Chapter 20—The Road to Empress
A splash of headlights woke Francisco, which woke Mara. He jumped out of the truck. The cab opened. She heard Boris breathing hard on the other side of the panel.
A figure moved in front of the blinding lights, hands held up and empty. Francisco stood in front of the tailgate, his gun trained on the figure.
“Identify yourself,” he demanded.
“It’s Gregor Petrovich,” the man said quietly. “I was President Kelly’s First of Security.”
“I know who you are,” Francisco snapped back.
Mara didn’t know whether to be relieved or terrified.
“I’ve got Deborah Jones with me,” Gregor added.
Francisco didn’t waver. “Who sent you?”
“The Great Wall.”
Francisco belted his gun. “Gregor,” he said, loping to the other man.
Mara heard them slapping each other’s backs. Then, another figure dashed into the headlight beams.
“Where is she?” Deborah Jones demanded.
“I’m here,” Mara called, struggling to get up.
“Don’t move!” the doctor ordered. “Don’t you dare!”
In a moment her slim silhouette popped over the tailgate. “I need more light!” she barked, flipping on a camp lantern. She set it near the Queen’s feet, noting her stained shift.
“How much blood have you lost? Are you cramping now?” She snapped open a field kit and pulled out instruments.
“I don’t know… some. Deborah, how can you be here?”
“Later,” she said, wrapping a band around Mara’s arm. “Headaches? Abdominal pain?”
Another lantern arced over the tailgate.
“Hello, Gregor,” Mara said, shading her eyes.
“Queen Marapura.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “It is surely good to see you again.”
Deborah snatched the lamp from him. “Go away. All of you.”
It wasn’t real—Deborah’s presence, Gregor’s familiar voice. She answered questions, yielded to Deborah’s careful examination, but she couldn’t believe it. Mara started trembling, and focused on the men’s voices to stay calm.
“Why aren’t you in Holyoak?” she heard Francisco ask.
Gregor’s steady voice answered. “President Reneau sent me to Yangtze. The Singh sisters are compromised, and she doesn’t trust General Chan.”
“So, you know about William and Idayama?”
“Yes.” Tight, clipped. “William seems to be in charge of the security at the Sea O’ Gold cannery. Idayama…” His voice trailed off. “Jakaya seduced her somehow. She was a loyal aide to President Kelly—a sweet woman. And no one knew computers better.”
“Uhh.” Francisco let out a long sigh. “That explains it. We added so many new security measures, I couldn’t understand how a bomber breached the Palace. But, our computer network was still vulnerable.”
“If Idayama was the one who burgled your system for the Landing Day Massacre, you can be sure she was still in there.”
“Alling!” Francisco swore. “Do they know about her in Mandalay? We need to warn them.”
“We’ll tell them in Empress, don’t worry.”
“Back up a bit,” Boris said. “Canneries don’t need a security expert. A couple o’ strong locks ‘n’ a dog in the warehouse is all I ever seen. What’s doin’ there?”
“Not canning.” Frustration sharpened Gregor’s voice. “We don’t know. There’s a high concentration of methane in the waters around Yangtze—it’s causing the excess algae. It might be a by-product of some kind or seeping from underground. We need to get eyes inside. But, William is good. Security there is tight.”
“Majesty?” Deborah called Mara back, her voice gentler. “The baby’s heart beat is strong, but your blood pressure is very high. I can give you medication, but for you and your child to survive, you must spend the rest of this pregnancy in bed.”
The sky had lightened to gray. Dawn was close.
“What’s the plan?” Mara asked.
“We drive straight to Empress in the van we brought. Dharma has everything ready.”
“All right.” She sat up with Deborah’s help. “Now will you tell me how you got here?”
“Washington Brown,” she said. “After the bombing…”
Mara grabbed her arm. “The vids say five people died, but never identify who.”
Mara closed her eyes. The First Housekeeper—dear, funny, Fatima—who’s aching knees kept her from climbing stairs anymore. She had been part of the Palace since Mara’s grandfather.
Mara covered her mouth to stifle her sob. “She was making breakfast,” she whispered.
“Crystalline,” Deborah continued miserably.
Mara held her arms tight around her, rocking back and forth. “She always had coffee with Naveen in the morning before he went off duty, before she checked the cars. She would have been worried when he wasn’t in the Security office. She would have looked for him…”
Tears ran down the Queen’s face. She shook Deborah’s arm. “Who else?”
“Mendelsohn. And Tamarla.”
A howl tore loose from Mara’s throat. “No!” She pushed Deborah away and struggled to her knees. “Francisco!”
“Majesty!” the doctor cried in alarm. She tried to restrain her.
Mara growled and fought back like a wild animal. Then, Francisco was with her. She grabbed his shirt in her fists.
“They’re dead!” she roared, trying to lever herself up and out of the truck. “Dead!”
“Who?!” He stared at her horrified.
“Stop her!” Deborah cried, snatching at the Queen’s blood-stained skirt.
