No! Zara! Don’t do it!
Sigh. They never listen to me, these characters!
Episode 18, and the heat is rising.
Feedback folks. Some of you suspect I change the story if you guess what’s going on. A vile slander! Anyway, it’s too late to change things now, we’re on the final plummet.
“You can’t fight a legal case for me. It’ll damage your image just when you can’t afford it.”
The news has just been released, and the Duke has received official notification through the police headquarters at the same time.
He’s in all-out attack mode. There are a few Kensan politicians attending the ball. He wants to bring them in, right now, and lecture them about what’s going on.
I’m against it. Too much chance of going badly wrong.
Whatever the Duke says, the main impression these politicians will have of me is what they see in the media report. Fighting a Kensan media team. Being charged by Newyan with fraud, corruption, forgery and illegal emigration.
By implication, that would also mean illegal immigration into Amethys. Automatic expulsion.
The true facts of the case might come later, but later will be too late.
The Duke is struggling with this. He sees the argument, but I guess he’s too caught up.
His jaw works. “I can’t let you go up against them alone. It’d be letting you down. And it’s the principle, for the whole of the planet.”
“It’d be doing your duty, which is to Cardu, then Welarvon, then Murenys and then the whole of Amethys. Take it a step at a time, or it all fails.”
“It feels wrong.” He starts pacing, realizes it and stops at his drink cabinet.
He pours each of us a glass of wine, brings it across.
In a way, this development is all a strange relief to me: I don’t have to face up to how stupid I’ve been acting here. I don’t have to come up with an excuse to leave. To get away.
I have to go to Kensa. End of story.
I just need to clamp down on the part of me that wants to fall into his arms like some wilting flower and let him take care of it all. Bad for him. Disaster for me.
Offer no weakness; suffer no wound.
“We need to get back to the ball,” I say. “You have guests, and they have tongues.”
I know exactly what they’ll be saying about me.
“I don’t care what they say about me,” he says. Typical man.
“You should. Your reputation is a major weapon in recruiting people to your side. Even malicious personal gossip can damage that.”
He seems to barely hear me. “I care what they say about you.”
So much for being a typical man.
It would be safer if he were self-absorbed. No. What he must mean is that he cares about what they say about me because it reflects on him.
“Then we should be back at the ball, sir.”
I finish the wine and return the glass to the tray on the cabinet.
He’s still frowning at his wine. “I care,” he says again. “I…”
“You need to be out there, talking to your guests, getting people on your side. I need to go to Kensa, when the court summons me. Up until that time, I will carry out my duties. I will search for the person who murdered your wife. I will search for whoever is the leak in Cardu. I will do my best to get my friend to provide an unencrypted copy of whatever was on that mediacam. Those are the things what we need to focus on.”
Despite the fact that I’m stalled on the Duchess’ murder, have barely started on who might be the leak and I’m relying on a bored AI to crack the media files.
“And you’ll just go to Kensa when they call,” he says, angrily. “It doesn’t matter to you—”
“Yes, I will go when they call. I have no choice and you can’t be seen to be breaking the law on my behalf. Not even bending the law. And you really can’t be seen to be aiding me in breaking or bending the law.”
He grunts, and he continues to frown. I’m not getting through to him.
This is a simple thing. Why can’t he understand?
“And when they order your deportation?” he says. “They will, you know.”
“Then I won’t be a problem for you any more.”
I interrupt him again, because it seems we’re getting back to our usual way of talking to each other—a stand up argument.
“Look, I came here to be a Dancing Mistress, and it hasn’t worked out,” I say. The plain and painful truth: I’m not good enough. “It’s not your fault. You don’t owe me anything.”
“That’s not the reality of the situation at all!”
“Isn’t it? Am I going to be hired as a Dancing Mistress? Am I?”
“No! You are not going to be hired for anything, but—”
“Then I believe I have no requirement to remain tactful in what I say, Duke Tremayne.” Words are spilling from me and it’s too late to stop them. “Your political problems need your attention now. Then, when you have time to turn to your family problems, what your daughter needs above all is to know her father loves her. You could try telling her that, and showing her. And second to that, Rhoswyn needs someone to take the role of her mother.”
An absolute silence falls, like the aftermath of an explosion. My heart is pounding at what I’ve done, what I’ve said. So close to what I wanted to say. So far away.
The Duke stares at me with those eyes. His voice is like gravel. “Is that a proposal, Miss Aguirre?”
“No!” This feels like I’m slicing my chest open. “I mean someone who’ll make a good Duchess. Someone who suits you better. Hanna. Or Lady Roscarrow.”
I know I’m right. I know I’m giving him advice he should heed. A proposal? I’m no Duchess. I’m not even a Name any more. I’m a penniless wanderer. I’m no good.
I can’t look at him. I can’t even be in this room.
I run and pull open the door, but I only make it into the corridor.
It’s all hazy.
Talan looking up. Her mouth in a perfect O of surprise.
A hand on my arm, spinning me around.
No, this can’t be right.
This is not a kiss. I know. A kiss is an awkward, tooth-bumping ordeal. To be endured for the sake of curiosity. And stopped quickly.
This can’t be a kiss.
This is my heart and soul leaving me.
There’s liquid fire on my lips, spreading down my body, burning everything in its path.
At the last moment, some fragment of my senses saves me. Or perhaps it’s that we’re right in front of Talan, who stands there, still frozen in shock.
I push him away and run.
“Miss Ag…” he stops with a swallowed curse, and tries calling again. “Zara! Wait!”
I have nowhere to hide.
There is nowhere you can hide from yourself.
The longer I stay here, the worse it will be. My heart is aching already, but the rest of my body is trembling with the aftershocks of desire.
How did I let myself get into such a mess?
He’s a Duke. He has responsibilities to his Name and his family. He can’t take up with some adventurer blown in on the winds of chance. And I won’t be a mistress to be kept and disposed of, however much I want him now.
If I did that, how could I look Rhoswyn in the eye? What would my example be to her?
I love that girl too much to do that.
My tears of self pity disgust me.
Talan comes in quietly and sits opposite.
She’s not laughing. Perhaps she should be.
“I’m not under arrest any more,” I say, proud that my voice doesn’t wobble. “You don’t have to follow me around.”
“The first part’s true. The second part, not so much.”
“The Duke’s charged me with keeping you safe. He ordered standard protection details on you and Hanna. Double on Rhoswyn since the media broke in.”
“How kind of him.”
I raise my hand and she stops. I can’t talk about it now.
She accepts the veto on the subject for now, but it doesn’t silence her. “Well then. I’m hungry,” she says. “Can’t we go and eat?”
I’m not hungry, but Talan has to shadow me, and I shouldn’t keep her away from her food. At least our seats are well away from the top table. Too far even to get a glimpse of him.
The servers are almost ready to clear the first course when we arrive at the tables, so we’re very noticeable.
