“I know what you’re doing. You’re watching me live my life. You’re judging me. You think you know me because someone sat down and wrote a few weeks of my life story,” Leader glares into the middle distance as he speaks in a scathing tone. “You sat above my shoulder for a few days or weeks as you consumed every scrap of information about me. And you spent that time wishing me ill. You expected me to fail.”
He rises from his chair, crossing the room to the drink cart. It has any number of alcoholic choices, but he selects the water pitcher and fills a glass. It twinkles into the glass, at first sharp, and then boisterous until it rolls to a crescendo as he pulls the pitcher away. Not a single drop wasted. He returns to the seating area of the office. He’s in an office, of course. Where else would Leader appear in his afterlife?
“Afterlife?” he muses with a slight snort. “I do not get the luxury of an afterlife.” He proffers the glass, arm outstretched toward you. And this is the moment you realize you’re in the room with him. His dark eyes sparkle with a hint of amusement as this entire scene begins unfolding for you. This is not just any office; it’s the office he’s best-known for: the one before the fire. It’s the office where he first appeared for your notice and speculation. This is the office where he ripped away comforts, wielded leather as a weapon, and spoke with distant superiority. It’s the office where he’s best represented in Emma’s story. But this is not Emma’s story, because it is not Emma sitting in the chair across from his pristine desk. It’s you.
“Take the glass,” he commands, but you’re already taking it. It feels cool in your hand, and then cool again on your lips as you drink. Can you drink in a story? It’s a bizarre idea, yet the water trickles down your throat the way water usually does. Except this time, you notice it, because in stories, we tend to notice the tiniest details and hyperfocus on them. Especially when we are trying to avoid the black-eyed gaze of a domineering man.
With the realization that you are avoiding his gaze, you meet it. It’s not exactly defiance, but you refuse to be controlled by the words of a story.
“Yes,” Leader tells you, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “I know that refusal well. Perhaps you will be more successful than I am.” His smile fades and he settles himself down to sit on the edge of his desk. Not entirely sitting; rather more like leaning, if Leader were capable of something so mundane. Nothing he does is ever ordinary, though. Every movement is calculated. You know that could be the martial arts training; focus in every miniscule gesture.
“Well, you are here now. You may as well ask your questions.” His eyes sharpen somehow, focus on you more deeply. He follows up his invitation with a caution, “Be careful what you ask for, though. People rarely want the answers to these types of questions.”
This is why you’re here? To ask him questions? This is a relief because you have so many. And he seems almost to be offering to answer truthfully.
“Is this really happening?” the question slips out because you feel doubtful. You’re not even sure this is real. Last time you saw him, he was lying in the gutter, and now he perches in front of you, apparently no worse off for the gunshot wound. He also seems to be offering to answer your questions, even though that is wildly out of character for him.
“It’s not, you know,” he murmurs, once again showing an uncanny knack for knowing what you’re thinking. “I am always willing to answer Confident questions.”
“What is the Guild?” you blurt out. You don’t know if it qualifies as Confident, but it’s the one that comes out first. Several others try to tumble off your lips after it. He halts you with a single upraised finger.
“Your question is impertinent, because you are asking to know things you cannot even begin to comprehend. But I’ll bite. The Guild is a highly covert organization created by Leader and headed by Leader.” He smiles again a little. Almost a smirk at your expense. But you won’t let him dance pretty words around you in his musical voice.
“Who do you answer to?”
His smile widens and is now unmistakably a smirk. “I answer to Leader.”
That doesn’t make a lot of sense because he is Leader. So, you clarify, “Who does the Guild answer to?”
He spreads his hands as if to gesture outward toward the world. And he says, in a twinkling, musical voice, “The Guild answers to Leader, of course.”
This is going nowhere. You change tactics. “Where does the Guild get all its money?”
He gestures upward now, as if grasping something out of midair. “Would you believe me if I told you I own it already? The money?”
No, but you don’t tell him that. How can someone own the money? He isn’t making sense. “You were wrangling money out of the President. Is that how you pay for your operation?”
He shakes his head slightly to himself, then meets your eye again. “Good thing I’m not a genie, or you’d be out of wishes.” He squats, bringing himself down below your eye level. He does not seem less menacing in a squat. In fact, if anything, he seems more like a spring who could uncoil at any moment. “You misunderstood what you overheard in that phone call. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure you were not meant to understand. But I was not actually bargaining for money. I never have to do that, because I own it already. I was bargaining for something else. Something I needed and that he could offer. And he needed something from me.”
“What did he need?” you ask, because his tone virtually commands you to ask that, even though this is not one of the more pressing questions in your mind.
Leader glances upward, almost rolls his eyes. But not at you. He seems to be encompassing others in that mildly frustrated gesture, but when he looks back at you, it’s with warmth rather than exasperation. “What do they always need? Votes, support, and secrecy.” He flicks his fingers, dismissing the president from your conversation. “What did you really want to ask?”
