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Inside Deal

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"Where have you been?" Prill demanded when Liz returned to her room. Then she went still, her eyes growing large. "Begging your pardon, Your Highness, it is of course not my place to ask."

"Stop," Liz ordered, before the girl began to grovel in earnest. "You're forgiven. Is something wrong?"

"The king has requested an early dinner, and you need to dress for it."

"My apologies for causing you worry," Liz said. "This palace holds so many memories, I'm afraid I got a bit lost in them."

"Of course, Princess." Prill held up two gowns. "Which one?"

Liz didn't care. "I trust your judgment."


Dinner itself lacked an audience, at least. Liz entered the great hall to find Kivar seated alone at a table set for two. Candlelight illuminated Earth style place settings. Liz cringed as she recognized the reproduction of the meal Isabel had shared with Kivar only days ago in Roswell. She feared he meant to recreate the romantic mood. Isabel had played along at the time, for Kyle's safety. Or perhaps he meant to mock her for some perceived attachment to Earth.

Of course Liz did have an attachment to Earth, but she thought she'd managed to hide it. She cringed at the idea that Kivar had picked up on her feelings.

"My darling Vilandra," Kivar said, rising to greet her. "I've missed you today."

"You of course mean in the last hour," Liz replied. "As that's when we last spoke. Did you hope I'd forgotten?"

"Of course not, darling. I've done as you requested, and postponed the physician's punishment. He'll be available tomorrow, so you may speak to him about your concerns, if it pleases you to do so."

"It does," she lied. "Thank you, Kiv dear."

"The Night of Three Moons approaches. I trust you have found a suitable gown by now?"

"I saw many lovely gowns today," Liz said. "But I have not made my final decision. After my time away, I need to achieve the perfect look."

"Your look is always the epitome of perfection," Kivar said.

His tone of voice sent shivers down Liz's borrowed spine. Vilandra liked the smarmy attempt at seduction. Liz, however, hated it. The two sets of emotions combined into a vague sort of nausea. She hoped the spicy food wouldn't arrive before it passed.

"I'll need to know what news I've missed in the years of my absence," Liz said. "I'd hate to embarrass myself in front of our guests."

"News?"

"Who's gotten married, who's engaged, who's just sneaking off to meet in the wee hours. Notable deaths and births. Which planet's ruling family is currently vexing you most."

"Spare yourself the politics, my darling. As for social gossip, I'll have someone assemble the information for you."

"Thank you," she said. "That will help."

The kitchen staff brought out their first dish. The cook had molded the rubbery stuff into a vague approximation of the appetizer from the French restaurant.

She whistled in pretend delight.

This particular canapé lacked whatever authenticity the French restaurant in Roswell might have provided. It also lacked Liz's own additions. She had sabotaged the food that night, in an attempt to smoke out a shapeshifter. Alas, the theory of Kyle's replacement proved false, and Isabel had figured out that Kivar had possessed their friend.

"I thought I'd dispense with the formality of a taster." Kivar slid a small device across the table. "This will serve you better."

Liz snatched up the tool. Her own mind called it a tricorder before Vilandra supplied the proper, albeit untranslatable, name. She looked over the settings, and scanned the appetizer. Perfectly safe. Her death, after all, would inconvenience Kivar. She fiddled with the controls, and hoped she could figure out how to recalibrate it for humans. If only she could rush straight back to the marketplace now.

Kivar watched her with amusement.

"You have no idea how primitive Earth technology is," Liz said. "Thank you for this."

"Better than flowers and candy?"

"Certainly more useful."

"Such practicality you've developed, my darling princess."

"Don't mock, Kiv dear, my life is far more precious than any mere bauble." She watched for his reaction, but he showed no remorse for his plan to tamper with her memories. Perhaps his limited morals didn't equate the deliberate erasure of someone's mind with virtual murder. Then again, he had no qualms about literal murder, so to ascribe morals to him at all was something of a stretch.


***


Maria looked up from fussing over Liz. "Where is Michael, anyway?"

