Chapter 22—Answering the Call
◊ ◊ ◊
“Stop this instant!” Deborah grabbed the Queen’s carry bag out of Adrianna’s hands and threw it on the floor. “I will not allow this!”
Lydia glanced up from the bag she was packing. Her eyes flicked to Mara on the bed. “It’s not up to you, Dr. Jones.”
“The Prime Minister cannot know how serious the Queen’s condition is!” Deborah continued. “He cannot, or he would never ask her to travel! Let alone go back to Mandalay!”
Adrianna sighed. “He knows.”
“Deborah…” Mara tried, reaching for her.
“No! Think what could happen if your baby dies—if you die! What will happen to the Earth refugees in new Dublin? To our government? To our planet?”
“No, Majesty, you must think!”
“Deborah.” Mara finally caught the doctor’s hand. “There’s something I haven’t told you—something I haven’t told anyone. Will you sit with me a minute?”
The doctor’s slim body vibrated with outrage and, Mara thought, fear. But, she allowed the Queen to pull her onto the bed.
“My baby sends me dreams.”
Deborah closed her eyes in frustration. “Every pregnant woman dreams about her child,” she said, trying to sound reasonable instead of furious.
“No,” Mara countered, “it’s not like that Linny sends me information. She warns me when we’re in danger. She tells me about Jonathan.”
The doctor’s expression shifted from frustration to wariness to concern. “You think your unborn child is in contact with Captain Archer?”
Mara shook her head. “I don’t know that. But, she knows where he is, what he’s doing, how he’s feeling.”
Lydia and Adrianna had stopped packing. They moved closer to the bed.
“I know it sounds insane,” Mara said. “At first I thought they were just dreams, pregnancy dreams like you said. But Linny reminded me about something important Kerner Kelly told me, something I had forgotten. If she hadn’t done that, we would have been asleep in the Palace when the bombs went off. We would have died.”
“In Houma, Linny warned me that we were in trouble. I knew I needed to rest then, to heal and take care of her.”
Deborah’s frown suddenly relaxed. “This is just a deeper part of yourself,” she explained. “You remembered what President Kelly told you. You felt the placental abruption and realized you needed medical attention. And, of course, you are worried about Captain Archer. Your dreams reflect all that.”
“I’m not explaining this well.” Mara looked at Deborah’s hand in hers as her thumb stroked the doctor’s knuckles. “I knew we’d be leaving today. I knew before Adrianna arrived. I knew because Linny told me in a dream last night.”
Deborah’s mouth opened, then closed. Lydia sat down on the other side of the bed.
“So, let’s get ready.” Mara smiled at Adrianna’s stunned stare and patted Deborah’s cold hand. Lydia grinned, shaking her head in wonder, and went back to her bag.
Francisco’s sharp rap hit the door. Mara knew he was as opposed to returning to Mandalay as Deborah, but after voicing his objections, he left to prepare the van. He knew her well enough now to save his strength.
He must be ready, Mara thought surprised.
“Come,” she called to him.
Her Security First burst in, sweating and out of breath. “Gregor and Boris are here,” he said incredulously.
He threw open the door and the two men stepped in.
“Majesty,” Gregor ducked his head. “Home Guard moved on Sea O’ Gold this morning. When I reported to Madam Singh, she sent us here. She seemed to think you’d be leaving.”
“We are,” Mara said, grinning at Boris.
He tipped his chin at her nonchalantly, but his dark eyes twinkled. “You sure y’wanna get back on the road after all this?” He eyed the room, twiddling his greasy old hat. “Purdy fancy bolt hole.”
“Thank you!” Deborah exclaimed. “Finally, another voice of reason!”
Boris waggled his eyebrows at her, which made Deborah huff. Mara held up a finger to pull them all back to center. Her smile had faded, but left behind a sense that everything was in order now.
“Get ready. There’s a plane waiting for us outside Empress.”
The ride out of the safe house was quiet and cramped. Even in a van, eight people with one stretched out in back meant rubbing shoulders and holding supplies on laps. Mara watched the white villa recede out the back window as they bounced down the hill. The dry grass whipping the sides of the van threw swarms of pollen into the fading light. Evenings came sooner now. Summer was almost over.
