“Suddenly the Regent’s claim seems much more plausible,” Wisp said.
I barely heard him. I just stared at Etienne’s, the restaurant looking exactly as I remembered it – the name written in elaborate script on the awning, the big front windows revealing a bright and airy dining room that became dark and cozy when night fell. Tables covered in cloth and set with crystal glasses, the length of the bar in the back of the room, the swinging doors that led to Dad’s domain, the kitchen, where he’d shown me how to crack eggs one-handed and promised to teach me fancy knifework once I got old enough that Mom wouldn’t freak. The only difference was the quality of the diners inside – instead of the more well-off citizens of Pomegranate Grove (and the occasional scattering of ordinary people out for a special occasion), the tables were populated by the usual motley that surrounded us on the street, all sipping wine and eating food that… food that my father had made? Really?
I started toward the restaurant, and Howlaa laid a hand on my shoulder. I shrugged her off, and then it was both hands, one on each shoulder, and her leaning down to whisper in my ear: “The Regent ish sure to have people watching thish place, Randy. We should get away.”
“My Dad might be in there.”
“All the more reason to tread carefully,” Wisp said. “So your reunion can be a happy one.”
“I am not going to risk my life without at least trying to see if my Dad is alive first, guys. What do you think will happen? They’ll catch me? I can freaking teleport.”
“Not if they have snipers armed with tranquilizers, and knock you out before you can,” Wisp said.
“I’m willing to risk it,” I said. “I don’t know if Bodiless or skinchangers have parents, but I do, and if my Dad is still breathing, I need to know.”
Howlaa’s grip tightened, at first, and I thought I was going to have a fight on my hands, but then she let go. “Jusht be careful,” she murmured. Howlaa and Wisp faded back, though I could still feel a little Wisp-mote hovering in my ear. I walked into the restaurant, trying to figure out how to get to the kitchen unnoticed – if Dad was here, he’d be in the back. He hated front of the house. Said he was comfortable cooking, but didn’t like to see how people reacted to his food. His version of stage fright.
Before I got two steps in, the hostess glided up to me. She was human, tall, thin like a shishkabob skewer, with long blonde hair and a weird ruby-red monocle over one eye, with a lens that twisted and spun. “Miranda Candle?” Her voice was all warmth and welcome, and I stopped.
“Um,” I said.
She tapped her monocle. “I see you’ve… joined a new subculture since the photograph I saw was taken, but facial feature ratios don’t lie. We’ve been expecting you. Come with me to the private dining room?”
I glanced to the right, automatically, toward the room reserved for private parties. Cal had his thirteenth birthday party in there. “I don’t remember making a reservation,” I said. “How did you know I was coming?”
Her one human eye twinkled. “A certain gentleman of your acquaintance made the arrangements. He’s eager to see you again.” Dad?
Dad?I followed her, and she opened the door. The private room was dim, the hanging lights turned off, just a candle burning in the center of the table. I stepped inside, and the hostess shut the door behind me. I heard the click of a lock engaging and my heart sank. A lock wouldn’t keep me here, if push came to shove, but it told me I wasn’t meeting my Dad.
The Regent leaned into the circle of the candle’s light. “Hello, Miranda. So nice to see you again. The disguise is a nice effort, and bravo for getting rid of the tracking devices, but my greatest strength has always been understanding the psychology of my rivals. I knew you’d come here, once I told you about your father. The hook was set.”
“I want to see my Dad.” I crossed my arms.
“Oh, my,” he said softly. “Your jewelry has changed. Tell me, was it simple trial and error to change the settings, or did Howlaa smuggle out a draft of the user’s manual? Or… no. You found someone to give you advice, didn’t you? I knew Howlaa must have contact with someone who knew about the jump-engine project. She’s no good at detective work, really – just extermination. Was it Templeton? I should have dismantled him, but I have a pathetic tendency to hold onto everything, just in case I need it in the future. A certain… hoarding mentality… comes along with proximity to the royal orphans, I think.”
“If you’re done monologuing, I’d really love to see my Dad now. Or would you rather get punched into outer space again? I’ve got a little more control now.” I cracked my knuckles, thinking it was a pretty good dramatic gesture, and now that my fingers were mostly clear of rings, I could do it without pinching myself. “You might not wind up in an orbital pleasure palace. You might just end up in orbit.”
“A counter-offer. You can come with me to a very pleasantly-appointed lab, where you’ll be treated kindly while my scientists disconnect the jump-engine from your limbic system – that’s the deep old reptile part of your brain, the fight-or-flight part, the place where the engine is most deeply entrenched.”
I looked at my ring. “This is in my brain?”
