Part 11

      A few weeks ago, Schuldig had thought it ridiculous that Crawford had let Schwarz get so big. In the weeks following Kurogawa's death, he realized there almost weren't enough psychics to go around. He'd known Schwarz was busy, especially after he'd started compiling reports for them, but he hadn't been able to see just how busy they were until he was on the inside of things. Kurogawa's death was a catalyst to get things really moving, and they had a limited amount of time to tie up the loose ends the way they needed them to be.

      Estet's people were the foundation of the team; they were the ones who did all of the recon and research. It was their job to locate companies, dig out every single bit of information they could find about the business and its employees, and find connections. They studied everything the companies produced or dealt in and watched trends. They decided who Schwarz needed to target and what needed to be done, and they were the ones who trained the psychics for the sort of crowd they'd be dealing with. Farfarello quietly passed absolutely everything to Crawford behind their backs.

      The psychics, in turn, constantly cycled in and out. They set their targets up to either fail spectacularly or succeed and created ties where associations needed to be made. Any place they thought they could get leverage, they did, just in case they needed it later. There were endless meetings and conferences, with occasional deaths here and there. When talking didn't work, threats were enough to get the ball rolling. In situations that needed more subtlety, there was Schuldig.

      Schwarz was loathe to use him in the beginning, not wanting to admit that they couldn't close things. Schuldig thought it was unforgivably stupid that they'd let pride get in the way of productivity, but he knew better than to force his gifts on them. They would have welcomed that, because they could be angrier at him for inviting himself along than they would be at themselves for needing them. Schuldig had no interest in setting himself up that way. Besides, he had enough work of his own to do.

      Schuldig actually had two roles to play in Schwarz, and therefore, two sets of jobs. On one level, he was the team's official telepath, and he divided his time between his Japanese lessons and his runs. On the other, he was a key piece in setting up Crawford's precognition. He, Nagi, and Farfarello were the ones who kept an eye on their teammates, who watched the progress they were making, and who slipped away to make deals on their own. Crawford needed to guide his team with his visions, but he needed to be sure those visions would actually come to pass. If Harriet came to him and said one of her targets was refusing to budge because of such-and-such, Crawford needed to reassure her that things would clear up in this-many-days in this-way. Then Schuldig or Nagi or Farfarello had to make sure it happened exactly that way.

      Schuldig finally understood Farfarello's interest in the yakuza. It was as much personal interest in the gangsters' lifestyle as it was a necessity. Schwarz mostly worked with public figures. Farfarello was their go-between to the dark underbelly of Japan. He was a dead mind, which meant they were more willing to deal with him than they were the rest of the psychics. Schuldig knew there was more to Farfarello than that disconnected façade, but he still doubted the Berserker's ability to be an effective middleman. He wanted to go with Farfarello at least once so he could see the man work, but there was never time to do so.

      Schuldig had so much to do that he could barely breathe sometimes, but that was fine, because the rush, the deception, and the unrelenting manipulation were exciting. This was what he lived for, was this kind of power and control. He ended up breaking his last threshold a week early. He was so busy that his gift had to fly to keep up, and it slammed the last pieces of his Japanese into place in just a week. He took a perverse pleasure in informing Crawford of that. Estet and Rosenkreuz would be pleased to hear it, and Crawford had to look at Schuldig a second time and wonder just what mess he'd gotten himself into by signing Rosenkreuz's best telepath.

      The only downside to any of it, perhaps, was that the Crawford-watching was getting a bit addicting. Schuldig finally understood why Crawford neglected Schwarz's interpersonal issues. Crawford had to know absolutely everything Estet's people found if he was to effectively move his team and his precognition. He had to know what every single one of his psychics was doing and thinking. He needed to track all of their different projects, consider how they were all going to affect each other, and know how to move from there without it backfiring either on him or his team. Watching him pull it all off with that damnable ice mask in place made Schuldig hot all over. Crawford was power, through and through.

      Schuldig craved power.

      And, with just as fierce a desire, he loved destroying other people's power.

      Sometimes his stomach knotted up with the need to fuck up Crawford's "visions". If one of Crawford's visions was off, or never came to pass, the reaction would be immediate and ugly. Crawford's rank saved him, because Schuldig knew better than to do that to his leader. There'd be time to destroy Crawford later, in entirely legitimate ways. Schuldig was okay with waiting.

