The guards dropped onto the lawn, twitching, as Hira’s electricity ran through their nerves.
Wes and I broke from the line of manicured bushes, sprinting up the hill through the darkness. We knelt next to the guards and injected syringes of tranquilizer into their necks. They went limp.
“This,” said Wes under his breath. “Is either the best idea you’ve ever had, or the dumbest mistake in our lifetimes.” His black ski mask muffled his voice.
“That’s every mission we’ve done,” said the masked Left-Hira, dragging a guard behind a dark bush, away from the lights on the mansion’s front gate. “I joined Queen Sulphur because you guys were fun, not because of your good judgment.”
Jun walked up and fiddled with the gate lock, jamming a pair of lockpicks in. “I thought you joined to protect yourself from the Broadcast King.” After a few seconds, the gate swung open.
“True,” said Right-Hira. “But I never would have considered it if you people were the boring careful type.”
We all jogged forward through the mansion’s sparse grounds, staying in the shadows, avoiding pools of light. No fountains or canals, no giant sculptures or topiaries. Restrained, for a woman worth over a hundred million pounds.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine.” Jun sat down and leaned against the front door. “We made it this far, didn’t we?” He crossed his legs and closed his eyes, taking deep, slow breaths. Green and purple lightning flickered around him.
While he worked, the rest of us sat on the grass, projecting out the dew to make a dry circle. I stared up at the night sky, and the twin crescent moons overhead.
“Are you sure about this?” whispered Hira. “Are you sure it was the Pyre Witch who sold you your body?”
“Of course,” I hissed, rubbing my arms as I shivered. “My pattern-matching vocation confirmed that she used the same type of shell company and anonymous trust layering as Sapphire Industrial. The vocation doesn’t make mistakes.”
But others did use shell companies, not just the mob. What if they were using the same techniques, too?
No. The timing was too perfect. It had to be Tunnel Vision. Who else would be running a scam like that in the Principality? Only organized crime.
“Hanging out with you is fucking weird,” said Hira. “I never know whether you’re a genius or the biggest idiot in the world.”
“I believe her,” said Wes.
“Let’s just focus on the mission,” I said. I can stress about this later.
“Even if this works,” whispered Wes. “It won’t be admissible in a court of law.”
“No,” I muttered. “It’ll be better.”
“And the idiot Humdrums might not believe you.”
“I’m sure many of them won’t,” I said. And they’re not all idiots.
“And after we do this, everyone is going to try and kill us,” said Wes.
“Weren’t they already doing that?” said Hira.
“Everyone is going to try and kill us more,” said Wes.
“Maybe,” I said. There were a lot of unknowns. But a day ago, I’d come this close to committing suicide with a plan, so this was a step up.
“To be honest,” said Hira. “I’m surprised that no one has tried this idea before.”
“That’s good for us, right?” said Wes. “It means we’re intrepid trailblazers.”
“Or,” said Left-Hira. “We’re dumb fucks who can’t see the obvious pitfalls.” She finished assembling my machine pistol, and loaded our one Voidsteel bullet into the side chamber. Miraculously, it fit. With projection, I could load the Voidsteel into the main chamber at any time and fire it.
Hira dropped the gun into my shaking hand, and nodded at me.
Is it shaking because of decay? Or was it my fear again? My stomach was aching too. Is this a good plan? My shoulders tightened, and I forced myself to take slow, patient breaths.
Jun stood up. “The alarm system is down. That was fun!” His eyes lit up. “The power operated on a redundant system that kicked in when one source was cut, which meant I needed to use a pattern of alterations to avoid the loop creating a – “
“Jun,” said Wes. “We don’t have engineering degrees.”
“Right,” he said. “Sorry. I cut the phone lines, too, and locked the front gate.” He pushed open the door, beckoning us in.
I held up my machine pistol and cattle prod, and moved in.
We walked through the dark house, our footsteps quiet on the smooth wooden floors. Moonlight streamed in through floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating vast, open rooms filled with plush couches, television sets, and piles of uneaten snack food, with a dead fireplace in the corner of the room.
A chocolate fountain burbled on a marble countertop. Some people have too much money.
Left-Hira scooped up a handful of chocolate and poured it in her mouth. Her right body did the same. She wiped her hands on her pant legs and checked the cable launchers attached to her arms. Wes unlatched his briefcase.
Then Hira held up her fist and knelt. Stop.
We stopped, taking cover in the shadows.
Footsteps clunked on the wood floor, and a pair of guards walked past us, carrying pistols and muttering about something.
Hira made a motion, ran up with her two bodies, and grabbed the guards’ necks, shocking them. She lowered them to the ground, and we injected them with tranquilizer.
