At Lorne Daventry’s spring equinox party, I wore a new body.
“Are you sure?” I’d said to him, wondering if this was a trap, or a prank.
“It’s not a request, Ernest,” said Lorne, glaring at me as we strode across a bridge in Paragon. “You are to attend my party, and I won’t have you looking like a shriveled tumor with two broken fingers.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, glancing ahead, at the banquet hall towering over us. “That’s very generous.”
“It’s nothing,” said Lorne. “Just in our vault, my family has an Allen Norrys, a pair of Johen Wardes, a Luca Hagan, and a vintage Maxine Clive. That one’s female, but it’s the first-ever chassis model that was sold in the Eight Oceans. Worth a lot.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’ll have fun,” he said. “Or you won’t, but it’ll be educational either way.” He floated an embroidered invitation out of his bag. “Show me your midterm grades again.”
I fished my transcript out with my good hand and extended it to him. There weren’t many classes on it – just Harpy’s Tactics course, Oakes’ chemistry, and Hewes’ physics – Grey Coats didn’t get a full roster.
But still, I’d done far better than expected.
Lorne pursed his lips. “It’s sink or swim, and you’re not drowning.” That was probably the closest he ever got to a compliment. “And Matilla likes you.”
Matilla Geffray. The girl who controlled sand. Kaplen’s replacement, who joined in Lorne’s bullying without the slightest hesitation. Who’d been assaulted at the start of the school year by Commonplace thugs with bats.
Lorne floated the invitation into my palm. “Strict dress code. Don’t be late.”
I still hate you. For how he’d treated Kaplen, how he punched down to all the other students. How callous he was.
But still, I’d worked so hard for this. I’d spent so many nights awake in my pod, scribbling notes and practicing for exams until my hand ached. I’d washed so many of his clothes, fetched him so many meals. After class, I’d reviewed the most difficult concepts from every angle I could think of, asked Tasia a hundred questions until they fell into an intuitive shape.
I couldn’t help but feel a little proud. A little grateful.
The morning of the party, Lorne gave me the body and suit, so I could get used to it. A male body, even a healthy one, still felt uncomfortable. But it was nice to have all ten fingers working again, to not be shivering all the time, to have normal skin.
The young man in the mirror stood tall, with bulging muscles, a sharp jawline, and short blonde hair. Large, round eyes stared back at me in the mirror. A handsome form, certainly. The exact kind of form Lorne needed me to have.
The worst symptoms had vanished, for the present. But the twinge of disgust, of wrongness was still there.
For an instant, my mind jumped back to where it had been at the end of last summer. And I imagined stealing this body. Using my Vocation to get a ferry ticket to a foreign country and leaving this all behind, even if I didn’t love this body.
But I banished the thought. Why throw away everything now? I was making good money on Isaac Brin’s payroll. And the path to Paragon was looking clearer and clearer.
I arrived at the party half an hour early, just to be safe, striding to Lorne’s mansion from the Paragon cable car building. If I was late, he would yell at me.
As expected, his family’s estate was massive, especially given the city he was in. His stone front wall extended as far as the eye could see. To get to the mansion from the front gate, you had to cross three separate bridges over a network of canals, past five-tiered fountains and beneath intricate wooden pavilions.
The guards didn’t let me in, so I spent half an hour hanging around the front gate, sweating into my grey suit and nursing a stomachache. Don’t fuck this up, I repeated to myself. Don’t fuck this up.
When the party finally began, most of the guests showed up late. Only a handful of them were at the gates when Lorne strode across the bridges and clapped his hands, swinging them open. “Welcome!” he shouted. “I hope you’re ready to make some memories. And then get so drunk you forget them all.”
Cheering and laughter. I blinked, and for a second, I was back on the yacht, the Golden Moon, surrounded by rich people in masks. Staring across the deck at Kaplen as he vanished.
I blinked. Everyone else had already started for the mansion.
I jogged after him.
Inside, servants ushered us into a lavish ballroom, sporting beacon vine chandeliers, floating blue lanterns, and windows extending many stories from the floor to the ceiling, letting in the evening light. Upbeat swing music played from an amplified gramophone on a raised dais.
In less than a minute, the older nobles gathered into tight circles, sipping cocktails and complaining about Commonplace, or fuming about how well their rivals’ Ilaquan stocks were doing. Ilaqua’s GDP had eclipsed the Principality’s this quarter for the first time in history, and people weren’t happy about that.
More than half of the guests were Paragon students, though. But they had made tight circles too, muttering about professors and squad rankings and exams. Others convened in adjacent, smaller parlors, filling them up with tobacco smoke.
