Isolde has now made it clear, through guarded hints at first and now through yelling until she is literally red in the face, that she will not stand for me not going to school. She bought all my school stuff (bonus: horrifyingly bright clothes) at some discount store, and now no more excuses; I will be going to the satellite campus of Arcadia Village School today.

This particular satellite campus is nicknamed "Lyria Day School" after the royal palace at Lyria, because so many royals'/politicians' kids go there when their parents have to work in the island chain. It has free tuition, we get to pick our own classes, don't have to wear the school uniform, don't have to practically kill people to get into the school (Arcadia being kind of notorious, even for the Valorian boarding school circuit, for rejecting kids like crazy)...the kids who don't have our connections must hate us. Llenwi already goes there, but he spends most of his time on a computer, probably playing online games, but allegedly "catching up" on whatever work he needs to do for public school.

I do not want to go. For one thing, I have a murder to investigate. For another, I don't want to have to deal with people. My entire family already hates my angry, strung-out-on-psycho-pharmaceuticals, ugly self enough. No good getting more people to hate my guts.

That is a thing I've noticed about real!Oceania. No one likes her very much. But I'd rather be her than that lost, drifting soul I was after Anni died, searching for answers, wanting to talk to someone, but not knowing how. real!Oceania is much better than perfect two-faced Oceania, who let people push her around and cared about what they thought too much. Even though I lose all my fights with Isolde, I still fight, which is an improvement. I might not be gaining much, but at least I'm not kicking myself for not trying.

But enough about me. Let's go on to school. So in the ass-crack of the morning, Isolde bangs on my door loud enough to wake the dead. No Sheila G's for me. Llenwi has made me a dubious greenish-brown "power drink" in the blender, an appliance he has only recently learned how to use. Also (will miracles never cease?) Isolde has made me scrambled eggs. We're out of bread, so she has to put them on a cracker. Sadly, it's actually the first decent meal I've had my whole time on Earth. She's actually a pretty good cook.

During our meal, Isolde mentions, offhandedly, in the same tone in which she might announce she was going to get groceries, that due to some "complications," I will be in Special Ed.

I almost choke on my eggs. "What?!"

"Well, don't overreact, Oceania, for heavens' sake. They were a bit concerned, understandably, I might add, about the whole stabbing incident. And your depression."

"I'm not really depressed! You just made that up so I wouldn't have to go to juvie!"

"A good thing, too." she snaps, grabbing my eggs and scraping them into the trash, then pouring out Llenwi's power drink. So much for breakfast. "Why you did that, I will never understand."

It is the first time she has ever mentioned the unfortunate event that brought me here, and that just continues to piss me off. "Damn right you won't. That would require you to have a heart or a soul." I know I'm being dramatic, but I don't really care.

"Shut up, Oceania." she says casually. Somehow that stings more than any curse she could hurl at me. "Get dressed. And wear those glasses!"

Oh yeah. When I went in for the mandatory doctor's exam you need to get into school, they found out my vision is crazy bad. I'm almost legally blind. I mean, I've always known I couldn't see for shit, but at my other schools I've never had to have a vision test and the only times I ever see a doctor is before school. To "save money," Isolde picked out these ugly blue plastic glasses. So now I look like the fourth-grader who's going to get beat up on the playground.

And today I have to wear a short sleeved mint green too-long-to-be-a-shirt-too-short-to-be-a-dress with some unintelligible design on it and these purple leggings which were made for a shorter person than me. I hate leggings anyway, because you have to wear them without underwear or risk having your underwear show through. It's just a no-win situation. I slip on the matching mint canvas moccasins, put on my glasses (it's amazing how much you can see!), grab my new, hideous orange-and-pink backpack, and bolt out to the Mini. Although the government offered Isolde a new car, a hover, she still prefers driving the same old ground cars.

We drive in tense silence. "Any news on the Rublex?" I ask Isolde, more to dispel the eerie calm that has settled over us than anything.

"Actually, yes." she tells me, which surprises me; she's never told me anything about what she learns working for Cielaré. "More galaxies may have been taken."

"Wait, seriously?" I say.

"We're not sure, but the power surges that happened in the Rublex? They happened in the Yghur and the Tydarian as well, yesterday. They're working to get them online again, but as of yet, no one knows what's going on." It is strange that she is being so frank with me, considering I've done nothing but scream at her these past few days. I feel absurdly guilty.

