I woke up to the noise of the door opening, I sat down as far from the door as I could and prepared for whatever was going to happen next. Mbali climbed up the vehicle and sat next to me, Kimball took the seat in front of me. More people came in until all the seats were taken, it was a little more than half their group in the van with me.
I closed my eyes and hugged Malkia, I was afraid, more for her than me, she was so small, so fragile, she needed my protection. The vehicle started moving and the people around me started talking, most of them were talking in that weird language, but I still could hear a few words in my own now and then. The voices and the movement lulled me into a restless sleep.
I woke up with a start to a weak cry, I noticed that it was Malkia and quickly checked on her, but it was only hunger that had prompted her crying, and that was something I could easily solve. Once my fear was under control I attended to her needs, no one was paying us attention so I didn’t hesitate to lift my clothes to nurse her. She was restless, almost as much as I was. I needed to calm her down, and I remembered how Soturi used to sing to Mistral every night. I didn’t remember the words, but I started to hum the melody. She calmed down and looked at me, her eyes were staring at me and I felt a connection to her that was stronger than anything I had felt before, it was as if nothing else existed, it was just the two of us, my baby, a part of me, my legacy to the world. After a while, her little eyes started to close, she fought for a while, but finally her eyes closed and her body relaxed, her little mouth was still trying to suck even though she was already asleep.
It wasn’t until she was completely asleep that I noticed the lack of noise of conversation, I looked up and saw everyone looking at me.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare at you,” one of them said, he was the older one, “it’s just that I didn’t expect an Imperialist to be such a gentle mother, nor did I expect one of you to know lullabies.”
“I don’t think it’s common, if I was in the Empire I would have already given my daughter to the nursery. What I know about babies is because of the Amazons, and the lullaby I learned from the people from the Shadows, I used to see Soturi sing to her daughter every night while I was there. I don’t remember the words, just the melody.”
“You two look so beautiful together,” Mbali said. “You are not what I was expecting, I thought the Empress was going to be cold and serious, but I can see how much you love your child.”
I wasn’t sure if it was just an observation or a threat, but I was afraid for Malkia and how they could use her to get to me. I wasn’t afraid of what could happen to me, I knew how much I could endure and how much I could survive, but she was so small and vulnerable, she couldn’t protect herself so I had to protect her. I felt like a failure because I knew that I wasn’t strong enough to stop them if they tried to harm us.
“Can I hold her for a moment?” An older woman asked. She was the oldest in the group and something about her reminded me of Cerridwen, she looked wise, she knew things. “Don’t worry, I have a lot of experience with babies, your child will be safe with me.” I didn’t want Malkia to be away from me, in my arms at least I had the illusion that I was keeping her safe, but I couldn’t anger them. I knew she could take her no matter what, so I decided to let her hold my baby for a moment, I hold on to the illusion of choice and control.
Several of the warriors got closer to the woman holding my baby, they were mesmerized by the innocence and calmness of my baby. She slept with no worries, unaware of the cruelties and the dangers of the world. There were only a pair of eyes that were not captivated by Malkia, Kimball’s eyes were on me. I gathered my defenses and looked back at him, trying to appear unaffected by his stare that looked as if he was trying to read my darkest secrets. He smiled at me and I felt like I wasn’t fooling him like I though, he knew what I was thinking. I didn’t know what his game was or what he was planning to do with me, but I knew that, at least for the moment, I was entirely at his mercy.
The van stopped after half a day’s journey, I got out of the car with my baby safe again in my arms. They took me to the side of the clearing where they were going to make camp. It was weird that they were going to stop so soon, there was still enough light to continue, but I wasn’t in a position to ask questions. I watched them carrying boxes and something that looked like tarps, then I watched as the tent started to build itself, maybe I was wrong and not all of them were mutants, there must be some telekinetics moving things. After the tent was ready they carried the boxes inside. One of the warriors stepped into the clearing with a wild boar on his shoulders, I hadn’t even noticed that he was hunting. Mbali took me to the inside of the tent while some of them stayed outside to prepare the wild boar for dinner. They gave me a plate with food and I was so hungry that I left my fears and ate, not bothering to try to taste for drugs or poison.
“Why did we stop here?” Sei asked when we finished eating.
“Because I said so.” Was Kimball’s answer.
“This is not a good place to camp,” Sei insisted, “we are near the Fortress and some of their recruits could be out in practice missions as part of their training.” When I heard that we were near the Fortress I had a hard time not reacting. I needed to come up with a plan, I needed to take Malkia there, once inside she was going to be safe.
