Too early, Liz Parker told her sleep-addled brain. No thinking. Sleep. Ignore noise. Go back to sleep.
The intrusive sound sloshed against the inside of her skull with a repetitive wet thud. Her head felt heavy. And what did she smell? Bleach . . . and something sickly-sweet . . . maybe strawberries past their prime. Someone must have done a shoddy job cleaning the milkshake machine.
Her mind seized the explanation and grappled for a hold on continued unconsciousness. The machine's agitator needed proper rinsing after every use. Otherwise, slimy little bits slithered into all the wrong places. Given that the motor overheated with increasing frequency, she'd come to regard berry bits as her personal nemesis.
Maybe her father should just give up and replace the stupid thing. At this point, its long and faithful service demanded death with dignity. How could she hear it from bed, though? The errant data point threatened her fragile dozing. Had he brought it upstairs? Better to accept the inevitable than drag it out of the restaurant to take it apart. Still, she didn't hear him muttering cheesy fake curse words at it, at least not yet. Some hope remained.
If he tried to replace the agitator without a second pair of hands, he'd bend the stabilizing arm. She suspected he'd appreciate her help, but her head felt too muzzy. She refused to wake up before her alarm sounded. She tried to roll over, to better ignore the smell of cleaning products and overripe fruit. Her muscles screamed their protest.
The fight with Kivar swam in her head. Hadn't Max healed her bruises? She rubbed her eyes, and jolted awake as a strange rubbery thing fell into her face.
She swatted at the thing, but it flailed right back at her. She jerked upright, all but toppled over, and almost missed that her mysterious attacker disappeared. The room swayed like a carnival ride, which she could have dealt with, more or less, if not for the bigger problem. Instead of her bedroom above the Crashdown, she found herself in some sort of lab, surrounded by gleaming metal equipment.
She didn't remember getting captured by the FBI. She didn't remember anything after the fight at all, and -- they'd drugged her! Blurry vision, headache, the muzzy feeling -- her hand flew to the IV line in her arm the moment she spotted it. She squashed the instinct to yank it out in blind panic. Calm, she ordered herself. She closed her eyes and took a breath. Then she gingerly peeled the tape away from her skin.
Her gray skin.
Gray, wrinkled skin on her long, skinny arm.
With long, skinny fingers.
And not quite five to a hand.
Oh no. No, no, no.
She tried to rub her eyes in disbelief, only to suffer a second attack of strange rubbery thing to the face, thanks to the unsettling sensation of rubbing those disbelieving eyes with long alien fingers.
Her heart hammered in a strange rhythm that felt all wrong in her chest. She stared at her hands. Ava's voice echoed in her memory. Max healed you and now you're different. With effort, she forced her attention to the rest of her unfamiliar body. Her head felt huge. She'd mutated, finished the changes she'd started before Vermont. Dammit, why did she think she could just go ahead and use her alien powers? She couldn't hide this. And now they'd caught her.
But they who? Medichem had burned to the ground. The Skins were dead. And Nasedo had put an end to the Special Unit -- her initial suspect -- over a year ago. Were they back, or was this some strange new enemy? Regardless, Max and the others were in danger as well. Maybe they were even here. She hoped not, but she couldn't just sit and wait, she had to check.
Liz clambered down off of the metal table on unfamiliar legs. She needed clues. Or an escape route. Both, actually. This scenario clashed harshly with the way she had envisioned spending her life in a lab -- twelve hours a day as an overachieving bio major at Harvard or Northwestern or Cornell, yes, but as a captive specimen in the clutches of rogue government agents, not so much.
Gleaming tools covered the counter. Several sharp-looking knives hung on the wall above it. She banished all thoughts of alien autopsies and focused on the positive. Potential weapons strewn about meant they didn't expect her to wake up yet, so she had some time. The other non-bed -- she struggled against labeling it an autopsy table -- stood empty. Another positive -- she hoped it meant that they'd captured her alone, and her friends were safe.
She lurched toward the sloshing noise that sounded so much like a broken milkshake machine, steadying herself against the warm stone wall. She caught a glimpse of crimson sky through a high, round window. Evening, then, but of the same day? No, she thought, rejecting such a hasty assumption. She couldn't tell sunset from sunrise at this angle. She shoved a metal lab cart up against the wall, tested it for sturdiness, and climbed up to look out the window.
Everything looked red. Everything. From the burnt orange sky to the scattering of chestnut pebbles on the beach, everything blended into an artificial uniformity. Even the water shimmered in a shocking crimson red. She stared at the shoreline. A blood-red ocean? Maybe her mutated eyes had more rods, or fewer cones. Maybe aliens suffered from colorblindness. No, of course not. She scolded herself for the sloppy theory. She could see plenty of white and green, not to mention gray, inside the room. A tinted window, then, but how did the water move that way?
Liz reached up with one finger to tap on the glass, but froze mid-action at a distant metallic clink. She yanked her eyes away from the jerky, unnatural motion of the waves, and listened harder.
Footsteps. Someone was coming.
In her hurry, she crashed painfully to her knees and sent the lab cart careening into a table. The gauzy medical gown she wore tangled and ripped. Some kind of noxious-smelling liquid splashed across the floor. With some help from the wall, Liz scrambled to her feet and rushed along the edge of the room, desperate for a hiding place. If they weren't headed her way before, she'd definitely attract attention with that racket.
A tapestry hung on the far wall, and she hurried to hide behind it. She grabbed the trailing hem of her torn gown, and kept the other hand on the wall, lest she trip again on these unfamiliar legs. Behind the wall hanging, the stone felt different in one spot. When she paused, it behaved strangely as well, tugging at her hand with some phantom force. She waved her hand over the surface, then fell gratefully into the tunnel that opened before her.
Any doubts as to her whereabouts ended. The wall closed off behind her like seawater -- normal seawater anyway -- pouring into a hole in the sand.
The knowledge calmed some of her fears before it had a chance to kick off a multitude of new ones. She leaned back against the smooth stone, and waited for her eyes to adjust to the sudden darkness. At least her body hadn't mutated. Good news, provided she ever saw it again. She fought to contain manic laughter at the biological impossibility of her first assumption. This wasn't her body at all.
Absurdly, she thought about the interview she had scheduled with Northwestern University's recruiter. The appointment seemed impossible to keep now. The high school guidance office was one heck of a commute from the Whirlwind Galaxy.
That's where she was, she knew now -- trapped in a cloned alien body meant for Isabel Evans, on the planet Antar. It must have happened during the fight. When she shoved Kivar into the transportation portal, she must have gotten caught up by it as well.
Noises filtered through the rock wall -- high pitched shouts in a language she didn't speak, and the crash of metal against stone.
Kivar was hunting for her.
Dremea arranged the queen's meal on the platter. She marveled again at the idea of eating such things. This queen was a puzzling creature in more ways than one. Her alien appearance and dietary choices paled beside the true mystery: her political ambitions. Seating Queen Ava on the throne of Antar might stop the wars, but Dremea knew the risks behind that plan. Even if they could pull it off, many feared the queen would break her promises.
Those who opposed the planned alliance said Queen Ava had already betrayed King Zan. Why should his people trust her now? But Kivar wanted her dead, and that gave the Inwallers reason enough to protect her. Besides, her strange young son was the rightful prince. If they established a regency in his name, they could get Ava to support Traedon as Imperial Chancellor. Then the people would finally have their voices heard. Things would improve.
What other choice remained to them? King Zan's return might never come.
Before opening the door to the queen's room, Dremea signaled her intention with a gentle glow, for the sake of respect. Courtesy mattered, even if the other party might stab you in the back at next mooncross.
"Come in," Queen Ava called, her accent thick and her voice pitched strangely high for a woman. She always said it, even though people would enter whether she did or not. She played her role in the courtesy, and never tried to refuse them as some other guests had in the past. Like that old palace guard before his unfortunate death.
"I've brought your evening meal, Your Highness." Dremea set the platter on the table.
"Thank you." Queen Ava's mouth still seemed far too large, although Dremea had seen it many times. The Inwallers had studied the old reports from the planet called Earth for years. They'd included images of Earth people's facial expressions. Queen Ava unsettled her all the same. Earthlings had such wide mouths. Ava's long rows of bright white teeth brought to mind the fearsome predators that lurked beyond the desert.
Dremea looked away from the queen and instead focused on the baby in the cradle beside her. The prince had yet to grow the teeth that made his mother look so threatening, but he shared her coloring. Earth people had ocean-red blood, which was visible through the baby's thin, pale skin. It gave him a pinkish hue. Young Zan was plumper than Antarian babies, but grew at a slower rate. His short, stubby legs still could not carry his weight. She hoped he'd outgrow that weakness.
"Has Kivar returned to his body yet?" The queen picked up a foodstick and began her customary slow examination of her meal.
Officially, Queen Ava wasn't supposed to know Kivar had left his body in the first place. Then again, neither was anyone else on Antar, herself included. Secrets were fickle things in these trying times. Dremea answered with the truth. "We don't believe so. The palace ordered floaters for the Night of Three Moons, but Kivar's second delayed the invitations."
"There are plenty of reasons to delay party announcements," the queen said. "Maybe Kivar wants to avoid hosting offworld guests. Specific slights would draw ire, of course. Late invitations en masse are different. The strategic execution of some unfortunate party planner would soothe any hurt feelings."
"True." The theory made perfect sense. Dremea wondered if anyone else had considered the implications.
The Inwallers lacked the strength to challenge Kivar alone. Support from one of the other worlds could change everything. Kivar's regime spouted generic xenophobia to the masses as a matter of course. But if this dose of paranoia sprang from actual fact, the details could prove useful. Maybe they should question a few key contacts. Dremea decided to bring the matter up with Traedon.
"I'd like to see the final guest list," Queen Ava said. "It should prove revealing."
Dremea agreed, both with the thought and the request, although she'd need to get permission to share intelligence. She wondered just how much Queen Ava knew about the political situation, in light of her long absence. Her shrewdness bore watching.
Liz crouched in the dark tunnel, one hand pressed against the smooth stone wall, and listened. Her borrowed muscles ached from the jarring end to a history of disuse. She doubted the clone had ever stood on its own two legs before. The panic-driven blind sprint through the narrow, twisting passages of this labyrinth had taken its toll. The resulting collisions with its unforgiving stone walls had left their mark as well. As far as narrow, twisting passages went, she liked this particular one the best. At least its dime-sized hole in the wall let in some light.
When she peered through it, she got a distorted birds-eye view of a large room full of curved tables. The translucent object wedged into the hole resembled a prism, not a proper window, and the play of light strained her eyes. She'd found it hard to focus at first, but she found comfort in the angle of the view. Whomever had installed her peephole had set it well above the eye level of anyone on the other side.
Two aliens engaged in an urgent conversation below her. The language was foreign to her ears, but their aggressive postures looked argumentative. Or so she guessed. Maybe aliens just lacked a sense of personal space. Kyle had said that about Tess often enough.
Rule one, she reminded herself, assume nothing. Letting her Earth-based cultural biases cloud her observations could lead to mistakes. The situation was bad enough without getting captured and tossed in some alien dungeon. She'd faced life or death situations before. She liked to think she'd even gotten pretty good at handling them, but getting stranded on an alien planet reached a whole new level of risk.
She'd told herself to remain calm so many times today that all meaning had faded from the concept. She measured every movement, every breath, worried some small noise would draw their attention. Her luck held, and neither alien so much as glanced in her direction.
So far, she hadn't seen anyone within the tunnels themselves.
Logic said she'd circled back on her own tracks more than once by now. Plus, they vastly outnumbered her. Either Kivar's forces couldn't get into the tunnels, or they didn't know she could. Lucky either way. Maybe she'd hit a real jackpot, and they didn't even know the tunnels existed. She scolded herself for such wishful thinking.
She needed a plan. A real plan. But to form one, she needed more information than none. At least she knew how she'd ended up here. During the fight in the desert, the transportation portal had mistaken her for Isabel. She should have figured it out when she remembered the fight, yet nothing after it.
Maybe she could cut herself a little slack, considering she'd woken up on the wrong planet. Not to mention drugged. That sort of thing would confuse anyone.
With enough time, she could figure out the equipment in the lab. She could send herself home. The first obstacle was to figure out how to keep everyone else out of the lab long enough. On a world where she didn't even know how the doors worked, that might prove difficult. Then again, she'd managed to open the doorway to these tunnels.
Liz tried to remember how she'd done it. It had felt like the wall had drawn her hand to the right spot, but if it was that simple, they should have caught her almost immediately. Something had let her in, but not the others. Had she stumbled upon the secret combination purely by accident? Had she used alien powers without even realizing it? No, of course not, she realized. It wasn't anything she did at all.
Just like the pod chamber back on Earth only opened for aliens -- and now that she thought about it, likely only for specific aliens -- it seemed likely that the tunnels only opened for the royal family. They were the original occupants of this palace. Since she currently occupied Isabel's clone, she had the right DNA.
At least she had one advantage. She just had to find a way to put it to use. If only she could speak the language, she could march out there, claim Isabel's royal title, and start ordering people around. After all, Kivar had wanted Isabel as his queen badly enough to visit Earth twice now to steal her away. One would assume he planned to actually make her queen, even if in name only, and not just toss her in a dungeon. Any dungeon-tossing plans would have prioritized Max as a target. And also involved a lot more violence and rather less ham-fisted seduction.
Maybe Liz could learn the language. Or pretend to have amnesia. Not that she could communicate the amnesia story without knowing the language. Damn it. If only real life was a little more like Star Trek -- if everyone spoke English, this would be a heck of a lot easier.
One of the possibly arguing aliens crossed the room and pulled aside a hanging tapestry. Liz tensed. If he knew of an entrance to the tunnels -- but no, he turned on a rectangular screen with rounded corners, about the size of a serving tray. A computer, maybe, or a communication device. She wished she had a better view -- she'd take any clue she could get about how to work the technology here. For that matter, she'd settle for knowing what her current body ate.
The screen showed a series of images, some in bright colors, and others in a muted gray. When Liz recognized the lab where she'd woken up, her stomach -- or some internal organ, anyway -- sank. The building had security cameras. She forced herself not to run, and watched for an image from the tunnels. When none appeared, not even a fuzzy view of darkness that might be a tunnel, she relaxed just the slightest bit. That proved one hypothesis -- if they knew about the tunnels, they'd have cameras in them.
She tried to make sense out of the other images. Unfortunately, she could neither identify any particular alien -- clues she would have taken for granted on Earth, like clothing, meant nothing to her here -- nor deduce much about the rooms themselves. She'd landed in a whole new civilization, with different technologies and concepts of design. She couldn't even tell a bedroom from a kitchen unless she happened to spot someone cooking in it. Provided she even recognized food. The entire situation gave new meaning to the term culture shock.
One of the aliens pointed to the screen and said something. Liz strained to hear, only to gain another reminder of the language barrier. Could aliens cry? She felt like putting that question to the test. They could feel dizzy and shaky, or at least she did. She discovered they couldn't bite their lips, and forced herself to take a calming breath.
She knew one thing anyway. Aliens breathed with something resembling lungs. As in humans, breathing was an autonomic function that nonetheless could be consciously controlled. And bipedalism, that was another point in her favor. She already knew how to operate a pair of legs for locomotion. Sight, hearing, a sense of touch. Opposable thumbs . . . she looked down at the cloned hands . Okay, not quite as adept at swinging from the trees as those she'd inherited from her own simian ancestors. But still, close enough. The same features that made Antarians choose Earth years ago worked to her advantage now.
The biology worked, so it wasn't all bad. She could learn all the cultural stuff, or at least enough of it for her purposes. She wasn't planning to settle here and raise crops, she just needed some lab time --that was her ticket home. Liz had plenty of practice sneaking into places. Back in Roswell, she'd just learn the lab's schedule, then make her move during a lunch break, or in the wee hours of the night. Here, she couldn't even read the clocks to establish a schedule, and for all she knew, it was night now. Hidden tunnels weren't big on windows.
Another calming breath. She needed to stop looking at the big picture, and take this situation one step at a time. First, learn something of the technology, since they were kind enough to use it in her line of sight. That way, when she got back to the lab, she could make the most of it. She focused on the viewscreen, and tried to work out how they controlled it. It didn't seem to involve telepathy, so that was a plus.
She'd worried about operating the telepathic controls on the transportation device. Evidence that telepathic control wasn't the default for the technology here gave her hope. With luck, she'd find a manual override.
Fortunately, various aliens -- she had to stop thinking that way, technically Liz was the only alien here -- various people had reason to use the viewscreen as Liz watched. Besides security camera feeds, it also provided access to written information. Sometimes it displayed screens of text in the language Liz recognized from the alien book. If only she'd learned to read it. They had Alex's translation, after all, she could have made the effort.
Too late now. Her priorities had made sense at the time, and regret was useless. Besides, she had studied all the science she could, especially the physics that might relate to interstellar travel. She knew a little about alien technology. She'd make that count for something. All she had to do was learn to run that computer. She settled in for the most important computer science class of her life.
Hours later, she'd learned three things. She knew which dial on the wall turned the computer screen on, and which direction to turn it. She had a pretty good idea of how to use the touchscreen to switch between security camera images. A swish, not a tap. Most importantly, she knew how to mute the loud noise that accompanied some the device's functions, particularly the scrolling text that she guessed was a news feed.
The flow of aliens -- people -- in and out of the room she watched seemed to have slowed. When someone turned off the computer and let the tapestry cover it, Liz decided to find her way back to the lab. If she found it empty, she could test her working hypothesis, and proceed from there. Just as she turned away, the light from her peephole flickered and brightened. She returned her attention to spying.
Kivar strode into the room, and Liz realized with a start that she knew this was Kivar. Strange, since she'd never seen him in person. His possession of two different humans -- first Denny Ridgeley and later Kyle Valenti -- didn't count. She studied the face she hadn't laid eyes on before this moment, and wondered why it looked familiar. He did walk like he owned the room, and the other people in it seemed to agree. Maybe she could blame her subconscious for the observation. But it felt like more. It felt like she knew him.
Isabel knew him. The clone had memories, Liz realized. Before she finished pondering her right to rifle through them, she remembered that Kivar knew about the tunnels. Or at least one particular tunnel.
Liz ran. She knew exactly where Kivar would look for Isabel -- or rather Vilandra -- first. She also knew where that tunnel would lead him when he failed to find her. She needed to get to the lab and transport herself home before that happened. Once she'd lost her hiding place, she'd be lucky to ever leave the palace again, let alone the planet.
She remembered the horror of the palace coup. The terror of watching people she'd known her whole life die.
The stoic old captain of the guard, patient victim of so many childhood pranks, had fallen first. The shock on his face that night played again in her mind's eye, forcing Liz to battle back a powerful wave of nausea. Not my memory, she told herself, but her words were hollow.
She could see Zan -- Max -- slumped brokenly in the doorway of his bedchamber. She could smell his thick black blood pooling on the floor. She could hear the last labored gasps from Ava, on the floor behind him, clutching her own gory wound as her life poured out between her fingers.
Part of the household had been away. The Queen Dowager had taken a delegation on trade negotiations only hours before. Lucky, in that they'd escaped the carnage. Unlucky, in that a full battalion might have stopped it.
Vilandra's memories flooded over her. The crushing shock of Kivar's betrayal slammed into her like a tidal wave. When it retreated, it left frothy guilt in its wake. The pain of a discarded lover who should have seen it coming. Who should have chosen more wisely.
But Liz could swim against the tide of those emotions. She was not Vilandra, and she had never loved Kivar. She'd known him only as the villain of the piece. It was the image of King Zan -- her beloved Max -- hunted down in his own home, that made Liz burn with rage. Her shaking hand made it hard to find the door seal.
The door melted open. She stumbled into the room, stunned the only occupant with a wave of her royal hand, and turned on one of the lab computers. Text filled the large screen. She'd skimmed half the menu with panicked impatience before she caught herself reading the so recently incomprehensible Antarian script. Thank you Vilandra. A few swishes, and she knew exactly how to go home.
Whoever had designed the program and equipment had done so with Kivar in mind. Even a man of such limited scientific knowledge could run the hands-free telepathic interface. She just hoped she had the incubation pods straight -- she wanted to wake up in her own body, not Kyle's.
Once she examined them, she realized she needn't have worried. With the doors open, even her untrained eye could see the differences between the two gleaming metal chambers. Kivar's had an artificial curtain of sorts, and only a rudimentary organic pod. Her own had a thicker membrane, with an abundance of blood vessels. Unlike the one created only for the transporter, it had nurtured the clone during its years of growth.
For Liz's purposes, she could skip the long process of reconnecting the life support functions. If the clone survived, it would only make it that much easier for Kivar to continue pursuing Isabel. Perhaps losing it would force him to give up. Not that she wanted to kill it, but she wouldn't delay her own escape with any extra effort to protect it. Without that concern, she only needed to step inside the chamber, once she set up the control unit.
First, though, she needed to secure the room. If she got interrupted during the transfer process, she feared she wouldn't survive. The lab's main door opened by sliding, so she rejected her Earth-based instinct to pile lab equipment in front of it as useless. Could she melt it closed?