"I wonder what happened."

"That's what we're all wondering, Oceania." Isolde snaps, like I am just the dumbest girl in the world. And just like that I can't like her again.

••

Alec aggressively shoved his way past the rows of jostling students, ducking into the classroom that sheltered the Arcadia math team. Seeing Kai Zadaña's tall, muscular frame, his shock of black curly hair, cheeky grin, and polished umber skin, he glared, then took his customary seat in the front row.

Every year, they had elections for captain, which Alec had won until last year, when Zadaña showed up with his animal magnetism and perfect body honed from years of sports training. With Zadaña came Santos Darcies, larger, broader, but a follower, not a leader. But Kai liked him, so he got to be vice-captain. It was terrible. They had ruined his (somewhat grueling, he had to admit) everyday practice schedule. Members only had to come twice a week. And instead of allowing people to go to competitions based on seniority, which made sense, they had everyone take a test to try out for every competition. Oh, enrollment had increased, sure, but the new team was made up of people who were disturbingly lacking in commitment.

"All right, people," Zadaña said, swinging his annoyingly long legs over the top of the desk so everyone could see he was wearing expensive yellow and green sneakers instead of his uniform shoes. Rich prick. "We got the Math Match next week at the Redd Palace concert hall. "And our lineup is...me, Darcies, Clarence, Deliwitz, Reginalds, Crayne, Waite, and Nicholson. Alternates are Sorkins and Adair, I guess," he said, smirking at Alec, who was seething. How the hell am I an alternate? And who's Nicholson?

After the meeting ended, Alec cornered him. "Zadaña."

"Adair." The taller boy rolled his eyes. "What do you want?"

"What do I want? Really? You know what I want, you slimy dick. I want my spot back!"

"You have a spot. You're an alternate." Zadaña drawled. "It was a fair test. Everyone took it, Adair. You just blew it. It's not a big deal."

"You're making a a huge mistake, not letting me on. No one knows more about advanced algebra than me."

"Actually...hate to break it to you, but Nicholson does. And he proved it on the test. So, if you've got any further questions..." He let the words hang in the air.

Alec wasn't finished. "Who is Nicholson?"

"Gideon Nicholson." When Alec looked nonplussed, Zadaña threw his hands up in disgust. "My God, Adair, we've been in class with him for three years; how do you still not know who he is? Tall skinny guy, doesn't talk a lot, sharp dresser? Anyway, it turns out the guy is...kind of a math whiz. Wouldn't make sense to leave him out."

"What about seniority?"

"Drop it. You're an alternate. Maybe next tournament."

Tears of frustration began to build in Alec's eyes. "But..."

Zadaña scoffed. "Oh, come on, you're not crying, are you?"

"No," Alec snapped, and whirled out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

••

"The Tydarian, Tessa. And the Yghur. When is this going to end?" Seonid whispered. They were in her bedroom, afternoon light dappling the desk and the walls.

"Now to be fair, we don't know-"

"Shut up," Seonid snapped. "Seriously, just drop the optimist act. It's not helping, and you're not convincing anyone." She paused. "That wasn't fair. I'm sorry. It's just...everyone is being so calm and acting so damn normal about this. I feel like I'm the only one who sees that this is an actual problem we need to fix, rather than some political game. Dunavain died, Tessa, and it's like nobody cares."

"Not the High Lord." Tessa argued. "He's working on taking this to the Federated Congress."

"If the High Lord really cared, he'd invade the galaxy himself, and damn the consequences. Instead he fools around with committees and such nonsense, while there are people whose lives are at stake. You know it."

Tessa flushed. "You also know that even we have no idea how large the occupying force is."

"All the more reason for a forceful solution, before this becomes an actual threat. Well, maybe now that the Yghur and the Tydarian are at stake too, people will listen. You know I've never been much for military action, but damn it, it makes sense in this scenario."

"Language." Tessa warned, her tone mock-dangerous.

"The only person who seems willing to work with me is that House Diamond aide, Adrian." Seonid went on. "Can you believe it, an aide of all people is more committed to helping us than any of the leaders? I mean, of the assembled Houses here, Firedrop's a joke, House Ruby is weak, Emerald is too cautious, Sapphire's fighting Amethyst over some trade route, and Diamond and Onyx are too busy squabbling about ideology to do anything-"

"I'm going to stop you right there." Tessa snapped. "You are going to stay away from Adrian Silva if it's the last thing I do. Trust me, an aide is not going to be any help with this crisis."

