The fog was all around the cable car, a grey barrier enclosing us on all sides. It was impossible to see beyond, appearing to go on forever.
The first thing I heard was the music. An orchestral arrangement, weaving together strings and horns and several instruments I had never heard before. Echoing from every direction.
Then we passed out of the fog, and the cabin filled with warm sunlight. The clouds had been parted above, leaving the sky a clear, bright blue.
And we could see Paragon Academy. Seeing it from a distance was incredible enough, but up close was something else entirely.
The tall, vast chamber of the banquet hall on the main island. The silver spires and marble battlements of the Great Library sparkled above it with a hundred glittering points, towering over everything. All floating on massive islands of rock, suspended by some unknown projection and connected with wooden bridges.
A miniature city in the clouds, just for us.
The song was triumphant, swelling to greater and greater heights by the second without a moment’s rest, adding on one melody after another. Entreating us to give forth our hearts for Paragon Academy, for the defense of our nation, for the tradition of so many centuries we’d become a part of.
I felt a rush of pride, swelling up inside me until it felt like I might burst. No matter what I’d done in the past few weeks, I was here. At the crossroads of so many minds, all unified for a common goal, a common love.
Only one composer in the Eight Oceans was capable of producing such a sound. This must be the Symphony Knight’s. It was a new piece, something I’d never heard before.
Huge hoops floated in the air, targets for flight training. Guardians in wingsuits flew through them, spinning in midair. Two of them crossed each other, passing so close it seemed they’d crash, and released a cacophony of bright green fireworks, spurting multicolored smoke around them.
There were dozens more flying Guardians, flitting about in intricate patterns. They all released fireworks of their own, explosions of blue and red and yellow, billowing into clouds of their own.
Instead of dispersing, the smoke flowed together in the air, coalescing into the shapes of four men and women, each a hundred feet tall. Rana the Monk. Akhara the Polymath. Tegudar the General. And, of course, Darius the Philosopher. The Four Eternals. The most famous of the Great Scholars, the ideological foundations of the world’s nation-states.
Catching a glimpse of movement, I looked straight up. Sebastian Oakes was running on top of the cable, balancing like a tightrope walker. He was smiling, not exerting himself at all. He did a front flip, pushing off the line with his fingers and landing without slowing down. Joining.
In the face of such miraculous brilliance, what hope did thugs like Clementine have?
A zeppelin was parked on the opposite end of the banquet hall. Caterers rushed to and fro, unloading boxes and carting them into the kitchens nearby. Guess that’s another way to get up here.
The cable car slid into the upper station, passing a pair of mounted machine guns, each manned by a guard. Another set of security procedures awaited us when we stepped off, this time from a Guardian, a tall woman in full reinforced armor, backed up by another suite of guards with rifles.
When it was my turn, I approached her, holding up my library card.
“Do you know what a subconscious key is?” she said.
“Do you already have one?”
I shook my head.
“I’m installing one now. Do not get any others installed, as they will interfere with it. If you wish to coordinate with your bank or other security organizations, we can assist.” She touched her thumb to my forehead, closing her eyes.
I couldn’t feel anything. “Is it done?”
She removed her thumb. “A careful mind conquers kingdoms. Don’t get drunk when your palms are dry.” The trigger phrases. Two aphorisms that wouldn’t normally be spoken next to each other.
Unbidden, another sentence burst from my subconscious, something fundamentally associated with the combination of words she’d just said. I said them out loud. “Reason through qualia tames burning hearts.”
She pressed her thumb against my forehead, and I felt the memory of the words I’d just heard slip away, though they were still buried somewhere in my subconscious, encrypted. Now, even if I was captured, tortured, and had my Pith dissected, the assailants wouldn’t be able to steal my body and impersonate me.
Paragon takes security pretty seriously. But in today’s world, it made sense.
The woman waved me through, and I stepped into the entrance atrium, into what could only be described as a circus.
The room was huge, sporting a slanted glass ceiling and spherical red lanterns floating throughout the air. Its architecture was both classical and modern, made of wood, metal, and marble, full of giant windows and covered with filigree metal. A fountain of Darius the Philosopher burbled in the middle of the room. The space was packed with students, shouting, chatting with each other, shoulder to shoulder, filling the space.
Booths lined the walls of the area, manned by upperclassmen handing out free items. One boy floated a hundred champagne flutes into a hundred open hands, and flicked his wrist, shooting a hundred streams of expensive-looking grape juice into them. A girl threw handfuls of pins into the air, tiny brass fists holding scrolls, and projected into them to attach them to students.
To my left, a boy who couldn’t have been over nineteen shouted trivia questions to a crowd of rapt students. “What Great Scholar invented the vocation of forced transference?”
A few students shouted out names, and he shook his head. One of them raised her hand. “Shawar Tauqi!”
He grinned. “And why is she called the Liar’s Puppet?”
“Her…” the girl struggled for a moment. “- uncle. Ran an attempted coup that abused her technique to steal the emperor’s body.”
The boy pulled a silver watch from his bag and tossed it to her. She caught it, matching his grin.
