GLADIATOR GIRL

An Alternate Reality Action-sports Love Story

R. H. Watson

Chimaera Ranch, LLC Appleton, WI 2010

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2010 R. H. Watson. This work is made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA. If you enjoyed this book, please consider buying a copy for yourself, a friend, or as a donation to a library. Links to online sellers are available at, http://www.chimaeraranch.com.
Under this license you are free: To Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work under the following conditions: Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Noncommercial — You may not use this work for commercial purposes. No Derivative Works — You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work. With the understanding that: Waiver — Any of the above conditions can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder. Other Rights — In no way are any of the following rights affected by the license: Your fair dealing or fair use rights, or other applicable copyright exceptions and limitations; The author's moral rights; Rights other persons may have either in the work itself or in how the work is used, such as publicity or privacy rights. Notice — For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. The best way to do this is with a link to this web page, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ This is a human-readable summary of the Legal Code (the full license) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode.

For my mother, Pearl Watson, who lived a long, full life, although, not the one she dreamed of living when she was young.

Acknowledgements Many thanks to the following people for their invaluable help and support. Bob Larson for encouragement, for reading the first and last drafts, and for letting me work in the back room of his comic book shop: Powerhouse Comics in Appleton, Wisconsin. Be sure to drop by if you’re in the area. Kelsey Grimmer (who was working in her Uncle Bob’s shop) for reading and proofreading the first draft as it rolled off the keyboard. (Bob and Kelsey are both immortalized in the story.) Annie Quick-Laughlin for her critical reading of the manuscript, both the faux-final and real final versions, and for providing indispensable editorial comment and encouragement, not to mention advice on girl-girl sex. Yehoshuah M. Young who kindly pointed out that I had too much exposition. Fixing that turned into a major revision—one I'm much happier with. Tony Vander Pas, who’s mastery of the f-bomb informed the cadence of Lucy’s profanity. The staffs of Harmony Cafe and Acoca Coffee for not kicking me out, and along with the Appleton Library, for providing places away from my cats where I could get this work done when Powerhouse Comics wasn’t open. Special thanks to my mother for always and forever wanting me to succeed at something. I am deeply sorry you were not able to read the finished book.

Part I

Chapter 1 Lucy Star is Born, Again

There were thirty-seven buns in the oven and one was about ready to drop. Mary sat at the console in the Monitor Room. She pulled a card from her deck and was making a play when the birth alarm went off. The monitor showed that the womb with the bun named Lucy Star had broken its water and was chugging away with contractions. The girl’s head was emerging. A gurney was parked outside the Monitor Room that Mary had prepared when she came on duty for the night shift. She picked up the big, fluffy towel from its mattress and hung it around her neck. Vesper, one of her matron’s aids, came out of the Recovery Ward. “I got it,” she said to Mary and headed to the Memory Vault to collect the girl’s placenta jar. Mary pushed the gurney into the Womb Room. Rows of bulky, mostly organic contraptions stood down both sides of the room. They were big, corpulent, fleshy things with fittings at the top to feed in nutrients. Other tubes lower in the back removed waste. In the lower front, each had a vulva big enough to pass a grown woman. About two-thirds of the way down the room, one had done just that. A limp, naked girl, wet with amniotic fluid, was lying in a soft, squishy birth basin. Her umbilical cord trailed back into the womb where her foot was caught in the birth canal.

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Mary pulled the girl’s foot out, cleared her mouth, and listened to her take her first gargling breath in over two weeks. It sounded healthy. She cut the girl’s umbilical cord, and sealed the ends, then lifted the girl onto the gurney, swaddled her in the big fluffy towel, and pressed a rubber teat into her mouth. The girl suckled, and her mouth and stomach re-awoke to the delights of digestion. Mary pushed the gurney out of the Womb Room and into the Recovery Ward. She gave the girl a gentle bath, dried her off, and tucked her into a postnatal bed with soft protective sides. She let her sleep. Vesper arrived at the womb with the girl’s placenta jar. She popped its lid and put it under the womb’s vulva. The jar was lined with a membrane that was a genetic match to the girl’s own uterus and was filled with synthetic amniotic fluid. She put the stringy placenta end of the umbilical cord in the jar. A few minutes later the placenta itself followed, plopping into the fluid. Vesper closed the lid and return it to the Memory Vault where it would sit in blissful silence, remembering the latest version of the girl’s life, over and over and over. In a couple of hours Lucy Star stirred herself awake. She released the side of the bed and sat up. A beeping alarm went off, and a minute later Mary came into the Recovery Ward. “Look who’s finally awake,” she said, “and good as new.” She gave Lucy a hug. “Hi, Mary,” Lucy said and returned her hug. “Easy there. Sit until you feel like walking, but call me before you do. No falling on my watch!” “How bad was it?” Lucy said. “Let’s see.” Mary drew her finger across the back of Lucy’s left upper arm. “Your arm was cut off here.” She kept drawing over to her spine. “Your heart was cut in two.” She continued through her spine and half way to the other side of her back.

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“And you were nearly cut all the way in half yourself.” She patted the invisible line. “But don’t worry, not a scratch on you now.” Lucy leaned back, supporting herself with her arms. This was the best part of dying: she felt weak and a little dizzy, but she also felt brand new and as clean as it was possible to feel—like she had only, just now, touched the world for the first time. The simple act of breathing was intoxicating. Mary handed her a glass of rebirth formula. “Drink it all.” Later, after convincing Mary her dizziness was gone and she was strong enough to walk on her own, Lucy got dressed. She finished by adjusting her hat in front of the dressing room mirror. This outfit was a bit bold and a bit cute. It made her look like an anime artist’s idea of a matador. She slung her bag over her shoulder and picked up her sword. One of the club’s assistant equipment managers would have cleaned it and delivered it to the Laughing Cherub. Lucy pulled the blade part way out of its scabbard to check the edge. It looked good, but the surface was dull. She would polish it properly in the morning. Lucy found Mary in the Monitor Room, back at her card game. “Could I take a look at my girl before I leave?” Lucy said. Mary played her card. “Of course you can.” She led the way to the Memory Vault. Its walls were lined with racks filled with placenta jars. Each was fed a trickle of nutrition and oxygenated artificial blood. The amniotic fluid was cycled and filtered to remove waste. The light was dim, and the room was kept at body temperature. Lucy knew where her jar was. She walked over and touched its smooth, warm side. A display above the jar confirmed that the little world inside was lovely. “You take care,” Lucy said. She kissed her fingers and pressed them against the side of the jar. It was two o’clock when Lucy left the Laughing Cherub. The air was cool. Autumn was settling in. The street lights were dimmed, and glare shields kept waste light out of the sky. The night was

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awash with stars; Lucy could even make out the dim fog of the Milky Way. Mary had insisted on calling a cab. “Complements of the Cherub.” In fact, it wasn’t. Mary paid for the late night cabs out of her own pocket. The cab pulled up. Lucy got in and gave the driver Brody’s address. He peddled them away and used the electric motor for an assist up the hill to Wicker Lane. Brody’s apartment was in one of the new, partly grown mini-arcologies. Lucy climbed the outside stairs to the third tier. It felt good to be almost home. She could never have afforded this place on her own, even with roommates from the club. If she was picked up by an Alpha League club next season, she promised herself she would pay Brody back for his support. Now, she was craving his warm body and looking forward to making love. She rubbed her key against the door―nothing happened. She tried again―nothing. Crap! She didn’t want to wake Brody; she wanted to slip naked into their bed and have him wake up to the erection she would give him in his sleep. She tried to unlock the door three more times. Crap, crap, crap. She put the key away and pressed her lips to the door frame. “Brody.” She spoke softly. “Wake up, honey. I’m home.” She waited, giving him time to get up and put something on. She was about to try again when she heard the sigh of the locks releasing. The door opened and there was— “Emily Stone? What are you doing here?” Lucy said. Emily stood just inside the door, holding a cotton robe partly closed. It was decorated with blue and orange frogs. “That’s my robe!” The living room lights came on behind Emily. Brody was standing in the bedroom door, naked, looking bug eyed. His gaping mouth would have made a great bull’s-eye for something. Lucy pushed past Emily. “What’s this?” she said to Brody. “Lucy, I’m sorry. You weren’t supposed to find out this way.”

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“You said she knew.” Emily was still by the door. “I was going to have the Cherub send me a notice when she was reborn, but I, ah . . .” “But you, forgot?” Lucy said. “Ha!” Emily crossed the room to Brody. “He lost his nerve. That’s what I love about you Brody-bear.” She rubbed noses with him. “You’re so easy to intimidate.” “Aargh!” Lucy dropped her bag, drew her sword, and jabbed it at Brody’s penis. “That’s mine! I’m going to feed it to the cats behind the city farm and make you eat their feces!” Brody covered his goods. Emily pulled her own sword from the corner by the bedroom door. She left it sheathed, but stepped in front of Brody, ready to block. “Easy there,” she said. “You’ve got a bit of the post-birth crazies; don’t do anything stupid. I could report you to the League for this.” Lucy held her ground, then exhaled and sheathed her blade. Emily relaxed. Lucy swung her sheathed sword at Emily, knocking her off balance, then in one motion, she drew her blade, fanned it past Brody’s penis and re-sheathed it. She picked up her bag and walked out. She went down to the second tier and far enough around the curve of the mini-arcology to not be seen from Brody’s door. She leaned her back against the wall, pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, and let out a long quiet growl, the kind they use in movies to let you know bad things might happen to somebody. Emily was right: strong emotions were hard to control for several hours after being reborn. Lucy dropped her hands and sent an emergency talk-to request to Charlotte. After a couple of minutes, Charlotte’s voice said, “Lucy, are you OK? Did something go wrong at the Cherub?” “No,” Lucy said, “everything went fine.” She took a deep breath. “I’m really sorry to bother you, but I went home, to Brody’s place, and Emily Stone was there. Brody was screwing her while I was in the womb. I almost did something really stupid.”

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“Try not to think about it,” Charlotte said. “Come over here. You can stay with me until we get this sorted out. I’ll put on some tea. See you soon?” “Yeah, soon. Thanks,” Lucy said. The sky had clouded over; it started to rain. “Fuck!” It was nearly three-thirty when the public car dropped Lucy at the Winnebago Graveyard. The rain was now a downpour. She walked across the uneven cobblestone, letting her feet splash in the puddles with determined indifference. Charlotte waited next to her hatch with an umbrella. She was wearing a white nightdress and rubber boots. When Lucy got to her, Charlotte hugged her with both arms while holding the umbrella straight up to block the rain. “I’m all wet,” Lucy said. “Me too, now,” Charlotte said. She let go of Lucy and stepped back. The front of her nightdress was soaked from the hug. “Come on, let’s get out of the rain.” She let Lucy go down the stairs, then followed. The hatch closed when they were both inside. “I’m so stupid,” Lucy said. “Brody’s a bastard.” Charlotte took a terrycloth robe out of the closet by the stairs and handed it to her. “There are towels in the shower room, and you can hang your wet clothes in the stall. The fans will blow them dry by morning.” While Lucy was drying herself off, Charlotte dropped the dinette table to convert the dining nook into a bed. She pulled out and dressed the mattress. Lucy came out wearing the robe. Charlotte handed her a cup of tea. She sat on the bed and looked at the sleeve of the robe. “I was wearing one of these four hours ago. I should have stayed in the Cherub’s dorm until morning, but I wanted to get home.” She squeezed her eyes closed. Another growl came out of her throat. Charlotte pulled a chair up to the bed and put her hand on Lucy’s knee. “They deserve each other.”

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“Brody, that stupid son of a bitch!” Lucy said. She was talking and clenching her teeth at the same time. “Fuck! Why tonight? I feel like a . . . such a . . . used!” “We’ll take care of him tomorrow. Now you need to calm down and get some rest.” Charlotte took Lucy’s tea and put both cups in the kitchenette sink, then sat on the bed. Lucy curled up, laid her head in Charlotte’s lap, and closed her eyes. “We come out of those wombs physically mature women,” Charlotte said while stroking Lucy’s hair, “but for days or weeks, our bodies and minds are tricked into believing we’re babies again. It takes a while to get ourselves sorted out.” She continued to comb Lucy’s hair until her breathing settled into the steady rhythm of deep sleep, then she slipped off the bed and tucked in her friend.

Chapter 2 Burning Desire

Charlotte shook Lucy’s shoulder. “Ermph,” Lucy said through squinted eyes. “You’re dressed.” “Yes, and showered—though not in that order.” “What time is it?” “Seven twenty-two.” “How much sleep did I get?” “Except for some excitement earlier this morning, and including your womb time, you’ve had almost two and a half weeks of sleep.” Lucy sat up and stretched her arms, then leaned against the settee backrest. She was still wearing the robe Charlotte had lent her. She let her head loll back so she could look up through the skylight. The sky was blue with a few puffy pink clouds. “Can people see in through that?” “No, it’s frosted on the outside.” “One-way frosting,” Lucy said. “Mmm, it’s making me hungry.” “I made toast,” Charlotte said. Lucy rolled her head off the settee. “Toast? I say ‘one-way frosting’ and all you can offer is toast?” “What’s one-way frosting?” “I don’t know, but when I age-out, I’m using my blood money to open a confectionery that specializes in it.” “I’m going to open a toast store,” Charlotte said.

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“Who’s going to go to a store specifically to buy toast?” “French people.” “There already is french toast,” Lucy said. “Yes, and French people don’t eat it. I’m not going to sell french toast. I’m going to sell toast to French people.” “Huh, it might work.” Lucy looked around. “Where’s the toilet?” “In the shower. It folds out of the wall. The sink folds out too, and there are guest toothbrushes in the cabinet behind the mirror.” Lucy slid off the bed and headed for the shower room. “How many guest toothbrushes do you have?” “Five.” “Five? You can’t even fit five people in here.” “It’s possible,” Charlotte said, “but afterward everyone really needs to use a toothbrush.” Ten minutes later Lucy was out of the shower. Charlotte had unmade the bed and converted it back into a dinette. “Your clothes are in the closet by the stairs,” she said. Lucy slid the closet door open. “So, this is your new house? The one you spent all your prize money on?” “Not all of it. What do you think?” “It’s tiny.” “It’s a winnebago traveling canister, converted to a domicile.” “It’s buried under a cobblestone road.” “Not a road, a former parking lot. It was wasted space ever since private cars were banned from the city. I think it was rather brilliant to turn it into a neighborhood.” Lucy dressed and picked up her coffee and toast. They were both quiet for a bit, then Charlotte said, “You can stay here.” “No, I couldn’t . . .” “You’re not moving back into the club dorm.” They were quiet again. “Thanks,” Lucy said. “If you want, I’ll get your things from Brody’s apartment.” “No, I can deal with him today. I’ve decided he can keep his penis.”

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“That’s very magnanimous of you,” Charlotte said. She went into the bedroom and came out with her workout bag and foil case. She put her hand on Lucy’s shoulder. “I’ll see you back here this evening. We can go out for dinner and discuss the living arrangements.” Lucy nodded. Charlotte headed up the stairs. “I already told the hatch that you’ll be staying.” Lucy stood in the kitchenette, and finished her toast and coffee, then she picked up her sword, climbed the stairs, and went out the hatch, leaving her bag behind in her new home. While she walked through the Winnebago Graveyard to the public car kiosk, Lucy sent a high priority message: “Brody, I’m coming over to get my stuff. I expect to have access to your apartment―starting now. You really don’t want to cross me on this.” Half an hour later, she was standing in front of Brody’s door for the second time that morning. This time, when she pressed her key against the door, she heard the locks release. She pushed on the door and walked in. “Hi, Lucy,” Brody said. He was standing in the living room. It looked like he had just stood up from the sofa. “I’m not here to talk,” Lucy said. “I’m getting my stuff.” She walked into the bedroom and opened the closet. Her clothes were all there, including her blue and orange frog robe. She got her three moving bags off the top shelf and packed her clothes from the closet into the first one, then she pulled out the dresser drawers that contained her things, put the contents into the second bag, and tossed the empty drawers on the bed. She collected her things from the dresser top, the floor, the laundry hamper, and stuffed them in the bag. She sealed the full bags and carried them into the living room. Brody hadn’t moved. “I’m sorry about last night,” he said. “You’re lucky about last night,” Lucy said. She walked around the living room and kitchen collecting everything that was hers and tossing it into the third bag.

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“You wouldn’t really have . . . you know, if Emily wasn’t here to stop you?” Brody’s hands instinctively made a protective move toward his crotch. “If Emily wasn’t here, I would have been making love to your ‘you know,’” Lucy said. In the shower room, she used her arm to plow her cosmetics and toiletries off the shelves and into the bag. Brody followed her to the shower room door. “Given the circumstances, last night, you wouldn’t—” “Brody,” Lucy said, “your genitals were probably safe last night and they are definitely safe today.” She opened the his-andhers sex toys drawer and started tossing the his toys in the toilet and the hers toys in the moving bag. When she was finished, she sealed the bag. “You’re in my way.” Brody moved back. She slipped her sword under her belt, slung one bag over her shoulder, and grabbed the other two by their handles. She hauled the bags out of Brody’s apartment, down the stairs, and to the local public car kiosk. Half an hour later, she was unpacking in Charlotte’s little buried house. She managed to find places for all of her clothes and things without having to move any of Charlotte’s stuff. It helped that all the drawers in the kitchenette and around the dinette were empty. She took over a narrow broom closet next to the dinette for her sword and club gear. She sat at the dinette table with the cleaning kit she had recovered from Brody’s and cleaned, polished, and oiled her longsword, then she opened its scabbard; the equipment assistants never did a proper job cleaning out the blood. When she was finished, Lucy looked for something to eat and found that Charlotte only had coffee, tea, and bread for toast. She picked up her training bag and sword, and went up top for a look around her new home turf. The winnebago canisters hadn’t been completely buried. The cobblestone was raised

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around each one, turning the old parking lot into a collection of oblong patios with the curved winnebago skylights poking through. The denizens had covered their patios with potted plants, cast iron chairs, flags, whirligigs, and whatnots. Charlotte’s patio was bare. “Good morning.” Lucy turned around. A man, maybe in his mid-forties, had come out of the neighboring winnebago and was standing on his patio. “Wicks,” he said, “Dudley Wicks.” He tapped his finger to his hat. He was wearing heavy gloves and coveralls. “Lucy Star,” Lucy said. “I’ll be staying with Charlotte for a while.” “Ah,” Dudley said. “I’m a friend of hers,” Lucy said. Dudley didn’t react. “A friend, friend? From way back? We met at the Academy.” Still no reaction. “The Concepción Academy of Rebirth Athletics?” “Ah!” he said and glanced at her sword. “Nasty business.” He took off his glove and extended his hand. “Welcome to the Graveyard.” “Thanks.” Lucy shook his hand. She had to reach up. “But it’s not nasty.” “What’s that?” “What we do.” “Ah,” he said. “Do you know where I could get something to eat? A cafe, lunch counter?” “There’s a sandwich shop about, oh, one hundred paces past the public car kiosk.” He pointed to the south. “Thanks,” Lucy said. “It was nice meeting you, Dudley.” “Ah, yes,” he said. “Goodbye.” He picked up a crate of gardening supplies and carried it to a collection of box gardens that covered the back half of his patio. ***

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After eating, Lucy took a public car to the Burning Desire training complex and had it drop her at the player entrance. There was a score of fans behind the security fence. “Hey, Lucy!” “Lucy Star!” “Good game Lucy!” She walked over to them. A girl pushed a match program and pen through the fence. “Can you sign this, please?” “Sure.” Lucy signed her name, replacing the ‘t’ in ‘Star’ with a five pointed star. She handed the pen and program back through the fence. “You were brilliant against Bright Savanna,” the girl said. “What you did to defended the Goddess, it was so audacious—” She grinned and blinked back a tear. “Thanks,” Lucy said. “I expect my coach will have a different opinion.” She signed a few more programs, a souvenir wooden sword, and a picture of herself. “Can I see your sword?” the boy with the picture said. “Sorry, no. It only gets unsheathed for cleaning, practice, and for a game.” And for threatening to cut off my cheating boy­ friend’s penis. She waived and walked back to the player entrance. Frank, the security guard, held the door for her. “Where’d they all come from?” Lucy said. “They knew you’d be here this afternoon. Started collecting about an hour ago.” “Really?” “Better get used to it while you’re still a rookie. It’ll only get worse, or better, depending on how you look at it.” “I suppose.” She went in and headed down the corridor to Coach Kai’s office. She could hear the team in the practice arena and wanted to be there with them, but Coach was expecting her at fourteen o’clock. This was Coach Kai’s first season with Burning Desire, and her first season as a head coach. She was old for blood battle—Lucy guessed sixty, or something—her League bio didn’t say, but it did

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say she was ex-army and had applied to coach in the BB League after retiring from the military. Lucy knocked on her door. “Come in. Sit down.” Coach Kai held out her hand to an old wooden office chair in front of her desk. “How are you feeling?” “Fine. How else would I be?” Lucy sat in the chair, it was solid and comfortable. She rested her sword between her left leg and the armrest. “I don’t mean physically,” Coach Kai said. “I mean emotionally, considering what happened this morning.” “How do you know about that?” “The rumor that you tried to cut off your boyfriend’s jizzum stick has been rolling through the local BB locker rooms like a drunken katamari ball.” “Who talked?” “Apparently, it was your boyfriend.” “Ex-boyfriend.” “Yes, well, you scared the Mother’s load out of him. He told a friend about the scheme, who told a friend—” “Scheme?” “Turns out Emily Stone set the whole thing up. She was trying to provoke you into violating League rules.” “Why?” Coach Kai picked up a pencil and twiddled it between her fingers. “How about we get back to her after reviewing your game. What’s the last thing you recall?” “Hmm, I saw their guardian take out Bridgett . . . I never saw Grenada after she went through the hedge. Our forwards were singing that Savanna’s guards had killed her before she reached their temple. With Han and Kelcie already dead, we were out of chargers. Our only chance to win was an attrition fight down in the grass which we were, well, already losing, and they still had two chargers. “In our arena, two of Savanna’s forwards were dead, but we had lost Fausta, Hildegard, and Chiyo. Because of that, our

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guards lost control of the center paths. Then the forwards sang an alert that the two Savanna chargers were skating for the hedge . . . That’s when it gets garbled, so I guess I didn’t last much longer.” Coach Kai invoked the game review. “Here’s the start of your last several seconds.” An overhead view of the blood battle field blurred into focus on the animation board under her desktop glass. It was zoomed in to show only Burning Desire’s arena. She pushed a loose stack of papers out of the way. For ex-military, her office was kind of cluttered. Coach Kai started playing the review. “Their forwards took down Mim and drew Cinnamon to the right,” She pointed with her pencil, “clearing the way for their chargers to reach your temple at full speed.” Lucy watched the chargers skate out of the hedge, race along the narrow paths that were partly hidden by the tall field grass, and jump the lowland stream. They arrived at the plaza, kicked off their skates, and with the forward momentum gained from skating the length of the field, they leapt up the tiers of the temple pyramid, one from the left, one from the right. Coach Kai paused the replay. “Wow,” Lucy said. “Their timing is perfect. Whichever one I attack I expose myself to the other. I’m dead. Fuck!” “Language,” Coach Kai said. “Sorry.” Coach Kai zoomed in to the top of the temple. The girl representing the Goddess sat on her heels on the altar wearing her simple white vestment. Her back was straight; her head was held high. She was serene and indifferent to the furious fight for her neck about to erupt just behind her. Coach Kai set the replay going in slow motion. Lucy watched herself take a step closer to the Goddess. Coach Kai paused again. “Why did you do that?” “I don’t know. This is way into the short term memory shadow. I don’t remember any of this.”

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“Why do you think you did it?” Lucy studied the frozen scene and flipped through several different views, then she remembered Mary’s finger at the Happy Cherub drawing the path of her wound, starting from her left arm and continuing almost all the way across her back. Almost all the way! “I got it,” she said. “Tell me.” “The charger coming up on the left is left handed―” She sat forward. “That’s Emily Stone!” “Indeed,” Coach Kai said. “What happens next?” “I attack the charger on the right with my long-sword while attempting to draw my short-sword to block Emily.” “It won’t work,” Coach Kai said. “Kinesthetic intelligence or not, their synchronization has to be off by at least a couple hundredths of a second for you to switch your attention between the two.” “That’s irrelevant,” Lucy said. “What I actually want is to get my left arm down against my side. I don’t really want to block Emily, I’m trying to provoke her. She’s left handed, and she’s already winding up for a left to right attack, see? By stepping closer to the Goddess I’m reducing the scope of her attack, making her use finesse rather than force. I want my left arm down to get as much flesh and bone in the path of her blade as possible so she doesn’t cut all the way through my torso. And I bet I’m going to put all my weight on my right leg just as her blade cuts into my arm.” “Why?” Coach Kai said. “It’s the other reason I took that step closer to the Goddess. When I die, I want to fall to my left. I’m counting on Emily’s sword getting caught in my ribs, at least for a moment, and I’m now close enough to the Goddess so when my body falls, it falls against her or at least close enough so Emily’s sword scratches her back. Emily causes a foul, and we win. Boo-yah!” Coach Kai started the replay at normal speed. It was over in a second, exactly as Lucy had described.

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“The Savannas tried to claim you caused the foul since you set it up, but by the rules, the moment you lost motor control from a mortal wound it became Emily’s responsibility to prevent the error. “Xaun was the senior surviving offensive player. With no chargers left, it fell to her to performed the penalty beheading of Savanna’s goddess. She made a good, precise cut, not easy to do with a forward’s field sword. Would you like to see it?” Coach Kai reached to advance the review to the next tabbed event. “I’d rather not, if you don’t mind.” “Oh? Yes, of course.” She relaxed her finger, picked up her pencil, and tapped the desk. “You were credited with the win and named M.V.P. Better be ready for a cold shower tomorrow.” She pointed the pencil eraser at Lucy. “Don’t let it go to your head.” Lucy sat back and let it go straight to her head, but not for long. “So I tricked Emily into losing the game. That’s what her revenge scheme was about?” “No. The latest blood test for Lilly Aguilar, the top charger for Diana’s Glory, came back with a red flag. She’ll age-out within six months, and she’s not even twenty-five. They tried to keep it quiet, but had to pull her from their active player list and scramble to find a replacement in the farm clubs. The word was, Emily would get the nod, then you tricked her into committing a match losing foul, and the Glories passed her over―for our own Segune, as it turned out.” “Huh,” Lucy said. “What do you know.” “She tried to get you expelled from the League. I spent all morning arguing your case with the Propriety Board. Eventually, they agreed your judgement was impaired because of your just concluded rebirth, and Emily was admonished for not being more sensitive to your situation. You were lucky. Do you understand?” Lucy nodded. “Good. Be ready to work yourself hard starting tomorrow. You’re on the roster for the next match against Beauty Incarnate. Your appointment at Pete’s Tattoo is in fifteen minutes, better get going.”

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They stood and Coach Kai held out her hand. “Good to have you back.” Lucy shook it. “Thanks Coach.” “One more thing,” Coach Kai said. “If you ever again draw your sword in the presence of an unprotected person, I’ll be the one throwing you out of the League.” Pete’s Tattoo was close enough for Lucy to make her appointment with a brisk walk east through the Seafront Park in the Old Harbor District. The fans had dispersed so she slipped out the player entrance, unnoticed. “Hey, Lucy,” Second Pete said when she walked in. “Hey, Second Pete.” “The kid is just finishing up with another client.” “Hi, Lucy,” Todd said from his work station. He was leaning over a client’s back, working on a major project. The reference drawing on the wall showed a grizzly bear biting off the head of a horse. “Hi, Todd.” “We’ve been seeing quite a few of the girls from your last match,” Second Pete said. “Great save, by the way.” “Thanks. I do what I can.” Lucy glanced at the pictures hanging on the wall. There were six group pictures of Burning Desire players; Lucy was in the back, top row of the newest one, lined up with the other guardians. Everyone was sporting their team tattoos; some were fresh, done the day of the picture. “You make a killing off of us, don’t you,” Lucy said. “It helps,” Second Pete said. “But we had to put in two extra work stations and we bring in freelance artists every two weeks to handle the work.” He flipped his thumb at the back of the room where a couple of artists were setting up. “Hildegard and Fausta are coming in later.” Lucy moved to another set of pictures showing the best work from the three generation history of the shop. “This is your dad,

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Original Pete?” She was looking at a picture of a tattoo artist, his own arms and torso covered with ink. He was shaking hands with a sumo wrestler showing off a coiled dragon that wound around his belly. Second Pete wheeled over. “Yup, and that’s the Mighty Calhoun, greatest wrestler of his generation. It’s still a popular sport. No blood version yet.” He cracked a smile and winked at Lucy, but she wasn’t biting. “It’s a pain in the ass that we have to get our tattoos redone every time we pop out of a womb,” Lucy said, “but I can’t imagine committing myself to a permanent one and being stuck with it for the rest of my life. What if I change my mind?” “What if you do? You’re stuck with the consequences of every decision you ever make, big or little, good or bad. A tattoo, even if it embarrasses you years later, at least lets you know you lived your life with some gumption. Why the dark thoughts?” “I just got reminded that my career’s going to last five or six more years, if I’m lucky. Then what?” “You come back here and have Todd give you your first permanent tattoo to commemorate the event. Getting a tattoo is nothing compared to what you did. You let them change your genes.” “No I didn’t. One of my ova was changed so it would grow into my memory placenta, that’s it. I’m the same as I always was.” “Yeah? Well, that’s one hell of an egg.” Second Pete pointed at her belly. “Let’s see it. I’ve got to get my bet in on your innieoutie pool.” Lucy pulled up her shirt, and Second Pete leaned close for a good look at the stub of her umbilical cord. “Hmm . . . I’m putting my money on an outie.” “Pretty risky. I’ve never had one yet.” “I’ve got a feeling this time’s going to be different. I always go with my gut.” Second Pete glanced at Todd’s work station. “Looks like you’re next.” The back tattoo client climbed out of the chair and checked Todd’s work in the mirror. He was nearly two meters tall with

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wide, strong shoulders. Lucy watched his trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles flex and relax under his skin as he twisted one way and another to see the full tattoo. His obliques were nice too, and his abdominals were great. She imagined gliding her cheek along those undulations, but there was something odd about them that forced her to drop her fantasy and take a professional look. At first she couldn’t see it, then she realized he had a scar on his belly, about four centimeters long. She thought it was a surgery scar, but in the mirror, she saw a corresponding scar on his back that had been camouflaged by the tattoo. It looked like he had been run through with something. She couldn’t tell how old it was. For all the stabbing and dismemberment of blood battle, she wasn’t used to seeing scars and didn’t know how to read them. The client dug a big tip out of his coin purse and handed it to Todd. “Good work, man. Thanks.” He pulled a t-shirt over his head followed by a sweater with an outer layer of loose wool that Lucy wanted to run her fingers through. “Nice tattoo,” she said. He left the shop, pushing past her without a word. “He’s a good customer,” Second Pete said, “but he doesn’t like you girls and your swords, he thinks it’s unnatural.” “He needs to get over it,” Lucy said. “Maybe I could help?” “He’d be a hard nut to crack.” “I’ve cracked harder nuts than his.” Second Pete guffawed. Todd shook his head. “He set me up,” Lucy said to Todd. “I’m not going to deny an old man a laugh.” “Thanks. Now I’ll have to listen to him tell that story all week. Ready to go?” Lucy took off her shirt and sat back in the chair. Todd brought out Burning Desire’s official inks and stencils. “Sorry to hear about your boyfriend,” he said. “Ex-boyfriend.”

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*** Charlotte took Lucy to a local pub called the Pony ’n Pony. Lucy pointed to a high table against the wall; one with stools. “How about there? These tattoos are too itchy for a backrest.” “Sure,” Charlotte said. She signaled the barman with two fingers. He drew a couple of draughts and sent them over via the bar-boy. Lucy studied the menu. “What do you recommend?” “I usually have the lentil stew.” “Usually? Have you ever tried anything else?” “No.” “I’ll have the couscous,” Lucy said to the bar-boy. “She’ll have the lentil―” “Two couscous,” Charlotte said. “You only live so many times, right?” The bar-boy trotted off with their order. A couple stopped next to their table. “Hey Charlotte. Who’s your friend?” “Hi,” Charlotte said to them. “This is Lucy, my new roommate. Lucy, meet Toni-I and Tony-Y.” “Eye and Why? Oh.” Lucy laughed. “A pleasure to meet you.” “Do you also fence?” Tony-Y said. “Nope, I play blood battle.” “Really?” Toni-I said. “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you. Are you with Diana’s Glory?” “She’s a big fan of the Glories,” Tony-Y said. “I play for Burning Desire.” “What position?” Toni-I said. “Guardian.” Lucy held up her sword. “Oh. Oh! Are you Lucy Star?” “When is this Brody rumor going away?” Lucy said to Charlotte. “What rumor?” Toni-I said. “It’s nothing,” Charlotte said.

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“I mean,” Toni-I said, “are you the Lucy Star who pulled off that amazing game save two weeks ago?” “I guess,” Lucy said. “Yes,” Charlotte said. “The whole League was talking about it. Everybody’s got their eye on you.” “Really?” “Yes. Too bad about Emily Stone though, losing her chance at the big leagues.” “That fu―” “Yes, too bad,” Charlotte said. The Pony ’n Pony was getting crowded. The bar-boy wedged himself between Toni-I and Tony-Y to deliver their couscous. “It was great meeting you,” Toni-I said. The Tonies, I and Y, continued to the back of the pub. Charlotte picked up a bit of couscous on her fork and tasted it. “The main thing we have to figure out,” she said, “is who gets the shower room first and how do we handle sex.” “Sex? What about that?” Lucy pointed at Charlotte’s plate. “It’s good.” “Better than lentil stew?” “Different.” Charlotte took another taste. “Humph,” Lucy said. “You’ve always been an early riser, so why don’t you go first. As long as I’m in the shower by seven fifteen, I’ll be fine.” “Would you mind getting up and making coffee and toast?” “Do you really, only eat toast every morning?” “Yes.” “Okay, I’ll make coffee and toast. Would you mind if I bought some actual food and cooked it now and then?” “As long as you don’t stink up the place.” “Some people think cooking makes a house smell better.” “We’ll see.” Charlotte ate a fork-full of couscous. “I’ve got a bedroom, so you’ll only have to deal with my lovers when they

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walk back and forth to the toilet, but you’re essentially going to be having sex on the dining room table. Will that be OK?” “Fine with me,” Lucy said, “if you don’t mind eating your toast off that same table.” She tapped her plate with her fork. “This is really good.” They finished eating. The bar-boy cleared away their dishes and they ordered another round of beer. “I need to ask you to do something for me,” Charlotte said. “I have a fencing bout Saturday night. I’d like you to be there.” “You know you don’t have to ask. Who are you fighting?” “Winnie Chaturvedi.” “Wow. She’s ranked number one,” Lucy said. “That’s a championship event.” “Yes it is, that’s why I want you there.” “Sure, when and where?” “It’s a sanctioned event, but private. Very exclusive―no family and friends box. The only way I can get you in is to make you my second.” “I’m not qualified. Isn’t a second supposed to take your place if you can’t fight?” “In theory, but that never happens, and if it did, you would formally forfeit the bout. I’d lose my ranking, but that would also happen if you fought and lost. The second is really an assistant. You help me prepare for the bout, and when we go out to the fencing strip, you play the second’s part in the bout rituals. If I lose, you collect my things, supervise my recovery team, and make sure my body arrives at the womb-atorium and is safely interred in a womb.” “I expect I’ll need permission from the Blood Battle League. I’m not licensed to participate in another blood sport.” “You won’t be fencing, so your life won’t be at risk. This sort of thing happens more often than you might think. It just needs to be a contract between clubs. Your club will be lending you to my club to temporarily fill a non-hazardous support role. It won’t

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take any time away from your practice, and Burning Desire makes extra money by lending you out for an evening.” “So I’m being traded around for money?” “You get paid, too.” “Okay, I’ll do it.” It was after midnight when they got back to Charlotte’s winnebago. They were both a little drunk. Charlotte showed Lucy how to convert the dinette for sleeping, then retired to her bedroom, put on a fresh nightdress, and went to bed. She listened to Lucy rummage around, use the toilet, brush her teeth, and crawl into her own bed. Quiet settled over Charlotte’s little buried house. She laid on her back, watched the stars twinkle through the skylight, and drifted to sleep thinking about confections coated with one-way frosting.

Chapter 3 The Boy from There

The next day, the day after she was reborn; Lucy walked into the locker room at seven fifty. “Look who finally dropped,” Mim said. “Hey, Mim,” Lucy said. She ambled over to her locker, and girls started collecting. She opened the door, stuffed her bag in, set her long-sword in its cradle next to her short-sword, took off her sweater, hung it inside, emptied her pockets, and put everything on the top shelf. She closed the door and turned around. “Okay,” she said, “you ready to do this?” The girls relaxed. Cinnamon was next to Lucy and Fausta was on the other side of the bench that ran down the middle of the locker row. Cinnamon reached out to take Lucy’s arm. Lucy slipped her foot behind Cinnamon’s heel, planted her forearm under her clavicles, and stepped into her, tripping her back against the lockers. She bent low, reached under Fausta’s arm and around to her back, grabbed a handful of t-shirt, and pulled, twisting her around and toppling her over the bench. Lucy jumped onto the bench and ran down the row. Everyone trying to follow was tripping over Cinnamon and Fausta. At the end of the row, she leapt off and collided with Bridgett. They tumbled to the floor. Bridgett tangled herself up with Lucy’s arms and legs long enough for the others to catch up. They grabbed her and lif-

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ted her over their heads. The players who had died along with Lucy in her last game were given the privilege of hauling her ass to the shower. The water was already running. Tanneth stood just outside the spray, reaching in and waving her hand in front of the sensor to keep it going. They tossed Lucy in. She landed on her feet, stood up, put her hands on her hips, and let the water splash off her head and soak her clothes. “Happy now? Can I come out?” “Turn around,” Chiyo said, making a pirouette twirl with her finger. Lucy turned all the way around. She was thoroughly soaked. “You can come out.” Lucy stepped out from under the spray. “That was nice,” she said. “You should try it.” She reached for Chiyo and everyone backed up. The shower shut off. Lucy clamped her teeth together to keep them from chattering and flashed a satisfied smile. She walked back to the locker room past her club mates, stripped out of her wet clothes, and hung them to dry on the coat rack by the door. Meanwhile, the other girls trickled to their lockers and the gossip gate opened: “I finally had one.” “Are you sure?” “Oh yes!” “Have you heard about the boy gladiators?” “It’s an urban legend.” “So, what kind was it?” “I don’t know.” “Describe it.” “Yeah, that story’s been going around for years.” “But it was in the news. They found bodies.” “There was no warning. Ollie went down on me, and was doing his thing with his other finger, when all of a sudden―I’m not sure what happened―but I hit him in the mouth with my pubic bone; he cut his lip on a tooth!” “No shit? Hahaha!”

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“Boy gangs have been killing each other forever, but ever since blood sports started, somebody’s always trying to blame it on us.” “Yeah, ‘They’re over compensating.’ ‘They think they have to die to prove they’re better than us.’ What bullshit.” “Then I started shaking. My legs were jerking so much, I was afraid I was going to kick his candy sack! It went away and came back at least three more time, and then it was over.” “It would be sad if it was true though, don’t you think?” “If it was true, maybe.” “I’d hate to think my Quentin feels inadequate because of me.” “That camp follower you’re shacked up with? You should drop his ass.” “That was a Rodeo in a Box. No doubt about it.” “I’m jealous. I want one, too.” “You haven’t been chopped up enough yet. You need to be in a womb for at least a week and a half. Two is better.” “Yeah, Lucy fell for one of those guys and look how that turned out―oh, sorry Lucy.” Lucy put on her athletic suit jacket over her t-shirt and shorts, then closed her locker door harder that she needed to. “Time to get busy.” Angela Sáez, the defensive coach, was standing at the locker room entrance. “Lucy. You, Hildegard, and Fausta, report to physical therapy. Nice to have you back, by the way—all three of you.” On the way to the PT room, they passed a couple of the club goddesses walking the other way. Lucy slipped behind Hildegard and Fausta. “What was that about?” Fausta said. “It’s the guardian-goddess thing,” Hildegard said, “Right Lucy?” “Uh-huh,” Lucy said. “I don’t get it,” Fausta said. “Come on. You don’t know about the guardian-goddess thing?” “This is my rookie year, I’m still learning.”

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“But we’re three matches into Delta—it’s the last third of the season.” “Sorry,” Fausta said. “All right,” Hildegard said, “Guardians are trained to do one thing—protect the Goddess, and as you know,” she glanced at Fausta’s arm, “Lucy here, can be real extreme about it. But now and then, when the opposition is about to botch a beheading and commit a foul, guardians are supposed hold back and let it happen, right? Well, it’s easier for them to do that if they only ever think of the goddesses as, ‘The Goddess.’” She air-quoted. “So, guardians and goddesses don’t interact because they don’t want guardians thinking of goddesses as real people. Isn’t that right, Lucy?” “Yeah,” Lucy said. “I was talking to a goddess last week,” Fausta said. She counted on her fingers. “I mean, three weeks ago, before our last match. Should I not have been?” “We’re guards, not guardians,” Hildegard said, “for us it doesn’t matter; for her,” she flipped her thumb at Lucy, “it does.” She lowered her voice so she was mostly mouthing words. “But she gets a little nuts about the whole thing.” “Hey, I heard every word,” Lucy said. “I’m not nuts, I just . . . Oh fuck, change the topic.” Hildegard made a screw motion with her finger and mouthed to Fausta, “Crazy.” They turned into the PT room. Lucy set her long-sword in the cradle by the door. “About time,” Parisa Cartwright said. “You’re the last three from your match to pop. You making a habit of being late?” She closed the door. “Hildie, Fausta, you know the routine. Lucy, long time, no see.” “Don’t jinx me,” Lucy said. “My job is to turn your womb-pampered muscles back into predatory assets,” Parisa said, “give you back those reflexes you need for no-mistakes lethal sword play.” She mimed swinging a

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sword. “You work with me, and work hard; and in a couple of days, you’ll be immune to jinxing. Ready?” Lucy nodded. “Good, let’s check you muscle tone, see where we’re starting from.” Parisa pushed the girls hard. By eleven o’clock Lucy was sweating, and her muscles were hurting, but she was feeling stronger and more precise in her movement. Donna Quinn, the head of the club’s security office, opened the Physical Therapy door and motioned to Lucy. “Outside, please,” she said. “It’ll just be a minute,” she said to Parisa. Lucy followed Donna into the corridor. “What is it?” She was breathing hard from the workout. “We’ve got someone at the front desk who claims to be your brother, Zachary Knole. Do you know anything about this?” “No,” Lucy said. She wiped the sweat off her forehead with the hem of her t-shirt. “Are you sure?” “That’s what he says. We’re checking on him right now. Your background, before you arrived at the Academy, is pretty sketchy. Do you even have a brother?” Lucy didn’t say anything. Her fingers curled into her palms. “It’s a simple question,” Donna said. “Yes, and that was his name.” Donna took a picture out of her folder. “This is the guy. Does he look familiar?” She looked at it, but didn’t touch it. “That’s sharp, for a security camera.” “No it’s not.” “That could be him. He was ten the last time I saw him.” She looked away from the picture and away from Donna. “So, he’d be . . . sixteen now?” Donna said. “I guess.” “You’ve been estranged from your family and legally emancipated since you were fourteen. Do you have any idea why your brother would be here today, without any warning?”

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“No, and I don’t care.” “This is a potential security issue. If you want, we can make him go away.” “Go away?” Lucy’s focus came back to Donna. Donna chuckled. “Not like that. I can tell him to go away and leave you alone, and make sure he gets the message.” “That doesn’t sound much better.” “It’s not.” “Before you do anything, can you let me know what you find out?” “Sure, what do you want to do with him in the mean time?” “Let him wait.” Lucy looked off again, past Donna’s shoulder. “If I decide to talk to him, it won’t be until the end of the day.” Lucy had her lunch tray, her short-sword, and her cleaning kit. She sat next to Frankie at the guardian table in the cafeteria. “You gonna clean that thing here?” Frankie said. “Sword training’s next. I don’t want Bimini turning up her nose at my imperfectly maintained blade. I haven’t had a chance to clean it until now. Yesterday was busier than I expected.” “Hah! So I heard.” Serendipity put her tray on the table and sat on Lucy’s other side. “Was Brody’s penis erect or flaccid when you considered cutting it off?” she said. “What the fuck?” Frankie said. “That’s the first thing you thought of to say? How about, ‘Hi Lucy. Welcome back?’” “You didn’t say, welcome back,” Lucy said. She wiped her short-sword blade with a dry cloth. “It’s still a fucking weird question,” Frankie said. “If I didn’t ask, I wouldn’t know whether to be impressed or not,” Serendipity said. “It was flaccid,” Lucy said. “See? Now I’m impressed.” “My ‘What the Fuck,’ still stands,” Frankie said.

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“You know Lucy doesn’t do anything with her swords without already knowing she can succeed,” Serendipity said. “Anybody could cut off an erect penis, but if she thought she could cut off a flaccid one and leave the scrotum intact, I’m impressed. That was what you visualized, wasn’t it? Just the penis, nothing else?” “First,” Lucy said, “the part about me always knowing ahead of time? That’s bullshit. But yeah, in this case, I thought I could. But I didn’t. I mean, I wasn’t really going to do it. You know that, right?” Frankie stuck a couple of fingers in her mouth and whistled. The whole cafeteria was startled. She raised her hand, snapped her fingers, and pointed at a girl in the middle of the room who had stopped in her tracks. When she had the girl’s attention, Frankie pointed at an empty chair at the table. The girl came over. “You don’t mind?” she said. “Sit,” Frankie said. The girl sat and smiled at everyone. “Hi,” she said, “I’m Liliha, but you can call me Liha.” “Nice to meet you. I’m Lucy.” “I know,” she said. Her smile turned into a grin. Lucy raised an eyebrow to Frankie. “Uvan and Sandeep are wombed up and not expected to pop in time for next Saturday’s match, so Liha was brought up from the reserve squad to be the standby guardian.” “Good to have you with us,” Lucy said to Liha. She started polishing her sword. “A word of warning though,” she nodded at Frankie. “This one’s putting on the nice, but she’ll do everything she can to make you feel like an incompetent bug, so don’t be afraid to tell her to go fuck herself. She won’t mind, in fact, she makes a great go-fuck-yourself practice dummy. “And this one,” Lucy nodded at Serendipity. “Good luck figuring out what she’s talking about.” “Thanks,” Serendipity said. “See what I mean?”

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*** After lunch they headed to the Sword Practice room. “What’s Bimini Tanaka like?” Liha said. “She’s nice, but old,” Serendipity said. “She’ll cut you a new dung hole with one word,” Frankie said. “She’s the smartest swordswoman I’ve ever met,” Lucy said. Bimini walked into the room and closed the door. “Good afternoon,” she said. “Welcome back,” she said to Lucy. “Liliha, I look forward to working with you. To clarify, I am fifty-two years old; my skill is adequate for teaching; and Frankie is the only one in need of an additional anus. Please put on your shortsword practice harnesses. You three,” she pointed at everyone except Lucy, “warm up.” She took Lucy to the side. “Simple exercises today. You chose. Move at the speed of competence, nothing faster. No risks.” She held up her index finger for emphasis. “You are womb weak, and your coordination is compromised. Your ex-boyfriend is lucky. If you had attempted a penis emasculation you would likely have shaved off his quadriceps along with all of his genitalia.” Bimini left Lucy alone for most of the afternoon, but once in a while she came by and put her hand on Lucy to redirect her movement. At sixteen o’clock Bimini said, “Very good.” Practice was over. Lucy took a shower, put on her street clothes (by now they were dry), and picked up her long-sword and bag. She walked into the corridor and turned toward the player entrance. Donna was waiting. “Did you forget?” she said. “No, not really,” Lucy said. “Is he still here?” “He is.” “I guess I was hoping—” “I know,” Donna said. Lucy adjusted her bag on her shoulder. “Okay, what did you find out?”

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“He’s definitely your brother. Five days ago he boarded a public transit cabin in your home town, then rode free local services across the country until he arrived here, today. He came straight to the club. You changed your name after you were emancipated. I don’t know how he knew you were here.” “I got some inter-regional attention because of my last game,” Lucy said. “Maybe he saw the story and recognized me?” “I’m embarrassed,” Donna said. “I didn’t think of that. Have you decided what you want to do?” “I’d like to look at him. Do you have a one-way window, or a camera I can use so he doesn’t know I’m there?” “Sure.” Donna led the way to the lobby entrance, the one the players didn't use. “You never talk about your family, so everybody’s got a theory, and after poking around today, I’ve got a few of my own,” she said, “but it’s been my experience, contrary to your basic shrink point of view, that if someone buries their past, they probably have a good reason, and it’s better to leave it buried.” They went into a dim room with a window that looked out on the reception area from behind the receptionist’s desk. There was a waiting area beyond the desk with chairs and a low table. Zack was sitting with his arms wrapped tight around his chest and his hands tucked into his armpits. He was wearing jeans and an unzipped jacket over a t-shirt. A backpack sat on the floor between the cheap sneakers he was wearing. “From his side this looks like a picture of the players. You’re in it, right about here.” Donna pointed to a spot left of center near the top. “I was looking at that picture yesterday at Pete’s Tattoo,” Lucy said. “Didn’t anybody give him a magazine to read?” “There are magazines on the table.” Lucy watched him. He looked up at the clock, then at the receptionist, who ignored him, and then at a spot in the middle of the floor. “Is he a security risk?”

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“Not so far. The situation is still weird enough that we’ll be keeping an eye on him.” “If I take him around the corner to Alice’s Tea Shop are you going to have someone follow us?” “You bet.” “Will they listen to what we say?” “Do you promise to tell me if you think something’s wrong?” “I promise.” “Then we won’t listen.” “Okay, I’ll talk to him,” Lucy said. They went through a door next to the receptionist. Donna stayed back and gave the receptionist a discrete OK sign. Lucy walked over to Zack and stopped a meter away. He looked up. “Hello, Zack,” she said. Zack started to speak, but his voice was phlegmy. He cleared his throat. “Hi Debbie,” he spoke with the accent she had trained herself to lose within a month of leaving—that place. “My name’s Lucy,” she said. “You broke Mom and Dad’s hearts.” This is absurd. Donna’s right, it’s stupid to dig this shit up. “I wanted to break more than that,” Lucy said. She looked back at Donna. Donna made a gesture with her thumb. Lucy was pretty sure it meant, “Give me the word and I’ll kick his ass out.” Lucy shook her head and turned back to Zack. “You see that big woman over there?” Zack nodded. “She’s the head of security. If I tell her to, she’ll throw you out and make sure you never come back.” Fuck, I’m threatening to break his fingers again. “Do you want me to go?” Zack said. “Yes.” Zack got up. She held out her palm to stop him. “Wait. Yes, I want you to go, but first, there’s a tea shop around the corner. Let’s go there, and . . . see if we can talk about something.” Sixteen year old Zack was nearly a head taller than Lucy. She led him to the street door, let him go out first, then turned and gave Donna a what-else-can-I-do? shrug before following.

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Alice’s Tea Shop was one block away and around the corner from the club. Lucy kept up a quick pace and didn’t say anything. Zack was winded when they arrived. The little bell hanging above the door jingled twice when Lucy and a young man walked in. Mr. Fredrick was handing a takeaway cup of tea to one of the club’s goddesses. “Thank you,” the goddess said and paid for her tea, adding a tip and a kiss on the cheek. “Always at your service,” he said. The goddess glanced at Lucy and smiled. Lucy noticed, caught herself, and looked away. The goddess bit her lip. She watched Lucy lead the young man to a table, then she turned and went out the door, jingling the doorbell. “Two house teas, please,” Lucy said. Mr. Fredrick shook himself out of the reverie the goddesses always put him in and set about preparing the infusions. Lucy couldn’t think of anything to say. She was feeling dumber every moment for trying to go along with whatever it was Zack wanted. “How have you been?” Zack said. Small talk! “I’ve been fine,” Lucy said. “How about you? Did Dad hit you lately?” She didn’t know she was going to say that! Lucy realized she was squeezing the scabbard of her sword. She relaxed her hand. “He never hit me like he did you,” Zack said. “And he stopped all that, after you left.” “I don’t believe it.” “He did. He joined a group. You changed him.” Don’t you dare say that! Lucy’s eyes settled on the best place to strike Zack’s neck for a clean decapitation. “What about your . . . our mother?” “She caught the flu last month.”

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“Does he still hit her?” She squeezed the scabbard so tight, she felt it’s seams creak. “You hit her too,” Zack said. Lucy started to growl. His face went pale; his eyes went wide. “No! He didn’t hit her anymore either!” Mr. Fredrick brought over the tea, and retreated to the counter without speaking. “Just a minute,” Lucy said to Zack. She got up, walked out to the sidewalk, and put in a talk-to request to Donna. “Yes?” Donna said. “Start listening.” Lucy broke the contact. She went back in and sat down. She took a sip of her tea. Zack hadn’t touched his. “Try it, it’s good,” she said. She watched his body language. There was cowering in everything he did; all his movements curved back on themselves. “You’re lying,” she said. “Really . . . things changed.” “If he stopped hitting you and . . . Mom, then he’s doing something else.” Zack was blank. He didn’t move. “Look at you,” she said. “Even here, half way across the country, everything about you says he’s got you ready to piss in your pants.” “You’re the one who’s scary!” Zack said. Lucy’s mouth froze half open. Like father like daughter? No! She waited until she calmed down. “I’m sorry I left you there.” She reached toward his hand, then pulled back. “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you and Mom. I found a way to escape and I took it. I didn’t look back. I don’t want to look back. You want to know how I’ve been? My life started at fourteen. I have friends. I’m good at what I do. I’m really good at what I do, and I love it.” They sat for a minute, Zack looking at his tea cup, Lucy looking at him. “There’s a shelter east of here,” Lucy said. “It’s called the Helping Hand. They seem like good people. I shop at their thrift

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store. They’ll put you up and help you find work.” Lucy leaned forward and tried to make eye contact, but Zack kept his eyes down. “Take care,” she said. “I hope things work out for you, but . . . I don’t want to see you again. Do you understand?” He nodded, then looked up. “Goodbye Deb―Lucy.” He stood up with his backpack and walked out. The doorbell jingled. Lucy picked up her tea and carried it to the counter. “Can I get this in a take-away?” “Absolutely,” Mr. Fredrick said. Lucy took out her coin purse to pay. “This one’s on the house.” “Thanks.” She took the cup from Mr. Fredrick, pulled open the door, and left. The bell jingled. She headed to the public car kiosk by the club. Donna came up and walked beside her. “Your story’s as old as the hills,” she said. “I know,” Lucy said. “What a fucking cliché.” “Until you’re caught in it, then it’s personal.” They reached the lobby entrance to the club. “Are you going to keep an eye on him?” Lucy said. “For a while.” “Make sure he’s okay.” “I’ll see what I can do.” “Good night,” Lucy said, “and thanks.” “You’re welcome.” Donna pulled open the front door of the club and went in. While Lucy waited at the kiosk for a car, she thought it might be fun to surprise Charlotte with a home-cooked meal.

Chapter 4 Duel à Mort

The Helping Hand Social Services Society was in the business of attracting lost souls who had been cast adrift. They provided temporary shelter and security, and if they could, they helped their residents find a place in the world. That’s what the information sheet said—more or less, and Wilhelmina Mazur did her best to live up to it. She picked up the sheaf of overnight reports and leaned against the front of her desk to read them and sip her coffee. Christopher knocked on her open office door. “Your first interview is here.” She flipped back to the top sheet. That would be the young man who had walked into the shelter last night. She looked up. He was standing behind Christopher. Shy, defensive in posture, he avoided eye contact at all costs. “Thank you,” she said to Christopher. “Please come in,” she said to the new lost soul. “Have a seat.” Wilhelmina showed him to one of the two arm chairs in her office. She walked around her desk, collected her notebook and pen, and sat in the other one. “Good morning,” she said. “Morning, ma’am.” “How did you sleep?” “Fine, thank you.”

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She checked the admittance report. “You’re Zachary Tang, is that correct?” “Yes.” “Do you prefer Zack or Zachary?” “Zack.” He didn’t relax. Given the opportunity to choose their preferred form of address, most interviewees relaxed, at least a little. “That’s a nice accent you have, may I ask where you’re from?” “They said last night you didn’t ask questions,” Zack said. “That’s not quite correct. We ask, but you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. I’m asking in case there’s anyone back home we can contact for you. Anyone who might be worried about you?” “No.” “What about here in Heritage? Do you know anyone here?” Zack shifted in his chair. “No.” “I’m curious why you came to the city. It’s a long way from home.” Zack shrugged. “Is there anything you need that we can help you with?” Zack shook his head, but then said, “I need a place to stay, and I need work. I was told you can help me find work.” “We can do that. Do you have any skills we should know about?” “I helped out on the yeast pond this summer. Syphoning and raking.” “That’s good to know. I’m sure we’ll find something for you,” Wilhelmina said. “May I ask, who told you about us?” Zack shifted again. “I . . . just heard people talk.” “OK. Let’s go see Christopher.” She led Zack to Christopher’s desk in the outer office. Christopher checked a list. “We have an opening in the thrift store.” Zack took a step back; blood drained from his cheeks. “No,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be good at that.” “It’s not difficult―” “Maybe you could find something else?” Wilhelmina said.

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Christopher flipped through a stack of cards. “You could work on the trash detail. We have a contract with the city to empty the trash baskets in the Old Harbor Seafront Park.” “How will I know what to do?” “You’ll be working with Neil, a good, industrious kid. He’ll show you what the job entails. How does that sound?” “Okay, I guess.” “Hi Lucy,” Andrea said. “Congratulations on your last game.” “Thanks,” Lucy said. She nodded at the other charger. “Kelcie.” “Lucy,” Kelcie said. “Warm up with basic attack-block-counterattack exercises,” Mana Ebner said. Mana was the charger sword coach. This was the weekly joint charger-guardian practice. They were starting with rote exercises: good for warm-up, not for meaningful training. Lucy and the two chargers put on their masks and faced off. “I haven’t seen you before,” Lucy said to Andrea. They started maneuvering through the predetermined steps. “I was brought up from the reserves two weeks ago to replace Sigune,” Andrea said. “The girl the Glories picked up to replace Lilly Aguilar?” “Right,” Lucy said. “I should thank you. If you hadn’t messed up Emily Stone’s record, I wouldn’t be here.” “I suppose.” “I’m in the next match against Beauty Incarnate. I’ll be charging on Frankie’s team.” “Good for you.” “If the match goes to three games, maybe I’ll be charging for you.” Kelcie broke the exercise pattern and hit Andrea on the back of the head. “Ow!” “Never wish for a third game,” Lucy said. “It’s bad charm.” They finished the exercises. “Free-form attack and defend,” Bimini said. “One group at a time. Frankie, Serendipity, Liha,

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then Lucy.” There was a rectangle marked on the floor to match the size and dimensions of the temple-top. Frankie walked out and took up her waiting stance within its bounds. For this exercise, the guardian had to stay inside the rectangle; it gave the chargers a fair chance to win and stressed the guardian’s ability to confront multiple attackers in a confined space. Frankie’s two chargers conferred, spread apart, and moved in. Attack, block, kill, kill. Real sword fights were almost always over in a second or less, they never lasted more than two. Any practice stick strike on a padded suit that would have resulted in a kill counted as one. Frankie had killed both chargers. They went again, ten times in all. Frankie won six of her fights. Serendipity won seven. Liha won four. And Lucy—three. She could handle Kelcie; the girl had been killed in Lucy’s last match, and was only four days out of a womb. Like Lucy, her reflexes were slow. Andrea, the brand new rookie boiling with enthusiasm, was beating her. They walked off the floor, and Bimini took Lucy aside. “Her skill is crap,” Lucy said, “but she keeps getting the first cut.” “You are too aggressive,” Bimini said. “Your body is not ready. Let Andrea get her hits. Today she is better than you. By Monday, I expect you to beat her ass.” The next time they were up, Andrea wasn’t so successful. Lucy won six fights. Better. But not good, not yet. “How may I help you?” The receptionist’s gaze lingered a moment too long on her sword. “Lucy Star. I’m here to see Charlotte Marceau.” He consulted a calendar. “Ah, yes. Madam will be with you shortly. Please, have a seat.” Lucy didn’t sit; she was full of frustrated energy from a day of practice that her body hadn’t been ready for. She walked to a wall of pictures displaying the champions who had represented the East Slope Fencing Club throughout its history. Second

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Pete’s wall of heros was more colorful, but these formal poses made the same point: we’ve been here longer than you’ve been alive. Duel à Mort fencing was merely the newest form of the sport. This long tradition was so different from blood battle, which had been created brand new by Gunda Thorstenson just twelve years ago. Charlotte came into the lobby wearing fencing protective gear. “I see you’ve been checking out our wall of renown.” “You’re not on it,” Lucy said. “They’re waiting until I age-out to see if I’m good enough to be an august member. Come on back. I’ll show you around the place.” She led Lucy through the door she had entered the lobby by, and they turned down a hall. An august fellow walking in the opposite direction didn’t quite stop as he passed, but said to Charlotte, “Let’s talk tomorrow. Need to clear up a few last minutes before Saturday evening.” As he swept by, he gave Lucy a quick up-down look. “I’ve got to warn you,” Charlotte said, “there’s a significant amount of snobbery here toward blood battle.” “Don’t worry, I’ve already run into it at your bouts, and the receptionist looked like he wanted to put me out with the trash.” “I’ll have a word with him.” “Don’t. I like knowing where I stand with people.” They cut through a room of fencing strips that were in use by a junior league. A girl of about fourteen ran up to them. “Charlotte,” she said. “Guess what, I’ve got my appointment to tryout for the Academy next month!” “That’s great, Tiffany,” Charlotte said. “I know you can do it!” Tiffany grinned, then noticed Lucy. “Who’s your friend?” she said. A younger girl ran over to join Tiffany. “Is that a blood battle sword?” she said with some yuck in her voice. “This is my friend, Lucy,” Charlotte said. “That is, indeed, a blood battle guardian’s sword, and if you’re not nice, she’ll cut your head off with it.”

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“Don’t start another rumor,” Lucy whispered to Charlotte, then patted the girl on the head. “Don’t worry, your head’s way too pretty to cut off.” “That didn’t help,” Charlotte whispered back. “We’ve got to go,” she said to the girls. “Bye!” they ran off. Tiffany’s friend looked scared and watched Lucy over her shoulder. Charlotte led Lucy out a door at the other end of the room. “Tiffany seems enthusiastic.” “Yes, but she doesn’t have what it takes to really finish off an opponent―no blood lust. I wrote a letter to the Academy recommending they don’t accept her.” “Then why are you encouraging her?” “Because she could be a remarkable conventional fencer. Right now, trying to get into the Academy is what’s driving her. She’ll get over it and redirect her energy.” They went through a door into a room that had one fencing strip. Two people were already there. “This is Hamal,” Charlotte said. “He’s a referee, and this evening he’ll be playing the part of the referee for our rehearsal, and this is Amy, she’s the captain of my recovery team and will be playing the part of the whole team.” Everyone shook hands. “What’s all that?” Lucy nodded at a clothes rack and a table of paraphernalia. Charlotte walked over to the clothes. “These are East Slope Fencing Club slacks and blazer uniforms. We’ll wear them for the limousine ride to the mansion.” “Limo ride?” Lucy said. “Mansion?” “The bout is the main attraction for an old money charity fundraiser. Our host, Madame Verbeek, is using us as bait to pull in the deepest pockets in the city so she can shake them down. No expense will be spared.” “She’s paying for a championship event so she can raise money for charity?” Lucy said. “How much is she spending?”

