Caren

“Et in Arcadia Ego”

story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb

Content Warning: ACTION VIOLENCE, DEADNAMING

“Time to give up the dream, Lenny.”

Caren stalked toward her cornered quarry, flipping her balisong with a lazy motion of her right hand, rainwater smacking with each heavy tread of her Docs.

Lenny had crammed his stocky body as far as he could into the corner of the alley. His belly was visibly expanding and contracting with each breath. His round face glistened with rain and sweat, his small brown eyes switching this way and that.

“Seriously.” Caren sighed, snapped the knife shut and pocketed it in her long leather jacket. “Jig’s up. Let’s do this the easy way for once, huh?”

“Come on, Neneng,” Lenny whined, in his faintly accented English. “How ’bout you just let ol’ Lenny go free…just this once? For old times’ sake.”

Caren slid the dampening bracers from the adjacent liner pocket of her jacket. “No way, man.” She jerked her head. “Let’s go.”

Lenny cowered, blinking at her—then popped a sparkling capsule out of his right sleeve, crushed it with a grunt, and flung its contents in her face.

“Fucking—!” Caren threw her arm up to cover her eyes, too late. A disembodied diaphanous giggle grazed the air as an explosion of flares and misty shapes filled her vision, as her surroundings kaleidoscoped: a thousand Lennys bolting in a thousand different directions.

Caren blinked furiously for several seconds, stumbling in a vague circle, waving the pastel smoke out of her face till things had returned to normal.

“Motherfucker!” she yelled.

Lenny was nowhere in sight.

The ratcatcher took a deep breath, funneled her mana through the tiny agimat beneath her right eye; stood stock-still, attuning her now-heightened senses.

With her enhanced hearing, Caren soon homed in on the sound of Lenny’s stumping footfalls in the next alley over.

Caren pulled the mana current out of her super-sense agimat, routed it through the super-reflexes one implanted in her left shoulder.

The brick of the alleyway blurred as she streaked in the direction of the sound. Turned one corner, then another, and spied the squat frame of Lenny making a beeline toward the street.

Caren glanced around to make sure no mundanes were in view, then surged ahead, parkouring off the brick wall, using a first-floor fire-escape landing as a springboard, and finally flipping midair to land in a low crouch smack in front of Lenny before lunging and tackling him to the ground.

Lenny lay on his back, wheezing, and let out a hoarse whimper as Caren planted her boot on his chest.

She crouched and dangled the bracers. “Dude. Just fucking play along. You being back on your bullshit already made me miss my Tinder date tonight. I don’t wanna have to deck you again this time, but you know I’ll do it. Don’t fucking test me.”

Lenny bared his crooked teeth in a watery-eyed grin. “Man’s gotta make a living, Neneng! C’mon, you don’t really wanna do this to your Tito Lenny, do you? Just think of all the good times… Remember how I used to babysit you when you were little? And I would take you to play at all those fancy arcades in Atlantic City?”

Caren leaned more weight on the foot on his chest. “What do you think I am, an idiot? Those weren’t arcades. They were casinos. And they wouldn’t let kids in ’em, so you always left me by myself at the motel with nothing but free Jolly Ranchers from the front desk and a VHS copy of Baby Geniuses.” She leaned lower, applying more pressure. “The rooms didn’t even have a VCR!”

Lenny coughed. “Well,” he croaked. “What about family vacations to Wisconsin Dells? Remember I always took you outside to make snow angels? Ah, you were as happy as a little clam! You always loved snow.”

“Dude, I fucking hate snow. You’re thinking of your own kid right now, Rory. Remember him? Rory fucking loved snow and making fucking snow angels. Which you might’ve known if you’d seen him even once in the past, oh, ten years.” Caren bored her boot-heel harder into Lenny’s chest. “You’re really digging yourself in deep here, bruh. You can’t even not get me confused with your own kid.”