Surrounded by so many stunning faces, it was hard not to feel flustered and self-conscious. All the assistants and servants stuck out, myself included. Next to so many red-hot people, ordinary looked ugly, even repulsive.
Those who weren’t occupied with the booths were streaming forward through the halls, corralled by shouting upperclassmen. “Alabaster hall here! Alabaster hall with me!” One of them shouted, crossing his legs and hovering five feet off the ground. People split off into groups, each led by a single older student, headed down a different hallway.
I approached one. “Excuse me? Where do – “
He jabbed his thumb to his right. “Assistants with Berthel.”
A man leaned against a tiny wooden door, wearing a grey uniform of his own, slouching and stuffing a sandwich into his mouth. In comparison to the beauty around him, he was short, middle-aged, with a huge nose and a wrinkled forehead. Berthel, no doubt. Probably another low-level administrator.
I walked up to him. “Um, hi. Are you Berthel?”
He stared at me, chewing a piece of his sandwich and swallowing. ”Incredible.” His voice was a flat monotone. “With deduction like that, no wonder you got in.” He went back to eating.
I stood next to him, waiting. The other assistants gathered around us, all unsure what to do. When all of them were here, Berthel pushed open the door behind him. He strode through it, and all of us followed, hesitant. We ascended a spiral staircase, and passed through a windowless hallway that was made of dark red stone
After several minutes of walking, Berthel pulled a key from the ring on his belt, and unlocked a door.
It was a lecture hall, shaped like an amphitheatre, with rows of wooden benches and desks in a semicircle around a podium. Every desk had a thick hardcover book on it. The assistants poured into it, sitting down.
Berthel coughed. All eyes turned to him. “Listen, because I won’t repeat any of this. You are here to assist certain students who have been selected by the Academic Committee. You will take notes for them in specific classes, assist them in studying, and procure anything they should need for their studies.”
We’re glorified secretaries. But we got to sit in on Paragon classes.
He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his jacket. “Your assignments are here. But first, let me emphasize, because at least one person every year seems to forget the incredibly obvious and waste everyone’s time. You will not access higher levels of the Great Library You will not go to office hours, or take up the professors’ time with inane questions. You will receive grades on assignments, but no comments. Unless supervised by your assigned student, you will not enter dormitories or the banquet hall. You are not assigned squads, and you will not participate in battles.” He spoke in a flat drawl. “In short, you are not students. At five in the afternoon, you will board the cable car and go home.”
I slouched over, sinking into the chair. I’d expected something along these lines, but nothing this hostile.
“You will not speak of anything that happens in these halls, to anyone. You will not project outside Paragon Academy. Violation of these rules will be met with immediate expulsion, and mental erasure of everything you’ve learned here. Your subconscious key will be rotated every week.”
“What are the books for?” A short boy sitting in front of me spoke up. I looked down at it. The title read Assistant Handbook Vol 17.
“Have all the procedures memorized by the end of the week.” He stepped out, dropping the paper on the podium. “Wait here. Someone will get you. Bathroom is out the door, left, and left. Don’t wander.” The door slammed behind him.
The room went silent. I could still hear the sounds of fireworks and the Symphony Knight’s music in the distance, but they were far away, muffled. Everyone wants me to wait and not move.
“Whaleshit,” muttered the boy in front of me. “At least the fuckers could pay us.”
Nobody responded to him, though I was sure that many agreed. If we speak up, they could expel us for that, too.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m going to earn my spot.” He flicked his wrist, and the assignments paper floated into his open palm. After a second, he snorted, and handed it back to me.
I took it, scanning the page for my fake name.
Ernest Chapman | Lorne Daventry (Second Year, Golem Squad)
The Daventries were an esteemed Epistocrat family, wealthier than many of the others put together. Several of them were war heroes, as I recalled, and one of them was married to the Symphony Knight herself. That could be good.
I gave the page to the girl next to me, and flipped open the assistant’s handbook to the first page. The font was tiny, with paragraphs that took up almost the entire page. I skimmed past the forward, which involved the author pontificating on previous versions of the handbook, and the prologue, which expounded on the meticulous history of assistants at Paragon Academy. I couldn’t afford to waste time.
Chapter One: Dress Code and Uniform Maintenance. I internally sighed. This is going to be a long week. But if this was necessary to become a full-time student and a Guardian, I’d grit my teeth and swallow.
By the time I got to chapter two, my eyes were sore from squinting, and my stomach was aching with hunger. The clock on the wall read 2:00 PM. They wouldn’t eat the opening feast without us, would they?
That would hurt, more than any of the other treatment we’d gotten today. I’d pictured myself at that banquet many times, with a fresh body, tasting food for the first time in almost a decade. An epic return to my full sensory input, complete with platters of lamb chops and towers of custard tarts, washed down with the famous Mulled Cider and conversation with the other students, my new friends.
I wouldn’t have that today either way, thanks to my broken taste buds, but it was still an iconic moment of every year at Paragon Academy. There would be speeches, a procession of some of the most famous and deadly people in the Eight Oceans. They were closed to journalists, but everyone always knew about them, somehow
I was halfway through chapter two when the door burst open, revealing Berthel, now wearing a suit and jacket. The ironed fabrics looked odd on his body, and he looked uncomfortable to be wearing them. “Come,” he said. Finally.
