Chapter Twenty-Five: Spying

"Are they shielded?" Emryl asked, as Talyn led the women into the dormitory area. Talyn shucked his female form like an uncomfortable pair of shoes; Emryl kept hers, which probably didn't feel any different to her from the inside relative to her original.

"Not thoroughly," Talyn said. "But you know, my existence isn't a closely guarded secret. If I were a smart Linnipese policymaker I'd probably pay a University of Peiza mind kamai teacher to put in deep shields around the important secrets to lull me into a false sense of impunity. Then when a rimei started freaking out about somebody being in her head I'd know it wasn't just a kamai student practicing mindspeech. Or even me being inordinately curious about somebody's personal life, which would be rude of me but wouldn't require changing all their codes and stuff."

"Sure," said Emryl, "but are they even deeply shielded?"

"Let's find out," said Talyn, lacing his fingers and stretching his arms out.

Annei Nepailah-eian wasn't shielded, even deeply. But then, she didn't know anything or have access to any particularly secure areas. Talyn checked her commanding officer, and there he did find shields.

The standing sleep he'd put both soldiers in didn't allow Meialek-rimei a lot of leeway to realize what was going on around her. She could see and hear and would follow his mental instructions, but it was like a dream, and not a lucid one. Still, she definitely noticed when he punctured the protections around her inmost military secrets, and her face drifted into an expression of fear.

"Those were pretty nicely put together," Talyn remarked. "I'll have to ask Rhysel who's in the mind kamai department at Peiza."

"You wouldn't be complimenting her if you hadn't been able to get through," Emryl said, "you'd be cursing her name."

"You've met me," Talyn said. "But unfortunately, this lady didn't get personally assigned to the Aabalan mess and doesn't know anything directly about it. Also, while Nepailah-eian over here isn't expected anywhere until the day after tomorrow because her boyfriend canceled their plans for her day off, Meialek-rimei is expected to show up at her home in two angles, by her husband and kids." Talyn frowned. "Uh, now we have to decide who should be her."

"She doesn't know anything, you could wipe her memory and put her back," Emryl said.

"And then have to kidnap another one? I don't think so," Talyn said. "Same with the eian. Meialek-rimei wasn't involved with Aabalan but she has the security clearance that no one will be too suspicious if she asks her friends about it. And if we put Nepailah-eian back she'll be able to notice small irregularities in her commander's behavior better than anyone else. I can copy the rimei's entire mind, and fool most people who know her, but I'm not a literally perfect actor."

"So, I think you just volunteered to go home as her," Emryl said brightly.

Talyn scrunched his eyes closed. "All right, but I'm finding some excuse not to sleep there. I'll be lucky if I don't blow my cover trying to avoid kissing her husband."

"Don't avoid kissing her husband," said Emryl, touching Meialek-rimei's forehead herself to hunt for information. "Just peck him the once, act tired, eat dinner, complain about the daughter's teenage rebellion, and say you need to crash at the barracks overnight to be ready for work first thing in the morning. Husband'll never check the story."

"You do it," said Talyn.

"Give my uncle a chance to get me up to speed on what I'll need to do to convincingly be Liria here," Emryl said.

"I can just transfer the -"

"The shapeshifting one worked," Emryl said, shaking her head, "but I don't know why, because I remember you trying to teach me stuff that way when we were apprentices together, and it was always confusing. Not enough words, just instincts I don't really have. Did you learn a new way to send knowledge?"

"Not exactly. Fine," Talyn said, in lieu of explaining that his shapeshifting expertise was Revenn's non-innate understanding. His mind kamai, as the aspect that came most naturally to him of all, mostly wasn't from Revenn's stolen mind. Emryl would probably find it confusing.

"I'll poke around in Annei's mind for knowhow about who does have something to do with Aabalan," said Emryl, "and you can get to work copying Liria."

"Why are you calling them by their first names?" Talyn asked.

