I hated the fucking ocean.
In the first hours of our voyage, I’d been wowed by the beautiful vistas. The shimmering expanses of blue water. The sea birds flying overhead, and the endless horizon in every direction. On the first night, we’d even seen a pair of lantern whales, glowing red and blue and pink and orange under the waves.
I’d stood up on the flight deck of the Rhona for long stretches, gazing ahead of us towards our faraway destination.
But then, indoors, the ship’s incessant bobbing motion made me feel nauseous, churning up the mess hall’s bland meatloaf in my belly. I’d clutched my stomach and hid in my tiny quarters on my bunk bed, taking slow, deep breaths to calm my insides.
The mattress itself felt uncomfortable, designed for hardened sailors, not spoiled Epistocrat nobles. Chin up, idiot, I’d told myself on the first night, as I lay on the top bunk above a passed-out Samuel. Everyone else is sleeping in the same conditions, don’t be a spoiled brat. I hadn’t complained a single word out loud, a rare feat for me.
But berating myself didn’t help. I didn’t sleep a wink, and spent half the night pacing around the hallways of the ship, trying to get myself exhausted enough to pass out.
To no avail. I had dark purple circles under my eyes the next morning. And as we traversed northeast towards Shenten, passing into the Shi Xue Ocean, the inside of the aircraft carrier grew colder, and the outside became a giant walk-in freezer, far too cold to enjoy the view. It forced me indoors, where my seasickness felt far worse.
I spent the second night awake, too. Everything felt uncomfortable. The bed, the rocking motion of the ship, my body – everything. I was still getting used to this new, old form, its obscenely smooth skin, and its new proportions. Doesn’t normally take me this long.
My mother had assured me that the naval portion of the invasion would be quick – that the Shenti’s fleets couldn’t match the Principality even a little bit. Most of the fighting will be on land. I felt grateful for that. If we’d been fighting Neke instead, I might have turned around and accepted the teaching offer.
My nerves weren’t helping either. I was going to war. A real, proper war. And I hadn’t even mastered an Autonomous Bullet Defense.
I twisted and turned in bed, flipping myself on my stomach to see if that would be more comfortable. The hard mattress pressed into my chest. Nope.
And that offer from Maxine Clive. That bloody terrorist madwoman. Even after I’d refused her, threatened her, all but spat in her face, she’d still left her door open to me. She thought I’d become her spy, betray my country for her.
She’d stayed calm and measured the whole time, with her stupid tea and her stupid bacon bits. Who the fuck eats bacon like cereal? It made me want to punch the ceiling.
And I still haven’t told anyone about it. That infuriated me even more. What’s wrong with me?
If I just lay here, I’d have to face my swirling maelstrom of thoughts for hours and hours. That sounded like agony, so I floated some slips of paper from my footlocker and practiced my projection. A useful distraction.
In these conditions, I couldn’t practice my ABD, and in the darkness, I couldn’t reread the vocation codex I’d brought.
So I played with my Physical Vocation. I floated random bits of junk from my footlocker in front of me, squeezed my palms together, and flattened them into two dimensions. An empty box that had held packaged donuts. Spare sheets of paper. A metal device you could fidget with.
I could flatten them, then squeeze them between sheets of paper, since the expansion force was almost nil. But if I left them like that for a while, they would stay flattened, and never pop back into three dimensions. This happened to different objects at different rates, and it kept me from amassing a large collection of flattened weapons. The third dimension just bled out of them.
Nothing clicked. I experimented with the various objects, flattening and unflattening, even flattening them multiple times, but I didn’t see any obvious results.
Maybe you’ll always feel this way. Maybe you’ll never feel at home anywhere again.
Shut up, I said to myself, and went back to distracting myself.
I switched to messing around with paper projection. Not my Vocation, but something I’d taken a liking to. With my new shiny library card, I’d read some new vocation codexes over the last few weeks. New techniques.
One of the techniques was called “mirroring”. I folded an origami crane in my hands, and projected into a dozen pieces of paper at the same time, floating above my mattress by the ceiling.
Then, I directed them to mirror my movements to perfection, a level of precision and speed I’d never managed before. When I folded one sheet, the other sheets folded themselves, identical. When I finished the crane, my projection finished another twelve identical cranes above me.
This technique wouldn’t be that useful. Unless you accept Maxine Clive’s offer. Then it had some unique tradecraft functions. So why are you teaching it to yourself?
I crumpled the origami crane in my fist, and the other cranes crumpled into the same shape, every crease identical.
Maxine Clive knew you wouldn’t report her. A Humdrum with no Whisper vocations, and she’d still wormed her way into my brain.
I let the paper fall around me, and sagged back on my pillow. Sleep is crucial. I needed to get my rest and stay lucid for the upcoming battles.
Getting a drink would help you sleep. The Rhona was my mother’s flagship, so I couldn’t ask any of her sailors, but with projection, it would be easy to steal a bottle and drink it somewhere quiet. It would cool the swelling discomfort in my body, quiet all the chattering thoughts.
It sounded so relaxing, when the last few days had been anything but.
“Fuck you,” I muttered to myself.
I lay back in bed, opened my eyes, and resigned myself to a long, sleepless night.
In the morning, Samuel shook me awake. The exhaustion still hung over every inch of my body, but I’d somehow managed to fall asleep.