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“I hope, less than she’s expecting to raise,” Charlotte said. “Back to the clothing tour. These are club athletic suits. Like the slacks and blazers, they’re uniforms―not to be used for actual athletics. We’ll wear them out to the fencing strip for the bout. This is the mask and protective gear you’ll wear so I can use you as a practice dummy when I warm up before the bout. And these . . .” Charlotte partly unzipped two garment bags revealing silk evening gowns, “are for us to wear if I win the bout. The winner will be the guest of honor for the soirée, and her second also gets to attend, but not be honored.” “A fancy dress ball? You better win.” “I’ll try.” She moved to the table. “My foil case.” She opened it. “Fighting foil, practice foil, cleaning cloths, oil, blood wipes, disposal bags for the used wipes.” She moved down the table. “Chalk dust for the chalk pan, so my feet don’t sweat and get slippery.” “You bring our own chalk?” “Some of us are obsessive about our chalk formula.” “Hah,” Lucy said. “I’ll bet you are.” She pointed at a case next to the bag of chalk. “What’s this?” “Makeup so I look pretty, alive or dead.” Charlotte opened the case and the one next to it. “And these are various toiletries, enema syringe―” “What?” Lucy said. “Like the Academy says, ‘Blood sports celebrate the fleeting nature of our mortal flesh.’ Although they do it by making our own existence not quite so fleeting―I’ve never understood that slogan. Anyway, the refined taste of the fencing aficionado can only celebrate so much fleshy mortality. A voided bladder or bowel upon death is too much for them. We can pee before a match to clear our bladders, but the bowels need some help, so we take an enema, and as my second, you prepare it for me.” “I suppose some of you are obsessive about this formula, too?” Lucy said.

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Charlotte pointed at a card in the lid of the case. “There are the instructions.” “I never thought I’d say this about anything blood sport related,” Lucy said, “but that’s disgusting. I always assumed you used butt plugs.” “Wouldn’t work. The plug would be voided along with everything else.” “Hmm, I guess so.” Lucy moved to the last item on the table. “Your womb-atorium bag?” “Yes,” Charlotte said. She zipped it open and poked through the contents. “Clothes, cosmetics, a book for the trip home— looks ready to go.” She closed it. “The club uses the Live Long womb-atorium. My recovery team will be standing by, and will know where to go and what to do, but it will be your responsibility to double check everything and sign off after I’ve been interred in a womb. Ultimately, my life will be in your hands. There’s no one I trust more with it.” “And you with mine,” Lucy said. “All right then, let’s start with the match ceremonies.” Charlotte walked to the fencing strip. “They’re pretty simple. You’ve seen them before, but seeing isn’t doing.” One time, at the Academy, while visiting Charlotte in her dorm room, Lucy picked up her fighting foil, wiggled it, and watched the tip whip around out of control. “How can you do anything with this?” “Give me that,” Charlotte said, “before you poke your eye out.” She stood up and took the foil from Lucy’s hand. It stopped wiggling. She reached over to her desk and used the tip to flip open a book and turn the pages, one at a time. Lucy blew air out her nose. “Show off.” “Don’t worry,” Charlotte said, “When you get your blades next year, I’m sure you’ll be able to do fancy tricks too.” She lifted the foil and lunged at an invisible opponent. “Of course, novelty tricks don’t win bouts.”

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“So, how do you kill with that thing?” “It’s not easy, but what would be the point if it was? Foils were never meant to be true dueling weapons. They were designed for practice and later used for touch scoring in competition. Their tips weren’t sharpened until blood sport fencing was developed.” She pressed her finger against the tip, showed Lucy the sanguine drop oozing out of the pin prick wound, then put her finger in her mouth and sucked off the blood. “They’re frail and bend with the slightest lateral pressure. I can’t hack someone up like you’re learning to do, but find the right entry point and thrust true? I’ll drop you before you even know you’ve been penetrated.” She lunged, twisted the foil, and pulled back. “Fuck,” Lucy said. “Impressed?” “No, but your making me horny. And we don’t hack, guardians strategically sever. We practice the art of separating an opponent’s desire to act from her ability to act.” “OK, I can’t ‘strategically sever.’ All I can do is kill (that’s the art of separating an opponent’s life from her body, by the way), and with this,” she waggled the tip of her foil, “there are only two viable ways to do it; you either attack the heart or the brain. Slow death attacks, like causing arterial bleeding, don’t work because the bouts never last long enough for anyone to bleed to death.” She pointed her foil at the head of her invisible opponent. “The brain is the hardest to get at. The foil is too flimsy to make its own holes in the skull, so you have to go in through natural weak points. It’s either eyes, ears, or nose. The nose is easiest, but still, it’s a last resort. “Always go for the heart if you can.” She poked the invisible opponent in the ribs. “The most straight forward attack is through the rib cage, but you have to attack through an intercostal gap, between the ribs. If you hit one, the foil bends and you’re wide open for a counterattack. Any failed attack is pretty much the end of the bout. The other options for attacking the heart are to come up from under

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the ribcage, or down through the neck.” She demonstrated the attacks, then retreated. She brought the foil up to her nose, then down and to her side. “Foil fencing is a remarkably non-bloody blood sport. The foils poke tiny holes through the skin, and most of the bleeding is internal, except for the brain. The brain is messy.” Charlotte twisted on her heel to face Lucy. “Exactly how horny are you?” After Saturday practice at the Burning Desire complex, Lucy caught a car back to Charlotte’s Club and changed into her slacks and blazer uniform. “You’ll have to leave your sword behind,” Charlotte said. “Starting now, you’re representing the East Slope Fencing Club. That’s not an appropriate fencing weapon. Sorry.” Lucy fingered her scabbard. “How much am I getting paid for this?” “A lot. Come on, I’ve arranged for you to lock it in the club president’s office.” “When will I get it back?” “The president’s secretary has agreed to stay here and let you into the office as soon as you return.” “Nobody touches it but me.” “Nobody but you.” “Okay.” After the sword was locked away, they carried the gear for the evening out to the club’s car dock. A limousine as large as three public cars was waiting. “Who are these people?” Lucy said. Obtaining a waiver for a private car was expensive, getting one for a car this size required a fortune. The Limousine came with a handsome chauffeur who didn’t actually drive. He took their bags, loaded them into the storage compartment, and was smart enough to not try and take Charlotte’s foil case. There were also security guards: a couple of girls—they looked like twins—whose age suggested they were protected by rebirth.

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The cabin door slid open, and the chauffeur offered his hand for assistance. “Watch your step,” he said. Lucy tickled his palm on her way in. “That wasn’t proper,” Charlotte said after the door closed. “But he’s so cute,” Lucy said. “We’re stepping into a more striated society than you’re used to. Flirting and power get confounded, especially between strata.” “Sounds complicated, and not fun.” “Just make sure you flirt up, not down. You’re a guest, so flirting with the staff caries an implied threat. Flirting with the other guests is, at worst, merely inappropriate.” The limousine whisked them northwest to the Verbeek Mansion, where they were escorted from a garage, down hallways, up an elevator, and into a suite of rooms that belonged in a fairy tale. Every wall was painted with a mural. Charlotte handed Lucy her practice padding and mask. “Get ready, I need to warm up.” There was a partial fencing strip on the floor long enough to include the two en guarde positions. Lucy suited up in her padded jacket and breeches. Charlotte wore an old athletic suit. She picked up her fighting foil and tossed Lucy the practice foil. “You don’t need to fence, just strike the poses I tell you, and I’ll do the rest.” Lucy looked at the sewing needle sharp tip of Charlotte’s foil. “I thought this was a non-hazardous job?” “Don’t worry, I won’t even touch you.” “Then why am I wearing all this?” Charlotte shrugged. “Just in case. Put on your mask.” They worked for half an hour, then someone knocked on the door opposite to the one they had entered through. “Come in,” Charlotte said. The august fellow from Thursday popped in. “One hour to the bout.” He gave Lucy another once over. “Is everything OK?” “Thanks Perry, we’re doing fine,” Charlotte said.

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Perry gave a brisk nod. “Let me know if you need anything.” He ducked out the door. “Who was that?” Lucy said. “The club president. Be nice to him. Your sword is in his office, remember?” “I’m always nice.” Charlotte put her foil away. “The countdown clock is ticking. Can you get my enema ready?” An hour later they were showered, cleaned up, made-up and in their never-used-for-athletics East Slope athletic suits. They were standing in front of a gilded set of double doors. Charlotte’s hair had been pulled back in a french braid to keep it out of her eyes and away from her arms. She carried her foil case; Lucy carried her womb-atorium bag, and chalk dispenser. Charlotte’s recovery team waited next to a portable processing station and a refrigerated coffin. (“If Charlotte loses we’ll have her prepped, cooling, and on her way within five minutes of CD,” Amy had said at the Thursday rehearsal.) A chime sounded, the doors opened, and they were admitted into a ballroom. Lucy walked three paces behind Charlotte. The recovery team slipped in and waited just inside the doors. Winnie Chaturvedi and her second were entering from the opposite end. A fencing strip had been laid out in the middle of the room with a row of chairs on each side set at a sufficient offset to be out of range of any unexpected sprays of arterial blood. Charlotte had instructed Lucy to not look directly at the spectators, but she snuck a glance. The chairs were occupied by people who seemed as out of place in this fairy tale mansion as Lucy. They were dressed in modern elegance that had no regard for the whimsical excesses of their surroundings. She made eye contact with a gorgeous, princely-handsome young man. He flashed her a covert smile, and she looked away. He, at least, fit the fairy tale part, if one imagined him without his inappropriate tuxedo.

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They arrived at their end of the strip. Charlotte put her case on the foil stand, and Lucy put the womb-atorium bag on a table provided for that purpose. Charlotte unzipped, untied, and removed her East Slope athletic suit and matching slippers. She handed them to Lucy who folded the suit, and laid it and the slippers next to the womb-atorium bag. Charlotte opened her foil case and took out her weapon. While she stepped through a few practice moves, Lucy shook some of her chalk mix into the chalk pan. Charlotte tapped her feet in the chalk and tested her foot work. The evening’s entertainment was one bout which meant it would be over within seconds of starting. To extend the event, Madame Verbeek had been regaling the assembled deep pockets with a history of the art of fencing. As the projection faded, the Master of the Bout stepped to the center of the strip. “Gentle friends, it is my pleasure to welcome you to this Republic Fencing Society sanctioned bout between the top ranking Duel à Mort foil fencers in the North Coast region. To my right, I present Charlotte Isabel Marceau representing the East Slope Fencing Club. She has remained undefeated for fifty-one weeks, having silenced twenty-seven opponents in succession. She is currently the number-two ranked foil fencer in the region.” Charlotte walked out to her en guarde line and saluted the audience. “To my left, I present Winifred Sandpiper Chaturvedi representing the Crystal Hill Fencing Club. She has remained undefeated for fifty-nine weeks, having silenced thirty-three opponents in succession. She is currently the number-one ranked foil fencer in the region.” Winnie stepped forward and saluted. The referee was introduced and saluted. He faced the fencing strip, held up his arms, and flicked his fingers. “Seconds, you may inspect the weapons.” Lucy walked along the right side of the strip, passing Winnie’s

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second at the midpoint. At the the opposite en guarde position, Winnie handed over her foil. Lucy balanced it on her fingers: the center of gravity was where it was supposed to be. She slipped a rubber pad over the end of her middle finger and pressed it against the tip. It had the proper flexion: not too stiff. She handed the foil back to Winnie, and caught her eye. Charlotte had told Lucy to remain neutral, but she couldn’t resist putting a little sorry-you’re-going-to-lose sympathy into her glance. She turned and nodded to the referee. Winnie’s second did the same. The referee flicked his fingers and Lucy returned to Charlotte’s end of the strip. When she passed Winnie’s second, Lucy let out a resigned we-don’t-have-a-chance sigh. It never hurt to send conflicting signals to the other team. “Ladies,” the referee said. He looked from one to the other. “En guarde.” Charlotte and Winnie saluted each other, then took their stances. “Ready?” The referee waited a beat. “Fence!” For a moment nothing happened, then Charlotte advanced on Winnie. Winnie closed―Ting!―their foils crossed. Charlotte retreated. Winnie lunged—Ting!—recovered and lunged again. Charlotte stepped forward, moving along the outside of Winnie’s arm. She lifted up on the ball of her foot and raised her arms with the foil pointed down. Winnie retreated toward the opposite side of the fencing strip, moving herself out of Charlotte’s line of attack, but she kept her foil up. Charlotte felt its edge slide against her ribs; Winnie was pulling it back for a thrust and using the edge to feel for an intercostal gap. The tip scratched across Charlotte’s skin. Winnie pushed her hilt out, stepped forward, and arched her spine to give her backhanded thrust the correct angle of attack. For a moment, her neck was exposed. Charlotte cross stepped and closed. The tip of Winnie’s foil caught in her flesh and dug in. Charlotte kicked into a jump, and stabbed down through Winnie’s neck and deep into her chest. She stabbed three more times before landing her jump.

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Charlotte retreated into her en guarde stance, ready to attack again. It wasn’t necessary. All the residual muscle tension went out of Winnie’s body, and she dropped to the floor in a loose jumble. “Ready? Fence!” Lucy watched Charlotte advance and retreat. Winnie lunged— twice. Charlotte moved in for a strike. Winnie stepped back and to the side—the tip of her foil was against Charlotte’s ribs! Charlotte leapt; stabbed down several times. Winnie collapsed. It was over. The referee called, “Halt.” He moved up and felt Winnie’s neck for a pulse, then motioned to the captain of her recovery team. She came forward, checked Winnie’s vitals, and nodded. Winnie’s team moved in with a stretcher, picked up her body, and retreated from the ballroom. “The match is complete,” the referee said. “The winner is Madame Marceau.” The spectators―many of them were already on their feet―applauded, some cheered. From their faces, Lucy was sure at least half of them had never seen a live blood sport event and had just discovered the visceral thrill of watching a duel to the death, right there, in the flesh. Lucy looked for the handsome princely guy. She found him and made eye contact. He winked; she smiled back. But she had duties. Charlotte was bleeding from Winnie’s failed attack. The referee held up crossed index fingers. She picked up the first-aid kit and some blood wipes, ran out to the center of the strip, and handed the wipes to Charlotte. While Charlotte cleaned Winnie’s blood off her foil and wiped her hands to remove any blood splatter, Lucy used the first-aid kit to clean and disinfect the wound. It didn’t look bad—just a big scratch. She pealed the backing off a bandage and pressed it in place. Charlotte handed her the used blood wipes; she took them and jogged back to the end of the strip.

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Now that her blade and hands were clean, Charlotte shook hands with the referee and the Master of the Bout, saluted the audience one more time, and walked to her end of the fencing strip. She put her foil away, dressed in the athletic suit and slippers, and picked up her foil case. Lucy slung the womb-atorium bag over her shoulder, picked up the chalk dispenser, and led Charlotte out of the ballroom, walking three paces ahead of her.

Chapter 5 Lucy and the Princely Guy

“That was great!” Lucy said. She imitated Charlotte’s finishing strokes. “Thu-thu-thu-thu! You were like a sewing machine set on murder!” They were back in what Lucy was calling the fairy tale locker room. Charlotte put her foil case down on the sideboard, then turned, picked up Lucy, and spun her around. “Whooo!” She said and put her down, but held her by her shoulders. “I couldn’t have done it without you!” “That was all you,” Lucy said. “You could have done it with an orangutan for a second.” “No, you’re my rock.” “What?” “Ever since I first saw you at the Academy, you had such a desire to succeed. It was feral and frightening, and I pitied anyone who would get in your way. I was technically good, but you taught me how to win―what it really took to win.” “No way.” “Don’t under estimate yourself. You lend out strength and you don’t even know it. I needed you here tonight, this bout was too important. I needed you at my back.” “I’ll always have your back,” Lucy said. “You know that.” “And I’ll have yours,” Charlotte squeezed her in another hug,

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released her, and took a deep breath. She wiped her eyes, then shook her fists in the air, “YES!” Charlotte unzipped her jacket, peeled the bandage off her ribs, and held it up. “She almost got me.” A line of blood had soaked into the gauze. She lifted her jacket away from her side. Blood was dribbling from the end of the wound where Winnie’s foil had dug in. She wiped it up with her finger and sucked it off. “But I’m the one who can still bleed!” Her grin was fierce. Someone knocked on the door. “Yes?” Charlotte said. Amy stuck he head in. “I need to check your wound.” “Sure, come in. Lucy, this is Amy—oh, right. You already met.” Amy set her bag on the makeup table and pulled out the chair. Charlotte took off her jacket and sat. “The chair’s for me,” Amy said. “Stand up and lift your arm.” “You’re not putting me in a womb,” Charlotte said. “I want to feel this win now, in real time, not when I’m waking up and trying to remember how to chew my food. I’m due for a three month conjoining a week from now anyway. Surely, we can wait until then.” Amy pulled on sterile gloves and cleaned the wound. “Lucy, you did a good job. Was that your first time dressing a wound? . . . Lucy?” “Huh? Oh, yeah.” Lucy said. Amy put on magnifying spectacles and broke the seal on a pair of forceps. She leaned close and poked them in the wound. “My concern is the point where Winnie punctured your skin. If her foil penetrated your chest cavity, even with a pinhole, the danger of infection goes way up, and we’ll want you in a womb ASAP. Hmm, doesn’t look too bad. She got into the muscle tissue, but not by much.” Amy put down the forceps, cracked open a sampling swab, and stuck it in the wound. “If this tests clean, you should be OK.” She sealed the sample, opened a bottle, cracked open another swab, and dipped it in the bottle. “In the mean time, I’m going to cauterize the puncture. Ready?”

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“Yes,” Charlotte said. “Want something to bite on?” “No.” “Tongue clear?” “Yes.” Amy pushed the swab in; it fizzed while she worked it around. Charlotte clenched her teeth, or was still grinning from her victory, Lucy couldn’t tell which. Amy pulled out the swab, daubed the edge of the puncture with a cotton ball, and put a new bandage over the wound. “That’s it. Enjoy the party.” She packed up her bag and nearly collided with Perry on her way out. Charlotte grabbed her athletic jacket. “Sorry,” Perry said and averted his eyes. “I should have knocked. The excitement . . . I apologize.” He backed out the door. Charlotte put on her jacket. “You can come in.” Perry stepped in and took a furtive look around. He relaxed when he saw propriety had been restored. “Fantastic performance!” He extended his hand. Charlotte shook it, but he didn’t let go; he clasped her hand with both of his. He was shaking. “Do you know what this means? You’re the number one ranked Duel à Mort foil fencer in the region!” “It means everyone will be out for my blood,” Charlotte said. “Including Winnie.” “Yes, I suppose so,” Perry said. Charlotte pulled her hand out of his. “I’m number one for as long as it lasts, and I’m representing your club. Go milk that for all the P. R. you can.” She pushed him toward the door. “Now get ready for the ball and leave us girls alone.” He turned to face Charlotte, “Congratulations!” He ducked out. “Poor man,” Charlotte said when the door closed. “Why?” “He wanted to bring blood fencing into his club to keep up with the times. But he doesn’t really know what to make of us. He’d be happier if blood sports and rebirth had never existed.”

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She took off her jacket. “The dressers will be here in less than an hour. I need a shower, and my adrenaline is just about sapped; I could use a nap before they arrive.” Lucy nodded toward the garment bags. “We need help putting those on?” “Yes we do.” Charlotte smiled, but fatigue had taken over. She went into the shower room. Lucy hadn’t broken a drop of sweat. She was still emotionally wired, not sleepy at all, and on top of that, she hadn’t had any sex since being reborn. She flopped into a chair―an incredibly fantastic chair―and looked at the mural painted on the opposite wall. It showed a sun-dappled clearing in a forest. A young woman with pale skin and pink cheeks was riding on a swing hung from a tree limb. She was wearing a frilly dress with so many layers of petticoats that the skirt opened up like a mushroom top. A young man was pushing the swing. The girl seemed ecstatic. Lucy imagined a knobby wooden dildo carved into the swing seat and imagined she was the girl in the frilly dress. “Wag-mump,” someone said. “Huh, what?” Lucy said. “Wake up,” Charlotte said. “The dressers are here.” Lucy jumped up, groggy with sleep. She checked the chair’s seat cushion for stains. There weren’t any. “I’ll be right back,” she said and stumbled to the toilet. Lucy stared at the elegant woman standing in the mirror wearing the gorgeous blue evening gown. She turned this way and that but couldn’t see any seams or fasteners. She didn’t know how the dressers had gotten her into it, or where they had found that bosom. It was strapless, but didn’t constrain her breathing, and when she moved, the skirt felt like a natural extension of her legs. Charlotte was studying herself in another mirror. Her gown was white with an opalescent shimmer. It gave her long fencer’s

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body an ethereal lightness, yet tethered her to the earth just enough to keep her from floating away. Half an hour earlier a fussy team of style magicians had swarmed into the room to transform Lucy and Charlotte. A makeup artist had tsk-tsked over the state of Lucy’s skin tone, and almost fainted when he saw her Burning Desire club tattoos; a hairdresser had struggled to do something brilliant with her short, black hair; and a―whatever you call a person who puts jewelry on people―found just the right neckless and earrings to complement everything. After approving their ensembles, Lucy and Charlotte were escorted back to the same gilded doors that had admitted them to the fencing venue. “Is there anything I should know about etiquette in there?” Lucy said. “They’re not going to pay any attention to you. Even if they’re carrying on a conversation with you, they won’t be paying any attention. As long as you don’t belch, fart, or burp through your nose you should be fine.” The doors opened and they stepped in. A man next to the door, dressed like a toy soldier, announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the guest of Honor, Madame Charlotte Isabel Marceau, accompanied by Lucinda Marcia Star.” Madame Verbeek came over, took Charlotte by the arm, and spirited her off into the throng. The toy soldier gestured for Lucy to move away from the door. She started circling the room to take in the spectacle. This was the same room that had been mostly empty an hour and a half ago when Charlotte murdered Winnie. Now it was bright and filled with chairs, settees, tables, sideboards, waiters, a chamber orchestra, and many more people than the handful who had watched the bout. “Champagne, madam?” A waiter offered a tray of champagne flutes. Lucy took one. “Thank you,” she said, but the waiter was already moving off.

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Except for the incredible wealth and stage managed courtesy, this wasn’t any different from the parties Lucy went to in taverns or apartments: People collected into groups of acquaintances or common interest. There were several seduction games going on, and a few people stood around the edges, alone and watching. Like me. When she had gotten a quarter of the way around the room, Lucy spotted the handsome princely guy standing with a group of other handsome princelies. He looked at her and she raised her glass. He held up his finger in a just-a-moment gesture and said something to the other princelies that she hoped was, “Pardon me while I go bed that commoner.” He walked over. “Lucinda Star?” he said. “Every day,” Lucy said. “Jayzen Verbeek, at your service.” He offered his hand. Lucy shook it. “Hello Jayzen. You can call me Lucy.” “Jay will suffice for me,” he said. “Hi Jay.” “Impressive victory on the part of your lead,” he said. “You bet.” “You are also a Duel à Mort fencer?” “No, I’m a friend.” “But you were the second. What if you had to fight?” “That would never happen, but if it did, I would have forfeited. I was helping Charlotte out. She asked me to replace her regular second.” Jayzen lowered his voice. “Don’t tell anyone else. These people only pay for the best. If they found out, they would feel cheated.” “What would they do, slap me in the face with a glove? Challenge me to a duel? “Nothing so honorable.” “Anyway, they weren’t cheated. Charlotte’s club hired me for the evening. Tonight I’m officially representing the East Slope Fencing Club.”

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“Ah,” he said. “You sound disappointed I’m not a fencer.” “I’ve been training recently with an épée. I was hoping I could get some pointers.” “Even if I were a fencer, I doubt I could have helped,” Lucy said. “Conventional fencing has all sorts of rules to let contestants score points without getting hurt. The blood sport versions pretty much throw out all those rules for the only one that matters—the duelist left standing wins. I’m not sure I could have given you any pointers that would have been useful for touch scoring.” “You do know something about the blood sports then?” “I do. I’m a blood battle guardian.” “That would be for . . . Diana’s Glory?” “No, Burning Desire.” She pointed at her chest tattoo. “Lovely. A rose, is it?” “A Burning Desire rose,” Lucy said. Jayzen smiled polite indifference. “You don’t know much about blood battle, do you.” “I apologize, no,” he said. “The clubs are named after breeds of roses. This is an official club tattoo. There’s another one on my right shoulder, see?” She turned to show him. “And my player number is here,” she turned the other way to show him her left shoulder, “and on my back.” She held up her index finger in front of his face. “And here, just below the finger nail, see it? It’s tiny and almost matches my skin color.” “Ah, I believe I do . . . ?” “That’s my club ID and player number. They’re tattooed all over my body. Makes it easier to sort out everyone’s parts after a game.” “Where’s your sword?” He looked at her hip. “I thought you blood battle girls never went anywhere without them.” “Thats just for guardians, like me, and chargers. But you’re right. Since I’m representing Charlotte’s fencing club tonight, I had to leave it behind.”

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“You don’t sound pleased.” “I’m not.” “Maybe you could give me some pointers after all,” he said. “I’ve been training in the samurai arts since I was six years old.” “Blood battle swordsmanship isn’t the same,” Lucy said. What am I doing? “But I should be able to help you with something.” Jayzen glanced around the room. “This soirée is dull after watching your friend’s victory. There’s a gym downstairs. Perhaps you could show me something now?” “Sure,” Lucy said. “Let’s give it a try.” She mentally punched the air. Jayzen led Lucy out a side door. They took a marble stairway down two flights, walked through an enclosed courtyard garden with a fountain and skylight ceiling, and into a gymnasium. The lights came up when they entered. “What do you think?” Jayzen said. He spread his arms wide and walked backward into the center of the space. “Not bad for a home gym.” “This isn’t a home. No one actually lives here except for the staff. This is the Verbeek Family Club House. It’s used for entertaining and making deals, like tonight.” He walked to cabinets in the opposite wall and opened a set of doors revealing samurai practice gear. He opened another door, took off his tuxedo coat and tie, and hung them inside. He started removing his shirt. “You’re not going to fight in that are you?” he nodded at Lucy’s gown. “I don’t want to, but it took three people to get me into it. I don’t know how they did it, or how to get it off.” Jayzen finished removing his shirt and came over. “Turn around. It uses molecular zippers that seal the gown around you. There are pressure points that release the bonds.” He slid his fingers behind the bodice and between her shoulder blades. It split down the back and fell to the floor. “See?” Lucy stepped out of the gown. Jayzen picked it up and hung it in the cabinet. He re-

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moved his pants, shoes, socks and underwear while Lucy watched. He spread his arms wide again. “You fight in the nude. I want you to feel comfortable.” Lucy looked him over, then took off her shoes, remaining clothes, and the jewelry. “Just to make you feel comfortable.” She handed everything over to be hung in the cabinet. “We compete in the flesh,” she said, “not in the nude. There’s a significant difference between the two.” “I don’t see it.” “Flesh has blood, it’s physical. Nudity has beauty, it’s conceptual. I don’t know how to kill nudity, but I’m very good at killing flesh. It would be dangerous for you to fight me in the flesh, even with practice sticks. That’s your first pointer.” Lucy started pulling a padded practice suit out of the samurai cabinet. “Do we have to?” Jayzen said. “Practice versus competition,” Lucy said. “As much as I’d like to play your game, training rules are training rules. “I appreciate your concern, but you know I won’t be able to touch you, and I’m sure, despite your eloquently delivered point, that you won’t hurt me unless you want to.” Lucy looked him up and down. He was so pretty and handsome, all over. “We’ll at least use head gear and masks.” She tossed him a padded helmet and a samurai practice stick, then she put on a helmet, took another practice stick, and walked to the center of the gym. She stepped through some maneuvers to get a feel for the stick’s weight and balance. Jayzen came out and performed a few flourishes of his own. “I’ll be careful,” Lucy said, “but before we start I want to make clear that, like fencing, modern samurai martial arts training is built around formal rules for scoring points in competition. In blood battle we don’t score points, we kill as efficiently and quickly as possible while avoiding getting killed. It’s aggressive, and it’s not civilized.”

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“You’ve made your point,” Jayzen said. “Let’s get started.” He assumed a samurai fighting stance with his practice stick raised, ready to attack or defend. Lucy assumed her relaxed guardian stance: facing him with the point of her stick resting on the floor in front of her, but it felt strange not having her shortsword attached to her back. “Are you ready?” he said. “Yes.” He attacked. Lucy stepped forward, lowered her center of gravity, and raised her stick to block. This felt wrong. Her instinct was to duck under his stick and split his gut open, severing his spine from his pelvis, and only then deal with any residual energy remaining in his attack. If they had been wearing full padding, that’s what she would have done. “I don’t think this is going to work,” Lucy said, but Jayzen brought his stick around and tried to attack her ribs. She blocked, although her instinct was to simply cut off his arms. “Wait. Stop!” she said. “This isn’t working. I can’t teach you anything like this. If this were real, you would have been dead twice already.” “Can you pull your punches?” Jayzen said. “I guess I can, but you have to, too. Right now I’m blocking to stop you from hitting me. Do you think you can pull your punches?” “Yes,” he said. “You better, and when I say ‘You’re dead,’ you break off.” Jayzen took up his starting stance. “Why don’t you attack this time?” “I play defense. I don’t start fights.” “Give it a try,” he said. Lucy stepped in with her stick raised for a high attack. He moved to block. She brought her stick down, slipped it under his hands, and moved into his body, letting her stick slide up under his arms. She stopped just as it reached his armpits.

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Her mouth was next to his ear. “You’re dead,” she said. “If this was real, I would have cut through your pectoral muscles and sliced the top off your ribcage. Pointer number two.” “Let’s go again,” Jayzen said. This time he attacked her right side, below the ribs. She ignored his attack, brought her stick up into his groin, stopped before hitting him, pulled back to block, then stabbed up, just below his sternum. “You’re dead,” she said. “If this was real, I would have split your pubic bone, then slid my blade out of the wound to block your attack, but before that I would have used the leverage I had while my sword was still in you groin to twist you around, killing your momentum. And then I would have finished you off.” She tapped the tip of her stick against his xiphoid process, where it had stopped. “Pointer number three. “Also,” she said, “you’ve been keeping a secret from me.” “I have?” “Someone’s been teaching you killing moves. That wasn’t competition samurai, you’ve been learning cutting patterns.” “Maybe your skills and mine aren’t so different after all,” he said, then attacked. Lucy stabbed at his heart while blocking his leading sword arm with her left hand. If she had her short-sword, she would have drawn it and cut off his hands. Jayzen didn’t pull his punch, and he hit her on the shoulder. “Ouch! Fuck! That hurt!” she said. He tried again, but left himself wide open. Samurai practice helmets had heavy neck padding. Lucy brought her stick around and hit him on the side of the neck. The blow sent him staggering several paces, but he came back with another attack. He was so inept that she didn’t even consider blocking. She hit him in the ribs, and he stumbled to the floor, gasping for breath. Lucy planted her practice stick on the floor and put her left hand on her hip. She looked down at Jayzen. “I don’t know what

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your deal is, but I’m tired of it. I came down here to get laid. Are you up for it, or should I leave?” Jayzen took off his helmet and pulled himself to his feet using his practice sword like a cane. “One more time.” Lucy didn’t move. “If you don’t want to . . .” he said. “Okay,” she said, “but this is it. Pick up your helmet.” “No. You take yours off. I want to look in your eyes.” He pointed at his own eyes with his index and middle fingers. “The eyes are the tell.” Then he pointed at her eyes. “The eyes keep the match honest.” Lucy took off her helmet and tossed it to the side. “Did your sensei tell you that?” Jayzen assumed his fighting stance. Lucy stayed put: one hand on her hip; her practice stick planted on the floor. “Come on,” she said, “it’s your show. I’m waiting. My eyes are waiting.” Jayzen faked an attack toward her sword hand. She rolled her eyes. He reversed his attack. It looked like he was expecting her to move in and block his stick. Instead, Lucy cracked him on the inside of his advancing knee. He began falling and brought his arms down to catch himself on the floor. Lucy flicked her stick up and hit his wrists. The move knocked his stick out of his hands, and he sprawled to the floor. She stepped over to his practice stick, hooked its hilt guard with the tip of her own stick and flicked, sending it skittering across the gym floor to clatter against the far wall. She pointed at it with her practice stick. “If you say, ‘one more time,’ one more time, that’s where your testicles are going to end up.” Jayzen’s breathing was heavy and he was holding himself up with his hands and sore wrists. She hunkered down in front of him and put her hand on his shoulder. “I’m concerned the mood has been ruined, but if you’re willing to give it a try, there’s a nice stack of exercise mats over there.” Jayzen struggled to his feet. Lucy put his arm across her shoulders, held him around the waist, and helped him limp to the

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mats. “Here’s pointer number four,” she said. “This is the big one. The problem with all that mystical sensei bullshit is, it’s lost its edge. It used to be that the master’s training either kept his students alive or it got them killed. A sensei who got his students killed pretty much lost his sensei license. A sensei who kept his students alive did it by being practical and paying attention to what kept them alive and what didn’t. He had to constantly revise his methods to pass that simple test.” They arrived at the mats; Lucy flopped Jayzen onto the stack. “My sword coach doesn’t have any fancy ratings or pretty belts, but she’s a better sword master than any of your how-to-score-points senseis, even the ones that teach you nasty little killing tricks, because for us, once again, bad training gets us killed.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” Jayzen said from his flipped turtle position. Lucy crawled on top of him. He grimaced when she brushed his sore ribs. “Work through the pain, it’ll be worth it.” She kissed him, then buried her nose in his neck. She had worked him hard enough that his sweat was overpowering his cologne. He smelled good. Jayzen rolled onto his side. “Ah!” “Don’t hurt yourself,” Lucy said. “Don’t be so smug.” He pressed his hand against her shoulder and she rolled onto her back. Jayzen orbited a breast with his hand, then circled the nipple with his thumb. She felt a sympathetic tingle deep in her groin. She pressed her hands against his pectorals, pinched his nipples, pulled him down, and kissed him. She felt his penis grow against her thigh. He moved down and kissed her throat. She dug into his scalp, pushing her hands up against the lay of his hair, covering them with sweat and oil, then she rubbed her palms across his shoulders and into his armpits. Jayzen kissed his way down her belly, across her hip to the inside of her thigh, and up to her la-

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bia. Lucy sat up on her elbows and watched him while walking her heals up and down his back, kneading the bundles of his erector spinae muscles. Jayzen wrapped his lips around her hood and sucked with a light pressure. She closed her eyes and hung her head back. He eased two fingers into her vagina, pressed his tongue against her clitoris, and nudged her tissue back and forth. She slipped off her elbows, reached down, collected two handfuls of his hair in her fists, and rolled her hips to his rhythm. Her sweat, trapped between her back and the mat, was turning into a viscus slick; she was oozing off the crest of the mat pile. She slipped her feet off Jayzen’s back, and pressed them on the matt to push herself back up, then worked them under his pelvis and took hold of his penis with her toes. “Ah!” he said, and to her surprise, his puff of hot breath against her genitals was the thing that set her on the physiological cascade to orgasm. Lucy let herself sink into the sensation, then felt herself collapse against someone. She opened her eyes and saw the point of Emily’s sword sticking out of her ribs. She watched it cut into the Goddess’s back. Blood soaked into her white vestment, and the girl, not the Goddess, turned to Lucy, but it wasn’t her. Lucy was looking into her brother’s six year old face—puffy, running with tears, and full of uncomprehending fear and betrayal. Lucy opened her eyes. “What the fuck?” She grabbed Jayzen’s ears, and pulled. As his groin came up to hers, she guided his penis into her vagina, then kissed him hard on the mouth, wrapped her legs around his thighs, and pumped her pelvis against his. The orgasm flooded up her spine, across her belly, down her legs. It ebbed, then welled up again, and again, like a thunder storm walking off to the horizon, and washing everything away. One one­thousand, two one­thousand, “Ahuungh!” One one­ thousand, two one­thousand, three one­thousand . . .

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Jayzen tensed and shivered several times. “Wow,” he said. The spasms receded and she felt like she was waking from a dream. Jayzen lay on top of her until they both caught their breaths. He pushed up and looked at the mat. “You made a mess.” “What?” Lucy sat up. The top mat was glistening. “Huh.” Jayzen stood and held out his hand. “We should shower before getting dressed.” Lucy took his hand. He pulled her off the mats and winced. They walked across the gymnasium to a locker room, then into a shower room. Jayzen was favoring his right leg. The shower room offered her a shower cap. She declined. “Fancy showers,” Lucy said, “but I guess they’d have to be to fit in around here.” Little nozzles at the ends of bendy, long tubes wriggled down from the ceiling like jellyfish tentacles and surrounded her. They sprayed her from head to foot and weaved around finding ways to wet every part of her without getting water in her eyes or mouth. “Whoa!” she said when a little nozzle wiggled between her butt cheeks; tiny brushes started to whir. Other little brushes descended to soap and scrub. Another collection of wet little widgets washed and combed her hair. She found she could walk around the shower room and the washing would be handed off to other nozzles that dropped down from the ceiling to replace the ones retracting behind her. Jayzen came over. “Was that one of those rebirth orgasms I’ve heard about?” “Oh yeah. That was a Super Juicy.” “You have names for them?” “Yup. Rodeo in a Box, Kiss-Bang-Boom, Unicorn’s Rainbow―” “So, you used me to put the finishing touch on your recent womb visit?” “Do you feel used?” “I feel privileged.” “I think you’re patronizing me,” Lucy said. “How did you know I was just reborn?”

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“Your navel. Couldn’t help noticing as I passed by.” Lucy looked down and felt her belly. “Curious isn’t it? The only wound that can’t be healed in a womb is the one from cutting our umbilical cords. Huh, it looks like I’m getting an outie this time.” The nozzles stopped spraying water and started blowing warm air. All the water ran down the drains, leaving the floor dry. The brushes and combs finished fussing over their hair, and the nozzles shut down when their skin was moist, but not wet. All the tentacles sucked back into the ceiling. They walked to the cabinet in the gymnasium where Jayzen had hung their clothes. “What about the mats?” Lucy said. “The staff will take care of them. They’ve seen worse.” “Hmm.” Lucy stepped into her hosiery. “What?” Jayzen said. He balanced on one foot to pull on his sock. “Lots of things could fit under ‘worse.’ I was wondering how bad ‘worse’ gets in the Verbeek Family Club House.” “You girls regularly spill each other’s entrails. I think your worse tops anything that happens here.” “Good point. How do I seal up this dress?” She stepped into the evening gown and pulled it up. Jayzen moved behind her and pressed his fingers on the inside of the bodice hem. The gown closed up and once again looked fantastic. Jayzen and Lucy slipped into the ballroom. Lucy spotted Charlotte, still in the company of Madame Verbeek. They were strolling the room and stopping at various groups to chat. Charlotte was being shown off. She was the misdirection while M. Verbeek picked her guests’ pockets for charity. Jayzen motioned to a young woman, maybe three or four years younger than Lucy. She seemed out of place. It took a moment to see why. She was actually dressed appropriately for the fairy tale room which meant she was dressed entirely inappropriately for the soirée. She came over, but took her time.

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“Lucinda, this is my sister Francine. Francine, this is Lucinda Star, a most accomplished swordswoman. Would you be so kind as to accompany her? I have some business to take care of.” He turned to Lucy. “Madame Star, it has been an honor.” He made a slight bow and walked away. Lucy watched him go. “Who was that show for?” “For the room,” Francine said. “For anyone he imagines is watching him out of the corner of their eye. And a lot of them are.” She nodded toward a chattery group of girls who had a princess look about them. “I don’t mean to be cruel, only realistic; he’s probably already forgotten about you—” She took a closer look at Jayzen. “Is my brother limping?” “Yup,” Lucy said. “He wanted some sword fighting tips. I expect it’ll take two or three days before he forgets about me.” “Hah!” Francine said. “Come on, I want you to meet my friends. Call me France, like the European provence.” “And I’m Lucy.” They walked over to a group of people about Francine’s age who, like her, were dressed in fairy tale wear. “Hi Guys,” Francine said. “I’d like you to meet Lucy. She made my brother limp.” She nodded toward Jayzen. They all looked. He was back with his princely gang favoring his right leg. “How did you do that?” one of the girls said. “I expect, the old fashioned way,” another girl said. “I hit him with a stick.” The group was silent. “How did that come about?” one of the boys said. “Let’s not pry too deeply,” Francine said. “This is Beth, Helena, and Gilbert.” she pointed to each of the three who had spoken. “I won’t burden you with other names until they say something.” “What brings you here tonight?” another boy said. He glanced at her chest tattoo. “That’s Aldan.” “I’m with Charlotte.” “Who?” “The fencer,” Francine said.

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“Oh, the come-on.” “The what?” Lucy said. “The more cynical among us,” Francine skewered Aldan with a look, “think my mother’s charity events are nothing more than confidence scams. The more cynical among us should think before they open their mouths and make disrespectful comments.” “I apologize,” Aldan said. “Accepted,” Lucy said. “You play blood battle, don’t you?” one of the girls said. “This is Charlotte, our Charlotte, not yours.” Francine said. “Yes, I’m a guardian.” “I knew it! You’re with Burning Desire,” their Charlotte said. “I recognized your rose. Where’s your sword?” “I had to leave it behind since I’m—” “Oh mother goddess!” Helena said. “Lucy? Are you Lucy Star?” “Now you know why I wanted you to meet my friends,” Francine said. “We’re BB fans. I hope you’re not embarrassed.” “No, not embarrassed. Kind of surprised though. I, ah . . .” “Didn’t think people like us followed blood battle?” Beth said. “I guess.” Their Charlotte said, “I’m surprised Jayzen still has a leg.” “Before any rumors get started,” Lucy said, “he really did want some sword handling tips. Everybody gets a little banged up from practice.” “You’re not banged up.” “That’s Roger,” Francine said. “I’ve had more practice.” Charlotte came over, Lucy’s Charlotte. “Excuse me,” Charlotte said to the group, and then to Lucy, “It’s time for us to leave.” “Congratulations on your victory,” Gilbert said to Lucy’s Charlotte. Everyone chimed in, “Yes.” “Absolutely.” “Of course, none of them actually saw your bout,” Francine said. “Did you?” Lucy’s Charlotte said.

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“Yes, I snuck in dressed like, them.” She kept her hand close to her chest and poked her finger at the milling guests. “Compared to blood battle, it was . . . personal, not spiritual. I found it upsetting.” Aldan leaned in. “Who’s being disrespectful now?” “Not disrespectful,” Francine said, “honest.” “I appreciate that,” Lucy’s Charlotte said, “and I agree. Despite it’s civilized trimmings, Duel à Mort is primal, no meaningof-everything metaphors, just two people trying to kill each other for no other reason than to see who lives. No muss, no fuss.” “It was great meeting you,” Lucy said to the group. “Thanks France.” They all waived, and Charlotte and Lucy walked out the gilded doors. Francine saw her brother watch them leave. She got a bad feeling, but this was hardly the first time her family made her uneasy. “We should go to Lucy’s next match,” Beth said. “Burning Desire is playing Beauty Incarnate next Saturday.” Gilbert was consulting a match schedule. “It’s an away match in Appalachi City.” “We can use one of my family’s cross-country cabins for the trip,” Francine said. “That was an experience and a half.” Lucy flopped into the limousine seat. Charlotte sat next to her. They were dressed in their club slacks and blazers. “You disappeared for a while,” Charlotte said, “with Jayzen Verbeek, the son of our host, the woman who paid for us to be at her soirée this evening, the woman who might be concerned that her son came back with a limp.” “He should be fine by morning,” Lucy said. Without her sword she didn’t know what to do with her hands. “Did you get a proper lay?” “Oh yes.”

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“Is that what made him limp?” “No, he wanted some sword fighting tips.” Charlotte didn’t say anything. “He pissed me off,” Lucy said. “I think he wanted a real fight, so I gave him one, or at least made him think I did.” “You shouldn’t trust him.” “I’m never going to see him again. I expect he was only trying to make a boring evening a little more interesting.” “You should be careful. These old money families can be dangerous. You should have let him win.” “What about his sister? That was her and her friends I was talking to when you came over. They said they were BB fans. Do you think they were looking for a laugh at my expense?” “No, France is OK. She’s the black sheep of the family. Every old money clan has one.” Lucy was silent for a while. The limousine hummed around them. “Her— My brother showed up the other day.” “Are you OK?” Charlotte put her hand on Lucy’s arm and leaned forward to look at her face. “Yes. I guess.” “What did he want?” “He wouldn’t say. I told him his life and his family were behind me, and I didn’t want to see him again.” Charlotte leaned back, put her arm around Lucy’s shoulder, and pulled her close. “You’re not a black sheep,” she said. “You’re an orphan in the storm, but don’t worry, I’ve got your back.”

Chapter 6 Other People's Problems

IMMEDIATE DELIVERY DATE: Sunday, Delta, 2nd 15th ’47 TIME: 9:00 ITEM: Burning Desire Roses QUANTITY: 1 Score DELIVERED TO: Lucinda Star CARE OF: Charlotte Marceau; Canister 17; Sunshine Village (A.K.A. informal: Winnebago Graveyard) SENDER SAYS: “Dear Lucy, Thank you for a charming and enlightening evening. I would be honored if, at your pleasure, you would consider sharing company some evening, without crossed swords. Always at your service, Jayzen Verbeek” RECIPIENT REPLIES: “Dear Jay, thanks for the roses, but you shouldn’t have, really. You should have donated the money to your mother’s charity. I appreciate your offer of a less confrontational evening. I’ll think about it, but . . .” Francine She walked into the breakfast parlor in the main house of the Verbeek Estate and heard the tail end of a message: “. . . but for now, I don’t have the time. Best wishes―” Jayzen cut it off.

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“Who was that from?” She sat and poured a cup of coffee. “No one,” Jayzen said. “It sounded like Lucy Star. Did she just turn you down?” “She’s busy,” he said. “Honey please,” Francine said. Jayzen handed her the honey pot. She stirred some into her coffee. “How’s your knee?” “What about it?” “You were limping last night.” “It’s better.” “Lucy said she was giving you some pointers. You’re not going to pass that limp off as a side effect of your sexual prowess, are you?” Jayzen shrugged. “I asked her to give me some tips.” “Whatever possessed you to do that?” “The party was boring.” “The fencing match got you excited, didn’t it?” Francine said. “It was interesting.” “I know you, dear brother, you’re a raving romantic. You were jealous. You wanted to be the one killing a rival in a duel. You wanted to get as close to that experience as a boy can get.” Jayzen ate a spoonful of oatmeal and sipped some coffee. “I thought it would be interesting to test myself against one of those blood sport girls. The second seemed like a good choice. Someone who wasn’t of championship quality.” “Lucy Star isn’t a fencer. She’s a blood battle guardian.” “On a beta team,” Jayzen said. “I’ve been trained in the sword arts since I was six. It seemed like a better opportunity to test my mettle than fencing.” “You poor boy.” Francine reached over and patted his cheek. “She might be with a Beta League club now, but next year she’ll be eligible to move to the Alpha League. If Diana’s Glory doesn’t take their option on her, another club will. She’s known for never―ever―giving up. The rule for any team going against her is to not consider her out of the game until her head is at least three meters away from her body.”

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“Is that true?” “No! But people are already telling tall tales about her. Be careful you don’t end up the joke in the next one.” Jayzen took another swallow of coffee. “Did you know she won her last game after she was dead?” Francine said. “Oh, right.” “Actually, that one’s true.” Madame Verbeek came into the parlor. “Good morning Jayzen. Good morning Francine.” “Good morning Mother,” they both said. “Jayzen, what happened to you last night? You were limping!” “It was nothing Mother, I had a little too much champagne and banged my knee on a chair.” “You should be more careful.” Mister Verbeek came in. “Good morning dear.” He bent and kissed his wife. She smiled at him. “Morning Jayzen, Francine.” He sat opposite his wife. “Good morning,” they both said. “Isn’t Charlotte Marceau a dear?” Madame Verbeek said. “What a charming young lady. I’m so glad she won.” “I see your event is causing a stir this morning,” Mister Verbeek said. “What for?” “You paid a small fortune to stage a championship bout and the fencing public is upset that it was kept private. I hope it was worth it.” “The Children’s Educational Fund will be pleased with the results. I expect, when we announce the total raised, those complainers will be silenced by guilt.” “Even so, I can’t believe you allowed blood sports to be practiced on family property.” “Why?” Madame Verbeek said. “There’s something fishy about that whole rebirth business. It only works on females, and only for a short time? I don’t believe

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it, never have. Something that complicated and it just works, yet no one understands why? Somebody’s hiding something.” The other breakfasters ignored him. “The Verbeek Fund has spent billions on research to figure it out, and all those scientists can say is, ‘It’s complicated. Give us five more years and we should have something.’ They’ve been saying that for twenty years!” “It is complicated,” Francine said. “Dr. Amanda Azulai is the only one who ever understood it, and old fools like you put her in prison.” “She committed murder.” “And two weeks later, her victim was walking around and talking.” “At the time, it was murder.” “That didn’t stop the army from using her work to make girls into bomb disposal experts and Special Operations soldiers.” “The law was changed and she was pardoned.” “She was an autistic genius, by then she’d crawled back into her shell. She hasn’t said a word since.” “Someone should make her talk,” Mister Verbeek said. “Good luck with that. It’s likely she couldn’t explain how her code works even if she did talk. It wasn’t concocted, it was one of those insights that springs whole from a genius’s head.” “Poppycock,” Mister Verbeek said. “Gene therapy has been around for years.” “Sure, we can read the raw code, but its expression is too chaotic to follow. We cured a few cancers, fixed some heart problems, made a handful of genetic disorders go away, learned to make blue eyes brown, and a few other parlor tricks, but that’s it. Gene therapy hasn’t led to the breakthroughs you expected.” Madam Verbeek tapped Jayzen’s arm and pointed at the plate of toast. He handed it to her. “The only big breakthrough was rebirth,” Francine said, “and you certainly didn’t expect that. Dr. Azulai woke up one day, saw a clear path through the chaos and wrote the genetic code that

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creates memory placentas. Her path is too chaotic to be mapped or understood in any linear fashion. You’re either a genius who can see the whole thing, or you don’t see anything.” Mister Verbeek put his elbow on the table and leaned toward Francine. “Why does it stop when the girls reach twenty-five?” “Memory placentas seem to work by amplifying the natural human growth process. We keep growing until we’re about twenty-five. Once we stop growing, they stop working. Didn’t your scientists tell you anything?” “Humph!” Mister Verbeek said. “I still don’t want it practiced on family property.” “You’re such a hypocrite,” Francine said. “I’ve received rebirth gene therapy and so have all my girl cousins. We have a private womb-atorium in the mansion.” “That’s a necessity to keep you and the other Verbeek girls safe until you’re old enough to act responsibly.” “I read books and go to museums. We have bodyguards to keep us safe―bodyguards who are also protected by rebirth. I wanted to do something meaningful with this ability. I wanted to be a blood battle goddess, but you said it was frivolous.” Madam Verbeek pointed at the jam caddy. Jayzen passed it to her. “I will not allow my daughter to participate in that vulgar spectacle,” Mister Verbeek said. “You don’t understand. Gunda Thorstenson tricked everybody. It looks vulgar, but it’s not. The Goddess represents the spirit that arrises from our struggle to find a worthy―” “The family womb facility has saved several of your cousins’ lives. That’s the only reason it’s there.” “Saved them? Gretchen climbed a mountain so she could jump off. Last week Mirabella took poison―for the third time. She says she wants to find the best one to use when she turns twenty-five. She’s sixteen, next year she’ll be hanging herself to determine which hosiery makes the best noose. Do you want me

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to keep going? The Verbeek girls are using your wombs for recreation and attention dramas.” Mister Verbeek and Francine stared each other down, until he blinked and turned to Jayzen. “Be a good boy and pass the jam.” Francine finished her coffee. “If you will excuse me, I have a museum date with my friends.” She stood and left. “I’m off too,” Jayzen said. He caught up to Francine at the central elevator. “France, you and your friends actually follow blood battle, don’t you?” Francine turned around. “We do. It’s exciting, and contrary to what most people think, quite spiritual, and as I suspect you learned last night, requires significant skill.” “Do you know when Lucy is playing her next game?” “It’s called a match.” “Whatever, do you know when the next one is?” “Are you smitten?” Francine said. “Has Lucy Star stolen your heart?” Jayzen gave her an impatient scowl. “You better not do anything stupid,” Francine said. “I have no desire to cause her distress, quite the contrary.” “You weren’t listening earlier. I’m not worried about her.” “Thanks for your concern, little sister.” “It’s this Saturday at nineteen o’clock, in Appalachi City, against Beauty Incarnate. I’m going with my friends, and you can’t join us.” Jayzen turned and walked off. The elevator settled into place and the gate folded open. Francine stepped through. “Down,” she said. “All the way.” She walked off the elevator onto the house car dock. “Good morning, Ned.” She smiled at the security dispatcher. “How are you today?” Her family drove her crazy; the house staff was friendly, but careful to say the right thing; and her teachers were pompous, brilliant asses. Ned was the antithesis to them all:

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calm, confident, good-natured. Despite being staff, he was the closest thing to an adult friend she had. “It's a good day to be alive.” Ned returned a generous smile. “Thanks for asking.” He was tall and fit. His un-tailored uniform gave away more about the underlying shape of his body than he probably realized. “No doubt the security service hired you for your intimidating appearance,” Francine said, “but you’re really a teddy-bear, aren’t you?” “You see right through me. Will you be needing transport?” “I will.” A car pulled up to the dock. Ned snapped his fingers and a pair of bodyguards came out of the Standby Room. They were identical, annoying twins, several years older than Francine. Francine stepped into the car. “Come on girls,” she said. Zack He wandered around in the dark city and felt safe surrounded by these old dead structures, then the ground convulsed and the buildings began falling apart. He realized they had been facades glued to bio structures, but not the normal wood and grass kind, these were meat and bone. He tried to run, but his feet slipped; he couldn’t get any traction. He looked down and saw that his belly had been torn open by a talon growing out of the road. His guts were spilling out, and his feet were sliding on a pile of his intestines. They tangled around his legs, and he fell. The ground was slick, all blood and flesh. He tried crawling, but couldn’t get any purchase. The meaty ground tipped up, and he began sliding backward. A mouth was eating the road behind him, sucking in and biting down on mouthfuls of juicy flesh. The mouth caught up with him. He kicked at its teeth as it took a big bite just behind his buttocks. The mouth sucked in more roadway and bit down on his stomach. Zack felt the teeth grind from side to side

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as they bit through his spine. He tried to scream, but instead of sound, he regurgitated his lungs. Then he realized that, despite everything, he had an erection and desperately wanted to do something with it . . . “Ache-up.” Someone said. “Hey, wake up. We’ve got to start work. Wow, you must have been having a great dream! If you want to take care of that, do it quick. We’ve got to get going.” “Ah, Oh. Morning, Neil,” Zack said. He sat up and realized what Neil was talking about. He piled his blanket around his crotch. “Don’t worry about it,” Neil said. “Sit for a minute if you need to, then we got to get to work.” Neil headed to the dorm shower room. Zack waited for his salmon squirter to go away. When he could stand without feeling embarrassed, he followed Neil. The Helping Hand had taken him in, just like Debbie had said. They gave him a bed, food, and a job. Neil seemed okay. They were scheduled to work four days a week: Sunday, Monday, Thursday, and Friday, from five to eight and again from seventeen to twenty. The schedule gave them time during the day to look for better jobs, or take classes. Christopher had made a big deal about that. “It’s important to plan for your future,” he had said. It was still dark when they arrived at the park with their trash wagon, but the eastern sky was starting to brighten up. “Who’s that?” Zack said. He was looking at an old man standing by the railing that ran along the former quay. “I’ve seen him in the cafeteria.” “That’s Max,” Neil said. “He’s there most every morning.” “Is he on the staff?” “No. My girlfriend, Kathy, she helps out in the office, she says he’s rich, but he likes to live in the shelter. He gives them lots of money, and they let him do whatever he wants.” Neil lifted a trash basket out of its holder. “What’s he do?” Zack said.

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“Hangs out at the old guys table in the cafeteria. Sits in the park drinking coffee and talking to people. Watches the sun come up in the morning. Visits a tea shop over that way, behind Burning Desire. Hey, did you know we got a blood battle club in the neighborhood? How fantastic is that?” Neil waited for a reaction, didn’t get one. “If he’s got a choice, why is he here?” Zack said. “Why are you here? We all have a choice. None of us has to be here.” “I, ah . . .” “That was rhetorical. You don’t have to answer,” Neil said. He dumped the basket contents into the trash wagon. “So why are you here?” “I, ah . . .” “Never mind. you don’t have to answer. Did you see your counselor yet?” “My first session is this morning, when we’re done working.” “It’s a good thing you landed at the Hand. They really try to help. The last place I was at was shit. We were just an excuse for them to get charity money. Here, they got me in school. I’m learning to be a structural topiary engineering assistant, so I can help grow the city. We’re making a new world, and I’m gonna be part of it. I’m taking a night class too, after our evening shift―they don’t know about that one. Martial arts. I’m doing it on my own―taking the initiative. Train the mind and the body, you know?” Neil noticed he was holding an empty basket. He put it back in its holder. “Who’s your counselor?” “Huh? Ah, Wilhelmina Mazur.” Zack said. “Wow, you must be fucked up, no offense. She always takes the tough cases. Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.” Zack dumped the last basket for this section of the park into the trash wagon. They sat on their saddles, and peddled past Max to the next section. The sun broke the horizon. ***

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Jayzen He changed into his training gear, entered the dojo, and bowed to Hashimoto Sensei. “What were you thinking?” said Hashimoto Sensei, whose real name was Bob. “What?” Jayzen stood upright. “You tried using the sword arts with one of those blood sport girls.” “How do you know?” Bob waggled his thumb at Eduardo and Faustus who were at the other end of the dojo, looking sheepish. “Your friends snitched on you. I had a word with them about honor.” “I was curious how useful your training would be,” Jayzen said, “if I ever had cause to use it in a real fight.” “A real fight? This isn’t feudal Africa! We don’t have real fights. That’s what your two ninjas are for.” He nodded at Jayzen’s bodyguards standing discretely to the side of the dojo floor looking, in fact, like ninjas. They were dressed head to toe in matte black bodysuits that covered everything except their faces. They wore loose, black jackets with lots of pockets concealing who-knows-what scary weapons. Their faces were decorated with makeup, eyeliner and red lipstick. Jayzen was particular about their appearance. They were identical twins. “I couldn’t even touch her,” Jayzen said. “Of course not. From what I heard, you weren’t even using a proper weapon. You were using a practice stick. How could you expect to perform properly?” “She was using one, too.” Bob folded his arms to indicate frustration. “She said your sword training was nothing but a collection of tricks,” Jayzen said. “She said you’ve lost your edge, you’re encumbered by rules for scoring points, you’ve forgotten how to kill. After seeing her perform, I’m inclined to agree.”

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“She was taunting you, sowing you noggin with confusion and doubt.” Bob reached out and woodpecker tapped Jayzen’s head. “It’s part of winning. You didn’t have a chance against her because you were playing by her rules. Rules that are not as constraining as ours. Rules you are incapable of playing by because you cannot come back from the dead. To defeat her, you would have to change the rules to your advantage.” “How?” Jayzen rubbed his noggin. Bob thought on this, then said, “She may talk about killing and death, but it’s all play acting. No one actually dies in the blood sports any more than they do in a samurai competition. They only appear to. You want to defeat her? Get her into a real fight to the death, one she can’t recover from. Make her afraid for her life. “But first you would have to make yourself unafraid. You would have to become a real samurai, roaming the countryside, challenging and killing rivals more skilled than yourself. If you survived, then maybe, you could defeat her.” “Hmm,” Jayzen said. “That was a joke. This isn’t a movie; it’s the modern world. If you really want to defeat her, wait until she’s twenty-five and have one of your ninjas shoot her in the head.” “They wouldn’t be allowed to do that.” “Of course they wouldn’t, unless you corrupted them with your charm, or money.” “Really?” That was another joke,” Bob said. “My last for today. Now, let’s get started.” Wilhelmina She wrote her notes on the session with Zachary Tang while they were fresh in her memory. He was hiding just about everything. She suspected he had given a false name. He seemed like a decent kid, but deeply troubled.

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Christopher knocked on her open door. “Donna Quinn, from security at the Burning Desire BB club, wants to talk to you.” “Thanks,” Wilhelmina said. It took several seconds for the talk-to request to arrive. “Hello, Donna.” “Good morning, Mina. How are you?” “I’m doing well. Which of our residents are you concerned about today?” “Right to business,” Donna said. “I appreciate that. We’re keeping an eye on a young man who moved into your shelter last week. He seems to be settling in—” “And you would have preferred him to move on?” Wilhelmina said. “You know I can’t tell you anything about our residents.” “Yes, but if I share some of what I know. Maybe you can use it to help the kid out.” “And keep an eye on him where you can’t?” “It would be reassuring to know you were.” “Who is this lost soul?” “Zachary Knole,” Donna said. “He’s from a nowhere town in Moraineia, called Cliffside.” “Why are you interested in him?” “I can’t tell you that.” “The more I know, the more we can help him,” Wilhelmina said. “The more we help him, the less you have to worry about.” “This conversation is private, just between us? You’re not making any kind of a record?” “You’re paranoid, but yes, just between us.” “His sister plays for Burning Desire. She left home when she was fourteen, won emancipation from her family through the BB recruitment program, and changed her name.” “Commercial exploitation of minors program you mean.” “Don’t start. The BB program gets more government scrutiny than you do. The sponsored girls are better off for it. I looked up this girl’s physical exam, previous to her first rebirth. We may have saved her life.”

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“Who is she?” “Somebody who changed her name after leaving home and doesn’t want anything to do with her family. Her brother, somehow, figured out who she was and showed up last week. We don’t know why. She doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. We want him to stay away. He’s living in your shelter. That’s all I can tell you.” “We’re not an extension of your security operation, but thanks, this will help.” Wilhelmina ended the contact. “So, Zachary Tang né Knole, you have a sister living in Heritage City.” She eased back in her desk chair until the springs creaked. “. . . and the thought of working in our store frightened you.” She sat forward and sent a request to the Helping Hand thrift store. “Hi, Mina, how are you?” Zemar, the store manager, said. “I’m Fine. Do you know if any of your customers are Burning Desire players?” “I expect some are, but there’s only one I know of for sure.” “How can you tell?” “She always has a sword with her.” “Really? Do you know her name?” “Lucy Star. She’s a sweet girl.” “That’s a curious name,” Wilhelmina said. “It sounds made up.” “I guess it does, now that you mention it. Is there a problem?” “No, nothing to worry about,” Wilhelmina said. “Thank you.” Samantha She approached the scene wearing full body armor, including her face mask. She wasn’t obviously armed, but she had a small arsenal of mostly non-lethal weapons tucked into her jacket and holstered around her hips. She circled, lurked in the background, and watched for anything, or anyone, suspicious. Her job was to stay back, not interfere, observe, and only act to protect lives.

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A forensics examiner arrived and spent some time studying the remains, then he straightened up, looked around, and walked straight over to Samantha. “Lieutenant Villanueva?” “Yes.” “I was wondering if I could ask your opinion on something.” He turned to walk back but stopped when Samantha didn’t follow. “I’d rather not call attention to myself,” Samantha said. “It complicates my job if I need to take some action.” “You need to look at the corpse.” She glanced around the backdrop of the scene then followed the examiner to the middle of the overgrown lot. “The body is male,” he said as they walked, “late teens or early twenties. No clothing. The head, hands, and feet are missing, probably to prevent identification.” They arrived. “Could you look at the wounds and tell me what you think?” Samantha looked over the body; she disregarded the stumps where the extremities had been cut off. “Someone chopped up this poor kid,” she said. “Yes,” the examiner said, “but I was wondering if you had an opinion as to who might have done it?” “Ah, that’s it,” Samantha said. “You heard the story that I received my rebirth gene therapy at the Concepción Academy?” “It’s in the gossip that gets passed around.” “Does the gossip explain that I was only in the BB program for two years before I switched to Police Special Operations?” “The length of time varies with each telling.” Everyone thought her time in the BB program counted for something—it didn’t. Two years going the wrong way when she was a naïve kid, that’s all it was. Gunda Thorstenson had conned everyone; it was just a game. “This is entirely unofficial,” Samantha said. “I’m not qualified to offer binding testimony.” “I understand,” the examiner said.

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Whoever had put the body here, had laid it on its back with the arms and legs spread to display the wounds. Samantha crouched to look at the big cut on the body’s left side. It started in the ribcage and sliced down through the abdomen into the pelvis, nearly cutting off the left a leg. She stood and stepped over the legs to the body’s right side. “These aren’t blood battle wounds,” she said. “That’s what you wanted to know, isn’t it?” “You seem sure.” “Blood battle has two types of weapons. Guards and forwards use a field sword. It has a short, wide blade with a sharp point and two sharpened edges: good for stabbing and hacking; not good for making long, deep cuts like this one.” She pointed at the wound on the body’s left side. “The other main weapon is the long-sword. It’s handled by chargers and guardians. It’s long, obviously, straight and thin, sharpened on one edge. It would be capable of making that cut. “Guardians have a second sword, a short-sword. It’s pretty much the same as the long-sword, but about half the length. This stab wound in the right armpit,” she pointed, “would be typical for a guardian’s short-sword.” “So, they could be blood battle wounds?” “No. The girls who wield BB swords are highly trained swordswomen before they’re ever allowed to hold real blades. Whoever did this doesn’t have that level of skill, but may have used guardian style swords.” The detective was listening in. The examiner said to her, “You think maybe we have boys trying to play girl blood sports?” “Not in the urban legend sense,” the detective said. “A secret sports league would be too complicated to hide. I think we’re still looking for a killer who fancies himself to be a swordsman, and he’s using these kids for practice. Practice for what? I don’t know.” They both looked at Samantha. “I don’t know either,” she said, “but he needs more practice.”

