He swallows hard. Stares at the ground. “Cool.”
And I’m suddenly compelled to ask a question that unsettles both of us: “Are you all right?”
He looks up, stunned. His blue eyes are round and red-rimmed, bloodshot. His Adam’s apple bobs in his throat. “I don’t know who else to talk to about this,” he whispers. “I don’t know anyone else who would even understand—”
And I do. All at once.
When his eyes go abruptly glassy with emotion; when his shoulders tremble even as he tries to hold himself still—
I feel my own bones rattle.
“Of course,” I say, surprising myself. “Come with me.”
It’s another cold day today, all silver ruins and snow-covered decay. I wake up every morning hoping for even a slant of sunlight, but the bite in the air remains unforgiving as it sinks hungry teeth into our flesh. We’ve finally left the worst of winter behind, but even these early weeks of March feel inhumanly frosty. I pull my coat up around my neck and huddle into it.
Kenji and I are on what has become our daily walk around the forgotten stretches of Sector 45. It’s been both strange and liberating to be able to walk so freely in the fresh air. Strange, because I can’t leave the base without a small troop for protection, and liberating because it’s the first time I’ve been able to acquaint myself with the land. I’d never had a chance to walk calmly through these compounds; I had no way of seeing, firsthand, exactly what’d happened to this world. And now, to be able to roam freely, unquestioned—
Well, sort of.
I glance over my shoulder at the six soldiers shadowing our every move, machine guns held tightly against their chests as they march. No one really knows what to do about me yet; Anderson had a very different system in place as supreme commander—he never showed his face to anyone except those he was about to kill, and never traveled anywhere without his Supreme Guard. But I don’t have rules about either and, until I decide exactly how I want to rule, this is my new situation:
I’m to be babysat from the moment I step outside.
I tried to explain that I don’t need protection—I tried to remind everyone of my very literal, lethal touch; my superhuman strength; my functional invincibility—
“But it would be very helpful to the soldiers,” Warner had explained, “if you would at least go through the motions. We rely on rules, regulation, and constant discipline in the military, and soldiers need a system upon which they might depend, at all times. Do this for them,” he said. “Maintain the pretense. We can’t change everything all at once, love. It’d be too disorienting.”
So here I am.
Warner has been my constant guide these last couple of weeks. He’s been teaching me every day about all the many things his dad did and all the things he, himself, is responsible for. There are an infinite number of things Warner needs to do every day just to run this sector—never mind the bizarre (and seemingly endless) list of things I need to do to lead an entire continent.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that, sometimes, it all feels impossible.
I had one day, just one day to exhale and enjoy the relief of overthrowing Anderson and reclaiming Sector 45. One day to sleep, one day to smile, one day to indulge in the luxury of imagining a better world.
It was at the end of Day 2 that I discovered a nervous-looking Delalieu standing behind my door.
He seemed frantic.
“Madam Supreme,” he’d said, a crazy smile half hung on his face. “I imagine you must be very overwhelmed lately. So much to do.” He looked down. Wrung his hands. “But I fear—that is—I think—”
“What is it?” I’d said to him. “Is something wrong?”
“Well, madam—I haven’t wanted to bother you—you’ve been through so much and you’ve needed time to adjust—”
He looked at the wall.
“Forgive me,” he said. “It’s just that it’s been nearly thirty-six hours since you’ve taken control of the continent and you haven’t been to visit your quarters once,” he said in a rush. “And you’ve already received so much mail that I don’t know where to put it anymo—”
He froze. Finally met my eyes.
“What do you mean, my quarters? I have quarters?”
Delalieu blinked, dumbfounded. “Of course you do, madam. The supreme commander has his or her own quarters in every sector on the continent. We have an entire wing here dedicated to your offices. It’s where the late supreme commander Anderson used to stay whenever he visited us on base. And as everyone around the world knows that you’ve made Sector 45 your permanent residence, this is where they’ve sent all your mail, both physical and digital. It’s where your intelligence briefings will be delivered every morning. It’s where other sector leaders have been sending their daily reports—”
“You’re not serious,” I said, stunned.
“Very serious, madam.” He looked desperate. “And I worry about the message you might be sending by ignoring all correspondence at this early stage.” He looked away. “Forgive me. I don’t mean to overstep. I just—I know you’d like to make an effort to strengthen your international relationships—but I worry about the consequences you might face for breaking your many continental accords—”
“No, no, of course. Thank you, Delalieu,” I said, head spinning. “Thank you for letting me know. I’m—I’m very grateful to you for intervening. I had no idea”—I clapped a hand to my forehead—“but maybe tomorrow morning?” I said. “Tomorrow morning you could meet me after my morning walk? Show me where these quarters are located?”
“Of course,” he said with a slight bow. “It would be my pleasure, Madam Supreme.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.”
“Certainly, madam.” He looked so relieved. “Have a pleasant evening.”
I stumbled then as I said good-bye to him, tripping over my feet in a daze.
Not much has changed.
My shoes scuff on the concrete, my feet knocking into each other as I startle myself back into the present. I take a more certain step forward, this time bracing myself against another sudden, biting gust. Kenji shoots me a look of concern. I look, but don’t really see him. I’m looking beyond him now, eyes narrowed at nothing in particular. My mind continues on its course, whirring in time with the wind.
“You okay, kid?”
I look up, squinting sideways at Kenji. “I’m okay, yeah.”
I manage to smile and frown at the same time.
“So,” Kenji says, exhaling the word. “What’d Castle want to talk to you about?”
I turn away, irritated in an instant. “I don’t know. Castle is being weird.”
That gets Kenji’s attention. Castle is like a father to him—and I’m pretty sure if he had to choose, Kenji would choose Castle over me—so it’s clear where his loyalties lie when he says, “What do you mean? How is Castle being weird? He seemed fine this morning.”
I shrug. “He just seems really paranoid all of a sudden. And he said some things about Warner that just—” I cut myself off. Shake my head. “I don’t know.”
Kenji stops walking. “Wait, what things did he say about Warner?”
I shrug again, still irritated. “He thinks Warner is hiding stuff from me. Like, not hiding stuff from me, exactly—but that there’s a lot I don’t know about him? So I was like, ‘If you know so much about Warner, why don’t you tell me what I need to know about him?’ and Castle was like, ‘No, blah blah, Mr Warner should tell you himself, blah blah.’” I roll my eyes. “Basically he was telling me it’s weird that I don’t know that much about Warner’s past. But that’s not even true,” I say, looking at Kenji now. “I know a bunch about Warner’s past.”