"In the other room changing," Max said. "His clothes got pretty torn up in the fight."

"One of us has to stay with Liz," Maria said. "We can't just leave her here alone."

"It can't be me," Max said. "If Mr. Seligman thinks we skipped together, he'll call her dad."

"Good point," Maria said. "I'll stay."

"Michael should stay," Max said. "Nobody's likely to link their absences."

"Where did Isabel go?"

"She went to look for Jesse."

"Right. I guess that really does leave Michael. You and I are out, and Kyle's already missed three days in a row."

"How am I the last choice?" Michael demanded as he walked out into the main room. "I'm sure I can do a better job than Kyle!"

"At babysitting the unconscious?"

"What?"

"You're saying you're the best qualified to look after Liz while she sleeps off whatever this is." Maria gestured toward her sleeping friend. "I'm glad, because you're elected."

"Why can't Max do it?"

What happened to your superior qualifications?"

"Max is leader. Make him do it."

"Weren't you listening? If Max and Liz both miss school, they'll get accused of ditching together. That'll lead to questions from Mr. Parker. Questions best put off until Liz can answer them herself."

"And my education doesn't matter?"

"Michael. How much school have you already missed? What's one more day?"

"Fine." He grabbed the remote and slouched dramatically into a chair. "There had better be something good on the tube."

"Just keep her comfortable," Maria said. "She needs to stay warm. But not too warm. And if she's unconscious too long, we need to figure out how to get fluids into her. Maybe -- "

"Maria," Max said. "She'll be okay, I promise. Let's go, we're already late enough."


***


Evading Kivar's company after dinner proved even more challenging than the previous night. She dared not pick an outright fight with him. If she lost herself in an argument, she could let slip her true feelings, or an accusation that revealed her sleuthing. The planned brainwashing was foremost on her mind, followed by a dozen other sins less specific to her personal safety. Like the jewelry maker who had lost a brother in the coup.

"I've spared the physician," Kivar reminded her. "It's what you wanted."

"My affections aren't for sale," Liz said. "Yes, it's a step, and I enjoyed our dinner, but it's going to take more than a day to forgive you for what happened."

"I only meant to kill Zan and Rath," Kivar said. His exaggerated patience treated the murder of her brothers as some petty complaint. "I planned to spare you and Ava."

"You killed my brother," Liz said. "I know he's fine now, even marooned on that ridiculous backwater planet, but still -- I saw him die. I need a little time."

"How much time?" Kivar asked. "We've been apart for so long. It feels like part of me died with you, and now that you've returned to me, I need to be with you."

"I missed you too," Liz lied. "But I think waiting is for the best."

"You've changed, Vilandra. Where is my impatient princess? Where is the girl so eager for my touch she once climbed into a transport pod stuffed with spices rather than wait another hour?"

"Ugh," Liz said, as Vilandra's mind brought forward the memory. "I stunk for a week. Do you know how much perfume I wasted trying to mask that stench?"

"Yes, I do." Kivar softened his voice as he tried to use the fond memory to play upon Vilandra's affections. "I'm the one who had to replace it. I had to sneak it to you, disguised as a salesman of all things."

"A little work never hurt anyone," Liz said. "You should have worked as a salesman in one of the nearby shops. We could have seen each other so much more often."

"We can spend every night together, now, yet you balk."

"We'll marry soon enough," Liz said. "Although I'm still waiting for the proposal. Or have you taken me for granted already?"

"Oh, so that's what all this is about." Kivar whistled. "The proposal."

"In part." Liz forced a softness into her voice, just for a moment. She had to hide her loathing, and let him think he'd gained something.

Kivar's eyes flashed at his perceived victory.

Time to cut that off. "And no, don't do it now. I expect it done right."

"Of course, my darling princess." His eyes turned colder. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Liz practically sprinted back to her room.


Once she thought everyone -- or at least Kivar -- was safely asleep, she crept back out of her room, and down to the dungeon. Two guards sat at the door, playing a game with glowing cards.

