As they landed in the strangely deserted courtyard, their first intimation that something was seriously wrong was the smoke rising from one wing of the palace. Dashing into the building, they found chaos everywhere, with furnishings smashed, doors broken in, and, most ominously, what appeared to be bloodstains in several locations on the walls and floors. And then they rounded a corner to find the corpses of a dozen palace guards and a larger number of strangers they had never seen before scattered about in a scene of bloody horror. They were only half-aware of the odd emblems they saw on the shirts of the unfamiliar bodies.
Now in a state of utter panic, they raced through the hallways, looking for their parents. Once they heard loud voices approaching and ducked into a darkened room until they passed. Through the slightly opened door they saw a gang of ruffians, several with crude bandages dressing fresh wounds, stride by uttering loud curses.
Their search ended in a small anteroom to the main throne room. There were two bodies on the floor, with a third huddled over them. Frozen with shock they had recognized the horribly mutilated remains of the former Emperor and Empress of Deshtiris. A moment later the third figure had moved and they found themselves looking into the grief-ravaged features of the elderly retainer Darita.
Incoherent with grief, she had not recognized them at first. "Go ahead," she had mumbled, "kill me too. Animals. I don't care now."
"Darita," Mikiria had managed, "it's us. Wilorian and Mikiria. What has happened here? Who did this?" They had been unable to get anything from the elderly woman, however, except that they should flee, run, anything. They heard voices in the throne room, and Wilorian had quickly bolted the door. A moment later someone on the other side had unsuccessfully tried it and begun pounding angrily, coarse voices booming through the ancient but still stout wood.
They had gently pulled Darita from the bodies on the floor and slipped back into the hallway. "The ship," Mikiria had whispered. "It's our only chance now." For a moment Wilorian had looked dazed, then suddenly his face turned an even paler shade of white, if that was possible. "Zyanita," he insisted. "We've got to find Zyanita." They heard a crash in the anteroom as the door gave way.
They had dashed back down the corridor, half-dragging Darita with them. A quick look into the various rooms they passed, including Zyanita's bedroom, provided no trace of the missing princess. Passing by their own rooms, she had spotted the two priceless swords they had been given only a few short months before, and had handed them to the uncomplaining Darita in much the same way one seizes the most unlikely objects imaginable when fleeing a house fire. The raucous voices behind them grew nearer.
"Will, we have to go," she had insisted desperately. Stunned by her loss, she comprehended only one thing, and that was that she wasn't going to lose Wilorian too. Finally she had done the only thing she could think of. Closing her eyes for a moment, she had calculated her strength as accurately as she possibly could, then opened them again and landed her fist with unerring precision directly on the point of his unsuspecting jaw. He had dropped like a felled ox before her and the aghast Darita.
Blood pounding in her own temples, she had frantically felt at his neck for a pulse. Feeling a strong steady one, she had slung his limp body over her shoulder as if it were a sack of flour and headed for the ship, dragging Darita along with her free hand. It was with infinite relief that she saw it, still untouched, where they had left it only a few short minutes before.
With Darita's help she had strapped the unconscious Wilorian into one of the freshly installed seats and a few moments later they were lifting off from the courtyard, just as a howling mob of Brizali had begun pouring from the doorways. No sooner was the palace vanishing below them when the communications screen lit up. The unfamiliar officer wore a Deshti police uniform, but to her shock she saw again the unfamiliar logo she had first noticed in the palace. "You are ordered to turn about and land," he commanded.
"The hell we will," she had snapped.
"Then you leave us no alternative but to disable your vehicle," he had responded in turn. With a sudden surge of panic, she remembered that all Deshtiran police vehicles have the capability of accessing any personal vehicle's control console through a security override module.
"I don't think so," said a slurred voice behind her, and she turned to see a now-awake Wilorian nursing his jaw with one hand and holding out a sweat-stained checklist with the other. "It's not working yet, remember?" he reassured her. "Now get us out of here."
She had made an obscene gesture at the startled face on the screen, then switched it off and put the ship on full acceleration out of the atmosphere. There was a tense moment after they had cleared the planet when they saw several patrol ships converging on them from all directions, and she had held her breath and pushed the Big Blue Button, silently praying that the untested drive did indeed work as intended. A moment later they were streaking towards Qozernon far faster than light, leaving the Deshtiran ships hopelessly behind.
