My lips stretched into a tight smile as I made my way to the front of the congregation of stone-faced officials who’d gathered in the crowded meeting room. Everyone stood when I entered, and I tried my best to appear calm, but my heart was racing as I looked out at all the intense expressions of the people watching me, judging me.
At any other time I might’ve explained my reaction away as nerves, but not today. Today I had something to prove.
I needed to show them that all the changes I’d been leading us toward, all we’d sacrificed, had been for the best. That today we would make progress.
That I hadn’t made a colossal mistake in risking so much on one venture.
My gaze slid to the transmitter on the table in front of me, where it sat, still and silent. It was hard to imagine that something so bland-looking might possibly change everything.
I took my seat and waited apprehensively while everyone else in the room took theirs. Several moments ticked by, during
which I could feel the weight of their misgivings searching me out, settling over me like a heavy blanket. I explored their faces, too, careful not to fix on any one for too long. I picked out certain features and tried to guess which region each council member might hail from, a game to kill time and distract my thoughts. A man with leathered skin might have been a farmer, or possibly a builder who’d spent many years laboring beneath a baking sun. I thought he might have been from the eastern region, where grains were plentiful. Another woman with perfectly coifed hair made me think of a large metropolitan area. From right here in the Capitol perhaps, or possibly from 3E, which had been recently renamed Charletown, now that cities were allowed to have names of their own. There was another man who had a distractingly bulbous nose, which had nothing at all to do with either region or occupation but caught my attention nonetheless. My cheeks heated when I realized he’d caught me staring for too long.
From outside, even through the closed windows, I could hear the people gathering on the streets below us, both allies and opponents, all awaiting word of the success, or failure, of our . . . experiment.
A thousand worries spun through my mind. A thousand reasons why everything could go wrong on the other end.
What if Aron hadn’t made it to his destination? Or what if he had but work hadn’t been completed on time?
Worse yet, what if those engineers and designers who’d said our project was impossible had been right after all? What if the lines were irreparable?
But if all that were true, if the lines were too faulty to fix,
wouldn’t we have learned as much before now? Wouldn’t someone have told us so—at some point before I’d left the palace to stand facing a hundred administrators from different districts and boroughs around the country awaiting our very first message?
Suddenly the walls of Capitol Hall felt too close, and the ceiling far too low. I was suffocating.
“Give it time,” Max assured from beside me.
I turned to Brooklynn, who stood near the entrance in her crisp black uniform, searching the room for the slightest sign of trouble. I hoped in vain that she might offer me the same sort of encouragement Max had. A smile or a nod. Even one of her hallmark winks. But she never even glanced my way.
Nothing much had changed between us over the past months, since we’d returned from the summit at Vannova. Not since that fateful moment when I’d killed her father.
She still couldn’t forgive me for what I’d done.
So I’d spent my time since then focused on Ludania instead, and what I could do to improve my country’s future.
Which meant going back in time, it seemed.
Funny, how things worked. Sabara hadn’t just stunted our country; she’d turned back the hands of time for us. There was a time when Ludania had been considered progressive in the eyes of the world. A leader in both technology and strategy.
Yet Sabara had managed to strip us of those advances when she’d taken the throne. Where Ludania had been making strides in the fields of medicine, manufacturing, transportation, and trade, Sabara had halted all that. She’d stopped production in everything but the basics, putting an embargo on all
trade into and out of Ludania, demanding that her citizens learn to be self-sufficient.
Then she’d cut all manner of modern communication, even within the borders of our own country. Because with communication came power. And Sabara would never risk allowing anyone to be more powerful than herself.
And despite her efforts to maintain her own power by moving forward, jumping from body to body, Sabara feared change. The real Sabara—whose name wasn’t Sabara at all—yearned to go back to another time, another era, when it was just her and Niko.
When they were together.
I couldn’t afford to look back. I’d decided that reestablishing those once-forbidden forms of communication was the key to our salvation. And that was where I’d decided to focus my first efforts toward reinstating Ludania as a world force.
