“Does this mean I’m in charge of the empire now?” Sakhr asked.
“The throne passes to you, yes, but not officially,” General Soto said, “not until you undergo a coronation. The ministry will have more information about that.”
The medics had just finished checking Sakhr over in an examination room in Fort Leguan when General Soto had come in to address him. Sakhr had managed to keep Alexander and Christof around. They were both checked alongside him.
“However,” Soto continued, “I’m afraid that your responsibilities begin now. We haven’t yet announced your mother’s passing to the press, but we will have to soon—once the forensics team positively identifies her body. You’ll need to address the public. They need to see that they still have a leader.”
“You’ve just told me my mother is dead.” Sakhr said. “And you expect me to go before the empire and tell them… what? That everything is going to be okay?”
“I understand, and I’m sorry, Your Highness, but I’m afraid we can’t put this off. Many rescue workers were there when they pulled her remains from the wreckage. The press is going to catch wind of this soon.”
“Of course.” Sakhr wondered whether he should be showing emotion. He knew practically nothing about the girl whose body he possessed, but surely she would be devastated. He supposed he could pass it off his emotionlessness as shock. He’d been through a traumatizing experience, though all he felt was hungover.
Alexander rested a hand on Sakhr’s shoulder. Sakhr resisted the urge to shrug him off. To an outside observer, Winnie was comforting her friend Helena in the loss of her mother.
“We’ll contact your mother’s speech writers,” Soto said. “All you’ll have to do is read a short script. Just a message of hope and how the empire will survive. That’s all.”
“What about the people responsible?” Alex asked.
Soto nodded. “We will need to say something as to that effect. Unfortunately, we don’t have answers right now. Just tell the world you’re okay, and that we’ll pull through. In the meantime, we need to discuss the matter of your personal safety.”
“What do you mean?”
“The people who orchestrated this attack are still out there. They managed to infiltrate the Capital Tower, one of the most secure places in the empire. Fort Leguan is not nearly as safe, especially given its recent surge of traffic. Even if we secured the camp and scanned all personnel, it’s not secure enough to my satisfaction for you.”
“Scanning the personnel?”
“Yes. So with your permission, I’d like to call the HIMS Manakin down to Porto Maná. That citadel could lock down air traffic and scan all onboard personnel. We’d have more fine grained control with security there.”
“Of course,” Sakhr said, though he had no idea what a citadel was. “What efforts are we making to catch the people responsible?”
“We’ll find out who they are. Rest assured, ma’am.”
“But we already know, don’t we? Bishop. You said he was a high exemplar.”
“Yes. There is a High Exemplar who’s last name is Bishop. We don’t know for sure that it’s the same person.”
“How many Bishops can there be?”
“I don’t know, but until we have more intelligence, we should not implicate the Exemplar Committee in a conspiracy against the throne. They were your mother’s most trusted subjects.”
“My mother’s,” Sakhr said. “Not mine. I want him arrested for treason and brought directly to me.”
“We don’t know that he was involved, Your Highness. We’re contacting the other High Exemplars now. In the meantime, there are two men in the ward who we plan to question. We believe they many have information about the attack.”
“What’s this?” Sakhr asked. “Who are these men?”
“Two other pods touched down beside the one we recovered you from. The occupants were two men who worked in Capital Tower security. We suspect they may have been involved.”
“They weren’t,” Alex said. “They just happened to bump into the marines during the whole mess.”
“Either way, both men are suffering from severe cases of radiation poisoning. We don’t expect them to survive the day. Our onsite exemplars will scan them in a few minutes.”
“But they weren’t involved,” Alex insisted.
“They might have information. And since time is a factor, and neither of them are particularly lucid, a scan will tell us whatever they know before they die.”
“We can’t trust the exemplars,” Sakhr said. “We already know one was involved in this event. Don’t use them to scan those men. Don’t use them to secure the citadel. Surely you must see the problem with that.”
“We suspect a high exemplar was involved, and only one. We’ll take into account that the exemplar’s testimony may be suspect, but we can’t afford to ignore them as a resource. Like I said, these men will be dead in a few hours.”
“Then I would like to be there. It’s in a few minutes, you say? In the infirmary?”
“Ma’am.” He spoke patiently, as though to a child. “You have more important things to attend to. The ministry is already trying to reach you. Let us conduct the investigation. We’ll keep you abreast of any developments. In the meantime, leave out any indictments from your speech.”
“Are you telling me what to do?” Sakhr asked. “I am the queen now. You are my general.”
“I’m only trying to help you, Your Highness.”
“Your title does not change until the coronation ceremony.”
He said it simply, just stating a fact, but to Sakhr, it said more. Perhaps, “you are not the queen yet.” Or maybe, “I know better.” Maybe the man was just clarifying the point for her, but Sakhr was certain that if Victoria had made the same demand, Soto would have obliged. To the general, Princess Helena was just a princess. Unfortunately, Sakhr didn’t have time to wait until Soto respected him.
He looked Alex in the eye. Alex glanced toward Christof. Christof nodded. All three understood each other.
“General,” Sakhr said, “I’ll let you conduct the interrogation your way, but you and I need to make something clear.” Sakhr hopped up from his hospital bed and approached Soto.
The general did not pull back at all when Sakhr reached to touch his hand. Their fingers brushed, and Sakhr flowed into his body like the release of a static charge. Before him now sat the body of Helena, who flailed in alarm. Calmly, Sakhr reached for Christof, who’s eyes widened, but didn’t resist. Sakhr entered his body, and then reached to flow back into Helena’s. The switch was done. Now for the nasty bit.
Alex circled around behind the body Soto now occupied. The thin, lithe arms of the teenage body Alexander occupied were already wrapped about Soto’s neck. Soto struggled madly. For someone suddenly evicted from his body, he was in far more control of his faculties than most. Sakhr held him down, yet Soto fought back ferociously. The infirmary bed was knocked aside.
Soon Soto went limp. Alex held on for good measure, but otherwise, the sordid affair was over.
Sakhr turned to Christof, who had stood aside during the fight. “General Soto?”
“I don’t know enough about him to maintain that facade,” Christof said. “We shouldn’t have killed him.”
“It’s fine,” Alex chirped. “I saw enough in his head. Come on, General. We’ve got work to do.”
“What about the body?” Christof asked.
“Shame, isn’t it?” Alex said. “Another man attacks the royal line just hours after the explosion. He must have been part of the conspiracy after all.”
“I don’t know if they’ll buy that.”
“Oh, they will,” Sakhr said. “We all saw it. Just as we heard of Bishop’s involvement.”
“Yes,” replied Alex. “Bishop will pay for what he’s done. Come on, General. We’ve got a lot to do, and so little time.”