Chapter 21—The Chan House
Stripes of summer sunlight wavered across a white coverlet. Pine-scented air moved pale curtains in an undulating dance. Mara blinked at them, then remembered where she was. She rolled onto her back, wincing at every aching muscle and bruise. Something tugged at her chest and belly. She felt the outline of skin sensors under her night gown, and followed thin cables linking them to a monitor on a table near the bed. She watched the silent blips of light as they marked two pulses—one slow, the other quick like a little wren. Then, she stretched. Back arched, toes curled, hands flung against the headboard, she groaned with pleasure.
“Good. You’re awake.” Deborah appeared in the doorway. “Breakfast?”
She pointed to an arched passage opposite the bed. “I need a sample, so use the cup.”
Mara nodded and padded across the room. It was sparse and peaceful in its simplicity—everything in degrees of white except the thick green stalks of iris in a vase by the door. Her dirty shoulder bag hung from the rail of a straight-backed chair. Mara dug through it for her toothbrush, her mind a pleasant blank. She puttered in the bathroom, collected Deborah’s sample, then wandered back to the bedroom. Pushing aside the translucent curtains, she stepped out on a balcony and caught her breath at the vast garden below.
A meandering trail looped around sprays and tumbles of flowers. Walls of tall grasses, heads heavy with seed, waved in the breeze. She heard water trickling, bubbling up from a pond tucked behind slender trees with bark peeling down like parchment. The trail circled stone benches partially hidden by rocks and trellis. Steps carved from stones led to other levels. Mara knew from the design that Chan gardeners had planted surprises to be discovered by those on the trail.
She looked up and down the long balcony, but no one else stirred from the rooms. Then, she closed her eyes as the perfect mix of hot, August sun and cool breeze kissed her face. Her fingers touched the hand-stitched embroidery on her night gown bodice—white roses against the soft white of the fabric. She took a deep breath and smiled.
“It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” a voice said behind her. Lydia carried a huge tray onto the balcony. “Shall we eat at the table?”
Mara helped with the tray. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Lydia played with a tuft of brown hair above Mara’s ear. “Wash worried about letting me come. He thought I’d be watched and followed. But he also needed someone to bring news of Mandalay to you.” She smiled and started unloading the tray. “It wasn’t too hard to convince him.”
Mara’s mouth watered as Lydia uncovered steaming breads, berries and melon bursting-ripe, eggs with sautéed vegetables and cheese, and coffee so dark and thick it threatened to walk away. She stared at Lydia, who laughed and sat down.
“Eat, darling,” she said, pouring the coffee. “We can talk when Dharma gets here.”
Mara pulled apart a soft, buttery roll, dipped it in berry juice and moaned as she chewed. She dug into the eggs next, tasting onion, peppers and purple asparagus, and laughed out loud. Holding her coffee cup, she inhaled the complicated richness before sipping—hot, bitter, delicious.
“I should think you’re hungry.” Dharma and Deborah came through the open doorway. “By Francisco’s account, it’s been two days since you’ve eaten.”
“Francisco!” Mara swallowed. “Where is he?”
“Outside your door,” Dharma said, pulling a chair to the table, “as usual.”
“Oh, no. He has to rest.” Mara threw her napkin across her plate and started to rise. “He’s exhausted.”
Dharma pressed a calming hand to her arm. “He was exhausted, but he only needed a good night’s sleep—not the two nights and a day you required.” She smiled and poured herself coffee. “Even with that ugly bump on his head.”
Mara turned to Deborah, worried. The doctor shook her head.
“I told you, Majesty,” she said, “he bruised the covering around his brain. It will take time, but it will heal.”
“That’s right.” Mara rubbed her forehead. “You told me. Forgive me… “ She gestured Deborah toward another chair. “… I can’t catch up to myself.”
“Understandable.” Dharma’s black, almond eyes considered the Queen over her cup. “What with exploding fuel stations and flights cross-country in a vegetable truck.”
Lydia sat forward. “First is first. How is she, Dr. Jones?”
Deborah folded her hands in her lap. “Her kidneys are not spilling protein, which is much better news than I expected. The baby is strong and has an adequate amount of amniotic fluid. Also, good.”
“So, the only issue is her blood pressure,” Lydia pressed.
“There is also some placental abruption,” Deborah said. “That seems to be under control at present.”
