Liz returned to the palace with barely enough time to dress for dinner. She wore the jewelry with the difficult clasp again, pairing it with a gown chosen at random. She then hurried down to the great hall.
Kivar sat in his usual spot. He stared at her for a long moment before speaking. "I hear you've had some adventures today, darling Princess."
"Adventures?" Liz fought to look more puzzled than panicked. "Begging your pardon, Kiv dear, but there's nothing particularly adventurous about the history museum."
"You sent away your security," Kivar said. "And you sent Handmaiden Prill on several unnecessary errands."
"Two errands," Liz corrected. "Both necessary. The Night of Three Moons is nearly upon us."
"The shop delivered your gown to the palace long before your handmaiden went to fetch it," Kivar said. "Certainly you are not so empty-headed as to forget the arrangements you made."
Liz bristled at the insult. "Yes, I did forget, and no, that does not reflect upon my intelligence. Have you failed to notice how eventful I have found the last few days?"
"Let's see," Kivar said. "Three days of shopping. How strenuous for you!"
"I came back from the dead five days ago! That kind of thing takes a toll!"
"Just not enough of one to interfere with shopping."
"I've missed this planet," Liz said. "It's my home, and I wanted to see it again."
"Well if 'seeing your home' leaves you too weary to remember simple facts, perhaps you should take a rest from these excursions."
"Kiv dear, I have plans tomorrow."
Kivar slammed his hand down on the table. "You will not leave the palace again until after the Night of Three Moons!"
Liz dared not look weak now. "I will come and go as I please!"
Kivar rose from the table. "I am your king!"
"I'm aware of that fact," Liz said, fighting for calm. "I am after all to be your queen!"
"You are to be my wife," Kivar said. "You will respect my authority, or you will be my prisoner instead. There's a cell available, since I set your physician free."
"Yes, free," Liz said. "That's why -- " She froze.
"Why what, Vilandra?" Kivar's black eyes stared into her soul.
Crap. She wasn't supposed to know about the threats Kivar had made, or the sinister device on Doctor Gafer's arm. "That's why he's been working night and day in that lab downstairs."
"I believe you are the one demanding his efforts. I've given him no extra tasks."
"Someone has," she said, scrambling to dig herself out of danger. "My request was simple enough."
"Apparently not that simple, seeing as my bed has remained empty," Kivar said. His gaze narrowed at her. "I trust that situation will soon change?"
"On the Night of Three Moons, Kiv dear," she forced out a soft whistle. "It'll be a night you never forget."
"Ah," Kivar said. "Another reason for you to rest until then. I want you at your best that night."
"You have no need to worry on that front, Kiv dear. Provided, of course, you treat me as I deserve. Otherwise, my enthusiasm may suffer."
"I will treat you like a princess," Kiv promised. "A pampered one, who is to get proper rest for the next two days."
"I have work to do in the next two days," Liz argued. "There are still preparations to make for the Night of Three Moons, and my museum gala needs my attention."
"What gala is this?"
"A fundraiser." Liz injected all the excitement she could into her voice. "For a new wing on the museum. Historian Mascusda has acquired a lovely collection of childhood memorabilia. A happy exhibit, to offset all the dreary relics from past wars."
"I thought you liked relics from past wars."
"Well sure, I do. But many people don't. Too many unhappy memories. But these toys, they will draw crowds."
"And this fundraiser can't possibly wait?" Kivar pronounced 'fundraiser' as some might speak of an odious crime, like perhaps the gruesome slaughter of forty-two people in the dead of night.
"Oh no," Liz said. "It's inconvenient enough that my return is so close to the Night of Three Moons. I need to work in a social event as soon as possible, to remind people of the influential place I hold in society."
"Remind them of it in a simpler way, darling princess."
"Oh, Kiv dear, this requires ceremony!"
"Then you can orchestrate this ceremony after the Night of Three Moons. Unless you're so impatient you've actually scheduled the damn thing for tomorrow night?"
"Oh no, of course not. We could never pull everything together that quickly."
"Then these arrangements can wait a few days."
"That's fine," Liz said. "After my breakfast meeting, I'll let the volunteers do the largest share of the work."
"There will be no breakfast meeting."
"Don't be silly, it's already arranged."