We followed him through more corridors, down cramped staircases, passing groups of students talking and laughing amongst themselves. “No wrinkles on your uniforms,” he said. As per the dress code. We passed through a dark hallway, lit only by a single dim lantern overhead.
He pushed open a door, and the passage flooded with light. Before us was Paragon Academy’s Banquet Hall. I’d seen it half a hundred times in photographs and pamphlets, but as with the cable car ride, it was altogether different in person.
The glass ceiling extended at least a hundred feet above me, open to the glaring noon sun. Circular tables filled the space, draped with deep blue tablecloths, set with sparkling silverware and white porcelain teacups. No food, yet. My stomach churned, aching, reminding me I should have eaten a larger breakfast.
The far end of the room was raised maybe ten feet above the rest, at the top of a short staircase. The teacher’s table sat there, empty, along with the Headmaster’s carved wooden chair.
Students flooded through the huge main doors, both first-years and older, flocking to the tables in packs and sitting down, pouring themselves tea. The assistants, in contrast, had been shuffled through a tiny portcullis on the side of the room. We had emerged in an area cordoned off by a chest-level wooden railing, with only two rows of benches pushed up against the wall. It reminded me of the box juries sat in during trials.
“Sit,” said Berthel. “Do not stand up. Do not slouch or speak. If you have to piss, project it into a vent somewhere. You will be fed.” He went across the hall, passing through another side door.
While the hall filled up, I stared at the students. Young boys and girls between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three. College-age, somewhere in the middle of teenage years and young adulthood. Until today, I had never seen so many beautiful faces packed together in one space. Most of them weren’t even wearing makeup, their fabricated bodies sporting smooth skin and red lips. It was like a fashion show, if all the red-hot models were showcasing school uniforms.
It was a reminder. You don’t belong here, a nagging voice whispered in my head. The students here were stunning, bright, graceful. Natural-born winners, who could handle the intense schoolwork and pressure they were about to face. The geniuses we entrusted to defend the Principality.
You failed the entrance exam. Right now, there was some other kid whose rightful spot I was taking. My stomach clenched. Don’t think about that.
One of those people was Lorne Daventry, the boy I was supposed to assist, but they hadn’t supplied us pictures to go with the names. His family was famous, or infamous, depending on who you asked. Maybe I could find someone to point me in the right direction.
The hall had filled up, the flow of students slowing, then stopping. The huge metal doors of the Banquet Hall had been swung shut. Everyone was talking amongst themselves, emphatic, excited. A few of them occasionally glanced at the door, as if waiting for something.
The peal of a bell echoed around the room, loud and clear, coming from every direction at once. The sound faded, and everyone went silent.
The doors burst open, and all hands burst into applause. The boy in front of me was taller than I was, and I had to stretch my head around to look, squinting. Two dozen men and women strode down the central walkway. I recognized almost all of them. The Professors.
At the front was Isaac Brin, the Scholar of Mass, looking straight forward. He wore a long brown coat over his suit, dark brown hair combed in neat rows with his sideburns. Dressed up and formal, he looked completely different from our meetings.
Behind him was the sole foreigner in the group, Charles Hou, a slender, pretty Shenti man with light blue hair, grinning and pointing at students around the room, shouting greetings I couldn’t hear over the clapping. The professor flicked his wrist at a nearby teapot, and it floated above him, pouring a stream of liquid into his open mouth.
Hou was a body designer, the undisputed best in the Principality, who had designed the faces of half the Epistocrats in Hightown. And according to the papers, he was having affairs with the other half. After seeing him in person now, I could believe it.
Isabelle Corbin came next. The Symphony Knight. The Scholar of Music. A tall, slender woman with wavy maroon hair, wearing a dark purple gown with long sleeves extending up to her wrists. She smiled and waved at the students, muttering greetings to the ones closest to her.
When the last Guardian ambled through, the applause doubled in Volume. On the surface, there was nothing special about him, just a middle-aged man with an unkempt black beard, long hair, and a simple beige suit. Though the man’s body was in perfect shape, he was off-balance, wobbling on his feet. Sebastian Oakes walked beside him, holding his shoulder to stabilize him. Penny Oakes, his wife, strode next to him.
Headmaster Nicholas Tau. The greatest projector alive. And quite possibly the oldest.
The Symphony Knight, Oakes, The Headmaster. And Florence Tuft, who I hadn't spotted yet. Collectively known as the Four Pillars, named because they made up the foundations of the Principality’s national defense.
These were some of the deadliest people in the Eight Oceans. I’d read their biographies, newspaper articles, seen them performing stunts at publicity events. And here they all were, strolling in front of me.