Once in space, they had all experienced a severe emotional reaction to the horrors behind them. Darita had been in the worst shape of all, being dangerously close to hysteria. Urgently assuring her that she was needed now more than ever before, they had finally managed to calm her somewhat. Unlike the Futaba-to-be, the ship had no separate living quarters; the closest it came was a tiny restroom and the capability of folding the seats back to form small and rather awkward beds. They had made Darita as comfortable as they could, and left her to sleep as they discussed the situation in hushed tones at the other end of the cramped little ship.
"I'm sorry, Will," she had said hesitantly. "There was no sign of Zee anywhere." Silently she reflected to herself that she had just made her first life-and-death decision, and wondered if there would be more.
To her relief, Wilorian was calm now and understanding. "You did the best you could, Kiri," he reassured her. "I'm just glad you're all right."
They had reached their destination cramped and hungry after two seemingly interminable days in hyperspace. They had contacted the Qozernan authorities and received immediate permission to land at the main port in Lernesdi. A more cynical government might have pondered the wisdom of taking in refugees from a suddenly volatile and violent society, but it would have been unthinkable for Qozernon to have done so.
Assured of a place to land, they had only then come to a realization of their real
No better oasis could have offered itself to three shell-shocked, grief-stricken casualties of a battle none expected or understood. With infinite kindness, sensitivity, and often patience in dealing with nerves frayed to the breaking point, the ambassador and his wife had done their utmost to make the refugees feel welcome and, more important, cared for. Gradually the three began to realize that their lives had not ended, even if they had taken a very painful turn, and that they could be rebuilt over time.
In less than a week after they arrived what little happiness they had found in their new home was shattered, possibly forever.
The household had retired to their beds for the night, except for Mikiria. Tense, feeling like a tightly coiled spring, she had several times sprawled out on her bed, and as many times had given up on sleep and wandered back out to the living room to read and pace. She had once more determined to sleep, if it took her all night to do it, and was passing by Wilorian's closed door when a horrendous yowl from inside split the air.
She had flung open the door and thrown on the light, to see a black-garbed figure standing over the bed. For an instant they both froze, the blood dripping from the knife indelibly burning itself into her memory, then the intruder had thrown himself through the open window and vanished into the night.
She would have followed him, and with her extraordinary agility and ability to see in near-pitch dark would probably have caught him, but her only concern was for the figure on the bed. For an instant all she could see was the blood welling through the torn sheets and her heart skipped a beat.
And then Wilorian had opened his eyes with a groan and tried to sit up. "Dammit," he said through clenched teeth, seeing her standing there staring down at him. "Worst case of heartburn I've ever had." The shocked expression on her face at last broke through the befuddlement one feels when unexpectedly awakened from a deep sleep, as he looked down at himself and the sheets. "Is that me bleeding? What the hell is this?!"
Throwing off the paralysis that seemed to have seized her, she had torn away the sheets and examined the stab. The blade had slid along a rib, creating a painful, bloody, but not dangerous wound which she bound up with torn pieces of the sheet while desperately fighting off hysterical laughter.
Hearing a noise, she had looked up to see Kurinton and Gelhinda standing in the doorway. It had taken Kurinton only a moment to size up the situation. "I'll call the police and meds," he offered.
"No," Mikiria had said unexpectedly.
"What? Kiri?" Wilorian protested. "This hurts, you know."
Her mind had been working rapidly, once it regained its footing. "If we do that, it'll be all over the news that he's okay. And sooner or later they'll be back."
Kurinton had nodded in comprehension. "I know who can take care of this," he had said curtly as he spun on his heel and left, while Gelhinda went to look in on Darita, whose room was on the other end of the house (it turned out that she was still asleep, and it was decided not to wake her). A few minutes later Kurinton was back. "Will, can you hold out for about ten more minutes?"
The boy had grimaced, but nodded. "The bleeding's mostly stopped," Mikiria assured him. "You'll be okay."
It was almost exactly ten minutes later that several high-speed fliers* had landed outside and a dozen figures came running across the lawn to be admitted by Gelhinda. Three of them were medical officers, who quickly began giving Wilorian appropriate treatment. The others conferred for several minutes with Kurinton and Mikiria, then set about performing a multitude of tasks, including taking videos, checking the room for fingerprints, clothing threads, and DNA fragments.
