Victoria had caused the war.
That’s what Paul had said. Winnie still wasn’t sure whether she believed him, though she couldn’t fathom why he would have lied about it. It would mean that the one woman who Winnie was hoping would rescue her was in fact responsible for every grief Winnie had ever suffered in the last six years. This revelation should have shocked her, like a splash of ice cold water, but so much else had happened to her that she was already numb. Whatever Victoria had or hadn’t done was irrelevant right now. Winnie needed to focus on her situation, and why her captors had come to claim her.
Sakhr’s soldiers put Winnie and the others inside a smaller box for carrying. A military transport was waiting for Sakhr in a landing zone outside the apartment. It was far from royal, but it was certainly secure. The ride was bumpy, making Winnie queazy.
It didn’t help that she was tucked inside her shell, but it was better than tolerating Alex’s gaze. Her flair told her that if she looked out, she’d still see him there, hovering over their box, wearing Winnie’s body like it had been his all along, peering down at them like a child watching ants toil.
Helena seemed to be recovering from the trauma of their situation. Out of her shell, she stared back at Alex. A human wouldn’t recognize her expression, but Winnie’s tortoise mind saw her defiance. Alex returned her gaze thoughtfully. Either Helena didn’t know that Alex was a telepath, or she was sharing with him a piece of her mind. Whatever he saw caused the corner of his lip—Winnie’s lip—to curl upward.
The other tortoise with them was Gilles’s, who meandered about the border of the box as though drunk. He was stuck in the frame of mind that your feet should be beneath you, and not off to the side.
Winnie traced the transport’s path in her mind. It was not headed back to the military base, but its destination was easy enough to guess. Northwest of Porto Maná, a gleaming citadel floated above the ocean. It was so massive and so still, it was hard to believe it hadn’t been there yesterday. People along the beaches and walkways of the city pointed and stared.
Alex’s interest in Helena waned. He looked at Winnie.
“Hey,” said Alex. “Come out.” He tapped her shell. Winnie ignored him.
“Come out. Come out. Come out.”
Picking her up, he shook her, causing her head to bump around inside her shell. When that didn’t work, he lifted her high and dropped her. Just before hitting the box, he caught her. He’d done this annoying tactic before. Every tortoise instinct inside her lurched. She couldn’t stop imagining the poor tortoise that had been dropped during Sakhr’s initial escape. It’s shell cracked like an egg, revealing slimy red. Winnie still managed to keep herself tucked away.
“Stop being rude.” Alex held her up to peer at her, but her eyes were sealed. He held his finger just before her face, as though to bop her nose.
Winnie shot her head out and snapped, managing to nip the tip of his finger. She tasted blood. Winnie had just bit her own body, but it was worth it.
Alex’s response was swift. Something punched her in the face. Then again. Alex was flicking her with this finger—hard. She swiftly retreated into her shell. Her face hurt now. Her head and neck ached from whiplash. Still worth it.
“That was a very bad thing you just did,” said Alex. “I think later you might come regret that. We have plans for you. I have plans for you. Pretty soon, you’re all going to learn that from now on, you’re all going to do exactly what I want. Tonight, maybe I’ll—”
Alex looked up. Sakhr was glaring at Alex from across the transport. He was holding a hand over the microphone of his head piece. It took Winnie a moment to realize he was yelling at Alex, and not at her.
“I’m on the phone,” Sakhr said.
Alex looked sheepish. His pouty expression made Winnie’s body seem ditzy and air-headed. “Sorry.”
Sakhr returned to his phone call. Sitting near to him was Paul, handcuffed and strapped down. Paul observed Alex with an expression as though watching a drunkard publicly urinating. Meanwhile, Alex eyed Winnie while sucking his finger. Whatever he was considering, he decided against it. Shrugging, he put her back in the box.
Until now, Winnie had not heard any of these impostors refer to each other by anything but their true name. It made sickening sense that when this group could be overheard by others, such as the soldiers near the front of the transport, they’d use Winnie and Helena’s names. How much of their captives’ lives did they plan to adopt? Was Alex going to contact Winnie’s mother? God, she hoped not. Her mother would know something was wrong. She’d get suspicious and become a liability, and Winnie had no doubt what Alex would do to a liability.
The light from the transport windows dimmed as the craft swooped into one of many openings along the belly of the citadel. The opening connected to a private bay where dozens of officers awaited. The craft touched down. The doors opened. A stout Admiral shouted out to all the men, and everyone saluted as Sakhr came down the ramp.
“Welcome aboard the HIMS Manakin, Your Highness,” the Admiral said. “Admiral Marc Laughlin, citadel captain.” He gestured to a man beside him. “This is my executive officer, Commander Antonio Benito.”
Benito nodded. To the other side of the admiral was army General Soto, or as Winnie knew him, Christof.
Sakhr nodded. “Glad to be aboard, Captain, Commander. Have all precautions been taken?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Laughlin replied. “Air traffic to and from the citadel is restricted. Whitelisting is in effect. All onboard staff have been scanned and accounted for. The reflex grid is set to full alert, and the citadel has been fully combed over.”
Sibyl had come off the shuttle escorting Paul. She murmured into Sakhr’s ear.