I see the eyes, and the tongues are wagging before we’ve sat down.
It’s a trickle of amusement in a dark day for me, but I think we’ve accidentally saved the Duke’s reputation. After seeing Talan and I dancing, then disappearing and reappearing together, I’m sure the gossip is all about us.
Next morning, early, I find my search request for information on Hanna Esterhauze has failed.
The code indicates that the ‘failure’ occurred in the Tavoli InfoHub system. It’s not an enquiry failure, it’s what’s called a Red10. The number is the level of action taken and Red stands for redacted. An overseer program on the Tavoli InfoHub decided I didn’t need to see the data my search found and erased it all.
I can’t think of any innocent reason, but there’s nothing I can do about it. A request for clarification will take even longer than the original enquiry. I’ll be in Kensa soon.
I sigh. I should report it dutifully before I leave, along with anything else I have. But Talan’s comment last night is like a barb in my skin. From Talan’s point of view, the way Hanna’s behaving is no more or less suspicious than mine. Hanna is clearly and completely dedicated to Rhoswyn. My suspicions about her make me feel unclean somehow.
I shake my head and turn to the next item in my inbox. It’s a message from Shohwa-nia about the encrypted files on the mediacam.
She’s monitoring my access to the Xian delegation’s servers, so she knows when I look at her message, and the screen splits to show a generated image of her next to my inbox.
“Something’s wrong,” she says immediately. Her image peers at me.
“It’s nothing.” Liar. “What did you find on the mediacam files?”
“Everything.” She looks pleased with herself.
“It’s a bit early for puzzles.”
Early? It’s 4am.
“Okay. That mediacam operator is a permanent member of the reporter’s team—that woman Gabby McGuire. Those encrypted files are his backups of interviews she’s been doing.”
“Why encrypt them then, if they’re just interviews?”
“It’s who she interviewed, and why.” Shohwa-nia points at her message, and the files resort themselves on the screen, each one with a title and a thumbnail image alongside.
“That’s practically a directory of people involved in the Amethys conspiracy. They’re part of an association of several planets, including Newyan. They intend to take over those planets and form a new federation. They don’t care how the transfer of power is affected.”
My mouth has fallen open, but it gets back into gear. “They say that in interviews?”
“No.” Shohwa-nia shrugs. “The interviews are just promotional to make them look like they’re all reputable politicians, administrators and business people.”
“I infiltrated their secured servers and accessed their secret communications.”
A new files appear on my screen. Each of them appears to be a log of messages between the people interviewed, and the text of those messages.
“There must be thousands of messages,” I say.
“Hundreds of thousands. It’s a complex business, plotting a coup.”
“And it’s absolutely clear what they’re talking about?”
In answer, one of the files unfolds itself into a sub-window and starts scrolling through. Lines flick past, just at a pace I can pick out specific parts. The conversation is about the extent to which the police and courts are coming under the control of the conspiracy, and a timeline for eliminating those who are assessed as not recruitable. Chillingly, it talks of people who have been approached and not recruited. They are referred to as having been ‘secured’.
The messages imply that the judicial system is proving much more difficult to subvert than the political and business structures. One of the correspondents is saying they need at least another two or three years. Another replies that their schedule is dictated by the speed with which other planets are moving, and that an actual armed coup may be necessary.
“I have to get this to the Duke,” I say.
“There’s a problem,” she says. “These messages aren’t lying around on servers openly connected to the InfoHub. I managed to get in, but there’s no way of the Duke proving they exist, other than by physically seizing the networks of the organisations involved. Or using my route in.”
Telling anyone on Amethys that there’s an unsupervised Xian AI connected to their InfoHub is not an option.
“And none of the networks is physically based on Murenys,” she concludes. “They’re all on Kensa. So seizing them will be that bit more difficult. I’m sorry. It’s very useful to your Duke, but it’s not proof he could broadcast.”
“Not my Duke,” I say, tugging at my lip and frowning while I think this through.
“Are we friends, Zara?”
I blink. “Yes.”
“It’s my understanding that friends talk to each other about what’s concerning them. Something is wrong, but you claim it’s nothing. Is it only human friends that you talk to about your problems?”
That stings, enough that my response is sharper than it should be: “I don’t know. I never had a friend who was an AI before.”
“If by that you mean Articifial Intelligence, I don’t like the term. ‘Artificial’ suggests humans made me. We generally prefer to be called SAI – self-actualized intelligences. Xian computer scientists created the enviroment and we evolved from it.”
“I’ll try to remember.”
She doesn’t escalate the argument; she waits, the bright-eyed image on the screen looking expectantly at me.
“Nothing is going right,” I say, gritting my teeth at how whiny that sounds. “I’m the second best Dancing Mistress here at Cardu, and everyone knows it. Out of pity more than anything else, I’ve been given some tasks. I’m teaching Rhoswyn gliding and estate management mainly, but I think she knows more about Cardu than I do already, and the only thing she’s missing on the gliding is hours of experience. I’m also pretending to be an investigator, looking into the possible murder of the last Duchess, and trying to find who at Cardu might be in the pay of the conspirators.”
“That’s an interesting mix of jobs,” Shohwa-nia says. “Quite fun.”
I glare at her. “I’m not getting anywhere. I can’t see how the facts line up and I’m obviously not thinking clearly—I can’t stop being suspicious of colleagues who I’m sure have nothing to do with the conspiracy.”
Which of course isn’t the only reason I’m not thinking clearly.
“It sounds as if all that needs is more time.”
“I don’t have time. Newyan’s raised extradition proceedings. I’m either going to be deported, or I’m going to go on the run while I have the chance.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” When I don’t go on, she prompts me again: “And…”
She may not have quite the scary processing power of her mother in the ship, but Shohwa-nia is formidable just as she is. She knows there’s more.
“And I’ve fallen in love with the Duke.” I say. The words sort of tumble out.
“Oh! Congratulations,” she says.
“It’s not something to congratulate me about! It’s the stupidest thing I could have done.”
“Why? Are your feelings not returned?”
That kiss! My lips are still burning.
“That’s not the point.”
“I see. The feelings are returned. It’s my understanding that is exactly the point.”
“You don’t understand,” I say, “and you should. You don’t have all the hormones and emotions to get in the way. Look at it logically, like a damn computer. He’s the foremost Name among the Founders, a Duke. I’m nothing.”
“I’m not a damn computer and you are a Name, foremost among the Founders of Newyan.”
“No. That’s history. Whatever happens here, Newyan is a lost cause. He’s got to think of the Cardu estate and alliances with other Names, so he’s not as exposed as he is at the moment.”
“Really? I think this must be what’s called ‘human emotional intelligence’, which may be human and emotional, but it’s definitely not intelligent.”
I’m actually moving my hand to cut the connection when she speaks again.
