7-D The Blue Charlatan

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Wes

Ana is friends with my replacement.

I tripped on an empty glass, and dropped onto the floor face-first.

“I’m not spiraling,” I said, my tongue aching.  “I know what I’m doing.”

“Your mouth is full of blood,” said Jun.  “I think you bit your tongue.”

The room wobbled back and forth, dizzying in my vision.  “I know what I’m doing.”

“How stupid do you think I am?” said Hira.

“I mean, you did sleep with me, so…”

Hira tossed a book at me, and I caught it.  “We’re supposed to be studying pneumatology for your exam, you pampered fucking bird.  I don’t know how you managed to smuggle alcohol in here, but you’re paying me to keep you clean.  This ends now.”

I felt something project into the flattened objects in my belt and shoes, yanking them out.  Eight flattened bottles of liquor popped into three dimensions, some of them half-empty.

“Of course,” Hira said.  “I should have checked there earlier.”

Jun sat on the couch next to me and pressed a glass of water into my hands.  “Why now?”  He painted a sympathetic expression across his face.  “You were doing so well.”

“Don’t try to play sympathetic with me, you Eastern fossil,” I snorted, half-slurring my speech.  “You can’t just pretend to be all huggy after making bombs, for genocidal murderers.”  I pointed at Hira.  “Him, at least, I know that I’m paying.  And Ana is a righteous, brooding wannabe with a stick up her ass taller than the Radiant Canopy.  But I still don’t know what the fuck you want.”

Jun’s expression curdled.  “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a tough person to care about?”

I shrugged.  “Only my mother, father, friends, and fiancé.  Why do you ask?”

“Self-awareness is not the same thing as kindness,” he said.

I pushed myself upright and stalked to the door, pulling it open to the rainy tempest outside.

“Don’t,” said Jun.  “There’s a storm going on.  It’s not safe.  Let’s just talk about this, alright?  This is about Ana, isn’t it?”

I glowered at him.  “I’m going to get drunk, fix this hangover, and do unsafe things.  And if you want to stop me, Hira, I will fight you, and even if I lose, I will blow up your fucking kitchen.”

I stomped out the door, into the storm.

________________________________________

I downed my fifth drink of the night, and listened to the idiots whine.

“They’re thieves,” said the first Green Hands in the booth behind me.  “That’s the best word I can think of.  My friend spends fifteen hours a day delivering shit to their mansions, and about two-thirds of them don’t tip.  The ones that do act all smug about it, like they rescued him from poverty with three fucking pounds.”

Typical Humdrums.

“Most of them haven’t done a day’s work in their lives, or talked to a person with an income below seven figures,” said the second one, both trying to convince a third man, who hadn’t gotten the hand tattoos yet.  They’re Commonplace recruiters.  “They talk big about Ousting and how only the worthy join them, but the game is rigged.  Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to replace the child of a powerful Epistocrat family, no matter how stupid or lazy they are.  They pretend it’s a fair system, but only the real morons ever get kicked out.”

I stood up, making my stool fall over with a clatter.  All eyes in the bar turned to me, as I spun around to face the booth.  Five Green Hands and one loud idiot with opinions.  I can manage that.

“It’s comforting,” I hissed, “to think that the people at the top are just money-grubbers and ass-kissers and cheaters who steal from the tragic deserving Humdrums.  But the reality is, we score higher on tests of intelligence.  If any of you whiners tried to make it in Paragon classes, you’d crash and burn within a week.  And if anyone in your ‘Common Foundation’ tried to take on a Shenti Commando without a Guardian, they’d kill them with a pinky.”

Two of the Green Hands stood up, both half a head taller than me.  “We?” one of them said.

“Do you know why your wannabe revolution isn’t going to work?” I said.  “Because all the people smart enough to start a real uprising are going to Paragon.”

I stepped closer to the Green Hands, flashing them my best shit-eating grin.  Please punch me, please punch me, please punch me.  I needed an excuse to let off some steam.

He punched me.

Well, he tried to punch me.  His fist swung around in a haymaker, fast enough to knock out most amateurs.  But not me.

My close quarters training kicked on.  One arm raised to block his strike before it hit me.  The other arm shot forward, slamming my palm up into his nose.

As he stumbled back, my other fist swung forward and punched his windpipe.  One.  Despite my drunken state, I was moving faster than I expected.

Another step, another block, and the man standing next to him was wide open.  I decked him in the solar plexus, leaving him to gasp for breath.  Two.

I was feeling pretty good about myself when the rest of them stood up and started beating the shit out of me.

I took several steps back, trying to force them to go in one at a time, but they clambered over tables and knocked over chairs, surrounding me from all sides.

The unfortunate thing was, when four muscular men surrounded you, and didn’t give a shit about a fair fight, it didn’t matter how much you’d trained in martial arts.  Without Joining, there were only so many things a human body could do.

I knocked back one of them with a feint and a kick to the groin, then got a second in an arm lock.  Then the third one kicked me in the back of the knee, and before I could recover, something smashed the side of my head.

I collapsed, ears ringing, the world turning into a blur.  My Pith stretched out, searching for paper nearby.  Only napkins and a few loose bills in wallets.  No good cutting edges.  And it was so hard to concentrate when my head was spinning like this.

I shoved my Pith forward into the heads of the enemies around me, Nudging them.  All four of them pushed back, resisting the Whisper vocation.

The other patrons of the bar stood back.  No one was screaming or running or calling the police.  They’re taking the Green Hands’ side.  If these morons killed me, they’d pretend they saw nothing 

One of the men punched me in the solar plexus, and another one shoved my chest.  I collapsed on my back, and they stood over me, fists clenched.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, my face aching.

The one closest to my head leaned down.  “What was that?”

“I said I’m sorry,” I said.  “Please don’t murder me.”

One of them spat on me, and I projected into the water, making it miss my face by an inch.

“You tried to Nudge us,” said another one.  “What were you gonna do, make us piss our pants and then wipe the memories?”

“I’m very sorry?”

“Guardians,” he said.  “You always think you’ll get away with it.”

“Not a Guardian,” I said.  “Not even an Epistocrat.  Let’s talk about this.”  If my head wasn’t hurting so much, if I wasn’t so drunk and dizzy and exhausted, maybe I could have thought of a better plan.  But my thoughts had turned to garbled static.

They said nothing.

“Takonara,” I muttered.

One of them lifted his foot to stomp my face.

Then something snapped, and he fell backwards, screaming in pain.  What?  He collapsed next to me, clutching his knee.

“Scholars,” said Right-Hira, looking down at me.  “Will you ever learn to shut it?”

He zipped forward, jabbing his fingers into the eyeballs of a second Green Hands.  The other four ran forward, having recovered from my throat and solar plexus punches.

Right-Hira grinned.

In the span of a few seconds, I saw the vast gap between our skills.  As they tried to surround the Ilaquan, he spun and weaved backwards through tiny gaps in the crowd, pushing bystanders in the way and forcing the Green Hands to arrive at different times.

As the Green Hands forced themselves through the crowd, he struck, darting around one and swinging his fist into the back of his head.  A rabbit punch.  The man was out cold in an instant.

The next two attacked at the same time.  One of them got beer tossed in his eyes.  In the split second his vision was distorted, Hira flung the empty glass at his face, and as the man ducked to avoid it, Hira swung a knee into the bridge of his nose.

The second man grabbed Hira’s neck from behind, pulling him back in a rear naked chokehold with the crook of his elbow pressing into his throat.  Hira grabbed the arm and shocked him, making him loosen his grip, then elbowed his jaw with a sickening crack.

The final enemy, the recruit, leveled a gun at Hira from behind the bar.  “Fucking hornets.”

A gunshot rang out, and he fell over, clutching his shoulder.

Left-Hira stood up from an empty booth, grinning, leveling a revolver at the recruit.  “Stay down.  Or keep fighting, if you want to give me target practice.”  Right-Hira gave me a hand, pulling me to my feet.

A few of the others at the bar stepped towards Left-Hira, menacing looks on their faces.  She leveled the revolver at them, and they backed away.

“You were following me?” I mumbled, wiping my bloody face on my shirt sleeve.

“You’re still paying me,” said Hira.  “I figured you’d get into something fun during your rock bottom.  And…”

“And?”

He bit his lip.  “And I didn’t want you to get hurt.  Though, to be fair, you did deserve some of that.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled, blood dripping off my face.  “Alcohol.  I wanted to provoke them.”

“Wow, your life sounds hard,” said Hira.  “Have you ever considered sobriety?”  He shook his head, muttering under his breath.  “Principians.  Crazy bhenchods, all of them.”

I can’t even fight Humdrums right.

“I’ll patch you up at home.”  He slapped me on the back.  “Let’s get out of here before one of these goras calls the cops.”

“Thanks,” I said, stumbling out into the rain.

To my surprise, I meant it.

________________________________________

As Jun wrapped a bandage around my shoulder, the phone started ringing.

Hira picked it up.  “Johnny’s Tofu Delivery, how can I help you?  Hello?  Hello?”  He looked at us, shaking his head.  “I think someone’s coughing on the other end.  Rain, too.”

I stood up, my chest and face still aching from the beating I’d received.  I think I might have broken another rib.  “Where’s Ana?”

“Probably in her pod, studying her eyeballs out,” said Hira.  “We just finished a job, she’s not going to fuck around and do reckless things.”

“Was she acting strange at all?”

Hira shrugged.  “A little.  Crippling guilt at people she shot, panicking over whether she’s a monster, gaping at the metaphorical blood on her hands.  Typical newbie stuff, you know.”

“Actually, I don’t.”  I staggered to the door, massaging my pounding headache.  “I’m going to check if she’s alright.  With the storm and all.”  I looked at Hira.  “And I can’t drive.”

“Are you sure?” said Jun.  “You might not be welcome.  You’ve pretty thoroughly antagonized her.”  Judging by his tone, I’d antagonized him a bit too.

“Well,” I said, “too bad for her.  If she wants to send me away, she can scream it to my face.  Hira?”

Hira sighed.  “Don’t have anything better to do.”

“Could be dangerous,” I said.

His face lit up.  “That’s a good point.”

We went back to the car.

________________________________________

Ana’s street had flooded a little over a foot, and we’d had to leave the car on higher ground.  Hira and I jogged across the surface of the water, towards King’s Palace where Ana’s pod was.

We found her across the street, beneath a phone booth, head sticking out just above the water.  Through the pouring rain, it was almost impossible to make her out.

“There!” I shouted.  We sprinted forward, the water hardening beneath our shoes.

When I saw her, my stomach sank.

Anabelle Gage lay on the pavement, slumped against the phone, unconscious.  Blood trickled out from her mouth, dripping from her chin and soaking into her clothes.

The flooded street seemed to get a little colder.

“Lift with me,” said Right-Hira.  “Take her right shoulder.”  We pulled her upright, and the two Hiras took the upper and lower halves of her body.

“Let’s get her in the car,” I said.

________________________________________

“We need to talk about Tasia,” I said, standing over Ana’s bed.

She froze.  “How do you know that name?”

“And I followed you two.”

Ana clenched her teeth.  “You spied on me?”

“We thought we were just stalking her,” said Hira.  “Until he found you sipping tea with his nemesis.  Or that’s what he told me.”

I stepped forward.  “What the fuck are you doing with her?  What are you planning?”

“Nothing.”  Ana’s face turned to stone.  “Stay out of my personal life.  And don’t follow me.”

“I’m allowed to gather intelligence on my enemies,” I said.  “Of all the red-hot geniuses in Paragon, why did you have to become friends with the bitch who destroyed my life?”  That couldn’t be an accident.  There had to be something there.  “Is this some petty revenge thing?  Because I’d rather you beat the shit out of me and get it over with.  Not this underhanded whaleshit.”

“It has nothing to do with you,” hissed Ana.  “We’re just friends.  She knows nothing about Queen Sulphur, or you.  I still care about our operation.”

“She’s savvy,” I spat.  “Knows how to find people’s weaknesses.  If you think she’s oblivious to your side gig, you’re more naive than my great-aunt Annie.  And she spent half her fortune on tulips.”

“I don’t know what to say to you,” Ana said, staring at the sheets.

“She’s perfect, isn’t she?” I said.  “Says all the right things.  Just makes your heart warm up with her fucking brilliance.  My mother has given her the family armor already, hasn’t she?”

“I didn’t know,” said Ana.  “I didn’t know you were an Ebbridge until after we were already friends.  If you’d been honest with me, none of this would have happened.”

“So it’s all my fault then, is it?” I said, fingers tapping on my thigh faster and faster.  “It’s always my fault.”  I paced around the room.  “Lady Ebbridge, the lying moron.  Born into one of the most powerful families in the Eight Oceans.  And still managing to fuck it all up.”  They’re thinking just like those Green Hands at the bar.  I stopped at Ana’s bedside.  “And now you’re kicking me out too.”

Thoughts ran through my head, unbidden.  Does she think I deserved to be Ousted?  Is she right?

Eventually, Jun would find a better place for his engineering skills, and Hira would move onto his own mercenary work.  The Ilaquan enjoyed my body, and my money, but those would only last for so long.

Everyone would move on without me, sooner or later.  And then I’d be alone on the streets, scrounging food out of the trash, or whatever Humdrums did when they were this poor and drunk.

My legs felt weak.  The headache from my hangover seemed to triple.

“I’m sorry,” said Ana, “But I’m not going to throw away my best friend just to make you feel better.”

I leaned forward, trying to flatten my body language into something cold.  “I’m going to Oust her this summer,” I said.  “And if you say a single word to her about me, I’ll make sure to remember.”

A long silence extended between us.

“Does anyone want a cup of tea?” said Jun, smiling.

No one responded.

“I think,” he said, “what Ana is trying to say is – “

“Stay out of this, greybeard,” I snapped.  “You don’t know what it’s like, none of you do.”  I looked at Ana, the Hiras, and Jun in turn.  “You still have your names.  You chose to leave your family.  They didn’t throw you out, rip your friends away from you.  I don’t have a home anymore.  Everyone I cared about has abandoned me, in one way or another.  And right now, it seems like that’s going to be permanent.”

Jun stared at the ground.  “You don’t know who I am.”  He looked me in the eye, his neck tensed up.

“I know you built bombs for the Shenti,” I said.  “I’d say that’s plenty.”

“Everyone hated me,” he said.  “My co-workers, my best friends, my sister, all wrote letters to me, explaining how I was a monster, how I was disgusting, how they regretted ever knowing me, and wished I would just die.  And then they came to my trial, and said it all over again to my face.  Did you ever think to ask why I was enslaved by my own people?”

“That’s what they do.  Everyone who isn’t smart or useful enough goes to a redemption camp.  Though I’m not sure if they still do that, now that the war is over.”

“But I was an engineer.  A military engineer, under Warlord Luo Cai.  After the Spirit Block, that’s like finding a rainforest in the desert.”

“I’ll bite,” said Hira.  “Why’d they throw you in chains?”

“They didn’t,” said Jun.  “Not at first.  It was my father who they threw in chains, after he tried to blow up the warlord.”

“He tried to – “

“Where do you think I learned to make all the bombs?  The plot failed when Luo Cai’s bodyguard threw herself on top of him.  Joiners.  Invulnerable, you know.  But my father had done his homework.  Nobody could trace the explosive back to him, and Luo was none the wiser.”

“Then how did his people find out that – “ I stopped.  “No.”

“I told them,” Jun said, staring at his feet.  “I reported my father to the military police.  He was sentenced to a redemption camp.  One of the few left operating.  It was more or less a death sentence.  And I got promoted.  Senior Colonel and an office.”  He folded his hands together.  “I pondered my status in the world, and the moral weight of my actions.  With the Spirit Block in place, that was a great deal harder than you might imagine.”

“Why?” said Ana.

“The Ninety-Nine Precepts were the moral compass of the Shenti People.  They were the words I’d grown up with, or, at least, I think so.  When they got wiped out of reality, I had to rebuild my conscience from scratch.  But once I grasped the weight of what I’d done, I attempted to take my own life.”

The room fell silent.  Rain pattered on the window outside.

“It was a half-hearted attempt.  Were I serious, I would have climbed into the mountains with a shotgun.  I survived, without many permanent scars.  When I left the hospital, I put in an order to visit my father in person.  Once it went through, I bribed the guard on duty to allow me time alone with him.  He was an old man, frail, on the verge of death.”

Then the pieces of the puzzle clicked together for me.

“I swapped with him,” said Jun.  “Explained how to use my military credentials to leave the country and build a life for himself overseas.  I promised him I could use my projection to escape the camp, and gave him a place to meet me.  I lied.  It took them only two weeks to catch onto my scheme.  When I refused to work for them, they let me rot in the camp for two years.  And after that, I’d do anything they wanted.”

Thunder boomed in the distance.  Jun sat down on a chair, taking deep, slow breaths.

“So don’t tell me, Principian,” said Jun.  “That I don’t understand your pain.  I’ve tried to be kind to you, but you only seem interested in mocking me, or pushing me away.  So let me give you my honest opinion: You’re looking for an excuse to lie down and die.  And that makes you a coward.”

My stomach twisted in knots.  “Excuse me?”

“You have turned despair into a security blanket.  Caring, and then falling, has become so terrifying, that self-loathing is a comfort.  You refuse to take responsibility for your existence, your choices.  And at the same time, you cling to snide elitism, in the hopes of squeezing out some droplets of confidence.  Like I said, a coward.”

Fuck you.  Who did this smug foreigner think he was?

“But that’s alright,” he said.  “Because I was a coward too.  Bravery is a choice you can make any day.”

“If that’s true,” I said.  “Why haven’t you gone to see your father.  You’re free now.  You have a meeting place, somewhere.  Why not pay him a visit?”

Jun hunched over on his seat.  “It’s been years.  My father will have built a new life with the money I gave him.  He doesn’t need me dragging down his life anymore, reminding him of all his traumas.”

Whaleshit, I thought.  Any fool could piece together the real reason.

For all his talk about bravery, Jun was simply afraid to look his father in the eye.  Who wouldn’t be, after hurting a family member like that?

“When I get the chance to speak to my parents again,” said Ana, “I’m not sure they’ll want to talk to me either.  After the money I stole from them, they probably despise me.  Or they will, once they learn the things I’ve done.”

“Scholars,” said Hira.  “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t have daddy issues?”

Everyone stared at him.

“Someone had to say it.”  He shrugged.  “I mean, if my dad doesn’t kill me the next time I see him, I’m going to cut his face up with a cheese grater.  Same goes for my older brother, who’s busy licking up table scraps from the most red-hot psychopath in Ilaqua.  You all are talking about wanting to go home to your family.  I won’t get either of those in my lifetime.”

Another moment of silence passed.  Hira lit up his hookah, puffing cherry-scented smoke throughout the room.

“I’m so sorry,” said Jun.

“Don’t be,” said Hira.  “They’re pricks.”

“Well, then I’m sorry you had to live with them.”

I swallowed, stepping forward.  “I’m sorry, too.  I know apologies aren’t worth much, but I’m sorry.  I guess – “  I crumpled an origami crane in my hand.  “I guess my mother’s psychological torture palace was its own sort of bubble.”

“Fuck,” said Left-Hira.  “And it only took you nineteen years to figure that out.  You should get a medal or something.“

Your father’s a billionaire.  But maybe I deserved that, too.  “Thanks, Hira.”

Lund pe chadh,” he said.

“I don’t want to lose you,” I forced out.  “All of you.”

“Even me?” said Jun.

“Even you, greybeard.”  But my gaze was focused on Ana.  I’m sorry, I thought.  I’m so sorry I lied to you, and I’d say it over and over again if it meant you didn’t hate me anymore.

Ana just gazed back at me.  “Let’s get some rest,” she said.  “Lots to talk about in the morning.”

________________________________________

First, we had a picnic.

Jun insisted on it, even though it made no sense to me and Hira, and Ana called it ‘a petty distraction to sap our attention as we circle the drain’.

For some reason, we all went along with him.  Even Ana joined us.  Maybe he had a secret Whisper vocation.  Maybe he made those sad old eyes at us and we felt sorry for him.

Or maybe we were all just bloody exhausted.  And with no imminent mission and hangovers all around, there wasn’t much better we could do.

We traveled to the rain-soaked Darius Park, up the mountain and closer to Hightown  On a normal day, it’d be jam-packed with families, couples, and tourists from the rest of the Principality, overflowing to the point of fire hazard.

But a massive storm had just passed.  The water had still soaked through the grass, turning the fields into muddy slush.

For once, the park was empty.  That’s why Jun had called this a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’, why he dragged us out here while I was too bleary to form complete sentences.

Me, I didn’t get the appeal of picnics.  At a restaurant, you could get better food, with less itchy grass, and dim lighting so nobody knew how drunk you were.  But I still trudged up the hill with him, Scholars knew why, past the broken trams and damp streets.

We projected into the water, pushing it aside to clear a wide, dry circle on the grass to set Hira’s blanket down.  On the way up, Jun had stopped by a midtown store and picked up the necessary materials.

With a little prodding, I got the four of us to start up a game of Jao Lu on Hira’s board, which helped distract me from my throbbing headache.  But eight turns in, Ana already looked uncomfortable.

Maybe she’s still sick after last night.  But something told me that wasn’t the case.

After hesitating over her moves for a full five minutes, Jun spoke up.  Cardamom perched on his shoulder, the bottom half of his body sticking in Jun’s backpack.

“What’s wrong?” he said.  “Is it the food?  We don’t have to eat it in front of you if it makes you feel bad.”

“Shpeak for yourshelf,” said Hira, both mouths stuffed full of bread.

Ana pointed down at the rest of the city.  “We’re up against the mob, one of the most popular movements in this country’s history, a genius billionaire, and the Shenti.  None of us know what we’re doing, my body is decaying, and the water is rising.  And we’re sitting here, picnicking.”