      "Do you ever stop thinking about Crawford?"

      Nicole's voice startled him out of his daydreaming. His gift skittered outward, reaffirming the minds around him. They'd passed enough stations by now that most of the crowd had changed. He brought his gift back where it belonged. The only minds that were important tonight were those of the three with him, and they weren't going anywhere without him. Farfarello stood to one side of Schuldig, and his presence had ensured Tomoko had gotten a seat. She was reading one of her comics, happy for some downtime after a busy week.

      Nicole was on Schuldig's other side, a safe distance from the Berserker. Schuldig wasn't worried about the physical distance, because she'd stopped complaining about him bringing Farfarello and Tomoko along. He thought that was brilliant progress, especially seeing how this was only the third time they'd gone out for dinner and drinks.

      It was late enough that the lights were casting their reflections on the train windows. Schuldig offered the glass a smirk. "Occasionally," he said, amused. Trust Nicole to have put a name to that tangled knot of need-desire-hate.

      "Would you just hurry up and fuck him so you can stop obsessing?" Nicole asked.

      "Maybe you should be more concerned about your lack of a sex life. Losing your touch?"

      She sent him a withering look. "I can have anyone I want," she said, a little bit frostily.

      On the tail end of that was, That's why it's so boring.

      "What about Farfarello?" Schuldig asked.

      "That pasty-skinned freak?" she returned, completely unconcerned that Farfarello could hear every word they were saying. "Who'd want him?"

      Schuldig ignored her rejection and sent Farfarello a sly look. "What do you think, Farfarello? Is she your type?"

      Farfarello didn't bother to return the look. "No," he answered dispassionately.

      Nicole reacted exactly how Schuldig expected a girl to react: by feeling insulted. It didn't matter that she had no interest in Farfarello; the fact that she didn't interest him whatsoever was offensive. Schuldig kept his grip on the railing overhead but leaned back as far as he could, letting the two see each other past him.

      "Why not?" she demanded hotly.

      Farfarello offered her a lazy, deadly smile. "Psychic."

      Nicole calmed down immediately and flicked her fingers in dismissal. In her mind, that was perfectly reasonable grounds to dislike her. After all, Farfarello's Berserker status was the primary reason she wouldn't consider him.

      Farfarello gave her a moment to get her cool back, then added absently, "With ugly hair."

      Schuldig burst out laughing. Nicole elbowed him viciously in the ribs. "You freak!" Nicole snapped, riled all over again. "What the hell do you know?" Farfarello ignored her, bored of the conversation already. Nicole couldn't let go so easily. "You wouldn't know beautiful if it hit you upside the head!"

      Tomoko looked up, distracted from her reading by Nicole's shrieking and Schuldig's obvious amusement, and looked from one to the other. She couldn't understand the German they were using. Schuldig was feeling good enough to let her in on the fun. "Apparently Farfarello thinks Nicole is ugly," he said in Japanese.

      "He didn't say I was ugly," Nicole said in flat Japanese. "He just doesn't like my hair."

      Tomoko looked perplexed. "Of course he wouldn't," she said, as if Nicole should know this already. "He likes dark-haired women."

      Nicole and Schuldig stared, both a little thrown by such a matter-of-fact observation. Nicole was the first to recover. "You mean he actually has an opinion?" she asked, as if it was the strangest news she'd heard in years. Somehow it seemed to floor her just as much as the revelation about her team leader's sexuality had. She pointed past Schuldig at Farfarello. The Irishman was ignoring them in favor of gazing out the window. A quick peek at his thoughts showed they were as muddled and apathetic as always. Schuldig wasn't entirely sure he knew they were speaking anymore or if he'd mentally wandered off. "This walking talking chalk-faced robot? He's an emotionally stunted retard."

      It was impressive just how quickly Tomoko's expression could go stony. "His nerve endings were destroyed by an empath, Miss Hawking," she said. "He was robbed of most physical sensation, yes, but that is all. His wits and emotions are intact and as strong as they always have been. Kindly rephrase your ignorant opinions."

      Tomoko tended to use a casual tone when talking to Schwarz, so the abrupt switch to polite, formal Japanese was meant to be an insult. Nicole had been in Japan long enough to understand that. Two could play that game, and Nicole's tone was so sugar-sweet it was poisonous. "Kindly watch how you speak to me, Estet. I would hate to have to remind you of your place."

