As soon as the Queen pulled her car into the villa’s drive, security lights blinked on. Of course, she thought bitterly.
She checked herself in the mirror, resigned to what she saw. Lydia had trimmed and re-dyed her hair when she first arrived at the Empress house, but it had grown out since then. She looked more like a spotted badger than a royal. Her color was livid with purple craters under her eyes. She hadn’t bathed in days except for a quick swipe in Comfort Stations along the way. At least she’d finally changed clothes at Moira’s cabin, if only into an old skirt and a tunic she had to leave unbuttoned over her belly.
“Maybe I’ll scare him to death,” she muttered, heaving herself out of the car.
She straightened, slipped her trusty shoulder bag over her head, and took her time crossing the drive. Vertigo tried to tip her into the lawn, but she steadied herself and focused on the ornate front door. Once there, she pressed the buzzer and pounded at the same time.
When the door swung open, Jakaya Brown glared out, rigid with rage, a tasteful silk dressing gown belted around his middle. Then, he recognized her.
“The All take us,” he breathed, smoothing back his disheveled black hair. “Majesty!”
“Hello, Jakaya.” Mara forced a weary smile to her lips.
“My dear Queen Marapura!” Jakaya threw wide the door and drew her gently inside. His eyes darted past her to the car and the empty yard. “What are you doing here? Are you all right?”
She let him take her arm and lead her into a side room. “I need to sit down, please,” she said, trying to sound weak and pitiful. “And a glass of water, if you could.”
He switched on a lamp as he settled her into a chair. “I have so many questions… we all do.” His eyes snapped in the lamplight. “I’ll get your water.”
“Thank you so much,” she sighed.
In his absence, she took stock of the room—a small office with bookshelves lining three walls. A window faced her from behind an ornate desk. She thought the room would be fairly soundproof.
Jakaya returned and handed her a chilly glass. “Shall I call Governor Gibson? Or perhaps the Prime Minister?”
“In a moment, maybe,” she said, sipping the water. “I need to speak to you first.”
“Yes, of course.” He pulled another chair close, the picture of solicitous concern.
Mara tamped down the sudden fury that threatened to split her head. “Is Clara with you?” she asked, working her way carefully to what she needed to know.
Jakaya’s brow puckered. “No, Majesty. She is in Holyoak with the children. Why?”
The Queen lifted a fluttery hand to her throat. “I worried about disturbing your house. It’s so late… or so early… I’m not sure which.”
“We have the villa to ourselves, Majesty. I do have a security guard. After all the murders and threats of murder this summer, I thought it prudent. But, I’ve asked him to step outside. No one will disturb us, Highness. You may speak freely.”
Mara fussed with her water glass, then set it aside. “You must be very proud—about the Independence Act, that is.”
“Yes, Majesty,” he smiled. “Now that your Congress passed it into law, the Northern House will quickly follow. I like to think President Kelly would be pleased.”
Mara ground her teeth together. “It’s too bad the criminals in Yangtze didn’t wait. They could drill legally now instead of being in jail. Whoever devised that scheme was an idiot.”
Jakaya’s face darkened. “Unlucky, perhaps,” he said, “but likely not an idiot.”
“You’re still in charge of the Massacre Day investigation, yes? Do you think the same mastermind fumbled the Crown Mountain Mine mess? Goodness, even Kerner knew something was wrong there.”
She pushed up from the chair, holding herself steady against the dizziness. Sudden pain sliced deep in her belly. She took a step, then another to stall for time. When she felt she had erased the pain from her face, she turned to face Jakaya. She could feel blood trickling between her legs.
“Your special committee certainly had its hands full this summer. Jailing the Prime Minister and Governor Juarez seemed like such a victory at first.”
“A very clever scheme by the Alliance for Callinda,” Jakaya said tightly. “Thank the All the evidence proved false.”
“Did that have anything to do with the recent violence in New Dublin? I heard on the news they found another unauthorized mine there. Surely, the same dolt set that in motion—incompetence seems to be his signature.”
Jakaya rose from his chair. “Was there something specific you wished to discuss, Majesty?”
“Yes, actually. I found some of Kerner’s private journals, and I hoped you could help me decipher them.”
He watched her pull the ragged notebook from her bag. “Of course, Majesty. May I see it?” He took a step closer.
“This for example.” Mara rifled through the pages, paused, and read, “Met with J and A. That would be you and General Chan? CI incorporated. Obviously, CI is Callinda Investments. Funds collected from M and A. E to oversee. So, did Emmond solicit money from Mbana and Armand, or was he just the filter…”
“Give me that,” Jakaya snapped, reaching for the notebook.