Chapter 7 Less Than a Week

Monday — 5 Days to Go Fuck. A whole gaggle of the club’s goddesses was gathered in Alice’s Tea Shop. One of them was at the counter talking to Mr. Fredrick; their heads were tucked together in private conversation. Lucy turned to walk out. “Good morning, Lucy.” Mr. Fredrick straightened up. “Here for your lemon tea?” The goddess peeked around at her. “I am.” Lucy converted her turnabout into a clumsy threesixty twirl and walked up to the counter. “You read my mind.” “I read your schedule,” Mr. Fredrick said. “Today you learn the message songs for Saturday’s match. You always start message song days with lemon tea.” He handed a cup of tea to the goddess. Lucy was now standing right next to her. The goddess held the cup under her nose and inhaled. “Wonderful!” she said. “As always.” She took another peek at Lucy, then lifted herself up on tiptoes, leaned across the counter, and whispered in Mr. Fredrick’s ear, cupping her hand next to her mouth to conceal her secret from nosey lip readers. She slid off the counter and planted her heels back on the floor. Mr. Fredrick shook his head, equally bemused and amused,

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then he pointed at Lucy. “Your tea, my dear, coming right up.” He went about preparing it. “It’s a beautiful morning, don’t you thing?” the goddess said. Mr. Fredrick had his back turned and didn’t answer. Weird. A moment ago they seemed like the best of friends. The other goddesses’ chatter turned to whispers, then nothing. Something in the corner of Lucy’s eye nagged for attention. She turned to see; the goddess was looking right at her! Lucy averted her eyes and focused on a dull metal contraption Mr. Fredrick had on the back counter. “I guess,” she said. “The air smells fresh, the sky is clear, and there were sun dogs! Did you see the sun dogs?” “No,” Lucy said. “They were beautiful.” Mr. Fredrick turned around and handed Lucy her tea in a takeaway cup. She leaned her sword against the counter, dug money out of her coin purse, and laid it out. “Thanks. Keep the change.” “It was nice talking to you,” the goddess said. “Ah, yeah.” Lucy made for the door, but something else was wrong. Fucking crap! She about-faced and picked up her sword. The little bell above the door let out an emphatic jangle when she yanked the door open. She walked fast to the club. “‘The air smells fresh, the sky is clear,’” Lucy said to herself. “Guardians and goddesses don’t talk to each other about the fucking weather, they don’t talk to each other about anything.” She squinted up into the eastern sky; sure enough, sun dogs, and they were beautiful. “But, what the fuck? She shouldn’t even have noticed me!” That was the rule, and Lucy was good at it. She had slammed the door on her whole life from before she arrived at the Academy, stuffing an extra half score goddesses behind the same door was easy―as long as they stayed there. As long as every­ body fucking stays there. “She must be new. She better shape up or they’ll kick her

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cutesy little ass out of the club. Fuck! Why do I care?” Lucy walked through the gate in the security fence and ran into Frank, the security guard. She splashed tea on his jacket. “Sorry!” “Don’t worry about it,” Frank said. “You seem preoccupied this morning.” “It’s Monday,” Lucy said. “Pre-match jitters?” “No. Maybe. I don’t know.” Frank opened the door to the building. “Are you OK?” “I’m fine. You’re right. Jitters. That’s all.” She headed to the locker room. She sipped some tea, put the rest aside for lunch, and changed into shorts and a t-shirt. She slammed the locker door on her finger. “Ow! Shit!” During calisthenics she kept drifting off the rhythm of the exercises and was called on it, twice. While running, Serendipity came up along side her and said, “Hey.” Lucy stumbled. On their way to the weight room, Frankie dragged her to the side of the corridor. “What’s wrong with you today?” Frankie said. “You’re acting like you’ve gone off your drugs or something.” “Are you sick?” Serendipity said. “No, and I’m not on anything to go off of. What are you talking about?” “You’ve got the coordination of a drunken monkey and the focus of backward eyeglasses,” Frankie said. “There’s no way I’m letting you spot me in the weight room. You’ll drop a barbell on my neck and not even notice.” “Are you upset about something?” Serendipity said. “I’m fine,” Lucy said. “Is it your brother?” “How do you know about that?” Frankie pinned her against the wall. “Out with it!” “It’s nothing.” Frankie pointed a finger at her nose.

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“All right, it’s the goddesses,” Lucy said. “There was a bunch of them at Mr. Fredrick’s this morning, and one of them tried to make small talk with me.” “You’ve got your head turned inside-out over that?” Frankie slapped her. “Ow!” Lucy said. “Snap out of it!” Frankie said. Lucy glared. “Hit her again,” Serendipity said. “What the fuck?” Lucy said. “Just trying to help.” “Why do you give a shit about that pack of vac-heads?” Frankie said. Lucy stared back at her. Frankie flicked her eyes down and adjusted her footing. Lucy grabbed her finger. “You know what?” She patted Frankie’s cheek, smiled, then slapped her— hard. “You’re right. Thanks. I feel better.” She poked her finger at Frankie’s nose. “You spot me first.” She turned and strode off to the weight room. Frankie and Serendipity jogged to catch up. After lunch the teams for Saturday’s match assembled in the practice arena to learn and rehearse the message songs. Frankie and her team for the first game took to the field. Lucy, Liha, Serendipity, and Serendipity’s team for the second game climbed into the row of seats above the north side-wall. Lucy sipped the last of her tea. Serendipity sat next to her. “Your new outie is cute,” she said. Lucy tapped her navel through her warmup jacket. “Second Pete cleaned up on it.” “Me too.” “You bet on my outie?” “Of course. It was obvious you were going to get one.” “How could you tell?” “I could see it in your face.”

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Lucy started to ask, but changed her mind. Serendipity tapped the end of her nose. “The nose is the navel of the face. That’s how I could tell.” “No it’s not.” Lucy said. “It’s got nothing to do with navels. You’re so full of shit.” Lucy turned to Liha and jutted her chin at the expanse of the practice arena. “What do you think?” “It’s amazing,” Liha said. “It’s the reason the club moved into this defunct factory,” Lucy said. “It had the only enclosed span in the Old Manufacturing District large enough to hold a full sized blood battle arena. Look at it—half of a whole blood battle field—that’s fucking impressive for a Beta League club. They replaced the original roof with that greenhouse air tent, and dug out the floor and filled it with fertile earth, so that’s all alive down there. The hedge is real. The field is covered with real long grass, wild flowers, and bushes. And that’s a real stream and marsh in the lowland. There are even frogs and snakes living down there.” “Nice,” Liha said. “I like snakes.” “I wonder what the world would be like if frogs ate snakes,” Serendipity said, “instead of the other way around, like it is now.” Liha’s eyes drifted to the top of the temple: a rectangular pyramid that jutted out from the back-wall, between the north and south plazas. “Yeah,” Lucy said. “That’s the place. While you’re with us this week, make sure you climb up there when no one’s around, just you and the arena. Bring both your swords. Stand up there and feel what it’s like to know that’s your temple, and anyone who tries to take it away dies.” “Horribly,” Serendipity said. She was leaning forward to see around Lucy. “You should always imagine they die horribly, even if, in reality, they just die.” “That part’s optional,” Lucy said. “There’s a straw goddess on the temple altar,” Liha said. “The goddesses don’t join us?”

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“Ah . . . No,” Lucy said. “Since the Goddess is indifferent to the competition,” Serendipity said, “the club goddesses aren’t included in game practice.” They fell silent and waited for things to start. Coach Kai and her assistant coaches had climbed onto the opposite side-wall and were having a conference before beginning. Lucy was still looking at the straw goddess. “What do you think they do all day, up in that goddess suite?” she said to Serendipity. “I don’t know. Maybe they don’t do anything. That’s what they do, nothing. Maybe they spend all day practicing nothing.” “Wow, I can’t tell if what you just said was deep or stupid.” “Thanks.” “Thanks? I just called you, maybe stupid.” “No. You said you couldn’t tell.” “That’s because I can never tell if conversations with you are conversations.” “How’s your brother?” “How do you know about that?” “I don’t know.” Lucy did a ‘Huh?’ take. “Well, whatever the fuck you think you know, or don’t know—forget it. He’s got nothing to do with me, not anymore.” “I know.” “Then why did you ask?” “To make conversation.” Coach Kai held a megaphone to her mouth. “We’re ready to start. George, it’s all yours.” She handed the megaphone to George Condor, the singing coach. Wednesday — 3 Days Left When Lucy woke up, Charlotte was making coffee and toast. “Felix is in the shower,” she said. “He seems nice.” Lucy heard the shower turn off and the fans turn on. “Who?”

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A couple of minutes later, Felix came out of the shower room. Charlotte handed him a cup of coffee. “She doesn’t remember you.” “I was kidding. Good morning, Felix.” “Good morning, Louisa.” he said. “Who?” Lucy said. “Oh! I meant . . . I mean . . .” Lucy sat up and accepted her coffee cup from Charlotte. “Don’t worry, you get a we-met-while-intoxicated pass.” She took a couple of sips. “And you’re cute when you’re desperate.” She heaved herself off the bed without spilling, and held out her hand. “Lucy Star. Nice to meet you.” “I’m so sorry,” he said, “Lucy,” and shook her hand. She put her cup on the kitchenette counter, then unmade the bed, tossed the sheets in the washer, turned the bed back into a dinette, and washed and dried the table top. Felix’s clothes had been folded neatly on a towel on the floor. Lucy raised an eyebrow to Charlotte. Charlotte shook her head and pointed at Felix. “Huh,” Lucy said. She picked up Felix’s underpants from the stack and handed them to him. “Minimum dress code for sitting on anything other than a made up bed.” She pulled on her own undershorts, dug two t-shirts out of a drawer under the dinette, and handed one to Felix. “And we dress formally when entertaining guests.” She picked up her coffee and sat at the table. “Have a seat.” She patted the settee. “Let’s see if we can figure out what we saw in each other last night.” Charlotte put a plate of toast on the table and leaned against the kitchenette counter. Felix tool a slice. “What do you do when you’re not eating toast in your underwear?” Charlotte said. “I’m a student at the Polytechnic, in the Social Philosophy program.” “What’s that?” Lucy said. “We look at the philosophical implications of social trends and behavior.”

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“I think you just said the same thing. How about an example.” “Well, we’re currently studying rebirth, ‘The Cruel Joke that Changed the World.’ That’s the book my professor wrote.” “A joke?” Lucy said. “Sure. At first, it looked like it might be the mythical transformative medical miracle; the one that would allow everyone to live potentially, endlessly long lives without sacrificing their youth. But one,” he held up his thumb, “it doesn’t slow aging―at all. Two,” he flipped up his index finger, “it’s so intimately tied to the female reproductive system, that half the population is immediately excluded. Three,” he held up his middle finger, “it only works between puberty and the end of physical growth at around twenty-five. And Four,” his ring finger went up, “it’s ridiculously complicated and expensive to support. To afford the treatment, a girl’s family has to be beyond rich, or she needs to be sponsored by a government, or a wealthy private entity. Hence, cruel joke.” “So, what’s that joke got to do with social philosophy?” “Because the joke’s on the joke! Rebirth is transformative, just not in the way people had hoped. Think about it, in the last twenty years we handed over our most dangerous jobs, including jobs that protect the very nature of our civilization, to a handful of young women. Jobs that have traditionally fallen within the male compass. This raises big ethical and social dissonances, and the way those are resolved, or ignored, defines how rebirth is changing our society.” “Okay . . . ?” Lucy said. “Take something as trivial as sports. They’re just entertainment, right? Wrong!” He poked the table top with his finger so hard, the toast plate rattled. “Sports are our most popular rights of passage, which among other things, define and assign gender roles. Granted, in our modern versions, most of us participate vicariously; we appoint just a few elite athletes to actually per form the rituals.

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“But by bringing rebirth into sports, we’ve essentially revived gladiatorial games—the most aggressive sporting rituals ever practiced—and we have licensed their practice exclusively to athletes who produce ova and are capable of gestating and giving birth to a memory placenta. Now every week, we watch girls display a level of aggression that would be impossible, not to mention illegal, for anyone else to attempt. And it’s wildly successful. In just twelve years, blood battle has become the most popular sport, world wide, and incidentally, the most banned—see above, re ethical dissonance.” “Easy there, ranchero,” Lucy said. “Don’t forget to breath.” “Sorry, I got carried away. But you see what I mean, right? Rebirth and its most visible manifestation, the blood sports, has changed the way society associates power and aggression with gender. As of last year, sixty-three percent of blood battle fans identified themselves as female, and identified with the athletes. The ‘joke’ is changing the world. Today little girls can dream of growing up and chopping people’s heads off.” “Little girls have always dreamed of growing up and chopping heads off,” Charlotte said. “Yes, but now they may actually be able to do it!” “Huh,” Lucy said. “So, what do you two do?” Felix said. “He doesn’t know?” Charlotte said to Lucy. Lucy shrugged. “I don’t know how you two met,” Charlotte said to Felix, “and I don’t know how drunk you were—well OK, you couldn’t remember her name—but didn’t you notice the sword?” “He was distracted by my eyes,” Lucy said. Felix’s smile turned into, I-don’t-get-it. Lucy reached around the end of the dinette to the broom closet and took out her long-sword. She set it on the table and pulled the blade part way out of its scabbard. “The joke’s on you, kiddo,” she said. Felix looked at the sword, at Lucy, and then at Charlotte. “Me too,” Charlotte said. “Duel à Mort, foil fencing.”

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Felix opened his mouth and closed it, then his eyes flared. “You’re Charlotte Marceau!” “Before you go gaga over my roommate,” Lucy said, “remember who you had sex with last night, and remember who’s sword this is, lying right here, in front of you.” Felix looked from Charlotte to the sword, and to Lucy. “See?” he said. “That’s just the sort of thing we study! Not the implied threat to cut off my balls―that’s nothing new―but the casual understanding that it would be a trivial act, given your experience and capabilities―experience and capabilities that no one has been able to acquire before rebirth. That’s new!” Lucy leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “If I knew you well enough to know I liked you, I’d say, ‘that’s what I like about you.’” She sat back and regarded him. “How many implied threats to cut your balls off do you get?” “I, ah . . . what?” “Never mind.” Felix bit a corner of his toast, picked up his cup to drink, then put it down without drinking. “I think, you think you have a dumb question,” Charlotte said. “Go ahead; ask it.” “But be careful,” Lucy said. “You only get one dumb question. Don’t waist it on something smart.” “What’s it like to die?” Felix said. “You must hear this all the time, and I’ve read about the experience, but still, I can’t imagine it.” “First,” Lucy said. “Obviously, we don’t die.” “Yes, but physiologically, your bodies go through a series of traumas that no one else can survive. You recover from a state far beyond where I would be declared irrevocably dead.” “If you’ve read about it then you know we don’t remember dying,” Lucy said. “The process of converting short term memory to long term is disrupted. The closer a memory is to the time of death the less coherent it is, and anything within about a minute of death is lost entirely.”

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“It probably saves us from some uncomfortable recollections,” Charlotte said. “I remember non-fatal, or not immediately fatal wounds, but I don’t know if I want to remember losing all control of my body at the moment of death.” “Remembering fencing wounds is like remembering bee stings,” Lucy said. She leaned toward Felix. “I remember holding my intestines in while chasing the charger off my temple who cut me open.” She got on her knees and mimed holding her belly. “I took off her shoulder and punched her in the back of the head.” She swung her arm, and punched the air. Felix slid into the corner of the settee. “But that’s all I remember. I died and lost the game—the bitch did her job.” She flopped back onto the settee, not at all happy, then she brightened and turned to Charlotte. “It could be useful though, don’t you think? If I could remember the actual moments when I die, what it actually took to kill me, I could refine my own killing methods and save several hundredths of a second that I’m sure I waste overkilling opponents. It wouldn’t make a difference for you—you kill one opponent and the bout’s over—but for me, any extra time I spend killing a charger gives the next one more time to kill me.” “Sometimes you even scare me,” Charlotte said. “I do?” “Sorry, just kidding.” Felix was still scrunched into the corner of the settee. “I’ll bet this isn’t your typical college cafeteria conversation,” Charlotte said to him. “No,” he said and sidled out of the corner. “But this is what you were talking about, right?” Lucy said. “‘Experience and capabilities that no one else has been able to acquire.’ We can learn from our fatal mistakes―no one else has ever been able to do that.” Charlotte pushed away from the counter. “I’ve got to go, and sorry to break this up, but you’d better check the time, too.” “Oh, shit! Felix, I’m sorry, I’ve got to get to the club, and you know, hone my killer instincts for Saturday’s match.” She gave

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him a quick kiss, put her sword away in the closet, and ran into the shower room. “Leave your talk-to address, mine’s on the message board.” Thursday — 2 More Days “Today we will be performing exercises to challenge your kinesthetic intelligence.” Bimini, Lucy, and the other guardians were assembled on the north plaza of the practice arena. “It is one thing to load your bodies with reflexes and muscle memories,” Bimini said, “it is another to use that training in conflict, where predictable, rote behavior will get you killed; where there is no time to think, yet you must interpret events and act upon them. “Kinesthetic intelligence is the core guardian skill. It is the ability to anticipate without knowing, to leave thought behind yet act with sagacity. It is not just your mind, but the entirety of your flesh seeking its optimal path through the present. “You may observe your actions, and after the fact critique, but do not interfere in the moment. Your opponents are similarly trained; if you think before you act, you concede action to them.” Bimini walked up to Liha. “You and they,” she glanced at the other guardians, “have been hearing similar speeches since you began training at the Academy. However,” she spoke directly to Liha, “you do not yet comprehend.” “With deference,” Liha said. “I think I do understand.” Bimini walked away. “You do not yet comprehend that understanding misses the point. Let’s begin. Liha, swords. Lucy, practice sticks.” Lucy and Liha removed their athletic suits. Lucy checked the lacing on her shoes. Guardian shoes were lightweight and provided some ankle support and extra traction for mountaingoating around the temple pyramid. She pulled on her helmet (a guardian’s sole piece of armor). It was the same thin carbon skull

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cap, molded to fit her cranium, that everyone wore. It fastened around the back of her head leaving a hole she could feed her hair through (a stubby black ponytail in Lucy’s case) and was colored to mimic the fiery red and orange of the Burning Desire rose. Lucy clipped her practice short-stick scabbard in place on her short-sword saddle, pealed the backing off the saddle adhesive, and stuck it just below the middle of her back, to the left of her spine. She wore her short-sword upside down with its hilt low and to the left. The scabbard crossed her back, angling up to her right shoulder. Least armored but most armed, guardians exchanged armor for maneuverability, and for being the only players allowed to wield two swords. Guards and forwards had their turtle shell plating, and chargers had their forearm and foreleg shields, but with her long-sword in hand, and her short-sword at her back, Lucy had all the protection she needed, and they had none—not against her. Liha attached her saddle over her right scapula. “You draw over your shoulder?” Lucy said. “So I can bring it into play faster.” Liha saw Lucy’s placement. “You don’t agree?” “To each her own. I like pulling my short-sword from behind my back. The move is partly hidden by my body. I can pull it forehanded or backhanded, and my long-sword is usually far enough away so my opponent is either distracted by it, or has to split her attention across a wide field to take in both weapons. Are you ready?” Liha nodded. “After you,” Lucy said. Liha vaulted up the temple pyramid; Lucy followed, hopping up the five, meter high tiers to the top. Bimini was waiting, standing on the Goddess’s altar. “You will perform an improvisation,” Bimini said to Liha. “Confine your scope to the temple. Do not attempt conscious

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control of your actions. Every moment must be an independent extrapolation from the previous moment, but one moment must not anticipate the next. Your kinesthetic intelligence, if you have any, will be driving you. Disregard Lucy’s presence. She will follow you and tap you with one of her practice sticks every time you violate these rules.” “But we’re in the flesh,” Liha held out her sword. “What if I kill her?” “It is Lucy’s responsibility to avoid death. If she fails, you are the standby guardian and will take her place in the match on Saturday. You have another question.” “Are you going to stay there? You’re not even protected.” “I am standing on the Goddess’s altar. A guardian’s blades never violate this space. Now, stop thinking, and start.” Liha took up her guardian stance behind the altar. Lucy did the same two meters behind her. Liha breathed in; Lucy stepped forward and hit her on the shoulder. Liha turned to look; Lucy hit her in the back of her head. Liha leapt off the first tier, twisting and lifting her long-sword between her and Lucy. Lucy pulled her short-stick and rapped Liha’s knuckles. “I’m not here,” Lucy said. “This is a solo exercise.” She whacked Liha’s knee with her long-stick. “Stop,” whack, “making yourself,” whack, “think.” Liha stopped for a beat, then another. She dropped to her knee. Relaxed. Tumbled backward off the tier. Spun with both blades cutting the air. Landed on her feet. Sheathed her shortsword. Planted her hand to vault up a tier. Instead used the leverage to reverse her direction. Lucy followed, avoided Liha’s swords, and reached in now and then, to tap her elbow, her rib, her foot. Liha’s body explored the variety of options available when time expands to fill the present. She leapt into kinetic activity, slowed, sliced the air, jumped across the temple-top, landed with solid footing, rolled and skipped down two tiers. Once she left both her swords be-

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hind on the third tier. That impressed Lucy so much, she almost got clipped by Liha’s long-sword when she recovered them. “Please finish,” Bimini said. They stopped, and found they had returned to the temple-top. “You have potential,” Bimini said to Liha. “Let us continue. Lucy, swords. Frankie, practice sticks.” Twice Frankie tried to hit Lucy, but each time Lucy dodged out of the way. She was pretty sure she had setup Frankie to have a little fun, but that’s the thing about kinesthetic intelligence; she didn’t always know why she did what she did. When they finished, Bimini said to Lucy, “Very good.” “I know,” Lucy said. This was a good day to feel cocky, and you have to go with how you feel. She hopped down the tiers and off the pyramid. Saturday — Ø Day Lucy woke up at six. At six forty-five she climbed out the hatch with her overnight bag, her long-sword, a cup of coffee, and a slice of toast. At seven, she arrived at Burning Desire's team entrance to wait in the chilly morning air with the other club members who were making the trip to Appalachi City.

Chapter 8 Who is Chrysanthemum?

“Good morning, Lucy,” Mathilda said. She was one of the assistant equipment managers, but for now, she was managing the cabin assignments for the outbound trip. Coach Kai had the players and staff assigned randomly to cabins so they would have an opportunity to meet people outside their usual circles of skills and friendships. “You’ll be in cabin five with Glenna, Esmerelda, Jana, Bethany, Toshi, and Chrysanthemum. They’re collecting over there.” “Who were the last two on the list?” Lucy said. “Toshi Sanchez, she’s a prep team intern, nice girl, and Chrysanthemum—her real name—Story. She’s a goddess.” “That’s a mistake. Goddesses aren’t supposed to be traveling with other team members and especially not with a guardian.” “That’s what it says.” Mathilda held out the seating list for Lucy to see. “Where are the other goddesses sitting?” Mathilda flipped through the list pages. “Here they are,” she said, “in cabin twelve.” “All of them?” “Yes.” “See? It’s a mistake. Carnation should be there, too.” “Chrysanthemum,” Mathilda said. “Huh?”

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“Her name’s Chrysanthemum.” “Who made the list? I’ve got to get this changed.” “It’s a random list.” “Not for goddesses.” Lucy poked her finger at the cabin twelve passenger list. “Coach Kai approved it.” Mathilda held up the last page. “See? Her initials.” “Where’s Coach Kai?” “Ah . . .” Mathilda looked around. “There she is.” “Thanks.” Lucy hurried to where Coach Kai was talking to Angela and Sky, the defensive and offensive coaches. “Coach Kai?” Lucy said. “Yes?” “There’s a problem with the seating assignments. One of the goddesses got assigned to my cabin.” A pleased-with-herself smile crossed Coach Kai’s lips. Oh shit! “It’s not a mistake. And it’s not random. Chrysanthemum’s an interesting girl. I think you’ll like her.” “But, doesn’t this violate a prime directive or something?” “It doesn’t violate anything. A lot of ideas were bandied about when Gunda’s people cobbled together blood battle, and a lot of those ideas stuck without ever being tested or scrutinized, like the notion that guardians and goddesses shouldn’t interact.” “But—” “The girls who represent the Goddess are living, breathing human beings, yet you’re told to put them in a box and only see the symbol, and to not even acknowledge their presence off the field, all to make it easy for you to treat them like things, with no more regard than for carbon fiber practice dummies.” “That’s kind of the idea,” Lucy said. “I suspect that idea is wrong,” Coach Kai said. “It’s a lie. I think living that lie makes you a little less of a person, and for my purposes, a little less of a guardian. I want you to feel for the

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girl you’re defending, and when you have to make that decision to withhold your protection to win a game, you should be willing to accept the responsibility that a real person will feel, and may remember, real pain because of your decision. Accepting that makes you whole, and I want a whole Lucy Star standing on the temple, not one with a chunk of herself boxed away.” “This is one of your radical ideas, isn’t it?” “I trust you can handle it.” “Crap.” “Go on, get to know Chrysanthemum.” Lucy walked back to where the cabin five passengers were gathering. Who the fuck is Chrysanthemum? Why the fuck did Zack come to see me? I like my boxes closed . . . The next centipede cabin pulled up. “Cabin five!” Mathilda called out. Lucy and her cabin mates stepped forward to board. “Where’s Chrysanthemum?” Mathilda said. There was a commotion, and a girl burst from the mingling players and staff. She was wearing a shapeless cotton dress over leg warmers, and a second hand, at least, baggy wool sweater over the dress. Old canvas shoes were on her feet. She had a rucksack over her shoulder and was holding a steaming cup from Alice’s Tea Shop in a rainbow colored knit glove. Red ear flaps dangled from her knit, orange and yellow hat. A big pompom flopped around at the top. “Sorry,” she said. “Had to get my tea from Mr. Fredrick.” She held up her cup. “Is this our cabin?” Mathilda nodded. She clambered aboard. Lucy and the others followed. Once the passengers had their bags stowed and were buckled in, the centipede cabin moved out to find its way to Appalachi City. Toshi picked a window seat. “Wow, look at that!” she said. Esmerelda and Jana broke out a deck of cards. Bethany started

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reading. Glenna fell asleep. Chrysanthemum had pulled a knitting project out of her rucksack before stowing it. Lucy, like Toshi, looked out a window. The cabin rolled up onto a former elevated railway bed and shunted over toward the Old Warehouse District. “Look,” Toshi said, “the Winnebago Graveyard!” They shifted onto a city express lane and joined a local centipede, one of the impromptu trains the cabins formed to draft each other and reduce drag. The centipede moved uptown at a brisk clip, then the cabin broke off for the Great Bridge—one of the last of the old, heroic engineering projects. “Look where we are!” Toshi said. The suspension system of the bridge flickered by outside her window. She turned to the others; no one else seemed to be looking. “It’s pretty amazing,” Lucy said. Toshi grinned and went back to her window. From the Great Bridge, they slipped onto a cross-country expressway and joined a high speed centipede heading southwest, rushing through the tree tops of a resource management zone. Their seat restraints released. Lucy decided it was time to start Coach Kai’s experiment. “Ah, hello,” she said to Chrysanthemum. “I’m Lucy.” “I know,” Chrysanthemum said. She put down her knitting. “We met before.” “We did?” “At Alice’s Tea Shop. We were talking about sun dogs.” “That was you?” “Didn’t I just say so? You didn’t say much.” “Well, I . . . you know, guardians and goddesses aren’t supposed to talk.” “We’re talking now.” “Coach Kai thinks we should give it a try.” “Betty Kai is a smart lady,” Chrysanthemum said. “By the way, thanks for saving me.”

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“When did I do that?” Chrysanthemum tapped the side of her head. “You saved my head, twice.” “Oh, you’re welcome,” Lucy said. “Once you didn’t.” “I’m sorry.” “That’s all right. You died trying. It’s the thought that counts.” This is going nowhere. “What are you knitting?” Lucy said. Chrysanthemum held up her project. “It’s an anatomically correct sweater depicting the thoracic and abdominal viscera. It’s for my boyfriend; he’s studying to be a surgeon.” She flipped it over so Lucy could see the back. “Wow, that’s pretty accurate,” Lucy said. “Thanks, that means a lot. You’re the guts expert. Thad hasn’t cut anybody open yet.” Chrysanthemum put down her knitting, stood up, and stretched. “Oh, I can’t stand sitting around on these long trips.” She took a sip of her tea. “Seems ironic,” Lucy said. “What does?” “You can’t stand sitting, yet that’s what you do.” “You don’t cut up everyone you see, yet that’s what you do,” Chrysanthemum said. Lucy wasn’t sure that made any sense. “I guess so,” she said. Chrysanthemum took another sip of tea while walking in a circle. “This is one of Mr. Fredrick’s personal infusions, blended specifically for me.” Lucy was beginning to think the reason guardians and goddesses were discouraged from getting to know each other was to prevent guardians from cutting the goddesses’ heads off themselves. If she would just stand still long enough. “Call me Chrissy,” Chrysanthemum said. “Chrysanthemum is such a mouthful.” She bent over until her nose was between her knees and her palms were on the floor, then she straightened up

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and bent back, then she stretched to the left and to the right. She looked at the book Bethany was reading. “That’s a good one.” Bethany looked up. “Last year I read his, Saved by the Pi­ geons, so I thought I’d give this a try.” Chrysanthemum sat on the floor in front of Bethany. She put the soles of her shoes together, grabbed her feet, and bent forward while still looking up at Bethany. “Pigeons was good,” she said, “but that one’s much deeper. It looks like you got to the part where Harradonnus has to choose between Peppermint and Rosemary?” “Oh yes, fantastic, wasn’t it?” Bethany slid down and sat on the floor facing Chrysanthemum. Lucy walked over to the kitchenette and drew a cup of coffee. Specially blended for me and millions of other people’s taste. She moved her seat next to Toshi who was watching the forests, fields, and small towns zoom by. “First away match?” Lucy said. “Yes,” Toshi said. “Isn’t this great? But, you’re probably used to it.” “Not yet,” Lucy said. Chrysanthemum glanced over at her, then continued discussing Bethany’s book. Glenna woke up at lunch time, stretched, and looked around. “I’m hungry.” She went to the kitchenette and checked the prepared food list. “Mmm, Sweet Potato Burritos.” The thought of food broke up Esmerelda and Jana’s card game. The cabin was traveling through the foothills of the Eastern Appalachi mountain range. These were new mountains, as mountains go; sharp and pointy, but so far, they hadn’t heaved up above the tree line. “They look friendly,” Toshi said. Lucy excused herself and dug through the fresh produce and cooking supplies in the kitchenette, then said, “I’m making pasta with mushrooms and artichoke hearts. Does anyone else want some?” “I will,” Chrysanthemum said. “Sure. Thanks,” Toshi said.

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“I’m in,” Esmerelda said. When Lucy served up the food, the pasta eaters moved their seats over to Toshi’s window. Toshi pointed. “Look at that waterfall!” “That’s the Soup Stock cascade,” Esmerelda said. “When giants used to walk these mountains, they would stop here in the autumn and use water from the fall to make soup stock. Unfortunately, the major ingredient was little boys and girls. They ate their soup in the winter, and by spring they were full, so they burped. Their burps sounded like nursery rhymes because of all the children they ate. In the spring, when you heard nursery rhymes wafting out of the moun tains, you knew it was safe to go outside, because the giants had full bellies and would soon fall asleep. They slept all through the summer and didn’t wake up until the autumn leaves tickled their noses.” Everyone had stopped eating. “I grew up around here,” Esmerelda said. “My granny told us that story.” “I never noticed your accent before,” Lucy said. “It comes back when I see the old mountains.” “Could you really hear the nursery rhymes?” Toshi said. “Sure. For a couple of weeks in the spring, the wind blows through a gorge seven kilometers up the mountain and makes a kind of singsong moan. It took a lot of imagination to turn that into nursery rhymes, but growing up in the mountains, imagination was all we had.” “Did your grandmother make up the story?” Chrysanthemum said. “I never thought about that. She had lots of stories, and I never heard them from anyone else. My brothers and sisters are coming to the match, I’ll see what they know.” “What about you, Lucy,” Toshi said. “Do you have any granny stories?” Chrysanthemum turned to Lucy. Esmerelda tried to get

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Toshi’s and her attentions with a discreet finger-across-thethroat gesture. Chrysanthemum got the message; Toshi didn’t. “No,” Lucy said. “Where did you grow up?” Toshi said. Chrysanthemum put her hand on Toshi’s knee. “What about you?” she said. “Where are you from?” “Oh, I’m not interesting. I’m a local girl, grew up in the Quills, south of the city.” After lunch Lucy collected the pasta eaters’ plates and utensils, and started washing them. Chrysanthemum came over and picked up a towel to dry. “So what’s your deal?” Lucy said. “What do you mean?” “I understand going through the gene therapy, giving birth to a memory placenta, and betting your life that this crazy scheme will work if it let’s you do something exciting or im portant that would be impossible otherwise, but you sit on your butt and meditate. It’s not dangerous. It doesn’t kill you if you do it wrong.” “No, but now I get paid for it.” “You’re doing it for the money?” “You’ve got to admit, the money’s good. When we age-out and get our League stipends, we’ll both be almost rich. But you’re right. That was a disingenuous answer. You play blood battle because it’s exciting, right?” “More than that,” Lucy said, “but you first.” “My point is, it’s similar for me. Nothing challenges my ability to, ‘just be,’ like the prospect of imminent death.” “But it’s not imminent.” “Yes, we’re reborn—quite reliably. But we still die.” “Maybe, by some conventional definition,” Lucy said. “My friend would say the medical definition of death is pushed fur-

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ther out for us than for other people, and as long as our memory placentas exist, we can’t be considered dead.” “What do you mean?” “Well, they’re part of us. Genetically they are us. Their brain tissue specifically organizes itself to hold us: our memories, our experiences, our emotions. It might be in a kind of suspension, but we are very much alive in them.” “Yes, I see what you mean, and my tiny rational mind might know this, but all the rest of me doesn’t, and doesn’t want to die. Who’s your friend?” “Charlotte, Charlotte Marceau. You might have heard of her. She’s the number one ranked Duel à Mort foil fencer for the North Coast. She’s my roommate.” “You’re proud of her.” “She’s my best friend.” “I know Charlotte,” Chrysanthemum said. “You do?” “Yes. Tall. Hair down to here.” She reached around to the small of her back. “Light skinned—almost Old Epoch European.” “How do you know her?” “We sit together in the East Slope Xen Center.” “Fuck,” Lucy said. “What?” “I hate that small world shit.” “Why?” Lucy didn’t say anything. She re-washed the clean plate she was holding. “Are you OK?” Chrysanthemum said. Lucy stopped washing and looked straight ahead at the shelf of cleaning supplies above the sink. “There are people . . . people I don’t want to run into, ever again. I want the world to be big enough so I can be sure I never will, so I can put them behind me, for good.” She held up the plate and watched the suds bubbles drip off. “Small world shit re -

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minds me I can’t do that.” Then to herself, “Not like I need a reminder, now.” Chrysanthemum took the plate before Lucy could wash it a third time. “What do you mean, you don’t need a reminder?” Lucy flipped the stopper and watched the sink drain. “One of them showed up.” She rinsed the lingering suds out of the basin, wiped it down, pulled the trap, cleaned and polished it. She turned to Chrysanthemum. “How about some hot cider?” The cabin was on an expressway branch winding its way down the west side of the Appalachi main range, roughly following the course of the Mayfly River toward Appalachi City. Esmerelda was telling Toshi about the local lore associated with the passing landmarks. Chrysanthemum pulled Lucy’s and her seats away from Toshi’s window. Lucy warmed a couple of cups of apple cider, handed one to Chrysanthemum, and sat. She rested her sword across her lap. “What do goddesses do all day? You show up in the morning when we do, and you leave in the evening when we do. You’re not meditating all that time are you?” “We practice yogic ballet, flower arranging, tea ceremonies, meditative martial arts like dai gi. Do you know there’s a form that uses a sword?” “Should I be worried?” “Of course not,” Chrysanthemum said. “There are also goddess specific exercises to train and test our ability to remain indifferent in the middle of chaos.” “There’s no chaos on my temple,” Lucy said. “I’ve noticed.” “You have? Do you watch game reviews?” “No. I pay attention to the games while I’m in them.” “You’re paying attention? I thought you were supposed to go elsewhere in your head or something.”

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“Some of the girls do. I prefer to notice everything that goes on around me. I just don’t react.” “I can’t even conceive of . . . How is that even possible?” “For you, survival requires instant action and reaction. For me, it’s stillness. If I react, I cause a foul and lose my head. We’re opposite, yet intertwined forces. Like lovers, don’t you think? ‘I am your center and you are my existence.’” “I— What’s that?” Lucy said. “It’s from the book Bethany’s reading. It’s what Harradonnus says when—” Chrysanthemum waved her hand. “It’s not important. What is important is, I think that’s what Gunda was afraid of. That’s why her people decided guardians shouldn’t interact with goddesses.” “I’m sorry, I don’t—” “You have to make cruel decisions regarding the Goddess. If we were friends, or worse, lovers, could you be trusted to sacrifice your lover when the effigy has outlasted its purpose and become detrimental to the good of the people?” “Good of the people? It’s a game.” “Yes, a game, but a game wrapped in powerful metaphors. Your turn,” Chrysanthemum said. “For what?” “Why do you play blood battle? You said it was exciting, but there was more to it.” “Wow, um. Yes. It is exciting. And I’m good at it―really good at it. And I love it.” Chrysanthemum smiled. “What is it?” Lucy said. “Your confidence in yourself is genuine, not a boast. It’s . . . I like it.” “Yeah, well, that’s my standard answer―and it’s true―but . . .” Lucy took a breath. “Blood battle saved me. This isn’t one of your metaphors. The League’s emancipation program gave me a way to . . . escape.” She took another breath. “From those people. The ones I don’t ever want to meet again.”

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“Except you did meet one of them.” “Yes, but he’s gone, again. I hope.” The back of Lucy’s neck tensed up. Fucking adrenalin. “He frightens you?” Lucy shook her head. “No,” she said, “not him.” She had to look away to say it. Her venous blood hissed passed her ears, in a staccato rhythm driven by her racing heart. She waited for the adrenalin to dissipate. “I don’t know why I thought I could talk to you about this, but I can’t.” “I apologize for bringing it up.” “It’s not your fault,” Lucy said. She glanced at Chrysanthemum, then sipped her cider, put the cup down, and moved her sword a centimeter to the left on her lap. She couldn’t understand why she felt like a thief for needing that moment of reassurance she saw in Chrysanthemum’s eyes. “May I ask one more question, about blood battle?” Chrysanthemum said. “I guess. Sure.” “Why a guardian?” Lucy brushed her fingers along her sword scabbard. “Because . . . protecting someone is the only thing worth living, or dying, for.” But I didn’t, I ran away. “I’m sorry, Chrissy. I like you, I do, but this conversation is getting too . . .” “Too dangerous?” Chrysanthemum said. Lucy nodded. She stood and moved her seat to a window on the opposite side of the cabin from Toshi’s. Chrysanthemum picked up her knitting. Every now and then, she glanced at Lucy. Eventually a gong sounded alerting the passengers that the cabin would be leaving the expressway. Everyone buckled their seat restraints. Twenty minutes later, they slipped into the visiting club car dock of the Appalachi City blood battle stadium. It was fifteen thirty. The centipede cabins were arriving one after the other in the order they had departed. Elizabeth, the other as-

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sistant equipment manager, stood on the car dock routing players and staff to their assigned locations. “See you later.” Chrysanthemum waved to everyone with her re-gloved rainbow hand. Elizabeth shooed her off to the goddess dressing room. Toshi left to do whatever prep team interns do, and the rest of cabin five was herded toward the visiting team’s locker room. Lucy pulled the stadium door open; it caught on her toe, and she hit her head on the edge of the door. “Shit! Fuck! Crap!” Frankie came up behind her with the cabin six players. “Now what is it?” Glenna, who knew everything about everybody, said to Frankie, “There was a goddess in our cabin.” “With Lucy?” “Yup.” Frankie grabbed Lucy’s arm. “You gotta get it together!” Lucy shook her off. “I’ll be fine!” She went through the door. In the locker room, she punched her locker door with the heel of her hand. Everyone around her stopped talking. She opened the door (the hinge squeaked because of the new dent). Her short-sword was inside, placed there by the advance team, along with her other locker contents. She stripped off her clothes, put on her practice short-sword harness, took both swords, and walked out of the locker room and down the corridor to the practice rooms. Nobody got in her way. In a few minutes the team would fill these rooms. She went into the first one and closed the door. There was no lock. She jammed a chair under the handle like they do in the movies and hoped it worked in real life. She unsheathed her swords, walked to the center of the room, and started a kinesthetic exercise. She was getting tunnel vision, but the exercise forced her to concentrate or risk slicing off a piece of her own leg or arm. She finished and knew she was off. Her swords weren’t hers. Rather than extensions of her body, they felt like clumsy prosthetics.

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“Start again.” Lucy turned. The movie lock hadn’t worked. The chair was lying on its back. Bimini Tanaka leaned against the door; she had jammed a wedge under it to keep it closed. “Slow motion,” she said. Lucy lifted her swords and moved like a slow speed replay. Bimini came over. From behind, she cupped Lucy’s jaw in her hands, and started moving her head: nodding, tilting, and turning it in disorienting ways that were out of sync with the exercise. Lucy had to let go of everything to finish without stumbling, she even had to let go of her concentration. They finished together. Bimini released Lucy’s head. Someone was knocking. She walked back to the door and leaned against it. “One more time; full speed,” she said. Lucy started . . . When she finished, her swords were hers again. She sheathed them. Bimini kicked the wedge out from under the door and held it open. “You’ll do fine,” she said. “I know,” Lucy said. “Thanks.” Frankie, Serendipity, and the chargers were standing outside the door waiting to get in. Lucy went back to her locker, changed into her warm up clothes, and returned to the practice room.

Chapter 9 The Match Against Beauty Incarnate

Bimini ran her guardians through low-impact muscle memory exercises to wake up their bodies from the long trip and remind them what they were capable of. Now and then Lucy noticed Frankie watching her. They broke for a light meal. Lucy, Serendipity, and Frankie headed for the cafeteria. When they were out of the practice room Lucy stepped in front of Frankie. “You’re pissing me off. What is it?” she said. “Nothing,” Frankie said. Lucy poked her in the crotch with the hilt of her sword. “Hey!” Frankie said. “You were acting a little weird in there,” Serendipity said to Frankie. Frankie gave Serendipity a nasty look, then turned back to Lucy. “It’s you and those goddesses. I don’t know what the fuck your issue is, but you’ve got to get over it. You were crazy when we got here. Scary crazy. Some of the girls thought you were going to kill yourself.” “What?” Lucy said. “That’s insane!” “You were acting pretty crazy,” Serendipity said to Lucy. Lucy glared at her, then took a moment to compose herself. She spoke to both of them. “Coach Kai has this, ‘crazy,’ idea we

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should get to know the goddesses. She put Chrissy in my cabin so we could talk.” “Who?” Frankie and Serendipity said. “Chrissy. The goddess in my cabin. Short for Chrysanthemum. That’s her name.” “They have names?” Frankie said. Lucy poked her in the crotch again. “Just kidding! So, they’ve got names. Great. They can talk. Great. I don’t know how talking to a vac-head can screw you up so much, and I don’t care. But I do care if you’re going to screw up on the temple.” “If you’re so worried about me,” Lucy said, “then make sure you fucking win your game!” She moved her arm as though to poke her again. Frankie flinched. “Ah, guys?” Serendipity said. Lucy turned and poked Serendipity in the sternum with her finger. “You too!” “I just wanted to point out that we’re going to be last in line for the food.” Lucy scowled at her for a moment, then laughed. “Yeah, all right, let’s go. And stop worrying about me, both of you.” “I’m not worried,” Serendipity said. After the meal everyone stayed in the cafeteria while the coaches reviewed the match plan for the last time. Frankie would play the first game. The Incarnate guardian opposing her was a new girl promoted from the reserves in mid-season. She didn’t have much of a performance history to build a strategy around, so they would play a classic game to feel her out. Serendipity would play the second game. Sky Molina, the offensive coach, had noticed the Incarnate guardian her team would be facing tended to step back when she moved to con front an attack from her right. Sky had put together a strategy to take advantage of that foible and attack her hard on the right side.

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Lucy was the clean-up guardian: she played if either Frankie or Serendipity lost. Her team would be assembled from the survivors of the first two games. If the casualties were too high, they might have to play short handed―third games were heavy on improvisation. Incarnate’s clean-up guardian had a tenacious reputation like Lucy’s, but she could get reckless if pressed hard. Frankie and the team for the first game headed to the locker room. Lucy took her long-sword and walked up the tunnel to the Burning Desire sideline. The sidelines were behind the one-way glass that made up the long side-walls of the field. Once a team took to the grass they were on their own; no more communication was allowed with anyone off the field. The one-way glass insured no signals were passed back and forth. An animation board was mounted at each end of the side-line so the coaches and off-field players could watch game-play taking place on the far sides of the temples. The gardeners were putting the final touches on the field flora. A clear greenhouse tent had been inflated above the stadium to trap heat against the chilly autumn evening. Lights had been launched to bathe the field in artificial moonlight bright enough for everyone to see clearly while still suggesting real moonlight. The waxing moon itself stood high in the sky over the east arena, the one Beauty Incarnate would be defending. The spectators churned in the stands looking for their seats. Some of her club mates were coming out to watch the first game or at least the start of it. Lucy and maybe one of the goddesses were the only ones who had the luxury of waiting to see if there would even be a third game. “What was she like?” Lucy turned to see Serendipity standing next to her. “Normal, I guess, in a weird, goddessy kind of way.” “What do you mean?” “Her reasons for doing what she’s doing, I don’t get it. She’s content to be a passive . . .” Lucy’s jaw tightened, “to accept whatever—”

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“Fate?” Serendipity said. “Whatever fate the game hands to her?” “I was going to say, ‘shit,’” Lucy said, “But yeah, fate. Except there is no fate—not when I’m up there.” She tapped once on the glass where it intersected with her view of the temple-top. “She said she actually pays attention to the game while she’s sitting on the altar. I can understand how a goddess might zone out, think about clouds or something, so she wouldn’t see what was coming, but to sit there and know someone is swinging a sword at your neck, and passively accept it, and expect me to do something about it?” She closed her hand into a fist and pressed her knuckles against the glass, increasing the pressure until the pane flexed out. Serendipity put her hand on Lucy’s arm. “It’s a game. Don’t over-think it.” Lucy relaxed and dropped her hand. “That was easier to do last week, before my life got crowded with people I didn’t ask to be in it.” Serendipity removed her hand. “Your brother and Chrissy?” “Yes. So?” “Two isn’t a crowd.” “Okay, two people too many, that I don’t need fucking up my life. No, three. Add Coach Kai and her crazy ideas. See? It is a crowd.” Serendipity leaned close. “Coach Kai is a smart lady.” “How did you . . . ? Chrissy said the same thing.” “I’m going to go oil my swords,” Serendipity said. She turned and strolled down the tunnel to the visitor’s locker room. Lucy stayed and watched the gardeners walk off the field. Francine and her friends shuffled into their seats on the south side of the stadium. They overlooked the west arena, the one Burning Desire would be defending. Francine handed a couple of tickets to her bodyguards. “You have the two seats behind mine.” “Thanks, we have our own,” the bodyguard in the brown coat said. Francine didn’t know their names. She insisted her bodyguards dress like her friends, so they weren’t wearing their grey

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body armor. She suspected what they were wearing would stop bullets just fine. “Is my brother here?” Francine said. Brown Coat ignored her while discreetly inspecting her seating area and the surrounding spectators. “You must know if you have colleagues here with Jayzen.” “That’s privileged information,” Brown Coat said. “Then you can tell me. After all, I am a daughter of privilege.” “We’ll be nearby,” Brown Coat said. She and Dark Green Coat slipped off in different directions to blend into the crowd. As Brown Coat scanned the stadium, she regularly took in the other two girls from her agency standing behind Jayzen in his private box on the north side of the stadium. “Bitches,” she mumbled to herself. Jayzen was sitting above Burning Desire’s sideline. He looked through his stadium glasses at the team wearing their armor and holding their swords, but he couldn’t see Lucy. He looked further along and saw her dressed in an athletic suit, standing by herself. “What? I came all this way, and you’re not playing?” He checked his match program. Under, “Third Game (If needed),” it said, “Guardian: Lucinda Marcia Star.” The public address came alive. “Gentle friends, welcome to this evening’s blood battle match between the visiting Burning Desire from Heritage City, and Appalachi City’s own Beauty Incarnate. “Burning Desire’s team for the first match will be . . .” The announcer introduced the team members one at a time, ending with, “Number twenty-two, Guardian Francesca Antoinette Starling: four wins, five losses.” Next, Beauty Incarnate’s players were introduced to whoops and hollers from the home crowd. Then the announcer said, “Friends, please welcome the Goddess.” The two god-

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desses walked onto the field in their white vestments, they were never named and were always referred to as a single en tity. In a curious ritual introduced by the fans during the second year of blood battle, the spectators rose in silence and many of them prayed. “This is crazy,” Jayzen said. Francine stood and pressed her hands together. “Mother,” she said. “We offer our Guardian, “To stand in defense of the Goddess. “The Goddess who guides us, “And proffers, even her own blood, “To sustain our quest for a worthy life. “In humility, therefore, “We ask for a place in your earthly bosom.” Aldan, who had been saying the same prayer, leaned over to her and said, “I don’t think that makes sense.” “It doesn’t matter,” Francine said, “It’s the desire that counts.” Stairways extruded from the front of both temple pyramids. The goddesses climbed to the altars, and in a single move, turned while spreading their vestments (so they wouldn’t sit on them) and settled into place. They sat on their heels—knees together, hands clasped in their laps, heads held high—and looked into each other’s eyes across the full reach of the field. Their hair had been braided into tight topknots to kept it clear of their necks and to provide a convenient handle for the match officials to use when checking for a valid beheading. The stairs retracted. Francine, her friends, and everyone settled into their seats. Two men dressed like monks stepped onto high platforms on each side of the midfield and blew on long horns that curved down ten meters and then out toward the hedge line. The horns emitted a thrumming, space-filling sound. ***

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Frankie’s Game Lucy watched Burning Desire’s goddess climb the stairs, and for the first time, looked to see who it was. She was relieved it wasn’t Chrysanthemum. Then she hoped this goddess would survive the game, then she wondered what her name was, and then she realized she didn’t know how goddesses were assigned to games. Was it one for each game, like guardians, or if there was a third game, did the surviving goddess reprise her role? She decided it would have to be one per game since, like guardians, it was possible for a goddess to die or be wounded even when her team won. The reverberations of the start horns faded, and Lucy was on her feet moving back and forth to watch the game develop in each arena. The forwards for both sides advanced through their six, thorn-enforced one-way paths in the midfield hedge. Each path had a kink to block sight lines, making it impossible for players to see what was happening in the other arena. Even guardians could only see the top half of the opposition’s temple. The coded message songs—a large collection of short vocalizations based on yodeling, overtone singing, pig calling, and whistling—were the only way to coordinate strategy and send warnings between a team’s guards in their own arena and their forwards in the opposition’s arena. The guards and forwards fought hard, but neither team was having much success with their game plans. Then Burning Desire opened a charger path. Bridgett and Vanora took off, skating in tandem. Not the best plan―a temple fight between a guardian and two chargers required near flawless execution on the chargers’ part to give them the advantage―but the forwards’ message songs indicated the branching paths near the temple were clear, giving them room to maneuver and set up an attack from different directions. Incarnate’s untested guardian waited patiently behind the Goddess until Bridgett and Vanora reached the top of the temple.

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She ducked under Bridgett’s sword, cut off both her legs, spun and kicked Vanora off the temple-top, then jumped after her and stabbed her in the chest when she bounced off the second tier. She bounded back up, leapt over the temple-top, cut off Bridgett’s sword arm, then finished her off with her short-sword. It might have seemed an overreaction: Bridgett was fast bleeding to death and could only crawl with her arms, but Lucy understood. Neutralize the immediate threats, then cleanup all possible loose ends—leave nothing to chance. “You’re a feisty little hornet,” Lucy said. “I like you!” While the spectators were distracted by the fight on Incarn ate’s temple, their forwards cleared two paths and three of their chargers headed for the hedge to attack Frankie. Lucy ran along the sideline to follow them. A three charger attack was harder to pull off, but was considered an even fight when done well. This one wasn’t; one of the chargers was lagging behind the other two. Frankie’s forwards had sung a three charger warning, but there was no sign of the third charger in Burning Desire’s arena. Frankie jumped down to meet the first two who were approaching on the inside south route. She impaled the lead charger, but was nervous about the, so far, unseen third charger. That charger had been delayed in Incarnate’s arena and was now skating fast through Burning Desire’s lowland along the inside north route. Frankie couldn’t see her from the south side of the pyramid, but Burning Desire’s guards sang a warning. Frankie turned to regain the top, and her balance wavered. She moved her short-sword arm to compensate, and the second south-side charger arrived in time to cut it off. Frankie still had her long-sword, but couldn’t wield it two handed. She scrambled up the pyramid to setup a second defense at the top. The third charger came up the north side of the temple and sliced Frankie open from shoulder to pelvis when they met on the temple-top.

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The Goddess could only be effectively beheaded from two positions—the sweet spots—one on each side of the altar and slightly behind the Goddess. The charger stepped into the left sweet spot and decapitated Burning Desire’s goddess. “You screwed up, you fucking bitch!” Lucy averted her eyes from the sight of the goddess’s head tumbling down the front of the temple. A piercing horn blew, signaling a temporary halt to the game. Everyone stood their ground. Three officials wearing purple gloves ran out to check the goddess’s head. They lifted it with care, handling it by its braided topknot, and inspected the cut. It had to be respectful, entering between the mid-points of the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae and exiting just below the larynx—a clean, single stroke causing instant death and minimal damage. They approved the cut, and signaled their decision by placing a purple satin pillow on the spot where the head had come to rest. They closed its eyes, and laid it on the pillow, resting on its cheek as though asleep. The fake monks blew their thrumming horns, and the first game was over. The charger who had cut off the goddess’s head stood guard over it while collection teams for each club ran onto the field with body bags to pick up the dead and their parts. They were directed by spotters high up in booths, who had been keeping track of the injured players and their dismemberments. The surviving players stayed on the field and helped point out the location of bits they had cut off. The spectators got into the spirit, cheering when a finger that had been trodden into the muck of the marsh was finally retrieved. The collectors finished and ran off the field laden with with their bags of fallen players. The steps extruded from the front of the temples. The spectators hushed themselves and rose. Burning Desire sent out a special collection team with a purple body bag to claim their goddess’s body and head. After they cleared the field, the Beauty Incarnate goddess stood, descended her stairs,

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and walked off. The surviving players ran to their sidelines, ending the post-game rituals. There was a forty-five minute break until the next game. On the field, gardeners touched up the flora, and cleaners scrubbed dirt, blood, and waste off the temples, plazas, and charger paths. Serendipity’s Game Lucy prowled the sideline for a while and inspected the field. The basic layout of all BB fields was the same, but the soil and vegetation varied with the local environment. Lucy didn’t have to worry about running and fighting down in the grass, but she was the team’s lookout until she had to engage char gers on the temple. It helped if she had a feel for what made this arena unique. When she’d seen enough, she trotted down the tunnel to the locker room. The players on the second game team were pumping up each other’s emotions. The survivors of the first game had retreated to the showers to avoid infecting the second team with their loser’s energy. Coach Molina was huddling with her chargers, getting them psyched for the attack she had planned for the Incarnate guardian. Lucy turned the corner to the guardian lockers. “Hi, Lucy,” Serendipity said. She was putting on her helmet and collecting her hair into a curly red fireworks burst to stick out the back. “Hey, Dippy,” Lucy said. She walked behind Serendipity and ran her fingers along the new indentation in her own locker door. She turned to Serendipity and opened her mouth. “You want to play so bad you can taste it,” Serendipity said. “You want to psych me up, so I’ll win, right?” “Fuck yes.” Lucy said. “Don’t worry.” “That sounds insanely confident. You know something Angela doesn’t?”

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“No. I just think you shouldn’t worry so much.” “I’m not worried. I want to win, and I’m counting on you to get me on the temple. Yeah, I can taste it. It tastes bitter. I like bitter.” “It tastes like butterscotch to me.” Serendipity reached out and brushed a strand of hair off Lucy’s forehead. “I wish I had your hair. It’s so dark and mysterious. I don’t want your eyes, though. They’re dark—yes, but honest. I wouldn’t know what to do with eyes like that. You can’t hide anything in them. Don’t even try. They used to call eyes like yours, cow eyes. It was a complement.” A gong sounded and the team for the second game whooped, butted helmets, slapped fannies, and headed out to the field. Serendipity picked up her long-sword and tapped her butt with the scabbard. Lucy slapped her cheek. “Make sure they die horribly.” “They will,” Serendipity said and whisked herself up the tunnel. This time Lucy avoided looking at the goddesses for either team. The horns sounded and the game began. There were four narrow charger paths through the hedge. Like the forwards’ paths, they curved enough to prevent players from seeing through to the other arena. Between the hedge and the plaza, those paths branched into a dozen interconnected routes. Sky Molina’s plan was to quickly gain dominant plaza to plaza control over the two north charger paths and their branches, and not worry about the south paths. All four chargers were waiting on Burning Desire’s north plaza. Burning Desire sent their forwards through the three northernmost one-way paths. Incarnate launched a symmetrical flanking attack designed to control the north and south charger routes and force Burning Desire’s guards into the center of the field. The message singing started. Serendipity reported on Incarnate’s attack strategy, and knew the Incarnate guardian was alerting her forwards to Burning Desire’s asymmetrical attack, but they were already in the hedge and committed to their opening moves.

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Four Incarnate guards were covering the charger paths on the north side of their arena. All twelve Burning Desire forwards came out of the hedge and fell on them. Even at those odds, guards were hard to kill. Two fell, taking two forwards with them; the other two were pushed back. Burning Desire’s guards were massed on the north side of their arena. Usually, there weren’t enough guards to successfully ambush forwards as they came out of the hedge paths. Enough forwards always get through to flank the ambushing guards, but by committing to Sky’s plan, and only trying to control the north side of the field, they had the depth to stage a successful ambush on the three north paths. Esmerelda and Fausta took up positions on each side of the middle north ingress path. An Incarnate forward rushed out, holding her sword up and forward, ready to block or attack. Esmerelda stabbed under her arm and into her heart, an instant kill. She held her position in case there was another forward in the path. The second forward saw her teammate die and came out sideways facing Esmerelda. To make themselves lighter and faster, forwards sacrificed most of the back armor that guards wore. Fausta stabbed underneath the strip of armor the forward wore across her upper back, another instant kill. They both stepped away from the hedge. The guards were singing the tally, “One from the inside north path two each from the middle and outside paths.” Cinnamon, on the outside path, had been stabbed deep in her thigh by the second forward and was bleeding to death. Another forward jumped out of Esmerelda’s path. Chiyo stepped behind her and chopped her in the back. She fell on her stomach and Esmerelda stabbed her in the back of the neck. They had killed half of Incarnate’s forwards and only lost one guard. They spread out along the center line of the arena. Incarnate was starting to adjust to Burning Desire’s strategy: their remaining forwards were moving to keep control of the south paths and to try and cut off at least one of the north paths. They pounced on

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the guard closest to the temple and killed her. They were trying to flank Burning Desire along the back end of the field, but pulled back when they realized all four chargers were on the north plaza. Chargers normally stay out of the defense, but with only six forwards left, Incarnate didn’t want to risk drawing them into the fight. Esmerelda and the other guards had done their job and taken control of the two north paths in Burning Desire’s arena. Serendipity was regularly singing out, “Two north paths open.” What was taking the forwards so long on the other side of the hedge? Xaun Henatta, the Burning Desire forward captain, was singing, “Outside path open; inside path closed.” Sky’s plan required both north side paths. By staging such an asymmetrical attack, the coaching staff knew they were giving Incarnate an opening to make a similar attack on Serendipity along the south side, but they would have to put their attack together on the fly. Their chargers were spread out: two on the north plaza, two on the south. Erdoza, Florence, and Candice rushed to the north plaza to cut off those two chargers before they could move to the south plaza. A guard wounded Florence giving one of the chargers time to slip around the front of the temple. They backed the other one into the north east corner. Casualties were mounting in both arenas, and contrary to Sky’s plan, Incarnate was the first team to open two charger paths. Xaun sang out to Serendipity, “Warning: three chargers on the two south paths!” When the chargers took off, Lucy hustled to the west end of the sideline to watch the looming temple fight. Of her fellow guardians, Serendipity was the one she most enjoyed watching. The girl had a deceptive way of moving so you never saw what was

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coming next. Off the field, she was a ditz, but Lucy was beginning to suspect that was all an act to trick people into not seeing the wrath she was bringing their way. One of the Incarnate chargers tried to flank Serendipity, but Chiyo and Mim blocked the branch path she was angling toward, forcing all three chargers to approach the temple on Serendipity’s right. Serendipity didn’t have a right-handed foible to exploit. They were skating straight into her wrath. The two chargers on the inside route arrived first, the leader angled to the rear of the south side of the pyramid, the other toward the front. They kicked off their skates and leapt to the first tier. Serendipity skipped down like a naïve fairy about to be caught between them, then she slipped to the rear of the pyramid. Her long-sword flickered like gossamer and the sword arm, shoulder, and head of the rearward charger flew off her body. The charger at the front of the pyramid leaped off the second tier on her way to the Goddess. Serendipity reversed direction with such a light touch of her foot, Lucy couldn’t see how it had the force to so completely change her direction and momentum. The charger reached the fourth tier, one vault away from the sweet spot and the Goddess’s head. Serendipity flew by and slipped her short-sword into the charger’s spine. The girl’s legs stopped working, and she fell on her face. Serendipity again completely changed direction with a slight kick and dove head first down the pyramid with her long-sword extended. She impaled the third charger just as she reached the temple, then curled, tumbled off the pyramid while extracting her sword, and landed on her feet at ground level. She removed the arms and legs from a forward who happened to be standing too close, turned, and flitted back up the temple. (For a weird moment Lucy thought she had sprouted wings.) She dragged her long-sword through the back of the paralyzed charger as she breezed by. Lucy pounded the glass with her fist. “Yeah! Wow!”

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*** By the time Serendipity reached the temple-top, Burning Desire’s forwards had opened both north routes; all four chargers were on the move through the hedge, skating in tandem, two on each path. Bethany and Nara arrived first and ascended the temple, staying slightly to the rear of the guardian. The guardian stepped back to meet Nara and blocked her sword with a crosshanded twist that brought the tip of her blade up through Nara’s ribs and heart. She again stepped back, swinging her long-sword at Bethany. Bethany deflected the sword, but the guardian had her short-sword out and stuck it up under Bethany’s jaw and into her atlanto-occipital joint, damaging her spinal cord just below its exit point from her skull. Bethany collapsed in full paralysis; not dead, not yet. They had succeeded in pulling the guardian to the rear, away from the Goddess. Grenada was on the temple leaping for the sweet spot. The guardian swung around, and with two running steps, closed on Grenada and stuck her long-sword under her shoulder blade. For a moment the guardian’s right side was exposed. Kelcie jumped for the temple-top and stabbed up through the guardian’s ribs, but she wasn’t sure if she had scored the heart. She wrenched her blade around, twisted the guardian off balance, and kicked her feet out from under her. The guardian and Grenada tumbled down the pyramid. Erdoza, Florence, and Candice had been holding the fourth Incarnate charger at bay in the northeast corner of the plaza. When she saw all four Burning Desire chargers burst through the hedge, she fought her way out, killing Erdoza and the already wounded Florence. She pushed Florence’s body into Candice, looked at the temple and saw her guardian sliding down the pyramid tiers with the limp articulation of the raggedy dead. She kicked off her skates and ran for the temple to replace the guardian as the Goddess’s defender.