      It was promising to get really ugly really fast, but Farfarello killed that when he lowered his hand from the railing. His bored gaze never shifted away from the window, but he didn't need to look. His hand settled unerringly on Tomoko's head, looking ghostly white against her black hair. He didn't have to say anything; Nicole heard the threat loud and clear. The empath's jaw positively popped as it fell open.

      Schuldig wasn't much better off, but he was almost as amused as he was startled, so he veered towards the former. I'm impressed, he told Tomoko, though his mind was prickling in alarm. That was a rather large thing to miss about his teammates. He could understand not hearing about it from Farfarello, since the man was nine-tenths impossible to read, but he obviously had not been spending enough time with Estet's people. If I lost physical sensation, I don't think I'd bother having sex. There'd be no point to it.

      She lifted her comic and showed him a choice page, never mind that they were on a crowded train. Would you lose interest in seeing Crawford like this? she asked reasonably. Schuldig had finally managed to get Crawford out of his thoughts, but the picture Tomoko showed him nailed the bastard right back into place. Schuldig's gut gave a hungry twinge. Would it really matter if you couldn't feel him anymore, so long as you could still see that look on his face? Maybe it would be better sometimes, since you wouldn't be distracted by your own needs.

      Nicole caught sight of the book then and gave a scandalized yip. "What the hell are you reading?! Put that away! Put it away! We're in public!"

      Tomoko offered the red-faced empath a sweet smile and went right back to reading. Schuldig stared down at her bowed head, trying to make sense of her scenario. Aside from the obvious "no chance in hell" of Crawford ever making that sort of expression, it was interesting to consider. He eyed Farfarello's reflection, intrigued.

      "I need a drink," Nicole said, rubbing at her eyes as if trying to scrub away what she'd seen. "Oh, hell, I need ten. Tell me you brought a lot of money, Schuldig."

      You didn't know about them? Schuldig sent her.

      If you tell me you can understand him, I'll know you're lying, she shot back. Nagi and Farfarello are hazy messes in my gift. I can't ever get anything distinctive from them.

      Schuldig gnawed on that for a moment, not liking the way that sounded. If it was just one of them, Schuldig would have written it off as being a mental oddity. But for Crawford's general and hit man to both be shielded from Schwarz likely meant Crawford was covering them with his gift. Crawford couldn't keep hold of Schuldig's mind because it stunted his telepathy, but Farfarello had no gift to worry about and Nagi's telekinesis could work around blocks. Schuldig supposed a mental net was the only way Farfarello could get all of Estet's information over to Crawford, but still. It meant anything Schuldig did with Farfarello was likely to slide from Farfarello's mind to Crawford's.

      He didn't bother to ask why she didn't notice it in Tomoko. Schwarz was too rigidly divided. If the dead minds wanted to, they could go out, get smashed, kill a dozen people, fuck a dozen more, and come home without their teammates truly noticing they'd been gone. Only Crawford kept a careful eye on the six.

      Well, he told himself, I guess that makes them next on the list.

      Tonight was only the second free night he'd had in the three weeks since Kurogawa's death, but he'd make time, one way or the other. Before then, though, he needed another look at Schwarz's files. The way Tomoko had worded her mental questions was a bit odd. It stuck with him all through dinner and their drinks.

      The first two times they'd gone out, they'd stuck close to home and Schuldig had been the one to walk Tomoko back. He'd thought it best, since he wasn't sure what Farfarello would think of the women's drunken antics. At least Nicole would be able to defend herself if he lost his patience. Farfarello had never said anything about having to contend with Nicole, but he'd handled her with a casual disregard. This time, Schuldig left Tomoko to Farfarello. He was glad he did. The differences in how Farfarello treated the two women were small, but they were still immediately visible.

      Tomoko was pleased to have Farfarello to herself and showed her appreciation by leaving a string of lipstick kisses down his throat. Farfarello turned her around to point her in the direction of the train station. She reached back and tangled the fingers of both hands through his, then proceeded to try and pull him behind her down the street. She belted out lyrics to popular songs, making up words when she forgot them, and made beelines for every karaoke bar they passed. Farfarello tolerated her foolishness in silence. He calmly guided her away from the bars and out of the way of oncoming traffic. When she ran smack into a row of parked bikes, he wrapped an arm around her waist to help her back to her feet.

