The Queen whirled and kicked the punching bag. Naveen held it firm. Spinning on the other foot, she kicked again. Washington Brown watched from the weight bench. He tapped his cane on the floor in a steady rhythm.
“Punch,” he said.
Mara hit the bag, her left shoulder aching.
She hit the bag.
“Duck, hit, then go.”
She dodged, hit with her left, then jabbed. Sweat dripped from her face.
“Kick and go,” Wash said.
Mara jumped-kicked the bag, spun and kicked, spun and kicked.
Thin October sunlight filtered through the grimy windows, the old Royal Guard barracks abandoned except for the three of them. Wash sat in the meager light like a basking cat.
“Yer left is still weak,” he told the Queen. “We need t’break up that scar tissue a’for it’ll be much use. Lemme see.”
Still panting, Mara rubbed the star-shaped scar on her shoulder. She untied her gloves and straddled the bench next to Wash. Boney fingers dug deep into the sore joint. She sucked air between her teeth, but said nothing.
“Yep. They’s tight as a tick in there. Take time to work loose.” He waved his cane at Naveen. “Like I showed ya, boy.”
Naveen’s warm hands replaced Wash’s. This thumbs separated and shredded fibers. Mara closed her eyes.
“That’ll do fer now,” Wash said. “Up!”
Mara rose from the bench, rotating her shoulder.
“Once around the perimeter, little girl,” the old man snapped. “Git!”
She jogged out the open door, cool air shivering her wet skin, to the rut that ran along the inside of the iron gate. Once there, she lengthened her stride. Her mind held only the sensations of her body—the effort, the pain, the strength. She tucked her stomach to compensate for muscles that were still loose and recovering. Following the curve of the fence, she passed burn-scarred trees and patches of charred lawn that had never been reseeded. Weeds grew in unchecked tumbles.
Mara’s legs scissored, her arms pumped, her breath huffed in and out of her mouth. All she could hear was the scuff of her shoes in the dirt. She ran past the safety barrier. Beyond it, the huge crater of the Palace foundation yawned at the veiled sky.
She ran behind the barns, the horses nickering when they recognized her gait. Rosie and her half-grown pups burst from the open door, barking and chasing after her. Gravis stood on the threshold, watching her pass as he did every day. She paid no attention to any of them.
Half-way around the grounds, she felt more resistance in her stride. She passed into the cold shade of the Western Woods. A gryphon hawk screamed high in the trees. Mara ignored it. She went faster.
With three-quarters of the track behind her, she came to the gradual incline back to the barracks. Her breath came in gasps. Her feet slapped the ground.
Naveen stood at the top of the rise, Wash making his way there slowly. Mara’s dry lips peeled back from her teeth as she passed them. She held up two fingers and went faster.
“Another lap?” Naveen watched the Queen’s retreating back. “She’s going to hurt herself.”
“Son,” Wash said sadly, “I think that’s what she wants.”
The villa sat on the eastern edge of Mandalay, on the gray shores of King’s Bay. Far from the centers of government, far from any sign of the city, it hugged the rocks like a drowning swimmer. No one in Mara’s family had used it in years. She thought it was perfect.
Pulling into the drive, she saw two women working in the flower beds bordering the house. One sat back on her heels, shading her eyes to see the car. Her white hair glimmered even on cloudy days. Mara smiled.
The other woman stood up, brushed her hands against the backside of her trousers, and walked toward the drive. Mara’s stomach lurched as it did every time she saw her. The reaction made no sense, the feeling defied definition. So, she ignored it.
“Where’s Naveen?” Mary Archer asked, opening the car door for her.
“He took Wash home,” Mara said. “I’m worried about him.” They walked across the lawn together to Lydia. “He’s unsteady on his feet and tired all the time.”
“He’s 96 now, dear,” Lydia said from her spot on the ground. “He has a right to be tired.”
“How was your workout?” Mary asked, her sharp-eyed assessment taking in more than Mara’s physical fitness.