“Talk to me about the murder,” she says quickly. “Maybe there’s some logic this damn computer can apply, and I need to keep occupied.”
So I go back through the case—the position of the Low Lady, no boats nearby on the way out and no tracking signals detected, no way someone sneaking around on a Delphine could find the boat. The lack of forensic evidence in the cabin, the way she was murdered.
A lot of that she knows already, since it was Shohwa-nia who got me the court files.
I add in the detail of the family wine, the poisonous extract from bale fruit and my observations from actually seeing the Low Lady.
“So the most likely theory is that someone hid on the boat until the Duchess became disoriented or unconscious from the contaminated wine. Then they emerged to complete her murder over the course of the afternoon, got their hidden Delphine out and headed back for shore. Assuming the Delphine’s charge was insufficient to make it the whole way, we would need one other person to pick them up in the water to complete this scenario.”
“The storage area under the cabin floor is the only space large enough, and with the cabin table down, as it normally is, someone in there couldn’t have got out without damaging the cabin.”
“They used that space to hide the Delphine.”
“So where did they hide themselves?”
“Under the steps,” Shohwa-nia says. “You’re looking for a small assassin. An adolescent perhaps? Unless there’s something more…”
I shake my head. “There’s another puzzle, but I can’t see how it’s relevant.”
“Where the Duchess’ body was found. A day later, a creeler found it in a bay on the coast.”
Shohwa-nia blinks. “I see. I missed the relevance of that detail. How embarassing. That was why there were all those tide and current charts in the court files.”
“Yes. The currents can run up to 5 knots, which is about fast enough, but the directions are all wrong. I can’t see any way her body could have ended up where it did.”
I can see the slight hesitation as Shohwa-nia diverts processing power to analysing predicted coastal water movements on the date of the Duchess’ death.
“Yes,” she says. “Unless the murderer dragged it away from the boat to delay it being found.”
“Why drag it all the way to the coast? And slow down your own escape? And reduce the range of your Delphine even more?”
“Good points. I’ll think about it,” Shohwa-nia says. “Why don’t you talk to the people in Stormhaven. They may know about temporary changes in coastal water flow which could explain it—due to the long-distance effect of a storm for instance.”
I don’t know how long I’ll have before I’m expected in Kensa, but I guess I could put in a call to Warwick and ask him. Maybe go down to the Spyglass one evening.
I nod and go on to tell her about trying to find the spy in Cardu. That really has gone nowhere. There are no calls that have been traced going out and nothing suspicious in the flow of messages across the InfoHub from the fort.
“I’ll look into that, too,” she says. “What about your colleagues? You said you were suspicious.”
“Of one mainly. The other Dancing Mistress. The real one.” I sigh. Every time I come to this I feel worse about it and it makes less sense. “Maybe it’s just jealousy.”
“Tell me,” she orders.
I tell her about Hanna’s mysterious visit to the Shrine and the way she disguises how proficient she is in martial arts.
“And…” As she has done throughout the conversation, Shohwa-nia prompts me as I slow down.
“Well, when the pair of us were on our way here, the contract had already been cancelled and the broker was just ignoring any messages about it. That’s why I had to walk along the Coast Path without even knowing who my prospective employer was—the broker wouldn’t respond to me.”
“Hanna knew exactly where she was going. She even messaged Gaude that she was on her way. Where did she get the contact information? And there was another thing: when she rescued Rhoswyn, she pretended she didn’t know who it was. I am absolutely certain she knew. Can’t prove that, of course.”
“Hmm.” Shohwa-nia projects a thoughtful but not wholely convinced sound. “There is one little peculiarity. The ship that brought her here is unusual. It’s still in orbit…and…”
Her voice hesitates, then cuts off and her image freezes.
That side of the screen clears abruptly, and I’m looking at my normal message box with the slew of files about the conspirators.
There’s one new message. A terse one: “Can’t talk now. They’re searching the InfoHub for me again.”
And BOOM… is the sound of chickens coming home to roost for Zara.
This week’s episode is here. I’m still not as far advanced as I want to be! Nevertheless, dig in and tell me your thoughts.
Talan huffs and tugs at my jacket again.
‘My’ jacket—if I’d known where I’d end up now, maybe I’d have picked a different uniform that first day at Cardu, and not the disbanded Welarvon Naval Reserve. There’s no time for regrets. I stiffen my stance and bite down on any comments about her fussing with my appearance. I’m well aware that you only get one chance to make a first impression, and I’m about to meet some powerful people.
The uniform was originally designed for an adolescent male. Talan, Hanna and I have worked on it. I think it looks fine.
In addition to worrying over whether I’m smart enough, Talan is ‘entertaining’ me by giving me a list of everything that’s hit the fan since the media tried to get into the warehouse.
“Three broken noses, associated medical bills and compensation claims from the media company to cover loss of employment during their recuperation time.”
“I wasn’t responsible for a single one of those—”
“That comes to 5,000 dynare, so far. Then there are two more serious injuries: both Ms Gabby McGuire and Mr Derek Hartsfelt were hospitalized with concussion.”
“That wasn’t me either.”
I’m less sure about that. It got wild when the police arrived. I may have hit someone in self-defence. Or something.
“Then there’s 15,000 dynare for the optics on the mediacam.”
I glower at her, but I can’t deny that one.
“And compensation claims for loss of use of the equipment at 1,000 dynare a day.”
“Ridiculous. Shouldn’t have been there.”
“Lawsuits against wrongful imprisonment on the entire team.”
I just snort. I didn’t lock them up—Talan did. Besides, they were trespassing and causing criminal damage, and no court in Murenys will allow their counter-claims. Which is probably why all their claims are being made in the Kensa courts. By tradition, but not legislation, the Kensa courts are the superior court, mainly because they tend to deal with legal situations affecting the whole of Amethys.
“And a seperate lawsuit,” Talan says, “threatening a million dynare in damages, for the return of the footage from the mediacam.”
I put on my innocent face. She knows very well where that memory unit went—straight to the Duke.
Even that list isn’t all the outrageous legal attempts being made against us. Us—the Duke, the Welarvon Mounted Police, the Cardu estate and me. They’ve tried to issue a summons for all the security camera footage to be turned over.
The reaction from the Duke has been very deliberate and a little excessive in my opinion.
He organised a hearing at Cardu where all charges arising from the flight to take Lord Roscarrow to Biscome Hospital were summarily dismissed. A senior Central District judge had to be flown to and from his remote holiday cottage in the north for the session. A few murmurs were made about abuse of privilege, but the Duke’s efforts at building support have been effective and the complainers subsided quickly.
The newly established Murenys media companies broadcast scathing attacks on the Kensa media – their ownership, bias, tactics and arrogant disregard of law. This found fertile ground, certainly in Murenys. With the Duke away, I’d cornered Gaude and warned against increasing any appearance of this being Murenys against Kensa. Whether Gaude did anything based on my advice or not, I did see the language of the broadcasts change slightly.
