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Ana

The Voidsteel man bowed to me. “Anabelle Gage,” he said, in a light Nekean accent. “A pleasure to meet you.”

I blinked at him, kneeling on the metal floor of the submarine, my lungs pumping, catching my breath after the Vice-Captain’s suffocating trap. A headache throbbed in the back of my skull, and I massaged my temples, coughing.

The red lights stopped flashing overhead. The alarm went silent.

The Nekean man extended a hand to me, made of flowing, liquid Voidsteel. No, it can’t be Voidsteel. It had to be something else. A mundane metal colored green, or some other compound I didn’t know about. Voidsteel projection is impossible.

I took his hand, cold and smooth against my skin. He pulled me up, and I stretched my Pith forward, to throw an illusion on him and disguise my position.

My soul bounced off of his skull. His Pith didn’t feel like the normal tree of connections occupying a body. It felt like a blob, in the shape of a man. Foreign. Blocking me out.

That’s really Voidsteel. Which meant I couldn’t use illusions on him.

I leaned against the wall, taking sharp, rapid breaths as the air cleared. And I glanced at Hira’s trench shotgun, lying on the floor next to the Vice-Captain’s corpse. But the gun didn’t help him against this person. And would Voidsteel bullets even work on a person made of Voidsteel?

No, unless some backup came, I was at this man’s mercy.

He just saved your life. And he hadn’t reported me to Paragon. But that didn’t make him a friend.

“Please forgive me,” said the Voidsteel man. “For the violent introduction, and for breaking into your submarine. But I had to ensure your safety.” He glanced down at the corpse by my feet. “I’m sure you knew this, but your Vice-Captain, Wil Glenham, was conspiring with four other crew members to steal this vessel and sell it to the Droll Corsairs.” He indicated his head to two other corpses down the hall. “Two others tried to stop him, not realizing he had a gun.”

Four other conspirators? I’d known about Glenham, but not the rest. And the Droll Corsairs made sense. The private military company would pay good money for a ship like this, and wouldn’t ask too many questions about where it came from.

Obvious. So obvious. I’d missed it. And Hira had missed it, despite her assurances. We need to do better. Or we wouldn’t last a week in Shenten.

“Are you alright?” said the metal man.

I nodded, the headache fading with every breath I took. “You were following me,” I wheezed. “Since I became Tunnel Vision, you’ve been following me.” I’d noticed something was amiss – a glint of metal in the distance, but I hadn’t actually spotted him, or caught him. I’m so fucking new at this.

The metal man nodded. “Another transgression I must apologize for. I wished to approach you, but needed to ensure your identity and character first. When I discovered this plot against you, I wished to assemble proof, and approach you with it. But I was forced to move my schedule up. The Pyre Witch has not been friendly to us in the past. But you are not Grace Acworth.”

They know a lot about me. And they’d noticed the Vice-Captain’s betrayal, when Hira and Tasia and I had all missed it. “Why didn’t she like you?”

“We shared similar goals,” he said. “But we found her methods crude. And for her part, she saw us as weak.”

I stared at his flat metal eyes. “And who is ‘we’?”

He bowed again to me, placing his hand on the chest of his green tunic. “You may call me Mercurial. I’m a representative of Izanami, the Green Lotus.”

Who? “I’ve never heard of an ‘Izanami’ before.”

“By intention,” Mercurial said. “She prefers to keep her activities quiet.”

But that name. And his accent. “She’s Nekean?” I said.

He nodded. “Izanami is an independent benefactor, seeking to ensure the future for the Neke Islands.”

“I’m half a world away,” I said. “What could the Neke Islands possibly have to do with me?”

Mercurial held up his palm, and it swirled, images getting etched onto its liquid surface.

Triangles. Triangles within triangles, branching off in three directions and getting smaller and smaller in an infinite fractal. Akhara’s Triangle. It reminded me of that army of Oracle Snakes, floating in the dark sky over the ocean.

The hallway felt colder.

“If we don’t defeat the enemy,” said Mercurial. “The future drowns. For everyone in the Eight Oceans.”

He knows something. About the snakes, or the Egress conspiracy, or ‘Broken Gods’. “What do you know?” I said.

“Not much,” he said. “But she knows more. Maybe enough to unlock that purple book of yours.”

My throat clenched. He knows about the Lavender Book.

“And,” he said. “She knows how to save your friend. Jun Kuang.”

My breath quickened again, though the air had cleared, now. “You want something from us.” The Lavender Book, or our Vocations, or something.

“I do not ask for your allegiance,” said Mercurial. “Or your money. Or even the book itself, wherever you have hidden it.”

So he doesn’t know everything. Or he knew, and was pretending not to.

