Mercurial slid open the door, and I stepped into the room, my socks near-silent on the floor mats. Tasia followed close behind, saying nothing.
The floor felt warm beneath my toes. Heated. Sunlight filtered into the room from the far wall, which was made entirely of glass.
The furniture was simple, minimalist. The only pieces in the room were a low kotatsu table in the center of the floor, complete with a blanket and a heater, and a trio of pillows set around it on the floor. Two for us, one for her. A small black box and three shallow white bowls sat on the wooden table.
I projected into the black box, and felt Voidsteel lining inside the smooth wooden shell. Someone wants to hide what’s inside.
And all of it had been cleaned to perfection. I couldn’t find a single speck of dirt. It reminded me of traditional Northern Nekean design, all clean geometries and careful shaping.
The colors, though, looked more Southern. The mats and wall hangings had been painted pink and yellow and green, bright and vibrant and loud, forming elaborate patterns of flowers and spirals and stars. Oil lamps shaped like teardrops sat around the edges of the room, unlit during the day.
It looked bright, but rustic. Simple, but lively.
Tasia looked around, smiling, her eyes still wide. Girl’s easy to impress. Though that was probably better than the opposite.
A pool of water made up the other half of the room, stretching from the center to the glass wall on the far side. Clear, still, without a ripple or a hint of disturbance. Bright green lotus flowers floated on the surface in concentric circles, unmoving. The late afternoon sunlight made them appear to glow.
A Nekean woman with dark green hair sat cross-legged on the surface of the pool, facing away from us. She looked through the glass wall, at the view spread out beneath her. From here, you could see the whole rest of the hot springs on the slope below, and the waters of Airavata Bay, with the boats traveling in and out, drawing lines across the turquoise expanse.
Like the pool, the woman didn’t move, still as a painting. She didn’t talk, either, ignoring us or not noticing our entrance.
Izanami. The Green Lotus. It had to be.
To the side, a private hot tub sat outside the building at the other end of a jade glass door, steam rising off of the surface. Trees surrounded it, hiding it from outside view. So she likes to get luxurious.
Tasia and I sat down on the cushions by the low kotatsu table, because that seemed proper. I was sure there was some tradition I was forgetting to follow properly.
The two of us waited a minute, respectful and quiet. But Izanami didn’t say anything, or acknowledge our presence in any way. Her back expanded and contracted a fraction of an inch, as she inhaled and exhaled.
So I coughed, speaking up. “Izanami?”
Izanami yelped, startled. The water broke beneath her, and she fell into the pool with a splash. Soft waves lapped against the wooden floor, and the perfect circles of lotus flowers scattered in a hundred different directions.
The tranquil atmosphere vanished, as Izanami floundered in the water, swimming to the edge of the pool. She grabbed the mat at the edge and clambered out onto the floor, dripping wet. Her perfect green hair clumped, soaked through, and her clothes had been drenched.
I blinked. “I – “
Izanami stood up, inhaled, and exhaled, making a gesture with her hands. The water flowed out of her clothes and hair and the mats, drying them all in an instant and sliding back into the pool. The ripples stopped. The lotus flowers returned to their four perfect circles.
The room’s serenity returned, as fast as it had vanished. Izanami lifted a finger and wiped a droplet of water from her light brown cheek, and she looked perfect and pretty again. Three horizontal green lines had been tattooed across her forehead. Three Liminals. Though the woman looked to be in her late twenties, her Pith was far older.
When she dried off, I realized that she wasn’t wearing any traditional clothes. Her blouse looked normal enough, but she matched them with a pair of green pajama pants, with light purple polka-dots. She slid on a pair of fuzzy slippers, sat down on the pillow across from us, and floated another wooden box from beneath the table.
“Hi,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “I am Izanami. Care for a snack?” Her voice sounded warm, welcoming, with a hint of excitement underneath, like she’d been waiting her whole life to meet us.
“Yes, please!” said Tasia.
“Sure,” I said, feeling less certain.
Izanami lifted the warm blanket of the kotatsu. She floated out a plate of garlic bread, setting it in front of Tasia. Then she floated cocoa powder and milk into the white bowl, mixing and heating them into hot chocolate. For me, she floated a stream of autumn-colored liquid into my bowl. Steal rose off of it, and I inhaled. That smells like spiced cider.