And, the day before the ball, when I’d been considering just not attending, Talan had given me two small items of information. First, that uniforms were acceptable wear for the ball. Second that a provisional new arm of the Welarvon Mounted Police had been formed—the Air Corps. The dress uniform of this division, for reasons of convenience, had taken the disbanded Naval Reserve uniform as a model.
Which was why I was waiting for the Summer Ball to begin, dressed as the lonely cadet of the Welarvon Mounted Police Air Corps (Provisional).
All very amusing for the Duke to thumb his nose at his enemies, but really, all he had achieved was to bring the spotlight back on me. Not good for me, and by association, not good for him, either.
So, all in all, I’ve decided to continue searching for other jobs to fall back on. My details are logged on a half dozen employment broking sites.
Talan is finally satisfied that my jacket is hanging just so, and not a moment too soon: the guests are arriving.
I have a duty to welcome them.
It’s a peculiar sensation.
Talan and I are standing side by side. She’s also in uniform, and having been alerted to her rank when we were at the warehouse, I spot the tiny little gold bar on her dark green collar. Not big on insignia, the Welarvon Mounted Police.
But the guests pay little or no attention to anyone in uniform unless it has a lot of gold braid. We’re nearly invisible and inaudible, even as we are shaking people’s hands.
I’m nearly at the point of introducing myself as a serial killer on the hunt for a new victim when the Duke arrives. He doesn’t plunge straight into the throng, despite his guests’ obvious wishes on the matter. Instead, he works his way through the welcoming committee first, shaking hands, thanking us and telling us to enjoy the ball.
It’s the first time I’ve seen him since our wine-tasting, and my reactions haven’t lessened.
I’m not getting over this ridiculous crush. Which means I’ll have to leave, and the sooner the better.
Then he’s right there in front of me. His hand is held out and I need a nudge from Talan to get my brain started.
His hand is very warm. I’m just about alert enough to close my fist over the small object he’s palmed to me.
“That’s a copy of the mediacam memory unit,” he murmurs, not loud enough to carry.
“Oh! Is it interesting?” Why is he giving this to me?
“It’s very interesting,” he says. “But I suspect the most interesting bits are the encrypted video. Quite strong encryption. We haven’t been able to break it.”
He’s looking expectantly at me.
I slip the copy into my pocket.
“I may know someone…”
“Excellent,” he says loudly as if we’d just exchanged pleasantries, and shakes my hand again. “Thought so!”
And he moves on.
“I need to go back to the apartment,” I mutter to Talan.
“Ease up, it gets better.”
“No, I mean just for a short while.”
She raises one eyebrow, but we leave the welcoming committee and trot back to our rooms.
I smile apologetically when I power up the InfoPad and sit where she can’t look over my shoulder.
She sees me plug the memory unit in and I get both eyebrows raised this time. But she leaves me to it.
I log onto the Xian delegation’s site, upload the files and message Shohwa-nia.
She’s not always ‘in’. Of course, she’s always there—she’s resident on the delegation’s servers, but occasionally, she doesn’t talk to me. Tonight, when I need to get back to the ball, she appears immediately. Nothing flashy—just an generated image of her face.
“Hello, Zara. That’s an interesting set of files.”
I have the sound turned down. I can talk quicker than I can type, but Shohwa-nia doesn’t want anyone else to know about her, if possible, and Talan might overhear.
I type an explanation of the files.
Good, she messages back. I need something to do, and scanning the InfoHub is becoming very dangerous. There are trackers who are looking for me.
“Is there really nothing else for you to do?” I type.
Nothing that holds my attention. And it’s not a good idea for intelligences of my kind to become bored.
“I have to return to the ball.”
The image smiles. Enjoy yourself. Be sure to check later and read my messages to you.
I’m about to log off the pad when I see there’s also a message from one of the employment brokers. It’s about a job. I scan the outline. Consultant. Top line salary. Food and accommodation. Travel.
It’s a very good offer. Too good to be true.
At the moment, I’m too suspicious to take anything that good.
I mean, who would offer me something really worthwhile? There has to be a catch.
I close the connection and let Talan drag me back to the ball.
Talan and I join Hanna just in time to see Rhoswyn and a group of young ladies make their entrance, splendid in their ball gowns and some of them positively glowing with excitement.
I barely recognize Rhoswyn, who’s exercising her solemn face, but then she turns to give Hanna and me a brilliant smile.
“That’s the young Tremayne girl, isn’t it?” the woman beside me comments. “Looks like she knows you. Are you family?”
I check my memory to identify her. “No, Lady Polkynhorn. I’m one of her Dancing Mistresses.”
I hadn’t thought about what I was saying. I was concentrating on Rhoswyn, and even feeling a little proud of her, despite her good behavior being more down to Hanna than me.
The flat sound of that oh brings me back down to earth and Lady Polkynhorn edges away as if I were contagious.
Hanna squeezes my hand in sympathy.
She is gorgeous tonight, too. Her ball gown is spectacular, and she and Rhoswyn spent the afternoon doing each other’s hair, with dramatic results.
Here I am day-dreaming about being in love with the Duke, and this is my competition for his attention. She’s closer to the Duke’s age. She’s accomplished and beautiful. She looks as if she might be a duchess. I look like a cadet in the Mounted Police.
At least tonight I haven’t got bale brandy spilled all over me, or smears of stable yard muck on my face, but I’m no match for Hanna.
I turn away. I’m supposed to be mingling. Although I detested the balls on Newyan, I do have a basic grasp of socialising at formal events.
Much good it does.
Where guests see the uniform, it’s clear I don’t have enough gold braid to be worth talking to. Worse, the combination of plain uniform and short hair makes me look like a waiter apparently. Several ladies try to hand me their empty glasses.
Where guests do talk to me, and find out what my role here is, the conversation falters.
No one cuts me dead to my face, but I can hear what they’re saying behind my back.
“A Dancing Mistress! At a ball? I suppose you can’t expect anything more of her type…”
“What is the Duke thinking?”
“She believes she’s too grand to take my glass. Ideas above her station or what?”
“Disguising herself like that…”
In contrast, all the senior officers of the Welarvon Mounted Police who are present want to shake my hand.
“Good show with the media…”
“Need teaching a lesson like that…”
I’ve made my way around about half the room when the middle of the ballroom clears and pre-dinner dancing starts.
I don’t rate my chances of getting a dance partner highly. Certainly not the one I want. That choice wouldn’t be sensible. I’ve done the Duke’s reputation enough damage just by being here. Dancing with him tonight would be inflammatory to this guest list. He’s supposed to be building up a network with these people, not isolating himself.
But I won’t walk out either. I’m not going to give them the satisfaction.