At the far end of the living room, down a staircase, another pair of guards stood on a balcony, overlooking a swimming pool lower on the hillside.
And beyond them, we saw a spectacular view. On the other side of Meteor Bay, the lights of Elmidde spread out before us, a carpet of lights wrapping around Mount Elwar, dwarfed only by the glow of Paragon high above. A group of clouds surrounded the floating islands, lit up blue and red and green by the lights of the academy, glowing in the sky.
Hira signaled to us. Jun projected forward and slid open the door, making a soft scraping noise.
The guards at the balcony turned around, and Left-Hira shot the cables forward from the tops of her wrists, grabbing onto one end and touching the other end to the guards’ necks. Electricity ran through them, and the guards dropped to the ground with two loud thuds, twitching.
Wes and I ran forward. Two more injections.
Footsteps rang out from the staircase below. “Someone heard the commotion,” I hissed. “We – “
Another guard clambered up the stairs, aiming his shotgun at us.
Wes jabbed his hand forward, and a blanket shot off the couch, wrapping around the guard’s head, muffling his shouts as it shook him back and forth. The Humdrum pulled the trigger of his weapon, but it didn’t fire. Hira’s jamming it.
Right-Hira, closest to the stairway, sprinted forward and grabbed the guard’s wrist, shocking him, then injecting him with the knockout drugs.
The guard slumped to the ground, and I exhaled.
“How many guards did you say she had?” said Wes.
“Eight,” said Hira. From our last stakeout. “And her red-hot boyfriend’s out of town.”
I did a quick count in my head. “We’ve taken out seven.” I glanced around. “Where’s the last one?”
A soft splash rang out in the distance.
Then the house shook. The floor to ceiling windows shattered, and a flower vase fell off a shelf, breaking into pieces.
A thick tentacle of water reached up from below the balcony. The tip of it narrowed into an icy blade, and it stabbed forward at me. I leapt to the side, and the tentacle punched into the floor, sinking a foot deep.
As I clambered away, I caught a whiff of chlorine. Water from the swimming pool.
Our target had hired a projector.
The tentacle bulged, pulling up something from below. A huge mass heaved itself over the balcony, and thudded onto the floor of the living room.
It resembled a giant octopus, made of dozens of ice-tipped water tentacles, all converging at a sphere in the middle. A short-haired woman floated in the middle of the sphere, breathing from an oxygen tank.
I aimed my pistol and squeezed the trigger. The gun kicked back, firing a suppressed burst at the projector. Hira fired at it with her black trench shotgun and sniper rifle.
The bullets made white streams of bubbles in the water, curving around the projector. An ABD.
I had to stop myself from throwing an illusion on her. Lorne’s still got the tracer on you. I could shoot her with my one Voidsteel bullet, but it’d be hard to recover and I wanted to save it. Besides, we were trying to avoid killing anyone.
The tentacles lashed out, cleaving the coffee table in two. We dashed out of the way, and Wes shot paper out of his briefcase, forming walls in front of the woman’s vision. Jun floated the unconscious guards’ guns over to him, breaking them down into parts.
The tentacles swung blindly, tearing through the paper, smashing couches, and ripping through columns. We ran back to the far end of the room, keeping our distance.
One of the tentacles stabbed a marble wall and got stuck, trying to pull itself out. Hira jumped over a broken chair and touched the tentacle with one of her cables, electricity running through her palms.
Nothing. The woman didn’t react. The water yanked the cable out of Hira’s grasp, and Hira leapt back, sprinting with us to another room. The water must be insulating her somehow. And Hira couldn’t penetrate it with her weak cable launchers.
We ran. The water-octopus dragged itself towards us, smashing through walls and doorways. I gasped, out of breath almost instantly.
“Your cables!” shouted Jun. The gun parts floated in front of him, crackling with green lightning, and a piece of the kitchen faucet broke off, adding itself to his contraption.
Hira tossed him her remaining cable with her wrist launcher, and he grabbed it, working it into the storm of lightning and metal before him.
“Why are we always running?” shouted Wes. “Are all mercenaries just cowards?”
“We’re not mercenaries,” said Jun, panting as he assembled his machine. “We’re unemployed. We should file for assistance.”
“Shut the fuck up and run,” said both Hiras, throwing debris at the water-monster behind us to slow it down.
One of the tentacles whipped forward and slammed into my back, flinging me forward. I crashed next to the stone fireplace, and something snapped in my shoulder, sending stabbing pain throughout my torso. Dislocated?
I tried to stand up, and the pain tripled, forcing me back to a sitting position as I wheezed for breath.