"I'd like to see the physician," she said.

"At this hour?"

"That's, 'At this hour, Your Highness?'" she said in her iciest voice.

"Of course, Your Highness." He scrambled to attention. "You surprised me. It is late for such a request."

"It's quite timely, for my particular needs," Liz said. "I'd caution you to respect my privacy."

They let her in, and Liz tried not to fret over Vilandra's reputation. Whether they interpreted her request as pertaining to insomnia or birth control hardly mattered. Let them debate it, so long as their theories strayed far from the truth.

She approached the physician's cell. "Doctor Gafer?"

"Princess Vilandra! It's quite late, isn't it?"

"The king told me he arranged for your release," Liz said. "I thought I'd investigate the truth of it."

"Oh, they'll open my cage in the morning," Doctor Gafer said. "There's paperwork. Bureaucracy."

"Of course," Liz said. "What's a man's freedom when there's procedure to mindlessly follow?"

"There's a catch, you know."

Liz did know, but she wanted the doctor to tell her. She needed to judge his trustworthiness.

He rose and crossed the cell to lean up against the bars. "The walls have ears," he said. "Or so I suspect."

She followed his line of sight, looking for a hidden camera or microphone of some kind. Instead, she noticed a tiny hole high in the wall, like the one in the great hall with the jewel wedged in it. She knew Kivar lacked access to the tunnels. "I don't believe that will trouble us."

"The guards?"

"Deeply engrossed in playing cards," she said. "Or possibly gossiping about my sex life."

"Princess Vilandra!"

"Don't worry, I implied a need for contraception, not a late night frolic in your cell."

"That's . . . something," he said. "Surely they know Kivar would strip my skin from my body one inch at a time for such an impropriety."

"Kivar might strip the skin from your body to liven up a tedious afternoon," Liz said. She watched for a reaction.

"The stories of your great love are beginning to sound a bit far fetched to me."

"Very astute of you, Doctor Gafer."

"And I'm sure you are astute enough to realize the conditions of my release are something of a danger to you?"

"I'm not terribly surprised to hear it," Liz said. "You told me yesterday about the procedure interrupted by my fortuitous early wake-up. For the record, I plan to keep my memories. All of them, however unpleasant."

"I'd be a fool to assume otherwise. Kivar, of course, would have me proceed regardless."

"I'm quite a good actress," Liz said. "If we can trust each other, we'll both survive."

"You've saved my life once, Princess Vilandra. I'm willing to trust it to your hands once again, although our success rides on your willingness to do the same."

"It's settled, then. Now as for the stated purpose of my visit, which method would take the longest to implement?"


Liz spent the rest of the night, or nearly so, in the lab, fiddling with the tricorder device. With it, she could scan suspected food sources that might lead her to Tess and the baby. She'd start with the root vegetables she'd seen at the flower stand.

She hoped another shopping trip wouldn't seem too suspect. After all, the Night of Three Moons approached, and she needed a gown for it. So did Prill. That got them out of the palace, although either Prill or their guards might grow suspicious at her strange interest in the food market. She'd have to make up a story about how much she enjoyed slipping anonymously through crowds on Earth. Hollywood celebrities were always complaining about the burden of the public eye. Hopefully, the complaint was universal, not a result of her own planet's intrusive paparazzi.

Liz found Antar's periodic table on the computer. Once she finished gaping at the sheer number of elements she hadn't known existed, she got to work. Her new tricorder needed a matrix designed to scan food for human consumption.

She classified unfamiliar chemicals as poisons, for now. Better to err on the side of caution. But she also reminded herself to keep her margin of error in mind when scanning. After all, she wasn't actually planning to eat any of these things. She just needed to guess what Tess might try. Desperation would boost Tess's willingness to sample risky food sources.

She also took the time to disconnect the computer from the transporter pod that had hosted her clone. That left the pod's systems intact, but if someone tried to send commands to it, they faced a frustrating delay. Like the inevitable loose printer cable the morning a term paper was due.