It reminded me of the other servants at Clementine’s house. Setting a hard boundary. Pushing people out.
And I was easy to push out. Lorne had given me a grey suit, the same color as my uniform, but everyone else wore in blue, or black, or white. The only others in grey were the servants.
So I hovered to the side, glancing around with a busy, focused expression, so it looked like I was alone on purpose, avoiding the towering plates of appetizers and pastries, declining offers of white wine or cocktails. This was just a temporary body. I didn’t want to taste anything until I’d earned it. And I’d lost all my appetite.
After half an hour of discomfort, Lorne approached me, and I found out why he’d dragged me here.
He pulled me in front of a tall woman in a shimmering blue gown, made from thousands of tiny scales, like the skin of a fish. Her wavy maroon hair had been tied back in a bun, and she smiled at me.
Isabelle Corbin. The Symphony Knight. The Scholar of Music.
And Lorne Daventry’s mother. A common-born Guardian who had refused to give her surname up to the noble she married.
She shook my hand. “Isabelle Corbin,” she said. “Wonderful to meet you. Wonderful.” Though she made eye contact with me, she seemed to almost be looking past me, like she was straining to see something behind me.
“Er – Ernest Chapman,” I said. I’d spent time around celebrities at Paragon, but this was a whole new level.
“Ernest has a disease,” Lorne said. “A terminal one. We’re trying to get him into Paragon as a proper student, so he can transfer to a fresh body and get his feet under him. I’ve been helping him study, boosting his grades up. It’s a lot of work, but I think we can both speak to the results.”
Corbin’s smile widened, and she nodded. “Good, Lorne. That’s very good. A noble of this nation has a duty. When you reach down and pull someone up, you live up to your country’s promise.”
Her smile seemed forced, her words rote and formulaic. Is she even paying attention?
Before I could ponder this, Lorne pulled me to another noble, a handsome man with long black hair. He introduced me, and launched into a conversation with him, too fast and complex for me to want to say anything.
Then the conversation turned to me, and Lorne gave him the same speech. “Great tragedy,” he said. “Ernest’s illness. But I’ve been trying to get him into Paragon as a proper student, get him a fresh body so he can get his feet under him. It’s a lot of work, getting his grades up in a school like this, but I think we can both speak to the results.”
He moved to another person, and we went through the same thing all over again. Talking of my illness. Praising his generosity.
Then we did it again. And again.
And I understood. I’m social capital for him. A trophy of his benevolence to parade around. Just like Clementine.
But Lorne was actually doing something for me. If it helped get me into Paragon, I could endure this.
In between bouts of parading me around, Lorne dragged me aside and gave me orders to pass on to his butlers. Refilling food, replacing one wine with another, yelling at the chef so that the Lord of Buxworth got his favorite dish, picking up his mail from the front to see if anything urgent arrived.
I welcomed the opportunity to leave the party. When I was outside that ballroom, I could catch my breath, take in the cool night air.
When I showed him the mail, he tossed it all aside, except for one engraved one in cursive from a luxury car company, and a sealed silver letter from some unknown address.
“Silver means it’s from Paragon,” he said, tucking it into his shirt. “Go talk to the chef. Tell him to double the custard tarts for the second half of the night.”
It was strange. Even though he was using me, even though he could be cruel at the drop of a hat, a part of me knew he had grown to respect me, to some extent. He believed in the survival of the fittest, and I’d managed to survive.
Lorne took me to a coffee table at the edge of the party, where a man in a beige suit lounged back on a couch, alone. A long black beard hung from his face, and the rest of his hair stretched almost to his shoulders.
The man looked peaceful, like he’d just woken from a restful sleep.
Headmaster Tau. The strongest projector in the world. Or the former strongest projector, since his aging Pith had filled up with Null Particles.
I gaped at him. This was Nicholas Tau. The man who’d built the Spirit Block, saved the country countless times, and instructed generations of students at Paragon with his patient wisdom.
And he was eating crab cakes. A whole platter of them. Crispy, brown, each with a dollop of caper sauce on top. He ate them with a silver fork, eyes lighting up with glee at every bite.
“Good evening,” he said to me.
“Er – Ernest Chapman, sir,” I said. “I’m Ernest Chapman.” Then I forced my lips shut, trying not to look a fool in front of the most famous person I’d ever met.
Lorne started his whole speech about me and his generosity. Halfway through, Headmaster Tau lifted a finger. “Not to interrupt, Mr. Daventry, but I believe your mother wished to talk with you about a private matter. I can keep your friend entertained in the meantime.”