      They'd timed the evening to make the last train back. Being the last one for the night, though, meant the train was insanely crowded. Even the foreigners' strange looks wouldn't get them a seat. At least it made it easier for Schuldig to keep Nicole on her feet; the pressure of all of the bodies around them gave his arms a rest. She was tanked and half-asleep already. Schuldig ignored her in favor of watching the other two. Tomoko was giggling and saying something at Farfarello's ear. He didn't look at her, but Schuldig knew he was listening.

      It wasn't a long walk from the station to their houses, but they took a cab anyway to get the girls off their feet. Schuldig left Nicole in her bedroom with a pot and hurried upstairs to his room. His Schwarz paperwork was in a folder in his closet. He emptied it on his bed and dug through it, looking for Farfarello's and Tomoko's files.

      "Would it really matter if you couldn't feel him anymore, so long as you could still see that look on his face?"

      'Anymore', she'd said.

      Tomoko had been moved from Estet to Schwarz three years ago. It was the same day Farfarello had massacred Elend. One week later, Farfarello had been transferred as well. Schuldig didn't know much about Berserkers and their support personnel, but those dates were too close. Farfarello and Tomoko had worked together.

      Schuldig stared down at the numbers, trying to make sense of it. Crawford had gotten away with signing a Berserker because Farfarello had been injured. But if that was so, then why had Tomoko been transferred first?

      Schuldig, Nicole said, mental voice slurry and mumbled in her unsteady state of mind. I think they really are having sex over there. Are you kidding me? Feels like a bad joke. She's like… eight years older than he is.

      Schuldig had been going to confront Farfarello on his suspicions, but that announcement told him it'd be best to wait until morning. Go to sleep, drunk, he said. She didn't answer. He wasn't sure if that was because she had indeed passed out cold or because watching Tomoko was more interesting than arguing with him.

      Schuldig slowly began putting his files back in order. That complicates things, doesn't it? he mused. When Crawford gives him the order to cut and run, is he going to be able to kill her?

      He wasn't sure, but that fight was between Crawford and Farfarello. Schuldig would be more than happy to stay out of the middle of it. He had a feeling it was going to get extremely ugly.


      His chance to speak to Estet came up not even half a week later. He had two assignments in hand, only one of which was public knowledge in Schwarz. The two were intricately related, which meant Crawford gave Schuldig an afternoon off to figure out the best way to go about it. Schuldig devoted an hour to studying the files, reading up on the people and companies he'd be dealing with. He could already see an easy way to go about it, but the easiest wasn't always the best. It reminded him a bit of a job he'd run with Dolch, and that alliance had started spiraling undone as soon as they'd accomplished their initial goal. Schuldig wanted to make sure this one lasted, which meant he needed more than what he'd been given.

      He sent a mental glance next door, trying to see who all was home. Hiroyuki and Tatsuo were out, so he broadened his range in search of them. They were out of his range, so he drew back and settled on Tomoko. I have to pick your brains. When will Hiroyuki and Tatsuo be back?

      They're at the docks, she answered. Maybe another hour?

      That gave him time to get a few things settled, including the growling in his stomach. By the time he felt the missing two dead minds enter his range, he even had a list of questions prepared. He gathered up his folders and left, heading to Mitaka Station. There was a coffee shop there and he ordered seven drinks. He'd timed it almost perfectly. There was just a half-minute wait at the entrance with his drinks before Hiroyuki and Tatsuo arrived.

      They looked surprised to see him there. "I've got questions and caffeine," he said. "We're going to talk." Saying so, he held out one of the four-cup trays. The two men didn't quite understand, but Tatsuo took hold of the drinks anyway. Schuldig picked up the other and they headed back to the houses.

      The house Estet's personnel lived in was a little bigger than the other two out of necessity, but it was mostly the same on the inside. It didn't take long to get the six dead minds gathered in the den. It took less time to get the coffee passed out. They were confused as to what he was doing here and a bit suspicious that they were getting free coffee, but they were willing to hear him out. Schuldig waited until they were settled, idly noting that Farfarello and Tomoko sat side-by-side. He pawed through his memory, trying to remember where they'd been at Schwarz's team meetings.

