Later, after the others had left, I finally had some time alone with her. For a long time we just sat together, saying very little. "I can't believe it's really all over," she said at last, her eyes closed.
"Well, not quite," I said. "There's going to be a lot of sorting out to do. But at least our part is done." After a while I thought she had fallen asleep, but then she opened her eyes again and fastened them firmly on me.
"Were you able to find out what I asked about this morning?" she said, dashing my hopes that she had forgotten.
"I did," I answered hesitantly. "But are you sure you want to know this?" She looked away.
"No, I don't. But I have to."
I shook my head helplessly. "I won't hide the truth from you, if that's what you really want." I took a deep breath before continuing. "The military won't have accurate figures until all Brizal fugitives are accounted for. But the current best guess is about twelve thousand fatalities at Tar Deshta, and another thousand total for the other transformer stations that self-destructed."
"My god," she breathed. "Will, I just never expected something that horrible." I saw her hands involuntarily clutching at the sheets, and took her nearest one and held it tightly. I could feel her trembling.
"What else could you have done, Kiri?" I pleaded. "Do you have any idea how many lives you saved? How many people are alive today only because of you? Not to mention that the planet is finally free of the Brizali after thirty years. Even if you had known the cost, could you have done anything different knowing the fate of Deshtiris was in your hands?" Eyes tightly closed, she shook her head. I saw a tear roll down her cheek.
"You did the right thing," I said after a long pause. "You know you did."
"Yes," she answered slowly. "I know I did. I'd do it again if I had to. But it would be a lot harder."
"This must have been terrible for you, too, Will," she added apologetically. "I know I've made a bit of a joke out of it all this afternoon, but you know as well as I that that's how I cope with things. When Zee stabbed me, I had just enough time to realize what it would do to you, and that hurt far more than the blade. And then, in the control room, I knew what I had to do, but I also knew what it could mean for all of you as well. I hope to god I never have to make decisions like that again as long as I live."
"I think my own heart nearly stopped when I saw you alive poking at that keyboard," I confessed. "Although you looked so awful I wasn't sure if you really were alive or if I were seeing some kind of hideous phantasm."
"Thanks a lot," she said sourly. "Those were certainly the most nerve-wracking minutes of my life. I thought that any moment Tenako would lose patience and have me liquefied, and it would all have been for nothing."
"I don't think so," I ventured. "I think he still bore some kind of paternal love for you, and that he was telling the truth about having protected you all these years." I told her about Teyn's reaction when he first encountered us. "My guess is that Tenako had warned him that if anything ever happened to you at his hands, he'd be the very next to go. When he recognized you I swear I could see his life flashing before his eyes. And then the very next thing he did was to silence Zee as quickly as possible. I suspect that if Tenako hadn't shown up right then he'd have disposed of the remaining evidence, namely us, without further delay."
"Then Tenako sent him away," Kiri observed scornfully. "He must have been peeing his pants wondering if you were going to inadvertently spill the beans. But what about the attack on us back on Earth?"
"Easy," I speculated. This is fun, I thought to myself, sort of like those mystery novels where everything is revealed at the end. "I doubt his men would have left any evidence behind at the mountain house to connect them with your disappearance, and as far as Tenako would have known you'd have taken a routine trip to Earth and vanished without a trace. Happens to people there all the time."
She nodded approvingly. "Very good explanation. I have just one last question, Monsieur." She paused theatrically. "What happened to Krigghin Teyn?"
Now that brought me up short, let me tell you. She read my stunned silence all too well. "We may never know," she said finally. "If he did escape, he'd probably head for Earth where it would be his turn to vanish without a trace. There's certainly nowhere left for him to hide here." I had a momentary vision, a dreadful one, of Krigghin Teyn in the White House.
"So what do we do now?" I asked a bit shakily. "A house in the country with three cats?"
She grinned weakly. "I'd hope for a little more excitement than that. There's always the Futaba, for example, and lots of places to go. Besides, we're not allowed to keep cats, remember?"
"We could take up rock climbing again, like we did as kids," I suggested slyly. Swallowing the bait, she nodded, then suddenly her eyes were wide.
"Will! You remember that!?"
"I remember it all," I said with a half-smile. "Something the pendant did when I grasped it. Ever since then things have just been coming back in a rush. So now you're stuck with both of me at last."
She must have seen the momentary bleakness in my eyes. "You remember everything, don't you?"