If she needed the pod, she could plug it in again. But if anyone forced her into it, those few minutes of delay might buy her a fighting chance.


***


The hour's sleep Liz managed left her groggy and sluggish the next morning. Worse yet, Prill showed up earlier than the day before. A quick study, she had learned that Princess Vilandra was an early riser. She seemed pleased at the prospect of another shopping trip, especially when Liz reminded her of the Night of Three Moons.

"I trust we have the same security team?" Liz asked. "I felt quite safe with them."

"Yes, Your Highness," Prill answered. "They're assigned to you for life."

"Does that include formal functions?" She definitely wanted the second captain near her if things got bad. The crowded event seemed ripe for unexpected danger.

"Of course, Your Highness."

Liz wondered how long it would take Prill to drop some of her formality. The constant deference to her royal position grew more tedious by the hour.

They set out after breakfast. Liz wore the same dress as the previous day, as it was the only one with pockets, but today she wore the new sandals.

Her security team fell into the same formation as the previous day. "Should we start at the cobbler's, Your Highness?"

"No," Liz said. "I promised him more time with my special request. Let's find our Night of Three Moons gowns first."

The second captain gave a nod at her answer, and Liz wondered if she'd passed his subtle test. One one hand, she'd done the right thing. She'd honored her own word and given the shoemaker time to complete his task. But in the back of her mind, she also recalled that several people had now referred to Vilandra's impatience as somewhat legendary. She made a mental note to find a reason for impatience in the near future.

Antar's dress shops, at least the best known ones, sat clustered together on a little side street known as Stitcher's Alley. Most of the shops had changed since Vilandra's day, so she deferred to her handmaiden's judgment. Prill led her to the most exclusive boutique. "We'll go to Whisler's for mine," the handmaiden said. "But it wouldn't do for you to buy off the rack, Your Highness."

"We'll get both gowns at the same shop," Liz countered. "That way they'll compliment each other."

"Your Highness!"

"Please don't argue," Liz said, waving her purse. "It's not like I have a strict budget." Or, for that matter, earned the money through her own hard work. Generosity cost her nothing.

Liz watched Prill's face as she flipped through some sample gowns. She didn't care what she wore to the upcoming event, but if she was still here when it arrived, she at least could take some pleasure in Prill's enjoyment. The young woman deserved something for whatever trouble Princess Vilandra's eventual disappearance might cause. A loss of her job, at the very least. Liz swallowed a pang of guilt, and made a mental note to gift her with some jewels before then. Preferably in front of witnesses, lest her attempt at kindness spur an accusation of theft.

Escaping this planet might prove even harder than she originally thought.

Prill's face lit up at the sight of one gown, and Liz pulled it out to examine it more closely. It featured intricate beadwork, no doubt the result of thousands of hours of labor. The cut was modest, and the colors reminded her of something.

"It matches my shoes," Prill said.

It did, Liz realized. "Then this is your dress."

"Princess Vilandra!"

"The shoes demand this dress," Liz said. "Now let's find something pretty for me."

The dress Liz finally chose had a simpler, although elegant, design. She liked it for its secret pocket, and for the cut of the hemline. Unlike the gowns with long trains or other complications, this one allowed running, should the need arise.

Liz arranged to have the dresses delivered to the palace, once alterations were complete. Then she suggested a stroll through one of the city parks. She wanted to see some of the native foliage. It would give her new scanner, secreted away in her pocket, a good test run.

The park featured many of the same things as any park on Earth. Open space, scattered benches, and children playing. She didn't spot anyone walking anything like a dog. From what she could tell, Antarians didn't seem to keep pets. She hadn't come across many domesticated animals in her reading, but then again, she'd focused her attention on the marine life. Domesticated animals did exist, Vilandra's memories told her. But she knew little about them.

As for the native foliage, the park lacked anything like grass or flowers. Instead, the park had a surface that looked like sand, at least at first glance. On further inspection, Liz realized it was a synthetic material. She guessed it was designed for safety, like the surface of many sports fields on Earth. It felt silky in her hand, and provided cushion underfoot.

