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I could already tell that mom was worried about me. She'd probably have her birds peck my eyes out if she heard me refer to her so casually, or realized that I'd gleaned her true emotions so easily- for now, our ploy required that we were distant and resentful of each other. Even when we were alone, even when nobody except Headmaster Tau in his prime could look in on us, we played our parts. Not even father knew it was occurring- we both loved him, but we also both knew that he would be about as useful to our conspiracy as a particularly passive choking hazard.


But the signs were there if you know her. Around family, even family she was currently pretending to loathe, Rowyna Ebbridge took pride in her decision to avoid masking her emotions with projection. And right now, all the signs of stress that the Empty Book, Stone Mask, and any number of other possible options would be masking were like spotlights on her emotions. The hypothetical Headmaster Tau would probably see it as worry that her attempt to Oust me from the Epistocracy would fail, but I knew the truth. Mom was worried I might fail. Mom was worried that there would be no House of Ebbridge to Counteroust once the year was done. She was worried that once she let me go, she wouldn't get me back.


Mother's face was impassive, the bright green stare of her Maxine Clive narrowed at me. "Why are you sparring with Eliya right now? Do you want to lose your Oust?"
I silently translated: Everybody knows you're better at strategy than this. You're making your intent to lose too obvious.


The clicking typewriters set to my mother's left and right, performing her administrative duties through careful use of metal projection, barely slowed as she began to get into her diatribe. "You may think pushing yourself so stupidly will impress me, but you'd be wrong. This disgusting refusal to consider the possibility of loss is exactly why I decided to test you with this in the first place, but now I find that you'll be losing because you repeated the exact same mistake? You disgust me." I continued the translation: Still, it does help me with justifying the Oust. The initial reasoning for it was shaky, but now you've proven me right. Thank you for the political capital.


An awkward silence had expanded into the air as I processed my mother's statement. Scrambling to recover, I responded, childishly screeching out, "If this is me disgusting you, than I hope that next you see me, you can't help but retch at the sight! Eliya is my friend, and if you're taking me away from her, I'll gladly spend every moment I have left letting her know I'm not the one pushing her out of my life. I know I'm not going to win, anyway. You wouldn't have started this unless you knew you'd win! Probably brought in some common born filth ringer to shove me out."


I knew I could have a razor tongue if I wanted to, but the idea of tearing people down with words had never sat well with me. There were too many flashes from my old life whenever I try, of pain and humiliation from being on the other side of the equation. Doing this- attacking my own mother like this- was an almost physical pain to me, but I could only hope she knows what I meant. I knew she could figure it out, could realize that in reality, I'm saying, 'You're welcome for the help. Eliya is going to get involved. Here's my justification for the intent to lose. Please confirm it.', but would she?


I almost sighed in relief when my mother visibly paused, pulling the typed papers out of the typewriters and sealing them into envelopes with a stamp of a hot wax seal bearing our family crest to conceal her pondering. It was alright for pauses to happen to me, but for such an accredited leader as the Typhoon of the South, nobody would expect her to be fazed by such a childish attack, and so she busied herself while she thought. Once the seals were laid, she glanced back at me as if I was merely an afterthought to her vital missives which I knew to merely concern teatime with the parents of my fiancé, the Pakhems. "Leave, Nell. These things should only concern you if you believe yourself inferior to your opponent, and you're entirely too arrogant for that. Just leave and get it over with before that hubris of yours embarrasses you further."


She wanted me to leave and go do the Oust. Not much more to it than that. I left, the thumping of my shoes on the floor a welcome relief from her silent stare. I dreaded what mom would be like had she actually disliked me and had not merely been acting. As I tugged open the grand doors to her study, she abruptly stood, closing the distance between us in seconds to grip my chassis' forearm in her iron grip.


"And I want my business card back, too."


I wouldn't lie, that request pained me deeply. A business card from a member of the Epistocracy was a sign of their favor and trust in you, a blank check which gave you the ability to swing around a portion of their political clout however you desired. Many heirs wouldn't be trusted with their parent's card until there was no chance they would be removed, once they had passed the maximum Ousting age I am still a year away from. My mother had given me hers at the age of thirteen.


I grudgingly slipped the card out of a watertight pocket in my still-wet combat suit. The card may not be capable of water damage, but the effort I would put towards safeguarding it was one of the many reasons I had been entrusted with it. After I had roughly set the card into her other hand, a spark of real anger burning inside of me now, she released my forearm and returned to her minimalist desk and the typewriters flanking it with nary a glance in my direction. I curtly turned back to the door, channeling the spark of genuine emotion into a believably angry stride while avoiding actual anger. I wasn't entirely successful.


The arena where my future for the next year would be decided was the same area where I had fought Eliya that night. In just a few hours, a circular platform of simple wood had been constructed in its middle, with raised bleachers encircling it to watch what they presumed would be a quickly crushed challenger in justification of my inheritance. Only two people there knew the truth, and they stood beside each other, my mother and Eliya seemingly engaged in idle discussion of some academic topic or other. Father and Leizu, the third member of Chimera Squad, accompanied them, and were quite clearly bored out of their minds. I was glad Eliya had decided to come, although she had been right that Lorne would be attending- his amusingly resentful, yet somehow still mutually respectful glare bounced off my back as I entered the arena.


Of less comedic value was my fiancé and final squad mate, Samuel. He hovered on the edge of the throng of supporters which themselves hovered around my parents, likely having been drawn to the Ousting solely on the unlikely possibility that should I be unseated, he might have a better relationship with my replacement. It would probably go well for him, considering the past successes he had achieved during his little dalliances with other naïve, common born students. With that in my mind, I glanced over at my interim replacement. He wasn't particularly well-muscled, although the baggy clothes hid it well enough that I wouldn't have seen it without the constant nervous shifting. His appearance wasn't particularly appealing either: a freckled face and loose, unruly brown hair was hardly a fashion. It was probably his original body, certainly not the ideal body to be deposing the Broadcast King with my top-of-the-line combat chassis would be, but it would have to do.