Footsteps rang from the staircase. Hira and Tasia emerged and rushed down the hall. Hira aimed his sniper rifle and a pistol at Mercurial with his bodies, and Tasia held crackling orbs of blue-purple lightning in her fists. Both ready to fight.

Mercurial bowed to both of them. “Tasia Holcot. Hira Kahlin. If I had to guess, that glorious display of fireworks outside was your doing.”

Left-Hira stuck a hand in her pocket. Then she shot Mercurial in the leg, the gunshot deafening in the tight metal corridor. I flinched.

The bullet bounced off his liquid metal skin. He ignored it. “A pleasure to meet you both.”

“The fuck?” said Left-Hira. “Ana, did you hire another crazy misfit?”

Tasia leaned forward, her eyes wide. “Is he made of Voidsteel?” She looked at his eyes. “Are you a robot, sir?”

“Can I shoot him?” said Right-Hira. “Will grenades work, at least?”

I exchanged basic passwords with the two of them. “He saved my life,” I said, indicating my head to the bodies. “We’ve got some talking to do.”

________________________________________

Mercurial explained everything again. After a few minutes of talking, Hira lowered her guns.

“We can’t trust him,” Right-Hira said. “Mysterious types always have some nasty shit up their sleeve. We don’t know this ‘Izanami’’s Vocation. A few hits with the right Whisper specialist, and we’ll all be puppets.”

“I assure you,” said Mercurial. “My superior is not a Whisper specialist.”

“Can you tell us her Vocation?” said Left-Hira. “Assuming she’s not a Humdrum, of course.”

Mercurial closed his metal eyes. “I am not at liberty to disclose that.”

“Yeah,” said Hira. “That’s what I thought. He saved your life to get in your pants, Ana. He’s trying to warm us up to his boss.”

“Maybe,” said Tasia. “But that’s not always bad.”

“Nekeans are slippery,” said Hira, glaring at Mercurial. “They’ll act polite and sweet while they ram a knife into your ass.”

But we don’t have any leads,” I said with auditory illusions. I’d almost jumped into a death portal to get one.

Tasia nodded.

If we go into Shenten right now, we don’t even know where we’d land. We have no idea where to start. And no way to resupply.

“You were the one who pushed us to leave sooner,” said Left-Hira.

Because of the war. Because there’s a faint chance that we’ll discover at least a clue while we’re there. But the odds aren’t high.” This Izanami woman had found us backed into a corner. “And this man says his boss can help us.”

“And,” Mercurial added. “The Neke Islands are to the east. Much closer to Shenten than the Principality. We can refuel your submarine as many times as you need.”

That solves that problem. If we stayed friends with this Izanami woman, and gave her what she wanted. And not everyone had malicious intent.

And risk is inevitable in this profession. If we declined all meetings with new people because they might be Whisper Specialists, we wouldn’t get much done. And they have leads for us. Scrabbling for hints on our own would be more dangerous, not less.

I extended my hand to shake. “Let’s do it. I would love to meet Izanami.”

Mercurial smiled. Cardamom padded down the hallway, out of a side room, and walked up to us, purring. He rubbed the metal man’s leg, bumping it with his furry green head. Mercurial pet him with part of his coat, not touching the cat with his skin.

“Fine.” Hira scowled. “But you can’t travel with us. Give us a location to go, but you don’t get to go in our sub.”

Tasia nodded in agreement, biting her lip and avoiding eye contact.

He nodded. “Of course. I believe I have removed all your betrayers, so you should be safe here, now, with the rest of your crew.”

“And Izanami,” said Left-Hira. “Can you tell us anything else about her? Anything to make us trust you.”

“It is best if she tells you herself,” said Mercurial.

Hira glared at him with both bodies, even more suspicious. She didn’t ask any more questions.

“Go to Kamishoto,” he said. “In the north of Neke. I will find you in the town center.”

Then he slung the Vice-Captain’s corpse and the other bodies over his shoulder. He left, striding out of the submarine with a casual step.

The three of us stood there for a moment, processing what had just happened.

Then Hira growled, and holstered her weapons. Tasia floated a bucket over from the storage room and started projecting the blood into it. Cleaning the floors.

“Thanks for coming so fast,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Tasia. “The fireworks were nice.”

“The fuck were you doing in the sub alone?” said Right-Hira.

“Last-minute checks,” I said. “I got stressed.” I didn’t mention my plan to throw myself into Akhara’s Gate, to a potential early grave.

Hira squinted at me, but she didn’t put her hands in her pockets, or question me further.

Tasia finished cleaning up. “We should all get some sleep.”

Away from the rest of the crew,” I said. “With watches.”

“Busy day tomorrow,” said Tasia.

I nodded. The first of many.

________________________________________

I slept in one of the upper rooms, beside Tasia and Hira in sleeping bags.