"Vilandra! Stop this insubordination or I'll have no choice but to throw you in the dungeon. What will the servants think?"
That you're a brutal dictator, Liz thought. "That perhaps your devotion to me is somewhat less than you led them to believe, that's what they'll think. Now spare me your empty threats and forget this unpleasantness. I'd like to enjoy my meal."
"You are the one continuing this argument. You will not go out tomorrow. I consider the matter closed."
"The last time we tried to use Brody as an alien cell phone, his heart stopped," Maria pointed out. "I love Liz more than any person on this planet, I'd do anything for her, but is it fair to risk Brody's life?"
"Larak won't let him die," Max said.
"He might not even return my call," Maria said. "I think he has his daughter this week."
"You keep track of when he's with his kid?" Michael asked.
Maria rolled her eyes. "No, but he had a plastic tiara on his desk when I delivered his lunch the other day. Unless his fashion tastes are a bit off the beaten path, I'm guessing it was for her."
"It's probably what all the UFO freaks are wearing these days," Michael said.
"I'll never understand how you can mock people for believing in UFOs when you literally arrived on this planet in one."
"Do you two ever stop?" Isabel demanded. "This is serious."
"You're right," Maria said. "We only have about two hours before our shift starts. Mr. Parker is definitely going to notice if Liz is in a coma."
"She's not in a coma," Max said.
"Well she's not awake," Maria said. "She's certainly not going to be waiting tables in this condition."
"I'll take her shift," Isabel said. "If we can't get this sorted, I'll take her shift. We can make something up for Mr. Parker."
"What the hell is that music?" Michael demanded.
Maria snatched up her ringing phone. "Brody?"
"Listen, Maria, you know I'd love to have an early dinner with you, but -- "
"But you have Sydney, I know. I'd forgotten. It's just -- "
"Sydney's not the problem," Brody said. "It's just that I'm in Los Angeles. With Sydney. Disneyland, actually. I got tickets for one of those princess tea parties."
"Oh, Brody, that's really great," Maria said. "She'll love that."
"She's so excited, you should see her."
"I bet that's adorable."
Michael began making 'hurry up' gestures at her.
"It is," Brody said. "I got her the cutest little dress."
"Take lots of pictures," Maria said. "I'll want to see them."
"Of course, of course."
Michael paced back and forth directly in front of her, flapping his hands around stupidly.
"I'll see you when you get back," Maria said. "Have fun." She hung up the phone and turned to Michael. "Are you trying to bring a plane in for a landing?"
"I was trying to get you off the damn phone," Michael said. "We have a situation here."
"That's no excuse to be rude," Maria said.
"What's going on with you and Brody anyway?"
"Nothing's going on, Michael, grow up."
"You have a song! You set your phone -- "
"It's Galaxie," Maria explained. "Because he always orders a Galaxy sub with pepperjack."
Michael snorted. "Romantic."
"Exactly! It's not romantic. He's a friend."
"Like I'm a friend? Like when we had all that just friends sex before you ran off to New York with your ex?"
"I didn't run off to New York with my ex," Maria said. "I went to make a demo."
"That's enough," Isabel snapped. "Nobody wants to listen to your bickering. I for one could have lived a lifetime without hearing about your 'just friends' sexcapades. Yuck."
"I guess Larak's out," Max said. "Anyone have another idea?"
"We could try to contact Liz," Maria said.
"I've done that," Isabel said. "She's awake. I think. Anyway, it doesn't work."
"I don't mean in a dream," Maria said. "I mean, through her body. Like we were going to do with Brody and Larak. Why not just try that with Liz and, well, Liz?"
"I suppose it's worth a try," Isabel said.
"And what do we do if her heart stops?" Michael asked.
"Then I'll have something to heal," Max said. "Other than cuts and bruises, that is. We have to try something."
Liz woke up even earlier the next day. She needed to escape the palace before Kivar could stop her. If she missed this meeting, it spelled disaster for her plan. Worse yet, it might cause further friction between those who supported Zan, and those who supported Rath. This planet needed those two groups to reconcile their differences, not find new reasons to distrust each other.
So long as the transportation pod in the lab remained, Liz had a path home, but she couldn't selfishly flee and leave this planet in chaos. Nor could she leave Max's planet, and his throne, in the hands of a man like Kivar.
