All ministers and local regional heads were crammed into the Leguan staff room. They sat shoulder to shoulder along a conference table made from smaller tablecloth-covered plastic tables. Winnie sat by Helena, both because Helena begged for her to be there, and because she was technically the Head of the Exemplar Committee now that she had her body back.
“So pardon me, Your Majesty,” said a general, “If we haven’t been dealing with you these past few weeks, that means the peace work with China… it was this Alexander?”
“It was, but he was using mind control.”
“The same mind control he supposedly used on all us?”
“It’s not supposedly,” Helena said. “He was.”
“Are we still being mind controlled?”
“No. You’re not. I’m not going to use any kind of mind control.”
“Did your mother use mind control?”
“No. I don’t think she did.”
“You don’t know for sure?”
“I don’t think she had the ability. The mind-control showed up after those glyphs got out in the open.”
“But she would have?” asked another.
“I don’t know,” Helena said. “I’m not her.”
“I don’t think she would have,” Winnie interjected. “It wouldn’t have interested her. She wouldn’t have considered it actually ruling people. More controlling them.”
“But she did use mind control to assault the Manakin?”
“Out of necessity,” Helena said. “And it wasn’t an assault. She just snuck aboard to get rid of Alexander. Alexander was the one who sunk the citadel.”
“I thought you said your mother did.”
“I meant he was the one who set the bomb. My mother sank it to contain the blast.”
The men and women in the council chamber still looked confused.
“So how can we be sure that you’re really Helena?” a minister asked.
Helena opened her mouth. Closed it. With a sigh, she unhooked her necklace. Her aura came to life. “Here. Read my mind.”
Everyone reacted. “Ma’am. Put that back on. It’s not safe,” the general said.
“It’s perfectly safe.”
“The enemy can strike from anywhere.”
“I’ve already explained. Just… do you want to read my mind or not?”
She looked each person in the eyes one after another. Many averted their gaze, but most took her up on their offer. Some gaped. Other stared, eyes fixed on Helena with intensity. Others simply glanced, then nodded.
“Do you all believe me now?” she asked.
No one replied.
Eventually, a minister spoke. “Are you going to tell people what happened?”
“I’m not sure that’s wise, ma’am,” said the general. “If people learn how easily the empire was usurped—that you spent two weeks imprisoned in an animal while some maniac ran the country—it could cause panic.”
“And no one will react positively to knowing their minds have been controlled,” said another. “They’re already wary of the Exemplar Committee. This could strain their tolerance to the breaking point.”
“I know,” Helena said. “That’s why I’m going to make some changes. My mother used the exemplars to control people while keeping secrets from everyone, even me. I, however, will not be a hypocrite. I’m dissolving the Exemplar Committee.”
Everyone’s reaction was immediate.
“Your Majesty, you mustn’t do that,” an admiral said. “The Committee holds this empire together. Your mother put a lot of faith into foreign militaries enforcing her reign on their soil. If the exemplars aren’t there to ensure loyalty, rebellion will occur. Parts of this empire would secede the moment they had the chance.”
“Maybe that’s part of the problem,” Helena said. “Maybe we shouldn’t force ourselves in places we’re not welcome.”
“You’re not suggesting we relinquish control?” the admiral asked.
“We’ve already lost control of Northern Europe,” Helena countered. “Asia is in riots right now, and we don’t have any forces in India anymore.”
“But voluntarily give up control? Showing weakness like that would lead to war. Many of these countries would unite against us if they thought that they could get away with it. The exemplars and our control over food supplies are what barely hold this empire together. I understand why you want to disband the Committee. It’s a noble cause, but we just can’t right now.”
“Okay,” Helena said. She donned her shield stone. Her aura was betraying her cool, confident presentation. “But the people don’t deserve to live under the constant threat that we can read their minds while they can’t read ours. They don’t trust us anymore. That needs to change. Maybe from now on, they should have a right to demand screenings from those who control them.”
Again, her audience clambered to respond.
“You want them to read our minds?” one outspoken minister said.
“We’ve spent years reading theirs,” Helena said. “But nobody read ours. And look what happened. We’re the ones that failed them.”
“Your Majesty. Your Majesty,” a minister replied. “That’s lunacy.”
“Of course we can,” Helena replied. “Why not?”
“People would lose faith in the empire.”
“More than they already have?”
“Yes. You are our queen because of who your mother was. That’s it. If people find out that it’s possible to switch bodies, and that Victoria was actually someone else in Victoria’s body, what does that say about your right to rule?”
“And what about state secrets, ma’am? What would happen if the location of our nuclear arsenal became public knowledge? What’s to stop them from taking information about military operations from our head and selling them to another nation? What if they—”
“I get it,” Helena said. “So we won’t open ourselves up that entirely. All I know is that my mother was never checked by anyone, and that’s part of what caused this whole problem. And I still believe if we can read other people’s minds, they should have the right to read ours.”
“A right?” asked the general. “Your mother had a saying about rights. They’re—”
“I know what my mother used to say.” Helena stopped and composed herself. “So maybe we don’t dissolve the Exemplar Committee, but there has to be more accountability. The world is changing every day. People have lost trust, and we need to earn it back.” She sighed. “I know I’m… My administration is still getting a handle on things, but I will do what’s best. Will you stand by me?”
There was silence at first. Winnie was worried no one would answer.
Then, “Of course, Your Majesty.”
It was the general. He took his shields stone from around his neck and laid it on the table. His eyes met Helena’s.
“I support you,” said a minister. She too set aside her stone and looked at Helena.
