Sakhr collapsed into his office chair. His hand still clutched the plaque cradled in Sibyl’s arms. Alone now, he could think. Everything else could wait.
What had he forgotten?
It had something to do with Victoria; he was sure of that. Somehow she’d taken away his memories. He hadn’t even realized she could do that. Or had he known? He couldn’t recall ever talking about it.
God damn it. His mind was such a mess.
He couldn’t see Sibyl’s aura. Her shield was working.
“Do you remember?”
“Do you remember everything that just happened?”
“Stop that. Stop being so pathetic. Did you remember what we were just doing?”
“You had sent ships to destroy that orbiter, but then the soldiers forgot what their orders were.”
“What? Orbiter? Why would I want to destroy an orbiter?”
“Victoria was on board.”
“Yes. Okay.” She was, wasn’t she? He remembered something about her getting on board a ship. The Venezia sounded right. It had a captain named Marc Stephano. That’s all he could recall.
“Give me this.” Sakhr tugged at Sibyl’s plaque.
She held on. “Wait. What are you doing?”
“I need to see your mind. I need to know what just happened.”
“But she could still be watching,” she wailed. “She’d erase my memory too.”
Sakhr stopped. That was a good point. Keeping his hand on the plaque, he settled back and thought. He needed to see Sibyl’s mind, but in such a way that Victoria couldn’t first rob her of the very memories he needed. By now, she’d no doubt plundered the minds of every damn soldier in that bridge. Sibyl was the only one left who knew. Only she’d had a shielded plaque.
“Sibyl, how long has my shield been broken?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? You’ve been with me all day. You must have seen my aura. How long have you been able to see it?”
“…All day. I’m sorry. It didn’t occur to me.”
“Didn’t occur to you? Give me this.” They struggled over the plaque. “Give me it now.” Sakhr shoved his shoulder into Sibyl, knocking her away.
Now the sole possessor of the plaque, Sakhr looked upon her.
Then he lunged for his desk’s security button. “Get guards in here now!”
“Nope!” Sibyl launched toward him. Her fist collided with Sakhr’s jaw. He sprawled back. The plaque clattered.
Sakhr clutched his face. Sibyl stood over him. Her docile behavior was gone. This person grinned wide as they fetched the toppled plaque.
“Alexander,” he said. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I’m sure you’ll work it out.”
The impostor took something from their pocket and toss it to Sakhr.
It was a taser.
Sakhr’s mind raced as to why Alexander would arm him after this treachery.
One reason came to mind.
By the time he’d realized it, Alex had already laid the plaque beside them and touched his hand to Sakhr’s stomach.
In his lifetime of swapping bodies, Sakhr had only been swapped by someone else one time before. Victoria had put him inside that tortoise. It had caused jarring motion sickness and left him stunned. He felt that same sensation now. He stared out from Sibyl’s body, looking at the grinning face of Helena, the queen.
Alexander kicked Sakhr away and shot him with the taser. Screaming, Sakhr crumpled.
“Damn,” Alex rubbed his jaw. “I clocked you hard, didn’t I?”
Soldiers burst in, weapons poised. Alexander pointed to Sakhr. “This woman is an assassin.”
The men rushed toward Sakhr.
“No!” shouted Alex. “Stay away from her. Get the exemplars.”
“Your Majesty? We need to secure her.”
“You can’t. She’s a flair. Get the exemplars.”
“Wait,” mumbled Sakhr. Pain still wracked his body from the shock. “It’s a trick.”
No one heard him.
“Go,” said Alex. “Make sure no one enters or leaves this room until the exemplars get here.”
They hesitated. All their training yelled at them not to leave their leader alone with a declared assassin.
“Now,” shouted Alex.
The soldiers backed out of the room. Alex used his plaque to make a call. Two rings.
“Wyatt? It’s me, Alex. You remember that… thing we talked about?”
“It’s just happened. Get the guys up here. Soldiers are on their way.”
“Got it, boss.”
Alex hung up.
“My… my power,” breathed Sakhr. “How…”
“How’d I get it? You’ve been shieldless a lot longer than you think. Funny, really. It’s your own paranoia that’s defeated you. If you’d let the soldiers have those glyph cards, any one of them could have let you know.” Alex rubbed his chin ponderously. “Or maybe not. It takes a brave little boy to tell the emperor he’s hasn’t got any clothes on.”
Sakhr got up on one knee.
“Ah ah.” Alex brandished the taser toward him. “Stay down.”
