116. Time

Oni navigated through the imperial website on his tablet. In a small window in the upper corner of the screen, Helena spoke to the press from behind a podium, but Oni had muted it. Josephine watched over his shoulder. She wished he’d unmute it, but it’s not like she couldn’t watch it herself afterward. Besides, Oni was too preoccupied getting the same thing that millions of citizens were going to that website for. A link on the site led to the assembler public library. Shield stones had gone live, without any security features. Josephine had downloaded one this morning, though it had taken her a while to find it on the website. Oni was having the same trouble. The site had been hastily designed.

Days ago, Helena had announced that she’d make shields publicly available, but it only went live this morning. The delay had a subtle effect. It showed Helena could keep them to herself, but chose to release them. It was crystal clear who the public had to thank. Josephine doubted Helena actually intended that. Everything was on the surface with that girl—no subversion. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe not. Maybe politics would change her. Her reign would be interesting to watch.

Oni found the link to the library. He hit print, and the assembler in the kitchen chimed, although it was still assembling something else.

“You might as well not bother,” Josephine said.

Oni looked at her. Josephine nodded toward Naema. The three of them were all sitting at the same breakfast table.

“But shields stop powers.”

“Not hers.”

Oni tossed the tablet onto the table. “Naema. Go away.”

Naema didn’t look up from her homework. “No.”

“I want to print this.”

“I don’t care.”

“Boy,” Zauna yelled from the kitchen, “leave your sister alone.”

“But I want one.”

“Then go somewhere else.”

Oni snatched his tablet and stormed to the stairs. Moments later, his bedroom door slammed. Neither Zauna nor Naema cared.

“What will you drink, Josephine?” Zauna asked. “We have many things. Water, milk, juice. I have fruits. The market sells hundreds of fruits. You never seen such a thing.”

“No thank you,” Josephine replied. “I can’t stay long. I just came by to see how you all are settling in.”

Zauna entered and set a plate of food before them. “Try this. They are mangos. I haven’t seen any for years. Try them, girl.”

“I’ve had mangos before, Mama,” Naema replied.

“No, you haven’t. Chop.”

Sighing, Naema set down her pencil and took a slice.

Josephine politely took one when offered. “How is school?” she asked Naema.

Naema shrugged. “They put me with a lot of white kids.”

“Her tutors say she is will catch up just fine,” Zauna said. “She is gifted.”

“They just say that, Mama.”

“It is true,” Zauna said simply. “If you are not gifted, then why did they give us all this?” she gestured to the apartment. “You are special.”

“It’s because of my flair, Mama.”

“It is also because you are special.” Zauna sat down. “Eat some peanut butter. It comes from real peanuts.”

“Mama, I’ve got to work.”

“How has that been with your power?” Josephine asked. “Has anyone given you trouble about it?”

“Besides Oni?” Naema asked. “No. People don’t know I break glyphs yet. They aren’t allowed at school though, but I must break a thousand glyphs every day when I walk there. Ms. Montes wants me to move onto the empire campus once they’ve cleaned the place.”

“Are they forcing you to do anything?”

Naema shook her head. “Not yet. That Korean girl wants me to come work for exemplars and train.”

“Winnie?”

“Yea.”

“Is she still heading the Exemplar Committee?”

“Yea.”

“And she’s also going to school?”

“I guess so.”

“Hmm,” Josephine said. A strange imperial cabinet. She supposed the empire was short handed as of late. Winnie, at least, was somebody Josephine trusted. She’d take care of Naema, and Tan, wherever he’d disappeared to. Without anyone on his tail, he didn’t need Josephine anymore. Neither did Naema.

Josephine rose. “I’m glad you’re doing well.”

“You’re going now?” Zauna asked.

“I must, but before I do.” She grabbed a pencil from Naema and scribbled information on a piece of notebook paper. “If you ever need me for anything. Reach out. I’ll come. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am.”

“Okay,” Naema said. “Where are you going?”

“Some place quiet.”

“Stay here,” Zauna said. “We have a spare room. I’ll print a bed.”

“Thank you, but I must leave.”

Zauna made several more protests. Josephine turned them down. Naema rose to hug Josephine, despite the cast on her leg and hand.

In the hall outside the apartment, Josephine picked up her shield stone from where she left it beside the door. Three floors down in the lobby, a doorman bid her good day. Outside there weren’t any streets, just walkways. A complex this ritzy was grid only—rooftop shuttle service.

Josephine hadn’t expected something this good when empire discussed relocating the family, but they wanted Naema close to the imperial campus as possible. From here, Josephine could see the construction platforms hovering over the Capital Tower remains.