"It's new," Prill told her. "Kivar had synthetic surfaces installed all over the city. There were protests, but most people liked it, once they saw the final result."

An odd thing to protest, Liz thought, considering how meekly the citizenry seemed to take having a dictator on the throne. Before she could find a diplomatic way to express that thought, she noticed something else. Someone had painted the phrase 'Come out from the walls!' on a nearby building.

"What does that mean?" Liz asked, after searching Vilandra's memory and coming up empty.

"I think it's from a song," Prill said. "Kids are always painting stuff from songs on blank spaces. Don't worry, it'll get cleaned up."

The second captain, however, tilted his head slightly so as to subtly avoid her gaze. He knew something. Yet he didn't offer any alternative explanation. Perhaps he didn't think it safe to do so. But unsafe for whom, exactly?


The cobbler had both pairs of sneakers ready when they arrived. "I had plenty of time," he claimed. "Although I admit I just finished the second pair a little while ago."

"They're beautiful," Liz said honestly.

He'd made one pair in outrageous colors, with tiny blinking lights that turned off and on with the flick of a tiny switch hidden on the heel. "See," he explained. "You can activate it with your other foot. No need to reach down and swish it."

"Clever," Liz agreed, charmed by the reinvention of quaint technology. They'd serve her purposes perfectly.

As for the second pair, he obviously remembered her appreciation for the simple but perfect sandals she now wore. He'd used muted colors, without any significant adornment, but the meticulously tiny stitches formed subtle patterns. The laces also held simple charm, alternating in color between two slightly different hues. They were the prettiest sneakers Liz had ever seen.

Thrilled with the purchase, Liz laid down a generous tip. She also granted him the freedom to make as many pairs for his other customers as he could sell. His grateful expression told her she'd made the right choice in specifying that freedom. He would not have done so without her express permission.

Liz wondered if she could get away with wearing a pair of the sneakers on the Night of Three Moons. It would be inappropriate on Earth, of course, but this wasn't Earth.

Antar's people held no longstanding bias against sneakers as casual footwear. Her new shoes wouldn't clash with formal clothing by default. They were a brand new fashion, and the sooner she showed them off, the sooner the people would be clamoring for the same shoes as Princess Vilandra. Or not, but either way, she could get away with it. She wanted to wear them constantly, all the better for running in case of danger.

Depending on how her plans progressed, she meant the second pair for Tess. She somehow doubted the cobbler would get the same thrill out of having made shoes for Queen Ava. Her fugitive status would keep them from the public eye. Or maybe he would take great delight in the idea. Some people enjoyed the drama of a good scandal, after all.

Liz took no pleasure in buying a gift for Tess, but if they were to flee the planet together, she thought they should at least both wear practical shoes.


***


After their early lunch, Isabel and Kyle parted ways. Kyle went to talk to Toby, prepared to explain his three day absence with a story about hitting his head while rock climbing. Isabel tried to dig up the courage to call her husband. She got as far as to pull her cell phone out of her purse, and noticed three missed calls from Michael instead.

She pushed the button to return the call, and it went straight to voicemail. "I swear to God if there's already a new crisis . . . "

A second try also went to voicemail, so she headed for Michael's apartment, where she found him engrossed in an episode of Green Acres.

"Seriously?" She waved at the television, shutting it off. "Answer your damn phone."

He slapped at his pockets, and then dug around in the chair's cushions. "Oh," he said, pulling it out. "Dead battery."

"For heaven's sake, I thought there was another emergency!"

"There is." Michael gestured to the couch, where Liz was sound asleep. "Max couldn't wake her up. He claims she's fine though."

"So he just left her here in a perfectly fine coma?" Isabel grabbed Liz's wrist and took her pulse. It seemed steady, but her skin felt cool to the touch.

"I was hoping you could dreamwalk her or whatever," Michael said. "Maybe talk her into waking up."