“Of course, sir,” said Lorne. He walked away, shooting me a glare that said don’t make me look bad.
Then he was gone. Headmaster Tau beckoned me to sit. He extended the platter of crab cakes to me.
I held up my hand, though they looked delicious. “No thank you, sir. I’m stuffed enough as is.” I have to earn it.
“More for me,” Tau said, biting into another. He smiled at me, an easy, simple expression that made me feel warm. “You seem ill at ease, Ernest.”
“Is it that obvious?” I chuckled, sounding more nervous than I wanted to. Say as little as possible. I didn’t want to let anything slip. Tau had been one of the smartest men in the world, and had at least some of his wits still about him. “I’m not used to gatherings like these.”
“Few people are,” he said, leaning back. “There is a dance here, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, and these people have trained in it their whole lives. Do not feel guilty for not knowing the steps.”
He seems so lucid. This was nothing like Paragon’s opening banquet, where he’d struggled to even get through a pre-written speech.
“I’ve been to many gatherings such as these,” he said. “I learned to smile and nod at the right times, but they are not in my blood.” He spread sauce over a crab cake. “So I sit, find something tasty, and relax. And I don’t worry about what they’ll think of me.”
He makes it sound so easy. And, to be sure, the man’s calm expression hadn’t budged an inch.
“If, um, if I may ask then, sir. Why did you come here tonight? I don’t think anyone could force someone of your stature to attend an event, especially – “ At this age. I stopped myself.
“Especially because I’m a doddering, ancient goat?” he said, still smiling.
“I – I’m sorry, sir, I shouldn’t have – “
“There is no shame in stating the obvious.” Tau held up a hand. “In this stage, I am still sharp enough to know my condition, to be aware of my mental decline as it happens. On most days, at least.”
Is that a blessing or a curse?
“And my age makes me rather unpopular at parties,” he said.
“May I ask why?” Keep asking questions. The more he talked, the less I’d have to explain about myself.
“I remind these people. That no matter how young and powerful they are, they’re going to grow old and die. I might not have wrinkles or white hair, but every time I forget something, every time my mind wanders, they feel a whiff of terror.” He leaned back on the cushions. “One day, they will be right where I’m sitting, in a gathering like this, confused at all the music and too slow to keep up with the young people.”
He doesn’t make it sound very appealing.
“But it’s not so bad,” he said. “I am grateful that on a beautiful day such as this, I can be sound enough to hold a conversation with remarkable young folk like you, Ernest.”
I shook my head. “I’m no one remarkable.” Still, I felt a twinge of pride. That’s what he thinks of me?
“Mr. Daventry seems to disagree,” said Tau. “Those such as you are quick to downplay your talents. But that’s fine.”
He nodded. “Your destiny will reveal itself in time.”
A thrill rushed through my veins. He thinks I have a destiny? But I was just an assistant, a Grey Coat who came from nothing, who failed her admissions test three times in a row. But he thinks you have a destiny.
I had to remind myself to not get swept up too much, not to let slip my true identity.
“What about your destiny, sir?” I said. Fuck. Why had I said that? I was still on the rush. “Is there anything you can do about Commonplace?” Or the Shenti, or the rising water. “You’re still the strongest projector in the world. They say you can level mountains.”
“When you’re young,” he said. “You learn how to level mountains. But when you’re old, you realize that leveling mountains doesn’t solve anything. All it does is make a bunch of rubble.” He munched on a crab cake. “Now, putting a mountain back together. That’s a Vocation I’d pay to learn.”
That’s a tough pill to swallow. When the world was in this much chaos, how could anyone leave things the way they were? But maybe that wasn’t what he meant.
Headmaster Tau laughed. “Of course, I’d also pay for a Vocation to make crab appear out of thin air. So maybe I don’t know so much.” He finished his plate, brushing crumbs out of his beard. “My time has passed. I have sacrificed too much to bring us to this point. I will rise when I am called, but can only do it so many times before I fade.”
Lorne stepped next to me, glaring at me with a forced smile. “Chapman,” he said. “May I speak with you in private?”
The headmaster bowed his head to me. “It was lovely to meet you, Ernest.”
“Thank you – “ I bowed back to him, stiff in my movements. “It – it was nice to meet you too, sir.”
I don’t think I’ll ever understand that man. But that had to be a common effect of his. When you took one of the smartest minds in the world and choked half its soul particles, strange things were bound to happen.
And he said I had a destiny. He hadn’t talked to anyone else at the party.
Lorne pulled me aside. “My chef is missing from the kitchen,” he said. “My servants are idiots, and busy anyways. Find him, now. Before everything goes to shit.”
