THIS HOUR IS MINE
The ruling body of the High Tower had a special meeting place in New York City. (They had a special meeting place in every major city.) It was an unremarkable loft in midtown. The Unseen King and the eight Nobles would meet at a table to discuss how they could better protect themselves from a mad world.
I had been to this place once. I had gone there to die. Instead I watched Alexandra kill the man who had been threatening me. Now I was going there for a second time, only as an observer. I had already done what little I could do to affect events. Everything rested in Alexandra's hands.
All four of us -- Alexandra, Bradbury, Layla and me -- entered the loft after Bradbury unlocked the door. Layla looked at the large, sparsely furnished space and the iron pillars.
"This is it?" she asked.
"This is it," I said.
Alexandra looked at the table. Nobody was there. "Where are the Nobles?" she asked.
"They're coming," Bradbury said. He placed his hands in his pockets and sauntered to the table. He sat on the table's edge and faced Alexandra. "I thought we could talk first before you announced your decision."
"Then I will tell you my decision," she said through her masked face. "I will take over the Tower. I will change its mission to one of control rather than retreat."
Layla let out a long sigh. I tightened my jaw.
Bradbury just nodded. "I thought you would say that. In fact I've suspected that you've been heading toward this decision for some time. You do know, of course, that there have been past attempts to do what you're doing."
"I know, Father. I've studied the history of the Tower. I will avoid the flaws of those previous attempts. My plan will work."
"I don't doubt it. No one does. But...are you ready for that power?"
"I am. I have already exerted that power."
"You mean, that little bit of theater at the Masquerade? Oh, I know about that."
"Of course you do. You have a spy."
"Do you know who it is?"
"I have not met whoever it is, therefore I can't use my talent on him. But it's not important. What I did at the Masquerade is."
"So you helped a few fantasy buffs with their personal difficulties. Are you ready to handle the problems of war and sickness and poverty?"
"My answer is the same as before."
Bradbury paused, then said, "What about Layla and Jacob?"
"I'm sorry?" I heard a tinge of confusion in Alexandra's voice.
"What will you do with them?"
"They...will be under my protection, as always. Why do you ask?"
"Actually I'm not the one to ask questions here."
The phone on the table rang. Bradbury reached behind him and picked up the receiver.
"Yes?" He nodded. "Send her up."
He put down the receiver and turned back to Alexandra. "This is excellent timing. The person you need is here."
The door to the loft opened. Alexandra turned. So did Layla. So did I.
I can honestly say that few things have hit me in the gut quite like the appearance of Bradbury's spy. Nothing has hit me harder. I felt sick as I stared at the lovely middle-aged woman in the doorway, the woman whose face I had known since I was an infant, the spiritual mother who had replaced my biological one.
I stared at Diana Bennett and almost fell to the ground. The shock and last night's intoxication were too much for my legs. Layla had to steady me. She didn't look too balanced herself.
Nor did Diana. She clearly did not expect to see me here. She almost turned around and ran.
"Come here, Miss Bennett," Bradbury said. His mild voice had the affect of a shouted command through a bullhorn. Diana took a breath, then walked past me and toward the Unseen King. She forced herself not to look at me.
When she stopped in front of him she said in a strained voice, "You didn't tell me that they would be here."
"They have to be here. You know that."
I cried out, "Diana, what are you..."
Bradbury lifted a hand. "There will be time later for your personal issues with Miss Bennett."
Once again I wanted to kill Bradbury. This time, however, the urge was weak. I was weak.
"I made a mistake when I approached Jacob," Bradbury continued as if I weren't present. "I should have sought help from Miss Bennett. As it turned out, she was the one who approached me."
Spots danced in front of my eyes. I held on tighter to Layla as she muttered, "Son-of-a-bitch..."
"She has been profiling you, Alexandra. She deduced on her own that you were planning to take over the Tower."
"How?" Alexandra asked. Her voice was cautious, but also intrigued.