The woman knew our favorite foods. I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or creeped out. She mixed another bowl of hot chocolate for herself, adding toasted marshmallows on top of hers and Tasia’s. And through it all, she left the Voidsteel-lined black box on the table, untouched.
I didn’t touch my drink yet. “You told your man to spy on us,” I said. “Then you saved our lives, and brought us halfway across the world. Why?”
Izanami sipped her hot cocoa, nibbling on one of the marshmallows. “Because the world is ending,” she said. “And I think you can help.”
The water is rising.
“We survived the first great drowning,” she said. “Even if the Great Scholars’ civilization did not. In large part because enough landmass remained to sustain agriculture and civilization. But the water is rising again. And we won’t endure a second cataclysm. Humanity’s twilight is upon us.”
Tasia nodded, leaning forward and biting into her garlic bread, spilling crumbs onto the smooth wooden table.
“Some people choose to look away,” said Izanami. “To hide in despair, or apathy, or ignorance. But we don’t have that luxury. You have seen things most humans could only dream of. And I have dreamed of things. Slithering, empty things, that swallow the stars.”
I gazed past her, at the turquoise surface of the bay, far below.
“We know this isn’t random,” she said. “We know this won’t go away. And we know the name of our enemy.”
“Egress,” said Tasia.
My shoulders tensed, and I threw an illusion over Izanami to hide that reaction. “Don’t blurt stuff out,” I said to Tasia with an auditory illusion. “Don’t reveal what we know.”
“You’re well-informed,” said Izanami. “A conspiracy within Paragon Academy, that threatens our very existence.”
“So you know about Egress,” I said. “And you want to protect yourself?”
Izanami shook her head. “Mercurial told you about the new law.”
“Until greater techniques are developed, mass-produced bodies will age much faster than usual. A different, but not dissimilar process to the one that happened to you over the last ten years.”
So there’s the catch. Countless people who needed replacement bodies would get them. But they would get grey hair, wrinkles, and weaken faster than their normal colleagues, unless they got lucky enough to win the expensive kind.
“Mercurial also took you to a celebration in the town of Kamishoto. Tell me, what did you see?”
Tasia smiled. “Dancers, and music, and an ice sculpture. And food carts. And Mercurial, wearing a mask. Doesn’t his Vocation break some laws of projection? I tried asking him about it a few times, but he just smiled at me. Is that real Voidsteel? Or is it something mimicking the effects, using a combination of Praxis and Joining vocations? I’d love to talk to him and find out.”
“Mercurial’s abilities are, for the present, confidential.“ Izanami didn’t smile back. “Did you see anything else in the town?”
I shrugged. Tasia shook her head, confused.
“The sea,” she said. “Kamishoto sits on the edge of the ocean, less than a foot above sea level. The rest of the Neke Islands aren’t much better. We sit lower than any other of the Four Domains.” She finished her bowl of hot chocolate, and exhaled. “The world is drowning. But we will drown first.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” I said.
“I have no allegiance to governments,” said Izanami. “Or money. Or myself. I am an unimportant vessel.” She gestured behind her, at the bathhouse on the slope below. “Like Kokina To, I belong to the Nekean people.”
She wants the Lavender Book. That had to be it. She wanted that information, that power for herself. She had no other reason to meet people this low on the food chain. And the book’s contents were tied closely to the rising water.
“Let’s assume I believe you,” I said, taking a sip of spiced cider. “What do we have to do with it?”
“You have the Lavender Book,” said Izanami.
I choked on my cider, coughing. She said it up front.
“I would appreciate a copy,” she said.
“It’s useless,” I said. “No one on the planet can read it. Egress installed an unbreakable defense mechanism on the information itself. It’s been cut out of reality.”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “Just like the Spirit Block.”
She came to the same conclusions as us. And fast. Maybe she knew it already.
“Have you considered that the effects blocking The 99 Precepts and the Lavender Book are not just similar, but the same?”
“It crossed my mind,” said Tasia.
“It’s impossible to know for certain,” said Izanami. “But the Spirit Block took immense effort.”
“Yes,” said Tasia. “Headmaster Tau was the greatest projector in the Eight Oceans. And he had the benefit of the Synapse.”
“Yes.” Izanami made herself another cup of hot chocolate. “Official records do list him as the progenitor of the Spirit Block. Official records, at least.” She thinks someone else may have been involved. “What would be easier? Pulling off the impossible twice? Or casting a wider net the first time?”