Lenny gave a sudden convulsion and started hammering with his fists at Caren’s leg. “Goddamn it, Caleb!” he barked. “This is no way to treat your uncle, you no-good fucking little—”

Caren reactivated her reflex agimat and brought her other foot up, jumped, and spun with her boot out, landing a kick that sent one-and-a-half of Tito Lenny’s teeth flying. “The name is fucking Caren”—she landed on her feet, straddling his bawling frame—“you old fucking useless fucking stupid fucking transphobe piece of shit.”

Lenny rolled his body weakly, tried to slither away.

Caren dropped, pinning him flat, and backhanded him with both heavy bracers encircling her fist, knocking him cold.

She slouched there a moment atop his lifeless body, panting, grimacing down at his stubbled face, his bloody split-open brow. “For real, though, Lenny. Fuck you.” She spat.

With a grunt, she rolled her uncle over onto his stomach and cuffed him, then eased herself to her feet and glanced around, resisting the urge to vent the rest of her anger by way of a super-hard kick to his ribs. Much as she felt he’d been asking for it, she knew she’d probably end up feeling shitty about it later. Not to mention Arcanus Enforcement usually preferred their wanted criminals not-overly-banged-up.

Caren covered Lenny’s nose and mouth with a rag soaked in Morphean miasma till his pulse slowed to forty-one beats per minute—a little extra insurance he wouldn’t be waking up earlier than was convenient—then dragged him out of sight behind a dumpster before pulling Porkchop, her rusty Grand Marquis, into the alley. Wrestled Lenny’s dead weight into Porkchop’s trunk, then slammed it shut.

Lit a cigarette. Checked the time.

Almost one A.M. She’d been chasing this motherfucker around Passyunk Square all night.

“Next time, I’m using a fucking binding circle,” she muttered to herself as she stamped the butt out in a puddle, slid behind the wheel, and wrenched the key a few times in the ignition till the engine turned over. Preparation of any kind always felt like overkill when Lenny was her mark, but his apostasies were mostly so petty—common illusion-based cons that took next to no brains, talent, or effort to execute—that the bounty for his capture was never good. And these cat-and-mouse games he always played were shaping up to be a serious drain on her time.

Not to mention dealing with his bullshit always left her in a really bad mood.

Porkchop’s radio blared to life, in the middle of “How Simple” by Hop Along.

“Wow,” mumbled Caren. “So not in the mood for this.”

She jammed the eject button, swapped out the mix CD entitled “Bitch Feelings” (scrawled on the disk itself in black Sharpie) for another from the slapdash pile in her car-door pocket labeled “We’re All Gonna Die.”

“Dead Cops” by ACxDC came roaring out of Porkchop’s shitty speakers.

“Aiight, bitch. Time to get paid,” Caren grunted to herself, jerked the gearshift, and stepped on the gas.

By the time the CD had played through (the last track was “Eve of the Last Day” by The Secret), Philly had dwindled away in Caren’s rearview mirror, and the suburbs had begun to give way to South Jersey wilderness.

It was a mushy, murky, nothing kind of night. Not cold, but not warm enough to be pleasant. Wet and icky…but at least there wasn’t any bullshit snow. Sure, the recent lack of shit weather might be thanks to mundanes cooking the planet, but Caren figured she might as well enjoy it. It wasn’t like there was anything she could do about climate change. And sometimes she honestly wondered if she would if she could…if it wasn’t in some way inevitable, and just, for humanity to reap what it sowed by way of global disaster and genocide.

A loud thud from the trunk rocked the Grand Marquis, seeming to drive home the point.

“Pipe the fuck down, Lenny, or I’ll pull this fucking car over and beat the living shit out of you,” bellowed Caren.

Blessed silence.

Caren exited the highway. The night grew quickly starker, the pines taller, the roads narrower and more tortuous. The full moon shed its cold glare through wide gashes in the tree canopy as Caren navigated deep into the heart of the Pine Barrens.

The telltale mists soon began to roll in, and it wasn’t long after that that she spotted it—a bestial phantom far off among the trees, motionless and watchful, its antlers a mazy halo soft against the night.

“White stag,” Caren mumbled.