I nodded. “Understood.” I remembered what the chef looked like, after picking up a meal from him last month.
He’s either sick, in the bathroom, or smoking somewhere. I moved through the party, glancing at students sipping cocktails and Epistocrats in evening gowns.
Before I could reach the ballroom’s double doors, a girl’s voice drifted through the crowd, familiar. “ – and therefore, the inhibitory effect can be reduced, or erased.”
Tasia. I spun towards the source of the voice. Tasia stood near the middle of the room, gripping a full wine glass, dark circles under her eyes. Bunches of tangles hid under her straight black hair.
She must have arrived late.
I recognized the man and woman she was talking to. Lord Lynde and Lady Olwen. Two of Paragon’s reigning experts on pneumatology. They each stood half a head taller than Tasia, looking down on her with bemused curiosity.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Tasia, pleading. “The Great Scholars must have found a way to remove Null Particles. And we can too.”
“The Great Scholars drowned,” Lady Olwen said. “And crackpots have been dreaming up immortality schemes for millennia. Nobody’s solved it.”
“It’s not an immortality scheme. And Humdrums had been dreaming of flight for millennia. They didn’t figure that out ‘til a few decades ago.”
Lord Lynde smirked. “You’re suggesting that we take scientific cues from Humdrums?”
“How about this, then?” said Tasia. “Semer Bekyn invented the first Maxine Clive in your lifetime. Before then, fabricated bodies were nothing more than a fantasy.”
“It’s all been tried,” said Lady Olwen. “Voidsteel scalpels. Particle burning. Specialized mind-spheres. Using the Synapse and the Nadir.”
“I addressed those in my report,” said Tasia. “I’m not suggesting any of those things.”
“What next?” said Lord Lynde. “Should we turn mud into gold, drain the oceans, bring the stars back?”
“Forge the Stars in Your Image,” said Tasia.
“You do know that’s an expression, right?” said Lady Olwen. “It’s just saying you should imprint yourself onto the world. It’s a metaphor, not an endorsement for….misplaced hubris.”
“Listen,” said Lord Lynde. “It is noble and fine that students like yourself carry themselves with passion and vision. And your grades are admirable. But rather than looking to us for research help on this daydream, you should do something practical with your talents.”
“Lady Hewes in my department is sharpening several Praxis vocations for spatial awareness,” said Olwen. “I’m sure she’d welcome the help.”
“Annotating old books,” said Tasia, barely hiding her contempt. “Squeezing out a few percentage points on techniques that haven’t changed for decades.”
“Careful,” said Lady Olwen.
“This is the greatest projection school in the Eight Oceans,” said Tasia, desperation slipping into her voice. “So why is progress so stifled? Why is so much of the Great Library locked away from everyone?” She stared at the two of them. “What do you care more about? Stability, or building a better future?”
“Do not forget your place, Henry,” said Lord Lynde, raising his voice. “Your admission here is a gift. Not a certainty.”
In unison, the two of them strode off.
Henry. That had to be Tasia’s old name.
Tasia stalked into a side room, hyperventilating, turning her head down and hiding her face from the other guests.
I froze for a moment. Lorne will punish you if you fail. If his guests went without food and his party was anything less than perfect. And he’d forbidden me from talking to Tasia. If he caught me, I could lose so much progress, hurt my chances of getting into Paragon.
But she’s your friend. And she probably needed help.
Fuck it. I jogged after Tasia. Lorne’s chef could wait.
Tasia moved through drawing rooms and antechambers, past bookshelves and pianos until she reached a balcony, overlooking the rest of the Daventry’s estate.
She cried, wiping her tears and snot on the sleeve of her dress. I approached her from behind, calling out. “Tasia. Is this a bad time?”
Tasia glanced back at me, then looked away, hunching over the balcony. I stepped next to her, and looked at the view for a moment.
The balcony overlooked the network of canals, bridges, and gardens around the mansion. Lines of glowing blue lights illuminated the pathways beneath us.
And from this angle, we couldn’t see the city around us. It was if Elmidde had vanished. Like this mansion was the only place in the world.
“Did you hear that conversation?” Tasia said.
I nodded. “Most of it.”
“Those two were my best chance,” she sighed. “Of getting my project off the ground. Of creating a cure for Null Particles, or at least something. They want me to work on Praxis Vocations,” she said. “But those make more Null Particles. The more Praxis Vocations you use, the faster your mind ages, which puts hard limits on how many you can install. We can’t truly unlock our potential until we learn how to remove them. If we can’t fix that, we’ll never become Exemplars.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She squeezed her bloodshot eyes shut. “I thought that if I did the right work, if I showed them enough promise, that I could convince them.” She shook her head. “So stupid. My sister. Sarah, she’ll – “
She’ll drown in Null Particles. And she’ll be lucky to live another year. What could I say in the face of that? What words could possibly comfort her?
