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.”

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