"We're going to know them awfully well," Emryl said. "And the honorifics are cumbersome. I mean, how many do they have?"

"Seven in the military, but there's noble titles, work titles, religious titles, generic ones," said Talyn, sitting the rimei down on one of the dormitory room's beds and putting his hand on her head. "It's a lot."

He pulled.

"I'm home!" Talyn called. The uniform was uncomfortable, but except when she was on extended leave, Meialek-rimei - heck, he might as well call her Liria - wore it all day long.

"Liria!" exclaimed Nal, her husband, rushing to the door. "I'm so glad you're home, Satalia has been absolutely unmanageable today and she won't listen to me."

"I'm just here for dinner," said Talyn tiredly. "I need to sleep in the barracks overnight, I have work first thing in the morning."

"Oh," Nal said. "I understand, but dinner isn't ready yet. Could you talk to Satalia while it finishes simmering...?"

"All right," sighed Talyn, and he managed to peck Nal on the cheek as he passed without looking overtly repulsed.

Since Liria's conversations with her daughter mostly consisted of exchanging standard arguments, Talyn didn't think he'd have any trouble with it. "Satalia!" he said, as he climbed the last stair. The girl's door was closed. "Come out of your room now."

"No!" shouted Satalia's voice from behind the door.

"Satalia, if you don't open this door right now, you'll get no supper," recited Talyn.

There was a silence, and then the door dragged open. Satalia glared up at Talyn-as-Liria. "What?" she snapped.

Talyn felt very weird addressing a fourteen-year-old girl like he was her mother, but continued. "Your father says you have been misbehaving."

"I didn't do anything!" she shouted.

"Are you saying that he's lying?" Talyn asked.

Satalia bit her lip. "He's... he's got a different opinion."

"What did you do, Satalia?"

"I wasn't even talking to Dad! Larain came home for lunch!"

The middle kid, the son who'd joined the military like his mom. "And what did you say to Larain?" Talyn asked.

"Just stuff! I don't remember!"

"Satalia, you will answer my question, or I will go speak to your father again, take everything he has to say at face value, and punish you for that," said Talyn, feeling ridiculous. What kind of mother was this person? "You have the opportunity to explain yourself now, but I am losing patience."

"I just said Larain was different because of how he's been ever since he went into training and he's not like my brother I grew up with anymore," grumbled Satalia. "It's true! He sits different, he talks different, he's more like - like you than himself."

"We are very proud of Larain," said Talyn. "And you were so close growing up. It is a shame that you can't look past your prejudices to accept your brother's choice."

"You bullied him into it!" Satalia accused.

"I did no such thing," Talyn said. "Sein, for example, exhibited no interest in the military; if I were the type to do that, he would be a nem by now, wouldn't he? Larain, on the other hand -"

"Larain used to be nice!" shrieked Satalia. "Now he's just another soldier, he has no personality, he -"

"Be silent," said Talyn, without the real heat Liria would have used.

"You wanted me to talk, I wanted to stay in my room and draw -"

Talyn couldn't help rolling his eyes out of character at the line that came next. "And that's another thing, you spend too much time on that impractical hobby. You are fourteen years old and you should be considering a career. Even if nothing I say can dislodge this absurd distaste you have for the armed forces of our nation -"

"I'm not going to be like you! I'm never going to be like you!" Satalia cried.

"When you complete school, you will most certainly need to find some form of employment, because with this attitude I will not long tolerate you in my home!" Talyn said. "There will be no supper for you tonight. Stay in your room quietly. Tomorrow you will apologize to Larain - I will ask your father whether you've complied."

"That won't make it not true that he's not even himself!" Satalia yelled after her departing "mother", and Talyn heard the door slam.

Talyn acted tired during the family's dinner of onion soup, buttered rice, and sliced pork. It was all undersalted and near-flavorless; Liria would have liked it, but even borrowing her tongue and her memories, Talyn did not have the finesse to borrow her tastes. "This is lovely, Nal, thank you," he told Liria's husband anyway.

