Liz found Prill's gown selection hanging beside her bed, and stood considering it. The cut left little to the imagination, appropriate for a seduction, but it wouldn't conceal a weapon of any sort. She'd have to rely on her powers. It's not like she actually had another weapon, at least not yet, but Liz liked to have a backup plan.
Her stomach roiled as she thought about what she planned to do. Murder and seduction seemed more Tess's specialty. Even if she pulled this off, and didn't get herself killed, she knew this night would haunt her. But if she didn't try, thirty-eight names would haunt her. Shopkeepers' eyes would haunt her. An entire planet living under a tyrant when she could have stopped him -- that would haunt her.
Kivar deserved to die. He'd killed so many with careless decisions on the throne, and thirty-eight people the night he took it. Thirty-eight innocent lives, plus the Royal Four. Forty-two deaths for a throne, and hundreds more to keep it. In mere days, she'd seen his policies separate families, force people into poverty, and threaten the lives of scientists who failed to provide instant miracles.
Liz stood against everything Kivar represented. And she had opportunity.
She slid the gown over her body, and carefully selected the jewelry to match. She chose one with a difficult clasp on purpose. Maybe it was foolish, hoping the monster she planned to seduce would take care when helping her off with her jewelry. But she had to try for every advantage.
She met him in the great hall for dinner, and treated him to her most doe-eyed expression. She wanted to pretend he was Max, and give her performance some authenticity, but she realized as soon as she saw him that was impossible. She and Max had something special, and thinking of it would not help her here. Instead, her mind flipped through a series of alternatives -- Maria's cousin Sean, her ex-boyfriend turned good friend Kyle, and the archaeology student she'd met through the radio station contest.
She settled on the archaeology student. She couldn't even remember his name, which helped. A handsome, charming man, for whom she felt no emotional attachment whatsoever.
The food tonight bore no resemblance to anything from Earth. The kitchen sent out a continuous stream of the finest delicacies, beginning with the eyeless little shrimp-birds she'd seen in the market.
She choked them down, reminding herself she would stomach far worse by the evening's end. Eating the strange little creatures was nothing.
Kivar eyed her like she was his next course, and inquired about her shopping.
Had he heard of her separation from her entourage?
But no, he was just faking interest in her feminine activities, like the husband in every sit-com she'd ever watched. Fake some interest, humor the little lady. It was a little insulting, actually.
"Oh, Kiv dear, I found the perfect dress for the Night of Three Moons! You're going to love it," she gushed. "And my new shoes -- I dare say they'll be the talk of the planet the next morning. I found a cobbler with real imagination."
She could almost see Kivar rolling his eyes at her excitement over shoes. She agreed, it would be a ridiculous topic to grab the attention of an entire planet. Especially seeing as she planned to provide the planet with a much better topic, and she didn't plan to wait until the Night of Three Moons to do it.
Kivar lifted one of the shrimp-birds with the tip of his foodsticks, toying with it. He released it, and began to spin it in midair with a minor hum of his powers.
Liz feigned amusement at his antics. "I've missed that," she said. "We always had to be so careful on Earth."
"Tell me about that wretched planet where your mother so thoughtlessly marooned you."
"I'll never understand why she'd do such a thing!" Liz said. "You could have protected me, had you been here that awful night. Surely she knew you would do everything in your power to bring us all back!"
"I would have moved the moons themselves," Kivar promised. "But thanks to her meddling, she's doomed poor Zan and Rath to a lifetime stranded among humans."
Liz tried to remember how she should feel about Rath's predicament, and decided to leave him out of her comments. "Poor Zan. But perhaps we're all better off with you on the throne. Zan wanted to change too much."
"Your brother was a weakling with a bleeding heart," Kivar agreed. "He wanted to cave to everyone's demands. Nothing would have remained of our way of life!"
Liz looked around the grand hall, and gestured at the tapestry that had once been Vilandra's favorite. "I love my brother, but he would have filled this hall with riff-raff and called it social progress!"
Kivar whistled with delight.
The cook herself brought out the next dish, a bright blue bowl of something entirely unlike soup. It bubbled menacingly.
"Pulling out all the stops tonight?" Liz teased. "However shall I repay your kindness, Kiv dear?"
"Oh, I have some idea."
"Thought you might." Liz formed one foodstick into a giant spoon, but then left it idle in one hand while using the opposite foodstick to float her soup upward in bubbles.