“I like picnicking,” said Jun, scratching Cardamom’s ears.  “I had a picnic during an air raid, once.”

Everyone stared at him.

He shrugged.  “Short picnic.”

“It just seems callous,” said Ana, “to be enjoying ourselves when the world is sinking into the sea out there.  Like we’re dancing over people’s graves just after they throw the soil on top.”

“Gotta dance sometime,” said Hira.  “The world’s not gonna stop drowning.”

“I’m scared too, Ana,” said Jun.  “When they threw me onto a rusting cargo ship bound for Elmidde, I didn’t think I was going to make it to the end of the year either.”  He swallowed.  “To be honest, I still don’t think I’m going to survive the year.  But you have to enjoy the breathers.  Because life passes in blinks, and then you die.”

“I have decided,” I said.  “That you actually give the worst advice.”

He took Ana’s hand in his.  “So I’m begging you: Take a breath.  It’s the weekend.  We don’t have any missions right now, and we can’t talk to Isaac Brin until later in the day.  If you can’t exhale right now, your lungs might be broken, and then we’re in for some real nightmares.”

Nobody spoke for a few moments.  The only noise was the rustling of the trees, and the sound of Hira crunching into another fistful of food.

Ana reached for her Blue Charlatan piece and moved it forward, taking the center hexagon of the board.  Then she took a bite of a sandwich.

“Your turn, Wes,” she said.

Her move was a bold, but dangerous one.  In that position, she could take over the game in a few turns, or get knocked out.

I saw an opening.  I could move my Chameleon Spy forward, breaking her force in two and taking key space from her.  It was a better move than my other options, but it’d destroy Ana.

I moved my Chameleon Spy backwards, shoring up my defense and protecting my territory.  A solid, conservative move.

Ana raised a grey eyebrow.  “Thanks.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” I snapped.  “Hira was going to shred me if I didn’t block him.”

“Right,” said Ana.

She didn’t thank me, but over the next few turns, her Blue Charlatan began to dominate the game, knocking Jun out, then me, once my clever gambits could no longer stand up against her overwhelming resources.

And as Ana took over the board, hexagon by hexagon, I watched her scowl melt.  Just a hair, at the edges.  She wasn’t smiling, but she was here.  No escaping into her imagination, no swan diving out of reality and sticking her head in the sand.

After another fifteen minutes, she won.

An idea came to me, and, on impulse, I blurted it out.

“Hey Ana,” I said.  “So I’ve been thinking – “

“What?” she said, staring at the ground.

How do I phrase this?  “I like suits,” I said.  “And alcohol.”

“Really?” said Hira.  “Fuck, I had no idea.”

“Shut up,” I said, helpfully.  “I enjoy pastries too.  Marbled steak and marble floors and canopy beds big enough to get lost in.  And no matter how many times you tell me about the struggles of poverty, I’m never going to lower my standards, or grow to accept broken air conditioning, or stale bread and peeling furniture.  And when I return to my rightful seat, I am not going to miss any of this day-to-day.  You’re a billionaire’s kid, you understand, Hira.”

“No,” he said.  “There’s a ‘but’ coming.”

“But,” I said.  “No matter how much I want these things, I don’t actually need them.”  I looked around the blanket.  “Of all the people here, you’re the only one who needs the money.”

“Not true,” said Hira.  “If it stops smoking for a day or two, my Right body’s going to shiver, vomit, and rant conspiracy theories about the Droll Corsairs.”

“Point is,” I said.  “I’m not going to let you suffer and die because I want to sleep in a mansion with an infinity pool.  Even if it is gorgeous when the water fades into the sky and you lie at the edge and – “ I bit my lip, stopping myself.  “And.  I owe you after lying to you about the Broadcast King.  I owe you a lot.  And trust is earned, and I know I haven’t earned it, but – ”  I can try, can’t I?  And this was better than nothing.

And I chose this path.  I couldn’t blame my mother, or my broken Pith, or Paragon.  Jun was right.  I had to take responsibility.

Jun spoke up.  “So you’re saying – “

“Everything I have.”  I stood up.  “I’ll keep buying food, and toothpaste, and all the other basic needs, but all the rest of the money is yours, Ana, as long as you still need it to buy your body.  I know we don’t make that much, but a half share’s got to be better than a quarter, right?”

“I – “ Ana blinked at me, her eyes wide.  “I, um.”

“Three-quarters,” said Jun, petting Cardamom.

“What?” I said.

“I don’t make quite a full share, but I’m used to frugal living.  I wasn’t spending most of my money already.  Ana may have the rest.”

Ana kept blinking and staring at us, stunned.

“Fine,” said Hira.  “Me too.  I’ll give you whatever it takes to put you over the line.”  He glanced down at his female body’s orange dress.  “I’ll let my wardrobe gather dust for a few months.”

“You – you don’t owe me anything,” said Ana.

“I don’t,” said Hira.  “But you do irritate Wes in the most delightful ways, and I’d hate to see you flop dead like a spiked crab.”  He jabbed a finger in Ana’s face.  “But it’s not a handout.  It’s an interest-free loan, and when you’re Brin’s richest attack dog in a sparkling new body, I’ll expect you to pay back in full.”

Ana’s shoulders shook, and she folded her hands in front of her, forcing her eyes shut.  When she opened them, they were wet at the edges.

We spent a few minutes tallying up our tiny net worths and expenses, writing out the numbers on Ana’s notepad.

“So,” said Jun.  “You need forty-three thousand pounds for the cheapest reliable body from Eminent Forms.  When you mash all our fortunes together, you get about thirty-five.  Stretched, maybe thirty-seven or thirty-eight.”

“My numbers look about the same,” said Hira.  “Thirty-seven and a half.  Just a few thousand short of our goal.”  So close.

“Scholars,” I said.  “Is the universe taunting us?”

“No,” said Hira.  “Just Isaac Brin and his tiny fucking paychecks.”

“I don’t think Professor Brin is capable of taunting people,” I said.  “For that he’d need to have a sense of humor.”

“That is so right,” said Ana.  “Even when he’s trying to be nice, he looks so cold and wound-up, like enemies are about to pop out of the ocean and start shooting at him.”

“You know I tried making a joke to him once after class,” I said, leaning forward.  “And he docked me a point on the quiz.  Right in front of me.  He makes Ana look relaxed by comparison.”

“I’m sure he has his reasons,” said Jun.

“He almost killed you,” I said.

He shrugged.  “Nobody’s perfect.”

“Is there anyone you dislike, Jun?” I said.  “Mass murderers, psychopaths, Steel Violet haters?”

“Steel Violet almost killed you,” said Hira.

“And they write very catchy tunes.”

“I think most people are lovely, given the chance,” Jun said, shrugging.  “I can’t help it.”

Hira burst out into laughter, then stopped.  “Oh, that wasn’t a joke.”

Jun looked down at Ana’s notepad.  “Well, one more job at Mr. Brin’s current rate ought to get us enough to buy a replacement body.  After that, though, what’s next?”

“No, no,” I said.  “Stop.  In war movies, the guys who go on about their retirement plans always get killed.  If we commit to something after this next big job, none of us will make it.”

“You spend too much time at the theater,” said Hira.  “In real life, it’s the reckless fucks with zero plans who get murdered.  Like me.  And you.”

“If we get paid enough after this next job,” Ana said.  “If we survive and I get a working body.  Then the work is just beginning.”  She pointed at Jun.  “We need to protect you from Commonplace and their Shenti backers.”

Jun nodded.

She pointed at Hira.  “You’re still looking for revenge against that Whisper Specialist that experimented on you.”

“And my shit-eating dad,” said Hira.  “If you all want to tag along, I wouldn’t mind.”

She looked at me.  “And you’re looking to throw the Broadcast King in prison, save your family from his debt, and go home.”

Ousting your best friend in the process.  “Yes,” I said.  “I’m sorry.”

“I’m going to help you,” said Ana.  “With all my strength.  Including you, Wes.  We’ll find a way to get Tasia your library access, or keep both of you in Paragon, or something.”

Good luck with that.  But I appreciated the thought, in theory.

“I still don’t trust you,” said Ana.  “Maybe I never will.  You’re a stuck-up, self-destructive origami wrecking ball of dishonesty.  You are not striving to become an Exemplar.”

Fair.  That’s all fair.

“But you don’t have to stay that way,” she said.  “Write the next page.  I’ll be waiting.  And maybe you can make something beautiful.”

Right-Hira raised a finger.  “That reminds me.”  He stuffed his arm into his bag, pulling out a rectangular object wrapped in bright blue paper.  Then he looked at Ana.  “It was your birthday a few weeks ago.”

Ana’s eyes widened.  “How did you – “

“My background check,” said Hira.  “And when I copied your skillset, I got a few memories, too.  Some real vivid ones.”

Ana took the gift in her hands, confused.  “But why would you give me a – “

“After the last mission, you looked like a sad, lukewarm puddle of camel piss.  You’re our leader.  Your head needs to be clean and sharp so you don’t panic in the middle of a battle and get me shotgunned in the jaw.  Don’t think of it as a birthday gift.”  He jabbed a finger in Ana’s face.  “Think of it as me watching my back, so I don’t have to drink my meals through a straw.”

“Um,” said Ana.  “Thank you?”  She ripped open the wrapping paper with her good fingers, and looked at what was beneath.

It was a portrait.  A girl, in her late teens or early twenties.  Narrow brown eyes.  Principian, but with hints of eastern facial features.  She stood in a wheatfield, bright sunlight washing over her pale skin and bright red hair.  And she smiled at the painter.

Ana’s eyes widened.  “That’s – “

“You,” said Hira.  “If you’d grown up to today without transferring.  I got your face from a stitched memory, and I copied the skills of a few of the best painters from the local arts college while you were asleep.  I thought you might appreciate it.  As a target, of sorts.”

Ana blinked for a few seconds, her jaw hanging half-open.

Then she rushed forward and hugged both Hiras.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Scholars, thank you.”

Hira shrugged.  “Was pretty easy.  Though you Principians all look the same, sometimes.”

We played a few more games of Jao Lu after that.  Ana kept glancing back at her picture.  Then Jun pulled out a deck of cards, and we played around with that, too.  But as the sun began to descend into the late afternoon, Jun started dealing out another game, and Ana raised a hand, stopping him.

“Wait,” she said.  Her face twisted into a pained expression, like a wince frozen in time.  “We have to call it.”

“Why?” I said.  “I’m on a hot streak.”

“We have work to do,” she said, staring at her feet.  “We have work to do.”

“Work?” I said.  “But our list is finished.  Brin hasn’t given us anything.”  Is this what she got so wound-up about?

“I saw something on my last mission, and I had a thought,” said Ana.  “I was exhausted.  And then, I didn’t want to bring it up and ruin the fun, but – we can’t sit on this.  We can’t.”

“Spit it out,” said Hira.  “No ominous whaleshit.”

Ana wiped the crumbs off her shirt and massaged her temples, doubling over.  “I saw Tunnel Vision.  And I think she’s the Pyre Witch.”

All of us went dead silent.  The sun rose over the rooftops, bathing us in a warm glow.

“And if I’m right,” she said, “she’s probably going to kill us all.”

“Wes,” said Hira.  “Do you wanna get drunk?”

________________________________________

As the sun rose over the city, we walked back down to Lowtown, past empty storefronts and dark apartment buildings.

“So,” I said.  “You think Tunnel Vision is the Pyre Witch.”

“Yes.”

“May I ask why?”

“What is the Pyre Witch known for?”

“Massacring civilians.  Slaughtering Professor Keswick, who everyone liked.  Exposing our world to the Humdrums.”

“Right,” I said.  “Killing Guardians.  Showing projection to the public.  The underlying motivation to work with Commonplace is already there.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” said Jun.  “When she went crazy, the civilians she burned were Shenti.  Why would she be working with them?”

“I don’t know,” said Ana.  “Maybe they think she’s useful.  Maybe something’s changed.  But until last night, that was all just speculation.  Now I know.”

She went on a mission last night with Hira.  “What did you see?” I said.

Ana swallowed.  “She killed two Platinum-Ranked Guardians with a snap of her fingers.”

Scholars.  “What?” I said.  “Which ones?”

“Professors Stoughton and Havstein,” Ana said.

I clenched my fists.  I’d taken Chemistry from Stoughton in my first year, and he’d been one of the nicest teachers I’d had.  And Havstein was Eliya’s advisor.  Had been.  Fucking monsters.

“I’m sorry, Wes,” said Jun.

“When she killed them, she used some kind of Physical vocation that was difficult to see,” said Ana.  “A flash of white light that caused third-degree burns.  I think it was Palefire.”

“What?” said Hira.  “Is this some Principality thing I don’t know about?”

“Palefire is a Physical vocation invented some hundred years ago, with a codex in the upper levels of the Great Library,” I said.  “Of the few Guardians given access, the Pyre Witch was the only person alive who could master it, except maybe Headmaster Tau.  It allows the user to manipulate oxygen density in the air, along with other factors like pressure, and some other process that turns atmospheric elements into fuel.  The result is an incredibly fast, hot, highly controllable flame that burns white.”

“That’s what I saw,” said Ana.  “What else could it have been?”

“Fuck.”  I stopped, rubbing my temples.  “Fuck!”  I looked around at the rest of Queen Sulphur.  “How are we still alive?”

“I’m not sure,” Ana said.

“Dumb luck?” said Hira.  “Let’s go with that.”

“So what’s the plan?” said Jun.  We all looked towards Ana.  We were defaulting to asking her for plans these days, treating her like the de facto leader of our group.

“Obviously,” said Ana.  “The Pyre Witch is far, far out of our weight class.  We need to get to Isaac Brin as soon as possible and tell him about this.  He’ll know what to do, and if he gives us an information bounty, it might be high enough to put us over the top.”

“Don’t let Brin know how close we are,” said Hira.  “Or that we’re pooling our funds for you.  If he does, he might try to pay us less to maintain his control.”

“Good idea,” I said.  “We can’t put anything past that grouchy – “

A phone rang, interrupting me.

We stared down the street.  A payphone was ringing on the far side of the street.  Besides us, the space was empty.

“Electronics can act up all the time after a storm,” said Jun.  “Trust me, this is much better than when the sewers break.”  He extended his hand towards the payphone, and it went silent.

A minute later, we turned the corner to another street and a second payphone started ringing.  This time, just a few dozen feet away.

A knot grew in my stomach.

“Ignore it,” said Jun.  “Ignore it.”

We kept walking.  After we passed it, it stopped ringing.

Two blocks down, a third and fourth payphone rang for us, one close, one at the far end of the street.

Ana’s shoulders tensed up.  Her chest rose and fell.

The ringing continued, loud and piercing in the silent street.  Water dripped off the edge of the phone, making ripples on the flat surface.

“I think – “ she said.  “I think it’s for me.”


“Don’t,” said Jun.

Ana’s machine pistol assembled itself in front of her, and she snatched out of the air.  “Be ready for anything.”

I flipped open the latch of my briefcase, preparing to send out paper.  Jun projected into a pair of cars, disassembled them, and began to build them into something else.  Hira’s bodies took cover behind a pair of storefronts and drew a rifle and shotgun.

Ana picked up the phone.  It crackled in our ears, as she used auditory illusions to let us listen in.

The phone was silent for a few seconds.

Normally,” said Tunnel Vision.  “I would kill you, Anabelle Gage.

Fuck.  Oh fuck.  Fuck.

It would take half an hour for my team to detonate a bomb in your home and pick your group off with snipers.  That’s what my advisors suggested.

Ana’s hands shook on the receiver.  “Why – “ She swallowed, forcing her eyes shut.  “Why haven’t you?”

Blood rushed in my ears.  I swept my gaze around the buildings, looking for enemies, snipers, anything.  But the street was empty.

You are an enemy.” said Tunnel Vision.  “But you’re the kind of person we’re trying to fight for.”

Ana gripped the phone.  “I’m not a Humdrum.  And I’m not – I’m not like you.”  I wasn’t sure if she was angry, terrified, or both.

They took your body,” said Tunnel Vision.  “They locked you out of their towers and dressed you in grey, so you could pour their wine and scrub their floors while you rotted in front of them.”  Her voice went quiet.  “You’re a victim.

Ana’s voice was barely a hoarse whisper.  “Why are you telling me this?”

If you tell Isaac Brin about my identity,” she said.  “It will be a mild inconvenience, not a devastating blow.  That is the only reason you’re still alive.

So Ana was right.  Our adversary was a legendary monster.  A butcher to rival any we’d seen in the past century.

Think for yourself,” said the Pyre Witch.  “Be an ant, not a beetle.  I wish you the best.

The line clicked, then went silent.

________________________________________

We met in a Hightown café, the closest thing to a safehouse I could think of.

Hira’s house and Ana’s capsule hotel were known by the enemy.  Jun was confident he could remove any traps or audio bugs, but they could still be watched.

First, we split up and checked for tails, taking roundabout routes and reconvening an hour later. Ana had selected Seventh Street Café in advance as a contingency, so none of us had to say anything.

It took a few minutes for everyone to arrive.  First Ana, then Jun, then me, and Hira after a few more.  During that time, nobody spoke.  We just sat in the near-empty room, sipping coffee or tea and staring out at the rain-soaked streets outside.

Hira sat down, the last one to get here.  Ana stared at her feet, clenching her tea mug with shaking hands.  Jun folded his hands in front of him, taking slow, deep breaths.  I fidgeted with pieces of paper on the table, folding them into frogs, tigers, and cranes.

Hira was the only one who looked calm, either because of drugs, or a death wish, or both.

We sat there for a minute or two, anxiety swelling inside us like an inflating balloon about to pop.

“So,” I said.  “While my life hasn’t exactly been ideal in the past few months, I’d still rather avoid dying, if possible.”  I finished an origami crane, placing it in the center of the table.  “So, if I may be so bold as to ask.  What, the fuck, do we do next?”

“If we tell Brin,” said Ana, “she’ll know.  And she’ll kill us.”  She took a deep breath.  “None of you signed up to give your lives.  If you leave now, I won’t judge you.”

“That’s it?” said Jun.  “You’re giving up that easily?  She’s working with the Shenti Government.  They’re trying to take over the country.  If she took the time to pull that phone trick on us, then it’s important enough to tell Isaac Brin.”  He pointed to me.  “And Wes can’t stop his work against the Broadcast King.  All we’ve been doing for the past few months is fight them.  How is this any different?”

“The Pyre Witch isn’t going to make idle threats,” I said.  “Not after she set half a continent on fire.”

“We’ll find another way to get the money,” said Ana.  “We’ll do another job for Brin without telling him, or raid some criminal’s safe, or something.  It’s just a few thousand.”

“Hira,” I said, looking at him.  “You’ve been quiet this whole time.”

“After listening to the call, I had a hunch,” said Hira.  “It took some time to piece things together, but I was right.  Tunnel Vision’s voice matched one of the memories Clementine was thinking of while I was using my Vocation on her.”

Ana leaned forward.  “What memory?”

“It was associated with an image of a safehouse and a code.  Feather 910.  So while you all were zipping around the city and losing your tails, I sent one of my bodies back to my place to check the files we filched from Clementine’s house.”

“And?” I said.

“Feather 910 is on one of the papers.  The page includes mostly nonsense code and references to things I didn’t understand, but there was one address that I found in several other papers next to it, matched with a few common dates.”

“What’s the upshot?” said Ana.

“The address is a house three blocks down from Steinway Maximum Security Prison.  The date was two days before a breakout caused by a series of seemingly random coincidences.”  He took a breath.  “I don’t know for sure, but I think Clementine helped break Lyna Wethers out of prison.  Under Tunnel Vision’s orders.”

My breath caught in my throat.  Nobody spoke.  Ana folded her hands on the table, then clenched them together until they shook.  “Are you sure?” she said, her voice quiet.

“No,” said Hira.  “But I’ve peeled people’s skin off over ‘probably’.  Probably is good enough for me.  Honeypot fucked up my underworld contact.”

Lyna Wethers’ face drifted into my mind, smirking and tired and beautiful.  My stomach ached, and a cold sensation spread through my chest and arms.  No.  Scholars, no.  I forced the image out of my mind, but it lingered at the edges, terrifying and perfect.

But Ana, if anything, looked worse.  Honeypot had given me permanent mental scars, but Ana had lost one of her best friends.  And I’d read Kaplen Ingolf’s autopsy report.  The boy had died of Kraken’s Bone poisoning.  It didn’t take a genius to put together what had happened there.

And now, the trail led straight back to Tunnel Vision.  The mobster had broken Wethers out to cause chaos and make Paragon look bad.

I looked at Ana, and saw something desperate in her eyes, the same look from after she’d talked to Kaplen for the first time.  An animal in a trap, willing to chew its own arm off to escape.

She stood up.

“Leave if you want,” she said to us.  “I’m going to tell Brin.”

________________________________________

“The Pyre Witch?” said Isaac Brin.

“Yes,” I said.  “And she broke Lyna Wethers out of prison.”

“You saw the Palefire?” said Brin.  “With your own eyes?  Not just some trick of the light, or some flash while you were panicked.”

“I know what I saw,” said Ana.

Brin paced back and forth across the roof of Nolwen’s Soda Fountain, folding his hands behind him.  He breathed in and out, hyperventilating.

Scholars.  I’d never seen him look this agitated.

“Is she a Physical Specialist, then?” said Jun.

He shook his head.  “She had a purple-colored Pith, which means Praxis, though she told everyone she didn’t know her Vocation.  Palefire is just a technique she picked up.”

A Praxis Specialist.  Harpy had always told us those were the most dangerous ones.