There was a part of me, one I didn’t dare give voice to, that clung to the desperate hope that maybe this resurrected form of communication might somehow restore peace between Ludania and Astonia. That Queen Elena might listen to reason, if only I could have the opportunity to reason with her, leader to leader.
I knew it was foolish, but I couldn’t help myself. The idea of going to war, even on the heels of the assassination attempt the other queen had spearheaded, made my chest ache.
There would be too much loss. Too many lives on the line.
Always the fool, Sabara whispered within me. Technology isn’t the solution. Communication, in the wrong hands, is a weapon in its own right.
I bit my lip, tasting blood as I struggled to keep Sabara’s mounting objections at bay. Her caustic voice burned like acid in my own throat, her words trying to find their way to my lips.
She was wrong. Communication was the key.
My plan would be implemented in stages. We would start by reopening communication ports in the major cities first, starting with Charletown and 11South—a city that still struggled to find the right name for itself. Next the train depots would be outfitted, since it only made sense that word could spread most quickly from there. Eventually we’d have the entire country wired, in some form or another.
The venture would be expensive but, in my estimation, worth the cost.
Or so I hoped.
Even if it works, you’ll only be giving those who plot against you the tools they need to destroy you.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I pounded my fist on the conference table. Shut up! I shouted back at her from inside my head.
But she wasn’t the one staring at me when I opened my eyes once more. It was the delegates from regions all across Ludania. And it was Max and Brook and Zafir, too.
I frowned, pretending it was nerves as I turned my attention back to the small, black receiver sitting on the tabletop in front of me. I swallowed a lump of worry as we all waited for something to happen, and I wondered if possibly we weren’t using the device correctly. If maybe we were meant to do something on our end to make it work.
Every eye in the country was watching me on this one. I’d
seen the articles in the periodicals. And even now I could hear the doubt trickling in from the streets outside.
I glanced at the woman seated beside me, the engineer in charge of the entire operation, asking her silently with my raised eyebrows the same question I’d asked her a hundred times already: Are you sure this will work?
The tightening of her painted red lips was all the response she offered me, the same terse answer she’d given me whenever I’d finally exceeded her capacity to be kind with my uncertainty. I’m positive. Your Majesty.
Still, I couldn’t help myself, and my hand slipped from my lap and moved toward the device. I wasn’t sure what I meant to do, since I wasn’t certain how to work the thing myself. But my hand hovered there, my heart beating in my throat until it felt like I might choke. I could see my reflection staring back at me in the polished black surface, distorting my features and making me look the way I felt in that moment . . . like a caricature of a real queen.
Someone who had no idea what she was doing.
And for the millionth time I wondered if Sabara hadn’t been right all along.
Inside me I could sense her satisfaction. Smug and filling me with self-doubt.
Stop it, I warned her, hating the ease with which the two of us could communicate. Hating that she could turn me against myself in that manner, make me question myself so easily. It will work. It has to.
I swallowed another wave of doubt, wondering if this doubt was real or if it was Sabara’s doing, even as my mouth
went bone dry. All around me the crowd grew restless. Chairs shifted and voices murmured, low and rumbling and skeptical.
My misgivings became tangible, like smoke, making it hard to breathe.
Then something happened that made all of us freeze, and caused a collective gasp.
Beneath my fingertips, which were still hovering expectantly, the receiver crackled to life.
I’d been told what to expect: the thing would make a buzzing noise. That’s how we’d know if someone was trying to send a message.
But when the sound arose, it was more like a hum. And it was the sweetest, most glorious hum I’d heard in all my years. One quick significant vibration followed immediately by silence.
I turned to Carolina—the engineer beside me—once more.
Now she was the one raising her eyebrows, as if she were startled by the turn of events. As if she’d never really expected this to work at all. “I . . . guess . . . we . . . push it,” she said, and then nodded, trying to appear decisive as she indicated my hand, which was still poised above a button on the transmitter.