“Help her!” shouted Wes.
Hira’s bodies grabbed me, and ran towards one of the living room’s exits. A tentacle smashed the doorway, blocking it with a pile of rubble. The projector did the same to the other exit, covering our last escape with her water monster.
“Cover!” shouted Hira. Wes exploded his paper barriers, shooting them all at the sphere of water, distracting the projector.
Jun grabbed a poker from the fireplace, broke off the handle, and dropped it in the gun he’d assembled, as he tossed it to Hira.
As the woman tore through the last barrier, Right-Hira grabbed the makeshift gun, spun around, and fired.
The poker punched through the water sphere, stabbing the woman’s calf. Hira’s cable connected it to Jun’s weapon. A harpoon.
Hira grabbed the cable, and electricity crackled through it. The water-monster dissolved, splashing onto the floor. The woman collapsed, twitching. Wes staggered forward, pulled out a syringe, and injected her in the neck. She fell unconscious.
An instant later, all three gathered around me, inspecting my shoulder.
“Are you alright?” said Wes. “I mean, apart from your impending death and all the people trying to murder us.”
“Your shoulder is dislocated,” said Jun.
“You can pop it back in, right?” I said. “You just have to – “
Something wrenched my arm around, and another wave of pain exploded in my shoulder.
“Ow!” I grimaced.
“Done,” said Hira. “Put a splint on it later, let’s get going.”
I stood up, able to move again, but the pain didn’t fade, a throbbing ache that refused to go away. Is that going to heal right?
“That’s eight,” said Hira.
We found the target at the front gate, trying and failing to climb out. A tall blonde woman in a frilly nightgown, dark circles under her eyes, armpits soaked with sweat. The famous star of a radio show, Verity.
“Christea Ronaveda,” Wes called out.
She turned to face us. “Scholars,” she said. “Not more fans. Do you want an autograph, nude photographs, or my severed head on a platter?” Her nose wrinkled. “All three?”
“The first one,” said Wes.
“No,” I said, stepping in. “No, none of those. Let’s go back inside.”
“You know,” said Christea Ronaveda. “Rich people store most of their assets in abstract stocks and real estate. If you want to make money, you should rob casinos or armored trucks.” We pushed her back towards the house. “Or chain restaurants,” she said. “They have loads of cash on hand and none of the employees care enough to stop you.”
“Quiet,” I said, shoving her, trying to sound scary. She talks even more than Wes.
We went back inside, stepping over piles of rubble, glass shards, and shredded pieces of furniture, and passing unconscious guards in the corridors. The chocolate fountain in the kitchen had been knocked over, and a pool of fondue spread across the floor, seeping into a carpet.
In other places, water from the swimming pool soaked into the floor, dripping down staircases, filling the whole house with the stench of chlorine.
Ronaveda sighed at the damage, and stared at the spilled chocolate. “Ants,” she muttered. “Not more ants.”
Hira pushed Ronaveda out a doorway and down a path, to the edge of her empty swimming pool, overlooking the glimmering lights of the city. She forced the celebrity to a sitting position.
“A few questions,” I said. “About your Vocation.”
“Sure,” Ronaveda said. “If you kill me, please make it fast and let me take some painkillers first.”
“First,” I said. “Why did Paragon ban you from using your truth aura in court?”
“Due to a combination of incompetence and laziness,” said Ronaveda. “I’ve been unable to write a Vocation Codex. As a result, I can’t share my Vocation with anyone. Paragon said they didn’t want this country’s legal system to become dependent on a single mortal woman.” She shrugged. “That’s what they said, at least.”
“And what do you think?”
“They’re afraid,” she said. “Guardians and Epistocrats stay off my show because they’ve got dirty laundry. Why go on a show when they’re forced to tell the truth?”
“Second,” I said. “How does your Vocation interact with other Praxis and Whisper Vocations?”
“If your mind’s been altered a fuckload,” said Ronaveda, “the truth aura won’t work normally. You’ll freeze up, stutter. It’ll be difficult for you to communicate anything at all. Skill-stitching’s the only real exception.”
I glanced at Hira out of the corner of my eye.
“In the early days of Verity,” Ronaveda said, “people tried to Nudge guests beforehand, or encrypt their memories before going onto my show. It never worked. To my knowledge, it’s impossible to use mental projection to lie under my aura. You have to believe you’re telling the truth. Only genuine delusion would work.”
I nodded. “Third. If someone makes a promise under your Vocation, are they bound to keep it?”
Ronaveda shook her head. “You can’t lie about your intentions, but your intentions can change. For example, if you swear to quit drinking, then find out that your high school bully has become a CEO with ten times your salary, that might make you down a few shots.”