"I haven't watched you do that in years," Kivar said. "You have no idea how lonely I've been, without you."
"I have some idea," Liz said. "I was, after all, forced to resort to humans for my amusement."
"You had Rath," Kivar said.
Liz whistled. "Exactly why I found myself forced to resort to humans for my amusement."
Inwardly, she cringed. She liked the humans she so carelessly mocked in her role as brainwashed Vilandra. Alex, Kyle, even Jesse. The men in Isabel's life were her friends, too. Especially Alex. If Tess couldn't pay for his death, Kivar would.
Her mind flashed to Zan's body in the doorway of his bedchamber. That same bedchamber where she planned to end Kivar's life. Heaven help her.
The meal finally ended, to Liz's relief and dismay. If she returned to Kivar's rooms with him, her course of action was set. No going back. Either he died, or she trapped herself, doomed to a far worse fate.
Maybe that was why it had to be a seduction, she thought. Going through with a murder terrified her, but letting Kivar touch her was a far worse option. Good motivation.
They reached the door, and Kivar removed the cape he had draped over his shoulders, laying it gallantly across the threshold.
Liz whistled, a softer, breathier whistle than the Antarian laughter. "Why Kiv dear, I may swoon."
"Anything for my Princess."
She walked grandly across the garment, and marched deeper into the bedroom. Some part of her wanted him to die on the same spot as Zan, but that was impractical. She needed time to get away, once she'd done the deed. Someone would notice immediately if she left their tyrant's corpse sprawled in a doorway.
"You look downright predatory, my darling."
"It's been a long time," she said. "Far too long a time."
Her hands shook as he came nearer, and she grabbed the edge of the bed, digging her fingers into the soft surface. She let her powers flare a bit, and shaped it into more of a couch than a bed.
"On Earth, we'd have strawberries and champagne at this point in the evening," she said. "A little music. Candlelight."
"So many external trappings," Kivar said. "Earth men must not have much to offer their women."
"Nothing to compare to you, Kiv dear." It was true. Liz had never dated anyone who'd slaughter a palace full of innocent people. On that scale, he stood alone. But in every way that mattered, even her nameless archaeologist would prove superior to Kivar.
Cruelty made for a definite turn-off.
Kivar settled beside her on the makeshift couch, and Liz fought against her heaving stomach. She had to do it, now, before he touched her.
"My darling Vilandra," Kivar said. "You seem nervous."
"Do I?" What if he suspected. What if she raised her hand and spilled all her secrets, only for her blast to bounce off his shield. She had to wait, to make sure he dropped his guard.
"The palace stores are sorely lacking in such Earth delicacies as strawberries," he said. "But champagne is an intoxicant, is it not? I could have them send up some cottrill."
"Yes," Liz said. "That sounds delightful."
Kivar crossed the room and called up the kitchen staff on his console.
She'd bought herself a few minutes delay, Liz realized, but at a steep price. She'd just wasted any opportunity that might arise before the drinks arrived. Regardless of whatever resentment the kitchen staff might harbor against Kivar, should one of them interrupt his murder, they'd surely sound the alarm.
He returned to her side, and laid his long fingers across her knee. Liz expected to feel her skin crawl in horror, and horror was surely a part of her reaction. But Vilandra's body liked Kivar's touch, and she felt it shiver.
She'd forgotten that she didn't belong in this body, that it was merely something she piloted. Vilandra's memories were not her memories, and Vilandra's body reacted in ways her own never would. Suppressed emotion slammed into her. Once again, her mind was in the tunnels, lost and scrambling to make sense of alien surroundings.
Kivar's fingers moved higher, and Liz closed her eyes, trying to focus on the shivers rather than her own repulsion. She didn't have to let him do anything. Touching her leg didn't count. It wasn't her leg. If he went for a kiss, or more intimate contact, she'd blast him to bits. But she could let him touch Vilandra's leg.
He leaned closer, and she felt her power bubble inside of her.
Then she caught the glow of the door out of the corner of her eye.
Relief flooded every inch of her when his hand left her body.
The serving of the strange drinks took a few minutes, and Liz dug out her tricorder to scan the contents.
"Suspicious even now, Princess?"
"I am not a trusting soul," Liz said. "Zan trusted people, and look at his fate."
She nearly swore when she read the results. The drinks contained a variety of things, none of which would kill her in this body, but they'd numb her powers.
"Drink up, darling," Kivar said. "It's good for the nerves."