The creature turned and loped away, its spectral glow retreating into darkness.

“Not about to follow you, dude,” she counseled him. “I’m way too wise for your bullshit.”

What came next would have scared her shitless if she hadn’t seen it before more times than she could count.

As it was, the web-winged silhouette, like a bleeding dark blot against the chiaroscuro sky, made her heart speed up a little, and she caught herself holding her breath as its massive shadow spilled over the car.

The dragon-like beast swung down from the heights and sped alongside her for a time, tracing a sinuous route here and there among the trees. Its equine face was grim and strangely human. Its spindly cloven-hooved legs dangled slothfully behind it.

The Jersey Devil, as the mundanes called it, knew Caren well. Its canny eyes surveyed her through the window, till at last it gave a flap of its batlike wings, the gust of air from which buffeted the car so hard Caren had to jerk the wheel to compensate, and shot upward through the trees into the sky, circling once around the vague disk of the cloud-masked moon before taking off like an arrow to the west.

With its departure, the stark expanse of the Pine Barrens melted like a mirage.

In its place appeared the wrought-iron gate of a small bright city. The glamors that had masked this metropolis from view were now just ribbons of vague translucent color, festooning the moon and stars of a suddenly-cloudless sky.

“Place is lit up like a frickin’ Christmas tree,” Caren muttered, scanning the incandescent skyline as she brought Porkchop to a halt not too far from the tree line, some distance from the quaint parking garage near the gate, which was for members only. “Middle of the fucking night… What the hell is…?” Then it hit her. “Motherfuckin’ Saturnalia. Jesus Christ—every goddamn Old-Worlder in town’s gonna be up all night getting their freak on.”

Caren got out and circled around to the trunk, telescoping baton at the ready, just in case Lenny felt like cruising for a second bruising.

She swung open the trunk lid, tapped the baton suggestively against her palm. “You planning on behaving now, Lenny?”

Her uncle stared up at her with hate in his bloodshot eyes, and gave a wordless nod.

“Dope.” Caren hauled him up, helped him onto unsteady legs. The Morphean miasma was still wearing off, which she figured might account in part for his docility.

He shambled drunkenly beside her as she made her way toward the gate.

“The fuck…” She slowed at the sight of a heavy Ostiary guard—Ordinators, the martial class of Ordo Arcanus’s mask-wearing servants were called—patrolling the entrance into the magic city of Arcadia.

One of them stepped forward to meet her, sword drawn, its empty eyes surveying her from within its engraved-stone mask, which was secured in place on its skull by iron nails.

“State your business,” it recited in an inflectionless baritone.

“Dude…I’m here all the damn time. Caren Navarrete, ratcatcher extraordinaire. I’ve hunted down some of Arcanus’s most wanted criminals.”

The Ordinator stared at her, unblinking—and apparently unimpressed. “Provide proof of identity.”

“I’m here at least once every two weeks, you fff—fucking hell! No one’s tried to stop me from entering Arcadia in years. I got past your Jersey Devil, for fucksake. What do you zombie motherfuckers want, a fucking DNA sample?”

“State your business,” the soldier once again intoned.

“Handing over this sack of shit.” Caren jerked a thumb toward her uncle. “Leonardo Gerardo Posadas Navarrete. Wanted on several counts of petty cogimancy and second-degree violation of the Occultation Protocols.”

The Ordinator looked at Lenny, then back at Caren. “Provide proof of identity.”

Caren ground her teeth and balled her hands slowly into fists, entertaining a vivid fantasy of choking out the muscle-bound meatbag-in-a-suit-of-armor with her bare hands. “Dude. Go ask Abram fucking Sauvage, the Master-General himself. He knows who the fuck I am. He’ll fucking tell you.”

“Stand aside, Eleven-Thirty-Eight. This woman is who she says she is.” The voice was well-known to Caren—a throaty mezzo, crisp, articulate, even.

Caren made sure to wipe the sudden grin from her face before turning to greet the voice’s owner. “Peri—thank fuck. What the shit is going on around here?”