The buzz-hum sounded again, reminding us all that whoever was on the other end was still awaiting our response.
I grinned out at the delegates who’d gathered for this occasion, absorbing the moment and taking in their dubious expressions as I let my finger drop firmly and satisfyingly onto the button.
I sat there for a moment, waiting for something more to
happen now that I’d done my part, but all I heard was the crackling of static. It was exactly like the static we used to hear when Sabara still ruled and the loudspeakers in the street would repeat daily recorded messages, reminding us to be diligent citizens, or to report our neighbors for suspected wrongdoings, or for immigrants to report to Capitol Hall to be registered.
I could feel the delegates’ eyes fall upon me while I continued to stare at the box in front of me.
“IS ANYONE THERE?”
I jumped back. The voice that boomed through the speaker on the table was altogether too loud, and instinctively my hands flew up to my ears to muffle the sound. But just as quickly I lowered them, reveling in the fact that the voice had been so clear and vibrant from so far, far away.
Wonder and awe filled me all at once, and I heard a small giggle escape my lips. “Aron?” I asked through another bubble of laughter. “Is that you?”
But I knew it was him. He’d been gone for three weeks, and the only messages we’d received had been the ones he’d sent by courier, assuring us he’d be ready on time.
I’d been terrified to trust him . . . and now tears sprang to my eyes.
Within me Sabara withdrew, as her doubt was crushed by my hope.
“IS BROOK WITH YOU?” His voice was still painfully loud, but I hardly cared.
I looked out to where several of the delegates were standing now, unable to mask their amazement at the feat we’d
accomplished—bringing dead technology back to life. I searched past them, trying to find Brooklynn among them, and saw that she was already shoving her way through the crowd. Anyone who’d been in her path parted without being asked to do so. One look at her in her black leather uniform, and it was clear she was formidable, even without knowing she was commander of the armed forces.
“I’m here,” she called out to the box before she’d even reached the table. Static stretched between them as I stepped aside, making a place for her as she leaned forward, spreading her palms flat over the tabletop. “What do you want?” She was shades quieter than Aron was, and far more reserved, but I knew—I could hear it in her voice—that she’d missed him.
Brook hadn’t confided in me, so I didn’t know exactly what had transpired between her and Aron in the months since our return from Vannova. But even without Brook to tell me her secrets, I hadn’t missed the private exchanges, the looks and discreet brushes of their hands that had passed between them whenever they’d believed no one was watching.
Aron’s voice squawked over the line from halfway across the country: “I JUST WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT IF I DON’T MAKE IT BACK . . .” I could practically hear him grinning as he spoke, despite the distance that separated us. “THAT I LOVE YOU!”
Between any other couple it might have been a tender moment, that declaration of love. And maybe it was between them as well; it was impossible to know by trying to read Brooklynn’s expression. Her face remained motionless. Impassive.
I lifted my hand to my mouth and pretended to cough to cover my smile.
“DID YOU HEAR ME? IS ANYONE THERE?” Aron’s voice echoed when Brook—and everyone else in the room—stayed silent for too long.
The corner of Brooklynn’s mouth quirked up. “You do realize this is a simple operation to establish communication, don’t you? You’re not a soldier who’s gone off to war or anything?” Her smile grew then, becoming more mischievous than it had been before.
She caught my expression, recognized my feigned cough, and winked at me. I hated that I so badly craved her forgiveness, that I’d missed her so much, for so long, that her simple gesture made my heart soar.
“In fact,” she added, “I’d venture to say you’re more like a child with a new play toy, wouldn’t you?”
There was a momentary silence from the other end, and then Aron’s voice returned. “OUCH, BROOK. THAT REALLY STINGS.”
“You’ll be fine. Trust me,” she answered, just as her finger moved toward the button.
“WAIT FOR ME—” Aron started to tell her. . . .
Right before she disconnected him . . . in front of the entire room full of witnesses.
And then the applause started.
I couldn’t stop grinning.