Hira had assured me that she’d explained the situation to the other crew members and checked them again with her Vocation, and that no one else wanted to backstab us. Mercurial had said much the same.

But she’d been wrong before. And the metal man couldn’t be trusted yet. So we decided to play it safe. We also decided to postpone making backup copies of the Lavender Book, a process that Tasia had confirmed was possible. We didn’t have many places to hide them, and didn’t need the crew running off with one.

The floor felt hard and cramped beneath my sleeping bag. I missed the bed in Grace’s summer safehouse. And the warmth. And the painting Hira had made for my birthday, which had depicted an adult, red-haired version of me. Cardamom curled up on a pillow next to us, but it still didn’t feel like home.

Still, despite all this, the sheer exhaustion drove me to sleep after an hour of tossing and turning.

At dawn the next morning, we woke up and ate a breakfast of eggs and toast with the crew. A quiet, uncomfortable meal, after five of them had tried to kill all of us. But I got to know all of their names, and their positions on the ship. A lot of them seemed shaken after the betrayal too. The Vice-Captain had been planning to kill them, too.

Then, we left the Principality.

The submarine dove into the waters of the cove, deep enough to pass under the rock formations surrounding this hidden outcrop where it had been parked. It drove southeast for a while, underwater in the Eloane Ocean, getting out of range of any patrolling Principian ships that might spot us. The Principality had the largest, strongest navy in the Eight Oceans, dwarfing even Neke’s. We weren’t about to take any chances.

The electrical engine whirred, and I sat on a chair in the CIC with Tasia, watching the crew turn knobs and talk to each other.

Some of them still looked shaken after hearing about their five co-workers that had almost murdered them, but most of them took it in stride. They must be used to that sort of thing. When working on a secret submarine for mobsters. Vice-Captain Glenham had already been replaced with a new man.

Then, after a few hours, we surfaced, turned straight east, and started chugging along with our diesel engine. Eventually, we’d make our way to Shenten, towards the northeast. But for now, we were making a pit stop in the Neke Islands for some gas and information.

The daily routine on the sub took some getting used to. Here, we had no personal space. We slept together in a tiny space, squeezed past each other in the narrow, squat hallways, and ate together in the mess, which involved a lot of repetitive meals. Eggs and toast and sausage. Cabbage and trout and cherry pie. A solid selection, but a far step below mulled cider and the dizzying array of takeout options in Elmidde.

I got used to the chugging sound of the diesel engine, and stopped getting lost in all the twisting hallways, though I still recoiled from the buttons and levers on the walls, terrified that I would touch something and mess up the ship.

But still, I felt gratitude with every groggy morning, every lap I jogged through the metal passageways. This is better than a sleeping pod. And far better than a mattress in Clementine’s basement. It would do.

After a few days, Tasia and I realized that we could be most comfortable on top of the submarine, sitting on the roof while the ship chugged along on the surface. The metal hull flattened at the top, with railings around the edge.

With some blankets and pillows, it made for a solid spot. No low ceilings, no tight corners. Just us, the ocean, and the sky. Hira smoked her purple hookah, since she couldn’t do it inside. I practiced my projection, working it out like a muscle. And Tasia read her books, continuing her research.

The sub’s propeller churned up the water behind us, leaving a white line in our wake. The sun shone down on us, bright and warm during the day, burning our skin. I gazed up at the sky, scanning for the presence of Oracle Snakes. If we saw even one, I’d order the sub to dive.

But the sky looked empty, clear. Not even a cloud in sight.

Our new Vice-Captain avoided major trade and patrol routes, so we didn’t see any other ships on our path. Just the endless horizon, in every direction. In this part of the ocean, the sun turned the water a bright, clear blue. Tropical, almost.

The ocean had drowned the Great Scholars, and might drown us. It contained profound terrors – storm krakens, and Broken Gods, beings strong enough to butcher storm krakens.

But here, it looked beautiful. An endless expanse, full of possibility.

“A name,” said Tasia, her voice carrying over the rumble of the engines.

“What?” I said, glancing up from the chunks of metal I was floating.

“We never settled on a new name for the sub.”

“No,” said Right-Hira. He leaned back against a railing, puffing on his hookah. “We got distracted by the murder attempt and the man made of Voidsteel.”

“I’m not sure I like ‘The Elder Kraken’,” said Tasia. “We’re not pirates, and we’re not mobsters.”

I bit my lip. “Agreed.” But I didn’t have any other ideas.

Hira shrugged. “Don’t look at me. Elmidde’s underworld called me ‘zappyhands’ for my whole first year as a mercenary, and my own skills aren’t much better.”

We all thought about this for a moment.

“Well,” said Tasia. “Keep it in the back of your heads. It’s a good ship, and it’s ours, now. It should have a proper name.”