“Parts of it, yes. You’re just a cog in the engine now, Miranda. Let me disconnect it before things spin even more out of your control. Let me give you your life back.”
“Please!” The Regent held up his hands. “Hear my entire proposal. I remove the engine. I reunite you with your father. I use the engine to send both of you back home, and never trouble either of you again. How does that sound?”
Familiar. “I don’t trust you.”
“I’ll swear before as many witnesses as you like. I’ll have my magisters draw up ironclad contracts. I’ll cross my heart and hope to die. I have nothing to gain from betraying you. All I want is the engine. I can give you something you want in return. Ask anyone – I am a reasonable man. I am not vindictive.” He chuckled. “I prefer to outlive my enemies in lieu of exacting revenge.”
I sat down. I wasn’t a zillion-year-old tyrant, but I knew when I had bargaining power. “What about Wisp and Howlaa?”
His mouth tightened. “They will be returned to their regular duties, pending reeducation.”
“Brainwashing, you mean?”
“Their brains are remarkably resistant to washing, which is part of why they’re valuable to me, but they will be given the opportunity to reconsider their recent poor choices and dedicate themselves to my service anew. They’ve been captured already, you know. My people are everywhere, and we saw Howlaa in her bodyguard disguise. My forces moved on them as soon as you came into the restaurant.”
Crappo. “Okay. You want to make a deal? Fine. I get my Dad back, and you have to set Wisp and Howlaa free, let them out of their contract, sign an emancipation proclamation, whatever. Send them wherever they want to go.”
“Ah!” The Regent said. “I see. You’re under the misapprehension that this is a negotiation. It is not. You will accept my offer. Period.”
“Punching you. Into space. That’s my offer. Of course this is a negotiation.”
“Your father is here, Miranda. In the kitchen, with a sous chef and a saucier. One of them is simply a humble cook. The other is one of my agents. He will put a knife into your father’s kidneys as soon as he gets the order from me through his little earpiece. Really, Miranda. Your father’s a good cook, but he’s not so good I won’t use him as a hostage.”
I took a deep breath, then let it out. “Let me see him. Let me see that he’s here, and that he’s all right, and I’ll do what you want.”
The Regent cocked his head.
“You said you’re a reasonable man. So be reasonable.”
“Fair enough. Come.” He rose and headed for the door, and I resisted the temptation to punch him into the center of the frozen sun – if Templeton was right, I could control destinations now, but who knew what would happen to Dad if the Regent disappeared? He gestured for me to open the door, and stepped out after me. I was amazed – the whole restaurant was empty, all the diners hustled out during the time I’d been in the dining room. Unless maybe they’d all been undercover spies for the Regent, just pretending to have lunch. I was beginning to get some idea of how powerful this guy really was. “Just through here.” The Regent nodded to the kitchen.
The front of the restaurant exploded, windows shattering and glass flying. We were far enough in the back that none of the really big shards reached us, but a few little fragments bounced off me, and it was still enough to trigger my flight mechanism; I ended up teleported behind the bar. I stood up in time to see Howlaa in her Rendigo form come barreling into the restaurant, claws dripping venom, stalking toward the Regent, who regarded her coolly.
“I suppose this means I’ve lost a number of my best-trained troops?” he said. “I warned them not to underestimate your capabilities. The next wave will be more cautious, at least.”
Howlaa growled and lashed out…
And her claws passed harmlessly through the Regent, who rippled like a flag in the breeze.
“A hologram,” Wisp said, suddenly hovering beside me, and I realized that I couldn’t have punched the Regent into the sun even if I’d wanted to – he was just a projection again. The guy was smart, you had to give him that.
Howlaa snarled, and I looked at the kitchen door longingly. Was my Dad back there? Was he okay?
“Miranda, we have to go,” Wisp said.
“If you leave with them, I will have your father killed,” the Regent said.
It was almost enough to make me bow my head… but instead I looked into his simulated eyes. “If you hurt him, if you touch him, I’ll never let you have this jump-engine.” I slammed my fist down on a table, and sent it – away, far, as far as I could reach, which I thought was very far. I stalked forward, bringing my fist down on the bar, and it winked out of existence, the pitchers and glasses that had been resting on it crashing to the floor and shattering. “I’ll send everything in your city away. Everything. You like hoarding things? I’ll empty your whole world. You can run your snatch-engines full-speed to try to get that stuff back, but I’ll drop this shit into black holes, into the middle of stars. Your palace is next.”
The Regent shook his head and smiled like I was a two year old throwing a tantrum. “Miranda, please, just a moment ago we were being so reasonable –”
Howlaa leapt into the air, twisting, and I jumped back. “What the –”
“He caught a sniper’s tranquilizer dart, Miranda,” Wisp said. “Meant for you. But there will be more. We have to go.”