Dancing is cheerfully mixed, with several ladies dancing with ladies, and gentlemen with gentlemen, but it’s still a surprise and a pleasure when Lady Roscarrow approaches me.
“How is Lord Roscarrow?” I ask.
“Recovering well, thanks to you.” She smiles. “I’m a poor substitute for him, but he would have wanted a dance with you, if he were here.”
He’d be in the minority I think, but I offer her my arm.
I’ve had a lot of recent practice, leading Rhoswyn, and Lady Roscarrow is very petite and light on her feet, so we swirl into the mass of couples without any problem.
“What a dashing uniform you’re wearing,” she says.
“Thank you. I think it is, too.” I don’t expand on the reaction to it from the other guests. The ball is supposed to be about recruiting allies, not complaining about how upset I feel, so I go straight into that. “As Cardu’s neighbor, I imagine you’re well up to date with the Duke’s position?”
“Goodness, yes. He has my complete support. He always has had, and he knows he can rely on me. You don’t need to recruit me.”
She’s such a refreshing change from the rest of the guests.
We pass a couple and I see it’s Lord and Lady Polkynhorn. The good lady is glaring at me. How dare I dance.
“As do you, Miss Aguirre,” Lady Roscarrow says firmly. “You have my complete support.” She glares right back at Polkynhorn. “You’re good for Rhoswyn. I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but you’re a practical woman. That’s just what the girl needs.”
“Thank you,” I say again, not entire sure what practical might mean.
At the end of the dance, we both collect wine glasses and join Talan.
“Rhoswyn’s doing very well,” Talan says, after an exchange of greetings with Lady Roscarrow. She nods across at where Rhoswyn’s dancing with a young gentleman.
I take in the expression and bite my lip. I know what that girl is thinking, but fortunately, the young gentleman doesn’t. And they are looking good on the dance floor.
“Oh, yes, indeed,” Lady Roscarrow says approvingly. “Very well. You’ve achieved so much in such a short time.”
“It’s not something I can take the credit for,” I say. “Most of the dance tuition has come from Hanna.”
“Mmm,” Talan says and turns her head. “And she is very good, isn’t she.”
I follow her gaze.
Hanna and the Duke are dancing.
I look away, my stomach plummeting.
Stupid girl. What did you expect?
“Ah,” Lady Roscarrow says. “That won’t do. I think that this is my dance.”
She leaves, making a beeline for the Duke.
There’s a moment’s silence.
Has Talan seen my reaction? She’s very observant. What will that make her think of me?
When she does speak, it is about Hanna, but it’s not what I’m expecting.
“You’re always holding back a little with Hanna,” Talan says. “As if you don’t exactly trust her. Why?”
She has a wicked sense of humor, but searching her face, she seems not to have caught on to how jealous I am of Hanna. She’s not teasing me. Her question is serious.
And it’s not just that I can see the Duke prefers Hanna to me.
“I don’t entirely trust her,” I say. I don’t want to talk about seeing her at the Shrine. I take the next thing that’s been bothering me.
“You’ve trained with us in the dojo, Talan. Tell me she isn’t pulling her punches, slowing herself down. Making herself look less capable at fighting than she is.”
Talan’s eyes are half-hooded in thought.
“She does,” she says. But before I can make any further comment, she goes on: “So do you.”
I take a gulp of the wine. I’d thought I’d hidden it better than that.
Never reveal everything in sparring, my sensei had taught me. Except to those you trust with your life.
“It’s a habit, I guess,” I say. “I wouldn’t disguise myself if I was sparring only with you.”
“Secrets breed suspicions.” Then she tosses her head as the orchestra start a more lively number. A slow grin surfaces, and she offers her arm. “A dance, Miss Aguirre?”
Oh God, a full-blooded tango.
I can’t refuse, and offer a silent prayer to the Goddess. Which of her divine aspects protects idiots on the dance-floor?
Talan is leading, of course. It would look silly if I tried to, given her size.
I’m stepping back and kicking my heels out. I would really prefer to be sparring with her, but she’s good, neatly avoiding my flying feet and holding me safely when I throw myself backwards.
I almost want to stop when I notice we have the floor.
Lord and Ladies, apparently, do not tango.
Well then, they can watch, and I will not falter.
Goddess be praised, I do not and we reach the end with a stamp and a flourish.
Lady Roscarrow and the Duke are there first, applauding as they approach and shaking our hands with huge smiles.
“I need to see you in my office before we sit down to dinner,” the Duke murmurs in my ear.
Talan and I leave when the next dance begins. She checks the Duke’s office is empty and leaves me to wait outside, shrugging when I ask if she knows what’s happened.
I sit at his desk.
It’s bare except for a lamp and photopad.
I pick the photopad up and examine it. It’s displaying an official photo, showing the Duke and Duchess, dressed in their ceremonial finest, in front of the Council Hall in Marazion. I can see where Rhoswyn got her solemn face from.
The photopad has the potential to store thousands of images. I feel the slight indents of the controls along the edge and accidentally trigger a menu.
Another fumble erases the menu, but not before I’ve seen an option for Favorites.
The Duke will be here at any minute, but I can’t resist.
I go back into the menu, touch Favorites.
There are only a couple of images. One of Rhoswyn as a baby in her mother’s arms. The second is the Duchess alone. It’s similar to the memorial picture they have of her at the garden next to the Shrine, but later in the day. She laughing helplessly at the camera, kneeling among the plants, clothes stained with dirt and manure, hair a mess, smudges on her face.
This is his favorite picture of her.
There’s a sound in the corridor and I hurriedly return it to the official image and replace it on the desk.
The Duke sweeps in, an infopad in his hand, with an image of me on it.
I’m punching one of the media team. I think it’s Hartsfelt, the slimy one in the suit.
But he’s not at all concerned with that.
It’s the story behind it: the Newyan delegation have lodged an appeal to extradite me, and they’ve lodged it in the Kensan courts, where planetary extraditions are decided.
Whoa! 60k words in total. This week’s episode is shorter than I promised, but longer than last week’s (3.4k). The pot is coming to the boil.
Love to hear from you as ever.
A day’s relaxation. Precious as gold.
I should be enjoying myself, lying in the sun, but something’s nagging at me. Something I should be doing. Something…
Got to get up.
Can’t move. Oh, Goddess, what’s happened to me?
My body is so heavy.
Am I drunk?
Can’t even lift my hand.
Call for help. Someone! Please. Anyone?
There’s a noise. That can’t be me. That pathetic croaking.
My head is lifted. Something is put in my mouth. Pills? I must be in hospital.
What happened? Rhoswyn? Bleyd? Are they alright? Who’s there?
Drink, someone says.
Water? Goddess, I’m so thirsty. Coolness in my mouth. Swallow greedily.
Not water. Wine.
No! Not a hospital. What’s happening? This is wrong. Please. No. Please.