One by one, they ascended the stairs, taking their places at the professor’s table above us. Headmaster Tau ignored his chair, instead leaning on a podium at the edge of the balcony. He picked up a sheaf of papers, reading from them. “The first projectors were not warriors.” His voice was loud, echoing around the hall. “They were scholars. Scientists. Philosophers of the mind. They cared only about unlocking the fundamental laws of creation, discovering the deepest truths of the mind and reaching the furthest point of Enlightenment. Striving to become Exemplars. None of them could have imagined turning their powers on each other.” His voice grew heavy. “The first projector to use his power as a weapon killed all the rest in less than three hours, hoarding all their knowledge for himself. You now know him as Ur-Nagir, the First Butcher.”
The room was dead silent, honing in on every word.
“Entire armies of Humdrums fell before his vocations. Whole countries were culled by his monstrous whims. He ruled humanity undefeated for more than eighty years. Old age was the only weapon that could bring him low, and bring his knowledge into the light.” He gazed over all of us, clutching the railing. “We will not repeat our ancestors’ mistake. Whether you’re a first-year or graduating next spring, you will learn to master the natural elements, study the nuances of the Pith and the sciences.” He paused for effect. “But above all, you will learn to fight. You will carry forth the privileged gift of knowledge and wield it as a shield for the people of this nation.”
Not assistants. I thought of my white library card, the lowest ranking one possible. Only full-time students, Guardians, and members of Parliament were trusted with access to higher levels of the Great Library. Even after many of the secrets of the Projection were exposed, members of the public like me still didn’t know what kind of earth-shattering vocations were up there.
But there was speculation. Conspiracy theories. Codices that taught one how to alter the fundamental laws of physics, turn Piths into bombs that could level cities or reshape them to unleash near-infinite intelligence.
Rumor had it, Nicholas Tau had mastered them all.
The Headmaster looked up from his sheet of paper. “Only thirteen years ago, a Guardian, a woman who walked these same halls, fell in love with her power, just like the First Butcher. She decided she was powerful enough to defeat friend and foe alike, and since then, has burned more than ten thousand people alive.”
The Pyre Witch. The madwoman who had exposed the hidden world of projection to the Humdrums. A blood-soaked hero of the Shenti war who got too good at killing.
“It is not enough to be intelligent. Your judgement must also be. Must also be…“ he stopped, scanning the paper. “You now know him as Ur-Nagir, the First Butcher.” His voice was hesitant, unsure. “Entire armies of Humdrums fell before his vocations.”
There were awkward murmurs among the students. He’s repeating himself. Did he forget reading that section already? Sebastian Oakes stood up, whispering into Tau’s ear and pointing at a spot on the page.
The Headmaster sagged, pressing his eyes shut. “Apologies.” He flashed a nervous smile at the audience. “Not to worry.” He cleared his throat. “The, um, path to Enlightenment comes from the right of wisdom to…” He fell silent again, staring at the page. “The path to Enlightenment comes with. May you forge the stars in your image, and strive to become an Exemplar.”
He can’t read the words.
Sebastian Oakes squeezed his shoulder and guided him back to his chair. Tau sank into his seat with a dazed look on his face. There was a moment of awkward silence. It was heartbreaking to see the Headmaster this senile. You can replace the body, but the Pith still ages.
Then Florence Tuft started clapping, and everyone joined her in a wave of uncomfortable applause. Sebastian Oakes stood up. “Let the feast begin!” he shouted.
More applause. Servants poured out of side doors throughout the room, arms heavy with trays and platters. There were swarms of them, more than I could count, all working in perfect sync.
Before I knew it, every table was covered with all the food I’d dreamed of. Bangers and mash. Peach cobbler. Shepherd’s pie, still steaming and hot. There was even a smattering of foreign foods. A platter of dumplings that looked Shenti. A bowl of bubbling orange Ilaquan curry. Steaming mugs of mulled cider.
None of them came for us. There was no assistant’s table. Maybe they serve us next. I waited, watching the waiters drop off dishes. One by one, they streamed back into the tiny doors they came from, until there were only a handful left, refilling teapots and taking orders.
Were we not supposed to eat at the feast? Were we to eat leftovers with the servants? Or did they just forget about us? I wasn’t sure which was worse.
My stomach grumbled again. The nearest table was only a handful of yards away, close enough that I could smell the prime rib one of the students was cutting, and the baked apples he was eating with it.
This is absurd. Beside me, other grey coats were staring longingly at the food just out of reach, or glaring at passing servants.
A handsome, cherubic red-haired boy approached us from one of the tables in the middle, an assortment of plates floating behind him. His round, large eyes darted to his left and right, as if he was sneaking somewhere.
A cat was draped over his shoulder, bright green and covered with thick fur. Students in his path shifted their chairs away from him, uncomfortable. One girl stood up and walked away, covering her face with her napkin. The boy drew disapproving glares wherever he walked. Is he sick, or something?
He leaned against the wooden railing separating us, beaming. “Evening, chaps. Anyone hungry?”
A cake knife floated behind him, cutting slices out of a lamb and rosemary pie and scooping them onto plates. He spread his arms wide, and the plates floated towards us. A few assistants hesitated, or pushed them away. Still afraid of breaking the rules. If not eating was even a rule. Or afraid that he has a disease.