Liz held her glass high, and waited for an opportunity to dump it on the floor.
Kivar downed his in a gulp, without taking his eyes from her. "Vilandra?"
She tossed it boldly on the ground. "That stuff dulls the senses," she said. "I want to feel everything tonight, all the better to remember it."
"Fickle girl," he said. "One can never tell what you'll do."
"It's part of my charm."
Kivar looked unconvinced.
Liz reached over and laid her hand on his knee. Do it, do it, do it her mind chanted.
Kivar leaned in again, his face close to hers. His huge eyes seemed to stare into her soul, and Liz felt exposed. Surely he'd recognize an impostor in the body of the woman he claimed to love.
She slid her hand around to his back. One blast, and this creature would no longer plague the people of this planet or any other. Her hand shook.
A loud squawk blurted out of the console across the room.
Kivar leaped to his feet and lunged at it. "I left instructions. You are not to interrupt me tonight!"
"Apologies, Your Royal Highness," the voice said. "But he says its urgent. He claims it absolutely cannot wait."
"Urgent? Who says it's urgent?"
"Doctor Gafer, Your Highness."
"And what is this urgency?"
"A matter of great personal delicacy, he says."
"Well tell him I am quite pleased with the current state of my personal delicacy and will not tolerate any disturbance."
The line went silent, and Kivar turned back toward Liz.
Could she blast him from this distance? No, he'd have time to shield himself. She needed the advantage of direct contact.
"Doctor Gafer says he must interrupt your personal delicacy, for the good of your throne. Your Royal Highness."
"Fine," Kivar said. "But send him to me, so we might quickly dispatch with this business."
Liz's borrowed heart was pounding in that foreign spot where a heart didn't belong. Was the physician preparing to betray her?
"Worry not," Kivar said. "This doctor of yours will not derail our evening, not after the wait we have endured."
The doctor arrived in mere minutes, his eyes flicking over the intimacy of the situation. "It is as I feared."
"Feared?" Kivar asked. "You feared what, exactly. My -- our -- happiness?"
"I fear future questions about the legitimacy of your heir," Doctor Gafer said. "Pardon my intrusion into such delicate matters, but as a physician, it is my duty. Should Princess Vilandra conceive now, before she becomes Queen Vilandra, questions will arise regarding the line of succession."
"No one would dare question -- "
"The law is quite clear, Your Highness."
Liz could see the physician's trembling. Was he here to save her from Kivar's seduction, or to save Kivar from assassination? Or was this truly about contraception?
"Should it prove necessary, I will have the laws changed."
Ah, the fallback of dictators everywhere.
"Princess Vilandra came to me today to secure precautions," Doctor Gafer said. "But I do not believe she realized the limitations of those precautions. They will not prove immediately effective."
"They won't?" Liz asked innocently. Her plan was already shot. Retreat now seemed the best option.
"It will be several days before you should put them to the test, so to speak."
"Days?" she demanded. "What about the Night of Three Moons?"
"Perhaps by then," he said. "If you'll submit to another scan that day, we will know for sure. Your Highness."
"If you believe it best," she said.
Kivar looked furious. "An heir would be a reason to celebrate! Why fear it?"
"My honor is at stake," Liz said. "It's not like we actually have to wait for the wedding. But Doctor Gafer is correct, we should present the appearance of having waited for the wedding."
"Very well," Kivar said. He stormed out of the room without another word.
"What were you thinking?" Liz demanded of the doctor.
"Not here," he whispered.
She stood and stalked out of the room, heading in the opposite direction as Kivar. She didn't look back, but she knew the doctor followed her. She passed her own room, and continued down into the lab. Only when she reached it did she turn around and look at the doctor. "Well?"
"Pardon me, Your Highness, but I am concerned for you," he said. "You seemed different when I last saw you."
"Acting." Liz rolled her eyes, which judging from the doctor's reaction, was not a facial expression used on Antar.
"Princess! My goodness, are you -- "
"I'm fine," Liz repeated. "I promised you acting. I delivered acting. I meant to set your mind at ease, not make you risk your life on some fool's mission."
"I thought you wished to avoid certain intimacies."
"I do," Liz said. "Only my method of avoidance was to be somewhat more permanent than the one we discussed."
"It needs doing," she said. "And who else would have such opportunity?"
Antarians couldn't turn pale. Too much melatonin, in the blood as well as in the skin. Liz knew this, but the doctor still looked pale to her.