Bradbury looked at Diana. She cleared her throat and said, "It was the poem that clued me in. A story of two young women -- one who tricks her way into a ruler's affections, the other who stands by and watches helplessly as it happened. There are...there are scholars who think that the two characters represent a divided consciousness, a mind caught between two different impulses."
"I see," Alexandra said, nodding. "You were unique at that reading, then. I think the others just noticed the sexual content."
"Well...figuring out these things is how I make a living. In any case I realized that you were plotting something against your father." She paused before adding, "Then there was Layla..."
"What about me?" Layla snapped.
Bradbury said, "Miss Mubarak, please..."
"Shut up. What the fuck have you been up to, Diana?"
Alexandra turned to her female lover. "Layla, just listen."
Layla closed her mouth, but her eyes burned. Alexandra looked at Diana and said, "Go on."
"I knew that...your initial reaction to Layla had been triggered by something unique. I realized what it was after I heard the poem. I did notice the sexual content. I realized that Jacob and Layla are alike in many ways, that you could fall in love with her as easily as with him."
"But there is one important difference, besides the gender, of course." Alexandra's voice was careful and measured. She could have been discussing stock options.
Diana said, "Based on what Joe told me about Layla...and what I knew about her parents...I knew that Layla would support your coup. I knew Jacob wouldn't, but he could no longer weigh you in his direction."
"He hasn't. I have decided to take over the Tower."
Diana was quiet for several moments, then said, "Don't do it, Alexandra."
"Because you're a fifteen-year-old recluse."
Diana's answer brought quiet throughout the loft. It was such an obvious reason, but I had forgotten it. Layla had forgotten it. We looked at Alexandra and saw a marvel, the woman we both loved. I had opposed her decision because of my ethics. I couldn't accept anyone with that much power.
Diana, on the other hand, simply opposed Alexandra.
The daughter of Edward Bradbury mused on this answer in that time of quiet. Then she said, "I am not an ordinary fifteen-year-old."
"You are an extraordinary young woman," Diana conceded. "But you don't know much about the world."
"I know all the secrets of the world. I can tell you what a man has done in his life simply by..."
Diana moved quickly toward Alexandra -- so quickly that she almost pushed over Alexandra when she grabbed her by the shoulders. "Those are just facts," she declared in a near-shout. "That's where you begin. But you haven't even started to understand the world." Diana grasped her hood. "How can you?"
She lowered the hood to Alexandra's shoulder and removed her scarves. She didn't take them off gently and slowly as Vincent did. She quickly unwound them and dropped them to the floor. Alexandra did nothing to stop her. She seemed almost dazed by Diana's confrontational manner.
Diana looked right into Alexandra's red eyes and said, "You don't even know yourself." She grasped her shoulders and spun her toward Layla and me.
She was a new Alexandra. She was the child Alexandra -- confused by the truths she was hearing. She was an infant being taken to task by an adult.
"These are the two people you love more than anyone else." Diana's voice was even, but with an underlying thunder. "But what did you see just two days ago? What vision did you receive?"
Alexandra's red eyes twitched between Layla and me. "I saw...I..."
"You saw yourself helping Layla to kill Jacob. What did you do then?"
Alexandra moved her lips, but no words passed them.
"You were so shocked that you tried to kill Layla."
"I...I was just confused..."
"And what happens when others confuse you the same way?"
"It won't happen again..."
Diana turned Alexandra back toward her. "Yes, it will. You know why? Because everyone has those same hidden depths. Every person has the potential to do things they never thought themselves capable of doing. You can see what people have done. Sometimes you can see what they will do. But never what they might do."
Alexandra's head bent down a few inches. I realized that Layla was not trying to argue with Diana. She couldn't.
"I blame your father for this," Diana said.
Alexandra looked up at her. Bradbury made no reaction. He just stood there with his hands in his pockets.
"He didn't just hide you. He kept you locked in a bottle. He taught you nothing about other people -- only how to manipulate them." She paused, then said, "But I shouldn't talk. I messed up with Jacob."
My ears perked up. "You mean," Alexandra said, "you shouldn't have left him for three years."