Isabel nodded, and made herself comfortable while she concentrated. She'd slipped into Liz's dreams many times before. Experience told her to brace for another sickening evening at the Crashdown. She suspected she'd find Liz doing something disgusting again, like feeding Max strawberries. Or perhaps suffering some mild academic panic.

Nothing.

Usually, she used a picture of her subject, as she had the other night, but with Liz right there she wouldn't have guessed it necessary. She shrugged, dug the picture out from the clutter on the coffee table, and prepared to try again.

Again, she couldn't make contact. She concentrated harder, working as hard as she had the time she tried to reach Max in the white room. Then, she'd fought through a nasty cocktail of drugs injected by the Special Unit. She'd done that, she could do this.

Still nothing. Not even the fuzzy feeling of a drugged mind.

"What did you see?" Michael demanded.

"Nothing yet," Isabel said.

"What do you mean nothing?"

"I can't get in," Isabel said. "Give me a minute, I'll try again."

She dragged a chair over beside Liz, and sat where she could touch her hand. Then she dropped her head and concentrated with all her strength. She remembered the time she had projected Liz's thoughts to Max in New York City, with a whole country between them. Yet this proved harder.

"Isabel!"

She opened her eyes to find Michael shaking her. "You've been out of it for ten minutes! What did you see?"

Isabel shook her head, which she regretted when the movement made her head throb. "Nothing. It's like she's blocked me out."

Michael frowned. "Why would Liz block you out?"

"I don't know, it doesn't make sense."

"You think she has a concussion or something?"

"I don't know."

"We have to do something," Michael said. "If Maria gets back here and Liz is still like this, she's gonna freak."

"Did you see her get knocked out?" Isabel frowned as she tried to remember the fight. Liz had pretty much saved the day at the end. She hadn't seen the blow that knocked her down.

"I figured she fell when she pushed Kivar into the beam."

"When she pushed Kivar," Isabel said. Realization dawned. "Oh my god."

"What? What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking Liz isn't laying on your couch," Isabel said. "I'm thinking she's in that lab on Antar."

Michael swore and stomped around in typical Michael fashion, all the while hiding his own worry for Liz under a thin veneer of concern for Maria's reaction to the situation.

Isabel ignored him, and grabbed her cell phone. "Kyle? Go to school and get Max and Maria. Pull the fire alarm or something. I need everyone here right now."


***


Liz and her royal entourage returned to the food market via the same modest clothing shop as the day before.

"There's solitude in the midst of a bustling crowd. I find the anonymity relaxing." Liz handed over another hefty tip. "The luxury of it made my time away from home bearable."

The shopkeeper nodded, but Prill looked skeptical.

The marketplace seemed less crowded today. Liz wondered if most Antarians did their shopping on a particular day, or if the average day at the marketplace just included a few lulls. She discreetly aimed her tricorder at everything even partially organic as she meandered among the booths. The unprocessed fiber was closer to cotton than wool, she learned from her readings, and not edible to either humans or Antarians.

She found a booth selling xedoc. The levels of iodine in it would definitely prove toxic to humans. Same with the tiny shrimp-birds. The seafood also contained unfamiliar amino acids, high levels of copper, and at least two elements as yet unknown to human science. Tess had to be relying on vegetables.

The flower stand appeared to have a larger selection today, and Liz lingered over it, scanning each item with care. She well knew that something might have inedible leaves, but nutritious roots. Like carrots or parsnips. An inedible pod could conceal palatable seeds. Small fruits could lurk beneath toxic leaves. She needed to scan each part of the plant to know for sure.

Several of the plants scanned as edible, if not particularly nutritious or appetizing. The root vegetables lost their status as her leading suspect, replaced by a leafy red plant Liz didn't recall seeing the previous day. Maybe it was the one sold out before she arrived. For Liz, this validated her hunch, elevating it to a working theory. She headed for the pillow booth, which offered a good vantage point for surveillance.