Finding out became imperative, because judging from the banging and clanking sounds in the hallway, she had company.
She held her hand against the wall, but paused -- an experimental blast seemed just as likely to melt the door open. Bad plan, and she had run out of time. To hide her intentions, Liz flipped the computer screen to another application. She raised her hand, prepared to blast anyone who came through that door. The image of Zan's body rose again in her mind, and she half-hoped Kivar himself led the way.
The door glowed. She started to back away, but then Vilandra's memory translated this to Liz as the Antarian version of a polite knock. She was starting to get the hang of having two sets of memories. Polite knocking as a prelude to recapturing a prisoner didn't reconcile with either one.
"I'm not properly dressed," she said, speaking Antarian in a low-pitched voice, rusty from disuse. An old trick on either planet, but she hoped it would do.
"I have some gowns for you, Princess Vilandra, as well as your jewels. I'm to be your new handmaiden. Will you allow me to enter?"
She sorted through Vilandra's memories, and took a gamble. "I will require my betrothal gown. My reunion with my beloved Kivar demands ceremony." She paused, and heard the servant's unconvinced silence through the door. "Nothing less will do."
"But Princess, I've brought up a rack full of new -- "
"I want the betrothal gown. Was it not preserved for me?"
"Of course, all your gowns are in the vaults, but -- "
"Do as I say," Liz snapped. A memory -- her own this time -- of a certain diamond heist played in her head. She flung the same attitude she'd used that day at the unfortunate servant. "I will not have my orders questioned by a handmaiden. Go now, and see that I am not disturbed before you return. I will not be seen in this appalling rag."
"As you wish, Princess."
Liz sighed with relief -- figuratively, anyway. In her current body, her 'whew' sounded more like a soft whistle, and meant something else entirely. Good thing nobody heard her. Relief, on the other hand, felt the same on any planet. She hoped it would take the poor bullied handmaiden a while to hunt down a fifty year old dress in the bowels of the old castle. By the time she did, Liz would be safely back on Earth, in her own body. She turned to the computer to begin the process, and froze.
The image of a baby, a human baby, filled the screen. The headline dubbed him 'Ava's Abomination' and Kivar had put a price on the child's head. Killed or captured, he'd buy someone a life of leisure. Not to mention priceless favor with the throne. Every opportunist on the planet would jump at that bait.
Her hand hovered over the keyboard. She longed for her comfortable bed above the Crashdown. Her future depended upon her interview with Northwestern. College, the people she loved, Maria, Max . . . her whole life stretching before her . . . all just a few keystrokes away. The handmaiden could return at any time. So could Kivar's forces.
Or even Kivar himself.
Liz closed her eyes, a shudder running through her at a sound from the hallway. She swallowed her fear and tried to think. Do the practical thing, she told herself, what other choice did she have? Her hand twitched on the keyboard.
"She's still unconscious?" Maria rushed through the door of Michael's apartment and made a beeline for the couch. "How is she still unconscious?"
Max shrugged, barely sparing Maria a glance. "I thought she'd wake up by now."
"Well she looks pale," Maria snapped. "Are you keeping her warm enough? Why haven't you healed her?"
"I tried," Max said. "Nothing happened."
"What do you mean nothing happened?"
"I couldn't find anything to fix. Her pulse is steady, nothing's broken, and she doesn't feel sick. She just won't wake up."
"Are you sure your powers are working?"
"I healed her bruises," he said. "And Michael's. I'll get to test them again when Kyle gets here."
Maria fussed with Liz's blanket and felt her forehead. "Maybe we should take her to a doctor."
"Too risky. And what would they do anyway, if her powers caused this?"
"Is that what you think?"
"It's the first time she used them the way she did this morning. I think she overloaded her abilities."
"We have to do something. We can't just -- " Maria waved an arm at Liz. "We can't just sit here."
"I'm game for anything that doesn't end with Liz strapped to a table in a secret government lab."
"What about that guy Jesse called for Isabel when you . . . " Maria let her words trail off. Max's recent death remained a sore subject with him, despite its temporary nature.
Max sighed. "I don't know how to reach him, although Isabel might when she gets back. I'm not even sure he could do anything more than we have. It's not as if he can restore her secret alien powers."
"Has anything like this ever happened to you?"
"Last Christmas," Max said. "After Michael dragged me out of that hospital, I passed out. I woke up the next morning, groggy and with a headache, but none the worse in the long run. I think Liz will recover too, if we give her time, so let's not panic yet. It would do more harm than good at this point."
"That makes sense," Maria admitted. She hated seeing her best friend this way, but she'd hate seeing her locked up in an FBI laboratory even more. "But at least get her another blanket, she's freezing."
Liz felt her hand twitch on the keyboard. With a sigh, she drew it back and turned to close the pod. She had no choice.
Earth could wait. Max's son could not.
Liz spent the valuable time she'd planned to use for her escape doing pretty much the opposite.
First, she dealt with the unconscious Antarian. For Kyle's sake , she rejected the idea of shoving the man into Kivar's pod. She stashed him underneath one of the not-an-autopsy-table tables instead. That accomplished, she scrolled through old news reports on the lab console. Maybe she could find a clue as to the whereabouts of Tess and the baby. She also needed more local knowledge to continue playing Vilandra.
The more she read, the more she remembered about Vilandra's life. Any moral reservations she held regarding the privacy of the dead princess got shoved aside. Vilandra was essentially Isabel, and as much as Isabel valued her privacy, Liz had to believe she would prioritize her nephew's safety.
The door glowed.
Liz shut down the computer. "My gown?"
"As you requested, Princess."
"Then please enter."
She allowed the handmaiden -- whose name she learned was Prill -- to help her dress. It was expected, and her nerves made the elaborate clasps impossible to work anyway. More detailed memories of the garment, with all its complicated history, returned in spurts.
She remembered arguing with her mother, or rather, Vilandra's mother, about the flashy style. Once the dress hung safely in her wardrobe, she had capitulated, and agreed to save it for another event. Instead, she agreed to wear her mother's choice of gown to her dreaded betrothment party. Rath didn't deserve this dress, Vilandra had thought at the time. She'd meant it for Kivar's eyes when she chose it.
Liz dragged her mind back to the present. She played the role of a lovesick and spoiled princess. Despite that role's inconsistency with Vilandra's memories, it fit the situation. A continuous string of questions about her suitor seemed the best way to expand her knowledge without raising suspicion. "Has Kivar courted anyone during my absence?"
"He's completely loyal to you," Handmaiden Prill said. "At official functions, he always keeps an empty seat beside him in your honor. Some people say it's only for show, an excuse to avoid making a tie to any particular noble family. Of course that's foolish gossip. Nobody who matters would say such things, and everyone in the palace knows of his efforts to bring you home."
Liz counted the talkative handmaiden as both a blessing and a curse. She needed all the information she could gather. Then again, anyone loyal to Kivar could prove dangerous. Her memory dredged up another potential complication -- the identity of Kivar's original betrothed.
The young woman came from an influential family, with close business ties to both the royal family and Kivar's father. She had remained in the dark about their clandestine relationship, with good reason.
"What about Tervalewa?" Liz asked. "Will her claim trouble me, or has she settled for another?"
"But Princess Vilandra, you must know more than I. You attended her wedding!"
Crap. "I guess my memory still has a few holes." With effort, she dimly recalled a tense evening with Rath under the watchful gaze of half the planet. Hardly a unique memory, she realized. While Isabel loved Michael as a brother, Vilandra's relationship with Rath was . . . complicated. "When I first woke up," Liz continued with an ironic honesty. "I remembered nothing. It terrified me. That's why I hid."
"You woke up earlier than expected. Kivar is not pleased with the court physician."
Liz cringed. A displeased Kivar could prove dangerous to the physician's health. "I hope he hasn't . . . " murdered him horribly " . . . dealt with him too harshly."
"I daresay the doctor will retain his post, but why trouble yourself over such trivia? Your beloved awaits."
Liz forced a smile.
"Oh dear, do you feel ill, Princess?" Prill reached for her arm. "Do you need to recline?"
Crap. Aliens didn't smile. "I'm fine," she stammered. "I was just -- " She pointed at her mouth. "It's a . . . " Vilandra's memory couldn't help her with the language when the words she needed didn't exist. " . . . Earth thing. I'm just excited to see Kivar again and I lived on that blasted planet too long . . . "
"How dreadful it must have been for you, Princess, trapped in one of those strange bodies. When Ava returned -- " The woman gave a shudder.
Liz wanted to know more about Tess and the baby, but she quelled her desire to ask. Open that Pandora's Box, and she might spill more information than she gained. Did Tess's fugitive status mean Kivar still considered her loyal to Zan? Did people know what happened between Tess and Max on Earth? Now was not the time to learn more. "I hope these distasteful Earth habits won't last long, now that I'm home. How do I look?"
"Very lovely, Princess."
Liz looked down at the dress. Even as she stood motionless, the layered white skirts swirled about her feet. The folds of fabric that had felt so heavy as they fell into place now seemed as light as gossamer. The high bodice changed color in slow waves, ranging from the softest greens to the boldest of blues.
The technology which created the effect had caused a great stir during Vilandra's lifetime. Older generations felt it threatened to replace traditional ways. Yet the cut of the dress remained rigidly old-fashioned. Antarians had worn similar gowns for generations. To Liz, it felt at once quaintly medieval and imaginatively futuristic -- Renaissance Fair meets Crash Festival. And it was beautiful. No Oscar gown could hold a candle to it.
"Shall we choose your gemstones?" Prill lifted a small box, and Liz almost reached for it, expecting jewelry. Then the handmaiden turned a dial, revealing a small hologram of Vilandra.
The tiny three dimensional image moved as she did, and Liz had to suppress an urge to beg Obi Wan Kenobi for help.
Liz tried to call up Vilandra's pre-death memories of Kivar, but the cloned brain didn't work like a database. It fixated only on Kivar's cruel black eyes the night of the coup. She tried to block the images, and her own brain -- or soul, or however the body-swapping thing worked -- instead spewed out fairy tales and bits of television shows. The gown, the palace, the handmaiden whispering of castle intrigue -- she found it all very high fantasy, albeit with a high-tech veneer.
Liz almost felt like a character in a glossy sci-fi adventure show. But Antar was far more alien than anything ever depicted on television, even with the quasi-medieval trappings. She waited in a palace sitting room and tried not to compare it to the guidance office at school. She was supposed to be waiting for a college recruiter about now.
Instead, she sat on Antar, her arms and waist draped in Vilandra's strange jewels. The scientist in her wanted to study the stones in more detail.
Geology had never been her particular interest. Even so, she knew several of the stones she wore proved Earth's periodic table was far from complete. Vilandra's memories included detailed knowledge of each gem, and not just its place in high fashion, but details like tenacity and crystalline structure. Like Isabel, Vilandra had concealed a sharp mind, as well as a kind heart, beneath a fashionably frivolous persona.
Only when Vilandra had grown close to Kivar had she shared her hidden self with anyone. No doubt that contributed to Isabel's guarded nature in her next life. As if Liz needed another reason to hate Kivar at the moment. Then again, the boiling anger helped with the fear.
The syncopated pounding of the heart in Liz's borrowed chest still felt disorientingly misplaced. She tried to concentrate on calming it. Even with Vilandra's memories, Liz had far too many gaps in her knowledge. Kivar would not prove as easy to fool as Vilandra's servant. Even if she could cover for the gaps in her knowledge, plenty of other details could betray her. Some unknown-to-her autonomic function of alien physiology might even reveal her nerves to Kivar.
Maybe their noses grew when they lied, like Pinocchio. She swallowed her nervous laughter. This body barely had a nose. Did aliens -- Antarians -- blush? She tried to sort through Vilandra's memories for the answer. The lack of an immediate recollection couldn't prove a negative. She stared at the gray skin of her arm, and decided the biology ruled out the possibility.
A servant opened the door. "The King is ready to dine, milady."
Liz almost thanked him. Then she squelched her manners to snarl at the inadequate honorific instead. Vilandra would not brush aside such a slight. Especially this version of Vilandra, who would marry Kivar despite her brother's gruesome murder. "You will address me as Princess Vilandra, at least in the immediate future. I will soon be your queen."
She followed the man through a glowing doorway and into an enormous banquet hall. Spectacular tapestries -- the priceless antiques Vilandra remembered from her childhood -- hung on the walls, protected from the ravages of time by airtight force fields.
Kivar sat behind a raised banquet table, his expression unreadable to Liz. Her grasp of Vilandra's memories proved unequal to the task of greeting this man in the expected fashion. Her own instincts screamed with an urgent desire to blast him into a bloody smear against the far wall.
What Vilandra's memory finally chose to flicker into her consciousness failed to quell the urge. She froze at the onslaught of images. Borrowed memories of anyone's intimate encounters would be awkward under even the best circumstances. Imagining Kivar's murdering hands on her body . . . Liz clutched the table for support against the wave of nausea that slammed into her.
Lovesick princess, Liz tried to remind herself. Spoiled. Demanding. Ambitious. Inexplicably in love with this monster of a man. To pull this off, to rescue the baby and somehow get back to Earth, she had to play this role. She couldn't hold Kivar accountable for his extensive inventory of crimes against her family. Not even in her own mind. Not now.
Nor could she fall on her face.
"Kiv dear," she heard herself say. Vilandra's natural instinct for courtly power-plays asserted itself by withholding his title. "Is all this formality necessary?"
"The people have awaited your return for far too long, my darling princess." Kivar ran his fingers down her arm. "They want to see you by my side. It would hardly do to invite them to watch a picnic."
"What's one more day, after so many years?" Liz's mind rebelled against her body's reaction to the man's touch, even as the thrill of it worked to her advantage by lending authenticity to her words. "I'd rather have you all to myself."
"That will come soon enough," he said. "I've waited a lifetime to have you in my arms again."
Liz silently prayed that she'd escape before then. If she killed him it would blow her cover, and she couldn't see the scenario he promised ending any other way.
"My darling, are you ill?"
"I'm fine," she said, out of habit. Then she cursed herself for nearly throwing away an opportunity. "But maybe I should talk to the doctor about the transfer process, when time allows."
"That time won't come soon," Kivar said. "The doctor's recent failings have necessitated his replacement."
"Certainly he can answer a few simple questions."
"I think he might find that rather difficult right now." Kivar whistled the Antarian equivalent of laughter. "He's currently learning an important lesson about the consequences of failure."
Liz jerked away from the trajectory of his arm, then cringed as his cruel gaze fell upon her. Crap. Bad move. She had to grab the upper hand right now, or she'd share the doctor's fate. "The throne has made you cruel. I hope it has not made you foolish as well."
Kivar aimed a penetrating black stare at her. "My darling -- "
Liz swallowed her fear with a firm shake of her head. "Scientists who are given reason to fear failure soon stop producing scientific advancements. Whatever the doctor's error, he should be praised for the fact that I'm here at all."
"Earth has made you soft, my darling Vilandra."
"No, Kiv dear, Earth has made me wise."
They stared each other down for a long moment. Liz knew if she flinched, she lost. Vilandra had always spoken her mind to her illicit lover. That is, before he assassinated her family and stole her brother's throne. That kind of thing changed a relationship. But to maintain her cover, Liz needed to remain bold, despite Kivar's power. To survive, she needed to gain the upper hand. Somehow.
Several kitchen servants bustled into the hall with steaming trays of food. It broke the tension, and Liz looked out over the small crowd assembled at the lower tables. Using Vilandra's memory, she identified a few token members from elite families. Potential allies, however, proved scarce. Liz realized she hoped to see Larak, the only Antarian she'd met who might be on the planet. Vilandra's mind supplied her with a face, but she didn't spot him among the guests.
The smell of the food made Liz remember her hunger. She wondered about the safety of gobbling down an entire meal with a body that had never eaten before. Not that she had a choice. At any moment some little detail could blow her cover, so she needed to eat while she could. She glanced around, hoping to glean etiquette clues from others at the table. Instead, she found them all watching her.
"We're waiting, my darling." Kivar glowered at her meal.
A trap. Liz gulped. He suspected her, and wanted to see if she knew how to use the chopsticks beside her plate. She reached for them, searching for the right memories. Instead, memories of her first date with Max flashed through her mind. The chopsticks, the pool cue, the warmth of Max's body as she helped him line up the shot.
Chopsticks felt all wrong in Vilandra's long fingers, and the food didn't compare to anything ever served at Senior Chow's. The pieces looked too big to lift. Liz froze, aware of the many eyes taking in her ineptitude. The prying eyes of guests and media alike proved the least of her worries, though. Kivar's silent glare sent another wave of nausea through her body.
She knew in her borrowed bones that if she took a bite, she would seal her own fate. Kivar, and the entire royal court, stared with palpable impatience. She needed to act, but fumbling with these strange utensils would make the food as good as poison.
Traedon listened to her report, at least. Dremea was grateful he didn't simply blow her off. But she recognized that her small insights into Queen Ava's political savvy paled in comparison to the big news. All everyone at the Inwallers meeting wanted to talk about was the unexpected return of Princess Vilandra.
"She still intends to marry Kivar," the group's current spy, a kitchen worker at the palace, reported. "We've spent all day preparing a feast for her. The young handmaiden assigned to her spent half the day racing around helping the Princess choose her attire. She even went down to the palace vaults searching for a specific gown."
"At the Princess's request, or Kivar's?" Traedon asked.
"Oh, Kivar already had a selection of dresses for her. Apparently she rejected the whole lot, and demanded something she'd worn for him before the coup."
Salba bowed her head sadly. "I never believed she was behind it, but if she still plans to marry him -- "
"I wouldn't be too quick to judge," Leshan said. "She can hardly refuse him while she's within the palace walls. Give it some time, perhaps she has some other plan."
Suibaf leaned forward to speak. "Unless her plan is to stage a coup of her own, clearing the way for King Zan's return -- "
"If she stages a successful coup on her own, she should take the throne herself, not defer to her brother."
Andra whistled. "Somehow I can't envision Princess Vilandra planning a coup."
"She helped with one before!"
"A foolish argument," Salba said. "If she truly helped plan Kivar's, then she'd have no motivation to stage her own. It's either one or the other."
Traedon turned back to the spy. "Do you think you could get time alone with her? Ask her some questions?"
The spy looked doubtful. "If she's loyal to Kivar, that could cost me my life. Which is part of the danger of my position, I realize, a danger I accept. But while my death might prove her loyalty to Kivar, I doubt any line of questioning could prove otherwise. If she's trapped in the home of an enemy, why would she trust me?"
"Perhaps you could arrange for her to receive a note," Leshan suggested. "Anonymously, of course. Offer her a way out of her situation, give her a drop location, see if she responds."
"A far better plan. Still not foolproof, but at least I'd likely survive it."
"Give it until tomorrow," Traedon said. "Perhaps you'll learn more at the feast. See if you can observe her. See if she's truly in love."
Dremea nearly whistled. Like a man could tell if a woman was in love, simply from watching her dine with a suitor. "See if she touches him," she said instead. "If she's missed her lover for all these years, she won't be able to keep her hands to herself. She won't be able to take her eyes off of him."
"I wouldn't take my eyes off of Kivar if I was dining beside him," Andra said. "And I certainly wouldn't bed that man for all the riches of the five worlds."
"So there are some flaws to my theory," Dremea admitted. "It's possible to overlook certain subtleties from a distance. But there's a difference between a wary eye on an adversary, and the gaze of true love."
"It doesn't have to be true love, either. She could just covet the throne."
"I think this is all foolish. Princess Vilandra is loyal to King Zan. Why else would she have perished with the rest?"
"Queen Ava perished."
"Queen Ava's disloyalty came later. And remember, there are still some questions surrounding her actions and motives as well. She claims the sequence of events that led her here were set in motion by her shapeshifter."
"What business her shapeshifter had setting anything in motion is another problem," Leshan said. "He should have found it impossible to act outside of King Zan's orders."
"Queen Ava said he took her away from the rest of the group to raise her," Dremea said. "He avoided Zan's orders by avoiding Zan."
"You can never trust a shapeshifter."
"I didn't mean you, Suibaf. You've proven yourself."
"Don't be racist, Etam," Suibaf snapped. "You can't generalize an entire group of people as inherently dishonest, then wiggle out of giving offense by singling out one supposed friend as the exception. If I said that about your rabbit-eyed wife, you'd throttle me."
"How dare you!"
"Just making a point. You know I'd never use such a slur, you know I'm not like that!"
Etam rose from his seat. "But you just, you just -- "
Suibaf stared back calmly. "I think I've made my point."
Etam sank back, not quite sure what had happened. Poor Etam, so easily confused by his own prejudices. Not that distrusting shapeshifters was an uncommon position. The elite class bred them in labs, and used them as spies and weapons. People had learned to be wary for good reason.
"The shapeshifter is not our concern," Traedon said. "He's dead anyway. As for Queen Ava, time will tell. Our immediate concern is Princess Vilandra. If she rallies the common people to her support, and marries Kivar, she will legitimize his throne in the eyes of too many. We must prevent that, no matter the cost."
"We must draft an assassination plan."
Liz knew if she took a bite, the ruse ended, and her life along with it. Under this scrutiny, a moment of improper etiquette would make the food as good as poison.
