Chapter 2:

The Emperor II - "Home in Arcadia"

Destiny Marine

If Lou and his gang wanted to rob someone, they should’ve robbed Kassandra. Talk about having money. But if Isaac was able to do a number on them, Kassandra would’ve demolished them wholesale. Her laughter echoed across the hallway as she held Isaac in that inescapable headlock. Her flaming ball of red hair spilled past her shoulders and down Isaac’s face until she finally freed him.

“Do the kids you teach know how much of a gorilla you really are?” Isaac complained with a smile as he rubbed a sore spot on his head.

“The kids love me,” Kassandra answered. She placed her hands on her hips and puffed her chest out in pride. “And their parents do, too.”

And that’s why they should’ve robbed her instead. Kassandra’s father used to be a foreman at the mine - when he perished in the same accident that took Isaac’s father, she inherited a decent chunk of money that put her through college. She was one of the rare people to find an opportunity in the Zhanghai takeover of town; she returned home and taught the young sons and daughters of the Zhanghai clerks and administrators and businessmen how to speak the Arcadian language, which was really just the Common language of all countries on this side of Empyrea.

Did Kassandra also inherit her ability to kick ass from her father? Isaac wasn’t sure. But she hid an explosive amount of energy beneath that sundress of hers. She wasn’t always able to keep it bottled up, however. She beckoned to Isaac, who had already been through this whole song and dance a countless number of times. Kassandra held up her palm; Isaac gazed down at it; red lights flickered from her stomach, then streamed across her body and down her arm until reaching the fingertips, where it exploded outwards into a fireball. The inferno surged upwards, leaving her hand, until it struck the ceiling above them.

The whole hallway shook from the impact. A number of babies started crying from elsewhere in the tenement while Kassandra just laughed.

“You know how noise complaints I get while you’re over here?” Isaac reminded her. “Use your cultivation powers outside for once.”

“But if I use them outside, how would you be able to see me?” she protested. With a shake of his head, Isaac just let her inside the tiny room he and his brother called a home. Cramped would be an understatement - within that tiny space, they had to fit cabinets, a stove, an oven, and a table with its chairs. The whole room often felt smaller than even the ore veins within the mine. They didn’t have enough space for a bed; Isaac’s bundle of blankets sprawled over the remaining space, giving him just enough room to sleep. When his brother still lived there full-time, Isaac had to sleep nestled underneath the table.

“You’re content with this?” Kassandra asked, already sipping from her flask.

“It is what it is,” Isaac answered. He could remember when the whole family used to sit around the table. He could remember the late nights when his brother studied by candlelight while Isaac cooked dinner next to him. “This is what life gave me.”

Rather than pull a chair out into Isaac’s sleeping bundle, Kassandra sat on the table, one leg crossed over the other. “You act like life’s some abstract thing. Life’s right here. Don’t you ever just want to go and seize it for yourself?”

So, it was going to be one of those kinds of conversations. This was another one of their song and dance routines; Isaac leaned his back against a wall. Conversation was conversation, at least. “When you go beyond your station, that’s when you get noticed. If I were to reach out, I’d be like a nail sticking out. And that’s the kind of nail that gets hammered down first.”

Moonlight, arriving through an open window, shone on Kassandra’s flask as she set it down. “I had enough money to get Gregory into school. I didn’t have enough for you. That’s my biggest regret.”

“Well, Greg’s real smart with numbers. If anyone ought to go to school, I’m glad it’s him.”

“But Gregory will make it out of this town,” Kassandra said with a sigh. “But you…you’ll be stuck here forever, getting just a mere hour of sunlight for the rest of your life. And, considering it’s mining work, I don’t think it’ll be a very long one.”

The room went quiet. The memory of their fallen fathers ran deep. Kassandra went to drink from her flask again, so Isaac broke the silence. “If I had to choose between a full week of sunlight and decades below ground, I’d choose the mines anytime. You got Zhanghai samurai and State Police and the military running around above ground. You poke your head out, they’ll come right for you.” He tried to hide it, but worry seeped through his face. “If you and Greg keep it up with this revolutionary group of yours, I’ll never see you two again.”