“Can I – how do I teleport with you guys? How do I take you with me?”
“We don’t know,” Wisp said. “Templeton said it should… respond to your thoughts?”
I turned to the Regent. “Remember. If anything happens to my father –”
“Yes, yes. This posturing is silly, Miranda. I have your father. You have my jump-engine. We’ll end up trading eventually. Why waste all this time?”
I reached out to touch Howlaa’s slick, scaly side. “Wisp, can you… go up Howlaa’s nose or in her mouth or something? I can’t touch you, so I’m not sure…”
“Of course.” Wisp’s motes ran into Howlaa’s gaping, panting, tooth-filled mouth.
“Until next time, then,” the Regent said.
I didn’t teleport far. Just into the kitchen, where Howlaa took up way too much room and knocked over a couple of garbage cans.
My Dad wasn’t there. The kitchen was empty, though it was just like I remembered it, the bank of stoves and ovens, the prep tables, the big industrial sinks, the smells of herbs and cooking meat. A pot was bubbling over on one of the burners, stew turning to burned mess, and without thinking I walked over and twisted the burner off.
“Perhaps we should go a bit farther?” Wisp said.
I looked around, hoping for some sign that Dad was still here – a picture of the family, a lumpy mug I’d made for him at summer camp, something – but it was just a working kitchen, no personal stuff. I sighed. “Okay. Where? Earth?”
“No! If we leave the Nex, the snatch-engines will be able to bring us back.”
“Okay, then. Somewhere more local.”
I jumped us back to the warehouse, beside the truck.
We were at the center of a ring of a hundred Nagalinda, all aiming their complex guns at us. The Regent was there, or another simulation, sitting on the back of the truck. “Ah, Miranda. I know everywhere you’ve been, dear. My trackers have worked out your whole backtrail. And you can only teleport to places on the Nex you’ve already been – otherwise, you’re jumping blind, and even in your petulance I don’t think you’re stupid enough to try that. All your little haunts and way stations are surrounded. Really, now. This is the end. This is –”
Howlaa snatched me up with one of her huge arms and barreled through the line of Nagalinda. Her shadowcloth slithered up over me, changing into a hard armored shell, and I heard darts pinging off the material, and the Regent shouting “I need her alive!” and Wisp saying “Oh dear oh dear oh dear.”
Howlaa darted into some kind of deep, narrow storage room and dropped me on my ass, rapidly changing into human form and shoving the heavy steel door closed. I stood up and said “What do we do now?” and tasted blood on my lips. Crap. In all the commotion, my stupid nose had started bleeding again.
Howlaa handed me a handkerchief, and I pressed it to my flowing nostrils.
“They’ll be able to peel this room open soon enough,” Howlaa said. “But if the Regent is telling the truth about scouting our backtrail, I’m not sure where we should go. If we flee the Nex, we get snatched, and a blind jump…” She shook her head. “Too dangerous.”
“We came so close,” Wisp said as the pounding on the other side of the door began, along with muffled shouting. “Perhaps it’s better if Miranda saves herself, makes an arrangement…”
“We’re not done yet.” Howlaa snatched the handkerchief from my hands.
“Hey, I’m still bleeding here!”
Howlaa put the bloody handkerchief in her mouth and slurped. I winced and said “Oh my god, gross,” and then realized what she was doing, if not exactly why. A moment later she spat out the handkerchief and began to change…
Into me. I was looking at a perfect image of me, only naked, and she was exactly the same, right down to the mole over my bellybutton. The shadowcloth slithered and wiggled and changed into my stupid Mabling costume, and one little bit of it crawled to her finger and became a copy of my ring. “Regent!” she shouted. “I’ve sent Howlaa and Wisp away, someplace you won’t find them, someplace they can survive. I’m coming out!” She turned to me and hissed, “Go. They can’t have every inch of our backtrail covered. Go someplace obscure, in the provinces, and lay low for a bit – they won’t look for you if they think you’re already in custody. This won’t buy us much time. Soon enough the Regent will realize I’m not you.”
It was so weird, like if my mirror started ordering me around. “But… what am I supposed to do?”
Howlaa shrugged. “Destroy the snatch-engines. Get rid of the orphans. Topple the government. Depose the Regent. Reunite with your father. Oh, and save me. Wisp will help.”
“I – thanks, Howlaa. Be careful.”
“Shushit. Being careful is for others.”
“If you’d open your mouth, Miranda?” Wisp said.
“Uh,” I said, and Wisp took the opportunity to zip into my mouth, which was kind of like having a mouthful of gnats, only more bubbly. I closed my eyes, thought obscure, and jumped.