The thought jolted through the fear, and Liz put down the utensils. A medieval court on Earth would have a food taster, did Antar's royalty share the same paranoia? She searched the faces near her as a calm settled over her. "Kiv dear, where is my royal taster?"
"You dare accuse me of treachery?"
Liz whistled softly despite the wave of nausea that black gaze inspired. "Save your righteous indignation, my dear, we both know you capable. You are, however, above my current suspicion. If my death served your purposes, you could have left me in Roswell. Earth's as good a grave as any. But are you sure all those in your employ delight to see me risen from it?"
"Earth has grown your wisdom," Kivar said. "Or at least eroded your naivety. I'll send for the cook. She can serve two duties tonight."
Inwardly, Liz cringed at endangering the cook, or anyone else, in her name, but her desire to see someone else eat first had nothing to do with any actual fear of poison. She just wanted to know how the awkward chopsticks worked.
The cook arrived, her utilitarian garments similar to what a chef might wear on Earth. No hat, though, Antarians lacked hair, so they didn't need to take precautions against it falling into the food. She carried her head low, and kept her arms folded behind her back. "Your Highness?"
"Princess Vilandra requires a taster," Kivar said. "As do I."
"As you wish," the cook replied without hesitation.
Another servant produced a set of the alien chopsticks. To her dismay, Liz spotted significant differences between the ones beside her dish, and the ones she would now see demonstrated. The unadorned pair held by the servant were longer, with thinner tips, and had a slight curve to them.
As Liz watched, the cook neatly sliced off a sliver from the largest item on her plate. The thin tip worked as a knife, and the slight hook made for a secure grip on the morsel. After the cook sampled the bite, the servant beside her produced a second set of utensils, just as accommodating as the first. The two repeated the performance for each item on Liz's plate.
When they moved on to Kivar's dish, Liz glanced at the utensils beside Kivar's plate -- identical to her own. The same held true for those guests within her line of sight. It puzzled her. Why allow servants a luxury denied the elite? Classism rubbed Liz the wrong way, but in this moment the difference flew in the face of all logic.
"Vilandra, my darling," Kivar said.
She jumped, having missed the cook's retreat. "Yes, Kiv dear?"
"Our guests have displayed remarkable patience," he said. "I think it's time to relieve them of the wait."
"Of course." She picked up the foodsticks -- the alien word for them finally tumbling forward in her mixed memories -- once again. She held them not in one hand, as before, but instead she shifted the second one to her left hand, as the cook had done. With pounding heart, she wished for some other interruption. Or better yet, for the well designed utensils the cook had used. With little choice in the matter, she reached toward the food nonetheless. Time to wrap her mind around the concept of cutting food with a blunt instrument.
She prodded the rubbery stuff ineffectively for a moment. A sharp stab of jealousy raced through her as she again pictured the cook's implement. And to her utter shock, her foodstick responded to her envy; it formed itself into a neat little knife and sliced the food with ease.
Relief flooded her body. She had Vilandra's abilities, and how many times had she watched Max or Isabel rearrange the molecules in some mundane object? The foodsticks made perfect sense now. She concentrated, and her knife morphed into an elegant little fork. She repeated the performance with the other stick, and using both at once, took a small bite of her meal. She needed to cut the next bite even smaller, she realized. Her alien mouth was smaller than her own human one, and it lacked teeth.
Despite its rubbery texture, the food slowly dissolved in her mouth, bubbling slightly, like soda. Or maybe more like Pop Rocks, the novelty candy her father revered as proof that the 1970's represented the epitome of human civilization.
The cloying Antarian food threatened to overwhelm Liz's borrowed senses with sweetness, only to sizzle and pop, releasing another flavor, this one hot and spicy. Like candy-coated jalapeño peppers. She knew that in human form, she would hate it, but Vilandra's mouth found it pleasing. Her eyes didn't water, nor did her stomach threaten to rebel. The previously unused digestive tract coped just fine, even as Liz ate more of the zesty confection.
The Vilandra part of her mind loved the food, and coped well with the repetitive task of reshaping the foodsticks. Liz reminded herself that overthinking things could prove her downfall. She made another effort to let Vilandra's instincts guide her through the culture shock.
Once she'd taken a few bites, Kivar began eating as well. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the guests followed. Liz relaxed the tiniest bit, grateful to have everyone's attention refocused on their plates, rather than on her etiquette.
"How's your appetite, my darling?"
"This is much better than French food," she lied.
"Certainly," Kivar agreed. "But I wasn't talking about the food."
Ugh, thought Liz, but an electric shiver ran down Vilandra's spine.
The dreaded end of the meal arrived. Liz couldn't have eaten another bite, but she hoped for another course anyway. A dessert, a post meal drink, a cup of whatever passed for coffee here. Anything. But no, the dreaded end of the meal had truly arrived. Kivar gave her another hungry look.
If he touched her, she'd kill him. Before now, she'd never thought she could kill anything. But in the face of Kivar's desire -- the mere thought flooded her mind with black rage. Her own or Vilandra's, she couldn't tell. It burned too intensely.
She would go only so far to maintain this cover. Sleeping with the enemy was out of the question. But she had to pretend for a few more minutes. After all, she could hardly kill him here, in the main hall, with two hundred handpicked witnesses.
Kivar stood, and offered his hand. Swallowing her repulsion, Liz took it, and stood. Together they left the hall, and Liz followed Kivar through the palace corridors. She struggled to fight off images of the carnage she'd witnessed -- no, the carnage Vilandra had witnessed -- on the final day of her life. She reached instead for Vilandra's childhood memories of playing in these hallways. She'd lived in the shadow of her brother, the future king, but her memories were happy nonetheless.
Vilandra's ambitions didn't extend to the foul murders she had witnessed when her lover made his grab for power. She had plotted to implement her own methods, her own ideas. Reform. The love of the people. Input into political decisions from a larger base of leadership. It made little sense for her father, or later, her brother, to make all the decisions for the planet.
She hadn't thought of herself as better equipped to lead. It wasn't even that she saw her people as oppressed, not at first; a more personal concern had led to the birth of her ideas. She resented the work that kept her father too busy for his children, always stressed, always tired. She felt the planet and its citizenry placed too much burden on the man. Couldn't his second take some of the workload? What about the other elite families, when would they do something more than attend parties and gossip?
Liz snapped her mind away from politics. She didn't need to know about Vilandra's political opinions from decades past. This planet didn't have a stressed and overburdened king now, shackled by the duty he owed his people. No, this planet now had a dictator. One widely hated, according to what Max had learned in New York, and she had little doubt of the accuracy, despite the source.
Kivar had taken the throne in a bloody coup, slaughtering even the woman he allegedly loved. That sort of personality fed on the violence it spread, and depended upon the fear he instilled in the masses to hold power. Kivar would never think of the good of the people, or serve as a benevolent ruler. Hate-laced ambition never bowed to duty.
The royal palace was a great sprawling building, and the corridors long, but not long enough. Kivar led Liz into the royal bedchamber. The one once occupied by Zan and Ava, and by Vilandra's parents before them. All dead now.
Liz pushed aside the bloody memories yet again. She didn't know if alien bodies vomited, and she didn't really want to find out firsthand. Although perhaps it might deter Kivar's lascivious intent for a while longer.
The room itself was dark, with heavy furniture. Part of her expected a four-poster bed with a canopy, it would have fit with the rest. Instead a round mattress floated up from the floor in the center of the room. Kivar touched it, and the shape changed. The circle grew into an oval, and rounded corners emerged, creating a rectangle of sorts.
"Is this more suitable for your new Earth-based sensibilities?" Kivar asked.
"Do not mock me, Kiv dear. It's your fault I spent so long on that hopelessly dull planet."
"Do not forget who lifted you from it." His voice held a note of warning, one which twisted Liz's stomach, but she refused to cower from it.
"I haven't," she said. "I'm grateful. But I also haven't forgotten who sent me in the first place."
"Your own dear mother sent you," Kivar said. "Do not blame me."
"And what alternative did you leave her?" Liz demanded. "I was dead!"
"If she hadn't been so quick to scoop you up and ship you off with her scientists, your resurrection could have occurred here. You never would have known Earth at all."
"And how long would that have taken?" Liz asked, her scorn authentic. "Any scientists you employed would have been needlessly slowed by your heavy-handed methods. You have a temper, Kiv dear, and I've seen it now. Every slight failure, every artificially imposed deadline missed, would have raised your ire. Every challenge would have ended with a whole new scientific team. Each forced to start at square one once again."
"Careful. Your words approach treason, Princess."
"Treason would be your specialty," Liz said. "After all, you owe your throne to it."
"I owe my throne to my superior ability to hold it! Your brother was weak, weaker even than your father before him. He let good Antarians have their jobs stolen by offworlders! He couldn't control those people! They brought thievery and violence. You know what happened in Zigha Neb."
Vilandra's memory spat out those facts, and Liz knew Xan had mourned that tragedy with far more depth than Kivar could even fathom. Had Kivar ever paid more than lip service to the far greater number killed in his coup? She doubted it, but didn't pursue the subject now. Deflection made for a weak argument.
Instead, she defended Xan's greatest success, which Kivar labeled a failure. "My brother shortened the work day for his subjects, and fought to raise their wages despite pressure from all sides. The offworlders came because Antar's production soared. We didn't have enough citizens to fill those jobs."
"You are wrong, darling princess. Your brother left citizens to starve, and exposed them to danger! All to appease some ridiculous notion that the five planets could form one single society."
"Zan starved no one," Liz said, grasping for the slippery facts in Vilandra's brain. A united interplanetary society would have been Xan's crowning achievement. Kivar had quashed that dream. "You, on the other hand, killed four Royals, and how many dozens of loyal subjects."
"And yet here you are, by my side." He stepped toward her. "You chose the winning side. I see no reason for this show of temper now."
"No, I suppose you don't. You think I should just fall into your arms, as if that last day never happened."
"You seemed eager enough when I was your ticket off Earth!" He grabbed her arm, his grip like steel. "It doesn't matter if you're here out of love, or simply because you wanted this life back. Either way, know your place."
"My place?" Liz yanked her arm away, and barely managed to keep from raising it with murderous intent. He'd see it coming.
"Your place is by my side, and in my bed."
"As much as I want to share your bed, I will not do so because you claim it is my place!"
"And where else is your place? Rath's bed? Or that of one of your humans?"
"My place is my own bed," Liz snapped. "And I will share it with whomever I choose."
"Think very carefully, Vilandra, or your bed will be in the dungeon, and you can make your choice of bedmates from among the vermin."
"Interesting seduction strategy," Liz said. Calm settled over her. "You claim to want me at your side, yet now that we're finally alone, you offer me nothing but threats. Idle ones, I might add, now that the whole palace has seen my return."
His eyes flashed. "They've seen you. That will do for a while."
"Is that what you think? Foolish, Kivar. They will expect me to resume the sort of life I lived before. People will expect me at parties, at your side when you speak in public, at the many events my status requires me to arrange. I should already be planning something for the common people."
"The common people need no appeasement from you," Kivar said. "I've given them jobs, I've given them purpose. And unlike you, they know better than to defy me."
"So you've forced them to their knees. It's only a matter of time before they tire of their lot, and you know it."
"They have all they need," Kivar said. "Your politics are sadly out of date. The people have safety, and food on their plates. That's more than they could say in times past."
"No one starved during my family's reign."
"Perhaps not," Kivar admitted. "But they weren't safe. The foreign threats surrounded us all, and what good are free rations, in the end? People prefer the food they earn, not handouts and entitlements. Even your father knew that. The free rations he provided were nothing like your brother's wasteful handouts."
"So you criticize the handouts but cry about starvation? Which is it?"
"My people work for everything they have, it gives them pride."
"Ah, pride." Liz saw her way out. "Pride is important. We both agree, so you should understand that I will not sacrifice mine."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"If you want me in your bed, you'll earn it, Kiv dear. How can I forgive what happened when you can't even show me you're sorry? You killed me! You claimed to love me, and then you killed me! I need some time to adjust, and I need a sincere apology from you. I need to know I matter to you."
"You expect seduction?"
"I expect something!"
"Flowers and candy? Like on Earth?"
"No, I don't want such empty gestures. I want the courtesy of time and space to adjust to my own return. I want to know you're sorry for the mistakes you made, no matter the reasons for them. I want your respect."
"You think you don't have my respect?"
"I think that you just threatened to fling me in the dungeon if I refused to share your bed."
"I was angry."
"You were angry because I refused to share your bed."
"On Earth, you led me to believe you wanted me."
"I do," Liz lied through her nonexistent teeth. "I've always wanted you. But it has to be right. You hurt me, and you have to make that right."
"Oh, Vilandra. I never meant you to die. Only Zan needed to die." He paused, looking thoughtful. "And Rath of course."
"Nobody needed to die."
"Earth has made you soft. If you thought we could all live happily ever after without any bloodshed, you wouldn't have opened the tunnels that night."
Liz knew Vilandra's motives that night, and she'd never thought bloodshed would factor in at all. "That's the other thing. I need time to forgive myself. My family died because of my passion for you. I need time."
"I'll give you your time." Kivar gave a dismissive wave towards the door and turned his back to her. "Never let them claim I'm not a gentleman."
The servant Kivar summoned showed Liz to another bedchamber. She sat down on the floating mattress and tried to think. When she leaned back, her subconscious molded the bed into a big comfy chair. A little concentration, and it turned more rigid, like a desk chair. She needed to plan, not doze off.
She had no intention of wasting time. Forcing Kivar to woo her would keep his hands to himself only so long. She needed to find Max's son. Since he wasn't yet in Kivar's clutches, Tess must have taken him into hiding.
The size of the capital city alone made the search a daunting task. To compound the difficulty, Liz knew little about the planet. Vilandra's memories only went so far. She couldn't dig through them and find a handy collection of maps.
Fragments of memory seemed to come crashing back in waves of emotion. Even Vilandra's knowledge of gemstones had arisen from the tide of nervous energy plaguing Liz before dinner.
The strange food should have made an impression on this cloned stomach by now, but aside from the adrenaline -- or its Antarian equivalent -- from the fight with Kivar, she felt fine. She couldn't imagine how that meal would have impacted her own human stomach. The Antarian bodies barely had noses. Liz knew that meant decreased nasal passages, a decreased sense of smell, and as a result, a decreased ability to taste.
Knowing what Max had learned from the shapeshifter in California, none of this came as a surprise to her. The Antarians compensated with extreme flavors -- sweet and spicy -- to make food enjoyable. Or at least interesting.
But what in the hell had Tess found to eat while in hiding on this planet? Sure, the aliens in Roswell poured plenty of Tabasco over their pancakes, but the spices here made Tabasco seem like ketchup. Or something less spicy than ketchup. Water. Surely Antarian food wasn't digestible in a human body, even an alien hybrid body.
That, she realized, could prove the key to finding Tess. Get out of this palace, and find a source of those tasteless free rations she'd fought about with Kivar. Or find some other human-palatable organic matter. Follow the groceries, find Tess. Find Tess, find the baby.
After all, that was the reason she'd stayed on this planet. The baby. If not for him, she could have gone safely home already. But so long as she succeeded, she held no regrets about having missed that window. Knowing the danger he faced, she couldn't leave without him. That meant finding him herself, before the swarms of opportunists went chasing that reward. The words 'dead or alive' echoed in her head again. Waiting for someone to bring the child to Kivar was not an option.
She got up and paced the floor. Handmaiden Prill had delivered a whole rack of new gowns, and promised to bring her old ones up from the vaults as well. So shopping for more seemed ridiculous.
But wasn't that what everyone expected from Vilandra? Ridiculous, frivolous, wasteful? Spoiled princess, that was the role. She could play it. She could demand that someone take her shopping. Once out of the palace, she could get a better grasp on the scope of the task before her. How many places sold or distributed food? How many square miles -- or the equivalent Antarian measurement -- did this city cover? What kind of transportation went to other cities? Other planets?
Kivar's xenophobic rant made her suspect his government placed strict regulations on offworld travel. Transportation would differ from that of Vilandra's original lifetime. Funny how the same old political arguments came up everywhere. Government too slow to fix the real problems? Some politician would come along and rant about immigrants stealing jobs or raising the crime rate. They wouldn't fix the problems, especially after pointing the finger in the wrong direction, but it got them elected. Once they gained power, the people were stuck.
That gave her another idea. Kivar had enemies. The people still loyal to Zan would likely hide their beliefs for their own safety. Rath also had supporters out there somewhere, according to Courtney. Again, though, Rath's followers would hide themselves. But the offworlders Kivar used as scapegoats -- those she might find.
She tried to remember what kinds of luxury goods came from off world. If she demanded products from the other worlds in the system, that might mean visiting shops run by offworlders. She could make contacts. Find allies.
The next morning, Liz rose with the alien sun, and sorted through Vilandra's racks of clothing. She wanted shopping attire that not only looked appropriate for the setting, but also proved functional for her true mission. Something reversible, if possible, so she could disguise herself. Something with pockets, so she could smuggle any contraband she acquired. She remembered the bulky stone-shaped communication devices her friends had back in Roswell. She needed pockets.
What proved hardest, she soon discovered, was footwear. Just as xenophobic politics were universal, so was manipulating the female population with impractical fashion. Antarians didn't wear high heels. The beaded sandals in Vilandra's collection were all equally painful for walking, though. They weren't even particularly pretty. Why decorate the sole of a shoe, but not the straps that held it on?
She remembered playing as a child. What had Vilandra worn on her feet then? What did the servants wear on their feet as they rushed around serving Kivar's whims? Surely not these hideously painful sandals.
After trying on each pair, she finally chose the least awful, and decided her first bit of shopping would include a shoe store.
She skipped the jewels, judging them inappropriate for shopping on any planet. Jewelry of the caliber Vilandra owned added an extra worry when trying on clothing. Plus it would mark her as a prime target for aggressive sales people. Jewels drew attention. Liz wanted to blend, if that was even remotely possible.
How much attention would the resurrected princess draw in public? Would she get hounded by paparazzi? Kivar didn't strike her as a strong supporter of the free press, so she doubted tabloids existed here. But certainly people would notice her. Would dressing down a bit, like Hollywood celebrities did on on Rodeo Drive, help at all?
Vilandra had plenty of experience with handling her own celebrity status. She'd enjoyed the attention from a distance, thanks to a faithful entourage. Often shopkeepers would close to other customers for her private use. But that Vilandra had been shopping for clothes, not political allies.
For Liz, an entourage would hinder more than it helped. Reliance on the public's fear of Kivar would keep away exactly the same people she most wanted to meet.
Antarians lacked hair that needed styling, and didn't wear makeup, so once dressed Liz had little to do. Except fret. She busied herself with searching her room for good hiding places for a while. Then she realized even a solid wall could make a perfectly functional hiding place. After all, she had Vilandra's powers. She questioned whether that played to her advantage or disadvantage.
Near the end of her search, she found the wall panel that housed a smaller version of the computer in the great hall. She hesitated at first, wondering if anyone would log her history. Then she decided to limit her reading to the more innocuous of her current questions. She immersed herself in reading about the planet's biological diversity, a topic sure to bore Kivar's security staff every bit as much as it fascinated her.
Handmaiden Prill arrived later in the morning, and seemed stunned to discover her. "My goodness, Princess! You're already up?"
"But you should have summoned me, Princess." She gestured at the panel on the wall. "I would have come at once."
"Oh, I was enjoying the solitude," Liz said with at least partial honesty.
"Will you take your morning meal here, or in the hall, Princess?"
She couldn't pass up the chance to eat breakfast. The handmaiden scurried away to the kitchens to fetch the meal. Once again, Liz found herself alone with the computer terminal. She flipped over to the morning's news. Apparently her appearance beside Kivar had warmed the hearts of the people. Liz doubted that. The people had every reason to believe Vilandra a traitor. Kivar no doubt had the journalists on this planet neatly under wraps. If he didn't control them by outright suppression, he at least kept them in check through financial manipulation.
Shopping, now that she thought about it, might not prove the safest activity. She decided to delay shaking free of her security until she found at least one ally.
To her relief, Liz avoided Kivar at breakfast. In the back of her mind, she'd worried that some protocol might force her to take all her meals with him. Fortunately, it turned out his schedule had little room for meals with his future bride, unless they had an audience. This morning he had business elsewhere in the palace.
The breakfast foods proved just as spicy as the previous evening's meal, but with less variety. Liz barely noticed them as she ate, her mind busy with the shopping trip she planned to demand.
Her handmaiden sat beside her and entertained her with a story about two members of the kitchen staff. Liz wasn't a big fan of gossip, but she let Prill talk. Any information could prove useful, and criticizing her choice of conversation would backfire. She didn't want to train the young woman to censor herself in her company. She never knew when some bit of stray gossip might lead to Tess.
Handmaiden Prill agreed to come along on a shopping trip. When she asked about security, Prill assured her that Kivar had assigned three guards to her personal use. Any time she left the palace, they'd accompany her, so she needn't fret about her safety. A dedicated money handler would make himself available, should she wish to avoid tasks like counting money and bartering. Kivar had also already arranged for a generous allowance. Liz wondered if that was part of the wooing, but she didn't ask.
