“From where?” asked Alex.
Ben squinted at his tablet. “Zow… chan? It’s just south of some place called Hangzoo.”
“Yeah. That’s it. She’s Chinese.”
No shit, Alex thought. He couldn’t expect better from Ben. His exemplar name was Richard Brigges, and if he actually were Richard Brigges, he might have known a thing or two about Chinese geography. Unfortunately, Alex’ had the real Richard Brigges fed to an industrial reclamator. Meanwhile, Ben was from a raider gang. Gang members were good for loyalty, but poor on geography, or much else.
Alex faced the security screen showing the small asian woman sitting in an interrogation room.
“What’s her name?” asked Alex.
“…Leo Fen?” Ben offered Alex his tablet. Liu Fen. From Xiaoshan. And a botanist apparently. Alexander wasn’t caught up on current events yet, but he knew something of the expansive Chinese greenhouse projects. Months ago, the Chinese government joined the Lakiran empire, even though Victoria had effectively controlled them for years.
“How was she found?” Alex asked.
“People called in about someone with some weird something going on. She also posted on forums asking about herself. Then the police took her.”
“Okay, but how did we find her?”
He shrugged. “They called us?”
Alex moved on. “Who else knows about this?”
Another shrug. “The military guys who brought her might know. I guess some Chinese police would too. I tried to keep her away from people, like you ordered.”
“Any idea what she does?”
“The Chinese think she was mind-controlling people around her, but they aren’t using those hacked plaques yet. I read her. She thinks she’s making people around her like her.”
“I see. Do you like her?”
Yet another fucking shrug. “She’s easy on the eyes. I guess the Chinese like her. They brought her in, but then let her go.”
It was in the report. Released twice. Charges dropped without explanation. Brought back each time. People got fired over her.
The rest of the report was skimpy—probably for the best. “Well, let’s go meet her.”
Ben led him to the briefing room. Alex sat before the woman while Ben took station at the door. She was maybe early thirties, round faced, and still wearing a wrinkled, white smock she’d had on when the police marched her from her greenhouse sector. In her eyes, Alex saw that she hadn’t slept since exemplars flew her to this detention camp. Lakiran retrieval hadn’t told her where they were taking her, or why. All she knew was it had something to do with this power of hers.
Alex had his own glyphs. He studied her with the experience of someone who’d been looking in Christof’s mind for centuries. Making people like her wasn’t quite right. She garnered sympathy. That was Alex’s guess anyway. It matched with what he saw in her head.
On her own, she’d experimented to learn her power, although all her tests were amazingly pedestrian. She had no intention of using her power to advance her station. If anything, she hated the attention it gave her.
The only time she’d used it on purpose was to at the Hangzhou police station—to save herself from the clutches of a police force holding her without charge, and the guilt from that actually kept her up at night.
The poor woman didn’t understand how the world worked yet. She’d learn quickly.
Alex opened a notebook and began sketching. From her perspective, he seemed like he was drawing her, but no. Alex had read Paul’s mind a hundred times. He knew the gist of drawing glyphs from flairs. It certainly wasn’t easy.
“Hello.” Alex kept drawing. “Your name is Liu Fen?”
Fen nodded at the sound of her name, but she didn’t speak of word of English. Fantastic. Back in the 1800s, Sakhr and the coven had spent time in China, but that was long ago. Alex hadn’t practiced Mandarin since then, so he relied on his usual advantage: telepathy. He pried around her mind for the words he needed.
“Can you understand me?” he said in his best Mandarin.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“No. You are the empire?”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“My name is Cho Eun-Yeong. I head the Exemplar Committee.”
Fen frowned. “You?”
“Yes.” He sketched on. “I’m young, I know, but no less qualified. There’ve been changes in cabinet these past few weeks. Anyway, you do know why you’re here. Tell me.”
“Come on now. Why is it?”
“I don’t know. Please. I’ve done nothing wrong. I just want to go home.”
Her power flexed. That was always Christof’s word, and it fit. Alex wondered what he’d be thinking right now if he didn’t have his shield glyph. Would it be subtle? Or would he be a changed man?
“Come now, Ms. Fen. You know you have a gift. You should be celebrating it. It makes you special.”
“What are you going to do to me?”
Power or not, her fearful eyes could melt hearts.
“Nothing bad. We brought you here because you could be a great asset to the empire. How would you like that?”
“I wouldn’t. I don’t want this power. Everyone has harassed me since I got it.”
“You didn’t get it, Ms. Fen. You’ve had it all along.”
“That’s not true. It was those glyph cards. They did something to give it to me.”
“No. You’re a… a flair.” He said the word in english. “And you’ve been using your power your entire life.”
Liu recoiled. “That is not true. I have never forced anyone to like me. Ever.”
“Your parents died when you were young, correct?”
“You went into the adoption agency at the age of…” he studied her eyes. She looked down, aware of what he was doing, but he already got it. He’d gotten everything. “…eleven. It then took you seven months before your new family took you in. Most of that was spent on paperwork. That’s incredibly quick, isn’t it? Especially for a child your age.”
“I did not use this curse on my family.”
“Of course not, but what about later? How’d you fare during the famine? Pretty well from what I can see. Many starved to death. Did you even lose weight?”
“I didn’t take food. I earned it. I worked.” Her power flexed and pulsed.