"Funny," said Seonid, smiling. "I never told you his last name."

Tessa bristled. "Well, you must have said it sometime."

"Is it just my imagination, or do you two know each other?"

"It's just your imagination." Tessa told her curtly. "The point is, people like Adrian are only after one thing-"

Seonid couldn't help but make a face. "Really?"

"...power." Tessa finished. "That's all I mean. Just because he's a good-looking guy doesn't mean he's an angel. He's looking to experiment, try some things out...he's certainly not ready to commit to anything."

"Are you talking about the Rublex, or-" Seonid wrinkled her nose. "something else?"

A wicked glint appeared in Tessa's eyes. "Why not both? He doesn't have any power to help you with the Rublex; he's only an aide, after all. And as for the other...well, you're a bit young for him, aren't you?"

"Why not? He's only seventeen." And so charming...

The light from the window passed over Tessa's face, shadowing it, but Seonid was fairly certain she heard a sharp intake of breath. Irritation took over. "Well, that's what he said, for heavens' sake."

"It doesn't matter. You've got better things to focus on then boys." Tessa returned sharply.

"Okay, okay!" Seonid laughed, then doubled down over her work. But her mind was straying dangerously close to a particular pair of blue eyes...

••

The man was tall and freckled, with a deep tan nonetheless, a white suit, and a shock of wiry white curls. They had been red once, but had lost none of their vigor. He was smoking a large cigar, from which the fumes had created a hazy grey miasma. Once in a while he would quaff some brandy from a flask in his pocket. In the High Lord's pristine white offices in Centaurii Center, he looked woefully out of place.

The receptionist, a green-eyed beauty, wobbled over on dangerous black stilettos. She was new, but then again, they all were. "Sir, I'm sorry, but you can't smoke that in here."

The man paid her no mind, inhaled a little deeper. Oh, Alastair had been always a little too much for rules. It amused him to break them a bit, just to rock that unflappable calm.

She tried again. "Sir, do you have an appointment?"

At that, the man laughed. "Appointment? Why, no, why would I need one, dearie?"

The receptionist looked confused. "The High Lord is a busy man. Unless you have an appointment, you really can't see him."

"Who is the High Lord meeting with today?" he asked, with uncharacteristic boldness.

"The Mexican ambassador, and the Prime Addressant of the Republic of Greater Fluv-"

"Cancel it." he said pleasantly. "He's going to want to see me."

"I'm sorry, sir. I can't do that. Unless the High Lord actually cancels these meetings, he must-"

"No, I understand." The man got up, as if to leave, then turned back around. "By the way, will you tell him that Rythicaen Ruble is here to see him?" As an afterthought, he added, "When he can fit me into his schedule, of course?"

The receptionist's hands flew to her mouth. "Oh, I'm so sorry, milord-" She fell into a deep bow.

"No need to apologize, dearie," said the man who had been the High Lord Ruble politely. "Just tell him I'm here, will you?"

"Of course-" The receptionist scampered off. Ruble took another long drag from his cigar, then washed it down with a contemplative sip of brandy. By the time he was moving to take his next sip, the receptionist had returned.

He stood up. "And?"

"The High Lord Cielaré will see you now."

••

Special Ed is actually rather civilized. Mostly because I am the only person in it. I have a desk in a colorful classroom, and a green locker that doesn't close right. On closer inspection, someone (hint: Candie) has decorated the whole thing with decals and stock photos of Paris. I want to use the other locker in the little row, but according to Mrs. Elda, the gregarious, steel-haired special education coordinator, it doesn't open.

I am given a math textbook about fourth year level and a paperback mystery novel. Once I prove that I can, indeed, do long division and read aloud, she doesn't really know what to do. She gives me a bigger math textbook and tells me to work through it "at my own pace."

Once she leaves, I pull my smuggled tablet from my bag, along with Llenwi's cell phone, grabbed off the counter this morning. Technically, we're supposed to share, but he hogs the damn thing so much, I don't actually feel that bad about taking it from him. Now what? I know I want to find out who killed Anni, but where to start? I'm not a detective or anything, but the Valorian police department might be a good start.