We stepped up onto the stage, our materials set behind us. For me, a seething throng of insects and arachnids. I had no idea what the boy had brought, but I found it quite likely that he had brought nothing at all. One meaningless, droning speech from mom later during which the boy's nerves only grew, we had given our assent, and the match had started. Still, the boy only stood there nervously, waiting for me to make the first move. He was obviously out of his element. All I would have needed to do was provoke him into getting into my range, and I could have won the match right there. But I didn't. Instead, I called up my swarm, blue and purple Pith lightning sparking already after the effort I had exerted with Eliya.


The boy still stood there, not moving a muscle. The swarm descended upon him, an honest attempt to suffocate him occurring lest my failure be too obviously intentional to be tolerated. Out of the corner of the swarm's eye, I saw that Lorne was already sniffing in disgust. His squad had fought mine so many times, he likely already knew I was faking. But he couldn't prove it, so I simply ignored him in favor of watching how the boy handled the situation. As soon as the swarm touched onto his skin, I knew that he would have to act, but a wave of shock rushed through me at exactly how he acted.


A wave of purple and blue sparks erupted from his fists, each coalescing into an orb. He swung them around wildly, in an unpracticed manner, but their effect was as clear as day- the Piths of my bugs and the portions of my Pith in the bugs were drained of mental energy, the energy having expanded the size of his orbs substantially, such that they were now spherical hurricanes of massive, twisted bolts as large as his mediocre head.


Another dual-specialist? Those were incredibly rare, so rare mom must have searched him out on purpose. And one whose Vocation so perfectly counters the lower levels of mine, which removes my puppets' Pith energy that the Praxis side of my Vocation relies on to augment my thinking? Is mom actually, seriously considering the idea of me not making it back? Is this pitiful boy my replacement!? Around me, in the third of a mile radius range I had developed from my original tenth, I saw the reactions of the crowd. As a whole, they were shocked. At this point, Lorne was annoyed- he'd realized he'd never be able to convince others I was faking the loss now, and though he'd never admit it, I knew he would miss me. Eliya was angry, but my mom said something and it seemed to calm her down. I watched as mom started talking to Eliya like she had only talked to me and dad before, clutching Eliya's hand and using air projection to keep her words from everyone but Eliya.


The seed of anger from before flared into a mighty blaze as I withdrew the remnants of the swarm with intact energy reserves, focusing my attention on my other, final resource which had been buried under the bugs- a large, coiled pile of spider silk. Too many Paragon students would spread their focus, learn how to physically project into ice, and water, and fire, and paper, and wood, and so on and so forth. Myself, I knew that in this case, specialization was the name of the game. Spider silk has greater tensile strength than Samuel's steel wires, is mostly undetectable by the majority of security measures, and for me, is about as easily accessible as the air itself. My combat suit was custom-made out of spider silk rather than the typical method of inserted wood strips, merely so I wouldn't have to broaden that focus to move myself around. This was a skill I was proud of, and it was one I'd test against the boy as his final test before I entrusted my position to him.


I shot the numerous strands forward, tying them together into one, gigantic strand midair as I simultaneously positioned it as a garrote around the boy's neck. I wasn't not projecting into the silk where it touched him, but rather pulling from the ends in a shining example of the finesse I have with this form of projection. He'd need more than his one gimmick to get out of this.


As the oxygen slowly drained from his brain, and the boy flailed helplessly with his orbs at the unbreaking cord around his neck, I began to worry he wouldn't be able to make my loss believable. But if my replacement couldn't even beat this, even my removal of the Broadcast King would be useless, the Ebbridge destroyed from the sheer incompetence of its new heir. But just as the worry reached its peak, the boy's features set into a determined glare. He seemed to carefully aim his hands, even as they began to tremble from oxygen deprivation.


His left orb launched towards me, its crawl of moderate, but relatively manageable speed. I could tug myself out of the way with my combat suit in a moment, put the boy in such pain his projection can't be maintained, or even merely slide under this farce of a last-ditch attempt. But I didn't, and as my mental energy disappeared and my silk fell limply to the ground, my mind was caught in yet another of Eliya's memory flashes where- I am breathing heavily, exhausted from my tirade against Nell's mother. For a moment, she says nothing. Then, clutching my hand in hers, she whispers to me.


"I know the secret of your Vocation- how memories gained through it are immune to memory wipes. And I want you to show what I'm about to say to my daughter- the real one- once that clueless, pathetic boy has gotten a clear win on her. Can you do that?"


My anger gone, I can only nod. Rolling back her shoulders, seeming to relax her posture even as she clings to my hand harder, Nell's mother has her words carried directly to my ears. "My daughter, I love you. I will always love you, regardless of who purports to replace you. Yes, it is true that your body is a privilege. That your memory is a privilege. That your name is a privilege! But you, my daughter, always my daughter, have earned them a thousand times over, and were there any other way, I would not ask this of you. But I have, and I can only ask that you find it in your heart to forgive me."-the flash ended.


Samuel was probably joyous at his newly-born freedom from me. Leizu, befuddled by this farce of a match. And my father was probably already going into his shell of guilt and inaction. Yet, as the world faded, the boy approaching me now that his garrote was gone to launch his second orb at my head, all I could do is cling to that loving memory of a mother I had begun to doubt I would ever see again.