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*** Kelcie didn’t hesitate after flinging the guardian off the tem ple-top. She ran for the altar, starting to swing her sword. As she ran through the sweet spot, her blade entered and exited the goddess’s neck. The Incarnate charger reached the top a moment too late. Lucy’s Game There was an hour break between the second and third games to give the second game survivors time to cleanup and prepare to play again. Lucy cornered Serendipity on her way to the shower. “You did a swan dive off the pyramid! Where did that come from?” “Not a swan dive—a swimmer’s dive: low, long, get in the water fast. A swan dive would have taken too long. I like to swim, and win, during the off season; strictly amateur. You should try it; it’s fun.” Angela, the defensive coach, came over. “Nice move with the dive,” she said. “That’ll muddle up everybody’s plans for attacking you in the next few games. Keep ’em guessing.” For the tiniest moment, a slight, non-ditzy smile crossed Serendipity’s lips, then she tapped the tip of Lucy’s nose with her finger. “See? Your turn to win. You really shouldn’t have worried.” She disappeared into the shower room. Lucy picked up her short-sword from her locker and warmed up in a practice room. She was looking for the relaxed but ready state that she could maintain indefinitely while waiting for Beauty Incarnate to bring her a fight. When she was satisfied she had it, she went back to her locker and stripped down for the game. She tied on her shoes, fastened her short-sword scabbard to its harness, pealed the backing off the harness saddle, and stuck it to her back, then drew and sheathed her short-sword a

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couple of times to be sure her arm knew where it was. She pulled on her helmet and picked up her long-sword. The casualties in the first two games had been high. Lucy’s team would be short two guards and one charger. Incarnate could field a full team. Angela Strong came over to talk strategy. “What do you think?” she said. “Anybody who steps on my temple dies,” Lucy said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less, but so you know, with seven guards, we’re going to concentrate on holding one charger path open. The forwards will try to open up as many branches in Incarnate’s arena as they can. We’ll concentrate on the south most path so we can keep our backs against the side-wall. Incarnate’s going to expect this; they just don’t know if we’ll defend north or south. They might try a flanking attack again, but if I were them, I wouldn’t worry about our one path, I’d come right up the middle to get control of the other three. “It will be entirely up to our forwards to block those paths in Incarnate’s arena, so there’s a better-than-usual chance you could get hit with a full, four-charger attack.” “Doesn’t change my plan,” Lucy said. “I didn’t think it would.” The warning gong sounded. Lucy butted helmets with everyone around her, then slapped butts and backs as the team headed up the tunnel. She let everyone go ahead of her since she would be the last player on the field. She was about to head up the tunnel when Coach Kai came over. “Everybody thinks I’ve gone crazy,” Lucy said. “They’re worried I’m going to screw up.” “I’m not worried,” Coach Kai said. “I’m going to kill anyone who sets foot on my temple.” “Except the Goddess.” “Yup, except her.” Lucy whooped and ran up the tunnel. Screw Coach Kai’s plan!

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Serendipity was at the top of the tunnel dressed in street clothes. She gave Lucy a thumbs up, and slapped her ass. The team ran onto the field as they were announced, ending with, “Number fifteen, Guardian Lucinda Marcia Star, seven wins, three losses.” Lucy unsheathed her long-sword, ran onto the field and up to the top of the pyramid. Francine’s entourage cheered and waved their hands. “Go Lucy! We love you!” Francine yelled through cupped hands. With his stadium glasses, Jayzen watched Lucy lope up the pyramid tiers and couldn’t stop thinking about the previous Saturday night on the exercise mats. Lucy turned forward and assumed her relaxed stance with the tip of her long-sword resting on the temple surface in front of her. She waited while the other team was announced. Then the goddesses came out. The stadium fell silent. Lucy felt a vibration in her feet as the steps extruded from the front of the pyramid. She kept her eyes on the other temple and watched the Incarnate goddess climb the steps. This is crazy. I can’t de­ fend the Goddess and avoid looking at her. Coach Kai's experiment was only half finished. She gave in and looked at the front edge of the altar. The Goddess's face came into view. Chrysanthemum stepped onto the altar, looked up, and winked! Lucy’s mouth gaped. She closed it immediately, then didn’t quite suppress a grin, and then . . . winked back. Chrysanthemum smiled a sly little smile, wiped it from her face, turned while spreading her vestment, and settled in place on the altar, in perfect coordination with the Beauty Incarnate goddess. “Did something just happen?” Francine said. “Like what?” Aldan said. “I don’t know, I thought I saw . . . Ah. It was nothing.”

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*** Jayzen sat forward with the stadium glasses pressed to his eyes. He felt jealous, but he didn’t know why. Gunda Thorstenson’s make-believe monks blew their game horns. Lucy was pumped; ready to take on the world to defend Chrysanthemum. I mean the Goddess. She lived for this, but the winks had made her giddy, and giddy made her nervous. She didn’t see how giddy was going to help her kill chargers. Down in the grass, the guards had positioned themselves to defend against a flanking move, just in case. All three chargers waited on the south plaza for their south-side route to open. As Angela had predicted, the Incarnate forwards came through the middle of the hedge. The guards shifted and spread out to protect the south charger route. Two Incarnate forwards ran down the field and swung in to isolate the guard on the temple end of the line. One of those forwards angled dangerously close to the temple―dangerous for her. There were no threats to the Goddess in Burning Desire’s arena. Lucy decided to help even the odds for her guards. She ran down the pyramid, hit the front corner of the bottom tier, and as she turned to run back up, she stabbed down through the forward’s neck and into her heart. Just like Charlotte did it, except with a big fat sword. The two guards on the west end ganged up on the other forward who had become disoriented when her teammate dropped dead for no apparent reason. They forced her back, wounding her in the abdomen. The guards gave Lucy a nod of thanks, and she flipped back a thumbs up. Incarnate controlled the two north charger routes. Burning Desire’s guards pressed against their line to deny them clear control of the inside south route. The message songs from the Incarnate arena said Burning Desire’s forwards were attacking across the width of the field, but

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pushing harder on the south to open the south charger path. The Incarnate guards were pressing back on the north side to get at least two paths open for their chargers. Burning Desire’s guards couldn’t sustain a long fight: two were dead; one was wounded. They were falling back and getting pushed up against the south path―they were losing. The fight deteriorated until only two guards remained alive against six healthy Incarnate forwards and the wounded one. Incarnate’s forwards controlled all four paths in Burning Desire’s arena. Burning Desire’s forwards sang an alarm, “Four chargers on four paths!” On learning that Burning Desire’s guards had lost, Incarnate’s guards attacked hard on the other side of the hedge. They took heavy losses, but cleared all four paths long enough for their chargers to get through. Four chargers on four paths gave them every advantage. They skated out of the hedge, traveling fast and unhindered. Lucy saw Han, one of Burning Desire’s chargers, move to intercept part of the attack. She sang out a warning, calling Han off. She had seen one of Incarnate’s chargers stumble; it wasn't a big stumble, just enough to make her arrive late―that evened the odds. Lucy didn’t want her chargers risking injury by playing defense. She shifted her attention to the first three Incarnate chargers. They arrived: two on the left, one on the right. For Lucy, time began passing in hundredths of a second. Bimini’s kinesthetic training was in charge―thinking took too long. There was something odd about the charger coming up the forward end of the pyramid on the left side; she should have been the biggest threat, but instead Lucy turned, took a step down toward the charger on the right, and handed her longsword off to her left hand. She reached out and stabbed the charger through her eye―brain blood sprayed out. Lucy continued turning and handed the long-sword back to her right hand. She pulled out her short-sword and leapt across the temple to meet the charger arriving from the left rear. She caught the

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charger’s long-sword between her crossed blades and used her own long-sword to push the girl’s blade away while slashing through her side with her short-sword, splitting her kidney and severing her latissimus dorsi along with her abdominal obliques. The impact spun the girl around. She was mortally wounded, but not mortal enough. Lucy sheathed her shortsword while bring her long-sword around. Taking hold of it with two hands, she cut through the girl’s belly from her rectus abdominis to her spine taking away her ability to articulate her thorax and cutting her descending aorta. She would be unconscious in seconds. Lucy kicked her in the other kidney, toppling her down the pyramid. The kick twisted Lucy around so she landed back on the temple-top facing forward. The charger on the front left, the one she ought to have attacked first, was swinging at Chrysanthemum’s neck. Her foot landed in the sweet spot and slipped―she was going to miss! Her blade would hit Chrysanthemum in the shoulder. Lucy tried to tell herself to stand her ground and let the charger split open Chrysanthemum’s back, but her instincts were in charge and they were screwing up! They let the momentum of her landing carry her into a low crouch. What the fuck? From there, she stabbed up and into the charger’s armpit, stopping her attack. A blade buzzed by, just above Lucy’s head. The fourth char­ ger! She realized what was wrong: the girl she had stabbed was faking her miss, pulling her punch. If she had stood her ground, the fourth charger would have cut off her head. Her instincts had sensed the trick. Lucy used her long-sword to twist the front charger away from Chrysanthemum. She couldn’t see the fourth charger and didn’t have time to look, but she could see her sword swinging away; that told her everything she needed to know. She reached back with her short-sword and felt it go into the charger’s gut, then she twisted it up and shoved it into her heart. Lucy’s hand was inside the girl’s belly; she felt her muscles relax as she died.

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Despite the sword in her armpit, the front charger was trying to swing her blade at Lucy’s shoulder. Lucy stepped inside her reach, shoved her short-sword through her neck, and pressed it back against her cervical vertebrae, cutting all the blood vessels to her brain. She wedged her foot up against the girl’s chest and pushed out, sending her backward. Off my temple! The girl’s body fell onto one of Incarnate’s forwards. Lucy looked around. Incarnate had sent their remaining healthy forwards onto the temple to backup their chargers, leaving all the charger paths open in Burning Desire’s arena. They had bet everything on their trick either killing Lucy or wounding her enough so their forwards could finish her off. Oopsie! Lucy sang out, “All paths open, three chargers ready.” She looked down at her chargers. They looked back in disbelief. Four Incarnate chargers had just swarmed up the temple. A couple of seconds later, they were all dead and Lucy was dripping with their blood, grinning like she had just received the best present ever, and she wasn’t at all concerned about six forwards scrambling up the sides of the temple. The song came back from the other side of the hedge, “Two center paths open!” Lucy tipped her head toward the Incarnate temple. Bethany and Kelcie nodded back. The rookie, Andrea, was staring at Lucy, then her face lit up; she grinned back and all three took off. Andrea had to be careful not to out-skate her teammates. Lucy assumed her relaxed waiting stance: short-sword sheathed at her back, arms at her sides, long-sword tip resting on the temple-top in front of her feet. Forwards were almost as heavily armored on their front upper bodies as guards, but their necks, upper arms, thighs, and abdomens were all available, more than she needed. Lucy waited a full second for the first forward to reach the penultimate pyramid tier . . . As the last dying forward tumbled off the temple, she scanned around the field. The only Incarnate player left alive in

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Burning Desire’s arena was the wounded forward, bleeding from her abdomen. Giddy works. There was movement on Incarnate’s temple. Andrea was running up the front, a dangerous move that Lucy wasn’t happy with―she was risking committing a foul on the Goddess. Han and Kelcie approached, one from each side, in a coordinated attack. Han swung at the guardian’s legs, and Kelcie at her torso. Their timing was off. The guardian stepped over Han’s blade and ducked under Kelcie’s. Half way through her twisting dodge, she cut off Han’s head, and opened Kelcie’s belly, but Andrea was leaping over the corner of the altar. She plunged her sword into the guardian’s back, turned, and beheaded the Goddess. The officials approved the cut. The monks blew their horns. The game was over. Then Lucy sheathed her short-sword, walked up, alongside the altar, and put her hand on Chrysanthemum’s shoulder. Chrysanthemum was startled and looked up. Lucy winked. Chrysanthemum smiled, almost grinned, then cleared her face and turned forward. A blush colored her cheeks. Lucy squeezed her shoulder, let go, and trotted down the pyramid to help the collectors find the pieces of those foolish forwards. “Did you see that?” Francine said. She and her friends were standing and cheering. “I sure did!” Aldan was looking at Andrea who was guarding the head of Beauty Incarnate’s goddess. “I mean over here. Lucy touched the Goddess. They looked at each other!” “You must have been seeing things again.” “No, look. You can see Lucy’s bloody hand print on the goddess’s shoulder.” “That’s just some blood that splashed on her from the fight. It happens all the time.” “No, it’s not,” Francine said. “I think . . .”

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“Think what?” “I think you wouldn’t understand.” On the other side of the stadium, Jayzen said, “Let’s go,” to his bodyguards. He tossed his match program in the trash on his way out.

Chapter 10 Lucy’s Dream

Beauty Incarnate carried their goddess away in her purple body bag, then Chrysanthemum rose, descended the stairs, and walked off the field. Lucy and the two surviving guards, Chiyo and Mim, were the only players left in Burning Desire’s arena; the wounded Incarnate forward had been taken away by her collection team to be put in a womb. Over in Beauty Incarnate’s arena, seven forwards and Andrea were the surviving members of Burning Desire’s offense. Including Serendipity, Chrysanthemum, Serendipity’s goddess, and Amrit, a forward who hadn’t played in the third game, fifteen Burning Desire players survived the match out of the full named roster of fifty-three, plus the three goddesses. It was an expensive victory. They ran off the field in high spirits, but the empty locker room swallowed the sounds of celebration. Lucy took a shower, and put on fresh street clothes. She moved her swords and cleaning kit to a weapon cleaning table. These unique features of blood battle locker rooms looked like baby changing tables, and in fact, often were, with a new label. Andrea came over. “Mind if I join you?” “Please,” Lucy said. Andrea laid out her cleaning supplies and long-sword. “You should have been M.V.P.”

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“Nope, Serendipity earned it. She was flawless. I lost track of that last charger and almost got my head cut off.” “I thought you were amazing.” “Thanks,” Lucy said. “That was a pretty risky move, running up the front of the temple right past the Goddess. It made me nervous.” “You don’t think I should have?” “I’m not criticizing you. It worked. Any other approach would have gotten you killed. But if you had touched their goddess, it would have been a foul, and they would have gotten a free swing at Chrissy.” “Who’s Chrissy?” Lucy rolled her eyes. “The goddess for our game. Chrissy, short for Chrysanthemum. Am I the only one who knows she has a name?” “Are they all called Chrysanthemum?” “No, just her, I think. Anyway, when I’m on the temple, I’ll do whatever it takes to protect her neck. If I’d known you were going to do something so potentially dangerous to her―to her neck―I would have run down there and killed you myself before you left.” “You’re kidding, right?” Andrea said. Lucy gave Andrea her best do-I-look-like-I’m-kidding look. A moment later Andrea said, “Oh!” Andrea was the newest rookie. She had been pulled out of the reserve squad just four weeks ago, so she was only now hearing the club stories and trying to figure out which were true, which were fables, and which were bullshit. One story, new to this season, told of Lucy’s first game as a rookie guardian. There aren’t many rules in blood battle, but the penalty for violating any of them is the same. The game is halted and a member of the opposing team is offered a free swing at the neck of the violator’s goddess. One rule stipulates that only one defender

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is allowed on the temple at a time. In Lucy’s first game, so the story goes, she saw a fellow rookie, a guard, so intent on trying to intercept a forward that she ran onto the plaza. Her cleated shoes slipped on its smooth, skate-friendly surface. Lucy, seeing that she was about to put her hand on the first tier of the temple pyramid to keep her balance, leapt down in two diving steps, cut off the guard’s arm before her hand touched the tier, and kicked her away so she wouldn’t fall against the temple. When Andrea said, “Oh!” she had realized the story wasn’t a fable, and it wasn’t bullshit. “I won’t do it again,” Andrea said. “That’s not my point. You do what you need to do to win, but if it’s going to put my goddess’s neck at risk, make sure I don’t know about it.” Coach Kai was walking around talking to the players. “Great move,” she said to Andrea, “using the Goddess to mask your approach.” Andrea looked confused. “What’s she been saying to you?” Coach Kai said. “I was just explaining that, even though we’re on the same team, her goals and mine aren’t always the same.” “Did you tell her about the arm?” “I think she already heard about it. I was making sure she knew it was true.” “It’s not true,” Coach Kai said to Andrea. “Not exactly, it happened in Lucy’s second game, not her first.” She turned to Lucy. “And it won’t ever happen again, right?” “As long as everybody stays clear of my temple.” “That’s the lesson,” Coach Kai said to Andrea. “A guardian’s loyalty is to the Goddess, not to her teammates. Not even to her coach, it seems.” Lucy didn’t react. “She wants you to win and will do everything she can to help, but only because that is the best way to protect the Goddess.

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“The only exception is when she has to face that crucial decision, when a game can be won by allowing the other team to kill or injure the Goddess with a bad stroke.” Coach Kai looked at Lucy. “Why did you stop the charger from committing a foul?” “I didn’t want to stop her, but my instincts, Bimini’s kinesthetic intelligence, did. Sorry if I messed up your experiment, but you saw it was a trick, right?” “You didn’t, and yes, I did. See you both at the game review tomorrow.” She walked away to talk to Chiyo and Mim. “Coach Kai is kind of weird,” Andrea said. “Some people say she’s a smart lady,” Lucy said. “What do you think?” “I hope they’re right.” Lucy’s swords were now pristine, polished, and oiled. She took her short-sword scabbard apart for cleaning. It always got so full of blood. After each game, the dead and wounded players were taped and stapled back together, packed into refrigerated caskets, flooded with almost freezing artificial amniotic fluid, and shipped to the Laughing Cherub by express transport. Elizabeth and her interns would spend the night cleaning and packing their equipment, swords, and personal belongings, then ship everything back to Burning Desire, but for now she was back on the car dock sorting the living into their assigned cabins for the return trip. Despite the casualties, it would still take several cabins to get the surviving players and the staff home. “You’re sharing cabin three with Glenna, Katixa, Chiyo, Toshi, and Chrysanthemum,” Elizabeth said to Lucy. This time Chrysanthemum was already waiting—with a fresh cup of hot tea. “Where did you get that?” Lucy said. “Mr. Fredrick prepared a tea bag and sent it to the Euphoria House. It’s five streets over, that way.” She pointed. “They brewed a cup and ran it over.”

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Lucy laughed and shook her head. “Do you want a sip?” “Thanks.” Lucy took the cup and sipped. It had a mild lilac taste followed by strong cinnamon. The cinnamon faded to a warm licorice that diffused down through her stomach, past her entrails and settled in her―womb? What? “What’s in this?” “Tea, spices, various bits of plant matter. Mr. Fredrick doesn’t reveal his secrets.” Lucy held the cup under her nose, closed her eyes, and inhaled the infusion’s aroma. “Do you want another sip?” “Ah . . . no. Thanks,” Lucy said, waking up. She handed the cup back. “Wow,” she said. “That’s . . . not what I expected.” “You can have Mr. Fredrick prepare a personal infusion for you too.” “Maybe I will.” “Lucy! Over here!” Lucy hadn’t noticed the yelling while she was under the spell of Chrysanthemum’s tea. She looked and saw Francine and her friends at the security fence. “I’ll be right back.” She walked over to the fence. “Hi France. I can’t believe you came all the way here.” “Great game!” “Wow!” “Fantastic!” they said. “Is that the Goddess?” Francine was looking at Chrysanthemum. “Not now, the game’s over. Now she’s a person.” “What’s her name?” “Chrissy. Short for Chrysanthemum.” “What a beautiful name!” Francine said. “I thought guardians and goddesses . . . you know.” “My coach thinks that might be a load of crap. We’re trying something different.” “I knew it!” Francine said. “See? I told you,” she said to her friends, then back to Lucy, “There was some kind of mystical

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bond between you and the Goddess, I mean Chrissy―well, I guess she was the Goddess then―a bond that gave you some kind of second sight. It saved both your heads!” “I don’t know,” Lucy said. “I think I screwed up, but got lucky.” “People always say ‘lucky’ when something happens they can’t explain,” Francine said. “Hey, Lucy!” Elizabeth yelled. “You’re boarding!” “I’ve got to go. Thanks for coming.” “Bye, Lucy!” they all said. Lucy jogged back to the dock and climbed into the cabin. It was nearly midnight when the cabin departed. They strapped into their seats and the lights dimmed. Lucy was sitting next to Toshi. “How are you doing?” Lucy said. “I feel bad for Esmerelda,” Toshi said. “Her brothers and sisters were at the match, but she didn’t get to see them. She was really looking forward to it.” “She’ll have other opportunities.” “I know, but family is important. I miss my mom and dad.” Oh, fuck! “What happened to them,” Katixa said. She twisted in her restraints to look around the backrest. “Nothing,” Toshi said. “They’re fine. I just haven’t seen them for two weeks.” “We fell apart in the last game,” Chiyo said. “That’s why Esmerelda didn’t make it.” “Bullshit,” Lucy said. “You guards did fine. You started out short handed, and killed five forwards and wounded one.” “You killed one of the forwards,” Chiyo said. “Okay, you still killed four. The problem was in the second game. The forwards took too long to open their charger paths, that forced you guards to take more losses than you should have. That’s why you were short by two in the third game.”

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“What do you know?” Glenna, a forward, said. “Perched up on your pyramid. You couldn’t see what was happening down in Incarnate’s grass.” “Wrong game,” Lucy said. “I was on the sideline, I saw everything.” “You can’t see shit from the sideline,” Katixa, also a forward, said. Lucy relaxed and sat back. No one’s talking about missing mom and dad now. The cabin eased onto the expressway and let them out of their safety belts. They converted their seats into beds, changed into pajamas, nightdresses, or whatever, took turns in the toilet, and settled into bed. Toshi, Lucy, and Chrysanthemum were on one side of the cabin, Chiyo, Katixa, and Glenna on the other. The return trip would take all night. The cabin lights dimmed and went out. Chiyo and Glenna kept reading lights on. The windows curved up into the ceiling. The beds were arranged so the passengers could look up at the sky. The night was clear and the vast field of stars shimmered through the settling night air. “Wow,” Toshi said. She was lying on her back to Lucy’s left, arm pointed at the sky. She mumbled to herself while pointing at, and naming, stars and constellations. To Lucy’s right, Chrysanthemum was doing the same thing, but she spoke under her breath and pointed only with her finger. Lucy looked at the cold twinkling sky and didn’t name anything. At the top edge of her field of view, dark silhouettes of tree tops sped past the window and black cutouts of distant mountains drifted along, marking the west horizon. She nodded off . . . She lifted a wooden spoon to her lips for a taste of the soup. It needed more salt. She took a knife from her apron, cut open the end of her thumb, and let blood dribble into the soup while she stirred. She staunched the blood flow with her index finger, and tried another sample. Much better. She put her thumb in her

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mouth and bit down hard on the cut. She bit so hard the pain made her eyes tear up. She stopped biting and pulled out her thumb. It was healed but the nail was missing. She felt around inside her mouth with her tongue and found it. She stuck her thumb back in her mouth and used her tongue to push the nail in place. She tried the soup again. What was missing now? She dug a grater out of the drawer next to the stove, held her arm over the pot and used the grater to shave slivers of flesh off her forearm and into the soup. She stirred and tried it again. Perfect! Blood welled up in the shallow gouges the grater left behind. She licked her other hand several times from the heel of her palm to the tips of her fingers until it was wet and shiny with saliva. She pressed her hand against the bleeding forearm and squeezed the saliva into the wounds. When she took her hand away, her arm was healed, but some of the blood was now on her palm. She licked it off and dried her hand on her apron. She reduced the heat under the pot to simmer the soup, then set the wooden spoon to the side and noticed that it was made of bone. She walked out of the kitchen onto her porch. The grass in the yard was green, but worn down to dry mud in spots. The sky was blue and scudding with cumulous clouds. The air was warm and it was snowing, just a few flakes. Her daughter was running around in the yard wearing a grass stained cotton dress and trying to catch the flakes in her mouth. Lucy sat on the porch steps to watch. She still couldn’t believe she had made this wonderful, sometimes incredibly frustrating, little person. Her daughter plopped to the ground and sat in one of those impossible postures only a child can manage. She pointed at the sky and started naming the shapes she was seeing in the clouds. Lucy realized her daughter was Toshi. She didn’t know how that was possible. She looked up. Toshi was not naming the things she saw; the clouds were assuming the shapes of the things she named. Toshi was the creator, and Lucy watched her make the world into something new.

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“Honey, that’s wonderful.” She felt her love flow into Toshi like a stream of energy powering her cloud sculpting fingers. She needed to share this feeling and turned to the only person she knew who would understand: her husband and co-creator of this marvel. Until now, she hadn’t noticed him standing next to her with his hand on her shoulder. He was holding a smoking rifle in the crook of his other arm. Lucy looked around the side of the house. A dead monster was slumped in the road. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Both of you will always be safe as long as I’m here.” Lucy looked up into his face. The world tipped and shifted. When it settled, it was the middle of the night. They were lying in bed, naked. “I forgot to tell you what our daughter did today.” “Tell me,” Chrysanthemum said. She wrapped her arms around Lucy. “She commanded the clouds. I was so proud of her.” “We made an amazing girl, didn’t we?” Chrysanthemum said. Lucy nodded. Chrysanthemum kissed her forehead and the tip of her nose. “She takes after her mother.” She kissed her lips. Lucy returned the kiss, reached under Chrysanthemum’s arm and around her back. She loved the feel of her back muscles flexing and relaxing under her hand. Chrysanthemum pressed her hips against Lucy. Lucy buried her face in her neck and said, “Yes.” Chrysanthemum slid her hand down Lucy’s side and around to the inside of her thigh. Lucy licked her fingers and caressed Chrysanthemum’s nipple. As Chrysanthemum tickled her fingers up and down Lucy’s vulva, something washed over her: an erotic mix of craving, selflessness, desire, danger, trust, and love―always familiar, always new. She pushed her hips against Chrysanthemum’s hand. Then she needed to pee. No! Lucy woke up . . . In the next bed, Chrysanthemum was leaning on her elbow, looking at her. “You were having quite a dream.”

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Lucy reached down to feel her pajamas; they were dry. “Ah . . . I’ll be right back.” She scrambled out of her bed, rushed to the toilet, pulled down her pajama bottoms, and sat. She put her elbows on her knees and held her head in her hands. The sound of heavy peeing drowned her out. “Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she said. “What the fuck was that?” Lucy returned to the cabin and got into bed. She put her hands behind her head and looked up at the stars. Toshi was snoring; it wasn’t loud, more like a purr. Chrysanthemum was still leaning on her elbow. “What time is it?” Lucy said. “About one fifteen.” “That’s all?” Lucy turned to Chrysanthemum. “How did I have to pee so bad? So soon?” “The tea does that sometimes,” Chrysanthemum said. “I only had a sip,” Lucy said. Chrysanthemum shrugged. The frilly strap of her nightdress slipped off her shoulder. Lucy looked back at the impersonal sky. “Tell me about your dream.” “Hmm.” Lucy glanced over. Chrysanthemum’s strap was back on her shoulder. “It’s fading away,” Lucy lied, “but ah . . . I was making soup.” “You’re a good cook.” “Thanks. Anyway, the ingredients were kind of weird—” “What were they?” “They were, well, me. Parts of me. My blood. My skin.” “You put yourself into your cooking. People always say that, but the rare ones, the best ones, actually feel that they do.” “Okay. Anyway, then I went outside and Toshi,” Lucy pointed her thumb at the next bed. “Toshi was my daughter, and she did something with clouds that I wanted to tell my husband about—” “Was he handsome?” “Ah . . .” “Never mind, keep going.”

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“My ‘husband’ had just killed a monster that, apparently, was a threat to me and Toshi.” “Curious transference,” Chrysanthemum said. “You’re the hero type in real life.” A messy collection of emotions rose up in Lucy. “Well, things changed and it was night, and I was in bed with, my ‘husband,’ and I told him about the amazing thing Toshi, our daughter, had done, and he said it was . . . because she took after her mother.” Lucy rushed through the last phrase. She choked up when she said it, and it pissed her off. She collected herself. “Then ‘he’ kissed my forehead, and ‘he’ turned out to be you.” She delivered the last bit like an accusation, and looked at Chrysanthemum. “I’m honored,” Chrysanthemum said. “Is that when you woke up?” “No. Then we started to make love.” “I’m doubly honored.” “Then I thought I was going to pee on you, and then I woke up. Don’t you dare say you’re triply honored.” Chrysanthemum’s strap slipped off her shoulder. There was a rustle on the other side of the cabin. Glenna came over, keeping low like she was playing a soldier in a game. “I heard you guys whispering. I can’t sleep either. What are you talking about?” "Lucy had an erotic dream with me in it." Chrysanthemum sat up, pulled her strap back onto her shoulder, and made room for Glenna to sit on her bed. “I’m jealous,” Glenna said. “How far did you get?” “She woke up because she had to pee.” “Too bad,” Glenna said. “Hey, it’s my dream.” Lucy sat up. “Do you mind if I tell it?” They were silent. Glenna and Chrysanthemum waited. “In the dream, I was married to Chrissy, but she was a man, or I thought my husband was a man until I wanted to say something

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to him about Toshi. Oh yeah,” she pointed over her shoulder at Toshi’s bed, “Toshi was our daughter.” “Was I in the dream?” Glenna said. “No, my dream was restricted to this side of the cabin. So, Toshi was our daughter, and she had just done something that made me proud, I wanted to tell my husband about it, and suddenly it was night, and he turned out to be Chrissy, and then we started to make love.” “All three of you?” Glenna said. “No. What? With my daughter? That’s disgusting! How could you even think that?” Lucy said. “Hey, just asking.” “Only Chrissy and I made love. Well, we were starting to make love, and just before . . . then I woke up.” “Because you had to pee,” Glenna said. “Yes,” Lucy said. “Because I had to pee.” “How was Chrissy as a lover?” Lucy thought back. She remembered the dream with more clarity than she expected. She wanted to strip naked and swim in that contradictory flood of desires. “That good, huh?” “Ah, yeah, I guess.” Lucy returned to the world, but avoided eye contact with Chrysanthemum. There was more rustling from the other side of the cabin, and Katixa came over. Lucy made room on her bed. “What’s up?” Katixa said. “Lucy was telling us about her dream,” Glenna said. “She and Chrissy got married, then Chrissy turned into a man, and they had a baby that turned out to be Toshi.” She pointed at Toshi and lowered her voice like she was trying to not wake a child. “And then Chrissy turned back into a woman, and Lucy made crazy mad love to her until she had to pee.” “Really?” Katixa said. “Close enough,” Lucy said.

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“Did you have an orgasm?” “Are you asking, for real, or in the dream?” Glenna said. “Both.” “No,” Lucy said. “Didn’t anybody else have a dream?” “I did,” Toshi said. She was waking up and slurring her words. “There was a chipmunk the size of a house.” She sat up and spread her arms wide. “And . . . I’ll be right back.” She stumbled out of her bed and into the toilet. Thank you, daughter. Lucy was surprised how strong the mother-daughter bond from the dream still felt. By the time Toshi returned from the toilet, the impromptu campfire meeting had broken up. Everyone was back in their own beds and falling asleep. Toshi crawled into bed and was soon busy finding food for her giant pet chipmunk. The cabin gong sounded several times, and the beds nudged their occupants awake. The eastern horizon was bright from the approaching sun. They unmade their beds, scheduled toilet time, got dressed, and settled in for the last stretch of the trip. The cabin arrived at seven fifteen. They disembarked; Mathilda checked them off her list and reminded everyone they were due back at noon for the game review. “It was nice to finally talk to you.” Chrysanthemum said to Lucy. She waived goodbye to her cabin mates and walked off to Mr. Fredrick’s for her next shot of tea. Lucy half expected her to skip away. The bell above the door jingled. “Hello, William,” Chrysanthemum said. There were no other customers in the shop. “Good morning,” Mr. Fredrick said. “I see you retain your head.” “Yes I do. And it’s a very nice head, don’t you think?” She raised her chin in profile, earning a friendly smile.

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Mr. Fredrick scooped bits of leaves and spicy debris into a small pot of water from jars he kept under the counter. He put a cover on the pot and turned up the heating pad. “Was your trip eventful?” “Maybe.” Mr. Fredrick raised an eyebrow. “I think my guardian has fallen in love with me.” Chrysan themum put her elbow on the counter and rested her chin in her palm. “How could that happen?” Mr. Fredrick said. “Betty Kai has contrarian ideas about the goddess-guardian dynamic. She arranged for Lucy Star to meet and talk to me during the trip.” “Interesting.” Mr. Fredrick leaned his own elbows on the counter. “She even dreamed about me on the return. A complicated dream. More than she was willing to say.” “And you . . . ?” “You know me. How can I not swoon for the woman who saves my head or will die trying?” She dropped her hand and bit her lip. “What’s wrong?” “I’m worried about her. We really did talk. Guardian heroics are supposed to be part of Gunda Thorstenson’s spectacle, but I think, for Lucy, it’s real. I think, even without wombs and rebirth, she would be willing to die trying to save us. I’m worried she may need to be willing to die. Did you know she won’t talk about her past?” The teapot chimed. Mr. Fredrick strained Chrysanthemum’s tea into a take-away cup. “I hear all the gossip from the club,” he said. “More than you do. Lucy is the girl without a childhood. She has so thoroughly locked it away, it’s as though she didn’t exist before arriving at the Academy. Her teammates know not to ask her about it.”

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“So I found out. But she tried to tell me. I encouraged her. I was curious and selfish, and now, I think, it was a mistake.” Mr. Fredrick set Chrysanthemum’s tea on the counter and slid it across to her. “I’m sorry, my dear,” he said, “but what’s been cast on the wind can’t be snatched back. My advice is, for what it’s worth, if you want to help Lucy Star, you need to find out whom she couldn’t die trying to save.” Chrysanthemum watched Mr. Fredrick’s face through the steam rising off her cup, then leaned across the counter and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered. She put on her hat and gloves, slung her bag over her shoulder, and turned for the door, raising her cup in a salute. The bell jingled. Chrysanthemum called a cab to take her home. During the ride she worked on her boyfriend’s anatomically correct knitted sweater, but between Green Street and Tom’s Vista she stopped knitting, reached under her dress, and masturbated while imagining making love to Lucy Star. “What was that?” the cab peddler said when they passed Tom’s Vista. “Nothing,” Chrysanthemum said. She removed her hand and went back to knitting.

Part II

Chapter 11 Where Did Normal Go?

The public car dropped Lucy off at eight fifteen, and she hurried through the Winnebago Graveyard. “Fantastic game!” Charlotte said when Lucy came down the stairs. She hugged her when she got to the dinette, the first place there was room for a hug. Charlotte touched the shoulder of another woman who was in the winnebago. “This is Jessica. Jessica, Lucy. We watched her match last night.” “Hi Jessica,” Lucy said. “Call me Jessie. I never saw a whole blood battle match before. It was . . . not what I expected.” “That good?” “I didn’t realize there was so much ceremony involved.” “We make people wait for the blood and guts.” “Jessie’s an artist,” Charlotte said. “I think you’d like her work.” “I’ll have to see it sometime.” Lucy tried not to sound like she couldn’t care less. “I’m going in for a three month synchronization this morning,” Charlotte said. “I’ll finally be rid of Winnie’s damn scratch. So the canister’s yours until Tuesday.” “Oh.” “Is something wrong?” “I, ah . . . was hoping to talk.”

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“Give us a minute,” Charlotte said to Jessica. “Let’s go up top.” Lucy and Charlotte went out the hatch. “What is it?” Charlotte said. “That fucking match last night.” “I wasn’t kidding. I’ve never seen you that good. You were blazing fast, and your intuition was razor sharp.” “I know,” Lucy said, “The game was great, but . . .” Ten minutes later they walked back down the stairs. “We’ll talk more on Tuesday,” Charlotte said, “just―” “Don’t do anything stupid,” Lucy said. “Just relax. OK?” Lucy nodded. “Now, I have a favor to ask. Jessie wants to come along and observe my enwombment. Do you think―” “Sure,” Lucy said. “I’ve got to be back at the club by noon for the match review, but I’m free until then.” “Great.” Charlotte picked up her womb-atorium bag. “Jessie, you first.” She stood back so Jessica could go through the narrow vestibule leading to the hatch stairway. Lucy grabbed coffee and toast off the counter and followed Charlotte out. “You cut your hair!” “I was ready for a change,” Charlotte said. “What do you think?” “I like it.” The East Slope Fencing Club used the Long Life womb-atorium. It was the newest one in the city, built with modern techniques of structural topiary: all wood and evergreen on the outside and broad leaves, grass, and ceramic on the inside. Charlotte took a shower and put on a simple white cotton smock. “Are you sure about this?” she said to Jessica. “Enwombment can be difficult to watch.” Jessica nodded.

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“I’ll explain everything first so you’re not caught off guard.” She led them into a room that looked like a surgery. “This is the Prep Suite.” Two women in green coveralls were in the room. “Hi Tez, Hi Ronda,” Charlotte said. “This is Jessie and Lucy, they’ll be observing the proceedings. “Tez and Ronda will prepare me for the womb after I’m dead. Actually they’ll start while I’m dying, the quicker our bodies get into a womb the less there is to repair and the shorter our gestation will be. By inflicting an insignificant but fatal wound right here in the womb-atorium, I’ll be out in two days. That’s about the minimum possible womb time. “When we’re ready, I’ll lie down on this table.” She put her hand on a ceramic table in the center of the room. “They’ll wait fifteen minutes, more than enough time for my memory of lying down to be stored in long term memory, then Tez and Ronda will stick this tube with this large needle into my carotid artery, right here.” Charlotte lifted her chin and tapped the side of her neck. “They’ll drain my blood into that reservoir.” She pointed at a large bottle sitting on a shelf under the table. “I’ll lose consciousness and bleed to death shortly after. As soon as I’m dead, they’ll stop bleeding me. The blood is sent to the city blood bank―we make great donors.” “What's that?” Jessica pointed at a thing that looked like a pepper grinder with teeth. “The button saw. After I’ve passed out, and while I’m dy ing, they'll use it to cut out my navel. Some girls keep their old navels. I don’t.” Jessica looked at Lucy. “I don’t either,” Lucy said, “but I’m thinking about keeping this one.” She pulled up her shirt to show Jessica. “It’s my first outie.” “If my body had arrived dead from a bout,” Charlotte said, “they would also do something pretty gruesome to clean out my gastrointestinal tract, but in this case, I took care of that yesterday.” “That’s why you didn’t eat anything last night?”

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“Yes, I didn’t want to sully the mood by explaining.” Charlotte led them through swinging doors into the Womb Room and stopped in front of a womb close to the Prep Suite doors. It had been rotated, raising the vulva to a comfortable working height. “They’ll bring my body here. My memory placenta and its amniotic sac are already settled into this womb, waiting for me. Tez and Ronda will use that speculum hanging from the ceiling to open the birth canal and cervix; they’ll cut open the amniotic sac, fish out the umbilical cord, cut off the end, and staple it to the wound where my navel used to be. The staples will dissolve as the umbilical cord heals itself to me. Then they’ll insert my body, folding me into a fetal position, staple the sac closed, top off the amniotic fluid, and remove the speculum. What do you think?” Jessica looked at the rows of wombs and the plumbing that supported them. She shook her head. “I was expecting a hospital, but this is so . . . functional. Like the way they used to handle livestock.” “That’s where the womb technology comes from. It was once the height of animal husbandry science, revived now to support rebirth.” “And you trust this? You’re not afraid you’ll . . . not come back?” “Do you trust your liver? Your heart? Lungs? Your brain? Genetically, my memory placenta is as much a part of me as any of my organs. It’s not a thing. It’s me.” Charlotte put her hands on Jessica’s shoulders. “Once we’re rejoined in a womb, my placenta sends out its armies of white cells, antibodies, and stem cells. It kills, digests, and expels anything that’s not me. It grows nervous connections to my spinal cord and brain; it fixes my body, and it can even replace some missing tissue―even missing brain tissue. Then my placenta and I dream the shared memories of my life. If any are missing due to brain damage, it puts them back in my head. “Finally, I dream the story of me since the last time we were connected, and it absorbs and remembers it all, including, and

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especially, our love making last night.” She placed her fingers under Jessica’s chin, tipped her head back and kissed her. “Ready to get started?” Charlotte said. Lucy thought Jessica handled it well. She didn’t look away, and only flinched once from a short spurt of blood when Tez poked the needle into Charlotte’s neck. After Charlotte was safely in her womb, Lucy and Jessica took their leave and walked to the public car kiosk. “You have to do that every three months?” Jessica said. “Not exactly, we have to do it if it’s been three months since our last rebirth.” “So you don’t risk losing too much of your memory, in case of brain damage?” “Yes, but that’s a side benefit. Memory placentas start to die after four or five months if they haven’t been rejoined to the girls who created them. No one knows why, it’s one of the many mysteries surrounding rebirth. Some people think they get lonely, or they go insane.” “Really?” “The only outside stimulation they get is through absorbing our experiences. If that source dries up, who knows? I think they’re in love with us and they die of heartache.” “Isn’t that the same thing as going insane?” “I don’t know,” Lucy said, “maybe it’s just my own feelings, but how can you not get emotionally attached to something that regularly saves your life?” “You don’t strike me as the romantic type.” Lucy shrugged. “Anyway, to allow a safety buffer, no more than three months are allowed to pass between conjoinings.” “It’s a strange life,” Jessica said. They reached the kiosk. “When did you and Charlotte meet?” Lucy said. “She came to my show opening at the gallery last week.”

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“Ah.” “You’ve been in this position before, haven’t you?” “What do you mean?” “Having to make small talk with Charlotte’s lovers.” “No, I’m just not good with people I don’t know.” “I’m one in a long line, aren’t I?” Jessica said. Oh crap. “Charlotte is my best friend,” Lucy said. “I mean that in every possible, nontrivial way. That means I don’t speak for her. You seem nice. Obviously, she likes you. Enjoy the moment.” A car arrived indicating it was there to pick up Lucy. “I’ve got to go. It was nice meeting you.” Lucy got in the car. “Come by the gallery,” Jessica said. “My work will be there for the next two weeks.” After their morning shift, Zack and Neil had breakfast in the Helping Hand cafeteria. “Hey, want to see my tattoo?” Neil pulled up his sleeve. There was a fox tattooed on his shoulder. “There’s a tattoo shop not far from here. The girls from Burning Desire go there. They’ve got to get their tattoos redone each time they pop out of a womb. If you pick the right day, girls are coming in, one after the other, all day long. I’ll take you over there if you want.” “No!” Zack said. “Thanks anyway.” “Hey, it’s OK. I know what you mean, those girls can be intimidating. Do you think it’s fair? They get to fight with real swords and we don’t?” “I don’t know.” “Don’t you wish you could do that?” He mimed swinging his butter knife at an opponent. “Shook! Cut somebody’s head off.” He swung the butter knife back, coming in low with a two handed grip. “Shlerk! Spill somebody’s guts on the floor. Don’t you want to know what it feels like to do that?” Neil loaded up his knife in the oleo dish, spread it on his toast, and spooned a huge dollop of strawberry jam on top.

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“Those girls get all the fun. Did you know they can’t get pregnant until they’re twenty-five? They can’t even get sick, or not for long. They go into those wombs and when they come out, everything’s fixed. No injuries, no diseases. They’re all put back together, even if they got chopped to pieces. They can fuck anybody they want and not worry about catching anything! It’s not fair.” Zack fidgeted with his spoon. “Hey, sorry,” Neil said. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable or anything.” “My sister . . . ” Zack said. “Yeah?” “This is a secret, okay?” “Sure.” “My sister plays for Burning Desire.” “No shit! Who is she?” “Debbie, but now she calls herself Lucy.” “What position does she play?” “The one on top.” “I like ’em on top,” Neil said. “Oh, your sister, sorry.” “I mean, on top of the building.” “On the temple? Guardian or goddess?” “The one with the swords.” “Your sister’s a guardian? Guardians are the deadliest bitches on the planet! Hey, don’t tell her what I said about, you know, liking ’em on top. Shit, she might cut my balls off! Wait, Lucy? Your sister’s Lucy Star? If shit were honey! Did you see her game last night? Did she ever show you any of her moves? Can I meet her?” “No! She― We don’t talk. She ran away when . . . a long time ago, to be one of those blood girls. I came here to see her, but she told me to go away.” “Rough. Still, WOW! I’ve got to tell my teacher about this.” “I told you, it’s a secret. Forget I said anything!”

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“It’s OK. Look, you told me a secret, it’s only fair I tell you one. You know that martial arts class I go to? We learn to fight with swords just like blood battle girls, because one day they’re going to figure out how to make that rebirth shit work for guys, and when they do, we’re going to be ready.” “Isn’t that dangerous?” Zack said. “What if you get hurt?” “That’s the problem, isn’t it? All guys can say is, ‘Oh, what if I get hurt?’” Neil raised his hands and mimed fear. “You know what happens if you get hurt? The same thing that always happens―you get hurt. Tough shit! “But, hey. We’re not crazy, we use practice weapons, and we wear padded suits. You know what, though? So do the blood battle girls. When they’re practicing, they use the same practice sticks and wear the same padding we do. That’s why we can learn to be just as good as them, even better. Shit, don’t tell your sister that!” “I told you, we don’t talk.” Lucy and the surviving members of the match teams assembled in the club’s auditorium. Everyone who was not in a womb attended game reviews, including the girls fresh out of the Academy on the reserve squad. Now that her stint as standby guardian was over, Liha made her way to sit with the reserves. Lucy caught up to her. “You did good. You know that, right?” “I didn’t get to play.” “Standby’s rarely do,” Lucy said, “but you impressed Bimini. She’ll tell the other coaches and the word will get around.” “Thanks,” Liha said. Lucy hurried to the other side of the auditorium and sat with her fellow guardians, Serendipity and Uvan. Frankie was in a womb, probably for two weeks; Sandeep was due the next day. “Look what you’ve started,” Uvan said to Lucy. She pointed at the back of the auditorium; the goddesses were sitting behind

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the reserve girls. Lucy turned and waved to Chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemum smiled and waved back. Uvan mouthed, “What the fuck?” to Serendipity. Coach Kai took the podium and everyone hushed up. “We won,” she said. The room whooped. “We also took heavy casualties. That means we’ll be calling up some girls from the reserve squad for the next match.” There was another whoop from the reserve girls. “Is there anyone who did not see the match last night?” A few timid hands went up. Coach Kai pointed at one. “Rosalie, which game did we lose?” “The first,” she said. “How do you know?” “I heard the talk when I got here.” “Good.” Coach Kai pointed at another girl. “Tamia, why did we lose that game?” “The guardian let her arm get cut off.” “Let it get cut off?” “Well, no. she slipped or something and it was cut off while she was getting her balance back.” “Winda.” Coach Kai moved to the next girl. “How many chargers was she facing?” “Three.” “How did that happen?” “Well, ah. In our arena, their forwards opened the two in side routes. In their arena, the south, inside route was open so the two chargers on the south plaza took it. That should have been it; our forwards were blocking the other inside route between the plaza and the marsh, but one of their chargers on the north plaza took the outside route, which seems stupid; it was blocked in our arena, I think.” Winda looked around for confirmation. Several girls nodded. “But, instead of jumping the stream, she ran through the water to the north inside route, and took it up to the hedge. It doesn’t make sense. Running

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through the stream, then skating uphill—she would have lost all her momentum.” “Except when she got to our temple she killed Frankie,” Tamia said. “I was getting to that,” Winda said. “You both seem to know a lot for not having seen the match,” Coach Kai said. “Everybody’s talking about it,” Winda said. “Glad to hear it. That’s a sign of a good club. Everybody’s talking about it, and even though you didn’t see the match, you already have a good understanding of what happened and why. But next time, watch the match.” Coach Kai brought up the replay. Later, while discussing the events that led to the collapse of the defense in Lucy’s game, Chrysanthemum raised her hand. “Yes Chrissy?” Coach Kai said. There was a commotion when everyone turned to see who Chrissy was, and then more commotion when they realized she was a goddess. “Lucy saw an opportunity for the defense to remove two of Beauty Incarnate’s forwards.” “Did the two of you discuss this after the match?” “No.” “Then how do you know?” “She fidgets, all the guardians fidget while they’re standing behind us, except Serendipity. I hear their feet and the tips of their swords moving on the surface of the temple, and I hear them breathe. I could tell by the way Lucy stopped fidgeting that she saw something. From her breathing, I could tell she was about to sing an alert, but changed her mind, and just now, I saw what it was.” “Lucy?” Coach Kai said. “I think I know what she’s talking about.” “Backup the replay,” Chrysanthemum said. “I’ll show you. Stop. See? Right there. That forward, the second one in from

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the hedge, she’s turning to her left, exposing her side to our guard, number thirty-two―sorry I don’t know her name―but thirty-two is paying attention to the third forward in, and she doesn’t see it. If she had killed that forward, the second one in, then the forward right next to the hedge would have been isolated and she and, ah, twenty-five could have ganged up on her and possibly killed her, too.” “That’s interesting,” Coach Kai said, “but games are full of moments when a slight change of fortune could have affected the outcome. They’re not something we can build a strategy around.” “This wasn’t one of those,” Chrysanthemum said, “This was an exploitable opportunity. If acted upon, it would have prevented Lucy and me from being put in such extreme jeopardy a few minutes later.” Lucy sat up. “I remember seeing this and realizing that, by the time I sang an alert, it would have been too late. Like Chrissy said, I took a breath to sing, then changed my mind.” “Exactly,” Chrysanthemum said. “The problem is in the message singing. The semantics are designed to carry strategic alerts, not imminent warnings. I was wondering if we could reserve a class of communication, very simple but precise, made up of the most basic song phonemes. In this case it would have said, ‘thirtytwo look right.’ Presently, those simple phonemes are wasted on maneuvers that aren’t dependent on fast communication.” “What do you think, George?” Coach Kai said to the Message Singing Coach. “It’s an interesting idea.” “Great. We’ll discuss it tomorrow. Thank you, Chrissy, excellent observation.” “Ah, that’s my goddess,” Lucy said. She sat back and grinned at Uvan. Coach Kai summed up the lessons of the review, thanked everyone for attending, and the players and staff hurried to leave and

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make the most of what was left of their Sunday. Lucy went down to the podium. “Why me?” she said to Coach Kai. “Why yesterday?” “Let’s go someplace quieter.” Coach Kai led Lucy through the stage-side doors into the practice arena. “What did you think of Sky’s plan for attacking Beauty Incarnate’s guardian in the second game?” “Pretty elaborate, maybe too elaborate considering it was all based on a minor quirk of the guardian’s.” “That’s a legitimate criticism, but it worked.” “It gave Incarnate a wide open shot at Serendipity.” “That was a risk we thought worth taking. You guardians are formidable, you’re not easy to kill.” They were walking near the hedge. Coach Kai stopped and looked across the lowland stream at the temple. “Did you know, the first blood battle teams only had two chargers; can you believe that? Gunda’s people didn’t realize how deadly they had made the guardians; those two chargers didn’t have a chance. The temple fights were meant to be the climactic moments of a game, but instead, they became foregone conclusions. With rare exceptions, the guardians always won. Games were won and lost by attrition down in the grass. “The first guardians wore body armor, so they took that away. It made the guardians more maneuverable and even more deadly. They took away your short-swords and that helped, but the fans hated it. They loved their fearless little guardians and they didn’t want you looking weak. Finally, Gunda’s choreographer added two more chargers, and the temple fights became real fights. The fans were happy because now, when you die, you die a hero’s death, fighting against insurmountable odds.” Lucy swished the end of her scabbard through the knee high field grass and wild flowers. “My point is,” Coach Kai said, “you wouldn’t believe how much time coaching staffs spend trying to figure out how to kill guardians. We ran out of general strategies a few years ago; now

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we have to focus on each one of you, individually. Sky built a whole game strategy around that Incarnate guardian’s behavioral tick. Even though this is your rookie year, every club has volumes of notes on every little thing you do on that temple, all to try and find something, some little chink, that will let a charger get inside your blades. “I apprenticed under Susila Fuentes. She was a brilliant offensive strategist; now she’s Incarnate’s head coach. If anyone was going to find a way of getting to you, I figured it would be her. I needed to introduce something new, something no one would see coming.” “This whole experiment of yours was to mess up Susila’s plans?” “You hate lies. When I changed the schedule so guardians and goddesses crossed paths, you were the only guardian who got upset about it. I think you’ve always sensed the lie inherent in the guardian-goddess status quo, maybe not consciously, but you felt it in your bones. You want to protect people, you don’t give a dung bucket about Earth Mothers and Goddesses. “All of Susila’s analyses were based on you standing on that temple defending an idea, the Goddess. Last night, you were defending Chrysanthemum, a unique person, someone you knew. Susila’s analyses didn’t have a chance.” Lucy looked into the dense, impenetrable brier of the hedge. “Chrissy winked at me when she reached the altar,” Lucy said. “I noticed it on the game review,” Coach Kai said. “And I winked back.” “I saw that too.” “It was as though we made a compact to not take this shit so seriously. I actually felt giddy, like a kid, like I was ten years old―” No, don’t go there! “You evil little bitch!” He grabbed her by the back of the neck and pushed her down to the floor. She heard the belt come out and tried to crawl away, but he stepped on her hand. The belt slashed

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across her back. She pressed her face into the carpet and breathed in the years of dry dust that had been ground into its fibers. When she was younger, she thought the dust was all that was left of other kids who had been beaten into the carpet. She thought they must have cried until they were all dried up like corn husks, then with one last lashing, they exploded into dust, like hitting a bag of flour with a rolling pin. She didn’t believe that anymore, but she was still afraid she would die if she cried. The belt came down again. She buried her face in the carpet, gritted her teeth, and growled. “Lucy, are you all right?” Coach Kai said. She gripped her scabbard with one hand and squeezed the hilt of her sword with the other, ready to draw. Her eyes were unfocused. A low growl rumbled out of her throat. She stopped growling and blinked a couple of times. Her eyes were dry and itchy. She tried to speak, but her lungs were empty. She couldn’t breath in. This hasn’t happened since . . . Lucy took a step back. She opened her mouth like a suffocating fish trying to gulp in water that wasn’t there, then she turned and ran through the doors into the auditorium. She ran up the aisle, taking the stairs two at a time. She kept going until she was on the street. Finally, she was able to suck in a chest full of air, then she threw up. Chrysanthemum watched Lucy jog down the aisle to Coach Kai. They spoke, then walked through the doors into the practice arena. “I don’t understand these changes,” Chenina said. “Why were we here?” “To critique,” Chrysanthemum said. “To help the teams play better games.” “But their strategy is irrelevant to us. No matter what they do, we sit and wait for the end. Now we’re supposed to comment on

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games, and mingle with the players and guardians? I don’t see the value.” “We’re part of the club, we should be club mates.” “Like waving at your guardian?” “Her name is Lucy.” “I hear she’s scary.” “Not in the least.” The doors to the practice arena banged open, Lucy ran into the auditorium, up the aisle, and out the back door. Several girls had to jump out of her way. “Not scary in the least?” Chenina said. Coach Kai ran through the doors and up the aisle. She was slower than Lucy. Chrysanthemum followed. Lucy wasn’t in the corridor. They went to the player entrance. “Haven’t seen her,” Frank said. “The front entrance,” Chrysanthemum said. They ran to the lobby and out to the street. There was no sign of Lucy except for a puddle of vomit in the gutter. Chrysanthemum put her finger in it. “It’s still hot, body temperature. What happened?” “I don’t know,” Coach Kai said. Donna was enjoying an afternoon with her husband and children when an urgent request came in from the club. “Hello Betty, what is it?” “I think we have a problem with Lucy.” Donna made her explain everything, starting with the cabin arrangements and going through to the conversation in the practice arena. “She said she felt like a kid,” Coach Kai said, “like she was ten years old. Then she started hyperventilating . . . and growling. I’ve never heard someone do that before.” “I wish I’d been there,” Donna said. Her son came over, looking pouty. She lifted him onto her lap. “You know she won’t talk about her childhood, right?”

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“Yes.” “Did you read my report last week, about her brother?” “Just the summary.” “So you know Lucy grew up in a dysfunctional family, with a father who beat her?” “Yes.” “I talked to some of your players to see if anyone could shed any additional light on her history.” “And?” “Nothing, but I kept hearing how she was real sweet, a real nice girl. She looks out for her club mates, takes care of them, and as far as I can tell, unintentionally intimidates every one of them, except Serendipity―I can’t figure her out at all. Some of them told me about the growl. Apparently, when Lucy gets seriously upset, she doesn’t cry, she growls. I’m told it’s not loud, but it scares the crap out of anyone who hears it.” “It does,” Coach Kai said. “What happened next?” “I asked her if she was OK. She seemed to come out of whatever state she was in. Then, I think she had a panic attack, couldn’t talk, couldn’t breathe. She ran out of the facility. By the time we reached the street she was gone.” “Betty, you’re a great coach, and a smart lady, but now and then you can be as stupid as a happy dog in a barrel.” “What do you mean?” “She used the BB League’s emancipation program to escape her family. She slammed the door on her childhood, everything from before she was fourteen. She doesn’t want to remember it, doesn’t want to think about it. Last week part of that past, her brother, walked back into her life―we don’t know why. And today, you’ve got her trying to remember when she was once a happy ten year old. That memory never existed. My guess is, she tried to conjure it up, and all she found was the hell she wants to forget.” “What do we do?” Coach Kai said.

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“I’ll have someone shadow her. She won’t be hard to find; she’s hiding from herself, not from us. She’s had a lot of practice shutting the door to her past. If she shows up tomorrow, she should be OK―as long as you let her keep that door closed. You could get her a shrink, but her friend Charlotte is worth ten shrinks and she’s free. Oh, and let her keep cutting up girls into little pieces, does wonders for all that suppressed anger, and for your winning record.” Lucy started walking and ended up at Alice’s Tea Shop. The doorbell jingled, and she sat at the counter. “Is there something wrong?” Mr. Fredrick said. A trace of vomit oder lingered about her. “Tell me about your personal infusions,” Lucy said. “Do they really capture a person’s essence?” “Some people think they do.” Lucy played with the cinnamon shaker. “Can you make one that hides a person’s essence?” “From whom?” “From me.” “All I do is make the infusion. It does what you need it to do.” Lucy batted the cinnamon shaker into the honey bottle. The honey bottle slid into her other hand. “Can you make me one?” “Of course.” Mr. Fredrick set a glass in front of Lucy and poured two fingers of a clear brown liquid into it from a bottle he kept under the counter. “That’s a pallet cleanser. Swish it around in your mouth and spit it back in the glass.” It had a vinegary taste, but as soon as she spit it out the taste was gone and so was the flavor of vomit. She felt better. Mr. Fredrick put the glass in the sink, then he took a blindfold from under the counter. “Put this on.” She did and he inspected the edges. “I am going to have you smell potential ingredients in groups of three. You tell me which you like the best and which you don’t like.” “What if I don’t like any of them, or I like them all?”

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“That won’t happen. There will always be one, and only one, you don’t like.” Mr. Fredrick selected a jar from under the counter, removed its lid, and held it under her nose. “Don’t tell me what you think until you have experienced all three, but do tell me when to move to the next one.” Lucy took a deep sniff. “Okay,” she said. Mr. Fredrick put the cover back on the jar and placed it under the counter, then picked up the same jar, removed the lid, and held it under Lucy’s nose. She sniffed and he repeated the same steps a third time with the same jar. “Well?” “I think―” “Don’t think, react.” “I liked the second one the best and didn’t like the first.” “Good.” Mr. Fredrick set the jar on the counter, selected a new jar, and repeated the test. “First one best, didn’t like the third.” Mr. Fredrick set that jar back under the counter. About half way through his samples, Mr. Fredrick saw Chrysanthemum watching through the front window. He mouthed the words, “She’s OK.” Chrysanthemum mouthed back, “Thank you,” blew him a kiss, and left. He continued the tests until Lucy had sampled all the jars, then he removed her blindfold. Seven jars were lined up on the counter. “Here is the Lucy Star infusion,” Mr. Fredrick said. He began scooping and pinching the ingredients into a pot. More of some, less of others. When the pot chimed, Mr. Fredrick poured the tea through a strainer into a cup and handed it to her. She blew on it, then took a sip. It tasted like tree bark, then like watermelon with a bitter edge, and then a mild flavor of sweetened fall leaves that seemed to linger into the first snowfall of winter. “This is me?” Lucy said. “It may take a while to taste the full essence.” “How much do I owe you?”

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“The first one is free, then the normal price for a cup of tea.” “Thank you,” Lucy said. The doorbell jingled on her way out. She walked to the Old Harbor’s Seafront Park and sat on a bench to sip her tea. She tried to figure out what it said about her, then felt stupid. She took a big gulp and sputtered. It was still hot. She sipped and watched the sails of cargo carriers arriving and departing the new harbor out in the sound. Someone was standing beside her. “That looks good,” he said. “Could you spare some change for an old man, so I can have some for myself?” “Sure.” Lucy handed him a couple of coins. “Nice view,” he said. “It’s kind of boring, but sometimes boring is just right. Do you want to sit?” “Thank you.” He was neatly dressed in worn, but clean clothes. The sun was setting opposite the harbor, casting the city’s shadows out to the horizon. The sails winked between light and dark as they eased from shadow to sunlight to shadow. “Had a difficult day?” the man said. “A difficult afternoon. What gave it away?” “‘Sometimes boring is just right.’” Lucy laughed. “What brings you down here? It couldn’t be for the panhandling.” “Why do you say that?” She swung her cup through a wide arc. There was hardly anyone in the park except for two city employees emptying the trash baskets. “Not many touches,” she said. “I think the view is anything but boring.” “I suppose so,” she said. The sky had turned dark blue; stars were popping out and beginning to twinkle. The gibbous moon was asserting itself half way up the eastern sky. “You got your tea from Mr. Fredrick,” he said.

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“Is this some kind of guessing game? Because if it is, you just cheated.” Lucy turned the cup’s label to face him. “Maybe it is. Want to play some more?” “Why not.” “That is one of Mr. Fredrick’s personal infusions.” He nodded at the cup. “How can you tell?” “I watched you sample it. You weren’t savoring the flavor; you were trying to understand what it meant. May I have a taste?” Lucy looked him over. “I sleep in the Helping Hand shelter right over there.” He pointed. “I am healthy. I bathe every day and brush my teeth, and I do my laundry once a week. Just yesterday, in fact.” Lucy handed him her cup. He poured a dollop into his mouth, not touching the cup with his lips. He swished the tea around, savored, and swallowed. “You are a remarkable young lady.” He handed the cup back. “What did the magic tea tell you?” “That’s between me and the tea.” “Humph,” Lucy said. “You think I’m humoring you?” “I think it’s just tea.” “And this is play acting to indulge Mr. Fredrick’s vanity? It doesn’t matter. The illusion of magical tea is more powerful than any real magic could ever be. “I tasted your tea. It’s only fare you taste mine. Next time you’re at Alice’s Tea Shop ask for Maxton’s infusion. See what it tells you about me.” It was now dark. “I’d better be going,” Maxton said. “I appreciate you did not react to me with fear or suspicion.” “Why would I?” Lucy shifted her position and moved her sword. “I see. You have nothing to fear from an old man, and I have everything to fear from you.” “I didn’t mean that,” Lucy said.

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“The tea doesn’t lie.” Maxton stood. “Good night.” He walked toward the Helping Hand Shelter. When he was gone Lucy rolled her head back and looked straight up at the zenith, “Where did normal go?” she said, then got up and walked home. A message was waiting for her: Hi Lucy, This is Felix, I want you to know I really liked meeting you last week. I saw your match, it was great. You were . . . I don’t know what to say. I know you must be busy, and you’ve got to be incredibly focused to do what you do, but I’d like to see you again. I’ve got a couple of reservations for this little restaurant called the Potato Bar. They’re hard to get. My roommate had them and he couldn’t use them. The reservations are for Tuesday night at nineteen. They’re for the whole evening. The idea is, you show up, and eat, drink, and dance all night. If you’re too busy, or you know, not interested, I understand. She replied: Hi Felix. The Potato Bar? Sounds simple and basic. I could really use simple and basic right now. How about I pick you up at eighteen thirty? I’m assuming it’s informal dress. See you then. Thanks for thinking of me. Lucy sent the message, then she looked around the empty canister. She went into Charlotte’s bedroom and lay face down on the bed. She smelled her friend each time she breathed in. Later, Charlotte put her hand on Lucy’s back. “Just relax,” she whispered. Then dream Charlotte hummed a lullaby until dream Lucy fell asleep.