“Damn good ship,” said Hira.

I nodded, and went back to my practice.

Hours later, Hira got bored and started water-skiing in the back, with projection and a cable clumsily tied to a railing, her bare feet skimming across the surface of the ocean. With the sub’s diesel engine at max speed, she could pick up just enough velocity to pull it off. Cardamom sat at the back of the sub, his head bobbing up and down as he watched her bounce on the waves.

Lund pe chadh!” she shouted. She couldn’t speak Common right now. Her Praxis Vocation ran out if she used it too many times on one person. Halfway through the week, I suggested that Hira not spend all her uses on us and the crew, to preserve it for emergencies.

Hira had agreed, and had let the hours pass without copying anyone’s skills. No extra languages, no fancy gun tricks. She didn’t even know how to tie her shoelaces.

But she does know how to water-ski. She’d had a very peculiar childhood.

Tasia and I sat on the other side of the sub, at the front, gazing out at the bow cutting the water. The sun set behind us, in the west, casting warm orange light over the ocean.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Tasia. “About what you told me about Paragon.”

I raised an eyebrow, as I threw a Basic Sleep attempt at her Pith. She deflected it with ease.

“The creation of Honeypot. Restricting the supply of bodies and letting thousands die. What Maxine Clive said about that place, ‘Buttercup Lodge’, which is probably true. Plus, all the other stuff we don’t even know about.”

I leaned forward, wrapped in a blanket, and squeezed Tasia’s hand. “You shouldn’t feel bad about being a student there. You were helping your sister. Working for a greater cause.” I just wanted to save myself. And I’d been a true believer in a way that Tasia never had.

“That’s not it,” said Tasia, pulling her knees to her chest. “What about this Izanami woman? I screwed up last time when I joined Paragon to help my sister. What if we’re screwing up again? What if Izanami is just as bad as Paragon? Or worse?”

“We’re not committing to join her,” I said. “We’re just checking her out. If she’s bad, we don’t have to do shit for her.” Assuming she doesn’t just hijack us.

“But what if it’s not obvious?” said Tasia. “Paragon wasn’t obvious, not at first. Or we’d never have fought to get in so hard.”

She has a point. I shrugged. “We face dangerous enemies.” And I almost died to just the Vice-Captain. “And we’re in over our heads. We need allies. Powerful allies.”

“But that’s the thing,” said Tasia. “What if everyone in power is just inevitably evil? What if we’re just doomed to chase around the oceans, doing people’s dirty work over and over again.” She slouched over, her eyes flat. Now that look, I’m used to seeing on Wes’ face. “And then Sarah never gets cured. Just like Kaplen.”

I stood up and moved my pillow next to her. Then I sat down and hugged her. She hugged me back.

“During my Pith surgery on Sarah,” whispered Tasia. “I heard voices. Not her voice. Men and women, in all sorts of languages.”

“Hallucinations, maybe,” I murmured.

“Maybe,” she said. “Or maybe I tapped into something.” She shook her head. “This world is so much bigger than me. Than any of us.”

I hugged her tighter. “You’re one of the kindest people I know. Normal people would have given up long before you did. But you still care. You’re still trying to save your sister.” And you haven’t killed anyone. Unlike me. “I know you’ll do the right thing.”

“I don’t want to lose you, too,” said Tasia.

I broke off from her, and stood up. Hira water-skied in the distance, jumping up and down on the sub’s wake. “Come on,” I said. “That’s enough studying, right? How does Jao Lu in the mess sound?”

Tasia nodded, exhaling.

“You stashed some garlic bread in your locker, didn’t you?”

Cardamom batted at Hira’s water-skiing cable with his paw, playing with it like a toy. The knot shook, then unspooled from the railing, breaking Hira off from the sub.

Left-Hira shouted something in Ilaquan, then slapped into the water face-first. She shrunk in the distance, as the sub sped away from her.

“Though we should probably deal with that first.”

________________________________________

Kamishoto. Our rendezvous with Mercurial. Not the Floating City, but a much smaller town on the northern coast of the Neke Islands, closer to Shenten, though there was still plenty of ocean between there and here.

A huge military submarine would draw unwanted questions, no matter where it showed up. And Nekean naval defenses were legendary, according to our new, less murderous Vice-Captain. So we surfaced a distance off the northern shore, in the middle of the night. Tasia and Hira and I had climbed down the edge of the sub, in plainclothes with hidden armor and weapons. Then we did a water walk the rest of the way.

We arrived at the coast as the sun rose, by an empty stretch of road. We caught our breath, sat down for a few minutes, and started walking into town.

A car drove up behind us on the road, and stopped next to us. My throat clenched, and I projected into Reverie, its blade hidden and sheathed in a pocket of my coat.

