The resort town of Houma rose from the cliffs of Belle Bay like cake frosting. Delicate spires pointed skyward. Stone cottages gleamed white in the sunlight and reflected in the blue of the bay, a wide and protected curve along Lydia Sea’s north shore. The mouth of Belle Chasse River opened wide through the middle of town, bringing traffic from as far north as Land’s End at the tip of New Dublin.
Sailboats bobbed in the harbor, their curved mainsails white as gulls’ wings. Vacationers dotted the pale beach and strolled the long boardwalk. Colorful awnings marked shops and cafes. Flowers bloomed everywhere.
Marapura leaned on the ferry railing, letting herself enjoy the lovely sight. She had never seen Houma this way, approaching it from the sea. Even after hundreds of trips to North Callinda, this breathtaking view was new to her.
We’ll come back here, she thought, her hands creeping around her belly. The three of us.
“We need more information,” Francisco said, rubbing the back of his head. “I don’t like setting out for Yangtze so blind.”
Next to him, Boris hunched over the railing. “I don’t know Houma, but there’s bound to be a workin’ man’s pub somewhere’s along the dock. Mebbe we kin tease out some news.”
“I’d also feel better if you were armed.”
“Yer not startin’ to trust me, are ya, boy?”
“You’re with us,” Francisco said bluntly. “You don’t need to be. That says something.”
“Says somethin’,” the big man muttered.
Mara touched Francisco’s sleeve. “You said Washington Brown planned to use the other Elders as part of his network.”
The young Security First looked down at her. “That was his plan, Ma’am.”
She watched a red kite lift up from the beach. “When we dock, I want you to call Peking and ask for Tsu Yee Chow.”
He followed her gaze to the kite. After a time, he nodded.
“If she’s there, it means Wash briefed her and sent her out. If she’s not there and we ask for her, no one will think much about it. It’s natural to think she’d visit her Line.” He kept nodding. “Maybe we can get help after all.”
“We’ll see. I won’t delay leaving for Yangtze. It will take hours to drive there.”
“At least three,” Boris said, “even if I push it.”
“But, I feel like we need to report to someone before we go. In case something happens.” Her hand stroked the curve of her belly.
Boris straightened up, hiking his pants. “I’ll wander over to the cabin and trade words with the crew a bit. See where they like to tip a mug. Get this parade rollin’.”
As he sauntered off, Mara studied the shore. “Headaches, again?” she asked.
“They come and go.” After a pause, he added. “I forgot about Wash’s plan to use the Elders.”
“You need a doctor.”
“I’m all right, Ma’am. As long as I don’t forget anything else.”
They found the pub easy enough—a colorless, flat building at the end of the wharf. The day shift was just ending, so the big room filled as the Queen’s party arrived. The place smelled damp and fishy with the distinct tang of spilled ale.
“C’mon,” Boris said to Francisco. “Let’s lean the bar.”
Head down, Mara made her way to a dim corner. She sat with her back to the wall, the long bar running down the left side of the room, tables and a gaming room beyond them in front of her. A big vid screen blared above the bar with coverage of the water soccer semi-finals. Several patrons cheered as the Holyoak Rangers scored against the Emeralds of Ennis. Mara smiled, remembering Jonathan’s single goal with the Mandalay team.
It was a gimme, he told her later. The fellas took pity on me.
She closed her eyes. Take pity, she prayed. Help me.
She tried to sink into Clear Mind, but focus skipped away. Each time the door opened, each time a cheer rose from the bar or the dart room, her attention scattered. She changed tactics, then, and concentrated on everything.
She heard the floor boards creak as the waitress approached, paused, and left. She smelled shrimp cooking, and onions, and spices. When the door opened again, she felt the push of warm air against her face. She noticed the distant ache in her womb that she had been ignoring for a while.
The rise and fall of conversations rocked her like the sea. Laughter and cursing burst the surface then fell under again. One conversation, close, breached and floated.
“Zuzu says the algae overgrowth around Yangtze will reach us in another month.”
“The height of tourist season!”
“What’s going on over there? It’s not like Tao Province to let a mess like that go unchecked.”
“Lillette Singh’s too busy chasing away news crews and fighting off the law.”
“Still, Antoine says his catch is down. He says the other seine-men are finding more dead fish floating in from the west. They’re worried its the algae.”
