Chapter 13—Unexpected Visitors
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April gave way to May. All over Mandalay, the flush of spring deepened into warm nights and warmer days. Rows of lilacs dropped their blooms in the Palace gardens. Rosie gave birth to a litter of brown and white pups. Gravis reported a pair of gryphon hawks in the west woods with a nest the size of a dining table.
Mara sat on the window seat in her office, the interface on her lap. Looking out the open window, she sniffed and wiped her eyes. Gravis had a new steward with him in the east lawn. She watched them trim the freesia bushes, Gravis nodding, talking, pointing with his shears. Such a good teacher, she thought.
She looked back at the interface screen, Jonathan’s face frozen in a heavy-browed scowl.
“Computer, replay from index 324.”
The screen blinked, then Jonathan started talking. His expression held layers of confusion and determination, but his gray eyes snapped with anger.
“This ‘temporal guardian’…Daniels…says the people who attacked Earth are called Xindi. He said they’re building a weapon to destroy the whole planet, because someone told them humans will wipe out their civilization in the future.”
He bit and barked each word, spitting them out of his mouth as if they tasted sour. He turned away from the screen and flexed the rigidity out of his neck.
“Starfleet can’t decide what to do. There’s nothing else to do except go after them, find the weapon and destroy it. But, we’re stuck here in space dock for another month at least.”
He pushed back from his desk and left the screen’s view. His voice continued from elsewhere in his little office.
“A month! Maybe more! Then, when we do get our orders, it’ll take us another two months to reach the expanse of space the probe came from. Three months! Three months before we can even start looking!”
He returned to his seat with Porthos in his arms. The little beagle looked up at his master with worried eyes. He squirmed to get proper footing on Jonathan’s lap.
“I’ve been thinking about talking to the Marines,” he said, glancing over his shoulder to a screen rolling through lists and figures. “We might need the muscle.”
He turned back to the interface. “Sorry.” He shook his head, his fingers moving under Porthos’ soft ears. “I can’t seem to concentrate. I can’t chase the Xindi, and I can’t help you with the mess on Callinda. Hell, I can’t even hold your hair back while you puke your guts out.”
His eyes darted past the interface, his hard jaw knotting. “Keep writing to me. I need to see you—hear you. I need to know you’re still there.”
He quirked a pained, apologetic smile, reached, and the interface went dark. Mara pressed her hand against the dead screen.
A knock sounded on her office door.
“He’s here,” Robby said, poking his head in.
Mara set the computer aside. “He’s alone?”
“Bring him back quietly, the way he asked.”
Robby nodded and disappeared into the hall. Mara went to the open door and waited. In a moment her Staff Father returned with President Kelly.
Mara took his hand and pulled him into the room. She caught Robinson’s eye over the President’s shoulder. He nodded and shut the door as he left.
The President had lost weight since last Mara saw him. His suit coat fell straight from his shoulders instead of threatening to pop a button. His normally florid complexion had grayed.
“Thank you for seeing me so quickly.”
Mara led him to the sitting area. “What’s happened that you couldn’t discuss over the phone?”
Kelly sat heavily. “Congress is about to pass a series of bills they call The Independence Act.”
He opened his brief case and pulled out a sheaf of papers. Mara shuffled through them.
Kelly continued, “Southern advisors will be banned from Northern Congressional and Provincial committees and from government offices. A fifteen percent surcharge tax will be levied on all Southern-owned businesses. The Lydia Sea and Pass Mountains will no longer be governed by joint North-South rule. Boundaries will be strictly adhered to.”
Mara looked up from the documents when Kelly paused. “That’s all? Nothing about the subsidies?”
“No. If they had added any changes to the subsidies, the legislation would never pass.”
“Well, this isn’t so outrageous,” Mara said. “Business won’t like the surcharge, but most will absorb it.”
She offered a hopeful smile. “It’s a start. It shows the protestors that you’re taking action.”
“The extremists will never be satisfied, but over all, there’s less shouting.”
Mara went to the sideboard where Robby had left a pitcher of iced tea. She dropped slices of red-lime into the glasses and poured.
“This gives us time to deal with other problems.” She handed Kelly a glass and sipped from hers.
“Other problems,” Kelly muttered. He took a long draw, then clattered the glass to the table. “I’ve got thousands of wheat farmers with no livelihood for the next two years. My major source of iron ore, silver and aluminum looks to be out of production for the entire summer. Refineries and factories are shutting down all across the country.”
Color rose from his loose collar. “I was a fool to think independence was ever really possible. We can make these little gestures…” He waved his hand at the documents next to his tea. “…but our economy is too fragile, too limited.”