Liz followed Prill through the palace corridors to the business wing. Imperial employees, such as guards and money counters, worked in the palace for the sake of convenience. She also noticed a heavily guarded hallway, just beyond Kivar's own office. Vilandra's memory only held some of that hallway's secrets.
While they walked, Liz studied her handmaiden's footwear. The sandals appeared to lack the sharp beads which her own featured. She wanted to ask how to get her own pair, but decided that was a question best left for outside the palace walls. Princess Vilandra had always put significant effort into her appearance. To shun the fancy beaded footwear could raise suspicion.
They visited the money handler first.
"Trustee Crube, Gatekeeper of the Royal Treasury, at your service." The man bowed low. "It is an honor to do your bidding, Your Royal Highness."
Liz quelled her own natural instinct to respond in kind, or offer her hand. Royal etiquette chafed her nerves, but a man close to Kivar's money was no doubt close to Kivar as well. She behaved exactly as expected, acknowledging the man with only the slightest nod.
Trustee Crube handed over a silk bag full of heavy coins, as well as a complicated looking device. "Your seclythe, Princess Vilandra."
Her internal translation failed on the word. It had no English equivalent, but the straightforward purpose made perfect sense. It laid down an imprint of the royal seal on documents. One end worked on paper or parchment, leaving five glowing dots in special ink. The other housed a tiny computer chip, as well as two different ports for interfacing with external devices. It served as Kivar's proxy signature for any legal agreements she entered into while out in the city.
Trustee Crube, and Kivar himself, likely imagined frivolous purchases. A trip through the jewelry boutiques, or perhaps commissioning a dressmaker. Liz wondered what other opportunities might present themselves. The purchase of a spacecraft, perhaps?
Neither the trustee nor his master placed any limit on her spending.
For smaller trades, Trustee Crube requested she use the coins. To reduce the burden of his paperwork, he said. At this hint, Liz took the opportunity to excuse the busy man from following along on the outing. He seemed quite relieved to remain in the solitude of his office.
Liz delighted at reducing her entourage by one. She hoped to slip away, should the need arise. The fewer witnesses the better. Also, the common merchants deserved fair prices for their wares. A shrewd negotiator with imperial power would tip the scale in their disfavor. Fair play aside, she didn't want common people, any one of whom might prove a valuable ally, to cringe at her approach.
That made for a party of five when they set out. The guards introduced themselves by rank, the words loosely translating to Captain and Lieutenant. This created something of a confusing situation, as two of the three shared the rank of captain. Antarian military custom required them to withhold their given names while in uniform.
Liz made a point to memorize the rank insignia on their belts. She wanted the ability to address any military officers she met here by rank, as someone of Vilandra's status should.
They offered her a driver as well, but Liz wanted to walk. She needed to learn as much as she could about this planet. Vilandra seemed to recall a nearby shopping district, so Liz pounced on the opportunity for an educational stroll.
The red dwarf star that served as Antar's sun lit the sky with a warm red tint, and cast shadows with a reddish hue. Liz remembered an article she'd once read debating the likelihood of red dwarf stars supporting life. Now she knew the truth.
Despite her impression from the basement level beach view she'd glimpsed the previous day, a wide palette of colors filled the city. The paved roadways were dark chestnut, like the stones from the beach she'd seen out the window. Plenty of greenery grew on either side. The buildings featured every color imaginable. Many featured brightly colored murals on their walls. When she looked back at the palace, she saw onion-shaped domes on the taller towers, reminiscent of Russian architecture.
Vilandra's memory informed her of the proper name of the style, in Antarian. Since no adequate translation existed, Liz continued to think of them as onion domes. She spotted them on a number of shops. Like their Russian counterparts, they tended to feature only the brightest colors. She only saw one or two in more muted tones, and those were also smaller in size.
Everything was smaller compared to the royal palace. It seemed to loom over the entire city. If Liz did successfully ditch her entourage, she'd find her way back easily enough.
Other bits of architecture bore little resemblance to anything she'd seen on Earth. At least not anything specific. She saw something that looked like an igloo with a tiny pyramid perched on top. A spice merchant, Prill told her. The pyramid served some specific function in the drying process. Apparently one of the ingredients that accounted for the fizzy quality in the food came from a desert plant.
"Princess, is there a specific item you wish to see this morning?" one of the two captains asked. "One of us should scout ahead to make sure the shops of interest are safe."
"All the shops are of interest," Liz replied. "It's been many years since I last walked these streets, and I wish to see as much as possible."
"Of course, Your Highness."
"I would like to find some shoes, though," she said. "Or perhaps have some made? There are a few Earth styles that might adapt well to our fashion. The people will expect me to set some trends, and not merely follow."
"Of course, Your Highness."
They led her to a cobbler's shop, and she examined his offerings with care. Some of the shoes were quite beautiful. The prettier the shoe, however, the more painful it appeared in function. Sharp beads were an odd fashion trend. She selected two pair -- the most elaborate pair of shoes in the shop, and the plainest. She set them on the counter near the proprietor.
The poor old gentleman looked quite nervous to have royalty in his shop, but Liz tried to give him a kindly smile. Well, not a smile. Antarians didn't smile. But a kindly look, anyhow.
"I'd like these," she said. "But I'd also like to order something special, if you are willing."
"It will be my pleasure and my honor to serve your every need, Your Highness. My family celebrated long into the night upon hearing of your return."
"I'm pleased to hear it," she said, keeping her doubts from her voice. "I am honored to have such loyal citizens among my admirers."
He barely relaxed, and lifted the fancier pair of shoes. "Excellent choice. Is the other pair for your servant?"
"No," Liz said. "Quite the opposite. These shoes show your skill well, and I like the subtle pattern on the straps."
Now the man truly relaxed, and Liz detected his secret pride in the allegedly plainer pair. He'd done a perfect job with the stitching, and they didn't need beadwork to stand out as quality.
"As you know, I recently spent many years on a planet called Earth," Liz said. "While the planet was backwards in a number of ways, they did produce some distinctive footwear. I grew fond of a few of the styles. Do you have a sketchpad?"
The cobbler handed one over, along with a waxy stick similar to a crayon. Liz sharpened it a bit with her powers, and proceeded to draw a pair of sneakers. As she did so, she described how the sole's design kept the pattern in the tread, for traction, while cushioning the foot. She explained how the laces worked to keep the shoe snug, and how the tongue of the shoe cushioned the foot against those laces.
The cobbler nodded along. "The military officers wear boots with a tread like you describe, but boots are too heavy for women. These are lighter?"
"They make the top out of fabric," Liz explained. The Antarian shoes were made of a dense planted-based material that resembled heavy leather. "It allows for a wide range of styles and colors. Some even light up with each step."
"Whatever for?" her handmaiden exclaimed.
"For fun," Liz said. She left off the fact that most of those sneaker styles catered to children. "Perfect for dancing."
From the look on the cobbler's face, Liz suspected she'd just kicked off the biggest fashion trend to hit Antar in years.
"I can have two pairs ready by morning," he promised. "Unless Your Highness requires more?"
"I suspect you need your sleep more than I need extra shoes," Liz said. "And you must have other customers. Perhaps one pair tomorrow afternoon, and another the following day?"
"Bless your kindness, Princess Vilandra" the cobbler said. "Welcome home."
She left the cobbler's shop feeling much more confident. Watching the man's fear dissolve in the face of common decency told her much about what the people expected of their princess. If only she could tell them of Isabel's kind heart and good deeds, but of course she needed to maintain her cover. Besides, "Princess Vilandra" would not remain on the planet long. It felt a little cruel to get their hopes up at all.
They next visited a jewelry shop, run by a young woman with open resentment in her eyes. It seemed odd to Liz, who had expected to encounter the resentment, but not from a jeweler. In Vilandra's memory, jewelry-making was one of the highest paid professions on the planet.
On Earth, the jewelry industry wasn't exactly noted for its scruples. Slaves mined the gems in dangerous conditions and abused sweatshop workers often did the handwork for a pittance. In contrast, jewelry making on Antar had a sacred quality.
Antarians revered their jewelers as esteemed artists. The superstition claimed that each piece of jewelry, indeed each stone, reflected the artist's genius. This genius in turn made the wearer better able to make wise choices. The wearer would also benefit from the jeweler's happiness and the pride they took in their work. Every stage of the jewelry making process needed to be lit with the joy of artistic creation. Mass production was tantamount to sacrilege.
Liz admired many of the pieces, but she didn't need jewels. Or did she? At some point, she needed to escape the palace. Jewelry might prove a convenient means of barter once she was on the run.
She picked out a couple of pieces with that in mind. The girl's face showed displeasure at the sight of the seclythe -- the equivalent of trading her hard work and expensive raw materials for an IOU, Liz realized. She put it away and paid instead with the heavy coins. Vilandra's mind supplied the values, and she added a hefty tip.
"Keep the change," she told the girl. "You deserve it, for this lovely work."
The jeweler didn't exactly warm up to her over the tip, but Liz thought she looked a little less angry.
"Why did you tip her?" Handmaiden Prill asked after they'd left.
"Because her work was beautiful," Liz answered.
"But she was so rude!"
"No one's rude without reason," Liz said. "Perhaps she is suspicious of my return."
The second captain, hearing this exchange, leaned close. "You were both wise and kind to treat her as you did, Princess. Her older brother died in Kivar's revolt."
Liz concluded that the second captain was the most trustworthy part of her entourage. This information fell as a hard truth upon Vilandra's ears, yet he hadn't shied from the truth. "How many died that night?"
The second captain regarded her solemnly. "Thirty-seven, aside from the resurrected. A small price for a coup."
"No life is a small price," Liz said softly. "I would like a list of the dead. I want to honor them."
The handmaiden gasped, but the second captain nodded. "Anything you wish, Princess Vilandra. I am pleased you have returned to us."
Several shops later, Liz finally laid eyes on her first offworlder. The so-called races of the five worlds were clearly all the same species. Just like the so-called races of Earth. The divide appeared slightly less arbitrary on the surface, relying not on skin color, which on Earth resulted merely from the distance one's ancestors had lived from the equator, but on a group of minor characteristics, the results of one's ancestors having lived on different planets. Different levels of sunlight resulted in differences in eye shape and size, for example. Unlike on Earth, where everyone from equator to poll shared essentially the same distance from the sun -- the slight tilt of the Earth was inconsequential to such large distances -- some of the five planets orbited further from their star. Larger eyes would prove biologically advantageous.
This woman, who sold perfume, hailed from Zatar. Compared to Antarians, Zatarians had wider set eyes and shorter fingers. Liz thought their necks looked longer, too, but all five races had longer necks than humans. Vilandra's memory seemed to lack knowledge of the evolutionary history of the five planets. Liz hypothesized that variations in the flora and fauna encouraged these differences. Larger, faster predators might encourage more peripheral vision in a prey species, for example. Not that it mattered right now.
The differential treatment Liz received at the perfumery far exceeded the cobbler's wary respect. Yet she failed to detect the slightest hint of the resentment shown by the jewelry maker. This person acted like the slightest mistake might prove fatal. No, 'acted' wasn't quite right. More like Liz could sense her struggle to mask her fear and steady her shaking hands. She even backed away, and almost seemed afraid to ask for payment when Liz selected a small bottle.
"Please, Princess Vilandra," she said. "Take it with my compliments. It will please me to have you wear my creation, I need no other payment."
Liz glanced at the second captain, and caught him studying her, under the guise of ignoring her. She turned the bottle in her hand, and caught sight of the price. "I will accept the great honor of your gift, on one condition."
"Anything, Your Highness."
She drew out one of the pieces of jewelry she had bought earlier. It was worth far more than the perfume. "You must accept my gift as well."
The perfumer looked astonished as she took the jewelry. "Thank you, Princess Vilandra. You honor me."
The second captain caught her eye and nodded slightly as they left.
"I'd like to visit the food markets," Liz said. "I realize the crowds there might cause a security concern. Perhaps I could disguise my identity?"
"You may request anything you wish through the palace cook, Princess Vilandra."
"Of course," she said. "But I'd like to see the people. Observe the marketplace."
The handmaiden, at this point, regarded her with suspicion. Liz would need to smooth that over. But she thought the second captain looked secretly pleased. Maybe he'd prove the ally she needed.
They found a clothing shop with more modest attire than a royal would wear in public. There, Liz selected some simple work clothes. The shop owner provided her with use of a dressing room, and Liz took her time changing. She cringed a bit as she overheard the second captain make his feelings on gossip clear. He made her wardrobe change sound like a state secret. Liz took the sting out of his threat with a generous tip on her way out the door.
The bustling center of Antar's capital city was everything Liz had imagined, and more. People from all five planets hustled from one booth to the next, buying food and other ordinary necessities. Children played with a ball in an alley between rows of booths, whistling with laughter when it changed colors.
Unsyncopated music blared from a loudspeaker at the end of one row. To Liz, it sounded a bit like how jazz might sound, if jazz bands played exclusively on string instruments. Vilandra's memories told her the music's odd beat was meant to resemble a heartbeat.
She studied each of the goods in every booth, looking for anything that might prove edible to humans.
Seafood made up the bulk of the Antarian diet. Not that the Antarians would have thought of it in those terms. With rare exception, by the time food arrived on an Antarian dinner table, any resemblance to its original form had been processed out of it. From her early morning reading, Liz had learned that the strong flavors and bright colors in her previous night's dinner resulted from incredibly complex recipes.
The details of the food production depended on the end consumer's social status. Manufacturing plants focused on mass production fed the commoners. A profit-driven model determined their methods and ingredients. As long as the flavor sold, nutrition be damned.
The elite were more particular, and battled to hire the best chefs for their households. These chefs catered to more difficult palates, but also strove to supply a balanced diet.
Either way, they transformed a majority of Antar's food into those rubber-like dishes that dissolved slowly in the mouth. Only professional chefs could guess the specific contents of a dish by sight. Even they were often deceived. Most chefs guarded the secrets of their prized recipes with vigilance.
Spices were grown on farms, as were a few plants of medicinal use. But for the most part, Antar fished its protein and carbohydrates from its bright red ocean. So much so that many farms only grew inedible plants with various industrial uses. Like cotton or sisal on Earth.
If Liz didn't have an infant to rescue from hoards of opportunistic bounty hunters, she would have loved to study Antar's ocean. The scientist in her could spend a lifetime at it. The gelatinous nature of the water explained the jerky motion of the waves. That Antar's oceans contained bright red gelatinous water only raised further questions. The bizarre answers would make a great research paper. That is, if Liz ever wanted to get laughed out of academia. But academia only mattered if she managed to get home in time for her college interviews in the first place.
One of the most common life forms on Antar was a brightly colored fish with a unique defense mechanism. It coated its body with a thick layer of slime. When a predator tried to chow down, it slipped away and left its attacker with a mouthful of inedible goo. Thanks to the creature's enormous population, its escape-goo thickened the ocean water to a gelatinous consistency.
A vast array of sea creatures made their home in the thick water. Many others had light enough bodies to live on top of it and pluck their food from amid the goo. These top-dwellers featured huge eyes and long, slender mouths for pursuing their meals. The tiniest of their pray filled the same environmental niche as Earth's plankton.
Other animals lived deeper in the ocean, well beneath the thickest layers. Like those above, they subsisted on the goo-dwelling plankton. Or on each other. One of these creatures made for a great delicacy here on Antar. The small animals, which were definitely not shrimp -- they reminded Liz more of tiny birds, thanks to the way they used their long fins to push through the water -- were served whole.
At least, surviving far from the reach of Antar's red sun, they didn't have eyes.
Liz wandered slowly among the booths. Her security formed a far guard pattern under the guise of escorting her handmaiden. She hoped the young woman would at least enjoy her stroll through the marketplace. More importantly, she hoped she didn't feel as if Princess Vilandra had ditched her.
Without close company, Liz felt safe speaking with the vendors on more risqué topics. She lacked the foolhardiness to ask about rebel factions, but at least she dared to ask questions. Some of her inquiries might have raised an eyebrow from her guards. Like the specific nutritional composition of the shrimp-birds, which might seem an odd bit of trivia to interest a princess.
"Do you know which proteins these provide?" she asked the fisherman.
"Far more flavor than nutrition in these," he answered, eyeing her unadorned work clothes. "I'd recommend something in the next row, if you're looking to boost your protein intake. There's plenty of xedoc for sale."
Xedoc also came from the ocean. It was so notoriously flavorless the elite class wouldn't even use it as a filler. Not that it would make much practical difference in their overspiced rubbery concoctions. Its blandness might make it worth investigating, Liz thought. She thanked Vilandra's memory for the information.
Vilandra, however, had never read up on the specific proteins or minerals found in it. Some heavy metals might pass harmlessly through an Antarian, but kill a human. Even trace amounts of iodine could trigger a bad reaction in a human with seafood allergies. The levels found in the Antarian ocean made Liz wonder if Tess would risk it, even in its unspiced form.
The spices added to the bulk of the Antarian diet were hardly the only issue, she realized.
Liz kept thinking about iodine levels and incompatible amino acids as she strolled. But even so, she couldn't help but find the marketplace fascinating. The people here came from all walks of Antarian life, and from all five planets in the system. Vilandra's memories helped Liz spot the telltale features for each planet of origin. Most of the differences between the different races involved eye shape and placement. Liz would have barely noticed, without Vilandra's memories. It took a trained eye to notice the subtle differences. The clothing worn offered subtle clues as well.
Those with official jobs wore uniforms. Almost everyone else wore work clothes of various qualities. The Antarian equivalent of a business suit made a few appearances. But Liz didn't spot a single gown. Elite women did not visit the marketplace, attended by guards or otherwise.
Not that it offered any particular danger. Unless, of course, one was specifically targeted by assassins. Like, perhaps, a member of an unpopular royal family. Robbery by force was rare on Antar. Especially here. Antarians considered the marketplace an outrageous location for violence.
Vilandra's memory produced a shocking scandal from her youth. Unthinkably, a brawl had broken out in the marketplace. They hadn't used weapons, and nobody had suffered serious injury. Still, the shocking nature of the crime had fueled discussion for weeks. Two young men, both vendors, had some disagreement over the affections of a young woman.
Antar had socially acceptable courses of action in such a situation. Among commoners, the simplest solution involved asking the young woman her preference. She could then choose, or reject them both, thus settling the matter. The elite class scoffed at such a direct and sensible solution. A dual at a prearranged time was viewed as more honorable. And certainly more entertaining for the perpetually bored idle rich.
These men had rejected both courses, instead choosing to argue then and there. The situation had escalated into, well, a food fight. They'd flung their wares at each other while the crowd watched in horror.
Both had faced shame for some time afterward, at least until the public interest shifted.
In any case, Liz felt safe enough in the marketplace, so long as she was not recognized as Princess Vilandra. Or worse yet, as an impostor posing as Princess Vilandra.
Although the market focused on food, farmers and their families also displayed other wares. One booth sold nothing but pillows. Another offered a scented soap. A few wares, including the latest technological wonders, hailed from the city itself. Liz lingered for a bit over small music players much like the iPod that Maria lusted over back in Roswell.
Other goods lacked equivalents on Earth. Or differed from their counterparts so much that she struggled to identify their purposes. Edible material could sit right under her borrowed nose and she might not recognize it. Pillows and soaps might contain organic matter, but didn't lend themselves to taste tests. Besides, whether her current body found something palatable didn't matter anyway. Tess was probably living on some grain or plant fiber the Antarians found inedible.
Liz had gotten better at digging out answers from her borrowed brain, but her skills had limits. On this particular topic, the memories served only as a starting point.
Even with Vilandra's innate curiosity, much was left out of the education of a young princess. Vilandra knew virtually nothing about manufacturing. Then again, aside from brief elementary school lessons on cheese and soap, Liz had never paid much attention to the factories on her own planet. She knew that Henry Ford invented the assembly line. She also had vague ideas about the components of some products. But when it came down to it, she couldn't spell out any precise formulas, and she was a self proclaimed science geek.
Most of the conversations Liz managed to overhear involved bartering. Sometimes she stopped and watched a merchant tote the benefits of their wares. A longshot, perhaps, but maybe she'd learn something useful. Anything might prove palatable to humans, and the tiniest clue could lead her to it.
What she really wanted was to overhear political discussions. If she fled from Kivar, would she find help here, in the marketplace? Or were people too frightened of him? How many went so far as to genuinely support his rule?
Unfortunately, most people were too focused on their own affairs to discuss politics here. Probably bad for business, Liz realized. She'd hardly approach customers in her family's restaurant to ask their opinions on universal health care or the capital gains tax.
She paused at a booth selling a course fiber, something like wool or cotton in raw form. She wondered whether it was sheered from an animal or harvested from plants. Vilandra's memory failed to produce an answer. The fiber felt greasy, like uncarded wool. Not that it meant much. Liz's own wool-related experience consisted only of spinning demonstrations at the county fair. She'd never handled raw cotton in her life. She had no way of judging whether the material could yield anything edible.
Thanks to a lip balm Amy Deluca had once given her, she knew lanolin wasn't toxic, but tasted awful. Then again, the proteins in this material might prove delicious. Or poisonous. Or, for that matter, both.