      He was vaguely amused to realize they always sat next to each other. He'd never really noticed before, more interested in trying to figure out the psychics. His own prejudices against dead minds were coming back to bite him on the ass, apparently.

      "You're busy," Schuldig said when everyone was ready. "I'll make this as quick as I can. This is, by the way, a debate, so stop me when I start saying something stupid."

      They nodded obediently, but he knew that acquiescence was a lie. They'd been burned too often by psychics. Farfarello was the only one who wouldn't care about telling Schuldig he was wrong, but the Irishman was more interested in his coffee than his teammate. Schuldig let his gaze linger a second longer on Tomoko. She hesitated, then nodded again.

      He'd only brought half of the problem with him today, since the other half was a mission they weren't allowed to know about. Now he laid the contents of his folder out on the straw mat in the middle of their circle. He summarized what he knew about the man and his company to prove that he'd actually read their notes. He told them his original plans for the man, then explained why he'd decided that was the worst route to go. He knew they hadn't given him everything they knew about the man, so he probed for details, which were readily given up. Around those answers, he theorized another way to go about it.

      What he wanted was a way to tie Sahashi to them permanently. He needed the man to expand his business through alliances in something Schwarz might want to make use of in the future. The businesses Schuldig focused on, though, were ones he knew his private target had mutual interests in. The first of those was sailing, with the argument that Schwarz could always use another force along the coast. Ships brought goods in and out; oceans were good places to lose bodies. There was a lot of money to be made with the ocean, no matter how one looked at it.

      "That won't work," Tomoko said abruptly, startling her colleagues. Hiroyuki flicked a quick look between her and Schuldig. She ignored that and leaned forward, rummaging through Schuldig's files to find the one she needed. "Here," she said, pointing to a gap in dates. "He went on vacation in the Bahamas for two weeks. A storm destroyed his ship and he was at sea for a week before someone found him. He attended psychiatric counseling in secret for six months afterwards. He won't have anything to do with maritime companies."

      Schuldig considered that in silence. "Well, that's definitely good to know."

      Hiroyuki read those words to be a warning. "If you consider your files to be incomplete-"

      Schuldig waved that off, not letting him finish. "It's a waste of your time to try and defend yourself," he said. "The files are incomplete, but for a reason. If you'd given me everything you'd found out about Sahashi, it would have been too much. I know that and I trust your judgment. You gave me everything I needed to get the job done. The only reason I need more is because I'm taking an unorthodox angle."

      Tomoko sent Hiroyuki a sideways look. "I told you he's different."

      "Why?" Mariea asked bluntly. "We're dead minds."

      "When Crawford told me we had dead minds on the team, I wasn't happy," Schuldig said. The truth wasn't a particularly pretty one, but they needed something that sounded honest. "I was raised to think nothing of you. But," he continued, "I was also raised to be the best. I won't tolerate failure. When I signed on with my last team, I learned really fast that the quickest way to fail is with an unstable team. Quite frankly, I'd rather work with you and have our team succeed than ignore you and settle for being mediocre. I won't settle for anything. You shouldn't, either. So if you have a problem with me or your teammates, say something."

      Tatsuo gave a quiet snort at that. "Who would tell Kwan that he's an asshole?" he muttered into his coffee.

      "I would," Schuldig said. "I have, actually."

      "You can," Tatsuo said. "We can't."

      "You've got big, white, and pasty in your corner," Schuldig said, wagging his empty cup at Farfarello. "It's not like you're defenseless."

      "Farfarello doesn't fight with the psychics," Hiroyuki said.

      "He doesn't believe in holding back," Tomoko explained. "Crawford needs all of them alive."

      "Did you miss the memo that said Crawford needs you alive, too?" Schuldig asked, looking around at them. He picked up a stack of papers and shook them. "You're turning out to be pretty damn useful. We're trained to do research at Rosenkreuz, but on a project this big, the only way we can move so fast is because you're willing to do the groundwork for us."

      They knew they were important, but having a psychic acknowledge that to their faces made them sit up a little straighter. "Tell you what," Schuldig said. "You help me figure out this mess here. Next time Kwan's being a complete dick and you want to call him out on it, do it. If he tries to start something, I'll get in the middle of it. He has no right to attack you for airing complaints. Hate to remind you of the obvious here, but Crawford's the leader. Crawford's the one with the rank. So long as you're assigned to Schwarz, you have as much authority as Kwan does. So use it for once, chickenshits."