“And for what?” He pushed off the chair and paced to the window. “To shake off a few regulations and laws?”
Mara joined him. “What regulations?”
Kelly shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Like my granddad used to say, ‘We’ve got other fish to fry’ now.”
He paused, watching the new steward work solo on the arborvitae. “I need you to come back with me, Mara. I need people to see that even when we push you away, you won’t abandon us.”
“But, Kerner…the new legislation…you came here in secret…” She struggled to make sense of his turnaround.
“I was wrong,” he said. “The All take me, I was dead wrong. It might be the last thing I do as a public servant, but I can’t let this stand. I can’t let the schemes of a few hurt so many people. I can’t let them destroy what The Fifteen built.”
“Who, Kerner?” Mara tried to break into his reverie, but the President stood fixed, his gaze taking in the east lawn but not seeing it. Then, he blinked and looked at her.
“I tip-toed in here so no one at home would know I was asking you for help. But, they need to know. They need to face the truth. Come back with me and help me tell the truth.”
Mara stared at his flushed cheeks, his wild eyes. “Sit down,” she managed, pulling him away from the window.
“Of course we’ll help,” she said quietly. “The Prime Minister and Congress Mother Mbutu already have an aid package in place.”
She took a seat across from Kelly, the coffee table marking space between them. “But, I’m not going to Holyoak with you. This isn’t the time to be impulsive. You need to think this through, talk with Vice President Reneau, talk with your advisors.”
Kelly’s face hardened as Mara spoke, but she kept going. “We both know there is always more than one truth. The minute we champion one, another reveals itself. Don’t shut the door on any of them right now.”
Kelly shook his head. “You don’t understand. You have to come back with me.”
“If I meddled in your internal affairs now, both our governments would revolt. It could only make matters worse.”
“That’s your truth.” Kelly plucked up his briefcase from the floor and stood. “I appreciate your time, Majesty.”
“Kerner…wait…” Mara hurried after him.
“This is the time to be impulsive,” he threw over his shoulder. “You’ll see.”
“No, Ra. Absolutely not.”
Afternoon light poured through the southern windows of the Queen’s office, trapping Ra in a prison of gold light. He scowled, planted his fists on the desk and leaned toward her.
“You must stay in the Palace,” he said evenly. “When The Sadat arrives, the Prime Minister and President Kelly will greet the ambassadors and bring them to you.”
Mara smiled to herself at how he tried to intimidate her and show respect at the same time. It was a balancing act he’d perfected over the years. Ra never raised his voice to her, never touched her except to stand close as a shield. She once asked him why he never helped her out of a car when he was the one who always opened her door. He told her he needed his hands free and his attention outside the car, not on her.
But, his attention was on her today. And while his voice remained cool, his body generated enough heat to wilt the flowers on her desk. The Queen, however, didn’t wilt so easily.
“If I stayed in the Palace, I would insult our visitors, the Prime Minister and President Kelly. I’m no more at risk than they are. Besides, the death threats we’ve received are aimed at the Ambassador and the Elders. You should spend your time coordinating with General Jones on how to protect them.”
“I am not charged with protecting them,” he growled. “You are my priority, Majesty. I want you no where near the targets.”
Targets. The word vibrated inside her. All the traveling, all the speeches, all the Temples and town squares and living rooms she and Collier visited came to this: The living links between the people of Callinda and the people of Earth were nothing more than cans on a fence post to be picked off at will. A memory rushed at her of standing on the practice field behind the barns, her father muttering encouragement, a clay disk arcing high in the blue sky, then shattering with her shot. Mara rubbed her shoulder, remembering the gun’s kickback. She remembered, too, the uneasy mix of satisfaction and horror in her gut.
She looked up at Ra. They studied each other a long moment.
“I have a very bad feeling about this, Ma’am,” he said at last.
“So do I,” she admitted. “President Kelly was here this afternoon—did you know that?”
A ripple passed over Ra’s stony features. “Why wasn’t I told?”
“He wanted it kept a secret… until he got here. Then, he wanted to shout it from the front door.” Mara touched her fingers to her lips. “I think he’s lost his mind a little. I think the world has lost its mind a little.”
She took a deep breath and straightened up in her chair. “You saw Ambassador Running Bear’s last transmission?”
“He left the decision about whether to turn back to Earth or continue to Callinda up to the Elders. They know that when the hatch on their ship opens, they could be shot and killed. And they chose to come anyway.
“We have to be worthy of their courage, Ra. I have to be worthy.” The Security First swam out of focus as tears filled Mara’s eyes. “Do everything to prepare. Take every precaution. But know that I’ll be standing on the pad when that hatch opens.”