“I see,” Sakhr said. “Admiral, Exemplar Serrao has just informed me that there are birds nesting somewhere above us.
“Yes,” Laughlin replied. “That’s probably the family of osprey nested in the bridge spire peak.”
“I was told that the reflex grid on full alert was sensitive to block out birds.”
“Ah, yes. That’s the saying: It’ll turn the birds around. Just a saying, ma’am. We don’t set the sensitivity that high. Too many false positives.”
“Turn it up that high, Captain. I don’t want anything getting aboard without clearance.”
“Or devices the size of birds. We don’t know how enemies got into the Capital Tower. I will not take any risks.”
Laughlin nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Er… Understood, ma’am.”
“And my accommodations?”
“Yes. We’ve relocated all civilian personnel from one of the spires. It’s cleared and ready for you to move in, Your Highness.”
“Then let’s get a move on.”
The Admiral led everyone to an elevator large enough to lift a tank. It took them onto the surface of the citadel. From here, it was as though they were standing on the streets of a city. Chrome spires towered around them. Though unlike skyscrapers, they were curved. A cross section of them would be oval.
The admiral led them across the open area. It was paved, and from the marking on top of it, planes could land here, even the old kind that required runways. They stopped at a particularly wide spire, and a pair of accompanying officers opened the door for everyone else. Sakhr was the first to enter. It looked like the lobby of a computer tech company, albeit with aluminum walls, hatchways for doors, and port holes for windows. There was even a reception desk, though currently unmanned. Winnie glanced quickly at the spire floors. Each was bare and abandoned.
“This will work,” Sakhr said.
“Then this will be the new imperial spire,” the admiral replied. “Would you like me to show you the upper floors?”
Everyone headed in. Alex lingered outside on the deck with his box of tortoises, as did Christof.
Once they were alone, they finally acknowledged that they knew one another. They walked together. Alex led them toward the edge of the deck.
“Pretty spiffy place,” Alex said. “Had any trouble?”
“The admiral didn’t like an army general telling him what to do,” Christof replied, “but we got the job done.”
“It might make sense to get you into Laughlin’s body.”
“General is fine,” Christof said shortly.
“If you say so. It might be easier to handle the exemplars on board if we had someone in charge though.”
“The exemplars are handled. They’re remaining below deck to clear any incoming personnel. They won’t come near the imperial spire.”
“Good to hear.” Alex reached the edge. Beyond its precipice was a drop into an endless expanse of ocean far below. He set the tortoise box down.
“What are you doing?” Christof asked.
Alex scrutinized each tortoise. Winnie had her eyes closed. Helena was glaring up at him. Gilles was still figuring out his body.
Alex picked up Gilles. “I’m just…” He looked Gilles in the eye. “…Getting rid…” He stood. “…Of some dead weight.” He chucked Gilles over the edge.
“Jesus.” Christof lurched as though to dive after him, but caught himself. “What in the hell, Alex?”
“Don’t need em.”
“You just threw him away?”
“Yeah. That was the caretaker.” Alex picked up the crate and headed back toward the spire. Bewildered, Christof stared after Gilles as he arced into the water far below. Winnie couldn’t help but follow in her mind, despite the gruesomeness of what was to come. Gilles struck the water with a mighty splash. The fall didn’t kill him though. His limbs thrashed as he sank into the cold, dark depths. He would drown slowly now. Winnie knew it would might take hours before death finally took a tortoise. He’d be alone and in pain, and no one he knew would ever know his fate.
Christof caught up with Alex. “Why do you even have the tortoises?”
“Sakhr’s left me in charge of them.”
Christof regarded him skeptically.
“I’m serious,” Alex said.
“And you’re just going to throw them over the edge?”
“Just that one. The others are useful.”
“Yeah. This one is the flair. This one is the princess.”
“Alex. These are just children.”
“They haven’t done anything to us.”
“It’s because of them we escaped in the first place.”
“I know all this.”
“There’s no reason for them to suffer any more than they have.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“Then why are you keeping them. You don’t care about them. You don’t even know how to care about them.”
“I’ll have you know I was a tortoise for seventeen years. I learned a thing or two.”
“I know you, Alex. I know what your idea of fun is. I’ve never remarked on how you spend your free time, but these children could be important. I don’t want them suffering needlessly.”
“And I agree. These tortoises will not suffer any more than necessary.”
“What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
They walked to a back room in the new imperial spire. It was a kitchenette, complete with a coffee maker and small fridge, though no supplies were stocked. Alex set the box of tortoises down and faced Christof. “It means we’ve just been tossed the keys to a crumbling empire. It’s supposed to be held together by the exemplars, but they’re going to fall apart at the seams too, unless we replace them. And the one man who could help us do that has decided to make a moral stand. We need every tool in our arsenal. That might include getting these munchkins to play nice. Especially this one.”
He tapped Winnie’s shell.
“Sakhr would not approve of this,” said Christof.
“Christof…” said Alex, amused by his friend’s naivety. “Where do you think I got the idea?” He pointed to his own eyes, and then to his temple. Think about it, the gesture said. He headed toward the spire stairs.
Christof lingered, frowning after Alex.