She headed down the walkway in the other direction. Several blocks away, she sat at a bench. There, she waited as a nearby couple studied their phones together, as though looking for directions. They didn’t speak to each other, but rather glanced into each others eyes. The woman laughed, the man smiled. They tapped away at the phone together as though they were a single organism. Mind-reading. Josephine had never seen a couple like that, but there must be millions like that pair around the world now, discovering a level of intimacy never known before.

What a strange new world this was. Everything seemed the same, yet everyone’s way of life was forever different.

Minutes later, the couple found their way and headed off. Apart from a few distant pedestrians, she was alone.

A flutter, a passing shadow, and something rushed by Josephine’s head. She looked. Perched on the other end of the bench was a hawk—an osprey to be specific.

It turned its head this way and that.

“Thank you,” Josephone said. “I gave her my contact information. I told her I would come back for her if she ever needed me to. I hope that was okay.”

The osprey made no noise.

“I don’t think she’ll use it though. She’ll be fine. Look at this place. Everyone here could have died the other day, but it’s already back to normal. Good for them.”

She rested her eyes. Something prodded her shoulder. The osprey had inched over and was poking her with its talon. Sighing, Josephine took the shield stone from around her neck and placed it on the bench. She held her hand out to the bird.

Her senses yanked away. Staggering, she nearly fell off the back of the bench before buffing her wings to catch her balance. Regaining her composure, she looked at the body she’d possessed moments ago.

“I’ll be keeping an eye on them anyway,” her old body said. “Shall we?” The woman rose.

Josephine fluttered onto the woman’s arm. It was a clumsy effort.

“We’ll need to get another body,” the woman said.

Josephine tilted her head to meet the woman’s eyes. “I’m fine,” she thought. “It just takes getting used to.”

“And you will spend the rest of your life as a hawk? Nonsense. I don’t care how you feel about stealing bodies. We will not keep sharing this one, and I will not draw attention to myself with a bird forever on my shoulder.” She walked. “If we must, we will find someone comfortable with the trade. You’d be surprised how many people would give up their bodies to live as a bird.”

Josephine had to wait a while before the woman met her eye again. “And fifty years from now?” Josephine thought. “No one will want to swap bodies with a pair of old women.”

“They might for the right price.”

“Only a fool would exchange life for money, a soon-to-be regretful fool. I don’t want to live at the expense of others. I don’t want you to either. That was Sakhr’s way of life.”

“We’ll manage, Josephine. I told you I would not live as Sakhr had, and I’m good to my word.”

“You also told Winnie you would never take her memories, yet last I spoke to her, she didn’t recall your climbing up to that osprey’s nest over the bridge balcony. A strange thing to forget…”

The woman regarded Josephine. “She is with Helena now, both in their own body. I upheld the spirit of my agreement with that girl, and I will not tolerate your telling me otherwise.”

“It was still a slip in your word, no matter how justified. Over time—not weeks or months, but centuries, tiny justifications can add up. I’ve been there before. I once swore to myself that I would never live like Sakhr. I said I was only living with them for my protection, but then I justified taking one body because it came from an abhorrent person. Then I justified another, and another. It’s easy to slide with time.”

“Then I suppose you’ll have to keep me in check,” the woman said, “but I will remain in this world, Josephine. I am not done.”

Josephine wasn’t sure how she felt about this. Words like that could have come straight from Sakhr’s mouth. At least this week was a victory—a major one too. Letting go of an empire was no small thing. But many more battles were yet to come. Josephine would always be there for this woman.

“Where are we going?” she thought.

“I don’t know,” the woman said. “Some place comfortable. I’d like to establish myself again. It shouldn’t prove so tiresome this time around.”

“Will you be getting involved in politics?”

The woman thought. “I don’t think so. With my daughter in charge and the world the way it is, the less I think about politics, the more relaxed I’ll be. No. I’ll build my own corner of the world, but it will be just for me.”

“No more empires?”

“Not for now. I’m tired of empires. Maybe one day I’ll come back. Slowly this time, more subtly. I have all the time in the world.”

Josephine’s heart sank. “Why? After all the pain and struggle, was it really worth it? Don’t you have regrets?”

“I made mistakes, yes. Maybe I acted too rashly, but I still think I helped the world. People won’t see it that way today. Maybe they never will, but I think I did.” She glanced at Josephine. “Don’t worry. I don’t plan to do anything for a good while. The world will have to survive without me for the time being.”

“It survived millennia without you, Katherine. Isn’t it a little arrogant to think that it might not?”

Katherine grinned. “I never said I wasn’t arrogant.”

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