Ra’s shoulders drew back and down, his back filled with steel. He jutted his chin in what Mara had come to recognize as his salute to her.
“Very well,” he said, and left the office.
As the door shut behind him, Mara put her head down on her desk and cried.
The May Ides fell on Mandalay like a mother’s touch. An evening breeze sighed inland from King’s Bay, warm and moist, stirring the lush trees and grasses. The Queen’s gardens released a dozen perfumes into the fading light, none of which were noticed by the guards atop the Palace walls.
Platoons of Home Guard finished preparations on the Palace Avenue. A ten-foot barrier bracketed the helipad, cutting off access from the fields and woods to the south. More barriers blocked the view from both east and west fences where people already started to gather. The atmosphere outside the gates seemed quietly festive with families pitching tents for an overnight camp-out and vendors selling pirogues and kabobs. A few groups waved signs half-heartedly at the cars driving through the big circle drive.
From limousines and modest provincial cars came the elite of all Callinda—governors, Congress members, judges, leading scientists and archivists. In the dusk’s golden light, they glittered at the Palace entrance like a new species of night-blooming flower. The trail of gowns and tuxedos snaked up the broad steps, through the open double doors, and pooled in the cathedral-like Reception Hall. There they swirled, mixed and mingled—a living bouquet that continually arranged itself.
Queen Marapura stood in the foyer greeting her guests. Her pale, spring-green gown fell in gauzy drapes to the floor. Matching ribbons twined through her wheat-blond hair and tied it up in a tumble. She smiled and laughed, an emerald circlet glittering high on one bare arm, as she reached for Lama Ki.
“You honor us, Master,” she said, taking both his hands. “I can’t remember the last time you came to the Palace.”
He smiled, an average, nondescript man in brilliant yellow robes. “Our concern is man’s internal struggle, not his external ones. So, we choose to remove ourselves from those if we can.” He paused. Significantly. “But, one cannot remain rigid during a great storm.”
He glanced around at the partiers, and when he looked again at Mara, his manner quieted to the point of silence. His keen eyes held hers, commanded them, and just as Mara’s heart quickened, he blinked and tipped his lips in a shy smile.
“We can prepare for the storm,” he said. “We must prepare. But we also must hold the knowing of nature’s unpredictability. And man’s.”
“Master…” Mara started.
“I must greet President Kelly now, Marapura,” he said, his dark eyes soft again with no trace of the steel she’d seen.
Mara nodded and watched him slip into the room, her questions trailing behind him.
“Why in the world would a Lama come to this party?” a voice behind her said.
Emmond Mbutu, Governor of Notre Dam, grinned after the retreating saffron robe, then turned the full brilliance of his smile onto the Queen.
“These are indeed strange times, Your Majesty,” he laughed.
“Emmond.” Mara quickly tucked away her questions about Lama Ki and returned to the state of charming vigilance she’d assumed all night. She noted in an instant the perfect fit of the governor’s tuxedo, the subtle scent of his wife’s expensive perfume, and their artful display of respectful ease.
Formidable, she thought with a genuine smile.
“It’s been much too long,” she said, taking his square hand. “Natalya.” She nodded to the governor’s beautiful wife. “How are your boys?”
“Grown, I’m afraid,” the woman laughed lightly, “and thriving, thank The All.”
“May we offer our congratulations on your own great blessing,” the Governor added, tipping his head toward her mid-section.
“You may, and thank you,” Mara replied. She tilted her head. “Forgive me, Emmond, but I’m rather surprised to see you here tonight. I thought you opposed relations with Earth.”
The man nodded, chuckling. He leaned toward her and said in a whisper, “I was a bit short-sighted in the beginning, but I’ve come to see the potential.” His dazzling smile blazed against perfect cocoa skin as he rubbed his hands together. “I look forward to meeting Ambassador Running Bear.”
And what of Babette Reneau? Mara wondered as she held her attentive and pleasant expression. Do you even plan to meet her—the sister of your Line’s progenitor?
Instead she nodded agreeably. “As do we all, Emmond. Be welcome and enjoy yourselves tonight.”
They bowed and sauntered past. Mara watched them a moment, not surprised when Mbana Mbutu’s fire-red gown wove through the guests to join them, or when Armand Mendoza left the rest of the New Madrid delegation to drift their way. While on their tour, Collier’s intelligence reported that Emmond had visited Armand as well as his sister several times in the past few months. New Madrid and New Kenya were South Callinda’s wealthiest provinces. You can bet Emmond’s not interested in their sparkling conversation, the Prime Minister had said.