"You're welcome," replied the man.

Satalia was not at dinner, and neither was Larain, who ate most meals with his training unit, but the eldest of the family, Sein, was present. Talyn asked him perfunctory questions about his fiancée and how their church counseling was proceeding, and Larain answered briefly, but he was polite enough for Liria's standards and so Talyn didn't have to take him to task in order to stay in character.

"Well," said Talyn, when he'd eaten a plausible amount, "I'm heading back to headquarters. I'll be there overnight. I'll let you know the next time I can get away, Nal."

"Of course, dear," said Nal.

And he pecked Talyn on the forehead before Talyn could get away, but then the infiltrator was out the door and out of sight.

"That was really unpleasant," Talyn said to Leekath, safely in his own form and out of that scratchy uniform. "He kissed me! I had to kiss him! I don't like guys! I don't like middle-aged Linnipese guys who make terrible onion soup!"

"He probably doesn't like adolescent rebel guys who impersonate his wife," said Leekath.

Talyn frowned. "You're not mad at me, are you? It's not like I wanted to go around kissing anybody but you."

"Mad? Over a couple of pecks? No. But it's kind of... It's one thing to pretend to be them at headquarters, but to their families is... kind of wrong."

"She was expected home. The ones who work in Peiza are pretty much all expected home. I don't know if there even are any single friendless rimeis who aren't close to their families, but if there was one she'd take a really long time to find," Talyn said. "Long enough for them to dig in deeper into Esmaar and maybe scoop up some other country while they're at it." He paused. "You're not mad at me for going on the mission at all, are you?"

"No, not really. But... there should be some other way," mused Leekath. "That lady's husband and kids didn't do anything. They don't even belong to an organization who does anything."

"The middle kid does - but you're right," said Talyn. "Do you have a better idea?"

Leekath shrugged. "You already told them not to expect her home much."

"Someone's going to have to do the same thing for the other one, but I think she can be missed long enough that Emryl will be ready," said Talyn.

"Does Emryl have to be both of them?" Leekath asked. "How is she supposed to do that?"

"Uh... good point," Talyn said.

The rebellion's next meeting, that evening, set up Kaarilel as Annei Nepailah's replacement, although Emryl was to (in her capacity as "Liria Meialek") give "Annei" as much time off her duties as possible and Kaarilel was to avoid making any plans with Annei's boyfriend. Kaarilel hadn't learned much kamai at all, but Talyn pushed shapeshifting knowledge and the contents of Annei's mind. Kaarilel wound up basically competent at what she needed in order to put in a few appearances as Annei; Emryl would be able to handle both ends of mindspeech if they had to communicate secretly in the field.

"Next," said Rhysel, "I want to wake up our prisoners."

"What?" Talyn said.

"We can restrain their hands so they can't cast spells, if they know any more dangerous than telling time," Rhysel said. "But as long as we're keeping them prisoner I think it's only appropriate to ask them whether they'd rather pass the time awake or asleep. If they'd rather be asleep, we can look after them that way and let them go when it's all over -"

"Or if we have to trade them," said Emryl.

"Or then, yes. But if they'd rather be awake... We don't need to show them our real faces, tell them where they are, or give them anything we don't think it'd be safe for them to have, but if they'd still rather be awake, that seems harmless," Rhysel said. "We have to feed them either way."

"I'll do it after the meeting," Talyn said. "Assuming we have a way to get me and Emryl and Kaarilel past the headquarters wards. If we don't, we have to tamper with their memories and let them go now."

"I think I have you covered," Kaylo said. "Now, you all have to keep this buttoned up as tight as can be, because it would be utterly trivial to redesign a spell to patch this hole. But unless the Linnipese Imperial Mystic Forces are up to some really futuristic stuff without any good reason to be, you should be able to pass yourselves off as the soldiers we've got with a token like this stashed on your person." Kaylo held up a nugget of copper.