"I mean that I taught him so many...things, so much about the world. And then I assumed that he was independent enough to handle himself. Physically, he can. Spiritually, no." She looked over Alexandra's shoulder at me. "You were extraordinary children raised in extraordinary places, but still children."
Diana and I stared at each other for a long time. Then she looked at Alexandra. "You think you're ready for this task. You're not. I don't think you'll ever be."
"So what should I do?" Alexandra said softly. "Stand back and let the sins of the world go unpunished?"
"No. But don't add to them."
There was nothing more for Diana to say. Alexandra took several deep breaths as she considered the profiler's words. Then she gently pulled herself away from Diana and took a few steps toward her father.
"What do you think about her argument?"
"What I think doesn't matter. What matters now is what you think."
"No, Father, tell me. Do you believe that I'm unworthy to lead the High Tower? Do you think that the Tower should stay as it is?"
Edward Bradbury looked back at her with an opaque expression as he answered --
"Despite your gift, you have seen no more than what I have seen. You know no more than what I know."
All four of us watched Alexandra. She was swaying slightly. I couldn't imagine what was happening inside her mind. For most of her life she had relied on her gift for truth. Now she had to rely on her heart. She had to understand her heart.
She had to know the true identity of Alexandra Bradbury before Alexandra Bradbury could go forward.
She stopped swaying. She reached into the pocket of her cloak and pulled out a hand-sized book bound in red leather.
"This book describes my plans to take over the Tower," she said. "It names everyone involved in the coup."
She held it out to her father, but didn't move. He had to come over to her. As always he was outwardly cool as he read the book.
While he read, Diana crossed over to me. "I had to do it," she said. "I knew what Alexandra was planning. I needed help from someone..."
"Diana," I said, "you did the right thing."
She sighed and nodded.
"But right now...you need to get the hell out of my sight."
Diana looked like she had been slapped in the face, but had known beforehand that she would get slapped. She had just talked a person out of taking over the world. However, no words of hers could satisfy my anger. She could only do what I told her to do. She left the room.
Layla stayed quiet. Like me, she could see the wisdom in Diana's words, even though we were repulsed by her secrecy. And, like me, she waited for Alexandra.
Bradbury closed the book. He walked over to the phone and began dialing a number. Alexandra walked toward Layla and me. In her face I saw one more Alexandra, and she would be the one I would know for the rest of my days. She was the one who had gained a little wisdom and would continue to gain more. Her eyes showed the sadness of the knowledge she had learned, and the hope that she could profit by it.
"I'm sorry," she said to Layla.
"Nothing to be sorry for," Layla murmured. "It was a crazy idea. I can see that now."
"Does this mean you're leaving me?"
Layla quickly touched her on the cheek. "Alexandra..."
"I ask because I'm going to the Tunnels."
Layla and I were both stunned. I should have been joyful, but I asked, "Are you sure?"
"My father has taught me all that he can. I need to know more about this world."
"So," Layla said, "you'll hide underground?"
"The Tunnels are more than a hiding place. I hope you'll realize that because I want you to come with me."
Layla looked into those hopeful red eyes. Then she turned to me and said, "Well...got room for one more?"
Should I have said no? How could I have said no? If Layla stayed away, then Alexandra would have lost a vital part of herself. Besides, if Layla was willing to go Below...if she was holding herself to the promise that I made her take...then what else could I say?
I just couldn't smile while I said it.
"We can squeeze you in," I told her.
She didn't smile either. She just shrugged. "Nothing's keeping me up here, I guess."
Alexandra reached out and held her hand. She held my hand. "Let's go," she said.
I said, "But what about your..."
"He'll understand. Let's go."
Alexandra walked out of the loft with Layla and me in hand. Bradbury was still softly giving instructions through the phone. He didn't seem to notice us leave.
But, as I said before, nothing escaped his notice.
Well, almost nothing. But that's another story. I need to finish this one first. 'Cause there's just one more thing to tell, one more secret to reveal.