“Sorry,” said Jun. “If that really happened to you.”
“That being said,” she added. “If you make a promise under my Vocation, someone can ask you what might change your mind, and how likely you are to keep your word.”
Excellent. Then we could move forward.
I pointed to Left-Hira. “Use your Vocation on her.”
Christea Ronaveda nodded, and blue and purple lightning crackled around her face. “Done.” Hira was now unable to tell lies.
Left-Hira knelt next to her, clenching her fist. “I’m lowering my voice and getting in your personal space so I sound more intimidating,” she said. “But I’m regretting that now, because your shampoo smells like the fucking tears of the Oversoul and I’m jealous. Is that sage?”
“Rosemary,” said Ronaveda.
“Where did you buy it?”
“Hey,” said Wes. “Stop flirting with her and get to the point.”
“Lund pe chadh,” said Hira.
“Takmeel Beauty Lounge,” Ronaveda whispered.
“Thanks,” said Hira. “Here’s the deal: You have a tape recorder here somewhere, right?”
“We’re gonna use it to record something,” said Hira. “Then, you’re going to promise to play that recording on tomorrow’s Verity show. And you’ll do everything in your power to play the whole thing. No stops, no breaks, no cop calls.”
“And if I don’t?” said Ronaveda.
“I’ll k – “ Hira clenched her teeth, struggling to speak under the truth aura. “No, fuck, I won’t kill you, I like you too much. And we won’t kill your guards, either. But I will…shoot both your kneecaps, break your fingers, and then burn down your house.” She glanced back at the mansion. “What’s left of it. Which, all in all, would probably ruin your week.” Hira projected into a guard’s shotgun, pulling it into her hand. “So? How about it?”
“That depends,” said Ronaveda. “If you’re calling for mass murder, I’ll probably just get the police. And I can’t stop my producers if they want to cut off my broadcast halfway through. I’d need to hear your message first.”
“Fair enough,” I said, massaging my shoulder. “Let’s get the tape recorder.”
First, we moved to a different house.
When Verity aired, we didn’t want to be anywhere near our Commonplace-sympathizing housemates, or anyone else. Hira had already found an empty basement in a ruined building on the far side of North Island, in a neighborhood even more run-down and empty than the old one.
It took a while to move our few possessions across town, along with a frustrated Cardamom. We couldn’t use projection in public, and my shoulder was still aching from the mission.
It even took longer to make sure we weren’t being followed. Wes grumbled about how dirty and cramped it was, but after a few eye-rolls from Hira, he quieted down.
After forcing Ronaveda to record our statement, he’d gotten her to sign her name on a scrap of paper he ripped from one of her books, which technically counted as an autograph. That probably improved his mood too.
By the time we’d settled into the dusty basement and cleared out all the spiders, the sun had sunk past the late afternoon, setting over the horizon. The clock struck 7:58 – almost time for Verity to air.
The building’s first and second floors had been demolished, so we sat on the rubble above the basement, exposed to the air.
I leaned back on a blanket, staring up at the night sky. The clouds had vanished, and the twin moons shone down on us, two perfect orbs in the darkness.
Cardamom sat on my lap, purring. The rest of Queen Sulphur leaned back with me, and Jun tuned the makeshift radio he’d built. “ – presents, Verity, with Christea Ronaveda!”
Jun twisted the dials, editing out the static. “Good evening,” said Christea Ronaveda. “I mean that as a generic sort of greeting. It’s not actually a good evening. My chocolate fountain got trashed, ants are swarming over my house, and also the world is ending. Though for once, it wasn’t my fault.”
Now, the critical moment. Whether our efforts would pay off or not.
“We’re changing things up this evening. I’ve asked my producers to let me play this audio clip on air, and they’ve agreed not to cut me off or take it away from me or tackle me to the floor.” She cleared her throat. “When it’s over, I’ll let you know what I think. But for now, I’ll stop being cryptic and let the recording speak for itself.”
A click rang out from the radio, the tape recorder starting. “My name is Anabelle Gage.”
I winced as I heard my voice. Even after the work I’d done on it, it still sounded weird played back to me. And I could hear the hesitation in my voice, the fear.
“I failed three times to get into Paragon Academy. I became a mercenary for them, then a fugitive, when I was discovered.” The recording took a deep breath. “My body is decaying. I’m probably going to die in the next few months. But before I do, I’d like to do my part. I’ve done so many things I regret. I’d like to leave behind something good.”
They hadn’t taken the show off the air yet, or stopped the recording. So far, so good.