“Yes. You worked, while a billion other jobless Chinese lay in the streets dying. And your job? A botanist with the People’s Reconstruction Movement. Pretty cushy, high-tech job, wouldn’t you say? Especially since your degree is in computer graphics.”
“I did not!”
“And aren’t you one of the only women there?”
” I did not make anyone think different of me.”
“Congratulations on your raise, by the way.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You didn’t even know you had it. Most flairs don’t. They might go their entire lives without knowing they’re special. Take… Alexander John Druitt. Have you heard of him?”
She was silently crying.
He kept on. “He was the original mind reader, and he went three decades without knowing about his gift. Just an everyday dockworker, but when he looked into someone’s eyes, thoughts filled his head, but thoughts are always filling our heads, right? He didn’t realize they were coming from the other person. He just figured he was good at guessing what others were thinking. If others hadn’t shown him the truth, he would have lived and died never realizing his true potential. You know your power now. You’re already learning to control it. That’s the first step. Now you can build it, nurture it.”
“I don’t want to. Please. I just want to go home and live my life.”
“You can’t do that anymore, Fen. If you leave us, someone else will come for you. You’re in the game now.” Alex finished making her glyph after several failed attempts. The final stroke was like putting the final cog in a clock. It came to life. Inside himself, something shifted. He wriggled and flexed it. Fen was now slightly more sympathetic toward him, though he saw now that the change was subtle. If not for his Empathy, he wouldn’t have noticed.
Beside him, Ben was… oh dear.
Alex hadn’t been paying attention. Ben was feeling powerful emotions toward Fen—fidgety, frantic attachment. Ben knew what Alex intended for this girl, even if Alex dressed it up as though he were helping her. Now Ben was on the verge of action, and he was the only one with a weapon.
Alex plied his newfound power on Ben, stringing connections to him like spider strands, but Fen was working him much faster. She was the natural, and she was actually in a sympathetic situation.
“Look,” Alex spoke as though nothing was going on. “I understand this is a lot to take in. You’re tired. You’ve been shipped across the world. For that, I’m sorry. Please, stay for the night. Get some sleep. Eat something. Tomorrow, let me say my piece. If you still want to go home, I will personally see to it, and I’ll make sure that you’re compensated for your time. How’s that sound?”
Fen’s flexing lessened. She nodded. Ben eased.
“Great. Wait here.” To Ben, he spoke english. “Come.”
Back in the observation room., Ben turned to him. “What’s going to happen to her?” His aura tensed, then muted—a common reaction when people realize others can see their aura. He was controlling himself, hiding his emotions.
“Feeling sympathetic toward her I see. She’s gotten into your head, you know.”
“What? I’m just asking.”
“Relax.” Alex fetched his pack, which he’d left on the table. He rummaged for a folder and carefully stowed his new glyph. “She’s an asset. We’re going to treat her like a princess.”
“She didn’t seem all that happy,” Ben said.
“Didn’t she say she wants to go home?”
“Yes. She did. How did you…” Alex looked him in the eye. Ben had scanned the girl while transporting her and learned all about her worries.
“If she wants to go home,” Ben said, “then we should take her home. We shouldn’t make her stay here.”
“We shouldn’t? Listen. I want you to try hard for a moment of self awareness. In this week alone, I must have had you abduct and kill over a dozen people. Most were only guilty of having a healthy dose of suspicion. You didn’t care about them. Now this girl shows up who can can manipulate the sympathy of others, and suddenly you care. One might even say you’re sympathetic toward her. That doesn’t strike you as fishy?”
“Maybe it’s not just her. Maybe I’m just getting sick of all these people you’re making me hurt.”
“Try. Hard. Put your emotions in a box. Be as objective as possible and reflect on your feelings. You don’t think they’re a little misplaced?”
“No. I didn’t sign up to kill people all day. She’s nothing to do about it.”
Alex looked him in the eye. “And you really believe that too, don’t you? Fascinating.”
He drew a gun from his pack and shot Ben in the head. A fan of blood appeared across the monitors. Ben crumpled. A second later, a pop came from the plaque still loosely gripped in his hand. Smoke seeped from its edges.
Alex had braced for a deafening gunshot, but this repulse-based gun hardly made a click. Technology was great, wasn’t it?
Taking his pack, he stepped over the body and returned to the observation room. Outside the door, he stopped. With this new sympathy glyph in his possession, he could use Fen’s power against her until she was putty to him. He’d put her to training as Victoria would. Her power certainly had room to grow. It could be stronger, affect more people, reach farther. Not to mention there were many limits he’d like to test. He wasn’t even sure yet whether the power’s effect was permanent or not.
But he was not a stupid man. He learned from the mistakes of others, such as Katherine. She’d been greedy to keep Sakhr alive so she might one day extract a modicum of extra power from him. Look what it had cost her? And Fen had twisted Ben to her favor in mere minutes.
Nope. It was time to be smart.
Alex opened the door and leveled the gun at Fen. “On second thought…”
Her eyes widened. Flechettes punched through her. She sprawled. Her chair toppled. Alex walked around the table and fired another shot.
He loved this gun.
Pity about the girl though. If times were different, she could have been a valuable tool, but her glyph would have to do. He should make a backup though. Loose leaf paper wasn’t exactly robust.