A Nekean man stuck his head out of the window. “Hello!” He spoke that one word of Common in a heavy accent. “Anata wa nekīn o hanashimasu ka?” It sounded like Northern Nekean.

Left-Hira stuck her hands in her pockets, copying his skills. She cleared her throat. “Hai! Kono hareta asa wa dōdesu ka?”

The two of them carried on a conversation. Then the man beckoned to us and opened the passenger door. Hira climbed in, and Tasia and I followed.

“What did you talk about?” I muttered to Right-Hira, crammed into the back seat with me.

“He asked if we were headed into town for the celebration. I said yes. I don’t like walking.”

I relaxed my Pith, letting it slide out of my dagger hilt. Not everyone’s an enemy.

In the man’s puttering automobile, it only took us a few minutes to get to Kamishoto. He parked on the side of a street, near some wooden houses with sliding doors.

Then we got out, and he led us into the town. “He’s not going to lock his car?” I said. “What if someone steals it?”

Right-Hira shrugged. We followed the man through the winding streets of the town, filled with trees and quiet houses and bridges over narrow streams. Towards the center, where we’d meet Mercurial. Given how conspicuous the Voidsteel man looked, it was probably good to rendezvous somewhere with lots of distractions.

The sounds of music and shouting echoed from ahead of us. Drums and strings and flutes, striking up a merry, upbeat tune.

Then we turned a corner, and saw the celebration.

A crowd had gathered around the fountain in the center of the square, and had broken out into spontaneous dance.

The fountain’s water streamed out of one end, becoming a stream cutting through the town square and running down to the ocean, just a hundred feet away. A saltwater fountain.

A pair of water projectors had built a thirty-foot ice sculpture in the middle of it, in the shape of a man I didn’t recognize. They floated around it in a circle, constantly melting and rebuilding it. In a few seconds, the man became an elderly woman. Then a girl my age. Then a boy. A model of everlasting change. A group of women musicians played music on a raised wooden stage, bobbing their heads in sync.

Wreaths of flowers hung from nearby buildings, in Nekean green, as well as orange and yellow and pink, forming elaborate shapes and patterns. Beneath them, men and women hawked goods in food stalls. Flatbread and samosas and takoyaki and cold noodles.

Tasia gazed around the square, her eyes wide with amazement. I stared with her. This isn’t even the Floating City. Not even one of the bigger cities. Is this some religious festival? I wasn’t familiar with Nekean traditions.

“Excuse me.” Tasia tapped a woman on the shoulder as she passed by. “Is this a holiday?”

The woman glanced at her, then pointed to her ears. Doesn’t speak Common. Despite her heritage, my mother hadn’t taught me any Nekean or Shenti. This could be a problem in Shenten, too. At least we had Hira.

A man stepped up behind us, wearing a green ceremonial mask, with a pair of gloves and a scarf. Odd clothes for this weather.

“Have you read the news lately?” he said, his voice muffled behind the mask. Mercurial. Hiding his metal body behind his clothes.

“We’ve been on a sealed-off submarine,” said Right-Hira. “The fuck do you think?”

“Our National Congress just signed a law,” he said. He pointed at the stage with the music-playing women, and I took a closer look.

All of the women had the same face. Dark hair. Light brown skin. Almond eyes, and narrow jaws. A dozen identical twins in their early twenties, playing in harmony.

“Fabricated bodies,” I said. “They look expensive.”

“They’re free,” he said. “Those were all terminal cancer patients. Until they weren’t.”

“Whaleshit,” said Hira. “There’s got to be a catch somewhere.”

“Your congress signed a law?” I said.

“A group called the Free Body Movement has been protesting for years,” said Mercurial. “But the government finally caved to their demands.”

The Free Body Movement. I hadn’t heard of that before. Maybe it’s a Nekean equivalent of Commonplace.

“The new law sets price controls for all chassis, requires a medical need, and introduces a lottery system for the time being.” He gestured at the stage. “Now, anyone can get a new body, as long as they would die without one. No matter how rich or poor. Cosmetic needs, for the present, are taking a backburner.”

Tasia stared up at the stage with wonder. “That’s incredible,” she breathed, buying a platter of takoyaki from a vendor.

“I’m sure all the rich fucks have ways to cut the line,” said Hira.

“But the supply would still run low, right?” I said. They must be on the verge of running out. “There’s no shortage of terminal cancer patients, mortal injuries and the like.”

“That’s the other part of the law,” said Mercurial, speaking over the loud folk music. “The elite projectors who make bodies. They’re required to share their knowledge with the public. The government is opening university departments around the islands to teach this art.”

“Mass-production,” said Tasia, making it sound like a birthday present.