“How are you going to eliminate her?” said Ana.

“What Ana means to say,” Jun said, “is what happens next?”

“She’s possibly the greatest living threat to the Principality right now,” said Ana, “and she’s burned enough innocents for a thousand death sentences.”

And we have enough firepower to give them to her.  If this was happening, really happening, our top-level Guardians could crush her in a fair fight.  Headmaster Tau was senile, a fraction of his old strength, but even weakened, he was formidable, and we had the Symphony Knight, the Obsidian Foil, and countless more like them.

Together, in a fair fight, I was confident they could crush almost anyone.  The problem was getting a fair fight.

“I can’t make any big moves,” said Brin.

“Why not?” said Ana, her voice terse.

“There’s a huge pro-Commonplace faction in Parliament, and a small but vocal one among the Humdrum military,” he said.  “And they love drowning Guardians in red tape.  To get them to approve aggressive, wide-scale action against Tunnel Vision during peacetime, I need definitive proof.”

“Seriously?” said Ana.  “We just discovered that the greatest war criminal in our history is in this city, running the mob, and your biggest enemy is bureaucracy?”

“We are surrounded by traitors and imbeciles,” said Brin.  “And there is the risk of data leaking as well, losing the element of surprise.  If Tunnel Vision catches whiff that we’re gunning for her like this, she may go into hiding.”

“You can’t just let her get away,” said Ana.

“Did I say that?”  Brin stopped pacing.  “I’m going to find the two people I trust most in the Principality, and make sure the Pyre Witch isn’t breathing by the end of the week.”

Oh, shit.  I knew who he meant.

“Professor Florence Tuft,” said Brin.  “And Admiral Rowyna Ebbridge.”  The Scholar of Air and my mother.

“Why them?” Ana said.  “I can think of plenty of Guardians with more raw power.  No offense.”

“Because Brin was on a squad with them,” I said.  “Him and my mother and Harpy.  They were all close.”  Except my mother doesn’t talk to them anymore.  And she’d never told me why, which meant it was something bad.

“And,” said Brin.  “We know the Pyre Witch better than almost anyone in Paragon.”

“And why is that?”

“She was the fourth member of our squad,” he said.  “She was our friend.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




7-C The Blue Charlatan

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Ana

The doorbell rang.

I tightened the scarf around my neck and pulled down my hat over my black wig, checking my long sleeves.  At longer distances, Clementine’s guards and servants wouldn’t see my hair, my grey veins, or most of my face.  And at close range, I would have my illusions.

If I didn’t talk out loud much, that would keep my identity hidden from them.  In theory.

I stretched my Pith forward, feeling another soul on the far side of the door.  I layered illusions over it, modifying my face and Hira’s, flattening our weapons under our coats.

The front door opened, revealing Beatrix, in servant’s clothes.  Her eyes flitted back and forth between us.  “Good evening,” she said.  “How may I help you?”

Hira stepped forward.  “Good evening,” she said.  “We’re representatives of Mr. Burgess.”  The Broadcast King’s codename.  “We have an urgent matter to discuss with Ms. Rawlyn in private, after encryption keys are exchanged.”

Beatrix looked between the two of us, and gulped.  “Um.  Yes, right this way.”  Kahlin was a lot higher up on the chain of command than Clementine.  “Ms. Rawlyn is out at the moment, but she’ll be back momentarily.  In the interim, may I show you to her study?”

She beckoned us, and we stepped inside, dripping water onto the doormat.

In the past months, the house hadn’t changed a bit.  The same tacky architecture with faux-marble columns, the imitation gold leaf covering everything, the classical music belching out of a gramophone in the dining room.

“May I take your coats?”

Both of us shook our heads, and we continued.

I spotted dozens of familiar faces.  Guillaume, the head chef who had carried out Clementine’s cruelty, taking all the hatred for her while leaving her hands clean.  She’d pretended she didn’t know how he treated us, but when pressed about it, she’d always brushed off our concerns.

We stepped past her mailbox, where I’d gotten three separate rejection letters from Paragon.

“Sir?” Beatrix said.  “The study is this way.”

I blinked.  On instinct, I’d walked in the direction of the basement, towards the mattress that I’d called home for almost three years.

I nodded, and we followed her up the stairs, past the bathrooms and lounges I’d had to scrub for hours on end.  After working here for so long, I knew every inch of this house, every nook and cranny where dust and filth liked to gather.

Beatrix led us into the study, a broad room with two walls covered in bookshelves.  Clementine had never read any of them, but they made her look intellectual when she met people here.

Hira and I sat down on the couch, and another servant, Daniel, set a huge plate of crackers next to us with razor-thin slices of raw beef.  He’s about to say ‘Ms. Rawlyn will be with you shortly.’

“Ms. Rawlyn will be with you shortly,” he said, following the script Guillaume had drilled into us.  Though I’d never gotten that duty, on account of my appearance.

Then they shut the door, leaving the two of us alone.  Rain pattered on the floor-to-ceiling windows behind us.  A trio of pale Ilaquan masks stared at me from the wall.

I glanced past Clementine’s desk, to the framed air force medals on the wall behind.  Did she fake those too?  It seemed likely.

We waited, leaning back on the embroidered couches, staring out at the rainstorm darkening the evening sky.  My stomach ached, no longer an unfamiliar feeling on missions, and sweat collected under my armpits.

After a few minutes, Hira made a hand motion to me.  Footsteps creaked on the wooden floor on the hallway outside.  She’s here.

In unison, the two of us stood up and strode towards the door, taking up positions on both sides.  I stretched my Pith forward, feeling three souls.  Clementine and two servants.  I threw up an illusion over all three of them, altering our faces and making us look like we were still sitting on the couch.

Then I added my new technique, modifying another sense: Projection.  I couldn’t affect touch, or make our Piths seem to disappear, but if Clementine reached out, I could make it seem like our Piths were on the couch, not by the door.

I did the same with our clothes and equipment.  Clementine would still be able to project into our Piths and clothes, they’d just feel like they were somewhere else.

This was a new facet of my Vocation, that I’d just started testing with Hira and Jun.  Let’s hope it works.

The door swung open, and Clementine strode in, addressing the two empty couches.  “Good evening sir, madame.  To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Something came up,” my illusion said to her.  Stall her, keep it simple.

I had my illusions stand up, folding their hands behind their backs so Clementine wouldn’t try to shake them.  At the same time, I layered a separate illusion over the two servants by the door, making Clementine seem to turn towards them.

Close the door,” illusion-Clementine said to her servants, “stay out of earshot.  This is private.

“Yes, ma’am.”  They swung the door shut behind Clementine, none of which she saw or heard.

“Mr. Burgess never sent anyone to my house before,” said Clementine.  Her eyes flitted back and forth between our illusions on the chairs.  “Password?”

For a second, Left-Hira stuck her hands in her pockets, using her Praxis Vocation.  Then her eyes widened.  “She knows.”

Hira sprinted forward, electricity crackling around her palms.  I reached for the knife in my coat.

Clementine sucked in a breath to scream, and Hira projected into a tiny lamp, flinging it at her solar plexus and knocking the wind out of her.

Then, Clementine lifted her palms in front of her, and my blue combat suit tightened over my body, freezing my movement.  It squeezed my injured shoulder, making it ache.  Fuck.  I should have projected into them earlier to prevent this.

Hira’s clothes tightened around her, and she jerked to a halt.  Clementine was far stronger than both of us at physical projection.  In a fair fight, she could take us both.

A wave of hunger and thirst washed over me, drowning out my other thoughts with the overwhelming desire to eat or drink something, anything.  Clementine’s Whisper Vocation.

The woman gasped for breath and snarled at us, livid.

The separated pieces of my machine pistol ripped themselves out of my coat, dropping onto the floor.  Hira’s concealed revolver yanked itself out of her holster and spun around, aiming itself at her head, too strong to be turned aside.

The hammer pulled back.

A thin metal cable shot from outside the window.  As it punched through the glass, not making a sound, I erased it from Clementine’s vision, and it wrapped around her leg.

Electricity crackled, and Clementine fell to the ground, twitching.

Right-Hira swung outside the window, holding the shocking cable in one hand.  The body hung from the roof using a second cable, protruding from below its sleeve.  Jun’s new gizmo.  A pair of wrist-mounted cable guns so Hira could shock people at range.

Left-Hira opened the window for her other body, which pulled itself inside, dripping water and treading dirt onto Clementine’s spotless carpet.

Right-Hira strode towards Clementine and stabbed a syringe into her neck, injecting Jun’s homemade knockout drug until she went limp.

Then we all ran for the plate of food and stuffed our faces.

For three embarrassing minutes, we grabbed handfuls of artisanal crackers with slices of raw beef and shoved them into our mouths, as fast as we could chew and swallow them.  Crumbs and drops of vinegar fell onto the couches.

Then, when we’d eaten it all, we raced to Clementine’s liquor cabinet and downed a bottle of Gasten Brandy, distilled in the Agricultural Islands five miles from my home.  The kind that would have cost me a month’s salary to buy as a servant.

When we’d finished that, I made a noise to draw a servant close, and used my illusions to send all of them out of the house.  “I need total privacy for the next fifteen hours,” I said with Clementine’s voice.  “Please do not return a minute earlier.

Clementine’s servants were terrified of her.  ‘Please’ meant devastating punishment if they disobeyed.  They would obey the command.

Then, it was time for step two.  

Left-Hira tossed the empty liquor bottle over her shoulder, and Right-Hira gagged and blindfolded Clementine and bound her hands and feet, then put her in a headlock.  Left Hira knelt and held smelling salts under her nose.

After a few seconds, Clementine’s eyes snapped open.

Right-Hira’s hands crackled, as she ran current through Clementine’s body, not quite enough to completely disable her.  Clementine started twitching again, hopefully in too much pain to project, at least for the next few seconds.

I felt a twinge of guilt in my stomach.  She’d do the same to you in a heartbeat.

Right-Hira spoke into Clementine’s ear, rapidfire.  “Whatareyougoingtotonightwhatsthelocationwhenisithappeningwhatsthepassword.”  Purple lightning crackled around her palms, reading Clementine’s mind for a few split seconds while copying her skills.

Then Left-Hira injected the knockout drug again, and the woman fell unconscious.

“Got it,” said Hira.  “The password isn’t a Praxis vocation or any fancy crypto nonsense, so it must be a larger event.”

“So?”

“I’m not sure what kind of event it is,” said Hira.  “But it’s in a building complex on one of the outer islands.  From her intrusive thoughts, I think that Steel Violet will be on guard duty.”  She took a breath.  “And Tunnel Vision herself will be there.”

My stomach clenched.  “All the more reason to break in,” I said.

“Steel Violet will recognize my face in an instant.  You too, Gage, since you’re famous now.”

“We’ll make it work,” I said.  “We’ll put a plan together.”

“Well,” said Hira.  “Here’s the other thing.”  She glanced at the clock.

“What?”

“It starts in thirty-four minutes.”

The clock ticked on the wall.  The world froze for a moment, as every muscle in my body seemed to tense up, and a storm of panic grew out from my belly.

Then I exploded.  “Thirty-four minutes?

“I’d say we’re about twenty-eight minutes away from the place.  If I drive fast.  And if Jun’s literal trash car doesn’t break down.”

Scholars,” I said.  “What do we do, then?”

“We could try forced transference.”  Hira indicated both her heads towards the sleeping Clementine on the rug.

I shook my head.  “That requires brute force from our Piths, and she needs to be conscious.  Judging from our fight, Clementine is stronger than the two of us combined.  If we wake her up and try it, she’s going to tear us both in half.”

And, to be honest, our last forced transference hadn’t sat well with me.  If one more thing had gone wrong, Kahlin’s decorators could have lost their bodies forever.

Unless there was no way to avoid it, I wasn’t going to steal anyone’s chassis.

“What about a mask?” I said.

“What?”

“Did you see those traditional Ilaquan masks in Clementine’s study?” I said.

“The ones you squidfuckers stole when you colonized us?” she said.  “Yeah, I saw them.”

“I mean, she could have bought them legally.”  And I didn’t colonize anyone.

Lund pe chad,” she said.  “You can’t buy that kind legally.”

“Point is,” I said.  “We can put them on and use them to get in.  Then keep a low profile, use illusions.  If it’s a big event, it would make sense for people to hide their faces, right?”  I glanced at Clementine out of the corner of my eye.  “Her name isn’t on some list, right?  It’s just a password.”

Hira shrugged.  “I think so, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.  Which you’re suggesting we do.  And they definitely won’t allow weapons in.”

“We’ll have you,” I said.  “That’s worth more than a gun.”

“The password is for a single person,” said Hira.  “Both of us can’t go.”

I pursed my lips.  “Then who goes?”

Hira folded four arms at the same time.  “We have known faces.  You have illusions.”

Fuck,” I muttered.

“Take your time,” said Hira.  “You have a whole…four minutes to wallow in your neuroses.”

“Fuck,” I said again.  I would be going in with no plan, no allies, and almost no information.  Is this worth risking everything?

“And Praxis Specialists might be able to pick out your voice or your gait in a crowd, so you’ll have to modify those too.  Or just avoid talking.”

I’m so close.  More money, more favor with Lorne, more information, and I could be on the track to becoming a Guardian.

“Start the car,” I said.  “I’ll get the mask.”

________________________________________

Jun’s car jerked to a halt in the pouring rain.

“They’ll recognize this car,” said Hira.  “I can’t go any closer.”

I adjusted my mask and my wig.  They weren’t perfect, but they’d conceal my most obvious features from a distance.

“I’ll watch Clementine in her home,” said Hira.  “Keep any servants from wandering back in her house.  Call me on her phone when you want a pickup.”

“I can do this,” I muttered to myself.  “ I can do this, right?”

“If I don’t hear anything in the next ten hours, I’ll stop by the morgue and make sure they don’t defile your corpse.”

Thanks, Hira.

I checked my internal clock.  Ninety-one seconds.  I pulled myself out of the car and slammed the door behind me.

Then I broke into a run, splashing through puddles and streams flowing into gutters.  I turned corners past dark, abandoned buildings, past empty, pitch-black alleys and flickering streetlights.  This area’s gone to shit.

I jogged on a bridge over a rushing river, and caught a glimpse of Lowtown and Elmidde to my left, across Meteor Bay.

According to a book I’d read when I was young, the outer islands used to be a part of Mount Elwar, thousands of years ago, but had been separated when a meteor hit in the time of the Great Scholars, turning the whole area into a water-filled crater.

An apt meeting place for the people tearing this country apart.

I arrived at the near-empty entry of a stadium, screeching to a halt and wheezing for breath.

A decade ago, the building had been some big famous landmark.  George Stadium, or maybe Luther Stadium, I didn’t remember, and the letters on the sign had fallen off.

But, after enough floods and enough money draining out of the neighborhood, and one nasty terrorist attack during the Shenti war, the people here with money had given up and moved to higher ground.

Now, it looked abandoned, save for the three Steel Violet members out front, standing under floating umbrellas and hefting submachine guns under their coats.

They leveled them at me as I approached, and I raised my hands.

Then I stretched my Pith forward.  I’m in range.  I threw up an illusion, reshaping the face under my mask and the sound of my voice.  “Am I late?

“Yes,” said Rozi, the Joiner with Voidsteel gauntlets, who’d almost crushed Wes’ throat.  “White Balloon.“  The password.

Prisoner Moon,” I answered.

They lowered their guns.  “It’s already started, the doors are locked.  Sorry.”

I was told it didn’t start until nine-thirty.

“The talking starts nine-thirty.  You were supposed to get here at least fifteen minutes ago.”

Scholars.  We’d wasted too much time interrogating Clementine.

I pulled up the mask over my face, revealing the illusion I’d put over my features: John Asger, one of Clementine’s favorite cronies.  I’d served him dinner dozens of times, without so much as a glance in my direction or a thank you.

I positioned the mask so that people above me and to the sides wouldn’t be able to see my face – if other Steel Violet members were watching me through sniper scopes, they wouldn’t see any inconsistencies with their comrades’ eyes.

Clementine Rawlyn sent me in her stead,” I said with his voice, matching the disdain I was used to.  “She knows Tunnel Vision personally, and is not interested in hornets making her miss my report.

The members of Steel Violet stared at me, no doubt conversing amongst themselves using thought-stitching.  Droplets fell off the edge of their umbrella, splashing onto the ground.

For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure if they were going to let me in or fill me with bullets.

Rozi stepped aside, beckoning me.  “Right this way, sir.”

I jogged into the ruined stadium, through vacant corridors lit by lightbulbs strung overhead.  I passed empty ticket booths, faded storefronts, and Green Hands with rifles, directing me through side doors and down stairwells.  A chill wind blew through the empty halls, with the muffled sound of rain.

Finally, I emerged from a dark tunnel into the stadium, back into the deluge.  A dense crowd of Green Hands and mobsters had gathered in the center of the overgrown field, lit by glaring white floodlights high above.  They stood shoulder to shoulder, silent and unmoving, staring towards a raised podium in the middle.

I stepped into a puddle, then glanced down.  What?

In the rain, the field had flooded, water rising to my ankles.  The entire stadium had become a tiny, shallow lake.

I waded forward, my feet sinking into the mud, tall grass brushing past my knees.  It took effort to move around without ripping my shoes off.  I shivered, my anemia making the cold rain even worse.

Why haven’t they canceled this?  This wasn’t an ordinary rally, though the crowd was more than large enough.  This was a secretive event that required passwords to enter, with armed guards patrolling the exterior.

Plus, all the Commonplace rallies I’d seen were loud, explosive events, full of cheering and jeering and applause.

Here, no one spoke.  The only sound here was the pouring rain.

I pushed forward through the crowd, holding my mask so it didn’t come off, and positioned myself near one of the emergency exits, with a few layers of people behind me.  This way, I wouldn’t stand out, but could still make a quick getaway.

Behind me, a few hundred Green Hands had spread out through the stands, all carrying rifles.  If I run, they’ll shoot me half a dozen times before I make it to the door.

Here, I had a solid view of the empty stage set up in the middle, too.  The stage was empty. 

It hasn’t started yet.

Then I glanced away for a second.  When I turned back, a line of people was standing on the stage.  In the lineup, I recognized Tunnel Vision on the far side, water dripping from her ragged skirt and bowler hat.

One of them stepped forward, a man with green circle tattoos, and the rain itself seemed to quiet as he approached the microphone.

Is he the leader?  No, the head of Commonplace was supposed to be a woman.  Was she here tonight?

The crowd didn’t cheer or clap, or acknowledge his presence in any way.  Are they hijacked?  Nothing about this event felt natural.

The man spoke in a calm voice.  “The median projector in the Principality has a net worth of two hundred and fourteen times that of the median Humdrum.  They own an average of four bodies apiece, while we get cancer at their factories and go into debt for our replacement bodies.  If we’re lucky enough to get a loan.”

The rhetoric of victimhood and vengeance.  They listed legitimate problems, then used them to justify an incoherent wave of violence and resentment.

We’d barely won the largest war in human history.  We’d defeated the Shenti by the narrowest margin, and these people wanted to eviscerate the heroes who’d protected us.  That wasn’t the right way to do things.

“If they could,” said the man, “they’d wipe our memories all over again.  Rip away our freedom and control us from the shadows again while they try to forge the stars in their vain image.  At best, they see us as witless dolts.  At worst, they see us as beasts, fit only for the kennel.”

While the man spewed his propaganda, I watched behind him.  A hooded figure stood next to Tunnel Vision, wearing a faded green military long coat, the kind you’d see in photos of the Shenti War, or older.

She reached up a hand to scratch her head, and I squinted through the rain.  One of her thumbs had been cut off at the first knuckle.  Of all the things broken with this body, my vision still worked fine.

Other than that, she looked identical to the others standing next to Tunnel Vision.

Except people treated her differently.  Though they tried to downplay it, the ones standing next to her on the stage gave her more space than the others, made glances in her direction, whispered amongst themselves but not to her.

The hooded woman held a certain gravity, in the very center of the stadium.

That has to be her.  The leader of Commonplace.  The woman who brought Tunnel Vision, the Broadcast King, and Shenti support all together in a singular movement.

What I’d give for a sniper rifle and a vantage point.  Not that I could fire one of those things, but one well-placed bullet and the whole country could be at peace.

“We,” said the man.  “Are the Common Foundation.  The Principality and Paragon Academy, have done far worse things than you can imagine.  To us, and the roots of the world itself.”  The rain poured down around us, and the pitch-black sky seemed to close in from above.  “They have reached into the heavens and touched the void.  They have burrowed into the mountains and whispered to gods, shattered the keystones of the human soul.  They are planning things, and even we don’t know what they are.”

This is nonsense.  There were a great many mysteries in this world.  The stars and the water and the Great Scholars and the Four Daydreamers.  But to invoke such things in this context?  It couldn’t be anything but empty conspiracy-mongering.

And this felt strange.  It didn’t feel like a normal rally, and it wasn’t a strategy meeting.  It was happening in the pouring rain, during a miniature flood, and the speaker was spewing confusing, surreal rhetoric.

Why are these people gathered here?

Tunnel Vision strode to the mic.

“There are Guardians at Paragon Academy,” she said.  “Doing their best, as we speak, to infiltrate our movement and bring it down from within.”  Thunder boomed in the distance, and the rain came down harder.  “They are the loyal dogs of the status quo, of the corrupt House of Lords and the broken Conclave of the Wise who hoard wealth and power.  And they will defend it, even if it means hijacking thousands.”

More propaganda.  Did these people need more convincing?

“They see us as a weak threat, insignificant next to the Droll Corsairs, or the eastern dogs of Shenten.”