Zheng Chan drove the van out of deep woods and onto a wide mill road. At the end of it, a small propellor plane sat nose-up next to a shack. Bright light glared down from a rough pole light.
“Best we could do,” he said.
“We’ll be heavy,” Gregor said, “but I can handle her.”
When they piled out of the van, he and Francisco inspected the interior of the plane, then started the process of packing them in.
Mara pulled Boris and Adrianna aside. “Stay close to me. I’ve got questions for both of you.”
Francisco squeezed the three of them as far into the tail as they could go, Mara lying on lumpy bags and rucked up against the cold metal fuselage. Adrianna shimmied in beside her like two campers sharing a metal sleeping bag. Boris sat cross-legged at their heads, hunched over in the cramped space. Lydia and Deborah took the passenger seats under protest. Francisco fashioned another seat of luggage between them and perched there. Finally, Gregor climbed into the pilot’s seat and exchanged a few more hurried words with Zheng, who slammed the hatch and sealed it.
The engines barked to life, a phlegmy cough that soon evened out. The noise was deafening. They rolled, bouncing hard enough to rattle teeth. A lurch, and then smoothness.
Mara opened her mouth wide to pop her ears, then reached back for Boris. He bent over her.
“Why did the Singh’s take Sea O’ Gold today?” she yelled over the engines.
“I got ‘em the snoop they wanted,” Boris hollered back. “They wanted to know who put up the money for the drill tests.”
“Who was it?” Months in the thin air of the Crown Mountains had given Adrianna strong lungs. She made little effort to be heard over the engines.
“Somethin’ called Callinda Investments,” Boris told her.
Adrianna’s face worked. “That’s the same firm that funded the Crown Mountain retool.” She looked at Mara. “An engineer told me they were switching from refining ore to oil.”
“Maybe the oil they hoped to get out of Yangtze,” Mara yelled. “Who is Callinda Investments?”
“I gave everything to Marissa when Wash called me back to Mandalay. She and Alonzo are working on it.”
“Why did Wash call you back?” All the shouting was giving the Queen a headache.
“Wash thought it was too dangerous for me to stay. Something scared Emmond Mbutu. He’s afraid for his life.”
Mara pondered that. “What about his sister? And Armand Mendoza?”
Adrianna shook her head. “I haven’t seen them since the Palace was bombed.”
Mara stared up at the seams and rivets above her head, her throat raw. Behind her, Boris rearranged himself between the luggage and the backs of the passenger seats.
“Seems like they’re all nerved up,” he said. “William lit out before the raid.”
Mara jerked around to look at him. “He wasn’t arrested?”
“No, Ma’am. That skunk’s still in the wind.”
“Oh, dear,” she whispered.
It was a long flight—six hours as the gryphon hawk flies. Eventually, the steady vibration and constant drone of the engines lulled Marapura into a troubled sleep. Dreams of running and being chased broke apart and reformed into dreams of hunting for lost children and trying to remember something vital.
She found herself clinging to the slimy rungs of a metal ladder. The stench made her cry out. She seemed to be in a long, vertical conduit where every creature in the Universe had emptied its bowels. Semi-liquid dollops plopped onto her shoulders and hair. She looked up and saw people climbing above her.
“Are you sure this is the way to the surface?” she heard Jonathan say.
Her heart leaped.
“Of course, I’m sure,” a whiny voice replied from higher up. “Hurry!”
Mara tried to climb after them, but got tangled in her long skirt. “Wait!” she cried. “Jonathan!” More sewage dropped onto her bodice.
“I’m gonna live in my shower after this,” the man right above her said.
“Trip!” she cried, wrestling with her sodden dress. “Trip, wait! Jonathan!”
“They can’t hear you, Mommy.”
“Linny!” Mara wiped fetid goo off her cheek. “Linny, Linny, Pretty Penny,” she muttered, watching the bottom of Trip’s boots as they climbed away from her. “Are they really in this awful place?”
“Daddy found someone to help him look for the scared people, but he won’t help much.”
Mara tried to peer around Trip to the figure above him. She saw a blue-clad knee.
“Jon,” she whispered, then, “Is he all right, darling?”
“Daddy’s squeezed, and hot, and mostly mad.”
