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Part One: Annika and Kijé (4)

I kept a watchful eye over Annika after she and Renton parted.

Outwardly, Annika gave me no reason for concern. Upon seeing Renton leave, she returned to her designated bunk, an apartment she shared with another player. Players in training, and also many players promoted to active character status, were required to remain in the company of another player for at least a certain number of hours a week. Some of that was to ensure the candidate player remained consistently in character—or, rather, to determine how well they did so, when they did so.

Nominally Annika would have been paired with a player in the role of Berardinis—her lover, her defender, her greatest friend, her staunchest ally—but no such player currently filled that role for the New York cell. Instead, Annika had been paired with a player for Syula, the bandit queen—first an enemy, then an ally, finally a rival once again.

Syula was a spry, waiflike woman, half a head shorter than Kijé. Syula’s player—Chloë was her name—embodied the role magnificently. She’d dyed her hair dark, cut it short, taken courses in close-quarters self-defense to emulate that much more thoroughly Syula’s own proficiency with the knife, the club, the cosh, and the garrote.

Chloë’s name was on the rental paperwork, but to avoid suspicion on the part of the owners or the tenants, Annika and Chloë followed the Sunderlands rule of being in camouflage whenever they were entering or exiting the apartment.

Camouflage: the euphemism for wearing clothes attributed to their players, not to their characters. A number of different spots—restrooms in restaurants or hotel lobbies, for instance—was identified for the players as suitable spots for changing into or out of camouflage, with the list revised often. Within the apartment, however, Annika had to remain in-character and in-costume.

Annika was fond of relating to me how much she disliked the apartment. It was narrow and inefficient, with a kitchen and bathroom that one practically needed to turn sideways to walk through. The bedrooms were not much better, and Annika used the smaller of the two, with a single difficult-to-open window that looked out over nothing more than a weedy rectangle of a parking lot next door. But she knew living there would let her take that many more steps towards letting me into this world, and so she bore with stoicism the tiny spaces, the ugly stains on the ceiling, and the putrid smells that wafted in from the hallway and stairwell.

After all, I myself had endured far worse in Syula’s own hideouts and haunts—and was that not one of the lessons Annika was trying to make her own, that in endurance was all?

Chloë, in Syula’s garb, was in the living room when Annika entered. Without speaking, Annika showed the other woman the face of her phone, which sported a “request-for-out-of-character notice” on it. Chloë set her phone to OOC as well—she had many more minutes to spare—and Annika began talking immediately.

“Renton buttonholed me the minute I finished the test.” She sank down on the edge of the couch, at the end furthest from where Chloë was stretched out. “I had a feeling he’d try something like that eventually.”

“I knew I should have come with you.” Chloë shook her head. “I could have pre-empted my mission, you know.”

“No, no.” Annika put down the bag she was carrying, which contained her Kijé costume—the dress jacket, the slacks, the collapsible sword—and began to change. She did this enough times in front of the other woman—in fact, in front of so many other players—that it became automatic to her. All for my sake, which made me proud.

“Besides,” Annika went on, “I think he’s losing interest in the whole thing. I think this was his last shot at trying to change my mind, when he should really have known better a long time ago. —So, no, you don’t have to do anything.”

“What if he’d followed you here?”

“Isn’t that a bridge best crossed when we’re actually in front of it?” Annika shook out her jacket and laid it across the endtable. “Unless he’s on the sidewalk outside, throwing pebbles up at the window, or calling me twelve times a day, I’m not worried about it. And he hasn’t done any of that, so … ”

“Look, it’s not just you, you know.” Chloë’s tone reminded Annika of a grade-school teacher, but Annika tamped down on her annoyance. “If he keeps it up, it’s a problem for all of us. We don’t need some stranger making more grief than we’ve already had.”

Stranger was another euphemism: anyone not a player.

“If he does anything like this again,” Chloë went on, “you need to report it. I’m going to be reporting this anyway, because the last thing we need is you being protective of someone you still have feelings for, when he clearly doesn’t give a damn about us.”

“I’m not being protective of him. I just think our energy is better spent elsewhere, that’s all.”

“You’re not in a position to decide that, you know. Look, you’re almost out of time—we’ll talk about this more when we’re in the Redoubt tomorrow. We’ll both get OOC time back there anyway; I think we’re both about due.”

Chloë turned off her OOC marker, and unprompted, Annika did the same.

I finished dressing and faced Syula with a long sigh.

“Come off it, do,” she declared. “Surely that’s not the first moon-eyed lover that ever died because of his own foolishness, is it?”

She meant Hendrykje, and she was right: he was not the first, and I knew he most likely would not be the last, either.

“Raise your chin, now.” Syula reached out and gripped my shoulder. “You’ve got better things to think about than broken hearts. Yours or anyone else’s.”