“The ‘sack of shit’ is who she says he is, too,” Imperia Sauvage informed the masked sentinel, with a tilt of her maple-hued pate toward Lenny. “Now let us pass.”

The Ordinator, and the rest of its contingent, stood aside without argument or delay. The gate to the city swung open, by enchantment, of its own accord.

“Would you like an escort, Master-Savant Sauvage?” the Ordinator asked.

“No, thank you.” Peri proceeded through the gate, her long flat-ironed locks, her velvet robes in Arcanus gold-and-purple trailing gracefully behind her.

Caren, dragging a protesting Lenny, followed.

A rephrasing of her question was on the tip of Caren’s tongue, but as she took in what lay within the gates, the words she had planned to say died unspoken, and she slowed to a halt, staring around mutely.

Though decorated with garlands and brightly colored torches, banners, and streamers for the annual Saturnalia celebration, and littered everywhere with confetti, coins, half-eaten confections, and discarded clothing that gave evidence of recent festivities, the stone streets were empty of revelers. Instead, Ordinators patrolled every walkway, stood vigil at every door. A whole retinue occupied the vast peristyle of the Council Hall on the hill. What few civilians Caren spied out and about were moving quickly, with their heads down. One pair who crossed paths stopped to speak to each other in hushed tones, then clasped hands and embraced before going their separate ways.

From somewhere far off came the hair-raising sound of a collective wail.

“Place looks like somebody fucking died,” said Lenny.

Peri was several paces ahead already, moving in the direction of Enforcement headquarters with her usual purposeful gait. “Heading to the same place, right, Caren? Hurry up. If you don’t stick close to me they’ll stop you again.”

“Peri, what’s going on? What’s with the whole military-lockdown vibe?” Caren hustled to catch up, yanking a swearing Lenny after.

“It happened in Philadelphia, so I thought you might have heard.” Usually Imperia Sauvage was laser-focused, intent and engaging, acerbically witty. Tonight she looked distracted, and paler than usual, the spray of freckles on her nose standing out in harsh relief.

“Heard what?”

“Eleven Martial Magi were murdered tonight.”

“Holy…fucking shit. Are you serious?”

It was shocking news, for sure. Even Tito Lenny gasped. But Caren found herself wondering if she was supposed to feel…bad. She’d dealt with members of the Order of Martial Magi a fair bit in the years she’d worked as a ratcatcher, but it wasn’t like she and any of them were besties. She herself was factionless, born to a Rising House, as the more “progressive” Old-World politicians euphemistically termed it. The elite Martial Magi all looked down their noses at her, and would turn against her in a heartbeat if so ordered, she was sure of it.

“Anybody you were close to?” she asked Peri, cautiously.

“Well, of course I knew more than a few of them.”

Caren touched Peri’s hand lightly, then hastily withdrew when the contact went ignored. “Peri, I… Really. I don’t know what to say. I’m…really sorry.”

Peri’s hazel eyes switched over to Caren for a moment; conducted a brief but thorough survey of her face. Caren did her best to look as sympathetic as possible.

“Common decency doesn’t become you, Care.” Imperia once more directed her gaze frontward.

Lenny gave a low whistle. Caren elbowed his ribs hard enough to evoke a pained grunt.

“Okay, fine. You know I kind of hate ’em all. But I’m not a monster.” Caren hustled to keep up with Peri’s long-legged strides. “I mean it. I’m sorry for your loss. How the fuck did it happen?”

“Each of them was lured independently to the city, to a planned location, then mobbed by tranquilized mundanes. Beaten or stabbed to death. Some literally torn to shreds.”

Caren stopped short, barely noticing when Lenny smacked into her from behind.

It took Peri a few paces to realize Caren wasn’t following. She paused then herself, a sober smile stirring her lips. “You really aren’t a monster, I guess.”

“That’s…awful,” murmured Caren. “Who could’ve…? How…?”

Peri shook her head, I don’t know, and resumed her pace.

After a numb beat, Caren followed.