She lingered over the pillows, scanning them out of habit. On Earth, manufacturers might stuff pillows with anything from synthetic foam to downy goose feathers. Here, they seemed to use a sort of clay. She picked one up and played with it, using her powers to subtly mold it into different shapes. Custom neck support every time, and completely hypoallergenic.

Vilandra's famed impatience chipped away at Liz's mask of calm indifference. She abandoned the pillows for a booth selling spicy drinks. Other customers sat nursing their beverages as well. Liz pretended to wait for a business associate as she watched the marketplace. She stopped short of sending impatient glances at the sun's path across the sky, lest her security detail believe the ruse.

By the time a customer showed interest in the leafy red plant, she'd almost lost hope.

The woman looked young, and dressed in the simple clothing common in the marketplace. She fingered the red leaves. "I'll take these. I don't suppose you have any kalitan?"

"How could you possibly need more kalitan?" The vendor gestured vaguely at his other wares. "You've bought out my whole supply. You could rebuild the entire royal palace out of the stuff, with the amount you've already taken!"

"I'm only a servant," the customer claimed. "I do not know what my master does with it, I just know that he requires it."

The vendor didn't look convinced. "I'll have to send for more. I don't grow enough to keep up with your master's demand. The cost will go up."

The so-called servant looked shocked enough at that news to make Liz doubt her story. But she agreed to the price increase with the resignation of someone recalculating a tight budget. "I need something else in the meantime."

"What's that?"

The customer gave an alien shrug and then waved her hand at the booth. "One of each. Maybe something else will do for now."

The whole exchange made Liz suspicious, and she made note of the so-called servant's face. But before she could formulate an excuse to follow the girl, Prill appeared beside her. "You're wanted back at the palace."


***


"She's on Antar?" Maria demanded. "What the hell do you mean she's on Antar? Liz can't be on Antar!"

"Well her body's here," Isabel said with more calm than she felt. "But it's . . . well it's kind of empty."

"What the hell do you mean empty?"

"Everything's still working. Physically she's fine, just as Max said. Her body is perfectly healthy. But she's not, you know, in it."

"Isabel," Max said. "Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure."

"We have to get her back," Maria said. "What are we supposed to tell her parents? Oh, sorry Mr. and Mrs. Parker. You're daughter's just popped off to another planet for a bit. And oh yeah, she's in the clutches of an evil dictator who crashes weddings and body snatches innocent people. Don't worry though, I'm sure she'll be home in time for dinner!"

"Did you just rank wedding crashing above body snatching on Kivar's rap sheet?" Kyle asked.

"Not really the issue right now," Isabel said without taking her eyes off Liz.

"Just providing the much needed sarcasm."

"Okay, so we have to take her back out in the desert, right?" Maria asked. "Activate that beam again?"

"Yeah," Isabel said. "That's what we'll have to do. We can't bring it to her, too many people around."

"Okay." Max tossed Michael his car keys. "Bring my car to the door. Isabel and Maria, you keep watch. Kyle, help me carry her."

And please let this work, Isabel thought as she followed Maria down the stairs. She tried not to think about how close she'd come to stepping into the beam herself, and just how much danger Liz might now face as a result of taking her place. They had to get her back. Now.


***


Liz's borrowed heart pounded in its unsettling way as she walked back to the palace. At least a dozen ways she could have inadvertently tipped off Kivar as to her disloyalty came to mind. Had Doctor Gafer betrayed her? Did one of the guards overhear their conversation? Perhaps Kivar found her trips to the market suspicious. Maybe he read the search history on her computer terminal. He could even suspect that she, and not Isabel, had followed him into the portal back on Earth.

Kivar had left orders with the gate guards to send her straight to his office. He greeted her with a penetrating stare. "Two of your oldest friends are eager to see you, now that you have returned."

"Which friends?" Liz searched Vilandra's memory, quite certain Kivar did not mean Ava.

"Tervalewa and Plasidy have accepted your invitation to afternoon tea," Kivar said. "I hope they'll be able to catch you up on the latest gossip."