Chapter 12 Grizzly

“We all have code names,” Neil was saying. “The teacher is Grizzly. I’m Fox. That’s why I got this fox on my shoulder. The class is five nights a week at twenty-one, from Sunday to Thursday. You should join us, I’ll bet Grizzly would love to meet you.” “Why?” Zack said. He picked up a trash basket. “If he wants to meet me because of my sister, I don’t know anything about her. She left when I was ten.” It was getting dark. Every evening it was getting dark earlier than the day before. Zack wanted it to keep getting darker and never stop. But Year Day was approaching, and that meant the nights would reverse and get shorter; they’d go back to summer. He wished everything would go back with them. Zack watched the old guy, Max. He was talking to a girl. (For a moment, Zack thought the girl might be Debbie.) He sat next to her on her bench, and she let him have a taste of her hot chocolate. “If you join, maybe you can make her talk to you.” “Yeah, sure. What?” Zack turned back to Neil. “I said, maybe you can be better than her. That’s what Grizzly says. If we get to be as good as them, we’ll be better, because guys are naturally stronger than girls. He says guys are the proper defenders of the Earth Mother, rebirth upset the natural order of things.”

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“Why do you use code names? It’s not illegal to practice with fake swords.” “Grizzly’s got a secret patron. The guy wants us to keep this quiet until we’re really good. If people saw us now, they’d laugh. When he shows us to the world, he wants people to be impressed. He wants to challenge some blood battle girls, and he wants us to kick their asses.” “You’ll all die.” “We’re going to do it with practice swords and padded suits. We’re not crazy. It’s to make a point.” “What point? All you’ll prove is you’re a bunch of pansies with sticks and padding. Everybody will know, if it was real, you’d all get killed.” “No! Everybody will know, we’d win!” Neil dumped his trash basket, banging it hard on the edge of the collection wagon. “Just come to a class. See for yourself.” “Okay,” Zack said. He watched Max get up and say something to the girl, probably something classy, and walk away. “Great!” Neil said. “I’ll tell Grizzly about you tonight.” Neil changed and left for the rendezvous. The class location was a secret. After each session the students were given a new pickup spot. Neil was the last one to arrive. In a few minutes, the big limo pulled up. The two scary ninja girls with the red lipstick got out and waited while the students got in; the door closed, and they moved off. The windows were always opaque. The ninja girls handed out the hoods. Neil and the other students put them on. After a long ride, Neil heard the limo door open. The ninjas led them through halls and down stairs. They always seemed to take a different route. Finally, Neil heard Grizzly say, “Gentlemen, you may remove your hoods.” Neil pulled his off. They were back in the fancy gym. Everybody put on padded suits. Grizzly had three assistants, Walrus, Catamount, and Wolf. Neil and the others warmed up.

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They practiced sword handling, then paired up and practiced attacking, blocking, and counterattacking. Catamount and Wolf walked around giving advice and demonstrating techniques. They were being trained to handle swords like chargers. The best students moved on to guardian training class. Neil was practicing with Stoat and looking for an opportunity to get Grizzly’s attention, but Grizzly was off to the side talking with Walrus. “I’ve got to tell Grizzly about this new guy I’m working with,” Neil said to Stoat. “His sister plays blood battle. I think he should join our class and―” “All right gentlemen,” Grizzly said. He had walked over to the students. “It’s time for challenges.” The students sat on their heels in a wide circle and laid out their practice swords in front of their knees, making a ring. “Badger, you’re up.” Badger stood, picked up his practice stick, and walked around the ring. He pointed his stick at Hyena. “I challenge you,” he said. Hyena got up. Neil scoffed. “Fox, do you have something to say?” Grizzly said. “No sir,” Neil said. “Yes you do. Out with it.” “W-well sir. We’re supposed to challenge someone better than us. I think Badger’s cheating. Hyena’s big, but he’s slow, and not very, you know, smart.” “Bullshit!” Badger said. “Do you really think Hyena is a worthy challenge?” Grizzly said to Badger. “Yes,” Badger said. “What about Fox? Would he also be a worthy challenge?” “That little shit? I’d bleed his ass all over the floor!” “So, if Fox fights Hyena, he won’t have a chance?” “I don’t―” “Sit down,” Grizzly said to Badger. “Fox, you’re challenging Hyena.”

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“What? Yes sir.” Neil stood up and put on his helmet. He walked into the circle and held up his practice stick. He and Hyena circled each other. “Fight already!” Grizzly said. Hyena swung down on Neil. Neil held up his stick and blocked Hyena, but he was almost knocked off his feet. Hyena was strong, like he had said, but slow, also like he had said. Neil dodged to the side of Hyena’s next attack, and swung. His stick hit Hyena in the ribs. “Break off!” Grizzly said. “Fox is the winner. Badger, you just washed out of the class. Take off your gear and put on your hood. Wait over by the exit.” Badger’s mouth dropped open, then he looked at Neil with a face full of hate. “Now!” Grizzly said. Badger got up and did as he was told. “Gentlemen,” Grizzly said to Hyena and Neil. “Good challenge. Please sit.” Grizzly named the next challenger. The fights were fast, and like real blood battle fights, they ended as soon as the first killing blow was delivered. When the challenges were finished, Catamount and Wolf brought out the altar. It was a wooden box the size and shape of a real temple altar. This was the part where they practiced the ultimate act of blood battle: decapitating the Goddess. But the straw goddess was missing. Wolf and Catamount spread a tarp on the floor in front of the altar. “We have a special guest this evening,” Grizzly said. Walrus jogged to the gym door, the one the students never used. He held it open and a girl walked in wearing the white vestment of the Goddess. She was blindfolded. Walrus spoke to someone outside the door. They handed him a purple body bag. “Gentlemen,” Grizzly said, “please welcome the Goddess, or a girl who aspired to be a goddess, the one legitimate female role

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in blood battle. She was denied her dream, but thanks to a prosperous and benevolent father, she was gifted with rebirth. It is time for this girl to make her three month return to a womb. She wishes to experience a little of the dream denied her. To make that possible, she will generously grant one of you the privilege of performing a real Goddess beheading.” An antsy shuffle spread through the students. “We try to be egalitarian in all our training, but this offer requires us to put forward our best student. Lynx, will you accept this honor?” “Ah, sure,” Lynx said. “Then gear up, charger armor and boots, but leave the skates off.” Lynx went over to the portable wardrobe. He took off his practice suit and put on the helmet, forearm and foreleg shields, and the shoes, less skates, of a charger. When he returned, Grizzly took a charger long-sword from the class armory, unsheathed it, and handed it to him. Grizzly walked over to the girl, held her hand, and led her to the altar box. She banged the side of the box with her toe, then stepped onto it and turned. When she was facing the front, Grizzly said, “That’s it.” She started to kneel, but she was standing on a corner of her vestment. It was wrapped around her knee and pulled on her shoulder. She almost fell off the box. Grizzly steadied her. She stood up and tried again. Grizzly held her vestment so it wouldn’t get caught. She knelt and sat on her heels. Grizzly continued fussing with the vestment until it was settled properly around her. The girl looked to the front with her blindfolded eyes. Her breathing was shallow. She was nervous. Grizzly stepped back, extending his hand in a magnanimous gesture. “If you please,” he said to Lynx. Lynx stepped up to the sweet spot. Grizzly motioned him back, indicating just-a-little with his thumb and index finger. Lynx shuffled back. He was having a hard time getting his hands

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to settle on the hilt of the sword. Finally, he pulled back to start his swing. Neil whispered to Stoat, “That guy I was telling you about, he should be here for this. His sister’s a guardian with Burning Desire, Lucy Star.” Lynx started his swing. The girl turned her head toward Fox. “Lucy Sta―?” Lynx tried to stop, but his blade hit her in the back of the head. It didn’t have the force to cut all the way through and got stuck in her upper jaw, under her eye sockets. The blood from her arteries pumped up, hit the underside of the wound, and sprayed out like a greenhouse sprinkler, splattering blood on everyone, especially on Lynx. “Shit! Fuck!” Lynx said. He wiggled the sword to dislodge it. The girl’s body crumpled forward. Walrus motioned to Catamount. They moved up, opened the body bag, and lifted the girl into it. Walrus zipped it closed. They carried it to the door the girl had entered from and handed it out to whoever was waiting on the other side. Neil heard the sound of the zipper opening, followed by an angry exclamation. Walrus closed the door. He came back and whispered to Grizzly, “I told you this was a bad idea.” Grizzly turned on Lynx. “What was that?” “It was Fox!” Lynx said. “He was talking and she looked at him!” “She was blindfolded!” “Well, she turned. I don’t know why.” “Fox!” Grizzly said. “What did you say? It better have been worth it. You’re this close to washing out with Badger!” Neil was still spitting blood out of his mouth. “I w-was telling Stoat about this guy I’m working with. He’s new, just moved into the shelter last week.” “Who the fuck cares about another loser!” “His sister . . . he’s got a sister who p-plays blood battle for Burning Desire. She’s a guardian. Lucy Star.”

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Grizzly stopped being angry. “I wanted to tell you about him. I though you’d want to meet him. I was telling Stoat the guy should be here to see this.” “Did you tell him about us?” “No! Well, a little. But he doesn’t know anything.” Grizzly put his hands together and pressed them against his chin. He looked around at his cohorts. They were nervous, and excited. Grizzly nodded to Neil. “Bring him along tomorrow night. You’re lucky. His sister is Lucy Star? She better be.” The girl’s blood had splattered over the floor, instructors, and students, mostly missing the tarp. “Good thing the staff doesn’t ask questions.” Grizzly shook his head. “Thanks to your fiasco,” he said to Lynx, “we’re done for tonight. Everyone, in the showers. Make sure you wash off all the blood. You’ll get tomorrow night’s rendezvous in the limousine, as usual. Don’t be late!”

Chapter 13 Just Relax

“Hey,” Neil stood over Zack’s bed shaking him awake. “Wha’ time zit?” Zack said. “Get up. I’ve got news. You’re alarm’s gonna go off in five minutes anyway.” “What is it?” Zack said. “We’ll talk when we’re outside.” Neil wanted to pick up a coffee in the cafeteria. He spooned sugar into his cup. “I stuck my neck out for you last night.” He spooned more sugar. Zack opened his mouth. “Shh!” Neil said. “Not yet.” He led Zack into the damp, pre-dawn air and hustled him away from the Helping Hand. “You’re in,” he said. “Grizzly wants to meet you.” “I don’t know,” Zack said. “I’ve been thinking, if this gets back to Debbie, I don’t think she’ll like it. This might be a bad idea.” Neil stopped and planted his hand on Zack’s chest. “You can’t back out! Fuck!” “But I’m not anybody. Why am I so important?” “I don’t know. Grizzly thinks you are. And fuck,” he waved his cup around, scattering splashes of hot coffee despite the safety lid, “if you don’t show up tonight, I’m gonna get kicked out of the class. I gave my word that you’d be there. It’s a fucking point of honor! Don’t screw me. Please!”

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“What if I don’t like it? Can I leave?” “Sure, of course!” “I don’t want any of this getting back to Debbie.” “Grizzly’s a good guy. If you don’t want her to know, he’ll respect your wishes.” “OK, I’ll go, but only tonight. If I don’t like it, I’m not go ing back.” “You got it,” Neil said. “Whatever you want.” Lucy looked at herself in the mirror. “Just relax,” she said, then brushed her teeth. Brush. Spit. Gargle. Spit. She dressed and poured a cup of coffee. The coffee came out of the pot too fast and splashed on the counter. “Crap!” She had made the usual pot, but Charlotte wasn’t there to take the first cup. She wiped the counter and filled her cup, pouring slowly. She picked up a piece of toast (she had made too much) and headed up the stairs. The air was full of mist. A delivery agent peddled his parcel wagon through the Graveyard and stopped in front of her hatch. “Packages for Lucinda Star. Canister seventeen.” “That’s me,” Lucy said. “Two boxes.” He opened the wagon and lifted them out. One was an obvious flower box, the other was big, wide, and flat. “Who are they from?” “Jayzen Verbeek.” She carried the boxes down the stairs, filled a pitcher with water for the roses, put them in, and set them on the kitchenette counter next to the plate of too much toast. She held one of the flowers under her nose and inhaled. When Emanuel Jhadav created the Burning Desire rose, he did a great job on the smell. She put the other box on the dinette table and opened it. It contained a dress: incredibly beautiful, incredibly red. It also contained a necklace, earrings, shoes, hosiery, panties, white gloves, and a matching overcoat. There was a note. “Was at your match,

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blah blah blah, wonderful performance, blah blah blah, have an evening free? Always at your blah blah, Jayzen Verbeek.” She was late. From a car, on her way to the club, she sent a request to Jayzen. “Good morning, Lucy,” he said. “How nice of you to contact. Did you receive my gift?” She was surprised he was available, and then not; he was trying to seduce her, after all. “Nice dress,” she said, “but underwear? Do you think us poor people don’t own underwear?” “It’s special.” “I’m afraid to ask.” “You’ll see.” “It’s an arrogant gift. I’m sending it back when I get home this evening.” “Try it once. How about tonight, before you return it?” “Where were you planning on taking me?” “You can pick.” “I don’t know your world, Jay. I don’t have a clue where to go.” “There must be someplace you know where that dress would turn heads, appropriately.” Lucy thought it over. “Here’s the deal. Call the delivery service, tell them to pick up the dress tomorrow morning and deliver it to the Helping Hand Thrift Shop. You pick me up at twenty this evening. We’re going to Rude Red’s Follies and Burlesque Show.” After the morning shift, Zack changed out of his work coveralls, put on a clean t-shirt and jeans, and went to the administration office. Christopher looked up from his paperwork. “Good morning, Zachary,” he said. “Mina’s ready for you.” “Morning,” Zack said. He knocked on Wilhelmina’s door. “Come in. Please, have a seat.” “Thank you, ma’am.” Zack sat in the same stuffed chair he sat in last week. ***

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Wilhelmina stepped around her desk and sat in the other stuffed chair. “Call me Mina,” she said. “It’s the most comfortable nickname I can pull out of Wilhelmina.” “Yes ma’am.” She settled into her chair and took a minute to observe Zack. His fingernails were chewed to the quick. He tried to relax, but he was stiff and symmetrical. He sat in the middle of the cushion, knees a little apart, feet parallel, fingers knitted together in his lap. He made eye contact with her chin. “You’ve been with us for a week. How are you getting along?” she said. “Okay.” “How’s work?” “Fine.” “Are you getting along with Neil?” “Yes. He . . .” Zack looked away. “He what?” “It’s nothing.” “Why don’t you tell me anyway. I see you’re nervous. Talking about something unimportant can help you relax.” “He wants me to go to his class.” He unclasped his hands to scratch his right leg. Wilhelmina consulted some papers in a folder on her lap. “His topiary class?” “No. His martial arts class.” “I haven’t heard about that.” “I guess it’s not . . . It’s kind of a . . . He doesn’t tell many people about it.” He crossed his arms tight around his chest and stuck his hands in his armpits. He started tapping his right leg. “Is martial arts something you’re interested in?” “Not really.” “Are you going to go?” “I guess. His teacher wants to meet me.” “Do you know why?” Zack looked for something on the wall behind Wilhelmina.

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“These questions aren’t important. I just want you to feel comfortable talking to me.” He stopped tapping his leg and remade eye contact with her chin. “You were telling me why Neil’s teacher wants to meet you.” “It’s because of who I know.” He stuffed his hands deeper into his armpits, wrapping his arms so tight around his chest, Wilhelmina wondered if they were constricting his breathing. “Who’s that?” Zack looked down at the armrest of her chair. “It’s OK. You can say it.” “My sister.” For a moment, his eyes made real eye contact. They were wet and desolate. “The teacher is interested in her?” “I really shouldn’t be talking about this.” He blinked and looked back at the armrest. “About your sister?” “About the class.” “Let’s talk about something else then. I didn’t know you had a sister. Can you tell me something about her? It doesn’t have to be important. Is she older or younger?” “Older.” “Is she living here, in the city?” “Why do you want to know?” “I thought, if she was, maybe that’s why you came here.” Zack turned ashen. He grabbed two handfuls of loose jeans at the sides of his legs. Wilhelmina leaned forward. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize this was such a difficult topic for you. How about this, I won’t ask you any more questions about her, but when you’re ready, I would like you to tell me about your sister. Will you do that?” Zack nodded. Wilhelmina sat back. “Good, let’s change the subject. Tell me about the Helping Hand. What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong?”

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*** At the end of the meeting, Wilhelmina opened the door for Zack. “If you’re feeling pressured into going to Neil’s class, you don’t have to. Let me know, and I’ll talk to him.” “It’s okay,” Zack said. “I want to go. Thanks ma’am.” Wilhelmina closed the door, sat behind her desk, and stared through her office window into the outer office. She made a decision and put in a talk-to request to Donna Quinn, then started writing her notes on Zack’s session. “Hi, Mina,” Donna said. “What can I do for you?” “Do you recall that boy, the brother of your player, Lucy Star?” “I do, but I don’t remember mentioning her name. Did he tell you?” “No,” Wilhelmina said, “and how I know is beside the point. I’m concerned the boy, Zack, is getting mixed up in something. Something that may involve his sister.” “Oh?” “One of our residents, another boy he works with, is pressuring him to attend some sort of martial arts class. It sounds like the teacher is interested in Zack because of his sister. Something feels wrong. I was wondering if you could follow the boys to the class―maybe find out what’s going on?” “Do you know when and where it meets?” “Not yet. It sounds secretive, but I’ll ask around and let you know what I find.” “Good,” Donna said. “Make sure you don’t spook him. And Mina, if you want my cooperation, you have to tell me everything you know and everything you suspect. Deal?” “Deal. As long as it’s reciprocal.” “Deal,” Donna said and broke the contact. Helping Hand’s policy was to not invade their clients’ privacy. Wilhelmina had just taken a big step across that line. She hoped it was the right thing to do, and not too late. ***

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The special panties were made out of a molecular elastic something. They came with instructions. She put them on, held them in place, pinched the top seam, and ran her fingers from back to front on each side. The panties tightened up all around. The seams were invisible. The material didn’t wrinkle when she moved. They turned her butt crack into a smooth concave curve, and didn’t show any labia cleft, although, according to the instructions, both could be adjusted. The panties were removed by reversing the pinch direction. Handy for me. Especially handy for him. The dress was even more adjustable. She set the skirt length to just below her knees and kept it loose enough to not hamper her full range of motion. She adjusted the bodice to give a hint of cleavage. The belt was thoughtfully equipped with loops for her scabbard. The necklace had a snug fit and didn’t dangle. She was used to precise control of her body; a loose necklace that added a chunk of random momentum around her neck would have made her uncomfortable. It was a minor but thoughtful thing. Jayzen must have hired a consultant. The earrings were small and held tight to her earlobes with a clever clasp that was secure, but didn’t pinch. The consultant understood she would not have pierced ears. The shoes were high heeled and totally wrong. Jayzen must have picked them out. She substituted an old pair of guardian shoes that clashed with the dress. Just right for Rude Red’s. Jayzen arrived in a private car. “Who are they?” Lucy stuck out her chin at the two girls in ninja outfits and red lipstick. “These are the Bonnies,” Jayzen said. “They’re my bodyguards.” “The Bonnies?” “They’re identical twins who’ve both received rebirth gene therapy. The security agency thinks twins make a superior team. Better nonverbal communication skills, that sort of thing.” “I’m not planning on attacking you,” Lucy said.

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“Father insists we have bodyguards at all times when we’re off family property. They’ll be quiet; after a while, you won’t even know they’re there.” Jayzen stood aside to allow Lucy to board the car, then he and his bodyguards followed her in. The car departed the Winnebago Graveyard siding. “I was at your game on Saturday,” Jayzen said. “So your note explained. Your sister was there, too.” “Ah, yes.” “What did you think?” “The matches were short.” “They’re called games. The event is a match.” “They were still short.” “They’re kept short for safety. We don’t know how long a girl’s body can lie around at room temperature before she’s irretrievably dead. We know an hour is safe. Beyond that, the military has the best data since it’s a high risk profession, even for rebirth girls, but they’re not telling. To err on the side of safety, blood battle games are designed to last about twenty minutes. If a game goes long, it’s temporarily halted at thirty minutes to allow the casualties to be removed and processed―” “Champagne?” Jayzen said. “Sure.” Lucy set her scabbard to the side and accepted the champagne flute. Jayzen reached for her sword. “Don’t touch it,” Lucy said. “My apology. You carry that for display, yes? Would you ever actually use it?” “Gunda wanted guardians and chargers to carry their swords in public, like movie samurai, to add to our mystique.” “Gunda?” “Gunda Thorstenson. She created blood battle.” “The opera impresario?” “I guess she was that, too. Anyway, She lobbied the regional councils to make sure we had the right. That right is to carry our

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swords, not to use them, or even draw them.” The Brody incident flickered for a moment. She pushed it away. “But maybe . . . if I had no choice.” “When would that be? It would be difficult for someone to threaten your life. You can’t be killed, not easily, at least not until you’re twenty-five.” “I don’t know. I guess I might, if it was to protect someone else.” “You’re being evasive.” “I haven’t thought about it. I don’t know if I could fight someone who might actually die at my hand.” “You could wound them.” She gave Jayzen a teasing smirk. “As you know, my skills are very nuanced in the ways of killing, not in the whether-or-not of killing. I don’t think I’d be good at wounding.” “You wounded my heart,” Jayzen said. “I’ll take credit for wounding your pride. I don’t know yet if you even have a heart.” She poked him in the chest with her scabbard. “You know, thanks to my girls here,” he tipped his head toward the Bonnies, “I’m harder to kill than you.” “Really? Right now, if I decided to poke you in the heart―your fleshy physical heart,” she poked him again, “they would be quick enough to stop me?” “I’m not at liberty to discuss their means, but yes, you wouldn’t have a chance. I’m better protected than you, I don’t have to spend time in an incubator, and there is no expiration date on my protection.” A chime sounded. The car was approaching Rude Red’s. Donna’s security staff consisted of herself, her assistant, and the guards: uniformed guards like Frank and plain-clothed guards like the receptionists sitting behind the lobby desk at the front entrance. Any off site work was contracted out to the Esposito & Associates Tracking Agency run by an old buddy of Donna’s, Kwan Esposito.

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Jandeet was a junior member of the agency, but their best city tracker. He pulled the assignment to follow Zack. The kids were working the trash detail in the Seafront Park when he picked them up. The other boy, Neil, looked jumpy. Their shift ended and the boys hurried to the Helping Hand. Ten minutes later they emerged wearing nondescript street clothes. They picked up a public car at the local kiosk. Jandeet noted the car ID, then requested a car to pair with it. His car hur ried to catch up to the one sporting the ID he had provided. By the time Zack and Neil reached their destination, Jandeet was right behind them. He had to be careful to remain inconspicuous exiting his car this close to his subjects. Zack and Neil walked for fifteen minutes to an abandoned siding on an old, unmanaged street where several other boys had collected. Over the next five minutes a few more boys arrived, then a large private limousine slid down the street and stopped. Two security guards stepped out. These were exclusive, top-of-the-line bodyguards wearing full body armor and jackets that, Jandeet had no doubt, contained enough surveillance devices, and lethal and nonlethal weapons to spot, and stop, multiple assassination attempts. He slipped deep into the surrounding shadows, pulled down his hat, and flipped up his collar to trap as much body heat as he could, lest it give him away. The guards’ body armor and jackets were black, but in contradiction to the usual strategy of remaining inconspicuous, they wore red lipstick. The boys filed into the limousine, then it drove off. Jandeet requested its ID; he got back a high pitched squeal that would have left him temporarily deaf if his dampeners hadn’t filtered it out. Now he was angry. He didn’t think he had been spotted. This was most likely a simple trick used to mask the limousine’s ID while it was on its own. When it moved into managed traffic at the end of the street, it would have to identify itself, but if he ran after it to try and catch the ID, the guards would spot him.

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He wasn’t a noted city tracker for nothing. Those bodyguards had looked like a matched set. There was only one security agency in the city that used twins, the one with the self-referential name, Twin Security. There was a car kiosk five minutes away―one minute at a brisk run. Part of good tracking was knowing things like, who are the biggest clients of competing agencies. Twin Security owed their existence, almost exclusively, to the old-money Verbeek family, and only one member of that family tarted up his bodyguards like the ones Jandeet had seen. As soon as the limousine was out of sight he started running to the kiosk and requested to be met by a car available for exclusive use. It arrived while he was still running. He opened the door and slipped one of his agency tokens into the handle to pay for the premium service. He played a hunch. “Express passage to the Verbeek Mansion.” The car didn’t move until he buckled himself in, then it accelerated while requesting clearances along its path. A big limousine like the one that picked up the boys would need to use the underground cargo transit tunnels to get around. A public car running a premium express passage could accelerate to 160 kilometers per hour and maintain that speed by negotiating an optimal path through the managed street level traffic. If he had guessed correctly about its destination, Jandeet would beat the limousine to the mansion. Three minutes after he arrived and found a good hiding place, Jandeet saw the limousine drive up the street and turn into the mansion garage. He grabbed its ID while it was still on the managed road alongside the mansion. This was the end of the trail. He couldn’t get inside without violating his agency’s license, but he could wait. Lucy, Jayzen, and his bodyguards disembarked. The car drove away to wait in a local siding. Rude Red’s was a year-round costume party. The patrons loitering in front of the entrance were ostentatious, garish, and

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riotous in the variety of their costumes. “Don’t worry,” Lucy said, “we’ll fit right in, even your ninja girls―especially your ninja girls.” They walked in and made their way toward the runway. The room was filled with boisterous yelling and hundreds of conversations. A one-man band competed for attention on the stage. Waiters on stilts moved through the crowd. “Lucy! Lucy!” Lucy looked around. Rude Red himself strutted their way on the tallest stilts in the house. He was bulbous, or his costume made him look that way. He wore a top hat, a coat with tails that curled up his back, and flesh colored tights covered in curly fake hair. A meter long dildo swung from his crotch, its glans painted bright red. He clattered to a stop, bent over and mimed kissing Lucy on both cheeks. His mouth was a meter above her head. “I loved your match!” he said, swaying upright. Then again bent low feigning a whisper. “You’re the talk of the town, you know. At least of my town.” Lucy said something. Red cupped his hand behind his ear. She wrapped megaphone hands around her mouth. “What do you mean?” Red waggled his finger at her. “Don’t think people didn’t notice!” He lurched upright, held up his left hand, took a huge lipstick dispenser from his pocket, and colored his palm and fingers bright red. He bent low and placed his hand on a pat ron’s shoulder, then took it away leaving a red hand print be hind. The man turned around, annoyed, until he saw it was Rude Red. Red held his finger to his lips. “Shh!” he said. “We don’t talk about it.” He tapped the side of his nose. “Yet, stories are being told!” He lurched upright. “Please, this way, sit upfront! Tonight, you are an honored guest!” He held out his arm and led them to seats next to the runway. Lucy slid onto a stool, but Red bent down and waggled, “Come here,” with the fingers of his red

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painted hand. Lucy stood and reached up. He took her hand, stretched her arm up, and bent so low he was teetering on the verge of toppling over. He kissed her hand, then reared up and strutted away. “You didn’t tell me you were a celebrity here,” Jayzen said. “I’m not, or I wasn’t before.” She looked at the red lipstick smudged on her hand. “Do you or the Bonnies have something I can use to clean this off?” They ordered, drank, and talked about nothing much, then the burlesque show started. The lights didn’t dim. Rude Red wanted his performers to demand the attention of his raucous customers by the force of their performance. The piano player knocked out an anthem. The first act, Beth and Billy, strutted onto the stage and along the runway. “Gentle friends and lovers, from near and far, I am here to tell you, ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!’” Despite his small size, Billy’s voice boomed across the room. Beth was the original fat lady. She wore the white robes and horned helmet of the Razzmatazz era opera singer. Billy was the skinny runt Viking warrior. But that wasn’t enough; they needed an assistant from the audience. Billy strutted up and down the runway looking for tonight’s victim. His eyes fell on one of the Bonnies, and he pointed with his wooden sword. “Him! Umm, her! Umm―” he raised his hands and shrugged his shoulders.” The Bonnie looked at Jayzen and shook her head. “Do it,” Jayzen said, “I’ll be safe. I have my own personal warrior to protect me tonight.” He put his arm around Lucy’s waist. Beth charged up, grabbed the Bonnie by her upper arm and hauled her onto the runway. Billy pulled a huge strap-on vulva and a huge strap-on dildo from a box of props. He held each up to the ‘volunteer’ for audience approval. The dildo won and he strapped her into it. It was a classic burlesque show. Beth ordered Billy around. He in turn ordered the volunteer to help Beth remove robes and

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replace them with big feathery boas while the piano player beat out a grinding sexual rhythm. Billy tried to seduce Beth, who tried to seduce the volunteer. Lucy watched the Bonnie. She had to be highly trained, but on stage she was flustered. Lucy’s guardian hindbrain realized she was vulnerable; this was the time to take her down. She looked at the other Bonnie, her twin; even though she wasn’t on stage, she seemed equally flustered. Gotcha, gotcha both. At the end of the performance there was a big reveal. Beth was a man, Billy was a woman, and the volunteer was revealed to be a man, no, a woman, no, a man . . . Billy gave up and mugged another shrug to the audience. The performance was over. Billy helped the Bonnie to the edge of the runway, then the piano player played Beth and Billy off the stage. “Good show!” Lucy said and slapped the Bonnie’s ass as she stepped off the runway. She turned to retaliate. “Whoa there.” Lucy held up her hands. The limo stopped. Zack heard the other boys shuffle to the door. He reached up to the elastic band that held the hood around his neck. Someone slapped his hand. “Leave it on,” a girl’s voice said. He was the last one out. “Neil?” he said. “Shh!” several of the boys said. Zack heard them walk away and started to follow. He thought it was one of the ninja girls; she took him by his upper arm and put a hand over his mouth. The sounds of the other boys faded. The ninja girl pushed him in a different direction. They went through a door and another one. She pushed him into a chair and pulled off his hood. A man sat, facing him. He was big and looked strong. “Hello Zachary.” “Who are you?” The man didn’t say.

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“You’re Grizzly,” Zack said. “Yes. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” “You want to know about my sister.” “What has Neil told you about us?” “You want to learn blood battle, like the girls, but you want to be better than them.” “That’s not quite right, but it will do for now. I’m curious why you came to Heritage City. I’m told you tried to visit your sister, Debbie, but she sent you away.” “She calls herself Lucy, now.” They both sat on simple, hard chairs: straight-up backrests, no arms. “Yes, Lucy Star. She changed her name the first chance she had after winning emancipation from your family―you, your mother, and your father. What happened back in Cliffside to make her want to leave and never again have anything to do with you?” “Why does everybody want to know about Debbie?” “Who else does?” “My counselor.” “At the Helping Hand?” “Yes.” Zack liked Wilhelmina, but she made him nervous. So did this guy. “I want to know about you. Knowing something about your sister helps me know you. I understand if you don’t want to talk about her. Tell me about your father.” “There’s nothing to tell.” Grizzly sat forward. “Do you love him?” Zack’s hands were sweaty. He rubbed them on his jeans. “Ah, I see you don’t,” Grizzly sat back. “Do you hate him?” “No.” “Huh. You don’t love him, but you don’t hate him either?” “He tried to be a good man,” Zack said. “He really did, but . . .” “But he failed? Is that why Lucy― I’m sorry. Is that why Debbie left, because your father failed at being a good man?”

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“He wasn’t trying to be good, not then.” Grizzly took a moment to think. “Did you hate him, when he wasn’t good?” “I don’t think so.” “You don’t think so?” Grizzly scratched the end-of-day stubble on his cheek. “Did Debbie hate him?” “Yes, she . . .” Grizzly waited, then said, “Go on, you can say it.” “She hated everybody.” “That’s interesting. Did she hate you?” “Yes.” “Did she hate your mother?” “Yes, she especially hated her. I think she hated her more than she hated Dad.” “Really? Why was that?” “I don’t know.” The chair was making Zack’s sitz bones hurt. He shifted his butt. It helped a little. “Did your mother hurt Debbie?” “No.” “So what did she do to earn your sister’s hate?” Zack was silent. “Zack?” Grizzly said. “When Dad was gone, sometimes, after Debbie was bad, after he punished her, Mom would try to put bandages on her, or ointment, but Debbie would punch her and kick her.” “Why did your sister need bandages and ointment?” “Because Dad would hit her.” “I’ll bet she didn’t punch and kick your father.” “No.” “I’ll bet she was afraid of him.” “Yes.” “What did he hit her with?” “His hand. He’d punch her—once, even in the face. He punished her with his belt, and with a cut off broom handle when she was older.”

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“Oh my!” Grizzly said. Zack heard the ninja girl snicker. Grizzly looked at her, angry. “How badly did he hurt her?” “Pretty bad. Sometimes they had to bring her to the hospital. They’d lie about what happened and they made me lie too.” “What did you lie about?” “She had bruises. A broken jaw from the time he punched her face. Another time he stepped on her hand and broke her fingers. He broke her ribs with the broom handle―more than once. And the studs in his belt left scars on her back, those were the hardest to lie about.” “Interesting.” Grizzly crossed his legs, clasped his hands behind his head, and leaned back. He looked comfortable in his chair. “And now the scars, and those broken bones that are never quite the same after they heal, all that evidence of her past is gone, so completely wiped away it might as well have never been there, thanks to rebirth.” Grizzly sat upright, planted his elbows on his knees, knit his fingers together and pointed at Zack. “Your sister doesn’t want anything to do with you because you’re part of the childhood she hates, the childhood she’s been able to scrub completely out of her life using those rebirth wombs. You remind her of it. I imagine she hates you more now than she ever did then for coming here and making her remember. I imagine she wishes you were dead.” Grizzly seemed to think on that, keeping time with his fingers to something in his head. “Did she ever hurt you?” Zack looked around for the door. “Zack!” Zack twisted back, and by accident, looked into Grizzly’s eyes―caught. “Yes. When Mom and Dad were gone, or weren’t looking, she’d punish me. She said if I ever told, she’d break my fingers.” He rushed through the words so he could look away. “Did you ever tell?”

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“No.” “Because you were afraid of her.” “Yes . . . but that’s not why.” “Oh? Then why?” “Because I was afraid, if Dad ever found out . . . I was afraid he’d get so mad, he might kill her.” “You were protecting her?” “I guess.” “I’ll be damned.” Grizzly mulled this over. “Do you love your sister?” Zack was silent again. “Zachary,” Grizzly said. “Answer my question.” “Yes.” “Did your father ever hit you, back when he wasn’t good?” “Some.” “Like he hit Debbie?” “No.” Zack looked down. “No broken bones or scars for you?” “No.” Zack’s head was bowed. He held the sides of his chair seat and pressed down on it. His elbows squeezed against his ribs. “He made her hate me.” The words were quiet. Grizzly sat back. “Well . . . thank you Zachary, you’ve helped me understand Debbie, your real sister, not that sham, Lucy Star. “But we still don’t know why you’re here. You spent five days bumping along from town to town all the way from nowhere, Moraineia to Heritage City because you wanted to tell your sister something, your sister who hates you, despite what you did for her. What did you want to tell her?” “Nothing.” “Oh, not nothing. You said your father tried to be a good man?” “Yes. After Debbie left, he changed. He got better.” “But something sent him back to his old ways.” “Yes.” Zack started crying, but his head was bent so low Grizzly didn’t realize it until he saw tears drip onto his jeans.

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“What happened?” “We saw Debbie in the news, it was something about how she won a game. They called her Lucy, but we recognized her. Mom cried. Dad didn’t say anything, but I could see he was getting angry, then he left. When he came back he was drunk, and like he was before she ran away.” Grizzly leaned forward. In the most compassionate voice he could muster, he said, “Zachary, did someone get hurt?” Zack released a gush of air; he had been holding his breath. “Was it your mother?” “Yes,” Zack said. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” Grizzly said. “How badly is she hurt?” Zack said something. “Could you speak up?” “She’s dead.” Grizzly mouthed, “Wow!” to the ninja girl, then said to Zack, “Tell me what happened.” “It was in the kitchen. When he came home, they had a fight and he pushed her. There were knives in the drying rack. And one . . . “Yes? Then what?” “I hit him with the rolling pin, knocked him down. I grabbed one of the other knives, from the drawer, and I cut him. I didn’t stop until . . .” “Go on. Until?” “Until I couldn’t recognize his face any more.” Grizzly moved off his chair, knelt on one knee next to Zack, and put his arms around him. Zack grabbed Grizzly’s shirt and buried his face in it. “Then I cut his head off, just like Debbie would do it.” Grizzly held him. “Sons have killed their fathers throughout history. You’re not alone.” “I want to die,” Zack said.

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Grizzly patted Zack’s back. “Of course you do. Is that why you came to see your sister? Do you want Debbie to kill you?” “Yes.” After midnight they floundered back into Jayzen’s private car. This time the Bonnies took up positions in guard stations forward and aft of the main cabin. Jayzen handed Lucy another champagne flute. She held it while he poured, then adjusted her scabbard so she could slump into the wide seat. She sipped her champagne and closed her eyes. The seat picked up the hum of the wheels on the road and transmitted it into her gluteal muscles; her glutes transmitted it to her pelvic bones, and her pelvis sent it to her pubic bones which distributed it into all those happy nerve ends in her genitals. She thought of the girl on the swing in the painting on the wall of the fairy tale locker room in the Verbeek Family mansion. Then she felt Jayzen take the champagne glass from her hand. She smelled him, just centimeters away. He kissed her. She put her hands on his shoulders to slip off his blazer. It was already gone. She slid her hands to the front of his shirt to undo the buttons. There weren’t any. Damn molecular zippers. But she was getting used to them. She reached under the back of his collar, and just like her fancy panties, she pinched, slid her fingers around to the front, and the shirt split down the back, like an insect molting out of its old skin, like some magnificent wasp arching its body over hers, preparing to thrust its ovipositor into her belly and lay its eggs― Wait. The wasp would be female and it would be using my body to host and feed its nasty parasitical young. Stick to the ba­ sics: muscles, penis, vagina. “Is something wrong?” Jayzen said. “Huh? Ah, no,” she said.

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She pinched the top seam of his pants and ran her fingers from back to front. Nothing. She tried front to back, his pants loosened. She slid them down his legs with her feet. Then wedged her foot against the seat and pushed his shoulders to heave him onto his back. She rolled with him and straddled his hips. She pulled his shirt away and realized he was naked. “No underwear? Or are they built into your fancy pants?” “The latter,” he said. Lucy reached around to the back of her neckline and pinched the pressure points to release her dress. She tried to pull it over her head and remembered the belt. More pressure points. She threw the belt to the side and pulled off the dress. “Do you want to release the magic panties, or should I?” “You can.” She stood up, removed them, laid down on his body, and kissed his lips, then his nipples. She bit the skin covering his abdominal muscles, kissed the soft bulge of his mons pubis. She pulled back his foreskin and kissed his glans, then twiddled his testicles in her palm and squeezed them enough to scare him. She straddled his belly and studied his face. “Who are you?” she said. He seemed as unknown to her as the girl in the blue evening gown she had seen in the mirror on the night of Charlotte’s Duel à Mort soirée. Jayzen tried to roll her over, but she wouldn’t let him. She slid her hips down his abdomen and slipped his penis into her vagina. She closed her eyes and listened to the wet syncopating sounds as they each hunted for their orgasms. Jayzen came, then the blood ebbed from his erectile tissue. Lucy reached down and massaged her clitoris. Jayzen tried to help, but she pushed his hand away. She leaned forward, grabbed the back of his neck, and pulled his head close until she could kiss him. She sucked at his mouth to distract him, and maybe herself. Her contractions were quick and sharp; she relaxed. After a little bit, Lucy rolled off Jayzen and lay next to him

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with her head on his arm. She looked up and out of the car’s skylight. A question tickled her consciousness. “Where are we going?” “To the family summer home on Seagull Island. We’re almost there.” “What?” “Don’t worry, I’ll have you back in time for your morning practice.” “It’s not that.” She sat up. “This is too far from the Laughing Cherub!” “What do you mean?” “It’s a safety issue and an obligation to my club. I can’t be this far away without a refrigerated casket and a prep team. If we had an accident, if I were killed, emergency services out here aren’t prepared to handle a rebirth body. We’ve got to go back, now!” “Relax,” Jayzen said. He spoke up. “The Bonnies are in the same situation. Isn’t that right?” “What’s that, sir?” said the voice of one of the Bonnies. “If anything happened to you or Lucy, the security company would be here within a half hour and they’ll be prepared to handle her body along with yours.” “That’s true, sir,” the Bonnie said. “The girl needn’t worry.” “See?” he said. “I still don’t like it. You should have told me before we left the city.” She stood up and started dressing. “Are you just going to lie there?” “I was thinking I would,” he said, but sat up and began pulling his clothes on. Lucy picked up her sword, pulled it part way out of its scabbard to inspect the blade, then slid it in, letting it make a loud clack when the hilt guard hit the scabbard throat. Two and a half hours after the limousine arrived at the mansion, it reemerged. Jandeet confirmed the ID. He jogged a street over to the siding where he had left his exclusive-use car. His public car couldn’t

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follow the limousine into the underground transit tunnels, but now that he had its ID, he could find its exit point and pick it up there. Twenty minutes later the limousine exited the tunnel. Jandeet was waiting. Car pairing was a handy way for large groups to stay together, but it wasn’t designed for stalking. If he paired with the limousine, his car would catch up and follow just centimeters behind. Zack and Neil wouldn’t have noticed the difference between pairing and a centipede, but the Twin Security bodyguards would. Jandeet had to constantly give his car new destinations that would trick it into following the limousine at a discreet distance. This wasn’t easy. He needed a detailed knowledge of the streets and a subtle feel for the dynamic routing system used by the autonomous traffic. If he made a mistake, his car would veer off on an unexpected, but optimal route to the latest destination, and he would lose sight of the limousine. He could have the car find it again with the ID, but that would risk calling attention to himself. The limousine worked its way through several lesser roadways, then turned onto another unmanaged street. Jandeet jumped out of his car and sent it to wait in an empty siding. He peeked around the corner. The limousine stopped halfway down the street. Several boys exited the cabin, not as many as had entered earlier―four were missing. The limousine departed. The sidewalks weren’t lit. Jandeet snuck through the shadows until he was close enough to look for Zack and Neil―they weren’t with the other boys. Now what? He wasn’t sure if it was intentional or bad luck, but he’d been tricked. He could pick up his car and follow the limousine again, but he suspected he’d end up waiting back at the mansion. Instead, he dismissed the car, randomly picked one of the boys, and followed him. The boy ended up at a city shelter. Jandeet bribed the clerk to give him the boy’s name, then headed back to the mansion to spend the night waiting and watching.

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Several public and private cars arrived and departed during the next few hours. Jandeet popped their IDs, just in case, then the garage entrance was quiet until morning. The Verbeek family summer home was big and empty. Jayzen made a couple of hot toddies. They sat together in the dark on a veranda that looked across a wide beach to the ocean. The veranda was sealed and warmed against the cold autumn night, but there was still comfort in sharing body heat. “Is there anything that’s yours?” Lucy said. “Everything seems to belong to your family.” “Family is everything,” Jayzen said. “It is?” “You don’t agree?” “I don’t talk about it. I’m sure your security service did a background check on me, read it sometime. Now, let’s change the subject.” “To what?” “Do you really need bodyguards all the time? Is someone out to get you?” “Probably. Most likely. I don’t keep up on the threats―they do.” “Doesn’t seem like a pleasant way to live, having them constantly around. Were they watching us fuck in the car? Are they listening right now?” “Yes, they watched us make love. No, they are not listening. If I raise my voice in a certain way, like in the car, they will hear, but otherwise, no.” Jayzen shifted to see the side of her face. “What about you? Your womb-atoriums are guarded against fanatics, and don’t you have fans that get over enthusiastic?” “Your sister seems to be my biggest fan. How over enthusiastic is she?” “I’ll ask when she gets out of her womb.” “She received rebirth therapy?” “Along with every Verbeek girl in the extended family.”

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“Why is she in a womb? Did something happen?” Lucy faced Jayzen. “No, last evening was her regular three month update, or whatever you call it.” “Charlotte went in yesterday too. Which womb-atorium do you use?” “We have our own in the mansion.” “Of course you do,” Lucy said. “When France is out, I should see if she and her friends would like a tour of the club. If she went in on Sunday evening, she should be out by Wednesday.” “They say she’ll be in for a couple of weeks this time.” “What went wrong?” “Nothing. They said sometimes it takes longer.” “Who said?” “The womb-atorium staff, I assume.” “Bullshit!” Lucy said. “Jay, something’s wrong.” “Really?” “Yes, really. Do you care for your sister?” “Of course. Why would you even ask?” “I don’t know, I’m sorry. But that’s not important. Something went wrong, or something serious happened to her before she went in. Either way, whoever told you this is normal is lying. You need to find out what happened.” Jayzen raised his voice. “Bonnie.” “Yes?” said the disembodied voice of one of the Bonnies. “I want to check on my sister’s status. I have reason to believe the womb-atorium staff is hiding something.” “That seems unlikely, sir.” “Check anyway.” A few minutes later, the Bonnie’s voice was back. “They say she had an accident just previous to her enwombment. She fell down a flight of stairs and received a severe head injury.” “Thank you,” Jayzen said. He lowered his voice to normal conversation. “What do you think?”

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“It could be true, if there was significant brain damage, and especially if it included memory loss.” Lucy sat up. “I have to be home by seven and at the club by eight. I’m going to bed.” She leaned over and kissed Jayzen, then with her mouth pressed to his ear, she whispered, “They’re still lying.” Jayzen woke up. It was hours before dawn. He watched Lucy and listened to her breathing. When he was sure she was sleeping, he slipped out of the bed, then watched her again to see if his movement had woken her. He slipped around the foot of the bed and picked up her longsword from where she had propped it in the crook between the night table and the wall. He felt its weight, then slid the blade out, careful to not make a sound. He set the scabbard on the night table, held the sword up, and stepped through one of the handling exercises Hashimoto Sensei had taught him, taking his time and practicing silence. He held the blade under his nose; there was a faint oder of oil, but none of blood—disappointing. He swung the sword over his head in a long, slow arch, bringing it to a stop millimeters above Lucy’s throat. He held the blade and watched her breathe. It was the slow consistent rhythm of someone in deep sleep. She wasn’t even dreaming. He could bury her body in the dunes—probably wouldn’t be the first one out there; they wouldn’t dare look, not on Family property. No wombs, no rebirth, no Lucy. His wrists began to ache; the blade wavered. He pulled it away, slid it into its scabbard, and returned it to its place between the night table and wall. He walked around the bed, eased himself in, and laid on his side counting her breaths until he fell asleep. The sun came up glorious and white over the ocean horizon. Jayzen wanted to make love again. “Sure,” Lucy said. She let herself drift in the hypnogogic state between dreaming and waking, not wanting to let go of her last

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phantasm. The dream played with Jayzen’s sexual manipulations, folding them into its scenario. When he penetrated her, she mumbled, “Oh, it’s back.” He took his time composing and savoring his ejaculation, then he crawled down and cajoled her tissue until it released a quiet orgasm. She breathed out and spoke a name. This part of the summer home was built like an old vacation hotel. There were several suites off the veranda, each was self contained with a bedroom, sitting room, kitchen, and bath. Jayzen and Lucy occupied one of the suites. By the time Lucy was fully awake, Jayzen was in the kitchen. She swung her legs off the bed, sat up, reached for her sword, and stopped. She had left it propped between the wall and the night table. It was still there, but it wasn’t sitting the way she had left it. It was twisted more toward the wall and the scabbard tip was further out from the night table. Jayzen came out of the kitchen wearing an apron and nothing else. “Breakfast?” he said. “Just coffee,” Lucy said, “and toast. I want to get going.” “It won’t take long.” “I want to get going, now.” She got up and dressed, then picked up her sword and checked the blade. There was something wrong about the way it was seated in the scabbard. She pulled it all the way out and looked over the full length of its edge, then re-sheathed it. “Don’t ever play with my sword again,” she said. “Let’s go.” She tossed Jayzen his clothes. “You can dress in the car. Tell your Bonnies we’re leaving.” “They’re the Veronicas this morning,” Jayzen said. “They changed shifts during the night.” He followed her out to the car and said, “Who’s Chrissy?”

Chapter 14 A Busy Morning

Jayzen’s car pulled into the Winnebago Graveyard siding at seven twenty. He stepped out and Lucy followed. She took his hand, led him over to Charlotte’s canister, and down the stairs. Jayzen looked around. “Two of you live in here?” Lucy waited for the hatch to close. “Yes. I wanted to be out of earshot of your Veronicas and your car.” “They can still hear us if I tell them to listen. This buried cottage is no impediment.” “Are they listening?” “They shouldn’t be.” He caressed her arm. “What did you have in mind?” “I want to make sure you check on France―as soon as you can. I don’t know how intrigue works for you people, but I’m worried. Find out what really happened to her and let me know. I can tell you if it’s bullshit or not.” “This isn’t what I anticipated when you brought me down here.” “Fuck, Jay. I’m serious.” She pushed his hand off her arm. “Alright, I believe you. If anyone has harmed my sister, they’ll pay.” “Great, do whatever it is you do. But make sure she’s safe, first.” “Definitely,” Jayzen said.

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“Thanks.” Lucy kissed him on the cheek. “Now, get going. And don’t forget to have the dress picked up. I’m leaving by eight.” Lieutenant Samantha Villanueva checked the status board and saw a request directed to her from Inspector Olia Fournier. She approved the contact and a minute later Olia said, “Good morning Lieutenant. I met you at a crime scene last week.” “I remember,” Samantha said. “We found four more bodies since then. I was hoping you could take a look at them.” “Because of my blood battle background?” “You’re the closest thing to a sword expert we have on the force.” “You must have forensics people who know more than me.” “They have better technical knowledge, but they don’t have your eye for the skill of the sword work.” “I appreciate your confidence, but I was only in the BB program for two years. That was eight years ago and I was a teenager. You need a real expert. Why aren’t you consulting directly with the Blood Battle League?” “We’re trying to keep this quiet, and some members of the investigative team continue to suspect the killer may be involved with the League, despite your comments at the crime scene. My superior supports that view.” “On what grounds?” “On the grounds she doesn’t like rebirth and doesn’t trust anyone involved with it.” “That would include me, wouldn’t it?” Samantha said. “Yes, but you’re already on the force. I don’t need to have an expense voucher approved to bring you in.” “She’s hobbling your investigation.” “You see my predicament then?” “I do, but I’m really not qualified.” “At risk of sounding desperate,” Olia said, “you’re all I have, unless you know someone, maybe someone you’ve kept in con-

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tact with from the Academy? Someone who might be willing to take a look at the bodies, unofficially and off the record?” Samantha laughed. “I’m sorry. I apologize. But you do sound desperate.” She composed herself. “Like I said, the Academy was a long time ago, and by now an insignificant part of my life. I wish I could help, but . . .” “Yes?” Olia said. “All right, this is a long shot. I worked with a sword instructor at the Academy who I thought was brilliant. Mind you, I was sixteen. These days she’s the guardian sword master with Burning Desire. She still sends notes to her old students on the anniversaries of our first rebirths. I’m probably just a name on a list, but I can try contacting her.” “Thanks Lieutenant. I appreciate your help,” Olia said. “No problem, Inspector.” Jayzen took the car to the family estate. He showered, shaved, dressed in fresh clothes, ate a quick breakfast, and returned to the garage. “Leaving again, so soon?” Ned, the security dispatcher, said. “Indeed I am.” “Where to?” “I’ll decide when I’m on the road.” An empty car slid up to the dock. The Veronicas came out of the standby room, putting on their jackets of weapons and things. “I’d like a different pair of guards for a change, I’m sure the Veronicas have had enough of me for today.” “These are your assigned guards.” Jayzen looked in the standby room. “What about those two?” “They’re your sister’s,” Ned said. “Why aren’t they at the mansion?” “While Francine is in her womb, she’s protected by mansion security. Until she returns, her guards are assigned here to cover unexpected situations.”

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“Well, there you go,” Jayzen said. “I’m presenting you with just such an unexpected situation. I would like to try my sister’s guards. Perhaps they can tell me why they allowed France to be injured on the way to her womb.” “These guards weren’t covering Francine during that incident.” “I want them,” Jayzen said. “I insist.” Ned gestured for the Veronicas to return to the standby room. “Katrinas, you’re covering Jayzen today. Let’s go.” The Katrinas were wearing the standard grey armored body suits and jackets. They followed Jayzen into the car. “To the mansion,” Jayzen said after the door closed. He turned to the Katrinas. “Who was guarding my sister on Sunday evening?” “That’s privileged―” “Do you know what I could do to ruin your lives? Starting today?” The Katrinas exchanged a glance. “The Noreens,” the one on the right said. “Do you know what really happened?” “We only know what’s in the report.” “Which is?” “As Francine approached the landing on the stairway descending into the courtyard garden, she turned to speak to the wombatorium matron who was escorting her from the car dock. Her foot slipped off the stair tread, she lost her balance, and fell, striking the back of her head on the nosing of a step.” “Do you believe that injury is consistent with a two week stay in a womb?” The Katrinas looked at each other. The one on the left said, “We suspect such a lengthy gestation would require a more severe injury than the one described in the report, but your friend, the blood battle guardian, would know more about the effects of injury on gestation time than we do.” “My friend agrees with you.” The Katrinas looked at each other again. “Would you stop doing that?” Jayzen said.

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“Sorry sir,” the right Katrina said. “We like your sister and have our own suspicions about the truth of the report.” The left Katrina said, “We normally cover France on the evening shift, but Sunday we were replaced by the Noreens, and as you see, we remain on the day shift. Last minute schedule changes are not uncommon, but considering the apparent deceit surrounding Francine’s injury, we do not currently trust the Noreens.” “Is my sister safe in her womb?” “There has never been a report of a catastrophic womb failure,” the left Katrina said. “There are multiple levels of redundancy and safeguards built into the system, including bacteriological, viral, and toxin counter measures. Yet, although difficult, it is possible to sabotage a womb. However, in light of their current safety record, such an act would draw a full investigation by the Health and Safety Board, and be counter productive to maintaining a coverup.” “We think your sister is safe,” the right Katrina said. “As long as the conspirators do not feel forced into a desperate situation,” the left one said. “I suppose visiting the mansion womb-atorium and asking questions could make them nervous?” “That seems likely.” “Change of destination,” Jayzen said to the car. “Wait,” the left Katrina said. “We should exit this car at the next siding, and send it to the summer house as a diversion. Then use public transport.” Lucy stripped off the red dress and packed it in its box with the jewelry and all the other accessories. She considered whether she should donate the panties without washing them, then tossed them in the box. The delivery service arrived at seven forty and took Jayzen’s gift away. When the dress was gone, Lucy showered, dressed in her real clothes, and at the kiosk, requested a public car to the Long Life womb-atorium. Charlotte was due around eight. With such a

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short gestation, she should be ready to leave by nine. Lucy had arranged to skip morning training so she could meet Charlotte and finish unloading the crap from the last few days. The Long Life womb-atorium security confirmed her identity and found her name on Charlotte’s approved visitors list. A matron’s aid showed her to the waiting room. Charlotte’s parents were there. “Lucy, great to see you.” Charlotte’s mother, Kathy, kissed her on both cheeks. Charlotte’s father, Paul, wrapped her in a bear hug. “Come, sit. How have you been?” “Fine,” Lucy said. “Ah . . . what are you doing here?” “We came down to the city yesterday and dropped by the club,” Paul said. “To take Charlie out for lunch,” Kathy said. “They told us she was in a womb,” Paul said. “We stayed in a hotel so we could be here when she revives.” “I hope she’s alright,” Kathy said. “Don’t worry, Bugs.” Bugs was Paul’s nickname for his wife. “They know what they’re doing. She’s done this dozens of times.” He patted her arm. “Twenty-eight,” Lucy said. “This will be her twenty-ninth. It’s not like she’s being discharged from a hospital, it’s more like a spa.” “Twenty-nine? I didn’t realize it was so many.” Kathy squeezed Paul’s hand. “How may times have you been in here?” “We use a different womb-atorium, but anyway, twenty-five.” Kathy put her hand on Lucy’s arm. “Are you all right?” They still don’t get it. “She’s been doing this since she was fifteen,” Lucy said. “You were there the first time, right? You know this is normal for us. It’s nice. Like they say, ‘The best thing in life since the first thing in life.’” Kathy’s face went pale. Lucy tried again. “It means she’s back in a womb, the best womb since your own.”

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Kathy burst into tears. I suck at this. “It’ll be okay, really,” Lucy said. “She’s been doing it for seven years. She tells me how great it is, the way you support her all the way.” Kathy leaned against Paul and tried to dry her tears. Lucy watched him hold her shoulder and kiss the top of her head. He’s as afraid as she is. I don’t understand parents. Lucy heard the birth alarm go off deep in the womb-atorium. It was almost inaudible in the waiting room. She started to mention it, then decided to keep her mouth shut. Or they’ll be dead from grief by the time Charlotte gets out. At nine twenty-five Charlotte sauntered into the waiting room with her womb-atorium bag over her shoulder. Her parents jumped to their feet and hugged her. Charlotte’s mother ran her fingers through what was left of her daughter’s hair and started to cry again. “Oh honey! Look what happened to your long, beautiful hair!” “Don’t worry Mom, it was a bother to take care of. I cut it before going in.” “Oh,” Kathy said. “I thought maybe it happened, inside.” “I’m fine.” Charlotte had to bend down to hug her mother. “I’ve never felt better.” “Not since, according to Lucy, not since . . .” “Not since I was your little girl,” Charlotte said. Her father embraced them both in a bear hug while Lucy waited. “Come on,” Paul said, “let’s get some breakfast.” “I’ll just have toast and coffee,” Charlotte said. “It’s best to eat light for a few hours after rebirth.” “Lucy, come along. I’m buying,” Paul said. “Thanks, but no, I’ve got to get to practice.” Fuck. Family gets first dibs, I guess. Lucy picked up her gym bag and sword. “I’ll talk to you later,” Charlotte said. “OK?” “Okay.” Lucy headed for the exit.

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*** Donna read the tracking report from Esposito & Associates, then contacted Wilhelmina at the Helping Hand. “Did Zachary and Neil get back there last night?” “Shouldn’t you already know?” Wilhelmina said. “Our tracker followed them to the apparent location of their class, but couldn’t confirm if they left.” “Just a minute.” Donna walked to Christopher’s desk in the outer office and picked up the bed report. “It doesn’t look like either one slept here. Where are they?” “Have you heard of the Verbeek family?” “Yes.” She walked back to her office. “Zack and Neil rendezvoused with a group of boys. They were picked up by a limousine and delivered to the Verbeek Mansion. Three hours later it dropped off the boys at a different location. Four were missing, including Zack and Neil.” “What do you think that means?” “It means we’re at a dead end,” Donna said. “I can’t afford to keep that mansion under surveillance and the police won’t care if a couple of your transients have disappeared. The only thing we can do is wait, see if they show up.” “What do your instincts tell you?” “Our tracker followed one of the boys who was dropped off. He went to a city shelter. The one in Gurney Hills.” “I know it,” Wilhelmina said. “It’s adequate, keeps them out of the rain, and fed. No real supervision or support beyond that.” “My instincts,” Donna said, “wonder what sort of martial arts class meets in secret at the Verbeek Mansion and caters to transient boys.” “What can we do?” “Nothing, like I said. I’m going to tag Zack and Neil as potential security risks. That’ll go out to all the local blood sport clubs and womb-atoriums. Beyond that I can’t do anything unless they show up.”

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“I have someone I can check with,” Wilhelmina said. “Who’s that?” “I can’t say. I know we agreed to share our information, and I’ll let you know if I find anything out, but I can’t tell you my source.” “OK, as soon as you know anything.” Wilhelmina closed the contact and looked in the outer office; Christopher hadn’t returned to his desk. “Does anyone know where I might find Max?” She asked of everyone. Kathy, one of their resident clerks, said, “He’s probably at that tea shop, the one around the corner from the BB club.” “Thanks,” Wilhelmina said. “Max is a popular guy today.” “What do you mean?” “His nephew was looking for him earlier.” The doorbell jingled. “Hello William,” Maxton said. “Hello Max,” Mr. Fredrick said. “How have you been?” “I’ve been getting old. And you?” “I’ve been getting by.” “I tasted one of your personal infusions Sunday evening,” Maxton said. He sat on a stool at the counter and groaned with the effort. “It had a sadness about it. It tasted of autumn and winter. It almost brought a tear to my eye. Such a sad blend for such a bright young lady.” “The tea is not always easy to understand.” Mr. Fredrick handed a cup to Maxton. “Try this; let me know what you think.” He took a sip. “You’re trying to trick me. It’s my tea.” Mr. Fredrick shook his head. Maxton took another sip. “My brother’s been here?” Mr. Fredrick nodded toward the back of the room. “Your brother’s son.”

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Maxton looked around. “Jayzen?” He held up the cup. “This is you?” “I thought I’d indulge,” Jayzen said. “See what all the fuss was about.” “What are you doing here?” Maxton said, then to Mr. Fredrick, “Pallet cleanser please.” Mr. Fredrick poured a shot of cleanser into a glass. “I believe your nephew knows the same young woman you met, though he hasn’t tasted her tea.” “Then make a pot of her blend. Enough for both of us. He sloshed the pallet cleanser in his mouth and spat it out. When the infusion was ready, Maxton brought it and two cups over to Jayzen’s table. He filled the cups. “You changed your bodyguard style. I didn’t recognize you without the coquettes.” “These are France’s guards. I have them on loan while she’s in a womb.” Maxton studied Jayzen. “Something’s wrong. What happened to her?” “I’m trying to find out.” Jayzen picked up his cup and took a sip. “I have it on good authority―” His eyes flared. “That’s remarkable!” “What did you taste?” “Granite. Then mud―sad mud. Can there be such a thing? And then clear, pure melt water. I don’t even know what those things are supposed to taste like, yet there they were. Is that what you get?” Maxton took a sip and considered. “No. Today I taste meat, piss, and the saliva of an angry dog. Tell me why you’re worried about Francine.” Jayzen took a minute to collect his thoughts, then explained everything he knew and everything Lucy had said. When he was finished, Maxton said, “You’re worried about Francine and you’re doing something about it because this girl, Lucy Star, a nobody who plays blood battle, told you to?”

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“She seemed convinced,” Jayzen said. “Remarkable, she’s actually given you some backbone. I met the same girl Sunday evening and I’ve now tasted her tea, twice. If she’s worried about France, then we should assume your sister is in danger. We have to move her.” “Can that be done?” “Those wombs are built to be moved in an emergency, even when they’re being used. There are risks, but from what you’ve told me, I suspect your sister’s―my niece’s―life may be in peril.” “Do you know what’s going on?” “No, but I know the sort of thing: Verbeek conniving. It’s why I walked away. I smell your father’s stink all over it.” “I can’t believe that,” Jayzen said. “He would never harm France.” “Not intentionally, but he’s a fool. Until today I assumed you were no different, but maybe I was wrong.” Maxton looked at the bodyguards. “Can you trust them?” “They say I can.” “Humph.” He spoke directly to the Katrinas. “You realize, if you help us, you will be breaking your contract with Twin Security and putting your continued access to rebirth at risk?” “We know,” the left Katrina said. “In that case, I’ll buy out your contract. You’ll be safe. If you double cross us, you won’t be. Understand?” “Yes,” both Katrinas said. “Did you bring a car?” “No,” the right Katrina said. “We sent the private car on a long trip as a diversion. We’re using public cars, two or more, to reach any destination.” “By the way,” Maxton said to Jayzen, “how did you find me?” “A clerk at the Helping Hand said you visit this tea shop most mornings.” “They shouldn’t be telling strangers my whereabouts.” “They didn’t,” Jayzen said. “I had to prove I was your nephew.”

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“That’s unfortunate. But I won’t be going back there until this is finished. Let’s be on our way.” “Where to?” Jayzen said. “The Laughing Cherub. We need to borrow a womb transport wagon, and we need to arrange a safe place to keep Francine until she’s reborn.” He topped off both their cups with the Lucy Star infusion then held his up. “Drink. There’s courage in this tea. You’re going to need every drop.” They both finished their teas in one gulp. On their way out, Maxton said to Mr. Fredrick, “Please tell Lucy Star how much I appreciated meeting her the other evening, and do not tell her about Jayzen. I don’t want her getting involved.” The doorbell jingled, twice.