It had been years since a message had been able to travel
from one end of our country to the other in an instant. And today we’d done just that. I’d spoken to Aron from inside the halls of the Capitol, while he’d stood in one of our southernmost cities. It seemed like something out of a far-imagined dream.
But it wasn’t, and now I couldn’t keep the excitement from my face.
We hit a bump in the road and I bounced unsteadily, my head colliding with Max’s shoulder. His musky scent filled my nostrils as I leaned against him, sighing dreamily.
“Can you believe it?” I asked, turning to gaze up at him, and wishing I could say something more, but coming up empty every time I tried.
“You know why I can believe it, Charlie?” He pushed a wisp of hair from my cheek. “Because you’re the most amazing person I’ve ever known. Because you’re clever and iron-willed and selfless. You can do anything you set your mind to,” he whispered. “You’re going to take this country and turn it on its head.”
“Maybe when Xander and Niko return, we can open a line of communication with Astonia,” I said, exhaling.
Just saying Niko’s name made Sabara stir within me. And as always, I had to concentrate to quell her. To stop her from surfacing all the way.
“Charlie . . .”
I frowned at the caution I heard in Max’s tone, my eyes searching his.
Max scrutinized me, and I watched as his expression changed from warning to worry to something softer. “I just
don’t want you to get your hopes up. It’s already been too long since we’ve heard from Xander, or any of them, for that matter. We’ve no idea if he’s even made progress. It was a long shot to begin with. Elena’s not to be trusted, not after the stunt she pulled with Sebastian.”
Max was right. I should never have let Xander convince me to send him in the first place. I should’ve denied his request and come up with another plan. There was no excuse for putting him in harm’s way. But hearing my former stable master’s name made me bristle all over again. Sebastian had turned out to be both a spy and a murderer, enlisted by the queen of Astonia, who we’d later discovered had been working in tandem with Brooklynn’s traitorous father to assassinate me.
I’d never so much as suspected the stable master in my employ, someone who’d taught me everything I knew about horses. Who’d taught me to appreciate them, even if he hadn’t broken me of my discomfort around them.
“I know,” I said, shrugging and trying not to let my disappointment show. I knew I was being fanciful, entertaining such notions, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to start anew. For Ludania to live in amity with our neighbors.
I let my palm drift over the exquisite fabric of Max’s suit. I wondered if I’d ever tire of the feel of fine fabrics, if I’d ever grow accustomed to that aspect of my new life. Wools woven so tightly, they could feel like silk; silks so delicate, they were sometimes transparent; and velvets, creamy fleeces, and luxurious cottons that were weightless against my skin.
His fingers, however, ignored my clothing altogether. They slipped beneath the hem of my skirt and traced a path to the
back of my knee, making my pulse quicken and my breath catch. His hand moved higher, finding its way up the back of my thigh as the rhythm of our hearts beat dissonantly. He leaned in close, until our lips nearly touched and our breath fused.
Fire flared in the pit of my belly as my fingers clamped into a ball and I clutched his jacket, clinging to him for balance. My head swam in dazzling confusion. He didn’t kiss me right away. He just stared at me, his eyes devouring me, and the hunger in his eyes was nearly enough to undo me completely. He willed me, with that steel gaze as firm as the fingers that stroked the flesh beneath my skirt, cupping my skin, making me quiver and ache, to close that minute distance between us.
“I . . . I . . .” Breathlessly I held on, not sure what more I could say.
And then, from the front seat, Zafir cleared his throat, and even though I knew he couldn’t see us, facing forward the way he was, I was sure he’d sensed our restlessness. Our impropriety. Zafir always seemed to know what we were up to.
“We’re arriving at the palace,” he said, his voice insinuating none of the censure that his simple throat-clearing had.
I glanced at Max, and hoped he could tell from my expression that this wasn’t finished.
He didn’t release me right away. His hand stayed where it was, hidden beneath the folds of my skirt, and he gave me one more distinct squeeze, letting me know, in no uncertain terms, that it most definitely was not.