      They didn't answer that. He could hear the doubt in their minds. His deal sounded nice out loud, but they didn't expect him to actually remember it. A fight with Kwan was long overdue, but if they finally said something and Schuldig didn't keep his word, they'd get their asses kicked. Time would tell if fear or hatred won. Schwarz had weekly meetings and Kwan earned Estet's vitriol at almost every one.

      The only one that was looking at him anymore was Farfarello. There was something almost piercing in his one-eyed gaze, but Schuldig couldn't make any sense of his thoughts. He quirked an eyebrow at the Irishman in a question. He didn't expect an answer, but he got one.

      You are stealing a team that was never meant to be yours. Farfarello's mental voice was the most focused Schuldig had ever heard it. It was enough to catch him off-guard, or maybe that was the fact that the Berserker had realized what Schuldig was trying to do today. Schuldig mentally probed that accusation, trying to figure out what Farfarello honestly thought of such a thing. He couldn't tell; it was as calm as anything else he'd ever said.

      What can I say? Schuldig sent back as nonchalantly as he could. I'm ambitious.

      You will have sushi for dinner,
Farfarello told him. At eight.

      Chinese food,
Schuldig said. At that place on the other side of the station.

      Farfarello didn't argue. Schuldig turned on the rest of Estet's people and went back to the problem at hand. Slowly, one by one, they started to relax. They weren't outright argumentative, but they started kicking ideas and debating with each other on the likelihood of Schuldig's plans.

      It took almost two hours, but they finally came up with something that would satisfy both of Schuldig's goals. He headed next door with his files and new notes. He covered his bedroom floor with paperwork and started putting together a plan and timeline for both jobs.

      He lost track of time, but Crawford's return distracted him from his work. The precog had been out all day in a meeting with Takatori. Now he was home and standing in the doorway, silently demanding a way across Schuldig's room. Schuldig pushed papers out of the way, making a thin path, and stole a glance at his watch. It was half past seven. A glimpse of the time was enough to set his stomach off and he began picking all of his files up.

      "I assume this means you are making progress," Crawford said, surveying the mess.

      "It'll be perfect," Schuldig said. Crawford didn't bother to respond but disappeared into his own room. Schuldig tucked all of his paperwork into his closet and headed downstairs. It was early to be leaving, but he had nothing better to do. He found his shoes at the door and walked to the station. He went in the north entrance and straight down the hall to exit on the south side. A block or so down the street was a Chinese restaurant. Farfarello was waiting for him a street up from the place.

      Schuldig stepped up onto the curb, mouth open on a greeting, but Farfarello was faster. The Irishman seized Schuldig by his shirt and pulled him around, slamming him hard up against the closest brick building. Schuldig didn't know where the knife came from, but he definitely felt its blade dig into his throat. Schuldig didn't try to fight, more interested in finding out what was behind this sudden violence. He kept his smirk off his face and studied Farfarello with a calm expression in place.

      Farfarello's smile, when it came, was the most vicious one Schuldig had seen so far. "This is not your team."

      "Yet," Schuldig said. "I told Crawford I was going to take this team from him. Not by force, not by insubordination, but by their choice. So long as I don't disrupt the team's productivity and success, I'm perfectly within my rights."

      "He's serious," Farfarello mused, pressing the knife a little harder against Schuldig's throat. "He actually intends to dethrone the Oracle." He started laughing suddenly, a breathless, chilling sound. It stopped just as soon as it had started and Farfarello leaned in almost close enough to touch noses with Schuldig. "Interesting."

      He withdrew so abruptly that Schuldig almost lost his balance, never mind that he was propped up against a wall. The Irishman tapped the flat of his blade against his mouth and gazed off down the street, mulling that over. "You are going to give me something," he decided.

      "What, in exchange for your silence over what I'm doing?" Schuldig asked. "I already told you Crawford knows."

      Farfarello answered him with a lazy smile. "For my vote."

      "Are you that easy to buy?" Schuldig asked, arching an eyebrow at him. "That's not exactly encouraging."