“A barbaric age,” she muttered. “We live in a barbaric age.”
“For what it’s worth,” I said. “I believe in your mission.” Though I wish you hadn’t Ousted Wes as part of it. That still sat in my stomach, burning a hole in my abdomen. “I still believe in you.”
“I can’t stay,” she said. “I have to get back to work.” We broke our embrace. “It’s alright. This just means I can solve more of the problems myself. Get all the credit.” She smiled at me through her tears. “It’ll be fun.”
Tasia’s failed so many times. Despite her talent, despite her knowledge of pneumatology. And yet, she didn’t stop. She kept chasing that dream with her love of learning, her hunger for knowledge.
If I’d been in her place, if I was as gifted, would I have done the same thing? Maybe. Tasia had such a grand vision. Maybe that was a privilege. All I could think about was getting through the day.
It sounded nice. Imagining a future, instead of the past.
“I’ll help you,” I said, clasping her hand. “I’ll do everything I can. If I get Lorne’s favor, I’ll use that too.” I stared at her. “I promise.”
Tasia stepped forward, hesitant, and hugged me. I wrapped my arms around her, hugging her back. Is this what she wants? Will this help?
When we broke apart, she just nodded at me, and strode back through the rooms, heading for the exit of the mansion.
When I returned to the hallway, Lorne was waiting for me. A man slouched over behind him, his hair covering his face.
“Enjoy your chat?” Lorne said.
My heart wrenched in my chest. A freezing sensation spread over my skin. He saw me. He’d seen me talking to Tasia. He’d forbidden me from talking to her, and I’d done it anyway.
There was only one way to protect myself, to keep my entire future from collapsing.
I knelt in front of Lorne, staring at the ground. “My apologies, sir. How can I repay this?”
Lorne pulled me to my feet, a pensive expression on his face. The silver envelope I’d picked out sat in his coat pocket, unopened. Then, he pointed at the man behind him, beckoning him to approach. His breath smelled like cheap liquor.
I recognized the light brown beard, the slim jaw and small eyes. That’s the Daventry’s chef. Lorne had found him before me.
“Poor Joshua was stressed from the day’s work, so he decided to go and get drunk in a bathroom instead of doing his job. Thanks to his laziness, the kitchen is in chaos now.” He looked at me. “You want to repay me? Nudge him.”
A spike of pain jabbed into my stomach. What?
“We’ll memory-wipe him after, it’ll be no fuss. Make him start punching that wall as hard as he can.”
I’d done a lot of petty, cruel bullying at Lorne’s orders. I’d ruined people’s evenings, vandalized their possessions, sabotaged their homework. More than enough to make me loathe myself.
But never physical violence. Never mental hijacking.
“Are – are you sure, sir?” I said. “It’s your mansion, he might damage the wall.” Maybe I can convince him away from this.
“It’s stone,” he said. “It’s not going to break.”
“Someone might see,” I said.
“They won’t,” he said. “People don’t come this way often.”
I closed my eyes, blood rushing in my ears. Every time I thought I made progress with Lorne, every time he seemed to show some sliver of humanity, he went off and did something like this.
I threw up visual and auditory illusions on Lorne, hiding me and the chef’s actions from him. Then I muttered to the chef, Joshua. “I’m not Nudging you. Go over to the wall. Do as I say, and he won’t hurt you.”
Confused, the chef nodded, and walked over to the wall.
“Go over to the wall,” I said with my illusions on Lorne, making it seem like I was Nudging the chef. “Start punching it as hard as you can. Don’t stop or make any noise.”
I made the illusions look and sound like he was punching the wall, fists thumping into the marble, face contorting in pain.
A few seconds passed. I added blood on the marble, making the chef’s knuckles torn and bleeding. I made tears run down his face, and his shoulders shake.
Finally, Lorne called out. “Enough.”
“Stop,” I said, and my illusory chef stopped punching the wall. I lined the real one up with the fake one, and kept making the knuckles look bloody.
Lorne placed a hand on the man’s forehead, and the man’s eyes went blank. He blinked, his recent memories wiped. The technique would keep wiping his memory for the next few minutes, so the chef wouldn’t remember what happened right now either.
“Go,” said Lorne. “You go with him, Chapman. Make sure the kitchen’s back in order. I don’t want to see blood in the soup.”