“Must I really stay in bed for five months?” Mara tried to keep the whine out of her voice.
Deborah looked at her a long moment. “Even if you don’t develop other symptoms, we will probably have to take the baby early.”
“Take the baby?” Mara shook her head.
“A C-section?” Lydia asked. When Deborah stared at her uncomprehending, she added, “Surgery to deliver the baby through the abdomen.”
“Yes.” Deborah nodded. “Exactly.”
“Oh.” Mara sat back. “When?”
“That depends on you, Majesty. The more stringent your bed rest, the lower your blood pressure, and the longer the baby remains viable in the womb.”
“Oh.” Mara’s hands crept around her belly. “Is this all right? Sitting out here for breakfast?”
Deborah checked her timepiece. “You may sit up for short periods, but I would rather you return to bed now.”
Mara smiled feebly at the others as she stood. “Please stay.” She eyed all the food left on the table and snatched up another roll. “I imagine we have a lot to discuss.”
Once Mara arranged herself in the bed, Deborah wrapped a cuff around her arm and consulted a gauge on the bedside monitor. She nodded, satisfied.
“Would you excuse us, Doctor?” Dharma sipped her coffee from the straight-backed chair.
“Wait.” Mara reached out to stop her. “Deborah’s part of my council now. So is Francisco. They should both be here.”
The Head of the Chan Line lowered her porcelain cup. “As you wish, Majesty.” She crossed to the door and opened it. “Join us,” she said.
Francisco ducked his head into the room and looked around. When he saw the Queen, he smiled and closed the door behind him. Mara relaxed. He looked rested and clear-eyed. Beside him, Deborah’s shrewd attention jumped from Dharma to Lydia to Mara.
Yes, the Queen thought. This is right.
Lydia settled into the pillows next to her. “Wash wanted you to understand the charges against the Prime Minister and Governor Juarez. We’ve kept the details out of the news.”
“Please,” Mara said, glancing at Francisco. “We’ve been so frustrated not knowing.”
“You remember how the funds paid to Griffen Kelly—the sniper—came from a Notre Dam business?”
“Yes. General Jones discovered that right away. And Jakaya Brown said the business was a sham.”
“It was,” Lydia agreed. “Marissa broke into their financial records and figured out they only received cash. Impossible to trace. Then, a week before the Palace bombing, a transfer came through from a bank in Aqualegia. Marissa tracked it to the Azteca Treasury, and then to the Aqualegia Hurricane Relief Fund, which, in turn, came from the South Callinda Treasury…”
“… an allocation of funds authorized by the Prime Minister,” Dharma finished.
Lydia paused to let Mara absorb the information so far, then she continued. “Marissa told Wash and General Jones immediately. They could see how the trail implicated both the Prime Minister and the Governor. They were in charge of distributing those funds. But the timing was wrong. Griffen Kelly was already dead. What was the money for if not to pay the assassin? It didn’t make sense. Like Wash said, we were dealing with either ‘an idiot or a damn genius.’”
“I’ll bet it was pretty easy for Marissa to track the money,” Francisco said.
“Relatively,” Dharma replied. “Easy for her, but not many others.”
“A set-up,” Deborah said.
Dharma inclined her head and took another sip of coffee.
“Horatio went to Azteca to investigate,” Lydia continued, “and Marissa held the information as long as she could. But, she was obligated to tell the committee eventually. When she did, Collier and Javier were arrested.”
“And at nearly the same moment, the Palace was bombed,” Dharma added.
“It was chaos there at first.” Lydia looked at Deborah, then back to Mara, her eyes moist and troubled. “But, Marissa continued to follow the money. A few days after the bombing, it disappeared.”
“So it looks like Collier and Javier conspired to kill me,” the Queen concluded. “That’s too ridiculous to even entertain.”
“I can see the beauty of it, though,” Francisco said. “The prosecution will say their long-time loyalty makes them the perfect conspirators. No one would ever suspect them.”
“It’s so convoluted.” Mara clasped Lydia’s hand. “Just when we start to bring part of it into focus, like what’s happening in Yangtze, some key opponent gets tumbled out of the way.”
“Very good, Majesty,” Dharma nodded. “Someone effectively neutralized all the heads of state and the most powerful investigators, though the organization my sister and I oversee carries on with the help of Washington Brown.”
“Who?” Mara sat forward. “Who is doing this?”