The Queen knelt beside Lydia and dug a hole in the dirt. The two older women exchanged a look over her head.
“Darling,” Lydia started, “have you thought any more about what to do with the Palace grounds?””
Mara dropped a bulb into the hole and buried it.
“Rebuilding the Palace would be a positive step,” Lydia continued, “something to inspire the people.”
“It would help everyone move on,” Mary added.
“Move on,” Mara echoed. “Why would we do that?”
Lydia beseeched Mary silently, then plunged ahead. “We need to speak frankly, dear,” she said.
Mara dug another hole.
“You’ve sent away most of your staff.” Mary picked up Lydia’s thread. “You decline invitations. You see no one.”
“That’s not true,” Mara said mildly.
“You’ve refused to testify at any of the trials,” Lydia said, “even after the Prime Minister and President Reneau came here to ask for your help.”
“There are plenty of other people to testify. They don’t need me.”
Mary knelt down beside her. “Sweetheart, we’re worried.”
Lydia reached for Mara’s hand, but stopped herself. “You don’t talk to anyone—not to us, not to Moira… You can’t go on this way.”
Mara sat up and smiled at them. “You’re both so sweet to worry, but I’m fine—stronger than I’ve ever been.”
“There’s more to healing than physical recovery,” Mary said. “It takes time, we know that…” She glanced at Lydia, who nodded encouragement. “…but you have to move in the direction of healing—at least turn toward it.”
“And, you’re not, darling.” Lydia finally grasped Mara’s dirty hand. “You’re running from it.”
The Queen chuckled and pulled her hand away. “You told me I needed an ‘outlet’ so I started working out. I’m also playing the guitar Collier sent me. There’s just no satisfying you two.”
She kissed them both on the cheek. “I’m fine. Really.”
She got up and stepped around the flower bed to the walk. Robby stood in the doorway.
“I asked him to take Wash home.”
Her Staff Father’s face darkened. “How many times must we have this conversation, Majesty?”
“Any messages this morning, Robby?” she asked, pushing past him.
“You’ve dismissed all the other Guards. Naveen is the only one left. His job is to be with you, not run errands.”
“It’s not necessary,” Mara said, heading toward the back of the house. “I’m making breakfast, would you like some?”
“No, thank you,” he said tightly. He followed her into the kitchen. “Why do you insist on putting yourself at risk?”
“I’m no more at risk than you are.”
She glanced meaningfully at his jacket. They both knew he wore a holstered pistol underneath. Opening the refrigerator, she grabbed a bowl of eggs, vegetables in a strainer, and set them on the counter.
“Are you aware that Marissa also wants to carry a gun?” Robby asked. “That’s how secure she feels.”
“Paranoia,” Mara said. “It’s left over from all we’ve gone through. It will pass.”
Marissa came in from the sitting room that served as their office. “Majesty, I can do that.”
She had changed from the insecure, wild-haired girl who reluctantly assumed Adrianna’s duties in the spring. Now, she kept her hair pulled back tight and wore sober, fitted suits. There was nothing hesitant about her. She tied on an apron and sharpened a chopping knife.
A flash of anger sparked in Mara’s gut. It took all her self-control to keep from snatching the knife away from her.
“I don’t need help,” she said tightly. “I can cook for myself.”
“I know,” Marissa said, unconcerned. “It’s my pleasure.”
Mara glared at the eggs while her breathing slowed, then she grabbed two and cracked them into a mixing bowl. “Any messages?”
“The Prime Minister called. He’s back from the trials in Holyoak.” Marissa chopped sweet root and swept it into a neat pile. “He wanted to remind you of your meeting with him at the prison this afternoon.”
Mara’s hand slowed as she beat the eggs.
Marissa noticed. “You said you’d talk to him if he met you at the prison today. I heard you. You promised.”
“I may not go to the prison,” Mara rummaged in the lower cupboard for a skillet. “Nothing good can come of it.”
“I see.” Marissa deftly quartered a tomato. “Then, you’ll be able to meet with Lama Ki. I’m sure he’ll make a point to stop by again today.”
