It’s a tremendous amount of work with far less freedom than one might expect; worse, it’s a position that requires a great deal of people skills. The kind of people skills that include both killing and charming a person at a moment’s notice. Two things I detest.
I tried to convince Juliette that she was perfectly capable of stepping into my father’s shoes, but she doesn’t seem at all persuaded. And with Haider and Nazeera now here, I understand why she seems more uncertain than ever. The two of them—well, it was only Haider, really—asked to join Juliette on her morning walk to the water this morning. She and Kenji had been discussing the matter under their breaths, but Haider has sharper hearing than we suspected. So here we are, the five of us walking along the beach in an awkward silence. Haider and Juliette and I have unintentionally formed a group. Nazeera and Kenji follow some paces behind.
No one is speaking.
Still, the beach isn’t a terrible place to spend a morning, despite the strange stench arising from the water. It’s actually rather peaceful. The sounds of the breaking waves make for a soothing backdrop against the otherwise already-stressful day.
“So,” Haider finally says to me, “will you be attending the Continental Symposium this year?”
“Of course,” I answer quietly. “I will attend as I always have.” A pause. “Will you be returning home to attend your own event?”
“Unfortunately not. Nazeera and I were hoping to accompany you to the North American arm, but of course—I wasn’t sure if Supreme Commander Ferrars”—he glances at Juliette—“would be making an appearance, so—”
She leans in, eyes wide. “I’m sorry, what are we talking about?”
Haider frowns only a little in response, but I can feel the depth of his surprise. “The Continental Symposium,” he says. “Surely you’ve heard of it?”
Juliette looks at me, confused, and then—
“Oh, yes, of course,” she says, remembering. “I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about that. I didn’t realize it was such a big deal.”
I have to fight the impulse to cringe.
This was another oversight on my part.
Juliette and I have talked about the symposium, of course, but only briefly. It’s a biannual congress of all 555 regents from across the continent. Every sector leader gathered in one place.
It’s a massive production.
Haider tilts his head, studying her. “Yes, it’s a very big deal. Our father,” he says, “is busy preparing for the Asia event, so it’s been on my mind quite a bit lately. But as the late Supreme Anderson never attended public gatherings, I wondered whether you would be following in his footsteps.”
“Oh, no, I’ll be there,” Juliette says quickly. “I’m not hiding from the world the way he did. Of course I’ll be there.”
Haider’s eyes widen slightly. He looks from me to her and back again.
“When is it, exactly?” she says, and I feel Haider’s curiosity grow suddenly more intense.
“You’ve not looked at your invitation?” he asks, all innocence. “The event is in two days.”
She suddenly turns away, but not before I see that her cheeks are flushed. I can feel her sudden embarrassment and it breaks my heart. I hate Haider for toying with her like this.
“I’ve been very busy,” she says quietly.
“It’s my fault,” I cut in. “I was supposed to follow up on the matter and I forgot. But we’ll be finalizing the program today. Delalieu is already hard at work arranging all the details.”
“Wonderful,” Haider says to me. “Nazeera and I look forward to joining you. We’ve never been to a symposium outside of Asia before.”
“Of course,” I say. “We’ll be delighted to have you with us.”
Haider looks Juliette up and down then, examining her outfit, her hair, her plain, worn tennis shoes; and though he says nothing, I can feel his disapproval, his skepticism and ultimately—his disappointment in her.
It makes me want to throw him in the ocean.
“What are your plans for the rest of your stay here?” I ask, watching him closely now.
He shrugs, perfect nonchalance. “Our plans are fluid. We’re only interested in spending time with all of you.” He glances at me. “Do old friends really need a reason to see each other?” And for a moment, the briefest moment, I sense genuine pain behind his words. A feeling of neglect.
It surprises me.
And then it’s gone.
“In any case,” Haider is saying, “I believe Supreme Commander Ferrars has already received a number of letters from our other friends. Though it seems their requests to visit were met with silence. I’m afraid they felt a bit left out when I told them Nazeera and I were here.”
“What?” Juliette says, glancing at me before looking back at Haider. “What other friends? Do you mean the other supreme commanders? Because I haven’t—”
“Oh—no,” Haider says. “No, no, not the other commanders. Not yet, anyway. Just us kids. We were hoping for a little reunion. We haven’t gotten the whole group together in far too long.”
“The whole group,” Juliette says softly. Then she frowns. “How many more kids are there?”
Haider’s fake exuberance turns suddenly strange. Cold. He looks at me with both anger and confusion when he says, “You’ve told her nothing about us?”
Now Juliette is staring at me. Her eyes widen perceptibly; I can feel her fear spike. And I’m still trying to figure out how to tell her not to worry when Haider clamps down on my arm, hard, and pulls me forward.
“What are you doing?” he whispers, the words urgent, violent. “You turned your back on all of us—for what? For this? For a child? Inta kullish ghabi,” he says. “So very, very stupid. And I promise you, habibi, this won’t end well.”
There’s a warning in his eyes.
I feel it then, when he suddenly lets go—when he unlocks a secret deep within his heart—and something awful settles into the pit of my stomach. A feeling of nausea. Terrible dread.
And I finally understand:
The commanders are sending their children to do the groundwork here because they don’t think it’s worth their time to come themselves. They want their offspring to infiltrate and examine our base—to use their youth to appeal to the new, young supreme commander of North America, to fake camaraderie—and, ultimately, to send back information. They’re not interested in forging alliances.
They’re only here to figure out how much work it will take to destroy us.
I turn away, anger threatening to undo my composure, and Haider clamps down harder on my arm. I meet his eyes. It’s only my determination to keep things civil for Juliette’s sake that prevents me from breaking his fingers off my body.
Hurting Haider would be enough to start a world war.
And he knows this.
“What’s happened to you?” he says, still hissing in my ear. “I didn’t believe it when I first heard that you’d fallen in love with some idiot psychotic girl. I had more faith in you. I defended you. But this,” he says, shaking his head, “this is truly heartbreaking. I can’t believe how much you’ve changed.”
My fingers tense, itching to form fists, and I’m just about to respond when Juliette, who’s been watching us closely from a distance, says, “Let go of him.”
And there’s something about the steadiness of her voice, something about the barely restrained fury in her words that captures Haider’s attention.
He drops my arm, surprised. Spins around.
“Touch him one more time,” Juliette says quietly, “and I will rip your heart out of your body.”
Haider stares at her. “Excuse me?”
She steps forward. She looks suddenly terrifying. There’s a fire in her eyes. A murderous stillness in her movements. “If I ever catch you putting your hands on him again, I will tear open your chest,” she says, “and rip out your heart.”
Haider’s eyebrows fly up his forehead. He blinks. Hesitates. And then: “I didn’t realize that was something you could do.”