Chapter 2—The Cradle Tree & Kerner Kelly
A short walk down the central corridor brought them to a small auditorium that held fifty seats. All the chairs were filled, all standing room taken. The room hushed as Archer and the Queen entered. The Captain’s mouth tightened.
“I forgot to ask,” he whispered. “What do you want me to say?”
“Whatever feels right,” she told him.
And so Jonathan Archer talked about Starfleet, about Enterprise and his crew. He recounted some of their adventures and people they’d met. He talked about their scans of Callinda, how beautiful it seemed to a crew so far away from home. He talked about how weary his crew was, the disasters they avoided recently, the long hours of duty. He talked about his gratitude for the invitation to let his people relax, recover and play on Callinda, and his hope to forge new friendships here.
Marapura watched him from the side of the room. Hesitant and self-conscious at first, he soon relaxed, his strong tenor filling the room. He stood straight, with shoulders squared, but the posture took effort. The beginnings of dark smudges shadowed his eyes. She believed his weariness.
Archer addressed the whole room, but over and over, his eyes found Marapura. She felt like he spoke only to her, that his gaze was a lantern picking her out of the gathered.
He finished to thunderous applause, and the Queen found herself next to him. “Thank you for coming everyone,” she called over the noise. “I know some of you travelled for hours this morning on the chance of meeting Captain Archer, but he is unable to take questions today—his schedule is very tight. Thank you again for coming.”
Disappointed noises followed them into the corridor, out the rear doors, and onto the sunny Avenue.
“My schedule is tight?”
“I didn’t want you to be trapped in another two hour interview session.”
He touched her hand at his elbow. “I’m glad to do it.”
“Enough is enough.” She looked up at him. “Besides, they can all read the papers tomorrow like everyone else.”
They stepped off the tiled Avenue and followed a path around the corner of the West Wing. Mara noticed that Ra followed closer than was his norm—and louder. Most of the time, he blended into the background, a silent shadow. But today, his shoes clopped against the tiles, and he muttered under his breath. She suspected the display was for Captain Archer’s benefit—a not-so-subtle reminder of his presence. She didn’t know whether to be irritated or impressed.
Beyond an expanse of lawn, they passed under a flowering arbor and into the Royal Gardens. At this time of spring, the early flowers bloomed in their jumbled beds. Buds on the bushes and shrubs opened in the warm sun, and pale fresh green sprouts poked from the earth. The sweetened air drifted around them, pinks and violets splashed on either side of the path.
Archer slowed. “What’s that smell? Mint?”
“Yes.” Again, a tightness squeezed Marapura’s throat. How can he know mint? How can he name it? “There’s something I want to show you.”
They made their way through the garden, Archer occasionally asking about a plant, until they came to the end of the path. The Queen led him through a tangle of flowers, back into cut grass and a copse of willows. She approached one old tree with well-trampled earth around its base. The roots reached out and down like cradling arms.
“I used to come here a lot when I was younger,” she explained. “I still come when I need to. The space is larger than I am, and I thought…”
Archer looked at the Queen, then at the cradle. “You want me to sit in there?”
“Lie down, actually.”
His brow furrowed. “Why?”
She smiled. “Because it feels good.”
He took a deep breath, let it out. “Okay.”
The Captain stooped under the curtain of vine-like branches and got down in the soft dirt. He tested the fit of his shoulders in the embrace of the roots, then let his head rest against the tree’s base.
“Oh,” he said, closing his eyes.
Marapura ducked under the branches and sat beside him. “My grandfather brought me here the first time,” she said quietly. “He said all the kings and queens of Callinda South ‘took their ease’ here, all the way back to Reginald Gibson of the Fifteen. The tree is magic, he said. It draws out worries and sadness, and sends them back to the Mother to be healed.”
“That’s a nice story,” he said lazily.
“Shh. Let the old tree do her work.”
“I’ll fall asleep if I stay here much longer.”
“Even better. I will stand guard so no—what did you call them? Klingons?”
“Mmm,” he muttered.
“So no Klingons can bother you.”
“I feel safer already, Majesty.”
Marapura took a breath. “Please call me Mara, Captain.”
Archer smiled, opening his eyes. “Only if you call me Jonathan.”
She nodded, feeling suddenly shy. “Jonathan,” she tested.
“Let me ask you something…” He sat up in the bowl of the cradle. “I have a dog…would it be offensive if I brought Porthos down to these gardens?”
“Offensive?” she said flatly, blinking. She wasn’t as adept as Robby, but she got the job done. Her thin whistle rang across the gardens. In a few seconds, a black shape bounded out of the barns. Archer rose, watching, and gave the Queen a hand up.
Mara clapped and called until the black and white Herder ran into their legs. She immediately started sniffing the Captain. He laughed and held his hand down for her to smell.
“This is Rosie,” Mara said.
“She looks like a Border Collie.” Jonathan leaned over to scratch behind her small ears. Rosie’s tongue lolled out of a spotted muzzle.
“I’ve had animals all my life,” Mara told him. “Of course you can bring Porthos. Since Rosie is a Herder, she’ll probably take charge of him—wouldthat be offensive?”
Jonathan laughed. “He’ll love it.”
“Then bring him tomorrow. Let’s go talk to Gravis. As my Grounds Father, he oversees care of the animals. You can tell him what Porthos needs.”
They left the shelter of the willow, Rosie close on the Queen’s heel, and headed along the trail to the barns.
“What would you like to do while you’re here,” she asked.
“What would you suggest?”
“Mmm…do you like sports?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Participant or observer?”
She narrowed her eyes, thinking. “The City soccer team has a Province match later in the week. Or we could arrange a pitchball game. And, I think the water soccer team is in town.”