The Shenti monsters are funding you.  Not that they’d want the public to know that.  Their public support could sour pretty fast if the nation found out they were funded by foreign terrorists.

“But they underestimate us.  That is their mistake,” she said.  “So.  To all the Guardians who think they’re smarter than the citizens of the country.”  She leaned into the mic.  “Hello.  And goodbye.”

What?

She stomped her foot.  The sound echoed around the stadium, ringing in my ears.

Two jets of mud and water exploded upwards from the ground, shooting a man and a woman into the air, both Green Hands.

At the same time, something exploded in front of them, coating their faces with bright orange paint.

“The orange-faced ones are Guardians!” shouted Tunnel Vision.

As the man and woman spun in midair, and the Green Hands raised their weapons, I realized several things.

One: Brin was right – Paragon had been at this meeting.  Guardians had been at this meeting, in disguises.

Two: This meeting was a trap for them.

That explained all the strange conditions.  This event wasn’t held for propaganda or strategy, but to lure the undercover Guardians in with Tunnel Vision and the leader of Commonplace.  Even the rain worked in the enemy’s favor – in these conditions, it would be difficult to fly out of the stadium, and much harder to spot snipers with enhanced vision that could shoot them out of the sky.

As these thoughts ran through my head, the raindrops stopped midair, hovering in front of my face.

Then the water exploded into a wave of steam, flinging a pair of Green Hands straight at me.

They crashed into me, blasting me backward with the shockwave and flipping me over.  I splashed face-first into the muddy water, my ears ringing.

I pushed myself upright, spluttering and coughing.  My chest ached, a sharp, piercing pain on my right side.  Did I break a rib?

White steam filled the air, hot, stinging my face.  As it cleared, I saw one of the Guardians in the middle of the field, his fist slammed to the ground.

Rings of corpses surrounded him, faces and limbs sticking out of the water.  Further away from him, Green Hands lay on their backs, groaning and covered in burns.

I know this.  A Physical Vocation that superheated huge quantities of water, creating burning-hot steam explosions.

That’s Professor Stoughton.  He taught Chemistry and other natural sciences to fourth-years.  One of the deadlier Guardians at Paragon, though he wasn’t Scholar-ranked like Harpy or Brin.

The other Guardian flipped over in midair and clapped her palms together.  Green lightning crackled around her.  A Physical Specialist.  A wave of pale light expanded from her hands, washing over me and the entire stadium.

Hundreds of Green Hands and mobsters aimed their guns at her, and pulled the triggers.

Nothing happened.  None of the guns fired, from the shotguns up close to the sniper rifles in the stands.  Everyone kept pulling the triggers, to no effect.

Did she jam them all at once?

No, I knew this Vocation.  Professor Havstein.   A platinum-ranked projector, she’d studied under Headmaster Tau himself.  Her Vocation could alter the properties of physics in an area, making combustion itself impossible.  Flames vanished.  Fuses fizzled out.

And guns couldn’t fire.

In an instant, she’d crippled all the Humdrums here.

She’d been missing a lot this semester.  Probably because of this infiltration job.

I need to get out of here.  These two had the power to turn this whole building to rubble, and there was no more intel to be gained.  I’d gambled on the wrong meeting.

Another second passed, and the Guardians attacked.

More pockets of water exploded into steam, tossing aside mobsters like dry leaves in the wind.  Hundreds of knives drew from the sheathes of Green Hands and shot at the hooded woman in a blur.  I knew she was important.

On the podium, the hooded woman turned towards the storm of projectiles, impassive, not even trying to run or dodge.

The podium flipped beneath her, forming a shield between her and the knives.

The knives impacted at high speeds, thudding into the wood and creating showers of splinters.  After the second volley, the podium was a pile of loose wreckage sinking into the water.

When the smoke cleared, Tunnel Vision stood between them and the leader of Commonplace.  The water had cleared in a wide ring around them, and the raindrops hovered four stories above, preventing steam explosions from going off right next to them.

I forced my vision away from the battle and scanned the audience for an escape route.  I had no delusions of being able to help the Guardians here.  Even if I managed to get close to them, I’d just slow them down.

Explosions rang out behind me, with flashes of light, the clang of metal, and clouds of hissing steam washing over me.

Above me, the stands were half as sparse as they’d been seconds ago.  Many of the riflemen had either been cut down or were charging towards the battle in the middle of the stadium.  With the guns all broken, most of them had switched to knives or bayonets – those that still had theirs.

I picked a door that had only two men standing in front of it, and climbed into the stands, sprinting up the steps three at a time.

On instinct, the Green Hands aimed their guns at the masked figure running at them in the rain, even though they wouldn’t fire.


I waved my hands at them, and layered over my voice as I got within range.  “Don’t shoot!  Don’t shoot!”  My illusion pulled off his mask, revealing a generic face I’d come up with on the fly.  “No orange, see?  We’re on the same team.

They lowered their rifles.  “I don’t think we could shoot you anyways.  What the fuck are we supposed to do without our guns?  Even our Voidsteel bullets won’t work if the mechanisms don’t fire.”

I had my illusion beckon the guards closer, and they stepped forward, leaving an open path to the door.  “Do we have any other projectors?

“Mob people,” said the other guard.  “Cutthroats for hire.  They died in the first ten seconds.”

As their conversation continued, I slipped past them, pulling open the door and sliding in.

I’m going to get John,” my illusion said.

“Who?”

My illusion ran away down the stands, ducking out of sight before vanishing.

I jogged through the halls, past groups of Green Hands and pairs of mobsters.  All the exit doors had been locked shut.  When I projected towards them, the locks had been jammed.  My weak metal projection wasn’t enough to force them open.

So I kept running, passing through hallways, clambering up stairs.

The rain pounded down outside.  Sweat collected in my armpits, and my lungs burned from the exertion.  Finally, after making several wrong turns, I found a door near the top of the stands that opened to a ladder going down to the ground.  Probably something for maintenance.

The door to the top of the stands was open.  Outside, a thick cloud of steam had gathered in the center of the field.  Explosions and shouts rang from within.

As the cloud cleared, I stopped for a moment to observe the fight.  No one else was nearby.  Maybe I can get a sense of Tunnel Vision’s abilities.  Or even her Vocation.

The steam blew away in the wind.  A whole fifth of the stadium on the far side had been demolished, like cutting a slice out of a pie.  I could see the lowtown buildings outside, the path cleared for an escape.  Several of the floodlights flickered, damaged.

Tunnel Vision stood in the center, her black coat and skirt covered in blood.  Miraculously, she hadn’t lost her bowler hat or messed up her long ponytail.

She held the top half of a severed head in her fist, clenching its long blonde hair.  Professor Havstein.  I felt like throwing up.  So guns work again now.  Though everyone else in the stadium seemed to have fled or died.

The hooded leader of Commonplace still stood behind her, unharmed.

In front of the rubble, Professor Stoughton had gathered a tidal wave of water around him.  It formed the shape of a many-headed hydra, long snakelike necks ready to strike and explode at a moment’s notice.  It stood at least fifty feet tall, as wide as a third of the field.

Stoughton stood in the center, catching his breath, a storm of green lightning crackling around him.  As I recalled, he and Professor Havstein had been close friends at Paragon, partners together for over a decade.  He must be furious.

Tunnel Vision cocked her head to the side, watching the professor as if he were some sort of curiosity.  Beneath his giant water monster, she looked insignificant, wielding nothing other than the severed head.

The two stared each other down, neither making a move.  Tunnel Vision folded her hands behind her back.

He’s afraid of her.

The professor spun his arms in a circular motion, and his water monster split in two.  The front half blasted forward, charging at Tunnel Vision and Commonplace’s leader.

At the same time, the other half formed a dense sphere around Stoughton.  It shot him away, rocketing him down the street.

The front part exploded into steam with an ear-splitting crack, covering half of the stadium in an instant.  I could feel the heat on my face, and my ears rang.

A flash of white light lit up the inside of the cloud, followed by another deafening boom.

The smoke cleared.  Outside the stadium, Professor Stoughton lay on the cobblestone, steam rising off his body.  Burns.  His thick shield of water had vanished.

When I squinted through the rain, I saw him move, crawling forward at a sloth’s pace.  Scholars, he’s still alive.

Tunnel Vision swung the severed half-head like a sling, tossing it to the side.  She strode towards the professor over the piles of rubble, slow and inexorable.  Sparks flickered around her, and blood coated her face and skirt.  A spirit of fire wreathed in rain and smoke, a dark silhouette in the storm.

Two top-notch Guardians with decades of experience, and she’d crushed them in seconds.

As she approached her victim, she glanced back at the stands, in my direction.

Is she looking at – 

Nobody else was nearby.  She was looking at me.

For several seconds, we made eye contact across the expanse of the field, through the pouring rain.  The panic rose in my stomach, spreading through my chest and washing over my entire body until my hands shook.

Then I tore my gaze away, walking as calmly as I could to the door.  Don’t look panicked or running.  I pulled it open and climbed down the ladder, hyperventilating.

After what felt like a lifetime, I slid to the bottom, making my palms burn.  Is she following me?  Did she recognize me?

I kept running down the hallway, even though I was already out of breath.  Beneath my coat, I projected into the three pieces of my suppressed machine pistol, sliding them together and holding it with two hands so I could shoot.

The lower halls of the building were empty, as far as I could see.  Most of the Green Hands and mobsters must be focused on the field.  I jogged through another set of corridors and stairwells without trouble, finally reaching a set of double doors to the outside.  My projection indicated they hadn’t sealed this one yet.

I walked towards them and reached for the handle.

“Stop!”

I spun around, raising my machine pistol.

A man stood across the hall from me, leveling a shaking rifle at me.  No – a boy.  About my age.

He’s out of range of my Vocation.  And I didn’t know how to jam a gun with projection, other than holding the trigger in place with brute force.  And besides, I was already exhausted.

And that’s a heavy rifle.  The combat suit under my clothes could stop light gunfire, but a shot from that would punch straight through.

“No one’s supposed to leave until we finish a full sweep,” the boy said.  No Green Hands tattoos.  He’s with the mob.  “That’s the order.  Anyone leaving could be an undercover enemy.”

“Relax,” I said.  “I didn’t get the order yet.  But I am going to need to see some identity confirmation.”  I layered as much calm and patience as I could into my voice, pushing down the panic.  “We’re not enemies.  We don’t have to point guns in each other’s faces.”

I took a hesitant step forward.  Get him in range.

“Don’t come any closer!”  The boy’s eyes widened.  “Take off your mask!”

Nausea bubbled up inside my stomach.  I felt like I was going to be sick.  I reached up with my other hand and pulled off my mask, revealing my face.  My real face.

“Sorry.”  I kept my voice calm.  “Sorry.  I’m going to lower my gun.  You lower yours, okay?  Then – then you can call your CO on the radio so we can, um, confirm the order and our identities.  Please, don’t do something you’re going to regret.”

The boy said nothing, taking sharp, rapid breaths.

“I’m – I’m lowering my gun.”  I inched the barrel of my machine pistol down, until it was pointing at my feet.  Then I took my finger off the trigger.

The boy lowered his rifle, slowly but surely.  For a few seconds, we caught our breaths.

He reached for the radio at his shoulder and pressed the talk button, glancing at it.  “Talon Five to Central – “

I shot him.

It happened so fast that, for a moment, I thought someone else had pulled the trigger.  A series of muffled cracks rang out, drowned out by the sound of the rain outside.  The machine pistol pushed back against my hand.

And the boy fell, a series of red holes punched in his chest.  The gun slid out of his hands, and he coughed, spitting up blood.  He twitched, and a wet gurgling noise came out of his throat.

Professor Tuft’s advice ran through my head.  Always confirm the kill.  Only an idiot would stand around when her target was downed and vulnerable.  If you monologued, or ignored them, or hesitated, that could be deadly.

If I left him here, he might get a replacement body in time.  Report my face to Tunnel Vision.

I pushed open the door and ran out, fleeing into the storm.

________________________________________

The sea swirled beneath Clementine’s house, aggravated by the rain.

Behind her house, the highest waves swept over the balcony, washing it with a thin layer of saltwater.  The same one I’d jumped off months ago.


I rang the doorbell, drenched from head to toe, not bothering to dry myself.

Left-Hira opened the door, a bottle of arak in her hand.  “You’re alive.”  She looked surprised.  “How did it go?”

I caught my breath, leaning against my knees for support.  When I pushed myself upright, I avoided eye contact, gazing down the street into the rain.

“Staring into the middle distance isn’t an answer, you know.  The least you could do is tell me if you – “

I looked at her.

“Hey, um.”  For the first time since I met her, she looked uncertain about what to say.  “Are you.  Are you alright?”

I wasn’t sure what to say.

“So,” said Hira.  “I read her pocketbook.  No one’s coming here to check on her for another few hours.”

“And her files?  Anything interesting?”

“Nothing on whatever ‘Buttercup Lodge’ is,” said Hira.  “But it did include a bunch of operations Clementine took part in for Tunnel Vision.  And some codes.  ‘Feather 910’, ‘Snake 171’, that sort of thing.  I woke her up and tried interrogating her with them, but only got a bunch of vague details.  Some voices, some smells, just a few associations.  And apparently, she helped develop some technique to avoid phones being traced.  That’s all I got.”

I scowled, and plugged those details into my new pattern-matching vocation.  I could read the files later and add those details too.  If anything matched in the future, I’d get notified.

“There’s got to be more,” I said.

She grinned at me.  Is she trying to cheer me up?  “Let’s strip this house for fucking parts.”

I nodded, and stepped forward.

Inside, Hira had stacked duffel bags in the middle of Clementine’s dining table, filling them with silverware, all three chandeliers from the house, and a handful of loose bills.

“Careful,” I said.  “Those are worth a lot less than they look.”

“Clementine’s still up in her study,” she said.  “I’m watching her with my other body.  It’ll be hard to find a fence for this stuff when Tunnel Vision controls most of the underworld.  This was all I could find.  No stacks of cash, jewelry, or Vocation Codices.”  She looked at me.  “But you worked here for years.  You know where the good stuff is, right?”

“This way,” I said, my voice flat.

I led Hira down to Clementine’s basement.  The wooden steps creaked as we descended.

Two-thirds of the floor was taken up by dirt-stained mattresses lined up against each other.  The servant’s quarters.

The mattress that had been my home had a different ratty blanket on top of it, messed up and unmade.  Someone had slept in it recently.  My replacement.  I felt for them, whoever they were.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “If my boss made me sleep somewhere like this, I’d blow out his kidneys with buckshot.”

We strode to the far side of the room, to a locked door.  “You got her keys, right?”

Hira knelt by the door and jammed a bobby pin into the lock.  After a few seconds of jiggling, the door swung open.  “A thief named Pamello shops at the same grocery store as me.  I copied his skills this morning.”

I flipped on a light, revealing shelves and shelves of horizontal wine bottles lining the walls.

“Ah,” said Hira.  “Now I know why she kept this locked from all of you.  I’d have been in here twenty-four seven.  Where is it?”

I pointed at a tapestry, hanging on the wall behind the shelves.  On it, a trio of fighter planes flew above the ocean, the pilots etched in exquisite detail.

“There.  Behind that.”  Clementine had thought herself subtle, hiding her safe here, but after she’d visited it a few times, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.

Hira stretched her hand forward, projecting into the shelf.  Then she yanked it back, tipping it over and smashing hundreds of bottles on the ground.  A purple-red puddle spread on the wooden floor, mixed with glass shards.

Then, she strode over it and ripped off the wall tapestry, tearing it in the middle to reveal a wall safe sitting behind it.  “You know the code?”

I shook my head.

“Not a problem.”  Hira pulled a stethoscope out of her coat, cleared a spot to kneel next to the safe, and began spinning the dial.

As she worked, I turned around, looking back at the basement.  Right now, in the middle of a winter night, it was bitter cold, making me rub my arms under the sleeves of my jacket.

And yet somehow, this same basement would turn into an underground oven during spring and summer, turning the nights here into hours of tossing and turning under sweaty covers.

Whoever my replacement was, they were stuck here now, for a lot longer than they were expecting.

A terrible thought ran through my mind.  What if the boy I killed – the boy back at the stadium – had been hired through someone like Clementine?  A servant working for some mid-level mobster, desperate for anything that would let him crawl out of this basement and get some financial security.

What would have happened if I didn’t find Clementine’s blue folder?  If I hadn’t done my body heist and gotten that job offer from Isaac Brin, while I bled out on that boat.

If I’d been pushed enough, could I have been at that stadium, in his position?

Thinking about it like that made me want to reassemble my machine pistol and point it at my skull.

I shoved the feeling down.  It’s not your fault.  It was the fault of monsters like Clementine, who forced vulnerable people into service for them.  Liars who’d never put themselves at risk for a cause, who’d never had to struggle just to live.

Hira pulled open the safe.  “Done.  Guess this bitch paid her safe manufacturer as much as her maids.”

I walked back to her, and we leaned forward, seeing what was inside.

“What?” said Hira.

No cash.  No jewelry or gold or gems.  Just a stack of three small books.  This was what Clementine checked every other week?

Hira pulled open one, flipping through it.  Then the next two.  “They’re not Vocation codices.  No obvious critical information.  Are they in code?”

“But if they’re code, why store them in a safe?  Why telegraph that these are important?”  I picked up the first book and flipped to a random page.

They’re journal entries.  And though it was impossible to tell at a glance, my intuition told me they weren’t in code.

I flipped to another random spot, revealing a photograph wedged in between pages.  In it, a smiling woman in a flight suit stood next to a bomber on an aircraft carrier, flanked by half a dozen pilots on each side.  All of them had their fists raised, and two of them near the middle held the Principality’s flag in front of them.  A war photograph.

The scrawled caption on the bottom read: The nation, the people, the light.  You’re still our ace, Captain Rawlyn.

“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath.  I read through the entry beneath it.  Then the next one.  Then the next.

“Ana?  Anything valuable?”

“It’s true,” I said.

“You’ve got to be more specific than that.”

“Clementine’s medals, her military history, all of it,” I said.  “She was a pilot in the air force.  She fought in the Shenti War.  I thought she was lying about all of it, but she wasn’t just some con woman.  She was a hero.”

At the back of one, I saw a folded-up letter, and read it:

Paragon Academy

717 Darius Street, Elmidde, The Principality

Dear Ms. Rawlyn,

Thank you for your interest in Paragon Academy.

I am sorry to inform you that we cannot offer you a place in the class of 510.  Our admissions committee evaluated a record number of passionate applicants this year, from all over the Principality.  Unfortunately, they could only accept a limited number with the greatest proficiency, intellect, and projection potential.

Your scores on the entrance exam are enclosed.  Your projection ranking estimate was: Bronze.

We wish you well in your future endeavors to serve this country with pride and distinction.  May you forge the stars in your image, and strive to become an Exemplar.

Sincerely,

Nicholas Tau

Headmaster

I folded the letter back up.  Fuck.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I kept reading through the journal, losing track of time.  I pored over entry after entry, until I was finished with this book and moved onto the next one.

The truth was, I’d wanted to dismiss Clementine’s history.  I wanted to believe that she was propping her image up with a story of service and duty.  That would have been simpler, easier.  But I wasn’t sure what to make of this.

“There are plenty of asshole soldiers,” said Hira.  “Fuckers looking for an acceptable way to shoot people.”

“But that’s not how she comes across in these journals,” I said.  “And she can’t have been expecting anyone else to read these.”

“Why not?”

“Because these aren’t glamorous.”  I knew Clementine.  If she was making up a fake military backstory for herself, she wouldn’t have talked about getting dysentery for half a month, or failing her pilot’s certification twice, or making mistakes that got her subordinates maimed for life.  And she definitely wouldn’t have included a Paragon rejection letter.

“Some lunatic nationalist, then, drunk on the flag.”

Nationalists aren’t lunatics.  To Hira, anything she didn’t personally believe in was somehow corrupt or hollow.  “The woman I knew wasn’t a patriot.  Wouldn’t risk her life for anyone else, much less her country or her fellow soldiers.”  The Clementine in these notebooks was a stranger.

“Then why the fuck is she here?” said Hira.  “Why isn’t she in some naval base, trying to kiss up to Florence Tuft?”

“The Edwina Massacre,” I said.  The first time projection had been shown to the Principality at large.  After the Pyre Witch set Shenti civilians on fire, they’d retaliated by sending the most skilled Joiner in the world after our fleet.  All Humdrums, no Voidsteel.  The woman had ripped them apart with her bare hands.  We’d sent our own Guardians after her, including the warm-hearted Professor Keswick, but she’d burnt them too, and the Shenti didn’t care.

“What about it?”

I held up the journal.  “She fought in it, when she still thought she was a Humdrum.  Got her hands torn up from the battle, couldn’t fly anymore, or even work a desk job.  The one thing in her life that defined her, gave her meaning, and she failed at it.  All her friends were either dead or overseas.  And in her desperation and loneliness, she forgot who she was, and latched onto the first thing that made her feel powerful.”

“She became a selfish piece of shit.”

“There were justifications, ends and means and necessary sacrifices, but over time, they became sacrifices other people made.”

“Like I said, a selfish piece of shit.  And she’s still up there.”  We can still kill her, she implied.

I stuffed the books into my bag.  “Come on, let’s take her stuff and get the fuck out of here.”

Hira looked at me.  “Are you concerned that you’ll become like her?  Is that what this is all about?”  She shook her head.  “Fuck that.  Stop tying your brain into knots.  You’re nothing like that bitch.”

I strode out of the wine cellar, glass shards crunching beneath my feet, and shrugged.  “Neither was she.”

________________________________________

I lied back in my sleeping pod, flipping through Clementine’s journals for the third time.