"How is Senaria holding up through all this?" she asked. "She's had more than her share of heartache over the past few days." I told her that I had several times inadvertently caught her sitting alone in the Futaba staring vacantly into space, but that otherwise she seemed to be slowly regaining her usual good spirits. "After losing both Lev and you, I was afraid she'd fall apart completely," I added, "but she bore herself magnificently at Tar Deshta."
"So I saw," Kiri agreed. "Well, you know Sen; bouncing back is one of her strengths."
"Especially if Rann has anything to do with it," I added mischievously.
"Rann?" she said in surprise.
"The Brizal boy we picked up on the way out." I explained. "He's been following her around like a puppy. About her age, too."
She cocked an eyebrow and pondered the information for a moment. "Well, I imagine she could do worse. Of course, I'm a great judge of character, aren't I," she added in disgust, and for a while the conversation turned to Zyanita.
"I wonder what led her down that path?" Kiri mused. "She wound up working for the people that murdered her parents, enslaved her planet, and tried to kill what little family she still had left on Qozernon."
"I'm guessing that Teyn promised her something," I theorized. "Maybe that once Qozernon was conquered she could lead a figurehead government or something of the sort. She was obviously jealous of you, and when I turned up alive what little remaining legitimacy she might have had before went down the tubes."
"But I can't imagine what it must have been like for her," I added. "To find her parents murdered, her brother and sister missing, to spend the next few years running for her life, without any real comprehension of what it was all about. And then to find that you were alive, and that she had been left behind..." Another long-buried memory unexpectedly surfaced, of a pretty pre-teen girl with long straight black hair and dancing dark brown eyes, laughing and giggling as Kiri and I mock-threatened to toss her into the palace pool in return for some imaginary transgression, and I suddenly found myself blinking away tears.
"Well, we'll probably never really know," Kiri sighed. "But it wasn't something I would have ever expected. I really trusted her."
I leaned over and kissed her again. "One of your weak points," I said. "And one of your strongest ones," I added, and kissed her again.
"I've got to let you get some rest," I said finally. "I'm surprised the doctors haven't thrown me out already." Out of habit I glanced at my watch, which after all this time was still set to the Earth's calendar. "Damn!"
"What's wrong?" demanded Kiri, suddenly alarmed.
"I just lost my apartment lease!" I exclaimed in mock dismay.
Kiri started to giggle, then to laugh. "Ouch! That hurts!" she gasped. By this time I was helpless too, and as we parted we were both wiping tears of laughter from our eyes. I suspect that after the events of the past week we were both a little closer to hysteria than either of us would care to admit.
It was later that same evening that an officer approached me in the mess and explained that my presence was requested at a very important meeting. Following him to a room just off the ship's bridge, I found myself in an impressive board room, currently occupied by more brass than I had ever in my life seen assembled in one place. I wasn't exactly well-versed in Deshtiran insignia yet, but it didn't take "rocket science" to realize that I was surrounded by what were now the most powerful men and women of Deshtiris. Much to my surprise, they all greeted me with evident deference.
Apparently we were waiting for one more attendee, and as we did I looked around curiously. There was a long, perfectly polished wooden table running down the middle of the room. The walls were hung with portraits, and to my astonishment I recognized myself, Zyanita, and my parents among them, all from thirty or more years ago, of course. There was also a painted version of the photograph I remembered from my youth, and somehow I felt less nervous with Kiri's emerald eyes staring down at me. I suspected it had once been a very popular picture on Deshtiris. I also guessed that these portraits hadn't been on display here in a very long time.
Then our last attendee appeared, and he turned out to be the fleet commander that Kiri had called "Uncle." (He really was, by the way, being Tenako's half-brother and a long-time friend of the royal family.) As he entered, he walked directly over to me and put a hand on my shoulder.
"My boy," he said quietly, "I want to say this before everything becomes official. What you and the Princess have done lies beyond gratitude. I never dared hope to live to see this day." He led me to a seat in the center of one side of the table as the others respectfully rose to their feet, then seated himself across from me. Once everyone had settled back into their chairs he wasted no time in getting to the point.
"Prince Wilorian," he began in a more formal tone. "As you know, the situation here is more than precarious at the moment. Deshtiris is going to require a symbol for our people to rally around, or we will face the grave danger of civil conflicts tearing our world apart. There are millions of Brizali, and their followers, who have everything to lose from peace." He paused, and I felt every eye in the room fixed upon me. Squirming nervously, I wondered just where this was going. I didn't have to wait long.