At one point they had asked the already much-abused Wilorian to perform a passable imitation of a corpse, draping him with the bloody sheets and coaching him in just the right wide-eyed open-mouthed death stare as they filmed him from all angles. Shortly afterwards they left, except that three silent figures remained stationed almost invisibly in various shadowy niches around the periphery of the house.
The next day the media was filled with sensational news about the assassination of a Deshtiran
In Mikiria's and Wilorian's minds there was no doubt. Mikiria was not a threat to the Brizali, for although she had been formally adopted by the Emperor and Empress she was not in the bloodline and would not be considered a serious contender for the throne. Wilorian, on the other hand, was a potentially deadly one, and the Brizali had proven to be nothing if not meticulous about attending to details. Admittedly their assassination techniques needed work, but they were to remedy this deficiency during the coming years in a particularly hideous manner.
In the end, after several days of discussion between the two, with occasional input from Kurinton and Gelhinda, it was agreed that sooner or later the Brizali would succeed. Ultimately there can be no foolproof defense against a determined assassin.
To hide on Qozernon was impossible. In spite of its having a population of over a billion souls, it was very much one society and one in which Wilorian's face would be instantly recognized. In addition, a Deshtiran assassin would be far too much at home in a world so similar to his or her own to be detected in time.
Only Earth was sufficiently chaotic. On Earth a person could vanish into the rich patchwork quilt of cultures and societies like a needle into a haystack. Los Angeles was, if anything, Earth in microcosm, with its incredible variety of cultures, its contrasts, and its vast confusions, and Los Angeles they chose as their destination.
It was Wilorian himself who pointed out that his own memories would be his most dangerous enemy. As long as he knew who he was, he would be in danger of giving away his identity through some small slip, some trivial indiscretion. Only if his memories were suppressed could he safely continue to live on Earth without detection.
Darita had been horrified when she discovered what they were contemplating, calling the plan insane and cruel. Wilorian had been insistent.
To Mikiria's anguished objections he retorted that Earth had already reached a point of primitive computerization. The spread and availability of personal data had been held firmly in check on the Twin Planets by a deep-rooted conviction of the sanctity of individual privacy, and this had for centuries acted as a check on the voracious appetite of computer networks for such information. Earth's societies, on the other hand, shared no such scruples, and past experiences suggested that within a few decades it would be possible to precisely identify and track any individual on the planet within minutes.
"This isn't just about me. I'm the only remaining member of the royal family. If it weren't for that, I'd stay here and take my chances. But there's more at stake than that."
"Will, it's going to take years to re-educate you after a memory wipe," Kiri had protested desperately. "And I only have to make one slip to give you away. What if I'm in an accident, and end up in a hospital somewhere on Earth? One glance at my eyes and the doctors would be yelling for the press, and then the Brizali would be on us in an instant." At that point Darita had softly cleared her throat.
"I have raised three generations of Emperors and Empresses for Deshtiris," she had informed them proudly. "I think I can handle raising one more. If you are really going to go through with this, then I shall expect you to retain my services this last time."
Mikiria never forgot that moment, when the gentle, elderly woman that they had known and taken for granted all their brief lives suddenly grew so immense in stature before their astonished eyes. "Darita?" Wilorian had finally said. "But
"I have spent well over a century with the Royal House of Nendor," she had stated calmly but firmly. "Please do not refuse me this. I do not wish to spend my last years on Qozernon as an obsolete appliance, retained out of pity. Clearly this is where my duty now lies." She slowly looked at each of them in turn. "It is also my right."
They silently nodded their assent, and so it had been decided.
All involved agreed that as far as the world would know, Wilorian was dead, brutally assassinated a few days after his flight into exile. Only Darita, Gelhinda, Kurinton and Mikiria would know the truth. A small contingent of Qozernan agents, sworn to secrecy by Kurinton, were aware that the assassination was unsuccessful, but not even they ever knew what had really become of the missing royal heir afterwards. To their immense credit, as far as is known, not one ever breathed so much as a whisper of the fateful secret.
Of that first trip to Earth, and of its events, not even after thirty years could she bring herself to speak any further.
* Unlike the regular fliers used for commuting, etc., a high speed flier is capable of ascending above the atmosphere and traveling at spacecraft speeds. Use of these fliers is generally restricted to emergency and military applications. - Ed.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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