“Don’t worry,” he said, scratching between the green cat’s ears. “Cardamom isn’t that contagious. The thing you’re thinking of requires prolonged exposure to spread.”
“Um,” I said, looking down at the slice of pie in front of me. “So, is this okay? I mean, is it allowed by the professors and everyone?”
He laughed, light and stuttered and somehow reassuring. “They like to talk big to spook us, but they’re not going to expel anyone for eating. Yell at us, maybe, but that’s it.” He pushed the floating plate closer to me. “Seriously, try it. It’s the best thing here and they only serve it twice a year.”
I sliced off a piece with my fork, scooping it into my mouth. It tasted like sawdust.
“Good, right? One of these days, I’m going to hunt down that chef and make him teach me his recipe.”
I nodded, casting my gaze to the floor. He was the only person here who’d shown any kindness, and I didn’t want to ruin it by being a downer. A handful of other assistants followed my lead, but most just avoided eye contact with the boy. I ate more, softening the ache in my stomach.
“I’m Kaplen,” he said. “Kaplen Ingolf. Anyone want to join us? We’ve got plenty of space.” He gestured behind him. Almost all the round tables were filled, except for one in the middle, occupied by a single black-haired girl and no one else.
Sitting with the students was almost certainly forbidden. I should keep my head down. It wouldn’t do to bring undue suspicion down on me.
Kaplen extended his hand, still smiling. “In my experience, the first week is a great time to meet new friends.”
I felt a surge of warmth rush over me. “Sure,” I found myself saying. I moved towards him, climbing over the railing and praying none of the teachers were looking my way. It felt like I’d just gone over a ten-foot wall.
He strode back to his table, petting Cardamon. I followed him. “Again, nothing to fear. You won’t catch Maojun that easily.”
I glanced behind me. None of the other assistants were following my lead. “Maojun?”
“I forget. You’re still new here, and you clearly didn’t grow up in Hightown.” He craned his neck to look at me. “Maojun is a neural bacteria. It spreads through cats to humans and other mammals. Totally harmless, but it targets your brain, makes you like cats a lot more than you would otherwise.” The words tumbled out of his mouth, scattershot and rapid. “Some people think it’s one of the reasons cats became so ubiquitous as pets. That and the rat-eating.”
So that’s why they’re avoiding him.
Cardamom licked Kaplen’s ear, purring. “It’s not as contagious as most people think, but it spreads from mother to child, so about eighty percent of humans have it now. But new fabricated bodies don’t come with it at all.” He beckoned to the beautiful faces surrounding him. “So, Epistocrats hate cats. Felines are for commoners, or brainwashed suckers.”
“So why do you like them?”
We reached his near-empty table. “I liked cats when I was a kid, and I liked them after Paragon gave me this body.” The bright green cat nuzzled his cheek. “Some other students treat me like I have the plague, but who cares? Cardamom’s supported me for ten years, and I’m not about to send him away.” He scratched the cat behind his ears, smiling.
I mirrored him, sitting down a few seats away. The girl at the table stole a glance at me with almond-shaped eyes, then looked back down to her food. Like Kaplen, like almost everyone in this school, she was flawless, sporting high cheekbones and clear, unblemished skin. She brushed a strand of black hair out of her face.
“This is – what’s your name?”
“Ernest Chapman.” What a terrible name.
“Ernest, this is Tasia. She’s also new here.”
She gave us a wan smile. “I’d rather not talk about it, if that’s alright.”
We shared a look, and I nodded. I didn’t feel like discussing my history either. If I was being honest with myself, I was happy letting the extrovert at the table do most of the talking for both of us.
Kaplen continued, turning to me. “Ern – Can I call you Ern?”
“Sure,” I said, hating it. It’s still better than ‘Ernest Chapman’.
“If you want, I can give you the full tour of Paragon Academy later. Normal students get it on their own, but from what I’ve heard grey coats are just expected to read a map or something.“
I nodded again, feeling another rush of warmth. Does he just pity me, or does he actually want to spend time with me?
“But in the meantime, I can tell you who’s who in this place, while we enjoy this extravagant cuisine.” He beckoned to the raised area where the teachers sat. “You’re already familiar with the celebrities among us, right? Symphony Knight. Oakes. The Headmaster.”
“All rather awe-inspiring, aren’t they? I’d say you get used to them, but every now and then one of them pulls out a flashy vocation or war story or some bit of advice, and you remember they’re on a totally different level than us.”
“How so?” Tasia spoke up, raising an eyebrow.
“When someone enhances their mind that much, they feel different, more often than not. It’s sort of hard to explain. The distance between you and them feels so far. If you ever get a chance to talk face-to-face, you’ll understand.” He smiled. “Us students on the other hand, are relatively human. For better or worse.”
I looked around, at all the immaculate faces chatting, eating, laughing. They’re a lot prettier than most humans.
Kaplen cleared his throat. “Unlike normal schools, Paragon Academy’s cliques usually get formed from the four-man battle squads. They fight together, take classes together, and generally become the best of friends. Emphasis on generally.” He pointed to a table down the way with four broad-shouldered men. “Cyclops squad. Led by Ralph Corbiere. Sports jocks, but don’t let that fool you into underestimating their strats. They were ranked number two last semester in squad battles, with no remarkable vocations among any of them.”