"Does it have to look like that?" Lutan asked. "I can't think of a way to incorporate it as-is into an outfit..."

"I can make it look like whatever you want, as long as it's made of a conductive metal so you can do mind kamai to it. What you have to do is copy the entire mind of the person you need to be onto the nugget or whatever you turn it into, and then I cast a spell I invented on you to suppress your own identity for spell purposes. This won't fool a green-group dragon." Kaylo nodded to Korulen, and to Narax. "But I really don't think they have one - I mean, the country might contain some, but I don't think they work for the army. It does fool all the wards I tested it on. If the nugget person is keyed in and you aren't you can go through."

"What about alarm spells?" Narax asked.

"I tried a couple of those and refined the spell to get around the one it set off. There are a lot of kinds of alarms, I couldn't do it exhaustively. But every alarm spell has false positive conditions," said Kaylo. "If somebody sets off an alarm, they must have a procedure for that - check our prisoners to learn about the procedure and we'll know how to beat it."

Korulen chose that moment to crook her elbow around Kaylo's neck and demand a kiss from him, and Talyn remembered the man with the whitening orange hair who'd thought he was kissing his wife.

"I'll check into that before I wake them, then," Talyn said.

"I'll come with," said Kaylo. "So you can tell me what you find and I can tell you what to look for."

The boys went to the room where the soldiers were sitting, and Kaylo walked Talyn through figuring out what would happen if this or that alarm spell over headquarters were tripped. Liria knew some of them, but Annei knew others; they just had to hope that between the two of them they had all the relevantly distinct alarms covered. This one required an interview with one's commanding officer about what one had been up to lately; that one required reciting the officer's oath of loyalty under lie detection; that one just called for face recognition by someone who knew one personally.

"Can we beat lie detection?" Talyn asked Kaylo.

"Again, I don't know what Imperial Mystic Forces have cooked up," Kaylo said. "But yes, standard ones will cave if you just open up a mental connection to your nugget-impersonation-aide-thing. I tried it."

"I'll have to teach Kaarilel to do that, I guess," Talyn said.

"Why did Kaarilel even want to go?" Kaylo asked. "She doesn't have any of the relevant skills. Didn't, I mean."

Talyn shrugged. "She likes it when learning things is easy - she's not a great student to start with or she'd've stuck with kamai in the first place like her friends. And she thinks Linnipese clothes are pretty. Kaarilel's not very interesting."

"Oh. Korulen likes her," Kaylo said.

"She's perfectly nice, she's just not interesting," Talyn said. "Anyway. Want to be around when these folks wake up? You'll have to be more nondescript..."

"And, do you know why Rhysel wants them woken up at all?" Kaylo asked.

"I think Rhysel wants them woken up because she's nice and thinks it would be kinder to let them, I don't know, catch up on their reading and their arithmetic puzzles," Talyn said. "I didn't give her a hard time about it because if they're awake we can use their skills, not just their knowledge. I've got Liria's mind stashed in mine, but that doesn't mean I'm as good at, like, predicting what her co-workers will do, as she is. I have access to what she remembers about their past behavior but I don't know them like she does, I can't manipulate the information like she can. And I can't make her do arbitrary mental tasks while she's in standing sleep, but I can suggest them to her while she's awake and she won't be able to help making progress on them. Anyway, here goes - do you want to be around?"

"Nah, I'll get out of here," Kaylo said. "But, hang on, let me see what you think nondescript means."

"I was considering being invisible, actually," Talyn said. "And using a girl voice so they'll respect me. I mean, more than they would if I didn't."

"Oh, nice," Kaylo said. "Bypassing all layers of they'll-think-I'm-thinking-they're-thinking-that-if-I-look-like-this-I-must-be-from-such-and-such-a-place. Nice."

Talyn turned invisible and Kaylo left.

Liria Meialek, hands prevented from spell-gesturing by stone handcuffs, woke up.

"My name is Liria Meialek-rimei. My serial number is 09844216," was all Liria would say.