She dressed, selecting one of Vilandra's plainer gowns. She then tucked some jewelry into a shopping bag. She needed to look royal for this meeting. She also wore the sneakers. They'd be quieter on the palace floors, and easier for running away if things went poorly.
She had two problems. First of all, if Kivar checked on her, as he no doubt would, he'd learn of her disobedience. She couldn't have Kivar storm into the museum in the middle of her meeting. She cursed herself for sharing the location of her 'breakfast meeting' with Kivar. If this went wrong, she would have these people's blood on her hands.
Secondly, Prill seemed likely to tattle on her. Someone had -- Kivar had known about her extra errands. She knew the captain had kept his silence. At least, her instincts said to trust him, and besides, if he meant to betray her, he'd want to catch her at something indisputable, right? Not just report some petty misbehavior. He certainly suspected she was up to something bigger. Or maybe that was it, maybe he judged she'd get caught, so he'd done what he could to stop her now.
As for Prill, maybe she'd spilled the beans to another servant while complaining about extra errands. Perhaps some idle gossip had reached Kivar's ears. Or maybe she'd reported to Kivar herself. She made a pretty good show of admiring him, but then again, how else would a servant speak of her king, especially to the woman who intended to marry him?
Anyway, her doubts didn't matter, and neither did Prill's potential motives. Actions did.
Liz had an idea about how to deal with both problems, but it made her heart pound low in her chest, and she didn't want to do it.
She had to do it.
She called Prill on the console, and requested breakfast. "Please bring it to my room. I'm not feeling well, and I have decided to spend the morning in bed."
A weak lie, but it only had to serve for a few minutes.
The handmaiden arrived in good time. Most of the servants lived in quarters near the kitchen, but even so, Prill must have known a shortcut.
Liz watched her arrange a tray next to the bed. Now or never.
"Princess, would you like -- "
Liz raised her hand and and stunned the young woman.
Prill slumped to the floor.
Liz lifted her easily, and arranged her on the bed. Then she pulled out a vial of sedative she'd pilfered from the lab. That took care of Prill for a few hours. With any luck, when Kivar sent someone to check into her whereabouts, the handmaiden would serve as an adequate decoy.
She wolfed down the breakfast and concealed her gown beneath the clothes she'd used to infiltrate the marketplace. Then she slipped out of her room to head for the tunnels. To get out of the palace, she'd use the one Kivar had entered all those years ago. Liz just hoped he hadn't placed a guard at its entrance.
A more civilized hour for breakfast grew near, and with it, the appointed meeting time. Liz hid behind one of the museum exhibits -- an antique clothing collection displayed on mannequins so lifelike they'd make Brody sick with envy. From there, she watched her invitees file into the conference room.
The Rath supporter Liz had already met -- Nilruc the toy sword appraiser -- arrived with a woman. Dremea came alone. Two men followed Traedon, lugging a heavy box labeled as building supplies. She doubted Tess appreciated her travel accommodations.
Historian Mascusda and her husband arrived, thereby signaling that they'd locked up the museum. Once they moved past, Liz stepped out from her hiding spot.
Crouching had wrinkled her gown, but that was easy to solve. She remembered the first time she'd seen Isabel fix her clothes with a wave of her hand. The jealousy she'd felt back then seemed ridiculous now. Isabel would have chosen a flashier gown. She added a shock of color as easily as she'd smoothed away the wrinkles. Better. Isabel would approve. "Thank you all for your brave attendance this morning," she began. "I look forward to a long and successful relationship with each of you."
"As you wish, Your Highness," Doctor Gafer said.
Those gathered murmured their assent.
Eight people sat around the conference table. Liz frowned as she realized Tess was missing. "Traedon, I thought your honored guest planned to join us."
"Perhaps if your guests care to reveal their identities?"
"Is this your request, or that of your guest?"
A thumping from inside the crate gave Liz the answer.
Liz reached out with her mind and unlocked the box with an audible click. "Would you care to join us, Queen Ava?"
The two Rath supporters gasped at her name.
One of the Inwallers stood obediently and lifted the lid from the box.
"Revenge, Liz?" Tess asked in English, rising from the box and brushing impatiently at her clothing.
"Welcome, Ava," Liz said, speaking Antarian. "We thought it best to prioritize your safety over your comfort." She gave Traedon a look. "To a point."