I had a tactics exam the day after tomorrow.  I was supposed to be studying for it, but I kept getting pulled back by the books I’d taken from her safe.  One passage sat in the center of my mind, a mental knot I’d been failing to untangle for hours.  A more recent segment, taking place after I’d started working for her.

I read it again:

It’s strange.  In the rare moments when I’m not planning a job, or plying my bosses at parties, or preparing for the next step in my career, I just sit here in my room.  I don’t read books.  I don’t watch movies.  My servants do all the housework.  I just lie on my twenty-thousand-pound mattress and stare at the ceiling.  Sometimes, I put the radio on in the background.  Sometimes, I have a smoke.

I have no one to call.  No one to go out with.  The people I call my friends only want to use me, like I want to use them.

Is this going to be the rest of my life?

I have to get back to work.

I snapped the book shut and let my arms fall to my sides, staring at the ceiling of the pod.  You’re not like Clementine.  You’re not.  She hurts people, and you want to become a Guardian.  She’s helping to break this country, and you’re defending it.

What had I done during my last spurt of free time?  I kept myself so busy these days.

But if I had free time, right now, and no obligations, what would I do?  Hira, Wes, and Jun were all living together now, and I didn’t want to see any of them if it meant spending more time with Wes.  Tasia was always busy, and just the sound of Lorne’s voice made me tense up.

And if I dropped dead, right now, how many of them would really miss me?

Then, I remembered.  My birthday was a few days ago.  I’d been so busy that I’d forgotten it.  In recent years, I’d never done anything fancy for the occasion, but I’d often buy myself something nice, like a Nekean action manga or a box of macaroons, back when I still had my taste buds.

I’m twenty years old, and I spent my birthday alone.

I wasn’t a traitor to our country.  But in my loneliness, I was like Clementine.

Before I knew it, my hands were pulling me out of my pod, and my feet were carrying me out of the building, through the rainstorm in the streets, and to the liquor store on the corner of my block.  Then back to my storage unit, to the stained mattress where Wes had slept before moving in with Hira.

I poured myself a glass of Shenti Baijiu and drank it.  It tasted like stale tap water, but it burned as it went down my throat.  Then I drank another one, and another one, until the buzz in my mind was loud enough to drown out the noise in my head and the thick, heavy disgust I felt when looking at my skin, or smelling my body odor.

Then I closed my eyes, and imagined being somewhere else.  The dining hall of Paragon Academy drifted into my mind, the one all Grey Coats were banned from.  I imagined what the mulled cider there would taste like, the beef turnovers and chocolate scones that Lorne gushed about.

In the vision, I was sitting with friends.  Tasia, and Hira and Jun and Kaplen.  Wes’ face flickered into being around them, and I pushed it out.

A snowstorm blew outside the windows, but inside, it was warm and safe.  Later, we could retire back to one of the dormitories and play Jao Lu until two in the morning.

Jao Lu made me think of Wes again.  No.  I pushed it out again.

I sunk deeper into the image, sketching out every detail in my mind.

Shouts rang out in the distance, in the real world.  I diverted a sliver of my attention to staggering out the door and finding the source of the disturbance, holding my focus on the daydream.

Men and women stumbled around the halls, bumping into walls.  Some of them shouted, or made other noises of confusion as they felt their way around.

On a hunch, I pulled myself out of the daydream, bringing my full attention back to reality.

Everyone stopped, looking around them.  “The fuck?” muttered one man.  After a few seconds, all of them walked back to their storage units or sleeping pods, everything back to normal.

It dawned on me.  My Vocation.  I must have been using it on instinct, drawing other people into my escapist fantasy, making it look like they were in Paragon’s dining hall.  Something like this had never happened before, and the sounds had been coming from all over the building.  My range has improved again.

After banishing the illusions, I drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to fall asleep or wake up.  Over time, a growing stomachache built inside me, until the pain was too strong to ignore.

I curled up, twisting and turning to alleviate the pain.  Nothing.  Though it wasn’t as painful as Isaac Brin’s dart, it was close.  It felt like someone was swinging a spiked hammer into my intestines, over and over.  I didn’t swallow my Kraken’s Bone by mistake, did?

So I reached for the baijiu bottle.  It wasn’t as good as painkillers, or a cure for whatever was happening down there, but it would dull the pain.

I swallowed a mouthful, and the pain tripled.  The ache exploded into a burning heat, a pressure boiling over into my throat.

I doubled over and threw up, the familiar sting of stomach acid on my tongue, even though I couldn’t taste it.  This time, it was accompanied by a metallic stench, filling up the storage unit and making me gag.

Projecting into the wall switch, I flipped on the lights.  A splash of red stained the mattress where I had vomited.  Blood.  I threw up again, spitting more out of my mouth, the pain growing and growing.

I need help.  I pushed myself upright, and a wave of dizziness washed over me.  I grabbed the wall for support and stumbled out the door.  What do I do?  Calling an ambulance would bankrupt me, sealing my body’s fate.  Call Jun.  Phone.  Jun had training as a doctor, he could help me.  And Hira could copy the right skills.

I vomited again, splattering blood onto the concrete floor.

There was no phone in King’s Palace Sleepbox and Storage.  The closest payphone I knew was across the street, on the corner.

So I staggered out the front door, into the pouring rain, ears rushing, coughing, on the verge of throwing up or collapsing, and jogged through the puddles to the payphone.  I leaned on it, gasping for breath.

I forgot the coins.  All the willpower to drag myself out here, and I’d screwed up the most basic element.


Of all the ways to die, this had to be one of the dumbest.

Shut the fuck up and think, idiot.  I projected into the machine’s mechanism, feeling around for where it felt the coin drop in.  A few fiddles with metal projection, and I was set.  I dialed Hira’s number, my fingers slipping on the keys, and put the receiver to my ear.

The phone rang, and rang, and rang.  I heaved again, spitting up a smaller amount of blood this time.

Then the sky spun around me, and the world faded out.

________________________________________

My eyes snapped open and I coughed, spraying blood onto the bedsheets.

“Damn it,” said Hira.  “I’m going to have to clean those.”

My blurry vision cleared, and I blinked.  I was lying on the guest bed in Hira’s house, flanked by her female body and Jun, sitting at my bedside next to an IV attached to my arm.  Cardamom curled up on the bed by my side, purring.  My blue combat suit had been draped over a chair, pulled off my body.

“You better not die,” said Left-Hira.  “Stealing that from the hospital was a pain in the ass.”

A quiet, lingering ache sat in my stomach and head, but only a fraction of what I’d been feeling earlier.  The agony had subsided, and I could think.

I glanced down at the rest of my body.  Bandages covered small patches of my skin on my arms, my legs, and the side of my stomach.

Jun saw me looking at them.  “Your skin was cracking there.  Keep the bandages on, and clean with alcohol at least once a week.  Don’t want you to get infected.  Your immune system might not be able to fight it off in this body.”

I shivered under the covers, and coughed.  My other decay symptoms feel worse too.  And they weren’t about to get better.

“What happened to me?” I croaked, my lips chapped.

“After the phone rang and no one picked up, we drove to your place on a hunch and found you lying by the phone booth.  Hira stole the IV and copied a few of the specialists at the hospital.  Far as we can tell, something’s messed up with your liver.  Made your body react to the alcohol all weird.”

I pushed myself to a sitting position in the bed, groaning.  “So I should stay dry for the foreseeable future?”

Jun nodded.  “It is as you say.”

“And if you have nausea, yellow skin, weight loss, or perpetual drowsiness,” said Hira.  “Your liver could be failing.  I’d recommend prayer.”

“I’m not religious.”

“I’d recommend booze or drugs, but that’d probably kill you.”

“Thanks, Hira.”

“And now that you’re awake,” said Jun.  “If you don’t mind, there’s someone here to see you.”


He knocked on the door, and it swung open, revealing a rain-soaked Weston Ebbridge on the other side.

“Hey Ana,” he said.  “Let’s talk about Tasia.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




7-B The Blue Charlatan

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

Hard work wasn’t paying off.

It was an old whaleshit cliché, thrown around by Clementine’s middle-managers and my parents, when they were convincing me to work in a factory for twelve hours a day.  A persuasion tactic.

But this time, I wasn’t working for any of them.  I was working for me.  And it still wasn’t enough.

I studied with every spare moment of free time.  Every day, I jogged around Lowtown to stay in shape and practiced at the gun range with my machine pistol.  And it wasn’t whaleshit, half-assed practice or studying either.  I put the effort in, tried new methods and avoided etching bad techniques into my muscle memory.

But my body was decaying.  Two of my fingers were gone.  My shoulder ached from the Steel Violet’s punch.  The slightest bit of smoke or even a whiff of perfume could send me into a coughing fit.  And at night, my anemia turned me into a quivering mess in my sleeping capsule at King’s Palace.  I had to bundle myself in thick layers to fall asleep, no matter how exhausted I was.

The decay grew faster than my improvements.  Despite all my technique, my aim with the machine pistol was growing worse, not better.  And even easy runs left me dry heaving and wheezing for air, until I made them into brisk walks, and then just walks.

With some adrenaline in my veins, I could sprint for a bit, but I had no endurance.  Training felt like trying to swim at the top of a waterfall.  No matter how hard I paddled, I was just delaying the inevitable.

On top of that, my physical projection remained weak, improving in tiny steps and inches despite all my study and practice with Tasia.  I could water walk for more than a few seconds now, but at this rate it’d be years before I could fly in a wingsuit.

Still, I made small improvements.  My Whisper projection was getting better.  I could now Nudge people, though I couldn’t imagine doing it to anyone.  I’d also learned a few useful Praxis vocations, like an internal clock, a basic pattern-matcher that used manual tables and a passive search function, and Stone Mask, which could flatten my body language for a short spell.  The pattern-matcher helped me track important details of our targets, and make connections in my subconscious that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.  And Stone Mask helped me with targets out of my range.

Still, most of it was basic, easy.  The average Grey Coat could do it in their sleep.  My grades, too, were improving, but were still dead-average for Paragon.

The only real achievement I’d made in the last few months was in my Vocation.  In my spare time, I could practice on Hira and Jun, or sit in a public park and use it on squirrels and birds.  My range had steadily increased, up to a consistent forty meters – almost twice that if I was projecting on a familiar target like Hira, and I could now modify up to three or four senses at once without straining myself, though touch was still out of my grasp.

And the jobs, of course.  The jobs were the only thing that made sense these days.  There were clear enemies.  Achievable goals.  A single puzzle to work out using strategy, projection, and teamwork, rather than a mountain of confusing textbooks and essay assignments.

So I accepted as many as possible, knocking them down as Brin gave them to me, along with some info bounties on the side.  We’d gotten that list of Commonplace and mobster meetings, which gave us an endless array of mid-level targets.  The thin blue armor Brin had given me also made things easier.  Bullets that would have killed me a month ago only left bruises, now.  In one battle, the rest of my clothes had burned away and it still kept me safe.

And the money added up, especially with my cheap capsule and canned-lentil diet.  I split it between the bank and a few hidden stashes in spots I was certain nobody would find.

It helped too, when I refused all of Wes’ offers to go out drinking.  I wasn’t going to let that boy manipulate me again.  The only contact I allowed was for missions and strategy meetings, where he gave me a flattened grenade and knife to fit inside my belt.

I didn’t have enough money to buy a body, but at this rate, I would by the end of the year.

But on top of that, I had to deal with Lorne Daventry.  My esteemed student boss.

The boy was starting to trust me more, but as he did, he demanded more too.  In addition to his laundry, his notes, and his takeout lunches, I now did his shopping, cleaned his room, ran his schedule, and bought him tickets.

Once, I even mixed him cocktails in the kitchen of his mansion.  I considered stealing some of his expensive silver, but decided against it.  He’d figure me out in an instant.

And through it all, I lost sleep.  The days blurred together, my eyes ached with every waking moment, and my night chills made my sleeping capsule feel like an icicle.  When I sat down at the laundromat or in the cable car up to Paragon, I drifted off before jerking back awake, terrified I’d forgotten something important.

And when my alarm clock screeched at seven every morning, it took all of my willpower to crawl out from under my blankets and face the world.  On days without classes or a mission, the pod seemed to encompass my whole universe.  The world outside faded to a faint buzz.

I skipped almost all my breakfasts.  On some days, I skipped every meal.  My showers were once a week, enough to keep me from getting filthy without taking too much of my time. As a result, I built up masculine body odor, a stench so repulsive I almost changed the habit. But I needed the time.

I cut back my neck-to-toe shaving to once a week, too. If I skipped those, or, worse, my morning shaves, the disgust would overflow in my mind and I’d have to pay attention to my chassis, with its thick, revolting body hair. Bulging grey veins were enough to handle.

My intermittent coughs grew worse, and once every few days, I saw blood in them.  Other aches and pains sprouted up throughout my body – in my shoulders, my lower back, my thighs – from bad posture, decay, or something else.

Of course, I didn’t have the time or the money to go to the doctor, so I just pretended they weren’t there.  I just imagined the pain away.

After many missions, and many coughs, Hira would glance at me with confusion.  “You shot so many,” she said.  “You should just take their bodies, if they’re going to die anyway.”

When I thought about taking another’s body, a yawning pit of disgust opened in my stomach.  But I had another reason to hold back.

Forced transference could only swap.  It couldn’t force another’s Pith into the open air to make an empty chassis, unless you’d studied more advanced techniques.

Which meant, if I took another’s body, I’d have to give up this one.  

And I wouldn’t be Ernest Chapman anymore.  I’d lose my Grey Coat position with Lorne, lose my best shot at becoming a Paragon student.  Maybe my best shot at a new chassis, too, at drinking mulled cider with a friend.

Make money with Queen Sulphur for a body.  Please Lorne for a body and admission.  I was racing down two avenues at once.  With the stakes so high, I couldn’t throw away either of them.

But on nights like this, I thought of the people I’d shot, of their faces and voices and their cries of pain. And I found myself questioning that.  Is this still the path I want?

I studied in my capsule, lying on my back and staring at page 596 of Biochemistry: An Introduction.  I’d read it three times already, but it still wasn’t making sense.  The words and sentences floated around my mind, bouncing off each other but never fusing into any meaning.

I looked past the tome, staring at the ceiling of my pod.  In two fingers of my book hand, I held my last can of lentils, spooning it in my mouth using the other hand.  A late dinner.  My only meal for the day.

I needed to get through this page for tomorrow’s quiz, but I was making zero progress.  If I fucked this up, then my grade for the Obsidian Foil’s class would be in the critical.

I couldn’t sleep until I got this.  And I couldn’t escape into my imagination without the risk of falling asleep.

Plus, I had to write a book summary and deliver it to Lorne at morning tea.  And I had to prepare for a mission tomorrow night.  I hadn’t started on either of those tasks.  And I had to buy more lentils, since I was out.  And my grey Paragon uniform was wrinkled, and I had to iron it for class.

I sighed.  I miss Cardamom.  Maybe I should have kept the cat here, even if it wasn’t the best home for him.

Then, I craned my neck to look at the alarm clock by my feet.  I’d placed it there to make it harder to shut off when I woke up.

Four in the morning.

It’s four in the morning?  I jerked back, hitting my head on the side of the pod.  The can of lentils slipped out of my grasp and dropped with a splat onto my chest.

All over my clean grey uniform.  My one school uniform.

There was no time to clean it before class.  But the assistant’s handbook specified that if I didn’t meet the dress code, there would be disciplinary action.  And if the old caretaker Berthel caught me like this, he’d follow through.

I began to shake with anger.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  Unbidden, hot tears welled up at the edges of my eyes, running down my face.

“Fuck,” I whispered.  “Fuck.  Fuck.

I flopped back on the mattress, paralyzed.  What should I do?  Everything was at the boiling point.  There were so many things to do, and all were equally urgent.  And in just a few hours, the school day would begin.  It’s so much.  It’s all so much.

So I just lay there.  I wasn’t sure for how long.

Someone knocked on my capsule door, and I jumped again.

I peeked out from behind the curtain next to my head.  Jun stood outside, beaming and waving at me.

I considered throwing up illusions for him.  To make me look asleep, or gone, or more put-together.  It wasn’t good to have a squadmate see me this vulnerable, this pathetic.

Fuck it.  Jun wasn’t a threat.  Lying to my allies was something Wes did, not me.

I pulled open the curtain, opened the door, and crawled out of the cramped space, onto the hotel’s dusty concrete floor.

I rubbed the sleep out of my eye and brushed lentils off my coat.  “How’d you get in?”

Jun held up a weird-looking screwdriver with dials attached to it.  A lockpick gun.  “The buzzer was broken.  This building isn’t very well-designed.”

“Yeah.”

Jun looked me up and down, squinting.  “You want to get some coffee?”

I glanced behind me.  Wet canned lentils dribbled off my blanket and onto my sheets.  “I’m – out of spending money.”

He raised a grey eyebrow.  “You want me to buy you some coffee?”

________________________________________

I sat down next to Jun at the pier, beneath a lamppost, still lit in the dim early morning.  My assistant’s uniform sat on my lap, while I wore Isaac Brin’s thin blue combat suit, the only clean outfit I had.

I took a sip of coffee.  It tasted like the paper cup it came in, but I appreciated the warmth.

“A benefit of no taste buds,” said Jun.  “You can make that as strong as you like, and you don’t get any of the bitterness.  Lucky for you, I know all the cafés that are open this late.”

A chill breeze blew across the water, blowing Jun’s wispy grey beard.  I rubbed my arms.  “How much do I owe you for the clothes?”

“Nothing.”  He examined a chocolate-covered cream puff, then stuffed the whole thing into his mouth.

“I don’t like being in debt to people.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re not in debt to me.”  He floated my uniform into the air in front of him and pulled a cake of soap from his bag.  Water streamed out of the harbor, washing the clothes.

“You should have told me you didn’t have a washing machine, I could have rigged you up a miniature one for your storage unit.  Silent, so the building doesn’t complain.”

“What is this about?” I asked.  “You here to give me sage advice?”  I was getting that sort of tone from him.

“I don’t have any sage advice.”  The Shenti man pulled a grey hair from his scalp, holding it in front of him.  “I’m not actually seventy-one.  I’m twenty, and I have no idea what I’m doing.  I just want to eat wontons, watch television, and build spiky cars that shoot flames out the back.”

“I know.”

“And we Shenti aren’t full of wisdom anymore.  You people took that from us.”

“I was a kid when the Spirit Block happened,” I said.  Don’t blame me for breaking your bloody religion.  “But I’m sorry.”

What does he want?  The man – boy – was still an enigma to me.  Sometimes, his soft personality and cooking obsession reminded me of Kaplen, which made me feel warm and brought up bad memories at the same time.

And Kaplen hadn’t volunteered for an amateur band of government mercenaries.  On some level, this bombmaker-engineer-pacifist wanted to be here, in the Principality, with us.

And I had to know why.

“Can I be honest?” said Jun.  “That’s a rhetorical question, I hate lying.”

“Sure.”

“You’re not talking to anyone.  You’re getting big circles under your eyes and you’re jittery on missions.  You look detached, like you don’t care, even when you’re shooting people.”

“You don’t go on missions, how do you know I’m jittery?”

“Everyone’s worried about you,” he said.

“Right,” I said.  “So this is what, an intervention?”  Wes must have put him up to this.  “I can’t afford to slow down right now.”

“I know,” he said.  “I know.  But you don’t have to carry all the weight yourself.  I know you don’t want Wes’ help, but would you at least accept some from me and Hira?”

“I’m alright,” I said.

“Vocations are powered by a person’s inner state, yes?” said Jun.  “And you’re an illusionist.”

“Yeah.”

“So,” he said.  “Why are you so bad at lying?”

I slouched over.  “I spent a lot of nights in Clementine’s basement, lying on a dirty mattress, unable to fall asleep.  Before then, I worked in a factory in the Agricultural Islands, and didn’t have any friends at school.  And before then, I had to deal with Loic’s Syndrome.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What do you do?” I said.  “When your reality is unacceptable?”  I flicked my wrist, sending a ripple out across the water.  “You imagine a new one.  You escape into your mind, and weave the most elaborate fantasies.”

“It is as you say,” said Jun.

I froze a chunk of the water, making my wrist flicker with blue lightning.  “That’s what powers my Vocation.”  I chuckled.  “Sad, isn’t it?”

“You’re here, are you not?” said Jun.  “You endured.  It sounds like your strategy worked.  But it doesn’t have to be your only one.”

He finished washing and rinsing my clothes and projected into the water, pulling it out and drying them.  They folded themselves and set themselves down in my lap.

“Let me install a washer-dryer in your storage unit,” he said.  “And I can help you study.  Hira too, once I convince him not to charge you.”

I stared down at my clean, dry laundry, and sighed.  “Come in the day after tomorrow.”

________________________________________

In my mind, I was running down a steep hill.  I was going fast, faster than ever before, but if I slowed down or made one wrong step, I’d fall and hit my head.

At the front of the lecture hall, Harpy talked, a rapidfire stream of words matched by three separate pieces of chalk drawing on the board.

And for once, I was keeping up.

My note-taking hadn’t gotten any faster.  If anything, the decay on my body had made handwriting even harder.  But I’d gotten more efficient.  I could filter out the most critical words and pare down the core concepts, so even when I was sleep-deprived, I could take coherent notes.

“A Shenti Joiner with a rifle comes from twelve o’clock.  A Humdrum with a shotgun comes from five.  Both have Voidsteel bullets, you have a piece of plywood.  How do you block the attack?”

To my surprise, my hand shot up.

“Chapman,” she said.

“I – um.”  This was the first time she’d called on me since the first day of class.  The first time I’d even tried to speak up.  “It’s, um, a trick question, right?  You don’t block, you attack.  You use the plywood and heat it to mess with the Joiner’s thermal vision, hit the floor, then project into the Voidsteel shotgun to kill the Shenti.”