Mercurial nodded. “It will take time to implement. There are significant barriers involved, and some downsides that Izanami can speak to you about. And in the interim, many will still die.” He beckoned his arms to the square and stepped forward. “But soon, Neke will produce more fabricated bodies than the other three Domains combined.”

“And that’ll drive down the prices,” said Tasia. “Everyone will have to follow in your stead, in the long term.”

“And this ‘Free Body Movement’ did this,” I said. I kept my face passive, hiding the thrills running under my skin. This is incredible.

“Well,” said Mercurial. “You did, sort of. By accident.”

“What?”

“The country’s been moving in this direction for the last decade, with strong popular support.”

“But,” I said.

“But many traditionalist projectors had other interests.”

“Did they hijack the congress?” Like our Parliament.

“Of course not,” he said, taken aback at the mere suggestion. “Our congress simply relied on specific sources for campaign funds.” He gestured at me with a gloved hand. “But when they saw the chaos of the Principality over the last year, Izanami argued to them that the status quo could not be maintained.”

This Izanami has a lot of government influence, then. A useful bit of information.

“So they passed this law,” said Mercurial. “To help ensure that a violent civil war did not come close to breaking out. To make their citizens happy.”

Commonplace takes credit for that, not me. Mercurial was flattering me. I’d spent the entirety of last year fighting efforts like that, indirectly. And now, the group’s remnants had all but vanished, so it didn’t matter, anyways.

“Your people protested for something,” said Tasia, incredulous. “And their representatives just gave it to them?”

“Yes,” he said.

“No riot cops, no pepper gas, no mental hijacking? They just…listened.”

Mercurial cocked his head at her, confused. “Why wouldn’t they?”

Sounds nice. Paragon Academy and Egress had made such change near-impossible in the Principality. Ants, not beetles. I wondered what Grace had thought of Neke and its government.

Months ago, when we’d first become fugitives from Paragon, Jun had suggested going to the Floating City. And I’d shot him down. What a stupid decision.

Mercurial spun around to face us. The music swelled, and a burst of confetti exploded over him, in sync with the ice sculptors and the drums. Through a slit in his mask, I saw his Voidsteel mouth curl up in a smile.

“Welcome to Neke,” he said. “If you still wish to meet Izanami, I can take you to my boat. The journey should be short and comfortable, and you can contact your submarine first, if you wish to give them a later rendezvous.”

“Cute town,” said Right-Hira. “Must have been a bitch, getting us to arrive on the same day as this celebration.” She looked at Tasia and me. “I’ve seen enough. We don’t need another string-pulling puppetmaster looking over our shoulders.” She doesn’t trust the Neke.

Tasia bobbed her head to the music, Wes’ eyes – her eyes sparkling. “I say we meet her. If she’s behind any of this, then she’s worth our time.”

I’m the deciding vote. Though we didn’t have an official democracy for Queen Sulphur.

I looked around at the musicians who’d escaped cancer, the happy citizens who got an actual voice in their nation. The joy, the ease that I hadn’t seen on the streets of the Principality for years.

If my mother had emigrated to Neke instead of the Principality, and I’d been born ten years later, then maybe things could have gone differently. Maybe I wouldn’t have turned out this way.

And this ‘Green Lotus’ woman had helped with this?

I nodded to Mercurial. “Show us to your boat,” I said. “Let’s go meet Izanami.”

________________________________________

The boat ride was uneventful. Comfortable, like Mercurial said. His boat wasn’t a luxury yacht or anything, but it had couches and pretzels, more than enough to keep us entertained.

We drove out from a dock in Kamishoto, and puttered over the water for an hour or two. South, down the coast of the Neke Islands, where the weather got warmer.

None of us talked strategy much. We didn’t want to discuss anything sensitive within earshot of our host. Mercurial kept himself busy with driving the boat, and didn’t seem all that conversational.

Normally, of the three of us, Hira would be the one to initiate new conversations, but she spent the trip fuming, pacing back and forth belowdecks. Tasia touched up her eyeliner, and gave me a remedial crash course on everything I’d forgotten about it over the last decade. It still felt strange to see makeup on Wes’ freckled face.

We drove through a bank of fog, and around the backside of a mountainous island, green with thick jungle trees growing up the slopes. “We’re getting close!” said Mercurial, calling to us from above. “If you wish to see the view, you may observe from the starboard deck.”

Tasia clambered up the stairs, and I followed after her. “So,” said Tasia, excitement slipping into her voice. “Is it a secret lair? A hidden fortress with illusions? An underwater temple?” She leaned against a railing, squinting at the green water ahead of us.

Mercurial didn’t answer. He just smiled, a faint expression that was difficult to pick out of his metallic face.

The boat passed around a rocky outcropping, and we saw the view.