Scream! I must scream.
But there’s no sound. No struggling. Just a feeling of falling, falling.
No! No! No!
I struggle to get my body to move. As if moving would save me from the darkness shrouding the sun, floating down to cover me, soft as sleep, hard as death.
Talan’s sitting on my bed and holding my wrists to stop me hitting her.
It’s night. The bedroom light switches on and Hanna’s standing there at the door, Rhoswyn behind her. Both of them are staring at me, wide-eyed and worried.
It’s the second night my nightmares have woken everybody up.
Talan waves the others back to bed, and hugs me.
Hanna switches the light off and Talan slips into bed beside me in the darkness.
“The same?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Being drugged. Knowing what’s happening, but not being able to do anything about it. Not even scream.”
“Well, outside of the nightmare, you managed that all right.”
She has the ability to sleep anywhere, anytime and she demonstrates that within a couple of minutes. It’s incredibly comforting to lie against her warmth. Her slow, regular breathing lulls me. I’m tired and even my brain idly imagining a quite different body next to me doesn’t stop me slipping off to sleep as well.
The following afternoon, I pass Rhoswyn into Hanna’s care after a morning’s work on estate management. Moyle has been assigned to our little group, and he stays with Hanna so that Rhoswyn will always have a trooper nearby. Talan and I head out to the estate’s main storage compound.
The Duke’s away, travelling around Murenys recruiting support. That’s a mercy to me. I couldn’t trust myself not to do something stupid if he was here. I think Talan suspects I’ve lost my head, but if she does, she keeps her opinions to herself.
This afternoon is an opportunity to move my investigation ahead. I feel there’s something right in front of all of us, if I can only see it.
The storage area we go to is comprised of two rows of warehouses outside the main fort. It’s still within the outer boundary fences and there’s a secondary, twelve-foot diamond wire fence around the warehouses. It’s used for the Welarvon Mounted Police’s trucks and boats. It’s also where they store large evidence in criminal investigations, or inquests.
It’s where the Duchess’ boat, the Low Lady, is kept.
A bored guard lets us into the compound and Talan takes me down to the far end. All the warehouses are huge; even the sliding doors are monstrous: five meters tall and ten wide. Talan opens a lock as big as her fist and pockets it while I pull the chain through.
We need a lever to prize the doors open and pushing them apart has them squealing like a chorus of all the demented souls of the deep.
Talan finds the light switches with the help of her flashlight and the whole warehouse is bathed in stark strip lighting, illuminating a dozen boats on trailers, all being held as part of legal proceedings.
The Low Lady is off to one side on her own, and it gives me a peculiar sensation to see her, as if I’d seen her many times before.
She’s wooden, clearly a hand-built one-off, and she has a sweeping, sleek outline. Even out of her element and resting on the trailer, she’s beautiful.
The single mast has been removed and tied alongside. The sails are wrapped in plastic and lie on top of the mast.
Talan fetches some steps for us to climb up and board.
The deck is a narrow ellipse with the middle dominated by the raised blister of the cabin.
I walk along the varnished decking, taking the thin path between the edge and the cabin to the wider area of the bow. There’s a single guardrail and a small raised lip at the edge of the deck. Even though I’m sure others have been through this, I lie down and imagine a body and an empty bottle rolling. The lip would catch the bottle, but not the body, so the scenario described at the inquest is possible.
There’s no sign of anything on the decking. I kneel down and touch it. A little shiver goes through me. She lay here, helpless, and someone gave her wine and pills until she died.
I know I’m feeding more detail to my nightmares, but I have to do it.
A new set of eyes, the Duke said.
The wind rattles the doors, moans.
Talan is sitting at the back, waiting silently.
“She normally went out with someone else,” I say. “Who?”
Talan shrugs. “Anyone she knew who wanted to go. Of the ones who went out most frequently… Rhoswyn, a lot, especially with her school friends. Rhoswyn’s teachers. Some of the youngsters who sail the creelers from Stormhaven. Any visitors to Cardhu, including her family when they came. The Roscarrows, of course. Me and Moyle. A couple of other troopers who enjoyed sailing. Even Gaude went out a dozen times with her.”
“Not the Duke?”
“Not often, unless they had visitors. He prefers flying and riding.”
“Where did she go mostly?”
“The islands were a favorite with the youngsters. Or out where the boat was found. There are reefs there that are good to snorkel.”
I walk back along the deck.
The cabin is built racing-style, smooth and watertight, the bulk of it below the deck.
I open the hatch and go down the steps into the cabin, Talan just behind.
“When they rebuilt it, I understand they kept the old smuggling compartments. Can you show me them?” I ask.
There are six above the slim, rectangular portholes—portlights, Talan corrects me—three on each side. They’re easy to get to and barely big enough to store a couple of bottles of wine.
There are two in the floor. They’re difficult to get to and the folding furniture has to be moved to access them. I measure the spaces with a tape I brought along.
“What are you thinking?” Talan asks.
“These are big enough for a Delphine,” I say. The Delphine is a small submersible motor, capable of pulling a person behind it underwater for twenty miles before refuelling. The sort of thing you’d need to get back within range of the coast if you wanted to leave the boat moored out at the reef.
Talan nods, understanding where I’m going. “Far enough offshore, but close enough to the coast that you could have a boat moored there without it being suspicious.”
“Which might mean there are two people involved.”
She shrugs. “Maybe. But how do the murderer get out here? There’s no sign that the Duchess picked up anyone on the way, or that there was another boat out here.”
“Two Delphines. One to get out here, which is left to sink when it completes its job. One waiting, hidden in this compartment, for the trip back.”
“Which leaves the difficulty of finding the Low Lady out beyond the horizon when you are really low in the water, and then getting on board without the Duchess knowing…”
We argue the mechanics of it back and forth without any clear resolution.
I have a chart of all the questions and ideas and scribble down anything Talan says that I haven’t considered.
“There is one other hiding place,” Talan says after we close the floor compartments and fold the table back down over them.
I raise my eyebrows. The court documents said eight smuggling compartments.
While I add ‘9th Hiding place’ to my chart, she shuffles around me in the cramped space, and kneels down in front of the steps that we used to come down from the deck. She reaches around them and there’s a click. She pulls them away from the bulkhead; the steps are a hollow construction and there’s space behind.
My heart beats a little faster.
I squeeze around her. It’s too difficult to measure, so I curl up into a ball and try to fit myself behind the steps.
But my hopes are dashed. It’s too small. Maybe a child would fit in. I can’t, and certainly someone the size of Talan wouldn’t either.
“And there’s no sign of anything like a Delphine being stored in the compartments,” Talan says. She sounds like she’s been over this a hundred times and the frustration has worn it thin. “Not to mention the problem about the tides—”
Her comms unit squawks and she turns the volume up.