I need to talk to Kerner. Her stomach rolled, not for the first time that evening, and she took a quick sip of salted water from the wine glass Marissa had left for her earlier.
Kelly vetoed the Independence Act and openly discussed the South’s aide package for New Dublin. Yesterday, the vids showed him at the Crown Mountain mines, criticizing Emmond Mbutu and his handling of the shut-down. He stopped short of calling the governor incompetent, but not by much. And while news reports exclaimed over Kelly’s apparent change of heart, his opponents held a cool and ominous silence. To Mara, his actions seemed desperate and dangerous.
Mara scanned the party again. She noted Kelly’s man, Gregor Petrovich, blending against the flocked wallpaper, his features rock-hard. She glimpsed Javier Juarez and Dharma Singh sharing a plate of hors d’oeuvres, their heads close together.
Where is Colli, she fussed.
Mara glanced at the front door, past Ra and Francisco posted on either side, to the gravel drive below. Another car pulled up to the walk. She bit back a groan of impatience.
Too many balls in the air to stand here smiling. The top of her head floated away, also not for the first time that evening, and Mara felt her knees go soft. She braced herself against the hall table, jostling the huge bouquet of roses, and focused on the back of Ra’s head, willing the sparkles at the edge of her vision to go away.
I’m worthless like this—vomiting and fainting, fainting and vomiting. Not tonight, Little One. We can’t afford to drop a single ball.
“Majesty?” Concern edged a silken voice.
Mara blinked, bringing the foyer back into focus. Jakaya Brown stood with his hand hovering at her elbow. Mara laughed and took his hand in hers, giving herself another moment to regain her party face.
“If I may ask, Highness,” Jakaya said quietly, “how long have you been standing here?”
“Oh, don’t concern yourself,” she told him, pitching her tone between amusement and self-mockery. “Candidate Brown now, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied, pulling his hand back. “You remember my wife, Clara?”
“Of course,” Mara took the woman’s elegant, manicured hand. “How lovely to see you again, Clara.”
One shapely brow arched as the beauty scrutinized the Queen. She dipped her coiffed head. “Your Highness,” she murmured.
“A momentous night, isn’t it?” Jakaya beamed. “To think that we can be part of such an historic event. I am deeply honored by your invitation.”
“You’ve done so much to sway public opinion in favor of a relationship with Earth, we thought it only right for you greet the Ambassador and Elders when they arrive.” Mara considered him, her queasiness settling for the moment. “I worried your approach would only make matters worse. How glad I was to be wrong.”
“Thank, you, Majesty. That means a great deal to me.”
She watched them blend into the party, Clara’s sparkling gown and perfect figure soliciting much appreciation. Delilah Mbutu gathered them warmly into a conversation. Across the room, Lama Ki’s bright robe caught Mara’s eye. With him, President Kelly dipped his head to listen to the Lama, but his eyes followed Jakaya with cold precision.
“You still think that was a good idea?” Collier stood next to Mara, watching Jakaya.
“If he wins the election this fall, we’ll be glad we invited him.”
Cabot grunted. “Still feels like we’re back-handing Kerner.”
Mara looked at him suddenly. “Where have you been?” she scolded. “You said you’d stand the door with me.”
“Sorry, my Queen,” he smiled at her pout. “I needed to check the helipad and grounds security.”
“Horatio and Ra couldn’t do that without you?”
“Just indulge me, will you?”
“So, we’re ready for tomorrow?”
Cabot took a breath, let it out. “As ready as we can be.”
“And Ra closed the gates?”
“Jakaya’s car was the last. We’re locked tight until after the shuttles land tomorrow.”
The Queen took another sip of the salted water and set it next to the vase of roses. She tossed her head, curls of green ribbon bouncing, and took the Prime Minister’s arm.
“Then, find Willa and start mingling, dear. We have work to do.”
Mara held herself still. Through the glass doors of the Palace rear entrance, she watched purple-gray clouds boil up from the south. Morning light strained to reach the Avenue, the bright flowers smudged and overcast. The tall barriers cut off her view of the east and west fences, but she knew thousands of spectators gathered there. Beside her, Kerner Kelly cleared his throat. Collier Cabot took a deep breath. Behind her, the governors of North and South Callinda waited in silence—a collective breath held.
Ra appeared before her, hand at his earpiece. “It’s time.”
He and Gregor Petrovich threw open the doors and led them onto the Avenue. Like a dance, the Royal Guard fell in beside the procession, enveloping it in a coating of gray suits. The wind pushed and pulled at them, but the Queen, the President and the Prime Minister marched steadily to the end of the pad, the governors hurrying behind.