Tasia’s eyes widened. “So you’re saying, if we want to read the Lavender Book – “
“Then we need to undo the Spirit Block,” Izanami said. “Rewrite reality and let the Shenti’s philosophy back into the world.”
“But the Spirit Block is necessary,” I said. “I hold no love for Paragon, but without their intervention, Cao Hui’s Empire would have rolled over the world and thrown us all in redemption camps.”
“Indeed.” Izanami bowed her head, in the faintest of nods. “We do not need to change all of it. Given what I know, it may be possible for just a handful of people to see through the veil of altered reality. Not enough to bring the Black Tortoise’s full strength back, but enough to uncover the truth of Egress, and stop them.”
Sounds too good to be true. And Izanami probably wouldn’t hesitate to lie, if it meant achieving her goals.
“And you want us to work for you.”
“Work with me, indeed. I am not important enough to have a group such as yours on my payroll.”
“So why should we work with you?” I said. “Trust is hard to come by these days. Why do you deserve ours?”
I didn’t feel quite as suspicious as Hira, but all this niceness worried me. Something had to go wrong, sooner or later.
“Because,” said Izanami. “I know where they’re keeping your friend, Jun Kuang. And I can help you save him.”
Like Mercurial mentioned. She could be lying again. But she could be telling the truth, and that possibility felt even more dangerous.
“Please,” said Tasia, her voice urgent. “Can you tell us now? He might be getting tortured right now. Every day that passes, Cao Hui may decide to execute him.” Especially if he keeps up his pacifism.
Izanami shook her head. “I don’t believe so. The Shenti captured him for his talents, and the man is rather frail in his current body.” Hira said the same thing.
“Boy,” I said. “He’s just a boy.” In an old man’s body. As long as the Shenti didn’t swap him out, which was unlikely, but possible. “And what if he refuses to use his talents? What then?” I clenched my fists. “What’s to stop Cao Hui from killing him in a fit of rage?”
“My apologies.” Izanami bowed her head, regretful. “But even with my help, you cannot save him. Not yet. His prison is too well-protected.”
That narrows it down. But not by much. Shenten had no shortage of fortresses and bunkers, many of which weren’t known by the public.
“If I told you your friend’s location,” said Izanami. “You would feel obligated to go there right now, with a very low chance of success, even if I provided you with forces of my own.”
“Then how would you save him?” I said. “If we do everything you want?” If this isn’t just some hollow promise. Like Isaac Brin’s shitty salary.
“The Principality has the largest fleet in the Eight Oceans. And the largest army. They both exceed Shenten’s,” said Izanami. “By a significant margin, even after Commonplace’s coup attempt. As does their industrial reach. It will take time, but they will push into the country, and draw off Shenti defenders. That will present an opportunity for your friend’s rescue.”
“We don’t need an opportunity,” I said, willing myself to believe it. “Hira and I have some experience with infiltration. We can manage.”
“I do not wish to impugn your skills,” said Izanami. “Which I cannot deny. But if you go now, and you fail, then your friend has no chance of survival.”
My throat tightened. She has a point. We’d gotten our asses kicked plenty of times last year, too. And I’d made my fair share of stubborn, thickheaded choices.
Izanami bowed her head, her voice pained. “I’m sorry. But I cannot tell you Jun Kuang’s location until the war has progressed. I believe that is his best chance at survival. And I believe that Queen Sulphur is a valuable asset for civilization. We should not lose you.”
And it forces us under your thumb. She sounded so certain, so pained, so genuinely concerned for us and Jun. So certain that I almost believed her. A new body. All this money, all this power, and I’m still depending on others.
If we got Hira up here, we could just make Izanami think of the details, then pull them from her head. But Hira wasn’t allowed up here. Starting to understand why. And with her in two prison bodies, sneaking her in range would be tough. I hadn’t seen any obvious defenses in the hot springs, which felt scarier, if anything. Not even proper Whisper-sec, to verify our identities and autonomy. It means they’re well-hidden.
“Alright,” I said. “Let’s say I go along with this. Why us?” Going off of Mercurial, Izanami had plenty of deadly agents at her beck and call. “We’re not anything special.”
Izanami shook her head, with a graceful smile. “I respectfully disagree. With only a year in the field, your group has shown tremendous talent for subterfuge. Your work under Isaac Brin. Your successful escape from Guardians, and your operations against Commonplace.”