The merchant was busy haggling, so she moved on.
Three rows later, dejected from her lack of knowledge, she considered conceding defeat. Then her eye caught sight of an ornamental plant vendor rearranging his display.
"Sorry for the mess," he said as she approached. "Just had a customer wipe me clean out of nodellach, of all things."
Liz watched as the vendor filled the gap with a sampling of his wares. Something that vaguely resembled carrots, or perhaps parsnips, drew her eye. Unfortunately, she recognized none of it. Not from her own reading, or Vilandra's memories. Still, the parsnips looked like something Tess might at least consider. Then there was the customer who had just surprised the vendor with an odd purchase.
Thin, perhaps, but also the only straw available to grasp.
As she walked away, Liz made a note to memorize the location of the booth, as well as the vendor's face. Raw vegetable matter here might be edible to humans. Discovering which ones might prove tricky, but she had to start somewhere. That's what had inspired her trip to the market in the first place.
The parsnip-like vegetable might resemble food only in appearance, but she could hope. Now that she'd seen the market's wares for herself, she hoped to recognize them in her reading. Perhaps, without even knowing it, she had already seen Tess's groceries.
Back at the palace, she dismissed the guards with her kind thanks, but asked her handmaiden to spare a few more minutes in her company. She then gifted her with the expensive beaded footwear she'd purchased from the cobbler.
"But Princess, I couldn't!"
"I saw you admire them," Liz said. "They're not comfortable enough for work, but you need something pretty for the upcoming festival."
"Oh, I'd never receive an invitation to the Night of Three Moons celebration, Princess. Only the most important people attend such things."
"You are important," Liz said. She bit back her claim that everyone was important, as Prill's reaction made clear the weight of her social faux pas. Equality and democracy were foreign concepts on Antar. Ones best not given voice by the ruling monarch's fiancée, if she hoped to survive.
"Princess?" Prill gaped at her. "I'm nobody! I can't even boast of noble blood through illegitimacy, as some do. I'd never -- "
In for a penny, Liz thought to herself. "I'd hope you'd come as my guest." Her invitation, originally meant in kindness, now carried the tone of royal authority. "I'm sure we could find an appropriate gown as well, and I would enjoy it more if I had someone keep me company."
"I'm certain you can find better company than me!"
"You're not refusing -- "
"Oh no, Princess, of course not. I'm honored, but what will people say?"
"I suppose we'll find out." Liz forced herself to play by the rules of a dictatorship, and nodded at Kivar's portrait. She hoped she'd get the chance to tear down the sinister thing, but for now she'd use any tool she could find. "I suspect they will dare say little."
After exhausting herself on the shopping expedition, Liz just wanted to rest. Once she'd stowed away her purchases, she allowed herself a few minutes of peace. She wished she could trust at least one person to share the burden she faced, but she knew better. The second captain had demonstrated good character, but that didn't make him an ally.
Even if he agreed with rescuing the innocent life in principle, she had no reason to believe he'd help her do so. Nor would he help her leave the planet. She doubted he'd support Princess Vilandra risking herself in any way at all. After all, Kivar had placed the burden of her safety on his shoulders. If he wished to keep his head on top of those same shoulders, he'd block her plans to rush into danger.
He also seemed unlikely to view the fate of Queen Ava's human baby as a concern worth prioritizing.
The support she thought she sensed was for the Vilandra she'd shown him -- a compassionate princess with a legitimate claim to the throne. A throne currently occupied by a cruel man. Liz planned to bolt off-planet, and leave that cruel man on the throne. That plan left neither Zan's sister nor Zan's son behind to replace Kivar, thus putting the cause of justice even further behind. Not that she knew with any certainty that the captain, or anyone else, played an active role in such a cause. Perhaps he just hoped Vilandra might temper Kivar's rule.
Regardless, Liz's brave running away didn't mesh.
She sighed, and cringed a bit at the whistle that emerged. Let Vilandra run the body, she reminded herself again. Such breathy whistles in public would do Princess Vilandra's image no favors.
Abandoning her stressful attempt at rest as a lost cause, Liz changed gowns and left her chambers. Nobody stopped her as she wandered the corridors. She let one hand trail near the wall, checking for more entrances to the secret tunnels. Vilandra's memories told her she'd find plenty, but didn't yet recall each one.
The one in the lab, which used to serve as a hideout for the royal children, had always been a favorite. Also the one behind the guard's station, so they could play practical jokes on the poor old captain. Unfortunately, her currently assigned bedroom lacked such a luxury. So did the royal bedroom Kivar now occupied. A shame, or Zan and Ava might have survived the coup.
Her meandering took her to the lab, which stood open, and she began a methodical inventory of the equipment and chemicals available. Perhaps she could obtain some samples of raw organic matter, and perform some experiments. Then she could determine the validity of her working theories regarding Tess's dietary choices.
She hoped her hunch about the parsnips -- or rather, the non-parsnips -- paid off. Good science required testing, though. Hope wouldn't sway truth.
"Kivar has moved up the execution," a voice in the corridor said. "He feels the man will tell us no more."
Liz crept to the door and listened more carefully. A possible ally in need of rescue? Someone in need of rescue, anyhow.
"He might be right," a second voice said. "Few have anything left to tell after an interrogation from Kivar."
"Not funny," said the first voice.
"No, not at all," agreed the second.
Liz strode into the corridor. "Who has Kivar scheduled for execution?"
"Pardon us, Your Highness, such talk should not fall upon your ears!"
"Things far worse than unpleasant words have fallen upon me," she told them. "I daresay I will recover from your talk."
"Of course, Your Highness."
"Who is scheduled for execution?" she demanded.
"Doctor Gafer, Your Highness. The court physician. Or rather, former court physician."
"Take me to see him, please."
"But Princess Vilandra, His Royal Highness King Kivar gave orders -- "
"I will deal with Kivar. Take me to the good doctor. Now."
The two acquiesced, and led her to the dungeon. The physician looked up from his misery when they approached. He looked thin and tired.
"Doctor Gafer?" Liz tried to keep her voice soft, so as to keep her request from sounding like an order. "Could you find the time to speak with me?"
"Princess Vilandra!" He scrambled to his feet, stumbling in the process. "How may I serve you?"
"I have some questions about my resurrection," she said. She turned to the guards. "This involves a matter of my health. I will require some privacy."
"Of course, Your Highness."
As they left, she regarded the physician's living arrangement. Typical dungeon cell, like anywhere else in the galaxy, she suspected. Cold and unpleasant. At least she didn't see any rats. "I'm told you are the one who grew and cared for this body during my time on Earth?"
"Yes, Your Highness. I hope it is to your liking? You said you had some health concerns?"
"My health is fine. It is yours which worries me."
Doctor Gafer glanced around before he spoke. "My health will cease to be anyone's concern soon, I fear."
"I'll do my best to change that. What is Kivar's complaint with your services?"
"He is displeased because you awoke sooner than I anticipated, Your Highness."
"I should find his concern touching, I suppose," Liz said. "This is about those hours I spent hiding, before my memories returned?"
"That is the focus of his concern, yes." The physician shifted his eyes away. The universal sign of a half truth.
"I survived those hours. I've survived far worse. I will plead to Kivar on your behalf."
"I fear you will have little success."
"As the one inconvenienced in this matter, it should be my mercy to grant. Unless Kivar has other reasons for wishing you ill?"
"There is more," he admitted. "But he'll kill me if I disclose it."
"He seems likely to kill you anyway," Liz pointed out. "I'm the one who intends to stop him."
"A kindness I appreciate, Your Highness."
"So please, tell me, what secret does my future husband wish to keep from me?"
"I thought I had plenty of time," the physician explained. "You should have slept for hours. And I needed your memories to return before I began the procedure. It was so risky, and what Kivar wanted, well, I wasn't sure I could do it. But I knew I stood no chance if I tried too soon."
"What did he want done to me?" Liz smothered her panic. Whatever it was, it hadn't happened. She needed to project confidence. This man had enough to fear already.
"He wanted me to extract your memory of the coup," he said. "And everything that came after."
"So I'd forget his actions led to my death," Liz said. "That makes sense."
"I didn't want to," he said. "There was too much risk. One error, and you'd have no memories at all. Maybe, considering . . . maybe it would have been a kindness, to erase those painful memories. But one mistake and -- "
"Thank you, for not taking that risk. I will find a way to reward you."
"Kivar won't let me live," he said. "But I have a wife, if you could find it in your heart to help her."
"I will help your wife by returning you to her," Liz said. "No one else will die by Kivar's hand, not while I sit at his side."
"You'll remain by his side, knowing, well . . . "
"I have a duty," she said, and fought the instinct to let her eyes slide away from his as she said it.
He nodded in understanding.
"Get that man a decent meal," Liz ordered as she marched past the guards on her way out. "And any other creature comfort he requires. He's no use to my health if he perishes down here."
She confronted her "lover" in his royal offices, over the mild objection of the guard at his door. "You asked before if I wanted flowers and candy."
Kivar regarded her as one might a child begging for a snack before dinner. "You have found some jewel in the marketplace which charms you, I assume? Did Trustee Crube not provide you a large enough budget?"
"Trustee Crube gave me what I required," she answered. "But I have found something I would like from you."
"The life of the court physician," she said. "He restored me to this body. I do not wish him to die for some minor inconvenience I endured in the process."
"I cannot allow those whom I employ to fail me, or others will follow suit."
"He didn't fail," she argued. "I stand before you, whole and healthy. A few hours confusion is but a small price to pay for one's life."
"I'll give you anything," Kivar said. "But not this. I must enforce obedience."
"You will give me this," Liz said.
"If you wish me to share your bed."
"This man's life, for this you will share my bed?"
"It's not a trade, Kivar. My company is not so cheap. But it's a step. Show me the man I loved, the man who valued life. Make me want to share your bed."
"I will consider your request," he said. "We will speak at dinner."
At Kivar's dismissal, Liz returned to the dungeons. She concealed herself within earshot of the physician's cell. The hiding spot was one Vilandra remembered from childhood. While it proved a little cramped, it suited her purposes. Just as she suspected, she didn't have long to wait.
Kivar strode into the dungeon. For a few long minutes, he just stood silently outside the man's cell. Liz could picture his cold, unblinking stare even with his face blocked from view.
"Listen with care, Physician," Kivar said at last. "Your fate hangs in the balance."
"Understood, Your Highness."
"I will grant you the chance to correct your earlier error," Kivar said. "The princess has expressed some concern about the transfer process. Convincing her to pay you a visit should not prove difficult. That is, provided she has yet to fill her social calendar with more rousing pursuits."
"Yes, Your Highness."
"I will free you from your current circumstance, but you will wear this." Kivar held up some bit of technology.
From her position, Liz couldn't get a good look at it. She could, however, hear the physician's gasp.
"Fail me again," Kivar threatened. "Or add unnecessary delay, and I will activate it. No public execution, but I assure you, the suffering will make up for it."
"Of course, Your Highness," the physician replied, as if the accepting terms of some mundane business deal.
"Princess Vilandra has been trying to make me apologize," Kivar said. "I refuse to bare this situation any longer. You will fix it."
"Understood, Your Highness."
Liz felt herself go cold with fear.
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"Deeply engrossed in playing cards," she said. "Or possibly gossiping about my sex life."
"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."
"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."
"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.
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.
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."
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?"
"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!"
Liz thought her borrowed heart might explode in her chest. Would she die if Kivar murdered this body, or could her soul somehow find Earth? If she ran, who might take pity on her predicament? What would become of Doctor Gafer, who had risked so much to tell her the truth? Who would save Max's son?
"Let her alone, Tervalewa," Plasidy said. "So what if she had a lover on Earth?"
"Oh . . . I had more than one." Liz managed to recover just enough to make the admission into a wicked boast. "I had to do something with my time."
"I'd never let one of those things touch me!" Tervalewa squinted her eyes in revulsion. "All that hideous fiber on their heads . . . and you can see their bones when they open their mouths!"
Liz whistled. "You forget. At the time, I had one of their bodies, head fiber and all."
"Oh how could you stand it?" Plasidy shrugged with dismay.
"I found it an improvement over being dead," Liz said. "After all, that was my prior condition."
"It's so horrible that your brother did that to you," Tervalewa said.
"Is that what people think? That Zan -- "
"Was it Rath?" Plasidy leaned forward, her dismay gone. Murder, it seemed, made for a more entertaining topic than alien biology.
"Tell me the rumors first," Liz said carefully. "As I alone know the truth, I will no doubt find them entertaining."
"Some people -- " Tervalewa took a long pause to emphasize her exasperation at the idea. " -- claim that Rath caught you in the throws of passion, and murdered you in a jealous rage."
"It makes sense," Plasidy argued. "Rath never thought things out. Remember the time he attacked Stinelotucio?"
Liz spoke almost before she'd fully processed the memory. "Stinelotucio threatened Ava. Rath had every right -- "
"You're defending Rath?" Plasidy demanded.
Tervalewa muttered Ava's name with equal disbelief.
"Rath is family," Liz said. "He would never harm me."
"He really didn't do it?" Plasidy asked. "A man of such temper does not tolerate betrayal!"
"Betrayal? Don't be so dramatic, it's not like we were in love."
"But Rath planned to marry you!"
"Our parents expected us to marry." Memories of crouching in the tunnels, eavesdropping as others planned her life, flashed through Liz's mind. Vilandra had begged for release from the contract. Rath showed reluctance as well. But duty and honor demanded the match. Later, Xan promised they'd never marry -- but ordered them to keep up the pretense until a more convenient time. "We enjoyed each other's company, but Rath took our betrothment no more seriously than I did."
"But he stayed loyal to you," Plasidy said. "He never took a lover."
"Oh, and how do you -- " Liz cut off her whistling laughter as she realized how Plasidy must have come to that belief. "I mean, it would risk his position with Xan, but I always assumed him cunning enough to hide a lover. A servant or a shop girl, perhaps, just not someone of status, too many complications."
"Of course," Plasidy agreed.
"Oh who cares about Rath?" Tervalewa whistled. "Tell us how Xan caught you!"
"He didn't," Liz said. And then realized she'd painted herself into a corner, so to speak. The truth would blow her cover, but she'd run out of plausible suspects.
"It was Ava!" Tervalewa leaned forward in our chair. "Tell us everything!"
"These are not pleasant memories." Liz turned to stare at the wall, and added a commanding note to her voice. "Tell me more about what I've missed."
Her guests obeyed.
Liz excused herself after another tedious dinner with Kivar, claiming exhaustion. Not much of a stretch, between her sleepless night and the grueling reunion with Vilandra's society friends. Kivar suggested a visit to the physician, to ensure her restoration was not responsible for her fatigue.
Although she knew the truth of it, she'd expected the suggestion, and agreed without argument.
The next morning, she discovered she'd overslept, at least by her previous standards. She needed to get back to the marketplace, which meant evading the doctor without putting him in any jeopardy. She should have claimed some prior appointment the night before. A meeting with the dressmaker, perhaps.
Instead, she leaned into the role of a flighty and impulsive princess, more worried about enhancing her wardrobe options for the upcoming festival than for the promises she'd made the night before. She gathered her entourage and set out in pursuit of high fashion. Once she'd acquired a bauble that could plausibly compliment her gown, she made a royal beeline for the marketplace.
Her wait, this time, was blessedly shortened by her somewhat late arrival. She soon spotted the servant she sought approaching the flower vendor's booth.
She wasn't surprised to see which plants the girl chose this time. They were the ones she would have preferred, had she gotten trapped on this planet in her own body. As for kalitan, her research had failed her. Not that it mattered, not if she successfully followed the girl now.
Liz glanced around for her guard, all of whom had stationed themselves just within her sight. She suspected her lingering tested their patience. She might have to lose them. But first she had a theory to test.
She made her way back to the vegetable stand just as her quarry handed over payment for the vegetables. The price rivaled that of a number of luxury goods. Liz wondered how Tess was even financing her diet. She pictured an army of mindwarped zombies with empty wallets. Not very stealthy. Tess would need to move on soon.
At the prospect of her only lead reaching its expiration date, Liz decided she couldn't afford to wait. She had to follow the girl, and she needed to slip her security forces to do it.
Liz browsed through the selection at the vegetable stand. She kept her face hidden, although she doubted her quarry would be on the lookout for an undercover princess. Nobody else at the market had recognized her while dressed in work clothes. She pretended to wait patiently while the young woman made her purchases, and then bought one of the more ornamental looking plants.
By this time, the girl, now staggering under the weight of Tess's alleged groceries, had nearly moved out of sight. Liz followed at a leisurely pace. She knew her security team did the same. She'd need to bolt off to lose them, but if she moved too quickly, she'd certainly outpace the overburdened servant.
Once they cleared the marketplace, Liz took a look around. It was now or never. When she neared the clothing store, her entourage would fall in with her, expecting an uneventful return to the palace. She turned and darted down an alley at a full sprint, grateful to the cobbler for the sneakers now on her feet. The alley wasn't long, but instead of racing to the end of it, she sent her recently purchased plant in that direction on its own. She hoped the red herring would buy her a few minutes. Then she ducked into a busy restaurant kitchen and immediately set to work.
Nobody questioned her sudden appearance, everyone was too focused on keeping up with their own work. On Earth, many restaurants struggled with a high rate of employee turnover. If she was lucky, the same was true on Antar, or at least in this particular establishment, and anyone who spotted her would just assume she was a new hire.
Once enough time had passed for her security team to reach the next road and spot her "dropped" plant, she ducked out of the kitchen. She slipped back the way she came at a casual stroll. Nobody stopped her, and she reached the original street just in time to see her quarry turn off of it. She followed, quicker now, but still not quick enough to draw anyone's eye. The girl was still in sight when she reached the corner, and Liz gave silent thanks for the stroke of good luck.
She didn't let her out of sight again, for now the girl seemed to be weaving through a fairly complex route, and only the burden of the groceries kept her from outpacing her pursuer.
Finally she reached a door, and raised her hand to make it glow. Light green, then white, then a brilliant blue. A code, Liz realized. She repeated it to herself, committing it to memory as she watched for the door to open, while pretending to read an old poster on a nearby wall. It advertised a theatrical production. Beside it, someone had graffitied the phrase "Come out from the walls!"
The door opened, and Liz swore she heard a baby cry. Tess!
She crept closer, not sure how she planned to proceed. The door still stood open a crack, as another Antarian helped the girl drag the groceries into a narrow hallway. No sign of blonde hair, but then again, Tess wouldn't be foolish enough to let herself get spotted through an open doorway. The crying had stopped, if that was even what she'd heard in the first place.
She made her way down the narrow street, taking in the general squalor of the area. This was the prosperous city Kivar bragged about? People living in these conditions? Garbage littered the street, and the buildings here looked small and run down. The people moving about kept their eyes down, like attracting attention might prove dangerous. Were they worried about crime? Or about Kivar's security forces rounding them up for their own crimes, either genuine or manufactured? The offworlders seemed to outnumber the Antarians, although Liz's sample group was admittedly small given the brevity of her visit.
After exploring the immediate area in more detail, she approached the door where the groceries had disappeared. Light green, then white, then blue. She raised her hand to try it, only for the entire world to tilt in her head. The wave of dizziness nearly sent her to her knees. She thought she heard voices speaking English, and fought against it.
A mind warp.
Tess had spotted her.
She fought against it. She would not allow Tess into her head! The voices quickly disappeared, causing her to doubt her assumption. If Tess had spotted her and perceived a threat, she'd have a real battle on her hands. Whomever or whatever had brushed her mind had been weak. Perhaps some criminal on the street, probing for potential victims?
It didn't matter. Not now. What mattered was getting to Tess, and securing her cooperation. She raised her hand to the door once again.
Light green, then white, then the brightest blue she could manage.
A red glow lit up the door from the inside.
She tried again. Light green, then white, then the bright blue.
The door opened a crack. A very narrow crack. Just wide enough for the muzzle of an energy weapon to peek out.
"I mean no harm," Liz said. "I'm here to offer Queen Ava safe passage, if she's willing to hear me out."
"Oh yeah?" The male voice sounded skeptical. "And how should I announce this generous benefactor to her royal highness?"
Liz took a gamble. It was now or never. "Tell her Princess Vilandra has come to reunite the family."
The energy weapon disappeared from the door. Liz waited for it to open and admit her. Instead, the girl she'd followed appeared behind her, brandishing a different energy weapon. "Princess Vilandra, really? You're gutsy, I'll give you that, but -- "
Liz turned slowly around and looked the girl straight in the face.
Antarians didn't turn pale any more than they blushed. The melatonin in their gray skin masked any changes in the blood flow beneath it. But the girl looked suitably frightened. She even trembled.
"Your Royal Highness!" She fell to her knees.
"Get up before someone sees you," Liz snapped. "Your deference will get us all killed."
"Of course, Princess Vilandra." The girl scrambled to her feet. "Come inside, Your Highness."
And that's the moment the dizziness returned, knocking Liz on her ass as she heard both Max and Maria shouting, while Isabel told them both to shut up. Then everything went black.
"I can't get a grip on her mind at all," Isabel said. "For one thing, I'm pretty sure she's awake. And for another, you two are incredibly distracting."