“Are you all right, dear?”
“I’m big now, Mommy, so I can come out.”
“No, no, you mustn’t. Can you stay put awhile longer?”
“Yes. But I don’t want to.”
“Please, baby. Please, baby…”
“Please, baby,” the Queen muttered, opening her eyes.
The plane was cold and dark except for a faint greenish glow from the instrument panel. She could make out the curve of Adrianna’s face next to her. Asleep, the young woman jostled bonelessly with the movement of the plane. Behind her head, Mara heard a snort over the noise of the engines—Boris, also asleep.
Linny, Linny, Pretty Penny.
She closed her eyes and let the tears come. And she prayed.
The plane touched down during the small hours of the morning. In the dark, Mara heard voices at the hatch, helping the others out—two men and, farther out, a woman. The Queen listened as Adrianna crawled out of their cocoon. She knew those voices, but they came from another lifetime, another place.
“Ready?” Francisco took hold under her arms and slid her free of the tail. Flashlight beams darted in and out of the hatch.
She struggled to her knees and gripped his wrist. “Whatever happens today, don’t leave me.”
She tried to find his face in the dark and settled for tugging on his arm. The confidence she felt in Empress seemed to have stayed in Empress.
“Don’t leave me, Francisco.”
His other hand wrapped around the one clinging to his wrist. “That’s the first truly silly thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
He got her to her feet and backed out of the hatch. As she clutched the metal hand-holds on the side of the plane a thousand lives rushed at her, sliding over each other like dead leaves. Below, voices in the darkness guided her down metal rungs. Down instead of up. She gasped, dizzy, and searched the black maw of the open hatch.
“Am I dreaming again? Linny?”
Francisco reached out and grabbed her as she fainted.
The black turned into buzzing, which turned into voices bouncing against each other like hornets.
“I told you.”
“Mebbe wait a day. Let ‘er get ‘er feet underneath again.”
“We can’t. Everything’s set for tonight.”
“There must be another way.”
“Come on, honey.” Gentle pats against her face. “You just got up too fast.”
Mara blinked. She lay on the seat of an old car, the yellow dome light shining in her eyes. The voices came from outside the open doors.
“There she is.” Lydia smiled, her white hair a soft nimbus in the dim light.
Mara sat up slowly and took in a big breath of night air. “I can smell the Cannis trees,” she said. “We must be in Mandalay.”
Deborah appeared. “Drink.” She shoved a bottle at her. “All of it.”
Mara looked at the pale blue label—King’s Springs.
“Huh,” she marveled.
“Don’t read, drink.”
Deborah nudged the bottle. Mara drank half of it in one go, and immediately felt the fuzz start to clear from her head.
“Is she all right?” Willa Cabot poked her head in the car.
“I thought I heard your voice.” Mara made room on the seat.
Willa climbed in and hugged the Queen. “I told Collier this was a bad idea. I knew you were somewhere safe, and that’s where you should stay.”
“I’m all right.” Mara kissed her friend. “Really. Did I hear Jed out there?”
“Yes, he’ll tell you everything.”
“In a minute. I heard one other person outside. I need to speak to him first.”
All four women stepped out of the car. If there had been runway lights, they were out. All that pierced the night were stars and the distant glow of the city. Mara steadied herself against the trunk, feeling her way through the dark and feeling her way back to center. A thousand lives continued to slide over each other, but she let them. She felt them weaving into a single tapestry. Her life. Now.
Dim figures shuffled around her. She smelled Adrianna’s light perfume and the clothes Boris must have been wearing for days. She felt Francisco move in close to her. Gregor cleared his throat. Then, she heard a familiar, quick step on the tarmac, one full of steel and clarity.
“Robby,” she said, finding him in the dark.
His arms circled her. “I didn’t know if you were alive or dead until today,” he said in her ear.
“I know… I’m sorry… Robby…”
Like Ra, Robinson Dinh believed physical contact with the sovereign inappropriate. He would never assume such familiarity or disrespect her so. Yet, Robby held her a long time. Mara felt the thousand lives sliding, the tapestry weaving, and knew nothing would ever be the same again.
◊ ◊ ◊
To read Chapter 23, click here.