Professor Tuft raised an eyebrow behind her librarian’s glasses.  “Correct.”

Next to me, Lorne didn’t exactly nod, but the look he gave was a little warmer than his usual disgusted glare.  Progress.

At the end of class, we got our quarterly reports back, and in an even bigger surprise, I’d managed to pull ahead with my grades.  I was far from the top of the class, or even the top fifty percent, but I was adequate.

And in Paragon, adequate was amazing.

Lorne glanced over my shoulder.  “Not bad, Chapman.  Keep working.”

Coming from him, he might as well have kissed me.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t get too full of yourself,” he said.  “I have another job for you.”

________________________________________

Basilisk Squad was the second-best team in the academy.  Their strategies were fast and unconventional, and they had a unique, specialized set of Vocations.

And they were losing.

Golem Squad, complete with Kaplen’s sand-projecting replacement, Matilla Geffray, was running circles around them.  Geffray had been assaulted by Green Hands before the semester, the incident with baseball bats that Brin had told me about on the night we met.  Despite that, the first-year showed remarkable combat prowess with her sand.

Despite their mobility, Basilisk Squad looked wobbly, uncoordinated.  A slower reaction to a metal shard from Lorne, or a miscommunication that left them crushed by Naru’s water wave.  Added up, it had a devastating effect.

And I knew why.  Because I’d drugged them.

Twenty minutes before the fight, I’d used my illusions to sneak in dustings of a grey powder into their morning tea.  Which, according to Lorne, was a potent mix of several drugs he’d purchased from the black market.

Now, it was making them slower on the uptake, more prone to panic, less capable of strategizing on the fly.  I’d helped sabotage Basilisk Squad before, but this was a whole new level.

Lorne jabbed his hand forward, and a metal cable ripped off the last enemy armband.  In less than two minutes, the battle was over.

Adam Lynde, the leader of Basilisk Squad, pushed himself off the dirt, his clothes dripping with water.  He blinked, shaking, and charged at Lorne, roaring something unintelligible.  He projected into his clothes, shooting himself forward.

In one smooth motion, Lorne dodged him and wrapped a cable around his arm, slamming him face-first into the dirt.  A second later, he had Adam’s hands tied behind his back.

Lorne and the squad strode towards me, as Adam screamed expletives at them from behind.  I gave them their usual snacks of sesame crackers and mulled cider.  I could smell the aroma of fresh apples and spices.

“Why was he so mad?” I said, immediately regretting it.

“Lynde was struggling in Harpy’s tactics course,” said Lorne, smirking.  “And now he’s certain to fail it.  He won’t be expelled, but he’ll be held back a year.”

My stomach ached.  “And?” I said.

“He was already on the ropes with his parents.  This will be the final straw.  They’re going to try and Oust him in the summer.”

A wave of dizziness crashed over me, and I felt a spike of nausea.  Out on the pavilion, Adam walked back towards the bridge.  All the anger had deflated out of him, and now he just stared at the ground, a flat expression across his face.

You did this.  I felt like curling up and crying.  Or throwing hot cider in Lorne’s face.  Or bashing my head against the bleachers until my repulsive skull cracked like an eggshell.  You helped.

“You look outraged,” said Lorne.  “Offended.  I respect that you’re keeping it to yourself, but I can read your face.”

“Why?” I asked, my voice quiet.  “Why was that necessary?”

Lorne waved his hand at Deon, Naru, and Matilla.  “Good work today.  I’ll meet you guys in class.”

They nodded, trudging off across the bridge.

“I’ll only say this once,” said Lorne.  “So shut the fuck up and listen.  Do you know who my father is?”

“Lord Hugo Daventry,” I said.  “The Scholar of Thermodynamics.  A legendary physical specialist noted for his accomplishments in the Shenti W- “

“Everyone loved him,” said Lorne.  “A trusted mentor, a true friend, a man who always helped the weak and the vulnerable.  In the colonies, there wasn’t a criminal he couldn’t beat or an old lady he couldn’t help cross the street.  He was one of the strongest projectors in the Eight Oceans.”  He leaned closer to me.  “Want to know why he’s never in the papers anymore?”

“He’s on a mission overseas,” I said.  “Something top secret.”

“Wrong,” said Lorne.  “Don’t think like the other gullible fucks in this country.  When has the Principality ever announced a secret mission?”

“Right,” I said.  “So where is he?”

“Our mansion,” said Lorne.  “Hopped up on painkillers.  After trying to off himself three separate times.”

Scholars.”

“He saw a lot during the war,” he said.  “But in the end, it was what he did to the Eastern dogs that broke him.”

“Can I – can I ask what he did?“

“It’s hard for an enemy to churn out tanks,” said Lorne, “when your factory workers are all dead.  Not that it mattered.  We still would have lost if it weren’t for the Spirit Block.  Now, you know who my mother is?”  He indicated his hand, and we walked towards the bridge.

“Isabelle Corbin.  The Symphony Knight,” I said.  “The Scholar of Music.“

“It was a rhetorical question.  Everyone knows who my mother is.  And she’s killed far more people than my father.  But today, she’s a professor.  She provides for the family, protects her country, acts as a noble ideal for others to strive for and helps the innocent.  Because she does what’s necessary, and doesn’t look back.”

We stepped onto the bridge, above the water more than a thousand feet below.

“But why him?  Why hurt Adam Lynde?”

“Oh,” said Lorne.  “A month ago, he made fun of me in class and everyone laughed.  I couldn’t let that stand.”  He patted me on the back.  “Well done,” he said.  “Consider this an invite to my Spring Equinox party.”

My stomach twinged.  Lorne’s parties were notorious for being exclusive.  If I attended, I could talk to Guardians and billionaires and Epistocrats, maybe even the Headmaster.  And if I had the right conversation with the right person, I could get a fast-track into Paragon’s class next year.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and Lorne knew it.

“And,” he said.  “If you do well with your grades next quarter, I’ll loan you a temp body so you can get to the end of the year.  If you do really well, I’ll loan you a Maxine Clive.  I look after my own.”  He turned and strode off towards Citrine Hall, towards a thick cloud of fog.

I glanced towards the ground.  “Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t look back, Ernest,” he said.  “Don’t look back.”

________________________________________

“Adam’s going to be Ousted?” said Tasia.  “His parents would do that?”

I nodded.  The two of us leaned on the railing on the edge of the great pavilion, staring out at the bustling afternoon city below.  “He’s gold-ranked, so his odds aren’t awful.  But at this point, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to help him.”  Except confess.

But then I’d be investigated, and they would discover my illegal mercenary work.  Then Parliament or Paragon or both would want heads on spikes.

“Do you hate me now?”

“No.”  Tasia looked away from me.  “But,” she glanced at me from the corner of her eye.  “Maybe, right now, before you get cornered, you should ask yourself what you wouldn’t do.  Draw a line for yourself, so you know when you cross it.”

“I won’t destroy the lives or the minds of innocents,” I said.  Not if I can help it.  Not any more.  “I won’t take another’s body.”  Beyond that, I don’t know.

I thought back to Clementine, to the expensive house on the edge of the water and the mattress in the basement.

“I’ve had a boss like Lorne before,” I said.  “She made all of us compete, and put us through these humiliating rituals.  And when we fell behind or talked back, she had her middle managers work us until we fell over.  She told us she was a war hero, with all these medals for saving people’s lives, but she treated us like livestock.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I promised myself,” I said, “‘when I get power, I won’t be like these assholes.  I’ll treat people right’.  But that’s what they all promise, isn’t it?  ‘The ends justify the means’ is easier to stomach when you’re not the one being sacrificed.”

“If you think too much about this stuff, you’ll get your mind all tied up in knots,” said Tasia.  “You did what you had to do.”

I glanced behind me, at the clock tower at the far end of the pavilion.  Four pm.  “I have to go,” I said.  “I have people expecting me.”  I started walking back down the pavilion, towards the bridge to the cable car back to Elmidde.

“I hope they’re good people,” she said.  “Every time I see you, you come back with more bruises and cuts than before.”

Fuck.  Is she onto me?  I threw up an illusion over her, softening my anxious body language, and shrugged.  “Working out is hard when your body is as defective as mine.”  It was the best excuse I’d prepped.  Anything else I could think of would dig me deeper into a hole.

Maybe I should have asked Wes for help.  He was great at lying.

And like Lorne, like Tasia, like me, he must have thought it was necessary.

“Do you ever think about the person you Ousted?” I asked Tasia, glancing over my shoulder.

“I did.”  She gripped the railing, her knuckles turning white.  “I asked other students what Nell Ebbridge was like.  Whether she was happy here, what kind of life she lived.”

“But.”

“But eventually.” She stared downward.  “I realized that if I thought too hard about her, I’d throw myself off the academy.”  A long silence extended between us.  “So no,” she said.  “Not anymore.”

________________________________________

“Ready,” I said.

Jun held a vial of smelling salts under Joseph’s nose, and I pushed a layer of illusions onto his Pith.  The Commonplace soldier jerked awake on the mattress, coughing.

His eyes flitted around the empty church.  The building itself was real, but instead of us, the man saw the allies he knew and trusted around him, other Commonplace militants with green circles tattooed on the backs of their hands.

How are you feeling?” said my illusion.

Wes floated pieces of paper above Joseph, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.  He’d been the one who’d pointed us here.

Rain poured down outside the windows, drowning out the noise from the streets.  That, too, was real.

Joseph stood up, and began reaching around him, touching the faces of me, Wes, and Hira.  My Vocation couldn’t fool touch, but I’d anticipated this – I’d mapped the illusions of Green Hands on top of our bodies, and made sure we were wearing similar clothes to Commonplace members.  I wore my thin blue combat armor under my other clothes, keeping it concealed.

“Can I have a password, ma’am?  Fifty-Nine Covenant” said Joseph.  The illusion on top of me was Joseph’s direct superior, Darcy Stubbe.

Of course,” said my illusion.

Left-Hira’s hands flickered with purple lightning, as she used her Vocation.  If he was thinking of the password in his mind right now, she would have it.  “‘Twenty-Six Isotrope Binary’,” she said.  “At some point in the conversation, he’ll mention listening to music, and you’ll have to answer with ‘Glass Infinity’.  It’s an I-Pop boy band.”

“An overrated one,” said Wes, water dripping from his light brown hair.  “Their last album sounded like whales being tortured.”

Twenty-Six Isotrope Binary,” my Darcy illusion said.  “That’ll do for now.  But until we give you further security checks to confirm your identity, I can’t discuss high-level matters with you.”  According to Hira, this was how Darcy herself talked.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Joseph.  “And I’m sorry, but I’d like more checks to confirm your identity as well.  The Blue Charlatan may have stolen our passwords, and I’ve had recent contact with her and her group.”

One of my Green Hands illusions at the back of the room spoke up – a new face Joseph wouldn’t know.  “The Blue Charlatan?

“It’s a Jao Lu piece,” he said.  “And the title of a foreign pop song I heard once, I think.  Forget which band.”

Glass Infinity, I think.”  The second hidden passphrase.

“The piece in Jao Lu was one of the first ones created by the Four Daydreamers.  It’s a reference to a Great Scholar, a woman who brought an entire city of Piths into a fabricated reality.  Depending on the game state, it can either be useless, or the best piece in the game.”

I know what it is,” I said with the ignorant illusion, “Are you referring to the illusionist?

Joseph nodded.  “Her, the Paper Crane, Copycat, and our old bombmaker are all part of a group.  The illusionist has been seen in blue armor, and she’s a Whisper specialist, so her Pith is the same color.  I can’t say more right now.”

He launched into a conversation about Darcy Stubbes’ husband and home life, layering his speech with inside jokes and references.  Each time, Hira’s hands crackled with lightning and she gave me the right response.

After a few minutes, the lightning stopped.

“I’ve exhausted my Vocation on him,” said Hira.  “I won’t be able to pull his thoughts anymore.”

“And how’s that operation doing?  The one John was telling us all about, are we still on for next week?”

It could be a trap.  Maybe there was no operation, or it wasn’t for next week.  “I’m not sure.  I’ll have to check on that.

Joseph nodded at us.  “So.  Did she tell you what Buttercup Lodge is?”

Hira shook her head.  “‘Buttercup Lodge’ isn’t in his skills.”  And who’s ‘she’?  Someone high up and important, judging by his tone.

No,” my illusion said, “she didn’t.

“One last question,” Joseph folded his hands in front of him.  “What’s her name?”

Tunnel Vision?  No, she led the mob, not Commonplace.  Someone we didn’t know was in charge of the coalition of Shenti Guns, Tunnel Vision’s mobsters, and Kahlin’s propaganda.  One person, all the way at the top.

“That’s not in his skills either,” said Hira.  “Whatever the name is, he doesn’t use it very often.”  

She didn’t tell me,” my illusion said.

“Yeah,” said Joseph.  “She did.”

He pulled a grenade from his belt, ripped the pin off, and dropped it.  At the same time, he sprinted for the door.

Left-Hira reached her hand towards the grenade, clenching her fist to jam it.  I ran after Joseph, still projecting around his Pith.

In my illusion, I made the lights flicker and go out in the room, like we’d cut the power.  While Joseph’s vision was distracted like this, I moved his perception of the door one meter to the right.

Joseph kept running, and slammed into the wall, feeling for a doorknob that wasn’t there.

It took him seven seconds to find the doorknob by closing his eyes and feeling around.  In that time, Right-Hira crossed the room, put a hand to the back of his throat, and shocked him.

Joseph fell over, twitching.  Hira inserted a hypodermic needle into his arm, injecting him with Jun’s custom knockout drug.  We didn’t have enough evidence for a legal conviction, so Brin would probably just block memory wipe him and release him back into the wild.

You could just kill him.  We’d never have to fight him ever again.  I’d pulled the trigger before, more and more in the past weeks.  But Joseph wasn’t a projector, or someone at the highest levels of Commonplace.  He didn’t stand much of a threat.

Don’t look back, said Lorne.

Draw a line for yourself, said Tasia, so you know when you cross it.

I broke down my machine pistol, floating the pieces into my armor.  Hira’s other body tossed the pinless grenade at me, and I caught it.

“What the fuck,” she said, “is Buttercup Lodge?”

________________________________________

Drowsiness floated through the edges of my consciousness, and I edited it away.

Then came a flicker of Nudging, and a wave of calm, followed by the twitch of the Empathy vocation recording my emotions, and a mental scalpel slicing away at my most recent short-term memories.

One by one I fought them off, remembering the Empty Book and making adjustments until they vanished.

All in all, the process took around four seconds.

Brin leaned back against the flower box on the roof.  “Your turn.”

I extended my Pith towards his, and pushed at his executive and auditory functions.  Nudging him.  Let’s hope I never have to use this for real.  I felt his soul push back, fending off my attack with ease.

Next, I tried Basic Sleep, Basic Calming, and my Vocation.  The first two had the same result, but Isaac Brin didn’t even notice my illusions.  Like many unique Whisper Vocations, there was no defense yet for my ability.

“Better,” said Brin, a smile playing at the edge of his mouth.  Unlike previous times, he didn’t water his plants, giving me his full attention.  “And from what I hear, you’ve improved in class too, and impressed young Lord Daventry.”

At what cost?  I sighed, staring at the grey rainclouds on the horizon.  “What if I told you Lorne was a bully?” I said.  “That he sabotages other students, drugs them, makes their lives miserable.  Could you punish him?  Protect the people he hurts?”

Brin’s smile died.  “That depends.  Who did he go after?”

“No one important.”

“That’s unfortunate,” he said.  He left his answer unsaid.

Let’s make this quick, then.  “Do you have a mission for me?”

“That’s not why I’m here.”

Oh, shit.

He folded his hands in front of him.  “I’m here to warn you: Paragon has launched an investigation into you.”

“What?” I choked.  “Why?”

“Ernest Chapman hasn’t been identified as a target,” he said.  “However, the Blue Charlatan, the illusionist taking out mobsters and Green Hands throughout the underworld, is now a target of some interest.”

“I’m helping them do their jobs,” I said.  “Why are they wasting their time on me when there are real criminals out there?”

“Parliament.”  Brin rolled his eyes.  “The divine will of the people.  Five seconds after the Pyre Witch set a continent on fire, and the Immaculate Vanguard massacred the Edwina, the Conclave got disbanded.  Then, the noble citizens of the Principality decided to elect some of the dumbest populists in the Eight Oceans.”

“And they don’t like secret government mercenaries.”

“They don’t like secret government anything.  They think their dreams of transparency are good enough to protect them from the Droll Corsairs and the Shenti terrorists.  Idiots.”

Fuck me.  “What do they know?”

“They know about you on the Golden Moon, killing Honeypot.  They suspect Queen Sulphur’s connection to the raid on Kahlin’s penthouse.  And from interviewing people involved in those, they think you’re an old man.”

“So shut it down,” I said.  “You’re chief of counterintelligence.”

“It’s not that simple,” said Brin.  “Our department’s Whisper-Sec is heavier than any other in the Principality, to guard against a Whisper Specialist getting control of our system.  If I had too much power, and someone hijacked me, they could dismantle our nation’s defenses.”

Panic bubbled up in my stomach, and my chest tightened.  “But you’re still the chief,” I said.  “Suppress it.  Feed them bad information.”

“You’re not understanding,” he said.  “The system is designed to protect against anyone being compromised, including me.  If I try to shut down an investigation, that’ll send up flags.  I’ll get blocks placed on me.”

“So that’s it,” I said.  “After all the work I’ve done for you, you’re going to let them tear into me.  If they catch me, my life will be over.”

“I’m sorry,” said Brin, his voice even.  “I can’t help you.”

“Fuck can’t.  You won’t.”  I clenched my fists.  “And you won’t even help Lorne’s victims, either.”

“We train our students to be violent and competitive.  We can’t be surprised when they act violent and competitive.”

“Really.”  I stood up to look him in the eye.  “After all that talk about protecting the country, you just what, throw up your hands and pretend like you’re powerless?  You could wipe the floor with a hundred of me, you’re a professor at Paragon, Chief of Counterintelligence, the Scholar of Mass.  You’re not powerless, you’re just a coward.  You don’t deserve to be a Guardian.”

Brin said nothing.

“Either that,” I said.  “Or you were a bully just like Daventry.”

Brin stepped towards me, clenching his teeth.  “I wasn’t a bully.  I did everything I could.”  He raised his voice.  “You don’t know where I come from.  You have no right to judge me.”

“You knew Wes was an Ebbridge, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And you still let him use me, put me at risk, throw me into the fire.  Why?”

“Because I thought you two would work together,” he said.

“Because you want to use us.”  After thinking about it, I was fairly certain he’d only threatened Jun to pressure him into joining us.

He shook his head.  “That’s not it.”

“You could have given me a working body any time you wanted to,” I said.  “It would have been a fraction of the money you make every year.  But you didn’t.”

“I donate the vast majority of my paycheck,” said Brin.  “You think I live in a mansion like an Epistocrat?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  But your daughter Eliya acts plenty privileged.

“What do you want, Anabelle?”

I took a step towards him.  “Here’s what I think is going to happen,” I said.  “I think you’re going to milk me for every job I can do, paying me just enough to keep me desperate.  Then you’re going to leave me to rot with some vague whaleshit about the greater good.”  I took a deep breath.  “And I want you to feel a little shitty about it, that’s all.”

“Do you know how many men I’ve had to send to their deaths?” he said.

Again with the greater good.  “I’m not going to pity you.”

“I don’t want your sympathy,” he snapped.  “What I meant to say is – I’ve buried a lot of soldiers.  But if I tried to bury you, I think you’d claw your way out of the grave, even if your coffin was buried a hundred feet deep.  Even if it took a decade.”  He looked into my eyes.  “I push you because every time you break, you end up a little stronger.”

I don’t feel very strong right now.

“And I think by the end of this, you’re going to be stronger than you could ever imagine.”

He’s lied before.  Was he just stroking my ego to keep stringing me along?

But still, a part of me wanted to believe him.  To believe in myself.

“I’ll do everything I can to slow down the investigation without causing suspicion,” he said.  “You’re a good soldier, and I’m sorry I don’t have anything for you.  The truth is, Paragon is working on something.  A big operation, and Guardians are all over it.”

“And you can’t loop me in?”

“I don’t want them to arrest you, so I’m keeping you away from it.  But it’ll be over by tomorrow night.”  He stepped towards the edge of the roof.  “In the meantime, if you come up with an information bounty, I’ll pay you double.  Do you have any other leads?  Anyone who works for Commonplace or Tunnel Vision?”

I looked away from him, towards the expensive houses at the edge of the water.  “I’ll get back to you on that one.”

________________________________________

Two Years Earlier

“You’re an idiot, Gage,” said Guillaume, the head chef.  “You know that, right?”

I avoided eye contact.  He’s your boss, just agree with him. “Yes, sir.”

“Silverware goes in the left sink, dishes go in the right.”  He held up one of Clementine’s engraved plates, shaking it in my face.

Beatrix and the other servants stood at the far end of the kitchen, chatting amongst themselves, casting the occasional glance in our direction.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I stuttered.  “The right sink is full, so I thought – “

“You know this is really basic stuff, right?”

I stared at the tiles on the kitchen floor.  “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Almost all the maids got this sort of thing down in less than a month.  How long have you been working here?”

“Year and a half,” I mumbled.

“Scholars.”  He rolled his eyes.  “Clementine sure loves to hire the sad idiots.”

“She hired you.”  The words burst out, unbidden, before I could clamp them down.

The room went silent.  The other servants stared at us.

Regret washed over me.  Oh, fuck.

Guillaume said nothing for a good ten seconds, just looking at me.