A bay, filled with bright turquoise water, glowing under the light of the sun under clear skies. Countless rocky islands dotted the center and edges, large and small, made of a yellow stone covered with thick jungle vegetation on top, hanging down cliff faces. They formed pathways and smaller coves throughout, making the bay a labyrinth.

Narrow outcroppings of grey rock stuck out from the surface, forming natural sculptures that looked like surreal modern art, casting odd shadows on the water. Submerged cave entrances extended into the cliff faces, winding down into the rock below the water, filled with curved stalagmites and stalactites.

A wooden village floated near the edge of the bay. Men and women sat on tall platforms, sorting fresh fish into crates from motorboats. A few other passenger boats passed by, filled with men and women. Ferries, by the look of them, heading in and out of the bay.

Other than that, I saw no one in the bay. No loud noises. Just a tranquil calm.

Tasia gazed at the vista, her eyes wide. “I’ve seen this place in books before. This is Airavata Bay.”

He nodded. “A wonder of nature. The Nekean government limits tourism to the area, to preserve its beauty. But our destination is ahead.”

The boat cut through the waters of the bay, traveling to the far side, then turning around islands and natural rock sculptures, navigating us through the maze-like structures. We passed more fishing villages, including one balancing on top of a pair of narrow islands, with rope bridges and pulley systems hanging above the water between them.

We saw more boats, headed in the same direction as us, including one full of foreigners. Tourists.

Then, we sailed around an island, and saw another marvel.

A mountain extended out of the turquoise waters of the bay, taller than the rest of the islands and green with vegetation. A complex of buildings sat on the steep rocky slopes. Bamboo, with slanted thatched roofs and sliding doors, in the northern Nekean style. Tiered waterfalls cascaded beneath wooden bridges, above carved stone staircases and networks of pipes.

Narrow trees grew up all around the buildings, casting circles of shade on the tiled, winding pathways. A trio of wooden lifts moved on diagonal metal rails, carrying goods and people up and down the slopes.

And, of course, large pools of water dotted the complex, steam rising off their surface. In the distance, I could see tiny men and women bathing in them.

It looked like a magical hideaway. Something I’d read about in a fairy tale from my childhood.

“This is a hot spring,” I said. “A Nekean hot spring.”

“Onsens, we call them,” said Mercurial. “Or Garm Jharanas. Though it’s really more of a public bathhouse, due to our lighter rules.”

“And this one is famous, isn’t it?” said Tasia.

Mercurial nodded. “Kokina To. It would fill up with people, except strict limits are placed on how many people can enter the bathhouse, and the bay, at a time.”

Our boat pulled up to a dock at the bottom of the mountain, next to a handful of ferries. Mercurial put his mask and gloves back on, adding a staff outfit and a thin medallion around his neck.

Then he led us down the gangplank, leaving the boat keys on a couch, and showed us to an entrance hall where a short line of people waited to get in.

I saw all sorts of people in the line. Nekean, mostly, but foreigners, too, from Ilaqua and Shenten and the Principality, and some other ethnicities I couldn’t place. Rich and poor, with fur coats and moth-bitten rags alike.

“What’s the entry fee?” I said. This place doesn’t look cheap to maintain.

“None,” said Mercurial, as he led us through a side door. “We receive all necessary funds from the Nekean Government and anonymous donations. To enter, there is a free lottery. If one wins, they can bring themselves and up to three guests.”

“And rich fucks buy up all the tickets, I’m sure,” said Hira. “‘Fair’ systems have a way of bending themselves over.”

“How many people enter the lottery each year?” said Tasia, as we stepped into an empty locker room with mats on the floor.

“About three-quarters of the country,” said Mercurial. Then he beckoned to the lockers. “I must ask you to deposit your weapons and bathe before entering the main complex.”

“You gonna check us to make sure our balls are clean?” said Right-Hira.

“Cleaning yourself is customary for locations such as this,” said Mercurial. “It signifies respect, and helps keep the space hygienic.”

“Is giving up your guns traditional too?” said Left-Hira, her grip tightening on her trench shotgun.

“Come on, Hira,” I said. “We’ve come this far.” I switched to illusions. “And if Izanami is this powerful, having a gun won’t change much.” If things went bad, our strongest weapons were projection, anyways.

Tasia didn’t have any weapons on her, but I gave Mercurial my broken-down machine pistol, a stun grenade at my belt, and a few spare clips, along with Reverie, my extendable Voidsteel dagger. Hira grumbled, then gave up her shotgun and sniper rifle.

Mercurial stashed them all in a handful of lockers, then turned back to Hira, extending a hand. “Your other weapons as well, if you please.”

Hira growled, and both of her bodies reached into the folds of her clothes, pulling out hidden pistols, micro-explosives, and knives. Mercurial put them in lockers, and didn’t even bother locking them. “No one will touch these. They can be returned to you at the end of your stay.

