Lady-General Sal Tomas herself greets us at the Scotland ORDERS hangar as we step off the White Shark. Though I’ve met a lot of powerful people in my life, there are few I would define as “regal.” Sal is one of the few. Her bearing, her raiment, they add feet to her height until she is head and shoulders above the rest of us. Her gaze is discerning, not unlike a tiger’s, but her face is difficult to read. She treats herself luxuriously — hair as smooth as silk and flowing down to the small of her back, skin rosy and made up — but her jet-black, bulky armor she’s left to wear and tear, nicked from years of use.
Three ORDERS knights accompany her. A wolf man with eyes that glint yellow in the light, wearing only a red vest and pants. A red-headed woman with a silver chassis around her chest and huge mechanical arms that end in gleaming claws. A blonde man in a simple spandex uniform and a red cape over his shoulders. Each one has a different flower symbol somewhere on their body — the wolf man has a tattoo of a rose on his bare chest, the silver robot woman has a lily, the blonde dude has a cornflower over his heart, and Sal Tomas has a bright iris flower on her pauldron.
She opens her mouth and says, “Halt.”
The command hits my ears. My scalp prickles. A strange sensation washes over me, like someone massaging my temples, and amazingly, it feels like I’m walking through sludge. Remise gasps audibly and stops where she stands, and Mr. Gold halts as well, but I manage to take a few more steps with Linear. Robocop flexes her claws and we stop at the more implicit threat of violence.
“So you two are the heavyweights,” Sal remarks, in English but with a thick French accent. Her voice is just as regal as her countenance. She could have been an opera singer.
Remise only scowls in reply, but Linear speaks for our group. “Lady-General Tomas. Thank you for allowing us into your borders.”
“You figured this time you would ask before sneaking around where you don’t belong.” Sal smirks just a touch. “You’ve my gratitude for knocking before kicking my door in, like you did with India.”
I’m not here to get lectured by another Cynic. “India’s been comp—”
Sal snaps at me. “Silence.”
The rest of the word “compromised” spills out of my mouth in a tangle. I clutch at my chest. I can’t breathe deep, the air squeezes out of my lungs, and my throat locks up.
“You trespassed in their country and brought down their entire power grid. I’ve allowed you into my borders so I can question you as to your motivations,” Sal says. “Linear, tell me. Why did you cripple India?”
“Aethon is correct.” Linear, though a very tiny man in comparison to Sal, squares his shoulders and brings up his height. A little bit like a Hobbit squaring up for a ringwraith but it impresses me, anyway. Well, it would, if I weren’t gasping for air. “We’ve reached out to you because of a political conspiracy orchestrated by a former OPI operative named Doppelganger. He is replacing top level officials in India, and possibly other governments, with clones that he controls.”
Sal’s eyes widen. She glances back at her companions, and then beckons. “Come with me.”
I want to raise a protest, but Remise and Mr. Gold groan again and immediately start walking, and despite not wanting to follow her anywhere, I do want to follow her. The command wriggles into my brain by her power. It almost feels worse than when Doppelganger used his music to paralyze me.
Another strange sensation and I can walk normally again, and breathe at last. My legs are heavy and sore like after a workout. Remise sigh, Mr. Gold shakes his head, but Linear continues on as if nothing changed at all.
On the way, Sal tells us the names of her three companions: The wolf man is Sir Teddy Palmer of England, leader of the Roses. Robocop lady is Dame Melania Martina of Italy, leader of the Lilies, and the blonde guy is Sir Oskar Tischer of Germany, leader of the Cornflowers. She does not tell us their powers, but the only one I’m guessing on is Sir Oskar.
Sal’s keeps a tiny office, a room more befitting a forgotten professor at a failing university. Bare and badly lit. Then I remember this isn’t her hometown and she likely has a better office in France, the heart of ORDERS. Suddenly, Remise knowing French makes a lot of sense.
Her companions stay outside while she interrogates us.
“So this man Doppelganger. Former OPI cape. How do you know his plans?”
“He visited New Foundation and told them to Aethon,” Linear answers. He leaves out the part about Cynic’s mind reading power. “He actually hoped we’d work with him. We did not see eye to eye, unfortunately.”
“You know he has control of India? Do you have any evidence?” Sal asked.
“That’s why we’re here. Doppelganger has property in Scotland. We’re investigating all of his holdings before he has a chance to destroy any evidence. We’ve already sent other teams to known safe houses of his.”
For her part, she takes this seriously. I can see her weighing it in her mind, studying each of us in turn. She settles on me. “Did he make you?” There’s a shimmer around her head as if her skin is giving off a lot of heat. Much like I do when I hold heat just shy of glowing. “Answer truthfully.”
The words bubble up to my mouth. But I don’t want to speak, I don’t want to say anything at all.
The shimmer around Sal’s head sparks. Copper fire blooms around her head. Neither Linear nor Remise react to the flames, so either they’ve seen it before, or they can’t see it at all. I divert my thoughts from the answer she wants, even though it should be obvious. “You’re coppersouled.”