"But you found her?"
"I don't know. I found someone. But I couldn't really see anything. I just got a sense of a mind. Since I was looking for Liz, there's a good chance it was Liz."
"And you're sure you can't get the transport beam to work?"
"It's turned off. I tried to turn it on, but nothing happened. I think it's unplugged."
"And you can't plug it in?"
"Telekinesis strong enough to work clear across the galaxy? And precise enough to reconnect power cables? No, I don't have anywhere near that kind of power."
"It still takes me three tries to plug my phone into the charger," Kyle interjected. "And that's with my own two hands."
"If it's unplugged, how do we know she's even alive?" Maria looked eerily calm. Isabel knew that look. She'd never forget Maria's quiet terror that day in the sheriff's office years ago. Maria had protected their secret, despite doubting that she could trust the aliens. That's the moment Isabel had learned to trust Maria.
"She's alive," Isabel said with more confidence than she felt. "Her body's alive. There has to be a way to put her soul back in it. Kyle?"
"You're asking me?"
"You're the one who knows how souls work. If there was ever a time to quote that fat bald man, now would be the time!"
"A soul can't be destroyed," Kyle said. "It's energy. Energy can't be destroyed. She'll be okay, Maria. Liz is smart, she'll figure out how to send herself back."
Isabel could tell he had about as much confidence in his words as she had in her own, but she didn't press.
"Keep trying," Michael said. "It's only been a few hours. They might not even know she's there yet."
Isabel closed her eyes, and reached for Liz's mind yet again.
She woke up in a dark room full of mismatched chairs. Two sets of eyes watched her. Both people still held energy weapons, but at least they weren't aimed at her.
"Who are you people?" she demanded. "And what happened?"
"You fainted, Princess Vilandra," the man said. "Have you been ill since your return?"
"I've been perfectly healthy," she said. "Up to the moment I arrived at your door."
"I hope you do not suspect us. It would be a useful trick, granted, but I promise we are not responsible."
She wondered if Tess had kept her powers masked from these people. Or had downplayed their usefulness. Such a ruse might work, royal or not, in a human body among Antarians.
"How did you find us?" The girl asked.
"I followed you from the marketplace," Liz admitted. "I saw your purchases, and followed a hunch."
"You're looking for Queen Ava?"
"Why? She betrayed Zan."
It shocked Liz that they knew about Tess's attempt to deliver Max to Kivar. Or did they? Knowing Tess, they could be referring to an entirely different betrayal, so she kept her knowledge to herself. "Kivar is hunting for the baby. I want to make sure he's safe."
"He's safe," the girl said. "We'd never let Kivar hurt him. Which makes us just a little suspicious about your motivation."
"I have no love for Kivar," Liz said. "He was a youthful mistake, and one I have had plenty of time to regret. Although at the moment, I have little choice but to play along with his whims."
"Does he know you're here?"
"He thinks I'm dress shopping. Although if I'm gone too long, my security forces will surely alert him that they've lost me."
"If your security forces are smart, they'll keep that information under wraps as long as possible," the man said. "Kivar has a tendency to fire employees with a blade. Slowly."
Liz cringed. "You never answered my question. Who are you?"
"You haven't guessed?"
"You've already disproven my first guess," Liz admitted. "I have others, but it would be easier if you'd just introduce yourselves."
"I'm Dremea," the girl said. "This is Traedon."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Dremea." She nodded to each of them, in the Antarian fashion. "Traedon."
"We're taking a big risk by having you here," Dremea continued. "How do we know you won't lead Kivar straight to us."
"If you're smart, you'll relocate as soon as I'm gone. If you're working to undermine Kivar in any way, I have no wish to stop you. But if you'd grant me the favor of a meeting with Queen Ava, you would have my gratitude."
"Will gratitude buy a new safehouse?" Traedon demanded.
"I suppose it must," Liz said. She emptied her purse on a low table. "Will that do? I can get more."
"That will do," Traedon said. "As for more, we'd need to meet again, and that would just cost us yet another safehouse, would it not?"
"So we'd better make this meeting count," Liz said. "For all our sakes."
Dremea went to see Queen Ava, to seek her permission for an audience.
Liz couldn't quite determine whether Tess led this faction of rebels, or if the rebels held her as a high value prisoner. Her door, Liz noted, locked from the outside with an old-fashioned bolt. Yet at the same time, they felt the need to seek Queen Ava's permission for a meeting. Either way, it worked for Liz, so she didn't ask any questions. Asking might mean picking a side, or implying that she had already done so.
Other than parking herself squarely in the camp of anyone opposed to Kivar, she wasn't prepared to choose. She didn't know enough details regarding the political situation. More importantly, she didn't want trouble with any potential ally.
But when Dremea reported back, Liz had second thoughts about neutrality.
"Queen Ava has declined your request for a meeting," Dremea said. "The child is napping, and she does not feel up to visitors."
"Too bad." Liz rose and marched toward Tess's room.
Traedon raised his energy weapon, but Liz waved an arm and batted it away as if shooing an insect. The weapon flew across the room and fell to the floor.
"Don't bother," Liz said, when he went to retrieve it. "I emptied the charge. I'll fix it when I leave, of course, I'd never leave an ally defenseless. In the meantime, please do not interrupt us."
Using powers alone, she flung open the door and slammed it shut behind her. For added measure, she even mentally slid the now damaged outside bolt into place. "Hello Tess. Try to remember that I asked nicely first."
"Isabel!" Tess jumped to her feet. "I didn't believe them when they told me -- "
"You believed them," Liz answered. "I can tell when you're dishonest, so I'd recommend keeping your lies to a minimum."
"Listen, Isabel, I'm sorry about what happened in the granolith chamber," Tess said. "I never meant -- "
"Nope," Liz said. "Wrong answer. Now sit down."
Tess didn't move.
"Again, I asked nicely first." Liz raised her hand and blasted Tess backward into a nearby chair.
"Hey! Watch the baby!"
"The baby is way over there." Liz nodded in the direction of the cradle. "And he's fine."
"You're going to wake him up," Tess objected weakly. "It took forever to get him to stop fussing."
"Keep arguing with me and I'll do worse than wake the baby. Now as richly as you deserve to spend the rest of your life running from one squalid safehouse to the next, never more than one step ahead of Kivar, I'm here to help, so I'd suggest you listen."
"I'm listening," Tess said. "But Isabel, we were friends, right? Try to remember that we were friends."
Liz snorted. A sound that didn't really work in an Antarian body.
"Remember what you said when we first met?"
"Not really," Liz said honestly. "I found all the betrayal a lot more memorable."
Tess started to stand up again.
"Seriously?" Liz blasted her again. "Now stay down, bitch."
"Isabel! This isn't you!"
"Finally," Liz muttered. "A word of truth."
"You were my friend," Tess started again. "You saved my life once. Remember? And I helped save you from that jellyfish thing!"
"As I recall, Alex and Kyle were the ones who killed the jellyfish thing. You remember Alex, the guy you murdered. And Kyle, the guy you brainwashed into carrying the body."
"Isabel, I swear -- "
"They're the ones who saved us that night. You did help with the digging, though, I'll give you that. You even got muddy. Anything to keep your cover, I suppose."
"I didn't do that to save some cover," Tess said. "There was no cover. I never meant to hurt any of you, I just wanted to get home. You have to trust me!"
"Trust you? I'm supposed to trust you? You killed one of my best friends!"
"I didn't mean to, it was an accident! I never meant to hurt him, I swear! I just -- that's why I had to leave, I knew you guys would never understand."
"So oops, then, sorry Alex, but your life doesn't matter? That doesn't cut it, Tess."
"I know, I know, if I could change it I would!"
"You could have changed it! You could have gone to Max, told him what you did. Given him the chance to heal Alex! You didn't need to keep mindwarping him. You didn't need to kill him!"
"I didn't kill him," Tess said. "I tried to fix it, and -- "
"You killed Alex and sold the rest of us out -- "
"Nasedo made that deal!"
"Nasedo was dead long before you carried it out."
"I had to! I didn't want to, but Liz wouldn't let things go! She was going to find out what happened, and Max was going to take her side -- "
"You need to face what you did. Alex deserves justice and one day he will have it." Liz paused, and her eyes found the baby. She'd come here for a reason. "But that day isn't today."
"Then why are you here?"
"Kivar wants your son. You must know that."
Tess jumped to her feet again. "You are back with Kivar! That's rich, Isabel. You go off on me about betrayal while you share a bed with -- "
"For heaven's sake, Tess, I am not sleeping with Kivar! And you can stop shielding that baby, I'm not going to hurt him."
"How are you here at all? Everyone knew Kivar was trying to arrange it, but I never believed you'd actually take him up on the offer. He can't be trusted, you know."
"Oh, I don't know, he can be pretty well trusted to act like a brutal monster, from what I've seen so far. Which is why we need to work together if we want to save Max's son."
"Whatever. Kivar has put a price on his head." Liz gestured toward the door. "How much do you trust these people?"
"The Inwallers saved my life," Tess said. "Kivar was going to have me killed. Some of them want to put Zan on the throne and make me Queen Regent, but there seems to be some disagreement as to my choices for Imperial Chancellor."
"You named the baby Zan?"
"It is his father's name."
"Yeah," Liz said. "You might want to reconsider rubbing that in, if we're going to work together."
"Why would -- " Tess studied her for a long moment. "Liz?"
"Yes," she admitted. "But right now, I prefer 'Princess Vilandra.' Or 'Your Highness,' I'm not actually that picky."
"Kivar tried to win over Isabel the direct way. She blasted his ass back here. So he tried again, only this time, he possessed Kyle to do it."
"Kyle! Is he okay?"
"I hope so," Liz said. "Our plan to save him got a little screwed up, and when I pushed Kivar into the transport beam, I ended up in this clone."
"And everyone thinks you're Vilandra?"
"Princess Vilandra," Liz said. "And yes. I may not be as talented a liar as you, Tess, but I do have some skills."
"I'm sorry I slept with Max."
"I doubt that, but -- "
"It's just I needed to get back home, and -- "
"Oh yeah? And how's that working out for you?"
"It's not like I stole him away from you, you know. He was mine first." Tess put her hand on the baby.
"Don't wake him up, Tess. Isn't that why you didn't want to see me? You didn't want to wake the baby?"
"I thought you were Isabel."
"Yes, your good friend Isabel, who has no reason at all to be mad at you, after all, you just murdered her boyfriend, it's not like you seduced him."
"I was his wife!"
"A valid defense for sleeping with him," Liz said. "It's the part where you tried to get him killed that needs explaining."
"I never would have hurt Max!"
"No, you just wanted to turn him over to his mortal enemy. How long would he have survived, once Kivar had him in his clutches?"
"We would have escaped! I managed to get away. The Inwallers helped me, and these people don't even like me, or trust me -- "
"I'm liking them better all the time."
"If we had all come back like I planned -- "
"Stop. This is getting us nowhere." Liz closed her eyes for a moment, and reined in her temper. "This thing between us, it isn't some petty squabble over boyfriend stealing. If that was the only issue between us, I'd be over it. Whatever blame is due, that's on Max. You seduced him, he fell for it. I'm mad about Alex. I don't trust you because you tried to deliver the others to Kivar. But right now, we have to put it all aside. This is life or death, and the baby's life has to come first."
"You're willing to forgive me?"
"Maybe. Eventually. For right now, though, I think we have to settle for a truce. A truce, and an alliance for the greater good."
She glanced at the baby. "If it gets us off of this planet, I'm in."
"Good. Now tell me everything you know about the Inwallers. We don't have much time."
"I'm completely blocked now," Isabel reported. "And not just from Liz. My powers aren't working at all."
Maria spun around to Max. "Can you heal her or something?"
"There's nothing to heal," Max said. "I can't fix exhaustion. I'm not caffeine."
"That sounded suspiciously like my line," Kyle said. "Maria, we don't know that Liz is in any danger. Not for sure."
"She's not in her body, Kyle. Her body is laying here all cold and limp, and her soul is in a completely different galaxy!"
"Okay, so it's not good," Kyle admitted. "But Kivar has been bopping back and forth between bodies, and I'm pretty sure if it was all that dangerous, he wouldn't do it. He'd just send some minion."
"Larak does it all the time," Max added.
"There's an idea," Isabel said. "We can contact Larak. He must know how to fix this."
"What do we do with Liz, in the meantime?" Maria asked. "Her parents are going to start asking questions if this goes on much longer. We have a shift at six."
"She'll also get dehydrated," Kyle pointed out. "We might need a way to get fluids into her."
"We'll get her an IV if we have to," Max said. "Do we have a way to contact that doctor?"
Isabel shrugged. "He's a friend of Jesse's, so if I can actually find my husband -- "
"I kept his card," Kyle said. "When he helped Isabel, I kept his card. I figured it was only a matter of time before someone else got shot or stabbed or beamed out of their body and into another galaxy."
"Okay," Maria said. "Now what do we tell her parents?"
From Tess, Liz learned that the Inwallers, in one form or another, had fought Kivar's illegal occupation of the throne since the coup. They named themselves for the tunnels Liz had discovered in the palace. Originally, a few survivors of Zan's household had led the group. As Liz had guessed, the tunnels were DNA coded to only open for certain people. Members of the royal family topped the list. They'd also programmed the system to accept the DNA of three trusted servants. Their descendants could also open the tunnels.
Not that it mattered much, two of the three were dead, and the other was in hiding with Max and Isabel's mother.
"She's still alive?" Liz gasped.
"In a manner of speaking," Tess answered. "She had herself frozen."
"Like Walt Disney?"
"Well she had her whole body frozen, not just her head. And she didn't wait to die first, either. Nobody even knows what planet she's hidden on. The Inwallers are the only people who even know she's alive. Or, well, frozen. Once Zan is back on the throne -- her son Zan, not mine -- those in on the secret will send for her, and she'll return."
Liz thought the arrangement sounded a bit cowardly, but she didn't say so. "The Walt Disney thing isn't true, you know. It's just an urban legend."
"You're the one who brought it up."
"I need to get back to the palace. Kivar's made an appointment to have my mind erased, and if I don't keep it, he's going to poison the unfortunate doctor who's supposed to do it."
"You're not actually going to go through with that?"
"Of course not," Liz said. "But I'm not going to let someone else die in my place. There's always a third choice, if you're willing to think outside the box."
Tess flinched at the implication, and Liz thought that maybe, just maybe, she might feel a little of the remorse she claimed. Time would tell.
On her way back to the palace, Liz thought over her planned excuse for having bolted. Some vague flighty princess story wouldn't fly with the second captain. He'd been paying attention, and knew better.
She decided to claim she'd seen some sort of danger on her way back to the clothing store. She'd panicked, and then gotten lost, so she'd hidden and waited for them to find her, only to give up when she started to feel foolish. At least the foolish part wouldn't be a lie, the story made her feel like an idiot, and she worked to tweak it. Did they have PTSD here? Or at least, did they recognize it, and how was it treated? Was there a stigma attached, or would it make a harmless excuse?
She should have thought of this before bolting off, but she'd needed to find Tess. She couldn't have let her slip away. Now she realized Tess wouldn't have slipped away, but it was too late to beat herself up over mistakes. She just needed to fix the damage and move on.
Without any money, she had no choice but to use the seclythe at one of the dress shops on the way back. It wouldn't do to get caught in work clothes. She chose the one her handmaiden had mentioned, Whisler's, and took a gamble on a pleasant saleswoman from offworld. "I'm going to let you in on a secret. Please prove yourself trustworthy."
The woman nodded. She'd yet to recognize the princess, and her eyes went wide the moment she saw the seclythe. "My goodness, where did you -- "
"It's not stolen, if that's what you're thinking." Liz pointed to her own face. Or, rather, Vilandra's.
"Your Highness!" The woman fell to her knees.
"Up," Liz ordered. "Your courtesy risks us both."
"How may I serve you?" the woman asked as she climbed to her feet.
"I need a gown, a place to change, and a package in which to conceal these clothes."
"Is that all?"
"Your discretion is the most valuable part of the deal," Liz said. "I'm prepared to pay well for it."
"Of course, Your Highness, I'd never gossip about you."
"I daresay I'd survive idle gossip. This is more important," Liz said. "Someone might come asking after me. Can you face them bravely? I promise you, it's for the good of all our worlds."
"By someone you mean Kivar."
"Yes, or one of his men. I know what I ask is dangerous -- "
"So you're not in love with him?" The woman's eyes seemed to light up. "I knew you couldn't still be in love with him, not after what happened."
"Keep that to yourself," Liz said. "Please. At least until -- well, you'll know when it's safe."
"You'll make it safe," the woman whispered. "Won't you? Safe for my husband and daughter to join me here? It's been so long."
"I can only promise to do my best." Liz nearly choked on the words, in the light of the woman's shining eyes.
"Thank you, Princess Vilandra. We're all gladdened by your return."
The look in that woman's eyes haunted Liz the rest of the way back to the palace. The people here needed Kivar removed from the throne. Each time one of them looked to her with hope in their eyes, she felt a little guiltier about her simple plan. Max's son, she told herself. Save the baby. Every day of delay put an innocent child in danger. She was in danger herself.
But if one child was worth the risk to her life, weren't all the lives on Antar worth at least the same price? People in danger, families separated. Would anyone else on the planet have a better shot at removing Kivar from the throne? A new plan began to form in her mind. A dangerous plan, and not a pleasant one. But with so many lives at stake, how could she shy from her duty?
No, she wasn't really Princess Vilandra of Antar, but Max really was King Zan. These were his people. If she and Max had a future together, that made them hers as well.
"Princess Vilandra! You're safe!" Prill leapt from her seat in the guard's station. "Half the guards in this palace are looking for you. They wouldn't let me help. I think some of them even blame me!"
"I saw an armed man on the street," Liz explained weakly. "I was alone, and I thought he recognized me. Maybe he even expected to see me there. I didn't want to get cornered in that shop, especially if they already knew we met there. So I found another place to hide."
"It was, at first. Then I just felt foolish. It took me so long to work up the courage to come out again. Kivar must be frantic."
"Kivar doesn't know."
"But surely -- "
"He's locked away in his office, arguing with his advisors about the guest list for the Night of Three Moons. Or at least that's what they told me. He might be arguing about something far less interesting, but in any case, nobody wanted to disturb him."
"Good," Liz said. "That's good. I wouldn't want him to make himself sick with worry."
Handmaiden Prill nodded. Maybe she believed Kivar capable of making himself sick with worry, or maybe she just went along with the fiction. For her part, Liz felt a flood of relief. At least she'd escaped facing a confrontation with Kivar over her whereabouts.
"Your Highness." A guard she did not recognize bowed low in front of her. "My apologies at the interruption. This correspondence arrived for you, from the historical center. It's marked urgent."
"You have my thanks . . . " Liz glanced at the insignia on his uniform as she took the thin package. " . . . Lieutenant."
When she opened the package, she had to work to school her face into a neutral expression. It was a report on the coup, including a casualty list, complete with next of kin. Thirty-eight holes in this world. Thirty-eight names still without justice.
Liz closed her eyes for a moment. "I almost forgot. I have an appointment with the doctor."
"You didn't tell me you were sick!"
"Fit as the proverbial fiddle," Liz said.
"Pardon, Your Highness?"
Crap. Bad translation. "I'm completely healthy." She dropped her voice to a whisper as they moved out into the corridor. "That's the problem."
"There are certain activities I've been refraining from, if you get my meaning. The doctor has promised me a solution to that situation."
Prill still looked clueless.
"As much as Antar needs a royal heir," Liz whispered. "Such an heir should be born after the wedding, don't you think?"
"I haven't left you scandalized, have I? Please keep my confidence, in any case."
"Of course, Your Highness."
"Another favor, if I may?"
"Anything, Your Highness."
"You must know which of the new gowns Kivar liked best? After all, you were there when he selected them. Lay out a favorite for me, I'll wear it to dinner."
Liz headed next to the lab, where she found a worried Doctor Gafer pacing the floor.
"I apologize for my tardiness," she said. "An errand took longer than expected."
"I thought you changed your mind," he said. "It left me wondering if Kivar would take your absence as a valid excuse for the procedure's failure."
"There will be no such failure," Liz said. "When I see Kivar tonight, it will be as if the coup never happened. Although I am curious as to how Kivar will have its results explained away."
"Assassins," Doctor Gafer said. "Sent by Larak. With his dying breath, Zan begged you to marry a strong man, in order to pass his throne to your own son."
"Zan would have me marry Rath."
"In this version, Rath died saving you."
"Larak seems an odd choice of usurper."
"A trusted friend of King Zan's, yet an offworlder? He's the perfect choice of usurper."
"It's just, I knew Larak. On Earth, I mean, not just in my past life. He saved our lives once."
"Larak's on Earth?"
"No, but he visited quite a few times. Although I suppose 'visited' isn't quite accurate."
"Ah, one of the humans with the cell division disorder."
"Yes. Is the cancer what made it work?"
"Oh no, that just provided a way to compensate the humans for the inconvenience. Earth's methods of treatment are quite primitive."
"I know Brody -- Larak's host -- was grateful, although his guesses regarding his lost time were a little too close to the truth."
