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As I recovered from my revelation, I realized the room had fallen silent.

Isaac Brin had lifted his hand off the shoulder of his daughter. Instead, he stood in military posture, facing the Headmaster. So, too, did the other Professors. They then swept their sharp gazes across the hall. It was clearly protective, clearly on-edge, and clearly centered around Headmaster Tau. What could threaten the world's greatest projector like that?

Even as the waiters filed out, pointedly not serving the Grey Coats, the question nagged at me. But I couldn't ask another assistant- we were to remain silent. That much, at least, was clear. But there was one possibility.

A student had approached the Grey Coats on the other side of the box, and was gesturing them towards a large platter of cake he carried. Non of them took him up on it. I would have, but the Shenti noodles had filled me thoroughly. Besides, my wrecked tongue would waste it. The explanation I would get, however, wouldn't be a waste. And if he was as nice as he seemed, Nudging defense would be easy.

"Excuse me."

The red-haired boy smiled, and even despite my envy for his life, I smiled back. This boy didn't seem so bad. His cat, of all things, draped across his back. It was hardly what you expected of the stuffy Epistocrat.

I almost felt guilty for lying to him. Almost.

"No problem. I know you're sort of on edge right now. I certainly was." Huh? "Kaplen. Kaplen Ingolf. I was a Grey Coat before becoming a student. It wasn't easy, but it's possible. Just don't give up. Paragon's meant to-"

Then, the future bane of my existence turned in our direction. Eliya's eyes narrowed, and Kaplen froze in his advice.

This wasn't good. I needed to remain below her notice. Hopefully, Kaplen could distract her. "Kaplen? Are you there?"

Seconds later, he unfroze. "Sorry, Uh..."

"Ernest Chapman."

"Ernest. Sorry about this, but I have to go. I... may have been using this to avoid a rather difficult conversation. Except now I've been noticed, so..." As he trailed off, Kaplen grimaced.

I should have been glad. I should have been ecstatic. Eliya was concerned with Kaplen, not me! I'd been saved.

But something didn't sit right with me. Kaplen obviously didn't want this 'talk', but Eliya was forcing him into it. And maybe I was seeing shadows. But this was my chance to stand my ground against my personal Brin. Make a stand, one she couldn't fire me for, but that would distance us. Hopefully enough distance she'd never realize my true identity.

"Actually, could I come with? I think I might be assisting her."

At that, Kaplen's face lightened. A chuckle echoed under his words. "Really? Small world." How did he get in here? He's so naïve. "Sure, come along. Not sure what Eliya wants with an assistant, though. She always seems on top of everything." I hope she doesn't want anything. Maybe this was all her father.

I doubted it, though. My life was never that easy.

I clambered over the wrought iron railway. Then, together, we walked towards where Eliya sat on her own in the corner. It looked like she wanted privacy for this discussion. My nerves sprouted again.

Once we had sat, she arched a single, red-hot brow. "Kaplen, why is this miscreant here?" Surprisingly, she glared not at him, but at me.

Kaplen responded hastily to her, explaining, "He's your Grey Coat for the year. You'd been saying you wanted to speak to yours, so..."

Eliya sighed. Why? That seemed perfectly reasonable to me. "Kaplen, your lying is atrocious. Just say you have a misplaced fondness for the help. And apparently a misplaced fondness for being the help, going by your explanation. Don't try to satisfy people set against you- confront it!"

Then, her eyes softened. "Still, you're right. I did want to speak to Ernest here. And this even concerns you, so you can stay here rather than with Lorne."

At that, I couldn't hold back anymore. I was starting to feel disturbingly intrusive. Besides, if Kaplen could hear, it couldn't be that bad.

I was wrong. "Now, Ernest, I want to make something clear here. If you reveal what is said here, I will ruin you. You will be fired. Your memories will be gone. And after the memory wipe, you will be Nudged into oblivion after you forget even that basic defense. Nod if you understand." At that last point, she'd precisely pressed on my Pith- just as her father had.

I nod. I struggle against it with all I have, but I nod. And nod. And nod. An-

I'm simultaneously relieved and embarrassed by the time Eliya hisses at me, "Stop nodding!"

Eliya and Kaplen are shocked. Their perfect faces are perfect Os of surprise and is speechless. Eliya, on the other hand, recovers within moments- her pearly grin shining in the sunlight. "You got in here without a Nudging defense? Every other person in this room has a Nudging defense. My little brother has a Nudging defense. I have no use for someone who'll kowtow to any halfway-competent projector. You're fired. Get out."

At that, I was just as speechless as Kaplen. I slowly rose from my seat, pushed it back and walked robotically out from my place at the table.

But Kaplen, on the other hand, had recovered. He was standing now, and his combat-optimized chassis muscles shoved me down into my seat. "Eliya, stop it. I can tolerate that when it's me, but don't do that to Ernest. He's done nothing to deserve this."

He's glaring at Eliya, and I want to cheer even as I feel myself detach from this situation. It feels like I'm floating- like I'd put on a Guardian wingsuit and was drifting on the wind.

