I take a sip of the black liquid—I’ve recently learned to enjoy its bitter tang—and lean back in my chair. “Updates?”
Delalieu clears his throat.
“Yes, sir,” he says, hastily returning his coffee cup to its saucer, spilling a little as he does. “Quite a few this morning, sir.”
I tilt my head at him.
“Construction of the new command station is going well. We’re expecting to be done with all the details in the next two weeks, but the private rooms will be move-in ready by tomorrow.”
“Good.” Our new team, under Juliette’s supervision, comprises many people now, with many departments to manage and, with the exception of Castle, who’s carved out a small office for himself upstairs, thus far they’ve all been using my personal training facilities as their central headquarters. And though this had seemed like a practical idea at its inception, my training facilities are accessible only through my personal quarters; and now that the group of them are living freely on base, they’re often barging in and out of my rooms, unannounced.
Needless to say, it’s driving me insane.
Delalieu checks his list and says, “We’ve finally managed to secure your father’s files, sir. It’s taken all this time to locate and retrieve the bulk of it, but I’ve left the boxes in your room, sir, for you to open at your leisure. I thought”—he clears his throat—“I thought you might like to look through his remaining personal effects before they are inherited by our new supreme commander.”
A heavy, cold dread fills my body.
“There’s quite a lot of it, I’m afraid,” Delalieu is still saying. “All his daily logs. Every report he’d ever filed. We even managed to locate a few of his personal journals.” Delalieu hesitates. And then, in a tone only I know how to decipher: “I do hope his notes will be useful to you, somehow.”
I look up, meet Delalieu’s eyes. There’s concern there. Worry.
“Thank you,” I say quietly. “I’d nearly forgotten.”
An uncomfortable silence settles between us and, for a moment, neither of us knows exactly what to say. We still haven’t discussed this, the death of my father. The death of Delalieu’s son-in-law. The horrible husband of his late daughter, my mother. We never talk about the fact that Delalieu is my grandfather. That he is the only kind of father I have left in the world.
It’s not what we do.
So it’s with a halting, unnatural voice that Delalieu attempts to pick up the thread of conversation.
“Oceania, as, as I’m sure you’ve heard, sir, has said that, that they would attend a meeting organized by our new madam, madam supreme—”
“But the others,” he says, the words rushing out of him now, “will not respond until they’ve spoken with you, sir.”
At this, my eyes widen perceptibly.
“They’re”—Delalieu clears his throat again—“well, sir, as you know, they’re all old friends of the family, and they—well, they—”
“Yes,” I whisper. “Of course.”
I look away, at the wall. My jaw feels suddenly wired shut with frustration. Secretly, I’d been expecting this. But after two weeks of silence I’d actually begun to hope that maybe they’d continue to play dumb. There’s been no communication from these old friends of my father, no offers of condolences, no white roses, no sympathy cards. No correspondence, as was our daily ritual, from the families I’d known as a child, the families responsible for the hellscape we live in now. I thought I’d been happily, mercifully, cut off.
Apparently treason is not enough of a crime to be left alone. Apparently my father’s many daily missives expounding my “grotesque obsession with an experiment” were not reason enough to oust me from the group. He loved complaining aloud, my father, loved sharing his many disgusts and disapprovals with his old friends, the only people alive who knew him face-to-face. And every day he humiliated me in front of the people we knew. He made my world, my thoughts, and my feelings seem small. Pathetic. And every day I’d count the letters piling up in my in-box, screeds from his old friends begging me to see reason, as they called it. To remember myself. To stop embarrassing my family. To listen to my father. To grow up, be a man, and stop crying over my sick mother.
No, these ties run too deep.
I squeeze my eyes shut to quell the rush of faces, memories of my childhood, as I say, “Tell them I’ll be in touch.”
“That won’t be necessary, sir,” says Delalieu.
“Ibrahim’s children are already en route.”
It happens swiftly: a sudden, brief paralysis of my limbs.
“What do you mean?” I say, only barely managing to stay calm. “En route where? Here?”
A wave of heat floods my body so quickly I don’t even realize I’m on my feet until I have to grab the table for support. “How dare they,” I say, somehow still clinging to the edge of composure. “Their complete disregard—To be so unbearably entitled—”
“Yes, sir, I understand, sir,” Delalieu says, looking newly terrified, “it’s just—as you know—it’s the way of the supreme families, sir. A time-honored tradition. A refusal on my part would’ve been interpreted as an open act of hostility—and Madam Supreme has instructed me to be diplomatic for as long as possible so I thought, I—I thought—Oh, I’m very sorry, sir—”
“She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with,” I say sharply. “There is no diplomacy with these people. Our new supreme commander might have no way of knowing this, but you,” I say, more upset than angry now, “you should’ve known better. War would’ve been worth avoiding this.”
I don’t look up to see his face when he says, his voice trembling, “I’m deeply, deeply sorry, sir.”
A time-honored tradition, indeed.
The right to come and go was a practice long ago agreed upon. The supreme families were always welcome in each other’s lands at any time, no invitations necessary. While the movement was young and the children were young, our families held fast. And now those families—and their children—rule the world.
This was my life for a very long time. On Tuesday, a playdate in Europe; on Friday, a dinner party in South America. Our parents insane, all of them.
The only friends I ever knew had families even crazier than mine. I have no wish to see any of them ever again.
Good God, I have to warn Juliette.
“As to the, as to the matter of the, of the civilians”—Delalieu is prattling on—“I’ve been communicating with Castle, per, per your request, sir, on how best to proceed with their transition out of the, out of the compounds—”
But the rest of our morning meeting passes by in a blur.
When I finally manage to loose myself from Delalieu’s shadow, I head straight back to my own quarters. Juliette is usually here this time of day, and I’m hoping to catch her, to warn her before it’s too late.
Too soon, I’m intercepted.
“Oh, um, hey—”
I look up, distracted, and quickly stop in place. My eyes widen, just a little.
“Kent,” I say quietly.
One swift appraisal is all I need to know that he’s not okay. In fact, he looks terrible. Thinner than ever; dark circles under his eyes. Thoroughly worn-out.
I wonder whether I look just the same to him.
“I was wondering,” he says, and looks away, his face pinched. He clears his throat. “I was, uh”—he clears his throat again—“I was wondering if we could talk.”
I feel my chest tighten. I stare at him a moment, cataloging his tense shoulders, his unkempt hair, his deeply bitten fingernails. He sees me staring and quickly shoves his hands into his pockets. He can hardly meet my eyes.
“Talk,” I manage to say.
I exhale quietly, slowly. We haven’t spoken a word to each other since I first found out we were brothers, nearly three weeks ago. I thought the emotional implosion of the evening had ended as well anyone could’ve hoped, but so much has happened since that night. We haven’t had a chance to rip open that wound again. “Talk,” I say again. “Of course.”
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