Automatically, Francisco grasped her arm and tucked her close to him. It was a standard move, a way to protect the Royal in a dangerous situation.
“Who?!” he asked her again. “Who’s dead?”
But, Mara couldn’t answer. She buried her face against his shoulder and sobbed.
The men carried her out of the truck and into the van. Medical equipment and supplies surrounded a nest of cushions in the back. Mara saw a black zippered bag like the one Francisco loaded at the house in Song Hau. Weapons.
“This is silly,” she said without emotion. “I can walk.”
“No,” Deborah said, with no room for disagreement.
Boris raised an eyebrow as he and Francisco settled her into the van’s cushions. “That doctor o’ yours, she’s got snap,” he murmured. “I do like that in a woman.”
Mara smiled wanly at him. She was exhausted, body and soul. But, when Deborah tried to push Boris out of the way, Mara stopped her.
“Give us a moment, please,” she said.
Dr. Jones glowered at the Queen, and then at Boris when he eyed her appreciatively.
“Gregor repaid you?” Mara asked, once they were alone.
“That ‘n’ more.” Propping his foot in the open doorway, he squinted at the pinking sky. “Too much, by my thinkin’.”
“What you did for us can’t be repaid, but I have to try.”
“I ‘spose y’do.”
“So, what now? Back to New Minsk?”
“That Gregor fella says they need someone nosin’ around inside Sea O’Gold.” Boris sucked a tooth. “It got me thinkin’. I done more ‘n run freight in my lifetime. I worked the cannery in Omsk ‘n’ the big rig off Aqualegia. I even fished in the Crystalline ‘til I froze off a toe.”
He took off his hat and situated it more securely on his head. “So, I think I’ll head over t’ Yangtze ‘n’ see if they’s hirin’.”
He grinned at her. “You ‘n’ the boy got my mouth all set fer mischief. Dang if I ain’t gonna find me some.”
“Don’t you get yerself killed.” The patois slipped out. “I couldn’t carry it. Not you.”
“Aww, you know me. I land on m’feet like a cat.”
“You’re a good man, Boris Petrovich,” she said quietly. “I don’t care what anybody says.”
He waggled his eyebrows, touched his hat brim with a finger, and sauntered to his truck.
“Finally!” Deborah huffed, climbing in. And louder to the others, said, “Can we go now, please?”
Both Gregor and Francisco leaned through the open windows of Boris’ truck. Mara pinched her lips together when Gregor drew his pistol and handed it, butt-first, into the cab. He sketched a salute and trotted toward the van. Francisco lingered. Finally, a big paw reached out of the cab and gripped the younger man’s shoulder.
“An insufferable man,” Deborah said, sliding the van door shut and cutting off Mara’s view. The doctor craned her long neck to peer out the passenger window in front. “But, there is something about him… “
Gregor started the motor as Francisco slid into the passenger seat. He shot a look over his shoulder at Mara. She turned away and wiped the tears from her face.
“Yep,” she said. “There were somethin‘ ‘bout ‘im, a’right.”
By mid day, the van bumped over Dragon River Bridge west of Yangtze and angled northwest into the Nanling Mountains. Traffic thinned once they crossed the river, and Gregor allowed them to lower the darkened windows for fresh air. Mara lay in the hot cushions, lulled by the sound of Francisco’s relentless questions and Gregor’s succinct, report-like replies. She remembered Gregor with Ra, how seamlessly they worked whenever she and Kerner were together. But, she had never talked to him more than a few words, never knew how similar he and Ra really were. Listening to him made her sad all over again.
She knew she should pay attention to the words, the actual discussion, but her mind kept drifting back to Fatima in the garden snipping fresh herbs for her pasta sauce, or Tamarla’s ready laugh. She knew she should think about strategy and unraveling all the different mysteries, but all she could do was throw an arm over her face and weep.
“Majesty,” Deborah leaned close. “You must try to calm yourself. I realize you have suffered a great shock, but you must consider your child. Turn from your grief and seek Clear Mind. Use your discipline.”
“Tell me some happy news, then. Help me.”
Deborah thought a moment. “The refugee camps in New Dublin are finished. Except for the perimeter fences, they look surprisingly comfortable. The dormitory rooms hold ten at the most. The common rooms and kitchens seem well-appointed. Even the courtyards look pleasant with playground equipment and gardens.”
“I’m glad,” Mara said. “I was afraid they’d be like a prison.”
“Essentially, that’s what they are,” Deborah said. “Since the Palace bombing, concern over the refugees’ safety has grown. I’ve heard the perimeter fences are there to keep others out rather than keep the refugees in.”
“When do they arrive?”
“Let me see… what day is it?” Deborah shook her head. “I have lost all sense of time. I think… yes… tomorrow. They arrive tomorrow.”
“Captain Archer’s mother will be with them.”
Deborah’s eyebrows rose.
“What will she think when I’m not there to meet her?”
“Governor Gibson planned to take a delegation to the Greeting ceremony. Did she know Mrs. Archer was coming?”