      Farfarello was back in his face again, but his knife was already gone. He didn't really need it, Schuldig supposed. He'd never seen Farfarello look so alert before. The vicious edge in his stare and smile reminded Schuldig that this man had single-handedly nuked a five-man team. Staring at him now, Schuldig had no doubts that Farfarello could kill him. Telepathy or no, he'd never see the man coming. Suddenly he wondered if that muddle-minded state was Crawford's shielding or something bred in the Berserkers to protect them from mental psis.

      "Schuldig walks in and says, 'I am the best'," Farfarello murmured, so soft that Schuldig felt the words more than heard them. "I say, 'I was.' I say 'I was fifteen when Estet released me as an independent.' I say, 'That's the youngest on record.' I will tell you a story about Elend, telepath. Perhaps you will find it amusing." Farfarello smiled and Schuldig knew the Irishman was not at all amused by what he was about to say. "Three years ago, Elend failed, and Estet decided to kill them. Berserkers have two-one ratio fights. The Elend assassination required two Berserkers.

      "Two days before I killed them, Estet told me we were being reassigned," Farfarello said. Schuldig guessed that 'we' included Tomoko. "They said they could only spare one Berserker and that I would be going alone. They said they had already been warned of the outcome, but that it was a worthwhile trade. I went. Ah, ah, Schuldig." He pressed a finger against Schuldig's lips, the shhh of an imparted secret. "Elend knew I was coming. Someone told them."

      "They had to know," Schuldig said slowly. "They'd failed a critical project."

      Farfarello dug his finger in harder. "Someone told the empath that they would survive if she destroyed my nerves. I know, because she panicked and said so. I almost lost. I could not feel my knife or my body. Disastrous to fight. Maybe I might have died in that fight, except someone else was fighting with me. Someone else had to slow Elend down."

      Schuldig struggled with that, trying to fit everything together. Crawford needed Schwarz to be big if he wanted it to succeed. Having a large team, though, meant he needed to get his hands on Estet's best Berserker. He'd orchestrated everything. He'd told Estet that Farfarello would be crippled beyond repair and had put in an early request to have him transferred. Estet had approved it and sent Tomoko on ahead. Crawford then warned Elend that Farfarello was coming for them and had told them exactly how to fight him- just the same as he had Farfarello, Nagi, and Schuldig set up his visions in Japan. Once everything was set up, the only thing left to do was have Nagi referee the fight from a distance to make sure Farfarello survived.

      It sounded crazy- and very, very Crawford.

      "Does he know you know?" Schuldig asked.

      Farfarello offered him a bored look. "Crawford cannot understand me."

      Ah, so it is Berserker shielding, Schuldig concluded. That was much better than thinking Crawford was sitting in Farfarello's head. Crawford, in his typical "big picture" way, had probably hedged his bets on a sixteen-year old Farfarello resenting psychics and Estet. Estet had known he'd get destroyed and had traded him out anyway. Crawford was offering Farfarello revenge with his lofty plans of freedom. Maybe Farfarello would have taken the bait, too, if he didn't know he'd been had.

      Crawford was underestimating people left and right these days. Schuldig blamed it on his extreme workload, but that didn't mean he was going to overlook such a chance.

      "Then what do you want from me?" Schuldig asked.

      Farfarello smiled as he leaned back. "I want you to win before Christmas," he said. "I will give you Estet's votes. You must win the psychics over. And then you must give me this back." He flexed his fingers at Schuldig, indicating his lost nerves. "When the team is yours, you will have your empath rebuild what was taken from me."

      "Any reason for that particular deadline?"

      "Crawford was assigned to Schwarz seven and a half years ago," Farfarello said with a slight shrug of one shoulder. "It took him six months to make rank, and he has been leader for seven years. You are going to take no more than five months to tear that all away from him."

      "And Crawford accuses me of being spiteful," Schuldig said, amused.

      "You," Farfarello said, pressing a finger into the hollow of Schuldig's throat, "are still the best. He took that away from me. Tell me who you have."

      "You and Estet make six, plus Nicole and myself is eight. That leaves seven."

      "You do not have the child," Farfarello noted.

      "I'm working my way around the room."

      "Get him," Farfarello said. His tone was almost friendly, but Schuldig heard the threat in it. His expression was already relaxing into that bland, disconnected mask he favored. Schuldig didn't think he'd be fooled by it ever again. "Without him, you have no one at all."

Part 12
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