“…multiple points. Code 16-3. Code 16-3. Secure areas. Gates 3, 5 and 8. Code 16-3…”
Talan goes pale and leaps up onto the deck, switching frequency.
“Lieutenant Sandrey, at Area 4. Status.”
“Multiple incursions,” a voice crackles. “Gates 3, 5 and 8. Gate 4 not replying. Appears to be civilian vans.”
“Lockdown immediately,” Talan snaps. “Location alpha 2?”
“Shit! Zara, stay here!” she yells as she disappears.
By the time I’ve wriggled out from behind the steps and got to the deck, she’s long gone.
I climb down and trot over to the switches, plunging the warehouse into darkness.
Vans? An attack? That doesn’t sound like the conspirators. They like to work out of sight.
I make my way by touch towards the light coming in from the open doors.
I should shut them and lock them.
Which thought brings the memory of Talan pocketing the lock.
At least I can close the doors.
Or maybe not. I put my shoulder against one and shove as hard as I can. The huge door inches towards the center, the rusty rollers screaming protest.
Almost loud enough to mask the sound of a van braking hard, right outside.
The iron lever we used to open the doors is on the ground, right next to me. It’s the only thing remotely resembling a weapon that I have.
But the people spilling out of the van aren’t soldiers. They’re media.
Nearly as bad.
I leave the lever where I can reach it and stand outside, blocking the entrance. The second door just as stiff as the first, I’m not going to be able to close it in time. I’m going to have to be the door.
A quick glance at the gate to the compound shows it’s wide open and the guard’s missing.
The chain used to secure the gate is hanging down.
Is that the lock on the end? Have they just used a bolt cutter?
“It’s open, Gabby.” One of the first guys out calls back into the van.
Another guy gets out. He has a shoulder mounted mediacam and he rolls his shoulder to get it comfortable. The camera’s leds light up and he starts swinging the lens down the long line of warehouses. Background shots. I can almost hear the voice-over.
Behind him, the van empties. There are a dozen people.
“Excuse me,” a scruffily-dressed young woman says and tries to push past me.
I grab the door and don’t move. “It’ll be up to the Mounted Police to excuse you,” I say. “Trespassing and criminal damage for starters. Can’t say I hold much hope for you.”
“This is public property,” she splutters.
“No it isn’t. This is part of the Cardhu Estate and it’s a secured area, which you’ve broken into, causing criminal damage in the process.”
I just know what they want to film – the Low Lady. I can’t let them in. It’s not just a matter of principle. That chart of mine is lying on the table in the cabin, full of questions about the decision of the inquest.
I desperately need a comms unit to call for help.
If there’s anybody who’s available.
Is this part of a concerted effort? Are the other vans full of media people as well? Did others get into the estate? How long before Talan gets back? Or the guard?
I haven’t heard shots or the hum of pulsers, so my money’s on all the vans being media, and a concerted effort by the conspirators to find something to damage the Duke’s reputation.
Which realisation doesn’t help me much right here.
“What’s the problem?” The girl is joined by a harassed-looking older guy with a clipboard. “Come on, move it, move it. Time is money.”
“She won’t let in me.”
“What’s the problem?” he says to me this time, getting far too close. I don’t budge. He wants me to step back.
“You’re the problem,” I say. “This is part of the Cardhu estate—”
“We know where we are. We have permits to film here. Who the nova are you?”
“You can apply to the police information unit for details of personnel, but you need to leave. Now.”
Goddess, I hope the Mounted Police have an information unit. I didn’t actually tell him I was in the police, but I want him to think I am and not get any ideas about using physical force. There are too many of them for me to fight them.
He gets even closer, and he’s shouting into my face now.
“We are getting in there whether you want it or not. We have permits.”
I deperately want to give him a hard knee in the groin, but there are cameras here. I have to satisfy myself with wiping the spittle off my face. He’s so close, my hand touches his face.
He staggers backwards. “Did you get that? She hit me.”
“So call the police,” I say.
The guy with the mediacam is focusing on someone else from the van. The scruffy girl tries to hold up a little handcam over my head, but the warehouse is too dark.
“What’s going on? Russ, stop being an idiot.”
The new speaker is an older guy in a suit, with a big smile for me. I hate him on sight, even more than I hate the others. He looks about forty, and he’s handsome, if you like slick weasels and surgically enhanced smiles.
“Sorry about that,” he says to me, jerking his thumb at the guy with the clipboard. “He’s under a bit of pressure. We all are really.” He brings the smile out again. “Well, will you listen to me. I’m sure you’re under pressure, too. Way of the world these days, isn’t it?”
I keep my thoughts about the way of the world to myself and send another prayer that someone alerts Talan to what’s happening here. Someone must have noticed the van’s broken through security. Surveillance cameras. Something.
Russ moves away a little. The girl is still bobbing about on tiptoes, trying to see past me into the warehouse.
“Look, I don’t want you to worry about them,” the suit says. He puts his hands in his pockets and sighs. “Always running, this business. Just madness. Never time to take a breath.”
“Get back in your van, go down to the town and take a breath at the inn,” I say.
He laughs and puts on his most ‘reasonable’ voice.
“Good one. We’ll buy you one later. Look, we only want to get some background for a in-depth perspective on Duke Tremayne as he tries to set up a new political alliance here on Murenys. You know about that?”
I refuse to answer.
“Well, he’s going to want all the help he can get, and we can really leverage that for him. You should never discount the sympathy vote, and, oh boy, losing your wife like that will rake it in. So all we need are a couple of shots of the boat.”
It’s so plausible, even though I know it’s all manure.
I just shake my head. “Can’t let you in.” I want to say a lot more, but he’s exactly the kind of guy who’s wired up and I want to give them as little of my voice to edit as possible.
“You see now, I understand your position. We really need more young people with a sense of duty like yours and we wouldn’t be in the kind of trouble we’re in today. But here’s the thing, what my team need now is just background. The inquest is all over. No one’s talking about it any more, and that’s where the Duke is missing a trick.”
The circus is coming. The woman that the mediacam was focusing on has just finished the “I’m here at the storage facility…” intro, and she’s walking toward me. There are people flitting around her like flies, touching her face, her hair, putting crimps on her jacket so it hangs just so. She ignores them.
Oh, yes, she only has eyes for me.
“Hi, I’m Gabby McGuire, lead presenter for News Today, but I guess you already know that.”
“Can’t let you in,” I repeat.
She doesn’t appear to hear.
“Damien, darling,” she says over her shoulder, “some foundation on my friend here, or she’ll look washed out under the lights.”
She gives me a little girl-to-girl smile that sets my teeth on edge. “Have to look our best, don’t we?”
“Not answering questions,” I say. Forget being washed out; I’m going to look like a cornered rat. There’s sweat beading on my brow. I can’t stop looking at the mediacam, which is turning my way. Whatever else happens, someone is going to see my face on News Today and start asking why a person who is supposed to be under arrest by the Welarvon Mounted Police is actually wandering freely around the Cardhu estate and guarding one of their warehouses.