Chapter 15 A Complicated Afternoon

Lucy was back at the club earlier than she had planned. Rather than catch the end of calisthenics, she warmed up on her own in the locker room. When the team came in to change for practice, Uvan swaggered over. “Where have you been?” “I took some personal time.” “Slept late?” “Yeah. Is Sandeep back?” “She’s in Physical Therapy,” Serendipity said. “Learning to wiggle her fingers again.” Uvan imitated one of Parisa Cartwright’s dexterity exercises. “There’s still time to get in on her innie-outie pool,” Serendipity said. Everyone changed into shorts and t-shirts, and strapped on their practice short-sword harnesses, then headed out for sword practice. Liha and the other two guardians from the reserve squad were waiting outside the locker room. “Hey, Liha, what’s up?” Lucy said. “Don’t know. They sent us over from the Reserve’s Annex to join your practice today.” Lucy shot Uvan a quizzical eye. “Got me,” Uvan said. “Whatever Bimini’s up to, it looks like she needs more guardians.”

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They strode around the curve of the corridor and saw the goddesses entering the Sword Practice room. “This can’t be good,” Uvan said. Chrysanthemum hung back and took Lucy’s hand. “I was looking for you at Mr. Fredrick’s the last two days.” “Oh?” Lucy said. “I was worried about you.” “I’m fine.” Lucy slipped her hand loose. “I was busy, didn’t have time for tea.” She tipped her head at the practice room door. “Looks like you goddesses are joining us today?” Chrysanthemum tightened her lips, touched Lucy’s elbow for a moment, then looked away and walked into the practice room. Uvan shook her head. “You’re such a jerk.” She followed Chrysanthemum in. Serendipity walked by. “I warned you about your eyes,” she said. Lucy was last in, behind the reserve girls. Bimini was waiting in the room along with the goddess trainer? coach? wrangler? “We’re going to try something new,” she said. “Big surprise,” Uvan said. Bimini waggled a finger at her. “That’s a Bimini-Uvan thing,” Serendipity said to the goddesses. “They actually like each other.” “Thank you for the commentary,” Bimini said. She addressed the whole group. “First, some introductions. This is Monica Karanzinski, the goddess supervisor. Ah, supervisor. “I am Bimini Tanaka, the guardian sword coach. Everyone, please introduce yourselves.” The guardians and goddesses shuffled around making introductions. Uvan introduced herself with enthusiasm: “Uvan Marek, how you doin’?” She repeated all the goddess’s names as they were told to her. Serendipity had her impeccable naïve persona in place: “Serendipity Banerjee, and you are? What a pretty name.” Lucy greeted everyone with, “Hi, Lucy, nice to meet you.” She avoided Chrysanthemum. They already knew each other, right?

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“We will be conducting goddesses-guardian exercises,” Bimini said, “and since there are more goddesses than we presently have guardians, the reserve squad is joining us. Begin with basic weapon handling.” She split everyone into guardian-goddess pairs. Lucy was paired with Chenina. They pulled out altar boxes. Today, real goddesses sat on them. Bimini had the guardians run through simple sword handling until everyone, guardians and goddesses, was comfortable with the new situation. They cleared away the altar boxes, and the guardians and goddesses separated. Bimini had the guardians practice advanced kinesthetic maneuvers while Monica did something with the goddesses at the back of the room. After a half hour, Bimini called a break. Lucy sheathed her swords. The guardians collected at the side wall racks where they kept their swords when using practice sticks, or their long-sword scabbards when using real blades, like today. “What do you think she’s leading up to?” Uvan said. “Don’t know,” Lucy said. “I’m sure it will be interesting,” Serendipity said. The reserve guardians were listening in. “It’s as big a mystery to us as it is to you,” Lucy said. She looked past the reserves. The goddesses had collected in the middle of the room, no doubt for a similar discussion. Lucy walked over to Chrysanthemum. “Chrissy,” she said. “I want to apologize, I was an asshole earlier. I guess you saw me run out of the auditorium the other day?” “Yes I did,” Chrysanthemum said. “It was frightening.” “Well, that’s over now. I’m okay.” “Stop lying!” Chrysanthemum said. “You’re not OK, not at all.” “What? I’m not . . . What do you mean?” Chrysanthemum stepped up to Lucy’s face. “You know, and I know, and everyone who cares about you knows―that wasn’t something you just get over with a day later!” This wasn’t the conversation Lucy had expected; this wasn’t even close.

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“Who’s the one person you can’t die trying to save?” Chrysanthemum said. “Huh?” Lucy said. “You can’t die― Trying. To save. Yourself!” Chrysanthemum poked Lucy in the sternum three times as she spoke, harder each time, until the last poke forced Lucy to take a step back. “You’re so busy taking care of everybody else, you can’t see that you’re the one who needs a champion! You can’t fight this alone!” “Fight what?” “Back to work,” Bimini said. Lucy backed away from Chrysanthemum, then walked to the sword rack, but it felt like wondering. She was distracted. This is bad. She picked up her long-sword and waited a moment to clear her head, then took a deep breath, let it out, and drew the blade from its scabbard. Things aligned; they always did. She was now holding an exposed, deadly weapon. The only way to keep herself and those around her safe was to maintain an attitude of respect and confidence. That had been impressed upon her and every girl in the Academy blood battle program since the first day of training. She reached around her back, pulled out her short-sword, and slipped it back into its scabbard to remind her left arm where it was. She walked to the section of floor that had informally been designated for Chenina and her. “Goddesses, please take your starting positions,” Bimini said. Here it comes. The goddesses stepped into the exercise space and faced the guardians. “Guardians, you will perform the advanced improvisation, confining your scope to a rectangle the size and shape of the temple-top. The goddesses will perform their own exercise within the same space. They will move in reaction to, and in anticipation of, your own actions. Yet, neither their actions nor yours will be predictable. Move at the speed of confidence. Begin when you are ready, and stop in your own time.” Lucy looked for Chrysanthemum. She was paired with Serendipity. Good.

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She turned to Chenina. “When you’re ready.” Chenina closed her eyes. Lucy watched her slow her breathing and hold her arms out to her sides. He’s eating his way back into my life, and I don’t know how to stop him. Chenina brought her palms together in the prayer position. But you know what? My whole fucking world can fall apart, and I’ll still have one unassailable center. Chenina nodded. This. Lucy started. At first Chenina’s movements were contained and slow. Lucy picked up her pace, and Chenina enlarged her scope of actions. By the time Lucy had eased up to higher speeds, Chenina had turned assertive. This wasn’t meditation, not by any definition Lucy understood. Chenina was invading her sword space, threatening her balance by thrusting her arms, legs, and sometimes her whole body, directly into the path of the blades, forcing Lucy to compensate with radical changes that threw off her momentum and balance. But Lucy was getting to know Chenina, not the person, rather, this aggressive presence that, until now, had been hidden behind the goddess mystique, and if there was one thing Lucy could appreciate, it was aggression. She started to have fun. She found she could screw with Chenina: trick her into reacting to actions that didn’t materialize, but Chenina would trick right back, seeming to fall for Lucy’s ruse and then dodging toward the real blade path, sometimes fearlessly, sometimes pulling back at the last moment. Everything was happening in Bimini’s faster-thanthought, kinesthetic intelligence space. The goddesses are trained in kinesthetic intelligence? Eventually they stopped. Their last move eased from frenzy to a static pose. They were the last ones to finish. Lucy felt fantastic! Bimini’s exercises always got her excited, but this was exceptional. She looked at Chenina; her eyes were still closed and she was crying. Now what did I do?

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She stepped over to Chenina. “Are you okay? Did I hurt you?” “You didn’t hurt me at all,” Chenina said. “I’ve never felt so safe in my whole life, not even in a womb.” “So, that’s good, right?” Chenina opened her eyes, wiped them with her hands, and smiled at Lucy. “Yes, it is.” Chrysanthemum was watching alongside Serendipity. “That’s my guardian,” she said under her breath. Serendipity gave her a shrewd glance. “Thanks everybody,” Bimini said. “That went well.” She looked at Monica. “Yes, very impressive,” Monica said. She began clapping her hands and the goddesses joined in. The guardians didn’t know what to do. Serendipity started to clap and the other guardians followed her example. Lucy grinned at Chenina and she smiled back. Monica stopped clapping and motioned everyone to quiet down. “That is all for today,” Bimini said. “We will be doing more of these combined exercises. Not every day, of course. We may even have the guardians learn the goddess tea ceremony.” Uvan laughed. “That’s a joke, right? Right?” Lucy and the guardians sheathed their swords. Everyone filtered into the corridor. Chrysanthemum came over and squeezed Lucy’s hand again. “How are you feeling?” “Great . . . and fucked up,” Lucy said. “The thing is, I can’t tell which one feels better.” Chrysanthemum kissed her on the cheek, then followed after the other goddesses. “How’s that sweater project going?” Lucy said. “It’s done.” Chrysanthemum turned and walked backwards. “I gave it to Thad to celebrate his finishing the Human Anatomy course. He’s taking me to a mystery restaurant tonight for the sweater’s public debut. I wish you could be there.” ***

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Bimini changed from her informal coaching clothes to a business suit. She was adjusting its fit in the mirror when there was a knock on her office door. “Come in, Betty.” Coach Kai stepped in. “How did it go?” “No one died. Serendipity continues to hide her true abilities behind a cloak of misdirection. She is always as good as she needs to be, but is so deceptive it could hurt her career. We may never know, and she may never know, her true potential. If you are offered that job coaching an Alpha League team, I recommend you take her with you.” “What job is that?” “The one every Beta League coach wants, of course.” “If I did get such a job, I’d like you to come along.” “We will see.” Bimini adjusted her collar in the mirror. “You’ll go where Lucy goes,” Coach Kai said. “If I can manage it.” “How did she do?” Bimini finished fussing with her suit and faced Coach Kai. “Lucy is an outstanding guardian. She is more willing than anyone I have ever worked with to push herself to the absolute limit of her abilities, both physically and emotionally. Her kinesthetic intelligence is the best I have ever seen, but she is haunted by her childhood, terrified it will catch her up. You should not have let her meet her brother.” Coach Kai laughed once in astonishment. “That’s not something I can control. It would be unethical to try.” “Perhaps . . . Yes, you are correct. Did you read Donna’s report?” “I have now.” “It is a thorough, objective assessment of the security implications posed by her brother. But the subtext suggests Lucy is at risk of an emotional breakdown. What do you know about Donna’s past?” “Nothing, I suppose. It’s not my concern.” “Donna’s childhood is as hidden as Lucy has kept hers. I sus-

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pect she understands Lucy’s situation better than any of us. And she is worried. “Lucy has the potential to define the role of guardian for a generation of players if she doesn’t destroy herself first. Fortunately she has acquired a powerful ally in the Goddess Chrysanthemum. Was that your intention?” “No. That was luck. I was trying to win a match.” “A happy accident,” Bimini said. “I suppose so,” Coach Kai said. “I hope so.” “As do I.” Bimini opened her office door and held it for Coach Kai. “Now, I have to go. An old student from the Academy, who is now on the police force, asked me to consult on a matter of murder by sword.” “Does it have anything to do with those rumors of blood boy leagues?” “I’ll let you know.” Bimini showed Coach Kai out. Samantha was waiting when Bimini’s car pulled up to the morgue’s main entrance. “Good afternoon, Bimini. Thanks for coming. I’m sure this is complicating your schedule.” Bimini stepped out of the car, put on her suit coat, and adjusted the sleeves and shirt cuffs. “I couldn’t miss a chance to visit one of my best former students,” she said. “Thank you, but I don’t deserve such a compliment.” Samantha stepped aside and opened the door. “Please come in. There are several living people eager to talk to you.” Samantha led Bimini through the check point and deep into the building. She pressed her ID against a door labeled, “Active Investigations,” and pulled it open, releasing a puff of chilly air, pungent with the smell of preservatives. The room wasn’t big. The three people waiting inside were almost crowded out by fifteen bodies on tables. The bodies were missing their hands, feet, and heads. The tables were arranged

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side-by-side in three rows with just enough space between them to walk around. “Hello everyone,” Samantha said. She let the door ease closed behind her. “This is Bimini Tanaka, Guardian Sword Coach for Burning Desire. Bimini, Inspector Olia Fournier, the leading investigator; Natashia Hannech, Investigative Medicine; and Emil West, Social Pathology.” “Thanks for coming.” Olia held out her hand. Bimini nodded. “I will do what I can. Samantha tells me you suspect these unfortunates are victims of sword attacks?” “The depth and thin profile of the cuts along with the extension from the draw-out suggest a sword or sword like weapon.” Natashia said. Bimini leaned in for a close look at a wound on the nearest body. The left arm had been cut off and placed on the table next to the body. The amputating cut continued into the torso. Bimini looked at the cut end of the arm and then at the neck where the victim’s head had been removed. “The weapon you described cut off the arm, but not the head.” “The heads, hands, and feet were likely removed with a cleaver, after death,” Natashia said. “One chop each for the hands and feet. Most of the heads required two chops.” “How inefficient,” Bimini said and walked down a row of bodies. “Olia, could you explain the history of these discoveries?” “We found the bodies over the last six months. The first eight over a five month period, the next seven within the last three weeks. They’re arranged in the order they were found, starting with the oldest, here.” Olia touched the corner of the table nearest the door. “The relative putrefaction makes the arrangement clear,” Bimini said. “I suppose it does. The fourth most recent showed up yesterday, and the last three this morning. We’re concerned, alarmed actually, at the sudden increase in killings.” “I’m amazed you have been able to keep this quiet.”

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“Our killer’s style looks enough like the blood boy urban legends to be dismissed as rumor.” “Samantha, could you help me?” Bimini said. “I would like to rearrange the tables.” The investigation team pressed themselves against the wall. Bimini and Samantha wheeled three of the tables out of the way against another wall to make some maneuvering room. “Please continue,” Bimini said. Natashia cleared her throat. “The victims are young.” She sucked in her stomach so Samantha could swing a table past her. “Approximately sixteen to eighteen years old. The weapon fits the profile of a blood battle long-sword, and tests of metal residue from the blade are consistent with a longsword’s composition. This led some of us to suspect an indi vidual involved with the BB League, but Lieutenant Villanueva disagreed.” Bimini and Samantha finished moving the tables. The bodies were now arranged in four groups of three, one group of two, and one body by itself. “Samantha is correct,” Bimini said. “These wounds were not made with blood battle swords, they were facsimiles. Decent amateur blades made using the proper alloys, but the manufacturing is hurried, the edges lack precision. You can see here,” she pointed at the end of a cut. “The blade pulled minute bits of bone and flesh out of the wound when it was removed. A properly made sword would not have done that. “These bodies were cut with imitation guardian weapons, both long and short-swords. See the difference here, and here, and this stab wound here?” “The lieutenant pointed that out on a body we found last week,” said Olia. “Natashia wasn’t convinced.” Bimini nodded. “Understandable. The differences between the two types of wounds are easier to discern if you understand the strategy involved. Samantha always had a sharp eye and a

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keen intellect. She would make an excellent coach.” Bimini glanced at her. “I like what I’m doing,” Samantha said. Everyone was looking at her. “I do.” “You will be aging-out within a year,” Bimini said. She turned back to the investigation team. “Is there anything else?” “Obviously we’re dealing with a serial killer,” Emil said. “He’s―” “He?” Bimini said. “The force implied by the depths of the cuts suggest the attacker had the upper body strength of a male,” Natashia said. “You are probably correct about the sex, but your reasoning is flawed. Imparting effective energy to a blade requires more than strength, though it helps—to an extent. That extent is achievable across the gender spectrum. You may want to inspect the results of a BB match. Please continue,” she said to Emil. “Yes, ah, he’s allowing us to find his victims, but not identify them. He seems to be getting better with practice and wants us to know it.” Emil looked at Natashia who nodded. “And he’s accelerating his murder rate, which suggests he’s building to some climactic event. I have a copy of my profile if you’d like to read it.” He held out a bound collection of papers. “No, thank you. I understand swords and sword wounds, not the psyche. However, I do need to amend your analysis. These boys were attacked by four distinct swordsmen.” “You mean we have four killers?” Olia said. “Yes, and there are bodies missing. The progress in technique from one to the next suggests there should be several more incremental improvements in the killers’ skill.” “How many more victims?” “At least twice as many, I would think, maybe more.” “Mother Goddess!” Olia said. “The wounds not only suggest an improvement in the technique of the killers, but also an improvement in the technique of the losers.”

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“The losers?” Emil said. “These boys were all participants in sword duels, and the most recent ones were much improved in their skill over the first few.” “How can you tell?” Natashia said. “The angle and placement of the killing cuts indicate the victims were increasingly skilled at deflecting easy attacks. See how direct these cuts are compared to these?” Bimini pointed at wounds on the first and third bodies in a group of three. Olia, Natashia, and Emil leaned in to look. “You’re telling us the urban legend might be true and, well,” Olia spread her arms, “here it is?” “Not exactly.” Bimini walked over to the body she had left isolated from any of the groups. “I’m sure you noticed this victim is older than the others?” “A bit, yes. Twenty-five to twenty-six,” Natashia said. “This is one of the killers. And incidentally, clear evidence of the sex of at least one of them.” “Wait,” Emil said. “Because he’s older? He doesn’t fit the established victim pattern?” “Victim patterns are within your purview,” Bimini said. “It is because he killed these two boys.” She pointed at the group of two bodies. “The direction, angle, and depth of the cuts on these bodies suggest a forceful right handed opponent of about his height. He has the muscle development of a right handed swordsman. These are the three bodies you found this morning, are they not?” The investigation team nodded. “The wounds to the boys in the other groups were delivered by a left hander, a right hander with more interest in precision than force, a significantly taller right handed duelist, close to two meters tall, and of course, the fourth group consists of earlier victims of our dead killer. Natashia, you look skeptical.” “It sounds like a lot of speculation. I can’t make claims like that without empirical evidence.”

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“Of course. I am speculating, but everything I say is based on examining the wounded and deceased players after every game, in every match, I have coached. If you like, I can show you the detailed evidence for my assessment after this meeting.” “Thanks,” Natashia said. “I’d appreciate that.” Bimini walked to one of the boys killed by the dead man. “I think this boy and the gentleman over there killed each other. This cut was the decisive strike, but it is crude. Whoever delivered it was likely dying himself.” “So we don’t have a league, but we have a sword fighting club?” Olia said. “I think you have a small group of men who are training younger boys and then dueling with them. I think the older group is dedicated to becoming skilled to a level that can only be achieved by facing increasingly well trained opponents in death duels, but they have gotten to the point where, to improve their skill, they must face opponents who are at least their equal.” “But they’d be risking their own lives,” Olia said. Emil stepped forward. “If I may?” Bimini nodded. “These wouldn’t be typical serial killers. Bimini is describing extremists, people who crave pushing the edge of their skill, often at risk to their own lives. In this case the skill is blood battle swordsmanship. “I expect they would despise the girls who actually play the game. They would see them as inferior because they lack the courage to face real death. These are dangerous men―they’ve found something, a calling, more important than the social restraints against killing.” “You are excited,” Bimini said. “I apologize, I didn’t mean to disrespect the victims, but this is unique, a once-in-a-career case. I got carried away.” “I understand.” “What’s next?” Olia said. “They keep getting better and leave us more progress reports?”

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“They’re still working up to a climactic event,” Emil said, “an ultimate challenge. The accelerated murder rate suggests the event is imminent.” He looked at Bimini. “If they’re imitating blood battle guardians, they would be training themselves to fight chargers. They’ll want to fight the real thing.” Bimini shook her head. “No. You said they desire an ulti mate challenge. The rules, not to mention the mythos, of blood battle forbid guardians from fighting each other. Yet, that hasn’t prevented fans from arguing endlessly over the hypothetical outcomes of such duals. Your killers’ ultimate challenge is the forbidden challenge. They will want to fight a guardian. “Samantha, I know I promised confidentiality, but I must tell the BB League.” “But your girls will be safe won’t they?” Natashia said. “Even if these guys manage to kill one of them?” “Honestly, you people, especially the police, you should realize our girls are as mortal as you are. Without refrigeration, if their bodies are kept away from their memory placentas and a womb for only a few hours after conventional death they will be dead, as dead as these poor boys.” She looked at Samantha. “Perhaps you can help them understand?” She spoke to Emil. “These men will want a duel to the death, yes? Both parties must be at risk of a true death?” “I believe so.” “The womb-atoriums should be warned,” she said to Samantha. “Wait a minute,” Olia said. “This has to be kept quiet. We don’t want these guys knowing we’re onto them.” “Sorry, inspector,” Samantha said. “I’m superseding you’re authority. They may try to destroy or steal the memory placentas of the guardians they want to challenge. Depending on how crude their methods are, they could put hundreds of girls in jeopardy.” ***

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“Show me my niece’s womb.” The matron jumped at the sudden appearance of Maxton Verbeek, the almost mythical black sheep patriarch of the family. She led them into the Womb Room. It held six wombs. One was in use. “This is it, sir.” “Miriam?” Maxton said. Miriam, the matron’s aid they had picked up at the Laughing Cherub, made a quick visual inspection. “It looks healthy. I’d like to see the monitors.” “Don’t let anyone near this womb,” Maxton said to one of the Katrinas. “Show us her placenta jar,” he said to the matron. The Memory Vault was directly off the Womb Room. It held twentythree jars. The matron pointed out Francine’s. “Guard this jar,” Maxton said to the other Katrina. “Now, the monitors.” The matron took them to the monitoring station. Miriam sat and studied the data. “Your niece looks to be in excellent condition,” she said. “Oh my!” “What?” Maxton said. “They told you she hit her head?” “That’s right.” “Look at this echo picture, your niece is healing nicely, but she didn’t hit her head. The top half of her skull was nearly cut off.” “How?” “It’s not my position to say, officially, but we service the local blood battle clubs, and that looks like a long-sword cut. In fact, it looks like a botched goddess beheading. If I didn’t know better, I’d say your niece was a blood battle goddess.” “Thank you. Please prepare to move Francine’s womb and jar. As soon as the wagon arrives, I want it loaded and on its way. Jayzen, help her and do whatever she says.” Miriam and Jayzen left for the Womb Room. Maxton said to the matron, “A womb transport wagon should be arriving about now. Give it permission to cross the Mansion security perimeter.”

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The matron checked the transport queue. “I see it,” she said, and signed its access request. “Thank you,” Maxton said. “Now, You have one chance to explain this.” He pointed at Francine’s echo picture. “It was an accident,” she said. “My niece did not hit her head!” “I know. It was still an accident, but he wanted it kept quiet. He didn’t want people getting the wrong idea.” “Who? The wrong idea about what?” “Him,” she said, nodding toward the monitoring station door. “Jayzen.” Maxton took her by the arm and pushed her through the door, into the Womb Room. The door to the transport dock was open at the other end of the room; Maxton could see the wagon. Miriam and Jayzen had the womb maneuvered onto a transfer pallet. Miriam was disconnecting the womb from the local circulatory system and hooking it to the self contained system on the pallet. “Him?” Maxton said, pointing at Jayzen. “What?” Jayzen looked up. “She says you’re behind all this.” “That’s crazy!” “We’re ready to move the womb onto the wagon,” Miriam said. “You help her,” Maxton said to the Katrina guarding the womb. They pushed the transfer pallet to the wagon. “Tell me what my nephew wanted kept quiet.” “I wanted what?” “Quiet!” “It’s the charity program for the disadvantaged boys. The one to build self esteem.” “How did self esteem lead to my niece being attacked with a sword?” “They teach boys to be like blood battle girls. They wanted to demonstrate a goddess beheading. Francine agreed to play the part since she was due for her synchronization. There was an accident. The boy who performed the deed missed.”

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“Missed?” “Yes, they do miss sometimes,” she said. Miriam was back, pushing a second, smaller transfer pallet. “I need to move the girl’s placenta jar.” “Ask the Katrina in the Memory Vault to help you,” Maxton said. Miriam pushed the pallet into the Vault. “Jayzen?” Maxton said. “I don’t know what she’s talking about.” “You signed the papers,” the matron said. “We, the womb-atorium staff, only agreed to help because it was one of your mother’s projects.” “Well, I guess, I could have,” Jayzen said. “Mother made me administrator for some of her funds. She said she wanted me to learn the virtue of helping others. I signed some papers, approved some projects. I didn’t pay much attention.” Miriam and the other Katrina came out of the Memory Vault pushing the pallet with Francine’s placenta jar. “It’s a good thing we had our own portable circulatory system,” Miriam said. “The two Memory Vault standby units are out for maintenance. That’s pretty irresponsible on their part.” She nodded at the matron. “Hmm,” Maxton said, then to the matron, “Who actually ran this program?” “Mister Grizzly,” she said. “Mister Grizzly?” “Teaching boys to play blood battle could be controversial with all those rumors about secret boys leagues. They wanted to keep it quiet until they had some success stories to tell, so they used code names. The only real name was Jayzen’s” “Where do they run this program?” “I don’t know, but Sunday evening they met here in the gymnasium so Francine would be close to the womb-atorium. Jayzen signed the approval.” “I didn’t know,” Jayzen said.

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“To summarize,” Maxton said, “we snuck in here to steal my niece’s womb because she was accidentally injured while helping out one of my sister-in-law’s charities that is being run by a mysterious person who calls himself Mister Grizzly and is administered by my nephew who doesn’t know anything about it?” “I lost you somewhere in the middle,” the matron said. Miriam came back in with the Katrinas. “The transport wagon is on its way. We should be going, shouldn’t we?” “Yes, we should,” Maxton said. “Sorry to trouble you,” he said to the matron. “I will personally return your womb after Francine is reborn.” He led Jayzen, Miriam, and the Katrinas out of the mansion and to the nearest public car kiosk. When they were in a car, he held up two fingers to the Katrinas. They nodded and gave the car a destination nowhere near the Laughing Cherub. “Why are we still sneaking?” Jayzen said. “Shouldn’t we be meeting the wagon when it arrives?” “The womb-atorium staff will know what to do, and I want time to think. I don’t trust the mysterious Mister Grizzly.” The Alice’s Tea Shop doorbell jingled, jingled, and jingled as Serendipity, Uvan, and Lucy walked through the door. They took a table at the side of the room. Mr. Fredrick brought over a round of cinnamon tea. “Maxton came by and mentioned how much he appreciated meeting you,” he said to Lucy. “Who? Oh yeah. Thanks,” Lucy said. “Who’s Maxton?” Uvan said after Mr. Fredrick retreated to the counter. “He’s an old guy I met Sunday night in the Seafront Park.” “After you ran out of the auditorium?” Serendipity said. “Ah, yeah,” Lucy said. “Is he rich?” Uvan said. “No, he’s a bum. He lives in the Helping Hand shelter.” “Then he’s a lecher.”

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“He was a lonely old guy who wanted somebody to talk to.” “He wanted to get in your pants.” “What did he want to talk about?” Serendipity said. “He asked me about my tea.” “He was a lame lecher.” “It wasn’t just tea. Mr. Fredrick made me one of his special infusions.” “That tea that’s supposed to taste like your soul?” Uvan said. “You don’t believe that bullshit, do you?” “Mr. Fredrick likes the spiritual nuance of things,” Serendipity said. “Not everything is what is seems, we’re all part of the Goddess, that sort of stuff.” “I once got a part of the Goddess in my eye.” Uvan said. She mimed digging a piece of meat out of the corner of her eye. “Not funny,” Serendipity said. “Especially after meeting them today.” “Not funny at all. I had an allergic reaction. My eye swelled shut for two hours!” “What does your tea taste like?” Serendipity said. “Why don’t you try it? I gather you can order some if you want.” “Only if you give me permission or if you’ve had some of mine.” “Some of yours?” Uvan said. Serendipity kept speaking to Lucy, “You can have some of mine, if I can have some of yours.” “Get a room, you two!” Uvan said. “Hey, Lucy, does the lecher have a tea?” “He said he did. He told me I could try it.” “Sure he did, it’s the best thing since lollipops for picking up little girls. Are you going to have some?” “I don’t know . . .” “You’ve got to.” “I think you should,” Serendipity said. Lucy got up and went to the counter. Mr. Fredrick was delivering tea to a table at the front.

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“What can I do for you, my dear?” he said when he returned. “The other night Maxton said I could try some of his tea.” “Your friends put you up to this?” “Yes, but I am interested.” Mr. Fredrick pulled his tray of ingredients from under the counter, and began pinching and scooping samples into a pot from eight jars. “This is just for you. Not them. I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.” Lucy returned to the guardians’ table. “It’s on its way.” “So, what’s up with you and the goddesses?” Uvan said. “What do you mean?” “A month ago, if you saw one, you’d run the other way. Then I spend a week and a half in a womb, and when I pop, you’re waving to them, holding their hands, and they’re all falling in love with you.” “Falling in love with me?” “That one you were working with today? Chin-in-in . . .” “Chenina,” Lucy said. “Whatever. After that last exercise, she was so hot for you, she was leaving wet little footprints wherever she walked.” “It wasn’t like that,” Lucy said. “What was it like then?” “It wasn’t sexual, at least not like you’re implying. I mean, sure, I’ve got swords, penetrating weapons, blah-blah-blah and the exercise wouldn’t have worked unless we were both willing to share that space in a pretty intimate way, but―” Uvan had an ear-to-ear smirk. “So, what was it like for you?” Lucy said. “This is getting too strange. We sound like teenagers talking about our first times. ‘It didn’t hurt as much as I thought.’ ‘It was over so fast.’ ‘I don’t know if I had an orgasm, how can you tell?’” “I liked it,” Serendipity said. “The exercise, I mean. And my first time. I had an orgasm.”

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Mr. Fredrick brought Maxton’s infusion over in a demitasse. “Thanks,” Lucy said, “and can you bring a cup of my tea for Serendipity?” “And one of mine for her,” Serendipity said. Mr. Fredrick nodded and departed. Lucy looked at the demitasse. “Going from that last conversation to the old lecher’s tea is creepy,” Uvan said. They waited. “Well?” Uvan and Serendipity said. Lucy picked up the cup. She poured the tea into her mouth and stirred it with her tongue. There was a richness about it, like a soft silk chair, or pipe tobacco, followed by a mild melt ing in of dark chocolate. It lingered for several moments, and was replaced by― Lucy turned and spit the tea on the floor. “Fuck!” she said. “What?” Serendipity and Uvan said. “It tasted like blood!” Mr. Fredrick came over with a mop to clean the floor. “Sorry.” Lucy wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “Don’t worry about it.” Mr. Fredrick took the demitasse. “Whoa,” Uvan said. “That’s some strange tea.” “It really tasted like blood. A specific person’s blood, you know? Like when you get some in your mouth during a fight.” Uvan laughed. “That lecher did a number on you, kid.” Mr. Fredrick brought over the new infusions. He also brought a glass of palette cleanser. Lucy used it and handed the glass back. He made a show of crossing over his arms to deliver the personal infusions to Serendipity and Lucy. “Enjoy.” Lucy and Serendipity picked up and clinked their cups, then drank. Uvan watched with her elbows on the table and chin in her hands. For the longest time, Serendipity’s tea didn’t taste like anything. Finally, the flavor of smoke crept in, then the tea spiked―like a mouthful of hot peppers―and was gone. “Not

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bad,” Lucy said. “Sweet and syrupy, just like you.” She winked at Serendipity. Serendipity maintained a poker face. “I don’t need tea to figure that out,” Uvan said. Serendipity finished swirling Lucy’s tea around and swallowed. She leaned over and whispered in Lucy’s ear, “No child should ever have to go through that.” “What? It couldn’t possibly―” “Lucy’s tea is complicated, but nice,” Serendipity said to Uvan. “I should get me some of that special tea,” Uvan said. “Your tea would taste like butt,” Serendipity said. “Now we’re talking like we’re eight?” Uvan said. “Tea time’s over, kids. It’s Guardians’ Night Out. How about some bar crawling?” “Sorry,” Lucy said. “I’ve got a date.” Uvan opened her mouth to speak. “Not with the old guy,” Lucy said. “With a cute boy I met during last week’s Guardians’ Night Out.” “I remember,” Serendipity said. “He was sweet, like a lost puppy. You took him home.” Lucy stopped at the counter on her way out. “Maxton’s not a bum. Who is he?” “He prefers his anonymity,” Mr. Fredrick said. “Who’s he hiding from?” “More ‘what,’ than ‘who.’ Something I think you’re familiar with . . . his past.” “Oh Yeah? Mine’s catching up with me lately. How about his?” “The same.” It was early evening by the time Francine’s womb was installed in the Laughing Cherub. “Her progress looks good,” Rothmira said. She was the evening matron and had come on duty an hour earlier. Maxton hovered over her shoulder in the Monitoring room. “It will take a couple of hours until we have enough data to project the time remaining in her gestation. From what I see, I’d guess her rebirth is at least a week away. Her placenta jar is in-

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stalled in the Memory Vault. Its environment looks stable. I think we’re all settled in.” “Maxton Verbeek?” “Yes?” Maxton said. He turned to face a sternly uniformed woman. “Bristol Roth,” she said. “Head of security. I need you to step out of the Monitoring Room.” “I’ll just be a minute,” he said. “I know who you are, and I understand you’re not used to following orders, but you will follow mine.” Bristol put her hand on her electric stunner, then she spoke to Rothmira. “Disconnect that womb and the girl’s placenta jar from our infrastructure, immediately. Support them with a portable system. Then check our circulation for any contaminants that may have been introduced, and inspect that womb and the jar they brought in for any abnormalities. “Come along Mister Verbeek.” She led him to a waiting room. Jayzen and the Katrinas were under guard by two police Special Operations officers. The Katrinas had been stripped of their jackets and body armor. Someone had given them white terrycloth robes. “What’s going on?” Maxton said. “We’ve received a security alert,” Bristol said. “An unknown party may try to sabotage one or all of the city’s womb-atoriums. You understand, this puts you under suspicion.” “What about my niece?” “You heard my orders. Her womb and jar will be run off an isolated system. She will be fine.” “She better be,” Maxton said. “What now? We haven’t committed a crime.” He eyed the S.O. officers. “You can’t arrest us. All you can do is evict us.” “I, however, can arrest you.” A police inspector walked into the room. “Mister Verbeek, Jayzen Verbeek, I’m Inspector Olia Fournier. I would like to ask you some questions.”

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“I demand the right to call an advocate,” Jayzen said. “Calm down,” Maxton said. “Inspector, please ask your questions.”

Chapter 16 An Interesting Evening

There was a message from Charlotte: Jessica and I are going out for a light dinner. We should be back around twenty-one or so. I don’t know what you said to my parents this morning but it worked like magic. Mom says she’s not going to worry any more when I’m in a womb because you told her they were safe, and Dad says he always knew they were, which means he didn’t believe it until now. You’re amazing. Lucy left a reply: Really? It seemed like whatever I said today, people heard the opposite. I thought I was making Kathy and Paul more upset. Every time I opened my mouth Kathy started crying. I finally gave up and didn’t say anything. Then there was Chrissy, the goddess I told you about who, apparently, you know. I told her I was okay after Sunday— Wait, you don’t know about Sunday. I kind of went crazy, for a while, after the game review, but I’m fine now. Fuck, that’s what I told Chrissy and she accused me of lying. (The sound of a deep sigh.)

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Anyway, I have a date with Felix, remember him? So I won’t be back until late, unless I tell him he’s handsome, interesting, and smart. He’ll probably get offended and walk out on me. I’ll play it safe and tell him he’s an ugly, boring ignoramus. Lucy stopped at the front desk of Felix’s dorm at the Polytechnic. She leaned her sword against the desk while she dug his room number out of her bag. “Room 504,” she said. “Huh? Ah, Felix Yassin, room 504. You have a guest. Is that real?” The student behind the desk was staring at her sword. Lucy picked it up. “Yes.” “Is it sharp?” “Yes, do you want me to show you?” “No! I was just asking! You don’t have to get so huffy!” “I didn’t mean . . . I wasn’t threatening to . . . Oh, never mind.” She walked over to the waiting area. Lucy was used to her sword drawing notice, but these Polytechnic students were more overt in their sidelong glances than the normal population. She didn’t mind the attention, especially from the boys. When Felix arrived she kissed him on the cheek. “You look good,” she said. He felt his hair. “Did I forget to comb?” “Let’s go!” They walked to the car kiosk. “Tell me about the Potato Bar,” she said. “It’s fun, but strange,” Felix said. “They encourage their patrons to extend their social circle beyond the people they came with. Everyone sits at long tables with a bench on each side: eight guests per table, no more than four people from the same party per table. The first two guests, whether they know each other or not, sit across from each other in one of the center places. The next two sit at the far end of the table from the first two. The two after that sit at the other end, and the last two sit in the remaining center seats.”

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“Sounds like a social philosopher’s kind of place.” “It is.” The Potato Bar was built from old-style carved wood and shaped stone. The atmosphere inside churned with conversation. It was almost full when they arrived. A waiter showed them to a table where they would be the last two guests. The people on the end got up to let them in. The girl sitting on the near side turned. “Chrissy?” Lucy said. “Lucy, how wonderful!” Chrysanthemum said. “Thad,” she said to the boy across the table who was standing to let Lucy in. “This is Lucy Star, the guardian who saved my head this weekend. And who is this?” “Oh, this is Felix. Felix, this is Chrysanthemum, my goddess. I mean, during the match this weekend, she was the goddess for my game.” “Call me Chrissy,” Chrysanthemum said. “Thad,” Thad said. “Please sit.” Lucy sidestepped in, and sat opposite Felix. She put her scabbard under the table and leaned it against the bench. “Have you been here before?” Chrysanthemum said. “No, Felix picked it. He already had reservations.” “Same with us,” Thad said. “Chrissy didn’t know we were coming here. So, is this a coincidence?” “As the only representative of the Goddess present,” Chrysanthemum said, “I must point out, there is no such thing as a coincidence. There are, however, inscrutable mysteries. This is one of those.” “Aren’t they the same thing?” Thad said. “No,” Chrysanthemum said. “I have to agree with Goddess Chrysanthemum on that point,” Felix said. “The former implies a truly random, undeterminable universe, the latter, a determined, but ultimately incomprehensible one.” “Still sounds the same to me,” Thad said.

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“Felix is studying philosophy,” Lucy said. She noticed the waiter was lingering by their table. “Should we be ordering?” she said to Felix. “Yes. The menu is on the chalk boards,” he pointed up, “on the ceiling.” Lucy leaned back. “What’s ‘La Pomme de Terre?’” “It’s French for potato,” Chrysanthemum said. “It means, apple of the earth. Isn’t that a lovely name?” “But here, it’s a particular potato dish,” Felix said, “with apples.” “I’ll try it, and a house ale please,” Lucy said to the waiter. After Felix ordered, he said, “We’re breaking the rules. We know each other and we’re sitting together in a group of four.” “I thought four was okay?” “At a table, but not grouped together. We should rearrange ourselves.” “I disagree,” Chrysanthemum said. “Thad and I don’t know you, and Lucy and you don’t know Thad. It’s true that Lucy and I know each other, but we’re sitting kitty corner.” “See? We’re legal,” Lucy said, “but you do have a point.” She turned to the woman sitting next to her. “Hi, I’m Lucy Star.” “Samantha Villanueva, call me Sam.” “Hello Sam. Nice earrings.” Lucy moved her head to see both. “They fit together.” “They should,” Chrysanthemum said. “Each one is half a circle.” “No they’re not,” Lucy said. “It’s subtle, but you can see it in the way they reflect hi-lights. Each has a slight double curve, not quite symmetrical, so they fit together, but only one way. That’s neat.” “Thanks,” Samantha said. “they’re a family heirloom.” The older man sitting across from her (he was about twice her age) said, “Carl Moretti. I work with Sam.” Hanna and Finn on the far end of the table joined in on the introductions. “Thad was telling us about his sweater,” Carl said. Lucy turned back to Thad. “Nice sweater.”

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“Chrissy made it for me.” “I know, I saw it on our trip to Appalachi City.” “Thad, you should thank Lucy,” Chrysanthemum said. “If we had lost our game, I’d be in a womb, and your sweater wouldn’t be finished.” “I take it, you two are on the same team?” Carl said. “We’re members of the same club,” Lucy said. “A team is an ad hoc collection of the club members who play in a partic ular game.” “What she meant to say was, ‘yes,’” Chrysanthemum said. Lucy stood up, leaned across the table toward Chrysanthemum, and motioned for her to do the same. She whispered into her ear, “Is this okay? I don’t want to intrude on you and Thad.” She brushed against Chrysanthemum and felt the fine hairs on their cheeks slide across each other . . . “Sorry, I didn’t get that,” Lucy said. “I told you this afternoon, I wished you could be here,” Chrysanthemum whispered, “and here you are. Didn’t I say it was wonderful? What about you and Felix?” “The same,” Lucy said. They both sat down. “What was that about?” Thad said. “Courtesy conference,” Chrysanthemum said. “Excuse me,” Samantha said. “You’re a blood battle guardian, and you’re a goddess? And you’re friends?” “Our coach likes to screw around with the status quo,” Lucy said. “She wants her guardians and goddesses to get to know each other. Do you follow blood battle?” “I used to, but I haven’t had time lately. What club are you with?” “Burning Des―” Samantha received an emergency talk-to request. “Excuse me, I have to accept this.” Finn got up to let her out. She walked to the Potato Bar entrance. Lucy heard her say, “Yes, Inspector?”

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Lucy said to Carl, “You two work together? What do you do?” “We’re with the police.” “Special Operations?” Carl gave her a wary look. “That’s right. How could you tell?” “Her eyes. She has guardian eyes. It’s what she looks at, what she notices. The first thing she wants to know when she meets someone is how to neutralize them. It’s unconscious, but always there. And she has a kind of confidence that comes with rebirth. She knows she has an edge, but knows its limitations. She’s not a guardian though, if she was I’d know her, or at least know of her, and well, she doesn’t have a sword. That leaves military or police Special Operations.” “What about private security?” Carl said. “I had a chance to meet a couple of those girls recently. They were highly trained, very capable, but they lacked commitment. They were in it for the money. Without their jackets full of tricks they’re not formidable. I’ll bet Sam could take them, easy.” “What about you?” “My training is narrow and completely focused on the sport, but if I had to fight them, I’d try to exploit their lack of commitment.” Samantha came back, looking on edge. She motioned to Carl to join her away from the table. They talked by the bar. The first course arrived: potato soup. “This is an interesting place,” Lucy said to Felix, “and the soup is fantastic.” Samantha and Carl re-joined the table. “Carl,” Thad said, “What do you do on the team? Obviously, you’re not . . . “Not so easy to rebuild?” he said. “I’m a weapons specialist, trainer, and supervisor. I support the team, but stay far enough back to not get shot.” He spoke to Samantha. “They know we’re Special Operations. Lucy figured it out.”

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Samantha gave Lucy a sharp look. “See?” Lucy said. “It’s in the eyes.” Finn spoke up from the other end of the table. “I couldn’t help but overhear―” “I think overhearing is the idea in this place,” Lucy said. Finn gave her a pinched smile and continued. “Carl, how does that make you feel? Fifteen years ago, you might have been on the Special Operations team, but now you have to stay back, because you’re a man.” “An old man,” Carl said. “but I see your point. Fifteen years ago I was on the team, and we didn’t like it when the superintendent decided to add these inexperienced girls to the squad. They brought two of them in and paired them with two senior officers for field training. Not long after, there was a hostage incident at the Woods Hotel. Ruth Kozlov and the girl she was training, Taliba, were ambushed. They were both killed, dead. A week later we attended Ruth’s memorial service. Everyone in the unit was there, including Taliba. She was in perfect health. “The next day we worked out a plan to reorganize the team around these remarkable young women. They spend their first three years working with the senior officer they will replace, and spend their next three years working with the junior officer who will replace them. Then, if they want, they can move into a supervisory or training role, like mine. “Sam is in her last year on the front line team. Next year she’s going to replace me, and I’m going to retire.” “Yes, but―” Finn said. Carl leaned over to him. “I know you have issues. Lots of people do, but none of them are worth risking the lives of good officers.” The entrees arrived: eight fancy potato dishes. Lucy said to Chrysanthemum, “On Sunday, after I . . . left the auditorium. I went to Alice’s Tea Shop and asked Mr. Fredrick to create a tea for me.”

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“I know,” Chrysanthemum said. “Did he tell you?” “I followed you there.” “You did?” Chrysanthemum reached across the table and took Lucy’s hand. “Didn’t I just say so? You were sitting at the counter with Mr. Fredrick, he was composing your tea. You were in good hands, so I left.” Chrysanthemum let go and picked up her fork. “What does it taste like?” “It’s kind of dull: tree bark, old leaves, winter. Others seem to get more out of it than I do.” “I expect your infusion is deep, subtle, complex, and above all, honest. May I try it?” “Of course. Everybody seems to get something different. It’s like it’s drugged.” “It is,” Chrysanthemum said. “What?” “There are several mild, natural hallucinogens in those jars under Mr. Fredrick’s counter.” “It’s not magic tea?” “Are you disappointed?” “Kind of. I didn’t actually believe it, but I wanted to.” “Real magic could never be as powerful as the illusion of magic,” Chrysanthemum said. “That’s what Maxton said.” “Who’s Maxton?” “This old guy I met that evening. I walked over to the Old Harbor and sat in the park with my new tea. I gave him some change, and we talked about tea and Mr. Fredrick. He said he had his own personal infusion, so today I tried it. Hallucinogens explain a lot. It explains his tea for sure.” Lucy whispered across the table to Chrysanthemum, “It tasted like . . .” She mouthed, “blood.”

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“Mmm. I’m going to have to try it,” Chrysanthemum said. “You’re weird,” Lucy said. “Excuse me,” Samantha said. “Would that be Maxton Verbeek?” “Oh, shit!” Lucy said. “What is it?” Chrysanthemum said. “More small world crap. I hate this.” “Was he Maxton Verbeek?” Samantha said. “I don’t know, but in my screwed up life, it makes sense. Why do you want to know?” “I can’t say.” “You don’t get to drop this on me and then not say why.” “I do get to,” Samantha said. “Why are you upset at the possibility this person could be Maxton Verbeek?” Lucy looked Samantha in the eye. “I get to not tell you.” They stared each other down for a few seconds, then Samantha said, “Maxton Verbeek is a party in a current investigation.” She waited. Lucy didn’t say anything. “That’s really all I can say.” “Other than the tea thing I just mentioned,” Lucy said, “I don’t know anything about a Maxton Verbeek or if this guy is him, but I do know Jayzen and Francine Verbeek. Wait, does this have something to do with Francine’s head injury?” Samantha’s eyes widened. “It does! Is she alright? Don’t give me that you-can’t-say bullshit!” Samantha looked around. “Can we―” “Have a conference at the bar? Sure,” Lucy said. “Outside,” Samantha said. Lucy picked up her sword. Thad stood so they could get by. When they reached the sidewalk, Samantha said, “Francine is safe.” “Safe from what?” Lucy said. “How do you know about her?” “Safe from what?” “Please, you can help by answering my questions.”

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Lucy tapped her scabbard against her leg a couple of times. “Yesterday I went on a date with Jayzen. He said France had gone in for a synchronization on Sunday, and their womb-atorium staff estimated her gestation at two weeks. I told him that was bullshit. Safe from what?” “Hello, Lieutenant,” Olia said. Lucy realized Samantha must have sent a talk-to request on her way out to the sidewalk. “Hello, Inspector. I have someone here you should meet. This is Lucy Star, she’s a guardian with Burning Desire. She knows about Francine Verbeek, and she knows both her and Jayzen.” “How do you know about Francine?” Olia said. Lucy glowered at Samantha. “Please. This is important,” Samantha said. “Okay,” Lucy said. “Last night, I had a date with Jayzen. He told me about France, and I told him her estimated gestation was bullshit, even for the head injury they were claiming.” “I knew Jayzen wasn’t smart enough to figure it out on his own,” Olia said. “How well do you know him?” “I fucked him twice, literally, well three times, if you count this morning, and once, figuratively.” “Figuratively?” “I met him last weekend, he wanted some sword fighting tips. I think he thought he was pretty good. He wasn’t, and he was being a jerk, so I . . . put him in his place.” “What do you mean?” “I showed him some of the gaps in his training. I made him limp.” “You assaulted him?” “It was practice. Sometimes you get banged up. He was being immature and reckless, so I disarmed him. That involved making him limp. We were using practice sticks, by the way. I want to make that clear.” “Did he mention a charity program? A class in blood battle technique for disadvantaged boys?” “No. A what?”

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“How do you know Francine Verbeek?” “I met her last week, the same night I met Jayzen. She’s a blood battle fan. She’s actually one of my fans. What happened to her?” “That’s confidential.” “What are you investigating?” “I can’t reveal the nature of our inquiries.” “Why is it significant that I’m a guardian?” “I don’t know what you mean?” “Don’t lie to me! I heard it in your voices. How am I involved in this?” “You’re a possible witness, nothing more―” “Witness to what?” “I can’t say at this time―” “If France is safe now, when wasn’t she safe? Yesterday? This morning? Will she still be safe tomorrow? Did I do something that put her in danger?” “We can’t answer those questions,” Samantha said. “You have to trust us.” “No, I don’t,” Lucy said. “I’m done!” She turned, pulled the door open, and went into the Potato Bar. She heard Samantha say, “Let me handle her. You can’t intimidate these girls.” “Sorry,” Lucy said to Felix when she sat down. “This is a pretty crappy date.” “I think it’s exciting,” he said. “What’s wrong?” Chrysanthemum said. Lucy looked at Carl, then back at Chrysanthemum and gestured with her head for them to get away from the table. “Sorry Thad,” she said when he got up again to let her out. She and Chrysanthemum went over to the bar. Lucy closed her eyes for a moment, then faced Chrysanthemum. “What I told you in the centipede cabin, what I tried to tell you, about how I used the BB recruitment program to escape from . . . there. I thought I could pack that away, everything from

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then, and not just forget it, but literally, make it never have happened. The first time I came out of a womb at the Academy, I wanted to be brand new, with a new name and everything―Lucy Star, born―not reborn―no past, nothing to tell. And it worked, for four years, until now. “You’re right, what happened on Sunday, after the match review, it’s not over. Everything I’ve made, everything I love. I’m . . .” She looked at the polished, dark wood surface of the bar. “I’m scared. I’m afraid of losing it. I haven’t felt like this since . . .” She clenched her teeth. “But he’s not going to win. I made this life. It’s mine!” “You’re growling.” “I’m what?” “It’s nothing. What happened outside?” “Fuck, sorry,” Lucy said. Someone opened the Potato Bar door, and she caught a glimpse of Samantha on the sidewalk, still in conversation. “I just found out somebody hurt this girl, Francine, who was naïve enough to be my fan. You saw her Saturday night after the match, by the security fence.” “I remember,” Chrysanthemum said. “The police won’t say shit. But somehow, I’m involved. I know it. She’s hurt because of me.” Lucy was gripping her sword hilt. Chrysanthemum reached toward Lucy’s hand, but hesitated and pulled back. “You told me there was no chaos on your temple. What did you mean?” “I mean I’m ready for anything. I don’t have a plan, that would be stupid. The other team has plans, they run up the pyramid with all sorts of clever schemes for killing me, and I take those schemes apart. I don’t need to know what they are, I don’t want to know. I attack weaknesses―all plans have them. You don’t need to know the plan to see the weak spots. In fact, it’s better not to know. It’s not something I think about. Sensing a weak point and attacking it are pretty much the same thing.”

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“It’s a different state of consciousness,” Chrysanthemum said. “All that faster-than-thought kinesthetic intelligence Bimini cultivates in you, it’s a form of meditation, and it isn’t just good for saving goddesses’ heads. “Your gut is telling you this girl was hurt because of you. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but wouldn’t that be part of a plan? Didn’t you just say you don’t want to know the plan, you attack weaknesses?” “Yes.” “Then I have to wonder why you’re spending so much time trying to blame yourself . . .” “What is it?” Lucy said. Chrysanthemum put her hand on Lucy’s arm. “I know something about your background―no details, but I know you were physically abused, and I understand you desperately want to put that behind you. I think, however, when you’re off the temple and in the messy real world, you have to be careful of your gut feelings. When you’re blaming yourself for what happened to Francine, it might be that abused girl trying to make sense of the world by blaming herself for everything bad that’s happening, both to her and to everyone around her. My heart goes out to that girl, and someday you might be able to let her back into your life, but you can’t let her sneak in. “Do you know what the Beginners Guide to Blood Battle says about guardians?” Lucy shook her head. “It says, ‘guardians are confident to the point of arrogance.’ That’s you. Nobody messes with Lucy Star’s temple. I think, if you let Lucy Star, the guardian, interpret your gut, you’ll find it’s not telling you who’s to blame, it’s telling you it’s sensing a weakness.” “But I still don’t know what it is.” “Weren’t you listening to yourself? You’ll know the weakness when you attack it.” “I carry this sword for show. I can’t actually use it off of a blood battle field.”

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“Don’t be so literal. Maybe you can help one of these police officers figure out who to arrest.” “Maybe,” Lucy said. “You’re not growling anymore.” “What are you talking about?” Chrysanthemum laughed. “You don’t even realize you’re doing it.” Lucy gave her a blank stare. “When you get upset, you growl, like a cougar.” “I do?” “Yes, it’s quite frightening. It suits you. Are you ready to go back?” Lucy looked at their table. Samantha had returned from the sidewalk. “Yes,” she said. Everyone was eating dessert. Lucy side stepped past Thad, sat, and laid her sword across the table between her and Samantha. “Whatever your case is,” Lucy said, “I’m involved, and it got Francine hurt. I like France. I’m going to find out what happened to her. You can help or not, it’s your decision.” She turned away to talk to her friends. Felix was speaking to Thad. “Human Anatomy? Are you studying medicine?” “I want to be a surgeon,” Thad said. Chrysanthemum shifted her attention away from Samantha and said, “We met at the medical school.” “Are you studying medicine, too?” Felix said. “When you’re not being a goddess?” “No, Thad and I met last winter. We have to synchronize with our placentas at least once during the BB off season. Some of us coordinate that with volunteering to be practice patients for the surgery labs. The students get to cut on living people, and when they’re done, we go in a womb, and all the incisions and mistakes are wiped away. The medical school has to pay the extra womb-atorium costs since it means a longer gestation, but not by

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much. After all, they are doctors. Their goal is, ‘do no harm,’ or as little harm as possible, for surgeons. “You’ll be taking your first surgery lab during the next quarter,” she said to Thad. “Maybe you’ll get to practice on me. Wouldn’t that be fun?” “I never thought . . .” Thad said. “I don’t think I could do that!” Chrissy took his hand. “It would be good for your concentration. It would make you a better surgeon.” “How?” “It’s like what Coach Kai is doing with her guardians and goddesses. We used to avoid each other so guardians could maintain the illusion that we were abstractions―symbols of the Goddess. The notion was, this would allow guardians to make better, more objective decisions if they weren’t emotionally invested in protecting a real person. “However, the best guardians,” she glanced at Lucy, “derive their strength from their ability to empathize, at a deep level, with those they protect. Asking them to treat a goddess as an abstraction forces them to treat themselves as something less than they are. It creates more emotional dissonance, not less. “Coach Kai thinks a fully empathic guardian is better at making hard decisions because she’s willing to face, and accept, the consequences her actions have, both for the girl sitting on the altar, and for the whole team. “Wouldn’t that also be true of the best surgeons? I think, if you walk into your surgery lab and find me lying on the table, you’ll perform with a skill that will amaze your instructors and be the envy of your fellow students.” “I don’t know,” Thad said, he pulled his hand away. “I think I’d be too nervous to hold the scalpel steady.” He picked up a piece of dessert on his fork and it fell off. “See? Even thinking about it makes me nervous.” Chrysanthemum watched Thad stab the piece of dessert. She

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turned to Samantha. “What about you? Lucy says you have the eyes of a guardian.” Samantha’s fork was half way to her mouth. She put it down. “I actually received my rebirth gene therapy at the Concepción Academy.” She looked at Lucy’s sword for a moment. “I wanted to be a blood battle guardian and stand on that temple every two weeks to save my little part of the world, but the more I trained, the more I felt boxed in. My friends and I would go into town on the weekend, and I’d realize, no matter how good I was, the moment I stepped off the Academy grounds, my skills were worthless. “Before I turned seventeen, just before I was to receive my swords, I switched to the Police Academy. By then those swords had begun to seem like handcuffs. If I had accepted them, I would have committed myself to an illusion. I’d be a guardian, but guarding what? It wasn’t real, just a big show. At least in the police, I’m doing some good for real people. Of course, I spend most of my time training, cleaning my weapons and filling out paperwork. Perhaps if I had met your coach back then, I would have taken the swords and stayed.” Samantha glanced at Carl, then took a token out of her pocket and handed it to Lucy. “This will send a priority request directly to me. Don’t take any unnecessary risks, let me know everything you find out, and remember, I’m the police―you’re not. Leave the police work to us. Contact me tomorrow morning; I’ll tell you what I can, but most of my information has to remain confidential. Agreed?” Lucy took the token. “Agreed,” she said. Samantha looked down at Lucy’s sword. “May I?” “Yes.” She picked up the sword, weighed it in her hands, then pulled it part way out of its scabbard and inspected the blade. She breathed on the polished metal and watched the condensation from her breath evaporate. She slid the sword back in and set it down. “It suits you,” she said.

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Lucy pocketed the token and tried her dessert. “This is fantastic! What is it?” “Potato fudge cake,” Felix said. The back third of the Potato Bar had a dance floor and small stage. After dessert, a band set up and started to play. “What’s that?” Lucy said. “Polka,” Felix said. “It started in Europe, but caught on big in the African Coalition. It’s just now showing up here. I didn’t know the Potato Bar was this avant-garde.” “How do you dance to it?” “Watch,” Felix said. A few people were moving onto the dance floor. “That’s crazy. Show me.” “I don’t know how,” Felix said. “I didn’t expect a polka band.” Carl leaned over. “Come on.” Hanna let Carl out and Thad let Lucy out. She slipped her scabbard behind her belt.” “I’ll lead to start with,” Carl said. “Put your left hand on my shoulder, and take my right hand. OK, on the beat, follow me.” “Where did you learn?” Lucy said as they started sashaying across the floor. “My daughter taught me.” By the third song Lucy was leading and picking up some advanced steps from the other dancers. After the fourth song Carl needed a break. They walked over to a couple of empty chairs at the edge of the dance floor. “Quite a coincidence, you, your girlfriend, and Sam all showing up here tonight,” Carl said, “and all sitting at the same table.” “She’s not my girlfriend, we’re club mates.” Lucy said. “And it’s not a coincidence, remember?” Lucy pulled her sword out of her belt and rested it against her thigh. “Do you think someone planned this?” “No, I think it’s one of your girl― I mean, Chrissy’s inscrutable mysteries. Yes, I remember. But I don’t believe in inscrutable; all mysteries have answers.”

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They listened to the music and watched the dancers. Thad and Chrysanthemum were getting the hang of the basic steps. Samantha was leading Felix around the dance floor. Hanna and Finn were still sitting at the table. “On my date with Jayzen, he said if I were to try attacking him, his bodyguards could neutralize me so fast that my training was irrelevant. Do you know what he was talking about?” “Why do you want to know?” “I’m not going to attack him, but I’d feel more comfortable if I knew how to take down his bodyguards. I’ve seen them lose focus. I know they can be vulnerable, now I need to know how to take advantage of it. You can understand, right?” Carl laughed and shook his head. “Of all the dating issues that came up with my kids, we never covered how to neutralize their dates’ bodyguards.” “My life has been pretty crazy lately.” “OK,” Carl said. “Their means aren’t going to be significantly different than Sam’s. Their jackets will be loaded with small, lightweight weapons: guns―the lethal kind, dart pistols with drugged darts, electric stunners, and knives―some of them will be throwing knives. The key point is, they have stand off weapons and you don’t. If you were to engage them, you couldn’t give them any warning until they were within your range of attack. “Their body suits have an embedded layer of carbon-based armor that can stop bullets and will certainly stop your sword. The armor is thinnest over their hands so it won’t adversely affect their dexterity. You might be able to cut through it there, not that you would, right?” Lucy shrugged. “You could still twist their arms, legs, and necks to break bones, but I suspect you don’t have much hand to hand training.” “Actually, I do. Bimini, my sword coach, likes to say, ‘Your body is your third sword.’ Everyone sees the flashing blades, but next time you watch a game, pay close attention. You’ll be surprised how much punching, kicking, and flipping goes on.

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“The bodyguards’ faces aren’t covered. Are you going to tell me they’re wearing bulletproof makeup?” “No. Their faces are vulnerable, but I expect they have armored masks tucked in those jackets.” “So, as long as they don’t put on their masks, the best I can do is get close enough to poke them in the face, try to cut off their fingers, or break their necks?” “Or their arms or legs,” Carl said. “If that was the only way to slow them down, but I’d still have to break their necks to stop them.” “You’re a scary young lady.” “Why? They have memory placentas.” “I hope I don’t regret telling you this.” “Don’t worry.” Lucy stood up. “I’ve got to go to la femme pissoir. Save another dance?” Like the main room, the washroom had been build out of old stuff by craftspeople using hand tools. It was all scrubbed tile, dead wood, and stone. Lucy went into the middle stall, dropped her pants and underwear, and sat on the toilet. She rested her sword diagonally across her lap, put her elbows on her thighs, and rested her chin on the heels of her hands. There was a bouquet of flowers painted on the back of the wooden stall door. It seemed to spin, yet remain upright. “I’m getting drunk.” Her bladder was filled to aching, but she hesitated to let it go. A memory swam into her head . . . She was a little girl sitting on a toilet, looking at wallpaper glued to the opposite wall. The wallpaper was crisscrossed with lines that divided it into diamonds. The lines were made up of eight little flowers that repeated again and again. Each diamond enclosed a bouquet. There were four bouquets: a blue one, a pink one, a yellow one, and a purple one. The purple one was her favorite.

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She looked at the hook on the toilet room door. She liked the way it settled into the eye that was screwed into the door jam. It was the closest thing to a lock in the house. It made her feel safe. For a few minutes, she could be alone and happy. She looked down at her feet swinging above the floor, her underpants were hanging from her shoes. She tapped her heels against the toilet bowl and watched them bounce off. She held her pee to make her time in the toilet room last as long as possible. She imagined her bladder was a yellow water balloon with a happy face painted on it, only now it was a grimace because it was ready to burst and it really, really, wanted to go! She gave in. Her pee flooded into the toilet. The balloon rolled its eyes in ecstasy; its mouth opened and a big cartoon dialog bubble came out saying, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh . . .” Her pee slowed to a dribble, then a drop, and stopped. Her balloon bladder had shriveled down to an empty little tongue of happy, yellow rubber. Lucy sat in the Potato Bar stall . . . For the first time since she was a little girl, she imagined that happy faced balloon inside her. She held her pee, and held it, and held it, and finally . . . let it go. She laughed, then started to cry. She put her face in her hands and sobbed. Her shoulders shook so much her elbows slid off her thighs; she put them back. Tears ran off her hands and down her arms. She pulled out some toilet paper and noticed there was a little flower pot sitting on top of the paper dispenser with an actual, live flower in it. “I love this place!” she said, still convulsing with sobs. She wiped herself, then pulled out more paper and wiped her eyes and cheeks. By then she was laughing again, almost as much as she was crying. She wiped her hands and arms. Even her thighs were wet where the tears had run off her elbows onto her legs. She wiped her scabbard; it was wet from tears that flooded her sinuses and dripped out her nose. She blew and wiped her nose.