I looked around the room from one table to the next, while Kaplen pointed out all of the high-ranking squads, the popular ones, the ones that had all the money. Pegasus Squad. Phoenix, Centaur, Leviathan, Sphinx. One mythical creature after another.
Kaplen pointed at a group sitting with each other, two girls and one boy. “Chimera Squad. Number One in squad battles, until Nell Ebbridge, their leader, got expelled, Ousted, and memory-wiped.”
My blood froze. I recognized two of them. A boy and a girl, one dirty blonde, the other platinum. Samuel and Eliya. The pair I’d fought last week during my body heist, who’d called me a freak, threatened to boil me alive. As expected, they were unblemished, wearing fresh bodies with no sign of the wounds I’d dealt.
I forced myself to take deep breaths. They didn’t see this body. As long as I kept my Vocation under wraps, they wouldn’t recognize me.
Still, it might be best to keep my distance.
The three were silent, not talking to one another. Samuel was slouched over, bags under his eyes, looking exhausted. “What happened to their leader?” I asked.
Kaplen’s smile faltered. “Bad grades.” He rubbed his head, breathing deeply. “That’s all it takes here. Paragon doesn’t like teaching projection to unworthy students.”
Tasia was hunched over, shoulders tense. She ate her food, silent, not making eye contact with either of us.
“Who’s Ebbridge’s replacement?”
Tasia inched her hand upward, lifting a single finger. All the squads are sitting together, except her’s. Maybe they were still mourning their old leader. I wanted to ask, but Kaplen was saying nothing. Shut up, and don’t make them hate you.
One of the Chimeras, a muscular Shenti girl with black hair, had an unusually plain face, sporting a wide nose, lopsided cheekbones, and a square jaw. Next to everyone at Paragon Academy, it looked downright ugly. “Who’s that?”
“Leizu Yao. The girl who ran across the ocean. Rumor is, she was on the shortlist to be the youngest commando alive when she defected from the Shenti. Wears her birth body so she can join.”
Crazy fucking zealots. Not much of their beliefs were still alive, but the Shenti still hated transference. In my hometown, many of them had bullied me after I’d swapped over.
Another Easterner approached her from behind, a tall Neke boy. He pulled a book from his bag, opening it and waggling it in front of her. The Ninety-Nine Precepts. The Shenti sacred text, that had turned millions towards fanaticism. Thankfully, nobody in the Eight Oceans was capable of reading it anymore.
Leizu said nothing, eating her food and ignoring him. The Neke boy grinned, and said something I couldn’t hear. The girl stopped eating. Her hand darted out behind her, grabbing his lapel in a move that should have dislocated her shoulders.
Without changing her expression or turning to face him, she whipped her arm upwards, flinging the Neke boy forty feet into the air. The book, and the dinner roll he was holding flew with him. He shouted, arcing over everyone’s heads as all eyes turned to him.
Five feet before he would have landed in a bowl of cod soup, he froze in midair, his limbs flailing.
A boy with black hair and blue eyes stood up from a nearby table, beautiful even in comparison to those around him. He extended his arm towards the unfortunate victim, clenching his teeth. The Neke boy floated towards him and landed at his feet with a grunt. The handsome boy helped him upright.
“Who’s that?” I indicated my head at the handsome boy.
Kaplen looked away from me. “That’s the leader of Golem Squad. Lorne Daventry.”
My stomach clenched. So that’s him. The boy I was to assist. My boss for the next nine months, assuming I lasted that long.
Lorne sat back down with the Neke boy, and another boy, thick-jawed with a blonde crew cut. There were at least three empty seats on both sides between them and the nearest student. The people here were giving them a wide berth. “What do you know about them?”
“Erm.” Kaplen brushed crumbs off his shirt. “I’m their fourth member.”
So they’re both outcasts. I decided not to ask why he wasn’t sitting with them. “You guys good?”
“We’re smack in the middle of the rankings, but only because Lorne over there was banned from using his Vocation in war games.“
“Too lethal. He risked causing serious damage to people’s bodies, or even killing them.”
Lorne caught his gaze and scowled at him.
“Are they mad at you?” I averted my eyes from his glare.
Kaplen flashed a nervous smile. “I’m not as proficient at combat as I’d like to be.”
He chuckled. “No Vocation. Only second-year in the entire school who hasn’t figured his out already. Lorne’s been trying to transfer me since I got assigned, but Headmaster Tau himself personally insisted otherwise. Said it’d be good experience for the both of us.”
So Lorne liked winning. No surprises, coming from an Academy student. “Has it? Been good.” I need to know what I’m getting into.
Kaplen’s smile looked forced. “Lorne tells me to drop out about once a week. He usually saves it for when I’m feeling the most tired or emotionally vulnerable, like right after a loss or when I’m stressed out about classwork.”
“He’s a bastard,” Tasia said quietly, not looking up.