One by one each person at the table pledged their support. Whether by choice or by pressure, they all removed their shields as they did so. There was nothing to hide.
“Good,” Helena said.
“That was horrible,” Helena wailed. “I’m going to be the worst queen in the world.”
She and Winnie were sitting together in her Leguan officer’s quarters.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Winnie said.
“It was. They all think I’m an idiot.”
“No, they don’t. You’ve been in office for less than a day. Nobody expects you to know exactly what to do. It’s their job to help you learn. What’s important is that they all support you.”
“No, they don’t. They just think they do. Their heads are all messed up and they don’t even realize it. Whatever Alex did to them has rolled over onto me. Did you know the Chinese premier called me today? He said he just wanted to make sure I was all right, but I think he wanted to do phone sex with me or something. He wouldn’t stop flirting.”
“So maybe people are a little attached to you,” Winnie admitted. “You could use the advantage.”
“Yeah, because I have no idea what I’m doing. None. Everything I said in there was stupid. I was actually going to say we should stop hoarding food assembly until that guy pointed out that it’s the only thing keeping us from all out war. The biggest thing I’ve ever led was a basketball team.”
“Oh, uh… about that,” Winnie said. “Ms. Montes wants to know when we’re coming back to class.”
“I can’t,” Helena wailed. “I don’t have time for school anymore.”
“We’ll have to make time. The queen should at least have a high school education, but she says the school will work around your schedule.”
Helena thrust her head onto her pillow.
“Ms. Montes will set up tutoring for you,” Winnie continued. “And it sounds like the ministry takes care of most day to day stuff about running the empire. Although maybe not at first. Everything is hectic right now, but it should all calm down soon.”
Helena still had her face buried. “Would you like to be queen? You still have the body swapping glyph, right?”
“I’m not bossy enough, but that reminds me.” She brought out a folder from her bag. Inside were transcribed glyphs. “What are we going to do with these?”
“What are they?”
“Alex’s backup glyphs.”
Helena picked up the one on top. “This is the Sympathy glyph, isn’t it?”
“Is this the only one left?”
Helena started to tear it.
“Wait!” Winnie said. “Are you sure?”
“I’m not going to use it. That’s something my mother would have done. I’m trying to prove to the world that they can trust me. I can’t do that and use this.”
“But that’s the last glyph. If it’s gone, the power is gone for good, and that power might be the only reason the ministry is giving you a chance. It might be the only reason we’re not at war right now.”
Helena gazed at the glyph for a long while. “No.” She tore it in two. “I won’t use it, and I can’t think of a reason why I would that’s not wrong. The world is better off without it.” Helena continued tearing it into tiny pieces. Afterward, she stared at the remains. “Did I just make a big mistake?”
“No,” Winnie stared with her. “You’re right. It shouldn’t exist. You’ll give people shields, and that will protect them.”
Helena looked down at the second sheet in the folder. “And this is body swapping, right?”
“It is. It’s the only glyph in existence now.”
“Should I tear it up too?”
“That’s up to you.”
“But I want to know what you think.”
Winnie shrugged. “I don’t know. What you’re holding in your hand is the secret to immortality. Sakhr lived for thousands of years because of that.”
“But we’d have to steal lives to do it. I’d be just like my mom.”
“Maybe you could be open about using it instead. What if you only took lives of people on death row or something?”
“Ew. And live in the body of some slimy, tattooed convict?”
“Maybe one day we could make mindless clones of ourselves, and we take those bodies.”
Helena regarded her.
“I don’t know,” Winnie said. “It just seems like there’s a lot of potential we could be throwing away. I could just see us eighty years from now, swallowing a dozen pills every morning and leaning on our walkers, wishing we still had this around.”
“But maybe that’s why we should destroy it,” Helena said. “Just like with Sympathy, sooner or later we’re going to be tempted. And what if it got out? Could you imagine that? Identity theft would hit a whole new level. Like, an even worse level than it’s already reached with all this mind-reading going on. Some old bad guy could break into someone’s house, tie someone up, read their mind for everything they’d ever have to know, then switch bodies and take over the other person’s life. Or worse. A person could take over a baby. Who would ever know?”
“Everything can be abused,” Winnie said, “but it still might be the most amazing power that’s ever existed. Maybe there are people out there who would want to swap bodies with each other. And I can think of a few ways swapping bodies with someone might be fun, even if just for a while.”
“But I’m still not sure it’s worth the risk.”
“What about Alex?” Winnie asked. “If you get rid of that, he’ll be in a tortoise forever.”
“So? He deserves it.”
“He doesn’t even remember what he did.”
“I’m just saying. It’s not like we’re punishing him. There’s no lesson for him to learn if he can’t remember, and what if someday we want to release him? Or imprison someone else? Every generation, more flairs are going to show up with powers we can’t even imagine. Maybe keeping the glyph around is a bad idea, but maybe one day we’ll need it.”
Helena looked despairingly at the glyph she held between her fingers, poised to tear it. “Oh, I don’t know. Every choice I make seems like it could change the world forever. I don’t want this kind of pressure. Why can’t being an queen be all about fashion like I wanted it to be?”
Winnie put the glyph back in the folder and tucked it away. “Maybe you’ve been queen enough for now. Big decisions can wait until tomorrow.” She her shield stone off from around her neck and set it beside the bed.
“What are you doing?” Helena asked.
Winnie met her gaze. Her mind returned to a place in the universe where their solar system was just speck far behind. Before her were untold galaxies of all different shapes and size, all unimaginably far away, and whatever lay beyond.
“Where do you want to go?” Winnie thought.
Helena removed her own shield stone and looked back. “Far away,” she thought.