“The Mayor won’t let this stand. He’ll… “
Mara opened her eyes. She picked out Boris from the line of hunched backs at the bar. He nodded as the man next to him waved his mug at the vid screen. Her eyes travelled along the row of men, a flare of panic sparking in her belly when she couldn’t find Francisco.
The waitress returned, a heavy girl with a sweet smile.
“I didn’t want to bother you before,” she said. “You were deep.”
Mara glanced at her. “I tried. It’s not easy today.” Her eyes scanned the room and finally found Francisco in the back with the darters.
“Your pleasure?” the girl asked.
Mara relaxed in her chair. “I’m hungry. What smells so good?”
“Daddy’s gumbo,” the girl smiled.
“Perfect,” Mara smiled back.
The waitress tilted her head. “I thought you were crew at first, but that’s wrong. We don’t get many tourists in here. I could find you a nicer table.”
“Just the gumbo,” Mara told her. “Thank you.”
As the girl wove back to the kitchen, a stronger cramp rolled through Mara’s belly. Not now, Little One, she pleaded, massaging her side. We’re fine, remember? Fine. Her eyes bounced from Boris’ back to Francisco, now taking his turn at the dart board. Hurry, she thought at them.
The soccer match ended as the waitress brought Mara’s soup. She spooned a spicy mouthful as the news started.
“More details have surfaced about he allegations against President Reneau and her husband… “
Mara watched and ate.
“Sources say Ian Kelly, business associate of Philippe Reneau, was the uncle of Griffen Kelly, the gunman responsible for the Landing Day Massacre.”
The vid showed a haggard man making his way through a churning mob of cameras, microphones and shouting reporters.
“Kelly denied any knowledge of his nephew’s actions to the investigation committee today, but admitted Philippe Reneau helped Griffen’s appointment to the New Dublin Home Guard two years ago as a favor to himself. Kelly resigned from the Guard earlier this year…”
A photo of the younger Kelly showed him holding a certificate and a high-powered rifle. He grinned proudly.
“… after qualifying for sharpshooter status. He subsequently joined The Alliance for Callinda and gained access to the Palace as a groundskeeper.”
Mara found herself standing. Boris sat up on his bar stool and looked around. He spotted her and scowled, then fished for his wallet to pay their bill. Francisco made his way toward her, taking his time, his attention on the vid.
“Reneau and Kelly will appear before the committee again tomorrow. Due to public reaction, they remain in protective custody. In other news, the Holyoak Rangers… “
Boris hitched his pants as he neared her. “You still set on this?” he asked.
She nodded. “Did you learn anything?”
“Some. We kin chew it on the road.”
Francisco steered Mara toward the door. “I saw a phone outside. Let’s make that call.”
“First is first,” Mara said. “One pebble at a time.”
The phone stall was stuffed between Louis’ Pub and a tackle repair shop. Trash and stink filled the narrow gap. Fishermen and laborers passed along the wharf, loaded with gear, headed home.
Boris lounged against the corner of the pub, his back to the stall, paring his fingernails with a pocket knife. He eyeballed anyone who considered him too long, lifting his chin in the working man’s greeting.
Behind him, Francisco and the Queen dripped sweat in the steamy stall. Once again, they held a greasy receiver between their heads. The line clicked.
“Governor’s Residence,” a pleasant female voice announced. “How may I serve?”
“Madam Tsu Yee Chow, if ya please,” Francisco said, letting his voice crack.
The receptionist paused. “And may I tell her who is calling?”
“This here’s Washington Brown.”
Mara smiled in spite of her nerves. So many skills Francisco had picked up on their travels. Ra would have been pleased.
“Of course, Mr. Brown,” the friendly voice said. “One moment, please.”
They waited. Francisco armed the sweat from his face. Mara opened the stall door, even though passersby might hear them. There would be nothing to hear if they both fainted from the heat.
The phone clicked. A breathy voice said, “Yes?”
“Madam Yee Chow?”
“Mourning doves in flight.”
“Oh.” She voiced the word like a song, the tone rising and falling. “Why, yes, Wash, the trip here from Mandalay was lovely.”
Mara and Francisco exchanged a look.
“But the Residence is so busy—lots of unexpected guests and all those reporters. Lillette doesn’t have enough hours in the day. Actually, I’m on my way to supper with her. Could I call you back?”
“Good. Give me your number, bâo béi.”
Francisco frowned, unsure.
“I’m sorry, Wash, I’ve forgotten your number. Tell it to me again… the way you do.”