I bowed, and made it seem like I was jogging after the chef, keeping Lorne fooled with my Vocation until he stepped into another room and shut the door behind him.
When I arrived at the kitchen, I wrote down a note and floated it in the chef’s pocket. Lord Daventry thinks you were Nudged into punching the wall, and that you injured your hands in the process. Put bandages on the next time you see him, or he’ll punish you. Speak nothing of this.
As I left the kitchen, I made an illusory whisper into his ear. “Check your pocket.”
Hopefully, that would be enough.
The rest of the party went by without issue, though I stayed tense the entire time, terrified that Lorne would notice my deception.
Time passed. The party ended. The guests drifted out, and I swapped back to my normal body, under careful guard. And Lorne insisted that I help clean up with the servants. Another punishment for speaking with Tasia. The real punishment would probably come later.
After mopping the floors and scrubbing dishes for hours, I managed to leave close to midnight, jogging out the front gates towards the cable car station, in hopes of catching the last tram back to Lowtown.
As I ran along the cobble street, something flew out of the darkness, shooting towards me.
I dove to the side, stretching my soul around me. Feeling a Pith ahead of me, I threw an illusion over it, making it look like the projectile had hit me. As I ran to the side, illusion-Ana crawled on her belly, groaning and bleeding out of a stomach wound. I projected into my clothes, preventing anyone from yanking me around.
A dark figure stood ahead of me, cloaked in shadow.
Damn it. I’d left my machine pistol, body armor, and cattle prod back in my sleeping capsule. They would have been noticed at the party.
I reached under my belt and slid out a square and a rectangle. They expanded into three dimensions, becoming a frag grenade and a knife. Wes’ flattening Vocation.
I threw the grenade forward, pulling the pin, and floated it so it sat just behind the dark figure, making it a shield between me and the explosion. Then I charged at him from an angle, driving my knife towards its throat.
The knife froze. The grenade didn’t detonate.
Up close, I could make out the figure’s features. Olive skin. Dark brown hair. Sideburns. Isaac Brin.
I glanced behind me. A dart lay on the cobblestone.
“Half a year ago, that would have hit you,” said Brin. His eyes glimmered at me. “This one wouldn’t have ripped your guts out, of course, just given you an annoying pinprick. But you dodged it all the same.”
I exhaled, relaxing, and let go of the knife. Crickets chirped in the public park next to us.
Brin floated an inch off the ground, his legs hanging limply beneath him. A metal contraption floated down above him and unfolded, becoming a wheelchair that slid beneath him as he sat down. Scholars, is he paralyzed?
“What happened?” I said.
“The Pyre Witch,” he said. “And a sniper with Voidsteel. Pictogram. The one you fought on Attlelan Island.”
“Did you win?”
The exhausted look in his eyes was his answer.
“I’m so sorry.” I wanted to comfort him, but had no idea how. Would he even want it? “Do have a job for me, then, Major?”
“We lost,” he said. “But they’re quieting down. Commonplace. Tunnel Vision’s mob. The Broadcast King’s affiliates. Whoever that leader is, the person you mentioned with half a thumb. And nothing from the secret Shenti connections you saw. Fewer attacks, operations, shipments. I’d still move out of that house on North Island and your sleeping, but the mob probably won’t move on you for at least a week. They’re not moving on anyone.”
“I don’t know,” he said, staring into the darkness. “And that scares me more than anything. They’re getting ready for something.”
“So you have nothing,” I said, sighing.
“Apologies,” he said. “You are close to your required amount, no?”
Don’t let him know how desperate you are. Or how close. That could be leverage for him to pay me less.
“I’ve got a ways to go,” I lied. I’m just a few thousand away.
“Well,” said Brin. “I have nothing new. But if you don’t make enough by the end of the year, or if your body decays and leaves you unable to work, show me your funds and I’ll pay for the rest.”
I threw up an illusion, masking my surprise, and the thrill that ran through my body. Why would he do that? Was this just a fake reward, another tool to control me?
“I know you don’t trust me,” said Brin. “And that’s smart, the world is full of liars. And there’s nothing I can say to prove my honesty. But it’s the truth.” He handed me a silver card, reflecting moonlight off its surface.
Major Isaac Brin
The Scholar of Mass
Director | Principality Counterintelligence Division
Professor | Physics, Paragon Academy
His business card. And a sign of his favor.
Isaac Brin looked straight at me. “I’m proud of you, Anabelle Gage. And I will not let you die.”
Crickets chirped in the trees around us. In the distance, one of the trams chugged along its rail, heading down the mountain to Midtown.
“What was that you told me,” he said, “on the night we first met? About caterpillars dying?”