“Yes, I told Yvette. She’ll find Jonathan’s mother.” Mara smiled. “So, my cousin assumed the royal duties?”
“She and Robinson Dinh took charge immediately. They put salvage crews to work in the Palace ruins and established an office in the Governor’s Residence. Very efficient.”
“Vettie and Robby working together…” She smiled again. “That does make me feel better.”
They pulled into a deserted Comfort Station on the western slope of the Nanlings. With Deborah’s permission, Mara slid out of the van and stood in the scratchy grass. The mountain air cooled her hot skin. A breeze rippled the tufts of grass sprouting between rocks and carried the sweet scent of Mountain Dewdrop. Mara took a deep breath of it, gazing at the foothills.
“I’ll go into town for fuel,” she heard Gregor say behind her.
“Good,” Francisco replied. The noise of his gun echoed as he checked its ammunition.
As the sound of the van’s engine faded, Mara turned to Deborah. “I’d like to take a shower and change clothes. Is that all right?”
“We have clean clothes in the van.”
Francisco came up beside her. His hair had started to grow back—dark cork screws instead of dark stubble. Weariness lined his face, but she could sense his sharpened awareness, his confidence fully restored. At first she thought it must be a relief for him to share the responsibility of protecting her with Gregor. But then she realized he would never share that duty. Gregor’s presence comforted him, but not for that reason. Francisco would die before placing her safety in someone else’s care. Fresh tears trickled down her cheeks, but they were grateful tears this time.
“Tell Deborah about your headaches,” she told him.
She looked at Deborah’s scowl. “Make sure he’s all right.”
Mara turned and walked a few steps away to give them some privacy, drawing another deep breath of the cool, flowery air. Beyond the squat Comfort Station, the purple Nanlings blocked the sun. She felt her mind climbing the wall of grief and despair much as their van had climbed the mountains.
Keep climbing, she told herself. Keep climbing.
By late afternoon, they crossed the Lhasa River, the border between Tao and Tao Ling Provinces. The small town of Empress appeared out of the surrounding pine forest. Tao Ling University and a large publishing company employed most of the citizens, mills and logging the rest.
Gregor steered the van down a side road before reaching the town proper. He took them deep into the forest, paved roads leading to gravel and, finally, to wide trails drifted over with pine needles. They came to a gate with security cameras and fencing that disappeared into the trees on both sides. Chan-Chu Lumber, a big sign read, Private.
Gregor stopped at the gate and got out. He sauntered to the front of the van, where the cameras could see him best, and leaned against the hood, waiting. Soon, they heard another engine approaching. A flatbed truck rumbled out of the trees and stopped on the other side of the gate.
A middle-aged Chan-Liner got out, nodded silently to Gregor, and activated the electronic gate. Mara noted his distinctive Chan features—straight black hair, heavily lidded almond eyes, tall and broad. Most of the descendants of the Fifteen had mingled for so many generations that the majority of Callindans were dark-haired and caramel skinned. A few of the Lines maintained “line essence” in the ruling families. The Gibson Line was one, which gave Mara and Yvette their creamy skin and pale eyes. The Chan Line was another. Mara didn’t know their guide, but she recognized the features of a Chan elite.
“I’m told this is the safest house in the world,” Gregor said, driving through the open gate. He waited for the Chan to lead the way. “Coming here means we’ll be tracked the rest of our lives. There are no records of this place. Only the Chan bosses know of it.”
“And Washington Brown,” Francisco grinned.
“Gregor smiled. “I want to meet that old man someday.”
They drove for miles through the trees, veering off invisible side trails and over creeks with sturdy bridges. Sunlight dappled the trees at times, but they mostly drove in deep shadow. As the afternoon lengthened, the shadows stretched dark and wide.
Suddenly, the trees cleared completely. The August sun blazed across a green meadow. The van parted grass higher than the running boards as it bumped along after the flatbed. They climbed a low rise, a white villa topping the hill. It dazzled against the emerald grass and azure sky.
“Huh,” Gregor grunted appreciatively.
“Strategic placement,” Francisco agreed. “High elevation… “
“… with clear-cut visibility all around.”
Mara closed her eyes. Men talking work—what could be more natural? And what situation could be more unnatural? A bubble of hysterical laughter tried to break free, but she forced it back.
I’m tired, she realized. I hope there’s a bed.
The driver of the flatbed lifted a hand out his window, then turned right toward a complex of out-buildings. Gregor continued on to the villa. Two figures waited on the wide veranda.
When Francisco slid open the van’s side door, Dharma Singh climbed in. “At last,” she said, clutching Mara’s hand. Her dark, almond eyes quizzed Deborah, who nodded in reply. “Now you can rest, Queen Marapura. Later, we will eat. And then, we will talk, yes?”
She and Deborah helped her out of the van. Mara looked up at the veranda and burst into tears. Will I ever stop crying?
“Oh, my darling girl.”
Lydia Abercrombe folded the Queen into her arms.
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