Sakhr glared at him. “Five hundred years, Alex. Five hundred years. You know how much of your bullshit I’ve put up with? How much I’ve forgiven?”
“You think I don’t know? I know your mind better than you do. What’s that little gem you’re always thinking? A poorly-trained breeding dog. Too good a stock to put down.”
“It was never like that.”
Alex waved it off. “Oh, I know. We always knew where we stood with one another. Which is why we both knew this was coming.”
“Your betraying me? Why would I see this coming? I’ve shown you five hundred years of loyalty.”
“Oh please, Sakhr. Why don’t you look me in the eye and say that. …Or why don’t you tell me where Christof is right now.”
Sakhr clenched his fists. He’d gotten his broken plaque last night. How many times had he looked into Alex’s eyes since then? If he were going to get out of this, it would take luck. Sakhr hated luck.
His eyes on the ground, he asked, “Are you going to kill me?”
“Now that is a great question. I’ve been going back and forth on that all week. It would be such a waste, but on the other hand, Katherine kept you alive. Look where that got her. And why should I keep you when I’ve got this?” Alex turned the plaque toward Sakhr to show an image file. It was an ugly drawing of a glyph made using a simple painting program. Sakhr didn’t recognize it because he had never seen his own.
Four exemplars burst in the door. Alex pointed Sakhr out. Two grabbed Sakhr by his arms. Another cuffed him.
Alex held out his hand. One passed him a repulse pistol. There was no hesitation. It’s as though everyone had rehearsed this act but Sakhr.
“Alexander. I kept you alive all these years. Take it, okay? The throne is yours.”
Stepping closer, Alexander took aim.
“Alexander, please. Put me in a tortoise. Put me in anything. You can’t throw away my power. That… that drawing. Do you think it will last? There’s a girl on this ship who can destroy that with a glance.”
“I’ll make backups.”
“How many? Who will keep them? Think, Alex. You don’t know what the future holds, what flairs will show up. You might need me some day. Just put me away somewhere. Imprison me. Take the throne. I won’t fight for it. I never wanted to rule. Please, Alex. Five hundred years. Does that mean nothing?”
“Good God, Sakhr. Your a calculating man right up until the gun turns on you. You really show your true colors then, don’t you?”
“Don’t do this. My power may be the only method for immortality that will ever exist. That glyph breaking girl might just be the first of many. There may come a day you’ll regret killing me. Please, Alex. Think. You can’t take this back.”
Alex kept the gun aimed at Sakhr, dithering as though deciding an ice cream flavor. With a sigh, he lowered the gun. “I suppose so. Take him away.”
“Where to?” one asked.
Alex thought. “Fourth floor cells. And you, go fetch the tortoise in General Soto’s bathroom. I’ll come by later to swap them out.”
The exemplars started carrying Sakhr away. Despite the predicament, relief washed over him. He could lose the throne. He could lose against Victoria. He would suffer the humiliation of living as a simple animal again. It didn’t matter. He was alive, and in all his millennia of life, this would just be another second. He’d escape some day.
But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Being Victoria’s captive was one thing. She was rational, and careful. She would have let him live for centuries, but Alexander might change his mind tomorrow. As the men carried him to the door, he glanced around. Each exemplar had a gun, not something they were supposed to have, but he could work with it. They each had a plaque fastened to their belts. The men holding his arms were close enough that Sakhr might reach their plaques with his cuffed hands.
He’d wait until they were in the hall, then in one swift motion, yank the plaque’s battery. It would shatter. The man’s instincts would then act against him, and he’d grab Sakhr. In the time it’d take them to realize that Sakhr had changed bodies, he could already have shot two of them. For the last? Simple trick. Toss him the gun. His reaction will be to grab it while Sakhr knocks the man’s plaque from the holster. Then Sakhr would be in his body holding the gun.
It would be a risk, but Sakhr would have to take it. From there, he’d have a shield glyph, a gun, and a body with high rank. Getting off the citadel would be the next trick. He’d have to—
“Hold it,” said Alex. The men turned around, facing Sakhr toward him. “What’s that I smell?” Alex wandered toward Sakhr while sniffing the air. “Is that… hope I’m smelling on your aura? Maybe a hint of determination? You’re already planning your escape, aren’t you?” He frowned at Sakhr like a disappointed parent. “Oh well. Maybe I’ll regret this later, but…” He aimed the gun.
“Alexander,” shouted Sakhr. “Don’t—”
He never got to finish.