I looked away on that last one, though my illusions hid my movement. I helped Paragon demolish them. A repulsive act.
“I believe you are undervalued,” said Izanami. “You’ve altered the course of history several times in the Principality, all while you’ve had to juggle assistant responsibilities, schoolwork, a decaying body, and each other.” She looked straight at me. “And you emerged successful, and on the right side. Despite your mistakes. Despite everything. I admire you.”
The words made my heart swell. She’s flattering you. But flattery still worked, even when you recognized it.
“We were successful butchers,” I said. “For the very people we’re both fighting now.” I’d shot people, used illusions to make people shoot their friends. I’d destroyed a revolution, sicced half the country on Shenti citizens with a single speech, and helped start a war.
I’d be insane to feel good about myself.
I glanced at Tasia, and thought about what she’d said on top of the submarine. Are we doomed to work for monsters our whole lives? Chasing around the ocean from one complicit act to another, stubborn and manipulated and hollow.
“You have the location of our friend, and you’re not giving it to us,” I said. “That’s not quite a hostage, but it’s not the act of a friend, either. So I’ll ask you again. Why should we trust you?”
I didn’t expect her to reveal much on the surface, but her answer might let some information slip. And Izanami would have been suspicious if I didn’t act this way.
And ultimately, this was different from Isaac Brin. I wasn’t bleeding out on a boat. If I wanted to, I could say fuck off in a heartbeat, and leave.
“Because of the big picture,” said Izanami. She stood up and walked to the other side of the room, onto the surface of the pool, sliding off her slippers. Her bare feet didn’t even make ripples.
I gazed where she gazed. Out at the waters of Airavata Bay. And beyond, towards the edge of the ocean.
“The water is rising,” said Izanami. “And no one else cares. No one else with power. People imagine it’s someone else’s problem, or focus on their own interests, or pretend they’re immune.”
Death happens to other people. An Ilaquan saying that Hira had passed to us once. And even if people saw their own death, they didn’t imagine it could happen to their civilization. They didn’t think that the status quo could shatter like a glass under heat. Though maybe some in the Principality thought differently, after seeing a conflict almost rip the country apart.
“I don’t want immediate political goals, like Maxine Clive,” said Izanami, gazing out of the jade glass wall. “Or revenge, like Grace Acworth, or the Shenti.”
She turned back to us, folding her hands behind her. The sunlight caught her from behind, turning her into a silhouette.
And even in her polka-dot pajamas, the woman looked regal for a moment. Invincible.
“I intend to save humanity,” she said.
Tasia leaned forward.
“And I share many of your ambitions, Tasia,” said Izanami. “Null Particles can be defeated. The Great Scholars’ secrets can be unlocked. You have committed great offenses against your sister, but she can be saved.”
Trying to pull Tasia into orbit. The girl had less experience with subterfuge, so it just might work on her. And she knows so much about her. The woman had to be a Praxis Specialist of some sort.
“Follow the wrong path, and you will be forgotten,” said Izanami. “But follow the right path, and you can be renowned as the hero who led our civilization out of a barbaric age. Just like your namesake. You can become an Exemplar, and keep the souls of your loved ones safe.” My mind flashed to Kaplen.
Tasia moved her hands into her lap, and hunched her shoulders, making herself small. Then her chin moved down and up, in the faintest nod.
“Moreover, I am not Isaac Brin,” said Izanami. “You are not beholden to me. I will give you information and allies, and you can pursue leads on the enemy at your own pace. Most of my agents are tied up here and in Ilaqua, or on other leads. But when the time comes, I will provide help to rescue your friend.” She smiled. “Jun Kuang is also a valuable asset.”
“Even if he doesn’t make bombs anymore?” I said.
“Then Jun Kuang is still a valuable asset.” She leaned forward, reaching under the blanket. “As a gesture of good faith, I have three gifts for you. First:” She handed me an envelope, and I peeled it open.
Money papers. Detailing a freshly opened account at Jogalekar Bank, a Nekean bank with branches all over the Eight Oceans.
Tasia looked over my shoulder, reading them. Then her eyes widened. I followed her gaze, and gaped.
Total Value: £1,000,000
“I used Principian pounds, since it’s still the most popular international currency,” said Izanami. “The account is yours. No strings attached.”
After assimilating Tunnel Vision’s mob, we had about twice this sum in the bank, if I recalled correctly. But still, she was giving this to us. For free.
Just a few months ago, I’d been scrabbling for tiny fractions of this sum. And she’s just throwing it away. It meant the woman was rich. Unimaginably rich.
I squinted at Izanami, suspicion rising in my gut. “Seriously?” I said. “Even if we don’t work for you, you want to give away a million pounds?”
“We have similar goals,” said Izanami. “Even if you choose a different path, it benefits us all if you have the resources you need.”
Next, she extended her palm to the right and floated over a wooden box from a closet. She spread her fingers, and the sides of the box came off, stacking in a neat pile on the matted floor.
Inside, a black metal contraption drifted into Izanami’s palm. It looked like a typewriter, but thicker, longer, with a line of feeding tape instead of a roller for paper. Several wheels with numbers sat on the top, reminding me of a bike lock.
“This,” said Izanami. “Is a Paradox Machine. The Shenti keep them on their submarines and ships, and wire them with explosives to make sure they’re never captured. The Principality would pay tens of millions for one of these.”
“A code machine,” breathed Tasia, leaning her head to examine it from every angle.
Izanami nodded. “You can use it to decrypt long-range Shenti communications. No matter where you go in this war, it should help keep you and your submarine safe. From the Shenti, at least.”
Another valuable treasure. Given for free. Izanami had almost definitely made copies of this, but if we got caught by the Principality, then the decision could have dire consequences.
“And the third gift?” I said.
“Before that,” she said. “An explanation. My first bit of information for you. My sources indicate that the Black Tortoise has been studying the Spirit Block in Shenten’s former Great Library.”
“Former?” said Tasia.
Izanami nodded. “When Cao Hui first came to power, he had most of the books moved to another location. He believed that the old, traditional library was too hard to defend in a modern war. But it’s still remote enough, so he’s been using it to crack open the Spirit Block. Or, trying, at least.”
“That’s all you know?” I said. “And you want us to break in.”
“It’s a potential lead,” said Izanami. “One of many. If you don’t like what you find, or don’t wish to work with me afterwards, then we can go our separate ways with respect. And afterwards, you can give me a copy of your Lavender Book.” She spread a map of Shenten across the table, pointing. “It’s in the southernmost peak of the Yachi Mountains, near the coast.” She looked at me, her eyes twinkling. “It’s also the home of a rare species of butterfly. The Black Sulphur.”
“Like the Queen Sulphur?” said Tasia.
“A distant cousin. They’ve achieved greater success by blending into the darkness. Achieving stealth at night so they can eat in peace. A good example to follow.”
“I don’t understand,” said Tasia. “Is the intel the gift?”
Izanami shook her head, pointing at the map again. “Shenti naval defenses are very much outclassed by the Principality’s, but they still patrol the waters of the continent. While they do, your submarine cannot approach the library safely. I know projectors who can nullify sonar, but all of them are occupied for the moment.”
Great. Out of our league again. Forced to conform to someone else’s schedule. It sounds plausible. But Tunnel Vision didn’t have many agents in Shenten, so it was hard to confirm one way or the other.
“Fear not,” said Izanami. “The Principality will attack in a few days, and in approximately a week, I expect the defenses there to open up, as the Black Tortoise responds.” She folded her hands on the table. “But I recommend waiting at least a few days before setting out in your submersible.”
“I’d like to confirm this information for myself,” I said. My handful of remaining mob connections might have something to back up this data.
“Of course,” said Izanami.
“Where are we going to wait?” said Tasia.
“The sub, probably,” I said. More cramped bunk bed living. But we would be safe, there, barring anything weird from the crew.
Izanami beamed at us, and handed me a slip of hardened paper.
One Weekend with Suite and Amenities
Bearer and up to 3 Guests
I blinked, confused for a moment. This wasn’t quite what I expected.
Tasia looked at the coupon, then looked at me. “Please?” She clasped my hand, her eyes wide like a puppy’s. “Please please please?”
“The sub is safer,” I said with illusions. “We don’t know Izanami. She could have ulterior motives for having us stay a few days.”
“I don’t want to eat the same three meals and sleep in a tiny bunk bed and hit my head on the same pipe another fifty times.”
“You’re going to be doing it as soon as we leave,” I said. “I don’t like it either, but we’re gonna be spending a lot of time in that sub.”
“Exactly,” said Tasia. “Which is why we need to get as many good times in as possible.”
The bathhouse is open to the public. And if Izanami had a nasty Whisper Vocation we hadn’t noticed, a few extra days probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.
I nodded, and Tasia’s freckly face lit up. “Hira won’t be pleased about this.”
“God damn it,” growled Right-Hira. “Why is this so comfortable?”
He’d draped himself half-naked on a massage table. A Nekean projector stood above him, kneading his back with spheres of warm water.
Such a mundane use for a projector. The Yokusei Pact didn’t limit projectors if they weren’t trained in combat, or anything with sufficient power. Maybe that’s what this is. It could be a case of illegal projection, but most countries avoided that at a large scale. Like Paragon, the other three domains knew that fewer projectors were easier to control. Less likely to cause chaos and destruction to derail their societies. Even Tunnel Vision’s mob had limited its projectors.
For ancient projector societies, elitism was about self-preservation. Survival.
“Apologies,” said the masseuse. “Would you like me to stop?”
“Fuck you,” said Right-Hira. “Keep going.”
I treaded the warm water of a hot spring around me, watching the proceedings through a thin veil of steam. A useful new skill to practice, in case my water projection ran out of energy. The last time that happened, I’d almost drowned while going after Lyna Wethers.
But bathing here also felt relaxing. I could soak in the minerals and the heat, and gaze out over the spectacular view. The rest of the bathhouse on the slope below us. The snowy mountain peak high above. And the blue-green waters of Airavata Bay.
Far to the north, Principian warships were steaming towards Shenten. The largest war in a decade was about to begin. In less than seven days, I would dive in head-first.
But here, now, the water was warm and the world was quiet. I could breathe, for a moment, and enjoy life.
“What’s the matter?” said Tasia to Right-Hira. She sat next to him in a lounge chair, getting a mani-pedi in Wes’ body with a face mask draped over her. Her finger lifted, and a chicken skewer floated off of a plate next to her, and into her mouth. “It’s all free.” Left-Hira had gone off to the bathroom.
“You’re all letting your guards down,” said Hira. “That Izanami bitch is probably listening in to this conversation, finishing her psych profiles on us. Or they’re hijacking us over time, and they’re going to trap us here forever.”
“You’re being awfully loud about it,” said Tasia, nibbling on a skewer.
“Subterfuge would be pointless,” said Hira. “She already knows I know. There’s always something shitty under the surface of nice things like this. She’s probably grinding kittens into sausages under the mountain or something. Where none of us are looking.”
Tasia recoiled. “That’s a horrible image. Why would you say that? And why do you dislike Nekeans so much?”
Hira snorted. “Read a history book. During the Shenti War, every free nation joined forces and fought the Black Tortoise’s invasion. But the Neke stayed out of it. They sacrificed nothing, and got to reap all the rewards. And now, they’re trying to steal from Ilaqua, too.”
“You know Ana’s a quarter Nekean, right?”
“She wasn’t born there,” said Hira. “It’s different.”
The masseuse finished his massage and walked away. Tasia’s pedicure person did the same a few seconds later.
Right-Hira lay on the massage table, content. “But I can manage,” he said. “Because I know how to make this vacation bearable.”
He pointed, and Tasia and I glanced down the slope, squinting.
Left-Hira darted between bushes at the bottom of the mountain, near the locker room where we’d stored all our stuff. She ran from cover to cover, staying hidden from the staff members nearby. When she got close enough, she stood up and walked down the stone steps to the shower rooms. She wore a stolen staff uniform and a medallion, disguising herself as a bath attendant.
“Hira,” I said, deflating in the hot pool. “Please don’t tell me you’re taking your weapons back.”
“Weapons?” Right-Hira looked at me like I’d gone mad. “No, I’m taking my fucking hookah back. The staff uniform gets me through the door, and pretending to take a shower gets me the rest of the way. I’m going to grab it right from under their noses. And then, I’m going to smoke it as much as I goddamn please.”
Left-Hira picked the lock, then walked through the door, casual, and shut it behind her.
“Hira,” said Tasia. “Have you ever considered that you maybe smoke too much?”
“That’s what my father said,” said Right-Hira. He grabbed one of Tasia’s chicken skewers and shoved it down his throat. “I used to smoke only a few times a year. Special occasions. Then my father ran this whole anti-smoking health campaign for Ilaqua. Big expensive government marketing, arguing that smoking causes premature aging and cancer.”
Tasia looked confused. “But…smoking does cause premature aging and cancer. And you can’t even swap bodies.”
“Now,” said Hira. “Almost no one in Ilaqua smokes. And my father bragged about his success to me.” He shrugged. “So I said fuck you, and started doing it all the time.”
“You took up an entire smoking habit,” said Tasia. “just to anger your father?”
“Yeah,” said Right-Hira. “Fuck him.”
“Sometimes, people confuse me,” said Tasia.
“I hate any bastard that thinks they can control people and tell them what to do,” said Right-Hira. “My father’s a piece of shit when he does it, and so is this ‘Izanami’ you met.” He gestured down the mountain. “And now, I’m about to slip through her pathetic security in three, two – “
Something shattered below. Left-Hira burst through a window on the third floor of the entrance building, her hair wet.
She projected into the white towel wrapped around her, her only clothes, and lowered herself, rolling on the grass below. A mud mask sat on her face, and cucumbers on her eyes, part of some makeshift disguise. Water dripped from her soaked hair.
Left-Hira swallowed the cucumbers, blinked, and sprinted up the slope, clutching her miniature purple hookah in her fist. A pair of security guards burst out of a door behind her and sprinted after her.
“Alright,” said Right-Hira. “That was a bit harder than I expected.”
“Hira,” I said. “What did you do?” Neither of the guards carried weapons, so it didn’t look too serious, at least.
“Some mild property damage,” said Right-Hira, concentrating on the chase, providing a vantage point for his other body. “No one got hurt.” He grimaced. “God damn it.”
Left-Hira ran through a restaurant below, knocking over tables full of food and vases full of perfectly arranged flowers. The guards leapt over the obstacles, undeterred, and kept sprinting after her.
The guests at the restaurant recoiled from Left-Hira’s antics, their faces a mixture of surprise and horror. A Nekean woman averted her gaze, mortified. A pretty Ilaquan man glared at her with disapproval. And the two guards kept chasing her, sprinting fast enough to get closer and closer.
As the guards drew close, stretching their hands to her, Left-Hira changed course, darting to the side. As one of them reached out his hand to grab her, she jumped, projecting herself up and forward with her towel.
She did a front flip midair, for flourish more than anything, and landed on the roof of one of the slanted wooden elevators as it pulled itself up through the hot springs. In seconds, she rose out of the guard’s reach.
The guards still raced after her, splitting up in different paths. One of them sprinted up staircases, through the pedestrian route up the mountain. The other one jumped off a bridge, and appeared to swim up one of the waterfalls. A water projector. It looked a bit ridiculous.
“Hira,” said Tasia. “I’m trying to have a vacation before all of us dive into a war zone.”
“So am I,” said Right-Hira.
Left-Hira jumped off the elevator, and climbed up a set of pipes and some hanging vines on a wall beside us. The guards kept sprinting after her, getting closer.
Then, Left-Hira sprinted past our group, her wet hair streaming behind her.
“You,” said Tasia. “Have a very strange idea of – “
While neither of the guards could see, Left-Hira flicked her wrist to the side, and tossed Tasia her hookah.
Tasia caught it, stunned. She blinked, staring at it, unsure of what to do. Left-Hira sprinted away, a diversion.
The guards came into view, and I threw a visual illusion over them, making it seem like Hira still held the hookah.
Then, because I felt nice, I made it look like Left-Hira was running in the opposite direction, up a different path through the hot springs.
The guards ran in the wrong direction, and the real Left-Hira jumped down a waterfall, then disappeared in a cloud of hot steam from a pool. A successful escape.
Below, men and women stood up from their ruined meals, among the knocked-over tables and shattered vases. They looked irritated.
Right-Hira leaned over and plucked the hookah from Tasia’s hands. “Is anyone looking?”
Tasia stuttered, her thoughts still muddled.
I glanced around. “Don’t think so.”
Right-Hira unfolded the hookah, lit it, and started puffing on it, letting out a relaxed breath. “Ah,” he said. “Better.”
“I like this place,” said Tasia. “If they find you smoking, they’re going to kick us out. I don’t want a lifetime ban.”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” said Hira. “I’ve been lifetime banned from three separate fast food chains.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Both your bodies?”
Hira nodded. “And calm your tits, Tasia. I’m sure that pajama woman will cut us special treatment now that we’re helping her save the world.” He exhaled, breathing out a cloud of cherry-scented smoke. “And besides, I wore a mud mask, so they didn’t see my face. I’m not going to get caught.”
Mercurial bowed to Right-Hira from behind his chair. I jumped. Where did he come from?
He extended a slip of paper to Hira. “Your bill,” he said. “For the damages.”
Right-Hira snatched it and looked over it, furious. “Lund pe chadh,” he growled. Then he crumpled it into a ball and tossed it to me. I caught it, unfolded it, and read it. A manageable number, especially with the small fortune Izanami had just added to our own. I nodded at Hira.
“And,” Mercurial said, regretful. “I must ask for you to stop smoking if you want your party to remain on the premises.”
Right-Hira glanced at Tasia, who pleaded at him with her eyes.
He sighed, let out one last puff, and handed the hookah back to Mercurial. Mercurial, in response, handed him a box filled with sealed packets. “In the interim,” he said. “We can provide guests with these nicotine patches.”
Right-Hira projected into a dozen of them, ripped them open in unison, and slapped them all over his skin, leaning back on the chair.
Tasia rushed over to Hira and hugged him. “Thanks,” she said.
“Don’t mention it,” said Right-Hira.
“I knew you had it in you,” said Tasia.
“No, I mean, literally don’t mention it again.”
Tasia broke off from Hira, and smiled. “It’s going to be a great weekend.”
Near the end of the weekend, Izanami and Mercurial gave us more details on our target, including blueprints of the former Great Library, a map of the city nearby, and an overview of what the local defenses might look like. Plus, a few other details, which made the mission seem far more terrifying than I’d first thought.
“It ought to be pared down a bit,” said Mercurial. “Since they moved a lot of the books. But it’s still a Great Library.”
I nodded. Maxine Clive and Grace Acworth had planned for years just to get into Paragon’s library, and they’d barely managed that.
“Normally,” said Mercurial. “This location wouldn’t be notable. But recently, the Black Tortoise injected a bunch of money into it, and shipped over some of his few pneumatologists.”
“Great,” said Right-Hira, still covered in nicotine patches. “So we might find nothing there.”
“There are many leads,” said Mercurial. “You’re just exploring one of them.”
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I grumbled. “Why didn’t she give us this briefing at the start of the weekend?”
“Maybe she wanted us to have a proper vacation,” said Tasia.
Mercurial nodded, smiling. Hira’s right. We couldn’t trust these people.
“Izanami would also like to request that I join you on this journey.”
Hira scowled with both bodies.
“I will not supersede your authority, or order you around. Queen Sulphur has the prerogative.”
He doesn’t say he’ll follow our orders, either. A free agent, then. Powerful, but someone who could also throw a wrench into our plans. And Izanami didn’t give us her business card. Which meant she didn’t trust us fully. Not yet.
“And if we finish the mission and decide we don’t work well together?” I said.
“Then we can go our separate ways,” said Mercurial. “Though we would still like a copy of the Lavender Book.” If things go bad, he’ll grab all our books and run.
“He’s powerful,” I said to the group, with illusions. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this, but he’ll probably be a valuable asset.” And we couldn’t do everything on our own. Without the Rose Titan, we would have died on Attlelan Island. Without Chimera Squad at Paragon, we would have gotten shot a hundred times. Without Mercurial, our first Vice-Captain would have suffocated me.
Hira grumbled, and we debated the issue in private. After mulling it over for another few hours, Hira agreed to bring Mercurial along, a new light glimmering in her eyes.
We took Mercurial’s boat out to the submarine, floating us for a rendezvous at night, a distance out from the entrance of Airavata Bay. Away from any civilian ships or Nekean naval defenses that might spot us.
Mercurial jumped onto the surface of the sub, and climbed down the ladder into the ship, following us. Cardamom padded up next to him and rubbed his leg.
Vice-Captain Byfield, the new woman in charge, approached me, her hands folded behind her back. “Your orders, ma’am?”
I handed her Izanami’s folded-up map, with the course corrections. We’re not ready. But it was time anyway.
“Alright,” I said. “Take us into Shenten.”