The small entourage turned a corner. Enforcement headquarters loomed into view.

The wailing was louder here, underscored by drumming and a dirgelike chant. Caren glimpsed what looked like a heavily guarded assembly underway in a far-off courtyard—what she could only assume was a ritual mourning the dead. Many of the mages gathered around the large bonfire were flamboyantly dressed—probably still wearing their Saturnalia garb—except for the night-black cowls that enwrapped their heads and shoulders. Some were prostrate on the ground, others engaged in a grotesque dance. Still others stood with arms outstretched, their faces upturned toward the moon.

More Ordinators dutifully made way as Imperia and company mounted the long marble stair leading to the entrance to the Enforcement building.

In contrast with the solemnity outdoors, the broad main hall of Ordo Arcanus Enforcement headquarters was in an uproar. Enforcement officials, Martial Magi, pages, and Ostiaries zipped back and forth in the dozens, all looking like they had someplace direly important to be. None of the many desks or adjacent small offices appeared to be staffed.

“I don’t see Sten at his post,” said Caren, looking for the Martial Magus who usually processed her bounties this time of night.

“You won’t, ever again,” said Peri. “He was among the dead.”

“Really? …Sten?” Caren briefly pictured the bald beefy pyromancer with the perpetual scowl and the from-left-field sense of humor…then blinked, shook it off. “Well…fuck. I mean. If no Sten, then what am I supposed to do with fucking Uncle Lenny?”

Peri drew up short, swept the room with her gaze. “There.” She pointed.

Caren looked where directed and saw a lone quiet figure apart from the hubbub: a wispy kid behind a giant desk in the remotest corner, head bent low over a four-inch stack of paperwork, face obscured by a short, disheveled curtain of black hair.

“Who’s that?”

“Apprentice Grenville. Go see him; he’ll process Lenny for you.”

“Apprentice Grenville?”

“Yes, ‘Apprentice.’ Our little Ashton is a rookie, fresh from the hazing. But don’t worry, he’s a smart cookie. Fraternitas Mercurii pledge; classic overachiever; old-school daddy’s boy. You’ll love him. Go ahead; he’ll get you sorted out.”

“‘Daddy’s boy’? You fucking kidding me?”

“Caren, I have my own agenda here. You can’t expect me to babysit you all night.”

Caren’s cheeks burned.

“Go.” Peri shooed her. “You and the Apprentice should get along fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” She turned and swept off in the direction of the Master-General’s office, pausing once on her way to toss a glance over her shoulder at Caren, her hand forming a telephone sign next to her ear.

After a beat—

“Are you fucking the Master-General’s daughter?!” exclaimed Lenny.

Caren whirled on him, menacing. “Snitches. Get. Stitches,” she hissed, and grabbed him roughly by the arm.

“Oww!”

“Come on.”

Caren stormed across the room, Tito Lenny in tow, dodging the Enforcement officials and staff who continued to cross her path from every direction.

She came to a halt in front of the corner desk where the Apprentice sat scribbling at his paperwork. “Grenville, right?”

His head snapped up suddenly, like he hadn’t heard her coming. Black curtains fell back to reveal a pristine china-doll face. Not a beard hair in sight, baby-pink lips and cheeks, eyes like a newborn deer’s framed by gold wire-rim glasses.

“What are you, thirteen?” blurted Caren.

He didn’t look amused. “Eighteen.”

“Dude. Since when do they let teenagers into the Order of Martial Magi?”

“Since I hosed five of Prefect Weyland’s adamantine battle golems in a combat demonstration in front of the Council of Elders. I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for smalltalk. Is there something specific I can help you with?” He scanned her over, then turned his gaze on Lenny, looked the man up and down once, and pointedly arched one feathered eyebrow.

“I’m Caren Navarrete, here to collect the bounty on Leonardo Navarrete.”

Grenville switched his gaze back to her. “Any relation?”

“He’s my uncle.”

“Not one for family loyalty, are you?”

“Nah. Can’t say I’ve ever been much of a ‘daddy’s boy.’”