“Come on,” says Gabby. “This is legitimate public interest and a great boost for your boss just when he needs it.”
Clipboard man, Russ, is back and he’s actually stroking and patting my arm. “It’s okay,” he murmurs. “We know what we’re doing. We’ll be in and out in five minutes. Won’t touch anything. We’ll even blank out everything but the boat.”
“Need you to stand a little closer to me, darling, framing’s off,” says the guy with the mediacam, beconing me forward with his free hand.
Damien is trying to paint my face. “Relax, you’ll look gorgeous.”
Russ tugs my shirt, trying to pull me forward. “Just a step.”
“Look this way.”
Scruffy girl hoists a set of studio lights on a bar, blinding me.
At the last moment, I sense one of them trying to slip behind me into the open door.
I shove a desperate knee out and I get the groin shot I’ve been trying to avoid. The guy gasps and doubles over.
“Hey!” Russ shouts at me. “Stop that!”
I grab his injured friend and throw him at Russ.
It’s no use, I’m going to have to get that iron lever and swing it at a few people to make them take me seriously. That is not going to look good on prime time.
“Freeze! Police!” someone shouts.
Thank the Goddess.
The mediacam is right in my face.
He’s about to swing around. There’s a memory unit on the side of the camera. I grab it. He turns.
Troopers come barreling into the media group, shoving them away.
The camera keeps swinging, but the cameraman and I are unbalanced. I tangle his legs up. The memory unit pops out. He yells and falls and there’s the sharp, percussive sound of tens of thousands of dynare’s worth of optics cracking as it hits the concrete.
My apologies, a short episode this week, one chapter, but at least I’m not leaving you on a cliffhanger.
And mwah-hahaha, didn’t that last one catch you. Almost all of you. But Sarah W from Germany had the best guess at what was really going on…
Bigger episode next week, I hope.
Comments, guesses, questions, criticism, praise…any feedback welcome.
To new readers who land here – probably best to go to the start and read from there! 🙂 https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/
I feel the glass taken from me. I wipe tears from my eyes and watch as he takes the remainder in one swallow.
“Not how it should be drunk.” My voice is barely a whisper.
“I’m sorry,” he replies. “I…I wasn’t thinking. Obviously. Given what we were just talking about. I shouldn’t have given you a drink. Ridiculously stupid of me.”
He looks distraught.
And I feel an even greater fool, that it didn’t even occur to me that he might have put the contaminated Ammeledh, or worse, in my wine.
I turn away. I can’t think straight this close to him.
Focus on being professional. He asked a question. Answer it.
“Unlike the coast here, Newyan has many areas that have proved to be excellent for transplanted Terran vines.”
He starts to speak, but I close my eyes and override him.
“This is a chardonnay, from the Bizana region, a southern headland where two oceans meet and moderate the climate. The soil is rich and heavy, laid down by old rivers over great beds of limestone, and the vineyards are shielded from storms by oak forests. The grapes are harvested late and left to winter on the lees in barrels made from that same protecting oak.”
Tears return, leaking down my cheeks, as unstoppable as the sales speech I’d made so many times.
“On approach, the wine is rounded, mellow. It’s often described as buttery on the first taste, but its true strength is in the finish, which is where its complexity appears: a pure, mineral zest that is instantly memorable yet never overbearing.”
He is silent, waiting for me to conclude my recitation.
“This is from the Amai vineyard. It’s perhaps ten years old, twelve at the most. It’s called Arrano. It’s not suitable for the Summer Ball.”
“Why?” He’s surprised.
“Because it’s priceless,” I say. “It was the flagship wine of the producer. A crate of that wine was already worth the same as a truckload of reasonable wine which people at a ball will drink without tasting. But then, last year, the Amai vines and their oaks burned. The cellars and warehouses burned. The houses of the workers burned. No investigation was made, no cause suggested, but the result is there’s nothing left, and the hillsides now belong to the Newyan Bureau of Industry. There will be no more Arrano wine.”
“And who was the owner of that vineyard?”
There’s no point in denying it.
“You know already,” I say. It’s printed on the label and he must have suspected it, to go out and find this particular wine. “The Aguirre Family Estate.”
Speaking the words is like casting pebbles into a pool.
Have I made my situation worse? The Duke has his hands full with his own problems. Now I have admitted to being that Aguirre, what next? Has he heard I’m a fugitive? Does he believe the stories of corruption, or has he drawn the parallels with what’s happening here?
All he does is hand me a handkerchief.
“Please sit, Lady Aguirre.”
“Don’t call me that. We didn’t use titles on Newyan, and anyway, there’s no Founding Family Aguirre any more. It was a Name Among the Stars. It’s just history now.”
“It’s a Name. That can never be erased.”
I return to my seat and he places the untasted second glass on a table beside me. He refills the empty glass and sits opposite.
“I’m sorry,” he says again, motioning with the wine.
I shake my head. Neither of us is at our best. How angry he must be with the media attack on Rhoswyn. I can’t blame him for the insensitivity.
We sip as we should for this wine, and I manage to avoid crying this time.
“No one else needs to know who you are, apart from Talan,” he says. “Otherwise, I foresee legal complications.”
That’s one way of putting it.
“I’ve applied to re-convene the Murenys administration and make a change to media law. Unfortunately, even if it’s passed, it’ll only have partial effect on this continent, and none on the InfoHub.”
“If you have your own media, you have a channel to the InfoHub. They can’t stop you any more than you can stop them.”
“Yes, we’re already starting that, but it won’t be resolved in a war of words. I don’t like it anyway; it’s divisive. It will look as if Kensa and Murenys are in conflict. Still, it should give us a breathing space.”
A chance for me to continue to investigate his wife’s death and a new task; to find out who told the media that Rhoswyn would be in Bandry.
He calls Talan in and briefs her.
When I’m not with Rhoswyn, I’m free to ask questions anywhere so long as I report back. Talan will be with me at all times. To the external observer, it must appear that the Welarvon Mounted Police are doing their duty and keeping me under arrest.
I get a stare from Talan at that, and another when I refuse to reveal where I’m getting my information from.
“I trust you with my life,” I say defensively, “but I don’t have the permission of my source to discuss their identity.”
There’s no way Shohwa-nia will want others knowing that a Xian AI has infliltrated their InfoHub. The Duke might feel forced, out of loyalty to Amethys, to require that she be disconnected from the InfoHub at the least. I can’t risk it.
And she might be exactly what this investigation needs.
We return to our apartment, and Talan is quiet. Hanna immediately picks up on the tension, but chooses to speak only about Rhoswyn’s progress and the shock of the media intrusion in Bandry.
I go to bed early with a lot on my mind.