7-B The Blue Charlatan

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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.

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