Then he threw the plate against the wall.  It shattered, pieces raining down on the floor.

“Pick it up,” he said.  “Everyone else, take an early night.  You’re done.”

I knelt, picking up shards of porcelain and throwing them into the trash, holding back my tears.  The other boys and girls filed out of the room, one by one, until only me and Guillaume remained.

Guillaume took a puff of his cigarette, tossed it on the ground next to me, and stamped it out.  He glanced at the huge stack of dirty dishes behind him, remnants of Clementine’s banquet for Gabriel Cunningham and his subordinates.  “You’re on dawn shift,” he said.  “Be done with these and awake by then.  And throw out the leftovers.  Ms. Rawlyn has no use for them.”

Then he strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

It took me hours to clean the mountains of dishes and sort them back into the cabinets.  Forks, bowls, salad plates, bread plates, tea plates.  Why do rich people need so many plates?

After I’d finished dealing with everything else, the last leftover sat in the center of the banquet table: A massive, four-layer chocolate sponge cake, filled with whipped cream and raspberries.  Guillaume was a bastard, but he did know how to bake.

And it was untouched.  Clementine’s dinner feast had been too big, and the guests had all been stuffed by the time dessert rolled around.

I stared at it.  She wants me to throw it all out.

“Fuck it,” I muttered.  Someone ought to enjoy it.  And it had been my birthday a few weeks ago.

So, at two-forty-three in the morning, I cut myself off a fat slice, and sat on the front porch to eat it.

The street was empty.  The only sounds I could hear were the waves, crashing against the sea wall beneath Clementine’s house.  A cool spring breeze blew through my long, dyed hair.

Above the clouds, the multicolored lights of Paragon Academy glowed in the dark.  I’m going to be a Guardian, I thought.  I’m going to forge the stars in my image, and prove them wrong.  I pictured myself up there, feet kicked back in one of the common rooms with a crackling fireplace and a game of Jao Lu.

I gazed up, imagined, and ate cake.  A perfect combination of chocolate and berries and frosting, light and feathery and delicious.  It was the best thing I’d eaten in a long, long time.

A few minutes later, I went to sleep on my mattress.  I dreamed of swimming towards a warm, green light.

When I woke, two hours later, I had lost all sense of taste.

________________________________________

Rain poured down on Clementine’s house.  It trickled down drainpipes and dripped off the edges of roofs, forming rivers and puddles in front of her doorstep.

“You worked here for how long?” said Left-Hira.  Her male body was elsewhere.

“Almost three years,” I said, massaging my aching shoulder.  “And it felt like longer.  I thought I was going to die in this building.”

“Don’t worry,” she said.  “You still can.”  We’re short-handed.  This evening, despite knowing about this job, Wes had vanished from Hira’s house, and couldn’t be found in any of his usual haunts.  This mission was time-sensitive, so we’d just gone without him.

That could come back to bite us.  Silhouettes moved behind the curtains on the ground floor, lit from inside the building.  At least one of them had a gun.

“Remind me,” said Hira.  “Why didn’t you tell us about this lead earlier?”

“Clementine knows about my illusions,” I said.  “She knows my real name, and exactly what I look like.  I want to stay off her radar.  If Paragon finds out that I’m the Blue Charlatan, this will all be over.”

If she finds out about the investigation, or the investigation finds out about her, then – No, I didn’t want to think about that.

I looked down at my left hand.  The grey, cracked skin had spread from my fourth and fifth fingers to my palm and wrist, along with a numb sensation.  I’m running out of time.  The door is closing.

“We could just kill her,” said Hira, shrugging.  “After we get everything we need out of her.  I know what she did to you, I’d be happy to do it.”

How many times had I fantasized about that?  How many times had I lied back on my mattress and imagined my revenge?  Not uncommon for her employees, I imagine.  And I’d taken so many lives in the field, people I’d shot without even blinking.  I’ve killed so many already.  Did I need to kill so many?

But here, pulling the trigger in cold blood felt wrong, somehow.  Out of alignment.  “I’ll think about it,” I said.

“What does she know?”

“A great deal, I imagine,” I said.  Including what Brin was talking about.  “She’s been ladder-climbing in Tunnel Vision’s mob for as long as I can rememb – ”  I yawned.  As I did, a wave of dizziness passed over me.  My eyes ached, fluttering shut for a moment.

“You alright?” said Hira.  “You gonna fall over?”

How much would I give for a nap right now?

“I can deal with it,” I said.

“Lund pe chadh,” she said.  “Lie if you want, but if you fall asleep halfway through, I’m burning down this gaudy shithole.”

Wes was gone, and it felt like I was on the verge of cracking.  But I was on the verge of other things, too.  Acceptance from Lorne, getting enough money for my body, winning, after so many years of failure.

I couldn’t slow down.  I had to keep sprinting down the hill, or I would fall over.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We stepped toward the front door and under a veranda.

“I lived in that basement on a mattress,” I said.  “Almost never left.  It was like this place was my whole world.”

“Well then,” said Hira.  “Welcome home, Blue Charlatan.”  She stuck her hands in her pockets.  “Let’s go fuck up your boss.”

I reached my good hand forward, and rang the doorbell.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




7-A The Blue Charlatan

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

Bullets flew through the door, peppering it with holes.

Me, Ana, and Hira dove to the side, pressing ourselves to the floor on the far side of the walkway.  My ears rang, and the glass above us shattered, shards raining down on our backs.

Something ripped in my jacket.  Well, there goes my suit.  Hira had warned me it was a stupid idea to wear one to this mission, but we had been posing as businesspeople.  I had to look the part.

The glass walkway wasn’t long, but far enough to weaken my projection.  And the enemy’s hideout on the other side didn’t have any paper inside.

“Number of targets?” shouted Ana.

“Eleven Piths in the room!” yelled Left-Hira.  “SMGs and assault rifles.  One with voidsteel in their gun.”

They’re out of my range,” Ana said with illusions.  “I can’t use my Vocation on them.

“Lock is Voidsteel deadbolt!” shouted Hira.  “And they’ve got a sightline on us through windows.”

Gas grenades.  I’m about to misdirect with my voice,” said Ana with illusions.  “Breach from above while distracting them with paper,” she said out loud.  Brin had told us one of our targets was a Joiner with enhanced hearing, and they’d be able to hear any strategizing we did out loud.

I flipped open my briefcase and shot a storm of paper forward, headed for the gap at the bottom of the door.  A handful slipped just as they stuffed a person’s jacket into the opening, sealing it shut.

They weren’t enough to deal serious damage to the enemies in the room.  But, squeezed between a pair of tiny origami squares, were a pair of gas grenades, flattened with my Vocation.  In the chaos, they were indistinguishable from the other pieces of paper flying about.

In unison, the three of us pulled gas masks from our belts and slipped them on.

When they were inside the room, I separated the pieces of paper and the grenades expanded back into three dimensions, the pins already pulled.

Shouting erupted from the far side of the walkway.  Black smoke drifted out of the bullet holes in the door.

And at the same time, Right-Hira flung a thin metal cable forward, projecting it towards the door.  It shot through one of the bullet holes and Right-Hira grabbed the end.  Electricity crackled around his palm, and Left-Hira sprinted forward, pulling out lockpicks and kneeling beside the door.  He’s electrocuting the Joiner.  Ana and I followed.

Hira had the door open in three seconds.  The dark gas billowed out of the room and we strode in, leveling our weapons forward.

In a few seconds, the smoke cleared and the room became visible.  All eleven enemies lay on the floor, unconscious.  One of them, the Joiner, had Hira’s electric cable wrapped around his ankle. Guess he’s not immune to the gas either.

A raised hospital bed sat on the far end of the room, with tubes attached to it.

When its contents became visible, I choked.

A person sat on the bed, but not an ordinary person.

The body had no limbs and no face.  It didn’t even have a skull – its head was little more than loose folds of skin around a brain.  The only other features it had were two holes – one in its stomach, and one on its head with a tube attached to it.  More tubes attached to its arms and legs, feeding clear liquid into him from IV bags.

Someone’s Pith is in there.  Someone’s mind was inside that body, forced to experience all that.

“Stay focused,” said Ana, her voice muffled through her gas mask.  “We’re here for the list.”

Right-Hira knelt next to one of the sleeping mobsters, a middle-aged bald man.  Finley Webb.  He injected liquid from a syringe into the man’s arm.

Hira and I stepped back to the edges of the room, and Ana stepped back halfway.  The man’s eyes fluttered open, and blue lightning flickered around Ana.  Transparent images layered over my vision, showing me the illusions Ana was creating for him.

The mirror images of me and Hira lay on the ground, dead.  Ana was invisible.  The unconscious mobsters groaned, waking up, and were guided away by other Green Hands.

Illusions of Steel Violet members strode into the room, hefting shotguns and sniper rifles.  Rozi, the Joiner with Steel Gauntlets, approached Finley Webb.  “What happened here?”  As usual, Ana’s voice imitation was perfect.

“You’re part of Steel Violet,” Webb said.  “Kahlin’s group, yes?  We were attacked.  Mercenaries, probably.  Using gas identical to the stuff that bombmaker made.”  Jun.

The enemy discovered the location of this stronghold moments after we moved an asset here,” said illusion-Rozi.  “We have a spy in our organization.  I need you to think of all the people Tunnel Vision or the boss met with lately and give them to me.

Finley Webb was the lowest-level person we could find in the mob who would have access to that kind of information.  Everybody above him was more well-protected, well-trained, tougher to crack.

“Of course, ma’am,” said Webb.  “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m going to need to ask for your password.”

Not as dumb as he looks.

Both Hiras stuffed their hands in their pockets, purple lightning crackling around four palms.

“We were attacked by a group,” Webb said.  “With a Whisper Specialist who can create illusions.  Just following procedure, ma’am.”

Come on, come on.  Someone would have heard the gunshots.  The police would be on their way.  We didn’t have much time.

Ana’s illusion crossed its arms.  “Drat,” it said.  “Almost thought we had you.

Hira grabbed Finley Webb’s throat from behind and electrocuted him.  He fell to the ground, twitching.

When he reported this incident to his superiors, he’d tell them that we had failed to extract the list of names from him, that we’d tried using illusions on him, but that it didn’t work.

What he didn’t know was, Hira’s Vocation had been going the whole time.  He’d been thinking about the list while we talked about it, even if he hadn’t said it out loud.

So now, we had it.  A long list of names affiliated with Tunnel Vision’s mob and Commonplace.  A list of targets.

Ana walked to the disfigured body on the hospital bed, touching one of the IV tubes.  “We should get him out of here,” she said.

“You can’t,” said Hira.  “I copied a doctor this morning.  That body is barely hanging on as is.  If we disconnect him, he’ll be dead before we get halfway to a hospital.”

A forced transference would take too long, given the relatively weak strength of our Piths.  Ana shook her head.  “Given your copied skills, can you move him?”

“Not with this equipment.”  Right-Hira glanced out the glass walkway.  “Don’t worry.  Those fellows will take care of him.”

He pointed down at the street.

A pair of police cars pulled up outside the building, and officers stepped out of them, leveling submachine guns towards us.

“Come out with your hands up!” one of them screamed.  Humdrums.  As if raising your hands would do anything to a projector.

Then the cars exploded in a pair of fireballs, throwing the cops aside like ragdolls.

Who did that?

A tall Ilaquan woman landed on top of the burning wreck, wearing a pair of green Voidsteel gauntlets.

Rozi.  The real Rozi.  Steel Violet’s daredevil bass player.  And the woman who’d almost choked me to death twice.

“So,” I said.  “Are we just going to stand around, or – “

Rozi sprinted towards us.

“Run!” shouted Ana.

We ran.  Hira led us down a hallway and a staircase, then pushed open a door to a back alley.

A pair of automobiles were parked in it, covered with a thin layer of late winter snow.  Perfect.

A figure leapt off the roof above us, landing on a dumpster between us and the cars.  Rozi.  Her Joining let her move faster than the other members of Steel Violet, but they could be close behind too.

We don’t have any Voidsteel bullets.

“Listen,” I said, stalling.  “We can talk this through.  I have some suggestions for your comeback albu – “

Before I could finish speaking, she leapt forward, zipping past me in a blur towards Ana.  A wide cloth flew out of her backpack, spreading forward in front of her.

The cloth wrapped around Ana and threw her to the ground, holding her there.  Keeping track of Ana’s position, so Rozi couldn’t be fooled with illusions.  

Rozi leapt on top of Ana, her metal gauntlet moving forward.  She’s taking out Ana first.  With no Voidsteel, the girl’s Vocation was our only weapon that could take her out.

The Ilaquan’s fist smashed into her shoulder, crushing it against the pavement.  Ana cried out in pain.

The other gauntlet whipped down towards Ana’s throat.

Electricity crackled through the air.  Glass shattered in the distance.  Rozi twitched, clenching her teeth.

Right-Hira stood behind her, grabbing a metal cable wrapped around Rozi’s thigh, running current through his hands.

Ana clambered back, throwing the cloth aside.  Left Hira had smashed one of the car’s windows, and fiddled with the wires beneath the steering wheel.

Rozi turned around to face Hira, shaking from head to toe.  It’s not enough voltage.  Hira couldn’t produce enough electricity to kill a normal person.  Which meant it definitely wasn’t enough to disable a Joiner.

Rozi took a step towards Hira, then another.  The two were only a few meters apart.

“In the car!” barked Right-Hira.  Purple lightning flickered around his palms.

We clambered into the car and I flipped open my briefcase, floating out a pair of frag grenades, both flattened by my Vocation.  They hovered above Rozi, out of sight.

Left-Hira connected a pair of wires, and the car’s engine roared to life.  He floored the accelerator, spinning the car around and speeding it down the alleyway.

As it passed Rozi and Right-Hira, three things happened:

Right-Hira let go of the metal cable and leapt on top of the car, bending the metal of the roof to form handholds.

Rozi leapt forward, muscles still twitching, flying towards the back of the car.  At the apex of her jump, Hira kicked her, knocking her back.

And as Rozi fell, I dropped the grenades onto her face.  They snapped back into three dimensions and exploded, shattering the car’s windows and making my ears ring.

The car turned onto a city street, tires screeching.

I glanced out the broken rear windshield.  Rozi sprinted out of the alleyway, running after us and matching our speed.

She drew a machine pistol out of her pocket.

“Down!” I shouted.  Everyone inside ducked down.  Right-Hira clambered forward to the front of the roof, pressing himself flat.

Cracks echoed through the street, and bullets zipped over our heads.  More gunfire rang out from above the car.  Hira’s shooting back.

The gunfire paused, and I poked my head out as Rozi reloaded.  Something hit her in the forehead and she stumbled, but didn’t slow down.  Something else hit her cheek, but didn’t even leave a mark on her.

Bullets.  Even direct headshots from Hira’s sniper rifle weren’t enough to make the Joiner blink.

Both Hiras laughed, as he wove the car through traffic with one body and shot at Rozi with the other.  Is he enjoying this?

Rozi caught up to us again and leapt towards the back of the car.  Hira swerved to the left, and the Ilaquan’s finger grazed the edge of the window.  On the roof, Hira’s other body kept hitting headshots, but they didn’t seem to do much.

I reached into my briefcase, checking my supply.  No grenades left.

And how is she evading Ana’s illusions?  She had to be projecting into some part of the car, ensuring that she knew our position.  Hira must be stopping her from jamming the engine.

Rozi got closer, her arms and legs pumping.  The street narrowed around us.  If we swerved to avoid her, we’d hit a building or a car.

Blue lightning flickered around Ana’s head.  She looked away from Rozi, towards a car driving behind us.

The car’s driver widened her eyes, then jerked her wheel, swerving to the left.

The car crashed into Rozi, throwing her through a glass storefront with a crash.  With Ana’s illusions over her, the merc had no time to react.

The other car stepped on the brakes, screeched, and crashed into a light pole, slow enough to avoid the worst injuries.  I hope the driver’s alright.

A second later, Hira swerved onto a side street, out of sight, and brought the car to a halt.  Another car screeched to a stop next to us, and the driver got out, holding his hands up.  Ana’s illusions.

We clambered out and got in the man’s car, while he got in ours.  We drove away in opposite directions, keeping our heads down.

We drove for another ten minutes in silence, without any signs of people following us.

And we left another prisoner to be tortured.  Whatever poor bastard was inside that disfigured custom body.  Just like when we’d broken into Commonplace headquarters, and almost gotten killed over those mind-spheres.

But this time, Ana hadn’t hesitated.  No playing the hero.  She’d recognized that saving him was impossible.

Right-Hira turned the car off, grinning ear to ear.  “You all still alive back there?  Any life-threatening injuries to cry over?”

“My suit is ruined,” I said.  “But otherwise, I’d say I’m fine.”

Ana groaned.  I turned to her.

Her shoulder was covered in blood.  She clutched it with her other hand, clenching her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut.

“Rozi’s first punch,” she spat out, squirming in her seat.

That’s bad.  Even though it didn’t look life-threatening, Ana’s decaying body meant she might not heal it properly.  Or worse, if her immune system was compromised, it might get infected.

How much pain must she be in?

“Did you get the list?” Ana said, staring at Hira.

Hira nodded.

Ana shoved open the door, stepping out of the car.  “Let’s go,” she said.  “We’ve got a bounty to collect.”

________________________________________

I strode into the scrapyard, past piles of metal junk.

The two moons overhead had shrunk to thin crescents.  It was hard to see anything in the darkness, but I could make out the creak of rusty wheels ahead of me, along with the sound of crashing waves.

I found Jun at the edge of the ocean, pulling a cart filled with metal behind him, his wispy grey beard blowing in the wind.  He looked rather spry for someone with such an old body.

“Kuang,” I called out.  “Grandpa.”

“Weston!”  He ran to me and hugged me.  I didn’t hug him back.  When he broke off, he jabbed his finger in my face.  “And I’m basically your age.”

“Sure, Grandpa.”  I reached into my pocket and handed him an envelope filled with bills.  “Your share from the mission.”

He shook his head, making his grey hair shake.  He’d combed and straightened it since his imprisonment, and now he looked more like a regular old man, and less like a mad beggar.  “Keep that.  I wasn’t on the mission.”

“But you made our knockout gas.”

“It is as you say.”  He smiled at me.  “But I don’t need it.  Give it to Ana for her new body.  A lovely Maxine Clive.”

I snorted.  “She could work for a century, and she wouldn’t have enough for that brand.”  Plus, she’d look like my mother.  And I didn’t need that image in my head.  I stuffed the envelope back into my coat.  “I had to bribe the night guard to get in.  What are you doing here so late?”

“It’s busy during the day.  I enjoy the quiet.”  Jun grabbed a chunk of metal and dropped it in his cart.  “The waves give me great calm.”

“And why are you carrying that by hand?  You are a projector, right?”

“I need to conserve my Pith’s energy.”  One of the waves splashed water onto his shoes.  “And besides, I like doing things by hand.  Like when I cleaned your room.”

I stopped.  “You did what?”

“It was filthy,” he said.  “Empty beer cans and crumpled paper and one takeout meal under your bed that you just…forgot about, I think.  You all looked too busy to clean, so I thought I’d do you a favor.”

“Do me another favor,” I said, “and I’ll pour that rotten takeout onto your bed.”

“I don’t have a bed,” he said.  “I sleep on the couch.  Don’t worry, I didn’t mess with any of your stuff, I just got rid of the trash and dust and whatever orange stuff was growing on the bathroom sink.”

“Hira’s apartment is filled with lethal booby traps,” I said.

“It is as you say,” he said.  “I cleaned those too.  And some of them were just shoddy work, if I’m being honest.  So I fixed them.”

After a bit more walking, we reached an open space next to the crashing waves, with a loose pile of scrap strewn in the middle.  Jun overturned the cart, adding new materials to the heap.

“Ah.”  He beamed.  “Magnificent.  We’ve got everything we need.”  He crawled on top of the pile like it was a feather bed and lay down on his back, relaxing.  “You could have just left the envelope on the couch,” he said, “but you came here in person.”

“I wanted to see your Vocation in action,” I said.

“And?”

“And I wanted to ask for your advice.”

“Might I ask why?” he said.  “I’m a Shenti terrorist.  An Eastern Dog.  I hail from the nation that tried to conquer the world, that butchered its citizens in camps.  And I built bombs for them.  You Principians despise us.  Of all the countless people in the world, why ask me for advice?”

Because I’m an idiot.  “I know what I’m doing,” I said.  “I just don’t have a lot of people to talk to.”

“Because Anabelle is mad at you.”

“Yes.”

Jun put his hands behind his head, bunching up his long grey hair like a pillow.  “What did Hira say?”

“‘Screw her, punch it out, or both, but leave me the fuck out of it.’  I believe those were his words.”  I fidgeted with a piece of paper in my pocket.

“I have only spent a little time with her,” said Jun.  “But I don’t think she’s interested in either of those things.”

“I want her to trust me,” I said.  “For the good of the group, so we can watch each other’s backs.”

“And that’s the only reason.”  He looked at me.

“Don’t give me that knowing look, grandpa,” I snapped.  “She was my friend.  Now she’s not, and I don’t expect that to change.  I’m not going to waste time trying to turn a lump of charcoal back into a tree.  I need to resolve this with her so we don’t die.  So we can work together like we used to.”

The Rose Titan’s voice rang in my head.  Start with Humility.  Take a brutal look at yourself and drown your ego in the ocean.

A storm of green and purple lightning flickered around Jun’s wrinkled body.  The metal beneath him creaked and groaned, then expanded, floating in the air and lifting him.

Hundreds of small things happened in unison.  Tiny bits of scrap pressed next to each other and shot off sparks, welding themselves together.  Larger pieces of metal turned red-hot and bent themselves into different shapes.  Nuts, bolts, and screws pushed themselves in, fastening parts to each other.