“I’m saying this under the truth aura of Christea Ronaveda. She can testify to this.” The recording paused, and silence hung in the air. “Commonplace is lying to the Principality. It’s conspiring with the mob, the Pyre Witch, and Afzal Kahlin to overthrow our government. It scammed innocents with defective bodies, preying on their hopes and letting them rot away.” Pain slipped into my voice. “It freed Lyna Wethers from prison, unleashing her on hundreds of innocents so she could make Paragon look bad. And it accepts billions in military equipment from its real backer: Shenti Warlords. The foreign monsters who almost destroyed this world are now conspiring to break our nation from within.”
That was the strongest bit. The mob, Wethers, scams – those were all bad, but after the war, Principians hated the Shenti more than the rest of them combined.
“I don’t believe this,” the recording said. “I know this. I’ve been on Attlelan Island, where they ship their weapons. I’ve watched Lyna Wethers’ victims crawl over each other’s corpses, blind and mute.” My voice slowed. “For the last decade of my life, I’ve been scared almost every day. Scared of dying, of failing, of losing my identity and being trapped in this withering corpse. I carry that fear in my Pith. When I drag myself out of bed in the morning. When I drift through the ruins of my life. When I force myself to fall asleep.”
A cool breeze blew over my face, and I closed my eyes. Millions of people are listening to this. It made me want to run back to the basement, hide under a table, and throw up.
“But these monsters scare me more than anything else.” The recording raised its voice. “So, to the citizens of the Principality. If you believe in order. If you still love this nation, despite its flaws. If you still believe in magic. I ask you to fight. Beat back the Shenti, and their puppets. Take back the Principality.”
A pause, then –
“The choice is yours. It always was.”
The radio clicked. The recording ended.
I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding, and sat up on the blanket, gazing at the dark street around me.
Wes stepped forward and hugged me. I hugged him back. Behind him, both Hiras nodded at me. Jun stared at the ground, avoiding eye contact.
Ronaveda continued. “So, this ‘Anabelle Gage’ and her friends broke into my house last night and forced me to record this while I used my truth Vocation on her. They knocked out my guards, threatened me, and wrecked half my house, but, to my surprise, I think I believe what they – “
Jun clicked off the radio. “We won’t see the results until later, so until then, may I suggest we get some sleep?” He stepped down the staircase, back into the basement.
Hira shrugged with both bodies. “Not like there’s anything else to do in this dump.” She walked down after Jun. Cardamom stood up and padded after them. I scratched between his ears as he left.
And then it was just me and Wes.
Wes leaned back against a broken wall, gazing up at the sky. “You know, all those months ago, just before we first met – “
“Half a lifetime ago,” I said.
Wes nodded. “I never told anyone this, but I made a choice. I was standing on North Bridge, looking up at Florence Tuft flying with her students in that fighter plane.”
“Crooked Talon,” I said.
“I could have moved in with Leo. Accepted a quiet Humdrum’s life. But I saw her, and I wanted to fly. I wanted to fly.” He chuckled. “The more time passed, the more ridiculous that seemed. A dumb, impossible fantasy.” He turned to me, his eyes filled with excitement. “Not anymore.”
I nodded. In my speech, I’d mentioned Afzal Kahlin – connected him to the mob, Commonplace, and most importantly, the Shenti. It wouldn’t be legal evidence, but if it turned public opinion enough, it might help bring action against the Broadcast King, wipe out the Ebbridge’s debt, earn favor from his mother.
It was a long shot, but Wes might get to go home. And if everything went well, I might get a pardon.
At Tasia’s expense, a voice whispered at the back of my head.
“I’ve hurt you in the past.” Wes made eye contact with me. “I’ve used you, betrayed your trust. I can’t blame my parents for that, or make excuses for it, or pretend that hating myself is enough. I chose this.”
“And you don’t have to forgive me. But we have a chance now, thanks to you. A real chance, to get back our futures, to write the next page and drink that mulled cider together and forge the stars in our images.” He extended his arm to me again. “Sacrifice isn’t radical. Not for people like us. Let’s live, Anabelle Gage.”
I clasped his arm. The moons shone down on us, lighting up our faces.
For a moment, I let myself believe in his giddy optimism. For a moment, everything felt real.
“Let’s live,” I said.
Wes offered to play a game of Jao Lu to ease the tension, but I was too exhausted. So he and I crawled back into the basement, and for once, I got a good night’s sleep. Even amidst the dust and filth, I closed my eyes, and drifted off with a lingering sense of peace.
When I woke, the city was in chaos.
Wes shook me awake, and my eyes fluttered open. Water dripped through holes in the wood ceiling, and rain poured down outside.