"No harm," Tess said, with a lack of sincerity that only Liz caught. The others missed her tone beneath her unfamiliar accent.
Liz inclined her head toward a seat near the head of the table. To her relief, Tess took it without further complaint.
"Now that I have returned from Earth," Liz said. "I am prepared to dedicate myself to improving the lives of everyone on this planet. The current situation presents certain obstacles to those goals."
"Skip the inspirational speech," one of the Rath supporters said. "If you mean to raise an army, it'll take more than pretty words. The people fear the consequences of dissension."
"Of course they do," Liz said. "Revolution is costly and dangerous. How many brave fools die for every guilty man slain? How many innocent lives get cut down in the crossfire?"
"Too many," Traedon said. "But history belongs to the brave, does it not. Princess Vilandra?"
"Too often history belongs only to the dead," Liz said. "The people of this planet deserve a prosperous future, not early graves."
"So we're meant to listen to Kivar's bride and fall into line?" Traedon rose. "Or did you call this meeting to flush out the bravest of the opposition?"
"I have no intention of marrying Kivar," Liz said. "Nor do I intend to leave him on my brother's throne."
"Her brother's throne," Nilruc's companion stage-whispered with a sneer. "Why did you think her any more honorable now?"
"The invitation alone gave me hope."
"Vilandra never loved Rath. She supported Zan's every move, and he let this planet fall to Kivar despite Rath's warnings."
"Rath's warnings?" Dremea scoffed. "How could Zan sort anything of value from among Rath's paranoid fantasies?"
"If Zan had listened -- "
"Enough!" Liz leaned forward over the table and met each of their gazes. "Rath may have an impulsive streak, and Zan may sometimes be slow to act, but together they make a good team. They balance each other out. I had hoped their supporters could do the same."
"Perhaps they did, before you got them killed!"
"That's not quite what happened."
"Not quite what happened?"
"I regret that night." Liz clawed through Vilandra's fragmented memories of that night. She needed a version of the truth that could appease her audience. "I fell for Kivar's lies, that much is true, but I never thought he'd turn to violence."
"Begging your pardon, Princess, but what did you think he intended to do with an armed battalion?"
"I didn't know," Liz said. "I didn't see the weapons in time. We were just -- he wanted to talk. He tricked me, used me -- "
"Your story lacks detail, Princess Vilandra," Nilruc's companion said. "How did this seduction come to such violent end without blood staining both your hands?"
"Kivar is a manipulative liar. I failed to recognize his deceit in time."
"And yet you stand by his side again!" Traedon shouted.
"Liz! Lookout!" Tess shouted at the same time.
Liz flung up a force shield and used it to engulf the energy weapon concealed beneath the table. She drained it of power, and flung it across the room.
Traedon spun around to the Inwaller who had held it. "You said you had that fixed!"
"Sit down!" Liz used her power to compel Traedon into his seat. "I will overlook this transgression, for now, but you will hear me out!"
"Hear you out? You've done nothing to earn our trust, or to serve Antar!"
"We have nothing more to lose now, Traedon." Dremea placed her hands on the table and turned her attention to Liz. "Apologies, Princess Vilandra. We meant you no true harm. Traedon thought you might serve as hostage, to bait a trap for Kivar. If you truly want to remove him from the throne . . . "
Traedon sputtered with rage as he attempted to silence Dremea.
"I do," Liz said, ignoring Traedon. "But I don't need to serve as hostage to bait a trap for Kivar. My plan was a little more straightforward."
"Oh, Kivar's bride has a plan? Why should we trust a word you say, when you share his bed?"
"You should believe her," Tess interrupted. "You should all believe her, because she's not Kivar's bride, past or present. She's Zan's!"
Isabel watched Michael and Maria gather up every pillow and blanket in Michael's apartment. Together, they built a barrier of sorts. If this went like the last time, with Brody, Isabel wanted some cushion against the backlash of power.
"Don't worry," Michael said. "We can always just catch you."
It didn't make her feel much better.
She sat on the floor beside the couch, and took Liz's hand. Eye contact might have helped, but that only worked on conscious people. She closed her own eyes as well. "Okay," she said to the others. "Here goes nothing."