“Most caterpillars die in the cocoon,” I said. “They’re eaten by animals or injected with parasitic wasp eggs. A majority of them never get to become butterflies.”
“Do you still believe that?”
It’s a fact. It’s not about belief. But that wasn’t what he meant.
I thought about Headmaster Tau, and his speech to me about destiny. I thought about how close I was to a new body, a new life.
“There were men and women,” I said. “Crawling over each other’s corpses on Lyna Wethers’ yacht. And Kaplen, he forced me to feed him – “ I closed my eyes. “In a flash, the Silver Flask cafe turned into a mass grave full of rubble. Your other mercenaries – the Shenti man, the woman with mortars – they both died too, on Attlelan Island.” I stared at the ground. “How many of them had hopes and dreams and ambitions? How many of them thought this was just the beginning of their story?” I clenched my teeth. “Of course I still believe that. How could I not?”
You told me yourself. It doesn’t get easier, but you do get used to it. My soul was worth fighting for, but that didn’t mean I would win. I could write the next page, again and again, but that wouldn’t fix my circumstances.
Brin got a sad look in his eyes, and sagged in his wheelchair. “I hope you are proven wrong.”
The chair unfolded, and he soared into the air, vanishing into the darkness.
Instead of returning to my capsule, I went to Hira’s house.
The conversation with Brin, Lorne’s cruelty, watching Tasia’s dream struggle for breath. If I went back to my sleeping pod, I knew I’d just toss and turn in the cramped space, obsessing over all that, and thinking about everything that could go wrong.
Lorne could get worse. He could ask me to do something that went utterly beyond my moral code, something I couldn’t do, no matter how much he offered me.
Then all my work would have been for nothing. It had taken half a year of all-nighters and tears to get to this point, and he could break it all with a snap of his fingers.
I took the last tram down to North Island and passed through the bustling Neke night market, past stalls hawking sea urchin and persimmons and wall hangings. The place where Wes and I’d been tailing Hira only a few months ago.
Ignoring the vendors, I strode out the far end, to the alleyway that was Emerald Street, and the squat yellow building halfway down, number 189.
The members of Queen Sulphur sat on the front steps of Hira’s house.
Wes, pouring a bottle of sake into a coffee mug, petting Cardamom’s green fur, while the cat purred on his lap. Hira, dressed in bright orange, her Left body puffing her purple hookah, her Right body sharing the sake with Wes. And Jun, leaning back against the wall, munching on spicy chicken skewers from a cardboard takeout box.
Orange lights from the night market lit up their smiles. Their voices drifted through the cool spring night. “Praxis is the best, obviously,” said Wes. “You could fix anything wrong with your Pith, turn your mind into a powerhouse. It makes you smart.”
“Being smart is overrated,” said Right-Hira, while her other body took a long, slow puff. “I’d rather be red-hot, rich, and famous any day. If I were a Joining specialist, I could do anything to my body, with no consequences.”
“You could just learn Joining the normal way,” said Jun, leaning forward and petting Cardamom. “‘Specialist’ just means your Vocation.”
“Too much work,” said Left-Hira, blowing out smoke that smelled of sour cherries.
Wes saw me and raised his bottle. “Ana!” Everyone laughed and cheered, all drunk except Jun.
I couldn’t taste any of the food, and I couldn’t get drunk anymore without vomiting up blood, now that my liver had decayed. So I sat down on the top step, and leaned against Hira’s front wall, taking care to avoid pushing on the booby-trapped front door.
“Settle our debate,” said Wes, scratching behind Cardamom’s ears. “If you could pick any specialization, which would you choose? Praxis, Whisper, Physical, or Joining?”
“I’ve got to go with you here,” I said. “Praxis specialization opens all kinds of doors. I don’t think I could even imagine being a Joining specialist.” I can’t even imagine feeling at home in my body.
“Alright, alright,” said Wes. “Next question: If you could get drunk with any projector from history, who would you pick?”
“That depends,” said Hira. “Can I beat the shit out of them while drinking?”
As the conversation wound on into the night, and we cracked open a game of Jao Lu, I found myself doing something I wasn’t very good at, or experienced with.
I forgot my body. I forgot the stench of my sweat, my broad shoulders, the tufts of grey hair.
And I wasn’t escaping into my mind. I was here.
In the coming days, we’d have to leave this place, move to some new location, stay hidden from the Pyre Witch’s assassins.
But for now, I sat back, closed my eyes, and just breathed.
I woke up slow, with a throbbing headache.