“We know some of the players—Emmond, General Chan, William, Griffin Kelly, Idayama, probably Mbana Mbutu and Armand Mendoza, probably Jakaya Brown, even Kerner Kelly. But they are all the petals of the flower, not the center.” Dharma’s dark eyes narrowed to burning slits. “The center remains carefully hidden. The center is Washington Brown’s ‘damn genius.’”
“Francisco told you about Idayama…” Mara paused. “… and Briank.”
“Yes, but your Marissa already knew about them. She and Washington have been providing false information to Briank for weeks.” Her lips thinned. “Perhaps we can neutralize a few of their efforts now.”
Mara turned to the bright windows and watched the gauze curtains fold over themselves. “I’ve had a lot of time to think, and I keep coming back to Kerner. For as long as I knew him he wanted Northern independence. He was adamant these past few years. It was all he talked about. And then he changed. Completely.”
“I spoke to Moira many times after his death,” Dharma said. “She said he was a different man when he came back from your last meeting with him. Calm, quiet, at peace.”
“Gregor told me President Kelly spent all his spare time in the Archives those last weeks,” Francisco said. “He sent the archivists away and had his kids run errands for him in the stacks. It was like a game, Gregor said.”
“Gentle with his family,” Dharma said, “but in his presidential affairs, he became fierce and decisive.”
“Like the way he confronted Emmond at the Crown Mountain Mines,” Mara remembered, “and vetoed the Independence Act.”
“Yes. I believe President Kelly did more than change his mind about Northern independence. I believe he was a petal of the dark flower we’ve been discussing, and that he plucked himself from the center. Perhaps, he even intended to expose the others. We don’t know.”
Dharma blinked, her face a blank stone. “President Reneau shared my beliefs. She tried to find the documents President Kelly pulled from the Archives. She wanted more than her own intuition as reason to fire General Chan and hoped Kelly’s research would give her proof. But then, General Jones arrived unannounced one day. He asked her to keep Chan in play until he returned from the Pass Mountains.”
“And now Horatio is missing.” Mara rubbed a dull ache along her forehead. “And Covenant is too harried to worry about it.”
“Neither she nor her husband have been charged with a crime,” Dharma said, “but Philippe’s business is ruined and confidence in the President is badly shaken. Now our Congress presses her to re-submit the Independence Act for a vote, and we fear she will yield.”
“Supporters in the Southern Congress are pushing Delilah as well,” Lydia said. “Jakaya Brown rented an apartment in Mandalay to participate in the debates.”
Mara scowled. “Everything comes round to that proposal. It’s the key. It must be.”
“Yes. But we have not yet found the door it unlocks.” Dharma stood, graceful and fluid as water. “Forgive me, Queen Marapura. I must return to Beijing today. Mrs. Abercrombe will tell you the rest of what we know—which, I’m sorry to say, is not nearly enough. The house, the grounds and the caretakers are yours to command.” She considered the Queen’s doctor and First of Security. “I leave you in capable hands.”
She stepped closer to the bed. A tiny pucker creased her normally placid brow. “Be well, my friend. We need you.”
Marapura spent the rest of the day, and the days that followed, in Lydia Abercrombe’s company. She nested in Mara’s bed and sprinkled the political news from Mandalay with stories about the Queen’s staff, reunions between the Elders and their Lines, and long tales about her brother, Reggie.
“He made friends as easily as you and I breathe,” Lydia said one day. She sat propped against the footboard with a slim shuttle flying between her fingers. A string of snowy lace trailed from one hand. “He knew instinctively how to relate to people. This one, he would tease, that one he would coax. I suppose that’s what made him such a good leader.”
“Why did he leave Earth?” Mara asked. “It sounds like such a wonderful place.”
“As happy and connected as Reggie was, he was never satisfied. He was restless, always looking for the next challenge. When he was eight, he badgered our grandmother into teaching him how to bake bread. At thirteen, he tore apart our car and put it back together by himself. He studied everything in school, played every sport. It was exhausting just being around him, but exhilarating, too.”
She smiled, her blue eyes shining. “Jonathan Archer reminds me of Reg a little.”
Mara smiled back, then lost count with her tatting shuttle. She tsked and held out the tangled mess to Lydia. “Jonathan does have a restless quality, but steady, too, and focused.”