She concentrated on Liz, and on reaching beyond her physical body. Darkness filled her mind, a deep darkness that went beyond closing her eyes. A shudder ran through her, and she opened her eyes. The darkness remained.
Liz Parker, she thought with as much volume as she could muster, where are you?"
She saw a flicker of light, far down a long tunnel of blackness. Liz, trapped behind a wall of sorts. A large stone stood between them, and it seemed to Isabel that the stone served as a barrier. It gleamed with a warm light, subtle color changes swirling around it.
"Liz!" Isabel tried to shout. Her voice seemed to fall into the stone, as if it drew in her energy. She tried to push her words past it. "Liz! You need to come home!"
If Liz heard, she gave no indication. She gestured at someone out of Isabel's view, and a blast of power erupted from her hands.
"Liz!" Isabel shouted again. "Tell me what's happening!"
The stone flared, almost as if growing in size. Isabel felt it push against her. She dug in, and fought back. A blank force surged up and broke against her, like a wave. She stumbled, and leaned into it. Another flare of power slammed her backwards, and she found herself back in Michael's apartment, flat on her back on the floor.
"Did you see her?" Max and Maria both asked at once.
"I think so," Isabel said. "I think she's in trouble."
"What kind of trouble?" Maria demanded.
Max had his hand on Liz. "I don't sense any change. What did you sense?"
"There's a barrier," Isabel tried to explain. "I think it kept her from seeing me. Before I got pushed out, it seemed like she used her powers."
"So she's awake?"
"I think so. Trying to reach her was like swimming against the tide." Isabel raised a hand to wipe the sweat from her flushed face. She plucked a stray candy wrapper from her hair. "God, Michael, when's the last time you vacuumed?"
"Not the insight I'd hoped you might share, Tess." Liz spoke English, although it hardly mattered. The chaos drowned out her words.
"They never would agree to trust Vilandra," Tess said. "She's either a betrayer or a fool, in their eyes, and besides, some of them sensed you had a secret."
"Okay." She watched her potential government shout over the top of each other. "Got anything to fix this?"
"Help me," Liz said to the only people whose attention she could catch -- Gafer and Mascusda.
Historian Mascusda stood and called for attention until she finally had it.
"Vilandra is not what you think," Liz told them all. "She's kind and generous and loyal . . . and she's also not me. I'm not Vilandra. It's true. Kivar made a mistake, and transported the wrong soul. My name is Liz Parker, of Earth, and your rightful king is my . . . betrothed." A little stretched truth seemed wise. "I want nothing more than to serve his people, and free them from Kivar's rule."
"The people of Antar are no longer Zan's people," Nilruc said. "Zan failed us. Rath deserves his chance on the throne."
Liz wondered what these people would think about Michael's brief time as king, the morning she'd left Earth. "Rath deserves his voice in this government. So do his followers."
"So if we help you, will Zan cede the throne to Rath?"
"No," Liz said. "That's too simple."
"The throne is Zan's," Liz said. "The government belongs to everyone on this planet."
"Democracy, Liz?" Tess looked amused.
"Yes," Liz said. "Antar deserves democracy. All the people should have their voices heard."
"Good luck with that," Tess said, in English.
"Stop that," Liz said, speaking Antarian. "Doubt my ideas if you like, but do it in a language everyone here understands. Otherwise, you undermine any chance we have at building a relationship based on trust."
"I don't trust you not to kill me where I stand," Traedon said. "Why should I give my life following you into treason?"
"I do not ask for your life," Liz said.
"A coup always costs lives."
"As I already explained," Liz said. "A violent uprising is not the answer to this planet's problems."
"Kivar must be ousted!"
"Kivar is my problem," Liz said. "I will not ask anyone else to share that risk."
"How do you expect to take on such a problem alone, Liz Parker of Earth?"
"Kivar believes me to be his beloved Princess Vilandra," Liz said. "It is a weakness I plan to exploit."
"Kivar murdered Princess Vilandra," Traedon argued. "Surely he's neither in love nor fool enough to trust her intentions now?"
"Kivar believes Princess Vilandra has been mindwiped," Doctor Gafer said. "Princess Liz has delivered such a performance even I nearly believed, and I'm the one meant to have done it."
Tess whipped her head around to Doctor Gafer. "Why would Kivar believe you could accomplish such a thing?"