Eliya held on, ignoring Kaplen's honest sentiment. "Ingolf, I don't care if he's innocent. What I care about is if he's qualified- and he's not! Therefore, since he does not fit the qualifications of his position, I'm removing him. It makes sense."

At that, Kaplen was truly enraged. "And what about me? According to Lorne, I was never qualified. According to most of my grades, I'll never be qualified. Should I be 'removed'?"

At that, Eliya recoiled. There's something here I'm missing. "I wasn't saying that, Kaplen." She sags. I hadn't realized before, but her whole posture had been stiff. It was like when Martin had become Major Brin, but in reverse. "I suppose I have something I can entrust Ernest with." At that, she turned towards me. The whole time she'd ignored me for Kaplen during the debate, I'd been waiting for my chance to make some distance between the two of us. Now was my chance.

But before I could speak up, Eliya continued. "I want you to make sure Kaplen is alright. Shadow him, watch over him, whatever you can to make his life as good as possible. Just think of yourself as on loan to Kaplen. Because for now, you are." I... couldn't object to that. Would she retract it if I offended her? Maybe. Or maybe I'd stay with Kaplen permanently. I'd take thar risk. Once again, I opened my mouth to speak.

But Eliya once again cut me off. I really should start expecting that. "And Kaplen? Teach her the Empty Book. It's an embarrassment Paragon hired someone so mentally defenseless, so we'll have to correct that error." That, however, wasn't worth the risk. My mouth shut.

It seemed I wasn't the only one whose views had changed from that statement. Once he heard it, Kaplen calmed down from the deep, heaving breaths he'd been taking. "I shouldn't congratulate you for doing this, Eliya. But even if it's for the wrong reasons, it is good. So thank you."

The smugness roiled off her, her posture back to military bearing. "You're welcome. Now, hurry off. I don't particularly care for Lorne, but he seems to be rather incensed right now. And that never ends well for you. Perhaps consider not going back there after this concersation?"

I almost choked at that. And stay here? With the girl I'd nearly murdered?

But thankfully, Kaplen seemed to have other plans. "Sorry, but I think I might have to test my new assistant out first." How!?

Eliya scoffed. "You know,that hobby of yours is a waste of time."

Kaplen just smiled back. "I suppose. But it makes me happy, and that's enough to make it worthwhile."

Now I was getting nervous. The vagueness was rather upsetting. It reminded me of Jack.

The nervousness only climbed as Kaplen crept his way through the maze of tables. How bad of an activity was it to warrant such shame? And why did he need me for it?

But when a cruel shout went through the air, an arrogant student in a clearly top-tier body that loudly vocalized, "Ingolf! Get over here, already!"

I knew immediately it was Lorne. And more than Jack, more than Isaac, more than Eliya, I instantly hated him. Because this was the type of enemy I could face. But all my life, I'd chosen not to. Instead, I'd run.

And now, Kaplen was doing the same. I wouldn't allow his bright future to be marred by Lorne's shadow. And even as the caution in me nagged, my internal Parliament had finally reached a majority of righteousness.

I projected into Lorne's drink, carefully preparing to lift with all my strength until- to the surprise of all but myself- when he thumped the table with all his top-of-the-line strength, it flew into his eyes. Then- just to top it off- he blinked. The bubbly champagne rubbed into his eyes, his friends helpless to pull it away with projection now that it was within the domain of his Pith.
And in that moment, as Kaplen and I hurried away to what now seemed to be a small, secondary kitchen, I reveled in my victory.


The joy hadn't lasted. Once we'd entered the kitchen, I'd been walking on clouds, as happy as when I first truly saw Paragon.

Then, as Kaplen had vented into the bowl of egg whites he had furiously stirred, he'd spat out Lorne's full name in a particularly mocking bit of vitriol.

I didn't find it particularly funny. Not when Lorne Daventry, Son of the Symphony Knight and one of the wealthiest Epistocrat families alive, would soon be my enemy. At least, unless my reckless stunt had somehow slipped unnoticed in a room full of projectors.

The story of his parents was famed across the Principality! The Symphony Knight, one of the greatest Guardians to ever live, had married into the highest echelons of Epistocrat society. Yet rather than take the Daventry name, she remained Isabelle Corbin- the commoner's hero.

I'd pretended to be her when I was younger, singing atrociously to my parents' applause. She was the one I'd pictured when I applied to Paragon, hand outstretched to release the beautiful notes of her intrifate compositions. Her custom, yet always female bodies art in their own right. And now, I'd embarassed her son in front of the whole of Paragon.

But over the last few days, I'd become very good at moving past the negative. So I set my shoulders, pointedly ignored the spidery grey veins across my skin, and began measuring out the flour as Kaplen had instructed me. Two cups grain. One cup white. One tablespoon...

On a surface level, it was the same situation as my indenture to Clementine. But the thing was, when I'd worked for the mid-level mob boss, nothing had come of it. Here, at Paragon, I could move past my problems, reach beyond earthly concerns to forge the stars in my image.

Although, moving past negatives didn't mean to forget they exist. And before I forged them in my image, I would refine that image to perfection.

This time, there was no need to steel myself. I had every reason to ask this question. So I did. "Kaplen? What, exactly, is the Empty Book?"