“Hmm.” Lydia unknotted the thread. “He’s famous at home—Captain of the first Starship and all. From the stories I’ve read, he’s not comfortable with the notoriety. Neither was Reggie. He just wanted to get on with the work.”
“Yes, that’s Jonathan, as well. But, I think he’s proud to be the first.”
Lydia rested her hands in her lap and gazed at Marapura a long time. “We’ve closed some kind of circle—me finding you, you finding Jonathan. It makes a person wonder.”
Mara’s fingers found their rhythm. “In our belief in the All, it makes perfect sense. Shall I tell you about it?”
The women’s conversations rambled over every topic. Nothing was taboo. Old fears, old pain, thoughts Mara never intended to speak aloud seeped into their talks. It scared her at first. She had spend a lifetime tucking those tender thoughts behind a regal shell and learned never to let them out. But Lydia listened to each confession with acceptance and a practical ear. Her comments melted the shell further and allowed more to escape. Mara had never felt so free.
As the Queen acquiesced to her physical restrictions, Deborah’s stern protectiveness softened. She allowed Mara a brief walk in the garden most afternoons with Francisco. One day found them crunching along the pea-gravel path, their companionable silence thicker than usual.
“You’re bored,” Mara finally said.
“What? No. Of course not… ” Francisco scowled. “… Majesty.”
He had adopted the Chan Line version of a suit—loose black trousers and jacket over a high-collared white shirt. He waved at the outbuildings.
“I’m learning a lot from Zheng. He teaches the Underground operatives a different form of hand-to-hand than I learned from Ra. And the weapons are all new to me, though I’m getting pretty good at the nunchuk.”
“All right, not bored,” Mara conceded. “Worried, then.”
They turned around a wall of Mountain Fern. Francisco brushed the heavy fronds away from his head. “Maybe,” he confessed. “Gregor sent a message from Yangtze. Boris says the Sea O’ Gold is drilling for oil in the Lydia.”
Mara nodded. “Dharma told me. It’s illegal to drill in the Lydia. If they continue, it will destroy the ecology and ruin the sea-based industries. I don’t understand how they thought they could get away with it.”
“Boris told Gregor the bore sites were only tests. They didn’t expect the massive algae overgrowth and couldn’t contain it. Boris says the whole plant is in a panic.”
“They should panic. Now we know what they’re up to there. Even if the Independence Act becomes law, no one has the right to destroy the North Lydia. We’ll never let that happen.”
Francisco glanced at her, then back at the path.
“They can’t eliminate all the opposition, Francisco,” she said. “Not all of us.”
“I’m concerned about one dog-headed trucker. Gregor says he’s supposed to stay in place until the Home Guard moves against Sea O’ Gold. But, the Singh sisters are waiting for something. Do you know what?”
Mara shook her head.
“The longer Boris stays, the more likely he’ll get caught.” Francisco rubbed the back of his neck. “He’s not trained. We never should have let him go.”
“No, he’s not trained, but he’s road-smart. Boris can take care of himself.”
They circled one of the big ponds. Tangerine carpio swam in lazy spirals among the rocks.
“I understand your frustration,” Mara continued. “We can’t help any of them from here. All we can do is stay informed, offer our council, and sacrifice the rest to Clear Mind. Have you been meditating?”
“I try.” He stared at the fish.
“Join us tonight. I helps to sit together.”
They left the tall reeds around the pond and saw Deborah waiting in the shade of the long porch.
“The Warden,” Francisco grumbled.
Another woman stood with the doctor. Mara noted her slim figure, a summer dress and blonde hair rippling in the light breeze. Not a Chan-Liner, then. The woman started down the steps to the garden.
Mara stopped, staring, then pushed through the barrier of blue Groom’s Brush, her big belly and swollen ankles making her lurch and lumber. Behind her, Francisco laughed.
“Adrianna!” he called.
The former First Aide jumped over a low fence and trampled flowers to get to the Queen. Mara scooped her into her arms and kissed her face.
“Majesty,” the girl whispered. “You’re safe.” She forgot decorum and hugged the sovereign tight. “Oh, thank the All in us and around us.”
“What are you doing here?” Mara reluctantly let go of her so Francisco could gather her up.
“The Prime Minister asked me to come,” she said. “If you agree, we’ll leave for Mandalay immediately.”
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To Read Chapter 22, click here.