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The crying and laughing dwindled away until she was just breathing. She leaned back against the toilet cover and accidentally pressed the flush lever. The toilet flushed and churned up a cool breeze that swirled around her butt. “Oh, that feels good.” She was limp. She felt like she was fresh out of a womb: weak but clean, inside and out. She waited a couple of minutes to be sure she was cried out. She stood, pulled up her underwear and pants, then had to put her hand on the top of the door because her legs were shaking. When she felt steady, she opened the stall door, stepped out, and almost ran into Chrysanthemum who was rushing to the next stall over. “Don’t go anywhere,” Chrysanthemum said. She turned around and pointed at Lucy as she backed into the stall. “Stay right there.” Lucy slipped her sword under her belt, and washed and dried her hands, pacing herself to the sounds from Chrysanthemum’s stall. There were two potted flowers on the wash basin counter. She leaned over, smelled one, and kissed it. Chrysanthemum came out. While she was washing her hands she looked at Lucy. “Have you been crying?” “Yes,” Lucy was still weak. She put her hand on the counter to steady herself. “What happened?” “I’m fine,” Lucy said. “I really am. I’m not lying. I remembered something from when I was little. It was a moment when I was really, genuinely happy.” She felt tears beginning to puddle in her eyes again. “I tried so hard to forget, I even forgot that, sometimes, I was happy.” A tear ran out of her eye. Chrysanthemum picked up a hand towel, and wiped it away. She folded the towel and hung it back on the towel bar. She put her hands on Lucy’s shoulders, stepped close and looked in her eyes. “I’d like to kiss you, if that’s all right.” “Ah, sure,” Lucy said. Chrysanthemum cupped Lucy’s cheeks in her hands―they were still damp from washing and felt cool against her skin―then

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Chrysanthemum kissed her. Already slightly drunk, Lucy felt her head spin even more. She reached back and grabbed the counter with both hands to steady herself. Chrysanthemum pressed her against the counter with her hips. Lucy reached under Chrysanthemum’s arms and held onto her shoulders. She felt Chrysanthemum’s scapulae slide out as she moved her hands from Lucy’s cheeks to the back of her head and neck. With every breath, Lucy drew in more of Chrysanthemum’s scent. It wasn’t perfume, just her. It made Lucy even more dizzy. She pulled Chrysanthemum closer, kissed her, and tasted her. It wasn’t a long kiss. Chrysanthemum shifted her weight back, just enough to end it. She pressed her forehead against Lucy’s, then eased back a little more and rested her hands on Lucy’s chest. She looked into her eyes and caressed her collarbones with her fingers. Lucy brought her hands down to Chrysanthemum’s sides, and with her thumbs, traced the soft curves where her ribs dissolved into her breasts. “I couldn’t wait for Mr. Fredrick’s tea,” Chrysanthemum said. “So, what did you taste?” “You.” “That’s it?” “That’s a lot.” She kissed Lucy, a light touch on the lips, and stepped back; her gaze lingered along with her fingers. At arm’s length, she dropped her hands, held Lucy’s eyes for an extra moment, then turned and left. Lucy leaned against the wash basin counter until her head stopped swimming. She tried her balance; it seemed okay. She walked into the main room. “Mystery solved?” Carl said. “Not so much solved as replaced.” Lucy sat next to him. Carl pointed at the dance floor. “Sam’s been keeping your boy distracted.”

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“Thanks for waiting,” Lucy said, “but I’ve got to pass on another dance.” She walked over to Samantha and Felix. Samantha handed him off and walked over to Carl. Lucy gathered Felix up. They started shuffling around the floor. She rested her head on his shoulder and wished she could fall asleep. The night spun along. Felix picked up the dance steps. Lucy made two more uneventful trips to the washroom. Eventually Felix begged to leave due to exhaustion. “Just a minute,” Lucy said. She worked her way across the dance floor to Thad and Chrysanthemum, threw her arms over their shoulders, and yelled above the music, “We’re leaving. It was great meeting you, Thad!” “It was nice to meet one of Chrissy’s teammates!” he said. “Club mates,” Lucy said. “Teammates are―” “I’ll see you tomorrow at the club,” Chrysanthemum said. “Yes. See you then!” Lucy patted them on their backs. She worked her way back to Felix. Samantha and Carl were sitting together. Lucy waved. Samantha smiled, and Carl gave her a thumbs up. It was after midnight and cold on the sidewalk. Their breath was condensing. Lucy stuffed her hands in her pockets. “When we started the night, I wanted to invite you back to the Winnebago Graveyard, but too much has happened. I wouldn’t be a good partner, I’m sorry. But I’ll take you back to your dorm.” “You don’t have to,” Felix said. “I’ll catch a cab.” “I’ll pay for it,” Lucy said. Felix held up his hand to protest; she cut him off. “I can afford it, you can’t.” She looked up the street and raised her arm to hail a cab. Felix turned her around. “You’re a great girl. I can’t believe I met you, and that I’m with you tonight, but . . .” “I like you too,” Lucy said. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.” “But I saw what was going on between you and Chrissy.”

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“You did? Maybe you can explain it to me, because I can’t figure her out. She’s―” “In love with you.” “Oh, I hope not. I’m way too fucked up for that. I like her, but I don’t understand her. Not at all.” A cab turned onto the street. Felix hailed it. The driver peddled to a stop at the curb. Lucy kissed Felix on the cheek. He sat in the cab, then she paid the cabbie generously for the trip to his dorm. “See that he gets home safe.” Charlotte heard the hatch open, followed by Lucy’s footsteps on the stairway. She listened to Lucy put away her sword, drop the dinette table and make the bed. She heard her go into the shower room and begin brushing her teeth. “I’ve got to talk to her.” Charlotte disentangled herself from Jessica. “She’s been having a rough few days.” She put on her robe, closed the bedroom door behind her, and made tea in the kitchenette. Lucy came out of the shower room wearing her frog robe. “Would you like some tea?” Lucy jumped. “Fuck! You scared the shit out of me! I mean, sure, thanks.” Charlotte handed her a cup. They sat on the little sofa built into the wall of the living room and put their feet on one of the two swiveling arm chairs bolted to the floor opposite the sofa. “How was your date?” Charlotte said. “Complicated, and yours?” “Jessica was full of questions about rebirth. She was very jealous when I told her we stop menstruating until we age-out.” “Yeah, sounds great, but I’m gonna feel stupid asking teenager questions when I’m twenty-five.” “She would be very pissed off if you told her that.” Lucy laughed. “Your turn,” Charlotte said.

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Lucy sipped her tea, and put her head back against the sofa. Charlotte put her arm around Lucy’s shoulder. Lucy lifted her head to accommodate. “What is it?” Charlotte said. “She’s back.” Charlotte kissed the top of Lucy’s head. “I know.” Lucy rolled her head to see Charlotte. “How?” “I saw her in your face on Sunday. How is she?” “Fucked up. Lonely. Mad at the world. Frightened.” Charlotte waited. “This is going to sound stupid, but can we just sit and drink our tea, and not talk?” “Of course.” After a minute Lucy said, “Do you know any lullabies?” “Do you want me to sing you one?” “Not for me, for her.” Charlotte ran the back of her toes along the sole of Lucy’s foot. “This is called, The Dream Ocean. My Dad used to sing it to me, every night.” Stirring the waters That hug the cockle The fish in forever motion Slip baby ’cross the waves They gather around to taste the dreams The dreams that dance in the ocean And soften sleep with a gentle potion Extending her hands To cup the wet brine Following an old notion Night drinks the world anew While the fish swim ’round the dreams The dreams that dance in the ocean And soften sleep with a gentle potion

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*** They finished their tea. Lucy took the cups. “I’ll wash up.” “See you in the morning?” Charlotte said. “Yes. Thanks.” Back in bed, Jessica said, “How is she?” “I don’t know. She’s tough, but I don’t know.” They laid together listening to Lucy wash the tea cups, rustle her sheets and blanket, and get into bed. A few minutes later she rifled through her drawer and they heard a muffled, bzzzz.

Chapter 17 What’s Next?

Lucy turned off her alarm a minute before it was set to nudge her awake. She listened to Charlotte in the shower, then got up and put on her blue and orange frog robe. The bedroom door was open. Jessica was asleep on the bed, wrapped in a sheet. Lucy closed the door and ground enough coffee to make three cups. She started the coffee, cut three generous slices of bread, and made toast, then undressed her bed, raised the dinette table, and washed and dried the surface. Charlotte came out, brushing her hair. “Mmm, the coffee smells good.” Lucy took her shower, brushed her teeth, and got dressed in her anime toreador outfit. By then, Jessica was up, and having coffee and toast with Charlotte. “How are you feeling?” Jessica said. “About what?” Lucy took her sword and cleaning kit out of the broom closet. “Last night, you―” “Last night didn’t involve you.” Lucy sat at the dinette, pulled her sword out of its scabbard and wiped the blade with a dry cloth. “I was just―” “Stop,” Charlotte said. She put down her coffee, pushed Jes-

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sica into the bedroom, and closed the door. “Don’t confuse last night’s emotional stress with a delicate personality,” she said. “I was just concerned―” “You were being disingenuous. You don’t know her well enough to be concerned. She doesn’t just attack with swords; you’re this close to a verbal disemboweling you may never recover from. Whether it’s swords or words, guardians don’t fence, they slaughter.” “I’m sorry,” Jessica said. “I’ll apologize.” She turned to open the door, but Charlotte pulled her back. “This house is tiny,” Charlotte said. “It can give you a false sense of intimacy. It’s an easy mistake to make.” “I get it,” Jessica said, “It’s just, last night, she seemed so vulnerable.” Charlotte laughed. “That’s her secret weapon. It works because it’s true, but like I said, not to be confused with fragility, quite the opposite, in fact. Now, let’s go back out there, and don’t apologize. For your own good, you should either not say anything or stick to small talk.” Lucy finished wiping her sword with an oiled cloth. She sighted along the blade and twisted it, using the reflected hilights to check the edge. She slid the sword back into its scabbard and picked up her gym bag. “See you this evening,” she said to Charlotte. “Nice meeting you again,” she said to Jessica. “Why don’t we go out for dinner?” Charlotte said. Lucy glanced at Jessica. “Just you and me.” “Sure.” Lucy took her coffee and toast, jogged up the stairs, and out the hatch. Frank held open the player entrance door. “You’re to go directly to the auditorium.” “What’s up?” Lucy said. “Don’t know, seems hush-hush.”

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“Is it a club meeting?” “Nope. Only guardians, all the guardians, including the reserves.” Bimini and Donna were standing in front of the stage. Donna motioned Lucy to come down to the front where everyone was sitting. They were still waiting for Uvan and one of the reserve girls. “Hey, Sandeep,” Lucy said. “Look who’s back from the dead.” “I hear you’ve been freaking people out.” Sandeep held up her hand. Lucy slapped it and sat next to her. Uvan and the reserve girl arrived. Donna stepped forward and waited a moment until she had everyone’s attention. “The Blood Battle League has received a security alert from the police. They have evidence of a possible threat directed, specifically, at guardians. “Since it’s an active investigation, they have asked us to keep this meeting confidential. That means everything we’re about to discuss stays only among those of us in this room. You don’t tell club mates, friends, family, or anyone else. Understood?” Everyone mumbled in agreement. “Right then. There may be a small group intent on injuring, or even attempting to kill, BB guardians―that’s kill, as in, really dead―got it?” She had their attention. “As you know, the blood sports, and blood battle in particular, attract controversy and the protestors that go along with it, some of whom can get overly zealous. That’s why my staff and I are here. We usually handle security issues quietly so you don’t need to be concerned, but in this case the police have deemed the risk serious enough to involve you directly in more overt safety measures.” Lucy raised her hand. “Does this have anything to do with reports of boys being taught blood battle sword fighting techniques?” Bimini was standing with her arms folded. She looked at Lucy and tapped her finger against her arm. “I don’t know the details of the threat,” Donna said, “but I doubt it has to do with those urban legends.”

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Lucy nodded. She had her answer in the subtle surprise Bimini had shown. Donna picked up a box from the stage. “We’re going to go over methods for avoiding being followed and for avoiding putting yourselves in vulnerable situations, but first, the police have issued these contact tokens. They will connect you directly to a dispatcher prepared to deal with this threat. If you contact them, give them your location first, then if possible, your name and a description of the situation. They’ll send both the nearest available patrol officer and a Special Operations officer to your aid. Let that sink in for a minute. The police are committing considerable resources to protect your asses. Don’t play with these tokens, but if you feel threatened, don’t hesitate to use them. Everyone got that?” Donna spent the next half hour demonstrating some nifty trade secrets and explaining the new security procedures, “. . . that all of you will follow―no exceptions,” she said. “Yes ma’am,” all the guardians said. “All right then, sorry to keep you for so long. Get back to winning your games.” Lucy walked out to the car siding by the player entrance and toggled Samantha’s token. The air was chilly. Broken clouds cast the world in alternating moods of grey gloom and bright sun. There were more fans standing behind the security fence than two weeks ago. Several called her name. She waived, but stayed away. One of Donna’s new rules was to avoid close contact with fans. Then something caught her eye. “No fucking way!” Lucy walked over to the fence for a better look. A girl held up a poster; unauthorized, Lucy hoped. It was a picture, obviously amateur quality, of her standing on the temple next to Chrysanthemum after their Beauty Incarnate game. Lucy’s bloody hand was on Chrysanthemum’s shoulder, staining her white vestment with a dripping red hand print. Lucy was looking down with a benevolent smile and Chrysanthemum was looking up into

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her eyes with open mouthed wonder. Bold letters proclaimed, “The Guardian and the Goddess: A Love Bound by Blood.” “Oh, Lucy, this is so romantic!” The girl rolled up the poster to stick it through the fence for Lucy to sign. Lucy stepped back. “Good morning,” Samantha said. “I’m sorry,” Lucy said to the girl. “I have to take this contact.” She walked away from the fence. “What’s that noise?” Samantha said. “Fans.” “You shouldn’t be near them. You’ve been briefed on the security situation by now, haven’t you?” “Yes, and after last night, it’s not a surprise. Some mystery group wants to kill guardians, your inspector asked me if Jayzen mentioned a class that teaches blood battle techniques to boys, and Jayzen’s sister, Francine, a sweet, romantic BB fan is in a womb with a head injury. That injury wouldn’t look like a goddess decapitation would it?” “I can’t discuss the details of the case,” Samantha said, “but Francine is safe. She’s at the Laughing Cherub, and for now, all the womb-atoriums are operating under enhanced security protocols.” “She wasn’t safe at the Verbeek mansion? You can’t tell me the Laughing Cherub has better security. Is Jayzen behind this? Should I go kick his fucking ass?” “We don’t know the source of the threat. I doubt it’s Jayzen. Don’t kick anybody’s ass.” “What about Maxton?” “Same answer.” “You’re not telling me much,” Lucy said. “Why did you bother giving me your token?” “Because I once wanted to be you, remember?” Samantha said. “I know your type: headstrong and arrogant. I don’t want you running around like some junior police patrol mucking up six months of Inspector Fournier’s work. I expect you to go live

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your normal life, but since that life seems to be tangled up with some of the subjects of our inquiries, I am asking you to let me know if you hear or see anything suspicious, and I am telling you to not take any action. Leave that to us.” “At our security meeting, I asked about the BB boy’s class. Donna Quinn, our head of security, didn’t know anything about it, but my sword coach, Bimini Tanaka, was surprised by the question. I think she knows more than Donna. Did you know she used to teach at the Academy? It might even have been when you were there.” Lucy heard Samantha sigh. “Yes,” Samantha said. “I asked Bimini to consult, unofficially, on the investigation. Do not ask her about it. She’s under a confidentiality agreement.” Samantha lowered her voice. “But between you and me, she spent ten minutes looking at the bodies and told us more than we learned in the last six months.” “Bodies?” Lucy said. “Oh shit! I didn’t say that.” “They’ve already murdered someone? Who was it?” “No one you know. They haven’t tried attacking a guardian, yet. But we found several bodies, boys―late teens. They look like practice killings. So you see, this is very serious. Will you promise to leave the police work to us?” “Yes,” Lucy said. “And please. Don’t take any chances.” “Okay.” Lucy closed the contact and looked at the fans. She was glad they were on the other side of the security fence. Sword practice started at mid-morning. It was just the four rebirthed club guardians. “No goddesses?” Uvan said. “Sorry I missed yesterday,” Sandeep said. “It sounded like a good time.” “I had mine so scared, she pooped out three butt nuggets. Here, here, and here.” Uvan tapped three spots on the floor with

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her scabbard. “Guess she forgot to put on her goddess diapers or whatever they wear under that bed sheet.” “Don’t let her mess with you,” Lucy said. “Uvan was very nice to her goddess, and they were dressed for a workout, just like us.” Bimini came into the room. “Welcome back Sandeep,” she said. “Everyone equip yourselves and warm up.” Bimini worked with Sandeep to revive her dormant muscle memory. The other guardians ran advanced exercises on their own. After an hour, Bimini called a halt. “Sandeep, I’d like you to join the next exercise. Everyone, please put on your padding and switch to practice sticks, then pair up: Serendipity and Uvan, Lucy and Sandeep.” The padded suit pushed the short-sword scabbard a centimeter out from its normal position on Lucy’s back. She pulled and sheathed the short-stick a few times on her way out to the floor. When everyone was ready Bimini said, “I thought we might try to answer that favorite fan question: what would happen if two guardians fought each other?” “But that’s specifically forbidden by the rules,” Uvan said. “What’s the point?” “The point is to stress your skill. By adopting to the inconceivable, you will be less likely to take the conceivable for granted.” “Huh?” Uvan said. “This will be fun,” Serendipity said. Sandeep shrugged her shoulders. Lucy watched Bimini. Or less likely to take the inconceivable as inconceivable? “Let’s start with attack-block-attack exercises,” Bimini said. “Feel free to improvise. How would you attack? What role does your short-sword play when you each have one?” Lucy and Sandeep faced off. “What do you think?” Sandeep said. “Both opponents armed with two swords isn’t new,” Lucy said. “It’s just new to blood battle. You want to go first?”

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Sandeep attacked with her long-stick and pulled out her shortstick as she moved in. It was a classic guardian maneuver: distract with the long-sword, then move in and disembowel with the short-sword. It can work great against a charger. Lucy pulled out her own short-stick and hit Sandeep’s wrist. Sandeep dropped her short-stick acknowledging that her hand had just been cut off. Lucy followed through and disemboweled her. Next, Lucy attacked. Sandeep had learned a lesson. Guardians like to move in as they counter to bring their short-swords into play, but that doesn’t work so well if your opponent also has a short-sword. Sandeep countered Lucy’s attack but stayed back. Before she could even think about it, Lucy performed one of Charlotte’s graceful and aggressive forward leaps: arms and legs spread wide, long-stick aimed at Sandeep’s heart. She crossed the space so fast and hit so hard, that Sandeep couldn’t react and was knocked on her ass. “You okay?” Lucy said. “Fuck you.” Sandeep took Lucy’s offered hand to get up. This time, when Sandeep attacked, Lucy stayed back and blocked the attack with her short-stick while cutting up through Sandeep’s abdomen with her long-stick. “I think I’m getting the hang of this,” Lucy said. “Having fun yet?” Sandeep was smoldering. She blocked Lucy’s next attack and twisted her short-stick out of play just long enough to close in and stab her in the side with her own short-stick. “Now, I’m having fun,” Sandeep said. “Switch partners,” Bimini said. Lucy worked with Serendipity and experienced her inscrutable presence from an opponent’s point of view. She found there was no value watching for subtle emotional cues, or trying to pick up unconscious anticipatory gestures; they weren’t there. At first Lucy tried to match her detachment and misdirection, but Serendipity took her apart whether she was attacking or defending. Enough of this shit. Lucy stopped trying to disguise her ac-

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tions. She let her emotions loose and went after Serendipity head on, and relentlessly, no matter which of them was initiating the attack. She started winning. Once, for an instant, Lucy was sure she saw the real Serendipity flash with anger. “Yeah! You’re in there! I saw you!” Lucy said, trying to shake her, but it didn’t work; Serendipity’s persona went back up, intact. “Good work,” Bimini said at the end of the session. Uvan sat at the guardian’s table in the cafeteria. “Would you look at that?” She said. “They’re eating with the rest of us now.” Several goddesses sat at a table across the room. “I’ll be right back.” Lucy got up and walked over to them. “Hi, Lucy,” a goddess said. “Hi, ah―” “Winona,” she said. “Hi, Winona. Is Chrissy going to be eating with you today?” Winona shrugged. “She’s not here.” “Is she sick?” “We don’t know. Monica sent her a request, but she hasn’t responded.” “What about Thad, her boyfriend?” “Sorry,” Winona said. “If she shows up, can you tell her I’d like to talk to her?” “Sure.” The goddesses exchanged smiles and a couple of mouth-covered giggles. “Thanks.” Lucy rejoined the guardians. “Looking for your lover?” Uvan said. “Would you leave it alone?” Lucy said. “A love bound in blood? Sorry, can’t.” “Oh, crap. You’ve seen those?” “They showed up late yesterday,” Uvan said. “You’re lucky. The guy across the street was sold out this morning or they would’ve been stuck up all over the locker room.”

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“I think they’re sweet,” Serendipity said. “Don’t even start your cute bullshit!” Lucy said. She looked at the goddesses’ table. “I’ll bet that’s what they were snickering about.” “So, where is she?” Serendipity said. “Who?” “Your lover,” Uvan said. “She’s not my― Fuck you!” Donna stepped through the cafeteria door and scanned the room until she saw Lucy. She walked over to the guardian table. Lucy’s stomach twisted up. Nothing good came from the last time Donna approached her during practice. “I need to talk to you,” she said. “Outside.” The tone of her voice killed the conversation at the table. Lucy followed her out. “In my office,” Donna said and led the way. There was a stranger in the Security outer office. He wore a suit and was looking at the notices on the bulletin board. Donna closed her office door. “Please sit,” she offered the standard wooden armchair, and sat behind her desk. “That’s Inspector Malaki.” She pointed through her office window at the guy in the suit. “He’s going to ask you some questions, but I insisted he let me talk to you first.” “Has something happened to Francine?” Lucy said. “I don’t know who that is.” “She’s part of this case, the guardian case.” “I’m sorry,” Donna said, “This is something else. It may be why your brother came to see you.” Lucy felt the back of her neck tense up; she tried to control her breathing. “If my parents are here looking for him, I don’t want to see them.” She sat forward and grabbed the edge of Donna’s desk. “Please!” “Lucy,” Donna said, “your parents are dead.” “Huh?” “The Cliffside police found them yesterday, they had been dead for a while, probably since before your brother left. The

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neighbors thought your family had gone away on a fishing trip. Apparently they did that every year in the fall?” “Yes,” Lucy said. Her heart was pumping like mad; her finger nails, which she compulsively trimmed short, dug into the surface of Donna’s desk. Her sympathetic nervous system was buzzing, but all of a sudden, there was no one to fight, and no one to flee. “Did Zack . . . ?” “They suspect he killed your father. Your mother’s death may have been an accident.” “No it wasn’t! It never is! He killed her!” “Zack?” “No, him!” Donna finally heard the growl. “The inspector has a warrant for Zack’s arrest,” she said. The growl stopped. “He was just a little kid. I treated him like shit. He was the only one I could get back at.” She let go of the desk and slumped in her chair. Her body was purging the adrenalin rush and taking all her energy with it. “I understand,” Donna said, “but . . . he’s not little any more.” “I suppose we’re not.” “The inspector is going to ask if you know where he is.” “Don’t you know? Weren’t you supposed to watch him for me?” “We did. He was staying at the Helping Hand shelter, but now he’s missing.” “I don’t know where he is.” “I know that,” Donna said, “but the inspector doesn’t. He’ll want to know if you’re hiding him.” “Why would I fucking do that? I didn’t want to see him. I told him to go away, forever.” “He has to ask. You’re Zack’s sister. He has to suspect you would protect him.” Lucy crossed her arms and stuck her hands in her armpits. “Answer his questions. Be honest, don’t embellish, and try to

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stay calm. He’s going to ask why you changed your name. To him, you’re still Deborah Knole living under an assumed name. Are you ready?” Lucy nodded. “Stay here.” Donna left the office and Inspector Malaki came in. He didn’t sit behind Donna’s desk. He pulled up another wooden armchair to face her. “Hello, Lucinda, may I call you Lucy?” “Yes.” “My name is Jonas Malaki, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He waited for a reply. When he didn’t get one, he crossed one leg over the other and held his notebook on his knee. “You were once known as Deborah Knole?” “Yes.” “You have a brother named, Zachary?” “Yes.” “He visited you exactly two weeks ago to the day.” Lucy said nothing. “Well?” he said. “You didn’t ask a question,” Lucy said. He started tapping his foot in the air. “Yes,” she said. “Next time, if you want an answer, ask a question.” “What did you talk about?” “Nothing.” Malaki frowned. “There’s no need to make this difficult.” “I’m not. He sat in his chair, like a lump, and didn’t tell me anything.” He continued tapping his foot in the air. Lucy slid her scabbard back to bring the sword hilt in position to draw. She didn’t move, but mentally she walked her muscles through a finessed attack: draw, fan the blade around its center of gravity while twisting the edge to bear, and strike his tibia with just enough force to cleanly cut off that fucking tapping foot at mid calf, yet stop before touching his other leg. She was sure she could do it, without even getting out of her chair.

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“I know my parents are dead,” she said. “Donna told me. You think Zack did it, so let’s get this over with. I left that house and those people when I was fourteen. I legally changed my name because I didn’t want anything to do with them, ever again. I could show you why, but the scars are gone. I never saw Zack again until two weeks ago. I told him to go away and I haven’t seen him since. Do you have any more questions?” “You’re a feisty one, aren’t you?” Malaki cracked a condescending grin. “Feisty doesn’t begin to describe me,” Lucy said. “Yes, well.” He lost his grin. “Do you know your brother’s friend, Neil?” “I don’t know him. Why would I know his friends?” “Your head of security had Zack followed when he went to some sort of a class with this boy.” “What sort of class?” Malaki flipped note pages. “A self-defense class?” “What kind?” He shifted to sit a little straighter in his chair, “I can’t divulge that.” “Because you don’t know.” “I told you, I can’t―” “That wasn’t a question,” Lucy said. “Are we done?” “I have a few more―” “You already know I don’t know anything.” Malaki stopped tapping the air. He uncrossed his leg, put his notebook away, and stood up. “I may be questioning you again.” Lucy watched him through the window in Donna’s office. He talked to Donna, they shook hands, he looked back for a moment and saw Lucy watching him, then he left the outer office. Lucy hustled out to Donna. “Back in your office,” she said. Donna sat behind her desk; Lucy remained standing. She laid her sword across the desk and leaned in. “Tell me about this class Zack went to.” “How do you know?”

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“He told me.” “I shouldn’t talk about it now that the police are involved.” “How about I tell you something I shouldn’t talk about and then you tell me about the class?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “This morning’s security alert has something to do with a charity that teaches blood battle style sword handling to street kids. The police have found bodies, teenage boys, practice killings they call them. If that’s where Zack went―” “How do you know all that?” “In a minute,” Lucy said. “Tell me about that class.” “Zack told his counselor this kid, Neil, was pressuring him to go because the instructor wanted to know about . . . you. Oh Mother!” Donna said. “Mina, his counselor, was suspicious and asked me to have them followed. We tracked them to a secure location. They never came out. Lucy, I’m sorry.” “Was it the Verbeek Mansion?” “Yes.” Donna got up. “I might be able to catch Malaki before he’s out of the building.” “Don’t bother.” Lucy pulled out Samantha’s token and toggled it. “What is it?” Samantha said. “I have someone here you need to talk to.” “What’s next?” Lucy said after Donna finished her story. “Like I told you earlier,” Samantha said, “you go live your life. I’ll pass this on to Inspector Fournier. Donna, I’m sure she’ll want to talk to you and Wilhelmina. We’ll apply for a search warrant for the Verbeek Mansion, but it won’t be granted.” “Even with this?” Lucy said. “It’s still speculation. Short of an immediate and obvious emergency, we’re not getting in there.” “You’ve got dead bodies!” “And no evidence showing where they came from. We’ll put the mansion under surveillance, but for now, that’s it.” “My brother’s in there!”

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“We don’t know that,” Samantha said. “Lucy, the last two victims were found the morning after your brother disappeared. You need to be prepared―” “No I don’t,” Lucy said. She looked down at her sword. “He was just a little kid.” “What was that?” Samantha said. “Nothing. Don’t worry about me.” “OK, thanks, both of you. Lucy, remember what I said. Let us handle this.” Lucy wiped her eyes quickly and then looked up. “I’ve got to go,” she said to Donna. “I’m late for field practice. I’m late for everything.” At the end of the day, one of the ‘Bound by Blood’ posters was stuck to Lucy’s locker door. Uvan started to say something, but before she could speak, Lucy reached over and pressed a finger against her lips. “Don’t,” she said. Uvan closed her mouth. Lucy turned back to the poster. Look at that naïve, stupid girl. She took it down (careful not to tear the corners), rolled it up, and put it in her locker. She took a long shower. By the time she was dressed, she was one of the last girls in the locker room. She picked up her long-sword and was ready to leave, but didn’t. She set her longsword on the bench and took off her shirt. She applied an ad hesive pad to the saddle of her short-sword harness, reached around, pressed, and held it against her back until the glue set. She put her shirt on and slipped her short-sword behind her belt; for now, it would be easier to manage there. She put on her jacket, picked up her long-sword, and walked out to the player entrance. “Nice evening,” Frank said. The sky had cleared and dusk was closing in. “Yes it is,” Lucy said. “Can you call a car please?” “Sure thing.”

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Lucy stepped over to the car siding. This was another new rule: no walking to the public car kiosk. She sent a request to Jayzen with an attached message. “I need your help. My brother is missing. I think he’s in that family club house of yours, and I’ll bet you know why I think that. I need you to get me inside. Tonight. Keep it quiet, don’t tell anyone. Leave your bodyguards behind.” A public car slid through the security gate and pulled up to the siding; she got in and directed it to the Winnebago Graveyard. She had a dinner date with Charlotte and needed to go over a few things with her.

Chapter 18 Back to the Mansion

Lucy’s car pulled into the Winnebago Graveyard siding. She stepped out with her sword and bag. The sky was slipping from deep dusk into night. A black figure with red lipstick stepped in front of her. Lucy moved to the side to check her back without losing sight of the first bodyguard. The second one was behind her. “Where’s Jayzen?” she said. “He’s not here,” the first bodyguard said. “We’re to bring you to him.” “Did he get my message?” The girl hesitated. “Yes.” “Then why are you here? I told him, no bodyguards.” “He didn’t think that was wise,” the second bodyguard said. “Can you give me a minute?” Lucy walked backward into the Graveyard. “I want to let my friend know I’ll be late.” “Stop,” the first bodyguard said. She pulled something from her jacket. “This is a dart pistol. The drug will knock you out within seconds. Please drop your sword and bag.” “That could damage the blade, even in the scabbard. I’d rather hand it to you.” Lucy stepped toward the first bodyguard. They both backed away. “No,” the second one said. “Okay,” Lucy said. “But I’m going to put it on the ground, not

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drop it.” She crouched down. Her eyes were on the first bodyguard. She kept the second in her field of view. “She has both swords!” the second bodyguard said. “Put both of them on the ground. Now!” Lucy set her long-sword and gym bag on the pavement. “I’ve got to stand up to take the other one out of my belt.” She stood, pulled her short-sword scabbard out from behind her belt, then placed it next to her long-sword. “What’s going on?” She stood up. A private car rolled into the siding; its door slid open. “No questions,” the first bodyguard said. She backed into the car. “Please get in. Keep your hands visible at all times.” Lucy followed her in. She glanced back and saw the second bodyguard pick up her swords and bag. “Sit there.” The first body guard pointed to the seat farthest from the door. The second one sat in the seat farthest from Lucy. She wedged the swords between herself and the side of the cabin. The bag was gone, probably stowed in the luggage compartment. The door closed, and the car accelerated. The windows were opaqued. “Slide off your seat and onto your knees,” the first bodyguard said. “Turn around, knees and ankles together, hips against the seat. Lean forward and put your hands on the seat back.” Lucy did so. The guard reached forward. Lucy felt an electric shock. “What was that?” “I shorted out your talk-to. You can sit again, slowly. Hands always visible, remember?” Lucy sat and put her hands in her lap. “How many different pairs of bodyguards does Jay have? I’ve met the Bonnies and the Veronicas.” “We move around, we don’t always protect the same subject.” “The people you protect are subjects, not people?” “It preserves objectivity and avoids the complications of personal entanglement.” “What are your names?”

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They looked at each other for a moment. “We’re the Noreens,” they both said. “Where are we going?” The first Noreen glanced at the second Noreen, then said, “To the mansion.” “The Club House,” Lucy said. “Pardon?” “That’s what Jay called it, ‘the Verbeek Family Club House.’ Is he resorting to kidnapping to get dates?” “Sit and be quiet,” the first Noreen said. Lucy shifted her position slightly. The second Noreen extended her pistol. Lucy settled into her seat and crossed her arms. “Hands always visible!” the first Noreen said. “I’m crossing my arms. You’re safer with them crossed.” Lucy watched the Noreens and felt the car maneuver through traffic. “You wouldn’t last two seconds in a blood battle temple fight. You know that, don’t you? Less than one second for each of you.” “We’re not on a temple,” the second Noreen said. Lucy shrugged a quick, little shrug. They both blinked. “Maybe you’re not, but in a sense, I always am.” She wasn’t sure what that meant, but it made the Noreens nervous. Charlotte’s cab trundled up to the Winnebago Graveyard. She got out, handed the peddler the fare plus tip, and walked to her canister. Some of the inside air swirled up when the hatch lifted open. It smelled different since Lucy had moved in. The perfume of cleaning supplies had been suppressed by the lingering odor of coffee, food, and another person. Sometime during the last two weeks, her little buried house had become a home. She went down the stairs. There were several messages waiting, all for Lucy. One was from the head of Burning Desire’s security office, one was from Bimini Tanaka, one was from a Lieutenant Samantha Villanueva of the police Special Operations unit, and one was from Jayzen Verbeek, it had just come in. They were all locked except for Jayzen’s.

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Charlotte played his message: I received your request, but you’re not showing up when I reply. I’m on my way to your friend’s little underground cottage to see if you’re there. Uncle Max is not happy about your plan, but says I’m a fool if I think you can be dissuaded. Contrary to your instructions, he insisted I bring bodyguards. We can trust them, Uncle Max bought their contract. Charlotte sent Lucy an emergency request. It was returned— her talk-to didn’t exist. She made two cups of tea, and sat on the sofa with one of them to wait for Jayzen. A few minutes later he requested entry. Charlotte gave him permission. A bodyguard slinked down the steps, crouching to see under the ceiling. “It’s safe,” Charlotte said. “You can send your master down.” The bodyguard looked around, slipped up the stairs, and Jayzen sauntered down. “Sorry to bother you,” he said. “Please come in. Have a seat.” She used her foot to turn the nearest of the pedestal mounted arm chairs toward Jayzen. “There’s a cup of tea on the counter.” He picked up the tea and gingerly sat in the chair. “My home is small,” Charlotte said, “not fragile. You won’t break it.” “Yes, it’s quaint,” he said. “Jayzen Verbeek, at your service. We haven’t formally met.” He half rose, bobbed his head and sat back down. Charlotte held up her tea cup. “Charlotte Marceau, I killed someone in your ballroom two Saturdays ago.” “Ah, yes,” Jayzen said. “Let’s not waste time,” Charlotte said. “I’ve never seen Lucy as―lost―as last night. She’s in trouble, and I gather from your message, she thinks you can help.” “She asked me not to talk about it,” Jayzen said.

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“That doesn’t include me.” “She was quite clear―” Charlotte leaned forward and spoke with precise enunciation. “That doesn’t include me.” Jayzen adjusted himself in the chair. “She thinks her brother is being held at the family mansion, where you committed your murder. She wants to rescue him and needs me to let her in. She sent me a contact, but I haven’t been able to reply.” “You mentioned your Uncle Max. Is Maxton Verbeek involved?” “He’s at the estate, ‘sniffing around the money,’ he says.” “When did she send you the request?” “About a half hour ago.” “And now her talk-to has gone missing. It seems like she trusts you. Are you still ready to help?” “Yes,” Jayzen said. “Why would you think otherwise?” “Is she correct? Whatever is going on, it’s at your mansion?” “Yes. Uncle Max thinks she’s taking the initiative because we won’t let the police in.” “She’s going to try and do what you won’t let the police do? What the police should be doing?” “It’s more complicated than that.” “No it’s not,” Charlotte said. “It’s hubris. The worst kind of hubris.” Jayzen looked puzzled. “The kind that could get my friend hurt. Here’s what we’re going to do. You are going to get me into that mansion, and while we’re on our way, you will explain everything that has led up to this. Ready? Let’s go.” The car stopped. The door opened. They were in a garage, but not the one used by the limousine on the night of Charlotte’s fencing bout. “Keep your hands above your head,” the first Noreen said. The second Noreen picked up Lucy’s swords and stepped out. “Please exit the car.” The first Noreen followed Lucy out. She gestured with her pistol to keep walking. Lucy crabbed sideways so she could

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watch both bodyguards. When she was ten meters from the car, the second Noreen put her swords back in. The door closed. Lucy heard the whisper of its lock engaging. The car stayed at the dock. With her swords locked away, the Noreens relaxed. Lucy lowered her arms. “Stop!” the first Noreen said. “I don’t have my swords,” Lucy said, “and I don’t think Jay will be very happy if you shoot me. He likes my banter.” The Noreens glanced at each other. “You can lower your hands, but keep them visible.” The first Noreen walked around Lucy, keeping her distance. “This way.” She led them deep into the mansion. They climbed two flights of stairs, walked along unadorned hallways meant for staff use, and ended up in a familiar room: the fairy tale locker room where Lucy had helped Charlotte prepare for her fencing bout. The ecstatic girl on the swing was still frozen on the far wall. Lucy turned around. The mural above the door they had just come through was of a hunting party armed with old muskets. Each hunter was followed by a servant holding dead pheasants. Several dogs milled around, attentive and uncomprehending. Lucy found herself able to identify with everyone in the picture, human and animal, alive and dead. The second Noreen was standing under the hunting mural pointing her dart gun at Lucy. “Get changed.” She tipped her head toward the dressing table. A short-sword harness and a pair of guardian shoes sat on its mostly-empty top. “Where’s the helmet?” “You won’t need it.” “And my swords?” “You’ll find out. Change, now.” “No. That’s amateur junk. A real harness has a saddle custom made for each guardian, and the shoes look too big.” Neither Noreen spoke. They looked at each other for a moment. The first Noreen opened the door under the girl on the

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swing. She had a whispered conversation with someone standing outside, then she closed the door and moved back into position. Lucy put her hands in her pockets. “Hands!” the second Noreen said. Lucy looked at her, but said nothing. She felt the tokens in her pocket: one to contact Samantha, one to contact the police dispatcher, both useless with her talk-to burned out. “You’re not going to shoot me just because my hands are in my pockets,” Lucy said. “You’re not going to shoot me unless I try to escape.” “Or if you try to attack us,” the first Noreen said. Lucy laughed. “If you give me an opening to attack, you’ll be dead before you can shoot.” She looked at the Noreen’s dart pistol. “It won’t work,” the second Noreen said. “Our guns only shoot for us, unless we give you authorization.” Lucy pulled her hands out of her pockets. The Noreens flinched. She reached up and stretched back, looking up at the ceiling. There were more murals up there. The ceiling was divided into quarters with a painting in each. Someone knocked on the girl-on-swing door. The first Noreen opened it enough for another conference, then pulled it all the way open. She waggled her pistol out the door. Lucy didn’t move. “This is a shootable situation,” the second Noreen said. Lucy stepped through the door. A naked man stood to the side. He was in excellent condition and wore guardian style shoes. After they were out of the fairy tale locker room, he went in, and retrieved the short-sword harness and shoes meant for her. An amateur quality short-sword harness was stuck to his back. They approached the familiar gilded double doors. The naked man ran ahead and knocked on one of them. “We’re here!” The door opened. A second man―no, a boy―held it. He wore jeans and a t-shirt. ***

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The ballroom was even more fairy tale than the night of the fencing bout soirée. Unicorn piñatas hung from the ceiling. Other party decorations had been pushed against one side of the room: balloon trees anchored by fake rocks, tables and chairs shaped like mushrooms, and foam hills covered in fake grass and decorated with hundreds of pinwheel flowers. The pinwheels waved back and forth on thin wire stems; some slowly spinning in ventilation driven air currents. The decorations weren’t finished. A pile of pinwheels lay on the floor next to a nude fake hill, and something was hidden under a tarp. A soda fountain had been set up on the opposite side of the room, complete with counter, stools, soda dispensers, and an ice cream cooler. A second naked man stood in the middle of the floor, nearer the opposite set of double doors. Lucy walked toward the middle of the room and stopped when she felt a comfortable buffer of space all around. “Who’s having a party?” “Eustace Verbeek,” the other man said. He was muscular and nearly two meters tall. “Tomorrow is her birthday; she’ll be eight years old. Six years from now, if all goes well, she’ll receive her gene therapy and get to play at being immortal for the next eleven years.” “You’re not Jayzen,” Lucy said. “Call me Grizzly. The boy who let you in is Fox, and the guardian who escorted you from the dressing room is Walrus.” “The what?” “I’m back,” someone yelled from the other side of the double doors behind Lucy. “Hurry up!” Fox opened the door; a new guy ran in. He was wearing an athletic suit and carrying Lucy’s swords. “There’s someone coming!” He jogged across the room toward Grizzly. Grizzly motioned him to the side. “Keep those away from her!”

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“Sorry,” the new guy said and jogged through a long arc around Lucy. “Another car came into the garage just as I was leaving,” he said. “Who was it?” Grizzly said. “I don’t know. I saw a couple of your bodyguards get out, then I ran here as fast as I could.” Grizzly was angry. He nodded to the Noreens. The first Noreen signed Walrus’s palm with her finger, handed her dart pistol to him, and pointed at Lucy; the second Noreen put hers in her jacket. They both pulled out small, real guns and slipped through the doors, not making a sound. These have to be the people the police warned us about, but they’re kind of incompetent. “Is there anything happening?” Grizzly said. Walrus listened at the door while aiming his pistol roughly in Lucy’s direction. He shook his head, then they heard two muffled shots. Walrus jumped away from the doors. A minute later there was a knock, “Open up! It’s us!” Walrus and the kid, Fox, opened the doors. The Noreens pushed Jayzen and Charlotte into the fairy tale ballroom. “He had the Katrinas working for him. Did you know that?” one of the Noreens said. Lucy didn’t know which was which anymore. “No I didn’t,” Grizzly said. “Where are they?” “Down the hall―dead―for now. We shorted out their death alarms so there shouldn’t be a recovery team response.” “Who’s that?” Grizzly pointed at Charlotte. “Hi, Jayzen,” Lucy said, “I see you’ve gone back to pretty, but stupid for your girlfriends.” “Huh? what?” Jayzen said. Charlotte collected his arm in hers. “What’s going on?” “Ned?” Jayzen stared at Grizzly. “Who’s Ned?” Lucy said. “He’s one of the security dispatchers at the estate.” “Hello, Jayzen,” Grizzly, now Ned, said. “Why are you here?”

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“I wanted to see the decorations,” Charlotte said. “Ah, yes,” Jayzen said. “We were going to bust open one of the piñatas and make love on the candy.” Walrus trotted over to Ned, keeping his distance from Lucy. They had a heated, whispered argument that Ned seemed to win. “Jayzen,” he said, “we have some important business here. Unfortunately, we can’t risk you alerting anyone, so I must insist you stay. I prefer to not drug you, but if you try to interfere, you and your friend will be shot with knockout darts.” He motioned to the fake grassy hills. “Over there.” The Noreens nudged Jayzen and Charlotte to walk. One Noreen had her dart pistol out, the other, her gun. When they passed Walrus, he handed over the dart pistol and the Noreen put away her real gun. “I take it, despite their appearance, those aren’t Jay’s bodyguards?” Lucy said. “No. They’re working for me.” “Why the black body armor and red lipstick? Did you want to make Jay the bad guy if someone got suspicious?” “That, and to help legitimize our actions within these walls. It helped reassure the mansion staff and security that we were working with the Verbeek Family blessing.” “I don’t get it,” Lucy said. “Why are they helping you? They should be protecting Jay, not holding him at gun point.” “Oh come on, little girl,” one of the Noreens said. “It’s the money. We’re twenty-five. Twin Security’s stipend is more than generous, but Ned can make us rich, thanks to Jayzen’s mother’s charity fund.” “So, what should I call you?” Lucy said to Ned. “I prefer Grizzly.” “Okay, Ned, I’ll keep that in mind.” She turned to Walrus. “Who are you when you’re not looking ridiculous? Wally? Wilber?” Walrus clenched his jaw, making his beard flair out. She pointed at the guy who was still holding her swords. “How about I call you Marvin.”

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“And you.” She turned around to the kid who was standing by the double doors. He was frightened and shaking. “You’re not a part of this . . .” His eyes darted back and forth. “Are you Neil? Are you Zack’s friend?” She turned on Ned. “Where’s my brother!” She took a step forward, a gun fired and the bullet ricocheted off the floor in front of her foot, splintering the wood tile. She stopped. One of the Noreens was pointing a real gun at her. “Be careful,” Ned said. “You don’t know the stakes. Do something reckless and people you know will die. “Catamount, give me her long-sword.” Catamount handed it over. “Give Walrus the short-sword and then get ready.” Catamount handed over Lucy’s short-sword, then jogged over to a portable wardrobe that was against the wall, behind the soda fountain. He pulled off his athletic suit, tied on guardian shoes, and mounted one of the amateur short-sword harnesses to his back. Ned made a show of admiring Lucy’s sword. He went through all the proper motions: weighing it in his hands, rolling the scabbard from palm to fingertips and back. He pulled the blade out, handed the scabbard to Walrus, then sighted along the edge. He stepped through a warmup maneuver, manipulating the blade with confidence. He knew what he was doing, but wasn’t used to her sword. The League contracted one bladesmith to custom build guardian swords. Each was handmade and balanced specifically for the girl who would wield it. He’d never held a real guardian sword. Catamount came back from the wardrobe carrying an unsheathed, look-alike long-sword. A short-sword was in his harness. Ned slid Lucy’s sword back in its scabbard. He stopped to look at the symbol Lucy had had etched into the blade collar. “The Northern Guide Star. How quaint. Just the sort of thing an abused

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little girl might dream up to go along with her make-believe name.” He flicked the sword all the way in with a solid, clack, and handed it to Walrus. “Put Debbie’s swords and gear on the soda counter, and bring our weapons. Walrus ran off on his errand and returned with two more sets of guardian swords. “Where’s my brother?” “Why do you care? You never did before.” “What do you mean?” “Zachary told me all about you,” Ned said. “Debbie Knole. His mean big sister, all full of hate, taking out her frustrations on the only family member weaker than herself. You even threatened to break his fingers if he told. It just goes to show, the children of abusers turn into abusers themselves.” “Did you kill him?” “I’m leaving that for you. That’s why he came to see you. He killed your father, did you know that?” “Yes,” Lucy said in a low voice. “The father kills the mother, then the son kills the father. It’s an old story, and a son’s duty, to avenge his mother when there’s no one else to protect her. He came to see you because he wants you to kill him. He knows you have it in you.” “I don’t,” Lucy said, “and I won’t.” “Don’t be so sure.” “You’re the murderer. You killed innocent kids.” “We trained worthy opponents and challenged them. They might well have killed us. In fact, one did. Wolf fell in a challenge just three days ago. He died honorably, as did his opponents. He understood an important truth. You can’t fight with deadly weapons and achieve true mastery without facing the ultimate consequence of losing. You said so yourself.” “You’re crazy,” Lucy said. “A little less than two weeks ago, right in this mansion. Down in the gym. You gave the same advice to Jayzen over there: Mod-

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ern senseis have lost their edge because they no longer understand what it takes to kill. I thought you were just another silly blood battle girl playing warrior dress up, but when I read Jayzen’s security transcript for that night, I knew you were a kindred spirit.” “Kindred spirit? Jay was being an asshole. I was messing with him.” “I think the heart of a true warrior beats in your breast, and it yearns to test its mettle in a real death match. If I’m wrong, you’ll die, if I’m right, you may live. “Fox!” Ned yelled. “Let’s get started!” Neil was startled. He ran the length of the ballroom from one set of double doors to the other, staying far away from Lucy. He went out and a minute later came in with Zack. They were carrying something―no―someone between them. “Zack!” Lucy called. “Are you alright?” Then she realized who they were carrying. “Chrissy?” Chrysanthemum’s feet and knees were bound together, and her wrists were strapped together behind her back. She was dressed in a goddess vestment, but the straps binding her made it look like a sack. Zack and Neil carried her to the very center of the ballroom, between Lucy and Ned. They set her on the floor so she was sitting on her heels in a distorted cari cature of the goddess sitting position. “Out of the way, Fox,” Ned said. Neil backed away, then ran to the far corner of the room behind the soda fountain. Zack knelt on one knee behind Chrysanthemum. “I’m sorry,” Chrysanthemum said. “Those bodyguards took me this morning, on my way to the club. They think they can use me to force you to fight. I told them it wouldn’t work.” “Did they hurt you?” “No.” “Zack,” Lucy said. “What’s going on?”

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“Haven’t you figured it out yet?” Ned said. “You’re going to fight us to a real death―kill or be killed. Not one of your makebelieve rebirth deaths.” “You want me to kill you?” Lucy said. This isn’t what the po­ lice warned us about―not at all. “No. We want you to try to kill us.” “I won’t,” Lucy said. “I don’t kill. I play a game.” “Show her our little secret!” Ned called to the Noreens. The Noreen with the gun stepped over to the thing covered by the tarp and pulled it off. Two placenta jars sat on the floor, each hooked to a portable environment unit. “How did you get those?” Lucy said. “The Laughing Cherub’s security isn’t designed to counter a stealth intrusion,” the Noreen said. “The jars of a couple of Verbeek nieces are taking their places in the Cherub’s Memory Vault.” She looked at Jayzen. “Your own womb-atorium has no internal security at all.” “If you harmed them―” Jayzen said. “They’re being looked after by the Laughing Cherub staff, the best in the business. Your own staff is being tricked by a simple cross feed of data from other jars in their vault, a technique that would not have fooled the Cherub.” “Stop bragging,” Ned said. “The point is, do you recognize them? They’re yours and your lover’s.” “My what?” “Me,” Chrysanthemum said. “They saw those posters yesterday. They think we’re lovers.” “We followed you and watched you last night,” the Noreen with the gun said. “We know you are.” “Lucy, remember what we talked about? About plans and weaknesses? About empathy and the decisions guardians have to make? I trust you. I trust you with my whole life.” “Be quiet!” Ned said. “Zack. It’s time.” Zack didn’t look at anybody. He put his hand under Chrysan-

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themum’s jaw and bent her head back; he was shaking but held tight. He pulled out a knife from the back of his jeans. “Don’t Zack! Please!” Lucy took a step. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Noreen raise her gun. She stopped and spoke quietly. “I know what happened . . . back at the house. It wasn’t your fault. It was his.” Zack looked up at her. “Zack!” Ned said. “Don’t listen to her! Do it! Like I showed you.” Zack looked away from Lucy. He put the knife against Chrysanthemum’s neck, and cut her throat. Her body spasmed from the shock. Blood soaked into her vestment and pumped onto the floor. Lucy watched Chrysanthemum’s eyes until the blood stopped, and the tension went out of her body. She watched until Chrysanthemum’s eyes stopped looking back. Her body slumped. Zack lost his grip, and she collapsed into the puddle of her own blood. Zack sat on his heels, transfixed by the dull red pool spreading around his knees. “You shouldn’t have made him do that,” Lucy said. “It looks like a tragic death,” Ned said, “but she’s just another humpty-dumptied rebirth girl who can be put back together again, as good as new.” Ned pointed at the placenta jars. “You will fight us for her life and yours. If you lose, both placentas will be destroyed. You and your lover will be dead, for real, forever.” Ned was trying to be dramatic, but he seemed distracted. “What’s that noise?” he said. “I think it’s her,” Walrus said. “She’s growling!” “You want me to kill you?” Lucy said. “Fine, let’s do it. In the flesh, like it’s supposed to be.” She undressed and carefully folded her anime toreador clothes into a neat stack. “Spread out,” Ned said. Catamount moved toward the fake hills and Walrus toward the soda fountain. “I like these clothes.” Lucy held them up. “Mind if I put them in your wardrobe so they don’t get bloody?” Walrus was stand-

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ing between her and the wardrobe. Ned hesitated. “I’m unarmed,” Lucy said. “Walrus, collect her clothes.” Walrus gave Ned a frustrated look, then started forward. “Leave your swords behind!” Ned said. Walrus put his swords on the floor, then walked toward Lucy. Lucy scanned the room. Everyone was watching except the Noreen guarding Charlotte and Jayzen. Lucy and Charlotte locked eyes for a moment. I’ll always have your back, too. Walrus had almost reached her. “You might know how to take people apart with your swords,” he said, “but without them, you’re just a naked girl.” Lucy held out her clothes with both her hands. Walrus came just close enough to reach out and take them. When his arms were fully extended, she flipped the clothes into his face and grabbed his right hand with both of hers. She leapt up, leading with her left knee, and bent his arm back. She hit the outside of his elbow. It broke across her knee with a sharp snap. The shattered end of his radius bone poked through his arm. She held onto his hand and let her momentum turn her upside down. She pulled on his arm and hooked her left leg around his neck. Using it as a pivot, she swung around his back like a trapeze artist. He reached back for her with his left hand. Lucy took hold of his thumb and little finger, one in each hand, and broke them. She let go with her leg and flipped over onto her feet, carrying her landing into a crouch behind his back. She jammed her shoulder into his groin and stood up, lifting and toppling him forward. His arms were too damaged to break his fall. His face smacked the floor with the full force of his weight. She grabbed his left foot and twisted it inward, flinging her body around his leg to add torsion. His ankle shattered. She continued around, sliding between his legs. She planted her left foot against the side of his right knee, grabbed his foot, pulled and twisted until his

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knee snapped. She crabbed around his torso, keeping his bulk between her and the Noreen’s gun. She pressed her mouth next to his ear. “It’s not that I know how to take people apart with swords, it’s that I know how to take people apart.” Walrus bared his teeth. “Don’t even think about trying to bite me. You really don’t want to know what I could do to your jaw.” Lucy looked up ready to dodge and distract the Noreens, Ned, and what’s-his-name. She was counting on Ned not wanting the Noreen to actually shoot her, but what she saw stopped her cold. When the bodyguards moved Jayzen and Charlotte over to the foam hills with the fake grass and pinwheel flowers, Charlotte saw a stack of unused pinwheels. The stems were straight wires with no safety fittings on the ends, they were meant to be stuck directly into the foam―nothing fancy―a dangerous thing to have at a children’s party. She couldn’t believe the Verbeeks were so careless. When Lucy looked around the room, Charlotte made eye contact. Don’t worry little sister; I’ve got your back. Then Lucy attacked the guy foolish enough to get close to her, and everyone was suddenly, seriously, distracted. Both bodyguards glanced at the commotion. Charlotte reached behind her, took hold of two of the pinwheel flowers, and stepped forward, pulling them out of the foam hill. Both bodyguards caught her movement and started to react. She came in low at the closest one, the one holding the dart pistol, and jammed the end of the pinwheel stem up into her nose. Blood gushed from her nostrils, and she began to collapse. Charlotte launched herself into a broad, fast leap toward the other guard. The guard raised her gun to shoot and brought up her other hand to cover her nose. It didn’t matter, Charlotte couldn’t reach the second bodyguard with a low strike; she had to go for the superior orbital fissure at the back of her eye socket.

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The best way in was along the inside edge of the socket, and the best angle was achieved if your opponent was looking a little away from your attack. As she leapt toward the second guard, Charlotte reached to the side with her right arm, and wiggling her hand with fingers spread. This was one of the first tricks beginners discovered and one of the first tricks beginners learned to not be fooled by. The guard turned her head toward Charlotte’s hand. Amateur! She reached out with the end of the pinwheel stem, and let her leap carry it into the guard’s eye, along the inside of her eye socket, through the superior orbital fissure and into her brain. Charlotte stirred the wire once for good measure, then side stepped into a run over to the guy called Catamount. She stuck the end of the pinwheel stem against his neck. “Don’t move,” she said. “If you even twitch without my permission, you’re dead. Drop your swords.” He hesitated. Charlotte poked his neck enough to make him bleed. He threw both swords away. Charlotte took a quick look past Catamount toward Lucy. Walrus’s body was obviously broken and useless. Lucy was crouched behind him. Lucy looked up from dismantling Walrus, and couldn’t believe what she saw, then she could. Of course, what else did she expect? Both Noreens were dead, and Charlotte, her best friend in every possible, nontrivial way, was holding what’s-his-name at bay with a pinwheel flower. She stood up. Ned was in shock. Zack was still kneeling behind Chrysanthemum’s body, looking at the floor. She walked forward and crouched in front of Zack with Chrysanthemum between them. She stroked Chrysanthemum’s cheek with the back of her hand. She was still warm, almost body temperature. She touched Zack’s arm. “It’s okay,” she said. “You didn’t kill her. She’ll be fine.” She combed her fingers through his hair and rested her hand on the side of his neck.

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“I can’t take back what I did when we were children in that house, but we’re not there anymore, and we’re not children. We’re going to take care of each other.” She leaned forward and kissed the top of his head. “I’m sorry,” he said and looked up. “Me too,” Lucy said. She realized he had beautiful eyes. I never paid attention to his eyes before, except to make sure there was fear in them. “Give me your knife,” she said. “Please?” Zack handed it over. Lucy twisted around and threw it into the corner farthest from anyone else in the ballroom. She turned back. “I need your help. Are there more of these straps, like the ones Chrissy is tied up with?” “Yes.” “Can you get them?” “They’re just down the hall, in a closet.” “Good, take your friend, Neil, and both of you get the straps.” “How many do you need?” “I’m not sure,” Lucy said. “Get a lot, just in case.” “Are you going to fight him?” “He seems kind of stupid, so I expect I will have to.” “He’s strong, and he’s good,” Fear was back in Zack’s eyes. At least it’s fear for me, not of me. “Strength is over rated,” Lucy said, “and he might be good, but I’m great.” She squeezed his shoulder. They stood up. Zack looked at her feet. “You’re standing in her blood! Your feet are going to be slippery!” “It’ll be okay. The blood will dry fast, and when it does, I’ll have even better traction. Now, get going.” Zack ran over to Neil, staying clear of Ned. They talked and headed for the doors. Lucy heard Neil say, “Your sister is fucking amazing, and did you see what the other one did?” “I guess it’s just you and me,” Lucy said to Ned. His face was a kaleidoscope of conflicting emotions: anger, fear, disbelief, de-

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termination. Take your pick. “You brought Chrissy into this because you think that poster has some deep meaning?” Ned watched her. “It does.” Lucy crouched and placed her left palm in Chrysanthemum’s blood, then stood and held it up. Blood ran down her forearm. “It means I killed four chargers in less than two seconds. Four girls who were a lot better trained than you.” Lucy walked over to the soda fountain. She leaned over the counter, found a towel, and wiped the blood off her hand. Zack was right, Chrysanthemum’s blood was making her feet slippery. The shoes Ned had provided were too big, they would be worse than no shoes. She elected to go barefoot, but took her time while waiting for her feet to dry. She didn’t wipe them off. She was leaving bloody foot prints everywhere she walked, and she wanted Ned to notice, to think about them, and be distracted. She attached her short-sword scabbard to the harness in the middle of her back, then unsheathed her long-sword and walked back to the center of the room. She stepped through the same warmup maneuver Ned had used, but performed it with elegance and flow beyond his skill. Then she pulled her short-sword and segued into one of Bimini’s advanced exercises. She picked a short one, but one that made the air around her shimmer with death. She stopped and sheathed her short-sword. “I’m ready. How about you?” “She’s your friend, the fencer, isn’t she?” Ned said. “Yes she is. Next time you hold a champion foil fencer hostage I recommend you don’t back her up to a whole forest of long bendy pieces of sharp metal.” “I don’t think she’ll kill Catamount. None of you girls know what it’s like to really kill. We do. You had a chance to kill Walrus―you could have broken his neck and been done with him―but you didn’t. You took extra time to maim and humiliate him. You should have killed him, and let him die with some honor. I thought you had a warrior in you; I guess I was wrong.

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“Pick up your swords!” he called to Catamount. Charlotte twisted the pinwheel wire a little further into his neck. “Call their bluff!” Catamount tried looking at the floor for his swords, but he was afraid to move his neck. “Jayzen,” Lucy said. “If anything happens to me, you protect my brother and his friend. This guy’s not stupid enough to hurt a Verbeek.” Jayzen didn’t look entirely convinced. “You can do it. You can be real scary, if you put your heart into it. Think of your Uncle Maxton.” “What about Charlotte?” Jayzen said. “If I die, she’s going to defend the placenta jars. Nothing you or I can say will stop her. If she’s killed, protect her body and get it to the Long Life womb-atorium.” The double doors behind Ned opened. Zack and Neil came in, each holding two fistfuls of straps. “Stay there!” Lucy said. “Let him go,” Lucy said to Charlotte, “and get away.” Charlotte hesitated. “Do it. Run!” Charlotte pulled the pinwheel away from Catamount’s neck and jogged several meters away while looking over her shoulder. Lucy charged Catamount. He hadn’t just dropped his swords; he had thrown them away. Lucy had farther to go, but it took Catamount a moment to realize what was happening. He jumped forward and reached for his swords. Lucy swept by at a full run and with a two handed grip on her long-sword, cut off his hands. She flattened out into a skid: right leg extended, left leg tucked in tight, left hand on the floor. Her feet and hand squeaked on the polished wood tiles. Her soles and palm got hot enough to blister. She ran back at Catamount. He was standing up and looking at the blood squirting out of his stumps. She came in low, cut off his left foot above the ankle, and nearly cut off his right foot. She kept running and curved toward Ned. He had time to react and was waiting for her.

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She didn’t want to run into his defense; it would reduce her options. She slowed to a walk, kept her eyes on him, and pointed her long-sword back at Catamount. “Zack and Neil, bring your straps to Charlotte. Stay clear of Ned. Charlotte―” “Tourniquets,” Charlotte said. “When I’m done with Ned, whatever happens, throw that guy’s hands and his foot in the ice cream cooler. We’re not here for vengeance. They should be able to put him back together, al­ most as good as new.” Lucy stopped three meters in front of Ned. “Are you still going to do this?” “You arrogant little bitch!” he said. “We practiced for this, guardian on guardian. It’s not the same, you know, fighting an opponent armed just like you. You don’t know what you’re in for.” Lucy shook her head and let out a short laugh. “What’s so funny?” Ned said. “You’ve never had a sword coach like Bimini Tanaka.” Lucy watched him get ready for the fight of his life. “You’re no guardian,” she said. “Guardians protect. You’re nothing but a fucking murderer.” She took up her relaxed temple waiting stance with the tip of her long-sword resting on the floor ahead of her feet. Ned held his long-sword up, ready to fend off her attack. “Guardians don’t attack,” Lucy said. “We defend. It’s your move.” He adjusted his grip, then attacked. It was an all-power two handed attack taking full advantage of his strength and mass. He swung at her laterally, aiming for the soft muscle above her pelvis. He meant to cut her in two. Lucy’s instincts took over. She brought her short-sword out and braced the collar of her long-sword against the back of it’s blade. She would take the force of his strike between her hands. Just as his blade connected, she hopped to take most of her weight off her feet, and she bent her arms to absorb the impact. He pushed her, but she was in control. She spread her feet apart

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and bent her knees as she slid, turning her block into a push up with her short-sword. Ned reached around for his own short-sword, but with his long-sword pushed up and out of the way, he was wide open for Lucy to slash through his ribcage with her long-sword. His eyes were wide with fear, but her faster than thought kinesthetic instincts wouldn’t do it. Instead, she pulled her long-sword up and across the inside of his right forearm, cutting the flexor muscles that allowed his fingers to grip. He dropped his long-sword, but he was bringing his short-sword around to stab through her chest. Wounding, rather than killing, had left her right side exposed. She couldn’t avoid his attack. She jumped, making him hit her low and miss her heart. She felt his blade stab into her lower ribcage. He struck with so much force, he buried his short-sword up to its hilt guard. The point came out between her ribs on her left side. She was still alive. To kill her instantly, he had to pull the point of the blade out from between her ribs and jam it up through her viscera, into her heart. She dropped her long-sword, grabbed his forearm, and used her elbow to press his hand and his short-sword hilt guard against her ribs, preventing him from backing it out. She brought her own short-sword around and cut through his bicep. He lost control of his arm. Lucy’s weight turned his blade down and she started to slide off onto the floor. He still had some control of the sword with his forearm muscles. She felt him trying to twist it. She hacked at his elbow joint. It took two strikes to cut off his forearm. She fell on the floor and pulled his sword out of her torso. Ned looked at the blood spraying out of his elbow, then down at her. He grinned. “You’re dying!” He turned and ran for the placenta jars. His arms were disabled, but he could still kick. Lucy saw Charlotte pick up Catamount’s long-sword and start running, but Ned would get to the pumps first. Lucy scrambled up, grabbed her long-sword and ran after him. He had made a mess of her in-

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sides, including probably nicking her descending aorta; she could feel her abdomen distending as it filled with blood. She tried to breathe, but coughed blood. Her lungs and chest cavity had been punctured; she was drowning in her own blood, and her lungs were collapsing. Ned had a back tattoo. Lucy ran and focused on it to keep her concentration. It was an image of a grizzly bear biting off the head of a horse. It looked familiar. The guy from Pete’s Tattoo! Ned reached Chrysanthemum’s pump. He kicked the attachment for the tubes returning filtered amniotic fluid to her placenta. It didn’t come off, but it started to leak. Lucy was losing her balance; her vision was closing down. Ned raised his foot to stomp on the fitting. Lucy stumbled and swung her long-sword with both hands; it cut through his gluteal muscles. She collided with him, and they both toppled over next to the pump. Lucy saw feet arrive. She looked up and tried to say, “Save her,” but all that came out was a gargle of blood. Then she died.

