Chapter 4—The Dance
Three-quarters of the city of White Water had burned to the ground. A combination of warehoused chemicals, strong winds and a frozen water main blew a simple fire into a conflagration. Firefighters, volunteers and members of the Home Guard fought for two days. Because of their efforts, no one died.
At the main fire station, President Kelly addressed the residents who had battled the citywide disaster. As governor of Tao, White Water’s province, Lillette Singh stood behind him. Out on the station’s frozen yard, citizens, firefighters, survivors, and the press stood listening in the cold. From the second story of the station, Mara and Jonathan watched through the cloudy window.
“We survive,” Kelly said, “that’s what we Northerners do best. Our next step is to do more than survive. We must develop our own natural resources—more industry, more mining, more wind farms—so that we can take care of ourselves without South Callinda’s help. We need to offer our goods and services here at home instead of taking them south for higher profits.
“South Callinda is our sister. She sheltered us when our first settlers struck out into the Northern wilderness, and she shelters us still. We are grateful. But, as our population grows, so must our economy. As our population grows, so must our work force. We can’t send another generation South for jobs. We must create them here.”
“So, that’s it,” Mara murmured. “I didn’t understand his posturing before, but I do now. Oh, Kerner. Why can’t you be this articulate all the time?”
“So, he’s not all bluster?” Jonathan asked, standing close behind her.
Mara shook her head. “He’s brilliant. South has supported North for generations. It’s a system that works, and most people are happy. But, Kerner’s right. The North needs to invest in itself, and soon.
“But look at him,” she sighed. “He’s laying out complicated economic theory to people who just lost their homes and businesses. They need hope, encouragement, reassurance…not a lecture. He keeps tripping himself.” She looked up at Archer. “I don’t know how to help him.”
“You’ll figure it out.”
Jonathan slipped his hand around hers. He looked down at her with a puzzled, curious smile. Mara stood very still. Gently, he laced his fingers through hers, then turned back to the window. Mara turned her head slowly. Lillette was halfway through her encouraging speech before the Queen heard any of it.
“The disaster funds came just in time,” Lillette said in the car back to Holyoak. She and Kelly sat on one side of the limousine, Mara and Jonathan on the other. “And the emergency shelters seem to be holding up in the cold.”
The Queen and the Captain sat together silently, fingers braided together under the Queen’s coat. They didn’t look at each other; they didn’t fidget. They gazed placidly out the Queen’s side window.
“I thought today went well,” Kelly said, casting a cold eye at Archer, “even with changes in the itinerary.”
“Mmm,” Lillette muttered, non-committal.
Part of Mara analyzed the conversation going on around her. Part of her heard it as a distant buzz of bees. Part of Mara noted the new construction in neighborhoods they passed. Part of her saw nothing at all. Part of Mara felt the press of Jonathan’s shoulder against hers and the warmth of his palm on her hand. Part of her knew only that.
Stately music floated up the grand staircase at the President’s Residence. At the top of the stairs, Queen Marapura smiled at her escort and rested her hand lightly on his arm. Kelly looked regal in his black, fitted dinner jacket, his ruddy complexion glowing. As they started down the stairs, a smattering of applause drifted up from the company below—dignitaries, scientists and officers of the Home Guard.
Mara responded in her best queenly manner, but all her attention centered on the man coming down the stairs behind her with Kelly’s wife on his arm. Suddenly, her blue velvet gown seemed too heavy, too tight. Her bare shoulders burned. The wisps of hair she had artfully pulled from the upswept tumble on her head tickled and itched the base of her neck.
She concentrated on navigating the stairs—one foot down, a sway of skirts, the other foot down. She could hear his footsteps behind her, muffled in the carpet, and the rustle of his uniform as he moved. In spite of Kerner’s cologne, she could smell his soap and shaving cream. Every sense strained to find him.
Mara took a breath and refocused. The guests below them looked up expectantly. She ticked off all the familiar faces, remembering spouses’ names, children’s names, little details that would reconnect her to them. She noticed a few leaders talking quietly among themselves. And then she saw Jakaya Brown.
The President’s Staff Father watched the procession with the others, but with such a dead, cold expression chills raced up Mara’s spine. She blinked, startled, and when she looked again, it was gone. He smiled up at her benignly, his dark eyes warm and friendly. Unnerved, she glanced out over the guests. Stationed at the ballroom door, Ra watched her, his brow knotted. She shook her head slightly, her signal to stand down, but she felt exposed and foolish.
Too distracted, she scolded herself. And not very queen-like. Come back, now.
She and Kerner stepped into an aisle made by the guests and greeted them all as they made their way to the ballroom. Chandeliers cast sparkling light on a circle of round tables covered in white linen and glittering service. The source of the music, a string ensemble, played in one corner. Servers in white jackets and gloves stood ready.
Kerner led them to the front of the room. “Good evening, everyone,” he boomed.
Mara saw Jonathan dip his head to hear something Moira Kelly whispered to him. When he straightened up, he was smiling, obviously amused.
Come back, come back, come back, she told herself, taking another breath and willing her shoulders to relax.
“We are pleased to have Captain Jonathan Archer as our guest of honor tonight along with our beloved friend, Queen Marapura. Please, everyone, be seated and have a lovely evening.”
As Kelly pulled out her chair, he introduced the others at their table—a physicist from the University, an astronomer, a theoretical engineer, General Chan, and Jakaya Brown.
“Good evening, Majesty,” Brown bowed slightly to Mara. “Captain Archer. Mrs. Kelly. May I introduce my wife, Clara?”
In spite of her nervous hallucination, Mara liked Jakaya Brown. He had been with Kerner a long time and was the sensible voice in his ear. Brown’s wife, however, was another matter entirely.
Clara Brown arched a shapely brow as she glided into her seat. “Your Majesty,” she said, her cultured, cultivated voice stretching those two words into a poem. She turned luminous black eyes to Jonathan. “Captain Archer.”
Clara Brown’s beauty slapped Jonathan across the face, but he hid it well. He drew his mouth into a terse line and nodded. “Ma’am.”
Mara studied the prawn cocktail set before her to keep from grinning. Clara Brown—heir to the governorship of Orleans, direct descendent (or so she said) of the First Brown, wife of the third most powerful citizen of North Callinda—shut down by a man from out of town. She stole a glance across the table at Moira Kelly and saw that the President’s wife also found the seafood appetizer fascinating.
Moira was the real reason she enjoyed coming North. When Kelly was elected, Moira quickly became a friend. She shared Mara’s sensibilities and met life with a wicked sense of humor. All that plus she had put up with Kerner Kelly for twenty-five years.
Buoyed, Marapura launched into her usual dinner party patter—drawing out the awkward physicist, tempering the astronomer’s interrogation of Jonathan, helping the engineer reframe his theories when his audience’s eyes glazed over. By the time the salad was taken away and the main course served, she felt like herself again.
“Jakaya,” she said quietly, “do you help the President with his speeches?”
Brown chewed and swallowed. “Yes, of course.”
“His speech today in White Water was brilliant. It clarified his rationale for stopping the subsidies in a way I’d never heard before.”
Jakaya smiled. “Yes, I helped him write that speech.”
“The speech was brilliant, but I was concerned about the venue.”
“As was I, Majesty.” His dark eyes flicked to Kelly and back. “I thought a more personal message might have been more appropriate.”
“If the people are ever going to understand his vision, you and Vice President Reneau must help him. Introduce these concepts simply. Address the audiences ready to hear him.”
Kerner’s Staff Father smiled sadly. “Covenant Reneau and I have had this conversation many times with the President.” He paused to choose his words carefully. “He is single-minded about this issue.”
“Unfortunate,” Mara said, lowering her voice further as conversations around the table drifted into a lull. “The political climate seems stormy at present. A calming influence would help, I think.”
“Calm?” General Chan leaned across the engineer. “Is that all your government thinks about? With all due respect, Your Highness, sometimes discontent is in order.”
Mara picked at her fish as the General proceeded to school her. When he allowed her to respond, she chose her words carefully. She heard Moira laughing with Jonathan. Turning toward them, she found Archer watching her, his eyes bright with good humor. As in the news conference at home, she felt a spotlight turn on her with that gaze. It warmed her to the core. For once, the Queen wanted a State Visit to be over. For once, she wished she’d left Ra in Mandalay. For a moment, she imagined the two of them in the shuttle, alone, for an hour.
By the time coffee was poured, her head pounded with exhaustion, her tolerance rubbed dangerously thin. Chan had insulted her slyly the rest of the meal. She felt pummeled by razor-tipped cotton balls. And when he wasn’t insulting, he displayed his broad prejudices. At one point, he disparaged Pure Breds, which effectively insulted the Queen, Clara Brown, and the young astronomer, who happened to be Lillette Singh’s nephew.
At the same time, Jonathan’s side of the table had gained mass. She felt the pull and the way her thoughts slid in his direction. She used every bit of her training to stay in her seat and spar with the General.
I’ve done my duty, she decided looking out at the couples dancing after dinner. I’m going to sit in the kitchen where it’s warm.
Then, a hand appeared between her and Clara Brown. She looked up into Jonathan’s face. “May I have this dance, Your Majesty?”
Conversation around the room dropped off as the Captain and the Queen advanced to the middle of the dance floor. Mara held her head high while feeling her cheeks burn.
“You look like you’d had enough,” he said quietly, sliding his hand around her waist. “So, this is me, pulling you back from the cliff’s edge.”
Oh, my, she thought, reaching up for his shoulder. I don’t think so.
“I can tell you’re smitten.”
“Help me with the fastener, would you?” Mara felt the back of her gown open up. She could finally breathe.
“It’s all right, darling.” Moira Kelly sat on the Queen’s bed in her suite. “He’s handsome, charming, mysterious—every woman in the ballroom wanted to be with him. Frankly, I thought Clara Brown would burst an ancestral artery when he barely noticed her.”
“Moira,” Mara chided without much heat.
“The truly glorious part about him, though, is that he’s your peer. Darling, you have no peer on this entire planet except for, maybe, my bulldog of a husband. No one understands what it means to live for the people, to hold responsibility for every decision. Jonathan Archer does.”
Mara stepped out of her gown, shivering, and grabbed up her travel clothes. Moira retrieved the gown from the floor and packed it carefully.
“And, of course, he wants you. That much is clear.”
“Moira, please.” Mara plopped down at the dressing table and pulled the jeweled pins from her hair.
“My dear, dear friend.” Moira looked at the Queen in the mirror. “For once in your life, accept the gift as it is given.”
Mara brushed out her hair, then efficiently packed her toiletries. Moira watched while she bundled away the Queen’s costumes.
“You’re covering it quite well, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she said. “Though you do turn a little doe-eyed when he looks at you.”
“Doe-eyed?” Mara covered her mouth as she barked the word. Then, she started to laugh.
Closing the lid on the Queen’s bag, Moira Kelly smiled.
Although the shuttle’s internal temperature was quite comfortable, Mara kept her coat tight around her. Jonathan’s parka lay on the deck next to her seat. She watched his hands reach and play the control panel like a keyboard—strong, broad hands.
Closing her eyes, she felt the events of the day sorting themselves out. Breathing in, she touched her fear and her hope. Breathing out, she relaxed her clenched hands. She oriented herself to Jonathan’s bright, steady energy and Ra’s presence behind her, silent and thick.
“You’re awfully quiet.”
Mara opened her eyes to see Jonathan swiveled toward her, his face shadowed in the dim light.
“Not scared of flying in the shuttle anymore?” He leaned forward.
“No,” she said softly. “I’m not scared.”
He considered her carefully. “Unhook and come up here. You can see Enterprise.”
Mara unfastened her harness and stood next to his seat, resting her hand on his shoulder for support. Following where he pointed, she bent over further and peered out the window. A shining oblong, twice the size of the surrounding stars, hovered in the night.
“It’s real,” she said. “May I come visit?”
Archer watched her. “Sure.”
She turned to him, their faces a breath apart. His eyes concentrated on her mouth, moved toward it, stopped. Mara waited a moment, watched him swallow, then straightened, slipping her coat off and folding it in her arms. She sat in her seat and refastened the safety harness.
“Are we almost home?”
“Almost.” He turned slowly back to the controls. “Mara…”
“Yes,” she answered him. “Yes.”
Robinson Dinh met the shuttle as the thrusters disengaged. “Welcome back, Your Majesty,” he said, helping her down. “Captain Archer.”
Finished locking down the pod, Archer hopped out of the shuttle and fastened the door. “Mr. Dinh.”
“I trust your visit with the President was fruitful.”
“It was a trial, Robby,” Mara said. “More so than usual. I’ll tell you all about it at breakfast tomorrow. Anything we need to know about tonight?”
“Nothing that can’t wait until morning.”
“Good. The Captain and I will wait in the Residence until his people return.”
“That’s nearly two hours time.”
“Really?” Mara knew exactly what time it was. “Is that acceptable, Captain?”
She turned back to Dinh. “It’s been a very long day. Only emergency calls tonight.”
“Understood, Your Majesty.”
“Good night, then, Robby.”
“Majesty.” He bowed.
Ra came up beside her. He glowered at Archer.
“Go home, Ra,” Mara said.
“I prefer to stay, Your Majesty.”
“I know you do. But, I’m telling you to go home.”
He looked from his Queen to Archer and back. His eyes narrowed to slits.
“Goodnight, Ra,” she said definitively.
Finally, he bowed stiffly. When he straightened, he gave the Captain one last, murderous glance, and then strode up the Avenue.
Mara marched to the East Wing doors, Archer matching her quick stride. She ran up the staircase to the second floor. Archer kept pace beside her. They passed guest rooms and recreation rooms as they hurried down the long hallway. The night housekeeper curtsied as they turned the corner and came to the Queen’s suite. Mara opened the big double doors to her sitting room. Jonathan closed them behind him. She started to turn, but he was already there, his mouth on hers.
She drank in his spice, the texture of his mouth, the flow of muscle against her chest and belly. His hands moved in her hair. He found the fasteners of her tunic, she found the zipper of his uniform. Skin warm, then slick with sweat, hunger drove them until they both cried out.
Afterward, tangled in the sheets of Mara’s bed, they lay gasping.
“The minute I saw you,” he said, catching his breath, “I knew I was in trouble.”
Jonathan rolled over on his back. “You looked like an angel in that gold dress. When you said you’d be my guide, I knew I’d have to be careful.”
Mara propped herself on an elbow. “And are you still being careful, Captain Archer?”
“Not so much, Your Majesty.”
“And you still think you’re in trouble?”
“Big trouble,” he said, his eyes crinkling. “Big, big trouble.”
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Click here to read Chapter 5.