When I called earlier I always used one of the phones at school, but now, with only this cell, my mission suddenly feels a lot more dire. If I fuck up, there's no backup phone. With trembling fingers, I dial the number. A man picks up on the third ring.

"Valorian Police Department."

"Hi, I'm Megha Kaylix from Galactipol." I say in my most adult voice. "I was wondering if I could see the Larsson file. Annifrid Larsson?"

"Um, yes, Ms. Kaylix? So sorry, but that file is probably with a team from Olympia. I can give you their number..." The man's voice trails off.

"No, never mind." I tell him. "Can I see your archived copy, then? The one you kept for your records?"

"I'm sorry again, but that file's been backlogged for weeks. There's a huge list of people who've wanted to see it, and that's only today. I can mail it to you in a month, but that's only if everyone returns it in time-"

I cut him off. "What about the Valorian library's copy?" Copies of crime reports are sent to libraries after they are filed, for the sake of public record. It's the law.

"You can try," says the man skeptically, "but chances are it'll be just as bad, if not worse, with that copy."

"I don't need a hard copy," I say excitedly. "A digital would be just fine."

The man perks up. "Well, why didn't you say that before? Just give me your email and I can send it along."

"Um...ocea-I mean, trillingpony387 ." I say quickly, remembering to give them the name of a spam account I haven't used since I was six.

He chuckles. "Funny name. Not your government one, I take it?"

I swallow.

"It's fine. Lots of people use an alt address. It's smarter in my opinion-harder to track, that is..." And he proceeds to go on a tangent about how e-security is going to the dogs. It takes a while to get him off the phone. But when I do, I'm smiling for the first time in a week.

I'm actually getting somewhere with this.

••

They faced each other from across the room, white hair and black, one ghost-pale, one freckled and bronzed. The High Lord ached with the longing of wanting to say something, but lacked the wherewithal how. Ruble is here...Rythicaen Ruble, friend, lover, rival.

Ruble broke the silence. "How are you, old friend?"

"Well enough. And you?"

His old friend laughed, a sharp, wheezing sound. "Now, what kind of greeting is that? One would think this is simply a political meeting."

"Isn't it?"

Ruble sighed. "I wish. But I came here for something. Look, Alastair, I need..." He broke off, as if the words pained him. "a favor."

This disquieted Cielaré more than he could say. Rythicaen had never asked for favors, even in the direst of straits. "What is it?"

Ruble gripped his arm tightly, brown eyes boring into his own. "I need my position back. I need-" He whispered the last words, a frightened rasp in his voice. "protection."

"What from?" Cielaré asked, suddenly worried.

"I can't tell you."

"Very well. Then I can't get your position for you. You know I have no influence in Diamond House."

At that, Ruble issued a throaty chuckle, releasing his arm. "I think you could have influence wherever you pleased."

Cielaré gave a bare hint of a smile. "That is true."

"My position. Protection. That's all I ask. Please, Alastair. These people...well, I shan't bore you with the details, but they want me." Ruble begged.

"After Sorelle died, I thought we'd seen the last of you." the High Lord said wonderingly. "You were furious; you loathed us. Why are you back? You can tell me."

"I need your protection. I know what you did for that little girl, Alastair. By your side, I can be safe. Besides-" He smiled, a glimmer of himself returning. "I believe you are in a situation that could use my special touch. Diplomacy." He said the last word with obvious relish."

"But-" Ruble put a finger to his lips, and just as swiftly, cupped the High Lord's chin in his own and gave him a sharp, tobacco-smoke and liquor kiss. It happened so fast the High Lord wondered if he had imagined it. It was exquisite, just like the old days, and yet...there was an aftertaste of gunpowder that did not belong on his pacifistic friend.

"We don't have an audience with the Congress yet." the High Lord whispered, when he was sure his senses had recovered.

Ruble grinned, and at that, the High Lord knew that Ruble had won everything back in one fell swoop. "Leave that to me."

••

TRANSMISSION

TO: HIGH LADY SEONID MIN, RUBLEX GAL.

FROM: HIGH KING GRACCHUS SELEVAR, ONYX HOUSE

TEXT: ONDUS II (DIAMOND GAL.) FALLEN, ONE WITNESS RETURNED, ID NO. #87309213D, NAME ARCHON DAYNE. CONGRESS HEARING TOMORROW.