Out of the clouds one shuttle slipped into sight, and then the other—pale thumbnails against the coming storm. A huge sigh rose up outside the barriers with a smattering of applause. Mara’s heart leapt.
The ships banked in formation, adjusting to the wind, and as planned, landed nose to aft with their port sides facing each other. General Jones recommended this additional protective tunnel for the Elders as they disembarked. The Royal Guard, supplemented with Home Guard troops, formed a wall around the shuttles and dignitaries. No bands, no fanfares, just the Callinda flags jittering in the wind.
Mara stepped into the little corridor. It took all her will to keep from clutching at Kerner and Collier. As the doors rose, a tall man jumped out of the left shuttle. He ducked under the still-moving hatch and trotted to the waiting trio.
“Jason Running Bear.” He placed his hands over his heart and bowed. “Your Majesty, Mr. President, Prime Minister.” The wind whipped his long black hair around his face.
Mara grasped his hand as Jonathan had taught her. “At last,” she said. “Be welcome, Ambassador.”
Kelly and Cabot pumped Running Bear’s hand in turn.
“We should get the Elders into the Palace as quickly as possible,” Cabot said, raising his voice above the increasing noise of the wind. “Do any of them need help?”
“Mrs. Mendoza.” Running Bear pointed to the other shuttle.
“I’ll escort her,” Cabot stated.
“Let’s go,” Mara urged.
A guard brought stepstools. Wide-eyed, but determined, the Elders took the proffered hands and climbed out. As rehearsed, a governor with Guard escorts took charge of each visitor and moved them toward the Palace.
They’re beautiful, Mara marveled, looking into each face. They’re us.
One woman paused at the door. “Marapura?” she asked.
“Yes,” the Queen answered, reaching up for her. Then, she looked into the clear blue eyes and answered the hopeful smile.
Joy flashed through Mara. At the same time, Ra shouted, “ROOF!”
Guards scrambled. A faint popping sound came from the distance. Mara shoved Lydia back into the shuttle. She felt a punch and pinch in her shoulder, then she was falling.
Shoes stuttered on the air pad tiles.
Ra’s voice roared orders.
Fog surrounded Marapura. Her thin gown was soaked with it. Chilled, she turned in circles, trying to see.
The child’s voice came again. “Mommy?”
“Little One?” Mara peered into the fog. “Linny, is that you? Where are you, sweetheart?”
“Mommy, Daddy’s angry.”
“I know, Precious.”
“No, you don’t. Daddy’s mad in his head and in his heart. Pretty soon, he’ll stay mad all the time. He’ll get sick with it.”
“Why? Why will he be so angry?”
“Because he won’t find the Bad Men. He won’t stop looking, and it will make him sick.”
“What can we do for him, Linny?”
Cold, damp fog rushed down Mara’s throat, freezing and choking her. She bent over her knees and coughed. And coughed. And COUGHED.
Clotted blood flew from the Queen’s mouth as she convulsed on the hospital gurney. Pain exploded in her left shoulder, pulling her through the fog but not out of it.
“Turn her!” Dr. Jones shouted.
Hands lifted and turned her. Mara coughed and strained. Her feet seemed to be dancing, dancing in the fog.
“Marapura!” Jones’ voice seemed a dream.
“MARAPURA!” King Jacque bellowed beyond the fog. His command ripped it apart. “WAKE UP THIS INSTANT!”
The Queen’s eyes snapped open. She gasped air, heaving great lungsful, and grabbed the shirt in front of her. She watched the blood on her hand soak into white cotton. More hands lifted her, probed, and adjusted. Still gasping through a ventilating mask, she continued to hold tight to the shirtfront. It belonged to the Prime Minister.
“Colli,” she croaked. “My baby.”
“Fine, Mara,” he said, clutching her hand. Dried blood smeared his face. “Your baby’s fine.”
She shook her head. He didn’t understand. But, even as she tried to form another question, the last of the fog drifted away. She yanked on the shirt.
“Anyone…” She squirmed against the pain in her shoulder.
Cabot glanced at Dr. Jones.
“President Kelly is dead,” the Prime Minister said, “and Ra.”
She closed her eyes against the pain. “Who? How?”
“Enough.” Dr. Jones pushed Cabot away. “Bring her,” she said, waving at someone behind him, “but only for a moment.”
Lydia Abercrombe swam into Mara’s sight. A splatter of blood fanned across her face and into her soft, white hair.
“Oh, my dear,” the Elder said. She cupped Mara’s face in gentle hands.
The Queen smiled back at the beautiful woman, but wasn’t sure who she was.
“Mommy?” she whispered, then slipped into the dark.
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Click here to read Chapter 14.