Dim, grey light streamed in through the staircase, with a steady trickle of water. My head throbbed, and my eyes stung, matched by a stomachache swelling in my belly and nausea building in my throat.
“Come on,” he said, pulling me out of bed.
Jun and Hira huddled at the far corner of the basement, leaning close to a radio with the volume turned down, water dripping over their heads. Hira puffed on her purple hookah, filling the damp air with cherry-scented smoke. Cardamom sat on the other side of the room, avoiding the smell.
I trudged over to them, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. Hira twisted the knob, turning up the volume.
“ – have started using pepper gas at the protestors gathered around Paragon Academy’s cable car station. The Guardians Charles Hou and Isaac Brin have been spotted patrolling the streets of Hightown, and the prime minister has called for peace and open dialogue.”
“What the fuck,” I said. “Happened while I was out?”
Hira beckoned to the radio.
I listened for a few minutes, as Jun flipped between frequencies, and the rest of Queen Sulphur filled in the blanks.
The morning after Verity aired, Commonplace had gathered outside the radio station where the show got recorded. They’d screamed slogans and brandished signs, calling for Christea Ronaveda to be taken off the air, and for me to be hunted down and arrested.
Anabelle Gage. People kept saying my name, speculating about my identity, my crimes, my connections to Paragon. Anabelle Gage, Anabelle Gage. I don’t think I’d ever heard my name that many times.
Thanks to my speech, thousands of loyalist counter-protestors had shown up against Commonplace, defending Verity with makeshift weapons and battle lines, speaking on the side of the Epistocracy and tradition.
The Midtown Post said it was the loyalists who got violent first, the people on our side. But Oracle Media Group, and Afzal Kahlin owned the Post. Other radio shows disagreed, stating that Commonplace had thrown the first punches, dragged a patriot out of the crowd and beat him up.
Now, the police had stepped in to restore order against Commonplace, and the rioting had spread to dozens of locations around Elmidde, including Gestalt Island, a slum filled with Shenti immigrants. The poorest places are going to get the hardest.
Christea Ronaveda had vanished, unable to be found in her house or studio or any of her usual spots. Most people speculated that she’d fled the country, like she’d promised earlier. I couldn’t blame her.
Or she’s dead, a voice whispered at the back of my mind. And your words killed her.
“Yeah,” said Hira. “You’ve outdone yourself, Ana. For a neurotic bunny rabbit, you sure have an eye for chaos. I think half the city might be on fire this time.”
I’m not a rabbit, I thought. I’m a caterpillar. And right now, all the wasps and spiders were descending, ready to pluck me off my leaf.
Jun stared at the radio, his eyes wide. “Please, don’t joke about this. Protestors have died already.”
I looked at Wes. “Have they talked about the Broadcast King at all?”
Wes nodded, his eyes lighting up. “Constantly. The Oracle-owned radio shows are practically at war with all the rest. Another pair of riots have broken out around Oracle’s headquarters and the Kesteven Building, where Kahlin’s penthouse is.”
Hira grinned. “Dad’s probably cowering in his zeppelin, screaming into his pillow and trying to figure out how to control this narrative.”
The radio show continued, and started accepting callers.
“We have an Aelric from East Lowtown. You’re live, Aelric.”
“Hi,” said Aelric. “I just want to ask. Who is this Anabelle Gage, this girl who broke into a house, shot a poker through the leg of a guard, attacked and threatened an innocent woman? It doesn’t matter if she was under a truth aura. That kind of person – that kind of person lives with a lot of delusions. Why should we pay attention to her violent crackpot manifesto?”
“Thank you, Aelric,” said the host. “Next, we have Joy Gonfrey, from Shelworth. Good afternoon, Joy.”
“I don’t believe her,” she said. “I don’t believe that violent creature, and I don’t believe the stuck-up celebrity she held hostage either. Commonplace protects Humdrums, ordinary people. The common foundation. They would never free a woman like Lyna Wethers. This Gage person wants to be a Guardian. Two decades ago, she would have been hijacking people just like the rest of them. I don’t know how, but Paragon must have orchestrated this with her.”
“Thank you, Joy,” the host said. “We have Sylvia Redmond, from West Midtown. Welcome, Sylvia.”
Silence. No one spoke.
“Sylvia? Can you hear us?”
“The nation, the people, the light,” said Sylvia. “I don’t care who she is. I don’t care what she’s done.” Her voice grew cold. “There are Eastern dogs, choking our nation from within. And they need to be put down.”
The radio clicked, the sound of the woman hanging up. Jun flicked his wrist, and the radio turned off.