Sal’s eyebrows lift, ever so slightly. I’ve surprised her. Actually, I’ve surprised myself. Maybe Epione’s empath training is working, or maybe it’s some leftover symptom of my bond with the Fear.
“You’re very strong,” Sal says. “Yes. I’m coppersouled. I’ve known this for longer than you’ve known about the Affect. A truth for a truth, Gabe. Did he make you?”
A truth for a truth I find fair. “He did. How long have you know about the Affect?”
“For some time. Less than five years. We’ve an empath, as I understand you have one, too,” Sal says. “Though I’d be very interested to meet yours.”
I don’t let on that I’m developing some minor empathic sensing myself. “That might be possible, but I’ve no idea where we stand with you. We want to work together.”
“And you didn’t with India?” Sal asks. The question stings and it’s clear she meant it to hurt from her glare. “I’m the one who should be wondering about allegiances. India has denounced you. The U.S. is hostile to you. I’ve got too many concerns to be dragged into that mess.”
“But you agree Doppelganger’s a threat?” Linear asks.
“I do,” Sal concedes, slowly, carefully. “Which is why I’ll allow you to investigate his property. You get one shot and you’ll be accompanied by myself and Sir Tischer.”
“Where’s the leader of the Thistles?” Remise asks.
“There isn’t one as of this moment. The position is vacant. I wasn’t kidding when I said I have larger concerns. You’re familiar with the the Justicar group?”
Remise snorts. “Still a thorn in your ass, huh?”
“To this day,” Sal says. “If you’d not abandoned us—”
Remise scowls but does not interrupt.
“—maybe they’d be dealt with.”
The Justicars are some kind of freedom group, angry over the surveillance. I know bits and details but they’re known to attack ORDERS capes and officials.
“And there’s still Russia to deal with,” Sal says. “And since you’ve been kind enough to tell me about Doppelganger, I’ll give you another truth, if we can come to an agreement. If you want more than what I’m giving you now.”
“What kind of agreement?” Linear asks.
“The kind that benefits us both. Remise returns to Scotland as the head of the Order of Thistles, knighted as Dame Jamie Hunter. You grant one of my representatives a seat on the table of New Foundation, and enjoy an alliance with the EK.” Sal leans back into her chair with a smirk and a glance at me. She knows I’m the spirit behind the Inheritors, even if Linear is one of the top leaders, and Linear won’t make that call if I don’t like it. She’s observant.
“Fuck you,” Remise says.
That lands about as well as a brick through a window. Sal sits up in her chair, a dark storm brewing behind her eyes. “If that doesn’t work for you, Jamie, then I’d be happy to arrest you for your treason in revealing sensitive documents to the public and endangering our nation.”
“You were looking over everyone’s shoulder! People couldn’t shit without you knowing! And they certainly couldn’t be themselves or love who they wanted!” Remise slams her fist on the desk.
“Silence,” Sal says.
Remise chokes on her next words but stares in defiance at Sal.
She struggles, her legs shaking, and manages to stay upright.
Sal’s jaw flexes, her eyes widen just a little. Her shock is subtle. “I said—”
Remise leans forward, her veins bulging, her face nearly purple from the strain of it. She looks like a ghoul trembling as it climbs from the grave. “And I said, fuck you.” She slowly straightens and hobbles out of the room as proudly as one hobbling can.
Mr. Gold says the first word I’ve heard from him all day. “Wow.”
Even fury is regal for Sal. It is not red-faced or loud. It is quiet and dark, accompanied by a gaze that bores through me. She speaks in a tense staccato. “You understand that puts a damper on things.”
I thought that bringing Remise would be the right move but it seems it was a mistake. I’m not even sure what there is to say.
Linear, in a flat, level voice, answers Sal’s anger with calm. “I’d hope that you wouldn’t let a personal matter determine the governance of nations. Am I to expect that our relationship in the future is determined by the romantic woes between two women? I understand that sort of thing is frowned upon in your nation.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sal changes out her fury for a quick dismissal. I think Linear is on to something.
“She told us about your story,” I say. “About what happened between you two. I’m guessing that extremely few people know about it, even in your upper command. I wonder if Sir Tischer or Dame Martina know.” I really don’t want to be making threats but Linear can determine the probability of a particular outcome, and if he decided that going on the offensive means a likelier victory, I’ll go along. “We don’t care about that in Argentina. In fact, I find that outdated. Instead of being hostile to each other over something that happened years ago, why don’t we set that aside and work together, and not prod at each other’s pressure points?”
Sal’s expression softens. She leans back into her chair again, but this time it is a relaxed movement, not calculated, but defeated. “We are both disadvantaged.”
“I’ll talk to Remise. She may come around,” I tell her. “I’d be happy to float the idea of an alliance between New Foundation and the Kingdoms.” I’m still trying to unite everyone I can. The world needs to be in harmony to face the Fear. It’s still out there, even if it changed its form. Even if I broke the one mask named Rorschach, I’m sure it has others. “What do you know?”
Sal speaks. There is no shimmer around her head but the words hit me like bullets regardless.
“The Youxia are uniting. They follow a man they call the Warlord, and from what I’ve heard, Gabe, he wants to face you down.”