Liz remembered Tervalewa as Kivar's previous suitor, which made her seem an unlikely friend for Vilandra. The other name meant nothing to her. "I'm sure we'll enjoy a lovely reunion. Thank you."

"Now I suggest you hurry and get changed," Kivar said. "I know you'll want to look your best for your guests."

She tried for a balance between eager and obedient, while feeling quite the opposite of either, and hurried off to change.

The two women arrived before she'd even finished choosing her jewelry. When she joined them, Liz soon realized that Vilandra had never cared much for either of them. They spoke of nothing but the clothes they planned to wear on the Night of Three Moons, and clothes that other society ladies had shown the poor tastes to wear to previous events. From the way they talked, they were the only two women on the planet with a shred of fashion sense. They deemed every outfit chosen by anyone else a disaster of one kind or another.

"Just a travesty," Tervalewa said. "Just what was she thinking, with those plain shoes? Everyone must think her quite soft footed."

"She is soft footed," Plasidy said. "Remember what she wore to your wedding?"

At that, Liz stretched out one leg, allowing her sneaker to appear beneath the hem of the gown she wore. "Comfort is underrated on our planet."

Tervalewa gasped. "What is that monstrosity?"

"I had them made special," Liz said. "A relic of my time on Earth. I don't think my feet hurt a single time while marooned on that planet."

"Humans are barbarians!"

"Perhaps," Liz agreed. "But they're barbarians with comfortable shoes."

Tervalewa gaped at her as if she'd made a particularly lewd comment.

"Tell us everything," Plasidy said. "What sorts of gems did they wear?"

"Diamonds," Liz said. "They're much rarer on Earth."

"Diamonds!" Tervalewa whistled with laughter. "They really are barbarians."

"Keys as jewelry. Can you imagine?" Plasidy whistled as well. "They do sparkle, I suppose. How simple minded those women must be, to settle for such weak and colorless stones."

"Most focus their attentions on other things," Liz said. "Politics, or the sciences, for example."

"Oh how dreary," Tervalewa said. "Imagine wasting time worrying about such trivia. Oh, Vilandra, you've missed so much. At last year's Night of Three Moons, Nevrocty wore a blue gown. Can you imagine?"

Liz wanted to roll her eyes, but instead she leaned forward and made the required comment. "Blue? And at that time of year!"

"I know! It's all anyone talked about for months!"

Liz wondered what would happen if she stood up and announced her intention to flee the planet with Xan's baby. Would they offer fashion tips for runaway princesses, perhaps?

Her mind wandered to the task of finding Tess and the baby. Was the servant in search of kalitan a lead? Perhaps even Tess in disguise? Could Tess mindwarp an entire marketplace full of people to hide her face? Certainly it would stretch her powers to the limit. It seemed more likely that the woman was a mindwarped zombie under Tess's control. Like Alex, when he'd taken his Swedish trip to Las Cruces.

Typical Tess. She'd fry the poor girl's brain into mush and just move on to another victim.

Unfortunately, Liz needed Tess. Escaping Kivar and smuggling the baby off the planet would prove challenging enough. With Tess's army of mindwarped civilians added to the mix, it might prove impossible. She also preferred to avoid trying to master infant care on the fly. She needed his mother's cooperation. That meant taking Tess with her.

She hoped that, given the choice between Earth and a life spent in hiding on Antar, Tess would choose Earth. It was the only logical choice. The enemy of my enemy, Liz reminded herself, and pushed thoughts of justice for Alex out of her head. She had to regard Tess as an ally, albeit an untrustworthy one.

"Vilandra? Don't you have anything to share with us?" Tervalewa leaned forward, an expectant look on her face.

Crap. What the heck was she expected to say? She thought she'd already worried about all the ways Kivar could discover her betrayal. She'd never considered zoning out during a conversation about fashion as the cause of her downfall.

Tervalewa leaned closer still, her eyes gleaming black. "I knew it!"