Everyone looked at Jun. He sagged against the corner of the wall, the energy draining out of him. His white hair fell over his face.
Sylvia isn’t alone.
“I think,” he said. “That I should be careful showing my face in public. Or talking with this Shenti accent.”
I’ve started something. The most aggressive loyalists wouldn’t know about Jun’s past, or his kind heart. They’d just see the vicious foreigner, a ghost from an old war, tearing their nation apart.
An image I’d painted for them.
Scholars. My stomach clenched. I hunched over. “I’m sorry,” I said to Jun. “I’m so sorry.”
Jun turned away from me, closing his eyes. I deserve worse.
“What do we do now?” said Wes.
I stepped back, dizzy. No, no, no. The original plan was to wait for an olive branch from Paragon, some sort of reward for the huge blow we’d dealt to Commonplace – maybe even a Pardon. But now, the city was burning. The country, too, in cities around the Principality.
What was going to happen to the Shenti people in this city now?
What the fuck did I do?
You know what you’ve done, whispered a voice in my mind. Maxine Clive’s voice. Judging. Repulsed. You’re still their loyal butcher, Anabelle Gage. And you always will be.
And now, I’d put Jun at risk, too. My friend, my ally.
Hira turned on the radio again. “Two more riots have broken out, in Southern Lowtown and North Island.” That was where we were. “Law enforcement is stretched thin across the city, and have only been able to send a few riot police to the area. If you’re in Southern Lowtown or North Island, please stay indoors.”
Don’t whine. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. I had to do something.
“Jun knows medicine,” I said. “Hira can too.” I looked at the members of Queen Sulphur one by one. “Wes has his paper.” I walked across the room and pulled my stun baton out of my bag. “Let’s get to work.”
We ran into a storm.
I’d heard about riots like this before, and witnessed the outskirts of a few. Commonplace had been stirring up trouble for years, and since I formed Queen Sulphur, it had only escalated.
But I’d never seen one up close.
Rain poured down around us, streaming into gutters and drenching our clothes. We jogged the street, splashing through ankle-deep puddles, past smashed storefronts and wrecked cars. Newspaper boxes had been torn, leaving the papers to spill out over the street. The sound of the mob rang out ahead of us, screaming and shouting in a wave of deafening noise.
Men and women sprinted past us, charging into the fray with masks and weapons, or fleeing in the opposite direction, bruised and bleeding. Others coughed, or threw up, or sported burns beneath their blackened clothes.
A few gave us odd glances as we passed them by, or glares. What’s that about?
I could smell rain, and blood, and smoke from fires that hadn’t been doused. But one scent was missing, a distinct smell I remembered from every riot I’d gotten close to. Pepper gas. There was no pepper gas.
The cops weren’t here.
And that meant the Guardians probably weren’t here either. So we had to act in their place.
Thunder boomed in the sky, and we turned a corner, into the thick of it.
Two huge crowds had gathered in front of a local Commonplace building, screaming, packed shoulder to shoulder. Commonplace and loyalists. The people who’d hated my speech, and the ones who loved it.
A car burned on the sidewalk, still going despite the rain. Dozens of smaller brawls went on away from the main group, throughout the neighboring streets and on the sidewalk.
A Green Hands wrestled a middle-aged man in an alleyway, then got hit by a man from behind. A pair of loyalists dragged a man out of his front door, threw him on the ground, and started kicking him. Two small groups on a side street threw punches at each other.
The loyalists are more violent than the Green Hands. My speech had stirred them up, more than I could have possibly imagined.
You did this. You did this.
I pulled my mask over my face, patting down my blue combat suit under my ratty clothes. Jun nodded at me, also wearing a mask. I’d lost my wigs, and my grey hair gave me a distinct look, so hiding myself was a good option here. And Jun, of course, was Shenti.
Wes wore his white crane party mask, hiding at least part of his identity. His light brown hair wasn’t as distinctive as ours.
The four of us jogged around the edge of the crowd, staying out of the dense center. Ahead of us, a loyalist punched a Green Hands at the front of the crowd, knocking him back. The man behind him drew a knife.
In response, the Green Hands pulled a pistol out of a holster and cocked it back.
Left-Hira stepped behind him, and the Green Hands twitched, electricity running through his body. A thin cord of water ran between her hand and his ankle, running along the ground, almost impossible to notice in all the rain.
The pistol clattered on the ground and the trigger snapped off, making it unusable.
Another Commonplace thug with green circle tattoos lit a fire cocktail in a wine bottle. Wes unclasped his briefcase and shot pieces of paper out of it. They grabbed the lit scrap of cloth, the fuse, and yanked it out, tossing it into a puddle where it fizzed out.
