutting. “So predictable.”

I projected around the room, looking for more paper in every nook and cranny.  Green lightning crackled around my arms and chest from the strain on my Pith.

“Everyone!” yelled Belville.  “Hold your wallets shut! Don’t let the paper out!”  Every person in the room took out their wallets, clamping down on them and the paper bills inside.  I couldn’t apply enough force to pry them open.

There were napkins under the bar, but they didn’t have sharp edges.  Nothing that could give anyone a paper cut.

I felt something at the back of my mind.  A slight sensation that had been there this entire conversation that had escaped my attention.  A soft itch inside my skull, like a fingernail was scratching the wrinkles of my brain.

A woman in a green evening gown strode up the staircase, entering the room.  Honeypot.  Her hands lifted to the dark blue mask covering her eyes, sliding it off.  All eyes in the room turned to her.

Lyna Wethers’ body looked a good three decades older than everyone at this party.  At least fifty or older. Her blonde hair was styled in a ragged, crew cut, even more clumsy than Ana’s hair.  She gazed over me with narrow eyes.

She was far from conventionally attractive, and was evidently wearing a natural-born body.  But all the same, there was something magnetic about her.  Something about the way her face came together, the smirk played around the edges of her lips, or how she seemed to draw all the attention to herself like a whirlpool.

Honeypot looked pretty.

Blood rushed in my ears, and I felt my stomach drop.  Fuck me.  Fuck, fuck, FUCK.  I thought of Samuel’s face in my head, trying to focus on it, but all I could picture were Lyna’s sagging eyelids, her chapped, cracking lips spread back in a smile.

But that didn’t make any bloody sense.  Her range was less than twenty meters, and she’d been many decks below.

She wasn’t even in range now, and she was looking more gorgeous by the second.

Lyna Wethers bowed to Roscoe Belville, kneeling on the floor.  “Excellent work, ma’am.”

The realization washed over me with a wave of dizziness.  That’s not the real Lyna Wethers.  The woman knew she was wanted by Guardians.  She knew there could be enemies at this party.

So she transferred her thrall into a decoy chassis, and hid her real self in a body she could meet lots of people with.

A body like, say, the host of a masquerade ball.

I looked towards Roscoe Belville – no, not Belville.  “Hello, Lyna Wethers,” I choked out.

Lyna Wethers smiled at me through Roscoe Belville’s body.  “Took you long enough.”

“Where’s the real Belville?” I wheezed.

“At home,” she said.  “He kindly lent me this body, in the meantime.”

She grabbed an oyster off the plate and slurped it down, licking her lips.  “Easy on the arteries, Danny. I lied about my Vocation. He needs to be awake for it to work and he’s on some light sedatives.”

Sedatives?  I did feel tired and dizzy, and far more drunk than I should off one drink.  The room was wobbling back and forth in front of my eyes.  

The bartender set down his oyster knife, staring at me.  He spiked my drink.

Lyna rolled up the sleeves of her suit – Roscoe Belville’s suit.  Blue lightning crackled up and down her arms, the telltale sign of a Whisper Specialist.  She’s using her Vocation on me.

My heart thumped in my chest.  Panic surged through my veins, cutting through the fog of the sedative she’d dosed me with.  Think, idiot, think.  How could I get out of this?

I glanced around the room, which was starting to get blurry.  I saw the bartender’s oyster knife on the counter, and the guard forcing down the latch on my briefcase.

The beginnings of a plan began to form in my mind.

“Let me tell you a secret,” said Wethers.  “If my Vocation is used on a person too long, it begins to reshape other parts of their Pith.  Their pleasure centers. Their language processing. Their vision.” She tilted an oyster back into her mouth.  “Tell me who you’re working for, and I won’t make you a blind, hollow mute.”

I said nothing, focusing on the briefcase, and the latch which was being held shut.

“Who is it?  Ilaqua? The Droll Corsairs?  Paragon?”

I used my Physical Vocation on the shut latch, flattening it lengthwise.

The briefcase fell open, and sheaves of paper spilled onto the floor.

I projected into all of them, shooting them at the real Wethers and the guards in the room.  I sliced the arms and face of the guard holding me, focusing on his eyes and joints. He staggered back, crying out in pain.

At the same time, I swarmed the other two guards in the room, giving them paper cuts up and down their bodies, and I swirled a storm of flattened sheets around me, making it hard for the brainwashed mob to track my movements.