Grenville shot her a puzzled look, then got up from his chair. He was shorter than Caren, no more than five-three.

“One moment,” he said.

Velvet vestments dragging, he crossed to the nearby oak file cabinets that spanned the width and height of the wall, hauling over a stepstool so as to access one of the higher drawers. He shuffled briefly, nimbly through its contents, withdrew a massive file, and climbed down, restoring the stepstool neatly to its place before returning with the file gripped in both hands. Caren noticed some kind of tattoo on the back of his left hand, peeking out from under his robe-sleeve.

“Quite the rap sheet, Mr. Navarrete.” Grenville dropped the file on the desk, sank into his chair, and began rifling through. “Let’s see—six-fifty? Isn’t that low for a record this extensive?”

“Uncle Lenny’s not worth much. He only commits little bullshit apostasies no one cares about.”

“I’m really not a bad man, sir,” said Lenny to Grenville, his wide mouth drooping in a pout. “I just do what I gotta to make a living.”

“Lenny, you dumbass,” said Caren. “Grenville here doesn’t give two shits. He’s just some desk-jockey peon who has nothing to do with deciding your sentence. Jeez, you’d really think you’d fucking know how this works by now.”

Grenville’s eyes lifted briefly at the word peon, then lowered again to the file. “All right, well.” He waved over a pair of Ordinators. “Take this man to holding and summon the Namer,” he ordered them, then stood from his desk and addressed Caren. “Wait here. I’ll step over to Accounting and have them issue your reward.”

“No family loyalty is right!” Lenny erupted at Caren, as Grenville paced briskly away, and the Ordinators moved to take the senior Navarrete into custody. “I’m gonna beat your wise ass stupid next time I see you, you ungrateful little shit!”

“I’d love to see you try, Lenny,” Caren fired back as the guards led him away. “Rot behind bars, shitstain! I hope they fucking tranquilize you.”

She turned away, ignoring the retreating sounds of her uncle spitting curses at her. “‘Family loyalty,’” she exhaled. “What a fucking joke.”

“Everyone, may I have your attention, please.” The voice, magically amplified, reverberated throughout the hall, evoking instant silence. Caren, along with everybody else in the room, turned toward it.

Abram Sauvage, Master-General of Enforcement for Ordo Arcanus East—his grave bald countenance a jarring contrast with his bright Saturnalia garb—occupied a small platform at the far end of the room, on which stood a podium inlaid with the seals of Ordo Arcanus and the Order of Martial Magi. His second- and third-in-command, three Apprentice-rank aides, two Ordinators, and his daughter, Imperia, stood lined up behind him.

Peri’s keen gaze was fixed on Caren. When Caren met it, she looked away, with an expression on her face Caren didn’t understand.

“It is my solemn task to share with you two updates regarding tonight’s tragic events,” the Master-General began. “First: The Onomagnostikon has determined the identity of the twelfth magus slain by the tranquilized mundane hordes.”

“Thought there were just eleven,” mumbled Caren.

Every mage in the room seemed to be holding their breath. Caren felt Peri’s eyes on her. When she looked at Peri, Peri again looked away.

“He was factionless,” Abram Sauvage continued.

The collective relief was almost palpable. Caren gritted her teeth. You Old-World pigs don’t give a fuck about factionless or Nameless. Only people you see as people are your own kind.

“Twenty-six years old,” Sauvage went on. “Name of Luke Gabriel De Leon Langit.”

The first clear thought that entered Caren’s mind was that she’d been struck deaf. Because she could still see Sauvage’s mouth moving, but she couldn’t hear any of the words coming out of it.

The next moment, a pain lanced through her chest, so sudden and sharp that she doubled over, fighting to breathe.

When she finally did hear something, it was her own name, far away and strange, as if whispered underwater.

Navarrete.

Navarrete…

Caren!

She felt hands on her shoulders. Lurched upright with a gasp.

Grenville’s face swam in front of her, his baby-deer eyes round.