Kaplen held up a hand. “He’s a great chap, deep down. He’s just been through a lot, and he doesn’t like pulling his pun – ”
“He’s a bastard,” Tasia said again.
Just my fucking luck. Or Major Brin was always planning to throw me under the bus like this. Lorne took a swig of cider from his tankard, wiping his mouth. The boy with the blonde crew cut said something to Lorne, and they all shook with laughter, slapping the table.
Now might be a good time to introduce yourself. They were in a good mood again, the recent incident forgotten. Better to go over the fundamentals of our relationship now, rather than in our first class together.
I stayed seated, frozen to my chair. Lorne was imposing, towering over others in a way that reminded me of Clementine. Always the loudest, always interrupting others or ordering them around. Demanding to be the center of the room with every word, every breath.
And, like every second-year and above, he’d been trained in psychological warfare and influence. Something told me he enjoyed leveraging that training on everyone who crossed his path. Talking to him every day would be like ballet dancing through a minefield.
The pit in my stomach grew. I closed my eyes, imagining my life with a proper chassis, if I’d grown up without being forced to transfer. If I’d stayed in my birth body, without getting sick.
I pictured myself among the violets in my house’s backyard, whole and healthy and strong, with cascading waves of red hair. I felt the noon sunlight, bright on my face, and visualized myself relaxing, smiling. An easy smile, the kind you could only have when your day were free of constant anxiety, when you could go to sleep every night without being terrified of the morning.
I was good at imagining things. That’s how I had developed my Vocation in the first place. But the only way I could bring that image into reality was by fighting every hour of every day.
“Ern? You okay?” Kaplen’s voice cut through my internal monologue.
My eyes fluttered open, and I stood up. “I’m going to go talk to Lorne. Can you save my seat?”
“Um, sure.” Kaplen looked confused. “But, um. Why?”
“I’m his bloody assistant.” I strode towards Golem Squad’s table, stomach aching, moving to stand behind the blonde boy. Nobody looked at me. I took in a deep breath, and willed my muscles to relax. “Excuse me?” I said, raising my hand.
The blonde boy turned to stare at me. “Fuck you want?”
I turned to Lorne. “Mr. Daventry? I – ”
“- Lord Daventry,” said the blonde boy.
The knot in my stomach tightened. “Lord Daventry, my name is Ernest Chapman. I’m here to assist you.”
Lorne’s handkerchief floated to his mouth, dabbing the corner of it. He glanced up at me. “Scholars, I didn’t know they made bodies that fucked up.”
The Neke boy squinted at me. “Look at the swollen veins. Ten pounds its fabrication decay. Shoddy craftsmanship from whatever amateur designed that.”
I looked at my feet. My armpits were damp with sweat. “I’m sorry. It used to look better.”
“I hope you’re not planning on forging the stars in that image.” The boys next to him laughed.
I recited the words I’d practiced over the past few days. “Lord Daventry,” I said, “It is an honor to have the opportunity to work for you. I’ve always dreamed of learning here, and I will strive every day to offer you the best service I can, so you can press forward with your studies and defend our coun – “
“Save the whaleshit.” Lorne rolled his eyes. “This isn’t a job interview. Nobody here cares how well you can kiss ass. Either you can keep up, or you fall behind.” He poured himself a glass of wine, though none of the other students in the banquet hall seemed to have any.
I swallowed. “I’m sorry, sir, I – “
I sat down.
Lorne indicated the blonde boy next to him. “My first year at Paragon Academy, Deon here was my assistant. Four foot eleven with a nose that practically took up half his face. Six months later, he was a full-time student, fighting by my side in squad battles, and finally looking presentable. I assume you are familiar with the grey coat system.”
“If you please me, get sufficient marks, and succeed at the entrance exam again, you will not just receive a body and the right to go here. My family’s standard policy is to grant a full scholarship, with total library privileges and access to social gatherings. I’ll give you my business card, and if you’re lucky you might get my parents’ too.” He leaned in. “Of course, the reverse is also true.”
He didn’t need to elaborate on that last point. If I irritate him even a little, he can get me fired at any time. One phone call to his parents, and I’d be thrown to the curb with everything I’d learned wiped from my head. And if I pissed him off, the consequences could be a lot worse. I had no power here. Why had Brin assigned me such a volatile situation?
“I have one more task for you.” He nodded his head towards Chimera Squad. “See those pricks? Even after their leader gets Ousted, they’re still acting like they’re better than us. Bring them down a notch.”
It was a lame excuse for bullying. Worse, he wanted me to do the work for him. But I wanted to make sure. “I’m sorry, what do you mean?”
“Fuck up their evening. Don’t give them any evidence to cry to the admins, but otherwise, you have free rein.“ He sipped his wine. “Not bad.”
I stood up. Do I have a choice? If I didn’t do what he wanted, I’d lose my chance at getting a real spot at Paragon. Worse, if I pissed him off, he might run a background check on me, which would get me caught for sure.
I wove through the tables, moving in the general direction of Chimera Squad. What do I do? Something harmless, ideally, that wouldn’t get me caught. Lorne and Golem Squad were watching, which meant I probably couldn’t use my Vocation.