Then, we washed ourselves in individual showers, with diagrams of smiling people in five languages on the walls, indicating which places we should scrub with an uncomfortable level of detail.

When we finished, Mercurial gave us new, clean clothes to wear. Soft green pants and tunics, with sandals that fit my feet perfectly.

Then he stepped up to Left-Hira, folding his hands in front of him with a regretful expression. “I’m afraid I must ask you to wait in the public hot springs, rather than attending the meeting.”

“Fuck you,” said Left-Hira. She floated her trench shotgun out of her locker and into her hands, still wrapped in a towel and dripping wet. “I scrub my asshole for five hours and now you want me out?”

“Your Praxis Vocation involves the reading of minds,” said Mercurial. “Izanami simply wishes to be cautious, and preserve her privacy.”

Left-Hira cocked her shotgun, even though we all knew it wouldn’t work on the metal man. Behind Mercurial, Right-Hira hid a grenade behind his back, which had a faint chance of doing some damage. Probably not, though.

“And what if I insist on coming?” she said.

“Then,” said Mercurial, unfazed. “I’m afraid I will have to request that you leave.”

“Hira,” said Tasia, her voice scolding. “Don’t be impolite.”

Hira,” I said, with illusions. “Please don’t get us all killed.

Left-Hira gripped her shotgun for another few seconds. Then she sighed, deflating, and floated it back into the locker, then slammed it shut. “Fine,” she growled. “Do you have a bar here, at least?”

“We do not,” said Mercurial. “And I must also ask you to leave your smoking implement in your locker, for the health of other guests.”

“It’s called a hookah, you bhenchod,” grumbled Right-Hira, folding it up and floating it into the locker with his weapons. “Uptight fucking Nekeans.”

“The minerals of the hot spring have many regenerative properties,” said Mercurial. “They may help you relax.” So he’s capable of passive aggression, at least. He opened another door for us, polite as always. “Right this way.” He led us up a stone staircase, and into the heart of the bathhouse.

We ascended a winding path, passing tiny restaurants with sizzling meat where the chefs grilled and boiled and sliced food on counters in front of guests. Men and women bathed in steaming-hot pools, or lounged on soft chairs by the water, reading books, all wearing bathrobes, some variation on our spa clothes, or nothing. The foreigners seemed to wear more clothes than the native Nekeans. A few of them went into buildings with sliding doors that looked like bedrooms, some of them staying overnight.

We passed over a wooden bridge beside a waterfall, cool mist spraying in my face, and Mercurial turned back to the Hiras, at the foot of another stone staircase. “I’m afraid I must ask you to part, now, for a brief period.” He handed Left-Hira a pamphlet. “This guide should tell you all you need about the activities available to you during your wait.”

Left-Hira snatched the booklet out of his metal hands and scanned through it, leaning on a wooden railing.

“It also includes all rules that we ask guests to follow during their stay. Many traditions have been bent, or broken to accommodate foreigners, and as a result of our access to projection. But we still have guidelines.” Mercurial turned back to the staircase, facing away from Hira. “Respecting staff members, proper hygiene. Not littering.”

While he looked away, Hira let the pamphlet slip out of her fingers, dropping it into the waterfall. Then she turned and stalked off, her two bodies headed in separate directions.

Mercurial guided us up the staircase, and through another winding path, down a row of trees. After another few minutes, we arrived at the highest building in the complex.

I glanced back, and saw the whole rest of the baths, spread out on the slope of the mountain beneath us, waterfalls and bridges and hot springs. And beneath them, the blue-green waters of Airavata Bay, dotted with green islands and rock formations.

Mercurial opened a sliding door and beckoned us into an entrance room. Tasia and I stepped out of our sandals, and changed into pairs of socks provided to us. Then we walked into a hall, on the matted floor.

Mercurial approached the door, then paused. “Are you ready to meet her?”

No, I thought. For all this cozy atmosphere, if Izanami was a proper Whisper Specialist, we’d all be in trouble. Or if she thought we were better off dead than alive. So many things could go wrong.

But this woman helped us, too. And allegedly, she’d helped the people of this country, too. Let’s see what she has to offer.

I nodded, and Mercurial slid open the door.

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A note from madwhitesnake

Hi all! New chapter! And a new important character! And politics! And cats doing dumb things! Though there’s still a lot of setup going on here. I hope it is entertaining.

In other news, as a result of my frequent typing, I’ve begun to develop mild wrist pains. Which, I’m pretty sure, is a rite of passage for web novelists, but is still annoying. I am working on stretches and better ergonomics.  I am also doing final checks on my retrospective, so I’ll release that soon, I think. Then, I’ll spend some more wrangling a TVTropes page.  Thanks for reading!

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