The nausea hit next, and the stomachache soon after. I exhaled, feeling the dryness of my mouth. When my eyes fluttered open, the morning light glared at me, grey and bright and stinging. A hangover? How? I hadn’t drunk a single drop of liquor last night.
The first thing I saw was a bullet hole in Hira’s ceiling. How on earth did that get there?
Back to work. The world didn’t stop turning just because I felt like death.
Groaning, I pushed myself off Hira’s couch, and rubbed the crust off my squinting eyes. Wes boiled a pot of water on the stove, flipping through jars of tea leaves and muttering to himself. He ran his fingers through his tangled brown hair, his mouth hanging half-open, dark circles under his eyes.
“Finally up?” he said. “You look almost as bad as I do.”
I staggered forward, grey hair falling in my face. I was still wearing my grey assistant’s coat. “Did I drink last night and forget it?” Did I swallow a Kraken’s Bone pill by accident? Or Jun’s tranquilizer?
Wes shook his head. “If you did, we’d probably be carrying you to the hospital now.”
“Then why – “ I coughed. “ – do I feel so terrible?”
He shrugged. “Don’t ask me, I slept through all my biology classes.”
Left-Hira’s voice rang out from the second floor. “I asked Jun.” She jogged down the stairs, her hair wet from a shower. “He says it’s your liver. It’s still fucked up from the decay, and that’s one of the symptoms.”
“Fuck me.” I’m still running out of time.
“He says to ‘hydrate, don’t panic, and stay out of fights’.”
Wes handed me a cup of water. “Well, one out of three.”
“Thanks,” I murmured. He poured me a mug of tea to go with it.
Hira sat down on the couch, folding her hands behind her head, smiling. Grey morning light washed over her through the shut curtains.
“You look great,” I said. “How come you don’t have a hangover?”
“My other body got drunk,” she said. “That one’s going out to pick up breakfast with Jun and that scrap metal car he made. Paratha and baozi and whatever you Principians eat. Fried custard sausage or whatever. We’re out of food here.”
My stomach growled. Despite all my symptoms, I was starving. “Not even marmalade?”
“I don’t know what the fuck that is,” said Hira. “But I don’t have it in this house.” She waved her hand. “My other body is on the way back, don’t worry.”
“Drive fast,” said Wes. “I’ll teach you all about the strange wonders of marmalade.”
“Strange,” said Hira. “The morning market was here when I left with Jun an hour ago. It’s empty now?”
“What?” I said.
“Someone cleared the people out.”
“Get down!” hissed Hira.
Wes and I dove for the floor, flattening ourselves. My shoulder ached from the impact.
Spherical objects smashed through the windows, bouncing off the wall and landing on the floor. White steam hissed out of them, spreading throughout Hira’s living room. Smoke. A sharp, chemical odor filled the room, and my dizziness tripled.
Not smoke, gas. My chest tightened.
A booming woman’s voice shouted from a megaphone. “Anabelle Gage, 516-R, Hira Kahlin, Jun Kuang!”
Penny Oakes. The Obsidian Foil’s wife. A chemist, and Physical specialist.
“This is the Elmidde Police department! You have thirty seconds to come out before we are authorized to use lethal force!”
They know my real name. I’d been exposed. Everything was over. Brin’s jobs, my chances with Lorne, my odds of getting a new body. I’m going to die in prison. The world became hazy around me, and my chest pulsed, hyperventilating.
“What the fuck do we do?” hissed Wes. “Ana?”
Don’t panic. My mind raced. Think, idiot, think. What do you know?
They’re not authorized to use lethal force yet. Which meant the gas wouldn’t kill us.
They know our names. Which meant they knew we were projectors. They would have Voidsteel, maybe even counters for our Vocations. There would be more Guardians among them, not just Oakes.
But they said ‘Jun Kuang’. They thought all four of us were still in the building. They didn’t know Jun and Right-Hira had left earlier. And we didn’t have an execution order, which meant they thought little of our projection skills.
Fire rushed through my veins. They’re underestimating us.
Hira floated metal bowls and glass jars on top of the gas grenades, stopping them from releasing any more.
“Don’t shoot!” I screamed. “We’re coming out!”
At the same time, with my illusions, I drew arrows and instructions over reality, outlining the beginnings of a strategy for Wes and Hira, who hefted their briefcase and sniper rifle.
“Ready?” I said with my illusions.
The two of them nodded. Hira tossed me the pieces of my machine pistol. I caught them with projection, assembled them, and slid the clip into place.
“Don’t shoot!” I shouted. “I’m trying to get through the smoke!”
“On my mark,” I said. “Three, two, one – “
I wasn’t ready to give up yet.