"It's a curious method of communication. It's what gave me the idea for all of this." Doctor Gafer waved his hand at the pod chambers. "The original plan for your transfer required the return of your human bodies. It also depended upon using the granolith. Its power is incredible, you know. But your mother had the grown clones hidden away, and nobody could find the granolith. Little did we suspect she'd sent it to Earth."
"So there's a second clone somewhere?"
"And possibly a third. But it doesn't matter, you can only occupy one at a time. There's no chance of confusion. Now shall we proceed?" He gestured again at the pod chambers. "I'll need to record the procedure, in case Kivar demands proof of my work."
"My life is in your hands, Doctor Gafer." Liz stepped into the pod where Isabel's clone had matured, carefully averting her eyes from the loosened power conduit.
The doctor changed the angle of the computer screen, and began going through the motions of setting up the program. Simple observation did not reveal whether he planned to go through with the procedure ordered, or trust his life to Princess Vilandra's acting skills. Liz had little choice but to give him the benefit of the doubt. She braced herself. If she felt so much as the slightest tickle in her mind, she'd blast him.
The flashier alien powers belonged only to royalty and the upper class. Most Antarians, such as the Inwallers she'd met earlier, had to rely on energy weapons in a fight. The physician didn't have one, but if he meant to betray her, a room full of medical equipment would do the job.
"And why exactly would I climb into this pod without question?"
"You won't remember that detail after the procedure," he said.
"I won't remember?" Liz asked. "Or I wouldn't remember, and therefore don't need to know?"
"You don't sound very trusting, Princess Vilandra."
"It's been a strange day," Liz said. "You should probably know that the Inwallers know of our deal."
Doctor Gafer turned to her, shock all over his face. "That's where you were this afternoon? You realize speaking with them is high treason."
"High treason is practically the official pastime in this palace," Liz said calmly.
"True," he allowed. "The question is, what really constitutes treason in these troubled times? It's all in the eye of the beholder."
"That it is, Doctor Gafer." Liz closed her eyes and leaned back in the pod.
She felt the heat of flashing lights against her face, but her mind remained clear. After only a few minutes, the pod door opened again, and Doctor Gafer touched his hand to her forehead.
She opened her eyes.
"The scans tell me you're as healthy as expected," the doctor said. "Now shall we discuss the contraceptives you requested?"
"That is why I came down here, is it not?"
"Very well. Since you're perfectly healthy, and do wish to have children after marriage, I'd recommend the first option. It takes a few days to become effective, but once you stop taking it, your fertility returns almost immediately. There are other options, of course, but they're harder to deactivate, so unless you're too impatient to wait -- "
"Why wait? I think my love deserves the swiftest reunion possible."
Doctor Gafer stared at her. "Do you not believe your impatience might be even greater when this choice delays your attempt at conceiving an heir?"
"Oh, I'm not worried about that now," she said. "After all, there's a whole wedding to plan first. Nuptials worthy of such an an epic love story take time to plan. Tonight I want to spend with Kivar."
The doctor dropped his head. "As you wish, Princess Vilandra."
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."
Liz left the tunnels and made her way to the palace offices. She'd soon know just how much she dared trust the second captain.
She found him sitting at a desk that could have fallen straight from a 1940's detective novel, if Philip Marlowe had worked at a desk constructed entirely of glowing purple panels. The captain looked up from his inlaid computer screen. "My goodness, Princess Vilandra! A bit early for shopping, isn't it?"
"Far too early," she agreed. "But something troubles me, so I thought it best I come to you."
"I will serve you in any way I can, Your Highness."
"My handmaiden, Prill, told me she found a note in my bedchambers," Liz said. She watched the captain's face for any clues. "I find it troubling that anyone could gain such access, and I'm afraid my imagination has run wild as to the contents. Am I in danger?"
"You might know better than I, Princess Vilandra." The second captain glanced toward his nearest workmate. "Any spurned suitors in your past?"
"Rath is dead," Liz said.
"Of course," he said. "Death makes a good alibi, although you sit before me now."
"Are you telling me Rath has somehow returned?"
"Oh, certainly not, Princess. But in my line of work, we never rule out any possibility without proof of a better explanation. Rath is an unlikely suspect, but not an impossible one."
"I see. Who are the suspects?"
"That I cannot answer, not having seen the note."
"Oh," Liz said. "Well, then, would you please fetch it for me? We can read it together."
"I can try, Your Highness," he said. "Will you wait while I ask my colleagues?"
Liz fretted in silence at the captain's desk, her eyes darting to the tall shelves full of data discs. She'd love an hour alone in this office, with its dragon's hoard of useful secrets.
The captain returned, and laid a battered letter on his desk. "I'm told it arrived in better condition," he said. "They sampled its fibers for DNA, and when it came up clean, they kept right on sampling."
"It's the words, not the paper, that might hold meaningful clues," Liz said. "Unless the culprit is particularly sloppy."
"Of course, Your Highness."
She took the paper, and scanned it.
If your great romance has not lived up to expectations, might you consider other options? To learn of them, spill your soup at dinner.
"We had soup last night," Liz said. "Did this person watch us eat?"
"This person knew of the menu before your dinner," the captain pointed out. "Otherwise, why the instruction to spill it?"
"Right," Liz said. "Only I didn't receive the instruction in time. Prill found it first."
"Do you regret your unspilled soup, Princess?"
Liz snapped her gaze to the captain. "I don't believe this a joking matter, Captain."
"Of course, begging your pardon, Your Highness."
"You have it," Liz assured him. "But without receiving the desired signal, what might this person do now? Have I made an enemy?"
"It seems more likely they will try again. No spy worth his salt would take a single missed drop as a definite signal."
"Spy?" Liz exclaimed with as much surprise as she could muster. "But I thought we suspected a spurned suitor!"
"Rath is dead, Your Highness."
"So he is, Captain." Liz took a gamble. "This alleged spy, will you come to me if someone apprehends him? I'd hate for some lovesick fool's shenanigans to be mistaken for espionage. Kivar has such a temper when it comes to such things."
"Your soft heart puts you at peril, Your Highness."
"Does it?" She looked around pointedly. "Who here could condemn me for mercy?"
"Surely not I," the captain said. "But some might . . . misinterpret such intentions."
"Of course, Captain." Liz stood. "I would like to go shopping again, after breakfast. You will accompany me?"
"I wouldn't miss it for all the five worlds, Princess Vilandra."
The theory of Occam's Razor sent Liz to the kitchen in pursuit of suspects. Palace menus weren't exactly secret, but the cook and her staff would have the earliest access to them.
"Princess Vilandra, Your Highness!" The cook fell to her knees.
Liz shook off her discomfort at the gesture. This time, at least it didn't endanger anyone. "Please rise."
"How may we serve you, Your Highness?"
"Last night, one of the courses consisted of a delicious soup," Liz said. "I quite enjoyed it."
"Why thank you for the compliment, Your Highness! It pleases me greatly."
"Might there be any left?" Liz asked.
"Oh dear me, I'm not certain," the cook said. "I will check, if Your Highness has the patience to wait."
"I'm not known for my patience," Liz said. "But I will give it a try, for the sake of the soup."
"Your Highness, my apologies!" The woman fell again to her knees. "I did not mean to question your virtue, Princess Vilandra, of course your patience is beyond question. I beg your forgiveness."
"Oh!" Liz reached a hand toward the cook, who cringed. Crap. "You've done nothing wrong! I'm the one who should apologize. My attempt at humor failed. Kivar has been teasing me for my impatience, you see."
"Certainly, Your Highness." The woman scurried off to check on the soup, leaving Liz to wonder what she planned to do with it.
"I found some!" The cook placed a bowl before her. "We can heat it up for your breakfast, if you'd like it now."
"I'd like that very much," Liz said. "I wanted a second bowl last night, but Kivar was so eager for the next course, you see."
"Yes, Your Highness."
Liz glanced around at the other kitchen workers, several of whom where watching her curiously. She dipped a finger into the pot of soup, and using her powers, levitated a mouthful. In the process she very carefully dribbled it carelessly across the counter. "Oh goodness," Liz said, a bit louder than necessary. "Now I've spilled some."
Nobody reacted. She picked up the bowl of soup and strolled out of the kitchen again.
Of course Liz had no way of knowing whether her performance in the kitchen even mattered. The spy might not work in the kitchen, and even if he did, he might not have been present just before breakfast. And even if he got her message, she had to wait for contact. She just hoped he wouldn't put himself in too much danger. She doubted Kivar would spare a second life for her, because from his perspective, his need for any sort of apology had expired with her brainwashing.
Liz ate soup for breakfast, and if anyone found it odd, they didn't say. "It was the best course last night," she told Prill. "Not only is it tasty, but it's a lot more fun than most food."
"Fun?" Prill asked. It was not the first time Liz had caught the young woman questioning the concept of fun.
"Like this," she said. She waved her foodstick at the dish, and floated the soup upward in bubbles. "See? Fun."
"Of course, Your Highness," Prill said.
Liz found herself torn about her handmaiden's nature. She still didn't trust her, but she was also bothered by any thought of the young woman's discomfort. Not to mention her future, should blame for any of Liz's plans fall upon the innocent servant.
Political machinations sure came with a lot of guilt.
Dammit Jim, she thought to herself. I'm a scientist, not a revolutionary.
After breakfast, Liz returned to her room. She wanted to do some reading before embarking on yet another shopping trip. When she turned on the computer, it provided her with the latest news updates. She nearly cried when she saw the increased price on little Zan's innocent head. Not only did she fear for the child, but it also made her doubt her position with Kivar. Did he think she wouldn't notice the hunt for her "nephew" if he kept advertising the bounty? Or did he simply not care about his future bride's feelings, so long as she cooperated with his demands.
Cruel, arrogant, and foolish described Kivar in equal measure.
Or perhaps it was a test of Doctor Gafer's brainwashing. Would a Vilandra who never experienced the palace coup think to question Kivar's motives, or even read the news at all?
A history of the political parties on Antar, if the term even fit, proved elusive. She hoped for a chance to question Doctor Gafer's wife, because the computer offered her no answers. The best course would be to pay the woman a visit. She'd need an excuse, of course. She couldn't just call on seemingly random citizens without arousing suspicion.
Maybe she could just forego the security detail, and sneak out of the palace herself. How had Vilandra done it, during her famous affair with Kivar? Well for one thing, Zan's household had valued freedom and privacy over paranoid security protocols. But even so, she'd been accountable for her time. Liz strained against the limitations of her borrowed memory. Aside from her interests in geology, politics, and fashion, did Vilandra have any hobbies?
She'd arranged the same sorts of social events that high society ladies were known for in Liz's own culture. Dinners and dances meant to raise money for charities and museums. Museums!
That's where she could find at least some of her answers. And if Doctor Gafer's wife was an historian, she might be just the one to help with a little fundraising.
Liz visited the lab yet again, despite the risk. She did take one precaution -- a witness to confirm the innocence of the meeting. She brought the second captain along with her, pretending to remember the errand just before the planned shopping trip. "I almost forgot," she told him. "This trip is about more than shopping today, but I won't get far without the correct address. Do you mind?"
He tailed her obediently, and she stuck her head into the lab. "Hello? Doctor Gafer?"
"Your Highness," the physician bowed. "Captain. How may I serve you?"
"A quick favor," she said. "I want to plan a fundraiser for one of the museums. Something to remind people of my return to society. Do you think I could recruit your wife for such an event?"
"Oh, I am certain she'd be delighted," he said. "I suspect she even has a project that needs funding. There are drawings of a potential exhibit scattered all over my house."
"How fortuitous," Liz said. "Think she could squeeze me into her schedule?"
He gave her the address, and promised to give his wife a call. "She'll clear her schedule for you, Princess Vilandra. No need to worry."
Historian Mascusda received them in her cramped and cluttered office. She waved Princess Vilandra into the best chair, and cleared piles of books from a pair of stools for the others. Her project turned out to involve a collection of antique children's toys, recently donated by the estate of a wealthy former patron. She thought the people of Antar would enjoy an exhibit dedicated to the simple pleasures of youth.
"Everyone enjoys a bit of nostalgia," Historian Mascusda explained. "History often teaches uncomfortable lessons, which I think keeps some people away. Our museum would benefit from a wing that spreads joy."
"I agree," Liz said. "Everyone deserves a share of happiness. I would love to help provide some."
"Excellent! Would you like a preview of the items?"
"I would love to see them," Liz said. "If you can spare the time."
"Time is no object for me today, Princess Vilandra." Historian Mascusda hurried to open the first box, and handed Liz a doll. "From the time of your father's rule, I believe."
Liz studied the carefully crafted figure. Vilandra had owned a similar toy, and the memories related to it arose in her mind. Zan liked to use it as a high value hostage in his war games with Rath, when they were all young. What seemed like boyish hijinks on the surface held deeper meaning, though. Using hostages to manipulate battle strategy was a popular military tactic, something the future king had studied from a young age. Several key turning points in Antarian history had hinged upon the solutions -- or lack thereof -- crafted by leaders to combat this particular problem.
A teacher had presented young Zan with one such theoretical situation. The future leader needed to find a solution before he could move on to the next lesson. Zan had labored for weeks over increasingly elaborate rescue plans, only to have each one shot down by the teacher. "Hard choices, Zan," he'd said. "Sometimes your responsibility to your people requires sacrifice."
Zan had eventually surrendered, presenting a plan with the required sacrifice. His imaginary troops had squashed the attack at the price of that one life. But it haunted the young boy, that someday it might be his sister's life who hung in the balance. Vilandra had tried to comfort him, insisting she'd never need such a rescue anyway, because she'd defeat her own attackers.
But Zan continued to replay the scenario, searching for the exact heroics necessary to avoid any loss of life at all.
Liz put down the doll, her hands shaking as she realized Zan had watched Ava die in his final moments. He'd died thinking his sister still a captive of Kivar's forces.
"I'm sorry," Liz said. "Memories. You're right about nostalgia."
Historian Mascusda continued to show off the collection. Some toys looked similar to the things children played with on Earth. Others baffled Liz, and even with Vilandra's childhood memories swirling in her head, she failed to recognize many of them. Historian Mascusda eagerly explained their various histories, and Liz hung on every word.
Eventually, she turned to Prill and the captain. "Would you two be so kind as to go fetch the dresses for the Night of Three Moons. I'm having too much fun here to bother with that errand myself."
The shop had promised to deliver the gowns, but if either Prill or the captain remembered, they kept it to themselves.
"Good," Liz said, once her entourage left. "We're alone. I'd like to hear your opinion of my plans."
"I must say I'm delighted, Princess Vilandra," Historian Mascusda said. "Fundraisers are always fun, and the museum could use the attention."
"And my other plans?"
"Ah, my husband hinted at your, shall we just say ambition? Delightful as well, Your Highness, although I'm not sure what help I can provide in that area."
"I hope you can arrange a meeting with one of Rath's supporters."
"Regardless. I believe our causes share a few similarities."
"Princess Vilandra, I do hope you appreciate the danger you bring upon yourself with such an interest."
"I do, and I regret the danger I bring to you and yours with this request. If anyone asks, I extracted this favor against your will."
"I have encountered some people sympathetic with Rath's supporters," Historian Mascusda said. "The work I do sometimes involves people who witnessed certain historical events. Their viewpoints are often valuable, even if they dabble in treasonous thoughts."
"Would there be any chance such a person might stop by here today?" Liz asked. "Perhaps an artifact once belonging to Rath's family has crossed your path, and you need it authenticated?"
Historian Mascusda picked up a toy sword with elaborate carvings on its hilt. "This looks like Rath's family crest, does it not?"
Liz wouldn't recognize Rath's family crest, but that was hardly the point. "It certainly does."
"I'll make the call."
Lunchtime found Liz perched on a park bench a block from the museum. She'd slipped out for a breath of air before her reduced entourage could return from their errand. Then she'd put in her own call, so to speak. Once Dremea recovered from the shock of telepathic communication, she promised to meet her.
"I'm planning to hold a meeting tomorrow," Liz explained. "I'd like your organization to be represented."
"Such a meeting -- "
"Yes, I realize the danger."
"Traedon almost didn't allow this meeting, Your Highness."
"A sentiment I understand," Liz said. "But while I cannot promise safety, I can promise my good intentions."
"Good intentions don't always accomplish favorable results."
"Ah, then perhaps I should say my intentions are treasonous. Interested?"
The poor girl fell silent.
"I intend to take Kivar's throne," Liz said. "I need help. Not in the actual deed, but in controlling the aftermath."
"How -- "
"The people on this planet require strong leaders. It seems to me that those brave enough to plot against the current monarchy have what it takes to serve in such a capacity."
"Someone will attend," Dremea promised. "Is Queen Ava included in your invitation?"
"If she wishes," Liz said. "I would value her attendance. She may offer some insight I lack."
Liz gave Dremea the time and place, and the two parted.
Liz slipped back into the history museum through a delivery door and returned to Historian Mascusda's office.
"Good nap, Princess?" Historian Mascusda asked.
"Yes," Liz answered. "Thank you for the use of that lounge. I'm not sure what came over me. Perhaps my new medication does not agree with me."
"Perhaps," said a doubtful captain.
Prill, however, agreed immediately. "My sister could hardly keep her eyes open the first week she took birth control."
The captain squirmed in the universal way all males did when such topics arose. Wimps, the lot of them.
"Oh, begging pardon, Princess."
"No matter," Liz said. "I'm glad to learn it's not just me."
"Definitely not, Your Highness," Historian Mascusda said.
"This sword is lovely." Liz picked up the toy and pretended to examine it.
"A gentleman is coming by shortly to authenticate it for me," Historian Mascusda said. "I'm surprised he has not already arrived."
"How interesting," Liz said. "Is he an expert on weaponry?"
"Not weaponry. But he has extensive knowledge of the elite families on Antar, particularly the one who had this made. I want to know if it was for a particular child. It's always interesting to see what influenced people who later proved influential to history."
"I see." She turned to Prill. "Handmaiden Prill, did you encounter any trouble fetching those gowns?"
"They'd already sent them to the palace, Your Highness."
"Oh, I'd forgotten they offered that service."
The captain shot her a look of clear warning. Did he disapprove of her actions, or just her sloppy lie?
"That covers the shoes and the gown," Liz said. "But you still need jewelry, do you not?"
"I thought you might loan me some pieces," Prill said. "I mean, if you don't mind, Your Highness. I could always wear the jewels I wore to my sister's wedding."
"Would they match the dress?" Liz didn't wait for an answer. She dumped some coins into Prill's lap. "Go out and buy yourself something appropriate."
Prill stared at the coins, perhaps taken aback at the extravagant amount, but she dared not argue. "Thank you, Princess Vilandra."
"Captain, I'd hate to bore you with museum talk. Feel free to accompany her, or stay, as you wish."
"Oh, Princess Vilandra, I think I'd better accompany Handmaiden Prill. Don't you?"
The toy sword appraiser arrived so promptly he passed Prill and the captain in the entryway. Like so many others on Antar, he fell to his knees at Liz's feet. "Your Highness."
"Arise," Liz said. "There is business to discuss."
Historian Mascusda handed over the sword.
The confused man gave it a quick look. "This was almost certainly manufactured as part of a festival costume."
"Clearly," Historian Mascusda agreed. "But I'm certain it belonged to the famous Rath, and is therefore infinitely valuable."
"Infinitely," Liz agreed. "I believe it's about to gain historical significance well beyond what its humble origins might suggest."
"I'll fetch us some refreshment," Historian Mascusda said.
"Forget the sword," Liz said as their hostess left. "I've been led to believe you have a special interest in my former betrothed?"
"I followed him politically," the man admitted. "Before King Kivar's reign, of course."
"Might you rekindle your interest?"
"Perhaps once Kivar's reign comes to an end," Liz said. "Perhaps then, you might rekindle your former interests."
"What are you suggesting, Princess Vilandra?"
"Planning, actually." She watched his eyes go wide. "I ask no treason of you."
"Yet you seem to hint at it."
"Treason, after all, is all in the eye of the beholder. Should the throne change hands, so would the viewpoint."
"I suspect Kivar's forces would feel differently. This meeting alone -- "
"This is not the meeting," Liz said. "You are merely here to evaluate an artifact of possible historical significance."
"Of course, Your Highness."
"However . . . "
"Yes, Your Highness?"
"If you, or a trusted acquaintance of yours, might have input to offer regarding the future of this planet, let me know. It just so happens that I know of a meeting on that very topic."
"Why me? I'm insignificant."
"I've never met an insignificant person before," Liz said. "Certainly not among the citizenry of Antar. Attend, and the people of this planet will feel your significance for years to come."
Dremea returned to the safehouse to find Traedon pacing the floor.
"I'm glad you're back," he said with uncharacteristic emotion. "After what I learned, I was sure it was a trap."
"No trap," Dremea said. Then she paused, as she reconsidered the situation in light of the look on Traedon's face. "Or, at least not yet. What have you learned?"
"I've called a meeting. The situation with Princess Vilandra requires reviewing."
Dremea hurried to follow him into their meeting room. Three other members of the Inwallers sat around the table, serious looks on all their faces.
"You met with Princess Vilandra again, Dremea. Tell us, what is your opinion of her?"