Through the storm, I slid a piece of paper towards Lyna Wethers’ throat, and slashed her carotid artery.  Blood poured out, and she collapsed from her chair onto the floor, clutching her neck.  

It wouldn’t kill her, but it would force her to waste precious time transferring into a new body.

One more slash freed the key from the string around her neck.  While her thralls were still distracted, I projected into both the key and the bartender’s oyster knife, pulling them towards me.

Grabbing the knife, I stabbed the bottom corner of the window next to me.  It shattered, shards of glass falling onto the deck below.

Dozens of men and women in masks ran towards me, hands outstretched, ready to defend their mistress.

Before they could reach me, I clambered forward and leapt out of the window.

The wooden deck hit me like a freight train.  I slammed into it feet-first, rolling forward to soften the impact.  As I rolled, the fragmented glass dug into my back and forearms, cracking beneath me.

The chattering on the main deck fell silent.  The band stopped playing. Half the masked partygoers backed away from me.  The other half stepped closer, fists clenched.

I wobbled, staggering back and forth.  The stabbing pain on the top half of my body felt numb, distant.  That sedative is still doing a number on me.  The fog rolled over my mind, blanketing my thoughts.

“He has the key!”  A guard from above snapped me out of my stupor.  “Keep him away from the boats! Block the doors!”

The mob rushed to all the doors nearby, pressing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of them.  I gathered my paper around me from the upper levels, just one briefcase’s worth.

It’s not enough.  I would have to kill them to move them.  And I couldn’t do that. The sheer terror kept a sliver of my mind clear through the haze.  What do I do, what do I do?  The mob had blocked my only escape route.

The guard on the second floor drew his pistol.

I sprinted to the edge of the yacht and vaulted over the railing, diving into the water.

I crashed into the cold, dark ocean, feeling another sting of pain from the skin on my back.  My head breached the surface, and I swam for the ruined skyscrapers of the Great Scholars.

I drew my paper around me, flattening them into a vast curtain above and behind, blocking the guards’ vision.  Gunshots rang out behind me, but none of them hit me. I projected into the water around me, using it to accelerate myself faster.

The metal tower jutted out of the waves, covered in rust.  It was missing many of its walls and floors, but everything at sea level was a smooth, flat wall.  I couldn’t see anywhere I could get up on it.

Bullets whizzed around me, and I swam around the edge of the tower, to the far side.  My arms and chest felt heavier with every stroke I took. The world spun back and forth around me, and I bumped my head into the tower several times, having a hard time keeping direction.

On the far side of the tower, the wall had fallen away, exposing a staircase on the inside of the structure.  I swam towards it, and climbed onto it, wheezing for breath.

I staggered up the metal staircase.  Water dripped from my suit and my white crane mask.  My clothes were damp all over, sticking to my skin.

The gunshots had stopped.  The ruined tower fell quiet.  The only sounds were the soft lapping of the water against the corroded metal, and the creak of the metal stairs beneath my waterlogged dress shoes.

I emerged into a vast, empty room.  The three walls of the structure towered stories above me, missing huge chunks all over.  Strange structures hung from scaffolding above me, framing the empty night sky. From the floor, they looked like clusters of small dots connected by lines.

A metal globe hung in the middle of them, flanked by two smaller spheres.  The sun and the moon.  Were the dots stars, then?

Even in ruins, decaying away, it was hard not to feel awe at the craft of the Great Scholars.  How tall had this tower been, before the oceans had risen to drown their civilization?

My feet carried me to the wall facing the Golden Moon.  Half of it was missing, and I peeked out of it, scanning over the yacht.  A pack of guards stood at the edge of the ship, facing towards the tower, but none of them seemed to be looking at me.

Now, what’s the next step?  They would be coming for me soon.  If I forced Wethers out, I could ambush her and hold her hostage.  Or I could take her decoy body and use it to command all the thralls.

Something poked me in the back, and cold shocks ran up and down my body.  For the second time this week, I collapsed to the ground, twitching on my belly.

A boot kicked me, rolling me onto my back and sending screams of pain from the glass shards poking into it.  A guard stood over me, hefting a cattle prod. He stabbed it into my stomach, and ice ran through my veins, sending me into convulsions.  How did he get here?

Lyna Wethers floated from the sky, wearing her normal body again, dressed in her green dress and blue mask.  A second guard floated down next to her, lifted by his projected clothes.

She could fly.  Of course she could.

In my mind, Samuel’s smile faded into the distance.

“Evening,” said Honeypot.  “Eat anywhere nice lately?”

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