“It’s just like it sounds—soccer played in the water.” She expected him to ask what soccer was, but he just looked at her.
“We call it water polo on Earth,” he said.
They stared at each other in wonder and, in Mara’s case, dread.
“We’re here,” she said, thinly.
They found Gravis with the groom currying Tsa, the Queen’s mare. The Grounds Father took his time studying the Captain, the body brush wicking over the horse’s rump.
“Beagle,” he said at last. “Never heard of it.”
“Mild tempered, bred for hunting.” Archer crossed his arms.
“Huh.” The brush swept the roan horse. “I’d like to see him.”
“I’ll feed him before we come tomorrow. I don’t know if he can digest your dogs’ food. But, a pan of water would be appreciated.”
“’Course.” Gravis’ seamed face softened around the edges. “Rosie’ll show him where.”
Tsa stretched her neck and leaned out of her stall to nuzzle the Captain. She snuffled his hair and blew out a soft breath. Archer ran his hands down her long face, smiling.
Animals always know, Mara thought.
A phone on the tack room wall trilled. Gravis stomped across the stable floor and grabbed it up. After listening a moment, he held the hand-set out to the Queen. “Jasper,” he said.
She took the phone. “Yes?” She listened, her eyes darting between Archer and Ra, who stood silently in the doorway. “I’ll be right there.”
The captain watched her.
“Kerner Kelly, President of the Northern Continent,” she explained, handing Gravis the receiver.
“Trouble?” Archer asked as he moved up beside her.
“Always.” She hurried through the barn door, Archer and Ra close behind.
“Can I help?” he asked.
“Oh, I hope not,” she sighed.
The Queen put her head in her hands as President Kelly’s voice boomed through the speaker. Jasper adjusted the volume.
“Your Majesty must understand that the Northern Continent is no longer your smaller, weaker cousin. On behalf of all Northern Peoples, I take great offense that you kept our space visitors a secret.”
“With all due respect, Mr. President,” Archer said, standing over Mara, “we didn’t give the government here any time to prepare for us.”
“We called you as soon as we could, Kerner,” the Queen said evenly.
“A long enough delay so that the Enterprise people will spend all their vacation time on the Southern Continent.”
“How can we fix this, Mr. President,” Archer asked.
“I want some of your people to vacation here.”
Mara quickly wrote on a scrap of paper and pushed it where Archer could see. VAIN.
He nodded. “As the Queen said, all plans are in place now, but I have a suggestion. What if I spend a day with you, do an interview, whatever you like.”
Mara scratched another note. I’M COMING, TOO.
“Of course,” the Captain continued, “I would ask the Queen to accompany me.”
“When would you come?” the President asked querulously.
Archer watched Mara’s face as he said, “Tomorrow?”
She nodded and started scribbling notes for the aides standing ready.
“Tomorrow would be fine.” Pleasure colored Kelly’s tone. “I’ll have my assistant handle the details. Until then, Captain Archer. Your Majesty.”
“Mr. President,” they both said.
Jasper turned to Archer. “Sir, what time do you wish to leave Mandalay? We need to notify Royalty Air.”
“Why don’t we take a shuttle pod?” he answered. “Figure out what time Kelly wants us and I’ll adjust the crew’s timetable for tomorrow. We’ll spend a lot less time in the air.”
“Yes, sir,” Jasper turned back to his radio.
Mara dispatched the last of her memos. Placing a finger to her lips, she drew Archer into the hallway.
“I keep thanking you, but it’s so inadequate.” She ran a hand over her face. “I’ve worked with four Presidents and none have been as difficult as Kerner Kelly. Now you have to postpone your vacation another day.”
“It’s not so bad,” Jonathan smiled. “You’ll be there.”
Mara felt her face heat up. She hadn’t blushed in decades. To cover, she moved up the hall.
“Presidents are elected every five years,” she said. “Kerner’s term expires next autumn, and he’s been very unpopular. Being seen with you and me will boost his ratings, at least I’m sure he thinks so.”
“The North likes you, then,” Archer said.
“Since I was a girl. I’ve never quite understood it.”
“What’s not to understand—a beautiful, kind and benevolent ruler who never misuses her power? Add in your longevity and your government’s stability—no wonder Kelly wants to be seen with you.”
Mara deliberately skipped over the part about her being beautiful. “What makes you think I don’t misuse my power?”
Jonathan grinned. “Commander to commander, I just have a hunch.”
Jasper jogged up the hall to them. “The schedule for tomorrow, sir.” He handed the Captain a full sheet.
“Oh, boy,” he sighed, showing it to the Queen. “Can you decipher the times?”
“If I may, sir,” Jasper said, taking back the sheet. “I’ve translated the Holyoak times into Mandalay times here…” He pointed. “…and into Enterprisetime here.”
“So, if I read this right, we’re to arrive in Holyoak at 09:00 Mandalay time.”
“What!?” Mara tried to swallow her anger. “Jasper,” she said civilly, “you’re dismissed. Well done.”
When the young man disappeared around the corner, she hissed, “It’s a five hour flight from Mandalay to Holyoak. Kerner knows that. He wants us to get up in the middle of the night to get there!”
“But we’re taking the shuttle…”
“HE doesn’t know that!” She clapped her hand over her mouth so she wouldn’t scream in frustration.
“The flight won’t last an hour.” Archer’s thumb scanned down the columns. “We don’t need to leave until 08:00. Reasonable?”
“Yes,” she said, chagrined.
“We might have to help each other tomorrow,” he said, watching her. “I’m not long on patience, and if Kelly pulls stuff like this on me, I could lose my temper.”
“If one of us gets too near the edge,” Mara said, “the other one pulls him or her back.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Click here to read Chapter 3.