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Ana

A city of wonders floated above the clouds on a vista of endless blue.

I'm not normally poetic- hardly a creative genius- but that was what came to mind as I gazed on Paragon. Infinite fractals of light glittered off the Great Library's silver spires as a grand set of pure white marble architecture adorned the surrounding islands. Encircling all of that, perfectly manicured grass landscapes scattered about, nature sculpted by mankind into the Pith's very innate concept of natural perfection. My spirits soared with the music echoing around me that I had only just consciously noticed- the Symphony Knight's own form of greeting to her future students. Innumerable other spectacles darted through the sky by the power of projection, my eyes flitting between them like an obsessed mental hijacking victim. Here, dozens of fireworks set off my advanced Paragon students in wingsuit. There, the Four Eternals which had founded the Domains formed out of the fireworks' smoke. My distraction did nothing to enhance my image among my fellow Grey Coats, but I didn't care. I had dreamed of this for years, and even with all the conditions piled onto it, it was better than I had ever dreamed.

The cable car slid into the station, and everyone filed out in an orderly manner as dictated by the Scholar of Strength, who had followed us up here by running along the our cable. The Grey Coats, of course, were last, and much less care was put upon their demeanors in comparison to the actual students. Still, it was as a group that we approached the grand banquet hall which the Great Library's silver spires sheltered behind, and in a single line that we were individually given subconscious keys by a Guardian to serve as passphrases. The subconscious keys would only be visible in my Pith when a Guardian activated them, preventing infiltrators from learning a method of entry even if they dissected my Pith piece by piece. It was serious security- likely run by the man helping me to penetrate it under a false identity.

Even once I was inside, the barrage of stimuli didn't stop. Champagne which cost more than everything I'd stolen from my parents flew through the air, trinkets of real gold and other metals flung about to the new first-years by older student chaperones. None came the way of the Grey Coats.

To my left, students were quizzed on arcane facts of the world I'd never even had access to. Regardless of where I looked, beautiful artificial bodies streamed about. I didn't fit in here.

So it didn't surprise me when one of those many chaperones shouted down from their place floating in the sky to corral us into another area. "Assistants with Berthel." in a short, condescending snippet. It only made sense. We were led by Berthel (the squat, ugly, spitting image of an ornery bureaucrat) to a lecture hall, where we were instructed exactly how little we mattered here. But to me, the fact of not mattering did not matter. I was half-asleep from exhaustion and half-awake in sheer pleasure, and I went through the motions without a hint of emotional response. It seemed to disconcert Berthel. That, at least, I registered. It was quite the enjoyable sensation.

Drifting back into reality, I saw a paper passing between the hands of the other Grey Coats. Most were already leaving, having already taken a glance at it. I snatched at the paper, caught in a cruel game as inadvertent punishment for my inattention. Eventually, my grasp was firm, and I got my glance. It didn't register for a moment. Then, it did, and my stomach dropped.

Ernest Chapman | Eliya Brin (Second Year, Chimera Squad)

Even here, I was trapped in my circumstances. I had no idea how much she knew about me, whether this was just another way Major Brin would control me. But I would find out. Fully in reality now, I tried to see the positives of this. Perhaps Eliya would count as a mission. Perhaps she would get me yet another step closer to that precious new body.

Or maybe, with someone who knew the full truth, I could form that bond Isaac Brin had so extolled. So many ploys. Possible ally upon possible ally. No. I wouldn't play into his schemes.

As I filed after the other Grey Coats, I realized that it was already time for the grand opening feast. All the greatest of Paragon's professors and its illustrious headmaster gathered in the same room. It would be, and always was, the largest nexus of power to form in the Principality except during times of war.

We passed into the grand hall, its glass ceiling casting a kaleidoscope of light upon us at the entrance. The dais upon which that nexus of power would form sat empty- a promise that I would see their grand procession.

Unfortunately, though, that would be from the worst of the seating. We sat in a little side-box on the edge of the building, obviously fit into the grand architecture after construction. There was no room to shift position, barely enough room to eat once we received our food. But I was still there at Paragon.

Then, after thirty minutes of waiting in which I had managed only to scan the room for the younger Brin, the procession entered.

Isaac Brin led the pack. It grated at me, that those he knew and led were such righteous Guardians, yet he could lecture me on his lack of trustworthy people. Among the many notables who followed him were the Symphony Knight, a commoner who had never surrendered her commoner origins by leaving her birth name of Isabelle Corbin. Sebastian Oakes, the Obsidian Foil. His wife and Guardian in her own right, Penny Oakes. And finally, guarded at the shoulder by the Oakes couple, Headmaster Nicholas Tau- the greatest projector in the Eight Oceans.

These were people who I had dreamed of meeting since childhood. Living legends in the flesh. I focused my attention on Headmaster Tau as he prepared to speak, intent on hearing his wisdom, when against my will, my vision darted to Isaac Brin. He had his hand resting on the shoulder of a lone girl, one who had abandoned a heated debate to look at him. It must be Eliya! Craning my neck until it bumped against the Grey Coat in front of me, I looked to see her face, and recoiled in horror at what I found.

Eliya Brin was the Guardian I'd crippled at the docks that night- with her own squad mate as the weapon. She didn't know of my schemes with her father- if she did, she'd have never agreed to them! For the whole of this year, I would be glancing over my back to ensure she didn't figure out my origins- and if she did, ELiya was quite possibly the one student my boss wouldn't cover for me with. This had to be intentional.

Keep the secret at Paragon, or learn to trust a woman you literally disarmed. Unless you do that, even I can't stop your ruin.

It was ingenious. It was grating. And it only reinforced my resolve. I will never surrender to you, Brin. I thought, unsure even which Brin I was addressing. I will forge my own path.

But for now, I would have to cope with the dishonesty. Cope with the trickery. And cope with a man who seemed keen on forging me into the heir to his duplicitous way of life