If I used my body, everyone would see me. The only physical projection I could do was water and wood, and not a lot of force on either. Chimera Squad’s table was covered with bowls and platters, but most of them were metal or porcelain.
There was a carved wooden bowl filled with cold stew on the far side of the table, in front of Eliya. As I passed by their table, I projected into her glass of water, making sure to keep my eyes forward and away from my targets, and my hands by my side.
I pushed the grape juice towards her, knocking it onto her lap. In the instant while her attention was distracted, I projected into the bowl and yanked with all my strength, launching the stew like a catapult towards her face.
I’m sorry. On the night I’d stolen the body, she’d been vicious to me, but she didn’t deserve petty cruelty like this.
Laughter echoed from further behind me in the direction of Golem Squad. Hopefully, this would be enough to satisfy Lorne.
There was a wet splat from behind me, followed by Eliya’s yell. “What the fuck?”
A wave of bone-splitting fear washed over me, stopping me in my tracks. It was worse than I’d ever felt before, more frightening than losing my body and getting rejected from Paragon and nearly getting killed by one of my idols. My chest tightened, blood rushing in my ears. I gagged, and dropped to my hands and knees, gasping for breath.
I’m going to die. Beyond all doubt, I knew it. Or something even more terrible was going to happen, some fate worse than death that would leave me in constant agony. Far in the distance, I heard a boy’s voice shouting. “Eliya! Stop it!”
In a flash, the terror vanished, and the pain with it. My body relaxed. What did she do to me?
Eliya stood over me, extending her index finger towards me. Her platinum blonde hair was covered with dark brown stew. Tiny chunks of lamb fell off her chin and onto her soaked uniform.
Samuel stepped between the two of us. “Eliya, we don’t know he did it. It could have been anyone within a hundred meters!”
Eliya shook her head, clenching her teeth. “I saw this one getting drunk with Golem Squad. He’s just another one of Lorne’s brainless thugs. Some pathetic wannabe who bullies others to make himself feel big. We don’t teach them a lesson, they’re just going to keep hurting people.” She leaned down over me. “You feel big now, grey coat? Why don’t you apologize, like a big boy?”
Students nearby were staring at me. The professors paid me no heed. So much for staying low. But if I apologized to her, that was a confession. They’d bring the professors down on me, and I’d attract even more attention.
I pushed myself upright. “Please excuse me,” I said, making sure to use my deep voice, and walked back to Golem Squad.
I thought of my square jaw, my broad shoulders, my deformed face. If they didn’t already, everyone now saw Ernest Chapman as one of Lorne’s ugly, brutish henchmen. Would they be wrong? I felt nauseous as I sat down.
This is to get your body back, I reminded myself. If you become a Guardian, you’ll be better than these people. Though I needed to figure out the Empty Book first. I couldn’t forget that.
Lorne nodded at me. “You got caught. Made you look weak, but it’s a start.”
“What did she do to me?” I muttered under her breath.
“Her Whisper Vocation,” said Lorne. “I don’t understand it completely, but it’s some kind of paralyzer. Makes you scared, throws you into a panic and stuns you for a few seconds.”
I spend the rest of the luncheon in silence, spooning food into my mouth, listening to Golem Squad muttering about strategy and foreign politics. Why didn’t I just stay with Kaplen and Tasia? I could have avoided this nightmare, at least until my first class. They probably hated me now, just like Chimera Squad.
The main doors of the hall were open now. Some of the students strode out through them. I stood up. “Sir, I’m not officially allowed to be here. I should return to the designated assistant’s are – “
“Calm down,” said Lorne. “Berthel isn’t going to do anything to my assistant. And besides, the old bastard’s not here. Too many toilets to scrub, no doubt.” He checked his silver watch. “It’s time for my first class.” He stood up and strode to the door. Deon and Naru followed, and I went after.
As I left the room, I stole one last glance at Kaplen and Tasia. Then we were going through the halls again, past stained-glass windows and training rooms filled with floating targets.
After several minutes of travel, Lorne opened a door to the outside, letting in a draft and the afternoon sunlight, and we walked across a wooden bridge between two of the floating islands in the sky.
As we crossed, I stole a glance over the railing, and felt a surge of vertigo. The mansions of Hightown were dots below, many covered by clouds. Further below, the ocean was a blue carpet.
“Hey! Moron!” shouted Deon. “Keep up!” Golem Squad was already ahead of me. I jogged to catch up to them, shoes clunking on the wood slats.
Once we were back inside, the classroom was the second door on the left. Lorne and the rest of Golem squad pulled the door open, striding in. I hesitated a moment on the doorstep.
My first Paragon Class. Yet another moment I’d dreamed of, given to me in the way I least expected. You’re not a real student, I reminded myself. Don’t draw attention to yourself. If I was lucky, I might find another take on the Empty Book, and get the key to protecting myself against Nudging. But it would all be for nothing if I got exposed.
I read the paper pinned to the bulletin board.
“Alright,” I said, for confidence more than anything else. “Let’s get started.”
I stepped in.