Understanding lit Francisco’s face. He touched his finger to the number on their phone and recited it. Mara exclaimed softly when he mixed up the last three digits, but he held his hand up to quiet her.
Madam Yee Chow repeated the erroneous number. “Is that right, Washington?”
“Yep,” Francisco said.
“All right, bâo béi,” she said brightly. “I’ll call you later. ‘Bye-bye.”
“You told her the wrong number,” Mara hissed as they squeezed out of the box.
Francisco mopped his face. “Wash taught me a code for phone numbers. It sounded like he taught Madam Yee Chow, too.”
“Blessed All, that man thought of everything.”
She bent over to use the skirt of her shift as a towel. Dizziness rushed up and knocked her off-balance. She flung out her hands and slapped the wall of the tackle shop to keep from falling over.
She straightened slowly, the sparkles at her vision’s periphery bright and sharp.
“I think,” she said, “I’ll sit.”
She plopped down, boneless, in a drift of trash. The phone rang.
“Boris!” Francisco yelled, hurrying back to the stall.
“What’s this?” Boris squatted in front of her.
She felt his huge paw on her forehead and something cold on the back of her neck.
“Right enough use fer a cold one,” he said. “I kin still drink it later.”
She could hear Francisco’s voice—loud, then soft—and her own pounding pulse. Then, her elbows slipped off her knees. She felt herself tilting sideways, falling—falling into the glittering sparkles, into the stars.
Marapura hovered in the vast expanse of space—black except for distant pinpoints of light.
“Linny.” Relief exploded out of her. “Where are we?”
“Daddy’s here. He got through.”
Mara reached out and touched an invisible barrier. It yielded to her hands like pudding. “He’s on the other side of this?”
“He’s looking for the scared people. Mommy?”
“I don’t want to come out.”
“No, you mustn’t, sweetheart. It’s not time yet.”
“Help me, Mommy.”
The tiny pricks of light throbbed. They raced toward her, light blinding and squeezing, heat burning. Mara curled herself into a ball, screaming.
She woke with a jerk, staring up at a twilight sky with the first Evening Stars. A fishy breeze warmed her face. She pushed up from a hard surface—the bed of Boris’ truck—and looked between the panel slats. Fading orange light rimmed a small dock and a thin ribbon of beach. A picnic table disappeared into shadow. She heard voices–Francisco and Boris whispering nearby. She smiled. It made them sound like little boys sharing a secret.
Mara held her belly in both hands, noting the bright pains darting back and forth. “Stay, darling,” she whispered. “Mommy’s here.”
“I’m awake,” she said into the gathering dark.
“Majesty.” Francisco leaped over the tailgate. “We couldn’t decide what to do. You were bleeding… “
“I still say hospital.” Boris leaned his arms on the high gate. “Forget about stayin’ hid.”
“I think this is what Dr. Jones warned me about,” she said. “You’ll have to chase William without me.”
“I’ll get a room and wait for you.” She looked at Boris’ broad shadow. “Can you lend us more money? I’ll make sure you get it back, plus more.”
“Aww, don’t be worryin’ ‘bout that.”
“We’ve already lost so much time… “
“Majesty, listen to me.” Francisco grabbed her hand. “I told Lillette everything. They already have operatives in Yangtze. They know about William. Lillette ordered us to stay away.”
He ran a hand over his head. “You were passed out on the ground, bleeding…”
Mara squeezed his hand. “Tell me the rest.”
“She’s sending someone for us, someone we know, she said. And a doctor. She said to wait in this park unless you got worse. They’ll be here before dawn.”
“Good. Well done.” She smiled up at his worried face. “Any other instructions before then?”
“Drink.” Boris handed her a take-away cup. “‘N’ sleep. I’m wore thin as cross-country tires, ‘n’ this one… “ He flipped off his hat and slapped Francisco on the arm. “…stupid-tired by now.”
He squinted at Marapura. “So, no hospital?”
“No hospital,” she said, sipping the water.
“Well, then… guess I’ll take the cab.”
She slid over on the soiled blanket. “Lie down,” she told Francisco. “Try to sleep.”
He hesitated until she turned away from him on her side. Then, he stretched out gingerly behind her. Boris rocked the whole truck as he settled in. Mara imagined him working out a nest, like Rosie, twirling around and around until he got it right. Finally, they were all quiet.
“I’ve never been so scared,” Francisco confessed.
“It won’t happen again,” she told him, tucking her arm under her head. “I promise.”
◊ ◊ ◊
To read Chapter 20, click here.