“Are you afraid of a bunch of children Sei?” Kimball was mocking her and I saw Sei getting angry at his words.
“I’m not scared, but I don’t see why we have to take unnecessary risks.”
“We are here because Mbali and I are going to take Kaiserin and her daughter to the Fortress.” A sound of surprise escaped my lips before I could stop it. I tried to recover from my surprise, but it was obvious they had noticed how the news affected me. “I guessed that was your destination, was I right?” Trying not to betray any more emotions I just nodded. I wondered how he knew where I was going, but most importantly, why was he helping me?
“That’s absurd,” Sei said, “if all she wanted was to get rid of the baby she didn’t need to travel so far, she could just give it to the Amazons.”
“I’m not getting rid of my baby,” I felt an intense need to justify myself, I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t shut up, “I’m giving her a chance to grow as part of the Empire, the chance to be part of her legacy. And I wouldn’t let my daughter grow with the same beliefs of the Amazons.”
“So you don’t want her to grow up thinking that men are the root of all evil? If you are not one of those bitter women that resent the male species, what are you doing with the Amazons?” Sei was testing my patience, I don’t know why I let her goad me into a discussion, maybe I was too tired to think straight.
“I know that evil is not a matter of gender or origin, I’ve met men that enjoy making others suffer, men that get high on other people’s pain and men that think they are strong just because they get to kick a fallen warrior, but then, there are women just like that too.” I stared at Sei as I said the last words, not saying anything to her directly, but letting her know what I thought of her. She wasn’t better than me just because she could take advantage of my weakness.
“How dare you? You think you are better than me? You think you can act like you are a big deal? You are nothing but a coward that ran scared from her Clan just because someone tried to kill her.” I couldn’t help but laugh at her words and that made Sei even more angry than my words.
“Someone has been trying to kill me since I have memory, and no one has succeeded. Those who have tried to kill me are dead now.” I let my words act as a warning, because despite the situation, I wasn’t afraid of her, she was an opportunist, and I wasn’t letting her win.
“Then, why did you leave?” She asked. I had no answer to that. I realized that I had talked more than I should and I did what I should have done since the beginning, I remained silent. Sei took my silence as an agreement and smiled.
“I think the answer to that is pretty obvious.” Kimball said, breaking the awkward silence. A couple of people mumbled their agreement. But they couldn’t know the reason I left, could they? Sei looked at him questioning with her eyes and Kimball continued. “The reason she left her Clan is in front of you Sei, in her arms to be more exact.” I was surprised, how could he know that Malkia was my reason for leaving?
“What does the baby has to do with it?” Dowe asked.
“The little one is fair haired, but members of the royal families are dark haired. I think that such a sign of ‘impurity’ would be enough to push radical members of her Clan’s nobility to get rid of a baby that could become an heiress.” It was such a good description of the situation, and most of the members of his group were silent as they processed his words.
“That cannot be,” Sei said, “no one would be stupid enough to throw away the opportunity to rule the most powerful Clan just to save a single child. That’s…” she was shaking her head, I could see that he was trying to find a word that could cover her incredulity.
“Admirable.” The older man supplied a word to finish Sei’s sentence. “Brave, honorable… It would be easier to stay and accept the situation, but to leave everything behind, and fight for the well being of someone that wasn’t even born, that requires bravery and strength.”
I was surprised again by the division in their group, Kimball and some of the others looked at me with admiration in their eyes, but Sei and her group were looking at me as if I had lost my mind, as if they pitied me for my stupidity.
“I can’t believe that something like hair color could be that important, there must be another reason for her desertion.” Dowe was looking at my baby, the baby he had threatened, as if he was looking at her for the first time, as if he was just noticing that she was a human being.
“Please,” Kimball said, “you must know that is part of human nature to find a way to discriminate others. Even though our country is past the black versus white nonsense, and even halfbloods like myself are accepted, people still look for ways to discriminate. You may not hold the color of my skin or my eyes against me, the reason you cannot accept me as your true leader is because my mother is not from African royalty.” Kimball turned to me and continued his speech looking at me. “I’m lucky my people don’t kill unwanted heirs, but it was hard for me to be recognized as a prince of my people because my mother didn’t come from the right background.”