“Come on, Nell,” he said. “We’re late.”
I groaned, muttering nonsense phrases and half-growls, and my eyes fluttered open, looking around. The cabin had emptied. Eliya and Leizu and the other students had left.
“Where is everyone?” I mumbled.
“You were sleeping, and looked very peaceful,” said Samuel. “So we let you skip breakfast.” He kissed me on the cheek. “Come on. We’ve arrived.”
I half-fell out of bed, and threw on my blue military uniform. The simple pants and shirt felt so much nicer than the tight corsets and cold dresses I’d been wearing back home. Not everything about sea life sucks.
Samuel tossed me a piece of toast with a mug of tea, and I scarfed them down as we walked through the corridors of the aircraft carrier.
We stepped out of a door, into the glaring morning sunlight, and joined a crowd of sailors on the ship’s flight deck. Samuel and I pushed through, finding a spot at the edge next to Leizu and Eliya, and we gazed forward.
A flat, snowy island spread out before us, packed to the brim with soldiers. Blue rows of tents covered every inch of the ground, stretching from coast to coast. Trucks and tanks drove about on makeshift roads, turning the snow to brown slush beneath them. Dozens of ships were parked on the beaches, and at makeshift harbors, and fighter planes flew circles overhead.
And more ships were coming behind us. More soldiers, more tanks, more supplies. The largest army I’d ever seen. The kind I’d only heard of in news broadcasts from my childhood.
“Welcome to Pingtan Island,” said Eliya. “Our last staging area for the invasion.”
A chill wind blew across the ocean, and I shivered. I’d forgotten my jacket in my room. Samuel handed me his coat, and I threw it on, murmuring thanks as he rubbed my shoulders.
“It was under the control of the warlord Lai Zan, who opposed the Black Tortoise and didn’t want to fight the Principality. So they didn’t dig in here. They just left.” She smiled. “They’re still disorganized. Intelligence says they might not even have a good coastal defense.”
“You don’t know the Black Tortoise,” said Leizu, munching on five separate pieces of toast with jam, stacked together like a sandwich. “The guy sorta made a habit of beating up cocky people.”
“Now is the perfect time to strike,” said Eliya. “I’ve studied warfare, I know what I’m talking about.”
“Lucky for us,” I said. “Eliya’s very humble.”
“If things get back,” said Leizu to Eliya. “Hide behind me, blondie. I will protect your tiny body with my giant bulletproof shoulders.”
“I’m taller than you,” said Eliya, her voice indignant.
Leizu pinched Eliya’s arm. “You are skinny, so you are tiny.”
“You’re a dumbass.”
“Yes,” said Leizu. “but at least I can do a pull-up.”
When the ship landed, we stepped off, got a new set of assignments, and moved our gear to a new tent near the command area. Other Paragon students and Guardians milled about and chatted with one another. Keeping us separate from the Humdrums. Even without a floating school, even on a muddy, slush-covered island, they wanted to keep us aloof and distant.
I spotted Stella Hargreave, Alistair Pakhem – one of Samuel’s brothers, and Lorne Daventry himself, practicing his projection on a ball of molten steel.
Many of the students looked ill at ease. They flinched as planes flew overhead, or looked at their orders with confusion, or made themselves small as tanks drove by. They’re used to classrooms and squad battles. Not military uniforms and tents and battleships. The last Shenti War had ended close to a decade ago. And most never imagined we’d have a second one.
Lorne, on the other hand, looked more comfortable than I’d ever seen him before.
We arrived at our tent, and read our official assignments for the rest of the day. My eyes widened. The invasion’s tomorrow morning. We had a tentative date. Things were moving so fast.
However, since we’d been briefed and given flight training already, the four of us had few assignments for the rest of the day, and nothing during the morning. We had a spot of free time.
A year ago, I would have played Jao Lu, or gotten myself a drink, or a long bubble bath.
“Hey,” I said, to the other members of Chimera Squad. “Can you help me practice my Autonomous Bullet Defense? It might take a while.” I’d run over the vocation several times in the past, and reviewed it again during the journey, since the vocation codex was low-level enough for me to loan it out from the library. I thought I might have it down, but I’d never actually tested it before.
And, to my embarrassment, every other member of Chimera Squad had already mastered the technique.
Leizu and Eliya glanced at each other. “Leizu and I will be busy,” said Eliya. Eliya’s too busy to train someone like me. She hadn’t even turned twenty, and she’d already almost finished her Vocation Codex.
Samuel nodded at me. “Sure.”
We couldn’t find anywhere on the island to practice. Every inch of its snow and mud had been packed with soldiers and supplies.
So, with Samuel’s connections, we got clearance from the local patrol commander so no one would shoot at us, and walked out on the icy water itself. The commander assured us that the enemy wouldn’t come anywhere near the island.
The island shrunk in the distance. A breeze blew past us, and the cold bit into my skin, even through my white body armor and jacket. But the clouds had vanished, and the morning sun shone over the glimmering water. Dozens of warships went to and fro in the distance, an intricate dance, moving guns, Guardians, and supplies towards the northeast, in preparation for tomorrow’s assault. Fighter planes flew overhead, on patrol routes around the ocean. At this distance, they looked almost peaceful.
I stepped on the icy water, the surface rippling around my snow boots. Half a year ago, I’d struggled to accomplish a water walk with Hira. Today, it felt easy.
Samuel walked beside me, silent. Why did Leizu and Eliya have to be busy? Being alone with him made me uncomfortable. What if we end up talking about us? Or how he’d abandoned me after my Ousting. Or worse, whatever relationship he’d formed with Tasia.
Just thinking about it made me feel angry. Or maybe you’re just being a petulant, possessive bitch.
Either way, the less we talked about it, the better.
“I’m surprised,” said Samuel. “I thought you’d finished learning your ABD. Since, you know, the invasion’s tomorrow.” And mother said I can’t go into battle without mastering it.
Of all my mother’s unfair cruelty, that directive made sense, at least. The modern battlefield was filled with gunfire and shrapnel, and with the Obsidian Foil dead, Paragon didn’t have enough heavy enhanced body armor to go around. Charging in without backup meant near-certain death, like when Ana had tried being a mercenary without a Nudging defense.
I scowled at Samuel. “I’ve learned it. I’m just not sure if I learned it right, yet.” I’d wanted to learn and test it earlier, but I thought I’d have more time before the invasion. Even during the voyage here, I thought I’d at least have another couple of days, or weeks, while the navy prepped for the invasion. Guess everyone got here before we did.
Then I pulled a steel marble out of my pocket, and tossed it to Samuel. He caught it with projection, floating it in his palm.
I bent my knees, widening my stance, and inhaled, then exhaled, taking slow, deep breaths. I closed my eyes, and my mind ran over everything I’d crammed about the ABD.
A Nekean Physical Specialist named Raghu Kapil had developed the vocation fifty years ago. He’d written his codex, sold it, and promptly used the profits to retire at the age of twenty-five and start a band, wiping most of his projection from his head so he wouldn’t count towards the Yokusei Pact. He’d become the laughingstock of the international projector community, even as they used his work on the battlefield.
But while everyone else had been fighting and dying, he’d been strumming his sitar and eating banquets every night. So who was the real fool?
The ABD created a field of passive projection around your skin. When a fast-moving metal object entered it, your Pith would automatically reach out and bend its path around you, using a variety of forces. I ran through the chemistry and physics and math equations in my head, and tensed my Pith as the codex told me to.
Then, I exhaled, and felt something thrum around my body, faint. That’s got to be it.
This is for everything. If I failed here, I couldn’t join my friends in the field and protect them.
I opened my eyes, and nodded at Samuel. He projected into the marble, and flung it at my armored stomach. Not fast enough to do actual damage, but just fast enough to trigger an ABD and get batted aside.
I flinched, and the marble slammed into my stomach, and I doubled over, wheezing. “Ow,” I gasped. “Ow.” Fast enough to hurt like a bitch, I guess. If it hit me in the solar plexus.
“Oh, Scholars,” said Samuel. “I’m so sorry. Do you need a bandage, or – “
“Again,” I hissed, catching my breath. I redoubled my focus on the ABD’s science, on everything I’d learned from the codex.
Samuel floated the marble back into his palm, a concerned expression on his face. Then, he flung it at me again.
This time, it thudded into a different part of my stomach, another painful impact as I flinched, and a new lingering ache afterwards. That’s going to leave a bruise.
We tried variants of this for the next half hour, my skin getting more and more abused, even under the body armor. What’s wrong with me? I knew all the science. I had the book with me, and re-read passages to make sure I was getting them right.
But I couldn’t block a single marble.
“It took me a few months to learn the ABD,” said Samuel. “Maybe you just need time to sit with it.”
“I don’t have time,” I growled through clenched teeth. The invasion’s tomorrow. “Again.”
Samuel shot the marble at me again, thudding into one of my ribs. “Takonara,” I muttered.
“What does that mean?” said Samuel.
Octopus cunt. Nekean slang taught to me by Leo. Which made me think of Maxine Clive, inhabiting his body, giving me her offer. Which only made me clench my teeth harder.
“It’s just a general expression of annoyance,” I said.
Samuel gave me a gentle smile. “Maybe you missed some sections from the book.” He took the codex from me and flipped through it. “Are you focusing on an unconscious response? ‘Making sure your Pith, and not your mind, is grabbing the bullet’.”
“Yes,” I said.
Samuel proceeded to read through the book, explaining the simplest, most dumbed-down version of the science and technique from every chapter. He thinks I skimmed it. He had the tone of voice you’d use for a crying five-year-old.
Then, he went on a tangent explaining magnetism to me. He thinks I don’t know magnetism. That’s how stupid he thought I was.
“And the force is applied across – “
“I know the basics,” I snapped, interrupting him. “You don’t have to treat me like a flighty, drunk child.”
A look of confusion passed over his face. “I’ve helped you before, like this,” said Samuel. “It didn’t anger you before.”
“Yes,” I said. “Before the Ousting.” Before you abandoned me as a lost cause. Before he’d decided that talking to me was more trouble than it was worth.
“Listen,” said Samuel. “I have to go soon for an appointment with my father, but I can help you more with this after. I might have to cancel my dinner plans and a few other things, but I think I can shoulder the burden.”
“Go to your dinner,” I spat. “I’ll learn it on my own.” I stalked away from him on the water, back towards the island.
I went back towards my tent, intending to collapse on my bed and have a short mental breakdown before getting on with the rest of the day.
Then, a much worse idea came to me. I need a drink. And a conversation that wouldn’t worm its way back to my Samuel, or my mother.
I wandered out of the fancier command area, away from the Guardians and drafted students and nicer tents, glancing behind me to make sure no one was following me. One of the uniforms they’d given us matched a generic soldier’s outfit, which let me blend in with the Humdrum soldiers around the camp.
After half an hour of drifting around, I found a group of four men playing Jao Lu, sitting on stools around a supply crate. They sipped liquor out of metal mugs, chatting and laughing amongst themselves.
I hung at the edge for a few minutes, watching their game. Then, one of them spoke up. “I’ve got to head out. Second Lieutenant’s riding my ass.” He put a hand on two of the others’ shoulders. “If I don’t see you later: Good luck tomorrow. You’re a bunch of bastards, but you’re bloody fine bastards.” He walked off, leaving one of the stools empty.
One of the soldiers started cleaning up the game pieces, and I stepped in at the edge, raising a finger. “If you boys want to play another game, I’d love to join you.”
They raised their eyebrows at me, looking me over with a certain fixation. I avoided eye contact, staring at the slush-covered ground. It had been a while since I’d had strangers look at me that way, and I didn’t miss it. It might have been flattering, if I’d actually earned this chassis.
One of them slapped the other two on their knees, shocking them out of their stupor. “Look normal, dumbasses. Acting like you never seen a WM before.” He gestured at the empty stool. “Play a game or two.”
“Sorry,” one of the wide-eyed young men said. He couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than me. “I’ve had a drop or two down the gullet, and I’m – “ He blinked, his eyes going unfocused.
One of the other ones poured me a cup full of some pungent, clear spirit, and handed it to me. Gin, smells like. I murmured thanks, and clenched the metal mug. How long have I been sober, now? I’d lost track, but it couldn’t be more than a few months. Still, that’s your best record since preschool.
We started on the game, and I focused on the strategy to distract myself. It felt nice to think about something that felt familiar, that didn’t change with time. Jao Lu didn’t get patronizing, or distant, or confusing.
The three marines weren’t bad. They didn’t know fancy historical strategies, but they had a good eye for improvisation and dodging traps. They played far better than those elitist Paragon students I’d fought in the Petal Tea Lounge last year. And they were playing drunk.
Still, my experience with the game paid off, and soon, all three of them had to team up against me.
I moved my Blue Charlatan, ambushing two of them at once. It reminded me of Ana.
“Fuck!” one of my victims shouted. “What kind of fucking marine gets this smart? Did your drill sergeant forget to slip bleach into your coffee?”
“He just did that to you, Bill,” said another one. “That’s why your face looks so funny.”
“Maybe,” said the third one. “The bitch is just better than you two.”
“It’s cause she’s sober,” said Bill, pointing at my untouched mug. “This is the finest shit we can get as dumb grunts. Drink the fuck up.”
I looked down at the sweet-smelling gin. It looks so delicious. And that sharp odor smelled so fresh. Clean. Normally, I’d be able to come up with an excuse. These soldiers seemed nice enough.
But normally, I had alcohol. Socializing sober was like walking a tightrope with your legs tied together.
I need another distraction.
“I can’t help but notice,” I said. “None of the other marines here are partying like this. They’re all running about, with some task or another. You’re the only ones I see relaxing like this. Why is that?”
Bill smiled, his voice still light. He pulled a piece of paper from under his butt and unfolded it in my face. I squinted, reading it. An assignment for the invasion. Jade Beach. Sector K. And what looked like a position number, in the single digits.
“Command gave us the night off,” said another one of the marines, Gilbert. “Cause when those troop carriers pull up on the beach tomorrow, we’re the first ones off.” To charge bunkers and machine-gun nests. Command was using Humdrum marines as meat shields on the front lines. A death sentence.
An uncomfortable silence fell over our game.
I thought about what Eliya had said. “I hear that there might not be a lot of naval defenses,” I said. “The Shenti might still be reeling and fighting each other.” I wanted to believe it.
Bill shook his head, laughing. “I fought on this island a decade ago. I know who I’m up against.”
“You don’t look scared,” I said.
This time, Gilbert laughed. “We’re terrified, can’t you see? Why do you think we’re having so much fun?” He chugged down the rest of his drink. “Tomorrow, our lives will be in the hands of fate. Stressing about it will just make us jittery and stupid on the field.”
“But you’re thinking about it right now,” I said. “You’re not trying to hide it.”
“Yeah.” Gilbert shrugged. “We’re about to face death out there, in one of its purest forms. The least we can do is acknowledge it. It’s a balance, between doping yourself and shitting your pants.”
I nodded. Then I set down the metal cup on the Jao Lu board. “I’m not thirsty,” I said. “You shouldn’t waste good booze on me.”
Bill snorted. “Excuses. Just admit you’re too young to drink.”
I grinned. “Better than being too old to hold my liquor.”
Gilbert shrugged. “We are on the verge of death, technically.”
An idea came to me.
Not if I can help it.
I found my mother in a command tent, poring over maps. A half-eaten plate of boiled game sat next to her. She only spared me a glance as I entered. “Be quick,” she said. “The invasion’s tomorrow.” And she’s swamped, no doubt.
This is going to be a tough sell. I took a slow, deep breath. “I would like to request a position reassignment for the assault,” I said.
“You’ve been briefed and trained already,” my mother said. “Why?”
“Currently, Chimera Squad is assigned to an artillery position behind enemy lines with a company of paratroopers.” I pointed to a location on the map. “I would like to be assigned to Jade Beach. Sector K.” I pointed at another location on the map. And to protect some people on the front lines.
“Why would you want to do something stupid like that?” My mother didn’t even look up from her notes. “Have you even mastered an ABD?”
“Mostly,” I lied. I had the theory all down, but the execution was proving far more difficult.
“So why Jade Beach, Sector K?”
I thought of my actual rationale. Our soldiers are being told to sacrifice themselves. So many Humdrums walking into the meat grinder for the sake of this invasion. The least we could do was fight alongside them.
Do not put your faith in gods, Maxine Clive whispered in my head. No matter what ideals they profess, they only see you as a cheap tool. Quick to break, and quicker to throw away. In my imagination, she looked almost identical to my mother.
Shut up, I whispered back.
I rattled off some half-baked justification. “With my paper barriers,” I said. “I think I’m less well-suited to a stealth operation. I’d be better at fighting fortifications and keeping our troops safe on the front lines.”
Recognition dawned in my mother’s eyes, and she stood up from her desk, walking around to face me. She pushed aside the flap of her tent, and pointed out into the distance, at the CNS Rhona, her aircraft carrier.
“My flagship,” she said. “Was iconic during the last war. It has symbolic importance. And the enemy knows me as the Typhoon of the South. A dangerous strategic mind, critical to our war effort.” She turned back to me, her green eyes cold. “They will likely send enemies after the Rhona tomorrow. Joiners, wingtroopers. Maybe even Commandos. Even after we decimated their navy. And they will target me. Do you know how many projectors I’ve assigned to defend the carrier?”
My throat tightened. I shook my head.
“Two,” She walked back to the map. “Myself, and one other Guardian. I’ve dedicated the others to offense.”
I swallowed, a pit forming in my stomach. This might be the last time I see her. Somehow, I doubted it, but even the thought sent a myriad of emotions rushing through my mind.
“My life is at risk,” said my mother. “I know my role. The marines landing on the beach, they know their role too. Someone has to be the first off the boats. And they’re volunteers, at present.”
She knows. “You’re not mad at me?” I said.
“Any good commander knows not to throw away her troops,” my mother said. “It’s not a bad instinct. But you can’t save them all. And you have a role, too.”
My mother looked at me like I was an idiot struggling in math class. “Survive,” she said. “And ensure that Samuel Pakhem survives, too. That objective takes priority over all others, including your official marching orders and anything you get in the field.”
Because my mother is such a romantic.
“Your engagement to the Pakhems is the future of this family. They possess money and influence, and their older children are also fighting in the field. Which means if they die, Samuel will become the sole heir to their fortune and influence.”
A chill came over me as she said that. I doubted that she was actually planning to murder Samuel’s older brother and sister, but she knew the family. It wasn’t normal to talk about deaths like that as an opportunity.
“The Pakhems, more than anything, are our best path to reclaiming our glory and position. I have convinced one of our generals to assign you and Chimera Squad to a relatively easy position for the assault. The easiest I could get away with.” She looked straight at me. “It is an opportunity. Do not waste it by dying.”
I wanted to ignore Samuel for another century, no matter how red-hot he looked. But I’m still going to marry the blonde bastard. It all felt so strange and difficult.
But my mother wasn’t going to budge on this. I knew her too well.
“Understood,” I said, and turned to leave.
Time to bring it up the ladder.
I couldn’t find Headmaster Tau anywhere in the camp, so I wandered around the ocean again, aimless. I practiced my ABD over and over, feeling it thrum and pulse around me. But it still doesn’t work. It still didn’t click, no matter how many times I tried it.
I thought of Bill and Edward and Nathan, the nice soldiers I’d played Jao Lu with. I closed my eyes as I wandered, and imagined them getting chopped up with bullets, five seconds after stepping on the beach. I imagined all the other soldiers around them, getting shot full of holes, blown up with mortars and artillery, ripped to shreds by the bare hands of Joiners, on a scale unlike anything I’d seen before.
A part of me knew my mother was right. War is war. People die. But the horror still lingered.
I opened my eyes, and saw someone nearby. Two men, sitting on a dry picnic blanket that floated on the still surface of the ocean. They sipped tea and ate scones, as if they were sitting in Darius Park on a quiet summer afternoon, and not in the freezing ocean, on the edge of enemy territory. I guess it is tea time.
One of the men had his back turned to me, sporting deep brown hair. The other had his face to me, pastry crumbs coating his black beard and beige suit. I recognized him in an instant.
“Headmaster Tau?” I said. “What are you doing here?”
He lifted a dainty teacup. “We’re preparing for battle, silly. Can’t you see, Lydia?”
He doesn’t recognize me. People with older Piths had that problem, sometimes. “I’m Nell, sir,” I said. “Nell Ebbridge. We met recently and talked in your office?”
He blinked at me for a few seconds. Then the realization spread across his face, and he smiled at me. “Ah, Nell!” He beckoned at the blanket. “Sit, sit. Have some tea. Have a cake. The pear cake is especially good, and we even got a bit of crab.”
I walked forward, sat on the blanket, and saw the man our Headmaster was taking his tea with.
A tall, broad-shouldered attractive man, with a thick brown beard and biceps that looked ready to burst all his clothes.
The last time I’d seen that body, it had been blackened, burnt to a shriveled, crispy mess by the Pyre Witch, its hand still clutching a pitch-black rapier.
“Professor Oakes?” I half-shouted. “You’re alive?”
“Drat,” said Headmaster Tau. “You know our secret.” He shrugged. “Guess we’ll have to kill you now.”
Sebastian Oakes, the Obsidian Foil, raised a whole, unburnt hand towards me, in a reassuring gesture. “Nicholas jests. He would never extinguish a brave soul such as yourself, Lady Ebbridge.” He leaned forward and patted me on the shoulder. They felt like soft punches.
“You died,” I said. “Tunnel Vision exhausted your Pith and burned you up.”
“She did indeed,” said Oakes, pouring me a cup of tea. “But the witch did not use Voidsteel. And I managed to hold onto life.” He floated a tiny cake onto a plate for me. The setting sun cast his face in warm orange light.
That’s fucking absurd. It didn’t always take Voidsteel to extinguish a Pith. Enough damage to the body, and the brain would stop working right. And if the brain broke down, so would the Pith.
“I was in the hospital, in a coma,” said Oakes. “A barely breathing corpse, even after they transferred my soul to a backup chassis.” He put Tau in a headlock, grinning. Tau’s eyes widened with confusion. “But when Nicholas here got back to the city, he woke me up. And once I woke up, the rest of my Joining kicked in, and I fixed all the rest.”
“Mostly,” said Tau, looking uncomfortable in the headlock.
“And your wife?” I said. “Penny?”
Oakes stared at his feet. That was answer enough.
“I’m a ways away from my full strength,” said Oakes. “And the eastern dogs think I’m still dead, so I wanted to keep it a secret. I wanted to stay in this chassis for recovery, and so I wouldn’t lose my Joining for an emergency.” He gestured around them. “So we’re having afternoon tea out here.”
People don’t come back from those injuries. Not even Joiners. But here he was, loud and boisterous as usual.
But if anyone could bring him back, it’d be Headmaster Tau. And I was glad that the Pyre Witch’s body count was one less than I’d thought.
“You look troubled,” said Tau, munching on a crab leg thoughtfully. “What’s on your mind, child?”
“It’s been a strange week,” I said. “Let me give you the basics.”
Then I explained everything. I started out giving a simpler version of everything, leaving out the most embarrassing bits, but then I kept talking. And kept talking. My mother, and Samuel, and the ABD. The doomed soldiers I’d played Jao Lu with. Damn my loose tongue. And my impulsive nature.
Tau adopted an expression that managed to look sympathetic without pity, or condescension.
“Like I told you,” he said. “I never wanted this war. But now that we’re in it, and the Conclave is refusing to back out, you’ll save more of those soldiers by completing your assignment behind enemy lines.” He licked one of his fingers. “You are assaulting an artillery position, yes?”
“Who do you think that artillery is firing at?” He gestured at the ships passing around us. “And if you were to fight on the front lines, then men will die elsewhere.”
I grit my teeth. “I know, but – “
“If you are to fight in a war, you must acknowledge and confront death, or you shall become paralyzed.” He floated a tiny sphere of water out of the ocean, shaped like a marble. “You cannot dodge the bullet,” he said. “And you cannot destroy it, either. You must face it head-on, respect its momentum, and nudge it in a slightly different direction.”
“The codex didn’t mention anything like that,” I said.
“The author spent half his life in a band,” said Tau. “It was bound to have some issues.”
I sat back down on the picnic blanket. You cannot dodge the bullet, and you cannot destroy it, either. It felt right, somehow. An intuition that clicked where nothing in the book had before.
“Would you like to practice your Bullet Defense?” said Tau.
I glanced around the blanket. “I don’t see any metal nearby.” They were eating their cakes and scones and crab with their bare hands and projection. No utensils.
“Not a problem,” said Tau. “I’ll just make some.”
“Out of thin air?” I said. “Is that even possible?”
Tau just winked at me.
Oakes’ eyes widened. “Nicholas, I’m not sure if this is the best idea.”
“Nonsense,” said Tau. “We’ll be fine.” He lifted his hands in front of him, cupping an invisible ball, and purple lightning crackled between his palms. So he’s a Praxis Specialist. His Vocation wasn’t known to the public, or even the ordinary students of Paragon. Another factor to his mystery.
A faint light glowed inside his purple electricity. I saw the edges of a chunk of metal emerge from the glowing sphere.
Then, Headmaster Tau passed out. He slumped forward onto his face. The water collapsed beneath us, his water walk ending, and the picnic blanket sank into the ocean, along with the tea and scones.
The freezing water closed in on me, and I floundered, shocked. Then Oakes projected into the water and pushed us back above the surface, drying and heating our clothes and the blanket beneath us.
But the tea had already spilled. The scones had already broken up, soaked through with saltwater.
And Headmaster Tau lay on his stomach, his face buried in the blanket, fast asleep. His back rose and fell with his breaths, and a peaceful expression spread across his face. Cold water had been splashed on his face, but it hadn’t seemed to wake him up. If the two of us weren’t here, he might be dead right now. An ignoble end for a man who’d been the strongest projector in the world.
“Scholars.” I spat saltwater out of my mouth. “Is he alright?”
“Sometimes, when he does difficult projection, he passes out,” said Oakes. He stared at me. “You are to speak nothing of this. To anyone. Or about how I’m alive.” According to my mother, the standard procedure for this sort of thing would be a memory wipe, but Oakes was choosing to trust me.
I stood up, taking this cue to leave, and started walking back to the island.
“Nell,” said Oakes, his voice deep and sonorous.
I turned back to him.
He smiled at me. “Good to see you again.”
I pushed open the door of Chimera Squad’s tent, since I couldn’t knock at it.
“Eliya? Leizu? You two in here?” I stepped in. “Boys can be such bloody trouble. Trust me, I was one for a year, and things got very weir – “
I stopped, staring forward. Blinking.
Eliya and Leizu lay in bed together, the covers pulled over them. Their hair had been mussed, and their clothes lay in a pile on the floor. Eliya wore only her blue eye patch. They’re never that messy. Why are they so messy?
The two of them stared at me, a horrified look on their faces, like I’d just caught them in an act of murder.
Then, it all hit me at once. “You’re sleeping together?” I blurted out.
Eliya jabbed a finger at me. “If you tell anyone,” she said. “I will pull out your teeth, grind them into powder, and snort them at the next party I go to.”
“No you won’t,” said Leizu. “You don’t do hard drugs.”
“I, uh,” I averted my gaze from the two of them. “I won’t tell anyone. Sorry, I should have asked before coming in.”
Eliya flicked Leizu’s shoulder. “I told you, we don’t have a tent to ourselves, Samuel and Nell could come back early. We should have been more careful.”
“It’s Nell,” said Leizu. “She blew up Lorne’s pelvis and joined a deadly war, just to protect us. We can trust her. Right, Jitterbird?”
“I – “ My mind rushed through every second I’d spent with Eliya and Leizu, every word and gesture I’d seen them exchange, putting them all in a new context. I’m so stupid. How had I not seen this earlier? “Why today?” I said.
“Eliya started picturing herself dying,” said Leizu, matter-of-factly. “She thought about getting shot with Voidsteel, and her skull getting pulverized by a Joiner, and her spleen getting pureed by a blast wave, and her blood getting frozen by a blizzard, and – “
“Thanks, Leizu,” said Eliya. “That’s enough.”
“So,” said Leizu. “It seemed like a good night to consummate the relationship. That’s what they do in all of Blondie’s silly romance movies anyway.”
“Daphne Petty-Belle isn’t silly,” sputtered Eliya. “It won twenty-five separate awards.”
Leizu snorted. “You just think the lead is red-hot.”
“Relationship,” I said. “How – how long?” All under my nose, right there in plain sight.
“A year and a half,” said Leizu. Eliya fell silent.
My stomach twinged. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? Why didn’t you trust me?”
“Because no one should know,” hissed Eliya.
“That’s a strong statement,” said Leizu. “But Paragon and the Epistocracy haven’t always been the friendliest to romances like ours.”
I shrugged. “A few Guardians have done it, haven’t they? Paragon didn’t exactly kick them out.”
“They won’t kick me out,” said Eliya. “But this isn’t Ilaqua. They’ll pass me up for promotions. They’ll pretend I don’t exist.” She exhaled. “My father’s shame is enough of a burden already. If this gets out, I’ll never become chief of counterintelligence.”
I stared at the floor of the tent. Another sin of the Epistocracy. Another scar from its old, vicious traditions.
“Be careful, then,” I said. “I’ll keep my big mouth shut.” I smiled at them. “But I’m happy for you.”
Eliya’s shoulders relaxed a hair, in relief. Leizu looked unsurprised at my blessing.
“I would hug you,” I said. “But you’re both still naked, and I don’t want to make things more awkward than they already are.”
“So,” said Leizu, propping her arms behind her head. Her biceps looked massive, side by side with Eliya’s. “Why are you here?”
“I came to ask for boy advice,” I said. “Which, in retrospect, might not be the best idea.”
“I know boys,” said Leizu. “Trained with loads of them in Shenten. All you have to do is beat him at arm wrestling and befriend his parents. Then he’ll be showering you with expensive gifts you don’t fucking need.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Not sure if that applies here.” I explained the situation with my ABD and Samuel.
“He didn’t fuck her,” said Eliya. “I told you that, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But they got emotionally intimate, didn’t they?” And he looks down on me, now.
“Give him time and distance,” said Eliya. “We need everyone clear-headed for tomorrow. Just stuff it under the mattress for now and deal with it later.”
“If you stuff food under the mattress,” said Leizu. “It rots and brings ants.” She looked straight at me. “Get in his face and fix this tonight. We don’t need unresolved whaleshit before the battle.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll think about it.” I walked towards the exit, poked my head out of the tent, then came back in. “Get cleaned up, guys,” I said. “Samuel’s walking here.”
And I could go out the back, now. Wander around camp some more and not have to deal with this nonsense before the battle.
You cannot dodge the bullet. Headmaster Tau’s words rang in my head.
By the time Samuel arrived, the bed had been made, and Leizu and Eliya had thrown on their clothes, smoothed down their hair, and gathered around a desk, in a pantomime of studying. Leizu pulled a box of soup dumplings from a cooler, heated them with projection, and stuffed them into her mouth, five at a time. That gesture looked genuine.
And I stood by the entrance of the tent, waiting.
Samuel pushed open the flap, and I stood in his way, staring straight at him. “We need to talk,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “I think I figured out what you’re doing wrong with your ABD. I talked to my older brother, and we reviewed the science together, and – “
“No,” I said. “We need to talk.”
Samuel looked confused. “You said the word ‘talk’ twice. I don’t see how that’s different.”
“After I got Ousted,” I said. “You pulled away from me, even when we could have found a way to talk in secret.”
“Your mother found us out,” said Samuel. “I could have been Ousted. Admiral Ebbridge doesn’t make idle threats. And Leizu and Eliya could have faced penalties.”
“Yes,” I said, raising my voice. “Let’s talk about those two. You tried to get them to give up on me. Abandon hope that I’d ever return.” I jabbed a finger in his face. “And you fell in love with my replacement, Tasia. Not just her tits, either. What’s under her tits.”
“Her ribs?” muttered Leizu in the back of the room.
“Her heart,” I said. “Her soul.”
Now, it was Samuel’s turn to stare at his feet, unable to meet my gaze.
“You used to respect me,” I said. “You knew my faults, but you respected me as an equal. As a leader. Now, you see me as a drunk liability, ready to snap and bring everyone down at a moment’s notice.”
“I’m not sure you understand the reasons – “
“I’ve heard your reasons a thousand times,” I said. “What I’ve never heard is sorry.”
Samuel fell silent. In the corner of the tent, Leizu slurped the soup out of a giant dumpling, deafening in the quiet tent.
Samuel clenched his teeth for a moment. Then, he deflated, sagging over with a long, slow exhale.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “For my disloyalty. For not believing in you. I was exhausted, and beset by pressures on all sides, and – ” He stopped himself, and shook the head. “No, the reasons don’t matter. What matters is that I failed you.” He knelt before me, like he was proposing marriage all over again. “I will prove myself to you on the battlefield.”
I took his hand. “Oh, stand up,” I grumbled. “You’re a college student, not a mid-era knight. Just watch my back tomorrow, and I’ll watch yours.”
Samuel stood up, looking down at me from his taller combat chassis. He smiled at me. “I’m so glad you’re back.”
I didn’t think it’d be this easy. Since I wasn’t sure what else to say, I got on my tiptoes and kissed him. He kissed me back, and I let myself get lost in his beauty and warmth again.
It still didn’t feel perfect. A little wet, a little strange in some ways.
But it felt better than before. And that was the best I could have hoped for.
And now, I felt ready.
I stood on the dark ocean near Pingtan Island again. An icy wind blew across the water, ruffling my black hair.
At night, the warships seemed to have tripled around us. A swarm of battleships, destroyers, and aircraft carriers sailed to and fro from the island, preparing for the assault at dawn.
“Come on,” said Eliya. “If we stay up all night, our brains will be soup by the morning, and some Voidsteel sniper’s going to catch us with a lucky potshot.” The wind had messed up her platinum blonde hair, and she shivered, even under her coat, not used to the freezing weather. She floated an orb of projected light above us.
“I guarantee you,” said Leizu. “The Voidsteel snipers aren’t sleeping tonight, either.” With her Joining, she didn’t even have to wear long sleeves.” She spun a dark metal bullet on the tip of her pinky.
“She’s ready,” said Samuel, looking at me with a hint of faith. “I know she is.”
I took in a deep breath, and ran through all the science again in my head. You cannot dodge the bullet. And you couldn’t destroy it, either. You had to curve it around yourself. Nudge its path. You cannot dodge the bullet.
Then I exhaled, tensed my Pith, and felt the thrumming, electric sensation over my skin again. I nodded at Leizu.
She flung the bullet, and it slammed into my stomach, sending another painful ache throughout my gut. I doubled over. “What the fuck?” I thought I’d gotten it right this time.
Leizu floated the bullet up in a sphere of water. She held it to the orb of light, and its metal looked green. “Oh, whoops,” she said. “This is one of my Voidsteel bullets.”
“I see your eyes are as sharp as ever,” said Eliya. So much for enhanced vision.
“Joining takes energy,” said Leizu. “So I’m on a break for the evening.” She pulled a normal round out of her pocket. “Let’s try that again.”
“I – “
Before I could finish speaking, she flung the bullet at my chest. My eyes snapped shut, but I didn’t flinch.
I imagined all the possible paths of the bullet. Racing towards me, faster than sight, then curving around me, nudged by the subtlest of pushes.
Nothing hit my stomach. Then I opened my eyes, and heard a soft plop behind me. The bullet. I spun around. “Did you miss?” I said to Leizu.
“She didn’t miss,” said Samuel, smiling with pride. “You have learned an Autonomous Bullet Defense. In excellent time, I might add.”
So I’m joining him tomorrow. I smiled back at him. Let’s hope we can blow up that artillery fast enough. That it didn’t make mincemeat of our boys on the beach.
“Now,” said Samuel, gazing up at the two moons. “Let’s all get some sleep. Our plane leaves before dawn.”