"Surely the consequences of such a plan -- "
"I wasn't planning to stick around for those," Liz admitted. "I have a trip planned."
"Queen Ava wishes to return to Earth and reunite her child with his father. In her current state, she finds her ability to do so limited."
"You've seen Queen Ava?"
"Yes," Liz said. "And while she and I have our differences, I do not wish any harm to come to Zan's child."
"Your plan leaves this planet a little short on potential leadership."
"A complication," Liz admitted. "But one I thought the people might find a way to correct. Monarchy isn't the only way to run a planet."
"High treason is indeed your hobby," Doctor Gafer said. "You speak of rebellion as if it's nothing."
"It seems to me this planet is well overdue for a rebellion," Liz said. "The people buckle under the burdens of tyranny, yet they dare not act. I will act on their behalf."
"There's a certain irony in your philosophy, Your Highness," Doctor Gafer said. "Chaos is not a solution to the problems here. Do you not remember the results of Zan's attempts at change?"
"A citizen-run government -- "
"And who shall arrange this government? You can't run off and leave a power vacuum."
Liz wanted to swear and rant against the doctor's reasonable objections. She wanted to go home. "You're right. And we have from now until the Night of Three Moons."
"To do what, exactly?"
"To set up a government," Liz said. "Because if that's the night Kivar thinks he's free to touch me, then that's the night Kivar dies."
Liz agreed to meet Doctor Gafer the next day and wished him good night. Both judged their conversation too dangerous to continue without more extreme precautions. They knew the lab was free of surveillance equipment, but they couldn't rule out spies, especially while lacking knowledge of Kivar's whereabouts. Besides, the whole evening had left Liz emotionally drained.
She returned to her room, longing to collapse into bed and turn off her mind. Then she could ignore the day's events, and their potential repercussions, until morning. First, though, she had to escape from the elaborate jewelry with the finicky clasp. After only a few minutes of struggle, she was ready to just break the damn chain in a violent show of temper. Kivar never would have shown patience with it. She glanced at the console. Would it be cruel to summon Prill at this hour?
She struggled for a few more minutes, both with the clasp and against temptation. When she caved and made the call, her handmaiden appeared in a flash. Liz had pictured a bleary eyed servant, scrambling to drag herself from sleep, but Prill still wore the same clothes as she had before dinner. Not only did it appear she had yet to see her bed, but she also seemed keyed up about something.
"I need help with this clasp," Liz said. "I'm sorry to bother you with such a simple thing."
"It's my job, Your Highness."
Liz turned her back to the young woman, and let her undo the clasp. Even her skilled fingers fumbled over the task.
"Begging your pardon if I overstep, Your Highness, but did your dinner with Kivar not proceed as you hoped?"
"Sadly, it did not," Liz said. "A complication arose."
"What could possibly pull Kivar away from you?"
"My own error," Liz said. "It seems the contraceptive I received from the physician takes a few days to become effective."
"Oh," Prill said. "I didn't mean to pry, Your Highness."
"You didn't," Liz said. "Polite lies are too much work, at least at this hour, and I know I can trust you."
"Of course, Your Highness."
"You may return to your sleep, now, if you like."
"Oh, I wasn't sleeping, Your Highness," Prill said, confirming Liz's observations. "Other business demanded my attention. A matter of security."
"When I came up to select your dress for dinner, I discovered evidence of a trespasser in your bedchamber."
Liz froze. "Are you quite certain?"
"They left a treasonous note upon your bed," Prill explained. "But worry not, the guards will track down the culprit. He won't bother you again."
The possibilities were too many to count. A threat she could handle, but the accidental betrayal of an ally turned her borrowed blood cold. Communication from Tess? The Inwallers? Some other potential ally, now endangered by their attempt at contact?
Any chance of sleeping had fled her grasp now.
Liz arose as early as she dared the next morning, dressed hurriedly, and slipped down to the lab. If she got caught, she'd repeat her lies about contraception. She sure was getting a lot of mileage out of that one.
"Princess Vilandra!" Doctor Gafer feigned surprise at her entrance.
Liz looked around, expecting company, or possibly a hidden camera. "I was hoping to catch you before you found yourself too busy."
"Well you've caught me practically before I even found myself awake, Your Highness."
"My apologies," Liz said. "I wished to continue our conversation, regarding my health? I hope there are no stray ears about, I'd hate to become the subject of gossip."
"Not to my knowledge, Your Highness."