“At the end of the day is not important who our parents are of the color of our skins,” Mbali said, “what’s important is what is inside us, and no one can deny that you are a true leader and a strong warrior. Not one of your cousins, not even me, can compare to you.”
That was a feeling I could understand, but I was aware of how different my life would have been if my eyes were a different color. It was unfair, but it was reality, I knew my daughter would have been judged and find lacking in the eyes of my Clan, not just because of her hair and eye color, but because of who her father was.
“It’s time to go if we want to arrive at the Fortress with daylight.” With that Kimball put an end to our discussion.
I went outside with Kimball and Mbali, I turned and was surprised when I didn’t see the tent. Mbali took a remote control out of her belt and one of the trucks shimmered into existence, Kimball went to it and got a pair of motorcycles out of it.
“You will be riding with me,” he said, “I hope is alright with you.”
“It’s an interesting camouflage you have here.” If I paid attention I could see the illusion, the edges where the illusion was weaker and you could see the tent and the place where the trucks were hidden. It was a very good trick and I understood why Kimball wasn’t worried about being discovered, you would have to run into them to find them.
With Malkia strapped to my back, I climbed on the motorcycle with Kimball. The trip was shorter than I expected, in less than an hour we were at the limits of the forest around the Fortress. I could see the place where Malkia would grow up. I had always intended to take her there, but I couldn’t help but have second thoughts about it, I have grown used to her and I knew I would miss her a lot, but I needed to do what was best for her, not for me.
“Do you think they would recognize you if you go there?” Kimball asked after a while, I had been watching the place for a long time.
“My original plan was to use illusions to disguise myself, but I’m not sure I would be able to do it.” The headache was not as bad as before, but I knew that any attempt to use my powers could be dangerous, not to mention painful.
“Would you like me to go in your place?” Mbali asked. It was a good idea, no one would know her, but still I wasn’t sure about trusting her with the task.
“It would be the best option.” I finally accepted, just because there wasn’t really any other choice. “Her name is Malkia, make sure they know that. They will see that you are not part of the Clan, but tell them her father was. They will have a Vlad with them, that would be enough to confirm that she was imperial blood, they will know she belongs with them.”
Kimball and I watched as Mbali took Malkia to the Fortress and disappeared behind its doors. I felt an irrational desire to go and take Malkia back, but I knew it wasn’t possible. From the hundred of possible futures I looked at in my visions I knew that taking her there was the best choice. Nothing could guarantee that nothing would happen to her there, but it gave her the best chance at having a better future.
“What happens now?” I asked Kimball, looking for something to distract me from the pain of letting my little girl go.
“What do you mean by that?” Kimball was staring at me again, I felt as if he could look into my mind, my thoughts, but I knew that was impossible, he was a mutant, not a telepath.
“What are you going to do with me? Why am I here? Why are you helping me?”
“I’m helping you because it’s the right thing to do. You are here because we never got to finish our fight and I’m curious as to which one is stronger. And I won’t do to you anything you don’t want.” It was hard to believe his words, past experiences were telling me not to trust him. “We need to meet with the Scavengers, after that we can have a rematch, I expect you to be completely healed by then.”
“And then? What happens if I win? What happens if you win?” I had to know, despite the fact that I wasn’t going to lose, I didn’t have my pregnancy to hold me back, and I wasn’t going to let another man control me like Vasuman had.
“Then you decide, win or lose, it will be your decision. Once we finish our mission, I could take you back to the Amazons or any other place you want.” Kimball was looking at me as if my face was an open book where he could read everything about me. “You don’t believe me.” It wasn’t a question. “You don’t think I will keep my word.”
“How do you do that?” I couldn’t help but ask. “I know you are not reading my mind, there’s no way you can enter my mind, but you know everything: my name, my motivations, even my thoughts… how?”
“I can’t read your mind, but I can read your body. Movements, posture, gestures. If you know how to read them you know what is going through a person’s mind. It’s not easy,” he said, probably answering a question he saw in my eyes, “you are very good at hiding, but I’m very good at reading micro expressions, and I know how to read clues. It’s not easy to see you are afraid, when you are seated among your enemies as if you were a queen holding court. It’s hard to see you are running away when you hide yourself behind a wall of confidence as if no one is capable of touching you. I have seen you trembling in pain, but still holding yourself strong before the unknown. You are an incredible woman Kaiserin, and I’m honored by knowing you. I don’t intend to harm you, you can trust me. I would never betray you.”
“If that is true, then you would be more trustworthy than every person I have met in my life.”