“As he has stopped by every day for a week,” Robby added. He squeezed between them with the tea urn and dumped the dregs into the sink. “As he plans to do every day until you speak with him.”
“I’m sorry to keep missing him.” Mara poured eggs and vegetables into the skillet. She pinched fresh herbs over the top. “Please offer the Lama my deepest apologies if he comes today, but I do have that meeting with the Prime Minister…”
“Majesty, this is most irregular. I can’t allow it.”
A huge man, the prison Father blocked Mara’s path. “I’ll have him brought to you.”
“No,” Mara snapped. “I will see his cell.”
They locked eyes. Mara stepped closer.
“He asked me to come, and I am here. Would you deny me?”
The prison Father scowled. He looked to Naveen for assistance, but the Queen’s First stood silent as a shadow.
“I could command you,” she said, “but that isn’t my preference.”
The big man sucked in a breath and snorted it out. “All right,” he growled. “Stay between me and your man.”
Mara nodded, her heart thudding in her chest, her face hot. She had gotten good at bullying.
They marched down the short, public corridor to a locked door. The Father nodded to a guard who watched behind a thick glass partition. The door slid open. Mara heard the noise of men—shouting, cursing, fighting, mean laughter. A thick, meaty odor wafted through the open doorway.
She walked behind the Father, rigid, daring any of them to speak. Where she passed, the cells quieted. Scarred arms came to rest against the bars. Scarred faces followed her passage.
They marched the length of the cavernous stable to the last cell. Mara stared at the man inside, who stared at her.
“Open it,” she told the Father.
Fervently unwilling, but resigned, the prison Father called out, “Open Seventeen.”
“Open Seventeen,” came a far-off response.
The cell bars slid aside. The man went down on his knees.
“Majesty, thank you,” Briank said. “Thank you for coming, for reading my letters.”
“Get up,” she said.
“I’m ready to pay for my crimes—I want to. I could endure anything if I could only hope…”
“Guide Sickness,” Mara interrupted, her voice cutting. “Elspeth—dead. Tamarla—dead. Because you sickened over Hoshi Sato. Because Jakaya Brown knew it and sent Idayama to you.”
Briank screwed his face against the assault.
“Crystalline—dead. Ra—dead. Kerner Kelly—dead,” she spat. “Because you were stupid. Because you were blind—a catteloo.”
“Majesty, please.” Tears ran down Briank’s face.
“Stop hoping. I have no forgiveness to give you.”
She turned, shoving past Naveen, and marched back through the stable.
“Close Seventeen,” she heard the prison Father bark.
Naveen’s footfalls caught up to hers. Men crowded against their bars. The Queen ignored them all.
The park around Mandalay Prison flickered in the hazy light, leaves twirling in slow tumbles from trees giving up their summer bounty. Ochre and russet sprinkled the air and landed in a hush. Mara marched through drifts as she left the prison behind her, it’s shadow following her into the park. She saw the picnic table and the man slouched against it. She saw his face turn toward her, the jolt of recognition, and how he straightened.
“You came,” Collier Cabot said when she got closer. “I didn’t think you would.”
“Neither did I,” she answered.
He hesitated, searching her face for a landmark, then embraced her anyway. Mara held herself stiffly, giving his back a collegial pat. But, he didn’t let go. She swallowed painfully.
“Hello, Colli,” she whispered.
He pulled back then, the old crooked smile making a weak appearance. “You’ve been watching the trials?”
“Some.” She clutched her elbows and started walking.
The Prime Minister kept pace beside her. “It seems like we’re just getting started. Everything that came out in Ang’s trial… the fake corporations, the investors…”
“The murders.” Mara watched a golden leaf spiral through the air.
“Yes.” He watched his feet as they stirred a mound of leaves. “William’s trial is just starting in Yangtze. Your man, Boris, will be a great help. And Gregor. We still have the snakes’ nest in Inverness to clean out. But, Philippe Reneau’s friend, Ian Kelly, took charge of that. It was a matter of Line pride for him, I think.”