Part III

Chapter 19 Aftermath

Lucy was bleeding all over the ringleader, Ned. Her mouth was moving, but all that came out was blood and spittle. There wasn’t enough air left in her lungs to cough. She looked up at Charlotte, made eye contact, and died. Ned’s glutei maximi were cut so deep he couldn’t control his hip joints, but he was still kicking at Chrysanthemum’s pump with his forelegs and pushing himself closer with what was left of his arms. Charlotte rolled Lucy’s body off of Ned, then used Catamount’s sword to cut his hamstrings. “Jayzen! Contact your womb-atorium and get a recovery team up here. Tell them to bring a portable placenta pump. And tell them it’s an emergency.” She crouched down next to Ned and pulled a strap from the collection she had tucked behind her belt. “What are you doing?” Ned said. “I’m going to put tourniquets on your arms.” “Leave me alone!” He started jerking his shoulders and flailing his right elbow joint. Charlotte held her sword in front of his face. “If you don’t settle down, I’ll keep cutting muscles and tendons until you do.” He stopped. She cinched up his arms with the tourniquets, then pulled him away from the placenta jars.

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“The womb-atorium people are on their way,” Jayzen said. “Now call the police and tell them they can come in. Tell them to bring ambulance teams for three trauma cases, two with severed limbs. An S.O. officer, Samantha Villanueva, was trying to contact Lucy. Try her first.” “Why?” “Because if the mansion doors give the police a hard time about entering, her unit will be able to blow them off their hinges. Make sure you tell her it’s OK to do so. “After you call the police, do as Lucy said: put that fellow’s hands and his foot in the ice cream cooler, and also this one’s forearm. It’s over there.” She pointed to where Ned and Lucy had had their sword fight. The womb-atorium team rushed in through the double doors at the back of the ballroom. They stared gap mouthed at the broken and dead bodies spread around the floor. “Quick,” Charlotte said, “Over here.” She waved and pointed at Chrysanthemum’s jar. Its display was flagging emphatic warnings. “Where’s your portable pump?” “They’re both out for maintenance,” the matron’s aid leading the team said. “Wait, these are them.” She reached Chrysanthemum’s pump and switched it off. “This is bad, it’s been pumping amniotic fluid onto the floor, not back into the jar. The placenta is dying.” “Then you have to put it in a womb, right?” Charlotte said. “Yes, of course.” The aid spoke to another girl on her team. “Take it to the Womb Room, as fast as you can. Let them know you’re on your way and to start preparing a womb. Go.” The girl picked up the jar, turned, and ran. The team had one casket with them. “Put her in it,” Charlotte pointed at Chrysanthemum’s body. “That’s her placenta you just sent to a womb. How many more caskets do you have?” “Five.” “Good, you’ll need three more. Next load her.” She pointed at

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Lucy’s body. “These two bodies and that placenta over there,” she pointed at Lucy’s placenta jar, “ship them to the Laughing Cherub as fast as you can, and make arrangements to transfer the injured placenta to the Cherub as soon as possible.” “We’re not authorized―” “Jayzen,” Charlotte said. “Do what she says,” Jayzen said. “I want them on their way, or at least out of this room, before the police arrive to arrest everyone and bog everything down with paperwork. Once that’s accomplished, you’ll find two dead bodyguards in the gallery out those doors.” She pointed at the doors at the other end of the ballroom. “Pack them in the other two caskets. I don’t know where they go. They work for Maxton Verbeek, so you better do a good job.” “And those two?” The matron’s aid pointed at the Noreens. “They’re Twin Security’s problem.” There was a distant boom from somewhere beyond the double doors Charlotte and Jayzen had originally entered through. “Sounds like the police. Hurry up.” Charlotte looked around. That should do it. Four weeks later, Lucy touched the stitches that held together the cut across the bridge of her nose. “Ouch!” She was standing in front of a mirror in Burning Desire’s locker room. She had pealed the bandage back to look at the stitches. Both her eyes were black and blue with a bruise that spread from her nose, across the top of her cheeks, and up into her eye sockets. “That’s too superficial for a womb stay,” Dita Hwang, the club nurse, had said when she examined Lucy after her game in Saturday’s match. She had snapped on her rubber gloves and dug out her suture kit. “Do you want a local anesthetic?” “No,” Lucy had said. A minute later she regretted her decision, but not as much as Dita did. “Stop whining,” Dita had said as she stitched up Lucy’s nose.

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Samantha had confiscated Lucy’s swords as evidence. They were the swords she had been given at the Academy on her seventeenth birthday. They had been balanced just for her; the hilts fit her hands and no one else’s. She had had the symbol of the Northern Guide Star etched into their blade collars. Now they were gone. The court would hold them for fifteen years along with the other evidence in the Blood Boys Case. She wanted to blame the loaner swords for losing her game, but it was a lie. She didn’t trust herself any more. She shouldn’t have been playing. The Auspicious Day charger had made a quick flick at the side of her head and surprised her with a longer reach than she had expected. Lucy jerked back and only received a nick across her nose, but she lost her balance and fell against the Goddess Temira, causing a foul. Play was stopped, and she had to watch the charger, the one who had nicked her nose, stand in the sweet spot and lop off Temira’s head. I’m your center, with a fucking bloody nose, and you’re dead. Back on the sideline Lucy had wiped the blood off her longsword, slipped it into its scabbard, and then thrown it against the retaining wall. Bimini had actually gotten mad at her. Serendipity had taken the field for the third game and won, putting Burning Desire in the championship. In the mirror, Lucy saw the reflection of Fausta walking behind her. “Hey, Fausta, you got stitched up once. How long does it take these fucking things to heal?” “Forever,” Fausta said. “Didn’t you ever get sewn up when you were a kid?” I’m not going there. Not now that I have to be a real big sister, instead of the one from hell. The day after Lucy was reborn, thirteen days after the incident in the Verbeek Mansion, she took a car from Pete’s Tattoo to the Magistrate’s jail. The jail was almost as cheery as a womb-atorium. The visita-

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tion lounge was filled with comfortable chairs and sofas arranged around low tables. Lucy was shown to an armchair sitting across a table from another armchair. A guard brought in Zack. He didn’t seem as reserved as when he had shown up at the club. “You’re all better.” He sat in the other chair. “That’s the way rebirth works.” “They’re worried I’m going to kill myself. They took my belt and my shoe laces. They watch me eat so I don’t steal the knife and fork.” “Are you going to kill yourself?” “If I was like you I couldn’t. If I tried, they’d stick me in one of those wombs, whether I wanted them to or not.” “You’re not like me,” Lucy said. “I don’t want to die.” “You didn’t have to fight Grizzly, you could have run away.” He started tapping his foot. “When you did fight, you could have killed him, but you didn’t. Instead, he almost killed you, for good.” “I don’t remember. We never remember the last minute or two before we die.” “You said you weren’t a killer,” Zack said. “I am.” “No, you are not.” “Yes I am. I killed Dad. You would have broken his arms and legs and then called the police, but you weren’t there. You ran away.” His foot stopped. “How come you ran away and left us, but you didn’t run away from Grizzly?” “It wasn’t the same. I wasn’t the same.” “I know. You really are Lucy Star. You’re not my sister, not anymore.” “She’s not gone. I want her to come back, it’s just . . . I can’t trust her.” Zack laughed. “You’re crazier than me.” “I guess I am. Zack, you are my brother.” “No I’m not. I’m Debbie’s brother. If I’m going to be yours, I need a new name, just like you. I want to be Ace.” “What?”

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“Ace Star.” “That sounds kind of cornball.” “So says Lucy Star.” “I was ten years old when I made up my name. I guess it shows.” Lucy could see Zack’s jaw muscles bulging and relaxing. He was nervous. “Are you serious about this?” she said. “Yes.” She leaned forward. “Does Ace want to kill himself?” “No.” She glanced at the guard, then spoke quietly. “You’re going to have to impersonate Zack for a while.” “I can do that.” “Crazy Zack.” “That’s the only kind there is.” Lucy stood up. “Can we hug?” she said to the guard. He nodded. She stepped around the table. Zack stood up, and she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him tight. She stretched up on her tip-toes and kissed his cheek. “This isn’t going to be easy. You’re either going to be in prison or an institution for a long time.” “I can do it.” “We can do it,” Lucy said. “I have to go and meet with your advocate, but I’ll be back in a couple of days. See you then, Ace Star.” “See you,” Ace said. Earlier that day, Lucy took a public car to Burning Desire to meet with Coach Kai. “Welcome back,” Coach Kai said. “Please, sit.” “Thanks.” Lucy sat in the familiar, old chair in front of Coach Kai’s desk. “It must have been difficult,” Coach Kai said. “I’m sorry you had to go through that, but we’re all impressed with how you handled yourself.”

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“I wanted to save my brother since the police couldn’t. That’s all.” “How is he?” “I’m going to the jail to visit him this afternoon, and then I’m meeting with his advocate.” “Don’t worry about your commitment to the club. We’ll give you the time you need.” “Thanks,” Lucy said. “The police took my swords.” “Bimini has some you can use for now. The League is commissioning a new set. They’re planning a ceremony after the end of the season to present them to you, and to honor your bravery and poise.” “Honor? Ned killed kids for honor. He believed Gunda’s blood battle mystique. He wanted to be a warrior and die with honor. He despised us because we didn’t. And guess what? He’s right. We’re just a bunch of girls playing a game until we age-out and finally have to grow up. Honor is bullshit. I’ll keep the new swords in my locker.” “The League won’t like that.” “I’m not required to carry a sword off the field, just strongly encouraged. I read my contract, even when I was fourteen. One Ned is enough. I don’t want to ‘strongly encourage’ any more. Can we talk about something else? We lost Saturday’s match, right?” Coach Kai picked up a pencil, tapped her desk top a couple of times, and set it down. She frowned. “Yes, we lost. Winning would have put us in the championship. If we had won, I was going to save you until then, but now our only chance is to win the last match of the season, in two weeks. I’d like you to be ready to play.” “Got it. When’s my appointment at Pete’s?” “As quickly as you can get there.” They both stood. “I’m glad to have you back.” Coach Kai held out her hand, and Lucy shook it. “And we’re all hoping for the best for Chrissy.”

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“Thanks,” Lucy said, then stopped halfway to the door. “Your bio doesn’t make a big deal of it, but you used to be in the army. Were you with the military rebirth program?” “I can’t discuss that.” “Do you know anything, things you can’t discuss, that could have helped her?” “I’m sorry,” Coach Kai said. Lucy nodded. “I’ll be here at eight tomorrow.” Seedy looking on the outside; spotless on the inside. Pete’s Tattoo was always the same. “Hey, Second Pete.” “Hey, Lucy.” “Hi, Todd.” “Hi, Lucy.” Todd had a client in his chair. The client started wiggling. “Settle down, kid,” Todd said. “Lucy! Hey, Lucy,” the client said. “It’s me, Neil.” “Oh, crap,” Lucy said. Neil sat up. “Look, I’m getting rid of my fox. I got it because of that fucker, Grizzly. I don’t want to look at it any more.” He twisted around to show her his shoulder. The fox was being obliterated by her portrait. She was smiling, and looking down and to the side. Her signature was underneath, the way she signed it for fans: with a five pointed star replacing the ‘t’ in ‘Star.’ “That’s my face from that fucking poster!” “I tried to talk him out of it,” Todd said. “I thought the League got those off the street.” “Not before I bought one,” Neil said. Lucy turned to Second Pete. “This is all your fault. You cursed me when you bet on my outie. You said, ‘this time was going to be different.’ No shit. It nearly got me and that kid killed.” She pointed at Neil. “I’m sorry,” Second Pete said, “but, I can’t curse.”

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Lucy tightened her grip on her scabbard, but it wasn’t there. She wasn’t carrying a sword. All she did was dig her fingers into her palm. “He was here when you called my outie,” she said. “Do you remember? Todd was tattooing his back.” “Oh sweetie, I forgot about that. Come here.” Second Pete held out his arms. Lucy bent down. He hugged her as best he could from his chair. “I won’t make any bets on you, ever again.” She felt the weird hairs on his shoulder tickle her nose. “You can bet, as long as you bet things will be better.” “That’s a deal. Now, let’s see what you’ve got.” Lucy straightened up, lifted her shirt, and quickly wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Second Pete took a close look at her umbilical stub. “I say outie again, but this time, a much better outie.” “It better be,” Lucy said. She went out the front entrance of the club. It was deep autumn, and the evenings were cold. The first hit of chilly air usually cleared her head, but this evening it made her cut nose and bruised eye sockets ache. She walked to Alice’s Tea Shop. At the counter, Mr. Fredrick nodded toward the back table. Lucy looked and saw Maxton. “He’s been waiting for you.” “Why?” Mr. Fredrick shrugged. Lucy tapped the counter. “Cook up a demitasse of his infusion, please.” Lucy walked over to Maxton’s table and sat across from him. “Hello,” she said. “Guess who’s not who they seem to be?” “It’s a pleasure to see you again,” Maxton said. He pointed at her nose and raised his eyebrows. “I screwed up in my last game. The nurse wants it to heal the old fashioned way.” “It looks painful.”

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“It feels a lot more painful than it looks.” She folded her arms and studied him. “Where have you been?” “I’ve had to temporarily take over management of some Verbeek interests. As you know, it’s impossible to completely walk away from your family.” “Do you want my sympathy?” “Some understanding, perhaps.” “Sorry, I don’t understand you people at all.” Lucy spilled sugar onto the table from the shaker, then drew a five pointed star in it, messed it up, and drew a smiley face. She brushed the sugar off the table into her hand, unfolded a napkin from the dispenser, and brushed the sugar from her hand onto the napkin. She folded it up, tight. “The news calls them, ‘the Blood Boys Club.’ What really happened?” “The police are still investigating.” “But they’re not going to find anything more, are they? Ned conned Madam Verbeek and tricked Jayzen. With Jayzen’s signature, he had access to the mansion, use of its facilities, and best of all, anything he did fell under the Verbeek ‘no peeking allowed’ blanket of protection. Ned is a sociopathic mastermind with a death wish. Case closed.” “That’s where the evidence points.” “He wasn’t smart enough to pull it off.” “He was convincing and dedicated. Often, that is enough.” “Enough to be manipulated,” Lucy said. “Was Jayzen as innocent as he claims?” “He’s a naïve, self-centered boy, but thanks to you, he may finally be growing up.” “I’m not sure growing up as a Verbeek is a good thing.” “He was innocent, but none of us are ever as innocent as we claim. Except you.” “Fuck you,” Lucy said. “Who was pulling Ned’s strings?” Maxton shrugged his shoulders. “Was it you?”

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“How would you know if I’m telling the truth?” Mr. Fredrick brought over the demitasse of Maxton’s infusion; Lucy picked it up. “I tried your tea once before. It tasted like blood.” She took a sip, held it in her mouth for several seconds, then swallowed. “It still does. Whose is it?” “Not mine. It was from a long time ago.” “Do you know I can taste the difference between people’s bloods? It’s one of the perks of getting the occasional splatter in my mouth. You wouldn’t believe how much money I make on bar bets.” Maxton took a penknife out of his pocket, opened the blade and poked his thumb with the tip. “Hold out your tongue.” “What’s the wager?” “The truth, as far as it goes.” “As far as it goes?” “Take it or leave it.” Lucy tipped her head back and extended her tongue. “How much do you need?” Maxton said. “Jutht a few dropths.” Maxton squeezed four drops of his blood onto her tongue, then one more. Lucy closed her mouth and considered the flavor. She moved her tongue around to mix in some saliva, then stuck out her tongue and used the napkin with the sugar folded into it to dab the blood off. “You weren’t lying. It’s not your blood in the tea. Who was pulling Ned’s strings?” “It wasn’t me and it wasn’t Jayzen.” “But you know who it was?” “Yes.” “Is that the family business you were managing?” “Yes, it won’t happen again.” “And that’s as far as the truth goes?” “For now.” Lucy turned around and waived to get Mr. Fredrick’s attention. She opened her mouth and made a wiping motion with her

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hand. Mr. Fredrick brought over a glass of pallet cleanser. She used it, dropped the sugar napkin into the glass, and handed it back. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll have a cup of tea, please―regular tea. I’ve had enough of myself for a while. And put it in a take-away cup. I won’t be staying.” She turned back to Maxton. “How’s Francine?” “She’s fine. You girls always emerge from your wombs in perfect health.” “Not always,” Lucy said. “Ah, yes. I heard about your friend. You have my sympathy.” Lucy stood up. “I’ve got to go. I need to spend time with real people.” “Francine has adopted you as her role model,” Maxton said. “I hope you tried to talk her out of it.” “She’s too headstrong to be talked out of anything she has set her mind to, just like her role model.” “Goodbye, Maxton,” Lucy said. “Be seeing you,” Maxton said. Lucy picked up her tea at the counter. The little bell above the door jingled, once. On the sidewalk, she sent a request for a peddle cab. She was meeting Charlotte for dinner and didn’t want to be late. Lucy drifted awake. She was wrapped in the soft terrycloth towel. Her eyes began to focus on the familiar Recovery Ward. Memories collected and condensed. “Chrissy!” She fumbled with the latch for the recovery bed until the side fell open. The bed was raised to standing height. She rolled onto her belly, slipped off, pulled the towel around her, and tried to walk. Her head swam; she held herself up with a hand on the bed. Esther, the day shift matron, came in. “What are you doing?” She rushed over and wrapped her arm around Lucy’s back. “Take me to the Memory Vault,” Lucy said. “I’ve got to check Chrissy’s placenta.”

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“It’s not there,” Esther said. Lucy grabbed two handfuls of her smock. “What about Chrissy?” “They’re both in a womb.” “For how long?” “So far, eight days, nineteen hours.” “But she just had her throat cut.” “Lucy, please sit on the bed. You need to calm down.” Esther lowered the bed so Lucy could sit, then raised it until she was at eye level. “Chrissy seems to be healing, but it’s taking longer than usual. Her placenta nearly died when that crazy man damaged its pump. We stored her in a refrigerated casket for three days to give her placenta time to heal itself. It was making progress, but after seventy-two hours we had to rejoin them. We’d used up all of Chrissy’s safety margin.” “Do you know when she’ll be out?” Esther shook her head. “Her placenta has been severely compromised. We don’t know how long it will take, or if it can succeed.” “I want to see her womb,” Lucy said. “When you’ve recovered enough to be discharged.” Esther handed her a glass of rebirth formula. “Drink up.” Lucy took a sip. “Drink it all.” Lucy took another swallow. “Your friend, Charlotte, is in the waiting room. Would you like to see her?” “Yes.” The glass was empty when Charlotte came in. “I want to see Chrissy’s womb, now,” Lucy said to her. “It’s a long walk,” Ester said. “She should rest and give her body time to absorb the formula.” “Come on.” Charlotte helped her off the bed. “You girls can be so stubborn,” Esther said. She took a robe and slippers from a closet. “Put these on.” They shuffled to the Womb Room. Charlotte helped steady Lucy. Esther brought them to a womb near the far end.

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Lucy shrugged out of Charlotte’s grip and rested her hands on the womb. She leaned against it and pressed her cheek to its corse flesh. “I put her here.” Charlotte held Lucy’s shoulders and rested her cheek on top of her head. “What happened?” Lucy said. “The last thing I remember is waiting for Ned to attack.” “He attacked, and you took away his arms, but not before he mortally wounded you. He tried to kick apart Chrissy’s pump, you took away his legs. Then you died.” “Could I have killed him?” “You’re not a killer.” “But if I had killed him, Chrissy’s placenta would have been safe, and she would have been reborn by now?” Charlotte squeezed her shoulders. “I should have. I didn’t want to kill anyone, not even him. I thought I could do it. What an arrogant bitch. And this is the result.” Lucy pushed herself away from Chrysanthemum’s womb, forcing Charlotte to step back. “I’ve got to get out of here.” Charlotte tried to put her arm around Lucy, but she shrugged it off. “I can walk on my own.”

Chapter 20 Championship

Year Day was less than a week away. Heritage City was hosting the North Coast Championships: The Beta League match in the morning, and the Alpha League match in the afternoon. On Tuesday, Coach Kai watched the guardian sword practice from the safety of the Observation Theater. She called Bimini in when the session ended. “Can she play?” “Her rote sword handling is as good as it has ever been,” Bimini said, “but she has lost her instincts. She attempts to think through everything. Her blades are always where they should have been, never where they need to be. I won’t allow her to perform complex improvisations with a partner, or even alone. She would likely kill her partner or injure herself. She is not capable of playing a match game.” Betty Kai looked into the empty Sword Practice room. “Did we lose her?” “I recommended you not play her in the last match. The results were disastrous.” “You think it’s my fault?” “We have to accept the consequences of our decisions,” Bimini said. “I should have resigned in protest, but I held out hope I was wrong.”

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During lunch Coach Kai announced a change to the match roster for the championship against Sublime Harmony: Serendipity would still play the first game and Sandeep the third, if needed, but Frankie would replace Lucy in the second. Lucy would be the standby guardian and play if one of the others couldn’t. The North Coast Beta Championship had sold out faster than the Alpha Championship. Everyone wanted to see the guardian who had taken down the Blood Boys Club. Coach Kai knew the fans were not going to like her decision. At one thirty-six Saturday morning an alarm howled through the Laughing Cherub. In the Monitor Room, Chrysanthemum’s displays were flagging alerts: Her placenta’s heart had stopped pumping. Its brain was failing. It was hemorrhaging and dumping Chrysanthemum’s blood into the amniotic sac. “No,” Mary said, “we’re so close.” Chrysanthemum’s body had finished healing almost two weeks ago. Since then the placenta maintained her health while it audited and synchronized memories, and updated its reservoir of everything Chrysanthemum to include her newest experiences. The process was almost complete. The placenta was dismantling the nervous connections it had made with Chrysanthemum’s spinal cord and brain stem, while performing its final memory tweaks. The latest guess for this agonizing gestation put Chrysanthemum’s rebirth at about thirty-six hours away. Mary jumped out of her chair and ran to the Womb Room. The big red ‘Off’ pad for the alarm was on the monitor console next to the womb. She pressed it with her open hand. Chrysanthemum’s placenta was inert, her blood pressure was dropping, and her oxygenation levels were crashing. “We have to cut her out,” Mary said to the matron’s aids who were arriving. Two aids brought over a birth basin, another pushed in a gurney, a third charged the resuscitator. Vesper ar-

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rived with the placenta jar. Mary broke the sterilization seal on an excision knife and opened the large blade; its shape allowed her to cut through the fleshy wall of the womb without harming Chrysanthemum’s amniotic sac. She cut the womb wide open with three quick incisions, then flipped open the small blade and cut the sac. Chrysanthemum spilled into her arms. Mary lowered her to the birth basin and clamped off her umbilical to stop the blood loss. She stuck a rubber gasket between her teeth to prevent her from biting, then reached into her mouth and cleared the mucous plug out of the back of her throat. Everyone held their breath . . . Mary was about to call for resuscitation when Chrysanthemum sucked in air and coughed. “I’m very dizzy!” The matron helped her sit up on the recovery bed. “Oh!” she started to tip over despite trying to hold herself up with her arms. “And weak. Did something go wrong?” The matron held her up. “Do you remember what happened before you died?” “Yes. I think I do. There was a big room. The most beautiful room I’ve ever seen. It was like something out of a fairy tale. I remember those men who wanted to use me to force her to fight them. I told them it would never work. And there were unicorns―” “Unicorns?” “Papier mâché unicorns. One of the last things I remember is looking up at them, they were hanging from the ceiling. And I remember her eyes.” “Who’s eyes?” “My guardian’s. She must have saved me. Did she? I’m here, so she must have. What happened to her? Is she all right?” “Lucy’s fine. She was reborn three weeks ago.” “Who?” “Lucy, Lucy Star. That’s who you’re talking about, isn’t it?” “I . . . Yes, Lucy.”

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The matron moved in front of her. “Do you know who I am?” “Of course I do.” “Do you know my name?” “No, should I?” “I’m Mary. Do you know my name now?” “You just told me.” “What’s my name?” Mary said and got back a playful smirk. “Humor me.” “Mary.” “Now tell me your name,” Mary said. “Why would I need a name?” “Your name is Chrysanthemum. Your friends call you Chrissy.” “Now that you mention it, why wouldn’t I have a name?” Chrysanthemum said. “Wait, something did go wrong. You think my memory is damaged. You said my guardian, Lucy, was reborn almost a month ago? How long was I gestating?” “Thirty-four days, five hours, forty-eight minutes.” “What happened to me?” “It’s not what happened to you, it’s what happened to your placenta. The night you died, it was badly injured.” “How is it now?” “It wasn’t able to heal both you and itself,” Mary said. “It failed this morning. Your memory synchronization was almost complete. We had to pull you out of the womb or you would have died. We put your placenta back in a womb to give it a chance to revive, but it was too late.” “That’s it then?” Chrysanthemum said. “This was my last rebirth? I have damaged memories, and my poor little dopple-girl is dead?” “There are experts here from The Rebirth Institute.” “To see what they can learn from the holes in my mind and from my dead placenta? I think I need you to give me a hug.” Mary enveloped her. “Lucy did everything she could to save you both.”

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“I expect she did everything she could to save everybody. I might not have remembered her name, but I remember her.” Chrysanthemum held onto Mary for a while, then let go and sat up straight. “Enough of this,” she said. “I need to talk to Lucy’s friend. You know, her roommate, the fencer.” “Charlotte Marceau?” “Yes, Charlotte. Wait, did anything happen to her?” “Not as far as I know.” “Thank goodness. Can you put through a request to her for me? It’s urgent. Then let’s get those experts in here and figure out what’s missing from my head.” Saturday, the day before the championship match, was all about managing the players’ emotions so they peaked on the field the next day. The butterfly bruise across Lucy’s nose and eyes had disappeared; the stitches were gone, and a thin pink line of scar tissue was all that was left of the cut across the bridge of her nose. The guardians walked to the cafeteria after sword practice. Chenina was lingering by the swinging doors. She intercepted Lucy. “She’ll catch up in a minute,” she said to the other guardians and pulled her around the corner. “Chrissy was reborn this morning, early,” Chenina said. “How is she?” That should have been a dumb question. The only answer ought to be, “Fine.” “No one knows. There are all kinds of rumors. You shouldn’t believe any of them.” “What are they saying?” “That her placenta died. That she had to be cut out of her womb. That she was born with only part of her memory, or with none at all. That the scientists from the Rebirth Institute want to take her back to their laboratories.” “Is any of it true?” “I can’t say for sure, but this morning, before practice, I overheard Monica, our supervisor. She was talking to Coach Kai. She

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said they would have to treat Chrissy like any other goddess who aged-out.” “It’s not much to go on,” Lucy said. “I know. The main thing is, don’t get upset about the talk.” “Thanks. You know, when I walk in that cafeteria, they’ll all be watching to see if I’m finally going to crack. One of these days I should, just to watch them squeal and run.” “I wouldn’t run,” Chenina said. “I know you wouldn’t.” Lucy put the loaner swords in her locker. After the throwing incident, she decided to treat them with respect. After all, they had been made for a guardian and bore a personal mark etched into their blade collars. Lucy left through the front lobby to avoid fans, or so she told herself, but really, to avoid her club mates. It was dark out and cold. She pushed open the door and almost collided with Chrysanthemum. “Howdy stranger,” Chrysanthemum said. She was dressed in a combination of colorful handmade knitwear and second hand frump. She acknowledged the season with a warm coat that had an unkempt wool collar and with rainbow colored knit mittens instead of gloves. She held out a cup of tea from Alice’s Tea Shop. “Here.” Lucy took the cup. “That’s my infusion,” Chrysanthemum said. She lifted another cup, “and this is yours. I still haven’t tried it. I wanted to look into your eyes when I did.” She took a drink and watched Lucy while she held the tea in her mouth, then she closed her eyes and swallowed. She opened her eyes wide. “What have you been doing to yourself?” “You’re okay!” Lucy wanted to grab Chrysanthemum, but she had this fucking cup of Chrissy tea in her hand. “They said your memory was gone, your placenta was dead, you had to be cut out of your womb!”

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“Most of that’s true,” Chrysanthemum said. “My placenta died, early this morning. Mary did have to cut me out.” “I’m sorry,” Lucy said. “And my memory is a bit screwy.” “What do you mean?” “So far, I can’t remember peoples’ names. Not until I’m told what they are.” “Do you know who I am?” Lucy said. “I’m talking to you, aren’t I? Yours was the first name I was told.” “You remember everyone, but not their names?” “A cognitive psychiatrist from the Rebirth Institute spent all day asking me questions to start mapping the missing parts. She said I actually know everyone’s name, but the pointers to the information have been randomized. “She asked me to write down facts about my friends and family. I could write their birthdays, ages, sex, height, hair and eye color . . . but not their names. As soon as she told me the correct name, I could remember. I can’t be tricked by a wrong name; I know it’s wrong. That’s why she thinks I haven’t actually forgotten the names.” Chrysanthemum looked at the lid of her cup. “What’s wrong?” Lucy said. “The doctors on the Institute team know how to hide their concerns, but the scientists are pathetic; they’re excited. They expect there’s more . . . missing.” She looked up. “We talk about memories, but you know there’s so much more to it. Our girls preserve us, all of us. If she wasn’t finished, I may not just be missing names and facts, I may be missing part of who I am.” “But they let you leave, so it can’t be that bad, right?” “They couldn’t make me stay. Thad was there; he made sure they understood that. Sometimes I think he’d make a better advocate than surgeon. “I’ll go back, but I had to see you. You must know that.” Chrysanthemum tapped the cup Lucy was holding. “Drink me.”

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“Huh? Oh.” Lucy took a drink. The flavor didn’t sneak up like the first time. It was immediate, tasting exactly like Chrissy, just like the scent Lucy had inhaled in the washroom of the Potato Bar. She was about to swallow, when the taste shifted to a dark unsweetened licorice. It was bitter, but compelling. She was sure this was what Chrissy’s vagina would taste like, at this very moment. A coppery flavor of blood slid in. Not the bloody metaphor of power and violence that dominated Maxton’s tea. This was something else, a difficult flavor to accept, an important one to cultivate a taste for. Chrissy had lost her ability to be reborn. Within six months her menstrual cycle would return. Lucy rolled her tongue around in the tea and wanted to be there when it happened. She swallowed. “Well?” “Not at all like the first time I tried it,” Lucy said. “I really want to give you a hug.” “Please.” She took Chrysanthemum’s cup, set it and hers on the pavement, and held her close. Some of the wool from Chrysanthemum’s coat got in Lucy’s mouth; she didn’t care. “We’ll be burying her next week, in the orchard at the Academy,” Chrysanthemum said. “I’d like you to be there.” “Of course.” Lucy hugged her tighter. “I’m sorry I let this happen to you.” Chrysanthemum pushed back and took Lucy’s face in her hands. “Stop that. This isn’t your fault. And look at me—there are issues, yes—but I’m mostly healed.” She wrapped her arms around Lucy’s neck and spoke into her ear. “However, you’re not.” “Huh?” “I talked to Charlotte. You’re fucked up.” “I’m off, a bit, sure,” Lucy said. “The police confiscated my swords, and the loaners Bimini gave me don’t feel right, but . . . Did Charlotte really say that?” “No, she never would. I could hear the worry in her voice.

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She’s afraid you’ve been broken. She’s a remarkable friend. She’ll do everything she can to protect you and keep you safe, but that’s exactly what you don’t need.” Chrysanthemum stepped back. “Come on.” She grabbed Lucy’s hand and pulled on the front door. It was locked. “I don’t have my key.” Lucy rubbed her key against the door frame. Chrysanthemum was still pulling on the handle. It opened. She dragged Lucy in. “What about the teas?” Lucy said. “We’ll get them on the way out.” Chrysanthemum pulled Lucy down the hall, into the locker room, and up to her locker. “Get changed, light sword practice clothing: shorts, t-shirt and short-sword harness. Do you have any extras? I don’t want to run up to the goddess suite.” “What are we doing?” Lucy said. She handed Chrysanthemum a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. “Do you remember the guardian-goddess exercise? We’re going to do it again.” “No! You’re not protected any more. I could kill you. If I even nicked you, you could end up with a permanent scar.” “You’re not going to hurt me.” “You don’t know that.” “I do, because I expect you to go very slow, and not take any chances. I don’t want to see any of your arrogant self-confidence. I want you to be so afraid of hurting me that you’re crapping in your shorts.” They finished changing. “Are those the loaner swords?” Chrysanthemum lifted the long-sword out of Lucy’s locker. “They look like good weapons.” “They were custom made for a guardian,” Lucy said. “I don’t know for who, or why Bimini had them.” Chrysanthemum looked at the symbol etched in the blade collar. “I know whose they are.” She held up the sword and pointed at the symbol. “Don’t you recognize this?”

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Lucy shook her head. “The earrings that police officer was wearing at the Potato Bar?” “Samantha?” Lucy said. “Yes, Samantha. Each earring was a half circle. You’re the one who saw the trick, how their dividing lines were slightly curved so they could only fit together one way to form the full circle. Well, here it is.” Chrysanthemum tapped the blade collar. “She said she refused to accept her guardian swords when she switched to police Special Operations. Bimini’s been holding them ever since.” Lucy took the sword and ran her finger down the not quite straight lines that bisected the circle. Everyone was gone. The Burning Desire training facility was silent except for the whisper of ventilation and the random, ‘ting,’ of the building adjusting to the dropping outside temperature. Bimini always stayed late to attend to her own skills; a championship match the next day didn’t make any difference. She walked around the curve of the corridor and saw the door to the Sword Practice room close. She opened it enough to see in. Chrysanthemum was standing face-to-face with Lucy: eyes closed, hands pressed together. Lucy was holding her swords, unsheathed. She held her short-sword to the side and tapped Chrysanthemum’s shoulder with her long-sword. They began the guardian-goddess improvisation. This was incredibly dangerous. The morning report from the Laughing Cherub had said Chrysanthemum’s placenta was dead. Bimini hesitated, then backed out of the door, closing it without a sound. She walked around to the Observation Theater and watched through the oneway window. Lucy pulled the practice room door closed. “This is crazy,” she said. “You’re womb weak. Your reflexes will be off.” “It doesn’t matter,” Chrysanthemum said. She walked to the center of the wooden floor. “The guardian-goddess exercise is

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about trust in the guardian. For it to work, we both need to trust that you can perform the exercise with all its inherent aggression and not harm me. Your reflexes are important, not mine.” Chrysanthemum stood with her feet parallel. She closed her eyes, pressed the palms of her hands together, and breathed out, relaxing as the air left her lungs. Lucy unsheathed her longsword and walked onto the floor to face Chrysanthemum. She drew her short-sword and lifted it out to the side. She brought her long-sword up, touched Chrysanthemum’s shoulder, and lifted it away. They began to move: Lucy with her eyes open, Chrysanthemum with her eyes closed. Lucy wasn’t surprised how much a trained goddess could sense with her eyes closed. On the temple, her own senses were acutely tuned to approaching threats. She could feel the air shifting as it was displaced by bodies and blades. The temple pyramid was solid, but she could feel it vibrate with the movements of her opponents. She could smell their sweat and if they were wounded, taste their blood. She knew she was smelling the blood, but it came to her as taste. As the blood spilled in a game, her mouth would water. Even before hearing or feeling a bleeding charger trying to sneak up from behind, she could taste her. “Oh, fuck!” Lucy said. Her sword had swung too close to Chrysanthemum’s hand. “What?” Chrysanthemum said. “I was daydreaming.” “You were doing fine until just now, maybe you should daydream more. What were you thinking about?” They continued the exercise as they talked. “About how alive I feel on the temple. All my senses are hot and feel like they’re working way beyond the range they’re supposed to. It’s like they’re merging into some sort of super sense.” “A synesthetic perfect storm,” Chrysanthemum said. “That must be how Bimini’s kinesthetic intelligence senses the world.

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Sensing is knowing is doing. It’s all one thing, like not recognizing a weakness until you attack it.” They were moving fast enough to play with the tempo. They slowed down, sped up, came to a stop, and then picked up again with a burst of activity. With only two of them in the room, they used the whole space. Sometimes running; sometimes spiraling around each other, and moving in and out of sword range. Chrysanthemum slipped between Lucy’s blades and around to her back. She opened her eyes and spoke over Lucy’s shoulder, next to her ear. “Charlotte told me what happened after I died.” “I almost got you killed is what happened. You said you trusted me with your life, and I almost got you really killed.” “You almost got yourself ‘really’ killed too. If you had collapsed a second earlier, you wouldn’t have stopped Ned, and he would have destroyed both our placentas.” “I should have killed him. I do it all the time. He didn’t have anywhere near the skill he thought he had. He’s a serial killer. He deserved to die.” Chrysanthemum circled back into the fury of Lucy’s swords. “You don’t do anything of the sort all the time. You’ve never killed anyone, ever.” “I should have,” Lucy said. She wasn’t looking at Chrysanthemum. Her swords sped up. They made the surrounding air deadly, while carving a safe space around Chrysanthemum. “Who should you have killed?” “Him,” Lucy said. “Your father?” “Yes.” Lucy swung her long-sword horizontally just above Chrysanthemum’s head while cutting the air in the opposite direction with her short-sword just in front of her belly. The sword nicked a loose fold of her t-shirt. “Instead, I ran away and made my brother do it.” “That’s not what you told him―your brother. You told him it was your father’s fault. I’m sorry, what’s your brother’s name?”

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“Ace.” “No it’s not.” Lucy laughed. “It is now. He says if he’s going to be my brother, he wants to change his name to Ace Star.” “Ace Star. I like it,” Chrysanthemum said. “His name was Zack, huh. Telling me his new name fixed my memory of his old name. My cognitive psych will want to hear about that. Where was I?” “I think you were going to tell me to stop feeling guilty. That’s what the shrinks always say. We try to do the best we can, but everything we do has consequences, right? “Those consequences are the scars we live with for the rest of our lives. Wombs don’t heal them. Guilt is a kind of wishful thinking―if only we had done something different, things would have turned out better, but we didn’t, and they didn’t. You trusted me and I fucked up. I can’t wish that away.” “Charlotte remembers me saying I trusted you with my whole life.” “I don’t see the difference,” Lucy said. Chrysanthemum walked up to Lucy through the swirl of her swords. “It means I knew my whole life might have ended that night.” She pushed Lucy, forcing her to step back. “It means I knew you were going to do everything you could, including dying, to try and save me and everyone else―which you did.” She pushed Lucy again. “It means I understood you might not succeed, because you’re not some fantasy fucking super girl. You’re Lucy Star―an amazing girl, but still, a girl, and not a killer.” She pushed Lucy so hard she nearly lost her footing. “You couldn’t bring yourself to kill Ned. Because of that, I almost died.” She pushed Lucy again. “And you almost died.” She pushed her again, then stepped right up to Lucy’s face. “You almost screwed everything up!” She hooked her foot behind Lucy’s leg and pushed, tripping her so they both fell. Chrysanthemum landed on top of Lucy. “I don’t know about you, but I can live with that, because I’m still alive, you’re still alive, and I want my life to

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have you in it.” She kissed Lucy, then stopped and looked at her. Lucy nodded. Chrysanthemum undid the buckles on Lucy’s sword harness, then pushed her t-shirt over her head and along her arms. “This is where you either lose the swords or use them to cut off our clothes.” Bimini watched Lucy and Chrysanthemum develop the exercise. They started slow and picked up speed as they learned to trust each other. They used the full room, giving the exercise the feel of choreography. Bimini realized they were talking. As the exercise became more complex, requiring full concentration, their conversation became more animated. They had become caught up in what they were talking about even as their bodies drove the exercise at a life-threatening pace. She wanted to stop them, but it was too late, by now any distraction would be more dangerous than letting them continue. Chrysanthemum walked up to Lucy and pushed her, then she did it again, and again, even as Lucy continued lacerating the surrounding space. Finally, Chrysanthemum tripped Lucy, and the exercise was over. But it wasn’t . . . Bimini left the Observation Theater and made sure the door was locked. She walked down the corridor and sent an emergency request to Coach Kai. “What is it?” Betty Kai said. “Keep your voice down,” Bimini said. “What’s wrong?” Betty spoke in a half whisper. “You need to put Lucy back in the game.” “Did something happen to Frankie?” “No, something happened to Lucy. Chrysanthemum is here, at the club―” “How is she?” “She appears to be in excellent health despite her extended gestation. I just watched them perform the guardian-goddess exercise.”

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“With practice sticks, I hope.” “With real blades.” “How could you―” “They had already started when I found them.” Bimini reached the equipment storeroom. She unlocked the door and went in. “I watched from the Observation Theater. They reached a level of execution beyond anything I have seen.” Bimini came out of the storeroom, locked the door, and walked back toward the practice room. “Frankie’s not going to like getting bumped to standby,” Betty said. “That’s not a reason to leave her in the game.” “I know, I’m just thinking about how to break it to her.” “With your permission, I’ll tell Lucy, as soon as she and Chrysanthemum are finished.” “They’re still performing the exercise?” “They have moved on to a more intimate version.” “Ah,” Betty said. “Well, good for them.” She closed the contact. Bimini waited a discrete distance from the practice room. Eventually Lucy peeked out. She was holding a bundle of shredded clothing under her arm. Bimini walked over and handed her the two athletic suits she had gotten from the storeroom. “I’d like to speak to you both when you’re dressed,” she said. Lucy cut off their clothes with her short-sword, then pushed both weapons as far away as she could reach. Chrysanthemum kissed her forehead, the tip of her nose, and her mouth. “Oh, wow,” Lucy said. “What is it?” “Do you remember that dream I had, on the overnight return from the Beauty Incarnate match?” “Of course, it only seems like a few days ago to me.” “This is it.”

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“Yes, you told us all about it,” Chrysanthemum shifted to the side and slid her hand across Lucy’s hip, “but you left out the most important part. You didn’t tell us it was a dream about love.” Lucy touched Chrysanthemum’s cheek and neck. “It was complicated, crazy. We had a daughter.” “I know. Despite everything that happened to you, you dreamed about nurturing a child.” Chrysanthemum ran her fingers around the curve of Lucy’s ear, then massaged her earlobe between her thumb and middle finger. “I was besotted with you the first time we were in a game together. You were singular among the other guardians, and you didn’t see me at all because of the goddess-guardian embargo. I tried to subvert it, but you were impenetrable, then on the trip to Appalachi City, Coach Kai virtually handed you to me. At first, I was so little-girl excited that I felt foolish. Then we talked. And then you seduced me on the temple.” She pinched Lucy’s earlobe. “Ow!” Lucy said. “By the time you told me about your dream, I was in love.” “In the dream, you killed a monster,” Lucy said. “If you hadn’t, it would have swallowed Toshi, me, everything.” “You don’t have to fight your monsters alone; I told you that. Send them to me. We’ll kill them together.” Lucy’s throat tightened; she felt herself choke, then something that had been there forever let go and was replaced by the giddy delirium from the temple. “Okay,” she said, “you’ve got a deal.” Lucy kissed Chrysanthemum and drifted her fingers down to her genitals, brought them up to her mouth, and tasted them. “There’s got to be more to Mr. Fredrick’s tea than hallucinogens.” Chrysanthemum tasted her own fingers. “I think you’re right.” She pressed them into Lucy’s mouth. After a while, Lucy crawled up, rested her hands on Chrysanthemum’s breasts, and propped herself on her elbows to look in her eyes.

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“What is it?” Chrysanthemum said. “I’ve been thinking some more about my dream . . .” “Yes?” Lucy grinned. “I am so glad I don’t have to pee.” “Too bad, because if you did, I’d be triply honored―” Lucy put her hand over Chrysanthemum’s mouth. “No. Don’t you dare!” They broke into a giggle fit. “Oh. Ow,” Chrysanthemum tried to choke off her giggles. “That’s making my umbilical stump hurt.” Lucy crawled down and kissed the fresh stub. She kept going, chewed on the ends of some of Chrysanthemum’s pubic hairs, then sucked on the soft tissue below her pubis. “Ahh . . .” Chrysanthemum said, then, “Ah!” Her back arched. Her buttocks clenched. The muscles in her legs and feet quivered, then contracted. “Anuugh!” She slapped her leg. “Cramp!” Lucy put her hand on Chrysanthemum’s thigh. “Here?” “Uh-uh. Lower.” Lucy put her hand on her calf. “Uh-huh.” She pressed down on Chrysanthemum’s knee and flexed her foot to stretch the muscle. Chrysanthemum’s back arched again. “Anuugh!” Lucy held her knee to prevent another cramp. After a few more spasms Lucy said, “How’s your leg?” Chrysanthemum nodded. “Better. Anuugh! Is this one of those rebirth orgasms?” “I think so,” Lucy said. “They’re real?” “What do you think?” “We get beheaded with such clean cuts, we’re never in a womb for more than five or six days. I’ve wondered about some especially good orgasms after rebirth, but this . . . this is frightening. Anuugh! How long does it go on?” “I don’t know, everybody’s different, and you were in a womb for five weeks. I’ve got nothing to compare to that. Maybe it’ll be like one of those cases of hiccups that never go away.”

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“That’s not funny. I think it’s―ugh―mostly over.” Lucy crawled up and pressed the back of her hand against Chrysanthemum’s cheek. “You’re hot. That really revved up your metabolism.” She pulled Chrysanthemum’s hair off her wet forehead. “I think we should move to the Winnebago Graveyard while you’re recovering.” “Charlotte won’t mind?” “No, we have a deal. Do you think you can walk?” “I think so,” Chrysanthemum said. Lucy collected their shredded clothes and used them to wipe up the floor, then tucked them under her arm. “I’ll see if anyone’s out there.” She shut off her alarm a minute before it was scheduled to shake her awake, then rolled out of the dinette bed and went into the shower room. When she came out, she put on her blue and orange frog robe and knocked on the bedroom door. There was no response. She opened the door and whispered, “Are you awake?” “Um, Yes,” Charlotte said. “Alone?” “Yes.” Lucy went in and sat on the bed. “Did you see who’s out there?” “More heard than saw.” Charlotte was waking up. “Sorry about that. So, what do you think?” “About what?” “About her.” Lucy looked at the bedroom wall in the direction of the dinette bed. “She says she’s in love with me.” “That’s wonderful!” “Is it?” “Yes, it is.” “But what do I do about it?” Charlotte laughed. “This isn’t funny,” Lucy said.

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“I don’t think it’s something you do something about,” Charlotte said. “Tell me about her.” “I don’t know that much. You probably know her better than I do. From your Xen Center.” “Tell me anyway.” Lucy held up her hands, curled over her fingers, and looked at her fingernails. “I like her hands.” She grinned at Charlotte. “I really like her hands.” “There, you see? I didn’t know that.” “She’s the most exciting person I know―completely unpredictable. I don’t know what she’s going to do next, and I can’t wait to find out.” Charlotte sat up. “So, who’s in love with who?” “Aw, crap.” Lucy flopped backward onto the bed. “Yes,” She said. “That wasn’t a yes-or-no question.” “It kind of was. Well, maybe it was a maybe question.” “Let’s stick with, yes,” Charlotte said. “You’ve never been in love before, have you?” Lucy hiked herself up on her elbows. “Yeah, sure, well . . .” “That was a no question.” She flopped back down. “Fuck. What do I do about that?” “Now you find out what it’s like.” “That’s it? With all your lovers? That’s the best advice you’ve got?” “You’re on your own with this one. I’ve never been in love.” “But, your supposed to be my rock, for this sort of thing.” Lucy got up and paced the two steps across the bedroom, and the two steps back. She stood in front of Charlotte. “Well,” Charlotte said. “I could give you the oldest, corniest advice in the world . . .” “Yes, please. Anything.” “Follow your heart.” Lucy blinked, then crawled onto the bed and hugged her. “That is so corny,” she said. “Thank you.” She hopped off the

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bed and opened the door, but stopped and turned. “Oh, guess what? I’m playing in the championship today.” “That’s fantastic. What happened?” Lucy looked out the door at Chrysanthemum. She was asleep, wrapped in the bed sheet and blanket; her leg was twitching in sympathy to a dream. “I thought I’d lost her. I thought I’d lost everything. I gave up. I tried not to, but I couldn’t fight it.” She blinked, and a tear edged its way down her cheek, around the corner of her mouth, and hung on tenaciously at her jaw line. “And then, last night . . . She made me want to live again.” Charlotte slipped off the bed and put her arm around Lucy’s shoulder. “He almost won,” Lucy said. “Ned?” She shook her head. “My father. Octavius. Octavius Butler Knole. What a dopey name.” Lucy looked up at Charlotte, hugged her, then left the bedroom. Charlotte closed the door. Lucy rolled onto the dinette bed and rested on her elbow. “What time is it?” Chrysanthemum stretched herself awake. “Seven fifteen.” There was a bit of dried crust in the corner of Chrysanthemum’s eye. Lucy bent down and licked it out. Chrysanthemum squinted up. “Can anyone see in through that?” She pointed at the skylight. “Nope, it’s one-way. Frosted on the outside.” “Mmm, one-way frosting, sounds yummy.” Lucy lay back and looked out the skylight. Chrysanthemum pulled Lucy’s robe open and rested her head on her shoulder. She licked her finger and drew a slick of saliva around Lucy’s nipple making the areola shiny for a few seconds. “I’ve been thinking,” Lucy said, “about how our girls work. How they absorb all our memories, keep them safe, and put them back if we lose some of them. It’s beyond amazing that they can do that, but all those memories—they’re not us. They’re our

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stuff. We can loose a lot of stuff and still be us. Your poor damaged girl lost some of your stuff, and you’re worried she may have lost some of who you are along with it. I don’t think that’s possible, because I don’t think she ever had . . . you. “I think, when we’re with them, they learn who we are, and when they fix us, they remind us who that is and help us find the person they remember us to be. “Our girls are in love with us, and while we’re in a womb with them, we’re lovers. Like that thing you said. ‘We’re their center and they’re our existence.’” “I said that?” Chrysanthemum said. “It was in a book you read. Ask Bethany about it. She’s a charger who was in our cabin for the outbound trip to Appalachi City. The thing is, your girl must have known she was dying. I think she made sure you could finish fixing yourself, if she couldn’t.” Lucy licked her finger and drew her own shiny circle around the stub of Chrysanthemum’s umbilical. “Believe in your girl, and if some of you is lost, you’ll get it back. It’s spread among everyone who knows you.” Chrysanthemum reached up and cupped Lucy’s cheek. “How do you do that?” “Do what?” “You hand out courage like it’s the most common thing.” “I don’t know what―” Chrysanthemum put her finger on Lucy’s lips. “Shh,” she whispered. Not too much later, Lucy sat up. “I’ve got to go,” she said. “Championship match, you know?” Chrysanthemum sat up, too. “I’d like to see it. I’ve never actually watched a whole match.” “Really?” “We were encouraged to remain aloof and not become involved in the fortunes of the club; sound familiar?”

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“That’s changed. Chenina even bought a souvenir guard’s breast plate.” Chrysanthemum didn’t react. “She’s is one of the goddesses. You know her.” Lucy said. “Oh, yes,” Chrysanthemum said. “She did?” “No, but she and two of the other goddesses will be in the stands watching from the club seats. You’re still a member of Burning Desire. You can join them.” Chrysanthemum took Lucy’s hand. “I’d like Thad to be there. We talked about you the other night―I mean five weeks ago―after the Potato Bar, and he was at the Cherub yesterday. He knows how I feel about you.” Lucy combed through Chrysanthemum’s hair, slid her hand down to her hip, and back up to her arm. “He can’t sit with the club. Club seats are just for club members, but I get four family and friends tickets, one of the perks of being a guardian. I always give two to Charlotte and throw the other two away. You can use them. Charlotte can tell you how to collect them at the stadium.” Lucy put her free hand on top of Chrysanthemum’s. “But if I survive the match, I don’t want to meet him again―not yet, not today. Is that okay?” “Yes, I understand,” Chrysanthemum said. “Thanks.” Lucy squeezed her hand. “Now, I’ve really got to get to the club.” She started to crawl off the bed, but Chrysanthemum pulled her back and got up on her knees. She kissed Lucy, then squeezed her butt and slapped it. “For good luck, right?” “Yeah.” Lucy grinned. “For great luck.” The players and staff were gathering at Burning Desire’s training complex to board cars to the Heritage City BB sta dium. Excitement was spreading through the second game team with the word that Lucy was back as their guardian. The question was, was Lucy still crazy? Well, the question was, was she still ‘fucked up’ crazy, or was she ‘fucking’

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crazy, as in, “Did you see her take those chargers apart? She’s fucking crazy!” Lucy stepped out of the public car and walked over to her team. She was carrying her swords―both of them. “I thought you weren’t going to carry those off the field anymore,” Kelcie said. “I didn’t have a choice. The locker equipment had already been sent to the stadium by the time I was put back on the team, so I’ve got bring everything with me, like I was still on standby.” She patted her stuffed gym bag. “Did you get your new swords?” Esmerelda said. “No. I told Coach Kai to cancel the order.” She held up her long-sword. “These are good weapons. They were made for a guardian and deserve to be used.” “Those are Bimini’s blades,” Frankie said. She was traveling with the club, but as standby guardian, she couldn’t enter the locker room. She would be sitting in the club’s stadium seats waiting for Lucy to trip and accidentally stab herself to death, or something. Lucy could see Frankie wishing for just that. “I talked to Bimini,” Lucy said. “She officially handed them to me last night, with the blessing of the guardian they were originally commissioned for.” “Oh yeah? Just what happened last night?” Frankie said. Lucy leaned close. “I got laid. Turns out, that’s all I needed.” Serendipity walked over from the first game team. “I heard Chrysanthemum was here yesterday, after practice. How is she?” “Apparently, pretty fucking good,” Frankie said. “She’s doing well,” Lucy said. The team was moving in to listen for details. “Have you looked at Sublime Harmony’s game roster?” Serendipity said. “Nope. I never do. It doesn’t make any difference to me who I’m playing against.”

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“Do you remember Emily Stone, the Bright Savanna charger who tried to get you kicked out of the League?” “Yes. I remember Emily ‘Fucking’ Stone.” “She was traded to Sublime Harmony while you were in the womb, after that Blood Boy thing. She’s charging against you in the second game. I thought you’d like to know.” Lucy smiled, then grinned. “I do like knowing that. Thanks.” And the team knew ‘fucking’ crazy Lucy Star was back.

Epilogue

How Charlotte Met Lucy

Charlotte’s eyes wouldn’t focus. Her arms and legs felt limp. When she tried to move, she heard wet slapping and sucking sounds. A fuzzy outline came into view, leaning over her. Who? Matron? A hard rubber something was pushed into her mouth, forcing her jaw open. A finger dug down into her throat. She gagged. The finger and rubber thing were pulled out, and she breathed. She hadn’t realized she wasn’t breathing, and she hadn’t realized she was beginning to suffocate. Once she started breathing in, she didn’t want to stop. She filled her lungs until she couldn’t get another milliliter of air in, then she forced the air out so she could breathe in again. The air was rich and cool. It made her dizzy. There was a sharp tug at her belly, then a chewy rubber nipple was pressed into her mouth. She bit down and sucked. The flesh under her tongue erupted in an ecstatic rush, filling her mouth with a slurry of saliva and the milky liquid from the nipple. She swallowed. Her stomach convulsed and secreted. Her whole body shuddered. Yes! I remember! This is being alive! She woke up from her postnatal nap wrapped in the big terrycloth towel and surrounded by the soft padded sides of the postnatal

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bed. She rolled her head to the side. There was a girl on the bed next to her. She had lowered the side of her bed and was sitting up, dangling her feet above the floor. “Hi, I’m Charlotte.” The girl looked at her, but didn’t say anything. “What’s your name?” Charlotte said. “Lucy,” the girl said. “Ah, Lucy Star.” “How many rebirths have you had?” Charlotte said. “This is my tenth.” “Why do you want to know?” Lucy said. “It’s just one of those things people ask each other, like, ‘How old are you?’” “I’m fifteen. This is my first.” “Really? Congratulations!” Charlotte lifted her head to look around. “Who’s here with you?” “No one.” “What about your parents?” Lucy looked away. Matron came in with one of the Academy’s tutelary proctors. “You’re up,” Matron said to Lucy, with disapproval, “and you found the latch for the bed side. You should have pressed the call button before sitting up. We want to be here, just in case. Oh, but look at you; your first rebirth! Congratulations!” Matron hugged her. “Proctor, what do you say?” “Yes, congratulations, Deborah.” Lucy flinched when the proctor said “Deborah.” Matron saw that Charlotte was awake. “Welcome back, Charlotte,” she said. “Have you met our new girl, Debbie?” Lucy winced again at the name. “Yes,” Charlotte said, “Lucy and I have, indeed, met.” “You and that silly name,” Matron said. “I guess we had better get used to it.” The proctor cleared her throat. “Yes, that’s why I’m here. There was a delay in submitting the application to change your

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name. The Magistrate’s Office didn’t receive a copy of your emancipation certificate, so they attempted to contact your parents.” Lucy’s eyes widened. Charlotte saw panic on her face. “It took a week to straighten the mess out. Now you have to sign one additional affidavit, and it needs to be signed and submitted today. It says you are indeed the Deborah Knole who was granted emancipation; and you do indeed wish to legally change your name. It sounds silly, but it has to be done.” The proctor held out a pen and clipboard. Lucy took them. “Which name do I sign?” “Deb— Your old name.” Lucy signed, and the proctor took back the pen and clipboard. “I’ll get this delivered immediately.” She hurried out of the room. “Would you like to sit up?” Matron said to Charlotte. “Yes please, this side,” she tapped the side of the bed facing Lucy. Matron lowered the side wall and helped Charlotte sit up. “Call before trying anything. Both of you. Use the call button when you’re ready to try walking.” She left the Recovery Ward. Lucy was working her jaw from side to side, and up and down. Charlotte thought she was grinding her teeth, but then decided it was more like she was feeling how her jaws fit together. She stopped and looked at her left hand. One after the other, she touched her fingers to her palm, then repeated the action several times with just her little finger. She stretched her right arm over her head. With her left hand, she felt the ribs on her right side. “Can you do me a favor?” Lucy said. “Sure.” She slid off her bed. “Careful!” Charlotte said. Lucy turned around and slipped the towel off her back. “What do you see?” “Ah, I see your back.” “Would you touch it?” “What’s going on?” Charlotte said.

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“Please, just do it.” Charlotte reached out and touched the middle of her back. “Now run your fingers all the way down. Start at the top.” Charlotte put her fingers on Lucy’s shoulder and slid them down to her hip. “Was it smooth?” Lucy said. “It felt like it was smooth.” “Yes,” Charlotte said, feeling embarrassed. “It was very smooth.” “Thanks,” Lucy wrapped herself back in the towel and hiked up onto the bed. She was shaking with the effort. When she turned around she was grinning. A deep grin. Whatever is making her happy, it’s profound. “I don’t remember the dreams,” Lucy said, “but my memory placenta remembers my whole life now, right?” “Yes. The memory dreams are supposed to be like that old, your whole life passing before your eyes, thing, but you don’t remember because, like most regular dreams, you forget them before you wake up.” “Good,” Lucy said. Four hours later they were both discharged from the Academy’s womb-atorium. “Goodbye,” Lucy said. “It was nice meeting you.” “Wait. This was your first rebirth. That’s a big deal. What are you going to do about it?” “I don’t know. I was gonna go to the dorm. Study. I’m starting almost six months behind most of the girls, I’ve got to catch up.” “No. You can study later. Now, we’re going to the commons to celebrate. You were just reborn. That’s a gift and a privilege. There are only a handful of girls in the whole world who get this ability.” “I don’t want a party,” Lucy said. “Just you and me then. Come on. You can’t go and study. This is an occasion. Throw down a marker. You want to remember this day.” “Okay,” Lucy said.

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In the cafeteria they sat at a table with their trays. Lucy looked at her food. It was watered down lemonade with electrolytes, pureed bean, and tofu soup; and for dessert, walnut pudding with apple bits. “It’s not the greatest party cuisine,” Charlotte said. “Our G.I. tracts have been out of the digesting business for a while, especially yours; first rebirth gestation is about two weeks. What was yours?” “Twelve days, three hours, fifty-two minutes.” Charlotte ate a spoonful of soup and washed it down with a swallow of lemonade. “Lucy Star, huh? You weren’t just reborn today, you were REBORN, in capital letters, weren’t you?” “What do you mean?” Lucy said. She tasted the soup with trepidation and decided it wasn’t so bad. “Twelve days ago somebody named Debbie went into that womb, and today, out pops you—Lucy Star—a whole new person.” A smile curled into Lucy’s lips, spread across her face, and lit up her eyes. It wasn’t a normal smile, Charlotte was sure she saw victory and huge relief in her face. I have a feeling ‘normal,’ is never going to describe this kid. “So, who was Debbie?” Lucy’s face clouded over. “I don’t want to talk about her.” “She’s gone, isn’t she?” Charlotte said. “It’s only right that we should raise a glass to her passing.” She held up her glass of lemonade. “Who was she? It’s OK. She’s not here anymore.” Lucy raised her own glass and planted her elbow on the table. She looked at the glass. “Here’s to the passing of Deborah Knole,” she said. “Her teeth didn’t line up quite right because—so it was said—she fell down the stairs and broke her jaw on the bottom step. “She used to get a stitch in her side when she was out of breath because—so the doctors were told—she fell out of the tree in the back yard, twice. The first time she broke two ribs, and the second time, three ribs. One of the ribs she broke the second time was one of the same ribs she broke the first time.

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“She once—so her parents explained to the social worker— slammed the kitchen door on her hand, breaking these three fingers.” Lucy held up the middle, ring, and little fingers of her left hand. “Ever since then she couldn’t touch her palm with her little finger.” Lucy bent her little finger down and touched her palm. “And she had scars on her back. The police were told she put them there herself. They were told she pounded nails through a board, scraped her back with it, and tried to blame her little brother for hurting her. She was supposed to have done this because she was an evil little bitch.” Lucy looked from her glass to Charlotte. Charlotte reached her glass forward and clinked it against Lucy’s. Looking Lucy straight in the eye, she said, “To Deborah Knole, may she—finally—rest in peace.” “And never be spoken of again,” Lucy said, fixing Charlotte with a hard look. Charlotte nodded, and Lucy clinked her glass against Charlotte’s. They drank. Charlotte put her glass down and tried the walnut pudding; not bad. “What program are you in?” she said, partly because she wanted to know, but also to signal Lucy that she would keep her promise to leave Debbie in the past. “Blood battle” “What position?” “I’m going to be a guardian.” Charlotte saw her brace for the usual come back: Only the best of the best qualify, are you sure you want to set your goal so high? Charlotte tapped her spoon against the rim of her pudding cup. “I think you’ll be a good guardian,” she said. Lucy smiled back. “You bet!” What a punk. I love it. “What about you?” Lucy said. “I’m a foil fencer.” “I could never do that.” At first Charlotte thought she was being patronized, then Lucy said, “It’s too picky and precise, I’d get bored.”

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What an arrogant little bitch! “I take it back,” Charlotte said, “You won’t be a good guardian, you’ll be a great guardian.” Lucy finished her pudding. “This is good. Do you think they’ll let me have some more?” “Maybe, if you come back in a couple of hours. They don’t want you to eat very much so soon after rebirth. You might throw up.” They talked blood sports for another half hour, then Lucy said she had to go study. “You know,” Charlotte said, “I could help. I’ve been here for three years. I know how this place works, I can show you how to make it work for you. Want to get together tomorrow, back here at say, fifteen o’clock?” “Sure.” Lucy headed to her dorm, and Charlotte contacted her parents to let them know she was out of her womb. They never mentioned Deborah Knole’s name again.

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About the Author R. H. Watson wrote this book. He hopes you like it. Before that—way before that—he was born and raised in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. (That’s caw-caw like the crows say it, followed by na, as in, not gonna.) He studied mime in Paris, drove a cab in New York City, and lived almost under the Brooklyn Bridge for seventeen years while plying a trade as a graphic artist. More recently he designed websites, and worried about usability, accessibility and how to test for those properties. Now he is writing, writing, writing, and hoping some of you will be so kind as to buy one of his books.

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