You draw a deep breath and firmly ask, “Where do you get your power?”
He smiles deeply this time. It is not a smirk. It brightens up his face, makes his eyes sparkle, and overall softens him. He looks at you, dark eyes focusing directly on you, peering through the space, time, and distance separating you from each other. He looks out from the screen, and he says quietly, “I get my power from you.”
It’s such a bizarre answer, that you try to interrupt and clarify what you mean, but he pushes on. “I know what you meant, reader, and I am answering you the best way I can. I get my power from you. If you were not here to give me substance and bring me to life, I would only be words on a page. All the power I have to do all the things that I do, I get from you.”
You sit back, trying to gain distance from him, but his words continue to swirl around in the void. I get my power from you. You did not know you had this power.
“Any other questions?” he asks, and waits patiently for your next one.
Eric watched from the shadows as Emma kicked off her shoes and bowed hastily at the edge of the mats. Her blond pigtails bounced on her head as she scampered across the room. She slid to a stop beside the others, but her tardiness was noted in the stern glance Julianne leveled at her. Eric watched as Emma shrugged off the woman’s sternness in her characteristic lack of concern for rules or regulations of any kind. Emma’s saving grace was that she was smart and attentive. Too smart. Eric had always feared Emma was too smart.
He felt, rather than heard, Monique come up behind him. She placed a hand on his arm and leaned to see what he was watching.
“I found her hiding, Leader.”
Leader. Sometimes Eric forgot he was Leader. Inside his brain, he wore his own name like a badge of pride. Leader was a cloak he put on when he was in front of others. It was a heavy, weighted garment, and while he wore it, it wore him down. This was especially true when he was with Monique. Monique had known him all his life, yet she now treated him like they were little more than strangers.
The cloak of his Leadership constricted around him, hardening his voice. “Where was she?”
With a sigh, Monique answered, “In the loft of the garage. She had made herself a little office behind some totes and boxes.”
He glanced into Monique’s face with interest. “An office?”
Monique nodded and sighed again. “Yes, I think it’s meant to be an office. She was seated on a little box, and had a big tote in front of her as her desk.”
He turned away, looking back at Emma on the mats. The child was doing practice forms and stretches off to one side now. “She was probably playing school.”
Monique made a negating sound in her throat. “I don’t think so, Leader. As I approached, I distinctly heard her say, ‘this is Leader’ and pretend to pick up a phone. Her banana.”
Eric glanced at Monique again, his eyes intent. “She was me?”
Monique gave a slight chuckle. “I don’t think so, sir. I think Emma is only ever herself. If she was being Leader, she was still Emmalyn Stone.” She smirked, and added, “I heard her use an expletive and say, ‘Just do what I tell you to do!’ so I think it’s safe to say you’re her model for Leadership.”
She was teasing him. Eric ignored it. He watched the little girl on the mats. The child waited until Julianne’s back was turned to skip ahead in her practice forms. To her credit, she rarely made mistakes in the early forms. And if she did, it was usually because she was rushing to get through them so she could work on her new forms. The pace at which she learned was relentless.
“I hope I prove to be a worthy model,” Eric told Monique. He looked aside at his number Two and raised a brow. “What excuse did she give you for not coming when she was called to training?”
Monique snorted. “One thing about Emma, she’s mostly truthful. When I asked, ‘Didn’t you hear us call over the House intercom?’ she glared at me and showed me her banana, and said, ‘I was on a call!’”
Eric stifled his sigh. Emma’s Guild Skill was Obedience, but if she ever was Obedient, it was reluctant or with an air of superiority that suggested she was only doing what she chose to do. Instead of focusing on the misbehavior, Eric asked, “Did she say who she was talking to on her call?”
Monique chuckled softly. “No. I didn’t ask. I would never ask Leader who he was on a call with.”
Eric cracked a smile then and gave Monique a pointed look. “I would literally kill for that kind of deference from you, Monique, but I cannot think of a time when you did not ask me whom I was speaking with on the phone.” His gaze returned to the little girl who had managed to sneak her way ahead of several forms without Julianne noticing. “Yet, it is something if she can already command that level of respect from her betters,” he added, and the weight of Leader pushed down on him. “One day, she will be a force to reckon with.”
“One day?” Monique scoffed. “I beg your pardon, Leader, but Emma is force right now.”
He nodded in agreement. As if she felt the weight of his gaze, Emma’s bright blue eyes flickered toward him. She spotted him standing in the shadows. It stopped her mid-form. Eric raised a stern brow at her. He hoped from that, Emma would know he saw her. He knew she was skipping forms.
Emma shrugged. It was slight. Almost innocent. Or it would have been, if the fire of rebellion had not danced in her young eyes. He shook his head once from side to side. Emma’s only response was a wide, deliberate smile.
“She’s going to be the death of me one day,” he murmured to Monique.