The lightning grew, bright enough to obscure my vision.

When the light faded, Jun was sitting on the dashboard of a metal car, complete with rubber tires and cushions on top of metal chairs.

I gaped at him.  How the fuck did he do that?

It had to be his Vocation.  Green and purple lightning meant it covered both the Physical and Praxis schools of projection – a hybrid specialty.  It affected the concrete world and his own Pith.  He could understand a blueprint well enough to assemble machines in moments, carrying out maybe a hundred operations in parallel, all in a small space.

Jun collapsed back on the hood, wheezing.  Sweat coated his grey hair.

I still don’t trust you, Shenti.  I didn’t like his intense friendliness, or how fast he’d inserted himself into Queen Sulphur, or his history with the Shenti military.  Leizu in Chimera Squad had such a history too, but she’d proven her loyalty to the Principality.  Kuang hadn’t.

But genuine vulnerability was one of the faster ways to get in a person’s good graces.  And I did have nobody else to talk to.

“Give her space,” he said, folding his hands in front of him.  “Accept that you have made a mistake, that you have hurt someone.  Forgiveness is her choice, not yours.  All you can do is make yourself worthy of it.”

He patted the side of the car, and the engine revved to life.

“You know,” I said.  “For a terrorist in his twenties, you sure do give advice like an old goat.”

“It is as you say.”  Jun crawled to the front seat and gripped the steering wheel.  “Get in,” he said.  “Want to learn how to make dumplings?”

________________________________________

I glanced out Hira’s front window, past the scrap car sitting outside.

“Stop it,” said both Hiras in unison.  “She’s not coming.”

Just like last time.  I wrapped a flat piece of dough around the ball of meat, pinching it together at the end.

“Magnificent,” said Jun, smiling.  “You have a natural talent for this.”

“I fold a lot of origami.”

An hour later, the wontons were done boiling and we’d started a game of Jao Lu.  And Ana still hadn’t shown up.

“She’s probably studying,” I said.  “She’s got a very full plate.  And dinner parties aren’t her thing.  On account of her taste buds and all.”

“Or she hates you,” said Right-Hira, dropping his wontons into a bowl of spicy sauce.  He tipped the bowl back, drinking it like soup.

“Thanks, Hira.”  I took a gulp of sake, finishing my glass.

“Fuck,” he said.  “These are good.”  He turned to Jun.  “Were you a Cooking God in a past life?”

“Just a fan of good food.”  Jun pouted, moving his Chameleon Spy to another hex on the game board.  “This is a game my people invented, and I’m losing at it.”

“Your mind has slowed with age,” I said, moving my Blue Charlatan to intercept him.

He sighed, his wrinkles drooping.  “Again, you know I’m twenty.”

Three turns later, I defeated Hira, then cut off one of Jun’s key resources.  His forces endured a slow, painful loss.

“One more?” I said.

“Apologies,” Jun said.  “My body grows tired early in the evening.  I need to keep it rested to avoid hip injury.”  He stood up, bones cracking.

“Hira?”

Hira didn’t respond, slumped over asleep on his chair.  I’d seen him down a handful of pills earlier, and at least as much alcohol as me.

“I’ll take her upstairs,” Jun said.  “Turn her on her side in case she throws up.”

I nodded, my foot tapping against the leg of the table.  Everyone’s busy or asleep.  No one had time.  What was I supposed to do, then?

Fine, then.  I could be productive.

If I wanted to counter-Oust the pretender and get my life back, I had to do more than get rid of the Broadcast King.  I’d have to study.

Two hours later, I was not studying.

I was trying, of course.  I’d stacked up textbooks on the table in front of me, and laid out pencils, pens, and paper from my briefcase for note-taking.

But the room had poor heating, and the winter air outside was below freezing.  Even under a blanket, I was shivering, distracted.

On top of that, Hira’s second bedroom only had a single overhead light, sporting two dim bulbs that flickered every few minutes.  I had to squint to read the textbooks, and if I read for more than five minutes at a time, I got a headache.

Focus, idiot, focus.  But it was so hard.  Every time I went back to the words, they appeared more dense and insurmountable.

So I folded origami to try and get my mind back in order, paced back and forth until I was practically bouncing off the walls, tapped and fidgeted in every pattern I could think of, as the wine I’d chugged earlier began to wear off.

Why is this so difficult?  Was my mother right?  Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Lyna Wethers’ face flickered into my mind, cold and smirking and perfect.  Samuel avoided eye contact with me on the floor of the Silver Flask, bleeding out, still desperate to avoid me.

I need a drink.  If I got the amount just right, I could cool down my frantic mind without crippling it for the night.

I tiptoed down the stairs to Hira’s tiny kitchen and pulled open the cabinet where he kept his liquor.

It was empty.  What?

I pulled open another cabinet, then another.  We didn’t drink all the booze tonight.

“Looking for this?”  Right-Hira’s voice rang out from the dark living room.  I jumped, spinning around, and projected into the light switch to flip it on.

Copycat’s male body sat on a couch, lying back in a bright orange bathrobe, puffing on his purple hookah.  He wiggled a bottle of arak in his other hand.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.  “Why are you keeping it from me?  Are you my mother now?”

“I hope not,” said Hira.  “That’d make our screwing very unfortunate.”

I don’t have time for this.  “Hand it over,” I said, striding towards him.

Hira sucked in hookah smoke.

“You know those things will kill you, right?”  And he can’t swap out of these bodies.

He exhaled and blew the smoke in my face.  It smelled like sour cherries.  “Yup.”

“What do you want?” I said.

“Let me guess.”  He spoke back and forth between his two bodies.  “You tried to study, failed, then slipped into a spiral of self-loathing and apathy.  Now, you’re trying to drink away that memory.”

I scowled.  “Did you copy a shrink?”

“No.”

“Well, maybe you should have.”

“Let me be clear,” said Hira.  “This whole save-your-family thing, I think it’s fucking stupid.  Your mom is a monster, your dad is complicit, and your ex-fiance is a sniveling coward.  You shouldn’t go back to them, and – “ he lifted the arak bottle, “ – I think drinking to an early grave is a great lifestyle.”

“But.”

“But,” he said.  “You’re paying me money to teach you, and you’re going to pay me more if you win.”  He leaned back.  “Do you want to win?”

“Yes.”

Hira tossed the liquor bottle over his shoulder.  It smashed on the floor, soaking into his rug.

“Then get your books, pour yourself some tea, and let’s get the fuck to work.”  He folded his legs.  “I will make your idiotic dream come true if I have to drag you by your fingernails along the way.”

“Thanks, Hira.”

I poured myself a cup of tea, floated down my books from upstairs, and sat down across from him.

There was no burst of energy or determination in my veins.  I felt as frightened and unfocused and tired as I did an hour ago.  And I wanted more than anything to get drunk, or play Jao Lu, or listen to the radio or watch something on one of those fancy new television sets.

Anywhere else.  Please, scholars, let me be anywhere else but here.  I don’t want to forge the stars in my image.  I would rather scratch my eyes out with rusty nails than read another bloody word about covalent bonds.

I sat down at the coffee table, next to Hira.  And I flipped open the book.

________________________________________

The next days went by in a blur.  Then the next weeks.  I wasn’t good at keeping track of time.

Hira, damn him, kept me studying and sober the whole time.  We spent more hours than I could count cooped up in his living room, poring over my science books, all while the two-bodied bastard lay back on his couch, smoking his hookah and drinking all the alcohol he was keeping me from.

Studying got easier with someone there to quiz me and yell at me and explain the hard concepts.  But the work was still boring enough to make my eyelids droop.

Still, that wasn’t the worst of it.  Without anything to drink, I began to experience withdrawal symptoms.

At first, the pain was bearable.  Just a little nausea, sweat, and shivering.  If I took deep breaths and kept the trash can close, it was easy.  I just had to wash out the taste of stomach acid, and make sure I didn’t heave onto anything important.

But then I had to go to sleep.  And I couldn’t.  It wasn’t just the shivering and nausea.  I felt twitchy, even more than usual.  No matter how exhausted I felt, I couldn’t keep still for more than a few seconds.  Every position I took in my bed felt uncomfortable, making me toss and turn and tap my fingers.

I was too tired to get up, and too jittery to sleep.  Dizzy, exhausted, with a heavy stomachache.  I spent the entire night like this, crawling out of bed when light began to stream through my windows.

A drink would have put me to sleep in a moment, but here I was, being responsible.  It was infuriating.

On the second night, I got just as little sleep.  On the third, maybe half an hour.  By the fourth evening, I was wobbling back and forth on my feet, drifting in and out of consciousness, and collapsed on the bed without getting anything done.

After a few more days, the symptoms had faded and I was able to sleep a normal amount.  But the burning desire to drink stayed.

“I really was a high-functioning alcoholic, wasn’t I?” I muttered to Hira one time.

“Interesting word choice,” said Hira.

“Alcoholic?”

“High-functioning,” he said.

“Thanks, Hira.”

Four separate times, Hira caught me sneaking out of his bedroom to get alcohol.  On the fourth, I got caught in one of his booby traps while trying to climb out of the second-story window.  Opening it sent a massive electric shock through my body, knocking me out and sending me leaning off the edge.

If Hira had slower reflexes, I’d have fallen to the pavement head-first, then blasted with a pair of anti-personnel landmines under the front doormat.

After that, I didn’t try to break into Hira’s liquor stash.  I just lay in my bed and endured the overwhelming thirst.  Distractions made it easier.  Folding origami – not just cranes, but more complex shapes and animals – Oracle Snakes, houses, geometric objects.

To deal with the overwhelming boredom at night, I started experimenting with my Physical Vocation more.  I’d done it already during my spare time at Paragon, but the process had become dull.

In the field, I’d discovered I could maintain the dimensional flattening, without using my Pith at all.  How had I not thought of that earlier?  It seemed so obvious now.

There had to be deeper insights.  My Vocation was exciting again.

And now, when I used my Vocation for more than a few minutes, it drained all the energy out of my Pith, exhausting me and helping me fall asleep.

So every night, I fiddled with my Vocation until my skull felt like it was cracking.  Then I released it, and felt myself slide into the blissful abyss.

After several weeks of this, I learned a few things about my Physical Vocation:

1.  The whole flatten-between-pages trick only worked for a day or so.  After that, the squeezed object turned into a hunk of flattened metal, or glass, or whatever it was made of.

2.  The rate at which this happened was inconsistent.  Different objects decayed faster, or slower.  I only figured this out after Jun told me to record the times, an excruciating task that involved staring at the clock and scribbling numbers into my notebook.  I hadn’t the faintest idea why, though.

Throughout, Ana made herself unavailable.  The obstinate grey bitch locked herself in her capsule to study, refusing to talk to anyone.  Without a key, I couldn’t even get in the building, and she wasn’t available via the phone.

On the second day of spring, when the sun crept out from behind the clouds and warmed the chill air, that changed, after Isaac Brin gave us our next job.

________________________________________

The mobster shot his right-hand woman in the back.

It wasn’t his fault.  He thought she was me.

The high-powered rifle round blew straight through her chest, turning her ribcage into a red hole.  She dropped to the ground, splattering blood on the train station’s floor.

Half a dozen of the mobster’s friends aimed at Ana from the walkway two stories up, with shotguns, submachine guns, and a pair of projected fireballs.

But they didn’t fire.  Ana had positioned herself so that the mobster was between her and them.  To hit her, they’d have to shoot through their boss.

The mobster, affected by her illusions, aimed his battle rifle at his friends and pulled the trigger, shooting through another man’s neck.  Ana loosed a burst from her suppressed machine pistol, grazing one of them in the arm.

Her aim is improving.  A month ago, she wouldn’t have hit any of them.

Before the gunmen and the projector could garner the courage to shoot their friend, I floated a flattened concussion grenade beneath their feet.  One bang later, all of them were on their knees, covering their faces from countless paper cuts.

Jun sure knows how to put together these things.  Though the old man was still refusing to make anything lethal.

Ana’s illusioned mobster stretched his arm out.  A grenade launcher blew out of a crate.  As it flew into his hands, he pulled the trigger.  The projectile shot forward, impacting the edge of the ceiling.

The explosion knocked me back, and I slammed into a pillar, getting the air knocked out of me.

I looked up.  The entire walkway had become a gaping hole in the wall, surrounded by splintered wood and metal shards.  The six enemies lay flat on the ground, covered in dust and blood.  I floated a sheet of paper on each of their necks.

No pulse.  None of them were playing dead.

In the distance, I saw Hira approaching from another one of the train buildings, having cleared it out single-handedly.

The original mobster was the only one left alive, knocked back by his grenade.  He pushed himself back to a standing position, still under Ana’s illusions.

“Alright,” he sighed.  “We got them.  And we got the illusion girl first.  Is everyone alright?  Sound off.”

Ana shot him in the back of the head.  The suppressed pistol made a muffled crack, and blood splattered on the wall next to me.

The man dropped to the ground.  Ana exhaled, taking deep breaths, and the energy seemed to drain out of her.  She rubbed the circles under her eyes, stretched her neck, and straightened herself up, adopting a cold, flat expression.

“Brin didn’t say we had to kill the target,” I said.

“He didn’t say we had to spare him, either.”  Ana stuffed her gun into a holster on her thin blue combat suit.  “Come on.  We’ve got a bounty to collect.”

Her expression hadn’t shifted at all when killing those people, when shooting a man in the back of the head.  Is she practicing the new Vocation?  After our encounter with the Broadcast King, Hira had started teaching the two of us Stone Mask, a relatively simple Praxis vocation to flatten our microexpressions and body language, to make it harder for people like Kahlin to read us.

After some practice, we’d both gotten it down.  But the Vocation took a lot of energy.  It wouldn’t make sense to use it in battle.

Maybe Ana just didn’t care.  Or was too exhausted to feel anything about her kills.

This was the third mission this week and the fourteenth this month.  After getting that list of Tunnel Vision’s affiliates, we’d been doing them faster and faster.

I didn’t mind – the danger was thrilling, the extra spending money was great, and deadly jobs gave me a legitimate excuse to avoid studying.  But Ana’s ruthlessness had been growing with her Vocation range.

Ana walked away, stepping over one of the bodies she’d made.

As she receded in the distance, I called out to her.  “Hey!  Do you want to train together?”

She ignored me.  She’d ignored previous offers to study together, too.  The only time she talked to me was she asked me to take care of her green cat, Cardamom for a period, so it could live with me and Hira instead of a capsule hotel.  And because she was too busy to take care of it.

I’d accepted, reluctantly, and she’d barely said a word to me otherwise, other than going over strategy and shouting orders during missions.

She’s going to die in that sleeping pod, I told myself.  Studying away until one of her eyes pops like a balloon.  Or maybe that would be me.  Studying was hard.

While I studied, Cardamom the cat started snuggling up to me, walking on top of my notes, sitting on my textbooks, and nuzzling my hands

The first time, I picked him up, locked him in Hira’s bedroom, washed my hands for two minutes.  Then I used paper projection to pick off all the bits of loose fur near my workspace.  I was poor, for now, but I was not about to get diseases from a bloody cat.

But I still found him adorable.

His big, innocent eyes, his fluffy green fur, his soft, contented purring.  In my original, sanitary body, none of those things would have swayed me.  But like most poor people, this idiot had already gotten his brain infected with Maojun bacteria at some point, and now I was stuck thinking cats were cute.

I had to admit: It was too late to avoid infection now.  So after a week of his interruptions, I stopped pushing the cat aside.  “You can stay,” I muttered at him.  “Just don’t expect any cooing or bloody pampering like you got from Kaplen or Ana.”

The green cat nuzzled my hand again, but I didn’t stop him this time.

More time passed in a haze.  More jobs, more studying, more planning.  My broken fingers finally finished healing.  Fighting mobsters and Green Hands over and over again.  Turning pages over and over again and scanning tiny lines of text until my eyes ached.  Reviewing it back again with Hira.

But after all my hard work, all of Hira’s tough love, it never got easier.  Whenever Hira left the room, my motivation drained away.  Even when he was with me, concentrating was an excruciating task, and so much of the information I tried to cram into my head just trickled out the back, no matter what mnemonic tricks I used.

I could analyze, improvise, solve problems on the spot, but memory?  Memory was bloody impossible.

Maybe Hira’s teaching style just didn’t click with me.  But Paragon’s teaching style didn’t click with me either, no matter how many hard-ass teachers I cycled through.  Throughout generations of professors at the academy, Tybalt Keswick was the only one who’d had a reputation for slow, patient teaching that fine-tuned to each student’s strengths and weaknesses.  Students had loved him.

But the Pyre Witch had burned him to death during her frenzied rampage.  Almost a decade before I enrolled.  Just my luck.

To procrastinate, I played Jao Lu with Hira, who got bored like I did, just slower.  Seducing him was even easier.

You’re sleeping with some crazy foreign mercenary, Eliya said in my head, just to avoid studying.  I imagined her rolling her eyes at me.

In my free time, I did surveillance on the Broadcast King.  I read his newspapers, listened to interviews he’d done and spied on high-profile elites that knew him well.  And Hira, of course, knew a fair bit about his father, down to which brand of perfume he used.

According to him, Afzal Kahlin was a narcissist.  This was not news to me.

But more relevantly, he was a principled narcissist.  Or at least he had some principles – the man made oceans of money funneling addicts towards cigarette companies and pyramid schemes.  But he was joining Commonplace and trying to take over the country as part of a bigger scheme: using the Principality to defeat the ruler of Ilaqua, the Locus.

“The smartest woman in the world,” I said.  That’s what he meant.

“Most selfish, maybe,” snorted Hira.  “Only bitch I’ve met with a bigger ego than dad.”

According to Hira, Kahlin was, in fact, lonely and insecure.  His Praxis vocations made him look down on other people, and all the people he could connect with were gone from his life.  And despite his intelligence, there were often gaps in his knowledge.

That was all useful, but I had no way to apply it.  Kahlin had upped his security, and met with even fewer people than before.  The man traveled almost exclusively in his blimp or his penthouse, and in the rare moments he didn’t, he never stuck to the same schedule.

In short, I was fucked.  The tricks I’d pulled earlier wouldn’t work again.  And I couldn’t even get close to try out something else.

But sooner or later, Commonplace was going to make their big play, and Kahlin might expose himself.  I just had to wait.

So for the time being, I switched to a different enemy: My replacement.  To Oust her and return to my rightful place in the Ebbridge family, I’d have to get an offer from my mother, outperform her at written tests, and defeat her in single combat.

She’d crushed me last time.  And she’d have a year of Paragon training behind her.  And if she succeeded at charming Samuel and Chimera Squad, she could know my Vocation, my tactics, my weaknesses.

I’d have to be unpredictable, creative, aggressive.  To nullify her energy-draining Vocation, I’d either have to beat her fast or avoid her completely.  Swarming her with paper like usual wouldn’t work.

I was finding new uses for my Vocation.  That’d be useful.  But the best weapon I could have was information.  I barely knew anything about the bitch.  The best source I had in Paragon was Ana, but she wouldn’t want to help me.  The academy had tight security these days, so I couldn’t just break in to steal her records.  The deceleration field on the outside prevented most attacks from the air – the only real way in was through the cable car, and that had some of the tightest security in the Eight Oceans.

No, the best option I had was to conduct surveillance on her.

“You’re going to stalk her?” said Hira.

“I’m going to conduct surveillance on her,” I said, then sighed.  “Yes, I’m going to stalk her.  She destroyed my life.”

“Don’t get caught.”  He took a puff of his hookah.  “The last time one of my exes tried to follow me, I threw a glass of wine on his suit.  Then I shot him in the head.”

Finding my replacement wasn’t easy.  She lived in the dorms, so she spent almost all her time at Paragon.  And Jun’s Commonplace bomb had blown up the Silver Flask, so there was no reason for her to leave the exquisite food at the dining hall.

So I sat in a cafe overlooking Darius Street, the road to the cable car station.  I did this at the start and end of the school day, along with the most common times classes got out.  I dragged Hira with me, and we did more studying there, in between pots of pitch-black tea and games of Jao Lu, always keeping an eye on the road.

After a week and a day of this, I spotted her.  The body I’d been wearing for almost two decades.  The name I couldn’t remember or hear anymore.

Walking down the street from the cable car alone, carrying a bag full of books with a smug, self-satisfied expression on her face, pitch-black hair tied back in a ponytail.  Bitch.  Or bastard.  I wasn’t sure which one was more applicable, or insulting.

I slid my chair back, so I was out of her sight.  Once she’d passed us, I stood up, picking up my things.

“Have fun,” Hira said.

I tailed my replacement through the streets of Hightown.  When she got on a trolley to Lowtown, I paid a taxi to follow it, keeping my hat on and my suit jacket tight.  Can’t get too close.  This had been her body for almost two decades, and she’d recognize it in a heartbeat.

As she wound through side streets, the crowds grew sparse, and tailing her grew harder.  But despite a few close calls, I managed to follow her to a hole-in-the-wall Shenti bakery.

From a concealed angle on the street, I watched the girl sit down at a table across from another person I couldn’t quite make out.  She ate a sponge cake, one of the ones rolled with cream, and engaged in an animated discussion.

I froze.

The person she was talking to wasn’t eating anything.  There wasn’t even a drink in front of them.

“Takonara,” I muttered.  “Takonara.

No, that can’t – That couldn’t – 

I walked forward, as close as I dared, and glanced at the bitch’s conversation partner out of the corner of my eye.  And there was no mistaking it.  I could have recognized that hair, those veins, that face from a hundred yards away.

Anabelle Gage.  Anabelle Gage was friends with the enemy.

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