"You are the sole surviving member of the royal family which was so brutally overthrown thirty years ago. We
I was stunned. I guess I should have seen this coming, but somehow I hadn't really thought ahead to what would happen once the Brizali were overthrown. I replied slowly, choosing my words very carefully for once. "This is a very great trust which you propose to place in me. But for all practical purposes I am still a stranger to your world." I stopped for a moment. "There is someone who your people all know and love, who knows your world well, and who would make an exceptional leader. I am of course referring to Princess Mikiria."
They looked at each other uncomfortably. The commander cleared his throat. "Naturally we have considered that. And I don't think I would be exaggerating to say that any one of us would gladly lay down our life at her request. She is probably still the most beloved citizen of Deshtiris, even after thirty years.
"But?" I prompted, my heart sinking.
"We need a real continuation of the former royal line if we are to unite our people. She is, after all, the daughter of Romikor Tenako, not of our former Emperor. This is a moment when legitimacy is literally everything."
Silence reigned supreme for several minutes. "I need time to consider this," I said at last.
The commander nodded. "But keep in mind that we are sitting on a time bomb even as we speak. We must open full negotiations with Qozernon as soon as possible. A single incident could reignite the war at this point. And the longer we remain away from Deshtiris the greater the danger of civil unrest."
I was in a bit of a daze as I set my steps toward the sick bay. I was certain of just one thing: this wasn't remotely what I'd had in mind when I'd left Earth with Kiri. I was still trying to sort it all out when I ran into Gelhinda, evidently on her way back to the Futaba. "Anything wrong?" she asked, seeing my glum expression.
"You might say that," I mumbled. "Got a few hours?"
"You look like you could use a drink," she responded cheerfully. "My treat."
A few minutes later we were sitting at a table in the ship's bar over some mild drinks as I explained what had happened. "I can't do this," I finished in desperation. "Kiri's the one they should be offering this to. Not only do they owe her big time, but she'd be one hell of a better leader than I could ever be."
Gelhinda had been staring at me with increasing astonishment, and finally leaned back and let out a piercing laugh, attracting several interested stares from some of the other patrons. I wondered if the drink had gone to her head. "I'm sorry," I said in some annoyance. "I didn't realize the situation was that amusing."
Still chuckling, she replied, "But it is, Will. This is too easy. You really are so simple-minded, sometimes." Before I had time to take fresh offense, she added, "All you have to do
A few minutes later I was headed back to Kiri's room, now walking on air. I found her sitting up in bed reading, and quickly described the situation to her (but craftily omitting Gelhinda's solution). "That's wonderful!" she exclaimed, beaming in delight. "This is what you were born to, Will. So why are you hesitating?"
"Kiri," I said, "if anyone ought to be leading this planet back into the light of day, it's you. They think an accident of birth is more important than leadership. Does that make sense to you?"
She was silent for what seemed a very long time as she considered her words. When she finally spoke, it was slowly and deliberately. "Yes, Will, it does. People don't need 'leadership' right now. The problems facing all of us are going to require experts in areas like transportation and industrial reorganization, faceless people with far greater specialized abilities than either of us. What people do need is a symbol to keep them going while all those ugly details of reconstruction disrupt their lives. And you are the long-lost heir to the royal family, a dream come true for them."
"I promised when we left Earth that there would be useful work for you, and I've kept my promise," she continued. "I wasn't talking about feats of derring do, although you certainly acquitted yourself impressively there. This is the duty you were born to, Will, whether or not you choose to accept it." Then she at last noticed that I was quite unsuccessfully suppressing a grin. "Hey!" she exclaimed. "Was my speech that bad?"
In response, I looked into her marvelous green eyes and said, "I have two questions for you, Kiri. First, do Deshtiran ship's captains have the same authority that they do on Earth?"
It was finally my turn to perplex her for once, and I savored the moment. She thought about it for several seconds and suddenly her eyes sparkled as she realized where I was heading. "Yes, they do, at least for what I think you're getting at. And the second question?"
"I believe you already know what that is," I answered.
Two hours later I was again sitting before the council, this time with Kiri at my side in a wheelchair (she had begged me to let her walk, but the physicians firmly drew the line there). Those powerful movers and shakers had clustered around her like children around a cotton candy stand. Only after a quarter of an hour or so were things finally brought to order, and then with considerable difficulty.
All eyes turned to me. "So, Prince Wilorian," inquired the fleet commander gravely. "Have you made your decision?"
"I have. You've got yourself an Emperor. And as soon as your ship's captain can find a moment to perform a certain part of his duties," I added, "you'll have an Empress as well."
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or
otherwise, without written permission from the author,
except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles