Chapter 5—Playing in Mandalay
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Archer slowed his horse so the Queen could catch up.
“You said you could ride!” she said breathlessly, “But goodness!”
He grinned at her. “Just wanted to see what Bo here could do.”
Rosie and Porthos barked behind them, both dogs running full out. Mara caught her breath while adjusting her seat on Tsa. Neither she nor her mare had galloped like that in years, and she found she was a little sore.
“Tell me about your boyfriends,” Jonathan said, nudging Bo into a slow walk.
Mara laughed. “What?”
“Boyfriends. Even queens have boyfriends.”
She watched the dogs peel off the trail and leap through the tall grass. “I was so young when I took the throne… My one big romance was with Benjamin Gibson. He kissed me behind the Cradle Tree when I was thirteen.”
“And nothing. He and his wife are very happy with their seven children.”
“Well, flings, then.”
She frowned, not understanding.
“Affairs. Dalliances. Relationships.”
“Oh.” She thought a moment, then shook her head.
Archer eyed her, disbelieving. “Come on. No one since you were thirteen?”
His smile dissolved. “Ever?”
Mara looked over at him. “Just one.”
He reined in Bo. “You mean you never…that I was…”
“I never, and you were.” She watched him. “I thought you could tell.”
Jonathan stared at his arm on the saddle horn, scowling. A flare of worry flashed in Mara’s chest.
“Is that bad?” she asked him.
“I don’t know. Is it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Does it have any…significance… in Callindan culture?”
Tears welled in Mara’s eyes. She nudged Tsa into a trot, then a gallop.
Significance. All the men she ever knew were her subjects or wanted something from her as queen. Moira had been wrong. The Northern Presidents had never been her peers. When she was younger, they had treated her like their granddaughters. Later they brought her home to meet their wives and families. Some of them flirted, but only enough to garner her support.
As the years passed, and she became more and more The Queen, her hopes centered on different things—relief for flooded towns in Banff, a good harvest in Azland. At thirty, she made up her mind to start an affair with the next man who walked through her office door, just to be rid of it. But, when dear Robby showed up moments later, she laughed at her foolishness. Such a small thing, really, in the grand scheme of her life.
Mara heard Bo coming up fast behind her. Small Thing. That’s just a story I told myself, she realized. How can I possibly explain?
The wind blew her tears into hair pulled free from her braid. She wiped at her face as she reined in Tsa. Jonathan rode up beside her.
“Hey,” he said, concerned.
“Here’s the significance,” she said quietly. “I’m sometimes called ‘The Virgin Queen’ in unflattering newspaper stories. All of Callinda, North and South, know exactly my situation and attach all manner of meaning to it. I’m sure rumors are already flying.”
Jonathan watched her, looked at the reins in his hands, looked back at her. “Why didn’t you say something last night?”
“Selfishness.” She offered him a thin smile. “I wanted us, consequences be damned.”
Jonathan looked out across the field.
Tears burned behind her eyes as the silence stretched out. “Don’t worry,” she said lightly, urging Tsa into a walk. “Most people will consider you a hero. Some will curse your evil ways, but I think only a hysterical few.”
Bo kept pace beside her. Finally, Jonathan said, “I can’t be sorry about last night.”
“No.” Her voice felt small. “Don’t be sorry.”
“What can I do?” Bo’s weight pressed against her leg. “What do you need?”
She sniffed. “Do we still have a deal? Are you still willing to pull me back from the edge of the cliff?”
“I’m right here,” he said.
“The hiking trails covered all kinds of terrain,” Trip said. “Forest, rock cliffs, water crossings—it was amazing.”
“And the smells,” Malcolm added dreamily. “One flowering tree on the river bank smelled like fresh cinnamon.”
A tall young man in the Enterprise jumpsuit stood behind Malcolm. A brilliant smile beamed from his beautiful cocoa face. “Tamarla and I went up the rock face,” he said. “Gosh, the view was pretty.”
Archer smiled at his officers. “Majesty, this is our pilot, Travis Mayweather.”
Mara took Mayweather’s hand. He reminded her of a puppy she had once, all sweetness and energy. She liked him immediately. “It sounds like you all had a lovely day.”
Tamarla Yee, his guide, grinned. The Queen tried hard to avoid favorites in her staff, but Tamarla was special. She was not the most efficient, nor the most insightful of her aides, but she cast a positive spell over the whole staff. Lanky and long-limbed, her athletic ability matched her cheery disposition. Marapura smiled imagining these two rays of light illuminating Taylor Falls.
Trip looked down at Adrianna standing next to him. “These gals weren’t kidding about being guides. They kept us snug as ticks on a hound.”
“Eeww.” Adrianna laughed and made a face.
“It’s the best assignment I’ve ever had at the Palace,” Marissa said, considering Malcolm. “You’re all so willing to try anything.”
“Well,” Hoshi muttered, “not exactly anything.”
She waved her hand around her. The Queen’s luxury box at the soccer stadium offered a perfect view of the field. In the back, a chef hovered near tables overflowing with food, tubs of iced ale, and pitchers of ginger tea. The Enterprise officers and their guides milled around the luxurious room protected from the cold, spring rain beginning to fall outside.
“Briank brought me to his practice yesterday,” Hoshi continued. “This is more my style.”
Mara laughed. “I hope your whole day wasn’t spent in the bleachers.”
“No, ma’am,” Hoshi smiled.
Trip twiddled the glass in his hand. “I understand you two had a different kind of day.”
Archer and Mara looked at each other. “Politics,” they said in unison.
Tucker made a sympathetic face. “Cap’n, I sure hope you have a chance to enjoy the hospitality here.”
Archer glanced at Mara. “The Queen’s already seen to that,” he said.
“Let’s take our seats, shall we?” she suggested, her voice a little high. “The match is about to start.”
Ears pricked, Adrianna watched her sovereign lead the others to the front of the room. Mara pretended not to notice.
“The World Championship alternates between Mandalay and Peking each year,” Marissa told them. “It’s our turn to host the match this year.”
The Enterprise officers stared at her.
“What…what did I say?” She looked from Malcolm, to the Queen, to Captain Archer.
Malcolm blinked. “You have a city named Peking?”
“In the North,” Marissa said, “in Tao Province.”
Malcolm glanced at Archer. “Peking is the name of one of Earth’s cities,” he said quietly.
“How can that be?” Tamarla asked. “Majesty?”
Archer answered instead. “We’ve noticed a lot of similarities between our cultures that seem impossible. T’Pol is studying your archives to try to find some answers.”
“It’s a mystery for now,” Mara said brightly. “Please don’t let it spoil your day.” She gave her aides a sharp look. “Here come the teams, now.”
Mandalay won by four points. The stadium went wild. The pandemonium infected the Queen’s party as they stood and cheered.
“Here comes Briank,” Hoshi called, pointing to the field.
One figure trotted with a limp across the grass. He snaked up the stands through claps on the back and kisses. Blood sheeted Briank’s forehead. Wounds wept from his knees and thighs. Mud covered him from nose to foot. But, his expression dazzled. He carried the game ball under his arm.
The group cheered him as he entered the Queen’s Box. Then, he held out the ball to Hoshi.
Her eyebrows rose. She took it with her fingertips. “Briank…”
“From the team,” he said, his eyes bright, “and me.”
Travis slapped him on the back. “Are you ready to celebrate?”
Briank grinned back through the mud and blood. “Ready.”
“I suck the fun out of a room,” Mara complained, sipping fine, amber whiskey from a spotty glass.
The Queen’s party sat squeezed between revelers in the little pub. Obviously, celebration of the World Championship had started long before the end of the match. But, the area immediately around them had become quiet, respectful. People seemed to tiptoe past their tables, watching to make eye contact with the Queen or the Visitors.
Next to her, Archer leaned back in his chair, his third bottle of ale half empty. He rubbed his face. “I do the same thing.”
“It’s just a bother sometimes, isn’t it? I mean everyone’s having fun, then you show up…”
“Wham,” Archer slammed his bottle on the table. “Bucket of cold water.”
Both Enterprise officers and Palace guides made protesting noises at their leaders while trying not to laugh. A roar came from one side of the room. Through the hanji smoke, Mara saw a group of young men playing darts. Beyond them, live music pounded down a hallway.
“Do you like darts?” she asked Trip. Before he could answer, she continued. “We have a saying, Measure a man, measure his dart.”
Tucker’s eyes widened. “Is that so, Your Majesty?”
“Yes, that’s so.”
Adrianna’s hand slowly reached out and pulled the Queen’s glass away. “Perhaps we should order something to eat.”
“Good day, Your Majesty.” The proprietress stood at their table. She paused, looking over the group, gathering her nerve. “I know it’s a terrible imposition…so many customers have asked…and the band, too…if you might sing for us?”
“Sing?” Jonathan grinned. “I didn’t know you could sing.”
“Queen Marapura has a beautiful voice,” the woman said.
“What a lovely thought, but no. No, not proper. I’m a little too happy from this.” She leaned toward the proprietress and tapped the glass in Adrianna’s hand.
“Dinner, I think, would be more useful,” the First Aide suggested.
Archer leaned close. “Worried about your reputation?”
The Queen sat up straight. She narrowed her eyes at Archer. “All right,” she said, pushing herself out of her chair. “I’ll do it.”
“Wait! Majesty!” Adrianna jumped out of her chair, Marissa close behind. Tamarla coughed out a laugh and hurried after them, pulling Briank with her.
“You’d think she was going to start a war or something,” Travis said to his shipmates as they followed.
“Or something,” Archer agreed.
They wove through the hazy main room, down a short hallway, and into a large second room. The band played to a boisterous crowd and jangled to a halt when they saw the Queen in the doorway.
“Majesty, you’ll sing?” the piano player gawped.
“If you play loudly.” She stepped up on the stage slowly to keep her balance.
“Majesty, remember when you told me to never let you sing in public?” Adrianna plucked at her sleeve.
“Here’s our play list, Ma’am.” One of the guitar players handed her a sheet. “I hope you can find a song you like.”
“I see several lovely choices,” she smiled at the musician. Then, she turned to Adrianna and the rest of the aides crowded behind her. Beyond them, Ra stood in the doorway to the corridor, arms crossed, scowling.
“Go sit down, my darlings,” she said. “I promise not to embarrass you.”
The Enterprise crew had already found tables and waved the guides over. Patrons started trickling in from the main room. Someone flipped on a spotlight. Mara warmed her voice while trying to remember lyrics. She told the band what song she wanted, and they tested chord runs and tricky fingerings. Finally, she turned to the drummer and nodded.
The musicians growled out a steamy, introduction. The Callindans applauded, familiar with the tune. A few impertinent souls hooted. Mara took a deep breath, let it out, and felt the music building within her.
It’s late at night. I’m all alone.
Sittin’ here waitin’ for your voice on the phone.
Fever turns to cold, cold sweat
Thinkin’ about things we ain’t done yet.
Tell me now. I gotta know do you feel the same?
Do you just light up at the mention of my name?
Mara closed her eyes, smiling at the cheers and whistles rising out of the audience. Her voice felt strong. She growled on some words, glided on others. The New Minsk patois came easy to her, made her feel like she was in disguise.
Don’t worry, darlin’. Ain’t nothin’ new
That’s just love sneakin’ up on you.
If your whole world is shakin’, and you feel like I do,
That’s just love sneakin’ up on you.
The band added harmonies and more layers of counter melody. She could hear the room filling up, but didn’t open her eyes. It felt so good to sing and let her body move.
No where in time, for your heart to hide
Most love comes sneakin’ up on your blind side.
And you might as well try to stop the rain
Stand in the tracks of a runaway train.
Just can’t fight it when a thing is meant to be
Come on and let’s finish what you started with me.
She started the final chorus, knowing her indulgence was nearly over. She could imagine the morning papers—Royal Ruckus in Local Pub—but she didn’t care. A tightness in her chest started to loosen.
With the last beat of the drum, the room cheered. Mara opened her eyes to see people crowded into every space. They clapped, whistled, whooped. Barely able to see beyond the spotlight, she heard Tamarla’s whistle—every bit as powerful as Robby’s. And was that Adrianna shouting approval? The Queen smiled and waved, bowed and waved, until the uproar started to quiet. Then, Jonathan’s voice shot out.
“More!” he hollered. “More!”
The Enterprise crew took up the cry until the whole room thundered. Mara laughed, covered her face with her hands, then nodded. As the cheer rose up, she turned again to the band and asked for another song on their list. When the mandolin began its mournful solo, the room finally settled down. After a few bars, the piano added a slow, sweet counter melody. Mara opened herself to the music’s sadness.
Nobody else could make me happy
No one could hurt me like you do.
You were the only one that mattered.
Then you were gone…Love had moved on
Left me alone thinking of…
You…there was never any other
You…and I were created to be true.
Sudden sobriety nearly closed her throat. Carefully, she told herself. Sing the song, not your heart. There was no point in hurting herself or Jonathan. In a few days, he would be gone and their lives would return to what they were. No point in adding more of an emotional charge than there already was.
But, the song felt so right.
Isn’t it love that keeps us breathing?
Isn’t it love we’re sent here for?
Wasn’t that love that we were feeling?
Deep in our souls…Deeper than we know
Keeping me holding out for…
You…there was never any question
You’ll be forever on my mind
You and I, we were meant to be together
True Hearts in a world where love is dyin’
I might as well start dyin’ since we have to part
If you come back I’ll feel the beating of my heart.
She took the chorus again, putting a flourish in the sustained You… The last chord faded into a silent room. Mara opened her eyes as a smattering of applause started. It seemed to break the spell. The pub thundered its approval. She shaded her eyes from the spotlight and saw customers standing on the tables. Hands over her heart, she bowed to the band, to the audience, then stepped off the stage. An immediate wail of protest broke from the audience.
Jonathan came to her before she reached the table. “How would you feel about leaving this party?”
“You liked my songs?”
His eyes burned her. “I liked your songs.”
“It’s early,” she said, coming to the tables. “Everyone stay and have fun. The Captain and I will meet you at the shuttles.”
Ra parted the tide of bodies and escorted them out the door. Night-lights gleamed in the wet sidewalks, ozone scrubbed the air, thunder rumbled in the West. Mara sent the car away, and they walked in silence, not hurrying. Ra kept a respectful distance, grudgingly. Cars passed on the street. Pedestrians strolled by them. No one recognized the Queen in her pants and light sweater, or the Captain in jeans and pullover shirt. They were just two more Callindans enjoying the night.
“Those songs,” Jonathan started.
“Just songs,” she finished.
She tucked her hand into his elbow. “So now you know my secret passion. Tell me yours. Surely you have one.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “I write really bad poetry.”
She laughed. “I sang for you, now you have to write me a poem. Fair is fair.”
“All right,” he said quietly. “But, not tonight.
They walked across the street to the edge of the Palace grounds. Mara felt warm and alive at his side.
“No,” she agreed. “Not tonight.
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Click here to read Chapter 6.