Mara heard her teeth grinding together. “The Mbutu Line is devastated with both Emmond and Mbana in prison. Lydia told me they asked Kentu to assume the governorship of New Kenya.”
“That seems drastic.” Collier’s bushy eyebrows jumped. “Kentu’s a retired shop keeper from someplace called The Congo, not a politician.”
“That’s what he told them. But he agreed to sit with the Line and advise. I think that’s all they really want—a Father to make them feel better.”
“Or a Mother.” Collier looked at her.
Mara ignored him. “So Adrianna will be coming back, now that Emmond is in prison. Javier can get back to his own business in Azteca. The world goes on.”
The Queen’s back stiffened. “Don’t.”
“But, we need you now. Covenant and I finished the Reunification proposal. We take it to the Northern House next week.”
“Good. Reunification of North and South Callinda is the right thing to do.”
“Elections are next month. We don’t have much time. Opponents could stall with endless debate.”
“If your proposal is sound, it will pass eventually. This election, next election, what’s the difference?”
Cabot stopped and took a breath. He looked behind her to the prison. Mara saw more gray in his wiry hair, more crevices around his dark eyes.
“Five years is the difference,” he said. “Five more years of confusion. Five more years of the North scraping by with their crippled economy. Five years of suffering that doesn’t need to be.”
She watched him and said nothing.
“Come to Holyoak. Address Congress with us. If you stood with us…”
“Just for the day,” Cabot pressed. “You could be back by nightfall.”
“No. I told you before, I won’t leave Mandalay.”
The Prime Minister covered his mouth with his hand, holding back a response or just thinking, Mara wasn’t sure. Nor did she care.
“I said I’d help you here, if I could. That has to be enough.”
She hadn’t meant to shout, didn’t realize she had until the word ripped her throat raw. Cabot grimaced and turned away from her. She reeled the sound back in, swallowed it, felt it burn all the way down.
“I have to go,” she said. “I’m late.”
“Give my best to Covenant. Good luck.”
She turned and started back the way they had come. Naveen waited at a discreet distance. She caught him looking past her to the Prime Minister, his eyes full of sadness and apology. Rage blazed up hot and scalding. Then, she blinked, and Naveen was beside her, his face blank and immoveable.
“All right, then,” she muttered, crushing the leaves beneath her feet.
The Elise Center for Healing sprawled over several city blocks, a beautiful campus of white stone buildings and gardens crafted to sooth and encourage contemplation. Mara and Naveen walked through one of the airy hallways to a familiar room.
“Do you want to come in today?” she asked him.
Naveen shook his head. He sat in his chair by the door and avoided meeting her eyes. That was fine. Mara entered the room, shut the door tight behind her, and got her supplies. Someone had opened the drapes to let in the thin light. A ruby colored buzz-bird hovered next to a feeder. She laughed.
“The buzz-birds are migrating,” she said. “Oh, you’ll have clouds of them around this feeder soon. So, beautiful.”
She set a wash basin and linens on the work table, then studied the man in the bed. Someone had already shaved him. She was late after all. Carefully, she set up the bath like a ritual—draping him with a bath blanket, pulling the old bedding out to be laundered, stripping off the hospital gown with respect.
“The Grandmothers claim I don’t talk to anyone.” She slid a wash cloth into the hot water and wrung it out. “They don’t know I tell you everything.”
She lifted Francisco’s bare arm and scrubbed until the skin pinked. He jerked, pulling away. Mara smiled, reaching for the towel.
“Deborah said you were moving around more. She said it’s a good sign, that it means you’re closer to waking up.”
She toweled the arm, still muscular but thinner after a month asleep, and tucked it under the bath blanket. She scrubbed his chest, around the scars that still burned like brands, around the leads to his monitors, around the feeding tube in his stomach.
“It’s time for you to wake up,” she went on. “Long past time, if you ask me.”