"She seems sincere in her desire to remove Kivar from the throne. She's brave, too, moving around the city without security."
"You move around the city without security every day of your life."
"I'm invisible to my enemies. Everyone on Antar knows Vilandra's face."
"Just because she seems to move about without security does not mean the security is not just out of sight."
Traedon turned to the spy. "Let's start with your report. It's unfair to ask Dremea for an evaluation if she lacks the facts."
"I thought her impression might prove more valuable before it's swayed by new information."
"What new information?" Dremea asked.
"I sent Princess Vilandra a message," the spy explained. "She failed to respond to the simple signal I requested, even though she had every opportunity to do so."
"You're sure she had opportunity?"
"I instructed her to spill her soup at dinner," the spy said. "Not a single drop hit the floor, and she even went so far as to levitate her soup by the mouthful, spinning it in the air, flaunting it!"
"That's . . . disappointing," Dremea admitted.
"Furthermore, she came into the kitchen this morning," the spy continued. "Now, I was not in a position to hear what she said, but judging from our poor cook's reaction . . . let's just say the rumors of kind-hearted Princess Vilandra handing out gifts to commoners fail to mesh with her behavior."
"Don't be vague."
"She berated that poor woman until she fell to her knees and begged forgiveness."
"For what offense?"
"Questioning her patience, I'm told."
"You were told, or you heard?" Traedon asked.
"I was told. As I said, I was not in a good position. Shaving fresh spice requires standing behind a force field to prevent contamination. I never expected the princess to actually wander into the kitchen. When she did, I could hardly shirk my duties without drawing attention to myself."
"So we have one story of berating the help, and several stories of kind deeds."
"All of the supposed kindness occurred in public, with witnesses. The kitchen, however, is hardly public. It's how one behaves in private that reveals one's true nature."
"So the acts of kindness are an act. Why is she slinking around calling meetings in public parks?"
"I thought it might prove a trap," Traedon said. "But then Dremea returned unscathed. Are you quite certain you were not followed?"
"I took every precaution," Dremea said. "The meeting place itself was not at all secure, so I took the most circuitous route home possible. I watched so carefully I can probably recall every face I saw all day. If someone followed me, they managed it no further than the central marketplace."
"I posted lookouts on the top of the next building," Traedon said. "They have not reported anything suspicious. At least, not yet. What did Princess Vilandra want?"
"A meeting," Dremea said. "With several trusted members of our organization."
"So, the trap is yet to spring? How many brave souls would she like us to sacrifice?"
"Three or four," Dremea said. "She's also invited Queen Ava."
"Ah, so quite the prize. Does she intend to wrap us all in bows as her wedding gift to Kivar?"
"It's possible," Dremea said. "If she's a spy, she's quite good."
"If she's a spy, she enabled a coup against her own brother. Yes, she's quite good."
"We'd be fools to walk into this trap."
"We'd be fools to avoid it," Traedon said. "It's the perfect opportunity to spring a trap of our own."
"If it comes to that," Traedon said. "But she'd make a better hostage than Ava. Kivar might actually risk himself for Princess Vilandra."
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.
"Your Highness, do you trust my counsel?" Historian Mascusda asked.
"I think I made it clear that I do," Liz answered.
"Then if we're all to survive this, it is vital that you don't suffer so much as a scratch. You can demand mercy all you want when the guard arrives, but show the slightest sign of injury, and they'll kill everyone in the room."
Traedon seemed to agree with her assessment. "Causing any harm to a member of the royal family is a capital offense. The punishment often extends beyond the offender."
"I see," Liz said. "Well I guess that leaves out injuring myself to gain Kivar's sympathy."
"Kivar lacks the capacity for sympathy anyway."
"True. But we need to make this look real somehow." Liz studied the furniture in the room, and with a wave of her arm, scattered the chairs so that most landed near the door. She turned the table on its side. It made a poor shield, but if it came down to a battle, they needed something. "They couldn't take us without some kind of scuffle."
"We took you by surprise and the threat of weapons," Traedon said.
"And I stood meekly by as this happened?" Liz demanded. "I've disarmed you twice, which as you may recall is the number of times we've met."
"Would Kivar know of your prowess?"
"I've given him enough grief this week that he might doubt my passivity. I cannot afford his distrust."
"With your permission, Queen Liz?" Historian Mascusda took an energy weapon and held it against her arm. "In my panic to defend Princess Vilandra, I fouled your defensive blast and caused our attacker's weapon to fire. I'm not sure which one shot me, of course, but they were not aiming at the princess, who stood to my other side."
"Then burn your other arm," Traedon said. "Princess Vilandra would have stood here, and this room only has one entrance."
"No!" Liz said, too late.
The historian winced as the welt rose on her skin. "It's nothing, I assure you."
Traedon grabbed the table and dragged it into a better position. He motioned for the others to hide behind it. "If Kivar is with them, someone may well shoot in haste. I'd hate to die because you fell to friendly fire, Your Highness."
Liz nearly grinned. "I'm glad to discover you have a sense of humor, Traedon."
"A poor one," Historian Mascusda muttered. "You joke while our lives hang in the balance."
"I find that's when a joke is needed most," Liz said.
They didn't wait long before Kivar's forces arrived at the door. To Liz's surprise, they knocked in the Antarian style, and the door glowed. "Princess Vilandra?"
She recognized the second captain's voice, to her relief. She kept both the emotion and her recognition to herself. "Kivar? Are you out there, my love?"
"Kivar is waiting at the palace, Your Highness," the captain answered. "He sent us to check on you, as he expected you to return by now."
More relief. Kivar had kept silent about their disagreement, then, and the guards likely did not have orders to drag her back in handcuffs.
"Is your face known?" Liz whispered to Traedon. At his nod, she cursed her overreaction to the situation, which now presented more of a problem than a solution. She should have walked out to meet her guards alone. Or at least sent Traedon for the baby, and kept Dremea here. She'd make a more plausible gala-planner than Traedon.
"Princess Vilandra?" The door glowed again. "May I join you, Your Highness?"
"Are you alone?" Liz asked.
"No, Your Highness. May I ask why we continue to speak through a locked door?"
Traedon signaled Liz to keep him talking. One of the other remaining Inwallers circled around to peek out the window.
"I am also not alone," Liz said. "My friends and I have a gala to plan."
"A gala? Pardon my intrusion, but are you safe, Your Highness?"
Liz turned to Historian Mascusda. "Am I?"
"You are not," the Inwaller at the window said. "The building's surrounded. And I believe Kivar has given up on waiting at the palace."
"Use your code word," Historian Mascusda whispered. "Let him know your status."
"I don't have a code word."
"Even better. Make one up and use it," she said. "Later, confusion over the word might work as an excuse."
"I like the captain," Liz said. "I don't want him to get shot for failing in his duties."
"Then take the blame for having misremembered it, but say something before he blows that door in on us."
"How could I be anything but safe planning a gala in a history museum?" Liz shouted. "It's not like I'm climbing Dimara's Rock. We're discussing table settings!"
"Was that a code word?" Traedon thundered behind her. "No code words!"
"Please," Liz answered in her best pleading voice. "Don't hurt -- "
"Historian Mascusda will suffer every time you disobey me," Traedon said. "We both know I can't lay a finger on you, Princess, but this commoner has no such protection."
"Princess Vilandra!" The glowing on the door grew larger. "Get down so we can free you!"
"Stand down!" Liz shouted. "They dare not hurt me but if you enter you put Historian Mascusda at risk."
"Have they given you terms, Princess Vilandra?"
"All they want is freedom for a comrade," Liz said. "What was the name?"
"Wonsfiech," Traedon said.
"Wonsfiech?" The second captain sounded shocked at the request. "Who are you?"
"We fight for the freedom of the written word," Traedon answered. "Freedom for Wonsfiech, freedom for all!"
Liz couldn't quite make out the murmurings on the other side of the door.
"They're probably trying to figure out if Wonsfiech is alive or dead," Historian Mascusda said. "Kivar had him locked up years ago for suggesting the tax codes favored the elite."
"A life sentence," Traedon said. "For stating the obvious."
"I see," Liz said. "Well then, let's move the tax codes to the top of our list for reform."
"Provided we survive, of course."
"We'll put Wonsfiech in charge of that reform," Liz decided. "If he's alive."
Traedon whistled with laughter. "I like the way you think, Queen Liz."
"Princess Vilandra! How many are with you?"
"Legions," Historian Mascusda whispered.
"Legions!" Liz shouted. She dropped her voice to a whisper. "Will they have guards in the room above us?"
"Doubtful," Historian Mascusda said. "It's an exhibit on the history of transportation, and it's currently undergoing remodeling. I doubt they could get the door open right now, we sealed it to keep out inquisitive visitors."
"Transportation," Liz said. "Tell me, are any of the displays functional?"
"What are you thinking?"
"That we'd be a hell of a lot safer inside something that can move under its own power."
"How would you suggest getting up there?" Historian Mascusda gestured at the ceiling. "There's a solid floor in the way."
"We can't scale the building," one of the Inwallers added. "Kivar is standing out there with scores of soldiers."
Liz studied the room. "Which of these walls is structural?"
"Begging pardon, Your Highness?"
"Which ones hold the building up, and which ones just break this level into separate rooms?"
"You are not going to blow a hole in my museum!"
"Just a small one," Liz said. "And I promise to fix it. That's actually a vital part of my plan."
After some discussion on the specifics of the layout above them, Liz chose a spot. While she did so, Traedon improvised an impassioned speech about his admiration for the writings of Wonsfiech.
Liz gathered up all the power in her borrowed body, and aimed a hand at the spot she'd chosen. The building material crumbled, showering her in dust and pebbles. When she judged it just wide enough, she ordered two of the Inwallers to retreat through it. "Pick a vehicle, and hide in it."
"As you wish, Your Highness." They scrambled up on makeshift ladders, reshaped from the chairs Liz had scattered earlier.
"Tax codes which allow wealth to accumulate only at the top do not serve the people!" Traedon shouted at the glowing door.
"I don't care about tax codes," the second captain answered. "Just let the hostages go."
"Has Wonsfiech arrived? Is he free to once again speak on behalf of the people?"
"Princess Vilandra? Has this man harmed you in any way?"
"Not a scratch," Liz answered. "But he has quite thoroughly ruined my day."
"I can't try again," Isabel said. "Not yet. It didn't work, and now I feel like I just ran a marathon."
"And you've actually run marathons," Kyle said. "So that's not just hyperbole."
"We need to get her home," Maria said. "We can't tell Mr. Parker she's sick in bed if she's sick in Max's bed."
"It's not a bed," Michael said. "It's a couch."
"Max sleeps on it, doesn't he? Besides, Liz sleeping anywhere in this apartment is hardly dad-approved."
"We carried her here," Kyle said. "Twice now, in fact. We can carry her up the back stairs at the Crashdown just as easily, but we'll need a distraction."
"Why is everyone looking at me?" Maria demanded.
"Aren't you the queen of distractions?" Michael asked.
"We don't need to cause a commotion," Max said. "Just make sure Mr. Parker doesn't leave the restaurant, and distract Mrs. Parker, if she's home."
"I'll take the restaurant," Isabel said. "I'm starving anyway."
"And I'll take Mrs. Parker," Michael said. "I feel the need for a little motherly advice."
"Really?" Maria asked.
"Of course not," Michael said. "But it gets me out of carrying Liz up another flight of stairs."
"She's done the same for you, you know."
"Well Liz is a better person than me," Michael said. He barely sounded sarcastic at all.
"Okay then," Kyle said. "Let's play another round of 'haul the unconscious person out to the car.'"
Maria looked at Max. "I suppose I'm a lookout again?"
Max nodded. "Let's do this."
"Stand clear of the door," the captain said. "We're coming in."
"Wait!" Liz shouted. "Please wait! We're not clear!"
The outside edges of the door began to glow.
"You've got about ten seconds," Traedon said.
"Get out of here!" Liz pointed at the ceiling.
"Your Highness -- "
The glowing door began to swell inward.
Traedon leaped onto the makeshift ladder.
"The door," Historian Mascusda hissed
Liz swore in English and flung up a shield to reinforce it. "Get the table."
Once Historian Mascusda had the table against the door, Liz aimed her powers at the ladder Traedon had just vacated. It shattered into kindling. Then she dealt with hole in the ceiling, closing it off as if it never existed. At least from below. The floor above, she suspected, would need a touch up. Finally, she snatched up an energy weapon and blasted another hole, this time in the floor. She drained the weapon, and flung it down to the room below them.
The glowing door gave a pop.
"Get out of the way!" Liz shouted. She threw herself in front of the historian and blocked the small explosion with another shield. Her vision began to swim from the exertion.
Soldiers poured into the room.
"He went that way!" Liz pointed at the hole she'd blasted in the floor.
Soldiers jumped down the hole.
"I found a weapon!" One of them shouted. The sound of a crash echoed upward.
"My poor museum," Historian Mascusda moaned.
"Kivar will pay for any damages," Liz assured her. "He's very generous."
"Princess Vilandra." The captain dropped to one knee before her. "Have you suffered any harm?"
"I'm fine, Captain." Liz desperately wanted to ask under what pretense Kivar had sent him. She didn't dare. "You scared him away."
"My men will catch him," he said. "What happened?"
"He didn't seem to have much of a plan," Historian Mascusda said. "He disrupted our meeting, and I must admit I panicked when I saw his weapon."
"Historian Mascusda was quite brave," Liz said. "She burned herself trying to take his weapon. I don't think she realized I could have shielded us both, had he fired."
"I did know, but my mind didn't work quickly enough," Historian Mascusda said. "I feel so foolish."
"You showed good instincts," the captain said. "Quick action doesn't always leave time for selecting the most effective plan. Just a working one."
"Everything's fine," Liz said with a conviction she lacked. "We both survived, and now we'll have an exciting story to tell."
"You've wasted enough time socializing with this historian." Kivar pronounced 'historian' with a scorn most people reserved for vile things. Like slum lords, or fascist dictators.
"She's my friend," Liz said. "And she got hurt protecting me. I would think that, at least, might earn your gratitude."
"I've arranged a more fitting social activity for you this afternoon," Kivar said. "I hope it will provide enough entertainment to quell your need to wander off."
"Tervalewa and Plasidy have kindly agreed to help you prepare for your role in the Night of Three Moons."
"Now I suggest you get some rest," Kivar said. "I know you'll want to look fresh for your guests."
It took some effort to submit to his suggestion, despite the fact that Liz ached for sleep at the moment. At this point, a week's sleep would fail to make her feel rested. Yet she had other pressing concerns. The current location of her handmaiden, for one. And more importantly, whether everyone had made a clean escape from the museum debacle.
Unfortunately, she still lacked that knowledge when the two socialites arrived. Liz tired of them even sooner than she had before. They supplied all the latest updates on other women's fashion choices for the Night of Three Moons. Liz did her best to pay attention. It might help her recognize key acquaintances at the upcoming festival, after all. Provided any of this speculation proved accurate.
The tedious conversation wore on for a while longer, and then Liz decided she couldn't take it any more. "I got taken hostage at the historical museum this morning."
"What were you doing at the historical museum?"
"I had a breakfast meeting," Liz said. "Some tax reformist stormed in with weapons. Poor Historian Mascusda ended up with a burn on her arm from trying to protect me."
Neither woman reacted to this story as Liz expected. They showed neither concern for her well being nor interest in the excitement.
"People these days," Tervalewa said. "Wasting their time complaining about taxes. Can you imagine caring about such a petty thing?"
"It's not petty when you're scrambling to earn enough money to survive," Liz said.
"Oh, tell me you were not poor while trapped on Earth! Did they force you to work?"
"As a matter of fact I did have a job," Liz said. Then she remembered that Isabel didn't, and Kivar knew it. "My foster parents had plenty of money, so I didn't work often, but sometimes I filled in for one of my friends. She worked as a waitress."
"They work in restaurants," Liz said. "They serve food and drinks."
"Like a common servant?"
Funny, I would have expected that when I mentioned getting kidnapped.
"It was hard work," Liz admitted. "Which is why the people who do it deserve good wages, not ridicule."
"Oh, tell me you're not going to care about causes now," Tervalewa said. "Our monthly Daughters of Antar meetings are bad enough."
"I'm to be Queen," Liz said. "How can I not care about my people?"
"Oh, let Kivar worry about keeping the common people in line," Tervalewa said. "You need to help us arrange some parties. Nobody else has your flair for it."
"It's about more than keeping people in line," Liz said. "As a ruler, it's about making sure everyone has what they need. Ruling is a responsibility."
"Earth has made you dull, Vilandra. But don't worry, we'll whip you back into shape. Won't we, Tervalewa?"
Tervalewa whistled. "Most definitely. We'll have you dancing until your feet bleed. Wait until tomorrow night!"
"Why?" Plasidy asked. "What are we doing tomorrow night?"
Trying to take over the world. Liz held back a manic whistle at her own thoughts.
"Tomorrow is the Night of Three Moons!" Tervalewa reminded her. "And since it will be Vilandra's first social outing, we need to make it as special as possible! It should be an event they'll remember for the ages."
No problem, Liz thought to herself. Tomorrow night I sacrifice every principle I've ever held. Tomorrow night I become a murderer. I'll definitely remember it.
"Yes," Plasidy said. "A night for the ages!"
As soon as she escaped the vacuous society girls, Liz rushed off in search of Prill. She'd left the handmaiden passed out in her own bed. She knew the ruse had failed, since Kivar had sent troops to retrieve her from the museum. Had the young woman woken up on her own, or had someone discovered her? Did she realize who had stunned her in the first place?
Prill could unravel everything with a word. Liz could only hope that loyalty to her mistress had stilled her tongue.
She found her downstairs, under the care of the palace physician.
"But now you've learned the dangers of imbibing," Doctor Gafer said to his patient. "You won't make that mistake again."
"No sir," Prill said. "I'll not touch a drop of cottrill again. I had no idea of its power."
"Princess Vilandra!" Doctor Gafer exclaimed. "If you've come in search of young Prill, I'd beg you show lenience. She never meant to neglect her duties."
Realization punched Liz straight in the gut. Doctor Gafer had used the mindwashing technique on poor Prill. The same one he'd spared her, when he defied Kivar's order to erase the coup from Vilandra's memory.
"All is forgiven," Liz said, fighting to keep her voice steady. "We all make mistakes, and Prill is too valuable an asset to waste over a such a trivial one."
"I should think so," Doctor Gafer said. "I know I've overindulged a time or two myself. The strength of that vintage has caught many by surprise."
"I trust this mistake has not damaged her health?"
"Oh no," Doctor Gafer said. "Aside from a slight headache she's as good as new. Or at least as good as she was yesterday afternoon."
Good, Liz thought, just a day. One day. Lots of people lost a single day. In fact, most people lost quite a few. Similar days faded together in one's memory, as time went on. He'd not erased anything significant.
"Prill," Liz said. "I can muddle through the rest of my day without you. You need your rest. Remember, you promised to accompany me to the Night of Three Moons."
"Of course, Princess Vilandra. I already have my dress and jewels laid out."
When the girl left, Liz started to thank the physician.
"How dare you put me in such a position!" Doctor Gafer snapped. "I realize you will soon be my queen. I owe you fealty as such. Even so, I will not soon forget that you left me no choice but to use that dangerous procedure on an innocent girl."
"I don't recall asking," Liz snapped.
"You left her passed out in your own bed, with a memory of your attack. How did you expect to cover it up?"
"With bribery! Hardly the ideal situation, but safer than brainwashing!"
"Fortunately, it proved an easy enough memory to tweak. Did you really expect bribery to work?"
"I hoped it would suffice, yes."
"Then why not start with it, and save yourself a bit of trouble?"
"You have a point, Doctor Gafer," Liz admitted. "I let haste make me sloppy."
He studied her quietly for a moment. "In the future, I would appreciate a little more care on your part."
"Of course. I regret having put you in this position."
"Then my life remains yours, Your Highness."
"Your life remains your own, but I am glad to have retained your support."
He bowed his head, and indicated someone passing near the door.
Liz silently acknowledged the warning. "Have you spoken to your wife? There was an incident at the museum. She handled herself with admirable grace, but I do hope she has not been unduly upset by the ordeal."
"I daresay you will see her before I do," he said. "I heard talk of reparations. I believe she will soon present you with a bill."
"I will make sure it gets paid. I hope nothing is too damaged to repair?"
"None of the artifacts suffered any harm. I did, however, hear a detailed description of the floor in the History of Transportation room. It seems the hasty repairs were less than thorough."
"I feared that might be the case. I'll try to make it over there tomorrow and take care of it."
"I suspect you have more important matters that require your attention," Doctor Gafer said. "The Night of Three Moons is upon us."
"It is indeed. Kivar and I will make this celebration one to remember. The guest list includes many a happy reunion." She paused, and glanced at the door. "Speaking of family, does your sister have plans for the holiday?"
"Funny you should ask, I just spoke with her. She and her son plan to celebrate with some good friends."
"I see. Please pass along my regards." Liz handed over her 'regards' in the form of a handwritten note. She could only pray that Tess would carry out her request. "I hope to enjoy her company again soon."