“Poor Kerner,” she said, slipping it into her bag. “He made the horrible mistake of changing his mind—of having a conscience. But, the drilling had already started in Yangtze. And the retool of the refinery was almost finished. You’d invested too much to stop. So you killed him. And everyone else who got in your way.”
Jakaya’s breath came quickly. His face filled with color.
“How inconvenient for you to have me running loose in the world,” she went on, gritting her teeth against another flare of pain, “with only a guide-sick aide to point you in the right direction.”
He took another step toward her.
“How frustrating to have me in your sites and miss—over and over and over again. You remind me of my great uncle Xander—the harder he tried, the worse his aim. But Xander only shot out windows and willow trees. Your misfires were much deadlier.”
Jakaya lunged. Mara body-checked him—the full weight and breadth of her pregnancy slamming him back. Pain squeezed a groaning wail from her, but she spun on the follow through. As she spun, she pulled the Mourning Dove from her bag.
When he saw the gun, Jakaya stopped, panting. A slow smile spread across his face as he raised his hands in surrender.
“What a vivid imagination, Queen Marapura. I’m hurt, deeply hurt, by your accusations.”
“Call the Home Guard,” he said, jutting his head toward the phone on the desk. “I insist. Nothing you say contains a scrap of truth, nor, I’ll wager, a scrap of proof.” He smiled. “Great leaders are often persecuted. I am resigned to it. I planned on it.”
“Of course, you did.” Mara leveled the gun.
Jakaya looked her up and down and burst out laughing. “Stupid ‘loo. Ang Chan was right about you. You finally have a chance to fulfill your destiny as a Line breeder, and look at you! Bleeding your princeling out on the floor!”
He leaned toward her and whispered, “I don’t have to kill you. You’re doing it for me.”
Mara fired. Once, twice, three times. Jakaya dropped to the floor, then Mara did as well. Propped against the desk, she saw the door fly open and a big, blond man charge in with his gun drawn. William.
The window crashed behind her and shouting filled her head. She looked at Jakaya’s dead body, bent at odd angles in his silk robe. At the same time, she heard Naveen calling for her. Blood seeped from under her, from under Jakaya. It spread out from them like something alive, waving and undulating. Mara let go of the Mourning Dove so she could lay hands on her belly, her Linny, but her arms were too heavy, her head too full of noise. Then, the shouting started to melt. It ran together like Jakaya’s blood and her blood into a buzz of crickets, soothing and small. From far away, Robby’s voice whispered above the night noise. Somewhere, in that distant, dreaming place, he laid her down in the grass. In the sweet, clean Crimson Grass.
Grass rustled and whispered all around her. A tropical breeze ruffled it and the palm-like trees over her head. Moonlight filtered through, turning the grass and other lush vegetation silver. Insects grated, night birds cawed. The forest seemed uneasy. Something was coming.
She jumped up from her resting place and crouched behind a tangle of wild growth. Something moved on the path ahead of her. Three shadows broke free of the night and caught the moon’s light for a moment. Mara gasped. Two of the figures wore Enterprise uniforms. The third looked like no man she had ever seen. It possessed the head and mane of a lion, and it’s furry hands were tied.
The smaller man shoved the alien creature, his movement bringing his face to the light. Malcolm Reed. The alien went down on his knees. The taller man turned to watch, not to stop the harassment, not to help. Jonathan’s face was hard and terrible, but he said nothing as Reed hauled the creature to its feet. Mara shrank back.
Linny? Darling, where are you? What am I seeing?
She slipped out from her hiding place and followed. At the end of the path, they came to a terra cotta building. Jonathan opened the door and shoved the alien inside. She crept closer to the little house. Under a round window high in one wall, she could hear Jonathan’s voice—furious, dangerous—pummeling the alien. But she couldn’t see. She had to see.
Linny? Where are you? Why don’t you answer?
Easing around to the door, she opened it and stepped inside. No one noticed her. She watched Jonathan pace around the seated alien. His voice was desperate, enraged. While she couldn’t understand the words, she recognized Jonathan’s fury. She had seen the same blinded eyes staring back at her in a car mirror, felt the fire that burned his face. She knew that rage well and what it might make Jonathan do.
The alien looked up and spoke very calmly. Jonathan swung back his arm to strike.
“NO!” Mara shouted. “Linny!”
The tropical breeze whispered outside. In the trees. And in the grass.
◊ ◊ ◊
To read Chapter 27, click here.