"Good," Liz said. She marched over to the tapestry and dipped her hand into the magnetic pull of the tunnel entrance.
The wall melted away, and Liz stepped through, gesturing the physician to join her.
"I nearly thought this was a myth!"
"Fortunately for us, it is quite real."
The wall closed behind them, plunging them into darkness. Liz turned on the small light she carried. "So tell me, Doctor Gafer. How shall we set up a . . . " Liz fumbled to find an Antarian translation and failed. They'd need a word, and English would do. She pronounced the word phonetically. " . . . democracy in record time?"
"A government run by the people," Liz said. "That is what I wish to establish."
"It can't be done," Doctor Gafer said. "And certainly not swiftly enough to fit with your plans, Your Highness."
"Antar needs a government. Could I appoint someone to run things?"
"Take the throne, and you're free to make any decision you like. But to hand off the responsibility of rule would be seen as weak."
"Kings have always had Seconds."
"Seconds follow orders," Doctor Gafer said. "They don't make decisions."
"And why not?" Liz asked. "The voice of a strong Second, or even a whole council of advisors, could be nothing but an asset to a monarchy. More ideas, more flexibility of thinking. Swifter action."
"I could recruit a council of advisors, to rule in my absence."
"It's an idea."
"Would it hold?"
"Without strong objection from anyone with a legitimate claim to the throne, it might hold for a moon cycle or two."
"A moon cycle or two. No longer?"
"It's merely a guess, Your Highness. I'm a doctor, not a politician."
Liz let out a whistle of laughter. When the physician looked puzzled, she repeated her question. "I value your opinion, Doctor Gafer. I do hope your estimate errs on the side of caution, though. Two moon cycles isn't long."
"You do plan to return?"
Liz stayed silent.
"It's a long journey to Earth," she said. "And the situation there is also complex. I dare not rely on any plan with so strict a time table."
"I see." Doctor Gafer looked suspicious at best.
"Zan will not allow this planet to fall into chaos," Liz assured him. "Not once he has secured a means of transportation."
"Would you not prefer to hold the throne yourself, Your Highness?"
"It's not my throne to hold," she said, her thoughts more on Isabel than Max.
"Perhaps not," Doctor Gafer said. "But in just a few days, you've already given hope to many."
"You refer to Kivar's propaganda? The people will not benefit from such a smokescreen."
"It's more than Kivar's propaganda. Already I've heard tell of a perfume maker extolling your virtues to her customers."
"I gave her a gift," Liz said. "I'm glad to hear it pleased her."
"You gave her hope."
"The people need more than a few acts of generosity, they need real leaders."
"Again, I suggest you serve them as one."
Liz changed her tactic. "Let's focus on the immediate future first. Do you have suggestions as to where to look for this advisory board?"
"You're the one who met with the Inwallers."
"I only met two of them," Liz admitted. "And neither shared any information as to their membership numbers, or their specific plans."
"But you have a way to contact them? You could summon them to another meeting?"
Liz nodded, noticed Doctor Gafer's lack of response, and added the words. "Yes, I can contact them. There are other factions who stand against Kivar, are there not? Rath's followers?"
"Rath does have followers," Doctor Gafer said. "But they'd balk at assisting Zan's return to the throne."
"I suppose they would."
"They would, however, support you as queen."
"Why would they do such a thing? Do they not blame Vilandra -- do they not blame me for Rath's death?"
"They blame Kivar. And Zan. Your death proves your innocence to many."
"Your knowledge of these people is pretty specific," Liz said. "Don't fear spilling the rest of your secrets to me."
"An unremarkable secret, especially in light of those you already know."
"Then share it."
"My wife is an historian," he explained. "There are Rath supporters among her acquaintances."
"Good," Liz said. "I'm not setting up any government, no matter how temporary, without representation for their group."
"An odd position for you to take, Your Highness."
"A lasting government listens to all its people," Liz said. "Besides, I witnessed the courage of one of Rath's supporters first hand, on Earth. She died to protect the Granolith for us. This would honor her sacrifice."
"I'll see if I can arrange a meeting," Doctor Gafer said. "Is there anything else I can do for you today?"
"Perhaps," Liz said. "Would you know anything about a note left in my bedchamber last evening?"
"No, Princess. What did it say?"
"That's the mystery," Liz said. "I missed my chance to read it. My handmaiden turned it over to the guards."
"That could be a problem."
"Let's just hope it's one I can correct."