“You all right?” he whispered. Dimly, Caren registered Sauvage still speaking in the background. “You look ill. Did you know him? This Luke Langit?”

Caren took another gulp of air, found her voice. “It’s…not that,” she ground out. “It’s just the stupid fucking agimat in my”—she clawed at it—“chest.”

“‘Agimat’?”

“Amulet. Implanted. It’s a Filipino thing. This one’s defective, has been for years.”

“If it’s defective why haven’t you had it removed?”

“You really gonna ask me twenty motherfucking questions right now?”

“Sorry. Let me escort you to Medicinal Magic.”

Caren batted away Grenville’s hands. “No, fuckin’—stop—just—it’s fine. It happens now and then. It’ll pass.”

Grenville showed her his palms and backed away. Caren stood on wobbly legs, doing her best to ignore the burning. Her hands were shaking uncontrollably.

“…has claimed responsibility for the attack,” the Master-General was saying, to a chorus of murmurs. “This individual is a factionless ganglord known simply as ‘Lex.’ We know little about this person and his or her cohorts as of this time; only that he or she is a newcomer to the Philadelphia apostate gang scene, and has accumulated a good deal of influence in just the past few months.

“As many of you may have deduced by now,” Sauvage went on, “our hands are presently tied when it comes to apprehending this ‘Lex.’ He or she carried out all twelve slayings in neutral territory, and—yes, preposterously enough—none of his or her actions, that we know of, technically violated interfaction law.”

His audience buzzed angrily. “This ‘Lex’ is making a mockery of us!” someone shouted.

Abram Sauvage raised a hand, eliciting silence. “Please believe me when I say I share your outrage. As does Archmagus Weyland, who has called an emergency convention of the Auctoritas Magicae, at which he will personally demand remedy for this…onerous technicality. In the meantime, however, we must be patient. Rest assured: We will wage war against Lex. But we must do so with strategy, and caution, and through…” His gaze, as penetrating as his daughter’s, descended on Caren. “…indirect means.”

Caren stared back, unable to comprehend. Everything, her whole world was the fire in her chest.

“Your orders for now, every one of you,” Sauvage went on: “Collect every shred of information you can regarding the whereabouts and activities of ‘Lex.’ In particular, seek evidence of any interfaction crimes committed by him or her and his or her associates.” He paused, surveyed the room grimly. “Remember: A war against an enemy this ruthless and clever will not be won through zealous acts of vengeance. We must be circumspect. We must be patient. We must…bide our time.”

His eye fell on Caren once more as he stepped away from the podium, as a hum of tense murmuring rose to fill the silence he left behind.

The Master-General paused to whisper something to his second-in-command, woolly-silver-maned Lieutenant-General Ambrose, then exited briskly, leaving Ambrose behind while the rest of his entourage—including Imperia—followed.

Peri caught Caren’s eye briefly before exiting the room.

Grenville was saying something again, tapping her shoulder—a dull sensation—but Caren had once more zoned. The pain in her chest had waned to a persistent throb, and her head was full of static.

It probably wasn’t really him. The Namer got it wrong somehow. Fucking asshole Luke is never where he’s supposed to be.

It probably—it definitely wasn’t him—

She looked up, blinking her eyes clear—and noticed Lieutenant-General Ambrose muscling his way through the crowd, straight toward her.

“What the—?”

“Caren Navarrete,” he barked, parking his wide frame in front of her and hooking his thumbs in his sash. “Apprentice Ashton Grenville.” He jerked his shaggy head. “Both of you, come with me.”

Caren glanced at Grenville, who looked bland-faced as ever, though something in his eyes told her he didn’t know any more what this was about than she did.

Ambrose led the pair of them into a small study off the main hall, beckoned two Ordinators to guard the door, and shut it forcefully behind him.

“Grenville,” he said. “You’re being promoted to Savant. Master-General’s orders.”

“Savant?” The word escaped Grenville’s lips as an adolescent squeak.