Another shock from Hira, and the firebomb lady fell to the ground too.
A gunshot rang out from the side, and I spun around. One of the loyalists held a pistol on a Green Hands in an alleyway. She fired again at his chest and ran away, vanishing into the rain.
I stared at her go, frozen. None of us moved to chase after her.
Jun pointed at a pair of men on the far side of the street. They lay against a wall, blood staining their clothes. Their chests rose and fell. They’re still alive.
Left-Hira and Jun and I ran over to them, pushing through the crowd. Right-Hira and Wes stayed, taking down the most violent Commonplace members without calling attention to themselves.
As we weaved through the mob, more of them gave us odd looks, staring at us as we passed them. Am I imagining that?
Jun knelt by the first man and pulled bandages and alcohol out of his bag. The man groaned, and Jun squinted at him. “Gunshot wound,” he said, his voice calm. “Lower abdomen. Hira, help me.”
The bleeding man’s eyes widened. Hira jogged next to Jun, sticking her hands in her pockets and copying his skills. Then she knelt next to him, grabbing the bandages.
“How can I help?” I said.
Jun pointed to the other man on the ground. “Put pressure on his leg.”
I knelt next to the man. Blood trickled out of a hole in his calf, seeping into a puddle. He groaned, eyes half-closed, arms hanging limp at his sides.
I pressed on the wound with both my palms, pushing his leg into the ground. Blood soaked onto my hands, and my muscles burned from the exertion. My wet clothes stuck to my skin, and a wind blew down the street, making me shiver even more than usual. Bloody anemia.
My injured shoulder ached from the effort, but I kept pushing. My chest rose and fell, winded, and I pulled up my mask to breathe easier.
“Thank you,” he mumbled. He exhaled, and reached up to massage his throat.
A green circle had been tattooed on the back of his hand. He’s Commonplace.
I hesitated. Is this a waste of my time? But without treatment, he might die.
Fuck it. I kept the pressure up.
Down the street, a dozen Green Hands stared at us through the rain. I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye.
One of them pointed. “That’s them!” she shouted.
They charged us, hefting baseball bats and hunting rifles.
Both Hiras darted forward. The Green Hands aimed the hunting rifles at her and squeezed the triggers. The guns jammed, not firing.
Wes tossed out a pair of flattened grenades, and a cloud of smoke swallowed the thugs. He stepped into the cloud, flipping his briefcase open, sheets of paper flying out. The two Hiras leapt in after him.
Shouts rang out from the smoke. The sound of fists thudding into flesh, cries of pain, the quiet buzz of Hira’s electricity hands.
A Green Hands fell out of the cloud, collapsing into a puddle.
The smoke cleared, revealing Wes and Hira, standing over a dozen unconscious Green Hands on the ground.
Dozens more people looked at us, both from Commonplace and the loyalists. Why? We’d hidden our projection. We weren’t the only ones fighting on the street.
Jun glanced at a newspaper on the ground, squinting. He picked it up, shaking the water off. “Um,” he said. “Guys?”
He stepped next to me, and I glanced at the front page. It was the Elmidde Journal, the most popular newspaper in the city. And owned by Oracle Media Group. Owned by the Broadcast King.
Paragon Mercenary Group Attacks Radio Host
Our faces had been splayed across the front. Me, Wes, Jun, Left-Hira. Four black and white photos, filling the page. They looked recent, too, including all the precise deformities and repulsive bald spots on my head. I don’t remember anyone taking my photo.
Anabelle Gage, the caption said. #516125871-R (née Nell Ebbridge), Hira Kahlin, Jun Kuang.
Wes read over my shoulder. “Oh.”
He published our faces. The entire country knew what we looked like. Every Green Hands, every mobster, every angry Humdrum could pick us out of a crowd.
Both Hiras looked away from us, ignoring the newspaper. “Whatever the fuck that is,” she said. “It can wait. We’ve got bigger problems.”
I followed her gaze, squinting through the rain.
A man stood at the far end of the street. The mob swirled around us, and he flickered in and out of view. The storm blurred him even further, but I could still make out his basic features:
Tall, broad shoulders, pitch-black hair. Shenti, and willing to show his face in public. I know him.
“Pictogram,” breathed Jun. They found us.
“Move,” said Left-Hira. She grabbed my hands, yanking them off the Green Hands’ leg. “Move!”
I projected around Queen Sulphur’s Piths, making an illusion. Projecting for the first time in months, giving my exact location to Lorne Daventry. I turned it off and on, sending a message in telegraph code.
Pictogram angled a pistol at the cloudy sky, and fired five shots into the rain.