“Revolutionary group,” Kassandra repeated in amusement. “I’m not a Restorationist. I just don’t want to live in a world where someone like you has to choose between a short life in the sun and a long one below ground.” She held out her palm; sparks of red energy flickered out of it, illuminating her face, full of determination. “I’m going to change this country, Isaac. If that puts me at risk, then so be it.”

The fire disappeared as she clenched his fist. She then pointed a finger at Isaac. “This is your ticket out of here. I have money, Gregory has smarts, and you have strength. You’ll be a goddamn good cultivator if you try.”

Isaac recoiled. “Become a cultivator? After listening to all that, you think I want to be a mutant?”

“That’s just a bogus theory from decades ago!” Kassandra complained. “Modern science says there aren't any biological differences between a cultivator and a non-cultivator.”

Within Arcadia, modern science had a spotty track record. “But one of them can shoot fire from their hands.”

“Think of it this way. You and your brother used to toss that pigskin around all night when you were younger. You two had normal throwing abilities, right? Now compare yourselves to somebody on the Narragansett Hawks. A professional athlete is far better at throwing the ball around than you could ever be, but he’s still human, isn’t he? It’s the same with cultivation powers.”

Before he could protest about how anyone could toss a football around while only a rare minority could shoot flames from their hands, she jabbed her finger at him again. “And are you calling me a mutant? Could a beautiful girl like me ever be a mutant?”

Isaac waved her finger away. “Don’t get too cocky, but no, I wouldn’t consider you a mutant.”

“That’s right,” Kassandra said, taking a big swig to celebrate her victory. As she set the flask back down, her face looked a little flushed, and she looked off to the side. “I’ve known you since we were kids. I’m not trying to say I know what’s best for you. But train with me, Isaac. Become a cultivator. Otherwise…I’d hate to see your casket lowered into the ground after a mining accident this time.” She held the side of her sundress tightly. “I care about you, you know that?”

All Isaac could do was gesture for her flask. He took an equally big swig to match her, then sighed as the whiskey settled into his stomach. “I care about you too. That’s why you should just forget this whole cultivation business and just settle down here as a schoolteacher. Otherwise…you wouldn’t even get a funeral. You’d be hauled away by the State Police, and that would be that.”

Another silence blanketed the room. Unsure of what else to say, and both of their faces bright red, the two kept taking turns with Kassandra’s flask. The room seemed to spin a little and his head seemed to swim a little by the time the flask emptied. As the two looked at it with disappointment, the door to the room was suddenly kicked open.

“Who’s ready to motherfucking celebrate?!” Greg roared in greeting, a huge bottle of Rusalkan vodka in his hands.


There was just enough space in the room for the three to sit around the table, at least. The three passed around that new bottle until Isaac struggled to keep his eyes opened. Greg, strengthened by his years in college, only seemed slightly tipsy, while Kassandra fell somewhere in the middle.

“A man works all week to keep his pants off all weekend,” Greg proclaimed, rubbing his stomach.

The half-full bottle reached Isaac again. “But you’ve spent this entire week either at the saloon or over a random woman’s room.”

Greg laughed while Kassandra rolled her eyes. “After a grueling spring semester, I had a grueling summer internship. And tomorrow, I go back for a grueling fall semester. I earned a week of relaxation, no?”

After finishing his return, Isaac slid the bottle over to Kassandra. “But you only have like three classes a week at school.”

“Isaac, Isaac,” Greg said with his hands raised, well aware of Kassandra’s suspicious stare. He then gave her a smile. “Kass, I didn’t forget the debt I owe you. Without your help, I never would’ve been able to get into school. Trust me, I’m giving it everything I have - Dean’s List both semesters, just saying. And besides - I’m there to pursue justice.” He lowered his voice and shifted his eyes. “I’ve been in regular contact with the Restorationists.”

Nobody said anything after that, since nothing needed to be said. An admission like that in the wrong place would earn Greg a one-way ticket to the State Police “logging” camps up north. Isaac still didn’t get why his brother and Kassandra messed around with things like that - there was a true chance of death or even worse.

