Captain Stephano was a sad sight. The medic had cut away his uniform during surgery, and now he was left with tubes running from his arms and mouth. He looked old, Victoria realized. He had gray hair at the temples and bitter wrinkles about his mouth. Victoria had to check the medical tablet to confirm that he was only in his thirties. He’d served in her army for five and a half years, which meant he was one of the first people to join her army as a soldier, instead of a carried-over mercenary from her company days.
Those first few months had been the toughest times. She’d succeeded in safeguarding most of her privately owned territories. Using her food and mercenaries, she’d become the crux of the locals’ wellbeing, but no one had seen her as anything more than a prominent land owner. Her transition into official control had been the most delicate and awkward stage of her rise to power. She’d hand out currency just to collect it again for food she had given out for free just a week previous. Her men had shown up to people’s houses to collect taxes for the first time, which was always contentious, even when she bore official stamps of old governments. She could pretend to be a servant of a South American coalition as much as she wanted, but if she hadn’t owned the people bearing the guns, she’d have gotten nowhere.
And recruitment hadn’t been easy. Convincing people to join a coalition supervised by one foreign white woman had required an enormous leap of faith from the people. Stephano had been one of those who’d given her a chance. If not for people like him, she’d have failed, despite all her hidden powers. He’d believed in her.
Now here he was, an old man rotten with death. And it was because of her.
The other marines had worked out what had happened. Private Larson had been waiting in a storage housing for forty minutes. Liat, Bishop, Victoria, or anyone with a glyph card should have sensed him. His memories were gone, but Victoria suspected he’d practiced calming himself. Anyone with a glyph card could figure out how to still their aura—another reason to regret its leak.
When Victoria and the others passed, he followed. The rest Victoria knew. She was damn near omnipotent, but one unshielded man had caused so much grief because she locked up.
There was a commotion outside the stateroom door. Victoria visualized it. The guards that Executive Officer Rivera assigned to Victoria were stopping Josephine from entering.
“No one is allowed in,” the guards were saying.
“I know,” said Josephine. “Could you let her know I’m here.”
“You’ll have to come back later. Right now, ma’am, you need to leave.”
“Just. Let. Her. Know.”
“I’m not going to ask you again, ma’am.”
Victoria spoke loud enough to be heard through the door. “Let her in.”
Victoria didn’t rise from her post beside Stephano.
Josephine stopped before the captain’s bed. “How is he?”
“They say he’ll live.”
“Has he been awake any.”
Josephine nodded and hunkered down. There was no other seat in the stateroom. “And how about you?”
“I was not hurt. I think I have Tan’s power to thank for that. I stumbled in just the right way.”
“But are you okay?”
Victoria regarded her.
“I’m just concerned,” said Josephine. “That’s all. ”
They sat silently a while.
“Do you know why that man attacked you?” Josephine asked. “Everyone has been talking. Some say he was talking about how you were brainwashing everyone. He’d seemed on edge.”
“Yes. Rivera told me. Though how do you know?” Victoria looked at Josephine, and the answer was in her eyes. The flairs had banded together in their own little clique. Winnie watched the soldiers and shared. When they spoke Portugues or Spanish, she’d lock eyes with Christof, who could translate. Even Tan had joined their gossip circle.
“Adorable,” Victoria said.
“They haven’t let me anywhere near the attacker,” said Josephine. “But Winnie says he’s in bad shape. The soldiers say he’s gone mad.” She paused. “How much did you take from him?”
“I wasn’t concentrating on that.”
“They’re saying he doesn’t remember anything in the last six years.”
“I took whatever I could. I guess more related to me than I would have guessed.”
“Everything relates to you now, Victoria. This army serves you. This nation is yours. Everything that happens because of you could be considered your fault.”
Victoria nodded. “You’ve managed to give your power quite a broad definition. Do you still think you couldn’t extend your power to include any possible memory?”
Josephine did not let the conversation steer away. “That man forgot the Collapse. He lost everything that came after it. That means you believe the Collapse, and everything that’s followed, is your fault.”
Victora looked at her, unamused.
“Please, wait,” said Josephine. “Don’t make me forget this. I’ve already known for a while. Winnie knew, and I’ve been in her head all week. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it.”
“I do not wish to discuss it. There’s no need for you to know.”
“But I want to know it all the same. Please.”
“Because you shouldn’t have to carry it all by yourself.”
“Don’t give me your therapy, Josephine. There were plenty of people who knew. My high exemplars knew.”
“But now they’re dead. Who else is left? Winnie? Has she accepted it?”
“No, but I don’t need acceptance. I know what I did. I knew the world might see me as a villain, but I still believe what I did was necessary. So did Liat, Bishop, and my other high exemplars. We were trying to make the world a better place in the long run.”
“Why did you trust them?”
“I didn’t. Trust is when you give someone the power to hurt you. My high exemplars were only allowed to know because they were forbidden to keep secrets from me. That was the life-long deal they made when I saved them from their death beds. I owned them. That’s not trust.”
“Is that the only way you’ll ever share with anyone.”
“I learned a long time ago not to trust, Josephine. You should know this.”
“Okay then.” Josephine presented herself. “Own me.”
“You have no high exemplars left. So take me. I’ll accept the role. Whatever it is you do, whatever you have planned, I’ll stand by you. You can scan my entire life if you want.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Liat killed for me. She spent two and a half years in the body of an overweight Russian diplomat disseminating my lies. She didn’t just know about the Collapse. She helped me cause it.”
“Did she know what you would have her do that when you recruited her?”
“Yes. I warned her.”
“Did you tell her why?”
“And she believed in you enough to do it. They thought you served a greater good. Every one of your high exemplars did. And I will too.”
“What if I’m wrong? What if I’m exactly what everyone now thinks I am? A monster—too twisted inside to see the ruin I’m causing.”
“Then at least you’ll have somebody to let you know.”
“So. What’s the plan?” asked Josephine. “We’re going to retake your empire. Right?”
“If there’s anything left to salvage. And if the people will ever let me. I don’t know if the empire can ever be restored now, unless I go the same route as Alex and control the the masses, which I refuse to do. The world has crumbled again. If I want to bring it back together, it will require another war, and I’m not sure I have the will anymore.”
“Then don’t. Fixing the world is not your responsibility.”
“It’s not my responsibility, but if I don’t, who will?”
“Everyone else will just have to figure it out. It’s their world too. They’re living in it. The powers that you had are in their hands now.”
“And what would you suggest I do instead?”
“Why don’t you try living? You’ve been in such a rush to make a difference that you forgot about that. Go out and see the world you’ve tried so hard to control. Grow. Enjoy your life. Cut out your own little corner of the world for yourself. Don’t concern yourself with the wellbeing of everyone else.”
“It’s not. You went from being a child to a conquerer. There should have been a whole lot more in between that you missed.”
Victoria gazed upon Stephano. She was silent a long while. It was strange to her to think of a life where she wasn’t a ruler. In so many decades, she’d never considered such a thing.
“No,” she said, “I can’t do that, even if that’s what I wanted. Not with Alex where he is. Maybe the world is not my responsibility, but if I left now, I’d be leaving the world worse off because of it. He has to be stopped—him, and his mind control, and that thing he had Quentin build.”
“And this is what you want?”
“It’s what I need to do.”
Josephine nodded. “Then what do we do next?”