“Master-General wants you to take point on this ‘Lex’ investigation. He said you’ve got unprecedented…‘forensic’ capabilities?” By the look on his face, Ambrose had no idea what the word forensic meant. “Orders are you’re to pair up with Navarrete here. She’ll be the muscle, take care of any dirty work that might come up, seeing as till this jurisdiction business is sorted it’s important you keep your own hands clean.”

“I’m…honored, Lieutenant-General, Sir.” Grenville snapped his heels in a salute.

Caren still felt blank, barely processing any of it.

Ambrose surveyed her. “You look like you just ate a lemon, Navarrete. Cheer up. We’ll be paying you a full ten grand up front. And if you and Apprentice—er, Savant Grenville deliver on this, you’ll end up with enough to live on comfortably for at least a year.”

His eyes remained expectantly glued to her for so long that Caren finally reacted by forcing a nod.

“Excellent. Dismissed!” Ambrose started for the door.

“S-so me and Daddy’s Boy here are going after the person who…who…?” Caren heard herself blurt after him.

Ambrose frowned and looked at Grenville. “Not too quick on the uptake, is she? You’ll keep her on task, right, Savant?”

“Sir, yes, Sir.”

Ambrose left.

Grenville moved in front of Caren and peered at her, frowning.

“Congratulations,” Caren muttered. “Look, I…I gotta go.” She pushed past him toward the door.

“You sure you’re up to this?” Grenville’s tone stopped Caren in her tracks.

She turned back to him.

He studied her closely. “Nothing like, say…a conflict of interest is gonna compromise your ability to perform your duty in this case?”

Caren smirked wanly, swaggered a step or two toward him. “It’s not my ‘duty,’ baby bear… It’s just my job.” Her chest gave a sharp throb. “And no, believe me—nothing will get in the way of me seeing this through.”

Grenville searched her gaze thoroughly. A subtle relaxing of the muscles around his eyes suggested her answer had satisfied him. “Begin tomorrow?”

Caren slid a card from her wallet, scrawled an address on the back with a pencil stub from her pocket. “Can’t do any earlier than four. In the afternoon.” She jabbed the card at him.

“Four in the afternoon’s fine…this time.” Grenville stowed the card in his robes.

“Dope. Seeya.” Caren turned away.

“Wait. Don’t you want your money? For the bounty on your uncle?”

“Bring it tomorrow.”

Caren slouched her way through the crowd in the main hall without looking back. Headed out to the streets, where the wailing of the mourners continued. The nearly-full moon, glamor-striped, gazed down on her like an eye.

As Caren put the Ordinators at the front gate and the Ostiary-staffed parking garage behind her, the mists once more began to close in. A few paces further—a few drops of cold rain—and she didn’t need to look back to know Arcadia had evanesced behind her. A glance over her shoulder would have revealed nothing but pine trees for miles—jet-cloaked sentinels, stern against a grayscale sky.

Caren reached her car, shuffled aimlessly in place for a moment. Pawed her Marlboro Reds out of her jacket pocket. After all this time, her hands were still shaking, so hard she almost dropped the pack.

The first drag centered her slightly. Brought her attention to the constellation of raindrops glistening on her driver’s side window.

“All done,” he said.

Caren blinked stars from her vision, like the web of brittle snowflakes that spangled her bedroom window.

Her chest was on fire.

Luke’s dimpled smile filled her view. She gazed into his beaming eyes; breathed in, breathed out…in again, out again, to ease the pain.

“You okay, Care?” He lifted his hand, touched her cheek.

Caren gulped down tears and nodded.

“It’ll take some getting used to,” he said. “But from now on, anytime you think about this”—he pecked her softly on the lips—“kiss”—his cheeks split in a warm grin—“this agimat, right here…” He laid his hand across her heart. “It’ll heal you and protect you.”

Caren gasped and doubled over against her car as a fresh fire erupted in her chest.

“Liar!” she roared into the night.

NEXT EPISODE: CAREN – “DETACHMENT”
PREVIOUS EPISODE: PROLOGUE: LUKE – “THE LONGEST NIGHT”

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