When Kassandra put the bottle down, she revealed a deep hue of red on her face. “Pursuing justice, huh? You and me both. But it must be a sad school if someone like you can make it on the Dean’s List.”

“Au contraire,” Greg corrected. “That means on the contrary. You know this - I study Rddhi there.”

The Rddhi. The mystical energy field that powered cultivation. Isaac had never given it much thought, but Greg dedicated his time in college to gaining a better understanding of it.

Kassandra didn’t look too impressed with it. “You’re unbelievable, though. Studying the Rddhi without becoming a cultivator yourself?”

“I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not touching the mutant subject with a ten foot pole.” Greg took his turn to drink, holding the bottle upside-down for a long time, his face no worse for the wear when he finally finished. “But we need neutral examinations of the Rddhi. We need people to study the phenomena without partaking in it. And it’s not an unusual thing. The new leader of the Cultivator Marine Corps is the same as me - he’s not a cultivator, either, yet he probably knows far more than most people do.”

“Are you saying you’re that smart?” Kassandra asked with a smirk. “And besides, he got that job due to politics.”

Greg made theatrical gestures with his hands, pretending to make a speech. “I can be plenty political.”

The whole table erupted in laughter. Greg rubbed his stomach again while Kassandra had to hold hers. Isaac joined in as well, laughing so hard he had to wipe his eyes. When he pulled his hand away, the whole scene took on a new feeling - it felt bittersweet. If only Isaac could put a moment like this in a glass bottle. If only the night never had to end.

But before it ended, as Kassandra cheered him on, Gregory stood on the table and reached upwards to the ceiling. He yanked on the trapdoor, finally pulling it open. He had to jump upwards to climb over it; once on the other side, he helped Kassandra up, and then Isaac up afterwards.

The three stood on the roof, ventilation ducts and lean-tos and staircases winding this way and that, making them feel like they stood in the center of something large and grand. Isaac could see all of Patuxet from here, the lights of town, the rolling hills in the background, the railroad out of here, the stars in the night sky above. Looking down upon this peaceful scene, one thought entered Isaac's mind.

With a view like this, who’d ever want to leave?

“With the world just out there for you,” Kassandra said, “Who’d ever want to stay?”

The three went quiet, taking it all in. Greg put his arms around Kassandra and Isaac’s shoulders. “Whether it’s here or elsewhere, I hope we can see a view like this together again.”

“Always,” Kassandra answered, leaning slightly into Greg.

“And then some,” Isaac concluded, wishing they could just stay here and look at the town and countryside forever.

The night air felt cool to his skin, the stars shone brightly, and the world continued to spin.


Greg took the train back to college the next day. Life returned to normal - Isaac had his morning hour of sunlight before plunging into the mines, Kassandra taught at her school. At night, she sat cross-legged on Isaac’s table and cultivated while he read dime novels by the light provided by her fireball. Autumn continued to gradually nudge summer away, and the growing darkness seemed welcoming to Isaac.

A few weeks later, on a night like any other night, Isaac departed the mines with a yawn. As he stretched his arms wide, he felt a beefy hand on his shoulder. The big foreman spoke in his gravelly voice.

“Isaac, got a call for you at the office.”

He quietly followed along, not sure who could be calling him. The only possible option was Greg, but he usually sent letters since phone calls to a tenement room without a landline often proved difficult. But a call - that could only mean urgent business.

Office workers gazed suspiciously at the soot-covered Isaac as he followed the foreman into the mine’s administrative building. A clerk handed Isaac the phone receiver; the bakelite plastic felt fake in Isaac’s hand.


“Isaac,” the familiar voice of his brother greeted. However, the voice sounded strained. Greg then let out a round of violent-sounding coughs.

Isaac held the phone tighter. “Greg, you alright?”

His brother chuckled. “I’m past that point, Isaac. Meet me at the Patuxet station in two hours, I’m taking the next train over.”

More coughing. Isaac tensed. Greg caught his breath.

“I found something that’ll change the whole world, Isaac. It’ll make Arcadia’s dictatorship implode upon itself. And all it cost me was my life.”