"I have royal blood, Queen Ava."
"You're . . . "
"Yes," Doctor Gafer said. "My mother was Handmaiden Seil."
"So your father?"
"Is as you guess, sister."
The two lost siblings stared across the table for a long minute. Tess reached out and touched her brother's hand.
"Well this is all very touching," Nilruc's companion said. "But might I remind everyone that we risk our lives to sit here?"
"True," Liz said. "I took precautions, but Kivar will notice my absence eventually, and he knows about the museum's upcoming gala."
Historian Mascusda leaned forward. "Tell us what you need, Queen Liz."
"I'm not -- "
Tess shook her head. "You are."
"Tess," she hissed, speaking English. "I can't ask -- "
"Long live Queen Elizabeth," Tess said in Antarian, the edge of humor in her voice hidden from the others by her accent. "First of her Name."
"Let's just stick with Liz," she said quietly. She turned to the rest of the group. "Now what I need from everyone here is a working government. I will not have this planet fall into chaos."
"Do you not intend to restore the throne to Zan?"
"Zan remains on Earth," Liz said. "I must return to him. In our absence, I plan to install a council of advisors. They will make the decisions necessary for the good of the planet."
"How will such a council anticipate your wishes?" Dremea asked.
"It is not my wishes, or Zan's, you need to anticipate," Liz said. "You will need to base your decisions on the will of the people, and serve their needs."
The look in Dremea's eyes told Liz she had just passed a test of sorts. "My life is yours, Queen Liz."
"Your life is your own, Dremea, but thank you for the vote of confidence." Liz looked around at the rest of the group. "In addition to the people gathered here, I have assembled a list of those who might prove suitable for government positions. Most are commoners. I believe they all understand the consequences of failure."
Liz pulled out her list. It included next of kin for each victim of the coup. In this small way, each of the thirty-eight names so heavy on Liz's heart would have some measure of justice. She'd also added the name of the second captain. She wondered what he'd think when he learned of his newfound rank. If indeed she succeeded.
"Who do you name Imperial Chancellor?" Traedon asked.
"Historian Mascusda," Liz said without hesitation. "Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it. Hopefully the opposite proves equally true."
The poor woman grabbed the table, her large eyes wide with shock. "Your Highness, I -- "
Whatever objection she planned cut off abruptly as an explosion echoed through the building.
"It's Kivar," Liz said. "He must have discovered the decoy I left."
"He's on to us!" Traedon said. "This has all been for nothing!"
"No," Liz said. "He just thinks I disobeyed his absurd demands. He ordered me to rest for the Night of Three Moons. We can still make this work."
"How? We'll be dead in five minutes."
"Trust me," Liz said. "Follow my orders."
"As you wish, Your Highness," Historian Mascusda said.
"Traedon, Mascusda, and you two," she waved at the Inwallers who had carried Tess. "You're with me. I have an idea. Ava, back in the box. Doctor Gafer, get her to safety. Nilruc, you two help him. And Dremea, go ahead of them, to check on the baby. If anyone's forced to flee, I'll find you tomorrow, in the clothing store near the marketplace."
"Go out through the archives," Historian Mascusda said to her husband. "Even if he sent a full battalion, they won't catch you there."
"I doubt he sent many at all," Liz said with as much confidence as she could manage. "It's a domestic squabble, not a revolution."
"No one needs to get caught," Doctor Gafer suggested. "We have resources to get off planet, we can even get you and Ava back to Earth."
Liz pointed to the deadly device on his arm. "Impossible. If I run now, the plan is dead. Now go."
Doctor Gafer followed the others out.
"Traedon," Liz said. "Your weapons?"
While Doctor Gafer's party hustled out the door, Liz took the energy weapons from Traedon and restored their charge. "You've taken us hostage," Liz told him as she handed them back. "You demand freedom for . . . "
"Freedom for Wonsfiech," he agreed. "I knew I'd end up sacrificing my life for your cause. Just promise me Kivar will die."
"Kivar is the only one who will die," Liz said. "I won't let harm come to any of you. Or much harm, anyway."
"My life is yours, Queen Liz of Earth." Traedon shot her a look, and Liz almost laughed. Who knew her mediocre gallows humor would prove the key to Traedon's respect.