"Yes," Talyn said in a voice that was more like his sister Coryl's than his own. "I understand. The question is, do you want to be awake, or asleep, until we let you go? The answer to the question isn't encoded in your serial number somewhere, I promise."

"My name is -"

"Yes. I know." Talyn rolled his eyes and gave up on getting a verbal answer; he could tell Rhysel that he'd at least tried to do what she'd asked the polite way. Liria wanted to be awake; this was because she expected to be able to escape, but she still wanted it. "Well, in that case, we'll just leave you awake, feel free to change your mind about that at any time, just let one of the folks who bring in your food know."

Annei was in another room; Talyn left Liria where she was and sauntered invisibly over to that one to wake the eian. Since he was invisible, Annei didn't say anything immediately, but she blinked and took in her surroundings.

"Hello, Annei," said Talyn. "I already know your name and honorific and serial number. I have a different question."

"Wh- well, I've got questions too," said Annei indignantly. "Where am I? Who are you?" She was looking at the ceiling, and seemed to think that Talyn was broadcasting his voice from another room like a Linnipese prison operator might. "What do you want with me?"

"I just want you to tell me if you'd like to spend your time here awake, like you are now, or asleep, like you have been," said Talyn. "And if you want to be awake I suppose you can make requests about your living conditions."

"Um, you're keeping me prisoner, but you're asking my permission to knock me out?" Annei asked.

"That's about the situation, yes," said Talyn.

"Well, you don't have my permission to knock me out, or to keep me prisoner for that matter, but if I'm still here I guess that shows how much my permission means to you," she said snippily.

"Noted," said Talyn.

"And I want an Eialei and a copy of the most recent Peiza Chronicle and notepaper and pens," Annei said. She clearly thought she was pushing her luck, but none of that sounded like it would actually give her a way out, and she didn't have any clever escape plans in mind.

"I'll see what I can do," said Talyn.

"And a copy of Janafai's Guidance. I'm right in the middle of it," she said.

"Noted," repeated Talyn.

"A window?" she asked.

She meant one that led out, not one that was just pretty pictures of scenery. "No can do."

"Where's my boyfriend? Is someone going to feed my pets? Is it just me you've taken?"

Talyn sighed. "I have no idea where your boyfriend is; he doesn't interest me. I'll see what I can do about the pets. I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to tell you whether you're the only prisoner or not, but I'll check."

"Where am I?" Annei asked insistently.

"This," Talyn said grandly, "is your very own room. It's actually as nice as all the rest of them, apart from the matter of the uncooperative door."

"Aren't you funny," said Annei. "I haven't committed any crimes. You know holding me here is illegal, don't you?"

"Is it?" Talyn asked, but while he affected nonchalance he was actually curious. Was it actually? Was there some set of international laws that didn't protect Aabalan but did protect this annoying soldier?

"The Empire of Linnip isn't currently in a state of war with anyone," said Annei, "so I can't be a legitimate prisoner of war, and I haven't committed any crimes and this definitely isn't police procedure for if I was suspected of one, so I can't be a civil detainee either. So yeah. It's illegal. Are you going to stop being illegal?"

"No, I don't think so," Talyn said. Who had drawn up those laws? Did all rebellions against all occupying forces, however improperly they'd conducted their occupation, have to do so in violation of international law? Did they need to declare themselves in a state of rebellion or something?

"Yeah, didn't think so," Annei said.

"Aren't you clever," said Talyn.

The next day, Emryl and Kaarilel, up to speed on all the kamai they needed to know, went in to Linnip (Kaarilel with instructions to look in on Annei's lizard, parakeet, and tarantula).

They came back with copies of the Eialei, Peiza Chronicle, and Janafai's Guidance, generously bankrolled by Rhysel. And they came back with a lead about the fate of Aabalan so promising and so obvious that Talyn smacked himself in the head when he heard it.

"There's another summoning circle," Emryl said, "to another world."