She exposed one leg, deftly moving the catheter tube out of the way. “It’s long past time for you to look into Adrianna’s eyes,” she said, scrubbing his thigh. “She’ll be back from Holyoak tomorrow. You’d be so proud of her, Francisco. She gave evidence at so many of the trials. She was clear and sure.”
The Queen slipped the bootie off Francisco’s foot, checked the heel for sores, then rinsed her cloth again. “She’s just as clear and sure about you, so you might as well wake up and accept it.”
His foot curled as she scrubbed the flaky skin between his toes. “That’s right.” She toweled the foot. “We both need you to wake up. I can’t make them understand why I sent everyone away. You could explain it better.” She rubbed pungent lotion into the foot and up the leg, then replaced the bootie.
“I underestimated Marissa.” She dumped the milky water and ran fresh from the small sink. “I sent her away three times, but she always returned. And now that she and Naveen are taking evening strolls around the grounds together, I’ll never get her to leave. Then, there’s Mary and Lydia.”
She set the basin on the opposite side of the bed and exposed the other leg. It jerked when she touched it, the stringy muscles jumping under pale skin.
“Mary came right away, you know. She left the refugee compound and just moved in without any invitation. She conspires with Lydia and sides with Robby at every opportunity—a bossy, maddening woman. Just like Jonathan warned.”
Mara’s hands worked lotion into Francisco’s skin, her fingers kneading spasming muscles. “I tried ignoring her, insulting her, raging at her, but she won’t go. Neither will Lydia. How can I get them away from me, Francisco?”
She slipped her hands under his shoulders and back, then pulled him toward her. She smiled at how easy that was, how strong she’d become. Mara checked the tubes and wires, then rolled Francisco to his side.
“There’s no point to all that old silliness,” she said, scrubbing his back. “I don’t need chauffeurs, and cooks, and maids. I’m not hosting any more parties or traveling all over the world.”
She patted his back dry, noting the patch of red skin around his tailbone. She jotted a note for the nurse. “Jakaya did me a service, really. He showed me how completely out of touch I am with Callinda. Like Collier hinted today, the discontent and evil are wide-spread. I never knew. I never saw it. I may have started to wake up when Jonathan came, but Jakaya was the one who made me see.”
She finished rubbing lotion into his back and dried her hands on the towel. “I was a catteloo, and I was perfectly content to stay fat and stupid. Not anymore.”
Mara slid a pillow between his legs and tucked another against his back. Fresh linens replaced the bath blanket. The basin got a good scrub. She came around the bed to look at his dear face, grimacing and yawning like someone in a nightmare. She smoothed back his dark hair—it had grown over the scar at his temple—and kissed his forehead.
“Wake up,” she told him, as she told him every day. “The world needs your goodness—there’s so little of it. Wake up. Your Queen commands you.”
She left his room and took the elevator to the next floor, Naveen close beside her. Calm now, she closed her eyes and offered up her prayers—for Francisco, for guidance, for strength. When the doors slid open, she left Naveen again in the hallway and entered the changing room. Stripping off her damp clothes, she found a tunic waiting for her. She tied the front and walked into the dim inner room.
“Good afternoon, Majesty,” a nurse greeted her.
“Hello, Jasmine.” Her fingers trailed over the incubator as she settled into the recliner. “What news today?”
The young woman opened the incubator and unwrapped a tiny bundle. “She weighed three pounds this morning. A good gain.”
Mara untied her tunic.
“She’s struggling a little with her breathing this afternoon, but I think she’s just missing you.”
“Yes,” Mara sighed. “I’m late today.”
Compared to the lines and tubes attached to Francisco, the ones for a premature baby seemed like thread and gossamer. Jasmine maneuvered them carefully and placed the tiny, pink girl on Mara’s chest, skin to skin. She mewed, then rested her cheek against the steady beat of her mother’s heart—downy, copper hair tickling. Jasmine tucked a blanket over them.
Mara closed her eyes, cupping her daughter between her breasts with the palm of her hand. “Linny, Linny, Pretty Penny,” she whispered.
◊ ◊ ◊
To read Chapter 28, click here.